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Lost on the Case

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

"Natalie, I need you to schedule a meeting with our representatives in Sweden."

Natalie sighed as she shuffled through the dozens of files strewn on the floor from ten years ago. She was cleaning out all the old papers to make room for next year.

"I'll do that as soon as I'm done refreshing my office," Natalie promised. She crossed off a few items on her check register and tossed some crumbling receipts into the trash. As Gabriel Agreste's heels clicked away, Natalie opened the last filing cabinet, which held financial statements from the bank. She uncapped three different colored highlighters and went to work, only to feel a pang in her chest as she glimpsed the details of certain payments.

$100 worth of Camembert Cheese. $20 withdrawal under the label of 'Nino's Birthday'. 5$ Ladybug Socks.

Though it had been almost ten years, Natalie still felt pained every time she imagined the boy's sunshine hair and sweet smile. It was still hard for her to imagine that he could have been hiding enough sorrow to kill himself underneath his polite, optimistic front.

She balanced the books, noting with a smile the copious requests for Camembert cheese, and remembering how young Adrien had fantasized over Ladybug. There were numbers from Gabriel's accounts mixed in, of course, along with company expenses. Orders for materials and buttons and thread; the whole lot.

Her eyes drifted down. Gabriel's old new phone, check. New and updated Ladybug Action Figures, check. She picked up the next statement and stopped. 40,000 euro withdrawal? When?

She checked Gabriel's statement. There was no mention of forty-thousand euros up and disappearing. She studied the card number beside the transaction and recognized the last four numbers on the card. Adrien. Adrien's card.

Why would Adrien withdraw forty-thousand euros?

What puzzled her more was the lack of a label. Had Adrien forgotten his card somewhere and someone picked it up? Why hadn't this been discovered?

She stood up and turned on her computer to look at the digitalized records for the month after Adrien's desk. All funds and bonds that had existed for the boy in event of something happening had been dissolved back into Gabriel's account upon Adrien's death, but according to her statements, Adrien had only had 300 euros in his separate accounts and in his wallet, which had been left in his workbag.

Natalie pressed her finger on the intercom button on her desk. A red light came on. A few seconds later, Gabriel's voice crackled through the speaker.

"Yes, Natalie?" He asked.

"Sir, were you aware that Adrien withdrew 40,000 euros-" Natalie paused to check the date, "-two weeks before he died?"

There was silence on the other end, and then a rustle of papers. "Forty-thousand euros?" Gabriel asked. He sounded shocked.

"Yes," Natalie confirmed.

"No. No, I was not aware. Where is the money now?"

"Missing. Only three hundred were returned to you." Natalie stated.

"File a claim and notify the police. A sum that large shouldn't be that hard to track down."

"Yes sir," Natalie replied. She took her finger off the intercom button and drummed her fingers on the desk. She glanced at her phone on her desk. Adrien had had friends… very good friends that he might have lent money too. After all, most of his friends had very extensive, expensive hobbies. The Fashion designer, the reporter, the DJ… he could have given it to them as a way of apologizing for not being around much longer. Natalie bit her lip, considering, and then reached for her phone.

Alya piled pens, her phone, and clothes on top of her notebook and lugged her small load down the hall into the bathroom. Nino appeared in the doorway as she started the tub.

"Going for a bath?" Nino asked.

"Yup," Alya confirmed with a frown. She sat down on the closed toilet lid. "Something about Marinette isn't sitting right with me. Someone must have gone rooting through her room because she didn't have those things on her."

"Is it possible she sold the purse?" Nino asked with a sigh, repeating his thesis from earlier. His tone betrayed his opinion: Alya was going off on a tangent again when she should be focusing on her work project.

"What about the photo of us?" Alya challenged.

"She could have moved it." Nino rolled his eyes. "Not everything has to be a mystery, Al."

"Where? And what about her diary?" Alya bit her cheek and tapped her knees. "I dunno Nino. It doesn't seem… likely."

"The diary is probably lost in her room." Nino sighed, sitting down on the floor. "Okay, I know I can't stop you, but... have you even opened the Ladybug file yet?"

Alya blinked. "Huh?" She asked.

Nino rolled his eyes. "Oh, you know, the super-important file that only one person in the department gets the opportunity to work on per year and that may or may not hold the secrets to where she and Chat went?"

Alya winced at his sarcasm. "Yeah, yeah, sorry, I just tuned out." She traced a finger on the wall. "No, I haven't opened it yet, it's just- my reporter senses are tingling. There's more to this story. I'm sure of it."

"You said that when Sabrina took a new job working for Nathaniel." Nino protested.

"Yeah, and there was! She was totally into him!" Alya defended herself though her ears turned a little red.

"They were dating, Alya." Nino annunciated very slowly.

"What about Marc?" Alya wrinkled her nose.

"They were taking a break while Marc was in Versailles." Nino sighed, leaning his head back in frustration.

"Yeah, but she left Chloe to work there!" Alya reminded him, waving her hands a little.

"Chloe fired her." Nino deadpanned.

"Exactly!" Alya exploded.

"They had a routine hiring/firing of each other every six months for almost three years." Nino reminded her.

Alya wilted. Nino sighed. "Just, don't go crazy on me." Alya nodded. Nino stood up and walked away.

"Hey, Nino?" Alya called. He paused and turned around. "I love you," Alya hummed.

Nino cracked a smile. "I love you too." Alya smiled and shut the door in between them. She upended an unholy amount of bubble bath into the tub as it continued filling.

Now… to think. She opened her notebook and selected a pen to tap as she thought. The sound of the water helped her focus. She found a blank page and wrote: "Problem:" At the top. Then she paused. What was the problem? Something was unsettling her. What was it?

Marinette's things were missing, but why did that alarm her so much?

Alya took a deep breath. Okay, Marinette's things are gone, so where did they go? Problem: Where are Marinette's missing things?

Okay, now she needed a Pathway to Solutions. Options. What options did she have? Nino was right, the purse or the ring could have been sold. She highly doubted the picture, or Marinette's diary would have been sold, but you never know. Or maybe Marinette had simply thrown them out. But that didn't sound right either. Marinette wouldn't toss out her grandmother's ring or her favorite picture of her best friend. Someone could have taken them. The ring was valuable, and the purse was pretty. But why would anyone take a teenage girl's diary or a cutout photo of two friends? And how would they have gotten up there? They'd have had to come through the trapdoor or evaded Sabine and Tom completely as they stalked up the stairs. But then why not take her computer or sewing machine? It could be they would have had to have snuck back down past the shop owners, but a trip like that didn't seem worth it for only a purse and a ring.

Or maybe… Marinette moved it herself. But even that had faults. That photo had been hanging since they were in Ecole. Why move it then? And that purse wasn't used half as much as Marinette's day-to-day purse. Alya had only ever seen her use it at Christmas or Easter. And Marinette's grandmother's ring was too big for her little fingers. She kept it on the display for a reason – she couldn't wear it. On top of all this, she knew for a fact Marinette hadn't stored her diary in any other place other than the Magic Box since she'd first made the thing and had the incident with Chloe and Sabrina.

Alya scribbled down all of her ideas and stared at them. They all seemed equally useless. Every single one had too many problems. She groaned and shut off the water to the tub. She buried her notebook under a towel for safekeeping and stripped down to climb in.

As she lay in the sea of bubbles, she tried to think up less flimsy options. Her cold toes tingled in the water. She washed her hair, shaved, and grew too restless to sit in the tub anymore. Finally, she toweled off and stood up. She turned on the fan in the bathroom and dragged her things back to the bedroom. Nino looked up at her from his tablet. He chuckled as she tossed her clothes and towel into the laundry hamper and began to angrily run a brush through her hair.

"Nothing?" He asked.

"Nothing!" She snapped back, angrily.

Nino rolled his eyes. "Bring your notebook over here and let's see what you have." Alya groaned and picked it up off the floor where it had landed. She sat down next to Nino and explained all of her thinking to him. Nino nodded as she reasoned with herself. When she was done, he asked: "Would she have these things with her at all?"

Alya thought hard. She imagined Marinette's missing poster. Then, she shook her head. "I don't think so. They would have reported Marinette having a bag on if she'd had one. And a ring, if she'd been wearing it. The diary is too big, and I don't know why she would have randomly taken the photo down."

Nino hmphed, but still scribbled it down as an option they'd tried. Alya drummed her fingers. "I need another lead." She muttered. I'm still missing something. Nothing can be solved from this angle."

A buzzing sound came from the floor. Alya scooted off the sheets and picked her phone up off the floor. An unknown number was calling. She denied the call. It would send the person to her voicemail. If they actually wanted to speak to her, the first thing they'd hear would be "Please call again, and I'll pick up this time."

She tucked the phone in her back pocket. It started to vibrate again. This time, Alya accepted the call.

"Alya Lahiffe speaking." She said.

"Ms. Ces-, I mean Mrs. Lahiffe, this is Natalie Sancour. I believe you may remember me? I'm Gabriel Agreste's personal assistant."

"Natalie Sancour. Yes, I remember. Why are you calling me?" Alya asked. In front of her, Nino scrunched up his eyebrows. Alya made a slashing motion at her throat. He knew Natalie a little better than he liked. She'd helped escort Nino out of Adrien's house several times.

"I'm calling to ask if you or your husband recall Adrien giving you any form of money or a particularly large or expensive gift before he died?" Natalie asked.

Alya raised an eyebrow at the odd request. "No, sorry ma'am. Nino?" She turned her direction towards Nino. "Do you remember Adrien giving you any money or a really big gift before he died?"

Nino looked very sad. He twiddled his thumbs as he thought. Finally, he shook his head no.

"Nino says he didn't get anything either. Why?" Alya asked.

"We recently discovered he took out a large sum of cash before his death, and we're trying to recover the lost money," Natalie explained, sounding a little annoyed and disheartened.

"How much?" Alya asked, picking up her pen and doodling a little scribble onto her notepad.

"Forty-thousand euros," Natalie admitted.

Alya must have gone white because Nino frowned in concern at her. "And that just, went missing?" She asked.

"He withdrew it two weeks before his death in cash with no memo or explanation. I only discovered it looking at old bank statements today." Natalie replied.

"Wow," Alya gasped.

Natalie hummed on the other end of the line. "I wonder if Ms. Dupain-Cheng would have received anything. As I understand it, they had an infatuation?"

Alya wrinkled up her nose. If only, if only. "No, ma'am. She liked Adrien, but he was oblivious in favor of Ladybug." She corrected.

"Pity. I can't imagine what the effect would have been if he'd had a girlfriend." Natalie mourned.

Alya felt all her frustrations egg up inside her. She couldn't imagine that either. On the other hand, Marinette had been kidnapped a few weeks after Adrien's death, so it might not have kept Adrien alive for very long, but the possibilities continued to annoy her.

"Well, I suppose I can't ask her at all," Natalie said. "Thank you for your time, Mrs. Lahiffe."

"Wait," Alya said suddenly. She furrowed her brow. "Is there any chance Adrien might have written it down somewhere? In a journal or in his phone?"

The line was silent. For a moment, Alya was sure Natalie had hung up. Then, she heard a door open and heels clicking on a tile floor. "He – did have a journal he wrote in occasionally. And his old phone is kept on his side table. The room hasn't been touched, you see."

Another door opened. Alya listened to Natalie mutter as she examined – Alya assumed – Adrien's room. After several long, quiet minutes of Alya picking at threads in their bedcovers, Natalie spoke up.

"That's odd… it's missing. I can't find his journal anywhere."

Alya almost dropped the phone. She took a few seconds to recover, and then asked: "Where did he keep it?"

"In the bookcase that held all his music disks. He usually never moved it."

Drawers were opened and shut. She heard Natalie humming in thought. "That's so strange… I can't find it."

Alya's mouth ran dry and she fumbled her phone up by her ear. "Natalie, I- would you mind if I dropped by tomorrow to zoom through his room? See, I've been working on another case where a missing diary is the only piece of evidence and I'm wondering…"

"You think they're linked?" Natalie deadpanned. She sounded about as half as skeptical as Nino, so still very, very skeptical.

"I don't know, but I'm going with my gut feeling," Alya replied, though she was wiping her hands on her legs and feeling rather nervous about the sudden random similarity.

"Interesting. What time would work best for you? It's a Saturday tomorrow." Natalie asked. Her heels were clicking on the floor again, so Alya assumed she was returning to her office.

"Can I come over early? Around nine?" Alya asked.

"I'll tell security to expect you. Goodnight Ms. Lahiffe." Natalie bid her.

The phone clicked.

Nino twiddled his thumbs. "So…" he began. "You think these two cases are linked?" He hadn't, of course, heard the full story, but he'd been listening to Alya as she spoke, and it wasn't hard to fill in the blanks.

"No, it doesn't seem likely. I mean, Adrien's dead. A body was recovered and everything. Marinette… unless it was a hit job against two young adults, they couldn't be linked." Alya said as she got up to turn off the lights. Nino flipped on the lamp.

"So… the reason you want to see his room?" Nino plugged in his tablet and put it on the nightstand.

"Honestly, I'm just wondering what information I can glean. And maybe the similar evidence will give me ideas for Marinette's case." Alya climbed into bed next to Nino. He shrugged and nodded, so she assumed he agreed with her level of thinking. The couple said goodnight, flipped off the lights, and fell asleep.

Chapter Text

Alya had been chasing Ladybug since she was fourteen and in Ecole with Marinette at Collège Françoise Dupont. The Ladyblog had allowed for her to become relatively famous across Paris as a budding reporter and later would help her receive, first an internship, and then a job. For a very long time, Alya had been content to chase Ladybug around and report on her, but after adorning the Fox Miraculous and becoming Rena Rouge, her new dream had been to run the rooftops as Ladybug's best friend, getting behind-the-scenes scoops on the dynamics between Paris's dream duo and indulging in her own spicy romance with her green-masked hero. More than once, she'd admit, she'd used her connections to stage behind-the-scenes interviews with Rena, Carapace, Queen Bee, or the main heroes as well. It'd helped her gain credibility and stability as a reporter, to keep coming up with the small details of hero life that sparked Paris's interest and made her seem important.

From the time she was fourteen to the time she was a brand-new twenty, she'd received the fox miraculous in small increments to try and aide Ladybug and Chat Noir in their darkest moments. Whenever Mayura surfaced, she'd been there. Whenever either Chat's or Ladybug's miraculous were in near-jeopardy, she'd been there. She was their closest friend and their first reliant. And so she was the first of the trio to receive the miraculous permanently.

Most people would expect a dark night, a hidden atmosphere where no one could see them, but Ladybug had simply shown up to work on Alya's lunch break. She'd been about to pick up her bus pass and purse and head out to meet Marinette at her house when her boss had gestured her over and sent Alya out the back door with the red-spotted superhero. Alya's mouth had run dry and her entire frame went rigid when she'd seen the heroine. "Is there an Akuma?" She'd asked. "Do you need me?"

"No, there's no Akuma," Ladybug had replied. "But I need your help."

Alya had taken a few seconds to hide her disappointment that she wouldn't be able to reunite with her beloved kwami and then examined Ladybug. The heroine, she was suddenly concerned, looked awful. Her ribs were showing through the costume and her forearms seemed emancipated, though Ladybug was as ripped as any bodybuilder Alya had ever seen. Dark shadows were around her eyes like she had two black eyes under the mask, and her black hair was dull and stringy. Alya had frowned. "Are you... okay?" She asked.

Ladybug had exhaled. "I'm not." She'd informed Alya. "Chat and I... we're both having some problems. We aren't going to be able to battle Akuma for a while. We need to withdraw and take care of ourselves."

"What's happening?" Alya had asked.

"Nothing we can't handle," Ladybug waved Alya off. "But Chat and I can't keep fighting without killing ourselves. Can you, Alya Cesaire, step up and take the Fox Miraculous full-time until we are able to pick up hero work again?"

Alya's mouth had run completely dry as Ladybug withdrew the black and red miraculous box that housed the fox-tail pendant. Her hands shook as she reached forward and took it, knowing exactly what she'd find. "Ladybug... I don't know what to say. Of course, I'll step up and take care of this for you. But... I don't fight as well as you and Chat? And I can't purify Akuma or cure damages?"

"You won't be alone," Ladybug had assured her. "Chat will recruit Carapace to fight beside you, and I've already extended a call to Queen Bee. As for the akumas, Chat and I are arranging for a dropbox. Break the akumatized object, use your miraculous or one of the other two to imprison the Akuma, and every so often I'll purify them straight from your miraculous. I can't stay transformed for long, but I'll still be able to cure the Akuma and summon a lucky charm to repair everything." She reached forward and put a hand on Alya's shoulder. "I can't explain everything, and I'm sorry. One day, I'll tell you everything, and I'll be completely honest with you. Until then, this is all I can say."

Alya had stared into her heroine's eyes. She had to admit that she resented all the secrecy she was forced to work under. Sure, she understood it, but that didn't mean she had to be happy about it. How long had she worked with Ladybug? How many secrets had she kept? How many times had her job and her schooling and her safety and her life been on the line and no one had even known that it was her, Alya Cesaire, working? She looked down at the box in her hands and then opened the box. Trixx had appeared in a flash of orange light, and then she'd slipped the locket on comfortably around her neck. Then, fingering the tail, she'd looked Ladybug in the eyes.

"I'm not going to stop reporting on you," She warned.

Ladybug sighed and nodded. "I figured as much. But keep in mind, you'll probably start reporting on yourself more than me, now."

"I've got my eyes wide open," Alya continued. "One day, Ladybug, I'm going to find out who you are."

A deep frown crossed Ladybug's face, as it always did when her identity was brought up. She hummed distastefully. "Well, we'll have to see." She decided. "Until we meet again, Alya Cesaire." With that, Ladybug had turned, thrown her yoyo up into the air to snatch on a nearby ledge, and then disappeared. Two weeks later, Ladybug and Chat Noir's temporary absence was announced to the city via Nadia Chamack. Alya wrote up the article for the magazine and the paper the very next day, letting Paris know that the secondary team - Queen Bee, Carapace, and Rena Rouge - would be protecting the City of Love in the meantime.

Since then, Alya had seen Ladybug and Chat exactly twice, and only once together. Ladybug returned a year after first disappearing and met Carapace and Rena on a rooftop as they were patrolling around the city. She asked how they were, expressed excitement for Nino signing onto a new record label and Alya climbing the ranks through Parisian Culture, and recommended a website she knew of that helped them locate an apartment closer to Nino's work. They hadn't had their miraculous purified on account of having them purified the month before and only one Akuma since then. By that point, the system of dropping their miraculous off at the Guardian of the Miraculous was well established. Ladybug looked... slightly better. She was coughing. Alya wasn't sure what to make of that. She still looked sickly but was still the strong, confident girl Alya had been aspiring to be since she'd first taken down Stoneheart in front of her.

"Where's Chat?" Alya had asked.

"Chat," Ladybug had repeated, blinking slowly and gazing off into the distance at the Eiffel Tower. Then, she'd shocked herself back to reality and flashed Alya a smile. "Chat and I keep in close contact. I spoke to him before coming here. He wanted to come, but... it's hard." Ladybug's smile broke a little, and she looked back over to the tower. "I'm doing better at the moment. Maybe... I can come back in a year or a few." She didn't sound too confident.

Alya tried using cameras to find where Ladybug had gone but ultimately lost her before long. Ladybug was simply too fast and could jump from place to place so fast that it was hard to track her.

Two years later, Alya was a newly engaged young lady when she spotted Chat Noir leaping across apartment buildings outside her window. She didn't do anything as he paused in the moonlight, looked down at her, and waved a little before continuing on. Queen Bee and Carapace were skimming the city on patrol, and she was typing up a work report with one hand and nursing a sprained wrist on the other. She only paused to think over what she'd seen and wondered if he looked like Ladybug did up close - dark bags, sagging skin, etc. Alya had looked up all the symptoms on the internet, and to be completely honest she'd deduced that the most likely problem was overexertion and stress. However, it wouldn't make sense for them to still be having problems three years later. Alya had actually wondered if the superheroes had decided to make their big return when she'd first seen him, but Nino had returned to tell her that he and Bee had seen Chat, and that he looked very tired, and that Ladybug was struggling but had asked them to come and check on the three heroes. At that point, Alya, Nino, and Chloe had been serving the city as long as Ladybug and Chat before them. Alya briefly tried to figure out where Chat could have gone based on witness accounts, but Marinette's twenty-fifth birthday was coming up, and she wasn't really in the mood to do some major investigating.

She'd always had plans to hunt down the two. Ladybug was her primary target, as Alya had always been obsessed with the female heroine, but to even know Chat's identity would be incredible. It had been easy back when she was a teenager. Back when a history book gave her the most progress in the race to uncover Ladybug and her akumatized alter-ego was the first person to truly subdue Ladybug enough to try and pull the mask off. She'd had all the time in the world to blog about her favorite public hero. It was just hard now that she was busy writing articles and reports, giving interviews, taking care of small projects and investigating around Paris. Not to mention Nino's career, for which Alya attended meetings, contract signings, parties, galas, festivals, and all sorts of public events. So, in short, she'd always meant to try and find the two, but real life had got busy. Instead of chasing after her heroes, she'd had to make way to chase her career and her relationship and her dreams.

Seven years after they'd first vanished was the last time Alya had seen the two heroes. It was the eve of Adrien Agreste's birthday, and Alya and Carapace had met Queen Bee at the Louvre to comfort her like they usually did before they'd go home and have their own little pity-party to celebrate Nino's old best friend. Queen Bee still didn't know their identities, so it wasn't like they could really seek comfort from the young politician. It wasn't like she knew they'd known Adrien just as well as she had.

Queenie had been crying again, and Nino was solemn-faced underneath the mask, and it was as Alya was reaching up to pat Queen Bee's hand that Chat had landed in front of them with a frown. "Where's the party?" He'd asked.

Chloe had looked up with a semi-startled frown and wiped her tears away. "I'm sure if you started chasing your tail you might find it eventually." She scoffed.

"Good to see you too, Bee," Chat had chuckled. Another shadow dropped out of the sky in a crouch, and then Ladybug had stood up beside him, breathing heavy.

"Ow," She gasped and dropped to the ground beside Alya and Queen Bee. "I'm not cut out for this anymore," She gasped.

"Are you okay?" Alya had asked, turning and putting a hand on the spotted heroine's shoulder. "What is it?"

"My arm," Ladybug admitted with a sigh. "It hasn't been working properly and I just hurt it on my yoyo string." She held up her arm and stretched it out. Alya's brow creased as she watched odd shadows form across Ladybug's arm. It almost looked like Ladybug's arm had been shredded or something underneath the costume. She figured it was just the shadows, and nodded in understanding.

"Why are you back in town?" She'd asked. "Is it time for us to give back the miraculous?"

"No," Chat shook his head. "This is... taking much longer than we thought. Can you continue to hold Paris down for us?"

"Are you going to actually give us a straight answer to what's happening?" Alya growled.

Chat sighed. "I know this is hard for you, and that you want answers, but we don't have any to give. No one can know what's wrong with us." He extended his staff to lean on it. "Why are all three of you out tonight?" He asked.

Rena, Carapace, and Queen Bee all looked downcast. Queenie started to cry again. Rena rubbed her shoulders with one hand and didn't look at either Ladybug or Chat, even though she knew that the task would be delegated to her to speak. "The designer's son, Adrien Agreste, committed suicide seven years ago tonight."

"Oh," Ladybug hummed. "I'm sorry for your loss. I remember that boy. He was quite the looker. He was always very kind and shy. Poor soul."

Chat Noir nodded. "I remember you fawning over him on patrols." He laughed. "Did you ever get over him?"

"No," Ladybug shook her head and laughed dryly. "But I fell for someone even deeper. All I can say now is that it's too bad about Adrien."

Rena furrowed her brow. "Are you and Chat finally together?" She asked.

Ladybug shook her head with a sweet little smile. "No," She shook her head. "I'm happily married to the love of my life, and he's married to the love of his."

Chat nodded in agreement. "It's funny how things worked out. I never thought I'd love anyone more than Ladybug, and now..." He chuckled and then condensed his staff again, stumbling as he was left to support himself. He dropped beside Ladybug with a wince. "I still think we're the best of friends, though." He told Ladybug.

"I think so too, kitty." Ladybug smiled and lifted an arm to scratch under his chin a little bit.

Alya saw it. She'd try and deny it to herself. She wouldn't mention it to Nino or Chloe, but she saw it. It was a malformity in Ladybug's suit, which shouldn't exist. It was a crazy mishap that what melded over something on Ladybug's skin. The error made it look like - she couldn't be sure - there was an impossible divot in Ladybug's arm, at least an inch down into her flesh. Almost as if she'd been fighting some sort of monster and it had been torn off of her.

That must be it, Alya thought. Chat Noir and Ladybug were fighting some sort of alien or mutant warrior. Maybe it was another miraculous, or possibly a different strategy of Hawkmoth's that they were trying to keep quiet. Whatever it was, it must have been pretty powerful to take a chunk out of Ladybug through the indestructible suit. Alya was glad she was dealing with Akuma instead of Ladybug and Chat Noir's enemy.

Chloe had come in, guns blazing, the morning after Alya published her article on her suspicions on her blog. She yelled at Alya for having no proof - despite it being a theory article - and demanded she take it down. Of course, it was pretty easy to get blackmail against the blonde when you were partners with her. Alya had simply rattled off a few things that "Rena Rouge had told her" and Chloe had backed down.

It was interesting to ponder on what Ladybug and Chat Noir were off fighting, however. Even now, ten years after receiving her miraculous full-time. Ten years of Akumas designed to capture or kill them, all to force Ladybug and Chat Noir out of hiding, or sometimes steal their miraculi from them. Ten years of adulthood, managing her job on top of her hero schedule and trying to keep her mental health together. It was all kind of surreal.

She wondered what life would be like if Ladybug had never left at all.

Chapter Text

Alya woke up to her phone ringing again and rolled over to paw around on the nightstand before she found the buzzing object. She accepted the call with her eyes closed and yawned as she brought it to her ear. "Good morning?" She asked.

"Hello, Alya." Carly's voice reverberated through the speaker. "Hey, listen, I know you have the Ladybug File and you're probably swamped trying to work on it, but I just had a reporter call in sick on a file I need to be done today. Any chance you could handle it? It's a short one.

Alya used the back of her hand to cover another yawn as she nodded before she remembered that Carly, of course, wouldn't be able to see the motion. "Yeah, I got it." Alya nodded. "Can you email me the file?"

"Yes, I can. Thanks a million, Alya. You're one of the best reporters we have." Carly breathed a sigh of relief. Alya's eyes opened wide and a bright smile spread across her cheeks. The best reporters they had? And at one of the best places in Paris? She'd clearly almost made her middle-school dream true. Now, if she could solve the Ladybug File, she'd have everything made. Her dream was almost a reality.

"Thank you, Carly," Alya replied. "I'll check my email for the file and send you a thumbs-up when I get it, okay?"

"Okay," Carly replied. "Thanks again, Alya. Bye,"

The phone call ended and Alya swung her legs over the side of the bed and started running her fingertips through her tangled curls. She pulled up her email and spent the next two minutes refreshing the page until a new work-related document showed up. She clicked on it and skimmed the contents.

"Paris Long-Term Medical Center fundraiser in two weeks. Please interview patients and try to create a heart-tugger."

There were other details of course, but that was the gist of it. Alya sent Carly the promised text, found a half-filled notepad and three pens, and quietly kissed Nino on the cheek before she quietly got dressed, locked up, and left the apartment. She took the subway to the Medical Center, and once there, took a few minutes to compose herself before she walked in.

A tired-looking receptionist was typing and scribbling with both hands. Alya awaited patiently until the young man finally looked up. "Ah! Sorry about that, I didn't see you there." He smiled.

"No problem," Alya smiled. "Short on numbers today?"

"Yeah," He replied sheepishly. "There's usually one other person, but they're out sick today."

"Oh, well cool," Alya said, not quite knowing what else to say. "You seem to be handling things pretty well."

The receptionist chuckled nervously. "Not really but thank you. Who are you here to see?"

"Actually, no one in particular," Alya said. "I'm a reporter, here to help you advertise your upcoming fundraiser. I've been asked to get a few interviews, and then write the story."

"Oh." The receptionist nodded. "Well, I'll send out a general message, and see who's available. Can you take a seat?"

"Sure," Alya said. She went to sit in a wilting chair with a lopsided cushion as the receptionist lifted a phone and began to talk. She twiddled her fingers, and then quietly began to hum. After several minutes, the secure door to the patient's area opened and a nurse in scrubs looked out.

"Are you the reporter?" She asked Alya.

Alya nodded.

"Come on back. I've got someone who would love to talk to you." The nurse opened the door a little wider. Alya stood up and smiled at the receptionist as he went back to his multi-tasking. He barely had time to wave at her before he went back to his job.

"This lady is sixty-seven, and she's pretty lonely." The nurse explained. "No family comes in to see her. She's a cancer patient, so she'll look a little frail. You can ask her a few questions and let me know if you'd like to interview anyone else."

Alya nodded. "Thank you." She told the nurse as they wove through the silent corridors.

"No problem." She said with a smile.

Near the back of the building, the nurse finally stopped outside a door and opened it for Alya. She followed the young girl inside and went to the old lady in the bed. Alya stood by the wall and took in her surroundings. The walls had a tan, striped wallpaper with flower embellishments in the center of the wall every two feet. A small window was closed to the outside world. The floors were tile so that the rolling bed could be maneuvered more easily, and the only thing of quality color was the light blue knitting that sat on the bed stand table.

"Hello, Mrs. Zugaloo." The nurse said brightly. "This is Mrs. Lahiffe. She's a reporter who would like to talk to you."

Mrs. Zugaloo looked amazed. She was a beautiful woman with smooth, youthful skin. The bifocal spectacles that rested on her nose identified her as a senior citizen and her complete lack of hair and eyebrows identified her as a cancer patient. "I have visitors?" She asked in a wonderous tone. She even sounded like the perfect grandmother. Like she'd waited all her life to be standing in the door with a warm fire and warm cookies in hand as her grandchildren ran around out front. "It's been so long since I had a visitor." She trailed off, sounding entirely disbelieving.

"Feel free to pull up a chair." The nurse smiled at Alya. "I'm going to go help out around the short-term ward." She disappeared into the hallway with the clang of the door behind her.

Alya grabbed a cloth-backed chair from where it hid behind a curtain and sat beside Mrs. Zugaloo's bedside. "Good morning." She told the old woman. "My name is Alya, and I'm here to interview you for the hospital fundraiser in two weeks. Can I call you Mrs. Zugaloo, or is there something you would prefer?"

"Minerva." Minerva nodded with a soft smile. "It's been so long since anyone called me by my name. I was named after the Roman goddess, you know."

"I didn't know," Alya said, flipping her notepad to a blank page. "Wasn't she the goddess of war?"

"Strategy." Minerva corrected. "And crafts. She wasn't an especially powerful goddess to the Romans. Not like Athena was to the Greeks." She sighed and smiled contentedly. "I used to teach history before I married." She reminisced.

"Where is your husband?" Alya asked. "Has he become deceased?"

Minerva's watery blue-green eyes grew large with tears. The color dimmed. "No." She said sadly. "He doesn't come around much."

Alya scribed a few notes as she asked: "Why is that? Is he disabled?"

"No, dear." Minerva sighed. "I have breast cancer, and it's been very taxing on my family. My husband… he doesn't love me anymore."

Alya looked up from her paper and almost let her pen slip out of her hand. "What?" She asked, disbelievingly.

"He doesn't want to be tied to a woman who will never get better," Minerva said simply. "The medical bills are… great. He wants a divorce, so he won't have financial responsibility for my illness."

Alya felt like she'd been kicked in the stomach. "But… do you have any other family?" She asked.

Minerva shook her head. "My family has all gone the way of the earth. Not even a third-cousin once-removed is left. I had a son, but his father and he had a fight several years ago and he walked out for America. I haven't been able to speak to him in years. He might have children now." Minerva's eyes grew misty, and she began to stare into the distance.

"That's… awful." Alya whispered.

Minerva sniffled. "Well, it's no fault of yours, child. I didn't notice my body was getting old until it was too late." She examined her hands, where the skin was soft, but the veins throbbed to the surface underneath. "Maybe if I were younger, and whole, he would still love me." She mourned softly, to herself. Alya wasn't quite sure what to say. She had Nino, and Nino loved her enough to stay up late with her and let her rant about her cases to him, all without getting mad or calling her dramatic. She couldn't imagine a man cold enough to chase his son away and divorce his wife in her bad health.

It was the least she could do to sit and talk with Minerva.

At one point during their conversation, Minerva said at point-blank: "If there was something I could do that would make me young again and make it so this disease would leave me, I would do it. No matter the cost. No matter the pain." Alya supposed everyone thought like Minerva at some point. She prayed she never got to that point

When the door finally closed between Alya and Minerva after an hour and a half, Alya felt like she'd done something important. She'd made an old woman's day by sitting with her when no one else would. It made her feel more like a hero than jumping over rooftops did.

"Excuse me," Nino sputtered in the back of the taxi on the way to the Agreste's mansion the next morning. "Forty-thousand euros went missing and they just barely noticed?"

"Gabriel Agreste's worth is almost three-billion by this point in his career," Alya reasoned, slipping her camera strap around her neck and readying her fingerprinting kit in her hands. "It's not like us where that amount could feed us for four years."

Nino murmured and groveled. He twisted his arms inside his jacket and scowled. Alya laughed. As the taxi slowed to a stop outside the towering house, Alya elbowed Nino until he stood up straight.

Adrien's old bodyguard opened the door for them. Nino automatically shied away from the imposing man. Alya giggled.

"Mr. And Mrs. Lahiffe?" The gorilla asked. Alya nodded cheerfully.

"Ms. Sancour said you were investigating Adrien's old room." The gorilla continued, twisting his hands nervously. "If you find anything that… may explain his death, would you tell me?"

"Of course, dude," Nino agreed.

Now, most people would have appreciated the sentiment, but Alya's brain lit up with all sorts of reasons why the gorilla would want to know. She smiled politely and walked up to ring the doorbell. The camera emerged from the wall, and then the gates opened without a word. The gorilla escorted Nino and Alya in.

Once inside, Natalie took them up. She held the door open as she and Nino walked in, and then murmured: "I'll leave you two here. Feel free to leave whenever."

Once the door shut, Nino took a deep breath. "Wow," He mumbled. "It hasn't even changed."

Alya nodded. Like Marinette's room, Adrien's room was stuck in time. His room, however, was routinely cleaned. Not even dust aged his room. His Ladybug action figures still sat on his desk. Perfectly finished classwork sat beside his school bag. The piano stood under the sun, gleaming as if it was still waiting for its owner to come back and play it.

Nino sat down on Adrien's bed as Alya began to look around. She went to the bookcase and looked around. As Natalie had said, no journal of any sort was present. That meant that it had been moved. Simple.

Alya went into the bathroom. She saw the window where Adrien had jumped from and examined the lock. It only opened from the inside and was not broken in any way. There weren't any broken hinges or scrapes on the floor. Everything was immaculate.

Finally, she returned into Adrien's bedroom and sat on the bed next to Nino. "Okay," She said.

"Okay," He muttered.

"I'm out of ideas."

"That's a first."

"I need you."

"That's a last."


He was silent. She put a hand on his shoulder. "You knew him better than anyone. Tell me, is there anything here that strikes you as odd?"

Nino stood up and picked up Adrien's phone from where it sat on the nightstand. "This," He declared. "Adrien didn't plug in his phone by his nightstand. He plugged it into the wall and then put it in a compartment in his desk that was really squeaky. He said it was because the sound of people calling him annoyed him. Someone moved it. Probably Natalie or Gabriel."

"Or the police," Alya nodded, taking the phone. She let Nino unlock it. It was an older model, so it took her a moment to remember how to work it. Most people would have checked his internet history or his notepad for suicide notes, but Alya checked favorites list. "Gorilla and Natalie are the first two speed-dial slots. His dad and you, Chloe, and…" Alya's face lit up. "This number is a blank contact."

"Maybe he accidentally marked it a favorite caller?" Nino asked, watched Alya investigate.

"No label on the contact," Alya repeated as she hit the number and put the phone on speaker. To her dismay, she got a dead line. The number had been disconnected sometime in the last ten years.

"Need a paper?" Nino asked, pulling out a pad of paper from Adrien's nightstand.

"Thanks!" Alya said, taking it as Nino fished around in the drawer for a pen. She murmured as she scribbled. "33653257." Then she set her pen down with a smile and examined her handiwork. Her smile quickly faded and became replaced with a look of horror.

"What is it?" Nino asked.

"I didn't need paper. I know this number. It's Marinette's old number." Alya gasped, staring at the familiar numbers in horror.

"No way," Nino said, leaning forward to investigate. Alya fumbled for her phone.

"Her phone plan was disconnected after two months after police couldn't get anything from it since her phone was totaled in the road. They were going to buy her a new plan if she came back. Adrien was calling Marinette during his last week of life." Alya said, partially in shock. She pulled up Marinette's old contact in her phone and compared numbers. The chances of Adrien giving Marinette forty-thousand euros were still low since Alya couldn't even offer Marinette one on a good day, but they were a lot higher than they'd been five minutes ago.

Alya's mind entered overdrive. "Both Marinette and Adrien's journals are missing along with this phone history… Alya groaned as a massive headache began to form. She closed Adrien's call history and looked at his text history. She didn't expect there to be much there, though. The police would have looked through that. True to form, his text history was blank except for Nino, Natalie, and the Gorilla. His call history showed numbers to the gorilla, to Gabriel, and to Nino, but nothing out of the ordinary.

Emails – nothing.

Social media – he followed Marinette, but there were no active conversations open with her, not counting the Facebook messaging system they had together with her and Nino. Alya felt like screaming. She checked Adrien's Twitter DM's, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and finally Youtube.

Youtube gave her an interesting list of recommendations. LadybugSpotted videos, cute cat videos, a half-finished Who-Is-Ladybug documentary, and a playlist of 50 of Adrien's most played live songs. Nino looked over her shoulder as she scrolled and occasionally made comments like: "I hated that song." Or "He used to watch that during class."

Alya flipped to his profile page to see if anyone had sent him any YouTube push notifications and found a very familiar YouTube channel staring back at her.

"Holy crap," Alya gasped. "This isn't Adrien's YouTube, it's Chat Noir's."

"No, it's not," Nino protested. "Adrien said he picked Chat Noir as his YouTube Pseudonym because everyone would think it was a knockoff and ignore him."

"No, Nino. This is the real deal." Alya insisted." I talked to Chat Noir years ago, and he actually told me that this was his YouTube; that he posted a few small videos and streamed cat videos through here. I've been here tons of times. Why would Chat Noir be signed in on Adrien's phone?"

Nino leaned into Alya's shoulder. "Go to his google account. All YouTubes have a Google Account. When did he sign in?"

Alya quickly opened a new internet tab and found two options to sign in. One was adrienagrestemode, and the other was CatBlackPunsgmail. Alya had never been privileged to know Chat Noir's email, but she had a feeling that it would look like that.

It was easy to log in – Adrien had the auto-fill setting allowed. Alya went straight to his account settings and skimmed the login history. To her surprise, there were many accounts of someone logging into this account in just the last few weeks. So dense was the information that it only went back to the last month. Alya looked at the destination for each. All were labeled 'near Paris, France.' Alya went to the account's personal details. 'Know my location' was off, but from the other screen, Alya could see that this phone – Adrien's phone – was not the primary login source. If she tried to turn it on, there was a chance whoever was logged in on the other phone would notice and secure their account. Which reminded her that she needed to open the Gmail for CatBlackPuns and delete the email that was sent saying 'We noticed new login activity.' She wiped it to send it to the trash and then wiped it again for good measure from the trash.

Alya wrote down the phone number for the new primary for CatBlackPuns and then navigated her way to Adrien's settings. She asked Nino to re-enter Adrien's password and wrote down all the login information that was stored in his phone for anything that sounded remotely like Chat Noir. There was an Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter for him on this phone. Finally, Alya went back into the recent login information for the emergency mail address she and Nino had found and looked up recent login on this device. The most recent entry, of course, read today. There was no way to clear that since they were already pushing their luck using the account. Hopefully Chat Noir didn't have text alerts set up. So long as he didn't look at his recent history, they'd be safe to use the account and pray he wouldn't change the password. The second-to-last login on that device was three years ago, which struck Alya as odd. Sure, that had been when she'd last seen Chat, but had Chat Noir come back to Adrien's home to use his phone?

Alya went back into Gmail and started looking through his mail. She felt a little awkward searching through someone else's mail, especially a superhero who had been missing for almost ten years. There wasn't much to glean. Chat Noir obviously used the account more for YouTube than he did emails. But there were a few things. One was an email to marinette_d. , and the other was an email to la_coccinelleatgoogle. Alya resisted the urge to fangirl. She was pretty sure she now had Ladybug's email. On top of that, Chat Noir had been contacting Marinette and the little brat hadn't even told her!

"I need this information, but I don't have the time or resources to go through it," Alya said.

"Didn't this phone system later come out with a screen record option?" Nino asked.

Alya perked up. "It did!" She exclaimed. "Adrien's phone is a little old, but maybe I can update the software enough to record the screen and then I can just send it to mine or your phones!"

Nino reached out for the phone. "Let me handle it." He said. "You keep looking for clues." Alya handed it to him and slipped off the bed. She went to the window. On the fourth window panel in, she noticed that the metal along the insides of the panel was shiny from being scraped over and over.

'Frequent opening'. Alya thought. Why would Adrien be opening his window over and over?

That was easy. Adrien hated boundaries. Having a window open outward was probably comforting to him. Plus, it was in the middle of the windows. If opened, it made the room seem even bigger than it was. Simple.

"Got it," Nino said. Alya sighed in exasperation. "Nothing?" He asked.

"Nothing." She confirmed.

"I'll look." He said. "It's been a while, but you do your thing with screen record and I'll handle looking for clues." Alya sighed and nodded. She took the phone and activated the screen recorder. Quickly, she went to CatBlack's email and opened up his conversation with Ladybug. She didn't read anything; only scrolled through quickly. Then, she did the same to Marinette's conversation with him, which was much shorter than the one with Ladybug.

"Nothing," Nino reported, shoving his hands into his pockets. "Nothing is different. Only the phone, and the fact that there's no camembert in the fridge."

"Camembert?" Alya asked, picking up the unused fingerprint kit.

"Adrien always had some on hand. I never saw him eat any, but he always had some on hand." Nino shrugged, his expression downcast.

Huh. Strange. Alya shrugged. "Well, they probably cleaned it out. Anyways, I guess that's it. Neither of us sees anything else." She looked around the room one last time. "Let's tell Natalie we're leaving, and then…" she trailed off before an idea struck her. "Then I need to go to Marinette's house again."

"Why?" Nino asked, raising an eyebrow and letting his eyes open a little wider in exasperation.

"A hunch," Alya responded. She and Nino shut the door behind them and disappeared out into the dark.

Chapter Text

Alya twisted her fox miraculous around her neck as they rode to Marinette's house. Trixx poked her head out of Alya's jacket pocket to give the reporter a reassuring smile. She and Wayzz were hanging out in the left pocket of Alya's jacket, which was tied around her waist at the moment. Nino was snoozing in the seat next to her with his red baseball cap pulled down over his eyes. His arms were around his head, where the turtle miraculous was in plain sight against his dark skin.

A few missing items, journals included, a lot of missing money, two streams of suspicious emails and a superhero logged onto a citizens phone. One kidnapping and one suicide mystery.

The cab stopped in front of Marinette's house as Alya reached a silent conclusion. Whatever she might have thought before, Adrien and Marinette's cases must be linked. It didn't quite all fit together though. Had Marinette known what Adrien was planning?

Alya shook Nino awake and pulled him out of the cab. While Nino paid, Alya called Alex at work. The production's manager didn't pick up on the first dial, which was pretty typical, so she left a voice message.

"Hey Alex, this is Alya Cesaire. Sorry if I called at a bad time; I hope you weren't making out with Carly or anything. Listen, I need a record really badly. It may or may not be a public record. Can you see if you can pull up Marinette Dupain-Cheng's disappearance, specifically the video they have of the event? Kay, thanks, bye!"

She hung up and put her phone in the pocket with the kwamis so that they could play on her phone. She and Nino walked in hand-in-hand. Today, Sabine was behind the counter and Tom was in the kitchen. Sabine looked pleasantly surprised to see them.

"Hello!" She chirped. "It's nice to see you two again."

"You too, Sabine," Alya said with a smile. "I'm sorry to bug you so soon, but I need to take a look at a few things in Marinette's room. Is that okay?"

"Of course." Sabine agreed. "But… can I ask what you're hoping to find?"

Alya blushed and pulled a square kit out of her pocket. She had been planning to use it at the Agreste Mansion, but Adrien's room had been cleaned so many times it was useless. It was a fingerprinting kit.

"Fingerprints," Alya said. "I know it's a long shot, but I'm wondering if by any stretch of the imagination thieves got in using her trapdoor window." Lies. Lies. She felt like Lila, and that thought twisted her gut. Really, she should be used to lies, being a reporter and an investigator and a superheroine, but she still had to focus hard and grit her teeth to get the words out to Sabine.

Sabine chuckled like she was dealing with pre-teens instead of adults. "Go ahead Alya. Let me know if you find anything interesting."

"Thanks, Ma'am." Alya smiled. She scuttled away quickly with Nino in tow.

Once they were on the stairs, Nino raised an eyebrow at Alya. "Thieves?" He asked.

"No, silly." Alya sighed. "Chat Noir was in contact with Adrien and Marinette. Adrien's room is too clean to gain fingerprints from, but I'm wondering if there's any chance we can find any in Marinette's room."

Alya opened the trapdoor and climbed up first. Nino whistled behind her as he walked into the room. "Wow. They really cleaned up." He said.

They had. The walls were entirely bare of Marinette's possessions. Her desk had been dismantled and carried away. Her sketchbooks and craft supplies were in large boxes. The clothes had already been carted away. A large array of fun and colorful socks lay scattered on the floor. Only the bed was untouched. Alya walked over and examined the underside of the ladder. Nothing.

The dust impressions, which Alya had noticed last time, on the ladder were odd. The dust had settled, and then someone had climbed up or down – no way to tell – and resettled, creating two even layers of dust. That was odd. There shouldn't have been dust on the steps when Marinette lived here. Alya stared at one of the prints on a corner of the ladder. "Nino." She said, pointing. "A boot print. Marinette didn't wear boots."

Nino walked up. He squinted at the print. "Yeah." He agreed. "Chat Noir wears boots, though." Alya nodded wordlessly. She used her phone to take a picture of the print and then climbed up onto the bed. The moment she touched the mattress, dust was thrown into the air. She coughed.

She laid down in the dust on top of the sheets and examined the trap door. Just as she'd hoped, grime had grown over the lock the last few years. Probably underuse and Parisian weather. Now, several fingerprints were seared into muddy dust remains around the lock. She sat back up and examined them. She carefully pulled out her kit and dusted them. She took presses of two, and then looked at a couple that were unique. One wasn't a print at all. It was obvious that that person was wearing gloves. However, deep incisions in the dust above the print left a calling card for who had come and gone. Chat Noir and his infamous claws.

The last fingerprint was someone Alya should have expected. After all, where Chat Noir went, his partner followed. And while the hexagonal honeycomb-like shape confused her at first, she still recognized it as the pattern on Ladybug's suit.

"What'd you find?" Nino asked.

"Chat Noir," Alya responded. "And Ladybug."

"What about Marinette?" Nino asked, sounding a bit choked up. Alya closed her eyes and told herself it was because of the dust.

"I can't find any fingerprints from her in the lock. They're all from... suits." She exhaled and closed her eyes, trying to find a single legitimate reason why two superheroes would be visiting a missing girl's bedroom. Or, for the record, why at least one superhero(Though Alya was now suspecting Ladybug had been present) had been flipping through Adrien's things in his room.

There was silence from down below. Then: "I can't believe Marinette didn't say anything to you."

"I know, right?" Alya exploded. "Some best friend."

She sat up, felt all around the covers for another sort of clue, and then climbed down. She stumbled as she hopped off the ladder and Trixx made a sound of protest in her jacket before phasing through the material and drifting in front of her with a yawn. "Wow, this place is a wreck!" He declared.

"It is," Alya nodded, laughing a little as she looked around at the bare pink walls. Here was where they'd plotted operation Golden Lotus with their Ecole friends, where Marinette had done all her sewing and forgotten where she was supposed to be all the time. They snuck food and cards and knickknacks and so, so many memories throughout their schooling years. "Is there anything I might be missing?" She wondered aloud.

"This amazing pile of socks!" Trixx declared, dropping to the floor with a wicked smile stretching across his face. "This girl had style - she was a girl, right? I mean, the room is pink... I'm not trying to judge." He snuggled up into a pair of fluffy winter socks.

"She was a girl," Alya laughed, bending down. "I think Marinette made most of these herself. Either knitting or darning or... I can't remember the other terms." Her eyes filled with tears as she picked up a pair with black cats with green eyes knit into the sides.

"Look! This one is made of fluffy yarn!" Trixx gasped. "And this one has foot grippies!" He slipped out of his winter embrace to attack to one with little foam grips on the bottoms. Alya laughed as her kwami started bouncing along towards her to see how well he would stick to the floor.

Wayzz, Nino's kwami, looked up from where he had been napping and laughed. "That looks like fun!" He exclaimed, coming out to settle on Nino's knee and watch.

"This one looks like America threw up on it," Trixx announced, nudging a sock covered with blue stars and red stripes. "And this one looks like she might have gone through a dark phase." He pushed a sock with a skull pattern out of the pile of his favorites, which Alya knew she'd have to ask Sabine if she could have. Trixx loved socks and Alya knew that if she couldn't find her kwami that he'd be in the sock drawer, relishing in the only clothing aside from her jewelry(which didn't qualify as 'clothing') that fit him. "Oh!" Trixx's voice broke through her socks. "She has toe socks!"

"Shh!" Nino urged, casting a cautious glance at the trapdoor. "Keep it down, Trixx."

Trixx was starting to tear up as he held up a pair of rubber-duck socks, a pair of socks reading "Hi, I don't care, thanks." "Can we keep them all?"He begged.

Alya laughed and shook her head. "I'll ask Sabine. For now, just pick your favorites."

Trixx cheered and disappeared back into the heap. Alya could hear him muttering: "This one has penguins, this one has pretty lace, this one says 'I heart Adrien Agreste', this one has a bear face stitched into it. Oh my gosh! Foxes!" Then, there was a very long pause before Trixx surfaced, holding what looked to be a loose piece of cloth. "This isn't a sock!" He frowned.

Alya reached forward and her kwami put the object in her palm. She examined it with a tactful eye. It looked to be a very, very tiny little outfit, almost matching Marinette's day-to-day wear perfectly, down to the little embroidered flowers and the pink pants(Which were sewn onto the base of the shirt). "That's interesting," She hummed, wrinkling her nose. "Is it for a doll?"

Trixx floated forward, squinting, and then shook his little head. "I think it's for a kwami," He declared.

"That can't be right," Alya frowned. "Marinette couldn't have known what a kwami was unless she-" She paused, then her eyes drifted upwards to the ceiling, where Ladybug and Chat Noir had climbed down from the roof. The pieces were slowly falling together and things were finally making sense. Alya turned to Nino with wide eyes as the revelation came to her...

"Do you think Chat Noir and Ladybug were coming to Marinette for kwami clothes?" She gasped. That would explain the fingerprints and why they were showing up years after Marinette was gone. Perhaps they had never gotten the memo and-

"Let's not jump to conclusions," Nino sighed, rolling his eyes to the ceiling. "How do you know for sure that it's not for a doll? Marinette had dolls for Manon, remember?"

"Not this size, I don't think," Alya protested. Though she had to admit, Nino had a point.

"No, look at this!" Trixx declared, pulling on the little jacket attached to the ensemble in Alya's hand. "Inside the jacket! She wrote 'Tikki'!"

"Is Tikki a kwami?" Nino asked, raising an eyebrow as Wayzz gasped and leaped into the air to peer at the jacket.

"She's the Ladybug kwami," Wayzz explained. "And if her name if here, then for sure Marinette must have been making Kwami clothes!"

"Wait," Nino held up his hands, looking way out of his depth. He pointed at Wayzz. "The guardian master knows Ladybug's identity, but what about you? Do you know her?"

Wayzz settled down, looking sullen. "I know her, but the Guardian Master has forbidden me to speak her name or lead anyone to her identity."

Alya mentally kicked herself, staring at the artifact in her hand. All these stupid rules and secrecy... everything had always been easy with her and Nino, who had known each other's identities practically since the beginning.

Nino tapped his foot and nudged her in the arm. "What does this mean?" He asked.

Alya had no idea. She took a deep breath, sneezed, and then tried to focus on the problem at hand. Finally, she came to a conclusion. "This means that I need to open the Ladybug file." She announced, getting to her feet and pocketing the kwami outfit.

Trixx's ears flicked. "But... not before we ask about the socks, right?" He held up the pair with the fox faces on them, with the words "Fra-ka-ka-ka-kow!" and "Wa-pa-pa-pa-pow!" embroidered around the little red faces.

Alya laughed and scooped up her kwami to nuzzle him against her cheek. "Yeah, let's go ask Sabine," She amended. Wayzz vanished into Nino's pocket instead of Alya's while Trixx was dropped into Alya's little pocket for him. She and Nino headed back down the stairs to talk to the keepers of the store.

Chapter Text

At home, Alya found the Ladybug folder. It was a simple yellow manila folder with a sticker of Ladybug's yoyo on one side and a cat's paw on the other. It read 'Ladybug Case' in Carly's curly script. When she opened it, two pictures fell out. They were the public-domain photos of Ladybug and Chat Noir. A piece of lined paper outlined the facts – when they announced they were taking a break and when they'd last been sighted, anything Rena Rouge, Carapace or Queen Bee had said about their missing teammates, and a very, very small list of whatever other reporters had garnered.

It was honestly the most pathetically small file she'd ever seen. It was an honest wonder that Carly hadn't discontinued it years ago. Instead, it had become an office legend. Lucky, otherwise Alya never would have been able to add onto it.

She got a new piece of blank paper and scribbled down a summary of her findings.

This was great news. Not only did she have new findings for the ladybug case, she'd linked Marinette and Adrien's together, and then linked those to LB&CN.

As Alya uploaded the video she'd taken of Chat's email conversations to her computer, her phone buzzed. She picked it up on reflex and answered the call. "Alya Cesaire?" She asked.

"Hey Alya, this is Alex."

"Oh! Alex! Great, were you able to get me that file?"

"Well… it wasn't in the public domain…"

"Oh." Alya wilted.

"But since you were on the list of people investigated and the Police Record Keeper and I go back, he agreed to let me have it."

"Oh? You don't have any side pieces when you're apart from Carly, are you?"

There was silence on the other end. Then Alex said: "The record keeper is my boyfriend."

Alya choked on her own tongue. "W-what?" She asked.

"His name is Justin. He's my boyfriend. And by the way, he heard that message you left about me making out with Carly and I had to explain the whole 'fake office romance' thing to him, which was really embarrassing. So yeah, you owe me one now."

"I – ahem, uh – sorry?"

"Yeah, a-huh. Anyway, he made me promise I would ensure you didn't fork out the information to anyone."

"Even Nino?"

"If your husband won't snitch, I don't care. But that's it. I also have to ensure it's delivered to you and that it doesn't go astray, so go to your email right now, please and thank you."

"Gimme a sec." Alya delayed. She put her phone down and made a phew face at Nino, who was across the room with one of his headphone ears on. Then she downsized everything on her laptop and opened a new chrome tab. Once she got to her email, she picked the phone back up.


"Alright, now pay attention," Alex demanded. "I am sending the file to you right now. My finger is hovering over the send key. The moment you receive it, I need you to tell me. Understood?"

"Yup, understood," Alya confirmed. "You know, getting files from you isn't usually this dramatic."

"Yeah, well usually they're public domain and I'm not bribing my boyfriend to give me semi-classified files." Alex snarked. "And for the record, the only reason I'm doing this is that Carly told me she gave you the Ladybug File and the urgency of your text made me think this was related." Alex hesitated. "It is for the Ladybug file, right?"

"Well…" Alya pursed her lips. "I think I have a lead. A really, really strong lead. I'm not going to give you the details, but it has a lot to do with Marinette, and a not-so-fake Chat Noir account, and missing journals and diaries, and Adrien Agreste."

Alex's following cough sounded a little strangled. "Adrien Agreste? The designer's dead son?"

"Look, I know it sounds crazy, but I swear I do have concrete evidence and, you know what? I'll even schedule a meeting with Carly if that'll make you feel better."

"It would."

"Great. I'll text her as soon as I get off the phone with you."

"Sweet. Okay then. I'm sending the file."

"Go ahead."


Alya refreshed the page and beamed when she saw a new message appear in her inbox. "Got it!" She proclaimed.

"Great. One more thing before I go. I didn't think this was important but after what you described I think I'd better mention it."

"Yes?" Alya asked.

"This file is ten years old as of two weeks from tomorrow. That means it'll be closing soon. Until then, it's still in police records and they can track where the file goes using encryptions in the file coding. The police will have a record that the file has been sent. They already knew I was going to send it, so don't worry; you're not in trouble. But anyone in the public can go in and request to know who has the file, and we're obligated to tell them whose possession it's in. Once the ten-year limit has passed, the encryptions will be rendered useless."

"Okay, anything else?"

"Yes. There are about fifty people who are 'watching' the file. They'll get notified we've given it out."

"Oh." Alya's mind ran wild with the implications. She took a deep breath. "Okay. Thanks, Alex."

"All good. See you on Monday."

"See you."

As she hung up, Nino opened his mouth on the other side of the room. Alya held up a quick hand and texted Carly.

Hey Carly. ;)

Yes, Alya?

I need to schedule a time to come in and talk w/you. It's abt. The LB File.

I can do Monday over lunch?

Sounds great. Thank you!

Alya tossed her phone aside and smiled at Nino. "I got the file."

"The file?"

"The video record of Marinette's kidnapping."

Nino's mouth made a little 'o' as he nodded in understanding. "Now what?"

"I watch the file, of course."

"M'kay, Alya." Nino rolled his eyes. He snuggled a little deeper into his chair as Alya fished for a pair of headphones and turned on some of Nino's music to listen to as she worked. She turned the video on.

It was soundless, black and white, a little grainy around the edges. Also, it was pre-cut to reveal all the important parts. Firstly, the car pulled into position thirty minutes beforehand, parked, and turned off. It was a four-door white hatchback with dark-tinted windows. The license plate was covered up with what looked like a sold black rubber covering.

The scene cut to about ten minutes before the kidnapping. People had started to go inside, and the street was dark and empty. The driver seat door opened, and a man in all black with a ski mask pulled down over his face crept out. He crouched down in the space between the front of his car and the car in front of him. Ten minutes after that, Marinette appeared by herself, the first person to walk alone down the street. The crook's head followed her as she pulled a fashionable black jacket with white buttons closer around herself. She wasn't holding anything, and her arms were buried in her pockets.

Just as she passed the car, the perpetrator rushed forward and seized her arm. He yanked her back into his grasp and pressed a cloth against her mouth. Marinette barely had two seconds to struggle before her head rolled, and her eyes closed. The man hauled her back towards the car, opened the rear passenger door, and threw her over the entire back seat. Then, he ran around to the front of the car, pulled out, and drove off. The scene cut once to view the car passing through a red-light intersection, and then the video was over.

Alya watched the clip over and over. She turned the brightness all the way up, added a yellow tint to the video, then a red and a blue, and she focused on different things like trying to see if the man had any hair or any identifiable features, to no avail. Finally, she was forced to subside. She looked at the written account included and skimmed details she already knew. Near the bottom, one thing stuck out to her.

*A second video of the crime was captured on Mr. and Mrs. Alchtier, who own the shop in front of the scene.*

Alya sat bolt upright. "There's a second video! According to the report, a second one was captured!"

"Where is it?" Nino asked.

"Not included in the file," Alya mumbled. She reached for her phone and loaded up google. It took all of five minutes to find the Alchtier's shop. Alya, seeing that it wasn't five o'clock yet, quickly called the business phone.

"Hello?" A voice said on the other end as soon as the call connected.

"Hi, my name is Alya Cesaire, and I was told you have a video of a certain kidnapping that happened ten years ago?"

"Yes, we do. The police said they didn't want it."

"I'm on the case trying to find her, and I believe there may be details in your copy that would help track her down. Could I please have it?"

There was a rustle of paper. "Can I have an email address?"

Alya gave it, and then they said goodbye and hung up. The store closed at five, he said he'd send it after then. She went over to nudge Nino with her foot. "C'mon." She told him. "Let's go eat out tonight."

He shrugged. "Okay." He agreed. Alya grabbed a spare set of keys to the apartment and a jacket, and together they headed outside.

The video, at first glance, showed everything she'd already known from a different angle. She saw Marinette's surprise as the man grabbed her, saw the rag land on her face, and then her best friend dropped. She was shoved in the back of the car again, and even after all of Alya's video corrections, she could find nothing.

Finally, she gave up with a huge groan.

Nino, who'd changed into pajamas and taken a shower, came over to sit by her. "Okay." He said. "Explain everything."

Alya exploded. "These videos are exactly the same! There's nothing! I'm exactly where I was two hours ago, and I still have forty-thousand missing euros, two journals, a ring, a photo, and a purse to find!" Alya huffed and scowled at her laptop.

"And she doesn't have any of those things on her?"

"Not that I can tell," Alya grumbled. She started the video again. "See, no purse, and it wouldn't have fit in her pocket anyway. You can see her hands right here when he grabs her, and there's no ring. The journals are also too big to fit in her pocket, and why would she take a photo down for a walk around the block?"

Nino held up his hands. "Just wondering. What happened to her phone? Do you think we could root through it like we did Adrien's?"

"No, it was tossed out of the car when they were out of camera view. The phone was recovered badly smashed and dented. Wouldn't even turn on. They called it unusable. It wasn't backed up either because Marinette used all her storage space trying to come up with design stuff." Alya buried her head in her hands.

"Okay, so the car must have stopped at some point," Nino said. He leaned forward to squint at the screen.

"What?" Alya asked, looking back up.

"Well, Marinette's in the backseat, right? If I can't even grab a soda from the floor when I'm driving my dad's old truck, I highly doubt he could maneuver in an unconscious girl's pockets while she's in the backseat and he's driving. Especially if he doesn't know exactly where the phone is on her either." Nino reasoned, throwing his hands into the air.

"True," Alya conceded.

Nino scooted closer to her side and put an arm around her shoulders. "Let's watch it again." He suggested. "One more time, just for kicks and giggles. If we don't see anything, we'll go to bed."

Oof. He was good. Now that Alya knew he'd force her to turn it off for the night, she was going to be more alert and focused. She smiled at Nino, turned the brightness all the way up, and started the video.

"Wait!" Nino immediately blurted out. Alya jumped and paused it again. "What are we looking for?" He asked. Alya thought hard.

"Two things. One, stickers on the car. Two, shadows in the car. I want to see if he takes off his mask." She nodded for affirmation and he gave her two thumbs up. She restarted the video. They watched in rapt attention as Marinette was kidnapped again. Alya squinted hard at the perpetrator, who was barely identifiable in the shadows. As the car began to pull away, Alya sighed in defeat. Nino pointed at the screen though.

"Something else is in the backseat." He said.

"What?" Alya asked.

"I'm serious. Rewind and watch the backseat very closely." Alya did and as the car window passed in front of an opposing street light, Alya saw the crown of a head in the backseat of the car.

"Oh my gosh." She whispered. She paused the video on the exact frame, brightened it up even more, and zoomed in. The shadow was someone with a ponytail, facing forward and upright.

Alya pulled up the police video again. She and Nino watched it very closely. The backseat of the car was obscured from view while the kidnapper shoved Marinette inside. Alya couldn't see anyone behind the passenger seat as they pulled away, but just before the car disappeared out of frame she glimpsed a head though the passenger window in the back seat.

Alya switched back to the Alchtier's video and watched from a side view as the man grabbed Marinette and opened the car door. She paused it.

No one was inside the car. Alya took a deep breath and turned to look at Nino.

"No one's inside-"

"-But the head shot."

"It must be-"


They stared at each other, and then looked back at the window. From the side, Marinette's pigtails would look like a single ponytail. Her height matched up with where she was in the car perfectly, but there was one small problem.

Alya sucked in a breath. "There's no way any sleeping drugs that would knock her out that fast would wear off before he even pulled out. And if she'd had the mental clarity to pretend to be asleep before she could be knocked out, there's no reason she didn't jump back out and run."

Nino was almost afraid to ask: "What does that mean?"

Alya swallowed hard. "It was staged. She wasn't really asleep, she must have just pretended to go limp." She replayed the video as she spoke. Nino whistled softly.

"She did a pretty good job." He muttered.

Alya shook her head. "Now that I've realized that, it looks a little fake. Look, when she first faints, she pushes her legs away so that he won't trip on them."

"So that means-"

"Marinette staged her own disappearance. They might not have even had to have stopped like you thought; she might have pitched her phone out herself." Alya concluded. "That's why her things are missing. She took them with her ahead of time."

Nino shook his head. "This is crazy." He muttered. Alya looked back over at him.

"What am I missing?" She asked.

"A partridge in a pear tree." He said sarcastically before sighing. "What about the money Adrien took out? And where do Chat and Adrien fit into all of this?"

"Maybe the money went to fund Marinette after she left town. But why didn't Adrien leave town with her? Why would he give money away and then kill himself?" Alya reasoned with herself.

Nino's head was spinning. "Wait, Alya. Crazy idea. What if Adrien didn't die? What if he did the same thing Marinette did and faked it?"

Alya blinked. She took the video back a few screens to where the villain had Marinette spread out in a fake faint. She used the snipping tool to capture the screen and then used a ruler tool to measure how long Marinette was in the picture, taking into account bent knees and limp frame. Knowing that Marinette was about 5'5, she created a centimeters-to-feet ratio. Then, she measured the attacker. Using her math, the attacker was about 5'9. She opened the Wikipedia page about Adrien and scrolled past the summary of his death to find a minute detail – his height.

"Nino." She said after a minute. "The attacker who kidnapped Marinette is the same height as Adrien."

Nino made a sound in the back of his throat like he was going to be sick.

Alya pushed her laptop away in shock. She'd been on the case for almost two days and had cracked most of a case that had stumped police for a decade. And on top of that, she'd disapproved a suicide and discovered the identity of a masked man. Now all she had to do was find where they went, figure out how Ladybug and Chat Noir fit into this, and write her case.

Chapter Text

At five o'clock Alya couldn't sleep, so she slipped out of the room as silently as possible without waking Nino. She went to the living room and spread out an arsenal of lined paper, black and blue pens, and sticky notes. She was going to crack this case once and for all.

Armed with at least four hours of sleep and a renewed vision of what had occurred almost ten years ago, she opened up her video of Chat Noir's email. Using frequent pausing, she was able to read the entire contents.

The Marinette emails were seven in quantity. They were short, out-of-context, and showed a side of her friend that Alya had never seen. They'd been sent over a period of two days and changed a lot of what Alya thought about the case.

CN: This is Chat Noir, reporting for duty. Do I read my princess?

MDC: Hey kitty. Glad it worked.

CN: Me too. Could have been catastrophic if someone else had gotten this

MDC: Created a new email address. La_coccinelle.

CN: Sweet. Just sent an email. Did it work?

MDC: Yup.

CN: Sweet. Make sure to delete these emails on your end on the off-chance someone reads your emails after we're gone.

Alya felt like she was fourteen again, famous for running after akumas and uploading stories about the symbolic history of ladybugs. One large half of her was overjoyed at what she'd discovered. Namely 'my best friend is on a nickname basis with one of Paris's superheroes' and 'Chat Noir puns in his emails'. But a very small portion of her spirit was shivering. Marinette had created the Ladybug address. She scribbled on a paper to keep her mind going, even though she was afraid of what she'd find.

Problem: Marinette created the Ladybug email.

Solutions/Options: It's the real account, or it's not.

And, of course, on that note, Chat Noir had definitely planned to leave to somewhere with Marinette.

With shaking hands, she started the portion of the video with the Ladybug emails. There were more of these, twenty-three in all. They spanned the time up until the night Marinette was kidnapped, even going past Adrien's death.

1. CN: Do I read my Princess?

2. LB: This account is actually under Ladybug, but you can call me whatever. Either way, it's me.

3. CN: Kay. I found a house. 420€ yearly rental. It's large, out of way. Two-story.

4. LB: Bed/Bath?

5. CN: Four baths and seven-bed.

6. LB: Wow, large. Sounds good. Rented car yet?

7. CN: No but I found a place. I'll actually step in and rent it after I've died.

8. LB: Kay. I'll suit up and hit up Alya and Chloe today. When does Nino get back?

9. CN: Late tomorrow. I can drop off to him.

10. LB: Great.

11. CN: I'm just about to push my fake body out the window, then I'll head over.

12. LB: Make it to the house okay?

13. CN: Yup. Put your things in a spare room. I'm going to order in for a few essential furniture items. Pls help?

14. LB: Use francecanape.

15. CN: Kay. Have things blown up yet?

16. LB: Sorry to have taken so long. Yes, things were dreary at school today. A gardener discovered your body before lunch, so when we came back from break Ms. Bustier was crying. I think I did well pretending I didn't know what was coming. Chloe left school. Nino was taken out of class and sent home. The lesson was canceled. Great day. Everyone misses you.

17. CN: I miss everyone. Do you think you played the sad crush part well enough?

18. LB: Knowing you were actually alive made it hard, so there weren't any tears. I just went unresponsive until Ms. Bustier sent me to the nurse. Then I went home with a nurse ticket and watched sad videos on YouTube until my face was red. Alya didn't pry, so I think I did good. I just got off of a facetime with her.

19. CN: Clever bug. Did my dad say anything?

20. LB: Not yet. I'll keep you updated. LMK when you come back to get me.

21. CN: On my way. Ready to be kidnapped?

22. LB: I'm wearing a black jacket with white buttons and red leggings. I'll leave in thirty-two minutes.

23. CN: I'd know you anywhere, my lady. Lying in wait and in position. See you soon. (I love you)

Alya began to cry. She'd forgotten so many details. She'd missed how Marinette hadn't cried. She remembered that stupid FaceTime.

The door to the bedroom down the hall opened and Nino emerged, rubbing his eyes. "Alya?" He mumbled. "Why are you up?" He came over and squinted at the screen. Alya wasn't sure he could read anything through the layers of eye boogers around his lids, but he still leaned down to hug her.

"Figure it out?" He asked.

Alya nodded into his shirt.

"Tell me." He murmured. He adjusted her in his arms and rubbed her back soothingly. Alya wiped her eyes.

"Adrien was the kidnapper. He pushed a fake body out of his window – I'm not sure how it passed as real, but I almost don't want to know. He and Marinette planned the entire kidnapping and were emailing each other thirty minutes before they staged it. The car was a rental. I- I need to find it." Alya reached toward her computer. Her fingertips felt numb. Since all the rental companies were still closed, she took a chance and went back to her public-domain file finder again. Nino watched over her shoulder as within minutes, she found a record that matched perfectly.

"White, four-door, tinted Chevrolet hatchback taken out on the same day Marinette was kidnapped. The name was Bryce Papenbrook. In Paris for a quick vacation. According to this court record, he came in the next day and explained that the car had been totaled in an off-road accident. He agreed to pay for the car in full and produced the entire cost – €16,919 - in cash, upfront. The company didn't press charges and only filed a record to explain why one car had been blacked out from the records. They also asked him to please refrain from renting in the future." Alya summarized as she read.

Nino grunted. "So, if Adrien took out €40,000 and the car was €16,919-"

"Plus initial renting charge of about thirty-five euros." Alya interrupted.

"Right." Nino agreed. "That's like, twenty-four thousand left."

"And they're renting a house." Alya flipped back to the emails. "See? And it's a large house too. They've got a great rate on it too. A house like that…" Alya thought. "Well, it depends on where they are. In a smaller town, maybe four-hundred euros is a reasonable amount, but in Paris... She trailed off. "I wonder if Adrien kept using that name?"

She cleared her public records finder and took thirty extra seconds to also clear her cookies so that the website wouldn't give her biased reports. Then she entered the name Bryce Papenbrook. A slew of records came up. Bryce shared the same birthday as Adrien but was three years older. He was married to a woman named Christina whose maiden name was Vee. Coincidentally, Christina shared the same birthday as Marinette, but was also three years older. They had a house together at 830 Whitebreak Road in Winebrook(Pronounced Vine-brook.).

Alya looked at the housing record a little closer. It was a large house with two stories plus a basement, open-concept kitchen, four baths and seven-bed. It matched what Chat had described to Ladybug with extra details. And to top it all off, they'd had it for ten years as of six days ago.

Nino opened his phone while Alya stared numbly at her screen. He opened Facebook and searched for Bryce Papenbrook. Third down on the list of related people was a picture of Marinette and Adrien sitting on the ground together, dressed in shades of black and dark red. Adrien had a smile that was more Chat than Adrien, and Marinette smiled sweetly like she had a secret no one could guess as she leaned into Adrien's touch. They were older, meaning it was more recent than their kidnappings. Nino nudged Alya to show her.

The cover photo was another one of Marinette and Adrien, and the rest of the account was private. But it was under the name Bryce Papenbrook, which confirmed everything they needed to know.

Alya went back to the settings of Chat Noir's email. She hadn't noticed it before, but the primary recovery email was set to . A teacher's email. Alya examined the phone number attached to the account and grabbed her phone.

"You're not really going to call him, are you?" Nino asked.

Alya cleared her throat two or three times in answer. She pursed her lips and then stretched them as wide as she could. Nino had to resist the urge to laugh. Then, Alya glanced at the clock. It was almost six. With any luck, Brye would be asleep. She dialed the number and put it on speaker at least three feet from her. No one picked up, so she dialed again. This happened twice more before the receiving end clicked.

"Mhello?" Someone groaned on the other end through a yawn.

"Hello this is Frances DoGood and I'd like to schedule a flight for thirteen-o'clock?" Alya said in a high-pitched voice. She kept her lips poised like she was whistling, not speaking. She sounded like an old lady.

"Mmph. What?" The voice on the other end was distorted through fabric noises and the general sounds of someone very sleepy.

"I need a flight from Versailles to Brussels at thirteen-o'clock." Alya repeated in her funny voice.

"Lady, this isn't the airport."

"This isn't Orlay?" Alya acted innocent.

"I think you mean Orly. No, I'm… Bryce Papenbrook. Not the airport. I can… find you the right number if you want?" It was clear that he really, really wanted to go back to sleep. Nino felt bad for the poor guy.

"Oh, no thank you. I think my phone can tell me. Sorry to bug you." Alya smiled wickedly. Nino almost laughed.

"No problem." If the action of rolling your eyes could be expressed in a sound, that was what came through the speaker. Nino bit his lip. A colossal yawn followed. "Goodbye."

"Bye!" Alya hung up. Nino burst into laughter, which filled their whole apartment and almost made up for the sadness of Alya's breakdown. Alya tapped her fingers on her laptop to let out some loose energy.

"That was Adrien." She said after Nino calmed down. "Could you hear him?"

Nino nodded. "It sure sounded like him."

"That means now I have his phone number, his email, and his address." Alya schemed as she closed all the tabs open on her screen and opened a blank google.

"And to think he was dead four days ago," Nino mumbled. "I just heard my best bud's voice for the first time in ten years."

"I know. Crazy, right?" Alya mumbled.

Nino looked at the screen she was on as she typed. He sat up straight. "What are you doing?" He demanded.

The screen showed the Paris Metro out of the city. Alya was booking a ride to Winebrook. She shrugged at Nino's expression.

"Adrien and Marinette ditched us without a word, so they'll have to deal with me dropping in unannounced to ask a few questions," Alya said.

"Us." Nino corrected.

Alya smiled and upped the passenger count to two. "Us." She confirmed. Once booked, she shut the laptop.

"Should we mention this to anyone?" Nino asked as she stood up and walked to the bedroom. "Marinette's parents, Chloe, Mr. Agreste?" He trailed off.

Alya pulled off her pajama top and began rifling through her wardrobe for a shirt. "I'll send Queen Bee a message through André Bourgeois's hotel management that she'll have to manage Paris for two or so days, and I'll tip off Marinette's parents and extend an invitation for them to tag along. As for Gabriel Agreste…" Alya made a disgusted face. "If you want to be the one to call him and say his son is alive, be my guest."

Nino held up his hands in surrender. "No thanks, hun. I'm not opening that can of worms. Guess Gabriel Agreste ain't getting told."

Alya smirked. "I guess not."

After a three-hour subway ride, Alya, Nino, Tom, and Sabine stepped off with luggage in tow onto the smallest station Alya had ever seen. Winebrook had a population of barely five-hundred. There was one elementary, and one dual high school/junior high building. One hometown market store, one police station, no visitor center and two playground/park areas. There were no asphalt roads. On the bright side, it was one of the cleanest, prettiest towns Alya had ever seen. She had brought along her personal DSLR to take photos, and got shots many of the pretty, dated homes along the streets. Children ran in the road and many people stopped to ask who they were. Alya got the sense they were a close-knit community where everyone knew everyone.

They wandered up and down the roads for about ten minutes, but the town didn't seem to have an in-order numbering system. Finally, Nino stopped at a house where children's shoes were strewn across the porch to ask for directions to the Papenbrook's home. A preteen with unwashed hair and cowgirl boots led the way at her mother's request. Two kids, aged seven and four, followed her as she took them to the very last road in town. It was about a ten-minute walk from the subway station. The girl asked them all their names, where they were from, and what they did as small talk. When Alya mentioned she was a reporter, the girl scrunched her eyes up.

"Are you reporting on Christina's dresses?" She asked.

Alya shook her head, a little confused. The girl shrugged. "Christina designs dresses. Apparently, she's in with Gabriel Agreste and he does the advertising for some of her designs. She does prom dresses for some of the girls in town."

Nino choked a little. The girl studied him. He straightened up under her gaze. Finally, she looked back at Tom and Sabine. "You say you're bakers?" She asked. "Christina can bake really well. She always donates cakes and cupcakes to the school bake sell. Mom commissioned her to make my birthday cake last year."

Alya kept her mouth shut. Designing and baking… sounded like Marinette had included herself into the community.

Their new friend took them to the very last house on the very last road in town. The houses here were newer or remodeled.

The house she left them at had tan stucco with dark brown shingles and white trim. The windows were rectangular, and the door was made of stained wood. There was a sidewalk path leading up to the porch and a gravel driveway. The house had a large, grassy yard with rose bushes under the windows and a large tree growing about ten feet from the house. A rope swing and a treehouse were supported by the tree's large branches. A group of kids was playing in the yard with Nerf Guns, Barbies, and Lincoln Logs. The oldest kids were around ten, and the youngest around two. At least fifteen kids were hanging out at the Papenbrook house.

The kids looked up when Nino opened the white gate but overall ignored them. They continued with their game, giving a few curious looks but asking no questions. The four adults wheeled their suitcases up to the door. Alya pressed the buzzer and then fidgeted as they waited for the door to open.

There were footsteps behind the door, and a woman nearing middle-age with a head full of black, wavy hair opened the door. Marinette was looking over her shoulder as a complaining toddler followed her toward the door. Alya inhaled sharply.

Marinette looked at her guests and her welcoming smile dropped off her face. "Alya?" She asked. The years melted away, and suddenly Alya felt like the nineteen-year-old girl who'd gotten off a FaceTime call with her best friend after the boy in their class committed suicide. She hiccupped and reached out for a hug without a single word.

Chapter Text

No one said a word for several seconds before Marinette jerked back to life. "Inside." She demanded. She pushed the door open and ushered them inside. Alya tripped over the doorstep and Nino had to catch her before she was sprawled out in the entryway. Tom had to duck a little as he entered.

Marinette pulled the door closed as they moved in. Before it shut, she slipped outside. Alya listened through the door. "Kids!" She called. "You can stay outside and play, go downstairs to watch a movie, or go over to a friend's house to be back before five. Mommy is using the living room right now. Tell Dad to come to find me when he gets home!"

The door opened again. Marinette brushed past the crowd in the entryway and picked up the child who had been following her. She was a little toddler with flyway black hair and blue eyes. Marinette turned around with the baby on her hips and exhaled. She kept her eyes on the floor as she tried to gather her thoughts.

"You may sit in the living room. It's down the hall." She pointed to the end of the entryway. "I need like, five minutes." She turned towards the end of the entryway. The blue eyes of the toddler remained fixated on the newbies as her head swiveled to watch them.

Alya's anger spiked. "Hasn't ten years been enough?" She called.

Marinette didn't answer.

They stood awkwardly in the entryway. Tom and Sabine put their suitcases next to the door. After thirty seconds, the door opened and a group of three children came inside. One was clearly a family friend. She had red hair, brown eyes, and glasses. The kids wove their way through the adults and out of the entryway.

The entryway was about six feet by eight. Above their hands was a pretty glass chandelier. Beside the door, on either side, there were shoe racks. Alya could see that names had been written on the soles. To the right of the door (Left when you first walk in), a large staircase took the house up to an extra floor. On the opposing wall was a picture of the Eiffel Tower overlooking the Seine. Straight ahead the entryway gave way to a large room. A couch could be seen and behind it, a large bin of toys in various colors and types.

Alya swallowed and walked into the living room. It was open-concept with the kitchen to the right, where Marinette was. Marinette's toddler had been secured into her high chair, with a bright pink sippy cup set in front of her and several crackers. She was happily eating as her mom bustled around in the kitchen, wiping down the counter and putting milk in the fridge.

On the other wall across from the kitchen was a mounted TV. A hallway ran parallel to the whole room and disappeared into the wall with the TV. Alya saw at least two doors down there. One was likely the door to the downstairs since Marinette had mentioned they were free to come in and watch TV downstairs. The other was probably a bathroom or a bedroom. Maybe a garage, though Alya hadn't spotted one when they'd first arrived. When you faced the TV, to your left was a large-scale family portrait with Marinette and Adrien and four children. Like Alya had seen from the entryway, a large toy chest was pushed against the wall. Going down that same wall there was a magazine organizer, a small bookcase filled with mostly children's literature and AP Math and Chemistry books, and several floor decorations.

Tom sat down on the sofa with Sabine. He immediately closed his eyes. Alya felt bad. She'd forgotten how old they were, that they couldn't move as fast as she could.

Nino moved to study the picture of the family, and Alya followed for lack of things to do. The oldest kid had curly blonde hair that was parted far right on her head. She had buckteeth, like Adrien, and green eyes, but her facial structure gave her away as Marinette's daughter. In the photo, she was wearing boots that ended at her knees and a white sundress. The second was a boy with black hair and green eyes, like Harry Potter. He even had a scar along his cheek. A thin white line that made him look older even though he was probably seven or eight. Another boy was blonde with blue eyes. He looked like a youth model and smiled like one too. Good posture. The last was a little girl who looked like a tiny Marinette with black pigtails and blue eyes. The pictures were obviously from the same collection that Adrien used for Bryce's Facebook page.

Marinette left the kitchen and disappeared into the entryway. Alya heard footsteps up the stairs, and then she faded out of earshot. The front door opened and closed, and the same black-haired boy in the photo came inside. He looked around the living room, then asked: "Is mom upstairs?"

"She just barely went up," Alya told him.

"Oh." He said. He fidgeted. "Will she be coming back down soon?"

"I don't know. She said she needed five minutes." Alya supplied.

"Oh. Okay." The boy walked around the couch and sat down. "I'll wait for her then." He tapped his hands on his knees.

Nino put his elbows down on the back of the couch. "So, Lil' dude. What's your name?"

"I'm Tyler. Who are you?" Tyler started popping his knuckles, which made Sabine wince.

"I'm Nino. This is my wife, Alya. We're old friends of your parents." Nino explained.

"Oh," Tyler said. He fidgeted. He seemed to do that a lot, Alya noticed. "Are you from out of town?"

"Yep. We live in Paris." Nino nodded and smiled.

"Cool. I've never met anyone from Paris. Have you ever been to the Eiffel Tower? Or the Louvre? Have you seen the superheroes that live there?" Tyler turned around and knelt on the seat to talk face-to-face with Nino.

Nino smiled. "Yes, yes, and yes." He said. "We used to go to the tower with your parents a lot before they moved. And you could say I see the superheroes a lot. My favorite is Rena Rouge." He winked at Alya.

Tom and Sabine listened cluelessly; Alya hadn't told them about the whole their-daughter-was-Ladybug-and-Chat-was-Adrien. She figured that was a subject Marinette should fill them in on.

A giggle sounded from the entryway. Marinette had reappeared with a pencil behind her ear and a sketchbook underneath her arm. She wore a black elbow-length shirt with a wide neckline and white jeans, which struck Alya as odd since most moms avoid white like the plague. "Sorry." She said. "I needed to go grab a fidget." She walked into the room and sat down on the ottoman, which laid near the couch. "Tyler," She said sternly. "I'm glad to see you talking to Nino, but I told you that I was using the Living Room. What do you need?"

"Sorry, mom." Tyler wilted. He sat back down on his butt. "I wanted to ask if I could take the granola bars outside to share."

"That's fine," Marinette approved. "One each, and no more."

"Bye, little dude," Nino said. He held out his fist. Tyler smiled shyly and held up a shaky hand to fist-bump Nino. Marinette noticed her son's shakiness.

"Tyler," She called. "Do you need more medicine? Where's your cube?"

Tyler smiled. "I'm fine." He said, putting his fingers together and twiddling his thumbs at a very fast speed. "My cube's outside. I'll go play with it for a few minutes if it'll make you happy."

Marinette nodded with a worried frown. "Come get me if you start to twitch." Tyler nodded and sprinted into the kitchen. A few seconds later, he headed to the front door with the granola bar box in hand. Marinette sighed. "Sorry about that." She said, flipping to a blank page in her sketch door. "He's ADHD. He fidgets a lot. We got him a cube so he can control it, but it's hard for him on days he doesn't have sports or anything going on."

Tom cleared his throat. "Is he an involved kid?" He asked quietly. Marinette nodded. "Yes. He's on the elementary junior track team and plays football. He also does piano like…" Marinette hesitated. "my husband." She said, selectively looking down at her sketchpad.

Alya tilted her head. "You're aware you have a full-scale photo of Adrien on the wall, right?"

Marinette shrugged. "It's actually Bryce. Bryce-"

"Papenbrook." Alya interrupted. Marinette narrowed her eyes.

"Okay." She hummed. "You obviously seem to know a lot. Mind cutting me a slice?"

"Not really, considering the real story is you and Adrien being here, alive, and well," Alya snorted. It felt really good to hold something over Marinette's head right now.

Marinette snorted. She drew long, defined lines on her sketchpad. "Well, how much do you know?" She asked.

"Everything, I think," Alya said.

"Alya noticed your diary was gone in your room. She managed to track you down using that and some fingerprints on the trapdoor." Sabine explained proudly.

"Well, not exactly but…" Alya trailed off.

Marinette looked impressed. She sighed. "I guess I should have figured you would be the one to undo us." She mumbled. "How, though? We were so careful?"

"You were." Alya nodded. "But your diary, white purse, grandmother's ring, and the photo of us were missing from your room. Also, the dust patterns were wonky. Have you visited in the last few years?"

Marinette's hands curled over the edge of her sketchpad.

Sabine looked confused. "How did she get up to her room? We certainly haven't let anyone up in the last few years."

Alya came around to sit on the couch next to Sabine, facing Marinette. She pointed at Marinette's earrings. "You're Ladybug." She stated. Sabine stiffened. Alya continued with anger mounting behind her tone. "You said you left Paris for health reasons. Not to go have kids with Adrien."

Marinette glared right back at Alya. "Well." She sighed. "You clearly haven't figured everything out, then."

"Well." Alya scoffed. "Care to fill me in, then?"

The front door opened as Marinette opened her mouth. "Mom!" a little voice called. Marinette's mouth shut. "Dad's home!"

Marinette closed her eyes and counted to ten. Then she stood up. "Excuse me for just a second." She muttered.

"Get your story together, because it better be good." Alya growled.

Marinette walked outside, and the door closed behind her. Nino put his hands on Alya's shoulders. "Chill, babe." He whispered.

"I'm chill, totally chill," Alya grumbled.

Sabine and Tom turned to Alya. "Marinette is Ladybug?" Tom asked.

Alya sighed. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you. It was big on me too."

The front door opened. Whispers echoed into the living room, but Alya couldn't make anything out. Adrien poked his head inside. He was tall, tan, and handsome, but when he smiled his wobbly, unsure smile, Alya was reminded of the teenager who was always afraid to ask his dad to talk.

"Hey…" Adrien trailed off. That was when Alya noticed he was wearing a blue suit with insignia sewn on the sleeves. A police officer. A gun was strapped to his hip along with a walkie-talkie. "I'm, uh gonna go change out of my uniform and I'll be right with you. Sorry." He disappeared back into the entryway, and Alya heard him head upstairs. Marinette reappeared. She took a deep breath.

As Marinette retook her seat on the ottoman, Sabine chuckled. When Marinette sat down, her mom nudged her ankles. "He looks handsome in his uniform." She teased.

Marinette giggled. "Yeah, he does. That's what I told him when he first brought it home." She and her mom laughed together.

Tom leaned forward. "Is he Chat Noir?" He whispered.

Marinette's smile faded, and she nodded cautiously. "Yes. We're… a team. A partnership."

Alya exhaled. Marinette looked away and began to scribble on her sketchpad. Nino drummed his fingers on the back of the couch. "So…" He trailed off. "You design for Gabriel Agreste?"

Marinette looked surprised. "How did you know that?" She asked. "He doesn't… he doesn't know who we are, right? Did you tell him?"

"No." Alya shook her head. "The girl who led us to your house mentioned it."

"She also said you bake," Tom said. He beamed. "You did take after your old man after all."

Marinette giggled. "Well, we would have starved otherwise. Adrien can't do much else other than put popcorn in the microwave. And even then, he has all of that bad luck." Marinette winked at her mom.

"Me-owch." A voice said from the entryway. Only Marinette had been expecting it. Everyone else jumped and spun in their seat. Adrien was leaning against the wall, now dressed in a green shirt and black pajama pants. Alya thought the outfit was standard home-wear, but Marinette frowned and looked worried when she saw it. Adrien smiled. "I'm gonna grab something from the kitchen and I'll be right with you. Feel free to continue talking about how Marinette is the most talented person in this house." He winked and sauntered over to the kitchen. Alya watched him go as Tom and Sabine chuckled and turned back to their daughter. Adrien walked like something was stuck under his hip. Alya frowned, and then looked back to Marinette. And was it just her, or had Adrien appeared dreadfully quickly?

Marinette looked at Alya like she knew Alya had seen something and wanted her to stay very, very quiet about it.

"So," She said, continuing to scribble on her design pad at a speed that grew increasingly faster and faster. "Tell me what you know."

The order was said with such force that Alya immediately opened her mouth. "Well, as I said, we noticed those things were gone from your room. And then Natalie happened to call. She said she was balancing books from ten years ago and noticed that Adrien had withdrawn forty-thousand Euros before he died."

Marinette stiffened. Alya turned around to see Adrien behind the counter holding a glass of water and looking shocked. This time, Alya couldn't hold it in. "Are you taking pills?" She asked.

Adrien pulled himself back to reality and blushed. "Health supplements." He corrected quickly.

Alya narrowed her eyes and studied him, then turned back to Marinette. "We got permission to search Adrien's old room. Nino noticed that his phone was plugged into the nightstand, not the desk like it usually was. We looked through his phone."

Adrien walked around the couch with a frown on his face. "But there wasn't anything on my phone." He protested. "We wiped everything suspicious."

"You were signed into YouTube as Chat Noir." Alya supplied.

Adrien looked sheepish. "Didn't Nino tell you I use that and pretend I'm a knock-off of the real one?"

"Yes, but you told me what your YouTube was personally." Alya shrugged. "Believe me, I could spot your page anywhere." She rolled her eyes. "We used the Google account that it was connected to. Your password was saved to the phone. By the way, I have the login information for like, all of Chat Noir's personal accounts. Just so you know."

Adrien turned red. Marinette said nothing as she turned another page in her sketchbook. Alya hadn't noticed at first, but she was pretty sure Marinette had gone through three pages already.

"You had emails to both Marinette and Ladybug, but the last emails to Marinette were about how she was creating the Ladybug account," Alya said. "I also got your phone number and the email address for your work from there. Then my boss gave me access to your kidnapping video, Marinette. Just so you know, you totally sit up in the video. It's subtle, but I'll show you later if you want. That's how we figured out you had faked your kidnapping. Using that, the emails, and some fancy photo-measuring-ratios, we figured out Adrien was alive and kidnapping you two weeks after his 'death'." Alya paused for a breath. "You also mention in your emails that you are renting a car, so I went to the public-domain records and found a bit where a car of the exact same description had been 'totaled' in an off-road accident and then paid for in full. Name on the file was Bryce Papenbrook, which happened to match the back-up email on Chat's account. To confirm it really was you two, Nino found Bryce's facebook and I called the back-up number on Chat's email."

Adrien squinted in thought. "No one's called me, though?" He asked.

Nino shrugged. "I mean, now we know not to call you to ask about flight information."

Adrien turned red. "That lady on the phone…" He groaned. "Screw you two. It was literally five-fifty. Screw you."

Marinette sighed. "Wow. Again, we should have figured you'd eventually figure us out Alya."

Adrien nodded in agreement. "For real." He muttered. He pushed a hand through his hair. "Does my dad still think I'm dead?"

Nino nodded. "Neither of us felt like calling him."

"Good." Adrien sighed.

"So, your turn," Tom said. "We need an explanation. Why, Marinette?" He looked distrustfully at Adrien.

Marinette took a deep breath. "Around the time I was eighteen, I started getting violently ill after patrols." She said carefully "Tikki, my kwami, had her suspicions, but I'm sort of an unprecedented case. No one in history has ever transformed as much as Adrien and I…" She trailed off, looking at her partner. Adrien set one hand over her left as her right continued scribbling furiously.

"The miraculous are dangerous," Adrien muttered. "The first two, the cat and ladybug, while powerful, will destroy your body after too much exposure. While designed for human use, they're meant for higher beings. If you wield the cat or ladybug miraculous too much, they start to destroy your body to try and make a more powerful host. It will either kill you or turn you into something that is not human – an immortal wielder."

Alya must have looked green with worry because Marinette blurted out: "To our knowledge, the other miraculous don't do this. Historically, only Ladybugs and Chats have been affected, and we're much further down that road than any other wielder has ever gone. They had minor sickness at the end of their lives but by the time we were twenty we already had-"

"Health problems," Alya interrupted. "Your bodies started to shut down." She turned on Adrien. "You were taking pills!"

He winced. "We see a doctor. He assigns supplements and pain meds. The whole collection."

"So, what now? Are you still human? Or are you already immortals?"

"No." Marinette shook her head. "If we were transforming at the same rate we were as teens, then we'd have been immortal or dead by the time we were forty. Not transforming has managed to elongate our time to at least sixty-four, according to our kwamis."

"Where are your kwamis?" Nino asked.

"In our miraculous. We wear them in an inactive state because they help with pain management." Adrien answered. He showed them his ring, which appeared in its transformed state with the green paw print.

"Why don't you just, not wear the miraculous?" Alya asked. She began to subconsciously fidget with her necklace.

"Withdrawals," Adrien admitted. "I tried that back when I first learned what was happening. I'd not wear it until I needed to. But then I started getting awful rashes and I got blisters and boils. It doesn't work. My body – our bodies - can't live with or without the magic."

"When will you know?" Sabine asked. "When you're immortal, I mean."

Marinette swallowed and clutched Adrien's hand. "Aging will reverse at an extreme rate. Grey hairs will vanish, wrinkles gone, you'll be able to see the reverse. And we'll… lose our respiratory system."

Alya blanched. "What?" She screeched.

Adrien winced. "That's the last of the body systems our body will dispose of. It's already started shutting down certain organs in both of us and shredding and replacing other things."

"Replacing other things?" Alya asked. "Like what?"

"Skin and muscles, mostly," Marinette sighed. She rolled up her sleeves and held her arm out to Alya, Nino, and her parents. Alya leaned over and blinked. Marinette's forearms looked to be made up of a hexagon pattern not dissimilar to her suit. "This is what it looks like when it's done."

"And before that?" Alya asked softly.

Marinette shook her head, looking ill. "Not good," She said tactfully. Alya had sudden flashbacks of what Ladybug's suit had looked like when she'd last seen her last. Did the skin and muscles just… fall off?

"How do you just lose an organ?" Nino asked.

"Well," Adrien shifted uncomfortably. "In the case of our respiratory system, we'll probably cough up our lungs or something, or maybe they'll disintegrate and…" He trailed off.

"We're not privy to details yet," Marinette mumbled. "Most of this is speculation. I have no idea how, like, our lungs will detach from our windpipe or anything. But according to our kwamis, our bodies have already started to replace organs in our bodies with more durable systems."

"Like what?" Alya asked. "What have you lost?"

Marinette swallowed. "Mostly small things, so far. Both our appendixes, my gallbladder, both our duodenums, bile ducts." She hesitated and put her pencil down. Her eyes closed. "My fallopian tubes." She said quickly, turning a bit red. She glanced at Adrien. So did Alya.

"And?" Alya prompted.

Adrien hunched over himself and stared at the ground. "I'd rather not share." He muttered. "Your list is extensive as it is."

Marinette jumped in before Alya could protest. "We knew we would be experiencing severe sicknesses and we couldn't share what was going on with anyone. We recruited other miraculous holders with miraculous we knew wouldn't harm them like ours was and I've gone back twice to purify the akumas they collect." She shot a look at Alya and Nino. We decided to leave and try to slow down damages and get ourselves under control before bigger things start shutting down, like our digestive tracts and our urinary systems and our reproduction organs…" She trailed off.

"It sounds crazy," Adrien muttered. "And I'm sorry we've caused you so much heartache. But I swear I took care of her as best I could, and I supported her through everything." He looked at Tom and Sabine. "I'm sorry I had to steal your daughter away."

Tom looked away, shaking his head. "I… can't forgive that yet, son," He whispered.

Adrien looked like a kicked puppy but didn't press the matter. Sabine reached out to Marinette. "Come, now." She said. "It's time for you to introduce me to my grandchildren."

Marinette smiled and set her sketchpad down. Alya stared at it quizzically as Marinette led her mom outside.

"What?" Adrien asked Alya.

Alya reached forward and took the sketchpad. "I swear she started the conversation in the middle of this thing and now it's almost full."

"Oh?" Adrien asked uneasily. "I suppose I'll have to get her a new one."

"Wait. Chat Noir is bad luck and destruction. Ladybug is good luck and creation. Does she get inspiration outbursts like this a lot?" Alya's brain began to race on high power.

Adrien didn't answer. He stood up. "I'm going to go talk to my kids." He said.

"Do you have destructive outbursts?" Alya asked. Adrien continued walking. She heard the front door open and close. "Ugh." She groaned, slumping against the couch.

Nino patted her shoulder. "Chill out, Alya. You'll get answers eventually. Come on. I want to meet everyone too." He started to walk away to the front door. Alya sat for a few more seconds.

Tom sniffled beside her.

She turned to stare at the bigger man's shaking shoulders. He didn't turn to face her. Alya bit her lip, and then quickly stood up to follow Nino, leaving Tom alone by himself.

-I'm really insecure about releasing this chapter because I know a lot of you won't know what to do with yourselves.

Chapter Text

Adrien and Marinette married quickly in a tiny ceremony under their new pseudonyms: Bryce and Christina Papenbrook (nee Vee). Adrien took out a large sum of money from his father's account. Most of this he would use to rent and maintain a small home in a small town called Winebrook. The other part he used as a deposit for a one-night rental for a car he wasn't planning on returning. A small portion would go to paying someone to misidentify his body using a planted corpse.

Nineteen-year-old Marinette had waited patiently by the phone for Adrien the night he faked his death. It had been determined that his father would have to have his death, as Gabriel would put private investigators after them if it was a disappearance, and Marinette and Adrien weren't sure whether or not they could fool a team like that. Meanwhile, Marinette couldn't bear the idea of letting her parents think she was dead of suicide, so she decided it'd be better for them to not know her fate. That way they could assume the best. Hopefully she and Adrien would be able to come back eventually, but for now, it was too dangerous to reveal their secret identities to very many people and there was no way to explain what was going on without revealing themselves.

Adrien left two weeks earlier than Marinette to set their home up and make sure everything was functional for her. Then he came back to Paris, took out the rental car, staged his wife's kidnapping, took the car to a spare parts dealer to be dismantled, and paid the rental service for the car in full, saying it had been damaged in a severe off-road accident.

The first thing Adrien said upon their arrival at their new home was: "Our neighbors are nosy." At the time, Marinette had wrinkled her nose and said: "That's not very nice to say", but by that time tomorrow she'd agree with him. Everyone in the small town came by to meet, greet, invite, reprimand, and coddle her. Many made comments on exactly how young she was, even though Marinette maintained that she was twenty-two. Marinette didn't have a lot of time to miss her family because she was busy keeping her old life under wraps and adapting to her new surroundings.

Adrien spent the first year in education. With his new pseudonym, he went to college and quickly earned degrees in teaching math and science and also criminal justice. During the school year, he taught high schoolers to love the things he loved and was considered the cool, punny teacher. In his off-time when he wasn't at home or during the summer, he worked as a part-time officer in town.

That first year Adrien had been in college, Marinette had been busy too. She designed clothes for their first baby and made decorations for around the house. She put a nursery together almost all by herself and learned about plumbing by fixing all the sinks in the house. She set up a new website and spent free time designing and selling clothes online. Sometimes, people would even commission her. Word got out around town and when prom rolled around Marinette found many of the high school girls asking her to design and make dresses for them.

Marinette made good use of the skills she'd learned living in a bakery. She donated to the elementary cakewalks, made food for their house, and taught a class of middle-schoolers every year during their in-school cooking class.

Adrien took photos of the beautiful designs Marinette created and sent them under her pseudonym to his father, Gabriel Agreste. Gabriel sent a letter back saying they were exquisite, and before long a deal was hammered out where Marinette would submit designs to be produced en mass by Gabriel's company, and in return, she received a portion of profits. Between this and Adrien's dual careers, the growing family eliminated all their money worries and started putting aside money for emergencies and college for all the kids.

The town gradually got used to them, though many whispered about how secretive the growing family seemed to be. At times, 'Christina' or 'Bryce' would disappear inside their house for days on end, and neither parent ever seemed to be completely healthy. Life wasn't always the lovely front they put up to their neighbors.

Marinette and Adrien continued to wear their miraculous as the pain grew worse and worse even though they knew it shaved time away from them. In the Papenbrook home, they would close themselves away as skin withered into black and shredded itself, trying to make two gods out of two young adults.

Marinette had wanted three kids and Adrien the same. But that was before they were handed limits and told it was now or never. Now, they agreed on 'as many as God will let us have.'

Every month, Adrien and Marinette would drive out of town to a doctor in a neighboring establishment. For the first and only time, they confided with someone outside of their circle about their circumstances, except they insisted they had no idea why things were changing so rapidly in their bodies. The doctor assumed they'd always been like this and let it go. He gave frequent x-rays and assigned a collection of daily-use meds for pain. Every time they walked away, he had to scratch his head and wonder what sort of trauma would make the human body react like these two's?

As their children started to be born and Marinette and Adrien settled happily into their new lives as Bryce and Christina, Marinette had to admit she began to forget about her old friends and her parents. She wished she still had her mom and dad and Alya and Nino in her life, but she and Adrien agreed it would be hard on them to watch them deteriorate like this. Gradually, Marinette was forced to devote more and more time to family, and with time the wishes faded. She and Adrien were united and devoted to the singular task of raising their children while they still had the chance.

After dinner that night, Marinette and Adrien threw beds together for everyone. Nino and Alya got the pull-out couch in the living room. Marinette and Adrien gave up their master bedroom to Tom and Sabine, half because Marinette was worried about his back and they had the best bed in the house, and partly because the other fold-out couch in the den wouldn't fit them.

Marinette and Adrien sacrificed themselves to the downstairs pull-out.

The Papenbrook(Was it Papenbrook? Or was it Agreste? Or Dupain-Cheng-Agreste?) family was close. Before they went to bed that night, they played a quick family game of twister. Uncle Nino joined in because Uncle Nino was determined to be that one uncle. The cool one. Then, one by one, the two parents teamed up to take the kids to bed.

Marinette seemed capable, but as the evening wore on Adrien seemed to be in more and more pain. He shuffled when he walked. He winced when he sat or stood up. But if there was one thing Alya chose to admire about Adrien, it was his devotion. He worked through the obvious pain to be there for everyone. When three-year-old Diana leaped into his lap and curled up into his side, he bit his lip but didn't complain. When she nodded off, he put her on his shoulder and held Hugo's hand as he took the two youngest to their rooms upstairs, wincing through every step.

Marinette waited until both her seven-year-old and nine-year-old were leaning on her shoulder before putting an arm around them each and leading them to their rooms. Both parents were absent as they handed out toothbrushes, brushed out tangled hair, tucked in covers, and said goodnight.

Alya had known beforehand that there were seven bedrooms and four bathrooms. What she hadn't known was that two of them were too small to fit a bed and a dresser in together, so Marinette and Adrien used one for an office space while the actual office, which sat on the main floor, was filled with a piano and several locker/cubby areas for the kids to keep their hobbies in order. So, on the upstairs floor, there were two kid's bedrooms and the kid's bathroom. The Master Bed and Bath were at the end of the upstairs floor, and the office was across from the bathroom. The other small room was used for storage. That was five bedrooms, technically speaking, on the top floor.

On the middle floor was the entryway, which spread into the living room and the kitchen. Down the hallway beside the living room was the stairwell into the basement, a bathroom, and the two older kid's bedrooms. The hallway ended in the 'office'-office, where the piano was kept, if you followed it past all the other doors.

In the basement was a second television set and a couch. There was a bathroom and a boiler room, and also a bomb-shelter from back during war times, which Marinette kept locked and covered up because the neighbor kids liked to come and hide in it.

Tom and Sabine sat on the couch as they watched their grandkids wear themselves out and head off to bed. Before Marinette and Adrien came back downstairs, however, they disappeared up the stairs and turned in for the night.

Alya pulled out her laptop and sat cross-legged on the bed. Nino pulled out some headphones and put one ear on as he modified different pitches and beats with a smartphone app he was trying out. They sat at the head of the bed, and when Nino put his hand on top of hers, she modified to work with only one hand.

"Well, aren't you two cute?" Marinette said from the hallway. She leaned over the side of the L-shaped couch and smiled. Alya noticed she was favoring her left arm.

"Did you hurt yourself?" Alya asked. Marinette blinked.

"No," She shook her head. "I mean, I did pull it a little weird earlier, but I get this every night. My doctor thinks that it's artery build-up." The way she spoke gave Alya the idea that Marinette thought her doctor was wrong. Alya wondered what it could be. Was it more skin stuff? Or maybe muscles? A horrible thought struck her. What about their bones?

A loud crash came from the stairwell. Marinette jumped up and dashed into the entryway. Someone was groaning in pain.

"M-fine, I'm fine Mari." Alya heard Adrien say from the hallway.

Nino pulled off his headphones as Marinette helped Adrien into the room. She helped him sit down on the couch and then hurried into the kitchen. She came back with a tall glass of water and a small basket of pill bottles. And when Alya said basket, she meant a literal woven-type basket that a normal family would set fruits and veggies in.

"Did you skimp?" Marinette whispered as she faced away from Alya and Nino. The duo got the idea she was ignoring the fact they were there.

"No, I know better than that," Adrien mumbled. Marinette pushed the water into his hands.

"It's getting worse then?" She asked.

"Yeah." He admitted.

"Should I take you in tomorrow?" She asked.

"Sunday." Adrien reminded her. "He won't be in office. Hopefully, I'll get a good enough rest tonight that I can just get up and go tomorrow."

Marinette started uncapping prescription bottles with a trained eye. She measured out a field of white, tans, blues, reds, and clearish ones with oil in them. Alya only recognized three. Melatonin, a teal-blue type of clindamycin that she'd been given when she had her wisdom teeth removed as a teen, and a 600 mg tablet of ibuprofen. Alya and Nino exchanged looks as Marinette went through the basket and then dropped at least twenty-five different types of pills into Adrien's hand. He took them four at a time until they were all gone without question or complaint. When he was done, he chugged the rest of the glass. Marinette gave him a quick hug and kissed his head like he was one of her small children rather than her husband.

"I'll bring you a compress." She told him as she stood up. She took the basket with her.

"Don't forget yours." He said. She nodded and went to the kitchen.

Alya's curiosity spiked. She waited until Marinette put the glass in the dishwasher before she turned around and watched as Marinette pulled down a second basket, even bigger than the first. She kept her face expressionless as she turned back to her computer.

"Is that your music, Nino?" Adrien asked.

"Yeah, man," Nino said. "Someone asked me to review their app on YouTube, so I'm mixing some of my music in it."

"That's cool. Can I hear?" Adrien asked. He scooted down the length of the couch. The sound of the fabric against the black leather of the couch momentarily covered up the sound of Marinette uncapping plastic bottles in the next room over.

"Sure, bro," Nino said. He unplugged his headphones and began to fiddle. After a few seconds' delays, the new song Nino had been working on the last week started to play.

Adrien listened for a few seconds. "There's a flaw." He said. "Every time you put the beat drop in, it creates a rift. You need an extra half-rest in between those bars."

"The problem with that is down here in the chorus." Nino pulled up the sheet translation for Adrien to see.

"Yeah. You'd need to put a whole rest in if you do that." Adrien mumbled. "What if you delete this bar here and move it to the end of the song to lead it out?"

"That's a really loud beat. The end of the song is too soft." Nino hesitated. "But, I could remove this one here and lead it out." He considered, and then began to fiddle. Adrien picked up Marinette's sketchbook off the ottoman, which had been abandoned after she'd filled it that day. He opened it. Alya momentarily stopped what she was doing to look over as Adrien flipped through pages of trim white-leather jackets, vintage-based removable ruffles, and skirts with patterned ripples. They were detailed sketches with lines and contouring – the whole package. Adrien didn't say anything as Marinette walked back over with a mug of tea in hand.

Marinette took it from him without a word.

"I filled another sketchbook." She muttered. He nodded.

"Believe it or not, I saw." He nudged her playfully.

Alya bit her cheek. "How many is that this week?" She asked calmly, almost as if she was asking her friend's favorite color.

"Three," Marinette said quietly. Then, she seemed to have realized she'd spoken to Alya, not to Adrien. Her cheeks took on pink tones.

Alya craned her neck and examined the front of the sketchpad. "That's two-hundred pages."

Marinette turned the cover upside down and set it on the ground. Only the cardboard backing showed. She inhaled the smell of her tea, then took a sip. Adrien put his arm around her.

"Sporadic creative outbursts?" Alya asked.

Marinette ignored her.

Alya sighed and turned around her laptop screen. "I promised someone I wouldn't show anyone else this, but I figure it's okay to show it to two people who don't technically exist."

On the screen were the two stupid videos that Alya had watched on repeat until Nino pointed out the shadow in the backseat. She played them twice.

"Wow," Marinette said. "That's freaky."

"For real," Alya asked. "But I still have questions. When did you throw the phone out? How did you avoid the cameras? What about Adrien's fake body? And I know you've both visited your old homes, so spill."

"We erased my phone in the car and then pitched it in front of the car as we were driving. It was totaled, right?" Marinette asked.

"Totaled," Alya confirmed. "They didn't even try to recover it."

"Good. Anyway, we went through the older part of the city. The city hasn't gone through to update everything yet. As Ladybug and Chat Noir, we were able to figure out where to go. Also, we waited until the moving cameras were facing away. Simple." Marinette sighed as she took another sip of tea.

"And my fake body was a cadaver," Adrien said, embarrassed. "We paid someone to misidentify me and everything. So, technically, there are four or so people who know I'm still alive. The hospital technician, the EMT who 'identified' me, who else?" He turned to ask Marinette.

"Not Natalie or Gabriel?" Alya asked.

Adrien shook his head with a wince. "Not even the gorilla."

Nino nodded. "Yeah, the gorilla asked us to fill in with anything on you. He seemed really, really sad."

"You won't, will you?" Marinette asked.

Alya shrugged. "I don't know. What I haven't explained to you two is that Natalie is kind-of, not-really, trusting me to figure out what happened to that money. I have to give her some kind of story. And I was assigned to the Ladybug case at work. I need something I can tell my boss, Natalie, the world, about either what Adrien Agreste did with forty-thousand euros and why LB and CN ditched. And I can't exactly explain that you skipped out to Winebrook, settled down with a girl who Paris thinks is missing, etc, etc."

Nino nodded as Alya talked. "To be honest, I don't think anyone would buy it anyway. I didn't when Alya first started going off: 'I need to check Adrien's room!' 'Ladybug's fingerprints are on Marinette's trapdoor!'" He waved his hands around for effect.

Marinette nodded. "We need a story then." She sighed.

Adrien clasped his hands together and leaned forward. "Yeah, and on top of all that they're holding Marinette's file back from being closed."

"What?" Alya asked.

"Someone put a hold on my file yesterday." Marinette frowned. "You know, my kidnapping file? They were going to assume me dead next week, but someone named Justin Ossur reopened my file down in Paris. The reason he cited was that a new reporter had taken the case and found substantial evidence to add to the case. It's been extended until next year."

"Justin…?" Alya asked weakly.

Adrien narrowed his eyes. "Is there something you'd like to tell us, Alya?"

"Well, you see…" Alya started. "My boss but not really, he's just over the publishing company, he has a boyfriend. Which is super upsetting because I totally ship him and my actual boss together. But anyway, he has a boyfriend who works in the records part of the police department and whose name was Justin, and I sort of told my boss what I'd found so far, so…"

Adrien let out a colossal groan. Marinette put her mug in between her legs. "How much?" She asked.

"Like, he knows that Marinette Dupain-Cheng is linked to the case, and about the Chat Noir email account, and your missing journal and diary, and that it includes Adrien." Alya paraphrased.

Marinette sucked in a breath and closed her eyes. "Okay. Okay. We can do this." She felt around for Adrien's hand.

Alya felt bad to keep delivering bad news, but she opened her mouth anyway. "Natalie is aware I'm on the case and I think she may have a small suspicion based on how quickly we left the mansion. I have a meeting with my boss on Monday to explain to her the whole thing – everything I've uncovered so far." Alya bit her lip.

"Alya, no," Marinette said, looking horrified. "You wouldn't sell us out for your job?"

Nino took his hand off Alya's in a quiet mark that he fully disapproved of where this conversation was going.

"I- of course, I wouldn't." She stuttered though she didn't feel 100% confident. "It's just…" She bit her lip, tried to stifle the explosion in her chest, then laughed a harsh, cold laugh before she let it all out. "This is so unfair! I finally manage to claw my way up to get in Carly's good area, I get the Ladybug file and become the only reporter in ten years to get anywhere on the case only to discover what? My best friend is dying and is Ladybug and never told me and meanwhile, her crush married her and pretended to commit suicide? Do you know how long it took us to get over that? Do you know how much it hurt, Marinette? I cried for weeks! My parents put me in therapy! I couldn't go to school because I got panic attacks seeing your cold, empty desk! They moved me into another class! Nino and I dropped out the year after and did online school! And after all this time and all the things I did to try and feel okay again, it was all for nothing! I still figured out your identity, you still have unresolved problems in Paris, and on top of that you're informing me there's a chance you'll leave me again?"

Tears were running down Alya's face, her shoulders were shaking, and her glasses were fogging up. She whipped off her glasses, wiped at her blotchy nose, and glared daggers at her best friend. "I wish you had just stayed dead."

Adrien put up his hand to shield Marinette from an invisible attack. "Woah, babe," Nino muttered. "Too far, too far."

Alya sniffled. She put her glasses back on.

Marinette seemed completely expressionless. One hand was laid on her knee, the other on Adrien's thigh. She stared off into the distance. The only sound in the room was Alya sniffling.

Finally, Marinette turned to Adrien. "It does seem a little pointless." She muttered. "I mean, we did all this because we couldn't reveal our identities. Now look, our identities have been revealed."

"My father is still out there," Adrien muttered. "And Hawkmoth."

Marinette twiddled her thumbs the same way Tyler did. "I'm sorry Alya. I would be mad at me too. But, I'm hoping we can work this out still."

Alya closed her laptop. "It's whatever." Screaming had made her feel a little better. Hopefully, she hadn't woken anyone up.

Adrien sighed. "I'm sorry, Alya, but we need more time. You can't reveal us, not now."

Alya glared. "Why shouldn't I?" She scoffed. "I found the information." Nino elbowed her sharply.

"We were planning on returning to Paris soon, and if you reveal us then we'll be in danger of Hawkmoth. Also, the kids don't know about us. If you told people we were Ladybug and Chat Noir, not only would you expose them, but they'd never be able to have the normalcy we were striving for with them." Adrien reasoned.

Alya let out a deep breath. "I'll come up with something, but I solved the Ladybug Case and I do intend to write something, even if I have to water it down into oblivion." She sniffled.

"When were you coming back?" Nino asked.

Adrien shifted. "It was always our plan to return… see, our kwamis told us that we might be able to reach a point where the basics had been done, and then we wouldn't hurt so much, but it's only been getting worse instead of leveling off. After ten years of hoping, it seems pointless to have you keep fighting for us when we aren't going to get better."

"What about Gabriel, and Natalie?" Alya asked. "Gabriel will be furious when he finds this all out."

Adrien nodded softly. "It'll... take time, but I'm an adult now. He can't pull me back without me being able to fight back legally. I'm an officer now - I know my rights and how the system works. And if all else fails I can always become Chat Noir again..." He twisted his ring as if he would rather not.

"We have enough to support us," Marinette sighed. "And we've invested so much over the years... we might even be fine to pay Gabriel and Natalie back the amount straight away if they want, even though you were technically in your rights to take it since Gabriel gave you permission to the accounts." She looked over at Alya. "But what about you?" She asked. "Are you going to print all of our secrets?"

Alya felt her hands begin to shake and Nino turned to face her, crossing his arms and giving her a look that clearly said: "You better do the right thing."

She'd always known the journalism word was ruthless and precise. She'd always wondered when her moment of need in terms of maturity and morality would come into play. She'd never imagined having to sacrifice this much. This story... could make her. She would have a name for herself. An actual investigative reporter. Her dream. People would know her and know her work and she'd have it all... everything.

Alya stared at the picture of the Papenbrook/Agreste/Dupain-Cheng family over Marinette and Adrien's shoulders. She wasn't the only one who'd worked hard, and they had four little souls in their care. Alya's eyes filled with tears. She imagined everyone knowing little Tyler and him fidgeting under the stares and whispers of everyone in the streets and in class after being moved to Paris, a place he'd never known. And at that moment, she knew what was right.

She couldn't expose them.

Even if she had to lose it all.