The morning after she arrived back in Paris, Alya Césaire crawled out of her childhood bed - jetlag was a real bitch - and hauled on jeans and a shirt that didn't smell too rank. Even though it had been years, her feet still knew the path to the Dupain-Cheng Bakery. She made the trip with her eyes half-shut, seeking out both pastries and coffee. As she grew close, and the wind brought the tantalizing smell of freshly baked bread to her nose, she quickened her pace. That was the smell of home, and it was only a few steps away.
"I'm here!" Alya yelled, throwing the door open. Half a dozen customers and a cashier looked up at her call. There was split second during which no one reacted, and then a scream pierced the silence.
"Alya!" A black-and-pink blur hurtled out of the back room. Alya laughed as she was tackled, bracing herself and wrapping both arms around her exuberant best friend. They hugged for at least five minutes, rocking back and forth, until a blond head poked out of the back room.
"Ladies, could you move away from the door? You're in the way," Adrien said, eyes twinkling.
"Oops, sorry," Alya said, dragging Marinette away from the door. Marinette got with the program and latched onto Alya's arm; the two girls swayed, giggling, towards the back room, where Alya freed herself from Marinette just long enough to hold her arms out to Adrien.
"Hi Alya," Adrien said, giving her a quick hug.
"Hi yourself," Alya said, giving him an impressed once over as they separated. The last of puberty had treated Adrien Dupain-Cheng very well, giving him several extra inches of height and broadening his shoulders. Even just the plain t-shirt he was wearing stole attention to his muscled biceps, and she didn't need her investigative skills to know that under the material lurked a six pack. Probably an eight pack.
"How have you been?" Adrien asked.
Alya considered. "Excited. Tired. That about sums up my life."
"I'm so glad you're back," Marinette said, wiggling with joy. She'd grown a bit too since Alya had last seen her, but Marinette was destined to forever be the shortest member of their friends. Perhaps in spite of her perpetually short stature, Marinette had grown her dark hair out. It now hung almost to her waist in a long braid, tied off with a bright red, black spotted ribbon. It clashed slightly with the pink dress Marinette was wearing, but for all Alya knew that was the fashion right now.
"I'm glad I'm back too. For a little while, anyway."
"You're leaving again?" Marinette said, her smile fading.
"I got an offer with one of the companies I interned with in New York," Alya explained. "I'm seriously considering it, but they gave me a few weeks to think it over."
"That's awesome," Adrien said. "In the meantime, how about some breakfast? Maman was just finishing up."
"Ooh yes," Alya said, eyes lighting up. In short order, she found herself sitting at the Dupain-Cheng's breakfast table with Marinette and Adrien. Sabine and Tom had both greeted her very warmly, but the bakery needed them. That was fine with Alya. It gave her the chance to tell Marinette and Adrien some of her best stories. She chattered all through breakfast, only winding down when the last bite of fruit had disappeared. Alya sipped at her coffee and eyed her two friends.
They sat side by side, as they usually did, with Adrien's arm around Marinette's shoulders. They'd grown steadily closer through collège and into lycée, until it wasn't so much Marinette and Adrien as Marinette-and-Adrien, hard to tell where one ended and the other began. It surprised exactly no one when, on the day they graduated, Adrien asked Marinette to marry him. They'd married quickly in a small ceremony, with just friends and Marinette's family invited.
It was the kind of high school romance that most people thought would never last, except anyone who knew Marinette and Adrien knew that nothing could pry these two apart.
"So," Alya said, "I was thinking."
"Thinking?" Marinette prompted.
"You guys should come to New York with me."
"What?" Adrien said, blinking.
"It would be so cool! Marinette, you would love it. There are so many fashion designers there. It might be just the thing you need to kick-start your career."
Marinette's smile wilted again. "Alya, that would be amazing. But you know Adrien and I can't leave Paris."
Alya scowled. It was something she'd heard literally dozens of times now. When Gabriel Agreste threatened to disown his son unless Adrien kept modelling for him, Adrien had looked his father in the eye and refused because that would've meant going to Italy for a year. Gabriel had carried through on his threat. Adrien still didn't back down. So far as Alya knew, he hadn't seen his father since that day four years ago.
When Marinette got the opportunity to go to New York with Audrey Bourgeois when they were fifteen, she turned it down. She’d gotten another offer a couple years ago, Alya knew. Again, she'd refused. Alya didn't get it. Marinette had a passion for design, and it showed in the amazing outfits she was capable of creating. But after she'd been fired from half a dozen internships for flighty behavior - what did that even mean? - it was like all the industry doors in Paris had closed their doors to her. It was possible that Gabriel'd had a hand in that out of spite, but regardless it seemed like she was never going to get anywhere in Paris.
Alya was convinced that Marinette could make it somewhere else. Despite that, Marinette steadfastly refused to leave. All she would say whenever anyone asked her was "I can't leave Paris". Adrien frequently said the same thing. It was maddening to look at two talented, amazing people and know that they were wasting their lives. They could do so much more than attend business school and learn about the bakery from Marinette’s papa. Adrien had often talked about all the places he wanted to travel to when they were younger. Why on earth were the two of them so adamant about staying in Paris?!
"Why?" she demanded, frustration rising. "Why the hell not?"
"We just can't," Marinette said softly.
"But Marinette -"
"Please, Alya. Let's drop it," Marinette said, sounding strained. "I don't want to fight while you’re home."
"We wouldn't have to fight if you'd stop being so silly," Alya muttered. She just didn't get it. As hard as it had been to leave Paris, Alya hadn't regretted it for a second. The things she'd learned, the things she'd seen, the things she'd experienced - she felt like a completely different person now. She didn’t understand why Marinette and Adrien didn’t want those same opportunities.
"Marinette and I have our reasons," Adrien said. His fingers were rubbing up and down Marinette's arm.
"They make no sense," Alya grumbled, grabbing her cup and drinking the last of her coffee.
"They do to us," Adrien said, in a tone that allowed for no argument. Alya pouted at him, but Adrien remained unswayed.
"Fine," she said. "Then let's talk kids."
"And that's my cue to leave." Adrien got up, dropped a kiss onto Marinette's head, and booked a hasty retreat downstairs to the bakery.
"Wuss!" Marinette called after him. Then, to Alya, she said, "It's gonna be a while before we have kids."
"Darn. I want a niece or nephew."
"You'll have one someday. Just... not yet."
"What are you waiting for?" Alya asked, genuinely curious.
Marinette stood up to collect their breakfast dishes. "We have our reasons."
"I'm starting to hate that phrase," Alya said under her breath, and felt Trixx, hidden beneath her hair, shake with laughter.
That night, an akuma attacked. For the first time in years, Rena Rouge joined the fight. It felt amazing to throw down with Ladybug and Chat Noir, almost like she'd never left. Between the three of them, they managed to get the akuma taken care of in under six hours. Dawn was just breaking as Rena landed on the ground, breathing heavily. She hated to admit it, but she was badly out of shape. Running around New York wasn't exactly the same as leaping buildings in a single bound.
"Pound it!" Ladybug and Chat called out behind her, and she turned with a grin just in time to see them tap their fists together.
"I meant to say, I love your hair now," she said to Ladybug.
"Oh, thanks." Ladybug fingered a strand of hair with a shy smile. Her hair was longer now, but she'd forgone her old, childish pigtails in favor of a braided bun that kept her hair close to her head and out of reach of any akuma's. It was a style that suited her.
"Guess I should get going," Rena said, not without regret.
Ladybug and Chat looked at each other. Then Ladybug said, not unkindly, "Alya, wait."
Rena did a double take. "Did you just out me?"
Chat snorted. "I've known who you were forever," he said. "Once I knew who My Lady was, it was an obvious guess."
An obvious guess? Rena blinked. "You guys exchanged identities?"
"About eight years ago," Chat said.
Rena whistled softly, impressed at how well they’d hidden it. "Well, what did you want? We're all about to change back."
"We know," Ladybug said. "Spots off."
"What -!" Rena blurted out, shocked, as red and green light rolled up their bodies. Her eyes grew painfully wide as Ladybug and Chat turned into Marinette and Adrien. She sputtered without words, staring from one to the other.
"We thought it was time you knew," Marinette said, hands hanging loosely by her waist. Her braid fluttered in the wind.
"You kept asking why we can't leave Paris," Adrien added.
"The answer is pretty simple."
"But obviously we can't just tell people the truth, so we tell them the truth instead."
"Ladybug and Chat can't leave Paris."
"So Marinette and Adrien can't leave Paris."
Rena looked between them. They stood side by side, their faces in shadow, one red and one black kwami hovering over their shoulders: all four were illuminated by the beginnings of the gold sunlight behind them. A chill ran up Rena's spine. Marinette and Adrien weren't transformed, but in that moment there was something... weirdly magical about them.
"I can't believe it," she said. "I can't believe I never figured it out! You were right in front of me all those years!”
"It's the magic," Marinette said, smiling. "Don't feel too bad."
"I'll feel bad about this for the rest of forever," Rena promised. "So... wait. I get why you can't leave Paris, Marinette." Ladybug was the only one who could purify akumas, and her Lucky Charm was needed to repair the damage that akumas wrought. She turned to Adrien. "But what about you?"
"My Lady and I are a team. I won't leave her," Adrien said simply. As though synchronized their hands moved, fingers intertwining.
Rena pressed her lips together. It didn't seem fair. There was nothing truly binding Adrien to Paris except for his loyalty to Marinette. Ladybug couldn't fight alone, but if there were someone else -
And then, like a bolt of lightening, Rena got it. There was no one else. Chloé was in New York with her mother, which was one of the few things that Rena didn't like about the city. Last Rena had heard, Nino had been somewhere in China with Master Fu. She had no idea whether he was still with Master Fu or if he'd moved on to somewhere else; the two of them went off grid frequently and didn't surface for months at a time. She knew for a fact that Chloé and Nino had taken Pollen and Waayz with them, because of course they had. Just like Trixx went everywhere with her.
There was no one else.
"It's okay," Marinette said gently, seemingly knowing where Alya's thoughts were headed. "You wanted to go out and live your dream, Alya. No one can begrudge you for that."
"But you -" Rena gestured. Her hand burned with orange light as her transformation came undone, and Trixx flopped onto her shoulder with a weary sigh.
Marinette moved closer, using her free hand to take hold of Alya's hand. "Look. This isn't the life I dreamed of when I was a fourteen-year-old kid. I'm not disputing that. But you seem to think I'm unhappy, and Alya - I'm not. I'm married to the love of my life. I have my parents. I have our kwamis. I have the bakery, and I'm earning my degree in business. I still have fashion as a hobby. Does it suck that I didn't get to follow my dreams? Yeah. Is it super crappy that every major design place in Paris thinks I'm an unreliable flake because I had to keep running out to fight akumas? Of course.
"But it's not the end of the world. I had a choice. I could have my dream, or I could be Ladybug. I can't have both. Tikki told me that a long time ago, and I made my choice." Marinette shrugged. "When Hawkmoth is gone, we might travel. We might have kids." She shot a sly smile over her shoulder at Adrien. "We might do lots of things. But right now, this is how it has to be. I hope you can understand that."
Alya surged forward, throwing her arms around Marinette. "Of course I do. I'm sorry."
"Sorry?" Adrien repeated, sounding flummoxed.
"I shouldn't have pushed," Alya muttered, regretting every time that she hadn't taken 'we can't' for an answer. She'd never imagined that this would be the basis for their reasoning.
"It's okay," Marinette said again. "I would appreciate it if you'd stop with the guilt trip, though."
"You got it," Alya said, pulling back. Her eyes roved over them, picturing Ladybug's and Chat's masks on their faces. And yeah, she could see it now. Paris's heroes in more ways than one.