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(i am) an uphill battle

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Kara wakes up to complete darkness and she's there.

She doesn't know how it happened. She knows she went to sleep in her apartment, knows that she's been working with her friends, her family, for weeks, knows that she can't possibly be back there. But the darkness is all-encompassing, and she feels out of touch with reality, like she's stretching for something just out reach, and maybe it was all a dream, a fantasy the Phantoms created for her, returning her home just to rip it all away from her.

It's perfectly sick, she thinks, for this world to be forced on her by the Phantoms. A world where her sister is engaged, her friendship with Lena is, well, something, she becomes an aunt, she has a purpose. And just like when she was back there, something comes to ruin it. Failing the totems, failing her job at CatCo, Lex coming back again, and waking up to sickening, bone-chilling blackness.

It's freezing. It's freezing, so she must be back there, where it's never warm, and she can't move so she must be back there, where the yellow sun can't touch her, and suddenly she can't breathe.

"I'm not there," Kara gasps into the night. She is alone, and was alone there too, and thinks maybe she's been alone her whole life. She forces her eyes open, refusing to even blink or else the blackness behind her eyes might consume her. "I'm not there, I'm home, I'm fine, everyone is fine, I'm not there."

Tears leak out of her eyes. She cried a lot when she was there, too. What else is there to do when you're stuck in a nightmare except cry and wait for it to end?

(Sometimes, she feels like all she does is wait for each nightmare to end, only for a new one to begin.)

She wiggles her fingers, and then her toes, willing for her body to obey her and not the panic, to overcome the crushing weight of the darkness surrounding her and fucking move.

She didn't have powers when she was there. She didn't have powers there and now she can't move so she must be back, and she can only hear her own panicked breathing and nothing past it, and she can only see darkness and nothing through it, so she must be back there. There's no other answer. She's back.

Her foot flexes. She rolls her shoulders. I'm not there. (She doesn't really believe that.)

When her brain takes over her body again, she tears into the sky, not bothering to change into her suit.

-

Lena is still up when she hears a thud on her balcony. Knowing only one person would drop by unannounced, she gets out of bed and goes to let her in.

She doesn't expect to see Kara leaning against the railing, her knees tucked under her chin as she rocks back and forth. She has a distraught look on her face, like her mind is somewhere far away, and she's shivering.

"Kara!" Lena gasps and runs onto the balcony. The blonde doesn't even look up.

Lena immediately sits beside the Kryptonian and goes to grab her, but something makes her pause. She doesn't look injured, or physically in pain. There's no sign of a struggle or fight, no sirens in the distance to indicate an emergency. No, it's just Kara, breathing sharp and fast with eyes wide and unblinking and unfocused, mumbling incoherently under her breath.

Kara is clearly panicking, and touching a superhero that can lift a building in the middle of a panic attack might not be wise. So she shifts until she's facing Kara, hoping that her glazed-over eyes might focus on her for just a moment.

"Kara," says Lena softly, trying not to spook her. "Breathe slowly, I'm right here, you're safe."

Kara shakes her head violently, mumbling into her knees as she curls up even further into herself. Lena swallows back the fear rising in her chest. She's never seen Kara like this, and feels astronomically unqualified.

"Kara," she tries again. "Look at me. I'm right here. You're safe here."

Kara is close to hyperventilating when she gasps out, "It's not real, you're not really her, this isn't real, I'm there and not here, this isn't real—"

She breaks with a sob and she bites her knuckle with enough force to break skin if she weren't Kryptonian. Her hairline is slick with sweat but she's shaking violently, and her eyes are wide and unfocused as they glance around, never once landing on Lena.

"You're not there, Kara, you're home," Lena repeats, soft but firm, trying desperately to break through to her. She shifts a little closer, just trying to get Kara to see her —

"Don't touch me!"

Lena jerks backwards, anticipating a strike, but all Kara does is shrink back, shaking against the cold metal of the balcony railing.

"Okay!" Lena says, "I'm not going to touch you. I just need you to breathe with me, okay?" She talks slowly and gently, taking loud, exaggerated breaths so Kara will catch on. "In and out, you can do it."

Kara sucks in a breath and it comes out shaky, frost starting to accumulate on her sweatpants. Since she's not really sure what to do about that, Lena ignores it, focusing on her breathing and giving quiet encouragements.

In. Pause. Out. "Good job". In. Pause. Out.

It takes several minutes of coaching for Kara's breathing to even out to just the occasional hiccup. She must be cold, Lena thinks, but Kryptonians don't get cold, not with the yellow sun working through her cells. There's a thin layer of ice on her clothes and she is still shaking, but at least her breath is no longer coming out as frost.

Lena still hasn't touched her, afraid to send her spiraling again. She's never seen Kara like this. She's usually the happy one, the glass half-full one. She gives the inspirational speeches, pulls Lena out of her self-deprication with a smile and reminder of her unwavering belief in her. In their many years of friendship, it was always Kara the supporter. Even when Lena saw her frustrated or sad or angry, it was always composed. Restrained.

Lena can't help but wonder if this breakdown has been a long time coming.

"—Lena," Kara chokes out, snapping her out of her thoughts. Her blue eyes are suddenly focused intently on Lena, full of fear and apprehension. "Is, is this real?"

Lena nods. "Yes darling, it's real. You're here on Earth with me, and we're both safe."

Kara doesn't look away, but shakes her head just a little. "You've said that before, and it wasn't real. I wasn't really here." Her voice breaks every few words.

"Okay," Lena breathes out quietly. "Okay, we can work with that." She pauses for a moment, and looks down to see Kara's hands trembling on her knees.

"Kara, can I touch you?"

She hesitates for a moment, but ultimately nods, and Lena gently takes one of Kara's shaking hands and pulls it to her chest. She presses Kara's palm flat against her sternum. "Feel my heartbeat, Kara, I'm here, and it's real."

Kara shakes her head forcefully. "I — I can't!" She chokes out. Her other hand presses into the cement of the balcony, digging finger-shaped divots into the floor.

"Yes, you can, Kara. Focus on me, on my breathing. What do you feel?" Lena takes a deep breath in, holds it for a second, and let's it out slowly. It takes all of her resolve to keep her breathing slow and steady for Kara to match. Kara mimics the rhythm and watches her own hand move up and down with Lena's chest.

"I feel you moving," Kara says quietly, breaths coming out in shudders.

"That's good," encourages Lena. Breathes in. Breathes out. Kara follows suit. "What else do you feel?"

Lena watches as Kara's eyes flit around their surroundings, settling on where her other hand has landed.

"Concrete," she says, working her fingers into the grooves she made. She shivers. "Cold."

"We'll go inside in a minute, darling, and we'll warm up," Lena reassures, carefully hiding the concern she feels from her voice. Kara shouldn't be cold. "Alright, look for my heartbeat again. Can you feel it? Or hear it?"

Kara scrunches her eyes shut and presses her hand just a little harder against Lena's chest. She tilts her head, clearly straining her hearing to focus on what is right next to her. Abstractly, Lena wonders what it must be like to be able to hear everything at once. For that matter, to have each of her senses be bombarded with information every moment. It must take a lot of restraint to go about her day and focus on the task in front of her without getting distracted — or overwhelmed — with other sensory disruptions.

Once again, Lena wonders how long Kara has been putting off her needs for her to be left like this.

Finally, Lena sees the moment Kara's senses hone in. Her eyes are wide as she snaps her gaze back to Lena. "There!" Kara exclaims and she leans even closer. "I feel it!"

"Good," Lena says gently, rubbing her thumb over the back of Kara's hand where it rests on her sternum. "This is real, okay? We're safe here."

"Safe," Kara repeats.

Lena nods.

"And we're home?"

"Yes, Kara. We're home."

The Kryptonian lets out a breath as she slumps back against the balcony railing, her tense muscles releasing for the first time all night. Her head rolls back to stare at the sky, blinking rapidly as tears drip down her cheeks. Lena's heart breaks at the sight, and she squeezes Kara's hand.

"Just—" Her voice cracks. "— give me a second," Kara forces out, still looking up at the stars.

"Take your time, Kara," says Lena gently. "I'm not going anywhere."

Kara swallows and nods at that. She lifts her free hand from the concrete and presses it against her own chest. Lena watches silently, intrigued by how Kara runs her hand over her own skin, digging the heel of her palm into her sternum, trailing her fingertips up her neck, dragging her nails into her scalp. She roughly wipes the tear tracks off her face, rubbing her cheeks and neck almost aggressively.

It's like a ritual, Lena observes, as if Kara is forcing her skin to wake up again, forcing herself to look presentable, like this attack never happened. Lena's stomach rolls at the idea that this happens often enough that Kara has a routine, and Lena had no idea.

"Can we, um, go inside?" Kara asks quietly, clearing her throat when the words get stuck.

Lena simply nods and stands first, helping the unsteady Kryptonian to her feet. When they are both up, she awkwardly brushes the ice off of her pants. Kara avoids eye contact as Lena shoulders the weight of her, half-carrying her as they limp inside.

"Couch or bed?" Lena asks quietly. She might have blushed at the subtext if Kara's eyes hadn't widened in fear.

"Couch," Kara says immediately. "I need the windows."

"Okay." Lena walks then over to the couch and Kara slumps into it. It takes only a few seconds for the tears to come again, spilling over her cheeks with the force of a waterfall, but Lena can tell Kara is fighting to keep her breathing steady. She hands Kara a pillow, which she immediately hugs against her chest and rests her chin on top. Lena grabs a few thick blankets from a basket near the couch and lays one over the Kryptonian's shoulders.

"Can I get you anything?" Lena asks as she leaves the spare blankets on the floor by Kara's feet. "Water, or tea, maybe?"

Kara nods. "Tea, yeah." Her voice cracks and she breathes in hard through her nose.

Lena puts the kettle on and watches Kara from the kitchen. Her breaths are long and loud, deliberately forcing herself to take slower, deeper lungfuls of air. She stretches her neck by rolling her head from side to side, holding each position for a few seconds. All the while, she hasn't stopped starting out the window. It's nearly three in the morning at this point, and the lights from windows and street lamps cast a glare on the glass. Kara picks at the threads on the pillow and stares, unblinking, at the unsleeping city in front of her.

Lena is worried, to say the least. She just helped her best friend through a severe panic attack, who's barely spoken a word since landing on the balcony in the first place. She's not wearing her suit or her glasses, but she is wearing pajamas. Lena can only assume she had a nightmare that triggered the attack, or something along those lines.

(What she doesn't understand is why she came here.)

The kettle is ready, so Lena prepares two cups of tea and brings them to the living room.

"I'm sorry," Kara whispers as soon as Lena sits. She's still staring out the window.

Lena just shakes her head as hands Kara her mug. "Don't apologize. I just want to make sure you're alright."

"It's the middle of the night and I crashed onto your balcony," Kara protests. "And freaked you out with my . . . issues, and I can leave whenever you want me to."

"Do you want to leave?" Lena asks calmly.

"No!" Kara whips her head to look at Lena before shrinking back in embarrassment. "No. But if you need me to go, I will. Not that you should feel pressured to stay awake with me, I mean, you're a busy woman, and I don't really need that much sleep, so if I'm bothering you —"

"Kara." Lena interrupts her with hand on her knee. Blue eyes drop to the contact before snapping back up. "Stay as long as you need."

Kara lets out a sigh of relief. "Okay," she whispers.

They sit in silence while Kara stirs her tea. Lena decides she'll wait for Kara to talk, not wanting to disrupt the semi-peace they've created, or force Kara to talk when she isn't ready. So she watches Kara watch the cars driving on the street below her building, and she watches Kara press her mug into her chest, and she watches Kara and watches Kara and watches Kara —

"Sometimes," Kara interrupts the silence with a hesitant whisper. "I have a hard time believing I'm really here. That you rescuing me really happened. It, uh, feels too good to be true, sometimes."

Lena hums but doesn't speak, assuming that Kara has more to say.

She's quiet for a moment, tracing the top of her mug with her thumb, and Lena is again struck by the delicate movements of an alien that can crush cars with her bare hands. She doesn't understand how someone so powerful can be so gentle.

"I have these, these moments, where I wake up and everything is far away, and I can't seem to get my powers to work, and I feel like I'm there again, and nothing can shake me out of it." Kara clears her throat, desperation and anger leaking into her tone. "And it makes me feel crazy! I'm not there anymore! I know I'm not! So why does this keep happening to me?"

Blue eyes meet green ones, so full of fear and despair that Lena's heart breaks for her, and Kara confesses, "I think I'm at my breaking point, Lena."

Lena, not yet sure what to say, simply shifts closer and wraps her arm around Kara's shoulders. It's the clearly right move, as Kara leans in immediately, resting her head on Lena's shoulder as tears drip down her neck.

"No one expects you to be perfectly fine after what happened, okay?" Lena starts, speaking softly but firmly, leaving no room for argument. "You went through something traumatic, and that takes a toll, even for the Girl of Steel."

"But that's the problem!" Kara interrupts. "Everyone does expect me to be fine! I have a job to do and bad guys to beat and problems to solve, and no one has time for my issues. I don't get to be Kara Danvers when there's a crisis, Lena, I have to be stronger than her."

"Having trauma doesn't make you weak, Kara. And ignoring your mental health doesn't make you strong." Lena runs her hand up and down Kara's arm and Kara presses closer, eyes squeezing shut. "You can't keep everything bottled up."

Kara chokes out, "I don't know who I am if I'm not saving people. I don't know how to be Kara and Supergirl anymore. And I don't know how to fix this."

"You don't have to know, love." Lena presses a kiss to Kara's temple. "And you're not alone."

Kara doesn't reply, and instead stares out into the city. The lights dance in her eyes, and Lena thinks it's a little unfair how even now she looks ethereal, how even sleep-deprived in the dim light of her living room she looks positively golden.

"Pretty much everyone in my life sees me only as Supergirl. Even the ones who knew me as Kara Danvers first. It's always talk about missions and plans and saving the world. Even when I'm Kara, I can't escape being Supergirl." She shakes her head.

"And everyone sees me as the Supergirl from before. Before I was there, I mean. And I'm not her anymore, but I don't know who I am now. And I feel like I'm suffocating all the time, but you all need me, and I would never abandon you. But I want things to be normal again and I know that's impossible but I don't know what's left me of me after being gone and I —" Kara breaks off. She looks at Lena, eyes red-rimmed and full of distress. "— I don't think I can keep this up."

"Then don't."

Kara looks at her in confusion. "What?"

"Don't," Lena repeats. "You don't owe it to anyone, not even me, to be the same person before you were sent away." Lena is careful not to say Phantom Zone, since clearly Kara is struggling to even say it out loud. "Be different. We can figure out what that means as we go."

"We?" Kara sits up a little to look Lena in the eyes. Lena is struck by the earnestness in her eyes, the utter trust and hope in the depths of her gaze, and she can't look away.

"Together, Kara. I'll support you in whatever way you'll have me."

Kara's gaze, full of awe and truth and something, shifts down to Lena's lips and back up. Lena would be blind not to catch it. She knows, has known for a long time, that she loves Kara, is in love with Kara. She's suspected recently that Kara feels similarly, from the way their looks seem to linger and the way Kara seems to finds her in every room they enter. Lena is a patient woman, and has waited a long time for Kara to realize. She wants nothing more than to give in, to press her lips to Kara's and never stop, to ignore the outside world and fall asleep next to her best friend, to imagine a world where nothing could come between them. But Lena has much more to lose from such a high risk, so she's been sitting back, letting Kara make the first move whenever she's ready.

But now, Kara is right there.

There's a lot of reasons why she shouldn't. It's three in the morning and Kara is emotionally vulnerable and really, they should probably talk about this tomorrow. Her forehead touches Kara's and their noses brush and she can feel the shuddered exhale against her lips when her hand comes to rest on Kara's neck, and she wants this, wants Kara to kiss her, to kiss her and never stop. But —

"Kara," she whispers, and Kara blinks her eyes open.

"Lena."

"We should talk about this," Lena breathes, the air feeling suddenly charged around them.

"You're right," Kara agrees, but doesn't move away. She stays still in her position, forehead pressed to Lena's, and slides her hand onto Lena's waist. "Talking is great. I love talking."

Lena smiles and shakes her head, pulling herself reluctantly back from Kara's magnetic pull. "Kara," she says again.

"Just once," Kara breathes, voice barely above a whisper. "I just want to kiss you once and worry about the complicated stuff later. Nothing in my life makes any sense except you, Lena, you make me feel safe, you make me feel normal, you make me forget about everything that's wrong and if this ruins everything then, well, I'll figure it out, but for once in my life I want to be selfish —"

Lena cuts her off by closing the distance.

Kara tastes like peppermint tea and salt and smells like sweat and asphalt and Lena can't believe she's waited so long for this, for the biggest life-changing moment of her life. She knows, as she twists her fingers up into Kara's hair and Kara slides her hand up her side, tugging her as close as possible, that there is no coming back from this. That there will be a Before The Kiss and an After, and every second in The After will be spent craving Kara, desperately waiting to kiss her again, again, again, until they are positively intertwined. She wants Kara, wants her to crawl inside her and crack her open, wants to show Kara all her messy, broken parts after helping Kara with hers, wants her best friend to be more than that, wants this to be the last first kiss she ever has.

But Lena is nothing if not rational. She slows the kiss, slides her hand to cup Kara's cheek and pulls away softly, glowing in the aftermath of being thoroughly devoured. Kara is crying, and Lena brushes her tears away with her thumb.

"I love you," Kara confesses, voice thick with emotion. "I'm in love with you, and I have been for so long, but, Rao, Lena, I'm broken, and I don't know how to do this, I don't know how to be a person right now, I don't think I'm ready, I can't —"

"Kara," Lena interrupts. "It's okay. I understand this is hard, especially right now."

Kara shakes her head. "You deserve better than me."

"Don't I get to decide that?" Lena presses a kiss to Kara's forehead. "I love you, too, Kara Zor-El. I've waited a long time to hear you say it, and I can wait a little longer until you're ready."

"I'm sorry—" Kara chokes out. "You deserve—"

"We deserve each other, love," Lena says firmly. "When we're both ready."

Kara is silent for a moment, leaning slightly into the press of Lena's hand on her cheek. Lena smiles, and Kara smiles back, and then they're laughing, basking in the warmth they've created, settling into a slightly new normal they've started. Lena blinks and sees a vision of the future, their shared future, where she wakes up every morning next to Kara, where they get dressed in the morning together and come home together, where they save a seat for each other at every party, where Kara saves her a glass of champagne and Lena is her partner at game night. And God, she cannot wait to have that, to have Kara, but she will. For Kara, she'll wait as long as it takes. 

"We should sleep." Lena tucks a strand of hair behind Kara's ear. "I'll still want to kiss you in the morning."

Kara's eyebrows shoot straight up. "Promise?"

And Lena can't help but laugh.

"I promise."