The music grew louder as they reached the top of the hill. Chat was still grasping her hand tightly, his whole expression one of unadulterated excitement and anticipation. Had Marinette not been so confused by his actions, she would have found his manners amusing.
Soon Marinette could hear other sounds too, voices and laughter joining the fray. A few steps forward and she could finally see the source.
The bright red wagons of the Wanderers shone in the dusky twilight, like a ring of rubies in the high grasses of the hills. Marinette felt an odd mix of excitement and wariness in her belly. Wanderers moved from village to village, putting on plays and performances, telling fortunes and selling craftwork of their own making. They could fix just about anything, or so the saying went. Her Papa had a large iron pot he swore had lasted generations in his family after being fixed by a Wanderer.
However, they were also known as vagabonds and thieves, appearing and disappearing at the first sign of trouble.
In a land used to the difficulties of the Border and generally wary of strangers, the transient life of the Wanderers in their bright red wagons was somewhat disconcerting. Unconsciously, she tightened her hold on her backpack.
Marinette didn't have time to protest though, because Chat was already yelling out a greeting and waving at the assembled people. Many turned their heads, smiles spreading across their faces as they recognized the new comer.
He led her down the hill, seeming unperturbed by her hesitation. She let him tug him along, knowing it was too late to turn back now.
There were people approaching them. Chat let go of her hand as they drew close and an insecure Marinette missed the reassurance that came with the contact.
A small mob of children cried out in delight at the sight of them and charged. Marinette laughed in surprise as the tiny army tackled Chat. He went down with a whoop of surprise, making a slew of over dramatic moans and cries for help. The children were screaming and giggling as they wrestled him to the ground. A petite, brunette haired woman rushed forward, a huge, dimpling smile on her face as she quickly joined them.
"Up! Up! All of you!" she scolded the children lightly, "Go wash for your supper and leave poor Chat Noir alone!"
The children did as they were told, running off with all the speed they had come. Chat rolled himself up, shaking grass and leaves from his hair as he peered up at his saviour with a fond grin.
"Madame Cesaire!" he cried jubilantly, "Always a pleasure!"
"Its been a while," the older woman acknowledged, "Where have you been, troublemaker?"
"Here and there," he said mysteriously.
She clucked her tongue at him, but it was a warm gesture. Her dark gaze found Marinette.
"And you've brought someone with you this time," she sounded surprised, "Well? Are you going to introduce your friend?"
Marinette fidgeted under Madame Cesaire's eye.
"Of course," Chat said grandly, with a flourishing bow, "May I introduce Mademoiselle Marinette Dupain. My new apprentice."
Madame Cesaire's eyes went wide as she turned considering to Marinette. The girl flushed a little and bobbed a small curtsy, mumbling a greeting. It was the first time she had ever been introduced to someone as Chat's apprentice and for some reason, a shrill burst of pride rocked through her. It was real now. For a tense moment, she wasn't sure how the other woman was going to react, only to be surprised with a pair of hands coming forward to clasp hers.
"Welcome," Madame Cesaire said in a motherly tone, "You are very welcome here, Mme. Dupain."
"Oh, just Marinette is fine," Marinette said shyly.
Madame Cesaire was not the first welcoming voice. After a slew of introductions, Marinette and Chat were hurried over to the fire and hot bowls of steaming stew were rushed into their hands. The musicians had ceased their play and it seemed everyone was gathering around to greet the newcomers.
Chat ate hungrily, asking loud questions and passing on news as he did. Marinette ate her food slowly, watching the scene play out with interest. She had never seen the cat so at ease with so many people around him before. There was that open, honest expression she was just starting to recognize.
She felt a rush of warmth.
"Are you Ladybug?" a small voice at Marinette's elbow enquired.
She blinked, looking round to find a small girl with the same dark eyes as Madame Cesaire looking up at her. She was watching Marinette expectantly and it took a moment for her to comprehend the question.
"Oh no!" Marinette said quickly, "I'm not Ladybug."
"But you're with Chat Noir!" the girl piped up, crossing her arms, "Only Ladybug gets to be with Chat Noir!"
Marinette wasn't sure how to react to that. She only knew a few old stories about the sorceress and those were vague as best. Ladybug had disappeared a long time ago after all. Yet, the way this little girl was looking at her, it was like she had stolen Ladybug's place.
"Ah, but I make exceptions of princesses," Chat interrupted, leaning over from where he had clearly overheard the question, "And Marinette is a very purrtty purrincess, don't you think?"
The little girl looked from Marinette to Chat and huffed.
"But she's not Ladybug!" she insisted.
"Ella!" it was Madame Cesaire coming over with some rolls of bread, "Don't bother them!"
"But Mama!" Ella whined.
"Off with you," she scolded her daughter.
Frowning, Ella cast one more speculative glance at Marinette and Chat, and then disappeared behind one of the wagons.
"Sorry about that," Madame Cesaire said apologetically, handing them each a roll of bread for their stew, "She's a bit infatuated with Ladybug stories at the moment."
Chat laughed, waving the apology off.
"Who wouldn't be?" he said simply, returning to the conversation he had been part of before.
Something odd flickered in Madame Cesaire's face, it was so quick though, that had Marinette not already been looking at her, she wouldn't have seen it. Lowering her spoon, Marinette put on a smile and addressed the older woman.
"I haven't heard many of them myself," she said with a little laugh.
Madame Cesaire sat down next to her, looking surprised.
"Truly?" she asked skeptically.
"They're not as popular in my village as they seem to be in other places," the younger woman admitted thoughtfully, "Our mayor often boasted he had a copy of the Tales of Ladybug and Chat Noir, but I've never read it."
"And I suppose you've not had many Wanderers visit your village either?"
Marinette flushed awkwardly and nodded. In recent years especially, the mayor had been very adamant in not allowing them to play inside the village.
Madame Cesaire patted Marinette's knee.
"That would explain it then," she said mysteriously.
Trying to change the topic, Marinette asked;
"How old is Ella?"
"Six," Madame Cesaire said with a fond, if somewhat exasperated smile, "And as curious as they come. She and her sister, Etta, are my youngest children."
She regarded Marinette.
"May I ask your age, dear?" she said in that same motherly tone, "You look full young to be travelling on your own."
The implied 'travelling alone with a wizard and Chat Noir no less' was there. Marinette blushed, but gave her age nonetheless.
"Chat's been a perfect gentleman about everything," she rushed to reassure the woman, "I don't think he would have done things this way if it wasn't necessary."
"What do you mean?"
"I uh…" Marinette wasn't sure what to say, whether to explain everything to this woman or not. Part of her wanted to, she realized, desperate for a third party to hear her concerns. But to talk about it out here where anyone could eavesdrop…
Madame Cesaire read her like a book and glanced at the wizard, who didn't appear to be listening, "You come with me."
Smoke from the fire crept up into the evening sky and the red glow from the flames could just be seen from this distance. The sounds of chatter drifted out across the grassy hills, starting a longing deep inside that she didn't want to acknowledge. The woman shook out her main of copper hair, scooping it back into a ponytail. She adjusted her spectacles and opened her pack to dig out a book and a small bundle wrapped up in a white handkerchief. Setting these down on a large boulder, she took off her yellow cloak and laid it on her pack.
She had found a large, flat slab poking out of the grassy hillside. Millennia ago it might have formed part of some structure, but now only rubble remained. Still, it would do for her purpose.
Opening the book to the correct page, she untied the wrapped bundle and drew out a piece of chalk. Stepping onto the slab, she bent down and started to draw.
A golden witch light floated above her head, aiding her sharp, amber eyes in the dimming light. She kept checking the book, making sure every stroke and angle was correct.
A burst of music cascaded over the hill and towards her, carried by the sound of happy voices and laughter. Her hand stilled in its progress along the slab, fingers stained white by the chalk. She swallowed hard, a wave of guilt making her stomach churn uncomfortably. But as soon as it hit, she pushed it away again, along with the dim memories it urged to the surface.
This wasn't about her personal life, after all. It wasn't about them.
Chat Noir was there, him and that girl.
This was just her job.
She continued to draw.
Marinette soon found herself seated on a wooden bench inside one the brightly painted wagons. It was like being in a little house, with bedding and chairs. Like its exterior, everything was bright and colourful. Thick, red curtains lined the windows and above each rested a wonderful floral carving painted gold. The dome shaped ceiling was painted in emerald green and yellow. Trinkets and pictures lined the wagon from wall to wall. Near the door hung cook pots and drying herbs that Marinette could smell from where she sat. Every little space that could be used to fit something was filled. It was cluttered and the colours clashed, but oddly it worked for the space. This was a home.
So over a cup of tea and some kind words of encouragement, Marinette told Madame Cesaire everything. Every concern she wished she could have brought to her own mother, she lay at the Wanderer woman's feet. Maybe it was the stress of the past few days or the welcoming feel Madame Cesaire gave off, but Marinette couldn't help pouring her heart out.
By the end of it, the older woman had clasped her hands around both of Marinette's.
"Life takes us all in strange directions," she said softly, almost to herself.
"It's Marlena, please," the older woman sighed thoughtfully, "You know, I was not born a Wanderer."
Marinette was surprised.
"I once lived in the Capital," Marlena continued, her eyes taking on a faraway look, "I was the head cook in a lord's house. I had a good reputation, money and a very secure life."
"So why leave it?" Marinette asked before she could stop herself, flushing as the words left her mouth.
Marlena only smiled.
"Oh, many reasons," she waved it off, "But like you, I was scared and unsure about the path that had been presented to me so suddenly. I was worried about what people might think, terrified about what was happening to me and more than a little confused by it all."
Marinette felt her eyes sting slightly.
"Sounds about right," she agreed shakily.
"I don't know much about magic, but I can tell you that eventually, you do find your feet again," Marlena squeezed her hands, "Just give it a little time."
The hands holding hers were warm. Marlena had several rings on her fingers that glinted in the lamplight. Marinette looked down at their clasped hands and found herself hoping the Wanderer woman was right.
Time. A year from now she would be home again. She just had to get through this year, and then worry about the consequences of her decision. Just one year.
"I think I understand," she nodded slowly, "Thank you."
Marlena squeezed her hands again. They continued to talk for a time, mostly about life on the road. Marlena had some good suggestions for such travel and since Marinette thought it was more than likely walking around the Valley with Chat would become the norm, she was eager to listen. Marinette also learned a little bit about Marlena. She had four children, all daughters, though only three remained with her. She didn't say where her eldest was, but the pained look in her eyes was enough to give Marinette a hint. Instead, she sipped her tea and listened, happier than she thought to be in the company of another woman for a while.
There was a knock and both women turned to see the door to the wagon slowly opening and a masked face poking its way in.
"Safe to come in?" Chat asked, his eyes darting around the room curiously.
"Done eavesdropping, are we?" Marlena teased.
"Me?" Chat pretended to be offended, "Well I never!"
Marlena's rich laughter filled the room.
"She'll be with you in a minute," she scolded, "Off with you."
Chat didn't move.
"Is Otis around?" he asked carefully.
For a second, just a second, something painful crossed Marlena's face. Then, just as quickly as it had appeared, the expression was gone and the smile returned, even if the smile seemed strained.
"Ah! So that's why you're snooping," she shook her head, "If he's anywhere, he'll be checking on his animals. He's expecting you, I imagine."
"Yes, so he would be," Chat tilted his gaze to Marinette, "I'll join you soon, princess. We still have that dance to get to."
Marinette's face heated up.
"Save your toes the torture," she scolded him lightly.
"We'll see," and he disappeared out of sight again.
Marinette watched him go, surprised by the easiness of the exchange. Marlena treated him like he was her errant child, always up to mischief, but still decidedly loveable. The rest of the Wanderers were the same. The people in Marinette's village wouldn't even dare touch Chat for fear of offending him. And yet here it was like he'd come home. They slapped him around the shoulder, welcomed him in and laughed with him. Even the children weren't scared to tackle the man to the ground.
When she mentioned this observation, the older woman let out a laugh.
"And I was going to say the same thing about you!" she said cheerfully.
"Really?" she asked, surprised.
Marlena looked at the thoughtfully.
"He wasn't always like this," she tapped her tea cup with a finger, "When I first met him – oh, about twenty years ago I think – he was very serious, very controlled. I was still new to the Wanderer life and hardly knew anything about the Valley. But you know, the only times I ever saw him relax a little was around a Wanderer."
Marlena let out a sudden laugh.
"My old mother-in-law, God rest her soul, used to treat him like he was a disobedient child," she grinned at the memory, "I nearly had a heart attack the first time I saw her grab him by the ear and tell him to eat something because he was getting too thin."
Marinette gaped at her.
"I thought for sure he was going to curse every single one of us!" Marlena continued, "But instead he just did as he was told and even managed to look abashed by it."
Marinette giggled at the image.
"He was still quite serious though," she considered something, "But about the time he got his last apprentice –"
"His last apprentice?" Marinette interrupted, surprised, "He had another apprentice?"
Marlena's eyebrows shot up.
"Well yes," she said, "I think it must have been seven years ago? It was just a boy though, maybe thirteen or fourteen years old. He was very sweet, nothing at all like his taciturn master. Always smiling that boy, poor thing."
"Poor thing? What happened to him?" Marinette asked curiously.
A cloud passed over Marlena's face.
"I don't want to alarm you," she said carefully, "Because I don't know for certain."
"I'd like to know," Marinette assured her.
Marlena nodded slowly.
"About five years ago, Chat Noir visited us without his apprentice," the older woman gave a sigh, "He stayed with us for a few months before moving on and during that time he seemed to be grieving. He never told us what happened to the boy and we haven't seen him since."
Marinette listened, already guessing what might have happened to her predecessor. Chat Noir had a duty to protect the people of the Valley from the Border and what lay within it. Something, an Akuma or some monster from the forest, had gotten hold of Chat's last apprentice. Would she be in the same danger? Most likely. She wondered if the boy had had the same ability to purify Akuma's and had been used by the wizard for that purpose. A flash of resentment made her lips purse and she tried to push the feeling away.
"He changed after that," Marlena continued, a far away look in her dark eyes, "Now Chat Noir is the one always smiling. It's a little odd perhaps, but I suppose we all deal with loss in our own ways."
Marinette remained silent, a memory surfacing in her minds eye of that first night with Chat, the one spent in the Border. It seemed so long ago now, though it had only been maybe a fortnight since then. She remembered soothing a nightmare and the name Chat had called out in his sleep.
Had that been the name of the boy? The apprentice he'd lost? She hadn't heard him calling out in his sleep like that since, but the memory of that moment stuck with her. How vulnerable and young he looked. How he seemed like anything other than an all powerful, immortal wizard. If she hadn't known it before, Marinette was slowly coming to terms with exactly how human Chat Noir really was. And it made her wonder not for the first time, what else he hid behind that mask?
"I think you'll be good for him," Marlena finally said gently, "I've never known him to open up to someone so quickly."
Open up? Marinette resisted the urge to shake her head. No, he wasn't open to her. There was still so much she wanted to know about him, so much of him she found herself wanting to see. It staggered her that in the time she'd known him, she was the one who had grown comfortable. Perhaps it was because of dependence. She needed him to control this terrible power within her. Perhaps it was admiration, he had saved her twice already. But then perhaps it was this strange desire to touch the unknown. She was the strange little girl who had wandered into the Border for thirteen days following a ghost light, after all. She was the same girl who had run towards an Akuma instead of away from it and had then followed the strange voice in the forest, only to nearly get herself drowned. Chat was there for all of it.
Chat Noir, the single most strange and dangerous thing in this world.
"But why the Wanderers?" she found herself asking quietly, "Why is he so different here?"
Marlena closed her eyes and when she spoke again, it was as though she were repeating some long ago verse.
"The Black Cat is always welcome where those sworn to the Lady dwell," she opened her eyes and smiled again, "That was the oath made and it's a promise we keep."
But before Marinette could question her about the strange words, Marlena was already ushering her outside to join the party.
Marinette skirted the edge of the gathering, scanning the crowd of people for Chat Noir, but she could not make him out. She stepped away into the darkness of the wagons, biting her lip nervously. The musicians had set down their instruments to enjoy some supper as the last of the suns rays finally disappeared behind the hills. The first stars could already be seen decorating the inky blue sky and a soft breeze tickled at her skin, bringing the smell of cooked meat and smoke to her nose. How many nights now had she spent lying under those stars with Chat right beside her?
She didn't know how long she stood there when Marlena came up beside her, resting a reassuring hand on her shoulder.
"He's over there," she said, pointing to a large wagon on the other side of the fire. It was further out than the others, almost buried in the darkness of the blackening night.
"Thanks," Marinette muttered thankfully.
"I know what you're thinking and you shouldn't worry," the older woman said finally, "He's the protective sort. Whatever happened to the boy, you can bet he did everything in his power to prevent it."
"I know," Marinette whispered, stomach dropping.
That hadn't been what she was thinking of at all.
"Madame Cesaire!" a voice called, "Come join us! Its about to start!"
Marlena's face broke out into a wide smile and she took Marinette by the shoulders, ushering her to the fire. The Wanderers were all gathering around, taking seats at the edge of the circle and the musicians were returning to their instruments once more. In the centre a man and a woman stood. The woman was maybe a few years older than Marinette with an oval face and honey brown hair that shone golden in the firelight. She wore red like many of the Wanderers, but her outfit was made from deep red silk. It clung to her form in a way that made Marinette's blush, even as she admired the contours of the outfit. At first she thought it was a dress of some kind, but a closer inspection revealed wide pantaloons instead of a skirt.
The man was similarly dressed in black, his tanned arms left bare and half his face covered by a silken mask, making it difficult to guess his age. Something about the pair struck Marinette as familiar.
"Sit, sit!" Marlena chirped, Pulling her down next to a man around her own age, the same person that had called out earlier in fact. Marinette glanced at him. He was a lean, dark-skinned youth who wore a pair of spectacles that magnified his eyes. Beside him rested an oddly shaped leather case that Marinette thought looked like a mandolin or lute case. His teeth flashed white when he smiled at her.
"W-what's going on?" she asked Marlena uncertainly, eyes strained to the two in the centre.
"You're in for a treat," the dark youth was the one who answered, his voice honey rich, "The Wanderers don't usually let outsiders see this."
"See what?" Marinette asked, turning her attention to him properly.
"The Dance of Ladybug," he said as though it was obvious. And peering at the man and woman – the dancers – once more, she supposed it was. Black and red, they were meant to be Ladybug and Chat Noir. Curiosity lit up in her and she let out a half smile.
"Marinette," Marlena introduced, drawing Marinette's attention, "This is our other guest for the evening. He's a bard from the Capital."
The young man nodded his acknowledgement.
"You're the girl that arrived with Chat Noir," he commented smoothly, peering at her with interest, "The name's Nino Lahiffe."