Lena looks up at a knock on her window.
Kara can see her through it, obviously, so Lena doesn’t bother to re-do her ponytail or throw on a cover-up, and pads out onto the balcony barefoot. She’ll pull a power move out of sweatpants and a tank top if she has to. “Supergirl. What an unexpected pleasure.”
It’s been almost two weeks since they last saw each other, in the basement of the DEO. Kara hasn’t tried to contact her in any way, which made Lena only angrier and less available, refusing to be the one to blink first.
She might have reconsidered if she’d known Kara would resort to this. Seeing the familiar red and blue suit on her balcony isn’t so bad, but her face-cloaking tech is also activated.
And fuck that.
Supergirl raises her chin. If she was in a better mood, Lena would offer to schedule her some time with Lena’s Krav Maga instructor – being all but physically invulnerable is no excuse to give your opponent such a clear striking point. “I, um.” She clears her throat. “I won’t bother you for long. I just wanted to return this.”
She holds out a paper bag with waxed handles, the shop’s logo a discrete filagree in the corner. Lena doesn’t recognize it on sight, she’s busy wondering how the hell Supergirl sped across the city without wind resistance ripping it to shreds, and then it clicks.
“The clothes were a gift.” Her jaw is stiff with the effort to keep her tone even.
“I know, but I, uh. I can’t accept it.” She starts off strong, meeting Lena’s eyes, but ends up directing her gaze downward and tucking her hair behind her ear.
Fuck. Fuck, Lena hates her. No, it couldn’t have been this obvious, before. Lena was duped and she owns it, but she is actually capable of observation and evaluation – the similarity of mannerism wasn’t this strong previously. Couldn’t have been. Kara must have put on a persona: strong and unwavering Supergirl, untouched by the everyday self-doubts and anxieties of mere mortals.
… she hadn’t been like that without her memories.
But she hadn’t been quite like this, either. This is the Kara that Lena knows from the past months of… well, of full-throttle infatuation, she’s not proud. Softness, yes, and sweetness, but with that hint of steel whenever you push up against a boundary. Huh – she supposes that’s what the Supergirl mode is, really, just an inversion: a show of steel, hidden softness. Thesis and antithesis. And how she’d been with amnesia – or partial – was that the synthesis? That carelessness and openness – that had to be an essential part of Kara, too, didn’t it?
Lena wonders how many multitudes Kara holds.
She wonders if Kara even knows herself.
As Lena remains silent, Kara grows more and more visibly nervous. She takes a half-step forward, places the bag on the ground between them, shuffles back.
Lena looks down at the bag of clothes. “You can’t accept it,” she repeats.
“Well, I…” Supergirl swallows. “I don’t – you shouldn’t have had to – I’d return them myself, but you put them on your card. So I figured you’d work something out, if I. Brought them back.”
“You wanted to spare me the loss on several days’ worth of ready-to-wear clothing?” Lena brings her eyes back up to meet Kara’s. The alien has the grace to flush.
Kara knows exactly how much money Lena has. Makes. Has made, since stepping out onto the balcony. Probably enough to buy out the boutique owner’s entire business, plus start-up costs. Lena could buy up whole swathes of Zürich before going into debt.
No, this is because she doesn’t want to be indebted to Lena.
An impulse rises up, hot and huge. It’s odd, but not totally unfamiliar, and Lena feels around the edges of it until she figures out: it’s the urge to throw a tantrum.
She’s surprised at herself. She hasn’t had one of those since she was five years old – after long months in Lillian Luthor’s household taught her how badly they could backfire.
Well, Lillian isn’t here, is she? And this is Lena’s home.
“Fine.” Lena scoops up the bag. Takes a few swift steps away and over to the low ledge surrounding the perimeter of the balcony.
Kara reacts faster that thought: “What are you –” But her hands go around Lena’s waist, anchoring, which leaves Lena free to reach into the bag, grab a handful of expensive blouse, and fling it straight over the balcony and into the air.
Kara makes a sound that might have been an intelligible word, in a past life (oh, Lena is going to make it her mission to learn Kryptonian so fast, now) and lets go of Lena’s waist, zipping off. Lena ignores the lingering awareness of pressure just above her hip bones, and reaches deeper into the bag.
She’s unearthed a few more articles and tossed them overboard before Kara, plucking another blouse out of the air, rises back up to the level of the balcony. “What are you doing?” she demands, with a tone that speaks of exasperation and frustration and yes, more than a little hurt.
Good, Lena thinks: equal footing.
Or as close as they’re going to get while one of them remains airborne.
“What does it look like?” Lena throws out a pair of pants. Kara has to duck out of their way before remembering to dive for them. “These places don’t take returns, and you don’t see me wearing this, do you?” – as she holds up a light cashmere sweater between her fingertips. There’s nothing wrong with it. But it’d positively hang off Lena’s shoulders. Stupid arms, Lena thinks, and tosses the sweater with more force than required to clear the railing.
“You could – Lena, stop – you could donate them somewhere!”
“Oh, of course. I can just walk into any consignment shop and drop off the clothes of a woman who obviously isn’t myself?” Lena flings socks this time, and Kara nearly drops what’s in her arms trying to catch them. “That won’t attract attention. That won’t get written up as a blind item. The gossip columnists don’t track my activities, or those of my assistants, on the regular.” She tosses another pair of socks into the air before catching them again, considering. “This way there’s still a chance these items can find a forever home.”
“And this won’t get attention?” Kara asks, juggling her retrieved bounty. Some of those fabrics look very slippery. “Clothing raining down from the offices of L-Corp?”
“Lots of people work here, Supergirl. I can’t be held responsible for what they get up to during lunch hour.”
She can actually see the moment Kara snaps. The alien abandons all pretense and dumps the clothing in her arms onto the tiles of Lena’s balcony and lands there herself a second later, stalking forward.
“Stop,” she demands, which wouldn’t be a tenth of what’s needed to deter Lena from any determined course of action, except Kara then grabs at her, caging Lena’s wrists with her fingers. The bag is jostled from her grip, and Lena is forced to face her head-on.
She hates it. It doesn’t hurt – Kara keeps her fingers in a loose circle, doesn’t squeeze down – but it’s amazing, the rage it inspires to be pinned down and held in place by – looking like –
“If you don’t turn that damn face thing off,” she says, quietly, but with an edge of something wild she knows Kara can hear, “I will scream until someone hears me.”
Kara flinches. “I’m so–” She bites off whatever she was going to say and looks away. “I can’t,” she says finally, and Lena can feel the scream rising up. “Not when I’m wearing this,” she amends.
Lena lets her eyes fall shut and breathes until she can do this without hysteria. “You really think I don’t own any nearby building with a direct line of sight to where I live? Or have taken security measures against any space where you could aim a telephoto lens, or a rifle scope, in this direction?” She opens her eyes to find Kara looking atypically inscrutable. “No one’s going to see you up here.”
Slowly, slowly, eyes never leaving Lena’s face, Kara relaxes the grip of one hand and reaches behind her ear.
Her face – her real face – is an immediate relief to Lena. She hadn’t even taken stock of the nausea that was building in her gut up until this moment. It’s odd – if she could have even begun to guess at this labyrinthine deception, she would have thought it’d be the other way around: that the Supergirl persona would be a relief in opposition to the sight of Kara in the uniform, Kara’s face above the iconic red-blue-yellow. Instead, it calms her.
(Well, as calm as she gets with one wrist still contained in a superpowered hold, looking at the curve of muscle visible in the arm containing it. She really hates being this predictable.)
She’s not going to thank her for turning off the cloaking device, though. Or for trusting Lena about the lack of exposure.
They’re not there yet.
Which is why she has to give her hand a little shake, reminding Kara it’s still in her grip.
“Oh. I’m sorry, I – right.” Kara releases her, and if her fingertips linger to brush over the skin of Lena’s inner wrist… well, Lena used to let a lot of touches linger. If Kara developed a habit, maybe Lena’s to blame.
It’s awful, she realizes suddenly, the way they stare at each other now: awkward, defenseless. Silent.
She and Kara used to be so easy.
“I’d still feel more comfortable if we could go inside,” Kara says after a minute. Her voice is soft, but the rigidity of her shoulders betrays the strength of feeling behind it.
“I’d feel a lot more comfortable,” and apparently Lena is not done with her tantrum, “if I’d known exactly who I was allowing inside – into my home, my office, my life – for these past months.”
“That’s not fair,” Kara says. She whispers it, ducking her head a little.
You made her sad, a part of Lena wails, and she slashes its throat before kicking its useless corpse into the darker depths of her brain.
“Isn’t it?” she bites out. “We’ve just gone over the kinds of precautions I take, for my own safety, for the safety of those that depend on me, in every possible way. You didn’t think I’d want to know this? It never crossed your mind, somehow, that I would want to factor it in to the equation?”
“You mean that I’m an alien,” Kara says, head coming back up. Her eyes glitter, but if Lena doesn’t look directly at them she can pretend it’s with anger instead of tears. “It’s not just about being Supergirl.”
Lena’s lips are already curling in a sneer, but Kara shakes her head. “Don’t,” she says in a forbidding tone. “Don’t pretend it doesn’t change things.”
What things, Lena wants to scream, wants to demand specifics, wants to drag Kara by the scruff of her neck back into her apartment like it’s the scene of a crime and show her how it feels to be pushed up against a fridge and then ignored.
At the same time she wants… whatever is the exact opposite of that, whatever entails they never acknowledge that night, that kiss. That Lena even has a kitchen. There’s a fleck of fear in her soul that grows with every passing minute Kara is here, being honest, and they talk about this. She never really thought she’d been holding out hope – Kara’d never done anything, and then there’d been the boyfriend. But apparently there’s enough of a difference between knowing it’s hopeless, and Kara telling her it is – she’s not sure how, maybe I like women, but not you when I know who I am or even Krypton doesn’t have hang-ups about sexuality but let me tell you what a decade and a half of assimilation can do – to fill her with dread at the very idea. She’s not sure they’re up to discussing that, or when they will be, but Lena suddenly wants to find another door to put her back against.
“The first time we met, Lena,” Kara says, sounding oh, so tired, “you wanted to test for my humanity. Don’t pretend it doesn’t matter to know I don’t have it.”
Lena licks her lips. “That was... ages ago.” And, if she’s being candid with herself, she was mostly, um, flirting. Usually the press responds well to Lena flexing the newest Luthor tech. But she sees Kara’s point. “And even so, haven’t I proved myself since then? Haven’t I shown I’m not some kind of isolationist bigot?”
“Yes, but I wasn’t going to – Lena, what did you expect? You were… you were a stranger, and not exactly welcoming to alien integration, and…”
“And a Luthor,” Lena finishes for her. She swallows, and feels like she’s swallowing a stone: the weight of it settle in her gut. The every-present burden, the legacy, the goddamned name.
“It didn’t stop you from becoming my friend,” Kara says quietly. She’s standing straight now, if not tall, meeting Lena’s gaze. “It didn’t stop me from seeing who you really were. I just…” She draws a sharp breath. “It isn’t only my secret. And I. I couldn’t trust you. At first.”
“Okay.” Lena can accept that. She can accept without liking. She’s had plenty of practice. “And then?”
“And then I wanted to protect you,” Kara says, the words pouring out of her like she’s been keeping them at bay since her feet hit the balcony. “You don’t even know – Lena, people have been hurt, they’ve been tortured, and you’re already in so much danger. And I…”
“And you?” Lena has to prompt. She watches Kara’s hands curl into fists.
“I knew it would be like this,” Kara says, her voice cracking. “I knew how much it would hurt you, once I… I just couldn’t do it. I’m sorry, Lena, I know this is awful, and everything’s gone wrong. But I couldn’t hurt you like that. I still think I made the right choice.”
“Do you,” Lena says dully. There’s a roar of white noise in her ears, but not enough to drown out the echo of If he was a good man he would have told you the truth. “Do you know what I find funny? That to date, the person who holds the record for going the longest without lying about their fundamental relationship to me is still Lex.”
Again, Kara flinches. Lena tells herself she doesn’t care.
She burned the nutcracker the day Lillian told her about her true parentage. She’d kept it all those years – a reminder of that evening, the only memory of being alone in her father’s company for any meaningful stretch of time. She’d known she’d end up regretting it the moment she saw the paint start to bubble, watched the wispy cotton beard go up in a blaze from where she had the toy suspended over a bunsen burner in her home lab. But she hadn’t been able to stop herself. She’d wanted – needed – to destroy it, to rebuke the sheer helplessness of the betrayal. She’d watched the nutcracker turn to smoky ashes with dry eyes, and she didn’t need any of those fired therapists to decode the message she was transmitting to the uncaring universe: you can’t hurt me more than I can hurt myself.
Lena closes her eyes, struggling to breathe evenly. The universe is calling her bluff.
“Do you remember when you started thinking of me as your friend?” she asks.
She has her eyes closed, but she can imagine Kara’s slow blink accompanying her hesitation. “Not – not the exact moment.”
“But you remember when I stopped being just another Luthor.”
Lena, feeling ready to look Kara in the eyes, opens hers. “That was when you hurt me. Not when I found out you were Supergirl. Back then.”
Kara frowns. “I’m – I’m sorry, Lena, I don’t understand. I’m trying to, but…”
Lena pulls in a deep breath. She knows Kara’s trying. She’s trying, too, even if this feels like removing her armor, piece by excruciating piece, to reveal were she’s weak. Basically begging to be wounded.
But every time her eyes snag on the the empty space on her shelves where she used to keep the nutcracker it’s like taking a punch to the gut.
She can hurt herself worse than anyone else. She’s proven that. She can burn dolls, and bridges. She can cut herself free of any emotional snares and leave her heart bleeding. And that all might feel better, smarter, in the moment: she’s hurting, but at least she’s in control of it.
She’s so tired of hurting, though. Of loss, and retaliation, and… Kara’s not the only one who’s exhausted in this moment.
She has no idea how it might work – she’s never tried to make this work – but maybe there’s an option where if she gives up a little control, a little certainty, she can get the chance to hurt less in return.
Maybe she can find a way to trust that others also want her to stop hurting.
… which is hard, it’s a hard thought to encompass – if that’s what they wanted, why is it happening anyway? – but if there’s anyone she can believe it of… if there’s anyone who’s worth the risk of trying…
“You weren’t protecting me,” she tells Kara, and tells herself to stop trembling. “You were protecting yourself.”
She can see how much Kara wants to protest that. But as she watches Kara restrains herself and tilts her head down – a wordless I’m listening.
It makes Lena breathe a little easier, makes the next bit come smoother: “You hurt me when you decided I was good enough to be your friend, but not enough to trust with your secret. When you decided to let me take risks without knowing exactly what was at stake and who I was really fighting for. I didn’t feel hurt, yet, but you put it in motion. That was when it became inevitable.”
Kara ducks her head even farther. “Okay,” she says, voice hoarse. “I see that. But I… Lena, I promise I thought I was doing it for you. Not to protect myself.”
“Maybe you didn’t think of it that way.” She catches herself. “I know you didn’t think of it like that. But you had to know I would find out some day. And you avoided responsibility for it – when and how it happened. You let it happen.” The words spill out of her, hot and unguarded. She crosses her arms over her stomach, as if that will help keep them in. “You didn’t protect me.”
Slowly, slowly, Kara lets her eyes fall shut.
Lena braces herself.
“You’re right,” Kara says. “I’m sorry.”
Lena’s mouth opens, but nothing comes out. All she had left were more arguments, more pleading for her perspective. Without the need for them, she’s left feeling lightheaded.
“I didn’t realize what I was doing,” Kara continues. It sounds thoughtful instead of defensive, so Lena bites her lip and listens. “I just thought…” She swallows. “I was being selfish,” she finishes.
Hesitantly, Kara raises her eyes.
“Tell me what you thought.”
Kara’s mouth twists. Just a bit, but it’s the most cynical Lena’s ever seen her look. “I’ve had to give up a lot. That’s no one’s fault, I know, but…” Her expression softens into something more wistful. “On some level I guess I was thinking: for once, this whole thing, it works in my favor. I can be Supergirl. AndI can be Lena Luthor’s friend. I don’t have to choose, or give anything up – I can have both. I can have everything.” She shakes her head, once. “I’m sorry.”
Oh. Oh, that… doesn’t fix this. It doesn’t heal all of Lena’s hurt.
But it makes a lot of sense. It turns the bald fact of Kara lying to her over and over, in so many ways, into something that fits into her basic understanding of Kara – an understanding Lena was beginning to worry was fundamentally flawed.
It gives Lena her friend back.
“And I know what you’re going to say,” Kara says, “that I could still have all that if I’d told you – before – but I didn’t want to take the chance. That’s on me, I know, I just… if you already have everything you want, it’s hard to risk losing it.”
“Was it really everything, though?” Lena is careful to keep any kind of accusation out of her tone. “You… I wouldn’t think you enjoyed lying to me.”
“I hated it,” Kara bursts out. She turns her head away so they can both pretend she isn’t crying, and the rough way she wipes her arm over her face makes Lena’s heart clench. “I know that doesn’t mean as much as the truth. But it was really awful.”
“I think that might be a general problem with having ‘everything,’” Lena says. “There’s always a price. And the more you think you can escape that, the more people end up paying it, in the end.”
Kara’s face is mottled and still damp when she looks back. “Lena. I’m so sorry.”
“No, it’s –” Unthinking, she reaches out. She remembers herself right before she touches Kara, but thinks, fuck it, and allows her hand to rest on the other woman’s wrist. Kara freezes in place. “You don’t have to keep saying it. I accept your apology.”
Kara looks as if she might say something, but presses her lips together and nods, instead.
“And we’re still friends,” Lena says. She squeezes Kara’s wrist gently. “If you want to be.”
Kara nods again, this time almost comically fast. She’s sniffing a little when she turns her hand over to grab Lena’s, holding on hard.
Lena just offers the other hand, and Kara grabs it in a blur. The motion makes the corner of her cape kick up, and a curious breeze lifts it farther in a gentle wave.
It’s a moment, the kind she can feel as it’s happening – solid, weighted, a known cornerstone even with the benefit of knowing what’s to come. Even the city has fallen into a bit of a hush, it feels, as Kara smiles at her wearing Supergirl’s suit.
And it’s the moment Lena realizes she’s a giant fucking hypocrite.
Because she’s not going to risk this. Not for the sake of her own, stupid heart, anyway. She’s not going to ask about the kiss, and she’s sure as hell not going to come clean about her own secrets in regard to their friendship.
It’s not the same, Luthor pragmatism whispers. This secret isn’t practical, this is emotional.
And, sure. She tried to make it rain designer sweaters over National City because she felt betrayed on a practical level.
“Listen,” Kara whispers. Her grip tightens that millimeter in circumference and Lena finally can’t hold in a wince. Kara’s fingers immediately slacken, and she rubs her thumbs softly, almost caressingly, over the backs of Lena’s. She doesn’t let go, though. Her look of apology is potent enough to make Lena feel almost drunk. You’d think no one had ever forgiven Kara before, her expression was… “besotted” is a stupid word, but –
“I know this doesn’t – that we aren’t… back, yet,” Kara says slowly, and Lena tells herself to focus. “I know it’s going to be an adjustment. It always is.” The absolute lack of self-pity in that statement is enough to make Lena swallow any resentment that there have been enough incidences to create a data spread. So to speak. “But listen, I… this is so important to me, Lena, I can’t even put it into words,” she says softly. “I can’t lose you. I know I screwed up, but please: I need you to tell me if you think I’m doing it again – if I’m making excuses, or being selfish. Please, don’t worry about me. Be honest.”
Lena has to curl her fingers to keep from reaching out and touching her face, wearing that darling look of determination. Her whole body aches with the desire.
She can tell her. She can give Kara the honesty she wants.
She pulls her hands out of Kara’s and takes the slightest half-step back, ignoring the flicker in Kara’s eyes.
She can, but… she won’t. Not today. They both need to retreat, regroup, and lick their wounds. They both need time – Kara to process her own actions, and Lena to try and loosen her white-knuckled grip on her survival instincts.
It can wait.
Or, that’s what she tells herself as they say their goodbyes, Kara explaining she’s supposed to be on patrol, anyway, and only took a few moments she didn’t think the DEO would notice to stop by Lena’s. Or that had been the plan. Lena guesses the cloaking device must also include some sort of rudimentary communication link, because as soon as Kara switches it back on she blanches. “Uh,” she says, with the look of someone about to be grounded, “they noticed.”
“Why didn’t it work that way in Zürich?” Lena asks, just to mess with Supergirl as she edges for the balcony. She knows Kara’s too polite to leave mid-conversation.
“Out of range,” Kara says – no, Lena really does prefer thinking of her as Supergirl with her face like that. “The device isn’t large enough to transmit or receive beyond city limits. I, um…” She gestures, a little desperately.
“Go,” Lena says as she holds back a smile.
Supergirl actually manages to turn fully away from her, before turning back. “Okay, maybe this is asking for too much, but –”
It takes three strides for Lena to cross the space between them, and throwing her arms around Supergirl’s shoulders feels… easy.
“Thank you,” Supergirl whispers.
Lena holds onto the hug for a few more seconds. If she closes her eyes and breathes in, there’s absolutely no confusion it’s the girl she loves in her arms.
But it can wait.
Just a little longer.
Kara’s right, they aren’t the same as they were. Well, Lena isn’t sure what it might look like from Kara’s end, but she knows her own: self-doubt where there used to be certainty and second-guessing when she used to run on instinct. She doesn’t like to dwell on the number of times she picks up her phone to call or text only to stare at the lock screen, feeling the edge of another precipice under her feet.
It doesn’t help they’re both busy. Or maybe that does help? They can hide behind the safety of their obligations, sending tentative texts and connecting briefly on the phone when they can. It’s not like that time she "borrowed" Kara from CatCo to put together a puff piece on L-corp's charity outreach -- or The Week of Three-Hour Lunch Dates, as she’s heard Kara refer to it wistfully -- but with every exchange Lena walks away feeling… lighter. Warmer. As if she’d endured an avalanche and now has stable ground beneath her feet.
It’s not everything, but it’s a start.
Then Lex escapes from prison.
He’s caught, and phenomenally fast. Lena only has a few hours between receiving notice – she has six prison employees letting her know Lex’s every move, and it still takes them until mid-afternoon to get her the message that he missed morning bed check, which means she’s bribing the wrong people – before the breaking news bulletins that the Luthor scion was discovered, and detained, within National City limits.
“You have to wonder what he was thinking, coming to one of the nearest cities with a metahuman,” the broadcaster says to her co-host. Lena listens with her eyes shut, one hand on her chest as she feels her heart rate decline to a normal rate. “Why didn’t he head for the border and regroup abroad? Why here?”
To see her, of course. Lena didn’t spend those scant hours going over panic room procedure with her security detail for fun.
She’s whipping out the card Henshaw gave her before they cut to the talking heads.
“I want to see him,” she says when he picks up. “I know you’re holding him overnight before transport back to Stryker Island. This is my favor.”
He gives a long sigh on the other end of the line. “Ms. Luthor –”
“I’m calling it in.”
The silence extends until she wonders if he’s hung up. “A car will be by to pick you up in twenty minutes.”
It’s not so much a car as a van, with tinted windows and what she suspects is bulletproof plating. When the door slides open, Alex Danvers is waiting for her inside.
“Henshaw has a sick sense of humor,” is all Lena says, once she’s seated and belted.
“I asked for this assignment.”
Lena looks at her. The seats wrap all around the edge of the interior, so while Lena is at the back, Alex is against the right ride of the vehicle. It’d be easy for her to turn and look Lena in the face, but she stares stoically ahead, instead.
“I don’t get it,” Lena says, as they start the drive. She has no idea who’s behind the wheel – the partition between them and the front seats is opaque and locked.
“My sister lives her own life, and she makes her own choices,” Alex says. Her arms are folded, her legs crossed. “It’s not always easy, but I accept that.”
“You mean her friendship with me."
“I accept that sometimes, we have different priorities,” Alex continues as if she hasn’t heard. “I wish she’d take fewer risks with her own safety. I wish she wouldn’t make friends with someone from a family with a generational history of attacking Supers. I definitely wish she’d taken a recent opportunity to cut that person out of her life completely.”
“See, this attitude is why I didn’t send you a Christmas present.”
Alex turns, finally, to face her, with a look of ‘nice try, but you can’t irritate me away from my point’ in her eyes. “But since I can’t sway Kara, I figure the next best thing, when I hear Lena Luthor wants to see her brother in detainment, is to come and ask her myself what the hell she’s doing.”
Lena shrugs and doesn’t look away. “He’s my brother.”
“And I have a right to know exactly who my sister is involving in her life.”
Lena can’t make a joke of it this time. “You think I’d allow him to hurt Kara?”
“You’re in her life. If he’s in yours, I don’t like the mathematical possibilities.”
Lena, very deliberately, does not roll her eyes. “He’s not in my life. He’s serving time in a maximum security facility. We don’t even write.”
“So why are you doing this?”
“Because I can.” Lena settles back in her seat. “He’s here, and he’s being held in secret by the DEO. If there was ever an opportunity to see him without putting myself, or my reputation, at risk, it’s now or never.”
“I’d vote never. He killed dozens of people –”
“I know that.”
“ – and given the opportunity, he’d do worse. He’s not just a bad guy, he is thebad guy.”
“I know that, too.”
“He doesn’t deserve your compassion,” Alex says, her voice diamond-hard. “And I don’t understand how you can give it.”
“Really.” Lena mirrors her body language, crossing her own arms and legs. “Big talk from someone whose sister threw Cat Grant off a balcony.” She watches Alex’s eyes widen, the agent momentarily speechless with anger. “What did Winn Schott say? A forty-story drop?”
“So Lex supposed to be a victim of red kryptonite, now?” Alex asks, tight and controlled.
“We’re not talking about my brother. We’re talking about Kara.” It’s amazing – Lena has been in mortal danger, oh, she’s lost count how many times. She’s been threatened by corporate billionaires, high-ranking government officials, and once, someone from black ops. It should take a more than an armed DEO agent with a certain look in her eye to make Lena feel like she’s taking her own life in her hands again. “What if you’d never found a counter-agent? What if she’d actually hurt someone before you had?”
“She wasn’t herself. That’s not the same as – that isn’t who she is.”
“How do you know? You grew up with her?” Lena keeps her questions rapid-fire, knowing she has to set Alex on her heels. “Please. A handful of years under the same roof, only six for her under your mother’s care until she went to college. That’s half the time she lived on Krypton, and those years were exponentially more formative according to any textbook on child psychology you can name. She was raised by strangers. By people you’ve never met, whose values you’ve never tested.”
“… I don’t see how this has anything to do with –”
“What if she turns out to share some of those values, in her heart of hearts, and they aren’t yours? What if she’s altered by something, and you can’t reach her? What if you can’t find a cure?”
Alex looks her right in the eyes. “I’d never let her hurt anyone else if I could prevent her. I’d never make excuses that put her safety above others.”
“Neither have I.” Lena catches her breath. “That’s not what I’m asking. I’m wondering what it takes before you stop loving her. How far she has to go before you abandon her completely. How bad does it have to be before the shame of being linked to them becomes more important than – than everything else?”
Alex doesn’t look away. She doesn’t answer, either. She doesn’t have to. As the silence lengthens, Lena can see it in her face.
Lena uncrosses her legs, lets her arms relax to her sides as she turns away to stare straight ahead. “He’s my brother, Alex.”
They don’t exchange another word for the rest of the journey.
There are no bars on the holding cell, just the near-translucent expanse of bonded plexiglass. She’s guessing this is where they usually hold human suspects; surely there have got to me more secure precautions for alien and magical beings, with force fields and energy depressors. They just don’t think her brother, a mere mortal, rates those precautions.
Lex is lying on a pillowless cot in the far corner when she enters, hands clasped under his head as he stares up at the ceiling. “Hello, Lena,” he says without looking over.
There’s a simple reason she doesn’t like to visit Lex: he doesn’t act crazy. It would be so much easier if he did. A little foaming at the mouth, even that unhinged look Lillian can get in her eyes, that’s all Lena asks. But no. No, Lex would share espresso doppios with her on a Sunday morning dressed in French tailoring and Italian loafers, laugh at her stories about college parties and professors, and – as she found out, much later – send orders on his phone that led to dozens of deaths in between questions about her thesis.
“Come to gloat?”
“No.” She’s pretty sure, anyway.
“Good. You have no grounds, from what I’ve seen of the quarterly reports.”
She feels like she should be surprised. She isn’t. “You get the Financial Times in maximum security?”
“It’s prison, Lena. An essential part of the capitalist machine, and if it weren’t for the bigger picture I would feel very much at home.” He looks over at her finally. His expression gives away nothing. “For the right price, I can get anything.”
Lena thinks about how John Corben crumpled to the pavement when she shot him. Right. “The FBI hasn’t given up the search for your hidden assets. They’ll find the source of your funds eventually.”
“They can try.” His lip curls, and she knows his contempt is for the petty mortals who follow the rules as handed down to them by unquestioned authorities, who dare to think they can clip his wings. Him, Lex Luthor, who challenges the laws of the universe every single day.
Or used to.
“Speaking of, you’re mistaken.” She can steady her voice and raise her head, here, she’s on much more solid ground. “The company pulled in record profits this period.”
His eyebrow quirks. “That’s not what you reported.”
“Leaving out crucial information on official papers is your thing, Lex, including the funds which used to be diverted into shell companies and filtered down to anti-alien terrorist groups. Now that those have been appropriately re-routed, we haven’t quite recouped what we lost with the investor exodus. But overall we’re up by six percent.”
He laughs. He laughs, and sits upright, bringing his ankle up to rest over the other knee, a pose so familiar from their mornings over breakfast Lena feels her throat close up. “So you found those. Clever girl.”
She has eighteen years of blind worship for her older brother behind her. Eighteen, and every single therapist tried to impress on her how long it takes to re-modify behaviors, especially those learned in childhood. The satisfied warmth that snakes around her heart, the immediate hunger for more – these things are not her fault.
“Are you sure you’re not here to lord it over me?” Lex continues. “Only it has been such a long time since your last visit.” He delicately brings his hand to his mouth in mock surprise. “Why, Lena, have you ever?”
“Do you know how close we came to going under when you were sentenced? Investors pulled out by the dozens. For three months you couldn’t give away our stock. The board attempted to exorcise me, claiming any Luthor in charge was just further damage. I worked eighteen-hour days to keep our legacy – Dad’s legacy – from being ground into the dirt by detractors and competitors. Did you think I'd take the chance of appearing sympathetic to you, in any way?” It isn’t like an afterthought, it is one – almost not worth noting compared to the anger she feels when listing the rest: “Also, you did try to have me killed.”
He holds her gaze for a breath and then shrugs, the barest hitch of his shoulders.
It was the same that day in court. He did act crazy throughout his court case – or crazy for Lex, anyway, rambling and disconnected, all his charisma bled away to nothing. When called on to testify his eyes never quite focused where they should, and sometimes his hands moved as if of their own accord: shaking, gripping, wandering. The sense of misalignment with reality was subtle, but there, and it bolstered his lawyers’ claims that at the time of the event, as they referred to it, Lex was not at full mental capacity. That he was suffering from alien-related post-traumatic stress: all the attacks of the last years, both internationally and very personal, had slowly undermined his reasoning to the point of not being able to appreciate his own actions. He wasn’t criminal, he needed counseling, and they urged the jury to find him not guilty by reason of insanity.
And Lena had thought: maybe. Maybe?
Had prayed it, perhaps.
Those same lawyers forbade her and Lillian from appearing in court throughout the trial, both in the hope that it might cultivate sympathy for Lex, and in fear of anything they might say in earshot of the press. (That last was really about Lillian, but Lena was willing to stay home as well if it helped keep their mother away from reporters.) Nothing would keep Lillian from her son’s side the day of sentencing, however. Lena had sat with her, staring at the back of Lex’s head, heart sinking into her stomach as she listened to the call-and-response of judge and jury – charge of first-degree murder in the death of Amy Qing, how do you find? We the jury find the defendant guilty. On the charge of first degree murder in the death of – Lex had turned to meet her eyes.
Had looked at her with stone-cold sanity, and shrugged.
She had cried hysterically for the rest of the day. Lillian, white-lipped, sent Lena back to her apartment and bid her “learn how to control yourself.” Lena was happy to go – Jack was waiting for her, was ready to take her in his arms and promise he would stay by her side, always, even though they’d both known what was coming. He’d tried to assuage her: no one would hurt Lex in prison, he was too public a figure, no one would stop her from seeing him. Lena hadn’t known how to explain it. She wasn’t crying because Lex was going to prison. She was crying because it felt like someone she loved had just died.
And that’s another reason she doesn’t visit Lex. She wants to cling to that image of him cycled endlessly on the news: raving and unknowable. She doesn’t want to look at the man with so much blood on his hands and see her brother.
“Why now?” Lex continues, as if he can trace the arc of her thoughts. “How have I earned this unprecedented pleasure? Or,” his eyebrow shoot up, “is it you who are being rewarded? Tell me, how does it feel to be a DEO lapdog?”
“Fantastic,” she says. “Like a summer camp for moral superiority. Every time we avoid the end of the world I get a new friendship bracelet.”
He gets to his feet in one, impossibly fluid motion, and the back Lena’s neck prickles. Lex used to train five days a week to her three, and she distinctly remembers how he started going every day once Superman revealed himself: intent on gaining yet more muscle, yet more control. Sometimes he went twice a day.
She should have known prison wouldn’t curtail his regimen.
He moves closer to the bonded glass. She refuses to retreat.
“This isn’t something to joke about," he says. This close she can see a scab of dried spirit gum along his would-be hairline, where he would have worn the wig. She wonders what they did with the rest of his disguise before dressing him in a pocketless coverall and paper slippers. She’s never seen him less than immaculate, except for… “You are the famed, unfettered Luthor. The only one they haven’t managed to smear or send into hiding. You are the only one of us, essentially,” his eyes bore into her, “who is free.”
She wants to say something like I’m the only one without homicidal tendencies; these facts aren’t unrelated, but he’s right. She has to stop treating this lightly. Lex isn’t.
“Lena,” he says, very softly, “I’m not Mom. I know what this family means to you.”
He should. He’d been there for all of it. Those business functions they were both dragged to in uncomfortable clothes, children forced into the attitudes of adults as they circled the room with their parents, where someone would inevitably ask which side of the family gave Lena her dark hair. “Lena is our adopted daughter,” Lillian would always answer, with a smile that could cut glass and the ghost of emphasis on the penultimate word, so slight Lena would lie awake those nights wondering if it’d been real. Lex only heard about the schoolyard fights, but he’d come home for the aftermath even after he’d moved out. If he hadn’t been there – if he’d left her alone with Lillian, drink in hand and a cool “why are you so bothered by the truth?” – she doesn’t know what would have happened.
Lex was the one who held her hand at those awful parties, even when his mother tried to pull him aside. Lex came home during college to tell her: “They bullied me, too. Even at boarding school. It’s just because Luthorcorp is going to buy out their parents’ companies – if not soon, then someday. They’re all going end up working for us and they know it. It has nothing to do with…” Lex was the one who ordered an emergency appointment with his tailor to alter her new school uniform, since the old one had been ripped and dirtied beyond repair.
Lex knows what she endured in order to carry the name.
Even the assassination attempt – someone else, someone like Alex, would never understand, but he hadn’t meant it. Or, hadn’t meant it to kill her. Not… intentionally. If she’d fallen into his traps, been stupid enough not to have precautions in place, that would have been her own fault. They had both been raised better.
No, Corben had been a message. A phone call with a ringtone only she could hear: too close, and too far. She’d gotten too closely involved with the Supers. She’d gone too far in claiming the company as her own. Even if she wouldn’t come see in in prison, Lex made sure he was being heard.
If Lex wanted her dead, she would be. She has no illusions. There are no alien powers protecting her, no mythic invulnerability to her skin. She’s alive, which means Lex still has a role for her to play in this drama.
Or, as people from other families might put it: he wants her help.
Part of her wants to give it.
She thinks part of her has been planning for it. Oh, she wasn’t… she hasn’t lied to anyone, or deliberately deceived them. She never had an actual agenda. But there is always a part of her – she can’t help it – that stands apart, and analyzes, and taken note, of… things. What she could use. If it ever came to – if she ever considered –
Being a real family again. The two of them, reunited, standing back to back as they face off against the world.
She wouldn’t even have to do anything just now. Or the next day, or the day after that, or… She doesn’t have to say anything. Lex will just know. Lena can walk out of here with her life cleaved beautifully in two. Lena Luthor: trusted confidant to Supergirl, sometime aid to the DEO, her family’s saving grace. Lena Luthor: still a Luthor, and recognized as such by the only person truly knows what that means.
It wouldn’t last. Lex would make his move, eventually, and bring the two halves into direct conflict. But who knows how long she could persuade him to hold off, how long she could maintain that delicate balance. And as long as she can do that, Lena will have achieved the impossible: she would have everything.
There’s always a price – her own words, with the breeze snapping the edge of a cape as they stand in the open air of her balcony. Less of a memory and more of a touchstone: the sight of Kara smiling while she wears –
If it’d only been Lena who would pay that price, she might have risked it. Maybe. Accepting things as they are is not her forte, and she might have been tempted to see how much of herself she could sacrifice to buy back someone she loved.
But not Kara. She would never trade on Kara, not in any part. Even when she’d been at her angriest, stunned and planning payback, she would have never…
Is this what declaring an allegiance is like? She thought it would have been harder. But now that she has all the relevant information… no, it’s not hard.
There’s a soft sensation in her chest, a looseness, as if she’s been clutching tightly to something and has finally, finally, let it go. “I do have a reason for coming to see you now.”
Lex narrows his eyes. “Didn’t you hear me, Lena? If you truly wish to be a Luthor –”
“I am one,” she breaks in. “That’s what I came to tell you. Lillian, um,” she draws in a ragged breath, her heart suddenly hammering away in her chest. “She told me the truth. I’m not – well, I am adopted, formally. But we have the same father.” It shouldn’t matter. Genetics don’t bring nearly as much to the table as shared experience – she might have fought to be seen as a Luthor, but she never felt she was anything other than Lex’s sister. Despite that, ever since she found out she’s wanted to tell him: “We’re blood as well as family.”
Because they are family – because she is his sister – she can see the second when what she says registers.
She can see exactly what he doesn’t feel.
“You knew,” she says in the next moment, before he has a chance to gather himself and treat her like she’s stupid.
Lex takes a long look at her – judging, weighing – before lifting his shoulders in that same, sickeningly familiar shrug.
“How did you know?” She feels… strange. Like her head is so empty, so light, it might disconnect from her body and disappear into the sky at any moment. “Did Lillian – no, she didn’t tell you.”
If Lillian had been aware that Lex knew the secret, she wouldn’t have stopped at ruining the memory of Lena’s father.
Lex is placid as he gazes at her on the other side of the glass. “I had suspicions.”
Lena laughs. She can’t help it, it flies out of her, fluttering and desperate.
“Not when we were younger,” Lex continues. “Our parents were a persuasive performance as a team. But once Lionel…” His eyes flicker. “He always preferred you.”
“He didn’t,” Lena says. Her father had only tried to make Lillian’s hatred bearable. If he’d actually preferred her – if he’d cared –
“He did.” Lex holds up a hand in a clear signal he doesn’t want to debate. “And if I suspected before, then working with Mom for a year left absolutely no doubt that she would rather bring down the company herself than entail any part of it to someone who wasn’t, in any way, a Luthor.” He drops his hand. “I ran some tests.”
Of course. Don’t talk to anyone, don’t talk to her, don’t tell your sister that her whole life might have been a lie –
He won’t understand her anger even if she voices it. It isn’t who they are.
“How did you collect my DNA without my knowing?” she asks instead, but before she’s finished the question she’s remembering the slide of porcelain between her lips and the bitter burn of espresso. All those mornings together must have given Lex any sample he required, and then some. She holds up her own hand to stop him from answering, closes her eyes and takes a moment to try and suppress the fine tremor running through her, threatening to shake her apart.
Lex had known, he’d known and he hadn’t –
“Why didn’t you tell me?” She can’t stop herself from asking. If this were a chess match – and of course it is – she’d be on the defensive, scrambling.
He tilts his head to the side. God, is that… pity? She doesn’t think she can endure that. “Lena. You know why.”
Because any information he had, and she didn’t, was a commodity. Armies could topple empires, gold could give you hearts and minds, but secrets: secrets were what kept the world spinning.
For half a second – less – Lena gives into an impulse she’s fought against her whole life, and wishes she’d been born into some other family.
She doesn’t want to look at him.
“This is why Mom is so hard on you, you know.”
Her head snaps up like it’s on a marrionette string.
“You’re brilliant,” he offers. “Always have been. I think we can agree that, on some level, you’re smarter than I am.”
It shouldn’t terrify her to hear him say that. To be faced with how flimsy a facade it was, all those lost chess games and careful disinterest in everything he claimed, and think: he knows.
“But I’ve never thought of you as competition,” he says. “Do you know why?” He smiles, not waiting for her to answer, or even react. “You make yourself weak.”
He leans forward – not far enough to touch the transparent barrier, not even enough to fog up its surface. Just enough make her freeze in place, tricked into believing he could close the distance.
“Some things are cliche because they’re true: you’re weak because you care.” Their eyes are the same pale shade. That used to make her feel much better than it does now. “You ask for approval, for connection, from those who will only ever weigh and find you wanting. It makes you hesitate. It means you hold back. You could have greatness, and instead you circumvent yourself, looking for permission.” He shakes his head slowly, almost sadly. “No one will give it, Lena. Not to the extent that will allow you to be truly great, the true allowance of your capabilities. They’re too afraid of being eclipsed.”
The thing is, he believes every word he says. He thinks he’s helping.
No wonder she has a hard time believing people might stop hurting her if she asks.
“You used to look to me, or Mom, and now… the city? Those aliens?” His upper lip tics in what might be the urge to sneer. “As if a Super would entertain you as an equal – entertain the idea. Oh, they enjoy the contrast. Their inimitable perfection set against our weakness, our frailty. And they do love a Luthor.” His voice grates low and awful in his throat: “I’m not surprised they allowed you to at the edge of their good graces even with my crimes. They can’t resist letting the world draw its own comparisons: our secrets and their self-sacrifice; our brand of power, and how their own so effortlessly overtakes it.” He’s quiet for a moment. “But I will bet every penny of those hidden assets you can’t look me in the eye and say they trust you. That they don’t make you fight for every inch they grant, and sweat blood to prove yourself with each new day. Can you.”
He’s… wrong. It’s not like that. Kara didn’t tell her because – she had her reasons, and anyway it’s different, now. Even if it took weeks for Kara to come back to her. Even with that thing with Alex, in the car. It’s different.
“Can you, Lena?”
She clenches her jaw to keep from begging him, stop. He’s making his way across the black and white board, taking her pieces one by one. Each loss a slice at her, until she either succumbs or bleeds out.
She is so, so tired of hurting.
Lena finds it in herself to meets his gaze and realizes: it goes beyond that.
She’s tired of losing.
“I look weak?” she asks. Carefully, so as not to agitate the buzz of molecules she swears she can feel in her skin, threatening to dissolve her into atoms. “I don’t wake up every morning in a jail cell.”
“I’m adaptable, Lena. I think we both know prison ultimately won’t cramp my style.”
“Sure. But what put you there in the first place?” She forces her own attitude of pity. “Cowardice.”
“You think so.” He rocks back on his heels, folding his arms. “I pit myself against one of the most powerful beings in the solar system, and that’s what you take from it?”
“The kids who pick fights on the playground are the ones losing somewhere else. You taught me that.”
“This isn’t a children’s game. Aliens are infiltrating this world secretly and steadily. And the poster children of the invasion amass goodwill on an international scale, all while hiding the most basic facts of their identities –”
“Maybe you’re right,” reckless, “maybe they are. But that’s not why you hate them. That’s not why the vendetta.” She forces herself to take a few deep, steadying breaths. “That’s not why you made the Lexosuits.”
“They need to be contained –”
“We have kryptonite for containment. The suit,” biting off each word, “was about beating them at arm-wrestling. It was pointless, prohibitively expensive, and it exposed you as a fraud. You weren’t being a scientist, then, or even a good businessman – you let them make you feel small. They are fundamentally different, and ultimately all you took from that was that you couldn’t beat them at their own biological advantages.”
He slams his fist against the barrier so hard she would’ve jumped if she hadn’t seen it coming. “They have to be stopped,” he grits out. “What they can do, what people see in what they do – don’t you know what’s happening? What’s said in those articles, and on the streets? They are being further deified with each passing day. They are not gods.”
“Neither are we. The difference between us, Lex, is that doesn’t terrify me.”
The only sign she’s scored a hit is in the slight dilation of his pupils. It’s enough.
Ever since Lillian’s bombshell Lena has wondered why her father waited. He had to have known she existed – he would have kept tabs on Lena’s mother even after the affair, to make sure she couldn’t use it against him. Why hadn’t he claimed Lena? She doesn’t believe Lillian’s version was the whole truth. Lillian might have been jealous, but that was nothing compared to the knowledge of Luthor genetics allowed to roam free. If Lillian had known about Lena, she would have been inside the ancestral mansion within the week. So why hadn’t Lionel told his wife? Why postpone the homecoming until there was no other alternative? Why had he waited?
The obvious, unwanted answer is that he hadn’t ever loved her. Even beyond the lies about her adoption – which she can almost understand – the wait was a very convincing argument that she’d been nothing more than a nuisance, an obligation. That her father, like Lex, was capable of living his lies with an energy and commitment most people can’t muster for the truth.
Looking at Lex now, she wonders.
Maybe – maybe – her father had seen the seeds of destruction in his firstborn son, the nurture and the nature of Lillian’s gleaming ambition. Maybe he’d realized a smart, and yes, sensitive child like Lex would draw the wrong conclusions from being raised up so high up and yet be expected to ascend even higher – the inevitable lack of worlds to conquer giving way to a long, merciless fall. That the roots of Luthor dysfunction ran too deep, and even Lionel’s best intentions would only yield more fruit of the poisonous tree.
What had Winn Schott said? A worldview, an ethos, shaped in the first three to four years of life.
Maybe her father had been trying to give her a fighting chance.
“I might be weak,” she tells Lex, “if knowing I’m flawed and looking elsewhere to make up what I lack is weak. If it means I’m asked to prove myself in the face of my mistakes, I can be weak. Even if it means forgiving others for not having faith in me, I can do that. It’s better than being afraid of anyone and anything that reminds me of what I’m not capable of achieving on my own.” She finishes, soft: “I’d rather be weak than a coward.”
The set to Lex’s mouth is one she hasn’t seen since the last time she placed his king in check. It’s been years.
She’d really hoped she’d feel better to see it again.
“You disappoint me, Lena.”
It’s Lillian’s phrase, but he doesn’t sound like their mother. He doesn’t even sound like the stranger she used to see in a three-piece suit, way back when Lex Luthor, genius billionaire was worshiped on the front page of every print publication in town. He sounds like Lex. The real Lex, the one who’d arrive at the main house at two in the morning with rain still beading over the thick wool of his overcoat, saying I heard you had some trouble at school like he’d only had to go down the block and not halfway around the world to come back to her.
That’s why it cuts so deep, enough that she laughs. She can’t help it: someone fucked up when they built humans to be capable of feeling so much pain. How useless. How laughable.
“Yeah?” She walks over and punches the button to let them know they’re finished here. “Imagine how I feel about you.”
She startles badly. She’s halfway back to the transport vehicle and looks over to have her vision fill with red-gold-blue. There’s a second of panic – no, not right now, she can’t – until she processes the voice that called out, the body in that suit.
“Superman.” It clicks into place. “You’re the one that caught him.”
He nods, watching her. “I’ll stay with him until he reaches Stryker’s Island. He’s not the only threat,” as he casts a look back at the DEO facility, “we can’t risk anyone trying to, well. Procure him.”
He holds himself in the air differently than Kara does. When Supergirl hovers there’s a sense of… balance, grace, an awareness of overall effort in holding herself both aloft and motionless. It’s slight, but it’s there.
Superman makes it look as easy as breathing. He’s artless – not careless, but it speaks to such long practice it’s become second nature. As if he feels he’s exactly where he belongs.
Lena wonders if Kara’s ever noticed the difference. She hopes not.
Maybe Kara doesn’t mind? Maybe the comparisons are easier, being constantly linked is easier, when you weren’t raised to compete.
“I overheard the two of you talking.” His eyes meet hers. “Are you alright?”
Is she alright. Lena can study Kryptonian until she dreams in it – she’s already tackling verb complements – but she and Superman are never going to have anything like a shared language. Is she alright.
She knows all about the Kents. This alien traveled light years to Earth and managed to find a family like that. By accident.
She doesn’t hate him anymore. But she’s never going to know how to talk to him.
“How did you catch him so fast?” she asks.
His smile is rueful, as if he understands why she didn’t answer his question. “I listened for his heartbeat. We used to spend so much time together, I can pick it out if I’m listening. I’m tracking it now, until he’s safely back in prison – that’s how I heard. I’m sorry.”
The laughter bubbles up in her again, edged as broken glass. “Doesn’t he need a heart, for that?” She slips her fingers over her mouth immediately after, pressing. Self-pity is a weakness. So is melodrama.
Superman opens his mouth and closes it, looking like…
As long as she didn’t have to face the one other person Lex had betrayed, she could pretend she didn’t understand how much he’d left her in ruins. It’s easier not to know yourself without a mirror.
She puts her hand down. “Thank you,” she says, and she means it. “For stopping him.”
Alex doesn’t try to make any kind of conversation on the ride back to L-Corp. Maybe Superman sent her a quick message. Maybe all the information Alex needed was the look on Lena’s face.
Either way, her silence is the type of kindnesses Lena rarely gets to experience, and she’s grateful.
She comes back to herself in the elevator to the penthouse. There are texts on her phone she doesn’t remember sending, alerting her assistants that she won’t be back to the office tonight and to cancel tomorrow’s meetings. She’s pulled Kara’s contact information up without hitting the call button.
Her thumb continues to hover as the elevator carries her upward.
She wants to. So badly. Part of her is certain just Kara’s presence would be like balm on the aching wound that is this entire day.
At the same time, she feels almost desperate to keep Kara away. As if there is a creeping, noxious taint to it all. More than her presence, Lena wants Kara to remain free of it.
Too late for Lena, of course. Way too late.
She places her phone in her pocket, lets her head fall back against the wall. Maybe it’s better this way. Even the break in their friendship – they’re on their way to repairing that, but it’s nothing Lena can’t derail. A little more coldness and distance with every future exchange, and Kara will begin to suspect Lena will never really forgive her, or never really accept her alien identity. She might even confront Lena about it, but Lena can play that part as well: all smiles and reassurances, lacking any real warmth. That might make Kara angry enough to break it off on her own.
… Lena will probably think better of it in the morning. She’s selfish, is the real problem. Too selfish to give Kara up for good, but also too selfish to risk being rejected for being… She’s always made sure their friendship was easy, at least as far as she could control it. Kara’s secret betrayed all that work on Lena’s part – no wonder she was so, so angry. Lena doesn’t have a separate identity, but there are parts of her Kara has never seen: her real anger, her ruthlessness, her obsession. All the mess where bad impulses and good tangle together in dark corners of her soul.
She needs time, then, if she’s going to face Kara with the kind of honesty they’re both now trying for. She doesn’t want to lose Kara, but she needs… she needs a backup plan. An approach strategy.
Anything, she thinks as the elevator dings its arrival at the penthouse, that makes her feel less out of control. So raw and exposed, so –
“Hey,” Kara says from her perch at the breakfast bar.
– caught off-guard.
Lena stares with her mouth open. She’s too surprised to be embarrassed.
“I broke in,” the other girl says. “I heard you went to go see… I heard what happened, and. Well, I figured if I asked whether you wanted some company, you’d lie. So… I broke in?”
Lena open and closes her mouth a few times before she can make it work. “I have eight different alarm systems installed on this place.”
“You do,” Kara says. She smiles, a little nervously. “Want to hear all the cool ways I disabled them? Listen,” before Lena can respond, “I brought takeout, and like, my entire DVD collection.” She gestures at a bag that’s stuffed to overflowing on the chair beside her before tucking her hair behind her ear. “So we can watch something without those internet news pop-ups you keep claiming you don’t know how to turn off.”
“It’s my job to be informed,” Lena murmurs.
“I set up alerts on my phone. I’ll let you know if someone sets L-Corp on fire.” Kara’s half-grin fades. “Lena, I don’t want to be… I can go if you want.”
No – stay.
And Lena caught somewhere between, helpless and uncertain.
“But only if that’s really what you want.” Kara hops down, standing firm with one hand on the chair back. “We can just eat and watch stuff. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. I just don’t want you to be alone. I mean, if you want to be alone, I’ll leave. But,” stumbling over her words, “if you’re worried about inconveniencing me, I’m already here? And I have to put all those alarm systems back online before I go. So really, you’d be doing me a favor to let me stay.”
There’s a tremble in the back of Lena’s knees like her legs might not hold her up for much longer. “Kara, I… I appreciate this. But I really don’t know if I can be a friend to you right now.” She swallows, dry-mouthed. “Or not a good one.”
That’s not her gift. She’s not like Kara, who yes, can lack perspective, fail to think things through and see the consequences of her actions – but who can check herself in the thick of it, who has enough self-control to stop when asked. She makes that look so easy.
Lena’s not sure if she can do the same, when things come down to it. She knows herself, she knows what a Luthor can do even to someone they love. She feels volatile, reactive, and who knows what element could make her spontaneously combust. What if she says something, or does something – what if it drives Kara way, what if Lena can’t find a way to coax her back –
“You don’t have to be.” Kara takes a step closer, and then another. “You don’t have to talk. Or even be nice to me.” She stops just short of entering Lena’s personal space. “You don’t have to act like you’re okay to make me feel better. I promise. And if you need time alone, then I want to give you that.” Her next words are very soft: “But please don’t send me away because you’re in pain, and you think that scares me.”
It’s the precipice again, the edge of it digging into Lena’s feet. But someone is hovering in the air over the drop, and holding out her hand.
“Can I stay?”
Lena squeezes her eyes shut, leaning forward in permission. Kara’s arms go around her. Lena can’t even bring herself to return the hug. She feels like if she moves too fast she’ll shiver into pieces. But she manages a nod where she’s pressed against Kara’s neck.
“You don’t have to be okay.” Kara tightens her hold. “Just be here with me.”
She falls asleep. When she wakes up all the lights are off except for the low flickering of the TV screen.
“Hey,” Kara says from the other end of the couch. She watches Lena sit up with a look in her eyes that Lena could almost imagine is... but she’s done kidding herself. Today was a hard bump in bringing herself back to earth, and she’s not going to risk another flight of fantasy, imposing on another person how much Lena wants them to --
It’s just the distorted light, its bluish cast giving a depth to Kara’s tenderness that Lena will only ever imagine in shadows when she asks: “How are you feeling?”
Lena takes stock. Not good, actually. Her whole body is sore, with a static-y feeling inside she knows is from hour three of their move marathon, when Lena just gave up, pressing her face into one of her couch pillows and crying. She probably ruined the damn thing, but that’s her fault for letting the interior designer upholster in a silk blend.
Kara has not budged from her end of the couch, during, and Lena had been grateful. She just felt so raw, scraped up one side and down the other. She couldn’t bear any closer proximity to another human being. Or someone who gave a convincing performance of one.
The tears had pulled the last resistance to sleep out of her. Just before she had drifted off, though, a gentle hand came down to rest on the top of her head. Lena doesn’t understand how Kara can know exactly what she can and can’t endure, does or does not need, in these moments. It doesn’t stop her from being grateful.
Case in point: she opens her mouth to ask for some water and Kara is already offering a bottle.
“Thanks.” It’s still cold from her fridge.
“Do you want me to go, now?” Kara asks after Lena’s taken a few deep swallows, her chest loosening with each.
“No.” Lena doesn’t even think about it. Maybe if she were in better shape, she could pretend better.
Kara just nods and settles back into the couch. She’s wrapped a blanket around Lena’s shoulders while she slept and thrown a second over them both, turning the curves of hips and bent knees into covered mountains between them.
Stop that, Lena tells herself sharply. You had a bad day, alright, but don’t wallow.
Don’t throw away a good thing just because it’s not everything you want.
“Do you want to talk?” Kara offers, tentative.
Lena thinks about it. “Not about Lex.” She feels like one of those sea creatures curled up tight in the darkness of its shell, nothing but eyes and pincers to the outside world.
“Okay.” Kara takes a deep breath. “Can I give you my apology?”
Pincers at the ready, eyestalks extending just that bit. “What for?”
“For not treating you like someone worth trusting.”
Lena massages at the headache building in her temples. “Didn’t we already do this?”
“I don’t think so? I apologized for lying, but not... this.” Kara directs her gaze at her lap and tangles her fingers together. “Maybe it’s not that important, in the end, but...” She takes a deep breath. “When Aex called to tell me what was happening, I was shocked to hear it from her, and not you. That hurt.”
Lena can’t have this fight right now. She just doesn’t have it in her to give any more. “So you’re apologizing because you want an apology in turn.”
“No!” Wide eyes, hands up in surrender. “That’s not -- oh, damn.” Kara palms her forehead, looking like she’s in pain. “I did that wrong,” she mumbles.
Well, to err is... human. Lena shifts so that she’s not so ensconced in her blankets and shakes a hand free, holding it out between them in neutral territory. Not expectant, but available. If wanted.
Kara takes it in hers, and she visibly calms down. “If we have a communication problem,” she starts again, “then I started it. You let me set the pace in almost everything, I know that. And I know this is a pattern I set, too. I just wanted to apologize for it. And ask what I’m still doing to make you think I’m still in that... mode.”
Lena watches Kara’s thumb sweep back and forth across her hand, soft and steady. “I could have just been preoccupied with seeing Lex again, Kara. It doesn’t have to be more than that.”
“Okay.” A brief squeeze. “Is it?”
Lena sighs. Now she can see why Lillian browbeat the urge to ask questions out of them as kids -- it makes it harder to lie. “Mostly.”
Another squeeze. “So, what did I do?”
“You didn’t --” Lena presses her lips together. “I trust you.”
“Yeah, of course you do. But you didn’t think I’d understand why you’d visit Lex.”
Back to the rhythmic caress. “Not really. But I... I was surprised when Alex freaked out. I knew it didn’t mean anything besides, you know. You wanted to see your brother.”
“I didn’t want you to tell me not to see him.” What she can’t say out loud is: she didn’t want to choose between them.
If a decision had been forced, in that moment? She’s not sure which way she would have gone. Even now.
“Lena,” unbearably soft. “What made you think I would ever..?”
“I didn’t want another excuse for you to cut yourself off from me.” Lena bites her lip; that slipped out.
Kara goes very still. “I... what?” she asks, carefully. “Another?”
Lena kneads her fingers deep into the blankets, twists them and grips so hard her wrists ache.
“Lena. I never tried to cut you out of my life. I never even thought about it. Not for a second.” She falls silent, as if waiting for Lena’s response, but Lena doesn’t feel like betraying any more than she already has. “Are you talking about when you found out, and I... I’m sorry about that, too.” Kara sighs and leans against the back of the couch. “This is not an excuse. But it was overwhelming, coming to in the basement of the DEO and realizing all these... these really important things had happened, and it was like I’d been asleep for all of it. I mean, it was me, I did all that, but it didn’t feel like me? It felt like someone else had made all these decisions for me, about things that I... I know I should have done those things on my own. Acted sooner. Talked to you.” Even quieter: “I should have talked to you about a lot of things.”
This doesn’t feel new, and Lena’s back against cold steel, her front pressed --
“I was ashamed, and angry, and I didn’t handle it well. But I thought you were going to reject me -- I was never going to cut you off.”
“You gave back the clothes,” Lena says, stiffly. Show no weakness, but facts are facts.
“I...” Kara blinks. “Because... you gave them to me when I... you know.” She gestures vaguely. “When you liked me.”
“When I liked you?”
“Yeah. When you didn’t think I was a liar and a terrible excuse for a friend.” Kara looks uncomfortable. “It’d be like taking advantage, if I kept them.”
Taking advantage of her. Lena has had people she previously trusted try to steal millions of dollars of stock, or potentially billion-dollar patents. Now her best friend gets squeamish over a gift -- a gift -- received with less than perfect transparency.
Forget Krypton: the middle-class values of small-town America are the true forces to be reckoned with.
“Also, it seemed like a good excuse to ask you to see me. Did you really think... Lena.” Kara sits up, reaches for her, and then hesitates. She slides off the couch instead, wriggling out from under the blanket and coming to kneel at the place on the carpet where Lena’s been mostly directing her gaze for the last ten minutes. “I want you in my life,” she says softly. “I can’t think of anything that would make me kick you out of it.”
A pit opens in Lena’s stomach. “Don’t be so sure.”
“Listen,” reaching for Lena’s hand, “this is our mistake. This is where we keep going wrong! We keep assuming things about the other person and, and keeping secrets. Your family is part of who you are, but not all of it. Stop acting like you’re a bomb that’s set to explode at any minute.”
But she is. She’s more like them than she ever imagined -- ever hoped to dream, growing up.
“And we both need to start coming to each other with this... stuff,” Kara says, steadying herself with a deep breath. “We need to be honest about the things that scare us.”
Yes. “I’ll start.”
Kara hesitates. “Oh. I mean, I... yeah, okay. Go ahead.”
Lena takes her hand away. “I’ve been using the labs at L-Corp to manufacture a secret store of kryptonite.”
It would have never worked, anyway -- telling Kara how she feels. That’s what she thinks, watching slow comprehension bloom over Kara’s face. The resulting flinch, like Lena had raised a hand to her. Maybe Lena’s as confused as the rest of her family about what love is, and how you’re supposed to treat the people you cherish.
She’s pretty sure you aren’t supposed to cause this kind of pain, if you love someone.
“W-what?” Kara asks, with a slight wobble to her mouth. Lena can tell she’s fighting the urge to recoil, curl in protectively. “Why?”
“Because it’s necessary.” It’s as if Lena is watching herself from a distance. She wants to feel panic, or desperation -- something that might indicate a remnant of hope this won’t end in disaster. She just feels empty. “You and your cousin are only governed by our laws because you allow it. Who will exercise authority over you if you decide you’re above them?”
Kara stands. “The DEO,” she says, her voice hard. “The -- the combined powers of the United States, Lena. Not some scientists at L-Corp.”
Not you. Not a Luthor.
Lena shrugs. “They don’t have kryptonite. But if they ever have a need...”
“There is no need,” Kara says, her hands curling into fists. “There will never --”
“Don’t you dare,” Lena says, cutting her eyes up at Kara, who looms over her. “Don’t ever make that kind of promise when you know you can’t keep it.”
“So what if someone breaks into your lab and takes it? What if it ends up in the hands of someone who wants to hurt us -- you want to take that chance?”
“Every scenario contains some amount of risk, Kara. Of course I never want to cause you harm.”
“Oh, sure, you’re just stockpiling the one thing that can.”
“Because someone has to,” Lena finally raises her voice. “Because no one else is preparing for the absolute worst case scenario. So I will. I’ll be the last defense between you and complete ruin, I’ll be the one who makes sure you never cross that line. And I don’t care if you hate me because of it. But don’t look me in the face and say you’ll never even come close. I trust you. You. But you and I know there are things out there that can make you into someone you’re not.”
The silence her words inspire is almost as startling as a shouted response, which Lena was expecting. Instead Kara just stares at her, breathing fast.
They stare at each other, and Lena thinks: I love this woman so much, it almost doesn’t matter that it means I’ll lose her.
“I know there’s no such thing as absolute certainty. Or complete safety,” Kara says quietly.
Yes, that’s true. But Kara lost a homeworld; her loved ones burned. She knows the universe is variable, and terrible, but to her the threats are external. She raises herself up and sets herself against any monster or machine that threatens her new world, her new loves. She makes herself a shield and promises: I will be your safety.
Lena is not afraid of dying planets, or random flaws in the fabric of the universe. She’s been kidnapped and shot at, but those memories don’t keep her up at night. Her nightmares -- when she has them -- are of the person who had once been her safety raving and covered in blood, or meeting her eyes in a courtroom with a look that lacked even the ghost of remorse. And now she can’t love anyone without knowing how badly it might one day hurt.
Without knowing her love alone can’t save them from themselves, and so makes preparations for everything, anything, that could.
She’s not sure she can tell Kara I love you enough to be your enemy, though. It might not make as much sense outside her head.
“I never want to use it,” she says instead. It’s ironic, but it’s harder to say things like this -- the plain, unvarnished truth -- than her usual half-truths and carefully edited admissions. Her throat thickens with emotion, and she has to force out the words. “Kara, even before I knew, I couldn’t imagine hurting you like that.”
“But you would. If you had to.” It sounds more thoughtful than accusatory. Kara sits back down, wrapping her arms around her knees and balancing her chin on top of them. Her profile doesn’t give Lena any hint on how to proceed.
“Of course I would.” With nothing else to go on, Lena is forced back, again, into honesty. “I... you can’t think I’d just stand back and... and watch, do you? If something went so horribly wrong that you needed someone to stop you from... whatever was out of your control to stop?”
The corner of Kara’s mouth quirks up. “You sure you don’t want to be the next person fitted for a hero suit? I’m sure James would be happy to show you the ropes, as a human, and Winn could help you with the specs --”
“Kara.” She has no idea what’s going on inside Kara’s head, but there’s something about her tone... She reaches out to put her hand on Kara’s arm before she can think better of it. The muscles bunch beneath her fingertips, but she doesn’t get shaken off, which she takes as a good sign. “This isn’t about... Listen, when I save the world, it’ll be from the inside of a lab. I’m not...” She’s hit with sudden insight -- improbable, laughable insight, but she ventures all the same: “I’m not saying you have to be contained, or, or watched. This isn’t because you’re an alien. Everyone has weaknesses, and every plan needs a fail safe. Or ten.” She squeezes Kara’s arm -- probably a little too hard, but she doesn’t think the other girl will complain. “I’m not saying you’re dangerous.”
For a long, long moment, Kara doesn’t respond. She doesn’t even twitch. Then:
“I could be,” she says, so softly Lena almost can’t hear it.
“Personality-altering radioactive rocks don’t count, Kara. Or magic,” she adds, just to be sure.
“I’ve done bad things without those excuses.” Kara swallows. “I’ve hurt people.”
“Yes, and your lack of remorse is terrifying.”
“Don’t joke. The things I’m capable of --”
“Everyone’s capable of harm. Being an alien doesn’t make you special.” Lena watches her shuttered expression for a minute. “Even if you make mistakes, I have faith in you to course-correct. The kryptonite is for when you can’t -- when you need something, someone, to bring you back to yourself. So that when you do, there’s enough to come back to.”
“What if when it happens, I don’t want to come back?” Kara asks, and Lena suddenly knows what’s behind the blankness: gripping, icy fear.
Kara turns her head -- just enough so she can look Lena in the eye. “What if I want to, but I can’t?” she whispers.
Lena sits upright, now gripping Kara’s arm with a force she knows is too much. She doesn’t care. This is important. “Then I will bring you back.”
Kara smiles shakily. “Kryptonite isn’t a cure-all.”
“I will figure out what you need and get it. I’ll invent it, if necessary.”
She would. She meant what she said to Lex: they weren’t gods, and they never would be. Fuck godhood, anyway. Even being anointed meant that someone, somewhere, had sat in judgement before she had been deemed worthy, which, hah. She’s not even sure she believes in a divine entity, but her conception of one is Promethean: I have given you the tools.
She doesn’t always use them well. Obviously, she can harm with them as much as she heals, and maybe Kara deserves more. Maybe you have to be raised with love to know how love properly.
But if she can’t have Kara’s love -- not the way she wants it -- she can still have this. Trust. To be one of the hands that holds the tether keeping her anchored: to Earth, to her purpose, to her (for lack of a better word) humanity. Lena isn’t the only one, which doesn’t sit completely right with her Luthorness. But she squashes that selfishness: she’s included.
“It also hurts a lot,” Kara says, rubbing the back of her hand against her nose, sounding suspiciously watery. It takes a moment for Lena connect back to: kryptonite, uses of.
“I know.” She gives into selfishness and pulls Kara closer, wrapping her arms around her shoulders, rubbing one hand up and down her back. “I know,” she soothes, and thinks: this is enough. She can live with this, this hopeless love for the most amazing, impossible, surprising creature of the entire galaxy. She can tuck away the sharp edges of her real desires if it protects her friend.
Kara sniffles into her shoulder. “I came over to comfort you, you know.”
“You did.” She tightens her hold and presses her cheek to the softness of Kara’s hair: this is enough. “You do.”
But no matter what she told herself about trust and “enough,” Lena still loves Kara.
So she falls into her usual pattern, and overdoes it.
Can we talk? About your family, not mine, she writes in an email.
“You know, the Daily Planet servers aren’t that secure,” Superman says when he touches down on her balcony. She has the irrational urge to tell him to change and use the front door. Her balcony is for... But that would be even less undercover, to have Clark Kent checking in with the staff at the front desk. “We’ve been hacked twice, actually.”
“Well, give me Martha’s email address, then, and we’ll create an electronic trail so that it checks out if anyone investigates.” She holds her thumb over her phone, expectant, and he blinks at her. “What?”
“Yes?” She raises an eyebrow back at him. “Didn’t she officially retire from her Senate duties? I’ve been meaning to see if I can get her on the board of one of my watchdog groups.”
He tells her, still looking bemused, and she saves the contact information before taking a slip of paper out of her pocket. “I figured we shouldn’t leave any kind of electronic evidence of this,” handing it to him.
He frowns as he scans it. “This is --”
“Yeah. Along with several subdirectories it might be filed under in the Fortress’s supercomputer.” She shakes her hair back from her face to expel a bit of nervous energy. “If you could look up the compound they used... if there’s any reason it’s dangerous to your kind, or exposes any other weakness, of course, forget it. It isn’t about that.”
He looks up. “This is for Kara.”
She tamps down her annoyance -- of course it is, what else would it be -- and tries for a genuine smile. “If you want to attend for yourself, she did mention --”
“No, thank you.” There’s the slight smell of ozone, and then the slip of paper is on fire between Superman’s fingertips. He lets it burn to ask without releasing it, smothering the flame at last as he closes his hand into a fist. Lena has a brief pang of... not envy.
But: flame-retardant skin, imagine how many people that could help -- firefighters, workers in hazardous conditions, those threatened by brush and forest fires. Even if effect was only temporary, imagine if they could bottle and ship that ability to be used all over the world...
“It’s a very kind offer,” and Lena looks at him sharply, but can’t find any obvious mockery in his expression, “but I think Kara might want to do this without me.”
That should be it. She should be able to say thank you, and goodbye, and they can be done.
Except she opens her mouth and what comes out is: “She didn’t really mean it.”
He gives her a somber look. Neither of them has to be explicit about what she’s referring to. Sometimes Lena will be in the middle of the most mundane, everyday thing, and the memory of the anguish that was suddenly exposed, that naked despair -- I was supposed to keep you Kryptonian -- will hit her, and she’ll have to fight to catch her breath.
And it wasn’t even directed at her.
“You think so?” Superman asks, and he’s not challenging, or sad. Contemplative: as if her words carry actual weight with him, and he naturally gives them consideration.
It makes it harder to lie to him. So she tries not to. “Not the way it seemed. Or how it must have felt. Not that I would presume --” She breaks off and tries again. “She’s disappointed. But she’s allowed to be, you have to allow people to feel...” She catches sight of his face and stops, reminds herself she’s not speaking to a Luthor. “She can be disappointed in how things turned out without being disappointed in you.”
He tilts his head to the side. “Not many people make that distinction.”
“I do.” She can still feel Jack’s arms around her as he tried to comfort her about all the wrong things. What she would have given -- what she wouldn’t still give -- to only have been mourning a jail sentence. “Kara does. Ask her.”
He smiles. She’s seen so many images of Superman smiling at this point: a controlled beam intended to project assurance and safety, an even showing of teeth that would do any politician on the planet proud.
This isn’t that smile. It’s slightly crooked, one side digging deeper into his cheek, and Lena has the suspicion that without his face-cloaking technology, there would be dimpling. The tech doesn’t flicker -- not even for a second -- but she feels like she catches a glimpse of Clark Kent beneath it, all the same.
“I think I will,” he says, and flies off into the night.
“So what’s the surprise?” Kara asks before her outstretched foot even finds the support of the balcony. Lena wonders if the Supers know they often descend to Earth in something akin to a dance position. “I cleared the rest of the day, like you asked.”
“Sure, but keep in mind -- we don’t have to do this. If it turns out you don’t like it...”
Kara laughs as if she’s made a joke, walking into the apartment without needing to be invited through the doors. It’s the first time she’s done that, and it makes Lena’s heart beat a little faster. She hopes Kara chalks it up to nervousness.
“Even if I hate it, it’s still an afternoon off.”
She doesn’t tack with you on the end, but the words... hover. Kara has been extra sweet and trying so hard, these past few weeks. They’ve shared some sort of meal almost every other day, even if it’s just dropping by each other’s workplaces for a quick bite between meetings. Lena’s fine with it -- she’s embarrassingly fine with it -- but Kara’s the one who makes it happen. Kara’s started to watch her with a new and slightly unnerving intensity whenever there’s a lull in the conversation. Not that Lena minds her looking. At all.
But she does remember the way that conversation on her tear-soaked couch had been trending. “We need to be honest about the things that scare us.” She’s aware that Kara never got to speak her piece.
Half of her wants to put her hands on Kara’s shoulders and say, out with it. The other half really doesn’t want to tempt fate.
Not before she’s done this, at least.
“This way,” she says, and Kara follows her a little deeper into the building, past what she’s seen of the apartment before. Or, well, past what Lena had previously meant to show her. The realization of x-ray vision puts a new perspective on things.
“I wondered why there was another lead-lined section back here,” Kara says as they stop at the door in question. “I figured it was maybe another panic room.”
Lena taps in the 12-digit passcode, presses her thumb discreetly against the camouflaged print reader on the side. “... you don’t have any questions about that? Why the safest place in this apartment is prepped to hide its occupants from Supers?”
“Well, aside from the obvious: in case Lex or Lillian ever find a way to recreate Kryptonian abilities.”
The lock beeps its release, and the door opens, but Lena isn’t paying attention. She’s staring at Kara, who asks, “Right?” as if people prepare for absolute, end-of-world, worst-case scenarios involving their nearest and dearest every day.
“... right.” Lena has to hustle to get to the secondary alarm, waiting for the answering passcode that makes sure a silent warning isn’t sent downstairs. Kara is still waiting on the other side of the threshold when she’s finished. “Come on in.”
Kara steps inside, and frowns. She does a sweep, turning her head from shoulder to shoulder, and it wouldn’t be anything remarkable except they’re still in the foyer with blank walls as their sides and even ahead of them where the corridor turns. But Lena can see her, seeing things, and it makes her skin prickle with wonder.
And then Kara pins her with a look. “I’m pretty sure this building isn’t zoned for a clinical laboratory.”
Lena waves a hand as she shuts the door. “I submitted the necessary papers. Or someone did. It’s being processed.”
Lena avoids her eyes as she walks ahead. “It’s only a little one, anyway.”
There’s a soft snort behind her. Lena risks a quick glance over her shoulder. Kara is struggling to contain a smile, her eyes shining with fondness.
Lena has to clear her throat. “Anyway,” as they round the corner, “this is what I wanted to show you.”
The sample she managed to construct is under a dome that’s three inches thick and partially fused to to its base. Recreating the atmospheric gases of Krypton in the right balance had been. Eventful. (Happily, the cleaning crew managed to get all the charring off the walls.) The compound inside went inert without a steady stream of said gases to consume, and when exposed to their atmosphere went, well, gooey. With the texture and aroma of really overripe cheese.
This is her eighteenth attempt to stabilize the reaction. The final product is a lot smaller than she initially conceived, but what matters is the steady flame engulfing the rock itself: pale lavender, with flicks of paler orange every time it shifts.
Kara stops dead, her eyes only growing wider and wider as she takes in the sight.
“Happy summer solstice,” Lena says, leaning her hip against the table.
The look Kara gives her makes everything -- the late nights picking apart equations, the cleaning crew’s polite request she find another regular service, her fifth-favorite Chanel smelling like she she laid down on top of a brie platter and rolled in it -- worth it. Absolutely worth it.
“You... remembered what I said, and you...” Kara can’t seem to keep her eyes off the burning rock for too long, her gaze sliding reluctantly away from Lena. “How did you..?”
“Trial and error.” She can afford to be smug, now. “I did think there’d be some sort of combustion trigger, at first, so imagine my surprise when the thing just...”
“Salt brine,” Kara says, soft, but with a yearning in her voice that’s almost tangible as she watches the flame. “The quarry for these rocks was found at the bottom of an ancient ocean bed, and the salt cured the layer exposed to the air and kept them from igniting.” Her throat moves when she swallows. “Every midsummer they’d send people to the quarry to strike off new rock. It only burns for a day or so.” Her voice is even softer when she says: “We used to ring Kandor with them. We’d sing, but we wouldn’t go back home right away, once that was done -- people brought food and blankets, and tents, and we would sleep out under the stars. All the elders would have their own campfires, and talk about those who had --” She breaks off, biting her lip so hard Lena is afraid she’ll draw blood.
Lena reaches for her hand. “I didn’t mean for this to be... I wasn’t even sure I could do it, and then I just wanted to surprise you. But you don’t have to do anything you don’t want.”
Kara takes in a ragged breath, and then another. “We used to to make a circle, everyone holding hands. Will you..?”
It takes some maneuvering to get their arms around the dome, Lena standing on the other side of the table. But it fits easily inside their circle, and the dome is low enough that Lena has as unobstructed view of Kara’s face.
Kara stares down unblinkingly at the flame. The oddly-colored shadows it throws distort her familiar features just enough so that Lena isn’t sure what she’s thinking.
“I don’t remember the words.” She speaks in a hush, almost a whisper. “The hymn is in ur-Kryptonian. I know what it means, I just don’t remember how to say it. I only speak enough ur-Kryptonian to answer simple questions in ceremonies. I was supposed to start studying for my next birthday, but I liked calculus better.” The ghost of a smile flits over her face. “And dance classes.” She finally lifts her eyes to Lena’s. “There wasn’t any warning,” and she sounds so young. “If I’d known, if I could have prepared... I would have done things so differently.”
Lena rubs her thumbs along the backs of Kara’s hands. Her skin is almost eerily soft; nothing in this world to roughen it. When her father died, sometimes Lena craved -- needed -- something to pit herself again. A deadline, extra sessions at the gym, anything to distract her from the pain of knowing he would never be there again to greet her homecoming, or shield her from Lillian’s barbs. She was very careful not to hurt herself, since she knew Lillian would sniff out blood. But she doesn’t know how she would have gotten past it, without those nights she tired herself out and put her sore and aching body to bed, knowing she would at least have a sleep free of dreams.
“It’s just me and you,” she says. “You can sing it in Pig Latin, for all I care.”
It’s the wrong thing to say -- Kara pulls one hand free to cover her eyes, and Lena has to hang on for dear life to the other one. “Kara, Kara, I’m sorry,” she says. “I didn’t... I’m sorry.”
After a moment Kara shakes her head. “I’m sorry,” she says, voice choked with tears, and it’s clear why she’s still hiding her eyes. “I’m ruining your surprise.”
“I promise you’re not.”
Quietly: “I’m being stupid.”
And then, in a shaking whisper: “It’s not fair.” Kara sobs in a hiccup. “It’s not fair.”
“I know.” Lena wraps her free hand around the one of Kara’s she hasn’t lost. “Tell me what the hymn’s about.”
Kara wipes at her face, uncovering reddened eyes. “... I’m not sure I. I really appreciate you did this, but I think --”
“Kara.” Lena digs in, squeezing her hand harder, even letting her nails press against invulnerable skin. Just so Kara knows she means it. “Tell me. Please.”
Kara swallows and looks back at the burning rock, the flames conjuring lights in her shadowed eyes. “We were travelers,” she says finally, voice roughened. “We had embassies on foreign planets, investments in the markets of different worlds. Scientific missions into unexplored pockets of space. People were always about to leave or about to return. Even me -- I spent my ninth birthday on Atlantisia, my Mom dragged the whole family there for a political summit that lasted months.”
“Do I hear some residual bitterness?”
“It’s an oceanic planet.” Kara rubs at her nose with the back of her free hand. “It has constant storms eight months out of the year, and I was stuck inside for all of them. Plus I couldn’t have a party with my friends until we got back, and everyone knows a birthday party six weeks after your birthday doesn’t count.” She manages a shaky smile. “Not unless you get two cakes. I told my parents: that’s the rule.”
“Kryptonians had birthday cake?”
“I think it’s a cultural constant that if you celebrate the day you were born, you get cake. Or something like it. We soaked ours in syrup, though. I like frosting better.” The smile eases from her face, but she seems more relaxed than before. “Anyway: lots of comings and goings. So once a year, we gather and sing a blessing to those who are wandering far from home.”
“We. Um.” Kara draws in a breath, noisy and harsh, and her hand trembles in Lena’s grip. “We sing about, uh, the promise of homecoming, and joy. About the gratitude of their sacrifice, leaving safety and loved ones for the betterment of others.” Her breath catches in her throat.
Lena’s hands are going numb from holding on this tight, for this long. She looks away from the naked emotion on Kara’s face and into the purple and orange flame.
“About those who -- who will never return, because they are called to Rao. We wish them peace at his side and warmth in his shadow.”
The smell of sawdust and a piece of heaven in a small, dark workshop, across the ocean. The first time she beat Lex at chess, the way he looked at her: with pride.
“And we sing of those who can’t return. Who are lost, or locked away -- those who dream of a homecoming that will never be.” She struggles to get the next words out: “We hold them in our hearts, and we -- we forgive them for loving the new world that is now their home.” Her face twists.
Kara throws her free arm over Lena’s shoulders, drawing her into a hard embrace. The edge of the table digs into Lena’s hip hard enough to bruise. She ignores it, and the dull rush of blood to her hands as she puts her own arms around Kara, leaning as close to her as the table will allow.
Kara sobs openly, taking in great lungfuls of air as if she can breathe easily again. She presses her forehead into Lena’s shoulder so that the tears fall onto the dome’s surface like rain.
Lena leans her head into Kara’s shoulder so that they mirror each other, standing sentinel over the last ember of a fire that burned out decades ago, lightyears away.
“It’s not Clark’s fault,” Kara says, later.
They’re on one of the couches against the far wall. Lena made Kara sit while she dragged out a bottle of water from the fridge to rehydrate a crying alien. She’s not sure how they ended up like this -- Lena sitting, Kara sprawled out on her back with her cape draped over the cushions and her head in Lena’s lap. But she’s not complaining.
“It’s not even a memory, to him,” she continues. “When he thinks of Krypton, it’s a loss. But it helps him understand himself better, and his place in this world.” She blinks, and the tears find their way along her cheekbones before disappearing into her hair. “He’s sad about it. But it’s also a comfort.” She falls silent for a moment before adding: “Sometimes I’m jealous.”
Lena’s hand is tangled so deep into Kara’s hair, finger soothing her scalp, that she’s not sure she’s ever going to get it out. Or that she wants to. “It’s not like that for you.”
“Yeah.” Kara draws a ragged breath. “I’m -- I’m proud of where I come from. But when I think of it, I just...” Her face crumples, and she presses the heel of her hand against her temple as if to keep the memories at bay. “I miss it so much. When I was a kid I missed my parents because they were my parents. Now I have so many questions, and I’ll never get answers. They’ll never know who I am now. I’ll never know what they’d think of me.”
Here Lena could interject, give false assurances, make promises that cost her nothing. She doesn’t, because she refuses to insult Kara like that, but also because it’s not about soothing any particular anxiety on that front. She understands better than most that the pain comes from never being able to know.
“Eliza said the ache doesn’t go away, but it gets better. I feel like it just... changes, which I guess is the same thing when you’re trying to comfort an alien preteen that was dumped in your lap.”
She doesn’t sound at all bitter, but Lena searches her expression just in case. “The Danvers seem like a good family to grow up in.”
Kara smiles. It’s tired, but it’s not any smaller for it. “They were great -- it was me. I was the one who...” She trails off and shrugs, as much as she can lying on her back with her head in Lena’s lap. “I was part of the family. But for a long while, I also felt like I was just a guest who didn’t have any place to go home to.” She gives a watery chuckle. “Poor Alex. I took it out on her a lot.”
“She would have made a convenient target.”
“No, I meant --” Kara waves away the suggestion, absently. “I did everything I could to piss her off. I was, uh, a huge brat, actually. I think I figured on some level -- you know, Eliza had to be nice to me, even try to love me. She was an adult and it was almost her job. But Alex had every reason to resent me, avoid me, say we weren’t really family... if I could show her the worst of myself and she loved me anyway? Then it’d be real. And I needed something real.”
... there are very few words to encompass how much Lena’s can’t relate to that, but then, she wouldn’t wish her family’s dynamics on anyone else. “And is it?”
“Realest thing in my life,” Kara says, and the undercurrent of relief and gladness in her tone means Lena can’t even be jealous.
“You could talk to her? About Krypton?” she says, but Kara is already shaking her head.
“I mean, I do, a little. Pieces of it. But Alex... if she knew how I really felt, the whole mess of it? She’d try to fix it. She’d find some way to be amazing and, and do the impossible, and make it better, somehow. But I...” She turns her head enough to look back at the lab table. Lena follows her gaze: the compound is still burning, throwing odd-colored shadows over the table. It’s probably just her imagination that the flames look more subdued, now, like they’ve served their purpose and are now slowly fading out. “If this feeling is the strongest connection I have to all of them, and what I had,” Kara says softly, “I don’t mind being a little bit broken.”
Lena shifts her hand so that her palm is flush against the curve of Kara’s skull, her thumb rubbing against the bone beneath her ear. “I get that. But even if you don’t want it to go away, you should have someone you can talk to. Someone else that understands.”
Kara moves her head back, gives Lena a look. She reaches up and removes Lena’s hand but only to grip it in her own, fingers intertwined and loose curls of her hair caught between them like ribbons at a handfasting. “I have you.”
It’s a few weeks later that Lena is at home with that rarest of rarities -- a quiet evening -- ahead of her, and her phone trills a message from her security team downstairs.
“We understand Ms. Danvers has been given unrestricted access, ma’am,” and Lena sits up, because Kara is supposed to be busy at the DEO for the next few days, that’s why Lena is spending this lull in her schedule with a book, “but we can’t find any notes on Agent Danvers.”
Lena blinks, and wonders what Alex feels, overhearing her sibling’s privileges. “Send them up. But don’t amend the procedures.”
She’s waiting for them in the hall when the elevator to the penthouse opens its doors, arms folded. She can barely keep her foot tapping from anxiety. “What happened?”
Nothing’s wrong with Kara that she can see, although she looks a little ruffled, that much less comfortable in her own skin. Her shoulders hitch when she sees Lena and she grins awkwardly.
“Equipment malfunction.” Alex is the one who answers. Her pose is a little too close to Lena’s, and the fact of having every hair and place and not a single scuff against the black of her uniform doesn’t detract from the impression that she could use several rounds against the bag in Lena’s downstairs gym as stress relief. Lena is tempted to offer, before she remembers she doesn’t like Alex. “Someone,” the agent says from between her teeth, and Lena wonders if this someone is aware of what hell awaits them, “miscalculated in the calibration of a couple sensitive instruments, and now...”
She hesitates, looks over her shoulder at her sister. It strikes Lena that Alex’s pose is innately defensive, as well, but that doesn’t... why would Kara need to be shielded from --
Kara puts up both hands, waggles her fingers. “Special-edition action figure,” she says, still wearing that discombobulated smile. “No suit, and no, uh, extras.”
Lena’s eyes go so wide she feels the stretch.
“Why do you even have something that can do this,” she hisses at Alex while Kara raids the fridge. “God, it’s not permanent, is it? What are you doing to fix it?”
“Oh, nothing,” Alex says. She raises an eyebrow. “We’re just killing time, came for a snack.”
Lena curls her fingers under her hand where is rests on the countertop, using the bite of nails to control herself. It’s just Alex, anyway. But Alex has a knack. “Alright, but why bring her here? Not that I don’t want you,” she shoots over her shoulder at Kara. “But surely DEO headquarters were safe enough? And, well, I can’t speak personally to the abilities of their security team,” and the skin beneath Alex’s left eye tics, good, “but what they possibly lack in training they make up in numbers.”
“Please play nice, guys,” Kara calls out where she’s rooting around in the crisper drawer.
“It’s safer here,” Alex says, like the words are being dragged out of her: “We can’t be sure of leaks or spies inside headquarters, and we don’t want the wrong people noticing that Supergirl can be stripped of her powers, or deciding that whatever caused it might be in the building. There’s no missing abilities to notice if she’s out of the suit, but then those wrong people might question why my sister came to my work for a sleepover. However,” even more unwilling, “the extremely, unquestionably human Kara Danvers has every reason to crash with you. And you’re a paranoid megalomaniac with a security force a few squadrons short of a private militia and a personal shooting certification -- which is surprisingly up-to-date.”
“You’re welcome,” Lena says.
Alex bares her teeth. “I don’t have to like you to know this is the best option.”
Lena agrees, and it’s a little bit concerning that Alex came to that conclusion before she could -- but then, Alex has had more time. “For how long?”
“Not too long.” But there’s a bit of shadow lurking around Alex’s eyes as she refocuses on Kara, who has carried her exploration to the cabinets where Lena specifically keeps the things Kara likes. “When I said it was a calibration mistake, I meant it: her powers aren’t gone, just muted, kind of. Harder to reach and use.”
“Trying makes me feel like I’m a feedback loop,” Kara offers. “And like this, the resulting headache is ouchy.”
“This just dampened them more than expected, which means she won’t be back to normal for longer. But based on previous sessions it’ll take a day, day and a half tops.”
“Previous sessions?” Lena asks, letting a little bit of her anger seep into her tone. “Why is the DEO experimenting on negating the effects of Kryptonian biology?”
Alex looks her in the eye. “It was my idea. But you gave it to me.”
Kara’s wry smile as she walks over to join them is the only thing that keeps the ground steady under Lena’s feet. “I -- what?”
“Your little ‘human or alien’ test, this time in portable hand-held. Kara told me about it. And I figured...” For the first time, Alex hesitates. “I asked Winn to start working on something, just in case Kara ever has to hide.”
Lena’s stomach swoops. She’d halted production on that once she thought through how many violation of privacy suits might be brought against L-Corp, and their patent ensured no competing technology would hit the market for some time, but... “You should have just asked me for the tech. You could reverse-engineer a way to falsify results.”
“Oh, that was the first thing we did. But we both know there’s no such thing as too many contingency plans.” Alex wrinkles her nose at Kara, who is watching them both as she munches. “What are you eating?”
“Shrimp-and-mayo-flavored potato chips,” Kara says happily as her sister cringes, and offers the bag. “Come on, just try one.”
“If you two will wait here a moment, I’ll put my reserve security team on notice. Just in case.”
Kara protests -- “you know it’s not necessary, this place is already a fortress” -- but Lena catches Alex’s nod of approval before excusing herself and making her way to the study. She has her system set up so that any messages sent from one machine in particular are taken as verified orders, without going through any other rigmarole. She waits for the return message -- received, ten more security pairs ready on standby, awaiting orders -- and breathes a little easier.
“Shrimp and mayo, huh?” she hears Alex saying as she walks back down the hall to return to the kitchen.
“You’d like it if you gave it a chance.”
“No, I mean -- she doesn’t exactly get those down at the corner store, does she.”
“She orders them from Japan.” A beat, and then: “What?”
“She doesn’t strike me as a potato chip kind of girl.”
“She came back with them on a trip, once, as a kind of gag gift? But I like them. Lena’s big on being a good host.”
“Uh-huh. What did they say at the desk? Unrestricted access?”
Lena comes back to herself stopped dead in the hallway, the angle of the corridor keeping her hidden from those in the kitchen. She has an odd, out-of-body moment wondering why Kara would want her to hear this, before realizing: Kara can’t sense any of those tattle-tale biorhythms. She doesn’t know.
“Alex,” -- a clear warning.
“I’m just saying, I don’t think you have to worry about that little talk you have planned.”
“Alex,” in a furious hiss.
Which is the second Lena realizes this is one toe over a line she doesn’t want to cross, and brings her feet down heavily as she walks the rest of the hallway. She hears another burst of unintelligible whispers as she comes around the corner and back into the kitchen. “All set,” she says, and feels guilty at how glad she is Kara can’t hear how fast her heart is beating.
“Well,” Alex says, pulling out of Kara’s grasp, “I should get back.”
Kara shoots her sister a look Lena can’t decipher. It makes her want to soothe, and she gives into the impulse, placing a hand against Kara’s lower back. They’re back to this place, aren’t they? Of being the kind of friends who touch each other like this? “You’re welcome to stay if you like, Agent. Or to come back whenever you wish.”
Alex’s gaze snags on where Lena has her hand, and her expression sours. “No,” she says, “I really should just... go.”
“Text me when you go home,” Kara says. “And it better be before four AM. I don’t want you staying up all night to fix something that’ll fix itself. Alex.”
“Science never sleeps, Kara.” Alex doesn’t turn back from walking to the door as she waves goodbye. “And good luck,” she adds, cryptically, as it shuts behind her.
“Good luck with what?” Lena asks.
“Oh, um. Stuff. You know. While, uh,” Kara gestures at herself.
“Hmm.” Lena feels like she has an unfair advantage after the realization in the hallway, so she doesn’t press. “Speaking of, you’re really okay?” she asks, idly rubbing Kara’s back.
“Sure,” but her grin is a bit shaky around the edges, and Kara angles herself just out of reach as she clears her throat. “I, um... so what were you doing before we so rudely interrupted?”
“Catching up on some reading,” Lena says, ready to make a dozen different suggestions of how else they can send their time together, but Kara’s face brightens.
“Oooh,” sounding intrigued, as she beelines for the couch and the pile of books and scientific journals Lena has heaped on the table next to it. She managed to snag the bag of potato chips on the way over. “All of these in one day?”
“Not quite.” Lena makes her way over as Kara settles in at one end against the cushions. “I just like to have options close at hand if I get bored with something.” She watches Kara flip through to the journals’ tables of contents, one by one, making approving noises at some of the article titles. “Can I ask something? It might be a little insensitive.”
Lean leans over the back of the couch, elbows braced against it, to get a little closer to Kara. “When you only had your memories of Krypton, it was obvious the education there was... advanced. I’m surprised you didn’t go into some field of science or mathematics.”
“Don’t tell me you’re prejudiced against the humanities, Lena.”
Well, she might be. A little. “I just... why major in Marketing? It seems worlds away from whatever you were preparing for as a child.”
“Exactly.” Her smile is lopsided, and a little sad, as she looks over her shoulder to meet Lena’s eyes. When she returns her attention to the journals a section of blonde hair comes untucked from behind her ear, falling to obscure her face from Lena’s view.
Lena takes a few moments to think over how to phrase her next words. “A career is a lot to dedicate to avoiding painful memories.”
“Oh,” Kara looks up, a little wide-eyed, “no, that’s not -- hey,” she reaches back to latch onto Lena’s sleeve and give it a tug. “Come sit.”
Lena walks around to join her on the couch. It’s more than comfortable enough for the both of them, backs against the arms and facing each other. There are plenty of other couches and chairs in the room, but Lena’s not about to bring that up.
“Don't get mad about it,” Kara says, as soon as she sees Lena is settled in, “but you guys are... I don’t want to be rude, but it’s going to be a while before you catch up. I didn’t feel like spending years listening to lectures where half of it is stuff I’ve known since I was in creche, and a quarter of it is just wrong.”
Lena knows she’s going to be haunted by the urge to make her specify which quarter. But Kara has a point.
“You didn’t feel like being a prodigy in your field?” Lena asks, poking at Kara’s thigh with her bare toe. “You could have “discovered” all that was necessary to take humanity to a new phase of understanding.”
“Okay, first: stop, that tickles,” batting at Lena’s foot. “And second: yeah, that sounds like a great plan for keeping a low profile, what with being secretly from another, more advanced world.”
“Mmm.” Lena curls her legs under her. “Don’t you miss it?”
“Of course I do,” but she says it easily, no tension in her frame as she picks up another journal. “It’s one thing in a list, though. Not,” looking over the edge of the pages, “that I’m looking for pity right now. It’s just a fact.” She returns her gaze to the words in front of her. “It doesn’t mean I don’t really like marketing and journalism. I’m good at it, too. And... you know, it helped. Not just because it was something new to focus on, with no memories, but because I missed out on a whole childhood’s worth of cultural references and shorthand. Media studies made up the difference, and can I just ask, do humans even know how to talk to one another without referencing something from pop culture ten to twenty years ago? There’s a reason I didn’t make lasting friends until college.”
Okay, another good point. Lena picks up her own book, turns it over in her hands. “You don’t worry you’ve chosen a path based on something... I don’t know, arbitrary?”
“Are you trying to get me to quit my job? Figuring out what kind of company you can buy out and install me at next?”
“No,” Lena flushes. “I’m sorry, I’m just curious.” Greedy, really. For any and all scraps of insight, for better understanding.
Kara’s smile this time is reassuring. “Okay. Maybe it is, but it’s not like I’m the only one. You ended up in your job because you were born into it. Alex ended up at the DEO because of Jeremiah. Well,” stretching out her legs along the couch until they brushed up against Lena’s, “that, and she loves other people’s secrets like... is it dogs that do that thing, finding expensive mushrooms?”
“Truffle pigs.” Lena’s eyes narrow. “Is that why she knows when I renewed my shooting certificate?”
Kara rustles out the potato chip bag, which sounds nearly empty, before looking over and raising an eyebrow. “Wow, I didn’t think I had to tell you this, but Alex has probably read every single page of whatever information has been put to paper, or secret file that has been put together on you, by any government entity out there. Ours or otherwise.” She doesn’t seem bothered by the fact the chips she’s now pulling out of the bag are mostly shards, daintily licking at her fingertips. “So, uh, good luck keeping any secrets.”
Lena winces. “I’m not looking for a fight. But did neither of you think of the hypocrisy of that? Before?”
“Oh, sure. Or I did. Alex sees it differently.”
“That I’m a Luthor and don’t deserve any secrets?”
“Partially,” candid. “But mostly that it’s her job to protect me, and she doesn’t mind being a hypocrite if that’s what it takes.”
“... oh.” Put that way, it’s... still a violation of Lena’s rights, but. Understandable. Or more so.
“Hey,” crunching, “she doesn’t share any of it with me. I know this might sound weird in context, but she takes her job very seriously. I don’t have clearance for those materials.”
She doesn’t seem at all perturbed that despite being nearly all-powerful, and alien, there are areas where she doesn’t outrank her sister.
Not just unbothered: content. As if certain limits and constraints are a comfort.
What kind of existence would that be like, Lena wonders.
Well, she thinks, watching Kara finish with the journals and pick a book out from the middle of the pile -- Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid -- and leaf through the pages, it could be worse.
... it could definitely be worse. The more private celebration activities after Sissy Peterson’s nineteenth birthday party wouldn’t be in those files, would they? She’s pretty sure.
“Well,” opening her own book, “if she ever mentions anything about a yacht on the French Riviera, just remind Alex of her professional standards.”
“Oh, that time you got caught skinny-dipping? Public indecency charges don’t fall under government seal; she definitely told me about that.” And Kara then throws back her head to laugh when Lena whacks her with a pillow.
“I have you.”
She did. She does. Kara can have anything of Lena that she wants.
So the question becomes how much she’s open to taking.
Lena knows she’s rationalizing. She can feel herself start to become small, fold herself tighter into whatever space she’s been given and pray that no one ever checks the fit.
She loves Kara. And she would do almost anything for her.
Including hide that very fact from her.
... isn’t that what she’s supposed to do? Sacrifice for the greater good? Tuck away her feelings and make sure Kara never loses her support and her protection, never doubts what motives might be driving those things?
Or is she supposed to be brave? Stand vulnerable before Kara and say: this is everything, and whatever you choose to do with that, you deserve it?
She doesn’t know. She really, truly doesn’t know the right thing to do. Both choices seem equally hard, so that’s no help.
... this is her problem. Lena is good -- even gifted -- at reading the board. She can figure out what threats are looming, what dire mistakes have been made, and she’s exemplary at letting people know -- Kara, Lex -- exactly where they went wrong. Lena can always find where the pattern skips a sequence.
What she’s not good at is... this, whatever this is, this crisis between two equal options and no certain outcome. She can’t analyze, she can’t even anticipate. And she knows this is how most people operate. They don’t have her gifts, or her intelligence, and they simply choose. They deal with whatever consequences result.
That’s what she has to do. It’s what she should do, for Kara’s sake and her own.
But it goes against everything she is, or knows how to be. This is not how she has survived Lillian’s household, helming a company that was both drowning and on fire, or the vagaries of life in National City. And Lena always survives. That’s the essence of her gift.
It’s not beyond her. She knows she owes it to them both to learn, and maybe if she had a teacher... But leaps of faith have never been Lena’s forte.
“You haven’t turned a page for the last ten minutes.”
Lena’s head snaps up. “What?”
Kara smiles at her from the other end of the couch. “Good book, huh.”
Lena gives up, lets it fall shut. “I was just... thinking.”
“Mmmhmm.” Kara draws out the syllables a touch too long, smiling around the beer bottle she brings to her mouth.
“That stuff is making you goofy.”
“Mmmhm.” She takes a long swallow. Lena kind of hates how good she looks right now, legs in a careless splay and one arm tucked behind her head. “It’s much nicer than what they serve at Alex’s bar.”
“It’s a Belgian fruit beer. I thought you’d like it.” Although Kara had been the one to ask if there was anything -- mildly -- alcoholic in the house that she could try, surprising Lena. But she was playing hostess, and Kara had seemed nervous, almost, tension making her neck stiff. Not that Lena could blame her.
In retrospect maybe she should have chosen a beverage with a lower alcohol content for someone previously used to 24/7 sobriety.
“I do,” and if her lip smacking makes Lena feel lightheaded, well, Lena only has herself to blame. “I like all of this. So much nicer than the last time I lost my powers.”
“The... what? Wait, when did that happen?”
“Oh, gosh. Forever ago. You weren’t even in National City then.” Kara, looking a little flush, leans the side of her face against the glass bottle beading with condensation. “It’s a long story. I got a cold, there was an earthquake, I broke my arm, and there was the whole thing with James back then? And it was just awful. I mean, not him, James is the best. But being in love with him was awful, I was so unhappy.”
Lena makes a disgruntled noise she hopes comes across as sympathetic.
“And it wasn’t his fault -- he was with Lucy! It was my fault. Or, I don’t know, maybe I wasn’t really in love with him, then? It felt like it, but it also felt... like I wanted him to feel the same way because that would give me something. I feel like if it’d been about him, or loving him, I would have been happier. Even if he was dating someone else.” Kara chews at her thumbnail with a distant look in her eyes. “But I think I hoped that if he loved me back it would change... things. How I felt about myself. And so it was just painful, all the time, because I was really asking for nothing he could give.”
Lena clears her throat. “This time does sound much nicer, then,” she starts, hoping to guide them away from potentially volatile territory. “No earthquakes. I’ve got cough syrup in the bathroom cabinet. And hopefully you won’t find a way to break your arm just hanging out on my couch.”
“Yeah. Much nicer. Especially being in love with you.”
Lena fumbles, and the book slips entirely out of her hands. She doesn’t reach for it. She’s fixed on Kara’s face, her crooked smile.
“Yeah,” she says, in response to Lena’s look. “Sorry, I really wasn’t going to spring it on you -- like this.” She gestures to herself, and liquid sloshes in the bottle. “And you shouldn’t let it, um, influence your reaction.”
Lena’s mouth opens -- she isn’t formulating a response, so more like it drops open -- and Kara sits up suddenly, placing the bottle on the table before raising a hand. “Wait,” she blurts out, “wait a second. Before you do. I just... gimme a chance to say this the right way.”
Lena, still in a state of shock, nevertheless responds to the desperation on Kara’s face. She finds herself nodding, even as her brain catches up with her ears and she has to tuck her hands into her sides to keep from reaching out --
Kara’s smile of gratitude is enough to keep Lena where she is.
“I don’t expect anything from you,” Kara says, rubbing the back of her hand against her forehead. “I know I... I gave up that right when I lied to you for so long. This isn’t -- I just want you to know. Because you deserve to. You deserve all the honesty I can give.”
She looks tired. Exhausted. And for the first time it hits Lena what a strain it must be, even when all she has to do is relax on Lena’s couch, for her to be without her powers. Everything must feel different, require a different energy, and just processing all that new information must be overwhelming.
“It’s not a new thing,” Kara says. She keeps her eyes on her own lap, as if she’s afraid what she’ll see if she looks up. “I think, um, I kinda of told you that. Before. But I... it’s something I’ve felt for a while. I mean, you’re attractive,” flushing, and still not looking up. Part of Lena wants to ask for her attention. A bigger part is too much in awe of the delicacy of this moment, and she finds herself holding her breath. “Lots of people are, though, and not all of them are...” She frowns, scrubbing a hand across her eyes. “I’m saying this wrong.”
Lena stays silent. She knows it’s a little selfish, but she’s so hungry for this: the naked, open vulnerability, the unpolished truth.
“I think that’s one of the reasons I didn’t tell you who I really was,” Kara says after a moment, a little calmer. “I never thought of it that way before, but... things change, once people find out. It’s hard for them to, um, incorporate that I’m two people, kind of. I don’t blame them? But James -- it was never the same with us after he found out. Supergirl was never as real to him as Kara Danvers. And Mon El...” Kara looks off to the side, trying to conceal the redness of her eyes.
Lena considers the technical specs of opening a wormhole to Daxom and shoving a load of stink bombs through it, straight into the royal palace. Maybe she’ll ask Alex for help.
“He knew almost from the beginning,” Kara says, voice rough. “But he thought Kara Danvers was a mask. He never took the life I’d built as her seriously. I thought,” and here she shrugs, “he was my best chance at someone understanding, and then...” Her mouth works. “Part of me didn’t want to lose the, the feelings you gave me. The comfort of pretending you’d be able to love me back. Even if you knew.
“And then you found out.” She laughs -- or it could be a sob. “In the worst -- I’m so sorry, Lena, I really am. And I’m not looking for another excuse. I just, I was being so careful, and that’s exactly why I almost lost you.”
“You didn’t.” She’s trying to let Kara say her piece -- she is -- but she has to say something, here. Kara has to know this. “You couldn’t.”
She feels that certainty like bedrock. If Kara hadn’t reached out, Lena might have done -- probably would have done -- something stupid. Maybe it would have been a lot of tragedy as a result: the intervening days or months (years?) filled with strife and confusion. And regret.
But she can see, now, that Kara is embedded deep within her. The shapes their lives take will be in reaction to each other, to accommodate each other, even to confront -- but never, ever without acknowledgement of the other. Never wholly separate.
Kara finally looks up to meet her eyes. “And then for a while I was waiting, to see how it would change things. I kept bracing for the moment when you...” She smiles shakily. “Nothing happened. Nothing changed, not really -- you were the same, and we were... and,” with a sigh of defeat, “I realized I had to tell you how I feel. I can’t ignore this.” She raises her hand, pressing fingers to her sternum, and Lena wonders if she even knows she’s doing it. “I can’t hide it. Even if I could -- like I said, you deserve more.” She looks almost resigned -- as if she didn’t expect to say this much without getting thrown out. “I’m so sorry if this isn’t what you wanted to hear. It doesn’t have to change anything. But I didn’t want this to be another lie I had to live around you.”
Here Kara bends her head, baring the back of her neck. With her powers intact it would have been a meaningless gesture, no real threats involved. Right now, though, something could always come along and take advantage -- could take aim at the delicate top knobs of her spine exposed in the unconscious gesture.
Because Lena is one hundred percent certain it’s unconscious. Kara isn’t computing how the attitude changes with the circumstances. She’s just always this brave.
Lena had enjoyed arguing with Lex, those mornings spent on a long, lazy breakfast. Sometimes she took a position just to see him counter it. Sometimes she’d been surprised to find how deeply their worldviews diverged.
“It’s can just be the powers,” she’d said once, for instance, half-eaten croissant forgotten on her plate and enough espresso doppios to make her blood fizzle. “Even a miracle will only impress people for so long. But Metropolis -- it loves him, Lex.” Like it never loved us, she didn’t have to add.
“Exactly.” Lex sipped at his own drink -- only ever water, even if it was filtered, fortified, ionized, and seltzered to try and explain the price tag. Her brother didn’t believe in altered states of mind, and for all the wild bacchanalia she’d seen him instigate, she’d never known him to be anything but stone-cold sober. “That’s why I think he should submit to testing. It’s possible part of his alien abilities include -- well, ‘super-charisma’ sounds laughable, but the press seems incapable of coming up with descriptions that aren’t pedestrian. Whatever they end up calling it, it’s unconscionable to influence others to this degree without their knowing.”
Lena had hesitated. It was dangerous to openly contradict Lex on this subject. Ever since the alien had arrived in his city, Lex seemed to think the two of them were acting out the first half of the Epic of Gilgamesh.
“I... wonder if it is that.” Her hand crept over to her neglected pastry and picked apart the layers. “Isn’t it possible this is more of a... a moral fascination?”
Lex crossed one leg over the other. His leather loafers that day had been dyed the color of antique jade. “Explain.”
Lena sat straighter, brushing the flakes from her fingertips. “Lots of people have natural gifts -- incredible ones. They don’t all become firefighters, or teachers, or even volunteer. Just look at our family. What better evidence do you need to support the idea that ability alone isn’t heroism?” She’d faltered there, but Lex had given no sign of anything but his utmost attention. “Maybe the reason he’s a symbol,” slower, feeling her way along, “isn’t just the... the trappings. The ridiculous outfit, even the cape -- maybe he gets away with those things because of the intention behind them.”
“What do you think that might be?”
“Someone like that,” she’d said, barely knowing what she would say until she heard herself say it, “they aren’t... it isn’t about what they can do. That might facilitate the -- the scope of the responsibilities they assume, but... Oh, I don’t know what I’m saying.” She sat back, frustrated. “If he wanted adoration, he could have it without putting himself in danger. If he just wanted to help people, he could do that without making himself a primary-colored target.” She pressed her lips together. “But it’s something more. Someone wearing the mantle, the title, there’s more to it than altruism. They’re making themselves into a symbol -- and symbols are only worth anything to the people observing them.”
Lex had wet his lips with his designer water. “Not a ruler, not a celebrity -- at least not on purpose -- but someone whose elevation is meant to inspire.”
“Exactly. That’s... that’s something beyond powers, Lex. The things he can do put him on display, but that’s not why they believe in him. Anyone who gives of themselves so freely, and trusts the world will not give them more pain than they can handle... that’s the kind of bravery that makes us all want to be better.”
“What are you trying to say, Lena?” Lex had asked. Chin in hand, watching her with intent -- back when the things she said to him were heard. “That Super is a state of mind?”
“Yes,” Lena says. She reaches out, slipping her hand along the side of Kara’s face and into her hair.
Kara raises her face at the touch, looking confused. “Yes... you’re okay with it? Or, yes, you --”
“Yes,” Lena says, and leans in to kiss her.
Kara’s surprise lasts maybe a millisecond. Then she grabs at Lena with a clumsy enthusiasm that tips her off balance and backwards, and Lena is more than happy to fall on top of her, angling so that they don’t even break the kiss.
Kara doesn’t seem to mind, even when their noses bump. She lets go of Lena’s shoulders in a slow, reluctant slide to push away the falls of dark hair curtaining them both, and when Lena pulls away Kara’s smile breaks her heart in the best way.
“Ask me out.” Lena kisses the tip of her nose in apology.
“What?” Kara asks, bemused. “Aren’t we -- I thought that was pretty clear, I gave an amazing speech and --”
Lena settles a bit more comfortably on top of her, fitting them together in a way designed to derail Kara’s train of thought. It works, and Kara goes in for another kiss before Lena stops her by softly placing two fingers against her mouth.
“Ask me out,” she says again, and then cheats her own good intentions by tracing Kara’s lips in a way that makes the other girl’s eyes darken. “Make sure it’s a date you can keep.”
“Are you saying I have to take you to dinner first?” Kara turns a little red at her own innuendo, but her hands are sure enough: one settling to tuck under Lena’s ear, fingers in her hair, the other sliding down and stopping low on her back.
“You’re going to break a lot of dates with me in the future.” She watches as Kara’s expression changes from surprise and joy to something deeper, almost a little frightened at the idea of all that future and the potential for happiness in it. “Anniversaries are a good time to remember that even if we struggle, sometimes, we started off on the right foot.”
... and she can see Kara’s about to get mushy on her, the adrenaline wearing off and the weepy aftermath of a good buzz fading in, and, no. Nope, Lena is ready to move on from that.
So she presses Kara further down onto the couch with a kiss, and then another, long and slow and luxuriating in this: the knowledge of the thing they made together, the time and space they carved of the noise and distractions surrounding. It’d been so much work, but god, it was worth it. For this.
Then Kara gasps into her neck “Lena I’m so sorry but I’m human and this feels amazing but also I can’t breathe,” and Lena rolls off of her, laughing, because even when she’s turning a little blue Kara doesn’t let her go too far.
“Weren’t you mad at me, at least a little bit?” Kara asks later in the twilight shadows. They haven’t moved off the couch, which is dumb, and Lena knows it. There isn’t quite enough space for them like this, and they have to fold into and around each other, hair twisted up and around and underneath, damp skin and breath overlapping the lines until they’re blurred, and she’s not sure where she ends and Kara begins. Totally dumb, and also, she may never move or exist anywhere else ever again. “Besides everything else, I mean. That I forgot you? Even if only for a couple days?”
“You didn’t, really. Maybe you lost all the details. But you treated me like...” Lena trails off, unsure of how to put it into words.
“Like you were important.”
“Important to you.” Emphasis where it’s needed most. “And it helped.”
“That I didn’t forget that part?”
“That even when you forgot everything else, you made me remember who I wanted to be.”
“Oh,” Kara says, soft. And then, a minute later: “Sooooo... would you say you... really admire me for it? Appreciate me? Some other word for... something like that?” She pokes her fingers softly into Lena’s sides. “Maybe something about liking me? A lot?”
“I’m not saying it.”
“Come onnn,” Kara cajoles, hands moving as if to find Lena’s ticklish spots, but ending up distracted and simply touching her with intent, instead. “I said it, it’s your turn.”
Lena refuses to let Kara see her grin. “I’m saving it. It can be a separate anniversary.”
Kara lets out a noise of pure frustration, letting her head fall against Lena’s with a force that -- from her surprised “Ow... oh, shoot, I’m sorry, did that hurt?” -- she didn’t calculate.
At which point Lena can’t help laughing, anymore, or grabbing Kara and kissing her again until she stops apologizing. And then puts her mouth against Kara’s ear and whispers, over and over, how and why and when Lena loves her.
So that she can never forget.