Ostensibly, Alya Césaire was a journalist.
It wouldn’t have surprised anyone who had ever known her. Ever since she was a child, journalism had been her aspiration, her calling. Nothing, to Alya, was more adventurous, more noble, then chasing after and exposing the truth of things to the world. Her greatest dream was to someday uncover something so big, her articles about it would be on the front page of every newspaper and magazine.
Life rarely took the turns one expected it to, but Alya often had to wonder how she ever got tangled up in the world of deception and espionage instead. Oh, she knew the choices she had made, and she knew her reasoning at the time. But still, when she took a step back from her life, she wondered how it had come to this, for someone like her, someone who loved the truth more than anything, to live a life of lies.
It didn’t do to dwell on the past. Things weren’t bad, really. It wasn’t the life Alya would’ve chosen for herself, but there were perks. She was still after the truth, after all, even if she reported it to only a select few instead of the world. The feeling of uncovering something was as exciting and fresh as she always expected it would be, and made tedious hours poring over papers worth it.
And her girls. Alya loved her girls. Her little spy ring wasn’t big, but they were effective. Her girls, her flowers, they got the job done, they got the intelligence people wanted. And Alya knew she was too attached to her agents, but she couldn’t help herself.
Which is why she was very upset when the higher-ups told her one of them was a traitor.
“I trust my girls,” Alya fumed. “None of them would leak intel to the enemy, I know they wouldn’t.”
“We know there’s a leak. Signals has been seeing reference to this “Ladybug” in the decryptions for months, and we’ve conclusively tracked the source of the leaks to your agents. We need your help to narrow it down further, and catch this Ladybug.”
“And how do we know that this isn’t a provocation?” Alya demanded hotly. “What’s to say this isn’t a false flag to undermine my operations? Or to cover up that they have an agent higher up? I trust my girls.”
Her questions went ignored.
“Whether you trust them or not doesn’t change the fact that one of your agents is compromised. This must be dealt with as quickly as possible, and we would appreciate your cooperation.”
“My cooperation? Why even come to me in the first place? Aren’t I a suspect too?” Alya said, out of frustration more than anything. There was no way any of her agents were traitors. She refused to accept it. She knew them. She trusted them.
“We would not have approached you if we hadn’t already eliminated you as a suspect.”
“Oh, well excuse me for lacking faith in your analysis,” Alya retorted sarcastically. She didn’t get a response. “Fine. Send me the details and I’ll write up reports on my agents. I’ll prove to you that this Ladybug is a fiction, or at least, she’s not here.”
Then, Alya hung up.
She knew it was unprofessional. She knew she was stubborn and irascible and all those other things that made her difficult to work with. She knew she wasn’t suited for this line of work, at least not emotionally. But she didn’t care. She was the one who was here. She was the one who got the job done.
Ladybug didn’t exist, and Alya would prove it.
It wouldn’t be hard – just tedious to compare their stuff with her agents’ activities. With this in mind, she set about her work with the resolve to give the most thorough reports she possibly could, not a single detail missing. That way they couldn’t dismiss her when she showed them that her girls were innocent.
Everything was fine for the first four. Tulip, Rose, Violet, Sunflower…all of those reports were easy, and Alya took no small amount of delight in thoroughly demonstrating how impossible it was for “Ladybug” to be any one of them. If those reports were a bit snarky in doing so, well…that was well deserved, as far as she was concerned.
But then she came to Lotus. Marinette.
And as much as Alya didn’t want it to, the pattern fell into place.
Her hand shook, and the pen slipped from her fingers.
No. No. Marinette wasn’t…she couldn’t be a traitor. Out of everyone…no. Something wasn’t right. This couldn’t be, it just couldn’t. Alya slammed her fist against the table. No. Her initial suspicion must have been correct. This was a provocation, trying to undermine her best agent. But…
How was she going to report this? She had to give a report, just as extensive and detailed as her others, or else they would know something was wrong. But…could she really give a false report? If that was found out…she and Marinette would both be in trouble. But she could hardly condemn her, either, which an accurate report would do…
Alya knew Marinette had to be innocent. This was a set-up, plain and simple. And she had to warn her – oh, it broke every precaution of spycraft, but Alya couldn’t bear the thought of losing Marinette to this awful scheme.
Of course, Alya had to be careful, too. If she visited only Marinette, that would be too conspicuous. So, she made plans to visit the others, first, trying to keep to similar lengths of time for each of them. If anyone asked, it would be part of her investigation. And she had to be sure to make sure that her visits weren’t too regular – if she visited Alix on a Sunday afternoon, she’d visit Mylène on a Tuesday morning, or something. The important thing that it wasn’t a pattern.
The visits with the others were pleasant, and Alya was careful not to show that anything was bothering her. She took their reports, and they spoke of mundane things as well – normal friends for all appearances.
She visited Marinette at Marinette’s own home and started out with much the same sort of conversation. But quickly, after ensuring their solitude, Alya brought up the reason for her visit.
“Marinette, you’re being framed.”
“You’re being framed. I don’t know by who, but I was asked to investigate for a traitor among my agents. When I looked into this “Ladybug”, it matched you, perfectly. I know…” Alya choked up a bit. “I know that you would never. You’re my best agent, and someone wants you gone. That’s the only explanation I can accept, but I don’t know how to convince the higher-ups. As soon as I come back with my report matching you, they’ll…”
Marinette set down her tea and took Alya’s hand, gently rubbing it in a soothing gesture.
“Someone wants me gone,” Marinette repeated slowly, considering. “But who? Someone inside, or outside?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know, I’m sorry.”
“Hey, hey,” Marinette said, this time getting up to come close to Alya. “Leave the freaking out to me, that’s my thing.”
“And yet you always power through it,” Alya said, with a slight hiccup.
“I guess. But I’ve had you to thank sometimes,” she said, and frowned. “This whole thing is really suspect. Why would they ask you to investigate? Wouldn’t you be a suspect as much as anyone else?”
“They said they had already eliminated me as a suspect.”
Marinette didn’t seem convinced.
“Alya…I think it’s not me that someone wants gone,” she said. “I think…it’s you.”
“Me?” Alya said. But how could it be her when the reports were tailored to match Marinette?
“Of course! If someone wanted you gone, but didn’t have anything incriminating on you, they’d need to manufacture something. Something that’d hold up under scrutiny, because you do good work. What better than tricking you into covering up for an ‘enemy spy’? They’re counting on you to file a bad or false report in order to protect me, so they can expose you and get you…taken care of. Why else would they have you investigate your own agents instead of having someone else do it? This isn’t about me at all, they’re trying to frame you!”
Alya didn’t pretend to understand how Marinette’s mind worked. How she could connect the dots that Alya had set out without even realizing it. Sure, there were few better than Alya at finding and uncovering information, but there was none better than Marinette at making something actionable out of it. And Alya couldn’t deny that Marinette’s explanation made sense.
“So…what do I do?” If anyone could find a solution to this, it would be Marinette.
“Unless you want to take a gamble that this isn’t a set-up, and file a false report, you really only have two good options,” Marinette said. “Turn me in…”
“I can’t do that! There’s no truth or justice in sacrificing you to save myself!”
“…turn me in, and try to investigate and expose who’s targeting you before they come up with their next scheme. And hope that you’re not hopelessly outnumbered.”
“Or…?” Alya demanded. The first was an unacceptable option.
“Or,” Marinette said, leaning in close, so close that Alya’s heartbeat began to race. And not merely out of fear of the set-up, either.
“We can disappear.”