Chapter 1: Hors d'oeuvres
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.
Chapter 2: Appetizer
Marinette, Chloé, and Sabrina find themselves encountering the latest supervillain, and not all of them escape the exchange unscathed. Yet in the shadows, another figure observes the events with consternation.
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.
Chapter 3: Salad
Taste Tester continues her search for food and encounters a scent that she cannot resist, putting Adrien in peril. Meanwhile, Ladybug encounters Taste Tester's first victim, but her efforts ultimately result in the deepening fracture in a relationship.
Adrien stared into the round, long darkness of the camera lens. The clear portal to the camera was a one way trip in which his image travelled to the digital file while leaving his story in the eyes of the photographer. He could tell the camera how he felt; it was up to the person behind it to reciprocate with acceptance or denial.
He caught a glimpse of a distorted reflection of himself from the lens and quickly tightened the mask of visual perfection. His shoulders had rounded too much and he overcorrected when he stood back up. This was going to throw off the shot.
"Nice!" shouted a voice. "Nice!"
Adrien knew this wasn't nice. He could fake the stolid expression and the posture. But his eyes were tired. His hips were sore. His normal photographer would have given him a break by now just to alleviate the fatigue.
Instead, holding the camera was Vincent Aza. The blond exuded energy, bouncing around from one odd pose to another on the walkway by the Seine.
"Now say, 'Camembert!'" the photographer goaded.
Adrien heard a groan from inside his shirt. Plagg rested inside his pocket alongside a tin containing a wheel of his favorite cheese. With all the eyes on Adrien, his kwami couldn't float around, even if Plagg couldn't be caught on camera. Nathalie and Adrien's bodyguard watched Adrien from the edge of the staging area as carefully as he watched himself.
"Ah, that's more like it," Vincent encouraged as he took more pictures. "The sweet sensation of hunger makes the camera want more."
Adrien kept his exasperation inward and channeled it into a new wave of determination. As soon as he did, a blip yanked the edge of his sight, but he ignored it. He had to maintain the pose, but the blip reappeared.
That blip was approaching and coming closer, and he allowed himself to break character to see what drew near. It wasn't a blip. It was a person.
No, the celerity of the person confirmed that the approaching person was a supervillain.
"Adrien!" the supervillain called from the distance.
The female figure propelled herself forward a hopping run. Her bib and dress flapped in the wind as she sped past the onlookers who had kept their distance from the set of the photoshoot. She rocketed down the stairs next to the riverside path. In a few blinks of the eye she stood before him in patch-covered flesh and her dangling basket. Her eyes were glowing red, but her body language was giddy, ringing a dissonant note with her otherwise dangerous composition.
"Adrien," she said in a dulcet alto tone, "you have to tell me what it is that smells so good."
The bodyguard and Nathalie were at Adrien's side at once. Vincent nervously continued to take pictures. Adrien fixated on the red eyes of the speaker. He saw a shift in her body expression.
She was going to do something to the others.
He couldn't change into Cat Noir and he wouldn't be able to stop whatever attack she had readied. There was only one move, a move he hated.
"No," he protested, turning to his guardians, "it's okay. She's a friend."
"We go to school together!" she shouted to the adults before re-engaging Adrien. "Sorry for the getup, but it's part of the deal, and I can't let everyone see my face when I'm getting a bite to eat. Call me Taste Tester."
Adrien kept his confusion as masked as her face. Most supervillains discarded any sort of desire to be unknown. Between this and her lack of aggressive action, he quickly realized he might have a chance to de-escalate the standoff.
"Young lady," Nathalie stated sternly, "Adrien is in the middle of a shoot. Leave."
Adrien gulped. Surely Nathalie had to know that a demand to a supervillain would provoke her. To his astonishment, Taste Tester herself seemed to shrink slightly.
"I will, ma'am," she answered, "after he tells me what it is that smells so good." She craned her neck and her face closed in his white shirt pocket.
"It's Camembert," Adrien confessed. She immediately straightened.
"May I have some?" She pressed her hands together as if in supplication. "Please."
"Adrien," Nathalie cautioned.
"It's okay," Adrien replied as he took the container of cheese from his inner shirt pocket to Plagg's dismay. He opened it up and released powerful stench which crawled along the course of the river. He picked off a wedge and handed it to her. "Here you go."
She took the triangular hunk of cheese and slowly brought it to her mouth area. She nibbled it and Adrien could see the effects of the earthy flavors as her eyes glowed even more brightly. He put the rest of cheese in his pocket, but even out of sight its sensation caused Taste Tester to dance.
"All I wanted was a taste," she said. "Thank you so much! This is so better than an autograph or a poster. You really are as great as you smell."
She hugged him tightly enough for Plagg to be pressed against Adrien and to make a groan of annoyance.
"It sounds like you're hungry, too," she continued as she began to open her basket. "Would you like a snack?"
"Oh, silly me. You can't eat when you're at a shoot. I'll let you go back to work. You've got a test to study for and you'll need a full stomach for that."
She fled as swiftly as she had arrived. The bodyguard and Nathalie did not wait for her to distance herself and herded Adrien away from the set and into the limousine as soon as she turned her back. Vincent hung his head down as he was abandoned with the lights, the canvas, and the equipment, all junk by the river. The window of opportunity had closed like the portal to his lens and he packed up the objects with the resignation of closing a photo album.
Ladybug propelled herself through the skies. She made her own winds as she jumped and swung between rooftops, but she barely gave a passing thought to the sensation. Her eyes rapidly scanned the ground for Taste Tester, but the supervillain was not to be found.
A familiar shriek pulled Ladybug's gaze towards two figures in a deserted street, both teenagers, one chasing after the other. The orange-haired pursuer had a red apparatus on her back, but Ladybug focused on the girl running away. Her yellow jacket and yellow hair yanked her appellation from Ladybug's mouth.
"Chloé Bourgeois?" she asked herself.
Annoyed but determined, she landed on the ground between Chloé and the other girl, who she belatedly recognized as Sabrina from her clothes and hair. Ladybug ran alongside Chloé for a second before both stopped, Chloé instinctively hiding behind the heroine.
Ladybug's attention was occupied by Sabrina and the pair of black and red ovals behind her glasses. They were the stable anchors to a face contorted by primal desire. Her mouth and nose were twisted by a delirious grin that left a trail of saliva on the ground.
"Sabrina!" Ladybug called.
"It's no use, Ladybug," Chloé warned. "This crazy mummy came out of nowhere and put a curse on Sabrina."
"Ladybug..." Sabrina said as she slurped her drool. "...yummy....sugar."
Ladybug winced at the unnerving display. If this is what Taste Tester were capable of, she had been lucky to escape the bakery with her humanity intact.
Sabrina, by contrast, abandoned any sort of humanity with a leap towards Ladybug. Ladybug twirled her yo-yo as a shield, deflecting Sabrina. Sabrina did not scream but landed and scampered, then thrust forward the red tentacles on her back at the heroine. Ladybug turned as she maintained the shield. After she parried the launched limbs, she would look for an opening.
Reality denied her plans as kagune and the yo-yo collided. In a snap the shield broke.
With only a fraction of a second, Ladybug side-stepped and dragged Chloé with her to prevent the limb from striking them, but the slip of attention left the two of them open to Sabrina, who scampered towards them. Ladybug reflexively threw her yo-yo at the face of the charging Sabrina.
Not only did the girl not slow down, but the yo-yo bounced off her face as if it had hit a wall.
The pit of Ladybug's stomach dropped. She had only one option. She grabbed Chloé by the waist and retracted the yo-yo, then flung it again into the air, the rounded carriage hooking onto the side of a nearby building. As Chloé wailed, Ladybug pushed off the ground in a swing. She did not look back, but she could feel the red appendages of Sabrina grazing her in a last ditch effort of making her a meal. In less than a second, though she was out of the range of Sabrina or her tentacles, and the only Sensation that unnerved her was the heavy, squirming screamer she carried.
Ladybug continued the aerial traversal with her unwilling passenger. The banshee wail slit the Parisian air with every swing, until Ladybug spotted Le Grand Paris. Relief filled her as she saw Chloé's balcony and pushed herself towards it as quickly as the air would allow her and Chloé to travel. As it rushed up to meet her, Ladybug withdrew her yo-yo yet again and cradled Chloé with both her arms. With a thud, she landed and placed Chloé gently on the outdoor area outside her posh room.
Feeling the ground underneath her feet, Chloé shook and jumped for joy, then quickly regained a composure of disdain.
"Ladybug," Chloé said, extending her hand. "I assume you're here to give me my Miraculous."
"No," Ladybug answered as her mask sagged. "I'm here because you needed help." Ladybug turned and threw her yo-yo towards a nearby building. "Sorry, Chloé, but you're going to have to sit this one out. You'll be safe from anyone attacking you here."
"This is ridiculous!" Chloé stomped her foot and strained her neck. "I deserve to save Paris. Queen Bee can immobilize the villain and stop her from turning..."
As she spoke Ladybug ascended into the air and let the string carry her away.
"...people into monsters..." Chloé finished letting her voice trail off. Her anger evaporated then condensed into itching eyes.
The first tear fell down the side of her face like a water droplet sliding down a steamy pane of glass. More flowed afterward, and the dam of regret had been breached.
Chloé could not stop shaking. It wasn't just that it was her fault. It was that Sabrina was still hungry.
She would never dare voice the feeling aloud, but it forced the tears down her face. Her best and only friend was hungry.
Her mind threw up a wall. She could have saved Sabrina, but Ladybug was leaving her, not letting her help. Again.
A knock came from the door leading to her room. Chloé hoped it was the butler.
"Coral," Audrey said through the door, "what is that awful noise you're making?"
"I'm just doing yoga," she quickly lied as she sniffed.
"Good, because someone sent me a picture of you eating two croissants at once. How undignified! You're going to need to burn that off."
Chloé didn't need to hear the footsteps of her mother fade to know the woman walked away. The words of her mother reminded Chloé of what really mattered and instantly dried up her tears.
The idea of caring about that lower-class servant was ridiculous. Utterly ridiculous.
Chapter 4: Main Course
Cat Noir finally gets the opportunity to be a hero, and he and Ladybug confront Taste Tester. However the face-off between the superheroes and the supervillain quickly goes into a direction neither Ladybug nor Cat Noir expect. Will this meal satiate the desires of those involved, or will hunger and desire claim more victims?
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."
Chapter 5: Palate Cleanser
The supervillain Taste Tester has compromised Cat Noir, and an unexpected arrival of a pair of interlopers throws more chaos into the mix. Can Ladybug escape the desirous mouths of those who would consume her, or will the superheroine become a delectable dish?
Taste Tester watched Ladybug throw her yo-yo the sky and swing upward, as the black mass known as Cat Noir vaulted after her in chase. Vindictive vindication stomped out any fire of pity that she had for him. He deserved to be hungry.
A croissant hit the back of her head and broke her moment of reflection, and she turned around. The patrons of Guru Monde displayed faces of fear and anger.
"Hey!" Alix yelled. "What did you do to Cat Noir?"
"Wait a minute!" Alya interjected. "We can reverse it if we can break the object where the akuma is hiding." Her words were met with nods and cheers and the idea spread over the patrons like sunshine.
"Her akuma has to be on her," cried another customer. "Let's hit her until something breaks!" The words cast a shadow over those same patrons. Determination had been discarded for revenge.
"Humans," Taste Tester announced, turning the word into an imprecation. "I was a fool to try to tutor any of you. You all think I'm a monster, too!"
Taste Tester let a war cry loose as she dashed and jumped, stabbing people with her kagune. Those patrons soon developed black and red eyes and red kagunes of different types. The unaffected patrons fled the restaurant with the new ghouls scrambling behind them, breaking glass and turning over tables in their pursuit.
She no longer wanted to be a hero or to help these humans study. Being a villain was more fun. She exhaled a brief laugh, only for Hawk Moth's voice to shut it off like a light switch.
"Taste Tester," he commanded, "stay focused. Follow Ladybug and Cat Noir. You need to retrieve their Miraculouses."
"On it, Hawk Moth!" she replied.
She took a deep sniff and ran out of the cafe. She launched herself into the air and onto a roof, disturbing a flock of pigeons that gathered in oblivious instinct. They departed and stirred up a slight wind, only for a new breeze to rustle her dress and bib. It carried a pair of new scents made her as still as a rock.
"Oh no! It's--" Taste Tester began before clipping her words. "...Hawk Moth, we have a problem."
"Taste Tester," Hawk Moth insisted. "I want no excuses."
"There are others coming that are stronger than I am, even with your help."
Hawk Moth groaned to mask his consternation. Usually his creations were brimming with foolhardy fearlessness. That she retained her reticence to fight meant either that her fear was stronger than her desires, or that she was accurate in her assessment.
"I don't stand a chance against them, even now," she continued. "I can't let them spot me. I'm downwind, so I can wait them out somewhere else."
"Very well," he said. "Retreat for now, but I will need those Miraculouses."
"Don't worry." She dropped back to the ground, then retreated. "Once those ghouls pass, I'll let Cat Noir come to me. Even after eating Ladybug he won't be a match for me. He won't know how to use his kagune the way I can."
She opened her basket and removed a half-eaten croissant, then bit into before departing.
"Bon appétit," she muttered bitterly. It was a shame her classmates had to die. They knew where to get delicious food.
Ladybug's heart pounded as strongly as her feet did against the rooftops of Paris. She was more used to running towards danger in her costume then running away from it. She was even less used to what she felt now - terror.
Cat Noir had been compromised by villains so many times before that she couldn't even bother to keep count. Neither of them particularly liked when it happened but they both understood that it was a risk of the job. Turning the heroes against each other was an expected development and she had plenty of practice fighting him.
She had battled him mesmerized and directly controlled. She had even battled him in the alternate future when he was Cat Blanc and his destructive power dwarfed what he had now.
But this was the first time that he actually wanted to eat her.
He chased after on all fours. She jumped as he fired a series of bullets from his new appendages at her. The projectiles missed her narrowly and she could feel the air rush past her heel. He had no higher reasoning. He didn't want her Miraculous. He was playing a little game of cat-and-mouse where she was the mouse and he was closing in.
He shouldn't have been this fast, this strong, or this ruthless. Hawk Moth wanted her Miraculous. Giving a villain or a minion the desire to eat people could result in the Miraculous itself to get damaged or lost. This wasn't like Feast, which wanted to swallow her whole. This was a being that wanted to tear her flesh apart.
Until she remembered that he would only eat her body, piece by piece, and leave the Miraculous for the taking.
With a grunt, she reached for her yo-yo. Her Lucky Charm would be her only hope to escape from the predator her partner became.
Her motion was a moment too late.
She stopped hearing his steps and didn't understand until something pushed her and she fell. The blur of black had knocked her face forward onto the shingles of a sloped roof, while the rest of her body followed with a thud. The shingles splintered with her hope. She expected to be able to recover, but he was on top of her before she could even think. She had fought against him whenever he was brainwashed enough to know they were evenly matched, but whatever Taste Taster had done to him made him stronger, faster, more durable...
...and gave him a pair or red, crystal wings to match his now-red eyes.
Her body was pinned by Cat Noir. All four of his human limbs immobilized her, and he spread his wings over her form. She struggled and swung her irises from left to right, hoping to find something that would help her get free. All she noticed was a pair of blurry shadows that were probably pigeons.
"Little kitty on a roof," Cat Noir raspily sang, "all so hungry for his lady..."
Drops of saliva rained on her costume. He was not even going to turn her around to face him. Tikki's warning about the supervillain echoed in her ears.
Anyone akumatized by Hawk Moth is dangerous. Even the ones that paid for their meals, Ladybug added.
As soon as the thought hit her, she was free and she blinked. Quickly she flipped over and looked around. She felt a tap on her shoulder, and a gloved hand draped in front of her. She sat up and grabbed the hand. She felt another hand on her back helping her to stand. She turned to face her rescuer.
The tall man standing before her wore a white full face mask, painted with the black design of a squid and framed with purple hair. On top of his head was a tan fedora that matched his trench coat. Underneath his trench coat was a dark three-piece suit, and below those were black shoes with white tips.
He gently brushed her shoulders to remove the debris. It was only then that she noticed two red tentacles emerging from his back. She jerked, but stopped herself from going into a full defensive stance.
"Don't worry," he said. "I'm not going to hurt you."
A motion flickered in her peripheral vision. Ladybug spun around. On a nearby rooftop Cat Noir was leaping at a woman wearing a white labcoat over a red skirt and a cloth face mask. Cat Noir wildly bounced off the roof like a ball and flung pieces of his wings at her. Her red appendage formed over her left shoulder and covered her arm like a sleeve, ending in a singular point. She took a parrying stance, taking some of his wild attacks and skillfully avoiding his blitz-like assault.
Ladybug instantly read her behavior and stepped forward to swing in.
"Stay back," the man warned. "She can take care of him."
Another shower of red bullets rushed from Cat Noir into his target. She did not fall but she staggered, and he jumped in for the kill. She rolled with his pounce and took her knees into her chest, then extended her legs, kicking him off her. She tumbled to her feet with an even pace, but Cat Noir staggered slightly in spite of his speed.
He was getting tired.
This dueling dance went on for a few minutes and as the seconds ticked by, Cat Noir slowed, his actions less precise, and his body fatigued.
It was the rope-a-dope.
Cat Noir didn't have the mind for strategy. He was too hungry. He rushed towards her in repeated quick lunges that became less quick with each attempt. He made a final, stumbling leap before collapsing near the edge of the roof, with the red limbs jutting from his back dissolving at the same time. The woman bent down next to him and picked him up with one arm before he could slide off, cradling him under her shoulder.
Ladybug found herself lifted up in the same manner.
"Hang on," the man said.
He followed the woman, who had begun to depart and quickly caught up with her, propelling himself with his appendages. Ladybug shook, not only with the physical jostling, but at the scenes that unfolded in front of her on the ground.
There were people on top of other people, limbs in places there shouldn’t have been, and screaming.
One of the screamers was a skinny man in a gray suit who tried to cover his face with his forearm. It was Mr. Ramier, cowering as Roger, now sporting a red, bisected tail, closed in.
And this time she could not help him.
"Don't stare!" the man carrying Ladybug ordered. He firmly but softly pressed his free hand over her eye mask.
The jostling grew even more nauseating now that she couldn't see.
She heard a higher-pitch voice shout a quick German utterance. Under other circumstances she would have understood it readily. Instead she felt herself become light. She was falling and the sudden jolt of the landing came sooner than she expected.
In the back of her mind, she wondered if this were what it was like for those she rescued. Her mind felt as if it were in a blender, whirring in confusion with no idea when her body would come to a complete stop.
Until it did. Her rescuer released his grips over her body and her eyes, which opened round in confusion.
They were back in Guru Monde.
A few minutes ago, the cafe had been full of patrons. Taste Tester had been here. Their classmates had been here.
Now Ladybug stood in the midst of an establishment populated by turned over tables and splayed books, not people. Drinks had been spilled and food was turned over on its side. The female figure placed Cat Noir's limp body onto one of the still-upright chairs.
A cup of coffee rested on a table near Ladybug. The man put his gloved hand on the paper cup and opened up the beverage, releasing both steam and the aroma of mocha. He opened his trench coat and pulled out a box with brown cubes, and plopped two of them into the cup.
"He's too far gone for that alone," the masked woman advised, sounding as much the part of the doctor as she looked. Her German accent was faint, but noticeable. Her partner continued to bring the beverage to Cat Noir.
"Young man," he encouraged, "drink up."
Cat Noir parted his lips in a groan and the man lifted the cup to Cat Noir's mouth. He tilted it and the liquid poured between his lips. Instinctively, Cat Noir swallowed and his eyes opened fully. Red veins trailed through the black orbs, and his red irises widened he swallowed.
"That's right," the man coached. "Drink this as a start."
The man slowly withdrew the cup and then rested it on the table. He backed up and let Cat Noir follow his nose and lap at the liquid. Seconds later the teenager picked up the cup and gulped it.
"He needs more than that," the female figure announced. "Get the canister."
As she spoke Cat Noir slowly attempted to get up. For a moment, Ladybug asked herself a question that sickened her.
What if he made a break for her?
"Sit down," the man said. Cat Noir obeyed more out of submission to his remaining weakness than any actual agency he had left.
"At least he can follow directions now," the woman remarked before turning to the crimson champion. "Ladybug, may I have a word with you?"
Ladybug obeyed the summons and crossed the establishment towards the woman. Upon closer inspection, her wavy burgundy hair was loosely carried into a bun, and there were bags under her eyes offset by striking eyebrows. She was not old, but she was older than she moved.
"We ask you to please help that young lady," the woman said. "Save her and turn her back to the way she was."
"Of course," Ladybug answered. "Why would I do anything else?" The woman smiled slightly at the genuine altruism in her voice and the corners of her eyes folded.
"How wrong of me to assume."
A grunt pulled Ladybug away from the conversation. She instead spied Cat Noir, with red around his mouth to match the red in his eyes. He shook as he stood up, as if trying to escape the metal container set before him. The man pressed his hands firmly on his shoulders, and Cat Noir buckled.
"No," the man insisted loudly to Cat Noir, "you are not done! Eat it all."
"I...can manage from here," he protested.
"Finish it or you'll get more pangs. I know how much teenagers eat. This is barely enough to tide you over."
Ladybug had upgraded her curiosity from a glance to a stare as Cat Noir resignedly bent his head and opened his mouth.
"Don't look over there," the woman in the labcoat ordered.
"What's going on?" Ladybug asked.
"We're making sure your partner regains his right mind. We know how much he needs."
Ladybug wrinkled her mask in confusion before clarity hit her with a thunderclap. The only way for a victim to return to sanity would have been to eat someone.
Which meant these two must have eaten someone in order be sane.
And that meant Cat Noir was eating human remains now. Her neck automatically started to turn to confirm her guess.
"Ladybug," the woman called, "look at me." The heroine heeded her call and her sight centered on the woman's covered mouth.
"Why are you wearing masks?" Ladybug asked.
"Because we don't want to be seen like this."
Ladybug stopped herself from pressing further. If she had to eat someone, she probably wouldn't want people to see her face either.
"Thank you for helping us," Ladybug said.
"We wish we could do more," the woman offered, "but we know...your foe...well. She will not show herself if she even gets a whiff of either of us."
Ladybug exhaled as she contemplated the words, but her next breath became a gasp as heard someone close in. She turned towards an advancing Cat Noir. His eyes were green again and his mouth had been wiped clean of red.
"Cat Noir!" Ladybug cried. "You're back to normal!"
"Not quite," he answered and made his eyes red and black.
He released his kagune. She had to admit he looked more like a dark angel than the playful devil she knew. He let the wings disappear and his eyes return to green.
"He gave me a crash course," Cat Noir continued. "I think I could get the hang of this!"
As soon as he spoke, a trio of teenagers assembled outside the café and made their way towards the group.
"Ladybug..." Alix called, her eyes now sporting the signature red and black colors.
"So sweet," Aurore commented with similar eyes. "Sugary snow."
"BFF-fast," Alya said with eyes as black as her glasses and redder than her hair.
"Quick!" the masked man announced. He and his partner stepped between the young heroes and the newly compromised. "There's no time! You two go after the target."
"We'll hold them off," the woman replied, her accent growing thicker with desperation. "Besides, only the two of you can undo this. Please, save her."
"We will!" Cat Noir promised. The two of them ran out the shattered glass opening where a window pane had been and made their way to the roof. The two looked around, but there was no sight of Taste Tester.
"How are we going to find her?" Ladybug asked. "She could be anywhere!"
Cat Noir did not immediately answer. Instead he sniffed.
"I think I caught her trail," he said, "and she's definitely...scared."
"Scared? What could she possibly be afraid of?"
"I don't know, but as strong as her scent is, she won't escape us."
"Are you going to fly us there?" she joked.
"You trust me, right?" He extended his hand and she grabbed it.
"As long as you don't try to eat me."
"Then climb on." He patted his back.
Cat Noir nodded to answer her. The thought of him as a mount almost made Ladybug laugh, but instead, she grabbed his waist and rested on the same areas from which his appendages had once emerged. She was getting two monster rides in one day.
"Don't forget to buckle up," he said.
She took his belt and tied it snugly around their waists, then rested her head beside his. Once secure, he ran in his four-limbed gait with his lady on his back. He ran even faster than she would have been able to swing, and changed directions more abruptly and precisely than he could twirling his staff.
And unknown to them, below in an alley, a shorter man covered in rubbish and smelling like garbage followed him in a trash can, hoping to catch a creature.
Cat Noir still couldn't believe that had to become a cannibal to live.
He was still slightly hungry. He wasn't ravenous or out of control, but Ladybug still smelled delicious. He flung himself from wall to wall and rooftop to rooftop in chase of the new scent of his quarry. If he focused on that, he would be fine.
He knew it was just the magic, and the sooner Taste Tester was defeated, the sooner his hunger would vanish. Still, the sharpness of the world was an entirely new experience. He could smell and hear far more clearly than he even did as a superhero, with the noises and fumes of the city as clear as the sight in front of his mask.
It should have been overwhelming, but it wasn't. Apparently, the curse compensated and gave him a level of awareness beyond his superheroic self. Otherwise he wouldn't have been able to hunt humans.
A sliver of revulsion hit his head at that last thought. He was thinking of humans as prey. He had been affected by supervillains' powers on past occasions. Sometimes he was aware of the influence on his body, if unable to fight it, while others he had been completely consumed by the villain's will. This was almost as if he an inherited a mindset of a monster, not just a hunger.
Which meant the longer he was like this, the less of the human him would be left.
His thoughts and desires coalesced into Ladybug. She wasn't just the girl of his dreams. On some level, he knew her voice. The tones of her speech were so familiar, especially now that she had been shaken from her steady strength.
More than that, he knew that smell.
He didn't recognize the smell of a girl more confident and brave than any person he had ever known. But he had encountered this particular cloud of scents elsewhere, recently and recurrently. He was familiar with the unease she emitted and tried to suppress. It was like smelling a stuttering sugar cube.
How would he know what a stuttering sugar cube smelled like? The same way as it tasted, he assumed. He loosened his jaw enough to anticipate licking his lady's face as it rested next to his.
He shut his jaws immediately and clenched his tongue with his teeth. That this curse used his hope to tempt him to eating the girl he loved meant it had to be broken all the faster.
Instead, he reaffirmed his vow of silence on these feelings. He and Ladybug needed to work in unison to beat this supervillain. The thought of her even having a hint of fear of him teased his hunger and cracked his heart. Those separate pains had to swept away they disappeared. Instead he focused on the aroma of the ghoul he hunted. He hoped when this was over no one would ever feel this way again.
The campus of Collège Françoise Dupont sat as a welcoming friend in the crowd of uninviting buildings. Cat Noir and Ladybug alighted in the courtyard of the school. Ladybug detached herself from her partner but held onto his belt. Devoid of all student life, the deserted edifice echoed silence. There were no signs of students anywhere.
Especially not Taste Tester.
"The trail ends here," Cat Noir stated.
"This has to be a trap," Ladybug said.
"But she won't fight us out here. Even if she knows we're here, she's not going to confront us. This is too open and she would be at a disadvantage."
"Then she could be anywhere in the school. And if we just go from room to room, we'll never find her before she finds us."
Ladybug breathed in deeply and threw her yo-yo into the sky.
"Lucky Charm!" she cried.
A red box with black spots fell into her palm. She opened it up and familiar miniature red buns with black spots were packed inside.
"Macarons?" she asked. "What am I supposed to do with these?" She turned to her partner. "Cat Noir?"
His eyes had turned black and red again.
"You can't smell that?" he asked.
"They smell a little sweet," she answered, "but faint, actually."
"No, they smell just like you, but only stronger." He shook his head. "Close the box."
She looked around. Her eyes looked toward the entrance of the courtyard, and she visualized the path to her destination. Her eyes also fell on Cat Noir's belt in her hand, and a plan began to take root in her mind.
"If these macarons are so irresistible to you," Ladybug reasoned, "I think Taste Tester won't be able to stop herself from eating them. Let's give her what she wants!"
The two of them nodded and ran into the hall, their thoughts in sync again.
Taste Tester gobbled the remains of a baguette as she was surrounded by wooden benches and tables. This had been her classroom, once, and it was also those of her foes. Adrien had displaced her and Marinette had blossomed in her absence. She had been taken in by his celebrity and her kindness. At least now the latter would be nothing more than a meal, although Taste Tester wished she had been able to eat Marinette herself.
Instead she would have to fight that black cat. His ukaku type had been a boon for her; it complemented his speed but heightened his weaknesses. She knew from the Ladyblog he could be reckless and too straightforward. That would be good for an initial burst of speed, but he would wear himself out.
If it weren’t for them she wouldn’t be worried.
The ghouls of Paris typically hunted even more rarely and stealthily than elsewhere, but they could fight. With superpowers she would be a match for most ghouls.
But not them. They were too seasoned. They had survived more pain than she knew and they knew her. And at the thought of having to face them, she asked herself this deal was worth it.
As she swallowed, she felt the static clear in her head. It was worth it. Once she retrieved what Hawk Moth asked for she could worry about what would come next.
A sound and a shadow swept past the rays of sunshine and she rose and peered out of the pane of glass. She felt a flash of annoyance upon seeing the two heroes land on the asphalt outside the window. There was only one way Cat Noir would have avoided eating Ladybug. He had to have eaten someone else.
And a horrible thought hit her with full force.
Perhaps she had underestimated him, and perhaps he eaten them. No, they wouldn’t have lost to him, and he was focused, not screaming like a madman. He wasn’t a kakuja.
That word, kakuja, had only been uttered a few times within earshot. The thought of eating her own kind was completely repugnant. Humans were meant to be eaten.
She would just dispose of Cat Noir instead of eating him.
Her eyes focused on Ladybug. The crimson conjurer had not wasted a moment and created a box. The heroes then split up and entered the building, and Taste Tester sauntered over to the door. All she had to do was wait for one of them to enter Miss Bustier's classroom in search of her. Then she would consume Ladybug.
Taste Tester heard a slight sequence of repeated beeps and the zipping of a string. She pressed herself against the wall next to the door. Ladybug had used her special skill and that act had started the countdown to her doom.
Seconds passed and Taste Tester heard no further noise, but a cloud of scents hooked her by the nose. She peeked around the frame of the door and in front of it was a red and black pastry in front of the opening.
Taste Tester released her kagune to cover her arm and bracelet, but her ears told her that aside from the macaron, the halls were empty. The pastry smelled like the combined sweetness of human flesh and the macarons she had purchased. No trace of any drug or suppressant was on it. She picked it up and popped it into her mouth.
It was the most delicious dish she had ever tasted in her life. It was sweet, salty, meaty, tangy, and potent. It only whet her appetite. Her classmate would be sweeter.
She looked down the hall and on the floor at the edge of sight was another macaron.
This was predictable. They were leading her on a trail. She decided to play along, this time dropping the macaron in her basket to savor later. She repeated this process with subsequent macaroons, keenly aware of her advantage. In order to attack her they would have to reveal themselves.
She half-expected the heroes to strike when she scooped up each pastry, and as she followed the path, demented delight turned into dismay. They weren't leading her outside, to the entrance, or even to the courtyard where they could surround her in a blitz. Instead, each pastry brought her directly to their desired destination, the locker room.
The two scents of her pursuers had intensified intertwined, both ghoul and human were a mixed blend of smells that could hardly be distinguished. Between the macaroons and their close contact, she knew they awaited her, and as she neared, a pair of heartbeats also caught her ear.
She walked into the locker room and made a quick left to home in the lockers assigned to Miss Bustier's class. The destination of her target was as obvious as her tactics. Taste Tester no longer needed her nose or ears to strike, although a slight tap on a locker behind her threatened to distract her.
"Fighting in an enclosed space is the worst move you could make, Ladybug," she gloated. As she approached Marinette's locker, a shower of bullets slammed towards her from behind. She blocked them with her kagune. Surprisingly the projectiles barely hurt and she understood belatedly how much stronger she was now. This was going better than expected.
"Sorry," Cat Noir interjected with his kagune activated, "Ladybug's not here. Catch me if you can!"
Taste Tester laughed. Ladybug would not have even been an annoyance, but she was still a second fighter. That Cat Noir decided to attack her alone meant only one thing.
She had already transformed back into Marinette.
The fracas began at once. He maintained his distance, alternating between pouncing and firing off his imagine. The sound of hardened RC cells smacking into lockers echoed through the room. His aim was both single-minded and imprecise.
His target was where her kagune covered her hand. He was predictably pulling his punches. His one-dimensional attack was like that of a younger brother. She pivoted, sidestepped, and deflected when she had to. There was no need for her to go on the offense to win. He stuck to the ground in his bursts, not bothering to use his natural abilities to attack from above eye-level. It made it all the easier to focus on him.
Cat Noir fired off another series of bullets. They ricocheted off a locker past Taste Tester. He took his staff in his hand then extended it.
He hoped to strike between a potential gap of the kagune and the basket she held. Instead he missed and gave birth to more clangs. He took another swing and sloppily struck a locker with his staff.
He was wearing himself out, and he took a few more steps. He fell face up.
"Twice in one day..." he said weakly.
She bent over and placed her foot on his head. He wildly thrashed his hands, the ring flailing with his fingers.
"Hawk Moth wants the Miraculous," she said, "but it will be easier taking it from you once you're nice and still." Her kagune lengthened and extend towards his head.
Then it stopped. It was braced between both his now stationary left hand and his right and Cat Noir rose slowly with the strength he had hidden. She thought she had been baiting him, but he had baited her.
"Cataclysm," he said.
Her kagune started to rot and crumble.
Shock grasped at Taste Tester, but she flung her surprise away with a realization. She dissolved her fraying kagune before the creeping rot reached the organ that generated it, her kakuhou.
She smiled behind her mask. In seconds it would form again while Cat Noir had used up his chance. Taste Tester held onto the basket with a newfound strength. She would not let anyone take it or this victory from her.
Then she heard three more beeps behind her, but it was too late to react. Ladybug had come from above and behind. She wrapped a black belt around Taste Tester's face mask, covering her eye holes before leaping off her.
It was at that moment she realized the heroine had been there the whole time. Cat Noir's wild swings were not merely for performance. They had masked the telltale sounds of Ladybug's presence.
Taste Tester's grip on the basket loosened and it fell to the floor with her falling after it. Ladybug grabbed the basket and placed her foot on the bench of a coat rack. She smashed the basket against her thigh, and the black butterfly escaped the basket.
"No more evildoing for you, little akuma," Ladybug chastised. "Time to de-evilize!" She trapped the butterfly in her yo-yo, then pulled it towards her. Once in her hand, she tapped the red and black carriage and it opened up to reveal a plane of light. A white butterfly pushed off the light and went into the air.
At the same time a dark wave rippled over Taste Tester, and Denise was in her place. Her pink shirt and purple skirt were a welcome sight. The belt had fallen off her eyes, but she collapsed, and her stomach quaked and quivered as she blacked out.
Ladybug scanned the ground after she purified the akuma. In order to restore everything, she needed a piece of her Lucky Charm, and Taste Tester had eaten and stored nearly all of them. Now that she was Denise again, the macaroons she had taken vanished with her magical outfit and basket.
"Looking for something, milady?" Cat Noir asked. His eyes were at least green again. Even if he had not been cured yet, she appreciated the gesture.
"Thank you." She took the pastry from him.
"I was wondering. How did you know she would go to the left when she went in the locker room?"
"Because Chloe's locker was in that direction," she explained in a half-truth. "She probably still held a grudge about being called a cheater."
"Yeah, it must be awful when people accuse you and no one sticks up for you." Cat Noir watched the skin of Ladybug turn as red as her suit.
"Of course I stuck--" Ladybug watched the corner of his curl mouth in a smirk and she belatedly stopped speaking.
"So you were actually there when this happened."
Her stomach sank. Her cover story would lead directly to her. Alya would upload the story onto the Ladyblog once she was cured. Her superhero career was over.
"You know we're not supposed to know each other's identities!" she yelled.
"No," he teased, "but that doesn't mean I can't figure it out, bugaboo."
She ignored his words and threw the macaron into the air.
"Miraculous Ladybug!" she shouted. The macaron burst into a storm of ladybugs. Spouts of pink and red spread over the city and around the locker room, placing every object and person as they were, human and ghoul.
Sunlight split the dark lair, and Hawk Moth's mind was split between anger and disappointment. He clenched his fists and held them at his side.
"That left a bad taste in my mouth," he mused aloud, "but there have to be more reluctant monsters roaming about Paris. All it takes is one, then soon, Ladybug and Cat Noir, I will taste the sweet dish of revenge served alongside your Miraculous!"
The opening closed and the room darkened. Only his bitter hope remained.
Chapter 6: Dessert
Ladybug and Cat Noir have been victorious, but the encounter leaves different parties with both actual knowledge and mistaken assumptions.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The first thing Denise remembered was feeling weak and sick. Her stomach tumbled and turned as her abdominal muscles cramped. Simultaneously, two delicious, familiar scents lured her out of sleep. The torture of delicious food in front of her while she was sick was unbearable.
The wave of pink and red whisked by her and instantly the nausea and weakness were no more. Her mind cleared and she opened her eyes, certain her sclera were white, and rolled into a seated position. Ladybug and Cat Noir stood in front of her.
"Pound it!" they exclaimed as they bumped fists.
She turned her head to see lockers and coat racks. She had just run out of Guru Monde. Why was she sitting in the locker room at school?
And why did she smell Adrien and Marinette so strongly? Especially Marinette.
"How did I get here?" Denise asked. "What's going on?"
"You were akumatized by Hawk Moth," Ladybug explained. "It's okay. It’s over now."
She had not even realized it had begun and she felt herself sicken again, this time out of understanding. A subsequent shock opened her nostrils as the scents connected with the people before her.
Ladybug and Cat Noir were her classmates.
"Your stomach's growling," Cat Noir teased.
"It's because the ladybugs took all the food you ate away," Ladybug explained, and Denise's eyes glazed over. She had eaten human food. At least she wouldn't have to vomit, but now she was feeling a little hungry. Cat Noir bent over to a croissant wrapped in a paper towel and picked it up.
"Is this the problem?" he asked.
"I wish I could eat that," Denise answered, "and be like you."
"You already are like us," Ladybug said as she bent down. "Is this how you feel all the time?"
Denise felt her tongue start to unfurl. This girl had a secret life she could not tell anyone. It would be so good to talk to a human who wore a mask.
But Denise couldn't trust her. Marinette was clever and she had a good heart which carried over to her heroism. All her goodness depended on her believing that Denise was human. Even if Ladybug didn't emit the same animosity that other so-called heroes did, she was a superhero and sworn to defend against all evil.
And being a ghoul was evil.
"Not all the time," Denise replied as she stood up. "Just when my allergies are acting up. I'm fine now. Thank you, Ladybug."
A combined series of beeps bristled Ladybug and Cat Noir. Cat Noir's ring displayed most of its markings, but Ladybug's earring only had one spot left.
"Time to cut and run," Cat Noir announced. "I have to watch my figure, so here you go, bugaboo." He tossed the croissant to Ladybug who caught it.
"Thank you," Denise said. The two superheroes ran away, but while Cat Noir vanished from her sight quickly, Ladybug paused in the middle running away and turned towards Denise.
"Are you sure you're all right?" Ladybug asked.
Ladybug finished running out of the locker room, leaving Denise alone. She stood up and started to exit but stopped.
She heard the pair approach before she saw them and steeled herself. Four feet approached her in a walk that sped into a troy. They belonged to a purple-haired man in a trenchcoat and the woman in a lab coat. Between the two of masked figures, the man carried a singular suitcase.
The two ran removed his mask and the woman did the same to reveal softened faces.
"Denise!" the man cried. The woman bent down and hugged Denise.
"My liebchen," the woman said, slipping into German. "I was so worried."
"What are you doing in hunting gear?" Denise asked in French. "Is this my fault? I'm sorry."
"I couldn't bear to lose anyone else," her mother replied in German.
"We both know what it was like to be your age," Mr. Homais replied in French. "That's why we've tried to protect you."
Mrs. Homais released her daughter and her opened up the suitcase. Each of the adults put their respective coats and masks inside it, then Mr. Homais sealed it with a click. Denise drew herself closer to towards them, seeking the safety of their parental security.
"I guess it's time to go home," Denise declared.
"Not yet," Mrs. Homais said, slipping back into French and regaining her authority. "There's something you know you need to do first. You promised your classmates a study session."
"But what if I compromised us?"
"Don't worry," Mr. Homais answered. "They'll just think the ordeal was one of those 'akumas' or whatever you call them. Anyone who followed you would be looking for a single girl, not an ordinary family like us walking down the street."
The three exited the school with genuine smiles of relief.
The whisper of a memory of tasting a macaron brushed the tongue of Denise then dispersed. People would always be tastier than the food they made.
Ladybug watched Cat Noir run away on the roof on all fours in leaps and bounds, and in a pink sparkle of energy she was Marinette again. Tikki reappeared. Marinette held up a macaron which the kwami nibbled on as she dove inside Marinette's purse. Marinette exited the front gate in quick, casual steps.
She crossed the street from the school and was at the side of the bakery. A garbage can with an antenna jutting out of it was in her path. She opened the can to throw the croissant away only for it to speak back to her.
"There you are, ghoul!"
The voice accosted her with a pair of intense purple eyes. A short, balding man jumped from inside the garbage can, then landed directly in front of her. He sported pinstripe suit and a dark earpiece. He pointed a blue and red ray gun at her that was almost half his size. She reflexively raised her arms.
"Excuse me?" Marinette asked.
"You just came from that school," he noted. "Cat Noir just left and so did Ladybug and her family. That means you're the ghoul."
"I'm sorry," she replied, "but you have me mistaken for someone else."
"You just threw away human food. If you're not a ghoul, prove it." She sweated as he thrust the gun in her face. "Eat something!"
Marinette slowly lowered her arms and opened her jacket, and reached inside it and grabbed a pink macaron. She took it and placed it in her mouth and slowly, but comfortably chewed as the short man stared at her mouth. She swallowed the bite after a few chews.
"How do I know that's not a monster macaron made of human eyeballs?" he asked.
"You can try one," she replied. She reached into her jacket again and handed him a macaron. He nibbled at the pastry and suppressed a smile with a shudder.
"Tastes...acceptable. I need to sample more to be certain. Where can I get these macarons?"
"Right here." Marinette pointed to the bakery behind her.
"The monster bakery!" His eyes railed in suspicion but he lowered his weapon. "The Bureau claimed this was a Code Butterfly, but there's known werewolf activity here."
He followed Marinette as she walked through the door to the storefront and scowled at every piece of pastry inside. Darting from display to display, he made his way to the cash register where a large figure beamed with glee.
"Hi," Tom said, "and welcome!"
"I would like three dozen macaroons." The short man slammed bills of currency on the counter.
"You came in just in time. We thought we were sold out but like magic some fresh ones just appeared." Sabine handed Tom three boxes, who then struggled to bend over the counter and reach down to the little man. "Here you go."
The man took the boxes and opened up the top one, only to shut it at the sound of another voice.
"Agent," called the earpiece, "there is a suspected creature sighting at a houseboat on the Seine."
"Copy," the shirt man answered. "These treats will suffice for a stake out. You have done your duty to keep Paris safe from monsters."
The doors slammed but the expression of bewilderment did not vanish from Marinette's face.
"Marinette," Sabine said, "I don't know how you managed to sneak out, but you definitely are bringing in the customers today. But this time go to your room and stay there."
Marinette climbed the stairs yet another time today, and peeked inside her pocket. Tikki matched her smile and nodded.
Denise entered Guru Monde one more time today than she expected. Her parents stood around the corner, giving the young ghoul her privacy and protecting themselves from the brunt of the smell. This part would be the hardest, looking the people in the eye that she had unwittingly hurt.
"Thanks for the notes," the short-haired blonde girl said to Denise as she walked past her out of the store. "See you in class tomorrow."
Denise looked around and although the cafe was as stinky as ever, there were still people inside it. One of the employees approached her. From her slightly different uniform and her name tag she was not a server.
"How may I help you?" the manager asked, taking the place of a member of the waiting staff.
"I'm sorry for all the damage I did," Denise said. "I won't come back here again, but I--" She was interrupted with a hand pressed gently but firmly on her shoulder. The disappointment on the manager's face was both patent and earnest.
"I'm the one with the condition and I'm the one who became a supervillain. I shouldn't have put myself in that position to begin with."
"If we held everyone responsible for what they did when they were akumatized, we wouldn't have any customers." The manager rested her hand on Denise's shoulder. "You aren't to blame for what Hawk Moth did. If anything, we'd like to make it up to you."
"As a world-class cafe, we know how to accommodate certain special diets. Guru Monde was founded in the hopes of cultivating a cuisine for everyone. That's why it's called Guru Monde." She rolled the R slightly, enough that it almost sounded like an L.
"But there's a special tribute to home," she continued. "Would you like to give it a try? It's a beverage, so it shouldn't upset your stomach."
"Yes, please." Her stomach already began to turn at the thought of the drink, but she remained cautiously hopeful.
The cup was brought to her in less than a minute. It smelled like coffee. She took the cup, blew gently into it, and sipped it.
The hot liquid was not bitter but soft, tasting exactly like its aroma. It was sweet, savory, and fuller than a black cup of coffee had any right to be. Were it not for its temperature, she would have swallowed it in one gulp.
It tasted just like the concentrated flesh of multiple people.
"We call it the Anteiku blend coffee for customers with certain dietary restrictions," the manager explained. "If you're feeling run down, stop by and ask for a cup! This one is on the house. Go over and join your friends."
Aurore, Mireille, and Jean waved at her from their table, topped with papers and nearly empty plates. There was an empty seat that Jean patted.
She grabbed the coffee cup and walked over the table, sitting next to her classmates.
"I'm surprised you want to sit with me," Denise said.
"We don't have to eat the same food in order to be friends," Aurore insisted.
"You don't understand. What if I end up eating you guys?"
All of them returned her remark with puzzled looks.
"Then we'll give you indigestion," Mireille teased. Denise laughed as did the group. Even if she had to lie, the bond she and her classmates shared was true.
And as she sipped her coffee, the food didn't smell quite as pungently as it did before.
Marinette pored through the Ladyblog updates for today, and her eyes started to strain from reading articles and videos. The warmth of panic faded into the coolness of solace as the various accounts of the day filled in what she had missed.
"Yeah," another voice blared from the monitor, "Chloé came in and was all like, 'I'm Chloé Bourgeois' and Denise ran away crying. Then she came back as supervillain that wanted to help us study and give us food. Then Ladybug and Cat Noir--"
Marinette paused the video and wiped her brow.
"Whew, that was close!" Marinette half-shouted, half-whispered. "I can't believe it but for once I'm grateful Chloé caused more trouble when I wasn't around."
"It worked itself out, Marinette," Tikki said as she soothingly snuggled next to her owner. "You just have to be more careful next time."
"But I still have to study for this test!"
Marinette folded her arms on her desk and rested her head on them. A noise from her phone perked Marinette up. She picked up the phone and saw the notification.
"You owe me...again!" read the text.
"Alya texted me and Adrien!" Marinette yelled excitedly. She looked at the pictures sent with the text. They were images of the session plans that Denise had drawn up.
Marinette grinned as she began to memorize the information. She had saved Denise, and now Denise had saved her from the wrath of Ms. Mendeleiev.
The lights of the Agreste mansion began to turn on one by one as the sun lowered, but Adrien gave little thought to the change in ambience. He fixated on the lit monitor and a video that played on it. Alya had written a blog post about the latest attack, but Adrien played the accompanying video accounts.
"Ladybug was there when Chloé confronted Denise," Adrien assumed. "Any of the classmates who were at the cafe could be Ladybug. That's why she smelled so familiar."
"Great detective work," Plagg dryly commented as he tossed a piece of cheese in the air and swallowed it.
"Alya just sent me and Marinette the same notes in a group text since neither of us made it to the study session," he explained. "I guess that's one name I can scratch off the list."
"You almost sound disappointed." Plagg flew beside him. "You know Camembert always cheers me up when I'm feeling down."
"I have to admit it's nice to be able to be hungry for food." He stepped away from his computer then walked back and fell on his bed, face up. "I had no idea that's what it was like to be hungry for things you can't eat. Being allergic to feathers doesn't seem all that bad in comparison."
"It wasn't that bad." Plagg hovered in the air. "At least if you were a ghoul then I wouldn't have to worry about you eating my Camembert."
"A ghoul?" Adrien asked as he sat straight up.
"Yeah," Plagg answered. "What did you think happened to you? I've had a few ghoul owners in the past. It just meant more cheese for me."
"Wait a minute. Ghouls are real?"
"As real as humans they eat."
"But why would Hawk Moth turn someone into a--?"
Adrien fell silent as he remembered Taste Taster's rant.
"Then that means that Denise must be a ghoul," he said in a half-whisper.
"You'd better not let your father know you're going to school with a ghoul," Plagg replied, "or else he'd really never let you out of the house."
Adrien barely heard the words, as the memory of his adventure smacked him. He felt that hunger for human flesh. He had even eaten flesh. If ghouls felt that way all the time, no wonder Denise got akumatized. Worse yet, if it happened again she would know his identity. He and Ladybug only won this time due to Taste Tester using her power on him and letting her desire overrule her objective. She wouldn't make those same mistakes again.
Then he and Ladybug would have find another way to deal with her if she had another bad day, he quickly assured himself.
His thoughts were pierced by a series of coughs. He turned to the door and Nathalie stood straight up, regaining her stoic composure. Plagg had ducked out of sight, so only the teenager met her gaze.
"Adrien," she announced, "your dinner will be served in a few minutes." She did not need to say what he already knew. He would be eating alone, again.
He did not care about the lack of company. For once he was just glad to be able to eat real food.
Sunsets and sunrises sandwiched the filling of the classrooms of Collège Françoise Dupont with nervous students and their subsequent sighs of relief. It was after another sunrise that nearly all of the students from Ms. Mendeleiev's class and those from Miss Bustier's class mingled in the locker room in jubilation. Near the center were Marinette and Denise. The two dark-haired girls were the unofficial centers of attention, although both seemed slightly uncomfortable with the focus.
"That test was easy as pie!" Mireille declared. "I got one hundred points."
"I got the bonus so I got one hundred and two points," replied Aurore with a competitive, friendly wink. "If I keep my grades up I can still be a weather girl and a student!"
"Even Marinette got a ninety-five and she wasn't part of the study session," Alya mentioned. "Since the notes were so organized I just sent them as a text."
"Ms. Mendeleiev was so ticked off because she thought she made the test too easy," Jean said.
"Thank you, Marinette, for the idea," Aurore said. "And thank you, Denise, for your tutoring."
"I wanted to thank you, too, Marinette," Denise said, "for helping me out."
"I did?" she asked, feigning ignorance.
"You helped me realize I could teach other people," Denise continued, "and you helped me connect with my classmates."
"Denise?" Alya asked, "what was your score?"
"I actually did worse." She lowered her head. "I got a ninety-four."
"That's still great," Marinette assured.
"Your performance is within a statistical margin of error," Max elaborated. "This is an expected variation well within your benchmark. In short, such a score renders it highly unlikely any cheating occurred."
"Hear that, Chloé!" Alix yelled across the hall to the rich girl and Sabrina, both wearing indignant visages.
"Ridiculous!" the blond replied, storming off with her white pants with Sabrina following her.
"Maybe it's time for us to tutor you," Mireille joked to Denise.
"And we can be your friends on top of being study buddies, " Aurore added, "if you want."
"Besides, we need you to help crush more tests," Jean remarked. "It's going to be a long term with Ms. Mendeleiev busting our chops."
Denise smiled at Marinette who smiled back. For an instant both of them imagined the other with the shades of red that they had seen each other sport, but the crimson memory was forgotten with the sound of shared laughter.
Thank you to anyone who has made it this far. While some of the aspects of this conclusion may be disappointing, I have plans for some of these characters in follow-up stories. That's right, we haven't seen the last of some of these "monsters"...or would-be monster hunters.
Also, in a bit of trivia, if this story were based on the French version of Miraculous Ladybug, the supervillain's name would have been "Goulemonde."