As it turns out, tracking down and harnessing the seven all-powerful Totems that combine to make one master of reality itself is somewhat easier said than done.
In the grand scheme of safeguarding all of existence, Kara supposes this is a good thing. But when she's the one who's drawn the short straw on this impossible task, she sure doesn't have to like it.
“I don't know what I'm gonna do,” she huffs, drumming her fingers against Lena's workbench with a sigh. Sympathetic green eyes gaze up at her and Kara has to fight the urge to sink into her best friend's arms and forget about everything else for a while. She forces her mind back to the task at hand, shaking her head. “When I accessed the Totem's gauntlet at the Hague, it said I needed to inspire a hope that burns longer and brighter than the sun.”
Saying the words aloud now doesn't make them seem any less impossible than they had in the Netherlands, and Kara sighs.
“But it didn't give me a starting point like last time, and I can't afford to try and fail, I mean—” She shakes her head, as if that will help shake the ugly memories away. “You saw how bad things got when I didn't pass the courage gauntlet.”
Warm green eyes are still gazing at her in understanding, in expectation, and Kara wrenches herself out from beneath the weight of her failings and back to the crisis of the hour. It's easy, it's so easy to get lost in Lena. But now is not the time.
“I try to provide people with hope all the time— what can I do differently now?”
The petulant tone of her voice is grating even to her own ears but hey, okay, she's the freaking Paragon of hope. She's singlehandedly overcome Myriad's mind control, the legacy of red Kryptonite, Obsidian North's VR stranglehold, by inspiring people to believe. Yet now, now she can't conjure one measly bit of faith? It's not fair. If she was going to have a shot with any of the Totems, this one should have been a shoo-in.
Lena huffs out the faintest hint of a chuckle. “Well on the bright side, if it's a race between you and Nyxly to provide hope for a Hope Totem, I know where my money's going.”
She smiles a little, the lines of her face softening, and something about the depth of compassion in her eyes stills the anxious roiling of Kara's stomach for just a moment. It’s a shame the gauntlet isn't about finding her own source of hope, Kara muses absently. Because she's got that right in front of her.
Kara returns her smile, practically a reflex at this point, then sighs as the hopelessness of it all hits her once more. She sags against the side of the workbench, barely resisting the urge to throw herself dramatically across its surface.
Lena quirks an eyebrow like she knows exactly what Kara wants to do, and is just daring her to try. Kara shuffles her feet, cowed, and Lena shakes her head fondly.
“A burning hope?” she repeats, low and thoughtful, fingertips tapping against her chin as she considers.
Kara tugs a despairing hand through her hair. "Longer and brighter than the sun.” Stupid gauntlet and its stupid flowery language. God forbid any of the challenges en route to dominion over everything in existence be straightforward.
Lena gazes at her another long moment, green eyes arresting and impenetrable, and then she's pushing back on her stool, rounding the table to stand before her. She steps close, right into her space, and Kara feels her breathing hitch.
"What— what are you doing?” she stammers as Lena's hands come up, fingers fluttering against her collarbone.
“I have an idea of how you might beat this gauntlet,” Lena hums, a corner of her mouth quirking as Kara's cheeks flush scarlet, her palms beginning to sweat. Soft hands slip round to the back of Kara's neck, fingers linking at her nape, and she just barely manages to restrain a full-body shiver at the sensation.
"But, um. What?” she manages eloquently as Lena's hip presses against her pelvis, the lengths of their bodies slotting together.
Lena arches one perfect brow. “Well, I'm not going to fly myself to the Hague, am I?”
“Oh. Oh.” Kara's fairly certain she's swallowed her own tongue by this point, but that's not exactly an essential body part for flying, so she doesn't dwell. She just loops one arm across Lena's lower back, stooping to slip the other beneath her thighs and then Lena's cradled in her arms, chin tilted against her shoulder, fingers toying with the fine baby curls at the base of her skull.
She straightens, shifting her precious cargo more comfortably in her grip, which is a mistake as it turns out because the motion puts her face to face with Lena, the tips of their noses almost brushing.
"Alright, then,” Lena whispers, all soft lips and laughing eyes and sweet breath tickling her cheek. “Take me away, Supergirl.”
The conference room is deserted when they arrive in the Hague. This is good, in that it means there's no one around to witness this if things go south. It is also bad, in that it means that negotiations between the delegates have broken down and they've likely devolved into punching each other in alleyways, but. One problem at a time.
“You really are a very efficient method of transportation,” Lena muses as Kara sets her gently back on her feet. "Next time we've had a particularly long day at the Tower, do you think you could shoot me over to the Maldives for an evening on the beach?”
“Sure,” Kara manages, mind definitively not mere seconds from combusting beneath the mental image of Lena in a bikini. “Whatever you want.”
Lena smiles at her, a bright, beautiful smile, and turns to survey the room.
“Alright, where's this Totem?” she asks, hands stacking on her hips in a move eerily reminiscent of Kara's own Supergirl stance. The sight sends a thrill of warmth down the length of her spine.
She stands quietly while Lena appraises the carved flower of Elpis, fighting the urge to shuffle her feet. After a long moment Lena straightens decisively, holding out a hand. “Okay. Let's do this.”
"Do what?” Kara asks, even as she reaches out and tangles their fingers together anyway. “I have no idea what we're doing.”
"Just put your other hand on the Totem,” Lena says calmly, manoeuvring them so they're facing one another directly in front of the carving. Kara does, feeling the stone warm beneath her skin. Lena reaches out, wrapping her free palm around where their fingers are already linked together, both her hands cradling Kara's.
Lena's eyes are fixed on her own feet, scuffing against the parquet floor. She takes a deep breath as she raises her head, their gazes meeting with a jolt of sudden intensity. “Okay, I have no idea if this is going to work,” she starts, teeth worrying absently at her bottom lip. “And if it doesn't, well. You're not allowed to laugh, and we'll never speak of it again. Deal?”
Despite herself, despite the seriousness of the situation, Kara smiles. “Deal.”
“Okay. Okay.” Lena seems like she's steeling herself, working up her nerve, and Kara squeezes the fingers threaded through her own in gentle encouragement.
“Okay,” Lena says again. “Kara. When you described the Hope Totem's gauntlet, all I could think was that it makes no sense for it to ask you to do something you've already done so many times before. And then I thought, maybe it can't be in the past, maybe you have to prove yourself anew, but— well, what about something you're already doing?”
Kara can feel her own brow furrow. “What do you mean?”
“I mean—” Lena sucks in a sharp breath through her teeth. “I mean, what if you're already inspiring a hope that burns longer and brighter than the sun? What if— what if you have been all along?”
Kara feels her stomach tighten. She thinks she might know where this is going. “Lena—”
“Kara.” The hands around hers tighten. “Let me say this. Let me try.”
She acquiesces with a wordless nod, heart thrumming fast as a hummingbird's in her chest.
Lena swallows, tongue darting out to wet her lips. “You are my hope, Kara,” she whispers, quiet in the cavernous hall. “You have been since the day I met you. You've saved me, supported me, encouraged me more times and in more ways than I can count. You've inspired me to be a better person, you— you've brought light to the darkness of my days.”
The lump in Kara's throat swells until it's all-encompassing, tears prickling the corners of her eyes. She holds fast to Lena's hand, an anchor in the storm, and wills herself to keep it together.
“And even, even when things were bad between us, you were still—” Lena chokes off, throat working, but keeps their gazes locked. “That belief never faltered. Everything I did— I went about it completely wrong, I know, but everything I did was to try and make the world a better place. Because— because you gave me hope that I could, that a goal like that was possible. That it was worth fighting for.”
There's a roaring in Kara's ears that's probably got something to do with the way her heart is throwing itself against her ribs like a caged beast, longing to be free.
When Lena speaks again, it's so quiet it's barely a sound at all.
“Here's the truth,” she breathes, and they both pretend not to notice the way her voice is trembling. Green eyes glitter with unshed tears. "When I lose my way, lose my hope, lose myself, I think of you. I think of you, and I find the strength to keep going. Because when I have nothing else, I have this.” Lena's hands squeeze hers again, deliberate and unmistakeable. Two diamond tears track their way down her cheeks, and she smiles. “That feels a lot like burning hope to me.”
The silence that follows in the wake of her words feels holy.
“Lena,” she whispers, because nothing else comes close.
“It's okay,” Lena manages, still smiling even as her breathing shudders, even as more tears spill hot down the curve of her cheek. “It's okay. Just try it now. Try the Totem.”
Heart in her throat, pulse howling in her ears, Kara reminds herself why they're here. Keeping a tight grip on Lena's fingers with one hand, she flexes the other against the smooth stone carving. Sucks in a deep breath, lets it out in a shiver. “Cgyrzyx.”
For a moment, nothing happens. Lena's fingers tighten around her own, nails digging into her skin. And then, a flash of glowing, electric blue.
You have performed admirably, booms the disembodied voice in her ears as the Hope Totem materialises in her palm.
Later, after she's faced down Nyxly, after she and William have wrangled back the Courage and Humanity Totems and they're sitting side by side with the Hope crystal in their neat little energy-dampening cases, she looks for Lena.
She finds her, as is so often the case these days, curled up on a couch in a cosy corner of the Tower. Heels kicked off, hair pulled back in a messy bun at the nape of her neck, she looks so soft and inviting huddled inside her oversized knit cardigan that Kara can't resist the temptation to pull her close for a too-quick hug as she settles in beside her.
They split Korean takeout – if an 80:20 ratio can be considered splitting – and discuss the endless controversies in the most recent episode of Bake Off that they'd binged, and it's so familiar and comforting that Kara almost forgets they're in the midst of a quest to prevent total world annihilation.
But when they fall into a comfortable silence, bent legs brushing, she sees the lines of worry carving themselves into Lena's face, the exhaustion behind her eyes.
“Hey, thanks,” she murmurs, nudging Lena's knee with her own. “For today, I mean. I wouldn't have gotten the Hope Totem without you.”
I wouldn't have gotten anywhere at all without you, is what she means but doesn't say. For now, she knows it. That's enough.
Lena only smiles, ducking her head so a loose strand of hair falls into her face. Kara's fingers twitch with the urge to smooth it back.
“I didn't do anything.”
“Lena,” Kara chastises lightly, but she knows better than to try and convince her best friend of her own worth when she's firmly entrenched in her self-deprecation, so she doesn't say anything more. Just shuffles a little closer, nudging until Lena's bent shins rest against the tops of her thighs.
"Hey,” she hums, leaning her temple against the back of the couch, eyes fixed on the woman in front of her. “Why did you think I might laugh, today? Why did you say we could never talk about it again, if it didn't work?”
Lena's cheeks flush a mouth-watering pink. Her hands come up to cover them, pressing herself back into the cushions as she huffs out a chuckle. “Because it's embarrassing!” she mutters, peeking out at Kara through her fingers. “I just spilled a whole emotional waterfall on you with no warning. I mean, it did work, so I guess it was worth it, but if it hadn't— God, it was ridiculous. So stupid.”
“What? No,” Kara protests, reaching out to tug Lena's hands away from her face. “It wasn't stupid at all, it was—”
Beautiful, she thinks, heart somersaulting in her chest. Mind-blowing. One hundred per cent reciprocated.
"—what I needed,” she manages at last, squeezing the hands in hers. “It was exactly what I needed.”
Lena shakes her head, still blushing. This time, Kara doesn't fight when she pulls her hands back, pressing them to the warmth of her cheeks again. She's frozen, her own words ricocheting around the inside of her skull like a bazooka, hitting a billion little lightbulbs on its way.
“Exactly what I needed,” she mumbles again, squinting into the middle distance. “I wonder—”
She's up and moving across the room before Lena can even lament the loss of warmth, retrieving the ancient slingshot from its protective cage and crossing back to the couch again.
A time when your courage failed, she thinks as she holds the Courage Totem reverently in her palms.
Green eyes blink up at her curiously. “I have an idea,” Kara mutters. “I'm not sure, but maybe—”
She focuses in on her best friend again, lets the sight of Lena fill her up. Takes in the soft frizzy curls at her temples, the faint echo of laughter lines at the corners of her eyes. Lets the feelings that always accompany her proximity to this woman – devotion, regret, heartbreak, love – build inside her chest until they're all she feels, all she knows.
She looks at Lena like she's the only thing in her universe. It's not so far from the truth.
A crackle of sharp, electric blue, and then everything goes dark.
Kara opens her eyes to a field.
It's a field she's been in before. Lined with bare trees and banks of low cloud, the wet grass still holds the imprint of the Kryptonian pod that had been here just moments before. Kara lifts her hands to her own cheeks, pulls them away wet.
Rain, she thinks, blinking the droplets from her lashes. Rain, and tears. Mon-El. She's just said goodbye.
The force of the grief hits her like a tidal wave, the loss of the last living relic of the life she'd once known and all her hope along with it cracking her ribs, hewing her open.
She's flying before she's made the conscious decision, desperate to get away. Kara remembers this, remembers doing this, five years ago. Or rather, she remembers not remembering. Not knowing what she'd needed until she had it. Not knowing where she was going until she was already there.
She lands on L-Corp's balcony without a sound. Perches on the high concrete pillar at the edge of the railing, legs swinging out over empty air.
Lena is there. Of course Lena is there, her heartbeat thudding out like a homing beacon so powerful Kara had followed it even through her haze of incognisant agony. She leans against the railing, profile silhouetted by the dying light, whiskey glass dangling precariously from her fingertips. When Kara lands, she doesn't turn.
"They're gone, then.”
Something about the way Lena says the words, the pain and self-loathing rooting through them, scratches at Kara like an itch beneath the skin.
She blinks the lingering tears from her vision, bringing up a hand to the hollow of her throat where her mother's necklace once lay. Her fingertips brush empty skin, and she shudders.
“Yes, they're gone,” she manages in Supergirl's tone, Supergirl's cadence, speaking words she's spoken before. It's a pre-written script, flowing from her lips without the need for conscious thought. “Every Daxamite ship has left Earth's atmosphere. The invasion is over, thanks to you.”
Lena snorts, a harsh, derisive sound. “Hardly.”
Kara's brow furrows without instruction, her body moving on autopilot through a scene she's played out before. “What do you mean, Ms Luthor?” she asks, careful to keep her voice quiet in the hush of the impending darkness, to keep her eyes fixed on the city. “You helped S— me save the world.”
“Only after I brought the Daxamites here in the first place, all but handed them National City on a silver platter,” Lena says lowly, and the self-flagellation in her voice is so evident that Kara’s fingers twitch with the urge to reach out. She clenches them into fists, as she has so many times before.
“You couldn’t have known—”
“No,” Lena half-laughs, but there’s no joy behind it. “So everyone keeps telling me.”
She takes another sip from the glass dangling loosely from her fingertips. “And it would be fine, you know? I'd be able to come to terms with it, but when my device saved this city it broke my best friend’s heart. I sent the man she loves away, and she's going to hate me for it. I don't— I don't think she'll ever forgive me.”
Lena cuts herself off with a sigh. Kara’s stomach bottoms out. This, this is something she hasn't missed in the years since the final reveal of her identity. These moments in which the two halves of her, Kara Danvers and Supergirl, had clashed so sharply she'd felt the reverberations to her very core.
And always, always because of Lena. Everything, really, has always been because of Lena.
“I’m no stranger to being alone, Supergirl,” the woman in question says suddenly, interrupting Kara’s thoughts. “Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not looking for pity.” The young CEO’s face twists into a bitter smile. “I suppose I had— let myself get used to friendship again. Always harder to get back on the wagon once you’ve had a taste, right?”
Kara's heart, already broken, shatters into dust. She remembers this night, this talk. Remembers this pain, these slick coiling ropes of guilt and regret. This is why she's here, she realises. This is the reason.
Lena clears her throat, ducking her head. “God, I’m sorry. Forget I said any of that. Scotch has been known to make me melodramatic on occasion.” She lets out a quiet exhale, eyes down. “The city’s safe now, thanks to you. That’s what matters.”
And this, this is so Lena that Kara almost wants to cry. Pushing down her own pain, hiding it, focusing on the greater good. She watches the neutral CEO mask slip back over Lena’s expression, and Kara aches.
She knows what comes next. Knows the script by heart; feels the words already pushing against her teeth.
Well, I would say your friend is very lucky to have you, Ms Luthor, she'll just about manage around the lump in her throat. She'll tilt her head, catching the gaze of those green eyes for the first time. I would say we all are. This city, myself included.
And Lena will smile, and it won't reach her eyes. And Kara will fly away from the weight of the lies she's told, her own half-hearted platitudes still ringing in her ears. She won't see Lena again for almost two months, cocooned as she is inside the shell of her own pain, oblivious to the outside world. And when they do fall back together, there will always be that undercurrent of wariness in Lena's gaze. That kernel of doubt that screams you left me, once. How do I know you won't do it again?
This is it, she realises. All things being equal, this is the moment she should have told Lena the truth.
Before this, it had been too early. The secret, her secret, is not one she shares lightly. But when Lena moved from acquaintance to best friend, when she cemented her place in Kara's life and in her heart, Kara began to owe her honesty more than she'd ever owed herself secrecy.
Only yesterday, yesterday, she'd stood beside Cat Grant staring up at the Daxamite ships hovering above the city, and she'd looked her boss in the eye and said two people I love are trapped on that ship and if we destroy it, then they're destroyed too. And that— that would break my heart.
And it was the truth. She'd loved Mon-El, and now he's gone. She loves Lena, too; has admitted that much to herself at this point in her own timeline. She loves Lena, and Lena is still here, and this is when she should have been brave enough to be honest.
Every moment she'd spent with Lena since had been a moment in which her courage had failed.
Kara takes a deep breath. Pushes off the pillar to stand beside her at the railing.
“Lena,” she says, before she can chicken out. Two perfect eyebrows shoot upwards, surprised by the sudden lack of formality but Kara can't even bring herself to say it, can't Ms Luthor a woman she knows better than her own heartbeat. Not now.
"Lena,” she says again, turning so they're face to face, hips propped against the frosted glass. “Kara doesn't hate you. She never has. I don't think she's capable of it.”
She steps closer, proximity without contact.
“You don't know that,” Lena whispers, whiskey-slack and tremulous. “You can't know that.”
“I can.” She rolls back the sleeve of her suit a little, slides the hair tie from her wrist. Gathers her rain-damp curls into a ponytail, secures it with a sharp snap. “I do.”
“Oh my God,” Lena breathes, the wine stain of her lips a perfect o in the darkness. “Oh God. Kara?”
“It's me, Lena,” she whispers, heart pounding so heavily in her chest she fears she might vomit. “I'm Kara. She's— I'm Supergirl.”
“All this time,” Lena murmurs, face a blank canvas of shock. “All this time you were really—”
She swallows. “I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner. I'm sorry I didn't tell you from the start.”
But Lena waves her away. Her hands are trembling so violently that the whiskey glass slips from her fingers. Kara catches it before it can shatter, depositing it safely on the ground.
“No, I don't care, I—” Lena's face twists, apprehension clouding her features. “But, Mike. Mon-El. Kara, I— I'm so sorry. I'm so, so sorry.”
"Lena.” She reaches out at last, finds Lena's shaking hands with her own. “You have nothing to apologise for. There is nothing to forgive.”
Lena only stares up at her, eyes wide and disbelieving. “You don't— you don't hate me?”
Kara absorbs the question like a knife to the chest, jagged and biting. "Never,” she breathes, using the hands still in hers to pull Lena into her arms. She comes willingly, clutching at the material of Kara's suit with a tangible wonder.
"Never,” she says again, a vehemence bordering on violence. “Not in this world, this lifetime, or any other. Do you understand me? Never.”
"Kara,” Lena sobs, tears hot and liquor-sweet against her skin. “Kara. Thank you. Thank you for telling me.”
And then the whole world burns electric blue, and the warmth of Lena against her chest fades back into the expansive nothingness of the universe.
You have performed admirably is the last thing she hears before everything is darkness once more.
When she opens her eyes again the first thing she sees are Lena's, wide and worried. She's leaning towards her, hands braced on Kara's knees, mouth forming sounds she can't yet hear.
“Are you alright?” is the first thing that filters in past the ringing in her ears and Kara nods, blinking hard. She looks down. There, in the centre of her palm that only a moment ago held a centuries-old slingshot, is the glowing red crystal of the Courage Totem.
Lena follows her line of sight, breath whistling sharply through her teeth. “You passed it?” she asks softly, gaze searching. “How?”
Kara swallows. She can still taste the coolness of the night air, smell the bite of scotch on Lena's breath, feel the warmth of her in her arms. “It was different. The gauntlet was different.”
Lena's hands are still on her thighs, thumbs sweeping the inner edges of her kneecaps. “What did it show you?”
She looks up at her then, looks straight into Lena's eyes. Sees the years of their relationship laid out before her, the highest highs and lowest lows like waves cresting and breaking toward the inevitable shore. Sees the heartbreak and pain and betrayal inflicted by her secret, the wounds that will scar but may never fully disappear.
How can she look Lena in the eye and tell her how much simpler it could have been for both of them, if only Kara had been braver from the start? How can she tell her that all the misery inflicted by her failed attempts at cracking this gauntlet could have been avoided, if only she'd had Lena by her side since the beginning?
How can she tell Lena – Lena, who looks at her sometimes like Kara singlehandedly lifts the sun from beneath the horizon each morning – that her suffering, that all this suffering, is Kara's fault?
How can she tell her how easy it could have been?
She can't bear to do it. But. But. She will never, she's vowed. She will never lie to Lena again.
“I don't know how to, um, it took me, like, it was— I can't, I don't—”
Kara's chest feels too tight suddenly, ribcage crumbling beneath the weight of her regret, the yoke of her mistakes dragging her down, down, down.
“Alright, hey, it's okay,” Lena hums and then she's reaching out, pulling Kara into her. “Breathe, Kara. You don't have to tell me about the gauntlet. You passed it. That's all that matters.”
She lets herself fall into Lena, lets herself be wrapped up and held and soothed until the thudding bass of her heart downgrades to a less frenetic beat.
“I'm not trying to lie to you,” she mumbles, face smooshed against the softness of Lena's cardigan-covered shoulder. “I'm not keeping secrets again, I swear, I just—”
“I know, I know that,” Lena soothes, gentle hands rubbing Kara's back over and over, tracing the dip between her shoulder blades. “Darling, of course I don't want you to lie to me, but that doesn't mean you're obligated to tell me anything you're not comfortable sharing, okay? Not ever.”
“I do want to tell you,” she whispers, reluctant to pull her face away from the comforting darkness of its warm cradle. “I want to, soon.”
“Whenever you're ready,” Lena says, soft and reassuring. "What was it that old Kryptonian crone said to us? That the gauntlet would make you pay a terrible emotional price?”
Lena's voice drops low in a cackling approximation of Vita's unidentifiable accent, and Kara can't help but giggle into her shoulder.
Lena's voice turns serious again, fingertips skating the archipelago of Kara's spine. “You deal with that however you have to, Kara. Take your time. I'm not going anywhere.”
Kara rolls her head until her cheek rests atop Lena's shoulder. Is reminded suddenly of another time, another couch and another embrace and another whispered vow just like this. “Promise?”
She thinks Lena might be remembering too, because her grip on Kara's shoulders tightens just a fraction. “I promise.”
A calmer kind of quiet enshrouds them like a blanket, soft and warm and comforting. Kara lets herself stay tucked up beside Lena, lets the unwavering thrum of blood through her veins ground her, steady her.
“You don't have to talk about it if you don't want,” Lena says a while later, cheek pressed to the crown of Kara's head as she traces light fingernails up and down her bicep. “But why do you think it changed? Why give you a different gauntlet?”
Kara considers the question for a moment. Thinks of the relief in gauntlet-Lena's eyes when she finally told her the truth. Thinks of how it loosened something tight and strangling inside her own chest, made her feel like she was floating on air. Like, with Lena by her side, fully and completely, she could do anything.
“I don't know,” she hums, nuzzling a little harder into the warmth of Lena's skin. “Maybe it knew that some things are more important to me than the night I became Supergirl. Maybe— maybe my priorities have changed.”
Lena hums, accepting her cryptic half-answer without pushing for clarification. At length she disentangles them, scooting forward to sweep their empty takeout containers into the bag.
“Come on, let's go home,” she says around a soft smile. “Want to stay at mine? I've got Goldfish snacks.”
And Kara nods, and pushes up from the couch to deposit the newly materialised Courage Totem into its protective container, and doesn't bother mentioning that the bribe is completely unnecessary. That she hadn't for one second so much as considered the existence of a home that didn't automatically have Lena in it.
She just takes the hand that's proffered, presses the barest of kisses against Lena's knuckles, and follows her best friend out the door.
With the Courage and Hope gauntlets vanquished and the Humanity Totem safe in its protective case, their attention turns to the Dream Totem. Nia heads home to Parthas to search for it, leaving an anxious Brainy to rattle around the Tower in the intervals between each of her texts, driving the rest of them crazy.
“Jeez, Brainy, enough already,” Kara snaps after the third time he drops his soldering iron onto various flammable desk detritus, blowing a hurried blast of freeze breath over the sparks before they can reach Lena's fingers. “I know you're worried about your girlfriend, but you've got to cool it a little.”
The Coluan pouts, snatching his soldering iron back and stabbing it aggressively into its cradle. “I have to say that's pretty rich, coming from you,” he grumbles into his motherboard, and Karra's brow furrows. “You moped around the DEO for an entire year without Lena, but two days of my concern for Nia is too much for you?”
Kara freezes, cheeks heating, intimately aware of the bright green eyes that flash to her face in surprise. She stoutly avoids Lena's gaze, shuffling an assortment of random scientific objects around on the desk. “That's— that's completely different.”
Brainy slaps the back of her hand, rescuing his CPU chip from her fiddling fingers. “It's exactly the same. Only, you were more annoying.”
“Completely different,” Kara mutters under her breath, decidedly not transfixed by the barely-there quirk of Lena's pink lips, and promptly decides to change the subject.
Aside from Brainy's nervous fretting, they actually manage to pass a relatively calm few days free from life-or-death battles or universe-annihilating ultimatums. Kara spends her time prepping interviews for Catco, scanning for Nyxly's ship in the Tower, and generally living her life.
She pitches new article ideas to Andrea, takes Esme flying, eats twelve pizzas at sister night and spends every other evening binge-watching Schitt's Creek with Lena.
For a hot second, things actually feel good and safe and normal. Naturally, it's only a matter of time before it all comes crashing down.
Nia returns after five days with the news that she'd found the Dream Totem. Found it, fought Nyxly for it, and lost it.
And just like that, the gut-churning, stomach-clenching anxiety that's plagued Kara since her return from the Phantom Zone comes rushing back full force.
The knowledge that her greatest enemy is now in possession of what might well be the most powerful individual Totem, that there's not even a gauntlet for Nyxly to overcome before she can wield it, is all but incapacitating.
It drives her crazy. Kara barely eats, barely sleeps. Spends every moment in the Tower, in the lab or at the control panel, searching for Nyxly, trying to parse out her next move.
Together with the rest of the Superfriends they concoct a plan to create a fake Love Totem intended to lure Nyxly out, to contain her in Lena's proto-trap. It almost works, too. They almost have Nyxly, Dream Totem and all, right where they want her.
And then, like a summoned demon, a waiting devil, Lex Luthor appears.
The gasp that forces its way from Kara's lungs is mirrored by the rest of the Superfriends. Alex growls low in her throat and Brainy lets out an anguished cry that prickles the hairs on the back of Kara's neck, but it's Lena her eyes seek out.
In the shadow of the trees at the edge of the clearing Lena is frozen, her face a mask of blank horror. One arm still grips her mother's spellbook to her chest, the other hand extended before her, and even from this distance Kara can see that her fingers are trembling.
"Miss me, sis?” Lex leers at her and just that, the slick violence of the glee he finds in his sister's suffering, is enough to boil Kara's blood.
Ice builds in her throat as fire builds behind her eyes and Kara is a split second away from incinerating the man where he stands when Lex smirks, one finger extended to hit a button on his suit gauntlet.
Then there's a flash, an explosion tinged sickly green, and everything goes dark.
The next thing she knows, she's opening her eyes to the comforting glow of artificial sunlight.
Kara struggles upright, wincing. A hand lands soft on her elbow. “You’re awake, thank God,” Lena breathes, rounding the sunbed towards her. Her face is pale, dark curls falling haphazardly from her messy bun. “How are you feeling?”
Kara swings her legs over the edge of the bed, pressing the heel of her palm to her forehead. “I'm fine. I'm fine.” She blinks her eyes open to squint at Lena. “Are you okay?”
Lena's gaze drops, fingers fiddling anxiously with nothing as she props her hip against the edge of the sunbed beside Kara's thigh. “I'm not the one who just got blasted by her greatest weakness,” she says around a self-deprecating little chuckle, jutting her chin in the direction of the Kryptosuit.
But Kara hasn't known this woman for so long, hasn't loved her for so long only to let her get away with such blatantly halfhearted evasive manoeuvres.
“Lena.” She waits until green eyes meet her own, leaning closer so their shoulders brush. “We just faced off with Lex.”
At the sound of his name Lena shivers, then tries to pretend that she hasn't.
Kara shuffles closer on the gurney so the length of Lena's arm presses against her own, their bodies at right angles to one another. Lena sighs, fidgeting hands dropping to rest atop Kara's bent thighs.
“I thought I was done with him,” she whispers, barely audible over Kara's lingering Kryptonite-induced headache. “I really— I truly thought I would never have to see him again, if you can believe it. I thought he was gone.”
“I know. I know. I'm so sorry.” The words feel paltry in the face of all Lena's suffered at the hands of her brother. She reaches out, finding Lena's cool fingers and twining tight.
“He won't hurt you again,” Kara whispers and Lena's breath shudders out of her, the proud line of her shoulders caving. Their bodies soften, drawn toward one another like opposing magnets. Lena's forehead tilts against Kara's temple, eyelashes fluttering against her cheekbone. Kara's heart aches. “I promise I will do everything in my power to make sure he can never hurt you again.”
Lena only nods, swallowing thickly, the anxious thud of her pulse rattling through them both.
“I almost had him,” Kara hums, silky hair tickling her cheek. “Almost. I would have lit him up like a firecracker if it weren't for that dang Kryptonite grenade.”
Lena huffs out a shaky chuckle, wrapping her fingers a little tighter through Kara's. “So inconsiderate of him.”
“Honestly,” Kara quips, shaking her head as a flimsy excuse to nuzzle her cheek against the crown of Lena's head. “Incredibly impolite. I'll be sure to leave him a scathing review on Yelp.”
Lena sucks in a sharp breath through her teeth. “Shit. That'll show him. He may never recover.”
A hush falls over the med bay as they breathe quietly together, Lena's pounding pulse at last beginning to slow. “How are you, really?” Kara asks at length, voice quiet in an effort to preserve their temporary bubble of peace. “You know— I hope you know you can talk to me, if you want.”
“I do,” Lena reassures and her voice sounds stronger already. “I'm okay, really. It was a shock to see him last night, but we've beaten my brother before and we'll do it again. I'm just glad you're alright. You're okay, so I'm okay.”
“Of course I'm okay,” Kara hums, slipping one hand free of Lena's to wrap it around her shoulders, pulling her in for a brief half-hug. “You healed me.”
Lena clicks her tongue, pressing close for a beat before pulling away, mouth quirking into the shadow of a smile. “Science healed you.”
She shrugs. “Potato, po-tah-to.”
Lena shakes her head fondly and Kara tugs on the fingers still intertwined with her own. “Hey, we're gonna face this together. You know that, right?” She dips her chin, eyes locking with Lena's. “Your brother, and all of it. You're not alone.”
The smile that pulls at Lena's lips is heavy with something Kara can't quite decipher, curious and captivating in equal measure.
“I know,” Lena breathes, and then she's bobbing up on her toes and nudging the barest of kisses to Kara's pink-flushed cheek. “El mayarah.”
After endless hours of frustrated failures, Nia charges into the control room where the rest of the team has gathered to scan for Lex and Nyxly and announces that she's managed to dream the location of the Love Totem.
Kara barely has time to throw a quick nod and a smile in Lena's direction as her Kryptosuit helmet materialises in front of her face before she's flying, Alex and J’onn at her side.
They touch down in Lisbon, scouting out the cathedral that houses the grave of Ines de Castro cautiously. The church is deserted and Kara's almost made it to the round pink engraving on the front of the tomb, has almost convinced herself that just for once, things might actually be easy, when Nyxly materialises before her in a shimmer of white energy.
The imp makes a beeline for the Love Totem without even stopping to gloat and Kara's heart sinks all the way to the bottom of her Lena Luthor-designed thigh-high boots. But just as Nyxly's fingertips are about to make contact with the smooth pink stone, the Love Totem disappears.
Nyxly whips round, face twisting in fury. “Where'd it go?” she shrieks, glaring at each of them in turn. “What the hell did you do?”
Kara, for her part, is just as confused as the imp. But, thanks to her blacked-out visor, Nyxly doesn't need to know that.
“You'll never get the Love Totem,” Kara yells even as Brainy's harried voice through her comms informs them that he has no idea what's just happened or how to remedy it. “Give it up, Nyxly! You can't win this!”
The imp's eyes darken, unbridled rage flashing across her features and then she's pressing the watch at her wrist, a green grey Lexosuit gauntlet materialising around her forearm. Even the sight of it is enough to make Kara's stomach drop and she braces herself for Lex's imminent appearance, registers Alex and J’onn readying the proto-trap at her back.
But, as it turns out, the threat is much closer to home.
Nyxly raises her gauntlet, and for the first time Kara catches sight of the Dream Totem glowing midnight blue at her wrist.
Her response is little more than a reflex; she doesn't even have time to think. Before she's made the conscious decision, the twin beacons of her smouldering laser vision hit the crystal full force.
The lasers refract with the high, keening sound of sheared metal and then she and Nyxly are both on the ground, the Dream Totem clattering loose and unencumbered across the stones between them.
They both lunge for it at the same moment. Kara's fingers strain, barely a hair's breadth from their goal when a preternatural chill envelops her even through the sturdy material of her Kryptosuit. Her breaths fog cold against the inside of her visor and she knows without seeing her own reflection that her eyes are hazing milk-white beneath her frosted lashes.
Phantoms. There are phantoms here.
The air splits around the sound of the phantom's call; a thin, desolate ringing, the gaping maw at the end of existence. Fear wraps its fingers around Kara's windpipe as her body locks up, immobilised by the frigid numbness that heralds the phantom's arrival.
She's back there. She's all the way back there in the Phantom Zone watching creation burn around her. Watching her worst nightmares play out over and over before her waking eyes, never ceasing, never easing, never relenting.
She's back in a place worse than death, and nothing can save her now.
J’onn's voice. But how?
“It's only a nightmare,” he calls, from somewhere far beyond this godforsaken place. “From the Dream Totem.”
Kara's brow furrows, ice crystals crunching against her skin.
“You're dreaming, Supergirl!” Alex's voice next, and the barest flicker of warmth flares to life in Kara's chest.
“You can fight this!” her sister calls from the other side of the universe. “It's not real. It's only a nightmare, and you can wake up!”
As if from deep underwater, she hears Nyxly scream. “Brother,” she begs, a wail of pure desperation. “Brother, please!”
Brother, Kara thinks. Nyxly is dreaming. And if Nyxly is dreaming, perhaps she is too. The kernel of heat glows brighter for a moment.
But then the phantom is there, it's there, right in front of her. Nails like blocks of ice trace the column of her spinal cord and she writhes in the phantom's grip as everything warm and good and lovely leaches from the world as surely as sunlight leaches into black at the end of each day.
There's shouting all around her, yelling and screaming and a great infernal howling that drowns out all sense and reason. But then through it all, through the noise and the panic and the paralysis of terror, there's a voice.
“Kara,” Lena whispers and she's not far away, dulled through water and glass and galaxies upon galaxies like Alex and J’onn. She's quiet and close, right there in Kara’s ear.
“Lena,” she whimpers and the fear only ratchets up a notch at the thought that Lena is here, here with her, trapped with her, suffering with her.
“Listen to my voice,” Lena says, firm but soft, gentle without yielding. “Focus on me. The Dream Totem has thrown you into a nightmare but it's not real, I promise. I promise you're safe.”
“I'm so cold,” she gasps, teeth chattering so loudly Lena must be able to hear it too. “It's so cold here, all alone.”
“I know, darling, I know,” Lena coos, her voice so close that Kara cannot believe she can't feel the exhale against her skin, the whisper of breath over the shell of her ear. “But you're not alone, Kara. I'm here. I'm right here with you. We're going to get you out of this, together.”
"Together,” Kara parrots numbly, trembling limbs curling in tighter.
“Together,” Lena repeats, and at her sure tone that glimmer of warmth reignites behind Kara's breastbone. “So just listen to me, darling. Listen to my voice. The things you're seeing right now, the fear you're feeling, that's the Dream Totem's doing. It's not real.”
“Not real.” Kara's lips form the shape of the words without sound. A clawed talon slices through her vision, the pallid death-grey of the phantoms’ rotting flesh, and she flinches.
“Shall I tell you what is real?” Lena is still here, still talking. Lena isn't afraid of the phantoms.
“I'll tell you,” she says decisively. “I'm sitting here in the Tower, Kara, and I'm looking at the drawings Esme made for us the other day. They're pinned to the edge of all our monitors, remember? You helped me stick them up there.”
At Lena's words, another image blooms to life in Kara's field of vision, more vivid than the frozen haze of the Phantom Zone. She sees her niece's bright pencil strokes, her own yellow hair and Lena's sharp green eyes. Sees Aunt Lena, Aunt Kara, love Esme in wobbly black script, the es written backwards. She sees the drawings tacked to the bank of screens, feels the warmth of Lena's skin against her own as their hands meet, reaching to secure the top corners.
“She's quite the artist,” Lena hums, feather-soft and weightless as sunlight against her ear. The spark in Kara's chest burns brighter. “She's going to be amazing at pottery-making. We're taking her tomorrow morning, remember? You and me, for Aunties’ Day.”
Aunties’ Day, Kara thinks, remembering the way her niece had stacked tiny fists on her hips as she'd demanded a scheduled weekly timeslot with her favourite aunts.
“That's real, Kara.” Lena's voice buoys the warmth of her memories, fanning the embers within her ribcage into flickers, into flames.
“I'm reaching out right now, touching the paper with my fingers,” Lena tells her. “I can feel the waxy crayons, feel the dents of Esme's pencil strokes. It's left a smudge of blue on my fingertip. That's what's real.”
She hears Lena inhale, can almost see the flutter of her lashes, the press of teeth against her bottom lip. “We're real. Esme, and me, and you, and pottery-making tomorrow morning. And you're going to accidentally crack at least three pots that we'll have to hide, and Esme's going to get paint all over her clothes even though she'll be wearing an apron, and I'm going to take both of you to get crepes at that place by the water that you love and we'll all be covered in chocolate and clay and powdered sugar and you're going to be happy, Kara. So happy that the Phantom Zone won't be anything but a distant memory.”
Heat is cutting through the phantom's chill like sunlight through cloud. She can see the picture Lena is painting with her words, can smell the paint and hear the laughter and taste the sugary dough. It's real, Lena says it is. It's real, it's real, it's real.
“Don't let the phantoms take anything else from you,” Lena whispers, hushed and earnest. “This is your life, your reality, your happiness. Don't let them take it. Reject the nightmare, Kara. Wake up.”
The flames inside her build until a bonfire roars in her chest, crackling and blazing and drowning out every last hint of a chill in the air.
“Wake up, darling.” Lena's voice floats distorted through the haze of heat encasing her, a roaring building once more in her ears. “Kara, wake up.”
And then everything, the hot and the cold and the howling and the screaming, it all evaporates. Kara's eyes snap open, vision focusing on the worn floorboards beneath her, the draughty halls of the Portuguese cathedral above.
A few feet away, Nyxly is still writhing on the ground, tears streaming from her closed eyes as she keens. Alex and J’onn are advancing on her, proto-trap primed and ready.
The terror of the Phantom Zone fades as her eyes adjust, taking in her surroundings. She feels the thick material of the Kryptosuit against her skin. Sees the air around her, clear and unfrozen and blessedly free of phantoms. Hears, through the comms in her helmet, the cadence of Lena's steady breathing.
And Kara takes a deep breath, reaches out with trembling fingers, and takes the Dream Totem in her hands.