Marinette steadily carried the tray of green macarons from the Tom & Sabine Boulangerie Patisserie from the oven to the table. Her mother and father stooped over trays of their own, each of them packing the pastries in the boxes in careful, but swift movements. Tikki hovered in a corner, wishing she could help the trio fill their orders. They had run a "buy two, get one free" special on the macarons and as a result, the orders started to pile up. All three of the bakers had to pack the boxes simultaneously to get them ready for the next client.
The sound of the front door opening and the accompanying jingle caused Marinette to freeze. Her parents had also heard the noise but neither of them stopped working their arms.
"Marinette, could you tend to the customer?" Tom asked. "We can pack these macarons."
Marinette abandoned the back of the restaurant with a large wave of relief, followed by her kwami who remained unseen. Having to talk to a customer would be a dream compared to the boring but tiring pace of filling boxes.
When she saw the entrant, her jaw dropped. Her dream had become a nightmare.
The customer standing on the other side of the counter was a woman, roughly Marinette's height, but that was the only thing she could tell about this stranger. The customer wore a full face mask with only a cut out for the mouth that was also covered up. Her skin was wrapped from the back of her head to hand and torso to toe in a patchwork material that was not quite bandages, but gave off the same vibe. She wore a hot pink dress with a flared, frilled skirt on top of this bodysuit, collared with a white bib sporting a purple butterfly insignia. There was a teal bow on the back of the dress that formed a sash. On her forearm she dangled a tan basket that was shaped like a giant croissant.
Were it merely for her dress she would seemingly be odd, unusual, or just ill-fitting in a world of baked bread and sweets. But it was her eyes that she gave away her true nature.
The eyeholes on her mask glowed red. The blazing hot red nature of those orbs meant only one thing to Marinette.
This woman had fallen victim to Hawk Moth. This was a supervillain who had come into Marinette's home, and she gulped.
Her first impulse was to call for Tikki and to transform, but her caution overruled that habit. Not only was there the danger of revealing her secret identity to any passerby on the other side of the window, but this supervillain could have any sort of power to intercept Marinette before she finished her summons. Similar thoughts went through Tikki's mind and the kwami made sure that she was not seen by either of the young ladies. Marinette knew right now the best move would be to play along to placate the person in front of her. The time she bought would allow her keep this supervillain away from her parents and search for an escape in order to transform into her alter-ego.
"Hi, Marinette!" the supervillain greeted in a perky, youthful tone. This supervillain was a teenager, and the familiarity she showed in her greeting was shared by her audience.
"Do I know you?" Marinette asked.
"I'm Taste Tester," she introduced with a long sniff, "and I would like to taste whatever it is that is making that delicious aroma." Taste Tester walked towards a box of macarons sitting on the counter. Tikki made a face of confusion and worry, while Marinette simply sweated in terror.
"Those macarons are for another customer." Marinette took a step back and raised her hands. "If you wait here, I'll make sure you get another batch."
"That's okay." Taste Tester stopped Marinette as if the latter had banged against a wall. "There are so many other delicious treats here I'd like to try. What's this?"
Taste Tester pointed to a long stick of bread in a case.
"It's a baguette," Marinette said.
"May I have that?" Taste Tester asked before turning to a round, large brown pastry. "Also, this looks yummy. Is this reserved?"
"No, it's not. This is a kouign-amann, a very special type of cake."
"Then I'll take it, too."
Marinette took two pieces of wax paper and tore them off. She used the paper as a sleeve through which she grabbed the baguette and handed it to Taste Tester. Taste Tester broke off a tip of the bread and shoved it into the slit near her mouth, but Marinette did not object. All could focus on was putting the cake in a box to get this special customer out of the bakery. A half-second later, she could not even focus on that.
As Taste Tester chewed the bread, she stuffed the rest of the baguette into her basket. The basket, not nearly big enough to fit the baguette, seemed to swallow it whole with no trace of it having ever existed. The sight startled Marinette enough to lose her hold on the cake and she dropped it in the box, the pastry now adorned with a new scar. Immediately, she realized this was the opening she needed.
"Oh," Marinette said, "I'm so clumsy. I dented the cake."
"It's fine," Taste Tester assured. "I want to know what it tastes like, and it's in the box, so it's cool." Her attention bounced between the different baked goods. "What about these cookies? These cupcakes? And this canoli? And these ladyfingers?"
"Sure, they're all available. How many would you like to buy?"
"I would like a dozen of each, please."
"Is that all?"
Taste Tester nodded in response. Marinette put the pastries in the respective boxes then handed the boxes to Taste Tester. The supervillain stuffed each box into her basket. Marinette stepped to the cash register and rang up the total of the sale. Taste Tester handed bills of currency to Marinette, making sure the girl looked at her directly.
"Keep the change," Taste Tester said.
"But this is too much!" Marinette placed the bills into the cash register. "We're having a special. Let me see if I have any change in the back." Marinette took exaggerated, slow steps away from the counter.
"No need." Taste Tester raised her hand. "I'll just come back later if I need to get something else. Hold onto the extra for my tab, please." Taste Tester exited the store in a skip, then cast last words over her shoulder with a wave. "You've helped me so much today, Marinette. I'll remember this kindness!"
The door to the bakery closed and both Marinette and Tikki breathed sighs of relief from their separate positions. Upon hearing the door slam both Tom and Sabine emerged from the back with smiles on their faces. Marinette realized that they had been watching her all the time.
"The customer bought all that?" Tom asked before wrapping his large arms around Marinette. He hoisted her and twirled her around then set her down. "My little girl has become quite the saleswoman!"
"Go ahead, sweetie," Sabine said. "You've earned the day off. Besides, you have to study for that test you mentioned."
"Thank you," Marinette replied. She ran up the stairs that led to her room, and Tikki phased through the wall to fly alongside her. Upon reaching the door, Marinette opened it and slammed it shut after entering. She leaned on the door and slid to the floor while keeping her back pressed against it.
"Marinette, what are you waiting for?" Tikki asked.
"There was something strange about that villain," Marinette said. "She didn't have any demands or even seem...bad. What if she wasn't a villain at all?"
"Marinette, you can't let appearances deceive you."
"But she looked like a villain, and she didn't act like one. Doesn't that mean I should give her a chance?"
"Marinette," Tikki insisted, "I'm proud of you for keeping an open mind, but anyone akumatized by Hawk Moth is dangerous, especially her."
"What do you mean, Tikki?"
"That girl is no ordinary villain." Concern made Tikki's bright face drop, and Marinette waited for her to explain. Instead, Tikki shook herself and bounced in the air. "Trust me, Marinette. Don't let your guard down."
Her plea stunted Marinette's growing suspicion. Whatever Tikki could not tell her about paled in comparison to her duty to the people of Paris.
"Tikki," Marinette called, "spots on!" Tikki entered Marinette’s earrings and in a pink flash, Marinette was transformed into Ladybug. With a new resolve, she threw herself out of Marinette's window and left her old life behind in search of the villainous gourmand.
Chloé strutted down the street in a snooty trot, and Sabrina match her friend's pace as her arms cradled boxes and draped bags. By contrast, Chloé only carried a croissant in each hand, alternating between pieces of bread as she brought them to her mouth. They walked past rows of garbage cans which Chloé did her best to ignore.
"I am saving you from the awfulness of these croissants," Chloé said with a mouthful of bread, oblivious to her lack of dignity. "Only a good friend like me would stuff her face so you could have some real food at the hotel."
Sabrina smiled at the lie, her happiness fueled by Chloé. As long as Chloé was happy, she would be happy. It would have been better for Chloé to eat than for her to be disappointed. Without warning, Sabrina shuddered as her stomach gurgled, shaking the collection of purchases. She wanted to shush her body, but Chloé stopped, prompting Sabrina to do the same.
"What did I tell you about not interrupting me while I'm eating?" Chloé asked in a pouting demand.
"I'm sorry, Chloé," Sabrina said as she cowed, bending over slightly without dropping her packages.
"Pathetic!" cried another voice.
A shadow passed overhead, only for a costumed woman to appear in front of the two of them.
"Chloé Bourgeois," the voice continued, now coming from a bib-wearing teenager covered in a bandage pattern. Her red eyes beamed like brake lights. "You've sunk to a new low. You won't let your best friend eat when she's hungry."
Sabrina's lips moistened but shook her head to deny the accusation.
"Excuse me," Chloé replied to the figure. "Just what are you supposed to be, a gourmand mummy? Halloween isn't for a few months."
"I'm Taste Tester," the wrapped woman replied. "Those croissants smell good, and you have plenty to share. Unlike you, I don't mind if it's secondhand, and all three of us can enjoy them. Would you mind if Sabrina and I had a taste? I have food I can share with you in return."
"Chloé," Sabrina cautioned in a whisper, "she looks like a supervillain."
"More like a super loser," Chloé replied as she took another bite out of her croissant. "I am not going to share my croissants with you or Sabrina. I'm Queen Bee, remember. I earned these fair and square for saving Paris over and over again. Besides, I am not going to eat any food from ridiculous rejects like you."
"So be it," Taste Tester said. "It isn't fair for you to be the only one out of the three of us to not be hungry," As she spoke, a large red mass formed over her left shoulder, coalescing into the shape of a boa that wrapped itself around her left arm. Her shell-red kagune seemed to pulsate to Chloé's eyes as it culminated in a curved point. "I shouldn't even give you the honor of being a ghoul, but maybe once you're hungry you'll understand."
Taste Tester launched herself forward and swung. Chloé remained still, unfazed by the approach of her opponent. She would simply step out of the way after she finished chewing.
The cry preceded the sudden launching of boxes and bags into the air, with clothes and shoes flying free of the grasp of gravity. Despite the clothes being thrown all over the place, neither the strike nor the kagune had pierced any of the purchases. Instead it went directly though Sabrina, who stood in front of Chloé with her arms outstretched. Chloé dropped the croissants and the chewed remains of bread flew out of her mouth, then fell to the ground the same way Sabrina did.
"Sabrina!" Chloé yelled. She kneeled and cradled the other girl. Her voice disassembled into despair. "I was capable of dodging..." Taste Tester smirked at lack of artifice. Without the layer of nastiness and defensiveness, Chloé sounded a lot sweeter. As her natural scent began to overpower the perfume she wore, Chloé smelled a lot sweeter, too.
And Taste Tester was not alone in that assessment.
Suddenly, Sabrina wormed her way to her feet and cast her eyes down on Chloé. Behind the glasses were a pair of solid black eyes decorated with red irises.
"Sabrina!" Chloé called.
"Chloé," Sabrina growled as she lunged for her, "you smell like honey." Still kneeling, Chloé ducked even further as Sabrina passed overhead, then stood up.
"What is wrong with you?" Chloé asked as she backed away.
"Come here, Chloé." Sabrina jumped forward, only for Chloé to sidestep her after every leap. It was a game of frog and mouse, and the black and red-eyed frog left a trail of saliva. "I only want a bite."
"Sabrina, snap out of it!" Her cries and her pulse quickened, which whet Taste Tester's appetite.
"Sabrina," Taste Tester encouraged, "feast on your friend to quell your hunger. The world would be better off without her."
Chloé's heart beat even faster. Her concern transitioned to fear as four scale-red tentacles sprung from Sabrina's back, and even Taste Tester took a quick breath in surprise. Sabrina had not inherited her kagune, but a rinkaku type. Taste Tester had assumed a converted human would have shared her same kagune, but her surprise was only surpassed by the strength of Chloé's scent. That potency drove Sabrina to chase Chloé down the street and away from her.
However, Taste Tester wasn't hungry enough to follow. Instead she reached over to the abandoned croissants and picked both up. She placed one in her basket while nibbling on the other one, savoring each bite of sweetness that alleviated any edge of hunger. As she skipped down the street, she realized to be able to eat both humans and their food was the best of both worlds.
Behind her she left silence, but after she departed, the lid of one of the garbage cans opened like an upper lip. A small figure huddled inside the container. The only trace of the man's presence was an antenna that stuck out from the lid and his wide purple eyes, but the earpiece he wore ensured his presence was known to.
"I have confirmed creature sighting," the man declared.
"Type?" asked the female voice in his earpiece.
"Can you confirm? Other agents have reported a Code Butterfly."
"This is the Code Butterfly."
"You are not authorized to engage Butterflies."
"This Butterfly is a creature," he hissed.
"Butterfly has shown the capacity to turn humans into ghouls." He stopped for a second, processing the enormity of what it's broken. "Every detail, from the red and black eyes to the red apparatus protruding from the back is that of a ghoul."
"Transformation is clearly magical. Information provided is not conclusive. Do not engage Butterfly." The words of the dispatcher boiled his blood and he simmered in the pot of garbage.
"Agent, neither you nor the BIC is equipped to deal with ghouls. If ghoul presence is confirmed, the Ghul Forschung Gesellschaft will be consulted."
"If we wait that long there will be another Tokyo on our hands!" His voice rebounded against the plastic. "I refuse to let the Paris become a city of ghouls!"
"Agent," the voice insisted, her neutral tone unchanging, "you have your orders. Do not engage Butterfly. Do not approach Butterfly. Do not reconnoiter Butterfly. Is that understood?"
"Confirmed," he answered with resignation sliding off his voice. In similar fashion he slid out of garbage can, revealing himself to be a short, balding man in a dark, three-piece pinstriped suit. He continued to creep in the crevices in shadows as the streets began to fill with chaos.