Alya blew into the building five minutes before she was late and disappeared into her office. The cherry-stained door had absorbed all the warmth from the morning sun hitting it, so it was toasty inside her office. She sat down her thermos of hot coffee on her desk and shuffled through the stack of finished assignments on her desk. A smile spread across her face.
At the beginning of the month, her boss Celine, or Carly, as everyone called her, had given her a stack of thirty-two assignments because: "I'm getting tired of you always begging me for more stories or clocking out early because there's nothing to do." Now, three days before the end of the month, she was done.
Smiling, she hefted the stack up and wandered to Carly's office. Alex was just leaving when she walked up. He laughed and held the door open for her. "Wow, Alya. We're not going to have any more news to cover if you keep this up." He chuckled.
"Heck no, we're not." Alya agreed with pride. "Did you two just get done making out?" She winked.
Alex turned bright red. "Ah! Um, no, no I just needed to tell her to order more supplies for the printer downstairs."
"Uh huh, sure." Alya rolled her eyes cheerfully. "Whatever you say, Boss."
Alex turned a deeper shade of red that reminded Alya of her old classmate Nathaniel, and then shut the door behind her. Alya chucked. Alex and Carly weren't actually dating, but everyone had been teasing that they were since before Alya had arrived.
Alex was the production manager. He oversaw the printing and distribution of the paper. He was also the person everyone went to if they needed public-domain files for any past stories or information because he had connections in city hall and in the police department. Carly was the brains and genius behind the design and formatting of the paper and its accompanying magazines. She was the one who assigned the reporters to certain cases and oversaw their work. AKA Alya's superior.
Alya cleared her throat politely and waited for the slim, dark-haired girl at the desk to glance up at her. Carly was fifty-seven with pretty grey streaks in her brown hair. She had grey eyes and a small mouth and nose. She was shorter than the average(you couldn't tell when she was sitting down), and so skinny that she could squeeze underneath Alya's desk and hide. Alya knew this because Carly had pranked everyone's office last April Fool's day, but since Alya had come in early, so she hadn't been able to finish booby-trapping her office. She'd hidden under the desk until Alya had pulled her chair out and spotted her.
Carly finally looked away from a set of color swabs she was examining for a magazine and saw Alya holding her stack. She groaned. "Don't you dare tell me, Alya Lahiffe, that you finished thirty-two different individual assignments?"
"Guilty." Alya chuckled, putting the stack down on Carly's desk. "Do you have anything else for me to do?"
Carly sighed and picked up the first two portfolios on top of Alya's stack. "Great work, as usual." She muttered. Carly sighed and set the folders down on top of her desk. "Okay Alya, I do have one more file. I usually give it to a more advanced reporter, but I think you've got this. It's the hardest file we have on record though."
Alya's breath caught as Carly opened a drawer and scraped the bottom. She pulled out a yellow folder with a red and black sticker on the front. Alya drew in a sharp breath as Carly handed it over.
"The Ladybug file?" Alya asked hesitantly. She didn't dare reach out to touch it.
Carly nodded. Alya took it reverently as a bright, blinding smile spread across her cheeks. "Thank you so much! This is such an honor… I don't know what to say!" Alya took a few steps away from the drawer.
"Now, hold on," Carly said, holding up a hand. She pointed to a chair in front of the desk. "Pop a squat. There are a few things I've got to explain."
Alya took a seat in the chair. Her heart was racing. Carly took a deep breath. "As you know, the Ladybug file was started back when Ladybug and Chat Noir announced they were taking a quick retreat for health reasons and Queen Bee, Rena Rouge, and Carapace took over protecting the city. Since then, we've been trying to root out where they went. It's one of the few mystery quests the department has. Most of them are just 'interview and report'. No one has ever gotten very far on the case. Every year, before we acknowledge the disappearance and honor the cities' current heroes on Heroes Day, I give it someone to see if they can find anything. Some years it comes back a little fuller, other years information is disapproved, and it comes back lighter. You're innovative and resourceful. Let's see how much you can find out." Carly spread her hands.
Alya swallowed. "And, if I don't?" She asked.
Carly shrugged. "Well, just me giving you the file means you have to write something about the disappearance of the dream team for the holiday. What usually happens is the reporters poke around, and if they don't find anything, then they highlight some of the things she and Chat did for the city and do some speculations on when she'll return. Hero's Day is in two months."
Alya swallowed. "Okay." She agreed. She stood up and walked backwards to the door, keeping her eyes on Carly as her supervisor returned to her desk work.
"One more thing, Alya." Carly said as Alya set her hand on the knob. "There are no extensions for this project. While it's possible to be reassigned, I only open the file this time of year because we can't afford to spend resources on this year-round. You have two months, and then after Heroes Day, you will need to return the folder. Understood?"
"Understood." Alya nodded with a dry throat.
"Good. There's not much else for you to do, and I know you're more comfortable working at home, so feel free to clock out early if you want. I'll call if we get anything else in, but your coworkers have priority now that you have that." Carly opened a pdf on her computer and turned her attention away from Alya. Alya swallowed hard and decided to leave before Carly changed her mind.
"Thank you, thank you, Carly." She gasped as she turned the knob. "I swear I won't let you down."
Carly nodded distractedly and waved her off. Alya quickly escaped and shut the door behind her. Then, she tucked the file under her arm, balled up her fists, and squealed. Everyone in the vicinity turned to her, but she ignored their questioning looks as she dashed out of the building.
The Ladybug file… the Ladybug file! This was an office legend, and part of the entire reason why she was here today. If she hadn't first started reporting on Ladybug back in Ecole….
It felt good to be back in the same territory she'd started in; Paris's heroes. She took the subway back home and dashed up the stairs to her apartment.
"Nino! Nino!" She called, hoping her husband hadn't left to his record label already. Unfortunately, the apartment was empty. No biggie. She pulled out her phone and dialed his number as she ran into her room to hunt down her laptop. He didn't answer the first time, so she dialed again, and he answered on the third ring.
"Sup Alya?" He asked. "I had to leave my meeting. What's up?"
"You'll never believe what just happened to me!" Alya squealed.
"What?" He asked.
Alya waved her hands even though he couldn't see them. "I got the ladybug file!" She shrieked. "Carly said she thinks I'm resourceful enough for it! Me!"
"Wow, that's super Alya." Alya could hear Nino smiling through the phone.
"I know! I can't let her down. I figure if anyone can figure out where our favorite cat and bug team went, it's probably the Ladyblog owner, right?" Alya asked as she fired up her laptop and traced a finger over the ladybug sticker on the front of the portfolio.
"Not to mention the first civilian Ladybug trusted enough to give a miraculous to, right?" Nino teased.
"Right," Alya said, moving her hand to finger the fox-tail necklace against her neck. After Ladybug had left the city, Alya had been given her miraculous full-time, along with Chloe and Nino. Trixx, her Kwami, was asleep in a pocket that she'd sewn on the inside of her jacket. Marinette had taught her how to back in Ecole.
Marinette… and suddenly she was sad. Thinking about her old best friend really put a damper on her mood. She swallowed.
"Hey Nino, I think I'm going to drop by Tom and Sabine's to get something to eat." She told him.
"Let's make it a date. Can I meet you there for lunch?" Nino asked. Alya could tell he needed to get back to his meeting.
Alya giggled. "I would love that." She said honestly.
"I love you, Ren." He whispered.
"And I love you, Carapace."
They chuckled together and then said goodbye. Alya set her phone on the dresser in her and Nino's bedroom and studied her reflection. It was just Marinette's parents… no big deal. She exhaled and decided to quickly change her clothes.
Thirty minutes later, she was wearing a dark pair of blue jeans and a breezy white shirt. She redid her makeup and put in a pair of white earrings. Then, she scolded herself for being silly. It was Marinette's parents. They adored all of her old friends. She found her purse with her wallet and identification inside and took her phone with her as she left to go to Marinette's old place, leaving the ladybug file on the couch beside her laptop.
Almost ten years ago, a horrible tragedy had befallen Alya's classmates. Marinette Dupain-Cheng had been kidnapped while on a walk, only a block and a half from her house. It had been just after evening hours, and no witnesses had been around. All the police had was a foggy video from a street cam, where you could see a man in all black jump out from where he'd been hiding behind a car, slap a cloth over her mouth, and then drag her unconscious body into the backseat. They'd tried tracking the vehicle to no avail. It had disappeared through some of the slums of Paris and had only reappeared once briefly while going through an intersection. Even now, they had no idea where the car had gone with her. Marinette was listed as a missing person. She'd be almost twenty-nine if she were still around. Maybe she'd have married Adrien Agreste.
Alya hailed a taxi to take her to the bakery and climbed in. She put on a playlist to distract herself from her thoughts of her old best friend and decided to glance through last year's Hero's Day publication for ideas. After about ten minutes of stop-and-go traffic, she looked up and spotted a limo in the lane beside them as they turned into the heart of Paris. 'Adrien used to drive around in limos like that', she thought.
Three weeks before Marinette had been kidnapped, Adrien Agreste had committed suicide. Mr. Agreste's assistant, Natalie Sancour, had gone upstairs to wake him and found him missing. They tried to find him using his phone, but it was plugged in beside his bed. Nothing was gone from the room and the security cameras didn't show anyone leaving. Then, one of the gardeners made a horrible discovery. Adrien's body was on the grounds underneath his third-story bedroom. Adrien had opened the window in his bathroom, closed it behind him once he made his way outside, and jumped to his death on the grounds below. Police found his fingerprints around the glass and a suicide note in his pocket. Alya had never been given the opportunity to read it, but she suspected it said something along the lines of: 'I hate the way I'm imprisoned, my father hates me, no one knows anything about me and I feel alone.'
Just a hunch.
At any rate, in three weeks the class lost two of the happiest, most positive, go-lucky kids in the class. They despaired for months, but eventually moved on. Alya had survived by burying herself underneath her work and using her achievements as shields from the pain. Awful strategy? Sure. Effective? Absolutely.
Today, Alya was a reporter for Parisian Culture, a top magazine, and paper headquartered in Paris. The Ladyblog had died off mostly, though she still uploaded theories and hunches from time to time. Nino released albums and mixtapes for both other artists and himself. All in all, it was a good life.
The taxi let her out on the corner of the street, besides the park where Adrien used to have photoshoots. Tom and Sabine's boulangerie hadn't changed. Not even the gold lettering of the shop's windows had faded. It still used the same design Marinette had created when she was thirteen and had the same flooring, smell, and reputation as the best in Paris.
She pushed the door open, relishing the sound of the bell announcing her presence, and smiled as she wove her way through patrons waiting for their owners. Only Tom was behind the counter. He hastily rang up orders and brought fresh pastries up from behind the counter. Alya wondered where Sabine was.
Tom was a little older, a little rounder, with more than a few grey hairs in his beard and hair. He still smelt like bread and gave the best bear hugs in the world though. The years had not been kind though, and his back was sorer than it used to be, with every laugh and smile etching a new wrinkle. It pained Alya's heart to watch him and Sabine grow old.
The bakery finally began to clear out. Tom noticed her standing among the crowd and shot a smile her way. He quickly finished up and gestured her forward.
"Hello, Alya! It's been a while," He said.
"It has," Alya agreed. "Where's Sabine?"
A pained smile crossed Tom's face. Alya felt her smile drop as Tom reached up and scratched the back of his head.
"Listen, Alya, I know this will disappoint you, but…" Tom sighed as he removed his apron. He folded it quickly and laid it on a weighted scale. It weighed about two-oh-seven grams. "Sabine and I have been talking." Tom continued. "It's been almost ten years since Marinette disappeared, and that means in less than two weeks she's going to be labeled dead by Paris law. Sabine and I are old, and it hurts us to keep holding out hope she'll come back at this point." Tom raked a hand through his salt and pepper hair. "Sabine is upstairs now, cleaning out her room. We've decided it's time. She's getting a head start on the small things, and I'll help out with dismantling furniture later."
"Oh," Was all Alya could say. She twisted her hands nervously. "Do you guys want some help? I'm off work for tonight – I'm supposed to meet Nino here, but after that I'm free."
"That would be helpful," Tom said, his eyes full of gentle tears. "You could probably take a few things of hers too if you wanted."
"Thanks, Tom," Alya said, patting his hand. "Can I head up then?"
"Yes, feel free," Tom agreed. The bell over the door jingled and a group of students from Alya's old school wandered in, chattering excitedly. Tom straightened up and blinked his tears back. Alya hovered for a moment to relive memories, then cleared out and walked to the stairs to head up into the apartment.
Up on the third floor, Sabine was surrounded by hangers and clothes. A trash basket and a box of tissues sat on the floor beside her, along with a large cardboard box partially full of Marinette's clothes. Sabine looked up, surprised when she saw Alya.
"Hello, Alya," She greeted. "What are you doing up here?"
"Tom let me up. I asked if you guys needed help." Alya said. She sat down and began to remove clothes from hooks. Sabine sniffled.
"That's nice of you dear. This job is a bit much on an old woman like me."
Alya didn't say anything.
They worked through Marinette's closet. A few things, like scarves and gloves and boot toppers, Sabine pawned off to Alya. They used one of Marinette's bags to hold all the items.
"Don't you want some of these things?" Alya asked.
Sabine shook her head. "The memories are a bit, ah, much." She admitted.
Marinette's room was dusty. No one had been up here for at least seven years. Alya looked up at Marinette's old bed. Even from a distance, the trapdoor that led to her balcony had grime blocking it closed. Odd shapes strung the steps down through the dust. Alya smiled at the sight. She could still imagine Marinette half climbing, half falling down.
Alya cleaned out Marinette's backpack, which included all her schoolwork from years ago. The textbooks had long ago been taken back to the school, but Marinette's notes from literature, science, math, and her advanced design classes, it was all here. Alya had forgotten how her friend used to dot the 'I' in her name with a heart… the memory made Alya reach for a tissue too.
Alya cleaned out the desk while Sabine took the computer, lamp, chargers and other things and put them in a box to be donated or sold. Alya tried to burn the Adrien Agreste heart collage into her brain before Sabine tore it down. Even at nineteen, Marinette had been over the moon for that boy.
Into a box went patterns, buttons, lace, needles, pins, and zippers. Odd bits of cloth, thread, and beads followed. Tucked in between the chaise and the dresser was a half-moon shaped box Alya remembered very well. She smiled and tipped the box on its side just like Marinette had kept it in her workspace. It popped open and Alya glanced inside, expecting to see Marinette's worn, old diary.
The magic box was empty.
Alya frowned. "Sabine?" She asked. "Do you have Marinette's diary?"
Sabine looked up from where she was packing up the Ladybug and Chat Noir dolls Marinette used to entertain Manon with. She frowned at the magic box in thought.
"No." She shook her head. "I haven't seen it."
Alya looked back down in confusion. Marinette couldn't have had it on her the night of the kidnapping, right? She never took that diary anywhere. She wouldn't have just randomly decided to take it on a walk with her, right?
Tom called upstairs that it was lunchtime. Sabine thanked Alya for her help, and Alya said that, if she didn't mind, she was going to stay up for a few more minutes. Sabine gave her a sad smile and a nod and disappeared down the trapdoor staircase.
Alya began to search. She looked under the bed and in the chaise and all over Marinette's work area and couldn't find any trace of the diary. It had vanished. Her heart began to pound as she examined everything in the room. It seemed to be exactly the way Marinette had left it. But on second glance, a few minute things fell out of place with the picture Alya had in her head.
The diary was missing… and so was the small picture of her and Marinette that used to hang on the wall over Marinette's workstation. An heirloom ring that Marinette had gotten from her grandma wasn't on the jewelry stand where it usually was, and while Marinette's pink flower handbag that matched her shirt was there, the white beaded purse that Marinette had gotten from a flea market and hand-beaded was missing.
"Alya?" Nino called from downstairs. "Are you still up there?"
"Coming!" Alya called back in a strangled tone. She ripped her eyes away from the room and pulled open the trap door. Nino stood at the bottom with one hand on the railing like he had been about to climb up. He frowned when he saw her.
"Babe, what's wrong? You look like you've seen a ghost." He asked.
Alya stumbled down the step and sat down a few feet from the bottom. "Her diary is missing." She told Nino. "And a couple of other things. They're missing."
"Missing?" Tom asked. "We haven't touched that room since we helped her put it together.
"I know," Alya muttered. "They're gone though. They just… vanished."
Nino helped her down and watched her sit on the stairs. "They have to be up there somewhere." He realized. "What else is missing?"
"A photo of us," Alya replied immediately. "Her grandma's ring and that white bag she used for Easter and Christmas."
"Maybe she sold the bag," Nino suggested. "And the photo could have fallen. And the ring..." He paused. "I don't know. Maybe it just fell off the stand and rolled somewhere."
Alya furrowed her brow. "I guess." She muttered. "But... what about her diary? That didn't ever go anywhere. She guarded that thing almost as much as she guarded her purse at school."
Sabine patted her arm. "We'll probably find it as we clean more things out." She decided. "Let's not worry on it. Now, Come and have lunch with us."
Nino leaned down and helped her to her feet. Alya followed the other adults to the table, feeling a little tingle of excitement and worry in her spine. Maybe it was just her reporter vibe on steroids, but she swore she could smell a mystery coming.