The first time went unnoticed in all the chaos.
Her rescue had come without any forewarning, abrupt as a sudden change in the weather. One second she'd been in the Phantom Zone, and the next, Kara was being violently yanked backwards like a fish with a hook caught in its belly, disappearing into an unknown void that had somehow manifested out of thin air.
Colors swirled and muddled together inside the portal, an abstract painting that moved at the speed of light, constantly changing in its composition. It was both beautiful and terrifying, and just when Kara thought she would either vomit or pass out (or vomit and then pass out,) she landed in a crumpled heap on solid ground, neon purple light illuminated her pale, sun-starved skin.
It didn’t occur to Kara that she was back on Earth until a familiar body crashed into hers, pulling her into a desperately tight embrace as whirring machinery slowed to a halt in the background. Alex had cried as she stroked her sister's dirty, tangled hair, rocking them back and forth on the cold concrete floor of the Tower as if she were a lost child, safe and sound at last.
There were no windows on this floor of the Tower, and Kara took full advantage of the rare opportunity to hold her sister as tightly as she could without having to worry about breaking any bones. Kara's body ached for sunlight, but her weary, battered soul needed this even more.
She was vaguely aware of others in the room, dim profiles and dark silhouettes respectfully waiting to approach with baited breath. Alex waved them forward with a trembling hand after a moment and then they all rushed her at once, forming a mismatched pile of limbs and leather and stray hairs in mouths and masks slipping crookedly on faces and everyone was crying as they enveloped Kara in the center. They did it. They found her, the vital missing piece that could never be replaced. They were all here in this room because of Kara, and Kara alone. She was the common denominator that had brought them all together in the first place, forming the family they had ultimately become. And now they were whole again.
All except one.
Lena stood separate from the group, near to where the portal had just dissipated. She was still as a statue, one empty arm cocked mid-chest, right underneath her heart. A complex and very expensive-looking tablet lay broken at her feet, the screen cracked cleanly down the middle and completely, entirely forgotten. She looked like she was in shock, as if she hadn’t expected her creation would actually work , yet here was the irrefutable proof right in front of her eyes. Their Kara. Her Kara.
Lena's chest heaved as all the air left her lungs in one harsh exhale. A single tear rolled down the ivory porcelain of her skin, her face breaking into a positively beaming smile of combined joy and utter relief.
Kara's heart skipped a beat at the awed expression on Lena's face and tried to extract a hand from the mass of bodies, wanting to reach for her, embolden her to come, come, come here… Alex's strong arms and the muffled cries of her friends were convincing touchstones, but Kara couldn't fully accept this scene as reality until she felt the warmth of Lena's skin against hers after all this time.
Nia seemed to read Kara's mind and unsteadily pushed to her feet, wiping her messy face with a costumed sleeve before grabbing Lena’s hand and pulling her forward. She seemed to come back to herself then - that small jolt of recalibration between her brain and her heart was all the encouragement Lena needed to get her moving.
Lena took Nia’s vacated spot in the huddle, fumbling among various body parts until she wormed her way into the center. She dropped to her knees and braced one hand on Alex's shoulder, reaching for Kara with the other. The moment their fingers touched, Kara's world fell back into place. It felt right and natural and true and real and oh God, she's home .
“How… how long?” Kara had asked, her voice tight as a bowstring. The room instantly hushed, a stark contrast to the happy reunion mere moments ago as they exchanged uneasy looks. Lena finally took the initiative, running velvet pads over Kara’s dry, cracked skin, her voice low and strained with barely held back emotion.
It was then that Kara noticed the tired lines that creased all of her friends’ faces, the dark circles underneath heavy eyes, the way they looked like they were about to drop from sheer exhaustion. She saw Lena’s impeccable cheekbones jutting out at newer, sharper angles, her skin ashy and wan, expensive clothes too loose on a body that was too thin. A cold shiver ran down Kara’s spine as she took it all in.
This was his fault. He did this to them, by sending her away. Three months of worry and despair and Rao only knows how many failed attempts to rescue her before today - three months spent entirely focused on pain and heartache and uncertainty when they could've been living their lives.
In the far distance above them, past the towering skyscrapers and into the beginnings of Earth's troposphere, a low thunder rumbled ominously.
The second time is written off as a fluke.
Alex had asked her to take it easy for a while, insisting that she replenish her solar reserves with the help of the intense sun lamps onsite rather than immediately taking to the skies after so long without her powers, even though the latter option would yield faster results in her recovery. Kara accepted without a fuss, recognizing that Alex needed her not to argue for once, that she desperately needed to make sure her newly found little sister wasn't going to disappear into thin air the second she was out of her line of sight.
So she lay under the lamps, still and patient for two whole days - and while her powers have returned, she still feels off, like she's only running on half a tank. It doesn't make sense - she shouldn't be this tired, this drained, when all she's been allowed to do is lay here like a lizard soaking up artificial rays. She's anxious and restless and trying not to think about how the Tower is starting to feel more and more like a cage with each passing moment that doesn't bring her closer to full strength. She doesn't have time for this... not when she’s lost so much of it already.
Alex and Brainy are off to one side, whispering to each other in hushed tones. They've been running tests on Kara for the last few hours, and from the way they keep glancing at her on the table, the impending results don't appear promising. They keep turning their backs so she can't read their lips, and it's starting to grate on Kara's nerves - like she couldn't just use her super-hearing to listen to every poorly concealed murmur. Her powers are weak, not lost entirely.
She's not helpless.
The stab of anger is fast and hard, like a punch to the teeth. She’s endured more in her life than either of them will ever understand, and has just survived a second impromptu trip to the Phantom Zone, reliving her worst nightmares on a loop for Rao knows how long. She's the Girl of Steel, damn it - hasn't her recent ordeal proved that she's anything but breakable?
"Stop talking about me like I'm not here and just tell me what's wrong, already!"
The words leave Kara’s chest in one sharp exhale, like a pin to an over-inflated balloon. Each word comes out louder than the last, rising in volume until -
The moment her lips close around the last syllable there is a mighty crack of thunder that rattles the walls of the Tower. A thick line of clouds the color of gunmetal suddenly rolls across the horizon, like a wave about to crash onto the shore. The sun disappears from view, tinting the city in shades of gray where moments ago there had been nothing but clear, bright blue skies. It's like God themselves flipped a switch without a hint of a warning.
Both Alex and Brainy visibly jump, startled by both the harshness of her tone and the unexpected sounds from outside, and Kara immediately feels guilty for raising her voice. She's also a little surprised at herself - she usually has more control over her emotions than this. She tries to rationalize: it's not their fault she's so frustrated, and she can't blame them for her own baggage, especially not after how hard they all worked to get her back. It’s not fair, and Kara knows she should be grateful that she’s even here at all right now.
"I'm sorry," Kara apologizes meekly. She clears her throat and tries again, gentler this time. "Do you know what's wrong with me?"
The sun peeks out and the clouds start to disperse, their ominously dark hues turning white as fleece and looking nowhere near as threatening as before. Alex's eyes flit from the open windows back to Kara on the gurney, puzzled and contemplative. Then she shakes her head as if to clear the farfetched thoughts from her brain - pure coincidence, surely.
They tell her the tests are inconclusive, that they can't explain her fatigue despite being exposed to two days worth of enhanced solar light. Alex tells her to take it easy, give it some time, her body will readjust before she knows it - all the things Kara doesn't want to hear, but she nods in agreement anyway.
She's finally allowed to leave the Tower and Alex insists on her taking a cab home rather than risk flying, which immediately puts Kara off. She thinks about protesting, but the thought of her earlier outburst and the pleading look on Alex’s exhausted face keeps her quiet. It’s the least she can do, after all.
When Kara finally finds herself at her front door after a very bumpy car ride that she most definitely could have done without, she hesitates, clutching her set of keys. She’s suddenly anxious and jittery, which is ridiculous in more ways than one - it’s not like she’s getting ready to dive into battle or face off against some new unknown threat, it’s her apartment for God’s sake. She can’t count the number of times she wished she could be here, back when she was there, so what the hell is wrong with her?
She fumbles and the keys clatter to the floor, unusual for someone with Kara's superb reflexes. They feel uncharacteristically awkward in her hand. It should be a mindless, simple task - she’s done this thousands of times, usually without even thinking about it, and yet the practiced familiarity of the act of unlocking her front door is no longer there.
It takes two tries before she gets her shit together, slotting the key into the lock and pushing just a little too hard against something she could easily splinter into a dozen pieces if she isn't careful. The metal bends slightly, but not enough to get stuck, and Kara yanks it back out of the hole with a low grumble, turning the doorknob. She pushes with one clammy palm and the door squeals in response, begging for a splash of oil on its unused hinges, and Kara crosses the threshold.
It's the first time she's been home in three Earth months - however long that equates to in Phantom Zone time/not time, Kara doesn't know. Long enough that the cheery colors of her walls and furniture look too vivid after endless landscapes of black and gray.
She slowly picks her way around the apartment with quiet, carefully measured steps. There’s no one else here, she knows this, but old habits are tough to break - especially habits that ended up being crucial to her survival while in the Zone. No super-hearing to tip her off turned every shifting rock and whistling wind into a potential threat. "Constant vigilance!" The reference to her favorite fantasy novels used to be funny, right up until a second round in the Phantom Zone made it no longer so.
Everything is exactly as she left it, down to the wrinkled throw blanket tossed carelessly on the couch and the open cookbook turned upside down on her kitchen island. That's right - Kara remembers wanting to test out a new recipe that looked fairly unintimidating, some kind of casserole, maybe? That was before Lex, before Leviathan, before being hit with the projector...
Kara picks the book up in one swift motion, slams it shut, and tosses it in a drawer. The thought of food right now makes her stomach turn, which is absolutely not like her at all.
She runs her index finger over the surface of the counter expecting a thick coat of dust, surprised when it comes away clean. She looks down: the tile floor of her kitchen is so shiny and polished she could eat off of it, and there are no signs of smudges or dirt on any of her windows.
So, people have been here while she was gone. They cleaned and kept the place up, preparing for her eventual (hopeful) return. And yet they’d touched none of her belongings, like a ghost had moved in in her absence, silently haunting the things she’d left behind.
A heavy, melancholy weight that she can't quite explain settles in the hollow of her chest. She’s not sure what she expected to feel - maybe relief? It’s what she should be feeling, isn’t it? She’s finally here, finally home after all this time, and yet it doesn’t feel like home anymore. Which is stupid, because it is home. Where else would it be, if not here?
She sinks to the floor and it feels less like the pull of gravity and more like something is physically pushing her down. Maybe it’s the aftereffects of being in the Zone for so long, or maybe Earth is just heavier than she remembers. Kara doesn't spend a lot of time pondering over it, finding that she doesn’t really care either way what the answer is.
She pushes two stools aside and settles in the space between them, her back pressed against the solid base of her kitchen island. She feels better, safer, knowing that no one can sneak up on her from behind even though she is fully aware no one is after her anymore. At least, not for the moment.
Kara bends her legs to meet her chest and rests her chin on the hard bones of her kneecaps. She closes her eyes, breathing steadily in and out, and tries to relax. This is home. I'm home. I'm safe, and I'm home.
She spends most of the evening sitting just so, perfectly still, as she disappears into a place deep inside and tries to convince herself that she's fine. And then she tries not to think about anything at all.
Kara is tossing and turning in bed hours later, unable to sleep, when the realization hits her like a baseball bat to the shins.
Time passed and the world moved on without Kara, without Supergirl. Things changed, yet her home remained untouched, fixed in a timeless capsule that preserved the life of Kara Danvers BPZ, “before the Phantom Zone.” Now that she’s back, the “after” can begin. It will begin, whether or not she has a clue what exactly that means or what she should do next.
And that's just it - she doesn’t know what to do next. It’s like she’s twelve years old again, looking at the Danvers’ house for the first time with a fully grown Kal-El standing beside her, not knowing what to think or do or how to be on this new planet now that her role as protector was no longer needed. Back then she had felt irrelevant, useless, like she had failed in her duty before she’d even been given the chance to succeed. Now she’s standing in that great unknown void once again, maybe not in the exact same place as when she was a child, but pretty damn close.
Her gut clenches and the first hot wave of panic washes over her. She screws her eyes shut and desperately starts to count prime numbers in Kryptonese, her tongue turning dry as sandpaper as she breathes deeply through her mouth, each inhale stuttered and halting.
What is she supposed to do now? Go back to work as Kara Danvers and pretend nothing is wrong, like she hasn’t been sitting in a cave in endless space waiting for rescue, unsure if it was even on its way? Is she supposed to put on her cape and boots tomorrow and find some bad guys to punch, put some actual criminals in a prison to make her feel better about being unjustly trapped in one? What do you do after coming back from hell for the second time in your life?
Supergirl has to come back, and sooner rather than later. She’s been gone too long as it is. How many cries for help went unanswered while she was missing? How many people trained their eyes on the horizon, waiting for Supergirl to save them only to have waited in vain? How many died because she wasn't there?
The idea of more failure creeps into her skin like a cancer. She failed to be Kal’s sole tie to his Kryptonian heritage as he grew up, failed everyone in her city whose cries fell on deaf ears these last few months - she’s already been exiled twice in her life, and the rule of threes looms over her like a shadow waiting to descend the moment she least expects it, like a Phantom desperate to get its hands on her one last time.
It’s not irrelevance she’s worried about this time around - it’s inevitability.
Kara throws back the covers and gets up, abandoning her counting in favor of movement - anything to keep the onslaught of dangerous thoughts from sending her into a full-blown panic attack. She's not there yet, but she will be soon if she doesn't find an adequate distraction.
She pads barefoot to the open-concept living room, intent on exiting the building from her window; maybe some cool night air will help clear her head. Then she stops, remembering that she promised Alex to take it easy, the way her sister had visibly sagged with relief when Kara gave her word. Damn it.
Kara sighs, clicking her teeth together once, twice, three times as she weighs her options - she’d never hear the end of it if she dropped out of the sky like a shot bird all because she couldn’t wait for her body to heal properly. And she really doesn't like breaking promises to her sister. Damn it damn it damn it...
She’s about to go back into her bedroom to try a different, less "superhero-y" calming tactic when she catches sight of her painting supplies scattered in the corner of the room. It’s been so long since she’s picked them up; the brightly colored tubes of oils call out to her, and the artist inside feels an unshakable urge to answer. It seems like ever since the Crisis, there hasn’t been a spare moment to indulge in anything that’s just for her pleasure. The world needs Supergirl more than it needs Kara Danvers, but what about what Kara Zor-El needs? She almost never asks herself that question.
Kara digs out one of her larger blank canvases and props it up on the easel, adjusting the height so that she can stand while she works. She squeezes a generous dollop of every color at her disposal onto a wooden palette and unwraps a brand new chisel-cut brush, dipping it into her container of turpenoid to soften the factory-hardened bristles. The instrument feels good in her hand, feels like possibility and promise and that maybe she isn’t on the verge of losing her Rao-damned mind.
Kara doesn’t think about composition or aesthetics, has no real concept in mind - she just lets the brush run wild. She paints abstractly, letting the medium build up in thick globs as she layers colors, using the fingers of her left hand to add texture and blend certain areas when the paintbrush doesn’t do the trick. From time to time she adds more paint to her palette, hardly stopping to see which tube she’s picked up beforehand. It doesn’t really matter what colors she picks when Kara’s not even sure what it is that she’s painting.
Fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes go by and she slips into a rhythm, oblivious to everything except the brush between her fingers and the smooth flow of her arm dancing across the canvas. She lets herself get lost in it, using her fingernails to draw jagged, sharp lines that criss cross and intersect with one another, her breath coming out quick and labored despite the fact that she has superpowers and isn’t doing anything remotely strenuous. All the while her heart pounds an erratic drumbeat, and no, she doesn’t know what’s supposed to come after the hell she seems to be constantly forced to endure, but all that matters is that she’s doing something and for once, it’s for no other purpose than the simple fact that it feels good.
Kara is just about to grab another tube of paint when her brain suddenly comes back online and she really sees her painting for the first time - and the planet stops rotating in its orbit. Her mouth goes dry, paint-stained hands hover in blank space and her eardrums go fuzzy, like she's been underwater too long and can't find her way back to the surface.
Black dominates the canvas, forming a canyon of towering rock formations that end in needle-thin points at their highest peaks. Some bend and curve, like giant hands ready to grab whatever poor unsuspecting souls might wander within their reach. Shadows fall at their bases, elongated and otherworldly - eerie, sinister shapes. The sky is an inky purple, almost black itself with no discernable light source, and the ground is a rubble of sharp stone completely devoid of color. She’s painted a wasteland, dismal and dark and desolate, a place of living nightmares, an endless void.
Kara stares into the Phantom Zone, her rendering such a vivid reflection of the image in her mind's eye that it feels like she's there, running scared, desperate to escape the fatal embrace of the chasm closing in behind her.
All the blood leaves Kara's face and spots bloom before her eyes. Her face and neck start to burn as the paintbrush falls from her fingertips, clinking woodenly on the edge of the palette before landing on the carpeted floor. The paint will undoubtedly leave a stain; oils do not come out of fabric.
Trauma too leaves its own similar mark, a constant, bitter reminder that the stubborn spots on her soul never seem to go away no matter how hard she tries; they only want to spread, like a dozen wildfires converging into one single, cataclysmic blaze, destroying everything in its path until there is nothing but ash left in its wake.
And just like that, Kara can no longer contain her fury.
An animal-like roar bursts forth from her lips as she grabs the canvas with both hands, her thumbs pressing into the schism between the rock formations as if she could bridge the gap with her own fingers. She rips the painting in half as easily as if she were shredding paper, stretcher bars and all. Wet paint splatters on her pajamas as she throws the two halves at the wall. One piece embeds itself into the plaster, canvas dangling from the broken wooden bar like a tattered flag raised in defeat. Kara whirls around and catches sight of the half-dozen finished pieces that sit on the floor, beautiful landscapes and still life’s and water scenes that are perfectly separate from the one she has just demolished and pose no threat - she lunges and tears them apart one by one, adding their carcasses to the pile.
She doesn’t even notice the way the thunder rages outside, doesn’t register the fact that each resounding boom coincides with the gutteral sounds of tearing canvas and wood and her own choked vocal cords. She’s too wound up to think about anything except how good it feels to have this strength running through her veins again, to be the one with power rather than one of the powerless.
She’ll kill Lex for sending her back to that hell-hole, for what he put her family through while she was gone. For everything he did to Lena, who only ever wanted to make the world a better place and be loved rather than despised because of her Luthor name. Lena deserves so much better than him - she deserves a brother who has the decency to die when shot in the chest, who stays in his grave rather than have the audacity to rise from the ashes just to wreak more havoc in all their lives.
Kara won’t even blink when she watches him drop from the sky this time.
Fire pools behind her eyes, hot and molten, but it doesn’t feel like a blast of impending heat vision. They begin to glow cyan, pulsing as her anger coils like a viper about to strike. The hair on her arms and the nape of her neck stand straight up. Her fingertips tingle. She balls her hands into fists and presses them to her temples, grits her teeth. This is not heat vision - this is something different, but she’s too lost in her rage to care.
Kara feels the thunder echo in her belly, the way it moves and grows to a rising crescendo, louder and faster and then -
A brilliant flash of blue lightning splits the sky, so bright that it illuminates the entire cityscape for one scant second before plunging back into darkness. Kara’s vision goes black and the loudest peal of thunder yet reverberates off the walls, dissolving into a series of smaller bangs, like fireworks, making everything in the apartment shake. Kara’s anger fades to fear as each boom vibrates under the surface of her skin; somehow she knows that this isn’t a random summer storm. It feels too personal, like the thunder manifested itself in response to her rage, the lightning born from her very body. But that can’t be true - her powers have nothing to do with the weather.
Kara’s vision slides back into focus and the thunder softens in its violence. She tries to get her heart rate back to a normal rhythm, glances out the window and feels her eyes widen at the sight. With each thud-thud of her heart, there is a corresponding double flash of lightning in the belly of the largest thunderhead as it rolls across the sky on a quickly accelerating wind. It's too precise to be a coincidence.
Kara superspeeds into the bedroom and grabs her phone, presses Alex’s name with cold, shaking fingers. She picks up on the fourth ring, groggy from what must be one of her first decent nights of sleep in months. “Mmmkara?” She drawls.
“Alex...” Kara sits on the edge of her bed and tries to keep the fear out of her voice - she can hear the wind picking up through the walls of the apartment, not quite a gust but getting close. Her leg bounces erratically and she claps one hand over her knee to still it, afraid of what might generate outside as a result of her nerves.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” All traces of sleepiness instantly vanish as Alex goes into full sister mode, and Kara hears Kelly’s concerned voice murmuring in the background. She’s too afraid to feel guilty this time.
“Alex, something… something is wrong with me. I don’t know how to explain it and I know this is going to sound crazy, but…” Kara pauses, fighting the tightening knot in her throat with herculean effort. She blinks and two tears trail down her cheeks in identical parallel lines, racing each other down the planes of her face until they merge at the curve of her chin.
“I think I made a storm just now.”
They hang up barely twenty seconds later and Kara changes out of her pajamas into the first items of clothing her hands land on, hardly caring if they're clean or go together or not. She pushes her feet into tennis shoes and chugs a glass of luke-warm tap water, replaying the last ten minutes in her head over and over again, trying to come up with another answer and ultimately finding none.
The thunder recedes with every second that fear replaces feelings of anger, and Kara does her best to think about things that make her happy: Sunshine. Potstickers. Karaoke nights at the bar. Ice cream tubs with giant spoons and dogs on the street and flying with the wind in her hair.
Lena’s smile when she says her name. Her hugs - the way she would rub Kara’s back in soft circles that always made her want to bury her head in her shoulder and purr like a kitten. How the memory of those touches got her through more than one depressive spell during her time in the Phantom Zone.
Kara holds on to that feeling, remembering those moments with pin-point focus as she takes a seat at her kitchen island, lays her head on the marble countertop, and waits once again for Alex to come save her.
More tests. Longer tests. Double checking those tests. The sun has been up for almost an hour now, and at this point Kara is almost certain she’s overreacted. She didn’t cause a thunderstorm - she had a temper tantrum and there just happened to be a little bad weather that coincided with it. Nothing to freak out over. She's fine.
She's not fine.
"We think the Phantom Zone may have exposed you to radiation that affects your ability to absorb yellow sunlight."
Kara's chest tightens with sudden anxiety and she has to take a moment before trusting herself to speak. She forces down a wave of oncoming panic and swings her legs over the gurney, intent on putting an end to this ridiculous nonsense.
"No, that can't - my powers are back. I am absorbing sunlight." Kara shakes her head, feeling like an idiot for freaking out over nothing. Now she just has to convince them that it's nothing before they make her sit here for another two days under those damn lamps, walls all around, closing in, suffocating her -
"We compared the results of tests previously recorded a year ago versus the ones taken today," Brainy says, hands clasped tightly at his stomach. "There's no mistake - your powers are currently 56.9% weaker than they were before entering the Phantom Zone."
Kara can see each knuckle bone stretching against the taut skin of his fingers, the way his jaw barely moves when he talks. He's worried, and also a terrible liar; so, it's not nothing, then.
She grips the edge of the bed, not without noticing that it should be rippling like melted butter under the amount of pressure she's exerting right now, but it’s barely showing the indents of her fingertips.
Kara sighs, accepting defeat. "Ok, so… so what does that mean? Is it permanent?"
"No, it's not." Lena turns a corner without warning and startles everyone with the suddenness of her entrance, Kara included. She's immaculately dressed as always, even at six in the morning after four hours of running tests at Alex's plea.
Kara watches the slight sway of her hips as Lena approaches and her brain conjures a scene that is entirely unbidden, but not repellent in the slightest: Cooking breakfast for dinner in her apartment, sizzling bacon and a stack of pancakes, Lena wearing nothing but a thin tee and boy shorts and swaying those hips to a song on the radio, and Kara reaches forward and lets her fingers rest in the hollow junction and slowly tugs, turning the stovetop off with a flick of her wrist, "Kara, I thought you were starving!" Soft nibbles on her neck that turn a laugh into a moan, licking the spot of pancake batter on her jawline as Kara mumbles, "I am..."
Kara’s cheeks turn red as sin and she prays no one notices, hoping the low lighting in the Tower will hide the worst of it. Lena comes to stand beside her, swiping furiously on a (brand-new) tablet. Her hair is pulled back in a sleek ebony ponytail that drapes over one shoulder, and when she leans in, the ends brush against the side of Kara’s neck with a delicious tickle that echoes all the way down her spine. She can't suppress a shiver in time, but Lena is too engrossed in her findings to notice anything amiss and points to a series of images taken from her bloodwork. Kara tries her absolute hardest to pay attention to the screen and not the delicate fingers holding it.
"There was no sun in the Phantom Zone, but its atmosphere was apparently made up of elements that are very similar in composition to the kind of radiation that Kryptonians can absorb, like our yellow sun that gives you your powers on Earth. After your solar reserves depleted, long-term exposure to those atmospheric elements essentially replaced those reserves. For lack of a better term, let's just call it 'Phantom radiation.' Now, you didn't gain powers in the Zone, but you absorbed that energy all the same and instead, it lay dormant in your body. Then when you were exposed to yellow sunlight again, it triggered a reaction,”
Lena swipes again and points at two images side by side. She leans closer, and Kara’s stomach flips in a way that has nothing to do with her medical dilemma.
“This slide shows your cells full of yellow sunlight from tests stored in the DEO’s databases from last year. And this one is from the sample we took a few hours ago.” Lena points to the second picture, and Kara doesn’t need to be a genius to be able to see the differences. The image shows dark purple outlines around each rounded yellow cellule, with tiny vein-like cracks traveling to their epicenters.
Kara points, “These areas are white, like the ones in my normal bloodwork.”
Lena nods. “That’s the result of the reaction that took place when you were exposed to yellow sunlight again. Your Kryptonian physiology wants to take in what is familiar to it, but can’t absorb enough sunlight to overpower the Phantom radiation - which explains why you've been feeling so out of sorts.”
Kara nods. It makes sense. “Ok, so, what do I need to do to get rid of the Phantom radiation?”
Lena pauses, uncertainty marring her delicate features. “I’m not 100% sure, but my theory is that if you solar flare, the force will be enough to expel the residual Phantom radiation and allow your cells to replace it with yellow sunlight again.”
Alex steps forward, gesturing with one hand to stop her from going on. “Wait, back up. So... this Phantom radiation is what’s causing these new powers to manifest, right?" She turns to look at her sister. "And you said that you think they were triggered when you got angry?” Kara nods her reply.
“Then she can’t solar flare," Alex's face hardens, even though her eyes betray worry. "A solar flare only happens when Kara pushes herself to her absolute limit. Remember Red Tornado? You were so angry when you faced him and you didn’t have to hold back because he was a machine, but now…” She looks at Lena somewhat desperately. “There’s no telling what would happen if she let loose like that with powers that are tuned to her emotions, powers we know next to nothing about. It could tear both her and the city apart. There has to be another option.”
Lena works her jaw back and forth, and Kara can hear the grinding of teeth behind cherry-red lips. Her next words are slow and hesitant, as if she has to unwillingly drag them from her chest, one by one.
“There’s… a possibility that the radiation could dissipate on its own. I compared the results from tests we took the day we got Kara back to today’s tests, and the percentage of Phantom Zone to yellow sun radiation is… slightly less than before. Slightly. ” Lena emphasizes.
There's a beat of silence. “How long would it take for all of it to leave my system naturally, without solar flaring?” Kara asks quietly.
Lena’s gaze softens as she turns her head, her voice a low murmur. “It’s hard to know for sure. It could be days, weeks even, but that would mean - "
“It would mean that I have to keep my emotions in check until it does.” Kara finishes.
Lena worries at her lower lip, her teeth leaving slight indentations that Kara has a wild urge to smooth in a very un-platonic way. “Yes, but Kara, the toll that would take on your mentality, especially after what you’ve just gone through - it’s too much to ask of anyone, not to mention how unhealthy that is.” Lena’s eyes pointedly linger on Brainy, who hesitates for half a second before exhaling deeply, and he inclines his head in a small nod of agreement. They share a silent, unspoken moment before she shoots a challenging look at Alex. “Right?”
Alex pauses, turning to look at Kara directly. She speaks lowly, but not without warmth. “How did it feel, when you got angry last night? That storm - would it have hurt anybody if it got out of control?”
Kara sighs, buying herself time before answering. “I...” She rubs a slow circle on her thigh with her fingernail, not meeting anyone's eyes. “It was mostly thunder, a little lightning in the distance - I think I realized what was happening before it had the chance to escalate. Really, it was no worse than any regular thunderstorm.”
It’s not the whole truth. Alex didn’t see the wreckage in her apartment when she came to take her to the Tower last night - Kara had met her downstairs in the common area instead. She didn’t tell her about the painting, the way she’d destroyed it and several others in her fit of rage, the swell in her chest as the thunder crashed and how good it had felt to let loose. All Alex knew was that Kara had had a rough night, too lost in thought and had let bad memories get the better of her. As far as Kara was concerned, that was all the information she needed.
Besides, she knows the look Alex is giving her right now - she's seen it a hundred times before. It’s the pensive, tortured look Alex gets when she has to weigh the choices presented to her, trying to decide which is more critical: keeping the city and all its denizens safe and in one piece, or choosing to prioritize Kara over everything else… and all the potential outcomes that choice could lead to.
Kara takes the decision out of her hands, knowing what is expected of her, what would make things easier for her older sister even if it might not be what she wants or needs for herself. Alex has been through enough, worrying herself sick over Kara's safe return. This is how she can make up for all the sleepless nights, the constant fear and despair, and the dozens upon dozens of hours it took to bring her home. This is what heroes do.
Kara jumps down from the gurney, forcing the others to make space. She places her hands on her hips and makes a stance, the picture of a force to be reckoned with, and tilts her head playfully. She makes sure her voice comes off sounding strong and confident.
"Well, If I'm going to be quarantined, you all better tell me what shows I missed while I was gone." Her smile is bright, though her stomach feels sour and queasy at the thought of what lies ahead of her. It's almost worth it when Alex gratefully pulls her in for a hug, whispering that they're going to keep researching, there has to be quicker ways to rid her body of the unwanted radiation, and Kara squeezes her shoulders gently in response.
"I'll be fine." She whispers, because she has to be. What other choice is there?
She catches Lena's gaze and tries another tentative smile, but this time there is a wobble in her lips that she can't hold back, betraying her true feelings. The look Lena gives her in return is full of quiet tenderness, with a glint of something that looks like fight in those emerald eyes. She opens her mouth, possibly to argue with Alex further, but Kara shakes her head right to left in a silent plea before a single syllable can come forth, begging her to understand.
Lena's parted lips close without a sound.
The first few days are fairly easy.
Kara hasn’t had a real vacation in years, probably since her Midvale days - and while lounging in her apartment doing nothing but watching tv, eating junk food, and waiting for otherworldly radiation to expend itself from her body isn’t exactly her ideal getaway - hey, at least it’s not the Phantom Zone.
The world hasn't seen Supergirl in months, and (apparently) Kara Danvers has been on assignment with none other than Cat Grant herself. No one outside of her circle of Superfriends knows she’s back yet, and as long as Kara keeps a low profile, no one will. When she does return to work, however, it seems that she won’t be going back empty-handed.
On the morning of day two, Kara gets a mysterious email with the words, “for Keira” in the subject line. She opens the first of several attachments to find a five-page single-spaced final draft of a thoroughly impressive-looking article; the byline reads, “by Cat Grant and Kara Danvers” and written in the body is a short, terse message that almost brings Kara to tears: This will never happen again. Worship the ground Nia Nal walks upon, for this is the only freebie you will ever receive from me. Consider it recompense for your years of loyal servitude.
Kara focuses on this act of kindness when other, messier emotions start to seep in. Distraction, she’s discovered, is key to keeping those emotions from taking over. She cleans the already spotless apartment top to bottom, scrubbing every nook and cranny at human speed, rearranges the furniture in her living room, goes through a pile of unread books that have been collecting dust for God knows how long - but by day four, Kara starts to run out of ways to keep herself occupied.
She doesn’t even consider attempting to paint again, and shoves the whole box of oils and brushes into her hall closet so she won’t have to look at them until this is all over.
She hopes she can look at them again once this is over.
She binges a few shows, mostly comedies to keep things light, but after a while the constant pre-recorded laugh tracks grate on her nerves and she switches to documentaries instead. She learns a lot about dolphins and their affinity for seaweed toys, strange-looking birds with even stranger mating dances, watches a parade of flamingos march back and forth across her screen, and becomes just a tiny bit obsessed with pangolins with their little curved arms and the adorable way they waddle across the savannah.
Kara had assumed that most of her time would be spent in isolation, and the thought of trading one cell for another initially filled her with dread - but so far that hasn't been the case. Everyone has made an effort to check up on her, and in all honesty she hasn’t even really been alone in the apartment for very many extended periods of time. Not that she's complaining. At all.
Nia has been juggling a heavier workload at Catco, picking up extra articles that usually would have fallen to Kara had she been around to take them. Despite that, she's been consistent in her thrice a week visits, giddily catching her up on workplace gossip - who's dating who, minor drama between departments, new hires and retirement parties and the time someone called Andrea “Cat 2.0” behind her back and wound up with two weeks no pay as punishment.
In the middle of a story about the tech guy and a round of very persistent hackers, Nia suddenly breaks down crying and tackles Kara in an impromptu hug that nearly bowls her over into the couch cushions. She sobs into Kara's shoulder, saying how happy she is that they found her and that she’s home and alive and she missed her so much, and Kara pulls Nia onto her lap and lets her cry it out. She rocks her back and forth and makes soft shushing noises into the crown of her head, and Kara fights back tears as she tells Nia how much she missed her too.
J’onn and M’gann teach her ancient Martian meditation techniques to help ground her during times of anger, how to address the negative emotions without allowing them to take root in her mind. Afterwards, M'gann pulls Kara aside and tells her that J'onn's strength of spirit and love for her held them together when despair darkened their eyes; he would have spent the rest of his life searching for her, if that was what it took.
Brainy comes over every morning to take blood samples, diligently tracking the downward ratio of Phantom radiation to solar energy. He quietly tells her every day shows improvement, but the percentages are still very subtle. Kara tries to keep her outlook positive and bright in his presence, shaking off the dismal numbers and insisting that she could do with a few more weeks of R&R. She doesn’t want him to dwell on the fact that progress is so slow, knowing that he tends to err on the side of guilt. He tells her about he and Nia's time traveling adventures, and when Kara asks if this Earth's version of teenage Alex is just as scary when angry, Brainy's eyes go wide and he nods without a word.
Alex comes over every evening without fail. They watch movies and eat popcorn and wrap themselves up in blankets on the couch, snuggled into each other’s sides like little kids.
"I missed you so much," Alex says for the hundredth time, laying her head on Kara's shoulder. "It felt like a part of me was missing, every day you were gone."
Kara fights back tears as she nods, mutters another quiet I missed you, too… and hopes the tv drowns out the soft, low rumbles of thunder high in the atmosphere. It boils her blood to think about her sister sinking into despair over her, how all that pain could have been avoided if Kara had just been a little faster, a little smarter, a little stronger. She doesn't tell Alex how every day in the Zone felt like a week on Earth, how many times she went to sleep wondering if when she opened her eyes again, it would be to rescue or madness.
They talk about everything and nothing, but they don’t talk about the Phantom Zone. Alex won’t bring it up and Kara doesn’t divulge any details, knowing why Alex stays silent. She doesn’t want to risk saying anything that could end up triggering the storm inside Kara, putting both her and the city at risk. Kara understands - the last thing she wants to do is hurt anyone, too. So they avoid the topic, and Kara tries not to think about how hard it’s getting to keep the thunder quiet with each passing day.
Nights are the hardest time for her, when Alex can’t stay over and Nia has an early day in the morning and J’onn is monitoring several potential threats from the Tower and trying to stay on top of them at all times. That’s when she feels loneliest, curled in a ball in a bed that feels too big and pillows that are too soft. She thinks maybe having a warm body next to her might help, but this only exacerbates her loneliness. She doesn’t have a warm body, is so far from the idea of a relationship that the notion might as well be back on an untouched Krypton while she reaches for it from Earth with strained, outstretched fingers.
So, naturally, it’s the only thing she wants, which is its own special kind of torture that not even the Phantom Zone had been capable of doling out in the end. The irony is not lost on her.
Day fourteen is bright and sunny and beautiful - a perfect day to do just about anything, the kind of day where you feel lucky to be alive in this particular moment in time and nothing can get you down no matter what life throws your way.
It’s the first day Kara feels overwhelming depression start to creep in.
She’s home and surrounded by her friends and family and she feels a tiny bit stronger every day that her cells drink in sunlight and expel radiation, but it’s been two weeks and Lena still hasn’t been over to see her once.
Kara has spent most of the day staring at her phone, writing dozens of meticulously crafted texts that she only ends up deleting before she can press “send.” She’s drafted about ten differently worded, breezy, ‘hey if you wanna hang out you know where to find me!’ messages, a couple ‘Miss yous,’ and dozens of attempts at humor that all end up coming off sounding like she’s trying too hard. With each failed attempt at contact, her frustrations rise and the beginnings of smoky gray storm clouds gather outside her window.
Kara sits at the kitchen table, one cheek resting on the surface as she slumps in her chair, tracing idle patterns with one finger. Her phone lays dormant, the black screen taunting her with its blank stare. A low rumble echoes outside and Kara huffs, blowing a strand of long blonde hair out of her eyes.
“Oh, shut up…” She mutters, turning her head away from the window. Kara isn't mad at Lena for staying away, she's mad at herself - because even though she has missed Lena terribly for months on end, the thought of taking that first step towards repairing the damaged threads of their relationship scares her shitless.
She's already screwed things up almost to the point of no return once before, and hurting Lena again is the last thing she wants to do. In fact, Kara understands why Lena is probably keeping her distance. They’ve been on the outs for the last year, had only just started mending the rift between them caused by her secrets, and with everything going on right now it’s probably not the best time for a heart to heart. Kara doesn’t want to push Lena if she isn’t ready.
But God, she wants to see her so badly. It’s like a fist is squeezing her heart and she can’t make the ache go away no matter how hard she tries. So much of her time in the Phantom Zone was spent wishing she could talk to Lena, tell her everything she should have said when she had the chance, how much she regrets the choices she made that led them here and that she promises she will do better, she will be better. Maybe they can’t go back to the way they used to be, but, if Lena is willing, maybe they can be something more than the sum of their past mistakes. Stronger. Together, in every way possible. And she means every way.
How maddeningly ironic that the moment Kara realized she was finally ready to give all of her heart to someone, it was while trapped in a endless hell-scape with no way to get back home after royally fucking it all up beforehand.
Another rattle of thunder shakes the windows and Kara sighs, rising from her seat. She rubs the indentations of the table surface out of her cheek and grabs the remote, unenthusiastically plopping down on the couch and wrapping a plush blanket around her body like a cloak, head included. She knows she probably looks ridiculous, but who’s here to see? No one, that’s who.
She’s halfway through Lilo and Stitch, her comfort movie, when a knock at the door interrupts her.
“S’open.” Kara calls out languidly. Alex wasn’t supposed to come over today, but maybe she and Kelly changed their plans. She hopes if they did go out that Alex brought dessert from whatever restaurant they went to - she could really go for a slice of raspberry cheesecake. Half a pound of sugar sounds like just the kind of balm she needs right now.
Oh. That’s... not Alex.
Kara flips the tv off and turns her head so quickly she would’ve given herself whiplash, had she been human. “Lena!”
She tosses the blanket and runs a hand through her tangled hair, suddenly very embarrassed to be seen in the baggy sweatpants and ratty tshirt she’s currently wearing, while Lena closely resembles one of those commercial models advertising flawless skin and satin-soft hair. She looks unreal in a pair of simple blue jeans that probably cost more than her monthly rent, and Kara…yeah, Kara has definitely looked better.
Kara stands and self-consciously crosses her arms over her belly, then drops them an instant later, worried that the pose might read as too aggressive. Her heart is pounding in her chest because it's Lena and she's here and all of a sudden the apartment feels like home again, which doesn't really make sense because Lena has never lived here, it's never been her home - but Kara finds herself desperately wishing it was.
“What, uh, what are you… what’s up?” God, she hates how awkward she sounds - hates how far they are from where they used to be. The familiar rhythm of their friendship is all out of whack - lunch dates and movie nights and "promise? always.." feels like eons ago, like the memories belong to a completely different Kara. She wonders if Lena feels the same.
Lena takes a few steps forward, clenched hands hidden in the ends of her long-sleeved shirt. They look like little mittens, or paws, and Kara feels her heart warm with tenderness. “I know I should have called before coming over. I can go, if you're busy…"
Kara shakes her head vehemently, perhaps a little too much so, but the last thing she wants is for Lena to feel like she’s not welcome. “No, no, it’s ok! I mean, I wasn’t doing anything. Do you, uh… do you want to sit down?”
She gestures to the couch and yanks the blanket before Lena can answer, sending stale crumbs flying through the air like tiny catapults that might as well have sound effects attached to them. Kara flushes and clears her throat, brushing the seat of the couch cushion clean and patting it stiffly before letting Lena sit down.
A few agonizing beats of silence pass before Lena breaks the mounting tension. “I’m sorry I haven’t been to see you.” She says quietly. “I wasn’t avoiding you. I want you to know that.”
Kara feels a lump in her throat because yes, that’s exactly what she thought, but she shoves it down. “It’s ok,” She replies thickly, plucking at a stray thread near the hem of her shirt. “I’m sure you’ve been busy.”
Lena quickly shakes her head, fumbling over her words. “No, I - I mean, yes, I have been busy, but it’s not… I’ve been working, well, researching, trying to help you. To get you out of here.” She sighs, exasperated. “But I’m afraid I haven’t come up with any promising leads.” Lena looks defeated and drops her head heavily. “I’m sorry, Kara…”
“Hey,” Kara says, scooting a bit closer. She wants to put her hand on Lena’s back, comfort her, tell her how grateful she is that she’s even willing to try to explore other options - but she’s afraid of moving too quickly, scaring Lena off before they’ve even had a chance to start over. “You don’t have to apologize.”
Lena chuckles lightly, a low rumble in her throat. “Oh, I think I do, actually. For… for so much.” She hesitates for one brief moment and then the words start spilling out of her, like she's been holding them in the cavity of her chest for too long and no longer has the strength to keep them contained.
"I'm so sorry - for what Lex did, for what he put you through, sending you back to that place - I'm sorry for the part I played, sorry that it's my fault everything went as wrong as it did, for letting my anger drive me to follow my worst instincts, for wanting to hurt you the way I was hurt - I'm so sorry, Kara, for everything ." Lena takes a shuddering breath that nearly makes her lose her composure and she averts her gaze, but not before Kara hears the soft whine in her throat that only she can detect.
Kara doesn’t think as she reaches out and takes Lena’s hand, the motion so natural and familiar that it’s like breathing. She knows it’s probably too soon for physical contact like this, but Lena’s warm fingers close over hers and the way her heart rate picks up is enough to make Kara want to be brave.
“Lena,” Their eyes lock and she’s struck not for the first time by how stunningly beautiful this woman is. She might be the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen in all the galaxies combined, all their stars and constellations nowhere near as breathtaking as the dark eclipses haloed by Lena’s jade irises.
“I forgive you.” Kara says without hesitation - because it's true, and because Kara has already decided that she will do whatever it takes to mend what’s been broken between them, because… because she loves her. It’s as simple and as complicated as that. There has been a void in her life for as long as she can remember, and she wants to either fill the space with Lena or with no one at all. It might be terribly naive, but Kara can imagine no greater love than what she feels for her, cannot even fathom the idea of loving anyone else this way unless it turns out that Lena does not want her back - and maybe not even then.
Which is entirely possible, she supposes, but Kara refuses to think that far ahead right now. They must remember how to walk again before she can ever hope for them to run someday.
Lena sucks in a breath and shakes her head, already preparing to ignore her calm acceptance and spew forth more desperate apologies. “Kara -”
She gently cuts her off. “When I was in the Phantom Zone, I spent a lot of time thinking about everything that happened between us. Everything I did, everything you did - and I realized that while there was a chance you all would find me, bring me home… it was also likely that you wouldn’t, and I wasn’t about to spend eternity holding on to the pain of our mistakes.” She shifts a little closer to Lena and feels emboldened when she doesn’t shirk away.
“I would really, really like to be your friend again, if you’ll have me. If you’ll have… all of me.” It’s dangerously close to a confession and takes all of Kara’s willpower not to expand further into territory that they are most certainly not ready to cross over into yet, no matter how much she wants to.
"I know we have to talk about it. I want us to talk about it, but for now…" Kara's voice wobbles and it takes a few stuttered tries to get the next words out. "Can I just… can I hug you? Is that ok?"
Lena pulls Kara into her arms with one fluid motion, as if she'd been waiting for this moment just as long as Kara had. She’s warm and soft and wonderful and when her hands start to rub slow circles through the thin fabric of her shirt Kara almost loses it. Somehow, she keeps from turning into a blubbering mess and curls her legs up underneath one another, molding her body to fit Lena’s embrace and it feels like this is where she was always meant to be.
And maybe this isn’t one-sided and Lena feels it too, because the next thing she does is something she’s never done before in the five years they’ve known each other: Lena cradles Kara against her heart, one hand lightly cupping her cheek as she wipes steady tears away with her thumb - and then, without hesitation, she gently presses her lips to the crown of Kara’s head for one long, drawn-out moment before pulling away, igniting a ribbon of molten fire that flows straight down to fill every single nerve ending in her body.
“I forgive you, too.” Lena says softly.
Kara squeezes her eyes shut and just barely manages to hold back a relieved sob. She hadn’t realized just how much she needed to hear those words until they’d been spoken, and the steadiness in Lena’s voice convinces her that they hold nothing but truth, the same as her own.
Kara doesn’t pull back, doesn’t look to see what’s going on in the sea of Lena’s eyes or gauge her reaction. Instead, she inches just a bit closer and reaches across Lena’s chest, letting her hand rest on her shoulder blade with a shaky exhale - and when Kara feels Lena place a second kiss against the bare skin of her temple, it honest-to-Rao almost makes her whimper with longing. She wants to tilt her head, angle her lips to slot against Lena’s more than she’s wanted anything in her life, but after the uncertainty of not knowing if she would ever see her again, this moment with Lena is more than enough. For the time being, it has to be enough. Walk before we can run.
It’s quiet outside, and for the first time in hours, there is no thunder to be heard.
Kara isn’t quite sure when they fell asleep, but the soft rays of golden morning sunlight on her skin tell her it must’ve been quite a while ago.
She wakes with her head on Lena’s chest. The gentle rising and falling of her breath reminds her of lazy waves on a lake shore, rhythmic and calming. She wills herself not to make a move, drinking in Lena's scent like the elixir she so desperately craved every single time she opened her eyes to the deafening silence and overwhelming loneliness of the Phantom Zone. In the silence, Kara re-acquaints herself with the steady cadence of Lena’s heartbeat until she’s positive she could pick it out of a crowd of millions without a second’s worth of hesitation - not that she had ever forgotten.
She knows all the unique patterns of each of her loved ones' hearts, can distinguish between the soundtracks of their bodies just by pulse - and while Alex's solid heartbeat is the rock on which Kara has built her foundation, Lena's is the anchor that keeps her from drifting into dark, dangerous depths. It centers and guides her when she feels lost and always leads back home, better than any compass or North Star ever could.
Every heartbeat on this planet is a song, beautiful in its own way, but Lena’s is different from the rest. The notes of Lena's heart are more than just a simple combination of beats that take up one or two measures on a sheet of music - for Kara, it's nothing less than an entire symphony.
Lena shifts, her fingers brushing over Kara’s arm in a way that is almost too tender to be performed unconsciously, but Kara can tell that Lena is still deep in sleep and doesn’t know what she’s doing. She can pretend otherwise, though.
A few more minutes pass in blissful silence until a blaring car alarm breaks the spell. Lena starts to squirm, ready to join Kara in the world of wakefulness. Kara quietly pulls away and readjusts herself on the opposite end of the couch, where it's cold and unoccupied. She tells herself this is where she slept all night, not in the crook of Lena’s arm thinking dangerous thoughts that must be curbed for the time being. Waking up on the same couch with your newly rechristened best friend is one thing, but waking up a hair’s breadth away from the woman you’re in love with who doesn’t know yet is... entirely another.
Kara keeps her eyes shut for a few more seconds, feigning sleep and missing three vital signs that would prove her theory of unrequited feelings wrong. She doesn’t see Lena’s eyes flutter open, confused as she looks down at the empty space below her - nor does she witness Lena touching the warm place on her chest where the weight of Kara’s head had rested mere moments ago. And finally, she doesn’t catch the way Lena’s eyes melt at the sight of Kara’s curled body, a tiny smile lifting her lips for just a moment before Kara stretches like a cat and turns her head to greet her.
And that’s when she hears the sirens.
Kara jolts to an upright position and immediately hones in on the scene nearly a mile downtown. She’s picking up at least five, no, six police vehicles blaring down the street at full speed, taking advantage of the lack of early morning traffic. She listens closely to the voice on the scanner, picking up bits and pieces as the signal stutters in and out of range: Rogue unidentified alien - significant structural damage - twelve injured - proceed with extreme caution -
“Kara?” Lena is next to her in a heartbeat, eyes wide and completely devoid of all traces of sleep. “Kara, what is it?”
“Trouble,” Kara replies, standing up and tossing her blanket aside. A quick burst of superspeed takes her into the bedroom, where she exchanges her pajamas for the first pair of jeans and t-shirt she can get her hands on, and then she's back in the living room with Lena. She whips off her glasses for the first time in months and her suit materializes out of thin air. Kara would have smiled with joy over this moment if she wasn’t so focused on the cries for help reverberating in her skull.
“I have to go.”
Lena grabs her arm, and this motion is the only thing that could’ve stopped Kara in her tracks. “Wait, Kara, your powers… the radiation - ” She trails off, mouth opening and closing as she searches for the right words, ultimately coming up short.
Kara shakes her head, her expression pained. “Don’t ask me to ignore people who need my help just because of these new powers. I can’t sit here and do nothing, Lena, I can’t .”
“No, that’s not what… that’s not what I was going to say.” Lena hesitates just a moment before wrapping her in a brief, tight embrace that is over almost before Kara can register the warmth against her body. “It's not your new powers I’m worried about, it's the old ones. You’re still not at full strength - please, just… be careful .”
Kara could kiss her right then and there, seriously considers throwing all caution to the wind and giving in to her base desires, but she just squeezes her hand in response and smiles, hoping Lena can see everything she isn’t saying in that one look. Then she takes off in a burst of superspeed, and before Kara knows it she’s outside in the open air above her city, weaving through the sea of skyscrapers like it's second nature and oh, it feels amazing.
And so short-lived.
Kara knows it's going to be a fight the moment she lands. The street is an absolute wreck, thick slabs of asphalt rising and falling like ocean swells frozen in time. Debris covers the cracked sidewalks and several cars lay overturned, like turtles stuck on their backs, creating a field of barricades that are making it difficult for civilians to maneuver through. No one even notices that Supergirl is standing right in their path after months of unexplained absence; all they're concerned with is finding safety in the midst of chaos.
Kara pushes a car out of the way, widening the bottleneck path for those looking to escape, and smoothly leaps onto the back of an abandoned semi truck. She uses the added height to her advantage, diligently scanning the area for the cause of all this panic.
It doesn’t take long for her to find it.
A huge, hulking figure steps into view, brandishing a thick pole in its massive claws like a club, as shop windows shatter in a wake of destruction. Glass rains down on the terrified people inside, screaming as they duck under tables or shield their children from stray shards.
Kara launches towards the creature without preamble, without a shred of a plan in mind except stop him, save them -
She catches the pole with one hand and rips it out of the alien's grasp in an expert maneuver, using her other fist to land what should be a devastating right hook. The blow bounces off him like rubber, and the slight stagger from the impact seems to come more from surprise than any actual damage.
Kara doesn't expect the speed with which he retaliates, and a backhanded swing catches her completely off guard, sending her somersaulting into the air like a rag doll.
She lands hard, the breath knocked out of her lungs as she fights for several agonizing seconds to recover. She uses the distance to get her first good look at the creature, which reminds her more of a giant mechanical beetle than any alien she's ever seen. It's covered in thick, blue armor, which is… different… and Kara has a feeling the two curved antennae-like protrusions on its back have more of a purpose than for just mere decoration.
She makes a second attempt, this time choosing to keep her feet planted on the ground and utilizing her super-speed, zigzagging her way down the pavement in varying patterns hoping to confuse him. The Phantom radiation is definitely slowing her down, but Kara is still quick enough that she only resembles a blue/red blur to most naked eyes, alien or not.
Kara shifts into hyper-speed once she’s close, planning to release a volley of punches in the few seconds of frozen time granted - but her arm unexpectedly stops moving before it has a chance to connect. Her eyes go to her fist, poised in midair a few inches from the alien’s chestplate, and she's shocked to see that one previously clawed appendage now has fingers , firmly clasped over her own in an unforgiving vice-like grip. The other claw morphs before her wide eyes, pieces and parts shifting in a slow-motion mechanical dance that is almost graceful in its intricacy. Kara recognizes its new form a second too late.
Hyper-speed fades and Kara returns to real time; her few precious seconds have run out. A white-hot beam of energy hits her straight in the stomach, throwing her backwards once again to collide with the side of the semi. The metal bends around her body as easily as tin foil and she pulls at the folds keeping her trapped, struggling to pry herself free as the beetle’s cannon recharges for a second shot. Her fingers are shaking almost uncontrollably, seeds of doubt beginning to root themselves in her mind. She’s rusty after months of inactivity and hasn’t been hit this hard in a long time. Kara doesn’t know how to beat this thing, she doesn’t know, doesn’t know, doesn’t know what to do next -
Kara’s hand instantly goes to her ear, then remembers that she isn’t wearing her comms device. She’s picking up Alex’s voice from across town, and she doesn’t need to see her face to know that beneath the distraught undertones, Alex is pissed .
Kara, I know you can hear me. There’s a news crew in the air. I can see you right now and I’m telling you to get the hell OUT of there. J’onn is a few minutes away - let him take over. I’m begging you to listen to me -
Kara falls to the ground as the last bit of twisted metal comes loose, landing on her hands and knees in the rough gravel. She’s far from complete invulnerability right now, and the sharp sting of black rock biting into her palms is terrifyingly familiar. The blue beetle starts barreling towards her like a runaway train, and for a split second Kara sees dark towering crags in the background behind him where bright silver skyscrapers should be. A wave of debilitating panic crashes over her and she clenches her eyes shut until she sees stars, hardly caring that she’s about to endure another massive blow.
No… She’s not back there. This can’t be another Phantom-induced torture vision - it just can’t. She clings to the feeling of seven pairs of arms wrapped around her and each other in the Tower, drinking in the wonderful warmth of yellow sunlight for the first time in months, Lena’s lips on her skin... it can’t have been a lie. It’s too real. If she opens her eyes now and finds herself back in that cave, Kara will lose all sense of sanity. There’s no other way this scenario will end, paragon of hope or not.
The hit is hard and solid as the alien uses his cannon arm as a bludgeon, knocking her sideways into a destroyed coffeehouse window. A mahogany counter explodes from the impact and shards of wood fly in all directions. Kara touches her forehead and groans, dizzy and unprepared at the sight of blood staining her fingertips, a thin stream trickling down the side of her face.
Alex is yelling at her from miles away, but Kara hears every word as if her sister was holding a megaphone just a few feet from her eardrums. She's not pissed anymore - she sounds positively hysteric.
Kara, get out of there now! That thing is going to kill you! You’re not strong enough to handle this and your powers are too unpredictable right now - please, run away just this once. I can’t -
Kara pushes to her feet, gritting her teeth so hard that her jaw muscles twitch, and for the first time in her life Kara willingly blocks out Alex’s voice. The silence that follows is abrupt, like her sister has suddenly disappeared from the face of the Earth, but she feels no guilt over this act of defiance - not even a shadow of it.
All Kara feels is rage.
The skies turn black and thunder rumbles overhead in varying levels of intensity as Kara bursts out of the rubble, flying towards the blue beetle as fast as her weakened body is capable of. This time she doesn’t bother with punches; Kara tilts her shoulder and uses the force of her whole body to lift him clear off the ground, slamming into a thick brick wall nearby.
Run away. As if those words could ever exist side by side in her vocabulary. As if she could abandon these people without a second thought after failing to be there for them all this time.
Fat raindrops hit her skin and a gusty wind whips her cape into the air, snapping like a flag caught in a hurricane. The alien dodges a blow meant for his head and rolls out of reach, too gracefully for something covered in so much armor. He lifts his arm, aims the cannon, and releases another energy charge that brings Kara to her knees. She folds in half as her face hits the ground, paralyzed. She can’t move, can’t do anything except brace herself for the armored boot that connects with her stomach and pray she doesn’t lose consciousness.
Not strong enough. How many times has she been knocked down by someone, or something - stronger than this creature? How much has she endured in her life that proves the very opposite of that statement? She’s taken on an Anti-Moniter with her full arsenal of powers and stopped gunmen on Earth using nothing but words - she can take this thing down at half-strength. She is strong enough, damn it. She’s not helpless, not powerless, refuses to be the victim in this story any longer.
Never again will she be that woman in the dark cave, crying bitterly on her hands and knees waiting for someone to save her.
Kara spits out a mouthful of blood and forces herself to her feet, swaying slightly. The thunder is louder and more constant now, lightning flickering across the darkened sky. It’s hard to tell what expression the beetle could be hiding as he waits for her next move, but Kara doesn’t care even if he’s laughing underneath all that armor. He won’t be for long.
Her face contorts into a look of pure fury and she screams, blasting him with an intense beam of heat vision as another peal of thunder crashes in response, her own personal audience. Kara feels the rising swell in her belly and pours more energy into her efforts, relishing the way every nerve ending pulses with hidden electricity. She knows what's about to happen, knows how potentially dangerous of a gamble this is - but Kara doesn't care. A solar flare might be the only thing that can stop him, and if it expels the rest of the Phantom radiation at the same time - well, that's just a bonus. And she can't deny how good it feels to let this out after weeks of dutiful silence. Just a little bit more, and then this can be over.
The heat vision seems to have done the trick. The beetle stumbles, stunned from the blow - but Kara doesn’t let up. She grabs him by the neck and pins him to the ground with one knee, squeezing the unyielding metal; he won't get the upper hand on her this time.
She pounds into his armored face, ignoring the way her knuckles throb with each desperate and increasingly sloppy blow. The heavy downpour plasters Kara's hair to her neck and blinds her vision, yet she doesn't relent. Every dull thud of flesh against metal forces another unwilling memory to the surface: the rocket, Krypton, her parents, Lex, the Phantom Zone, three months gone and I’ll never get them back. My friends, my family, I will never get that time with them back. All those people I could have saved, who died waiting for me - because I wasn’t strong enough to stop him.
Kara lets out another roar and raises her clenched fist, ready to deliver the final blow, when suddenly -
A massive bolt of brilliant white lightning cracks the sky, and no human eye could see what Kara sees as time slows to a crawl; she watches the thin beam descend from the heavens, running parallel with the diagonal path of her arm like it's a part of her, an extension of her own limb. There is no contact between them, but Kara can feel the heat of it pass over every inch of her skin, lifting the soft hairs on her arm under her costume with residual static just before striking the beetle in the center of its chest.
The resulting force throws Kara backwards and she lands in a pile of rubble, disoriented from the sizzling impact. It takes a minute for her twitching muscles to recover, but Kara can already tell that she hasn't flared; she feels none of the overwhelming fatigue that usually comes afterwards, the way her vision dulls and the world goes blessedly silent, how everything fades a few degrees and loses its intensity for just a little while, just long enough for her to hold someone tightly in her arms and not have to worry about breaking a bone or three.
The bitter taste of yet another failure fills Kara's mouth as she struggles to her feet. She braces her palms flat on the hood of a nearby car and is stunned to see that each of the fingertips on her right hand are burned, black as Phantom Zone night. She inspects them one by one, comprehension slowly dawning as her frazzled mind resets:
Kara didn't just call down the storm, she directed it with nothing but her own will as the driving force - like she's become the all-powerful god everybody always imagines her to be.
Something groans nearby, snapping Kara out of her stupor. She prepares herself for round two, but the blue beetle is nowhere in sight. In its place, Kara is shocked to see a young boy, maybe fifteen or sixteen, curled up on the ground in lingering smoke clouds. He’s bare chested and wearing nothing but tattered, filthy jeans, muttering to himself with his eyes tightly shut. Kara takes a few wobbly steps closer and a flash of moving color on his back catches her eye.
Attached to the boy's skin is a blue scarab, deeply embedded in the triangular-shaped space between the nape of his neck and shoulder blades. Kara has just caught the last bit of its stick-thin legs slowly retracting into the oval-shaped torso of its body before going still and silent. The surrounding flesh is puckered and inflamed, suggesting that the bond between boy and beetle has only just been formed - and so far, it's been a less than symbiotic relationship.
He's… he's just a kid. He wasn't in control.
She does a full body scan, but aside from a few bumps and bruises he doesn't appear to be seriously hurt. The armor must have protected him from most of the damage, only retreating into dormancy after the lightning struck it. Was it the result of a defense mechanism? Or something else?
Kara places a gentle hand on the boy's trembling body, but this only makes him scream out in pain as if he had been branded by her touch. Kara immediately pulls back, watching helplessly as the boy curls tighter into himself, wincing and vehemently shaking his head almost as if in reply to some silent, unseen entity.
Kara stares in horror at her lightning-burned fingertips and bile rises in the back of her throat. She feels a queer sort of detachment from her physical body, unmoored as the storm that was born from this chaotic scene.
Oh, Rao… I did this. I could have killed him. I didn't know…
An ambulance wails nearby and rotating blue and red lights light up the immediate area, bouncing off Kara's deathly pale skin. She hears a door open and slam shut, muffled voices steadily gaining in volume as panic grips her by the throat like a fist; it's only a matter of seconds before she's discovered.
The news crew hovering over the city has probably already gotten plenty of shots that will either make or break the return of Supergirl. They have the power to paint her however they want - as the hero who stopped a rogue alien attack, or the villain kneeling over an unconscious teenager in the dirt. Kara knows this business - it all depends on which headline sounds more enticing, which one will sell more papers and online clicks, whether it's the whole truth or nowhere near close to accuracy.
She should stay and talk with the paramedics, give a quote or two about how the situation really unfolded. It could make all the difference, should the media decide to spin their own story in response to whatever leaked photos show up on tonight's news. It's what she should do.
And then the first EMT rounds the corner with the stretcher, wheels clacking across the asphalt and Kara just can't do it. She can't meet this person's eyes and let him see the guilt written across her face like the damning evidence it would be. She's told a thousand lies over the years, each one a tiny knife twisting in her gut upon the telling, but there's no way she can tell these people this isn't what it looks like.
Because pleading her ignorance doesn't change the fact that Supergirl attacked a minor, no matter what kind of armor protected him from the brunt of her wrath.
It's cowardly, and she hates herself the moment she takes to the sky in a rush of wind - but there's no going back once she's made her choice. They will take care of him, she reasons. The boy is safer with them than he ever was with her - her, and her recklessness and stubbornness and determination to prove that she was ready, ignoring all the blatantly obvious signs that pointed otherwise.
She flies straight up, past the blanket of clouds already breaking in the aftermath, up into the atmosphere where birds, planes, and the fearful eyes of man cannot find her. Up, where it's silent and solitary and no one can hear the strangled sounds of her lungs gasping for air, the way her heart throbs against her chest like a little bird in a cage, throwing itself at the bars in a desperate effort to be free.
She floats in the thin area between Earth and space; there's barely enough oxygen in this layer of the atmosphere to keep her conscious, but this is the least of Kara's worries. She almost longs for her pod, and the endless slumber that came with it. All those years drifting in the dark, unaware of anything or anyone, where nothing could hurt her.
Where she herself couldn't hurt anyone in return.
Hours later, (she's not sure how many, but judging from the sun's position she guesses it's just about noon) Kara finally descends, drained and beaten in a way that has nothing to do with her diminished powers. She stays high above the city skyline, concealing herself in the now white, cottontail clouds so as to avoid any wayward eyes below. She doesn't want to be seen, even from this great distance where expressions cannot possibly be perceived - doesn't want anyone to look at her and witness the shame that feels permanently etched into her face, least of all the person she knows is waiting for her at home.
The thought of facing Alex right now is almost unbearable.
Kara hovers above her apartment building for a few minutes, working up the courage to touch down. The temptation to turn around and hide somewhere on the other side of the world is tantalizing. Somewhere warm and peaceful, with a thundering waterfall to help drown out the incessant sounds of a world that has never felt more alien than it does right now.
All that time isolated in the Phantom Zone, mind numbingly homesick and lovesick and missing everyone so much it became a physical, tangible pain - now, Kara wants nothing more than to be alone.
She closes her eyes and lets out a shaky sigh, honing in on the specific song of Alex's heartbeat. Kara's stomach churns with heightened anxiety as her suspicions are confirmed - she's down there, all right.
But Alex isn't alone.
"-can't believe you just let her go."
"What, like I could have stopped her even if I wanted to?"
"What do you mean, 'even if I wanted to?' You should have wanted to! She wasn't ready to be back out there, you know that!"
Kara's heart rate picks up and her mouth goes dry as sandpaper - Lena. And Alex. Fighting. About her .
"It was only a matter of time before a cry for help came that Kara couldn't ignore, and it's just going to keep happening. You know it will. If we had just tried my hypothesis right from the start - "
"How many times are we gonna keep going over this? The risk is too high. We don't know what could happen if Kara solar flares - "
"You know, Alex, the only way to find out if a hypothesis is correct is if you test it out ."
"Don't you dare patronize me. I'm just trying to keep her safe."
"That may be so, but no amount of movie nights and take-out can cover up the fact that you asked Kara to continue to put her life on hold after the hell she just went through. It's not fair, Alex!"
"You know why she has to lay low - what happened today only proves that! Until the Phantom radiation completely eradicates itself, Supergirl shouldn't be put in situations where she might lose control."
"What about what Kara needs? She can't go on being cooped up in this apartment. She should go back to Catco, have at least that part of her life back."
"And what? Start a thunderstorm every time a lead doesn't pan out? When an interview gets testy? Don't you think people would notice?"
"You're not giving her enough credit."
"And you're thinking with your heart instead of your head. She's my sister, Lena. I've had to watch out for her my entire life, and I know what she can and can't handle. She wears her heart on her sleeve, and I love that about her - but in this situation, it's a danger to both herself and the people around her. The radiation is dissipating on its own - we know that for a fact. She just needs a little more time."
"You and I have both seen the numbers. It's going to take a lot longer than a couple of weeks before Kara's cells are back to normal. I've been working day and night, trying to find another way, but the 'fact' is, there isn't one. Kara needs to solar flare, Alex. Otherwise, she's just going to keep throwing herself into danger. It's the only option we have left. We… we did not save her from a prison just to put her right back into another one."
Kara knows she shouldn't be eavesdropping like this. It's a complete invasion of privacy of both her sister and her best friend, but she can't seem to make herself tune out. She's transfixed by the vehemence in Lena's voice, the way it cracks like broken glass at the end of that last sentence, the way she's fighting Alex so hard - fighting for her.
Alex takes a deep breath, her voice choked and strained as she softly replies, "I'll think about what you've said. I promise. In the meantime… you'll call if she shows up?"
"Of course I will." Lena sounds relieved, then a bit flustered as she adds, "Will you… can you let me know, if - when, I mean… when she comes home?"
Alex must nod her reply, because Lena lets out a soft, "Thank you," and then the door squeals open, shuts, and all is quiet once more.
Kara watches Lena leave the building, stepping down the sidewalk at a speed unthinkable for the size of those Louis Vuitton heels, and Kara is so tempted to go after her - to thank her for voicing such concern over her well-being, to defend her sister's overprotectiveness - or just to scoop Lena into her arms and confess that she's irrevocably in love with her, and damn whatever consequences may follow.
In the end, however, she does none of these things. Kara lands on the rooftop with barely a sound and slips her glasses into place. Her hands tremble as the nanite suit dissolves into thin air, putting her back into the hastily chosen street clothes from this morning. Kara would rather go into this impeding confrontation wearing her suit, if she was being perfectly honest - but it's not like she can just walk down the hall of her building in full costume. And besides, no cape or mask or alternate persona would do any good with Alex anyway. She never could hide from her.
She's never wanted to until now.
Kara takes a deep breath and pushes the rooftop door open, her footsteps echoing down the worn, paint-peeled stairs. Time to face her sister. Anything else with Lena will, unfortunately, have to wait.
The apartment is eerily quiet as Kara enters, her fingers shaking as they turn the cold doorknob. Alex sits at the table with her head in her hands, breathing deeply, not acknowledging the new presence in the room. She doesn't have to.
Alex knows Kara's footsteps the way the Kryptonian knows the cadence of her heartbeat. Years of sisterly instinct is ingrained in their very DNA, despite the fact that they share no blood ties and literally come from different worlds. Their bond is based on fate, unthinkable circumstances forcing the two of them to live out their formative years together, until neither one could imagine ever being apart. It may not be as tangible as hard genetics, but what lies between them is no less real by any means.
Kara has never had trouble reading Alex, until now. She doesn't know what reaction she should brace herself for: fury, tears, anguished relief? Kara isn't even sure which reaction would be the least painful to witness.
"Alex?" Kara ventures.
"The boy is stable," Alex says without preamble. "He's been transferred to Star Labs. J'onn and M'gann are with him now - they think they can shed some light on the thing attached to him, maybe even safely remove it. But the bottom line is, he's ok."
Kara lets out a sharp exhale and feels tears spring to her eyes at this unexpected news. Relief floods every inch of her tightly wound muscles as Alex's words repeat over and over in her head: He's ok, he's ok - Oh, thank Rao…
Kara tries to focus on taking calming breaths, flushing out the last few hours of gut-wrenching anxiety. "Alex, I didn't…I didn't know it was a kid in there. If I had… please, you have to believe me."
"What were you thinking." Alex asks - not a question, but a simple statement. She still hasn't turned around, hasn't so much as glanced in Kara's direction, and it's starting to unnerve her.
Kara fidgets with her sleeve guiltily. Here we go... "I… look, I know I should've played things differently. I shouldn't have rushed in without a plan, but the situation was getting out of control. They needed me."
"I told you, J'onn was en route to the scene." Something is off in Alex's voice, like she wants to say more but won't, biting back her words into clipped, short responses.
Kara swallows heavily and crosses her arms in a gesture meant to be protective rather than threatening. She's about to respond when Alex suddenly stands in one fluid motion, turns, and looks at her for the first time.
Her face is expressionless, devoid of emotion, like she's completely checked out. There are no tears in her glassy, unfocused eyes, no sign or inkling that she's anything but indifferent to this conversation when she quietly says,
"I think it would be a good idea to temporarily relocate you to the Tower, where we can keep a closer eye on the downward progress of the Phantom radiation."
Kara stares, uncomprehending. "Re...relocate?"
"Temporarily." Alex repeats, a tiny hint of warmth breaking through the cold exterior. But it fades quickly, almost within a blink of an eye; even Kara's have trouble catching it. "Just until you're better."
"You and I have both seen the numbers. It's going to take a lot longer than a couple of weeks before Kara's cells are back to normal."
"Until I'm… better?" The words are slow to form on her tongue, thick and awkward and tasting like milk unexpectedly gone sour.
Alex starts talking faster now, more animatedly, but it feels fake and forced - like a parent attempting to coerce their toddler into eating tonight's vegetables, with the vague promise of candy hanging over their head.
"You could work from home. Lena said she would ask Andrea to give you a lighter load for a while, maybe focus less on journalism and be more of a… a behind the scenes consultant,"
Her voice is several octaves higher than normal - it sounds less like Alex is trying to convince Kara it's a good idea and more like she's trying to convince herself.
"You worked under Cat Grant long enough to know that place inside out. It would be so much less stressful than going out, finding stories, chasing leads - and then when you're better, everything can go back to normal."
Kara's legs feel weak as she grips the back of a chair and hunches over it, her stomach roiling. She sounds so sure, so optimistic about the whole thing and… it's a lie. Everything coming out of Alex's mouth is a blatant, prettily painted lie .
Alex touches her hand with ice cold fingers, gently, barely making contact. "Kara, I… I know this has been hard for you, but you have to understand. I'm just-"
"Trying to keep me safe?" Kara finishes her sentence through gritted teeth. "Or trying to keep me under control?" The wooden back of the chair bends and creaks under her fingers, and a soft roll of thunder that only Kara's ears can hear echoes across the distant horizon.
Alex's voice goes flat again, robotic, although her eyes betray the pain clearly hidden underneath. "Of course not. I… I'm in a difficult position here, I have to consider all the variables - you know how hard that is."
Through the façade Kara sees just how exhausted her sister is. She can only imagine the number of hours Alex has put in with Brainy, running their tests, patrolling with Nia in Kara's absence and acting as co-head of the Tower with J'onn - all while coming home each night to Kelly, finding time for normalcy in the midst of the completely chaotic world they live in. Kara sees all of this in the wan face of a person she loves so fiercely, and despite everything, Kara can't help but feel like she's still getting the short end of the stick.
Because 'normal' is the one thing she wants back in her life, the familiar and the boring and the old routine of an existence that makes fucking sense again, and no one will let her have it - not even herself.
"You're in a difficult position?" Kara says, exasperated. "Alex, you don't work for the DEO anymore! There's no 'job' you have to do, no boss making the rules - don't you understand that you're not responsible for this city anymore?"
Alex pulls her hand away as if she's touched a live wire and her voice shakes with slight undertones of indignation. "I'm just trying to do what you would do - you, who is the most selfless person I know, who always puts the world over her own needs -"
"Well, maybe I want to be a little selfish for once!" Kara yells, and a louder crack of thunder shakes the windows in their sturdy panes. Alex flinches at the sound, but it only spurs Kara on. "You think you've had it rough? After everything I've been through?"
"But, then, you don't really know what I went through, do you? Because you haven't even asked."
"I didn't want to make you talk about it if you weren't ready." Alex says lowly, trying to reign in her emotions, and this continuation of lies makes Kara even madder.
"No, you didn't want me to get upset and lose control over these new powers. It's why you're trying so hard to hide how mad you are that I didn't follow orders today. You're scared of me now, just admit it!"
Alex quickly shakes her head, her reddening face proving Kara right. "No! No, Kara, never -"
"It was hell, Alex. Every fear, every painful memory came to life right before my eyes. I watched you die in my arms thousands of times, as real and solid as if you were actually there. Everyone - J'onn, my mother, Lena…" Kara's voice cracks on a whimper and the chair breaks in her hands. She can't stop seeing those images in her head, can't scrub the stains clean any more than the lingering paint on her carpet, a constant reminder that just won't go away. She can't ignore it anymore. It's too much.
The wind picks up and everything goes dark outside; not a single ray of sunshine could break through this cloud cover. Kara tosses the broken shards of wood from her hands, sick to death of everything crumbling around her, from this damn chair to her rapidly deteriorating grip on her own sanity.
"You can't keep the world from me. And you can't stop me from feeling my emotions. Don't you understand? It's killing me, Alex."
"You said you could handle it!" Alex finally breaks, points her finger at Kara and sobs wretchedly. "You looked me in the eye and said you would be fine."
"I LIED!" Kara roars, thunder responding in kind. The lights in the apartment start to flicker, and when a bulb above the stove bursts, Alex is the only one who jumps. Kara doesn't so much as move a muscle.
"Just like you did, just a few minutes ago." Kara says, her lips barely moving. "You didn't ask Lena to talk to Andrea, there's no 'behind the scenes' job waiting for me at the Tower."
"I - not yet, but -" Alex stammers, trying to keep up and regain control over a situation that has gone completely off the rails.
"And you didn't just lie to me, you lied to Lena, too. 'I'll think about what you've said.' Bullshit."
Alex winces at that and looks away, realizing now that Kara heard every word exchanged between her and Lena not ten minutes ago. Her face finally breaks into something that shows how upset she really is, how much the guilt of the last few weeks has affected her.
Good, Kara thinks. Feel something at me. It's sick how badly she wants Alex to hurt right now, for her to experience just an ounce of the pain that has kept her up every night since coming through the portal, when it should have ended the moment she fell into the safety of her sister's arms.
It makes her so angry - angry enough to take matters into her own hands whether Alex approves or not.
Kara whips off her glasses, the thin plastic earpieces bending precariously under her fingertips, shaking with rage. Her cape materializes on her back, flowing to the floor like a crimson train, and the fabric has never felt so heavy, so restricting around the tight muscles of her shoulders.
She has to shed this weight before it crushes her.
Kara walks towards the open window, long sheer curtains whipping in the wind brought on by her outburst. They slap against her arms and she wants to grab them in two thick fistfulls, just to hold something that won't turn to dust in her hands. She almost cracks at the pained sound of distress Alex makes, her heart wrenching in her chest, but then -
"Kara, please - you can't do this."
It's the worst thing Alex could have said. You can't. Like they've gone back in time, back to Midvale, where her life suddenly revolved around new rules and new powers and new people making choices for her. Don't do this, don't do that - Eliza and Jeremiah bending down to her level, saying that she must listen to her new sister - you'll be safer if you just do what she says.
Kara isn't that child anymore, desperate to fit into a world that doesn't make sense, putting on a brave face, like she could just put a cap over her emotional bottle and ignore the mounting pressure building up inside. Because it would be easier for her Earth family if she just… didn't feel so much.
Screw that. She's tired of being protected, of having every choice torn from her hands to ultimately be made by someone else - from her parents putting her in that rocket, to Lex blasting her back into the Zone, ripping her away from everyone she's ever loved.
This time, it's her turn to choose - and no one, not even Alex, is going to take it from her.
Kara barely turns her head and her voice is strained when she says, "I won't let you put me back into another prison."
And with that, she's gone, exiting the window like a torpedo leaving nothing but a rush of wind in her wake. She flies at breakneck speed past the steel skyscrapers, through the smoky city fumes, until a sea of pavement seamlessly transitions to one of water. The National City Harbor, black as her mood, fades to deep blue the further she flies out to sea, and Kara wonders - could she outrun the tempest before it has a chance to form, or would it simply follow her like a dust trail to the ends of the Earth and back?
Kara is tired of running, and she's not going home until this is over.
She comes to a halt somewhere in the middle of the Pacific, under a skin-searing sun and gently lapping waves. There are no human heartbeats for at least a hundred miles in all directions; Kara is completely alone.
She hovers several meters above the water, transfixed by each rising and falling peak, watching as they grow in size, highlights dimming with the increasingly thick cloud cover forming overhead, converging from all directions to greet Kara like old friends.
She feels a stab of anger towards Alex, hundreds of miles away. Her negative emotions combat the eternal love she feels for her sister, two opposing forces that refuse to meet in the middle. The rational side of her wants to go home, make things right. It's the right thing to do, she knows that.
But that would mean shoving her feelings back down again, and look at where that's gotten her.
The world goes blurry and Kara lets herself cry, utterly done in by the constant barrage of emotional turmoil. She's finally reached her limit - even the girl of steel has a breaking point. Let whatever happens next just… happen. She's too tired to fight it anymore.
Rain pours down in stinging sheets as the thunder intensifies, drenching her in seconds. Wind yanks at her hair, slapping wetly on her cheeks.
Lightning bounces off the water and she thinks about Krypton exploding in a burst of white, everything and everyone she ever knew wiped from existence.
Thunder crashes, relentless, so similar to the aftermath of a planet imploding from within - reverberating in her skull as everything goes dark.
Dark. Darkness. The crushing bleakness of a landscape made of nightmares, a complete lack of color, joyless. The first time she merely floated in the Zone's orbit, blessedly asleep with only occasional dreams to haunt her when her pod got close to the surface. Not so lucky the second time around.
Kara clenches her fists as painted crests rise, smacking her with a force that would drown any human with just a couple swells. They look like mountain peaks, white-tipped and foreboding in endlessly shifting formations.
More than once Kara was sure the towering crags in the Phantom Zone would close in, trapping her in the chasm - or the cave she found refuge in would eventually swallow her whole. And if the terrain didn't, her loneliness undoubtedly would have.
The rain turns to hail, icy balls the size of quarters pelting her body like stones. A whine escapes her throat that has nothing to do with physical pain.
Kara was never meant to be alone, and yet so much of her life seems to be destined for solitude. Decades in stasis, months in purgatory, and even now that she's back home it feels like the threat of an increasingly lonely existence looms overhead like the storm she's created. She has friends, family, a life - but if all of that can be taken away not once, but twice, who's to say it won't happen again?
What if next time, it's not Kara who disappears, but someone else? Someone she can't possibly live without?
Like Alex. Or Lena.
What if she loses Lena before she's ever had a chance to have her?
The unfathomable and yet not altogether implausible thought latches onto her brain like a parasite. She clutches at her skull, panic lodged in her throat. If she could rip the images of a broken and bloodied Lena straight out of her head, she would - and suddenly Kara realizes what she expected coming home would feel like:
Escaping the Phantom Zone was supposed to be the end of her nightmare. Now, Kara isn't sure if she'll ever be truly free.
Thunder rages in the pit of her stomach, electricity flowing through her veins. The storm inside has transformed, a rapidly building crescendo, and Kara knows instinctively that it must reach its zenith or else she will surely burn up from within.
Her long red cape snaps in the wailing wind, malevolent and relentless. She can smell the sharp, charged scent of ozone burning in the air. The sky splits with jagged spider veins of lightning, and the following peals of thunder reverberate against the hollowness of her chest as she braces, static lifting every tiny hair on the back of her neck.
Get out. Get OUT. GET. OUT.
Kara unleashes an ear piercing scream, channeling everything she has into this last ditch effort to rid her body of the unwanted poison in her cells. Her vision goes white and instead of fire, lightning flows from her eyes in two intense beams, sizzling any water and ice in their trajectory.
There's a moment where time freezes. Rain and hail hang suspended over tumultuous ocean waves turned stationary, the wind ceases it's howling cries and it's so silent Kara thinks she's gone deaf. Her vision comes back with startling clarity just in time to see sparks crackling at her fingertips, heat pooling in the pit of her stomach and it… it feels good. Like coming up for that first breath of air after being submerged, like warm liquid going down her throat on a wintry day,
Like the thought of her daydreams becoming reality, waking up next to Lena every morning and going to bed with her every night. Becoming each other's permanent homes after being so cruelly ripped away from ones that turned out to be tragically temporary. Promises, and always.
It feels like that .
Purple lightning exits her body in one swift surge, so powerful in its release that it takes Kara's breath away. It hurts, worse than any kryptonite ever has, but thankfully the pain only lasts seconds. Static flickers and glimmers in the air like remnants from fireworks, almost pretty against the dark backdrop, and then…
Time starts moving again, and with it, so does Kara.
She plummets to the depths below, hitting the water with a painful smack. But as water seeps through her costume to wet her skin, something wonderful happens, both internally and externally: the swells calm, rain and hail cease to form, the wind dies down to naught but a gentle breeze, and Kara… Kara feels exhausted in the best way possible.
Kara watches on her back, barely able to keep herself afloat, as the sun burns through the dissipating clouds, shining brightly above in all its glory. Her hair drifts in all directions, a golden mane worthy of a god, and she closes her now vulnerable eyes from the intense rays. A slow smile grows on her lips as she basks in the warmth - it will be a full twenty-four hours until her cells start drinking in yellow sunlight again, and Kara has never been so relieved to be powerless.
Except, maybe being stranded in the middle of the ocean without superpowers could have called for a bit of preparatory forethought.
Her eyes fall closed as both emotional and physical burnout ensue. Each limb aches with fatigue, and it's getting increasingly difficult to stay conscious in this state, even though she knows she must or risk drowning. If she can just… hold on a little longer… somebody will come for her. Somebody always comes for her…
As if on cue, a shadow passes over her face. She squints at the haloed silhouette hovering in her line of vision and goes limp as a pair of strong, muscular arms scoop her out of the water with infinite care. Kara presses the side of her face into the warm body, right at the intersection of a dark red 'X' and deliriously mumbles into his chest,
The arms hold her closer, lips press against the top of her damp head and a low, familiar voice rumbles, "I've got you, my girl. I've got you."
Kara sighs softly and relaxes, her muscles leaden and tired. A lazy smile pulls at her cheeks as J'onn takes off with a burst of speed - so this is what it feels like, to be on the other side of a rescue carry. No wonder so many people seem disappointed once she sets them back on solid ground. It's nice.
She drifts to sleep then, finally giving in to her body's base desires. And for once, her dreams are nothing but sweet and peaceful, with not a single Phantom in sight.
When Kara wakes, it's with the satisfying feeling of someone who slept like the dead and has now come back to life.
She's in her own bed, lying on top of the duvet. Someone has covered her with a light quilt she recognizes from her college days, and from the look of the unwrinkled, nearly pristine fabric, Kara suspects she barely moved during her slumber. She stretches languorously in the evening sun - God, what time is it?
The bedroom door opens slowly, cautiously, and Alex’s face appears in the two inches of golden light. When she sees that Kara is awake, she throws the door the rest of the way and is at her bedside in three long strides. Her head falls onto Kara’s chest, crying as Kara’s hands rub comforting strokes across her back.
“I’m so sorry,” Alex sobs, hot breath warming the fabric of Kara’s shirt. “Kara, I never -”
“I know.” Kara replies, cupping Alex’s face to wipe away her tears. Her sister looks so wretched it’s breaking her heart. “I’m sorry, too.”
Alex shakes her head back and forth and hiccups, “No, you have nothing to be sorry about. This is my fault. I did this to you. You were hurting and broken and all I could think about was keeping you safe, because I didn’t want - I didn’t want to risk losing you again,” Alex sniffles, wipes at her runny nose with the back of her sleeve. “Can you ever forgive me?”
Kara smiles gently, rises to a sitting position and pulls Alex into her arms, squeezing her tight. “Only if you forgive me, too. I know you weren’t trying to keep me trapped, I just… I panicked. Anywhere you are, in any world, is never a prison.”
Alex smiles, eyes wet and mascara running two dark trails down her cheeks. She kisses the top of Kara’s head and they hold each other for a few minutes. All siblings have ups and downs; the two of them are no exception to that unspoken rule. But it’s what happens in the aftermath of those disputes that solidifies each link in the neverending chain that bonds them, and theirs is nigh unbreakable. El Mayarah.
“Is everyone out there?” Kara asks.
Alex shakes her head. “They were, but you slept almost 18 hours. Once we were sure you were ok we talked them into going home to let you rest, but they didn’t go willingly. Nia and Brainy only left about two hours ago, and J’onn went to do a quick patrol before he said he’d be back. Kelly is on a food run for you.” She pauses before adding, with the tiniest of smiles. “Lena is still here, though.”
Kara swallows, averting her eyes as her cheeks color. She smooths the neat covers with damp palms and clears her throat, wanting to be nonchalant but ends up croaking. “Oh?”
“Do you want me to send her in?”
Kara nods, not trusting herself to speak, and also because she can’t keep the dopey grin off her face and really doesn’t want to see the way Alex is probably looking at her right now, like she’s a little girl with her first crush.
She doesn’t expect it when Alex hugs her again, leans in, and whispers, “Tell her.”
No other explanation is needed.
Alex leaves and Kara runs her fingers through her hair, frizzy from dried rainwater and hours of comatose sleep. She doesn’t have access to a mirror and hopes she looks somewhat decent, but the minute Lena walks past the threshold all thoughts of her own physical appearance go straight out the window.
Because Lena is looking at her like no one else on Earth exists, like the world has only just started turning again with the tangible evidence of her safety verified with her own two eyes. It takes Kara’s breath away.
Lena closes the door without turning, without tearing her gaze from Kara’s, and slowly approaches the bed. Then her gait changes without warning, and suddenly Lena is climbing on top of the covers, heels and all, and Kara’s legs instinctively open underneath the quilt to provide a space for her to kneel and then Lena is crushing her against her chest, arms looped underneath to wrap her hands around her shoulder blades, her fingers splayed across as much of her as she can reach. She rests her forehead in the soft juncture where Kara’s arm meets her clavicle and lets out a long, drawn out sigh of pure relief that very nearly breaks Kara’s composure.
“I thought I’d lost you again.” Lena whispers. Her thumbs move back and forth, pinching and smoothing the thin fabric of Kara’s shirt with agonizing slowness.
Kara takes a chance, tucks a strand of hair behind Lena’s ear and hears her shuddering breath in response. She lets her hand linger on the curve of her neck, trying to control the quiver in her voice as she answers, “I’m yours.”
Lena lifts her head, tears rolling down her cheeks that Kara catches with shaking fingertips, smoothing them away as her palm gently cups her face. She says it again, this time a little more steadily. “Lena, I’m yours. ”
Kara brushes lips against her forehead, lingers, misses the way Lena’s eyes fall shut but not the way she leans closer into the touch. Kara drops an inch, kisses her temple, rests the side of her head against hers, “If you’ll have me.”
Lena whimpers, a sound so soft and pure and beautiful, and Kara thinks she’s forgotten how to breathe, how to take in, take it in, because all she wants to do right now is give and give it all to Lena, every breath, every heartbeat, every molecule.
Lena’s hands are cool and wonderful and it feels like Kara has waited a lifetime to feel this way, to love so deeply. She thinks never will she want someone the way she wants her, in a thousand years no one could even come close.
God, Rao, please, please want me back.
Lena kisses her, gentle and slow, arms wrapping around her body like vines desperate to find purchase, reaching for the sun. Kara holds her hips, runs thumbs over the sharp bones and squeezes the tender skin, euphoric as Lena’s breath hitches in her throat. She pulls away for air, rests her forehead against Kara’s, eyes bright and lovely and full.
“You’re mine.” Lena says, kisses her once, twice, pulls at her lower lip in a move that nearly sends Kara back to space. “You’re mine.” She repeats, stronger, cups Kara’s face with both hands and holds her gaze. Her mouth opens, closes, opens again and her voice breaks like glass,
“...Love you, I love you. Loved you for so long,” Lena wipes a tear from Kara’s eyes, smiles like she hung all the stars in the sky. “So much…”
Kara threads their hands together and draws her closer with the other; it’s absolutely killing her not to take this further, because Lena. wants. her - but Alex is in the other room and this is not how she wants her sister to find them. When Kara gets her hands on skin she’s only dreamt of touching, she doesn’t want anyone else to hear the effects.
Kara kisses her once more, and Lena matches her grin as they giggle into each other, trying to mask the sounds. A door opens and closes further down the hall and the delicious scent of various Chinese foods waft through the apartment; Kara’s stomach rumbles loudly, and Lena chuckles against her neck.
Kara squeezes, groans as Lena’s lips leave a trail of kisses down, down, down… “God, yes…” She says harshly, inhaling so hard it hurts her lungs.
Lena smirks and pulls her out of bed, laughs as Kara’s sleepy legs buckle and stumbles into her arms. “Food first. You need your strength. At least,” She looks Kara over head to toe, an appreciative gleam in her eyes. “Enough strength.”
Kara might be the only journalist who has ever lost their entire vocabulary over two words spoken by Lena Luthor.
Kara dumbly follows Lena, hardly feels Kelly embrace her with a tearful smile, whispering, “Oh Kara, sweetie, we were all so worried. Thank God, you’re ok…”
Later - much later, when Kara gets her words back (but maybe after she loses them again once or twice) she’ll sit down with Kelly and ask her about therapists who work with the alien population in National City - maybe someone who specializes in PTSD. She may have escaped the Phantom Zone, but trauma doesn’t leave just because you ignore it and pretend it isn’t there. You can’t outrun the storm. Kara thinks she’s finally ready to turn around, face the chasms that threaten to close her in, and fight like hell to overcome rather than let them overwhelm.
Kara catches Lena’s tender gaze over Kelly’s shoulder, the way she gently bites her lower lip and turns pink until she has to look away, uncharacteristically bashful as her face splits into a grin that illuminates the room brighter than any star ever could. Yeah, Kara is ready - for all of it.
She finally knows what comes “after.”