A Darker Path

Part Forty-Four: Flechette's Big Day Out

[A/N: This chapter beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]

Relevant Side Story, by Breadnaught on Spacebattles: As You Wish

Atropos has entered the chat
Mouse_Protector has entered the chat

Atropos: Before you come to Brockton, I just wanted to share something. [Link]
Mouse_Protector: Great movie, although I have objections to their portrayal of Rodents of Unusual Size.
Atropos: Good, you're familiar with it. Maybe watch that scene a few times the day before, just so it's fresh in your head.
Mouse_Protector: Are you planning what I think you're planning? Because I am totally down with that.
Atropos: Keep an eye out for mask wearing figures all in black.
Mouse_Protector: You don't have six fingers on one hand, do you?

Atropos has left the chat
Mouse_Protector has left the chat

Now, back to your regularly scheduled narrative ...

February 5, 2011; 08:05 AM
New York City Protectorate Headquarters


"Hey Flechette, wait up!"

Lily paused and looked around as Jouster used a speed burst to catch up with her. "What's up? The transport to Brockton Bay leaves in five minutes."

"Yeah, that's what I wanted to talk to you about." His expression was serious. "Please be careful while you're there. I've heard crazy things about that place."

"About Atropos, you mean." She raised an eyebrow. "When we met her, she was nothing but nice to us. I mean, you were there too. You saw it. She took selfies."

"And she's also murdered a whole bunch of capes in Brockton Bay, and she cut out those people's eyes, and chopped off their hands!" Glancing around, he took a breath, evidently trying to calm himself down. "Look, what I'm trying to say is that she can't be trusted. She could be nice as pie one second, then decide to put you on her own personal murder list the next."

Lily shook her head. "Um, no. That's not what I've seen. Every single person she's killed, except maybe Oni Lee, she gave ample warning to. She's really, really predictable. I mean, I'm not saying I approve of how she's killed all those people, but she does actually warn people first."

He bit his lip. "That might be true, but I still want you to be careful. If you see her again, don't engage, don't even go near her. Get the hell out of there. Okay?"

"I appreciate the advice." She thought he was being far too alarmist, but she didn't intend to provoke Atropos anyway. That was more a matter of basic common sense than any particular worry about the black-clad cape's intentions. Also, Atropos had an amazing sense of humour, if what she'd done to Ravioli was any indication. "Was there anything else?"

"Not really—wait, yeah." He held up one finger. "Yesterday, they got a call about a downed villain right near where you started your patrol. Injured, still alive. Turned out to be March. You didn't run into her, did you?"

"Ugh, no." Lily grimaced. She just wished March would leave her the fuck alone. Every time she shifted to a different Wards team, March showed up with a new bunch of capes and engaged her group with brutal efficiency. It was like the military-themed cape was determined to ruin her career as a hero. "Who got her? I'd like to send them a thank-you card."

He shrugged. "That's the thing. We don't know. Whoever it was busted her jaw and wrecked her right knee, then knocked her out. Right now, she's handcuffed to a hospital bed with two armed guards. She's not really coherent yet, but even if she was, she can't talk worth a damn." He grinned suddenly. "Oh, and whoever it was took her rapier, after poking her a couple of times with it."

"Oh, boy." That would piss off March more than anything else. She loved using that rapier to make people look stupid. Which raised another concern; if someone could give March a beatdown of that calibre and make off with her rapier, it meant there was a new player in town. There goes the status quo. "Who called it in?"

"No idea. No voiceprint matches in the system, but it sounded like a girl about our age. Whoever it is, I'd like to shake their hand, especially if it gets March off the streets and out of our hair."

"Yeah, no shit." She held up her fist for him to bump. "Wish me luck. And I promise to only say nice things to Atropos, if I meet her again. Okay?"

He sighed. "Okay. Just take care." His fist tapped hers. "Now go, or you'll be late."

"Yes, boss." She dashed for the elevator.

All the way up to the roof helipad, she puzzled over who could have gotten the drop on March. There weren't many purely physical-based parahumans in or around New York who also had the moves to take on someone as hard to tag as March was. In fact, the number approached zero. It couldn't be zero—someone had evidently done it—but who it could've been, she had no idea.

As she came out on the rooftop, the transport chopper's rotors were just starting to lazily turn. Trotting across the tarmac while keeping her head down, she climbed on board and began to strap herself in. The arbalest, she strapped into the next seat over. "This is the transport to Brockton Bay, right?" It was always good to make sure.

"Certainly is." The pilot's name was Jake; she'd flown with him before. He was brisk and professional, and kept a photo of his wife taped to the console. "Just waiting on one more."

"One more? Who?" She frowned. Nobody else on the team had mentioned they were going to Brockton Bay.

"Yours truly, duh." Mouse Protector swung herself on board and dropped into a seat. "You didn't think I was planning to walk all the way there, did you?"

"Ah, right. Good point." She tilted her head as the engines began to spool up in earnest. "So, how'd you talk Director Wilkins into letting you ride along?" It would've taken more than Legend's say-so, she knew that much.

Mouse Protector grinned at her. "Told her I'd make sure to keep an eye on you while we were there, and protect you from scary Atropos, woooo." She wiggled her fingers to emulate spookiness, then went back to strapping herself in.

"Hah, gotcha." Flechette grinned back, then settled in for the ride as the chopper began to take off. She didn't know exactly what to expect when she got to Brockton Bay, but she could definitely think of worse travelling companions than the mouse-themed cape.

Philadelphia Parahuman Asylum


"Mrs Yamada!" Sveta broke out into a beaming smile. "It's so good to see you again!" She worked at keeping her tendrils under control; she really, really wanted to be able to talk to Mrs Yamada face to face, and that would only work if her powers weren't trying to kill the therapist at the time.

"I'm pleased to see you, too." Mrs Yamada's smile was visible through the faceplate on the protective suit, and her voice was easily audible via the speakers. "Have you been doing your exercises? You seem to have better self-control."

"Yes, I have." Sveta breathed carefully as Mrs Yamada stepped into the cell. Not enemy, not danger. Do not attack. Not enemy. "I've been wanting to talk to you."

"I got the message, yes." Mrs Yamada sounded contrite. "I wish I could've gotten here sooner, but I had other obligations that I couldn't put aside. But I'm here now. What did you want to talk about?"

"I want to go to Brockton Bay." The words just slipped out, bypassing her carefully laid-out speech. She mentally cringed, and her tendrils twitched. No. Do not attack. "Sorry, um, I mean … is it possible? Could I go? Please?"

"Hmm." Mrs Yamada frowned thoughtfully. "It shouldn't be too hard to give you safe containment for the trip, but … why? What's in Brockton Bay? You do know we don't have facilities like this there, right?"

"No, no, I know that." She hasn't said no yet, she hasn't said no yet. "Atropos is in Brockton Bay. She can kill powers. I saw it on PHO. It's really real. And … I, uh, already asked her, and she said that if I can get to Brockton Bay, she'd kill my powers and then get a friend to fix me."

Mrs Yamada paused, then gave her a serious look. "Atropos. You've asked Atropos to kill your powers."

"Um, yes?" It's not a stupid idea, it's not a stupid idea …

When the therapist spoke again, her voice was soothing. "Sveta dear, you are aware that she might just kill you instead, right?"

Sveta was definitely aware of that. "Yes, I've thought about it. They tried hard enough to kill me before they captured me. If I ever escape, then I'll probably kill more people. Best case, she kills my powers and I'm free of them forever. Worst case, she kills me, and I'm still free of them."

Mrs Yamada sighed. "I will admit, I have trouble thinking like that. However, I also know I'm not in your specific position. I'll speak to the Director and see if something can be worked out."

And she would, too. Mrs Yamada had never lied to Sveta yet. "Thank you. I appreciate it so much."

"Well, it's clear this is something you're set on, and it's a good thing to have achievable goals. I just hope you get what you need out of it." The therapist smiled as she changed conversational gears. "So, how have you been? Are you keeping up your dream journal?"

"Um, yes, actually." Sveta directed a couple of her more compliant tendrils to where she kept her journal on a shelf. "I remembered being on a fishing boat. Not sure what we were catching, though."

"Well, that's definitely a good start." Mrs Yamada accepted the notebook and paged through it. "This is good. Lots of detail."

"Thank you." Sveta felt herself relaxing, her tendrils twitching less. It had been an interminable wait for Mrs Yamada to show up, but now she was here, and things could start happening.

Brockton Bay, here I come.


Brockton Bay


Paige swung down out of the van and headed around to the back. She hadn't been able to pull together any kind of band at short notice, or even hire roadies, especially given that the charity aspect of the gig meant no big paycheck at the end. Which meant that she'd be stuck dragging this stuff out of the van and setting it up herself. Rough work, but she'd doubled as a roadie herself more than once before she hit the big time, so she knew how everything went together. It was just going to be an absolute pain to get set up, working solo, before the actual event started.

Opening up the back doors, she eyed the gear waiting for her, and sighed. Oh, well. It's not going to set itself up.

"Ah … excuse me? Canary?"

Wow, that was fast. I didn't know I had any fans in Brockton Bay. Apart from Atropos, of course. Turning around, she surveyed the small group of capes before her. None of them were Atropos, though the kid's costume was definitely inspired by the look.

The one who'd spoken looked like a porcelain doll, with a literal doll-face mask and gleaming golden curls for hair, as well as a floofy fancy doll's dress. Flanking her were a guy in a metal powersuit with goggles and a train conductor's cap, and a woman in an Egyptian themed costume. The Tinker (he couldn't be anything else) had lights built into the shoulders of the suit, while the woman's costume had a cat-themed mask, as well as ribbons draped here and there.

Finishing out the group were the kid in the Atropos-lite costume, sporting a fedora, a full face-mask and a heavy coat; and a blue humanoid plush dragon, complete with wings and tail, wearing a basic red costume over the top. Behind everyone else stood two giant stuffed animals: a six-legged horse and a purple gorilla.

"Uh, yeah, that's me," she said cautiously. "The question is … who are you?"

"We're the Brockton Bay Rogues' Guild," the doll-faced woman said, as if that made perfect sense. "I'm Parian, and this is Bastet, Salvage, Oracle and Spitfire. We're here to help you out, if you want."

Paige blinked. "What, really? Do you know how to set up a stage and musical instruments?"

"Nope," said the power-armoured guy, who just had to be Salvage. "But I listen good, and I just got my forklift ticket, so I know how to move heavy stuff around safely. You tell us what to do, and we'll do it."

"I can't pay you," Paige said, just to make sure they knew it. "This is basically me advertising my presence back on the music scene."

"It's good advertising for us, too," Parian agreed.

"Yeah." That was Bastet. "We're trying to boost our image in the city, and we owe Atropos a solid, so here we are."

"Atropos?" Paige blinked. "Do you … know her?"

"Know her? Hah." Salvage snorted. "She saved our sorry asses when Bastard Son came to town. The way she went through his minions, now that was a thing of beauty. She's damn good at what she does."

That was definitely something Paige could believe. "Okay, I think we can set up just over there. If you can get the bits of the stage out and stack them over there, I'll show you how to put them together." She paused, suddenly realising she was missing a bet. "Wait, do any of you sing or play an instrument?"

There was a pause as they each looked awkwardly at each other. Then Bastet nudged Spitfire. "Hey, didn't you tell me how your mom used to make you take piano lessons and stuff?"

The fluffy blue dragon managed to look embarrassed just from posture. "Yeah, but I wouldn't say I'm good at it."

Paige blinked, realising for the first time that it was a girl in there. "That's okay. This isn't a professional gig. I'll try you out once we get set up, and see how you are with a simple backup tune."

"Uh, I'm no musician," Salvage ventured, "but I can build a timer into my armour so I can do the same beats on a drum over and over, if that works for you."

"And me and the boss here can show off our rad dance moves," Bastet offered. "Hey, Oracle. If we all pitch in like that, what are the odds of a successful show?"

There was a pause, then the kid tilted her head slightly. "Eighty-one point seven six seven one percent," she said, her voice echoing slightly inside her mask.

"I have to say, that's better odds than some of my other gigs," Paige admitted. "Okay, you're on. Let's see what you can do."

As they began to carefully unload the instruments, she began to allow herself to hope that this might work out after all.


To: Atropos

From: Assault

Subject: Just a casual question

Hi there,

I couldn't help noticing that you've specified that members of the totally-not-a-real-thing group called Cauldron are not allowed into Brockton Bay. Does this extend to people who've bought powers from them? In fact, what's your view on people like that?

Asking for a friend.

Brockton Bay PRT Building


As the rotors spun down, Lily unfastened the five-point straps that held her in the aircraft. Taking the arbalest with her, she jumped out of the aircraft behind Mouse Protector. As they headed across the rooftop toward the guarded entrance, a PRT officer intercepted them.

"Welcome to Brockton Bay," he said. "I'm Captain Reeves. Director Piggot sent word that she wanted to see both of you in her office as soon as you touched down."

"She did, did she?" Mouse Protector sounded amused. "Good luck with enforcing that. I'm an independent. My chain of command starts and ends with me."

Reeves was unruffled. "She said to say that it wasn't an order in your case, but a request. This is a brand new SOP, to be used for any new heroes in town. You're just the first, is all."

"Really." Now Mouse Protector was outright grinning. "This isn't to do with Atropos and how we should avoid antagonising her by any chance, is it?"

"Very likely." Reeves' tone indicated that he really didn't give a fuck anymore. "She knows of your history with Atropos. Still wants to see you."

"Huh." Mouse Protector nodded slowly. "Okay, let's go see the wizard then."

Lily accompanied her into the roof entrance, and they rode the elevator down in silence; Mouse Protector because she didn't seem to have anything to say, and Lily because she wasn't sure what questions to ask. While Lily had never been in the building before, Mouse Protector seemed to know exactly where they were going.

When they got to Director Piggot's office, the secretary simply waved them through. Taking hold of the door handle, Mouse Protector whipped it open in one smart motion, then sprang into the room with a flourish. "Never fear, Mouse Protector is here!"

"Of course you are." The woman behind the desk looked tired, Lily decided as she entered the office with rather less fanfare. "Mouse Protector, Flechette, please sit down."

"Whatever happened to 'take a chair'?" asked Mouse Protector as she spun one of the chairs around and straddled it with her arms crossed on the backrest. Lily sat and waited to find out what the Director wanted.

"Assault took a chair," Piggot explained briefly. "All the way down to the Wards' base. Do you understand why I'm talking to you?"

"Something something Atropos is dangerous something something," Mouse Protector quipped. "Except you already know we've met her."

"Yes." The Director tapped a Manila folder on her desk. "This is Legend's report on the Ravager encounter in New York. I have read it through very carefully. It mentions the fundraiser you're attending … and that Atropos seems to be invested in making sure it goes off successfully."

Mouse Protector nodded. "I got that impression myself. So why bring us in here to tell us something we both already knew?"

Director Piggot barely reacted to the mild jab. "Because you will be the only superheroes officially on site. I want you to keep your heads on a swivel at all times, for even the slightest problem that might threaten the fundraiser in any way. If a problem does happen, you are to ensure that it ceases to be a problem immediately."

Leaning back, Mouse Protector eyed the Director. "Wow, that's pretty damn direct. Not that I would've done anything different, but why are you so insistent on this? I never would've thought you were interested in staying in Atropos' good books."

Piggot snorted in what might've been grim amusement. "I'm not. In all honesty, I don't give a hoot in hell what she thinks of me. But you weren't here during the first two weeks. She killed two capes a day, on average, for twelve days straight. And that's not even counting the mooks, minions and idiots who didn't know well enough to stand down when they were looking Death in the eye. For the first four days of it, I literally couldn't sit down at my desk without getting confirmation that the supervillain she'd said she would kill overnight had died exactly when she'd said they would, despite their best efforts—and our best efforts—to the contrary."

"Okay, yeah, I can't top that." Mouse Protector shook her head. "She definitely doesn't strike me as someone who takes orders from authority well, or at all."

The Director gave her a medium-dirty look. "She hasn't killed anyone in days, and I want to keep it that way. So, if anyone disrupts this fundraiser for whatever stupid reason, I want you to get there first and stop them before they literally sign their own death warrant. Understood?"

"Understood, ma'am, but …" Lily hesitated. "Why aren't you just surrounding the event with troopers?"

Director Piggot pinched her lips together. "Because that might disrupt it. You can see how reluctant I am to have that happen."


"Yeah, 'oh'." Mouse Protector stood up and spun her chair back around in one fluid motion. "Not a bad idea, but the execution of it might cause problems. So it's up to us to make sure nobody does anything fatally stupid."

"Precisely." The Director raised her head. "Before you go, there's one other minor matter. Specifically, that damned fan club of hers." She nodded toward Mouse Protector. "I know you're already a member, and I can even understand why. But while we're not allowed to dictate Wards membership in extracurricular activities that do not impact your duties, Flechette, I would strongly suggest that you do not join, at least until you age out of the Wards. Director Wilkins dislikes Atropos even more than I do, and she may allow that to influence her decisions on your behalf."

Lily blinked. She'd half expected a blanket ban, but that request was almost … reasonable. The look in Piggot's eyes was as someone who had stared into the abyss and had it reach out and boop her on the nose. "Understood, ma'am. If we encounter Atropos out there today, what should we do?"

Director Piggot spread her hands. "Nothing. Be polite. You already know not to attempt to arrest her. She's stated that she won't harm PRT or heroes who aren't actively attacking her, and so far she's held to it, even to the point of cooperating with the PRT to save innocents." Her voice lowered to a growl. "Do not do anything to change that."

"No, ma'am. Definitely not." That was clearly the safest answer to give, and a course of action Lily intended to follow to the letter.

"Good. Get out of here, both of you." Piggot waved dismissively; by the time they reached the door, she was already studying the screen of her laptop once more.


"Okay, then." Paige stepped back and surveyed the stage. It had been assembled to her directions by Salvage, who could indeed follow instructions. She figured that his status as a Tinker probably helped there, but she wasn't going to assume anything. Between them they'd rigged up a set of makeshift metal bongos for him to supply a regular backbeat, using the timer he'd contrived in his armour. "Let's see how we go."

Salvage led out with the beat she'd coached him into doing, then on the other side of the stage, Spitfire picked out the simple tune on the electronic keyboard, using Salvage's regular beat to keep herself in time. Paige listened carefully; it was a little rough at first, but Spitfire gradually got better at keeping up with Salvage.

"Good, good," she said, clapping her hands once. "That's really good. We'll do it exactly like that. Salvage will lead out, then Spitfire picks up the beat. Once you're settled, I'll come in with guitar and vocals." She beamed at them. "I just want to say, thank you for stepping up like this. It's made things a lot easier."

"Hey, I've never done music before." Salvage shook his head. "We actually sound kinda good, but only 'cause you showed us how."

"We're gonna wow these kids." Bastet glanced over at Parian. "This never would've happened if you hadn't helped us out like that, just saying."

"Well, I'm definitely not regretting it." Parian gestured at the framework that was being set up in full view of the seating, not far from the stage. It resembled a cross between a jungle gym and an obstacle course, with fake stone ruins as a base. "What I want to know is, what's that about?"

"That's for me," said a voice from right behind them. Paige turned, startled, coming face to face with a superhero who was holding a small folding cloth Frisbee. "Hi. Mouse Protector. That's Flechette back there. We're here for the fundraiser."

Looking past Mouse Protector—who she recognised now, after her initial fright—Paige saw a costumed teen climbing out of a PRT van. Flechette wasn't familiar to her, but she didn't follow the superhero scene all that much. "Uh, hi," she ventured. "I'm Paige Mcabee—Canary—and these people are the Brockton Bay Rogues' Guild … I mean, unless you already know them?"

"Nope. You, I know, and I saw Parian there on the news once, but I've never really heard of this Rogues' Guild before." Mouse Protector held out her hand. "Anyway, pleased to meet you."

Paige shook it. "Likewise. Are, uh, are you here because …"

"Because of Atropos?" Mouse Protector grinned. "Yeah, there's this chick that was always on my case in New York, so Atropos totally messed up her credibility. Like, murdered it. Look up 'Ravioli' online when you get the chance. Anyway, her price for that was me doing this."

"I saw that!" Bastet stepped into the conversation. "She did that for you? Damn, that was brutal. And I was there for her takedown of Bastard Son, so I know what I'm talking about."

Parian went to meet Flechette. "So, are you here because Atropos asked you, too?" It was a reasonable question, in Paige's estimation. That did seem to be a theme at the moment.

"No, actually." Flechette held out her hand to shake, though she also seemed to be checking out the doll-themed cape. "While she was in New York, Atropos asked me and Mouse Protector for selfies for her friends. She seems to be a nice person—apart from the serial murders, I mean—so I got permission to come along and help out with the fundraiser."

"Well, that was nice of you." Parian shook her hand firmly. "The more, the merrier. What were you thinking of doing?"

Flechette shrugged. "Well, I'm a rooftop runner and I've got perfect timing, so I was thinking I'd help Mouse Protector put on an acrobatic show on that monstrosity over there." She gestured at the parkour framework that had been completed while Paige and the others had been in the process of setting up.

When Parian spoke, there was a smile in her voice. "I'd like to see that."


To: Assault

From: Atropos

Subject: Re: Just a casual question

Hi, he-who-used-to-be-Madcap,

Short answer: I don't care how she got her powers, just that she uses them responsibly while she's inside Brockton Bay. That goes for all Cauldron customers.

Slightly longer answer: I don't give a damn about how someone got where they are. I'm not in the business of handing out retribution for past crimes. So long as they play by the rules going forward, I'm good. If people decide to not play by the rules, that's when I start paying attention.

By 'the' rules, I mean 'my' rules'. Just so we're clear on that.

My beef with Cauldron has to do with their ongoing lack of style and competence, and the plans they had for Brockton Bay, not with their customers.

Tell Battery that if she's cool with me, I'm cool with her.


A Little While Later


"Alright," said Canary into her microphone, the sound emanating from the speakers on either side of the stage. Cradling her guitar, she looked out over the audience, consisting mainly of the movers and shakers of Brockton Bay, though the kids who had been able to be moved were out in front where they'd get the best view. "Let's get this show on the road. Ladies and gentlemen and children of all ages, I'm Bad Canary, and these fine people with me are the Brockton Bay Rogues' Guild. Behind me, we have Mouse Protector and Flechette, who've come all the way from New York to lend a hand."

As she paused, the spectators clapped; whether it was because they were pleased that all these capes had made an appearance or if it was just expected, Lily wasn't sure. She crouched on a crossbar, waiting for her cue. Nearby, Mouse Protector perched on a large fake rock.

Canary strummed a few bars, then nodded to Salvage. The Tinker must have activated the timer in his armour, because his big metal hands started drumming out a beat on the metal bongos. A nod to Spitfire, and the girl in the fluffy blue dragon costume started playing a simple repetitive tune on the electronic keyboard before her, matching her timing to Salvage's drumming.

After a few more seconds, Canary started playing her electric guitar, weaving the tune in and around the background beat supplied by the other two. With her sense of timing, Lily could tell that Canary was actually adjusting her tempo on the fly to keep her ad hoc backup band in the rhythm.

Then Canary started singing a song about overcoming adversity and working together. When she was just speaking, her voice was gorgeous enough, but her singing was on another level altogether. At the same time, Bastet began to do her ribbon-twirl thing, tossing small plushies resembling Spitfire into the air so they orbited her as well. Parian's purple gorilla was also dancing, while Spitfire's wings flared occasionally, and her tail swept from side to side. All in all, it was pretty damn impressive.

Mouse Protector launched herself upward and swung onto a crossbar not far from Lily, hanging head-downward with her arms out. Lily calculated the timing and jumped, clasping Mouse Protector's hands and swinging onward to let go and land on a new perch. She didn't pause, using every parkour move she knew (and a few she invented on the spot) to keep bouncing from one point to another, occasionally passing by Mouse Protector or even giving an assist to get to a higher spot.

She didn't have her arbalest with her, but even without it she was extremely mobile; she found she was enjoying the workout, and maybe the chance to show off a little in front of Parian. While she wasn't certain the girl was interested, Lily certainly was. In a city freshly rid of a whole bunch of racist, homophobic bigots, she was totally willing to go above and beyond to get the attention of someone who had a figure and a voice like that.

The musical number ended, and she ended up where Mouse Protector had been, while the veteran hero was up at the top of the framework. The adults and children alike were clapping for all they were worth, though whether it was for the music or the acrobatic exhibition, Lily wasn't sure and didn't care. They wanted a show? They got a show.

Suddenly, Mouse Protector vanished, reappearing beside Canary on the stage. Lily had seen this before, but the audience had not; they gasped, then applauded again. "That was really nice," Mouse Protector said, her voice picked up and transmitted out by the speakers. "May I make an announcement?"

"Thank you," Canary acknowledged. "And yes, you can." Stepping back a little way, she ceded the microphone to Mouse Protector.

"Hi, I'm Mouse Protector, and I'm here for you today!" The announcement was bright and bubbly, and Lily found herself smiling just from the sheer infectious joy. "How are the little mouseys enjoying the show so far?"

The kids definitely cheered that one, their faces lighting up as they clapped.

"Good, good." Mouse Protector gave a slight bow. "So yeah, I came here from New York to pay back a friend for a favour. Just remember that, kids. Favours are great to get, but they're a two-way street. Anyway, this friend of mine, she's kinda scary if you don't really know her well—oh, who am I kidding, she's really scary to a lot of people. You've probably heard of her. She's called Atropos."

From the ripple of reaction that went through the audience, they'd definitely all heard of her … wait. From where Lily was, everyone should've been looking at Mouse Protector, but their sightline was higher up. Turning, she looked around … and there was Atropos herself, crouching on top of the framework. Slowly, theatrically, Atropos brought up her finger in a 'shush' motion. All the kids quieted immediately.

"Anyway," Mouse Protector went on, apparently oblivious, "I invited her to show up here today, but I haven't seen her yet. Has anyone seen her?"

Now, all the kids pointed and yelled at the same time. Lily got the impression they were saying some variation on, 'there she is' and 'right there', but it all blended together into one undifferentiated babble.

"What? She's here? Where?" Mouse Protector turned theatrically and looked around … just as Atropos dropped down behind the framework, out of sight. She even went so far as to shade her eyes and peer at the framework before she turned to the audience once more. "I don't see her."

Between one heartbeat and the next, Lily saw Atropos appear on the stage, in a crouching position, right behind Mouse Protector. Slowly, ominously, the black-clad cape straightened up, causing the kids to point and shout again. Reaching forward with one black-gloved hand, she tapped Mouse Protector on the shoulder. Her voice carried through to the mic clearly enough. "Tag. You're it."

"What?" Mouse Protector spun around again, but Atropos had already leaped from the stage to the framework and was swarming across the crossbars and handholds with a level of celerity and dexterity that made Lily doubt her own athletic capability.

As Atropos neared Lily, she reached up to her collar and switched on what had to be a clip-on microphone. Her voice came clearly through the speakers for the benefit of the audience. "Hi. You're it, too. Welcome to Villain Tag."

"Oh, so that's how it's going to be, is it?" Mouse Protector switched on her own throat mic and triggered a teleport that took her to the top of the framework again. "Come on, Flechette. If she wants to play, let's play."

Feeling a little left out of events—she didn't have a clip-on microphone—Lily launched herself after Atropos, in the wake of the laughing Mouse Protector. Atropos didn't make a sound, but she didn't have to. Lily could feel the grin emanating through that morph mask.

Down below, Canary adapted fast; the next thing Lily knew, the classic Yakety Sax chase theme was coming out of the speakers, via her electric guitar. It was apt, too. No matter how hard Lily pushed herself and worked to cooperate with Mouse Protector, Atropos refused to allow herself to be hemmed in. Even the slightest gap was exploited, leaving both Lily and Mouse Protector clutching at thin air.

Despite the tune being older than most of the adults in the audience, it was infectious even for the kids. All were laughing; some called out encouragement for her and Mouse Protector to ensnare Atropos, while others seemed to support Atropos' continued evasion from capture.

When the tune came to an end, they were at different levels on the fake rocks making up the base. Lily was on one side of Atropos, while Mouse Protector was on the other. "We've got you mousetrapped now, Atropos," the veteran hero said, her hands flexing. "You may as well give up."

"It's not over until it's over," Atropos retorted, reaching into her long-coat and drawing a narrow-bladed sword that Lily belatedly identified as a rapier.

"Two can play at that game." Mouse Protector drew her own sabre and flourished it high. At the same time, she met Flechette's eyes and hooked her head sideways: stay out of this one.

"Agreed," said Atropos, touching her rapier to the tip of Mouse Protector's sabre. A second later, it occurred to Lily that they were both holding their swords in their left hands. It didn't seem to hamper either one.

"We don't have to fight." Mouse Protector responded to the tap with one of her own. "You're definitely a worthy opponent. I don't want to have to hurt you."

Atropos shrugged. "You seem a decent hero. I'd hate to get hurt."

They moved together, up and down the fake rocks, and their swords clashed a few times. Mouse Protector saluted one such pass with her sabre. "Using Bonetti's defence against me, huh?"

"It seemed fitting," agreed Atropos, "considering the rocky terrain."

Lily had no idea what was going on. There was subtext here that some of the adults in the audience were picking up on, but the kids were just watching the swordfight with deep interest. Canary was playing her guitar again while watching the display, with low dramatic chords.

Under Atropos' renewed attack, Mouse Protector retreated, her sabre throwing off sparks from each parry. "I admit," she panted, "you are better than I am."

"Then why are you smiling?" asked Atropos, pressing the attack.

"Because I know something you don't know." Mouse Protector's broad grin was indeed visible to all.

"And what is that?"

Tossing her sabre from her left hand to her right, Mouse Protector flourished it briefly. "I am not left-handed."

Atropos gave her a nod of appreciation, even as she fended off a new attack from the independent hero. "You're pretty good at this, too."

"I should be," quipped Mouse Protector, "after watching all those Youtube videos."

Leaping to a new fake rock, Atropos parried again. "There's something I ought to tell you."

The onslaught briefly on hold, Mouse Protector looked at Atropos expectantly. "Tell me."

Mimicking Mouse Protector's move from earlier, Atropos swapped hands with the rapier. "I'm not left-handed either." She darted forward, raising sparks from Mouse Protector's sabre.

"Who are you?" demanded Mouse Protector, parrying briskly then returning to the attack.

"You'll never know." Atropos steadily gave ground, retreating up the fake rocks, showing every sign of being trapped with no way out. Having seen her earlier performance, Lily was inclined to call bullshit, but this seemed to have been scripted ahead of time.

"But I must!" With a truly egregious flourish, Mouse Protector caught Atropos' rapier and flipped it from her hand. Spinning end over end, it arced toward Lily. Leaning into her sense of timing, Lily snapped her hand out, allowing the hilt to slap into her palm.

"Alas!" Atropos was really hamming it up there, but that also didn't surprise Lily. "Disarmed! But I must fight on!" There was a flicker of light on gleaming blades as she drew her signature shears. "Just remember, you brought this on yourself, bringing a sword to a shears fight!"

In the next second, she'd moved in close; there was a clash of steel on steel, and Mouse Protector's sabre flew over the back of the framework. Mouse Protector stopped still, her hands held up, palm out. "Well, that was unexpected."

Atropos saluted her with the shears. "While you're searching for your sword, I believe it's time for me to exit stage left." Just as she'd done in New York, she mimed snipping a doorway out of the air; an instant later, an actual smoky portal formed there. "Ladies and gentlemen, please consider donating to this very worthy cause." Briefly nodding toward the audience, she touched the brim of her hat with two fingers. "Toodles!"

With that, she stepped into the shadowy doorway and vanished, the portal itself fading out of existence thereafter. But Lily wasn't paying attention to that, or even to the thunderous applause that erupted as Mouse Protector bowed to the audience in her turn. She'd seen this rapier before, in March's possession. It was the exact same one, down to the stylised 'M' on the pommel.

Conclusions tumbled over and over in her mind, like boulders in a flooding river.

Jouster said someone kicked the crap out of March and took her rapier. This is March's rapier.

She was found near my patrol route. Was she planning to ambush me? It was absolutely something March would do.

Did Atropos go all the way to New York to intercept March and take her rapier, just so she wouldn't be able to interfere with me coming here?

Turning, she bowed to the crowd as well. I definitely need to ask her about that.

But right now, there was the fundraiser and the chance to talk to Parian before duty drew her back to New York.

She'd take that over a beating from March, any day.

End of Part Forty-Four