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The Gift of Gracious Attention

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Maggie was proud. Her role had been mostly persistent, pestering idea generation, but still, she could be proud. If she stretched far enough, she could even consider it a feather in her professional cap. NCPD was always going on about how they needed to improve the way they were perceived by the community. The community included aliens, even if officers outside of the Science Division didn’t really seem to have a great grasp on that sometimes. Ergo, as an officer of the Science Division, spending at least a portion of her time owning a bar stool at the best alien bar in town, pitching ways for the owner, M’gann, to improve her business, was both a community service and an extension of her professional duty to watch over the alien portion of the ‘pain in my ass community’ her Chief was always grumbling about.

It’d taken a moderate amount of wheedling. M’gann was happy enough to have her bar be a respite from the overwhelming festiveness the US gleefully vomited over the entire month of December. She’d vowed no twinkling lights, no blatant signifiers of any of the predominant celebrations, no peppy music, and definitely no eggnog. So Maggie had recruited a couple of people – alright, at least one ex-girlfriend and the cute Graxion she’d been flirting with off and on – to join her offensive, because she was uncomfortably acquainted with the feeling of watching from the sidelines as everyone else celebrated something. It wasn’t as if she was asking anyone to develop a nostalgic yearning to sit in the lap of a jolly old man with a snow white beard, even if one of the Farfarmniflatch shapeshifters managed a transformation so disconcerting that she’d felt a stab of something lost a long time ago pierce straight into her heart.

“All I’m saying is that you can join the rest of the country in celebrating traditions. Celebrate the traditions that are important to your people, the people who come here. It can be a different kind of refuge. A place where people can share the things they miss with others so that maybe they don’t miss them so much anymore,” she’d said.

Her argument may have served multiple purposes, but she wasn’t sure that really mattered in the long run. No one wanted to be alone while it felt like the world was celebrating togetherness and family. Human holiday traditions didn’t have any real meaning for their alien co-habitants, but it didn’t mean they couldn’t craft their own hybrid celebrations. M’gann had done the math and added up joyous merrymaking and a tendency to spend a little more freely than usual when there were festivities to arrive at an acceptable business decision. Because the return on investment was higher on Earth standard libations as compared to those which needed to be sourced from off-world, Maggie had even talked M’gann into an all-caps invitation to “Bring your Earthling!” on the bottom of the poster announcing the celebration.

There was a speciality cocktail menu, made up of recipes submitted by bar patrons to honor their home world traditions. Even if they weren’t perfect recreations, they were close enough. Maggie had tried a few. The Human friendly ones were marked with a small Earth icon, though that didn’t mean they were necessarily in alignment with the Human taste palette. There was an Alstairan mix that tasted of radishes, which was made even more disconcerting because the Alstairans were plantlike Humanoids, from what Maggie knew. Another miscue had left her tongue numb for a good half hour, so when she found an Aellon spiced wine that reminded her of mulled cider, she stuck with it.

After a little bit of fretting about liability and the propensity for things to get broken when placed in proximity of beings drunk on holiday cheer, M’gann had decided to let patrons bring in things that had meaning in their own holiday traditions. She’d vetoed mistletoe with a look that brooked no leeway on the point, so Maggie had placed a Charlie Brown Christmas tree on the bar against the wall, its single red ornament drooping sadly. The cute Graxion she was hoping to lure home with her at the end of the evening sat her own contribution, a small statue of shapes within shapes which shone when spun in just the right way, underneath it. She’d dropped a kiss on Maggie’s cheek with a promise to see her later, after her evening shift was over. It was, Maggie hoped, a promising sign.

A Grendian had set itself up at a table in the corner, surrounded by a crowd enjoying themselves trying to solve the logic-based puzzles developed by its lightning quick robot mind. A Lizarkon who Maggie knew to be a refugee from war with the Thanagarians was struggling with a plate of mozzarella sticks and wearing what she assumed was a ceremonial headdress, which tinkled softly as she chased down the ever lengthening string of mozzarella stretching from her crocodile-like muzzle. Beside her, a Manhawk rolled their eyes and resettled their giant wings. Maggie spared a thought to how, exactly, the Manhawk had managed to open the door, much less make it out in public without someone noticing a Human-sized avian with a Humanoid face. Then again, there were ways to fall through the cracks. If Earthlings could do it, settlers who’d managed to flee from another part of the universe would probably have the ingenuity to do the same.

There was the sound of something heavy being set gently on the bar beside her, and Maggie drew her attention away from the neighbors from the Aptilian solar system. A moment later and M’gann made her way over, watching with her usual wary skepticism as the Klaramarian reverently drew back the cloth covering his contribution.

“Is that it?” M’gann asked.

Maggie knew that Hrotq Fee, the Klaramarian in question, had done his best to fit in with the Humanoid majority that comprised the bar’s patrons. He’d chosen an average height, probably a little short of six feet as compared to his standard subatomic, but there was nothing he could do about his pointed ears, orange skin, and complete absence of facial features. It’d made it difficult for Maggie to interpret his enthusiasm when he’d first broached the idea. Not that she’d been privy to the conversation. That was telepaths for you, staring intently at one another in silence while the rest of the world had to wonder what the hell was going on. Still, there’d been a hopeful tension in his shoulders as he’d gestured – apparently even mental conversations were subject to evocative gesticulation. After a moment, M’gann’s head had tilted from side to side in the universal sign of ‘I’m weakening on this point’, and Maggie picked up on what seemed like a general air of excitement from Hrotq Fee. Three drinks later, things quieted enough for M’gann to explain it to her.

“They’re telepaths,” M’gann said unnecessarily, but Maggie resisted the urge to point out that she’d managed to figure that out all by herself, “with the ability to bestow limited telepathy. Apparently they have a—” M’gann’s hands moved as if she was petting an extremely large egg “—device. It can act as a conduit so that people can share a telepathic bond for a short time. It’s the ultimate gesture of trust to allow a telepath free rein in your mind. It’s usually reserved for those closest to you, and only on special occasions, but it’s a good thing for a society. It reinforces bonds. The Klaramarians wanted everyone to have that, so they figured out a way to mediate the psychic connection.” Maggie could see M’gann stumbling, trying to figure out a way to explain an abstract and complicated concept to someone who’d never be able to truly understand. “It’s like a more limited form. It only reveals things the thought-holder believes in strongly, but both participants go into it agreeing not to lock things away.”

It sounded ridiculously intense, but Maggie couldn’t deny she was intrigued.

“Hrotq Fee said that they would have a day of observance every solar cycle where people would gather and… experience one another? I guess that’s the best way of saying it. People would pair up and spend a few minutes with one another, completely open, learning the essence of what made their partner who they are. It was called the Gift of Gracious Attention.”

In person, the device that powered the Gift of Gracious Attention was an oblong oval that was flat on the bottom, like a larger than normal emu egg that’d been cut in half. It was matte black and sleek and looked entirely unassuming until Hrotq Fee tapped it in a way that made it hum. As Maggie watched, fingers wrapped loosely around her tumbler, it began to levitate.

“Want to give it a test run?” M’gann asked, resting against the bar on her hip, arms crossed.

Maggie shrugged, trying not to look too eager about it. The device had reached a hover a foot shy of the ceiling, and as she watched, soft motes of light floated down from it like sparks from a flint. For a moment, nothing happened, and she was beginning to wonder if it worked on Humans when she felt her world shrink. She found herself in a place where the Sun was a distant prick of light in the inky black of space. Somehow, it still managed to loom large, disappearing and reappearing in the sky at double speed compared to what she was used to. All around her, Klaramarians bustled through a city with towering buildings carved out of ice. She felt the brush of minds against her own, unsettling and comforting at once.

The world blurred, and she was in one of the structures of ice. Across from her, another Klaramarian leaned back against the back of a chair made of a material she didn’t recognize. Even though the figure had no features recognizable to her Human eyes, Maggie knew him. She knew the touch of his skin and knew what it felt like to feel his love settle warmly, snug in her mind. She knew what it felt like to watch him walk away, and the cold absence of him. She felt sorrow and wonder, lived all the highs and lows of a life not hers, and returned to the world with tears in her eyes.

“Thank you,” she croaked, wiping at her cheeks, too overwhelmed to be embarrassed that she was crying in public.

Hrotq Fee nodded his head. Maggie wondered what he’d seen in return.

“Maybe this isn’t a good idea,” M’gann said guardedly. “We want people to be happy, not sobbing into their specialty cocktail menus.” And then her face took on the slight crinkle of concentration that came with a telepathic conversation. Normally, Maggie’s curiosity made her curse her inability to eavesdrop on those, but at the moment, she was just happy it let her turn away and blow her nose without drawing too much attention to herself.

M’gann nodded. “That might work.”

Hrotq made a circular motion with his hand, the kind someone makes when they’re explaining themselves further. M’gann continued to nod, then pressed her hands against the bar as if a decision had been made.

The decision turned out to be turning one of the supply rooms into a cozy nook where people could retreat to share in the Gift of Gracious Attention without having the entire bar watch their emotional journey. It gave Maggie something to do that wasn’t dwelling on what it’d felt like to be one of the smallest bits of matter in the universe, crowded into a city with millions of other small bits. She didn’t have to stuff down the yearning to speak freely, mind-to-mind, and to be able to share impressions and emotions. Her own language felt clunky and heavy on her tongue, like a weight she’d shed returned to press down on her again.

“He says he can program it to ask for consent and to give a brief introduction to let people know that they can come back here,” M’gann said, wiping her hands as she moved the second of two chairs into place.

It wasn’t an especially fancy set-up, but it was serviceable. Tablecloths had been hung over the supply shelves, covering boxes reading ‘Maraschino Cherries’ and ‘Tropical Drink Umbrellas’. They’d pulled in a small card table and put a couple of wooden folding chairs on either side of it. It looked a little like someone might break out tarot cards and do a reading or, after M’gann added a candle to the center of the table – a place where someone might have a cramped date of questionable romanticism. Still, it was better than having feelings in public, of that Maggie was certain.

Once she’d deemed it ‘good enough’, M’gann returned to the bar. Maggie lingered, caught in a memory of love, until the warmth of it drove her out of the room in search of a release from it. She returned to the bar just in time to see the device select its first target, a pair of Humanoid aliens who might have passed as Human had one not been blue and the other lavender. A shower of sparks rained down over them and, in unison, their heads tilted to the side the way people did when they were trying to listen to something that seemed to be coming from afar.

Maggie returned to her seat at the bar as they stood as one and disappeared into the closet M’gann had prepared. The place had gotten more crowded while she’d been helping M’gann with set-up. Only a few tables remained unfilled, and staff was running back and forth filling drink orders while M’gann resumed court at the bar. It felt nice, being in the midst of all that merry-making. Occasionally, a tableful would roar with laughter, or its equivalent of laughter. Joy was an infectious thing, at least in the moment, so Maggie let herself sit and bullshit with the regulars and be proud that she’d been a part of making this happen.

“Isn’t that the girl who kissed you?” M’gann said, reappearing, and Maggie followed her line of sight until Alex Danvers came into view.

She didn’t feel great about what had gone down with Alex. She didn’t feel awful, because she felt like she’d handled it as best she could, but Maggie had been on the other side of rejection, and it didn’t really matter how soft that rejection was. Rejection stung, and it probably stung with a little more venom than otherwise coming on the heels of the giddy discovery of a whole new facet of yourself. And she liked Alex, she really did. Alex was stubborn and infuriating but also vulnerable and smart. She had a shy smile that Maggie liked to draw forth, all of which meant that Maggie needed to make extra sure she didn’t set herself up for heartbreak.

“That’s her.”

Alex was leaning into her foster sister’s shoulder, apparently already a little tipsy. Maggie shook her head as Kara slid an arm around Alex and kissed her on the temple. They both looked a little tipsy, to be honest, though it was difficult to tell with Kara. She almost always looked like the world and everything in it was a delight, so it might just be that she was happy to be there.

“Who’d they come with?” Maggie asked, looking around for whichever alien had brought them to the party. Then again, maybe Alex had thought Kara would enjoy this glimpse into National City’s alien scene and, as she did, took a look at the rules and decided which ones really needed to be followed and which ones were inconsequential.

“They came with themselves.”

“Yeah, but…” It hit Maggie, a little belatedly, that she might have made an unwarranted assumption. She was entirely confident that Alex was 100% Human, which could mean…

“But you were the one who said no when Alex asked,” M’gann said, with a hint of disapproval in her voice, “so you don’t have the right to be upset.”

Upset? Why would Maggie be upset?

“Let’s pretend I did have a right to be upset. What are your arguments?”

M’gann just shook her head, and smoothly shifted over to take the order of three new arrivals. Maggie took the time to contemplate. M’gann had pointed out that she didn’t have the right to be upset because she’d turned Alex down. That was definitely about the kiss, and about Maggie telling Alex they should stay friends. She would only be upset if she’d asked Alex to come with her but Alex had chosen someone else over her, which hadn’t happened. But if it had, it would have been because Alex chose to come with Kara instead, which didn’t negate the fact that, in this hypothetical, they all could have come to the party together and it would have been fine.

Unless, there was a reason for her to not want to share Alex with Kara. If she was dating Alex, she might not want Alex’s foster sister to tag along, but even though she didn’t know Alex all that well, she got the feeling that pushing Kara out of the group would be a very, very bad move. Anyway, she liked Kara. She wasn’t sure Kara could be disliked. So if it wasn’t because M’gann had wrongly assumed that Maggie would have wanted Alex’s undivided attention even though she had very carefully turned her away, what could it be? She could have understood M’gann’s reaction if Alex had moved on to someone else. It’s not that she didn’t want Alex to be happy, but being a quickly discarded crush could have been interpreted by some – definitely not her – as something that might bruise the ego.

It was ridiculous, of course. Alex hadn’t moved on. She was there with her foster sister. It wasn’t as if she and Kara were romantic rivals.

“Wait a minute,” Maggie said, when M’gann re-entered her vicinity. “You think the two of them are boinking?” It was a silly word for a silly situation, because M’gann couldn’t have gotten everything so confused, right?

M’gann raised an eyebrow and shrugged suggestively.

“They’re foster sisters,” Maggie protested. Which, now that she thought about it, wasn’t actually an obstacle. It was unusual, perhaps, but who was she to comment on unusual? Other people might find it unusual that she dated aliens, which just went to show that people weren’t very good judges of unusualness.

She knew M’gann didn’t really share such things, but she couldn’t help asking: “So what secrets have you pulled from their minds.”

M’gann leveled her with an unimpressed stare. “You don’t have to be able to read minds to see it,” she said, wiping at the bar top with enough irritated disappointment to threaten the security of Maggie’s drink. “Come on. Look at them.”

Maggie did, aided by M’gann’s narration.

“You see that storm cloud practically sitting in the lap of that ray of sunshine? Look at Kara’s hand.”

She saw it. It was, upon closer inspection, dangerously low on Alex’s hip. At some point, Alex must have reached out for something, because a strip of skin had been bared by the hem of her shirt and Kara’s ring and little fingers had claimed the space. It was maybe not the way she would have touched her own sibling, but a little bit of skin on skin didn’t mean they were sleeping together in a non-platonic way.

“Doesn’t Kara seem a little possessive to you?”

Kara… did. It wasn’t an angry sort of possessive, the kind that sought to scare people away with scowls and intimidation. It was more subtle than that. It was confidence, and an ease with someone else that could only be achieved when someone lets you have that sort of easiness with them. Kara’s grip on Alex wasn’t especially tight, but something about it looked immovable. Added to the placement and the way Kara’s finger seemed to be slipping under the waistband of Alex’s jeans, it definitely took on a ‘this is mine’ aura.

“See the way Alex touches her, like it’s no big deal?”

There was something suspicious about the way Alex’s fingers were tracing a trail along the soft denim molded to Kara’s inner thigh. It seemed unconscious, just part of the way Alex reinforced their connection. They were laughing at something. Kara’s hair was a little mussed. Somehow, her cardigan had been tugged off her shoulder, baring a little more of the patterned button-up underneath. She seemed exuberant and mock offended, and Alex was smiling so broadly her nose had crinkled. It was decidedly cozy.

“I don’t need anything other than my eyes to know what’s going on,” M’gann finished smugly. “Not that it would matter, anyway. I can’t read the minds of Kryptonians.”

In that second, Maggie’s own mind exploded with the implication.

Kara was a Kryptonian. Superman was a Kryptonian. Supergirl was a Kryptonian. Kara was… Oh, fuck. It was so obvious now. Kara was Supergirl. Maggie ran through the highlight reel in her head, all of the times she’d encountered Supergirl in the field. If she subtracted out the flying and the fighting, she was mostly left with Supergirl hugging Alex, talking intently with Alex, looking at her over Alex’s shoulder in a way that was vaguely unsettling, or waiting patiently for Alex to run to her to deliver yet another hug. She wasn’t sure how she hadn’t noticed it before. With the ‘Could they actually be boinking?’ lens she’d recently acquired, these interactions took on a new meaning.

Had they been? Probably not. Were they now? She watched as Alex pressed a lingering kiss to Kara’s shoulder as Kara pushed her glasses up on her nose, head tilted back as she laughed.

Maggie narrowed her eyes. “How drunk are they?”

“The ray of sunshine just ordered her second. Storm cloud is still on her first beer.” There was something patronizing about M’gann’s tone, like she knew she was countering one of the alternative explanations Maggie was cobbling together. It wasn’t that Maggie was one of those people who refused to see the truth playing out before her very eyes, but she was a detective. Picking a theory and running with it without considering other possibilities was poor professional practice.

So, Kara was an alien. It made sense. As Maggie watched, Kara pointed out one alien after another, sometimes with a surprising lack of subtlety despite what appeared to be efforts to be discreet. She’d lean over, so close to Alex’s ear that Alex’s hair brushed against her face. From the way Alex’s face took several very interesting journeys, Maggie surmised that Kara was sharing observations and knowledge, some interesting and some scandalous.

Kara the Kryptonian.

“Stop staring,” M’gann said, reaching over the bar to poke her in the shoulder.

“I’m not staring. I’m detectiving.”

“You’re staring.”

“Por que no los dos?”

“That meme is old.”

“You’re old.”

It wasn’t her proudest moment, but it was objectively true. M’gann rolled her eyes, technically unable to dispute the assertion, and went back to the business of staffing a busy bar. It had been a successful exchange in so far as it allowed her to stare without mocking.

Over the next half hour, she watched as Kara watched Alex’s departing backside with obvious appreciation as Alex ordered another round at the bar. That was fair. It was a delightful backside. Kara’s expression soured as Alex engaged in some light flirting while waiting for their drinks, though Maggie was almost certain Alex didn’t realize it for what it was. Sourness turned back into delight as Alex returned to her, both of their smiles quickly reaching near max radiance.

Given the volume and wattage of smiles she’d seen from Alex, Maggie tentatively added ‘possessed’ or ‘shapeshifter’ to the list of possibilities. She removed them just as quickly, partly because it felt mean, but primarily because she’d seen Agent Danvers smile at Supergirl too many times for it feel valid. Alex wasn’t joyless. She was just extraordinarily joyful around Kara.

“Convinced yet?” M’gann slid her another drink and settled her elbows on the bar, looking far too pleased with herself for Maggie’s liking.

“They could be—” she petered off as Alex draped herself over Kara’s back, chin propped on her shoulder as they watched something on Kara’s phone. It was entirely unnecessary for what was probably a cat video given the way Kara had snorted, covered her mouth, looked over to verify that Alex didn’t seem to mind, and snorted again. Maggie wasn’t sure what it would be necessary for, to be honest, unless the goal was finding a convenient excuse for pressing as much of yourself to someone else as possible. “—exceptionally friendly,” she finished weakly.

“I’m not sure why you’re fighting this.”

“I’m not fighting it. I just can’t believe I didn’t see it before.”

“How much time did you spend with them?”

“Not much, but—” Maggie made a gesture of exasperation— “look at them!”

They did, and as much as Maggie wanted to point out that M’gann was staring too, she didn’t. They watched as Kara picked Alex up as if she weighed no more than a feather and settled her onto her chair. She used the toe of her shoe to pull Alex’s chair to her, laughing when Alex nearly pitched forward onto her lap when the force appeared to be more abrupt than anticipated. They talked and laughed and had eyes only for each other, and it became increasingly clear that Kara had taken the suggestion on the advertising poster literally and brought her Earthling to the party.

As they watched, Hrotq Fee’s device charted a lazy semi-circle around the room, hovering over pairs seemingly at random. Maggie noticed its proximity to Kara and Alex just as it made its way over to pause over their heads. She gestured for M’gann to ignore her bartending duties and join her even as sparks rained down like sparkling snow, choosing them to share the Gift of Gracious Attention. The Danvers looked upward in unison. Kara smiled wide with excitement, contrasted with Alex’s skepticism and hesitation. A short, lopsided battled followed – Kara sent Alex a pleading look. Alex argued back with a grimace. The pleading look turned into a pout, and Kara declared silent victory with a fist pump when Alex sighed and nodded her assent.

Maggie wasn’t sure what she expected to happen after that, but it wasn’t for Alex to scowl and look up at the device as if underwhelmed even as Kara’s eyes grew big with surprise. A blink later, and they’d both disappeared, leaving the table rocking behind them and cocktail napkins fluttering in their wake. It was more than enough to settle any lingering Supergirl questions. Still, “That was odd.”

“It was,” M’gann agreed.

“Do you think that thing works on Kara? You said you couldn’t read her mind. Maybe Hrotq’s Gift can’t either.”

“I think you’ve spent this whole party alone at the bar.”

She had, but it’d been in service of fleshing out the drama she’d begun to build in her mind. Alex hadn’t told her much about her history with Kara, which gave her a lot of room for artistic license. As one of the last remaining Kryptonians, Kara was clearly some kind of royalty. The everyday rabble didn’t generally escape from doomed planets, at least not if those planets shared anything with Earth. So, an alien princess, on the run. Alex had said she lived by the ocean. Maybe Kara’s ship had come crashing down, and Alex had swum out into the harsh surf to pull her to freedom. Kara might have fallen to her knees in the wet sand, promising to devote her life to the hero who had rescued her. Who wouldn’t right? They’d probably sworn a pact to one another, and…

The crack of splintering wood drew Maggie away from outlining her romantic epic. It seemed to have come from the supply closet she’d set up with M’gann, and she was already on her feet, braced for trouble, when Alex appeared. Her sweater was rumpled, as was her hair. There was a look of utter shock on her face as she made her way through the tables toward the door. As she passed, Maggie noted that it looked like someone had somehow managed to stick their hand through the back of her sweater, up high near her neck. There was a jagged path of frayed fabric down to the base of her spine, flapping with each step.

“No,” she said, not even turning around to make sure M’gann was seeing this too, “definitely odd.”

A moment later, Kara staggered out. Like Alex, her hair was a mess. Her glasses were askew and someone had pulled her button-up free of her pants. It was hiked up on one side, baring a little bit of skin. Her cardigan, which had been askew before, had been pushed down her arm until it caught at her elbow. She was shrugging it back into place as she followed Alex’s unsteady path, maintaining Human normal speed despite the almost frantic look on her face.

“Huh,” M’gann said faintly, with definite surprise.

Maggie whirled to face her. “What?”

M’gann looked down at the bar. She snagged a wet rag and began to clean in a distinctly guilty way.

“You looked.”

“I—” M’gann’s denial faded away to resignation at Maggie’s look of utter confidence—“may have.”

“Well?”

“You were right. Hrotq’s Gift doesn’t work on Kara.” A sly smile stole across M’gann’s face. “It did work on Alex.”

“I take it Kara saw something juicy?”

“Whatever it was, they both seemed surprised.” M’gann’s smile turned slightly salacious. “I don’t know how two people are that into each other for so long and only manage their first kiss in a supply closet at a bar.”

Maggie could have let her know that it certainly wasn’t the first first kiss that supply closet had seen, but she wasn’t sure M’gann would appreciate it.

“Oh.” M’gann’s cheeks suddenly darkened with a blush.

“Oh?”

"Kara is... very strong." M’gann cleared her throat. “I think we can safely assume they’re going to continue this particular holiday celebration at home.”

The consummation of a long-ago pact formed in wet ocean sand between a hero and her princess, Maggie decided.

“I can’t believe you looked,” she said, face as expressionless as she could make it.

“You wanted me to!” M’gann slapped her arm with the rag she’d been using to wipe down the bar, which was objectively gross.

“As if it wasn’t obvious what was going on between them.”

For a moment, Maggie was sure she’d be wearing the rest of her drink home.