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quiet when i'm coming home (i'm on my own)

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-

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.

Chapter Text

Kara's five steps from the front door when she hears a voice behind her.

"Kara," Alex sighs, poking her head out from her bedroom door. "It's three in the morning, you know that, right? Where are you going?"

Kara stops in her tracks, presses the backs of her thumbs against her eyes and tries to breathe. 

"I can't sleep," she tells Alex, turning around, and then she adds, because she knows Alex wants a six-point plan for the next however many hours, "I'm just gonna start my run early. That's all." She can see Alex's face drop as she says it, and god, she hates that. She's trying to be normal, healthy, well-adjusted or whatever, but right now she just. Can't. "Really, I'll be back as soon as I'm done."

It's Thursday night, or morning, or whatever 3am is, and it's not too hot right now, cool and dry and perfect for a run. Kara could tell that much from sticking her hand out her window. She's wearing old sweats and a ratty band t-shirt, and she keeps telling herself it's a coincidence she put it on, but she knows these shirts used to be her shields and, in some ways, still are. Still, it's not her usual running get-up, and she can tell Alex is picking up on that, too.

It's like she picks up on everything these days, and she's definitely not happy with this plan, judging from her face, but Kara wants to go, right now, to get out of this house, so she's getting antsy.

"Tell me," Alex whispers, barely audible, but Kara can tell she's still using her cautious voice. "Tell me why you can't sleep, and I'll let you go. That's the deal."

Kara's first instinct is to say something petulant or defensive, i'm an adult, you can't control me, i can do what i want, so what if you saw me at my lowest low less than a year ago, fuck you. "I had a bad dream, and it felt so real. I can't shake it."

Truthfully, she doesn't know if it was a bad dream or just a flashback, because every single second of it was so fucking vivid and every single second of it actually happened. She felt like she was on the jump plane, could smell the stale sweat and chewing tobacco and jet A fuel. She could feel how cramped it was, 1,600 feet above the forest floor, packed between Kevlar and parachutes as everyone jostled to get a good view of the jump, tossing nerves and excitement and nerves back-and-forth and back-and-forth between them. She could see the guy across from her mouthing a silent prayer with his eyes closed, see her captain clenching his thigh because this was the same spot he got hurt last year, see the rookie twisting his mouth up in a frown as he asked, are we really going to jump this?

"Kara," Alex says, and it's firm. It's probably at least her third time calling Kara's name. "Just wait a second, alright? I'm coming with you. We don't have to talk or acknowledge each other, but. I want you to know I'm there."

"Okay," Kara says, shuffling her feet, because she knows the alternative is that she doesn't get to go.

-

On her run one morning, someone tells her, "I can't believe you do this every day," then they take a deep breath, sigh, laugh a little, look her over and finish with, "I could never have that kind of determination and self-motivation. Kudos to you."

And it cuts Kara deeper than a compliment should.

She wants to tell them that she can't do anything. She wants to tell them that at about one in the afternoon, every single day, hopelessness takes over. It doesn't matter how much she accomplishes in the morning, what she does, how much of it she finishes, it always wins. She wants to tell them that, when her brain is left to its own devices, it can cycle through how worthless she is and how pointless it is to even try up to and beyond a hundred times a day. She wants to tell them that if she didn't run, she'd probably stop existing, spiral out of control, because running is the one routine from her old life that made it into this new one. Running is the only thing that keeps her anchored to reality, reminds her she's in control, lets her know that even in her darkest places--this is her life, and she can do this, and she's holding on, and maybe she'll be okay.

Running is all she can do, and she doesn't know if that's anything to be proud of.

But she doesn't say any of that. She just smiles instead, nods, and tells them, "Once it becomes a habit, it's just easy, you know?"

-

"Funny seeing you here," Lena says, and Kara tries to hide the excitement she feels as she fights the urge to say you're here.

"You look fancy today," she says instead, watching Lena look down at the tight, black quarter-sleeve dress she has on. "You have a date or something?"

"You're my only standing," Lena smiles, taking her seat, and. Kara clears her throat and chugs a too big sip of her coffee. "I have an excerpt reading and book signing at the shop today, so just trying to look the part of the owner."

"Nice. Someone I'd know?"

"Probably not," Lena says, taking a sip of her own coffee before she sets it on the table and starts unpacking her muffin from its liner. "She's a local writer, not super well-known, trying my best to give up-and-coming talent a platform."

"Do you write, too? Or just read?" Kara asks, then backtracks and says, "Wait, sorry if it feels like I'm interrogating you."

"No, it's okay," Lena smiles. "Ask what you want, don't mind sharing about myself. Which is weird, actually," she adds. "I'm usually the private one."

"Thanks for being accommodating," Kara blushes.

"Anytime," Lena says. "And I don't really write, no. I've tried a little bit, of course, but I just like immersing myself in someone else's words. I like being taken on a journey and never knowing what's around the corner."

"You sound adventurous. But, then again, I guess you are a dancer in your spare time. If that's the correct term for it?"

"I suppose it is," Lena says, eyes squinting with the force of her smile. "You're a firefighter, though, m'sure you've slid down a pole or two in your day, right? You could probably teach me some moves."

"One or two," Kara agrees, watching how the light reflects off Lena's eyes as she pushes a chunk of muffin in her mouth. She looks a little tired today, but cute. So fucking cute. "Completely different ballparks, though. One requires grace and skill, and the other requires... whatever it is you need."

"Oh my god," Lena gasps, covering her mouth with her palm as she laughs. There's something so honest about it, honest about her, like she's genuine in everything she does. It makes Kara feel fluttery inside, jittery. "I guess you're funny when you want to be."

"Sometimes," Kara shrugs, smile fading a bit as a cloud settles over her. She's funny when they're here, maybe, but she's not like this when she's at home. "Guess I'm okay when m'not being weird and closed off, right?"

"That's not what I meant," Lena says, face shifting into something serious. "You don't have to beat yourself up about not wanting to talk about certain things, okay? That's not what I want from you."

"Is there something you do want from me?" Kara quirks her eyebrow.

"Yeah," Lena shrugs. "I want you to be who you are, and I want you to let me accept you that way."

"That almost sounds like we're friends," Kara says.

"Not almost, we are," Lena says back, and Kara can't help the smile that stretches across her face.

-

Her problem is that she only sees what she misses about smokejumping, or at least that's what her therapist says: you don't have to make it something bad for yourself, but you should at least see it for what it is. There are definitely reasons that make having to quit really hurt, but there are probably also reasons that make having to quit not such a bad thing.

She's probably right, Kara knows that, but still.

Kara can't think of any reasons to be happy she doesn't have to go back.

-

The nightmares don't stop. She has three weeks of bad dreams and vivid memories, but it's only when she wakes up on a Wednesday at two in the afternoon instead of at 4:30am for her run, that she knows it's bad.

And, judging from Kelly and Alex's faces when she slinks into the kitchen, they know it's bad too.

"I'm just a little bit worried, is all," Alex says, throwing a handful of spinach into the omelette she's making Kara. "That's all I'm saying. Just worried. A little bit."

"I'm doing fine," Kara says, and Kelly eyes her over her glass of tea. The fact that she doesn't say anything makes Kara eternally grateful, but she supposes anything that comes out of her mouth right now would border on full-on therapy.   

"I'm not arguing with that," Alex says slowly. "But, usually, when you say you're fine, you're a little more fine than this. I can't remember the last time you missed a run. Or the last time you slept, for that matter."

"Whatever," Kara shrugs. "Maybe I can just get my own apartment so you can go back to worrying about yourself for once."

"I'm just saying," Alex says, a little bit firmer this time. "I'm a little worried, and I'm allowed to be, aren't I? The last time you said you were fine, and you weren't, you were taking three times your dose of painkillers, so--"

"Alex," Kelly coughs, and there's some weird tension between the two of them that Kara doesn't pay attention to because she's angry.

She can't be addicted to painkillers if she has actual pain, so she doesn't get what the big deals was. And either way, she hasn't so much as touched an acetaminophen since Alex threatened to put her in an inpatient facility. "Whatever," Kara huffs, and for some reason her dumb therapist's voice pops in her head, so she adds, "I'm not fine, but I'm going to therapy every week. On time. Consistently. I'm trying, okay?"

"I know," Alex says, then, "If it gets to be too much, just promise you'll tell me."

"I will," Kara says.

Because she will.

-

Lena's late. They've gotten into a routine, week after week after week, showing up at the same time at the same table, talking about nothing and laughing like shit doesn't hurt, but today. Lena's late. Not a couple minutes late, not show up right when Kara has to leave late. She's thirty minutes into Kara's planned therapy session and Kara's still waiting in the coffee shop late, and it sucks.

She doesn't deserve anything.

The thought hit ten minutes after the time Lena usually shows up, and it's been sitting on Kara's shoulder since then. It's laughing in her face right now. It's ruffling her hair and telling her good job and calling her a good girl, because she fucked up her therapy streak and lost her friend all in the span it takes to drink two coffees.

So, when Lena finally says, "Hey," it takes every ounce of strength Kara has to not start crying. "You should be at your thing, shouldn't you?"

"I didn't want you to think I didn't come," Kara whispers.

"Sorry," Lena says, and Kara only realizes now that she isn't moving toward her seat, that she's still standing right next to Kara, that she's resting her hand on top of hers and breathing loud. "I had an emergency at the shop, and I realized I don't have your number, so--"

"I'll just go, I'm sorry," Kara cuts her off, shuffling until Lena squeezes her hands.

"I was going to say--so maybe we should exchange them, our numbers, so this doesn't happen next time."

"Oh," Kara says.

"Yeah," Lena says. "And you should reschedule your thing, okay?"

"Okay," Kara says.

 

She does, reschedules as soon as she gets home. She goes to therapy on a Tuesday, apologizes a hundred times, and her therapist promises this doesn't count as breaking her streak.

-

"I have a friend," Kara says, one day at the gym. Alex sits up on her mat so she can face her, and Kara stops her arm stretches. "Her name is Lena. I meet her at the coffee shop every week. We just talk about random stuff. She makes me laugh. It's been going on for a bit."

"Why didn't you tell me before?" Alex asks. "Why are you just telling me now?"

There's a long explanation for that and a short one. Kara goes with, "Because you said to tell you when things aren't okay, right? Things are great now, but she was late this past Saturday, and that didn't feel so good. So, I want you to... I don't know. Be aware."

"Okay," Alex says quietly. "I'm aware. Do you want me to come with you? To meet her?"

"Eventually," Kara says. "But give me some time, yeah?"

"Yeah," Alex nods. There's a long beat of silence afterwards, then, "Legs today?"

Kara nods back. "Yeah, let's do legs today."

-

The summer after Kara graduated high school is the summer she went from tall and awkward, long limbs and big eyes, to something that even girls would stop and look at. It was her first summer of bootcamp and she had a lot of catching up to do, so she did: put on weight, picked up muscle, was tan and sweaty and still pretty even with grit underneath her fingernails and dust always in her hair.

It was also the summer that she got her first girlfriend. She'd dated boys before, knew their brand of bullshit and how to handle it, but girls were new, exciting, different. Girls weren't like boys, she thought, because she understood girls, they were the same. She was right in some ways, being with a girl was a different sort of intense and beautiful, but it was also a different sort of painful.

She was in the best shape of her life that summer, and her girlfriend liked to point it out, call her perfect, call her great amazing beautiful, until the compliments started turning into, "Seriously, what's wrong with you? What's the catch? There has to be something."

It felt like a joke at first, they'd laugh about it, but it was only funny until Kara had to come up with an answer because she had to be hiding something. So, she started finding little things about herself, ones she thought wouldn't matter, places to nitpick, bad shit to bring up. But it was like a seed that kept sprouting, because thinking about the little things inevitably brought up something big:

She wears the same socks twice in a row some weeks. She doesn't always brush her teeth before bed. She's cheated at board games. She's done dumb things, stupid things, degraded herself for people that didn't deserve it. She's never had an orgasm before. She gets frustrated when people can't understand her point of view. She thinks about sex a lot, fantasizes about it even with people that aren't herself. She follows the rules until it suits her not to. She's more often than not convinced that she's the one doing the right thing. She's never truly thought she's good enough, unless it's about fire. She hates herself. She doesn't think she's worth it.

It worked until it didn't, was enough until it wasn't, until it didn't matter how small Kara made herself, because she still couldn't make enough room for her girlfriend to feel big.

And that's when it ended.

 

So, a couple Saturdays later, when she's hanging with Lena and wearing a tank top and she's been washing her face a lot more, and even she can tell she's starting to glow again--

She completely freezes up when Lena tells her, "You're like a perfect specimen.

There's an entire therapy session about hurt and projection that she's supposed to have in her toolkit of mental skills, but it flies out the window the second Kara's heartbeat thickens in her chest. In her mind, this is supposed to be the part where she tells Lena all the ways she's not perfect. This is supposed to be the part where she shits on herself to make everyone in the room feel better. This is supposed to be the part where she stops taking up space, stops breathing, stops existing, stops being so goddamn perfect.

This is supposed to be the part when she starts feeling as small as she actually is, when she remembers that her presence is enough of an attack in itself because she's only ever gotten shit for just existing.

When Alex started getting pimples, she was the enemy because her skin was so nice. When she first started sports, she was the enemy because she could go for hours and barely break a sweat. When she first started fighting fire, she was the enemy because she was good and she was a woman, and those two things just don't mix. Even before that girlfriend, she'd already gotten really good at just not being her, so people could feel better being them.

This is the part where things get fucked.

So, she panics.

She clenches her toes and grinds her teeth, lets her head swirl until she's in a tunnel with Lena and none of the voices around her are getting in.

She panics when Lena says that, way more than she wants to, feels like she's breaking into a cold sweat for all of the three seconds that exist between Lena calling her perfect, and Lena tilting her head, chewing her lip, smiling, and adding, "I mean you're still a total dork, so don't let that get to your head, but you look really nice."

Then she stops. She stops panicking, because something in the back of her mind knows that this isn't that part. That with Lena that part may not even exist.

"Thanks," Kara whispers, probably flushing an alarming shade of red. She just, feels like an idiot constantly in front of Lena.

"Fuck," Lena sighs, picking at the chocolate chips on her muffin, looking Kara over. "I didn't mean to follow up a compliment with something bad, I just. I didn't want to make it awkward I guess, but what I really mean is that you look healthy. You look like you're doing better than you were when we first met, and that's nice to see."

"Oh, um. Right, yeah." God, Kara wasn't expecting that, so the only thing she can do with it is deflect, smile through her nerves and try to get them back to where they were before this, back to laughing. "So, you mean you're not saying it's nice to see me in a tank-top?

"You would think that, wouldn't you?" Lena rolls her eyes, but her cheeks are starting to pink up, so Kara keeps with it.

"No, then? What if I did this?" she asks, lifting her arms, biting her lip, doing her best front double bicep pose. She puffs up her muscles and stares off in the distance with as serious a face as she can put on, holding it until Lena's full-on just staring at her, until even the back of her neck feels hot with all of the attention. "Hmm?" she questions. "Is this doing it for you? Is it? I can tell it is, just admit it, Lee."

"Just stop," Lena brights up, giggling now, face an angry shade of red as she buries it in her hands. It's working. "Of course, it's--I mean it's not unpleasant to see you in a tank-top. You're very, super, you're really like, objectively attractive. God, I don't know how to say this without seeming... too gay," she finishes quietly. "I don't want to scare you away."

"Jesus, what," Kara gasps, her breath catching as she drops her arms and her head and laughs, loud and dumb and unstoppable. Her face feels like it's on fire, but she's just so relieved they're back to okay she nearly feels faint with it, wiping her eyes as she says between spurts of giggles, "I've been buying GC2B binders and flannels since I could afford them, and I liked Shego in Kim Possible, so it'll take a lot more than you saying I look good in a tank-top for me to think you're too gay."

Lena snorts. "I didn't want to ask," she laughs, just as flushed probably, covering her entire face now, and Kara feels like she's in dangerous territory of having a heart attack.

Lena's so cute, and she's too gay and Kara feels like her chest is constricting from more than just the giggling. It's weird but it feels like they're having a moment, and she doesn't know what to do with it. So, she keeps laughing and hopes it passes because, god, she doesn't want to fuck this up.

It takes a minute for them both to calm down, but once the laughter finally dies out and they're just looking at each other glassy-eyed and quiet and still too red, Lena says, "You started this."

"If you want to give me credit for making you laugh that hard, I'll take it," Kara says. 

"Don't make it a compliment," Lena whines. "I'm trying to make you accountable for your crimes."

"Once CIA, always CIA, I see. I shouldn't have let my guard down."

"Stop, I don't want to laugh again," Lena giggles, pressing her mouth against her knuckles. Then she clears her throat and finally really composes herself before she quirks her brow curiously. "I've been referring to you as she to my friends, by the way. Do you prefer I use something else?"

"No, that's fine," Kara says.

"Okay, just wanted to check, is all," Lena says, like she's shy about it. "Sorry."

"No, it's okay," Kara comforts, and before she can stop herself, remember she's supposed to be a closed book of unhappiness, her mouth is moving at light speed, spilling out words she's never spoken aloud before. "I've grappled with that for a while, actually, like it's always something eating away at me. I think I've always wanted to be a boy, in some way, but it never--I'm not sure if it's ever been an identity issue for me, as much as it's just practical. I feel like everything I've ever done or said or thought, it would have been better, different, cooler or whatever if I were a boy. I feel like I could have, no, I would have been more included if... like... I don't know," she shakes her head. "I'm having a hard time describing it."

"It's okay, take your time," Lena says, gently.

It feels so welcoming, so comforting, that Kara takes a deep breath, and then. She just. Lets it out. "I guess when you're trying to fit in and you're the only girl in your crew, it's a label that's a little hard to hold on to, to defend, to do anything with but slip it in your back pocket and hope no one notices enough to point it out. You just feel like you have to be one of them, even if you're not."

She remembers being in rural Nevada one summer and the guys inviting her out to a brothel that she wasn't even allowed to go inside. No Women Allowed. She remembers waiting by the truck in the parking lot, sipping beers, nearly crying every time a new guy showed up and asked if she was working, how much she charged, if she was new because they'd never seen her before. Truthfully, that's when she started wearing the binders and the button downs, tying her hair up in a tight bun and standing with her legs too wide. But it never made a difference, because her jaw wasn't square enough and her face was too pretty, and she wasn't a boy. She wasn't a boy. She wasn't a boy, and she didn't want to be a boy, but she needed to be.

Maybe there was something bad about smokejumping.

"So, I think I have all this weird baggage and shame and guilt about being a girl," she goes on. "But I've never felt like I really, genuinely wanted to be anything else. I just felt like I had to be, you know?"

"Yeah, I get that," Lena says, blinking at Kara in a way that, for the first time in a while, doesn't make Kara feel like an alien in her own skin.  "It's okay, though, that you're not one of the boys," she smiles, shrugging. "I personally think it's cool that you're one of the girls."

"Oh, um, that's--thanks," Kara gushes. She wants to kiss Lena. The thought jumps out at her so fast and unexpectedly she nearly leans her head in. "I think it's safe to decide that, moving forward, what you think matters the most."

"Mmm, I don't know," Lena hums. "Sometimes I like what you think, too."

"Okay, now you're too gay," Kara giggles, ducking to hide her blush. "I didn't see it before, but I see it now."

"I tried to warn you," Lena laughs, and Kara lifts her head, stops to just look at her for a long second. She doesn't know what she's searching for, but she knows it's there. "You should come to my show tomorrow night," Lena says unexpectedly. "Unless you have something planned, but. I'd love for you to see me dance, if it's not weird to say that."

"Do I have to pay?" Kara asks, because she's flustered, and a fucking idiot.

"Um, there's just the door fee," Lena says slowly. "But I could get you in free, it's no problem."

"No, I can pay," Kara says quickly. "I can, yeah. I'll be there."

"Good, I'll send you the address," Lena smiles.

Chapter Text

Kara's therapist asks about the nightmares, so Kara tells her, "I've been talking to a girl," instead, scratching her fingers against her joggers, shaking her leg. It's the second person she's told, and for some reason it seems real now. Like if they stop being friends it'll mean something, because now she'll have to tell people. But the last thing she wants to do is talk about the nightmares, so this amount of vulnerability is a risk she's willing to take to change the subject. "She's really nice and she invited me out tomorrow night to watch her... do this thing she's doing."

There's a long stretch of silence afterwards, the air in the room stiff as her therapist studies her face for a minute.

It's a game they play: her therapist says let's talk about the nightmares, and Kara offers up something she thinks is more interesting. Her therapist usually considers it for a moment, and if it's good enough, they can talk about that instead. It's been working so far, but she knows her therapist is just building trust, probably, that she's not trying to press Kara too far. 

Kara knows they'll have to talk about the nightmares at some point.

But, apparently, today is not that day. Today her therapist is letting her win at least one more time.

"How long have you known her?" she asks, settling back in her chair, significantly more relaxed than she was for the nightmare battle.

Kara swallows. She hates thinking about it, quantifying it, realizing she knows relatively little about Lena considering the amount of times they've seen each other. "A couple months," she says, and because she wants to convince her therapist that this is a good thing, for reasons she doesn't want to think about, she adds, "She's actually part of the reason I've been so consistent coming in. I see her every week right before this."

"She encourages you to go to your sessions?"

"No, not really to go to my sessions. I don't think she knows I'm in therapy specifically. I don't think she knows anything about where I'm going, actually," Kara says, trying to figure out if there was a point where they ever explicitly talked about it. They haven't. "But she's respectful of my time, either way. She never questions it. She just, I don't know, she reminds me when it's time to go to my thing, but never asks."

"Your thing? You never--it's never come up as odd? That you go somewhere every week and never say where it is?"

Kara shrugs. She doesn't want to think about that, doesn't want to entertain where this is going. "No. It's not important."

"What's not?" her therapist asks, and Kara sort of wishes she just went with the nightmares. "It's not important to her? It's not important to you? It's not important for your relationship that she knows?"

"It's not a relationship," Kara mumbles.

There's silence for a while, then, "I'm not telling you that you have to tell her," her therapist presses on. "You have a right to your privacy, of course you do. But I think you should consider why you haven't told her. Why you don't want to. Why talking about it is upsetting you so much right now. I think it's good for you to have those answers for yourself, even if you still decide to keep it to yourself."

"Okay," Kara says, dropping her head. "I'll think about it for next time."

 

When she's walking home, she thinks about deleting the address in her phone that Lena texted, deleting the time she sent, the little smiley face.

She thinks about a lot more than that, though. She thinks about sadness and heartbreak and shame, and lashing out just to be doing it. She thinks about the quiet resignation underneath those feelings and how that's what hurts more than anything else. She thinks, for just a second, that maybe the worst feeling in the world isn't losing her job or her parents or her purpose; maybe the worst feeling is walking home alone in the late morning, head tilted down in a sea of people, thinking about all the ways she's never going to be okay with the worst parts of herself, and if she isn't, then who else is going to be?

Oddly enough, that last bit is what convinces her she needs to go see Lena tomorrow night. Because if she doesn't, she's going to have to tell Alex that she's off the deep end again. And she genuinely doesn't want to be there or have that conversation.

-

"So, she dances?" Alex asks, thumbing the petals of some orange daisies in the flower shop.

Kelly pulls her hand away, smiling. "I think roses are traditional for this," she says. "Right Kara?

"M'not sure," Kara says, hands tucked deep in her pockets because her palms are sweating just doing this, and she's about to watch Lena dance. "It's why I asked you to come. I know you're supposed to give flowers after shows, but not sure which ones." She pauses a second, thinks about how to answer Alex's question. She doesn't want to say she never figured out whether Lena was joking about pole dancing, whether they're going to show up to a strip club or not. She has absolutely no idea how to describe what they're about to see, because she doesn't know herself, so. She just says, "Yeah, she dances. It's probably going to be really good, too. She seemed very excited about it."

"I wish I could dance," Kelly says. "It's like poetry with your body. It's so beautiful."

"Don't be modest," Alex laughs, bumping her with her hip as she walks by. "A few glasses of wine and suddenly you're Paula Abdul."

"The fact that you used Paula Abdul as a reference makes me question our relationship. I'm not sure how I feel."

Kara laughs, a genuine one. There's something about seeing how in love they are that makes her feel warm inside. It's one of the bigger reasons she hasn't made an emotional decision to just leave their house. "I bet you're leagues ahead of me either way," she chimes in.

"Yeah," Alex agrees, cheeky and dumb and smiling. "The only thing worse than two left feet is the Kara Danvers special."

"Shut up," Kara rolls her eyes.

Then she laughs again, grabs some roses, and asks Kelly and Alex if they'll come along too.

-

They show up to the address a little after five. It isn't a club, Kara notices, but a convention center, where they're herded through a maze of hallways toward an auditorium. Inside, it's only the first three rows with people in them, barely a hundred there, so everyone is just a few feet away from the stage. The room is dimly lit, nearly dark, with the stage covered in bright light and a black backdrop that has white dots that look like stars.

There are two poles.

Kara takes a deep breath.

When they take their seats, Alex leans in and Kara tenses so hard her nails are indenting into her palms. She didn't mention the pole dancing and now she feels awkward, and Alex has definitely, probably noticed, so she stops breathing altogether as she listens to Alex say, "This looks like it's gonna be super fun, can't wait to see her dance."

And Kara lets the air leave from her chest.

"Oh," she says out loud, then collects herself and nods, swallowing as she agrees, "Me too."

-

The moment Lena steps on the stage, Kara's stomach does a backflip.

Lena's not the first to go or the last, but she's stacked somewhere towards the end, so Kara's nerves have already eaten their way up her torso, her hands, her arms, her chest, her neck. She feels hot and flushed all the way up to her jaw and when she makes eye contact with Lena it finally reaches her cheeks. She's anxious. She doesn't know why, but she's holding her breath, gripping her nails into the best pair of jeans she owns and sweating underneath the button down she bought an hour before this because she didn't have anything crisp enough. 

Lena keeps stealing glances, keeps looking in Kara's direction as her music gets set-up, smiling and biting her lip, eyes piercing underneath her lashes, but Kara's just staring. She can't look away. Not even if she wanted to. Lena's wearing an all-black bodysuit, with mesh strips across the arms, thighs, legs, her belly. She's not wearing shoes or socks and her hair is down. She looks stunning.

The music starts. She's dancing to Hurt by Christina Aguilera, so Kara immediately gets emotional. The announcer at the beginning of the event explained it was a competition. They said each dancer was required to use two poles (one spinning and one static), and they were required to do two moves (which they graciously explained): the twisted sister, which is a spinning inverted split, and the inside knee hang cocoon--a backbend with one leg held overhead and the other clasping the pole.

Kara isn't thinking about any of that, though, when she's watching Lena. She's thinking about how Lena's movements do look like poetry. She's thinking about that feeling she gets when a song comes on that she's really into, when she's singing at the top of her lungs and she closes her eyes because she wants to feel that moment, to stay in it. She wants to stay right here forever with Lena, in the front row with everyone drowned out like Lena's dancing just for Kara. It feels weird to think that, but her chest is stuttering with her heart pounding, and she keeps thinking thinking thinking that watching Lena feels a lot like fighting fire.

She wants to reach out and touch her like a kid grabbing for a rainbow. She wants to turn to Alex and assure her that she knows her. She wants to crawl inside herself and pull out something good, so she can show it to Lena and say hey I have this part of me, too.

She wants to get her shit together, be better, be someone that Lena wants to keep being friends with.

-

IMG-7652
For reference (x)

-

Afterwards, Kara pushes through her anxiety to walk through the halls and find Lena. She roams until she's directed to a room full of dancers redressing and wiping off their make-up. She stops short at the open door and the second Lena sees Kara lingering; she runs over.

Kara's never felt this tongue-tied before.

"Your eyes are red," Lena points out first thing, standing alone with Kara in the hallway, and Kara's voice gets shoved even further down her throat. "Were you crying?"

"Yeah, um," Kara stutters, with her gritty, raspy I-haven't-talked-in-a-while-and-I'm-still-choked-up voice, and winces at how dumb she is. "You were--you are--you're beautiful. Your dancing, it was beautiful, um. To be honest," she clears her throat, smiling a tiny smile because joking with Lena feels a little like home. "I sort of thought I might actually be showing up to a strip club. You just, never denied it."

"How sure were you that it'd be a strip club?" Lena asks, smiling around her bottom lip as she bites it.

"I don't know like, sixty-five percent, maybe."

"And you still brought flowers?"

Kara shrugs, twisting them around in her hand. "Yeah, I mean. Working at a strip club wouldn't have made you any less of a dancer, and it wouldn't have made it any easier to put on a show, so. I still would have thought you deserved flowers," she says, soft and out of breath. Lena doesn't say anything for a while after she says it, though, just looks at Kara for the better part of a minute, until Kara's uncomfortable enough she feels even her elbows blushing. "Unless you just didn't want any flowers, I guess. Sorry, um. It's dumb. You seemed excited, and I just wanted--

"I love them," Lena says suddenly, eyes still attached too intensely to Kara's face, grabbing the flowers from Kara's hands and pulling them to her chest like they're precious. "They're beautiful."

"Sorry I'm being... dumb, I guess," Kara apologizes. "I'm just nervous for some reason. I don't think I've ever seen anything that beautiful. You're sort of like fire to me."

She can feel the blood rushing from her face the second the words accidentally leave her mouth, but she doesn't have time to panic about that when Lena's pressing up on her toes and leaning in fast. She only stops once she's right in front of Kara's mouth, and Kara holds her breath.

She doesn't move.

Lena doesn't either.

They just stay there, suspended, still and motionless and frozen, until Lena finally nuzzles against Kara's nose to turn her head and kisses her on the cheek, warm and so fucking soft. Then she wraps her arms around Kara's neck and hugs her, and. It's nice. It feels safe. Kara feels happy.

It lasts so long that Kara's chest feels damp against the cool air when Lena pulls away, so long that Kara's still reeling from the fact that it happened, brain too spaced and fizzed out to fully process it when Lena says, "We should do that more often."

 

It's not until they've said goodbye and Kara's burying her hands in her pockets as she follows Kelly and Alex to the parking lot, that she realizes she can't remember a single other dancer from the night. Just Lena. She got second place, but Kara doesn't remember who got first.

-

Seeing Lena dance makes her question everything about her life, makes her scour through her past trying to find all the places she was wrong so she can maybe make them right. It makes her want to be better in some visceral part of herself that she can't quite grasp, but she can't quite shake either. It makes her want to try, try her best. It makes her want to succeed.

-

After hours of staying up one night--staring at the ceiling, not being able to sleep--her mind flickers through enough different things that it finally lands on her childhood. It lands on Alex.

For some reason, she starts thinking about the days right after her adoptive dad died. She remembers how Alex sat in a corner during the funeral visitation with her arms crossed and a scowl on her face. She kept scuffing the heel of her shoe against the floor like she was just starting to realize that the only thing louder than her sadness was her anger, like she was intent on everyone hearing her even if she never said a word. She'd wanted a closed casket, but Eliza (Kara's adoptive mom) said that people needed to see him, and they did. Kara did. She was drawn to his body like a moth to flames, cycling through the line every chance she got because she never got to see her parents. They burned. They burned. They burned. And then she was taken away.

She needed this. She needed the casket to be open. She needed to see him, and that made Alex stop speaking to her for an entire month. She didn't care, though, didn't apologize for it. He was stabbed, it was a mugging, he went quick. At least it wasn't fire, she'd think, and then she'd roll her eyes thinking about the fact that Alex never went to see his body. He didn't burn. Her parents did. Alex could have seen him.

But she didn't.

Kara never fully understood how fucked up that must have felt until right now, lying awake in bed in 2020, staring at her ceiling when she's thirty-two years old, she suddenly gets it. It all clicks in for her, floods her mind like a gasp, rushing through her quick like years of guilt she should have felt and somehow avoided until this exact moment.

She understands now. She does. She should have been better.

 

She crawls into Alex's bed the next morning, right after Kelly's left early for work, and she wraps herself around Alex as she whispers, "I'm sorry about our childhood. I could have been a better sister."

And Alex whispers back, "Me too," then she sinks more into Kara spooning her, and sighs for a really long few seconds, before she adds, "I could have been a better sister, too."

-

Kara makes a list of everything she doesn't miss about smokejumping.

As it turns out, it was the best time of her life, but it was also the worst. What she hates the most about quitting, she thinks, is that it somehow means the boys were right. If she didn't have Alex, she'd probably still be killing herself trying to prove them wrong.

-

You should come hang out, says a text a few days after Lena's dance show, and then another comes through, seriously, the book store is dead right now, and I’d love some company, could even show you where I keep the original copies.

only if that's a promise, then I’m on my way, Kara sends back, sits up in bed, then breathes through her post 1pm hopelessness until she feels okay enough to put her socks on.

She gets to the bookshop just after four. She opens the door, swallows as it chimes, and her eyes immediately latch on to Lena behind the counter. She's wearing an oversized t-shirt with her hair in a bun, large lens glasses with leopard frames, bottom lip tucked under her teeth as she looks up from the book she's reading to Kara. 

"Oh," she blinks, "hey. Sorry, it's just weird seeing you like, here, and not on a weekend and outside the coffee shop."

Kara wants to kiss her. She wants to press in where it's wet, right where Lena keeps biting. "I promise I'm just as annoying during weekdays as I am any other time, no surprises here," she says. "Sorry, by the way, that I was so weird at your dance thing."

"But you weren't?" Lena says like a question. "I'm really glad you came, made my whole night, to be honest."

"Really?" Kara asks, folding her arms across her chest.

"Really," Lena says, smiling. "So, you want the hundred-dollar extended tour of this place or what?"

"Lead the way," Kara smiles back, walking towards her, thinking about all the ways that Lena is lovely, absolutely lovely.

They walk around the bookstore and Lena points to things--paintings and old books and vases and whatnot--and explains their history and how she got them and something about The Last Bookstore. Kara spends the whole time in a daze, watching the curve of Lena's lips, the way she stretches her mouth slightly to the side when she's being funny or telling a joke, how she's so flowy with her hands when she's showing things, like dance is intrinsically interwoven in her life. Kara watches her tuck her hair behind her ears, get stuck on her words when she overwhelms herself talking about books she likes, watches her exist in her element and be beautiful. 

Eventually, Lena shuts the shop down and they grab a cheap pizza from next door, then they go in and crowd together on the tiny reading sofa in the back, eating slices and talking about listening to sad songs and reading sad books and everything else they have in common. Lena talks the most and Kara enjoys listening and when the pizza's dwindled down, they split the last slice even though Kara's eaten the larger portion.

"I haven't done this," Kara starts, then takes a deep breath and says, "ever. I don't know if I've ever done this with someone that's not Alex, just hang out and talk and feel comfortable and free and, I don't know, just have fun without worrying something might go wrong. This is a first for me."

"Yeah?" Lena asks, eyes wide and bright.

Kara ducks her head, blushing on top of what she's pretty sure were already flushed cheeks. "Yeah, but it's um, ah," she laughs. She feels like she's fucking short circuiting. "It's not a big deal, I just. I don't know why I said that. Just ask another question so we forget. Please." She's covering her face with her hands now, but she can still feel the warmth from Lena's smile. "Please," she begs, pleads, letting her hands fall. "I don't want to sit in my awkwardness, go go."

"Okay, um. okay. What's um..." Lena trails off, sitting up, looking around, tapping her fingers against her thighs. She's sitting cross-legged on the couch, shoes off, so her leg is practically on top of Kara's, and Kara hasn't been able to stop thinking about it this whole time. "Oh, what's a line from a book you'll always remember?"

Oh. Kara doesn't even have to think about that one. "I read The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion like, ten years ago, but I'll never forget this part where she writes, life changes so fast, life changes in the instant, you sit down to dinner and--"

Lena kisses her. 

She should have seen it coming, Lena started leaning in the moment she said Joan Didion, but she didn't, and now their lips are touching and Kara's opening her mouth like it's a natural thing to do. It all happens in the span of maybe two seconds, but it feels like time slows down when she feels Lena's tongue licking against her lips, between them, inside her mouth, wet slippery slick. And then Kara's being pressed on her back.

The sofa is too small, everything is cramped, Kara's head is awkwardly smashed against the rock-hard arm. Every book they had with them is scattered on the floor, cascading off as Lena climbs on top of her, but those are all fleeting thoughts because Kara's mind is racing on one note, and it's Lena. Her hands are soft, so fucking soft, and goddamn warm, and they somehow end up under Kara's shirt, trailing their way up to Kara's too-tight sports bra as Lena whispers, can I? right into Kara's mouth. Kara nods, aware that she's actively giving permission to be destroyed, and honestly a little nervous about it. But her hips jump when Lena trails a thumb over her nipple, then they both make different versions of the same noise, and suddenly the kiss goes from just a kiss, to the way you kiss a person when you're three seconds from fucking.

So, Kara decides to make it clear that, "I'm not ready for sex yet," and doesn't realize how silent the room is until this exact moment, when Lena lifts her head and everything around them freezes, and. She feels like crying. She feels hot and sticky and she knows she's wet, but she also knows she's not ready, and everyone keeps saying it's good to set boundaries but right now she keeps thinking that maybe she should have just let it keep going. "I mean I like you, and I--"

"Hey," Lena cuts her off, "you don't need a reason to not want to. It's okay even without one. Do you want to stop kissing, too?"

"No," Kara shakes her head. "I like kissing."

"Okay," Lena says, and then she kisses her again, and Kara accidentally spends the night in the back of a bookstore.

-

Kara's first kiss with a girl happened four months before her first girlfriend. She was playing basketball in the gym during her high school senior-year-lock-in when the head cheerleader, Katie, came over and kissed her right on the lips. It's probably dumb, but Kara kissed back. Then Katie pulled away and said, they dared me to, before she skipped over to a group of boys.

Kara felt so shaky she had to sit on the bleachers for twenty minutes afterwards. She remembers that fondly.

She tells her therapist this story, but she doesn't tell her about kissing Lena. She doesn't tell her how she keeps kissing Lena. In her store, in front of the coffee shop, when she visits Lena after her dance practice. She doesn't tell her how they hold hands or smile too much or stay up too late on that tiny sofa clearing out the corners of their hearts. She doesn't mention any of that because it feels sacred somehow, feels precious, like if she lets it get touched by the outside air then she just might ruin it.

Miraculously, her therapist doesn't ask about Lena even once during the session.

Kara figures she probably knows.

-

"If you had to destroy every book but one, which would you keep?" Kara asks. Lena opens her mouth, and she adds, "It can't be the bible, either, that's such a boring answer."

"This just made me realize that there is, in fact, a such thing as a terrible question," Lena laughs, resting her weight on top of Kara. It's Saturday, and they're in the park across from the coffee shop, lying in the grass and soaking up the sun. Every time there's a lull in the conversation, it's just another excuse to kiss, so Kara keeps taking her time when responding. "We're not destroying books. That would literally make society crumble, you know that, right?"

"So, society is on the verge of crumbling, and you can save one book--quick what is it?" Kara smiles, and Lena rolls her eyes, shaking her head until they're both giggling. "I just want to know like, instinctively, what is your favorite book?"

"You know what my favorite book is," Lena tells her, and that somehow gets Kara a kiss, too.

"Yeah, but if aliens were attacking the city, and you could grab one book before you had to go, which would you take?"

Lena laughs, but it's soft this time like she's giving up. "I don't know, probably The Martian by Andy Weir, because the opening line is, I'm pretty much fucked."

Kara's laugh jumps out of her like a startle. It does that sometimes when she's with Lena, like her body never realized she could laugh this hard, like her brain can't fathom finding everything a single person says impossibly funny. "I'll take that answer," she concedes. "Think I'd bring The Hitchhiker’s Guide myself."

Lena kisses her again. "Of course you would," she says, lifting up, then she sucks in a long breath and reminds, "You have to go to your thing soon."

Kara doesn't know why, but when she opens her mouth the first thing that comes out is, "It's therapy."

"Hmm?" Lena hums.

"The thing I go to every Saturday," Kara says, heartbeat skyrocketing. "It's therapy."

"Oh," Lena says, mouth hanging in the "O" shape for a moment before her brow crinkles and she says, "I know."

"You do?"

"You told me, right?" Lena asks, and now Kara can't remember when she did. "The first day we met. You said we don't have to talk about it, but you do. Every single week. I just. Assumed you meant therapy."

Oh. There's that, then. "And that's okay?"

"Why wouldn't it be?"

It feels like a hard question to answer, but Kara can sense Lena doesn't mean it that way. So, she goes with the truth, succinctly, and the fear that's sitting at the forefront of her mind. "Because you didn't sign up for my problems, at least not the ones I had before we met."

"I've never met a person that didn't have problems," Lena shrugs. "I think it's just part of the human condition, and I'd be naive to expect you to be different. Besides, you're going to therapy every week, and you're surrounded by support, and there'll always be dark days but you're trying. And if that's not the healthiest shit you've ever heard, then I don't know what is. I think it's amazing you're in therapy."

"Okay," Kara says. She expected anything but this conversation, so she can't--she'll just have to process it in therapy. Which is the point of all this, either way. "Can we call it that, then? Not my thing, but therapy. I'm not ashamed of being there, so I want to call it what it is."

"Of course we can," Lena says, and then she kisses Kara again.

 

"I told her," Kara tells her therapist, half-way into their session. "But she already knew, and she didn't care. She told me it's amazing. She told me it's okay. She told me she thinks it's healthy. She scares me."

 

Chapter Text

It's Friday night, and they're working their way through The New York Times Supersized Book of Sunday Crosswords when Lena glances up and says, "I can show you my apartment if you'd like. It has a bigger couch."

Kara's dumb and lost for a few seconds, like she always is, then she says, "Okay."

"You sure?" Lena asks.

Kara nods, "Yep," and Lena smiles.

She stands up slow, untangling herself from Kara, carefully keeping their page in the book, then she takes Kara's hand and starts walking. Instead of leading her outside, she leads her to a door tucked deep in the store that Kara's never seen before. It's brown and locked and completely ordinary, but it feels a lot like Narnia. They go through the secret door, and suddenly there are stairs, and suddenly there's another, locked door, and suddenly they're inside an apartment. Small and cozy and perfect. Kara feels like she could get stuck here forever if she wanted.

There are old records and books everywhere, some on shelves, some on tables, others stacked three feet high in piles on the floor. There are knitted blankets and mismatched soft, looking couches and, weirdly enough, it smells like cookies in the air.

"I don't mind us hanging out here," Lena tells her, then they go back to doing crossword puzzles on the larger couch.

 

Later that night, Kara looks up from where they're cuddled, half-asleep and lazy, and says, "You know, I could go for a hotdog right now."

Lena hums, then says, "Sonic is open till midnight."

And that's how they end up sitting in Alex's car (that she let Kara borrow), tucked between the glowing Sonic menus, peeling the foil off their footlong chili-cheese-dogs and switching between those and milkshakes and sodas like they're kids again, and calories don't exist.

Kara's taking a big bite, feeling the overflow of chili slide down her chin, just as Lena asks, "Did I mention I'm an alcoholic?"

"Nope," Kara says, chewing, swallowing, smudging the chili off with her finger and licking it. "I don't think you did." 

And then neither one of them says anything for the next five minutes. It's only when Kara finishes her hot dog that she realizes something is wrong. It's only when Lena blinks at her and asks, softly, "Is that all you're going to say?" that Kara realizes they're still on the alcohol subject.

"Well I've never seen you drink or suggest we do," she offers, "so I'm guessing you're in some stage of recovery."

"It's been five years," Lena whispers.

"That's amazing. I'm proud of you," Kara says, then scrambles to figure out what she's doing wrong when Lena just blinks at her after that, expressionless. "Sorry, m'not trying to be rude, I just. I am proud of you, and I don't know what else you want me to say."

"It's okay if you have questions, you can ask them."

"Is it also okay if I wait for when you want to talk about it?" Kara asks, as genuine as she can. "Unless now is that time, then we don't have to go into it. The only thing you owe me is your honesty, nothing else. And you've given me that, so you don't have to feel obligated to follow it up with exact details of every hard memory in your life. I get it. We go through things," she adds, because. She gets it. "And I'd love to know your things, of course I would, but I also get it's not just a dump of here's mine, what's yours, it's a slow trickle of realizing you want to let someone else hold certain parts of yourself, so. It's okay to be an intermittent sprinkler, is what I'm saying. You don't have to be a torrential downpour."

"Okay," Lena says, smiling, laughing, soft at first, blushing, averting her eyes and turning her head. Then she looks back at Kara and laughs harder, eyes squinting with it, cheeks even more red. "That was very poetic," she finally says, and Kara laughs too. She's nervous, but calm, so smitten her body just follows Lena without being told to. "Did you already know that my stripper name is intermittent sprinkler," Lena asks, once they're both laughing for reasons that probably aren't clear to the other, "or was that just a lucky guess?"

"Stop," Kara gushes, laugh bubbling out of her, ugly and unfiltered now. She's doing that thing when she laughs so hard she pulls her head back, when she has six chins and no dignity or self-control. "I just wanted to eat a chili-dog and m'being attacked."

"I'm sorry," Lena says, still giggling when she lifts herself over the center console, smiling as she presses their lips together to kiss.

-

Some days Kara feels like her life is just a series of jumbled up quotes playing over and over and over again in her head: TV lines and book excerpts, song lyrics and shit other people said. Words just pop up at random moments, random times, a random hodgepodge of misplaced lines, and it's weird, maybe, but she always finds herself thinking yeah, yeah that fits.

Today is the anniversary of her parents' deaths and she's having one of those moments.

“It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one. We all know that our time in this world is limited, and that eventually all of us will end up underneath some sheet, never to wake up. And yet it is always a surprise when it happens to someone we know. It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things.”

―  Lemony Snicket, Horseradish

-

"Let's talk about the nightmares," Kara says, the next session she has.

-

When Kara was 14, she snuck and watched the show Six Feet Under on HBO with Alex. They were sitting under a blanket in front of the downstairs TV with the subtitles on and the volume down to two so no one could hear them. Alex kept jumping each time the wind blew, even though she was 16, so she wouldn't get in trouble about the 15 and over rating. Or maybe she would.

Kara didn't care too much about those sorts of things.

Either way, that night they watched an episode titled Life's Too Short. Kara remembers the title because she remembers agreeing with it. During the episode this character--Brenda was her name--says:

You know what I find interesting? If you lose a spouse, you're called a widow, or a widower. If you're a child and you lose your parents, then you're an orphan. But what's the word to describe a parent who loses a child?

I guess that's just too fucking awful to even have a name.

Kara never watched the show again, but she thinks about that a lot, every time she does something reckless, every time she feels like giving up, every time she remembers she's mostly just taking up space on this planet: She thinks that maybe she should have died first.

She always ends up swallowing the thought down, but it's like wet concrete--something that hardens before she can fully digest it, so it's stuck inside of her somewhere as a permanent piece of who she is.

 

there is a sickly moment of dark surprise

as you try and readjust the way you thought of things.

-

Alex is in the kitchen as Kara heads for the door one evening, sipping what's probably a mug of hot chocolate and wearing a sweater that makes her look a thousand times softer than she actually is.

"No Kelly tonight?" Kara asks, and Alex groans and drops her head back dramatically.

"She's taking an intern, so she has to go to this department party tonight, said I wouldn't have a good time if I went. She's right, but now m'just lost and bored." She frowns then, twisting her mug in her hands. "Is this what codependency is like?"

"Sounds like a term for someone with the psychologist girlfriend," Kara smiles.

Alex smiles back. "Going to see Lena again?" she asks, and Kara twists her hands together.

"Yeah," she says. "I'm sorry about the first time I stayed over, when I just disappeared. I'll text if I'm going to be late or if I spend the night."

Alex brings her mug up to her lips, hovering her face over it for a second like she's thinking about something. She seems resigned, a little deflated, when she says, "You know, when birds hit a window, they never see the glass coming. They only see the reflection of the sky."

"Huh?" Kara asks.

"I read it in an article," Alex says. "Windows reflect the landscape, so they seem friendly, inviting even, for birds to fly into. But it usually ends in them getting hurt, sometimes pretty bad."

She's frowning, and it makes Kara think of this quote from Sarah Manguso: The trouble with letting people see you at your worst isn't that they'll remember; it's that you'll remember. "Is that a metaphor for me?" she asks.

"I don't want it to be," Alex says. "I don't want you to fly into a window. I want you to be careful, and I want you to keep me clued in."

"Lena's the most careful I've ever been," Kara tells her, honestly. "She respects my boundaries and encourages me to go to sessions. She's smart and she's funny, and she's up front about the fact that she's not perfect. No one is. I'm being careful, and you'll know if anything goes wrong."

"Can you tell me when it's going right, too?" Alex asks.

"Yeah, I--of course," Kara says, then she takes a deep breath, pulls out her phone to let Lena know she'll be over an hour later, and then she sits down with Alex at the kitchen table. "It's funny, I don't even know where to start."

 

they never see the glass coming

they only see the reflection of the sky

-

"Okay, let's talk about the nightmares," her therapist says back to her, and Kara takes a deep breath.

There's really just the one nightmare, and that's mostly just a memory.

-

When Lena talks about poetry, Kara doesn't have to do that thing where she pretends she knows so she doesn't look dumb, or even the thing where she stores everything in the back of her mind to Google later and be impressive in the future.

Lena likes to talk about it. Her love for poetry isn't pretentious; it's not showing off, it's not saying i'm better than you. It's not offended because Kara doesn't know what the fuck Lena's talking about, not up-in-arms and eye-rolling because how can you show off when someone doesn't know that Nietzsche even wrote poetry, let alone comment on how impressive it is that you've analyzed it.

Lena likes it for the beauty, and Kara likes to watch her talk about it. She doesn't pretend she knows, because she wants to know more. She doesn't Google it later, because she wants to hear it from Lena. She wants to be impressed, and she always is.

Lena always makes her feel like she's a part of a moment in history that ends up in some book, like she's a scene that some teen struggling with her sexuality and identity will read, pause, smile at, and then clutch the pages to her chest like they're something that needs to be cherished.

 

we all know that our time in this world is limited

-

Julien Baker has a song called Shadowboxing and Kara loves it for a number of reasons, but most of all because it gets at anger and exhaustion like nothing else Kara's ever listened to.

There's an article where Baker's talking about it, and she says:

When you see a shadow boxer training, their opponent is something that is only visible within their own mind. And that is what’s so frustrating about being in a relationship with a person with mental illness—you cannot put your hands on, or totally understand, what that person is grappling with.

The one thing Kara's found to be undeniably true in her lifetime, is that mental illness, or not even that--just dealing with the fallout of grief or trauma or pain--it takes a lot of fucking energy. It wears her down. It's like fighting a never-ending battle that no one can understand, comprehend, or some days relate to, because they can't see it, too. It's like being seven steps behind her opponent, because her opponent is always her and she has a lot of fucked up shit in her arsenal. It's like nine rounds of holding herself up as someone else punches.

It's like, it's like something she can barely describe herself most days. So, Kara always feels like she's bracing herself, getting ready for a fight, but it's never with anything that's actually out in the world. She loves this song because it reminds her, on days that she needs to hear it, that there are people out there that get her, that she's not going crazy, that maybe, someday, she'll actually win the fight.

 

I know that you don't understand

'Cause you don't believe what you don't see

When you watch me throwing punches at the devil

It just looks like I'm fighting with me

-

"In my nightmare," Kara tells her therapist, "the rookie who asks if we're really going to jump this--his name is Mike. Well, I guess, it was Mike."

One of the first things Kara's therapist went over with her was the mindfulness strategy of pure observation and description. That's how she likes to think of Mike. She doesn't consider it an experience with emotion attached to it, but rather a series of facts:

She'd been a smokejumper for four years when she first met him. He was their newest rookie. He could be as insufferable as the rest of the guys, even more so considering he rubbed Kara the wrong way and he fit right in right away. She let him get under her skin and she shouldn't have. They had sex. Multiple times. He didn't tell the other guys about it. She respected him for that. She liked him a little more than a little bit.

He died.

Here are the facts about his death:

It was hot and dry the day they jumped. Everything was covered in smoke. There were fires everywhere, all small, but growing, stretched across the wilderness. When Kara jumped out of the plane, she enjoyed the free-fall, counting to five in her head before she deployed her chute, then switched to enjoying the silence underneath it like she always did. It felt like another fight, another jump, another week on the job.

It took them four days to put out the fires, chainsawing trees, turning soil, starving it off until it was contained.

Then they rested.

The next day they started doing the dirty work--crawling through the dirt on their hands and knees, feeling for hot spots to make sure they hadn't missed anything. They were doing fine, had mostly gotten through that, when someone radioed in and asked if they knew they had a fire start right next to them.

A scout went to take a look, and that's when things went from another day on the job, to terrifying:

There was fire in the tops of the trees, spreading, heavy winds pushing it towards the crew.

Facts, facts, facts, fucking facts:

Fire moves fastest uphill, and it caught below them, so there was already a general sense of fucked when they started running. They didn't have a clear escape route and the smoke was so heavy that no plane could get close to them, so they ditched their gear and prayed to whatever-the-fuck they believed in that they could get somewhere safe, that they could do it quick. That they could make it out alive.

Not everyone made it out alive.

It was an incident

Here's everything about him that she doesn't know how to categorize:

She doesn't know if they were dating. They were friends. She didn't love him. He made her laugh. He annoyed her to no end. He was strong. She doesn't think she would have married him. It absolutely gutted her when he died. She made a lot of reckless mistakes after that, and maybe the real reason she can't go back has more to do with herself than it does anything else.

"But I'm still drawn to fire," she tells her therapist, after she's told her everything else. "What does that say about me?"

The last two words aren't audible, because she's crying too hard to get them out properly.

 

It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark,

and thinking there is one more stair than there is.

that's just too fucking awful

it's that you'll remember

they only see the reflection of the sky

it just looks like i'm fighting with me

-

She feels a thousand pounds lighter after that session.

-

Lena hands her a book one night, a week or so later. It's right after they've closed the shop, and she says, "It's the only one I've ever finished."

It's a brown, leather journal, old, faded, and Kara can tell that each page is filled. She twists it in her hands and asks, "Do you want me to read it, or just hold it, or you can give me the SparkNotes."

Lena smiles, but she's obviously nervous, eyes roaming over the book as she rubs her hands off on her jeans. "I was looking through it earlier, and I saw this page, and--I forgot I even wrote it, but I smiled. Then, I wanted to show it to you."

She reaches over slow like she's asking permission, Kara nods, and then she opens it to a page, and Kara looks down.

IMG-7663

Kara sees her strength, visible or not, it doesn't matter. She sees Lena, and she's confident in that, because she's also always looking for her. But, she supposes, that might be part of why Lena wanted her to read it. So, instead of commenting on that, she asks, "Who's Lex?"

"My brother," Lena says, like it hurts to say it out loud, then she takes a deep, settling breath, and Kara can tell that this is a moment. Lena wants to talk about it. "I spent my early and mid-twenties realizing that there's a way to drop lower than rock-bottom. I spent my late twenties climbing out of the hole and healing. Part of healing, I realized, was letting go of my family." She pauses a second, turning her head and blinking off at something in the distance, like a ghost that Kara can't see. "Do you ever stop and think about the fact that parents choose their family? They choose their partners, when to have kids, who to introduce them to and keep around. But children don't. They're just born into this network and they're stuck going to holiday parties whether they like the people or not."

"I've thought about that a lot, actually," Kara admits. 

"Me too," Lena says. "So, I started choosing my own family, who was in it, who wasn't. Lillian, my adoptive mother, she didn't make it. Neither did Lex. At first it was just Sam, and then it was Andrea, and now... it's you, too. If you want to be, that is."

Kara sets the book on the counter and outstretches her hand, smiling when Lena pushes past it so she can throw her arms over Kara's shoulders, pull her into a hug as she presses her face against Kara's hair. Kara wraps her arms around her lower back and just breathes her in for a moment, then, "Of course, I want to be your family," she tells her. In Eat, Pray, Love when Elizabeth Gilbert writes the letter to herself about all the things she wishes someone would say to her, it made Kara's chest seize up. She wanted those words, too. Lena's like that letter for her. "You make me want to go out on my own and be better. For you, for Alex, for myself. I don't know. I can't describe it, but I want you around."

"I think I'm falling in love with you," Lena whispers, right against Kara's ear, causing chills to spread down her entire body.

Kara's not sure what to say to that, so she jokes, "You're not quite there yet?"

"When it's good, do you ever really stop falling?" Lena asks, and.

Who is Kara to argue with that?

"I guess you're right," she agrees, and Lena pulls back, carding her fingers through the little hairs on the back of her neck as she stares Kara over for a moment.

"We can go upstairs if you want," she decides.

"Mmm," Kara hums, smiles, then lets Lena grab her hand, guide her through the shop, the secret door, lead her upstairs past the larger couch to the bedroom. They go through the door, and Lena lets her hand go. She takes her shoes and pants off, and Kara does the same, then they lie on the bed on opposite sides, blinking at each other like neither one of them knows how to bridge the gap.

It can't be that hard, can it? They're practically touching at all times.

"I don't like us this way," Lena finally says, smiling. "I think we should be cuddling properly."

Kara laughs, but her heart is racing as she buries her head in Lena's chest, as Lena breathes in her hair and tangles her fingers in Kara's t-shirt, legs tangling as they wrestle them underneath the sheets. She thinks she could get used to this, to waking up next to Lena snugged and warm, to having this become a part of her forever, to this being her life.

She could get used to knowing that something positive came from giving up fire.

-

The next night, they make brownies and watch the Sex and the City movies--Kara's never seen them before, but Lena thinks they're absolutely hilarious--and Kara stays over again. The night after that, they sit on the floor in the kitchen, melting different colored crayons over a canvas, watching as they blend together to make art, talking about everything they can think of until they lose track of the amount of hours they've spent with their asses numb and backs cramping. The night after, they clean up the mess they've made of Lena's apartment, then they go out for Italian and Lena finally introduces Kara to Andrea.

On Saturday, Lena walks her to therapy and picks her up afterwards, brings her churros and ice cream and they hang out at the bookstore the rest of the day until it's time to close. Kara goes up to her apartment that night, too.

"You don't have to be strong all the time," Lena tells her one night. They're in the back of an Uber after a long day of exploring the city. Lena's been asleep on her shoulder until this moment, snoring and cute and her hair is so soft, lingering with the smell of Kara's favorite shampoo. "You know that, right?" she goes on, voice slow and warm. "You really don't have to be, I swear."

"Yes, I do," Kara says, "I think I do have to be." Her chest feels tight.

"No," Lena whispers, shifting as she snuggles her face harder against Kara's shoulder. "You don't have to put out every fire to protect the people you love. You don't have to pretend you're not afraid so everyone can feel safe. It's okay to let other people rescue you sometimes."

"You're asleep," Kara tells her, trying to swallow past the lump building in her throat, locking eyes with the driver in the rearview mirror. "You probably don't know what you're saying right now."

"I wrote it down," Lena says, "this morning. I put it on a piece of paper and tucked it in a pocket in your wallet so you can look at it whenever you need to. I'm sleepy but I mean that," she finishes.

Kara finds the note later that night. She really did mean it.

 

Chapter Text

For the first time in Kara's life, she's not alone.

She comes to that realization when she's lying on the couch with Lena, tangled together, playing with each other's hands as they try their best to re-watch Charmed, pausing every few minutes to make jokes about it or maybe just make-out.

She's felt like an island: population one ever since her parents died and her world exploded. She's felt like an alien, to be honest, her entire adolescent and adult life. There's always been some part of her that assumed people wouldn't get it, that they wouldn't get her, that they wouldn't care. She's always thought if she opened up, she'd just be laughed at, isolated more, like she was struggling with all these things alone, and why bother telling anyone about it, if they weren't going to understand? She knew she was weird and unaccepted from the moment her adoptive dad got her medication to help her fit in, and she's always assumed each new step of life would be more of the same.

She was wrong, though. People do care, and even if they don't get it exactly, they know how to empathize.

She can let them in, and they can help her heal, and she can be herself, and things don't always hurt.

"I want to watch your face grow old," Lena says out of nowhere, and Kara laughs, but she loosens her grip as Lena twists on top of her, as she turns so she's straddling Kara's thigh and can kiss her cheeks. "I mean that," she adds. "I want to watch all the ways you change and enjoy every second of it."

"You just want to laugh at my wrinkles," Kara retorts. "All the laugh lines I'll have because you make me smile too much."

"Don't forget the lines you'll get on your forehead from crinkling your brows too much."

"Those too," Kara smiles. "Don't worry, I'm confident in your abilities to catalog all the ways I went wrong in my youth. The way you tell me not to dangle from monkey-bars tells me you have a lot of I told you so built up inside of you." 

"You love it," Lena laughs.

"I love you," Kara says, and her heart doesn't even skip a beat. It just feels settled. "I mean, I'm still falling, like you said. But I also know I just, love you. Concretely. Even the little gray hairs you get sometimes. I love those, too."

"You're not allowed to point out the ways I'm getting old," Lena blushes, then pouts, then bites her lip. "I love you, too."

"That's a double standard," Kara says.

"It's a bottom thing," Lena says back, and Kara snorts.

Then she can't get herself to stop laughing.

-

The second most shocking thing that's ever happened to Kara takes place at an art showcase.

She's watching Lena from across the room, the way she smiles and laughs and sips her juice, chatting with everyone in her tight, fancy dress with her black and white converse, because if i have to walk all night, i'm wearing reasonable shoes. Nothing particularly extraordinary happens, but when Lena makes eye-contact with her, Kara has this sudden realization: She's in a room filled with people, and she doesn't feel alone. She's enjoying herself in spaces she never thought she would. She's in love.

She looks at Lena and she knows one thing for sure: Her life will never be the same.

She hasn't felt that way since she was twelve, since that night at the sleepover, when her friends were all still asleep while she was crying in her sleeping bag, because she'd just experienced the most shocking thing that's ever happened to her.

This moment feels the same as that moment in many ways, big and life-changing, with every bit as much uncertainty for what happens next, but the key difference for Kara is that she doesn't feel afraid or terrified or worried this time. She feels joy, she feels adventurous, she feels like she's exactly where she needs to be. For Kara, Lena symbolizes hope and stability and impossibly gentle understanding. She symbolizes happiness and laughter and the key change in Love on Top.

She symbolizes family, and not giving up, and trying her best even when it's really fucking hard.

She means so much to Kara all at once, overwhelmingly, in the middle of a room filled with art about vaginas.

-

Kelly likes Lena instantly.

It makes Alex frown when they link their arms together and skip happily through the Farmers Market, but Kara can tell Alex likes Lena, too.

"It really doesn't worry you that they're finishing each other's sentences after only thirty minutes?" Alex asks. She's still frowning. But Kara's learned that's just her default setting when she's in protective sister mode. "She's giving me real siren vibes."

"I've never met someone that Kelly didn't get along with," Kara points out, shoving her hands in her pockets as Alex and her watch Lena and Kelly pick out hand-beaded bracelets. "She didn't lure me in, either. I like to think that I lured her, so. You should get those vibes from me."

"Don't worry, I do," Alex says, small smile inching its way onto her face as she bumps against Kara's shoulder. "How long have you two been in love, and why wasn't I included in the conversation? I thought we were sharing now."

"I don't know," Kara says, smiling too wide, and god, her cheeks feel so hot. "I actually don't, like. I just realized it one day, out of nowhere. I think she put her reading glasses on so she could read the expiration date on a yogurt, and I was just like she's the one."

"Oh god," Alex says, and suddenly she's laughing. "I just--you--god," she stutters, and then she says, "I get that. Kelly asked me to hold her scarf as she was wrapping her hair one night, and I was like yeah, this is it. You're in love love."

"Yep," Kara says. "I am."

"I'm happy for you," Alex says, and then she nearly knocks her over with a hug.

-

"We're breaking up?" Kara asks, and her therapist just smiles.

"We're not breaking up," she tells Kara, and it even seems like she means it. "I'm just asking if you feel you still need me? Or, if you think you have enough tools in your toolbox to navigate the world without me?"

"I don't know," Kara says slowly, thinking it over. The relaxation stuff has grown on her a bit, especially since Lena and she started doing it together. She's also getting better at being honest with herself, but also being more realistic and not just negative. She's getting better at giving herself a break and being compassionate towards her own emotions, and she's finally, finally seeing the benefit of alternative thoughts, but she doesn't want to break up. Not yet. What if she gets bad again? "I don't think I'm ready for a break-up," she decides. "We've been doing so well."

"You have been," her therapist agrees. "It's why I brought it up. The day you don't need me anymore is actually a good day. It means I've done my job. But, if you're not ready, I won't push you. I do think we should try meeting every two weeks, though. Just see how you do. If it's not good, we can go back to one. How's that sound to you?"

Kara frowns. "I don't know. What am I supposed to do on weeks I don't come here?"

"Enjoy the coffee shop? Spend more time with Lena? Do something completely different on a Saturday. Break your routine."

"The possibilities are endless, I guess?"

Her therapist smiles. "Yeah, they always have been."

"This still feels like a break-up," Kara points out again. "But I think maybe we should try spacing it out."

-

She gets an email out-of-the-blue one afternoon from William Dey at CatCo and it reads--Doing a story on real-life superheroes, thought you'd be great for it. Tell me how you feel about that angle? 

Kara smiles, rolls her eyes, then sends back, I'm free all day Saturday, meet at the table?

-

Her therapist suggests she write at least one more letter, so Kara does. She lets Lena read it before she takes it to the forest, burns it by a lake, and thinks, as the flecks float into the air, i hope the wind carries this to you:

Dear Mom and Dad,

I'm writing to you from a coffee shop. They brought out a new drink this week, full of different layers and colors, and I was in a good mood, so I bought it instead of my usual. It was disgusting, and that was okay. It was a big deal that it was okay, you see, because usually it would have been 'just my luck', or 'nothing works out for me', or 'this is a sign of how my day is going to go', or 'i've wasted money and i've been living off alex, and when am i ever going to get it together again".

But it wasn't any of those today. It was just okay. The drink was terrible, I only finished half, and that was okay.

+

It's later in the day now. I just sat here all day, looking at this piece of paper, trying to figure out what I should write. I've never been here during the sunset, but it's beautiful--like a solid line of burnt orange, sandwiched by clouds and earth for as far as I can see. I think I might bring Alex here one day, so she can see this, too.

She worries about me a lot, and she should, I think. I'm coming to realize it's just what big sisters do.

+

It's been two days, but I think I've finally gotten a grasp on things I want to write in this. I think there's a lot I want to say, but only a few things I feel I really need to get out. I do this thing now, where I like to get out as many thoughts about something as I can, just let it flow, unfiltered, until I reach a point of things making sense. It's worked so far for me, so here it goes:

I put out a lot of fires for you. I saved so many people. I was strong. I remember we'd play that game where I'd tie the cape over my shoulders--the one I got from the superhero store in the amusement park--and you'd both laugh and tell me one day I'd save the world. I think I really gave it an honest effort. I think I still feel bad that I couldn't save you. I think about dad joking that a spider sneezing could wake me up with my "super hearing" and how I might have been able to save you if I was home.

I know you don't want me to think about those things, though. I know you would have wanted me to live a beautiful life, and I'm writing to you twenty years later to tell you that... I am, and I have.

Wow.

In my head, I planned out an elaborate letter. I planned out everything I'd want to say to you if you were here. I'd tell you about the evolution of my favorite foods and colors, about fighting fire and all the friends I made along the way. I'd tell you about Eliza and Jeremiah and Alex and Kelly and Mike and Lena, but I think what you'd want to hear the most is that I'm okay.

I am. And I'm living, and I plan to do a lot more of that. You don't have to worry about me.

You can be at peace.

Love,

Kara

-

"He says the article will be online next week, maybe," Kara tells Lena after the interview. "I was the last person he needed to speak with."

"That's awesome," Lena says. They're under the covers in her bed, Lena's face buried against Kara's neck. "I can't wait to read it."

"I talked about Mike," Kara tells her, because now that she feels safe opening up to Lena, that she knows it's okay, she finds herself doing it all the time. "I talked about getting hurt seriously. Twice. I talked about blaming myself for all of that, and not realizing until recently that I was just. Doing the best that I could. That along the way I put out a lot of fires and helped a lot of people, and I'm not just a culmination of my mistakes, but I'm also what I did well, too. I think in a job like that, it's so easy to only remember the mess-ups, no matter how much good you do, but I think part of me healing is looking at myself and thinking you did great, you tried your best, you deserve to rest."

"You deserve that and so much more," Lena says, slipping her hand underneath Kara's shirt, gently massaging her belly with her warm fingers. "You deserve to find peace and happiness and be surrounded by love, too."

"Yeah?" Kara asks.

"Yeah," Lena sighs.

"You're being a sappy sleepy again," Kara smiles, nuzzling against Lena's hair. "But yeah, I think I deserve that, too."

-

"When did you know you liked girls?" Sam asks, thumbing the neck of her beer, cheeks flushed from drinking one-too-many.

They're on the terrace of Andrea's apartment, and there's music playing in the background that's blurred into the traffic sounds, and Kara's smiling and burying her face in Lena's cardigan (who's happily on her lap), and she's decidedly not drinking because she wants to support Lena. 

"For me, it was Lena," Andrea says, blue eyes flickering in a way Kara didn't find threatening until now. "I mean, I suspected before, of course, always lingered too long on women on the front pages of magazines as a kid. But then I saw Lena sitting on the bench in boarding school, and I was like damn, there she is, fucking my life up."

Lena's cheeks are on fire, and Kara wants to feel uncomfortable, but for the life of her, she can't. In fact, when she opens her mouth, she just says, "Yeah, I know that exact feeling," and they all laugh over it.

Kara's thought about the question before, of course she has, but she can't quite pinpoint her answer. When did she know she was into girls? Was it: in middle school when she fake dated her friend and got too attached? In high school when the cheer captain kissed her, and she kissed back? When she first saw Bette Porter on The L Word? When she stopped believing boys could fix all of her wounds like the media said they could? When she first went crazy over a girl? The first time she saw Lena and Lena saw her, and she'd finally found someone she'd call her type?

She's not sure.

But Sam says she knew when she saw Lena, too. So, they all just agree it's Lena.

-

Kara's on Craigslist one night, searching through the pets listings because she's trying to get Kelly and Alex a dog for their anniversary, but also as a nice way to say, hey i think i'm moving in with lena and getting a job as a barista at the coffee shop, but here's a puppy to fill the void.

Lena shrugged and said it's not the worst idea, when Kara told her the plan, so she figures it's okay.

Anyway, she's doing that when Lena steps out of the bathroom, fresh from the shower, only wearing her towel.

She's doing that when Lena strips naked and slides into one of Kara's already worn flannels, not bothering with the buttons, and puts on nothing else. Like that's an okay thing to do.

She closes her laptop and puts it on the nightstand as Lena climbs onto the bed next to her.

"I see you staring," Lena announces, as she gets settled, leaning against Kara. "You're not even sneaky about it."

"I was not," Kara defends, even though she was, and Lena huffs and folds her arms.

"Good, then. Because m'saving myself for marriage."

Kara smiles. Her heart is thumping. After years of poor sex drive and depression and apprehension, she's finally turned-on enough and okay enough and comfortable enough to say, "Okay, maybe I was staring a little."

Lena drops the act immediately and asks, "Really?"

And Kara's so fucking smitten by how hopeful and cute she is, she can't stop herself from leaning over and kissing Lena. The second their lips touch, Lena pulls her down on top of her, and Kara laughs right against her mouth and says, "Yeah. Really."

Lena laughs, pressing up to kiss her again. Her hands are soft underneath Kara's tank-top, gentle in the way they're moving, exploring, grabbing. Her mouth is sweet and she's kissing with tongue, and the whole thing is just bordering on filthy and it's making Kara's head spin. Kara runs her hands up Lena's belly, feels the muscles shift as she arches her back as she moves with Kara, moaning against her mouth when Kara brushes her nipple. It feels like too much and not enough all at once, and Kara. Has to take a breath.

"I love you," she says, as she pulls away, and Lena hums with her eyes closed, biting her lip, shifting her hips up and down with her thighs straddled around Kara's quad.

Kara barely noticed the movement when they were kissing, but now her brain's whirring, now she's lifting up and craning her neck and looking down and back, between them, watching as Lena grinds against her, hips stuttering every few seconds. She doesn't know why she's falling apart just seeing this, but she's also never been one to pick apart something that feels good. Not in bed, at least.

Well, god, she at least knows she likes the way it looks: Lena's toned thighs spread, shaking, hips working, the way her belly rises and falls with how hard she's breathing, the fact that it's getting hot, sweaty, between them. She likes the way it feels.

"You like watching?" Lena breathes out, and Kara's brain blanks. Her cheeks are so flushed they're tingly, even more so the second she lifts her head and sees how flushed Lena is, too. "It's okay, don't, um. I sort of like when you watch."

"You do?" Kara asks, barely a gasp of air, but Lena hears her because she nods.

Then she's flipping them over with more grace than Kara can fathom, straddling Kara's thigh on top of her, and moving her hips again. "Easier on your neck this way," she says, then she grabs Kara's hands onto her thighs and shifts her hips as she runs her hands through her hair.

Kara feels like there's so much building in her at once, that she has to. Close her eyes. Breathe, count to three, then four, then ten, then twenty.

Then Lena says, "Talk to me. It's okay. Let's figure it out together."

And Kara opens her eyes, and then she opens her mouth, and then they figure it out. Together.

-

The next morning, Lena shows Kara her favorite pole, the one she has set up in her spare room: all black with a special coating that she says, helps with the grip. And then they spend the morning laughing as Kara fails to do basic moves.

Eventually, they give up, Kara hobbling on bruised thighs and Lena smiling too big, and they go to get coffee from their favorite shop.

"We should try a different table today," Lena says, once they have their orders. "I bet the view on the other side can be just as nice."

"Okay," Kara says, because it doesn't matter that much either way. She's sure she's mostly just going to be looking at Lena. "I brought crosswords and sudoku in my bag, whichever you want to get your butt kicked in today."

"Whatever," Lena laughs, and then she drags Kara to the other side of the shop.

-

Kara was in middle school when she found out one of the best things about the human body: it doesn't just heal, it learns. It remembers. Each time it fights off an illness, it keeps a little reminder so it knows what to do the next time. Kara's just figuring out now, that her cells had the blueprint all along, that they've been brilliant at surviving this whole time and all she had to do was listen. 

She's not just healing, she tells herself. She's learning. She's remembering. She knows what to do the next time she encounters a hurdle.

Because life isn't about avoiding obstacles, it's about knowing what to do when she reaches one.

 

End