It was almost lunchtime and students spilled over the halls of Collège Françoise Dupont. The locker room was no less busy and was astir with moving mouths and moving legs.
Marinette went to her locker in her usual pre-lunch routine with Alya beside her, and the two girls engaged in chatter. As they exited the area, Marinette stopped talking as her voice left her in concern, and Alya quickly silenced herself as well.
Aurore Beauréal trudged through the hall with her head down and her blazing, blue eyes drained of all emotion. Her sunny hair was slack and her pigtails sank. She walked to the wall where the rest of her classmates had gathered, each of them with similarly grim expression. Jean Duparc stared at his own V-neck sweatshirt and the black T-shirt which peeked out from underneath. Marinette and Alya nodded towards each other, then approached the crestfallen crowd.
"Aurore," Marinette called. "Is everything okay?"
"No," she answered. "I just got my score back on Ms. Mendeleiev's exam. I nearly failed. I only barely passed. Even though I studied, the test was near impossible."
"Don't worry," Mireille counseled. "We all did horribly."
"Except for her," Jean commented bitterly.
"What do you mean?" Alya asked.
"That nerd, Denise," the tall red-haired teenager answered. "Ms. Mendeleiev tried to turn her paper over when passing them back so we wouldn't see it, but I was sitting behind her. She got a ninety-six."
The name returned a memory to Marinette. She envisioned the girl with the wavy, violet hair who had been part of her class last year. Like Marinette, the girl had never formed deep bonds with her classmates. Her reassignment to a new class opened up a space for Alya, and Marinette could hardly imagine what her school life would have been were it not for that change. Since then, Marinette's classmates had changed from acquaintances to good friends. From the way the boy had spoken, the same wasn't true of Denise.
"Because nearly everyone failed," Jean explained. "Ms. Mendeleiev is making us retake the test tomorrow. She's going to hit your class with the test then, too."
"I have to improve my score on that test or else I might flunk out!" Aurore cried.
"We need someone to help us study," Mireille declared. "But who?"
At that moment, the cheeks of most the girls facing Marinette and Alya glowed a little, and the two of them turned around. Adrien had come into sight, walking towards the entrance.
"Say, Adrien," Alya called, sending Marinette into a brief conniption. "Since you're good with biology, why don't you tutor us today?"
"I'm sorry," he said as he walked past the group, "but I have a photo shoot this afternoon." As he departed, Marinette sighed and Alya raised her eyebrow.
"You don't seem very disappointed, Marinette," Alya said.
"That's because I have to help my parents with the bakery today," she answered. "I wouldn't have been able to make it anyway. We're running a special to compete with the new café just down the street. So I'm going to have to study on my own, but maybe we should ask Denise. If she did so well, maybe she can mentor the rest of you."
"You're right," Aurore said, her blue eyes regaining their shine. "We can catch her at the entrance before she leaves!"
"Maybe she can help," Jean admitted begrudgingly, "but we're going to miss lunch if we don't hurry up."
"Let's make this fast," the tall boy added, "because I'm starving."
The crowd of teenagers headed towards the front door and a few seconds passed. They studied each exiting student, noting the eager marches and growling stomachs.
"There she is!" Aurore yelled.
All of the eyes of the group fell upon the loose-hared girl in the pink shirt walking towards the entrance. Her purple skirt and black leggings were unmistakable, and she walked quickly in her sneakers towards the front entrance. Being able to go home for lunch was a perk that Marinette herself had taken advantage of at times, but Denise was a regular skipper of communal meals. For once, this predictability worked to their advantage and as she neared the school doors, she fell right into their trap.
"Denise!" Marinette called.
Denise looked up at the address, completely bewildered. It was clear from the expression on her face that she had not been accustomed to people calling her name. Her confusion remained apparent even after her eyes spotted the crowd that neared her.
"Marinette?" she asked.
"Everyone heard about how you aced that exam," Alya said.
"I only got a ninety-six," she responded.
"Please," Aurore begged, clasping her hands, "you have to teach us all you know."
"But, I don't know. I expected to get a perfect score, but I made careless mistakes."
Her words were followed by a girl clearing her throat, and everyone turned to see Chloé walking towards the group with Sabrina by her side. Her blinding yellow jacket seemed to shine brighter in the remnants of their misery.
"Careless is right," Chloé said. "If it isn't Stormy Weather, Marinette DuPAIN Cheng, and all of my least favorite people here in one location."
"What do you want, Chloé?" Alya asked dryly. Chloé turned towards Denise.
"Only to laugh at how such a blatant cheater couldn't even get all the answers to questions right. That's utterly ridiculous."
Chloé smirked as Denise lowered her eyes and absorbed the accusation.
"She's not a cheater," Marinette declared.
"Of course she is. Why else wouldn't she help her friends get better scores?" Chloé pulled out a fingernail file then rubbed it against her nails, then handed the file to Sabrina who dutifully put it away. "She was a cheater last year when she was in our class and now she's cheating even more now she's no longer in sight."
"Chloé," Alya replied, "just because the only way you can get a good grade is by bribes doesn't mean it's true for the rest of us."
"That's only because either you people can't afford to bribe anyone or you're too dumb to cheat. But she's still a cheater." Chloé flipped her hair and closed her eyes, then looked at Denise out of the corner of her eye. "Did you forget to take your brain steroids? Or maybe you actually eat brains since it's probably the only thing you aren't allergic to."
"Chloé!" Marinette yelled.
"Brains would be better than this substandard tripe served at school." Chloé walked away from the group. "Come along, Sabrina. I'm going to go get some real food. You can have whatever is left over."
"Thanks, Chloé," Sabrina replied, happily following her out of the school. As she left, so did the annoyance of her audience.
"We need to find a place for all of us get together," Aurore mentioned, changing the subject.
"There's that new café," Mireille suggested. "'Gourmand Monde' or 'Monde du Guru.'"
"'Guru Monde,'" Marinette answered with a groan. She immediately cursed herself for being so helpful, but her eyes snapped towards Denise, whose expression remained downcast. "But that might not be the best place since it might trigger your allergies."
"I can manage," Denise said as her face filled with false confidence. "I'll have fun watching you eat. Besides, I'll be too busy trying to tutor all of you to stuff my face. I've never done this before."
Marinette and Denise shot each other a look. There was an unease in Denise's eyes, as well as forced cheerfulness, as if she were holding back her true emotions.
"You'll be fine at tutoring," Marinette assured. Her intrinsic altruism made it clear why Marinette had earned the nickname "Everyday Ladybug."
"See you after school!" Aurore said as she and the other students retreated further into the school and towards the stairs.
Denise took a big breath before pulling out her phone and sending off a text to her parents. She could only imagine the look on their faces when they read where she would be headed.
Denise regretted the decision to meet with her classmates as soon as she stepped into Guru Monde.
The café had a dark brown interior and an international eclectic vibe. Visually it was stunning and the acoustics were almost ideal for a gathering. Sound traveled through the establishment without an excessive echo or intruding on individual tables. But the visual and aural beauty of the café could not match the unease produced by what was in it.
The entirety of Ms. Mendeleiev class sat in the café, as did most of the members of Miss Bustier's class. Upon entry, each patron was offered a croissant as part of their order. Some students had greedily eaten theirs, while others picked at theirs to consume it piece by piece. However, there was no plate of food that was empty amidst the stacks of notebooks and textbooks.
Immediately, a cramp squeezed the center of her chest and she nearly dropped the books she brought. The aroma of food was nauseating and overpowered the sweeter aroma of the gathering. Denise quickly found an open table then sat her stuff down on it.
"Welcome to Guru Monde!" a waitress said to her. "What can I get for you?"
"Green tea, please," Denise answered with an awkward smile that the others took as a nervous grin. She went over to an empty table so she could stage her materials. Her tea was not only served quickly but settled her stomach as soon as she sipped it. After a few swallows she picked up her binder and began to walk away from her table.
"Miss," the waitress called as she ran over the Denise, "here's your free croissant."
"Thank you," Denise answered, "but no thanks. Besides, I only had tea."
"Tea is an item." The waitress handed her the baked item, which was warm to the touch. "Everyone gets a free croissant with an order today."
Denise gulped. Her heart pounded, her stomach tightened, and her nose plugged up as she suppressed a heave. She wrapped the bread in a napkin and instantly, the food became less sickening. She held it under her binder as if saving it for later; at least it wouldn't be so obvious that she didn't want it.
Walking from table to table, Denise opened her binder and passed out copies of her summation of the important points of the biology chapter, which lined up with how Ms. Mendeleiev structured her exam. Listed were not mere notes, but enlarged diagrams with labels and mnemonic devices. After explaining a brief outline of the material. Denise went from table to table to answer questions, and understanding brightened the faces of her classmates as they talked.
"Denise!" Aurore called from another table.
"What's the difference between the mitochondria and the nucleus again?" Jean asked.
"The mitochondria converts the energy into power," Denise explained. "The nucleus contains all of the instructions on how the cell is supposed to function. Think of the mitochondria as your stomach and digestive tract. It takes all of nutrients a cell needs and turns it into energy. The nucleus is like your brain. It's responsible for all the operations of the cell."
"They say the way to a man's heart is through his stomach," Mireille joked, "but I guess it's through his mitochondria."
"If that helps you remember, use it!"
A cold wave of negativity pulsed through the café, and the source of the immediate hate wore a face with peach lipstick and blue eyeshadow.
"If it isn't the Picky Eater trying out her new seafood diet," Chloé announced as she entered the establishment and walked towards Denise. "If she sees food she can't eat it."
"Chloé," Alix yelled from the back, "why are you here?"
"Yeah," Jean added, "we're trying to study."
"I just stopped by because I wanted a croissant," she announced. In response, another waitress approached Chloé.
"Your father may be the mayor," the server said, "but young miss, you must order an item."
"Have you forgotten I'm Queen Bee and the mayor's daughter?" she asked as she stamped her foot. "I don't need to remind you I could have this place shut down for false advertising!"
"It's a free croissant with an order."
"Chloé," Denise offered as she walked over to her, "you can have my croissant." She lifted the napkin-covered croissant from under her binder. "It's still fresh. Take it, please."
Chloé replied by slapping the bread away, and only Denise's grip prevented it from falling to the floor.
"No way," the blonde said. "I don't take anything secondhand. It's probably crawling with contagious flesh-eating bacteria. The next thing I know I'll be allergic to everything, too!"
"I'll get you a fresh one, Chloé," Sabrina offered. She began to give her order to the waitress, while Chloé squinted at Denise.
"I know a phony when I see one," Chloé accused. "When your little study session fails and these people fail the test everyone will know you're a fake. But if you're going to fake it, get a free meal out of it."
The waitress quickly returned with a paper bag containing the rank bread and handed it to Sabrina.
"Sabrina," Chloé called, "come on! I have ten pair of new shoes to try on today and those shoes aren't going to get on my feet by themselves."
Chloé walked away with Sabrina trailing her like a shadow, but unease did not leave Denise's heart. She cast her eyes on classmates with textbooks open and plates full of food. Some of them continued to eat as though nothing happened while others served her a sympathetic stare and she looked at them. They were laughing, smiling, and chewing, the same world she always watched day-in-and-day-out but could never take part of.
Her eyes began to water as did her stomach, and she felt a spike of excitement that brought of flicker of darkness in her eyes. Chloé was right. She was the fake.
Denise sprinted out of the café, the croissant in hand. She clutched it, too angry to throw it away and scrunched her eyes shut as she ran, ignoring the screams and cries of those around her.
"Miss, look out!"
"Somebody stop her!"
Denise kept her eyes closed, feeling only the brief brushes of pedestrians far too weak to impede her. She only paused when she felt herself near a building and barely cracked open her eyelids, not daring to open her eyes wide.
She bent down and crouched on the sidewalk. Everything was spiraling out of control. Maybe she just needed a moment to get herself together. To breathe in and breathe out. But the breaths were leaving her and returning to her as fast as her heart was beating.
And then the stench of freshly baked bread hit her, overwhelming even the horrid croissant in her hand. She stole a glance at a tray of baked goods that was in the window. The cakes looked delicious, delicate, and delightful, matching the stylized T and S of the logo. She could understand how people would be enticed to eat them from their beauty alone. But they were fetid.
And the sweet aroma of the humans on the street were now starting to smell more tempting. Her eyes watered with sadness and her mouth watered with hunger.
Much like those odors a black butterfly danced in the air towards her, slamming into the bread she held in her hand and staining it black.
"Taste Tester," the soothing male voice called, "I am Hawk Moth."
She lifted her head and opened her eyes with black sclera and red irises, ready to agree to anything to quell her rumbling stomach.