Getting to go out again- heading down the stairs without the help of a lift, bounding out the door, rushing unencumbered down the sidewalk to the spot where she was going to meet up with her friends- was amazing.
Tripping over a raised bit of sidewalk because she wasn't being careful and going flying with a squawk... well, that was a lot less fun.
But at least Adrien was right there to catch her before she could hit the ground.
"Easy there," Adrien said with a laugh, setting Marinette back up on her feet. "Man, you're off crutches and already speeding around, huh?"
Marinette laughed, even as she felt her cheeks heating up. "Yeah. I'm just excited, I guess."
"I don't blame you. And no crutches?"
"The doctor said that I'm all good to go, as long as I don't overdo it." Marinette grimaced down at the uneven bit of sidewalk. "Though maybe I should hold off on the running down the sidewalk for a bit. I'm sure someone would be concerned if I showed up with my knees all scraped up not even a day after getting the cast off."
If she were being honest, that someone might very well be her. After weeks of being in a cast, Marinette couldn't help but be a little paranoid that she would re-injure herself and her taste of freedom and normalcy would be snatched away again by further weeks of casts and crutches and bedrest.
Adrien made a face. "Yeah, that wouldn't be the best. I can't imagine your parents banning you from doing things like my father would, but they probably wouldn't be happy." He paused, then flashed her a smile, clearly deciding to move on. "It must nice to have everything back to normal, huh?"
"So nice," Marinette told him. "I can do stairs again! My parents and I are going to work on taking the lifts down and returning them this weekend, so then we can have the stairs all clear again. And they moved me back to my normal room last night and it's so nice to be back and have access to all of my stuff again. Especially my sewing supplies! My parents had offered to bring stuff down, but there were too many things I might need and I didn't want them to dig for things I requested and get everything messed up."
"Yeah, I can imagine how easy that would be," Adrien agreed. "I've seen your sewing set-up and all of the boxes you have. I don't know how you find anything, but I'm sure you have some sort of system."
Marinette nodded. "Yeah. It makes sense in my head." She probably should buy a proper storage system at some point- a modular storage system with a bunch of drawers would be easier to organize than a heap of shoeboxes of all sizes- but that would have to wait until summer.
Honestly, it would be best if it could be customizable and added onto as her collection of tools and materials expanded, which meant that she might end up making it on her own. Which definitely meant waiting until summer, but her shoeboxes could last until then. One or two might need a bit of assistance from some duct tape, but that was fine.
"I'm glad that I got to come out today," Adrien told her as they headed the short distance down the block to their meeting point. Alya and Nino were nowhere in sight yet, but that wasn't surprising. After all, both she and Adrien were running early to their lunch-and-ice-cream get-together. "Father and Nathalie initially wanted me to tag along on some luncheon with one of Father's business partners, even though whenever I have to do those, I need to stay completely silent unless directly addressed. Which happens maybe once per lunch, and it's always really obvious that they're just addressing me to be polite and acknowledge that I'm there instead of just outright ignoring me."
"I'm glad they let you come today," Marinette told him. She couldn't imagine what it would be like to have to go to a fancy lunch and be expected to exist as- well, as decoration, really. The closest thing she had ever done was go out with her parents to meet some of their friends or extended family, people that she didn't really know well and felt a bit awkward around. But they always tried to include her for at least part of the conversation and if she wanted to ask them any questions, she could. "Lunch at the cafe probably won't be as fancy as your father's luncheon, but it should be more fun!"
"Better company, too," Adrien told her, grinning. "And sometimes fancy food is overrated. Honestly, a panini and some soup sounds amazing. And- hey, there's Alya and Nino! It's about time, slowpokes!" he called. "Hurry up!"
"We're coming, calm down!" Nino called back, not picking up the pace at all. "It's not our fault that you two decided to come early!"
Adrien just shrugged. "I was looking forward to coming out, so sue me!"
"I'm just glad your pops finally saw sense and let you out." Nino finally drew close enough to exchange a fist bump with Adrien, grinning at him before turning his attention to Marinette. "So, what did the doctor say? Your cast is off- all good things?"
"All good things," Marinette confirmed. "My leg's healed well, now I just have to build the muscle back up. And that's going to be a bit of a process, but at least it won't test my patience as much as the cast and crutches did."
It didn't take them long to reach the cafe and place their orders, then crowd around a small table to wait for their lunch to be delivered. Their knees jostled each other as they settled- it definitely wasn't a table meant for four people- but Marinette couldn't help but grin, definitely more excited than she really should be for what was a fairly simple outing. It was just that, well, everything was normal again.
"A hot lunch, a cold treat, and great company- what else could you ask for?" Adrien asked happily as their food got delivered to their table. "What a perfect day!"
They all nodded, already digging into their food. Marinette let out a happy hum as the blend of cheeses in her sandwich that she had ordered hit her tongue. It was the perfect temperature, hot enough to warm her up but not so scalding as to burn her tongue when she took a bite.
"Well, at the risk of sounding like an old dodder, how about a toast?" Alya asked after a minute of happy munching had passed. "To the rest of the school year only being exciting in good ways?"
"Oh, man, I'll drink to that," Nino said at once, accidentally sending his cup sloshing when he clinked it against Alya's a little too quickly. "No more nasty surprises! We've had enough of that this year already."
Marinette nodded, thinking back. There had been a lot of crappy things that had happened in the past year- the Heroes Day attack, Lila's return (and everything that went along with it), her loss of Master Fu's support and the reveal of all (or almost all)of the temporary superheroes, and then her broken leg. Then Nino and Alya- most of their classmates, really- had been hit pretty hard by the reveal of Lila's true colors and the realization that none of her 'connections' were actually real.
Maybe most of the year had been pretty good, but there had been a lot of pretty harsh lows.
"I think we could all do with a few nice surprises," Adrien agreed, lifting his cup as well. "Or at the very least, a bit of calm."
Marinette smiled, thinking of her superhero life. After all the madness of the past couple of months, calm with some nice surprises sounded absolutely perfect.
Luckily for the superheroes, several days passed before Hawkmoth struck again. Ladybug and Chat Noir spent the time doing nightly patrols, racing across the rooftops and practicing some of their battle skills as best they could without getting spotted, or at least without getting spotted close enough for anyone to notice that it was Ladybug and not Coccinelle out. Chat Noir was still being more careful with her than usual- they had to abandon tag because he wasn't trying, just because their tag usually involved tackling- but thankfully he hadn't let that carry over to their battle, instead falling back to their usual smooth dynamic.
Well. Their usual smooth dynamic, with some adjustments. Their nightly patrols had helped them suss out Ladybug's new limits and weak spots ahead of their battle, allowing them to figure out how they might account for that while Ladybug recovered. There was less flirting and more focus- Ladybug suspected that either Coccinelle had said something about timing of puns and flirting and when it would take away from their focus, or Chat Noir had just gotten used to having incredibly focused and fast-paced fights with Vipera, when they never had the time for joking around and any punning could get in the way of Vipera's instructions- and that meant that they were smacking down on the akuma almost as hard as they had been when it was Coccinelle and Chat Noir on the battlefield, with Vipera in their ears.
Ladybug grinned as Chat Noir taunted the akuma, pulling its attention over to him as she dodged in, jumping and flipping over the akuma's shoulder in a controlled tumble so she could snag the corrupted pin holding the akuma's cap on, yanking it off and landing only with a slight stumble. Ladybug crushed the pin as the akuma's (very limited) mind-controlled army stumbled to a halt, purifying the butterfly and releasing it into the air. Chat Noir came over to join her as she called for her Cure, his grin just as wide as her own.
"That went really well," Chat Noir said happily as Ladybug returned the restored pin to the akuma victim. "Only ten minutes, and that was with a mind-control akuma too! And not all of those ten minutes were spent fighting, even."
Ladybug grinned, turning to face him. "Yeah, three minutes of us being out and transformed was just watching the cameras like I did as Vipera to figure out the powers and where the akuma was. Maybe we just got lucky this fight and it won't help as much all the time, but..."
"I think it's a good idea to do that all the time," Chat Noir said, extending his baton enough that he could lean forward on it, beaming over at her. "It's scoping out the fight in advance and gathering intel without having cars and spider webs and random powers getting flung at us. Maybe it won't help as much every time, but when it does..."
Ladybug nodded. If they could shave down battle times at all, it would be worth it. Especially since- well, there were still parts of the battle that could have gone more smoothly, even with their preparation. They needed every advantage they could get.
"Ladybug! Ladybug, a quick word!"
"Aaand here come the reporters," Chat Noir said with a small sigh. He flashed a smile at Ladybug. "Are you good to give a statement now, or should we bounce?"
"I'm good," Ladybug told him. "It'll just be a quick comment anyway."
Chat Noir nodded, still not looking completely convinced. "Okay, if you're sure-"
"Ladybug! Are you back for good? What was the nature of your injury? Will we see Coccinelle again, or will she come out with a different Miraculous? Can you give a statement to Paris about why you decided to leave on vacation in the middle-"
"If anyone questions why I took well-deserved time off, I won't be answering any questions and Coccinelle will come after you," Ladybug told them tartly, cutting across the cacophony of overlapping voices, and the reporters promptly shut up and sent a dark look at the man who had asked about Ladybug's vacation. "As for the rest- yes, I'm back, though Coccinelle and I have not ruled out her occasionally coming out in my place as needed. And I'd like to thank Paris for accepting her with open arms, even without a heads-up that there was going to be a temporary switch." She flashed the cameras a grin and a peace sign. "Peace out, Paris!'
And with that, she flung out her yo-yo and was off like a shot. There were a few cries of protest from behind her since she hadn't answered all of the questions, really, just one. She hadn't said anything about her injury, or if Coccinelle might come out with a different Miraculous, or-
"Wow, you might need to call Coccinelle out again to go after the reporters," Chat Noir commented, landing on the roof behind her. "I can understand being curious about if Coccinelle will come out again, but I thought she made it clear that people need to respect your privacy and not push for details."
"Well, if they can't manage to cut it out, my mom is teaching me her patented Icy Mom Glare." Ladybug giggled. "Though I might rename it to the Patented Superhero Glare, since Mom Glare just comes with implications."
"Good idea." Chat Noir fell quiet for a moment, glancing her way a few times like he wanted to say something. Ladybug raised a curious eyebrow at him, and he glanced away again before letting out a sigh. "So. Uh. There was something else I wanted to talk to you about, if we have time."
"I'm sitting at just under four minutes," Ladybug told him. "Go ahead."
"Right. So. Uh." Chat Noir rand a hand through his hair, messing it up even more. "So I swear that I'm not just bringing it up now because we have less than five minutes left on our timers and you can't get that mad at me in that amount of time, really. But I've been thinking back to my last few battles and patrols with Coccinelle- well, the patrols, really, not so much the battles, there wasn't much time for talking then-"
He was definitely babbling now, but Ladybug just settled back against a chimney and waited.
"-anyway, I didn't really notice anything off at the time, but I think that maybe, possibly, potentially, your, uh. Mom might suspect who I am."
There was a pause. Ladybug blinked.
"I mean, I don't know for sure, and I still don't understand how it could be at all likely, but some of the things she said, sometimes- I mean, it's possible that I just told her stuff and then forgot that I did and I'm just jumping to conclusions. But. uh. I thought it might be important to mention." Chat Noir let out a sigh. "I know you said during the picnic that it was okay for me to talk to your mom and it wouldn't be the end of the world if she figured me out, but I still wasn't expecting it to actually happen. And I worry about what that means for us keeping our identities secret from each other."
Well. She hadn't been planning on passing on Tikki's comment quite yet, since they were only one fight in and she had wanted to have maybe a couple weeks of normal battles again before doing any sort of identity reveal reassessment, just to let the dust and fuss around her return settle a bit first. But maybe she was just overthinking things and it would be better to just keep Chat Noir clued in. Then they could both be in on the same loop and maybe discuss their theories about Tikki's words.
"Actually, about that," Ladybug started slowly, and Chat Noir's ears twitched towards her. "Tikki and I were talking a few weeks ago about identity stuff, and she said that we were getting closer to being able to do a reveal. Like, I thought we would have to wait until Hawkmoth gets defeated, but apparently it's a possibility that we won't have to wait for that. I don't know what, exactly, she's looking for," she added quickly, because really all Tikki had said was something about getting closer and maturation and growth and in all honesty, she didn't fully understand what, exactly, Tikki was referring to, which was probably why her kwami had told her not to try to force the growth. If she tried to explain it to Chat Noir... well, she could easily muddle everything up and might accidentally end up insulting him somehow. "Or how long it would take for us to get there. But the whole leg thing somehow got us closer."
Somehow wasn't exactly the right word for it- Ladybug had noticed some subtle shifts in their relationship compared to before her leg got broken- but she didn't want to draw attention to those shifts. Somehow she suspected that, like Adrien's change in attitude towards Chloe (which was continuing, even as Chloe dug her heels in stubbornly), pointing it out directly might only serve to make him uncomfortable.
Even if she had wanted to try, Ladybug wasn't even sure that she would be able to find the words to describe the differences. Some, like the focus during the battle and the flirting retreating back to fully playful, were easy enough to put her finger on. Others...
Well, others were not, shifts too subtle to really pick out what exactly had changed. It was all good changes, though.
Chat Noir lit up, grinning. "That's cool! So it's really not as big of a deal as I was worried it might be."
"Tikki still wants us to wait if possible, but yeah, the world's not going to end or anything if we slip up and figure each other out." Ladybug grinned as well, unable to help getting caught up in Chat Noir's excitement. "I kind of wish she had said more, but..."
"Well, we'll find out soon enough, I hope," Chat Noir told her. He wriggled in place, clearly hyped up about the news, and then he half-pounced on her, scooping Ladybug up in an excited hug. "This week has been amazing. You're back, we got to hang out with bonus patrols, our first post-return battle was a super success, and we might get to share our identities and- and hang out outside of the masks soon! Or at least before we defeat Hawkmoth," he corrected himself before Ladybug could say anything. He set her down, still grinning. "That's amazing."
"It has been a pretty good week," Ladybug agreed, beaming. Maybe it was early in her post-recovery return, but so far, so good. She leaned forward, hugging her partner tightly. "Here's to hoping that it keeps going that way."
"Yeah." Chat Noir glanced down at her, his expression entirely fond. "I hope so, too."
Another week passed and at school, Marinette slipped back into her normal routine easily enough. She could take the stairs on her own now, no more piggyback rides or taking the elevator necessary. Adrien usually stuck close by when they were on the stairs, close enough to steady her in case she ever tripped- which she hadn't, not yet- but that was the only major change from before.
And it was hardly a bad change, either. Maybe Marinette had come to the conclusion that she needed to hold off on dating until Hawkmoth was taken care of, but getting a bit of extra attention from Adrien was never a bad thing. She was getting used to it now, and not blushing as much or messing up her words when he slung his arm around her shoulder or wound his arm through hers as they walked to class together.
(She wasn't going to read too far into his sudden closeness. Maybe Alya was right and he had developed a crush on her, but maybe he was just making sure that she wouldn't get knocked around and risk breaking her leg again, so soon after getting the cast off. Which- well, it wasn't going to happen, not with the amount of healing that she had done with Tikki's help, but she wasn't going to mention her magically sped-up healing to her friends. It would just open the door to too much questioning.)
The week had two more akuma battles- Tanker joined them for one, not because they were struggling but just because it was the bakery's day off- and several patrols. The patrols weren't strictly necessary- they hadn't regularly done them before, since they had been so busy and overwhelmed- but with the newly-shortened battles, they had more free time to spend together. It also gave the two superheroes time to hang out and tease and joke around when there wasn't the pressure of a battle hanging over them, so they could buckle down and be super-focused during battles without sacrificing their friendship and their bantering dynamic. It was something that Marinette really wanted to be able to keep doing long-term, as long as her schedule allowed for it.
(Tikki really, really liked that arrangement, though she wouldn't tell Marinette exactly why. Marinette suspected that it had something to do with the whole 'growing' thing that Tikki had talked about before. Marinette wasn't going to overthink it, though. Patrols were time for her to have fun with her partner and use the Miraculous to relax- and to get more exercise so that she could start building up her strength and endurance again, that was an extra bonus- and she wasn't going to ruin that time by wondering if they were growing as much as her kwami had hoped.)
Marinette wasn't willing to just let things continue as they were, though. It would be easy enough to sit back and fall into a new routine, one with patrols with Chat Noir and battles that occasionally included her parents. It was working really well, after all. But she had learned a lot while she was sidelined, about strategy and long-term planning, and she wanted to keep working on that. Sure, akuma battles were better now, but it would be absolutely fantastic if they didn't have akuma attacks anymore. If Hawkmoth and Mayura were defeated, she wouldn't have to worry about attacks disrupting her day or waking her up at night. She and Chat Noir could hang out safely during the day, instead of having to stay up late, and could help out around the city when it was more convenient for them. Everyone would be safer, and the city wouldn't have to worry about Hawkmoth preying on their emotions.
It was a nice thought, and Marinette wanted to get there sooner rather than later. And that meant being proactive with her approach and planning what she could do to change things up and throw Hawkmoth off.
She already had some plans in place of things that she could switch up at random, of course. Ladybug could swap out for Coccinelle and Vipera. Her dad could come out as Tanker- and Hawkmoth was definitely scared of Tanker after the beatdown that he had gotten- and her mom could bring out bonus Miraculous or deliver them to backup holders directly, instead of them having to suspend the battle to sneak Miraculous out.
And if that wasn't enough to turn the tides in their favor- well. They could switch things up even more. One of the things that Marinette's time on the sidelines had taught her was that one of the hallmarks of a good leader was recognizing when she might do more good in another position. Maybe she loved being on the battlefield and being Ladybug, but if she was more effective as Vipera and her mom could fill Ladybug's shoes without compromising an overly large amount on fighting ability...
It was just a thought, something for her to consider and keep in mind as more of their battles unfolded. Marinette would have to talk to the kwamis to get their opinions, and of course it was possible that an adult Snake would be able to unlock more- not powers, necessarily, but perhaps flexibility. If the timer-stop could be continuously adjusted instead of having just one fixed reset point with an adult holder, that would be a valuable thing to know. It would make what she had done as Vipera not nearly as difficult to do, so- in theory, at least- then one of her parents could take over as the Snake instead.
It would still be smart not to reset to the very closest point, just for flexibility reasons, but it wouldn't require remembering dozens of resets' worth of instructions.
That was a good starting point, Marinette decided as she settled back into her bed. Above her, she could see the shadows on her balcony shifting in the breeze, pale moonlight beaming down from above. She had a framework in place, things to ask about and try out and see what worked best. There would be a lot of moving parts around and trying new things and constantly shaking things up while keeping track of all of it, but that didn't worry Marinette.
After all, with Chat Noir and her parents by her side, anything was possible.
a/n: So this is the end! Thank you so much for reading :)
I haven't ruled out returning to this story 'verse at some later point, but at the moment I have a bunch of other stories that have been begging to be written (some for a VERY long time), plus (as some of you know) my fall job fell through, so I'm scrambling to find and apply to jobs as well. That'll keep me busy for a while!
As always, comments make my day!