Kara's favorite part was always the light.
She loved how it shifted with the wind blowing, flickering from one color to the next, the sky a burnt hue of oranges and reds in the layer of thick smoke. She loved how the sound of the fire could drown everything out, how she could hear nothing over the crackling of it as she breathed in smudge and grit and hacked it out, laughing as she told herself to get her shit together.
Her favorite part was always her team, working as a unit, communicating, trusting each other. How they'd spend three consecutive days in their boots back at the base, just waiting for the second they could jump again. Running, training, fidgeting, playing Uno. Doing anything to keep their hands busy as they obsessed about it.
Her favorite part was the silence underneath her parachute as the noise faded from the plane.
Her favorite part was feeling, for just a few moments, like she was unstoppable.
At the start of every football season, there are just over one million high school boys strapping their helmets on, lacing their cleats, biting around their mouth guards in the team huddle as they chant about victory. At the start of every football season, there are 1,696 players in the NFL.
The United States has an estimated 1.2 million firefighters, but only 400 can call themselves smokejumpers.
Of that 400, only fifteen percent identify as women.
Kara’s used to beating the odds to get what she wants, used to fighting for it, working for it, scraping through the grit just to get half of what she deserves and smile like she appreciates it. She's used to being the one that works five times as hard for a fourth as much, because she's only ever wanted one thing, and it's always been to be one of the most elite firefighters in the entire fucking country.
She's always loved fire, the adrenaline of it, the rush she gets when she's fighting it. She loved it so much she built her life around it: spent four years as a hotshot (read: worked on an elite 20-person crew fighting the biggest, wildest fires around the country, using her chainsaw and her Pulaski to remove surface fuel and dig down to mineral soil in eighteen inch lines encircling raging fucking fires). Then she spent some time on a helitack crew, rappelling out of helicopters to tackle wildfire flames blazing twenty feet high.
And when even that wasn't enough, when she wanted to push herself even farther, she sent in her first application to become a smokejumper.
She was rejected once before she started calling the base every week, twice before she started putting in even more work, and three times before she said fuck it and moved to National City, before she uprooted her entire life just so she could visit the base twice a week, poke her head in the door, and let them know, "Hey, I'm still here, and I'm ready to go." Because she knew the one and only way to get what she wanted was to always be dedicated, never stop trying, and above all else: stay hungry.
She was hired four weeks later.
So maybe that's why, five years after all of that, it's a bit disappointing sitting in a hospital bed, watching Alex's eyes do that angry-sad-worried thing they do whenever Kara's really fucked up. Because this time it's bad. Even she can tell that much.
"Give me the ugly," Kara says.
Alex sighs. "Probably six months of physical therapy."
Kara chews on that a second, but she knows it only gets worse from there, so. "Give me the hideous, then."
"Right," Alex says. She's frowning with her whole face, forehead crinkled-up terribly, chewing the inside of her cheek. "We can wish for miracles or divine intervention or whatever flavor you're into that week, but the truth is: you're just, never going to be the same. Not physically."
God, she knows what's coming, but she still needs to hear it. "Alright, give me the '07 bald Britney with the umbrella."
"You need to quit smokejumping," Alex huffs.
There it is. "I can't do that, Alex. It's who I am. You know that. It's like giving up--"
"Your life," Alex cuts in. "It'll be like giving up your life if you go back. But it's your choice to make, so. I guess just do what you want."
Kara wants to point out that quitting feels like giving up her life, too, but she can tell she's already lost the argument.
"Five-hundred sixty three," Kara says into her phone receiver, carefully placing the lid on her coffee and grabbing six napkins before she beelines for the stairs, skipping two at a time. "You know what that is?"
"The number of minutes in a year, right?" Alex asks on the other end.
"Shut up," Kara laughs, rolling her shoulder to dodge a guy on his phone, rounding the top of the first set of stairs for the next. "It's the number of days it's been since my last jump. I keep a calendar, you know? It just struck me today that it's a lot."
"Oh yeah? How does that make you feel?"
"You're not my therapist," Kara teases, licking the spill of her coffee off the lid as she keeps moving. She gets to the top of the second set of stairs and rounds the corner, then freezes mid-step, heart sinking a little bit. There's someone in her favorite chair, at her favorite table, by her favorite window, in her favorite coffee shop at her favorite time to be here. "I have to go, sorry. Someone's encroaching on my territory, so m'gonna get myself in a little bit of a confrontation to get it back."
"You do know you don't own that table?" Alex asks, but Kara's already pressing the end call button.
Six months ago, the newspaper announced there was a coffee shop opening up on the twenty-seventh floor of a building, and it was the first thing Kara had seen in ages that made her want to get out of bed. So, she's been here every single week since day one, sitting at that table and looking out over the trees, thinking about smokejumping and actually giving the meditation her therapist prescribed a genuine shot. It's the only thing that keeps her sane these days and, genuinely, the only place she can clear her head.
So, some person just deciding her table is theirs today is really fucking blowing her morning.
It's just one guy, though, one single guy, tall, chiseled, has a laptop. Looks like a journalist. Kara can take him, she's sure of it. She has a shitty back and a shittier hip, but still. She's seen chainsaws bigger than him.
"Hey," she starts, strolling up to the table, waiting until she has the guy's full attention before she asks, "By any chance, do you remember that wildfire that happened in the Grand Tetons about two years ago? That huge one that spread like crazy?"
He looks confused for a second, but he perks up, shrugs and folds his arms. "No, don't think so. I'm not recalling it."
"That's because I stopped it before it turned into something that'd make the news," Kara smiles, leaning against the table, tapping her thumbs against her coffee lid, because the only times she really feels alive is when she's talking about fire again. "My name's Kara and I'm a smokejumper. You know, the firefighters you don't hear about because we're not kicking down doors saving babies from flames."
"That's impressive," the guy smiles, and actually looks impressed. "I'm William. I've heard of that. You guys are basically Navy SEALs, aren't you?"
"Yeah, I guess, except we're not getting shot at," Kara laughs.
"Just jumping out of planes so you can get chased by fires in thick forests. I'd say one of those terrifies me more than the other."
"Don't pretend you're not equally terrified by fire and getting shot at."
"You may have a point," William laughs with her. "To what do I owe this introduction?"
"Um," Kara starts, nibbling her lip because she doesn't want to be rude, but she's getting antsy. "Well, m'just here to tell you that I provide a great service to this country, and in return I'd just like to sit at this table on Saturday's and meditate peacefully. You're kind of ruining that for me."
"Pretty blunt, aren't you?" William asks, leaning back in Kara's chair. "For a second I thought you actually found something about me interesting. But I guess when you do that for a living, not much else is impressive."
Kara laughs again, genuinely. She doesn't mind William, to be honest, seems like a decent person, but he's still in her chair and she's not happy with that. "Look, I don't have many constants in my life, but I have this coffee shop and this table and that view of the park as I sip my six-shot ristretto, extra-whip, three-raw-sugars cappuccino. So, I'd like to continue that tradition if you don't mind."
"Well, I'd never mess with a woman who's skilled with an axe and her coffee order sounds like that," he says, starting to pack his things away, surprisingly. He doesn't miss a chance to slide his card in Kara's direction, though. "But call me if you're ever interested in doing an interview. I work for CatCo, would love to do a story about a badass smokejumper."
"What's your angle?" Kara asks, eyeing his card. Seems legit.
"Rare woman in a Boy's Club?"
"Think of something better than that, and I'll consider it," Kara says, then waits patiently for William to walk away.
Kara learned how to be sad when she was twelve years old. Her parents died both suddenly and tragically. There was a house fire and she was at a sleep over, and she'll never forget the way her friend's parents' faces dropped when they said, we need to tell you something. It wasn't just her heart or her soul that broke when she found out, but something much more fundamental. It was like she stopped functioning somewhere deep inside herself, on a mitochondrial level, maybe. She cried from the moment she got the news until the moment she fell asleep that night, and then the next day there came the social worker.
So, she got a new family and a new sister and a couple years later she got to experience losing another dad, too.
She was really good at depression when she was younger, if that's something a person can brag about. She read Prozac Nation and listened to Ani DiFranco, owned at least six MCR t-shirts and four black hoodies. She'd post vague song lyrics on her secret FaceBook page about depression and self-harm and claim it was just poetic if anyone tried to relate to her. She took up boxing to let out her aggression, but also so she could get hit and celebrated for it, congratulated when she wore her bruises to school every day like it was a badge of honor. She was good at it. No one noticed and no one cared and no one asked. People loved her. She was funny. She was pretty. She was privileged.
She hated her life.
And then, when she was eighteen, she found fire.
Maybe she didn't find it, so much as she noticed it was already a part of her. She always had this recurring dream of a little girl standing in the middle of the burnt remains of a house, and when she told her first captain he just said: remember, when your house burns down, you always get a better view of the sky. And she took that to heart. Whatever the fuck it was supposed to mean, she used it to better herself.
For the first time, she was happy. Not the fake kind, either, the wear a smile and cover up the wounds bullshit. She was wake up in the morning jump out of bed happy, she was i've found myself and my purpose happy. She was happy happy. Everything was good, everything was perfect, until a year and a half ago, when she fucked up and she fucked up again, and she lost it all. So now she's thirty-two, with no purpose and no job and very broken, and she's stuck figuring out for the first time that somewhere underneath all her happiness she never actually stopped being sad.
She's also figuring out that she's really fucking bad at meditation:
Close your eyes. It's a pleasant sunny day, not too hot with a light breeze. You feel the sun warming and energizing your skin. Try not to think about the fact that you haven't showered for two days and your face has a weird layer of dead skin because splashing water on it is not the same as exfoliating. Try not to think about your stray hairs or the fact that your bangs are both too long and unruly. Try not to think about the fact that you marathoned six hours of House Hunters because the remote was three centimeters out of your reach. Try not to think. Try not to think. Try not to think about the fact that fucking bees are endangered and there's like, one rhino left if that.
Close your eyes. See yourself relaxing by a beautiful, calm lake. God, the guy next to you has played hot girl bummer six times on repeat and you've now shifted from irritation to humming along with it. Life is too short and meaningless, crap aren't you supposed to be breathing?
It's really fucking hard to just. Shut her brain off. She doesn't know why her therapist keeps forcing this shit on her.
"Is this seat taken?" someone asks, and Kara just about has a heart attack. Then she looks up and sees the woman that said it, and that doesn't really help her heart either. "Sorry, it's just that literally every other seat is taken, and you didn't seem like you were using this half of the table."
Kara blinks her eyes into focus, tries to take the woman in more clearly. She's very beautiful, Kara thinks. She's short and elegant and fierce in an inexplicable way, fingers curled around her coffee and a bun so messy there's almost more hair out of it than in it. She has a really pretty smile on her face, and her jawline is quite sharp, and her eyes are different colors, both green and blue and yeah. She's very beautiful.
"No, it's free," Kara says, and for no good reason she can give herself, she actually invites this woman into her peaceful space. "This is like the only coffee shop you can find thirty floors up, so if you're not here at the buttcrack of dawn it fills up pretty quickly."
"Yeah, starting to realize it was dumb of me to think I could just drop in. But I saw it on Yelp and the reviews are incredible."
"Have you seen this view?" Kara asks, tilting her head as the woman slides into the chair across from her. "This is probably the best one in the city you can get on a consistent basis. Honestly, it's almost as good as some others I've seen, and that's saying something, considering."
"You do a lot of traveling?" the woman asks, grabbing her tablet from her bag and placing it on the table.
"I did a lot of jumping out of airplanes," Kara smiles. "Nothing like the tree-line coming in so fast it's more terrifying than beautiful. Nothing more exhilarating than that, either. Sorry, I'm just, uh--"
"A thrill seeker stuck in a coffee shop?" the woman smiles.
"No, a retired smokejumper," Kara laughs, sheepishly. "And you're probably the fourth person I've said that to today, starting to think it's my only line. That's something, isn't it?"
"It's a good line, though," the woman says, tilting her head. "It has the right amount of that like, I don't know, fascinating factor. My line is telling people that I'm a competitive pole dancer. When I'm not busy running a bookshop, of course."
Kara has to clear her throat. "You mean like, you're a librarian stripper?"
The woman snorts, laughing afterwards. "Something like that," she says. "I know you'll keep that tip-top secret, though, Ms. Smokejumper."
"Oh no, I'm going to tell absolutely everyone as soon as you give me your name."
"Yours first?" she asks.
"Kara Danvers," Kara says, and watches the woman's eyes light up when she smiles. It makes Kara's heart flutter the way it used to when she watched the spotter throw the streamers out of the plane door, when she tracked them floating and kept thinking to herself she's next. "Yours?"
"I guess I have you at a disadvantage now, don't I?"
"I've known you six seconds and I already know you're even more cheeky than my sister," Kara says, fiddling with her empty cup, wondering if she should get a refill as an excuse to stay here and miss her therapy appointment in a half-hour.
The woman rests her arms on the table and shrugs casually, eyes still glinting with her smile. "I've known you six seconds and I already know your name is Kara Danvers, you come here often, you have a sister, and you used to be a smokejumper. Also that you miss it. A lot. You're pretty young, too, so you probably didn't retire because you wanted to. Am I on the right track?"
"What are you, CIA?"
"No, you're just an open book," the woman laughs. "I usually hate that in strangers, but I like it on you."
"A librarian likes an open book," Kara says, sarcastic and dramatic. "Think maybe we should alert the media. Seriously, though, I met a guy here just before you that might help out. He seemed thirsty for a story. This is a big one, too."
There's silence for a really long second after she says it, two seconds, three seconds, Kara starts to think her best option is to just get up from the table now, but, weirdly, the woman finally says, "I'm sorry if I offended you. I've been accused of being too intense before."
"Oh, m'not easy to offend," Kara tells her fast. "I didn't quit because I wanted to, you're right. And I do miss it, but I also like living."
"We don't have to talk about it," the woman says. "I'm Lena."
Kara checks her watch. If she waits another minute she'll be late, and that means another lecture about taking her mental health seriously. She's not sure she's in the mood for that, so. "Thanks for telling me your name, Lena. Hate to get it and go, but--"
"You have somewhere to be."
"The eternal struggle of the modern era. Where's our daily quota of down time?" Kara asks, sliding out of her chair. "Unfortunately, we don't have to talk about it, but I do. Every week, every Saturday. It was good meeting you, though."
"Likewise," Lena laughs, and then, "Good luck out there."
Kara smiles as she walks away. Therapy is just her twiddling her thumbs for forty-five minutes. She keeps thinking about Lena.
Sunday's are always a shitshow, but Kara still wakes up at 5am so she can run six miles, cry about her back spasming, throw bread to the ducks on the lake, feel guilty about giving them an unbalanced diet, and get back in time to catch Alex kissing Kelly goodbye.
"You look immaculate," Kara says, because Kelly always does, and it always reminds Kara how shit she looks these days. There was a point she could pull a girl right from under one of the guys in a diner, but that was a long time ago. Today Kelly's wearing nice dark jeans and a blouse so white Kara feels like her mere presence in the room is tainting it. "You know you don't have to leave the house every Sunday, you guys could just kick me out and pretend this sister time isn't just make sure Kara's not dying time."
"How's your therapy going?" Kelly asks, not even bothered, leaned against the doorway.
"Your friend is great, really, but meditation sucks."
"She's not my friend, she's a colleague," Kelly laughs. "And she's great at what she does if you let her be, alright? Therapy is just as much about what you put into it, as it is--"
"What you get out of it," Kara finishes. "I know, I know. I'm trying, Kel. I swear."
"Meditation can suck, though, I get it," Kelly adds. If she weren't currently splish-sploshing with Alex every night, Kara would want her as a therapist, because she always gets it. "Give her more to work with, and she'll give you more to work with. Remember, a doctor can't diagnose you with cancer if you just keep telling them you feel tired sometimes and nothing else. Put something out there she can grab on to."
"Okay," Kara sighs, smiling afterwards because Kelly's also always right. "I did start listening to Julien Baker, though. She told me a support group could provide solidarity or something, but I found it on Spotify, instead."
"Okay, on that note, I think I'll go," Kelly laughs, and Alex pulls her in for one more kiss before she rolls her eyes at Kara.
Her therapist said that sometimes writing letters can make a person feel better when they feel helpless or unheard about something.
So, on Wednesday, Kara sits down with hot girl bummer in the background as she writes:
Dear Forest Service National Fire Director,
I hate you. Switching from the FS-14 to the ram-air parachute is the reason I can't jump anymore.
Then she hums along to fuck you and you and youuu.
"Kara Danvers, is that you?"
"Depends, am I being subpoenaed?" Kara asks, and she looks up just in time to catch the sun reflecting off Lena's eyes as she laughs. Kara was hoping she'd show up again, even got a hair cut and everything. "You're back."
"You sound surprised, yet relieved," Lena says, sliding in the chair across from her without even asking this time.
"And you're still CIA," Kara frowns, playfully. "If you're trying to recruit me, just want you to know I'll never make it through the Farm. Barely make it through my morning runs with this back."
"How do you know about the Farm?" Lena asks, suspicious. "That's highly classified material."
"Guess I shouldn't mention all the information I have on Project Orion, either."
"We're going to have to take you in."
"Fine, but I'd like to finish my coffee first," Kara says, watching Lena giggle as a blush creeps up her cheeks. She's very beautiful, Kara thinks again, in more of a startling way this time, like it creeps up on her. Lena's wearing her hair down today, black and wavy, red lipstick. "So how was your week, then? Must not have been too exciting if you came back for me."
"I can't have a good week and like talking to a stranger?" Lena asks, and this time Kara feels her own cheeks heating up. "My week was great, and there was something about you I just found... it's hard to describe. Whatever the French mean by je ne sais quoi, you have it."
"Saying I don't know in French doesn't make it any better," Kara laughs. She hasn't smiled this much in such a long time, her cheeks are already getting sore. "Same effect as English."
"Really? I thought I'd get points for that."
"Are we tallying then?"
"Do you want to?" Lena asks.
Kara shakes her head. "So, do you have a last name?"
"It's Luthor," Lena says, and then she checks the time on her watch. "You have to go soon, don't you?"
"I do," Kara confirms.
"Next Saturday, then?" Lena asks. "I'll show up earlier since I'm sure you'll be here next time."
"Sounds like a plan," Kara says, really happy she didn't slip and say date.
For the first time, Kara has a good therapy session. Nothing gets solved, nothing gets fixed, but her therapist sighs for a really long time and then she's painfully honest, "There are a lot of therapeutic protocols and drugs designed to treat depression, but at best most of them only work some of the time. We still haven't found a good way to deal with it, but if you work with me, we can figure out something for you."
For some reason that resonated with Kara, so she went home and finally tried to figure out more about her depression.
That's how she lands on Sick Woman Theory by Johanna Hedva and the question of, “How do you throw a brick through the window of a bank if you can’t get out of bed?"
That's the question, isn't it? That's the problem.
Except the solutions Kara's had, the mindfulness and cognitive restructuring and SSRIs aren't targeting it, because there's something outside of the hypothesized reasons for why she can't get out of bed. It's not just negative thoughts, negative attitudes, mental shit she can take control of. It's not just chemical imbalances or genetic predisposition or anything else to do with biology. It's the crippling knowledge that she lost the only job she was ever going to be happy with and she's only thirty-two.
It's the knowledge that she's relatively healthy and that women outlive men, and the probability of her getting struck by lightning or hit by a bus are relatively fucking low (thanks Thinking Traps!). It's the fact that she has to go on for two more of the lifetimes she's already had, at least, while knowing that she's never going to be as happy as she once was.
Because she's never going to get to do the thing that she loves again.
So, it was a pretty good therapy session, because she finally figured out why nothing has been working.
The coffee shop is more packed than usual when Kara gets there on Saturday, no tables available and no way she can finesse her way through the heated debate between two friends seated at her own.
So her palms start to do that weird twitchy thing, the way they get when she's anxious and uncertain and her routine gets interrupted enough she can't think straight. Then she feels a hand on her shoulder and she turns to see a smile, and. It's like it disappears.
"There's a really good churro stand in the park across the street," Lena says. "Think we'd have more luck going for a walk than navigating through this chaos, yeah?"
"You came back again," Kara says dumbly, and she doesn't know why it comes out so breathless or why she feels so relieved or so shocked, but she knows she's fucking embarrassed the moment it leaves her mouth. She wants to go home, suddenly, wants to turn off the lights and hide under her cover like her own Plato's Cave of denial and despair.
She wants to slap herself for even thinking of that analogy.
But Lena just says, "Of course I did," and smiles even bigger, then she takes Kara's hand and leads her away.
Kara's always been obsessed with hands, ever since she was a little girl. She used to trace the lines of her dad's palms as they sat on the couch, think about all the times she'd seen him fix cars and chop wood, set up tents and fish and throw rocks and toss her in the air. She always wondered how something so strong could also be so soft.
Sometimes she thinks about all the things her dad's hands could have taught her--how to knot a tie, fix a bike, hold a golf club correctly. He would have taught her what to do about the calluses from her axe, what to do when they're too cold.
There were so many things she had to figure out on her own back at the base, because she was too afraid to be the only woman and to ask, and she didn't have anyone to go to for support, so. She thinks about her dad's hands a lot. She thinks about everyone's hands a lot, how they do all the things they do and still find a way to be tender enough to hold someone they love.
Lena's hand is so soft. It's strong and it's delicate, and it's all Kara can think about as Lena leads them across the street, as she watches Lena fold the paper of her churro down, palm twitching at the lingering warmness. She's still thinking about her hand when Lena walks them to a lake, when they sit down bumping shoulders, legs crossed, and stare at the water a long time before either one of them speaks.
It's Lena to break the silence. "So, I looked up smokejumping," she starts, "and now it feels surreal that I even know you, that I'm just, casually talking to a person that's actually done that. It looks insane."
"It is insane," Kara points out, eyes focused on the spot where Lena's knee is touching hers. "But it has to be, you know? A person has to be a little bit, to do it. I mean you're jumping out of planes into fire, it's not the most sane thing to do."
"I guess someone has to do it, right?" Lena asks. "I'm glad there are people like you that are really dedicated to it."
Kara shrugs. "I guess I was."
"God, m'sorry," Lena fumbles out. "I was just trying to. I'm dumb, sorry."
"No, no, you're not," Kara comforts, and she wants to put her hand on Lena's thigh to tell her it's okay, but she doesn't know if that's appropriate. So, she keeps them folded in her own lap instead. "I'm just, weird about it right now. But, I get what you're--I get you're trying to relate."
She can see Lena's face lighting up with probably a million questions that Kara probably can't answer, but she settles on, "Your hair looks really good in the sunlight. You have these natural highlights that really shine through."
And Kara feels herself blushing, mumbles thanks, and tries to breathe through the fact that she really likes Lena.
They don't really talk a lot after that, but they spend an entire hour sitting and watching the water, pressed too close to each other for how hot it is and how much room they have, but Lena seems content with it that way. So Kara is, too.
Later, her therapist tells her that this is the first time she's showed up to three consecutive sessions and on time, too.
Kara tells her that this is the first time she's felt like she actually wants to be better.
She tells her that she hates shutting down, and she hates feeling broken all the time; and her therapist writes Broken on piece of paper, underlines the ok, and says, "It's okay to be broken sometimes. The feeling is telling you something about yourself, and you should probably listen to it."
So, Kara goes home, and she tries to figure that out.