One of the pieces of useless advice that Lena’s therapist had given her was that she should try making lists. It was supposed to help her find order in the chaos, apparently, make sense of her irrational thought patterns. And Lena liked order, she liked to categorise, liked to make sense of things, so even though she had stopped showing up to therapy three months ago, she still made lists.
Reasons not to drink alcohol
- Early start in the lab tomorrow.
- The hangover sucks.
- Extra gym sessions to burn off the calories.
She didn’t bother writing this particular list down, although sometimes she did make physical lists. This one had to stay in her head, only because if she broke down and made the choice to drink she didn’t want to see that piece of paper and be reminded of her failure in the morning. She was pretty sure she would break down too, because even if she came up with a thousand reasons not to do it, none of them outweighed that one overwhelming counterargument - she just wanted to. She wanted to sink into the feeling of being drunk, wanted to feel it weighing her limbs down, wanted to hear her vicious inner voice growing quieter and quieter.
She grabbed her car keys from the kitchen counter and held them tight in her fist, checked the cat had food in his bowl and took the elevator from her apartment down to the parking garage. It wasn’t until she was in her car and took a right turn instead of a left that she figured out she was going to a meeting and not the liquor store.
AA meetings were a useful thing, but they were also always kind of depressing. It was depressing to listen to people reach into the darkest parts of themselves, depressing to watch them cry, depressing to hear them talk about the people they’d hurt. This particular meeting was held after hours in a community college classroom, and Lena didn’t say much this time around, just looked at the posters on the walls advising how to conjugate a verb in Spanish. By the time she left she didn’t have the feeling of relief she supposed you were meant to have after these things, she mostly felt like her skin had been rubbed raw and, after drinking a lot of the terrible coffee on offer, like she really needed to pee.
Peeing, like most things in Lena’s life she thought, turned out to be a mistake though. She found that out when she was innocently washing her hands, only to be confronted with the worst thing you could find in a dirty public bathroom - someone who knew you.
“Oh my God, is that seriously - Lena? Lena Luthor?”
She knew the voice immediately, of course. She thought maybe it shouldn’t be so instantly recognisable given that it had been three years since she last heard it, but she suspected she still could have picked it out in a stadium. For a moment she just looked down at her wet hands in the sink and considered whether she had to turn around. Maybe she could just stay here forever, washing her hands over and over.
This was what her therapist would have called ‘an irrational thought’, so she turned around, trying to shake her hands dry as she did it.
“Kara,” she said, trying and failing to sound pleased. Running into the girl you had a pathetic unrequited crush on throughout college after your AA meeting was the stuff of nightmares, wasn’t it? With any luck, this would turn out to be a literal nightmare, and any second now Lena would wake up.
But no, there she was in the flesh - Kara Danvers. She was leaner and more toned than she had been during their undergraduate years, but she still had the same glasses, the same ponytail, the same impossibly bright smile.
“Wow, it’s so great to see you!” Kara said, and the worst part was that she probably genuinely meant it. She was probably going to text all their old friends right after this (who of course she would still be in touch with, probably lived with a couple of them in some sort of cosy Friends style arrangement), tell them how she bumped into Lena Luthor and wasn’t that crazy. Crazy how they all graduated and then Lena Luthor went crazy and they never saw her crazy face again.
“Likewise.” Lena nodded, really hoping her tone conveyed that she wanted to leave this situation as quickly as possible and she wouldn’t have to come up with an awkward excuse. She looked around for a hand dryer and only found paper towels, and regretted both the environmental cost and the fact she couldn’t deter Kara with the noise from a dryer.
“So you must be here for the same reason I am, right?” Kara asked, bouncing on the balls of her feet. She was actually hopping with excitement. Who did that? “I remember you were always reading back in college, but I never would have thought you’d be into amateur dramatics.”
That confirmed it definitely wasn’t a nightmare because even Lena’s tortured brain couldn’t come up with anything as horrific as amateur dramatics. What was she supposed to say though? Actually, I was here for a meeting to talk about my stupid fucked up addiction with a bunch of other fucked up addicts? Her therapist had told her not to be ashamed of her ‘relationship with alcohol’, but it was clear she had never actually seriously sat down and attempted to abuse a substance because otherwise, she might have understood the deep, guttural shame that accompanied it. The shame that said you were weak and hopeless and pathetic, and everyone else got along just fine so why couldn’t you? The shame that drove you right back to it, more often than not.
So no, Lena could not look into those bright blue eyes and tell Kara Danvers the real reason she was here. Instead, she did what any idiot would do. She said, “Yep. I’m into amateur dramatics.”
God help her, it actually wasn’t as bad as she thought.
When they walked in Kara said, “This is Lena, she’s come to join our group!” like that was just about the best thing that had ever happened to anybody, and for a second Lena remembered what it had been like to be Kara’s friend. The woman might have put herself across as dorky and awkward but she had a way of winning people over, and when you stood beside her you got to share a little bit of that glow. People saw you as Kara’s friend, and since she was such an effortlessly good person they assumed you must be as well, and sometimes, with her gentle encouragement, you felt like you really were.
But Lena had fucked that all up three years ago so there was no point in thinking about it now.
The rest of the group were actually kind of nice though. They were a mixed group, twenty or so people of all ages from college students to some who must have been in their seventies, and, sure, a lot of them seemed like they’d watched too many episodes of Glee and taken it really to heart, but they still gave Lena a warm welcome. She didn’t even have to talk to Kara that much, which was a blessing because she honestly wasn’t sure what might come out of her mouth if she did. She could just sit back in the dim lighting of the auditorium and watch the group interact.
They were performing monologues that week, and although some of the group were hammy and over the top, others were genuinely pretty talented, to Lena’s surprise. Kara got up and performed something from My Fair Lady, complete with accent, and while she couldn’t act much she was funny and got everyone laughing along with her. “I usually just do props and scenery, but it’s just us here so I thought ‘what the heck’, right?” she explained to Lena when she took a seat again, and Lena thought it had definitely been three years since she heard anyone use the word ‘heck’.
They didn’t make Lena perform since it was her first week, but they did tell her she should prep something for next week, in a kind, low-pressure sort of way that made Lena think they wouldn’t much mind if she never got up and performed anything. When the session was over they said things like ‘great to meet you’ and ‘it’s so good to see a new face around here’ and seemed to actually mean them. Lena used the shuffle of the crowd to avoid talking any more to Kara and left safe in the knowledge that she was never, ever going back. Then she drove back to her apartment, pet the cat, got up early the next morning to go to the computer lab, spent an hour at the gym, hurried home, and made a list of reasons she shouldn’t drink.
Kara added her to the group chat. The theatre group was apparently called “the National City Players”, and they were all very friendly and spent inordinate amounts of time sending each other brownie recipes and Youtube videos of “Hamilton”. Lena got toothache just reading it. She wasn’t even sure how Kara had her number - true, Kara used to have her number, and also true, Lena hadn’t changed it in the last three years. But surely Kara hadn’t actually kept it? She’d deleted Kara’s number two years ago in a fit of drunken self-pity, she couldn’t imagine Kara would…
Except, that’s exactly what Kara would do. Kara wouldn’t delete Lena’s number, she’d keep it, just in case. Lena hoped she had at least deleted their old conversations, the ones where Lena was young and bright and happy.
But something strange happened when the notification popped up, “Lena Luthor has been added to the chat.” They all started greeting her. They all started messaging things like ‘Lena it was so great to see you on Wednesday!’ and ‘Lena you’re going to audition for our new show, right? Let me know if you want to run lines together.’ and ‘Lena you’re going to have to tell me where you got that shirt you were wearing.’ Lena wasn’t quite sure what to do with that - nobody had been that enthusiastic about her presence since… well, probably since college.
None of them knew her though, she reasoned, not really. If they knew her they wouldn’t be nearly so happy to have her in their little group. So she closed out of the app on her phone and didn’t open it again.
(But Kara knew her, didn’t she? And Kara had still been happy to see her.)
Lena could feel her hangover buzzing at the edges of her temples, clouding her thoughts. The stabbing pain above her left eye hadn’t relented all day and her mouth still felt gritty and disgusting, even this late into the afternoon. She had spent most of the day unproductively, hating the bright lights of the computer screens and the chatter of those around her, shame roiling in her gut. She had been weak again. She had given in again. She was pathetic. She was a fuck up.
Of course, that was the day Kara showed up.
Lena hadn’t seen her in three weeks, since the day she accidentally attended the theatre group, and she had been perfectly happy to let that be their only meeting. She wasn’t going to force her way into Kara’s life again, not when it had been such a disaster the last time.
Except here Kara was, leaning against the wall of the National City University Computing building holding two cups of coffee, looking as though she had all the time in the world to stand and wait. Lena considered just walking past her. It was possible Kara wasn’t even here to see her, after all, she could be meeting a friend, could be meeting a date, could just be -
“Lena, hey, I’ve been waiting for you!” Kara grinned brightly, taking a few steps forward to stop Lena in her path. “I got you a coffee, black, just how you like it.”
Well, Lena reasoned, black was a pretty easy coffee order to remember. It didn’t mean anything that Kara still knew that. “How do you know where I work?” she asked, looking down at the coffee cup and then back at Kara. She had just wanted to go home and take a shower, and now she was… here.
“Oh.” Kara’s cheeks turned bright pink. She was cute, Lena thought. Why did she have to be cute? “I mean, I’ve been following your work the last few years. So I kind of already knew.”
“My work?” Lena asked stupidly. Her head was killing her and she was so confused by this turn of events she couldn’t even think of a decent escape plan.
“Yeah, you know, your publications and stuff. So I knew you were working on your PhD in machine learning - your research is really cool, by the way, I always knew you were going to change the world. So, anyway, I figured this must be where you work.” Kara bit her lip, looking down at Lena’s coffee cup that she still hadn’t taken. “Sorry, have I overstepped?”
On perfect autopilot, Lena found herself doing what she had always done when faced with a Kara who was upset, or embarrassed, or worried, or just a little disgruntled. She tried to make it better. “No,” she shook her head quickly and took the coffee cup from her. “I’m just surprised, that’s all. I didn’t expect to see you again.”
“Right, that’s kind of why I’m here.” Kara said, suddenly nervous, “Everyone was really disappointed you didn’t come back to the group, and I was worried it was maybe because I was there. Auditions for our next show are on Wednesday though, you know we’re doing Romeo and Juliet, so I was hoping you would come back for that. I don’t want to be the reason you quit doing something you enjoy, Lena.”
Kara was rambling. She hadn’t changed, not even a little bit, Lena thought. Still taking everything on her own shoulders, even when it was clear that it was Lena who had screwed everything up here. She wondered if Kara could see the red ringing her eyes, smell the alcohol in her pores. Did Kara know she was hungover? The thought of that made Lena’s gut clench, and she considered just turning and running. Running back to her car, back to her apartment, maybe she would finally take Lex up on his offer and just move to Metropolis.
Kara was rummaging in her backpack though, nearly spilling the coffee in her other hand as she tried to find something. Finally, she pulled out a book triumphantly. “I thought maybe you could do an audition piece from this? I remember it was one of your favourites.” Her voice was hopeful, and Lena realised that Kara genuinely wanted her there. She couldn’t know, then, that Lena had been drinking or she never would, which meant Kara must look at her and just see the old Lena. The Lena who had been functional.
She looked down at the book Kara was holding. Macbeth. It had been one of her favourites - she liked the atmosphere of it, liked the ambition and greed that drove it and the eventual fall that followed. She remembered reading parts out to Kara and saying, “Oh God, I could just hear Lex saying that.” They had laughed about it together. They had been best friends.
“Okay,” she said, and took the book from her, “I’ll come back.”
Reasons to never go back to amateur theatre
- It’s amateur theatre.
- Would have to be on stage, in front of people.
- Kara is there.
- Kara is there.
- Kara is there.
“The raven himself is hoarse,” Lena tried, but her voice caught in her throat and she found her fingers were trembling around Kara’s copy of Macbeth. Out in the auditorium, the theatre group was watching her on the stage, twenty upturned faces focused unrelentingly on her, except for Kara, who was nodding enthusiastically and giving her two thumbs up.
She was a Luthor, she reminded herself. Lex gave speeches to audiences ten times this size without so much as a stutter, he had stared down the president of both the country and the FDA, he ran a billion-dollar corporation without even breaking a sweat. If he could do all of that then Lena could not let a little community theatre group destroy her. Then she really would be pathetic. She just had to pretend to be another person and she was good at that. She felt she knew Lady Macbeth as well, could feel the burning ambition, the desire not to be overlooked in favour of her male counterparts, could feel the fear underneath it all. Perhaps Lena had been a lot like her, once upon a time.
She straightened her shoulders and tipped her chin up, determined she would channel that spirit now. This time, her voice didn’t quaver, “The raven himself is hoarse that croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan…”
There was applause after she finished the soliloquy, to Lena’s surprise, and when she climbed down from the stage the group was thumping her on the shoulder and smiling and saying, “Wow, Lena, that was amazing!” And even though Lena was pretty sure they were just being nice and it really couldn’t have been all that good, she still felt a little warm fluttery feeling in her chest.
Then Kara was there, looking as though she might throw her arms around Lena but changing her mind at the last moment, buzzing with excitement and saying, “You were so good, I knew you would be!” Lena didn’t know what to do with this warmth and praise, and couldn't reconcile it with her vision of herself in her mind’s eye, awkward and useless. So she just nodded and sat down, and tried to ignore Kara’s disappointed expression when she didn’t respond.
> Kara Danvers [20:38] : Hey Lena!! Just wanted to say again how good you were in the auditions yesterday! Do you feel like grabbing lunch tomorrow? My treat! Or if you’re busy I could do Saturday, or Sunday or Monday or any day next week?
> Message Read [20:43]
Lena had sat at the very back of the group in the auditorium as they waited for the day’s session to begin, pretending to read something on her phone and hoping no one would strike up a conversation with her. It was one thing to turn up every week, it was another to try and act like a functional human being in a one-on-one conversation with them.
“Could you just tell me what I did?”
When she looked up Kara was standing above her, teeth worrying at her lower lip. Some of her hair had escaped her ponytail and fell around her ears, and as Lena watched she nervously pushed her glasses up her nose. She was beautiful, Lena thought, and wished she wasn’t.
“Is this because I didn’t reply to your text?” she asked in the end when it became clear that Kara wasn’t going to take silence as an answer. It hadn’t been that she didn’t want to reply, not even that she didn’t want to have lunch with her. She just couldn’t stand the thought of Kara asking her questions about her life, and finding out Lena was… what? Barely making it through her PHD, living alone in an apartment with the guy at the liquor store the closest thing she had to a friend? She wasn’t going to drag Kara into that mess.
“Not just that, Lena.” Kara frowned, her next words coming out in a rush, as though she had been saving them up inside her for a long time. “You made it pretty clear after we graduated that you didn’t want to be friends with any of us, but I thought maybe we could move past it after all this time. Every time we talk you look like you can’t wait to run away though, so can you just tell me what I did to make you hate me?”
In the summer after she graduated college for the first time Lena had found herself without much to do for the first time in years - there was no research to complete, no extracurriculars to participate in, and her parents were back in Metropolis and didn’t need to be appeased. Lena had felt the bone-deep exhaustion that had always plagued at the edges of her consciousness seep into her, the kind of tiredness that wasn’t physical but still stopped her getting out of bed most days. She didn’t tell any of them, obviously, she couldn’t find the words that expressed the damp despair that had settled inside her skin. She couldn’t imagine why any of them should want to help her anyway, she sunk that low into the pit of self-loathing in the end. So she stopped replying to their messages, put them off with excuses, pushed them away.
But all this time Lena thought they knew. She especially thought Kara had known, she thought she would have read it on her face the very moment they met in the bathroom. Lena had lost her mind a little bit and hadn’t ever really got it back.
Except Kara didn’t know. Kara thought Lena hated her.
“I don’t hate you,” Lena said in the end, barely louder than a whisper. She wanted to leave. She wanted to stay. She wanted a drink and she was so glad she was sober. What explanation was there? I didn’t want to see you back then because I’d have had to admit I hadn’t showered in three days, and I don’t want to see you now because you might figure out what a fucking mess I am? “I’m just not - not good with people. Some days.”
That was a ridiculous explanation for three years of no contact, but Kara’s expression softened, and Lena had the horrible feeling she had understood perfectly. Lena had confided in her occasionally, back before she disappeared, told her about the sadness that sometimes stopped her in her tracks. Kara had always hugged her, made her eat ice cream on the couch and watch kids movies together. It worked, sometimes, but nothing dissipated the black cloud, not really.
“Do you remember in freshman year when James tried to flirt with you by asking about LuthorCorp, and you didn’t realise that’s what he was doing so you ended up getting him a summer internship there?” Kara asked with a small, hopeful smile.
Lena laughed, despite herself, and it sounded odd coming out of her mouth. “Yeah. He probably still hasn’t forgiven me for that.”
“Come for lunch with me tomorrow,” Kara said.
Lena took a deep breath. “Okay.”
The cafe where they met felt like Kara through and through. There were leafy plants and framed pictures of famous people who had eaten there lining the walls. The smell of bread baking filled the air and the waitress called Lena “honey” and directed her to a seat near the window where the sun streamed through. She could hear regular customers being greeted by name at the counter and she guessed that Kara would be one of them. It reminded her of long lazy lunches back in college, where Kara would eat twice what Lena did and they would spend the afternoon discussing everything and nothing. When they parted ways Lena would wish she could kiss her goodbye, but they’d hug instead, and it would almost be enough.
“Sorry I’m late,” Kara said in a rush when she finally sat down, a little out of breath. Lena had been thirty minutes early, unable to sit still with the anxiety of waiting, and had watched the minutes tick by agonisingly slowly. “Have you been here long?”
“No,” Lena lied with a forced smile, deciding once and for all that this was a terrible idea.
When they had ordered their food Kara sat forward in her chair, a bright smile on her face, as though she had been waiting for this moment for ages. Maybe she had, Lena thought, it seemed like something Kara would do. “So, are you excited about the play?” Kara asked.
This evoked a slight smile from Lena. The casting had been announced at yesterday’s theatre session, and it had been a surprise, to say the least, to find out she would be playing Juliet. She had thought there might be some resentment from others in the group who had been there much longer, but if there was they hid it well. “I am.” she nodded, and found it was actually the truth. “I’ve never really acted before, so it was kind of a surprise.”
“Really? But you’re so good!” Kara said, in that easy, genuine way that Kara gave out compliments. “What made you decide to join the group then?”
Lena’s heart sank in her chest as she thought about that first awkward meeting in the community college bathroom, thought about the bad coffee and grinding emotion of the AA meeting that preceded it. She couldn’t tell her, she knew that with absolute certainty. She couldn’t let on that she wasn’t the kind of woman who had lunch in sunny cafes any more, that she had found a home instead in the darkness of her apartment with a bottle by her side. “I - uh.” she stumbled, scrambling to think up an appropriate lie, “Spontaneous decision, I guess.”
“Wow, Lena Luthor, you have changed. I didn’t think you ever made spontaneous decisions.” For a horrible moment Lena thought Kara knew she was lying, but then she laughed and winked, and the moment relaxed.
Lena didn’t have to do much talking after that - Kara took over, perhaps sensing that Lena wasn’t quite sure of her own tongue. She talked about working at a fashion magazine and how her boss was terrifying but she was really hoping for a promotion soon. She talked about Alex, and how she had finally come out of the closet a few years ago and now she was annoyingly happy all the time. She told funny stories about Winn and his brush with the law when he ‘accidentally’ hacked into something he shouldn’t have. Lena watched her lips move as she talked, watched her throw her head back when she laughed and felt the familiarity of it all ease the tension in her muscles. I missed you, she thought, and surprised even herself.
When it came time for them to leave, Kara hesitated for just a second before she pulled Lena into a hug. Lena was too caught by surprise for a moment to return it, unable to remember the last time anyone had hugged her. Then she put her arms around Kara too and felt the solid warmth of her, smelled apples in her hair and felt her tickling breath on her cheek.
“I’m so glad you came,” Kara whispered, and it had been three years since Lena felt that flip in her stomach and that tug in her chest, but there it was again. Shit.
Rehearsals became a pinprick of light in the darkness of Lena’s weeks. There was something straightforward about them that she didn’t have in any other aspect of her life. Memorising the words on the page and trying to embody them, then taking gentle criticisms from the others on how she could improve and trying it out again. It was nothing like her PhD program, where she worked for eight hours to make incremental improvements in the algorithm her thesis hinged on, only to have other students making snide remarks and subtle brags whenever she was forced to share what she had done.
She fell into an easy rhythm with it as the weeks went by, she never missed their Wednesday sessions even on the days when she didn’t go to work. Sometimes when she arrived her eyes were ringed with red and her hair hadn’t been washed, but no one commented, and when she got home she found it easier to distract herself with the script instead of a drink. She and Kara got dinner beforehand, now and then, and Kara would say things like “I just love it, we’re all working so hard together to create something amazing” and it was such a Kara thing to say that Lena thought her heart might explode in her chest.
(She had decided that she was not going to fall for Kara all over again. Some days that was easier to remember than others.)
On Saturdays when she felt brighter, when the world didn’t seem quite so dark, she joined some other members of the group in the auditorium and helped them to build sets and paint scenery, held pins while costumes were sewed and chose which plastic sword should belong to Romeo. She watched Kara with power tools building a balcony from wood and metal and tried desperately hard not to watch the flex of her arms and the sweat on her forehead. When her Saturdays were dark, she stayed in bed all day and closed the curtains and tried not to think about the play at all. No one questioned her though. When she was there they just said, “Lena, I’m so glad you’re here, I could really use your help.” and it felt like they meant it.
Lena checked the address on her phone twice and stared critically down at the flowers in her hand before she knocked on the door. She hadn’t been sure what to bring - flowers seemed like too much but she hadn’t trusted herself with a bottle of wine, so here she was. She didn’t think Kara would mind, in fact, she was pretty sure Kara would tell her that it was only movie night and she shouldn’t have brought anything. She had wanted to do something though, something that said thank you for inviting me, I know I’m not great company most of the time.
It had taken her a few days to assess her feelings on being invited to Kara’s apartment. Nerves, yes, and apprehension, but a tiny part of her was actually looking forward to it. Laying on Kara’s couch just the two of them, making fun of the terrible movies Kara chose and Kara refusing to play the horrors Lena liked.
It was Alex who opened the door though; Alex who gave her an appraising look and then stepped aside to let Lena enter without a word. At one time Lena had probably been closer to Alex than anyone else in the group, apart from Kara of course, but one glance told her that wasn’t the case any more. She couldn’t fault her for that.
Then Kara appeared too, taking Lena by the hand to pull her inside the apartment and saying, “You didn’t have to bring anything, these are beautiful though!” She took the flowers out of Lena’s hands to find a vase for them, and Lena tried to ignore Alex silently moving to an armchair without so much as a greeting.
“I invited Alex to join us, hope you don’t mind,” Kara said with a nervous smile as she ran the faucet. Lena could see what she was doing, trying to reintroduce her to old friends, and she was sure in Kara’s mind Alex was the easiest person in the world to be in a room with. Alex had always been protective of Kara though, and Lena was sure the friend that abandoned them three years ago wasn’t exactly high on her list of favourite people.
She tried to distract herself from her discomfort by looking around the apartment, taking in everything she could. There were some parts of it she recognised, the old photographs Kara had kept for years and trinkets she loved. Even one, Lena realised with a start, that Lena herself had bought - a statue of the Eiffel Tower she had brought back from a trip to Paris. A lot of it was new though, three years worth of Christmas pictures and new books that lined her shelves, a couple of video games by the TV and a laptop open on the kitchen table. She was so absorbed in looking around that she almost didn’t notice when James walked out of the bedroom and into the kitchen and snaked an arm around Kara’s shoulders.
“Guess I’ll leave you three to ladies night. Good to see you, Lena,” he said with a smile, his deep voice shocking Lena out of her reverie. She looked over just in time to see him leaning in to peck Kara on the lips before heading for the front door. Lena watched him go, and when she looked away she caught Alex’s eyes by accident.
Suddenly she was back in college, back at late night parties and hangover breakfasts, when Kara had liked James and James had liked Lena and Lena had liked Kara. Except nobody knew about that last part, obviously, not even when Lena finally came out as being a big gay mess in their junior year.
“We were surprised too.” Alex said, speaking at last, “We never thought Kara would actually get the guy.”
Kara rolled her eyes, settling herself on the sofa with a giant bowl of popcorn and gesturing for Lena to sit beside her. “It’s just James,” she said, with the sort of dismissive ease that indicated they had been together for years. Three years, Lena supposed. It had probably been three years.
Then she stared at the TV screen with her hands clasped tightly in her lap as Alex and Kara bickered over whether to watch Moana or John Wick and wondered why Kara had never mentioned him, not even once.
All day she knew it was going to happen. The events of the night before were like thorns in her brain, pricking her again and again. Alex’s angry eyes. James kissing Kara. The photographs on the shelves. She had missed so much of their lives and she so desperately wished she could be there in those pictures, smiling out into Kara’s living room, and at the same time knew she would never fit there. She was like a shadow cast over their sunny lives, over Kara’s perfect relationship, and only Alex had seemed to see it. She spent the day staring at her computer screen, barely able to focus on the lines of computer code in front of her, chewing her fingernails and wishing she had never gone over to see Kara.
She didn’t bother making lists when she got home. She already knew there was no point arguing with herself, couldn’t see the point in bothering to try and stop herself. She needed a reprieve from the whirlwind of self-loathing inside her, so she poured herself a drink and poured again and again. She kept going until the numbness settled over her like a blanket, until the vicious voice inside her head was silenced just for a little while. She went to sleep that night with the covers pulled over her head, and couldn’t bring herself to face the world again until the next afternoon.
> Kara Danvers [13:12] : I’m sitting at our usual table whenever you get here!! Already got your coffee :) :) :)
> Kara Danvers [13:38] : Are you okay?? It’s not like you to be this late. I tried to call you but your phone rang out!! Please text me!!
> Kara Danvers [13:52] : Lena I’m really worried, please call me. I’m going to stop by your work to see if you’re there.
> Lena Luthor [14:03] : I’m okay. Please don’t go to my work. I’ve been sick, I was sleeping. Did you go to my job?
> Kara Danvers [14:04] : You’re sick?? Are you okay?? Should I come by?? I didn’t go to your work, I was on my way there when you texted.
> Lena Luthor [14:07] : I’m fine. Please don’t come by.
Lena’s head was in her hands when her PHD supervisor sat down on the edge of her desk. She had been excited about her research when she first applied for funding, thought that teaching computers to make incremental improvements in the environmental efficiency of manufacturing plants could make a genuine difference to the world. Two years later though and she was just frustrated, tired of looking at it, and despairing that she could ever make any real change at all.
“Maybe you should take a break,” Rob said, resting a tentative hand on Lena’s shoulder. He was a good guy, perhaps fifteen years older than Lena, and knew more about autonomous systems than even Lena ever would.
“I came back from lunch an hour ago,” Lena said, not bothering to remove her head from her hands. She didn’t want to look at him.
“That’s not what I mean.” Rob said softly, “I just mean… you don’t come in half the week, you’re obviously distracted. You’re not at your best. Maybe you should take this semester to get your head on straight and then…”
Lena’s fingertips clenched against her scalp as she registered what he was saying. It meant he had noticed. He had seen that she couldn’t always think straight and some days she couldn’t even drag herself into the computing lab.
“I’ve just had a lot going on,” she said, her voice sounding strained even to her. “I don’t need a break. I’ll make progress soon.”
Rob nodded and let the subject drop, asked her instead what she was working on that day, but Lena’s brain couldn’t stop whirring through the conversation they had just had. She had been distracted, hadn’t she? With the play and with Kara. Maybe she needed to quit, spend more time here, and concentrate on things that actually mattered. Or maybe he was right, and she did just need a break. Maybe everything was just falling apart.
Reasons to keep doing the play
- Can’t let everyone in the group down.
- It’s kind of fun? (Never tell Lex this.)
- Kara is there.
Lena was surrounded. She was trapped inside the clamour of a hundred conversations all shouted over each other and the screaming rock music underneath it all. The smell of beer and wine filled her nostrils and she could see the flushed faces and raised voices of those around her. She couldn’t remember the last time she had been in a bar; she had avoided them for so long and now the sensations were overwhelming for her. This was Kara’s celebration though, she had finally got the promotion she had been desperate for, and when she had asked Lena with hopeful eyes whether she would come at their last rehearsal, Lena hadn’t been able to find a way to say no. When they raised a glass to toast Kara, Lena’s had only been a lemonade. She couldn’t let them see her get drunk.
“So, Kara tells me you’re working on your PhD,” This was Kelly, Alex’s girlfriend, the only person here Lena had never met before. She had a friendly smile but she was both Alex’s and a psychologist, and that made Lena nervous. “What’s your research on?”
“It’s a set of algorithms intended to increase environmental efficiency in manufacturing plants across the world,” Lena said, almost off by heart. She occasionally got wheeled out in front of big-name donors to the university, as both a Luthor and one of the youngest PhD candidates they had. Those events had never made her as nervous as this.
“Lena was always the smartest out of all of us. We always knew she was going to make the world a better place.” James leaned into the conversation, putting his arm over the back of Kelly’s chair, as if Lena could forget that along with being Alex’s psychologist girlfriend, she was also James’ sister, the holy trinity of anxiety.
“Do you remember they tried to make Lena take gen ed Physics in freshman year until she corrected the professor so many times she made him cry?” Winn was back from buying another round of drinks with Kara, both of them grinning wildly at this memory.
“I mean, I didn’t - I don’t think he cried.” Lena tried with a small frown, unable to remember a version of herself who would put her hand up in front of a class to correct someone.
“What about when they made her have her picture taken for the college website because she was the only one in the computer science department who didn’t look like a nerd?” Lucy suggested, flashing a smile at a pouting Winn, another computer science grad.
After that they were off, with a thousand memories of their college years to rehash and laugh about. James had rushed a fraternity and ended up with bleached eyebrows. Kara had their dorm building evacuated after she set fire to midnight mac and cheese. Lex tried to embarrass Lena by donating enough money that he had a library named after him. Winn attempted to flirt with Alex the first time she came to visit and she pepper-sprayed him. Lucy experimented with absinthe and made them drink until none of them could see straight.
It went on and on, a relentless barrage of memories, and Lena recognised herself in none of them. She couldn’t remember being that person, sociable and sarcastic and maybe a little bit fun. She couldn’t imagine being this person, sitting in a bar and laughing like nothing mattered. It didn’t stop though, one half-told story interrupted by another, swirling around her with the pounding music and chatter of the bar and the smell of alcohol in her nostrils like a taunt. She hated this. It had been a mistake to come here. She couldn’t have this back and she had fallen so far from the person she used to be.
She scraped her chair back on the floor and mumbled, “Bathroom.” when she saw their surprised expressions. She headed for the door of the bar though, intent on calling a cab and going home. The fresh air was a relief and she took gulping breaths of it like she was suffocating, leaning back against the wall until she could collect herself. Her heart was pounding, she realised, and she hadn’t finished her lemonade. They were going to think she was crazy all over again.
Then there was a soft hand on her arm, and Kara was there with a warm smile. “Are you okay? You rushed out of there - I know it can get kind of overwhelming.”
Lena shook her head and looked down at her feet, wishing Kara had just let her run away. “I’m just…”
“Not good with people sometimes, I know.” Kara finished for her, but there was no mockery in it, only something Lena might have called affection.
“Go back inside.” Lena told her, forcing a smile on to her face, “I’m fine. And it’s your celebration, you shouldn’t be missing out.”
“I’m not missing out,” Kara replied without even a second’s pause. “I want to be here with you. I’m not letting you go again, you know that, right?” And Lena knew that Kara didn’t just mean she wouldn’t let her leave the bar. She studied her face, tried to figure out if it was the warmth from inside or the alcohol that had made her flushed, whether she was only saying that because she was drunk.
For a second it looked like Kara wanted to say something more, but instead, she tugged Lena gently back inside the bar and Lena followed, as she always did behind Kara Danvers. But Kara stayed by her side all night after that, warm and solid, and it was just enough for Lena to feel okay.
When Kara had invited her to paint scenery on a Sunday morning, Lena had assumed it was an extra session because the play was only a few weeks away and the rest of the group would be there too. When she arrived it was only Kara sitting cross-legged on the stage though, her hair bundled up out of her face and a streak of green paint on her cheek. They were completing the backdrop for the famous balcony scene and the director had called for climbing ivy to cover it. Kara had scrupulous attention to detail and she was insisting on painting the leaves by hand, even if the audience would never know they were there.
“You didn’t manage to con anyone else into getting up this early on a Sunday, then?” Lena asked as she approached the other woman, tying her own hair back into a loose ponytail.
“No, you were the only one I asked.” Kara shrugged, holding up a paintbrush for Lena to take.
Lena wasn’t sure what to say to that, so she just took the paintbrush and sat down a few feet away from Kara, where they could both work comfortably. She watched Kara painting for a few seconds and then tried to mimic her movement, her painting a little clumsier but still passable.
“So,” she said after it felt like the silence had stretched out for hours and the unspoken between them was too much to bear. “I suppose you’re going to ask me what happened on Friday?” Lena had spent many hours going over what had happened at the bar, the way she had just run out like an idiot, what everyone must have thought about her, what Kara must have thought about her, what they probably said when she finally went home.
“No,” Kara said. “You had a moment, we figured it out, it wasn’t a big deal. I just find painting the scenery relaxing, and I thought you might too.” She didn’t even look away from the canvas as she said it, instead staring intensely at the leaf she was painting, her tongue poking out of her mouth as she concentrated. It was almost unbearably cute.
So Lena turned and touched her paintbrush to the backdrop, trying with unsure hands to paint the curves and veins of a leaf. You might as well tell her, the vicious voice in her head said, then she can stop speaking to you and you’ll have done her a favour. A bigger part of her said that was doing a disservice to Kara though, to assume she’d disappear because of this. She didn’t think Kara had ever abandoned anybody. And besides, sometimes the weight of carrying it all around with her was so much it was exhausting. Maybe it would be easier just to tell. She won’t understand, the voice said, she’ll think you’re an idiot. Lena thought Kara probably wouldn’t understand, most people didn’t unless they’d been through it themselves. It was hard to understand the black cloud that logic and words couldn’t do anything about unless you’d seen the cloud yourself. But Kara had told her she wasn’t letting her go, and she didn’t think Kara was a liar.
“You know, one day, the summer after we graduated, I figured I couldn’t see any point in getting out of bed,” Lena said, her voice scraping in her throat. She couldn’t look at Kara to find out if she had stopped painting, if she was listening at all, but Lena felt like there was a spotlight on her anyway. “And the only way I could figure out to get through my Masters was drinking so much I didn’t feel that anymore. I’ve been to therapy, they’ve given me the pills and everything else. Most days it’s still like that though. Some days more than others.”
There was a pause and Lena found her fingers were trembling too much to keep painting. She put the paintbrush down instead and twisted her hands in her lap, with no idea what to expect next but sure she wouldn’t like it. Told you, the voice said, and she believed it.
“Jeez, I’m such a jerk,” Kara said. Well… Lena hadn’t been expecting that. “I invited you to a bar! I’m such an idiot.”
Lena found herself laughing, despite herself. Of all the scenarios that had played out in her mind over the past weeks, this was definitely not one she had imagined. “You didn’t know.” she told her, “And I agreed to go.”
“Still, I could have asked.” Kara huffed, thoroughly annoyed with herself. “Why didn’t you tell me? I don’t mean - not about the bar. Why didn’t you tell me three years ago? We were close, I thought we were best friends.”
“We were,” Lena said quickly, not wanting Kara to think otherwise. “I don’t know how to explain it. I was ashamed, I suppose.”
Kara was silent for several long seconds, and Lena dared to glance over at her. She was looking up into the air as though she was considering her next words carefully. “I’m glad you told me. I hope you can tell me anything you need to in the future.” she said in the end, “And you should know me by now - Kara Danvers is a zero shame zone. No shame allowed.”
“I have seen your dancing, so I know that to be true.” Lena agreed with a small smile, feeling something weightless rising like a balloon in her chest. “I hope you won’t - I hope you don’t look at me differently now.”
“We all have our stuff, Lena.” Kara told her gently, “But I have to tell you, I’m still going to look at you like you’re the dork who spent an hour talking to Winn about the history of internet browsers on Friday.” Then she grinned, bright and wide, and Lena wished she could look at her forever.
There was no cure, but some pressure inside of Lena had eased, a muscle she had no idea she had tensed had at last been allowed to relax. At some point, rehearsals had become something soothing, a balm to her frayed nerves, the chance to step into Juliet’s shoes for a few hours and become someone else entirely. In turn, her work at the university seemed a little less difficult too. She felt she could think more clearly, and there had been no progress yet, but she was sure a breakthrough was just on the horizon. Kara helped too, of course, in a myriad of tiny ways - a hand on her elbow, a late-night text, an alcohol-free outing.
In fact, since Lena had confided in her, Kara seemed to have taken it upon herself to discover every alcohol-free activity on offer in National City. That was the only thing that could explain how Lena found herself spending her Saturday afternoon playing crazy golf. She had turned out to be the clear front-runner, having spent many boring afternoons on country club golf courses as a child (although those admittedly did not involve having to hit a ball through a giant clown’s mouth). Kara and Alex tended to take to most sports easily (even those involving terrifying clown props) and had immediately begun trash-talking each other almost the second they stepped on to the course. The rest of their group didn’t care even a tiny bit about the game and were spending a happy afternoon ambling around in the sun. It was ridiculous, and Lena was unbearably grateful.
“Ten bucks says the club flies out of his hand and hits someone.” Alex appeared by Lena’s side, and Lena tensed immediately. She still hadn’t really spoken to the older Danvers sister since the first awkward movie night, and she hadn’t been prepared to start now.
She bit her lip and watched as Winn took another swing at the golf ball and missed for the second time. “I don’t take bets I know I won’t win.” she retorted, attempting a joke.
“Listen.” Alex cleared her throat, “I want to - I guess, apologise. For how I was with you. Kara was really devastated when you disappeared on her and…”
“You really don’t have to apologise.” Lena interrupted quickly. She meant it, but she also really didn’t want to have to hear how devastated Kara had been back then. “You’re protective of her, I understand, and I was a bad friend. Some anger is deserved, and it wasn’t likely to come from her.”
“Yeah, forgiveness is kind of her hobby,” Alex said with a long-suffering sigh and a wry smile. “But you’ve earned back her trust and I trust her, so you’re good with me, Luthor.”
“Appreciated, Danvers,” Lena said with a laugh, and let her eyes drift to the topic of conversation. Kara was attempting to show James a better way to swing his club, but he mostly seemed to be using it as an excuse to put his arms around her, even as she nudged him away.
“Almost sickeningly cute, aren’t they?” Alex snorted, following her eye line. Kara looked up and met Lena’s eyes just then though, and waved at her with a huge smile.
“It is sickening.” Lena agreed.
Reasons not to be in love with Kara Danvers
The old tendrils of temptation wrapped around Lena’s brain again, and she was in her car and driving to a meeting before she could think too hard about it. The only meeting open at that precise moment was one she had been to months before, in the Spanish classroom of the community college, and she looked around at half-familiar faces and wondered at how much had happened since she had last been in this room.
“It isn’t that I feel different.” she tried to express tentatively to the group. “I still feel like shit most days. It’s more like, when I feel like shit, I have somewhere to turn.”
The rest of the group nodded thoughtfully at this, as though they were trying to relate it back to their own lives. When Lena left the meeting she felt a little lighter and, having drunk several cups of bad coffee, like she really needed to pee.
She was washing her hands in the dirty bathroom when she heard Kara come in, recognised her by the smell of her perfume and the sound of her footsteps before she even turned to look at her. Lena froze with her hands in the sink, her mind racing for an excuse to explain why she was here for rehearsals so early.
“Hey, you’re here early!” Kara said with surprise that Lena supposed was warranted. She usually arrived five minutes late and slipped in at the back so she didn’t have to endure any small talk or personal questions.
“I was at an AA meeting.” Lena blurted out, examining Kara’s reflection in the mirror for any hint of repulsion or anger. Lena had lied for all this time, after all. She had never wanted to join a community theatre group.
“Oh,” Kara said, “That’s awesome. I bake cookies for them sometimes.” Then Lena watched as the cogs in Kara’s brain started to turn, she began to reach back through the months and re-examine their first meeting in a new light. “Wait, was that why you were here the first day we bumped into each other?”
Lena took a deep breath and turned around, reaching for a paper towel so she didn’t have to look Kara in the eye. “Yes. I wasn’t here to join the theatre group. I just didn’t know how to tell you.”
She waited for a long moment for Kara to admonish her for lying, scold her for joining a theatre troupe she didn’t really want to be part of. Instead, Kara started laughing. “So you didn’t want to join theatre, and now you’ve spent the last three months rehearsing to be the lead in a play? Lena, that’s insane.”
She must have seen the confusion on Lena’s face though because she stepped forward to pull her into a hug. Without thinking, Lena found herself wrapping her arms around Kara’s waist. With the weight of the lie gone and the weight of her own exhaustion lessened she found she hardly knew how to hold herself up any more, and she let her nose sink into the crook of Kara’s neck.
“Lena, it’s okay,” Kara whispered, perhaps mistaking relief for something like guilt. “I don’t care why you were here. Look at me.” With gentle fingertips, she pushed Lena’s head up, and all Lena could see then was bright blue eyes crinkled with a smile. “I’m so glad to have you back, okay?”
And then Kara kissed her. At first Lena barely registered the tentative press of lips on hers, but when she returned the kiss Kara’s arm tightened around her waist. Their lips moved gently together, and Lena couldn’t think of anything except the warmth of Kara’s mouth.
As suddenly as it had arrived it was gone, and the bathroom suddenly felt ice cold. Kara backed up several steps, a look of dawning horror on her face. “Shoot.” she said, “I’m so sorry, Lena, I didn’t mean to do that.”
Lena was dazed, for a second, her fingertips touching her lips as though she could preserve the memory of kissing Kara Danvers, until she remembered. “James.” she said, “You have James.”
“I’m a terrible person,” Kara said, leaning back against the sinks and pressing her fingertips to her temples. “I can’t believe I did that, I’m a terrible person.”
Lena collected herself, shook herself out of the haze she found herself in. Kara needed her now, this was no time to be selfish. “It didn’t mean anything.” she lied. It had meant something to her. “You were comforting me and we got caught up in the moment. That’s all.”
“It’s not just that.” Kara shook her head, never removing it from her hands. “Do you ever feel like - I mean, do you ever feel like you’ve got everything you ever wanted, but now it’s here it’s not what you imagined it would be?” Lena thought about her PHD and her fancy apartment and nodded. “I got the guy I wanted, I got the job I wanted, but this whole time something was missing. And then I saw you that day in this bathroom and I thought… there it is. That’s what was missing.”
She looked up at Lena then, and her eyes were on fire with longing. Lena didn’t know what to say. She had thought all this time she was the only one who felt it, but here Kara was looking as though she might burst.
“I have to go.” Kara said, “I’m sorry, I’ll call you, okay?” Then she was gone, nothing but a swinging bathroom door, and when Lena walked into rehearsal after ten shocked minutes, she wasn’t there either.
> Lena Luthor [10:27] : Are you okay? We can just forget about yesterday, let’s pretend it never happened.
> Kara Danvers [11:13] : I don’t think I want to forget.
> Lena Luthor [11:14] : What does that mean?
> Message Read [11:15]
They had all arranged to complete an escape room on a Saturday afternoon a week later, the latest in Kara’s long line of non-alcoholic activities, and by the time it rolled around Lena still hadn’t heard from Kara beyond a couple of enigmatic text messages. She considered not going at all, but found she didn’t want to miss it - she liked standing back with Alex and making fun of the others, she liked nerding out with Winn over their shared interests, she was even coming around to Kelly, who didn’t act like a psychologist most of the time. And above everything else, she wanted to see Kara and make sure she was okay with her own eyes.
Having booked the escape room experience, Kara seemed to have remembered she was severely claustrophobic and was spending most of the time standing in the dead centre of the room taking deep breaths while the rest of them moved around her.
It was Alex who went to comfort her before anyone else. Lena pretended to be searching for clues in an old writing desk and watched as the older sister said something in Kara’s ear. Both of them glanced over to James and then quickly away, as James stood with tense shoulders and a clenched jaw in the corner of the room. Lena couldn’t bring herself to look at him for long, she felt too guilty to strike up a conversation with him even, but it was clear something had happened.
“Found something,” she said at long last, pulling a key out of the spine of an old book. They all turned to look at her, but Lena found Kara’s eyes immediately, and couldn’t read her expression.
With their final rehearsal done and the first performance only hours away, Lena was determined to get in some last-minute practise before she went on stage. She could already feel nerves bubbling in her stomach, terrified she was going to forget her lines or her cue. She wasn’t an actor, for God’s sake, she was a computer science student - surely those two things didn’t mix.
It was a little embarrassing to mimic acting with another person by yourself in an empty audience, but Lena tried to suppress it, moving as though she had her Romeo with her, as she would in a few hours time. “Then have my lips the sin that they have took.” she quoted, then paused as she waited for the imaginary Romeo to read his line. When she opened her mouth to speak again though she found nothing was there - the next line had gone from her memory. “The sin that they have took,” she said again, hoping the next line would come back to her.
“Give me my sin again.” a voice quoted Romeo’s line from the wings.
Lena stopped in her movements and turned towards Kara, caught somewhere between happiness and apprehension. “You kiss by the book.” she finished.
“Are you nervous?” Kara asked, and they moved together towards the edge of the stage to sit down, not quite touching, their legs dangling over the edge.
“Terrified.” Lena admitted, “If I’m forgetting my lines now, what will happen when there’s a full audience in front of me?”
“I’ll be there to prompt you,” Kara promised immediately.
Lena looked at her, taking in her features slowly. She had barely heard from Kara since they kissed nearly two weeks ago - her texts had gone unanswered, Kara had avoided her at rehearsals. She had felt the abandonment like a stab wound. “Will you?” she asked, a little more sharply than she had meant it.
Kara looked down at her hands a little sheepishly. “I’m sorry I haven’t been here. I’ve been figuring things out. I told James things weren’t working and… he didn’t take it well.”
Lena’s forgiveness for Kara came immediately and automatically, as she knew it always would. “You don’t need to apologise. You’re in a difficult situation. And honestly, I don’t think I would have figured my own life out as much as I have if it weren’t for you. If you weren’t there pushing me...”
“Then you’d have done something else,” Kara said, her brow furrowed. “I asked you to lunch and stuff, but that’s just normal. It was you who made the choice to go to your meeting that day, you decided to come back to the theatre group, you decided you wanted to keep hanging out with all of us.” She reached over and took Lena’s hand, squeezing gently. “You figured everything out, Lena.”
Lena took a deep breath, trying to push down the tears stinging at the back of her eyes. “Thank you.” she said eventually, “Thank you.”
“I want to try this,” Kara said, holding up their linked hands. “I want to - I don’t know how to do this, but I want to try?”
Lena nodded slowly, trying to comprehend whether she really was getting everything she had always wanted. That didn’t happen to people like her, surely? “I’m always going to have this, you know?” she gestured at herself with her free hand, trying to indicate something deep inside her. “I’m always going to suffer from - from this burden.”
“Well, then I’ll help you carry it,” Kara said, as though that were the easiest thing in the world. “Just give me some time, okay?”
“I’ve been waiting for this for seven years.” Lena said, “I can wait for seven more if you need me to.”
Three hours later she stood shoulder to shoulder with Kara in the wings, dressed in full costume as they watched the audience file into their seats. She smiled as she saw their friends arrive, Alex and Lucy bickering over who would take the aisle seat.
“I’m glad you made them come to see all those leaves you painted,” she said, nudging Kara playfully with her hip.
Kara looked at her with an odd smile, “You’re the lead in the play, of course they came, weirdo.”
Then the lights dimmed and the audience hushed, and around them the other members of the theatre group began to take their first positions on the stage, and in the dark, Kara’s hand found Lena’s.
Kara walked Lena to her therapy session, their gloved hands clasped in the cold morning air, kicking up piles of yellow leaves on the streets as they went.
“So are you going to audition for the next show?” she asked, half distracted by watching a bird flapping lazily into a tree. Romeo and Juliet had ended six months ago, to relative success for the theatre group (nearly half of the tickets had been sold), and they were hoping for a bigger audience again this time around.
“Mm, I rather have my eye on Lady Macbeth.” Lena agreed, attempting to sound casual and as though she hadn’t been practising the lines in her bathroom mirror at home already.
“Fierce, ambitious, a little bit bloodthirsty. Suits you down to the ground.” Kara told her with a grin and ducked to avoid Lena’s playful hit to her shoulder. “You read Lady Macbeth when you auditioned last time, do you remember?”
“I remember.” Lena nodded, “I sometimes wonder what might have happened if I’d never gone to that audition.”
“I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I’d realised you liked me back in college,” Kara said, swinging their hands between them.
Lena shook her head, because it was something she had given a lot of thought to as well - how differently her life might have turned out if she had just admitted her feelings to Kara back then. “I don’t think we were ready. We had to find out what our lives would look like without each first.”
Then Kara smiled and pulled her in to kiss her, her breath warm against Lena’s freezing cheeks, and Lena felt the pieces of her life slipping into place.