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When Cat tries to show her the two scant pieces of bright pink fabric she’s expected to wear on stage in just a few minutes, Kara almost slaps them right out of her hands.

“Are you kidding me?” Kara hisses once she’s struggled into the thing, holding the tiny white terrycloth towel she found backstage tightly closed and feeling incredibly exposed even so. The bathing suit is even more uncomfortable than it looked, and while everyone around her struts around with little concern Kara wonders if bolting for the door and skipping the swimsuit section altogether will lead to disqualification. It could be worth it. “I thought I was getting a one-piece! Didn’t you say we needed to cinch my waist or something?”

“We need to make your ascent to the top 5 seem justified,” Cat says, uncharacteristically patient. Ever since Kara’s blow-up last night Cat has treated her much more like an actual human than she did before, and Kara is grateful for the switch. Even if she still intentionally mispronounces her name. “Your talent preliminary did not garner you much affection from the judges, and we need to make up for it. The swimsuit section measures not only the grace and poise of a contestant but the amount of effort they put into their physique. Despite your abysmal diet, you clearly put the work in, and I think showing it off is a risk worth taking.”

“Okay, whatever, that’s fine,” Kara says, opening the towel and peering down at herself. She’s not averse to wearing bikini tops – she usually wears one with trunks to swim anyways. She has abdominal muscles she works very hard for, and showing them off isn’t an issue. It’s everything else about this situation that’s giving her heart palpitations. “But nobody told me the crowd was going to be a bunch of horny sailors!”

“The navy is invited every year. They make a very enthusiastic audience. What are you so worried about?”

“Well, you got me all freaked out that my figure is too…you know, masculine,” Kara grumbles, glancing around the dressing room. “Look at everyone else here, it’s hourglasses all around. My shoulders are too big, and my thighs – can’t I get a pair of shorts?”

“Your figure is acceptable. I would even go so far as to say it’s impressive,” Cat says, her teeth slightly gritted. It’s clearly paining her to go against her nature and give Kara a real compliment, and it makes Kara preen a little.

“However,” Cat continues. Kara deflates.

“There it is.”

“There are a few adjustments to make,” Cat says firmly. She reaches into one of her many garment bags and holds up two flesh-toned gel inserts, and Kara’s eyebrows raise.

“Those had better be candy dishes,” Kara says, taking a horrified step back. But there isn’t much room to go, and when Cat follows with a step forward Kara just bumps up against the mirror. The inserts jiggle ominously in Cat’s hands.

“Turn around,” Cat says, brokering no argument. Groaning, Kara turns, watching herself miserably in the mirror as Cat slips the inserts into her bikini top. They fill in the extra space and make Kara at least feel like she isn’t about to have a nip-slip on stage, but it also feels strange to have essentially stuffed her bra in public.

As Cat makes various adjustments, completely uncaring of Kara’s personal space, Kara meets eyes with Lena in the mirror.

Most of the other girls have pageant consultants just like Kara, flitting around them and adjusting their hair or outfit, but Lena is alone in her makeup chair. She’s turned it around to watch the proceedings and she is, Kara notes with jealousy, wearing a tasteful one-piece with a sarong-style skirt. The cut of it still puts far more of Lena’s skin on display than Kara was prepared for, and she can’t help but let her gaze linger just a tiny bit before she averts them respectfully.

It might be wishful thinking, but Kara could swear that Lena’s eyes linger as well. Her cheeks are a little pink, and Kara can’t help but notice how dark and wide her pupils are before she glances away.

With her eyes fixed now on Lena’s face, Kara can also see Lena raise an amused brow at the situation. It must be hilarious from the outside - tiny Cat shoving silicone into Kara’s bra, shifting and squeezing the cups to get the perfect effect - and Kara can feel her ears starting to turn crimson at the attention.

Shut up, Kara mouths in the mirror. Lena shrugs, grinning quietly, and Kara sticks out her tongue as Cat takes out a large can of hairspray.

“Finally, something I recognize,” Kara chuckles, still looking at Lena.

Lena looks increasingly amused as Cat shakes the can, takes off the lid, and lifts the back of Kara’s towel in a businesslike way to spray it directly onto her ass in a graceful arc.

Jeez –“ Kara hisses, jumping almost a foot at the sudden ice-cold spray hitting her in the last place she expected. She slams into the mirror, trying to pull her towel back down in the face of Cat’s total nonchalance. “What the hell, Cat?!”

“It stops the suit from riding up,” Cat says, pointing the hairspray again at Kara’s lower half. Kara dances away, but doesn’t manage to avoid most of the spray.

“Up where?”

“Where do you think?”

Lena is belly-laughing now, leaned sideways in her chair, and Kara turns to glare at her.

“Why does Massachusetts get to wear a one-piece and I have to wear this?” Kara says desperately, pointing at Lena’s outfit as the brunette gets up, still chuckling, and makes her way towards the stage with everyone else.

“If you can do this,” Cat says quietly, pushing Kara along with them, “you can convince anyone that you belong here.”

A harried-looking stage assistant is sorting people into walking order, now, and Kara’s heart pounds harder the closer he gets to her section. She clings to the tiny towel like a lifeline as her New Jersey sash is put over her head, and when Cat tugs at it she just holds fast.

Onstage Lena is striding confidently towards the second plinth with a wry, mysterious sort of smile that the crowd would have to be crazy not to fall for, and Kara follows her movement in a strange attempt at self-soothing.

“I can’t do this. I can’t,” Kara mumbles over the raucous cheers of the men in the audience as the girls in front of her walk on stage and pose coquettishly on various plinths. In a fit of nerves she tries to turn around and book it back into the dressing room; but Cat, in a surprising show of strength, catches her around the waist and practically throws her back in line.

“You can,” Cat says, and Kara is so stunned by such a tiny person wrestling her back into place so successfully that she steps forward with the line purely by instinct.

“I can’t –”

“Kara,” Cat says, quiet enough that it won’t likely be overheard with the music and cheering, and the shock of her real name being used is enough to still Kara’s panic. “You aren’t doing this for yourself, or for those men in the audience. You are doing this to protect all the women around you, at any cost. All of this is a means to an end. Remember that.”

Cat is right, of course. This isn’t about Kara – it’s about the women all around her, all of whom are in danger from a threat Kara hasn’t identified yet. It’s about protecting them.

Before Kara has much time to hype herself up Cat has seized the back of her towel, and pushed her out of it and into the wings.

“Now, go.”

The moment she steps on stage, blinded by the lights and deafened by the crowd, Kara almost stops dead. She can feel herself faltering, almost stumbling, as a sea of white uniforms screams and catcalls at her – but as she climbs onto the first plinth she looks to her left, and just at the edge of the wings on the other side of the stage is Lena. She has a white robe over her bathing suit, and she’s looking at Kara and biting her lip in what seems like sympathetic nerves.

It hits her all at once, then. If Kara doesn’t do this, if she doesn’t convince the world that she could make the top 5 and keep herself from getting found out, Lena could get hurt. Kara has to be here to protect her, to the very end. And to do that, she needs to sell this.

A spike of adrenaline floods Kara’s system, and she snaps her head back to face the crowd. From somewhere deep inside, somewhere she didn’t know existed, she pulls out a dazzling smile; and when she takes her first high-heeled step off the plinth, she doesn’t falter anymore.

It’s as if she’s been possessed by the spirit of the high school cheerleaders she used to resent being attracted to. Her strides are confident, her hips moving effortlessly in the movements they’ve only managed to do clunkily for the last few days as she sweeps across the stage. She gives a little spin between the second and third platforms, and throws a wink to the crowd; the sailors respond with a wave of noise, and she can see a few of the judges smiling as they mark something down on their notepads. Even Andrea, queen of the neutral face, looks shocked when Kara struts backstage with her smile still affixed.

The adrenaline wears off, as all adrenaline does, almost as soon as she steps offstage. Her knees weaken, and she has to cling to Cat’s shoulder to manage the few shaky steps out of the way so that the next contestant can follow her offstage a few moments later. Cat must have sprinted around the stage to get here in the time it took for Kara to cross, and in a distant sort of way Kara appreciates it.

“Brava,” Cat says, shock colouring her voice if not her uncrackable face. “I wasn’t expecting you to take my words quite so easily to heart.”

“Enjoy it while it lasts,” Kara says, gratefully taking the robe Cat hands her with shaking hands and covering herself up, “because I have no idea how I did that.”

 


 

Almost the minute Kara gets offstage, Cat is dragging her off to practice for the part of the weekend she can tell has been causing the older woman the most stress of anything that came before - the short interview portion. Kara is strangely less nervous about it than she was about the swimsuits, but Cat is insistent about practicing just about every hypothetical question they could throw at her until she can recite the answers in her sleep.

Cat continues to grill her even while she’s in the dressing room stuffing herself into her newest outfit. It’s a shorter floral dress with a structured sort of bodice, meant to be casual and fun, and to Kara’s horror Cat has to lace her into it like a damn corset.

“Remember, if you’re asked what your ideal career is, you –”

“I tell them I want to be a pediatrician, I know,” Kara says distractedly, bracing herself on the vanity as Cat pulls at the fastenings. “Jeez, Cat, not so tight – it’s not 1750.”

“And where did you go to school?” Cat asks, not letting up. Kara is reminded, again, that Cat is oddly strong for her small stature when the laces squeeze the breath out of her.

“Rutgers – ow!”

“Beauty is pain.”

“And I can’t save people from a terrorist threat if my ribs are caved in!” Kara protests, wiggling out of Cat’s grip and loosening the bodice herself. Cat rolls her eyes.

“Oh, don’t be dramatic.”

It’s far from dramatic to want to breathe when she has to be interviewed, Kara thinks, but she doesn’t have much more time to argue about it. Everything at this pageant seems to either halt at a standstill for hours at a time or happen all at once, and right now is one of those manic rushed moments – Cat stays with her right to the wings of the stage again, and Kara aggressively straightens the artificially enhanced bust of her dress for the third time. The stupid inserts are uncomfortable.

“If you’re this nervous about the short interview, what are you going to be like before the long interview tomorrow?” Kara asks, and Cat answers in a low tone.

“One prepares you for the other. And tomorrow’s interview is being hosted by a neutral party – this interview is being hosted by Lillian.”

Kara stops dead, one hand inside her bra.

What?” Kara hisses, glancing around them – a few people are looking their way, and she tries to calm herself down before she causes a scene. “You didn’t tell me that!”

“I didn’t want to alarm you,” Cat says, her face fixed in a pleasant smile completely at odds with her tone.

“So you tell me now? Right before I’m about to go on?”

With a squeeze of her arm and a quick good luck, Cat disappears backstage.

Kara is getting really fed up with being thrown out into the spotlight with little warning. She’s left in the lineup between New Hampshire and New Mexico, panicking; they’re going in reverse alphabetical order for this portion, and there’s a little less time than usual for her to psyche herself up.

“You okay?” Sam asks from a few spots away, looking much more comfortable than Kara in a loose polka-dotted sundress. Kara laughs nervously, trying to keep the hysteria out of her tone. Lena is a couple spots behind her in a form-fitting green dress that stops at her knees, wrapping to every curve, and for some reason the sight of her settles Kara a little.

“Yeah,” Kara says, pressing a hand hard to her sternum. The pressure helps the anxiety lessen just a bit, enough for her to breathe. Lena looks pale and even more terrified than Kara is, and it makes Kara want to break out of the line and give her a hug. “I’m alright. Just nervous.”

“I think we’re all nervous,” Sam says quietly. “Lillian likes to spring hard questions on contestants she doesn’t like.”

“Fantastic,” Kara mutters, curling her hands into fists before she gives in to the desire to chew her nails. “Just great. She’s probably going to ask me my strategy to solve world hunger or something.”

Sam chuckles, moving forward a step when the first contestant – Wyoming – steps on stage. “You’ll do fine. You’re charming, and you stand up to Lillian like nobody I’ve ever seen.”

“And now I’m paying for it,” Kara sighs. Sam shrugs, glancing behind Kara.

“Maybe. But you’ve definitely impressed a few other people. That seems like a good trade-off.”

Kara twists, following Sam’s eyeline, and just barely catches Lena’s eyes flicking away. The brunette stares resolutely at the curtain, her cheeks pink, but Kara smiles.

“Yeah,” Kara says softly, something locking into place in her chest. Something completely unprofessional and possibly dangerous given the situation, but undeniable. “I think it’s worth it.”

Having a massive crush on one of the other contestants, especially the daughter of her lead suspect, was not in the plan; and yet, here she is.

Even as distracted as she is by Lena, Kara watches each contestant before her carefully. Cat had warned her that every contestant gets different questions, but there’s one that every single state is given every year without fail – what is the one most important thing our society needs? – and that there’s only one answer to give in response.

“World peace,” says the girl from Ohio, with a wide but empty smile. The crowd gives a modest clap for the answer they’ve heard 16 times already, and Lillian nods approvingly before giving her the go-ahead to leave the stage and North Dakota takes her place.

It’s a well-oiled machine, and all too soon Kara is being thrown into the gears.

She gets a few easy fluff questions at first, ones she’d already gone over with Cat, and manages to make the crowd clap a few times to Lillian’s clear displeasure. Which makes it all the less surprising when Lillian’s next-to-last question is a doozy.

“What makes you different from the other girls competing today?”

It’s a trick question, clearly. There are a hundred reasons why Kara is different from the rest of the competitors – her years of FBI training and the knife and badge in a thigh holster under her dress spring to mind – but she can’t exactly talk about her perfect score in marksmanship right now.

“Well,” Kara says, her smile not budging, “I think every contestant here is unique. But I am the only one who did a stage dive as part of my talent.”

The crowd reacts exactly as she hoped. They laugh indulgently, accepting Kara’s re-direction of yesterday’s mistake, and Lillian is so clearly livid about being thwarted that she interrupts to throw the last question at her like she can’t wait for the interview to be over with.

“What is the one most important thing our society needs?”

Kara can’t help it. She knows the answer she’s supposed to give, but it’s not the right one. And some part of her wants to see Lillian squirm.

“That would be increased gun control and large-scale justice reforms, Lillian,” Kara says easily.

The silence is deafening. Kara can see a few faces in the first few rows, ranging from shock to discomfort to delight - somewhere at the back something clatters to the floor and echoes through the theatre, and when Kara glances offstage she can see Lena waiting in the wings for her turn and struggling not to laugh.

Lillian’s eye starts to twitch.

“And,” Kara finishes after a long pause, her winningest smile still firmly affixed, “world peace.”

The crowd finally claps with what feels like relief, slightly louder than any of the contestants before, and Kara strides off the stage before Lillian can unhinge her jaw and swallow her like a python.

Cat is going to kill her.

Kara doesn’t go to find Cat when she gets offstage, though. She lingers in the wings, watching the contestants after her get lobbed softball questions until it’s finally Lena’s turn. She has a bad feeling that Lena’s questions might be even worse, and her suspicion is proven right once again in the second-to-last question.

“Eleanor Roosevelt once said that behind every great man is a great woman,” Lillian says, her smile not reaching her eyes. “Who would be your ideal man?”

Lena, who Kara hasn’t yet seen so much as hesitate while she’s being observed by the judges, falters.

Even the other contestants seem thrown off. The girls standing near Kara look at each other, whispering and frowning – clearly it isn’t a familiar question. It’s leading and normative, with a touch of outdated logic that Lena clearly doesn’t want to play into. It’s everything that the pageant has supposedly been trying to distance itself from in recent years. But Lillian is still smiling.

Kara wonders, with a stab of burning hatred for Lillian, whether the question is an attempt at outing her daughter in public. 

“I…” Lena says, her eyes darting around like someone in the crowd will give her an answer that might leave her unscathed. She looks almost panicked, until her gaze finds Kara’s.

Kara wishes she could pull Lena offstage and give her a hug, or at least give her a clever answer. But all she can do is give an encouraging smile and a thumbs-up, and strangely it actually seems to help. Lena relaxes a little, and meets Lillian’s smile with a small one of her own. “I…wouldn’t know. I’ve never stood behind a man.”

To Kara’s relief, the crowd eats it up. They chuckle and clap, and Kara can hear a few appreciative whistles as Lena meets her mother’s wrathful eyes. Lena doesn’t blink, and finally Lillian is forced to break the stalemate to give her the final question.

Kara is raptly watching Lena give her canned ‘world peace’ answer when a hand grabs her arm and yanks her towards an AV closet. She’s milliseconds from breaking the person’s wrist when she realizes it’s Cat, and when the door shuts behind them and the overhead light clicks on it illuminates Alex sitting on an unused speaker with a tablet in her hands.

“That was charming,” Cat says, folding her arms and glaring up at Kara. “Are you drunk?”

“I’m glad you enjoyed it,” Kara deadpans. “Now If you’ll excuse me, I have to go unscrew my smile.” Kara stretches her jaw out, and feeling the pull of overused muscles. She had no idea smiling this much could hurt, but it feels like her cheeks are bruised.

“We have a lead,” Alex says, ignoring their banter. She holds the tablet out to Kara, uttering two words that refuse to embed themselves in Kara’s brain.

“Lena Luthor.”

Kara takes the tablet, her jaw falling open. “…what?”

“She was involved in experiments that were shut down by a scientific oversight agency for being too dangerous,” Alex says, pointing at the tablet. Kara looks down – there are definitely words on it, and a photo of Lena sitting in a lab with a handsome brown-skinned man Kara doesn’t recognize. The headline reads ‘BIOMAX - A LEAP FORWARD IN MEDICAL TECHNOLOGY?’, and Kara struggles to read the article while Alex keeps talking. “Some kind of nanobot project – apparently their clinical trials ignored basically all safety protocols.”

“Did someone get hurt?” Kara asks distantly. According to the article the experiment was trying to use nanobots to cure incurable diseases, and Lena and her partner were doing it singlehandedly. Trying to help people.

“Just her project partner,” Alex admits. “Jack Spheer – he insisted on being the only trial participant, apparently. But Lena was part of the project, at least for a while. He didn’t die, but apparently he has serious health complications.”

“And you think that means she wants to blow up a beauty pageant?” Kara says incredulously, shoving the tablet back at Alex’s chest. “You’ve got to be kidding.”

“I’m not,” Alex says carefully, frowning at Kara’s clearly unexpected reaction. “Why would you think I’m kidding?”

“Because it’s – it’s Lena!” Kara says, gesturing helplessly. “She isn’t a terrorist!”

Alex looks baffled. “Isn’t Lillian your personal number one suspect right now? Lena is Lillian’s daughter.”

“Lillian abuses her!” Kara argues hotly. “You saw her on stage -”

“Ladies,” Cat interjects loudly, putting a hand on each of their shoulders, “Whether Lena a suspect or not, we do need to rule her out, and she’s the best source of information on figuring out if Lillian is involved. You don’t need to interrogate her – just engage in some harmless girl talk.”

“You’re not even FBI,” Alex sighs, tucking the tablet under her arm and rubbing her temples. “Why are you talking about suspects and information?”

Cat arches a single brow. “Do you want my help or not?”

“What do you mean by girl talk?” Kara interjects, taking Cat up on her offer before Alex can reject it. Cat rolls her eyes.

Girl talk, you know. Leg waxing. Fake orgasms. The inability of men to commit.”

“Fake – men – I don’t know anything about any of that!” Kara sputters. Cat heaves a long-suffering sigh.

“Yes, and I’d wager neither does Miss Luthor if her interview was anything to go by.”

“Just imagine you’re trying to get me to tell you something,” Alex says, drawing Kara’s attention back to her. She sounds like she’s trying to be encouraging, but her words aren’t at all helpful. “What would you do?”

“What, you want me to beat it out of her?”

Alex sighs, pulling Kara aside as much as she can in the tiny space. She rubs Kara’s back, a comforting gesture she’s done every time Kara has been anxious since they were kids, and Kara relaxes a little. “You’re being deliberately difficult. What’s going on, Kara?”

“I really hate the idea of plying Lena for information without her knowledge,” Kara admits, and Alex’s bafflement seems to reach a new height.

“You’re undercover. That’s literally the job description. Why are you getting so hung up on this?”

“I’m not -” Kara argues halfheartedly, but she can see already that she isn’t getting out of this. She’s vastly outnumbered, and Alex is right, in a way. She has a job to do, her personal feelings aside. “Ugh, fine – here, take these.”

Kara digs the listening device out of her ear, putting it in Alex’s outstretched hand, followed by her camera pin. Alex tries to give them back, but Kara ignores her.

“What – you can’t take your earpiece out, how am I supposed to communicate with you?” Alex says, but Kara is already heading to the door.

“I can’t do girl talk with half the FBI in my ear,” Kara replies, grabbing for the handle and stepping out before they can stop her. “I can’t even do it with me in my ear.” She leaves them in the AV closet together, striding out without another word and heading towards her room.

“Girl talk,” she mutters darkly, tugging her hair out of its tight style and stepping out of her heels so she can jog more easily. She needs comfortable clothes, and she needs them now. “Freaking girl talk.”

 


 

In retrospect, bringing pizza, beer, and donuts to the gym was probably not the most tactful idea. But the gym is where Lena is, and the closest thing Kara has ever had to girl talk is either hooking up with female friends or hanging out with Alex. Since option 1 would be morally reprehensible considering she’s been lying to Lena since they met, Kara is left with option 2, and every head in the gym turns as she walks by with her extra-cheesy masterpiece.

Nia lets out a tiny whimper when the smell wafts by, her legs faltering on her exercise bike. Siobhan’s mouth drops open, looking stunned at Kara’s pure audacity, and even Andrea perks up from her stairmaster. Lena, sitting by the window in workout gear but not seeming interested in actually working out, is the only one who seems to be looking at Kara and not the food. Her eyes sweep over Kara’s form – Kara wore her usual gym clothes of sweats and a ribbed tank, with her sports bra peeking out from underneath – and there’s something different about her expression. Something hungry, despite the fact that she’s ignoring the pizza Kara is holding.

“Oh my god,” Sam mutters, stopping dead on her treadmill until she’s deposited off the still-moving end of it and her legs lead her towards Kara. “Is that what I think it is?”

“If you think it’s an extra-large deluxe and 12 frosted donuts, you’re correct,” Kara says, chuckling to herself when the rest of the girls leave their activities and follow her like she’s the pizza Pied Piper. Kara, though, is only interested in one person.

“Hey, Lena,” Kara says softly, setting down the boxes and the six-pack and sitting next to the brunette. “How’re you feeling? Lillian threw you doozy. You handled it really well.”

“I’m glad you enjoyed it, because Lillian was furious,” Lena says drily. She doesn’t seem upset, at least – just thoughtful. “I don’t think I would have even thought to stand up to her until I met you. I would have just given her the answer she wanted.”

“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” Kara asks, and Lena laughs a little.

“For my chances at this pageant? Bad. But for not hating myself? Very much a good thing.”

Lena’s voice is low and sweet when she says it, like it’s meant only for Kara. It’s the kind of voice that makes Kara melt at the best of times – and now, when she’s supposed to be secretly grilling Lena for information, it’s especially inconvenient. She just wants more than anything for Lena to keep talking. But unfortunately they are not the only people in this gym, and of course the first person to interrupt is Siobhan.

“Are you insane?” Siobhan says, drifting close to them and staring at the box as if she can absorb the flavour with just her eyes. “You can’t bring pizza and beer to the gym. None of us can eat that.”

“You forgot the donuts,” Nia says helpfully. Andrea scoffs.

“Do you know how many calories we’re talking?”

“I practice intuitive eating,” Kara deadpans, opening the pizza box and trying not to laugh when the girls all lean forward to breathe in the pizza-scented steam. “Calories aren’t a bad thing, they keep your body going. And besides, I thought we should celebrate.”

“Celebrate what?” Nia says, plucking at the lid to the donut box and staring down in obvious longing. Kara picks up a slice of pizza, holding it up like a salute.

“Surviving Lillian’s crappy questions and being ogled by sailors.”

“I can’t eat that,” Sam says, but there’s definite yearning in her voice.

“You can eat whatever you want,” Kara counters, taking a big bite. The cheese pulls in a long, delicious line, and Kara waves the box under Lena’s face, talking through her full mouth. “What about you?”

Lena, meeting Kara’s challenge head-on, picks up a slice and takes a bite crust-first.

A millisecond after Lena puts the pizza in her mouth, it becomes a frenzy. Half the pie is gone as four sets of hands seize whatever slices they can reach, and Nia opens the box of donuts and shoves one into her mouth with such reckless delight that Kara wonders how long she’s deprived herself of eating them. All around her is a chorus of full-mouthed moans, and in the middle of it all is Lena, grinning as she munches on her crust.

Kara blinks, setting down the empty box.

“I guess we’re gonna need another one.”

The six-pack also turns out to not be nearly enough alcohol. An hour later Kara is spilling out of a cab in downtown San Antonio with five giggling women still in their workout clothes, feeling like she’s entered the Twilight Zone.

Sam leads them to the nearest bar, and Kara enters with deep apprehension – the only places she usually frequents are gay bars, where she doesn’t stand out like a sore thumb. Here, she fully expects to be horribly out of place. But the bar turns out to be delightfully different than she thought – there’s a dance floor and booths scattered around, of course, but there’s also a massive stage featuring steel drums full of florescent paint, and people all around are beating the drums and getting consequently drenched in sprays of yellow and orange and pink. It’s like a huge modern art installation, set to EDM.

It only takes two rounds of shots for Nia to convince everyone to go get painted.

Kara had been worried, getting dragged into clubbing with a bunch of beauty queens. But this – all of them drumming along to the music, running from station to station and using their hands to flick paint at each other, Lena standing across from Kara with her head thrown back in laughter as she hits totally offbeat – this is fun. It’s so fun that she almost forgets why she’s here until they finally pile into a booth, paint-spattered and giggling, Sam calling for bottle service, two pitchers of beer, and a few baskets of fries for the table.

“See, tonight is the perfect night to get sloppy,” Nia says, shoving fries into her mouth at an even faster speed than Kara. “All we have tomorrow is rehearsals all day and then the final interview. If I had to get on stage for the big talent showcase on Monday hungover, I’d probably die.”

“We all hate our talents enough as it is,” Sam says, and everyone makes noises of agreement. Kara frowns.

“You don’t like your talents?”

“Are you kidding?” Nia says, gesturing wildly with her hands. A fry flies from her grip and gets lost on the dance floor, and she doesn’t seem to notice. “I hate tap. It’s just the most pageant-accepted form of dance. Everything else is deemed too racy.”

“Except ballet,” Sam chimes in, rolling her eyes. “I feel you. If I have to dance to Swan Lake one more time, I think I’ll burn my pointe shoes.”

“Have you ever tried singing opera for a crowd of guys who just want to see you in a bathing suit?” Siobhan adds, grabbing Andrea’s glass – Andrea had refused the group tequila in favour of a bottle of a whiskey Kara has never heard of, which she’s sharing with Lena - and downing it with a slight cough. Andrea swats at her hand, but misses completely. “Halfway through everyone’s eyes glaze over. I want to sing something fun.”

“Do all of you hate your talents?” Kara says, incredulous.

Andrea shrugs, successfully flagging a waiter down to replace her stolen glass. “Cello is fine.”

“Shouldn’t it be more than fine? I thought talents were supposed to showcase your passions?” Kara presses. Andrea laughs, downing the new drink immediately before Siobhan can get her hands on it.

“If we were showcasing our passions, what I’d be doing on stage wouldn’t be appropriate for television. Though I’m sure there’d be some willing volunteers.”

Andrea ends the statement with a wink, and Kara lets out a nervous little laugh. It feels like she’s being flirted with, and Lena’s hand tightens around her glass. “Uh, not safe for…you mean you’d…”

“Are you really that naïve, or is this some kind of strategy?”

Kara flinches at Andrea’s patronising tone, but in fairness, it’s difficult to take her entirely seriously when her face is covered in neon paint. Nia only rolls her eyes like this is a fairly common occurrence.

“Ignore her, Kara,” Nia sighs, pouring the last dregs of the bottle on their table into a few shotglasses and looking around for a waiter. “Basically it’s same reason I can’t do close-up magic for my talent. Invisible rules.”

The other girls agree, and when Nia finally flags someone down the conversation turns to the mixing of new drinks and ordering more food. It gives Kara the first moment to really think that she’s had all night, and in her booze-fogged brain she can hear Alex’s voice.

Get it over with, Kara. You have a job to do.

This leads to, apropos of nothing, Kara blurting out the first conversation-starter she can think of.

“So, have any of you ever done a crime?”

The reaction is mixed. Nia laughs, looking at Kara like she thinks she might be joking; Sam looks thoughtful, and Siobhan scowls. Lena is sitting directly next to Kara and so Kara can’t see her reaction, but her posture gets noticeably stiff. Kara can feel it where their shoulders touch, and when Lena moves away to pour herself a new drink Kara has to fight not to lean over and chase the contact again.

Andrea’s eyes narrow. “You sound like a cop.”

“What! Me?” Kara sputters, letting out a low and nervous laugh over her beer. Her face is already red from all the drinking, and she can feel it getting worse under the drying paint. “No! A cop? I’m not - why would you - I don’t even like cops! That’s so -”

“I stole red panties from the department store once,” Sam says offhandedly.

Even Andrea’s attention is drawn away from Kara after that comment. The table falls silent, staring at Sam as she licks a stripe over the back of her hand and sprinkles salt on it. She seems to notice a little too late that there’s paint all over her hands, frowning, but in the end she shrugs and keeps sprinkling.

What?” Nia says, voicing the question for everyone else at the table. Sam shrugs, readying herself a lime wedge and a shot of tequila.

“My mom wouldn’t buy them for me. She said they were Satan’s panties.”

Sam punctuates it by smoothly taking the shot, paint and all, expertly sucking the juice from the lime and dropping it in the shotglass as everyone laughs. The tension passes, Sam’s easy answer and the follow-up questions about the exact scenario of the panty-stealing seeming to make almost everyone forget how out of place the question was, but one set of eyes stays on Kara long after the conversation has moved forward.

After Sam’s confession, everyone else seems happy to reveal their best lawbreaking moments. Nia regales the table with the tale of joyriding with her first boyfriend in his parent’s car before either of them had their licenses, ending up with a cracked windshield and blaming it on neighbourhood squirrels (‘sometimes I still can’t believe they accepted that story. How could an acorn crack glass?’). Andrea admits to having cheated on her first driver’s test, claiming that since she hardly ever drives and only wanted it for the government ID, it isn’t technically a crime, and Siobhan proudly talks about having committed fraud to get an ex-girlfriend medical care under her insurance.

“I just gave her my ID,” Siobhan shrugs, examining her nails. “Nobody asked questions.”

Andrea laughs. “Are you in the habit of dating people who look enough like you to use your ID?”

“I’m not the only one,” Sobhan says pointedly, crossing her arms. “You date exclusively hot brunettes, too. Need I remind you that you and Luthor were on and off for years –”

Kara inhales half her beer, almost knocking Lena’s drink off the table with her flailing as she coughs up liquid.

“You two dated?” she wheezes, accepting a handful of napkins from Nia and looking between Lena’s drawn, blushing face and Andrea’s murderous expression. “When?”

“A long time ago,” Lena says softly. Andrea looks angry that Siobhan brought it up, but her face softens when she looks at Lena – there’s an affection there still, especially on Andrea’s part, and despite every attempt to fend it off Kara still has a horrible sort of heaviness in her chest about it.

The pause in conversation is long enough for Nia to pipe up with a derailing suggestion.

“Let’s play truth or dare!”

Siobhan and Andrea are the only ones who choose dare in the first round. Siobhan completes Sam’s dare of scoring a round of free shots from the bartender by flirting with him so relentlessly that he gets whiplash when she leaves without a word with the tray in hand, only to take all six shots by herself since she earned them fair and square. And Nia – who has been spiralling so rapidly into being absolutely wasted that Kara has been surreptitiously replacing her drinks with water for the last 15 minutes – dares Andrea to take a body shot off Kara.

Why Andrea insists on straddling Kara’s lap to do so is totally beyond her. All she knows is that when Andrea finally climbs off, throwing the dry lime wedge at Nia with a sly grin, Lena has downed three whiskey neats and her hands are clenched so tightly on the edge of the booth seat that Kara thinks it might actually crack under the force.

Likely not wanting to devolve into public indecency, everyone else chooses truth from that point, and the game becomes a steady descent into the table’s deepest secrets.

Andrea, it turns out, never wanted to compete in pageants at all. Her father had debts she had to repay with the scholarship money from her very first competitions in high school, and she now needs more scholarship money to pay off the student debt she racked up herself as a result. Nia reveals, her eyes getting teary over a shotglass full of water, that her big sister resents her for being more successful in their mother’s tradition of pageantry as a trans woman.

In the flurry of hugs and comforting that follows, Kara fails to notice until it’s too late that Nia has managed to switch back to tequila.

Lena is next, and as much as she seems like she would rather do anything else but answer a truthful question, she relents when Nia reminds her that the rest of them have done it already.

“I’m pretty sure my mother has never and will never love me,” Lena says quickly, ripping the band-aid off. Her hands are still clenched on the edge of the bench seat, and as Sam hands Lena a shot for her vulnerability Kara slowly, gently puts her own hand next to Lena’s. Close enough for them to press together. Lena pauses mid-swallow, glancing at Kara in surprise, but when Kara links their pinkies she doesn’t move away.

“Some people shouldn’t be mothers,” Sam says morosely, swirling the last of the beer in her plastic cup. “Like me. I love Ruby, I do, but sometimes…sometimes I regret that my life couldn’t have been a little easier. I had to give up a lot, you know?”

“That’s what makes you a good mother!” Lena insists, so clearly that Kara forgets for a second that she’s had almost half a bottle of whiskey. “You’re nothing like Lillian.”

“Shouldn’t I not have those thoughts at all?” Sam asks, seeming genuinely distressed for a moment. “Doesn’t that make me just as bad?”

No!”

Siobhan says it so loudly that Kara actually jumps a little, her head whipping around to stare at the last person she ever expected to defend Sam. Siobhan is clearly very drunk, her cheeks pink and her eyes a little wild, but she’s pointing at Sam with a steady hand.

“You are a wonderful parent,” Siobhan says with feeling, and Sam blinks. “And a good person.”

Everyone seems to be in various stages of disbelief, but none more so than Sam.

“You’ve been ragging on me for even being a mother ever since I got pregnant,” Sam says, shaking her head with a disbelieving laugh. “Now you’re telling me I’m a good person? What’s the truth?”

“Truthfully,” Siobhan says with a haughty sort of sniff to disguise her sudden flash of emotion, “I respect you for it. You’ve been able to juggle motherhood with school and pageants all this time. My mother couldn’t even juggle being a mother with her country club social engagements.”

Sam, hilariously, looks deeply touched by that. She presses a hand to her chest, staring at Siobhan even when the other woman won’t meet her eyes.

“Really?”

“Is this not truth or dare?” Siobhan snaps, but her voice shakes a little. Sam scoots her chair a little closer, even though Nia is sitting between them.

“I’ve always admired your drive,” Sam says loudly, and Nia follows the exchange like a tennis match. Kara is surprised she hasn’t given herself whiplash. “You’re focused, and you get what you want. I respect that.”

“No, you don’t,” Siobhan says, staring up at the ceiling in a clear attempt to not let her tears fall. “You hate me. You all do. And what’s depressing is that you’re all the closest thing I’ve ever had to having friends.”

“We only hate you when you’re an asshole,” Sam corrects, her eyes a little shiny with tears of her own. “But you were really nice just then. Thank you, Siobhan.”

“You guys!” Nia yells a little louder than the situation warrants, breaking the moment to sling an arm over Sam and Siobhan’s shoulders and pull them both into a group hug. “Look at you, burying the hatchet! I love you guys so much!”

“Okay, okay, that’s enough,” Siobhan grumbles, sniffling and wiping her eyes while Nia squeezes her slightly too hard. “I’m still going to beat your asses on Monday.”

There she is,” Lena says, watching the scene unfold with deep amusement. “For a moment, I thought you’d been possessed.”

Siobhan gives her the finger, but she lets Nia continue the hug for at least 15 seconds more.

Kara has never seen anything like this in her life. This level of teary drunken confession has only ever been a part of her life as a precursor to a close male friend confessing he’s in love with her, and the honesty of this moment is both disconcerting and delightful.

“Hey, Kara hasn’t gone yet,” Nia unhelpfully points out when she finally lets them both go. “Kara, truth or dare?”

“Uh,” Kara blanches, looking around at the drunk and expectant faces. Lena is looking at her, her eyes burning into the side of Kara’s face in a stare that she can tell is intense even without looking. Truth seems risky, but the last thing she wants is to endure another one of Nia’s dares. “Truth?”

“We’ve all been sharing secrets,” Siobhan says, seemingly over her fit of empathy. “What’s yours?”

Shit.

“Um,” Kara says, a layer of fine sweat starting to form on her upper lip at the sudden attention as she fumbles for something to share that isn’t too real, “I guess…that I’m gay?”

Andrea snorts. “Oh, honey, that’s not a secret.”

“Also, every person at this table is notably not straight,” Sam says, waving a disappointed and slightly wobbly finger at Kara. “Don’t chicken out on us, Kent.”

The reminder of her fake name doesn’t help.

“Uh,” Kara stammers, wiping the sweat away and drying her hands on her pants, “um. Well, I uh…I don’t -”

“Be brave, Kara! You,” Sam shouts, pointing at Kara with an intensity that brings to mind a politician making an impassioned speech, “are a queen. We’re all queens. We should just share the crown. A six-way.”

“That sounds like a lot of limbs,” Nia says thoughtfully. Sam snorts, but everyone still seems to expect Kara to go along with the game. She’s still scrambling for a lie to throw out when, blessedly, the attention is taken from her by force.

Like an angelic saviour descending on Kara specifically, the music switches from vague electronica to a remix of something Kara recognizes. And, judging by the way half the table throws their hands up in the air and yells, she’s amongst fellow Spice Girls fans.

Yes!” Nia screams, seizing Siobhan’s hand and dragging her by force to the dancefloor. Sam stands as well, giving a come hither crooked finger to the rest of the table.

“Okay, queens. Let’s fucking dance.”

Lena looks to Kara as she slips out of her seat, inclining her head towards the group, but Kara sidesteps her, her heart pounding at the almost-disaster she just narrowly avoided.

“Bathroom,” Kara shouts over the music, already heading that way. She needs a second to get her head on straight – maybe splash some water on her face to sober herself up, and get herself back into agent mode. She’s off her game, thrown by the genuine friendship these girls seem to be offering her, and something resembling guilt is clawing at her stomach at the idea of taking advantage of their trust.

She’s doing it to protect them. But they’ll probably hate her for it, after all is said and done, and that knowledge makes Kara feel nauseous.

The music is muted in the restroom, mostly bass reverberating through the brick walls. Kara leans heavily against the counter – the mirror is foggy and covered in paint, but she can see herself through it. She has bags under her eyes, days of stress and lack of sleep catching up to her all at once. Her palms splay out on the surface of the sinks, slipping on leftover soap bubbles, and with a sigh she sets to washing her hands. The water swirls with multicoloured paint that mixes into a muddy brown the more she scrubs, and Kara watches it swirl down the drain with a heavy heart.

She almost jumps out of her skin when the door slams open, and the last person in the group she wants to be alone with strides in.

“Siobhan!” Kara squeaks, turning off the tap. Siobhan, alarmingly, doesn’t insult or ignore Kara – instead she bats her eyelashes, and steps a little bit too close for comfort. A scenario which is infinitely worse.

“Hi,” Siobhan says in a breathy sort of voice. She steps even closer, pinning Kara to the counter, and runs a hand down Kara’s exposed arm all the way down to her hands.

“My, uh – my hands are all wet,” Kara says, holding them up. She’d hoped that it would make a sort of barrier, but Siobhan doesn’t seem to care at all. She leans in close enough for Kara to smell the tequila on her breath.

“What do you say we find a stall and get into some inter-state politics?” Siobhan murmurs, hooking a finger into the front of Kara’s sweatpants and tugging just enough to see the waistband of Kara’s Calvin Kleins. It’s not forceful but her intent is definitely very clear, and Kara’s stomach drops to her toes.

“Oh. Oh, gosh,” Kara says, her voice coming out high and nervous as she tries to step away. Siobhan lets her, but her finger stays hooked into Kara’s pants until Kara gently extracts it. “Look, I’m very flattered, but –”

“I would rock your world, you know,” Siobhan says in a slightly more regulated voice, with an edge of desperation. “I could do things to you that you couldn’t even imagine.”

Kara laughs, slapping a hand over her mouth when it comes out sounding a bit like a bray. The last thing she wants to do is hurt anyone, but she has no idea exactly how to kindly say that if she were to ever cross that ethical and professional boundary, it would not be for Siobhan Smythe. “Wow. Okay. While I’m sure you could, I don’t –”

Siobhan rolls her eyes, scoffing loudly before Kara can finish.

Ugh, you’re into Luthor. I know.”

Kara freezes, having been a few paces away from the nearest stall with every intent to lock herself in it until that little revelation.

“You – I’m – Lena?” is the eloquent response Kara manages to form with her seven years of FBI crisis training.

“As if you don’t broadcast it every time she’s in the room,” Siobhan huffs. She turns towards the sink, frowning at her paint-covered face, and seems to set to task cleaning herself up as best she can with paper towels and water while completely ignoring the fact that she had Kara pinned to the sink less than a minute ago.

“So then why…” Kara starts, trailing off before she can confirm Siobhan’s statement by saying why bother? As much as Kara has tried not to admit it to herself, Siobhan is right. Kara hasn’t spared so much as a glance for anyone but Lena all weekend. Unless Siobhan has some kind of fetish for being rejected, it doesn’t make sense to corner Kara like this.

“Because I wanted to win, for once,” Siobhan snaps, picking up on the unsaid words on her own. “Did you know I’ve finished behind her in every competition since we were kids? The only time I ever won was after she was gone. And now she’s back, for the biggest competition of my career. My last one, before I’m too old and decrepit for anyone to care about me anymore.” She actually looks close to tears, and event through the weirdness of this whole encounter, Kara feels for her.

“I’m sorry, Siobhan,” Kara says softly, reaching out to pat her on the shoulder. Siobhan shrugs it off roughly, spinning on her heel and tossing her paint-covered paper towel at Kara’s chest.

“Oh, shut up.”

It’s a textbook storm-out, really. Kara would be impressed by the sheer drama of its execution if, when the door swung open, it hadn’t revealed Lena standing there.

Siobhan brushes past Lena without a word. Kara has no idea how much she might have heard, but judging by the pure shock on her face, it was quite a lot.

“Hey!” Kara says as she rushes to the door, perhaps a bit too cheerfully. “You know, it turns out I really don’t have to pee. Let’s go dance!”

Desperate for a distraction, Kara leads her to the dancefloor as promised. It’s only when they get there to find that Nia and Sam are playing an intense game of quarters at the bar and Siobhan has apparently decided to drown out her woes with Andrea’s tongue in her mouth that Kara realizes she’s made a terrible mistake.

She said they were going to dance; and the only people to dance with are each other.

The distance between them starts out perfectly respectable. Kara does everything but pull out a tape measure, ensuring at least a 4 foot distance at all times for a full song and a half. But the club is crowded, and the people dancing around them don’t seem to care that Kara has a tenuous-at-best grasp on her willpower. They just push and bump and crowd until the space shrinks to just a few inches, and the intense expression Lena has had ever since she overheard Kara’s bathroom conversation is too close to ignore. Lena looks more beautiful now, sweaty and covered in paint, than she has any time she’s been on stage this weekend. Each reduced inch between them makes Kara’s mantra of this is a job, do not cross that line, this is a job get a little quieter.

When they started dancing, Lena had been stiff. Almost awkward, really, more of a full-body shuffle with some vague arm movement, and she had seemed either incapable of or unwilling to meet Kara’s eyes. She looked like she wanted the whole experience over with. But the closer they get, the more Lena seems to loosen up. The music is deep and guttural, vibrating somewhere deep inside Kara and settling at the core of her, and that core pulses in time with the bass as Lena’s body gets more fluid. They move together like magnets, resisting the pull as much as they can but inexorably ending up in each others orbit.

Lena’s eyes are intense and dark, her hands come up and smooth over the sweaty skin of Kara’s shoulders up to grasp either side of her neck; and as soon as Lena makes that move, as soon as that first barrier is broken, Kara hooks a hand around Lena’s waist to splay over the small of her back. Kara doesn’t put pressure there, doesn’t pull Lena closer as much as she desperately wants to, but even so Lena takes the initiative, letting their bodies press together with an almost pained noise that Kara can hear even over the music.

It’s a strange sort of relief finally being close like this, even if it’s breaking the promise Kara made to herself. An acknowledgement of what’s been happening since they met. An admittance of what they both want even if they can’t quite bring themselves to take it yet. They’re sharing breath, chest to chest, grinding to the beat with their lips a hair’s breadth apart, but neither of them seem to be able to hold each other’s gaze. It’s too much, too intense; instead Lena’s arms loosen, her back bending a little as she tips her head back and seems to lose herself in the music.

Kara has no restraint left anymore to keep herself from dragging her lips over Lena’s exposed throat.

It's not a kiss. Kara doesn’t move her lips yet, doesn’t press them intentionally to Lena’s skin like she longs to do. She just holds Lena up with a single hand on her back, leaning forward with her and letting her mouth fall light as a feather on Lena’s skin. Breathing heavy and tasting salt, feeling muscle vibrate when Lena makes a quiet noise of surrender. It would be so easy to kiss her, to just pull Lena upright and succumb to what feels as inevitable as a train coming down the tracks -

Instead, she almost drops Lena entirely when they’re unceremoniously bumped out of their private bubble.

It takes Kara a second to absorb what’s happened, her brain still stuck in erotic purgatory, but when she manages to pull it free she sees that it’s Sam stumbling back after the impact, giggling and supporting the weight of a very unconscious Nia.

“I think she had too much,” Sam helpfully points out, clearly also having had too much. Lena springs into action right away, slipping Nia’s other arm over her shoulder and helping Sam hold her up, and like this is a completely normal occurrence Siobhan and Andrea immediately extract themselves from each other and lead the way to the bathroom. They part the crowd like the Red Sea with a combination of elbows and glares, forming a protective wall. It feels like a girls-only emergency drill that Kara never learned, and she follows behind the group still half-dazed and distracted.

Lena hasn’t so much as looked at her since they were interrupted.

When Kara enters Nia is already being propped up on the counter next to Sam, leaned back against the mirror with her eyes closed and her head resting on Sam’s shoulder, and Lena is wetting a handful of paper towels with cold water. She uses them to dab at Nia’s face, making soft tsking noises when Nia groans and tries to swat her away.

“Is she okay?” Kara asks, wanting to step in to help but feeling like she’d just get in the way of what looking like a well-oiled machine. Sam smiles, stroking Nia’s hair with a motherly gentleness.

“She’ll be okay. She might throw up in the cab, but my roommate is hooking up with Tennessee so her bed is free. She can stay with me. I’ll make sure she hydrates and doesn’t sleep on her back.”

“How often does this happen?” Kara asks, and Andrea looks at her curiously.

“Have you never been clubbing before?”

Not with girls like you, is Kara’s honest thought.

“I’m more of a karaoke bar person,” Kara answers instead, and Andrea rolls her eyes.

“Of course you are.”

“We do need to get her back before Lillian finds out,” Lena says, her voice tinged with real anxiety. “You remember what happened when some of the girls threw a room party a few years ago.”

“What happened?” Kara asks. Lena doesn’t look at her; she just keeps taking care of Nia, and instead Siobhan answers her question.

“She convinced the judges to blacklist them.”

“For drinking?” Kara says, scoffing. “As adults?”

“She has a boot up her ass about something,” Siobhan shrugs, leaning into Andrea. “I don’t think she ever got over the rumours, so she overcompensates.”

Everyone else seems to understand what Siobhan is talking about, so again Kara has to press.

“Rumours?”

“She was runner-up in ’83, but she almost ended up taking the crown when the winner started missing her post-win engagements,” Siobhan explains, her hands waving so emphatically that she almost hits a disgruntled Andrea in the face. “Car issues, food poisoning, anonymous death threats. Someone even cut her brakes. It was crazy, apparently. Like this storm of bad luck on the poor woman. And Lillian kept making public statements about how she was ready to take the responsibility if the pressure was too much for the winner.”

Nobody else seems surprised by the story, but Kara feels like she’s been plunged into cold water.

“Death threats?” she says, failing to hide the urgency in her voice. “Do you know what was said, exactly? Did anyone trace the threats?”

Siobhan shrugs, clearly not nearly as interested in this as Kara. “How should I know? I wasn’t alive then, was I?”

Kara throws her arms up, flabbergasted at the blasé reactions of everyone else in the room. “It was a death threat! Weren’t the police involved? Did anyone take her statement?”

“As if they would have done anything useful,” Andrea scoffs. “Besides, the pageant circuit has always liked to take care of things internally.”

“Like when Lillian got fired,” Siobhan says blithely, taking a paint-stained wet paper towel from Lena and handing her a new one. Lena works quietly, listening but not speaking as she sobers Nia up. “When the network told her, she threw a chair out the window.”

Kara chews on her lip, trying to log this all away to tell pass on to the team later. As much as she hates to admit it, Cat and Alex were right – this girl’s night is the most intel she’s gotten all weekend. Unfortunately when Kara glances back at Lena, she’s unnerved to see suspicion in her green eyes.

It’s exactly what she’s been afraid of. She’s asked too many questions.

“We should probably head back, right?” Kara says, hoping a change of scenery will wipe away the horrible gut-sick feeling that follows. “Here, I can carry her.”

“We’ve got it,” Lena says quickly, and Kara’s stomach twists even harder. Lena and Sam hold Nia up by the shoulders again, Nia’s stumbling legs slowly making their way to the cab stand out front, and Kara is about to follow when she notices her phone vibrating in her pocket.

Fishing it out, she sighs heavily when she’s met with a banner reading ‘9 missed calls’. All from Alex.

She hits redial quickly, glancing at the door.

“What?” she hisses as soon as Alex picks up, leaning against the counter. “I’m a little busy doing the thing you told me to do, so -”

“You took your earpiece out, so I haven’t gotten an update all night!” Alex says, sounding more worried than angry. “You were supposed to text us. Are you okay?”

“Can’t it wait until I get back?” Kara says incredulously. Alex seems to step out of a room on the other end of the line, the background noise fading to quiet.

“I was worried. I don’t like you out on the job with no backup and no contact. Did you find anything out about Lena?”

“A lot has happened,” Kara says vaguely, turning away from the door to pace to the other end of the small bathroom. “I’m still – “

“Ask her about the project,” Alex insists.

“What, you want me to just tie her up and interrogate her?” Kara snaps, talking more loudly than she intended. “She’s not our focus. The last thing I want to do is lose her trust -” When Kara spins to pace the other direction, her stomach drops to her toes.

Lena is standing there, and it looks like she’s been there longer than a few seconds. Kara hangs up the call without a word, shoving her phone back in her pocket with shaky hands under Lena’s now-watchful eyes.

“Everyone is getting in the cab. I didn’t want you to miss it,” Lena says. Her voice is harder than it’s ever been, almost flinty, and Kara can’t stand it.

“Okay,” Kara says, but Lena has already disappeared with a swish of her ponytail.

The cab ride back to the hotel is quiet. With Sam up front playing some kind of swipey mobile game and Nia passed out with her face pressed to the window Lena and Kara are left sitting together, Siobhan and Andrea having taken their own cab for reasons Kara can hazard a guess at. Lena is stiff, somehow barely touching Kara despite Nia’s spread-out body taking up half the backseat, and the second the cab stops she’s scrambling out the door.

The walk back to their room feels like a funeral march. Either Lena is never going to speak to her again or there’s about to be a confrontation, and neither is an option Kara wants. She has no idea what she’s expected to do – revealing who she is could compromise this whole investigation, but if Lena asks, Kara doesn’t know if she has the strength in her to lie anymore.

When Kara opens the door it’s to find the room lit by a single lamp and Lena sitting on her bed facing the door. Her teeth are digging into her lower lip and her hands are clenched in the duvet, but as soon as Kara enters she rises, her features smoothing into stoniness.

“Who are you?”

Kara lets out a breath. Years of experience in the field, multiple successful undercover ops under her belt, and yet she can’t summon a lie when Lena asks her a simple question. 

“I’m…Kara?” she manages through a dry throat. Lena gives her no quarter.

“Are you?” Lena snaps, taking a step forward. Kara takes a step back, and her shoulders hit the door. “You’ve spent this entire night mining for information. You turn up here with no picture and with not a single other contestant knowing who you are, and with seemingly no actual interest in anything to do with the pageant. Which is fine, it’s none of my business – but then you try to get close to me, flirt with me, for god only knows what reason and for a second I actually believed you.”

There’s more than just suspicion in that last sentence. More than anger. Lena’s voice is laced with hurt and embarrassment, and Kara moves towards her to try to assuage it without even thinking.

“What? Lena, no -”

“And tonight, when all the others were trusting you with deep and private information, you couldn’t be genuine for five seconds and do the same,” Lena says, sidestepping Kara’s attempt to reach out. “Like you’re hiding something. I’ve seen way more law enforcement at the pageant this year than ever before. And then I hear you on the phone talking about – about -”

Kara knows what she was talking about, and that Lena knows it was about her. She can hear Alex in her head if not in her ear, telling her to not under any circumstances blow her cover. But Lena looks distraught, and Kara can’t lie to her. Not anymore. 

“If you’re here to fuck with the pageant, fine,” Lena is saying, with more force behind her words now. “I don’t even care if you fuck with me. But I’m not going to let you hurt the rest of these girls. Who are you?

That stops Kara in her tracks, her long admission speech unravelling before it passes her lips.

“Hurt them?” Kara says indignantly, her hands landing on her hips. “Do you think I’m the threat?”

“I think you’re hiding something, and you’re using us for information. What am I supposed to think?”

Anything but that, Kara wants to say. She’s been lying to Lena to protect her, but to have Lena thinking she’s actually the one threatening the pageant? That Kara could ever willingly hurt her? If there was any will to keep lying to Lena left in Kara’s body, it would have disappeared with that thought.

“My name is Kara,” she says finally, her hands sliding down to hang loose at her sides. Lena rolls her eyes, and Kara sighs. “It is, I swear. It’s just not Kara-Lee Kent. It’s Agent Kara Danvers. I’m with the FBI.”

The silence from Lena’s end after that reveal is so dense that the hum of the air conditioner sounds like a jet engine.

Lena regards her warily for – Kara counts, second by agonizing second – almost a full minute before she speaks again. She scans Kara head to toe, and even Kara has to admit it probably seems a little far fetched considering she’s still in her sweats and caked in 8 colours of dried paint.

“Where are your credentials, then?” Lena asks finally. Despite Lena’s voice being soft, Kara still jumps a little. It’s a massive relief that Lena is still willing to entertain the idea that Kara is here to help, and it’s hard not to come off as overenthusiastic.

“In a portable safe, in the bedside drawer,” Kara says quickly, pointing. “I’ll show you, if you let me.”

When Kara pulls them out, handing Lena her badge and ID card, Lena deflates. Like she’d been hoping, maybe, that she was wrong and Kara really was just a weirdo with bad people skills.

“The FBI,” Lena says quietly, running her thumb over the shiny metal of the badge. She seems stuck on Kara’s ID photo, still looking down at it even when Kara holds her hand out to take it back. “Of course.”

Kara drops her hand, letting Lena keep the badge for now – and with it, she drops all pretense. It’s not worth the fight, anymore.

“There’s been a terrorist threat on the pageant,” Kara admits, laying all out at once. Lena finally looks up, her brows raised. “I was sent here undercover to make sure nothing happens backstage, but I’m starting to think it might be coming from the inside. From your mother.”

Weirdly, Lena seems less surprised to hear that Lillian was involved than she was to hear that Kara is an FBI agent. She just sighs, handing the badge back.

“I can’t really say I was expecting any of that.”

“Lena, this is important,” Kara says, pocketing the badge and taking a careful step closer. “I need your help. Has your mother ever talked about something called Cadmus?”

Lena looks exhausted by the question. She slumps down onto the bed, wrapping her arms around herself in a protective gesture that makes her look terribly small and alone. Kara has an image, suddenly, of Lena doing this every time Lillian did something to hurt her, and it makes her anger at the older Luthor even more pronounced.

“No. Never,” Lena says, her eyes distant and sad. “But Lex has.”

“Lex?” Kara says, moving to sit gently on the bed next to Lena. She leaves a foot or two of space, and Lena seems grateful. “Who’s Lex?”

“Alexander,” Lena clarifies, her voice getting a hint of bitterness Kara hasn’t heard before. “My mother’s assistant, and my brother. Half-brother, technically.”

The idea that the creep who seems to lurk around every corner at this pageant, the bald and badly-aging borderline predator, could be related to Lena is patently absurd, but there’s no lie in Lena’s face.

Alexander is your –” Kara mutters, half to herself. “Jesus, how many pageant secrets do I not know? This is getting ridiculous. I thought his last name was Tobin or something?”

“You’re one to talk.”

Kara winces. “Fair. I deserved that.”

“He changed his name to try and get away from his seedier associations,” Lena says, leaning forward and seeming to press herself into her knees. “He got himself into legal trouble a few years ago. Mother is insistent that he’s trying to turn his life around. I’ve been trying to figure out why my mother brought him on as her assistant when he has no relevant skills and no desire to actually work. I assume it has something to do with this Cadmus.”

“I think Lillian is angry about being fired,” Kara explains. She had worried for a moment that Lena would reject the idea, such an overblown reaction to something so minor, but Lena only nods.

“Only my mother could turn a contract termination into a domestic terrorism incident.” Lena sighs again. “Whatever help you need, I’ll give it.”

As reassuring as Lena’s words are, things still don’t feel right. There’s still a wall between them that wasn’t there before. More than Lena’s exhaustion and Kara’s nerves. Lena won’t look at her, won’t even glance in her direction, and it makes Kara’s stomach feel off.

“I’ve wanted to tell you all weekend,” Kara admits, bringing her legs up onto the bed and crossing them. “It’s been killing me to lie. It’s my job, but it felt wrong with you.”

“I’m sure,” Lena says, sounding blasé, but Kara can hear the hurt seething under her words. “But it just makes me wonder what else you lied about.”

“Nothing important,” Kara says earnestly, scootching closer. “Everything else has just been me. Everything with you, anyways. I can’t seem to wear the mask with you around.”

Lena makes a quiet scoffing noise, and Kara frowns.

“Really, Lena. I mean…I mean everything. Everything tonight, and the other day at the pool, that wasn’t part of the job,” Kara says urgently, moving within touching distance. Needing Lena to understand. Needing her to know the truth. “Far from it, actually. My sister keeps telling me to not get distracted.”

“And why should I believe you?” Lena fires back, with more venom than Kara expected. “You needed information about my family. And getting me to trust you was the easiest way to do it. I get it, you’re trying to save lives, but I’ve already agreed, alright? You don’t need to keep up the ruse.”

The words sit heavy between them, a choking mist that Kara wants desperately to clear. But Lena doesn’t trust her. Lena doesn’t trust her, and she has no idea how to make it right again. In fact Lena looks like she wants to bolt, and Kara knows that if she leaves the room right now any chance of doing so will probably disappear with her.

Lena’s words from earlier come back to her, suddenly. When all the others were trusting you with deep and private information, you couldn’t be genuine for five seconds and do the same.

With her heart in her throat, Kara pulls out her wallet and digs into a hidden pocket. Lena glances at the movement, but still doesn’t look at Kara’s face – even when Kara hands her the picture she’s kept tucked away for most of her life, Lena’s eyes stay on the object.

“You wanted me to be genuine tonight,” Kara says bluntly, diving in headfirst. “My parents died when I was a kid. A house fire.”

The hand holding the photograph twitches. It’s a copy of the last one Kara has with her parents, faded and creased – the original is safe in Kara’s apartment in an expensive frame – and Lena gets a little gentler with the paper after the admission.

“Oh,” Lena says hesitantly. “I’m…I’m so sorry, Kara.”

“It’s fine. It was a long time ago,” Kara parrots for probably the hundred-thousandth time in her life. It’s a reflex, and she tries to swallow it for the moment. “But, uh. It was all because of a stupid candle. I liked to keep them in my room, and my parents told me a hundred times not to fall asleep with one burning. A hundred times. And I didn’t listen.”

Kara’s chest tightens. Tears sting at her eyes, and she clears her throat.

“Kara, you don’t have to do this,” Lena says, but Kara soldiers on. Now that she’s saying the words, there’s something strangely freeing about it.

“My dad got me out of the house. But he went back in for my mom, and…” Kara trails off, twisting the bedspread in her fingers. “And even though I was just a kid, and it was an accident, I’ve never been able to shake blaming myself, no matter how much therapy I do.”

“I didn’t want to force you to do that,” Lena says softly. “Unearth your trauma like that. That’s not what I -”

Kara shakes her head, resolute.

“You didn’t force me,” Kara assures her, holding her gaze. Hoping that Lena will see the absolute truth in her eyes. “But that’s my biggest secret. Nobody knows that but me. Not even my sister.”

Lena is looking at her not with the pity or disdain she expected, but with understanding and empathy. She looks conflicted, still, and she hands the photo back carefully.

“Like you said, you’ve already agreed to help me,” Kara says, tucking it away again. “There’s no ulterior motive to this. I told you that because I wanted to. Because I’ve trusted you since I sat down next to you on that bus, and I want you to know that you can trust me. If you still don’t, I understand. But I had to…to try, I guess?”

Lena is silent, but the silence is less thick than it was before. It makes Kara hopeful.

“You’re the only thing that’s made this weekend bearable,” Kara admits, reaching a hesitant hand to cover Lena’s. Lena doesn’t move it away, and Kara can’t stop the barrage that she’s been thinking all weekend from spilling out. “Lena, you’re amazing. You’re the smartest person I’ve ever met, and you’re kind even if you don’t want people to know it. You’re curious and interesting and funny -”

“I’m not funny,” Lena says, her face twisting into an incredulous expression that almost makes Kara laugh. “You’re funny. I’m awkward.”

“You make me laugh.”

“You laugh at Calvin and Hobbes comics.” 

“Hey, I told you that in confidence!” Kara says, jabbing a finger in Lena’s direction, but Lena is grinning. The heaviness eases a little, and Kara sighs. “I don’t know what I need to do to convince you, but I’ll do it. Just tell me what you need me to do.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t know you,” Lena finally says, waving a hand vaguely over Kara’s whole self. “Not really. I mean, until tonight I thought you were studying to be a pediatrician.”

Kara laughs a little. “Yeah, my sister is the science sibling. I studied English and Poli Sci.”

“See?” Lena says, throwing her hands up a little. “I mean, what are you really even like? Clearly it’s not what I’ve seen here.”

Kara nods. Lena has a fair point – the person she actually is in her everyday life exists wildly outside of this context. She’s just not totally sure Lena will still like her on the other side of it.

“What do you want to know?”

What Lena wants to know, apparently, is everything. Where Kara grew up, her likes and dislikes, her family and interests. As the clock crawls towards 3am Kara tells her about Alex and Kelly, growing up in Midvale, about her friends in the bureau and her general lack of social life outside of it, and how she ended up with this crazy-ass assignment in the first place. And finally she shows Lena a picture, the only other one she usually keeps with her – one of herself with Alex and Eliza, at Alex’s wedding.

Lena stares at the picture for far longer than Kara expects her to. Kara wore a tailored suit and shiny new shoes that day, her hair in a clean and complicated bun that a stylist had done for her, and she had felt pretty good about it; Lena looks fascinated. She holds it up to her face like she’s trying to see the details, her fingers gripping the corner just a little too tight.

“You look…” Lena starts, her voice low and breathy, “really different.”

“Yeah, I usually wear exclusively menswear. The makeover I had to go through to be able to blend in here was pretty crazy,” Kara says with a short laugh. “I mean, do you guys really do bikini waxes all the time?”

“Have you never had one?” Lena says, finally looking away from the photo. Kara shakes her head.

“Not until this week. I normally don’t even shave. It was terrible!”

Lena swallows hard. She glances at the picture again and then back at Kara, her eyes flicking down to Kara’s waist before averting again, her cheeks pink.

“And the heels!” Kara continues, if only to fill the space. “How does everyone here not have sprained ankles all the time?”

“You learn to balance.” Lena sounds distracted, still staring at Kara in her wedding fit, and when Kara speaks again it looks like she’s been startled out of a deep thought.

“Well, it sucks in the meantime. When this is all over I plan on never wearing them again.”

“Your job really necessitates not wearing them,” Lena points out, finally handing the photo back. Kara holds it rather than putting it away, and Lena’s eyes keep darting to it even after she’s let it go.

“They have been really good for my posture, though,” Kara admits, straightening up and hearing her spine pop with a big stretch. “I didn’t realize how much I slouched, before. I thought heels were invented just to keep women from running away.”

Lena chuckles at the joke, shaking her head. “You really look down on this whole thing, don’t you?”

“I did at first,” Kara says honestly, smoothing out a crinkle in the photo paper. “I thought everyone here had to be shallow and superficial, to be so concerned over a pageant. Basically, I expected everyone to be Siobhan.”

Lena laughs louder this time, taking the point. “It sounds like there’s a but.”

Kara nods. “But, I was wrong. Nobody I’ve met here has been shallow. Everyone has been focused on winning the scholarship, but you’re all smart and interesting and really talented. Even Siobhan has something deeper behind her meanness.”

“If you say so,” Lena mutters, almost to herself. Kara laughs, using the moment to move closer again. She pulls her legs up onto the bed, readjusting herself to sit cross-legged across from Lena with their knees almost touching.

“Everyone is a lot more complicated than I thought,” Kara continues, resting her elbows on her knees. “I mean, Sam is a single mom and a math genius. Nia is incredibly resilient, and she’s so kind. Andrea is a little cold, but she’s also sharp and surprisingly caring. She’s probably going to run the world someday.”

“And me?” Lena asks, a wry brow arched.

“You’re the most fascinating person I’ve ever met in my life,” Kara says, with complete seriousness.

Lena seems to reel from that. She leans back a little, and it’s only then that Kara realizes how close they’ve drifted – they’ve both been leaning further and further forward as they talk, until only a few inches separate their faces. Kara doesn’t move, her eyes darting down to Lena’s lips – how she’s supposed to think of anything except how full and soft they look, she has no idea – and when Lena realizes Kara isn’t pulling away, she drifts forward again.

“We should go to bed,” Lena says, even as their noses bump and she doesn’t move away. She just makes a soft nuzzling motion, and Kara lets out a shaky breath when Lena’s head tilts in a way that begs to be kissed. “Before we do something we’ll regret.”

“Would you regret it?” Kara whispers. Lena’s reply is warm on her lips.

“Would you?”

“It’s a massive professional boundary,” Kara admits, closing her eyes for her confession. Lena’s are too intense, so deep and green that Kara could fall into them and never land. “But I’m more worried that I wouldn’t regret it at all.”

Lena’s exhale feels like relief. It feels like longing, like the yearning Kara has felt all weekend is being reflected at her, and it’s only when Lena’s lips finally brush hers feather-light that Kara has the willpower to continue.

“Lena?”

Lena stops in place, bringing a hand up to run her thumb over Kara’s lower lip. Her fingertip is rougher than Kara expected, almost calloused, and Kara wants to badly to nip at it that she has to press her lips together.

“What’s wrong?”

“I want you to be sober,” Kara says in a rush, her eyes still squeezed shut. “When…if, I mean. If we…are you sober right now?”

Lena pauses for a long time. So long that Kara, her eyes still closed, wonders if she might have fallen asleep. But then the warmth moves away, and Kara opens her eyes to see Lena sitting up straight. She looks disappointed, but equally a little relieved.

“No,” Lena admits, uncrossing her legs and getting up off the bed in a not-so-smooth motion that only illustrates her point. “Not as much as I want to be. You’re right.”

Kara has never been so annoyed at herself about being responsible. It’s the right thing to do, she knows that, but she also feels like a complete moron for turning down the chance to kiss Lena.

They take turns washing the paint off, Kara climbing into bed with damp hair to listen to the sound of Lena under the bad water pressure of their shower, and by the time Lena steps out of the steam-filled bathroom Kara is putting on a reasonable show of being asleep. Lena follows quickly, climbing under the covers quietly, and Kara almost thinks she actually has fallen asleep when her voice carries across the dark gap between their beds in a whisper.

“I blame myself, too.”

Kara frowns, shifting and squinting towards Lena’s shadowy face. Without her glasses or contacts she can’t see her features, but Kara could hear a strange tone in her voice.

“For what?” Kara whispers back. The reply almost makes her sit up.

“My birth mother drowned,” Lena says, her voice so quiet that Kara has to strain to hear. “I was there. I saw the whole thing. And I didn’t call anyone. I was too young to know what to do.”

The silence between them seems to ring, like the moments after a church bell has been struck. Kara’s mouth works around silent words, scrambling to say something, anything to offer reassurance. Lena beats her to it.

“It’s okay. I don’t need comforting,” Lena says, turning over to face the wall. “But I’ve never been able to shake off blaming myself, either. So…you’re not alone. That’s all.”

Strangely, after that absolute rollercoaster of a night, Kara falls asleep more easily than she has in a long time.