“We’re up and running.”
Alex’s voice is sudden and loud in her ear, and Kara reaches up to fiddle with the volume on the earpiece. Nobody in the conference room seemed to notice her flinch at the noise, but she doesn’t want it to happen at an inopportune moment.
“Talk quieter,” Kara mutters, walking in a slow circle and frantically trying to figure out what she’s supposed to be doing. Each of the tables has a little placard on it with a state name, but she has no idea where hers is. “It’s distracting when you yell.”
“I wasn’t yelling!”
“You were – hold on, I found my table. Don’t talk to me, I have to act normal.”
By sheer luck Kara can see the New Jersey placard sitting on a table in the middle of the room, and she’s delighted to see that at that same table and seated directly beside her spot is Lena. There are 4 other women already seated as well, and Kara takes quick stock of their states – California, Alaska, New York, and Texas. The woman from Texas is Rojas, Kara remembers from the bus, which she can only assume is her last name. She and Lena seem to know each other, although there’s something frosty about their interaction that Kara can feel even from 20 feet away.
She really should have memorized the contestant booklet like Lena did.
“This seat taken?” Kara asks when she’s close enough, pulling out the chair in front of her placard and sitting carefully. She folds her legs together and tilts them to the side like Cat showed her, hoping it doesn’t look as clumsy as it feels.
All the conversations at the table go silent. Lena, seeming to take pity, is the first to speak up.
“Ladies, this is Kara-Lee Kent. New Jersey,” Lena says, and Kara chuckles.
Lena nods, pointing at the person on Kara’s other side. “Kara, this is Nia Nal, California –”
“Hey, girl,” Nia replies, her smile friendly. She looks to be the youngest at the table, probably under 25, with a kind face and a mischievous twinkle in her eye. Kara likes her immediately.
“Siobhan Smythe, Alaska,” Lena continues, moving to Nia’s right. Already, Kara likes Siobhan considerably less than Nia. She doesn’t greet Kara but nods silently, sizing her up with a haughty expression. She’s beautiful, of course, but Kara can already tell that she’s far too competitive to be friendly. It’s a strange feeling to be considered a threat by someone so obviously suited to pageantry.
“Sam Arias, New York,” Lena says, indicating the woman across the table from Kara.
“New blood. Nice to meet you,” Sam says with a wink. Lena’s voice is the warmest when introducing her, and Kara finds herself trusting Sam by association.
“And Andrea Rojas, Texas,” Lena finishes, her voice turning quiet and stiff.
“You’re the one who fell on your face,” Andrea says bluntly. Kara lets out a nervous bray, seizing the nearest food – a cheese danish from a tray of pastries – and setting it on her tiny plate. Nobody else has touched the food.
“I like to make an entrance,” Kara shrugs, taking a big bite. The rest of the table watches her with expressions ranging from derision to fascination, and she swallows loudly.
“You’re supposed to be blending in,” Alex says in her earpiece. Kara can tell she’s been trying to hold her tongue, and it takes a lot of self-control not to roll her eyes.
“I don’t care,” Kara mutters. Lena looks at her strangely, and Kara smiles around another mouthful of danish. “I don’t care…about calories, you know? Have to remind myself sometimes.”
Siobhan snorts. “Good luck with that.”
As soon as she’s turned back around to watch the speakers approaching the podium, Kara makes a face. Sam snickers.
“Ignore her,” Sam says in a stage whisper. “She had a stick surgically put into her ass when she won her first pageant and it hasn’t come out since.”
Nia snorts into her hand; Lena looks like she’s desperately trying not to smile. Siobhan looks like she’s just swallowed a live wasp.
“At least I didn’t have to take time out of competing for unplanned pregnancy,” Siobhan says snippily, and Kara blinks. It feels like a savage barb, an incredibly low blow, but Sam just rolls her eyes like she’s heard it 100 times before.
“Eight years later and you’re still on that, huh?”
“They shouldn’t even have let you back into competition.”
“It’s been years since they dropped the ‘must be single and childless’ qualification,” Nia adds, almost inserting herself physically between them. Kara follows the exchange like a tennis match, chewing her pastry. “Just like the ‘natural born woman’ qualification. It’s not the 80s anymore, grandma.”
“I realize that, but it’s unprofessional to leave halfway through competition season,” Siobhan insists, looking to Andrea for support. Andrea gives her nothing, but neither does she seem to give any consideration to Sam and Nia. She just watches with the most perfectly neutral expression Kara has ever seen. “I don’t know how they do it in New York, but where I’m from, when you leave your post –”
“Leave your post?” Lena finally interrupts, arching a brow at Siobhan. “Are we in the military?”
“I wasn’t finished,” Siobhan snaps, looking around the table. “Did I sound like I was finished?”
Sam looks about ready to leap across the table and rip out Siobhan’s earrings. And Kara, quite honestly, is with her just for the rude tone she took with Lena – but instead she pipes up her own interjection.
“Doesn’t Alaska have a town with a cat as the mayor?”
The table lapses into silence, all eyes on Kara. Siobhan glares at her – most normal people would probably shrink under it, but Kara has spent the last several years doing interrogation and counter-terrorism training. She doesn’t flinch.
“Excuse me?” Siobhan says when the glare gets no response, crossing her arms.
Kara takes another bite, finishing the danish off and grabbing one with a fruit filling. “I read about it. His name was Mayor Stubbs.”
“I’m just saying, weird stuff happens everywhere,” Kara says with a shrug. “Judging people over stupid stuff like that seems pretty silly.”
“This competition is all about judging people,” Siobhan says, incredulous. Again she looks to the others for support, but all of them are too busy staring at Kara in shock. Kara gets the feeling nobody expected the new girl to take a stand, especially against Siobhan.
“So, leave that up to the judges,” Kara retorts, glancing at Lena. She looks impressed, and it buoys Kara’s confidence. “Or are you like, a secret-shopper judge? Should I be worried?”
Siobhan huffs, turning away again. It feels a lot like a victory.
“I like you,” Sam says to Kara, looking delighted. She pours herself a glass of water and tops up Kara’s as well. “Where have you been all these years?”
“Oh, you know,” Kara says, shoving most of the second danish in her mouth at once. “Around.”
“Hey, Lillian’s about to speak,” Nia says, pointing at the podium. Everyone in the room is shifting, seeming to anticipate the announcement. “Probably revealing her retirement.”
“Her firing, you mean.”
Siobhan says it under her breath but it’s more than loud enough for everyone to hear, and when all eyes turn to her she seems smug and delighted in a way that makes Kara frown even though she desperately needs the information.
“What?” Kara asks, and beside her Lena shifts with clear discomfort.
“Oh, you didn’t know?” Siobhan says snidely. “The network is looking for a younger audience, and they think she’s too old-fashioned for the new brand. They let her go.”
“Really,” Kara says, already fitting this into her mental puzzle of the situation. From what Kara has seen, Lillian Luthor is not a woman who would take lightly to being fired. But would it be enough to make her do something this drastic?
“That was probably kept under wraps for a reason, Siobhan,” Sam says, looking to Lena with a strange expression. Lena is looking straight forward, her face carefully blank.
“If they wanted to keep it a secret, they should have done a better job.”
Lillian speaks, then, and a hush falls over the crowd so quickly that Kara is suddenly very aware of how loud her chewing is.
“You getting this?” Kara mutters under her breath, touching her earpiece as Lillian starts to talk. Alex doesn’t reply, which strikes Kara as odd after her interruptions earlier, but Lillian’s speech distracts her from it.
“For the past 30 years, it has been my honour to serve as Director of this pageant,” Lillian says magnanimously, a fixed smile not budging from her face. “And award hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarship money to some of the most delightful young ladies this country has to offer. And I know that this year will be our most exciting event yet.”
The tone is presentational and positive, but something about it makes Kara’s spine tingle. There’s something disconcerting in Lillian’s eyes, and the only person who looks as uncomfortable as Kara seems to be Lena.
“After the dance rehearsal and a quick photo shoot you’ll have the opportunity to introduce yourselves to our judges, and you can settle in your rooms. Tomorrow we’ll begin the preliminaries, and the real start to our beloved competition,” Lillian says haughtily, and Kara masks the rude face she wants to make by taking a bite of the nearest chocolate chip bran muffin. “I hope that this year you’ll all show your very best to the world, for there is nothing more wonderful to behold than a graceful, well-mannered –”
A shrill, piercing blast of sound erupts directly in Kara’s ear, and she can’t stop herself from grabbing at her earpiece with a pained yell.
“Ah! Crap on a cracker –”
The sound cuts off, replaced by Alex’s frantic voice.
“Sorry! Sorry, Kara, the audio feed cut out and we were trying to fix it –”
But the damage has already been done. The whole room is staring at Kara, and her stomach drops to her feet as she tries to tune out the ruckus in her ear.
“Miss Kent?” Lillian says into the microphone, looking like Kara has just committed a cardinal sin right there in the middle of the conference room. Her voice is laced with poison, masked by a veneer of politeness. “Is there truly something so important that you needed to interrupt to scream it at us?”
The air in the room seems to shift – like everyone has taken a breath at once, waiting for the hammer to come down on Lillian’s latest hapless victim.
“Yes,” Kara says distractedly, trying not to too openly fiddle with her earpiece. If she draws attention to it, people might start to suspect it isn’t really a hearing aid. “I mean, no – I mean, I realized just now that I forgot to check if this muffin is…kosher.”
Kara has never followed kashrut so strictly that it would warrant an outburst like this, but she’s not above using everyone’s lack of knowledge about her faith to get herself out of this disaster. Even Lillian has to begrudgingly accept that answer lest she look intolerant, even if doing so makes her look like she’s just eaten a lemon, and Kara can feel the rage in her gaze at being upstaged even as she’s forced to rescind her scolding.
“We’ll be sure to provide you with a complete dietary guide before dinner,” Lillian says through gritted teeth. “We of course need to ensure that everyone’s…cultural needs are being met.”
Something about the phrasing feels weirdly offensive, but the last thing Kara wants to do is draw more attention to herself just when everyone around her is finally directing their eyes back up to the front. Regretfully, Kara puts the muffin down and crosses her arms.
It was her only recourse, but now she’s still hungry.
After that disaster of a luncheon, all Kara wants to do is slip out the nearest door and never come back. But the circus marches ever onward, and soon after Lillian’s speech is over and there’s been a perfunctory 30 minutes where nobody besides Kara seems to eat anything, everyone is shuffled to another smaller conference room that houses a temporary photography studio. And after watching the first few girls step into the lights and start posing like they were born for it, Kara realizes that this predicament might be worse than the last.
After not seeing her since they got out of the cab, Kara is inordinately relieved to see Cat waiting for her there.
“What do I do?” Kara hisses under her breath, and Cat immediately takes out a small bag and starts pulling cosmetics out of it. “I’ve never been photographed before, besides my staff ID at the bureau.”
“Smile like you want Middle America to think you’re a sweet and wholesome girl,” Cat says, brushing something over Kara’s cheeks and blending it with a small sponge. “You clearly have the capacity to be charming – use it. And for god’s sake, don’t trip over your own feet.”
When Kara’s turn comes she’s sweaty and uncomfortable, and the hot lights only make it worse. She has no idea what she looks like but she knows it’s not her, and it feels like her limbs are all too big for her body. She can’t quite figure out how to place them, and no matter how much the girls waiting behind her fuss, the photographer can’t seem to capture a picture he likes. From what she can see on the computer screen, she’s only succeeded in looking either uncomfortable or constipated.
After one too many terrible shots Kara ducks out to get a drink of water and cool down, and she almost drops the cup when Lena appears beside her at the water cooler.
“Angle yourself sideways, and arch your back.”
Kara blinks. Lena is facing slightly away from her, looking at the studio setup where the photographer is talking to one of his assistants and gesturing frustratedly at the screen, and Kara isn’t entirely sure she didn’t just imagine her speaking.
“You keep looking at the camera head-on, and they think it’s too assertive,” Lena says, barely moving her mouth. “That’s why your shoot is taking so long. They want you to look delicate. Stand sideways, look over your shoulder, arch your back, and put one arm over your middle with the other touching your face. Trust me. It works every time.”
Kara frowns, grateful for the advice but still surprised it’s being given by someone she’s supposed to be in competition with. “Why are you helping me?”
“I have a bleeding heart,” Lena says drily, dropping her empty cup in the recycling bin and starting to walk away. “Just do it.”
Kara does. Three quick shots later the relieved photographer releases her, ushering in the Utah contestant after her, and when Kara looks around to find Lena and thank her for her advice the brunette is gone.
Unfortunately, release from the photoshoot is not a release from captivity. Just after it is the dance rehearsal, which Kara has been dreading most of all. She might have considered trying to escape to her room while everyone changes into their activewear, had Cat not (probably strategically) refused to give her a room assignment yet. Instead she hastily puts on the leggings and tank top Cat provided for workout gear – her usual workout sweatpants were apparently not sufficient – and shuffles into the gym with everyone else.
Everyone around her seems pert and excited as they’re arranged into rows by the choreographer. Some of the girls seem a little too excited, like they can’t wait to show off their skills; Kara couldn’t be more grateful that of all the people she could have been grouped with, the two girls on either side of her happen to be Sam and Nia. They’re both clearly skilled dancers, but their eyes are more sympathetic than judgmental when Kara flails her way through the first run of choreography.
Andrea, Siobhan, and Lena are thankfully in the row ahead where none of them can see Kara’s sad attempts at dancing, but when the session starts in earnest Kara starts to think that maybe this might be worse. It’s even more difficult to focus on the complicated dance moves the instructor is demonstrating up front when Lena is directly in her eyeline wearing bike shorts.
Kara has always considered herself to be fit. She’s been doing heavy weights and resistance training since she was a teenager, and she’s won the most bouts of hand-to-hand practice sparring of anyone at the bureau. Even James, one of the tallest and broadest men the bureau has in the field, has only beaten her twice in 7 years. But after only an hour and a half of dance rehearsal, she feels like she’s just done a full-day workout. She’s never been one for heavy cardio, and this seems to be entirely cardio – it’s like HIT training turned up to an 11. The instructor is maniacal, walking through the choreography briefly and then assuming they’ve all picked it up, and as a result Kara ends up doing sloppy aerobics trying to follow the people around her as they effortlessly twirl. Sam and Nia try to help during their brief breathers between run-throughs, but Kara feels like a hopeless case by the end of it all.
After a cocktail hour where she mostly stands in the corner sipping the sweetest drink she could wheedle the bartender into making, she finally gets her room assignment. She barely looks at anything besides the room number, so desperate is she to just collapse onto the bed and not move until tomorrow, and so it’s a slight shock when she slips her keycard in the door to find Lena on the other side of it, neatly unpacking a large suitcase into the dresser. She’s already in pyjamas despite it being barely 8pm, a maroon long-sleeved tee and silk shorts, and Kara’s eyes flick downwards in a way that’s not quite as respectful as she likes to be before darting away and fixing on a spot just above Lena’s head.
“Oh!” Kara says, stopping short. Lena doesn’t react, doesn’t even pause in her movements, but it seems almost forced. Performative nonchalance. “Are we roomed together?”
“Seems that way,” Lena says evenly.
Kara nods, dropping her bag on the bed that doesn’t have Lena’s purse on it. Lena is quiet in her task, and Kara toys nervously with the zipper of her duffel. She honestly can’t decide if sharing a room with Lena is the best or the worst thing that could happen this weekend, and her stomach is doing somersaults in the meantime as she tries not to let her eyes linger on Lena’s bare legs.
After a few awkward seconds Kara opens her duffel and pulls out a few things carelessly, tossing them into the nearest drawer pell-mell and trying to figure out something to say to break the silence.
“Um. Thank you for your help, earlier,” Kara finally blurts, turning to stare at the back of Lena’s head. “At the photoshoot.”
Lena pauses, but doesn’t turn around.
“Sure. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you’d never been photographed before.”
Kara laughs, probably slightly louder than is warranted in this situation. She cuts herself off with a hastily cleared throat.
“I know I should be familiar with that sort of thing, but it was really hot in there, you know?” Kara says quickly, zipping and unzipping the duffel nervously. Lena finally turns around, looking at Kara’s restless hands, and Kara stops. “And being the last-minute contestant here, I felt this weird sort of pressure. I really appreciate your advice.”
Lena just nods, crossing her arms and leaning back against the dresser. She can’t seem to meet Kara’s eyes directly. “Well, thank you for settling that argument at lunch. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Siobhan so flustered.”
Kara laughs nervously. “People like her aren’t used to being challenged. Sometimes you have to come on strong just to show them they aren’t the ones in control, you know?”
Lena doesn’t answer, but Kara can see her throat bob thickly. Her cheeks are a little pink, and Kara gets up to turn the AC up a few notches. She must be warm.
“So, weird coincidence, huh?” Kara says as she twists the dial, determined not to end the conversation now that she has Lena talking. “Being roomed together.”
Lena scoffs. “It’s not a coincidence. Nobody wants to room with me, so they stuck the new girl with it. The one who doesn’t know any better.”
“What are you talking about?” Kara says, already frowning at Lena’s clear low opinion of herself. She’s about ready to march into the rooms of whoever made her feel that way and give them a piece of her mind – but Lena explains quickly.
“Nobody wants to room with the pageant director’s daughter,” Lena says, as if Kara should already know this information. “They all think they’ll be accused of favouritism by association.”
Kara’s protesting monologue dies on her lips.
“Usually I end up with Sam, since she’s the only one who doesn’t launch a complaint when the rooms are assigned,” Lena continues, while Kara’s brain hard-reboots to accommodate the revelation of Lena being Lillian’s daughter. “But clearly this year they decided to make it easier and just put me with the person who has no knowledge of the situation. Sorry about that.”
The self-deprecation in that is what shakes Kara out of her silent disbelief. She shakes her head a little like she’s clearing the cobwebs, and sees that Lena is now looking at her with badly-disguised trepidation.
“Lillian is your mom?” Kara says, letting out a low whistle. “I definitely wouldn’t have guessed that. Siobhan’s mom, maybe. But not yours.”
Lena’s shoulders relax slightly, but her posture is still tense. “Adoptive. But yes, according to the paperwork, Lillian is my mother.”
“Is that allowed?” Kara asks, genuinely curious. It does seem nepotistic, but Kara doesn’t really know the rules here. Lena shrugs.
“Lillian isn’t a judge, she’s just the Director. There’s nothing in the rules that says it isn’t allowed. Doesn’t stop some people from thinking that I’ve cheated my way to the top.”
Kara sinks onto the bed, pulling her legs up and resting her chin on her knees as she gazes up at Lena. Lena meets her eyes at first, but glances away after a few seconds.
“Is that why you’re wrapped up in all of this?” Kara asks, trying to follow Lena’s eyeline. “You don’t strike me as the pageant type.”
Lena shrugs again, quick and jerky. “I’ve been doing this most of my life. If you met a lot of these girls outside this context, they probably wouldn’t strike you as pageant types either. They just want someone to pay for their student debt.”
“Do you enjoy it?” Kara asks. She thinks it’s probably the easiest question she’s asked so far, but strangely Lena reacts to it more than anything else before it. Her eyes flit back up to Kara’s, and she stares like she’s never been asked the question before in her life.
“That’s not really a factor,” Lena says slowly. Kara straightens.
“It should be,” Kara says, frowning when Lena looks confused. “You shouldn’t have to do things you don’t enjoy just because your mother wants you to. You’re an adult.”
Lena scoffs. “Try telling Lillian that.”
“I don’t think anyone has ever succeeded in telling Lillian anything.”
Lena laughs this time, brief but genuine. Her smile isn’t the empty fixed one she’s been sporting at the pageant, but a real one that takes over her whole face – scrunchy and sweet, making dimples flash in her cheeks. Even when she quickly cuts it off with a cleared throat it makes Kara’s chest tighten.
“It’s been a while since I competed,” Lena admits, carefully moving from the dresser to sit on her own bed opposite Kara. She perches on the edge, her back perfectly straight. Kara can almost imagine Lillian holding a ruler up to a younger Lena to measure the angle of it, and it makes her sad. “I managed to convince her for a while that I was too busy with school, and she seemed happy to accept that I was just a pageant failure. But she was pretty insistent on me entering this one.”
Kara frowns. It’s just one more reason to suspect Lillian, but having Lena be somehow involved makes her feel strangely protective.
“Did she give you a reason?” Kara asks, trying for nonchalance. Lena raises an eyebrow.
“Have you met my mother? She doesn’t give reasons, she gives commands. Maybe she wants one last hurrah before I age out. Who knows.”
They lapse into silence, but it’s a less uncomfortable one than when Kara first arrived. Lena is gazing through the sliding door that leads out to the patio behind the room at the darkening sky, and Kara is gazing at her. She really is beautiful – even more so now, with the hairspray brushed out of her hair and her face freshly washed. There’s something fascinating about her profile, the sharp line of her jaw and the smooth slope of her nose contrasting with the softness of her eyes. Even as she knows it’s a major distraction from what she came here to do, Kara hopes more than anything that she gets to see Lena laugh again this weekend.
Finally Lena takes a big breath that turns into a sigh, and switches off her bedside lamp.
“I’m going to go to bed, if that’s okay,” Lena says quietly. “Tomorrow is a long day. You can leave your lamp on - just not the overhead light, please.”
Kara nods, watching Lena slip between the sheets and pull a sleep mask over her eyes. “I’ll try to be quiet.”
Lena is silent after that, turning to face the wall away from Kara, and as quietly as she can Kara changes into her own pyjamas – Cat can’t stop her from wearing her comfy sweats to bed, at least - and slips under her own covers. She’s never been more exhausted, not even in the middle of training to be on the force, and she wants nothing more than to follow Lena’s example and escape from the world until tomorrow morning. The pillows are soft, and Kara burrows into them with a contented sigh. Before she’s even finished her thought, she can feel herself drifting off.
Until four quiet knocks sound on the sliding door.
Kara groans into the pillow. She knows that knock – it’s Alex, using the pattern they agreed on as a signal. For a moment Kara considers pretending she didn’t hear and just pulling the covers over her head, but Alex repeats the pattern a little harder, and Kara has to haul herself out of bed before it wakes Lena up.
She wrenches the door open to see Alex with her phone up to her ear and a hand poised to knock again, and she pushes Alex back and slides the door shut behind both of them with a glance back at Lena. She hasn’t moved, thankfully.
“What?” Kara hisses, turning back to her sister. “Who are you on the phone with?”
Alex taps at her free ear. “Kelly, who else?”
It makes sense, Kara supposes. Since Kelly works as a trauma psychologist at the bureau Alex is used to seeing her every day, even at work, and spending days apart is probably tough. Kara has never found anyone she clicks with the way Alex does with Kelly, and it’s always made her a little wistful.
“And you’re here waking me up why?”
“You weren’t answering your earpiece! Cat needs you.”
“I was going to bed!” Kara whisper-yells. “You want me to sleep with that thing in? Come on, Alex, I haven’t had more than a few hours of sleep in days.”
“I know,” Alex says, her face drawn with stress. “I’m sorry, Kara. But Cat needs to go over some things with you, for tomorrow. After that, I swear you can go to bed.”
Kara groans, leaning back against the cool glass. It feels so good to close her eyes, even standing here, that she thinks she could probably fall asleep like this.
“Kelly, help me,” Kara whines, and she can hear her sister-in-law’s answering chuckle through the phone speaker.
“Sorry, Kara. It was in our marriage vows that I’m required to take Alex’s side in any sister argument.”
“Come on,” Alex wheedles, walking backwards towards the conference centre. “I’ll buy you a cookie.”
“Better make it a whole box,” Kara grumbles, peeling herself off the door and reluctantly following.
Going over some things turns out to be wrestling Kara into a mermaid-cut evening gown and practicing walking down a spiral staircase in heels, and Kara is yawning her way through it before it’s even begun.
“You don’t walk, you float,” Cat calls from the bottom, making Kara’s headache pound even more harshly. “Gently descending, you don’t look down – don’t look down!”
“I thought I was supposed to glide?” Kara says, stifling another yawn and stomping back up the few stairs she managed to get down before Cat started yelling.
“Do it again,” is Cat’s answer, completely ignoring Kara’s sass. “Never look down. Thighs touching – “
“They are touching.”
“Touching, not clenching,” Cat says, through teeth that are definitely clenched. “There should be a slight gap.”
“Right now there’s a slight gap between my brain and my spinal cord,” Kara mutters. She stares down at the steps that seem to elude her, wiggling her toes in her pinchy shoes. Cat gives no quarter.
Kara tries again, managing to look straight up into the middle distance, and she lets out a victorious noise when she hits the bottom without Cat yelling at her. She looks to Cat, who looks more relieved than impressed.
“Good. A little faster this time,” Cat says, snapping her fingers.
Rolling her eyes, Kara heads back up the stairs.
“What will we be seeing for your talent tomorrow?” Cat says distractedly, looking down at her phone as Kara reaches the top. “Singing? Dancing? Chewing with your mouth closed?”
Kara, focused on keeping her thighs touching, shrugs as she takes the steps as fast as her tired brain will let her. “I will do whatever you tell me to, Yoda.”
Cat freezes. And then she whirls around, her eyes alight with a fury Kara hasn’t seen before.
“Son of a bitch.”
“What?” Kara says, stumbling over the weird gauzy scarf attached to the dress’ neckline and trying to wrap it around her arm to get it out of the way. Cat doesn’t answer. Instead she storms over to where Alex is nodding off in a chair, her phone pinned between her shoulder and ear and her coffee mug clutched to her chest.
“Agent Danvers, this woman has no talent.”
“Hey!” Alex says defensively, the surprise of Cat’s voice so close making her slosh her coffee on her white shirt as she jerks back awake. The phone clatters to the floor, and Kara is somewhat tickled to see that the call is still ongoing. Alex clearly misses her wife, and it’s sweet that Kelly stayed on the phone even as she fell asleep. It makes the part of Kara that’s slightly resented staying single for so long twinge a little.
“Yeah, that’s uncalled for,” Kara says, tromping down the stairs and kicking out of her shoes at the bottom so she can catch up more easily. Cat is livid.
“I was not told to provide a talent, and I am not prepared to do so in the next 6 hours,” Cat says heatedly. “The preliminary talent showcase is tomorrow.”
Kara frowns. “Why didn’t anyone tell me I needed one?”
“Did they not speak with you when this all began?” Cat asks, throwing her hands up. “They need to have costumes and stage directions before the event begins. Do they simply have a blank spot on the programme?”
“Nobody talked to me! I thought you were taking care of it!” Kara snaps. “Given that your voice drips condescension every time I ask you a question, I don’t think I can be blamed for assuming that.”
Cat breathes out slowly through her nose, pressing her fingers into her temples. “This reeks of Lillian.”
“What, is she trying to sabotage me?” Kara says, leaning back against a nearby table. There’s a canteen of coffee and a box on donuts on it, and Kara glances back at Cat. She seems distracted, looking at Alex – she couldn’t possibly notice if Kara just took a few.
“I don’t know,” Cat says, and quick as a flash Kara seizes two donuts and shoves them into the neckline of her dress. It’s desperate and a little gross, but she’s in a desperate situation. She doesn’t mind a little boob sweat if it means she can finally eat for the first time since the sad little salad she was given at the cocktail hour. “What I do know is that you’re going to be on stage tomorrow with nothing to do besides convert oxygen into carbon dioxide.”
“How were we not alerted to this?” Alex says, dabbing at her shirt and putting the phone back to her ear. “Babe, sorry, I have to go. I’ll call you tomorrow, okay?”
“Hold on!” Kara interrupts as Kelly sends her love and hangs up, sure now that her donuts are hidden. “There’s something I know how to do. I haven’t done it in a really long time, though.”
Cat scoffs. “You aren’t having sex on stage.”
Kara chokes. Her mind goes immediately, shamefully, to Lena – and before the thought can fully manifest she continues loudly.
“I didn’t know that was an option. It’s fine, I just have to call room service and then get an outfit. You can handle that right?”
Cat’s frown has reduced a little. Kara, taking the excuse, turns to leave – but before she reaches the door Cat has called out to her.
“Miss Danvers, hand over the donuts before they stain your dress.”
Blessedly barefoot, Kara breaks into a sprint.
“Can’t stop me, already out the door, see you tomorrow, bye!”
Alex shouts after her, but Kara manages to escape. Lena seems to be sleeping peacefully when she sneaks back into the room, and Kara enjoys her hard-earned donuts sitting on the bathroom floor.
The next morning, Kara can hardly stop yawning long enough for Cat to get her makeup done before the dress rehearsal. The older woman leaves her with a clothing bag that turns out to contain the shortest, most ridiculous, frilly dirndl-style dress Kara has ever seen, and she’s too tired to even care. She just throws the bag over the back of her chair, sitting in front of her designated mirror with her chin in her hand while everyone around her scurries around getting themselves ready.
It’s Sam who first notices her exhaustion.
“You look tired, Kara. Are you okay?”
“Oh, she had a busy night,” Siobhan answers before Kara can, smirking as she fills in her brows. Kara’s blood freezes. “My room is next to yours. I saw that cute woman come to the back door. You two disappeared for hours.”
Lena, whose mirror is positioned directly behind Kara’s so she can see her in the reflection, stiffens.
“Kara!” Nia says, gasping but seeming delighted by the gossip as she twirls her chair around. “You had a visitor?”
“I – I –” Kara stammers, fully awake now that panic has flooded her system.
“You know we aren’t supposed to have relations at the hotel,” Andrea says, but Sam snorts.
“Oh, come on. You’re all acting as if sleeping around at a pageant isn’t a time-honoured tradition,” Sam says, her tongue poking out as she carefully applies mascara. “I’ve had sex with 3 people in this vicinity at one competition or another.”
Andrea blushes. Siobhan’s lips purse, and Lena snorts into her compact mirror.
“So, who was it?” Sam says, putting the mascara down and coming to perch on the edge of Kara’s table. “Are you sleeping with a judge?”
Kara practically gags at the implication. “Oh, god – no! I’m not sleeping with anyone, it was my sister!”
The excitement in the room noticeably dies down – and, Kara notices, Lena seems to relax a little.
“Why is your sister visiting you at 10pm?” Andrea asks skeptically. Kara grits her teeth. Andrea seems almost as determined to sandbag her as Siobhan is, even if she’s marginally less aggressive about it.
“She’s also…my personal trainer?” Kara says quickly, seizing on the lie when nobody immediately calls her on it. “Yes. My trainer. This weekend is so hectic, I can’t get any training in. We went to the gym last night. I am…very serious about my fitness regimen. Resistance, weights, crossfit. You know.”
“That’s clear,” Siobhan says, with a weirdly appreciative glance at Kara’s arms. Lena glares at the other brunette, turning her chair to do so, and Kara slides down in her chair a little under all the scrutiny.
“Someone’s suddenly interested,” Nia says drily, folding her arms and looking at Siobhan with amusement. “I thought you hated Kara?”
“Just because I hate her doesn’t mean I can’t fuck her,” Siobhan says breezily, snapping her eyeshadow case closed.
“Very true,” Sam agrees, winking at Siobhan. Siobhan gives her the finger; and Kara, caught in the middle, shuts her mouth and tries very hard not to bring the subject back to herself.
“I think that’s enough interrogation,” Lena says finally, and Kara slides even further down in her chair with pure relief. “We should all be focusing on the showcase.”
Everyone seems to agree, realizing they’ve wasted precious minutes, and scatter to the winds. Lena stays where she is, glancing at Kara in the mirror until Kara turns around to face her. She wants to thank Lena for changing the subject, but isn’t sure how to do that without admitting that she has something to hide.
The change of angle means that Kara can see Lena’s table, now, and the two bedazzled sticks sitting on top of it.
“Is your talent baton twirling?” Kara blurts. Lena blushes, but her stare is hard.
“Yes, it is. And?”
“Nothing!” Kara says, holding her hands up. “Sorry, I just – I wouldn’t have expected that. You seem too…”
Lena stares silently, her brow raising until Kara is squirming.
“Smart, I guess?” Kara offers, already regretting speaking at all. Lena gives her a small smile.
“Does twirling batons lower one’s IQ?”
“Well, no. It just doesn’t seem to suit you,” Kara counters. It’s true – maybe Kara is bringing her own baggage to it, but baton twirling seems so frivolous. The exact opposite vibe that Lena has given her since they met. It requires a lot of skill, sure, but it doesn’t seem like the sort of thing Lena would spend her time becoming an expert in.
Lena sighs. “Well, not all of us get a choice.”
Before Kara can ask what she means by that, Lena is already gone.
Much sooner than she would prefer Kara is in the stupid frilly dress Cat gave her, waiting backstage with the other contestants and a rolling table laden with wine glasses full of water.
Everyone is lined up in the approximate order they’ll be performing, Kara being near the end, and she feels a little silly just standing there when everyone else is stretching and running vocal warmups. As Cat had suspected, Kara’s name in the programme only says ‘forthcoming’, and she could have sworn that Lillian looked disappointed she managed to pull one out of nowhere.
The preliminary talent show is held in front of a live crowd in a massive courtyard, covered by awnings from the blazing sun that do very little to cool anyone down. The audience is peppered with agents – Alex, James, and Vasquez are blending in and wearing earpieces, scanning the sea of people for possible threats while Brainy watches the security cameras from the hotel room. Even so, Kara doesn’t feel any less terrified at the prospect of being on stage. Lillian seems perfectly comfortable as she announces the beginning of the show to the cameras and introduces the first contestant, but Kara is already sweating so much that she’s sure her makeup must be coming off.
A few spaces in front of her is Siobhan in some kind of Renaissance-looking corseted dress, and she turns back to look at Kara with a sneer.
“What’s your talent? Bartending?”
“You guessed it. I’m getting everyone drunk so they can’t hear you sing,” Kara says, all feigned sweetness.
Sam’s laugh is almost loud enough to interrupt Lillian on stage. Lena is closer to the front of the line, tapping her batons against her legs like a drumbeat, but Kara can see the ghost of a smile on her face from afar.
Lena’s baton twirling, it turns out, is more impressive than Kara thought it would be. It’s incredible how fast her hands move, throwing and catching the batons in all sorts of complicated formations – Kara is no expert, but it seems technically perfect. But there’s no joy in it, Kara can tell. Lena’s smile is practiced and empty, and it drops the second she’s off stage. Kara flashes her a thumbs-up as she walks by, headed to the dressing rooms, and the tiny grin Kara gets in return is more real than the one that was fixed on Lena’s face for her entire performance.
Everyone else is just as good, too. Nia does a spirited tap-dancing number to some old show tune Kara doesn’t recognize, and Sam does a surprisingly beautiful piece of ballet – Andrea performs a piece on the cello that makes the hair on Kara’s arms stand up, and as much as Kara sort of wishes she would mess up, Siobhan practically blows the tent roof away with her operatic range. By the time Kara’s turn has come, her heart is in her throat; after watching everyone else’s talents, hers is going to look like a joke.
She can hear the laughs ripple through the crowd when she finally pushes her little cart out, the glasses clinking together as Lillian announces the ‘musical stylings of miss Kara-Lee Kent’ with thinly veiled disdain. The faces seem generally confused when Kara looks out into the crowd, giving them an awkward little wave before she gets this all over with.
Dipping her finger into the first glass, Kara searches the sea of faces for anything suspicious and tries not to make a fool of herself.
Thankfully, she barely needs to think to perform her so-called talent. It’s something she used to do at parties in college, playing idle songs with the whistle-tones of wine glasses at different levels, and it’s easy enough that she can put most of her focus on her real job even as the crowd chuckles at the strangeness of it. She’s only a few bars in before she sees movement in her periphery.
There’s a middle-aged man in a Stetson moving purposefully towards the stage, looking over towards the side of the stage where Kara emerged from. Where the rest of the girls are waiting in the wings.
“Eagle eye,” Kara mutters, making sure to talk softly enough that the microphone near her wineglasses won’t pick it up and ringing a little bell that Cat put on the table to cover it, “Can you check out the cowboy at 2:00?”
“My 2:00, or your 2:00?” Vasquez answers over the laughter around her. She’s the furthest from the man, all the way on the other side of the pavilion, and Kara gnaws at her lip as the crowd claps for her quick note changes.
“He’s over by James,” Kara says, her voice rising a little as the man gets closer to the stage. Closer to all the innocent girls crowded just beyond it. Closer to Lena, who Kara can see from the corner of her eye – she’s leaning against a speaker, talking to Sam and watching Kara perform. “He has a white Stetson. He’s on the move.”
“Kara, we’re in Texas! Half the guys in this tent are wearing white Stetsons,” Alex says, sounding worried. Even as she says it the man reaches into his back pocket for something, lifting his blazer a little, and Kara sees a glint of metal at his hip.
“He has a gun,” Kara whispers urgently, completely forgetting that she’s supposed to be playing the glasses. Panic rises in her throat like bile, and she glances to Lena – she’s standing far too close to the stage, to the man with a gun, and looking at Kara with a concerned expression – and back to the man, who seems to be reaching for something. The decision is made for her. “Guys, he has a gun! I’m taking him out.”
“Kara, wait for a visual!” Alex yells in her ear, but Kara is already moving. She sprints across the stage, waving her arms as she leaps into the air, her floofy skirt bouncing with every step.
“Get down! Everybody down!”
In the chaos of the whole affair, Kara had failed to take the cameras into account. Which is why she ends up sitting in Lillian’s office an hour later with Alex beside her, being stared down like she never has before as a newsreel is played for her. Lillian looks livid – her assistant Alexander, who’s standing behind her, looks vaguely amused by the whole thing.
“In a bizarre incident at the Miss United States Preliminaries, the contestant from New Jersey leapt off stage and tackled a man in the crowd who was trying to light a cigarette,” the reporter is saying, chuckling to herself. Lillian’s eye twitches. “She’s here with me right now. Miss Kent, what were you thinking when you jumped off stage?”
Kara had tackled him with the force of her entire body, propelled from the height of her jump, and she had his gun out of the holster and tossed away as soon as they hit the ground. The cameras didn’t catch that part, thankfully – to them she didn’t look like a federal agent taking down a threat, but an insane woman in pigtails and a dirndl leaping off stage with a garbled yell.
“Well, all the contestants here are actively involved in ending tobacco dependence,” Kara watches herself say with fake confidence, and she winces at the amused look on the reporter’s face. “I think the gentleman in question will think twice before he lights up again.”
The tv clicks off, and Lillian takes a deep breath that reminds Kara eerily of a dragon about to decimate a medieval village.
“Ending tobacco dependence?” Lillian says, her voice soft and dangerous.
“Agent Danvers was just doing her job,” Alex says defensively.
“He had a gun,” Kara adds, but her protest is short-lived.
“This is Texas, everyone has a gun,” Lillian snaps, her knuckles white where her fingers are laced together. “My florist has a gun. Having a gun is as common as having a car.”
“We assume any man with a weapon is a suspect!” Kara says, and Lillian’s retort is cut short when Alex’s phone beeps loudly. She looks down at it, and her eyes widen.
“Actually, we might need to change that. The DNA results came in,” Alex says, completely ignoring Lillian for a moment to show Kara the text. “The envelope from Cadmus? It was licked by a woman.”
Kara can’t help it. Her first instinct is to look at Lillian – and when she does, she sees exactly what she was expecting. Lillian’s face is like stone, but for just a moment her eyes flick to her assistant. If Kara hadn’t already suspected Lillian, she might have missed it.
“This is ridiculous,” Lillian sneers, standing up to her full height behind the desk. “You people are completely clueless. If I ran my pageant like this, we’d be holding it in somebody’s basement.”
“FBI operations are constantly changing as new information comes in, Miss Luthor,” Alex says firmly, standing up herself and gesturing for Kara to follow. “If you’ll excuse us, we need to talk to our team about this update.”
“You’ll do no such thing,” Lillian says striding to the door and leaving Alexander behind. “There’s a dance rehearsal that Miss Danvers -”
“Agent Danvers,” Kara interrupts, enjoying watching Lillian’s nostrils flare.
“Is holding up by being absent,” Lillian finishes between gritted teeth. “She can confer with your team later. Follow me.”
Begrudgingly, after a nod from Alex, Kara follows. Lillian is moving at a surprisingly quick pace considering the height of her heels, and Kara has to jog a little to keep up.
“I know I messed up, but I’m trying to protect these girls –”
“I have dedicated my entire life to this scholarship program,” Lillian interrupts her, barely moving her mouth as she smiles and nods at people passing them by. It’s almost impressive. “Despite people like you, who think we’re a bunch of worthless airheads.”
“I don’t – ”
“I see how you look at us, at our traditions. You look down on us. And I will not have you ruin this pageant,” Lillian hisses, anger starting to bleed into her voice. “Not this year. If you get in the way again, I will make you regret it.”
Kara stops short, narrowing her eyes. “Are you threatening a federal agent?”
Lillian doesn’t answer. She tosses open a set of doors, and strides into the gym with the clear expectation that Kara will follow. The rest of the girls are waiting, doing stretches and chatting, but a hush falls over them as soon as Lillian enters.
“Now that Miss Kent has finally graced us with her presence,” Lillian says, smiling when titters run through the group at the reminder of why Kara was away from the group, “we can get to work. I expect everyone is almost ready for the performance on Sunday night?”
“I hope Kara won’t be charged with assault,” Siobhan says, and just behind her Sam rolls her eyes, looking to Nia with a look of annoyance. “We wouldn’t want it to reflect badly on the pageant, would we?”
“The man isn’t pressing charges,” Lena pipes up from the second row, and Kara blinks. Lena herself seems surprised that she’s spoken up, and seems to shrink a little under her mother’s scrutiny. “I spoke to him. He was just happy to be on tv.”
Lillian smiles, but her eyes are cold. “Well, at least Miss Kent’s form was good when she assaulted the man. Not all of us can say the same.”
She doesn’t even try to hide that she’s looking straight at Lena. Lena’s face is like stone, but as everyone around her whispers their shock at the outright insult Kara can see it in her eyes – shame, and weary acceptance. Lillian is trying to shame her for no reason, to take the heat off Kara’s embarrassing display and assert her power.
The idea that Lillian has done something similar so many times that Lena is used to it makes Kara angrier than she’s been since she arrived.
“I think everyone’s performance was fantastic, barring mine,” Kara says loudly, looking Lillian dead in the eye. “As a Director with so much experience, I’d think you’d be less obvious about stating your wrong opinions before the scores are even in.”
Lillian’s face only twitches, but her eyes spell murder.
Lillian makes the rest of the rehearsal a nightmare. She watches like a hawk from the front of the room as everyone runs through first the choreography for the group dance on Sunday and then the stage directions for the final talent performance tomorrow, and she seems to have an endless array of praise for everyone but Kara and Lena. Lena she treats silently, pretending she doesn’t exist; Kara she ensures gets singled out every time she messes up a step, so that by the end of it Kara is sweaty and frustrated.
The only thing that makes her feel better is the small, grateful smile Lena flashes her as they all file out of the gym.
After dinner, according to Kara’s Cat-made schedule, she’s supposed to report to a room in the basement of the conference centre to practice interviews. But the absolute last thing she wants to do after an afternoon of being snapped at by Lillian is go and be snapped at by Cat, so instead she leaves her earpiece and phone on her bedside table and goes out in search of the pool. Nothing calms her down like cool water and swimming a few laps; she didn’t bring a bathing suit, but the pool is tucked into a remote area on the grounds, surrounded by walls and shrubs. Kara has seen a few people milling around the area during the day, but as she hoped it’s deserted now. The pool lights under the water casts a blue glow all around, rippling on the cement and dark greenery. Breathing in the comforting smell of chlorine and cut grass, Kara sits heavily and dips her feet into the cool water.
After a few seconds, she realizes that chlorine isn’t the only thing she smells. There’s something else, something more acrid, and she follows it to a barely-visible haze of smoke drifting out from behind a cluster of bushes.
“Is someone there?” Kara calls, frowning at the idea of company. What she hears makes her heart leap.
“Shit -” A familiar voice says, whispered and frantic. The smoke gets disturbed, like someone is trying to wave it away, and Kara steps around the bush to see the source with a smile on her face.
“Kara!” Lena says, pausing in what looks to be an effort to put out the cigarette she was just smoking. “What are you doing here?”
“I was going to go for a swim,” Kara says, crouching on the grass next to Lena and raising a brow at the smoke in her hand. “What are you doing here?”
“Contraband,” Lena says drily. She shifts away slightly, giving Kara more room to sit, but Kara wishes she wouldn’t. She’d take any excuse to be closer.
“Are you okay?” Kara asks carefully. Lena rolls her eyes, seeming to do a cost-benefit analysis in her head, and finally she raises the cigarette up to her mouth again to take a drag.
“Do I look okay to you?” Lena says, exhaling carefully away from Kara. She rubs her face, looking at the smoke morosely. “I’m hiding behind a bush, indulging a habit I kicked years ago.”
Lena watches the ash for a few moments, flicking it a little and not seeming to want to make eye contact. It’s clear that she’d rather have not been caught in a moment of weakness. She looks terribly sad and alone, sitting in the dark.
“You should come sit with me,” Kara says. Lena finally looks up, her brow furrowed.
Kara shrugs. “Because it’s nicer by the pool. Put that thing out and come talk.”
She makes her way over to the water again, putting her legs back in, and listens. It takes a minute or so, but eventually Kara hears quiet footsteps behind her, and Lena settles to her left. She pulls her legs up and wraps her arms around them, keeping them out of the water, but Kara is thrilled that she accepted the invitation at all.
“What your mom did was really out of line,” Kara says quietly. She can guess that it’s the source of Lena’s current mood, and she’s vindicated when Lena lets out a shaky sigh.
“It’s fine. She was right, I was sloppy,” Lena says, almost robotically. “I haven’t performed since my last pageant run, and I never really liked doing it anyways, Lillian just thought it was the only thing I could be good at -”
“Lena, your performance was great,” Kara says, cutting off the self deprecation at the source. “Lillian was just trying to hurt you because she needs to control someone else to feel better about herself.”
Lena scoffs. “Sounds like psychoanalysis.”
“My sister-in-law is a psychologist,” Kara chuckles, splashing her feet a little. “The three of us spend a lot of time together.”
“Well I don’t need therapy, Dr. Kent,” Lena says wryly, scooting away when Kara reaches down and flicks some water at her. “Hey! That’s cold!”
“Oh?” Kara says, grinning. “No therapy? Is that why you’re smoking alone in a secluded corner?”
Lena narrows her eyes, but there’s a lightness to her face that makes Kara happy. “I haven’t smoked in years, but something about being here with her, competing again when I thought that I finally managed to get out…it just got to me.”
Kara nods. She dries her hand on her pants, and Lena seems to follow their movement. “It’s getting to me too. This whole thing. Clearly.”
Lena looks at her quietly for a long time, after that. She looks like she wants to ask a question, and Kara waits for it, staring up at the starless sky – but after a minute or two, Lena seems to decide against it.
“I thought you were going swimming?” Lena says instead. Kara nods, standing abruptly. She came here for something, and even with Lena here, she might as well get it.
“You’re right, I was. Want to join me?”
“What?” Lena blanches, her eyes going wide when Kara slips out of her pants and pulls her shirt over her head. It feels strange to strip in front of Lena like this, but she might as well just pull off the band-aid. Tomorrow she has to wear a bathing suit in front of a live audience, anyways. “Are you…are you wearing boxers?”
Kara blushes at that. She’d bet on being alone here, and worn her comfortable underwear when she got the chance – and now Lena is staring at it with a strange expression. Dark, and almost hungry. It makes Kara tingle in unexpected places.
“Come on,” Kara says, ignoring the question and slipping into the pool with a sigh. The cool water is a welcome distraction from Lena’s gaze. “You need to relax for a minute.”
“I don’t have a suit,” Lena says hesitantly. Kara gestures at herself, in a sports bra and boxers, and Lena shakes her head.
“I’m not stripping. Not here.”
“You don’t have to. Just jump in.” Kara dips underwater, letting out a stream of bubbles and surfacing again, slicking her hair back. Lena’s eyes follow her arms, and the tingles return. It makes Kara feel brave. “Come on, it’s fun.”
Kara kicks her feet, splashing water at Lena, who covers her face – but she’s smiling, and her body language is less guarded than it was before. She looks like she’s considering it.
“I can’t,” she says, dipping her hand in to feel the temperature. “We’ll get in trouble.”
“For what?” Kara asks, looking around. There’s nobody nearby, no noises besides themselves and the distant sound of city traffic. Lena frowns.
“I…I don’t know, actually. It just seems against the rules.”
“The pool is open 24 hours for guests,” Kara says reasonably, pointing at the sign. “It’s not even curfew yet, and there’s no rule against wearing your clothes. Nobody is here. Nobody but me.”
Lena glances at the sign and back to Kara with a contemplative look. Kara grins, floating on her back and wiggling her toes. It makes Lena smile – and then she stands up, shucking off her sweater.
Lena ends up taking off her leggings but keeping her shirt, and the way she giggles when she submerges herself makes it obvious that she’s never done anything like this before. She seems surprised at her own forwardness. It’s among the most adorable things Kara has ever seen, and when Lena catches her staring she colours.
“This feels weird,” Lena says, easing back and floating on her back as well. They drift separately, both staring up at the sky. It’s more calming than even a solo swim would have been.
“But good, right?”
“Yeah. That’s the weird part.”
Kara smiles. She pushes off a little from the wall, gliding until her head bumps gently against Lena’s shoulder.
“So, you don’t really like baton twirling.”
Lena sighs heavily. Kara can hear her feet moving a little, but she doesn’t move away. They stay in each other’s orbit, floating in a slow circle. “No. I don’t.”
“I knew it.”
Lena splashes her, chuckling. “So you were right about one thing. Deflate the ego a little.”
Kara takes it happily, not bothering to wipe the droplets from her face. “What do you really like to do?”
“What do you mean?” Lena says, and she sounds genuinely puzzled. Like nobody has asked her preference for anything in a long time.
“I mean, if you could choose your own talent,” Kara explains. “Something you’re really good at, and you want to show off to the world. What would it be?”
All Kara can hear in response is lapping water and her own breathing. When Lena speaks again, it’s louder than expected – their heads have drifted together, and Kara jumps a little at the closeness.
Kara twists, her feet hitting the bottom of the pool as she stands up to look at Lena in surprise. “Wait, really?”
Lena keeps her eyes firmly toward the heavens. Kara, realizing that her bra and boxers are clinging to her in a way that’s probably making Lena uncomfortable, dips under the water again, but not before poking Lena until she answers.
“Are you going to judge me again?” Lena asks, making a face.
“No! I wasn’t judging you in the first place, I was just - you fence?” Kara says, trying to imagine Lena in one of those white bodysuits with a sword in her hand. The images don’t seem to gel. “Like, with those pointy swords?”
Lena laughs. “Yes, I fence. I almost qualified for the Olympics.”
“What?” Kara gapes. Lena seems ridiculously blasé for someone who just revealed she was on an Olympic level in a sport.
“Lillian thought it was a waste of my time,” Lena shrugs, kicking her legs idly. They’re unthinkably pale in the underwater light. “Qualifiers were in the middle of pageant season. I missed my chance, and then I decided to focus on school.”
She’s putting on an admirable show of not caring, but Kara can hear the old pain in her voice. The resentment. And it stokes Kara’s anger at Lillian even further. How can she be so unfeeling, so cruel to her daughter, when Lena is so wonderful?
Kara wonders, suddenly, how difficult it would be to hire a fencing partner and a suit for a night.
“I’d like to see you fence sometime,” Kara says, laying back again and making a mental note to do a google search for fencing clubs in San Antonio. Lena scoffs.
“No, you wouldn’t.”
“I would! I’d hold a big sign with your name on it. And a foam finger. I’m a very good cheerleader.”
“You don’t seem like the cheerleading type,” Lena says, looking sideways at Kara with a raised brow.
“Oh, just wait and see,” Kara says, shimmying her shoulders under the water to make Lena laugh. “You’ll be amazed. And super embarrassed. In high school my sister had to bar me from her soccer games.”
They don’t end up getting back to the room until around midnight, long after curfew. As the minutes pass into hours Kara encourages Lena to talk about herself, soaking up every detail, and she even manages to answer most of Lena’s returning questions truthfully. She has to fudge a few details, of course, but she doesn’t want to lie to Lena about anything real. Not when she’s so vulnerable.
On the way back Lena seems thrilled by breaking the rules, burying her face in Kara’s neck to keep her laughter in check when they have to duck into a shady alcove to avoid someone who is probably not even associated with the pageant, and the closeness makes Kara feel a little drunk. There’s a moment, just a few seconds after Lena raises her head again to look up at her, where Kara could swear that Lena’s eyes linger on her lips – but then she moves away, tugging on Kara’s arm to pull her towards their block.
Lena falls asleep seconds after she climbs into bed, and Kara is poised to follow suit and slip into dreams about what might have happened if Kara had been brave enough to lean forward until she grabs her phone to set an alarm and sees 12 missed calls.
Right on cue, Alex’s knocks sound on the glass.
“You were due 2 hours ago!” Alex says the moment she opens the door, her voice laced with worry. “Where have you been? And why is your hair wet?”
“I was gathering intel,” Kara mutters, rubbing her eyes. Alex sighs.
“Cat is livid. Come on.”
Every step they take towards whatever Cat has planned for the night, Kara’s annoyance grows. She’s closing in on 72 hours now with barely any sleep, being belittled and directed. She’s eaten a fraction of what she usually does, with the pageant meals being less than satisfactory and Cat trying to curb her snacking. She’s spent hours talking to Lena about how much her mother – and by extension, these pageants – decimated her self worth. Overall, Kara is just about at the end of her rope.
So when Kara gives what she thinks is a perfectly satisfactory answer to the newest asinine question and grabs a handful of cookies from the snack table as a reward only to have Cat’s reply be ‘I’ve seen better answers from 5th grade spelling bee winners. And better eating habits. Again, Miss Danvers,’ Kara finally snaps.
“Excuse me?” Cat says, lowering her index cards. Kara can’t help it – even though Cat is technically helping her, has mostly accepted Kara’s quirks and tried to work around them as much as possible, she can’t help but see Lillian in her place barking orders at Lena. Telling her she isn’t good enough. Drilling an inferiority complex so deeply into her that she carries it with her for the rest of her adult life.
Kara grits her teeth, turns around with cookies in hand, and digs in her heels.
“No! Okay, Cat? I said no.”
Cat blinks slowly. She looks for a moment like she’s about to let loose one of her trademark speeches, but Kara cuts her off at the pass.
“The biggest issue with this pageant is that nobody here is allowed to say no,” Kara says fiercely, feeling a speech of her own coming on. It’s been brewing for days now, and once she’s started she can’t stop herself. “It isn’t about girls showcasing their talents or who they are, it’s about presenting the best facade to a panel of old people, and everyone has to bend themselves backwards to conform. I’m tired of it.”
Cat and Alex both stare at her with mouths slightly agape, and Kara launches forward.
“And it’s not just me! Everyone I’ve met this weekend, I was prepared to dislike because I assumed all of them actually value what this pageant represents – rigid gender roles, traditional views on sexuality and female autonomy. But each and every one of them is a beautiful, individualistic person who deserves to be seen and heard. Not hidden under a mask.”
“Miss Danvers –” Cat says in a warning tone. Alex, looking back and forth between them like she’s expecting Cat to launch herself across the room and claw Kara’s face, takes a step between them, but Kara shakes her head.
“I don’t want to fight, Cat. I understand that this is your life’s work,” Kara says slightly more calmly. Her voice is shaking a little, but she’s never been good at raising her voice without crying. “But it isn’t mine, and constantly demeaning me for who I am in an attempt to make me try harder to fit in here does nothing except wear me down. I am exhausted, and so is everyone else here. All for a pageant whose values they don’t actually care about. So I am going to eat these cookies, and I’m going to go back to my room, and I’m going to see you tomorrow. Got it?”
Strangely, Cat seems more impressed than angry. She sizes Kara up for a moment, and then slowly inclines her head towards the door.
Kara practically runs out of the room, propelled by the adrenaline of actually winning the argument. But she’s barely reached the hallway before Alex calls out, jogging after her.
“Hey,” Alex says, pulling even with Kara and tugging on her elbow until Kara deflates into her arms, all the anger leaving her at once. “Hey, kiddo, it’s okay. I’m sorry.”
“Sorry for what?” Kara says into her sweater, her eyes closed against the harsh fluorescent light.
“For dragging you into this. For not standing up to Cat when she was a dick to you.” Alex hugs her hard, and Kara squeezes her back just as tightly.
“That’s not your job.”
“It is my job!” Alex says, pulling back a little and shoving Kara in the shoulder. “You’re my little sister. You are my job. And if this pageant is really making you feel the way you said -”
“It’s actually not that bad,” Kara says, finding as it leaves her mouth that she actually means it. Sometime in the last two days, her anxiety has turned around into something else – not comfort, exactly, but determination. A protective instinct she wasn’t expecting. “Outside of Cat and Lillian, I mean. I’ve been sort of surprised by it. I’ve even kind of made friends.”
“Really?” Alex says skeptically. “With the mean girls?”
Kara laughs. “Not all of them are mean.”
“I’ve heard how they talk over the comms. We can try to find another way.”
“I think it comes from insecurity,” Kara admits, thinking back to Andrea’s frosty looks and all the insults Siobhan has lobbed at her. “When you get into an actual conversation, most of them are actually pretty cool. I can’t just leave these girls unprotected. If Cadmus strikes and they get hurt because we weren’t here, I’d never forgive myself.”
Alex frowns, clearly not satisfied, and Kara nudges her shoulder.
“I know my blowup was dramatic, but Cat was really getting on my nerves. She represents what’s making all these women so insecure in the first place. They all have people like her hovering over them and picking at every flaw," Kara finishes, thinking of Lena and trying not to make her newfound affection too obvious. She's not sure how successful she is. "I just need one night of sleep, and to eat these cookies before the chocolate chips melt all over my hands.”
Alex lets her go reluctantly, and Kara makes it back to the room in record time.
She’s probably going to pay for her outburst with Cat – tomorrow it’s rehearsals all morning and then the swimsuit portion followed by an interview, and Kara knows that even as she conceded the fight tonight Cat will make her life hell when it comes down to it. She’s too competitive not to. But that doesn’t matter right now. Right now Kara gets to sink into her soft bed, listen to Lena’s quiet breathing, and slip into unconsciousness flush with victory and a belly full of cookies.