"When was that in style, Dupain-Cheng? The eighteen nineties?"
"Give it back, Chloé," Marinette told her. Fourteen twenties was more like it, but that didn't seem likely to shut Chloé up, or win back Marinette's undamaged design. Certainly it wouldn't get Mme. Bustier (and Marinette could see where Mme. Bustier was looking; once again the problem was not that the teacher had no idea what was going on) to intervene. And last night Ladybug had been out fighting yet another between-midnight-and-dawn akuma; Marinette really, really didn't want—
A hole opened in the air, a dark moss green edged in a brighter neon, and spat out yellow light and a woman: she hit the stairs between desks back first, knocking herself breathless and Chloé off her feet. The hole evaporated.
"Excuse you!" snapped Chloé.
Marinette rolled her eyes. "Get out of my way," she told Chloé. Akuma with portals, lovely, just how she wanted to spend her Tuesday afternoon. Adrien was already bending over the woman and helping her sit up. She was fairly tall and sort of familiar, Marinette noted, though she couldn't put a name to the face: smudged blue eyeshadow and a faded tan; honey blonde hair in a rope braid somewhat worse for wear, with a Bee Miraculous–style comb tucked into the twists; black slacks, white blouse, pastel pink cardigan, two golden rings on a pendant chain; a faint grimace at Chloé's voice.
"You can't just bowl people over and—"
The woman winced. Chloé whirled back to Marinette. "She broke my nail, Dupain-Cheng, that manicure cost—"
"—Please tell me I'm hallucinating," the woman said weakly.
Adrien shook his head. "Probably not, madame. Sorry."
"Probably an akuma," Marinette agreed. "Which, on the one hand, sucks to be Ladybug and Chat Noir right now. On the other hand, there being an akuma there means Chloé probably isn't about to cause one here."
"There's that," Adrien said, eyeing Chloé with what Marinette almost hoped was distaste.
The woman blinked several times, tilting her head, then craned her neck to scan the whole room. (Most of Marinette's class was back from lunch already, and they all seemed to think things were well in hand.) "Okay," she told no one in particular, "I think I know part of what happened…"
A burst of music: familiar to Marinette, maybe one of the pieces Adrien wanted to learn to play? The woman fumbled her phone out of her slacks pocket. "Well, if it isn't our fearless leader," she told the caller.
The woman was probably taken care of, then, or was about to be. Marinette therefore had to sneak out and—
"I bet I can pin it down closer than you," the woman said, acknowledging Adrien's offered hand but bracing herself on Marinette's desk to get to her feet. "Notre Dame—yeah, all you've got is skyline. Whereas I am looking at a teenage Chloé Bourgeois all upset everyone but the teacher is trying to ignore her."
—a teenage Chloé? That sounded oddly specific…
"I'll bet you both a coffee date it's premiére year," the woman added, leaning on the next desk with a smirk the other end of the audio call wouldn't be able to see. "Because I'm also looking at Marinette, Adrien, and Rossi, and no one seems to be bleeding. I suppose it might be early terminale," she added, only an iota less confident, "but…"
"—Madame?" asked Marinette. "What's going on?"
Adrien frowned at the woman. "And who are you?"
"I'm Queen Bitch, apparently," the woman told them both, eyes on Chloé, who seemed startled silent. "And what's going on would be a Ladybug problem. Conveniently," she added, "I'm on the phone with Ladybug and Chat Noir right now."
She was what.
"You kids are welcome to not believe me," the woman—Queen, Marinette supposed—added. "Since—" She paused, then tapped her phone screen. "Okay, you're on speaker."
"Marinette," said a deep voice: she knew it was Chat Noir's, though she couldn't say how she knew—it wasn't the same voice she knew better than anyone's. "Remember Evillustrator? Somebody took the time to ask me if I thought you were cute. Which, by the way, the cutest, but somebody could instead have said the plan was you'd be bait until you could grab the stylus and run. Somebody really could have said I didn't need to panic about where my partner would be. Somebody really, really could have—"
The sound of a scuffle on the other end of the line.
"The words you used were 'secret mission', lovebug," Chat said, "can you blame me?"
"I suppose not," said a strange voice—she didn't sound like Marinette herself did on recordings, but she didn't sound different, either. (Chloé was listening intently. Lila was sneaking closer, probably to hear better.) "Adrien, sorry about where I hid you when Riposte first attacked, but in my defense the first I heard of you being clawstrophobic was a few minutes later when this jackass was punning at me."
Hawkmoth probably knew where Ladybug had hidden Adrien that day, just from watching how she'd reacted when Riposte went for the sarcophagus where she thought Adrien was. The pun, though—only she and Chat Noir had heard him say that. And while the Chat Noir whom Ladybug had fought beside this morning might not know anything about her plan for handling the Evillustrator? An older Chat Noir who'd talked with an older herself—he might!
(She owed her partner an apology, didn't she? Marinette realized. She'd known there was no more need than usual to worry, since Ladybug wasn't exactly going to be any distance from the action, so it hadn't occurred to her that Chat Noir might think he had anything to fear!)
"I'm not sure I believe you," Marinette told Queen's phone.
"Oh?" asked Chat Noir.
"You're calling her 'lovebug'," said Marinette, "and she's letting you get away with it."
Queen clapped one hand to her mouth to muffle her laughter. Chat Noir, Marinette could clearly hear, did not bother.
"Marinette," said a vastly amused Ladybug, "you will be astonished to learn what I let this man get away with."
Marinette folded her arms and glared at Queen's phone. "Really."
"He does this clever thing with his tongue," said Ladybug.
Marinette's brain short-circuited.
"The Hero of Paris, everyone," said Queen, very dry. "Creative, crazy, and cruel."
"Puns, Marinette," said Chat Noir helpfully, still laughing. "Why, what were you thinking?"
Marinette hid her burning face in her hands.
"Sure, I believe you," Queen told him, in a tone that said she didn't. "Marinette is trying to blush herself to death and Adrien is trying to sink through the floor. Otherwise I would tell them exactly which pun. Would you get over here already?"
"Shockingly enough, our Métro passes aren't working and neither of us is carrying any useful cash," Ladybug told her. "We'll get there when we get there."
"Meanwhile, someone should mention to Littlebug and Chaton Noir that there's no point tracking down this particular akuma right now," Chat Noir said. Something thumped: Marinette looked up—had Adrien actually hidden under Marinette's desk, and slipped when trying to crawl out? "No need to go out of your way, Queenie, I'm sure they'll hear it through the grapevine." Did this Chat know Marinette's identity? He sounded a little too smug. "I'm not sure Timetagger was ever on this calendar page to begin with."
"Well then," said Queen. "I guess I have time to explain a few things to the smol innocent ones."
"How much am I going to regret letting you do this?" asked Ladybug.
"Not very much at all." Queen took two brisk steps and snatched Marinette's crumpled design from Chloé's indignant hand. It ripped loudly in half: "I take that back," she said with a guilty glance at Marinette, then set the phone down on the nearest desk and smoothed the torn papers beside it. "Oh, this looks really good," she told Marinette. "The—the—it is not Côte d'Ivoire," she grumbled, eyeing the burgundy overdress drawn fitted from sketched!Marinette's shoulders to hips. "Jeanne of Domrémy chic?"
"Cotehardie," Marinette told her. "How did you know?"
"Lucky guess," said Queen. "Isn't that right, Ladybug?"
"Anything you say," Ladybug answered. "Don't you have a couple of letters to your sixteen-year-old self you'd like to personally deliver?"
"I might." Queen pointedly turned to observe Mme. Bustier, who was watching them all with quiet interest and still wasn't saying a word. "I think I'm a little more interested in why the person whose job includes maintaining classroom decorum, and whose classroom akumas keep using for target practice, is pretending no one's been bullying anyone today. I knew Chloé Bourgeois was a bitch at least eighty percent of the time until she turned eighteen and got a clue or four," Queen continued, staring Chloé down, "but I didn't realize the local authorities didn't have a problem with that."
"Three words, honey," said Chat Noir, sounding as though that came with an eyeroll. "Mayor André Bourgeois."
"—You have got to be fucking kidding me," said Queen. "Good afternoon, Mademoiselle. My name is Chloé Dupain. Née Bourgeois. And you and I are going to have a little talk."
Queen gestured at the classroom door, and Chloé darted out, flushing, with Queen half a pace behind.
"…Dupain," repeated Adrien.
"That is what she said," Chat Noir told them.
"Dupain," repeated Marinette, wondering if she dared try to bring—was this really an adult Chloé?—her phone back.
"How much explanation do you want?" asked Ladybug.
"No thanks," said Marinette faintly.
"All of it," said Adrien.
"Shut up, brat child," Chat Noir said: Adrien stared at Queen's phone, plainly offended. "Anyway, wait till you hear what your current surname is. Spoilers, the hamster's name is Nightmare."
"Yes, because he will absolutely believe you right now," Ladybug said, sarcasm evident. "Hang on, kids, we'll be there in a few minutes. Try not to actually kill Lila Rossi—I don't care how much she deserves it—and pay no attention to my jackass husband, will you?"
The call clicked off.
Marinette collected the torn pieces of her design and returned to her seat, moving as though the air were molasses.
Chloé—and Chat Noir—and—
Adrien was leaning on her desk, still pink-faced. "Marinette? Sorry about what I said about taking the high road." He glanced toward Lila, who was still watching them, silent and listening. "If Ladybug thinks it's that much of a problem…"
Ladybug thought Lila lying was a problem all along, actually, and Marinette opened her mouth to say so, and nothing came out at all.
"So, yeah," said Adrien. "Um. I'm sorry." He paused, flicked another glance at Lila, and leaned closer to her. "The hamster's name isn't really going to be Nightmare, is it?"
"—No." That Chat Noir must know who Marinette was. This one could not possibly. "Why—"
—Why had Adrien known to ask Marinette that?
He drooped. "I didn't think that sounded much like you. Never mind, I guess." He started to turn away.
"I mean, it could be," blurted Marinette.
Adrien's attention snapped back to her. Marinette hid her face in her hands again.
"I am very confused right now," she told the space in front of her palms.
"Same here," said Adrien, taking both her hands and bringing them down to the desk. "Want to figure it out together?"
Outside the classroom, Chloé Bourgeois shrieked, "I am not a spoiled brat!" and the slightly lower voice of Chloé Dupain retorted, "Want to bet?"
"…Let's just avoid that part altogether for a while," said Adrien.
"We could do that," said Marinette. "We could—do all of that." Was Adrien actually nervous? Maybe excited? She couldn't tell. "I'd—I'd like that."