"Heh. So, erm. Pretty eventful day, huh?"
"Are you even serious right now?"
"Sorry, it's just …. Um, it's hard to describe a day where you get chased by rampaging zoo animals then get locked into a panther enclosure by a superhero while you're in the middle of—"
Strangled choking from Nino cut off his next words and Alya glanced over to make sure he wasn't dying before turning back to glare at the glass wall as if the flames in her eyes could melt a hole in the partition.
"I can't believe I got locked in here with you while Ladybug and Chat Noir are off chasing the next akuma all over town. What am going to upload onto my Ladyblog now? I've got nothing! No video, no pictures, not even an interview since I'm not even there.I'll have to rely on third party websites to get the information and that's cheating."
A pang of guilt stabbed through the roiling irritation in Alya's mind, the wrinkles between her brows smoothing as she relaxed her frown a little and cast a look over her shoulder again. It was unlike Nino to sound so dejected and not retaliate to her jabs. Compared to the rebounding rubber ball of enthusiasm that was his usual self, she felt more like she was in the presence of a whimpering puppy who had lost its owner.
She sighed, dropping her head onto her knees as she massaged at her temples. Try as she might, she couldn't block out the disastrous few words spoken mere minutes ago by the same boy sitting with his back facing hers. They repeated like a mantra in her head, refusing to leave her in peace.
'I like a girl and I don't know how to tell her.'
'It's your friend, Alya.'
'It's your friend, Alya.' 'It's your friend, Alya.' 'Alya.' 'Alya.' 'Alya.'
"WAH!" she shrieked, twisting around so fast she heard her neck crick in protest.
"Sorry!" squeaked Nino, leaning away from her. "Did I scare you? You were spacing out and I was trying to ask if you were feeling okay."
Alya swallowed, mentally smacking herself upside the head. Get a grip, girl.
"Y-Yeah," she managed, crossing her arms and looking away again. "Yeah, I'm fine."
'He likes me,' the traitorous words ran through her head despite her best efforts to shut them out. 'He likes me. Like-likes me. And I don't like him back—I mean, he's like my brother for heaven's sake!' Sighing again, she poked at a nearby frond with her pointer finger. 'I can't even look at him in the eye …. But I should address the issue right now and get it out of the way. It would be better for the both of us and it won't be leading him on …. Right?' It would make her feel like a douchebag and was hopefully not going to end in tears, but it was for the best. Taking a deep breath, Alya braced herself.
"Listen, Nino, about what you said—"
"Actually, there was something I wanted to tell—"
She immediately clammed up when he spoke at the same time she did, but he did the same. Now they were both waiting for the other to continue and the levels of awkward in the tiny enclosure only climbed higher.
Courage plummeting the longer the silence stretched on, she forced her voice out past the sudden lump in her throat. "Er, you go first."
"No no, after you," Nino replied instantly, keeping his eyes on the concrete between them as he fidgeted with his cap and adjusted his glasses.
"What I have to say can wait."
"I really don't mind you saying whatever it is you wanted to say first."
"No, really, it's okay. Say yours first."
"Fine. To tell you the truth I was there the entire time and talking to Marinette through an earpiece and IheardeverythingyousaidIamsosorrry."
Half of her sentence came out in a rush and she grimaced, resisting the urge to smash her forehead into the glass. She probably could have worded that better, but no take-backs now.
"I …. I'm sorry, what?"
"I was hiding in the bushes, I was supposed to walk Marinette through her meeting with Adrien," said Alya in a single breath, trying to pace herself so she didn't sound like a garbled radio DJ. "But then you showed up without him and that threw a wrench in our plans and then you go and tell her you like me and I know she said she'd arrange something but I think it's only fair to tell you now that I'm not interested in you that way and I think it would be better if—"
"Whoa, whoa, whoa! Alya. Alya, wait. Hold up for a second."
Freezing mid-sentence and mid-finger-gesture, Alya flicked her eyes up at the bewilderment in Nino's own, his eyebrows rising up almost to his hairline.
"Are you telling me," he spoke slowly, gesturing at her. "That you heard me," he pointed at himself. "Tell Marinette," he waved in the vague direction of the door. "That I liked you?"
"Isn't that exactly what just happened?" hissed Alya, irritable at being interrupted. "So, anyway, I just wanted to let you know because it's better in the long run and—"
"Alya," he repeated her name, eyes wide. She was about to reprimand him again when the next words fell out of his mouth and smacked her across the face like a tennis racquet. "I was er, I was lying. I don't really like you—I mean, I like you as a friend! But not like-like! Instead, er, really, what I was trying to tell Marinette was that … that … I like her."
"Let me get this straight," said Alya, forming the scrambled pieces in her mind after another lengthy silence. "You got Adrien to arrange an outing to the zoo with the four of us, but with the plan to get rid of me so you could be alone with Marinette to confess to her?"
"Well, when you put it that way—"
"But Adrien wasn't even there and at the final moment you chickened out and pretended it was me you were mooning after because you didn't have the guts to admit your feelings to her?"
"Adrien was there!" Nino protested through his spluttering. Alya noted that he didn't acknowledge her accusation of him losing his nerve, but decided not to grief him about it in light of new information…. For now. "He was hiding in the bushes too and we both had earpieces. I, heh, I guess you and him had the exact same idea. You must have hid in different bushes or something."
Alya huffed in disbelief, shaking her head. Nino having feelings for Marinette instead of herself solved one situation but created another.
"Nino," she said, voice softening as she tried to let him down as gently as she could. "I'm sorry to tell you this, but … Marinette already likes someone else."
"What? Who? When?" Nino asked in rapid-fire, eyes growing even wider as he stared down at Alya.
The girl in question bit her lip. Marinette was going to kill her if she ever found out she'd told this to Nino of all people, someone so dangerously close to the main objective, but Nino needed to know. 'If he didn't know and still tried to flirt with Marinette or something, she would never have a chance with Adrien again!'
"… Adrien Agreste," Alya whispered, as if she and Nino were in a library and speaking was punishable by drowning in sulphuric acid.
For a moment, Nino did not react at all. He remained fixed in place like a statue; eyes blank and unseeing, his torso completely still as if he'd forgotten how to breathe.
"Nino?" ventured Alya, calling his name. Nino maintained his ice sculpture impersonation. "Nino?" she tried again, waving a hand in front of his nose for good measure.
The boy blinked, looking at her as if only just realising she was there.
"Sorry, it's just … I … Um …."
Alya patted his shoulder, silently trying to offer him her support. A breath whistled past his lips as he hung his head back, looking at the ceiling.
"Adrien, huh?" he mumbled at the grey concrete overhead. "How did I not see that before? Now it makes sense! The blushing, the stuttering, the jumpy looks—" He smacked both large hands over his glasses in an aborted facepalm. "How was I so blind?!"
"To your credit, your best friend didn't notice it either—"
"How is he so blind?!" demanded Nino as if Alya hadn't spoken, arms flailing wildly through the air like twin windmills.
A sudden anxiety spiked in Alya's mind as Nino continued his freak out session, taking off his cap to run his fingers over dark brown hair. She took a breath, willing herself to appear as calm and understanding as possible. "Look, Nino, I know you're upset, but I really don't want this to come between you and Adrien so—"
"What, are you kidding?" Nino exclaimed, finally looking at her for the first time in the past ten minutes of their conversation. "Dude, Alya, we've got to get them together!"
"We're their best friends with their best interests at heart, right?" said Nino, making an effort to slow down his speech. She must have asked him that question out loud. "I think Marinette would be good for Adrien and Adrien would be good for Marinette. So we go behind their backs, drop some hints, a few suggestions here and there, create situations for them to interact alone and boom, magic!"
Wait a minute.
"Trust me! It'll work out great! We just have to figure out—"
"Nino!" Alya interjected, interrupting him. "I thought you liked Marinette. Why are you so eager to get her with Adrien? You're not making any sense."
Gaze dropping to the floor, Nino assumed a blank expression, scuffing at the concrete with the heel of his sneaker. "It's just, well …." He laughed, scratching the back of his neck. "I kind of expected not to have a chance with her, anyway. She's so … amazing, you know? She's gentle, kind, always smiling, and putting others before herself. She's this angelic being and I'm just … me. If it wasn't for Adrien, I never would have mustered up the guts to talk to her face to face." A pause. Alya said nothing. He coughed, as if suddenly remembering where he was and who he was talking to. "Don't, er, don't tell her I said that."
"I won't," said Alya without thinking, her mouth unleashing the words before her brain had caught up to what she had just promised.
Another lengthy silence stretched before them, during which Alya resumed staring out the glass wall and Nino began fiddling with the laces on his sneakers.
"So," he said, breaking the silence and jolting Alya from her thoughts. "I was thinking, so that Adrien one hundred percent thinks I don't fancy Marinette anymore, there's, um, something we could do."
"Hm? Like what?" said Alya, watching a pair of blue macaws fly past. Just how much longer until Ladybug defeated the akuma and made everything right again?
"We pretend to be going out. With each other."
For the third time in the same hour, Alya found herself as flexible as a marble sculpture, her tongue feeling just like one in her suddenly leaden mouth.
"… Excuse me?"
"We pretend to be a thing; that way, Adrien won't suspect anything when I've suddenly lost interest in Marinette and trying to hook him up with her instead and you're hooking Marinette up with him, get it?"
Alya simply stared at him like he'd grown two heads, her mind blank. His grin visibly drooped when she did not respond. "Well, I mean, it was just an idea. We totally don't need to go through with it if you're not cool with doing that. We can figure something else out, no big deal. Don't worry yourself about it."
"No," breathed Alya, restarting her brain as thoughts flew by a mile a minute.
"Yeah, I know, it was a dumb idea anyway. Forget I said anything."
"No, I mean," Alya turned back to look at him, her own smile stretching across her face. "Yes! It's brilliant! Once Adrien thinks you don't fancy Marinette anymore he won't think it's a problem if he goes out with her! That is, once we get those two goofy idiots together. But …." Alya sent him a sideways glance. "Are you sure you're okay with this?"
Nino heaved a sigh, smile mellowing but staying on his face. "Two of my most important people can be happy, how can I not want that?" His eyes dropped to the floor again, an idle finger tracing shapes on the floor. "Adrien's been so lonely for the longest time. He doesn't say it, but I know. His mom is gone, his dad as good as gone, and Chloe's repulsive to be around; all he's had is me. I may be his best mate, but I think he'd do better with someone else at his side to support and love him too."
Alya stared, stared at this side of the boy she's never seen before; who looked nothing like the laidback, carefree music geek who sat in front of her in class, the one she had taken to calling Spielberg and who had taken the nickname up in grudging good sport, the one who liked spending his spare 'alone time' hanging out in the park and blowing bubbles and wearing brightly coloured wristbands he swapped out every other day. He raised his head and swivelled around to look at her, as if sensing her eyeballing him, jumping when her pale hazel eyes met his gold. Gold like birch leaves in autumn.
"W-What?" he said, body tensing as if in preparation to bolt. Alya blinked, then raised a hand to stifle a giggle.
"Nothing," she said, turning away again to hide the secret smile gracing her lips.
It was the first time Alya thought his heart was just as gold as his eyes.
It was easy pretending to be in a relationship with Nino—the boy himself made it easy. They hadn't even needed to change their dynamic very much. Just be sure to maintain eye-contact longer than strictly necessary, make an effort to hold hands once a while, hang out alone together more often, walk home together and that sort of thing. They'd make excuses for them to be in the other's company more often and for as long as possible, while conspiring on how to get their best friends to do the same.
"Nino, good news. Marinette is heading to the fabric store to pick up some sewing supplies. Her favourite route goes past the Notre Dame. Isn't Adrien having a photoshoot there today?"
"Yeah, he is! It ends at 5pm though, so that might be a little late if Marinette is on her way now."
"Oh, shoot. There's no way she'd get the guts to go up and talk to him in the middle of his shoot. Can't you do something?"
"… Stall Marinette for as long as you can, I'll call Adrien and convince him to get me some silk linens for … for something. We'll time it so they'll bump into each other in the store."
Akumas had factored in their plans at some point, but completely fell through when they were never able to locate neither Adrien nor Marinette whenever one attacked the city. With disappointed huffs, they conceded that the plan to have Adrien gallantly rescue Marinette from whatever new terror currently plagued the city was not a viable strategy.
"Progress! Alya, you won't believe what I'm going to tell you."
"What? What is it? Spill!"
"Marinette is over at Adrien's."
"WHAT?! How come she didn't tell me anything?"
"I don't know! But Adrien and I were playing a few rounds online when he suddenly said he had to bail because Marinette was over and all he would give me was that they needed to discuss something important."
"And he didn't tell you?"
"Ugh, no! Can't you get Marinette to fess up?"
"I'll give her an hour then see what I can do."
Pretending to be in a relationship meant spending more time with the person who was supposedly one's significant other, and Alya found herself meeting up with Nino in cafes, cake houses, burger joints, the secluded park bench under the tree, and that one ice cream parlour that sold non-dairy ice cream to cater to Nino's allergy needs. If asked, she couldn't remember when the meeting places began extending to venues less ideal for conversations scheming on how to get two best friends together. Soon, they began having regular meetings at the cinema, the water theme park, the shopping mall, and once, the concert of one of Nino's favourite local rock bands.
If asked, Alya couldn't remember when it was she began enjoying Nino's company simply because it was Nino, and not purely because she was helping out her best friend.
"So, er, Alya."
"I've been thinking."
"What a surprise."
"I mean! I've been thinking, and um, there's something I've been meaning to tell you."
"Well, you see …. Um, there's this girl in my class, and we started off as friends and totally weren't supposed to be a couple but then it kind of happened but it wasn't supposed to be the real thing but then I went and-and-and I think I may have gone and done the thing and liked her and stuff when I wasn't supposed to and thiswasnotpartoftheplansoIwasthinking—"
"Nino, shut up and kiss me already."
The boy with eyes of gold like autumn birch leaves complied.