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love like on a silver screen

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The night starts here, the night starts here
Forget your name, forget your fear

"The Night Starts Here" by Stars

 

As a young girl, Lena thought of the Mansion, with its vibrant multi-colored flowers, bright lights, and gold-trimmed furniture, as a playground and a welcome reprieve from the dark, gloomy house that was her childhood home. Now as an adult, setting foot in the Mansion for the first time in five years, she thought that she now saw it for the fake spectacle it truly was. The colorful flowers had been hastily transplanted the day prior; it’ll be kept alive during filming, but then quickly wither and die from neglect the moment the cameras are switched off. The bright lights were manufactured from carefully arranged set lights. The gold-trimmed furniture now seemed tacky and old-fashioned, unintentionally dating the show and the era it was born.

Not for the first time, she wondered what she was doing back here. Because of her last name? Did she feel compelled to return because this show, scandal-filled and lawsuit-laden, was the rapidly depreciating crown jewel of LuthorMedia and she felt compelled to fix what was tied to her name? Or was it the last lingering trace of familial loyalty which prompted her to return? Or maybe it was even just out of... love, for her dead father, for her once-adored brother, maybe even for Lillian (after all, she was the one who had actually asked Lena to come back) because she’s still the closest thing to a mother Lena has had and probably will ever have.

Outside the Mansion, Maxwell Lord stood still, eyes closed as a makeup assistant powdered his cheeks one last time. Various crew members dashed about the set, putting finishing touches here and there, the excited buzz of pre-shoot rush in the air. The makeup assistant stepped away, people hurried to their designated spots, and Maxwell moved to his mark. Lena found a spot behind the cameras to observe the filming, standing next to one of the field producers, Snapper Carr.

Someone called out that they were rolling.

Maxwell smiled, showing all of his perfectly bleached teeth.

“Welcome to season 10 of The Bachelorette! We’re moments away from meeting our Bachelorette, Kara Danvers. Most of you probably remember Kara as the cousin of Clark Kent, the most beloved Bachelor we’ve ever had. Ten years ago, I stood here in this very spot and watched Clark meet 30 beautiful women, including the one he would eventually call his wife. On his incredible journey, we watched Clark and Lois fall in love. Then when we went to hometowns to meet Clark’s family, America fell in love with Kara Danvers. Now she’s here today, ready to embark on the same journey that her cousin did. Will Kara find her true love here tonight? Let us find out.” Maxwell stopped, frowned and looked to the row of people gathered behind the bright lights, cameras, and monitors. “That felt flat. Can I go again?”

Maxwell was looking at Snapper, who said nothing. It took Lena a moment to realize that Snapper was looking at her.

“Well, boss?” Snappers asked, a subtle, sarcastic emphasis on the second word, making no effort to disguise how he felt about Lena’s presence on set.

“Sure,” Lena said.

“And he should try turning to camera two when he starts the line ‘now she’s here today’?” It was phrased as a suggestion, but nothing about Snapper’s flat tone or stony demeanor indicated that it was a question.

“Sure,” Lena said again.

The crew started setting up for a second take.

“There is going to go all night,” Snapper said to Lena in a low voice. “We film until six or seven in the morning on the first night.”

“I remember,” she replied. “It’s not my first season, Snapper.”

“It’s been a while,” Snapper said with a shrug. “Wasn’t sure if you remembered. Do you also remember that Lex used to watch from the control room with the other senior producers? It’s nice in there. Air-conditioned. There’s a couch to nap on. Wine. A snack bar. You know it’s the only place that they keep Toblerones? I’ve been trying to get crafty to stock Toblerones for ten years. They won’t do it though. It’s only for the control room.”

“I’m not Lex.”

“Yeah, thank god for that,” Snapper grumbled.

“Snapper. Relax. I’m not here to get in your way.” Lena shifted her body, fully facing Snapper, giving him her full attention. The move seemed to unnerve him, as Lena knew it would, and he leaned back slightly. If there was one thing Lena did well, it was staking her territory with irascible men. “It’s night one. I’d just like to see how things go. Then I’ll be out of your hair.” Snapper furrowed his brows, no doubt thinking of his own bald head. “Just a metaphor, not a slight.”

Snapper nodded stiffly and said nothing more. A few moments later, Lena heard the crackle of Snapper’s radio and an indistinguishable murmur coming from his earpiece. Snapper nodded at the information being conveyed to him over the radio and turned to Lena.

“She’s approaching.”

Lena straightened up, tuned her attention to the Mansion’s long, winding driveway to look for the limousine. After a moment, it appeared, rolling to a slow stop in front of the Mansion. A production assistant, who will later be edited out of the shot, stepped forward to open the limousine door for the exiting lead.

And there she was.

Lena studied her carefully. It’s not like she didn’t know what Kara Danvers looked like. She had watched Clark’s season, of course, like she had watched all the seasons, even after she stopped coming to set and avoided telling anyone that she was that Luthor. Then, earlier this year, after she decided to rejoin the show, she had flipped through dozens of Kara’s pictures while she argued with Lillian and Mercy about who the next lead should be. But this was the first time she had laid eyes on Kara Danvers in person, who was stepping out of the limo in a shimmering blue dress with a splash of red across her torso, soft-looking blonde hair tumbling down curling about her shoulders.

And Lena thought to herself: meh.

Kara beamed at the PA, gratefully accepting her help climbing out of the vehicle.

“Thank you! I’m Kara.” she chirped, as if there was any way the PA didn’t know. “It’s nice to meet you.” Kara looked expectantly at the PA.

“O- oh,” the PA stammered, obviously not expecting the attention. Not with Maxwell Lord standing there with his million-dollar smile that was starting to fade. “I- I’m-“

“No, no, no.” Snapper rushed forward, firmly gripping a hold of the PA’s arm. “Kara, we’re rolling. You can make nice with the help later.”

“Oh! I’m sorry!”

“No, it’s fine- just look at Max.”

Snapper peeled the PA away, and Maxwell moved toward Kara, arms akimbo as if greeting an old friend. “Kara! Welcome to the Mansion!”

Then started the small talk, the open-ended interview questions designed to coax optimistic, vapid responses. This is where Maxwell shined, in making banal chatter seem charming.

“Just can’t find good help these days,” Snapper whispered to Lena, having returned to her side after depositing the PA god-knows-where to do god-knows-what, but probably something demeaning.

“It wasn’t her fault,” Lena responded. “The lead was talking to her.”

“Well, she should’ve known better. I swear, it’s like training goddamn monkeys.”

“Maybe you should train the lead instead.”

“We don’t train the leads, Lena,” Snapper said. “We guide. Firmly.”

“Looks like she could do with some of that.” Lena watched as Kara stammered and blushed her way through Maxwell’s questions. Although Kara and Maxwell were only fifty feet away, Lena kept her gaze on the monitor before her, seeing the pair as how the audience would see them. Kara was too nervous, too fidgety, her answers came out in short, awkward stutters, and it was clear that Maxwell was losing his patience. But then, he was never known to be a patient man.

“She looks stunning though,” Snapper observed. “The camera loves her.”

And that, Lena had to admit, was true. Kara was not the typical Bachelorette archetype (cheerleader, Southern belle, or pageant queen) they were accustomed to seeing, but there was still something compelling about her on screen.

“I guess it must run in the family,” she said to Snapper without looking away from the monitor. She frowned as Kara’s glance strayed from Maxwell. “Clearly green though. Why is she looking at the camera?” That was pretty much the cardinal rule of reality TV - never look at the camera.

“I think she’s looking at you.”

At that, Lena finally looked up - and sure enough, Kara’s gaze was aimed past the camera, landing directly on Lena herself and for the first time, their eyes met. Somehow Lena had never noticed just how blue Kara’s eyes were. Crystal blue, like reflections upon a shallow seashore.

She felt a tightening in her chest that she hadn’t felt in a long time. She was dimly aware that, as the seconds ticked by, the situation grew increasingly absurd and conspicuous, but she didn’t - couldn’t, maybe - look away. For some reason, she thought of the words photic retinopathy.

With violent internal effort, she looked away and turned to Snapper.

“You know what, I think I’ll watch from the control room.”

Snapper didn’t bother hiding his victorious smirk. “We’ll be fine, boss.”

***

The control room had been converted from the detached three-car garage next to the Mansion. A row of television monitors, showing various cameras feeds on set,lined the walls at the far end of the garage with a long row of tables in front, cluttered with notes, tablets, and crew equipment. On the other side of the room closer to the garage doors was a small seating area with couches and a couple of armchairs, all facing the row of monitors.

The show’s director, Andrea Rojas, stood behind the tables facing the monitors, back straight, arms tightly folded across her chest, eyes glued to the screens with intense focus. She had on a headset through which she periodically barked out instructions, ordering her camera crew to pan there and zoom in here. The show’s story producer, Siobhan, was seated next to her, carrying herself with the same rigid intensity, eyes darting vigorously between various feeds. When Lena entered, Andrea glanced over, gave a short nod, then promptly turned her attention back to the screen.

“Ms. Luthor,” Andrea greeted politely as a perfunctory function.

“Andrea,” Lena returned. “What’s the batting order?”

“See for yourself.” Andrea nodded at the screens. “First limo just pulled up.”

There was an order to things. Although Lionel had been dead for seven years, his edicts for the show remained, one of which was: save the best for first and last. His theory was that the Bachelorette would be most likely to remember the first and last contestant she met. So the show “guided” (always guide, never manipulate) her by making sure that their top two picks were first and last out of the limo.

Over the last few weeks since casting began, Lena had advocated fiercely for her favorite contestant, James Olsen. Handsome, seemingly kind, age-appropriate, and a photographer, he seemed like a good match for Kara. And if not for Kara, he would be perfect as the next Bachelor. The show had a long-running custom of selecting its next lead from the previous season’s runner-ups. But of course, Lena knew that it was already a lost battle for one very simple, very clear reason.

On screen, Lena watched a tall, dark, handsome, and white man step out of the limo.

Hi, Kara,” he grinned. “My name’s Mike. My friends call me Mon-El. You can call me whatever you’d like, but I’m hoping that at the end of all this, it’ll be ‘fiance’.

Lena wondered whether one of the field producers fed him that line. It was uninspired, so she was pretty sure that it wasn’t Jack or Sam. But it was also kind of sweet, which she knew Snapper wasn’t capable of. Probably Gayle then. Or maybe it was a rare contestant original. Sometimes these guys came up with their own material.

Kara asked about the origins of the nickname and Mike- no, Mon-El - launched into a vaguely scandalous but ultimately dull story about his frat brothers and some prank-gone-wrong-turned-eternal-inside-joke. There was something unappealing about a 32-year-old man who still went by a nonsensical nicknamed bestowed upon by his frat brothers over a decade ago. Then again, Lena wasn’t the one that had to find him appealing, and judging from the smile on Kara’s face, she did.

“Seriously? That guy?” Having watched his casting tape and read through his psych evaluation, Mon-El struck Lena as a complete douchebro.

That guy happens to be our wifey,” a familiar voice rang out from behind. Lena felt her stomach tighten as she turned and saw her mother, the showrunner and executive producer of the franchise, saunter into the room. She was flanked by another executive producer, Mercy Graves, and a network executive by the name of Morgan Edge, whom Lena had met only once before and instantly disliked. “He might also have Bachelor potential,” Lillian now said to Morgan. “I’m not picky.”

“He’s got the look,” Morgan observed, stepping up to the center, unnecessarily close to Andrea, his front almost flush against her back. Andrea looked visibly annoyed, and as she shifted away, her eyes met Lena’s. For a brief moment, for the first time in years, they shared the same sentiment. What an asshole. Five years ago, old Andrea, the Andrea that Lena knew, would’ve let him have it, network executive or not. But this Andrea just took a step in Siobhan’s direction under the guise of grabbing a pen off the table and turned her attention back to the monitors. She continued barking instructions into her headset, studiously ignoring their new company.

“He’s an overgrown frat boy,” Lena said.

“Lena, don’t start,” Lillian said sharply. “Morgan, wait until you see my preferred Bachelor pick. He’ll be the last one she meets, of course. Incredibly handsome, looks very good with his shirt off. Oliver’s probably a little broody for our Bachelorette, but I’m sure we can push him along to final 3 and set him up for the next run.”

Lena was successful in resisting the urge to gag. She was, however, unsuccessful in suppressing the derisive huff, which didn’t go unnoticed. Morgan turned to her, eyebrows raised.

“Something the matter, Ms. Luthor?”

Lillian, standing behind Morgan, drew her lips into a firm, thin line. Her expression clearly conveyed what she wanted Lena to do, which was to keep her mouth shut. So of course Lena did the exact opposite.

“First, there’s the obvious problem of picking Kara’s finalist before she’s even met them. But if we are going to play spot-the-next-Bachelor, well, haven’t we seen this before? The folksy bartender, the charming Brit, all with the personality of dry toast. We should be trying for something different.” Lena gestured to the screen, where another tall, handsome, white man by the name of Ray exited the vehicle. Judging from his early appearance in the lineup, Lena guessed that her mother had designs for him on one of their many spin-off shows. “Another demographic, maybe.”

Morgan looked genuinely confused. “And by that, you mean…”

“James Olsen.”

“Who’s that?” Morgan frowned.

“The photographer from California,” Lillian said, which evidently didn’t help at all because Morgan looked just as perplexed as he did before.

“He’s um, one of the… urban ones,” Mercy supplied.

“What?”

“Here.” Lillian grabbed a tablet off the table, made a few flicks, and brought up James’s picture on screen.

“Oh.” Morgan nodded before turning to Lena with a patronizing, incredulous smile. “You new to the show, Luthor? Come on, you’ve gotta be kidding me.”

“I don’t see the humor here,” Lena said flatly. “Would you care to elaborate?” Come on, Edge, just say it, she thought. Just say the words. He’s too black for our show. See how it sounds out loud.

“Lillian, we need an audible,” Andrea abruptly broke in, pointing at her headset. “Jack says that Nate’s got cold feet about the potsticker thong. What do you want to do?”

Lena looked to her old friend, thinking that this was a situation that Andrea had handled probably at least a dozen times without Lillian’s input. It wasn’t uncommon for a contestant to balk at a producer’s idea for a “memorable” entrance. Maybe Andrea was fed up with the bickering. Maybe she wanted to save Lena (not that Lena wanted saving) before she dug herself in any deeper with the network. There was a time when Lena would be able to tell what was in Andrea’s head.

“That’s unfortunate. I had hopes for him. I thought top ten, at least, then a run on Paradise.” Lillian sighed. “All right, let him do whatever boring schmaltz he wants. Give the thong to someone else.”

“How about that DJ from Jacksonville?”

“Fine. Just make sure that Nate’s off my set by the time the sun comes up,” Lillian said. Uncooperative contestants had to be swiftly and severely punished.

Andrea nodded and turned her attention back to the screens, Siobhan following suit. Lillian and Mercy took the opportunity of the change in topic to escort Morgan to the back of the room to watch the rest of the introductions from the couches. Every so often, one of them would interject an opinion about a contestant.

When Winn, the IT consultant from New Jersey, appeared in full Jedi robe and wielding dual lightsabers, Mercy crackled loudly with derision and Morgan booed thunderously. But Lena was pleased to see Kara’s eyes light up as Winn handed her the second lightsaber and proceeded to explain how he had made them himself.

One contestant, a dark-haired, scruffy man, climbed out of the limo in a tuxedo and a top hat. Without any introduction or preamble, he dropped to one knee, pulled from his top hat a rabbit with a ring tied around its collar, and proposed to Kara on the spot.

“That one’s a hoot,” Morgan said. “Let’s keep him around.”

“We could always use a comic relief,” Lillian agreed.

(Kara, looking nervous and bewildered, said, “Um, well, I don’t even know your name and I don’t usually agree to marry someone whose name I don’t know.”

“It’s Mxy.”

“Mxy?”

“Oh, well, it’s really Ben. Mxy is my magician name. I’m an aspiring magician.”

“You don’t say.”

“Yup! So, marriage, yes?“)

Ted, a veterinarian from a rural Canadian town, brought two small pigs and made a series of pig-related puns. (“I like you sow much already. I’d love to give you some hogs and kisses. I hope you pig me.”)

Jason, the DJ from Jacksonville, clambered out from the limo’s sunroof wearing nothing but the so-called potsticker thong -- a golden, glittery thong with a plushie in the shape of a potsticker sewn on to the front. (“Yo, girl, I heard that your favorite food is potstickers…”)

Nate, who turned out to be a historian from Ohio, introduced himself to Kara with a handshake and a hug. He told her that he was very excited to meet her and looked forward to getting to know her better.

“Good looking man,” Morgan commented. “Such wasted potential.”

“He’ll be gone tonight,” Lillian assured him.

Morgan hummed in approval. “And this next one too, right? We’re booting him?”

“Certainly. Mercy, which one’s that?”

On screen, Kara was looking through a telescope, a gift brought by her latest contestant, an Asian man with an easy smile, who was shyly telling her that he thought Aquarius was the most beautiful constellation, but that she was even more beautiful. Lena wondered whether it was Sam or Jack who told him to say that. The contestant, Kenny, stumbled over his words, earning an endeared laugh from Kara, who placed a reassuring hand on his arm before Snapper called loudly for a re-shoot.

“Kenny, telescope salesman from Washington,” Mercy said.

“What?” Lena shot her a confused look. “He’s an analyst at NASA.”

“And that’s boring,” Mercy shrugged. “So his chyron’s going to say telescope salesman.”

Lena felt like her head was going to explode. “But he works for NASA.”

“Who cares? He’s not lasting the night.”

“I don’t know about that. Kara seems to like her telescope.” Lena gestured to the monitors, where Maxwell was trying to coax Kara away from the telescope to meet her next contestant.

“Veronica will talk sense into her,” Mercy said casually. “It’s for the best. Kenny’s not good television.”

Lena should resist. A network executive was in the room. It wasn’t a good look to be arguing about this in front of the network. But it seemed that all Luthors had a destructive streak.

“What do you mean by that, Mercy?” she asked innocently. “He’s cute, well-employed, smart, sweet. You don’t think America would be interested in someone like that?”

Mercy shrugged casually. “I don’t make the rules, Lena. America’s not interested in a romantic lead like Kenny. We give the audience what they want.”

“Don’t you think that maybe the audience only thinks that they want what they want because of societal norms built upon cultural stereotypes that marginalized and ridiculed nondominant populations, and that as people who wield power over a widespread platform, we have a responsibility to promote varied representation?”

Except for Andrea and Siobhan, whose eyes were ever-glued to the television screens, everyone stared at Lena.

“Lillian, what the hell is she talking about?” Morgan narrowed his eyes, his brows furrowed with irritation. “What’s this nonsense? You want us to keep Asian Urkel over there?”

Lena successfully resisted the urge to slap Morgan in the face. “I’m just saying that we don’t sabotage him. Kara seemed to like him. If she wants to keep him, we shouldn’t be trying to talk her out of it because we think he makes ‘bad television’ - whatever that means.”

“Of course we would never talk her out of it,” Lillian said smoothly. “The show is about finding love, dear. The only thing that matters here is whether Kara had a connection with him.”

“Hmm. Yet when you line up all the people that the lead ends up ‘having a connection with,’ the picture is awfully monochromatic.”

“The heart wants what it wants,” Lillian said with a shrug before pointedly turning away from Lena to speak to Morgan. “Morgan, here comes Logan. I think he’s our bad boy. I’m not sure that our lead likes those types, but I think we can keep him around for a few weeks, see how he does with the audience. We can send him to Paradise next year.”

Clearly, the conversation was over, and Lena knew better than to broach the topic again. Sure, Lillian wanted to keep Lena involved in the show - not because she thought much of her ideas or out of some sense of familial affinity, but because this was a LuthorMedia production and she liked the idea of Luthors being involved - but that didn’t mean that Lillian would hesitate in firing her if she pushed the envelope with the network.

Lena held her tongue as she watched the rest of the contestants roll out, one by one, pulling out cheesy one-liners and party tricks in a vain attempt to make themselves memorable to the lead. It didn’t really matter. After meeting 30 men in one night, Kara would probably just do whatever her producer said. They always did.

It was almost 10:30PM and the last contestant was making his appearance. On screen, Lena watched Oliver approach Kara. Broad-shouldered, well-muscled, handsome, easy to look at. She understood why Lillian had anointed him as the next Bachelor. But while he checked all the boxes, he carried himself with a grim intensity that seemed incongruent next to Kara’s sunny smile. You’re on a trashy reality dating show, you could at least crack a smile, Lena thought. Kara was polite and warm to Oliver, but she didn’t seem anywhere as enthused with him as she was with some of the others.

After Oliver went into the house, Maxwell came back out and made more of his insipid small talk with Kara before leading her inside the house. Andrea and Siobhan frantically monitored the screens, the ten-plus camerapersons roaming all over the house, attempting to capture every last interaction on film.

It was getting late, and so Morgan said his goodbyes. Lillian and Mercy went to their trailers. As executive producers, they had the luxury of napping while the rest of the crew filmed all night, but they would be back for the rose ceremony. Lena stayed up, but she parked herself on the couches on the other side of the room.

At one point during the night, Andrea and Siobhan stopped what they were doing and looked at one another. Lena got the sense that they picked up something on their radios that they didn’t like. Siobhan reached for her cellphone.

“No,” Andrea said sharply to her.

Siobhan froze, conflict evident on her face. “But we were told-”

Andrea shook her head, and Siobhan swallowed whatever it was she was going to say. Andrea turned and headed to the back of the room for Lena.

“What’s going on?”

“There’s someone at the gate,” Andrea said gently, and Lena had the sinking feeling that she knew who it was. “He wants to come on set. We have our instructions from the network on what to do in this situation, but… maybe you’d like to talk to him first before we do that.”

Lena let out a long, weary sigh and, as slow as she could, got to her feet.

“I’ll take care of it.”

It took a few minutes for her to walk down the length of the Mansion’s long driveway, where it ended with black wrought iron dual swing driveway gates. Through the gates’ bars, she could see the figure of a man pacing in the light shining from the headlights of his parked car. On this side of the gate, two of the show’s burliest security guards stood stockstill, arms-folded and menacing.

“Lex,” Lena called as she approached. She turned to the security guards. “I can take it from here.” The guards heeded her dismissal and started back up the driveway towards the Mansion.

“Hey, sis.” Lex stopped pacing; he leaned heavily into the gates with one arm resting and dangling from one of the gate’s horizontal bars. “How’s it going?”

“You know you’re not supposed to be here.”

“Oh, I’m fine too, thank you for asking. Yes, it is a nice night. A little warm, but at least it’s a dry heat.”

“Lex.”

“Lena.”

“Why would you even come here?”

“Well, last I checked, my name’s still on the call sheet. At the tippy top. LuthorMedia.”

“No, dad’s name is on the call sheet, you just happened to share it.” That was a goad. She knew it was. Sure enough, Lex darkened and gripped on to the iron bars with both hands, appearing like a prisoner against the bars.

“Sure, he might have christened it, but I was the one who made it what it was. We had the highest ratings we ever had when I was in charge.”

“Hmm. Also the lowest.” Lena was then glad for the barrier in between them. Without it, she truly believed, Lex may lunge at her. There was a time when such a thought was unimaginable. But that was many, many years ago. She couldn’t say for sure what led to this. Drugs? The corrupting effect of power? Brain injury? Or maybe this had always been there, part of his personality that had been temporarily buried and cowed by Lionel’s domineering presence while he was alive.

Suddenly, Lex switched off his glower and smiled. For a moment, he looked like her brother. “Lena. Let me in. Come on, please? It’s night one. I haven’t missed night one… well, ever. I won’t make any trouble. I won’t talk to anyone. I just want to see how it’s going.”

Lena folded her arms across her chest, a feign of confidence she didn’t quite feel. “The network instructed the crew to call the police if you tried to come on set. I’m giving you a fair warning. Mother would not do the same if she saw you.”

“I’m standing on public property. That’s not a crime, is it?”

“I’m sure you’d find a way to make it one.”

Lex looked genuinely hurt by that. “Now why would you say something like that? What happened to us?”

Lena stared at him. “Are you kidding me? After what you did?”

“After what I allegedly did,” Lex said defiantly.

“Lex.” Lena closed her eyes tightly. “Please. Just go home.”

“I am,” he responded petulantly. “That-” he nodded at the Mansion “-was fifteen years of my life. See, some of us don’t get the chance to run away when we feel like it and then come back on a fucking whim when we feel like it. Somebody had to stay and shape and mold the empire. I did that. And then one day, I wake up and it’s ‘no, sorry, we’re taking your legacy away from you.’ I built this thing. I poured everything into this. I made this show into what it is. I am the show. And now, you’re literally shutting me out. Just who the fuck do you think are, you goddamn bitch?”

His tirade ended in a growl, feral and bloodthirsty, baring teeth, spittle foaming at the mouth, eyes manic. Then it was quiet. Lena stared at him, pressed up against the bars, an unrecognizable creature. She could hear his heaving, heavy breath. She could hear crickets in the night.

“I’m going to go now,” Lena said quietly. “The security guards will be back down in sixty seconds. If you’re still here, they’re calling the cops.”

She took a couple of steps back, then turned around, and started back up the driveway. Lex didn’t try to call her back. He was too smart and knew her too well to think that would do any good. The lump in her throat grew smaller the further away she went, but as she neared the Mansion, she felt an overwhelming sense of dread. She was drained from that conversation with Lex. She wondered how many therapy sessions it would take to undo the trauma from a single conversation.

As if summoned by a bat signal of emotional distress, a psychologist appeared on the scene.

“Ms. Luthor?” Dr. Jonn came trailing behind at a quick pace, evidently trying to catch up to her.

“Dr. Jonn!” Lena slipped on her mask. Calm, impervious, unaffected. She stopped walking and turned to face him with a polite smile. “How are you?”

Dr. Jonn was the show’s resident psychologist. Under Lionel’s helm, the show traditionally employed the cheapest licensed person available just so that they would be able to say that they offered mental health resources on set to their beleaguered cast. Then that thing with Lex happened and the network decided to make some changes. A month ago, Dr. Jonn was installed by the network over Lillian’s strenuous objections. Which, to Lena, meant that he must be halfway decent at his job.

“I’m well, thank you. Was that Lex Luthor I just saw at the gate?”

The question sparked apprehension. She didn’t know much about the man except that he had been hired by the network. The same network who had ordered Lex’s former employees and colleagues to call the police if he was spotted on set. At the end of the day, he was still her brother.

“He was just leaving. He didn’t come on the property at all, so he wasn’t trespassing.”

Jonn held up both hands, palms out in the universal sign of surrender.

“I didn’t mean anything by it. I just saw him and then I saw you walking away. I wanted to make sure that you were okay.”

Lena maintained a placid smile. Her walls were up now.

“I’m fine, Dr. Jonn. Thank you. Why don’t you go back to the control room? You never know when your services will be needed.” It was important to keep the doctor on set during rose ceremonies. It was difficult to say when someone would react poorly to being eliminated.

“What if my services are needed here?”

She laughed lowly, emulating detachment. “I assure you that they’re not.” She nodded her head at the garage in the distance. “Have a good night, Dr. Jonn.”

Jonn slightly inclined his head, indicating his goodbye. He took a few steps toward the garage, then slowed, turning back slightly.

“I’m here to help, Ms. Luthor,” he said with sincerity that only deepened Lena’s mistrust. “I hope that you’ll let me.”

“Have a good night,” she repeated.

As Dr. Jonn started off toward the control room, Lena was faced with a dilemma. Having just dispatched Jonn to the control room, it felt awkward to follow after him. Besides, being in that control room seemed enormously unappealing at the moment.

She took a detour.

Lena went to her car, parked in a makeshift lot in the Mansion’s “backyard” - more accurately described as backfields since it was 8 acres. She thought about getting in and driving away. A couple of months ago, she had an apartment in a city far away from here, with an old, comfy couch and a ficus. She had a job she liked, maybe even one or two people at work she might call friends. Sure, she was a bit lonely sometimes - ironically (or perhaps aptly), love did not come easy to Luthors, the family who created the most well-known (infamous) reality show about love. There, she had been almost-happy or as happy as a Luthor could deserve to be. But that was gone now. The apartment surrendered, the old couch put curbside, job resigned. At least the ficus moved with her.

All that, and for what? All because Lillian called, sounding vaguely vulnerable as she finally admitted that Lex was in trouble and that she would like for Lena to come home. Not because she missed her, not because she needed her, not because Lex needed her, but because the show needed another Luthor around. And one would think that after all the family drama Lena had gone through, after the shouting matches and abruptly ended phone calls, the endless vows of never again, the self-affirmations, the therapy sessions, that she would, she could, say no.

But Lena was on a flight back to L.A. the following week. And Lillian never said thank you.

She opened the rear door and crawled into the backseat, stretching herself out. She lay in the dark, listening to the bustle of the set in the distance, and thought about what a terrible, stupid, dumb dumb dumb mistake it had been to come back.

She closed her eyes for what she thought was just a moment, but when she opened her eyes to look at her watch, she was surprised to discover that it was nearly 4AM. She had missed almost the entire cocktail party. Well, her father did always tell her that the trick to being a good producer is to be invisible. Ta-dah.

Groggily, she climbed out of the car and made her way toward the Mansion. She wondered if she’d already missed the rose ceremony. She wondered if Lillian would care if she did. Lillian had made it clear enough that Lena was only there to add to the Luthor of it all.

The most direct way to the control room would take Lena through the Mansion’s back garden, adjacent to the pool, which was frequently used during filming. She could see the garden from a distance, awash in studio lights, and she could almost hear the distant din of dozens of cast and crew fluttering about, rushing from one dramatic setup to another.

And even though it was her job, she just couldn’t deal with that right away. So she opted to take the long way around, along the east wing of the Mansion.

The east wing of the Mansion formerly consisted of servants’ quarters and storage closets, and was now primarily used to store the show’s props. Its tiny, dark closets used to be a solid hook-up spot for horny crew members who hung out on set for endless hours. According to internet rumors, it was also the place Lex brought his favorite contestants. At least three of them. Probably more. It was now strictly forbidden for any contestant to be in the vicinity of the east wing.

Which, Lena supposed, technically would not apply to Kara Danvers.

Which maybe explains why Kara was currently sitting by the back door on a small stone bench, in her shimmery blue-and-red dress, holding a paper plate and a plastic fork, shoveling chocolate cake into her mouth.

This area of the grounds was dark and unlit. Lena didn’t see her until she almost walked right into her.

“Oh,” Lena gasped lightly, stopping short to keep from running into the seated woman.

“Ohhhhey!” Kara greeted enthusiastically with her mouth full of cake. Realizing her demeanor, she waved her fork-clad hand with embarrassment and pointed to her plate. “Cake.” Except that it sounded like cahwk.

“Right.” Lena wasn’t totally sure what to do. Her instinct was to turn and run the other way. But that felt kind of rude. So she stood there, hands folded behind her back, rocking slightly back on her heels, trying to think of something to say. “Good cake?”

Kara’s eyes widened and bopped her head frantically. “Mmmmmmm!” Lena shivered, not unpleasantly. That noise was… something else.

“Sorry,” Kara said sheepishly when she finally swallowed the bite in her mouth. “That was just so good and I was starving. My god, these things go on forever.”

“That they do,” Lena agreed. “I would have thought that Clark would’ve told you.”

“He would. I mean, he did. But I guess it’s not the same thing as experiencing it for yourself.”

Lena nodded, again not quite sure what to say, and an awkward silence settled. Kara looked down at the half-eaten cake in her hands.

“Cake?” She held up the cake to Lena.

“No, thank you.” After another silent beat, Lena finally said, “So... you’re not really supposed to be out here by yourself.”

Even in the dim light, she could see Kara’s face fall.

“Are you turning me in?”

“No,” Lena answered. “Not yet, anyway.”

Kara shrugged. “Well, points for honesty.”

“How long have you been out here?”

Kara hummed slightly as she considered the question. “Fifteen minutes?”

“Wow,” Lena muttered, impressed. That was unheard of. The leads practically had a producer or a PA glued to them at all times even when they weren’t shooting. This was night one, right before a rose ceremony. It was unthinkable. “Where does Veronica think you are?”

“Bathroom. I told her my stomach hurt. Bad burrito. I don’t think she really wanted to know.”

“And she just… let you go?”

“Oh, no, I’m sure she’s still standing outside the door. I cracked open a window and climbed down.”

“Climbed down?”

Kara pointed upwards. Lena followed her finger, eyes coming to rest at an open window on the second floor, about three feet away from a thick, outstretched tree branch.

“Oh. Climbed down. Right.” Lena nodded along as if what Kara was telling her was perfectly reasonable. Which, in the Bachelor world, may as well be. “And the cake?”

“I was hungry. I saw cake in the kitchen before I went upstairs. Everyone was outside on the patio, so I jimmied open the window by the counter, climbed in, grabbed a slice, climbed back out.”

“Wow.” Lena had never been more impressed with cake thievery. “A little early, aren’t you?”

“What?”

“We usually save the fence-jumping escapes for the season finale. Night one’s not even over.” Lena took a few slow steps forward, coming to a lean against the side of the wall. “What happened?”

For the first time, Kara looked wary.

“What’s with the look?”

“You’re with the show.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“So…”

“Ah. That bad?” Lena’s face remained serene with the same, faint smile but her heart began to thump heavily as she thought of Lex. “Kara, if someone made you uncomfortable, you should tell me. I can help.”

Kara furrowed her brows, looking briefly confused before she caught up.

“Oh! N- no. Nothing like that. It’s um- it’s just the that this whole process-“

“Journey,” Lena corrected absented-mindedly. “Sorry. Old habit.”

“It’s harder than I thought it would be.” Kara chuckled to herself, “Wow, I think I’ve seen someone say that every season.”

“It’s a common refrain,” Lena concurred. “Also a little early in the season. You sure I can’t help?”

After what appeared to be a brief internal struggle, Kara nodded.

“Um. Okay. I was in the deliberation room with Veronica and I’m supposed to send guys home tonight, but I don’t know.”

“Is that it? Choosing who to send home?” Lena chuckled lowly. “Don’t tell me you’re already attached to all of them?”

“It’s, um, kind of the opposite? I have 30 guys in there and most of them seem great, but I just met them. I don’t even remember most of their names. How am I supposed to know if I like them? And then, when I do have someone that I definitely don’t want to keep, Veronica looks super unhappy about it.”

Kara pauses for another small bite of cake. Lena stayed silent, she had the feeling that Kara wasn’t quite done and just needed a mid-rant break.

“You know one of the guys asked me to marry him as soon as he got out of the car? And I thought, that’s a little odd but maybe he’s trying to be whimsical. Certainly memorable. I thought he was just playing it up? But now I think he might actually be serious. He's been following me around the house all night and he’s asked me twice again already. I wouldn’t mind not being asked a fourth time.”

“That’s Mxy. Lillian wants you to keep him.She thinks that the audience will be amused with his antics.”

“That makes sense. When I suggested letting him go, Veronica changed the topic and asked me if I really saw a future with Kenny.” Kara frowned as she pondered, “I don’t know why she wouldn’t just ask me to keep him. I mean, I know that we’re making a TV show and it’s not like I don’t know how it works!” Kara gesticulated with her fork, sending a small piece of cake flying into the darkness. “Clark told me that it was possible they’d ask me to keep certain people. She could’ve just said.”

“She would have eventually, if it came to it. Veronica’s not the type to play her cards all at once.” Lena looked out at the field stretched out before her, the crew’s cars parked in haphazard rows in the distance. “It’s better if she doesn’t interfere with the narrative and let you think that it was your idea. Keeps you open minded. Lets the story play itself out. Of course, she would never let him win. He’s too ridiculous to be a romantic lead. She just has to keep him in long enough until the final 10 for audience engagement. Sometimes the lead does start to fall for the comic relief or the villain and then we’d do our best to discourage it. It doesn’t always work, but it often does.”

“Wow,” Kara murmured, stunned. “That sounds…” she shook her head. “Machiavellian.”

“Everyone on this show has an agenda, Kara.”

Kara glanced up at her questioningly. “What’s yours then?”

The question tempted honesty. Especially here and now with the two of them enveloped in the dark, set apart from the bright lights and the distant hum of a bustling set, creating the sense (illusion?) of a bond, the sense that the two of them existed in a bubble in which anything could be said. But Lena well knew, as did most people who worked or appeared on the show - bubbles burst. So, she went with the offensive.

She regarded the blonde with a quirked eyebrow and asked, “What’s yours?”

“I- I- I um-“ Kara brought her right hand up to the bridge of her nose, froze when she found nothing there, then awkwardly dropped her hand to her side. “To… find… love?”

“Right. Love. You’re here to find it, I’m here to help you.” Lena paused. “Kind of.”

“Well, that sounds ominous.”

Lena shrugged lightly. “Just truthful. I’m a producer. I’m here to produce a television show. To the extent that helping you helps the show, I’m here to help you.”

“So you’re not here to make friends?” quoted Kara, basking in her own corniness with a wide grin. Lena chuckled and shook her head. “And why are there like twenty producers on this show?”

“Ah, okay, a crash course. I can definitely help with that.” Lena took a couple of steps closer, nodding at the bench Kara was sitting on. Kara scooted over, making some room for Lena to sit.

“Our field producers work in the field. In this case, they work the cast - that’s you and the contestants. The lead gets their own field producer to work with, that’s Veronica this season. Then there’s Snapper, Jack, Gayle, and Sam. I think you’ve met them all. They each get a certain number of contestants to handle. Now, Veronica’s goal is to help you, under the theory that it helps the show. We try to protect the lead if we can. The other field producers, their only goal is to create a good story, by any means necessary. Sometimes that means feeding the contestants lines, sometimes that means creating drama. Whatever the situation calls for.

“Then there’s Siobhan, the story producer. You probably haven’t met her, she’s usually in the control room with Andrea, our director. She and Siobhan create the storylines behind the scenes. At this point, they have a pretty clear idea of who your final four should be and they’ll try very hard to make that happen. They’re always talking to the field producers about who to approach and what to say. Mercy and Lillian, as you probably know, are executive producers. Lillian also co-created the show. They make the high-level decisions, unless the network overrules them.”

“Wait, back up. They know who I’m going to pick?” squeaked Kara. “It’s already been decided? Who are they? Why don’t they just tell me?”

“Do you really want Veronica picking your future husband for you? Anyway, they’re just guesses. Wishful thinking, I guess you could call it. Production will try and push you toward men that they think the audience will find desirable or just makes for good TV. It doesn’t necessarily benefit you. You need to focus on yourself and what you want. And if I can help you gain clarity with that, I will.”

Silence fell over the pair as Kara appeared to take time to consider Lena’s words. Kara sighed and bent over to gingerly set her plate down on the ground next to her.

“Okay.” Kara shrugged, somewhat helplessly. “So help me. Kind of.”

Lena drew a deep breath, taking the moment to gather her thoughts. “First, the obvious. Keep the ones you feel a connection with. I know you haven’t had a lot of time with them, but if you walked away from the conversation with a smile on your face, it stands to reason that a second conversation is worthwhile.” Lena noticed the contemplative expression on the Bachelorette’s face. “Who are you thinking of?”

“Oh, um…” Kara bowed her head, and Lena found herself wondering whether the blonde blushed. It was too dark to tell. “W- well, um, I guess Mon-El’s really cute, even though he’s kind of… well, I don’t even know if I like him, but I find him interesting? William’s a journalist too, so it’s nice to talk to someone who can relate. And, um, there’s- well, James. He’s, uh…” Kara attempted to search for the right word. “Wow.”

Lena thought that she should be pleased to hear that. She had pushed for him to be cast after watching his interview tapes. It was difficult to judge a person’s character over a few hours’ worth of interviews, even if the interviews were designed to poke, prod, and prowl the deepest corners of your mind, but Lena thought that she saw someone who was thoughtful, intelligent, optimistic, and kind. The disarming smile didn’t hurt either. She thought that Kara would like him. So she should be glad that she was right. She was glad. Maybe.

“Keep that up and you’ll be well on your way to a Pulitizer,” Lena teased. “So, cute stays. Journalist stays. ‘Wow’ definitely stays. Who else?”

“Um. I loved Kenny’s telescope. I’m actually really into astronomy. Then… there’s Winn. I really liked talking to him. He had some really interesting thoughts about the origins of the darksaber and I’d really like to finish our conversation.”

“Uh-huh,” Lena said drily. “I’m sure Veronica loved those choices. What did she say?”

“That I was here to find a husband, not a buddy and that I should pick someone that I could see myself being, um, passionate with and that wasn’t going to happen with someone wearing Wookiee socks. Which, you know, I disagree with because I like Wookiee socks. I mean, not that I want to with Winn- or, not that I don’t want to- but um, I guess he’s cute but I don’t know if I feel- uh, it’s still early but I don’t know if we’re like…”

Kara gestured vaguely with both hands. Lena wasn’t quite sure what she was trying to convey, but to her, it looked like Kara was miming shaping clay at a potter’s wheel.

“Kara,” Lena broke in mercifully, ending Kara’s painful charade game of one. “Relax. Veronica’s full of shit. That brings me to the second point. Keep some of the guys you just like hanging out with, even if you don’t feel a ‘connection’.” Lena quoted in the air with her fingers. “You’re spending the next ten weeks with these guys. You should have some friends. It tends not to work out well when the lead has a connection with everyone. It gets messy. Although sometimes it makes good television.”

“Isn’t that kind of mean? I don’t want to lead anyone on.”

“The show is designed for you to lead someone on. We force you to go on date after date, we tell you how many people to eliminate each week, and you must end with two guys who are willing to propose to you. But if you feel like someone’s getting too attached, you can cut them loose.” Lena fixed Kara with a sharp, slightly critical look. “If you didn’t want to break some hearts, you should’ve gone on The Great British Bake Off.”

“All right.” Kara swallowed, nodding slowly. “That’s fair. What else?”

“Third. You play the game. The show wants its villains and fools, and you have to give it to them. If they want Mxy, let them have him. Sometimes you can push back, but if you’re seen as uncooperative, these people can make your life very, very difficult.”

“Fine.” Even in the dark, Lena could see Kara rolling her eyes. “He’s annoying but I guess he’s harmless. I can live with that. Anything else?”

“Just one more. But first, I’d like to know what you think of Oliver.”

It seemed to take Kara a moment to remember who Lena was referring to. “He was the last one I met tonight, right? He… seemed okay. He’s very handsome. But…” Kara turned her palms up and gave a small shrug. “I just met him. It’s hard to say.”

“No ‘wow’, huh?” Lena said with a small smirk.

Kara let out an amused, resigned sigh. “You’re not going to let that go, are you?”

“Hmm. Not likely, no. Anyway.” Lena rose to her feet, stepping around to stand before Kara. Kara, still seated, tilted her head up to look at her. For reasons Lena didn’t care to analyze in the moment, their positions gave her a little thrill. “I’d like you to cut Oliver tonight.”

Kara blinked slowly. For a moment, the two women just studied one other. Lena waited for a no or a question. But when Kara finally opened her mouth, what she said was, “Okay.”

Then it was Lena’s turn to stare. “You’re not going to ask me why?”

Kara took her time to answer while she held Lena’s gaze. The pause seemed intentional, a deliberate response to make Lena understand the seriousness of her intent. “No. I trust you.”

Those were words that Lena had not heard in a very long time. It left her almost at a loss for words. “You do?”

“Yup.” Kara gave a sharp, firm nod. “You would tell me if you want to. But if you don’t want to, that’s okay. I trust that you have a good reason.”

“You… do know that I’m a Luthor, right?”

That elicited a laugh from Kara, light and bubbly. “Yes, Lena, I know who you are.”

“Oh.” Lena suddenly felt a little self conscious, and found herself fidgeting with her fingers. “I wasn’t sure. We didn’t… we weren’t actually properly introduced.”

“I am a journalist, you know. I may not be on my way to a Pulitzer, but I do know how to google. And you’re not exactly inconspicuous, you know? Can the prodigal daughter’s return save the troubled Luthor media empire?” Kara quoted in her best gravelly movie announcer voice. Then in the next instant, she dipped her head and cleared her throat lightly, seeming embarrassed, like she thought maybe that was over the line. “Sorry.”

Lena just laughed, her tone warm and light. “I think that was from The Hollywood Reporter, right? I’ve always found them to be a little dramatic.”

“To be honest, I was starting to think that the headlines were all made up. I’ve been working with production for a month now and your name’s never even come up.”

“Yes, well, the situation has been… a little precarious.” Feeling Kara’s questioning eyes on her, Lena elaborated, “As you probably know, my father created the show fifteen years ago, and it’s always been a family-run enterprise. So I practically grew up on set, and over the years, I’ve rotated through every position there is. But after my father passed, it all just seemed… pointless, I suppose. So I left. The show, the city- maybe the family too, according to some people. And this year, after everything that happened-” she faltered, thinking of what to say about Lex. That wasn’t a pleasant topic. “Well, I came back to the show this year, and they gave me a supervising producer title, but I don’t think anyone really knows what my role is here, besides Luthor. I don’t think anyone really knows what to do with me.”

“Wow,” said Kara softly. “That sounds tough.” But then she offered an amiable smile, one that Lena could not help but think of as beguiling. “Looks like I’m not the only one feeling like a fish out of water.”

“I suspect most feel that way, to be honest. They’re just not as forthright about it.”

“Hmm. We must be brave.”

“Or stupid.”

“Ah, but that’s what makes us true Gryffindors.”

“Speak for yourself. Luthors are Slytherins.”

“I’ll be the judge of that. I’m kind of the sorting hat of my friend group,” Kara said authoritatively.

“Wow. Did we know that you were such a huge dork when we made you the lead?”

“Definitely,” Kara nodded. “But a lot of people seem to overlook that. I think the blondeness throws them off.”

Silence fell over them. A pleasant one where Lena felt like she could enjoy the moment, soaking it in for what it was instead of trying to think of something to say. It was absurd. She had just met this woman. And maybe it was the unexpectedness of it all that led to the uncharacteristic disclosure.

“Lillian wants Oliver to be the next Bachelor. She knows that he’s not your type but she wants to keep him around until the end to set him up for the next season. Kicking him off on night one - well, it’s not impossible, but it is unprecedented for a night-one castoff to return as Bachelor.”

“Would he be a terrible Bachelor or something?”

“No, not at all. I’m sure he’d be very popular. I just think there are other interesting men that deserve a chance. Besides, it can mean trouble if the show picks a successor this early on. The show will try to protect its leads, but it always has an eye on the next season. If there’s conflict between you two and they had to choose, production would be more than willing to give you the villain edit so that he appears more sympathetic before his season starts.” Lena now saw that Kara was beaming, her eyes bright and warm. “What?”

“I knew I could trust you, Lena Luthor. Look at you, trying to protect me. And you call yourself a Slytherin.” Kara leaned down and picked up her plate of chocolate cake, forking a big chunk of her dessert, like the best way to express her satisfaction was to celebrate with a mouthful of chocolate cake. Which she did.

Lena scoffed. “You don’t know that. Maybe I have other motives.”

“OhbutIdo,” Kara mumbled through a mouthful of cake. Lena should probably find this gross instead of endearing.

***

Lena was back in the control room for the rose ceremony. It was nearly 5 A.M. by then. Mercy and Lillian were on the couches, chatting quietly, looking semi-alert. Andrea and Siobhan were all still in their original positions, and it was unclear whether they had moved at all during the night.

When the rose ceremony started, Lena positioned herself off to the side, against the wall. Lillian was barely paying attention to the ceremony. Having seen dozens of them, she didn’t expect any surprises. She didn’t break in her conversation with Mercy when James, Mon-El, William, Ray, Mxy, Ted, and Jason received roses. She did steal a glance at the screen when she heard Winn’s name called out, evidently not expecting that development. She finally fully diverted her attention to the ceremony when Kenny received a rose.

“I thought he was going tonight?” Lillian called from the back of the room.

“I told Veronica,” Andrea said with a shrug. “You’d have to ask her what happened.”

Lillian pursed her lips unhappily, watching the ceremony with narrowed eyes. After a few more roses, only two remained to be given out. Kara picked up the second to last rose. She waited for the crew’s instruction to go ahead, and when she got the nod, she called out: “Nate.”

Lillian rose to her feet, crossing the room quickly to stand in front of the monitors, Mercy following fast on her heels.

“What is going on?” Lillian demanded from Andrea. “I told you that I wanted him gone.”

“I’ve been in this room all night directing your show, Lillian,” Andrea retorted with more bite than she would normally dare if it wasn’t 5AM after a long night of shooting. “If something’s gone wrong in the field, you need to talk to the people who are in the field.”

They were down to the last rose. Seven men remained, including Oliver.

“Gentlemen, this is the last rose,” Maxwell said. “Kara, when you’re ready.” Kara stood on her mark, waiting for the crew to give her the signal to say the last name. Lena noticed that Lillian’s hands were curled tightly at her side.

“Cisco,” Kara said and Lillian emitted a frustrated growl. Turning on her heels, she stormed out of the control room with Mercy trailing behind her.