The Phantom Zone is cold.
That’s the first thing Kara really registers. When she’d been stranded here as a child, she’d at least had her stasis pod to keep her warm. The ship her parents jettisoned her in had offered small defence against the psychological torment of this cursed place, but it had at least protected her fragile body.
It’s so much more physical this time around. The visions, the waking nightmares are as agonising as she remembers but now there’s a primordial baseness to it that claws into her skin and slices beneath her tongue.
She’s cold all the time. The chill is insidious and bone-deep, seeping into her marrow, reducing her once vital body to frigid ash. She’s sore, too; joints leaden and aching where they rest haphazardly against the hardened stone beneath her. Her breathing is so shallow and slow now that she wonders idly if she might not be able to just— stop. The energy she’s wasting on the repeated expansion and contraction of her lungs is an expenditure her wearied body can scarcely afford and it’s not like this place will let her die, anyhow.
That would be too easy.
So, the physicality of the Phantom Zone is an unwelcome backdrop to the mental torment it inflicts, and pain pulses low and indistinct beneath the white-hot blaze of each nightmare as blood throbs stubbornly through a bruise.
But her corporal ailments pale in comparison to the horrors playing out before her waking eyes.
Kara is treated, again and interminably, to a front-row view of Krypton’s destruction. Watches her planet explode from afar, from up close. Watches the faces of all those she’d once loved melt and warp into the heat-death of the planet’s core, watches all that once was solid and sure turn to bone and ash and dust.
She reaches out a hand. She would capture the cinders, if she could. Would swallow them, grind them against her gums, work them into her porous flesh that she might never be without this place. That she might carry it within her, always.
But this is the Phantom Zone, and this is a life, a universe that has never cared much for easing the burdens she bears. And so Kara can only watch. Watch as solar winds whip the last traces of her home away to the farthest flung reaches of the universe, on paths that she can never follow. Watch as Rao looks on, impregnable and uncaring. Watch as her god closes his eyes, turns away.
It’s as unbearable as it was when she was a child. But she’s done so much more now, lived so much more, and the detonation of her birthplace is no longer the only fodder with which she can be tortured. In fact, there’s an embarrassment of riches.
In her dreams Kara watches Kal-El, Clark, grow up human. Watches him forget Krypton, forget the sound of their language and the prayers of their people and the sight of Rao shining red in the sky. Bows her chin and clasps her hands and turns to face the ghostly figures of her parents, her Uncle Jor-El and Aunt Lara. Turns to face the weight of their disappointment.
“I’m sorry,” she gets out, a strangled whisper on the breeze. “I wasn’t there to keep him safe. I wasn’t there to keep him Kryptonian.” Tears course stinging and caustic over the curve of her cheek. “I— I failed you.”
Her family only stare, unaffected. Their eyes are cold. “Yes,” her father says at last, the word striking her like a hammer blow. “Yes, you did.”
The nightmare fades. Another rises up to take its place.
Kara watches Alex die in every way imaginable, and then some.
She watches the way her sister’s face disintegrates into anguished despair as the realisation hits her that Kara cannot, will not save her. As she at last recognises the truth that Kara herself has known for years: that she’d placed her faith in the wrong person.
Kara dreams, repeatedly and in excruciating detail, of every single human throughout all of Planet Earth that she has, at one time or another, failed to save. She dreams of all those who will die while she is trapped in this godforsaken place. She dreams of her friends, her family, her home, unprotected.
She dreams of Eliza, of J’onn and Brainy and Nia and Kelly and James and Winn and Sam and Cat. Dreams of their screams as they’re tortured for information, punished for their connection to her. Of every single danger that could befall them, that could wipe them from existence at any moment. Of every tragedy she is powerless to prevent.
And she dreams, paradoxically, of her loved ones moving on without her. She dreams of their lives now that she’s here; so much safer, so much less complicated. She sees their frantic efforts to rescue her from the Phantom Zone, at first. Sees how their attempts become fewer and farther between with each successive failure. Sees how, one day, bringing her home no longer matters more than anything else. Sees how much better off they are without her.
It’s agony. It’s hell. To know that the only thing she yearns for, her one last scrap of hope – that she might somehow escape this wicked place – would only put those she loves in more danger, would only bring them more pain— it’s unbearable. She’d rather die, yet she can’t even manage that.
Sometimes, she dreams of Lena.
She’s always alone. The faces of Kara’s sister, her family, her friends all blur and morph, a great amalgamation of those she loves subjected to various terrifying ordeals, but Lena is not there. She’s never there. When Kara dreams of her, she’s always alone.
That means something, probably, in the grand scheme of things. What it means concretely for Kara from one pain-soaked moment to the next is that there is no distraction. No diversion, nothing to draw her attention away from the unspeakable hell of bearing forced witness to Lena’s suffering.
With her waking eyes, Kara watches Lena forget her. Watches her mourn her, hate her, love her unendingly. Each is excruciating. Each is worse than the last.
She watches Lena die at the hands of her mother, her brother, of Kara herself. Watches as she’s mangled and brutalised into a cruel, heartless thing; watches the bright beautiful soul of her be scooped out and crushed mercilessly to dust until all that remains is a shell.
She watches every single tragedy that could possibly befall Lena play out before her eyes and she knows that she cannot survive the pain of it, and then she survives anyway. She’s starting to think that the malicious power rooting through this place must at last be waning, must have exhausted every scenario with which it could torment her, when she slips into the next illusion to find Lena smiling.
She’s smiling, she’s happy and radiant and alive, so alive. Her eyes shine, her cheeks flush, her pulse thrums warm and imperative beneath the softness of her skin. She’s standing loose and carefree on a bright white shore, hair and dress fluttering in the ocean breeze as she wraps her arms tight around the figure at her side.
They’re slanted close together, Lena’s dark curls tangling with the figure’s golden waves beneath the tang of the sea air and they’re so wrapped up in each other that nothing beyond them exists. Lena lifts a hand to smooth her palm over the face that Kara cannot see, brushing blonde wisps out of the person’s eyes with such unbridled adoration in her gaze that Kara’s stomach flips.
The figure leans in, their waterfall of golden curls shining bright in the dappled beams glistening off the water, to whisper soft and close in Lena’s ear and suddenly, Lena laughs. Here, in this awful place full of nothing but pain, her laughter breaks through the haze of suffering like sunshine through clouds. She laughs loud and unabashed, her head thrown back to expose the graceful column of her throat and when she regains her breath again and brings her gaze back to her companion, Lena’s face breaks into a smile that Kara has only ever seen directed at one person.
It’s a smile that Lena reserves only for her.
Of course, of course the person at Lena’s side is her. The golden curls, the slight height difference, the untold reverence with which the figure touches Lena— who else could it be but Kara herself?
She can’t believe it. Can’t believe that this image of pure unbridled happiness, this manifestation of her heart’s deepest most selfish desires, can be possible here. Her mind whirs even as her heart soars at the sight of the two women before her who love each other more than anything else in the galaxy. Why would the Phantom Zone allow her a glimpse of such elated bliss?
There’s only one possible answer, of course. It wouldn’t.
The sun dims, the figure turns, and Kara sees at once that it isn’t herself at all. It’s some other blonde, some stranger whose unfamiliar face Lena is still staring at like it’s the most precious thing in the cosmos. The pair seem to notice her suddenly, pivoting toward her as they stand wrapped up in each other, Lena’s temple pressed to the blonde woman’s jaw.
“This could have been you, Kara,” Lena says softly, addressing her directly for the first time, and at the cherished sound of her voice tears spring unbidden to Kara’s eyes. “This could have been us.”
The unfamiliar blonde tightens her hold around Lena’s waist then, tilting her head to slot their mouths together. Lena gasps, and moans into the kiss, fingers tightening against the woman’s shoulders, stroking at her jaw, fisting in her hair.
It’s over in a matter of seconds. It lasts for an eternity. At length Lena pulls back, but not before she drops one last light kiss to the lips of the woman in her arms. Blissed out and sated, she turns her attention once more to Kara, gaze hardening as it travels the insurmountable distance between them.
“This could have been us, if only you’d been brave enough,” Lena whispers, and Kara is left to watch them disappear into the sunset with nothing but the bitter aftertaste of missed opportunities on her tongue, soul-shattered and alone.
Kara is eons old, now.
Untold millennia have passed while she’s suffered here. Likely, her friends and family are all long dead. Likely, so is Earth itself. Perhaps all the universe has imploded into the inevitable supernova that wipes out all of existence. Likely, even that wouldn’t be enough to free Kara from this place.
Right now – there are no days here, no hours or weeks or years discernible through the grey fog of fear. There is only what is right now, and what is not – she is dreaming of her father. She is dreaming that he is here with her, trapped in this infernal place. She dreams that his spirit has been broken, that he’s given up, and losing the brave, proud heart of him is as painful as losing all of him all over again.
But the phantom image of her father at her side warps suddenly, twisting and flickering as something else pushes through. A swirl of white-blue smoke envelops Kara’s trembling body and through it, for the briefest of moments, she catches sight of a face.
Then everything turns black, then bright white, then a glowing, pulsating blue, and the next thing she knows she’s opening her eyes to the sight of the colourful braided rug that covers her living room floor.
From somewhere behind her comes the sound of breaking glass. A gasp. A shout. And then her own name, over and over between panicked cries as two hands pull her prone body from the hard ground, her head and shoulders pillowed in a warm lap.
“Kara,” Alex sobs, her tears dripping hot onto Kara’s own cheeks as her sister curls over her protectively. “Kara, my God. You’re here. Are you really here? How are you here?”
This is just another dream, it must be. Kara has learned through hard experience never to trust her own eyes, lest they inevitably betray her. Lest the seeming reality of her situation suddenly crumple back into the agony of the Phantom Zone all over again.
But this— this feels real. The floorboards are uncomfortable and Alex is warm and the air smells close and closed, as if the room has sat stagnant and untouched for some time. When she at last finds the strength to sit up she sees her apartment almost entirely as she’d left it. Sees the shattered glass in the kitchen, the plants Alex had been in the middle of watering. Sees her goldfish clock on the wall, her mismatched throw pillows on the couch, her shoebox full of tapes on the coffee table.
This must be a dream and yet— and yet it doesn’t feel like one. There’s something different, some indescribable quality to the very space around her that had been lacking in the Phantom Zone, and all that it had shown her.
And as the minutes pass, as Alex cries and holds her and calls everyone to tell them the news and then cries and holds her some more, it doesn’t disappear. The fragile hope of the scene doesn’t disintegrate into some new nightmare and slowly, achingly slowly, Kara begins to believe.
This is real. She’s alive. She’s home.
The others arrive quicker than she had thought possible.
First J’onn and M’gann, then Brainy and Nia and Kelly, ploughing through her front door and launching themselves at where she’s hunched on the couch to smother her in their arms. They keep asking her how – how she is, how she’s here, how she got out – but Kara finds she has no answers for them. In fact, she cannot find it within herself to speak at all.
She only sits, dazed and untethered, as her family crowds into her with all the love they can impart. As Alex explains the way Kara had simply appeared, dropping onto her rug out of a cloud of smoke that had materialised from nowhere and disappeared just as suddenly. As her family’s arms around her, their hands on her face and their lips on her hair sink into her like sunlight, rejuvenating her like the lamps Kara is idly shocked Alex hasn’t forced her under as of yet.
Her family seem unperturbed by her temporary muteness, content to do the talking for her as they fill her in on all she’s missed. And Kara is content to let them, at least until her eyes fall again to the box of tapes on the coffee table. At least until the absence in the room registers like a physical presence and suddenly she can’t not speak, no matter the toll or the pain or the cost. Because some things are more important than— well. Anything else.
“Lena,” she croaks at last, voice hoarse and cracking from disuse. She hasn’t spoken aloud in centuries. “Where’s Lena?”
“I— don’t know.” Alex pauses in her regalement of the myriad ways they’d tried to get Kara out of the Phantom Zone over the three months she’s been gone, her brow furrowing. “I called her!” she says defensively, palms raised beneath the force of Kara’s stare. “But she didn’t answer, so I left a message. Come to think of it, I, uh. I haven’t actually heard from her in a few days.”
Why, Kara wants to scream as her sister’s expression twists guiltily, as the others shift and fidget on the cushions beside her. Why did no one know where Lena was? Why had she been left alone? Why had her family, who had picked up Kara’s mantle in so many ways while she’d been gone, not acted in her stead in this? Why, in this most vital and essential of things, had Lena been allowed to slip through the cracks?
Driven by a strength she’d believed her exile had sapped from her body for good, she pushes out of the tangle of limbs on her couch and out of the window. Just barely makes it to Lena’s apartment, listing slightly in the cold night air.
It’s empty. Kara’s stomach bottoms out at the sight of the bottle and glass laid out on the counter, at Lena’s phone on the couch and her purse by the door. The others arrive as she’s checking the bedroom, flown in courtesy of the Martians, but Kara barely registers their appearance.
She’s too preoccupied by the smell that permeates the air of Lena’s living room; not the heady combination of expensive perfume and soft detergent and a faint hint of lab explosions that she’s used to associating with the space but something else, new and vaguely familiar.
It smells thick and staticky, like ozone or thunderclouds or electricity through water. The same smell, she registers for the first time, is clinging to her own suit and hair.
Alex and Brainy and J’onn are talking amongst themselves, running through a list of people to contact and locations to check regarding Lena’s whereabouts but it doesn’t matter, can’t they see? Haven’t they noticed? She can’t honestly believe that none of them have put the pieces together yet, have picked up on that god-awful smell.
That smell, which clings to Lena’s apartment and Kara’s own body. That smell, which reminds her of wedding dresses and unwelcome guests, of alternate timelines and the sharp snap of fingers.
“Where is he?” she growls, and every pair of eyes in the room jumps to her face. Kara’s not in the mood for playing dumb right now, and a familiar heat begins to build behind her eyes as her throat burns cold. Kara glares at each member of her family again, a challenge in her eyes.
“Where the fuck is Mxyzptlk?”
The room explodes into a cacophony of noise.
Her friends turn to her with various levels of confusion etched into their features, shouts of who? and that motherfucker and what’s he got to do with anything? and Kara you really should rest crowding the air around her until she feels like she can’t breathe.
She doesn’t have time to explain. If the others can’t keep up, that’s their lookout. Kara forces herself to be rational. To examine the evidence, to piece together the chain of events.
Lena had watched the tapes. She’d watched them, and then she’d— what? Kara spies her tablet lying abandoned on the kitchen island, and in the next heartbeat it’s in her hands. It’s locked, and almost dead to boot, but there on the notification list is the confirmation Kara needs.
Fifth dimensional energy signature lost, reads the last update. It’s dated an hour ago.
So. Lena had watched the tapes, she’d identified Mxy and then she’d come up with a way to— to track him somehow. Had found him, presumably, if the smell in her apartment is anything to go by. She’d found him and then she’d— shit.
Kara thinks back to the smoke that had shrouded her final moments in the Phantom Zone, the blur of white-blue light. Lena had convinced the imp to get her out, somehow. And then—
And then she’d disappeared.
Kara’s fists clench. “Mxy!” she yells, uncaring of the way the others startle and flinch, brushing off the calming hands that try to restrain her. “Mxyzptlk! I know you were here. Come back! I have to talk to you!”
Alex’s forehead is creased in worry. “Kara, what on earth—?” She stumbles slightly as Kara pushes past her to pace the length of the room and a tiny pang of regret twinges in some deep corner of her heart. But it’s quickly overpowered, overshadowed, forgotten.
“Kara, is he the one that—?” Alex starts but Kara’s already yelling over her at the top of her lungs. She doesn’t care who hears. She wants the whole world to hear, the whole universe, all the way to the fifth motherfucking dimension.
“I know you brought me back,” she screams at Lena’s ceiling, just barely restraining the urge to laser vision clean through it. “I bet you’re keeping tabs on me. Get down here right now and face me or I swear to any god that still gives a shit that I will hunt you to the very ends of existence.”
A tense silence fills the room as her jaw snaps shut. Kara’s breathing hard. She doesn’t think anyone dares to approach her right now. She has to applaud their astuteness.
For a long moment, nothing happens. Nothing happens, and Kara is just beginning to debate the various methods of hacking she might employ to get into Lena’s tablet and track the bastard down herself when a swirling ball of white-blue smoke opens up above the counter.
Mxyzptlk appears on the far side of the kitchen island, his hands already raised in surrender. “Kara, darling!” he cries, high-pitched and panicked. “Now, listen, before you do anything hasty—”
It’s a little too late for that. No thought and pure feeling, Kara launches herself across the apartment towards him. Her eyes are aglow, throat frosting cold, hands clenched tight enough to pulverise steel.
Lucky for the imp, J’onn gets there first.
“Where is she?” Kara growls, low and sharp as a thunderclap as J’onn’s arms close around her body, holding her back. She fights, just enough to free herself without injuring him. “What have you done with her? Where the fuck is Lena?”
She’s screaming again. She doesn’t care. She moves to round the counter toward him and J’onn blocks her once more, stoic and adamant. Behind him, Mxy’s eyes are wide and scared. Good.
“Now, you’ve got this all wrong,” Mxy protests as he skirts the kitchen, carefully keeping J’onn’s massive form between Kara and himself. “I brought you back from the Phantom Zone! I’m the good guy here. And besides—” He ducks out of the path of a blast of laser vision and Lena’s marble backsplash cracks clean down the centre behind him, smouldering slightly. Mxy gulps. “I didn’t do anything she didn’t agree to.”
The sound that breaks free from Kara’s throat then is, for lack of a better descriptor, a roar. J’onn loses his grip on her biceps as she twists and ducks and suddenly she’s got the imp by the collar, slamming him against Lena’s expensively painted wall. “What did she agree to?”
Mxy coughs and splutters, his face slowly turning puce as his feet dangle a solid two feet above the tiled floor. Kara ignores the clamouring voices behind her, the hands tugging ineffectually at her iron grip as her family try to restrain her. She just adjusts her grip slightly, staring him down.
“It was a simple trade,” he gasps at last, his nails scrabbling desperately against her chokehold. “I gave her what she wanted! She, she agreed to the terms—”
Kara growls again. She’s losing her patience. “What terms?”
Mxy’s eyes widen as he redoubles his desperate escape efforts. “Exchanging places!” he gasps frantically. “Her lifetime banishment. To end yours.”
The world stops spinning. Kara’s grip slackens. Mxy slips from her grasp and crumples to the floor, panting. Blood is pounding in her ears, deafening. “Lena’s— you sent her to the Phantom Zone?”
Mxy nods through his sputtering coughs, hands pressed gingerly to the deep purple bruises already forming at his throat.
Kara stumbles backwards, deaf to the worried voices of her friends. Blind to the shock and concern on their faces. She fights the urge to dry-heave.
Lena’s there. She’s there, right now, in that most horrific of places. She’s hurting, suffering at this very moment, because of Kara. Because she’d agreed – of all the stupid, reckless, noble gestures – to take Kara’s place.
For one single, endless moment, Kara dies. She feels it happen; feels her soul detach completely, feels her mortal body crumble in its wake. Everything is silent and screaming and terrible.
And then the world starts spinning again, and Kara snaps back to herself with a jolt. She’s no good to Lena dead.
She’s across the room in an instant, kneeling before Mxy’s buckled body. “Take me to her.”
The imp’s eyebrows hit his hairline and he scrabbles backwards across the smooth tiles, putting some distance between them. “Oh, no,” he gabbles, still a little breathless. “No way, lady. We had a deal, fair and square, and I’ve done my part. It’s out of my hands now.”
“But this is your fault,” Kara snaps, fury building hot and effusive once more. “You let her sacrifice herself for me. You should have talked her out of it. You should have stopped her.”
“What am I, a shrink?” Mxy bites out, crawling on all fours across Lena’s kitchen floor as he tries valiantly to evade her. “No. I’m a businessman, and business was done. So if you don’t mind, I think I’ll be going.”
“Oh, you’re not going anywhere,” Kara growls, shoving free of J’onn’s strong hands. “Not until you’ve given her back to me.”
“Look, unless you’re in the market for another trade—” At Kara’s infuriated roar Mxy shrugs, hoisting himself to his feet with the aid of the marble countertop. “I didn’t think so. In which case, there’s nothing more I can do for you.”
Kara chuckles, low and dangerous. “Oh, I think there’s plenty—” And she launches herself across the kitchen towards him.
Time seems to slow as she sails through the air. She sees Mxy’s eyes widen. Sees him move to snap his fingers.
He’s fast, sure. But Kara, Kara is Supergirl.
She latches onto the lapels of his jacket a fraction of a millisecond before the pads of his fingers make contact. The room is enveloped in a shroud of glowing, pulsating blue, and then everything is white, and then everything is black.
When she opens her eyes again, she’s on another planet. That much is plain from the darkness surrounding the two of them, the gravity-defying mountains floating on the horizon and the unfamiliar planets shining in the sky.
“What the—?” Mxy exclaims as they touch down, glaring at Kara’s grip on his lapels in irritation. “Get off me!”
That staticky ozone smell is back and stronger than ever, enveloping them in an invisible fog even after the white-blue smoke has faded into oblivion. Kara’s already fragile body is not taking well to its little jump through the space-time continuum, but she forces the dizziness and nausea back with an iron will.
Mxy fights to free himself, to dislodge her from his body. Kara fights harder.
Another snap of his fingers, another kaleidoscope of colour, and they’re in a rainforest. The air is thick and sticky-sweet, tree trunks as wide as city blocks pushing up towards the sky. Nearby, something loud and angry-sounding trumpets its arrival.
Mxy glares down at her, trying to wrestle his jacket free. “Let go!”
Kara grits her teeth, sets her jaw. “No.”
Another snap. They’re underwater this time. Miles below them, light shimmers like sunlight on the surface. Above their heads, huge shapes slice silent paths through the depths of the dark. Mxy points to Kara’s hands where they’re clenched in his suit, releasing an angry stream of bubbles. Heart pounding, lungs screaming, Kara shakes her head.
Another snap, and they arrive dripping in the centre of the construction site that will one day house, if Kara’s Earth history serves her, the Great Pyramid of Giza. Around them, sweat-slicked men carting baskets of sand and chunks of stone pause to stare at the pair of them slack-jawed.
“I’m not kidding, Kara,” Mxy bites out, attempting to peel her fingers off his lapels one by one. “Get the hell off of me.”
Panting and dizzy but still very much holding on, Kara shakes her head. “Not until you help me save Lena.”
“Stars and quasars, you’re a broken fucking record,” the imp curses, snapping his fingers once more.
This time, they materialise on what can only be an asteroid. Around their miniscule lump of intergalactic debris, galaxies and constellations blur by faster than her eyes can track them. Kara’s trembling legs give out at last and she sinks to her knees, tugging the imp down beside her with the hand still fisted firmly in his jacket.
They’re both breathing hard, still damp and dripping from their little ocean adventure and for a moment, neither speak. For a moment they just rest there, two tiny specks of nothing, clinging to a marginally bigger speck of nothing as it hurtles through space.
“Next time, I’m hopping into the fifth dimension,” Mxy warns, fingers already poised to click again though his voice is tired, his breathing laboured. “Mortals can’t survive there. You’ll burn up immediately.” He sighs, pushing a strand of wet hair back from his eyes. “Consider this your last warning.”
“Mxy, please.” Kara’s energy is all but gone. Her body, utterly depleted by the Phantom Zone and its subsequent tour of all of time and space, is spent. “Please help me get her out of there.”
“For the last time, no,” the imp sighs, running a tired hand over his face. “Don’t even bother with the puppy dog eyes. I’m immune.”
“Why?” Kara croaks, throat tight. “I thought you’d changed. I thought you were better now. Why won’t you help me?”
“Why should I?” Mxy snaps. “The two of you have given me more than enough trouble already, and it’s not like you’ve given me any incentive. Just a full collar of bruises,” he complains petulantly, rubbing at his neck with a wince.
“An incentive,” Kara repeats slowly, a plan beginning to form in her mind.
The air around them burns orange blue for a moment as they skim the edge of a nearby planet’s atmosphere. The entirety of the cosmos wheels overhead.
“No. No, no, no,” Mxy mutters as Kara raises her head, scooting backwards to try and put some distance between himself and the fresh gleam in her eye. Kara doesn’t let him get far.
“So you want to talk incentives?” she asks calmly, confidence returning. “Why didn’t you say so?”
Mxy shakes his head frantically, pulling away hard. Kara tugs him back, harder.
“Now, you know, Lena is a very clever woman,” she starts, tone light and conversational. “And over the years she’s invented some very clever things. One of them is a device that allows the user to – how did she put it – to incept brain waves. Basically, it’s a means of mind control.”
The imp gulps, and Kara’s slick smile grows another inch.
“Guess who has it now, Mxy?” she asks, saccharine sweet, slinging a playful arm around the imp’s neck as supernovas burst and disappear over the horizon. “That’s right. Me. I have a device that allows me to control someone’s mind. To make them do whatever I want. Now, tell me. Am I going to have to use it?”
“You wouldn’t,” Mxy says, but there’s no certainty to his tone.
Kara quirks a brow. “No?” She pulls the imp closer by the arm still looped round his neck, hissing low and vicious against his ear. “If you don’t help me get her out of there I swear to God, I will track you down and I will use Myriad on you. I will force you to do what I want, and then I will leave you a vegetable.”
The wonderful thing about threats, Kara muses idly, is that if they can be executed convincingly enough, no one need ever know if she would truly have followed through. Not even Kara herself.
Mxy shivers against her and Kara leans back, finds her smile again. The universe whirls around them. “But it doesn’t have to come to that, does it?”
Though there’s unmistakeable fear in his eyes, the defiance hasn’t yet drained completely. “You’re Supergirl,” he manages, indignant even as his voice trembles. “You’re known throughout the universe as the Paragon of Hope. You’ve got a stronger moral code than anyone. You— you wouldn’t.”
“No?” Kara’s voice is deathly calm as she releases the imp to push up on her knees, folding her arms across her chest. She watches him shiver at the chill in her tone as she stares him down, unblinking.
“Tell me, Mxy. Are you willing to bet your life on it?”
He does as she asks. Of course he does. He would have been suicidal not to.
Another round of half-hearted protests, a final decisive snap of the imp’s fingers, and they’re there. There, in the Phantom Zone, in a place worse than hell. In a place Kara would have killed, would have died, to never return to.
She releases Mxy’s jacket at last and the imp sinks down onto a nearby rock with an exhausted huff. “If you try anything funny,” she warns, fixing him with the sternest glare she can muster, “any tricks, any attempts to leave us here, just remember: until I get back, my sister has Myriad. You do anything to hurt us and there’s nothing in any dimension that will be able to save you from Alex Danvers.”
Mxy just flaps his hand at her dismissively, propping his chin in his other palm. “Yeah, yeah, I’m not going anywhere. Will you please go and get her? I want to go home and take a bath.”
As satisfied as she’s going to get, Kara straightens. Turns to face her nightmares all over again.
She finds Lena curled on the frigid stone, skin cold and eyes milky. It takes a long time to convince her that she isn’t dreaming, so long that the hope and relief that had flared like starbursts through her aching body begin to fade back into gut-churning worry.
But interminably, eventually, Lena starts to believe. She starts to believe, and she throws herself at Kara and holds on tight and Kara vows to herself in that second that she will never, ever let her go again.
“I love you, Lena,” she finds herself saying because she can’t not say it. Because life is too uncertain and this thing they share is far too precious to let Lena live another moment of her life not knowing the truth. “That’s what I wanted to tell you in my recording. That I love you, with all that I am. That there is no line in the universe I would not cross to keep you safe.”
“Kara,” Lena sobs, hot and vital against her jaw, and she tightens her hold around the delicate, treasured body in her arms. “Kara, I love you. I always have.”
Kara’s not sure she hears anything else after that. Her entire world narrows to the body pressed against her own, to the thighs around her waist and the hands in her hair and those beautiful, longed-for words ricocheting around the inside of her skull.
She takes Lena home. Gathers her into her arms, swaddles her reverently in the folds of her cape and carries her back to where Mxy waits sullenly, tapping his foot. Tucks Lena’s face to her chest as Mxy snaps once more and the air around them fills with heavy, thunderous ozone, and then they’re home.
Kara collapses onto the floor of the Tower, somehow managing to maintain her grip on Lena’s body so the semi-conscious woman doesn’t go sprawling across the floorboards. She just manages to register Brainy’s gasp as he pushes back from his monitor, Alex’s shriek from the neighbouring room, before the last of her strength runs dry.
Through the dazed fog shrouding her mind she just about manages to comprehend the hazy figure of Mxy leaning over her. “Do not ever try to contact me again,” he mutters before he’s gone in a white-blue flash, replaced by the worried, wonder-struck faces of Alex and J’onn and Brainy and Nia.
She’s half-aware of the hands lifting her battered body, of more sliding between her and Lena to pull the other woman from her and she frowns, fingers grasping weakly.
“No,” she manages, weak and trembling, but Alex understands.
“She’s here, she’s right here,” she says soothingly, a steady hand on Kara’s shoulder. “Here, look.”
And then her sister is rolling Kara’s head for her, manipulating her limp body until a parallel gurney appears in her field of vision. Lena is laid out on the bed next to Kara’s own, and when the hell they’d arrived in the Tower’s med bay is anyone’s guess but it doesn’t matter because Lena is there, being checked over by Kelly and M’gann and Nia, close enough to reach out and touch.
Relief washes through every cell of Kara’s body concomitantly with the sunlight streaming down from the lamps Alex flicks on above her bed. They’re alive, they’re home, they’re back. Lena will be okay now. Everything will be okay now.
With that thought in her mind and Lena’s whole, safe, breathing body in her sights, Kara gives herself over to the tug of oblivion.
Alex keeps them in the med bay for four days.
The Phantom Zone had sapped them physically as well as mentally; subjected them to thirst and hunger and exhaustion and exposure and generally worn them down to just above the threshold of death. Had sustained their bodies with the bare minimum required to keep them alive, and nothing more.
Kara had been there for three months, in Earth time. In the Phantom Zone, it had been millennia.
For Lena, the sojourn away from this planet had lasted less than twenty-four hours. But, Alex informs them, brow creasing with worry, the lasting effects wreaked upon her body by her disappearance seem far more long-term. Lena had spent at least a month there in Phantom Zone time, Alex had estimated, judging by her physical deterioration.
The diagnosis makes Kara’s fragile stomach clench and twist. If there’d been any solid food inside her at all, she would have vomited it all over her sister’s combat boots.
So, they stay for four days. Four days of warming pads and saline drips and nutrient-rich IVs and test after test after test. Four days of hugs and whispered thanks and stern reprimands for her half-crazed rescue mission from Alex and J’onn; of sun lamps and physical therapy and patching up cuts and bruises.
Four days of her throat closing over any time any one of her friends asks what had happened in the Phantom Zone. Four days of nightmares and flashbacks and full-body tremors. Four days with barely a word spoken, with her hand clasped tight in Lena’s in the empty space between their gurneys as they lie there traumatised and trembling, gazes fixed stubbornly on the ceiling as silent tears track over their temples and soak into their hair.
On the fifth day, Alex informs them – reluctantly – that they’re cleared to go home. Nudges Kelly towards the pair of them with little finesse and stands unsubtly in the corner, watching like a hawk as the young therapist goes over the importance of healthy processing. As she talks about trauma and lasting impacts and the dangers of internalisation, as she recommends mental health professionals and offers to set up appointments and graciously pretends not to notice the way neither of them can really meet her gaze.
Kara just squeezes Lena’s hand, never far now from her own, and promises they’ll think about it.
Home, Alex had said, but Kara isn’t sure she can. Isn’t sure it would be, not really. Not on her own.
Thankfully, Lena picks up on her thought process without her having to say a word. She runs the pad of her thumb over Kara’s knuckles in the empty med bay, gazing up from under her lashes. “Your place?” she asks shyly, voice hoarse from disuse. Kara doesn’t need to be asked twice.
She’s fully recovered now, physically at least, so she opts to fly them there. Leaves her sister and the rest of their family with hugs and kisses and promises to check in, to take care of themselves and each other, and whisks Lena out of the door into the early morning sunlight.
Setting foot in her apartment again is weird. She’s spent only a few disoriented minutes here since before this whole thing began, before Lex and the projector and the terror and the rescues, plural.
It feels different now, somehow. Just ever so slightly misaligned, as if every one of her possessions has been picked up and put back a hair’s breadth out of place. But it’s possible, she supposes as she surveys the room, that actually, she’s the one that’s changed.
She lets Lena shower first. Lays out fresh clothes for her and sets to work in the kitchen Alex must have re-stocked, preparing miniature portions of toast and cut fruit for their still-recovering stomachs. She’s just finished brewing a weak pot of herbal tea when Lena emerges, the ends of her wet curls dripping steadily into the fabric of Kara’s cosiest sweater.
She speeds through her own shower, tugging on sweats and the softest t shirt she can dig out, re-emerging to find Lena staring rigidly down at the box of tapes still sitting on the coffee table, expression unreadable.
“Thank God you left me these,” she says quietly, tracing a fingertip over the rows of neatly-labelled cassettes. “Who knows where we’d be right now if you hadn’t.”
Kara swallows. “I’m glad you could figure it out, even if my message was cut off,” she says thickly, keeping her gaze glued to the battered shoebox even when Lena’s eyes snap to her face. “I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you everything then. I— I’m sorry I waited so long.”
She hears the way Lena’s heart ticks up in her chest, though she still won’t meet her gaze. “So am I.”
Silence falls between them. No, not silence. Back in the Phantom Zone— that had been silence. The utter quiet of suspended decay, of a world devoid of light, life, hope. Here in her sun-soaked living room it isn’t silent, not really. Morning traffic rumbles steadily past the building. Floorboards creak, pipes tick in the walls. In the apartment above hers, a dishwasher hums.
Kara loves these sounds, she realises. She’ll never take them for granted again.
“So, what now?” she asks after a long moment, spreading her arms wide. “Do you, I don’t know. D’you want to sleep?”
Lena shudders, wrapping her arms tight across her torso. “God, no.”
Kara huffs out a breath that, in another lifetime, might have been a chuckle. “Me neither.”
A lull rises between them again. Lena brushes past her on her way to the kitchen, the scent of Kara’s shampoo on her hair lingering like a siren song. She picks up a piece of toast, taking a delicate bite. Pours them both a mug of tea. “Well,” she says at length, pinching a strawberry daintily between thumb and forefinger. “I bet we’ve got a lot of crap TV to catch up on.”
They end up curled on the couch, tucked beneath the length of Kara’s red knitted blanket. They stay there all day, episode after episode of shows they don’t really watch playing across the screen. They snack periodically, keep themselves hydrated as per Alex’s explicit instructions, but for the most part they’re just there, together, quiet and still.
“Are you going to make an appointment with one of the therapists Kelly recommended?” Kara asks at some point, playing absentmindedly with Lena’s fingers where they rest on the blanket between them.
“I don’t know,” Lena murmurs, cheek resting against the back of the couch. “It’s probably a good idea. Are you?”
“I guess,” she says quietly, rolling her own head so they’re face to face. “We could go together, if you like? Not actually into the session, obviously, but, you know—”
“Yeah,” Lena hums, her eyelids fluttering closed. “Together.”
They migrate closer as the hours wear on, drawn together like magnets as day bleeds into night behind the high vaulted windows. Darkness falls to find Lena tucked beneath Kara’s arm, curled warm and close against her side. Her left hand tangles with Kara’s where it drapes across the younger woman’s shoulder, Lena’s head nestled snugly against her neck.
They’re warm and cosy and safe now, even if Kara isn’t sure her nervous system has fully gotten the message yet. It will take a lot to come back from this, she knows. A lot of time and effort and unpleasantness to deal with the traumas they’ve suffered together and apart, to heal gaping wounds into numbing scars and somehow learn how to live again. But here, now, with Lena’s hand in hers and Lena’s heartbeat thumping steady and persistent against her ribs, she thinks she might be strong enough to try.
Not tonight, though. Tonight is for blankets and bites of toast and soothing tea and the early seasons of Gilmore Girls that neither of them really pay attention to. Tonight, in short, is perfect.
“Hey,” Lena hums somewhere between seasons two and three, rolling her head on Kara’s shoulder so they’re face to face. She has to tilt her chin up to meet Kara’s eyes. Her own are gold-flecked amidst the green, shining in the soft lamplight despite their lingering shadows. “Thanks for saving me.”
Kara swallows, throat tightening. She squeezes the hand still in hers, drawing their linked arms round Lena’s body to hold her tighter. “Ditto.”
Lena smiles then – a soft, exquisite thing – and turns her gaze back to the screen. Kara lets out the breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding, softening the two of them further into the cushions. A moment later, Lena tilts her face up towards her again.
“Hey,” she repeats, even quieter than the first. Their faces are barely a hair’s breadth apart, now. She can feel Lena’s soft exhales against her mouth. Can see Lena’s lips moisten as the tip of her tongue darts out to wet them. “Thanks for loving me.”
The world stops in its tracks for a moment. Kara’s heart seizes. “Ditto.”
A corner of Lena’s mouth quirks. She leans up, nudging closer, and presses their lips together.
The first touch is brief, gentle and tender. The second is deeper, open-mouthed and full. Kara learns the shape of Lena’s tongue in her mouth, the taste of her teeth, the flavour of her shallow gasps. There’s a third kiss, and a fourth and a fifth and then Kara loses track somewhere between the hand Lena brings up to cup her jaw and the way she tilts sweetly as they move together, her head still resting against Kara’s shoulder, her nose brushing her cheek.
It’s unhurried and uncomplicated and done with no ceremony, no fanfare. It doesn’t escalate, betrays no expectation. In fact, they barely move from the embrace they’ve been in for hours, just adding one more to the list of the warm points of contact between their bodies.
It doesn’t feel like a big step, some brand new beginning. It feels, Kara thinks, like the last piece of the puzzle of her life finally, blessedly, sliding into place. The progression feels inevitable, and easy as breathing. It makes sense, she supposes. She and Lena always have been.
At some point they break apart and Lena smiles again, warm and wondering. She presses her temple to Kara’s jaw for a moment, content to bask in the final realisation of their kismet, then turns back to snuggle deeper into Kara’s side.
Onscreen, Rory Gilmore gives the valedictorian’s speech to throngs of cheering high schoolers. A cool night breeze blows in through Kara’s half-open window. In the apartment above hers, the dishwasher finally falls silent.
Lena is soft and warm and pliable against her, moulding to Kara’s every curve and edge. It’s no small thing, she thinks as she presses a kiss to the crown of Lena’s head, to be able to walk through hell with someone and emerge on the other side still holding their hand.
“We’re gonna be okay, aren’t we?” Lena asks quietly, half-muffled in the fabric of Kara’s t shirt.
Kara hums, honest and happy and hopeful once more. “Yeah. I think we are.”