When Nia Nal moved halfway across the country to pursue a PhD at National City University in one of the most prestigious physics departments in the world, she'd expected to face some sort of steep learning curve. She'd expected brain-melting theories and impossible equations, late nights tearing her hair out in the library, likely even a healthy dose of impostor syndrome.
What she had not expected was to walk down the hallway toward her supervisor's office on the very first day of her programme only to be met with the sound of furious yelling and a whiteboard eraser sailing clean through the open office door directly at her head.
The pitcher of said eraser – a young woman with dark hair and cheekbones so striking that if Nia weren't already thoroughly in love with her ex-lab-partner-turned-boyfriend Brainy, she would definitely be spending some time fantasising respectfully about (and even so, like, woof. Nia's in a committed relationship, sure, but she's not blind) – doesn't seem to even notice her arrival.
“And here I thought we were studying physics, not performing arts,” the dark-haired woman says heatedly, lilting accent that Nia can't quite place sharpened by her apparent outrage. “Everett's theory is so melodramatic it'd be better suited to a screenplay than a mechanics journal!”
Nia pokes her head round the door cautiously. Another woman inhabits the office, blonde and startlingly beautiful and absolutely ripped beneath her demure button down. Nia's palms begin to sweat.
“If you can't broaden your mind enough to appreciate the merits of the relative state formulation then perhaps it's you that doesn't belong in the physics department,” the blonde parries, folding her – bulging – arms across her chest. "The Many Worlds interpretation is logically sound. The existence of infinite parallel universes is not just an untested supposition. It holds up under scrutiny.”
“The scrutiny of a third-grader, maybe!” The dark-haired woman faces down her opponent across a messy wooden desk, brow arched and jaw set. “Everett's theory is little more than a stochastic fever dream. How many of the core tenets of physics do you have to destroy just to make this interpretation viable?”
"Not a single one,” the blonde counters primly. “If you'd take that deterministic stick out of your ass, you'd be able to see that the simultaneous existence of parallel realities is not only possible, but likely.”
“Oh, well, doesn't that just imbue me with hope,” the eraser-thrower snaps drily, chin raised as green eyes flash with defiance. “If there are infinite parallel universes out there, surely there must be one in which you're not a stubborn, hard-headed ass!”
“Pfft, wouldn't you like to— oh. Hello!” The blonde physicist-turned-bodybuilder notices Nia suddenly, acerbic retort swallowed beneath a blinding smile. She knocks the glasses that had been perched atop her head down to rest on her nose, the combative set of her features melting into an expression of warm welcome. The transformation is so complete, so instantaneous, that Nia has to restrain herself from doing a double take, just to make sure the woman isn't really two different people.
“You must be Nia Nal,” the blonde says, fixing the rolled cuff of one sleeve and smoothing her hair back from her flushed cheeks. “Come in, come in. Please excuse my friendly debate with Professor Luthor—”
Luthor, Nia thinks. Lena Luthor, who became the youngest tenured professor in history at the age of 26 years and 3 days. Lena Luthor, who has two PhDs and is well on her way to a third while still teaching full-time at NCU. Lena Luthor, who singlehandedly exposed her brother's multi-billion-dollar clean energy scheme for the tax scam it was, all in the course of one extremely sexy TEDTalk.
Lena Luthor, who narrows her eyes at her blonde counterpart before turning to Nia with a charming quirk of her lips. “Ms Nal,” she acknowledges, every trace of fire in her gaze replaced by an understated sort of kindness. “I read your admission paper on the constraints of the uncertainty principle within the Bohmian perspective. It was quite thought-provoking.”
Nia flushes with pride, trying her level best not to swallow her own tongue beneath the intensity of those bright green eyes. “Oh, um. Wow. Thank you?”
Professor Luthor's smile grows. “If you get tired of having your head up in the clouds with this one—” She inclines her head towards the blonde, who pouts. Professor Luthor smirks. “Well, if you ever feel like coming back down to Earth for some real physics, my office door is always open. Welcome to the department, Ms Nal. It's a pleasure to have you.”
Nia accepts her proffered hand, trying desperately to execute a normal human handshake without betraying quite how badly her fingers are trembling. Professor Luthor flashes her one last smile, turning to the open office door.
“Uh, Lena,” the blonde calls from across the room, hands braced behind her on the desk against which she's leaning. She quirks an amused brow in their direction. “Your eraser?”
Three pairs of eyes drop to the floor at Nia's feet where the offending object still lies, having missed her face by millimetres. Professor Luthor's cheeks flush a delicate pink. “Did that hit—?”
Nia cringes. It's confirmation enough.
The young professor winces. “I'm so sorry,” she murmurs, blushing fiercely as she bends to retrieve her makeshift missile. She straightens, leaning fractionally closer to Nia with a conspiratorial wink. “Rest assured, next time I will hit my intended target.”
“I heard that!” the blonde huffs as Professor Luthor sweeps from the room, pouting hard at the empty doorway.
And that is how Nia begins her PhD in quantum physics at National City University, how she meets both her doctoral supervisor and her arch nemesis in one fell swoop and falls just a little bit in love with both of them.
As beginnings go, it's fairly representative of what the next five years have in store.
Professor Danvers – call me Kara – is a dream.
Energetic and effusive, she's passionate about physics in a way that, were it not so endearing, might border on clinical insanity. She treats Nia as a valued protégé from day one, always making space to listen to her ideas and taking the time to assuage her uncertainties. Her research is cutting-edge and inspirational, pushing the boundaries of quantum mechanics in ever more wacky and creative ways.
Though NCU's physics departments boasts plenty of big names in the field – Spheer, Olsen, and Arias, to name but a few – it's clear that alongside Professor Luthor, Kara Danvers has been the one to put this institution on the map.
However, though Danvers and Luthor share the same keen interest and endless enthusiasm for quantum theory, their approaches are about as distinct as it's possible to get within the same theoretical field.
Professor Luthor, a staunch follower of the De Broglie-Bohm interpretation of quantum mechanics, is one of the foremost voices of the most mainstream, conservative school of thought.
Professor Danvers, on the other hand, seems determined to take a metaphorical pickaxe to this theoretical framework as frequently as she possibly can. She favours much more radical approaches, including and especially Everett's idea that there are multiple parallel universes existing concomitantly, and appears determined to systematically examine and reject every single facet of mainstream quantum scholarship.
“Question everything, Nia,” she'd said firmly that very first day, and many times since. “How do you know what you know to be true? What makes it true? Can you confidently say that it is always true?” For Professor Danvers, no interpretation was too extreme, no take too hot, so long as it could generate some interesting questions to be answered.
Kara Danvers’ open-mindedness and willingness to push the boundaries of what physics knows to be true is what had drawn Nia to her as a supervisor in the first place. What she hadn't realised when she'd applied, of course, is that it would also lead to an endless and frankly delicious supply of workplace drama.
"They hate each other,” Winn, the only other doctoral student to start in the department at the same time as Nia, had whispered to her two days in. "The Danvers-Luthor rivalry is famous around the world. They literally cannot agree on anything.”
It certainly seems to be true. NCU hosts a quantum mechanics symposium at the end of Nia's first semester there, with both professors invited to sit on a panel of experts. It's even better than the Oscars; Nia watches with growing glee as Professor Danvers gives an eloquent and thought-provoking speech on wave function collapse. With every word that falls from her mouth, Professor Luthor's eyebrows arch higher and higher, until they're almost hidden in the waves of her hair.
When the blonde finishes her speech and hands the microphone back to the moderator, Professor Luthor all but snatches it out of the poor man's hands to give her rebuttal.
“While no doubt passionately defended, the theory put to you by my learned colleague is nevertheless lacking a replicable and observable body of evidence,” Professor Luthor begins coolly, sparing no more than a glance at her blonde rival from the corner of her eye. “When it comes to wave function collapse, until and unless decoherence definitively proves the possibility of the reduction of a wave function to a single eigenstate, the only thing collapsing here is Professor Danvers’ argument.”
A chorus of muted ooohs fills the auditorium, half from the visiting physicists who understand the complexity of Professor Luthor's insult, and the other half from the watching students who know enough to recognise a sweet burn when they hear one.
Nia and Winn, munching popcorn as quietly as they possibly can, just sit back and enjoy the show.
The thing is, Nia doesn't even know which of the two of them she's backing.
Professor Da— Kara is the natural choice. As her doctoral supervisor, she's Nia's primary point of contact at the university, as well as her main teacher. She spends more time in Kara's office than she does anywhere else on campus, except for the library and that one couch tucked into the back corner of the graduate atrium behind the row of indoor palm trees for emergency naps.
And, academia aside, Kara is lovely. Sweet and genuine and thoughtful in a way not many professors are, especially not when they're as busy as she is. She brings homemade cookies on Fridays and asks after Brainy and offers to take the whole lab out for drinks if they hit their results quota on time by the end of the month. There's no doubt in Nia's mind that beneath Kara's eccentric research style and questionable sense of humour lie a heart of gold and the IQ of a certifiable genius.
Professor Luthor is— well. She's Lena Luthor.
Brilliant and beautiful with a zero-tolerance policy for bullshit, whip-smart and lightning-quick and infinitely funnier than her cool demeanour betrays. She leads Nia's philosophy of science seminar during her first semester, and manages to somehow transform the dullest theoretical drivel on the planet into Nia's favourite class almost overnight.
Where Kara is charming, bubbly and welcoming and overflowing with warmth, Professor Luthor is magnetic. When she speaks, people listen. Her charisma is less overt than Kara's, but no less hypnotic.
Kara is the type of person Nia would love to be best friends with. But Professor Luthor, she's— well. One word of approval from her, infrequently but always sincerely given, produces a high Nia rides for days afterwards, immediately obsessing over how best to impress her again.
So what if Nia is a little bit in love with both of them. So what. She doesn't know of a single student in NCU's physics department who can honestly say that they're not.
She doesn't need to choose a side in the Danvers-Luthor blood feud. She's more than happy just to sit back and watch the fireworks.
The beginning of Nia's second year marks a new escalation in her understanding of the academic arch rivalry that rules the classrooms and corridors of NCU's C. J. Grant Physics Building.
When a position opens up to be the teaching assistant to Professor Luthor, Nia jumps at the chance. After a rigorous application process she emerges triumphant, leaving Winn pouting in the corridor to join her new boss in her office.
She's barely settled into the comfortable leather chair opposite the dark-haired woman to discuss teaching and marking schedules when the door at her back slams open.
“Et tu, Lena?” Kara accuses as she plants her feet firmly in the middle of the office, hands on hips and power posing to hell. “Poaching my top doctoral student to be your TA? Really?”
Nia sinks a little lower into her seat, cheeks burning hot from a heady blend of pride and embarrassment. Thankfully, neither woman is paying her the slightest bit of attention.
“Professor Danvers,” the younger woman says coolly, leaning back in her chair and folding her arms across her chest. “I don't believe we had a meeting scheduled for today.”
“Some things can't wait for a Google calendar invite,” Kara huffs, eyes narrowing. “Don't you have enough of your own students falling over themselves to work for you? Did you really have to take Nia?”
"Nia is my student,” Professor Luthor counters calmly. “And she was also the most qualified applicant for the job. If you have a genuine concern about her teaching assistantship, I'd be happy to discuss it with you at a later date.”
“I don't need a genuine concern!” Kara explodes, biceps positively straining beneath her baby blue button down. “I'm her supervisor! If she's going to TA for anyone in this department, it should be me!”
Professor Luthor pushes back a little from her desk, just far enough to cross one leg elegantly over the other. One thigh-high-suede-boot-covered leg. Nia's pretty sure she's not the only one in the room struggling to swallow past a bone-dry throat all of a sudden.
“Do you, in fact, have any TA positions currently open?” she asks, smooth and collected, long fingers tapping against her folded elbows.
Kara's mouth opens, then closes, then opens again. Nia presses her lips together. She knows full well that the answer to Professor Luthor's question is a resounding no. Knows because she and Kara have already had that particular conversation, her supervisor apologising profusely for being too embedded in her current research to be able to supervise a TAship.
From the way Professor Luthor's brow arches, one corner of her mouth tugging into a barely visible smirk, it would seem she's equally well appraised of the current state of affairs.
The blonde clicks her tongue, brown Oxfords shuffling against the floor. “That's— that's irrelevant.”
“Not to Ms Nal's academic development it's not,” Professor Luthor counters smoothly. “A teaching assistantship will be a great boost to her résumé and her personal growth. If it so happens that I'm currently able to offer Nia more than you are, well. There's no need to take that out on her.”
Kara gapes. “I'm not—”
“Or on me,” Professor Luthor finishes soundly, the picture of composure. She takes a long deliberate drink from the water glass on her desk, the delicate line of her throat working. “Now, Professor Danvers, if that's quite all?”
Kara's eyes narrow as Professor Luthor glances pointedly at the open door. "Nia, lab meeting at four,” she mutters as she turns on her heel, throwing one last furious glance over her shoulder at her colleague. “We're not done talking about this, Lena.”
Professor Luthor sighs as the door closes soundly behind her. “No, I should expect we're not,” she murmurs, eyes sliding closed for a long moment. But then she's blinking them open again, fixing Nia with a bright if rueful smile.
“Well,” she says lightly, plum-painted lips quirking. “Still looking forward to working for me?”
Nia can honestly say that she is. If her fate at NCU is to be a willing pawn between these two academic powerhouses, so be it. There are certainly worse ways to spend the next three years.
The start of the new academic year also brings a slew of new article publications, as professors publish the research they've spent the summer conducting.
Nia enters the lab one bright September morning to find Winn and William, a classical mechanics student in the fourth year of his doctorate, hunched over a thick-bound journal like it's the latest issue of Vogue.
“Nia, oh my God, you've gotta see this,” Winn gabbles the second he claps eyes on her, snatching the cappuccino she proffers and devouring it with gusto. "They're really— they're really just going for it. They just don't give a shit anymore.”
“Who doesn't give a shit about what?” she asks as she drops onto a stool beside the boys, sliding William's latte across the lab bench.
“Danvers and Luthor,” William supplies at the same moment Winn crows, “The sexy soap stars of NCU physics! Who else?”
Nia shakes her head, wincing a little at Winn's shrill tone. It's too early for this. “What's happened now?”
“Only the latest in their long line of eloquently-phrased academic fuck yous,” Winn grins, sliding the journal across the desk towards her. Nia thumbs through it, sipping her Americano like a lifeline. The entire work appears to be a collected omnibus of academic rebuttals, five years’ worth of scathing back and forth over an original article by Dr Kara Danvers exploring the requirements of keeping quantum effects manifest under lab conditions.
A brief skim informs Nia that each new rejoinder is more withering than the last, accompanied by biting footnotes at the end of every piece.
"Look at this one,” Winn cackles, jabbing a finger at the penultimate article. It's snappily titled Rebuttal to the Claim on the Counterargument to the Confutation to a Defence of the 2015 Study by Dr Kara Danvers on the Manifestation of Quantum Effects: Volume Three, authored by Dr Lena Luthor.
The article is long, dense, and from what Nia can see, absolutely devastating. The number of italicised supposedlys and allegedlys littering the text have Nia's cheeks heating up in second-hand embarrassment for her mentor; it's clear that whatever point Kara had been trying to make in her previous piece has been thoroughly decimated by Professor Luthor's response.
Every page is littered with footnotes, many of them namedropping shamelessly. Despite the original author's novel take on the potential for decoherence of a quantum superposition, no evidence for this phenomenon has been concretely provided, one note reads. Unfortunately for Dr Danvers, a lively imagination is not the sole requirement for scientific advancement.
“Oooh, ouch.” Winn whistles long and low, reading the footnote over Nia's shoulder. “She really handed Danvers her entire ass on a platter.”
“Yeah, but look at the response,” William says, pulling the journal closer and flipping to the newly published addition. Nia reads the title with a barely repressed roll of her eyes. Countercharge to the Rebuttal to the Claim on the Counterargument to the Confutation to a Defence of the 2015 Study by Dr Kara Danvers on the Manifestation of Quantum Effects: Volume Three, by Dr Kara Danvers.
Nia follows William's tapping finger to the footnote at the bottom of the first page. Unfortunately for Dr Luthor, a lively imagination is in fact a crucial requirement for scientific advancement, the note reads. It is perhaps the lack of such imagination that has precipitated her own stagnation with respect to this phenomenon.
Winn shrieks in delight as William slaps his hand on the lab bench. “Sweet burn,” he crows as Winn pushes back from the desk to enact some kind of weird flailing victory dance. “She really did that.”
Nia chuckles, tugging the journal closer again. “Hey, can I borrow this?” she asks Winn, thumbing through the pages. “I want to catch up on the last five years.”
“Absolutely not, are you kidding?” Winn screeches, tugging the journal from her fingers and cradling it protectively against his chest. “Get your own! This is my entertainment for the entire semester. This shit is better than the Kardashians.”
Midterm season hits the department's undergrads hard and Nia spends more time holding office hours, editing study guides, and consoling stressed-out freshmen than she does working on her own doctorate.
There are long days and longer nights spent in the physics faculty lounge, grading papers and sliding endless multiple choice answer sheets into the Scantron to be marked. Nia's entire social life for the month of October consists of long-distance phone calls with Brainy just to keep herself awake as she inputs grade after grade to the university's central database, and endless hours in Professor Luthor's office reporting paper results and discussing their class's general strengths and weaknesses.
It's late one chilly Friday evening and Nia is hopped up on caffeine and trying her best not to go cross-eyed, skimming yet another incomprehensible first-year attempt at a reasoned argument as she sits opposite Professor Luthor in her dim-lit office.
There's no sound beyond the flipping of pages and faint scratching of pens as they work in companionable silence, getting up only to refresh the coffee pot in the corner. Seven PM comes and goes, then eight, and Professor Luthor's impatient checks of the chunky watch on her wrist increase exponentially with each passing minute.
By eight fifteen the young professor's phone is vibrating roughly once every three minutes, only to be ignored with a defeated sigh every time. By eight twenty, Nia can't take it anymore.
“Do you have somewhere you need to be?” she asks before she can lose her nerve.
Professor Luthor's eyes jump to her face behind her thick-framed glasses, professional workplace bun loose and haphazard after hours of tugging at it with her fingers. “Oh, I, um. It doesn't, I mean—”
Nia's never heard the young woman this ineloquent. If her interest wasn't piqued before, it certainly is now.
“We need to grade all of these tonight,” Professor Luthor says after a moment, regaining her composure as she shifts cross-legged and sock-footed in her office chair.
“I can do it,” Nia offers. “I don't mind finishing up on my own. If you have plans, I mean.”
Professor Luthor regards her for a moment, her brow creasing. “I don't want to ask you to do that.”
Nia shrugs one shoulder, taking a sip of lukewarm coffee and trying not to grimace. “I'm offering.”
"Nia, you are a godsend,” the young woman hums as she caps her pen, collecting her belongings and powering down her computer. “Stay here as long as you like. You know where the coffee is, and there's snacks in there if you get hungry.”
She nods toward a cupboard in the corner, slipping into her coat and winding a maroon scarf around her neck. “Honestly, thank you. Your academic reference from me will be glowing, I promise you. And the next time you need a draft paper reviewing you come to me, alright? I'll make time.”
Nia smiles, trying not to let the heat that crawls up the back of her neck at the praise show on her cheeks. “No problem. Have a good night, Professor Luthor.”
The young woman pauses on her way out the door, one soft hand landing lightly on Nia's shoulder. “You know, I have a rule,” Professor Luthor hums, lips quirking in a conspiratorial smile. “Whenever someone saves my anniversary plans from total ruin, they get to call me Lena.”
Nia's so overcome by the rush of pride and pleasure that accompanies her idol's words that she forgets all about the anniversary comment for the next six months.
January brings the physics department's annual field trip to visit the particle accelerator at UC Berkeley. The entire first-year cohort is going, which requires the presence of at least five faculty members to supervise.
Kara is leading the trip, practically vibrating with excitement at the prospect of enthusing a whole new class of students about isochronous circular cyclotrons. Professors Luthor, Arias, Olsen and Spheer are also slated to attend, leaving Nia without a single one of her lecturers for the day.
She's looking forward to the prospect of a lazy morning on Facetime with Brainy, maybe a late brunch at Noonan's before she heads to the library for her latest round of preliminary thesis research, when she wakes to a text from Lena's work number asking if she would mind terribly subbing in for her on the field trip.
Nia scrambles to get ready, making it to the car park where the students are boarding the hired bus with barely five minutes to spare. Kara doesn't look at all surprised to see her, shooting her a smile as she checks names off her attendance list.
The other professors are huddled close together away from the chattering teenagers, clutching extra-large coffees in vice grips. Professor Arias, a specialist in astrophysics who'd taught one of Nia's required first year courses, bursts out laughing when she sees Nia, the other two smirking behind their coffee cups.
“Of course she sent her new TA,” Professor Arias crows. “How long ago did you get the text? Twenty minutes? Oh, Nia. Bless your heart.”
Nia's mouth opens, brow furrowing in the face of a group of incredible scientific minds all chortling over a joke she's not privy to.
Professor Kelly Olsen, who Nia knows only by face and reputation as the sweetheart of the physics department, takes pity on her. “We were betting on how late Lena would leave it to tell you she wasn't coming on the trip,” she says with a kind smile. “Looks like Sam was right. It was the very last second.”
Nia frowns. “You— you all knew she wasn’t coming?”
A chorus of amused nods. “She never comes on any of the trips that Kara leads,” Professor Jack Spheer, Nia's classical mechanics instructor, informs her with a knowing grin. “Not since the great Schrödinger disaster of ‘16.”
Nia shakes her head. “The what?”
“Kara and Lena got into it over the universal applicability of the Schrödinger equation in the middle of the second-year planetarium field trip,” Professor Olsen tells her as Professor Arias cackles loudly at her elbow. "They haven't been able to chaperone together since.”
“What an understatement,” Professor Arias chortles gleefully. “They were screaming at each other in the middle of the observatory in front of the entire sophomore class. We almost got kicked out by the planetarium staff. There was definitely some profanity. I think a cup of coffee may have been thrown.”
Nia shakes her head, blinking rapidly. “So, if she never comes, why didn't she ask me to sub in for her until the last minute?”
Three simultaneous snorts surround her.
“She probably forgot,” Professor Olsen says magnanimously. “She's snowed under at the moment. Grant application deadlines.”
Professor Spheer smirks. “My theory is that she wants to make sure all her first-years that only agreed to come because they planned to lust after her the whole day actually show up.”
Professor Arias cackles. “You're both missing the point completely,” she crows, taking a long sip of coffee and pursing her lips. “She one hundred per cent does it for the drama.”
Behind them, Kara has finished herding the last of the students onto the bus and is gesturing for them to join her. The three professors drain their cups and toss them in the trash, producing a fresh tray of coffees from God knows where and handing them out as they turn toward the bus door.
Professor Olsen hands Nia a venti Americano which she gratefully accepts, all of them blowing on their numb fingers.
“Oh, thank you, Professor—”
“Oh no, none of that,” the dark-haired woman smiles, gesturing at her to go ahead on the bus. “I'm Kelly, and this is Sam and Jack. No more of this professor garbage. You're one of us now.”
Nia relaxes beneath Pro— Kelly's warm smile, taking a seat with the other professors at the front of the bus.
“Field trips make brothers-in-arms of us all,” Sam says with mock sincerity, giving Nia a two-fingered salute as she mainlines caffeine like it's going out of fashion. “You're in the trenches now, Nia. Welcome to faculty life.”
Nia passes her second summer in a tense haze of email exchanges as she attempts to form her dissertation committee. Kara has agreed to be her committee chair, the member with the most responsibility for shaping and guiding Nia's research over the next three years, but between the overseas research projects and publication deadlines plaguing every member of the physics faculty, nailing down the other four professors who will sit on her committee is a months-long process.
Thankfully, Brainy has finished his third Master's in some kind of computer science so complicated even the name of it blows Nia's mind and made the move to National City to be with her, immediately finding a job as the head developer for a high-tech software company.
Nia spends many a night stress-crying in his arms over unanswered emails, gentle rejections, and looming unmet deadlines but despite the endless drama, she ends the summer with her dream committee made up of Kara, Lena, Sam, Jack, and Kelly, as well as her first grey hair.
Her final formal acceptance – courtesy of Sam who's been nigh unreachable while she conducted research at a remote observatory in Patagonia all summer – arrives mere hours before the final cut-off, and Nia still has to get all the paperwork to Kara for her signature and ultimate seal of approval.
Her supervisor emails to let her know she's stuck on a Zoom call with potential research investors in Zurich and to drop the paperwork by her home address ASAP. Nia practically sprints across the city, arriving out of breath in front of a well-tended detached house on the upmarket campus avenue reserved exclusively for faculty.
She recognises Kara's car out front and makes her way past the blossoming garden to the porch, praying to God that her advisor is off her call by now, or can at least leave it for a moment to come to the door. She really doesn't fancy leaving the future of her doctoral dissertation in an envelope on the doormat, even if it is adorned with the silhouette of a humpback and the word whalecome in garish black letters.
Pink-cheeked and panting, she rings the bell.
It takes a long time for the door to open. At least, it feels like a long time to Nia as she stands there shuffling her feet, sweat dripping down her back beneath her NCU t shirt.
Her anxious mind spins in circles the longer she waits. Maybe Kara hadn't heard the door. Maybe she's gone out and won't be back till the deadline has passed. Maybe she's changed her mind about being Nia's committee chair. Maybe she's had a heart attack and is laid out unconscious on the floor of her home office. Should Nia call the police? Try to break in? Scale a wall or smash a window? She's just glancing around for a suitable bludgeon with which to knock down her supervisor's front door when the red-painted wood swings open.
She's already thrusting out the papers before the door is even fully open, tongue-tied and tripping over herself to apologise before her brain has remotely caught up with her mouth.
That's why, it would seem, it takes her a solid five seconds to register that the golden skin and blonde hair and blue eyes she's expecting to greet her are in fact pale, dark, and bright green in turn.
"Professor— Lena!” Nia squeaks, arms frozen comically in an overextended lean toward the young woman, eyes wide and mouth gaping.
The woman in question smirks, arms folding over her white button down. “Just Lena is fine.”
Nia blinks rapidly, as if that will make the image before her eyes make any more sense. “But, I— I thought this was Kara's—” she stammers weakly. “What, what are you doing here?”
One perfect eyebrow arches, an amused challenge. Sudden and shocking as a bucket of ice water to the face, Nia remembers exactly who she's speaking to.
“Sorry, God, sorry,” she gabbles, palms beginning to sweat. “I just meant, I wasn't expecting—”
Lena takes pity on her then, reaching out for the papers dangling limp in Nia's grasp. “Are these for Professor Danvers?”
Nia nods as Lena straightens the sheets, checking her watch and glancing up at Nia with a smile. “Cutting it a little close, aren't we?”
Nia's cheeks heat. It's not fair, the effect this woman has on her. Not fair how desperate she is not to look like an enormous idiot in front of her. If Nia had known she'd have to face Lena Luthor today – Lena Luthor in a soft cotton button down tucked into dark skinny jeans and ankle boots, hair loose and curling gently – she would have given herself a twenty-minute pep talk first. And maybe put on a non-stained shirt.
“I didn't, it was—” she stumbles out, fingers clenching. “Professor Arias, she—”
“Say no more,” Lena chuckles, smiling fondly. “Every single grey hair on my head is a direct result of one of Samantha Arias’ antics.”
Nia lets out a relieved breath, surreptitiously wiping her sweaty palms on her shorts. “Same.”
Lena's expression is kind as she checks to make sure the papers are in order. “Not to worry, you're within the deadline. Professor Danvers will sign off on these right away,” she reassures, taking in Nia's wide eyes and heaving chest. “No need to look so panicked, Nia. You can breathe now.”
Nia nods, forcing herself to take her instructor's advice and sucking a shuddering breath into her lungs.
Across the threshold, Lena winks. “At least, until Monday. That's when the hard work really begins.”
Nia must not hide her grimace at the thought of the new semester as well as she'd have liked, because the dark-haired woman's face softens.
“I'm looking forward to serving on your committee, Nia,” she says, green eyes penetrating in their sincerity. “You've got a strong research project and a solid team at your back. I have no doubt that you're going to achieve great things.”
Nia flushes again. If this keeps up she's surely at risk of clinically overheating. “Thank you.”
Lena smiles again, tucking the papers beneath her arm. “Now, stop worrying and enjoy your last weekend of freedom,” she says firmly, jutting her chin in the direction of the blazing Californian sunshine dappling the garden. “I'll see you bright and early on Monday for our TA meeting.”
Nia nods, twisting her fingers nervously in her belt loops. “Thank you, um, you too. Enjoy your—”
She flounders for one awkward, agonising moment. What is there to say? Enjoy your time at your arch nemesis’ house? Happy Friday to you and the woman you despise?
“—weekend,” she manages at last, cursing her own foolishness.
Lena only chuckles, and then the door is closing and Nia is left standing on a whale-themed doormat on a lovingly maintained porch in one of the most expensive zip codes of the city, wondering if the entire interaction had been anything more than a delirious fever dream.
“She was actually— she was actually at her home?” Winn shrieks first thing Monday morning, far too loud and far too energetic for the first day of a fresh year of academic hell.
Nia nods, checking her reading list as she scans the shelves for the books she's hoping to snaffle before the hordes of eager students arrive armed with mom and dad's credit card.
"What the hell would Lena Luthor be doing at her arch nemesis’ house the Friday before term starts?”
She waves hello to William who's fighting through the crowds already forming between the shelves of the university bookstore. “Beats me. Maybe they have an annual strategy meeting to decide which theories they're gonna duke it out over each year?”
“I mean, they teach a lot of overlapping classes,” William says reasonably, juggling his massive stack of books against the strap of the satchel that keeps sliding down his arm. “Plus, they're both serving on your committee, Nia. I'm sure they have things to discuss. Lesson planning and such.”
“Do you think Lena killed her?” Winn asks, bouncing at her elbow. “Do you think she was there to hide the body?”
Nia snorts as William sighs in despair. Tempering Winn's propensity for drama is always a losing battle.
“If she did, she also managed to fake Kara's signature pretty convincingly,” Nia hums, heaving the latest edition of Advanced Quantum Mechanics off the shelf and wincing at the price tag. “She emailed me a signed copy of my committee papers twenty minutes after I dropped them off.”
“Lena Luthor is one of the smartest people on the planet,” Winn says without a hint of exaggeration. “I think she could manage to fake a signature if she put her mind to it.”
Nia and William sigh in perfect unison as they join the back of the queue leading to the cashiers. Nia's so busy trying to calculate exactly how long she'll have to live off ramen and Kraft Dinner after spending the entire contents of her bank account on her new semester's worth of textbooks that she manages to drown out Winn's incessant monologue for an entire minute and a half, before his eager voice comes seeping back in.
“Murder's a bit mundane, really,” he says as if to himself, gaze lost somewhere among the fluorescent lights on the ceiling. “With the rivalry those two have had? Killing each other off would be too easy. They both want to win.”
“What's your theory, then,” William drawls in a bored monotone, not looking up from the phone in his hands. He and Nia have long since perfected the art of appearing to engage with Winn just enough that he amps himself up with no outside input like a little self-winding mechanical toy, until he eventually wears himself out.
“Covert reconnaissance,” Winn announces, and William snorts. “Luthor was scoping her out. Assessing her weaknesses. Planning her strategy for the next assault. I wouldn't be surprised if she bugged Kara's house, so she'd have the jump on her next research focus.”
“Has it ever occurred to you,” William asks as they reach the front of the line, digging around in his pockets for his wallet with a grimace, “that maybe they've simply put their contest to bed? That perhaps they've patched things up, decided to get along?”
Winn stops in the middle of the queue, apparently oblivious to the disgruntled students pushing and shoving behind him. “Oh, my sweet summer child,” he hums, condescension dripping from every syllable, ignoring William's indignant I'm five years older than you.
Winn stares at him so long and so hard that Nia finds herself cringing beneath the secondhand pity.
“Kara Danvers and Lena Luthor will never, as long as they live, just patch things up,” Winn announces loudly, the air quotes around the words so obvious it's comical. “This thing between them, it's till death do them part. You mark my words,” he declares, looking for all the world like a general addressing his troops on the eve of battle.
Nia smirks. She always had held the sneaking suspicion he'd be better suited to the stage than to science.
“Hell will freeze over before the two of them share a friendly word on this campus,” Winn vows solemnly, tipping an imaginary hat to the unimpressed audience that's been forced to gather around him. “And if I'm wrong, I'll eat my doctoral tam the day we graduate.”
“Deal,” William sighs, looking like he needs another summer break just to recover from this conversation. “At the very least, it'll shut you up for a while.”
Irritatingly enough – because it's Winn, and everything about him is irritating – he does seem to be right.
Nia has been a third-year doctoral student for all of four hours when it becomes clear that whatever Lena had been doing at Kara's house the previous week, patching things up was not on the cards.
She makes it through her meeting with Lena to coordinate their office hours for the class Nia is TAing for her this semester, then through her two-hour research design seminar with Sam, and she even has time to grab a coffee and call Brainy for a quick moral support chat before her first ever meeting with her research committee.
All the confidence and good feeling her boyfriend manages to drum up evaporates instantly, however, the second she opens the door to the conference room in which her committee has gathered.
All five professors are assembled around a circular table, laptops and stacks of papers laid out in front of them. Jack is throwing back his coffee like it's one huge shot of tequila, looking as exhausted as if it were the end of the academic year, not the beginning. Kelly has her head in her hands. Sam looks positively gleeful, head swinging back and forth like she's watching a tennis match.
And at either end of the semicircle, bookending their three seated colleagues, are Kara and Lena.
Nia's two favourite professors have risen from their chairs, leaning towards each other across the conference table as their voice rise in sync with the fingers jabbed through the air between them.
“ADF?” she hears Lena yell, cheeks pink and brow pinching. “You want her to use ADF software for this? You may as well have Nia work each structure out herself with paper and pen!”
“Oh, and what do you suggest?” Kara yells back, fists clenching against the wooden edge of the table. “VASP, I suppose?”
“Typical!” Kara crows. “And when Vanderbilt pseudopotentials aren't suitable for her data set, what then? Months of work, wasted!”
“Nia,” Kelly says when she notices her arrival, an oasis of forced calm as the battle rages on around her. “Do you think you could give us a minute?”
Nia nods, eyes wide, and backs quietly out of the door.
She lingers awkwardly by the entrance for a few minutes, but when the heated debate from inside the conference room doesn't show any signs of abating she gives up, rounding the corner to take a seat on one of the couches littered throughout the faculty floor.
She's been distracting herself with sleepy puppy videos on her phone for long enough that her palms have finally stopped sweating when she hears the door to the conference room open at last.
Nia jumps, reaching for her bag, but nobody rounds the corner towards her. Instead, a set of voices echoes down the corridor to where she's sitting.
“I'm fine, I'm fine,” she hears Kara say around a deep, calming exhale. “I just need a minute.”
“Probably for the best.” And there's Kelly's voice, hushed and gentle. “Poor Nia.”
“I know, I know,” Kara says mournfully. “We'll have to apologise. Get her a basket of donuts or something.”
“Kara,” Kelly says, and in that one word Nia understands exactly why the graduate students of the physics department all refer to Kelly as the therapist. “What Nia needs is a thesis committee who have her back. Who have her best interests at heart, with nothing else getting in the way.”
“God, I know.”
“Then, might it be best—” Kelly pauses delicately, and Nia's stomach twists with anxiety. “Is having you and Lena on the same panel the best idea for her? Should we consider—”
“No, no,” Kara rushes out. “I know Nia's thesis area better than anyone, but she works so well with Lena. She really admires her, and Lena's specialisation is perfectly placed to advise Nia's project. Taking either of us off the committee would do her research far more harm than good.”
“Alright,” Kelly says dubiously, her scepticism evident. “But, if that's the case, then the two of you are going to have to work together. Civilly.”
“I know,” Kara sighs. “We can. We will.”
“Really?” Kelly asks, a delicate balance of gentle incredulity. "That's not what I just saw.”
Kara lets out a breathy pffft. "Teething problems.”
“You two haven't sat on the same committee in years,” Kelly points out. “I thought you'd moved past this. That you could coexist peacefully now. Act like she's just another colleague.”
There's a gentle thud, like a body leaning heavily against a wall. “But she's not just another colleague.”
Kelly clicks her tongue. “I know. But you have to act like it, for Nia's sake. Don't let her get to you, and don't try so hard to get at her either.”
Kelly must fix the blonde with a look of disbelief worthy of the history books because Kara cuts herself off, defensive tone evaporating. “Yeah, alright. Alright, I will. Thanks, Kel.”
“What are sisters-in-law for?” she hears Kelly ask, and Nia's mouth drops open. “Now, get back in there and make peace. You've got five minutes before I'm bringing Nia back in and if you're not the picture of civility by then, you're uninvited from game night for a month.”
Kelly's threat seems to do the trick.
The rest of Nia's first committee meeting passes in a cordial haze of planning and advice and instructions and Nia leaves with a mind that's still reeling and a to-do list four pages long.
That first day sets the tone for the rest of the semester. The months pass in a blur of grading papers and learning quantum mechanics software and working and reworking her research plan until she can barely stand to look at the thing anymore, only very narrowly resisting the urge to throw her entire laptop over the sea wall and into the churning waters of the Pacific.
She TAs Lena's first-year intro to physics class, assists Kara on her latest decoherence research, applies to advance to doctoral candidacy and is accepted and, in a stress-fuelled rush of caffeine and all-nighters, submits her final dissertation proposal twenty minutes before the deadline.
Every second of Nia's spare time on campus – of which there are very, very few – is spent with Winn and William, observing and analysing the private lives of their professors with the passion and dedication of well-paid private investigators.
Hot on the trail of the unknown sibling of Kara's, to whom Kelly must be married in order for the two of them to be sisters-in-law, a lengthy scan of the university's entire faculty reveals a previously unknown Dr Alexandra Danvers, a tenured professor of chemistry at NCU. Even more sleuthing unearths a photograph from the Faculty of Science awards night three years previous, in which the other Dr Danvers had won the student's choice teaching award. And who had been flanking her, arms around the redhead and beaming faces pressed together, in her acceptance photo? Kara and Kelly.
The knowledge that Kelly has a wife, and Kara a sister, who is also an NCU faculty member – hell, the knowledge that Kelly and Kara are sisters-in-law – has Nia reeling for a solid week.
The discovery feels a little akin to how she'd felt at six years old, seeing her first-grade teacher in the grocery store and realising that teachers had lives outside their jobs, that they didn't all sleep in the school cafeteria at night as Nia had secretly suspected.
She can't count the number of hours she's spent with Kara at this point in her programme, the late nights and shared coffees and minor (and major) lab mishaps they've extinguished together. And yet, she suddenly realises that actually, she knows next to nothing about her.
It's a little unnerving. Outside of being a brilliant scientific mind and an unusually kind and generous supervisor, Kara has an entire life that Nia cannot even begin to guess at. She's older than Nia, but not that much – like Professor Luthor, Kara had been smashing records for early appointments to high-ranking positions throughout her academic career.
But now, Nia finds herself wondering not only about Kara's scholastic life, but also her personal one. As a tenured professor since the age of twenty-eight, now, at thirty-three, what did Kara's life look like outside her job? She has a sister, Nia now knows, a sister who has a wife. Does she have nieces and nephews? Is she married? Does she have kids?
Surely not. Surely, Nia would know about that. Nevertheless, her curiosity is piqued like never before. She watches Kara more closely than ever during their endless seminars and lab hours, desperate for any more morsels that her idol might choose to share.
It's hero worship beginning to border on obsession, she knows, but so what. As long as she only observes without prying, takes what is shared without digging for more, she doesn't see what's so wrong with a little unhealthy interest. After all, there are far worse people to idolise.
Kara isn't the only one Nia's watching like a hawk.
If Professor Danvers is a closed book disguised as a wide-open book, then Professor Luthor is, like, a book made of stone. A book whose pages are welded shut, secured with lock and key and buried in concrete behind an impenetrable forcefield.
She's a riddle wrapped in an enigma coated in a repellent shield of iron-clad privacy. Gleaning anything about Lena's personal life is more of a challenge than hacking into the Pentagon. That doesn't stop Nia trying, though.
Months of fruitless observation are assuaged one morning in late October when Lena bustles into her office twenty minutes late for their standing TA meeting. Lena has never, in all the time Nia's known her, been so much as a second late for anything, and Nia is privately considering which law enforcement agency it would be best to call to track her down when the office door at last swings open.
Lena is harried, hair windswept and cheeks pink as she juggles an obscene amount of folders and boxes and bags in her arms. Nia jumps up, relieving her of some of her load before it all comes crashing to the ground.
Lena shoots her a grateful smile, wincing when her trapped hair tugs painfully beneath her winter scarf. “So sorry I'm late. My morning got a little— hectic. Thanks, Nia,” she pants, knocking the office door closed with one hip. “You can just put those on the desk.”
Nia does, carefully setting down the pile of folders and three stacked Tupperwares on an unoccupied corner. Her gaze catches on the contents of the transparent boxes, and her eyebrows raise.
"Cake?” she asks before her brain has caught up with her mouth. “Is it someone's birthday?”
Lena freezes halfway through her disrobing process, one end of her scarf trailing on the ground.
Nia's eyes widen. “Is it your birthday?”
The mystery of Lena Luthor's birthday is a staple legend of NCU's physics department. Courtesy of Kara, the faculty lounge sports a garish calendar outlining every professor and doctoral student's birthday, or as Kara calls them, cake days. The only name conspicuously missing from the list is Lena's, and betting on when the young professor's birthday actually falls is a primary pastime of students and professors alike.
No one has ever gotten it right, or, at least, not that Lena has admitted to. The general consensus among disgruntled bettors seems to be that she simply doesn't age.
Lena's cheeks flush even as she pulls her most convincing haughty expression onto her face, hanging her coat and scarf on the hook by the door. “I have no idea what you're talking about.”
Nia smirks, pushing the extra-large Americano she'd picked up for her mentor across the desk towards her. “Happy birthday, Lena.”
The young woman sweeps the offending Tupperwares off the desk and deposits them out of sight in a drawer. “Not a word of this to anyone,” she says sternly, overall intimidation factor lessened significantly by the unsubtle quirk of her lips and the grateful sigh she lets out as she takes a long sip of coffee.
Nia draws an invisible cross over her heart. “Scout's honour.”
Lena shakes her head, eyes soft and warm as she bustles around the office. “So, I've got the revised 115 lesson plans for next week,” she calls over her shoulder as she deposits various items from her many bags into cupboards and drawers. “Adjusted to go over infinite square wells again, since they all struggled with that on the midterm. They should be in that top folder there if you want to take a look.”
Nia reaches for the indicated folder, only for a loose sheet of paper to flutter out of the top. She picks it up and, okay. It's not like she means to look. But really, how can she not?
The paper holds a shaky, child-like drawing of two figures. One as tall as the length of the page, with thick black hair and bright red lips, holding the hand of another a third of her size, with curly brown hair and a perfectly triangular orange dress. To Aunt Lena, love Esme, is printed in wobbly capitals above their heads, the s written backwards.
Lena notices her silence and peers over her shoulder. “Oh,” she mutters, embarrassment colouring her cheeks as she accepts the drawing Nia proffers. “Ah, sorry.”
“No worries,” Nia grins, settling back in her chair as Lena takes a seat opposite her. “I see a bright creative future for the artist. Very imaginative use of colour and shapes.”
Lena's face softens as she gazes at the picture for a moment before depositing it carefully in her top desk drawer. "Indeed,” she says wryly, lips quirking. “A birthday present from my niece. She's got quite the gift.”
Niece, Nia thinks. So Kara isn't the only one with siblings.
“It's adorable,” Nia agrees.
Lena smiles. “She is. And one of those slices of extremely delicious homemade cake can be yours if you agree never to mention nieces or drawings or birthdays in this office again.”
Nia chortles into her coffee cup. “Deal.”
"Pleasure doing business,” Lena smirks. “Now, about those lesson plans...”
After Christmas, a new development occurs that throws a spanner of confusion into Nia's meticulously constructed picture of who her supervisor is.
The winter break has seen the physics faculty receive a sorely needed fresh coat of paint, new desk chairs all round and a reshuffling of furniture between offices and lounges. Nia's sitting in Kara's redone office, waiting for supervisor to finish her phone call so they can talk through the most recent progress in her research timeline, when her eyes fall upon yet another new addition to the space.
There, on Kara's desk, right beside her Newton's cradle and pot sticker mug and *NSync mousepad, is a photograph. From inside the white wooden frame, two faces smile. One of them, unsurprisingly, is Kara's.
The other, though. The other face is Lena's.
Nia's mouth drops open. Her two favourite professors are standing side by side in the photo, not touching, but close nevertheless. They're both smiling at the camera; small, secretive smiles that are a far cry from the face-splitting grin Nia's used to associating with her supervisor.
She recognises the picture's background, Lena's glittering black and silver dress and Kara's smart shirt, as the science faculty's winter mixer that she'd been invited to just before the holidays. The entire staff and doctoral student body had been there and the hired photographer had been snapping incessantly all evening, every combination of poses and people under the sun.
It's not that weird, Nia supposes, that the two highest fliers of the physics department would pose for a photo together at a work social event. What is that weird is that Kara would choose to print that very same photo – the one of her and her arch nemesis – and frame it pride of place on her desk.
“It's got to be ironic,” William says when she tells the boys about her discovery over lunch that day, deep in thought as he crunches loudly through a stick of celery. “Danvers and Luthor both know that we all know about their rivalry. Kara must be playing into it, hamming it up for all the students who pass through her office. She's just the type to do something like that as a joke.”
“And to piss Lena off even further,” Nia hums in agreement. As one-upmanship goes, it's a pretty slick move.
“I bet it's motivation,” Winn butts in. “Spite fuel. She looks at a photo of Lena and she's reminded of why she has to beat her.”
Nia shakes her head. “She's not throwing darts at Lena's mugshot, Winn. It's a framed photo of the two of them together. Together and smiling, no less.”
Winn considers this for a moment, slurping his milkshake loudly. “Yeah, true. It's gotta be satire, then. Another part of Kara's skit, like the time she named the clock in the faculty lounge after Lena because nothing else in the building was that tightly wound.”
Nia shakes her head, chortling into her salad as William snorts orange juice out of his nose.
“NCU physics,” Winn sighs, leaning back in his chair and folding his arms behind his head. “You've gotta admit, it's never boring.”
The summer between her third and fourth years, Nia travels with Kara to Metropolis as her research assistant. They spend two months ensconced in the labs at U of M, working on a joint decoherence research project with hotshot Professor Clark Kent and his powerhouse wife Dr Lois Lane, who also happen to be Kara's cousins.
The work is cutting-edge, thrilling, and absolutely brain-melting. Nia learns more about quantum lab work in eight weeks than she had in the first eight years of her university education. Assisting Kara in the research that will form the basis of her upcoming book is rewarding on both a professional and personal level, and the hands-on experience she gains is instrumental in informing plans for her own lab research over the final two years of her doctorate.
She misses Brainy like crazy, of course, but otherwise throws herself into the excitement of the Metropolis summer. She and Kara have neighbouring hotel rooms and pass an enjoyable two months eating room service breakfast for dinner at the tiny dining table in Kara's room, chattering excitedly about their day in the lab as The West Wing plays on low in the background.
They go for dinner at Clark and Lois’ at least twice a week, and what begins as a starstruck, anxiety-ridden nightmare as Nia attempts to navigate conversation with three of the brightest minds in her field without looking like a complete idiot quickly morphs into a genuinely enjoyable experience.
She meets Lois’ younger sister Lucy and they hit it off immediately, going out for dinner and drinks in the city every weekend. All in all, the trip is a resounding success, allowing Nia to cultivate experience and connections in the world of quantum physics that she couldn't otherwise have dreamed of.
With only a week left of their project, she and Kara decide to take advantage of their time in the city and attend a symposium on transactional interpretation chaired by Perry White, head of quantum studies at the East Coast Institute of Physics. They've agreed to meet in the hotel lobby at six and grab dinner in the cultural district before heading to the talk, but Nia's daily phone call to Brainy wraps up quicker than expected when he has to run off to deal with a software emergency, and she finds herself waiting on the hotel's plush velvet couches fifteen minutes early.
She's thoroughly absorbed in her Tiktok feed, sinking lower and lower into the comfortable cushions with each passing minute, when a familiar voice pulls her attention.
“I know, baby, I know,” Kara is saying into the phone trapped between her ear and shoulder, rooting determinedly through her purse with both hands. She and Nia are separated by a row of potted ferns, and her supervisor doesn't appear to notice her presence at all.
“Two months is too long. I know, I miss you too. Yeah. Yeah. Well,” she says after a beat of silence on her end, a smile evident in her voice. “Next time you'll just have to come with me, then.”
Kara chuckles into the phone as Nia presses herself deeper into the couch cushions, cheeks burning with the shame of accidentally eavesdropping on a part of her life her advisor has always kept strictly private.
“I'd better go,” Kara says after a moment, snapping her purse shut and retrieving her phone from the crook of her neck. “Nia and I are going to— yeah, that's right. Perry White. I know. I haven't seen him since the wedding.” Kara laughs again, light and tender and intimate in a way Nia's never heard her before. “Oh, absolutely. I'll tell him, baby. Don't you worry.”
Nia watches Kara check her watch and sigh, her expression mournful. “I wish we could, too,” she says softly into her cell. "But it's only six more days.”
She chuckles again, face creasing with affection. “Exactly. Exactly. If we can do that, we can do this. Alright. Yeah, of course. Call me tomorrow?” Another pause, another blinding smile meant only for whoever's on the other end of the line. “I will. Yeah, you too. I love you. Bye, sweetheart.”
Kara taps out of the call, staring down at her illuminated phone for a long moment. Whatever she's looking at on her screen tugs the softest expression Nia has ever seen onto her advisor's face, blue eyes crinkling with unbridled adoration.
Nia's heart clenches in her chest. Despite her embarrassment she's so happy, so incredibly glad to learn that Kara has someone in her life that makes her light up inside, beaming brighter than the sun from a mere phone call.
It doesn't matter that she doesn't know who that someone is. Doesn't matter that nosy curiosity is scratching through her veins hotter and more insistent than ever before.
Kara is happy, that much is plain; she's blissfully, deliriously happy. Thus, Nia's happy too.
Every year of her doctorate thus far, Nia has managed to convince herself that her life has reached its peak; that it is the fullest, the hardest, the busiest it is ever going to get.
Each successive year, she manages to prove herself wrong.
Never has her own previous naivete hit her harder than in her fourth year. Her thesis research has now begun in earnest and juggling those endless hours in the lab with meetings and advisory sessions and midnight library breakdowns, with her responsibilities as a TA, a girlfriend, a human being, feels increasingly like an impossible task.
She eats, sleeps, and breathes physics, reciting quantum classifications on her bike ride to campus and having extended conversations with herself in the shower as she tries to puzzle out the finer points of her thesis statement.
She spends more time with Winn and her professors than she does with her boyfriend, alternately falling asleep with the former at a library desk after midnight and forcing herself to stay awake through endless meetings with the latter, desperate to prove to her mentors that she can, in fact, do this.
Her thesis committee, for their part, are wonderful. Sam's hints on research design shave untold hours of unnecessary work off her planning process, and Jack's encyclopaedic knowledge of theoretical mechanics helps her to craft her lit review far quicker than she would using NCU's library database.
Kelly in particular turns out to be a goldmine. As a statistician by background she's the ideal captain to steer Nia through the murky waters of data collection and analysis, and her kind demeanour and calming voice soothe her through a not insignificant number of stress-induced breakdowns.
But it's Kara and Lena that Nia comes to rely on the most. As luck would have it, her doctoral research exists slap bang in the centre of the overlapping Venn diagram of her two idols’ areas of specialisation, meaning input and advice from both of them is crucial at nearly every stage of the process.
Nia has opted for a cross-disciplinary approach to her research, an otherwise prudent decision that unfortunately means she frequently ends up mediating her two mentors’ diametrically opposed interpretations of quantum mechanics.
To their credit, Kara and Lena have managed to keep things relatively civil ever since that first fateful committee meeting. Though the thinly veiled barbs and scathing glances tossed back and forth between them number too many to count, there are no more screaming matches or dramatic exits during their weekly meetings. At least, none that Nia's privy to.
That's not to say the process is plain sailing, though. Far from it.
One cold February evening, the three of them have been bouncing off the walls of the computer lab for six hours already, no closer to a solution to Nia's most recent problem than they had been when they'd first sat down.
Nia drops her head to her hands, massaging her temples as the heated debate rages on around her. The issue of the hour centres on a disagreement over which quantum mechanics software Nia should use to process her data. Lena is pushing hard for VASP while Kara favours ADF, and neither is willing to give an inch on their respective entrenched positions.
Nia, coffee- and sleep-deprived and with her brain surely liquefying steadily within her skull, has no idea which of the two would be better. She also knows she needs to come to a decision tonight; no part of her research project can advance until her processing software is nailed down.
“ADF can predict molecular properties of organic electronic materials,” Kara says for the fourth time that day, hands braced on an unoccupied workbench as she stares down her opponent. “That's going to give her an advantage in the later stages of the project.”
"But it risks all the pitfalls of the Car-Parrinello method, which would just be an unnecessary headache,” Lena counters, arms folded across her chest as she perches on the radiator below the window. “VASP's matrix diagonalisation scheme is a more reliable choice.”
In the middle of the room between them, Nia rolls her eyes to the heavens and prays to whatever entity may be up there for the strength to make it through this day without any of the three of them turning to homicide.
“Alright, that's it,” she snaps just as Kara opens her mouth to parry right back, the sudden bite of her tone fuelled by the fact that it's late and she's tired and she hasn't seen her boyfriend in three days despite the fact that they live together and she just wants to go home. “Why don't I just use Gaussian instead?”
Two pairs of eyes, one startling green, one luminous blue, cut to her face, two mouths opening in wordless shock. For the first time in six hours, it seems neither Kara nor Lena have anything to say.
Nia takes that as a green light to keep talking. “Gaussian allows for a wider range of conditions than ADF or VASP,” she says, sending a silent prayer of thanks to Brainy's incredible computational knowledge for these pearls of wisdom. “And it's better for reactions that are impossible to observe experimentally, which will help me in Phase 3.”
She taps a finger against her research outline lying open on the desk between them. Both professors continue to stare at her, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, as a pipe ticks in the walls and the chilly February wind whistles past their fifth-floor windows.
“That's— actually an excellent point,” Lena concedes quietly at the exact moment Kara mutters “You might be right there.”
Nia beams under the tentative seal of approval, honestly more overjoyed by the fact that her brainwave means she'll get to go home soon than the fact that it may have just saved her thesis.
Both professors are still staring at her from opposite ends of the room, and Nia's cheeks begin to heat under the scrutiny. “Well, don't look so surprised, I'm smart too,” she mutters as the silence drags on, side-eyeing the both of them as she makes a note of her decision in her project plan. “You guys are just show-offs.”
There's a tense beat as her words land, as Nia realises exactly what she's just said and who she's just said it to. Her mouth opens, apologies already poised on the tip of her tongue, when both professors seem to snap out of their daze simultaneously.
“That's fair,” Lena concedes, one perfectly manicured brow quirking in amusement as across the room Kara gives a helpless half-shrug, humming her unrepentant agreement.
It's Nia's turn to be shocked into silence as above her head the two women lock gazes, green eyes meeting blue as two mouths tug upwards at the corners ever so slightly.
Nia is reeling. Not only has she just outsmarted both her certifiable genius mentors, but she has truly performed the impossible today. For the first time in her four years at NCU – hell, maybe even for the first time in all of human history – she's found something upon which Kara Danvers and Lena Luthor can agree.
Unlike the majority of NCU's student body, the summer brings Nia no real respite.
Though classes finish for the year and she no longer has any TA responsibilities, her own programme doesn't break for the holidays. Nia spends a sweaty, stressful three months haunting the near-deserted campus, taking advantage of the empty labs and quiet library to make significant progress on her thesis.
Many of the professors who aren't out in the field conducting research are still around too, and Nia still has regular meetings with members of her thesis committee to iron out problems and ensure she's still on the right track with her project.
She shows up for one such meeting one blazing July day, knocking on Kelly's office door and doing her best not to drop the obscene stack of data sheets in her arms all over the corridor.
She enters to find Kelly hunched over the table in the corner of the room, peering intently at the colouring book set out in front of a curly-haired child. "That's very good, honey,” she's murmuring, one hand rubbing gentle circles between the girl's shoulder blades.
She glances up at Nia's entrance and smiles, gesturing to the chair in front of her desk before turning her attention back to the child. “Okay, baby, Mama has to work now,” she says gently, pressing a kiss to soft brown curls. “You just colour nice and quiet like we talked about, and then we'll go to the water park, yeah?”
The girl nods, blinking up at her with big brown eyes. “And ice cream?”
“And ice cream,” Kelly promises. “We won't be long.”
The girl nods again, tongue sticking out between her teeth as she colours with zen-like concentration.
Kelly smiles, rounding the desk to take a seat in her office chair. “Sorry, Nia,” she says with a fond sigh. “Our sitter came down with the stomach flu, so today's an impromptu bring-your-daughter-to-work day. Summer vacation, you know how it is.”
Nia nods, shifting in her seat. “If you need to go, we can definitely rearrange—”
“No, no, don't worry,” Kelly chuckles. “She's happy as a clam with her juice box and her colouring. And you have some data anomalies that need our attention.”
Between them, they manage to get the issues ironed out in under an hour, and Nia feels a massive weight lift off her shoulders when Kelly assures her that her handful of incongruous results don't in fact mean that her entire project is doomed.
She gathers up her papers feeling lighter than she has in weeks, smiling when the little girl who's coloured patiently in the corner this whole time comes barrelling across the office onto her mother's lap. Kelly huffs out an oof at the impact, thanking her daughter for letting her work and smiling at the girl's excited chattering about which waterslide she's going to try first.
“Thanks again, Kelly,” Nia says as she shoulders her bag, wiggling her fingers at the child. “Enjoy the water park!”
“I'm sure we will,” Kelly smiles, tilting her face down to the little girl bouncing in her lap. “Say bye to Nia, Esme.”
"Bye Nia,” the little girl chirps dutifully, waving back with tiny fingers.
"Bye, Esme,” Nia grins. The name is familiar somehow, tugging at something buried deep in her mind, but whatever it is remains hidden as her thoughts turn to the Ben & Jerry's waiting in her own freezer at home. “Enjoy your ice cream!”
The beginning of Nia's fifth and final doctoral year brings with it, as a highlight, the latest instalment in the gripping Danvers-Luthor academic hate-letter saga.
The title of the omnibus is now so long, incorporating so many claims and counterclaims, that it spans twelve lines of text on the front cover. Winn and Nia read it together, hunched over the thick-bound journal in a corner of the deserted physics faculty lounge.
It's quiet aside from the occasional hiss or shriek of delight as they come across a particularly vicious burn, words like incompetent and unsubstantiated and illogical cropping up with increasing frequency as the article goes on.
So absorbed are they in their most recent hit of eloquently worded savagery that when the door to the faculty lounge slams open, the two of them jump about three feet in the air.
“And she had the audacity to call my research unfounded!” Lena yells as she shoulders through the doorway, cheeks flushed and eyes flashing. “Mine! When her idea of proper scientific process is to daydream about an idea for three hours in the bath and then submit it for publication!”
Professor Arias follows Lena into the lounge with a firm hand on her elbow, releasing her only when the door has closed behind them. “Yeah, I heard. You know, when you just announced it to the entire building,” Sam says tiredly, shaking her head. Her gaze falls on Winn and Nia, who've snapped the journal in question shut and shoved it hurriedly under their chairs. “Hi, you two.”
They wave back nervously, trying to look less guilty than they feel, but Lena doesn't even seem to notice their presence. “The nerve of her!” she growls, teeth grinding as she clenches and unclenches her fists at her sides. "To accuse me like that in a public journal? I mean, really.”
Sam rolls her eyes to the heavens, turning to the coffee machine in the corner with desperation in her gaze. “In fairness, babe, is that not exactly what you've been doing to her for the past half decade?”
Lena ignores her, furious gaze fixed on some indeterminate spot in the middle distance as a muscle in her cheek flickers. “She is so far out of line this time,” she snarls, shoulders tensing. “And to think that eight years ago I willingly chose to—”
“Uh, Lena,” Sam interrupts sharply, shooting a pointed gaze toward where Winn and Nia are silently attempting to become one with their chairs. "Maybe not in front of the kids?”
Lena's head whips round, gaze landing on the two of them for the first time. She sucks in a deep, shuddering breath as she visibly forces her own muscles to relax. “Oh. Hi, Nia. Winn,” she says a little shakily, nodding at them with a strained smile. “My, ah— my apologies.”
“All good,” Winn mumbles as Nia gives a dismissive wave, both of them studiously avoiding those piercing green eyes.
“Sit down, have a coffee, take a breath,” Sam says firmly, pressing a mug into Lena's hands and nudging her backwards until she sinks into a nearby armchair. “D’you want to call Rubes with me? That always cheers you up.”
“I have good reason to be pissed, Samantha,” Lena says, voice low and dangerously quiet as her teeth continue to grind. “You can't distract me out of this.”
“I know, I know,” Sam says placatingly, one hand on Lena's forearm as she tugs her phone out of her blazer pocket with the other. “But I bet my daughter can. Look! Photos from when she tried ice skating last weekend. Look at her flat on her ass, she's so cute.”
Sam Arias must have some kind of secret superpower in addition to her super intellect, Nia thinks, as she watches the most intimidating, furious professor she's ever seen reduce to a boneless amalgamation of smiles and gentle coos as she stares down at Sam's phone screen.
Either that, or her daughter is really cute.
December brings the winter round of convocations and with it, Lena Luthor's third completed PhD.
Nia and Winn are in attendance, decked out in their best formalwear to support their mentor. They sit in NCU's draughty grand auditorium beside Kara, Sam, Jack, and Kelly, as well as a handful of other faculty members there to cheer on their students and colleagues alike.
When Lena's name is called and she crosses the stage, resplendent in her black and royal blue robes and doctoral tam, their entire row jumps to its feet, exploding into loud cheers and raucous clapping. Lena glows as she accepts her diploma, shooting a beaming smile in their direction as she makes her way offstage.
Nia is buzzed off the contact high of her mentor's success, but even that isn't enough to temper how boring the rest of the ceremony is. She watches student after student cross the stage after Lena without taking any of it in, distracted by the grumbling of her stomach and the chill on her bare arms.
To keep her mind occupied she flicks through the order of ceremony booklet she'd found on her seat, skimming the endless lists of graduates until she finds the one she's looking for.
Dr Lena Luthor is a specialist in quantum mechanics who made history when she became the youngest ever tenured professor, joining the NCU physics department at the age of 26, the bio beneath her faculty photo reads. She already holds two doctorate titles, for her work on the quantum equilibrium hypothesis and the Faraday wave respectively. Dr Luthor would like to dedicate her third doctorate, exploring the effects of quantum entanglement on disparate elements, to her wife, whom she wishes to thank for her unending support.
Nia reads the biography. Then she reads it again. And again, and again, and again.
When she's certain her eyes aren't playing tricks on her, she elbows Winn roughly in the ribs, ignoring his muted yelp of protest.
“What?” he hisses under his breath, glaring at her. “Also, ow.”
Nia ignores him, jabbing her finger at the page right under the accusing word burning itself into her retinas.
“Wife?” Winn gasps after a brief pause, mouth dropping open. “I'm sorry, wife?”
“Right?” Nia hisses back. “I had no idea! Who do you think it is?”
Their speculation is cut short when the entire audience rises around them, clapping and cheering as the new graduates form a steady procession out of the hall. Nia and Winn follow their professors mutely as they file from their seats, both lost in their respective minefields of shock.
Before Nia realises what's happening she finds herself on the faculty floor of the physics building, following the others to collect the coats and bags they'd left there before the ceremony. Nia and Winn stand slack-jawed in the middle of Lena's office, staring blankly at the carpet as their instructors divert to the lounge to unearth the bottle of champagne they'd stashed there earlier, ready for when Lena arrives.
It could be seconds, it could be hours before the office door opens again. Nia and Winn jump in unison as Lena enters, doctoral tam still atop her head but formal robes gone, revealing a tight black long-sleeved slip dress and a plunging neckline Nia is definitely not ogling.
“Oh, hi, you two,” Lena smiles, beaming and a little breathless with the euphoria of the occasion. “Thank you both for coming tonight. It means a great deal to me.”
Silence stretches taut between the three of them for a long, awkward moment, until—
“You have a wife?” Nia explodes quite without meaning to, the thought that's been bouncing around the inside of her skull for the past half hour falling out of her mouth without her permission.
Lena pauses, hands stilling where they're laying her new diploma carefully on her desk. She glances up at Nia with pursed lips, one eyebrow arching.
“Sorry,” Nia blurts, cheeks heating. “Sorry. It's just— you, you have a wife!”
At her side, Winn nods frantically, mouth opening and closing in wordless agreement.
Lena straightens slowly, mouth quirking as she appraises the pair of them. She seems to be weighing her options, and yet more awkward silence unfurls in the dim office until she speaks again.
“I do,” Lena breathes at last, eyes sparkling. “I do have a wife.”
“Who?” Winn all but yells, just as the office door at Lena's back opens once more.
Kara appears, resplendent in her fitted black tux and open-collared shirt, whatever she had been about to say evaporating into thin air as she takes in the scene in the office.
Her gaze skirts Nia and Winn's flushed faces before jumping to meet Lena's. Something wordless and shivering passes through the air between the two women, bright and delicate and caught up in quirking lips and blown-wide pupils.
Time seems to stand still for an aching eternity and then, at long last, Lena gives the slightest nod.
Kara's shoulders relax and she reaches out, both hands sliding across the sheer material sheathing Lena's hips to clasp around her stomach from behind. "Ready to go, baby?” she hums, the normal cheerful timbre of her voice replaced with that same tender, intimate tone Nia had only ever heard her use once before, on a phone call in the lobby of a fancy Metropolis hotel.
Lena nods, nudging up on her tiptoes even in heels to press her lips to the corner of Kara's mouth. “Absolutely,” she breathes, shooting Winn and Nia one last amused glance over her shoulder as the pair of them turn toward the open door. “Let's go. Happy holidays, you two.”
She and Winn keep standing there.
They keep standing there as Kara and Lena disappear arm in arm. As Sam and Kelly and Jack file past the open door, laughing and swigging from an open bottle of champagne. As the lights in the corridor flick off, the building falling silent.
Nia can't move. Can't speak, can't even think of anything beyond the single word thudding around the inside of her mind like a ping pong ball on steroids: wife, wife, wife.
It's only when the door at the end of the faculty corridor opens once more and Sam Arias goes charging past the office, loudly cursing her forgotten phone, that her brain manages to focus on anything else.
First, and most importantly, she realises that as of 5PM that evening, NCU's winter break had officially begun, meaning she's going to be unable to get answers to the questions overflowing behind her teeth until early January. Second, and less important, she realises that she and Winn are at great risk of getting locked into this building for the entire duration of the holidays if they don’t shift their asses soon.
She grabs Winn by one slack elbow, dragging him out into the corridor just as Sam comes barrelling back, phone now in hand.
“What are you still doing here?” the brunette asks, shaking her head. “Go home, guys! It's the holidays!”
“Kara and Lena,” Winn mutters, shell-shocked. He doesn't seem to be aware of his own mouth moving.
Sam pauses, squinting at him in the dim corridor.
“Kara and Lena,” he repeats, eyelids fluttering in a daze.
Sam snaps her fingers in front of his face, to no avail. “Yeah, what about them?”
She turns to Nia, gaze questioning. “What's wrong with him?”
“We just— we just saw—” Nia's trying, really she is. She's trying so hard to be coherent right now. She can't be blamed for failing miserably. “In the booklet, and then in the office, with the hands and the dress and, and—” She sucks in a shuddering breath. “Kara and Lena are— they're—”
“Together?” Sam supplies helpfully. “Yeah. For about, what, fifteen years now? Married for nine.”
Nia gapes. “You— you knew?”
Sam clicks her tongue. “Obviously. I've known Lena since college. I was her maid of honour.”
“Does everybody know?”
“I mean, faculty do, yeah,” Sam says thoughtfully. “Most of them, anyway. The university administration knows. It's only the students that don't.”
“But— us too?” Winn gasps, wounded.
“Yeah,” Nia echoes, eyes narrowing as she shakes her head, coherence returning. “So much for welcome to faculty life. Whatever happened to you're one of us now? You left us in the dark for years.”
Sam shrugs, angelic and unrepentant. “It's not like it was deliberately kept secret from you guys. If you'd asked, I know they would have told you.”
“Why the hell would we ask?” Nia explodes. “We thought they hated each other.”
The brunette smirks, taking another long swig of champagne. “Oh, they do. At least at work. The rivalry, the screaming matches— that's no act.”
Nia and Winn squint at her with matching expressions of disbelief, noses scrunching. "Then— how—”
Sam sighs. “They agreed,” she says, rattling off the words like she's told the story a thousand times, “right back when they first started dating, to always leave work at work. They've been proponents of rival interpretations since undergrad. They're just— very good at maintaining their separation of professional and private.”
“But— how can they do that?” Nia asks, mind still reeling. “How can they go from ripping each other's throats out at work to being— being— wives?”
Sam shrugs again. “I don't know, they just do. They take their own cars, drive home separately at the end of the day, and by the time they get there they're not Professor Danvers and Professor Luthor anymore. They're Kara and Lena.” Sam glances pointedly at the door at the end of the corridor. “Can I go now?”
“No!” Winn snaps as Nia shakes her head. “I still have so many questions.”
“Well, then, you'd better ask them,” Sam says resolutely. “I'm not the official Danvers-Luthor mouthpiece, but I am late for my best friend's graduation party. Have a good night, guys.”
And then Nia and Winn are left alone, wide-eyed and slack-jawed and reeling in the silence. Nia thinks of every clue she's overlooked for the past four and a half years, every overheard phone call and anniversary plan and niece's drawing and homemade birthday cake, and wonders how the hell she missed it. She wonders how the hell she's expecting to ever earn a PhD when she can't see the things that are happening right under her nose.
Winn whistles through his teeth, long and low. “Holy shit, William was right,” he breathes into the darkness of the deserted corridor.
Nia quirks a brow and he shakes his head at her, gobsmacked.
“Remember, like, three years ago? He called it,” Winn says gleefully. “They certainly have put their contest to bed.”
Nia can't even find it within herself to thump him.
Nia gnaws on the discovery like a dog with a bone for the entirety of the winter break. More than once, Brainy has to click his fingers in front of her face to bring her back to whatever festive activity she's supposed to be enjoying.
“Nia,” he sighs around the eighteenth time this happens, shaking his head as he struggles to hold together the gingerbread house she's supposed to be icing. “Are you thinking about your professors again?”
But, okay, the thing is, Brainy doesn't get it.
He doesn't get what a big deal this is, what an absolutely mind-boggling, world-shattering, brain-melting revelation it had been to find out that the two women Nia looks up to more than anyone else in the world are not the mortal enemies she'd believed them to be, but are in fact in love.
Sickeningly in love, now that she thinks about it. Now that she knows what to look for, combing back through her memories with the gift of hindsight, every secret smile and gentle word and time she'd stumbled across the two of them living together paint a picture of a couple who are entirely smitten.
Nia's happy for them. Really, she is. If she thinks about it, there isn't anyone out there better suited to either of her two favourite mentors. They deserve each other, and she means that as the highest compliment she can possibly bestow.
That doesn't mean she isn't hella mad, though.
Nia storms into her supervisor's office first thing on Monday January 3rd, eyes narrowed and guns blazing. “You're married?”
Kara hops up from her chair, closing the door securely behind her. “Nia,” she says around a light, nervous laugh. “I had a feeling I might be seeing you this morning.”
The blonde pushes an extra-large coffee and a muffin basket across the desk towards her. Nia accepts the obvious bribe stonily, refusing to let it weaken her resolve even as she swallows a blueberry muffin whole.
“You made me think you hated her,” she accuses around a wet mouthful, pouting as best she can with her cheeks bulging out like a chipmunk's.
"No,” Kara says instantly, soft and sure. “Never. I could never. We just— see certain things differently, that's all. On a purely professional level.”
“You can't even chaperone a trip together!” Nia yells, muffled around her next bite of chocolate chip muffin. “You have screaming matches in the hallways!”
“Heated disagreements,” Kara corrects primly. “But our academic disputes are just that; academic. They have no bearing on what Lena means to me. On who she is as a person. Who she is as my wife.”
Nia swallows her enormous mouthful, washing it down with a scalding gulp of coffee. “You never told me,” she grumbles, quieter now, eyes watering beneath the burning of her oesophagus.
"No,” Kara concedes. “But to honest, I thought you knew. I mean, you came to my home and she opened the door, Nia. We haven't exactly been subtle around you.”
Nia considers this, belligerence evaporating as she reaches for her third muffin. “Sorry,” she mumbles around a mouthful of lemon poppyseed. “You're right. I was just so shocked, I never— none of the students even suspect.”
“And we'd like to keep it that way,” Kara says pointedly, and Nia nods. “Workplace professionalism, and all that.”
“I won't say a word,” she promises, leaning back in her chair. “Man, you guys are, like, really good at pretending not to be married.”
Kara chuckles. “We've had a lot of practice.”
“And you don't share a last name,” Nia muses, licking the crumbs from her fingers. “I guess that makes it easier.”
“We do, actually,” Kara hums, and Nia's eyes snap to her face.
“We took each other's names legally when we married, but both kept our maiden names at work,” Kara says with a wistful smile. “The need for continuity in the authorship of our published research, you know what it's like. But, can I show you something?” she asks, and Nia nods.
Kara unlocks her phone, tapping a few times before holding it out. On the screen is a photo of Lena in what must be their home office, soft and sweater-clad and beaming with pride beside a framed diploma on the wall.
“Zoom in,” Kara prompts, and Nia does, squinting at the diploma's curling script. It's Lena's third PhD, she realises from the date inscribed beneath the NCU seal. And, lower still, there's her name in thick looping cursive.
Doctor Lena Luthor-Danvers.
Nia clutches at her heart as she hands the phone back, smiling so wide it's painful. “That,” she declares resolutely, “is the cutest thing I've ever seen in my life.”
Kara beams down at her phone for a moment, her entire being softening. “It is, isn't it?”
She locks her phone and deposits it back on the desk. “We couldn't hang that one where any students might see it,” she says as she leans back in her chair, fingers tapping against the arm rest. “But I like it at home. And honestly, her office walls are getting kind of crowded anyway.”
Nia smirks. “Yeah. You'd think the four diplomas she already has up there would be enough.”
“For Lena?” Kara grins. "Never.”
There's a companionable silence for a moment as they both sip their coffees, before Kara clears her throat. “Well, now that I've successfully bribed you out of your indignation, shall we get back to work?” she asks around a grin, and Nia nods. “Eight months left until you become a doctor, Ms Nal. Here we go.”
Actually, the revelation that Lena Luthor and Kara Danvers are in fact Lena and Kara Luthor-Danvers has remarkably little impact on Nia's day to day life at NCU.
She still works closely with both of them, benefitting from their expertise and mediating their many disagreements. Still TAs Lena's class and eats Kara's homemade cookies on Fridays and reads the three-monthly instalments of the two of them destroying each other's research in a published journal.
Nothing really changes at all, aside from the fact that with every passing day she's hurtling closer and closer to the completion of her PhD. She attends conferences, publishes papers, finishes her thesis, and generally runs herself ragged preparing for her viva, the oral exam in which she'll defend her research in front of a panel of examiners.
Her committee is extremely supportive; Kara, Lena, Sam, Jack and Kelly take turns passing the entire month of June grilling her on every minute detail of her dissertation in preparation for her defence. Sure, Nia cries a few times, and has to be coaxed through the occasional panic attack by Kelly or Lena. But by the end of the month she's feeling as ready as she'll ever be, confident that she knows her research inside out and, more than that, that the brightest minds she knows are confident in her project too.
The day of her viva, Nia spends the morning practically vibrating with energy in Kara's office as she waits for her allotted time slot. Brainy is there for moral support, hand clenched in hers so tightly his knuckles turn white, but he never voices so much as a word of complaint.
Kara tries valiantly to distract her from her nerves and, when that fails, indulges Nia's last minute need to panic-review every aspect of her methodology to check for any fault she may have overlooked in the course of the past two years. At noon, with two hours still to go before the defence, there's a knock on Kara's office door.
Lena's face appears in the doorway, and then she's hipchecking the door closed behind her and depositing a wealth of paper bags on Kara's desk. “Hey, you,” she smiles at her wife, rounding the desk to perch herself on the arm of Kara's office chair.
“Nia,” she says gently as she takes her seat, green eyes searching. “How are we doing? How are our panic levels?”
Nia grips Brainy's hand tighter still, entire body locked and rigid. “Uh, I would say they're pretty high.”
“Alright, well, I brought everyone lunch, so we can focus on that for a while instead,” Lena says, raising her eyebrows as Nia's mouth opens to protest. “No, you will eat. You need your strength.”
Nia forces herself to comply, mechanically chewing her way through the wrap Lena hands her and washing it down with a green smoothie that she doesn't taste at all.
“You must be the Brainy I've heard so much about,” Lena smiles as they all dig in, and her boyfriend nods. “It's great that you're here. Moral support is so important on defence day.” She tilts her head to gaze down at her wife, and Kara beams up at her.
“I've been there before each one of Lena's vivas, and she was there before mine,” Kara says, shooting a glance at the door to make sure it's firmly closed before sneaking an arm round her wife's waist, thumbing at her hip.
Lena hums, leaning into the contact, and Nia knows she must be stressed because she can't even enjoy this rare show of affection between her two idols the way she normally would.
“Have I ever told you that I spilled coffee all over my external examiner right before my first defence was scheduled to start?” Lena says, and Nia's head snaps up. That gets her attention.
“You did not.”
Kara chuckles as Brainy's eyes widen.
“She certainly did. She was nervous-pacing the corridor outside the examination room so energetically that when the examiner rounded the corner, she smacked straight into him,” the blonde confirms as Lena cringes, squeezing her wife's thigh. “Doused the poor man in half a litre of black coffee.”
Nia's mouth drops open as Brainy giggles.
Lena winces, green eyes sliding closed. “He had to do my viva in a borrowed MIT sweatshirt from the athletics department that was three sizes too big.”
Nia gapes. “Jesus Christ.”
Lena rolls her eyes to heaven, biting her lip as she shakes her head. “Tell me about it.”
The next ninety minutes passes in a pleasant blur of trading academic horror stories and before Nia knows what's happening, it's time to go down to the examination room.
She leaves the three of them in Kara's office – no members of her thesis committee are permitted to be present during her defence – and says goodbye with her heart in her throat.
Brainy hugs her for three unbroken minutes, squeezing confidence into her with every passing second. Lena lays a gentle hand on her shoulder, her gaze achingly sincere. “You've got this, Nia,” she murmurs, dipping her head so their gazes lock. “You're going to do great.”
Kara stands, clapping Nia on the back with a broad grin. “You sure are,” she beams, steady and sure. “Knock ‘em dead, kid.”
The two hours of her thesis defence are the single most stressful of Nia's life.
The entire thing passes in a blur of questions and rebuttals and clarifications, the memory of which fades almost instantaneously. Nia absently suspects that her brain is trying to protect her from the trauma, blanking the experience out like a car crash.
At the end of two gruelling hours she staggers out of the examination room doors to find her entire thesis committee plus Brainy and Winn gathered in the hallway, a semicircle of expectant faces.
“Well?” Kara asks with more than a little trepidation. “How did it go? Did they give you corrections?”
Nia had been briefed to expect that, of course. The vast majority of students received corrections from the examiners during their defence, having either three or six months to complete them and resubmit their thesis, depending on the severity of the changes required.
She shakes her head mutely.
Kara's face falls though she tries valiantly to hide it, the other professors stifling winces behind their supportive smiles.
“Did they ask for a total resubmission?” Lena asks softly, her hesitation palpable. “Did— did they suggest a downgrade to an MPhil?”
Again, Nia shakes her head.
“Then what the hell did they say, Nia?” Winn explodes, his secondhand anxiety on her behalf getting the better of him.
Nia presses her lips together. Sucks in a deep, shuddering breath. “I— I passed.”
Winn whoops with joy as Brainy lifts her off the ground in a crushing hug, spinning her around the corridor. All around them, her professors cheer, grinning and clapping and patting her on the back.
Warm hugs and words of congratulations rain down on her from all sides and Nia feels like she's floating, the release of tension leaving her lightheaded and a little woozy.
“You know, the only other person here to pass a viva with no corrections is this one,” Kara grins, knocking her shoulder lightly against Lena's. “You're in the company of the greats now, Nia.”
“I think you mean Doctor Nal,” Lena corrects, her smile so bright it's blinding and shit, Nia doesn't think she'll ever get tired of hearing that.
She just grins and grins, clutching onto Brainy for dear life as all the hard work and late nights and endless tears of the past five years pay off in one single, heady, overwhelming rush.
“Well, this calls for a celebration,” Jack announces, and Lena nods.
“Yes, actually, we'd like to invite you all for dinner at our place tonight,” she says with a tender smile in Kara's direction. “To celebrate Nia's incredible success, and also because we've got something to tell you.”
Nia grins, lightheaded and walking on air but thankfully with enough of her wits about her to check that the corridor's clear of eavesdropping ears before she speaks.
“Don't tell me,” she smirks, glancing from Lena to Kara and back again. “You're secretly married.”
Showing up at Kara's door is both exactly the same and wholly different to three years’ previous.
Now that she's aware of the house's true occupants, she can see traces of Lena everywhere. In the plumerias lining the garden path, the floor-to-ceiling shelves overflowing with books in nearly every room, the expensive scotch in the liquor cupboard and the wedding photos in pride of place on the mantle.
The house is an homage to Kara and Lena's life together, and Nia feels so lucky that she's been invited to witness it.
Dinner is a raucous affair; Nia's five committee members crowd around the wooden dining table alongside Brainy and Winn, plus Kara's sister and Kelly's wife Alex and their daughter Esme, who remembers Nia straight away and immediately launches into a lengthy debate on the best ice cream flavour in the galaxy.
There's good food, courtesy of Kara, and good wine, courtesy of Lena. There's good conversation, laughter and jokes and bad science puns and endless toasts to Nia's PhD success.
The evening, in short, is a dream. Nia can't remember ever feeling happier.
When the main course has been cleared away and they're settling down to Kara's famous chocolate pecan pie for dessert, drinks refilled and cheeks sore from smiling, Lena stands.
“If I could steal your attention away from my wife's pie for one more minute,” she calls over the clamour, tapping her fork delicately against her glass. Sam boos loudly and everyone laughs, Kara reaching up to wrap her arm around Lena's waist and pull her body flush into her side.
“We're here tonight to celebrate Nia, who passed her thesis defence without a single correction today,” Lena starts, her smile dazzling. “Something only the very top handful of students ever manage to achieve.”
“You would know!” Kara calls and Lena chuckles, the arm not holding her glass aloft dropping around her wife's shoulders to tangle through her loose curls.
“We—” Lena inclines her head toward the four other professors gathered around the table, who grin back at her, “have all known Nia was something special from the beginning. Hell, she even managed to get my dear wife and I to sit on the same thesis committee for the first time in— how long was it, darling?”
“Seven years,” Kara beams angelically as the table explodes into laughter, tightening her arm at Lena's waist and twining the fingers of their other hands together.
“And to that end,” Lena continues, clearing her throat. “An academic journey as spectacular as Nia's is only going to go from strength to strength. And we all think—” She nods at her colleagues again, who smile back.
“Well, we hope,” Lena corrects with a quirk of her lips, “that that journey will continue with us.”
Every pair of eyes in the room turns to Nia, whose mouth drops open.
"That's right.” Kara picks up where Lena had left off, fixing Nia with a knowing grin. “On behalf of Cat Grant, faculty head at National City University, I am thrilled to offer you a permanent position as a lecturer in the department of physics starting this September.” She winks at Nia, blue eyes sparkling. “If you want it, that is.”
Nia stops breathing. She thinks her heart may even stop beating. “Are you serious?”
“For once in her life, she is,” Lena confirms as Jack and Kelly and Sam beam at her from all sides, Brainy's hand squeezing hers tight beneath the table as Winn gives her a congratulatory punch in the arm. "There's a job for you with us, Nia, if you'd like it.”
Nia shakes her head, pure shock and joyous disbelief coursing through her veins. When she'd moved to National City five years ago, she'd never imagined that she would find anything as beautiful as this. She'd never imagined that she'd find a home.
“So, what d’you say?” Kara asks gently, her grin expectant and shot through with glowing hope. “Feel like sticking around a little longer?”
“That depends,” Nia grins, gaze flicking back and forth between the two women who had gotten her to this point, who had helped her and guided her and provided her with more entertainment than Netflix ever had.
She smirks at Kara, then at Lena, feeling honoured and hopeful and happy with every fibre of her being. “Next time one of you throws a whiteboard eraser at my head, will I be allowed to throw it back?”