Water fell in an even, rhythmic pattern, echoing across cobblestones. A shallow puddle gathered in the low corner of a damp dungeon. Chill seeped from the cracks in the walls and floor.
Chains clinked gently across stone, and an occasional draw of haggard breath pushed through the silence. A woman was on her feet, barely, knees bent and head hanging, hands manacled above her head. She was gripping and releasing the chains in time to the drips, trying to keep blood flowing through her aching arms and shoulders. She inhaled and exhaled slowly, dry tongue occasionally darting out onto dry lips. Blonde hair hung down, framing her face, sticking to her neck.
Kara Zor-El, princess of Krypton, was a prisoner – and she was scheduled to become a martyr.
A woman in a hooded robe flitted silently down the dungeon halls. She was gripping tightly to the iron keys in her hands, willing them through sheer force not to clink together. She adjusted the bag over her shoulder, cinching it tighter, and peered around a dark corner.
There were two men standing outside the door. She cursed to herself, squeezing her eyes tightly shut before mustering her courage and stepping out into the dank hallway.
The guards started, yanking their swords from their sheaths and blocking her path.
“Identify yourself!” One bellowed.
She winced, and tugged back the hood of her robe.
They immediately lowered their swords and stood at attention.
“Princess Lena. I apologize. We weren’t expecting any visitors this evening and – “
She waved her hand, effectively silencing him.
“Please. This is my fault. I should have stopped by the captain’s office to tell him I was coming down. I just…” She bit her lip and leaned closer, whispering to them conspiratorially. “I just wanted to see the prisoner. Without… you know. Alerting my brother.”
The guards quirked an eyebrow and glanced at each other. The King had given orders for the prisoner to be left without food or company for two weeks, in hopes that it would leave her weakened and crazed. She received minimal water once a day. These orders hadn’t stopped guests of the keep from coming down to gaze haughtily upon the once-mighty Kryptonian, delighting in her waning strength.
The sergeant cleared his throat, gazing knowingly down at the princess.
“Your highness, the King has instructed – “
“I know, I know. No visitors. But I just must see her. Before the trial! I’ll be gone, you know – visiting mother. I won’t even be here for the festival. Please? Won’t you make an exception for me?” She smiled shyly up at the guard, imposing in his armor.
He looked down at her for a few more moments before standing straight up at attention once more.
“I’m sorry your highness, but our duty is here at our guard post. We always follow the King’s orders.”
Lena began to swallow bitter disappointment, her hand reaching into her robes for the hilt of her dagger. She didn’t have a chance in a fight with a single guard, let alone two – but anything was better than going back the way she came.
It was simply out of the question.
She began to drag it out of its sheath when suddenly, the sergeant performed a left face and began marching away, down the hall. He called over his shoulder without looking back.
“Come along, private. We must patrol this hallway to ensure that it is clear of any intruders!” The second guard executed a sharp left face and followed his sergeant.
“Yes sergeant! I love patrolling the hallway. It is the perfect fifteen minutes to stretch my legs!”
Lena’s mouth lifted into a half smile, which promptly sank into a grimace. The guards had been kind to her, and their kindness would lead to their deaths.
If everything went according to plan, their prisoner was about to be stolen away.
The sound of metal grinding against metal reverberated throughout her cell, and the heavy wooden door creaked open before gently shutting again. Kara lifted her gaze to the hooded figure, following them with heavy-lidded eyes. They paused in the middle of the room, seemingly taken aback by the damp cell.
The hood turned in all directions before finally focusing on her. The figure stepped forward, and Kara tensed.
They had been… visiting her for days. They usually carried small blades and bared teeth, mocking her, relishing in their ability to finally make the invincible Kryptonian bleed.
She was weak. Her skin no longer impenetrable, her wounds no longer drawing closed.
She suspected that her cell wasn’t made of normal stone.
Her newest visitor stilled when Kara’s body tightened, pausing for an eternity before long, slender fingers grasped the edges of the hood. Kara furrowed her brow, watching as sharp angled cheekbones, alabaster skin, full red lips, and deep green eyes were revealed.
Despite her thirst, her hunger, and the ache that sat in her bones, her pulse beat a faster tattoo. Her stomach twisted in recognition. She was as stunning as Kara remembered, and bile rose in her throat at the notion that she had come to torment her.
Those long fingers reached forward as green eyes filled with concern, lips pursing. Kara could do nothing but watch as their tips grazed her bruised cheekbone.
“What have they done to you?”
Lena was not expecting this.
Her stomach churned at the sight of the Kryptonian before her. It was evident that she had been heavily beaten – either from the fight she put up at her capture or during her imprisonment. Dried blood was caked to the hairline above her temple, and her bottom lip was cracked on one side. Purple bruises dotted her arms, and one was blossoming thick and red on her cheekbone. Her black tunic was torn at the shoulder, and her skin had been sliced in numerous places.
Even with her injuries, it was clear that a deep and magnetic power emanated from her. She was still on her feet somehow, and her eyes showed no fear – only a steadfast resilience.
Kara’s lips parted and her voice was low.
“You are aware of the… kindness of your brother, princess.”
Lena was startled at the use of her title.
“You know who I am?”
Kara Zor-El tilted her head back to rest against the wall, apprising the shorter girl through half-closed eyes. “You are not easy to miss, Lena Luthor. Or forget.”
The raven-haired woman’s lips opened and closed several times, before she pursed them and took a step back, busying herself with adjusting the bag on her back and feeling for the comforting hilt of her dagger.
“Well then. Good. It’s better that you understand quickly. We don’t have much time.”
Kara lifted a bruised eyebrow at this.
“Time for what, your highness?”
Kara found the ground beneath her feet and straightened as well as she could, her eyes narrowing.
“Say that again.”
“I’m here to rescue you.”
Kara’s heart began to pound once more. Her blood rushed and her stomach turned, from lack of food, fear, and excitement. She masked these feelings on her face and leveled her voice as best she could.
“And why would you do that? Surely, they will punish you severely. We will have only traded places, and I can’t imagine that you mean to be chained in a cell.”
Lena’s eyes shifted to the side in a panic, shaking her head. She took a deep breath and seemed to find her resolve, before turning her gaze back to the Kryptonian.
“Because I want you to take me.” Kara’s eyebrows shot up.
Pink bloomed across Lena’s neck and cheeks. “… with you. Take me with you.”
“Mmm.” The sound rumbled from the taller woman’s throat, and her chuckle was dry. “I see.”
Lena twisted her fingers anxiously, turning her head back towards the door to listen for the guards.
“Please. We don’t have much time, and this is probably the only chance either of us has – “
“I’ll do it.”
Kara recalled the first moment she had seen her.
It was seven years ago, seated around a dusty arena. Kara was disguised as a common spectator, cloak pulled over her head to guard from the heat, the beating sun, and any chance of recognition. A crowd pressed around her, agitated with wine and excited for a fight.
She watched the Luthors carefully. They were seated in a large covered dais while servants milled about, bringing refreshments and waving fans to combat the stifling heat.
Lex Luthor, freshly coronated as the King of Luthoria, threw his head back and laughed at something his mother whispered to him. He grinned into a cup of wine, regarding the arena over the rim.
He reminded Kara of a snake.
His younger sister, Lena, sat silently to his side. She watched the action with barely concealed disdain, almost imperceptibly wincing when sword slid against steel and caught skin.
Lex leaned over to Lena and seemed to repeat his mother’s words, but the smile she was offered him was hollow. Even from her place across the sand, Kara could see contempt flashing in her eyes.
She turned her attention back to the center of the arena, where a burly Luthorian gladiator was losing – heavily – to a remarkably unwounded woman.
Remarkable – if you did not know she was Kryptonian.
Her skin was impervious to damage from ordinary steel, and shields could not block her – but she was not spared from wounds to her honor, her loyalty, or her heart.
When the woman’s father stumbled into the Kryptonian palace mere days before, with shaking hands covered in blood, his eyes and lips spoke of torture and kidnapping.
The Kryptonian before her now was wed to a Luthorian, had a daughter with him.
They had both been dragged from their homes in Krypton, held as ransom.
She had been blackmailed into being a champion fighter for Lex Luthor. A coronation gift from his mother.
Kara’s eyes hardened as she watched the fight.
The Kryptonian warrior stood over the gladiator, who had fallen to his knees. Her mouth was twisted into a pained grimace, and her knuckles were white against the hilt of her sword.
She lifted her hand to swing the final blow, when a piercing whistle shrieked from the sidelines.
Kara frowned as a team of archers stomped in from a door in the side of the arena.
Once in line, they silently knocked their bows and drew upon the Kryptonian.
Kara’s eyes flicked up to watch Lex Luthor, who had set down his wine and was leaning forward eagerly. His grin was wide and devious, his hands gripping the armrests of his chair.
The arena stole her attention again as an order was called. The crowd was suddenly oppressively quiet, on the edges of their seats.
Waiting to see the woman whose skin repelled arrows.
The Kryptonian in the arena lowered her arm and stood to face her attackers head on. Waiting for the inevitable glances from ineffective weapons.
When the order was given to release, Kara barely watched.
They could not hurt her.
But then a deep, piercing scream rang across the silent arena and shook through her body.
The Kryptonian warrior dropped to her knees, a fraction of an inch at a time, her sword falling to the sand. Her head was thrown back towards the skies, basking in the rays of the sun. The sun that they worshipped. The sun that gave them strength.
The sun that glistened across red blood as it streamed from her chest and arms.
Kara felt her stomach flip.
The crowd seemed to find their voices again, devolving into a roar.
She was shoved and jostled as they jumped and grabbed at each other.
The invincible woman could be killed. The Kryptonians could bleed.
Kara heard the thud of a body hitting the sand, and then everything else became muffled and slow. As if she was watching and listening to the world with her head under water.
She lifted her eyes to the grotesque sight of Lex Luthor on his feet, screaming in victory. He was reaching for his mother and kissed her cheek, pulling her into a tight hug as she patted his back and pointed down into the arena.
He turned to his sister, and Kara watched as she stared in open-mouthed horror down at the dead warrior.
He shouted something to her and she looked into his face, before shaking her head and lurching away from him.
His face of triumph instantly twisted into a chaotic anger. Kara watched him grip her upper arm and haul her out of her seat, gesturing for a servant. With his free hand her grabbed her face and pulled her into him, where he shouted something else Kara could not hear.
When the servant was at his side, he shoved her into his arms and flung his hands up, motioning for her to be taken away.
As she was dragged inside, Kara’s senses snapped back to reality.
She needed to go.
She turned on her heel and fled the arena. Her father needed to know of the weapons that could draw Kryptonian blood.
Princess Lena Luthor was either desperate or insane.
Kara decided it the instant she suggested breaking her out of her prison. This woman knew, better than most anyone else in the universe, the depths of cruelty her brother is capable of sinking to. She had seen his depravity up close, borne witness to his demons, likely been victim to them herself.
Her own current circumstances aside, Kara decided that this raven-haired princess was in desperate need of rescuing - not only today, but for many days to come.
Secondarily, there was the small matter of how much she distrusted Lex Luthor. She needed a guarantee that even if this was a trap, she would have collateral.
So, with the taste of freedom on her tongue and the weight of a heavy decision settling in her heart, she nodded curtly.
Lena exhaled and stepped closer, reaching up for the first manacle.
Green eyes and a furrowed brow pierced her with confusion.
“I have a condition.”
The shorter princess nearly laughed out loud. “A condition? What position are you in to be making conditions?”
The bloodied side of Kara’s mouth twisted upwards slightly, similarly amused by the situation despite the pain coursing through her body.
“You need me as well, princess, or you would not be here.”
Lena stiffened her spine and raised an eyebrow, very much appearing as if she had barbs poised on the tip of her tongue.
“Let’s have it, then. What do you require? Gold? Land? I have almost nothing to give you besides your freedom and a week’s worth of rations.” Her jaw was set, her shoulders squared.
Kara shook her head. “What I request is not of material value.” She took a deep breath and stood as tall as she could, steely blue sky meeting green rolling hills.
This time, Lena did bark out a laugh – before promptly clapping a hand over her own mouth and glancing furtively towards the door before wheeling back on the blonde.
“Sorry? I’m sorry, did you just propose marriage to me, Kara Zor-El?” she hissed softly.
She nodded gravely. “We will perform a Kryptonian marriage here. It will be brief, but the bond is strong-“
“No. Absolutely not.” Her eyes were blazing as Kara shrugged and looked away.
“Then leave me here. I will die soon, and will no longer be your concern.”
Lena was incredulous. “You would choose death over release? Gallows over open sky?” Her hand shot out to press against Kara’s uninjured cheek. “Are you with fever, Kryptonian? Let me give you some water-”
“I am surviving, Princess. I am Kryptonian, and we are a people of honor. I will not let you do this to your demise. If you are to save my life, then a lifetime is what you will be owed.” Sharp blue eyes pierced through her.
This immediately agitated the shorter brunette, who began pacing. Kara was almost amused as she watched her go.
“I do not want your life. What good could that possibly do? Simply help me escape, and your debt will be repaid.”
“I will not relent on this. Meet my condition, or we are of no further use to each other. You should go, before the guards return.”
Lena stopped abruptly, her face tilted up harshly.
“I am seeking freedom, Princess Zor-El, not a prison made of marriage vows! I will not be another pawn in another royal family, pushed and pulled at the mercy and whim of another!” She was whispering, but her voice was hoarse and her disdain was unshifting.
“Listen to me.” Kara tried to reach for her, her hands catching at the chains above her. She tugged at them in frustration and groaned at the pull in her shoulders.
Kara tried her best to make her cracked voice sound soothing. Perhaps a softer approach would be better.
“Please. I mean you no harm. I will not treat you as a pawn. I will give you the freedom you seek. But this thing you are doing – this step you are about to take against the House of Luthor – is dangerous. You will be hunted. You will have a target on your back a mile wide, and there will be nowhere you can run, nowhere you can hide, where he will not find you. The price on your head will be tempting even to kings.”
And I need to guarantee that your fate is tied to mine, Kara thought to herself.
Lena was trying to remain staunch and determined, though her chest was rising and falling rapidly. After a beat, a trembling hand came up to cover her mouth. Tears welled up in green eyes, and her voice was desperate, pleading.
“I… I don’t have any other choices. I can’t stay here. I would rather die.” Kara’s fists clenched in her manacles.
“Let me help you. I can protect you. Set me free and I will keep you safe. I will not let them hurt you.”
“And what of your people? I am a Luthor. They will hunt me as my brother will.”
Kara’s lips pursed.
“This is true – our disdain for your family runs deep. More so still, I imagine, since my capture.”
Lena threw her hands in the air, staring her down. “Well? How is this a better option?”
“Because you will no longer be a Luthor.”
Lena’s brow furrowed at that notion, and the blonde could see doubt and revelation crowding across her face. She capitalized.
“You will be Princess Lena Zor-El of Krypton, wife of the heir of Krypton, future Queen. There is no place safer.”
Lena resumed pacing. She had one hand on her hip, the other palming her own forehead. She was whispering softly to herself, unintelligible and fringing on panicked. Kara’s eyes tracked her for several long minutes before she stopped, turning with her hands slowly dropping to her sides. A tear tracked down each cheek.
Kara watched a thousand emotions pass through her green eyes.
The moments seemed to stretch into an eternity, seconds lasting a lifetime.
The water dripped in the corner.
A sigh blew between red lips.
“… what must be done?”
She had gone insane. That was the only explanation. The green kryptonite built into these cell walls had somehow caused her to lose her human mind.
That was the only possible way to understand the choices she was currently making.
Thoughts streamed through Lena’s mind at a sickening pace as she reached up, carefully unlocking the first manacle. Kara’s arm fell and Lena could hear her whimper softly as the blood rushed back into her fingertips. She gingerly unlocked the second manacle and was shocked when the blonde princess nearly collapsed.
Her arms instinctively tightened around Kara, propping her up. She stood there for several moments before softly whispering “I’m sorry, but we…”
“We have to go. I know.” Kara smiled wryly and stood on wobbly feet, grasping and massaging her wrists and hands. “I’m just trying to regain some feeling.” Lena adjusted her robes and cleared her throat.
“You will feel better when we leave this cell.”
Kara’s mouth twisted into that half smile again. “I thought as much.”
“So now? What is next?” Lena was glancing at the door again, anxiety roiling through her stomach.
“Let me take that pack. And I will need to put my hand in your robe.”
Lena turned on her, mouth gaping. “Excuse me? You will not-“
Kara pressed a finger to her lips, looking down into haughty eyes.
“It must be done. I am sorry, but we will need to move fast when we leave this cell. My father will have sent warriors after me, and if we are met with a Kryptonian rescue party outside these walls I cannot guarantee your safety. The sooner we are bonded, the safer you will be.” Kara’s face was grim as Lena held the pack out to her, but she yanked it onto her back, wincing at the lightning shooting through her shoulders. Lena’s expression was cold.
“I had heard that Kryptonian marriages were so secretive because they were barbaric. I had no idea they were also based on degradation and humiliation, but I suppose I should have guessed.”
“You know nothing-“ Kara shot her a look that was both anger and offense, but the edges of it cooled when she was met with a thinly-veiled trembling lip and eyes full of fear. She sighed.
“If I had my choice, I would not do this here. This is not what I imagined for my own wedding bond either. I am sorry. I will do my best to honor you.”
Lena blew out a shaky breath, acknowledging the sincerity in Kara’s voice. Another tear raced down her cheek, and she swiped it away resolutely. She lifted her chin, mustering her pride, and reached down for the hem of her robe, beginning to gather it up towards her stomach.
Surprisingly strong fingers clamped down around her wrist, and she looked up into slightly amused sapphire eyes.
“Not like that, princess.” Kara’s hand cupped her cheek, and she was surprised to find it warm and soft despite her recent ordeals.
She dropped the material again, furrowing her brow, her cheeks coloring. The color further deepened when a strong hand slid down the side of her neck and dipped into the collar of her robe. She exhaled when Kara’s palm slid across the skin of her left collarbone and settled just below it, pressing tightly.
Her skin was tingling hotly beneath the Kryptonian’s hand, and her mouth opened and closed slowly as she stared at her. Kara’s eyes were concerned, and she paused.
Lena clenched her fists. “What is it? We must hurry.” Kara’s jaw tightened.
“This is going to hurt. I’m sorry, princess. You must be quiet.”
Lena nodded, confusion filling her eyes.
Kara’s free hand snaked around Lena’s shoulder blade, and she was suddenly being pressed between her hands. She had the distinct feeling she was being held still.
Then her world lit on fire.
Her fingers flew up to grip at Kara’s tunic, and her teeth gritted. Breath hissed out of her and her entire body trembled, a molten tear in the skin of her chest that began beneath Kara’s palm. It felt as if a flaming griffin was dragging its claws across her heart, and she ached down into her bones. Her eyes flew up and met the Kryptonian’s head on, shock racing through her skin at the sight of gold shooting through the endless blue.
She was overcome with a sudden feeling of dizziness, and she swayed into Kara’s grip. Soft words were ghosting through her mind, whispers in a language she couldn’t understand, sliding across her consciousness like silk. Chills trailed down her spine and up again, and her jaw dropped at the sensations coiling and uncoiling from her neck to her toes.
She soared across the universe, stars racing past her like tiny points in an endless canvas of inky black nothing.
A final surge of white-hot electricity scraped through her body, before the pain slowly subsided to a dull throb. Her inhales were coming in gasps, and her hands had fully fisted in the material of the blonde’s tunic. She realized that Kara’s forehead had dropped to hers, and their breathing was becoming syncopated.
“Dear lord…” she panted. “What was…”
The chills that had been racing up and down her body began to creep into her palm, like frozen tendrils snaking down her veins.
She felt… cold.
Deliciously cold, like chilled water on a summer’s day.
Like the breeze of autumn, fanning across her face at twilight.
She could feel Kara watching her carefully, and she slowly released her grip on the shorter girl. The Kryptonian princess reached up to the ripped side of her tunic, pulling it aside with a shaky hand and once more meeting Lena’s eyes with her own.
The world seemed to still.
A frozen, silver hum began behind her eyes.
And suddenly, Lena could see.
Knowledge settled into her shoulders, heavy, weighted down with brevity and purpose. With tradition, and depth. An intentional pain, a soothing stroke, a coursing bond that flowed through blood and skin.
She knew that she was an icy queen, the opposing force to a fiery goddess.
A phoenix was rising, and she was the thundering snow storm.
She was powerful. She was ancient.
She was overcome with emotion, need, desire. She thrust her hand into the bare skin of the blonde’s chest. Her palm pressed heavily beneath her left collarbone, her fingers wrapping tightly over her aching shoulder. Kara’s face set into a statue of pain and wonder, trembling with fear and weakness and overwhelming strength and something entirely else.
The powerful Kryptonian warrior dropped to her knees. Lena’s grip did not falter.
She felt the burning ache in her chest begin to soothe, and Kara reached a hand up to grasp at her forearm, holding her steady, holding her in place.
Her free hand covered Lena’s, and gentle fingers curled over hers, pressing her close. She could feel her heart beating beneath muscle and skin and bone, and Lena knew then that it matched hers, that it would always match hers. Kara was whispering something archaic, something Kryptonian, and it set Lena shivering again.
The world broke down, cell by cell, grain by grain, and reformed again. A trillion stars exploded and were made whole. Lightning arced between them, invisible and formidable, searing through marrow, melting them into one.
They stayed in those seconds for a lifetime.
Finally, she slowly peeled the brunette’s hand away, and Lena swallowed past a gasp when Kara pressed a soft kiss to the center of her palm.
Her eyes flicked down to the red skin where her palm pressed moments ago, and allowed the gasp to leave.
It was a symbol, strange but familiar. She had never seen it before, but instantly knew its deepest history and purpose.
A thin outline of the crest of El had taken up residence, nestled beneath her collarbone. It was beginning to pucker and blazing red, but shimmered in bright platinum despite the dim light – as if someone had branded it directly into her skin. As if she had branded it directly into her skin.
Kara hastily fixed her tunic as best she could and settled the pack once more, padding silently to the cell door and cracking it, looking out.
Lena remained transfixed, rooted to the floor, staring down at her shaking hand.
What had she done? What had she…
In a moment of clarity, she touched her own chest. She reached up for the collar of her robe and pulled it aside, casting her eyes down.
There it was. Glinting, golden. The crest of El.
Suddenly, hands were gripping her shoulders and blue eyes were all she could see.
“My princess. We must go.”