Marinette smiled as a breeze lifted the humid, warm air from her nostrils. The Trocadéro was busy today with people sauntering up and down its stairs and walkways as beads of sweat seeped onto their brows. However, Alya was not one of those bothered by the heat. She lined up her flat phone with an imaginary axis to find the perfect spot. With ease, pointed the camera lens at her subject, an older woman surrounded by children.
Marinette had known this woman well, but framed by Alya's phone, she seemed not only to be a stranger but more amazing than in real life. With a viridian beret on a day as humid as this one, she was also unaffected by the heat, wearing a long, matching green skirt, a blue sweater, and a white shirt. It was with the same practiced focus that Alya had filmed Ladybug, making her subject feel as though she were the center of her own story. It was moments like these that Marinette could imagine how her identity had stayed a secret for so long with her best friend's photography. The older babysitter on the screen was star in her own right, no longer a normal human being.
Alya effortlessly readjusted the phone slightly and switched the view to selfie mode, so Alya's face was front and center on the screen. With a quick tap of the image, the "Live" notification popped up and pulsated few times.
"Welcome to this latest edition of the Ladyblog Livestream," Alya greeted. "How's everybody doing today?"
Hearts, emojis, and text messages burst onto the screen with a cavalcade of excitement.
"I have my BFF Marinette here with me!" Alya added. Infected by the energy of her followers, she pulled Marinette close so that Marinette was in the shot. Marinette grimaced and waved awkwardly into the direction of the phone, and Alya gave her a gentle elbow poke to loosen her up.
"Hi," Marinette said. In response, Alya began to read some of the comments that appeared.
"VillaNessie says, 'She has her hair just like Ladybug.'" Alya chuckled. "That's because we're all fans of Ladybug here at the Ladyblog. Of course, since VillaNessie is one of my featured supporters, maybe she's onto something?"
Marinette continued to wave her hand in stilted swipes as her eyes parsed the comments, and Alya made a face of amusement before reading the next message aloud.
"Mysterious1412Face asks, 'Where's Rena Rouge?' If I see her I'll tell her you asked about her." Alya paused before reading his next comment. "'I miss her so much. Please send her my love.' Okay. Down, boy."
Marinette silently sighed in relief that she was no longer the spectacle, reserving her actual sigh for when the camera was no longer on her. Instead her nervous grin slid into a genuine, sly smirk. It was Alya's turn to have to deal with a dual identity she could not share. Instead, Alya changed the subject without missing a beat.
"I'm here to bring you a special update for the 'Every Day is Heroes Day' campaign," Alya announced as she double tapped the image of herself. Marinette felt lighter than air as the screen now showed the woman from before. Aside from the sole commenter's remark, no one had associated her with Ladybug, or even recognized her for being the 'Adrien fangirl' from "Fill My Shoes." Being off-camera would help people forget about her, although as the names appeared and disappeared from the chat, unease tickled her neck and shoulders.
Marinette followed Alya as the blogger walked over to the elder and the children surrounding her. The youngsters ranged in ages, from the infant August in his stroller to children who were closer to the age of ten than being born. Ella, Etta, and Manon were also in the gathering of children and Marinette wordlessly noted the craftiness of Alya of making sure three of their most frequent charges were now promoting her blog.
"We are here with our latest hero," Alya continued as she approached them. "This is Miss Minnie Bouclier. She's an excellent babysitter and a personal inspiration to me based on how well she takes care of all these kids. She serves as a reminder that you can never be too young or too old to be a hero."
Alya stopped walking and all the kids turned to the phone waved and cheered. However, Miss Bouclier did not respond to either Alya's approach or the crowd's shift in focus.
"Miss Bouclier," Alya called, "you're on the Ladyblog!"
"Oh, I am?" Miss Bouclier asked with a jump. She gave a wave as well, slower in intensity than those of the children.
"Yes, you are. We just wanted to thank you for your continued kindness to all of Parisian young ones."
"It's truly my pleasure. I never had children of my own, so I want to make sure all the kids I encounter are happy and safe."
Alya let the camera shot linger on Miss Bouclier and her young companions before double-tapping the phone again to show her face.
"Thank you all for joining the Ladyblog Livestream, and remember...stay connected." The phone screen went back to the application and Alya waved in front of it to make sure it was no longer broadcasting. "And we're off!"
"That one fan really likes Rena Rouge," Marinette remarked as the two began to close in again on Miss Bouclier and her audience.
"He's a newer fan," Alya explained, "but he's also a big patron so I'm trying to make sure I get a little Rena Rouge content for him. Of course, it's hard when she's not around all the time like Ladybug is."
Marinette bit the corner of her tongue. She wanted Alya to be a full-time superhero alongside her so badly, and remarks like this nipped at her self-control. She quickly switched her thoughts to the other, new worry that occupied her.
"What if some of these fans don't mean well?" Marinette asked. "A lot of those names I saw, 'Ghoulmandise,' 'Steel Maiden,' 'Lady Fang,' almost sound villainous."
"Hello? Villainsona contest!" Alya crossed her arms. "Don't tell me you haven't been keeping up with the blog."
"Well..." Marinette had viewed Alya's updates as a necessity, but the side content and fan events escaped her attention.
"I understand. With Kitty Section, helping your parents, school, and whatever secret, overcomplicated plot you cooked up to capture Adrien's heart, you've fallen behind."
Marinette looked to her open purse and the blue eyes of the kwami inside it, fully aware the reason why she couldn't keep up with the blog was that she was too busy providing the actual content for it.
"Look," Alya continued as she put the phone in her purse. "I know you're worried. But think about it, if you wanted to meet Ladybug, one of the best ways of doing so is to get akumatized."
Marinette relented as the two of them were now flanking Miss Bouclier, drawn to her like iron filings to a magnet. Her crowd of children did not mind the teenagers' presence.
"Children, do you want me to finish the story of Perseus and Medusa?" Miss Bouclier asked.
"I know how it goes!" Manon butted in, half jumping from her seat. "Perseus snuck up on her, but she saw him and fell in love with him and they all lived happily ever after!" Miss Bouclier's age-shrunken eyes widened with childlike amazement.
"That's a great story, Manon!"
"That's not how it goes!" cried Etta, crossing her arms.
"Yeah," added Ella. "Perseus beats the monster. He's a hero just like Ladybug."
"But that's not fair to Medusa," Manon protested.
"Children," Miss Bouclier said, "I guess we just have to put it to a vote. All in favor of Medusa getting a happy ending?"
Manon raised her hand, as did several other kids. Miss Bouclier counted their votes by pointing her fingers at each one. However, she did not notice that the carriage beside her started to roll away.
"All in favor of Perseus slaying Medusa?" she asked.
She counted the hands in the same, measured manner. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw an absence and immediately stopped counting as the charge that had been stationed beside her had vanished.
"August!" Miss Bouclier screamed.
She looked to the left and to the right. After precious seconds, she found the stroller rolling away from her. The wheels of the carriage spun closer towards edge of the pavement, ready to drop into the street.
Marinette, having closed the distance in a dash, grabbed the runaway stroller before it could descend there.
August cackled with delight. Marinette exhaled heavily as she pushed the stroller back to the gathering.
"Here you go," she announced. Marinette rested her foot against the stroller, preventing it from rolling away.
"Why...y-ye-es," Miss Bouclier stammered. "Thank you."
"It's okay," Alya reassured. "Since it seems to be a tie, I want to hear the rest of the story now."
"Now where was I? I think I'm going to have to start from the beginning all over again."
"Aw..." all of the children moaned. Her cool composure and age-cracked voice obscured the shivers sent down her spine, and she pushed past the sharp pains of fear that stabbed at her heart.
The sun's rays cut through the darkness as Hawk Moth opened the sunroof of the atrium. His coterie of butterflies fluttered as the light hit them.
"What's this?" he asked himself. "I sense an emotion, a strong fear of being unable to protect those entrusted to her care." A butterfly rested in his palm. He smiled and wrapped the butterfly between the palms of his hands, imbuing it with dark energy. He opened his hands, revealing a black butterfly charged with energy.
The butterfly shot into the air, as Hawk Moth twirled his cane. He struck the ground with the stick in a flourish of emphasis.
"Go," he ordered. "my little akuma, and evilize her!"
The butterfly passed through the window like thread through the eye of a needle, ready to bind its target with an invisible string of evil.
The heat only intensified in the Trocadéro as Miss Bouclier spoke again. This time, her youthful audience was bored and drowsy, and the elder woman knew it. Her eyes slid towards Alya and Marinette, the only two still genuinely interested in her story.
A black speck in the sky swiftly sent an alarm of panic to Marinette. Marintette tapped Alya, breaking her concentration and pointed upward.
"You said the best way to meet Ladybug is to get akumatized?" Marinette asked. "It looks like somebody is going to get their wish."
Alya quickly spotted the speck, which was now growing into the telltale shape of a butterfly. It closed in on their crowd.
"We have to stop the akuma," Alya declared.
"Yeah, but we need a plan." Marinette's memory of Miss Bustier's akumatization flashed in her head. "If that butterfly touches one of our objects, and we're not thinking positively we might get akumatized instead." Marinette took in a sharp breath of realization. "That's it! Positive thoughts!"
Quickly, Alya opened her purse and retrieved her phone. With a flick of her finger, she dragged the notification menu and her eyes enlarged with excitement.
"Hey kids," Alya called to the children, holding up her phone. "I just checked and André has just set up his ice cream stand a few blocks away."
"Ice cream!" the children all shouted.
"I want ice cream!" Ella begged.
"So come on guys," Alya urged, grabbing August's stroller in a quick move, "let's go!" Alya beckoned the crowd of kids, who scrambled and bounded to their feet. She pushed the baby carriage away, with the youngsters forming a train of little feet.
"But," Miss Bouclier protested, "children, you have to stay here!"
"We don't want to hear your boring story," Manon declared as she turned around. "We want ice cream!" The sting of betrayal pierced Miss Bouclier as Manon walked away. The girl who had just been her most enthusiastic listener had now been lured by the promise of sweet treats.
She dropped her head and in turn the butterfly dropped as well, fluttering in its descent toward the older woman.
"Alya," Marinette called, "the akuma's after her. Stay with the kids!"
Marinette turned back to Miss Bouclier and could see the hope drain from the woman's eyes. Instinctively, she wrapped her arms around the elder.
"Miss Bouclier," she said with her hug. "It's going to be all right. We'll get you some ice cream, too."
"I love ice cream," she replied, "but the children..."
Marinette did not hear the rest of the sentence. She looked up and watched as the butterfly plummeted with flapping wings. She swatted at the akuma, but it avoided her arm and made a beeline for Miss Bouclier's beret and landed on it. The green beret turned black as the akuma merged with it.
"Greetings," announced the disembodied voice. "I am Hawk Moth."
"Don't listen to him," Marinette pleaded. "Whatever it is that's bothering you can be fixed."
Miss Bouclier groaned and moaned as if trying to throw off a mountain pressing into her back. Marinette grew hopeful at the sounds of resistance. Miss Bouclier wasn't going to accept the akuma without a fight, which meant that she could reject it.
"These children are under my watch," Miss Bouclier declared. "I will not hurt them."
"You won't," Hawk Moth responded. "What is to say someone else won't? The city of Paris is too dangerous for little ones to run about." He paused briefly to emphasize her new name. "Gorgis, I grant you the ability to stop those little ones in their tracks. Anyone in your sight will be under your protection, if you choose, and anyone who looks at you will also be frozen in place. All I ask for in return that you retrieve Ladybug and Cat Noir's Miraculouses. Do you accept?"
Miss Bouclier had stopped moaning. Marinette knew what it meant; Miss Bouclier had given in.
Marinette did not wait for the black mass to appear around the victim before the teenager broke out in a sprint. She had to find a place to transform, but in this crowded area she was surrounded by eyes. Soon she was surrounded by the feet and legs of others running in the same direction as her. Her curiosity bade her to turn her head to see what she was running from.
"Don't look back, Marinette!" Tikki yelled from her purse, interrupting her intention.
Marinette was too stunned to react with anything but obedience, but she threw glances at the fleeing crowd around her, many of whom had stopped fleeing. Those onlookers around her who had turned to face what Miss Bouclier had become were stone statues. The sight only pumped Marinette's legs faster through the Trocadéro.
"You children aren't going anywhere!" Gorgis hissed in a monstrous voice.
And as Marinette heard the declaration, she waited for the moment she could also be unseen so she undergo her own metamorphosis.