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April 16, 2015 

The Cline House

Port Regal 


Don't make it sound like a creepy sex thing - don't make it sound like a creepy sex thing. 


Fast-Forward reminded himself as he finished tapping in the number for Starlight's drop phone, having exchanged contact information with the heroine after they'd finished their unpleasant encounter with the city's drug trade. Normally he was much more confident about phone conversations, but he'd picked up on some hints in conversing with the young woman that her situation was pretty dire - and he was familiar enough with poverty and desperation to know how the 'optics' (to use a phrase their PR guy Tony liked to use) might look shady to someone who didn't know him well. With his kids playing on the Wii U downstairs and his wife 'listening' to the phone call while she read a book on her iPad across the bedroom, it was easy to forget just how far up he'd come. Until he thought about the look in the eyes of kids like Starlight - and remembered it on his own face. 


When Starlight picked up, Richard said in a friendly voice, "Hello, Starlight - it's Richard Cline. Are you busy?" 

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It was times like this that made Starlight really wish she could sleep.


She sat on the very edge of the roof of the Rath and Stromberg building, dangling her legs over the dizzying drop below. She was propping her chin up with one fist, staring out at the city before her with half-glazed eyes. Her body was softly glowing, and she could feel her inner store of energy replenishing with agonizing slowness. Recharging her powers every day was certainly necessary, but it didn’t make it any less ass-achingly dull.


At last, the glow faded, and she got to her feet, wincing as her legs cramped. She stood there for another few minutes, bouncing idly on the balls of her feet, trying to decide what to do next. The streets had been quiet (relatively speaking), and there had been a disappointing dearth of skeletal dinosaurs in the last few months. Maybe a trip to the moon was in order, to try to settle her thoughts. At least she could get away from the noise of the city.


She was just focusing her concentration to make the jump when a loud, insistent digital ringtone blared from her pocket, startling her violently. She pulled out her cheap plastic phone and eyed it suspiciously, trying to think of a legitimate reason for anyone to be calling her. After a moment’s indecision, she tapped the talk button and held it to her ear, letting whoever it was be the first to speak.


A man’s voice came through tinnily. “Hello, Starlight – it’s Richard Cline. Are you busy?â€


Cline? The fast guy with the show? She stiffened. “Aren’t you married?†she said accusingly.

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Damn. Sometimes his instincts about street life were...mistaken, not out of date, but it sounded like he'd judged the other hero exactly right on this one. Geez, wonder how she got her powers? He thought back to youthful memories of secret government laboratories on the streets of Freedom City - and the sinister experiments carried out against kids from the streets there. Superpowers didn't always mean a good life, either before or after they came in. 


"Yes, and my wife is sitting right over here. Do you want to talk to her?" Richard replied, his usually light tone perfectly sincere. He knew what street life was like - even if he'd never been quite as desperate as he suspected Starlight was. "I'd have actually had her call you first, but I figured we'd actually met, so this was the best start." 

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"Oh," she said, relaxing slightly. Might want to ratchet down the paranoia a bit, Sam. Casually, she stepped off the edge of the roof, letting herself float slowly through the air. "Uh, yeah, sure, I'll talk to her," she said in a less guarded tone. Wonder what the hell's this about? They need some muscle for something? From what she knew of them, muscle was one thing they had no shortage of.

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There was a brief shuffling on the other end of the line. "Hello Starlight, this is Paige Cline," came a friendly female voice on the other end of the line. Richard mentioned meeting you the other day, and that you're new to the hero scene in Freedom City. We're fairly new ourselves, we just moved in last year from LA, and I know how hard it can be to meet new people. We wanted to invite you over to dinner some night soon if you're free." There was a soft murmuring from someone else on the other end of the phone. "And I assure you," she continued, a thread of humor creeping into her tone, "there is no sexual content to the invitation whatsoever. You're welcome to bring a friend or significant other if you'd like." 

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Dinner? For a moment, Starlight was genuinely dumbfounded. She'd never been invited to dinner in her life, even before she got her powers. She wondered absurdly if the other woman was speaking in some sort of code. Was their conversation being listened in on?

Is this your idea of being less paranoid? asked a snide voice in her head. Here's an idea - maybe "dinner" is code for "dinner."

She started to say that she didn't eat dinner anymore, but something stopped her. She realized that, oddly enough, she didn't want to be rude. First time for everything, I guess. At the same time, she felt a sort of apprehension growing inside her. They seemed to think she was some sort of...socialite. What had she done to give Cline the impression that she was the kind of person who would make a good dinner guest? Was it the casual swearing, or the drug-related anecdotes?

"Uh, nothing in my schedule I can't move around," she said, against her better judgement. The moon isn't going anywhere. Well, probably. "When do we wanna do this?"

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"How about Sunday evening around six?" Paige suggested, sounding like the sort of person who arranged to have dinner with people all the time, like it wasn't even a big deal. "The weather's supposed to be nice all weekend, Richard will get the grill going and we'll barbecue. We haven't used our backyard nearly as much as I'd like since we moved in here, even though it's a superhero neighborhood. Do you have any allergies or special dietary needs?" she asked. "We can always grill up some portobellas if you're not a meat-eater." It was hard to say what Richard might have told her about Starlight, but her voice held neither censure nor pity. 

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"Dietary needs? Uh, not exactly. Not picky." She squinted down at the meandering rows of traffic far below. No matter what you cook, there's a decent chance it'll kill me or something. Ever since she discovered her new physiology, she'd never been able to muster the courage to try eating, even when she had the opportunity, which wasn't often.

"So. Sunday evening. Got it. Where you at?" she asked. Superhero neighborhood? Didn't even know we had those. Must have quite a neighborhood watch.

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"We live in Port Regal, near the Nicholson School," Paige replied, giving her the address. Starlight knew the neighborhood a little, it had never seemed like anything out of the ordinary, for all there was very little trouble that seemed to take place there. That would make sense, if a bunch of superheroes had decided to set up camp in the brownstone duplexes and townhouses. "We're the ones with the out of control zinnias up and down the front walk, though hopefully my son will have mowed the lawn by then and we won't be the little house in the prairie grass by then." She chuckled. "Don't worry about bringing anything but yourself. Do you prefer chocolate or fruit flavors for desserts?" 

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"Whatever works." Son? A strangely dull, heavy feeling settled into her stomach. Didn't even know they had kids. She wondered if the kids had powers too. Did it work like that? She would have to ask. Just out of curiosity.


She was relieved that she didn't have to bring anything - even if she had the money, she'd never exactly had the most discerning taste when it came to wine. Generally, the only quality she'd ever sought in her alcohol had been...well, alcohol. "So. Port Regal. Sunday. Six o'clock. Zinnias. I'll be be there." Still a couple days to kill. Maybe she'd finally get around to listening to that David Bowie album at Miras's place. See what all the fuss was about. "See you then."

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With its green lawns and pretty houses, this part of Port Regal really did look very nice. The address she'd been given led her to a quiet neighborhood that seemed to be full of families - kids playing in yards, SUVs in driveways, and even one brave father trying an April barbecue. Living here couldn't be cheap this close to the city, but at the same time she'd certainly seen (or at least heard of) far more expensive neighborhoods in town. The Cline house turned out to be a comfortable-looking two-story brownstone, complete with brightly painted mailbox along the front sidewalk and neatly-mown grass. At her knock, Richard answered the door, the smells of cooking food and the sound of television wafting from the house behind him. 

"Hello," he said with a smile, "nice to see you again." In his Supercrime! sweatshirt and slacks, he looked more like a suburban dad than a superhero. "Honey, Holly, our guest is here!" he called back into the house. 

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Okay, this is weird. "Hey, Fa -" she caught herself - "Richard." She lingered on the doorstep for a moment, then said. "Nice place." Man, who do you have to kill to get a place like this? It might not be too luxurious relatively speaking, but compared to the Fens or even Greenbank, this was a palace. Even the neighborhood looked like the kind of place you wouldn't think twice about walking through after dark. Must be nice.

"Never seen you out of costume, Rich. Anyone'd think you were just some guy, not a time-warping demigod," she said, half joking.

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Paige hurried in from the kitchen, pulling off an oven mitt and tucking it under her arm so she could give Starlight a friendly wave. "I'm so glad you could make it. I'm Paige, we talked on the phone last week." Paige Cline looked to be in her mid-thirties, her brown hair cut in a stylishly messy bob, her blue jeans and green knit top protected by an apron covered with multicolored child-sized paint handprints. "Come on in, we've got soda and ice water and fruit juice in the kitchen, and I'm just about to chase Richard outside to make the burgers. Will couldn't make it tonight, some kind of school thing going on, but Holly will be down as soon as she smells hamburgers. How have you been?" 

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"I've been...good. Good." Technically not homeless anymore, so I guess that's something. You know, baby steps. "Thanks for having me. But, you really shouldn't have gone to all this trouble, you know." Seriously.

She found herself staring around her as she talked. The place was spacious, clean, healthily lived-in...a far cry from her old apartment. The contrast was so striking it seemed almost surreal. Instead of cigarette butts and discarded fast-food wrappers, there were family photos and decorations. There was no muffled shouting from the idiot couple next door, no howling of stray dogs. You could inhale without getting a lungful of secondhand smoke. The kids outside -

She realized she was digging her nails into the inside of her arm again, where the track marks used to be. S--t. She thought she'd broken herself of that habit. She quickly gripped her elbows, hugging herself to force her hands to remain still. "So, uh, nice to meet you, Paige," she said to hide her unease. " I guess Rich told you about me." I wonder how much he told you.

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"Demigod, hah! I...don't even know the meaning of the word," said Richard with a quick grin. Is...is that like a Demi Moore thing? No, look how young she is, she probably doesn't even know who that is! Think, Richard, think! "Come in, come in." He stepped back to let Starlight into the place, glad to see she'd made it there in one piece. "I'll go get the burgers started," he offered, and then was simply gone from the room with a faint woosh of air zipping in to fill the space he'd left behind. In the kitchen, Starlight could make out a brief tornado of activity as cabinets and refrigerators opened and closed, the door swung wide open...and within ten or fifteen seconds of Hologram's hint, Richard was outside, tossing a match into a charcoal grill. "Hope you like American cheese!" he called through the half-open window. 

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"All good things," Paige assured Starlight, following her husband into the kitchen at a far more leisurely pace. "But I only know a little bit. Did you grow up in Freedom City?" She pulled two glasses from a cupboard, dispensed ice into them from the spout on the freezer door. "Richard and I both come from Freedom City, but we left for a quite awhile after the invasion and when the kids were young. The weather is nicer in California, but you do get to miss the City. No place quite like it." She held up a glass to Starlight. "What's your pleasure? For soda I've only got ginger ale and Squirt, but Richard got himself one of those crazy machines that lets you make whatever kind you like, so we could always experiment with that." 

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"Yeah, I grew up here. Me and my sister. Hell, until a couple months ago, I'd never left." And that was because I was experimenting with my teleportation powers and accidentally overshot by a couple hundred thousand miles. Hell of a way to find out you don't need to breathe. "I always meant to move away sometime. There just always seemed to be something that needed doing first. Now..." she shrugged. "Things are different. Different priorities. Different...circumstances." She snorted. "Very different. And, uh..." She hesitated.

Moment-of-truth time. "Ginger ale is fine." Let's see if this kills me. If I'm going to die, might as well die from drinking soda.

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"Ginger ale it is." Paige poured ginger ale for both of them, then expertly sliced two twists off a lime and dressed the glasses with twists and straws. "We used to entertain a lot in LA," she explained with a smile, passing one glass to Starlight. "I can slice an entire lemon into a spiral when pressed, and don't even get Richard started. He has way too much time on his hands." She took a sip of her drink and set it aside. "Freedom City's definitely a good place to get hero training," she commented, leaning easily against the counter. "That's why we moved here, for the kids to go to school. Have you been able to meet some people who can help you?" 

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"Eh, not really. Making it up as I go." She swirled her drink with her straw, studying it apprehensively. "Learn by doing, right? If there was a correspondence course for photokinesis, I'd sign up. But hell, I don't even know where the hell you guys get your costumes." She sniffed the soda carefully. All seemed well. Unable to put it off any longer, she took a sip.

It burned like acid. Her tongue felt like it was getting holes eaten through it. She gagged and half-coughed, half-swallowed, spluttering. For a moment panic seized her, before she suddenly remembered. Oh. Right. That's what the bubbles feel like.

Now that she knew her mouth wasn't dissolving, the taste began to register. She hadn't tasted anything in almost a year. Sweet and spicy and cold all at once, it seemed to flood her entire consciousness, nearly overwhelming her senses. It was so strong tears sprang to her eyes. Jesus, who needs drugs when you have taste buds?

She straightened up, trying to regain her composure as if nothing had happened, making sure not to spill any of the precious liquid. "So, you said you mentioned a Holly - that's your daughter?" she wheezed. "Does she have...abilities too?"

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Paige had stepped forward uncertainly when Starlight began choking on her drink, looking uncertain as to whether she should pat the younger heroine on the back or offer to call 911. "Sorry about that," she offered when Starlight had regained breath and composure, "it's craft-bottled, it might be a little more gingery than what you're used to. Would you like something different? Or maybe a snack?" She gestured to the fruit bowl on the counter, and the bowl of Chex mix next to it. "And yes, Holly's our little girl, she's ten now. She's a telepath like me, though I think she has more of a knack for it than I did for a very long time. She's on the phone with her best friend across the street, the one who can't stop getting grounded." Paige's smile was slightly rueful. "That one's all fae illusions and emotion control, but we're hoping the attitude is just a phase. I guess kids will be kids." 

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As if summoned (and maybe she had been, given all the telepathy floating around the house), Holly Cline came running down the stairs and down into the kitchen. She wasn't nearly as fast as her dad, but she'd evidently inherited a little bit of the other family knack. Her long, pony-tailed brown hair and big blue eyes suggested someone who was going to grow up to be very pretty - as it was, she had the slight gawkiness of a child who'd recently hit a growth spurt. "Hi," she said cautiously, giving Starlight a little wave. "I'm Holly." She looked at her mother and said "Mom, I'm done with my homework," with the air of a veteran of a brushfire war come home to face a public uncaring of her sacrifice. "What's Dad making for supper?" 

"Just in time!" called Richard from the window. "Holly, run and get me the vegetables, I need my shiskabob helper out here!" With a great sigh, and noticeably more slowly than she'd come downstairs, Holly began gathering the supplies she needed to go help her dad outside, much to her father's impatience as he started zipping around on the lawn outside, fussing over his sizzling grill. 

Edited by Avenger Assembled
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When the kid appeared, Starlight had gone very, very still, the drink gripped so tightly in her hand her knuckles were white. As Holly left, Starlight let out a long, thin breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. She realized Paige was looking at her, and she ducked her head quickly. "I'm fine. Fine. Little ginger ale just went down the wrong way." She thumped her chest and coughed unconvincingly, still not meeting her eyes.

Just for that briefest of moments, she hadn't seen the brown-eyed little girl. She'd seen the tiny boy with the wide, scared eyes. Grey, like hers. Clinging to the side of the door like he wanted to hide behind it. Staring at her like she was a bomb that might go off at any second. An angry red mark on his cheek, the shape of the handprint plainly visible against his pale skin.

She set her drink down the counter and turned away from it. Her mouth was dry. "I'm fine."

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Paige's eyes were full of compassion as she regarded Starlight, but her voice when she spoke was carefully neutral. "All right, but if you need anything, just say the word." She turned away to check on the potato casserole in the oven, giving her guest another minute to pull herself back together after the unexpected sucker punch that was Holly Cline. "Photokinesis, then?" she asked, pulling the pan of cheesy potato goodness out to bubble invitingly on the counter. "That's a rare one, I haven't seen too many folks with power like that since Beacon hung up the cape and tights. Do you find it's tricky to manage, or is it all instinct?" 

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"Instinct, mostly," Starlight replied quickly, seizing onto the new topic like a life preserver. "Not a lot to it. The lasers are pretty much just point and shoot. Everything else more or less takes care of itself. I've heard of other capes with similar powers pulling off way more complicated s--t, illusions and stuff, but if I can do that I haven't figured out how yet. Most I do is turn invisible, if I'm feeling sneaky." She kept talking, uncharacteristically fast. "What about you? I know Richard has time control, which sounds a hell of a lot trickier than what I do, but you're some kind of telepath, right? How does that work?" An unpleasant thought struck her. You're not in my head right now, are you? Hello? You do not have permission, okay?

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Paige studied Starlight's face, but did not respond to the unspoken words. She seemed momentarily surprised by the change in attitude, but it didn't take her long to figure it out. "Oh. Yes, I am a telepath, no, I do not read thoughts out of people's heads as a matter of course or against their will." Her voice was just slightly insulted, but it was obvious she'd faced this situation before. "One of the first and most important skills a telepath learns is how to create mental shields to protect themselves against the thoughts of everyone around them. Trying to listen to everything, all the time, that would quickly drive anybody crazy. Strong emotions tend to press on me, they're easy to feel whether I want to or not, and sometimes extremely loud thoughts can intrude, but that's rare. Holly is more sensitive because she's still learning control. We've had to install special baffles in her room to let her sleep at night without wandering through the dreams of strangers. I also have very minor telekinesis and extra-sensory perception, and a touch of clairvoyance that's hard to pin down." 

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