Lena felt her muscles pull and stretch, felt the expansion of her rib cage from her slowly drawn in breath. She held the air in her lungs as her body bent just so, a perfect juxtaposition of straight back and turned out leg, her chest pressing to her leotard so that the sweat-damp material stretched tight. The leg supporting her weight held her en pointe, the other lifted straight out behind her in an angle just beyond parallel to the ground. A practiced over-extension, one that not everyone could perform while maintaining good form, but Lena had worked for years to be able to manage. She kept her hips in perfect formation, squared and stable, her arm extended out in front of herself, the other curved over the barre. It was a well-executed arabesque.
And then she felt it. A tremor.
Her eyes closed with the horror of it and she hoped, she hoped, that it would go unnoticed.
But of course, she was never so lucky.
“Sloppy, Lena,” her mother snapped immediately. “You are trembling like a beginner. Hardly prima ballerina material.” Her smile was icy as she stepped closer, those cold eyes flickering over Lena with obvious derision. “I hope you don’t expect the National City Ballet to keep you around long with technique like that.”
Lena released her hold at last, letting her body relax again as she turned to face Lillian Luthor.
“We’ve been at it for hours, mother,” she said in a voice that held no traces of her exhaustion. No, Lena would not give her mother that satisfaction, would not make herself vulnerable to that degree. If Lillian sensed weakness, she would keep pushing until Lena was left with nothing.
“They’ve already hired me, but I won’t be cast as a featured dancer if I wear myself out before the auditions. I am done for tonight.” She kept her expression carefully flat, a perfect match to her voice. No strain, no irritation, no worry. She’d learned long ago that confrontations with her mother were best avoided. If she stated her intentions rather than forming them as a question, there would be no argument. Lillian Luthor despised making a scene.
Her disapproval and dissatisfaction were always clear, but she wouldn’t say no.
It was almost worth it.
“I see. If that rather weak attempt at dance is all you have in you tonight, then perhaps it’s for the best. Goodnight, Lena.”
She’d also learned a long time ago to shrug off her mother’s barbs. If they stung, she pushed it aside and tried to remind herself that she was all her mother had now since her father had passed, since Lex had…
If Lillian’s expectations were high, it was only because Lena was all that remained of her family, her legacy. She wanted what was best for her. She loved her, Lena told herself over and over. Lillian loved her.
She wished she actually believed it.
Lena had liked to dance, once.
Sometimes she still did, in the early hours of the morning when she was alone in the studio and her mother wasn’t standing nearby to judge every movement. When she could just let go for a bit and just be, though these moments were few and far between. She was hoping that dancing for the National City Ballet would give her more of that. Time away from Lillian, time to grow beyond Metropolis and her brother’s ever-present shadow.
Time to be known as Lena instead of by her surname.
She walked to the address Cat Grant had given her, pleased to find the National City Ballet’s building was a clean and aesthetically pleasing brick multilevel with flower pots flanking the front doors. Half the levels were dedicated to the National City Ballet’s practice sessions, she knew. The other half hosted more casual dance classes or classes for beginners.If there was one thing Cat Grant knew, it was efficiency and profit. Lena was no stranger to it either, and she recognized immediately that they had a good thing going here.
It didn’t take her long to find where she’d be working now, a third floor practice room not unlike most she’d been in.It was empty still, peaceful in its early morning quiet with sunlight striping the floor where it was just beginning to filter through the blinds. The barre was polished and the floor had been swept and mopped. The mirrored wall was clear of smudges, ready to perfectly reflect the artists that spent the day studying their craft in its panels.
No, not unlike other spaces she’d worked in, but it was still an honest pleasure to step inside.
Here was a place where art and discipline met. There was no better feeling to Lena than a new studio, a new start, and it was obvious that Cat Grant took great pride in what was hers. Lena breathed in the faint scent of Lysol and let herself smile, standing there in the center of the room with her eyes closed just absorbing the feeling.
“It’s nice, right?”
The voice jolted her and Lena whirled, fingers going tight around the strap of her bag.
It took her a moment to pinpoint the source of the voice, but eventually she spotted her. A pretty blonde girl who winced a bit sheepishly at having startled Lena before offering a smile, fingers fiddling with the arm of her glasses.
She was squatting behind the piano bench with a pile of disorganized sheet music gathered in her hands. It looked as if she’d dropped it all and had stooped down to pick it up. Which explained why Lena hadn’t seen her, as the massive instrument between them had obviously blocked her from her line of sight.
She straightened again and cleared her throat, shuffling the sheet music in a fruitless attempt to straighten it out again before giving up and dropping it all onto the piano bench. Then she was turning towards Lena again, that contrite smile still in place as she stepped closer.
“I’m really sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you,” she said, and she was closer now, but not close enough to touch, as if making sure Lena wasn’t still a bit frightened.
Which was preposterous. She was only a girl. There was nothing to be frightened of.
Lena managed a small nod, though she wasn’t sure she quite accepted the apology yet. Despite the fact it was preposterous, her heart was still racing and she could hear the rush of blood in her ears, pulsing there like a miniature heartbeat. Slowly, very slowly, she released her hold on the strap of her bag until she at last managed to lower it to the ground beside her feet.
She meant to say something along the lines of that’s alright, but she found herself asking instead, “What’s nice?”
“What?” There was a moment of confusion and head-tilting that Lena refused to be charmed by before the girl’s expression cleared and she smiled.
Lena could only blink at that smile. It radiated such pure and obvious joy, dimpling the girl’s cheeks and crinkling the corners of her eyes. Lena had never seen anyone smile quite like that before. She wondered how anyone could feel so much joy out of such a simple and stilted conversation.
“Oh! I meant… what you were doing.” She waved a hand vaguely towards Lena. “Standing there looking all happy because you thought you were alone and... I kind of ruined that.” She winced. “Sorry again. I just meant… the feeling of being the first one in the studio. It’s nice. Well, technically you were second I guess, but I’m not a dancer so I’m not sure that counts.”
“You’re a person,” Lena pointed out, and she hated that her voice was stiff as she said it. Trying to make up for it, she forced a small smile as she sank down to begin her stretches. God, Lena, try to act like a person yourself. “You count. I don’t mind being second.”
“Oh, okay. Well that’s good because I’m usually here pretty early.” She laughed and reached into her sweater pocket, jingled a set of keys before shoving both hands into the pockets of her jeans. “Since, you know, I unlock the place and all.” And she was still smiling, standing there watching Lena like she had nothing better to do.
Lena looked up at her, nodded slightly as she carefully flexed each muscle in her foot.
“I’m always early myself,” she murmured, and then looked away again.
It was the most she was willing to offer. She wasn’t here to make small talk with… whoever this girl was. She wasn’t Cat Grant so she wasn’t who Lena needed to impress and Lena wasn’t here to make friends. She was here to work, to be the best. Distractions like pretty girls in sunshine yellow sweaters were not appropriate or acceptable.
(“I didn’t raise you to be this way, Lena. I didn’t raise you to disgrace us with these… proclivities.”
Her mother’s words still echoed, still burned, even years later.
No, Lena did not need any distractions.)
But it seemed this girl didn’t have that same issue.
“I’m Kara Danvers,” she said, and suddenly she was stepping forward and sinking onto the ground beside Lena with that smile still in place, holding out a hand to shake. “Ms. Grant’s assistant, the rehearsal pianist, blah blah.”
Lena’s mind warred between her sense of decorum and the innate need for self-preservation, both of which seemed valid now as she met the bright-eyed enthusiasm of Kara Danvers head on. She was just so friendly and Lena was not, Lena had never had anyone like that, and every instinct was telling her to keep it from her life. Because everything about it spelled complicated and Lena’s life was already that.
Eventually, though, the manners hammered into her from childhood won out and she lifted a hand, sliding it carefully into Kara’s.
Like her eyes, like her smile, like the laugh still fresh in Lena’s memory, Kara’s hand was warm. Lena held her breath as they shook for the minimum amount of time deemed appropriate and then quickly withdrew again, eyes dropping down to focus on her feet and legs as she continued to stretch.
“Lena,” she offered after a moment.
Beside her, Kara went still.
Because of course Cat Grant’s assistant knew who she’d hired. Of course even her first name would be enough for this girl to recognize who she was. Lena felt herself stiffen in response, her lips pressed together in a hard line.
“Oh. Oh,” said Kara, and the short, repetitive syllables hung heavily in the space between them. Lena gritted her teeth and forced herself to look up, to meet the wide-eyed gaze of Kara Danvers squarely as she fought against a wave of temper.
I’m not him! She wanted to scream it. I’m not my mother, I’m not my father, I’m not my brother.
I’m just me.
But there was no sense in losing control of herself like that. It would only prove them right, would only make people like Kara more inclined to believe she could lash out like Lex. And she wouldn’t, she couldn’t, be compared to him anymore. She didn’t want to keep paying for his sins over and over, didn’t want to keep losing people as soon as she met them because she happened to share a name (a house, parents, childhood memories) with a murderer.
“Are you sure you still want to sit so close?” she asked, one eyebrow arching as she gave Kara a rather cool look. “Now that you realize I’m a Luthor?” She curled her body down over the length of her leg, as if Kara’s reaction had no effect on her.
(Never mind the heavy slam of her heart, the burning shame crawling up her chest, the acrid, bitter taste of bile at the back of her throat.)
When she was met with silence, she tilted her head to the side, lifting an eyebrow in her direction.
The question seemed to have flustered Kara, whose face grew pink under Lena’s scrutiny, and she looked away to fiddle with her glasses again. Lena might have been amused by how awkward she suddenly was if the subject didn’t leave her so sore. Instead she felt only a little ill and the good feeling the studio had given her was fading away.
She turned away from Kara and resumed her stretches, though she was highly aware of the fact she other girl hadn’t moved. Not toward and not away.
The apology was abrupt and unexpected, coming only after an awkward stretch of silence. Lena was so surprised that she looked towards Kara once more. Kara was actually looking at her again and she seemed… determined was the word that came to mind, though Lena hadn’t the faintest idea what was going through her head to make her look that way.
“That was really rude and I- that is, I didn’t mean to- um.” Kara huffed out a breath and adjusted her glasses again, looking more and more frustrated while Lena’s confusion only grew.
“It’s nice to meet you, Lena. Welcome. Genuinely.” She smiled, and Lena was so shocked by the whole thing that she didn’t even move away when Kara’s hand covered hers and squeezed gently. “I hope you’re happy here with us, and in National City.”
Then she was up and moving to the piano again, leaving Lena to do her stretches in peace.
Lena felt like she’d just been run over by the prettiest, warmest, most vanilla-scented steamroller in the city.
It wasn’t a disaster, per se.
As far as the program itself went, Lena was actually very pleased with National City Ballet. Cat Grant was a tough, no-nonsense instructor who praised rarely and criticized often, though her biting witticisms were often so ridiculously phrased that Lena had a hard time taking them too seriously.
(After years and years of sharp barbs and comments meant to wound, words given to deliberately leave her bleeding, Lena was hardly rattled by anything Cat Grant could possibly say.
But that rarely given praise… oh, Lena craved it. She’d never had anything like it before and she wanted to take every bit of it Cat had to offer, stingy though it was, and swallow it down so that she could keep it forever.)
But the other people in the company were not as pleased with Lena’s presence as Lena was to be there. They whispered and stared and muttered comments just loud enough for her to hear. Most at least tried to make it less obvious, but some were blatant in their distaste.
Lena was used to all of this, of course. Anywhere she went, there were plenty of people like them at any given time. It was just that she’d hoped here, with Cat Grant’s warning of “Don’t start drama for no reason in my company” still fresh in their minds after her introduction, she’d be able to dance and forget the rest.
She’d resigned herself to silence and solitude instead, did her work without a single person attempting to strike up conversation, and went through the exercises with her chin tipped defiantly up. She wouldn’t let their unmitigated hatred ruin what she’d found here in National City. Maybe, just maybe, they’d eventually come to realize she wasn’t Lex. And if they didn’t…
Well. It wasn’t like she’d never been made an outcast by an entire group of peers before.
Lena sat on the studio floor and watched the others filter out over the mouth of her water bottle, free hand scrubbing a towel over sweat damp skin. The thin black material of her leotard was damp as well and she considered changing before continuing, but then her clothes would be sweaty and she’d only brought one set. So a damp leotard would have to do.
She waited until all of the other dancers were gone and then stood, flexing her feet absently before heading towards the unused stereo system. She’d just plug in her phone, play some of her own music for awhile, get in some extra practice. Then she’d head home.
Just one hour more.
Maybe two, tops.
(It ended up being three and a half, but she felt a little better by the time she left again.)
There were classes going on downstairs and Lena peered in through the glass observation windows as she passed. They ranged from older kids to younger, from the practiced dancers to the beginners.
Lena was particularly caught by a class of girls who looked to be about eight or so, all in their matching pink leotards as they clutched the barre and performed their plies. Lena could just barely hear their instructor praising them – “Good! Very good, girls!” – and wondered what it would have been like, to take lessons with other girls her age, to be praised for performing even the most simple of moves.
She could see a couple of girls giggling together at the back who were only gently scolded for their wandering attention a moment later. She could see flyaway hairs sticking to thin necks and slightly damp foreheads and thought of her own harshly scraped back buns, how she’d been chastised if so much as a single wisp escaped.
Would she have had friends if she hadn’t been stuck alone in the private studio of the Luthor mansion with overly zealous instructors and her ever-present mother? If she’d come to a place like this to learn?
Perhaps she wouldn’t have become the dancer she now was, she thought as she watched a girl fumble her third position plie without either adult in the room correcting her, but she’d have had friends. Maybe it would have been worth it.
Now it was too late.
Lena lifted a hand, her fingertips pressing to the glass as if she could go back and recapture these moments for her own childhood. A sigh, almost wistful, escaped before she could bite it back.
Lena whirled away from the glass, hands dropping to the strap of her bag as she turned and found herself face to face with Kara Danvers.
“Hello, Kara,” she managed, heat burning in her cheeks. She hadn’t meant to get caught here and wished she’d just hurried past all the classrooms and out the front door before being discovered. It’s just that… she’d just wanted to…
(Pretend. She’d wanted to pretend, just for a moment.)
“Hi,” Kara returned with a smile, head tilting slightly as she studied Lena. Lena shifted awkwardly and wished that it didn’t feel like Kara had x-ray vision or something.
The last thing she needed was someone around who could see through her to all the broken pieces.
“It’s nearly four hours past company time. What’re you doing here?”
“Oh. I was just squeezing in some extra time,” she murmured before looking Kara up and down. The other girl was dressed like a ballerina now, a black leotard over pink tights with a floating floral skirt tied around her hips. Her hair was pulled back in a braid (and tendrils escaped here too, completely without discipline or regard for proper uniform) and she wore ballet slippers. “And here I thought you weren’t a dancer.” Her eyes came up again to meet Kara’s.
She was blushing, and for some reason it made Lena want to smile.
Because it did, she was careful not to.
“What? Oh. No.” Kara looked down at herself and laughed, head shaking slightly. “I’m, um. Not, really. I mean, I’m not on your level for sure. Or the company’s. I’m just, you know...” Her hands came up, flipped vaguely in front of herself as if to pluck the words she wanted from the air. “I’m a teacher. I teach. Just the basics, though. I’m really not all that good.”
Lena lifted her eyebrows. She wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that, didn’t know how to keep up such a casual conversation. It served no purpose for either of them, really. So what reason did Kara have for speaking with her?
Across from her, the other girl sucked her lips between her teeth, held them there nervously for a moment before opening her mouth to speak again.
Before she could, there was a shout of, “Miss Kara!” and she was giving Lena an apologetic smile before turning to face the girl that had spoken, a tiny thing that could not have been older than six.
Suddenly the task of extricating herself from this awkward encounter became much simpler and rather than wait to say goodbye or any such thing, Lena turned and slipped out while Kara was engaged with her student. It seemed simpler that way.
Lena didn’t want to suffer through Kara’s guilt-induced desire to act friendly towards Lena. She wasn’t a fan of pity, or charity. Not for herself. So why should she stick around to experience the forced kindness?
(What had Kara been going to say anyway?
The question bothered her for the remainder of her night.)