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No One to Talk to But Herself

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The fight was going badly.

 

Ladybug wasn’t scared, not exactly. L’ Alternateur had a terrifyingly powerful ability to rewrite reality, but like most victims akumatized for petty reasons (in this case, bad reviews for a Lady Noire AU fanfiction), she was flighty and easily distractible.

 

Nor was Ladybug particularly distraught. Chat Noir getting ‘rewritten’ wasn’t a good thing, but she’d won fights against steeper odds--plus, he wasn’t even hurt, just living a peaceful alternate life where he’d never found his Miraculous.

 

Yet something was clearly wrong, in a profound way that Marinette had seldom encountered. The world was breaking around her. Buildings swapped places with each other, like the pharmacy next to her that had been a flower shop mere seconds ago. Worse still, her lucky charm glitched out with it, transforming in a staticky blur from a floral business card to a red-spotted prescription slip.

 

Where are you, Fu? I’m gonna need the whole box for this one, I think. Ladybug ducked behind the building in the nick of time to detransform out of the public eye. She caught an exhausted Tikki in one hand, and offered her a cookie with the other. Tikki ate wordlessly, all business. There was no time to waste.

 

So I’d better not waste it. The Lucky Charm has never let me down. Help will be here, I know it.

 

She was right, though she was quite surprised at its form. A bright white circle carved itself into the wall of the building, and a red-haired bunny-eared head popped out. “Bunnyx?” said Marinette.

 

The adult hero didn’t bother agreeing to the obvious. “Earrings off and into the burrow. Now, mini-bug!” 

 

Trust in friends was ingrained in Marinette, and after Timebreaker and Time Tagger, so was a healthy respect for anything messing with the timestream. “Sorry, Tikki!” she said before obeying. The Miraculous in her ears darkened into a dormant state, and a startled but understanding Tikki was sucked into torpor. 

 

“What’s going onnnnn!” Marientte asked, but she was already being yanked into the burrow by the hook of Bunnyx’s umbrella under her armpit. 

 

Her momentum and balance righted themselves instantly as soon as she was through the portal. The sudden lack of disorientation was, itself, disorienting. But once her eyes uncrossed, she gasped in awe. 

 

She was aware that the space beyond time wasn’t empty, housing three bodies beyond hers and Bunnyx’s, but she hardly registered the other visitors against the splendor that was the burrow. It soared above and dipped below, speckled in all directions with faded windows to a thousand different times. They were out of focus--a defense mechanism against temporal contamination, perhaps?--but above her, she thought she could discern the shape of a dinosaur, and below, a grand skyline wavered uncertainly in a blurred sunset. And more, and more, and more, spread out all around her.

 

“It’s--” said Marinette.

 

“Amazing, bigger on the inside, yes, I know, stay with them, no spoilers for the future, don’t call Tikki, don’t touch anything, bye!” Bunnyx shoved Marinette towards the three women at the Burrow’s core. Then, sprinting, she dove headfirst into a window to her left and disappeared. 

 

Once the weirdness had passed, Marinette took a moment to gather herself and take measure of the women she was stuck here with. All three were looking at her, and all three were old--not ancient, but her mother’s age, or perhaps a bit more. Each was dressed distinctively, such that the superficial similarities in their pale skin tone and dark hair hardly mattered. 

 

The first had pigtails like Marinette’s. It was an odd choice for an adult, but it suited her. She was in snappy casual wear, a pink button-down hanging open like a coat over a dark t-shirt. Her white leggings were cuffed at the ankle, and a small cherry blossom insignia crawled up her calf. 

 

The second woman also looked younger than her age, but for entirely different reasons. She was dressed like a rocker--no other description would fit. She had a torn jean jacket over a Jagged Stone tee, and black-painted nails emerging from fingerless gloves. Her hair was cropped short and spiky, with the tips dyed a bright Ladybug red. Adding to her give-no-cares air was her body language; the other two women stood staring at where Bunnyx had vanished, but this one sat casually with one leg extended and one knee raised.

 

The final lady had similar physical features, but dressed her age, and dressed it well. She was in an immaculately tailored pantsuit, white, but with red lacing as fine as filigree along the seams of the legs and sleeves. Her hair was trimmed in a Japanese style, with short bangs, chin-length sidelocks, and a flowing back that reached all the way down to her waist. 

 

“Hello?” Marinette said hesitantly, moving towards them with similar pause. They were all looking at her, but now that she’d addressed them, three pairs of eyes met hers.

 

Three pairs of familiar, identical, bluebell eyes.

 

“You’re… me?” she asked. “From different parts of my future?”

 

“I don’t think so,” said the pigtailed one. “Based on the crow’s feet, we’re all around the same age. I’m forty. You two?”

 

“Forty as well,” said the sharply dressed one. 

 

“Same,” said the punk. Shrugging, she mused, “So I guess you could grow into any of us?”

 

Pigtails shook her head. “Maybe, maybe not. Whatever made us diverge could have happened in her past. It’s funny how timelines work. Some things are stubbornly impossible to change, but other things can be completely reimagined with the slightest tweak. For all we know, Mom could have read us each to sleep with a different book one night when we were six.”

 

Marinette glanced at herselves. “It’s hard to believe that bedtime reading could lead to…” she pointed in their general direction. “...this.”

 

“I’ve got a guess at why we’re so different, to be honest. But I’m not sure how much is safe to tell you. Time stuff is weird. ” Rock-n-roll Marinette slapped the ground, or whatever mystical force passed for it in Bunnyx’s non-Euclidian refuge. “We might be here a while. Sit!”

 

Business Marinette knelt in a Japanese style, and Casual Marinette sat cross-legged. None of them seemed nervous, so the youngest Marinette tried to take comfort in their confidence. 

 

It didn’t really work. She sat down with her legs pulled tight to her chest.

 

Casual Marinette looked each of her counterparts in the eyes. With everyone’s attention, she explained, “The safest thing would be for all of us to sit in complete silence. But that would probably drive us all crazy.” Rock-n-roll shrugged, but young Marinette nodded in agreement. “If we do talk, we need to avoid telling anything that’s definitely going to happen. Major reveals, secrets, world politics that we didn’t play a part in. But as long as we’re only discussing possibilities--the divergences between us, for instance--that should be fine? Multiple timelines in one place have already got everything snarled, so we’re not likely to stumble into a paradox.”

 

The kneeling one nodded. “You’re well informed. You spent more time with Bunnyx that I have, I take it?”

 

“Yeah, that whole thing with... umm, I shouldn’t say… you know…” Casual Marinette moved her hands at the side of her head like she was tracing goat horns, then traced a mystic symbol on her chest. “It took subjective weeks for me and Bunnyx to track that guy down.”

 

“Oh, him,” said the professional. “It was a time villain, so I sent Viperion to aid Bunnyx.”

 

The rocker nodded. “And my Pegasus got roped into that one, not me. But if you’re sure it’s okay to talk about it, then... Hi. I’m Marinette Dupain-Cheng, but you can call me Marinette Couffaine.”

 

Young Marinette’s jaw dropped, and she was on her feet again without meaning to. 

 

“Bu--bu--but--me and Luka? But… I haven’t...” Her brain was indiscriminately abusing her heart with images of Luka and Adrien and Luka and Adrien and she could hardly form thoughts, let alone words. However, a single thought slowly rose to the surface of her mind like a bubble blown into the straw of a milkshake. “Wait. You were going to tell me the divergence point. And if the divergence point is your name…” Marinette moved a shaky finger to point at the one in pigtails. “...then your name is…?”

 

The one in pigtails smiled. The crinkling lines at the edges of her mouth and eyes should have made her look older, but contrarily, her joy took ten years off her age. “Marinette Dupain-Cheng. But you can call me Marinette Agreste.”

 

“Eeeee!” Marinette squealed. It could happen! It could really happen! I just need to make sure that everything goes absolutely perfectly, because otherwise I might end up in a bad timeline, where I don’t find my one true love, and… oh yeah, I should probably figure out what’s up with the third me. 

 

“I forgot how clueless I was back then,” the third said. Marinette dragged her mind back to the real world--or, as real as the Burrow could be said to be. Agreste was smiling with shared love, Couffaine shook her head in bemusement, and the third pinched the bridge of her nose. 

 

“I’m sorry. I guess… I guess you’re from a future where I didn’t marry my lycée sweetheart?”

 

The third’s eye twitched. “No. I also met the love of my life while I was your age.”

 

She...I...we had? Marinette thought. But who? I guess Luka’s pretty hot and he likes me, and Adrien’s my one true love, but who else could I possibly… oh my God. “You’re Marinette Noire, aren’t you?” 

 

Agreste started coughing furiously, and Couffaine grabbed her belly and laughed. The last one clenched the hand on her nose so hard that a vein popped out on her knuckle. “My name,” she said, “is Marinette Dupain-Cheng. But to avoid confusion, please call me Marinette Tsurugi.”

 

...what.

 

Grasping at the thinnest of straws, she weakly said, “I didn’t know Kagami had a brother?”

 

“I don’t think she does,” said Agreste, sounding similarly confused.

 

Couffaine just laughed even harder.

 

Tsurugi groaned and slapped her forehead. “Okay. Normally, I listen to myself and take my own advice, but I can’t deal with this. I’m spoiling something that I shouldn’t need future sight to know. I am bisexual.” She jabbed a finger at Marinette Dupain-Cheng. “ You are bisexual.”

 

“I… am?”

 

Tsurugi twirled and thrust her finger at Agreste. “ You are bisexual.”

 

“Wait, what?”

 

Finally, she turned to Couffaine, who had remained lounging this whole time. “And you are bisexual.”

 

“Pansexual, actually,” she answered, checking her nails.

 

Tsurugi’s hand dropped. “Right. You live with Luka. Of course you’d end up on his side of that argument.”

 

Couffaine stood. With short hair and gloves, she bore a passing resemblance to Gina Dupain, or so Marinette thought during the brief reprieves when she could hear her thoughts over the blood rushing in her ears. The elder with Luka’s name walked slowly in young Marinette’s direction. She was only ten centimeters taller than the youth, but she crouched down to offset the difference anyway. “I’m mostly a roadie,” she said, apropos nothing.

 

“Bu...but… Luka… Kagami… girls… bipanse-se-se-sexual!”

 

“I don’t think that’s what you need right now,” Couffaine said calmly. “I remember being your age. The anxiety’s been with me my whole life, but the early Ladybug days were some of the worst. So let’s talk about something easier, okay?”

 

“O… okay? I guess?”

 

Couffaine smiled brightly. “Kitty Section didn’t really take off, but Luka kept going on his own. He started his own band, and I was behind him all the way. I was with him when he got noticed, and I was with him when he turned down the offers that would have made him sell out. You breathing okay?”

 

Marinette couldn’t answer verbally, but she wasn’t dizzy, so that was a start. She nodded.

 

“I handle the gigs, the merch, and the tour bus. It’s hard work, but it pays off in satisfaction. And the money’s not bad. Even though we don’t have Jagged cash, no crocodiles for us, we scraped together enough to get us a house boat moored right next to the Liberty.”

 

“That… sounds nice, actually.” Marinette smiled back at herself, and Couffaine looked over her shoulder to Agreste. Young Marinette turned her smile to match. “Your turn? If that’s okay?”

 

“Sure!” Agreste patted Couffaine on the shoulder, and they swapped places. She knelt before Marinette with a hand on her shoulder. “What do you want to know?”

 

On closer inspection, this future’s clothing was almost identical to her 14-year-old day to day wear. Between that and the hair, she was the most obviously “Marinette” of the Marinettes, having barely changed in the 25 years she’s grown. Was that comforting or unsettling? Kinda both, Dupain-Cheng decided. “I guess… your career, like hers? And your life?”

 

“I’m a hero,” Agreste said. “Adrien’s incredibly kind--you know that--and once we got together, ‘everyday Ladybug’ took on a whole new meaning. All of us are Ladybug… we are, aren’t we?”

 

Couffaine nodded. Tsurugi did too, nervously rubbing her naked earlobe. Bunnyx must have stripped them of their Miraculous as well. Makes sense. Four Tikkis in one place would be an awful concentration of magic. 

 

“...but I’m guessing that you two leaned heavier into the Guardian role than I did. More delegation. Since you’re not with Adrien.”

 

Couffaine cocked an eyebrow. “Are we telling her about…”

 

“Nope! That’s across all our timelines. It’d be a major spoiler,” Agreste answered. 

 

Young Marinette pouted. “Being kept out of the loop sucks, you know, even if I’m doing it to myself.”

 

“I know. But paradoxing Bunnyx out of existence would be really bad right now, so we’re gonna stick to the stuff I know is safe. Anyway, for spoiler reasons, the fashion world wasn’t really accepting, and Adrien wanted to see the world outside his gilded prison, so we took to globetrotting and crime-fighting as soon as we got out of lycée.”

 

“Wait, you and Adrien did that together?” Marinette sighed in relief. “Thank goodness. I’ve felt bad about Desperada for weeks. I was afraid he’d never pick up a Miraculous again!”

 

Agreste responded with a knowing smile. It was more infuriating than comforting, since it meant she was holding more secrets from her kid self, but young Marinette imagined Bunnyx poofing into temporal nonexistence and got over her pique. “The Snake was the wrong MIraculous for him. Don’t force it. It will come with time.”

 

“Okay. So… globetrotting crime-fighting?”

 

Agreste nodded. “Right. That phase lasted for a few years, until Emma came along. Our children needed more stability than that, so we set up a base of operations in Paris. We swapped Max’s Kwami so we could use Kaalki for global responses, and have been saving the world ever since!”

 

Stars in her eyes, Marinette asked, “Emma? And Hugo and Louis?”

 

With matching love, Marinette Agreste answered, “Our kids went girl-boy-boy, just like in my dreams. I got lucky. I think Tikki might have helped, but she’ll never admit to it.”

 

“Oh, Madame Couffaine, I--”

 

Couffaine tutted. “I hate ‘Madame’ from anyone, I won’t tolerate it from myself. And to answer your question: Emile, Holly, and Louise.”

 

Tsurugi, who had been quiet and withdrawn, joined in smiling. “Elena, Fujiko, and Lifen.” She pulled an expensive-looking heart locket, filigreed in gold matching the stitching on her suit, out from under her blouse. Three young, smiling faces peered out. Marinette didn’t have a good vantage, but Couffaine leaned in and squinted. 

 

“Huh. The younger one is one of Luka’s?”

 

Tsurugi snapped the locket shut. Any hint of expression vanished from her stony face. “Kagami and I have three children. They are all ours, and no one else’s.”

 

Agreste, trying to play peacemaker, turned to face her alternates. “Hey, hey, no need for anger--”

 

“No, she’s right. That was messed up,” Couffaine said. “Juleka would have whooped my ass if I’d said anything like that about her son. Sorry for letting that slip. I was just surprised, you know?”

 

Tsurugi’s answer was more relaxed, but not fully at ease. “Apology accepted. And as for what you meant to ask… yes, Lifen has Couffaine DNA. Elena and Fujiko are genetically Agrestes. I carried Elena and Lifen to term; Kagami bore Fujiko.”

 

“Turkey baster, or the old fashioned way?” Couffaine joked. 

 

Tsurugi turned pink, but the blush was nothing next to the bright red that bloomed on the cheeks of the youngest Marinette. “I decline to answer,” Tsurugi said primly.

 

“What do you do when you’re not heroing?” Marinette was speaking quickly and breathlessly, on the verge of hyperventilation again, and prayed that the topic would move onto something less terrifying. 

 

The question killed the mood. “Not… much, really. Mothering and heroing takes up all my time. There’s always a crisis somewhere, and even when there’s not, there’s still good to do. Oh, and of course, training. Emma turned 15 a few weeks back, and she and Orikko are getting along famously!”

 

“Oh,” said young Marinette, her excitement having faded. “Is… that what you want?”

 

“Unconditionally,” older Marinette answered. “Not everything worked out exactly as planned. I know that at your age, Ladybug consuming my whole life was one of my biggest anxiety triggers. But… I’m with Adrien. Every patrol, every battle, alongside him? It’s a dream come true. He’s kinda, he’s brave, and he’s cute.

 

“Hey, that’s cheating!” said Couffaine. She was grinning, so Marinette was 90% sure she was kidding, but she wasn’t totally certain. “We’re letting her see the paths, not trying to force her down one. We all had a crush on Adrien back in the day, and it’s sweet to see that it wasn’t over nothing, but he’s not the only option.”

 

“Sorry, sorry!” Agreste took a step back, sizing up the littlest one of her. “Twenty five years later and I’m still just as in love with him as the day we met. Argh, I need to stop gushing or I’ll never stop. I just… that man…” she gasped. “Oh no. Are your Adriens all right?”

 

Couffaine’s grin was less wide than usual. “Hope this doesn’t upset either of you… he and Kagami are happily married in my timeline.”

 

Agreste’s face fell, then rose again with hope. “As… as long as he’s happy.” And then, another gasp. “But if he doesn’t have me or Kagami--”

 

“He was lost for a while,” Tsurugi said. “He is my friend and a great hero, so I gave him space when he needed it and support when he asked for it. But he got over the loss, eventually. He just celebrated his tenth anniversary with his wife. Renee Hombee. Triumph.”

 

Associating the familiar name to an identity took longer than it should have, but once it clicked, young Marinette blurted, “He married the daughter of the U.S President?

 

“He always had a thing for strong women,” Tsurugi explained. “And Victory retired a few years before they even met.”

 

“I knew he was crushing on her that time we were all fighting Gigasludge!” giggled Adrien’s wife. “‘It’s my nature to flirt, milady, but my heart remains unerringly set on yours!’ Yeah, right. When I get back to my timeline, I’m never gonna let him live it down!” She giggled a bit more, but trailed off morosely. “I… think I screwed things up badly with Kagami, though. When Adrien and I made it official, I told her that there was someone else out there for her, and she said that there wasn’t. Did… did she already like me, then? Was that her way to telling me that I was taken, too?”

 

“She’s the strongest woman I’ve ever known,” Marinette Tsurugi said without a hint of sadness. “She will survive, and thrive.”

 

Marinette Agreste nodded with shimmering eyes. “She did, eventually. She slid pretty far down, especially once Tomoe pressured her into a political marriage. The best thing that her husband ever did was try to steal a magical relic from a museum, because that gave me and Adrien an excuse to beat him up. But once he was out of the picture, and once Tomoe begged forgiveness, she found her peace. She claimed sole custody of her daughter and moved back with her mother. The three generations started a dojo that produces the best kendo fighters in the world.”

 

“As I said, she thrives.” Hands clenched to fists were the only emotional tell on Kagami’s wife’s body.

 

“And Luka?” asked Couffaine, transparently trying to lift the mood of the room.

 

“Luka. Yes.” Marinette Tsurugi nodded. “I’m… not sure how well our younger self will take it. Things change over time, and she hasn’t seen everyone grow up yet.”

 

“Oh, yours did the thing too?” said Marinette Agreste.

 

“The thing?” asked the youngest.

 

Agreste tugged awkwardly at a pigtail. “Right. So, sometimes, you see someone young, and it’s hard to move past that. But everyone eventually becomes an adult, and once they’re grown up, they’re free to make their own choices--”

 

Direct and to the point, just like her wife, Mme. Tsurugi cut in. “He married Manon.”

 

The young one blinked. “Manon? As in, Manon Chamack?”

 

“That’s the one,” said Tsurugi.

 

“She’s six!

 

Tsurugi shook her head. “She’s thirty-two now, and was twenty eight for her nuptials. A ten year age gap isn’t nothing, but it matters much less when we’re older. Andre Bourgeois is fifteen years older than Audrey, for instance, and for all the problems with that relationship, Andre’s age has hardly mattered.” 

 

I changed Manon’s pants when she wet herself!

 

“And that’s why we are not the one marrying her. Mme. Couffaine, I hope this news is not troubling?”

 

Couffaine shook her head. “Definitely the weirdest part of the day, and this day has been pretty darn weird, but nah, I’m good.” 

 

The Burrow fell into an uncomfortable silence, as the bizarre revelation left the child at a loss for words. All four Marinettes squirmed where they stood, Dupain-Cheng the most and Couffaine the least. Eventually, young Marinette said, “I’d like to hear a little about your life, if you don’t mind, Madame Tsurugi?” And I can’t believe I’m calling myself that. It feels right, though. Not like she’s the one, that’s Adrien! I think? But… being with a girl doesn’t feel wrong. I never thought I might be into girls, but if I can’t trust myself, then who can I believe?

 

Tsurugi approached, though she didn’t lower her eye level like the other two had. “Yes. Well. Professionally? I’m a designer.”

 

With Sherlockian speed, young Marinette scanned her outfit. Fine thread-count cotton with a silk lining, handmade stitching that spelled something in Chinese calligraphy, perfect curve-hugging tailoring--it was a work of art. “That suit is your--our--work, isn’t it?”

 

Tsurugi nodded. “One of my finest.”

 

“Expensive, too. I’ve read enough fashion magazines to know a thousand-Euro suit when I see one. Is our whole line like this?”

 

Tsurugi smiled. It was softer, less pronounced than the grins the other two elder Marinettes had worn. However, Agreste and Couffaine were generally more emotive than the Tsurugi, and the contrast from the schooled poker face made the meek smile shine brighter than it actually was. “Yes. I’m quite well known. You have great potential in you, Marinette. I know, because I lived it.”

 

Marinette blinked. “I’m famous?”

 

“World renowned. Paris, New York, Milan. I’m on all the runways and all the boutiques.” Her smile faded. “It’s hard. I remember every last dirty thought we had at your age about Audrey and Gabriel and how they abused their children, and even though I video chat them every single night and come home every weekend, I still feel absent. But all of them, my wife, my daughters, my parents, are proud of me. Especially Kagami. She is the reason that I am the most successful out of all of us.”

 

“Mee-ouch,” said Agreste. 

 

Tsurugi snapped her head around for a verbal riposte, and from her scowl, it would have stung. 

 

Conveniently, that was when L’ Alternateur struck.

 

Couffaine was the first to notice. “Incoming!” she yelled, scooping up Dupain-Cheng in her arms. Carrying her younger self, she ran away and up, though the physics of the Burrow meant gravity was always under her feat. The young Marinette watched her other selves, in combat stances, tilt up into the ‘sky’ as Couffaine ran.

 

The rumbling that had tipped off the musician was loud enough for them all to hear, and it presaged a Burrow-hole bursting open seconds later. Bunnyx, umbrella in hand, backflipped in between the biting jaws of a small allosaurus and the truncheon of a steam-powered robot policeman. “The heck?” Couffaine whispered, setting Marinette down.

 

“We have to help her!” young Marinette said, her hand shooting straight for her purse to grab her dormant Miraculous.

 

Couffaine grabbed her wrist. “ You have to stay safe. Anything that happens to you, happens to all three of us. Besides, look. We’ve got this.”

 

Indeed, the other Marinettes were both active. Dupain-Cheng recalled Agreste mentioning her experience with the Burrow, and she demonstrated it now. She’d dashed to a far wall and was focusing one window after another, looking for something--an ally, an escape route? Meanwhile, Tsurugi was spinning a heavy weight at the end of a thin white rope that spooled out of her sleeve. It was no magic yo-yo, but it let her contribute to the fight from a safe distance, harrying the metal policeman with clanking blows to the back of its skull when it got too close to the frantically dodging Bunnyx.

 

“Here!” Agreste shouted. She grabbed one edge of a time window and pulled, stretching it open to dinosaur size.

 

“Where and when am I--whoa, down boy!” The allosaurus got a mouthful of Bunnyx’s ankle in its teeth. Miraculous wielders were invulnerable, so it was an inconvenience, not a deathblow. But it thrashed its head, shaking her like a dog with a bone. “--where am I going?”

 

Agreste peeked her head into the window. “Dunno, but I’m feeling lucky. Move, Bunnyx. Tsurugi!”

 

“On it!” the designer called. Her rope weight crashed into one of the dino’s earholes; Bunnyx’s umbrella boxed the other. It dropped Bunnyx on her back. She kipped up before the robot could tackle her, hooked her umbrella handle into the dinosaur’s nose, and dragged it behind her on her path to the open portal. The robot cop whistled steam out of its ears when Marinette Tsurugi’s weapon ripped the club from its grip, but it kept on target. 

 

Moments later, all three were gone. Agreste’s fingers slipped, and the window contracted to its normal diameter. 

 

Everyone breathed.

 

The young Marinette asked, “What was...?” 

 

She didn’t get to finish her thought. Bunnyx swan-dove from another hole in the ceiling. “Good call. Don’t go anywhere! I got this!” Her drop took her straight down to a third portal, which swallowed her whole. The burrow once again was quiet.

 

“What was that ?” Marinette asked again.

 

“Reality gets weird when timelines get messy,” Agreste explained. “Don’t worry. Bunnyx will ask for help if she needs it. Oh, by the way, Mme. Tsurugi? Nice job, but I gotta ask: what’s with the meteor hammer?”

 

Tsurugi, who had rolled up her sleeve and was winding the rope around her arm, looked up and grinned. “A Tsurugi lady is never unarmed.”

 

Her mood was short-lived, and a downcast mood took over her. “I need to apologize,” she said. 

 

She walked ‘down’ to Couffaine and Dupain-Cheng, gravity curving under her feet until she (and Agreste, who followed her), were level with her counterparts. “I spoke poorly, and inaccurately, when I said I was the most successful of us,” she said. “The nature of our success is a lesson that Kagami and I instill in our children every day, but somehow, I forgot it myself.”

 

This time, Tsurugi bent down, blue eyes level with blue. 

 

“Kagami drove me to the pinnacle of my chosen field, to international prominence and wealth. That is a form of success. But it is not the only form of success, nor is it better than any others. It’s simply my success. It might be yours as well. But, it does not have to be.”

 

She stood, bowed to Couffaine, turned, and bowed to Agreste. “I’ve been on tour for two weeks. Two weeks surrounded by ambitious models and vicious critics. Two weeks without kissing my wife. It’s made me bitter and catty, but there’s no excuse for taking it out on you. Please forgive me.”

 

“It’s fine!” Agreste was tugging at her pigtails again, awkward in the face of sudden formality.

 

“While we’re on the topic of lessons,” Couffaine said, “here’s the biggest one Luka taught me: Forgiving your own failings is the first and most important step to peace. Grudges are bad in general, but the worst grudges are the ones you hold against yourself. You’re forgiven. Come here!” 

 

With that, she wrapped Tsurugi in a hug. 

 

Agreste joined in, and moments later, young Marinette did the same. It felt like hugging her mother, even though she was technically hugging herself. 

 

As if to prove that they were all the same person, the Marinettes all decided at once that the hug was over and stepped away from it without awkwardness. The designer was pensive, reevaluating her alternates with fresh eyes. 

 

“I think… that I have let my responsibilities consume me,” she said. “Many of Master Fu’s lessons stay with me to this day. Including, I thought, the value of occasionally taking breaks from all the things I had to do, to just do nothing. But looking at where I could be… at how at ease I could be… it seems I learned less than I thought. I would benefit from a mediation vacation, I think. Thank you for showing me that, Mme. Couffaine.”

 

“I told you, I’m not a Madame!” she said, grabbing Tsurugi for one quick squeeze. “But I’m glad you’re seeing how things could be better. I’m seeing that, too.” Couffaine switched Marinettes and hugged the Agreste version of herself. “I still call myself Ladybug, but I’ve been going with the flow for a long time now, instead of fighting against the current like a real hero should. Chat Noir and all the gang are doing spectacular at holding the world together, but I’m letting them take all the responsibility. Saving Paris felt good when I was the little one’s age, even with the shackles of stress that came with it. Maybe it’s time for Ladybug and Viperion to patrol again.”

 

“You’ll do great,” Agreste said. “I’ve had to take a lot of breaks. The kids, some injuries, that one Olmec curse--it’s like riding a bike, it all comes back to you as soon as you get back out there.”

 

Couffaine replied, “I hope so. Getting tied up in my own yo-yo was bad enough the first time.”

 

Agreste nodded, then looked at Tsurugi. “Mme. Tsurugi, thank you as well. I… I have my notebooks from all my designs in my youth.  I don’t look at them much, any more. I convinced myself that it was all just a phase and I wasn’t that good anyway. Sour grapes, I guess, since my choices with Adrien and the Miraculous meant a fashion career was never in the cards. But seeing what I could have become… I miss it.”

 

“It’s never too late,” Tsurugi soothed.

 

Agreste shook her head. “It’s too late for Marinette Agreste. You know why. But… maybe not for Ladybug. I’ve been fighting against bootleg merch profiting off my name for decades. Some well-designed, well-made, official merchandise would cut their market out from under them, and the proceeds could benefit charity. Maybe sweaters and scarves-- oh, I hope my markers haven’t dried up!”

 

Young Marinette jumped a little when Couffaine’s hand touched her shoulder. “Something’s wrong?”

 

Marinette opened her mouth to say ‘nothing,’ but her throat constricted, and she realized Couffaine was right.

 

The scene was touching. Her three futures had each awoken to something missing from themselves, and committed to self-improvement. There was poetry to her futures working together, to different Marinettes functioning as one. But…

But…

 

“It was supposed to be perfect,” Marinette whispered.

 

Couffaine scrunched her eyebrows. “What was?”

 

“My future!” 

 

Marinette wrung her hands together. She didn’t surrender to the urge to pace, but her eyes wandered anywhere but the three figures before her. 

 

“I had it all planned out. Adrien or maybe, maybe Luka, design, kids, work, fun, fencing, a hamster--did any of you ever get a hamster?”

 

Tsurugi raised her hand. “For about three weeks. Kagami was allergic to Hamstermaru.”

 

“--and now I’m learning all my dreams are impossible! No matter what I do, I’m going to end up missing out and giving things up and needing time travel to figure out what’s wrong with my life! I… I… I really thought that after all this fighting, everything with Chloe and Adrien and Lila, that I’d deserved a chance to make my perfect future come true.”

 

The elder Marinettes glanced at one another. Via unspoken consensus, Adrien’s wife took the lead. “Marinette… me… do you want to know what a ‘perfect’ life is like?” she said with air quotes. “A ‘perfect’ life is what Audrey and Andre Bourgeois have when they reunite and stop fighting.”

 

Marinette goggled. “But they’re a disaster!

 

“Exactly!” Agreste gently grabbed Dupain-Cheng by her shoulders. Young Marinette looked up, and the elder kept talking once they were face to face. “The only people with ‘perfect’ lives and relationships are the ones ignoring the problems that are out of sight, letting their feelings fester while they pretend everything is some romantic ideal. Or… let’s make it more real for you. Even at your age, I loved Paris. You do, right?”

 

Marinette nodded.

 

“Think about all the times we’ve rescued its people. Think of all the times we’ve bailed Paris out. Think of the constant effort. Yet… it’s the City of Love, and it always will be. Despite--no, because of, all the work we put into fixing it.”

 

Tsurugi tapped Agreste on the shoulder, tagging her out. “Besides. Even at your age, you already know that perfection is unreachable. And you already know that beating yourself up over imperfection is a terrible way to live. You know, because you said as much to Kagami when she was akumatized over a single point in a fencing bout. We all lost a point today, but that does not make any of our lives into failures.”

 

Couffaine’s turn came next. “And yeah, a perfect life wouldn’t have half the character. I’m too high-strung, Luka’s too low-key, but together, our flaws lead to a nice, balanced melody. Or… I mean, just think of Mom. We’d love her no matter what, but come on, do you think we’d love her more if she were less of a sore loser at video games? It’d take half the fun out of beating her!” 

 

The rocker Marinette ruffled Dupain-Cheng’s hair. “You take what life gives you, warts and all. You never hide from the flaws. Some of ‘em you fix. Some of ‘em you live with. And you never let them keep you from being happy.”

 

Marinette sniffled. “So… you’re… happy?”

 

“How could I not be? Luka’s the most supportive guy ever, my kids are great, I bring joy to the world supporting his music, and my kids… oh, my kids, they’re great. Yeah. I’m happy.”  

 

Marinette looked at the other two hers. “And.. you, and you?” 

 

They both nodded.

 

But young Marinette wasn’t convinced, not yet. Her dreams still felt real; her dreams still felt dashed. Holding her composure by the barest of margins, she asked, “Even though you’re all missing so much? You’ve all seen what you could have had, what you’ve given up, you don’t envy one another? You don’t wish you could go back and make it better?”

 

Agreste, Couffaine, and Tsurugi answered as one: “I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

 

Their contentment relieved Marinette like a cool mist breaking the heat of a summer’s day.

 

“Oh,” she said, words failing her. “I’m.. I’m…”

 

“It’s okay,” said one of the three--Marinette didn’t know which--and she was enveloped once more in a four-way self-loving embrace.

 

The hug lasted for a solid minute, until Bunnyx’s voice drew the Marinettes apart. “Am I interrupting something?” She asked. 

 

Bunnyx had seen better days. Her white suit was covered in dusty scuff marks, her right leg was covered up to the knee in half-dried concrete, and her left bunny ear was bent in two. However, the mason jar under her arm held the spoils of her victory: a black akuma, fluttering uselessly against the glass walls of its prison.

 

Agreste, the heroine, was all business. “Nothing that needs to hold up our crisis intervention. L’ Alternateur is out? The timelines are secure?”

 

“Yes, and probably. We’ll know for sure once minibug is back in the timestream. Did you three leak any intel that’s gonna ripple?”

 

“We don’t think so?” Agreste touched her chin. “But none of us remember this happening to our younger self, so…”

 

Marinette’s eyes shot open. She asked in horror, “Wait, does that mean you’ll all stop existing when I go back to my time?”

 

“Kind of?” Bunnyx answered. “But also not really? Time is more like a carpet than a line, with interweaving… you know what? That doesn’t even make sense to me, and I’m the one saying it. You just have to trust me that I’m not shunting real people into nonexistence, and leave it at that.”

 

Marinette swallowed. “That’s less reassuring than it could be.”

 

“Whatever happens, happens,” said Couffaine. “Besides, you’re still around. You could grow up into any of us. Even if we stop being, our potential lives on in you.”

 

“Great,” the younger muttered. “No pressure.”

 

Bunnyx paced to a leftward window and tapped it with her umbrella. “Alright. Agreste, you’re up!”

 

Marinette Agreste adjusted the hairbands on her pigtails and followed Bunnyx’s lead. She lifted her leg up high to step over the sill of the portal, but she turned before she was all the way through. “Hey, me? I can’t risk the timeline with details, but Adrien is going to need you, and soon. Even if he’s not your destiny, he’s still your friend. Try to be there for him, okay?”

 

“Y-y-yeah,” said Marinette. The thought of not choosing Adrien was disconcerting to Marinette, but the thought of letting him down was positively gut wrenching. “I promise.”

 

“Great. I’ll see you when I be you!” she said, and then she ducked her head through the Burrow hole and was gone.

 

A pun worthy of Chat. She has been a hero for a while.

 

“Couffaine!” called Bunnyx, opening a portal three windows to the right and one down. Couffaine followed, but like Agreste, she paused to offer final words.

 

“We’ll be there for Adrien no matter what,” she said, “but remember that Luka will be there for us no matter what. Our anxiety will eat us alive if we let it. Luka will help us, as a lover, or as a friend. I promise.”

 

“Oh. Yeah. I’ll remember that,” Marinette said, her nervousness validating the truth of her future self’s words.

 

Couffaine smiled, then disappeared.

 

Tsurugi was next. Bunnyx opened the portal, and she stood just in front of its threshold. “I have nothing to say about Kagami,” she explained. “You are aware of your orientation, and you are aware of the damage Tomoe will cause if not checked. You will protect her. It’s our nature.”

 

Bunnyx muttered, “She is? Dang it, I’m gonna have to spend subjective hours making sure those timeline changes don’t break the universe.”

 

Tsurugi ignored the warning of impending doom. “Instead, I will give you this advice. Some people will say they can predict what will happen, that they are wiser than you, more in tune than you. Do not be fooled. Regardless of how confident they are, how compelling they seem…”

 

Marinette held her breath in intent anticipation.

 

“...Jorts will never be in fashion, and the attempt to get ahead of the trend will damage your brand reputation for years.

 

“Jorts?” Marinette asked, bewildered.

 

“Hey! Spoilers! Argh!” Bunnyx cried. “Get out of here!” She shoved Tsurugi through the portal, but the designer somehow still looked dignified the whole time she was being manhandled.

 

After the last adult was gone, Bunnyx dusted her hands off and opened on final Burrow. “This is your stop. You can cleanse the akuma once you’re through. Theoretically, everything should be back to normal already, but your Ladybugs will repair anything I happened to miss.”

 

“Sure,” Marinette said. She took the earrings out of her purse. “Thanks for saving the day.”

 

Bunnyx grinned. “Think nothing of it. I’m still a few hundred saves behind you on the leaderboard. Now, get out of here, minibug!”

 

“Right, right! Getting out of here!” And out she got, hopping through the rabbit hole and landing right back where she left.

 

She put her earrings in. “Hi Tikki,” she said.

 

The Kwami zipped through the air and grabbed Marinette’s forehead in a tight hug. “I was so worried! Did Bunnyx handle everything?”

 

“Everything’s handled, except for the purification and Miraculous Ladybug. Can you help me out?”

 

“You got it!”

 

“Tikki, spots on!”

 

The transformation and the purification were perfunctory, a simple ritual she’d performed a hundred times before. Then, she called on her Lucky Charm. She almost missed the Charm itself, skipping straight to “Miraculous Ladyb--” before catching herself. It was still a Charm, after all; it had never steered her wrong. What had her power granted her, and what advice did it have?

 

She slowly opened her gloved fingers. The object in her hand, red and spotted and blending into her costume, was a heart-shaped locket. The kind that held a picture of a loved one, of a family. The kind that would hold her family, when she’d made one. 

 

Nervously, she pressed the tiny button at the top to release the catch. It popped open, but Marinette closed her eyes, almost afraid of what she’d see. 

 

She opened them slightly. And she began to laugh. 

 

“Other me was right,” she said, looking at her reflection in the mirror inside the locket. “Their potential is still there, in me.” She clicked the locket closed and, still laughing, tossed it in the air. “Miraculous Ladybug!”

 

Once the bugs had cleared, Marinette threw her yo-yo towards a nearby billboard. Five minutes swinging would get her within walking distance of her house. And as she sailed through the air, the smile never left her face.

 

In some ways, her life had become infinitely more difficult. She had more paths before her than ever before, with a love life that was triply complicated.

 

But… Marinette had always been at war with herself, her head and her heart battling over the wisest choice in love. And now, that was no longer an issue. She could let her heart lead her down whatever route it chose, and her head had no grounds for complaint.

 

Because even though her potential paths started off in wildly different directions, they all led to the same place: 

 

A happy ending.