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i can't hold enough of you in my hands

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Lena could kill her brother.

Realistically, at any given moment Lena’s probably only two or three smartass comments – at most – away from killing Lex. But for this, she could really kill her brother.

As if it wasn’t enough that he’d come back from the dead. As if it wasn’t enough that he’d wheedled his way out of his trial, that he’d kept Luthor Corp while Lena had walked away. As if it wasn’t enough that he’d been the one to send her

No, to top it all off, her bald bastard of a brother had to go and cut short Kara’s legacy download.

The crystal is gone now, along with their hopes of using it to track her into the Phantom Zone. But its content is branded into Lena’s mind, indelible as a bloodstain.

Kara had said goodbye to each of them individually. Her hologram had spoken each of their names then paused, calm and collected. Time for anyone else to leave, Lena supposed. The unsubtle hint that the content of each goodbye was private. Meant for one set of ears only.

Lena hadn’t listened to anyone’s recording but her own. She’d just watched as, one by one, they’d all filed into the Tower’s lab to hear what Kara had to say to them. She’d watched as one by one her friends re-emerged, eyes red and cheeks wet.

Alex had gone, after everyone but Lena. Hers had been the longest by far and when she’d finally returned, her gaze had looked more haunted than Lena had ever seen it.

“Luthor,” she’d muttered, voice cracking as she collapsed into Kelly’s waiting arms. “You’re up.”

It was significant, probably, that Lena’s goodbye was Kara’s last. Or maybe that was just wishful thinking. Maybe she’d been nothing more than an afterthought. The idea sent a dagger of despair twisting deep into her gut. She dreaded the content of the recording with her name on it. Dreaded its potential to shatter the last illusions she was clinging to.

But she’d gone anyway, of course she had. Quick and obedient and unquestioning. Of course she had. Kara had called. Of course Lena answered.

She’d almost collapsed at the first sight of Kara standing there before her. Elbows thudding against the metal lab bench, fingers clawing and knees buckling, she’d fought to keep herself upright.

The hologram had been motionless. Paused, perhaps. She’d wondered what to do, how to activate it and then— “Lena.”

A sound she couldn’t control had ripped free from her throat, a sigh or a sob or some thick combination of the two. And then Kara had started to speak.

“Lena.” Her name again, shaped by Kara’s mouth into a delicate caress, and she’d thought then that maybe this had been a mistake. That maybe it would be better never to know.

But it had been too late for that. Far too late.

“Lena.” A third time. An invocation, maybe. A prayer. “I don’t have much time. I don’t know if there could ever be enough time, for us.”

It was at that point that the tears had begun to fall. Lena had scrubbed them from her face furiously, determined not to miss one single syllable of this, one quirk of her brow or twitch of her lips.

“Lena, I want—” Voice choking off, an inhale so sharp it sounded almost painful. A heavy swallow. “I need you to know that—”

And that had been the point at which Lena had suddenly been overcome with the almost ineluctable urge to murder her brother, finally and irrevocably. Because Kara’s hologram had glowed brighter suddenly, her face tinged purple. The thick swirling purple of a portal opening close by.

Kara’s eyes had widened, and Lena saw in their blue depths something that she’d never before witnessed there. She’d seen fear, cold and vital, claw its way into Kara’s features. Seen it hook deep beneath her façade of resignation to expose the veneer of calm self-sacrifice for exactly what it was.

“Lena, the tapes.” Kara had bitten out the words, voice harsh, almost unrecognisable in her desperation. The urgency was so palpable it sent shivers down Lena’s spine.

Kara’s posture had changed, body drawing in on itself defensively. She’d shifted, turned side-on to the recording crystal, keeping her adversary in her sights. “Watch the tapes,” she’d said, words meant only for Lena though Kara’s entire being was focused on the Fortress’ intruder. “Then you’ll know.”

It was spoken half over her shoulder, Kara’s eyes locked on Lex as he must have circled her like a panther stalking its prey. A pause, one single moment of perfect stillness, and then her gaze had flicked back to the crystal one final, devastating time.

“I’m sorry,” Kara had gasped in the split second before she lunged toward the crystal. There had been a shout, a flash of sickly green, then nothing. The recording had cut off and Lena had been left alone in the empty lab, breathless and trembling.

Kara had been cut off. Had been unable to say whatever it was that had been so important that she wanted to leave Lena with it forever. I need you to know that—

And it had been Lex who had interrupted her. Lena’s own brother had, once again, taken from her something indescribably precious. And so, she could kill him.

She’d been ready to kill him as she’d made her way out of the lab on unsteady legs. She’d been ready to kill him as she’d stared down each of her friends, Kara’s friends, with a hard mouth and harder eyes. As she’d demanded to know anything they knew about the tapes Kara had been referring to. As she’d interrogated them well past the point that it had become obvious they had no idea what her ex-best friend had been talking about. As Alex had raised an appeasing hand and Brainy had grasped her forearm with something like pity in his eyes and Kelly had offered to drive her home.

Lena had shrugged them off. None of them could help her, that much had been plain. None of them knew how to find the tapes, and none of them could kill her brother, and that was all Lena wanted in the world now so if they weren’t going to help her, they would only hinder.

That’s how she’d come to search the Fortress, with Alex’s permission, from top to bottom. Had hunted through cavern after cavern, scoured the quantum processor for any mention of the elusive tapes. That’s how she’d come to pull just the right combination of discreet strings at Catco that had allowed her to investigate Kara’s desk and work computer after hours, checking for the recordings.

And that’s how she finds herself, after two days of sleep-deprived, fury-fuelled, utterly fruitless searching, knee-deep in the contents of Kara’s wardrobe. She’s already ransacked her best friend’s kitchen, her living room; meticulously checking every nook and cranny for anything remotely resembling a cassette before replacing everything in its original position with a reverence that borders on beatification.

Lena doesn’t even realise she’s crying until the worn grey Henley she’s clutching fiercely between her fingers is spotted dark with tears, stained more black than anything. She allows herself a moment, just one, to lean in. To bury her face in the clothes that smell more like home than anywhere Lena’s ever lived, to sob into the heady scent of Kara as the desolation and the futility and the despair pour out of her with all the pressure of a cracking dam.

And then she sits up, wipes her face, folds the shirt with fingers so delicate they could have defused a bomb, and continues her search.

It takes hours. Hours of single-minded concentration, of a focus so complete it couldn’t be anything other than an avoidance of the abject agony clouding her chest. But finally, mercifully, as Lena lays flat out on the floor of Kara’s bedroom, one arm wedged up to the shoulder into the tight space beneath her bed, her fingertips brush cardboard.

She tugs, hard, and it comes free. A shoebox, worn and battered. And inside— she almost vomits. Has to clap a hand over her mouth, breathing heavily through her nose as she tries to convince her roiling stomach not to divest itself of its contents completely.

Inside, there are tapes. Maybe twenty of them, old VHS cassettes of the type Lena hasn’t seen since the late nineties. And on each tape is a label, a name meticulously documented in a neat typeface.

Lena’s hands are shaking. After two days of searching for this very thing, she’s not sure she can stand to look. Thinks again, wild and desperate, that maybe it would be better never to know.

But the search for these tapes is the only thing that has driven her for so long now that she cannot fathom not seeing it through.

She reaches for the box. Pauses to clench and unclench her trembling fingers, wipes her sweaty palms on her jeans. Slides the first tape out of its slot and into the light.

 

The barrage of questions on the tip of her tongue, the what and how and why of these god damn tapes evaporates the moment Lena presses play. They’re hypotheticals, she realises. Trial runs or alternate timelines or what ifs turned reality.

It doesn’t matter; she doesn’t care. How could she? For once, her scientist’s mind falls silent. What could an explanation of the origin of these tapes compare to the content recorded upon them? What could it matter when weighted against the knowledge that Kara had, for whatever reason, dedicated time to imagining— that she’d tried

There are tapes upon tapes upon tapes. Lena watches the immortalised image of Kara reveal her identity over and over and over again. Watches the onscreen version of herself take it badly each and every time.

She feels them, as they happen. Feels the shock and the pain and the betrayal cut through her like gossamer blades, cleaving deep between her ribs. It hurts, still. Perhaps it always will.

After all, she had wanted to give all of herself to Kara. To be known, to be seen for exactly who she is, for all her darkest fissures and roughest edges, and have Kara love her anyway. To strive, for once in her life, for honesty, full and complete. To do so with the knowledge that only such open vulnerability would allow something strong and real and true to blossom between them.

To say, here I am. Love me anyway. Because of, rather than despite.

It had been a goal that contravened the harsh lessons of every experience of Lena’s life. It had been a goal that went against every fibre of her guarded, cautious nature. It had been a goal that had felt, at times, impossible to surmount; that had required untold effort and discomfort and a constant vigilance against her more self-destructive tendencies.

She’d striven for it anyway. Because Kara had been worth it.

And so. The revelation that the feeling was not mutual, that the truth and goodness and justice that Kara stood for both in and out of the cape did not apply to her relationship with Lena— it had crushed her. It would always crush her, if the scenes on these tapes were anything to go by.

She watches Kara tell her the truth in the DEO, in her office, in her home. Watches herself explode or disbelieve or shut down, her misguided efforts at self-preservation just too little, too late.

She’d been in too deep, she knows, right from the start. Had found herself in the middle of loving Kara before she’d realised she’d even begun.

There was never a chance that she would make it out of this, out of her, unscathed. She doesn’t need these tapes to tell her that.

She watches every cassette with a frantic kind of fervour. Speeds through them as though they’ll reveal some profound truth, the answer to all their suffering. As if they’ll slot into place like puzzle pieces; each one an individual fragment of mosaic that, once aligned with its counterparts, would arrange themselves into a roadmap of how she should proceed.

They don’t, of course. All Lena really gets from her first watch-through is the knowledge that it doesn’t matter when Kara tells her the truth. Everything always collapses after.

It’s not a great take-away. It’s not the message of hope and optimism she so desperately needs right now in the face of the bleak possibility of a world, of a life without Kara.

She doesn’t notice she’s crying until the last tape whirs to a halt and Lena reaches out a hand to eject it, only to find her skin and shirtsleeve spotted damp with tears. She crosses to the kitchen and pours herself a pint glass of water. Downs it all in one go because if the sizeable wet pattern of tearstains across her own lap and three of Kara’s couch cushions is anything to go by, she’s probably in need of some rehydration.

Then she swallows, wipes her mouth with the back of her hand, and squares her shoulders. Crosses back to the couch, avoiding the damp patch on the cushions, and sits down to watch the tapes again.

 

The second time through, all Lena can feel is anger. Anger at watching her own destruction over and over. Anger at Kara, for having all these chances to learn from her mistakes and still managing to hurt her, hurt them both, every time. Anger at whatever power had made these glimpses into other realities possible. Anger that God or fate or the universe or whatever has never deigned to treat them gently.

Lena snatches up one of Kara’s ridiculously gaudy throw pillows, presses it to her face, and screams until her throat is raw. Then she splashes some water on her burning cheeks, and re-takes her seat to watch the tapes again.

On the third watch-through the anger dissipates, replaced by an aching wall of sadness that drives the very breath from her lungs. She sees, this time, some of the messages hidden between the lines of these tapes.

She sees that, though she and Kara are always doomed to savage one another, the hurt they inflict in their perpetual lockstep is nothing compared to the alternative. She watches Kara die without her help. She watches herself distort into her own worst incarnation without Kara’s friendship.

She sees, quite simply, that they cannot live without one another. And such a realisation, the bare-faced reality that their symbiosis is now so complete that separation has become synonymous with destruction— to be confronted by this knowledge now, with Kara lost somewhere amongst the farthest flung reaches of the universe, may be the most painful thing Lena has ever experienced.

She cries until she cannot cry anymore. She cries until she’s sick with it, retching over the toilet bowl in Kara’s bathroom though there’s nothing in her stomach to bring up.

Then she brushes her teeth with the toothbrush, her toothbrush that somehow, miracle of miracles, still lives in the holder next to Kara’s own. Swills some mouthwash, downs another glass of water, and starts the first tape again.

By the fourth time, she’s exhausted. Spent in every sense of the word, emotion wrung mercilessly from her aching body like water from cloth. With a detached kind of resignation she is able at last to take a step back. To examine the tapes with something resembling pragmatism.

After all, Kara had pointed her to them for a reason. They had been her final goodbye; she had used her last seconds to communicate their importance. What that importance may be is left now to Lena to decipher.

This time through, Lena sees the agony in Kara’s eyes when every reveal inevitably turns bad. She watches Kara give up her identity to the public in order to save Lena’s life. Watches her flatly refuse to raise a hand to Lena even as she’s pinned down by the Kryptonite glowing sickly green in Lena’s chest.

And she sees the tapes as a whole, at last, for what they are. Evidence that Kara had not been as unaffected by the rift between them this past year as she had previously believed. Proof that Kara had wanted, had tried, to change things. To make them better. To get Lena back.

On the fourth watch-through, Lena sees the tapes for exactly what they are. A declaration of love.

She wishes now only that she had the means of reciprocating.

 

Night has long since fallen through the high vaulted windows. In the apartment above Kara’s a dishwasher hums to life, vibrating through the floorboards.

For a long time Lena sits silently, gazing unseeing through the gloom as she contemplates the poetic tragedy of her situation. But she’s never been one to waste time waxing lyrical about a problem she could instead be tackling head on, and with a shake of her head she decides to pull herself together. Reaches out to tug the hoodie still draped over the back of Kara’s couch around her body, warding off the chill she’d barely noticed had set in.

She buries her nose in the fabric of the collar, breathing in laundry soap and soft shampoo and stardust, and settles in to watch the tapes again.

The fifth and final time, Lena barely registers the images playing out before her on Kara’s television screen. Her eyes fall instead to the battered shoebox on the coffee table, to the stacks of cassettes and their neat labels.

Kara is purposeful in all that she does – never would her resolute calculations be more appropriate than in her final legacy download. Though she is warm and emotional and all but overflowing with love, she has always been practical. She had pointed Lena to these tapes for some reason beyond her own sentimentality, of this Lena is sure. She’s sure because it’s what she would have done in the blonde’s position and in so many ways, they’ve always been too similar for their own good.

So she considers the tapes again, not for their content but for their context. Something, or someone, had given Kara the ability to experience alternate timelines, divergent versions of her own life. The kind of power that would require— well. It might just be enough.

This time through, Lena pays attention. She registers for the first time the man that appears at Kara’s side in the darkest scenario, the only one besides Kara herself who seems to know that their current reality is not all that it seems.

She puts aside the disgust she feels at seeing all that she could, under the right conditions of neglect and hatred, become, and watches instead for clues. She sees the swirls of white-blue energy that shroud the two figures’ arrival into the timeline, hears the unfamiliar man name it as the fifth dimension. And, much later, amidst the chaos and the ruin and the destruction, she hears Kara call his name.

Mxy.

With a newfound determination she dredges up from beneath the astronomical weight of her exhaustion, Lena pushes up from the couch. In the press of a watch and a flash of lurid purple she’s striding over the ice floor of the Fortress, firing up the polyphasic quantum processor with steady fingers.

She runs a search, cross-referencing what little information she’d gleaned about the man behind the tapes as she scours the Fortress’ extensive database. The pages upon pages of Kryptonian no longer phase her; ever since Kara’s banishment to the Phantom Zone Lena has been using the long lonely hours in her lab as a chance to brush up on her language skills.

Hours upon hours of listening and speaking practice, programming Hope to converse with her as she tinkered with tracking devices and proto-traps and anything she could think of that might bring Kara back, had really paid off.

If she ever gets Kara back, Lena will show her how much she’s learned. And if she doesn’t, well. She will— God, even so much as thinking it has bile welling in her throat, but Lena is nothing if not determined. She will not allow Kara’s language, her home and culture and legacy, to die with her.

If she cannot save her, she will honour her.

But that’s a bridge she has not yet been forced to cross, and for that Lena is inordinately grateful. So she scans the Kryptonian archives quickly, flicking through screen after screen until at last she finds what she’s been looking for.

Mxyzptlk is his name. How one would go about pronouncing such an arrangement of letters, Lena doesn’t want to guess. He’s known, if her translations are correct, as an extra-dimensional imp. Extraordinarily powerful, he harnesses energy from the fifth dimension and uses it to jump through time, space, reality, as he pleases.

He is, in short, just the man for the job Lena has in mind.

 

It takes her three and a half days to build a device that can detect fifth dimensional energy anywhere on Earth. Lena doesn’t eat while she works. She barely sleeps. Leaves her phone forgotten in some lab coat pocket or other, ignoring all attempts to contact her.

She’s utterly single-minded in her focus, and utterly alone in her execution. After the wasted legacy crystal, the failed attempt to use it to trace Kara, her faith in the Superfriends has waned. They’re too good, she knows now. Too noble. Too prepared to put the collective good above the individual.

Lena has no such qualms. Not when it comes to Kara.

Plus, the records relating to Mr Mxyzptlk that she’d found on the Fortress’ database hadn’t contained the most complimentary of descriptions. Lena can only imagine that Alex and J’onn would be vehemently opposed to involving the imp at all and so, she tells no one of her plan.

She just works, ceaseless and unrelenting, as day blurs unnoticeably into night within the windowless bower of her private lab. When the detection system is at last complete Lena sets it to scan continuously and promptly passes out, head pillowed on the hard surface of the workbench, the corner of her keyboard digging into her cheek.

She’s awoken five hours later by a shrill beeping and she jolts upright, neck screaming and eyes gritty. But the stiffness of her shoulders and the fuzzy feeling of her unbrushed teeth fade into background static as her sleep-clouded mind registers the message flashing on her tablet screen.

It’s detected fifth dimensional energy. She’s found him.

The imp has appeared in Rio de Janeiro, of all places. Lena doesn't dare use the portal watch, knowing its energy signature would be detectable several seconds before she herself arrived, giving her quarry ample time to flee. Plus, it's too conspicuous to use in public. She doesn't need anyone asking uncomfortable questions about the origins of such a technology. So Lena boards her private jet instead, almost on autopilot, gaze squarely averted from the pair of seats that had both been occupied the last time she’d used it.

She opts to sit in the cockpit, the better to avoid the barrage of memories the luxurious cabin incites, and dozes her way over the beaches and rainforests of Central America. She rouses enough to mainline three shots of espresso as the plane begins its descent, pulling out her phone to call upon the seemingly boundless resources the Luthor name still affords her.

The dark SUV is waiting for her when she lands on an airstrip twenty minutes north of the city. Lena dismisses the driver – she doesn’t need any witnesses to this hairbrained scheme – and slides behind the wheel herself. She guns it toward the coast, toward the location still flashing on her tablet screen, the hills and mansions and favelas little more than a colourful blur all around her.

It takes longer than she’d like to reach her destination. Longer still when compared against the possibility of the watch on her wrist that it takes every fibre of her self-control not to use. Her heart is pounding by the time she pulls up at the boardwalk edging Ipanema beach, sticky with sweat despite the force of the car’s air conditioning. She’s out of the vehicle and moving toward the sand without much semblance of a plan, eyes scanning the bustling beach for the face she’d memorised from the video in Kara’s apartment what feels like a lifetime ago.

After an eternity of fruitless searching beneath the blaze of the unforgiving midday sun, she sees him. Surrounded by bikini-clad women and well-oiled men, a cocktail in one hand and an açaí bowl in the other, he’s the picture of contentment.

Lena starts to run, and it’s only when the soles of her feet begin to burn on the hot sand that she realises she isn’t wearing shoes, hasn’t been since she’d kicked them off two days ago in her National City lab. She fights through the crowds, stepping on towels and sun-browned bodies, sand spraying through the sticky smog of sunscreen. He’s so far away, right down near the other end of the beach but it’s nothing compared to the miles she’s flown to get here, to the light years separating her from the thing she wants most in the universe, so her pace doesn’t slow.

She’s almost reached him. She’s almost made it, red-faced and panting. And then Mr Mxyzptlk or whatever the fuck his name is leans forward, lips puckered, and two bouncing blondes plant simultaneous smacking kisses on his cheeks. And Lena watches in horrified fascination as the imp grins, snaps his fingers once, and is gone.

There’s nothing left of him by the time Lena skids to a halt in front of the group, dishevelled in her three day old blouse, hair matted to her damp forehead. Nothing but the faintest wisp of white-blue smoke.

Lena turns, and starts the long journey home alone.

 

She misses him three times over the course of the next month.

A week after the failed trip to Rio her detection system picks up the imp’s presence in Paris. Lena runs out in the middle of a meeting with the lawyers she’s hired to finalise her separation from L-Corp without so much as a word, jetting eastward as quickly as she can.

She tracks him to the banks of the Seine at sunset, amidst the throngs admiring the artfully illuminated Eiffel Tower. He’s posing for a caricature by a street artist and Lena sprints across the aptly-named Pont d’léna towards him, uncaring of the trail of disgruntled tourists she leaves in her wake.

Dread fills her as she watches her target hand a crumpled bill to the artist and accept his portrait and she screams his name, loud and clear despite the raucous hum of the crowds. He turns a little on the spot, fingers already poised to click, and just before he disappears in another swirl of white-blue smoke his eyes meet hers.

Ten days after that, he pops up in Australia. It’s a long shot, she knows. The imp never stays long on any of his visits as far as she can tell. But this is the only thing Lena cares about in the world anymore so she ignores the questioning looks she gets as she elbows her way out the door halfway through a hot yoga class, and boards her plane in record time.

Seven hours into the flight, the blinking dot on her tablet positioned right above the Sydney Opera House goes out. The imp’s fifth dimensional signature disappears, and somewhere high above the Pacific Ocean Lena turns her plane around and begins the long flight home.

A full month after she’d first discovered the tapes – a month of failed rescue missions and mounting despair and crippling jetlag that hardly even matters since Lena can’t even remember the last time she’d slept – she picks up the signal again in Montreal.

This one, she will not miss, she vows to herself as she drags herself out of the bed she’d been tossing and turning fruitlessly in for hours and speeds out to her private airfield. Barely five hours later she’s touching down to a snowy Quebec morning, bundling her inadequately-dressed body into yet another dark SUV and weaving through the downtown traffic toward Shaughnessy Village.

She tracks him to a pricey rooftop bar on Rue Saint-Catherine, catching sight of him behind the velvet cordon just as he slams back his share of a shot ski with his companions. She’s close, she’s so close at last, but the bouncer blocking access to the rooftop is as immune to her fluttering eyelashes as he is to her name-dropping, bribery, and furious shoving.

This can’t be it. She can’t have come all this way, have tried so hard only to lose him again because of a stubborn security guard and a VIP list upon which, for once in her life, her name does not appear.

Desperate, and tired and drained and half-wild in her despair, she screams his name again. At least, a rough approximation of his name – she’s sure her pronunciation of the jumble of consonants leaves much to be desired.

Across the rooftop, the imp’s head snaps up. He turns, and once more as if in slow motion, his eyes meet hers. It lasts only a fraction of a second before the bouncer grabs her roughly by the arms she’s been using to shove futilely at his chest, and manhandles her out of the bar.

She shouts, complains, protests, to no avail. Tries, once she’s been deposited unceremoniously on the street, to attract the attention of those on the rooftop by yelling at the top of her lungs. Gives up once the unimpressed bouncer informs her he’s three seconds away from calling the cops.

She drags her shivering body along the street until she finds another restaurant with a rooftop terrace and charges up five flights of stairs, arriving at the top red-faced and panting despite the biting cold. She makes straight for the railing at the edge of the rooftop, craning her body out to try to catch a glimpse of the imp on the terrace across the street, but it’s empty. His party have vacated their table and this time, there isn’t so much as a whisp of blue smoke to show he’d been there at all.

Back home in National City that evening, Lena’s hopes hit an all-time low. Without the imp and the fifth dimensional magic he can harness, she’s fresh out of ideas on how to find Kara in and rescue her from the Phantom Zone. For the first time in a month, the desolate futility that her obsession with tracking the imp has thus far kept at bay comes crashing back full force.

Tears spring to her eyes and she’s reaching blindly for a fresh bottle of scotch when a sudden knock at her door has her fumbling the glass across the counter in surprise.

No one visits her anymore. At least, no one welcome. Her eyes narrow as she taps at the biometric lock, wary and weary beneath the weight of her sorrow. She’s barely cracked the door an inch when it’s being shoved hard toward her, smacking her in the shoulder as a hand and an arm and shock of brown hair elbow their way through the gap.

“Who are you,” comes the voice attached to the suit-covered arm currently forcing entry into Lena’s home, “and how the hell do you know my name?”

 

It’s— it’s him. Mxyzptlk, in the flesh. At least, assuming fifth dimensional imps have flesh.

“Uh, Lena. Lena Luthor,” she stammers as she tries to claw back some semblance of composure. The imp mutters something that sounds suspiciously like oh Christ, and Lena swallows hard. “I— I’m friends with Kara Zor-El.”

“Is that what the Earth kids are calling it these days?” the man scoffs, his feet planted firmly on the far side of the threshold even as he leans across it towards her. “I knew something about you was familiar.” He quirks a brow, giving her a discerning once-over. “You look older than the last time I saw you.”

Lena’s brow furrows. “Um.”

Mxyzptlk ignores her. “Are you going to ask me in, toots? Regrettably, I will be requiring your explicit invitation.”

“Um,” Lena repeats, intelligently. “Yes. Come in.”

At what are apparently the magic words the imp bounds over the threshold, perching himself on Lena’s marble countertop and making himself utterly at home. “So, Ms Luthor. Care to explain why you’ve been stalking me round the world?”

Lena closes her front door with unsteady fingers. “Yes. I, um—” Her voice cracks and she cringes, clearing her throat and squaring her shoulders. “I need your help, Mr Mxyzptlk.”

The imp winces at her butchered pronunciation, flapping an unconcerned hand in her direction. “Please. Mr Mxyzptlk is what the judge calls me, honey. Mxy is fine.”

“…Mxy,” she acquiesces with a grateful sigh, and at his inquisitive look it all comes spilling out of her. The satellites and her brother and the Phantom Zone projector and the crystal, the tapes and the goodbye cut short and the huge, gaping, festering hole Kara’s absence has hewn through the very centre of Lena’s existence.

Mxy listens quietly, his face impassive. “You two, I swear,” he sighs when she at last runs out of breath, leaning back on his elbows and propping his loafers on one of her bar stools. “More drama than The Real Housewives of H’ronmeerca’andra.”

When Lena only blinks at him blankly he sighs, pushing off her counter and cracking his knuckles. “Word to the wise, sweets. When dealing with an imp, it’s always prudent to be perspicuous. What exactly are you asking of me?”

“Rescue Kara,” Lena blurts, no thought and all feeling. “Use your magic to get her out of the Phantom Zone. Bring her home.”

Mxy tips himself backwards over the end of her couch, reclining comfortably with one hand propped behind his head. “And why would I do that?”

“You offered her a do-over,” Lena says around a silent prayer that her deductions are correct. “That’s what those tapes were, in her apartment. You showed her that things could have been different between us, gave her the option to make one of those timelines her new reality. Am I right?”

The imp’s stony silence is all the confirmation she needs. “You offered her a do-over,” Lena repeats, quieter this time. “But she didn’t take it. Let me take it instead. Let me use it to save her, please.”

Mxy says nothing. Just continues to stare at her with an unreadable look in his eyes, and the panic forever simmering in Lena’s chest ratchets up another notch.

“Please,” she implores again. “You know Kara. You’ve spent time with her. You— you know she doesn’t deserve to be trapped there. You know how good she is, how important. This city needs her.” Lena’s hands are shaking in earnest now. She balls them into fists. “People here need her.”

“People like you?” Mxy asks, voice knowing even as his face remains impassive.

“Amongst others,” Lena manages past the barbed wire constricting around her windpipe. “I have to get her; I have to help her. If you can save her then please, please—”

The imp holds up a hand to halt her impassioned plea, dropping his head to the couch cushions and gazing lazily up at the ceiling. “Requests like this don’t come for free, you know. I can do what you’re asking, toots, but you’re no charity case and I’m no philanthropist.”

Lena opens her mouth to protest, but Mxy continues speaking over her. “To Kara, I owed a debt. Reparation for past wrongdoing,” he says quietly, and for the first time the imp looks genuinely saddened.

It lasts only a moment before he swings his legs off the couch and propels himself upright, poking nosily through the physics journals stacked beneath the coffee table. “I owe no such debt to you. What you’re asking for has a price, to be paid in full.”

Lena presses her lips together hard. “But—”

“What?” Mxy interrupts sharply, fixing her with a cold stare. “You think I owe Kara Zor-El a favour? The favour,” he snaps, disappearing in a puff of white-blue smoke only to reappear on top of her dining table, “is that I’m still here listening to you at all. Anything more than that is business, plain and simple.”

Lena swallows down the sizeable lump in her throat. It strikes her then how powerful Mxy is. How dangerous. “Name the price.”

“Oh, it’s nothing much,” the imp replies, saccharine sweet once more. The smile he shoots her sends a shiver down the length of Lena’s spine. “Just a little biblical justice. You know, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” He pauses for dramatic effect, watching her carefully out of the corner of his eye. “One lifetime banishment for another.”

Lena forces rigidity into her shoulders and composure into her expression. She straightens her spine. “Mine, I suppose?”

Mxy hums, far too content with the turn of conversation for Lena’s taste. “Indeed. Customer foots the bill, as they say. I’ll get our dear Kara out of the Phantom Zone for you, quick as you like. But you will have to take her place.”

It should worry Lena, maybe, how little thought the proposition requires. How easily the answer springs to her lips. But she’s about to spend the rest of her infinite existence in a nightmare realm born of her deepest fears so really, what does it matter? She’s got far bigger fish to fry.

“Done.”

Mxy’s eyes light up with a manic kind of glee and he bounds across the room, skidding to a halt mere inches from her body. “Excellent. Shall we?”

Lena blanches, her knees going weak. “What, right now?”

Mxy quirks a sardonic brow. “Unless you have a reason to delay?”

She gulps, glancing one last time around her apartment. Taking in her furniture, her belongings, the grand accumulation of it all that’s never felt half as much like home as the person she’s giving it up to save. When she raises her chin to meet the imp’s eyes, she wills her voice not to tremble.

“No,” she manages, barely more than a cracked whisper. “No, we can go now. Just—”

She holds up a hand as Mxy raises his fingers and he pauses, eyebrows raised expectantly. Lena swallows hard. “Will I— will I get to see her? Even just— for a moment?”

Mxy’s face softens then, expression thawing into an abject pity he makes no effort to hide.

“Oh, my dear,” he says as he touches his thumb to the tip of his middle finger, white-blue smoke already whisping from the point of contact. “Believe me, that would only make it worse.”

That’s the last thing Lena hears before the world goes black.

 

It’s been years. Decades. Eons.

It may have only been a matter of seconds.

Time doesn’t pass, here. Or rather, it does and it doesn’t. Lena gets to experience the strength-sapping weight of the knowledge that the world she’d once known is rushing on without her, with every second moving further from a place to which she could ever hope to catch up. And yet simultaneously, there is an inertia so complete that there’s no solace even to be gained by the knowledge that, as time rolls effusively on, she’s at least moving closer to the inevitable end.

She won’t die, here. Not from natural causes, at least. There are things in this place that could kill her, vile frigid things that smell like ice and taste like decay that whisper round her in the darkness, but they are her only threat. The passage of time, the promise of old age, are no friends of hers. They will bring no release to her now.

So, the pale shadows of phantoms are the only threat to her here, but they are not her only enemy. The cruellest, the most insidious of her tormenters is her own mind.

Lena dreams, though there is no difference now between dreaming and waking. Each one only brings her a new type of hell.

She dreams of Kara the most. Of revealing her human identity to the world. Of poisoning her. Of tempting her into traps, of pinning her to the ground with her own Kryptonite heart, of pressing the button on the Phantom Zone projector and banishing her to the nightmare realm over and over.

It never once eases. It never hurts less. Over and over, Lena lives through the annihilation of the woman she can finally, posthumously, admit that she loves with every fibre of her being. Meets the unceasing loop of agony head-on with shattered heart and streaming eyes.

Though she dreams of Kara the most, there is plenty more to keep her occupied in and between.

She spends an eternity floating above Earth, orbiting it in perpetual motion. She watches her brother’s satellites, fitted with the technology she handed to him on a silver platter, activate the Obsidian lenses. She watches half the population of the world die at her brother’s hand. At her hand. She listens to them scream her name as she kills them.

She dreams of her mother, dark hair fanning out behind her as she cuts through the still waters of the lake. The scene is calm, but the growing dread means Lena knows what’s coming and suddenly it’s not her mother but Kara before her, and the lake isn’t clear but radioactive, glowing green, and still Lena stands at the shore and watches her slip away, helpless.

She dreams of children poisoned with lead, of triggers pulled and blood gurgling up through bullet holes, of choosing one life over another and signing a death warrant in the process. She dreams of darkness and cruelty and an evil so inescapable it roots through to her core; a sickness permeating her family tree that has rotted out the heart of her as well.

She dreams that she walks the Earth again. It’s so real that for a long time she thinks perhaps, against every insurmountable odd, she’s made it back. She moves through her apartment, her office, Catco. Noonan’s, the gym, the running trails at Point Grey Park. Sam’s home. Kara’s.

Everywhere is beautiful. Everywhere is clean, warm, and welcoming. Everywhere is empty.

She comes to the Tower last. Makes her way up the now-familiar elevator, the doors opening to a bright blaze of sunshine streaming in through the double doors. For a moment it is perfect, wholly and utterly. For a moment, her heart swells with the knowledge that after a lifetime of searching, she has at last found her people. Found her place amongst them. Found her home.

And then her eyes adjust and she sees them. Laid out across the floor, draped like discarded rag dolls over desks and surfaces. Her family, Alex and Nia and Brainy and Kelly and J’onn. And Kara, dead. All of them, dead.

Blood coats the floor, coats her hands. In the centre of the room, Kara gasps. Death wheezes out between her blue-tinged lips. “Why didn’t you save us?” she rasps, faint as an echo. Her eyes are hard and accusing even as the life drains steadily from them. “You could have saved us, Lena. You could have saved me.”

By the time Lena’s knees give out and she hits the floor, Kara is dead. Lena screams into a void so dark and soundless that it seems to absorb the noise entirely, as if it never existed at all.

She kneels there, trembling, for millennia. And then the nightmare ends and another begins.

Lena shivers against the cold stone at her back. Draws her knees into herself, covers her head with her arms. As if they offer any semblance of protection here.

The pain is too great. She will not, cannot survive this. And yet, survival is the only option left to her.

She cannot look at blackness any longer, cannot bear the phantom grey after-image that seems to stick to every corner and edge. She thinks of blue, of rain-washed skies and Kara’s eyes; conjures it into being with every fibre of strength she has left. Wraps herself up in it, plunges headfirst. Drowns.

 

A hundred billion lifetimes have come and gone. No time has passed. Lena is upside down, and right way up, and no way up at all.

Another nightmare fades back into the gaping maw of terror that’s never more than a hair’s breadth from swallowing her whole. Amidst the greyish cold, something bright flares before her unseeing eyes.

But it’s not the bright of an approaching phantom, not the flash of warning she’s so familiar with now, and it doesn’t fade when she turns her aching gaze towards it. It brightens.

Another nightmare, Lena thinks, a new one. But not so new as to be unfamiliar because a moment later, Kara’s face materialises within her clouded vision. This place, it seems, never exhausts its supply of new ways to use her own love against her.

“Lena, Lena,” sounds in her deafened ears, the exhales harsh against her numbed skin.

The authenticity of these nightmares has always been the hardest part to accept, Lena thinks idly. They’re so unbearably real that they sever another piece of her dwindling soul every time.

“Lena, hey. Look at me, that’s it. I’m here. I’m gonna get you somewhere safe. I’m gonna get you out of here.”

Kara’s voice is so sweet, Lena muses. The sweetest sound she’d ever had the privilege of hearing. She should have appreciated it more while she could. At least she can hear it again now, though it’s a barbed facsimile at best. At least she can take comfort in this one small remnant of home before she’s inevitably forced to watch Kara die all over again.

“Hey!”

Kara’s voice is sharper now, and nearer. A pressure on her cheeks— if she in fact still has cheeks, and a face and a body and is not, as she secretly suspects, nothing more now than a whisper on the foul wind. But her head is forced sideways and up and it hurts, everything hurts, and that’s new. The nightmares haven’t taken to torturing her physically, as yet. Perhaps that’s about to change.

“Lena, it’s me. Hey, look at me! Focus. Focus, Lena.”

The urgency in Kara’s tone is also new. Usually, she’s happy and contented in the beginning of these dreams, if only to make the impending agony all the more poignant in comparison.

“I’m sorry, Kara,” Lena mumbles with near-Herculean effort. Better to get that out of the way now, before whatever terror is in store for them today comes creeping out of the shadows. She needs Kara to know that she’s sorry. She’s so fucking sorry.

“Hey, you have nothing to apologise for,” comes the immediate response and how this place knows Kara’s essence so well, can nail the exact shade of selfless sacrifice the blonde favours quite so perfectly, is a conundrum she has not yet managed to solve.

She’s tired, she’s so tired. Won’t the nightmare just get on with it already? This easy lull, this false sense of security, it will only make the inevitable destruction that much harder to stomach.

Lena’s clouded eyes slide closed.

“Lena, no, please. It’s me, it’s Kara. I’m here. I know you think this is just another nightmare but I swear to you, I’m right here. Look at me, Lena. Look at me.”

With astronomical exertion, she at last manages to comply. Kara is there before her, close and bright and beautiful and Lena wants so badly for her to be real that tears spring to her dry, stinging eyes.

“Kara,” she manages and God, she probably thinks this every time, but none of the dreams have ever hurt quite like this.

Her voice is clogged and tear-thick and sad. Lena so hates it when Kara is sad. “Yeah, yeah. I’m here, see? Look at me. Please, Lena. Touch me. I’m right here.”

Something is pressing at her hands. Lena had forgotten about her hands, her arms, her whole body. For so long, she hasn’t needed it. For so long, it hasn’t done anything but hurt.

But now her hands are moving, lifted in another’s, and then her palms are flat against a suit-covered chest and something hot and electric jolts through Lena for the first time since the birth of the universe. She— she feels.

Her milky eyes widen. Beneath the press of her palms is material, sleek and smooth, and beneath that there is warmth and a firm softness and the pounding thud of a heartbeat. Her hands slide of their own accord, up from the fabric to the tickle of sun-soft curls, higher still to the mouth-watering heat of bare skin. The regal line of a throat, the proud cut of a jaw, the cherished curve of a cheek.

“Kara,” she tries again and it sounds like the last gasp of a drowning man. It sounds like the first breath in a newborn’s lungs.

“Yeah.” Something wet and scalding trickles over her fingers. Tears, she remembers. Kara is crying. “Yeah, Lena, it’s me. I’m here. I’m going to take you home.”

It’s not the first time that Kara has promised such an impossible thing. It is the first time that Lena believes her.

Kara,” she sobs and now she’s crying too because against all odds, she’s here. She’s here, and Lena can touch her, can hold her once more.

She pushes up from her protective ball to launch herself at the blonde. Kara catches her easily, swaying them a little as Lena’s hands continue their path of discovery over her body. Now that she can feel Kara again, she cannot feel enough. Cannot get close enough, cannot hold her near enough, no matter how hard she tries. Her body, her face, her beautiful, precious face— if Lena loosens her hold for even a second she may slip away again and this time, she will never return.

“Oh God,” Kara sobs against her hair, hands stroking hard and sure over Lena’s back, her ribs, her hips. “I’m here, you’re okay. I’ve got you, Lena. I won’t let you go.”

Time passes, and it doesn’t. Centuries drag by in a single second. If she is to be suspended in perpetuity forever, this is exactly where Lena would like to remain.

“How did you find me?” she asks, quiet as an exhale and loud as a thunderclap. Her hands, her arms, her legs wrapped tight around Kara’s body never loosen for a second.

“Mxy,” Kara answers, tightening her own hold in kind, and Lena shivers.

“How?” she manages at last. Kara’s mere proximity has imbued her with an energy she hasn’t felt since long before her arrival in this cursed place. Her eyes widen suddenly, nails digging sharp into the skin beneath her clutching hands. “Kara, no. What deal did you make? What price has he made you pay?”

“No, nothing,” Kara hums, rocking them gently as panic grips Lena’s frail body. “Nothing, I swear.”

It can’t be that simple. It can’t be that easy. “Then how?”

“He didn’t dare refuse me,” Kara mutters, suddenly harsh against Lena’s ear. Her voice is dark and low, full of the wrath of an avenging god. “After what he did to you, letting you sacrifice yourself for me…” Against her back, Lena feels Kara’s fists clench. “He owed me a favour.”

This cannot be real. She cannot fathom it. “So we can just… go? We can go home?” she asks tentatively. Though she hardly dares to believe it, she knows already that the loss of this hope will shatter her beyond repair. If this truly is just another elaborate nightmare in the end, there will be no coming back. She will never recover.

But Kara’s arms are still there around her, still warm and sure and real. “Yeah. Yeah,” she breathes. “We get to go home. You saved me, Lena. Did you really think I wouldn’t return the favour?”

Lena cries her laughter into the warm juncture of Kara’s neck and shoulder, finding more solace there than she’s known for centuries. Sobering, she shakes her head, rubbing her cheek against Kara’s skin. “But, this place. You’ve already— Kara, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry you’ve had to come back here.”

“Please,” Kara scoffs, anchoring their bodies ever more firmly together. “Mxy told me that you watched the tapes. You know what I did. You have to know that I’d choose you, Lena. Every time. Over anything.”

A fresh round of tears breaks free. Still, Lena cannot get close enough. Still, she clutches at the blonde desperately, with a strength she’d thought long squandered. “Kara—”

“I love you, Lena,” Kara breathes, “That’s what I wanted to tell you in my recording. That I love you, with all that I am. That there is no line in the universe I would not cross to keep you safe.”

“Kara,” she sobs and it sounds like salvation. “Kara, I love you. I always have.”

The blonde pulls back at last, just far enough for Lena to see her blinding smile. “I know. I know because you did it, Lena. You crossed the universe to keep me safe.”

Lena smiles, and Kara shifts, and suddenly she’s floating, suspended in strong arms. With her aching body wrapped reverently in the heavy fabric of her cape, Lena tucks her head against Kara’s shoulder and waits, at long last, for this nightmare to end.

“I love you,” Kara murmurs, quiet and close, nudging the gentlest of kisses to Lena’s forehead. “I’ve got you. Now let’s go home.”

Chapter Text

The Phantom Zone is cold.

That’s the first thing Kara really registers. When she’d been stranded here as a child, she’d at least had her stasis pod to keep her warm. The ship her parents jettisoned her in had offered small defence against the psychological torment of this cursed place, but it had at least protected her fragile body.

It’s so much more physical this time around. The visions, the waking nightmares are as agonising as she remembers but now there’s a primordial baseness to it that claws into her skin and slices beneath her tongue.

She’s cold all the time. The chill is insidious and bone-deep, seeping into her marrow, reducing her once vital body to frigid ash. She’s sore, too; joints leaden and aching where they rest haphazardly against the hardened stone beneath her. Her breathing is so shallow and slow now that she wonders idly if she might not be able to just— stop. The energy she’s wasting on the repeated expansion and contraction of her lungs is an expenditure her wearied body can scarcely afford and it’s not like this place will let her die, anyhow.

That would be too easy.

So, the physicality of the Phantom Zone is an unwelcome backdrop to the mental torment it inflicts, and pain pulses low and indistinct beneath the white-hot blaze of each nightmare as blood throbs stubbornly through a bruise.

But her corporal ailments pale in comparison to the horrors playing out before her waking eyes.

Kara is treated, again and interminably, to a front-row view of Krypton’s destruction. Watches her planet explode from afar, from up close. Watches the faces of all those she’d once loved melt and warp into the heat-death of the planet’s core, watches all that once was solid and sure turn to bone and ash and dust.

She reaches out a hand. She would capture the cinders, if she could. Would swallow them, grind them against her gums, work them into her porous flesh that she might never be without this place. That she might carry it within her, always.

But this is the Phantom Zone, and this is a life, a universe that has never cared much for easing the burdens she bears. And so Kara can only watch. Watch as solar winds whip the last traces of her home away to the farthest flung reaches of the universe, on paths that she can never follow. Watch as Rao looks on, impregnable and uncaring. Watch as her god closes his eyes, turns away.

It’s as unbearable as it was when she was a child. But she’s done so much more now, lived so much more, and the detonation of her birthplace is no longer the only fodder with which she can be tortured. In fact, there’s an embarrassment of riches.

In her dreams Kara watches Kal-El, Clark, grow up human. Watches him forget Krypton, forget the sound of their language and the prayers of their people and the sight of Rao shining red in the sky. Bows her chin and clasps her hands and turns to face the ghostly figures of her parents, her Uncle Jor-El and Aunt Lara. Turns to face the weight of their disappointment.

“I’m sorry,” she gets out, a strangled whisper on the breeze. “I wasn’t there to keep him safe. I wasn’t there to keep him Kryptonian.” Tears course stinging and caustic over the curve of her cheek. “I— I failed you.”

Her family only stare, unaffected. Their eyes are cold. “Yes,” her father says at last, the word striking her like a hammer blow. “Yes, you did.”

The nightmare fades. Another rises up to take its place.

 

Kara watches Alex die in every way imaginable, and then some.

She watches the way her sister’s face disintegrates into anguished despair as the realisation hits her that Kara cannot, will not save her. As she at last recognises the truth that Kara herself has known for years: that she’d placed her faith in the wrong person.

Kara dreams, repeatedly and in excruciating detail, of every single human throughout all of Planet Earth that she has, at one time or another, failed to save. She dreams of all those who will die while she is trapped in this godforsaken place. She dreams of her friends, her family, her home, unprotected.

She dreams of Eliza, of J’onn and Brainy and Nia and Kelly and James and Winn and Sam and Cat. Dreams of their screams as they’re tortured for information, punished for their connection to her. Of every single danger that could befall them, that could wipe them from existence at any moment. Of every tragedy she is powerless to prevent.

And she dreams, paradoxically, of her loved ones moving on without her. She dreams of their lives now that she’s here; so much safer, so much less complicated. She sees their frantic efforts to rescue her from the Phantom Zone, at first. Sees how their attempts become fewer and farther between with each successive failure. Sees how, one day, bringing her home no longer matters more than anything else. Sees how much better off they are without her.

It’s agony. It’s hell. To know that the only thing she yearns for, her one last scrap of hope – that she might somehow escape this wicked place – would only put those she loves in more danger, would only bring them more pain— it’s unbearable. She’d rather die, yet she can’t even manage that.

Sometimes, she dreams of Lena.

She’s always alone. The faces of Kara’s sister, her family, her friends all blur and morph, a great amalgamation of those she loves subjected to various terrifying ordeals, but Lena is not there. She’s never there. When Kara dreams of her, she’s always alone.

That means something, probably, in the grand scheme of things. What it means concretely for Kara from one pain-soaked moment to the next is that there is no distraction. No diversion, nothing to draw her attention away from the unspeakable hell of bearing forced witness to Lena’s suffering.

With her waking eyes, Kara watches Lena forget her. Watches her mourn her, hate her, love her unendingly. Each is excruciating. Each is worse than the last.

She watches Lena die at the hands of her mother, her brother, of Kara herself. Watches as she’s mangled and brutalised into a cruel, heartless thing; watches the bright beautiful soul of her be scooped out and crushed mercilessly to dust until all that remains is a shell.

She watches every single tragedy that could possibly befall Lena play out before her eyes and she knows that she cannot survive the pain of it, and then she survives anyway. She’s starting to think that the malicious power rooting through this place must at last be waning, must have exhausted every scenario with which it could torment her, when she slips into the next illusion to find Lena smiling.

She’s smiling, she’s happy and radiant and alive, so alive. Her eyes shine, her cheeks flush, her pulse thrums warm and imperative beneath the softness of her skin. She’s standing loose and carefree on a bright white shore, hair and dress fluttering in the ocean breeze as she wraps her arms tight around the figure at her side.

They’re slanted close together, Lena’s dark curls tangling with the figure’s golden waves beneath the tang of the sea air and they’re so wrapped up in each other that nothing beyond them exists. Lena lifts a hand to smooth her palm over the face that Kara cannot see, brushing blonde wisps out of the person’s eyes with such unbridled adoration in her gaze that Kara’s stomach flips.

The figure leans in, their waterfall of golden curls shining bright in the dappled beams glistening off the water, to whisper soft and close in Lena’s ear and suddenly, Lena laughs. Here, in this awful place full of nothing but pain, her laughter breaks through the haze of suffering like sunshine through clouds. She laughs loud and unabashed, her head thrown back to expose the graceful column of her throat and when she regains her breath again and brings her gaze back to her companion, Lena’s face breaks into a smile that Kara has only ever seen directed at one person.

It’s a smile that Lena reserves only for her.

Of course, of course the person at Lena’s side is her. The golden curls, the slight height difference, the untold reverence with which the figure touches Lena— who else could it be but Kara herself?

She can’t believe it. Can’t believe that this image of pure unbridled happiness, this manifestation of her heart’s deepest most selfish desires, can be possible here. Her mind whirs even as her heart soars at the sight of the two women before her who love each other more than anything else in the galaxy. Why would the Phantom Zone allow her a glimpse of such elated bliss?

There’s only one possible answer, of course. It wouldn’t.

The sun dims, the figure turns, and Kara sees at once that it isn’t herself at all. It’s some other blonde, some stranger whose unfamiliar face Lena is still staring at like it’s the most precious thing in the cosmos. The pair seem to notice her suddenly, pivoting toward her as they stand wrapped up in each other, Lena’s temple pressed to the blonde woman’s jaw.

“This could have been you, Kara,” Lena says softly, addressing her directly for the first time, and at the cherished sound of her voice tears spring unbidden to Kara’s eyes. “This could have been us.”

The unfamiliar blonde tightens her hold around Lena’s waist then, tilting her head to slot their mouths together. Lena gasps, and moans into the kiss, fingers tightening against the woman’s shoulders, stroking at her jaw, fisting in her hair.

It’s over in a matter of seconds. It lasts for an eternity. At length Lena pulls back, but not before she drops one last light kiss to the lips of the woman in her arms. Blissed out and sated, she turns her attention once more to Kara, gaze hardening as it travels the insurmountable distance between them.

“This could have been us, if only you’d been brave enough,” Lena whispers, and Kara is left to watch them disappear into the sunset with nothing but the bitter aftertaste of missed opportunities on her tongue, soul-shattered and alone.

 

Kara is eons old, now.

Untold millennia have passed while she’s suffered here. Likely, her friends and family are all long dead. Likely, so is Earth itself. Perhaps all the universe has imploded into the inevitable supernova that wipes out all of existence. Likely, even that wouldn’t be enough to free Kara from this place.

Right now – there are no days here, no hours or weeks or years discernible through the grey fog of fear. There is only what is right now, and what is not – she is dreaming of her father. She is dreaming that he is here with her, trapped in this infernal place. She dreams that his spirit has been broken, that he’s given up, and losing the brave, proud heart of him is as painful as losing all of him all over again.

But the phantom image of her father at her side warps suddenly, twisting and flickering as something else pushes through. A swirl of white-blue smoke envelops Kara’s trembling body and through it, for the briefest of moments, she catches sight of a face.

Then everything turns black, then bright white, then a glowing, pulsating blue, and the next thing she knows she’s opening her eyes to the sight of the colourful braided rug that covers her living room floor.

From somewhere behind her comes the sound of breaking glass. A gasp. A shout. And then her own name, over and over between panicked cries as two hands pull her prone body from the hard ground, her head and shoulders pillowed in a warm lap.

Kara,” Alex sobs, her tears dripping hot onto Kara’s own cheeks as her sister curls over her protectively. “Kara, my God. You’re here. Are you really here? How are you here?”

This is just another dream, it must be. Kara has learned through hard experience never to trust her own eyes, lest they inevitably betray her. Lest the seeming reality of her situation suddenly crumple back into the agony of the Phantom Zone all over again.

But this— this feels real. The floorboards are uncomfortable and Alex is warm and the air smells close and closed, as if the room has sat stagnant and untouched for some time. When she at last finds the strength to sit up she sees her apartment almost entirely as she’d left it. Sees the shattered glass in the kitchen, the plants Alex had been in the middle of watering. Sees her goldfish clock on the wall, her mismatched throw pillows on the couch, her shoebox full of tapes on the coffee table.

This must be a dream and yet— and yet it doesn’t feel like one. There’s something different, some indescribable quality to the very space around her that had been lacking in the Phantom Zone, and all that it had shown her.

And as the minutes pass, as Alex cries and holds her and calls everyone to tell them the news and then cries and holds her some more, it doesn’t disappear. The fragile hope of the scene doesn’t disintegrate into some new nightmare and slowly, achingly slowly, Kara begins to believe.

This is real. She’s alive. She’s home.

 

The others arrive quicker than she had thought possible.

First J’onn and M’gann, then Brainy and Nia and Kelly, ploughing through her front door and launching themselves at where she’s hunched on the couch to smother her in their arms. They keep asking her how – how she is, how she’s here, how she got out – but Kara finds she has no answers for them. In fact, she cannot find it within herself to speak at all.

She only sits, dazed and untethered, as her family crowds into her with all the love they can impart. As Alex explains the way Kara had simply appeared, dropping onto her rug out of a cloud of smoke that had materialised from nowhere and disappeared just as suddenly. As her family’s arms around her, their hands on her face and their lips on her hair sink into her like sunlight, rejuvenating her like the lamps Kara is idly shocked Alex hasn’t forced her under as of yet.

Her family seem unperturbed by her temporary muteness, content to do the talking for her as they fill her in on all she’s missed. And Kara is content to let them, at least until her eyes fall again to the box of tapes on the coffee table. At least until the absence in the room registers like a physical presence and suddenly she can’t not speak, no matter the toll or the pain or the cost. Because some things are more important than— well. Anything else.

“Lena,” she croaks at last, voice hoarse and cracking from disuse. She hasn’t spoken aloud in centuries. “Where’s Lena?”

“I— don’t know.” Alex pauses in her regalement of the myriad ways they’d tried to get Kara out of the Phantom Zone over the three months she’s been gone, her brow furrowing. “I called her!” she says defensively, palms raised beneath the force of Kara’s stare. “But she didn’t answer, so I left a message. Come to think of it, I, uh. I haven’t actually heard from her in a few days.”

Why, Kara wants to scream as her sister’s expression twists guiltily, as the others shift and fidget on the cushions beside her. Why did no one know where Lena was? Why had she been left alone? Why had her family, who had picked up Kara’s mantle in so many ways while she’d been gone, not acted in her stead in this? Why, in this most vital and essential of things, had Lena been allowed to slip through the cracks?

Driven by a strength she’d believed her exile had sapped from her body for good, she pushes out of the tangle of limbs on her couch and out of the window. Just barely makes it to Lena’s apartment, listing slightly in the cold night air.

It’s empty. Kara’s stomach bottoms out at the sight of the bottle and glass laid out on the counter, at Lena’s phone on the couch and her purse by the door. The others arrive as she’s checking the bedroom, flown in courtesy of the Martians, but Kara barely registers their appearance.

She’s too preoccupied by the smell that permeates the air of Lena’s living room; not the heady combination of expensive perfume and soft detergent and a faint hint of lab explosions that she’s used to associating with the space but something else, new and vaguely familiar.

It smells thick and staticky, like ozone or thunderclouds or electricity through water. The same smell, she registers for the first time, is clinging to her own suit and hair.

Alex and Brainy and J’onn are talking amongst themselves, running through a list of people to contact and locations to check regarding Lena’s whereabouts but it doesn’t matter, can’t they see? Haven’t they noticed? She can’t honestly believe that none of them have put the pieces together yet, have picked up on that god-awful smell.

That smell, which clings to Lena’s apartment and Kara’s own body. That smell, which reminds her of wedding dresses and unwelcome guests, of alternate timelines and the sharp snap of fingers.

“Where is he?” she growls, and every pair of eyes in the room jumps to her face. Kara’s not in the mood for playing dumb right now, and a familiar heat begins to build behind her eyes as her throat burns cold. Kara glares at each member of her family again, a challenge in her eyes.

“Where the fuck is Mxyzptlk?”

 

The room explodes into a cacophony of noise.

Her friends turn to her with various levels of confusion etched into their features, shouts of who? and that motherfucker and what’s he got to do with anything? and Kara you really should rest crowding the air around her until she feels like she can’t breathe.

She doesn’t have time to explain. If the others can’t keep up, that’s their lookout. Kara forces herself to be rational. To examine the evidence, to piece together the chain of events.

Lena had watched the tapes. She’d watched them, and then she’d— what? Kara spies her tablet lying abandoned on the kitchen island, and in the next heartbeat it’s in her hands. It’s locked, and almost dead to boot, but there on the notification list is the confirmation Kara needs.

Fifth dimensional energy signature lost, reads the last update. It’s dated an hour ago.

So. Lena had watched the tapes, she’d identified Mxy and then she’d come up with a way to— to track him somehow. Had found him, presumably, if the smell in her apartment is anything to go by. She’d found him and then she’d— shit.

Kara thinks back to the smoke that had shrouded her final moments in the Phantom Zone, the blur of white-blue light. Lena had convinced the imp to get her out, somehow. And then—

And then she’d disappeared.

Kara’s fists clench. “Mxy!” she yells, uncaring of the way the others startle and flinch, brushing off the calming hands that try to restrain her. “Mxyzptlk! I know you were here. Come back! I have to talk to you!”

Alex’s forehead is creased in worry. “Kara, what on earth—?” She stumbles slightly as Kara pushes past her to pace the length of the room and a tiny pang of regret twinges in some deep corner of her heart. But it’s quickly overpowered, overshadowed, forgotten.

“Kara, is he the one that—?” Alex starts but Kara’s already yelling over her at the top of her lungs. She doesn’t care who hears. She wants the whole world to hear, the whole universe, all the way to the fifth motherfucking dimension.

“I know you brought me back,” she screams at Lena’s ceiling, just barely restraining the urge to laser vision clean through it. “I bet you’re keeping tabs on me. Get down here right now and face me or I swear to any god that still gives a shit that I will hunt you to the very ends of existence.”

A tense silence fills the room as her jaw snaps shut. Kara’s breathing hard. She doesn’t think anyone dares to approach her right now. She has to applaud their astuteness.

For a long moment, nothing happens. Nothing happens, and Kara is just beginning to debate the various methods of hacking she might employ to get into Lena’s tablet and track the bastard down herself when a swirling ball of white-blue smoke opens up above the counter.

Mxyzptlk appears on the far side of the kitchen island, his hands already raised in surrender. “Kara, darling!” he cries, high-pitched and panicked. “Now, listen, before you do anything hasty—”

It’s a little too late for that. No thought and pure feeling, Kara launches herself across the apartment towards him. Her eyes are aglow, throat frosting cold, hands clenched tight enough to pulverise steel.

Lucky for the imp, J’onn gets there first.

Where is she?” Kara growls, low and sharp as a thunderclap as J’onn’s arms close around her body, holding her back. She fights, just enough to free herself without injuring him. “What have you done with her? Where the fuck is Lena?”

She’s screaming again. She doesn’t care. She moves to round the counter toward him and J’onn blocks her once more, stoic and adamant. Behind him, Mxy’s eyes are wide and scared. Good.

“Now, you’ve got this all wrong,” Mxy protests as he skirts the kitchen, carefully keeping J’onn’s massive form between Kara and himself. “I brought you back from the Phantom Zone! I’m the good guy here. And besides—” He ducks out of the path of a blast of laser vision and Lena’s marble backsplash cracks clean down the centre behind him, smouldering slightly. Mxy gulps. “I didn’t do anything she didn’t agree to.”

The sound that breaks free from Kara’s throat then is, for lack of a better descriptor, a roar. J’onn loses his grip on her biceps as she twists and ducks and suddenly she’s got the imp by the collar, slamming him against Lena’s expensively painted wall. “What did she agree to?”

Mxy coughs and splutters, his face slowly turning puce as his feet dangle a solid two feet above the tiled floor. Kara ignores the clamouring voices behind her, the hands tugging ineffectually at her iron grip as her family try to restrain her. She just adjusts her grip slightly, staring him down.

“It was a simple trade,” he gasps at last, his nails scrabbling desperately against her chokehold. “I gave her what she wanted! She, she agreed to the terms—”

Kara growls again. She’s losing her patience. “What terms?”

Mxy’s eyes widen as he redoubles his desperate escape efforts. “Exchanging places!” he gasps frantically. “Her lifetime banishment. To end yours.”

The world stops spinning. Kara’s grip slackens. Mxy slips from her grasp and crumples to the floor, panting. Blood is pounding in her ears, deafening. “Lena’s— you sent her to the Phantom Zone?”

Mxy nods through his sputtering coughs, hands pressed gingerly to the deep purple bruises already forming at his throat.

Kara stumbles backwards, deaf to the worried voices of her friends. Blind to the shock and concern on their faces. She fights the urge to dry-heave.

Lena’s there. She’s there, right now, in that most horrific of places. She’s hurting, suffering at this very moment, because of Kara. Because she’d agreed – of all the stupid, reckless, noble gestures – to take Kara’s place.

For one single, endless moment, Kara dies. She feels it happen; feels her soul detach completely, feels her mortal body crumble in its wake. Everything is silent and screaming and terrible.

And then the world starts spinning again, and Kara snaps back to herself with a jolt. She’s no good to Lena dead.

She’s across the room in an instant, kneeling before Mxy’s buckled body. “Take me to her.”

The imp’s eyebrows hit his hairline and he scrabbles backwards across the smooth tiles, putting some distance between them. “Oh, no,” he gabbles, still a little breathless. “No way, lady. We had a deal, fair and square, and I’ve done my part. It’s out of my hands now.”

“But this is your fault,” Kara snaps, fury building hot and effusive once more. “You let her sacrifice herself for me. You should have talked her out of it. You should have stopped her.”

“What am I, a shrink?” Mxy bites out, crawling on all fours across Lena’s kitchen floor as he tries valiantly to evade her. “No. I’m a businessman, and business was done. So if you don’t mind, I think I’ll be going.”

“Oh, you’re not going anywhere,” Kara growls, shoving free of J’onn’s strong hands. “Not until you’ve given her back to me.”

“Look, unless you’re in the market for another trade—” At Kara’s infuriated roar Mxy shrugs, hoisting himself to his feet with the aid of the marble countertop. “I didn’t think so. In which case, there’s nothing more I can do for you.”

Kara chuckles, low and dangerous. “Oh, I think there’s plenty—” And she launches herself across the kitchen towards him.

Time seems to slow as she sails through the air. She sees Mxy’s eyes widen. Sees him move to snap his fingers.

He’s fast, sure. But Kara, Kara is Supergirl.

She latches onto the lapels of his jacket a fraction of a millisecond before the pads of his fingers make contact. The room is enveloped in a shroud of glowing, pulsating blue, and then everything is white, and then everything is black.

 

When she opens her eyes again, she’s on another planet. That much is plain from the darkness surrounding the two of them, the gravity-defying mountains floating on the horizon and the unfamiliar planets shining in the sky.

“What the—?” Mxy exclaims as they touch down, glaring at Kara’s grip on his lapels in irritation. “Get off me!”

That staticky ozone smell is back and stronger than ever, enveloping them in an invisible fog even after the white-blue smoke has faded into oblivion. Kara’s already fragile body is not taking well to its little jump through the space-time continuum, but she forces the dizziness and nausea back with an iron will.

Mxy fights to free himself, to dislodge her from his body. Kara fights harder.

Another snap of his fingers, another kaleidoscope of colour, and they’re in a rainforest. The air is thick and sticky-sweet, tree trunks as wide as city blocks pushing up towards the sky. Nearby, something loud and angry-sounding trumpets its arrival.

Mxy glares down at her, trying to wrestle his jacket free. “Let go!”

Kara grits her teeth, sets her jaw. “No.”

Another snap. They’re underwater this time. Miles below them, light shimmers like sunlight on the surface. Above their heads, huge shapes slice silent paths through the depths of the dark. Mxy points to Kara’s hands where they’re clenched in his suit, releasing an angry stream of bubbles. Heart pounding, lungs screaming, Kara shakes her head.

Another snap, and they arrive dripping in the centre of the construction site that will one day house, if Kara’s Earth history serves her, the Great Pyramid of Giza. Around them, sweat-slicked men carting baskets of sand and chunks of stone pause to stare at the pair of them slack-jawed.

“I’m not kidding, Kara,” Mxy bites out, attempting to peel her fingers off his lapels one by one. “Get the hell off of me.”

Panting and dizzy but still very much holding on, Kara shakes her head. “Not until you help me save Lena.”

“Stars and quasars, you’re a broken fucking record,” the imp curses, snapping his fingers once more.

This time, they materialise on what can only be an asteroid. Around their miniscule lump of intergalactic debris, galaxies and constellations blur by faster than her eyes can track them. Kara’s trembling legs give out at last and she sinks to her knees, tugging the imp down beside her with the hand still fisted firmly in his jacket.

They’re both breathing hard, still damp and dripping from their little ocean adventure and for a moment, neither speak. For a moment they just rest there, two tiny specks of nothing, clinging to a marginally bigger speck of nothing as it hurtles through space.

“Next time, I’m hopping into the fifth dimension,” Mxy warns, fingers already poised to click again though his voice is tired, his breathing laboured. “Mortals can’t survive there. You’ll burn up immediately.” He sighs, pushing a strand of wet hair back from his eyes. “Consider this your last warning.”

“Mxy, please.” Kara’s energy is all but gone. Her body, utterly depleted by the Phantom Zone and its subsequent tour of all of time and space, is spent. “Please help me get her out of there.”

“For the last time, no,” the imp sighs, running a tired hand over his face. “Don’t even bother with the puppy dog eyes. I’m immune.”

“Why?” Kara croaks, throat tight. “I thought you’d changed. I thought you were better now. Why won’t you help me?”

“Why should I?” Mxy snaps. “The two of you have given me more than enough trouble already, and it’s not like you’ve given me any incentive. Just a full collar of bruises,” he complains petulantly, rubbing at his neck with a wince.

“An incentive,” Kara repeats slowly, a plan beginning to form in her mind.

The air around them burns orange blue for a moment as they skim the edge of a nearby planet’s atmosphere. The entirety of the cosmos wheels overhead.

“No. No, no, no,” Mxy mutters as Kara raises her head, scooting backwards to try and put some distance between himself and the fresh gleam in her eye. Kara doesn’t let him get far.

“So you want to talk incentives?” she asks calmly, confidence returning. “Why didn’t you say so?”

Mxy shakes his head frantically, pulling away hard. Kara tugs him back, harder.

“Now, you know, Lena is a very clever woman,” she starts, tone light and conversational. “And over the years she’s invented some very clever things. One of them is a device that allows the user to – how did she put it – to incept brain waves. Basically, it’s a means of mind control.”

The imp gulps, and Kara’s slick smile grows another inch.

“Guess who has it now, Mxy?” she asks, saccharine sweet, slinging a playful arm around the imp’s neck as supernovas burst and disappear over the horizon. “That’s right. Me. I have a device that allows me to control someone’s mind. To make them do whatever I want. Now, tell me. Am I going to have to use it?”

“You wouldn’t,” Mxy says, but there’s no certainty to his tone.

Kara quirks a brow. “No?” She pulls the imp closer by the arm still looped round his neck, hissing low and vicious against his ear. “If you don’t help me get her out of there I swear to God, I will track you down and I will use Myriad on you. I will force you to do what I want, and then I will leave you a vegetable.”

The wonderful thing about threats, Kara muses idly, is that if they can be executed convincingly enough, no one need ever know if she would truly have followed through. Not even Kara herself.

Mxy shivers against her and Kara leans back, finds her smile again. The universe whirls around them. “But it doesn’t have to come to that, does it?”

Though there’s unmistakeable fear in his eyes, the defiance hasn’t yet drained completely. “You’re Supergirl,” he manages, indignant even as his voice trembles. “You’re known throughout the universe as the Paragon of Hope. You’ve got a stronger moral code than anyone. You— you wouldn’t.”

“No?” Kara’s voice is deathly calm as she releases the imp to push up on her knees, folding her arms across her chest. She watches him shiver at the chill in her tone as she stares him down, unblinking.

“Tell me, Mxy. Are you willing to bet your life on it?”

 

He does as she asks. Of course he does. He would have been suicidal not to.

Another round of half-hearted protests, a final decisive snap of the imp’s fingers, and they’re there. There, in the Phantom Zone, in a place worse than hell. In a place Kara would have killed, would have died, to never return to.

She releases Mxy’s jacket at last and the imp sinks down onto a nearby rock with an exhausted huff. “If you try anything funny,” she warns, fixing him with the sternest glare she can muster, “any tricks, any attempts to leave us here, just remember: until I get back, my sister has Myriad. You do anything to hurt us and there’s nothing in any dimension that will be able to save you from Alex Danvers.”

Mxy just flaps his hand at her dismissively, propping his chin in his other palm. “Yeah, yeah, I’m not going anywhere. Will you please go and get her? I want to go home and take a bath.”

As satisfied as she’s going to get, Kara straightens. Turns to face her nightmares all over again.

She finds Lena curled on the frigid stone, skin cold and eyes milky. It takes a long time to convince her that she isn’t dreaming, so long that the hope and relief that had flared like starbursts through her aching body begin to fade back into gut-churning worry.

But interminably, eventually, Lena starts to believe. She starts to believe, and she throws herself at Kara and holds on tight and Kara vows to herself in that second that she will never, ever let her go again.

“I love you, Lena,” she finds herself saying because she can’t not say it. Because life is too uncertain and this thing they share is far too precious to let Lena live another moment of her life not knowing the truth. “That’s what I wanted to tell you in my recording. That I love you, with all that I am. That there is no line in the universe I would not cross to keep you safe.”

“Kara,” Lena sobs, hot and vital against her jaw, and she tightens her hold around the delicate, treasured body in her arms. “Kara, I love you. I always have.”

Kara’s not sure she hears anything else after that. Her entire world narrows to the body pressed against her own, to the thighs around her waist and the hands in her hair and those beautiful, longed-for words ricocheting around the inside of her skull.

She takes Lena home. Gathers her into her arms, swaddles her reverently in the folds of her cape and carries her back to where Mxy waits sullenly, tapping his foot. Tucks Lena’s face to her chest as Mxy snaps once more and the air around them fills with heavy, thunderous ozone, and then they’re home.

Kara collapses onto the floor of the Tower, somehow managing to maintain her grip on Lena’s body so the semi-conscious woman doesn’t go sprawling across the floorboards. She just manages to register Brainy’s gasp as he pushes back from his monitor, Alex’s shriek from the neighbouring room, before the last of her strength runs dry.

Through the dazed fog shrouding her mind she just about manages to comprehend the hazy figure of Mxy leaning over her. “Do not ever try to contact me again,” he mutters before he’s gone in a white-blue flash, replaced by the worried, wonder-struck faces of Alex and J’onn and Brainy and Nia.

She’s half-aware of the hands lifting her battered body, of more sliding between her and Lena to pull the other woman from her and she frowns, fingers grasping weakly.

“No,” she manages, weak and trembling, but Alex understands.

“She’s here, she’s right here,” she says soothingly, a steady hand on Kara’s shoulder. “Here, look.”

And then her sister is rolling Kara’s head for her, manipulating her limp body until a parallel gurney appears in her field of vision. Lena is laid out on the bed next to Kara’s own, and when the hell they’d arrived in the Tower’s med bay is anyone’s guess but it doesn’t matter because Lena is there, being checked over by Kelly and M’gann and Nia, close enough to reach out and touch.

Relief washes through every cell of Kara’s body concomitantly with the sunlight streaming down from the lamps Alex flicks on above her bed. They’re alive, they’re home, they’re back. Lena will be okay now. Everything will be okay now.

With that thought in her mind and Lena’s whole, safe, breathing body in her sights, Kara gives herself over to the tug of oblivion.

 

Alex keeps them in the med bay for four days.

The Phantom Zone had sapped them physically as well as mentally; subjected them to thirst and hunger and exhaustion and exposure and generally worn them down to just above the threshold of death. Had sustained their bodies with the bare minimum required to keep them alive, and nothing more.

Kara had been there for three months, in Earth time. In the Phantom Zone, it had been millennia.

For Lena, the sojourn away from this planet had lasted less than twenty-four hours. But, Alex informs them, brow creasing with worry, the lasting effects wreaked upon her body by her disappearance seem far more long-term. Lena had spent at least a month there in Phantom Zone time, Alex had estimated, judging by her physical deterioration.

The diagnosis makes Kara’s fragile stomach clench and twist. If there’d been any solid food inside her at all, she would have vomited it all over her sister’s combat boots.

So, they stay for four days. Four days of warming pads and saline drips and nutrient-rich IVs and test after test after test. Four days of hugs and whispered thanks and stern reprimands for her half-crazed rescue mission from Alex and J’onn; of sun lamps and physical therapy and patching up cuts and bruises.

Four days of her throat closing over any time any one of her friends asks what had happened in the Phantom Zone. Four days of nightmares and flashbacks and full-body tremors. Four days with barely a word spoken, with her hand clasped tight in Lena’s in the empty space between their gurneys as they lie there traumatised and trembling, gazes fixed stubbornly on the ceiling as silent tears track over their temples and soak into their hair.

On the fifth day, Alex informs them – reluctantly – that they’re cleared to go home. Nudges Kelly towards the pair of them with little finesse and stands unsubtly in the corner, watching like a hawk as the young therapist goes over the importance of healthy processing. As she talks about trauma and lasting impacts and the dangers of internalisation, as she recommends mental health professionals and offers to set up appointments and graciously pretends not to notice the way neither of them can really meet her gaze.

Kara just squeezes Lena’s hand, never far now from her own, and promises they’ll think about it.

 

Home, Alex had said, but Kara isn’t sure she can. Isn’t sure it would be, not really. Not on her own.

Thankfully, Lena picks up on her thought process without her having to say a word. She runs the pad of her thumb over Kara’s knuckles in the empty med bay, gazing up from under her lashes. “Your place?” she asks shyly, voice hoarse from disuse. Kara doesn’t need to be asked twice.

She’s fully recovered now, physically at least, so she opts to fly them there. Leaves her sister and the rest of their family with hugs and kisses and promises to check in, to take care of themselves and each other, and whisks Lena out of the door into the early morning sunlight.

Setting foot in her apartment again is weird. She’s spent only a few disoriented minutes here since before this whole thing began, before Lex and the projector and the terror and the rescues, plural.

It feels different now, somehow. Just ever so slightly misaligned, as if every one of her possessions has been picked up and put back a hair’s breadth out of place. But it’s possible, she supposes as she surveys the room, that actually, she’s the one that’s changed.

She lets Lena shower first. Lays out fresh clothes for her and sets to work in the kitchen Alex must have re-stocked, preparing miniature portions of toast and cut fruit for their still-recovering stomachs. She’s just finished brewing a weak pot of herbal tea when Lena emerges, the ends of her wet curls dripping steadily into the fabric of Kara’s cosiest sweater.

She speeds through her own shower, tugging on sweats and the softest t shirt she can dig out, re-emerging to find Lena staring rigidly down at the box of tapes still sitting on the coffee table, expression unreadable.

“Thank God you left me these,” she says quietly, tracing a fingertip over the rows of neatly-labelled cassettes. “Who knows where we’d be right now if you hadn’t.”

Kara swallows. “I’m glad you could figure it out, even if my message was cut off,” she says thickly, keeping her gaze glued to the battered shoebox even when Lena’s eyes snap to her face. “I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you everything then. I— I’m sorry I waited so long.”

She hears the way Lena’s heart ticks up in her chest, though she still won’t meet her gaze. “So am I.”

Silence falls between them. No, not silence. Back in the Phantom Zone— that had been silence. The utter quiet of suspended decay, of a world devoid of light, life, hope. Here in her sun-soaked living room it isn’t silent, not really. Morning traffic rumbles steadily past the building. Floorboards creak, pipes tick in the walls. In the apartment above hers, a dishwasher hums.

Kara loves these sounds, she realises. She’ll never take them for granted again.

“So, what now?” she asks after a long moment, spreading her arms wide. “Do you, I don’t know. D’you want to sleep?”

Lena shudders, wrapping her arms tight across her torso. “God, no.”

Kara huffs out a breath that, in another lifetime, might have been a chuckle. “Me neither.”

A lull rises between them again. Lena brushes past her on her way to the kitchen, the scent of Kara’s shampoo on her hair lingering like a siren song. She picks up a piece of toast, taking a delicate bite. Pours them both a mug of tea. “Well,” she says at length, pinching a strawberry daintily between thumb and forefinger. “I bet we’ve got a lot of crap TV to catch up on.”

They end up curled on the couch, tucked beneath the length of Kara’s red knitted blanket. They stay there all day, episode after episode of shows they don’t really watch playing across the screen. They snack periodically, keep themselves hydrated as per Alex’s explicit instructions, but for the most part they’re just there, together, quiet and still.

“Are you going to make an appointment with one of the therapists Kelly recommended?” Kara asks at some point, playing absentmindedly with Lena’s fingers where they rest on the blanket between them.

“I don’t know,” Lena murmurs, cheek resting against the back of the couch. “It’s probably a good idea. Are you?”

“I guess,” she says quietly, rolling her own head so they’re face to face. “We could go together, if you like? Not actually into the session, obviously, but, you know—”

“Yeah,” Lena hums, her eyelids fluttering closed. “Together.”

They migrate closer as the hours wear on, drawn together like magnets as day bleeds into night behind the high vaulted windows. Darkness falls to find Lena tucked beneath Kara’s arm, curled warm and close against her side. Her left hand tangles with Kara’s where it drapes across the younger woman’s shoulder, Lena’s head nestled snugly against her neck.

They’re warm and cosy and safe now, even if Kara isn’t sure her nervous system has fully gotten the message yet. It will take a lot to come back from this, she knows. A lot of time and effort and unpleasantness to deal with the traumas they’ve suffered together and apart, to heal gaping wounds into numbing scars and somehow learn how to live again. But here, now, with Lena’s hand in hers and Lena’s heartbeat thumping steady and persistent against her ribs, she thinks she might be strong enough to try.

Not tonight, though. Tonight is for blankets and bites of toast and soothing tea and the early seasons of Gilmore Girls that neither of them really pay attention to. Tonight, in short, is perfect.

“Hey,” Lena hums somewhere between seasons two and three, rolling her head on Kara’s shoulder so they’re face to face. She has to tilt her chin up to meet Kara’s eyes. Her own are gold-flecked amidst the green, shining in the soft lamplight despite their lingering shadows. “Thanks for saving me.”

Kara swallows, throat tightening. She squeezes the hand still in hers, drawing their linked arms round Lena’s body to hold her tighter. “Ditto.”

Lena smiles then – a soft, exquisite thing – and turns her gaze back to the screen. Kara lets out the breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding, softening the two of them further into the cushions. A moment later, Lena tilts her face up towards her again.

“Hey,” she repeats, even quieter than the first. Their faces are barely a hair’s breadth apart, now. She can feel Lena’s soft exhales against her mouth. Can see Lena’s lips moisten as the tip of her tongue darts out to wet them. “Thanks for loving me.”  

The world stops in its tracks for a moment. Kara’s heart seizes. “Ditto.”

A corner of Lena’s mouth quirks. She leans up, nudging closer, and presses their lips together.

The first touch is brief, gentle and tender. The second is deeper, open-mouthed and full. Kara learns the shape of Lena’s tongue in her mouth, the taste of her teeth, the flavour of her shallow gasps. There’s a third kiss, and a fourth and a fifth and then Kara loses track somewhere between the hand Lena brings up to cup her jaw and the way she tilts sweetly as they move together, her head still resting against Kara’s shoulder, her nose brushing her cheek.

It’s unhurried and uncomplicated and done with no ceremony, no fanfare. It doesn’t escalate, betrays no expectation. In fact, they barely move from the embrace they’ve been in for hours, just adding one more to the list of the warm points of contact between their bodies.

It doesn’t feel like a big step, some brand new beginning. It feels, Kara thinks, like the last piece of the puzzle of her life finally, blessedly, sliding into place. The progression feels inevitable, and easy as breathing. It makes sense, she supposes. She and Lena always have been.

At some point they break apart and Lena smiles again, warm and wondering. She presses her temple to Kara’s jaw for a moment, content to bask in the final realisation of their kismet, then turns back to snuggle deeper into Kara’s side.

Onscreen, Rory Gilmore gives the valedictorian’s speech to throngs of cheering high schoolers. A cool night breeze blows in through Kara’s half-open window. In the apartment above hers, the dishwasher finally falls silent.

Lena is soft and warm and pliable against her, moulding to Kara’s every curve and edge. It’s no small thing, she thinks as she presses a kiss to the crown of Lena’s head, to be able to walk through hell with someone and emerge on the other side still holding their hand.

“We’re gonna be okay, aren’t we?” Lena asks quietly, half-muffled in the fabric of Kara’s t shirt.

Kara hums, honest and happy and hopeful once more. “Yeah. I think we are.”