“How’s the borscht, Kara? Regret not taking my advice yet? I told you to go with the pelmeni.”
Kara snorts, taking another bite of her tepid beet soup and keeping an eye on the restaurant door. She clears her throat to cover the noise, slightly raising her hand until her Russian Language book covers most of her face but the tiny hidden camera installed in the cover can still pick up anyone entering.
The soup is pretty terrible, not at all the temperature it should be, but she can’t give Vasquez the satisfaction of knowing she was right about what Kara should order while she waits for their quarry to arrive.
“Joke’s on you, Vasquez. It’s freaking delicious,” she mutters, and she hears scattered chuckles through her earpiece that are quickly silenced by what she assumes is Jonn pinning the van team with one of his trademark withering looks. Kara is pretty sure that having a wicked judgemental look is a prerequisite to being promoted to Assistant Director of the FBI, and Jonn has it down to an art.
“Agent Danvers, what do we have out back?” Jonn says over the comm, and when Alex answers she’s almost drowned out by the whistle of the cold wind. Alex’s post is in the alley behind the restaurant, and she gets the pleasure of standing in the rain and waiting until she gets the green light.
“Recyclable cans in the trash, sir. Nobody cares about the environment anymore,” Alex says, and Kara can hear the clatter of an empty as Alex kicks it down the alley.
“You know, calling both of us Danvers makes things very confusing, sir,” Kara quips, adjusting her earpiece from behind the safety of her book. “Why not just – “
“Agent Schott, anything out front?” Jonn interrupts, and Kara smiles. He’s always been by-the-book to the point of grumpiness, and she gets great satisfaction from annoying him.
“Nothing here,” Winn says, the nerves clear in his voice. It’s his first time out in the field, his first time outside his comfortable bubble of tech support since he requested to go through full training, and it shows. He’s jumpy, and it puts Kara on edge to have someone so green on the team when they’re dealing with someone they’ve been chasing down for years.
Morgan Edge has caused too much death and destruction with his selling of illegal weapons technology, and it stops tonight. All they need to do is get proof.
Her heart leaps when the bell over the restaurant door chimes, and three men stride in – the first two are burly, wearing matching scowls and large overcoats that just barely mask the handguns they’re definitely packing. And the third is the man whose picture she’s been staring at for weeks, pinned to a corkboard in the briefing room.
Edge looks nervous, his receding hairline shiny with sweat, and while he and his companions take a seat at a corner table Kara checks in.
“The eagle has landed,” she says softly, moving her book to better capture the conversation across the room. “Winn, did you not see them come in?”
“Shit!” Winn says, and Kara can hear heavy footfalls. “Nobody was out front so I went to check the parking lot, I didn’t see – “
“What’s their position, Danvers?” Jonn barks, and Winn falls silent.
“They’re just talking right now. Edge has a briefcase, but he hasn’t opened it,” Kara reports, making sure to angle the camera down at the silver case beside Edge’s chair. Jonn, watching the feed from the van, grunts his assent.
“Everyone hold position until we get confirmation.”
“Holding, sir,” Alex and Winn both confirm quickly, and Kara surreptitiously shifts her leg until her ankle holster is close enough to grab.
“I’m just a civilian, enjoying my delicious Russian food,” Kara confirms, grinning. She gets no answer from Jonn, but she can picture him rolling his eyes as two more men enter, even larger than the first two, and head towards Edge’s table without so much as a glance at the waitress trying to direct them.
“Well that was rude,” Kara sighs while Edge abruptly stands and shakes the newcomers hands, looking jumpy. “Man, Russian intelligence agents these days have no manners. Whatever happened to – “
“Focus, Danvers,” Jonn says in a warning tone. Edge has grabbed the briefcase and put it on the table, but nobody has opened it yet, and Kara holds her breath, making sure the hidden camera is completely still. She doesn’t want any of the footage to be unclear.
Right at the crucial moment, the waitress steps directly into her eyeline to clear a table.
“Danvers, we need a confirmation to move in,” Jonn warns, repeating what Kara already knows. “Give me visual.”
“I’m trying,” Kara mutters, shifting the book again to get around the obstruction. It doesn’t quite work – the little screen embedded in the page still shows the briefcase is hidden behind the waitress, and Kara grunts in frustration. “I can’t get the angle right.”
“We’re losing time,” Jonn says, and Kara huffs. Nothing she’s doing is working, and she’s going to have to get creative. Calling the waitress over with a friendly wave, she steels herself for a maneuver she isn’t entirely sure she can pull off.
“Excuse me,” Kara says as the waitress comes near, “I was wondering, um – could I just - “
She tries to angle the book around the waitress, stalling for time, but still she’s obscuring the view as Edge turns the briefcase towards the men across the table for them to examine. She can see the flash of the metal, but she can’t see inside.
Drastic measures need to be taken.
“You know what, I just…I really love this borscht,” Kara blurts, standing to her full height and grabbing the waitress in a bear hug. “I’m a changed woman. Thank you so much – “
The waitress freezes in her arms, seeming unsure what to do, and it gives Kara enough time to hold the book and camera up behind her back. In the tiny screen she can see the briefcase, and the glint of it reflected on Edges sweaty face; and in the briefcase, set into a sculpted foam insert, is a USB key.
“We’ve got him,” Jonn says in her ear, and Kara’s adrenaline spikes into overdrive. “Move in.”
“Get behind me,” Kara whispers in the waitress’ ear – and then the door bursts open, and chaos ensues.
“Get down!” Jonn yells in a commanding tone, Alex and Winn flanking him with guns out and pointed at the occupied table. Kara pulls the waitress to safety behind a table and takes out her own weapon, keeping it pointed at the ground as Edge and his bodyguards stand up slowly with their hands in the air.
“What seems to be the problem?” Edge asks, his beady eyes darting around to each face surrounding him. His palms are red and sweaty, and Kara can tell that he knows he’s sunk. But she also knows that, like the cockroach he is, he always seems to survive; she can’t let him slip away again.
“You’re under arrest, Edge,” Kara says, and Edge’s eyes flick to her. “We have you on tape. It’s over.”
She can practically see the gears turning in his head. He’s surrounded, and although Winn’s hand is shaking as he holds his gun the other three agents in the room are seasoned professionals. His options are narrowing down to almost nothing.
“What if I offer something better?” he says, and behind him one of the buyers twitches. The Russian man’s hands slowly start to lower towards his waist, and Kara finally raises her weapon.
“Don’t,” she warns, and the man freezes. “Hands off the weapon.”
He glares at her. Kara’s attention moves back to Jonn, whose long silence is becoming entirely too long.
“Like what?” Jonn says finally, and Kara almost drops her gun.
“You can’t seriously be thinking about making a deal!” she explodes, and at Jonn’s sharp look she clenches her jaw and takes a step forward. “Sir.”
“Stay in position, Danvers,” he says lowly, and Kara stops reluctantly in her tracks. “For once in your life, just follow orders.”
“My buyers,” Edge says, answering Jonn’s question. His voice is quiet, but urgent. “Will their identities buy me a better arrangement?”
Jonn’s face is stony. He’s silent for a few moments, and his consideration leaves just enough of a window – one of the buyers on Kara’s side reaches for his firearm, and points it at Edge’s back.
Kara reacts on instinct. Dropping her own weapon she throws herself towards Edge, tackling him to the ground as the gun discharges, and the situation escalates to pandemonium. Jonn shouts orders as Edge tries to struggle out of Kara’s grip; the buyers sprint towards the door to the kitchen, taking advantage of the distraction; and Winn screams, dropping to the ground.
Without a word Alex leaps over Edge and Kara and out the front door, making a hard right towards the back alley. Edge tries to follow but Kara puts a firm knee into his lower back, and he grunts while she snaps handcuffs around his wrists.
“Why the hell would you save me?” Edge pants, still struggling.
“Because I’m not like you,” Kara snarls back, trying to see Winn through the legs of the table and chairs they landed behind. He was standing directly behind Edge, right in the way of the bullet. “I don’t stand by and let people die.”
“You won’t hold me for long,” he says through gritted teeth, cocky even in cuffs while Kara hauls him to his feet by the shoulders. “I have too much information to not take advantage. I’ll get a plea deal, and be out by Christmas.”
“Shut up,” Kara mutters, keeping a firm hold of his arm while Jonn looks Winn over. He shouldn’t even be in the field – but if he got hurt, it’s because of her. Kara’s heart hammers as Jonn kneels down to assess him.
“You’re all right,” Jonn says in a calm voice, while Winn shakes uncontrollably. He’s clearly in shock, ghostly pale, but when Jonn checks him over Kara sees no wound – instead she spots a hole in the drywall behind him, perfectly bullet sized, and she sighs with relief. Winn isn’t bleeding. It must have just missed him.
“Did anyone get the damn buyers?” Jonn snaps into the comms, his eyes on Kara.
“I’ve got them, sir,” Alex’s voice replies, and Jonn visibly relaxes. “They tried to rabbit through the back door. They’re both cuffed now. Is Winn okay?”
“Schott is fine. Just shaken up,” Jonn says, glaring daggers in Kara’s direction again. “Good job, Alex.”
The fact that Jonn pointedly used Alex’s first name so as to avoid any confusion about his thoughts on Kara’s actions is not lost on her.
The rest of the night goes about as well as Kara expects. Edge is bundled, smug and smiling, into the back of a secure vehicle and the paramedics arrive to treat Winn, who looks less shaken now but is still staring into the middle distance. He seems to be re-evaluating his life choices, and Kara approaches him with the intent of apologizing, but Jonn is standing next to him and looking so disappointed in her that she does an about-face and heads to the parking lot instead.
Better to go home and take her frustration out on a heavy bag instead of digging herself into an even deeper hole.
That’s where Alex finds her an hour later, when she comes in without knocking with a box of donuts in one hand and a six-pack of beer in the other. Kara takes one last jab at the punching bag and gives it a spinning kick, getting out her last bit of aggression, before flopping back onto the bed behind her. Alex kicks off her shoes and drops the beer on the kitchen table, and Kara only moves when a strawberry-frosted donut lands on her chest, smearing sugary glaze on her sweaty skin.
She looks at the donut for a second, before shrugging and taking a bite anyways.
“Sometimes I wonder if I made the right choice, joining the FBI,” she says with her mouth full, staring up at the ceiling. Alex scoffs, sitting on the edge of the bed and taking a bite of her own apple fritter.
“What are you talking about? You’re a great agent.”
“Every time I do something outside of his control, J’onn yells at me,” Kara says grumpily. “I want to help people, and he only cares about getting the job done.”
“He doesn’t yell. He…speaks sternly,” Alex says, and Kara rolls her eyes. “He’s seen people get hurt on the job from not following orders, Kara, he just wants to protect you. Winn almost got shot.”
Kara shoves most of the donut in her mouth. “Winn shouldn’t be in the field. Why did he even transfer from tech support?”
“Because he’s in love with you,” Alex says sagely. “And, chew with your mouth closed.”
Kara makes a show of chewing noisily, and Alex makes a face until she manages to swallow.
“Well, maybe almost getting him killed will finally convince him we’re just friends,” Kara grumbles. She reaches her hand out and makes a grabby motion, and Alex puts another donut in it. “Do you think I did the right thing?”
“I think you followed your gut.”
“That’s not an answer.”
“It’s not an easy question, Kara,” Alex says, getting comfortable on the bed since Kara shows no sign of wanting to get up. “I don’t think saving someone’s life is a bad thing, but you did put Winn in danger. And you disobeyed orders.”
Kara sighs. It’s more or less what she expected Alex to say, but it does nothing to stop the unease in her belly. When Alex gets up to get her a beer she closes her eyes, and tries to find some calm in the ache of her muscles after a good workout.
She had joined the FBI because of Alex, really. Unsure what to do with her life after majoring in English and Political Science she had followed Alex into basic training, driven by Alex’s excitement over her new job – and for a while, Kara had been happy. It felt like she was making a difference. But the longer she’s been here the more she’s realized that the FBI is not much more than a sea of red tape, a veil of protocol over inefficiency and internal politics. It’s eaten up most of her life since she joined, leaving so little room for anything else that the only relationships she’s been able to maintain are with Alex, her coworkers, and a few reliable friends-with-benefits situations to keep her from going insane.
But, Kara figures as Alex clinks her bottle against hers, at least her sister is here. With Alex here, things can’t really be so bad.
Perhaps as some kind of punishment for her actions the night before, Kara is assigned to Starbucks duty the next morning.
The crowded coffee shop is as terrible as it always is, as is the drive to the bureau with a mass of flimsy plastic cups leaking onto her passenger seat. When she stumbles in the door laden with her 18 orders she’s mobbed immediately, a mess of arms reaching into her space to grab their coffees, but there are only a few faces she actually wants to see.
She doesn’t even have to open her mouth before Brainy has appeared at her side, giving her his usual morning update.
“Meeting at 0900. We received a new letter from Cadmus,” Brainy explains, poking a straw into his caramel macchiato. “Aren’t you suspended?”
“What? No,” Kara says, almost dropping her own frappuccino. “Am I – am I supposed to be?”
Brainy shrugs. “Jonn seemed quite angry last night. But perhaps he has cooled off.”
“How angry?” Kara asks, falling into step with Brainy as they head towards the briefing room. “I mean, he was upset at the scene, but then I left. Did it get worse?”
“Let me put it this way – I think you’re on desk duty for a while,” quips Vasquez, appearing at Kara’s other elbow. “Did you get the scone I asked for?”
“It’s in the bag,” Kara says absently, handing over the tray for Vasquez to search for her snack. She knew Jonn was angry, but to consider suspending her? To chain her to a desk, when she has one of the best records in the bureau? He must be more upset than she thought.
When she sits down in the briefing room and Jonn doesn’t so much as send a single glance her way, even when Alex takes a seat beside her, Kara takes it as confirmation.
Damn it. She hates desk duty.
“So, how’s Winn?” James asks first thing when the din of morning conversation quiets.
“After his experience in the field last night, Agent Schott has requested to be transferred back to tech support,” Jonn says shortly, and finally he spares a look at Kara. “He’s taking today off to calm down, and he’ll be back in tomorrow.”
“He is the best tech specialist in the bureau. Really you should be thanking me for convincing him to stay there,” Kara quips. There’s a murmur of laughter across the room, but Jonn’s face is like stone. He waits a few seconds for it to die down, and then continues.
“On a less light note, we got another letter from Cadmus,” he says, flicking on the overhead projector. On it is a cryptic note, arranged in a sort of verse that Kara has become familiar with over the last year. “Arson, poison, explosives…they never seem to work the same way twice. No two targets ever seem related. We get letters full of poetic riddles, and then they strike, and it all makes sense.”
“Sir, I could – “ Kara starts, but Jonn cuts her off.
“This one is down in Intelligence. Hopefully we get an answer soon,” he says, turning to Alex instead. “In the meantime, Alex. Get a team together.”
“A team, sir? You want me to take point?” Alex chokes, her mouth partially full of breakfast sandwich. Kara pats her on the back, unsettled by the way Jonn is ignoring her but happy, at least, for her sister.
“You’ve been wanting to run your own op,” Jonn says, the ghost of a smile on his face. “Last night, you earned it. Pick your people – I want preliminaries by noon.”
“Alex, that’s so great!” Kara says, as the projector turns off and everyone falls into conversation. “Your own op! That’s the fast track to a promotion.”
Alex, though, looks distraught. She stares down at her hands, and then back up at Kara with wide eyes. “How the hell am I supposed to run an op if you’re on desk duty?”
“You’ll be fine!” Kara insists. “You’ll probably be better off without me. I don’t follow orders, remember?”
“That’s not true,” Alex protests, but at the front of the room Jonn has gathered his things and is heading into the hallway, and Kara stands abruptly.
“Hold that thought, okay?” Kara says, patting Alex’s shoulder and following Jonn out of the room. She catches him a few steps into the hall, and she can see his shoulders get tense as he recognizes her footsteps.
“Sir, I was wondering,” Kara says, barreling forward nonetheless. “I have a background in profiling and decoding, and if I could just work on this case - “
“No, Danvers,” he sighs, turning to face her. “Desk duty. For the foreseeable future. Had you actually gone to your desk, you would have found the email telling you that.”
“But I really think I could contribute –”
“Like you contributed last night?” Jonn snaps, his composure finally breaking. “You almost got Winn killed, do you realize that?”
“I know –” Kara says, but Jonn is relentless.
“And while he’ll never place the blame on you, you’re lucky he wanted to come back to work at all. This bureau functions on protocol and order. When you throw a wrench in the machine, things get broken.”
“I don’t think that it should be a machine,” Kara argues, crossing her arms. “That leaves no room for context, for flexibility! People get hurt when nobody can adapt to a changing situation – “
“People also get hurt when you decide you know better than your superiors,” Jonn says and Kara gets the impression that the discussion is over. “That’s my final word, Danvers. Get to your desk.”
He leaves Kara fuming in the hallway, and when she turns to go back into the briefing room she’s met with a pale-looking Alex. She opens her mouth, likely to offer platitudes, but Kara waves her off.
“It’s fine,” Kara sighs, unbuttoning her top shirt button and loosening her tie. If she’s being punished unfairly, she might as well flout some uniform rules, too. “Go choose your team. I’ll see you later, okay?”
Kara is supposed to go back to her desk. In fact, J’onn gave her an express order to do so. But something about the superior, fatherly tone he used to do so makes her entirely uninclined to follow it, so instead she wanders over to her favourite pub across the street from Headquarters with a printed copy of the Cadmus letter she snagged from Alex’s operations folder and does what she does best.
She gets ketchup all over it.
“Mike,” she calls to the bartender, wiping ketchup from the page and taking another large bite of her double cheeseburger, “get me a pint?”
“It’s 11am. You’re a monster,” Mike says, but he’s grinning at her like he’s actually a little bit impressed. A few years ago he actually tried to recruit her into competitive eating, but the schedule was too hectic to accommodate her work at the bureau. Kara still thinks she could have made a killing at it, though. “You want a whole one?”
“It helps me think.”
Mike chuckles, opening the freezer and taking out her prize – a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, kept there specifically for her. She gets to work excavating the chunks of cookie dough as soon as he puts it on the table, and the senseless riddles in the letter start to slowly unravel themselves. For a while she loses herself in the puzzle, arranging and re-arranging the words and letters while taking intermittent mouthfuls of food, and when Alex pulls out the chair opposite to her she’s already almost finished the ice cream but is making no headway on the puzzle.
“Hey,” Kara says, only looking up from the letter when Alex tries to pull the ice cream tub from her grip. Kara bats at her hand, sticking her spoon in for the last bite. “How’s the team-picking going?”
Alex frowns at her foiled theft. “I think I have a squad. Brainy, James, Vasquez. I talked to J’onn about getting you on the team.”
“And, let me guess. He said no,” Kara says, muffled around a too-big mouthful of cookie dough.
“He did,” Alex admits, instead snagging an onion ring from Kara’s plate. “Pretty firmly. I think you’re going to have to do your time for this one.”
“Don’t I always?”
“No, you usually charm your way out of it.”
“Well this is a first, I guess,” Kara says, frowning at the letter again as an idea starts to form in the back of her mind. “Hold that thought.”
While Kara scribbles a series of notes on the messy paper, Mike approaches again to grab the empty pint container. He stops and leans against another table when he sees Alex, his grin charming in an unappealing, boyish sort of way.
“You know, I’ve got a question for you two,” he says, crossing his arms. Alex rolls her eyes.
“I’m sure this will be illuminating,” she mutters. Mike forges on, undeterred by her disinterest.
“Do all the women at the bureau have to wear those really masculine shoes?”
“Oh, no,” Alex says sweetly, her smile wide and fake. “We get these made special just so that straight men will ask us about them.”
Mike looks confused for a moment, but after a few over-long seconds it seems to dawn on him. He nods, conceding defeat in the battle of wits.
“Riiiiight. Message received,” he says, flashing a finger gun and a wink that Alex pointedly ignores. Instead she steals another handful of onion rings, and pokes Kara with her other hand.
“What’s up?” Alex asks when he’s out of earshot, dipping them into Kara’s abandoned ketchup. “You onto something?”
Just as Alex shoves 3 large onion rings in her mouth at once in a patented Danvers move, the puzzle falls into place in Kara’s head.
With a screech of wood on tile, Kara stands straight up.
“Call a meeting, okay?” she says with no explanation, grabbing the remainder of her onion rings to go. “Room 14, in 20 minutes!”
She hears Alex calling after her, but she can’t hear the actual words. She’s already halfway across the street, sprinting through traffic with the letter in one hand and a basket of onion rings in the other. She knows what the letter is leading to, and desk duty or not she’s going to lay it all out before Intelligence gets the chance.
When everyone strolls in 20 minutes later, Kara has taken over the entire whiteboard at the front of the meeting room – a scattered mind map, excerpts of the Cadmus letter scrawled on the surface and circled in red with long lines connecting various thoughts to each other. Alex looks alarmed at the murder-board vibe Kara is giving off, striding back and forth and making furious notes in various colours, but Brainy looks interested.
“I figured it out!” Kara says, unable to wait while everyone is still sitting down and getting comfortable. James has a jumbo tub of cheese puffs with him, and Kara digs her hand in and snags some as she walks by before he can swat her away. “I tried to create a content-based pattern, like their other letters, right? But it was different this time, like they’re trying to throw us off,” Kara continues, mouth full of cheese puffs, drawing another line to two different excerpts. “This time, they used a signifier!”
Kara turns to the group, seeing 4 blank faces and one thoughtful one.
“A signifier?” Brainy says, stroking his chin. “They’ve never used a signifier before.”
“I know!” Kara says excitedly, throwing her arms out and almost accidentally throwing her marker at Vasquez’ head. “That’s why it took me so long, see? The use of ‘miss’ in the subsequent letters, here, and here –” Kara draws two frantic lines, underlining her point, “it’s the Miss United States pageant!”
“A beauty pageant?” Alex says disbelievingly, as Kara breathes heavily in front of her masterpiece. “Cadmus, the terrorist group, is targeting a beauty pageant?”
“The beauty pageant,” James says, and all eyes turn to him. “It’s happening in San Antonio this year. It’s one of the biggest scholarship programs in the country. The money and publicity of something like this, the visibility of all the events – I mean if you think of the audience at the live telecast alone - “
He trails off at the sea of incredulous looks.
“What? I like fashion, so sue me,” he says, popping some cheese puffs into his mouth and winking at Kara. “The pageant lasts five days. Preliminaries, press conferences, talent shows, half of them outdoors – it’s a logistical nightmare.”
“How are we supposed to cover that much ground?” Alex says, sounding a bit hopeless. “Even if we get more agents on the team, there’s too many wildcards. So much happens behind the scenes, and if we put agents in there visibly it could cause a panic.”
“Well, who has access to every part of the pageant?” Brainy asks, steepling his fingers together.
“Just the contestants and their consultants,” James says, seeming excited at the direction they’re headed in. “Not even the judges can do much interacting with anyone backstage – too much fear of favouritism.”
“I think you need to get someone backstage undetected,” Brainy concludes. Alex perks up slightly.
“Okay, so who can get in there?” Kara asks, crossing her arms. She might not technically be a part of this op, but she can certainly help Alex figure out her game plan. “Do we have anyone who could pass for a twenty-something pageant queen?”
“I can’t do it,” Alex says, slightly too quickly. “Not if I’m taking point. And Vasquez is my second.”
“What about Leslie Willis?” Vasquez suggests, pulling up Willis’ file on her laptop. “We went through training together.” Kara doesn’t know Willis well, but attached is her personnel photo - she’s blonde and classically beautiful, even when glaring at the camera with a surly expression. Kara can tell that, spiritually if not physically, Willis is giving the photographer the finger.
“With her anger management issues?” James says, scoffing. “She got suspended twice already this year for excessive force. This pageant is all about charming people. She wouldn’t last an hour.”
“Eve Tessmacher?” Vasquez suggests instead. Alex shudders before Vasquez can even search her name in the database.
“There’s something about her I don’t trust,” Alex mutters. “She has creepy vibes. I don’t want her on my first op.”
Kara rolls her eyes. “You don’t trust anyone.”
“Look up Imra Ardeen,” Alex suggests instead, ignoring Kara’s jab. Vasquez types her name into the system, and a photo loads of a gorgeous brunette with dark skin and kind eyes. Kara has been on an operation or two with her, and she was always easy to work with. “She’s gorgeous and sweet. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’d actually done a beauty pageant before.”
Sighing, Vasquez points at something in the bottom left corner of her personnel file.
“Damn it,” Alex grumbles, kicking at an empty chair until it skids across the floor. “Come on, guys. There has to be someone. Any woman under 30 at this bureau who can put on some makeup and twirl in a circle.”
And then all eyes, inexplicably, go to Kara.
“What?” Kara says, her hands and mouth full of stolen cheese puffs. “I can’t think of anyone.” But Vasquez narrows her eyes. She tilts her head, watching unnervingly closely as Kara wipes her cheesy hands on her pants.
“Let your hair down,” Vasquez says suddenly. Kara blanches.
“Just…take out the ponytail.”
Deeply unsettled, Kara eases the tie out and shakes out her hair. It tumbles over her shoulders in a slight tangle – Kara realizes belatedly that she hasn’t brushed it in at least 2 days, and she runs her fingers through it halfheartedly. She doesn’t understand the point of the exercise, but everyone else in the room seems to come to whatever mystery realization Vasquez had.
“You don’t actually think –” Alex says, looking excited for the first time since the meeting began.
“I do,” Vasquez says, grinning. “A pair of high heels and some lipstick and I think she’ll polish up just fine.”
“Who?” Kara asks, looking back and forth between Alex and Vasquez and surreptitiously brushing the Cheeto dust from her pants onto the floor. “Who is it, guys?”
But Alex and Vasquez just keep staring at her silently, matching grins on their faces, and after a few seconds the horrible truth dawns on her. Kara blinks, looking down at herself and then back up at them.
Her age is dead last in the long list of reasons she’s absolutely not the right person for this job. In fact, Kara could probably produce a novel about all the ways she’s liable to fail. But now that it’s been suggested, Alex seems to have latched onto the idea.
“No, it’s perfect! Right?” Alex says, grabbing her hand tightly. “It’s perfect – who do I trust more than you, Kara? I can practically read your mind, and this could be a way to get Jonn to let you into the field! I don’t want to go to Texas, to run an op for the first time, without you. I can’t.”
“But – but –“ Kara stammers, shakily gathering her hair back up into a messy bun, “I don’t know the first thing about – I can’t even put on mascara! I don’t even shave!”
Alex waves a hand. “We can hire someone to teach you all that!”
“I can’t compete in a beauty pageant!” Kara says, loudly and definitively, praying that someone in this suddenly suffocating room will understand that this is the worst idea they’ve had to date. “That is so not my world. I mean, look at me!”
“I am looking!” Vasquez says, giving her a pointed once-over. Kara feels like she’s being x-rayed, and she crosses her arms over her chest. “You’re hot, Kara.”
“Not that kind of hot,” Kara mutters, her face getting warm. “And I’m not…you know. Girly. Those girls are all former cheerleaders who twirl batons and claim to want world peace while tearing down everyone around them. They were the girls that bullied me in high school.”
That last bit slips out without Kara meaning it to, and she crosses her arms even tighter at the cloying sympathy being levelled at her.
“That is certainly a lot to unpack,” Brainy mutters. James seems to agree.
“I get it, but that is a huge oversimplification,” James says, but Alex interrupts him.
“Will you at least try?” Alex pleads, and damn her, Kara could never say no to that puppydog look on her sister’s face. Alex is worried she’d going to blow her first big break, and she needs Kara’s help.
“Okay, fine. Fine,” Kara relents, and Alex visibly sags with relief. “But good luck trying to convince Jonn. Even if I say yes, you have to get it past him.”
To Kara’s abject horror, Jonn agrees within the hour.
In all honesty he seems almost relieved at the idea of having her out of the office and in another state, and by 2pm Alex is driving her to a meeting with the pageant director. Kara is still shell-shocked by the whole thing when they take their seats in the meeting room. None of this feels real, the idea that in about a week she’s going to have to reverse every aspect of herself and pretend to be a paragon of femininity on national TV, and it’s only Alex’s obvious relief at having her on board that keeps her from bolting at the first opportunity.
The formidable woman who sits at the head of the conference table does nothing to make her feel better. She introduces herself as Lillian Luthor, and even Kara – who has never before felt inadequate about her perfectly respectable 5’9” frame – finds herself suitably intimidated by the 6-foot glamorous skyscraper who shakes her hand with an expression of cool, calculated disinterest.
“Am I hearing this correctly?” Lillian says with slight amusement when Alex has explained the proposal. “You want one of your agents…to compete in my program?”
“Do you want her to win?”
“No, ma’am,” Alex says quickly, and Kara can see the flop sweat forming on her upper lip. She’s just as unnerved by this meeting as Kara is. “But we would need your help with the judging. Our agent would need to make the top 5, so she can have access to all areas at all times.”
“Absolutely not,” Lillian says, her face a mask.
“Miss Luthor, we understand how important this beauty pageant is to you,“ Kara starts, but her sentence trails off into a mumble as she realizes that she’s made a terrible mistake.
“Excuse me,” Lillian says coldly, standing to her full height until she towers over them like some sort of regal mid-rise. Her movement lines up perfectly with the life-size poster of a previous pageant winner that sits in a lit frame behind her, giving the impression of a glittering crown on her head. “This is not a beauty pageant. This is a scholarship program, and it has been such ever since my time here.”
“Of course, Miss Luthor,” Alex corrects, kicking Kara under the table. “We’re here to protect the girls. Women! Uh – scholarship…ladies. If Cadmus is targeting your program, everyone in it is in danger.”
“There’s nothing more important to me than the safety of my girls,” Lillian agrees, sitting back down, but there’s something insincere in her fixed smile that puts Kara on edge. “But unfortunately all of the winners from each state have already been chosen. There’s nowhere to put your agent, even if we agreed to your terms.”
“Well, we discovered some information about the contestant from New Jersey,” Kara speaks up again, grinning at Alex. “She was recently arrested at a climate change rally. She was on the right side, at least, but she’s going to be unavailable over the week of the pageant.”
“The right side,” Lillian says, smiling at Kara in a way that makes her skin crawl. “Of course. Well, I suppose there aren’t many more ways I can say no to the FBI, are there?”
Alex nods, visibly relieved. “We want to avoid an incident as much as possible, Miss Luthor. And protect your contestants, as well as any bystanders. This terrorist organization is known to be pretty ruthless.”
Lillian nods tightly, straightening the already-perfect nametag on her desk. “Do you have an agent in mind?”
Kara raises her hand.
In the moment after, she almost wishes she hadn’t. The moment she identifies herself Lillian gives her the slowest, most judgemental head-to-toe look Kara ever received in her life – starting at her combat boots, which are polished and well-kept but undeniably purely functional, and going up her trousered legs to her loose tie and slightly messy ponytail, and finally landing on her slouched posture. Kara straightens up, suddenly terribly aware of the Cheeto dust on her black pants and the ketchup stains on her standard-issue dress shirt, and straightens her glasses.
“I, um. I’m going to do my best,” Kara says, trying not to cow to Lillian’s steely gaze. “But we’d appreciate any consultation you can provide us.”
“Yes, I imagine you will,” Lillian drawls, and she reaches for her phone. “Let me get you the number of one of our best consultants.” She presses the intercom button, and speaks sharply into the speaker.
“Alexander, would you get me Cat Grant’s number?”
“Would you like that takeout, or delivery?” a bored, drawling tone answers, and Lillian’s mask cracks slightly. She jabs the button again, and her tone is chilling in an understated way that raises every red flag in Kara’s head.
“Cat. Grant’s. Number,” Lillian says. The voice on the other end doesn’t answer this time, and Lillian smiles tightly again.
“She’s been in something of an early retirement, but perhaps she can help you,” Lillian elaborates. Alex, clearly trying to look as grateful and penitent as possible, nods enthusiastically.
“We welcome any –”
The office door opens loudly, and through it stalks a man who seems far too old to be pouting the way he is. He looks to be around Alex’s height, bald but bearded, and he thrusts a business card at Lillian with a withering stare only matched by Lillian’s own.
“Can I get you anything else?” he says to Lillian, but his tone says that he has no intention of doing so. She shakes her head, and once she’s taken the card from him he leaves the room without acknowledging anyone else.
“My assistant, Alexander,” Lillian clarifies, handing them the card. It’s made of thick white cardstock, with pale pink embossed letters that read Cat Grant – Pageant Consultant. “He’s helping me during this year’s pageant. So much to do. Is there anything else you need?”
Lillian lapses into silence, and her look is pointed enough that Alex excuses them from the meeting quickly.
She doesn’t say as much to Alex, but as they leave Kara logs Lillian Luthor into her personal list of possible suspects. She’s always trusted her instincts, and something about Lillian spells trouble – the kind that’s usually difficult to pin down.
“I still think this is a bad idea,” Kara mutters, as they enter the ostentatious fine dining restaurant that this Cat Grant insisted on meeting at. “Lillian was terrifying. What if this Cat person is worse?”
“I’m not sure it can get worse than Lillian,” Alex remarks, squinting around the restaurant to find their table. “I think that’s her, look.”
The person who rises to greet them is certainly different from Lillian Luthor. While the two seem similar in their ages Cat Grant is tiny, hardly more than 5’4” in heels, and delicate in her build. Her shoulder-length blonde hair is down in the kind of perfect waves that can only come from a significant time investment and a lot of hairspray, and Kara can see the wheels in her head turning before she and Alex even reach the table.
“Agent Danvers?” Cat says in lieu of a greeting, and in unison Alex and Kara nod, holding out hands to shake. Cat raises a brow, looking down at both of their hands in a silent inquiry.
“I’m the, uh – the makeover – person. Kara. I’m Kara,” Kara stammers, shaking Cat’s delicate hand with a sweaty palm. “This is my sister, Alex. She’s actually running this operation.”
“Sisters,” Cat drawls, shaking Alex’s hand as well. “How quaint.”
Alex takes a seat at the table, but Cat stays standing. Instead she pulls the chair away from Kara’s reaching hand and circles her, her gaze sharp and appraising.
“Hm,” she says quietly, running a hand along Kara’s bicep. She grabs the lapel of Kara’s suit jacket, moving it slightly to reveal the ketchup stains from this morning, and scoffs. “Attractive, if a bit…unrefined. Wide shoulders, narrow hips, we’ll have to mask that. Cinch the waist, put your hair down so they’re distracted. You’ll need contacts lenses. And the wardrobe, that’s going to need to change completely.”
“I’m not a piece of meat,” Kara says grumpily, shaking off Cat’s hand. “I didn’t sign up to have you critique my body, or my presentation. If this is what it’s going to be like during the pageant -”
“What you signed up for, Miss Danvers, is for me to help you blend in,” Cat says, her voice sharp. “How you conduct or present yourself in your personal life is of no interest to me. The FBI has employed me to make you, their undercover agent, indistinguishable from any other pageant contestant, and that world is a battle zone. Every word, every movement, every inch of you will be scrutinized. If that means temporarily dismantling your identity until we catch the person trying to blow up thousands of innocent people, so be it. So you need to ask yourself if you’re committed to this, or not. Because I do not do half-measures.”
Kara blinks. Cat is dead serious, and Alex is biting her lip on the sidelines as if she’s worried Kara is going to back out. Steeling herself, Kara sighs. This is going to be the most uncomfortable experience of her life, but if it helps Alex have a successful first op – and saves people from being blown up, obviously – she’s just going to have to grin and bear it.
“Okay, yeah, fine,” she grumbles, crossing her arms. “Just…no bikinis, okay?”
“It is always yes, never yeah. Miss United States is always well-spoken and polite,” Cat says, finally pulling Kara’s chair out for her and pushing on her shoulder until she sits in it. “And, I make no promises.”
Cat finally settles into her own seat, catching the waiter’s attention with a dignified wave, and rolling her eyes Kara follows suit. She hangs her blazer on the back of the chair, and when Cat raises an eyebrow at her double order of steak and spaghetti Kara just smiles and orders a beer as well.
She promised Alex that she’d do this. But she certainly isn’t going to make it easy.
“First of all, I’m going to need a facility to enact this transformation,” Cat says once the entrees have arrived, picking daintily at a garden salad while Kara dips a chunk of steak into her marinara sauce. “We’ll create a diet plan –“
“What? No. No diet,” Kara says, waving a speared piece of steak in Alex’s direction and dripping red sauce onto the white tablecloth. “Absolutely not.”
Cat watches the descent of the marinara with a look of distaste. “Nutritional planning is an important part of – “
“I am not spending a week starving myself when I need to be performing at my best,” Kara says more firmly, taking a pointed bite of the steak and chewing as she talks. “No way.”
“Miss Danvers, I was once the most sought-after and highly qualified, highly paid consultant in pageant history,” Cat says, delicately putting down her fork. “Girls would plead with me to train them. 10 out of 11 years, my contestant was crowned. Are you under the impression that this is a request?”
“10 out of 11?” Kara challenges. Cat’s lips purse.
“In my last year, my girl had stage fright. Froze like a puddle halfway through her preliminary talent performance. Afterwards, she told Pageant Magazine that I was a crazed perfectionist, who harangued her to within an inch of her sanity. My reputation suffered, after that.”
“From what I’ve seen, she wasn’t wrong,” Kara chuckles, sawing her knife into her steak again. Cat takes a dainty bite of lettuce.
“My methods get results.”
“That may be, but I know my body, and you’re not controlling my food intake,” Kara says, and the battle of wills draws taut between herself and Cat. “I’ll be your dancing monkey – but if there’s one line I’m going to draw, it’s that one. No diet.”
Cat’s jaw flexes, and her eyes flick down to Kara’s mouth.
“Sorry, I didn’t catch that. I was distracted by the half-masticated cow rolling around in your wide-open mouth.”
Her voice is disdainful, but Kara takes it for the concession it clearly is. She takes another over-large bite of steak, washing it down with the last few swallows of her beer, and thankfully the subject passes.
“So, when do we start?” Alex says, seeming relieved at the temporary wary truce they’ve struck. “The pageant starts on Friday, so maybe on Thursday we –”
“Thursday?” Cat says, chuckling over the rim of her glass of chardonnay. “Oh, you are vastly underestimating how much work needs to be done here. This is going to be my Sistine Chapel.”
“What needs to be done, besides a makeover?” Kara says indignantly. Cat’s eyes narrow.
“Have you ever walked on a stage before?” Cat asks, and Kara shakes her head. “In heels and an evening gown, with several thousand eyes in the audience? Have you given an interview? Have you performed a talent in front of an adoring crowd?”
“…no?” Kara squeaks.
Cat nods, sitting back in her chair. “We can’t simply make you look the part. You have to be the part – you need to blend in with these girls, and perform well enough in the pageant to make it believable for you to make the top 5. This is going to be a prolonged performance, and you’re sorely lacking the necessary skills.”
Kara, overwhelmed with the magnitude of the task she’s signed up for, starts to lose focus the longer Cat talks. It all seems like so much, a daunting and impossible task, and if Alex’s first operation fails it’s going to be entirely her fault. Purely to soothe herself she dips her middle finger into her water glass and starts to circle it around the rim, drowning out the discussion of securing a facility in Texas to fill with beauticians with a rhythmic and low-toned musical note. It hums constantly, louder and louder, until finally Cat slams a hand down on top of Kara’s and pins it to the top of the glass.
“Will you desist?” she hisses and Kara retracts her hand, pouting.
“Yes,” Cat corrects. Without a goodbye she stands from the table, breezing by the waitstaff as she heads back to her waiting car, and Kara sticks her tongue out at Cat’s retreating back.
“Be nice,” Alex mutters, moving to follow Cat. Kara shrugs her blazer back on after putting the tab on the bureau credit card, and follows her outside where Cat is waiting at the taxi stand down the street. “She’s doing us a huge favour.”
“She’s being paid by the bureau. This isn’t a favour, it’s a vanity project,” Kara counters. Cat is watching intently as they approach, and she braces herself for the inevitable insult.
“My god. I haven’t seen a walk like that since Jurassic Park,” Cat comments right on cue, and Kara makes a face again. “All in the shoulders. And why must you clomp your feet like a dressage horse?”
“Because I’m preparing to run away,” Kara grumbles, crossing her arms petulantly.
Cat laughs, airy and indifferent. She beckons Kara forward, straightening her posture and tipping her chin up. “When a queen walks, she should glide. Keep your chin parallel to the floor.”
“How am I supposed to see where I’m going if I can’t see my feet?” Kara asks, staring straight forward as Cat directed. Cat doesn’t answer. She just circles around to Kara’s back, pushing her forwards.
“Glide,” Cat says, and Kara tries. She keeps her head up, moving forward for a few steps in what she thinks is an approximation of gliding, but Cat stops her with a fist in the back of her blazer and pulls her back again.
“No, no. You’re still picking your feet up – glide.”
“How the hell can anyone walk without picking their feet up?” Kara says indignantly, as she’s dragged back to square one like a disobedient puppy. “Is that not the basic function of walking?”
“Focus on your buttocks,” Cat says, placing her hands there and trying to move them back and forth. Kara jumps, swatting her hands away. “Keep your shoulders still, and walk with your hips.”
Kara tries. And tries again. Each time Cat stops her, and by the seventh try she’s just about fed up with the whole exercise – and so is Cat, by the looks of it. She passes a hand over her brow, sighing, and opens the door of her cab.
“Practice tonight. I’d like to see you walking with some poise by the time we get on the plane tomorrow.” She climbs into the car and slams the door behind her, and the door is already closed before Kara has processed what she actually said.
“Tomorrow?” Kara hisses to Alex, as Cat’s cab pulls away. “Who said anything about starting tomorrow?”
“We did. At lunch,” Alex says, raising her eyebrows. “Literally just now. Weren’t you listening?”
“I was too busy fighting off a panic attack.”
Alex frowns. She grabs Kara’s arms and turns her until they’re face to face, looking her right in the eyes as she searches for the truth.
“Kara, if this is too much for you we can find another way,” Alex says firmly. “Really. Your wellbeing comes first.” It’s completely genuine, Kara knows, and entirely self-sacrificing.
“I can do it,” Kara insists, brushing Alex off and rubbing her arms. She knows that Alex would give up her own career just to make Kara comfortable and happy, and she’s not going to let that happen. Alex’s career means more to her than almost anything. Kara can spend a weekend wearing a mask to let her keep it. “I can. It’s just a lot, right away. I don’t want to let you down.”
“You could never let me down,” Alex says, her face softening. “You’re not alone in this. You’ve got me every step of the way, and I’ve got you.”
Kara smiles weakly, accepting her sister’s tight hug. It does make her feel better, if marginally.
“You’re not the one who has to learn how to glide,” she mumbles, and Alex’s shoulders shake with laughter. She tousles Kara’s ponytail when they part.
“Come on, beauty queen. Let’s get a beer before Cat makes you cut out carbs.”
Kara had hoped, naively, that the early morning flight could be spent napping before what promises to be an incredibly draining few days. What she gets instead is Cat Grant taking up residence in the seat beside her with a laptop full of grainy film footage, making her watch the crowning of every pageant winner since 1966.
“See how she walks,” Cat points out, still poking at the fact that Kara hasn’t yet mastered that particular skill set. “She’s floating. Grace and poise, perfectly executed. That is why she won.”
“So, it wasn’t because she paid two of the judges and slept with a third?” Kara quips, taking a large bite of one of the oatmeal cookies she snuck on board. Cat’s hand stills on the trackpad.
“That was a rumour,” Cat says peevishly, her expression severe. “One that I didn’t expect anyone outside the pageant to be privy to.”
“You really didn’t expect me to do my own research?” Kara shrugs, taking over Cat’s job and selecting the 1986 pageant. “We’re coming up on your year, too, aren’t we? 1988. The crown suited you.”
She says it offhandedly, knowing full well that Cat won’t have expected her to know more than what she’s been told. She’s tired of being underestimated. She might not be able to apply makeup or stand with good posture, but she’s damn good at her job, and finding out that Cat won the pageant in 1988 was easy enough. There is something she doesn’t know, though.
“In future I would keep your research to relevant topics,” Cat says, much more mildly. She still looks with distaste at the crumbs in Kara’s lap, though.
“Everything is relevant,” Kara says through a full mouth. “Overlooking details leads to sloppy work.”
Cat looks strangely impressed at that, even if she also looks like she wants to throw the bag of cookies out the emergency exit.
“I noticed we skipped 1983,” Kara comments, finally bringing up the one aspect of her research that she couldn’t crack last night. “Any particular reason?”
Cat huffs out a brief laugh. “It’s near impossible to find any footage from the 1983 pageant. Lillian Luthor doesn’t like to be reminded that she was only the runner-up.”
Kara sits up straighter, setting her cookie down on the seatback tray.
“Lillian didn’t win?” Kara asks, a few new puzzle pieces forming in her head. “I assumed that since she runs the pageant, she had won at some point. She destroyed her own footage?”
“The footage of herself losing, yes.” Cat seems undeniably pleased at the reminder. “She’s always had a streak of righteous indignation.”
“That sounds…sketchy,” Kara says. Cat scoffs.
“That’s one word for it. This pageant is an incestuous, insular micro-world thriving under a veneer of class, Agent Danvers. Internal politics are as important as walking in heels. Prepare to go into the snake pit.”
Cat leaves her with that unnerving thought, heading to the drinks cart to refill her glass. The film switches to 1987, where the winner kept bursting into fits of theatrical tears every time she tried to speak during her acceptance speech, and Kara rolls her eyes. She catches Alex’s gaze a few seats up and across the aisle, and for the rest of the flight she entertains her sister with dramatic re-enactments while Cat looks on with disapproval.
It’s a brief reprieve. The moment the plane lands Kara is hustled to what looks like an entire airplane hangar filled with aestheticians, and the chaos begins in earnest.
“It took some doing, but we have everything you asked for,” Alex says as they enter the cavernous space. From where they’re standing Kara can already see what looks like a full salon chair and station, a tanning bed, and alarmingly, a dentist’s chair. “What’s first?”
“Teeth, hair, manicure, pedicure,” Cat says, handing her purse off to a nail technician who seems to know her personally. She looks like she’s in her element, her eyes gleaming with an intensity that makes Kara slightly nervous. Everything in this space down to the hairspray and nail files is under her control, and by all accounts she seems delighted at the challenge in front of her.
“Teeth?” Kara says, glancing again at the dentist’s chair. “I have good hygiene. What are you going to do to my teeth?”
“Hopefully, remove the beer stains and steak residue.”
Alex snorts. Kara elbows her, following Cat towards a large table covered in small bowls. She peers at one of them – it’s filled with a brown, viscous substance that looks like honey, and she frowns.
“Hot wax,” Cat replies, as if that isn’t the worst possible answer she could have given. Kara jumps back like she’s been burnt.
“Oh, god,” she whispers, stopping in her tracks and looking down at her own legs. They’re covered by pants right now, but underneath are legs that she hasn’t shaved in about 8 years. Even the thought of the kind of agony that waxing them is going to cause makes her skin tingle. Not to mention everywhere else – armpits, thighs, bikini - “Oh, god.”
Alex gives her an encouraging sort of punch on the shoulder. “Hey, just think – you’ll be more aerodynamic, right?”
Alex follows Cat further into the hangar with a sympathetic expression, leaving Kara standing in the midst of the hubbub with a sinking feeling.
This is going to be harder than she thought. And the physical transformation, Cat made it seem, is going to be the easy part of the process.
It’s still tortuous in its own way. She’s able to make tiny concessions – Cat insists on painting her nails during the manicure but Kara refuses the fake acrylics, her teeth get heavily cleaned but even Cat admits that they’re white enough already and don’t need to be bleached. She even manages to hold the line on the diet issue - but unfortunately, the one thing Kara can’t talk Cat out of is hair removal.
“This is so stupid,” Kara rants, lying back on what feels like an autopsy table while piping hot wax is slathered all over her skin. It’s partially nerves, the anticipation of pain making her ramble, but she also fundamentally rejects the whole process and something in her needs to talk about it. “Why does anyone care where I do or don’t have hair? Is anyone really going to be looking that closely?”
“Yes,” Cat says simply, directing Kara to move her legs further apart so that they can get her inner thighs. “These judges pick out the most minute of flaws.”
“Having hair isn’t a flaw. It’s being a human being,” Kara grumbles. The technician raises her arms, trimming back the hair there to cause the least amount of pulling, and Kara winces when the wax is applied there too. “Why do you put yourself through this? How is winning a pageant worth all this trouble?”
“Miss United States represents what people want to be, not what they are. You can go back to your jungle-woman grooming after the operation is finished.”
“This is such a ridiculous, patriarchal standard,” Kara continues, while the aesthetician pastes pieces of paper to the wax and pats them down. “The fact that men can have hair anywhere with no issues but women are expected to ritually torture themselves to remove it when it’s actually more hygienic to – OW, JESUS!”
Cat’s smile is just a bit too smug for Kara’s liking, but she at least bites her tongue until Kara is well and truly hairless.
“I feel like a dolphin,” Kara complains some time later, waddling slightly to ease the friction on her more delicate areas. Cat doesn’t even look back at her, leading her instead to a facialist ready and waiting with a clay mask.
“You’re not nearly graceful enough yet for that comparison.”
It gets a little easier after that, at least. The facial is actually sort of refreshing, especially soothing on the raw recently-waxed skin near her eyebrows, and she almost falls asleep when the hairdresser gives her a deep scalp massage. Her hair gets trimmed and blown out and styled like it’s never been before, and then she’s whisked off to a wardrobe fitting. The measurements of every inch of her body are taken, and after all of that she finally – finally – gets to eat lunch.
“This has been such a weird day,” Kara says around several ravenous bites of catered sub sandwiches. She has a different one in each hand, which seems dramatic, but she’s never been so hungry in all her life.
“I am begging you to chew with your mouth closed,” Cat says, seeming to lose her own appetite watching Kara eat. She sets her fork down, pushing her plate away. “At the very least.”
Kara just takes another over-large bite. “But that would mean I have to eat slower. It’s not my fault you starved me all day.”
“It is so weird seeing you with your hair down,” Alex says, squinting at Kara over her much more moderate plate of lunch. “And all styled like that, with no glasses. You look like a different person.”
Kara rolls her eyes.
“That’s a romcom cliché. Makeup and hair doesn’t change your facial structure.”
“It’s true, though!” Alex says, looking to Cat for backup. “You look different. If I wasn’t your sister I’d hardly recognize you.”
“Well, don’t get used to it. It’s back to normal after all this is over.” Kara punctuates it by chomping loudly into a pickle, and Cat excuses herself from the table not long after to prepare Kara’s clothes fitting for the afternoon.
“You’re still good, right?” Alex asks, once Cat is gone. “With all of this? Still feeling okay?”
Alex looks genuinely worried for her welfare, and Kara notices for the first time that she’s hardly touched her own food. Kara swallows, putting her sandwiches down with only a little bit of regret.
“I said yes to this assignment, Alex,” she says firmly. “I’m not going to back out on you. You can stop worrying about me.”
“I’m always going to worry about you,” Alex says, but her posture relaxes significantly. She finally picks up her own sandwich, and Kara throws a cherry tomato at her.
“It’s just a pageant. It’s probably going to be like toddlers and tiaras. I get in, pretend to be vapid for a few days, and get out. Easy,” Kara says, shrugging and digging back into her lunch.
It’s just 5 days. Quick and easy, and then life can return to normal.
The first time Kara sees herself in the mirror after Cat has wrestled her into a light purple dress and heels, she understands what Alex said earlier about her looking completely different.
She’s taller, for one, towering over Cat and even Alex with her new shoes, and Cat has successfully masked her natural body shape with strategic clothing choices. Her hair has been lightened to highlight the blonde, and styled until it feels like a helmet but looks like a soft and effortless wave. Her glasses are replaced with contacts, her eyes and lips emphasized with makeup, and her bare calves are smooth and artificially tanned.
Kara sees all of this, and holds two things in her mind simultaneously; the knowledge that she does, in a strange and detached way, look beautiful, and the deep understanding that the person she’s looking at isn’t actually her at all. A version of her that she could have been, perhaps, had she bowed to the gendered expectations of the world, but not who she is at her core. Kara Danvers isn’t looking back at her. It’s a funhouse mirror.
It feels, in a way, like she’s doing drag. Performing gender in a way that’s so opposite to herself as to be comical.
The moment she takes two steps forward, rolling her ankle and faceplanting onto the hangar’s concrete floor, the illusion shatters.
“This is why I needed more than one day to prepare you,” Cat says drily, an eyebrow raised while Alex helps Kara back up to her feet. “Try not to bruise your knees, they’ll take points off for it in the swimsuit section.”
“How do people walk in these?” Kara asks, her ankles wobbling even standing still. “This is torture!”
“Trust me, 4 inches is nothing. This is just for practice.”
Kara’s knees almost buckle. “It gets worse?”
Cat offers no answer. She just walks a few steps in her own intimidating 6-inch heels, wiggling a hand for Kara to follow. “Chin up. We need to teach you to walk before you can dance.”
At that last word, Kara almost trips for a second time. Cat sighs, straightening Kara’s shoulders – which is sort of funny to watch, considering Kara’s height advantage – and lifting her chin again.
“Dance? There’s dancing?” Kara asks, ignoring Cat’s wordless instructions to look down at her in a sort of panic.
“The televised finale begins with a choreographed number,” Cat explains, her patience very clearly wearing thin. She crosses her arms, somehow managing to glare intimidatingly from so far below.
“I can’t dance even in flat shoes,” Kara says, her mind’s eye conjuring an image of herself flailing along with a complicated dance number and making an idiot of herself on national television. “How am I supposed to –”
“Chin up,” Cat growls, taking a firm hold of Kara’s jaw and keeping it in place. Kara huffs, batting her hand away and doing her best to obey.
“It’s not my fault I have to crane my neck down to look at you,” she grumbles, taking a few uncertain steps. Walking without looking down is even harder when she’s balancing on unsteady spikes.
“Keep it up, and I’ll leave you to stumble your way through the pageant like a baby faun,” Cat snaps back.
Kara rolls her eyes, but once again she takes a step forward.
As she suspected, what comes after the makeover is considerably worse than the makeover itself. Over the next day Cat directs her with the intensity of a drill sergeant – Kara practices walking in higher and higher heels until her feet get blisters and her hips ache, rehearses smiling and answering interview questions neutrally, and endures constant reminders about her posture. By the end of it she feels like a hollow shell of herself; but at least she can finally walk without taking her front teeth out on the concrete.
“It’ll have to do,” Cat says around 2am, passing a hand over her brow like she’s just done a day’s hard manual labour. “We’ll keep going through mock interview questions on the plane in the morning.”
“I’m tired,” Kara groans, collapsing into the nearest chair and toeing out of her heels. The skin is red and angry underneath, and she just knows that putting them back on tomorrow is going to be murder. “I want to sleep on the plane. Does everyone at this pageant just take amphetamines or something?”
“Some of them,” Cat says offhandedly. She slips a pair of glasses onto her face to peer down at what looks like a weekend schedule, and Kara blinks.
“I wasn’t expecting that answer.”
Cat slides the glasses down her nose. It makes her look a bit like a judgemental owl, not that Kara would ever say that to her face. “Trust me, uppers are among the least dangerous methods used.”
Kara frowns, trying to conjure ideas of what a bunch of pageant queens might be using to keep alert, but as she massages the feeling back into her feet she decides that she doesn’t want to know. Better to live in ignorance, sometimes.
When Alex arrives with an armful of equipment, it’s a welcome relief from Cat’s incessant reminders not to sit with her legs spread out.
“We have an earpiece for you,” Alex says, laying a tiny device that looks like a hearing aid on the table, “a pin camera that provides a feed to our screens, and your new ID.”
Kara picks up the pile of IDs, flipping open her fake passport. The photo is one they took just after her makeover, so she barely recognizes herself – but the more alarming part is the name.
“Kara-Lee Kent, age 29?” Kara says incredulously, thumbing through the rest of her ID cards. All of them list the same thing. “You gave me Clark’s last name?”
“You need to be under 30. And it seemed like a beauty pageant kind of name,” Alex replies, shrugging and attaching the pin camera to the front of her dress. “You can’t use your real one. I thought that giving you a familiar last name might help you remember it.”
Kara groans. Alex secures the earpiece, making sure it’s the right fit and avoiding Kara’s glare. Her sister looks entirely too amused by the reaction.
“If people are going to be referring to me as Kara-Lee all weekend I cannot be held accountable for my actions,” Kara warns. Alex rolls her eyes, taking the earpiece out again and adjusting it.
“You haven’t even started and you’re already a drama queen.”
Kara doesn’t dare to be openly unladylike while Cat is watching – but the second she turns her back, Kara throws the passport at Alex’s head.
Kara emerges from the hangar at 8 in the morning primped, primed, and absolutely miserable.
Not only did she not get to sleep until almost 3 last night, but she was woken up unceremoniously at 6:30 to go through hair and makeup again after having worked so hard to scrub it away. The plane is supposed to take them straight to San Antonio and apparently doing it all on the way is an impossibility, so instead Kara has to be propped up half-awake while someone paints away the bags under her eyes and helped her into an appropriately short sea-green dress.
Cat and Alex are behind her as she approaches the FBI jet, and the first person to spot them from the small group near the stairs is Vasquez. She does a double-take so dramatic that it almost seems fake, but the shock as she takes in the full and final picture of Kara-Lee Kent is very real.
“Kara?” Vasquez asks. She takes her sunglasses off to better see the transformation with a growing smile that seems far too self-congratulatory for Kara’s tired patience, delighted with her idea paying off - Kara glares at her, taking long strides in her precarious shoes so she can get into the safety of the plane faster.
“I’m in heels, I have so much hairspray in my hair that I’m a fire hazard, and Cat made me skip breakfast. I have never been this uncomfortable in my entire life, so just spare me the -”
Kara finally loses her balance just as she reaches the steps, and she can hear Cat’s huff of frustration as she topples to the tarmac. She manages to catch herself in a push-up position before her face makes contact, so she pops herself back up and brush the pebbles from her palms before Vasquez can make a comment.
“Don’t say a word,” Kara warns the group, turning and stomping up the stairs.
“Yeah, that’s still her,” Vasquez quips just as Kara disappears into the plane. Kara can still hear the conversation while she chooses her spot, immediately kicking off her shoes and shoving them under the seat in front.
“I am very good,” Cat says, climbing up the stairs after Kara. “But I can’t change everything.”
“The transformation is remarkable,” Brainy remarks as the rest of the team piles into the jet. “It’s as if she is wearing the skin of a different person.”
James laughs, clapping him on the back and flopping into the entire front row like it’s a couch. “That’s a really weird way of putting it, dude.”
Cat badgers her with mock questions for the first hour or so of the flight, but around the third time that Kara falls asleep mid-answer she seems to realize that they aren’t getting anywhere and leaves her to grab a few hours of precious rest before the weekend begins in earnest. When they land Cat touches up Kara’s makeup and hair before she lets her disembark and get in the cab, and the sense of foreboding that Kara has successfully been fending off creeps its way in the closer they get to the hotel.
When they get out of this cab, Kara will be loaded onto a special trolley and brought to a nearby conference centre for a meet-and-greet luncheon. Cat won’t be with her, Alex will only be able to talk in her ear through the earpiece, and Kara will be officially on her own in a room full of the kind of women she’s never in her life felt comfortable with.
And to make things worse, the first person Kara sees when she awkwardly slides out of the car (trying with only mild success not to let her skirt ride up) is Lillian Luthor. She seems to spot Cat, and Cat murmurs in Kara’s direction without breaking eye contact with Lillian.
“Try not to speak.”
That’s all the warning Kara gets before Lillian descends.
“Catherine,” Lillian says with absolutely no warmth, exchanging perfunctory-looking cheek-kisses which are so airy that there appears to be at least a foot of space between their actual faces. “It’s been too long since you’ve been with us. Five years, is it?”
“Ten. I’m delighted to be back. And in your final year,” Cat remarks with practiced disinterest, and Lillian’s eyes turn flinty. “To witness the last pageant run by the great Lillian Luthor. I can’t believe my luck.”
“It should be one to remember,” Lillian says, doing a remarkable job at not obviously showing her fury. Her eyes glance over Kara without seeming to actually see her, passing over to the cab driver loading the suitcases out of the trunk. But after a moment they flick back, taking Kara in with the same shock Vasquez showed earlier.
Bracing herself, Kara adjusts her New Jersey sash and puts on her best vacant pageant smile.
“Miss Danvers!” Lillian says, looking like she’s fighting every impulse to not look impressed. She looks at Kara from coiffed head to heeled toe, and clears her throat. “Or should I say, Miss Kent. Catherine, it seems you haven’t entirely lost your touch. She looks quite convincing.”
Lillian didn’t say pretty, Kara notes. She didn’t say beautiful. She didn’t stoop so low as to pay Kara an actual compliment. But it’s a good sign that even Kara’s biggest critic was convinced for a moment. Kara lets herself relax a little, but more importantly she manages to follow Cat’s instructions not to talk. She just smiles endlessly, emptily, and finally Lillian nods her approval.
“You’re just in time for the orientation luncheon. Follow me. Catherine, if you could get the bags? I trust you haven’t forgotten how things go, here?”
The mutual hatred radiates from both parties as they walk away, and Kara only dares one desperate glance back at Cat – who gives her an uncharacteristically encouraging nod – before she’s ushered towards the bus.
“Cat said that after the luncheon is a dance rehearsal, and then a cocktail hour with the judges? I’m not so great at networking, so I think Cat wants me to -”
Lillian interrupts quietly, but with enough venom to make Kara stop in her tracks.
“You may look the part, but from this point on you operate on my rules,” Lillian says lowly, snapping her fingers impatiently until Kara takes a stumbling step forward and follows her again. “No special considerations. It’s your job to appear passable enough to make the top 5. Embarrass yourself, and you’re on your own.”
Lillian leaves her just out of earshot of the small crowd outside the trolley, and Kara is left to get in line to board by herself.
It’s difficult to really take in her surroundings when she’s surrounded by 50 well-dressed women all talking loudly with each other, especially after such a weird confrontation with Lillian. Everyone seems to know each other already, throwing Kara sidelong glances and whispering who is she? Have you seen her before? as she stands there alone. Kara keeps her ears open and her mouth closed as she shuffles forward towards the doors, where Lillian’s assistant Alexander is checking names off a list.
“Ohio,” he mutters, giving the contestant in question a lascivious up-and-down look. It gives Kara the willies, the way he scans her. Looks at her like she’s nothing more than an object for consumption. “Washington, nice apples.”
The next girl in line after Washington scoffs, her glare mutinous. “Original. Did you come up with that one yourself?”
Alexander smiles, which only seems to irritate the woman more.
“Don’t be jealous, Rojas. It’s a terrible colour on you.”
“In your dreams, perv.” She storms into the bus in a huff, and for a second Kara gets a glimpse of her sash – Texas. She and Alexander seem to know each other, a familiarity and deep mutual dislike clear from even one interaction. Kara wonders, as she steps forward, how on earth she’s supposed to figure out every pageant secret in the next 4 days.
Kara is next in line after Texas. Alexander raises his eyes from his list to do the same thing to Kara that he’s done to every other unfortunate contestant – but Kara, so concerned with remembering every detail of all 50 other contestants and countless staff while appearing like she belongs, steps wrong at the worst possible moment. Her ankle rolls, her legs crumple, and in desperation she grabs at the nearest surface – an open trolley window - and hits the side of the bus hard.
“I’m fine,” she wheezes before she’s even fully pulled herself up again, trying not to wince too hard when her shoulder wrenches with the effort. “Don’t worry –”
She trips again trying to take her first step onto the trolley, and all desire to objectify her seems to have left Alexander.
“New Jersey. Welcome,” he says, barely keeping the laugh out of his voice. Before Kara has even picked herself up for a second time, his attention has moved to the contestant from Idaho behind her.
“Idaho – I certainly hope so.”
Rolling her eyes, Kara brushes off her hands and carefully climbs the last few steps onto the trolley.
The staring in here is even worse than it was when she was waiting in line. Almost everyone is on board already, moving bags onto seats as she approaches or sitting with someone else and whispering amongst themselves. Only one person is sitting alone near the back, staring out the window. Her dress is navy blue, a stark contrast to the pale pastels of the dresses around her, and her sash reads Massachusetts. She looks thoughtful, but sad. Somber. And she’s the only person Kara has seen so far who seems like she feels as out of place as Kara does, even if she looks the part better.
Kara doesn’t realize she’s staring like a total weirdo until the woman raises an eyebrow.
“Can I help you?”
Kara jumps, almost dropping her clutch with the woman’s attention suddenly all on her. She manages to catch it after a few tries before it hits the ground, and once it’s secured Kara clears her throat nervously and points at the empty spot.
“Can I sit here?”
Now that Kara can fully see her face it’s clear that this woman is ridiculously pretty, even on a bus full of people whose job is to be beautiful. Long dark hair that hangs soft around her face, sharp jaw, full lips with a slight downturn. Every feature is somehow perfectly suited to her. Her eyes are a clear light green, and she studies Kara carefully before she nods.
Kara slumps into the seat with relief, blowing at a stray piece of hair that somehow struggled free of her hairspray-helmet during her falls.
“Thanks. I’m –”
“Kara-Lee Kent,” the woman says sharply, but not unkindly. Her voice is low and sort of throaty, and hard to read her tone but her face is a mask of indifference only betrayed by the interest in her eyes.
“How did you know that?” Kara asks, her bravado failing again. The woman’s expression doesn’t change.
“You’re the only contestant in the booklet who didn’t have a photo. The last-minute entry.”
Kara laughs a little, only remembering to close and primly fold her legs after her new seat buddy glances down at their relaxed position. “You memorized everyone’s picture?”
“Ah,” Kara says, deflating a little. “That’s…cool.” Making conversation feels a little like hitting a wall, the woman’s clipped replies taking the wind from under Kara’s wings a little; but her seatmate seems to realize how inhospitable she’s being, and she continues after an awkward pause.
“And, everyone else here came up through the same pageants. All competing nationally since childhood. A new face sticks out.”
Kara nods gratefully, a little more at ease already. “That explains why everyone was staring at me. That and falling on my face, probably. Great way to make a first impression. I recommend it.”
For the first time, the woman’s face twitches into a smile. It’s tiny and mostly suppressed, but the fact that Kara managed to crack the shell at all feels like a major achievement. She seizes the opportunity, holding out a hand to shake and flashing her a natural all-Kara smile. No pageant fakery, just genuine delight at making a new friend. A very pretty, very interesting, strangely magnetic new friend.
“Well, now you have me at a disadvantage,” Kara says, wiggling her fingers until she takes them. The woman laughs quietly, flashing straight teeth (with, Kara notices with a strange and sort of pleasant lurch in her chest, a slight underbite that’s incredibly charming) and looking at once interested and slightly suspicious. Kara can imagine that actual friendship is a rarity here, with everyone climbing over each other to win.
“Lena,” is the short reply, but Lena’s face is more open than it’s been this whole conversation and Kara takes it as a win. Her hand is warm and soft, her grip firm, and Kara holds it perhaps a few seconds longer than is strictly necessary. She’s too distracted noticing that while one of Lena’s eyes is green like she thought, the other is actually a sort of greyish blue. And her voice, as well as being low and honey-rich, is very gently accented with a cadence Kara can’t place.
“Nice to meet you, Lena,” Kara says absently, finally letting Lena’s hand go. “I’m Kara.”
Lena smirks. “I remember.”
“Oh,” Kara says, finally realizing how odd it must seem to be staring intently into Lena’s face for a second time with no explanation. At least, no explanation besides you’re the prettiest person I’ve ever seen in my entire life. Lena doesn’t seem unsettled, but she does still seem a little cautious. “Right. Um –”
For probably the first and last time ever, Kara is relieved when Lillian interrupts her before she can make a complete idiot of herself.
“Ladies,” Lillian says as the trolley starts to move, standing to her full height so that the top of her head almost brushes the roof. She somehow balances perfectly on a moving vehicle in heels taller than Kara could ever manage, and Kara can’t begrudge her a little respect for the sheer poise. “You have no idea how pleased I am to see every one of your faces at my pageant. This weekend is your chance to show the nation that well-bred, traditional female values are still relevant.”
Kara can’t hide her grimace. She leans towards Lena, meaning to make a funny comment about how Lillian seems to think it’s still the 1950s, but the moment Lillian stood up the brunette had stiffened – and now that Kara actually looks at her, she seems genuinely distressed. All lightness from their conversation is gone, replaced by a ramrod-straight almost military posture and a stony face. She stares straight ahead, avoiding both Kara’s gaze and Lillian’s, and Kara leans back into her seat with a frown.
“A song for the road?” Lillian says, and there’s a general wave of excited chatter in response. “I think you know the one I mean.”
Kara does not know the one she means. Everyone else seems to, though, and all it takes is an airy wave of Lillian’s hand before the entire bus launches into song around her.
“From sea to shining sea, like lady liberty…”
It’s like Kara has entered the Twilight Zone. Everyone around her is belting the lyrics at full volume, some operatic and some more moderate but all with clear musical talent, and Kara is sitting smack in the middle without even enough of a knowledge of the tune to fake it.
She’s agreed to go undercover in a cult, and she didn’t do enough research to follow the leader.
Lena sings as well, but unlike everyone else around them her voice is actually quiet. So quiet that Kara almost can’t hear it – but when she focuses, tuning out the showy performers, she pretty quickly figures out why. Lena is mouthing the words, putting on the show of joining in, but even Kara can tell with almost no musical knowledge that her voice is delightfully tone-deaf.
It still feels like Kara is walking willingly into a bear trap. But oddly, the desire to sprint in the other direction disappeared the moment she sat down next to Lena.