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There are different ways to explain it, but Lena looks back and sees it in stages. Theirs is a chronology that hasn’t always run straight; it has splintered and bent and barely survived when they jumped right from one reality into another, but it doesn’t change what Lena knows to be true: love sits like patient plot points along their timeline, in five distinct stages, written into five distinct memories.

--

In the beginning, it is affirmation.

She sits on a tall stool with a glass of wine and her laptop, and against all better judgment, she invites Kara to sit across from her. And it’s… nice enough. The blonde woman is smiling and gentle and clearly eager to be friends, but she’s also got a sincerity that sometimes strikes Lena so full in the chest that it’s disarming. She speaks and speaks and lunch turns to dinner, and when Kara makes no move to leave, only settles further into her seat and orders the first round of appetizers for their second meal in a row, Lena begins to feel it. Kara tells her that she’s just started a new job, that she doesn’t even really know how to be a reporter yet but that she’s got this whole new world spread out before her, and isn’t that exciting? Lena’s own unknowns leave her more terrified than excited, but she doesn’t say so. She just points out that she’s got a new life before her in National City too, and when Kara smiles wide and says well we can figure it out together then, Lena feels the words land softly in the quiet part of her heart.

And it’s that easy, really. Kara shows up at Noonan’s and sits down across from her and sets this promise at Lena’s fingertips like it’s the most casual thing in the world; there is room for Lena here, if she wants. And it could be the pinot grigio or the way Kara’s smile sometimes breaks across her face like sun, but Lena does want, and it’s petrifying. Memories of betrayal and heartache spur her to pull heavy at the reins, trying to rear back to safety, but her heart labours forward against it all, across the table and straight into earnest blue eyes. When Kara says I have a whole new life ahead of me, Lena feels acutely how she means and I choose you to be a part of it; and so this is how it begins.

An affirmation; their two connected parts as a whole.

--

And then: laughter.

She smiles more now than she has in years. And maybe it’s all the sunshine on the coast or maybe it’s that she’s finally started to extract the Luthor poison from her name, but Lena feels free in a way she hasn’t felt a fraction of since her days in that garage with Jack. It strikes her now, cross-legged on Kara’s floor and toying with the stem of her wine glass while Alex tells jokes, that she’s happy.

It’s a strange experience, to be in the orbit of so much love, and Kara at the center of it all. She’s vivid and bright and she wears her happiness like radiance, and on nights like tonight, the brunette has a hard time pulling her attention away. And sure, the intimacy of friendship like this is intoxicating and new, but Lena has been having this sensation more and more often lately. Sometimes she harbours butterfly kisses of nervousness across her neck when Kara says her name, and more than once she’s had to blink through the tiny flips her heart does when Kara hugs her.

Warm with wine and the smiles that Kara keeps quietly aiming toward her across the table, Lena can tell that tonight is a little bit different. She tries resolutely not to think about it, choosing to tiptoe gently around the unknown quantity even as it floats between them and patiently awaits ignition. But then Alex makes some lighthearted joke about her sister’s hopelessness in the kitchen, and Kara says sure, but you love me anyway, and she directs it straight at Lena. And it’s obviously a joke, and it was probably lost on the others, but when their eyes meet and her own laughter reflects off of Kara’s and into the bright space of the apartment, Lena says of course I do and feels the thing between them glow brilliant.

She is happy. She laughs more now than she has in years.

--

Lena hits a wall, eventually, and gets herself so tangled in her attempts at ignoring her unnamed feelings that it becomes clear the only way forward is to concede. There’s a moment in CatCo, not long after their argument, when the bottom falls out.

They’ve been unsteady in a way that aches in Lena’s bones, and she hasn’t seen Kara since the night in her office that she’d all but kicked her friend out. She, wounded; Kara, apologetic; and the whole structure of their friendship feeling like it was swaying on its stilts for reasons Lena chose to drink whiskey about instead of exploring the meaning of. It’s an easy logical jump to the realisation that the ribbon tied from Kara’s heart to her own has always run significantly deeper than platonic. For two years they’d been weaving it between their fingers together, carefully twining it around a maypole called friendship and reveling in the way it glowed golden. But then there was that night in Lena’s office when Kara had walked out and left the brunette teary-eyed and alone, and she had felt it start to strain. The fear of loss is a cold terror that has followed Lena since she was four, but the fear of losing Kara had hinted at a heartbreak of a completely different, more devastating shape.

It had been staring her directly in the face for so long that she had forgotten just how resolutely she’d shut her eyes to it. When she sees Kara across the office, Lena does the last thing she can think to do: she gives in. She expects to be struck by something, huge tidal waves of long-repressed emotion, maybe, or an oh moment that pulls the breath from her lungs, but she gets none of it. She simply looks at Kara across the room, and Kara looks back, and when their eyes meet, the air around them resonates like a harp string of fate plucked at crescendo.

In this moment of concession, Lena knows the truth as well as she knows Kara’s face: she is in love.

--

The next stage is one that Lena had thought would be the last-- they find happiness. Brighter than happiness, even: joy.

But first, there is a year in the dark. It’s ugly and raw and they tumble around one another, entangling in ropes of lies and deception that sting with more hurt than hate. And it had to happen that way, Lena believes, for the beauty of what follows. Kara tells her you came through for me, and I forgive you and she means it; the maelstrom, the world, the chaos-- everything settles around them.

Unlike the others before, Lena knows the importance of this moment as it happens. She’s spent the last year living a life defined by the negative spaces borne of Kara’s absences, trying to dodge them and keep herself intact all at once. The time alone left her feeling hollow, but now Kara’s voice brims with faith, and Lena is full of conviction and the resurgence of a love laid painfully dormant. She thinks of that first night at Noonan’s, and the sincerity in Kara’s eyes when the blonde had all but held her heart out over the words we’ll do it together. She remembers how she’d reached for the hero wholeheartedly even then, and as Lena now extends her hand toward Kara’s, their story comes full circle before her eyes. It’s a handshake of truce, but it’s also the return of the very same promise that Kara had given to Lena all those years ago: Us. Together.

When Kara reaches out and meets Lena’s hand with her own, all of the missing pieces and the empty spaces of the past year slot right back into place. Whatever was between them that afternoon at Noonan’s, that evening in Kara’s living room, that day in Catco; it is more honest and whole than it has ever been when Lena takes Kara’s hand in her own. They shake, and their eyes meet, and the peace in their shared forgiveness floods Lena through with joy.

--

The last stage takes her by surprise. It is a reality she’s never let herself consider—-- let alone plan for — -- but it happens all the same, and even after all these years there’s only one good way to name it: disbelief.

She is in love with Kara: this is something Lena has known for years. But they are also friends-- best friends --and Lena is happy this way. She gets to see Kara most nights and some mornings. She gets to share weeknights at Noonan’s and holidays with Kara’s family, and she can content herself with that kind of love too, because above all, she still has Kara. Kara is alive and safe and there is a place for Lena in her heart, three extraordinary truths for which Lena often thanks the gods both earthbound and celestial.

She is happy, and she cannot think of a single thing that would drive her to risk what has already been so hard-fought. She is in love with Kara, yes, but what is that kind of love to the way Kara laughs on her couch? What is that kind of love to Supergirl choosing her balcony to land on some nights, to the silence they sometimes sit in, to the way Kara pulls her in close and tucks the red cape around her shoulders? What is that kind of love to seeing the tears gather in Kara’s eyes when she holds Alex’s daughter in her arms for the first time? Lena will not risk that. They have made it only by the skin of their teeth, and she doesn’t know how many more miracles she can shake from this universe. So she stays quiet, and she sometimes smiles at her luck, and when Kara smiles back, it doesn’t even hurt.

And then Kara kisses her.

There’s no catalyst, really, for the way five years finally reach criticality. There is only Kara landing on her balcony, restless with post-battle adrenaline and looking at Lena with an intensity that nearly makes the night burn. And when Lena asks Is everything okay? and Kara steps close and says Almost, their golden ribbon pulls taut. There’s no moment of shock when Kara brings their lips together, no stumble of surprise. Lena kisses Kara back like she’s been waiting to do it for five years, and they melt into a whispered “finally.”

It isn’t until much later that she’s able to identify that moment as the beginning of their last stage, and it’s one Lena thinks she’ll be in forever. The sheer implausibility of their love is not lost on her: in this world, family legacies had drawn battlegrounds between them before they’d even met. When Lena considers the winding mess of their history and the odds stacked against them, there’s pride in knowing that she and Kara had weathered hell and worse, and made it out not only alive, but hand in hand. She knows with certainty that when she looks at Kara, her heart so full she can barely breathe, she will always feel wondrous disbelief.

--

It happened in five stages.

Almost like grief, Lena thinks, and she has known grief intimately. She has been through the stages forward and backward in various iterations since age 4, has skipped many and repeated several and dipped a few in whiskey along the way. Lena knows grief like a home-- but she has never known its counterpart. She’s never quite managed to land in ‘acceptance’ long enough for it to stick, and she’s spent more days coping than thriving, until Kara. Because grief is not somewhere Kara chooses to build her life, and bit by bit she has pulled Lena from its grasp and back into the light. Kara’s love is an inversion of what Lena thought she knew; like each point on their timeline marks not a heartache but a place where something new has been given life to bloom.

Lena sees it in parts, how her life can be split into sections touched by Kara; stages not of grief, but of bliss.