“Because she needs me; she needs me more than I need untainted hands” - Oyinkan Braithwaite
Kara is falling.
It doesn’t matter why. It doesn’t matter how, or where, or for how long. She’s falling, and she can’t stop.
Everything hurts. The first missile— she’d taken the full force of it square in the chest. It had meant business; powerful and Kryptonite-laced and enough to leave her teetering right on the brink of a solar flare. But she’d pushed her limits anyway, had shot off immediately, aching body cracking through the sound barrier and she’d almost— she’d almost—
But she hadn’t. She’d been too late. The second rocket had flashed through the sky in front of her just out of reach, barrelling toward its intended target. She’d been close, so close. Close enough for the roar of the engines to be deafening. Close enough to see the faces of the passengers through the windows. Close enough for the impact, the detonation, to knock her clean out of the sky.
The plane explodes. It’s quick, so quick. The passengers on board don’t even have time to scream.
Kara does, though. She screams as she falls. Not for herself, but for all those who couldn’t. The world rushes past, a grey-white blur as she plummets from the heavens. She has nothing left, now. She is utterly spent. Powerless. Prostrate and paralysed as she plunges back down to the planet below.
The ground is rushing up to meet her, fast. Too fast. Too fast for her to survive the inevitable impact with any kind of Luciferian grace. Hope drains. Her faith fades.
For one single, breathless moment, the world stands still. And then Kara is gone.
The water of the bay is cold. Shockingly cold against her fragile, human skin. Death is cold, Kara remembers. Maybe that’s what this is.
She’s floating, she thinks. Bobbing in the choppy swells. There’s a pressure at her hip, something hard biting into the tender flesh between her ribcage and pelvis. Fuselage, she realises. She’s landed half-atop a shattered fragment of the plane’s wing.
Her head, drifting free, dips beneath a wave. She doesn’t even have the energy to cough as saltwater invades her airways, burning the back of her throat.
She floats, untethered. She drowns, slowly.
The elegiac irony of her final resting place does not escape her. That Supergirl should bite the dust here, amidst fire and smoke and a burning plane in this very same patch of ocean in which she’d safely landed Flight 237 bound for Geneva six years ago, in which she’d first embraced her powers and all that they would come to mean— the full circle of her journey is neat, she supposes. Poetic.
Her body is slipping. Sinking. Another wave breaks over her mouth and nose. She chokes, quietly.
It doesn’t feel poetic. Not here, at the end.
It just feels cold.
An age passes, an eon.
And then there is warmth. Sun lamps, maybe. Or perhaps she’s finally made it home.
Kara winces. Drags a hand – she still has hands, then, still has a body that works – up to cover her face. To block out the light drilling holes through her skull. Everything, everything aches.
So. She’s alive. No departure would hurt this much.
“Kara?” Dread-filled, a little desperate. A warm pressure wrapped around her fingers increases, squeezing tight. Alex.
“Yeah.” Her voice is hoarse, cracking. It takes three attempts to get the sound out. Kara takes a deep breath, summons every last ounce of her determination, and forces her eyes open.
They’re all there, pale and worried in the dim light of the Tower’s med bay. Alex at her bedside, Kelly standing sentinel at her back. Brainy, hands wringing together anxiously. Nia’s head on his shoulder. J’onn, stoic and solemn, M’gann tucked into his side.
Her gaze flicks to her sister, an unspoken question.
“You blew out your powers,” Alex whispers. “Bad. Like, really bad. Worse than you’ve ever been.” A small, broken sound follows the words out of her throat. Kelly lays a reassuring hand on her shoulder, and her sister swallows hard. “Kara, you almost—”
Kara slackens, caving boneless against the gurney. She knows. She knows what she almost.
New pressures at her knee, her wrist, her shoulder, drawing her focus. They’ve gathered in close, her family, reaching out to touch. To reassure. Kara blinks up at them, fighting the way the light from the sun lamps seems to pound behind her eyes like a jackhammer. They’re all— they’re not all there.
“Lena,” she croaks, body tensing as she forces her screaming muscles to cooperate. She fights to push herself upright, fights against the hands trying to hold her down. “Where’s Lena?”
“Kara, you need to rest—”
“Alex.” It’s almost a growl. She doesn’t know if it’s the hoarseness of her throat or the emotion stuck behind her teeth that does it, but her sister freezes at the chill in her tone. “Where is she?”
“She’s next door,” Alex says quietly, appeasing. “I’ve checked her over, she’s fine. A little shaken up, but fine.”
Relief seeps into Kara’s bones like sunlight. The next thought hits her like a solar eclipse. “And the plane?”
She sees her answer in their faces. In the way they grimace, recoil. But she needs to hear it.
Alex has always tried to protect her, from everything. But there’s no protection from herself.
Though it’s a command, unequivocal, her sister defies. It’s Brainy who finally answers, choked and thick. He’s sick with it. “There were no survivors.”
She stares up past their worried faces to the dark, vaulted ceiling above. Sets her jaw. “How many?”
Silence. If Kara doesn’t get an answer she is going to start screaming and she will never be able to stop. Her voice sounds again, whip-sharp. She pretends not to see the way her family flinches from her. “How many dead?”
“Two hundred and seven.” Brainy, again. He’s the only one brave enough.
Kara’s eyes slide closed. Two hundred and seven people, dead. Because she didn’t save them. Her family try to talk to her, to comfort her, but she ignores them. Lies rigid and still, tears welling behind her eyelids that she refuses, through sheer force of will, to let escape.
Eventually they fall silent. They’re still there, still with her, she can feel them. But they don’t speak. Kelly and Nia leave. As the door opens, her human ears can just about pick up their muted greetings to someone in the next room. To Lena in the next room.
Kara keeps her eyes shut, her jaw locked, and gives herself over to oblivion.
She can’t sleep forever, though. No matter how hard she tries. Can’t escape reality indefinitely.
Alex lobbies hard for her to remain under the sun lamps until J’onn reminds her that, powerless as she is, the most they’ll be able to do for her right now is give her a sunburn.
She joins Brainy in the command centre eventually, mug of tea in hand and blanket wrapped tight round her shoulders at Alex’s insistence. Her sister would probably encase her in bubble wrap if she thought she could get away with it.
She refuses to speak until they’re left alone. Until Nia’s had her fill of hugs and Kelly has finished her gentle probing and Alex has been reluctantly dragged away by J’onn, a knowing look in his eye. Only then will she talk about it. Only then will she tell Brainy everything that had happened.
It’s not that she wants to relive it, not at all. But the need to understand how Lex Luthor had managed to pull this off overshadows her own recalcitrance, so Kara swallows the bile rising ever-higher in her throat and explains.
It had been a message, broadcast at a frequency perceptible only to Kryptonian superhearing. No warning, no tricks, nothing fancy. Just Lex’s voice, slick and assured.
There were two planes, he’d said. One leaving National City en route to Metropolis International Airport, one arriving from the same location. A Boeing 757 with a full passenger load, and a private jet with only one occupant. That occupant, he’d informed her, was Lena Luthor.
So. Two planes. Two planes, and two missiles. Both target-locked to the aircraft, both primed to fire simultaneously. No way to prevent the launch.
Two planes, two missiles. But, Lex had informed her, only one choice. Which would she save?
Ten seconds till impact, Lex had said. And that had been it. The broadcast had ended at the very same moment she’d seen two rockets launch over the horizon beyond National City. Travelling in opposite directions, travelling fast. And, when she’d focused in her vision, there they were. Two planes.
To her right, hundreds of heartbeats. To her left, only one. Ten seconds. Then nine. Then eight.
Kara’s blood had turned to ice in her veins. She’d taken a deep breath.
And then she’d gone left.
She’d like to say that she hadn’t had time to think about it. But that would be a lie.
Kara had thought. For two of her ten precious seconds, she’d thought. She’d thought about the hundreds of people aboard the plane to Metropolis. The hundreds of lives, hundreds of heartbeats, hundreds of loved ones that would be shattered by their loss. And then she’d thought about one specific life, one specific heartbeat. One specific person. One specific world shattering as a result.
Kara had thought. And she’d still gone left. She doesn’t know if that makes it better or worse.
She doesn’t tell Brainy any of this, though. She just lays out the facts, the bare pragmatic bones of Lex’s little test, then snaps her mouth shut. Clenches her jaw so hard the bones creak, a dull ache spreading up through her teeth till it reaches her temples. Oh. Headaches. She remembers those. Invulnerability is remarkably easy to take for granted.
It’s not like Brainy doesn’t know the result, anyway. Not like he doesn’t know what she’d chosen.
Brainy tells her he has everything he needs to begin tracing the technology Lex had used for his broadcast. He won’t meet her eyes. She won’t meet his either.
The light above the elevator illuminates, climbing steadily. Alex is back. “I’m going to go,” Kara whispers roughly, gaze fixed on the floor. “You’ll— you’ll tell her?”
In her peripheral vision she sees Brainy nod. As the door to the med bay closes behind her she hears Brainy begin to relay the situation to Alex and J’onn. For once, Kara’s grateful for her temporary absence of superhearing. Grateful that two inches of glass and steel are enough to block out the sound of her gravest sin being uncovered all over again.
She crosses back to her gurney and swings herself onto it cross-legged, tucking the blanket tight round her shins. Reaches over to pluck an abandoned tablet from the bench, pulling up a fresh search.
The plane’s explosion is all over the news. Eight hours have passed, eight hours during which she was out cold after Alex or J’onn or somebody plucked her lifeless body out of the bay, and inquiries are already well underway. There’s talk of a terrorist attack, a military malfunction, a targeted hit. There are articles and interviews and statements and theories. There are condolences. There are prayers. Kara’s eyes catch on a list of the plane’s passengers and stick.
That’s how Alex finds her twenty minutes later. Hunched over, dry-eyed and trembling, pouring through the names of the dead.
She must have read the list ten times already. She tries to commit each name to memory as it scores itself onto her soul. Each one the slice of a dagger, till no part of her is left untainted. Right now, she’s as good as human. If those wounds were literal, if they were real, she’d be dead.
Two hundred and seven cuts. She wouldn’t survive that. Maybe it’s what she deserves.
Alex’s approach is hesitant, her voice even more so. “How are you feeling?”
Kara doesn’t dignify the question with a response. Keeps her eyes fixed on the tablet in her lap. Scrolls up to the top of the list. Starts all over again.
Alex crosses to her side. When she sees what Kara’s reading she reaches out, tongue clicking. “Kara, don’t look at that. Here, give me—”
“Don’t touch me.” Her voice is cold. Frigid as the grave. How apt. Beneath the layer of ice encasing her heart Kara feels something hot and ugly rear its head, tameless and savage. It’s a good thing she doesn’t have her powers right now, she thinks bitterly. Her sister’s body is so breakable.
“Kara.” Alex’s voice is filled with tears. What does she have to cry about, Kara wonders. What atrocities has she committed today? How many lives has she taken?
Her sister swallows wetly. “Please. Please. I don’t—”
“Kara, Alex.” It’s Nia, propping the med bay door open with her hip as she gestures wildly. “You guys need to see this.”
Kara pushes up from the bed, forcing her aching body to take one step after another. She doesn’t wait to see if her sister is following.
It’s Lex. Live on national television, in the primetime slot on the six o’clock news.
He’s talking about the plane’s explosion. About the senseless loss, the unfathomable devastation. About the money Luthor Corp is pledging to the investigation, to supporting the families of the victims, as if their CEO wasn’t the grand architect of the whole catastrophe.
That hot, primal feeling claws its way between Kara’s ribs again and Rao, if she had her powers, this room would be dust. Vaporised by her laser vision and pummelled into nothing by her fists. Anything to release some of this unbearable pressure building around her windpipe.
They show footage of the explosion, grainy and half-focused. Alex, Brainy, and Nia look away from the screen. Kara doesn’t. Can’t.
She watches the moment it happens all over again. Watches the tiny caped figure shoot after the flash of the rocket just too little, too late.
“Our resident superhero tried valiantly to prevent the disaster,” Lex says, his voice oozing like treacle over the footage. “A tragedy, truly, that she didn’t get there in time.”
Kara clenches her fists so hard her fingernails break the skin of her palms. The feeling of blood on her hands is foreign to her. At least, in the literal sense. Metaphorically, she’s been acclimating to the sensation for the better part of eight hours now.
The broadcast cuts back to Lex’s interview in the studio. Calm, composed, and appropriately contrite, he stares directly into the camera as he speaks. “One has to wonder,” he continues, sagacious to the hilt, “what could have kept her. What could possibly have been more important than this.”
Every last atom of oxygen squeezes itself from Kara’s lungs. She breathes harshly through her nose, fighting the urge to vomit all over the monitor.
“Well, I imagine she’s a very busy woman,” the newscaster manages a little awkwardly, uneasy but trying valiantly to cover it. “It was so sudden, after all. She can’t be everywhere at once.”
“Of course, of course not,” Lex agrees, congenial and charming, the picture of conciliatory understanding. “Though, one can’t help but ponder…” His brow furrows, expression creasing in a facsimile of genuine concern. “What else might she miss? Who else might she fail to save?”
The coverage cuts back to a press conference with the chairman of the airline, but Kara barely hears it. She can’t hear anything at all over the drumming of blood in her ears; the taunting reminder that she’s still here, still breathing, when so many are not.
“He’s going to do it again.”
Every pair of eyes in the room snaps to her face. “What?” Alex gasps, brow furrowing.
“That last part. It’s a warning.” She sucks in a breath so deep it hurts. Still, there’s not enough oxygen in the room. “Meant for me. He’s going to do something like this again.”
Nia’s face crumples. Brainy slams one closed fist down on the desk, rattling the entire structure. J’onn scrubs a rough hand over his eyes. “But why? Why is he doing this?”
“He already sent you to the Phantom Zone!” Alex grits out, half-wild. “What more does he want?”
Kara’s mouth twists in a pained imitation of a smile. “He wants me gone.”
Alex looks close to tears, shaking her head furiously. “But, why would— this isn’t—”
“He banked on me choosing her,” Kara snaps, heated in her heartbreak that she has to be the one to spell this out. As if living with the reality isn’t punishment enough. “He’s going to keep banking on it, and more people are going to die. And eventually the city will turn against Supergirl, since she keeps failing to protect them. Maybe he’ll reveal to the world that I chose one life over hundreds. And then he’ll chase me out once and for all.”
Another thought occurs suddenly, and Kara feels her entire body seize up in terror. “Or maybe he’s banking on me eventually failing with— with her.” Bile again, acrid and choking. “Because if I didn’t manage to save— if she—”
The crippling hopelessness of the situation hits her then, utterly paralysing. “I can’t win. I can’t beat this,” she gasps as barbed wire constricts around her lungs, biting, tearing. “Either way, I lose.”
The room falls silent as each one of them absorbs what Kara had realised the second she’d seen Lex’s face on the news. That this is checkmate. That he’s got her, fully and completely, and he knows it.
Alex recovers first. Kara watches as the trained agent take over her sister’s expression, practical and calculating. “You have to get out of the city,” she says firmly, all trace of emotion gone. Gone, or shoved so far down it may never see the light of day again. Alex sets her jaw. “Both of you. Right now. Before you or anyone else can get hurt. If you’re not here, he can’t bait you.” She sucks in a heavy breath. She won’t meet Kara’s eyes. “And if Lena’s not here—”
Kara swallows hard. She knows where this is going. “He can’t use her as bait.”
Her sister’s eyes meet hers at last. There’s a lot there that she doesn’t in this moment want to unpack, but one emotion elbows its way to the forefront. Understanding.
Kara nods once, sharply. “Okay. Where is she?”
J’onn finds them a car. Kara doesn’t know how. She doesn’t ask.
It’s old but well-maintained, bog-standard and inconspicuous. Just what they need. “Lex will be watching for you,” Alex says as the others mill around the Tower, gathering anything and everything that might be useful. Kelly’s gone next door to talk to Lena. What she’s saying, Kara doesn’t want to ponder.
“As soon as he realises you’re gone he’ll try to track you.” Alex brings her attention back sharply. “He’ll be watching the skies. No flying, okay?” Her sister pins her with a no-arguments stare. “Even when your powers come back. Not for anything less than an emergency.”
“Is this a good idea?” Kara asks quietly. It’s as vulnerable as she’ll let herself be, for now. Any more emotion and the dam will crack completely. She’ll drown. “He won’t give up just because he can’t bait me publicly. He’ll keep trying to destroy me, destroy Supergirl.” She swallows hard. The words feel like stones in her throat. “What if he tells the press about— about the choice I made?”
“Nobody knows about his ultimatum but us,” Alex says firmly. “The missile meant for Lena didn’t make the news. To reveal your choice, he’d have to reveal that he set the whole thing up. He won’t.”
Kara lets out a shuddering breath, unconvinced. “I shouldn’t leave. I have to be here, to protect—”
“We’ve got it,” Alex interrupts, jaw set in rigid determination. “Between the rest of us, we’ve got the city. You just worry about you. You and Lena. This is as much for her safety as yours. Lex clearly has no qualms about targeting her.” Alex raises an eyebrow. “Unless you’d rather we sent her off on her own.”
A muscle in Kara’s cheek flickers. Alex has got her; they both know it. There’s no way Kara would allow that. Not while she’s still breathing.
“Good,” Alex says approvingly at her lack of argument, nudging a small black duffel into Kara’s hands with the nonchalance of someone who’s had a grab-bag ready to go at a moment’s notice for years. When she cracks the zipper, banknotes flutter in the breeze from the open door.
“Nothing traceable,” Alex instructs robotically, everything about her tightly controlled. “Only cash. Only payphones, and only if necessary. If— when we neutralise Lex, I’ll press the watch three times. That’ll mean it’s safe. For anything else, don’t come.” She fixes Kara with a stare so penetrating it’s no wonder every criminal she’s ever interrogated has cracked beneath it. “Do you hear me? Until I tell you it’s safe, you stay away. No matter what.”
The reality of the situation is beginning to set in and Kara nods tightly, biting hard at the inside of her cheek. “I hear you.”
“Good.” Alex lets out a sigh of relief that sounds like it’s just a few short seconds from morphing into a sob. She catches it before it has the chance. “Keep a low profile, keep each other safe. I’ll see you soon, yeah?”
It’s all Kara can do to nod before her sister tugs her roughly into her arms. “I love you, Kara,” she whispers, a little strangled. “Always. No matter what. Remember that.”
Alex’s arms are squeezing almost hard enough to bruise. Maybe for once they will, Kara thinks. She hopes they do. Tears are welling, thick and heavy. She will not let them fall. “I love you,” she manages in return because while Kara may no longer recognise herself when looks in the mirror, that much is still true. That much will always be true.
Alex sniffles once, then pulls away. Kara misses her presence immediately, viscerally, like a severed limb. She supposes she’s going to have to get used to it.
The first time she sees Lena – the first time she actually lays eyes on her since the coffee they’d shared at Noonan’s five days ago – is when she slides into the driver’s seat beside her.
Lena doesn’t speak as they peel away from the curb, the last glimpse of their friends fading to nothing in the rear-view mirror. She doesn’t speak as she navigates their car, laden with all manner of supplies from the Tower, through the bustling traffic of the downtown district. She doesn’t speak until she’s merged onto the highway heading north, and National City is falling away behind them.
Kara doesn’t, either. What could she possibly say?
She knows that Lena knows what happened. What Kara did. Alex had told her, back at the Tower, back before they were trapped in a car together and could avoid one another to their hearts’ content.
It’s no surprise Lena doesn’t want to talk to her, can barely even look at her. In this moment, Kara can’t stand herself either.
They’ve been driving for an hour already before the silence is at last broken. “Are you alright?” Lena asks quietly, white-knuckling the wheel. “Your powers—”
“They’ll come back in a few days,” Kara murmurs, clamping down on the hopefully that tries to follow the words out of her throat. “I’m fine.”
Another long minute of silence before she manages to work up the nerve, twisting her fingers together in her lap. “Are you alright? I mean, the missile, your plane—”
“You took that missile,” Lena says tightly, eyes locked on the road ahead. “It never got anywhere near me. I’m fine.”
Silence again. Kara watches Camarillo blur into Ventura on either side of the interstate, clouds and cars and concrete all tinted the same drab shade of overcast grey.
“Do you know where we’re going?” she asks as Lena weaves through the traffic on Route 101, the churning waters of the Pacific coming into view as they leave yet another nameless town behind.
Lena sighs, and Kara notices then how tired she looks. How pale. “No. But my brother won’t stop. My only plan is to keep driving.” She pauses, head tilting slightly. She won’t look Kara in the eye. “Do you know where we’re going?”
Kara sinks a little deeper into her seat. Her eyes slide closed. “As far from National City as we can get.”
“You’re getting tired.”
It’s been so long since the terse silence between them was broken that Lena actually jumps at the sound of her voice, jerking the wheel sharply. Thankfully the road around them is deserted.
Outside the confines of the car the grey evening has rolled into grey night, only a narrow swathe of road illuminated by their headlights. The hours have passed almost entirely without conversation, but not without observation. Kara hasn't been ignoring Lena. In fact, most of her senses are trained on the woman to her left. She's noticed Lena's increasingly weary sighs, the way she trades off hands on the steering wheel to give one arm a break, rolling her tight shoulders. She's noticed the way Lena's breathing has deepened, the way her reflexes are a half-second slower than they'd been three hours earlier.
Kara's watched, in silence, and noticed it all. Lena always has been the most captivating thing in her orbit.
Lena takes a deep breath as she recovers, flexing her fingers on the steering wheel. “We could find somewhere to stop?” she asks hesitantly, eyes fixed on the road as she avoids Kara's gaze.
But Kara hums in dissent. “Why don’t I drive for a while,” she says quietly. Pauses before adding, “I don’t think we’ve gone far enough yet.”
Lena doesn’t argue. She doesn’t say anything at all. Just pulls over at the next unoccupied patch of roadside dirt and switches seats, curling up against the passenger window. She's asleep in minutes, breathing slow and even, hands tucked inside the long sleeves of her sweater.
Kara drives and keeps driving. Heedless of the dark, heedless of the distance, she manoeuvres them ever further from home with each passing minute. Midnight passes, then one AM, then two. Eventually, her aching joints and blurring vision win out against her stubbornness and she pulls into the back corner of a long layby somewhere in the middle of Big Sur before she can accidentally drive them both of a cliff. Kara is reminded, viscerally and unavoidably as she cracks her neck and stretches her tired fingers, of just how uncomfortable it is to be human.
Lena doesn't stir as Kara pulls the handbrake, double-checks the locks and tugs the keys from the ignition. She holds her breath as she fiddles with the lever on the passenger seat, carefully reclining it so Lena can curl up more comfortably and draping a blanket over her huddled form. Sends a quiet thank you to Rao that the younger woman doesn't wake, that she doesn't have to try and fail to look her in the eye again today. Tomorrow's a new day, after all. Maybe she'll be strong enough then.
Kara reclines her own seat with a muffled groan, tugging the hood of her sweatshirt over her head and burrowing deeper into the soft fabric. The solar flare, the lack of powers – hell, the missile that had hit her less than twenty-four hours ago – it's all catching up to her now. Her body is leaden and sore, bruised limbs protesting the discomfort of the driver's seat but she doesn't care, exhausted down to her very marrow. With the sound of Lena's gentle breathing in her ears and the faintest hint of her lingering perfume on her tongue, Kara closes her eyes and lets the darkness take her.
She dreams of two hundred and seven empty chairs. Of empty homes and empty beds and the people that, until yesterday, had inhabited them. She wakes, sweat-soaked and trembling, to a litany of the dead and the sound of gentle snoring from the passenger seat.
The rising sun streams in through the car windows. Kara groans. Her head pounds, her joints ache. There's a smudge of dried drool on her cheek. Still no powers, then. Perfect.
Lena stirs at the disturbance, cracking open one eye through the nest of her hair. “Where are we?” she rasps, sleep-thick and croaking.
Kara yawns, stretching, straightening her reclined chair as she smacks around on the dash for the map she'd thrown there last night. “Slates,” she mutters after a moment's consultation, husky in the early morning light. “Hot springs. Maybe... three hours from San Francisco?” Man, she really should have paid more attention during the orienteering portions of those outdoor pursuits weekends Eliza used to force her and Alex on every summer.
Lena sighs, working her fingers slowly through her tangled hair. “I need coffee.”
Kara nods. “And we need gas.” She glances down at herself, still kitted out in the standard issue DEO sweatsuit J’onn keeps stocked for emergencies, the one Alex must have put her in while she was unconscious yesterday. “And less conspicuous clothes, maybe.”
Lena yawns, wiggling her socked feet into her shoes and opening the car door. Kara watches through the window as she stretches beside the car, then leans in to root through the back seat for one of the water bottles someone had thought to provide them with. She finds a tube of toothpaste in one of the supply bags but no toothbrush, settling for rubbing the paste over her teeth with her index finger and spitting the remnants out into the dirt.
Lena rinses her mouth, spits again, then cups her hand, using the bottled water to crudely wash her face. Droplets trickle down her wrists and neck, glittering in the bright sunlight. Her tangled curls twist in the breeze. She's still wearing a suit, navy and pinstriped and more wrinkles than not at this point. The same suit she must have been wearing at her conference in Metropolis, a day and a lifetime ago.
Kara's stomach twists, guilt crawling up the back of her throat. Lena should be waking in her luxury penthouse right now, making herself some disgustingly healthy smoothie and heading off to work at the foundation she'd created in her name, making the world a better place in whatever way she can.
She shouldn't be here, hungry and tired and sleeping in laybys on the run with someone who once called themself a hero but now, surely, is anything but. With a sinner, a murderer, a killer drenched in the blood of two hundred and seven innocent people.
This is all her fault. Kara's hands start to tremble. She clenches them into fists.
Lena climbs back into the passenger seat, passing over a fresh bottle of water. Kara takes it gratefully, empties it in one long pull. She uses the distraction to centre herself, find a semblance of clarity. Whatever had brought them to this point, they're here now. Maybe she'd screwed up everything else, but she can still do this. She can still keep Lena safe.
She throws the empty bottle into the back seat, wipes her mouth with the back of her hand. “Good to go?” she asks quietly. From the corner of her eye, she sees Lena nod.
“Alright then,” Kara murmurs, and starts to drive.
They stop in Monterey, first for gas and objectively bad coffee and then at a drugstore where Lena, arguably the less recognisable of the two, speed-buys a basketful of toiletries and a couple of garish baseball caps. Climbing back into the car, she hands Kara a bright orange monstrosity that declares Fish Fear Me in gaudy cobalt font beneath a crude cartoon drawing of a cod on a hook.
Kara, realising that her human glasses were one of the many things forgotten in the chaos of their getaway, tucks her hair up inside the hat without complaint and gratefully accepts the dark aviators Lena thrusts her way.
They're driving through the poorer suburbs at the edge of town when Kara spies the sign for a Goodwill and freewheels it into the parking lot. She slips out of her DEO-monogrammed jacket into a black fleece Alex had stuffed into the trunk of the car and follows Lena, sporting gold-rimmed aviators and a pink and yellow No Bad Days in Monterey cap, into the store.
It doesn't take long to find an armful of comfortable, inconspicuous clothing in roughly their sizes. Kara deposits their haul onto the desk of a bored-looking clerk, who yawns in response. If he's bothered by their indoor sunglasses or Lena's beach-to-boardroom ensemble, he doesn't comment.
Kara taps her foot anxiously as he scans their items at a glacial pace, eager to get out and into the open again where the chances of anyone recognising them are slim to none. Her gaze skims the keyrings and bubblegum-scented lip gloss on display beside the till before landing on the muted TV on the opposite wall.
Her breath catches. The morning news is showing footage of the plane crash, interspersed with photos of the victims. Each one sears itself onto the canvas of her mind, context for the previously faceless figures of her nightmares. There are old women up there, and successful looking businessmen. Two teenagers with huge rucksacks and fanny packs, their smiles innocent and infectious. There are photos of couples, there are photos of families. Two dark-haired, brown-eyed toddlers beam up from their parents' arms, and Kara snaps the pen she hadn't realised she'd been fiddling with clean in two.
Lena tugs the broken halves out of her hands, laying them sheepishly atop the pile of things they've yet to pay for. She nudges Kara backwards and takes her place at the counter, but it barely even registers. The coverage has moved on to a spate of apartment fires in National City, a marooned oil tanker in the bay, a small explosion at a petrochemical compound on the city's outskirts. Yet more injuries. Yet more deaths.
The TV is muted, and Kara's heart is hammering so hard in her ears that she probably wouldn't be able to hear it anyway. But that doesn't stop her reading the banner that scrolls accusingly across the bottom of the screen, bold and unavoidable.
Where is Supergirl? the morning news asks. Kara swallows down the bile rising in her throat, narrowly avoiding emptying the contents of her stomach across the cashier's lap.
Lena throws a wad of cash down on the desk, scoops up their purchases, and tugs her out of the store.
Outside, shivering and sweating in the sudden blinding sun, tongue heavy and heart breaking, she stops. Lena appraises her a moment, shaking her head. “Give me the keys,” she prompts gently.
Kara complies without complaint. In fact, she doesn't say anything at all. Just lets Lena nudge her into the passenger seat, lets her head fall against the cool window as her eyes slip closed, and wonders how she's ever supposed to be able to live with herself.
They drive straight through San Francisco and out the other side, hugging the coast as they head north up Highway 1. They'd changed in the deserted Goodwill parking lot and Kara takes the opportunity to curl up more comfortably in her newly acquired grey leggings and Dartmouth sweatshirt, resting her temple against the doorframe.
Lena drives, nibbling delicately at one of the energy bars they'd picked up at the gas station and sipping periodically at her lukewarm coffee with a wrinkled nose. Kara doesn't eat. Doesn't drink, doesn't speak. Can't. Can't do anything but replay the faces of the victims in her mind, matching them against the list of names she repeats silently over and over, a supplication, a prayer.
Lena tries to broach the weighted silence as they pass the turn-off to Santa Rosa and cruise through Bodega Bay, the craggy rocks and crashing surf glittering under the clear blue sky. “Are you alright?” she asks as she reaches again for her coffee, one hand braced steady on the wheel. “Don't you want to eat something?”
Kara says nothing. Just chews harder at the inside of her cheek, eyes fixed on the asphalt disappearing in the rearview mirror.
“You know it wasn't your fault,” Lena whispers, knuckles white on the wheel as she replaces her cup in the holder. “Those people, their deaths— they're not on you.”
Something hot and ugly and unbearable rears up inside her, all-consuming. “No?” she bites out, voice so sharp Lena flinches from the sound. “Who else could have stopped that missile but didn't? Hmm?”
Silence. She lets Lena fill it.
Unsurprisingly, she can't.
They continue up the coast without another word, stopping only to use a musty roadside outhouse and switch seats a little before midday. Lena crunches her way through a bag of mini carrots, half a cherry pop tart and a gas station pickle for lunch. Her offers to share go unaccepted.
They curve away from the coast and pass through state parks and conservation reserves, the redwoods growing taller on either side of the highway. Sometime during the early afternoon Lena twists to root through one of the many bags littering the backseat, coming back with a handful of second-hand cassettes Kara hadn't even noticed her buying.
Their beat-up car is old enough to still have a tape player and after a moment of fiddling, Lena figures out the controls and a few smoky bars of Tom Waits fill the car. The afternoon passes in a haze of Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, Fleetwood Mac and Norah Jones and though she'd never admit it aloud, it's nice. The music, the stark beauty of the NorCal coast, the mindless concentration required to drive, it all conspires to lull her away from her darkest thoughts to a place of blissful blankness.
When she realises what she's doing, how her body and surroundings are colluding to ease her pain, she hates herself even more. She needs to feel that pain. She deserves it.
They stop again at Patrick's Point as the golden shadows of evening grow longer, getting out to use the restroom and stretch their cramped limbs. Lena buys a couple of hotdogs from a food truck in the car park above Agate Beach, loading them with toppings and thrusting one into Kara's hands without asking permission.
They eat them quietly, leaning side by side against the railing at the top of the steps leading down to the sand, watching the surfers and sunbathers soaking up the last rays of the day. Lena looks pale despite the soft golden light surrounding them, tired and worried as she licks mustard from her fingertips.
Kara's heart thuds hard in her throat. None of this should have happened to Lena. None of this should have happened at all. What is Supergirl, if not the preventor of these tragedies? Who is she, if not a hero?
They climb back into the car once they run out of excuses not to, Lena weaving them down the coastal highway as the sun sets crimson coral peach over the Pacific horizon.
They cross into Oregon as twilight descends and Lena hits pause on Simon & Garfunkel's twelfth ballad of the evening to glance over at the passenger seat. “I don't know about you,” she says, flexing her tired fingers, “but I don't much fancy another night in this car.”
She wants to protest, but then she thinks about her aching muscles, Lena's weary sighs, how long it's been since either of them have showered, so she doesn't.
They find a run-down motel on the outskirts of the harbour town of Brookings without too much trouble. Lena walks into the reception with a wad of cash in her sweatshirt pocket, walks out again with a key.
The room is basic, sparse but clean. Kara dumps the plastic bag of their toiletries and an armful of second-hand clothes on the desk and collapses onto the lone double bed with a groan. Lena's already poking around the bathroom, testing taps and prodding at shower curtains.
“If you manage not to inhale too deeply, it's not half bad,” comes her eventual assessment before she sticks her head through the door, fingers pinched delicately over her nostrils, to grab at the discarded carrier bag. “God, I don't think I've ever been this desperate for a shower in my life.”
Kara doesn't move while Lena showers. She just lays there, listening to the sounds of running water and staring at the peeling paint on the ceiling, and lets the horror of it all consume her once more.
Lena emerges in a cloud of rose-scented steam, threadbare towel clutched tight beneath her armpits. She pauses midway through her appraisal of their pile of clothes to stare at Kara, brow creasing. Kara ignores her, blanks out the weight of Lena's pointed gaze, keeps her eyes on the dusty light fixture above the bed.
She misses Alex. She misses her sister and her friends and her apartment, her comfy bed and regularly dusted light fixtures. She hates that she can't have them, that's she so far from them now because of Lex. She hates that she no longer deserves them anyway.
Lena sighs, and retreats back into the bathroom. She reappears in a red flannel and a pair of dark skinny jeans that are a little too long, treading on the hems as she pads over to the net curtained window. “I'll go get us some food, yeah?” she says, gazing out across the car park to the array of neon signs beyond. “Do you want to stay here and shower?”
Kara pushes herself wearily to sitting, hair crinkling unpleasantly against her neck. Salt, she realises. She hasn't showered since her dip in the waters of National City's bay. She could really, really do with a shower. But.
“You shouldn't go alone,” she croaks, voice cracking from disuse. “It might not be safe.”
Lena tuts, gathering up her wet curls and pulling the brim of her Monterey cap down low over her eyes. “I'm only going across the road,” she says, extracting a few bills from the duffel full of cash. “I'll be fine.”
“You might not be,” she snaps, yet more misplaced irritation bubbling to the surface. “And if you weren't, I wouldn't be able to hear you.”
The reminder of her current powerlessness shuts Lena up for a moment, her jaw snapping closed. Kara can't keep her safe, not like this, and the knowledge is a Kryptonite dagger in her ribcage.
But Lena recovers quickly. “I'll only be gone twenty minutes,” she soothes. “We're so far from home. Lex has no way of knowing where we are. We need to eat, Kara. And you need to shower, and then we need to sleep.” Green eyes meet blue in the dim lamplight, unswerving. “Twenty minutes, tops.”
Kara sighs, tugging a hand through her salt-crusted curls. She knows when she's been beat. “Twenty minutes,” she repeats as sternly as she can manage. “If you're not back I'm coming after you, powers or no.” She hadn't fought so hard, sacrificed so much to keep Lena safe only to have her jumped in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven.
“Twenty minutes,” Lena agrees and for the first time in days there's the hint of a smile on her lips. “Promise.”
Nineteen minutes and forty-nine seconds later, Kara is freshly showered and decked out in a pair of men's sweats and a California International Marathon t-shirt, twitching unsurreptitiously through the net curtains.
She gnaws absently at a hangnail on her thumb, foot tapping out the seconds double time until the motel door swings open and Lena appears. Kara lets out the breath she's been holding for exactly twenty minutes, and double locks the door behind her.
Lena's returned with a veritable feast; boxed salad, bagels and cream cheese, enough burgers and fries to feed a small nation and a twenty-four tray of donuts. They eat quietly, cross-legged on the bedspread, and Kara realises belatedly how hungry she's been. Being powerless takes a lot of energy.
Lena reaches for the TV remote, glances at Kara, then changes her mind. The meal continues without accompaniment, the silence broken only by the wet sounds of chewing and an occasional request to pass the ketchup.
Once their arsenal of wrappers and serviettes has been cleared away, faces washed and teeth brushed, Kara checks the lock one final time and crawls into bed on the side closest to the door. Lena, emerging from the bathroom, hesitates for one barely noticeable second before drawing back the covers and sliding in beside her.
They lay there in silence as the mattress settles beneath them, watching the passing headlights play across the ceiling. Lena's breathing is deep and even. Kara can feel the heat of her beneath the sheets.
“Lex won't find us,” Lena whispers into the darkness. Her voice is brittle, scepticism wrapped in dogged determination. Who she's trying to convince, Kara couldn't say. “He won't find us here.”
“No,” Kara agrees, because Lena's probably right. “But what will he do while we're gone?”
At her elbow, Lena sucks in a breath so sharp it sounds almost painful. Kara buries her face into the flimsy pillow, and turns away.
“Do you think we should keep heading north?”
Lena's head is bent over the map spread across her knees, the ends of her dark curls trailing across the paper. They'd gotten an early start, checking out of the motel before the sun had even broken the horizon, and had passed a silent morning and half the afternoon blazing up the Oregon coastline. Kara sucks in a lungful of air, holds it for ten seconds, then releases it in a silent stream. “Whatever.”
Silence envelops them for another thirty miles or so. On either side of the empty highway, Oregon blurs into Washington with no noticeable difference.
“Do you want to stop for food?” Lena ventures over the muted hum of the radio as they weave through Longview's noon traffic, merging east onto Highway 4 to leave yet another indistinguishable town behind. “Are you hungry?”
“No. And no,” Kara bites out, drumming her fingers against the wheel. Passing though built-up areas sets her teeth on edge. Too many watching faces, too many possible casualties. She'll be happier once they're on the open road again, with no one else around to get hurt. “Are you?” she remembers to ask, a minute too late, glancing at the passenger seat out of the corner of her eye.
Lena sighs, curling further into herself, and when she shakes her head it seems like an answer to more than just Kara's question.
They follow the Columbia River out to the sea, skirting nature reserves and wave-carved bays in silence. Out here, without so much as the sight of another car for miles, Kara's beginning to feel like she can breathe again.
“Are you tired?” Lena asks three hours later as they round yet another headland, the misty grey light throwing the car's interior into a shadowy haze. “Want to swap?”
She hears Lena sigh, but Kara doesn't apologise for her short tone. Doesn't even take her eyes off the road. It's just, it's so inane. They're on the run. Two hundred and seven people are dead, because of her. What does it matter if she's a little tired? Surely she deserves that, and worse? Surely, physical discomfort is a small price to pay for the sins on her conscience?
“Well, when will you want to swap?” Lena tries again, irritation beginning to bleed into her tone. “Will it be soon, or should I try and sleep?”
Kara bites at the inside of her cheek to stop herself biting out something she'll only regret. Lena doesn't deserve her frustration, her fury, she knows. But Kara doesn't have the capacity to temper herself right now. She's barely hanging on as it is.
“I don't know, Lena,” she gets out, tight and clipped, knuckles white around the steering wheel.
Silence again, the calm before the storm, and then— “That's it. Pull over.”
Kara blinks, finally glancing at the woman in the passenger seat. “What? Why?”
“I'm serious. Pull over right now.” Lena's jaw is set, her shoulders rigid. Kara does as she says, manoeuvring them into a dusty layby overlooking a steep cliff. She kills the engine and resists the urge to throw her hands in the air, twisting toward the passenger seat.
“What? What is it? We need to keep going, we shouldn't—”
“No, not until we've sorted a few things,” Lena says adamantly, swivelling fully to face her. “I'm not driving another mile like— like this.”
Kara stares down at Lena's gesturing hands blankly. “Like what?”
Lena sighs, reaching up to run her fingers through her loose curls. Her long hair is mussed and a little wild, flattened on one side from where she'd napped with her head against the passenger window early that morning. She looks tired and dishevelled and achingly sad, and Kara's belligerence gets stuck in her throat.
“Look, Kara. I get it, okay? I know you'd rather be anywhere but here,” Lena starts, resignation pulling at her features. “I know— I know you'd rather be with anyone else.”
Kara's brow furrows, her mouth opening, but Lena doesn't give her the chance to voice her confusion.
“But we are here, together, and there's nothing we can do about it. So we don't have to spend time together, you know, I can try and stay out of your way,” Lena spreads her arms as wide as possible in the narrow car, expression rueful, “as much as I can, but sometimes we are going to have to talk – what to eat, where to sleep, that sort of thing – so I would appreciate it—”
She sucks in a deep breath as the torrent of words pauses momentarily, releases it with a shudder. “I would appreciate it,” she begins again, quieter, “if you could at least be civil with me, for that. And then we can get right back to ignoring each other.”
The silence that follows the end of Lena's speech is heavy. Suffocating.
Kara opens and closes her mouth once, twice, three times. “Lena, I—” Where to even begin? “I'm, I'm not ignoring you.”
Lena's raised eyebrow voices her incredulity for her and Kara ducks her head, cowed.
“Okay, I am, but it's not because of you. It's just—” She sucks in a fortifying breath. It doesn't help at all. “Just, ever since—”
“Kara, I told you, I get it,” Lena cuts in, bringing a hand up to cover her closed eyes. “It's fine. I know you regret what you did. I don't need to hear you say it.”
Kara blinks, lost. “What?”
Lena cracks one eye to stare at her flatly from between her fingers. “Oh, great. I'll say it instead, shall I?” She sighs so heavily Kara's own shoulders slump in sympathy as Lena continues. “I know you regret saving my jet over the passenger plane. I know you wish you'd saved two hundred and seven lives instead of just one.”
Kara's stomach bottoms out, her mouth hanging open. How could Lena ever think—
Lena kneads her knuckles over her closed eyelids. Her voice is very, very quiet. “Sometimes I wish you had, too.”
Something about the tremor in Lena's tone, the way her words splinter and shatter as they hit the air, is enough to snap Kara out of her daze. “Lena, no. No. I don't regret saving you. Not for one second.”
When Lena's hands drop Kara sees the pink flush to her pale skin, the tears glazing her eyes. “How could you not?”
“God, Lena.” Kara's entire body is trembling. The contents of her stomach feels like it's milliseconds away from making a close acquaintance of the car's worn leather interior. She shakes her head, still trying to make sense of it. “How can you think—”
“How can I not ?” Lena asks, a sudden fire in her tone and in her stare. “You haven't been able to look me in the eye for three days. It's not hard to decipher the reason.”
“I do not regret saving you.” Kara balls her shaking hands into fists. She'd thought that through her silence, she'd been protecting Lena from the worst of herself. Yet somehow, in Kara's absence, Lena had landed upon a conclusion more terrible even than the atrocity of the truth.
She has nothing left to lose now by telling her, she supposes. If only so that she never has to hear Lena doubt her own constancy in Kara's life again.
She stills her restless hands in her lap, angling to meet Lena's gaze head on.
“If I had to make the decision again, I'd choose you. If I had a year to consider the implications, I'd choose you. I'd choose you over two hundred and seven people, over five hundred, over a thousand. Don't you get it?” She forces herself to keep meeting the eyes locked wordlessly onto her own. “You're not the problem! I am. Because I'd choose you, Lena, no matter the cost.” Her voice cracks beneath the weight of the truth, eyes wet and stinging. “How can I be Supergirl and feel that way? What kind of monster does that make me?”
Lena is staring at her, wide-eyed and shell-shocked. The weight of Kara's confession sits like a noose around her neck. "How can I live with myself?” she whispers as her head falls forward, unable to meet the intensity of Lena's gaze. Who she's asking, she couldn't say.
The car's silence is oppressive. Kara balls her hands into fists, runs her tongue over her dry lips. “I don't wish you had died instead of them, Lena,” she manages, hoarse and cracking. Here it is, then. The last piece of honesty she can offer. “I wish— I wish I had.”
Lena's sharp gasp fills her ears as Kara's hand finds the door handle, toppling her out of the car. She doesn't wait for a response. She doesn't wait for anything at all. Kara pushes herself up out of the roadside dust, takes a single deep breath, and runs.
Running as a human is hard.
It's slow and unsteady and painfully ineffectual. Kara stumbles through bracken and over logs, fighting through the treeline on the far side of the highway. The ground climbs steeply away from the road and Kara pushes harder, following the woody crags of the Olympic peninsula higher and higher.
She's red-faced and panting, sweat beading at her hairline, Dartmouth sweatshirt sticking uncomfortably to her back, but she doesn't stop. To stop, to pause the pain and discomfort wracking her human body from the exertion, would be to free her mind up to the conversation she'd just fled from. And— well. Even running up a mountain with no powers isn't as painful as that.
Through a break in the trees, the snow-capped peak of Mount Olympus splits the sky. She makes a beeline for it, tripping over roots and sliding in the mossy damp of the forest. She doesn't stop.
She's high above sea level when she's finally forced to accept that she must either rest or risk vomiting that morning's pop tarts all over her only pair of trainers. She pushes through the trees to a rocky outcrop that shadows the surrounding forest, slipping a little in the patchy snow at its base.
The westward side of the jutting rock is clear, worn smooth by the wind and rain blowing in from the Pacific, and she sinks down against it with a heaving chest and streaming eyes. She can see the whole peninsula from here; Mount Olympus at her back, the wave-cut coast bordering the forest on three sides and to the north, not so far at all, the islands and shores of Canada.
The urge to keep running, to set her sights on the northern horizon and run until she finally escapes or her body gives out, whichever comes first, is almost overwhelming. But now that she's stopped, exhaustion is leaching through her muscles, anesthetising what's left of her strength. The wind whips at her hair, her sweat-damp skin, and she shivers inside the thin material of her sweatshirt.
She could die up here, she realises. It would probably serve her right.
She doesn't know how long she's been there, hunched against the frigid stone. In fact, she's barely conscious of her surroundings at all. Kara is lost in the endless expanse of her mind, drowning in the depths of her grief and self-loathing.
What she'd said to Lena had been the truth, however melodramatic it may have sounded. She would happily, gladly, trade her own life for the two hundred and seven innocent people who had died on the plane she had failed to save. To erase that list of names, to send those smiling faces, the businessmen and the teenagers and the old couples and the children, the children, back home to those who loved them— she would give anything on Earth to make that possible.
Anything but Lena.
Grimly, she realises Lex Luthor must know her better than she'd like to admit. He hadn't given her the opportunity to sacrifice herself for that plane. He must have known that would have made the choice too easy.
She doesn't know what she's supposed to do now. Beyond the immediacy of their fugitive status, beyond the need to stop Lex and keep Lena safe, what is left for her to do? Her parents had sent her to this planet to protect her cousin and when she'd been denied that purpose, she'd diverted her sense of responsibility to the people of this world instead, the ones who had welcomed her with open arms.
The people of National City love Supergirl. Or at least, they love what she represents. They rely on her, they look to her, they trust her. And now, she's failed them.
God, they had called her. Coville and his Cult of Rao, but others too. The papers, the news anchors, the starry-eyed children she'd met on the street. And for a while, she had tried. This world had made her almost omnipotent; she could be omnibenevolent in return. She could watch over its people, right its wrongs, keep it safe from any who meant it harm.
She could, until she couldn't.
Because a god, she knows, should love all their children equally. Be it Rao or the gods of any earthly religion, they all put their duties above all else. Kara had been putting others ahead of herself for years. The self-sacrifice inherent to deification was a walk in the park.
But then there had come people. Not all of them, not many. Just a handful of very particular people, Alex and Eliza and J’onn and the others, and suddenly the girl who had lost everything realised she wasn't prepared to lose any more.
And then had come Lena, and her bright beautiful bruising grip on Kara's heart. And then had come Lex's test, and the two halves of Kara's soul had been forced into opposition like never before.
What is she, now? Model or murderer? Champion or criminal? Hero or human?
How can she claim to love this world so much, while there are people for whom she would burn it? How can she put her duty and responsibility above all else, yet hold a handful of individuals higher still?
She shivers as biting winds whip across the mountains, freezing rain misting against her closed eyes. Her limbs are leaden and aching and she curls further in on herself, tries to disappear entirely.
How can she live with the choice she had made to keep Lena alive? How could she ever have hoped to survive the alternative?
Kara rests her forehead against the chill of the stone and, for the first time in years, she prays to Rao. She prays for His wisdom, His understanding, His guidance. She prays for His forgiveness.
In her heart, she does not believe she deserves it.
Time passes, and it doesn't. Kara shivers and shudders and sobs into the night. No one answers her cries. No one is listening.
At some point, a sound cuts through the haze she's fallen into. A high-pitched, insistent beeping. It's incessant, irritating, and for the first time in untold millennia Kara opens her eyes.
A deer and her fawn pick their way delicately along the treeline below her. The mother lifts her head, velvet nose sniffing the air. She catches wind of Kara and freezes a moment, assessing. A heartbeat later they continue their leisurely amble, evidently unconcerned by her presence.
The deer don't seem bothered at all by the relentless beeping. In fact, they don't even seem to hear it. Kara's brow furrows. That would mean—
She makes an experimental fist, swings it at the rock at her feet. Basalt splinters easily, crumbling into dust. So. Her powers are back. And if her powers are back, then that sound that only she can hear must be—
She's up and running before the thought is fully formed. No longer the unwieldy, inefficient jog of a human, she blurs through the trees at close to superspeed. That beeping is the sound of the signal watches worn by the people who count on her to keep them safe. Each one sounds slightly different, allowing Kara to tell them apart from a distance, and this one isn't Alex all the way back home in National City. It isn't James in Calvintown or Eliza in Midvale.
This one, this one is Lena.
The Olympic rainforest blazes past in a fog of green and brown and grey. She's not back to full strength yet, still not fully recovered. That doesn't stop her pushing the outer boundaries of her limits with everything she's got, throwing herself into huge soaring leaps as she half-runs, half-flies, half-falls down the mountainside.
She has to get to Lena. Above her the sky bleeds, deep indigo giving way to pale mauve, and she realises she's been gone all night. She's left Lena alone all night.
She follows the sound of the watch like a creature possessed, the ceaseless beep a homing beacon in the semi-darkness. It's so close now, so loud, and she crashes through the treeline to find their car right where she'd left it, tucked into the corner of a clifftop layby south of Ruby Beach.
Her heart stops. Lena stands there, pale and wary in the pre-dawn mist.
She's not alone.
Decked out in a glowing green Lexosuit, helmet retracted to reveal his rapacious grin, he stands smug and assured on the far side of the barrier separating the highway from the beach beneath. Fifty feet below, surf crashes against the grey sand, spray shrouding the arches and sea stacks in briny fog.
“Kara, don't,” Lena gasps. “Get out of here.”
She freezes. Lex has his sister by the throat, the delicate alabaster of her neck snagged in the crook of his mechanical elbow. Kara's eyes fall to her captured wrist, to the red-strapped watch that lives upon it. The face is flipped open. Lex's gloved thumb presses down on the button.
“How did you find us?” Kara whispers, dread turning her limbs to blocks of ice. Lex has already tugged Lena across the safety barrier, perching the two of them on the very edge of the crumbling cliff. One small step backwards and they'd both be falling.
Kara gulps. Lex has a suit that will save him. Lena doesn't.
“My darling little sis was trying to call you,” Lex answers conversationally, waving Lena's cell phone in his free hand. A single flick of his wrist and it disappears over his shoulder, landing somewhere on the sand below. “And you know how easy GPS signals are to track. A rookie mistake, I must say. Especially for a Luthor.”
“Kara, I'm sorry,” Lena whispers, and she has to fight the urge to vomit. This is all her fault. Lena had only used her phone in the first place because Kara had disappeared. Guilt unlatches its jaw, preparing to swallow her whole.
Lex leers. “Naturally, I assumed it was a trap at first.” He tightens his grip, jostling Lena almost playfully. She winces as the sharp lines of his suit snag her skin, but says nothing.
“So you can imagine my surprise when I arrived to find dear Lena all alone,” Lex crows, his enjoyment of the situation inescapable. “Especially after you'd been so very keen on protecting her wellbeing back in the city. Thank goodness for your little signal here.” He lifts his finger from the button at last and Lena closes her free hand around the watch, cradling it protectively to her chest. Lex's slick smile only widens. “I wouldn't have wanted you to miss out on our little party.”
Kara forces herself not to tremble. Not to sink to the ground and sob. “What do you want, Lex?”
“Now, don't be obtuse,” Lex tuts. “It's unbecoming for someone of your stature. The Maiden of Might, isn't that what they call you? The Girl of Steel, the Paragon of Hope, the Last Daughter of Krypton. How obliquely pretentious.”
Kara zones out a little as Lex soliloquizes, her entire awareness zeroed in on Lena. She takes in her thundering heart, her clenched jaw, her wide, panicked eyes. Go, Lena mouths at her from beneath the chin of her brother's helmet. Run.
Kara wants to cry. If a death toll of two hundred and seven innocent people hasn't taught Lena that she would never, ever leave her, Kara doesn't know what will.
“I'm here to present you with a choice,” she zones in in time to hear Lex say, his grip on Lena's throat tightening. “Since you so enjoyed the last one, I felt the exercise might bear repeating.”
Kara's lungs empty, every last atom of oxygen wrung from her body as fear threads its icy tendrils through her flesh. Not again, please. She won't survive it again.
“I realised I made things a little too simple, last time.” Lex's voice is calm, collected, as though they're discussing the weather and not the deaths of hundreds. “One person you knew, or many people you didn't. The choice was too easy, but don't worry. This time the playing field will be level, I assure you.”
Lex's friendly veneer drops like the flick of a switch. His eyes turn cold and hard, features expressionless. “Last time, I sent you two missiles. This time, two bombs. One of them will kill Lena. The other, who knows?” Lex shrugs one metal-plated shoulder. “It's positioned right under your little superhero headquarters, so it'll knock out your friends for sure. Your sister, too. She works there, doesn't she?”
Kara's vision whites out at the edges, heart pounding.
“And National City is such a small town, really,” Lex continues in a neutral tone, his face flat. “A bomb that size right in the middle of the downtown district? There's bound to be collateral.”
Kara fights a shiver. His glee, at least, had made him seem human. Crazed, psychotic, but human. But total apathy in the face of untold deaths? That terrifies her to her core.
Lex smiles, but behind his eyes there's nothing at all. “Your choice, Supergirl. Her,” he tightens his grip on Lena's throat and her face pales, fingers scrabbling at the impenetrable metal, “or them. If you crack the sound barrier, you'll have just enough time to make it to them before that bomb explodes.”
He lifts a finger, hovering over the bulky watch at his wrist, and time seems to stand still for a moment. Kara feels every cell in her body thrumming with adrenaline, feels the harsh tugs of her breath in her lungs. She sees the scene as if observing it from high, high above; her own hunched figure, barely Super again, facing down a madman and his hostage on a mist-shrouded clifftop.
She sees Lena. Sees every dark eyelash fluttering against her pale cheeks, each individual shard of agony in her green eyes. She's wearing a worn black North Face fleece that Kara thinks used to belong to Alex and a pair of mauve sweatpants they'd found at Goodwill. They're almost the same shade as the lightening sky behind her. Her pale feet stick out beneath them and oh, she isn't wearing shoes. She isn't even wearing socks, bare toes curling into the sandy mud beneath her, and it's that out of everything that shatters Kara's sternum, sends her heart spilling out onto the concrete below.
Lena is standing there, pale and defiant and trembling and she isn't wearing shoes. Her face is unwashed, dark hair unkempt like her brother had tugged her straight out of the car with no warning, and what's left of Kara splits open at the seams.
Time unfreezes with a jolt. Lex's fingertip lands on the screen of his watch, triggering the countdown. “You'll have enough time if you leave right now,” Lex clarifies with a saccharine quirk of his brow. He tightens his grip once more, and Lena gasps. “Of course, that does mean you'll have to leave dear Lena here with me.”
Kara is frozen.
She knows she can't be, mustn't be. Knows that whichever way she plays this, whichever path she chooses, every second will count. Each heartbeat that slides by could be the difference between making it and not. Between rescue and failure. Salvation and damnation.
And yet, she's frozen. Rooted to the spot, paralysed by fear and disbelief and indecision.
Luckily for her, Lena's not.
“You bastard, ” she screams, ducking and twisting in her brother's iron grip to land a solid punch to his unprotected jaw. “You can't do this again. You will not fucking do this again!”
Lex growls, grappling with his sister but Lena is lightning quick, bare feet twisting in sandy sludge as she feints and dodges, aiming blow after blow at his head. The sounds of exertion, the grunts and groans of their fight snap Kara out of her trance and she launches herself forwards, propelled into action at last.
She shoots towards the tussling figures but doesn't stop to intervene, sailing clean over both Luthors’ heads to scan the beach below. Her vision zeroes in on Lena's discarded cell phone and she's on it in a second, punching in Alex's number with trembling fingers.
Heart in her throat, she scans the area for the bomb Lex must have concealed nearby. The bomb meant to take out Lena.
Her sister answers on the second ring. “I thought I told you nothing traceable—”
“Alex,” she all but screams, pushing off from the beach again. “There's a bomb in the Tower, Lex's. You don't have long, you have to—”
“On it,” Alex cuts in, no trace of her worried sister left in the sudden professionalism of her tone. “We'll handle it. Are you okay?”
“Lena,” she gasps as the woman in question hits the ground, her temple the recent acquaintance of Lex's iron fist. “Fuck. Okay. Alex. When you've disabled the bomb, use your watch, okay? Just once, so I know you're safe.”
When, not if. Kara doesn't dare give voice to the alternative. Cannot even consider it.
“I will,” Alex agrees, voice tinny as Kara drops the cell onto the beach again. Whatever else her sister might have said is lost as she rockets toward the siblings still locked in battle on the clifftop.
She crashes straight into Lex from behind, knocking him off of Lena's prone body and catapulting the two of them across the asphalt. They tumble over and over, locked together as blows rain down from all sides. Kara is close enough to smell the sweat on Lex's brow, the acrid stench of his breath. She sees the icy detachment in his eyes, the determination in the hard set of his jaw. And she sees, in a freezeframe of perfect clarity, Lena's thumb ring. The thin silver band, the one she never takes off, is jammed tight into the joint at the neck of the Lexosuit, preventing the helmet from closing.
Her fist makes satisfying contact with Lex's unprotected cheekbone and despite herself, Kara grins.
But then Lex is activating his gauntlet, shocking her with what feels like a hundred billion volts of electricity to the kidney. Her skin burns, muscles twitching and convulsing and she can only watch, body spasming, as he heaves himself out from beneath her and turns back toward his sister.
At the press of a button the left glove of his suit begins to glow, a fireball appearing in his palm. He pulls back, winding up to launch it at where Lena still lies winded on the clifftop, and Kara screams. Her body won't move, muscles still seizing, but at the very last second she manages to aim a bolt of laser vision at her target. It clips Lex's shoulder and knocks him off balance, the fireball careening into the barrier and exploding in a twisted mass of burning metal.
Lex howls, furious, and wheels on her with a snarl. Kara manages to push herself to her knees, hitting him with a blast of freeze breath that he counters with another flash of flame from his palm.
They circle one another, lockstep, volleying bursts of laser vision and blasts from Lex's Kryptonite canon. “So, you've chosen my sister over your own,” Lex pants, aiming another round that she barely manages to duck. “I must admit, I wasn't sure which way you'd fall on this one.”
Kara only growls, primal and wild. The fear rooting through her at the thought of what may be happening back in National City, of what will happen to Brainy, Nia, J’onn, Kelly, Alex, if they don't disable the bomb in time, lights her up like a livewire. She lasers at Lex's head again, missing him by millimetres.
“Is she really that important?” Lex heaves, winded. Over his shoulder, the crumpled heap that is Lena begins to stir. Lex's face is beet red, straining with exertion. “Is Lena truly worth this?”
Kara thinks the scream she releases probably phrases her answer for her. She launches herself at Lex once more, grabbing him by the collar to propel him into the thick steel barrier at the side of the highway. The impact causes something in his suit to short-circuit, a small explosion singeing the ends of her eyelashes.
They're close now to where Lena still lies, and Lex's eyes land on her with a demented kind of glee. “Lena!” she screams, wrapping both arms beneath Lex's shoulders and planting her feet on the remains of the railing to propel them both up and over it, away from the younger woman.
“Get to the car,” she yells as they sail through the air, as Lena pushes herself shakily onto hands and knees below them. “Get out of here, go!”
She tosses Lex high into the air, winding up to clock him square in the face when he comes back down but the bastard seems to have regained some control of his suit now, using his jet thrusters to circle her as his canon winds up for another shot. His eyes are manic, his grin downright predatory. He looks far too calm for someone in the losing stages of a fight, and that more than anything gives her reason to pause.
“Are you sure the car is the best idea?” Lex asks smoothly, face breaking into a hungry smile as they circle one another in mid-air. Kara's stomach drops. She casts out the net of her senses, pivoting as she x-rays the scene until— there. A tiny bundle of wires and C4, strapped to the underside of the car.
The second of distraction costs her. Lex is on her like a rabid dog, clawing and punching with enough force to knock the breath from her lungs. He shocks her again and she wavers in the air, stunned.
Lex catches her by the hood of her sweatshirt— in all the chaos, she hadn't even had time to change into her suit. She dangles from his grasp a hundred feet above the sand, twitching helplessly. Behind and below her, she hears the sound of Lena pulling open the car door. She wants to cry out, wants to shout a warning, but the muscles of her throat are as paralysed as the rest of her.
“You put up a good fight,” Lex pants as his face twists in a sneer, Kryptonite canon glowing bright on the gauntlet aimed directly between her eyes. “But even gods can fall.”
The end is coming, Kara knows. The end in its finite entirety, composed of a detonation in National City, a car bomb in Washington state, the roar of a Kryptonite canon above the Pacific Ocean. Wind whips at their hovering bodies and just for a second, Lex's grip slips. Just for a moment, she's falling, and this will be her end.
But she knows, now. She understands.
She didn’t start falling when the Lexosuit shocked her out of the sky. She started falling back when Lex Luthor hit her with a Phantom Zone projector. Or maybe back when the Crisis ripped the multiverse apart. When the air was seeded with Kryptonite, or when Reign punched her into a coma, or when she stood in an elevator beside the woman she loves and realised she'd lost her before she'd ever held her at all.
Maybe she's been falling since she'd stood on the wing of a floating plane and declared herself more than this world had ever seen before. Or maybe since her own planet shook itself apart in her rear-view mirror.
Kara Zor-El has been falling for years. It’s no wonder she won’t survive hitting the ground.
Lex's fingers snag in her collar, and Kara's eyes slide closed.
She couldn't save them, Lena and Alex and the rest, but at least she will die with them now. At least she won't have to outlive them alone. Survival has long been too heavy a mantle to bear. It's not one she wants to shoulder ever again.
She hears the whir of the canon arming, feels the scorch of the Kryptonite's proximity through her veins. She sucks in a breath, and she believes it will be her last. In her mind, she says sorry. She thinks of love. She says goodbye.
And then, through the whistling of the wind and the heaving of her chest and the pounding in her ears, she hears another sound. A high-pitched beep, just one; the very specific pitch of the very specific watch belonging to the very specific person who has always counted on her to keep them safe.
Kara's eyes fly open. Alex. She's disarmed the bomb. They're safe. They're alive.
She's always known survival to be a lonely thing but now, she realises, perhaps it doesn't have to be.
With a strength she'd thought long squandered, Kara roars. She slithers out of her sweatshirt and drops from Lex's grip, feeling the rising sun graze her skin as it breaks over the eastward mountains.
It doesn't matter that she's nowhere near full strength. It doesn't matter that she's bloodied and bruised and more bone-weary than ever before. Alex and the others, they're alive, and at least for the moment, Lena is too. Kara's job is not over. There's still more she must do.
She flies at Lex like a banshee, wrapping all four limbs around the hard shell of his suit so he can't pull back enough to aim his gauntlet. She squeezes and rips and tears, decimating the suit around him, raining blow after blow on his unprotected head and she is not a god, but she will bring vengeance from on high for this man, this scourge on her existence.
Lex grapples and grunts but he's no match for her now, no match for the fire blazing through her veins. She rips the last piece of the suit from his body, throws the Kryptonite gauntlet as far as she can toward the horizon and then she has him by the scruff of the neck, eyes glowing hotter than the rising sun.
“You will never,” she growls, voice chilling even to her own ears, “threaten the people I love again.”
And then she tosses him into the air before her, a tennis pro winding up for the ace that will win the match, and uses every last fibre of strength in her body to smash Lex Luthor out of the sky.
He plummets, hitting the beach below with a sickening thud and skidding a little in the damp sand. He rolls to a stop face down in the surf and lays there, unmoving.
Kara spares less than half a second on his motionless form before she's propelling herself back toward the clifftop, to the car and the bomb, to Lena. Her fingers wrap around a slender wrist and she pulls, hard, no time for tempering or restraint.
Lena tumbles out of the open door, sprawling over the rough concrete, breath knocked from her lungs in a shuddering gasp. There's no time to check on her, no time for anything. Not even a goodbye.
Kara grabs at the car, one hand on the fender and the other on the chassis, and pushes off from the ground so hard the concrete splits beneath her feet. She flies straight up, as hard and as fast as her straining muscles will allow. Up, until the road is a thin grey snake beneath her, hugging the choppy coast and the rolling waves. Up, until she breaks through the haze of mist shrouding the beach and the rising sun streams across her unimpeded. Up, until she can hardly hear Lena's screams.
She doesn't have long, she's sure. The exact equation required to figure out the moment of detonation for the bomb in her arms, the speed of sound multiplied by the distance to National City then minus the time that's elapsed since Lex triggered the damn thing, is too much for her wearied mind. Nevertheless, there can't be long left.
She should throw the car, she knows. Should crouch in the air, curl in on herself and then straighten to send vehicle and bomb as high into the stratosphere as she can possibly manage. But is she high enough yet? Could she get it further from the Earth, further from Lena? Further, higher still, so the inevitable shrapnel has less chance of damaging anything precious below?
She should throw it now, probably. Now. Now. But here it still is, clasped in her arms. And maybe a part of her doesn't want to let go. Maybe that tiny, exhausted, resigned part of her had been ready, too ready, to embrace the end. Maybe it doesn't want to keep fighting.
She has to throw it now, she has to. The countdown must be up, the explosion is primed. Weak as she is, she won't bounce back. This flight is taking everything she has. Soon, there will be nothing left.
She has to throw it now, she's thinking, as the bomb cradled to her chest explodes.
Kara is falling.
It doesn’t matter why. It doesn’t matter how, or where, or for how long. She’s falling, and she can’t stop.
Everything hurts. The bomb had detonated in her arms and the blast was terrific, incomparable. It hit her battered body with the force of a supernova, and now Kara can feel everything and nothing at all.
Everything hurts but the pain is dulled, somehow. Blighted, numbed, like there's so much of it her body simply cannot process it all. Like her nerves, her senses, are blocking it out in an effort to protect whatever's left of her. She's not sure if she has a body anymore. She's not sure if she wants one, when it all seems to do is hurt.
She sees the Olympic coastline rushing up to meet her. The mountains, the forest-covered slopes, the jagged rocks and roiling waves. It's a beautiful place to die.
The ground, the crash, the inexorable impact, they're close now. So close. The grey snake of road blurs through her streaming vision. Maybe she'll hit the ocean again, maybe she'll get lucky.
Maybe her luck has finally run out. Maybe that's not so bad.
For one single, breathless moment, the world stands still. And then Kara is gone.