Everything hurts and I'm dying

Chapter 35

The bakery was just as they'd left it, but the light had completely changed.

Instead of the bright light of the sun beaming through the windows, the cold blues of early twilight hung in the air. The eeriness of the now ruined dough, the dustings of long-forgotten flour, made it seem as though they'd been gone for years rather than a mere hour at best. It was almost haunting, stifling.

Adrien glanced at Marinette, who'd walked to the other side of the room, offering Tikki a cookie with none of her usual cheer. He couldn't see her face, couldn't fathom what she was thinking, and it left him adrift on a silent sea with no compass to guide him. They hadn't spoken since they'd de-transformed, and the silence twisted in Adrien's gut, reminding him of things unsaid though he hadn't a clue what those things were. The thin line of Marinette's lips, the paleness in her cheeks and the stiffness of her limbs told Adrien to keep quiet. It wasn't that she was being cruel, he knew that, but something was clearly bothering her and she needed time.

They'd kissed. Or- rather- she'd kissed him. In front of the whole world, Ladybug had laid her heart out on a silver platter and Chat Noir had returned her affections with fervour. If she was going to be dragged through the torrent of media sensationalism, he was going with her. There was no question about it. He hadn't known, hadn't understood why she kissed him at the time, but he'd be damned if he didn't let the world know that yes, we love each other and yes, I will stand by My Lady's decision no matter what. Let people make of that what they may.

Shifting his eyes to Plagg, Adrien was surprised to see the black Kwami's focus not on his half eaten cheese- but on Tikki. The pair seemed to be in the process of an unspoken conversation, unnoticed by Marinette who had now begun tidying up their mess from before.

"I'm EXHAUSTED!" Plagg whined. Like a bolt of lightning, his raspy voice split the disquieting scene in two- yanking Adrien back into the real world so suddenly he experienced a heavy dose of emotional whiplash. Before Adrien could respond, however, Plagg was already halfway out the door and gesturing to Tikki. "You coming, darlin'?"

Tikki nodded, giving one last worried glance in Marinette's direction, before staring silently at Adrien. Marinette herself, was too lost in cleaning, her movements sluggish and lacklustre. It pained him to see.

Adrien knew what Tikki's looks meant, knew the reasons behind her imploring gaze as though he could read her mind. Marinette had told him just how much Tikki did for her, how she cheered her on through emotional crisis after emotional crisis, how she saw her as the older sister she never had.

As Tikki's back turned, as she turned away to join Plagg and the pair disappeared together, Adrien felt the first few strands of something he hadn't felt in a long time. The feeling wove through his heart, stitched itself to his soul, engraved and etched into his bones so that he knew when he was long gone from the world, the markings would echo through the universe like starlight. In that split second, Adrien knew Tikki was trusting him. Trusting him with her chosen's heart. Trusting him to fill her place- and the weight of that knowledge filled him with such a deep sense of belonging, of home, that he felt his breath catch in his throat.

It was a long time since he'd felt like he had a family.

The faint hissing sounds of flour being scrubbed from a wooden surface filled the air, Adrien could still smell their attempts to make bread. He could also see the handprints from earlier, when he'd lifted Marinette onto the counter, just before she swept the evidence away.

He padded towards her, catching her wrist just as she was about to throw some of the flour in the bin. Instinctively, her palm opened and the flour fluttered to the floor.

She looked at him them, finally met his eyes, a question lingering behind the saddened blue depths. Adrien wanted nothing more than to make it better, to take away whatever bad feelings were going through her mind.

"Princess," he began, bringing her closer and resting a gentle hand on her cheek, "you-"


From nowhere, Alya slammed into the room, throwing the door open so hard that Adrien was surprised it didn't crack in two. Both he and Marinette started, jumping away from each other.

"MARINETTE DID YOU SEE?! DID YOU SEE?!" she was screeching, hurrying towards Marinette and gripping her shoulders, lightly shaking them. Adrien was sure he saw foam forming in the corners of her mouth, but was distracted by Nino's entrance too much to dwell on it too much.

"I- err- saw what?" Marinette spluttered, her voice faint though that could have been dismissed as shock at such a violent entrance from her best friend.

"THIS! THIS!" Alya thrust her phone into Marinette's face and, from where Adrien was standing, he could just make out the tell-tale red and black of Ladybug's suit. He had a fair idea what was causing Alya to scream so much.

"You ok bro?" Adrien mumbled as Nino sidled up to him, hair in disarray, with faint traces of Alya's lipstick on the corners of his mouth. "You look err…dishevelled?"

"What?" Nino blinked, shaking his head as he watched the girls interact. Alya was currently flicking through her phone, no doubt showing the various angles of the kiss to Marinette- whose face currently resembled that of a flat musical note. "Oh yeah, yeah I'm fine. Alya was you know, really happy about the Ladybug and Chat Noir kiss. Really happy."

Despite still being worried about Marinette, Adrien had to bite the inside of his cheek to stop himself from laughing.

"Oh, ok," he found himself saying, voice slightly strangled.

"Yeah," Nino repeated and was it Adrien's imagination, or was Nino actually swaying slightly? "You know that photo of that sailor dude kissing that lady in New York? It was like V-day or something?"

"I think I'm familiar," Adrien replied, now resorting to covering his mouth with his hand because he could no longer stop the smile spreading on his face. He had a fair idea where this was going.

"Alya did it to me, 'cept I was the chick," Nino sighed, clutching his heart. "It was great. Highly recommend it. You think we could get Ladybug and Chat to kiss again? Those guys are like the ultimate wing-heroes."

"Wing heroes!?" Now Adrien was laughing.

"I don't think Ladybug is going to kiss Chat just so you can keep kissing Alya that way," Marinette interrupted. Her voice was still so soft, still laced with that undercurrent of something which Adrien couldn't quite put his foot on. But her smile was small, gentle, and Adrien could tell it was genuine.

Their eyes met as the four of them made their way out of the kitchen and back upstairs to Marinette's apartment. Adrien slipped his hand into her own, feeling the faint roughness of the flour still clinging to Marinette's fingers. He squeezed them gently, and was relieved to feel her squeezing back a second later.

"Patrol later?" he whispered to her, whilst Alya was distracted by helping Nino wipe some of the lipstick from his cheek.

Marinette leaned closer, bobbing her head in silent affirmation.

Many hours later, when the pair had finally escaped Alya's frantic gushing, Ladybug and Chat Noir sat hidden in one of their many patrol spots. The night air was cool and crisp, the breeze ruffled Ladybug's hair and Chat sat beside her, casually running his fingers through it. She wore it down, not bothering to tie it up for their patrol, and wayward stands fell into her eyes which Chat kept brushing away until she giggled and told him to stop.

Chat leaned back on his palms, gazing at a few birds swooping past. The pair enjoyed a comfortable silence, but the elephant in the room (or rather, the elephant in the city), was too big to ignore for too long and soon Chat Noir turned to Ladybug a gently placed a hand on her arm.

"My Lady… about today," he fumbled around the words, only now realising he should have taken the time to consider them, and cursed his own lack of foresight, "I know you didn't mean to kiss me, you were caught in the moment and- I- well…if you want to call a press conference and try to talk your way out of it I won't mind. I mean we did decide that we weren't going to go public. We can just say it was a- a mistake or-" he faltered, letting his hand slip from her arm, already feeling sick from his own suggestion- "I don't know maybe just say it was from the akuma somehow? I…I don't know."

Evidently, this turned out to be the wrong thing to say, if the sudden flame in Ladybug's eyes was anything to go by. Chat tensed, ears drooping as Ladybug grabbed the hand he'd let slip, clutched it almost painfully, and inhaled so sharply it was like she was stealing the air from even his own lungs.

"Chat Noir," she said, voice trembling, "you have- and never will be- a mistake. Of course I didn't plan on kissing you today but I couldn't help it! I was scared. Any kiss I give you is never a mistake. Letting my heart love you was the best decision I ever made and will ever make and don't you forget it."

To fully support her remarks, Ladybug closed the gap between them, kissing him on the ledge of a building facing a busy street, in full view of the world. If Chat thought he was breathless before, now he was sure he would never breathe again.

"My Lady," he gasped when she pulled away, leaning her forehead against his. He found himself unable to say anything else, too moved by her own words, and so instead he kissed her this time, let his silent lips speak the words his mind could not weave.

They broke apart again, and Ladybug shuffled closer, resting her head against his shoulder. His tail curled around her waist, making her chuckle, and Chat couldn't help but grin.

"So, we'll hold a press conference or something. Introduce Volpino, let Paris know we're a thing. No biggie," Chat chirped, now beaming at the idea. Yes! Finally! He was going to be able to tell the whole world that the amazing woman beside him was his girlfriend. No akuma tricks, no publicity stunts, but an actual bonafide relationship with the girl he'd loved for three years.

"It's a big biggie, buster!" Ladybug chided, flicking his bell as she did so. "We'll have to prepare statements."

"That's the most romantic thing you've ever said to me," Chat teased, bumping her shoulder. "I was thinking I was going to swoop in and kiss you in front of everyone, to repay you for your earlier kiss. But then, I am more of a showman of the two of us I have to admit."

Ladybug groaned, rolling her eyes fondly.

"You're incorrigible."

"Yup!" Chat agreed, tucking a strand of hair behind hers and leaning down to boop his nose against hers. Quickly, however, his expression fell and he allowed his concern to shine through, his touches becoming gentler as he did so. "I'm also worried about you Bugaboo. You seemed so sad earlier and I can tell somethings on your mind so… do you want to talk about it?"

For a while Ladybug fell quiet again. In fact, she remained silent for so long that Chat was bordering on changing the subject.

"I feel so torn," she whispered finally, palms curling into fists on her lap, "I'm so torn because I want to take my time in life, I want to learn and explore and grow. I don't want to rush. I spend so much time rushing around, freaking out, questioning every single little thing that sometimes I forget to breathe. So I want to take my time. But then things like today happen, where you were almost crushed to death Chat, and it reminds me that, like, everything I love can be taken away in the blink of an eye-" she snapped her fingers- "Gone. I mean what should I do? Should I act on every single impulsive feeling I have because life's too short and it can end just like that? Or do I wait and learn to love the little things? Do I take my time or jump in head first? AGH! I just… I just feel so… lost. And time is running out. Every day we're one step closer to you leaving. I want to be strong, I want to be brave, and most of the time I am but sometimes… sometimes I remember that all of this is something I have to fight for and it exhausts me. Volpino being around helps but, he's not you. Nobody will ever be you. Honestly I don't know what I'm going to do when you leave."

Ladybug's whole body seemed to shrink, like a deflated balloon, and Chat wondered how long she'd held all of those worries in. Now it was his turn to be quiet as he took all of her fears on board, considered everything she said, and tried to come up with a solution.

After a few minutes, an idea struck him, and it was one so sudden- striking him with such clarity that he felt like a blink man allowed to see the sun for the first time.

"Well," he said, still staring at the skyline, "we could always get meow-ried."

Ladybug nearly fell off the roof.

"W-What?!" she spluttered, her face putting the redness of her suit to shame as she waved her hands in a way that clearly meant he was to explain himself and explain himself immediately.

"Not right NOW!" he cried, and Ladybug grabbed her heart as if she were attempting to restart her own heart. "I meant like a promise, you know the kind in those cheesy movies?"

"You mean the cheesy movies you secretly adore?" Ladybug attempted to poke fun, but her voice still sounded like wet, mangled laundry. "And did you just propose to me with a CAT PUN?!"

"That's not the point," Chat dismissed with a quick wave of his hand, only blushing a little bit. "The point I'm trying to make is, you say you don't know if we should live in the moment or not, that you don't know whether to appreciate the here and now or plan for the future. Well this is a perfect solution! We're doing something as impulsive as promising we'll get married, and yet marriage is all about building a whole life together. It's the best of both words."

Ladybug gaped at him silently, eyes glistening, and he really, really hoped that was a good sign.

"I still want you to have that room you know. The sewing room," he whispered, kissing her hand. "Sure, we might not know what tomorrow will bring, might not even know if we have tomorrow, but I want you to know you'll have my heart, you'll have present me and future me for however long we have left. I want to promise you that Marinette. Will you let me?"

Her answer came in the form of a smile so dazzling that it made Chat's heart swell, his stomach flutter. She threw her arms around him in a fierce embrace, her nose buried in the crook of his shoulder as whispered words of love and acceptance, as she planted kiss after kiss along his neck, his jaw, his cheeks, his lips, until they were both breathless and tearful.

The future was scary, it always would be. But it was also full of promise, one promise in particular, and that was what would carry them through the long days and nights without each other. That's what filled them with hope.

That's what would bring him home to her.

Time is a funny thing. It likes to trick us into thinking there's more of it. One day it seemed like the whole Summer stretched ahead of them, and then it was gone- gone in a blur of colour and a whirlwind of newly formed memories.

That's how it was for all of them, for Adrien and Marinette, for Alya, Nino, Nathanael, Louis. The lazy days of Summer had seemed they would last for an eternity. But one moment they were celebrating the end of their exams (and, in the case of Louis, handing in university essays), the next they were discussing parties and the end of their life as schoolchildren.

There were tears, laughter, yearbooks to sign and memories to recall with wisps of rose-tinted nostalgia. There were goodbyes and see-you-soons, there were promises to keep in touch. There was excitement and fear, anticipation for what the future may bring. There was alcohol, a lot of alcohol, and the traumatic hangovers that came with it (plus Adrien and Marinette's promise to Tikki that they would never 'drink and transform' ever again, especially not after having swapped their miraculous- Plagg on the other hand thought it was hilarious).

For Adrien, his schedule was back with a vengeance, but he would always make time for Marinette. Always make time for his Princess, his Lady, his love.

Paris never changed. Akuma attacks were the same, save for the added bonus of having Volpino work alongside them. The city had accepted him with open arms, for the most part. Granted there were a few who worried, quite vocally, he would get in between Ladybug and Chat Noir's recently revealed relationship. In response, Volpino released a statement which horrified Ladybug and had Chat Noir collapsed on the floor in laughter.

"Sorry folks. I like men. Ladybugs and cats don't raise my tail if you catch my meaning."

The golden days of Summer were never meant to last, however, and soon they were saying goodbye to Nathanael. Deciding to avoid bars or clubs, they gang had chosen Nathanael's favourite restaurant and surprise-kidnapped him for a night of fondness and farewells.

They ended up closing the restaurant along with the staff, placing chairs on tables, cleaning up after themselves, laughing at Adrien's constant barrage of cooking puns and helping Marinette when she accidentally stabbed herself with a fork. Alya filmed and photographed all of it, calling it an 'emotional scrapbook' and Nino even convinced the head chef to let them play some music.

Walking home that night, they'd sung songs and screamed their dreams and worries to the sky. Marinette and Alya had walked arm-in-arm, skipping ahead of them. Nino began ranting about the latest Spiderman comic and Adrien had re-enacted the famous scene from Singing in the Rain despite the fact that there was no rain in sight. They all chalked that up to the fact he was the biggest lightweight of them all, tipsy despite only having one glass of wine at dinner.

Throughout it all, Louis had held Nathanael's hand and watched him as he drank in the sight of his friend's antics- his eyes distant and cloudy- smiling nonetheless.

The day afterwards, Louis came back to a quiet house, his hand empty. The absent rain from the night before residing in his aching heart.

Having spent the summer pretty much living together, ghosts of Nathanael were dotted everywhere. Kisses in the kitchen, spontaneous pillow fights on the sofa, heated moments in the bedroom whilst his roommates were out…

He already missed him, and dropping him at the train station had to be one of the more painful memories of his life.

"You're not going to cry, are you?" Trixx floated in front of him once she was sure there was nobody around. "I hate seeing you cry."

"You should know by now that I am an utter mess where my heart is concerned," Louis warbled, chin shaking as he fought to control himself. He'd held himself together, wrapped his arms around Nathanael and been his rock whilst the redhead had cried and the weight of his decision to leave Paris finally hit him. It had taken every last shred of power inside of Louis not to break, to be strong for his beloved, but he had done it and he was proud of that. "I can't help that any more than you can help the fact that your ears are the cutest things to exist."

"You've got me there," Trixx giggled. "Come on, smile for me! You have such a wicked smile."

Louis shot her a watery grin.

"Close enough," Trixx shrugged, nudging his back. "Let's nap!"

"I'd rather just sleep the entire year away," Louis whined, kicking off his shoes and trudging to his room. His bed had been made in a rather slapdash fashion as, for once, Nathanael hadn't cared enough to make it properly (Louis never made it himself). Both had been too preoccupied with the day itself, with trying to keep themselves together.

"Now you're just being silly," Trixx chided as she made her way to his pillow, snuggling up on his side of the bed. "If you put yourself in a coma, who will help Ladybug protect Paris and how will you become a better man for when Nathanael does come back?"

"I know," Louis mumbled, unbuttoning the collar of his shirt and hitting the bed with a loud thump...

…And a curious crunching noise.

Frowning, he sat up, lifting the pillow Trixx had been resting on and ignoring her protests of annoyance. His fingers felt around blindly for a few seconds, before he discovered the source of the odd sound, and promptly pulled out two envelopes, each one decorated by hand with a soft floral design.

"Oooooh! Love letters!" Trixx squealed, sniffing them to investigate. "He's left you love letters! How romantic! I knew he had a good scent for a reason. He's so sweet."

"I can't read them," Louis immediately choked. He threw himself back onto the bed, hair fanning around him, and held the letters upwards at arm's length. "Not now."

Trixx's ears dropped with disappointment.

"Don't you want to know what he said though?" she whined. "I bet it's lovely."

"I bet it is too," Louis mumbled, his Adam's apple bobbing painfully, as though it were replaced with shards of glass. "But if I read them now I might break."

"Look though," Trixx encouraged, prodding the top envelope. "This one says 'open when you get home' it has to be a surprise he set up for you! Please open it, please!"

"Ok!" Louis chuckled, sitting up and earning a quick nuzzle of delight from the fox Kwami. "But you can't say anything if I start to cry- and you will have to give me tissues for my nose. Snot is so unsightly."

"Yes sir, pretty boy," Trixx bounded around the air in delight, tail fluffed in excitement as Louis began to carefully open the letter. He didn't want to tear it. Nathanael had clearly worked hard on both of them. The envelopes themselves were vintage in their design, looking more like something you'd find in at period drama than at a local post office. They were beautiful and otherworldly, speaking volumes for just how well Nathanael knew him, knew that he would love something like this.

Louis braced himself for the words he knew would be both a blessing and a curse, braced himself for whatever sweet words of love Nathanael had poured onto the pages. As he pulled out the small bit of parchment inside, he closed his eyes, tried to control the violent shaking of his arms, and sat up so he could read it properly…

Only to find himself staring at a set of directions instead, leading to a street he'd never heard of, but a quick search on his phone told him it was a small alleyway, situated about a ten-minute walk from his home.

"That's it?" Trixx cried, already in super-sleuth mode, tiny paws on her chin in contemplation. "Is he trying to take you on a treasure hunt? What does it mean? Is it a code? What is he trying to say? Louis?"

Louis was already looking to the second letter for answers. He reached for the second letter like a man starved, turning it over in his hand to look at the cover, to search Nathanael's beautiful cursive script for answers.

'Open when you get there.'

"Louis?" Trixx repeated as the man in question shot up from the bed, frantically scrabbling around the room for his keys, a wild look in his eyes. "Kit-"

"There's fresh berries in the fridge, Trixxy. Please help yourself," he replied, unaware of what he was saying as he half stumbled out the door, almost forgetting his shoes, and half-catching Trixx's words of encouragement on his way out.

The air was crisp against his skin. Summer was dying but Louis had never felt more alive.

If he'd thought ghosts of Nathanael were in his apartment, then his spirit and their love echoed around the city too. The wind was a siren call, beckoning him to the place Nathanael wanted him to go, and he ran. He ran fast and far, ran until his lungs burned and his sides hurt. His feet pounded against the pavement as he moved like a man possessed, desperate to know what lay before him but terrified of it all the same. The letters in his hand acted like a magnet, pulling him ever closer to his destiny.

What should have been a ten-minute walk ended up being a five-minute sprint. When he finally reached the alley, he ran deep inside before finally giving in to exhaustion.

Louis closed his eyes, slumped against the wall, and tried to quell the aching of his screaming muscles. He rested there for a few minutes, trying to regain a sense of himself but it was difficult. Emotionally, physically, everything in him was so tired and drained and he just felt… lost.

Brushing his damp curls away from his face, Louis brought the letters to eye-level, examining them intensely.

'Open when you get there.'

Louis looked around expectantly, more confused than ever, his heart tripping with trepidation and his feet holding him in place like lead weights. Something was here, in this alley. Nathanael had left something for him to discover…but he had no idea what. It was a small alleyway, cut off from the sounds and sights of the rest of the city so much so that he felt as though he was the only one in the universe. He didn't understand what could be here for him, amongst the dirty concrete and peeling walls. Why had Nathanael's brought him here?

Sliding down the wall, Louis sat crouched, hugging his knees, the letters on his lap almost mocking him for his lack of understanding. With a pitiful sigh, he tilted his head backwards until the crown of his head hit the wall and he stared upwards.

That was when he caught a glimpse of something. Something bright and colourful, something which stood in stark contrast to the grey walls which surrounded him, something which was made to catch his attention.

Something orange.

Louis stood up, a slight frown on his face as his shaking legs brought him back to full height and he took a step backwards, taking in the confusing sight before him.

He gasped.

The oranges faded into specks of white paint, black too, and a small bit of silver, the tell-tale brown of his own eyes reflected back on him.

It was a mural. A mural not of him as Louis, but him as Volpino and all at once Louis knew that this is what Nathanael had brought him here for- that this was Nathanael's work. This is what Nathanael wanted to show him.

He felt as though his heart might burst.

'Open when you get there.'

Louis tore open the letter, forgetting to be careful, too desperate in his search for answers to the million questions flying around his head, each one more terrifying and beautiful and confusing than the last.

He could scarcely read Nathanael's second letter, his true letter. His hands were trembling so violently that he was worried the words would simply fall off the parchment, where they might be lost forever. But he managed not to come apart completely. Not now. Not yet.

Dear Louis,

Umm…surprise! Hope you liked your present. I didn't have much time to do it is so it's a little clumsy and once I come home I'll go back over it and fix some mistakes with the anatomy, and I can never get the colour of your eyes right no matter how many times I draw them. They're unique- like you. I don't think there's any paint in the world that can replicate them. But I promise I can make it better at least. You deserve the best I can give and more.

I guess it probably comes as a bit of a shock to tell you I know this way, about your superhero status I mean. But in my defence, you weren't exactly subtle! You tried to kiss me for god's sake! Superheroes have secret identities for a reason you know! You have to get better at lying to people. What if someone finds out who you are and something happens to you whilst I'm gone? I would never forgive myself for not being there so please be safe ok? Please? I'm so proud of you for being a hero, but you have to be safe. You're my everything.

I know I can be clumsy with words, and I don't always say what I'm feeling, but I hope that when you miss me, or you have doubts about being a hero, you can look at this mural I've painted for you and remember that I love you. Remember that before you were Paris' hero, you were my hero and you still are. Both as Volpino, and especially as Louis. You always will be.

I'm going to miss you every day, but I'm also going to love you every day too. Thank you, sweetheart, for supporting me through everything I'm hoping to achieve. If I give you even half the strength and encouragement you give to me, then we can take on the world together. I really hope I do. I try, and I'll never stop trying for as long as you'll have me.

With more love than I ever thought possible,

Your Nathanael.

"Oh Nathanael," Louis uttered, as though his boyfriend could hear him and holding the letter close to his side. Reverently, he pressed a timid hand to the mural, the gloved hand of the mural against his own tanned one, pressed it to the proof of his boyfriend's love and faith in him. How many hours had he spent, secretly practicing and making this as perfect as he could? How long had he kept the secret inside his heart so that he could surprise Louis with it? "How could you ever think I'd stop wanting you?"

In the peace and quiet of the alley, away from the prying eyes of the world, away from the destiny which had chosen him, away from the love of his life, Louis Dubois-De Luca rested his forehead on the mural of Volpino, and allowed himself to finally let the tears flow, unrestrained and unguarded, until his shoulders shook and the rain in his heart temporarily subsided.

"Are you sure you have everything?"

Adrien, pale faced and aching, nodded silently. It was the twentieth time Alya had asked him, but he couldn't bring himself to mind.

"Passport? Plane ticket? Phone? Money?"

"Alya come on, give him space," Nino said, trying to laugh, but the sound of it felt remarkably hollow- even to Adrien's ears.

Marinette watched the exchange, watched both Nino and Alya fussing over Adrien quietly, unsure what to say or do. His father (already in London) had allowed him to travel to the airport with them. So, that morning, Alya and Nino had driven around to his mansion- unsurprised to find Marinette with him already. The four had piled into Alya's mother's car, just like they had during the Spa day, though this time, it was a much more sombre affair. They all tried to make jokes, sing along to the songs on Nino's iPod, but the punchlines fell flat and the lyrics were all too ironic- too personal- no matter what song they put on. The final part of the journey was spent mainly in silence.

It felt like a funeral, like a death, and Marinette hated it. Their last patrol together, at least, had been bittersweet and full of intimate moments- ones they had tried to stretch out all night and into eternity, even as their transformations fell away. But the sun had risen and time had marched cruelly onwards. Still they clung on, to hopes that would never be fulfilled, still they reached for each other, held on desperately to their final moments.

Marinette knew that they were being silly. What was a year, really? It would fly by and he'd be back home before they knew it. But, as usual, her mind said one thing and her heart another. The keen sting of separation was palpable and she couldn't stop it hurting no matter how hard she tried. He was leaving, her Chat Noir, her Adrien. He was leaving and she couldn't stop feeling like her heart was nothing more than a piece of shattered china any more than she could stop him boarding that awful, awful plane.

They wasted time checking Adrien in, Nino complaining the whole time as to why Gabriel had insisted Adrien fly, that planes were death traps and did he not see Final Destination, or Superman, or "ANY MOVIE WITH PLANES EVER?!"

Adrien spent the whole time comforting his friend, occasionally looking to Marinette, who would always meet him with a smile that didn't quite reach her eyes.

Once again, the clocks continued to move and Marinette had never hated time as much as she did then and there. But they had exhausted every avenue possible, browsed every ridiculously expensive shop, stopped off for coffee and snacks, confirmed and re-confirmed Adrien had everything in his carry on. Just in case.

The conversation died as the group trudged towards the security-check, Adrien walking slightly ahead, one hand grasping the strap of his bag, the other firmly entwined with Marinette's.

They came to a stop below the check-in sign. The words looming over the four of them like an obituary. For a while none of them spoke.

Alya was the first to crack.

"Oh for god's sake, I've had enough of this freaking death march!" she snapped, stomping around to face Adrien. "Come here, you dork."

With that she wrapped her arms around him, kissing both of his cheeks. Adrien leaned back, startled and wide eyed, before wrapping his arms around her- the very beginnings of tears pricking the corners of his eyes.

"You better bring me back something super amazing for Christmas or I'm going to kick your butt," Alya demanded, though her tone was softer this time, and she stepped out of the embrace to ruffle his hair. "And take photos! Lots and lots of photos- AND keep in touch. We want to know everything. Every little detail. All the deets- spare nothing."

"You got it," Adrien nodded, offering a faint salute, promising himself that he would abide by Alya's wishes.

For a quiet moment, Adrien looked at them, his first real friends. They'd been there through so much, and even now when he was leaving, they were there to say 'until the next time' instead of turning their backs on him.

Suddenly he was struck by all the memories he'd shared with them, the study dates, the movie trips, the stupid arguments about TV shows, the hobbies picked up and forgotten on whims, but most of all he remembered the smiles. He remembered their quiet hands guiding a sheltered boy into a world which had been denied to him for so very long. He remembered it all, and the feelings that washed over him were so deep, so powerful, that he felt he might burst- that one heart was not enough to contain it all.

"I love- I love you guys," he choked, fingers gripping his shirt as tears spilled from his eyes unbidden. "I love you so much. I love-"

And then their arms were around him. All three of them threw themselves at him and he stumbled backwards, but they made sure to catch him. They always did.

"We love you too brother," Nino cried somewhere near his armpit. "I love you, you're the best friend a guy could ever have."

Marinette stayed quiet, only because if she opened her mouth now she felt she might never stop crying. Stop being stupid, he needs you.

"You're the best, don't ever think otherwise," Alya agreed. "We totally love you back, and always will."

They pulled apart again, and Adrien looked at Marinette, their eyes meeting briefly, before he turned to Alya and Nino.

"You guys think I can say goodbye to-" he began, but was interrupted by a wave of Alya's hand.

"Say no more," she said, wiping her eyes, before placing her hand on Marinette's arm. "We'll be out by the car."

With one last hug goodbye, and more promises shared, Alya and Nino turned and merged into the crowd, arms wrapped around each other in support. Adrien watched them go, hand on his heart, a wet smile crinkling his eyes.

From beside him, Marinette was beyond panic.

He wanted to speak to her alone. Of course he did. They'd avoided it all day, mainly from spending time making sure Tikki and Plagg were able to say goodbye, and then distracted by Alya and Nino's presence. But now they were alone and she was going to cry- ruin their goodbye by being too worked up, too emotional. What if she said the wrong thing? What if she upset him and he got mad and broke up with her and found a cute English girl and they lived happily ever after whilst Marinette died a lonely old maid found weeks after she'd passed half-eaten by rabid squirrels?!

Breathe Mari, BREATHE, she told herself, none of that is going to happen. You're being an idiot.

"I have something for you," Adrien broke her out of her innermost anxieties and she looked up to see him reaching out towards her. There was a shy look in his eyes and a flush to his cheeks, bringing back memories which really were completely inappropriate for the moment, but Marinette couldn't help her mind going there and soon her face was as red as his.

She almost didn't notice the small velvet box in his hand. When she did her eyes widened at the sight.

"Don't worry!" he hastened to add once he saw her expression. "I'm not getting down on one knee I promise! Just…open it? Please?"

He had that look again. That darn pleading pout that would be the death of her but somehow, through the pain of their parting, the move was so distinctly him that she couldn't help but smile, fondly rolling her eyes one last time before he disappeared into the crowd.

"Ok, ok, Kitty. But then you have to open my present too," she grinned, taking the box from him as the realisation dawned on his face, as her words clicked in his mind and his eyes sparkled in delight.

"You got me a present? You're the best!" he cried, dipping so he could pull her into a tight embrace.

"Easy there mister, you want me to open your present or not?"

Adrien stepped away, bounding around with so much pent up energy that she fought down a bittersweet laugh. He always did make her laugh.

Then she opened the box and the urge to laugh left almost instantly.

"Is it- is it ok?" Adrien asked, as Marinette stared silently, fingers tracing the delicate silver necklace, the little key-pendant, adorned with small pink and crystal gemstones on the end. The meaning was clear, yet Adrien still rambled an explanation anyway. "I wanted to get you something to show you I was serious about our promise. It's not a ring, because I haven't- well I haven't proposed to you yet. But I will. One day. When we're ready. So… I wanted you to remember the house with your sewing room, with the garden and the flowers."

Gently, he took the necklace out of the box, stepping behind Marinette so that he could place the necklace around her.

Marinette said nothing, but brushed her loose hair away from her shoulders, so that it wouldn't get in the way.

When she looked down, she noticed that the key rested right next to her heart.

"This key is my promise to you that we'll make it there," he said, turning her around by her shoulders. Adrien placed a delicate hand under her chin, tilting it up so that he could meet her eyes. The eyes he'd seen almost every day for three years. Eyes he wouldn't see again for months. He didn't want to leave them, never wanted to part from her, and after he'd done what he had to do he never would again. Never. "Will you wear it for me?"

Marinette nodded.

"I will," she replied, barely trusting herself to speak but knowing she had to. His gesture was too beautiful not to. "I- I love it Adrien. Thank you."

She kissed him then, reached up and held him there, praying that they could freeze this moment and be lost to it forever. But she knew it wasn't to be. Instead she memorised every detail. His warmth, his softness, how safe she felt in his arms. She carved the feelings into her mind for the long nights spent alone.

They broke apart, and Adrien couldn't stand it any longer.

"Ok so what did you get me?"

Marinette laughed.

"Nothing as wonderful as jewellery so don't get your hopes up!" she rushed to assure him as she reached into her back for the small red bundle, handing it to him with twice the amount of bashfulness he'd show. "It's kind of dumb actually, and I haven't even wrapped it or anything."

But Adrien was already unfurling the bundle of cloth, examining it with his mouth wide and his eyes wider.

"This is…"

"Your hoodie yeah," Marinette confirmed with a nervous chuckle. "The one you gave me that night when we kissed- back before we knew each other, when this was only Chat Noir's hoodie. I'm really happy you let me keep it but… I wanted to give it back so that you'd remember- and I made some adjustments to help with that."

She gestured for Adrien to turn the hoodie over, and when he did, he gasped.

On the back, Marinette had embroidered black spots, on the hood she'd attached little antennae which wiggled of their own accord.

"My own Ladybug hoodie. Made by Ladybug herself," Adrien uttered, his voice shaking.

"I know! I told you it was dumb! It's silly but I didn't want you to be cold in London. I hear the weather there changes all the time and I thought it might be something cute for you to wear when you have a rare lazy day or something- I don't know it was-"

Adrien kissed her. Just as she had kissed him, and Marinette melted into the embrace.

Once he was sure she'd stop fretting, he pulled away.

"I love it, and I love you. More than anything," he said, kissing her once more.

Marinette glance at the large clock above them, her heart dropping like a stone.

"You need to get going," she murmured as he pulled the hoodie over his head, momentarily distracting her from her woes. "You're wearing that now?"

"Customs will have to pry it from my cold, dead claws, My Lady," he smirked, before the smile vanished from his face.

They didn't say goodbye, didn't bother saying the million things which they had already said. There was no point. Instead, they smiled, kissing again, holding each other in lingering touches which were over too soon.

"See you at Christmas!" Marinette smiled, determined not to let their last moments together be full of sadness.

"Christmas," Adrien nodded, reaching up to kiss her hand the way he always did as Chat Noir. It knocked the breath out of her.

They kissed again, one last time, before Marinette turned away. She couldn't see him go. She couldn't, and only as she began to walk towards the exit did she let the first of her tears fall, sniffing heavily as she did so.

There was a tug on her wrist and the next moment, she was being swept off her feet, into Adrien's arms as he span her, twirled her the way he so often did, and kissed her again. Marinette clung onto him desperately, never wanting him to put her down.

"I'll come back," he whispered against her ear and Marinette closed her eyes, no longer sure if the wetness of her cheeks was from her eyes or Adrien's. "I'll always come back. Always. I love you."

"I know. I love you too."

Marinette slipped out of his grasp, holding his hand until the very last moment.

This time, as he walked towards the security-check, she didn't turn her back.

With one last wave, Adrien disappeared in the sea of tourists and fellow travellers, away from his lifelong home, and Marinette watched him go until she could no longer see him.

She was already counting down the hours until she could do so again.