The descent to Earth is terrifying.
Maybe Kara has simply gotten used to smooth, silent movement through space since she awoke, but the way her pod vibrates and brightens with fire as she enters the atmosphere brings back flashes of what she left behind. Flashes of Krypton exploding, of the fiery aftermath that swept up her pod and sent her off-course with everyone and everything she’s ever loved lost to oblivion. For a few moments, Kara thinks it might actually shake apart – that perhaps now that it’s gotten her off the dying planet she lived on for 12 years, drifted through the Phantom Zone and broached the dark vacuum of space, the last piece of Krypton she has left might finally fail her and send her plummeting to the ground unprotected.
But it holds together. It holds together even as she lands, the pod carving a deep scar through the dark mountains and its interior stabilizers keeping her intact until it finally comes to a stop. For long minutes, Kara stays where she is – her pod is still online, the holographic interface blinking that she may now exit the spacecraft, but she doesn’t heed them.
Leaving this pod means that she’s in her new home, and her heart still aches to return to her old one.
She wonders, not for the first time, where Kal-El could be. Her baby cousin had a head start and she has no concept of how much of a delay the Phantom Zone cost her; he could have landed anywhere. The rotation of the planet could have landed him clear across the globe, and she has no way to locate a baby. She doesn’t even have any confirmation that he made it here at all.
The single moon of this planet is high in the sky when she finally opens the pod, climbing carefully out and taking her first step onto Earth.
The moment she does she’s overwhelmed by sound – the whisper of the wind, the sounds of animals, the babble of a brook that she can’t see, the rustle of footsteps and murmured conversation nearby – and she squeezes her eyes shut, pressing her hands over her ears. Her mother had warned her that she would have abilities from Earth’s yellow sun, but she hadn’t expected them to be so acute at night, too. It’s so loud, too loud, and she stumbles a few paces away from her pod and falls to her knees, her eyes filling with tears at the sheer overwhelming volume.
When someone speaks from almost right next to her, Kara is so startled that she jumps 12 feet directly into the air.
Flight. On this planet, apparently, Kara can fly.
Two people are staring at her from the ground, wide-eyed and wondering – a woman about her mother’s age, it looks like, with windswept light-coloured hair and sun-weathered skin, and a younger girl who can’t be much older than Kara. Her daughter, based on the resemblance. The older one speaks, but it’s in a language Kara hasn’t mastered – the languages of Earth were crude, her father had always said. Unrefined. The tongues of a fledgeling race. She needn’t concern herself with them.
If only he had known.
Seeming to grasp that Kara can’t understand her, the older woman raises an arm and waves it in a clear signal for Kara to come closer. Her eyes are kind, even if they’re full of awe, but her daughter looks more suspicious.
With a bit of effort Kara lands, leaving two foot-shaped indents in the rocky ground, but she doesn’t move much closer. The older one speaks yet again, her tone questioning, and though Kara can’t decipher her exact words she can guess at their meaning.
Where did you come from?
“Krypton,” Kara says, knowing that even if they understood her language they wouldn’t know her meaning. Their clothes are simple, leather sandals and undyed wool tunics and cloaks that look handmade, and the younger girl has a crude knife strapped to her belt. This world is undeveloped, like the stories of Old Krypton before the technological revolution; they likely don’t even understand what lies beyond their own sky.
The older woman puts a hand on her own chest, speaking clearly. “Eliza.” She points to the girl behind her, who steps closer to her mother. “Alex.”
“Eliza,” Kara repeats, the words feeling clumsy and new on her tongue. “Alex.”
Eliza nods, smiling with a genuine warmth that Kara finds herself moving closer to. With her own mother gone, dead and lost millions of light-years away, this woman feels comforting. She offers her hands, strong and calloused with hard work, and Kara takes one.
“Kara,” Kara says, mimicking Eliza’s body language and putting her free hand on her chest. “Kara Zor-El.”
“Great. Just put it on the anvil and then carefully hammer – carefully, Kara. Kara!”
Kara jerks out of her idle daydream, pulling her eyes away from the clouds out the window. In her mind’s eye she’d been flying past them, soaking in the hot spring sunlight and soaring over the hills and out towards the Aegean; instead she’s here in her sister’s crowded forge, looking down at what was supposed to be a simple knife and has now turned out to be a flattened lump of mangled iron in her hands. The handle of the hammer she was using is bent at an alarming angle, and Alex sighs heavily.
“You need to concentrate. If you focus on controlling your strength -”
“I’m just not good at this,” Kara sighs, crumpling the hardening metal into a ball like it’s made of linen and tossing it onto the slag pile. It joins an embarrassing number of other disfigured items Kara has tried to make in the last few weeks, and she leans heavily into the clay-brick wall. “I preferred pulling the cart. At least then I got to be outside.”
“I know, but someone saw you with the cart last time,” Alex says patiently, pumping the bellows a few times to stoke the forge again. She has a dozen orders to fill for metalwork in the city, and Kara is doing nothing but holding her up. “She asked me how a girl like you could possibly pull a wagon full of ore all by herself. At least here, you’re out of sight when you decide to grab molten bronze with your bare hands.”
“Gods forbid anyone sees me,” Kara mutters, not quite able to hide the resentment in her voice.
“You know what would happen if someone knew what you could do,” Alex says in a warning tone. It’s a lecture Kara has heard a thousand times, from both Alex and Eliza – her powers need to be hidden for her own good. She’s always appreciated the love and acceptance her adoptive family raised her with after they found her pod abandoned in the mountains, but lately their concern has started to feel a little stifling.
“I’m not meant to be a blacksmith,” Kara says despondently, gesturing at her growing pile of discarded iron. Alex is right that she hasn’t been able to concentrate on honing her skills, but it’s hard to concentrate on something so dull. “I can do so much more than this. I can fly, Alex! I could lift the entire temple of Apollo and throw it into the sky. My planet had technology people here couldn’t even dream of.”
“You don’t have to be a blacksmith!” Alex replies, completely missing the point. She’s been trying to find something for Kara to apply herself to ever since she started to feel this restlessness, and so far nothing has stuck. “You could try pottery! Or weaving. Or you could be a messenger, as long as you didn’t run too fast and draw attention to yourself. Then you’d get to walk the countryside.”
Kara frowns. None of those are even remotely interesting, and Alex knows it. “But I can’t do what I want to do.”
“And what is that, exactly?” Alex says a bit more harshly, crossing her arms. “What is it that you want so badly to do? Join the army? Wander the land like a vagabond, putting yourself in danger?”
“You have so many stories on this planet about people with abilities even less than mine, chasing special destinies!” Kara argues, listing them off on her fingers. “Perseus, Herakles, Theseus, Jason. They’re all over the temples. Why is it so difficult for you to accept that I want that, too?”
The rich mythology of this place had been one of the most fascinating things to learn when she landed on Earth, one of the things she clung to when everything around her was unfamiliar. She was thrust into a warring land of disparate city-states flipping back and forth between fair leadership and tyranny, their technology rudimentary and their language strange to her young ears so fluent in the beautiful flowering language of Krypton, but the stories of Greece have always stuck with her. Stories of heroism and trickery, gods and monsters, stories of people with powers like hers using them for good or for ill.
“We also have stories about hubris and the retribution of the gods,” Alex argues back just as fiercely. “Herakles was driven insane and murdered his wife and children in that story, Kara. Jason was killed, Theseus was killed. They aren’t aspirational – they’re cautionary tales.”
“But they helped people!” Kara protests. “On Krypton, self-sacrifice for something greater than yourself was considered a worthy death.”
“I don’t want you sacrificing anything! People will think you’re a demigod. They’ll tear you apart to get close to a piece of divinity. We’ve had this discussion a hundred times.”
Kara rolls her eyes. “I’m invulnerable on Earth. What could they possibly do to hurt me?”
“You’ve heard the story of Achilles enough times to know that everyone has a weak spot,” Alex says, and Kara hates that her own argument is being used against her. “Even the so-called invulnerable. I’m just trying to protect you.”
“I’m going for a walk,” Kara snaps before the lecture can really gather steam, shouldering past Alex perhaps a bit too harshly in her anger.
“Kara –” Alex calls after her, but Kara is already gone – she stomps out of the forge and past their little house using a bit of superspeed, tearing across the scrubby grass and through the garden where Eliza is picking herbs before the older woman can ask her where she’s going. Once she’s out of sight of the house and the village beyond it Kara finally lets loose, all the restless energy of her argument with Alex propelling her through the olive groves and past the main road to Corinth, up and into the air until she reaches the coast. She’s not supposed to fly, especially not in daylight, but right now a little rebellion feels necessary.
If she were human, it would have taken at least two hours to walk from their property to the beach. Instead she’s there in seconds, wading into the surf up to her knees and completely uncaring that the bottom few inches of her chiton are getting soaked in seawater.
The sea has always been one of the few escapes Kara has. Krypton had been a world of many oceans, though most of them were too dangerous to explore, and the sound of crashing waves brings with it the comfort of home. As children she and Alex used to come here frequently, collecting shellfish and using Kara’s speed to explore the coastline all the way down to Isthmia, but the further from home Kara wanted to explore the more Alex had resisted. Kara has always longed to travel the world; to look for her cousin, perhaps, or even simply to see the breadth of this planet and find what other sights it has to offer. But doing it alone has always seemed so pointless. Without someone to share it with, the idea of even exploring the rest of Greece feels hollow. Instead all she’s ever been able to do is look down on it from the clouds.
Kara loves her family. But that love isn’t enough to stop her from wanting something more, and in order to chase it, she’d have to go against their wishes. She’s been torn between two things from the moment she crashed to earth – between new planet and old, human and alien, safety and freedom. She wishes, more than anything, that there was a single person on earth who could understand.
After taking a moment to wash the forge grime from her face and hands and run her damp fingers through her hair Kara sits heavily on the shore, digging her bare feet into the wet sand and wiggling her toes with a weary sigh. Beside her a small crab wanders towards the water, stopping when it hits the interference of Kara’s legs and scurrying the opposite way.
“Keep running, little guy,” Kara whispers, watching it make its way back to the waves and disappear. “At least one of us can.”
She hears the impact of two ships colliding before she even sees their specks on the horizon.
It’s not the first time Kara has heard distant naval combat. With their proximity to Athens, Megara, and the isthmus of Corinth this area is often contested by whoever wants the best trade route, and even more often is beset by pirates looking to steal the fruits of that trade. Kara has become accustomed to tuning it out. It’s second nature now, as much as she wishes it wasn’t – let it happen. Don’t help, don’t reveal yourself, and lay low. For long minutes she listens to the chaos, battle-cries and the sounds of swords and shields and spears hitting flesh, and she does nothing.
It trails into cheers of victory after 15 minutes of hard fighting, one side having clearly won the day. Kara closes her eyes, indulging herself in a little game she sometimes plays and trying to guess what’s happening based on what she can hear. There’s a lot of splashing – the victors clearing their boat deck of bodies, likely – and some jumbled conversations. Talk of looting, of salvaging materials from the enemy ship, a counting of crewmates lost in the fight and where they might go to hire replacements. All things Kara couldn’t care less about. The silly war-games of men.
That mentality shifts the moment Kara hears a distinct, feminine shout of distress.
“And this one. What a lovely surprise. I think she’ll go for big money at the slave markets, don’t you?” a rough male voice grunts, clear as a bell now that Kara is tuning in. “The brothels will pay more for her than the mines. Clear skin, nice teeth - good body.”
“Touch me again, and I’ll have that hand removed.” The female voice, the same one that got Kara’s attention, is clear and strong – haughty, but Kara can hear the fear in it. The slight quiver in her breath.
“And a mouth on her,” the same man says, laughing. “That’ll cost extra.” Kara hears a clear, harsh smack and another female cry of pain, and something long-stifled inside of her snaps. Everything Alex and Eliza have ever told her about keeping hidden, their warnings about what exposure could mean – it all disappears like a fog chased away by the sun.
Someone needs her help.
The wind is whistling in her ears and half the crew of the battered vessel has been tossed in the water like rag-dolls before Kara even realizes what she’s done.
The scene is gruesome, as Kara pauses to take it in. The trireme is badly damaged, but not quite so badly as its opponent which flounders nearby in two distinct pieces, slowly taking on water. Most of the crew of the sinking ship seems to be floating dead in the water or in various states of dismemberment on the deck Kara is standing on, sticky with blood and viscera. She can see the owl of Athena on a few shields – clearly these pirates are getting bolder than ever, to attack a vessel from Athens. Their leader is known for being as ruthless as he is intelligent.
More important, though, is the person tied to the ship’s mast.
She’s the only woman on the deck, and so Kara can only assume that she’s the one whose voice carried over the water. She’s wearing a torn silk peplos of deep green, the dye of which Kara knows must be monstrously expensive, and her dark hair is bound in a complicated style and held by silver and jewel-encrusted pins.
She also has a harsh red mark on her cheek from the impact of a hand.
“What the -” the familiar male voice says, and Kara can now see that it’s attached to a hulking beast of a man – thick and bearded, scarred from dozens of battles and armed to the rotted teeth. Kara can guess that he’s the captain, and presumably the owner of the hand that struck – he’s standing closest to the imprisoned woman, and the moment he realizes that there’s a stranger on his ship he reaches for a knife at his belt to hold at her throat.
He barely has time for an expletive before he’s launched into the ocean, his wrist cleanly broken.
As deeply as Kara wants to see him properly punished, she leaves him where he floats. Instead she darts forward and snaps the ropes holding the woman to the mast, supporting her weight by the arms when the woman’s knees buckle. The pirates seem to have ripped her clothing at the place where it’s fastened near her shoulder, and Kara haphazardly tries to help her set it right before the woman bats her hands away.
“Are you all right?” Kara asks, realizing as it leaves her mouth what an absurd question it is given the circumstances. The woman seems to agree.
“Demonstrably not,” she says, somehow still sounding mostly in control of herself despite having just watched Kara toss sixteen men overboard. “Unhand me –” She steps backwards, clearly trying to get out of Kara’s grip, but Kara holds fast. Three of the pirates are already climbing back up the sides of the ship, and she can see the captain in the distance swimming doggedly towards them. Kara needs to get out of here, and she can’t leave this woman behind.
Without a word Kara gathers her up and flies them both back to shore at top speed.
The deck of the ship groans and finally cracks under the force of her takeoff, sending the men who were still on the ship back into the water with frightened shouts, but Kara doesn’t care. She only cares about the woman in her arms – a woman who is currently shrieking at an impressive volume, clinging to Kara for dear life for the whole short journey. The moment they touch down on the sand, she finally wrests herself from Kara’s arms.
“Who - what - who are you?” The woman asks shakily, stumbling away from Kara and getting tangled up in her own torn dress. She seems dizzy, a fact which Kara had forgotten to take into account – Alex had vomited the first time Kara took her flying. “I mean you – you just flew. I’ve never been one for prayer to a bunch of silent gods, but one moment I’m being sold like cattle and the next I’m being abducted by pirates, and then I’m flying -”
The woman starts pacing the beach as she babbles, her dark hair slowly coming unbound and her torn peplos fluttering in the wind, and Kara doesn’t answer a single one of her questions because she’s too busy realizing that she’s just rescued the most beautiful woman in Greece.
She must have been too busy to notice it before. The woman’s face is a summary of perfect angles, sharp jaw and straight nose and dark eyebrows, and she’s clearly of an upper class gauging by her clothes and her pale features, both untouched by sun or grime. She looks like she’s never done a day of labour in her life; Kara feels self-conscious, suddenly, of her own work-stained hands. Of her tangled, unbound hair, her bulky frame and her short, boyish chiton. Nobody cares what she looks in their little village, tucked away from the greater Greek world. Kara only ever has to wear nice things and bind her hair if they’re going to market. Next to this woman, Kara must look a fright.
The woman stops her pacing, setting her pale and unevenly-coloured eyes on Kara, and in that moment Kara truly understands - for the very first time - how Helen of Troy’s face could have been beautiful enough to start a war.
“Enough. I’m tired of being passed from one person to the next. Tell me,” the woman says fiercely after Kara has been quiet for too long. “Who are you?”
“I’m, um,” Kara says, wiggling her feet nervously until they’re buried in the sand up to the ankle. “I’m Kara.”
The woman stares at Kara, incredulous and silent. It stretches out between them, those lingering questions and Kara’s unwillingness to answer them, until finally the woman’s shoulders sink and she breaks and deflates with a small, disbelieving laugh.
“Right. Well, I’m Lena,” she says, finally seeming to realize that her dress is torn and pulling it tighter around her body, “and if you don’t mean me harm, then I suppose you just saved me.”
It takes Lena a few minutes to calm down after her ordeal. She’s still wary of Kara, understandably slow to trust after what she’s been through, and only after Kara finds a suitably flat rock to sit on and seats herself cross-legged with ample space between them that Lena finally settles. She folds her legs demurely to the side, her hands folded in her lap, and her eyes never leave Kara – Lena seems to take in every inch of her, raking over Kara’s (perhaps overly exposed) shoulders and arms as if she’s trying to figure out where her strength comes from. Kara doesn’t have so much as a drape to cover them, and she crosses her arms self-consciously.
Lena’s eyes widen, and her gaze finally turns away. There’s almost a whole minute of awkward, stifling silence before either of them speaks.
“How are you feeling?” Kara asks when it’s clear that Lena isn’t starting a conversation. “Is there somewhere I can take you? Home, maybe?”
“Will you answer one of my questions first?” Lena asks, almost rushed. Like she’d been holding it back, waiting for Kara to speak.
Kara gnaws at her lip. She’s never done this before, never revealed herself purposefully to another person. Some small reflex in her still resists the idea, still engrained in the mantra of secrecy she grew up with. But she nods. “I guess that’s fair.”
“I’ve spent my whole life convinced that the gods aren’t real, and yet…you have powers beyond any mortal,” Lena says, more slowly this time. She seems to consider her words carefully, her eyes drifting up and down to take Kara in in her entirety. “What are you? A naiad? A siren? Some sort of…benevolent Erinys? A demigod?”
“I’m not a demigod, I’m -” Kara starts to protest, before Lena’s first sentence catches up with her. “Wait. You don’t believe in the gods?”
Lena shrugs a little self-consciously. “Why put all your faith in capricious, intangible beings who never show themselves when the physical and measurable world is so fascinating?”
Lena is nonchalant in a practiced way, a way that says she’s been judged or punished for her views before, but Kara can hardly contain her smile. It’s a viewpoint she hasn’t heard since Krypton, and a spark of excitement shivers through her at the idea of finally, finally having someone to talk to who could even begin to comprehend her life.
Kara leans forward, bracing her elbows on her knees as she admits her truth in earnest.
“Would you believe me if I said I came from the stars?”
Lena doesn’t reply. She stares at Kara for a moment, looking up at the sky – slowly tinging pink with dusk, the sun sinking over the sparkling water to disappear over the horizon – and then back at Kara, her perfect brow arched.
“I know it sounds crazy to you, but…the stars aren’t just lights in the sky,” Kara says, her words coming out jumbled in her haste to explain herself to someone who might be interested. “And they weren’t put there by the gods, they’re…they’re each like the sun, only impossibly far away. And some of them hold other worlds. Worlds like this one.”
“Other worlds?” Lena asks, and miraculously she doesn’t sound doubtful. She doesn’t sound judgemental. She doesn’t even sound confused, as Alex was when Kara tried to explain space travel, and she doesn’t pat Kara’s hand and tell her that the Muses gave her the gift of storytelling like Eliza. Lena sounds curious, and Kara shimmies closer in her excitement.
“Planets. I’m from a world called Krypton, deep in the stars,” Kara says, pointing at the point on the horizon that she knows Krypton would be this time of year. Its light still shines, the proof of its destruction not yet having reached earth, and often she comes here in the dead of night just to stare at it. “It was destroyed, and I…I ended up here. It’s hard to explain when your astronomy is so archaic.”
“Destroyed,” Lena murmurs, her brow furrowed. It causes an uneven, crinkly line between her eyebrows, and inexplicably Kara wants to trace it with her finger. “And your powers come from…”
“My skin absorbs energy from your sun,” Kara explains, holding her arms out as if Lena might be able to see the solar radiation. Lena does lean forward to examine them, and her warm breath raises gooseflesh on Kara’s skin. “It’s not magic, it just…it has to do with the way my body works. Biology. Medicine, in a way.”
“I don’t think the four humours theory covers sun-energy absorption,” Lena says drily. Kara laughs, sitting back again and lowering her arms. It seems impossible - Lena hasn’t tried to refute her yet, and she isn’t looking at Kara like she’s been possessed by the Maniae.
“So you believe me?” Kara says, hardly daring to hope. Lena considers the question for a moment, looking out at the water, before shrugging.
“It’s no more far-fetched than believing that the sun is pulled by a flaming chariot. Or that the world is ruled by an invisible, lustful man with a sadistic streak.”
Kara laughs again, harder this time in her relief, and even Lena truly grins for the first time since they met. It’s a beautiful thing, sweet and dimpled, and it makes Lena’s eyes shine all the brighter.
The name fits her, Kara thinks as she memorizes the heart-shape of Lena’s smile. Lena. Ray of light.
“Even my family doesn’t usually understand what I’m talking about, and they’re the ones who found me,” Kara admits, grabbing at the ends of her long hair and fiddling with it. “Alex is too practical to think about the stars, and Eliza still thinks I’m a gift from Olympus and I just don’t know it.”
“What I know without question is that you have powers, and that you saved me somehow,” Lena says, inclining her head towards Kara. “The rest…I’m willing to be persuaded.”
It’s enough. It’s more than enough – Kara stands up excitedly, brushing the drying sand from her legs and offering a hand to help Lena.
“Want to see my pod?”
Lena never does tell Kara where her home is. She ducks most of Kara’s attempts at asking on the way back to the house – Kara goes much slower this time, cognisant of Lena’s unfamiliarity with flying, and they have to go by foot for a half hour or so from the shore until it’s properly dark enough to hide their flight – and instead she peppers Kara with questions. Questions about Krypton, about her biology, about science and astronomy and mathematics – no subject seems too complicated for Lena’s curiosity, and though much of it is outside her comprehension she still absorbs the information readily and asks for more.
She would have made an incredible scientist on Krypton, and Kara tells her so as they touch down quietly outside the house.
“You’re far too kind. I just had access to slightly more education than the average person,” Lena says, steadying herself on the garden fence. “Gods. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to flying.”
“I think you’re being too modest,” Kara points out, offering Lena her arm for balance instead. Lena hesitates for a moment, but takes it gingerly. “I’ve never met a human who could understand what I was talking about, educated or not.” Kara leads them both past the house and back towards the forge, and Lena pins her with a strange look. “What?”
Lena shakes her head. “I suppose I’m still not used to being referred to as human,” Lena says thoughtfully. “Specifically, by someone who is…not human. What do you refer to yourself as?”
“Kryptonian,” Kara says, shrugging. “Or alien. That’s the closest Greek translation of our word for off-worlders.”
“Alien,” Lena says, the word rolling off her tongue. “Interesting. Like a foreigner. My brother would probably call you a barbarian.”
Lena says it offhandedly, and the moment it leaves her mouth she seems to stiffen as if she hadn’t meant to let loose that piece of personal information. Kara seizes on it, trying her best to come off as casual as they walk to the shed.
“Is your brother one of those ‘don’t marry outside your city-state’ types?”
“Among many other things,” Lena says darkly. It’s obvious that Lena has no great love for this brother of hers, and she swiftly changes the subject before Kara can ask any further. “Are you sure your family would be okay with me being here?”
“With you being here, absolutely! We help people who come through the village all the time,” Kara says, shrugging. “Eliza always has a fourth helping of supper ready for people in need. With you knowing about my powers, though…probably not.”
Lena frowns, but Kara gives her arm a light squeeze.
“Don’t worry, that’s my problem to deal with. Here – we keep my pod behind the garden tools.”
Kara unfastens the lock, slipping the key back over her head – Eliza had long ago woven her a strong cord to keep it on, and Alex had forged the lock herself – and opens the shed, rooting through the sickles and hand-ploughs right to the back. Kara pulls off the heavy linen shroud, and even 15 years later the sight of the elegant Kryptonian design makes her heart twinge.
“This is what brought me to Earth,” Kara says, as Lena leans forward to examine it with wide, eager eyes. “To Greece. My ship.”
“It doesn’t look like any ship I’ve ever seen,” Lena murmurs, running her fingers over the smooth metal, and as she does so Kara notices for the first time just how lovely Lena’s hands are. They look surprisingly strong, long graceful fingers with short nails and blunted, slightly calloused fingertips. Kara had assumed that Lena had never done any labour, but based on her hands perhaps she’d been hasty in her judgement.
“Yeah, a trireme probably wouldn’t fare well in space,” Kara says absently. Lena taps on the windshield of the pod, startling Kara out of her strange thoughts.
“What is this made of? It’s clear, but it can’t be glass. It’s too smooth.”
“Elements that don’t exist here,” Kara says, clearing her throat and putting Lena’s hands out of her mind. “And here, let me show you -”
With a few quick motions Kara has the pod open, and the holographic controls blink to life as the engine fires up with a quiet whirr. Lena takes a sharp breath, the lights of the interface illuminating her face and making her inquisitive eyes sparkle. Somehow, her fascination makes her even more beautiful.
“Gods,” Lena whispers, reaching out a hand to touch one of the controls and flinching when it actually responds. Kara can’t look away – something is happening inside her. Something she’s never felt before, some beast awakening in her chest and stretching out, its claws dragging over her ribs and making them ache. Something about Lena pulls at a part of Kara that she’s never thought to investigate before.
“You sure say that a lot for someone who supposedly doesn’t believe in the gods,” Kara says, taking the opportunity she’s been given to memorize the details of Lena’s face while she’s busy figuring out the intricacies of the pod. Her sharp jaw actually sits with a slight underbite, her lips naturally downturned and yet lighting up her face when she laughs, and the arch of her brow when she turns it on Kara after that comment is as perfect as any Kara has seen in a doorway or window. Even the marble columns of the temples in Megara have nothing on Lena’s pale skin.
“Did they not have figures of speech on your world?”
A thrill runs through Kara. Lena believes her. And not only does Lena believe her, she’s interested. She’s bantering about Kara’s home planet, fiddling with the pod and asking questions and actually paying attention to Kara’s answers.
Kara is still thinking of a witty reply when the shed door creaks. Immediately Kara is in motion, standing in front of Lena and shielding her from whoever is entering, but she relaxes slightly when she sees that it’s only Alex.
“Kara? Is that you?” Alex says, squinting into the darkness. “I’ve been worried…about…” Alex trails off, as she takes in the scene of Kara, the pod – still on, whirring and projecting light – and finally Lena, peeking out from behind Kara’s shoulder. “Who the hell is this?”
Maybe relaxing was premature.
“This is Lena,” Kara says, steeling herself for the inevitable disagreement. “She knows everything.”
Eliza, to Kara’s relief, is more understanding than she expected when they bring Lena into the house. She gives Kara a brief glance that says they’ll be talking about it later, but that doesn’t stop her from welcoming Lena wholeheartedly and immediately offering her some supper. Alex drags Kara to the other side of the room while Eliza makes Lena a plate, and the scolding Kara expected begins.
“What were you thinking?” Alex hisses, doing Kara the favour of at least lowering her voice so Lena can’t hear it. “Revealing yourself to a perfect stranger? To a bunch of pirates? What if one of them runs off and tells the story of the blonde woman with godlike powers?”
“They were going to sell her as a slave. What was I supposed to do?” Kara whispers, turning her body to shield both of them from Lena’s eyeline. The last thing she wants is for Lena to feel like she isn’t wanted here.
“What you’ve been doing for years!” Alex says, gesturing wildly. Kara catches her hands, gently lowering them again before she draws too much attention. “Keeping yourself hidden! Keeping yourself safe!”
Kara has repeated some variation of this argument a hundred times, but this time feels different. Kara turns, looking back at the kitchen table - Lena is picking at a plate of bread and olives, making hesitant conversation with Eliza and seeming thrown off by her persistent kindness. She meets Kara’s eyes, skittish and beautiful, and offers her a small, nervous smile. Kara returns it, her heart seeming to swell in her chest.
“She understands, Alex,” Kara says quietly, watching with an undeniable sense of rightness when Eliza offers Lena more wine and re-fills her plate. Alex frowns.
“She understands me,” Kara says, unable to disguise the slight quaver in her voice. “When I talk about Krypton, or about technology she’s never seen before, she gets it. Even if she’s never been there, or even heard of some of the concepts. She can listen to me and then have a conversation about it. She’s the smartest human I’ve ever met. There’s just…there’s something about her.”
Alex is quiet for a minute. She looks back and forth between them, her arms crossed tightly, and chews nervously at her lip.
“Well, who is she?” Alex finally says, slightly calmer now. “Where is she from?”
Kara shrugs. “I don’t know.”
“You told her your whole life story and you don’t know anything about her?” Alex says incredulously, uncrossing her arms so she can gesture to the heavens as if she’s begging the gods for help.
“There wasn’t a lot of time -”
“Girls,” Eliza calls, looking between them with a familiar motherly judgement. “There’s no use bickering now. What’s done is done. Now come over here and eat up.”
Kara follows Alex to the table, making sure to insert herself next to Lena, and grabs her own plate. She piles it high with food, taking a whole roasted fish and a handful of boiled eggs to herself, and when Lena looks at the volume of food with some surprise Kara shrugs.
“I need more food than most humans. Different metabolism.” Kara takes a big swig of wine, and Alex snorts.
“She says that word as if anyone understands it.”
“I imagine it has something to do with your powers?” Lena says thoughtfully, taking a much more measured sip of her own wine. “Your body does more activity, so you need to put more into it?”
Kara looks at Alex, grinning when she sees raised eyebrows.
“I told you she was smart.”
“So, Lena,” Alex says pointedly, changing the subject as she rips apart a fresh fig and presses it into a piece of bread and cheese, “where are you from?”
Lena’s answer is short, but carefully neutral.
“And how did you land yourself on a pirate ship?”
“I was travelling,” Lena says vaguely, twisting a piece of bread in her hands until it turns into crumbs. “We were attacked. I suppose they would rather sell a woman than kill her outright.”
“Oh? Not often you see a young woman travelling alone,” Alex says, clearly fishing for a straight answer. Lena shifts in discomfort.
“I had guards.”
“Guards? That can’t be cheap.” Alex chews slowly, not letting up. Lena swallows hard, pushing her plate away politely.
“They were…my brother’s,” she elaborates, clearly against her will. Alex looks interested in that – the conversation pings back and forth between them, and all Kara wants to do is jump in.
“Sounds like your brother is someone important, to have a whole ship to give away.”
“Alex, leave her alone,” Kara finally snaps, shifting a little closer to Lena. Lena takes a big breath, letting it out slowly and shaking her head.
“No, it’s all right. It’s fair to want to know some basics about someone who holds a secret as important as yours.”
“See?” Alex says, seeming almost as pleased to be right as she is surprised that Lena agrees. Lena, after a moment to collect herself, explains in a halting voice.
“My family…has some means. My brother was sending me to be married off,” Lena says, picking viciously at her thumbnail. “For a rather large dowry.” It’s clear that thinking about it is stressful for Lena, and Kara is the one who responds this time.
“Oh. Did you have any choice in that?”
“None,” Lena says matter-of-factly. “In fact, I find my future husband repugnant. But I’ve never been afforded the luxury of choice. From the moment my family took me in, I’ve been destined to be used for political gain.”
It seems like something Lena has said or thought often in her life, said like an objective fact rather than the deeply sad revelation that it feels like, and even Alex looks a little chagrined. Kara, her food forgotten, puts a hesitant hand on Lena’s arm. It’s tense, but Lena doesn’t shrug her off.
“Oh, Lena,” Kara says, with all the empathy she can muster. She can’t imagine her family selling her like a healthy goat to the first man who would offer money, and she can’t imagine who on earth could be heartless enough to do it to Lena. “I’m sorry.”
Lena seems disaffected, which is especially disconcerting considering her next words. “It’s all right. But honestly, I’m perfectly happy with both of them assuming I drowned in that shipwreck.”
“You’d be okay with your family thinking you’ve died?” Eliza says, a hand pressed to her chest. Family has always been important to her, and it’s obvious that she can’t understand what could drive someone to abandon it, but Lena laughs humorlessly.
“If you met my family, you’d think the same way.”
“You should stay here,” Kara blurts, and it’s nearly comical how simultaneously Alex and Lena’s heads whip around to stare at her.
“What?” Alex and Lena say in almost perfect unison, for two entirely different reasons. Kara springs into action.
“You can’t go back to your family, or they’ll just force you to go through with the wedding. We have an extra bed,” Kara explains, appealing not to Alex but to Eliza. To the same nurturing instinct that convinced her to take Kara in despite her not being able to even communicate properly, to foster her and teach her to control her powers. “She can stay, right? Until she can maybe find a place in the village?”
“Does she want to stay?” Alex says, looking doubtfully at Lena’s expensive clothes. “We don’t exactly live in a world of dowries, here. This is a hard life. It’s a big step down.”
“I’m happy to have Lena stay until she decides what she’d like to do,” Eliza says, and Kara believes her. It’s clear she doesn’t trust Lena yet with quite the sureness that Kara does, but she’s always been welcoming at heart. “But it should be up to her.”
“You truly don’t mind?” Lena asks, sounding like any answer they give will be doubtful but somehow seeming hopeful nonetheless. Kara nods as hard as she can without causing a blast of air with the force of it.
“We’d love for you to stay here.”
Alex is stoic through it all. She doesn’t pitch in with an opinion either way, and Eliza looks a little trepidatious, but when she nods Lena’s shoulders visibly relax.
“That’s incredibly generous. Don’t worry, I won’t stay long. Just until I figure out what to do. Perhaps I can be of use in the village in some way.”
Kara grins at her, wide and eager, and now that the difficult conversation is over Lena’s appetite seems to return. She pulls her plate back towards her, accepting a piece of fish and some roasted almonds from Eliza, and Kara starts in on her own supper with a new vigour.
Even if Lena doesn’t stay with them forever, Kara thinks as she watches Eliza lend Lena a slip for sleeping in and show her to the guest cot, the idea of her perhaps staying in the village in the long-term – close enough to visit, and spend time together - warms Kara’s heart.
The next morning Lena wakes with the rest of them, though she yawns enough times during breakfast that Kara can tell she isn’t used to rising quite so early. After breaking their fast with last night’s bread dipped in wine Lena follows Kara out to the chicken coop, helping to scoop the eggs left behind by their two hens into a basket and laughing at the way the chickens jump excitedly waiting for Kara to scatter their feed – when Kara pours a handful into Lena’s hand to throw to the birds one of them nips at her finger, and Lena seems strangely delighted by the whole thing. She watches very closely as Kara does her morning chores, absorbing everything as they wander the property; her eyes follow Kara’s every move as she gets water from the cistern, mends a few broken bean-stakes in the garden, stacks fuel for Alex’s forge fire, and finally washes the grime of the morning’s work away with an oil rub.
“Do you do this every day?” Lena calls from the other side of the privacy screen. It’s a simple wool sheet hung from the ceiling of the living space, but it’s functional. “I’ve only ever seen athletes use a strigil.”
“It’s the best way to stay clean without wasting water,” Kara replies, rubbing olive oil across her bared skin and starting to scrape it away with the strigil. The dirt and sweat comes away with it, leaving clean, oiled skin behind.
“That must be why your arms…” Lena trails off, clearing her throat, and Kara frowns. Is there something about her arms that Lena doesn’t like? The thought is terrible, and Kara peeks around the curtain.
“Why my arms what?”
Lena purses her lips, her eyes fixed somewhere on the wall to her right. “They’re shiny. They sort of…glisten.”
“Oh.” Kara blushes, moving behind the curtain again. That doesn’t seem like a negative assessment, but Lena seemed quite uncomfortable saying it nonetheless. “Um. I guess so! It helps with sweat, and it keeps dirt out of the pores.” Kara moves to the other arm, rubbing oil from her shoulder and underarm all the way down to her wrist. “Why? How do you bathe in Athens?”
“We go to the baths.”
Kara peers around the barrier again, and Lena looks directly at her for only a moment. Lena averts her eyes as soon as she’s caught, her pale cheeks going pink as she turns around and stares at the opposite wall, but for a moment she seemed to be staring abnormally hard at the place where Kara is standing behind the curtain.
“Baths?” Kara asks, shifting a little so that she’s fully covered. Her chiton is folded down to her waist to bare her torso - perhaps she slipped and showed an inappropriate amount of skin, and that’s what’s making Lena so uncomfortable.
“The public baths,” Lena says to the wall, her hands clasped tightly together. “Are there not any public baths around here?”
Kara shrugs, ducking back behind the curtain to continue scraping the oil away. “I mean, if we need a proper wash we go to the river. I go once or twice a week. Is it like that?”
“No, it’s…it’s in a building,” Lena says, trying to explain something Kara can’t fathom. “There’s large pools of hot and cold water, heated by fires under the floor. The aqueducts bring it in. Everyone goes back and forth between them. Some have steam rooms, where they pour water on hot rocks – it cleanses the pores.”
There are times when multiple people are at the river at once bathing, but in Kara’s experience most people turn away from each other and attend to their own business in peace. On Krypton, bathing – nudity in general, really - had been solitary, confined to a single room in the house that dispensed hot water and soaps, and it had taken Kara some time to get used to how different things were in that department on earth. Men exercise naked here, and while usually only other men are allowed to see it at the gymnasium or at athletic games, sometimes Kara slips with her x-ray vision and ends up scarred with surprise images. The idea of rooms full of people all washing at once is deeply strange.
“And everyone just…bathes together in one room?” Kara says, finishing her scraping and starting to rub herself down with a piece of linen. She’d thought the oil rubs were strange too, when she first landed, but she’s come to love how soft and supple they leave her skin. “Even women?”
“Several rooms, and the buildings are separated by gender, but yes,” Lena replies, clearly still facing away from the curtain. “It’s sort of a social thing. Women bathe with women, men bathe with men.”
Clearly nudity isn’t the issue causing Lena’s discomfort. Kara frowns, perplexed.
“That sounds weird.”
Lena laughs, and the clear sound of it makes Kara smile. “I suppose it would, if you’re used to bathing alone. It’s always felt normal to me.”
Kara tries to imagine what it would be like – to undress with a host of strangers, wash her most intimate places while holding a conversation with no barriers – and suddenly she’s hit with an image that makes her feel warm and tingly all over. She imagines Lena, bare and flushed with the steam, her dark hair slicked back as she fills a jug with warm water and pours it over her head. In Kara’s head Lena meets her eyes, her own sparkling, and reaches out a hand. Pulls Kara down, their faces getting closer and closer until -
Kara is no stranger to attraction. She’s held crushes on people in the village plenty of times, flirted with one of the young fish vendors in the village for better prices and stolen afternoons of innocent kisses with a potter’s apprentice in Megara during market trips in her adolescence. She’s even been half-undressed with another girl before, a friend who was nervous about the physical expectations of her upcoming wedding to a man in another village who she’d never met, and Kara was happy to unpin her chiton and kiss Lucy’s nerves away. But it’s never gone further, and it’s always been with the knowledge that she was hiding a secret. Even the few times she’s experimented with herself, nothing really came of it. She could reach a sort of plateau, but it always felt like she was grasping for something that wasn’t quite there yet.
Lena feels different. Thinking about Lena this way feels more meaningful, somehow. More indicative of something Kara doesn’t fully understand yet.
Still, it feels a little inappropriate to think about Lena bathing when Lena is only a few feet away with no idea the role she’s playing in Kara’s strange fantasy. Kara shakes her head a little, clearing the vision away.
“You really just sit around in the water together, naked?” Kara asks, the piece of linen dangling limply from her hands. She’d stopped rubbing it on her skin at some point during the conversation, apparently. “Nobody…gets up to anything?”
Lena laughs again. “Oh, there are special rooms for that. But only in the men’s baths.”
“So you never…” Kara says, blushing harder. She realizes as soon as it’s left her mouth that it’s an incredibly personal question, and Lena’s voice is a little quieter when she responds.
“My maidenhood was always…valued,” Lena says, a hint of bitterness in her tone. “I had to keep it to be worth anything, so I was watched quite carefully at the baths. Nobody wanted the prized sow to lose her opportunity to lure a buyer.”
Kara wishes she could think of something, anything to say that might help, but she comes up empty. Lena’s melancholy is of a kind Kara can’t relate to. Here nobody cares enough about Kara to be bothered about her marriage prospects, and while she’d been technically promised in marriage to someone on Krypton from the time of her birth, all that was lost with the planet before Kara had even met the boy. The lack of freedom in Lena’s old life sounds stifling, and Kara is sure there’s even more Lena hasn’t told her yet.
Instead Kara finishes her rub-down, and looks around the curtain again before she gets dressed.
Lena finally turns back around, her eyes staying on Kara’s face this time. “Hmm?”
“I’m really glad you’re here now.”
Lena smiles. It’s a little sad, but it’s genuine. “Me, too.”
When Kara steps out from behind the curtain, dressed now but still a little shiny with oil, again Lena turns away her gaze.
Their homestead is just a few minutes walk from the nearby village, settled on the banks of a river that bleeds out to the Aegean towards Megara, and when Eliza takes the washing to the river in the early afternoon she insists on taking Lena’s peplos as well, offering her one of her own linen shifts as a temporary replacement. Lena in turn insists on accompanying her to the river to see how it’s all done; Lena has apparently never seen laundry done before, but she seems to understand the amount of labour that goes into it, and once Eliza has shown her how the clothes are washed and draped over rocks to dry Lena grabs the next piece of fabric and lends a hand without being asked.
Kara, who followed them under the guise of gathering more water for their kitchen storage pots, watches Lena’s determined work and takes each clean item Lena passes to her to hang up with a lightness in her heart.
“How were these things done at your home?” Kara asks, settling next to Lena and Eliza on a rock near the water when the work is done and the clothes are drying. “The aqueducts again?”
Lena nods. “Most neighbourhoods have a communal fountain to gather water from. I think there was a washing-room in our servant’s quarters. I’m sorry to say I never investigated it. So many things were simply done for us, and I learned not to question it.” Lena says it a little self-consciously, squinting against the bright afternoon sun. Kara makes a note to ask Alex to fashion some sort of parasol for her – it’s clear that if she spends another day outside like this, she’ll end up with a terrible sunburn.
“I’m sure our ways must seem terribly unsophisticated to you,” Eliza says, smiling kindly. “Just like Kara when she first came to us. She kept asking how on earth we ever got anything done, when every chore takes so long.”
“They do take so long,” Kara grumbles. Eliza chuckles, standing and stretching out her back.
“How were things done on Krypton?” Lena asks, that curiosity that Kara appreciates so much coming to the forefront.
Kara takes a big breath, letting it out slowly as she conjures memories of her planet. Usually it hurts, to think of Krypton too much, but when she’s explaining it to Lena it doesn’t ache quite so badly. “Servants, of a kind. But they weren’t human, they were…mechanical.” Kara pauses, frowning. “There isn’t a word for it in Greek.”
“Of course – they can’t have spoken Greek on your planet, could they? You must have had your own language,” Lena says, seeming surprised that it’s taken so long for her to realize that. “I should have known that. I suppose your Greek is so good that I would never have known it wasn’t your native tongue.”
Kara nods, scratching the word for robot in Kryptonian characters into the dry dirt with a twig.
“We did have our own language,” Kara says, gesturing at it. Lena looks fascinated, reaching out a finger to trace the lines. It’s something Kara has become rather fond of – the way Lena’s curiosity manifests in her hands, constantly reaching out like she can absorb the information through her fingertips. “When I first arrived, I couldn’t speak a word of Greek. Communicating with Alex and Eliza was hard until I picked up the basics.”
“She learned far quicker than I expected. Kara has always been special,” Eliza says, picking up a bundle she set on a rock when they arrived. “Would you two watch the clothes for a few minutes? I have a delivery to make.”
Kara nods, eager to have time alone with Lena again, and Eliza takes her leave to give out the bundles of medicinal herbs she brought with them – but not without a quick wink at Kara, one that makes a fierce blush take over Kara’s face.
She’s going to have to have a discussion with Eliza later about her propensity for matchmaking. She’s been trying to get Alex interested in someone – anyone – from the village for years, and Alex has remained stubbornly unmarried. Now, it seems, she’s transferred that energy to Kara.
Blissfully unaware of the interaction Lena watches Eliza go, turning back to Kara with a wistful smile.
“You’re lucky to have such a wonderful family.”
“I don’t know what I would have done without them,” Kara says honestly, dipping her toes into the cool running water. “I was completely alone when I crashed here, not speaking the language, trying to get a handle on these new powers. Most people would never have helped me, let alone treated me like a daughter.”
Lena is quiet for a moment, slipping her bare feet into the river next to Kara’s. The force of the current makes them drift together - Lena’s clean skin looks even paler next to hers, Kara’s soles browned by years of walking barefoot to save on the cost of sandals - and Kara gets a strange sort of thrill when Lena doesn’t move away.
“Could you teach me?”
Lena says it so casually that for a moment Kara doesn’t really understand what she’s asking. When it works its way through her head she frowns, looking over at Lena – the other woman is staring at their touching feet, her face placid and peaceful.
“Teach you Kryptonian?” Kara clarifies, and Lena nods as if the request wasn’t at all outlandish. “It’s…it’s a dead language. It’s not of any use to you.”
Lena shrugs, splashing her feet a little until some droplets hit Kara’s calves. “I like to learn.”
Again Lena says it as if it’s natural for her, like curiosity and understanding about Kara’s incomprehensible past is as easy as breathing, and even though Kara stopped believing in Rao’s benevolence the moment he let her planet die she sends a silent thanks to the sky for putting Lena in her path.
“I could teach you to speak it, but I don’t know what the equivalencies are in writing,” Kara says, splashing Lena back. Lena giggles, squirming, but again she doesn’t move away even when Kara gets her dress all wet. “I don’t write in Greek.”
“Most people here don’t. There wasn’t anyone to teach me,” Kara explains. “Eliza knows a little, enough to trade in the city, but not enough to teach.”
“In that case, maybe we can exchange knowledge,” Lena says reasonably, standing up and brushing the dust from the hem of her shift when Eliza appears again just down the riverbend. “I teach you to write in Greek, and you teach me your language.”
“You’d do that?” Kara says, drawing herself up too. She helps Lena start to gather the clothes up, and Lena’s reply is soft.
“I know what it’s like to want to be taught, but have nobody willing to teach you.”
Over the next two weeks, Lena helps out with household and farming chores with no complaints. In fact she seems to want to help – some things, like the laundry, she seems to never have seen, and in those things each new skill learned is a new wonder for her. But some others she grasps so quickly that Kara almost wonders if she’s done them before. She seems to know intrinsically which vegetables are ripe and ready to be picked, for example, and she takes to baking in a way Kara never managed. Soon her loaves are even better than Eliza’s, and she looks so pleased when the family enjoys it that Kara starts always making sure there’s fresh-milled barley ready for her when the mood strikes.
Lena learns medicines from Eliza, memorizing herb uses and preparation faster than anyone Kara has ever seen. She even spends time in the forge with Alex, fascinated by the way things are put together and not afraid to get her hands dirty; and with Lena there Kara happily spends time helping out too, lifting equipment and moving hot metal with invulnerable hands. Lena helps with the olive harvest in the village and is fascinated by the process of making oil, asking question after question about how the great sorting and pressing device works while every eligible man in the village trips over himself to be the one to explain it.
Lena sticks close to Kara instead, ignoring them completely, and Kara is insufferably smug for the entire day afterwards.
Lena bathes in the river with everyone else, though she usually does so on a different schedule than Kara for which Kara is both grateful and strangely disappointed. Every day she sleeps on the uncomfortable little cot she’s been given and rises before the sun with the rest of the house - never once does she condescend or act better than, but also never once does she tell Kara much more about her past than what she told her on that beach.
When Kara ducks into the forge one early morning three weeks after Lena decided to stay to find Alex and Lena in there together working on a new kind of lock Lena designed – it requires two keys, and they need to be turned and maneuvered in a specific pattern to open it – she’s surprised to find that when she tries to peer at their contraption to see its inner workings, her vision seems to white out for a moment. Like it’s bounced off the lock. It’s a familiar feeling, and one of the many reasons she’s never loved working in the forge.
She flinches, putting a hand over her eyes as she draws a sharp breath, and Lena drops the lock to rush to her.
“It’s fine,” Kara says, before Lena can ask. She rubs her eyes firmly, making sure not to look at the lock again. “Don’t worry. Is there lead in that?”
“Lead?” Lena says, frowning. “Yes, I…I used it as an alloy. Does it hurt you?”
“Not exactly. I mean, it hurts a little,” Kara clarifies, and Lena looks much less worried. “But it’s more uncomfortable than anything.”
“What does it do, then?”
Kara thinks for a moment, trying to find the best way to explain the strange effect of the metal. Alex and Eliza know that she’s sensitive to it, but she’s never really had to describe the feeling before. “I can control my x-ray vision for the most part, but for some reason having lead nearby blocks it completely. I’m not sure why. Maybe because it didn’t occur naturally on Krypton. Looking directly at it feels like…like how people describe looking right into the sun. Just this horrible bright spot. And when I’m touching it, it dampens my hearing, too.”
Lena leans back against the table, crossing her arms with a wry grin. “So you do have a vulnerability.”
“One or two,” Kara says quietly. Lena is wearing one of Alex’s old shop robes, her face sooty from the forge, her hair in a messy plait and looking completely at home here, and Kara’s heart seizes in her chest in a way that’s become familiar over the last few weeks. She wants, suddenly, to bring up a hand and wipe the streak of ash from Lena’s cheek. To cup Lena’s jaw in her hand, and lean forward – and for once Kara doesn’t cut the fantasy off there. This time she lets herself see it through to capturing Lena’s lips in a tender kiss that makes her ache, even when it’s imaginary. To Lena’s hands resting on her chest, moving up to wrap around her shoulders as she opens herself up to Kara’s desire.
When they first met it was difficult to imagine Lena could ever want her in that way, but lately Kara has noticed things. The way Lena looks at her while she does her chores, sometimes, her eyes dark and intense; how the braver Kara has gotten with casual affection, the more Lena seems to lean into it. How often Kara will wake before dawn to find Lena sitting by the window, snacking on a handful of honeyed almonds – her favourite, Kara has learned - from the store-jar Kara keeps full for her and staring up at the fading stars, and as soon as she stirs Lena will smile like she’s been waiting for Kara to join her. It’s become almost a ritual, waking before the rest of the house and sitting in the quiet together before they start the day. Listening to the world around them slowly awaken with the sun. No words need to be exchanged – just shy glances, and the occasional almond.
Lena seems at home here, and more than anything in the world Kara wants her to stay.
“We should get a sign made or something,” Lena says, blissfully unaware of Kara’s moment of clarity. “For when we’re working with lead. Kryptonians strictly prohibited.”
“It’s fine, I can handle it,” Kara says, returning her smile a little distractedly. “I actually, um. Came in here to ask if you wanted to start learning Kryptonian?”
“Oh!” Lena says, brightening visibly. “I thought you’d forgotten about that.”
“Never. I just had to make this.” Kara holds up the thing she’d originally come in to show Lena – a stylus she’s spent a week finding all the materials for. “It’s closer to the kind of pen we wrote with. Ours re-filled themselves with more ink, but I couldn’t replicate that. The reed pens we have here won’t work very well for Kryptonian characters.” She’d had to run a truly ludicrous amount of errands for the village’s only animal trapper to pay for the fox-fur for the bristles, but it’s worth it to see how excited Lena looks.
Lena takes it from her, inspecting it with interest. Kara can practically see her brain working to dissect how it was made. “It looks like a tiny paintbrush.”
“It sort of is.” Lena has moved quite close to take the brush, and while she turns it over in her hands Kara can’t help but watch her. The way her hands turn the carefully-made stylus this way and that, the tiny wrinkle that appears between her brows when she’s thinking, the little strands of loose hair that escaped her plait in the heat of the forge. Kara could probably reach out and tuck them behind her ear, and Lena might not even mind -
“All right. If you’re going to stand around staring at each other, get out of my forge,” Alex says matter-of-factly, startling Kara violently from her thoughts and shooing them both towards the door. “Go on, I have work to do. This place isn’t built for three people.”
“Alex!” Kara hisses as Alex shepherds her out of the forge, but it falls on deaf ears. Alex shuts the door behind her, sticking her tongue out when Kara makes a face meant to convey why on earth did you say that, and when Kara turns back to Lena they’re both red from more than the heat of the midday sun.
“Um. Kitchen table?” Kara suggests weakly. Lena, seeming eager for the distraction, nods and hurries into the shade of the house. Kara has already laid out all the supplies they need, papyrus and ink and pens, and Lena has busied herself re-arranging it by the time Kara sits down beside her.
“We’ll start with alphabets,” Lena says when Kara has pulled in her chair. She takes a reed pen and starting to scratch Greek characters onto a piece of papyrus, all business now. “You write out the Kryptonian alphabet, and I’ll do Greek. Then we explain the phonetics to each other.”
Kara nods, dipping her pen into ink. It’s been years since she did any significant writing in her own language – when she first arrived she used to write letters to her lost family that would never be sent, yearning for home and terrified that this new life would make her forget her own culture, but over time the fear eased. Now the 36 symbols in their standard radiating pattern bring a comfortable sense of familiarity, and when she swaps papyrus with Lena, she gets a little thrill at seeing her examine them.
“These are beautiful,” Lena murmurs, handling the paper as if it’s some precious, fragile thing. “Each one is like a picture. Like art.”
“They were more pictographic in ancient times,” Kara says, not glancing even once at the Greek alphabet Lena has handed her. Again, she can’t look away from the woman beside her. “We simplified them, but we kept the tradition of family crests.”
“Do you have a family crest?”
Kara nods. She reaches to take the paper back, and with the brush-pen she inscribes the lines she knows by heart. In a trunk under her bed she still has the clothes she was wearing when her pod landed, and on the chest of her shirt the symbol still stands proud.
“The House of El,” Kara says, finishing the S-shape in the centre of the symbol. “El Mayarah. It means stronger together.”
Lena looks thoughtful, blowing gently on the ink to dry it. The ink seems to shine under her breath until it solidifies, permanent. “So that’s your full name? Kara El?”
“Kara Zor-El.” Kara swallows hard. “The naming conventions on Krypton were pretty similar to here, strangely enough. Women take the names of their fathers.”
Lena nods. She picks up the brush-pen, changing the subject swiftly as she copies the first Kryptonian letter on a fresh piece of parchment. It’s not perfect, but it’s surprisingly good for a first try. “So what’s this one?”
“Usah,” Kara says, smiling. Just making the basic sounds of her language again sparks a joy she’d forgotten. “And next is shah.”
Lena diligently copies the second character, and Kara reaches out to gently correct.
“It’s easier if you write it like this,” Kara explains, guiding Lena’s hand into the right pattern. “It lets you move faster to the next letter without smudging your ink.”
Lena’s hand is warm and soft, and Kara realizes when Lena turns to ask her about the next letter just how close she’s moved. She’s leaning over Lena, close enough that she essentially just murmured in her ear. She would only need to dip her head a little to rest it on Lena’s shoulder, and Lena’s arms are suddenly rough with gooseflesh despite the heat of the day.
Kara stays there holding Lena’s hand in place perhaps a few seconds longer than necessary before she moves away, clearing her throat.
“Um. Next is tho. It’s really similar to the last one, just backwards?”
Lena nods, rubbing absently at her arms, and together they work through the alphabet until Lena feels comfortable doing it herself.
After that first session, Kara dives headfirst into the task. She learns the Greek characters swiftly from Lena’s elegant handwriting and spends every spare drachma on papyrus and parchment, and Lena picks up Kryptonian just as fast, absorbing the vocabulary like a sponge. Soon Lena can understand the controls of Kara’s pod almost as well as Kara can, and Kara often finds little notes scrawled on scraps of papyrus scattered through the house, Kryptonian symbols and phrases practiced over and over until they’re almost perfect.
Lena makes no mention of leaving as weeks slide into months. She slots perfectly into their lives, living and working as if she’s always been there, but it’s clear that if she’s to stay on a more permanent basis – which Kara would like very much – the sleeping situation needs to change. Their guest cot is only meant for temporary stays, and though Lena never once comments on the discomfort or lack of living space, Kara wants better for her.
So after talking to Eliza and making a slew of promises to the neighbours in exchange for supplies, Kara sets to designing Lena a little room of her own behind the main house.
It takes time for Kara to finish the structure, making various mistakes and having to correct them lest Lena end up crushed under a shoddily-supported roof, and the interior takes even more time. She has to find the perfect furniture, and that means having it crafted by the carpenter rather than cobbled together by herself. There’s no kitchen in the plan, so Lena will still share meals and leisure time with the family, but Kara has ordered a big bed and a writing table – Kara has noticed that Lena likes to write, even when she isn’t practicing Kryptonian - and space for Lena to have her privacy when she needs it.
When Lena asks one day what on earth Kara needs all the timber for, Kara hastily claims that what she’s building is a new food-storage room, and after that she only works on it after Lena has gone to sleep.
In the dead of night Kara builds it out, and she takes to zipping through her morning chores so she can fulfill her promised odd jobs in the village in the afternoon and still have time to take lunch with Lena in the garden. Her evenings are filled now not with melancholy trips to the beach to dream about a different life, but with language lessons or deep talks by the light of the kitchen fire. Lena somehow manages to open herself up without actually revealing many details of her old life, and Kara knows enough about deep emotional wounds not to pry.
Even Alex has warmed to Lena after so long sharing life and labour together, and she goes so far as to admit as much one warm evening after the three of them have climbed up onto the roof of the forge – it’s made of terracotta tile rather than thatch for fireproofing, and so it holds their weight more easily – to watch the sunset and drink the last of the previous year’s sweet autumn wine.
“I’ve had a few people in the village ask me if you’re available for scribe work,” Kara says, and Lena looks deeply flattered.
Kara nods, taking a leisurely sip of her wine. “They’ve noticed how much papyrus and ink you buy. They were excited to have someone locally – usually they have to go to Megara or Corinth to get scribe work done.”
“Is there a pricing structure people usually use for these things?” Lena asks, and Alex pipes up.
“When you’re the only game in town, you can change what you want,” Alex says with a tipsy wink, raising her cup for a toast. Lena raises her own, taking a polite drink, but she looks thoughtful.
“Not too much,” Lena says reasonably. “I want it to be affordable. Just enough to pay you for keeping me. As long as you’re still all right with me staying?”
Kara has never been more all right with anything in her entire life, but it’s actually Alex who speaks up first.
“Yeah, we like having you here.”
Lena just smiles complacently, but Kara can’t help the incredulous expression she levels Alex with.
“What?” Alex says when she notices the scrutiny, draining her wine-cup and holding it out to be refilled. “She’s handy in the forge.”
“When did you get so fond?” Kara says, obligingly pouring Alex a half-cup more from the jug. Alex was the one who mixed it with water this evening, and though the alcohol doesn’t affect Kara she has a feeling it’s a bit stronger than what they usually have with supper. “A month ago, you were still mad that she knew my secret.”
“Ever since she got here, you’ve stopped wanting to leave.”
Alex’s tone is benign, but her words feel like a hot yellow sun pointed right at Kara’s face. It’s true – her wanderlust has calmed since Lena arrived, superseded with the desire to be close to her – but she feels unduly exposed by the fact that Alex has noticed.
“You wanted to leave?” Lena asks curiously. Her cheeks are rosy with the strong wine, and Kara hopes that the fact that she and Alex are flushed will mean her own blush isn’t so noticeable. “Why?”
“I wanted something…bigger,” Kara admits, staring down into the dregs of her cup. “For myself. To use my powers for something great.”
Kara knows exactly what changed. It’s sitting right in front of her, looking at her with those beautiful green eyes made more vibrant by the sunset. But Kara can’t say that out loud, not yet, so instead she covers it with a smile.
“I realized that what I have is great enough.”
Lena smiles back, but it’s a little distant. She stares out at the horizon, at the last hints of orange sunlight on the olive grove in the distance, with a pensive expression. “I thought for a time that I was going to be part of something bigger, too. But I’ve found such happiness here. It’s not a bad thing to want to keep that, is it?”
Lena’s voice is small, almost guilty, and Kara frowns. “Of course not. You deserve to be happy.”
“Even at the expense of others?”
“Lena, what are you talking about?” Kara asks, moving a little closer to put a comforting hand on Lena’s shoulder. Lena is tense under her palm, her fingers so tight on her clay cup that Kara worries it might shatter.
“Nothing.” Lena shakes her head and takes a final mouthful of wine, and her face clears a little. “We should go help with dinner. I tried putting flax seeds in the bread this morning – you’ll have to let me know if it’s any good or not.”
Kara floats them both down to the ground again, Alex scrambling down the drain-pipe after them, and in the sweetness of holding Lena close she forgets her troubled thoughts. Lena is here, and she’s happy, and she wants to stay.
What else could possibly matter?