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How’s the borscht, Kara? Regret not taking my advice yet? I told you to go with the pelmeni.”

Kara snorts, taking another bite of her tepid beet soup and keeping an eye on the restaurant door. She clears her throat to cover the noise, slightly raising her hand until her Russian Language book covers most of her face but the tiny hidden camera installed in the cover can still pick up anyone entering.

The soup is pretty terrible, not at all the temperature it should be, but she can’t give Vasquez the satisfaction of knowing she was right about what Kara should order while she waits for their quarry to arrive.

“Joke’s on you, Vasquez. It’s freaking delicious,” she mutters, and she hears scattered chuckles through her earpiece that are quickly silenced by what she assumes is Jonn pinning the van team with one of his trademark withering looks. Kara is pretty sure that having a wicked judgemental look is a prerequisite to being promoted to Assistant Director of the FBI, and Jonn has it down to an art.

Agent Danvers, what do we have out back?” Jonn says over the comm, and when Alex answers she’s almost drowned out by the whistle of the cold wind. Alex’s post is in the alley behind the restaurant, and she gets the pleasure of standing in the rain and waiting until she gets the green light.

Recyclable cans in the trash, sir. Nobody cares about the environment anymore,” Alex says, and Kara can hear the clatter of an empty as Alex kicks it down the alley.

“You know, calling both of us Danvers makes things very confusing, sir,” Kara quips, adjusting her earpiece from behind the safety of her book. “Why not just – “

“Agent Schott, anything out front?” Jonn interrupts, and Kara smiles. He’s always been by-the-book to the point of grumpiness, and she gets great satisfaction from annoying him.

Nothing here,” Winn says, the nerves clear in his voice. It’s his first time out in the field, his first time outside his comfortable bubble of tech support since he requested to go through full training, and it shows. He’s jumpy, and it puts Kara on edge to have someone so green on the team when they’re dealing with someone they’ve been chasing down for years.

Morgan Edge has caused too much death and destruction with his selling of illegal weapons technology, and it stops tonight. All they need to do is get proof.

Her heart leaps when the bell over the restaurant door chimes, and three men stride in – the first two are burly, wearing matching scowls and large overcoats that just barely mask the handguns they’re definitely packing. And the third is the man whose picture she’s been staring at for weeks, pinned to a corkboard in the briefing room.

Edge looks nervous, his receding hairline shiny with sweat, and while he and his companions take a seat at a corner table Kara checks in.

“The eagle has landed,” she says softly, moving her book to better capture the conversation across the room. “Winn, did you not see them come in?”

Shit!” Winn says, and Kara can hear heavy footfalls. “Nobody was out front so I went to check the parking lot, I didn’t see – “

“What’s their position, Danvers?” Jonn barks, and Winn falls silent.

“They’re just talking right now. Edge has a briefcase, but he hasn’t opened it,” Kara reports, making sure to angle the camera down at the silver case beside Edge’s chair. Jonn, watching the feed from the van, grunts his assent.

Everyone hold position until we get confirmation.”

Holding, sir,” Alex and Winn both confirm quickly, and Kara surreptitiously shifts her leg until her ankle holster is close enough to grab.

“I’m just a civilian, enjoying my delicious Russian food,” Kara confirms, grinning. She gets no answer from Jonn, but she can picture him rolling his eyes as two more men enter, even larger than the first two, and head towards Edge’s table without so much as a glance at the waitress trying to direct them.

“Well that was rude,” Kara sighs while Edge abruptly stands and shakes the newcomers hands, looking jumpy. “Man, Russian intelligence agents these days have no manners. Whatever happened to – “

Focus, Danvers,” Jonn says in a warning tone. Edge has grabbed the briefcase and put it on the table, but nobody has opened it yet, and Kara holds her breath, making sure the hidden camera is completely still. She doesn’t want any of the footage to be unclear.

Right at the crucial moment, the waitress steps directly into her eyeline to clear a table.

Danvers, we need a confirmation to move in,” Jonn warns, repeating what Kara already knows. “Give me visual.”

“I’m trying,” Kara mutters, shifting the book again to get around the obstruction. It doesn’t quite work – the little screen embedded in the page still shows the briefcase is hidden behind the waitress, and Kara grunts in frustration. “I can’t get the angle right.”

We’re losing time,” Jonn says, and Kara huffs. Nothing she’s doing is working, and she’s going to have to get creative. Calling the waitress over with a friendly wave, she steels herself for a maneuver she isn’t entirely sure she can pull off.

“Excuse me,” Kara says as the waitress comes near, “I was wondering, um – could I just - “

She tries to angle the book around the waitress, stalling for time, but still she’s obscuring the view as Edge turns the briefcase towards the men across the table for them to examine. She can see the flash of the metal, but she can’t see inside.

Drastic measures need to be taken.

“You know what, I just…I really love this borscht,” Kara blurts, standing to her full height and grabbing the waitress in a bear hug. “I’m a changed woman. Thank you so much – “

The waitress freezes in her arms, seeming unsure what to do, and it gives Kara enough time to hold the book and camera up behind her back. In the tiny screen she can see the briefcase, and the glint of it reflected on Edges sweaty face; and in the briefcase, set into a sculpted foam insert, is a USB key.

We’ve got him,” Jonn says in her ear, and Kara’s adrenaline spikes into overdrive. “Move in.”

“Get behind me,” Kara whispers in the waitress’ ear – and then the door bursts open, and chaos ensues.

“Get down!” Jonn yells in a commanding tone, Alex and Winn flanking him with guns out and pointed at the occupied table. Kara pulls the waitress to safety behind a table and takes out her own weapon, keeping it pointed at the ground as Edge and his bodyguards stand up slowly with their hands in the air.

“What seems to be the problem?” Edge asks, his beady eyes darting around to each face surrounding him. His palms are red and sweaty, and Kara can tell that he knows he’s sunk. But she also knows that, like the cockroach he is, he always seems to survive; she can’t let him slip away again.

“You’re under arrest, Edge,” Kara says, and Edge’s eyes flick to her. “We have you on tape. It’s over.”

She can practically see the gears turning in his head. He’s surrounded, and although Winn’s hand is shaking as he holds his gun the other three agents in the room are seasoned professionals. His options are narrowing down to almost nothing.

“What if I offer something better?” he says, and behind him one of the buyers twitches. The Russian man’s hands slowly start to lower towards his waist, and Kara finally raises her weapon.

“Don’t,” she warns, and the man freezes. “Hands off the weapon.”

He glares at her. Kara’s attention moves back to Jonn, whose long silence is becoming entirely too long.

“Like what?” Jonn says finally, and Kara almost drops her gun.

“You can’t seriously be thinking about making a deal!” she explodes, and at Jonn’s sharp look she clenches her jaw and takes a step forward. “Sir.”

“Stay in position, Danvers,” he says lowly, and Kara stops reluctantly in her tracks. “For once in your life, just follow orders.”

“My buyers,” Edge says, answering Jonn’s question. His voice is quiet, but urgent. “Will their identities buy me a better arrangement?”

Jonn’s face is stony. He’s silent for a few moments, and his consideration leaves just enough of a window – one of the buyers on Kara’s side reaches for his firearm, and points it at Edge’s back.

Kara reacts on instinct. Dropping her own weapon she throws herself towards Edge, tackling him to the ground as the gun discharges, and the situation escalates to pandemonium. Jonn shouts orders as Edge tries to struggle out of Kara’s grip; the buyers sprint towards the door to the kitchen, taking advantage of the distraction; and Winn screams, dropping to the ground.

Without a word Alex leaps over Edge and Kara and out the front door, making a hard right towards the back alley. Edge tries to follow but Kara puts a firm knee into his lower back, and he grunts while she snaps handcuffs around his wrists.

“Why the hell would you save me?” Edge pants, still struggling.

“Because I’m not like you,” Kara snarls back, trying to see Winn through the legs of the table and chairs they landed behind. He was standing directly behind Edge, right in the way of the bullet. “I don’t stand by and let people die.”

“You won’t hold me for long,” he says through gritted teeth, cocky even in cuffs while Kara hauls him to his feet by the shoulders. “I have too much information to not take advantage. I’ll get a plea deal, and be out by Christmas.”

“Shut up,” Kara mutters, keeping a firm hold of his arm while Jonn looks Winn over. He shouldn’t even be in the field – but if he got hurt, it’s because of her. Kara’s heart hammers as Jonn kneels down to assess him.

“You’re all right,” Jonn says in a calm voice, while Winn shakes uncontrollably. He’s clearly in shock, ghostly pale, but when Jonn checks him over Kara sees no wound – instead she spots a hole in the drywall behind him, perfectly bullet sized, and she sighs with relief. Winn isn’t bleeding. It must have just missed him.

“Did anyone get the damn buyers?” Jonn snaps into the comms, his eyes on Kara.

I’ve got them, sir,” Alex’s voice replies, and Jonn visibly relaxes. “They tried to rabbit through the back door. They’re both cuffed now. Is Winn okay?”

“Schott is fine. Just shaken up,” Jonn says, glaring daggers in Kara’s direction again. “Good job, Alex.”

The fact that Jonn pointedly used Alex’s first name so as to avoid any confusion about his thoughts on Kara’s actions is not lost on her.

The rest of the night goes about as well as Kara expects. Edge is bundled, smug and smiling, into the back of a secure vehicle and the paramedics arrive to treat Winn, who looks less shaken now but is still staring into the middle distance. He seems to be re-evaluating his life choices, and Kara approaches him with the intent of apologizing, but Jonn is standing next to him and looking so disappointed in her that she does an about-face and heads to the parking lot instead.

Better to go home and take her frustration out on a heavy bag instead of digging herself into an even deeper hole.

That’s where Alex finds her an hour later, when she comes in without knocking with a box of donuts in one hand and a six-pack of beer in the other. Kara takes one last jab at the punching bag and gives it a spinning kick, getting out her last bit of aggression, before flopping back onto the bed behind her. Alex kicks off her shoes and drops the beer on the kitchen table, and Kara only moves when a strawberry-frosted donut lands on her chest, smearing sugary glaze on her sweaty skin.

She looks at the donut for a second, before shrugging and taking a bite anyways.

“Sometimes I wonder if I made the right choice, joining the FBI,” she says with her mouth full, staring up at the ceiling. Alex scoffs, sitting on the edge of the bed and taking a bite of her own apple fritter.

“What are you talking about? You’re a great agent.”

“Every time I do something outside of his control, J’onn yells at me,” Kara says grumpily. “I want to help people, and he only cares about getting the job done.”

“He doesn’t yell. He…speaks sternly,” Alex says, and Kara rolls her eyes. “He’s seen people get hurt on the job from not following orders, Kara, he just wants to protect you. Winn almost got shot.”

Kara shoves most of the donut in her mouth. “Winn shouldn’t be in the field. Why did he even transfer from tech support?”

“Because he’s in love with you,” Alex says sagely. “And, chew with your mouth closed.”

Kara makes a show of chewing noisily, and Alex makes a face until she manages to swallow.

“Well, maybe almost getting him killed will finally convince him we’re just friends,” Kara grumbles. She reaches her hand out and makes a grabby motion, and Alex puts another donut in it. “Do you think I did the right thing?”

“I think you followed your gut.”

“That’s not an answer.”

“It’s not an easy question, Kara,” Alex says, getting comfortable on the bed since Kara shows no sign of wanting to get up. “I don’t think saving someone’s life is a bad thing, but you did put Winn in danger. And you disobeyed orders.”

Kara sighs. It’s more or less what she expected Alex to say, but it does nothing to stop the unease in her belly. When Alex gets up to get her a beer she closes her eyes, and tries to find some calm in the ache of her muscles after a good workout.

She had joined the FBI because of Alex, really. Unsure what to do with her life after majoring in English and Political Science she had followed Alex into basic training, driven by Alex’s excitement over her new job – and for a while, Kara had been happy. It felt like she was making a difference. But the longer she’s been here the more she’s realized that the FBI is not much more than a sea of red tape, a veil of protocol over inefficiency and internal politics. It’s eaten up most of her life since she joined, leaving so little room for anything else that the only relationships she’s been able to maintain are with Alex, her coworkers, and a few reliable friends-with-benefits situations to keep her from going insane.

But, Kara figures as Alex clinks her bottle against hers, at least her sister is here. With Alex here, things can’t really be so bad.

 


 

Perhaps as some kind of punishment for her actions the night before, Kara is assigned to Starbucks duty the next morning.

The crowded coffee shop is as terrible as it always is, as is the drive to the bureau with a mass of flimsy plastic cups leaking onto her passenger seat. When she stumbles in the door laden with her 18 orders she’s mobbed immediately, a mess of arms reaching into her space to grab their coffees, but there are only a few faces she actually wants to see.

She doesn’t even have to open her mouth before Brainy has appeared at her side, giving her his usual morning update.

“Meeting at 0900. We received a new letter from Cadmus,” Brainy explains, poking a straw into his caramel macchiato. “Aren’t you suspended?”

“What? No,” Kara says, almost dropping her own frappuccino. “Am I – am I supposed to be?”

Brainy shrugs. “Jonn seemed quite angry last night. But perhaps he has cooled off.”

“How angry?” Kara asks, falling into step with Brainy as they head towards the briefing room. “I mean, he was upset at the scene, but then I left. Did it get worse?”

“Let me put it this way – I think you’re on desk duty for a while,” quips Vasquez, appearing at Kara’s other elbow. “Did you get the scone I asked for?”

“It’s in the bag,” Kara says absently, handing over the tray for Vasquez to search for her snack. She knew Jonn was angry, but to consider suspending her? To chain her to a desk, when she has one of the best records in the bureau? He must be more upset than she thought.

When she sits down in the briefing room and Jonn doesn’t so much as send a single glance her way, even when Alex takes a seat beside her, Kara takes it as confirmation.

Damn it. She hates desk duty.

“So, how’s Winn?” James asks first thing when the din of morning conversation quiets.

“After his experience in the field last night, Agent Schott has requested to be transferred back to tech support,” Jonn says shortly, and finally he spares a look at Kara. “He’s taking today off to calm down, and he’ll be back in tomorrow.”

“He is the best tech specialist in the bureau. Really you should be thanking me for convincing him to stay there,” Kara quips. There’s a murmur of laughter across the room, but Jonn’s face is like stone. He waits a few seconds for it to die down, and then continues.

“On a less light note, we got another letter from Cadmus,” he says, flicking on the overhead projector. On it is a cryptic note, arranged in a sort of verse that Kara has become familiar with over the last year. “Arson, poison, explosives…they never seem to work the same way twice. No two targets ever seem related. We get letters full of poetic riddles, and then they strike, and it all makes sense.”

“Sir, I could – “ Kara starts, but Jonn cuts her off.

“This one is down in Intelligence. Hopefully we get an answer soon,” he says, turning to Alex instead. “In the meantime, Alex. Get a team together.”

“A team, sir? You want me to take point?” Alex chokes, her mouth partially full of breakfast sandwich. Kara pats her on the back, unsettled by the way Jonn is ignoring her but happy, at least, for her sister.

“You’ve been wanting to run your own op,” Jonn says, the ghost of a smile on his face. “Last night, you earned it. Pick your people – I want preliminaries by noon.”

“Alex, that’s so great!” Kara says, as the projector turns off and everyone falls into conversation. “Your own op! That’s the fast track to a promotion.”

Alex, though, looks distraught. She stares down at her hands, and then back up at Kara with wide eyes. “How the hell am I supposed to run an op if you’re on desk duty?”

“You’ll be fine!” Kara insists. “You’ll probably be better off without me. I don’t follow orders, remember?”

“That’s not true,” Alex protests, but at the front of the room Jonn has gathered his things and is heading into the hallway, and Kara stands abruptly.

“Hold that thought, okay?” Kara says, patting Alex’s shoulder and following Jonn out of the room. She catches him a few steps into the hall, and she can see his shoulders get tense as he recognizes her footsteps.

“Sir, I was wondering,” Kara says, barreling forward nonetheless. “I have a background in profiling and decoding, and if I could just work on this case - “

No, Danvers,” he sighs, turning to face her. “Desk duty. For the foreseeable future. Had you actually gone to your desk, you would have found the email telling you that.”

“But I really think I could contribute –”

“Like you contributed last night?” Jonn snaps, his composure finally breaking. “You almost got Winn killed, do you realize that?”

“I know –” Kara says, but Jonn is relentless.

“And while he’ll never place the blame on you, you’re lucky he wanted to come back to work at all. This bureau functions on protocol and order. When you throw a wrench in the machine, things get broken.”

“I don’t think that it should be a machine,” Kara argues, crossing her arms. “That leaves no room for context, for flexibility! People get hurt when nobody can adapt to a changing situation – “

“People also get hurt when you decide you know better than your superiors,” Jonn says and Kara gets the impression that the discussion is over. “That’s my final word, Danvers. Get to your desk.”

He leaves Kara fuming in the hallway, and when she turns to go back into the briefing room she’s met with a pale-looking Alex. She opens her mouth, likely to offer platitudes, but Kara waves her off.

“It’s fine,” Kara sighs, unbuttoning her top shirt button and loosening her tie. If she’s being punished unfairly, she might as well flout some uniform rules, too. “Go choose your team. I’ll see you later, okay?”

Kara is supposed to go back to her desk. In fact, J’onn gave her an express order to do so. But something about the superior, fatherly tone he used to do so makes her entirely uninclined to follow it, so instead she wanders over to her favourite pub across the street from Headquarters with a printed copy of the Cadmus letter she snagged from Alex’s operations folder and does what she does best.

She gets ketchup all over it.

“Mike,” she calls to the bartender, wiping ketchup from the page and taking another large bite of her double cheeseburger, “get me a pint?”

“It’s 11am. You’re a monster,” Mike says, but he’s grinning at her like he’s actually a little bit impressed. A few years ago he actually tried to recruit her into competitive eating, but the schedule was too hectic to accommodate her work at the bureau. Kara still thinks she could have made a killing at it, though. “You want a whole one?”

“It helps me think.”

Mike chuckles, opening the freezer and taking out her prize – a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, kept there specifically for her. She gets to work excavating the chunks of cookie dough as soon as he puts it on the table, and the senseless riddles in the letter start to slowly unravel themselves. For a while she loses herself in the puzzle, arranging and re-arranging the words and letters while taking intermittent mouthfuls of food, and when Alex pulls out the chair opposite to her she’s already almost finished the ice cream but is making no headway on the puzzle.

“Hey,” Kara says, only looking up from the letter when Alex tries to pull the ice cream tub from her grip. Kara bats at her hand, sticking her spoon in for the last bite. “How’s the team-picking going?”

Alex frowns at her foiled theft. “I think I have a squad. Brainy, James, Vasquez. I talked to J’onn about getting you on the team.”

“And, let me guess. He said no,” Kara says, muffled around a too-big mouthful of cookie dough.

“He did,” Alex admits, instead snagging an onion ring from Kara’s plate. “Pretty firmly. I think you’re going to have to do your time for this one.”

“Don’t I always?”

“No, you usually charm your way out of it.”

“Well this is a first, I guess,” Kara says, frowning at the letter again as an idea starts to form in the back of her mind. “Hold that thought.”

While Kara scribbles a series of notes on the messy paper, Mike approaches again to grab the empty pint container. He stops and leans against another table when he sees Alex, his grin charming in an unappealing, boyish sort of way.

“You know, I’ve got a question for you two,” he says, crossing his arms. Alex rolls her eyes.

“I’m sure this will be illuminating,” she mutters. Mike forges on, undeterred by her disinterest.

“Do all the women at the bureau have to wear those really masculine shoes?”

“Oh, no,” Alex says sweetly, her smile wide and fake. “We get these made special just so that straight men will ask us about them.”

Mike looks confused for a moment, but after a few over-long seconds it seems to dawn on him. He nods, conceding defeat in the battle of wits.

“Riiiiight. Message received,” he says, flashing a finger gun and a wink that Alex pointedly ignores. Instead she steals another handful of onion rings, and pokes Kara with her other hand.

“What’s up?” Alex asks when he’s out of earshot, dipping them into Kara’s abandoned ketchup. “You onto something?”

Just as Alex shoves 3 large onion rings in her mouth at once in a patented Danvers move, the puzzle falls into place in Kara’s head.

With a screech of wood on tile, Kara stands straight up.

“Call a meeting, okay?” she says with no explanation, grabbing the remainder of her onion rings to go. “Room 14, in 20 minutes!”

She hears Alex calling after her, but she can’t hear the actual words. She’s already halfway across the street, sprinting through traffic with the letter in one hand and a basket of onion rings in the other. She knows what the letter is leading to, and desk duty or not she’s going to lay it all out before Intelligence gets the chance.

When everyone strolls in 20 minutes later, Kara has taken over the entire whiteboard at the front of the meeting room – a scattered mind map, excerpts of the Cadmus letter scrawled on the surface and circled in red with long lines connecting various thoughts to each other. Alex looks alarmed at the murder-board vibe Kara is giving off, striding back and forth and making furious notes in various colours, but Brainy looks interested.

“I figured it out!” Kara says, unable to wait while everyone is still sitting down and getting comfortable. James has a jumbo tub of cheese puffs with him, and Kara digs her hand in and snags some as she walks by before he can swat her away. “I tried to create a content-based pattern, like their other letters, right? But it was different this time, like they’re trying to throw us off,” Kara continues, mouth full of cheese puffs, drawing another line to two different excerpts. “This time, they used a signifier!”

Kara turns to the group, seeing 4 blank faces and one thoughtful one.

“A signifier?” Brainy says, stroking his chin. “They’ve never used a signifier before.”

“I know!” Kara says excitedly, throwing her arms out and almost accidentally throwing her marker at Vasquez’ head. “That’s why it took me so long, see? The use of ‘miss’ in the subsequent letters, here, and here –” Kara draws two frantic lines, underlining her point, “it’s the Miss United States pageant!”

“A beauty pageant?” Alex says disbelievingly, as Kara breathes heavily in front of her masterpiece. “Cadmus, the terrorist group, is targeting a beauty pageant?”

The beauty pageant,” James says, and all eyes turn to him. “It’s happening in San Antonio this year. It’s one of the biggest scholarship programs in the country. The money and publicity of something like this, the visibility of all the events – I mean if you think of the audience at the live telecast alone - “

He trails off at the sea of incredulous looks.

“What? I like fashion, so sue me,” he says, popping some cheese puffs into his mouth and winking at Kara. “The pageant lasts five days. Preliminaries, press conferences, talent shows, half of them outdoors – it’s a logistical nightmare.”

“How are we supposed to cover that much ground?” Alex says, sounding a bit hopeless. “Even if we get more agents on the team, there’s too many wildcards. So much happens behind the scenes, and if we put agents in there visibly it could cause a panic.”

“Well, who has access to every part of the pageant?” Brainy asks, steepling his fingers together.

“Just the contestants and their consultants,” James says, seeming excited at the direction they’re headed in. “Not even the judges can do much interacting with anyone backstage – too much fear of favouritism.”

“I think you need to get someone backstage undetected,” Brainy concludes. Alex perks up slightly.

“Undercover?”

“Exactly.”

“Okay, so who can get in there?” Kara asks, crossing her arms. She might not technically be a part of this op, but she can certainly help Alex figure out her game plan. “Do we have anyone who could pass for a twenty-something pageant queen?”

“I can’t do it,” Alex says, slightly too quickly. “Not if I’m taking point. And Vasquez is my second.”

“What about Leslie Willis?” Vasquez suggests, pulling up Willis’ file on her laptop. “We went through training together.” Kara doesn’t know Willis well, but attached is her personnel photo - she’s blonde and classically beautiful, even when glaring at the camera with a surly expression. Kara can tell that, spiritually if not physically, Willis is giving the photographer the finger.

“With her anger management issues?” James says, scoffing. “She got suspended twice already this year for excessive force. This pageant is all about charming people. She wouldn’t last an hour.”

“Eve Tessmacher?” Vasquez suggests instead. Alex shudders before Vasquez can even search her name in the database.

“There’s something about her I don’t trust,” Alex mutters. “She has creepy vibes. I don’t want her on my first op.”

Kara rolls her eyes. “You don’t trust anyone.”

“Look up Imra Ardeen,” Alex suggests instead, ignoring Kara’s jab. Vasquez types her name into the system, and a photo loads of a gorgeous brunette with dark skin and kind eyes. Kara has been on an operation or two with her, and she was always easy to work with. “She’s gorgeous and sweet. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’d actually done a beauty pageant before.”

Sighing, Vasquez points at something in the bottom left corner of her personnel file.

“Maternity leave.”

Damn it,” Alex grumbles, kicking at an empty chair until it skids across the floor. “Come on, guys. There has to be someone. Any woman under 30 at this bureau who can put on some makeup and twirl in a circle.”

And then all eyes, inexplicably, go to Kara.

“What?” Kara says, her hands and mouth full of stolen cheese puffs. “I can’t think of anyone.” But Vasquez narrows her eyes. She tilts her head, watching unnervingly closely as Kara wipes her cheesy hands on her pants.

“Let your hair down,” Vasquez says suddenly. Kara blanches.

“What? Why?”

“Just…take out the ponytail.”

Deeply unsettled, Kara eases the tie out and shakes out her hair. It tumbles over her shoulders in a slight tangle – Kara realizes belatedly that she hasn’t brushed it in at least 2 days, and she runs her fingers through it halfheartedly. She doesn’t understand the point of the exercise, but everyone else in the room seems to come to whatever mystery realization Vasquez had.

“You don’t actually think –” Alex says, looking excited for the first time since the meeting began.

“I do,” Vasquez says, grinning. “A pair of high heels and some lipstick and I think she’ll polish up just fine.”

“Who?” Kara asks, looking back and forth between Alex and Vasquez and surreptitiously brushing the Cheeto dust from her pants onto the floor. “Who is it, guys?”

But Alex and Vasquez just keep staring at her silently, matching grins on their faces, and after a few seconds the horrible truth dawns on her. Kara blinks, looking down at herself and then back up at them.

“But…I’m 31?”

Her age is dead last in the long list of reasons she’s absolutely not the right person for this job. In fact, Kara could probably produce a novel about all the ways she’s liable to fail. But now that it’s been suggested, Alex seems to have latched onto the idea.

“No, it’s perfect! Right?” Alex says, grabbing her hand tightly. “It’s perfect – who do I trust more than you, Kara? I can practically read your mind, and this could be a way to get Jonn to let you into the field! I don’t want to go to Texas, to run an op for the first time, without you. I can’t.”

“But – but –“ Kara stammers, shakily gathering her hair back up into a messy bun, “I don’t know the first thing about – I can’t even put on mascara! I don’t even shave!”

Alex waves a hand. “We can hire someone to teach you all that!”

“I can’t compete in a beauty pageant!” Kara says, loudly and definitively, praying that someone in this suddenly suffocating room will understand that this is the worst idea they’ve had to date. “That is so not my world. I mean, look at me!”

“I am looking!” Vasquez says, giving her a pointed once-over. Kara feels like she’s being x-rayed, and she crosses her arms over her chest. “You’re hot, Kara.”

“Not that kind of hot,” Kara mutters, her face getting warm. “And I’m not…you know. Girly. Those girls are all former cheerleaders who twirl batons and claim to want world peace while tearing down everyone around them. They were the girls that bullied me in high school.”

That last bit slips out without Kara meaning it to, and she crosses her arms even tighter at the cloying sympathy being levelled at her.

“That is certainly a lot to unpack,” Brainy mutters. James seems to agree.

“I get it, but that is a huge oversimplification,” James says, but Alex interrupts him.

“Will you at least try?” Alex pleads, and damn her, Kara could never say no to that puppydog look on her sister’s face. Alex is worried she’d going to blow her first big break, and she needs Kara’s help.

Damn it.

“Okay, fine. Fine,” Kara relents, and Alex visibly sags with relief. “But good luck trying to convince Jonn. Even if I say yes, you have to get it past him.”

 


 

To Kara’s abject horror, Jonn agrees within the hour.

In all honesty he seems almost relieved at the idea of having her out of the office and in another state, and by 2pm Alex is driving her to a meeting with the pageant director. Kara is still shell-shocked by the whole thing when they take their seats in the meeting room. None of this feels real, the idea that in about a week she’s going to have to reverse every aspect of herself and pretend to be a paragon of femininity on national TV, and it’s only Alex’s obvious relief at having her on board that keeps her from bolting at the first opportunity.

The formidable woman who sits at the head of the conference table does nothing to make her feel better. She introduces herself as Lillian Luthor, and even Kara – who has never before felt inadequate about her perfectly respectable 5’9” frame – finds herself suitably intimidated by the 6-foot glamorous skyscraper who shakes her hand with an expression of cool, calculated disinterest.

“Am I hearing this correctly?” Lillian says with slight amusement when Alex has explained the proposal. “You want one of your agents…to compete in my program?”

“Yes.”

“Do you want her to win?”

“No, ma’am,” Alex says quickly, and Kara can see the flop sweat forming on her upper lip. She’s just as unnerved by this meeting as Kara is. “But we would need your help with the judging. Our agent would need to make the top 5, so she can have access to all areas at all times.”

“Absolutely not,” Lillian says, her face a mask.

“Miss Luthor, we understand how important this beauty pageant is to you,“ Kara starts, but her sentence trails off into a mumble as she realizes that she’s made a terrible mistake.

“Excuse me,” Lillian says coldly, standing to her full height until she towers over them like some sort of regal mid-rise. Her movement lines up perfectly with the life-size poster of a previous pageant winner that sits in a lit frame behind her, giving the impression of a glittering crown on her head. “This is not a beauty pageant. This is a scholarship program, and it has been such ever since my time here.”

“Of course, Miss Luthor,” Alex corrects, kicking Kara under the table. “We’re here to protect the girls. Women! Uh – scholarship…ladies. If Cadmus is targeting your program, everyone in it is in danger.”

“There’s nothing more important to me than the safety of my girls,” Lillian agrees, sitting back down, but there’s something insincere in her fixed smile that puts Kara on edge. “But unfortunately all of the winners from each state have already been chosen. There’s nowhere to put your agent, even if we agreed to your terms.”

“Well, we discovered some information about the contestant from New Jersey,” Kara speaks up again, grinning at Alex. “She was recently arrested at a climate change rally. She was on the right side, at least, but she’s going to be unavailable over the week of the pageant.”

“The right side,” Lillian says, smiling at Kara in a way that makes her skin crawl. “Of course. Well, I suppose there aren’t many more ways I can say no to the FBI, are there?”

Alex nods, visibly relieved. “We want to avoid an incident as much as possible, Miss Luthor. And protect your contestants, as well as any bystanders. This terrorist organization is known to be pretty ruthless.”

Lillian nods tightly, straightening the already-perfect nametag on her desk. “Do you have an agent in mind?”

Kara raises her hand.

In the moment after, she almost wishes she hadn’t. The moment she identifies herself Lillian gives her the slowest, most judgemental head-to-toe look Kara ever received in her life – starting at her combat boots, which are polished and well-kept but undeniably purely functional, and going up her trousered legs to her loose tie and slightly messy ponytail, and finally landing on her slouched posture. Kara straightens up, suddenly terribly aware of the Cheeto dust on her black pants and the ketchup stains on her standard-issue dress shirt, and straightens her glasses.

“I, um. I’m going to do my best,” Kara says, trying not to cow to Lillian’s steely gaze. “But we’d appreciate any consultation you can provide us.”

“Yes, I imagine you will,” Lillian drawls, and she reaches for her phone. “Let me get you the number of one of our best consultants.” She presses the intercom button, and speaks sharply into the speaker.

“Alexander, would you get me Cat Grant’s number?”

“Would you like that takeout, or delivery?” a bored, drawling tone answers, and Lillian’s mask cracks slightly. She jabs the button again, and her tone is chilling in an understated way that raises every red flag in Kara’s head.

“Cat. Grant’s. Number,” Lillian says. The voice on the other end doesn’t answer this time, and Lillian smiles tightly again.

“She’s been in something of an early retirement, but perhaps she can help you,” Lillian elaborates. Alex, clearly trying to look as grateful and penitent as possible, nods enthusiastically.  

“We welcome any –”

The office door opens loudly, and through it stalks a man who seems far too old to be pouting the way he is. He looks to be around Alex’s height, bald but bearded, and he thrusts a business card at Lillian with a withering stare only matched by Lillian’s own.

“Can I get you anything else?” he says to Lillian, but his tone says that he has no intention of doing so. She shakes her head, and once she’s taken the card from him he leaves the room without acknowledging anyone else.

“My assistant, Alexander,” Lillian clarifies, handing them the card. It’s made of thick white cardstock, with pale pink embossed letters that read Cat Grant – Pageant Consultant. “He’s helping me during this year’s pageant. So much to do. Is there anything else you need?”

Lillian lapses into silence, and her look is pointed enough that Alex excuses them from the meeting quickly.

She doesn’t say as much to Alex, but as they leave Kara logs Lillian Luthor into her personal list of possible suspects. She’s always trusted her instincts, and something about Lillian spells trouble – the kind that’s usually difficult to pin down.

 


 

“I still think this is a bad idea,” Kara mutters, as they enter the ostentatious fine dining restaurant that this Cat Grant insisted on meeting at. “Lillian was terrifying. What if this Cat person is worse?”

“I’m not sure it can get worse than Lillian,” Alex remarks, squinting around the restaurant to find their table. “I think that’s her, look.”

The person who rises to greet them is certainly different from Lillian Luthor. While the two seem similar in their ages Cat Grant is tiny, hardly more than 5’4” in heels, and delicate in her build. Her shoulder-length blonde hair is down in the kind of perfect waves that can only come from a significant time investment and a lot of hairspray, and Kara can see the wheels in her head turning before she and Alex even reach the table.

“Agent Danvers?” Cat says in lieu of a greeting, and in unison Alex and Kara nod, holding out hands to shake. Cat raises a brow, looking down at both of their hands in a silent inquiry.

“I’m the, uh – the makeover – person. Kara. I’m Kara,” Kara stammers, shaking Cat’s delicate hand with a sweaty palm. “This is my sister, Alex. She’s actually running this operation.”

“Sisters,” Cat drawls, shaking Alex’s hand as well. “How quaint.”

Alex takes a seat at the table, but Cat stays standing. Instead she pulls the chair away from Kara’s reaching hand and circles her, her gaze sharp and appraising.

“Hm,” she says quietly, running a hand along Kara’s bicep. She grabs the lapel of Kara’s suit jacket, moving it slightly to reveal the ketchup stains from this morning, and scoffs. “Attractive, if a bit…unrefined. Wide shoulders, narrow hips, we’ll have to mask that. Cinch the waist, put your hair down so they’re distracted. You’ll need contacts lenses. And the wardrobe, that’s going to need to change completely.”

“I’m not a piece of meat,” Kara says grumpily, shaking off Cat’s hand. “I didn’t sign up to have you critique my body, or my presentation. If this is what it’s going to be like during the pageant -”

“What you signed up for, Miss Danvers, is for me to help you blend in,” Cat says, her voice sharp. “How you conduct or present yourself in your personal life is of no interest to me. The FBI has employed me to make you, their undercover agent, indistinguishable from any other pageant contestant, and that world is a battle zone. Every word, every movement, every inch of you will be scrutinized. If that means temporarily dismantling your identity until we catch the person trying to blow up thousands of innocent people, so be it. So you need to ask yourself if you’re committed to this, or not. Because I do not do half-measures.”

Kara blinks. Cat is dead serious, and Alex is biting her lip on the sidelines as if she’s worried Kara is going to back out. Steeling herself, Kara sighs. This is going to be the most uncomfortable experience of her life, but if it helps Alex have a successful first op – and saves people from being blown up, obviously – she’s just going to have to grin and bear it.

“Okay, yeah, fine,” she grumbles, crossing her arms. “Just…no bikinis, okay?”

“It is always yes, never yeah. Miss United States is always well-spoken and polite,” Cat says, finally pulling Kara’s chair out for her and pushing on her shoulder until she sits in it. “And, I make no promises.”

Cat finally settles into her own seat, catching the waiter’s attention with a dignified wave, and rolling her eyes Kara follows suit. She hangs her blazer on the back of the chair, and when Cat raises an eyebrow at her double order of steak and spaghetti Kara just smiles and orders a beer as well.

She promised Alex that she’d do this. But she certainly isn’t going to make it easy.

“First of all, I’m going to need a facility to enact this transformation,” Cat says once the entrees have arrived, picking daintily at a garden salad while Kara dips a chunk of steak into her marinara sauce. “We’ll create a diet plan –“

“What? No. No diet,” Kara says, waving a speared piece of steak in Alex’s direction and dripping red sauce onto the white tablecloth. “Absolutely not.”

Cat watches the descent of the marinara with a look of distaste. “Nutritional planning is an important part of – “

“I am not spending a week starving myself when I need to be performing at my best,” Kara says more firmly, taking a pointed bite of the steak and chewing as she talks. “No way.”

“Miss Danvers, I was once the most sought-after and highly qualified, highly paid consultant in pageant history,” Cat says, delicately putting down her fork. “Girls would plead with me to train them. 10 out of 11 years, my contestant was crowned. Are you under the impression that this is a request?”

“10 out of 11?” Kara challenges. Cat’s lips purse.

“In my last year, my girl had stage fright. Froze like a puddle halfway through her preliminary talent performance. Afterwards, she told Pageant Magazine that I was a crazed perfectionist, who harangued her to within an inch of her sanity. My reputation suffered, after that.”

“From what I’ve seen, she wasn’t wrong,” Kara chuckles, sawing her knife into her steak again. Cat takes a dainty bite of lettuce.

“My methods get results.”

“That may be, but I know my body, and you’re not controlling my food intake,” Kara says, and the battle of wills draws taut between herself and Cat. “I’ll be your dancing monkey – but if there’s one line I’m going to draw, it’s that one. No diet.”

Cat’s jaw flexes, and her eyes flick down to Kara’s mouth.

“Sorry, I didn’t catch that. I was distracted by the half-masticated cow rolling around in your wide-open mouth.”

Her voice is disdainful, but Kara takes it for the concession it clearly is. She takes another over-large bite of steak, washing it down with the last few swallows of her beer, and thankfully the subject passes.

“So, when do we start?” Alex says, seeming relieved at the temporary wary truce they’ve struck. “The pageant starts on Friday, so maybe on Thursday we –”

Thursday?” Cat says, chuckling over the rim of her glass of chardonnay. “Oh, you are vastly underestimating how much work needs to be done here. This is going to be my Sistine Chapel.”

“What needs to be done, besides a makeover?” Kara says indignantly. Cat’s eyes narrow.

“Have you ever walked on a stage before?” Cat asks, and Kara shakes her head. “In heels and an evening gown, with several thousand eyes in the audience? Have you given an interview? Have you performed a talent in front of an adoring crowd?”

“…no?” Kara squeaks.

Cat nods, sitting back in her chair. “We can’t simply make you look the part. You have to be the part – you need to blend in with these girls, and perform well enough in the pageant to make it believable for you to make the top 5. This is going to be a prolonged performance, and you’re sorely lacking the necessary skills.”

Kara, overwhelmed with the magnitude of the task she’s signed up for, starts to lose focus the longer Cat talks. It all seems like so much, a daunting and impossible task, and if Alex’s first operation fails it’s going to be entirely her fault. Purely to soothe herself she dips her middle finger into her water glass and starts to circle it around the rim, drowning out the discussion of securing a facility in Texas to fill with beauticians with a rhythmic and low-toned musical note. It hums constantly, louder and louder, until finally Cat slams a hand down on top of Kara’s and pins it to the top of the glass.

“Will you desist?” she hisses and Kara retracts her hand, pouting.

“Yeah.”

Yes,” Cat corrects. Without a goodbye she stands from the table, breezing by the waitstaff as she heads back to her waiting car, and Kara sticks her tongue out at Cat’s retreating back.

“Be nice,” Alex mutters, moving to follow Cat. Kara shrugs her blazer back on after putting the tab on the bureau credit card, and follows her outside where Cat is waiting at the taxi stand down the street. “She’s doing us a huge favour.”

“She’s being paid by the bureau. This isn’t a favour, it’s a vanity project,” Kara counters. Cat is watching intently as they approach, and she braces herself for the inevitable insult.

“My god. I haven’t seen a walk like that since Jurassic Park,” Cat comments right on cue, and Kara makes a face again. “All in the shoulders. And why must you clomp your feet like a dressage horse?”

“Because I’m preparing to run away,” Kara grumbles, crossing her arms petulantly.

Cat laughs, airy and indifferent. She beckons Kara forward, straightening her posture and tipping her chin up. “When a queen walks, she should glide. Keep your chin parallel to the floor.”

“How am I supposed to see where I’m going if I can’t see my feet?” Kara asks, staring straight forward as Cat directed. Cat doesn’t answer. She just circles around to Kara’s back, pushing her forwards.

“Glide,” Cat says, and Kara tries. She keeps her head up, moving forward for a few steps in what she thinks is an approximation of gliding, but Cat stops her with a fist in the back of her blazer and pulls her back again.

“No, no. You’re still picking your feet up – glide.”

“How the hell can anyone walk without picking their feet up?” Kara says indignantly, as she’s dragged back to square one like a disobedient puppy. “Is that not the basic function of walking?”

“Focus on your buttocks,” Cat says, placing her hands there and trying to move them back and forth. Kara jumps, swatting her hands away. “Keep your shoulders still, and walk with your hips.”

Kara tries. And tries again. Each time Cat stops her, and by the seventh try she’s just about fed up with the whole exercise – and so is Cat, by the looks of it. She passes a hand over her brow, sighing, and opens the door of her cab.

“Practice tonight. I’d like to see you walking with some poise by the time we get on the plane tomorrow.” She climbs into the car and slams the door behind her, and the door is already closed before Kara has processed what she actually said.

“Tomorrow?” Kara hisses to Alex, as Cat’s cab pulls away. “Who said anything about starting tomorrow?”

“We did. At lunch,” Alex says, raising her eyebrows. “Literally just now. Weren’t you listening?”

“I was too busy fighting off a panic attack.”

Alex frowns. She grabs Kara’s arms and turns her until they’re face to face, looking her right in the eyes as she searches for the truth.

“Kara, if this is too much for you we can find another way,” Alex says firmly. “Really. Your wellbeing comes first.” It’s completely genuine, Kara knows, and entirely self-sacrificing.

“I can do it,” Kara insists, brushing Alex off and rubbing her arms. She knows that Alex would give up her own career just to make Kara comfortable and happy, and she’s not going to let that happen. Alex’s career means more to her than almost anything. Kara can spend a weekend wearing a mask to let her keep it. “I can. It’s just a lot, right away. I don’t want to let you down.”

“You could never let me down,” Alex says, her face softening. “You’re not alone in this. You’ve got me every step of the way, and I’ve got you.”

Kara smiles weakly, accepting her sister’s tight hug. It does make her feel better, if marginally.

“You’re not the one who has to learn how to glide,” she mumbles, and Alex’s shoulders shake with laughter. She tousles Kara’s ponytail when they part.

“Come on, beauty queen. Let’s get a beer before Cat makes you cut out carbs.”

 

 


 

 

Kara had hoped, naively, that the early morning flight could be spent napping before what promises to be an incredibly draining few days. What she gets instead is Cat Grant taking up residence in the seat beside her with a laptop full of grainy film footage, making her watch the crowning of every pageant winner since 1966.

“See how she walks,” Cat points out, still poking at the fact that Kara hasn’t yet mastered that particular skill set. “She’s floating. Grace and poise, perfectly executed. That is why she won.”

“So, it wasn’t because she paid two of the judges and slept with a third?” Kara quips, taking a large bite of one of the oatmeal cookies she snuck on board. Cat’s hand stills on the trackpad.

“That was a rumour,” Cat says peevishly, her expression severe. “One that I didn’t expect anyone outside the pageant to be privy to.”

“You really didn’t expect me to do my own research?” Kara shrugs, taking over Cat’s job and selecting the 1986 pageant. “We’re coming up on your year, too, aren’t we? 1988. The crown suited you.”

She says it offhandedly, knowing full well that Cat won’t have expected her to know more than what she’s been told. She’s tired of being underestimated. She might not be able to apply makeup or stand with good posture, but she’s damn good at her job, and finding out that Cat won the pageant in 1988 was easy enough. There is something she doesn’t know, though.

“In future I would keep your research to relevant topics,” Cat says, much more mildly. She still looks with distaste at the crumbs in Kara’s lap, though.

“Everything is relevant,” Kara says through a full mouth. “Overlooking details leads to sloppy work.”

Cat looks strangely impressed at that, even if she also looks like she wants to throw the bag of cookies out the emergency exit.

“I noticed we skipped 1983,” Kara comments, finally bringing up the one aspect of her research that she couldn’t crack last night. “Any particular reason?”

Cat huffs out a brief laugh. “It’s near impossible to find any footage from the 1983 pageant. Lillian Luthor doesn’t like to be reminded that she was only the runner-up.”

Kara sits up straighter, setting her cookie down on the seatback tray.

“Lillian didn’t win?” Kara asks, a few new puzzle pieces forming in her head. “I assumed that since she runs the pageant, she had won at some point. She destroyed her own footage?”

“The footage of herself losing, yes.” Cat seems undeniably pleased at the reminder. “She’s always had a streak of righteous indignation.”

“That sounds…sketchy,” Kara says. Cat scoffs.

“That’s one word for it. This pageant is an incestuous, insular micro-world thriving under a veneer of class, Agent Danvers. Internal politics are as important as walking in heels. Prepare to go into the snake pit.”

Cat leaves her with that unnerving thought, heading to the drinks cart to refill her glass. The film switches to 1987, where the winner kept bursting into fits of theatrical tears every time she tried to speak during her acceptance speech, and Kara rolls her eyes. She catches Alex’s gaze a few seats up and across the aisle, and for the rest of the flight she entertains her sister with dramatic re-enactments while Cat looks on with disapproval.

It’s a brief reprieve. The moment the plane lands Kara is hustled to what looks like an entire airplane hangar filled with aestheticians, and the chaos begins in earnest.

“It took some doing, but we have everything you asked for,” Alex says as they enter the cavernous space. From where they’re standing Kara can already see what looks like a full salon chair and station, a tanning bed, and alarmingly, a dentist’s chair. “What’s first?”

“Teeth, hair, manicure, pedicure,” Cat says, handing her purse off to a nail technician who seems to know her personally. She looks like she’s in her element, her eyes gleaming with an intensity that makes Kara slightly nervous. Everything in this space down to the hairspray and nail files is under her control, and by all accounts she seems delighted at the challenge in front of her.

“Teeth?” Kara says, glancing again at the dentist’s chair. “I have good hygiene. What are you going to do to my teeth?”

“Hopefully, remove the beer stains and steak residue.”

 Alex snorts. Kara elbows her, following Cat towards a large table covered in small bowls. She peers at one of them – it’s filled with a brown, viscous substance that looks like honey, and she frowns.

“What’s this?”

“Hot wax,” Cat replies, as if that isn’t the worst possible answer she could have given. Kara jumps back like she’s been burnt.

“Oh, god,” she whispers, stopping in her tracks and looking down at her own legs. They’re covered by pants right now, but underneath are legs that she hasn’t shaved in about 8 years. Even the thought of the kind of agony that waxing them is going to cause makes her skin tingle. Not to mention everywhere else – armpits, thighs, bikini - “Oh, god.”

Alex gives her an encouraging sort of punch on the shoulder. “Hey, just think – you’ll be more aerodynamic, right?”

Alex follows Cat further into the hangar with a sympathetic expression, leaving Kara standing in the midst of the hubbub with a sinking feeling.

This is going to be harder than she thought. And the physical transformation, Cat made it seem, is going to be the easy part of the process.

It’s still tortuous in its own way. She’s able to make tiny concessions – Cat insists on painting her nails during the manicure but Kara refuses the fake acrylics, her teeth get heavily cleaned but even Cat admits that they’re white enough already and don’t need to be bleached. She even manages to hold the line on the diet issue - but unfortunately, the one thing Kara can’t talk Cat out of is hair removal.

“This is so stupid,” Kara rants, lying back on what feels like an autopsy table while piping hot wax is slathered all over her skin. It’s partially nerves, the anticipation of pain making her ramble, but she also fundamentally rejects the whole process and something in her needs to talk about it. “Why does anyone care where I do or don’t have hair? Is anyone really going to be looking that closely?”

“Yes,” Cat says simply, directing Kara to move her legs further apart so that they can get her inner thighs. “These judges pick out the most minute of flaws.”

“Having hair isn’t a flaw. It’s being a human being,” Kara grumbles. The technician raises her arms, trimming back the hair there to cause the least amount of pulling, and Kara winces when the wax is applied there too. “Why do you put yourself through this? How is winning a pageant worth all this trouble?”

“Miss United States represents what people want to be, not what they are. You can go back to your jungle-woman grooming after the operation is finished.”

“This is such a ridiculous, patriarchal standard,” Kara continues, while the aesthetician pastes pieces of paper to the wax and pats them down. “The fact that men can have hair anywhere with no issues but women are expected to ritually torture themselves to remove it when it’s actually more hygienic to – OW, JESUS!”

Cat’s smile is just a bit too smug for Kara’s liking, but she at least bites her tongue until Kara is well and truly hairless.

“I feel like a dolphin,” Kara complains some time later, waddling slightly to ease the friction on her more delicate areas. Cat doesn’t even look back at her, leading her instead to a facialist ready and waiting with a clay mask.

“You’re not nearly graceful enough yet for that comparison.”

It gets a little easier after that, at least. The facial is actually sort of refreshing, especially soothing on the raw recently-waxed skin near her eyebrows, and she almost falls asleep when the hairdresser gives her a deep scalp massage. Her hair gets trimmed and blown out and styled like it’s never been before, and then she’s whisked off to a wardrobe fitting. The measurements of every inch of her body are taken, and after all of that she finally – finally – gets to eat lunch.

“This has been such a weird day,” Kara says around several ravenous bites of catered sub sandwiches. She has a different one in each hand, which seems dramatic, but she’s never been so hungry in all her life.

“I am begging you to chew with your mouth closed,” Cat says, seeming to lose her own appetite watching Kara eat. She sets her fork down, pushing her plate away. “At the very least.”

Kara just takes another over-large bite. “But that would mean I have to eat slower. It’s not my fault you starved me all day.”

“It is so weird seeing you with your hair down,” Alex says, squinting at Kara over her much more moderate plate of lunch. “And all styled like that, with no glasses. You look like a different person.”

Kara rolls her eyes.

“That’s a romcom cliché. Makeup and hair doesn’t change your facial structure.”

“It’s true, though!” Alex says, looking to Cat for backup. “You look different. If I wasn’t your sister I’d hardly recognize you.”

“Well, don’t get used to it. It’s back to normal after all this is over.” Kara punctuates it by chomping loudly into a pickle, and Cat excuses herself from the table not long after to prepare Kara’s clothes fitting for the afternoon.

“You’re still good, right?” Alex asks, once Cat is gone. “With all of this? Still feeling okay?”

Alex looks genuinely worried for her welfare, and Kara notices for the first time that she’s hardly touched her own food. Kara swallows, putting her sandwiches down with only a little bit of regret.

“I said yes to this assignment, Alex,” she says firmly. “I’m not going to back out on you. You can stop worrying about me.”

“I’m always going to worry about you,” Alex says, but her posture relaxes significantly. She finally picks up her own sandwich, and Kara throws a cherry tomato at her.

“It’s just a pageant. It’s probably going to be like toddlers and tiaras. I get in, pretend to be vapid for a few days, and get out. Easy,” Kara says, shrugging and digging back into her lunch.

It’s just 5 days. Quick and easy, and then life can return to normal.

 


 

The first time Kara sees herself in the mirror after Cat has wrestled her into a light purple dress and heels, she understands what Alex said earlier about her looking completely different.

She’s taller, for one, towering over Cat and even Alex with her new shoes, and Cat has successfully masked her natural body shape with strategic clothing choices. Her hair has been lightened to highlight the blonde, and styled until it feels like a helmet but looks like a soft and effortless wave. Her glasses are replaced with contacts, her eyes and lips emphasized with makeup, and her bare calves are smooth and artificially tanned.

Kara sees all of this, and holds two things in her mind simultaneously; the knowledge that she does, in a strange and detached way, look beautiful, and the deep understanding that the person she’s looking at isn’t actually her at all. A version of her that she could have been, perhaps, had she bowed to the gendered expectations of the world, but not who she is at her core. Kara Danvers isn’t looking back at her. It’s a funhouse mirror.

It feels, in a way, like she’s doing drag. Performing gender in a way that’s so opposite to herself as to be comical.

The moment she takes two steps forward, rolling her ankle and faceplanting onto the hangar’s concrete floor, the illusion shatters.

This is why I needed more than one day to prepare you,” Cat says drily, an eyebrow raised while Alex helps Kara back up to her feet. “Try not to bruise your knees, they’ll take points off for it in the swimsuit section.”

“How do people walk in these?” Kara asks, her ankles wobbling even standing still. “This is torture!”

“Trust me, 4 inches is nothing. This is just for practice.”

Kara’s knees almost buckle. “It gets worse?”

Cat offers no answer. She just walks a few steps in her own intimidating 6-inch heels, wiggling a hand for Kara to follow. “Chin up. We need to teach you to walk before you can dance.”

At that last word, Kara almost trips for a second time. Cat sighs, straightening Kara’s shoulders – which is sort of funny to watch, considering Kara’s height advantage – and lifting her chin again.

“Dance? There’s dancing?” Kara asks, ignoring Cat’s wordless instructions to look down at her in a sort of panic.

“The televised finale begins with a choreographed number,” Cat explains, her patience very clearly wearing thin. She crosses her arms, somehow managing to glare intimidatingly from so far below.

“I can’t dance even in flat shoes,” Kara says, her mind’s eye conjuring an image of herself flailing along with a complicated dance number and making an idiot of herself on national television. “How am I supposed to –”

“Chin up,” Cat growls, taking a firm hold of Kara’s jaw and keeping it in place. Kara huffs, batting her hand away and doing her best to obey.

“It’s not my fault I have to crane my neck down to look at you,” she grumbles, taking a few uncertain steps. Walking without looking down is even harder when she’s balancing on unsteady spikes.

“Keep it up, and I’ll leave you to stumble your way through the pageant like a baby faun,” Cat snaps back.

Kara rolls her eyes, but once again she takes a step forward.

As she suspected, what comes after the makeover is considerably worse than the makeover itself. Over the next day Cat directs her with the intensity of a drill sergeant – Kara practices walking in higher and higher heels until her feet get blisters and her hips ache, rehearses smiling and answering interview questions neutrally, and endures constant reminders about her posture. By the end of it she feels like a hollow shell of herself; but at least she can finally walk without taking her front teeth out on the concrete.

“It’ll have to do,” Cat says around 2am, passing a hand over her brow like she’s just done a day’s hard manual labour. “We’ll keep going through mock interview questions on the plane in the morning.”

“I’m tired,” Kara groans, collapsing into the nearest chair and toeing out of her heels. The skin is red and angry underneath, and she just knows that putting them back on tomorrow is going to be murder. “I want to sleep on the plane. Does everyone at this pageant just take amphetamines or something?”

“Some of them,” Cat says offhandedly. She slips a pair of glasses onto her face to peer down at what looks like a weekend schedule, and Kara blinks.

“I wasn’t expecting that answer.”

Cat slides the glasses down her nose. It makes her look a bit like a judgemental owl, not that Kara would ever say that to her face. “Trust me, uppers are among the least dangerous methods used.”

Kara frowns, trying to conjure ideas of what a bunch of pageant queens might be using to keep alert, but as she massages the feeling back into her feet she decides that she doesn’t want to know. Better to live in ignorance, sometimes.

When Alex arrives with an armful of equipment, it’s a welcome relief from Cat’s incessant reminders not to sit with her legs spread out.

“We have an earpiece for you,” Alex says, laying a tiny device that looks like a hearing aid on the table, “a pin camera that provides a feed to our screens, and your new ID.”

Kara picks up the pile of IDs, flipping open her fake passport. The photo is one they took just after her makeover, so she barely recognizes herself – but the more alarming part is the name.

Kara-Lee Kent, age 29?” Kara says incredulously, thumbing through the rest of her ID cards. All of them list the same thing. “You gave me Clark’s last name?”

“You need to be under 30. And it seemed like a beauty pageant kind of name,” Alex replies, shrugging and attaching the pin camera to the front of her dress. “You can’t use your real one. I thought that giving you a familiar last name might help you remember it.”

Kara groans. Alex secures the earpiece, making sure it’s the right fit and avoiding Kara’s glare. Her sister looks entirely too amused by the reaction.

“If people are going to be referring to me as Kara-Lee all weekend I cannot be held accountable for my actions,” Kara warns. Alex rolls her eyes, taking the earpiece out again and adjusting it.

“You haven’t even started and you’re already a drama queen.”

Kara doesn’t dare to be openly unladylike while Cat is watching – but the second she turns her back, Kara throws the passport at Alex’s head.

 


 

Kara emerges from the hangar at 8 in the morning primped, primed, and absolutely miserable.

Not only did she not get to sleep until almost 3 last night, but she was woken up unceremoniously at 6:30 to go through hair and makeup again after having worked so hard to scrub it away. The plane is supposed to take them straight to San Antonio and apparently doing it all on the way is an impossibility, so instead Kara has to be propped up half-awake while someone paints away the bags under her eyes and helped her into an appropriately short sea-green dress.

Cat and Alex are behind her as she approaches the FBI jet, and the first person to spot them from the small group near the stairs is Vasquez. She does a double-take so dramatic that it almost seems fake, but the shock as she takes in the full and final picture of Kara-Lee Kent is very real.

Kara?” Vasquez asks. She takes her sunglasses off to better see the transformation with a growing smile that seems far too self-congratulatory for Kara’s tired patience, delighted with her idea paying off - Kara glares at her, taking long strides in her precarious shoes so she can get into the safety of the plane faster.

“I’m in heels, I have so much hairspray in my hair that I’m a fire hazard, and Cat made me skip breakfast. I have never been this uncomfortable in my entire life, so just spare me the -”

Kara finally loses her balance just as she reaches the steps, and she can hear Cat’s huff of frustration as she topples to the tarmac. She manages to catch herself in a push-up position before her face makes contact, so she pops herself back up and brush the pebbles from her palms before Vasquez can make a comment.

“Don’t say a word,” Kara warns the group, turning and stomping up the stairs.

“Yeah, that’s still her,” Vasquez quips just as Kara disappears into the plane. Kara can still hear the conversation while she chooses her spot, immediately kicking off her shoes and shoving them under the seat in front.

“I am very good,” Cat says, climbing up the stairs after Kara. “But I can’t change everything.”

“The transformation is remarkable,” Brainy remarks as the rest of the team piles into the jet. “It’s as if she is wearing the skin of a different person.”

James laughs, clapping him on the back and flopping into the entire front row like it’s a couch. “That’s a really weird way of putting it, dude.”

Cat badgers her with mock questions for the first hour or so of the flight, but around the third time that Kara falls asleep mid-answer she seems to realize that they aren’t getting anywhere and leaves her to grab a few hours of precious rest before the weekend begins in earnest. When they land Cat touches up Kara’s makeup and hair before she lets her disembark and get in the cab, and the sense of foreboding that Kara has successfully been fending off creeps its way in the closer they get to the hotel.

When they get out of this cab, Kara will be loaded onto a special trolley and brought to a nearby conference centre for a meet-and-greet luncheon. Cat won’t be with her, Alex will only be able to talk in her ear through the earpiece, and Kara will be officially on her own in a room full of the kind of women she’s never in her life felt comfortable with.

And to make things worse, the first person Kara sees when she awkwardly slides out of the car (trying with only mild success not to let her skirt ride up) is Lillian Luthor. She seems to spot Cat, and Cat murmurs in Kara’s direction without breaking eye contact with Lillian.

“Try not to speak.”

That’s all the warning Kara gets before Lillian descends.

“Catherine,” Lillian says with absolutely no warmth, exchanging perfunctory-looking cheek-kisses which are so airy that there appears to be at least a foot of space between their actual faces. “It’s been too long since you’ve been with us. Five years, is it?”

“Ten. I’m delighted to be back. And in your final year,” Cat remarks with practiced disinterest, and Lillian’s eyes turn flinty. “To witness the last pageant run by the great Lillian Luthor. I can’t believe my luck.”

“It should be one to remember,” Lillian says, doing a remarkable job at not obviously showing her fury. Her eyes glance over Kara without seeming to actually see her, passing over to the cab driver loading the suitcases out of the trunk. But after a moment they flick back, taking Kara in with the same shock Vasquez showed earlier.

Bracing herself, Kara adjusts her New Jersey sash and puts on her best vacant pageant smile.

“Miss Danvers!” Lillian says, looking like she’s fighting every impulse to not look impressed. She looks at Kara from coiffed head to heeled toe, and clears her throat. “Or should I say, Miss Kent. Catherine, it seems you haven’t entirely lost your touch. She looks quite convincing.”

Lillian didn’t say pretty, Kara notes. She didn’t say beautiful. She didn’t stoop so low as to pay Kara an actual compliment. But it’s a good sign that even Kara’s biggest critic was convinced for a moment. Kara lets herself relax a little, but more importantly she manages to follow Cat’s instructions not to talk. She just smiles endlessly, emptily, and finally Lillian nods her approval.

“You’re just in time for the orientation luncheon. Follow me. Catherine, if you could get the bags? I trust you haven’t forgotten how things go, here?”

The mutual hatred radiates from both parties as they walk away, and Kara only dares one desperate glance back at Cat – who gives her an uncharacteristically encouraging nod – before she’s ushered towards the bus.

“Cat said that after the luncheon is a dance rehearsal, and then a photoshoot and a cocktail hour with the judges? I’m not so great at networking, so I think Cat wants me to -”

Lillian interrupts quietly, but with enough venom to make Kara stop in her tracks.

“You may look the part, but from this point on you operate on my rules,” Lillian says lowly, snapping her fingers impatiently until Kara takes a stumbling step forward and follows her again. “No special considerations. It’s your job to appear passable enough to make the top 5. Embarrass yourself, and you’re on your own.”

Lillian leaves her just out of earshot of the small crowd outside the trolley, and Kara is left to get in line to board by herself.

It’s difficult to really take in her surroundings when she’s surrounded by 50 well-dressed women all talking loudly with each other, especially after such a weird confrontation with Lillian. Everyone seems to know each other already, throwing Kara sidelong glances and whispering who is she? Have you seen her before? as she stands there alone. Kara keeps her ears open and her mouth closed as she shuffles forward towards the doors, where Lillian’s assistant Alexander is checking names off a list.

“Ohio,” he mutters, giving the contestant in question a lascivious up-and-down look. It gives Kara the willies, the way he scans her. Looks at her like she’s nothing more than an object for consumption. “Washington, nice apples.”

The next girl in line after Washington scoffs, her glare mutinous. “Original. Did you come up with that one yourself?”

Alexander smiles, which only seems to irritate the woman more.

“Don’t be jealous, Rojas. It’s a terrible colour on you.”

“In your dreams, perv.” She storms into the bus in a huff, and for a second Kara gets a glimpse of her sash – Texas. She and Alexander seem to know each other, a familiarity and deep mutual dislike clear from even one interaction. Kara wonders, as she steps forward, how on earth she’s supposed to figure out every pageant secret in the next 4 days.

Kara is next in line after Texas. Alexander raises his eyes from his list to do the same thing to Kara that he’s done to every other unfortunate contestant – but Kara, so concerned with remembering every detail of all 50 other contestants and countless staff while appearing like she belongs, steps wrong at the worst possible moment. Her ankle rolls, her legs crumple, and in desperation she grabs at the nearest surface – an open trolley window - and hits the side of the bus hard.

“I’m fine,” she wheezes before she’s even fully pulled herself up again, trying not to wince too hard when her shoulder wrenches with the effort. “Don’t worry –”

She trips again trying to take her first step onto the trolley, and all desire to objectify her seems to have left Alexander.

“New Jersey. Welcome,” he says, barely keeping the laugh out of his voice. Before Kara has even picked herself up for a second time, his attention has moved to the contestant from Idaho behind her.

“Idaho – I certainly hope so.”

Rolling her eyes, Kara brushes off her hands and carefully climbs the last few steps onto the trolley.

The staring in here is even worse than it was when she was waiting in line. Almost everyone is on board already, moving bags onto seats as she approaches or sitting with someone else and whispering amongst themselves. Only one person is sitting alone near the back, staring out the window. Her dress is navy blue, a stark contrast to the pale pastels of the dresses around her, and her sash reads Massachusetts. She looks thoughtful, but sad. Somber. And she’s the only person Kara has seen so far who seems like she feels as out of place as Kara does, even if she looks the part better.

Kara doesn’t realize she’s staring like a total weirdo until the woman raises an eyebrow.

“Can I help you?”

Kara jumps, almost dropping her clutch with the woman’s attention suddenly all on her. She manages to catch it after a few tries before it hits the ground, and once it’s secured Kara clears her throat nervously and points at the empty spot.

“Can I sit here?”

Now that Kara can fully see her face it’s clear that this woman is ridiculously pretty, even on a bus full of people whose job is to be beautiful. Long dark hair that hangs soft around her face, sharp jaw, full lips with a slight downturn. Every feature is somehow perfectly suited to her. Her eyes are a clear light green, and she studies Kara carefully before she nods.

Kara slumps into the seat with relief, blowing at a stray piece of hair that somehow struggled free of her hairspray-helmet during her falls.

“Thanks. I’m –”

“Kara-Lee Kent,” the woman says sharply, but not unkindly. Her voice is low and sort of throaty, and it’s hard to read her tone but her face is a mask of indifference only betrayed by the interest in her eyes.

“How did you know that?” Kara asks, her bravado failing again. The woman’s expression doesn’t change.

“You’re the only contestant in the booklet who didn’t have a photo. The last-minute entry.”

Kara laughs a little, only remembering to close and primly fold her legs after her new seat buddy glances down at their relaxed position. “You memorized everyone’s picture?”

“Eidetic memory.”

“Ah,” Kara says, deflating a little. “That’s…cool.” Making conversation feels a little like hitting a wall, the woman’s clipped replies taking the wind from under Kara’s wings a little; but her seatmate seems to realize how inhospitable she’s being, and she continues after an awkward pause.

“And, everyone else here came up through the same pageants. All competing nationally since childhood. A new face sticks out.”

Kara nods gratefully, a little more at ease already. “That explains why everyone was staring at me. That and falling on my face, probably. Great way to make a first impression. I recommend it.”

For the first time, the woman’s face twitches into a smile. It’s tiny and mostly suppressed, but the fact that Kara managed to crack the shell at all feels like a major achievement. She seizes the opportunity, holding out a hand to shake and flashing her a natural all-Kara smile. No pageant fakery, just genuine delight at making a new friend. A very pretty, very interesting, strangely magnetic new friend.

“Well, now you have me at a disadvantage,” Kara says, wiggling her fingers until she takes them. The woman laughs quietly, flashing straight teeth (with, Kara notices with a strange and sort of pleasant lurch in her chest, a slight underbite that’s incredibly charming) and looking at once interested and slightly suspicious. Kara can imagine that actual friendship is a rarity here, with everyone climbing over each other to win.

“Lena,” is the short reply, but Lena’s face is more open than it’s been this whole conversation and Kara takes it as a win. Her hand is warm and soft, her grip firm, and Kara holds it perhaps a few seconds longer than is strictly necessary. She’s too distracted noticing that while one of Lena’s eyes is green like she thought, the other is actually a sort of greyish blue. And her voice, as well as being low and honey-rich, is very gently accented with a cadence Kara can’t place.

It’s fascinating.

“Nice to meet you, Lena,” Kara says absently, finally letting Lena’s hand go. “I’m Kara.”

Lena smirks. “I remember.”

“Oh,” Kara says, finally realizing how odd it must seem to be staring intently into Lena’s face for a second time with no explanation. At least, no explanation besides you’re the prettiest person I’ve ever seen in my entire life. Lena doesn’t seem unsettled, but she does still seem a little cautious. “Right. Um –”

For probably the first and last time ever, Kara is relieved when Lillian interrupts her before she can make a complete idiot of herself.

“Ladies,” Lillian says as the trolley starts to move, standing to her full height so that the top of her head almost brushes the roof. She somehow balances perfectly on a moving vehicle in heels taller than Kara could ever manage, and Kara can’t begrudge her a little respect for the sheer poise. “You have no idea how pleased I am to see every one of your faces at my pageant. This weekend is your chance to show the nation that well-bred, traditional female values are still relevant.”

Kara can’t hide her grimace. She leans towards Lena, meaning to make a funny comment about how Lillian seems to think it’s still the 1950s, but the moment Lillian stood up the brunette had stiffened – and now that Kara actually looks at her, she seems genuinely distressed. All lightness from their conversation is gone, replaced by a ramrod-straight almost military posture and a stony face. She stares straight ahead, avoiding both Kara’s gaze and Lillian’s, and Kara leans back into her seat with a frown.

“A song for the road?” Lillian says, and there’s a general wave of excited chatter in response. “I think you know the one I mean.”

Kara does not know the one she means. Everyone else seems to, though, and all it takes is an airy wave of Lillian’s hand before the entire bus launches into song around her.

“From sea to shining sea, like lady liberty…”

It’s like Kara has entered the Twilight Zone. Everyone around her is belting the lyrics at full volume, some operatic and some more moderate but all with clear musical talent, and Kara is sitting smack in the middle without even enough of a knowledge of the tune to fake it.

She’s agreed to go undercover in a cult, and she didn’t do enough research to follow the leader.

Lena sings as well, but unlike everyone else around them her voice is actually quiet. So quiet that Kara almost can’t hear it – but when she focuses, tuning out the showy performers, she pretty quickly figures out why. Lena is mouthing the words, putting on the show of joining in, but even Kara can tell with almost no musical knowledge that her voice is delightfully tone-deaf.

It still feels like Kara is walking willingly into a bear trap. But oddly, the desire to sprint in the other direction disappeared the moment she sat down next to Lena.

Chapter Text

“We’re up and running.”

Alex’s voice is sudden and loud in her ear, and Kara reaches up to fiddle with the volume on the earpiece. Nobody in the conference room seemed to notice her flinch at the noise, but she doesn’t want it to happen at an inopportune moment.

“Talk quieter,” Kara mutters, walking in a slow circle and frantically trying to figure out what she’s supposed to be doing. Each of the tables has a little placard on it with a state name, but she has no idea where hers is. “It’s distracting when you yell.”

“I wasn’t yelling!”

“You were – hold on, I found my table. Don’t talk to me, I have to act normal.”

By sheer luck Kara can see the New Jersey placard sitting on a table in the middle of the room, and she’s delighted to see that at that same table and seated directly beside her spot is Lena. There are 4 other women already seated as well, and Kara takes quick stock of their states – California, Alaska, New York, and Texas. The woman from Texas is Rojas, Kara remembers from the bus, which she can only assume is her last name. She and Lena seem to know each other, although there’s something frosty about their interaction that Kara can feel even from 20 feet away.

She really should have memorized the contestant booklet like Lena did.

“This seat taken?” Kara asks when she’s close enough, pulling out the chair in front of her placard and sitting carefully. She folds her legs together and tilts them to the side like Cat showed her, hoping it doesn’t look as clumsy as it feels.

All the conversations at the table go silent. Lena, seeming to take pity, is the first to speak up.

“Ladies, this is Kara-Lee Kent. New Jersey,” Lena says, and Kara chuckles.

“Just Kara.”

Lena nods, pointing at the person on Kara’s other side. “Kara, this is Nia Nal, California –”

“Hey, girl,” Nia replies, her smile friendly. She looks to be the youngest at the table, probably under 25, with a kind face and a mischievous twinkle in her eye. Kara likes her immediately.

“Siobhan Smythe, Alaska,” Lena continues, moving to Nia’s right. Already, Kara likes Siobhan considerably less than Nia. She doesn’t greet Kara but nods silently, sizing her up with a haughty expression. She’s beautiful, of course, but Kara can already tell that she’s far too competitive to be friendly. It’s a strange feeling to be considered a threat by someone so obviously suited to pageantry.

“Sam Arias, New York,” Lena says, indicating the woman across the table from Kara.

“New blood. Nice to meet you,” Sam says with a wink. Lena’s voice is the warmest when introducing her, and Kara finds herself trusting Sam by association.

“And Andrea Rojas, Texas,” Lena finishes, her voice turning quiet and stiff.

“You’re the one who fell on your face,” Andrea says bluntly. Kara lets out a nervous bray, seizing the nearest food – a cheese danish from a tray of pastries – and setting it on her tiny plate. Nobody else has touched the food.

“I like to make an entrance,” Kara shrugs, taking a big bite. The rest of the table watches her with expressions ranging from derision to fascination, and she swallows loudly.

You’re supposed to be blending in,” Alex says in her earpiece. Kara can tell she’s been trying to hold her tongue, and it takes a lot of self-control not to roll her eyes.

“I don’t care,” Kara mutters. Lena looks at her strangely, and Kara smiles around another mouthful of danish. “I don’t care…about calories, you know? Have to remind myself sometimes.”

Siobhan snorts. “Good luck with that.”

As soon as she’s turned back around to watch the speakers approaching the podium, Kara makes a face. Sam snickers.

“Ignore her,” Sam says in a stage whisper. “She had a stick surgically put into her ass when she won her first pageant and it hasn’t come out since.”

Nia snorts into her hand; Lena looks like she’s desperately trying not to smile. Siobhan looks like she’s just swallowed a live wasp.

“At least I didn’t have to take time out of competing for unplanned pregnancy,” Siobhan says snippily, and Kara blinks. It feels like a savage barb, an incredibly low blow, but Sam just rolls her eyes like she’s heard it 100 times before.

“Eight years later and you’re still on that, huh?”

“They shouldn’t even have let you back into competition.”

“It’s been years since they dropped the ‘must be single and childless’ qualification,” Nia adds, almost inserting herself physically between them. Kara follows the exchange like a tennis match, chewing her pastry. “Just like the ‘natural born woman’ qualification. It’s not the 80s anymore, grandma.”

“I realize that, but it’s unprofessional to leave halfway through competition season,” Siobhan insists, looking to Andrea for support. Andrea gives her nothing, but neither does she seem to give any consideration to Sam and Nia. She just watches with the most perfectly neutral expression Kara has ever seen. “I don’t know how they do it in New York, but where I’m from, when you leave your post –”

“Leave your post?” Lena finally interrupts, arching a brow at Siobhan. “Are we in the military?”

“I wasn’t finished,” Siobhan snaps, looking around the table. “Did I sound like I was finished?”

Sam looks about ready to leap across the table and rip out Siobhan’s earrings. And Kara, quite honestly, is with her just for the rude tone she took with Lena – but instead she pipes up her own interjection.

“Doesn’t Alaska have a town with a cat as the mayor?”

The table lapses into silence, all eyes on Kara. Siobhan glares at her – most normal people would probably shrink under it, but Kara has spent the last several years doing interrogation and counter-terrorism training. She doesn’t flinch.

Excuse me?” Siobhan says when the glare gets no response, crossing her arms.

Kara takes another bite, finishing the danish off and grabbing one with a fruit filling. “I read about it. His name was Mayor Stubbs.”

“…and?”

“I’m just saying, weird stuff happens everywhere,” Kara says with a shrug. “Judging people over stupid stuff like that seems pretty silly.”

“This competition is all about judging people,” Siobhan says, incredulous. Again she looks to the others for support, but all of them are too busy staring at Kara in shock. Kara gets the feeling nobody expected the new girl to take a stand, especially against Siobhan.

“So, leave that up to the judges,” Kara retorts, glancing at Lena. She looks impressed, and it buoys Kara’s confidence. “Or are you like, a secret-shopper judge? Should I be worried?”

Siobhan huffs, turning away again. It feels a lot like a victory.

“I like you,” Sam says to Kara, looking delighted. She pours herself a glass of water and tops up Kara’s as well. “Where have you been all these years?”

“Oh, you know,” Kara says, shoving most of the second danish in her mouth at once. “Around.”

“Hey, Lillian’s about to speak,” Nia says, pointing at the podium. Everyone in the room is shifting, seeming to anticipate the announcement. “Probably revealing her retirement.”

“Her firing, you mean.”

Siobhan says it under her breath but it’s more than loud enough for everyone to hear, and when all eyes turn to her she seems smug and delighted in a way that makes Kara frown even though she desperately needs the information.

“What?” Kara asks, and beside her Lena shifts with clear discomfort.

“Oh, you didn’t know?” Siobhan says snidely. “The network is looking for a younger audience, and they think she’s too old-fashioned for the new brand. They let her go.”

“Really,” Kara says, already fitting this into her mental puzzle of the situation. From what Kara has seen, Lillian Luthor is not a woman who would take lightly to being fired. But would it be enough to make her do something this drastic?

“That was probably kept under wraps for a reason, Siobhan,” Sam says, looking to Lena with a strange expression. Lena is looking straight forward, her face carefully blank.

“If they wanted to keep it a secret, they should have done a better job.”

Lillian speaks, then, and a hush falls over the crowd so quickly that Kara is suddenly very aware of how loud her chewing is.

“You getting this?” Kara mutters under her breath, touching her earpiece as Lillian starts to talk. Alex doesn’t reply, which strikes Kara as odd after her interruptions earlier, but Lillian’s speech distracts her from it.

“For the past 30 years, it has been my honour to serve as Director of this pageant,” Lillian says magnanimously, a fixed smile not budging from her face. “And award hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarship money to some of the most delightful young ladies this country has to offer. And I know that this year will be our most exciting event yet.”

The tone is presentational and positive, but something about it makes Kara’s spine tingle. There’s something disconcerting in Lillian’s eyes, and the only person who looks as uncomfortable as Kara seems to be Lena.

“After the dance rehearsal and a quick photo shoot you’ll have the opportunity to introduce yourselves to our judges, and you can settle in your rooms. Tomorrow we’ll begin the preliminaries, and the real start to our beloved competition,” Lillian says haughtily, and Kara masks the rude face she wants to make by taking a bite of the nearest chocolate chip bran muffin. “I hope that this year you’ll all show your very best to the world, for there is nothing more wonderful to behold than a graceful, well-mannered –”

A shrill, piercing blast of sound erupts directly in Kara’s ear, and she can’t stop herself from grabbing at her earpiece with a pained yell.

“Ah! Crap on a cracker –”

The sound cuts off, replaced by Alex’s frantic voice.

“Sorry! Sorry, Kara, the audio feed cut out and we were trying to fix it –”

But the damage has already been done. The whole room is staring at Kara, and her stomach drops to her feet as she tries to tune out the ruckus in her ear.

“Miss Kent?” Lillian says into the microphone, looking like Kara has just committed a cardinal sin right there in the middle of the conference room. Her voice is laced with poison, masked by a veneer of politeness. “Is there truly something so important that you needed to interrupt to scream it at us?”

The air in the room seems to shift – like everyone has taken a breath at once, waiting for the hammer to come down on Lillian’s latest hapless victim.

“Yes,” Kara says distractedly, trying not to too openly fiddle with her earpiece. If she draws attention to it, people might start to suspect it isn’t really a hearing aid. “I mean, no – I mean, I realized just now that I forgot to check if this muffin is…kosher.”

Kara has never followed kashrut so strictly that it would warrant an outburst like this, but she’s not above using everyone’s lack of knowledge about her faith to get herself out of this disaster. Even Lillian has to begrudgingly accept that answer lest she look intolerant, even if doing so makes her look like she’s just eaten a lemon, and Kara can feel the rage in her gaze at being upstaged even as she’s forced to rescind her scolding.

“We’ll be sure to provide you with a complete dietary guide before dinner,” Lillian says through gritted teeth. “We of course need to ensure that everyone’s…cultural needs are being met.”

Something about the phrasing feels weirdly offensive, but the last thing Kara wants to do is draw more attention to herself just when everyone around her is finally directing their eyes back up to the front. Regretfully, Kara puts the muffin down and crosses her arms.

It was her only recourse, but now she’s still hungry.

After that disaster of a luncheon, all Kara wants to do is slip out the nearest door and never come back. But the circus marches ever onward, and soon after Lillian’s speech is over and there’s been a perfunctory 30 minutes where nobody besides Kara seems to eat anything, everyone is shuffled to another smaller conference room that houses a temporary photography studio. And after watching the first few girls step into the lights and start posing like they were born for it, Kara realizes that this predicament might be worse than the last.

After not seeing her since they got out of the cab, Kara is inordinately relieved to see Cat waiting for her there.

“What do I do?” Kara hisses under her breath, and Cat immediately takes out a small bag and starts pulling cosmetics out of it. “I’ve never been photographed before, besides my staff ID at the bureau.”

“Smile like you want Middle America to think you’re a sweet and wholesome girl,” Cat says, brushing something over Kara’s cheeks and blending it with a small sponge. “You clearly have the capacity to be charming – use it. And for god’s sake, don’t trip over your own feet.”

When Kara’s turn comes she’s sweaty and uncomfortable, and the hot lights only make it worse. She has no idea what she looks like but she knows it’s not her, and it feels like her limbs are all too big for her body. She can’t quite figure out how to place them, and no matter how much the girls waiting behind her fuss, the photographer can’t seem to capture a picture he likes. From what she can see on the computer screen, she’s only succeeded in looking either uncomfortable or constipated.

After one too many terrible shots Kara ducks out to get a drink of water and cool down, and she almost drops the cup when Lena appears beside her at the water cooler.

“Angle yourself sideways, and arch your back.”

Kara blinks. Lena is facing slightly away from her, looking at the studio setup where the photographer is talking to one of his assistants and gesturing frustratedly at the screen, and Kara isn’t entirely sure she didn’t just imagine her speaking.

“What?”

“You keep looking at the camera head-on, and they think it’s too assertive,” Lena says, barely moving her mouth. “That’s why your shoot is taking so long. They want you to look delicate. Stand sideways, look over your shoulder, arch your back, and put one arm over your middle with the other touching your face. Trust me. It works every time.”

Kara frowns, grateful for the advice but still surprised it’s being given by someone she’s supposed to be in competition with. “Why are you helping me?”

“I have a bleeding heart,” Lena says drily, dropping her empty cup in the recycling bin and starting to walk away. “Just do it.”

Kara does. Three quick shots later the relieved photographer releases her, ushering in the Utah contestant after her, and when Kara looks around to find Lena and thank her for her advice the brunette is gone.

 


 

Unfortunately, release from the photoshoot is not a release from captivity. Just after it is the dance rehearsal, which Kara has been dreading most of all. She might have considered trying to escape to her room while everyone changes into their activewear, had Cat not (probably strategically) refused to give her a room assignment yet. Instead she hastily puts on the leggings and tank top Cat provided for workout gear – her usual workout sweatpants were apparently not sufficient – and shuffles into the gym with everyone else.

Everyone around her seems pert and excited as they’re arranged into rows by the choreographer. Some of the girls seem a little too excited, like they can’t wait to show off their skills; Kara couldn’t be more grateful that of all the people she could have been grouped with, the two girls on either side of her happen to be Sam and Nia. They’re both clearly skilled dancers, but their eyes are more sympathetic than judgmental when Kara flails her way through the first run of choreography.

Andrea, Siobhan, and Lena are thankfully in the row ahead where none of them can see Kara’s sad attempts at dancing, but when the session starts in earnest Kara starts to think that maybe this might be worse. It’s even more difficult to focus on the complicated dance moves the instructor is demonstrating up front when Lena is directly in her eyeline wearing bike shorts.

Kara has always considered herself to be fit. She’s been doing heavy weights and resistance training since she was a teenager, and she’s won the most bouts of hand-to-hand practice sparring of anyone at the bureau. Even James, one of the tallest and broadest men the bureau has in the field, has only beaten her twice in 7 years. But after only an hour and a half of dance rehearsal, she feels like she’s just done a full-day workout. She’s never been one for heavy cardio, and this seems to be entirely cardio – it’s like HIT training turned up to an 11. The instructor is maniacal, walking through the choreography briefly and then assuming they’ve all picked it up, and as a result Kara ends up doing sloppy aerobics trying to follow the people around her as they effortlessly twirl. Sam and Nia try to help during their brief breathers between run-throughs, but Kara feels like a hopeless case by the end of it all.

After a cocktail hour where she mostly stands in the corner sipping the sweetest drink she could wheedle the bartender into making, she finally gets her room assignment. She barely looks at anything besides the room number, so desperate is she to just collapse onto the bed and not move until tomorrow, and so it’s a slight shock when she slips her keycard in the door to find Lena on the other side of it, neatly unpacking a large suitcase into the dresser. She’s already in pyjamas despite it being barely 8pm, a maroon long-sleeved tee and silk shorts, and Kara’s eyes flick downwards in a way that’s not quite as respectful as she likes to be before darting away and fixing on a spot just above Lena’s head.

“Oh!” Kara says, stopping short. Lena doesn’t react, doesn’t even pause in her movements, but it seems almost forced. Performative nonchalance. “Are we roomed together?”

“Seems that way,” Lena says evenly.

Kara nods, dropping her bag on the bed that doesn’t have Lena’s purse on it. Lena is quiet in her task, and Kara toys nervously with the zipper of her duffel. She honestly can’t decide if sharing a room with Lena is the best or the worst thing that could happen this weekend, and her stomach is doing somersaults in the meantime as she tries not to let her eyes linger on Lena’s bare legs.

After a few awkward seconds Kara opens her duffel and pulls out a few things carelessly, tossing them into the nearest drawer pell-mell and trying to figure out something to say to break the silence.

“Um. Thank you for your help, earlier,” Kara finally blurts, turning to stare at the back of Lena’s head. “At the photoshoot.”

Lena pauses, but doesn’t turn around.

“Sure. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you’d never been photographed before.”

Kara laughs, probably slightly louder than is warranted in this situation. She cuts herself off with a hastily cleared throat.

“I know I should be familiar with that sort of thing, but it was really hot in there, you know?” Kara says quickly, zipping and unzipping the duffel nervously. Lena finally turns around, looking at Kara’s restless hands, and Kara stops. “And being the last-minute contestant here, I felt this weird sort of pressure. I really appreciate your advice.”

Lena just nods, crossing her arms and leaning back against the dresser. She can’t seem to meet Kara’s eyes directly. “Well, thank you for settling that argument at lunch. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Siobhan so flustered.”

Kara laughs nervously. “People like her aren’t used to being challenged. Sometimes you have to come on strong just to show them they aren’t the ones in control, you know?”

Lena doesn’t answer, but Kara can see her throat bob thickly. Her cheeks are a little pink, and Kara gets up to turn the AC up a few notches. She must be warm.

“So, weird coincidence, huh?” Kara says as she twists the dial, determined not to end the conversation now that she has Lena talking. “Being roomed together.”

Lena scoffs. “It’s not a coincidence. Nobody wants to room with me, so they stuck the new girl with it. The one who doesn’t know any better.”

“What are you talking about?” Kara says, already frowning at Lena’s clear low opinion of herself. She’s about ready to march into the rooms of whoever made her feel that way and give them a piece of her mind – but Lena explains quickly.

“Nobody wants to room with the pageant director’s daughter,” Lena says, as if Kara should already know this information. “They all think they’ll be accused of favouritism by association.”

Kara’s protesting monologue dies on her lips.

“Usually I end up with Sam, since she’s the only one who doesn’t launch a complaint when the rooms are assigned,” Lena continues, while Kara’s brain hard-reboots to accommodate the revelation of Lena being Lillian’s daughter. “But clearly this year they decided to make it easier and just put me with the person who has no knowledge of the situation. Sorry about that.”

The self-deprecation in that is what shakes Kara out of her silent disbelief. She shakes her head a little like she’s clearing the cobwebs, and sees that Lena is now looking at her with badly-disguised trepidation.

“Lillian is your mom?” Kara says, letting out a low whistle. “I definitely wouldn’t have guessed that. Siobhan’s mom, maybe. But not yours.”

Lena’s shoulders relax slightly, but her posture is still tense. “Adoptive. But yes, according to the paperwork, Lillian is my mother.”

“Is that allowed?” Kara asks, genuinely curious. It does seem nepotistic, but Kara doesn’t really know the rules here. Lena shrugs.

“Lillian isn’t a judge, she’s just the Director. There’s nothing in the rules that says it isn’t allowed. Doesn’t stop some people from thinking that I’ve cheated my way to the top.”

Kara sinks onto the bed, pulling her legs up and resting her chin on her knees as she gazes up at Lena. Lena meets her eyes at first, but glances away after a few seconds.

“Is that why you’re wrapped up in all of this?” Kara asks, trying to follow Lena’s eyeline. “You don’t strike me as the pageant type.”

Lena shrugs again, quick and jerky. “I’ve been doing this most of my life. If you met a lot of these girls outside this context, they probably wouldn’t strike you as pageant types either. They just want someone to pay for their student debt.”

“Do you enjoy it?” Kara asks. She thinks it’s probably the easiest question she’s asked so far, but strangely Lena reacts to it more than anything else before it. Her eyes flit back up to Kara’s, and she stares like she’s never been asked the question before in her life.

“That’s not really a factor,” Lena says slowly. Kara straightens.

“It should be,” Kara says, frowning when Lena looks confused. “You shouldn’t have to do things you don’t enjoy just because your mother wants you to. You’re an adult.”

Lena scoffs. “Try telling Lillian that.”

“I don’t think anyone has ever succeeded in telling Lillian anything.”

Lena laughs this time, brief but genuine. Her smile isn’t the empty fixed one she’s been sporting at the pageant, but a real one that takes over her whole face – scrunchy and sweet, making dimples flash in her cheeks. Even when she quickly cuts it off with a cleared throat it makes Kara’s chest tighten.

“It’s been a while since I competed,” Lena admits, carefully moving from the dresser to sit on her own bed opposite Kara. She perches on the edge, her back perfectly straight. Kara can almost imagine Lillian holding a ruler up to a younger Lena to measure the angle of it, and it makes her sad. “I managed to convince her for a while that I was too busy with school, and she seemed happy to accept that I was just a pageant failure. But she was pretty insistent on me entering this one.”

Kara frowns. It’s just one more reason to suspect Lillian, but having Lena be somehow involved makes her feel strangely protective.

“Did she give you a reason?” Kara asks, trying for nonchalance. Lena raises an eyebrow.

“Have you met my mother? She doesn’t give reasons, she gives commands. Maybe she wants one last hurrah before I age out. Who knows.”

They lapse into silence, but it’s a less uncomfortable one than when Kara first arrived. Lena is gazing through the sliding door that leads out to the patio behind the room at the darkening sky, and Kara is gazing at her. She really is beautiful – even more so now, with the hairspray brushed out of her hair and her face freshly washed. There’s something fascinating about her profile, the sharp line of her jaw and the smooth slope of her nose contrasting with the softness of her eyes. Even as she knows it’s a major distraction from what she came here to do, Kara hopes more than anything that she gets to see Lena laugh again this weekend.

Finally Lena takes a big breath that turns into a sigh, and switches off her bedside lamp.

“I’m going to go to bed, if that’s okay,” Lena says quietly. “Tomorrow is a long day. You can leave your lamp on - just not the overhead light, please.”

Kara nods, watching Lena slip between the sheets and pull a sleep mask over her eyes. “I’ll try to be quiet.”

“Thanks.”

Lena is silent after that, turning to face the wall away from Kara, and as quietly as she can Kara changes into her own pyjamas – Cat can’t stop her from wearing her comfy sweats to bed, at least - and slips under her own covers. She’s never been more exhausted, not even in the middle of training to be on the force, and she wants nothing more than to follow Lena’s example and escape from the world until tomorrow morning. The pillows are soft, and Kara burrows into them with a contented sigh. Before she’s even finished her thought, she can feel herself drifting off.

Until four quiet knocks sound on the sliding door.

Kara groans into the pillow. She knows that knock – it’s Alex, using the pattern they agreed on as a signal. For a moment Kara considers pretending she didn’t hear and just pulling the covers over her head, but Alex repeats the pattern a little harder, and Kara has to haul herself out of bed before it wakes Lena up.

She wrenches the door open to see Alex with her phone up to her ear and a hand poised to knock again, and she pushes Alex back and slides the door shut behind both of them with a glance back at Lena. She hasn’t moved, thankfully.

What?” Kara hisses, turning back to her sister. “Who are you on the phone with?”

Alex taps at her free ear. “Kelly, who else?”

It makes sense, Kara supposes. Since Kelly works as a trauma psychologist at the bureau Alex is used to seeing her every day, even at work, and spending days apart is probably tough. Kara has never found anyone she clicks with the way Alex does with Kelly, and it’s always made her a little wistful.

“And you’re here waking me up why?”

“You weren’t answering your earpiece! Cat needs you.”

“I was going to bed!” Kara whisper-yells. “You want me to sleep with that thing in? Come on, Alex, I haven’t had more than a few hours of sleep in days.”

“I know,” Alex says, her face drawn with stress. “I’m sorry, Kara. But Cat needs to go over some things with you, for tomorrow. After that, I swear you can go to bed.”

Kara groans, leaning back against the cool glass. It feels so good to close her eyes, even standing here, that she thinks she could probably fall asleep like this.

“Kelly, help me,” Kara whines, and she can hear her sister-in-law’s answering chuckle through the phone speaker.

“Sorry, Kara. It was in our marriage vows that I’m required to take Alex’s side in any sister argument.”

“Come on,” Alex wheedles, walking backwards towards the conference centre. “I’ll buy you a cookie.”

“Better make it a whole box,” Kara grumbles, peeling herself off the door and reluctantly following.

 


 

Going over some things turns out to be wrestling Kara into a mermaid-cut evening gown and practicing walking down a spiral staircase in heels, and Kara is yawning her way through it before it’s even begun.

“You don’t walk, you float,” Cat calls from the bottom, making Kara’s headache pound even more harshly. “Gently descending, you don’t look down – don’t look down!”

“I thought I was supposed to glide?” Kara says, stifling another yawn and stomping back up the few stairs she managed to get down before Cat started yelling.

“Do it again,” is Cat’s answer, completely ignoring Kara’s sass. “Never look down. Thighs touching – “

“They are touching.”

Touching, not clenching,” Cat says, through teeth that are definitely clenched. “There should be a slight gap.”

“Right now there’s a slight gap between my brain and my spinal cord,” Kara mutters. She stares down at the steps that seem to elude her, wiggling her toes in her pinchy shoes. Cat gives no quarter.

“Try again.”

Kara tries again, managing to look straight up into the middle distance, and she lets out a victorious noise when she hits the bottom without Cat yelling at her. She looks to Cat, who looks more relieved than impressed.

“Good. A little faster this time,” Cat says, snapping her fingers.

Rolling her eyes, Kara heads back up the stairs.

“What will we be seeing for your talent tomorrow?” Cat says distractedly, looking down at her phone as Kara reaches the top. “Singing? Dancing? Chewing with your mouth closed?”

Kara, focused on keeping her thighs touching, shrugs as she takes the steps as fast as her tired brain will let her. “I will do whatever you tell me to, Yoda.”

Cat freezes. And then she whirls around, her eyes alight with a fury Kara hasn’t seen before.

“Son of a bitch.”

“What?” Kara says, stumbling over the weird gauzy scarf attached to the dress’ neckline and trying to wrap it around her arm to get it out of the way. Cat doesn’t answer. Instead she storms over to where Alex is nodding off in a chair, her phone pinned between her shoulder and ear and her coffee mug clutched to her chest.

“Agent Danvers, this woman has no talent.”

“Hey!” Alex says defensively, the surprise of Cat’s voice so close making her slosh her coffee on her white shirt as she jerks back awake. The phone clatters to the floor, and Kara is somewhat tickled to see that the call is still ongoing. Alex clearly misses her wife, and it’s sweet that Kelly stayed on the phone even as she fell asleep. It makes the part of Kara that’s slightly resented staying single for so long twinge a little.

“Yeah, that’s uncalled for,” Kara says, tromping down the stairs and kicking out of her shoes at the bottom so she can catch up more easily. Cat is livid.

“I was not told to provide a talent, and I am not prepared to do so in the next 6 hours,” Cat says heatedly. “The preliminary talent showcase is tomorrow.”

Kara frowns. “Why didn’t anyone tell me I needed one?”

“Did they not speak with you when this all began?” Cat asks, throwing her hands up. “They need to have costumes and stage directions before the event begins. Do they simply have a blank spot on the programme?”

“Nobody talked to me! I thought you were taking care of it!” Kara snaps. “Given that your voice drips condescension every time I ask you a question, I don’t think I can be blamed for assuming that.”

Cat breathes out slowly through her nose, pressing her fingers into her temples. “This reeks of Lillian.”

“What, is she trying to sabotage me?” Kara says, leaning back against a nearby table. There’s a canteen of coffee and a box on donuts on it, and Kara glances back at Cat. She seems distracted, looking at Alex – she couldn’t possibly notice if Kara just took a few.

“I don’t know,” Cat says, and quick as a flash Kara seizes two donuts and shoves them into the neckline of her dress. It’s desperate and a little gross, but she’s in a desperate situation. She doesn’t mind a little boob sweat if it means she can finally eat for the first time since the sad little salad she was given at the cocktail hour. “What I do know is that you’re going to be on stage tomorrow with nothing to do besides convert oxygen into carbon dioxide.”

“How were we not alerted to this?” Alex says, dabbing at her shirt and putting the phone back to her ear. “Babe, sorry, I have to go. I’ll call you tomorrow, okay?”

“Hold on!” Kara interrupts as Kelly sends her love and hangs up, sure now that her donuts are hidden. “There’s something I know how to do. I haven’t done it in a really long time, though.”

Cat scoffs. “You aren’t having sex on stage.”

Kara chokes. Her mind goes immediately, shamefully, to Lena – and before the thought can fully manifest she continues loudly.

“I didn’t know that was an option. It’s fine, I just have to call room service and then get an outfit. You can handle that right?”

Cat’s frown has reduced a little. Kara, taking the excuse, turns to leave – but before she reaches the door Cat has called out to her.

“Miss Danvers, hand over the donuts before they stain your dress.”

Blessedly barefoot, Kara breaks into a sprint.

“Can’t stop me, already out the door, see you tomorrow, bye!”

Alex shouts after her, but Kara manages to escape. Lena seems to be sleeping peacefully when she sneaks back into the room, and Kara enjoys her hard-earned donuts sitting on the bathroom floor.

 


 

The next morning, Kara can hardly stop yawning long enough for Cat to get her makeup done before the dress rehearsal. The older woman leaves her with a clothing bag that turns out to contain the shortest, most ridiculous, frilly dirndl-style dress Kara has ever seen, and she’s too tired to even care. She just throws the bag over the back of her chair, sitting in front of her designated mirror with her chin in her hand while everyone around her scurries around getting themselves ready.

It’s Sam who first notices her exhaustion.

“You look tired, Kara. Are you okay?”

“Oh, she had a busy night,” Siobhan answers before Kara can, smirking as she fills in her brows. Kara’s blood freezes. “My room is next to yours. I saw that cute woman come to the back door. You two disappeared for hours.”

Lena, whose mirror is positioned directly behind Kara’s so she can see her in the reflection, stiffens.

“Kara!” Nia says, gasping but seeming delighted by the gossip as she twirls her chair around. “You had a visitor?”

“I – I –” Kara stammers, fully awake now that panic has flooded her system.

“You know we aren’t supposed to have relations at the hotel,” Andrea says, but Sam snorts.

“Oh, come on. You’re all acting as if sleeping around at a pageant isn’t a time-honoured tradition,” Sam says, her tongue poking out as she carefully applies mascara. “I’ve had sex with 3 people in this vicinity at one competition or another.” 

Andrea blushes. Siobhan’s lips purse, and Lena snorts into her compact mirror. 

“So, who was it?” Sam says, putting the mascara down and coming to perch on the edge of Kara’s table. “Are you sleeping with a judge?”

Kara practically gags at the implication. “Oh, god – no! I’m not sleeping with anyone, it was my sister!”

The excitement in the room noticeably dies down – and, Kara notices, Lena seems to relax a little.

“Why is your sister visiting you at 10pm?” Andrea asks skeptically. Kara grits her teeth. Andrea seems almost as determined to sandbag her as Siobhan is, even if she’s marginally less aggressive about it.

“She’s also…my personal trainer?” Kara says quickly, seizing on the lie when nobody immediately calls her on it. “Yes. My trainer. This weekend is so hectic, I can’t get any training in. We went to the gym last night. I am…very serious about my fitness regimen. Resistance, weights, crossfit. You know.”

“That’s clear,” Siobhan says, with a weirdly appreciative glance at Kara’s arms. Lena glares at the other brunette, turning her chair to do so, and Kara slides down in her chair a little under all the scrutiny.

“Someone’s suddenly interested,” Nia says drily, folding her arms and looking at Siobhan with amusement. “I thought you hated Kara?”

“Just because I hate her doesn’t mean I can’t fuck her,” Siobhan says breezily, snapping her eyeshadow case closed.

“Very true,” Sam agrees, winking at Siobhan. Siobhan gives her the finger; and Kara, caught in the middle, shuts her mouth and tries very hard not to bring the subject back to herself.

“I think that’s enough interrogation,” Lena says finally, and Kara slides even further down in her chair with pure relief. “We should all be focusing on the showcase.”

Everyone seems to agree, realizing they’ve wasted precious minutes, and scatter to the winds. Lena stays where she is, glancing at Kara in the mirror until Kara turns around to face her. She wants to thank Lena for changing the subject, but isn’t sure how to do that without admitting that she has something to hide.

The change of angle means that Kara can see Lena’s table, now, and the two bedazzled sticks sitting on top of it.

“Is your talent baton twirling?” Kara blurts. Lena blushes, but her stare is hard.

“Yes, it is. And?”

“Nothing!” Kara says, holding her hands up. “Sorry, I just – I wouldn’t have expected that. You seem too…”

Lena stares silently, her brow raising until Kara is squirming.

“Smart, I guess?” Kara offers, already regretting speaking at all. Lena gives her a small smile.

“Does twirling batons lower one’s IQ?”

“Well, no. It just doesn’t seem to suit you,” Kara counters. It’s true – maybe Kara is bringing her own baggage to it, but baton twirling seems so frivolous. The exact opposite vibe that Lena has given her since they met. It requires a lot of skill, sure, but it doesn’t seem like the sort of thing Lena would spend her time becoming an expert in.

Lena sighs. “Well, not all of us get a choice.”

Before Kara can ask what she means by that, Lena is already gone.

Much sooner than she would prefer Kara is in the stupid frilly dress Cat gave her, waiting backstage with the other contestants and a rolling table laden with wine glasses full of water.

Everyone is lined up in the approximate order they’ll be performing, Kara being near the end, and she feels a little silly just standing there when everyone else is stretching and running vocal warmups. As Cat had suspected, Kara’s name in the programme only says ‘forthcoming’, and she could have sworn that Lillian looked disappointed she managed to pull one out of nowhere.

The preliminary talent show is held in front of a live crowd in a massive courtyard, covered by awnings from the blazing sun that do very little to cool anyone down. The audience is peppered with agents – Alex, James, and Vasquez are blending in and wearing earpieces, scanning the sea of people for possible threats while Brainy watches the security cameras from the hotel room. Even so, Kara doesn’t feel any less terrified at the prospect of being on stage. Lillian seems perfectly comfortable as she announces the beginning of the show to the cameras and introduces the first contestant, but Kara is already sweating so much that she’s sure her makeup must be coming off.

A few spaces in front of her is Siobhan in some kind of Renaissance-looking corseted dress, and she turns back to look at Kara with a sneer.

“What’s your talent? Bartending?”

“You guessed it. I’m getting everyone drunk so they can’t hear you sing,” Kara says, all feigned sweetness.

Sam’s laugh is almost loud enough to interrupt Lillian on stage. Lena is closer to the front of the line, tapping her batons against her legs like a drumbeat, but Kara can see the ghost of a smile on her face from afar.

Lena’s baton twirling, it turns out, is more impressive than Kara thought it would be. It’s incredible how fast her hands move, throwing and catching the batons in all sorts of complicated formations – Kara is no expert, but it seems technically perfect. But there’s no joy in it, Kara can tell. Lena’s smile is practiced and empty, and it drops the second she’s off stage. Kara flashes her a thumbs-up as she walks by, headed to the dressing rooms, and the tiny grin Kara gets in return is more real than the one that was fixed on Lena’s face for her entire performance.

Everyone else is just as good, too. Nia does a spirited tap-dancing number to some old show tune Kara doesn’t recognize, and Sam does a surprisingly beautiful piece of ballet – Andrea performs a piece on the cello that makes the hair on Kara’s arms stand up, and as much as Kara sort of wishes she would mess up, Siobhan practically blows the tent roof away with her operatic range. By the time Kara’s turn has come, her heart is in her throat; after watching everyone else’s talents, hers is going to look like a joke.

She can hear the laughs ripple through the crowd when she finally pushes her little cart out, the glasses clinking together as Lillian announces the ‘musical stylings of miss Kara-Lee Kent’ with thinly veiled disdain. The faces seem generally confused when Kara looks out into the crowd, giving them an awkward little wave before she gets this all over with.

Dipping her finger into the first glass, Kara searches the sea of faces for anything suspicious and tries not to make a fool of herself.

Thankfully, she barely needs to think to perform her so-called talent. It’s something she used to do at parties in college, playing idle songs with the whistle-tones of wine glasses at different levels, and it’s easy enough that she can put most of her focus on her real job even as the crowd chuckles at the strangeness of it. She’s only a few bars in before she sees movement in her periphery.

There’s a middle-aged man in a Stetson moving purposefully towards the stage, looking over towards the side of the stage where Kara emerged from. Where the rest of the girls are waiting in the wings.

“Eagle eye,” Kara mutters, making sure to talk softly enough that the microphone near her wineglasses won’t pick it up and ringing a little bell that Cat put on the table to cover it, “Can you check out the cowboy at 2:00?”

My 2:00, or your 2:00?” Vasquez answers over the laughter around her. She’s the furthest from the man, all the way on the other side of the pavilion, and Kara gnaws at her lip as the crowd claps for her quick note changes.

“He’s over by James,” Kara says, her voice rising a little as the man gets closer to the stage. Closer to all the innocent girls crowded just beyond it. Closer to Lena, who Kara can see from the corner of her eye – she’s leaning against a speaker, talking to Sam and watching Kara perform. “He has a white Stetson. He’s on the move.”

Kara, we’re in Texas! Half the guys in this tent are wearing white Stetsons,” Alex says, sounding worried. Even as she says it the man reaches into his back pocket for something, lifting his blazer a little, and Kara sees a glint of metal at his hip.

“He has a gun,” Kara whispers urgently, completely forgetting that she’s supposed to be playing the glasses. Panic rises in her throat like bile, and she glances to Lena – she’s standing far too close to the stage, to the man with a gun, and looking at Kara with a concerned expression – and back to the man, who seems to be reaching for something. The decision is made for her. “Guys, he has a gun! I’m taking him out.”

Kara, wait for a visual!” Alex yells in her ear, but Kara is already moving. She sprints across the stage, waving her arms as she leaps into the air, her floofy skirt bouncing with every step.

“Get down! Everybody down!”

In the chaos of the whole affair, Kara had failed to take the cameras into account. Which is why she ends up sitting in Lillian’s office an hour later with Alex beside her, being stared down like she never has before as a newsreel is played for her. Lillian looks livid – her assistant Alexander, who’s standing behind her, looks vaguely amused by the whole thing.

“In a bizarre incident at the Miss United States Preliminaries, the contestant from New Jersey leapt off stage and tackled a man in the crowd who was trying to light a cigarette,” the reporter is saying, chuckling to herself. Lillian’s eye twitches. “She’s here with me right now. Miss Kent, what were you thinking when you jumped off stage?”

Kara had tackled him with the force of her entire body, propelled from the height of her jump, and she had his gun out of the holster and tossed away as soon as they hit the ground. The cameras didn’t catch that part, thankfully – to them she didn’t look like a federal agent taking down a threat, but an insane woman in pigtails and a dirndl leaping off stage with a garbled yell.

“Well, all the contestants here are actively involved in ending tobacco dependence,” Kara watches herself say with fake confidence, and she winces at the amused look on the reporter’s face. “I think the gentleman in question will think twice before he lights up again.”

The tv clicks off, and Lillian takes a deep breath that reminds Kara eerily of a dragon about to decimate a medieval village.

“Ending tobacco dependence?” Lillian says, her voice soft and dangerous.

“Agent Danvers was just doing her job,” Alex says defensively.

“He had a gun,” Kara adds, but her protest is short-lived.

“This is Texas, everyone has a gun,” Lillian snaps, her knuckles white where her fingers are laced together. “My florist has a gun. Having a gun is as common as having a car.”

“We assume any man with a weapon is a suspect!” Kara says, and Lillian’s retort is cut short when Alex’s phone beeps loudly. She looks down at it, and her eyes widen.

“Actually, we might need to change that. The DNA results came in,” Alex says, completely ignoring Lillian for a moment to show Kara the text. “The envelope from Cadmus? It was licked by a woman.”

Kara can’t help it. Her first instinct is to look at Lillian – and when she does, she sees exactly what she was expecting. Lillian’s face is like stone, but for just a moment her eyes flick to her assistant. If Kara hadn’t already suspected Lillian, she might have missed it.

“This is ridiculous,” Lillian sneers, standing up to her full height behind the desk. “You people are completely clueless. If I ran my pageant like this, we’d be holding it in somebody’s basement.”

“FBI operations are constantly changing as new information comes in, Miss Luthor,” Alex says firmly, standing up herself and gesturing for Kara to follow. “If you’ll excuse us, we need to talk to our team about this update.”

“You’ll do no such thing,” Lillian says striding to the door and leaving Alexander behind. “There’s a dance rehearsal that Miss Danvers -”

Agent Danvers,” Kara interrupts, enjoying watching Lillian’s nostrils flare.

“Is holding up by being absent,” Lillian finishes between gritted teeth. “She can confer with your team later. Follow me.”

Begrudgingly, after a nod from Alex, Kara follows. Lillian is moving at a surprisingly quick pace considering the height of her heels, and Kara has to jog a little to keep up.

“I know I messed up, but I’m trying to protect these girls –”

“I have dedicated my entire life to this scholarship program,” Lillian interrupts her, barely moving her mouth as she smiles and nods at people passing them by. It’s almost impressive. “Despite people like you, who think we’re a bunch of worthless airheads.”

“I don’t – ”

“I see how you look at us, at our traditions. You look down on us. And I will not have you ruin this pageant,” Lillian hisses, anger starting to bleed into her voice. “Not this year. If you get in the way again, I will make you regret it.”

Kara stops short, narrowing her eyes. “Are you threatening a federal agent?”

Lillian doesn’t answer. She tosses open a set of doors, and strides into the gym with the clear expectation that Kara will follow. The rest of the girls are waiting, doing stretches and chatting, but a hush falls over them as soon as Lillian enters.

“Now that Miss Kent has finally graced us with her presence,” Lillian says, smiling when titters run through the group at the reminder of why Kara was away from the group, “we can get to work. I expect everyone is almost ready for the performance on Sunday night?”

“I hope Kara won’t be charged with assault,” Siobhan says, and just behind her Sam rolls her eyes, looking to Nia with a look of annoyance. “We wouldn’t want it to reflect badly on the pageant, would we?”

“The man isn’t pressing charges,” Lena pipes up from the second row, and Kara blinks. Lena herself seems surprised that she’s spoken up, and seems to shrink a little under her mother’s scrutiny. “I spoke to him. He was just happy to be on tv.”

Lillian smiles, but her eyes are cold. “Well, at least Miss Kent’s form was good when she assaulted the man. Not all of us can say the same.”

She doesn’t even try to hide that she’s looking straight at Lena. Lena’s face is like stone, but as everyone around her whispers their shock at the outright insult Kara can see it in her eyes – shame, and weary acceptance. Lillian is trying to shame her for no reason, to take the heat off Kara’s embarrassing display and assert her power.

The idea that Lillian has done something similar so many times that Lena is used to it makes Kara angrier than she’s been since she arrived.

“I think everyone’s performance was fantastic, barring mine,” Kara says loudly, looking Lillian dead in the eye. “As a Director with so much experience, I’d think you’d be less obvious about stating your wrong opinions before the scores are even in.”

Lillian’s face only twitches, but her eyes spell murder.

Lillian makes the rest of the rehearsal a nightmare. She watches like a hawk from the front of the room as everyone runs through first the choreography for the group dance on Sunday and then the stage directions for the final talent performance tomorrow, and she seems to have an endless array of praise for everyone but Kara and Lena. Lena she treats silently, pretending she doesn’t exist; Kara she ensures gets singled out every time she messes up a step, so that by the end of it Kara is sweaty and frustrated.

The only thing that makes her feel better is the small, grateful smile Lena flashes her as they all file out of the gym.

 


 

After dinner, according to Kara’s Cat-made schedule, she’s supposed to report to a room in the basement of the conference centre to practice interviews. But the absolute last thing she wants to do after an afternoon of being snapped at by Lillian is go and be snapped at by Cat, so instead she leaves her earpiece and phone on her bedside table and goes out in search of the pool. Nothing calms her down like cool water and swimming a few laps; she didn’t bring a bathing suit, but the pool is tucked into a remote area on the grounds, surrounded by walls and shrubs. Kara has seen a few people milling around the area during the day, but as she hoped it’s deserted now. The pool lights under the water casts a blue glow all around, rippling on the cement and dark greenery. Breathing in the comforting smell of chlorine and cut grass, Kara sits heavily and dips her feet into the cool water.

After a few seconds, she realizes that chlorine isn’t the only thing she smells. There’s something else, something more acrid, and she follows it to a barely-visible haze of smoke drifting out from behind a cluster of bushes.

“Is someone there?” Kara calls, frowning at the idea of company. What she hears makes her heart leap.

Shit -” A familiar voice says, whispered and frantic. The smoke gets disturbed, like someone is trying to wave it away, and Kara steps around the bush to see the source with a smile on her face.

“Lena?”

“Kara!” Lena says, pausing in what looks to be an effort to put out the cigarette she was just smoking. “What are you doing here?”

“I was going to go for a swim,” Kara says, crouching on the grass next to Lena and raising a brow at the smoke in her hand. “What are you doing here?”

“Contraband,” Lena says drily. She shifts away slightly, giving Kara more room to sit, but Kara wishes she wouldn’t. She’d take any excuse to be closer.

“Are you okay?” Kara asks carefully. Lena rolls her eyes, seeming to do a cost-benefit analysis in her head, and finally she raises the cigarette up to her mouth again to take a drag.

“Do I look okay to you?” Lena says, exhaling carefully away from Kara. She rubs her face, looking at the smoke morosely. “I’m hiding behind a bush, indulging a habit I kicked years ago.”

Lena watches the ash for a few moments, flicking it a little and not seeming to want to make eye contact. It’s clear that she’d rather have not been caught in a moment of weakness. She looks terribly sad and alone, sitting in the dark.

“You should come sit with me,” Kara says. Lena finally looks up, her brow furrowed.

“Why?”

Kara shrugs. “Because it’s nicer by the pool. Put that thing out and come talk.”

She makes her way over to the water again, putting her legs back in, and listens. It takes a minute or so, but eventually Kara hears quiet footsteps behind her, and Lena settles to her left. She pulls her legs up and wraps her arms around them, keeping them out of the water, but Kara is thrilled that she accepted the invitation at all.

“What your mom did was really out of line,” Kara says quietly. She can guess that it’s the source of Lena’s current mood, and she’s vindicated when Lena lets out a shaky sigh.

“It’s fine. She was right, I was sloppy,” Lena says, almost robotically. “I haven’t performed since my last pageant run, and I never really liked doing it anyways, Lillian just thought it was the only thing I could be good at -”

“Lena, your performance was great,” Kara says, cutting off the self deprecation at the source. “Lillian was just trying to hurt you because she needs to control someone else to feel better about herself.”

Lena scoffs. “Sounds like psychoanalysis.”

“My sister-in-law is a psychologist,” Kara chuckles, splashing her feet a little. “The three of us spend a lot of time together.”

“Well I don’t need therapy, Dr. Kent,” Lena says wryly, scooting away when Kara reaches down and flicks some water at her. “Hey! That’s cold!”

“Oh?” Kara says, grinning. “No therapy? Is that why you’re smoking alone in a secluded corner?”

Lena narrows her eyes, but there’s a lightness to her face that makes Kara happy. “I haven’t smoked in years, but something about being here with her, competing again when I thought that I finally managed to get out…it just got to me.”

Kara nods. She dries her hand on her pants, and Lena seems to follow their movement. “It’s getting to me too. This whole thing. Clearly.”

Lena looks at her quietly for a long time, after that. She looks like she wants to ask a question, and Kara waits for it, staring up at the starless sky – but after a minute or two, Lena seems to decide against it.

“I thought you were going swimming?” Lena says instead. Kara nods, standing abruptly. She came here for something, and even with Lena here, she might as well get it.

“You’re right, I was. Want to join me?”

“What?” Lena blanches, her eyes going wide when Kara slips out of her pants and pulls her shirt over her head. It feels strange to strip in front of Lena like this, but she might as well just pull off the band-aid. Tomorrow she has to wear a bathing suit in front of a live audience, anyways. “Are you…are you wearing boxers?”

Kara blushes at that. She’d bet on being alone here, and worn her comfortable underwear when she got the chance – and now Lena is staring at it with a strange expression. Dark, and almost hungry. It makes Kara tingle in unexpected places.

“Come on,” Kara says, ignoring the question and slipping into the pool with a sigh. The cool water is a welcome distraction from Lena’s gaze. “You need to relax for a minute.”

“I don’t have a suit,” Lena says hesitantly. Kara gestures at herself, in a sports bra and boxers, and Lena shakes her head.

“I’m not stripping. Not here.”

“You don’t have to. Just jump in.” Kara dips underwater, letting out a stream of bubbles and surfacing again, slicking her hair back. Lena’s eyes follow her arms, and the tingles return. It makes Kara feel brave. “Come on, it’s fun.”

Kara kicks her feet, splashing water at Lena, who covers her face – but she’s smiling, and her body language is less guarded than it was before. She looks like she’s considering it.

“I can’t,” she says, dipping her hand in to feel the temperature. “We’ll get in trouble.”

“For what?” Kara asks, looking around. There’s nobody nearby, no noises besides themselves and the distant sound of city traffic. Lena frowns.

“I…I don’t know, actually. It just seems against the rules.”

“The pool is open 24 hours for guests,” Kara says reasonably, pointing at the sign. “It’s not even curfew yet, and there’s no rule against wearing your clothes. Nobody is here. Nobody but me.”

Lena glances at the sign and back to Kara with a contemplative look. Kara grins, floating on her back and wiggling her toes. It makes Lena smile – and then she stands up, shucking off her sweater.

“Fuck it.”

Lena ends up taking off her leggings but keeping her shirt, and the way she giggles when she submerges herself makes it obvious that she’s never done anything like this before. She seems surprised at her own forwardness. It’s among the most adorable things Kara has ever seen, and when Lena catches her staring she colours.

“This feels weird,” Lena says, easing back and floating on her back as well. They drift separately, both staring up at the sky. It’s more calming than even a solo swim would have been.

“But good, right?”

“Yeah. That’s the weird part.”

Kara smiles. She pushes off a little from the wall, gliding until her head bumps gently against Lena’s shoulder.

“So, you don’t really like baton twirling.”

Lena sighs heavily. Kara can hear her feet moving a little, but she doesn’t move away. They stay in each other’s orbit, floating in a slow circle. “No. I don’t.”

“I knew it.”

Lena splashes her, chuckling. “So you were right about one thing. Deflate the ego a little.”

Kara takes it happily, not bothering to wipe the droplets from her face. “What do you really like to do?”

“What do you mean?” Lena says, and she sounds genuinely puzzled. Like nobody has asked her preference for anything in a long time.

“I mean, if you could choose your own talent,” Kara explains. “Something you’re really good at, and you want to show off to the world. What would it be?”

All Kara can hear in response is lapping water and her own breathing. When Lena speaks again, it’s louder than expected – their heads have drifted together, and Kara jumps a little at the closeness.

“Fencing.”

Kara twists, her feet hitting the bottom of the pool as she stands up to look at Lena in surprise. “Wait, really?”

Lena keeps her eyes firmly toward the heavens. Kara, realizing that her bra and boxers are clinging to her in a way that’s probably making Lena uncomfortable, dips under the water again, but not before poking Lena until she answers.

“Are you going to judge me again?” Lena asks, making a face.

“No! I wasn’t judging you in the first place, I was just - you fence?” Kara says, trying to imagine Lena in one of those white bodysuits with a sword in her hand. The images don’t seem to gel. “Like, with those pointy swords?”

Lena laughs. “Yes, I fence. I almost qualified for the Olympics.”

What?” Kara gapes. Lena seems ridiculously blasé for someone who just revealed she was on an Olympic level in a sport.

“Lillian thought it was a waste of my time,” Lena shrugs, kicking her legs idly. They’re unthinkably pale in the underwater light. “Qualifiers were in the middle of pageant season. I missed my chance, and then I decided to focus on school.”

She’s putting on an admirable show of not caring, but Kara can hear the old pain in her voice. The resentment. And it stokes Kara’s anger at Lillian even further. How can she be so unfeeling, so cruel to her daughter, when Lena is so wonderful?

Kara wonders, suddenly, how difficult it would be to hire a fencing partner and a suit for a night.

“I’d like to see you fence sometime,” Kara says, laying back again and making a mental note to do a google search for fencing clubs in San Antonio. Lena scoffs.

“No, you wouldn’t.”

“I would! I’d hold a big sign with your name on it. And a foam finger. I’m a very good cheerleader.”

“You don’t seem like the cheerleading type,” Lena says, looking sideways at Kara with a raised brow.

“Oh, just wait and see,” Kara says, shimmying her shoulders under the water to make Lena laugh. “You’ll be amazed. And super embarrassed. In high school my sister had to bar me from her soccer games.”

They don’t end up getting back to the room until around midnight, long after curfew. As the minutes pass into hours Kara encourages Lena to talk about herself, soaking up every detail, and she even manages to answer most of Lena’s returning questions truthfully. She has to fudge a few details, of course, but she doesn’t want to lie to Lena about anything real. Not when she’s so vulnerable.

On the way back Lena seems thrilled by breaking the rules, burying her face in Kara’s neck to keep her laughter in check when they have to duck into a shady alcove to avoid someone who is probably not even associated with the pageant, and the closeness makes Kara feel a little drunk. There’s a moment, just a few seconds after Lena raises her head again to look up at her, where Kara could swear that Lena’s eyes linger on her lips – but then she moves away, tugging on Kara’s arm to pull her towards their block.

Lena falls asleep seconds after she climbs into bed, and Kara is poised to follow suit and slip into dreams about what might have happened if Kara had been brave enough to lean forward until she grabs her phone to set an alarm and sees 12 missed calls.

Right on cue, Alex’s knocks sound on the glass.

“You were due 2 hours ago!” Alex says the moment she opens the door, her voice laced with worry. “Where have you been? And why is your hair wet?”

“I was gathering intel,” Kara mutters, rubbing her eyes. Alex sighs.

“Cat is livid. Come on.”

Every step they take towards whatever Cat has planned for the night, Kara’s annoyance grows. She’s closing in on 72 hours now with barely any sleep, being belittled and directed. She’s eaten a fraction of what she usually does, with the pageant meals being less than satisfactory and Cat trying to curb her snacking. She’s spent hours talking to Lena about how much her mother – and by extension, these pageants – decimated her self worth. Overall, Kara is just about at the end of her rope.

So when Kara gives what she thinks is a perfectly satisfactory answer to the newest asinine question and grabs a handful of cookies from the snack table as a reward only to have Cat’s reply be ‘I’ve seen better answers from 5th grade spelling bee winners. And better eating habits. Again, Miss Danvers,’ Kara finally snaps.

“No.”

Excuse me?” Cat says, lowering her index cards. Kara can’t help it – even though Cat is technically helping her, has mostly accepted Kara’s quirks and tried to work around them as much as possible, she can’t help but see Lillian in her place barking orders at Lena. Telling her she isn’t good enough. Drilling an inferiority complex so deeply into her that she carries it with her for the rest of her adult life.

Kara grits her teeth, turns around with cookies in hand, and digs in her heels.

“No! Okay, Cat? I said no.”

Cat blinks slowly. She looks for a moment like she’s about to let loose one of her trademark speeches, but Kara cuts her off at the pass.

“The biggest issue with this pageant is that nobody here is allowed to say no,” Kara says fiercely, feeling a speech of her own coming on. It’s been brewing for days now, and once she’s started she can’t stop herself. “It isn’t about girls showcasing their talents or who they are, it’s about presenting the best facade to a panel of old people, and everyone has to bend themselves backwards to conform. I’m tired of it.”

Cat and Alex both stare at her with mouths slightly agape, and Kara launches forward.

“And it’s not just me! Everyone I’ve met this weekend, I was prepared to dislike because I assumed all of them actually value what this pageant represents – rigid gender roles, traditional views on sexuality and female autonomy. But each and every one of them is a beautiful, individualistic person who deserves to be seen and heard. Not hidden under a mask.”

“Miss Danvers –” Cat says in a warning tone. Alex, looking back and forth between them like she’s expecting Cat to launch herself across the room and claw Kara’s face, takes a step between them, but Kara shakes her head.

“I don’t want to fight, Cat. I understand that this is your life’s work,” Kara says slightly more calmly. Her voice is shaking a little, but she’s never been good at raising her voice without crying. “But it isn’t mine, and constantly demeaning me for who I am in an attempt to make me try harder to fit in here does nothing except wear me down. I am exhausted, and so is everyone else here. All for a pageant whose values they don’t actually care about. So I am going to eat these cookies, and I’m going to go back to my room, and I’m going to see you tomorrow. Got it?”

Strangely, Cat seems more impressed than angry. She sizes Kara up for a moment, and then slowly inclines her head towards the door.

“Understood.”

Kara practically runs out of the room, propelled by the adrenaline of actually winning the argument. But she’s barely reached the hallway before Alex calls out, jogging after her.

“Hey,” Alex says, pulling even with Kara and tugging on her elbow until Kara deflates into her arms, all the anger leaving her at once. “Hey, kiddo, it’s okay. I’m sorry.”

“Sorry for what?” Kara says into her sweater, her eyes closed against the harsh fluorescent light.

“For dragging you into this. For not standing up to Cat when she was a dick to you.” Alex hugs her hard, and Kara squeezes her back just as tightly.

“That’s not your job.”

“It is my job!” Alex says, pulling back a little and shoving Kara in the shoulder. “You’re my little sister. You are my job. And if this pageant is really making you feel the way you said -”

“It’s actually not that bad,” Kara says, finding as it leaves her mouth that she actually means it. Sometime in the last two days, her anxiety has turned around into something else – not comfort, exactly, but determination. A protective instinct she wasn’t expecting. “Outside of Cat and Lillian, I mean. I’ve been sort of surprised by it. I’ve even kind of made friends.”

“Really?” Alex says skeptically. “With the mean girls?”

Kara laughs. “Not all of them are mean.”

“I’ve heard how they talk over the comms. We can try to find another way.”

“I think it comes from insecurity,” Kara admits, thinking back to Andrea’s frosty looks and all the insults Siobhan has lobbed at her. “When you get into an actual conversation, most of them are actually pretty cool. I can’t just leave these girls unprotected. If Cadmus strikes and they get hurt because we weren’t here, I’d never forgive myself.”

Alex frowns, clearly not satisfied, and Kara nudges her shoulder.

“I know my blowup was dramatic, but Cat was really getting on my nerves. She represents what’s making all these women so insecure in the first place. They all have people like her hovering over them and picking at every flaw," Kara finishes, thinking of Lena and trying not to make her newfound affection too obvious. She's not sure how successful she is. "I just need one night of sleep, and to eat these cookies before the chocolate chips melt all over my hands.”

Alex lets her go reluctantly, and Kara makes it back to the room in record time.

She’s probably going to pay for her outburst with Cat – tomorrow it’s rehearsals all morning and then the swimsuit portion followed by an interview, and Kara knows that even as she conceded the fight tonight Cat will make her life hell when it comes down to it. She’s too competitive not to. But that doesn’t matter right now. Right now Kara gets to sink into her soft bed, listen to Lena’s quiet breathing, and slip into unconsciousness flush with victory and a belly full of cookies.

Chapter Text

When Cat tries to show her the two scant pieces of bright pink fabric she’s expected to wear on stage in just a few minutes, Kara almost slaps them right out of her hands.

“Are you kidding me?” Kara hisses once she’s struggled into the thing, holding the tiny white terrycloth towel she found backstage tightly closed and feeling incredibly exposed even so. The bathing suit is even more uncomfortable than it looked, and while everyone around her struts around with little concern Kara wonders if bolting for the door and skipping the swimsuit section altogether will lead to disqualification. It could be worth it. “I thought I was getting a one-piece! Didn’t you say we needed to cinch my waist or something?”

“We need to make your ascent to the top 5 seem justified,” Cat says, uncharacteristically patient. Ever since Kara’s blow-up last night Cat has treated her much more like an actual human than she did before, and Kara is grateful for the switch. Even if she still intentionally mispronounces her name. “Your talent preliminary did not garner you much affection from the judges, and we need to make up for it. The swimsuit section measures not only the grace and poise of a contestant but the amount of effort they put into their physique. Despite your abysmal diet, you clearly put the work in, and I think showing it off is a risk worth taking.”

“Okay, whatever, that’s fine,” Kara says, opening the towel and peering down at herself. She’s not averse to wearing bikini tops – she usually wears one with trunks to swim anyways. She has abdominal muscles she works very hard for, and showing them off isn’t an issue. It’s everything else about this situation that’s giving her heart palpitations. “But nobody told me the crowd was going to be a bunch of horny sailors!”

“The navy is invited every year. They make a very enthusiastic audience. What are you so worried about?”

“Well, you got me all freaked out that my figure is too…you know, masculine,” Kara grumbles, glancing around the dressing room. “Look at everyone else here, it’s hourglasses all around. My shoulders are too big, and my thighs – can’t I get a pair of shorts?”

“Your figure is acceptable. I would even go so far as to say it’s impressive,” Cat says, her teeth slightly gritted. It’s clearly paining her to go against her nature and give Kara a real compliment, and it makes Kara preen a little.

“However,” Cat continues. Kara deflates.

“There it is.”

“There are a few adjustments to make,” Cat says firmly. She reaches into one of her many garment bags and holds up two flesh-toned gel inserts, and Kara’s eyebrows raise.

“Those had better be candy dishes,” Kara says, taking a horrified step back. But there isn’t much room to go, and when Cat follows with a step forward Kara just bumps up against the mirror. The inserts jiggle ominously in Cat’s hands.

“Turn around,” Cat says, brokering no argument. Groaning, Kara turns, watching herself miserably in the mirror as Cat slips the inserts into her bikini top. They fill in the extra space and make Kara at least feel like she isn’t about to have a nip-slip on stage, but it also feels strange to have essentially stuffed her bra in public.

As Cat makes various adjustments, completely uncaring of Kara’s personal space, Kara meets eyes with Lena in the mirror.

Most of the other girls have pageant consultants just like Kara, flitting around them and adjusting their hair or outfit, but Lena is alone in her makeup chair. She’s turned it around to watch the proceedings and she is, Kara notes with jealousy, wearing a tasteful one-piece with a sarong-style skirt. The cut of it still puts far more of Lena’s skin on display than Kara was prepared for, and she can’t help but let her gaze linger just a tiny bit before she averts them respectfully.

It might be wishful thinking, but Kara could swear that Lena’s eyes linger as well. Her cheeks are a little pink, and Kara can’t help but notice how dark and wide her pupils are before she glances away.

With her eyes fixed now on Lena’s face, Kara can also see Lena raise an amused brow at the situation. It must be hilarious from the outside - tiny Cat shoving silicone into Kara’s bra, shifting and squeezing the cups to get the perfect effect - and Kara can feel her ears starting to turn crimson at the attention.

Shut up, Kara mouths in the mirror. Lena shrugs, grinning quietly, and Kara sticks out her tongue as Cat takes out a large can of hairspray.

“Finally, something I recognize,” Kara chuckles, still looking at Lena.

Lena looks increasingly amused as Cat shakes the can, takes off the lid, and lifts the back of Kara’s towel in a businesslike way to spray it directly onto her ass in a graceful arc.

Jeez –“ Kara hisses, jumping almost a foot at the sudden ice-cold spray hitting her in the last place she expected. She slams into the mirror, trying to pull her towel back down in the face of Cat’s total nonchalance. “What the hell, Cat?!”

“It stops the suit from riding up,” Cat says, pointing the hairspray again at Kara’s lower half. Kara dances away, but doesn’t manage to avoid most of the spray.

“Up where?”

“Where do you think?”

Lena is belly-laughing now, leaned sideways in her chair, and Kara turns to glare at her.

“Why does Massachusetts get to wear a one-piece and I have to wear this?” Kara says desperately, pointing at Lena’s outfit as the brunette gets up, still chuckling, and makes her way towards the stage with everyone else.

“If you can do this,” Cat says quietly, pushing Kara along with them, “you can convince anyone that you belong here.”

A harried-looking stage assistant is sorting people into walking order, now, and Kara’s heart pounds harder the closer he gets to her section. She clings to the tiny towel like a lifeline as her New Jersey sash is put over her head, and when Cat tugs at it she just holds fast.

Onstage Lena is striding confidently towards the second plinth with a wry, mysterious sort of smile that the crowd would have to be crazy not to fall for, and Kara follows her movement in a strange attempt at self-soothing.

“I can’t do this. I can’t,” Kara mumbles over the raucous cheers of the men in the audience as the girls in front of her walk on stage and pose coquettishly on various plinths. In a fit of nerves she tries to turn around and book it back into the dressing room; but Cat, in a surprising show of strength, catches her around the waist and practically throws her back in line.

“You can,” Cat says, and Kara is so stunned by such a tiny person wrestling her back into place so successfully that she steps forward with the line purely by instinct.

“I can’t –”

“Kara,” Cat says, quiet enough that it won’t likely be overheard with the music and cheering, and the shock of her real name being used is enough to still Kara’s panic. “You aren’t doing this for yourself, or for those men in the audience. You are doing this to protect all the women around you, at any cost. All of this is a means to an end. Remember that.”

Cat is right, of course. This isn’t about Kara – it’s about the women all around her, all of whom are in danger from a threat Kara hasn’t identified yet. It’s about protecting them.

Before Kara has much time to hype herself up Cat has seized the back of her towel, and pushed her out of it and into the wings.

“Now, go.”

The moment she steps on stage, blinded by the lights and deafened by the crowd, Kara almost stops dead. She can feel herself faltering, almost stumbling, as a sea of white uniforms screams and catcalls at her – but as she climbs onto the first plinth she looks to her left, and just at the edge of the wings on the other side of the stage is Lena. She has a white robe over her bathing suit, and she’s looking at Kara and biting her lip in what seems like sympathetic nerves.

It hits her all at once, then. If Kara doesn’t do this, if she doesn’t convince the world that she could make the top 5 and keep herself from getting found out, Lena could get hurt. Kara has to be here to protect her, to the very end. And to do that, she needs to sell this.

A spike of adrenaline floods Kara’s system, and she snaps her head back to face the crowd. From somewhere deep inside, somewhere she didn’t know existed, she pulls out a dazzling smile; and when she takes her first high-heeled step off the plinth, she doesn’t falter anymore.

It’s as if she’s been possessed by the spirit of the high school cheerleaders she used to resent being attracted to. Her strides are confident, her hips moving effortlessly in the movements they’ve only managed to do clunkily for the last few days as she sweeps across the stage. She gives a little spin between the second and third platforms, and throws a wink to the crowd; the sailors respond with a wave of noise, and she can see a few of the judges smiling as they mark something down on their notepads. Even Andrea, queen of the neutral face, looks shocked when Kara struts backstage with her smile still affixed.

The adrenaline wears off, as all adrenaline does, almost as soon as she steps offstage. Her knees weaken, and she has to cling to Cat’s shoulder to manage the few shaky steps out of the way so that the next contestant can follow her offstage a few moments later. Cat must have sprinted around the stage to get here in the time it took for Kara to cross, and in a distant sort of way Kara appreciates it.

“Brava,” Cat says, shock colouring her voice if not her uncrackable face. “I wasn’t expecting you to take my words quite so easily to heart.”

“Enjoy it while it lasts,” Kara says, gratefully taking the robe Cat hands her with shaking hands and covering herself up, “because I have no idea how I did that.”

 


 

Almost the minute Kara gets offstage, Cat is dragging her off to practice for the part of the weekend she can tell has been causing the older woman the most stress of anything that came before - the short interview portion. Kara is strangely less nervous about it than she was about the swimsuits, but Cat is insistent about practicing just about every hypothetical question they could throw at her until she can recite the answers in her sleep.

Cat continues to grill her even while she’s in the dressing room stuffing herself into her newest outfit. It’s a shorter floral dress with a structured sort of bodice, meant to be casual and fun, and to Kara’s horror Cat has to lace her into it like a damn corset.

“Remember, if you’re asked what your ideal career is, you –”

“I tell them I want to be a pediatrician, I know,” Kara says distractedly, bracing herself on the vanity as Cat pulls at the fastenings. “Jeez, Cat, not so tight – it’s not 1750.”

“And where did you go to school?” Cat asks, not letting up. Kara is reminded, again, that Cat is oddly strong for her small stature when the laces squeeze the breath out of her.

“Rutgers – ow!”

“Beauty is pain.”

“And I can’t save people from a terrorist threat if my ribs are caved in!” Kara protests, wiggling out of Cat’s grip and loosening the bodice herself. Cat rolls her eyes.

“Oh, don’t be dramatic.”

It’s far from dramatic to want to breathe when she has to be interviewed, Kara thinks, but she doesn’t have much more time to argue about it. Everything at this pageant seems to either halt at a standstill for hours at a time or happen all at once, and right now is one of those manic rushed moments – Cat stays with her right to the wings of the stage again, and Kara aggressively straightens the artificially enhanced bust of her dress for the third time. The stupid inserts are uncomfortable.

“If you’re this nervous about the short interview, what are you going to be like before the long interview tomorrow?” Kara asks, and Cat answers in a low tone.

“One prepares you for the other. And tomorrow’s interview is being hosted by a neutral party – this interview is being hosted by Lillian.”

Kara stops dead, one hand inside her bra.

What?” Kara hisses, glancing around them – a few people are looking their way, and she tries to calm herself down before she causes a scene. “You didn’t tell me that!”

“I didn’t want to alarm you,” Cat says, her face fixed in a pleasant smile completely at odds with her tone.

“So you tell me now? Right before I’m about to go on?”

With a squeeze of her arm and a quick good luck, Cat disappears backstage.

Kara is getting really fed up with being thrown out into the spotlight with little warning. She’s left in the lineup between New Hampshire and New Mexico, panicking; they’re going in reverse alphabetical order for this portion, and there’s a little less time than usual for her to psyche herself up.

“You okay?” Sam asks from a few spots away, looking much more comfortable than Kara in a loose polka-dotted sundress. Kara laughs nervously, trying to keep the hysteria out of her tone. Lena is a couple spots behind her in a form-fitting green dress that stops at her knees, wrapping to every curve, and for some reason the sight of her settles Kara a little.

“Yeah,” Kara says, pressing a hand hard to her sternum. The pressure helps the anxiety lessen just a bit, enough for her to breathe. Lena looks pale and even more terrified than Kara is, and it makes Kara want to break out of the line and give her a hug. “I’m alright. Just nervous.”

“I think we’re all nervous,” Sam says quietly. “Lillian likes to spring hard questions on contestants she doesn’t like.”

“Fantastic,” Kara mutters, curling her hands into fists before she gives in to the desire to chew her nails. “Just great. She’s probably going to ask me my strategy to solve world hunger or something.”

Sam chuckles, moving forward a step when the first contestant – Wyoming – steps on stage. “You’ll do fine. You’re charming, and you stand up to Lillian like nobody I’ve ever seen.”

“And now I’m paying for it,” Kara sighs. Sam shrugs, glancing behind Kara.

“Maybe. But you’ve definitely impressed a few other people. That seems like a good trade-off.”

Kara twists, following Sam’s eyeline, and just barely catches Lena’s eyes flicking away. The brunette stares resolutely at the curtain, her cheeks pink, but Kara smiles.

“Yeah,” Kara says softly, something locking into place in her chest. Something completely unprofessional and possibly dangerous given the situation, but undeniable. “I think it’s worth it.”

Having a massive crush on one of the other contestants, especially the daughter of her lead suspect, was not in the plan; and yet, here she is.

Even as distracted as she is by Lena, Kara watches each contestant before her carefully. Cat had warned her that every contestant gets different questions, but there’s one that every single state is given every year without fail – what is the one most important thing our society needs? – and that there’s only one answer to give in response.

“World peace,” says the girl from Ohio, with a wide but empty smile. The crowd gives a modest clap for the answer they’ve heard 16 times already, and Lillian nods approvingly before giving her the go-ahead to leave the stage and North Dakota takes her place.

It’s a well-oiled machine, and all too soon Kara is being thrown into the gears.

She gets a few easy fluff questions at first, ones she’d already gone over with Cat, and manages to make the crowd clap a few times to Lillian’s clear displeasure. Which makes it all the less surprising when Lillian’s next-to-last question is a doozy.

“What makes you different from the other girls competing today?”

It’s a trick question, clearly. There are a hundred reasons why Kara is different from the rest of the competitors – her years of FBI training and the knife and badge in a thigh holster under her dress spring to mind – but she can’t exactly talk about her perfect score in marksmanship right now.

“Well,” Kara says, her smile not budging, “I think every contestant here is unique. But I am the only one who did a stage dive as part of my talent.”

The crowd reacts exactly as she hoped. They laugh indulgently, accepting Kara’s re-direction of yesterday’s mistake, and Lillian is so clearly livid about being thwarted that she interrupts to throw the last question at her like she can’t wait for the interview to be over with.

“What is the one most important thing our society needs?”

Kara can’t help it. She knows the answer she’s supposed to give, but it’s not the right one. And some part of her wants to see Lillian squirm.

“That would be increased gun control and large-scale justice reforms, Lillian,” Kara says easily.

The silence is deafening. Kara can see a few faces in the first few rows, ranging from shock to discomfort to delight - somewhere at the back something clatters to the floor and echoes through the theatre, and when Kara glances offstage she can see Lena waiting in the wings for her turn and struggling not to laugh.

Lillian’s eye starts to twitch.

“And,” Kara finishes after a long pause, her winningest smile still firmly affixed, “world peace.”

The crowd finally claps with what feels like relief, slightly louder than any of the contestants before, and Kara strides off the stage before Lillian can unhinge her jaw and swallow her like a python.

Cat is going to kill her.

Kara doesn’t go to find Cat when she gets offstage, though. She lingers in the wings, watching the contestants after her get lobbed softball questions until it’s finally Lena’s turn. She has a bad feeling that Lena’s questions might be even worse, and her suspicion is proven right once again in the second-to-last question.

“Eleanor Roosevelt once said that behind every great man is a great woman,” Lillian says, her smile not reaching her eyes. “Who would be your ideal man?”

Lena, who Kara hasn’t yet seen so much as hesitate while she’s being observed by the judges, falters.

Even the other contestants seem thrown off. The girls standing near Kara look at each other, whispering and frowning – clearly it isn’t a familiar question. It’s leading and normative, with a touch of outdated logic that Lena clearly doesn’t want to play into. It’s everything that the pageant has supposedly been trying to distance itself from in recent years. But Lillian is still smiling.

Kara wonders, with a stab of burning hatred for Lillian, whether the question is an attempt at outing her daughter in public. 

“I…” Lena says, her eyes darting around like someone in the crowd will give her an answer that might leave her unscathed. She looks almost panicked, until her gaze finds Kara’s.

Kara wishes she could pull Lena offstage and give her a hug, or at least give her a clever answer. But all she can do is give an encouraging smile and a thumbs-up, and strangely it actually seems to help. Lena relaxes a little, and meets Lillian’s smile with a small one of her own. “I…wouldn’t know. I’ve never stood behind a man.”

To Kara’s relief, the crowd eats it up. They chuckle and clap, and Kara can hear a few appreciative whistles as Lena meets her mother’s wrathful eyes. Lena doesn’t blink, and finally Lillian is forced to break the stalemate to give her the final question.

Kara is raptly watching Lena give her canned ‘world peace’ answer when a hand grabs her arm and yanks her towards an AV closet. She’s milliseconds from breaking the person’s wrist when she realizes it’s Cat, and when the door shuts behind them and the overhead light clicks on it illuminates Alex sitting on an unused speaker with a tablet in her hands.

“That was charming,” Cat says, folding her arms and glaring up at Kara. “Are you drunk?”

“I’m glad you enjoyed it,” Kara deadpans. “Now If you’ll excuse me, I have to go unscrew my smile.” Kara stretches her jaw out, and feeling the pull of overused muscles. She had no idea smiling this much could hurt, but it feels like her cheeks are bruised.

“We have a lead,” Alex says, ignoring their banter. She holds the tablet out to Kara, uttering two words that refuse to embed themselves in Kara’s brain.

“Lena Luthor.”

Kara takes the tablet, her jaw falling open. “…what?”

“She was involved in experiments that were shut down by a scientific oversight agency for being too dangerous,” Alex says, pointing at the tablet. Kara looks down – there are definitely words on it, and a photo of Lena sitting in a lab with a handsome brown-skinned man Kara doesn’t recognize. The headline reads ‘BIOMAX - A LEAP FORWARD IN MEDICAL TECHNOLOGY?’, and Kara struggles to read the article while Alex keeps talking. “Some kind of nanobot project – apparently their clinical trials ignored basically all safety protocols.”

“Did someone get hurt?” Kara asks distantly. According to the article the experiment was trying to use nanobots to cure incurable diseases, and Lena and her partner were doing it singlehandedly. Trying to help people.

“Just her project partner,” Alex admits. “Jack Spheer – he insisted on being the only trial participant, apparently. But Lena was part of the project, at least for a while. He didn’t die, but apparently he has serious health complications.”

“And you think that means she wants to blow up a beauty pageant?” Kara says incredulously, shoving the tablet back at Alex’s chest. “You’ve got to be kidding.”

“I’m not,” Alex says carefully, frowning at Kara’s clearly unexpected reaction. “Why would you think I’m kidding?”

“Because it’s – it’s Lena!” Kara says, gesturing helplessly. “She isn’t a terrorist!”

Alex looks baffled. “Isn’t Lillian your personal number one suspect right now? Lena is Lillian’s daughter.”

“Lillian abuses her!” Kara argues hotly. “You saw her on stage -”

“Ladies,” Cat interjects loudly, putting a hand on each of their shoulders, “Whether Lena a suspect or not, we do need to rule her out, and she’s the best source of information on figuring out if Lillian is involved. You don’t need to interrogate her – just engage in some harmless girl talk.”

“You’re not even FBI,” Alex sighs, tucking the tablet under her arm and rubbing her temples. “Why are you talking about suspects and information?”

Cat arches a single brow. “Do you want my help or not?”

“What do you mean by girl talk?” Kara interjects, taking Cat up on her offer before Alex can reject it. Cat rolls her eyes.

Girl talk, you know. Leg waxing. Fake orgasms. The inability of men to commit.”

“Fake – men – I don’t know anything about any of that!” Kara sputters. Cat heaves a long-suffering sigh.

“Yes, and I’d wager neither does Miss Luthor if her interview was anything to go by.”

“Just imagine you’re trying to get me to tell you something,” Alex says, drawing Kara’s attention back to her. She sounds like she’s trying to be encouraging, but her words aren’t at all helpful. “What would you do?”

“What, you want me to beat it out of her?”

Alex sighs, pulling Kara aside as much as she can in the tiny space. She rubs Kara’s back, a comforting gesture she’s done every time Kara has been anxious since they were kids, and Kara relaxes a little. “You’re being deliberately difficult. What’s going on, Kara?”

“I really hate the idea of plying Lena for information without her knowledge,” Kara admits, and Alex’s bafflement seems to reach a new height.

“You’re undercover. That’s literally the job description. Why are you getting so hung up on this?”

“I’m not -” Kara argues halfheartedly, but she can see already that she isn’t getting out of this. She’s vastly outnumbered, and Alex is right, in a way. She has a job to do, her personal feelings aside. “Ugh, fine – here, take these.”

Kara digs the listening device out of her ear, putting it in Alex’s outstretched hand, followed by her camera pin. Alex tries to give them back, but Kara ignores her.

“What – you can’t take your earpiece out, how am I supposed to communicate with you?” Alex says, but Kara is already heading to the door.

“I can’t do girl talk with half the FBI in my ear,” Kara replies, grabbing for the handle and stepping out before they can stop her. “I can’t even do it with me in my ear.” She leaves them in the AV closet together, striding out without another word and heading towards her room.

“Girl talk,” she mutters darkly, tugging her hair out of its tight style and stepping out of her heels so she can jog more easily. She needs comfortable clothes, and she needs them now. “Freaking girl talk.”

 


 

In retrospect, bringing pizza, beer, and donuts to the gym was probably not the most tactful idea. But the gym is where Lena is, and the closest thing Kara has ever had to girl talk is either hooking up with female friends or hanging out with Alex. Since option 1 would be morally reprehensible considering she’s been lying to Lena since they met, Kara is left with option 2, and every head in the gym turns as she walks by with her extra-cheesy masterpiece.

Nia lets out a tiny whimper when the smell wafts by, her legs faltering on her exercise bike. Siobhan’s mouth drops open, looking stunned at Kara’s pure audacity, and even Andrea perks up from her stairmaster. Lena, sitting by the window in workout gear but not seeming interested in actually working out, is the only one who seems to be looking at Kara and not the food. Her eyes sweep over Kara’s form – Kara wore her usual gym clothes of sweats and a ribbed tank, with her sports bra peeking out from underneath – and there’s something different about her expression. Something hungry, despite the fact that she’s ignoring the pizza Kara is holding.

“Oh my god,” Sam mutters, stopping dead on her treadmill until she’s deposited off the still-moving end of it and her legs lead her towards Kara. “Is that what I think it is?”

“If you think it’s an extra-large deluxe and 12 frosted donuts, you’re correct,” Kara says, chuckling to herself when the rest of the girls leave their activities and follow her like she’s the pizza Pied Piper. Kara, though, is only interested in one person.

“Hey, Lena,” Kara says softly, setting down the boxes and the six-pack and sitting next to the brunette. “How’re you feeling? Lillian threw you doozy. You handled it really well.”

“I’m glad you enjoyed it, because Lillian was furious,” Lena says drily. She doesn’t seem upset, at least – just thoughtful. “I don’t think I would have even thought to stand up to her until I met you. I would have just given her the answer she wanted.”

“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” Kara asks, and Lena laughs a little.

“For my chances at this pageant? Bad. But for not hating myself? Very much a good thing.”

Lena’s voice is low and sweet when she says it, like it’s meant only for Kara. It’s the kind of voice that makes Kara melt at the best of times – and now, when she’s supposed to be secretly grilling Lena for information, it’s especially inconvenient. She just wants more than anything for Lena to keep talking. But unfortunately they are not the only people in this gym, and of course the first person to interrupt is Siobhan.

“Are you insane?” Siobhan says, drifting close to them and staring at the box as if she can absorb the flavour with just her eyes. “You can’t bring pizza and beer to the gym. None of us can eat that.”

“You forgot the donuts,” Nia says helpfully. Andrea scoffs.

“Do you know how many calories we’re talking?”

“I practice intuitive eating,” Kara deadpans, opening the pizza box and trying not to laugh when the girls all lean forward to breathe in the pizza-scented steam. “Calories aren’t a bad thing, they keep your body going. And besides, I thought we should celebrate.”

“Celebrate what?” Nia says, plucking at the lid to the donut box and staring down in obvious longing. Kara picks up a slice of pizza, holding it up like a salute.

“Surviving Lillian’s crappy questions and being ogled by sailors.”

“I can’t eat that,” Sam says, but there’s definite yearning in her voice.

“You can eat whatever you want,” Kara counters, taking a big bite. The cheese pulls in a long, delicious line, and Kara waves the box under Lena’s face, talking through her full mouth. “What about you?”

Lena, meeting Kara’s challenge head-on, picks up a slice and takes a bite crust-first.

A millisecond after Lena puts the pizza in her mouth, it becomes a frenzy. Half the pie is gone as four sets of hands seize whatever slices they can reach, and Nia opens the box of donuts and shoves one into her mouth with such reckless delight that Kara wonders how long she’s deprived herself of eating them. All around her is a chorus of full-mouthed moans, and in the middle of it all is Lena, grinning as she munches on her crust.

Kara blinks, setting down the empty box.

“I guess we’re gonna need another one.”

The six-pack also turns out to not be nearly enough alcohol. An hour later Kara is spilling out of a cab in downtown San Antonio with five giggling women still in their workout clothes, feeling like she’s entered the Twilight Zone.

Sam leads them to the nearest bar, and Kara enters with deep apprehension – the only places she usually frequents are gay bars, where she doesn’t stand out like a sore thumb. Here, she fully expects to be horribly out of place. But the bar turns out to be delightfully different than she thought – there’s a dance floor and booths scattered around, of course, but there’s also a massive stage featuring steel drums full of florescent paint, and people all around are beating the drums and getting consequently drenched in sprays of yellow and orange and pink. It’s like a huge modern art installation, set to EDM.

It only takes two rounds of shots for Nia to convince everyone to go get painted.

Kara had been worried, getting dragged into clubbing with a bunch of beauty queens. But this – all of them drumming along to the music, running from station to station and using their hands to flick paint at each other, Lena standing across from Kara with her head thrown back in laughter as she hits totally offbeat – this is fun. It’s so fun that she almost forgets why she’s here until they finally pile into a booth, paint-spattered and giggling, Sam calling for bottle service, two pitchers of beer, and a few baskets of fries for the table.

“See, tonight is the perfect night to get sloppy,” Nia says, shoving fries into her mouth at an even faster speed than Kara. “All we have tomorrow is rehearsals all day and then the final interview. If I had to get on stage for the big talent showcase on Monday hungover, I’d probably die.”

“We all hate our talents enough as it is,” Sam says, and everyone makes noises of agreement. Kara frowns.

“You don’t like your talents?”

“Are you kidding?” Nia says, gesturing wildly with her hands. A fry flies from her grip and gets lost on the dance floor, and she doesn’t seem to notice. “I hate tap. It’s just the most pageant-accepted form of dance. Everything else is deemed too racy.”

“Except ballet,” Sam chimes in, rolling her eyes. “I feel you. If I have to dance to Swan Lake one more time, I think I’ll burn my pointe shoes.”

“Have you ever tried singing opera for a crowd of guys who just want to see you in a bathing suit?” Siobhan adds, grabbing Andrea’s glass – Andrea had refused the group tequila in favour of a bottle of a whiskey Kara has never heard of, which she’s sharing with Lena - and downing it with a slight cough. Andrea swats at her hand, but misses completely. “Halfway through everyone’s eyes glaze over. I want to sing something fun.”

“Do all of you hate your talents?” Kara says, incredulous.

Andrea shrugs, successfully flagging a waiter down to replace her stolen glass. “Cello is fine.”

“Shouldn’t it be more than fine? I thought talents were supposed to showcase your passions?” Kara presses. Andrea laughs, downing the new drink immediately before Siobhan can get her hands on it.

“If we were showcasing our passions, what I’d be doing on stage wouldn’t be appropriate for television. Though I’m sure there’d be some willing volunteers.”

Andrea ends the statement with a wink, and Kara lets out a nervous little laugh. It feels like she’s being flirted with, and Lena’s hand tightens around her glass. “Uh, not safe for…you mean you’d…”

“Are you really that naïve, or is this some kind of strategy?”

Kara flinches at Andrea’s patronising tone, but in fairness, it’s difficult to take her entirely seriously when her face is covered in neon paint. Nia only rolls her eyes like this is a fairly common occurrence.

“Ignore her, Kara,” Nia sighs, pouring the last dregs of the bottle on their table into a few shotglasses and looking around for a waiter. “Basically it’s same reason I can’t do close-up magic for my talent. Invisible rules.”

The other girls agree, and when Nia finally flags someone down the conversation turns to the mixing of new drinks and ordering more food. It gives Kara the first moment to really think that she’s had all night, and in her booze-fogged brain she can hear Alex’s voice.

Get it over with, Kara. You have a job to do.

This leads to, apropos of nothing, Kara blurting out the first conversation-starter she can think of.

“So, have any of you ever done a crime?”

The reaction is mixed. Nia laughs, looking at Kara like she thinks she might be joking; Sam looks thoughtful, and Siobhan scowls. Lena is sitting directly next to Kara and so Kara can’t see her reaction, but her posture gets noticeably stiff. Kara can feel it where their shoulders touch, and when Lena moves away to pour herself a new drink Kara has to fight not to lean over and chase the contact again.

Andrea’s eyes narrow. “You sound like a cop.”

“What! Me?” Kara sputters, letting out a low and nervous laugh over her beer. Her face is already red from all the drinking, and she can feel it getting worse under the drying paint. “No! A cop? I’m not - why would you - I don’t even like cops! That’s so -”

“I stole red panties from the department store once,” Sam says offhandedly.

Even Andrea’s attention is drawn away from Kara after that comment. The table falls silent, staring at Sam as she licks a stripe over the back of her hand and sprinkles salt on it. She seems to notice a little too late that there’s paint all over her hands, frowning, but in the end she shrugs and keeps sprinkling.

What?” Nia says, voicing the question for everyone else at the table. Sam shrugs, readying herself a lime wedge and a shot of tequila.

“My mom wouldn’t buy them for me. She said they were Satan’s panties.”

Sam punctuates it by smoothly taking the shot, paint and all, expertly sucking the juice from the lime and dropping it in the shotglass as everyone laughs. The tension passes, Sam’s easy answer and the follow-up questions about the exact scenario of the panty-stealing seeming to make almost everyone forget how out of place the question was, but one set of eyes stays on Kara long after the conversation has moved forward.

After Sam’s confession, everyone else seems happy to reveal their best lawbreaking moments. Nia regales the table with the tale of joyriding with her first boyfriend in his parent’s car before either of them had their licenses, ending up with a cracked windshield and blaming it on neighbourhood squirrels (‘sometimes I still can’t believe they accepted that story. How could an acorn crack glass?’). Andrea admits to having cheated on her first driver’s test, claiming that since she hardly ever drives and only wanted it for the government ID, it isn’t technically a crime, and Siobhan proudly talks about having committed fraud to get an ex-girlfriend medical care under her insurance.

“I just gave her my ID,” Siobhan shrugs, examining her nails. “Nobody asked questions.”

Andrea laughs. “Are you in the habit of dating people who look enough like you to use your ID?”

“I’m not the only one,” Sobhan says pointedly, crossing her arms. “You date exclusively hot brunettes, too. Need I remind you that you and Luthor were on and off for years –”

Kara inhales half her beer, almost knocking Lena’s drink off the table with her flailing as she coughs up liquid.

“You two dated?” she wheezes, accepting a handful of napkins from Nia and looking between Lena’s drawn, blushing face and Andrea’s murderous expression. “When?”

“A long time ago,” Lena says softly. Andrea looks angry that Siobhan brought it up, but her face softens when she looks at Lena – there’s an affection there still, especially on Andrea’s part, and despite every attempt to fend it off Kara still has a horrible sort of heaviness in her chest about it.

The pause in conversation is long enough for Nia to pipe up with a derailing suggestion.

“Let’s play truth or dare!”

Siobhan and Andrea are the only ones who choose dare in the first round. Siobhan completes Sam’s dare of scoring a round of free shots from the bartender by flirting with him so relentlessly that he gets whiplash when she leaves without a word with the tray in hand, only to take all six shots by herself since she earned them fair and square. And Nia – who has been spiralling so rapidly into being absolutely wasted that Kara has been surreptitiously replacing her drinks with water for the last 15 minutes – dares Andrea to take a body shot off Kara.

Why Andrea insists on straddling Kara’s lap to do so is totally beyond her. All she knows is that when Andrea finally climbs off, throwing the dry lime wedge at Nia with a sly grin, Lena has downed three whiskey neats and her hands are clenched so tightly on the edge of the booth seat that Kara thinks it might actually crack under the force.

Likely not wanting to devolve into public indecency, everyone else chooses truth from that point, and the game becomes a steady descent into the table’s deepest secrets.

Andrea, it turns out, never wanted to compete in pageants at all. Her father had debts she had to repay with the scholarship money from her very first competitions in high school, and she now needs more scholarship money to pay off the student debt she racked up herself as a result. Nia reveals, her eyes getting teary over a shotglass full of water, that her big sister resents her for being more successful in their mother’s tradition of pageantry as a trans woman.

In the flurry of hugs and comforting that follows, Kara fails to notice until it’s too late that Nia has managed to switch back to tequila.

Lena is next, and as much as she seems like she would rather do anything else but answer a truthful question, she relents when Nia reminds her that the rest of them have done it already.

“I’m pretty sure my mother has never and will never love me,” Lena says quickly, ripping the band-aid off. Her hands are still clenched on the edge of the bench seat, and as Sam hands Lena a shot for her vulnerability Kara slowly, gently puts her own hand next to Lena’s. Close enough for them to press together. Lena pauses mid-swallow, glancing at Kara in surprise, but when Kara links their pinkies she doesn’t move away.

“Some people shouldn’t be mothers,” Sam says morosely, swirling the last of the beer in her plastic cup. “Like me. I love Ruby, I do, but sometimes…sometimes I regret that my life couldn’t have been a little easier. I had to give up a lot, you know?”

“That’s what makes you a good mother!” Lena insists, so clearly that Kara forgets for a second that she’s had almost half a bottle of whiskey. “You’re nothing like Lillian.”

“Shouldn’t I not have those thoughts at all?” Sam asks, seeming genuinely distressed for a moment. “Doesn’t that make me just as bad?”

No!”

Siobhan says it so loudly that Kara actually jumps a little, her head whipping around to stare at the last person she ever expected to defend Sam. Siobhan is clearly very drunk, her cheeks pink and her eyes a little wild, but she’s pointing at Sam with a steady hand.

“You are a wonderful parent,” Siobhan says with feeling, and Sam blinks. “And a good person.”

Everyone seems to be in various stages of disbelief, but none more so than Sam.

“You’ve been ragging on me for even being a mother ever since I got pregnant,” Sam says, shaking her head with a disbelieving laugh. “Now you’re telling me I’m a good person? What’s the truth?”

“Truthfully,” Siobhan says with a haughty sort of sniff to disguise her sudden flash of emotion, “I respect you for it. You’ve been able to juggle motherhood with school and pageants all this time. My mother couldn’t even juggle being a mother with her country club social engagements.”

Sam, hilariously, looks deeply touched by that. She presses a hand to her chest, staring at Siobhan even when the other woman won’t meet her eyes.

“Really?”

“Is this not truth or dare?” Siobhan snaps, but her voice shakes a little. Sam scoots her chair a little closer, even though Nia is sitting between them.

“I’ve always admired your drive,” Sam says loudly, and Nia follows the exchange like a tennis match. Kara is surprised she hasn’t given herself whiplash. “You’re focused, and you get what you want. I respect that.”

“No, you don’t,” Siobhan says, staring up at the ceiling in a clear attempt to not let her tears fall. “You hate me. You all do. And what’s depressing is that you’re all the closest thing I’ve ever had to having friends.”

“We only hate you when you’re an asshole,” Sam corrects, her eyes a little shiny with tears of her own. “But you were really nice just then. Thank you, Siobhan.”

“You guys!” Nia yells a little louder than the situation warrants, breaking the moment to sling an arm over Sam and Siobhan’s shoulders and pull them both into a group hug. “Look at you, burying the hatchet! I love you guys so much!”

“Okay, okay, that’s enough,” Siobhan grumbles, sniffling and wiping her eyes while Nia squeezes her slightly too hard. “I’m still going to beat your asses on Monday.”

There she is,” Lena says, watching the scene unfold with deep amusement. “For a moment, I thought you’d been possessed.”

Siobhan gives her the finger, but she lets Nia continue the hug for at least 15 seconds more.

Kara has never seen anything like this in her life. This level of teary drunken confession has only ever been a part of her life as a precursor to a close male friend confessing he’s in love with her, and the honesty of this moment is both disconcerting and delightful.

“Hey, Kara hasn’t gone yet,” Nia unhelpfully points out when she finally lets them both go. “Kara, truth or dare?”

“Uh,” Kara blanches, looking around at the drunk and expectant faces. Lena is looking at her, her eyes burning into the side of Kara’s face in a stare that she can tell is intense even without looking. Truth seems risky, but the last thing she wants is to endure another one of Nia’s dares. “Truth?”

“We’ve all been sharing secrets,” Siobhan says, seemingly over her fit of empathy. “What’s yours?”

Shit.

“Um,” Kara says, a layer of fine sweat starting to form on her upper lip at the sudden attention as she fumbles for something to share that isn’t too real, “I guess…that I’m gay?”

Andrea snorts. “Oh, honey, that’s not a secret.”

“Also, every person at this table is notably not straight,” Sam says, waving a disappointed and slightly wobbly finger at Kara. “Don’t chicken out on us, Kent.”

The reminder of her fake name doesn’t help.

“Uh,” Kara stammers, wiping the sweat away and drying her hands on her pants, “um. Well, I uh…I don’t -”

“Be brave, Kara! You,” Sam shouts, pointing at Kara with an intensity that brings to mind a politician making an impassioned speech, “are a queen. We’re all queens. We should just share the crown. A six-way.”

“That sounds like a lot of limbs,” Nia says thoughtfully. Sam snorts, but everyone still seems to expect Kara to go along with the game. She’s still scrambling for a lie to throw out when, blessedly, the attention is taken from her by force.

Like an angelic saviour descending on Kara specifically, the music switches from vague electronica to a remix of something Kara recognizes. And, judging by the way half the table throws their hands up in the air and yells, she’s amongst fellow Spice Girls fans.

Yes!” Nia screams, seizing Siobhan’s hand and dragging her by force to the dancefloor. Sam stands as well, giving a come hither crooked finger to the rest of the table.

“Okay, queens. Let’s fucking dance.”

Lena looks to Kara as she slips out of her seat, inclining her head towards the group, but Kara sidesteps her, her heart pounding at the almost-disaster she just narrowly avoided.

“Bathroom,” Kara shouts over the music, already heading that way. She needs a second to get her head on straight – maybe splash some water on her face to sober herself up, and get herself back into agent mode. She’s off her game, thrown by the genuine friendship these girls seem to be offering her, and something resembling guilt is clawing at her stomach at the idea of taking advantage of their trust.

She’s doing it to protect them. But they’ll probably hate her for it, after all is said and done, and that knowledge makes Kara feel nauseous.

The music is muted in the restroom, mostly bass reverberating through the brick walls. Kara leans heavily against the counter – the mirror is foggy and covered in paint, but she can see herself through it. She has bags under her eyes, days of stress and lack of sleep catching up to her all at once. Her palms splay out on the surface of the sinks, slipping on leftover soap bubbles, and with a sigh she sets to washing her hands. The water swirls with multicoloured paint that mixes into a muddy brown the more she scrubs, and Kara watches it swirl down the drain with a heavy heart.

She almost jumps out of her skin when the door slams open, and the last person in the group she wants to be alone with strides in.

“Siobhan!” Kara squeaks, turning off the tap. Siobhan, alarmingly, doesn’t insult or ignore Kara – instead she bats her eyelashes, and steps a little bit too close for comfort. A scenario which is infinitely worse.

“Hi,” Siobhan says in a breathy sort of voice. She steps even closer, pinning Kara to the counter, and runs a hand down Kara’s exposed arm all the way down to her hands.

“My, uh – my hands are all wet,” Kara says, holding them up. She’d hoped that it would make a sort of barrier, but Siobhan doesn’t seem to care at all. She leans in close enough for Kara to smell the tequila on her breath.

“What do you say we find a stall and get into some inter-state politics?” Siobhan murmurs, hooking a finger into the front of Kara’s sweatpants and tugging just enough to see the waistband of Kara’s Calvin Kleins. It’s not forceful but her intent is definitely very clear, and Kara’s stomach drops to her toes.

“Oh. Oh, gosh,” Kara says, her voice coming out high and nervous as she tries to step away. Siobhan lets her, but her finger stays hooked into Kara’s pants until Kara gently extracts it. “Look, I’m very flattered, but –”

“I would rock your world, you know,” Siobhan says in a slightly more regulated voice, with an edge of desperation. “I could do things to you that you couldn’t even imagine.”

Kara laughs, slapping a hand over her mouth when it comes out sounding a bit like a bray. The last thing she wants to do is hurt anyone, but she has no idea exactly how to kindly say that if she were to ever cross that ethical and professional boundary, it would not be for Siobhan Smythe. “Wow. Okay. While I’m sure you could, I don’t –”

Siobhan rolls her eyes, scoffing loudly before Kara can finish.

Ugh, you’re into Luthor. I know.”

Kara freezes, having been a few paces away from the nearest stall with every intent to lock herself in it until that little revelation.

“You – I’m – Lena?” is the eloquent response Kara manages to form with her seven years of FBI crisis training.

“As if you don’t broadcast it every time she’s in the room,” Siobhan huffs. She turns towards the sink, frowning at her paint-covered face, and seems to set to task cleaning herself up as best she can with paper towels and water while completely ignoring the fact that she had Kara pinned to the sink less than a minute ago.

“So then why…” Kara starts, trailing off before she can confirm Siobhan’s statement by saying why bother? As much as Kara has tried not to admit it to herself, Siobhan is right. Kara hasn’t spared so much as a glance for anyone but Lena all weekend. Unless Siobhan has some kind of fetish for being rejected, it doesn’t make sense to corner Kara like this.

“Because I wanted to win, for once,” Siobhan snaps, picking up on the unsaid words on her own. “Did you know I’ve finished behind her in every competition since we were kids? The only time I ever won was after she was gone. And now she’s back, for the biggest competition of my career. My last one, before I’m too old and decrepit for anyone to care about me anymore.” She actually looks close to tears, and event through the weirdness of this whole encounter, Kara feels for her.

“I’m sorry, Siobhan,” Kara says softly, reaching out to pat her on the shoulder. Siobhan shrugs it off roughly, spinning on her heel and tossing her paint-covered paper towel at Kara’s chest.

“Oh, shut up.”

It’s a textbook storm-out, really. Kara would be impressed by the sheer drama of its execution if, when the door swung open, it hadn’t revealed Lena standing there.

Siobhan brushes past Lena without a word. Kara has no idea how much she might have heard, but judging by the pure shock on her face, it was quite a lot.

“Hey!” Kara says as she rushes to the door, perhaps a bit too cheerfully. “You know, it turns out I really don’t have to pee. Let’s go dance!”

Desperate for a distraction, Kara leads her to the dancefloor as promised. It’s only when they get there to find that Nia and Sam are playing an intense game of quarters at the bar and Siobhan has apparently decided to drown out her woes with Andrea’s tongue in her mouth that Kara realizes she’s made a terrible mistake.

She said they were going to dance; and the only people to dance with are each other.

The distance between them starts out perfectly respectable. Kara does everything but pull out a tape measure, ensuring at least a 4 foot distance at all times for a full song and a half. But the club is crowded, and the people dancing around them don’t seem to care that Kara has a tenuous-at-best grasp on her willpower. They just push and bump and crowd until the space shrinks to just a few inches, and the intense expression Lena has had ever since she overheard Kara’s bathroom conversation is too close to ignore. Lena looks more beautiful now, sweaty and covered in paint, than she has any time she’s been on stage this weekend. Each reduced inch between them makes Kara’s mantra of this is a job, do not cross that line, this is a job get a little quieter.

When they started dancing, Lena had been stiff. Almost awkward, really, more of a full-body shuffle with some vague arm movement, and she had seemed either incapable of or unwilling to meet Kara’s eyes. She looked like she wanted the whole experience over with. But the closer they get, the more Lena seems to loosen up. The music is deep and guttural, vibrating somewhere deep inside Kara and settling at the core of her, and that core pulses in time with the bass as Lena’s body gets more fluid. They move together like magnets, resisting the pull as much as they can but inexorably ending up in each others orbit.

Lena’s eyes are intense and dark, her hands come up and smooth over the sweaty skin of Kara’s shoulders up to grasp either side of her neck; and as soon as Lena makes that move, as soon as that first barrier is broken, Kara hooks a hand around Lena’s waist to splay over the small of her back. Kara doesn’t put pressure there, doesn’t pull Lena closer as much as she desperately wants to, but even so Lena takes the initiative, letting their bodies press together with an almost pained noise that Kara can hear even over the music.

It’s a strange sort of relief finally being close like this, even if it’s breaking the promise Kara made to herself. An acknowledgement of what’s been happening since they met. An admittance of what they both want even if they can’t quite bring themselves to take it yet. They’re sharing breath, chest to chest, grinding to the beat with their lips a hair’s breadth apart, but neither of them seem to be able to hold each other’s gaze. It’s too much, too intense; instead Lena’s arms loosen, her back bending a little as she tips her head back and seems to lose herself in the music.

Kara has no restraint left anymore to keep herself from dragging her lips over Lena’s exposed throat.

It's not a kiss. Kara doesn’t move her lips yet, doesn’t press them intentionally to Lena’s skin like she longs to do. She just holds Lena up with a single hand on her back, leaning forward with her and letting her mouth fall light as a feather on Lena’s skin. Breathing heavy and tasting salt, feeling muscle vibrate when Lena makes a quiet noise of surrender. It would be so easy to kiss her, to just pull Lena upright and succumb to what feels as inevitable as a train coming down the tracks -

Instead, she almost drops Lena entirely when they’re unceremoniously bumped out of their private bubble.

It takes Kara a second to absorb what’s happened, her brain still stuck in erotic purgatory, but when she manages to pull it free she sees that it’s Sam stumbling back after the impact, giggling and supporting the weight of a very unconscious Nia.

“I think she had too much,” Sam helpfully points out, clearly also having had too much. Lena springs into action right away, slipping Nia’s other arm over her shoulder and helping Sam hold her up, and like this is a completely normal occurrence Siobhan and Andrea immediately extract themselves from each other and lead the way to the bathroom. They part the crowd like the Red Sea with a combination of elbows and glares, forming a protective wall. It feels like a girls-only emergency drill that Kara never learned, and she follows behind the group still half-dazed and distracted.

Lena hasn’t so much as looked at her since they were interrupted.

When Kara enters Nia is already being propped up on the counter next to Sam, leaned back against the mirror with her eyes closed and her head resting on Sam’s shoulder, and Lena is wetting a handful of paper towels with cold water. She uses them to dab at Nia’s face, making soft tsking noises when Nia groans and tries to swat her away.

“Is she okay?” Kara asks, wanting to step in to help but feeling like she’d just get in the way of what looking like a well-oiled machine. Sam smiles, stroking Nia’s hair with a motherly gentleness.

“She’ll be okay. She might throw up in the cab, but my roommate is hooking up with Tennessee so her bed is free. She can stay with me. I’ll make sure she hydrates and doesn’t sleep on her back.”

“How often does this happen?” Kara asks, and Andrea looks at her curiously.

“Have you never been clubbing before?”

Not with girls like you, is Kara’s honest thought.

“I’m more of a karaoke bar person,” Kara answers instead, and Andrea rolls her eyes.

“Of course you are.”

“We do need to get her back before Lillian finds out,” Lena says, her voice tinged with real anxiety. “You remember what happened when some of the girls threw a room party a few years ago.”

“What happened?” Kara asks. Lena doesn’t look at her; she just keeps taking care of Nia, and instead Siobhan answers her question.

“She convinced the judges to blacklist them.”

“For drinking?” Kara says, scoffing. “As adults?”

“She has a boot up her ass about something,” Siobhan shrugs, leaning into Andrea. “I don’t think she ever got over the rumours, so she overcompensates.”

Everyone else seems to understand what Siobhan is talking about, so again Kara has to press.

“Rumours?”

“She was runner-up in ’83, but she almost ended up taking the crown when the winner started missing her post-win engagements,” Siobhan explains, her hands waving so emphatically that she almost hits a disgruntled Andrea in the face. “Car issues, food poisoning, anonymous death threats. Someone even cut her brakes. It was crazy, apparently. Like this storm of bad luck on the poor woman. And Lillian kept making public statements about how she was ready to take the responsibility if the pressure was too much for the winner.”

Nobody else seems surprised by the story, but Kara feels like she’s been plunged into cold water.

“Death threats?” she says, failing to hide the urgency in her voice. “Do you know what was said, exactly? Did anyone trace the threats?”

Siobhan shrugs, clearly not nearly as interested in this as Kara. “How should I know? I wasn’t alive then, was I?”

Kara throws her arms up, flabbergasted at the blasé reactions of everyone else in the room. “It was a death threat! Weren’t the police involved? Did anyone take her statement?”

“As if they would have done anything useful,” Andrea scoffs. “Besides, the pageant circuit has always liked to take care of things internally.”

“Like when Lillian got fired,” Siobhan says blithely, taking a paint-stained wet paper towel from Lena and handing her a new one. Lena works quietly, listening but not speaking as she sobers Nia up. “When the network told her, she threw a chair out the window.”

Kara chews on her lip, trying to log this all away to tell pass on to the team later. As much as she hates to admit it, Cat and Alex were right – this girl’s night is the most intel she’s gotten all weekend. Unfortunately when Kara glances back at Lena, she’s unnerved to see suspicion in her green eyes.

It’s exactly what she’s been afraid of. She’s asked too many questions.

“We should probably head back, right?” Kara says, hoping a change of scenery will wipe away the horrible gut-sick feeling that follows. “Here, I can carry her.”

“We’ve got it,” Lena says quickly, and Kara’s stomach twists even harder. Lena and Sam hold Nia up by the shoulders again, Nia’s stumbling legs slowly making their way to the cab stand out front, and Kara is about to follow when she notices her phone vibrating in her pocket.

Fishing it out, she sighs heavily when she’s met with a banner reading ‘9 missed calls’. All from Alex.

She hits redial quickly, glancing at the door.

“What?” she hisses as soon as Alex picks up, leaning against the counter. “I’m a little busy doing the thing you told me to do, so -”

“You took your earpiece out, so I haven’t gotten an update all night!” Alex says, sounding more worried than angry. “You were supposed to text us. Are you okay?”

“Can’t it wait until I get back?” Kara says incredulously. Alex seems to step out of a room on the other end of the line, the background noise fading to quiet.

“I was worried. I don’t like you out on the job with no backup and no contact. Did you find anything out about Lena?”

“A lot has happened,” Kara says vaguely, turning away from the door to pace to the other end of the small bathroom. “I’m still – “

“Ask her about the project,” Alex insists.

“What, you want me to just tie her up and interrogate her?” Kara snaps, talking more loudly than she intended. “She’s not our focus. The last thing I want to do is lose her trust -” When Kara spins to pace the other direction, her stomach drops to her toes.

Lena is standing there, and it looks like she’s been there longer than a few seconds. Kara hangs up the call without a word, shoving her phone back in her pocket with shaky hands under Lena’s now-watchful eyes.

“Everyone is getting in the cab. I didn’t want you to miss it,” Lena says. Her voice is harder than it’s ever been, almost flinty, and Kara can’t stand it.

“Okay,” Kara says, but Lena has already disappeared with a swish of her ponytail.

The cab ride back to the hotel is quiet. With Sam up front playing some kind of swipey mobile game and Nia passed out with her face pressed to the window Lena and Kara are left sitting together, Siobhan and Andrea having taken their own cab for reasons Kara can hazard a guess at. Lena is stiff, somehow barely touching Kara despite Nia’s spread-out body taking up half the backseat, and the second the cab stops she’s scrambling out the door.

The walk back to their room feels like a funeral march. Either Lena is never going to speak to her again or there’s about to be a confrontation, and neither is an option Kara wants. She has no idea what she’s expected to do – revealing who she is could compromise this whole investigation, but if Lena asks, Kara doesn’t know if she has the strength in her to lie anymore.

When Kara opens the door it’s to find the room lit by a single lamp and Lena sitting on her bed facing the door. Her teeth are digging into her lower lip and her hands are clenched in the duvet, but as soon as Kara enters she rises, her features smoothing into stoniness.

“Who are you?”

Kara lets out a breath. Years of experience in the field, multiple successful undercover ops under her belt, and yet she can’t summon a lie when Lena asks her a simple question. 

“I’m…Kara?” she manages through a dry throat. Lena gives her no quarter.

“Are you?” Lena snaps, taking a step forward. Kara takes a step back, and her shoulders hit the door. “You’ve spent this entire night mining for information. You turn up here with no picture and with not a single other contestant knowing who you are, and with seemingly no actual interest in anything to do with the pageant. Which is fine, it’s none of my business – but then you try to get close to me, flirt with me, for god only knows what reason and for a second I actually believed you.”

There’s more than just suspicion in that last sentence. More than anger. Lena’s voice is laced with hurt and embarrassment, and Kara moves towards her to try to assuage it without even thinking.

“What? Lena, no -”

“And tonight, when all the others were trusting you with deep and private information, you couldn’t be genuine for five seconds and do the same,” Lena says, sidestepping Kara’s attempt to reach out. “Like you’re hiding something. I’ve seen way more law enforcement at the pageant this year than ever before. And then I hear you on the phone talking about – about -”

Kara knows what she was talking about, and that Lena knows it was about her. She can hear Alex in her head if not in her ear, telling her to not under any circumstances blow her cover. But Lena looks distraught, and Kara can’t lie to her. Not anymore. 

“If you’re here to fuck with the pageant, fine,” Lena is saying, with more force behind her words now. “I don’t even care if you fuck with me. But I’m not going to let you hurt the rest of these girls. Who are you?

That stops Kara in her tracks, her long admission speech unravelling before it passes her lips.

“Hurt them?” Kara says indignantly, her hands landing on her hips. “Do you think I’m the threat?”

“I think you’re hiding something, and you’re using us for information. What am I supposed to think?”

Anything but that, Kara wants to say. She’s been lying to Lena to protect her, but to have Lena thinking she’s actually the one threatening the pageant? That Kara could ever willingly hurt her? If there was any will to keep lying to Lena left in Kara’s body, it would have disappeared with that thought.

“My name is Kara,” she says finally, her hands sliding down to hang loose at her sides. Lena rolls her eyes, and Kara sighs. “It is, I swear. It’s just not Kara-Lee Kent. It’s Agent Kara Danvers. I’m with the FBI.”

The silence from Lena’s end after that reveal is so dense that the hum of the air conditioner sounds like a jet engine.

Lena regards her warily for – Kara counts, second by agonizing second – almost a full minute before she speaks again. She scans Kara head to toe, and even Kara has to admit it probably seems a little far fetched considering she’s still in her sweats and caked in 8 colours of dried paint.

“Where are your credentials, then?” Lena asks finally. Despite Lena’s voice being soft, Kara still jumps a little. It’s a massive relief that Lena is still willing to entertain the idea that Kara is here to help, and it’s hard not to come off as overenthusiastic.

“In a portable safe, in the bedside drawer,” Kara says quickly, pointing. “I’ll show you, if you let me.”

When Kara pulls them out, handing Lena her badge and ID card, Lena deflates. Like she’d been hoping, maybe, that she was wrong and Kara really was just a weirdo with bad people skills.

“The FBI,” Lena says quietly, running her thumb over the shiny metal of the badge. She seems stuck on Kara’s ID photo, still looking down at it even when Kara holds her hand out to take it back. “Of course.”

Kara drops her hand, letting Lena keep the badge for now – and with it, she drops all pretense. It’s not worth the fight, anymore.

“There’s been a terrorist threat on the pageant,” Kara admits, laying all out at once. Lena finally looks up, her brows raised. “I was sent here undercover to make sure nothing happens backstage, but I’m starting to think it might be coming from the inside. From your mother.”

Weirdly, Lena seems less surprised to hear that Lillian was involved than she was to hear that Kara is an FBI agent. She just sighs, handing the badge back.

“I can’t really say I was expecting any of that.”

“Lena, this is important,” Kara says, pocketing the badge and taking a careful step closer. “I need your help. Has your mother ever talked about something called Cadmus?”

Lena looks exhausted by the question. She slumps down onto the bed, wrapping her arms around herself in a protective gesture that makes her look terribly small and alone. Kara has an image, suddenly, of Lena doing this every time Lillian did something to hurt her, and it makes her anger at the older Luthor even more pronounced.

“No. Never,” Lena says, her eyes distant and sad. “But Lex has.”

“Lex?” Kara says, moving to sit gently on the bed next to Lena. She leaves a foot or two of space, and Lena seems grateful. “Who’s Lex?”

“Alexander,” Lena clarifies, her voice getting a hint of bitterness Kara hasn’t heard before. “My mother’s assistant, and my brother. Half-brother, technically.”

The idea that the creep who seems to lurk around every corner at this pageant, the bald and badly-aging borderline predator, could be related to Lena is patently absurd, but there’s no lie in Lena’s face.

Alexander is your –” Kara mutters, half to herself. “Jesus, how many pageant secrets do I not know? This is getting ridiculous. I thought his last name was Tobin or something?”

“You’re one to talk.”

Kara winces. “Fair. I deserved that.”

“He changed his name to try and get away from his seedier associations,” Lena says, leaning forward and seeming to press herself into her knees. “He got himself into legal trouble a few years ago. Mother is insistent that he’s trying to turn his life around. I’ve been trying to figure out why my mother brought him on as her assistant when he has no relevant skills and no desire to actually work. I assume it has something to do with this Cadmus.”

“I think Lillian is angry about being fired,” Kara explains. She had worried for a moment that Lena would reject the idea, such an overblown reaction to something so minor, but Lena only nods.

“Only my mother could turn a contract termination into a domestic terrorism incident.” Lena sighs again. “Whatever help you need, I’ll give it.”

As reassuring as Lena’s words are, things still don’t feel right. There’s still a wall between them that wasn’t there before. More than Lena’s exhaustion and Kara’s nerves. Lena won’t look at her, won’t even glance in her direction, and it makes Kara’s stomach feel off.

“I’ve wanted to tell you all weekend,” Kara admits, bringing her legs up onto the bed and crossing them. “It’s been killing me to lie. It’s my job, but it felt wrong with you.”

“I’m sure,” Lena says, sounding blasé, but Kara can hear the hurt seething under her words. “But it just makes me wonder what else you lied about.”

“Nothing important,” Kara says earnestly, scootching closer. “Everything else has just been me. Everything with you, anyways. I can’t seem to wear the mask with you around.”

Lena makes a quiet scoffing noise, and Kara frowns.

“Really, Lena. I mean…I mean everything. Everything tonight, and the other day at the pool, that wasn’t part of the job,” Kara says urgently, moving within touching distance. Needing Lena to understand. Needing her to know the truth. “Far from it, actually. My sister keeps telling me to not get distracted.”

“And why should I believe you?” Lena fires back, with more venom than Kara expected. “You needed information about my family. And getting me to trust you was the easiest way to do it. I get it, you’re trying to save lives, but I’ve already agreed, alright? You don’t need to keep up the ruse.”

The words sit heavy between them, a choking mist that Kara wants desperately to clear. But Lena doesn’t trust her. Lena doesn’t trust her, and she has no idea how to make it right again. In fact Lena looks like she wants to bolt, and Kara knows that if she leaves the room right now any chance of doing so will probably disappear with her.

Lena’s words from earlier come back to her, suddenly. When all the others were trusting you with deep and private information, you couldn’t be genuine for five seconds and do the same.

With her heart in her throat, Kara pulls out her wallet and digs into a hidden pocket. Lena glances at the movement, but still doesn’t look at Kara’s face – even when Kara hands her the picture she’s kept tucked away for most of her life, Lena’s eyes stay on the object.

“You wanted me to be genuine tonight,” Kara says bluntly, diving in headfirst. “My parents died when I was a kid. A house fire.”

The hand holding the photograph twitches. It’s a copy of the last one Kara has with her parents, faded and creased – the original is safe in Kara’s apartment in an expensive frame – and Lena gets a little gentler with the paper after the admission.

“Oh,” Lena says hesitantly. “I’m…I’m so sorry, Kara.”

“It’s fine. It was a long time ago,” Kara parrots for probably the hundred-thousandth time in her life. It’s a reflex, and she tries to swallow it for the moment. “But, uh. It was all because of a stupid candle. I liked to keep them in my room, and my parents told me a hundred times not to fall asleep with one burning. A hundred times. And I didn’t listen.”

Kara’s chest tightens. Tears sting at her eyes, and she clears her throat.

“Kara, you don’t have to do this,” Lena says, but Kara soldiers on. Now that she’s saying the words, there’s something strangely freeing about it.

“My dad got me out of the house. But he went back in for my mom, and…” Kara trails off, twisting the bedspread in her fingers. “And even though I was just a kid, and it was an accident, I’ve never been able to shake blaming myself, no matter how much therapy I do.”

“I didn’t want to force you to do that,” Lena says softly. “Unearth your trauma like that. That’s not what I -”

Kara shakes her head, resolute.

“You didn’t force me,” Kara assures her, holding her gaze. Hoping that Lena will see the absolute truth in her eyes. “But that’s my biggest secret. Nobody knows that but me. Not even my sister.”

Lena is looking at her not with the pity or disdain she expected, but with understanding and empathy. She looks conflicted, still, and she hands the photo back carefully.

“Like you said, you’ve already agreed to help me,” Kara says, tucking it away again. “There’s no ulterior motive to this. I told you that because I wanted to. Because I’ve trusted you since I sat down next to you on that bus, and I want you to know that you can trust me. If you still don’t, I understand. But I had to…to try, I guess?”

Lena is silent, but the silence is less thick than it was before. It makes Kara hopeful.

“You’re the only thing that’s made this weekend bearable,” Kara admits, reaching a hesitant hand to cover Lena’s. Lena doesn’t move it away, and Kara can’t stop the barrage that she’s been thinking all weekend from spilling out. “Lena, you’re amazing. You’re the smartest person I’ve ever met, and you’re kind even if you don’t want people to know it. You’re curious and interesting and funny -”

“I’m not funny,” Lena says, her face twisting into an incredulous expression that almost makes Kara laugh. “You’re funny. I’m awkward.”

“You make me laugh.”

“You laugh at Calvin and Hobbes comics.” 

“Hey, I told you that in confidence!” Kara says, jabbing a finger in Lena’s direction, but Lena is grinning. The heaviness eases a little, and Kara sighs. “I don’t know what I need to do to convince you, but I’ll do it. Just tell me what you need me to do.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t know you,” Lena finally says, waving a hand vaguely over Kara’s whole self. “Not really. I mean, until tonight I thought you were studying to be a pediatrician.”

Kara laughs a little. “Yeah, my sister is the science sibling. I studied English and Poli Sci.”

“See?” Lena says, throwing her hands up a little. “I mean, what are you really even like? Clearly it’s not what I’ve seen here.”

Kara nods. Lena has a fair point – the person she actually is in her everyday life exists wildly outside of this context. She’s just not totally sure Lena will still like her on the other side of it.

“What do you want to know?”

What Lena wants to know, apparently, is everything. Where Kara grew up, her likes and dislikes, her family and interests. As the clock crawls towards 3am Kara tells her about Alex and Kelly, growing up in Midvale, about her friends in the bureau and her general lack of social life outside of it, and how she ended up with this crazy-ass assignment in the first place. And finally she shows Lena a picture, the only other one she usually keeps with her – one of herself with Alex and Eliza, at Alex’s wedding.

Lena stares at the picture for far longer than Kara expects her to. Kara wore a tailored suit and shiny new shoes that day, her hair in a clean and complicated bun that a stylist had done for her, and she had felt pretty good about it; Lena looks fascinated. She holds it up to her face like she’s trying to see the details, her fingers gripping the corner just a little too tight.

“You look…” Lena starts, her voice low and breathy, “really different.”

“Yeah, I usually wear exclusively menswear. The makeover I had to go through to be able to blend in here was pretty crazy,” Kara says with a short laugh. “I mean, do you guys really do bikini waxes all the time?”

“Have you never had one?” Lena says, finally looking away from the photo. Kara shakes her head.

“Not until this week. I normally don’t even shave. It was terrible!”

Lena swallows hard. She glances at the picture again and then back at Kara, her eyes flicking down to Kara’s waist before averting again, her cheeks pink.

“And the heels!” Kara continues, if only to fill the space. “How does everyone here not have sprained ankles all the time?”

“You learn to balance.” Lena sounds distracted, still staring at Kara in her wedding fit, and when Kara speaks again it looks like she’s been startled out of a deep thought.

“Well, it sucks in the meantime. When this is all over I plan on never wearing them again.”

“Your job really necessitates not wearing them,” Lena points out, finally handing the photo back. Kara holds it rather than putting it away, and Lena’s eyes keep darting to it even after she’s let it go.

“They have been really good for my posture, though,” Kara admits, straightening up and hearing her spine pop with a big stretch. “I didn’t realize how much I slouched, before. I thought heels were invented just to keep women from running away.”

Lena chuckles at the joke, shaking her head. “You really look down on this whole thing, don’t you?”

“I did at first,” Kara says honestly, smoothing out a crinkle in the photo paper. “I thought everyone here had to be shallow and superficial, to be so concerned over a pageant. Basically, I expected everyone to be Siobhan.”

Lena laughs louder this time, taking the point. “It sounds like there’s a but.”

Kara nods. “But, I was wrong. Nobody I’ve met here has been shallow. Everyone has been focused on winning the scholarship, but you’re all smart and interesting and really talented. Even Siobhan has something deeper behind her meanness.”

“If you say so,” Lena mutters, almost to herself. Kara laughs, using the moment to move closer again. She pulls her legs up onto the bed, readjusting herself to sit cross-legged across from Lena with their knees almost touching.

“Everyone is a lot more complicated than I thought,” Kara continues, resting her elbows on her knees. “I mean, Sam is a single mom and a math genius. Nia is incredibly resilient, and she’s so kind. Andrea is a little cold, but she’s also sharp and surprisingly caring. She’s probably going to run the world someday.”

“And me?” Lena asks, a wry brow arched.

“You’re the most fascinating person I’ve ever met in my life,” Kara says, with complete seriousness.

Lena seems to reel from that. She leans back a little, and it’s only then that Kara realizes how close they’ve drifted – they’ve both been leaning further and further forward as they talk, until only a few inches separate their faces. Kara doesn’t move, her eyes darting down to Lena’s lips – how she’s supposed to think of anything except how full and soft they look, she has no idea – and when Lena realizes Kara isn’t pulling away, she drifts forward again.

“We should go to bed,” Lena says, even as their noses bump and she doesn’t move away. She just makes a soft nuzzling motion, and Kara lets out a shaky breath when Lena’s head tilts in a way that begs to be kissed. “Before we do something we’ll regret.”

“Would you regret it?” Kara whispers. Lena’s reply is warm on her lips.

“Would you?”

“It’s a massive professional boundary,” Kara admits, closing her eyes for her confession. Lena’s are too intense, so deep and green that Kara could fall into them and never land. “But I’m more worried that I wouldn’t regret it at all.”

Lena’s exhale feels like relief. It feels like longing, like the yearning Kara has felt all weekend is being reflected at her, and it’s only when Lena’s lips finally brush hers feather-light that Kara has the willpower to continue.

“Lena?”

Lena stops in place, bringing a hand up to run her thumb over Kara’s lower lip. Her fingertip is rougher than Kara expected, almost calloused, and Kara wants to badly to nip at it that she has to press her lips together.

“What’s wrong?”

“I want you to be sober,” Kara says in a rush, her eyes still squeezed shut. “When…if, I mean. If we…are you sober right now?”

Lena pauses for a long time. So long that Kara, her eyes still closed, wonders if she might have fallen asleep. But then the warmth moves away, and Kara opens her eyes to see Lena sitting up straight. She looks disappointed, but equally a little relieved.

“No,” Lena admits, uncrossing her legs and getting up off the bed in a not-so-smooth motion that only illustrates her point. “Not as much as I want to be. You’re right.”

Kara has never been so annoyed at herself about being responsible. It’s the right thing to do, she knows that, but she also feels like a complete moron for turning down the chance to kiss Lena.

They take turns washing the paint off, Kara climbing into bed with damp hair to listen to the sound of Lena under the bad water pressure of their shower, and by the time Lena steps out of the steam-filled bathroom Kara is putting on a reasonable show of being asleep. Lena follows quickly, climbing under the covers quietly, and Kara almost thinks she actually has fallen asleep when her voice carries across the dark gap between their beds in a whisper.

“I blame myself, too.”

Kara frowns, shifting and squinting towards Lena’s shadowy face. Without her glasses or contacts she can’t see her features, but Kara could hear a strange tone in her voice.

“For what?” Kara whispers back. The reply almost makes her sit up.

“My birth mother drowned,” Lena says, her voice so quiet that Kara has to strain to hear. “I was there. I saw the whole thing. And I didn’t call anyone. I was too young to know what to do.”

The silence between them seems to ring, like the moments after a church bell has been struck. Kara’s mouth works around silent words, scrambling to say something, anything to offer reassurance. Lena beats her to it.

“It’s okay. I don’t need comforting,” Lena says, turning over to face the wall. “But I’ve never been able to shake off blaming myself, either. So…you’re not alone. That’s all.”

Strangely, after that absolute rollercoaster of a night, Kara falls asleep more easily than she has in a long time.