The sedan sped through the streets like a silver bullet and slid through the gates of the Agreste mansion before skidding to a stop. The automobile doors swung open and Adrien raced up the stairs and into his house. Nathalie emerged from the vehicle and pushed herself to match his pace, ignoring the weariness that pulled at her body.
She did not call for Adrien to stop or slow down and satisfaction filled her to the brim. Far too often as of late he had been playing hero beyond what mere chivalry and good manners called for. His urgency to get inside set her heart at ease. He would be safe inside the mansion as his Agreste trait of self-preservation had finally taken root.
Once inside his house, he continued to run up the marble stairs and into his room, sealing the portal with the closing of the black door. Had his father been present, he would have never allowed the boy to run with reckless abandon. But his father was the reason why his own son had to hunker in this bedroom, and Nathalie hoped that there would no further need for close scares with super-powered enemies. After Adrien was out of sight, she headed for her desk and sat down, fully allowing the sickness to drain her strength. In truth, today she would have been no match for a supervillain either. At least in his room, Adrien would be safe from the threats of the outside world.
Beyond her awareness and behind the door to his room, Adrien dashed to the middle of his quarters, and Plagg emerged from inside his shirt.
"She mentioned a test and she knew I had to take one," Adrien reasoned aloud.
"You're the most popular guy at school," Plagg countered. "Everyone knows your schedule."
"You don't think it could be someone from my class?" His eyes widened, smacked by shock. "What if she's Marinette? She's a big fan of mine. Maybe she got akumatized because she wanted to have a picnic."
"You know how optimistic she is," Plagg replied. "It's definitely not her, but this isn't your ordinary supervillain. She's stronger and faster than any human. She's a maneater, literally! She's a ghoul with senses far keener than any superhero. Her skin can't be pierced and regular weapons won't work!"
Adrien's stomach churned a little. Plagg was usually neither so straightforward nor nervous. Sentimentality and any emotions resembling concern from him were as rare as a snowy day in summer.
"This isn't like you to get all worked up," Adrien replied. "Don't worry. Hawk Moth has turned people into monsters before. The sooner Ladybug and I beat her, the sooner we'll get her back to her normal self."
"But, Adrien, she was already a mon-"
A pair of voices shut off Plagg's words and Adrien looked in the direction were they came from. Outside the gate and across the street, a pair of teenagers of different genders struck a panicked pose. A red haired girl in a black dress and a black-haired pale boy in dark clothing stood back to back. A blond-haired, large young man with a dark green beanie and a woman in a tan pencil skirt and a purple sweater were several meters away, approaching them from opposite sides. Even from the distance, he could see the red spikes that formed a tail in each of their stances, with the teenaged, tail-less couple caught in a pincer movement.
And for a split-second, he imagined himself and Ladybug in their position.
"No time," Adrien declared, not hearing his kwami's words. "Plagg, claws out!"
In less than second, Plagg was forced into the ring on Adrien's finger and Adrien changed into Cat Noir. As Cat Noir, the approaching former-humans seemed to move more slowly, but his body lagged even more than his mind as he jumped out of the window and twirled his staff to glide. He landed between the teenagers and the male attacker, his eyes black and red. With a steady gaze, Cat Noir swung his staff at him, his mind already preparing to split his staff in half to throw it at the other attacker.
His thoughts came to a screeching halt when the staff banged against the young man's head and he continued his pace towards the duo.
Cat Noir did not have the time to panic. Instead he sped over to the couple. He wrapped his arms around the pair and planted his staff into the ground. The girl grabbed onto it, as did the boy. He secured his grip on the duo with his left hand and gripped his staff with his right. He barely considered if they were too heavy for the maneuver he needed to perform; saving them was what he had to do, no matter what.
"Hold on," Cat Noir warned. "Up, up, and away, folks."
He extended his staff into a pole and the three rose into the air, just in time for all of them to avoid the contemporaneous lunges of their attackers. Cat Noir shifted his weight slightly, causing the staff to tip over towards the roof. He cradled the pair of civilians as best as he could and the rooftop rushed up to meet all three. Cat Noir took the brunt of the impact as the three landed, but he was the first to rise to his feet. He retracted the staff into a cylinder, then helped the girl and the boy to stand. Stunned but not harmed, the young couple gave him a quick exclamation of gratitude before they looked down at their pursuers, who uselessly reached into the air before running away in search of new prey.
Cat Noir pressed the green paw print on his staff and a flat screen pushed up from the back of the cylinder. Ladybug's image and the message icon displayed prominently. His partner had contacted him and the timestamp of the message was several minutes ago. He had wasted enough moments heading away from danger. It was time for him to be a hero.
He ran towards the woman who needed his help, pushing away the sights of the madness on the streets underneath. He was not going to let her be alone in this world that was coming undone.
Ladybug peered over the rooftop, surveying streets that should have been packed. Instead, the concrete canals were sporadically populated by people with extra red protrusions chasing and kneeling over bleeding victims missing chunks of flesh. She had run around all over the vicinity, only to find the same crimson horror play out before her eyes.
Tikki had been right. Taste Tester was far more dangerous than she looked.
In her journeys, Ladybug had managed to save a few people, but only by stealing them away from the grasp of the red and black-eyed hunters. These were impervious to her yo-yo much like Sabrina. Worst of all whatever means the supervillain used to transform her victims remained a mystery. Had Ladybug at least been able to see the attack in action, she would be able to devise a counter.
She stood up as she heard someone approach, and turned towards her advancing partner as he fell with style from the sky.
"You rang, milady," he greeted, holding up his baton that displayed her message.
"Cat Noir," she replied, "we have a huge problem."
"I've seen it." He looked to the side. "I almost wish I hadn't. People eating people."
"We have to find out where Taste Tester is." She rested her chin on her fingers. "There doesn't seem to be a pattern where she strikes."
"Maybe the answer isn't where but who. I heard from a source she's a student at... that school." His heart skipped a beat as he nearly forgot to add the word "that."
"The one with the teacher who got akumatized into Kwamibuster." She looked at him with understanding. "Anyway, she mentioned something about a test from that teacher's class."
Ladybug bitterly thought the name Taste Tester was an apt pun.
"I just rescued Chloé from one of her victims," she added. She didn't want to mention Sabrina by name. The fiend she became was nothing of her former self.
"My source had an encounter with Taste Tester, but she didn't change him or anyone he was with because he gave her cheese."
Ladybug flashed back to her encounter with Taste Tester in the bakery. Her mind railed with the memory, the obsession with food, Chloé, and the test rang separate notes until at once they formed a chord of sudden understanding.
"I know who she is," Ladybug declared. "She's Denise! She’s a student with a lot of allergies. Plus Chloé accused her of cheating earlier today. She must have been feeling awful after that and on top--." She paused and looked at Cat Noir who grinned much like his Cheshire counterpart. "What are you smiling about?"
"I guess both you and my source know this supervillain," he commented. "Plus Chloé goes to that school, too."
"Speaking of the supervillain," Ladybug said, changing the uneasy topic. "I think I know where she's headed."
"The hotel to get revenge against Chloé?"
"No, this supervillain is different. She's driven by hunger like that sentimonster we fought. And if I'm right, she'll be at the new café, Guru Monde. Let's go!"
"This is my very first coffee date!" he yelled. Ladybug hid her surprise with disgust. Despite his playful tone, his voice was tempered with a familiar, sincere enthusiasm. She had assumed he had played the field in his civilian life given his romantic overtures. The brief hint of a lack of experience softened her reply.
"Not to be a buzzkill," she remarked, "but we might have to make it decaf."
With those words, the two of them jumped across rooftops, but not in sync. The two slowed slightly to make their speed the same so they could talk.
"Is something bugging you?" Cat Noir asked. A groan preceded Ladybug's question.
"Would allergies alone really cause someone to become akumatized?" she asked.
"I'm allergic to feathers, but I don't have to worry too much about it. If I were allergic as much food as that girl is, then I'd be an easy target for Hawk Moth."
She tossed his words into the trunk of her mind and brushed aside how quickly his second-hand knowledge of the supervillain became personal knowledge. In her daily life, she had always been considerate of allergies, but she had never shared the perspective of someone who suffered them chronically.
"So she just wants to eat food like the rest of us?" Ladybug asked rhetorically before her face burrowed into a frown. "That means when we beat her she's not going to be able to eat the way we do. But why is she turning people into flesh-craving monsters?"
"Hawk Moth can twist anyone." Cat Noir answered. "Remember how he turned a loving teacher into a zombie who released a plague of love through kisses."
"I never thought he would be this demented." She felt a pinprick of confusion, but it dulled into an ache of determination. "All the more reason for us to stop him and bring her back to normal."
As she finished speaking they both stopped. To their surprise the two of them were at the destination. The sign of Guru Monde greeted the two as they looked down from above. Inside large windows sat numerous students Ladybug and Cat Noir separately recognized. After a few seconds Taste Tester came into view with her shell-red kagune active. That she pranced around her classmates in a villainous form which hid her features fretted both heroes. Either her mental state had become increasingly erratic, or she simply no longer cared who saw her.
"She has hostages," Cat Noir mentioned. "If we start a fight, she'll pick them off."
"Maybe not," Ladybug responded. "She hasn't turned them into monsters. We might be able to get them away from her."
As soon Ladybug stopped to breathe, Taste Tester walked over to the window facing them and beckoned upward at them.
"So much for the element of surprise," Cat Noir remarked with annoyance.
The two lowered themselves to the ground, fully aware of the delicious trap they were entering. They stepped into Guru Monde and the aroma of a plethora of foods opened their nostrils.
"You were able to make the study session after all!" Taste Tester greeted, rushing over to them with a box of freshly baked cookies in her free hand. "And guess what? I went back to the bakery and got a fresh batch of these. These are delicious." She turned towards Ladybug. "Now I understand why so many people love you."
"What does Ladybug have to do with pastries?" Cat Noir asked.
"Sorry," Taste Tester replied. "I know better. Masks on. Mouths shut." She took a breath to refresh herself. "Ladybug and Cat Noir, now that you've been able to step away from patrol, maybe you can sit with us for a minute?"
One of the patrons, a teenager with a polka dot shirt and an orange skirt, got up from her table and paid for her meal. She exited the store. Ladybug and Cat Noir soon saw other people both leave and come through the door that led to the café. However, the students with books in front of them were stationary, the looks on their faces full of both laughter and intense focus on their materials.
"You aren't holding them hostage?" Ladybug asked.
"Why would I do that?" Taste Tester asked. "I just wanted to share a meal, and to help with the tutoring."
"Don't you want our Miraculouses?" Cat Noir asked.
"Of course, but that can wait until after the meal. I saved a table for the three of us."
Taste Tester led the two of them to a table with three seats. they the book the seat closest to the door while Cat Noir sat opposite of her. On the table were books and a notebook, alongside a cup of tea which long gone cold. Her basket peeked tantalizingly underneath the red mass that covered her left arm and she sat between the heroes, her precious object seemingly within reach of the destructive hero.
"I know what it's like to lead a double life," Taste Tester continued. "That's why I can't fault you for wearing masks. In fact, since we're all in super mode, maybe I can tutor you now. Not that either of you need it, of course." Neither of them could see her true face but from the warmth of her voice they could imagine a genuine smile.
This was a first. A supervillain who legitimately wanted to help them.
But wordlessly the two heroes shared another thought in a brief exchange of nods. All they needed was for her to let her guard down and the picnic basket would be disintegrated in a single word.
"Denise-" Ladybug began.
"Taste Tester," she corrected, "please. We're using our code names now, right? Besides, I would have never imagined someone as dreamy as him being Cat Noir. He's always been out of my league, but I didn't realize how far until now. You two are both made for each other."
Ladybug gulped while Cat Noir made a grin that was both awkward and smug. This supervillain knew who she was and who Cat Noir was. Ladybug shook her head. No, this was just part of the akumatization. When Denise was turned back to normal, she would no longer retain this knowledge.
"Maybe I can be a hero alongside you now that I can eat like you guys," she continued.
"I have an allergy," Cat Noir added. "I understand. I also know what it's like to be in a world where you can only watch but never participate."
"But now I can taste it and it tastes wonderful." She stood up and spun around in joy, and the heroes lamented their missed opportunity. "I didn't realize being able to taste your food would make me feel completely unchained!"
"That's...not why you feel like that," Ladybug interjected. "You've been akumatized. You're...not yourself."
"No, I'm my true self for the first time." She sat back down and looked at her covered arm. "I don't have to bury my head in a book in search of some reason why I can't eat what you eat."
"That's why you're into biology!"
"Even when I was a child, I always wanted to know why I was different. I thought there was just something wrong with my body." The basket dropped a little lower and Cat Noir extended his right hand towards Taste Tester’s left arm. Immediately Taste Tester jumped.
"Wait, don't touch that!" Taste Tester cried in alarm rather than anger. "Let me take my kagune in."
The red structure covering her arm dissolved in seconds and she lifted the basket from her arm into her lap. Her awareness was heightened and the opportunity had been lost.
"If it had touched you then you'd be like me," Taste Tester explained. "Besides, you're already hungry. I could tell earlier but I knew you would get in trouble." She opened up her basket. She reached inside of it and lifted up two warm boxes that smelled of chocolate and grease.
"Take the rest of these brownies," she said to Cat Noir as she opened up the first box. "I got them from the bakery." She switched the basket from her left hand to her right hand and before she opened the second box. "And Ladybug, you should try these pommes frites while they're still hot. I sneaked one and they're scrumptious!"
She maintained a firm grip on the basket. Even with her supernatural strength, Ladybug would never be able to rip it away from her now that her guard had been raised. The two heroes looked at the warm food before them.
"I can understand your apprehension," Taste Tester commented. "I would never tamper with your food. Being able to eat this stuff is a dream."
The pair resigned themselves and put the food set before them into their mouth. Cat Noir ate more readily, while Ladybug took a small bite. Both made faces of delight as the food entered their mouths. This food did taste good.
"See," Taste Tester continued, "even superheroes need to recharge. Just keep chewing." She leaned toward the male superhero. "By the way, Cat Noir, you know that lady you were with earlier is sick. She really needs to see a doctor."
Cat Noir gulped. He had suspected Nathalie's condition was worse than either she or his father would let on, but he never expected to get confirmation from a supervillain.
"So, what's the difference between prokaryotic cells and eukaryotic cells?" Ladybug asked.
"Prokaryotic cells are simpler," Taste Tester answered without missing a beat. "They do not have organelles."
"It's easy to remember when you say it, but I forget which one is which."
"Think of 'pro' as in 'prototype.'"
"I get it now." Biology isn't that different from fashion after all, Ladybug thought before stopping herself. For a moment, she felt as if she were Marinette again, that Denise were Taste Tester, and that they were all playing dress-up.
Cat Noir nodded at Ladybug as she took another fried stick of potato and put it in her mouth. She had the attention of Taste Tester. He slowly turned so he could reach around the back of her.
"Denise," Ladybug said, "you don't have to do all this just to tutor us."
"I just wanted to experience what it was like once to break bread with my classmates," Taste Tester answered.
"But what about Sabrina and the other people? Why turn them into monsters?"
Taste Tester shivered in shock at the last word. As she breathed in she whimpered as if muffling a reaction.
"Is that what you see them as?" Taste Tester asked. "That's the way it is for me all the time. I'll change them back once I have your Miraculous, honest."
Ladybug felt the corners of her mask moisten. Most of Hawk Moth's targets had problems that could be fixed. This girl just wanted to eat, and she seemed oblivious to the harm she caused. Permanently destroying her happiness made Ladybug almost hate having to purify her. Almost, but not quite.
"I believe you." Ladybug answered softly. "I know you're telling the truth, but I still can't give the Miraculous to you."
"I know exactly how you feel." her red eyes dimmed with her mood and voice to the point where Ladybug could hardly see them at all. "Sometimes, you have to fight to survive. If you insist on fighting, then I'll have no choice but to combat you." Her mood flipped to cheeriness. "But you've been so kind to me today by sharing your food. I'll give you both 30 minutes after your last bites."
Her announcement elicited the appearance of a neon pink mask in front of her face.
"Taste Tester," Hawk Moth demanded, "what are you doing?"
"They need time to digest their meals and I'm not going to make them throw up the food that they eat the way I've had to do so many times to keep my cover." Taste Tester's voice developed an edge has she spoke into the air. "I will not forget your kindness, Hawk Moth, but I ask that you please wait. You said I could have a meal with my friends."
"Very well, but make sure this is their last supper."
The link between Hawk Moth and his follower faded. At the same time Cat Noir's right hand had nearly reached the basket when a whispered utterance escaped from Cat Noir's lips.
The word was cut off as Taste Tester grabbed his wrist. Her anger spiked in tandem with her strength and without even thinking, she lifted him by the wrist while seated. The basket slid to her shoulder. Ladybug tried to grab the basket, but Taste Tester kicked her across the café without even getting up.
"I knew it was too good to be true!" she screamed as she switched the basket from her right to her left hand. "I thought you wanted to be my friend, but you just wanted to make sure I could never eat your food again."
She tossed Cat Noir like a ragamuffin into Ladybug, and the two collapsed into each other like a pair of flung socks. Upon the crash, some of the patrons fled the café, but most of the students stayed behind.
"For the first time in my life I could finally understand why you people liked to consume this tripe," she continued as she stood up. "I didn't have to approximate I got what I wanted. No more pretending. No more hiding. Now you want to even take that away from me."
"Denise!" Ladybug yelled.
"I thought you understood." The kagune formed over her left arm, this time completely covering the basket and the eyeholes to her mask were filled with red light. "You were just trying to get me to give up."
"Denise," Ladybug answered, "I can't begin to imagine how you feel, but I can't let people get hurt."
"It's Taste Tester now! And you won't have to imagine, Ladybug. I'll show you how it feels to be hungry!"
Taste Tester leaped at the two heroes. They jumped in different directions, whacking her with weapons she did not even bother to dodge. Instead, she raised her covered arm, and the red kagune dissolved momentarily.
Ladybug took the opening and threw her yo-yo at the open target. She realized her mistake as the kagune immediately reformed and the yo-yo and string quickly became entangled. Taste Tester yanked on the yo-yo string, pulling Ladybug closer into her range. With a decisive swing, her kagune pierced superheroic flesh.
It was to her surprise that the body was that of Cat Noir. She pulled her kagune out and stood still as the boy stumbled toward the door, his eyes shut. He collapsed at the entrance.
"Cat Noir!" Ladybug yelled, rushing to his side.
"Get back!" Cat Noir warned.
"Whatever she did to you, fight it."
"I'm trying." He opened his eyes, which were no longer covered by green but were black and red. His mouth widened in a delirious, salivating smile and he faced her. "I'm so hungry. I wonder how you would taste, milady."