A Darker Path

Part Forty-Three: Returns on Investment

[A/N 1: This chapter beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]

[A/N 2: Relevant side-story by Masterweaver on Spacebattles. An image of the costumes can be seen there too.]

Relevant Side Story: Spitfire and Oracle, Costume Testing by Masterweaver on Spacebattles.

"Now Dinah, I know you're sensitive to questions, so I asked Salvage to work with me on your costume-specifically the headpiece, although he did help with the armored undersuit as well." Parian handed Dinah the outfit. "It should block out unwanted questions, and let you keep track of how many you've asked in a day."

"And it gives you a good way to keep track of things," Salvage added. "Built-in screens and all that."

"Ooo!" Dinah put on the headpiece. "Huh, not too tight either. Something's missing though..."

"A hat?" Parian offered, holding out a small trilby.

"Yeah, that would do it." Dinah nodded, heading into one of the changing rooms to put on the rest of the outfit.

"Hey, uh, Parian?" Emily leaned out of the changing rooms. "What's with the dragon head?"

"You know how we tested your fire spit on organic versus inorganic threads? That head is 80 percent organic materials, with a very stable inner structure supporting the cloth. You should be able to see through the eyes and spit out of the snout, there's a little control mechanism in the jaw-"

"Let me just test that."

"Don't burn the place down," Bastet warned, "we just got it!"

"I won't!" Emily leaned back in. "Okay, so that's how that works... And that... Wow. That's a complicated bit of attachment..."

Bastet shook her head, turning to Parian. "You might have gone a little too far with that one."


"I mean, Spitfire's outfit, it's a bit complicated-"

"It only looks complicated," Parian insisted. "She'll get it on easily."

"I dunno," Salvage mused, "that back piece is pretty big."

"Oh hush. Oh, here they come!" Parian leaned back as their two newest members stepped out.

"...Wow. Yeah, they actually look pretty good," Bastet admitted. "Although... why's Dinah dressed as Atropos lite?"

"She kind of requested it. Actually, her exact words were 'make me look like Atropos.'"

"Fangirl, huh?"

"I'm pretty sure Coil was planning to kidnap me, lock me in a basement, and drug me to the gills for my power," Dinah replied. "So yes, I am kind of an admirer of the woman who stopped that from happening."

Bastet winced. "Ooookay, got it."

"I'm impressed at how Spitfire's outfit worked out," Salvage admitted. "I wasn't expecting something that complicated to not look... silly."

"Yeah, question." The plush jaws did open and shut while Emily was talking, though not quite in synch with her words. "Why exactly am I a fluffy dragon?"

Parian sighed. "As an organization designed to promote jobs and societal integration for capes, we need to appeal to a wide demographic of audiences, and-"

"Wait, she's the kid-appeal character?" Bastet interjected.

"...well... yes."

"Instead of the actual kid," Bastet gestured toward Oracle, "who's dressed up as Grimsy mcShoutout."

Parian sighed. "Yes, well, Dinah, do you think you could handle entertaining children and teaching them the ins and outs of caping responsibly?"

"12.783 percent," Dinah said promptly. "But I like Spitfire's getup, she looks like a theme park character."

"Oh god," Spitfire deadpanned. "Please don't tell me I have to do a funny voice."

"No, just cheery will do," Parian assured her. "If it helps, I can make your wings and tail move without you having to do anything. It'll be a fun way to wow the kids..."

Returning you to your regularly scheduled narrative:

Friday Afternoon, January 21, 2011
Protectorate New York Base


Lily drew a deep breath, then let it out as she knocked on the office door in front of her.

A moment later, a voice called out from within. "Come in."

She opened the door and stepped inside. Legend wasn't behind his desk, as she'd expected him to be. Instead, he was off to the side, having just stood up from a comfortable chair in front of his large picture window.

"Thank you for seeing me, sir," she said hesitantly, then mentally kicked herself. Of all the times to get second thoughts about what she wanted to ask him, this was the worst.

"No problem at all," he said genially. "Join me, and let's talk about what's troubling you." Casually, he sat down again. "Your request to see me was fairly vague."

"Nothing's troubling me, exactly, sir," she said, but sat down anyway. The chair was very comfortable, and somehow it was easier to talk to Legend when they were both sitting and relaxed. "I just wanted to ask permission for a little time off."

"Oh?" He turned to look at her. "I can't see a reason why not, but when were you thinking of taking time off?"

"Uh, actually, the fifth of February." She paused, then kept going at his inquiring look. "In Brockton Bay, they're doing a fundraiser for their children's cancer ward. Mouse Protector said she's going, to repay Atropos for what she did to Ravioli—I mean Ravager …" She trailed off awkwardly.

Legend chuckled. "Ravioli will do fine. Yes, I remember that. So, Mouse Protector is showing up to put on a show for the kids, and you want to tag along and help out, is that it?"

Lily nodded. "Well, yes. If that's okay, I mean."

"It is definitely okay, young lady." Legend gave her a nod of approval. "This is exactly the sort of heroic initiative I like to see in our Wards."

"Oh, uh, cool! I mean, thank you." All the angst and worry that had been weighing Lily down dissipated like yesterday's fog. "I totally appreciate it."

"No, really. You've earned it." Legend stood up again. "I'll set the paperwork in motion immediately. Who's your current team captain again?"

"Jouster, sir." Lily got up as well. "Do you want me to inform him?"

"No, I'll send the message through channels." He clapped her on the shoulder. "Have a good afternoon."

"Thank you, sir. And thank you again for seeing me." She headed for the door and opened it.

"Not a problem in the world." As she closed the door behind her, he was sitting down behind the desk.

Wow. That was easier than I thought.

Monday, January 24
Boston, Massachusetts


"... and so, in summary, I am quashing Justice Regan's preliminary findings. Ms Mcabee, you will reimburse Mr Cantrell for his medical costs, plus twenty thousand dollars for emotional pain and suffering. I am also sentencing you to time served plus a five-year suspended sentence. Furthermore, your song lyrics will need to be scrutinised for any potentially harmful commands before you are permitted to perform them in public. Be aware: you are on probation for your actions. Is there anything about this that is unclear?"

Paige opened her mouth—it isn't fair! What about my pain and suffering?—but then she felt Mr Calle's hand on her arm and she shut it again.

"It is all eminently clear, your Honor," he said smoothly. "My client understands perfectly."

"Very good." The stern woman eyed Paige, then nodded. "You will receive an itemised list of the medical costs from the bailiff, which you will be expected to pay within one month." The gavel banged.

"But—your Honor!" All too late, her ex started up from where he sat on the opposite side of the courtroom.

The judge turned her basilisk glare upon him. "Mr Cantrell, I have rendered my judgement, and it is final. Outbursts are not permitted in my courtroom. If Ms Mcabee fails to reimburse you for the amount found in today's judgement within thirty days, then we will be revisiting this matter. But until then, this is over. Do you understand?" Her entire attitude stated that he'd better understand.

The district attorney, who'd done his best to dent Paige's story, but had signally failed against Calle's imperturbable demeanour, whispered to her ex and more or less forced him back into his seat. "He understands, your Honor," he assured the judge.

"Good. We're done here."

Paige stood at the bailiff's command of 'all rise', but her head was spinning. A week ago, she'd been essentially locked in solitary; all guards wore hearing protection, and any court appearance had involved a torturous metal gag and heavy metal chains. But everything had changed overnight, a new judge had taken the case, and none other than Quinn Calle had shown up as her lawyer, paid for by her suddenly unfrozen accounts. He'd demanded a bench trial, which the court had been obliged to supply, and everything had gone on from there.

"So, what does all that mean?" she asked quietly, once the judge had left the courtroom. "Did we win or did we lose?"

"Oh, we won, but we made it look like we lost." Calle seemed quite pleased with himself. "Make no mistake, Ms Mcabee, the judiciary had you solidly in their sights. They were determined to make an example out of you. However, they overreached, which gave certain people some much-needed leverage. Trust me, this is the best possible judgement you could've gotten in the matter."

"I—" Paige cut herself off as her ex bulled toward them. "What do you want? You're getting twenty thousand dollars from me. You should be happy now."

"I deserve more than that!" He was building himself up to a fine head of steam. "You made me cut my fucking dick off and shove it up my ass!"

Anger rose in her. "It's not my fault that's your go-to when someone tells you to go eff yourself!"

"To do what?" He leaned in. "Did you just Master me again?"

"Nice try, Mr Cantrell." Quinn Calle smoothly inserted himself between the two of them. "I'm fully aware of the limitations of Ms Mcabee's powers, and I know for a fact that she hasn't sung a note in another person's hearing in months. Also, that listening to recordings of her songs reduces the effect considerably. Merely hearing her talk will not cause Mastery. For example: I have been speaking with her all day. Ms Mcabee, give me a command to perform a harmless act, please."

Paige swallowed, hoping he knew what he was doing. "Mr Calle, stand on one foot."

Nothing happened. Both his feet remained planted firmly on the ground.

"You see?" He smiled urbanely at her ex. "Be aware that I will be taking note of this attempt to harass my client, now that the case has been dealt with. Much more of this, and we might just be able to get those twenty thousand dollars back off you, plus extra for emotional pain and suffering."

The asshole glared at both of them. "Fuck you!" Turning, he stormed away again.

Paige took a deep breath, aware of how fast her heart was beating. "I literally cannot tell you how much I appreciate your help. I don't know how bad it would've gotten, but it was pretty horrible there for a while."

"As I said, you were in their crosshairs. You got a punitive fine; plus, you're going to have to keep your nose clean for the next five years. That should satisfy the people who want to see you punished for simply being a Master." He gave her a sly grin. "I normally represent much worse people than you. It's always fun to poke a stick in the eye of the judiciary whenever they think they can railroad capes just because they're capes."

"But there's got to be more to it." Paige knew she wasn't special in the big picture. "Why you? Why me?"

"An entirely relevant question." He took his phone from his pocket and speed-dialled a number. "Hello? Yes, it came out the way I expected. We're on the way out of the courthouse now. Here, I'll give her the phone."

Her mind now buzzing with curiosity, Paige accepted the phone and held it to her ear. "Hello?"

"Hello, Ms Mcabee." The voice held a Canadian accent. "This is Dragon. Do you know who I am?"

Paige blinked. "What … the Dragon? The superhero?"

"Correct." There was a smile in the voice now. "When I saw the raw deal you were getting, I did a little poking and prodding. I'm pleased it turned out as well as it did."

"What?" Paige stopped in her tracks and leaned against the wall. "You did that for me? You got my funds released, and got Mr Calle to represent me? I-I mean, thank you! I can't thank you enough! But … but why?"

"Because I know what it's like to be unfairly judged and punished for something that's not my fault. However, I can't take all the credit for how smoothly everything has gone. Just on my own, all my protests would've gone unheeded. So, I asked a … friend, shall we say, to lend some weight to my arguments."

"Good God." Paige saw a seat nearby and dropped into it, because her knees weren't really up to the job right then. "Who's your friend? Who has that kind of pull? Was it Alexandria, or someone else in the Triumvirate? Or aren't I allowed to know?"

"Not Alexandria, or either of the others." Now she sounded a little sad. "I went to them first. They wanted nothing to do with the case. It was very much a situation of 'let the legal system do its job'. Even if the judiciary was unfairly targeting you."

"Um. Okay. So … who helped? Who's got that sort of pull?"

There was a slight pause. "Have you ever heard of Atropos?"

Paige had definitely heard of Atropos.

She'd first come across the name when she got her own phone back, a week ago. Scrolling through to find out what she'd missed out on in her months of being incommunicado, she'd encountered a couple of what she'd thought were sensationalised news articles, but when she followed them up … they weren't.

Over the course of two weeks, the villain-slash-vigilante-slash-antihero-slash-who-knew-what had taken the northeast of the United States by storm. The known casualty list included Lung, Kaiser, Heartbreaker, Butcher and the Teeth, as well as the Slaughterhouse Nine; the recorded footage was insane, and Atropos' PHO thread read like something written by a genial horror movie slasher.

She had a fan club. A fan club.

It was a good thing Paige was already sitting down, because if she hadn't been, she would've ended up on the floor. "Yeah. I've heard of her. Sh-she helped me out?" Oh, god. Now I owe a serial killer a debt. Maybe I'd be better off back in that cell. The feeling of being between a rock and a hard place was coming back again.

"It was more a case of me asking her if I could use her name to get results, and her agreeing. As soon as Regan heard that she was interested in making sure the case would be fairly adjudicated, he basically tossed all the paperwork in the air and walked away from it."

"Oh. So, she didn't actually murder anyone to get me out of it. I suppose that's a good thing." The next question needed to be asked, even though she didn't want to ask it. "So … uh, what does she want from me, in return?" She didn't even want to think about the ramifications of Dragon being friendly with a mass murderer. Some things just didn't bear close scrutiny.

"Well, as it turns out, the Brockton Bay General Hospital children's oncology ward is having a fundraiser on the fifth of February. She said if you were able to make an appearance and put on a show for the kids, she'd be happy with that."

Paige's brain screeched to a halt so abruptly, smoke should've been drifting out her ears. "Oncology ward? A charity show for kids with cancer?" This did not go together with 'remorseless serial killer'. "That's all she wants?"

"That's all. Oh, she might turn up for a signed selfie with you. She does that." There was resignation in Dragon's voice now.

"Would … would she be angry if I didn't? Make an appearance, I mean? Or agree to a selfie?"

"Hmm." Dragon paused for a moment. "Probably not, to be honest. She's fully aware of the impact of her reputation. But if you were to ask me? I'd say, do it. She's an extremely reasonable person, and as of right now, Brockton Bay is one of the safest places in the United States."

"So … she isn't likely to shoot me if she takes offence to something in one of my songs?"

Dragon actually laughed out loud. "No … no, she isn't. We're more frenemies than actual friends, but I do know this much about her. Atropos has exactly zero fucks to give. Just don't dilute or tarnish her brand in any way, and you'll be perfectly fine."

Paige made a mental note. Nothing about Atropos in any of my songs, got it. "I see. I will seriously think about it." Which, both of them knew, meant that she'd say yes.

"Thank you. I appreciate it."

"No, thank you. For everything." Paige ended the call, and sat there looking at the phone. What have I gotten myself into?

One way or another, she figured, she'd find out.

Sunday, January 30

New York

"Hey, March?"

May looked up from the book she was reading, an illustrated version of Lewis Carroll's classic, to where her minion was leaning in through the doorway. "Yeah?"

The kid—Barry or Gary or something like that, she couldn't be bothered remembering their names—sucked in a nervous breath. "I heard a whisper. Flechette's going to Brockton Bay on the fifth for some charity show."

Setting a bookmark in place, May sat up. "Really."

"Yeah. They say Legend's real pleased with her for taking the initiative like that."

A slow smile spread across May's face. "Really." She gestured, a flip of the hand. "Got it. Go away."

He vanished from the doorway. May closed the book and set it aside, thinking hard.

Flechette wanted to make herself look good by attending a charity show, huh?

The first thought May had was to go to Brockton Bay itself and wreck the show, making it look like Flechette's fault, but common sense prevailed. Brockton Bay had acquired a Reputation among criminal capes; more to the point, Atropos had expressly forbidden March from going there. Atropos had a Thinker power that allowed her to know when anyone was about to mess with her town, that much was obvious. Heartbreaker had only been allowed to come in as far as he did because Atropos wanted to kill him, and Damsel of Distress had been met with a shotgun to the back of the head.

Challenging Atropos on her own turf, when the serial killer probably knew she was coming, would possibly end badly. But there was more than one way to skin that particular feline.

How to make sure Flechette can't look good at the show without actually being there myself … hmm.

The solution, when she arrived at it, was simple.

Make sure Flechette never got there.

Her smile spread, Cheshire Cat-like, under her mask. Now to find out her patrol schedule.

Flechette was going to regret ever trying to walk away from the little cat-and-mouse game they had going.

Monday Afternoon, January 31


"Hey, Parian!" Wearing just her goggles to hide her identity, Oracle smiled in greeting as Sabah climbed off the six-legged horse. Bastet, who was sharing what appeared to be a Fugly's seafood selection with Spitfire—who was wearing a domino mask, with her dragon mask lying on the table—looked up and waved. A moment later, Spitfire shyly did the same.

"Hi, all." Sabah sat down, smoothing her skirts, and surveyed the others with quiet pride. They weren't a superhero team, but they were still her Rogues' Guild. Since they'd first officially become a group, they'd taken to meeting at the same table where they'd received their stimulus cards. Nobody wanted to come right out and call it their 'lucky' table, but she kind of felt that way herself. "Where's Salvage? I wanted to go over ideas for next Saturday."

"He's not far away," Bastet said cheerfully. "Started his new job today."

It was amazing what a difference just a few weeks of nutritious food and sleeping on actual beds had made. Gone was the hangdog, desperate young woman who had almost pleaded with Sabah for a chance to be part of a bigger thing, so she didn't have to eat out of (and sleep in) dumpsters anymore. Now, Bastet was confident, no longer scrawny, and her hair was shiny and well-kept rather than matted and dull.

"Oh, he got it?" Sabah was pleased. "That's amazing."

"Well, he did have a seventy-three point nine four three percent chance of—" Oracle began, then squawked as Bastet grabbed her around the neck and administered a gentle noogie.

"Yes, we got it," the kineticist chuckled. "You're awesome, and we all know it. Now, what about Spitfire? You got any tips for her?"

Oracle emerged from the hold with her hair ruffled but her eyes were sparkling with amusement. She stole a calamari ring from Bastet's side of the food, then stuck out her tongue at the older woman. "Yeah, actually. I was talking to my cousin Rory, and he said that out at the College they need to use really nasty chemicals to scour out some of their reaction containers. If they didn't have to keep those chemicals stored onsite, with all the safety precautions and stuff, they'd probably save a bunch of money." She turned to look at Spitfire. "I figure you've got a seventy-six point nine one three percent chance of getting an ongoing job there."

"What, really?" Spitfire looked startled.

"'s what my power says." Oracle took a bite out of the calamari ring. "Mmm, nice."

"Oh, hey, there's the big guy now." Bastet waved. "Yo! Sal! Over here! Saved you some curly fries!"

"Hell yeah, they're the best." Salvage clomped over to them; like Bastet, he was looking considerably more upbeat, and healthier, than when Sabah first met him. Even his armour looked sleeker, now that he had better tools to maintain it with. "Hey, guys. Sorry I'm late. Boss wanted to talk to me about getting my forklift ticket. That'll be even more dollars in my pay packet."

"Forklift?" Sabah frowned. "Can that armour even fit on a forklift?"

He chuckled and grabbed some curly fries. "My armour is the damn forklift. I'll be learning the safety rules they operate by, so I can stand in for one in tight spaces and stuff. Also, I'll be adding flashers and a beeper for backing up."

"Ha! All right!" Bastet high-fived him. "You da man."

"That's really good," Sabah agreed. "You've done well."

He hunched a metallic shoulder. "Couldn't have done it without your coaching, or Oracle figuring out who was most likely to hire me on."

"Well, duh." Bastet stole his cap and put it on her own head. "We're a team. We look out for each other."

"Yeah, we do." He ignored the theft in favour of shoving a curly fry into his mouth. "Damn, that's good."

"So, you said something about going over ideas for next Saturday?" Oracle prompted.

"Oh. Yes." Sabah took a deep breath. "There's that fundraiser charity show at Brockton General. Atropos suggested we put on a display as the Rogues' Guild. That sort of publicity can only be good for us, right?"

For a long moment, she thought they were going to turn the idea down, but instead they looked thoughtful. "Atropos did save our asses with Bastard Son," Bastet mused. "We kind of owe her."

Salvage frowned. "Yeah, but what kind of show could we put on that'll make people want to donate lots of money? We do okay on the Boardwalk, but that's because nobody's expecting anything amazing. We don't really have a single theme that ties us together, you know?"

Spitfire half-raised her hand. "I might have an idea. I saw on social media that Canary's going to be singing a few songs. It'll be her first gig since the trial. What if we kinda ... helped her out with her act? I mean, she's a fellow rogue and stuff."

Sabah blinked, impressed. That had been perhaps the longest speech she'd heard out of the withdrawn teen since she'd joined the Rogues' Guild. It was also a good idea. "We can definitely make the offer," she said. "I like it."

"Yeah." Bastet slapped Spitfire on the shoulder. "Great idea."

Ducking her head, Spitfire blushed pink. But a tiny smile crossed her face at the same time.

Friday, February 4, 2011
A Seedy New York City Alleyway


May surveyed the alleyway and smiled under her mask. This, she decided, would do perfectly. It was a dead end, so Flechette wouldn't be able to run. This would give May all the time she needed to beat her clustermate just badly enough that Flechette wouldn't be able to go to Brockton Bay and show off for the charity deal.

She would let Flechette escape in the end, of course; this part of the game was all about catch and release. And letting Flechette know that she was being released would be almost as demoralising as catching her and keeping her, without all the hassle of dealing with escape attempts. This was a game she could play over and over.

Loosening the rapier in its sheath, she took up her position in the depths of a shadow just within the mouth of the alley. Flechette's behavioural patterns would bring her just past the mouth of this alley, where May would be able to force her inside and disable her comms before she was able to call for help. And then, May would have all the time in the—

Someone tapped her on the shoulder.

There should be nobody in the alley! I checked!

Turning with all the speed she was capable of, May drew her rapier with a rapid serpentine hiss. She found herself facing a tall, black-costumed figure; the suit and tie and morph mask marked her opponent out as the one person she was staying away from Brockton Bay to avoid. But that was secondary to the fact that a pair of heavy shears had just rapped her over the knuckles, forcing her to drop the rapier.

"Hi." Atropos sounded positively upbeat. "Stay away from Flechette."

Despite the fact that she'd just been expertly disarmed, May knew the fight was far from finished. She knew three different ways of kicking the sword back into her hand, and she'd already watched enough footage of Atropos fighting to be able to dance between the raindrops once they got started. But first, she needed to distract the extremely adept killer in front of her so she could regain the rapier.

"Really? What's she to you?" she sneered, preparing to kick the rapier upward with the toe of her boot. "This isn't Brockton Bay. You're in New York now—"

Atropos' boot flicked out. There had been zero warning, no shifts of her weight. The toe struck the rapier, propelling it into the air. Already calculating how to catch it, May shifted—

And an elbow arrived like a freight train, smashing into May's jaw and brutally driving her sideways. She managed to roll with it just enough that she wasn't knocked cold, but the world spun in great looping circles and she was pretty sure her jaw was broken.

"I wasn't asking, and I wasn't looking for an answer." Atropos' tone hadn't changed; she might have been discussing the weather. "I was telling you. You will leave Flechette alone."

She now held the rapier, May saw. Worse, she was between May and the exit to the alley. But she didn't attack, even though she had to know she had the advantage.

May's head was clearing now. A couple of her teeth had come loose in her mouth, and she surreptitiously spat them out into her mask, along with some blood. She didn't know what brand of combat Thinker Atropos was, but the serial killer for damn sure had never gone up against someone like her.

The rapier was the big problem. It had reach, and could easily be brought back into line. But Atropos wasn't holding it like an expert, or even a talented amateur. Her grip was all wrong, and the tip was wandering all over the place.

Still, with those shears in play, it would be hard to land a hit on Atropos' upper body or head. So instead, she'd come in against the rapier, brush it out of the way, and land a solid kick against Atropos' kneecap before disengaging. It would be a lot harder to fight if—

Atropos was a fluid blur of motion. The rapier licked out toward her left shoulder like silver flame. She fell back, deflected a slash from the shears with her right hand, then realised far too late that they'd both been feints. The heel of Atropos' boot smashed into the side of her knee; cartilage tore, tendons popped, and she bit off a scream as her knee joint bent in a direction it was absolutely not designed to go.

May almost collapsed, but she managed to catch herself with one hand up against the wall, her bad leg trailing uselessly behind her. Air hissed in and out between the teeth she had left. She was only just now starting to realise the depth of the shit she was in.

Atropos was faster than her, and refused to move to any pattern her power could analyse and beat. Twice now, May had been taken unawares while facing her. Both were blows that could've taken her out of the fight if Atropos had chosen to capitalise on them, but she hadn't.

She was drawing this out, just like May herself liked to do.

It was not a pleasant feeling.

"Now, I've warned you twice to leave Flechette alone." Atropos sauntered forward, the rapier once more held carelessly in her hand. "She is important to me. Important enough to protect with lethal force. Is that understood? Nod if you understand."

Grudgingly, knowing with absolute certainty that she would die if she did anything else, May nodded.

"Good." Atropos may even have smiled, but the morph mask made it impossible to tell. "So, you may be under the misapprehension that I came here to kill you. That's not true. If I had, you'd already be dead, probably in a highly ironic and somewhat hilarious fashion. As it is—"

The rapier speared forward, pinking May's throat. One inch farther in and she would be dead, she knew. It withdrew, then made another lightning jab, this time going between her ribs just far enough to start her bleeding, but not hit anything vital. The message was loud and clear. I could've killed you at any time. I can kill you at any time.

Just as May was assimilating that, Atropos stepped in and smacked her on the temple with the guard of the rapier. It was the final insult to her abused body. As May's vision began to darken, Atropos leaned in close. "You'll survive …" Her voice dropped to a whisper. "… if you leave Flechette alone."

May's legs gave way then; Atropos helped her down, turning her to lie on her left side. As Atropos straightened up and stepped away, May heard the tones of a cell-phone. "Yes, ambulance and PRT, please." Atropos' tone was just as upbeat as ever. "I just saw a supervillain in an alleyway. She looked pretty beat up. Wearing a stupid-looking rabbit mask. Can't miss her."

She wandered out of the alleyway, taking the rapier with her and still talking on the phone. Her voice faded as she went out of sight.

A moment later, Flechette headed past the mouth of her alley on her patrol. May watched her go; just before she lost consciousness altogether, one last thought crossed her mind.


End of Part Forty-Three