27 - Being Watched

Cataclysm fidgeted impatiently after ringing the doorbell. This was the second time she'd been over to Witchcraft's -- actually Beth Duquesne's -- house since returning from Stronghold three days before. Witchcraft had been overly solicitous since Cataclysm had gotten back, something Cataclysm found both touching and irritating. The woman was getting downright clingy.

The door opened and Witchcraft said brightly, "Hi! Come in." Both women were dressed casually rather than in their usual costumes. Cataclysm grunted as she entered. Witchcraft said, "Dinner will be ready in about an hour. Would you like a beer?"

"No," said Cataclysm, making a beeline for the wet bar. She started mixing herself a bourbon and coke, keenly aware of the other woman's eyes on her.

"Is everything OK?" Witchcraft asked in concern.

"Not really," mumbled Cataclysm. She looked up and Witchcraft was watching her closely. Cataclysm grimaced and said, "I went to see Pyro today."

"Oh?" Witchcraft prompted.

Cataclysm finished pouring the drink and started to raise it to her lips. She stopped to say, "They wouldn't let me in," before taking a long drink.

"Why not?"

"It seems they've been watching the news lately and someone figured out I was unregistered." Although many of the details of the Stronghold breakout were still being suppressed, Warden Wildman had showered Cataclysm with praise in his press conference. Since the incident she had been one of the top stories on news broadcasts all over the world.

"Oh, I'm so sorry, Cataclysm," Witchcraft said with feeling.

Cataclysm flopped down on the leather couch. "I was able to call her and let her know why I blew her off. At least they still let me do that. Not sure what I'm going to do now though."

Witchcraft sat down next to her. "Well, not to point out the obvious, but I imagine if you registered your powers the warden would be willing to reinstate your visiting privileges."

Cataclysm made a disgusted noise. "Great, that's all I need. Someone else spying on me. Menton and Talisman are bad enough but I've got UNTIL, the media, the cops, probably PRIMUS and fuck knows who else." She took another drink.

"If it means anything," Witchcraft offered, "you wouldn't be telling them anything they don't already know. You've been on their radar for quite sometime."

The ice clinked as Cataclysm lowered the glass. "What does that mean?"

Witchcraft looked surprised. "I've received a number of inquiries about you from various agencies over the last couple of years," she said.

"And what have you told them?" Cataclysm asked angrily.

Witchcraft was nonplussed. "Cataclysm, these are just routine inquiries that are made when anyone with superpowers-"

"What did you tell them?" Cataclysm demanded more loudly, standing.

"I gave them some basic information on your abilities, your power level, your character-"

"Are you fucking kidding me?" Cataclysm said, slamming the mostly empty drink down on the end table.

"Cataclysm, calm down. This is a normal part of-"

"Maybe in your world it's normal to narc out your friends to the cops, but not in mine." She stormed towards the door.

Witchcraft jumped to her feet and hurried after her. "No that wasn't my intent at all. Cataclysm, please wait."

But Cataclysm had heard enough. She threw open the front door and went streaking into the darkening evening sky.

Cataclysm sat in a folding metal chair in a storage room of an abandoned factory somewhere in Westside. She held an open can of ravioli in her flaming left hand. Enough light came in through the door to illuminate her surroundings, not that there was much to see. She had dragged in some furniture and set up a crude camp in the room. It wasn't much but she'd been moving every couple of days anyhow so there was no reason to get settled.

She stuck a finger into the ravioli. It wasn't hot enough yet but she was hungry so she grabbed a fork and ate the flavorless lumps of pasta mechanically. She froze as she heard footsteps. She put down the can and the fork silently and watched the door carefully.

"Cataclysm?" came a woman's voice.

She pursed her lips as she recognized the voice. She hesitated but figured hiding wouldn't prove anything. "Here," she called out without much enthusiasm. Witchcraft poked her head into the room and smiled as she saw Cataclysm. She came in and looked around.

"How did you find me?" Cataclysm asked with irritation

Witchcraft said lightly, "I'm a witch. I have my mystical ways."

"So you're spying on me too?" Cataclysm snapped.

Witchcraft gave her a sardonic look. "Of course not. I was worried about you. You missed our last lesson. You haven't answered your phone, door or email in days."

Cataclysm snorted at her but tried to dial back the defensiveness. She'd been on the other side of being cut off and knew it didn't feel very good. "I moved out of my place," she grumbled. "Media idiots keep showing up so I've been squatting various places in Westside. I turned off my phone because it won't stop ringing. And this quaint little handyman's dream," she waved expansively at the clutter around her, "doesn't come with free Wi-Fi."

"Surprising considering all the other amenities," Witchcraft observed dryly. "Do you have to pay extra for that interesting smell?"

Cataclysm felt her temper rising but knew Witchcraft was trying to break the ice. "Nope. Includes hot and cold running cockroaches too."

"Sounds nice."

Cataclysm forced a little smile. "You don't seem as offended by the place as I'd expect."

Witchcraft shrugged. "I've lived in worse." She sat down on an overturned metal drum. "I wanted to see if you were all right, Cataclysm, but I also wanted to apologize. Please understand I didn't deliberately avoid telling you about the inquiries. It just never occurred to me. It's a mundane administrative detail of my day. In hindsight I should have realized that with your...colorful relationship with the authorities, you would want to know about it. But I was foolish, not disloyal."

Cataclysm wasn't sure what to say so said nothing. Witchcraft continued, "You need to understand it's not about you or even your past. Yes, in some UNTIL computer there is a big file labeled 'Cataclysm'. And there's also an even bigger file named 'Witchcraft' with detailed information on my capabilities, my loyalties, and probably several scenarios on how to respond if I go rogue. I imagine they've even decided how my Stronghold cell would be configured."

Cataclysm knitted her brows. "You think so?"

"Of course. My parents are members of the Circle of the Scarlet Moon and my sister is working hard at becoming one of the world's most wanted supervillains. But that's not why they are watching me. I'm sure they also have files on Defender, the rest of the Champions, The All-American and every squeaky-clean hero you can name. They have to assume any of us are potential threats."

"And that doesn't bother you?"

Witchcraft blew out a long breath. "I'd like to say 'no' but, honestly, yes it bothers me a little. But I also understand the necessity. I know I'm not a threat, but they don't. And there is no way they could. And even if I'm not threat today, what about five years from now? They have to put public safety first."

Cataclysm sneered, "And history is full of societies that put public safety over individual rights. Most of them are remembered as the bad guys."

"True enough. It's a delicate balance. But we also have to look at the facts. Power corrupts. Even the best of us struggle with it. No matter how benevolent we are, it can become tempting to force our benevolence on people. You get people like Floodgate who have good intentions but don't let things like the law or innocent bystanders get in their way. The whole checks-and-balances system has to be ready for anything, including one of us going bad."

"Who the fuck are they to decide they can tell us how to behave?" Cataclysm demanded.

"They are the duly-appointed servants of the governments we have elected to do exactly that. They are, in principle, our voices. Look, we're getting mired in a complex subject and that's not the reason I came. My point is that I never meant my actions as a betrayal and I'm genuinely sorry if they came across that way."

Cataclysm grumbled to herself and then said, "Yeah, okay. I guess I kind of overreacted. Don't tell anyone else this but I have a bit of a temper."

Witchcraft grinned. "Never noticed."

"But I don't want you talking about me to government agencies anymore."

Witchcraft's grin faded. "You know I can't promise that. Cataclysm, when we put ourselves above the law, above the ruling powers, that puts us on a dangerous road. Even more so than typical people, we must observe the rules. We might bend them or work in the cracks between them, but we must resist the urge to cross that line."

Cataclysm studied her. "Do you know how ridiculous it is to say that to me of all people?"

Witchcraft shrugged. "For all your past...misadventures, you've done pretty well working within the gray areas of the system so far. Yes, you've bent the rules a bit farther than most, but you've stayed inside the lines." She paused. "Mostly."

"Mostly?" asked Cataclysm.

Witchcraft ignored the question and instead said, "Let me ask you something. You are powerful. The Huron Valley prison isn't designed to keep out superpowered people. You could easily break Pyro out. Surely you've considered that, haven't you? Especially over the last few days."

"Yeah," Cataclysm said uncomfortably.

"And yet you haven't. Is that a betrayal of your friendship with her?"

"Maybe it is," Cataclysm said gloomily.

"No. You know it's not. I can't imagine you ever betraying a friend. I suspect you've taken the bigger picture view. Maybe you've thought about the other people who might be hurt. Maybe you've realized the complications of a prison break would be worse than simply serving out her term. Maybe you've realized that if she doesn't have to suffer the consequences of her actions she's going to fall back into bad habits. Maybe you’ve even figured out that friendship might be important but it's still only one part of the complex tapestry of decisions that shape our lives."

Again Cataclysm said nothing. Witchcraft continued. "I also know you're worried she's going to fall back into the Maniacs when she gets out. You don't want that, do you?"

"No," Cataclysm said.

"You want a better life for her. If she decided to go back it would be her decision not yours, and yet you'd still be concerned. It would be a pity if she made an effort to build a new life and then threw it all away by getting back into gang activities. The law is not a zero-sum game. You can't expect a judge to allow past good deeds to excuse current...less-than-good deeds."

Cataclysm scowled, "We still talking about Pyro?"

Witchcraft put on a look of mock innocence. "Of course. Who else? On a completely unrelated note, I have always made a point of keeping an eye on criminal activity across the city. I got a report across my desk that says the Maniacs have made significant territorial gains recently. Westside PD suspects they have a powerful new ally. And I'm not going to ask. Yet. But that doesn't mean I'm not worried."

Cataclysm remained silent. Witchcraft reached out and put a hand on her shoulder. "Cataclysm, this isn't just about the argument we had. You're having to deal with a lot of things -- Pyro, your newfound fame -- and I don't think you should be doing this alone."

"I'll manage."

"Yes, I know." Witchcraft put on a mock growl, "You'll be fine." Cataclysm couldn't help but smile at that. Witchcraft continued, "I'm most worried about what Menton must have done to you. I wish you'd get help from someone. There are telepaths who specialize-"

"No!" Cataclysm snapped. "I'm not letting one of those mind-fuckers inside my head."

"Okay, okay. That's a common reaction after a telepathic attack. There are also more conventional psychological methods or support groups."

"Not interested."

Witchcraft said gently, "Well I can certainly tell you sitting in a dark, burnt-out factory in the middle of a slum is not a constructive way to handle it. Pack up your stuff. You can stay with me until your ready to find a new place to stay."

"No," said Cataclysm. She forced herself to add, "Beth, it's not you. Not really. I mean I'm still a little mad but that's not it." She sighed. "I don't know what it is. It's complicated. But I don't want to stay with you."

"Okay," Witchcraft said with disappointment. "How about this. There are some rental properties owned by Harmon Industries shell corporations. We use them to house people who want some anonymity. I could get you into one of them. We can get you a new phone too."

Cataclysm mulled that over. Witchcraft had told her a few months ago that Defender was James Harmon. It was a secret Cataclysm hadn't wanted to know, but considering Witchcraft's relationship with him it was inevitable that she would find out. She didn't like the idea of being beholden to either of them but she didn't know where else to go. Reluctantly she said, "Yeah, I guess so."

"Great!" said Witchcraft. "We can go now if you like. I took the liberty of picking out a couple I think you'd like."

Cataclysm didn't see any reason to put it off so she shrugged. She got up started moving about the area, picking up the few things she had brought from her apartment and stuffing them in a duffle. It didn't take long since she was prepared to move at short notice anyhow. She cast one last look around the place. "I guess I'm ready," she said.

"Okay, let's go," Witchcraft said, standing.

Cataclysm hesitated. "Wait," she said. She was nervous but steeled herself and plunged ahead. "With all my talk about lying and betrayal, I guess I should tell you something." Witchcraft looked at her expectantly and Cataclysm said, "How much do you know about Talisman's escape?"

Witchcraft hadn't expected that question. "Not much," she said. "Stronghold is keeping the details of the individual escapes secret for security reasons. No reason to advertise the weaknesses in the system until they fix them."

Cataclysm's heart was pounding. She forged on. "I helped her."

Witchcraft was confused. "You helped her?" she repeated.

Cataclysm told her what had happened when she encountered Talisman. Witchcraft listened with increasing shock. When Cataclysm was done, she said, "I'm sorry. I would have stopped her if I could have."

Witchcraft was silent as she processed the information. Finally she said with obvious difficulty, "Well, I suppose you really didn't have much choice. Getting yourself killed wouldn't have stopped her or Menton."

Cataclysm studied her and Witchcraft was lost in her thoughts. "Ready to go?" Cataclysm prompted.

Witchcraft shook herself back to the current situation. "What? Oh yes of course."

"Do me a favor," Cataclysm said as she and Witchcraft made their way through the factory. "When you go after her again, take me with you."

"I'll do that," Witchcraft promised.