Actions

Work Header

love like on a silver screen

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

I see my heartbeat inside a television screen
My body's not connecting, no
They're telling me that I'm fine
They're telling me that there's nothing wrong
Game over
Nothing's real

“Nothing’s Real” by Shura

 

 

Lillian was apoplectic.

As she had done so often in the past when she was faced with a situation that left her tightly wound with anger and no discernible culprit to blame, she directed her ire at her adopted daughter who made for a convenient scapegoat. Like the time Lillian came home and found the entire kitchen covered in a light pink dust and the evidence of a science experiment gone wrong in the trash in the form of broken beakers, test tubes, and an unidentifiable foam matter. Or the time when they had the house repainted and Lillian’s fur coats mysteriously ended up in a pile on the floor, splattered with white, even though she swore that she had packed them away. Or when Lillan discovered that the family’s longtime gardener had an old deportation order against him as a result of selling weed as a teenager; she sweetly invited the man over for lunch, then called the authorities and told them where to find him, but on the day of the so-called sting, the gardener seemed to have gotten word of the trap and vanished.

To be fair, Lena was in fact responsible for all of those things. Just like she was responsible now. But Lillian didn’t have proof of that.

The two of them were sitting in Lillian’s office at LuthorMedia’s headquarters, about a twenty-minute drive from the Mansion. Lillian sat stiffly in a well-cushioned armchair behind a dark, oversized mahogany desk; across that desk was Lena, lounging comfortably in a guest chair made up of deep curves and sharp angles that was most definitely not designed for comfort.

Lena smiled serenely at her mother. Sweetly, even.

“Mother, as I’m sure you already pulled all the footage from last night, you know perfectly well that I never even set foot in the Mansion last night, let alone had the opportunity to talk to Kara Danvers. So how exactly am I responsible here?”

“Right,” Lillian spat out on a cold, venomous tongue. “I’m sure that it’s just a coincidence that hours after you made a fool out of yourself in front of the network, Kara Danvers decided to go rogue all on her own to eliminate our next Bachelor?”

Lena shrugged carelessly, exercising more thought in plucking a stray piece of lint from the dark charcoal pantsuit she was wearing than addressing Lillian.

“We don’t even know if that’s what happened. Maybe she didn’t know we wanted him to stay. Frankly, Veronica has the communication skills of a parrot. Or maybe he just wasn’t her type. I think we can agree that the intense brooding doesn’t work for Kara.”

Lillian’s jaw clenched and unclenched, and there was a hard glint in her eyes, but otherwise she remained the face of impassivity. With utter dispassion which revealed nothing of the stormy fury that brewed within, Lillian said, “Maybe it was a mistake to bring you home.”

Lena’s smile never faltered. “You mean when I was four or two months ago?” She retorted without missing a beat. “Nevermind. I think we both know the answer.”

Lillian pursed her lips together in a thin, harsh line. “Must you be so hateful?”

That prompted a barking, disbelieving laugh from Lena. “If you find that comment hateful, I can’t imagine how you describe Lex these days.”

“We shouldn’t discuss Lex,” came Lillian’s swift, frosty reply.

“Oh, right, we don’t discuss sexual misconduct at this company.”

“Don’t,” said Lillian in a quiet, strained voice which told Lena that she had successfully scratched at a soft underbelly. Which maybe had been her goal in the first place, but now that it was achieved, Lena felt sorry to have done it. For better or worse (honestly, mostly worse), Lillian was her mother, and despite her endless unforgivable acts, she held sway over her daughter’s heart.

So, gentler now, Lena asked, “Have you spoken to him?”

For a moment, she thought that her mother wouldn’t answer. Lillian Luthor could ignore hurricanes through sheer force of will.

But she did, with uncharacteristic softness: “The lawyers don’t think it’s a good idea, not until we know how things will shake out. So far, all we have are anonymous allegations on the internet. We don’t even know who’s involved right now, but if the women come forward, a lawsuit likely isn’t far behind. So they’ve advised that we distance ourselves.”

The anonymous allegations had been posted to a website called The Daily Spoiler, which seemed to exist for the sole purpose of posting Bachelor franchise spoilers. Most of its stories were mundane details about who went on which group dates, but occasionally it spoiled entire seasons by announcing the winner. This time, the story was much more exciting. A few months ago, it started posting accounts of sexual harassment by Lex Luthor, supposedly from contestants who wished to remain anonymous. Some people said that they were made up by the website for the purpose of drumming up clicks. But Lena had read the allegations, and to her, there were too many details that rang true to be dismissed out of hand. One account described how Lex had woken her up in the middle of the night and taken her to the control room, where he kept her for hours, plying her with alcohol and making inappropriate comments that made her feel unsafe. The control room, which was off-limits to cast, was described with perfect accuracy. Another account described how Lex insisted on driving her to all date locations, commenting on her appearance the entire way despite her repeated requests for him not to; it accurately described Lex’s strange habit of wearing white leather fingerless gloves while he drove.

Plus, there was this: “The network must have found the allegations credible,” Lena said. “Otherwise why would they suspend Lex from the show and ban him from coming to the set?”

Lillian waved a hand dismissively. “Who knows what the network thinks. It’s run by a lunatic who’s never even set foot on set even though we’re her biggest moneymaker.” Lillian has had a long-running one-sided rivalry with the head of the network, Cat Grant, largely revolved around the fact that Cat Grant did not seem to care that the show, and by extension Lillian, existed.

“Cat Grant is a shrewd businesswoman. She doesn’t make these decisions arbitrarily.”

Lillian fixed a scrutinizing gaze upon her daughter. “Just ask me, Lena.”

She almost didn’t want to give her mother the satisfaction. She hated it when Lillian acted like she knew her and knew what she wanted to ask before she could. Basically, she hated it when Lillian was right. But right she was. The words rushed out in a tumble, having been suppressed for months now, ever since Jack (and of course it had to have been Jack who bothered to tell her - not her mother and certainly not Lex) first called her to let her know that rumors were brewing.

“Is it true?”

Lena hated herself for even asking the question. This was a victory for Lillian, and it showed in her smile.

“What happened to ‘believe women,’ my dear?” Lillian was clearly relishing this. “Or is it different when it’s your own brother?”

Lena, biting hard at her bottom lip, saying nothing but revealing everything through the raw affliction displayed on her face. The Luthor women did not share much in common, but there was this: while they normally excelled at masquerading invulnerability, this fortification cracked under the ever-present, ever-painful thorn that was Lex Luthor. Lillian sighed, her smile stiffening as it lost some of its joy. She was cruel enough to subject her daughter to emotional turmoil, but not quite far gone enough to be immune to regret.

But that’s not to say that she would be kind.

“What would you like to hear? What would make you feel better? That, yes, your brother’s a predator who used his position of power to sexually harass contestants on the show? That, yes, he manipulated and pressured some of them into sexual relationships? Or no, that he’s been falsely accused, but he’s been so unstable and volatile over the last few years, his own family immediately believed the worst based on anonymous rumors on the internet and abandoned him?” Lillian’s plastic smile was sickeningly sweet and sarcastic. “Or would you just like to hear me admit that I don’t know? That I am, contrary to popular theory, not in complete control of my own son or my show, and how awful it is to not know what happened under my watch?”

Once upon a time, in her young adult life, Lena had fancied herself grown-up, mature, and impervious to her mother’s barbs. She vowed that she would never again engage in a conversation with Lillian Luthor which left her flustered, angry, and vaguely nauseous. What a fool young Lena was. Now, older, Lena had come to accept that some things would never change.

“Maybe we shouldn’t talk about Lex.”

“That’s what I’ve been saying all along, dear.” Lillian straightened up in her seat, shuffling about papers on her desk which was meant to signal that they were getting back to business. “Now, about Kara. You’re going to be keeping a close eye on her. Veronica’s still her handler, but I’m making both of them your responsibility. If the lead steps out of line, I’m holding you personally accountable.”

“Oh, mother,” Lena said with a resigned sigh. “You were going to do that anyway.”

***

It was almost dusk when Lena headed back to the set. On her way, she swung by a pizza parlor that Kara had mentioned in her vetting interviews not once, not twice, not thrice, but four times. She picked up a margherita pizza - just one of Kara’s many, many favorite types of pizza she had mentioned in her interviews. Now that she thought about it, Kara might have spent more time in her interviews talking about the type of food she liked rather than the type of men.

Instead of heading to the Mansion, Lena drove to a house down the road which production had rented as Kara’s accommodations. While far less palatial than the Mansion and its many acres, it was still a spacious 4-bedroom that was far too much space for one person. Kara had her own bedroom, naturally, and one bedroom was reserved for the lead’s assistant, a PA who always stayed with the lead overnight to double as butler and prison guard. The lead, like all other cast members, wasn’t allowed to have cellphones, computers, newspapers, magazines, television, or any other contact with the outside world. In past seasons, they weren’t even allowed books. This was the first year that the lead was allowed to have streaming services on TV, and that was only due to Lena’s advocacy. Ostensibly, these things distracted people from the process under the theory that the exclusion of the outside world would help the cast focus on the personal relationship. Truthfully, boredom just drove people to do crazy things like drink too much and pick fights over nothing at all, which played well for the cameras. Without means of communicating with the outside world, it was incumbent upon the PA assigned to the lead to provide her with everything that she needed. But it was also the PA’s job to make sure that the lead obeyed the rules.

Another bedroom at the house had been converted into an interview room for Kara, where she would film what the crew called ITMs, “In the Moments” interviews where she would discuss what she was feeling at any given moment. When Lena arrived at the house, it was evident that Kara was in the middle of an ITM and that it wasn’t going very well. The door to the designated interview room was closed. Siobhan was pacing back and forth in the living room, listening to the audio through her headset, her nose wrinkled like she felt a bad sneeze coming on, the corners of her mouth sharply downturned in an unhappy arch. Her headset, Lena knew from experience, was piped into the earpiece of a field producer and a cameraperson in the interview room so that Siobhan could call the shots remotely. They limited the number of people in the interview room to create the illusion of intimacy for their subjects, as if that would make them forget that they’re filming something that would eventually be broadcast to millions of people.

A crew member named Brainy was on the living room couch, his head bowed over two laptops on the coffee table, working feverishly. On one laptop, he had a video editing program open in which he was compiling clips from the night before. The other laptop displayed the muted camera feed from the interview room, showing Kara fidgeting in a chair as her mouth opened and closed in silent speech. Even without audio, it was clear that she was struggling. Kara’s PA - the same one who had helped Kara out of the limo last night - stood unmoving in a corner of the room, apparently trying to master invisibility.

Lena set the pizza box down on the kitchen counter and went up to the wallflower PA.

“Nia, right?”

The PA - Nia - looked startled and almost fearful at the approach. “Hi, Ms. Luthor,” she greeted deferentially.

“Lena, please,” Lena said amicably, trying her best to put the young woman at ease. “ITM shoot?” Nia nodded timidly. “Not going well then?” Nia shook her head.

Right on cue, Siobhan emitted a loud, frustrated growl. “Incorporate the goddamn question! How many fucking times do we have to go over this?!”

Although Kara did not have an earpiece, Siobhan’s volume evidently carried through the walls because Kara visibly flinched on screen. Lena had never thought much of Siobhan, but prior to this moment, any negative feelings she had never dipped below a mild irritation. That was rapidly changing, and not for the better. Loud vulgarities were not the Luthor way. It clashed with their silent, deadly plotting.

Lena went to Brainy’s side. She wasn’t exactly sure what his job title was at the moment. He seemed to do a little bit of everything and excelled at just about all of it, hence the nickname. Based on what Lex had told her, Brainy started as a grip four years ago. When a gastrointestinal bug swept through the crew while they were filming in Argentina, Brainy stepped in at various times as a sound mixer, camera operator, director of photography, and line producer. He’s changed job titles eight times in the intervening seasons and now everyone just called him “Brainy”. Lena could never figure out whether the nickname was meant in affection or derision, but Brainy himself seemed to have embraced the nickname.

She greeted him. He grunted in reply. Not exactly rude, just preoccupied with work, which Lena could appreciate.

“What’s going on?”

“Veronica’s been interviewing the lead for a couple of hours now. Her reactions haven’t been quite as… shall we say, visceral, as Veronica would have liked. Veronica’s asked me to pull clips from last night’s cocktail party. She’s playing them for the lead in hopes of getting a better response.” He held out a pair of over-the-ear headsets. “Would you care to listen?”

With a nod of thanks, Lena took the proffered headphones and slipped them over her head. On screen, Kara had just finished watching a clip from a tablet and was handing the device back to Veronica.

“How did that make you feel?” came Veronica’s voice over Lena’s headphones.

“Um… fine, I guess?”

“You just watched Logan tell another contestant that he came on the show hoping that Jean Grey would be the Bachelorette, and you’re ‘fine’ with that?”

“Yeah. I can’t blame the guy. I saw her on Scott’s season, and she seems like a really lovely person, so I totally get it.” Kara’s beatific beam showed that the enthusiasm was not at all fake.

Veronica sighed heavily. It was clearly not the response she was looking for.

“At least incorporate the question, Kara.” The producers always asked the cast to answer questions by restating the question so that they could air the answer without airing the producer’s question. It also gave them more soundbytes to manipulate.

“Oh. Um. I, uh, heard that Logan wanted Jean Grey as the, um, Bachelorette. And uh, honestly, I’m fine with it because Jean is amazing! Well, I mean, I don’t know her but she seems really cool!

“Well, that’s completely unusable,” Lena heard Sibohan muttering. Lena could understand the frustration. Kara Danvers was not just wholesome, she was inhumanly wholesome. According to conventional reality TV wisdom, that was a ratings killer. Veronica was apparently feeling the same way, because the interview soon turned into an interrogation.

“Are you worried that he’s not really here for you?” When that question didn’t produce a visible response from Kara, Veronica pressed, “Should he really be here if he’s not interested in you? You’re here to meet your future husband, Kara, and he’s disrupting that by taking time and opportunity away from the other men. How are you supposed to figure out who your husband is if he’s here wasting your time?”

“Well, that’s okay,” Kara said easily. “I’m always happy to make new friends!”

From across the room, Lena heard Siobhan unleash a piercing, frustrated, banshee-like wail.

“Friends? Friends?! Fucking friends?! What fucking show does she think she’s on?!”

In the other room, Veronica’s face evidently echoed what Siobhan had cried out loud, because Lena could see Kara now frowning and asking with real concern, “What’s wrong?”

After a long pause, Veronica said, “Let’s stop here today.”

The door to the interview room swung open and Veronica trotted out quickly. Veronica’s eyes drifted over Lena, perfunctorily acknowledged her presence with a nod, then went to Siobhan, whispering in her ear and sweeping the woman out of the house. Lena handed the headphones back to Brainy. She went to the door of the interview room, peering inside. The cameraman was busy fiddling with his gear, carefully avoiding eye contact with the lead who was slumped in her seat. She looked so dejected and forlorn, like a star who had lost its shine.

And Lena knew just the perfect thing to say.

“I brought pizza.”

***

After two slices, Kara was already in a much better mood.

The two women sat side-by-side on low-back barstools before a marble-top kitchen island. Kara had removed her makeup and changed out of the dress she had put on for the ITM. She looked much more relaxed in a t-shirt and sweatpants, glasses swapped out for contacts, and her hair tied up in a ponytail.

Through the open kitchen door, Lena had a view into the living room, where Nia and Brainy had migrated to after grabbing their share of pizza. They were sitting next to one another on the couch at a respectful, friendly distance. Brainy was holding a camera in his hands and showing Nia something on screen.

After much coaxing on Kara’s part, Lena had finally been persuaded to have a slice of pizza herself. Kara narrowed her eyes suspiciously when Lena dabbed off the grease on top with a paper napkin, but said nothing, intuitively understanding that she had already scored a sizable victory. To even things out, Lena had won a small victory of her own. Despite Kara’s insistence that red wine was “too snooty” to be eaten with pizza, Lena had persuaded her to uncork a bottle. There was never a shortage of alcohol on a Bachelorette set.

Lena waited until Kara was halfway through her third slice before broaching the topic. “How are things going with Veronica?”

Kara gave her a pointed look. “I think you saw how things were going. She doesn’t like me.”

“Veronica doesn’t like anyone. Except the people who sign her paychecks. Even then, I think she just tolerates them.”

Kara set her food down on her plate and pushed back in her seat. “It’s not like I’m stupid. I know what she’s looking for and I really am trying, but… I just don’t feel the things that she wants me to say. I don’t want to say mean things about people and I also don’t want to gush about how one of these guys could be my soulmate because I just don’t know if that’s true.” Kara sighed and shook her head. “I feel like… casting me as the lead was a mistake.”

“Mmm. I concur.” That was definitely not the answer Kara had been expecting. Lena just shrugged at her shocked expression. “You value honesty. So I’m being honest. When we were discussing potential leads, I advocated against you. I was overruled. Obviously.”

“Oh,” Kara said softly, looking sort of pathetic with her head slightly bowed and shoulders rounded. Lena leaned forward, resting her hand on top of Kara’s in friendly reassurance.

“There’s no need to look so glum. It’s not an insult. Most of the women who appear on this show aspire to be influencers or actresses. They either have a natural flair for being dramatic - which, frankly, makes them somewhat unbearable in real life - or they’ve been on the show before as a contestant and they know the kind of behavior we reward with screen time. You’re neither of those things and that’s not a bad thing.”

“Right. I’m just here because of nepotism,” Kara replied, quite glumly. “Because I’m the cousin of the most popular Bachelor the show’s ever had.”

“I’d hardly call that nepotism. Clark had no power or influence over our decisions. Besides, while his popularity was a factor, so was yours. You appeared in one episode ten years ago and the fans are still talking about you. I don’t think you understand the level of response we received when we announced you as Bachelorette. You’re magnetic, Kara.” Too late in the moment, Lena realized that she was still clasping - holding - Kara’s hand. Clearing her throat lightly, she drew back, folding her hands in her lap. She sat back in her seat, creating some much-needed distance between the two of them.

“Wow.” Kara looked stunned, but definitely not displeased. “So, um… why were you so against having me as the lead then?”

“It wasn’t about you. I just… wanted to go in a different direction.” Lena was looking down at her hands, but she could feel Kara’s gaze upon her, unrelentingly questioning. With a light sigh, she yielded. “I wanted Claire Temple to be the lead.”

“From Danny’s season? Oh, yeah, she’s insanely beautiful,” Kara nodded. “Yeah, y’all should’ve picked her. Why didn’t you pick her?!”

Clearing her throat again, Lena reached for her wine glass, and muttered before she took a long sip, “I don’t think you really want to know the answer to that.”

“Lenaaaa,” Kara whined. God, it was unfair how easy it was for her to make Lena fold.

“Really, Kara. You should just trust me on this. It won’t make you feel any better to know.”

Lena couldn’t remember the last time that she had seen a grown woman pout. Correction: Lena couldn’t remember the last time that she had seen a grown woman pout and not have it come off as completely absurd. No 30-year-old woman had any business pouting. So ridiculous. “All right, fine.” Equally ridiculous: the way Lena has zero willpower. The words too gay to function came to mind. “We had several candidates in the mix. Jean Grey dropped out early - apparently she’s taken up with Scott again. So then I wanted Claire Temple, some wanted Annie January, and of course, there was you. Lillian consulted with the network and they chose you. They said Annie was too young and Claire was… not right.”

“Why? What does that mean?”

“Kara. You’ve seen the show? And The Bachelor?”

“Sure. Not all of it, but a few seasons.”

“And you really can’t think of how Claire might be different from you and all the other Bachelorettes that have come before? And the Bachelors, for that matter?” Lena prompted. “The way she looks, maybe?”

It was clear that Kara didn’t get it immediately, and it was clear when she did. Eyes wide, jaw slacked, a sharp intake of breath.

“You mean- no- they wouldn’t-” Kara fell silent with a distracted look on her face, and Lena could tell that she was now going through a mental rolodex of past leads and contestants, suddenly making the connection. “Oh my god. How did I never realize? They’re all- and I’m-”

“White? Yes. We’ve had 15 seasons of the Bachelor and 10 of the Bachelorette and not a single person of color. I thought Claire was the perfect candidate. Beautiful, smart, funny, kind, ready to settle down.” With a shrug, Lena tilted her head back and drained the last bit of wine in her glass. “Alas.”

Kara looked like she was going to be ill. She leaned forward until her forehead was flat against the countertop. “Oh god. What did I do?”

You didn’t do anything. It was never going to be Claire. If you had said no, they would’ve given it to Annie January or Clarke Griffin or Sarah Walker. The franchise isn’t lacking for pretty blonde women.”

“I can’t believe I didn’t realize,” Kara moaned. She suddenly bolted upright in a panic. “Oh, my god. I never even noticed. Lena, I think I might be racist.”

“I suppose I don’t know you all that well, so I can’t rule out the possibility. But more probably, you were just too inoculated with privilege to notice. I was too - am, really.” Lena reached over the counter, grabbing the bottle of Merlot and poured a healthy dose into her own glass. “I was a child when my father created this show. I grew up on the set and I never gave a second thought to its… homogeneity. I have to admit that I never even realized that anything was wrong until I dated a person of color who had to tell me as much.” Without being asked, Lena refilled Kara’s wine glass. To the brim. Which Lillian would have called uncouth, but she was a lousy mother and maybe possibly racist, so whatever.

“Oh my god,” Kara continued to moan, slumping down in her seat once more.

“I told you that it wouldn’t make you feel any better to know.”

“Don’t gloat,” Kara said sulkily. Lena smiled indulgently, carefully pushing Kara’s full wine glass toward her.

“How about we have a couple glasses first and work on getting you through this season before we tackle systemic racism in popular culture?”

With an unconvinced, wary look, Kara gingerly lifted her wine glass and took a large sip. Lena thought that she’d take half an hour to give Kara some tips on how to deal with Veronica. Then she’d call it a night, go home, have a nice bath, a cup of peppermint tea, curl up in bed with a good book, and go to bed at a reasonable time like a healthy, responsible adult. At least, that was the plan.

Four minutes in, Lena casually mentioned how she found Veronica’s death glare unsettling because it reminded her of an Anjelica Huston movie she had seen when she was young that was vaguely unsettling, prompting Kara to ask whether it was The Witches Anjelica Huston or Addams Family Anjelica Huston (it was the former), which segued into a discussion on Wes Anderson, which led to The Life Aquatic soundtrack, then David Bowie and Spiders on Mars, then actual “spiders” on Mars in the form of araneiform terrain, then astronaut ice cream, favorite freeze-dried foods to stock in a bunker, Survivor the show, bushcraft in general, the annual Danvers sisters camping trips, Lena’s favorite vacation (3 weeks in New Zealand), Lord of the Rings, mood rings, retro jewelry fads and the time Kara was devastated by her loss of her dolphin charm, NASA-funded dolphin experiments…

Then it was late, two bottles of wine done, Brainy long gone, and Nia to bed hours ago.

Then they were standing in the driveway, swaying slightly next to Lena’s car while they waited for her Uber (because of the drunken swaying). When the Uber showed, Kara shyly thanked Lena for the evening. On drunken impulse, Lena lightly grasped Kara by the forearm, pulling the blonde into her arms for a quick, tight hug before jumping into the car. As the car pulled away with Lena slumped in the backseat, she squinted at her phone, the large white display telling her that it was almost 2:00AM. She mentally calculated that she probably had time for three hours of sleep before she had to get up for work. She found that she didn’t really mind.

***

Kara was old enough to know better.

At her age, she shouldn’t expect to polish off two bottles of red wine with Lena and still feel perfectly fine the next day. She was old enough to know that she should not be staying up when she had a full day of shooting the next day for her first group date.

And yet. Here she was, the day after, hungover, exhausted. On a date. With eleven men. Surrounded by clowns. Not the guys - although, yes, Mxy was there - but actual, red-nosed, face-painted, rainbow-wigged clowns. Of course, the first group date taking place on the day of a particularly nasty hangover was at a carnival, in its full carnival glory of bright lights, loud music, and creepy clowns.

There was some sort of competition going on. Kara was too busy fighting the urge to hurl into the nearest receptacle to absorb the details, but the gist was that the guys were competing in various carnival-related activities and the overall winner at the end of the day would win extra time with Kara. At the moment, they were about to start some kind of balloon animal competition and the clowns were giving the men a tutorial.

“Kara.” Veronica snapped her fingers inches from Kara’s face. “Come on, we need a reaction shot. Focus.” Kara was supposed to be oohing and aahing at the men’s efforts, but instead she was craning her neck and sweeping the crowd. The day was half over and she still hadn’t seen Lena yet. She had hoped that she would see her in the morning - after all, Lena had left her car there the night before. But by the time Kara awoke at 6 a.m. to start preparing for the day’s shoot, Lena’s car was already gone.

Kara wondered whether she would see Lena at all today. The thought that she may not made her a little cranky. But maybe that was the hangover. Or the heat. Or the hunger. Or the clowns. Or the incessant beating inside her skull. She thought about asking Veronica for some aspirin to quell the hungover-induced pain, but the date had gotten off to a disastrous start already, and it was never quite the right time. Besides, she was paranoid of Veronica asking why she needed painkillers. She had the inkling that Veronica would be angrier than usual to find out that her lead was hungover. So now Kara was left to push through the pain and exhaustion and hunger and heat, feigning interest in the men’s balloon animals. Ben W., the accountant from Indiana, actually made a very impressive miniature horse.

She felt someone approaching, and she turned, hopeful - and saw that it was James. Which wasn’t a bad thing at all. It just wasn’t quite what she had been hoping for. James stepped to her conspiratorially, and she could see that he had both hands behind his back and a wide grin on his face. His smile was contagious, and despite the throbbing pain in her skull, she found herself responding in kind.

“While they’re all distracted by the balloon animals-” James nodded at the cameras which were, for once, all pointed at something else other than Kara. He pulled his hands out from behind his back and showed her what he had: two Tylenols and a bottle of water. “You looked like you might need this.” Kara moaned gratefully, taking the pills from him, promptly popping in her mouth and washing it down. “Having a good time yet?”

“I will once this kicks in. Thank you, James. I really needed that.”

“Rough night?”

“Something like that.”

“Did you need something? I saw that you keep looking around in the crowd.”

“Yeah, I was just looking for one of the producers.”

“Stand still long enough and they’ll find you. I’ve never felt so examined in my life before.” James flashed a smile to show that he didn’t really mind. “It’s intense, huh?”

As if on cue, Veronica cut in with a high-pitched “KARA!” Veronica rushed over, face flushed and perturbed, as if Kara talking to James off-camera for 60 seconds was the worst thing to ever happen. For this show, it probably was. “We need you to stand over here.”

James shrugged, looking a little sad that his time with Kara was cut short. “I hope I get to talk to you more later.”

Kara didn’t even get to respond before she was forcibly dragged away, positioned far away from James, and told to coo and aww over Logan’s pathetic balloon animal, which could’ve been anything from a manatee to a toaster oven.

Just before they moved on to their next activity, she spotted her, standing amidst the crew observing the shoot. Clad in a dark navy pantsuit, sleek black hair pulled back in a pony, oversized sunglasses on, wearing a warm smile.

“Lena!” Kara dashed over quickly, instinctively embracing the woman in greeting. Apparently they were at that stage now. “I was wondering where you were!”

“I’ve been stuck in meetings all day. Were you looking for me?”

“No. I mean, yes, but I didn’t need anything.” Kara shrugged. “I was just curious whether I’d see you today.”

“Well, here I am.” Lena grinned, showing perfect teeth and dimples. For a moment, Kara didn’t know what to say.

“Here you are,” was what came out of her mouth while she just stared. It’s not that she was necessarily attracted to women or anything but Lena’s looks were definitely… intriguing.

“Kara.” Veronica appeared at her side, stony-faced and flat-voiced. “We’re still shooting here.”

Kara momentarily felt guilty and not just for wandering away while the cameras were still rolling. This morning, she had vowed to herself that she would try harder, do better, and work on improving things with Veronica. It hadn’t worked. Today had been one continuous blunder after another.

To start, the men were already waiting when Kara first arrived at the carnival. When she appeared, the guys burst out in a well-orchestrated cacophony of “KAAAAAAARAAAAA!” in greeting as a confetti cannon exploded behind them, showering everyone in festively colored bits of paper and ribbons. It was a nice moment. Or at least, it would have been if Kara hadn’t responded by visibly cringing at the volume (not helping her hangover at all), squealing in surprise, and backing away quickly, tripping over her own feet and face-planting in the process. They had to reshoot. But first the crew had to sweep up the confetti.

Kara apologized profusely and tried to help with the clean up, but Veronica had snapped at her and told her to go talk to the guys. Or, as Veronica had put it, “What the hell am I going to do with footage of you fucking around with a broom like fucking Mary Poppins? Go over there and talk to whoever you find the most fuckable.”

Then there was that thing when Schmidt, the marketing executive from Los Angeles, came up to her with a stick of cotton candy and asked whether she would like to try. Of course, Kara happily accepted and thanked him enthusiastically before grabbing the stick from him and chowing down. She was already halfway through the treat by the time Veronica made her way over and hissed that she should’ve let Schmidt feed her because that was romantic or something.

Then there were Kara’s disastrous ITMs which had Veronica, prompting, prodding, pulling, and phrasing questions five different ways just to get something usable out of her to no avail.

So, this - wandering off from the shoot to talk to Lena - didn’t help. And it was only day three.

“My fault,” Lena now told Veronica. “I distracted her. Just wanted to see how she was enjoying the date.”

Veronica managed a strained smile at her boss, the woman whose last name was plastered all over the set on call sheets and equipment labels. “Right, it’s just that we’re moving to the strength test and Kara’s up.”

Lena turned to Kara and arched a brow. “Well, you heard her.” Her voice reminded Kara of honey slowly stretching from a spoon. “Show ‘em what you got.”

The men had all already taken their turn at the high striker, which was twenty feet tall with lightbulbs running alongside its height, a red bell at the top, and a large mallet resting at its base. The producers had set up a scoreboard next to it, with cardboard cutouts of the men’s faces ranked vertically next to their scores. Mon-El’s face was at the top, Logan’s a close second.

“Here, let me help you with that.” Mon-El said gallantly, lifting the mallet with both hands and handing it to Kara. “Be careful with it, okay?”

“I’ve got it,” Kara answered politely. Gripping the mallet tightly, Kara drew her shoulders back, hoisting the instrument up high before bringing it crashing back down on the lever. The puck rocketed away, streaking up until it collided into the red bell with a violent, resounding clang that signified the shattering of the men’s scores.

Mon-El looked astonished. Logan literally growled. James applauded thunderously while Winn let out a loud whistle. Veronica sighed. And when Kara looked over, Lena was beaming with pride.

***

The carnival date ended with Mon-El as the winning suitor, which earned him twenty minutes with Kara on the Ferris wheel, where she offered him the group date rose. But when he leaned in to try and kiss her, she shied away, which led to much cursing from Veronica.

When the crew finally announced that they were done for the night, Kara took off at a dash for Lena, weaving and dodging her way through the crowd. She was clutching a pink bear that James had won for her.

“Lena!” She came to a halting stop just before she crashed into the dark-haired woman.

“Hey, Kara.” Lena eyed the pink bear. It was a little creepy-looking, like many cheap carnival stuffed animals often were. But Kara had been genuinely happy when James handed it to her - a rare moment in the show so far.

“Are you heading back to the Mansion?”

“No, I think we’re done for the day. I’m heading home.” ‘Home’ for Lena was a fully furnished corporate apartment she was leasing by the month. When she first moved to L.A., Lillian had grudgingly offered up a spare bedroom in her oversized home by the beach. The offer was firmly declined.

“Oh. Well, um, where’s home? Would it happen to be somewhere near the Mansion? Or on the way?”

As Lena’s eyes narrowed, her grin widened with amusement. “Kara. What are you getting at?”

“I was supposed to go back with Nia but she was sent away on an errand. So Veronica said she’d drive me, but…” Kara made a face, the same face she had made earlier when Mxy coated his finger in powdered sugar from a funnel cake and asked Kara if she’d like a taste.

Lena laughed. “Are you afraid of Veronica?”

“Afraid of Veronica? No, no, not at all.” Kara shook her head solemnly. “Afraid of the sharp object she’ll be using to stab me on the drive back? Yes, very much so.” When Lena just laughed harder, Kara broke into a slight pout. “You laugh, but you should’ve seen her when I suggested that I just go back in the men’s bus. The Mansion’s just down the road anyway! They don’t even have to drop me off, I could walk back to the house from there. She looked like she wanted to strangle me.”

“Yes, I’d imagine. We can’t let you interact with any of the suitors off-camera. We’d have to get a team on the bus too. Besides, you know that someone from production has to stay with you at all times.” Lena reached into her purse and pulled out her phone. “I’ll text Veronica and tell her I’m taking you back.”

“You don’t have to,” Kara said quickly. “If it’s out of your way or if you have plans tonight?”

“I don’t have plans,” Lena replied, already tapping out a message on her phone.

“You didn’t answer the first question.”

“Hmm? Oh, well, it’s too late, I already texted Veronica.” Lena waved her phone in the air. “If I take it back now, you’re going to be the reason why she can’t go home yet, then she might be unpleasant tomorrow.”

“Well, we wouldn’t want to see that,” Kara said drily.

An added perk of having Lena drive her back: her car was fancy as shit. Kara slid into soft leather seats, sighing contentedly as she inhaled deeply. It still had that new car smell with a tinge of Lena’s perfume, and Kara thought this might be her new favorite non-food smell. The look that Lena was giving her now pretty much said you weirdo, but it felt oddly affectionate, especially coming from a woman she barely knew.

On the way back, Kara told Lena about all the things that had gone wrong today. Lena listened carefully as Kara’s story devolved into a rant, waiting patiently until the blonde had vented sufficiently.

“First of all, with the confetti cannon. I suppose being hungover didn’t help and that’s my fault too, but at the end of the day, it’s the producer’s job to anticipate the cast’s reaction. Veronica should’ve given you a heads up on what production had planned. Second, it’s completely ridiculous that she would even be upset with you for beating the guys on the high-striker. So you’re freakishly strong. You don’t need to hide that just to appease delicate male egos. If Lillian and Mercy think the imagery won’t play well, they just won’t air it. Third. Yes, your ITMs are terrible.” Kara moaned and slid down in her seat, soliciting a small laugh from her driver. “It’s alright. It’s not all on you. As your handler, it’s literally Veronica’s job to handle you and ask questions that’ll get the best response from you. She should be tailoring the interviews to your personality and she’s just not doing a very good job.”

“It’s day three, Lena. What am I going to do?”

“It’ll get better. She just has to get to know you,” Lena assured her. “On the bright side, if things don’t improve, they’ll find you another handler. At this point, you’re the one who can’t be replaced.”

“They wouldn’t fire her?” Kara looked aghast at the thought. “She’s going to lose her job because I’m terrible at being interviewed?”

“More like they’ll shuffle her to another position for the rest of the season to work with the contestants or to another show we’re producing. Veronica’s valuable. She works brilliantly with a certain type of personality. The insecure, catty, jealous type. But your concern for her job is very cute.”

Lena was too conscientious of a driver to take her eyes off the road, but she thought that she glimpsed a pleased smile on Kara’s face.

“So, um, are you heading home after this?” Kara asked.

“I’m afraid you can’t get rid of me that easily. We’re very serious about having someone from the show stay with you at all times. I’ll have to stay with you until Nia gets back.”

“That’s a shame,” Kara answered, her tone conveying the exact opposite meaning of her words.

Lena continued the drive towards the house with something a bit like giddiness in her heart, if Lena Luthor was the type to experience anything resembling giddiness. But she wasn’t. She was a Luthor and it was pretty much scientifically proven that Luthors lacked the requisite genes to experience anything like that. Which was just as well because whatever that unnamed emotion was, it dissipated quickly when she pulled up in the driveway and saw that Nia’s car was already there.

“Nia’s back,” Kara commented obviously.

“Looks like it.” Lena was impressed with herself and how blasé she managed to sound.

“I guess… that means… you don’t have to stay.” Kara’s high inflection at the end of the sentence made it seem almost like a question.

“That seems to be the natural conclusion.”

“Okay,” Kara said quietly. She made no moves to get out of the car. “I guess I’ll see you tomorrow then.”

Before Lena could answer, the door to the house opened and Nia stepped out, waving at the pair. Brainy appeared in the doorway behind her, a camera in his hands. As Nia made her way over. Lena rolled down her window.

“Hi, Lena. I thought Veronica was bringing Kara back?”

“Something came up. I’m happy to do it.”

Nia nodded her thanks at her boss. Turning to Kara, she said, “Do you mind if Brainy stayed for dinner? Apparently he never remembers to eat unless someone makes him.”

“No, not at all!” Kara answered, brightening at the thought of having company.

“Lena? Are you joining us?” Nia asked. When Lena hesitated in responding, Nia added, “I picked up Chinese food. There’s an insane amount of food. Kara had a ton of requests.” Nia grinned as Kara made a face at her.

“Oh, that sounds nice, but I should probably-” Lena glanced over at the passenger seat, saw the hopeful smile on Kara’s face, causing her excuse to die on her lips and her hand to reach for her seatbelt buckle. “I hope you ordered enough potstickers.”

***

“Brainy?”

“Yes, Kara.” Brainy answered as he dexterously picked up a ginger-sauce-covered shrimp with his chopsticks.

“Why are you filming this?”

The four of them were seated around the dining room table, which was crowded with about eight or nine different dishes - that wasn’t even counting the three orders of potstickers. Nia did not exaggerate when she said Kara had a ton of requests. At the moment, they were eating with gusto, each geared with a chopstick in one hand and a spoon in the other. Except for Brainy, who has had one hand on his camera at all times. In fact, in the three days that Kara has known him, she had never seen him without a camera.

“I’m documenting.”

Prodding at the mountain of potstickers on her plate, Kara asked with bafflement, “Is this part of the show? Why would anyone want to watch me eat?” Although there were a substantial number of potstickers on her plate. Alex had always called her appetite astonishing. Maybe that was somehow interesting to the audience. Maybe they were going to add a potsticker eating contest to the show.

“He’s doing a personal project,” Nia explained. “Lillian gave him permission to film around the set when he’s not on the clock.”

“She did?” Lena asked with surprise. She had never known Lillian to do anything without ulterior motives. It seemed entirely unlike her to let a crew member film the set with impunity, paranoid as she was about someone spoiling the season.

“There were some conditions attached. She gets final approval over any footage I show to a third party. If any of my footage is ever used in any commercial or profit-generating context, she receives half of the gross revenue. And LuthorMedia gets the option to purchase any footage or anything I produce from it,” Brainy supplemented. “Oh, and I had to take a paycut.”

Dreading the answer that she thought she already knew, Lena asked, “How much of a paycut?”

Brainy set down his chopsticks and picked up his cellphone, quickly unlocking and pulling up an email before passing the device to Lena. Nia leaned over to look on and blanched when she saw the figure.

“Brainy. This is what I make and I’m a first year PA.”

“Why would you do this?” Lena asked, bewildered.

“I thought it’d be interesting for people to get a look at how reality TV is made. I find the behind-the-scenes material to be just as compelling. It’s surprising to me that there isn’t more about how it’s made.”

“So… you took a severe paycut to make a documentary about the show that LuthorMedia has the purchase options to?” Lena reiterated, not quite believing what she was hearing. “Brainy, you know that Lillian’s going to make sure that no one ever sees any of the footage?”

“We’ll see,” he said casually, not at all bothered. “I believe that my work will be quite masterful. No one could possibly say no to art.”

“But Brainy-”

Nia gently broke in, “Lena, just let him have this.”

Lena, despite her concerns, took the advice and swallowed her words. It was probably too late to do anything about it anyway. She would have to make a note in the future to keep a more protective eye on Brainy.

After dinner, Lena and Nia retreated to the living room to pick out something to watch while Brainy helped Kara with cleanup. While Kara spooned leftover shumai into tupperware, he stated casually,

“Kara, I wish to be intimate with Nia.”

Kara’s hand slipped, sending a shumai tumbling to the floor, rolling beneath a cabinet.

“Uh…” Sure, they had all become fast friends very quickly, as people who spent an inordinate amount of time together tended to, but she wasn’t sure that she knew him well enough yet for this conversation. Brainy bent down and scooped up the stray shumai, holding it out to her. Wincing, she shook her head, and he deposited it in the trash instead.

“She is fascinating. I would like to become better acquainted with her. I believe that she and I, despite being from different walks of life, have a lot to share and learn from one another. I wish to know her mind.”

Relief flooded Kara. As she placed the tupperware’s lid on the container, she said, “Oh! You mean emotionally intimate.”

“Yes, indeed. I would also like to have sex with her as well.”

Kara’s movements stuttered again, and the tupperware fell from her hands, the lid knocked loose as it hit the ground, the food spilling across the floor. Brainy squatted down, picking up and gathering the errant dumplings in his hands. “In due time, of course. I would not want to rush our physical relationship. It’s much better when there are feelings involved.”

“Um, not that I don’t appreciate sharing, but why are you telling me this?”

“Nia and I are on different schedules.” Rising to his feet, Brainy held out the shumai pieces he had gathered, holding them out to Kara. She nodded at the trash, and in they went. “I’m on the day shift on set and she’s on evenings here with you. If I want to spend time with her, it would have to be here. This is your home for the time being. I don’t wish to be a burden.”

A sappy smile spread over Kara’s face. “Brainy. Are you asking me for permission to date Nia?”

“In a manner of speaking, yes. Logistically speaking, I would need your permission to properly court her. I promise that it will not interfere with her duties or responsibilities to you. In fact, my services are available to you as well-”

“Brainy, Brainy. It’s okay. I would love to have you here. The more the merrier, right?”

Brainy blinked slowly at her. “I would not like to have any other prospects or romantic rivals in the house, if that’s what you mean.”

“It wasn’t.” Kara patted his arm genially. “You are more than welcome here anytime.”

***

Kara wanted to ensure that she would not be hungover for the second group date the next day. She was going to be well-rested, peppy, and enthused, ready to do or say whatever Veronica wanted.

At least, that was the plan. The well-rested part didn’t quite come to fruition. She did try to go to bed at a decent time the night before, but she was caught up in the conversation with Lena, Brainy, and Nia. It was Nia who, despite being the youngest and most junior member of the production staff, had the presence of mind to check the time at a little bit past 1AM and order Kara to bed, and Brainy and Lena home.

As for being peppy and enthused - well, that was going to be a nonstarter too. Kara had been told that today’s event was going to be a sports competition. She was not told that it was a mixed martial arts competition, which frankly seemed unnecessary and irresponsible, but no one had asked for her opinion. She was just told to show up, look pretty, and cheer on the men from the sidelines.

Some of the matches were flat-out absurdly mismatched. Like pairing Kenny with Mick, a hulking bounty hunter with a shaved head and a neck the size of Kenny’s arm. Mick looked extremely disappointed when Kenny tapped out within a minute. (At the end of the evening, Kenny would receive the group date rose, leading a slightly disgruntled Mick to call it a “pity rose”.)

In other matches, it seemed like the men were genuinely trying to kill each other. Kara felt slightly nauseated as she watched Manchester, the former soccer player from England, pin Ben L., the professor from California, to the mat and pummel him relentlessly. Kara scanned the crew, hoping to find someone willing to put an end to this, but Lena hadn’t shown up yet, and none of the other producers seemed remotely interested in stopping the fight. It was almost a relief when Ben L. received a cut on his forehead and the referee stopped the match. Kara could not understand how any of this was supposed to help her find a husband. Was she supposed to be attracted to this type of thing? How was any of it romantic?

At the end of the competition, the group moved on to drinks at a nearby nightclub that closed its doors to the public that night for the show to film. Mick, as the winner of the competition, won extra time with Kara. The two of them sat stiffly side-by-side in one of the club’s private rooms while the rest of the contestants were gathered in the main room, waiting for their turn. At least they had plenty of alcohol.

“So… you’re a bounty hunter?”

“Yup.”

“That’s an unusual job. How did you end up as a bounty hunter?”

Mick stared at Kara like she was nuts. “Saw a listing. Applied. Got it.”

“Right. Um. Do you like your job?” Kara asked.

“Yeah.”

“What, uh… what do you like about it?”

“Punching people’s fun.”

“Oh.”

Kara could see Veronica whispering furiously into her headset. Moments later, Ben L. appeared in the entrance way, escorted by his producer, Gayle. Ben now sported a reddish bruise on his cheek, barely disguised by makeup, and a bandage was affixed to his forehead. Ben, hovering in the doorway, looked uncertainly at Gayle, who gave him a reassuring nod. Being given permission, Ben strolled forth.

“Kara, can I steal you for a minute?”

Mick’s expression clouded over and Kara held her breath, wondering if there was going to be a confrontation. But then Mick just shrugged and stood up.

“Yeah, be my guest. I gotta go catch up with my boy Leonard anyway.”

As Mick walked off, Kara stole a look at the producers, noting that neither Gayle nor Veronica looked happy with Mick’s non-reaction. Apparently a more explosive result had been expected. Ben sat down next to Kara on the couch and the two of them smiled awkwardly at one another.

“Hi, Kara,” Ben greeted warmly. “How’s your evening going?”

“It’s good,” Kara responded politely. “How’s your head?”

“Fine, thank you.” Ben smiled. He was certainly handsome, but there was something about him that Kara found vaguely unnerving. She couldn’t be sure whether that was just because she had witnessed him trying to beat another man’s head in a couple hours earlier. “That got a little out of hand, didn’t it? And that was supposed to be our first date! Can you imagine what they have planned for us for our second date? Maybe jousting?”

“Yeah, that was completely insane,” Kara agreed heartily, relieved to hear that someone else found the entire situation absurd.

“I’m really sorry that you had to see that,” Ben said in earnest. “I’m honestly a pacifist. I abhor violence.”

“Me too,” Kara nodded, starting to feel a bit bad at her initial wariness toward him.

“Pitting men against one another in a ring - I thought that gladiators died out with the advent of Nicene Christianity. I thought they were going to unleash wild beasts next!” Ben laughed, and Kara began to find him charming. “I guess they couldn’t find any, so they had to settle for Manchester.”

“Oh. Uh.” How did one respond to something like that? Manchester was black and Ben was white. Regardless of the circumstances, a white man comparing a black man to a ‘wild beast’ was deeply unsettling. In another setting, Kara would have called him out on it. But under the intense pressure of the cameras, bright lights, and gawking production staff, coupled with the uncertainty over whether Ben realized what he did, she couldn’t think of anything to say but, “Yeah, he was um, he did pretty well.”

“You could say that again.” Ben pointed at his head self-deprecatingly. “In fact, you might have to. I think I have a concussion from that. I did the best I could, but still,” Ben shrugged. “It’s almost futile to try and defend yourself against aggressive thugs like that. I’m very open-minded and I’m not at all ashamed to admit that, physically speaking, his people have the natural advantage over mine. Lucky that we excel in more important attributes.”

“Uhh.” Kara struggled to find the right words. Was Ben saying- no, he couldn’t. She misunderstood what he was saying. “Yeah? I guess former professional soccer players would have the physical advantage over professors?”

Ben fixed her with a steady, scrutinizing gaze. Then a slow, conspiratorial smile spread across his face and he gave a slight, almost indiscernible nod toward the cameras in recognition. “Yes. Those soccer players can sure get uppity.” Then he winked and it was just about the creepiest goddamn thing Kara had ever seen. A wave of nausea washed over her and she bolted to her feet.

“I have to go to the bathroom,” she muttered hurriedly and dashed off into the corridor. She went down the hallway and into the main room where the other contestants were waiting, ignoring their hopeful, eager looks. She found Nia leaning against the wall on the far side of the room, looking over her clipboard, and made a beeline for the woman.

“Nia, is Lena here?”

“I don’t think so.” Nia looked up. “Everything okay?”

“I’d like to talk to Lena.”

“I doubt she has her radio on if she’s not on set, and I don’t have her number…” Nia trailed off as she saw the expression on Kara’s face. “Okay, hold on, give me a sec.” Nia went away and approached another producer, Jack, who was chatting with William. She pulled him a couple of steps away and a conversation took place that Kara could not hear from this distance. Jack looked up and glanced at Kara, then nodded and pulled out his phone. Nia stood for a few minutes while Jack typed away on his phone. After a few moments, Nia went back to Kara. “She’s on her way.”

“Thank you, Nia. I’ll um- I’ll just be in here,” Kara gestured to one of the private rooms. She stepped inside, closing the door behind her. She sank down on one of the couches, closing her eyes as she sighed deeply. At some point, Veronica came by, knocking on the door and calling Kara’s name. Kara ignored it. When Veronica tried to open the door, Kara firmly pushed the door back shut. Veronica didn’t try again.

About fifteen minutes after that, a soft knock came at the door, followed by the voice that Kara had been dying to hear all day.

“Kara? Are you in there?”

Kara pulled the door open, grabbed Lena by the hand and pulled her in. Then it all came pouring out, everything that was awful about this day. Her hating the date, hating the men hurting each other, hating the stilted conversations, hating seeing Manchester fight Ben so severely and not understanding why, hating that she thinks she now did understand why because Ben was a huge racist and there was probably a lot happening at the mansion that she doesn’t know about, and most of all, hating that when all of this stuff was happening-

She stopped short.

“What, Kara?” Lena asked quietly. They were now both sitting side by side on the couch, close together, Lena’s feet up on the seats and her arms wrapped around her knees, hugging them to her chest.

“I- I- I just kind of wanted to talk to you today about all these things that were happening, and I…” she trailed off again, shaking her head. “I’m sorry. I know that’s not your job. It’s Veronica’s. I know it is.”

“It’s okay, Kara. You can talk to whoever you feel comfortable talking to.” Lena bumped her shoulder against Kara’s. “For what it’s worth, I’m glad it’s me. I’m just sorry I couldn’t be around today.”

Kara heaved. “I really don’t want to see Ben again.”

Lena didn’t say anything right away. When she spoke again, it was with the slow deliberation of someone who had been mulling over the right words. “You’re free to eliminate him during the next ceremony,” she said steadily. “But remember what I said about how the show can make your life difficult if you’re seen as uncooperative.”

“They want me to keep that guy?” Kara exclaimed, an octave above her normal voice. “Why? He’s awful.”

“Villains make the show, Kara, and Ben is a bona fide villain. A rare one who knows just how bad he is and doesn’t care. Drama sells, conflict sells. That’s the show. Ben’s the powder keg and Manchester’s the match. The show’s not going to let either one go until they get a payoff. It happens every season.”

“Okay,” Kara said numbly as she processed this. “So when you say make my life difficult, what are we talking about?”

Lena untangled her legs and shifted sideways until she was facing Kara. She looked her in the eyes, solemn and a little bit sad.

“To start with, little things that make your current situation harder. They’d refuse you any privileges and insist that you follow every single rule you agreed to when you signed up, which no one ever does. They’ll set up dates that they know you won’t enjoy. They won’t give you time with the men you really like. They may orchestra difficult scenarios for them or even outright encourage them to leave. Lastly, their pièce de résistance is in post. By that point, they’ll have followed you around for ten weeks, capturing nearly every single waking and sleeping moment. When you have that much footage on someone, anyone, it’s really not difficult to humiliate them on national television. If you’re lucky, you’ll just be portrayed as flighty or dumb. But if you get the villain edit, then it’s not the show you have to worry about. It’s people. There are a lot of angry people out there who think that what they see on reality TV is actually real. Death threats are to be expected. Your families, friends, and employer will probably all get messages about what an awful person you are. You’ll probably get anonymous messages with nothing but a picture of your house attached to it. The worst of it will blow over in a matter of months, but it’ll never truly go away. There are always reruns, retrospectives, and new streaming platforms to generate new interest.”

Kara’s jaw hung slightly loose, her eyes blinking rapidly as if it somehow helped her process this information.

“Wow,” she said, nearly breathlessly with astonishment. “What the hell did I sign up for?”

“Reality TV,” Lena said with a shrug and upturned palms.

“Why didn’t Clark tell me about any of this?” Kara murmured rhetorically.

“I don’t know that he knows. Clark had a perfect run. He was the most beloved lead in the franchise. After the show, he got married and laid low. I don’t think he knows what it feels like to have the public turn on you. As for his time on the show, I think Clark had it easier than most. Lex was his handler. They were friends then.” Lena looked down, suddenly finding great interest in her fingernails. “Back when Lex had friends.”

“Right. It helps to be friends with the puppetmaster.”

“Or, as the case may be, the puppetmaster’s favorite child.”

Kara took a moment to collect herself, inhaling deeply as if that helped her come to terms with everything. “So. Ben stays?”

“For now.” Lena reached over, gently touching her hand to Kara’s shoulder. “On the bright side, the day’s almost over. You have a one-on-one date tomorrow. It’ll be lowkey and uneventful. The second rose ceremony is the day after. Eight more ceremonies, and then we’ll marry you off.” Kara playfully groaned at Lena’s words.

“That easy?”

“Mm-hmm.” Lena nodded assuredly. “And I say you’ve used up all your bad luck this week. Next couple days will be completely disaster-free.”

***

And, yeah, of course Lena’s words to Kara aged terribly. The universe doesn’t let you get away with making statements like that without consequences. It just doesn’t.

Disaster one, the one-on-one date.

The concept was couple’s therapy. Kara and her suitor sat down with a therapist. It started off light if not exactly scintillating. Roleplay how you would ask your partner to stop leaving dirty socks on the bathroom floor. Make extended eye contact as you each give the other person three compliments. Discuss your love languages.

Then Dr. Akopian said: share something about yourself that you think might be a dealbreaker for a significant other. And Barry, the forensic scientist from Missouri, told Kara how his best friend is a woman and that some of the girls he had dated in the past had difficulties with that.

It would’ve been fine if things were left there. It could’ve been fine. But then Barry mentioned that Iris was also a journalist. That piqued Kara’s interests. So the next half hour was devoted entirely to Iris between Barry and Kara, the newest member of her fanclub, despite Dr. Akopian’s best efforts to redirect the conversation.

“Barry.” Kara lurched forward, her hand grabbing his. Dr. Akopian looked momentarily hopeful, apparently thinking that things had finally taken a romantic turn. “Do you listen to yourself? The way you talk about Iris? I would be so flattered if anyone ever talked about me that way.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to- I know we’re on date-”

Kara waved away Barry’s stammering apology. “No, no, no. This is good. Barry, you’re in love with Iris, aren’t you?”

Barry didn’t say anything right away. Then he finally nodded, a little hesitantly. “Yes. Always. Ever since we were kids.”

“But she doesn’t know. Barry, you have to tell her.”

“I- I guess I’m afraid. She’s my best friend. What if she doesn’t feel the same way?”

“Then at least you know. How can you live the rest of your life not knowing if there’s a possibility that she might feel the same way? What are you even doing here? You can’t get engaged to another woman while you have these kinds of feelings for Iris. It’s not fair to you or Iris.” Entirely as an afterthought, Kara added, “Or me! Right, Dr. Akopian?”

“Ummm,” came the hawing of a woman who was all too aware of the conflict between her professional responsibilities and who was signing her paycheck today. “Technically, yes, Kara has a point, but-”

“There you go!” Kara squeezed Barry’s hand. “Barry, you have to go to her.”

“Okay.” Barry nodded. When he realized that Kara was still staring at him, he said, “RIght now? We’re… on a date.”

“No time like the present! What are you waiting for?” Kara dropped Barry’s hand and looked at him expectantly. “What if she meets someone? Every minute you wait is another minute that someone else could be coming in and sweeping her off her feet. You need to go right now!”

“Right now,” Barry repeated, almost in a daze as he got to his feet. “Right. Okay. Yeah.” Barry drew a deep breath, a slow smile spreading as the fog seemed to clear from his head. He started tugging at the lavalier microphone taped beneath his shirt, reaching behind him to pull free the attached transmitter. “I'm going to tell Iris I love her!” Barry tossed his mic and transmitter pack on the couch in the spot he had just vacated. “Thank you, Kara.” Then Barry tore off at a dash, moving faster than anything Kara had ever seen, leaving her sitting on the therapist’s couch looking pleased as punch.

Veronica looked like she was trying to think of various ways she could set Kara’s hair on fire.

On the bright side, Lena found the whole thing absolutely hilarious. She came over to Kara’s again for dinner later that night, and persuaded Brainy to drop by with the dailies, including one camera angle which managed to capture Veronica’s face. That night, Kara, Lena, Nia, and Brainy sat around the living room and watched the footage three or four times.

Disaster two, the rose ceremony.

Kara tried very hard to do what they asked of her. Manchester got a rose, Mxy got a rose, Ben L. got a rose. Mick was one of the three men who did not get a rose.

After the ceremony and before the champagne toast which concluded the evening, one of the remaining contestants pulled Kara aside. Leonard, a man of questionable employment history, had spent his entire time in the house hanging out with Mick.

“Listen, sweetheart, you seem really great and all, but I’m not feeling it. Truth be told, I only accepted a rose tonight because I thought my buddy Mick was going to get one. I was just going to stick around to be his wingman.” Leonard handed her back the rose that she had pinned to his lapel. “No hard feelings?”

Maybe it wouldn’t have been such a disaster if Kara had behaved appropriately. That is, break into tears, throw an epic tantrum, stomp around hysterically, slam a few doors, accuse him of wasting her time, that sort of thing. Instead, this was Kara:

“Of course not! I totally get it. It was really nice to meet you anyway.” She gave him a big hug. “I hope you and Mick keep in touch after this. Maybe we can all hang out after this is all over, okay?”

Veronica might have broken down crying on set right then.

“Unfuckingbelievable,” Mercy said for the fifth time as she watched the scene unfold from the control room. On rose ceremony nights, it was the usual suspects of senior producers: Lillian and Mercy making catty remarks from the couches, Andrea tense on her feet the entire night, Siobhan sitting subserviently to her side, and Lena leaning against the wall by the door where she can make a quick exit.

“That’s two guys we just had self-eliminate back to back,” Siobhan tallied unhelpfully. “And she’s sitting there all zen-di-la about it. This bitch is giving us nothing to work with.”

Andrea’s face momentarily clouded over with Siobhan’s slur, but in the next moment, she was neutral again. “We’ll figure something out,” she said, calm as ever.

“Siobhan’s right,” Lillian said, and Siobhan practically peed herself with excited pride. “We can’t have an unfuckable bachelorette. Nobody wants to see that.”

“Who says she’s unfuckable?” Lena interjected.

“Well, Barry and Leonard, at least,” Mercy said. “Plus, look at where we are. We’ve had two ceremonies and she hasn’t even kissed any of them.”

“It’s still the first week,” Lena said. “She’s taking her time to get to know them.”

“Lena, come on, you know how this works,” Mercy replied. “She doesn’t have the luxury of taking things slow. Why isn’t Veronica pushing her to kiss them?”

“Believe me, she is. I get to hear all about it through the earpiece,” Andrea said without taking her eyes off the screen.

“It doesn’t work like that with Kara,” Lena said. “You can’t just make her do something, especially not when it comes to intimacy. She has to do things on her own terms and the conditions have to be right.”

“Fine. Then we’ll create the conditions. Let’s turn up the sex factor.” Mercy rose from her seat, walking across the room to Siobhan’s side and taking her outline of planned dates from the table. “Tomorrow’s group date at the improv theater? Cancel it. We’ll do something else, something sexy. Underwear photoshoot. Writing erotica. Naked polo. Whatever.”

“I really don’t think Kara would like any of that.”

“I don’t care what little miss sunshine likes,” Mercy sneered back at Lena. “I care about what the audience wants. Our audience is a bored, lonely, middle-aged woman living in Bumfuck, Indiana with a subpar husband and a deadend job, and you know what she wants? She wants to see PG-13 makeouts on primetime television with hot, shirtless men.”

Helpless, Lena looked to Andrea, the one person who might serve as a voice of reason in this sea of insanity. But on this occasion, she was no help.

“She’s not entirely wrong,” Andrea said reluctantly.

“Strippers!” Siobhan piped up. “We could have them go on a stripper-themed date and have the guys strip for her.”

“I really think we would get more mileage if we tried to customize the dates to Kara’s taste,” Lena tried again, even as she inwardly recognized the futility of doing so. “We’re not going to get anywhere by pushing her out of her comfort zone. Our audience isn’t going to enjoy watching a lead that’s skittish and terrified.”

“I like the stippers,” Mercy said, making it a point to ignore everything Lena had said. The argument having run its course, the crew naturally looked to Lillian for the final call. Lillian looked to Lena, her face inscrutable, but Lena thought - or maybe hoped - that there was a brief moment of hesitation. But the conclusion was foregone.

“Bring on the strippers.”

 

Chapter Text

Episode IV leads us away from here
Don't expect to find what you're looking to
I can see the light leading away from you
Let's disappear
We'll take a trip of no return to outer space
And swim in pools which keep us warm
Cleaned off the sand from off your feet
We'll dance off time to the songs we've never liked

“Episode IV” by Jimmy Eat World

 

 

It was two AM when Veronica finally told Kara that she was done for the night and that Nia would take her back to her place. Before Veronica even finished her sentence, Kara was slipping off her six inch heels, moaning in relief as she did. Veronica looked thoroughly unimpressed and walked away without saying goodbye. Kara and Nia made their way out the Mansion’s front door and started down the footpath that curled around the building to reach the back fields where the crew parked. As they rounded the side of the house, Kara nudged Nia gently.

“Is that Lena over there?”

“Where?” Nia follows Kara’s gaze down past the far end of the house, past the garage that housed the control room, and all the way to the edge of the property where the craft services tent was set up. At this distance, in the dark, Lena, with her back turned, was nothing but a silhouette. “I think it is. I can’t believe you can even see that.” Kara was already striding forward in a sharp detour from their original path, barefoot, shoes dangling from her fingertips by its backstraps.

“Lena!” Kara called out as she approached the woman pouring a generous helping of coffee into her thermos. Lena glanced back, and when she saw the source of the call, some of her fatigue faded from her eyes and her tired frown dissolved into a cheery smile.

“Kara!” Lena pulled the blonde into a one-armed hug, careful to keep her thermos away from Kara’s evening gown. “You looked beautiful tonight. That dress looks amazing on you.”

“Thank you,” Kara said shyly. “You too.”

Lena glanced down at her own wardrobe, nondescript with black slacks and a short-sleeved white blouse.

“I don’t know how sincere I find that,” Lena said with a laugh. “My mother took one look at me this morning and told me that I looked like a waitress at a French bistro. And yes, she meant it as an insult.”

“That’s… an oddly specific reference and entirely inaccurate if it’s meant to be insulting. You look good. I mean, you always look good.”

Lena beamed at Kara’s compliment, looking extraordinarily pleased. “Thank you.”

“You’re having coffee?” Kara nodded at Lena’s thermos. “It won’t keep you up?”

“That’s the point. I’ve got another hour left here. Have to make sure I don’t fall asleep on the way home.”

“I thought we were done shooting?”

“Your portion is done,” Lena corrected gently. “Some of the men are still filming ITMs. I have to stay until they’re done.”

“You don’t have to,” Nia rebutted. “All the other senior producers left already.”

“It just feels wrong to go home when my staff is still working.”

“The staff that’s still here is on the night crew,” Nia pointed out. “Their day started at 6PM. When did you get to set?”

“That’s… not important.”

“Before noon, right?”

“You know, I don’t recall.”

“Uh-huh. Was it before sunrise?”

“Nia, come on, I’m not a masochist.”

“You work too much. And don’t you live downtown? That’s at least a 45-minute drive. You might as well find a closet.” Off Kara’s questioning look, Nia explained, “Sometimes when we shoot so late, some of the crew will just find a spot on the floor to crash for the night.”

“Sleeping on the floor of a house full of eighteen men is not my idea of a good time,” Lena said drily. “The bathrooms are incredibly disgusting.”

“Come to my house!” Kara blurted out. “Well, not my house. I guess maybe technically it’s the show’s house or the network or whoever’s renting it. The place that I’m staying at. Come over when you’re done. There’s an extra room with an actual bed. And the bathrooms are clean, I promise.”

“That’s not a bad idea. Usually the lead’s handler ends up taking the extra room, but I don’t think that’s likely to happen this season.” Nia looked to Kara with an impish smile.

“I know, I know, Veronica hates me.” Kara rolled her eyes good naturedly. “So then it looks like the room will just go to waste. You might as well.”

“All right,” Lena nodded. “Sure. I suppose. Might as well. I’ll come by later.”

“Yay, sleepover!” Nia joyfully clapped her hands together like a little kid on Christmas.

“No staying up late,” Lena lectured with faux seriousness. “It’s a school night.”

“Okay, but I’m at least staying up until you get there,” Kara told her. “Someone has to open the door for you.”

“Kara, you have to shoot tomorrow. You should go to bed.”

“I will. When you get there.” Kara flashed a wide, adorable grin. “So if you want me to go to sleep, you should just come with us now.” When Lena still looked unconvinced, she added, “Think of it this way. The sooner you go to bed, the earlier you can get up to go to work.”

Nia scrunched up her nose. “Okay, that doesn’t sound persuasive at all.”

“Shh! Know your audience, Nia,” Kara stage-whispered.

Lena sighed deeply, regarding the two women before her fondly. She couldn’t remember the last time that anyone had shown such care over her well-being. She held up her hands in defeat. “Okay. I’ll come quietly.”

***

Kara awoke mid-morning to the smell of coffee and a sweet-smelling aroma in the air. She rolled out of bed, fumbling and putting on her glasses and patted out to the kitchen barefoot.

“That smells good, Nia, what are-” she stopped in the doorway, seeing Lena at the kitchen counter, pouring hot water into a glass French press. Right. Lena had stayed over. Obviously, she didn’t have any clothes with her, so she had borrowed Kara’s clothes to sleep in, an oversized t-shirt that ran mid-thigh. And that was it.

“Morning,” Lena grinned. Kara’s mind was still stuck on the idea that Lena Luthor was standing in the kitchen, making breakfast in nothing but a t-shirt and underwear. Maybe not even underwear, since she couldn’t see under the shirt so maybe she- Christ why was she thinking about this.

“Morning!” Kara returned in a squeaky pitch.

“You okay?” Lena looked at her quizzically.

“Yup!” Kara exclaimed, a little too loud. “Just excited. For Food! Food. It smells good in here.”

“Uh, okay, well, coffee’s brewing and I just made some pancakes.” Lena gestured to the counter, where a tall stack of thick, fluffy, plate-sized pancakes awaited on a serving platter.

“Oh. Got enough to share?”

Lena stared at her. “Kara. There are like a dozen pancakes on there.”

“So is that a no to the sharing…?”

Lena shook her head and laughed, pushing the entire plate toward her. “You go ahead and get started. I made plenty of batter. We’ll see how many you can eat.”

“Okay, but that sounds like a challenge and you should know that I don’t back down from challenges, especially not a food challenge.”

“You keep eating and I’ll keep cooking.”

Kara went to the kitchen cabinets where the plates were stored. “Where’s Nia? Is she eating?”

“She went home a little while ago. We do let people go home on occasion.”

“She usually doesn’t leave until Veronica gets here.” Kara pulled out two plates, two mugs, grabbed two forks from the utensil drawer underneath, and laid them out on the counter before taking a seat. Meanwhile, Lena was at the fridge, taking out butter, maple syrup, chocolate syrup, and whipped cream. She placed the chocolate syrup and whipped cream before Kara’s plate, and the other two ingredients before hers. She and Kara had never discussed preferred pancake toppings, but chocolate syrup and whipped cream just seemed like an intuitive Kara choice.

Lena depressed the plunger on the French press and took Kara’s mug. “I gave Veronica the morning off. I think a bit of space would be good for the two of you.”

“Don’t you get any mornings off?” Out of some semblance of politeness, Kara only speared four of the pancakes onto her plate. “Nia’s off, Veronica’s off. When do you get off?” Lena, in the middle of pouring coffee into Kara’s mug, froze, and turned to Kara with a quirked brow. “Oh, my god.” Kara’s face turned bright red as she realized her inadvertent double entendre. Her response was to shove half of an entire pancake into her mouth.

Chuckling, Lena set Kara’s mug down and started filling her own. “I have plenty of time to myself.” Lena took a moment to consider her words. “I mean, I find ways to relax.” Nope, didn’t sound right either. “That is, I make sure I have time for recreation.” No, not that either. “There’s no good way to answer that question, is there?”

“Not the way I phrased it, nope.”

“But speaking of getting off…” Lena’s pause was entirely, cruelly deliberate, a mischievous glint in her eyes as she watched the redness on Kara’s face spread to the tip of her ears. “There’s been a change to today’s date.”

“Oh, yeah? What date are we going with? I’ve always liked May 4th.”

Although Lena groaned at the lame pun, it got a smile out of her, which Kara looked all too proud of.

“You know that I meant today’s group date activity.”

“Oh. Show stuff. Right.”

“We’re not doing the improv theater today.”

“All right. So what are we doing?”

“Uh, stripping. The theme of the date is going to be stripping.”

Kara made a noncommittal noise as she took a bite of pancakes and took her time chewing as she attempted to figure out how to phrase her question. “So, uh… I- am I the- do I- is this going to be like the guys standing around throwing dollar bills at me?”

“What? No.” Lena was slightly scandalized - although, sadly, that concept isn’t out of the realm of possibility for this show. “It’s going to be a striptease class for everyone. You’ll participate but I imagine it won’t be too scandalous. Then there’s going to be a competition at the end for the guys.”

“Okay. That’s not… as bad as I thought it was going to be. Are you going to be there?”

“Unfortunately I’m in meetings all day.”

Kara tsked her tongue. “That’s too bad. You’re missing out. I’ve got some moves, you know.”

Lena inhaled sharpy. “Mmm.” She suddenly seemed really, really interested in her pancakes.

“I’m glad you stayed over,” Kara told her in between bites. “I’m glad for the company. And I hate the thought of you driving back home so late when you work such long hours.”

“Worried about me?”

“Of course. You’re my friend.”

In the midst of helping herself to more coffee, Lena’s movements stuttered at friend. She had so few of those, the word almost seemed foreign. Friend was a precarious label for Luthors, infrequently applied and rarely true when it was.

“You’re welcome to stay over anytime,” Kara now said. She pushed around a few bits of chocolate syrup-drenched pancake pieces and studied her plate closely as she asked, “Maybe tonight? If you’d like?” It’s hard to miss the hope in her tone.

Still, maybe in a greedy gambit for assurance, Lena asked, “Would you like that?”

Kara nodded fervently.

“Then yes,” Lena said, sipping her coffee and enjoying the slow spread of warmth in her chest.

***

Kara was physically and emotionally exhausted by the time she stumbled through the door of the house, even though it was only eight PM - far earlier than the usual time she would be getting back.

The group date had started off well enough. Kara, true to her word, was an excellent dancer. Even Veronica seemed not-angry with her performance, even if Kara refused the request to strip down to her bra and stopped at her tank top. Ted and Schmidt both put on admirable performances, but it was Jason who was the hands-down winner of the night and walked away with the group date rose.

The dinner portion of the date was not good. Ben L. and Manchester - of course they were arranged to be on the group date together - had managed to ignore each other throughout the class and competition. While Kara was spending time with William in another room, Manchester was pulled aside by one of the producers, Sam. When Manchester came back, he asked Ben to talk to “clear the air.” By the time Kara went back into the waiting room, Manchester and Ben looked like they were moments away from killing each other. The standoff ended with Manchester punching the wall, violently kicking over a garbage can, and storming off, while Ben stood there looking smugly pleased with himself. After that, Kara didn’t feel much like continuing the date and called the whole thing off.

Kara changed into her comfy sweats and flopped down on the couch with a bag of chocolate chip cookies. She grabbed the remote and started browsing Netflix.

“Want me to order dinner?” Nia offered.

“Nope,” Kara said. “Cookies are my angry food.”

“I thought cookies were your happy food.”

“Cookies are multifaceted.”

“Yeah, I’m going to order you food.”

Kara turned on a mindless teenage romcom and watched it lying prone on the couch, nibbling away at her cookies. She was halfway through the movie when the doorbell rang.

“Food’s here,” Nia said. “Do you mind getting the door?”

Kara pushed up on her elbows to a half-sit, peering over the back of the couch at Nia, who was sitting at the dining room table, scrolling through her phone. Nia didn’t look particularly busy and Kara was so comfortable right now… but not being one to be petty, she rolled off the couch and made her way to the entrance.

Good thing too. On the other side of the door was the person she wanted to see the most. Wordlessly, she stepped forward and pulled Lena into a hug.

“It is so good to see you,” Kara murmured softly.

“I’m glad to see you too,” Lena answered with a pleased laugh.

There was the light clearing of a throat, and it was then that Kara finally noticed Brainy standing there. So she released Lena and took a step back, a bit flustered.

“I ran into Brainy when I was leaving the office and abducted him,” Lena explained.

“But I came willingly,” Brainy said. It took a moment for it to sink in. “Oh, that was a joke. Yes. I… was joking as well.”

“Do I smell fries?” Kara was eyeing a heavy-looking brown bag in Brainy’s hand.

“Nia told us to get food. Greek. Souvlaki, lamb chops, grape leaves, saganaki, feta fries,” Brainy rattled off.

“You two are my favorites.” Kara took the food into the dining room, Lena and Brainy following close behind.

“Hey!” Nia objected. “I was the one who suggested Greek.”

“You’re all my favorites.”

“I heard about the date,” Lena said they began unpacking food and setting the table.

“Let me guess. Veronica was angrier about me ending the date early than two of the contestants almost getting into a fistfight.”

“It’s only been a week and you know her so well already.”

The four of them sat down at the dining room table and ate dinner together. Kara talked about her day because even though Nia and Lena already knew what had happened, “it’ll make you feel better to talk about it,” as Lena said. And Lena was right. After a half hour of venting, Kara did feel much better.

After dinner, Brainy politely, slightly shyly, asked if Nia wanted to go for a walk. Nia looked to Lena and asked if she had been planning to stay a bit longer so Kara wouldn’t be alone. And of course Lena was more than happy to stay.

Kara made popcorn in the kitchen while Lena picked a movie for them to watch. When Kara returned to the living room with a bowl of freshly popped warm, buttery popcorn, Lena was curled up against one end of the couch, her legs tucked beneath her as she navigated through the TV menu with a remote. She had showed up prepared this time with a change of clothes, so she had changed into black sweats and an oversized, soft-looking purple knit sweater with the sleeves pulled down to her knuckles. Kara froze in the doorway, watching, mind blank, conscious of the hot bowl burning at her fingertips but somehow not bothered. It wasn’t until Lena glanced over that she realized that the staring was probably creepy. She hurriedly popped a few kernels into her mouth and took her spot at the other end of the couch.

“What are we watching?”

“Your choices are Dawson City: Frozen in Time or Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property.”

“Those are titles of boring documentaries.” Kara wrinkled her nose, popping more hot popcorn onto her tongue. Lena silently marveled at how the blonde seemed immune to extreme temperatures.

“Documentaries, yes. Boring, no.”

“Okay, but is it popcorn worthy? This is stovetop popcorn, Lena. With real butter. It doesn’t go with super serious documentaries.”

Lena smiled fondly at the faintly ridiculous creature before her, stuffing her mouth full of steaming popcorn that should be too hot for any mere mortal. “All right. Groundhog Day?”

“Classic.” Kara said with an approving nod. Lena navigated to the movie, pressed play, and set the remote aside. She shifted in her seat and sat up straight for a moment to tie back her hair. She pulled free a hair tie that had been wrapped around her wrist, brought it to her mouth and held it loosely between her lips in order to free her hands to gather her dark strands. Kara watched, surveying Lena’s silky black hair entangled with slender, graceful fingers, the slight tilt of her head drawing attention to a long, alabaster neck with a prominent freckle at the throat, soft round shoulders delicately draped in purple.

“I can’t believe they let you be a producer on this show,” Kara suddenly blurted out. Lena froze. She glanced at Kara, clearly unsettled by the comment and unsure what to make of it. Kara was already cringing at her own words. “No, it’s just that- I mean- you’re just so pretty,” she said hurriedly. “And your job is to hang around all day talking to these attractive, single men- I guess it just seemed like there’d be, you know…” Kara gestured vaguely. “Temptation?”

With slow, deliberate movements, like she was biding her time, Lena wrapped her hair tie to finish off the ponytail. “Well, I can’t say that I haven’t received the occasional flirty remark or outright advance. It’s honestly not so bad, it just makes it easier to know who to cut for the next ceremony.” Lena paused, deliberating whether and how to say the next part. “But as for temptation, that’s non-existent. At least from my side.”

“Really? Never?”

“Never,” Lena said resolutely. Then after a brief hesitation, added, “Not for contestants on Bachelorette.”

Kara frowned with confusion. “Well, what contestants-“ she cut herself off as Lena’s words finally sunk in. “Oh, you mean…”

“Hmm. Yes, Bachelor contestants - the women - are a different story.” In the next moment, Lena felt a wave of shame about her admission, thinking about Lex and what he’d done. It’s with that in mind that she added, “Mind you, I’ve never crossed that line. I would never.”

“Oh,” Kara said softly, her mind buzzing with information she didn’t know what to do with. But why not? This wasn’t a big deal. “Well, that’s fine. Um, you know, my sister is gay.”

“Actually, yes, I did know that. Our screening questions are very invasive,” Lena answered lightly.

“Yeah, so. You know,” Kara said uselessly, herself unsure of why she was talking when she had nothing to say. Lena cast an amused look.

“Kara, are you about to set me up with your sister just because we’re both gay?”

“What?! No!” Kara’s denial was vehement and genuine. So genuine, in fact, that Lena wondered if she shouldn’t take offense.

“All right.” Lena placatingly held up both hands. “Just checking. It wouldn’t be the first time that someone blindly suggested to me the first lesbian they could think of.”

“Well, that’s not what I’m doing!” Kara said hotly. “I’m not trying to set you up with my sister, okay? I would never!”

Lena arched a brow. “Well, why not?”

Kara’s jaw dropped open slightly, not knowing how to respond. “W- well, um… ah… y- you just said that you didn’t want to be set up.”

“No, I said it wouldn’t be the first time that someone blindly set me up with the first lesbian they could think of. I didn’t say that I minded,” Lena said with a mischievous glint in her eyes. “Especially if she’s hot.”

Ugh, Lena, that’s my sister.”

“So not hot?” Lena asked teasingly, reveling more in Kara’s reaction than her answer.

“No, I mean- she’s… attractive, I guess,” Kara said reluctantly.

“Is she single?”

Kara grunted affirmatively.

“Well…” Lena tilted her head to the side, grinning impishly.

Kara could hear the erratic thumping of her heart in her own ears and something hot and nasty roiling in her stomach. She felt warm all over, from her feet to the tips of her ears. Lena studied Kara carefully, taking in her blushing cheeks and the way she curled and uncurled her fingers. While it wasn’t exactly surprising that someone would be discomfited with the thought of one’s sister dating a Luthor, it still stung. So Lena laughed to dispel the moment, although it came out a little too self-conscious and tense.

“Okay, okay, I get it, Kara. Your sister’s too good for me,” Lena said, as lightheartedly as possible.

Nobody is too good for you,” Kara answered emphatically.

Momentarily stunned, Lena scrambled for recovery, falling back on teasing. “So… I’m too good for your sister?”

“No.” A deep frown creased Kara’s forehead as she struggled for the right words. “You’re not too good for her. She’s not too good for you. You’re both good in your own ways. Just… different good. Separate good.” She needed to stop talking. “Hey, we should watch that movie!”

“Alright, Kara. We’ll revisit the topic of your hot, single sister later,” Lena said playfully.

Kara made a noncommittal noise and stared straight at the TV screen, willing her wildy thumping heart to rest easy.

***

“It’s amazing,” Jack said. “How two people who are so hot can have so little chemistry.”

Lena and Jack were sitting in the mobile control, which was exactly what it sounded like: a control room on wheels. It was a smaller, more cramped version of the Mansion’s control room shrinked into a trailer that they drove all over town to wherever the day’s date was taking place. Today, it was at a yoga studio - tantric yoga, to be more precise. Which, for the purposes of this show, meant stripping Kara and her suitor down to their underwear and posing them in intimate positions.

Today’s lucky suitor was Ray, the CEO/physicist from Washington whom production had nicknamed the Golden Retriever. He looked good in his underwear. So did Kara. And yet.

“It’s like… he’s hot. She’s hot. But I just don’t want them to bang.” Jack continued marveling at the screen, fascinated by how grossed out he felt. “It’s almost disgusting to see them touch each other. It’s like… watching siblings? Or maybe cousins.”

It might not have made for good TV, but at least Kara and Ray were having a good time. Evidently also feeling awkward about the experience, they both broke into hysterical belly laughs when they came close to one another. It was like watching two puppies paw and play. It looked cute and fun, but definitely not sexy. But Kara was having fun, so at least he’ll get a rose from the date.

“It’s a misguided idea, putting her in these situations. We’re not going to get anything good from her,” Lena said. “Mercy and Lillian don’t seem to understand that. We spent an incredible amount of time and money delving into the lead’s psyche and they can’t even figure this out.”

“Well, they’re just trying to make her seem fuckable.”

“Why does everyone keep saying that?” Lena asked, frustration evident. “She’s clearly an attractive woman.”

“She’s attractive, sure, but that’s not the same thing as fuckable.” A sly grin found its way to Jack’s face. “But you don’t agree.”

“Lay off, Jack,” Lena warned. “I would never.”

“Doing and thinking are two different things, Lena. I’m only asking about the latter. Thoughts never hurt anyone.”

“Well, I don’t think about her like that,” Lena replied defiantly.

“See, you don’t find her fuckable either.”

“I did not say that and you’re enjoying this way too much. You know I’m technically your boss.”

“Guess I’ll just have to seduce the boss to save my job.” Jack waggled his eyebrows cartoonishly.

“Gross, Jack. Talk about unfuckable,” Lena smirked.

“Hey, I’ve got moves,” Jack protested, feigning woundedness.

Lena winced, then put on a face of exaggerated faux sympathy. “Jack, sweetie, I remember your ‘moves.’ I really wouldn’t call them that.”

“Ouch.” Jack grabbed his chest with both hands. “At least let me try. Dinner? 8?”

“Oh- um.” Lena glanced back at the screens. Ray was attempting to lift Kara in the air, except that Kara laughed and shied away every time he placed his hands on her bare midriff, which caused him to crack up as well. “I can’t tonight.”

“That’s what you said last night. And the one before that. And I know you don’t have any other friends besides me, so c’mon, spill it. What’s her name?”

“I have other friends,” Lena huffed indignantly.

“In this state?”

Lena glared at him. “Fine. It’s not a social thing. It’s work.” Lena gestured to the screens. “I’ve been seeing Kara at night.”

Jack pitched forward, bringing his right ear closer to Lena, cupping one hand around his ear. “I’m sorry, what’s that? Did you just say you’ve been seeing the lead of our show? The one who’s trying to find a husband on national TV?”

“I’m not seeing her. Not in the way you’re talking about. She’s having a hard time acclimating and she’s not getting along with Veronica. As supervising producer, it’s my job to make sure she’s doing okay. Really, I’m just overseeing Veronica’s work.”

“Wow. Okay.” Jack sat back in his seat and sighed dramatically. “Dumped by Lena Luthor for a woman. Again.”

“Okay, first, I didn’t dump you for a woman the first time, just women in general. It was non-specific, it’s not like I left you for another person.”

“True. You were pathetically alone for a long time after that.” Jack yelped when Lena smacked him on the arm. “I was agreeing with you!”

Second, Kara’s not a romantic interest of mine. If anything, I’m dumping you for work,” Lena said. “In fact, why don’t you come along tonight? Brainy will probably come by too.”

“All right. And since it’s work, that means I get overtime, right?”

“I rescind my invitation.”

“No, please, I’m so bored! I’ve had nothing going on for days. Our DM’s at space camp for the summer and nobody else can even read his notes.”

“You’re going to behave yourself?”

With an easy smile, Jack raised his hand in the air. “Scout’s honor.”

“I know that’s the Vulcan salute, Jack.”

Jack shrugged. “A Vulcan’s honor is far more sacred anyway.”

***

In retrospect, it was probably a bad idea to invite Jack. Within twenty minutes of him stepping foot into the house, three discoveries were made in quick succession: 1) Jack and Kara were both die-hard Star Wars fans, 2) Brainy had never seen any of the movie, 3) all the movies were available on streaming. From there, Lena was powerless to stop them. If it had been just Kara, Lena might have been able to persuade her that having an all-night Star Wars marathon was not a good idea.

“I just don’t understand,” Jack uttered for what seemed like the tenth time. “You work in the industry. How is this even possible?”

They were all gathered in the living room. Lena, Kara, and Nia had taken up the long couch directly across from the television screen, with Kara in the middle. Jack was sprawled out on the adjacent loveseat on Lena’s end of the couch while Brainy occupied the armchair next to Nia.

“I have other pursuits,” Brainy answered. “My preferences for media consumption are less commercial.”

Jack fake-coughed, “Snob!” into his fist, which Brainy evidently took as a compliment, given his pleased nod.

“Brainy, you work on a reality TV dating show,” Nia said incredulously.

“Yes, but I don’t watch it.”

“You don’t watch your own show?”

Brainy looked confused. “Why would I? I already know how it ends.”

“Children, focus. We have more pressing matters here,” Jack said, flipping through the movies on screen. “There’s the question of order. Are we viewing by chronology or production?”

“What kind of question is that?” Kara asked indignantly. “Of course we go by production order. Do you want Brainy’s first viewing to be Phantom Menace?”

“We could just skip that one?” Jack suggested uncertainly.

“We live by the sword, we die by the sword. It’s part of the franchise and we’re going to embrace it all.”

“Not sure that’s the apt idiom here, but I get your meaning. I’ve been properly admonished. Episode IV it is.” Jack suddenly snapped his fingers and pointed to Lena, although he was looking at Kara. “Take her phone away. Otherwise she’ll be on it the whole time.”

Kara’s jaw dropped open. “She wouldn’t!” She turned to the woman next to her, eyes wide with disbelief, only partially exaggerating the horror. “Lena, you wouldn’t.”

“I’ve seen this movie like five times,” Lena said with a pointed look at Jack.

“Amateur,” Jack said.

“Novice,” Kara said at the same time. “You don’t disrespect Star Wars like that. Phone, please.” Kara held her hand out. With a resigned sigh, Lena fished out her phone and passed it over.

“The two of you are unbelievably huge dorks,” Lena said.

“But that’s why you love us so much,” Jack retorted cheekily. Lena glared at him but decided that it wouldn’t be to her advantage to bicker with him in front of Kara. Who knew what kind of crazy things Jack would say.

Normally, watching Star Wars with Jack was an interactive experience, but this time, Jack kept his commentaries to himself out of respect for Brainy’s first viewing. But when the movie ended, Jack leapt to his feet, erupting into applause amidst enthusiastic cries of “Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!”

“Does he do this every time?” Kara leaned over, whispering to Lena.

Lena nodded, watching Jack with a fond grin. “Yup.”

“All right. Five minute bathroom and snack break, then we start on episode V,” Jack announced.

“Jack, it’s midnight,” Lena pointed out. “We don’t have time to watch another movie. We’re filming tomorrow.”

“We shoot every day. Anyway, this is more like homework for Kara. She needs to draw inspiration from the source. One of the scenes she’s doing tomorrow is the iconic Han Solo and Leia kiss before he’s frozen in carbonite.”

“Wait, what’s happening?” Kara piped up.

“For tomorrow’s date,” Jack prompted. When Kara gave him a blank look, he laughed, “Kara, don’t you read the call sheet?”

“I… skimmed it,” Kara mumbled sheepishly. “What are we doing?”

“You and your dates are reenacting famous movie screen kisses,” Lena explained to her as Jack made obnoxious kissing noises in the background. They were almost at the third rose ceremony and Kara still hadn’t kissed any of the contestants. Lillian was getting fed up with the slow pace. This was her (in Lena’s opinion, incredibly misguided, incredibly stupid) solution.

“Wait, what are we doing?” Kara looked dumbfounded.

“You and the boys are going to a studio, getting into costumes, and we’re shooting you re-enacting iconic screen kisses,” Jack said. “The Notebook, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Spider-Man, things like that. You’re definitely getting wet tomorrow.”

Nia looked revolted. “Eww, Jack.”

Jack grimaced in horror. “I didn’t mean it like that! I just meant that there’s going to be water effects like simulated rain! It’s always raining in these scenes. I’ve absolutely no idea why women find that romantic.”

“Oh,” Kara said, a hint of panic brewing. “I probably should’ve read the call sheet.”

Lena, who had her legs tucked beneath her on the couch, nudged Kara’s thigh with her toe.

“What’s wrong?”

“I just- I um…” Kara was suddenly, painfully aware that there were four other people in the room staring at her. “You all know that I haven’t exactly adapted well to being filmed. So there’s that. And then um… this date- I’m just extra worried about making a huge idiot out of myself because- well, normally, even without cameras around, I’m a little… romantically accident-prone?”

Silence fell over the room as everyone attempted to digest what she was saying. Finally, Nia said, “Yeah, I’m going to need you to elaborate there.”

Kara sighed, resigning herself to her fated mockery. “In the past, I might have… accidentally broken noses? While um, kissing?”

“Noses? Why am I hearing a plural?” Jack asked in disbelief. “Kara, how many are we talking about?”

“Just two!”

“That’s two too many!”

“I know!” Kara nervously played with her hands.

“How does this happen? Does kissing mean something different in your culture?” Brainy asked with perplexion.

“Different cultures? Brainy, we’re both Americans. What culture did you think I was from?”

“I didn’t want to assume. Maybe you’re from Texas and that’s just how they do things.”

“I need details,” Nia said. “Kara, spill. How?”

“Uhh. Well, the first time, the guy that I’d been seeing leaned in and uh, I guess I was allergic to his cologne. I sneezed and my forehead and his nose just kind of… connected? And the, uh, second guy, well, he caught me off guard when he just… shoved his tongue in. When I pulled back, he lost his balance and fell off the couch. Face first onto the floor, so… yeah. They both happened a long time ago. There haven’t been other incidents lately, but, uh, I know that I’ve been self-conscious and awkward with the cameras around, so… I just don’t want to make a fool out of myself on national TV.” After a beat, Kara added, “Anymore than I already have.”

“It’ll be fine,” Lena assured her. “Everything’s very sterile and orchestrated with these things. I did a bit of acting during and after college. They block everything so carefully, there are really no surprises.”

Jack made a high-pitched humming, doubtful noise, which earned him Lena’s ire. “What, Jack?”

“Well… Kara does stink on camera.” Ignoring Kara’s muttered oh, thanks, he pushed on. “Her comfort level’s just not there. Add in another level of anxiety, and that’s not a pretty combination. So what’s the problem here? Unfamiliarity, right? She’s not used to the cameras, so she’s coming off awkward and self-conscious and embarrassing and dorky-“

“Jack,” Lena warned.

“Right, right. Sorry, love. So I’ve got a solution. And I know how it’s going to sound, but just hear me out. Kara’s not reacting well to the cameras because they’re unfamiliar, right? The solution’s obvious, then, isn’t it?”

“We film her more?” Nia suggested. “But Brainy’s pretty much been doing that already for his project.”

“Exactly!” Jack pointed at Nia excitedly. “She’s had a camera on her the whole night! And you know what? She wasn’t even weird! I totally thought she’d be weird like she is when she’s on set, but she isn’t. Kara, do you even notice Brainy’s camera anymore?”

“I guess not,” she answered. “That doesn’t seem to have helped when I’m filming for the show though.”

“Well, there are a lot more people and cameras on set,” said Lena. “Plus, you’re being put in a new situation every day, doing different things everyday, often stressful things. It’s harder to relax in those circumstances.”

“That’s what I’m saying.” Jack was now on his feet, rubbing his hands together like a mad scientist, looking entirely too exhilarated to be trusted. “Lena, my dear lesbian thespian, back in your acting days, did you expect to get everything perfect on the first or second take?”

“No…” Lena said slowly, narrowing her eyes at him. She had a small inkling about where he was going with all of this and she was pretty sure that she didn’t like it.

“Right. As the adage goes, practice makes perfect. So wouldn’t it be perfectly logical to conclude that, in order to avert a disaster tomorrow, we should help Kara practice?”

“Practice?” Kara asked with confusion, at the same time as Lena said:

“Nice try, Jack. You’re not making out with Kara.”

“Whoa, what?” Kara asked with astonishment, at the same time as Jack said:

“No, no, of course not, not me. Can you imagine? I’m the handler for several of Kara’s suitors. They’re my brethren. I’m the Sam to their Frodo. I couldn’t possibly. Can’t be these two either.” Jack gestured at Nia and Brainy. “Quickest way to kill young, budding love.” Brainy was very still, the camera steady in his hands, but the semblance of a smile crossed his face. Nia was suddenly very interested in the ceiling. “There’s really only one person here who’s single, doesn’t have quite as close of an emotional bond with the suitors, and already has acting experience.”

Lena was going to murder him. Straight up, first degree, Dexter-style murder him. There’s going to be a My Favorite Murder episode about it, followed by a Netflix documentary, and intense online discussions about whether he had it coming. (Spoiler alert: he did.)

Lena said, “Jack, be serious.”

“I am,” he retorted. “It’s a screen kiss, Lena. You’ve done it loads of times. You know that it’s strictly professional. Kara, wouldn’t you feel better about tomorrow’s group date if you could do a dry run first? Get the feel of it?”

“I, uh- maybe? I guess?” Kara stammered, before finally taking a breath to collect herself. “I mean, yes, it would definitely help, but clearly, it makes Lena uncomfortable, so-”

“It doesn’t,” came the quick response. Then, fidgeting under the gaze of the others in the room, Lena said quietly to Kara, “I want to help you. I’m by no means uncomfortable. I just want to make sure that this is something that you think would be helpful and not because some fool suggested it. Don’t be fooled by the English accent. He is a massive idiot.” Even though it was an insult, Jack bopped his head approvingly in full agreement.

Kara held the other woman’s gaze as she nodded, slowly and surely. “I think it would. Help me, I mean.”

Lena’s throat suddenly felt scratchy and dry, and this came out as a barely audible whisper, “Okay.”

Jack squealed with unrestrained delight.

They decided to set up in the interview room, since it was already equipped with lights and a backdrop. While Jack and Nia helped Brainy move in some additional equipment from his car, Lena stole off to the bathroom to brush her teeth. On her way back out, she ran into Kara in the hallway in a near-collide half-dance. The pair stepped back from one another, each chuckling awkwardly.

“I was looking for you,” said Kara softly.

“Here I am.” Lena folded her arms across her chest. “Did you… change your mind?”

“No. Did you?” Lena shook her head; she couldn’t help but notice that Kara visibly relaxed as she did. “Can we talk first? Just like about- ground rules, what to expect, that kind of thing? I’ve uh, never done this before.”

“Practice a stage kiss or kiss a woman?”

“The former. I mean, I’ve never done the other thing before either, but I’m not-“ pinkness colored Kara’s cheeks. “That part is fine. I just want to know how these stage kisses usually go.”

Lena emitted a contemplative hum as she tried to recall the tips she had been given in the past. “It helps to chat with the partner beforehand, especially if you’ve just met. Respecting each other’s boundaries is important. The etiquette is breath mints and no tongue during the kiss. Otherwise, you just do as the director says and inhabit your character. It’s just blocking.”

“That easy, huh?” Kara said wryly.

“It can be. I was nervous too, first time I had a stage kiss. First time I was on stage, really. But you get used to it with repetition.”

Kara nodded. She didn’t say anything, but Lena could tell, by the way she bowed her head and shifted her feet, that there was something she wanted to say.

“Kara, what is it?” she asked softly.

“I just. I… I was just wondering if we could, uh... “ Kara trailed off, her words swallowed up in embarrassment.

“Kara.” Lena reached out, touching a hand to Kara’s arm. “Darling, we really don’t have to do this. Jack is an idiot, honestly.”

“No, it’s really not that,” Kara answered. “It’s just the opposite, actually. I was- can we do it sooner? Like now? Before the others get back?”

“Oh.” Lena really hadn’t expected that, and unconsciously, her hand dropped away.

“You don’t have to,” Kara said hurriedly. “It’s just- um. It might be easier for me if there’s no one else around for the first… just so, you know, I don’t feel quite as on display.”

“No, no, that makes perfect sense. I’ve worked with some directors who’ll have a private rehearsal for something like this.” The house’s temperature was impeccably regulated with central air conditioning, but Lena suddenly felt very warm. “Okay.”

It seemed natural then, for Lena to take Kara by the hand, and together start the slow walk down the corridor to the master where Kara slept. Kara’s hand was warm and soft, and if Lena focused really hard, she thought she could feel the blonde vibrate with nervous energy.

The room was darkened with moonlight streaking through half-closed blinds. By an agreement never verbalized, they were content with the dimness, enshrouding nerves in the dark. Even in this light, Lena could see the bright, brilliant blue of Kara’s eyes. She still held Kara’s hand, skin delicate, heat radiating, fingers perfectly contoured against her own. She thought suddenly of the first moment she saw her, nervously stepping out of that limo, and marveled that she had ever thought of this woman as anything less than magnetic.

Kara’s lips parted, as if poised to question or clarify. Then in the next moment, she shook her head in the slightest way, nudging away the last trace of doubt and need for discussion. With a sharp intake of breath and a single step, she closed the gap between them, bodies almost flush together. The call made, she waited for the response. Lena leaned in. Eyes fluttered closed. Lena could smell Kara’s perfume, the mint on her breath, and most tantalizing of all, the scent of her skin. Lena could hear her own heartbeat thumping, feel her blood rushing south just from sheer anticipation.

And she thought, maybe much too late, this will change everything.

Slowly, she pressed her lips to Kara’s; so soft and barely there, it hardly seemed real. Then Kara, stirring awake, building, escalating, kissed back with the force of a bursting dam.

There was a faint buzzing in Lena’s ears as Kara’s heated, insistent lips moved against hers. Then she could want nothing do nothing think nothing be nothing except exist in this perfect bubble of a moment. When Lena cupped the blonde’s face in her hands, Kara encircled her arms around her waist, the two sharing in the common goal of getting closer. Kara’s fingertips flitted beneath the hem of Lena’s shirt, ghosting the skin under there.

Lena had not known, had not imagined, that it could be possible to lose your mind like this. But here she was, sensories overwhelmed, synapses firing, mind frenzied and frayed like overloaded circuits. Kara’s lips against hers, Kara’s fingers against her skin, Kara’s scent in her nostrils, Kara’s heat against her body, Kara, Kara, Kara. And Lena thought, I could have gone the rest of my life without knowing this.

She could feel the heat of desire coursing through her, her body pulsating, almost aching, with need. A fiery longing urged her on, compelling her to slightly part her lips to release an astonished sigh, then she felt the flick of Kara’s tongue against her own and it was-

Like drowning in the best possible way.

It was the distant bang of a door slamming shut that startled and disengaged the pair. They could hear the distant laughter and low murmur of their friends coming into the house.

Breathing heavy, with a shaky hand, Lena turned away to discreetly wipe at the wetness at her lips, her mind a singular refrain of what the fuck what the fuck what the fuck.

Kara laughed, a little high-pitched, a little awkward, a lot unsure.

“Wow.”

“Mmm,” Lena responded, finding herself uncharacteristically speechless.

“So that was, um, acting?” asked Kara. Lena refused to allow herself to read into the question.

“Yes.” Her voice was sure and breezy, a serene smile fixed as she turned back to face the blonde. “Easy, right? That’s all acting is, it just takes a bit of practice. By the end of the day tomorrow, you really won’t care who you’re kissing. It’ll be like shaking hands.”

“Oh,” Kara said. There was a flicker of something in her expression, too fleeting to be understood. “Well, uh, thank you. For the kissing. And the professionalism.”

“Always,” Lena answered. “Are you ready to try in front of the cameras?”

With Kara’s assent, they rejoined their friends in the interview room. Jack and Nia took turns playing director while Brainy operated the camera. Overall, it was less awkward than Lena imagined. It was actually easier with other people in the room - for her, anyway. It felt familiar, being told to stand on her mark, to move her hand this way, to tilt her head that way. Kara was wooden in the beginning, but by the fifth take, she was “not terrible,” as Jack described.

At two AM, Lena ordered everyone to bed. Because of the hour, Jack and Brainy ended up crashing on the living room sofas. Nia went to her room, and that left Kara and Lena standing in the hallway, in the same spot they had bumped into each other earlier. Kara hesitated for a moment, then pulled the brunette into a firm hug, pressed her lips against Lena’s cheeks, and whispered a goodnight.

That night, Lena lay awake in her bed for a good long while, finding it difficult to fall asleep, replaying certain moments in her mind, trying to hold on to the scent of Kara’s skin and the taste of her lips.

***

Another group date, another crisis.

The production team was assembled in the control room. The field producers - Jack, Veronica, Snapper, Gayle, and Sam - were seated on the couches and armchairs in the seating area in the back, shoulders round and heads bowed like schoolchildren in the principal’s office. At the front, Andrea and Siobhan were seated at the long table, pulling up the dailies on screen while Lillian and Mercy stood behind them, glowering at the footage. Lena was in her usual spot, leaning against the wall by the door, ever ready for a quick escape.

On screen, Mxy and Kara were in period costumes, re-enacting a scene from Gone With the Wind. The director yelled action and Mxy said his line, then moved in to press his lips against Kara’s. He never got there. Before he could kiss her, Mon-El rushed into frame and grabbed him by the lapel of his costume. Mon-El got two good swings at Mxy’s face before security separated them.

Lillian leaned over the laptop and pressed a key to stop the video. Stiffly, she turned on her heels, scowling at her employees, who were studiously avoiding eye contact.

“Someone explain to me what happened here.” Her voice was imbued with danger. “Who set this up? Mon-El is our Wifey, the frontrunner, our audience has to like him and root for him. We can’t have him go around punching people. Violence doesn’t play well on this show. We save the fistfights for the expendables, like Manchester and Ben. So I need someone to tell me what the hell happened today. Jack? Mon-El’s yours, isn’t he?”

Jack looked deeply uncomfortable, with more trepidation than Lena had seen in a long time. She couldn’t blame him. Her mother was terrifying.

“You can’t see it in the shot, but uh, Mxy was grabbing- well, he’d, um, cupped Kara’s behind in the scene.” Jack facsimiled the gesture awkwardly.

“So it’s chivalry?” Mercy perked up. “Mon-El was defending her, then? We can use that.”

“That’s not what happened,” Snapper disputed sharply. “Mon-El is the only person who says that. We had 3 cameras and like 25 cast and crew members in the room. It’s impossible that nobody else noticed. Mxy says that his hands were, and I quote, gentlemanly positioned. Mon-El’s just imagining things because he’s an insecure little boy.”

Snapper was Mxy’s handler, and someone who didn’t know any better might have thought that he was coming to his contestant’s defense out of loyalty. But Snapper has been around for a long time, and for people who knew him, like Lena, knew that he just didn’t want to be seen as not being in control of his contestant.

“Obviously, that’s not Mon-El’s version of events,” Jack said. “Look, it’s true that he doesn’t get along with Mxy. He really likes Kara and he hasn’t gotten much time with her, so yes, he’s feeling a little insecure, but I honestly don’t think he’d lie about this.”

“How is this up for debate?” Lillian questioned. “What does Kara say?” The inquiry was directed at Veronica, who instantly looked panicked. The implication was clear to everyone in the room: Veronica didn’t know. She probably didn’t ask, which was a cardinal sin for a field producer whose job was to become their subject’s confidant. A vein was beginning to form on Lillian’s forehead.

“Kara’s not sure what happened,” Lena spoke up. “She was costumed in a dress with a hoop skirt. If Mxy copped a feel, he only got a handful of crinoline. Not that that makes it any less gross.”

“Mxy’s a dumbass. He’s a little intense, but he’s not a creep,” Snapper said. “And you know what? He was on a date with the woman! Maybe he made a move, maybe he didn’t, but I’d say that the bigger issue here is Mon-El flying off the handle. It is not okay to go around punching other contestants. What’s he going to do when she starts kissing the guys? Or when we hit fantasy suites and sex is on the table?”

“We don’t have to worry about that. Knowing our Bachelorette, she’d just use the fantasy suite to play Scrabble,” Mercy said in what was supposed to be a snide remark, but probably had more truth to it than even she realized.

“Mon-El’s not a psychopath,” said Jack, coming to his contestant’s defense. “Yes, he’s insecure and hotheaded.” Sort of. “But he understands the game. He only overreacted because it was Mxy. Mxy doesn’t respect boundaries. We all know that Kara only keeps him around because we make her. He makes her uncomfortable.”

Snapper scoffed, taking the insult against his contestant personally. “Yeah, well, Mike is an entitled, spoiled prince with a ridiculous nickname and the maturity of a sea slug.”

Your contestant calls himself Mxy! His nickname doesn’t even have vowels!”

“He’s a magician!”

“Boys, shut up.” Lillian’s command was quiet, soft, and effective. Jack and Snapper instantly quieted. “What happened the rest of the date? Did we get any good footage?”

A tense silence fell over the room as everyone suddenly found something else in the room to fixate on, making it painfully clear that no one wanted to tell Lillian something she didn’t want to hear.

And it was Lena, always Lena, who stepped up to shoulder the burden. “That was the first scene. Mxy was first up. After Mon-El’s little outburst, the network’s lawyers made us shut down the shoot.”

To Lillian’s credit, she remained outwardly cool and collected. But she had that same look on her face the day that Lionel brought home Lena, his daughter from another woman, and look how well that turned out.

“So we have no date. Nobody shot their scenes. The rose ceremony is tomorrow, and we don’t even have time to set up another date,” Lillian recapped evenly. “Wonderful.”

“We can set up something quick at the Mansion tomorrow morning,” Andrea said. “A pool party or a brunch to make sure that the guys who missed out tonight get their time with Kara.”

“Uh-huh,” Mercy said, clearly not giving a crap about who gets time with whom. “And how do we explain why these guys got such a shitty date? We need to explain why the preplanned date didn’t happen. If we show the fight, Mon-El’s going to look like a jerk and we lose our frontrunner.”

Lillian closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose with two fingers. “This season’s going fucking great. I’ve got sexless Bambi and a bunch of unhinged contestants who are more interested in fighting each other than fighting for her. Which is normally fantastic, but now we don’t have a decent favorite. Who is the audience supposed to root for here?”

James isn’t unhinged.” Lena might as well have been shouting into the void. Lillian shot her daughter a withering glare, which would’ve reduced any other person to a mess. But Lena was a Luthor. She had been receiving that look since she was a child and it no longer fazed her. Jack shot her a sympathetic look, but the other producers avoided looking at either Luthor woman. Everyone knew what the “issue” was with James, but nobody wanted to discuss it. At least Sam had the decency to look guilty about it.

“There’s William,” Andrea suggested. “Kara and him have that journalist bond. He’s tall, good looking, British.”

“He’s boring,” said Mercy dismissively. And still a tad too dark for your liking, Lena thought. Sure, William wasn’t exactly exciting, but there had been plenty of winners more boring than William Dey. The franchise excelled at plucking milquetoast men from obscurity. As long as they were the right color.

“We don’t have many viable candidates to choose from. William’s our next best bet.” Andrea pressed. “Ray has zero chemistry with Kara. She gets along with Winn and Kenny, but you’ve already vetoed them. And apparently we still hate Nate, not that it matters because I don’t think she even remembers his name.”

“Then Mon-El’s still our frontrunner,” Lillian declared firmly. “So we have to make him look good. How do we do that?”

“We can back Mon-El’s story,” Siobhan suggested. “The narrative is that Mon-El was defending Kara from Mxy’s unwanted advances. We’ll show unflattering shots of Mxy with a creepy score spliced with Kara looking uncomfortable or awkward - which we have plenty of footage of. Then we show an ITM of Kara saying that she feels unsafe around Mxy, and, boom, Mon-El’s a hero. Maybe we even find a contestant to corroborate Mon-El’s story about Mxy groping Kara.”

“Kara won’t say it if it’s not true,” Lena said.

That didn’t deter Siobhan at all, who said with a light shrug, “No problem, we’ll frankenbyte it.”

Frankenbytes were a staple of reality television. When production wanted a cast member to say something but didn’t actually have any footage of it, they edited together clips from separate conversations to make it appear as if she did. So, with a little editing, “I don’t mind Mxy, he’s annoying but harmless,” “I feel safe around James,” and “Spiders are creepy” became “I don’t feel safe around Mxy. He’s creepy.”

“Oh, sure, throw my guy under the bus,” Snapper muttered darkly.

“It’s unfair to accuse Mxy of something like this when we don’t even know if he did anything.” It was clear, from the expression on Lillian’s and Mercy’s faces, that they did not share Lena’s qualms. So she tried again, from a different angle: “Look, given recent rumors about staff conduct, do we really want to feature a storyline about a man who doesn’t respect boundaries? What does that say about the show?”

Lena knew, from experience, that Lillian’s reaction would be much more severe if they were alone. As it was, Lillian managed to contain the expression of her emotions to a deep scowl.

“What would you suggest?” Mercy’s question sounded more like a challenge.

“We bury the footage,” Lena said. “We present an alternate reality where the date and the fight never happened. We can film something quick tonight at the Mansion, the guys will pretend like they’re heading out and Maxwell will come in and tell them the date’s been cancelled because Kara’s sick. We shoot an ITM with Kara explaining she felt unwell - a migraine or something.”

Veronica scoffed derisively. “What happened to ‘Kara won’t say it if it’s not true’?”

Lena smiled, so fakely sweet that it could not be interpreted as anything but mocking. “I can handle Kara.” The second part of that sentence, because you clearly can’t, was not said but nevertheless felt.

Affronted, Veronica huffed, “And the rest of the cast and crew?”

“We have punitive NDAs for a reason,” Lena answered. “They’ll fall in line.”

“Those are only effective for a year,” Veronica pointed out.

“Nobody will care by then. We’ll be on to a new season and new drama. No one’s going to care about a minor spat between two contestants from a year ago.”

Veronica looked like she wanted to argue some more, but any dissent was effectively quashed by Lillian, who said, “Fine. But we still have to find a way to fill the airtime. A morning brunch date isn’t going to fill 45 minutes.”

“We’ll pad the episode with house drama,” Mercy said. “What do we have with Manchester and Ben?”

“They’ve been staying away from each other,” Sam replied.

“I want a fight tomorrow morning,” Lillian ordered. “How do we make that happen?”

Sam hummed contemplatively. “I could probably get Jason to pull a dumb prank. Manchester has this Union Jack t-shirt that he wears around the house all the time. I think I can persuade Jason that it’d be funny to stuff it in the toilet.”

“I can suggest to Manchester that Ben must have done it,” Snapper added. “Out of malice, of course.”

“And I’ll keep Jason busy in ITMs during the big confrontation,” Sam said. “He’s not the brightest, but he’s a big softie. He’d just come clean right away.”

“Great. That drama will carry over into the rose ceremony.” Mercy clapped her hands together, extremely pleased with this development.

“Let’s make sure Mon-El gets the first rose tomorrow. And the next one-on-one. We need to keep our Wifey happy.” Lillian cast a sharp glance to Jack. “No more outbursts.” She pointed a long, bony finger at Veronica. “And you sing his fucking praises to our Bachelorette. Tell her he cures cancer for orphans and puppies. Whatever.”

The queen’s pronouncement was made, and there was little else for anyone to say. That’s the way it was and always will be. Lillian dismissed everyone with a curt nod at the door. Lena remained in her spot by the door, waiting for everyone to filter out until it was Veronica’s turn to exit.

“I can update Kara on everything,” she told Veronica. “I’ll do her ITM with Brainy tonight.”

Veronica stopped, eyes narrowing with suspicion even as an irrepressible smile tugged at her lips. Her struggle was clear. Should she be suspicious or offended that Lena’s doing her job or just be happy that she doesn’t have to talk to Kara tonight? In the end, the latter sentiment won.

“Suit yourself,” she said with a shrug as she stepped out the door.

Jack sidled right up to Lena as soon as Veronica was gone. “So, party at Kara’s?”

Lena rolled her eyes. “It’s work, Jack, not a party.”

“Yeah, but after the boring bit’s over, we could maybe-” Jack broke out into a hum of the Imperial March.

“Join the Galactic Empire?”

“I was going to say finish watching the trilogy, but yeah, I’ll do it as a stormtrooper. I’ve got costumes at home. I can pop out, go pick it up, be back in an hour?” For a thirtysomething man, Jack looked way too giddy at the prospect of dressing up as a stormtrooper for a Star Wars viewing. “I’ll sweeten the pot for ya. I bet I can convince Kara to kiss you again if-”

Lena’s hand darted out, quick as a striking snake, seizing Jack by his arm and stopping his speech. She glanced to the only other people remaining in the room - Lillian and Mercy were on the far side of the room, engaged in what looked like to be a serious conversation, Andrea was closer by, staring at the monitors with headphones over her ears. Lena breathed a sigh of relief; it seemed that none of them were paying attention. When she looked back at Jack, she could see that he was surprised and sorry.

“Lena. I didn’t think it mattered,” he said in a sotto voice.

“It doesn’t.” She was proud of how sure she sounded. “Yes, come over. Not that you need my permission since Kara’s the one who lives there. If you behave while we work, we can watch the second movie afterwards.”

Jack bounced on the balls of his feet, looking giddy. “Great! I’m going to grab some stuff from my car. I’ll meet you by yours.” Jack moved quickly in leaving. Lena didn’t have to guess at his motivations; he was getting ready before she could change her mind. Jack took his Star Wars very seriously.

She was on her way out the door when Andrea approached. “Lena. Got a minute?” Lena shrugged, dropping the hand that had been reaching for the doorknob. “Are you heading to see the lead?”

Suddenly, Lena wondered whether Andrea heard what Jack had started to say. She dimly recalled Andrea once saying that Mercy and Lillian were so toxic around each other that she sometimes slipped on headphones with nothing playing just to be spared being dragged into one of their many disputes. Or maybe that was Sam?

“To shoot her ITM, yes.”

Andrea regarded Lena in silence with a curious and vaguely concerned expression.

“Okay,” Andrea said finally. “And if you get the chance, maybe you’ll say some nice things about Mon-El. We have our orders.” Andrea tilted her head to the side, toward Lillian’s direction. “He might not be either of our first choice, but he’s Lillian’s choice, so we’re going to have to try to make him Kara’s.”

“I know how this works, Andrea,” answered Lena, a little exasperated by the idea of Andrea lecturing her on the show’s operations.

Seven years ago, when the previous director retired, it had been Lena who advocated for Andrea to be hired. It was their first season after Lionel had passed away. Lena finally saw an opportunity for change. Without Lionel’s domineering force, she thought she could bring on board an ally who could help her change the show for the better, shed its racist and sexist ways. She thought that Andrea would be that ally. She was wrong. After a few half-hearted arguments with Lex and Lillian, Andrea backed off and adapted to the Luthor way.

“Sure.” Andrea smiled an indifferent smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “I just thought it’d be good to keep each other on task. We spend such long hours on set getting to know the cast members. It’s difficult, sometimes, to remember what the job is. It’s nice to remind each other, you know.”

There was something hidden swirling beneath Andrea’s words, like a shark swimming under a calm ocean surface, just out of sight and only offering glimpses of a shadow. It was best not to investigate. That was sage advice for dealing with both sharks and Andrea.

So Lena offered a nod, an obligatory thanks, a quick goodbye before she headed out the door to drive Jack down to the house.

***

On the night of the rose ceremony, Lena watched from the control room as Kara navigated the cocktail party with all the contestants vying for her attention.

Right now, Kara was in a Veronica-mandated conversation with Mxy, who looked intoxicated as he warned her that Mon-El was “not here for the right reasons.” Kara smiled politely and nodded her head stiffly. Afterwards, when Veronica pulled her aside for her ITM, Kara said the right things (“I’m definitely concerned with what Mxy told me tonight, but at the end of the day, I just have to follow my heart.”) If she sounded rehearsed, it’s only because Lena had her repeat it three times. (“It happens every season, Kara. Someone’s always not here for the right reason and someone else’s going to warn you. It’s Bachelorette bingo.”)

Lena observed as, on screen, Kara returned to the cocktail party and engaged in a string of conversations with her contestants with forced cheer. The night before, Kara was bright, lively, and real as she sat for an ITM with Lena interviewing her. She was even halfway convincing when she told the camera that she had a migraine and had to cancel that night’s group date. Then after, Kara was curled on the couch, flanked by Lena and Nia (heavily leaning into the former’s space), her and Jack taking turns fielding Brainy’s confused questions as they watched The Empire Strikes Back. Her excited chatter last night was a thousand times more animated than this subdued Kara on screen who was merely enduring the cocktail party.

Last night, Kara’s sea-blue eyes had shimmered brightly despite the long day and late hour, so late that Nia had gone to bed and Jack and Brainy were passed out in the living room. It was just Kara and Lena at the kitchen counter, sharing between them a bottle of wine and easy, meandering conversation.

Watching Kara say easy goodbyes to three men, including Logan, the one who had so clearly longed for another bachelorette, Lena found herself longing for the night’s end, waiting for her return to the house, to the living room with Kara, staying up too late drinking red wine.

 

 

Chapter Text

And all the thing I didn't say
I’m messing with myself
That kind of grow-up wannabe
Why do I believe that you will drive me into waves

“Into Waves” by A Little Nothing

 

 

The blinking red neon lights above the doorway proclaimed this room The Phantom Zone, one of the many themed escape rooms they had to offer at the site which hosted today’s one-on-one date. Per Lillian’s instructions, to keep their frontrunner happy, Mon-El was on today’s one-on-one date.

Kara and Mon-El were given a flashlight and sent inside. It was dark, the room only dimly lit by two electric lanterns mounted on opposite walls. The theme seemed to be a haunted mansion, its walls decorated in peeling wallpaper and heavy drapes, the space cluttered with old-timey objects like a typewriter atop a rolltop desk, a gramophone, a Victorian sofa piled under a dozen creepy porcelain dolls (some with missing eyes) and an old, oversized wardrobe in the corner.

Mon-El took the opportunity to take Kara by the hand on the pretense of escorting her. The door shut behind them, and a voice over the intercom told them that their 60 minutes started now. A large digital clock in the corner started counting down. The two of them chatted and joked as they prowled through the space, Mon-El keeping close and finding every excuse to touch Kara on the shoulder, arm, or the small of her back.

Kara pulled back the drapes to reveal tall bookshelves. Mon-El turned the crank on the gramophone, which produced a short musical clip that Kara identified as Ride of the Valkyries, leading her to pull from the bookshelves a biography of Richard Wagner, inside of which they uncovered a slip of paper with a math problem. Three more clues later, they were fishing out a small key from the insides of a creepy porcelain doll. The key unlocked the wardrobe, but only one of the doors swung open.

Kara peered in, shining the flashlight inside. “I think there’s something at the far end.” She passed the flashlight to her partner and climbed all the way in for a better look. “There’s a panel back here with a hole in the middle. It’s shaped like a diamond.”

“I think there was a weirdly shaped pencil on the desk back there.” Mon-El stepped away and returned in a moment with the object. “Here, does this fit?”

Kara took the pencil and inserted it into the panel. It fit perfectly. She pushed it further in. There was an audible click.

“Nothing’s happening.” She tried twisting the pencil and pushing on the panel, but still nothing happened. “Hey, you remember that star-shaped button under the desk that did nothing? What if we pushed it at the same time?”

“Okay, sit tight.” Mon-El made his way to the desk. “Ready? On three. One, two, three.”

Kara pushed the pencil in at the same time Mon-El pressed the star button. There was that audible click again, this time followed by a soft creaking, then a sudden, heavy thump as the wardrobe’s sole open door slammed shut behind her. She heard Mon-El yelp in surprise.

Kara found herself alone in the dark. As the initial shock ebbed, she found herself becoming acutely aware of the four walls surrounding her, all around her, boxing, caging, trapping. Her heartbeat catapulted into a wild rhythm like heavy metal drumming.

She reached out, pushing against the doors. They wouldn’t budge.

“Kara?” She heard Mon-El’s voice outside. “Are you okay?” There was a rattling jangle, like he was pulling at the doors from the outside.

“Yeah.” Her voice sounded odd to her own ears, but maybe that was just the reverb from the walls. “I just- I’m not great with um, enclosed spaces.”

“Oh, okay,” Mon-El said casually. “Well, don’t worry, we’ll get you out.”

“No, Mon-El. I’m really not good with enclosed spaces.”

There was silence as he started to absorb the seriousness of her meaning. When he spoke again, he was solemn. “I’m going to get you out.”

He pulled harder. But there was nothing, nothing except the sound of Kara struggling to breathe when it suddenly felt like there was no oxygen left in this tiny, cramped box. She felt hot, unbearably hot, her skin prickled like a million ants were burrowing beneath the surface. She could feel herself starting to tremble. She closed her eyes and tried to take a deep breath, but she could almost physically feel the walls around her, against her, on her, a thick, invisible quilt encircling and suffocating.

She could hear Mon-El’s footsteps departing, she could hear him shouting loudly for help, she could hear him come back and slam his body against the doors, his fingers prying at its edges.

She felt overcome by dizziness. She felt like she was falling down, down, down into a bottomless, timeless pit. Her chest ached as she inhaled sharply for air. She thought she was going to be sick. She could not help the irrational, all-consuming dread that dominated her mind, a singular, insidious thought clawing at her insides: I will never get out.

A sharp crack rang out as the wood of the wardrobe door splintered and fractured. Mon-El took a couple of steps back then charged again, ramming his shoulder against the door. The door’s fracture split into a hole. He reached through the hole, grabbed the edge, and tugged violently, tearing away fragmenting wood pieces until there was space enough for Kara to fit. She clambered out on unsteady feet, stumbling into Mon-El’s arms. She sank to the floor, taking him with her.

“It’s okay, Kara. It’s okay,” he muttered softly as he held her tight.

Kara closed her eyes and waited for the world to stop spinning.

***

Lena was in her office at LuthorMedia when she got word. Before Jack could even finish talking, she was grabbing her purse and heading out the door. “I’m on my way.”

She was intercepted at her office door by Lillian, who also had her cellphone pressed to her ear. Lillian held up a finger to stop her daughter. It infuriated Lena to no end that it worked, and she found herself standing still, waiting for Lillian.

“Okay. Thank you, Andrea. Send Veronica over right now.” Lillian hung up the phone just as Lena said her own goodbye to Jack. “I see you heard the news.”

“Yes. I’m just on my way to see Kara.”

“Business first. Veronica’s coming in now. We need to have a serious talk with her about what she allowed to happen today.”

As appealing as Lena found the idea of tearing into Veronica, it wasn’t a priority for her at the moment. “I’m sure you can handle it.”

“I can, but that’s not the point. The point is, business first.”

Lena stared hard at her mother. “I’m going to see Kara. I need to make sure she’s okay.”

“She’s with Dr. Jonn. She’ll be fine.” When she saw that Lena remained unconvinced, she added, “You’re a Luthor. Act like one. We always take care of the business first. One of our employees had a major screw up today and it needs to be dealt with. So what are you going to do? Stay and do your job, or run off to interrupt Kara’s therapy to- what, offer her a cup of tea?”

Lena’s instinct was the latter, but she had enough sense not to say it. Lillian did not seriously expect an answer to her question. She expected obedience.

Lena sighed reluctantly. “Give me five minutes.”

Going back into her office, she dropped her purse on the desk and called Jack back. She confirmed with him that Kara was in a session with Dr. Jonn and made him promise three times to call her if anything changed.

***

“You know what’s not sexy?”

Lillian sat behind her oversized mahogany desk, reclined in her chair with one leg crossed over the other. Mercy stood behind her, leaning against a low cabinet with folded arms, resembling a bodyguard or a lapdog.

Veronica was slouched low in the hot seat across from Lillian, sullen and petulant in her body language. Lena was next to her, her phone discreetly in her lap, covered up by folded hands, glancing down every so often to see if there was news from Jack.

In reply, Veronica had the cheek to say, “Spiders?”

“Panics attacks, Veronica. Panic attacks are not sexy. Doesn’t quite strike the right tone.”

“Mon-El looked like a hero,” Veronica said defensively. “Breaking down the door, freeing her, comforting her. You wanted a connection, now they have one. Kara’s going to be so grateful for the rescue.”

“You planned this?” Lena was watching Veronica carefully with an impassive face even as her fingernails angrily dug into the flesh of her palm. “Did you set this up knowing what was going to happen?”

Veronica threw her hands up. “Look, I knew she didn’t like small spaces, I didn’t know she was going to go fucking crazy like she did. She never said she had a full blown phobia! Why didn’t this come up in vetting? Besides, we make people skydive when they tell us they have a fear of heights! How is this any different?”

Because, you absolute fucking moron,” Lillian snapped at her. “We tell them about it beforehand and they choose to do it. We don’t spring it on them in the middle of a date and cause a full blown panic attack!”

“Right, we just want to push them right up to that line,” Lena added drily. “But not over. Not until the finale anyway.”

While Lillian glared at her, Mercy nodded approvingly, entirely missing her facetiousness. “Lena’s right. This was too far, and much too early in the season.”

Veronica inhaled sharply, visibly struggling to keep her cool in front of her employers. “Look, things weren’t going well with Kara. You both say that everyday. What did you tell me yesterday? ‘Kara’s stiffer than a dried cum towel.’” Mercy looked rather pleased at being quoted. “You wanted some emotions, and we got them. I don’t see how this is a bad thing?”

“She’s got a point there,” Mercy nodded. “That was the most compelling I’ve seen Kara all season. Like, finally, she has something to her besides awkward giggling!”

Lena scoffed derisively, feeling the jab as if it were an offense against herself. “She has a lot more to her than that, not that she’s comfortable enough to show it. We keep putting her on these ridiculous dates - honestly, who even does hot tantric yoga? That’s not Kara.”

“Well, what would you suggest?” Mercy sneered in a way that was meant more to be a taunt than a question.

“Simple. Things that she likes, with people that she likes instead of who we like. This is a show about finding love, isn’t it?” Looking around the room at their blank faces, it was clear that this wasn’t an important point. So Lena tried another tactic. “We’ve been hemorrhaging viewers for years now. And yes, the audience loves the drama, but what they really want is a love story. We’re not going to get one if we keep sabotaging her. What do you think our ratings will look like then?”

That seemed to work. For once, with the invocation of the magic R-word, Lillian seemed to actually consider something that Lena said instead of responding with dismissal or outright mockery.

“Okay,” Lillian said slowly. “We’ll give it a shot. We have two groups and a solo left before the next ceremony. You set it up, since you seem to be getting on with Ms. Danvers so well.” There was a purposeful, knowing pause there as Lillian held Lena’s gaze. Lena deliberately refused to look away. “And take over the interviews for her ITMs, at least when she does them from the house. Veronica can continue handling things in the field.” Veronica did not look too put off at the thought of spending less time with Kara. “And I want Kara to have regular check-ins with Dr. Jonn, whether she asks for it or not. We can’t risk our lead going off the deep end.”

“Are we done here?” asked Lena, mentally calculating whether it would be faster for her to get to Kara by taking the 101 straight through or trying for the 405.

Lillian looked at her daughter with an inscrutable expression.

“Go.”

***

When Lena went over to the house that night, Kara was nowhere to be seen. Jack, Brainy, and Nia were hanging out in the living room, eating Chinese takeout off of the coffee table.

“She’s in her room,” Nia reported before Lena could even ask. “I offered to make her a plate but she didn’t want it. But don’t worry, we put two orders of potstickers aside for her.”

“Kara said we should stay,” Jack added quickly, gesturing to himself and Brainy. “She wanted to stay in her room but she said it’s nice knowing that there were people in the house. But we can go if you think that’s better.”

It was strange, how they deferred to Lena, like this was her house and that Kara was her… well, let’s just go with someone she was responsible for. She rationalized that maybe it was just because of the professional dynamics here. She was technically their boss, after all. Not that Jack has ever treated her like one.

“No, no, you’re all right where you are. I’m just going to go check on her.”

She made her way down to the door of Kara’s bedroom, rapping gently twice. “Kara? It’s me.”

She heard muffled shuffling on the other side, followed by the quick patter of footsteps on the floor. The door opened, and in a blur, Lena found herself with an armful of a blonde woman who buried her face into Lena’s neck. She could feel Kara inhaling sharply against her skin. She did the only thing that felt right to do: wrapping her arms around Kara’s waist and returning the tight embrace.

“I missed you,” Kara murmured, as if they hadn’t seen each other that morning before leaving the house.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t get here sooner.” Lena rubbed her hand across Kara’s back, feeling the tense muscles there slowly relax under her touch.

“It’s okay. I don’t care. I’m just happy you’re here now.”

Lena shifted away, took Kara by the hand and led her back into the room, closing the door behind them. Kara took a seat on her bed, leaning against the headboard with her legs curled underneath her, looking small and tired. Lena sat down next to ner, draping her arm around Kara’s shoulders.

“How are you feeling?”

“Better now. Mostly just tired. I haven’t had a panic attack in years. I forgot how exhausting they can be.”

“I’m sorry,” Lena whispered quietly. “Truly, Kara.”

“What for? It wasn’t your fault I had a nervous breakdown.” She tried to blunt the harshness of reality with a self-conscious chuckle.

“I-” Lena stopped herself short, wanting to tell Kara about Veronica’s ploy, but feeling torn by her loyalty to the show, to her family. For better or worse, Veronica was still Kara’s handler. That relationship required trust, which there was already little of. Telling Kara would probably further damage that. “Production should have done a better job protecting you.”

“Veronica knew, didn’t she? She set the whole thing up?”

Lena drew the line at an outright lie. “Yes.”

“I can’t say that I’m surprised. Right after we got out of the room, Veronica wanted to keep shooting and have me talk on camera to Mon-El about what happened. Jack made them stop filming and take me to see Dr. Jonn. Veronica seemed super pissed.”

Lena tightened the grip she had around Kara’s shoulders, feeling that familiar anger that she had been working so hard for the past hour to tamper flare up again. “I’m sorry. I should have been there.”

“Lena, no. Stop apologizing. It’s not your job to babysit me.”

“But it kind of is. I’m the supervising producer, I babysit everyone on set. I didn’t know she was going to do that, but that’s not an excuse. I should have.” Lena exercised restraint to stop another apology from slipping out. She just felt so goddamn guilty.

“I don’t think she knew I would react like that. I didn’t- um, I’m sure you know this already, but when I was being interviewed to be the Bachelorette, they asked me a bunch of questions about things like this. And I- I kind of just alluded to not being a fan of small spaces, but I wasn’t really upfront about how bad it was. I didn’t mean to- it’s just something I’ve always done. Alex says that I shouldn’t downplay it and that I should just call it what it is. A phobia. But I- I just don’t like talking about it.”

Kara fell silent. Lena said nothing; something in the way Kara held herself told Lena that she had more to say and just needed a chance to work up the nerve. “You know that my parents died when I was thirteen? The car accident?”

“Yes,” Lena said hoarsely.

Everyone knew the story. Or at least, everyone who was acquainted with the show. Kara and her parents were driving home from dinner one night when an eighteen wheeler t-boned their car. Kara was the only survivor from the crash.

It was, in fact, a major reason why any of them were here to begin. The Tragic Orphan angle had played really well during Clark’s season. It was the best of both worlds: Clark had a well-rounded, all-American, corn-fed family in his adoptive family, but they had an instant tearjerker in the fact that he had lost both of his parents to different illnesses while he was just an infant. Then, much to production’s delight, they discovered that Clark had a beautiful cousin named Kara with a similar story, except that Kara’s parents had died when she was much older, in a violent car crash that she was a part of, thereby amplifying the tragedy of it all. Even back then, on Clark’s season, Lionel had proclaimed that they would one day make Kara Danvers their lead when she was older. Ten years later, here they were.

Kara was looking down, twirling a loose piece of string from the hem of her shirt around her fingers. “So, um. I haven’t told many people about this, but… it was late when it happened, the car crash. We were on a rural road, and the truck had pushed both cars off the road, so it was a while before anyone found us. And, um, our car had flipped over, and I was trapped underneath. It was really dark. I couldn’t see or hear anything, but I was… well, it’s hard to describe. I was in shock and confused, and in and out of consciousness, and um, I didn’t know what was going on but… I knew that something really bad happened. And I knew that my parents were there but t- they- I couldn’t hear them, so I knew-” She stopped herself. Some parts of this, she could not talk about. Maybe would never be able to talk about.

“Uh. It... felt like I was trapped in a coffin for days. So now when I find myself in a small, enclosed space…” Kara shrugged. She hadn’t looked at Lena at all. “It brings me back to a place I really don’t ever want to be in again. So, yeah, I don’t talk about it. I don’t really tell people that I’m claustrophobic. But maybe I should’ve just said that in the beginning. Like Alex said, I can’t expect people to know what my triggers are if I don’t tell them.”

“Okay, I know you’re not about to make this your fault somehow.” Lena shifted, pulling a bit away from the other woman, reaching under Kara’s chin with a gentle hand and pushing up so that she could look her fully in the eyes. “Kara, you did nothing wrong. You understand that?”

“No, I know. I just…” Kara moved closer, resting her head against Lena’s shoulder. “I don’t know. I just… wanted to tell you.”

Lena held her quietly. After a beat, she said softly, “We’re shifting the production schedule. We won’t shoot tomorrow. You can rest.”

“That sounds good.” Kara hesitated before her next question. “Does that mean you’re off work tomorrow?”

“I suppose. Someone from the network may want a chat about something or other and I’ll have to jump on a call, but yes, most of the production team gets the day off when we’re not shooting. We’ll have some PAs around for the cast though, to make sure they have everything they need.”

“Oh.” Not even the densest human could miss the dejection in Kara’s voice.

“What’s the matter?”

“No, nothing. I just- uh. Guess I was just hoping to see you tomorrow.”

“What does that have to do with work?” Lena asked quizzically, only to catch on a moment later. She tightened her grip on the blonde. “Do you think that I’ve been coming around because it’s my job?”

Embarrassed, Kara practically buried her whole face into Lena’s shoulder, and in a muffled voice, said, “I don’t know. Maybe?”

Lena laughed. “Kara, darling, I don’t think you understand what my job is. I’m not paid to cuddle with the cast, you know.”

“Well, I don’t know,” Kara responded with a slight whine. “I- I wasn’t sure.”

“I’d like to think that we’ve been spending time together because we’re friends,” said Lena softly. Despite the situation, she felt nervous saying that. They were friends. Kara already said as much. Still, this felt… different.

She felt Kara’s arms encircle and tighten around her waist.

Yes,” the blonde answered emphatically. “Same.”

“I’m off work tomorrow, and I’ll be here all day,” Lena promised. Then, with the thought that maybe she was overstepping, added, “If you want.”

“I want.”

They spent another couple of minutes sitting in quiet embrace, enjoying the silence.

“Lena?” When the brunette hummed an acknowledgement, Kara broached timidly, “Uh, please feel free to say no if you’re at all uncomfortable - I mean, really, at all - but… in the past, when I’ve had a panic attack, it helped if- well, uh, Alex used to stay over in my room if I- it, just, it helps if someone’s there at night, next to me, but um, I know that’s weird so-”

“It’s not weird,” Lena cut in, assuring and firm. “I don’t mind. Do you want to go to sleep now?”

Kara nodded. The pair untangled themselves. Kara went into the ensuite bath to get ready for bed as Lena went down the hall to retrieve a few things from the room that she had slept in the last few nights. From the hallway, she could see the others watching television in the living room. Jack was sunk low into one of the armchairs, while Nia and Brainy were curled up together on the couch. Only Jack noticed her as she headed back toward Kara’s room, and she waved goodnight to him. When he responded with a lascivious grin and a thumbs up, she gave him the finger and shut the door.

Kara was sitting at the foot of the bed when Lena went into the ensuite to change and get ready for bed. When she came back out, Kara was in the same position.

“What are you doing?” Lena asked with amusement.

“Uh, I didn’t know which side of the bed you liked.” Kara’s cheeks tinged with pink at the word ‘bed’.

“Oh. Uh.” Truth was, Lena hasn’t had enough long-term bed partners to have a ‘side’. She usually sprawled out in the middle. Without thinking, she pointed at the left side. That apparently pleased Kara, who climbed in the other side happily. Lena turned off the light and got into bed. The two women lay side by side in the dark, not touching, but acutely aware of the other’s presence.

Lena thought that she would never sleep.

***

The next morning, walking into the kitchen, Lena was surprised but not surprised to find Jack already making coffee in the kitchen, clad in a purple bathrobe with LL monogrammed on one side.

“Thief.”

“Well, you weren’t using it,” Jack answered nonchalantly as he began pouring out coffee from the French press into mugs laid out before him.

Lena took a seat at one of the stools. “You better be wearing boxers under there.”

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Jack attempted a wink. It was weird.

“So I know whether to burn it, yes.”

He pushed a cup of coffee towards her. It was the largest mug in the house, which instantly placated her. Jack knew her weak spots.

“And how was Kara?” By the way he asked, Lena knew that he wasn’t asking about her emotional state.

“Nothing happened. She just needed a friend. She went through something traumatic yesterday.”

Jack went to the cabinets and pulled out a box of Frosted Flakes. He held it up to Lena, who wrinkled her nose and shook her head. Jack shrugged and started fixing himself a bowl.

“So, what, you two just… slept? Like platonic buds or something?”

“That is what we are, yes.” Lena picked up her mug, blowing at the surface before taking a gentle sip. It was damn good coffee, rich and deep with just enough bitterness to make it interesting, a true Jack Spheer specialty. Sometimes Jack’s coffee was almost delicious enough to make her regret breaking up with him.

But then he’ll go and do something crazy like pour milk into the bowl before adding his cereal, and any regrets evaporated instantly.

“What? You didn’t wake up cuddling each other this morning after your bodies unconsciously sought the other out during the night?”

Lena laughed at that. “No, don’t be silly. That only happens in bad romcoms. Things like that don’t happen in real life. And if it did, it wouldn’t happen to me and Kara.”

“Right, ‘cause you’re just buds,” Jack said drily.

“Yep.” It was time for a change in topic. “What are you doing here?”

“You weren’t using your room.” Jack carried his bowl over and plopped down on the stool next to her.

As he shoveled cereal into his mouth, Lena asked, “Uh huh, and what’s wrong with your room? You know, the one in your apartment?”

“Ah, you see, last night, it wasn’t so much a question of what’s wrong with the apartment as it was what’s wrong with the transportation to get there.” Lena looked utterly unimpressed at his crypticness, so Jack clarified: “Brainy drove me here last night. He wasn’t ready to leave, so I crashed in your room.”

“Don’t you two usually pass out in the living room watching Carl Sagan?”

“Usually. But if Brainy wasn’t going to sleep on the couch, why should I?”

“If he wasn’t- well, where-“ The penny finally dropped. “Ohh.”

“Yep.” Jacked sighed dramatically, although there was a pleased grin on his face. “Looks like I was the only one without a bed partner last night.”

“You could probably change that if you didn’t spend your nights hanging out here with a lesbian, a couple, and a woman who’s supposed to be getting engaged in a few weeks.”

“Yeah, but this is more fun,” he said through a mouthful of cereal, chomping widely so Lena could see every morsel. She made a face at him to let him know how gross he was, and he responded by offering a spoonful of cereal in her face, which she declined by pushing his hand away.

“What are your plans for the day?” she asked him. “I thought I’d take Kara out for something fun and easy. Maybe the beach.”

Jack, the drama queen that he was, mockingly dropped his jaw and his spoon, which splashed into his bowl. “Lena, you hate the beach.”

“I do not.”

“Yes, you do. I swear it’s half the reason you ever moved away. We went out for like two years and I never even saw you in a bathing suit.”

“Oh, that’s just because I didn’t want to take my clothes off around you.”

He clutched his chest, feigning woundedness. “Harsh, Luthor.”

“You had it coming.” She gave him a gentle push by nudging her shoulder against his. Jack, playing along, made a show of nearly falling out of his chair. It was hard to believe she dated this dork for so long. “Anyway, this isn’t about me. It’s about Kara.”

“Uh huh. Well, as much as I like being a third wheel, I promised my mum that I’d stop by the house today.” Jack picked up his spoon and got back to his breakfast. “Enjoy your date at the beach that you hate so much.”

Maybe it was because she hadn’t had a full cup of coffee yet, but all Lena could think to say was, “I don’t hate the beach.”

“Uh huh,” Jack answered sarcastically. “Whatever you say, love.”

***

Lena Luthor totally hated the beach.

For starters, she practically tanned beneath halogen lights, so direct sunlight was her nemesis. She found beach sports ridiculous. She didn’t see the appeal of sand getting into every bodily crevice. Or the men who thought they could hide their creepy ogling behind wraparound sunglasses.

But somehow, none of that really mattered as she watched Kara strip off her shirt and run squealing into the ocean. Frolicking was really the only way to describe it.

By the time Kara returned from her swim, Lena had rented a beach umbrella and laid out their lunch spread on a beach blanket. Kara trotted up and crashed down to the blanket, kicking up a small sandstorm. She immediately grabbed a piece of watermelon from one of their Tupperware containers and popped it into her mouth.

“God, this is amazing. Lena, this is the best idea ever. This is exactly what I needed.” Frowning as she noticed Lena’s attire, she reached out and pulled lightly at the hem of her sundress. “Where’s your bathing suit?”

“I have it on underneath. I doubt I’ll be making use of it though.”

“You can’t swim?”

“Can, but don’t. It’s not really my thing.”

“Oh.” Kara’s frown deepened. “Then why are we here?”

“Because it’s your thing.” Lena unwrapped a sandwich - prosciutto, buffalo mozzarella, and a hint of pesto aioli - and passed it to Kara. The sandwich, coupled with Lena’s response, sparked a dazzling, megawatt grin from her.

“You are so sweet,” she cooed, which was possibly the first time anyone had ever described Lena as ‘sweet’.

The compliment threw her for a loop. Stunned her, really. So that’s probably why, after lunch, Kara somehow had managed to convince her to take off her sundress and go in the ocean. It had nothing to do with Kara’s slinky red bikini or her promise that she would stay close to Lena at all times in the water.

Warily wading in until the water was at her chest, she watched as Kara happily dashed forward and dove under, like some kind of puppy-dolphin hybrid injected with dopamine. Kara swam a few feet forward, then back, coaxing Lena along until their feet couldn’t touch the bottom.

“See? Nothing to be scared of!”

“Fear has nothing to do with it. I can swim, I’ve just never been all that fond of it,” Lena said, treading water easily.

“Why?” Kara kicked her feet and launched herself into floating on her back.

“I don’t know. Always seemed kind of boring?”

“I think you mistake relaxing for boring.”

As if Mother Nature took offense at the description, it was at that moment that a large swell rolled in, bringing a white crescendo up, up, and over, breaking over their heads and pushing the pair down beneath the water. The wave knocked the breath out of Lena, and as she instinctively gasped, she swallowed a lungful of saltwater that burned through her sinuses and esophagus. She kicked and struggled beneath the surface, trying to make her way to the top.

Okay, so maybe Kara was right when she accused Lena of being afraid of the water. The ocean was a monster.

On one strenuous kick, she suddenly felt a shooting, painful cramp in her calf. She reacted quickly, curling her toes toward her knee to stretch the muscle. (An old trick Lex had taught her one summer, returning from his first year at college, and they’d been so glad to see each other, they spent the entire summer in the woods behind the house, collecting moss and water samples during the day and studying the stars at night. That was maybe the last really good summer they had together.)

But then, Kara was also right when she promised that there was nothing to be scared of. Because before there was even time for panic to really set in, Lena found herself being lifted by a pair of strong, sure arms, pulling her up above the waves. Lena found herself trembling and clinging on to Kara for dear life: arms thrown tightly around her neck, legs wrapped around her torso, as Kara valiantly kicked beneath the water to keep them both afloat.

Even in the chaos and alarm of her near-drowning experience, Lena couldn’t help the dim acknowledgement in the back of her mind that Kara’s shoulders were surprisingly muscular.

“You all right?” Kara managed to ask in between sputtering laughter. Lena, choking and spitting out saltwater, nodded dumbly, stunned from what just happened.

“I have a cramp in my calf, but it’s going away.” Her voice was raw from the saltwater she had swallowed.

They bobbed up and down in the ocean, tightly intertwined, Lena secure in Kara’s embrace. As her hysteria over escaping a watery grave subsided, it was replaced by another kind, one fueled the ballooning awareness of Kara’s body, her athletic, powerful arms, the heat radiating from her torso, her breasts which heaved with every exerting breath that blew past the tip of Lena’s ears, sending shivers down her spine. Kara was close, so close that they could kiss if Lena just moved a couple of inches forward, slo close that Lena could study the water droplets beading on the blonde’s eyelashes. The memory of their kiss still lingered, and Lena wondered how Kara would taste now, if the taste of saltwater would dominate. Lena was then painfully aware of their position, namely that her crotch was firmly pressed up against Kara’s firm, toned abdomen.

It’s a good thing that water’s already wet.

Lena unwrapped her legs from Kara’s body and loosened her arms, but kept both hands on Kara’s shoulders.

Kara’s face was tinged red, maybe from the sun, maybe from something else. “I think we should get you to land.”

“That is an excellent idea.”

“Here, let me help you.” Kara reached one arm beneath the surface and scooped up Lena’s legs, the other arm supporting Lena’s back. She started kicking, propelling them both back to shore. Even as they neared and Kara’s feet touched the seafloor, she kept cradling Lena.

“I can try walking from here,” Lena said when the water level reached Kara’s waist.

“Better not risk it until we take a look. Don’t want to exacerbate a pulled muscle.”

“You won’t be able to carry me to the blanket. I’m too heavy for you.”

“We’ll see,” said Kara doggedly, tightening her grip.

In a shocking display of strength that she really shouldn’t have been able to do, Kara carried Lena all the way back to their blanket and gingerly set her down.

More than a little affected by this, Lena said, almost in a daze, “My hero.”

Kara ducked her head shyly and gave a demure shrug in response. She touched her fingertips to Lena’s calf, massaging gently. Every touch felt like a flame licking against Lena’s skin. She squeezed her thighs together, hoping that Kara wouldn’t notice the motion.

“How does that feel?”

“Fine,” Lena choked out breathlessly.

“Are you sure?” Kara’s brows knitted together as her fingers delicately danced across Lena’s skin, applying pressure at just the right points. “You feel kind of tense, and you sound stressed.”

Unable to take it anymore, Lena covered Kara’s hand with her own, stilling the movement. “I’m fine, really. Just a little shaken.”

“I’m sorry that didn’t go as smoothly as I thought.”

“Don’t be. It was kind of fun until the near-fatal drowning.”

Kara blanched. “Oh god, I can’t believe I almost killed you.”

“You also saved me, so I’d call that even.”

“Yeah, except that you’ve saved me like ten times over the past week. How am I supposed to make it up to you?”

To Lena’s mind came an unbidden, intrusive thought: I know how you can make it up to me. She grew hot at the unverbalized suggestion, first from excitement, then from shame. At best, Kara was her friend and, at worst, a dependent/subordinate, given the complex producer-cast relationship on the show. Either way, these thoughts were beyond inappropriate.

Driving home the final nail to her embarrassment coffin, she heard a familiar voice: “Hey, what are you guys doing?”

She looked up to see Nia and Brainy approaching. (Brainy was wearing a GoPro strapped to his forehead, which was just utterly ridiculous but props to Brainy, he kind of pulled off the look.) Mostly, she was glad to see them, especially seeing that they were walking hand-in-hand. But also, she was flustered by the fact that Kara’s strong, soft hands were still clutching her leg. She pulled back the offending limb, unsteadily rising to her feet and deliberately overlooking Kara’s hand outstretched in an offer of assistance.

She fell back on a well-used Luthor tactic when embarrassed: go on the offensive and answer the question with more questions. “What are you two doing here? You have the day off.”

Nia looked a little suspicious, like she knew full well what Lena was trying to do. Thankfully, wisely, she didn’t press the issue. “We wanted to hang out. We couldn’t let you have all the fun at the beach without us.”

“I have a frisbee,” Brainy proclaimed proudly.

“Would you mind if we joined?” Nia asked politely. “We don’t have to, of course, if you uh, wanted to do producer-contestant stuff. We’re happy to find our own spot.”

Truth be told, Lena was all too glad that they had showed up. She wasn’t sure what would happen if she spent the rest of the day alone with a wet, scantily clad Kara Danvers. Brainy and Nia set up their own blanket next to theirs, and unpacked their own snacks, which Kara was all too happy to try when Nia offered. The four of them threw the frisbee around for a while, although it quickly became apparent that neither Brainy nor Lena had any hand-eye coordination. When Nia and Brainy decided to go for a swim, Kara hung back. Lena sat on the blanket, knees pulled against her chest. Close next to her, Kara lay on her side, an elbow planted on the ground, a hand propping up her head.

“You can go in, you know,” Lena said. “You finally have a day off. You should enjoy it.”

Kara gave a half-shrug. “I am enjoying it. I’m hanging out with you. Besides, I live in LA. I can go to the beach anytime.”

Lena took an indulgent moment to enjoy the compliment, which warmed her more than any sunny beach could. “Are you looking to stay in LA for the long term?”

“Yes,” Kara replied with no hesitation. “Or at least nearby. Alex is here and Eliza’s just up the coast. I don’t think I see myself going too far away.”

Lena hummed contemplatively. “Something to keep in mind as the show progresses. Some of the men live on the other side of the country and not all of them would be willing to move. Better to have that discussion now rather than later. It’s important to be on the same page about where you’d like to live.”

Kara nodded in appreciation at the advice. “You just moved from the east coast, right?”

“Mmm-hmm. I’d been in Philadelphia for the last five years or so.”

Kara stared out at the ocean, seemingly focused on the waves. “Are you going to go back after this?”

“I don’t know. I had thought so. I really just came back to help out the show for this season. I didn’t even bother getting my own apartment, just a furnished rental. But now that I’m here, I find myself not really missing Philly. I think my time on the east coast had run its course. I suppose I’m undecided for the time being. Maybe I’ll just wander like a nomad after this. I’ve always had fantasies of decamping for greener pastures. Literally, just living in a field or a forest, completely off grid. But I suppose all city people have that fantasy.”

“I don’t. But then, I grew up in a small town. I don’t have any desire to go back to that.” Kara idly brushed grains of sand off the blanket, her brows knitted together in deep concentration. “So… are you going to disappear after the show’s over? Ride off into the wilderness?”

“I truly don’t know. I don’t have a plan. But to be honest, if I do, it won’t be for long. I don’t see myself planting corn or anything like that. No, eventually I’ll probably end up back here. I’m a city girl at heart.”

“Oh,” Kara said, her tone slightly buoyant now. “So maybe we’d see each other around? If we’re living in the same city?”

Finally, Lena realized why Kara had been asking all these questions. She laughed, and nudged the blonde with her foot. “Don’t worry, we’ll still be friends.”

Kara nodded, pleased. “Good.”

Brainy and Nia soon rejoined them. The quartet spent the rest of the day on the beach, playing games, talking, and snacking. They even eventually managed to coax Lena back in the ocean for a thankfully uneventful swim. When the sun started to retreat in the early evening, they packed up their things and headed back to the house.

Lena texted with Jack about dinner plans on the way. By the time they arrived, Jack was already there, prepping burgers and hotdogs on the outdoor grill. Lena helped him as Kara and Nia set up the table and condiments, while Brainy served the drinks.

They ate outside on the patio under crepuscular light which cast everything in a pleasant orange glow. They opened wine, passed beers, and ate their fill. Kara made everyone what she called her signature “triple decker s’mores,” a delicious heap of sugary monstrosity. When it got too dark, they lit candles and continued sitting outside.

On Jack’s fourth glass of wine, he declared, “Okay, I think I’m officially too drunk to drive.”

“You should stay over!” said Kara promptly, ever the hostess, even in a house that wasn’t hers.

Only Lena noticed the slyness in his grin. She knew him too well to miss it.

“That’s very kind of you. That’s a wonderful idea. But the room that I was in last night - Lena usually stays in there, right?” Jack frowned in faux concern. “I would hate to displace you, Lena. I know you have such a long way to drive, and you’ve probably had too much yourself. You should stay too, and I suppose we must share the room. Of course, it’s not exactly comfortable to share a bed with an ex, but I just don’t see any other choice.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Lena could see Kara’s smile faltering.

“You can sleep on the couch like you’ve done in the past,” said Lena icily.

“Oh, yeah, my sciatica is acting up. That couch is just terrible for my back.” Also terrible: Jack’s acting skills.

“You don’t have sciatica,” Lena said through gritted teeth.

“I do.” Jack nodded fervently. “Yeah, real bad. So, to recap, I need a bed, Lena needs a bed, and it looks like we’re going to have to share unless Lena has somewhere else to sleep. And obviously Nia’s room is all full.” He gestured at Brainy and Nia, who only looked mildly embarrassed. “So, yeah, unless Lena has another place to stay, I guess it’s just going to be a really awkward night for both of us.”

Kara brightened. “Is that the issue? Lena can just stay with me, that’s no problem.”

Jack clapped his hands together. “That’s brilliant! Why didn’t I think of that?”

Beneath the table, Lena launched a swift kick at Jack’s shin, who saw her coming and moved away, smoothly crossing his leg over his knee as he grinned at her triumphantly over the table. She had a feeling that, from now on, Jack would make it a point to stay over every night, partially out of boredom and partially out of a misguided attempt to wingman. (Lena thought that it would be a fair question to ask why anyone in their right minds would attempt to wingman his female boss and the woman who’s going on national television to find a husband. But then, she realized that the answer was obvious: because Jack is, and never was, in his right mind.)

So Lena and Kara shared a bed again that night, with a respectful distance in between them. Like friends do.

And if they woke up next to each other in close proximity, well, that wasn’t a big deal as far as Lena was concerned. Because they weren’t even touching. Because they were just platonic buddies.

Just the same, Jack didn’t need to know.

***

Kara was dreading her next date, which was to be expected given how terribly her last one went.

To make matters worse, Lena took away her call sheet so she had no idea what she was doing today. Lena, of all people.

“Relax, Kara. It’s nothing bad.”

At least Lena was with her this time. She had picked Kara up at the house earlier in the evening to take her to the date, the first time that had ever happened.

“I trust you.”

“I would believe it if you could look it.”

“I can’t help it! It’s nerve-wracking not knowing where I’m going. Can’t you give me a little hint?”

“Nope. You’re just going to have to wait and see.”

Kara grumbled under her breath but didn’t push further.

As the car started to wind up a mountain, she thought that she recognized the way.

“Wait a minute.” Kara sat straight up in her seat, craning her neck for a better view out the window. “Are we going where I think we’re going?”

“Maybe,” Lena answered coyly.

A few minutes later, Kara had her answer as the car pulled up at their destination. Kara practically had her face pressed up against the glass as Griffith Observatory came into view.

Lena told her, “It’s closed to the public tonight, it’ll just be you and your date.” After a pause, she amended, “Well, and the crew.”

After the car came to a stop, Kara squealed as she sprinted out of the car toward the entrance, where her date, Kenny, was waiting patiently.

Lena just knew that it’ll be edited in post-production to make it seem like she was reacting to seeing her date.

“Lena, this is amazing!”

“I’m glad you like it.” Frankly, it hadn’t been easy to put together. She wasn’t sure what was harder: convincing the facility to close down for the night so a trashy reality TV show could film a date, or convincing Lillian to let Kenny go on the one-and-one date. Actually, now that she considered it, the latter was definitely harder.

Lena had stopped walking halfway up the path. Noticing that Lena was no longer keeping pace, Kara stopped and turned back.

“Aren’t you coming in?”

“I think not. You’re on a date.”

“Sure, with a camera crew. Kenny’s producer is here, so why can’t you come with me?” True enough, Sam was standing by Kenny, occasionally approaching and whispering.

“Veronica‘s your producer. She’s inside waiting for you with the rest of the crew.”

“But…” Kara looked a little lost. “Don’t you want to go inside and check out the telescope with me?”

“Of course I do. But I’ve got work to do and you’re on a date. With a cute NASA analyst. You’re going to geek out to your heart’s content.”

Kara suddenly looked a lot less enthused than she did a few moments ago. And Lena probably shouldn’t do this, but she was weak, so weak. She reached out and laid a hand on Kara’s bare forearm, relishing the heat beneath her palm.

“Hey, I’m going to see you afterwards back at the house, okay?”

“Are you going to bring dessert?”

“Sticky buns?”

‘Deal!”

Having solidified plans of Lena and dessert later in her evening, Kara happily hugged her friend goodbye and went off to join her date. Lena watched as she did. As Kara greeted Kenny, he took a step forward for a hug at the same time she did, the pair bumping into each other halfway. Kara laughed it off, and Kenny along with her. They settled on a handshake, and Kenny took the opportunity to hold Kara’s hand as they walked into the building. Sam shook her head, grimacing as she followed behind like a chaperon for a pair of dorky high school kids.

Lena started back down the path to where she had left her car. Just as she neared, she saw a familiar blue Porsche 911 pull up.

“Oh for god’s sake,” she muttered under her breath.

The car came to a sudden, screeching halt, turning slightly and stopping at a 45 degree angle in the middle of the street. The door opened, and out hopped her hopped-up brother.

“Lena!” he cried, throwing his arms open widely. Whatever drug he was on, at least it was a happy one. The front of his shirt was damp with sweat, his pupils dilated, making him look more manic than usual.

“Lex, what the hell?”

“Hey, hey, hey, we’re nowhere near the Mansion. This is public property, okay?”

“What possible reason do you have to be here?”

Lex shrugged. “Can’t a man visit his baby sister at work?”

Clearly, this was going to go nowhere. Lena started for her car, only for Lex to make frantic yelps as he waved his arms at her.

“Wait, Wait.” When he caught her attention and successfully got her to stop, he stopped flapping his arms. “I have good news.” He waited for her prompt. When none was forthcoming, he pouted like a child. “Okay, fine. I guess I’ll just tell you. That online rag, the Daily Shit? It released the names of two of the women. Desiree Atkins and Victoria Hardwick.” He looked at Lena expectantly with a wide grin, like this was supposed to mean something to her. It didn’t, except that they were contestants from recent seasons.

“Okay. And?”

“Didn’t you watch their seasons? They were the villains of their seasons. They are absolutely batshit crazy. Desiree flirted with everything that moved. She got booted for flirting with the waiter while on a date. And Victoria- she was just a manipulative shit. She constantly lied about everything.”

Lena was starting to get a queasy feeling in her stomach. She knew what Lex was getting at. She only felt disgust at the thought. “I repeat: Okay. And?”

“Well, I mean…” Lex looked lost, like he genuinely hadn’t anticipated this reaction. “This clears me, right? They’re crazy.”

“No, Lex, that means nothing. How we portrayed these women on the show has nothing to do with who they are. You know that.”

“It changes public perception. Now no one’s going to believe their stories, so.” He shrugged like that was the end of it.

“No, it doesn’t,” she snapped back incredulously. “Public perception has nothing to do with whether you did it or not.” It felt surreal that she even had to say that to him. Who was this man?

His jaw dropped loosely in shock. “Lena. You don’t believe them.” Her frosty stare gave him the answer he needed. “Sis, it’s all a crock of shit. I never forced anyone. I never threatened them or hurt them. These girls- they come on the show looking for fame and they think that sleeping their way to the top is the way to do it. Then they get mad when things don’t go exactly the way they want it to. It’s nonsense.”

“You were the showrunner. You called all the shots. They had zero power in that situation and you took advantage of them.”

Allegedly. I’m not saying that I did anything with them.” The ever crafty Lex, suspicious of his own sister. Truly Lillian’s child. “But if I did, it would’ve only happened if they threw themselves at me. And it’s- it’s tough to say no. You have no idea how hard it is until you find yourself in that position. These girls tell you how lonely it is, what a hard time they’re having, and how you make everything better and they fucking pour their hearts out and make you like the most important fucking thing in the world. And then they’re coming at you, wearing barely anything and telling you how much they want you. How the fuck does anyone say no to that? So, even if anything did happen, they had all the power and took advantage of me.”

In that moment, Lena struggled to remember all the good things about her brother. The time he taught her how to make a rocket with hydrogen peroxide, yeast, and dry pasta. How he hugged her and told her that he loved her when she came out to him. That Christmas where he gifted her a first edition of Hemingway’s In Our Time. She reminded herself of these things so she wouldn’t do anything crazy like scratch his eyes out or get in her car and run him over.

After a long moment, she asked, “Did mom know?”

Lex squinted at her, distrust written all over his face. “No, because there was nothing to know.”

So she was going to have to play his game. “Okay, during the seasons, when these women were… ‘taking advantage of you,’ did Lillian know what was happening?”

“Oh, baby sis,” Lex sighed patronizingly. “You know mom doesn’t care about anything except advertisers’ money and the network’s approval. She wasn’t the person involved in the day-to-day, was she? How would she know anything?”

Lena could read between the lines. There was a delineation of duties between the executive producers, one to handle the external matters, one to handle the internal day-to-day issues. By implication: “So Mercy knew what was going on?”

Lex smiled dispassionately. “There was nothing going on.”

She didn’t know why she could play this game with Lex in the first place. Or, rather, she didn’t know why she would want to. He wasn’t capable of honesty. “I’m going now. I’ll tell Lillian about the story. Please don’t come around again.”

Delicately, as if moving away from a wounded animal, Lena went to her car and got in. But before she could close her door, Lex closed the few feet between them with a mad dash and grabbed onto the frame of her door to stop her from closing it, a wild, almost violent look in his eyes. Lena couldn’t help but think about how desolate this area was. All the crew were inside. Then she felt guilty for that thought. He was still her brother, he would never hurt her. But then, once upon a time, there were a lot of things that she thought he would never do.

“You be careful around Kara Danvers,” he said in a near-growl. “She’s not to be trusted. I trusted Clark Kent-“ his face contorted just at the mention of his name “-and I’ve paid dearly for it. I’m willing to bet she’s of the same ilk. You stay away from her.”

She had no idea what he was talking about. She knew that Clark and Lex had been close once. Over time, Lex had talked less about Clark and eventually just stopped mentioning him at all. She assumed that they had just drifted apart over the years, like so many people do. But even if she was curious, she wouldn’t ask now. Now was not the sharing time, now was the getting the hell away time.

“Let go, Lex,” she said coolly with quiet but unassailable authority. In the mini-stare down that ensued, she thought that maybe he wouldn’t. Her mind raced through the possibilities of what she would do if he didn’t. None of them ended well.

But, to her relief, he did, with a derisive, mocking scoff.

With that, she closed her door, started the car, and carefully maneuvered around Lex’s haphazardly parked sports car, and drove off. From her rear view mirror, she could see him standing in the middle of the road, staring after her, his figure growing smaller and smaller until he faded in the distance.

***

As soon as Lena got to her office, she logged onto The Daily Spoiler to read the interviews with Desiree Atkins and Victoria Hardwick. She had never met either woman, although she did watch their seasons and had heard through the grapevines that they were angry about how they were portrayed on the show. Maybe it was possible that they made it all up to be vindictive. But it didn’t read like that to Lena. Too many of the personal details about Lex rang true, and there was still at least one other woman out there with accusations against Lex. Not that this woman, or any others, were likely to come forward now. Not with how the internet was now talking about Desiree and Victoria. It seemed that, for every person who actually believed them, there were two who didn’t and three who just wanted to talk about how awful they were during their seasons.

She tried searching their names in conjunction with Clark Kent, but didn’t find any connections, aside from their ties to the franchise. She did, however, stumble upon a number of discussions on social media about the women’s accusations. All the discussions inevitably related back to the women’s time on the show. The show’s influence was powerful. Even years later, how the show chose to edit its contestants was still how they were perceived by the public. Eventually, Lena had to stop, unable to witness the undue influence her family has over public perception.

For the rest of the afternoon, she tried to focus on her work, but her mind kept wandering back to the website and the stories about Lex. The influence he had over the cast by virtue of his position. The influence she has.

Soon it was time to go. She was expected at Kara’s. She debated making up an excuse to not go over. But Kara wasn’t allowed to have a phone and she’d have to call Nia to relay the message. She considered just not showing up. But Kara would probably freak out. So would Jack. In the end, she turned up late and she planned to leave within the hour, but she also brought a dozen sticky buns as a peace offering.

When Lena showed up at the house, the gang was in the middle of an intense Mario Kart race. Kara, who was clearly in the lead, flung her controller to the side when she saw Lena walk in; her Baby Peach’s car veered off to the side and slowed to a stop. Jack whooped and used the opportunity to get in first place.

“Lena!” A hug followed, Kara wrapping herself around the brunette like a koala clinging to a tree. She was dressed in the way that Lena liked best, casual in sweats, hair in a ponytail, glasses.

Lena chuckled as she returned the hug. “Happy to see me? Or just the sticky buns?”

“I’m happy to see your sticky buns.” Kara immediately blushed, backing away as she fidgeted with her glasses. “I mean, uh, I am happy to see you and the pastries that you brought.”

Kara took the box of pastries to the kitchen as Lena followed her.

“So how was your date with Kenny?”

“It was great! He’s just the nicest guy. And so smart.” Kara set the box down on the kitchen counter and pulled small plates from the cabinets as she started to tell Lena about her evening. Jack bounced in a minute later, giddy from his victory. He threw an arm around Lena’s shoulder, plucking from her hands one of the buns she had just picked up.

“Hey, hey, everyone.” Jack unabashedly took a huge bite out of what was formerly Lena’s pastry. “Kara, Brainy wants to play Odyssey, can he continue your save?”

“What? Absolutely not!” Sticky buns temporarily forgotten, Kara dashed out of the kitchen to rescue her autosave.

“Hey, Jack,” Lena started quietly.

“Hey, Lena,” returned Jack, oblivious, taking another large bite.

“I need you to tone it down. The jokes with me and Kara, I mean. We should be careful in general. I’m thinking that maybe we should limit the amount of time we spend here.”

Finally realizing that there was something serious, Jack took a step back, let his arm drop away from Lena’s shoulders, set his pastry down on a nearby plate, and turned to Lena with his full attention. “What’s going on?”

“I just, I think we should be careful. We’re producers, she’s a cast member. Brainy and Nia are our employees. The power dynamics here are perilous. I don’t want to cross any lines.”

Jack scratched at his beard in contemplation, looking slightly puzzled. “Okay. I mean, I hear what you’re saying. But, Lena, don’t you think that we’re all friends by now? It’s kind of weird to just suddenly pull away without talking to them. If you’re concerned about crossing lines, we can talk to them about boundaries and make sure they’re comfortable with everything.”

“But how do you know they’re even comfortable having that discussion? Can anyone really be expected to respond honestly when it’s their boss asking whether she’s crossed any boundaries?”

Jack blinked at her owlishly. “I don’t know, you’ve never asked me.”

At once, Lena was flooded with reminders of all the times she had treated Jack like a friend and not a subordinate - resting her head on his shoulder during a movie, smacking him on the arm when he’s made a cheeky remark, making risque comments and snide remarks.

Seeing the alarm on her face, Jack couldn’t help but chortle, albeit with a tinge of guilt. “Lena, love, my god, I was joking.” To emphasize his point, he lightly flicked her on the forehead with his fingertips. “What’s gotten into you?”

Lena rubbed her eyes tiredly, feeling the physical toll of the day’s events sink into her bones.

“It’s Lex.”

Ahhh,” Jack voiced in understanding. “That explains it. Well, look, the situation with Lex is messed up, all right? But you can’t take that on. You can’t let what Lex did derail your life. Brainy, Nia, Kara - they like you, you like them, and more importantly, you all love me. So stop freaking out over nothing.”

She probably shouldn’t talk about this anymore. It was late, it had been a long day, and she was so tired. But she couldn’t seem to stay away from things that she shouldn’t do lately.

“I can’t stop thinking about them,” she confessed. “Those women that Lex... I’m still not sure exactly what happened, but whatever it was, it’s clear that it shouldn’t have, and maybe if I had been here-”

“You wouldn’t have known,” Jack cut in abruptly, almost angrily, a tone she was unaccustomed to hearing from him. “And then you’d be the one spending your nights pondering what you’d missed, how you could’ve missed it, what you could’ve done differently, and if it’s really worth the money to stay in this job.”

Before that moment, Lena hadn’t quite realized the extent of the damage that Lex had caused, its rippling effects. It seemed absurd now, that she and Jack hadn’t even talked about this. She stepped forward, taking him into a tight hug. Jack leaned into it, firmly enveloping his arms around her.

“Being here… it helps. I think about these things less,” he said softly. “And you. I’m glad I have you.”

“I’m glad for you too,” Lena whispered back.

“Can you believe that Brainy almost saved over my-” Kara came to a halt on her way into the kitchen as she saw the two friends in embrace. She cleared her throat uncomfortably as Lena pulled away from Jack. “S- sorry, I didn’t, um-”

“No big deal,” Jack said with an easy smile, any trace of trouble vanished. “You’re not interrupting anything, Lena’s just finally succumbed to my wildly irresistible masculine pheromones.” That earned him a firm jab to his side, courtesy of Lena’s elbow.

“Right,” Kara said in a strange pitch. “Well, uh, anyone up for Boggle?”

They followed Kara into the next room, where Nia and Brainy had set the game up on the living room coffee table. They all sat around the table on the floor where, despite Brainy’s moniker, Kara dominated the game.

Despite the wins, Kara seemed a little glum. That glumness shifted sharply into downright despondency when Lena announced that she was going to head home. She had already stayed two hours later than planned.

“But it’s so late,” Kara protested as she followed Lena into the kitchen to find her purse. “You live so far away. You should just stay. Jack and Brainy are.”

“Kara, you’ve been very generous letting everyone stay over, but there’s really no reason for you to share your bed when I’ve got a perfectly good one at home.”

“But I haven’t even told you about how my date went,” Kara said, looking so pathetic that it was impossible for Lena to refuse. And what kind of friend would she be if she refused to listen to how Kara’s date went?

So she let herself be led to Kara’s room. Just for fifteen minutes, she told herself.

But there was already a pattern to their conversations. They flowed from one topic to another, one idea would spark another, a joke would inspire a story, a passing reference would morph into a (friendly) debate, and fifteen minutes stretched into hours. It felt like they could talk forever.

Then it was very, very late, Lena was lying in Kara’s bed, eyelids slowly drooping closed as she listened to Kara tell her about a particularly fond memory she had of her birth parents. This time, when Kara asked her to stay, she didn’t say no. Obediently, Lena got ready for bed and changed into her pajamas that she’d already begun keeping in the bottom drawer of a wardrobe in Kara’s room.

She crawled beneath the covers as Kara turned out the light. She was almost asleep when she heard Kara.

“Lena?”

She sleepily made a noise in the affirmative.

“Do you still have feelings for Jack?”

Already half-asleep, Lena laughed with near delirium.

“No, darling, I’m a lesbian, remember?”

“Oh,” Kara said. “Okay.”

Lena fell asleep just a few seconds after that. As she drifted off, she thought she heard Kara say, in a voice that sounded very, very far away, I’m glad that you don’t. Somewhere, in one tiny corner of her mind that had yet to succumb to dreamland, Lena started to ask why? but she was asleep before the word made it out of her mouth, the incident eluding the loose grasp of memory and fading away into nothing.

***

When Lena awoke the next morning, she could feel the heat of another body pressed firmly against hers. A pair of strong arms wrapped around her waist. The feel of her own arms encircling a soft, warm torso. The feeling of absolute contentment throughout every inch of her body. Kara was curled up against her, face buried against the junction between Lena’s neck and shoulder. She could feel the blonde’s warm breath against her skin.

Lena watched as Kara stirred awake, opening her sleepy eyelids to unveil adorably confused sky-blue eyes.

They said nothing, did nothing, just gazed upon one another in sleepy, surprised stupor.

The moment broke with Kara’s unabashed, easy giggle and a ‘good morning’ which Lena numbly returned. Kara untangled herself from the brunette and rolled off the bed, heading toward the ensuite.

Lena lay in bed, dazed and yearning, feeling the remnants of rapidly dissipating heat radiating from the freshly vacant spot next to her.

And all she could think was,

Well, fuck.

Chapter Text

I'm a love rhino
Don't worry about a thing
I got enough heart for the two of us
I let the business fall by the wayside
Tryin' to find a way to get paid for being around you
And as forward as I seem I am still holdin’ back
I don't wanna creep you out if I hound you

“Love Rhino” by Sunny Levine

 

 

At a little bit past 6AM, Lena left Kara’s house and headed up to the Mansion. She went to unlock the doors of the control room, only to discover that the door was already open. Inside, she found Sam Arias stretched out on the couch in the seating area. Sam stirred when Lena came in, yawning wide as she roused awake.

“Sam? What are you doing here?”

Given the long hours on set, it wasn’t unusual for a crew member to sleep wherever they could, but it was still unexpected to see Sam there. They weren’t all that close, Sam having joined the show after Lena left, but she knew that Sam had a young daughter named Ruby at home and always made it a point to go home on time. This type of discipline did not endear her to Lillian, who believed that an employee with a good work ethic was one who worked more hours than they were scheduled for. But Sam’s work was stellar and Lillian had acknowledged as much in the past. She had Gayle’s keen insight into people’s minds without the tendency to prey on their fears, she had Jack’s affability without the propensity toward over-identification.

“James freaked out last night. I was here until two talking him down. By then it didn’t seem like there was a point going home and Ruby was with my mom anyway.”

That was surprising. Lena had James pegged as level-headed and calm. He would’ve been one of the last contestants she would have expected problems with. She still had high hopes for him, despite Lillian’s continuous obstruction. “What happened with James?”

“I think it was the combination of a number of things. There’s the usual stress of not getting enough time with the lead. He was also really upset when he heard about Kara’s panic attack. And then, of course, there’s Ben L.” Sam didn’t bother to hide the contempt in her voice. “Usually James steers clear of him but last night, he lost it when Ben decided to lecture everyone on the importance of All Lives Matter, which was- ugh. I’m just really glad that guy is Gayle’s problem.”

“Is James okay?”

“Yeah, I think he just needed to vent. It’s not easy being stuck in a house almost 24 hours a day with nothing to do and having to share that space with a guy like Ben.” Sam swung her legs over the side of the couch, bringing herself to a sitting position. “What are you doing here so early? Did you spend the night at the Mansion?”

“No. I… I was down the street.” Preparing herself for an adverse reaction, she waited a beat before clarifying, “At Kara’s.”

“Oh,” Sam said with minimal interest as she tried to suppress a yawn. “God, I need coffee.”

“I wasn’t the only one there,” Lena added quickly. “There were three other crew members there.”

“Sounds like a tight fit,” Sam replied distractedly as she rolled her head about to loosen the muscles in her neck.

“Yes, well…” Lena’s heart started beating faster at the admission she was about to make. “Kara and I shared a room.”

Sam brought a hand to the back of her neck, rubbing hard. “That is the last time I sleep on this couch. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“We shared a bed,” Lena blurted out.

Sam glanced over at Lena, confusion clear in her eyes. “Are you, like, taunting me and my sore neck for not sleeping in a bed? Because that’s… just weird?”

Maybe she should just let it be. Sam evidently didn’t see any problems here. Anyway, what was she even expecting? She didn’t know Sam that well. But… Lena needed to tell someone and it certainly wasn’t going to be Jack, who would probably literally die from laughter like the weasels in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

“You don’t find it weird? It doesn’t cross any boundaries for a producer and cast member to get that close?”

Sam shrugged. “On another show, maybe. I’ve only been doing this for three years, but I find that friendships with contestants can be unusually intense during filming. This is our normal. The show puts them through a lot, you know? And we’re encouraged to be their best friends so they tell us their deepest, darkest secrets. We get very close very quickly.”

“What if…” Lena’s heartbeat felt so loud to her that she swore she could hear it. “There’s an attraction?”

Sam sat up straighter, seeming more awake now. “In which direction?”

Despite how nervous she felt, Lena sounded steady when she supplied, “Producer to cast?”

Sam let out a small, relieved laugh. “Oh, that’s all right then.”

Lena blinked. “It is?”

“Oh, yeah.” Sam rose to her feet, bringing her arms up above her head in a leisurely stretch. “It happens. We’re only human, right? These people are crazy attractive and we spend so much time with them. I don’t think it’s a problem unless we actually act on it, and we wouldn’t. To be honest, I’m sure that the attraction has happened the other way as well. It’s fine as long as it’s nothing more than attraction and the cast remembers why they’re here. They can be attracted to multiple people at once, they just need to be the most attracted to the lead or contestant, whichever applies.”

Fidgeting with her hands, Lena asked, “And you don’t think that- I don’t know, some distance would be appropriate?”

“I don’t know. I guess that’s a call you’d have to make. I just know that if I backed off everytime I felt some kind of attraction to a contestant, I would never be able to do my job.” Seeming to realize that something more may be happening here, Sam crossed her arms, scrutinizing Lena for a moment. “Why? Is it serious for you or something?”

“No, not at all,” Lena replied hastily. “It’s just- she’s very attractive, and we’re becoming good friends. I can keep those things separate, but I don’t want to… complicate things.”

Sam gazed at Lena contemplatively, hesitating as she figured out the best way to phrase her question. “Is she- do you think she might… reciprocate the attraction?”

The response from Lena was swift and sure. “Oh, no. Dear god, no. Kara’s very straight. I think she’s just naturally affectionate.”

Sam shrugged lightly. “There you go then. If nothing would ever happen anyway, why worry about it? It’s not like you’re going to cross any lines.” To Lena’s ears, Sam’s statement ended in a higher pitch than what it started from, suggesting that it was almost a question. Or maybe that was her Lex-induced guilt and paranoia at play.

“I could,” Lena said softly, thinking of her brother, and of how torn Jack looked last night when he said you wouldn’t have known. “You never know what someone’s capable of.”

“True, but the fact that we’re having this conversation at all is a pretty good sign. I think as long as you continue to be mindful of Kara’s boundaries and you know that it’s just friendship on her side, you’ll be fine. And of course, you don’t lose focus of the show.” Sam stretched her shoulder by bringing one arm across her chest, her free hand grasping her arm by the elbow and pulling in towards her. “Now, I really do need coffee.”

“Thank you, Sam,” Lena said quietly. Sam nodded by way of acknowledgment and headed for the door to start the hunt for her much-pined-after coffee. Just as she reached the door, Lena called, “Sam?”

But Sam knew the question before it was even asked, with a slight half-turn, she tossed over her shoulder, “This will stay between us.”

Lena smiled, feeling a newfound fondness towards the other woman. “Thanks, Sam.”

***

Of all the things that Andrea Rojas would give her shit on, Lena did not think that a picnic in the park would be one of them.

“Wasn’t the observatory enough?” Andrea griped as she sourly glared at the monitors in the mobile control trailer. Lena and Sam sat on either side of her. “A picnic, Lena? Are you trying to kill my career?”

Today’s date was a picnic in the park. That’s it. No gimmicks. No clowns. No strippers. No tourist destinations. Just Kara and her men having a picnic in the park. Andrea looked like she was being physically tortured just by witnessing the date.

“It’s so boring. And also, so fucking visible.” Andrea was anxiously monitoring every bystander with their phones out and refreshing Twitter endlessly, waiting to see what got out. Lena didn’t know why she bothered. Anytime they filmed in public, pictures would be taken by the public and it would eventually end up on the Daily Spoiler. Andrea seemed to take it as a personal affront every time the website posted a spoiler or a picture from set. Her hatred of the website bordered on pathological at this point.

“At least Kara looks like she’s having a good time,” Sam observed.

That was true. In fact, everyone seemed to be having a good time. Today’s combination of suitors were less problematic, consisting of James, Ted, Nate, Ray, Mxy, and Winn. They were spread out on picnic blankets, chatting and joking genially. Kara sat in the middle, between James and Winn, laughing uproariously at every other thing one of them said. Normally, that may spark jealousy from one of the other contestants who would then try to steal the lead away for a private moment. But Nate and Ray didn’t seem to mind much, busy having their own little brofest to the side. Even Mxy seemed to be getting along with everyone, and managed to crack a few jokes that made Kara chuckle. Mxy looked startled and proud every time she did. Everything was going great.

Except.

“Is she eating the food?!” exclaimed Andrea, aghast.

The cast typically ate before a date. Production discouraged the cast from eating during the actual date under the theory that it stifled conversation and didn’t look sexy. Not that it was usually much of a temptation given that the food was usually laid out for hours before filming even started.

But that didn’t seem to deter Kara, who was chowing down on a giant forkful of potato salad that had been sitting in the sun for at least a couple of hours by this point.

“Veronica,” Andrea said into her headset. “Why is Kara eating? Didn’t she eat beforehand?”

The radio crackled slightly, and Veronica’s voice piped into their respective earpieces. “Um, yeah, she had like two huge plates of pasta. The woman’s a bottomless pit.”

“Ugh, there is no scientific explanation for that body,” Sam commented as she gazed at Kara’s lean torso on the monitor. Lena resisted the unexplainable urge to tell Sam to keep her eyes to herself.

“We need something to happen,” Andrea said. “Maybe Snapper can get Mxy to do something crazy.”

“Don’t, Andrea. Just let it play out naturally,” Lena said.

“We’re not shooting for National Geographic, Lena,” Andrea shot back. “This is network television. We can’t sit around and watch people eat in a field all day. We need something- wait, what’s she doing?”

The three women watched the screen as Kara scooped something into a napkin and rose to her feet. She started trotting toward one of the cameras.

“Where is she going?” Sam wondered.

Kara slowly jogged right past one of their cameras, and the cameraman swerved the camera around to follow as Andrea muttered instructions into her mic for the other cameras to stay on the suitors for reaction shots. Although, really, they just carried on chatting amongst themselves. On screen, the mobile control trailer came into view.

“What is she doing?” Sam continued to marvel.

They watched the monitor show Kara coming up to the trailer and surreally watched her knock on the door just as the knocks sounded nearby. Lena got up and opened the door for her.

“Kara, what’s going on?”

“They have chocolate-dipped shortbreads!” Kara shoved the napkin she was holding into Lena’s hands. Inside were three round cookies, each half-dipped with chocolate. “You like these, right?”

Lena, feeling quite touched, could only manage a dumbfounded, “I do.”

“Well, I just wanted to make sure you got some.” Kara gave a small, cute shrug. “Okay, I guess I should get back to my date. Or, um, dates.”

“Thank you, Kara,” Lena said, still in a bit of a daze. When she turned back to face the others, she found Andrea scowling. Sure, that was very nice for Lena but they couldn’t exactly show that and it was the only remarkable event all day.

She was going to have to do something.

She went down the steps of the trailer after Kara, catching up just outside.

“Kara, wait.” Kara slowed down and turned, beaming at Lena like she hadn’t just seen her a literal four seconds ago. “There’s a lovely little rose garden down that way. Why don’t you invite someone to go for a walk there?”

“That does sound nice,” Kara agreed. “Who do I take?”

“Whomever you’d like to spend more time with.”

“Okay. Lena, do you want to go for a walk with me?”

And yeah, it was kind of dorky, but Lena was infinitely charmed. She damn near giggled with pleasure, and Lena Luthor did not giggle.

“Love to, darling, but you’re on a date.”

“Dates,” corrected Kara.

“Right, so you should bring one of your dates.”

“But then when do I get time with you?” Kara grinned sappily.

“This is your roundabout way of asking me to come over later?”

“Yup.”

“Yes, I’ll come over later.”

Then Kara was finally happy to bounce away and rejoin her men. Lena went back inside the trailer. Andrea was staring at the screens, as she often did, but there was something more heated to her usual intensity.

Without looking at Lena, she said in a frosty tone, “Cookies? Really?”

Even though Andea’s question was baited with challenge, Lena chose to remain serene. “Would you like one?”

“You know she was still mic’ed up when you two were talking?”

Lena started to understand what Andrea was getting at. After all, she just had a conversation with Sam that very morning about her relationship- no, friendship- with Kara. But Andrea was not Sam. She would not be so understanding. “Yes? Why, is there a problem with the audio?”

Andrea still hadn’t looked at Lena once. She was laser-focused on the monitors. “No. We could hear you two just fine.”

Lena could be confrontational, tell Andrea to spit out whatever she had to say. But that felt like a concession. If Andrea wanted to play this game, Lena would go along. She chose to play dumb. “That’s good,” Lena said carefully. “Nice to know that the equipment is working.”

The passive-aggressive tact not landing, Andrea said flatly, “You and Kara are getting too close. It’s not good optics.”

Yeah, playing dumb was definitely the best option here. “Are you serious?”

“Yes. This is a professional set and that’s what we should be. Professionals.”

“Sounded professional to me,” Sam piped up. “I mean, for this show. That sounded like an exchange that Jason and I would have. Andrea, you’ve only ever directed, so with all due respect, I don’t think you understand the producer-contestant dynamics on this show. That interaction was fine.”

Andrea looked like she wanted to say something more, but she didn’t get the chance to. There was finally action on set. Kara asked James to go for a walk with her. She was holding the group date rose, making it fairly obvious that it was going to be his. He accepted happily, and the pair went off hand-in-hand. Andrea, springing into work mode, hissed into her headset, “Okay, one and two, follow them, please. Camera three, on Winn. Four, go to Mxy.” While Winn looked slightly disappointed, Mxy looked as if someone brutally murdered his puppy. “Snapper, grab Mxy for his ITM now. Make sure you ask him why he thinks Kara never picks him. Get him to tie it in with his mom walking out when he was a kid. I want tears.” Switching off her mic, Andrea turned to Lena and Sam, “The sad clown. That’ll play nicely.”

On the monitors displaying the feeds from cameras one and two, James and Kara entered the rose garden, admiring the flowers. Gradually, they were directed by Veronica to a secluded location where a small nook created by tall hedges surrounded a wooden bench. James and Kara took a seat.

Off-screen, Veronica prompted James to talk about his dad passing away. It made for a Very Special Moment, with James’s eyes misting as Kara straight up cried, which all made Andrea happy. Kara thanked James for opening up to her and the two shared a sweet kiss on the bench.

And Lena was fine with that.

***

“Why are you in a bad mood?”

Their friends were inside making drinks. Or rather, Jack was making drinks. Brainy and Nia were probably making out somewhere. Lena and Kara were sitting on the back patio, enjoying the night breeze. Or, at least, Kara was. It was hard not to notice that there was something off about Lena. She was unusually quiet. At one point, when Brainy was following her around the house with his camera, she asked him to stop, not quite sharp enough to be outright rude but enough that Kara and Jack exchanged a glance with one another.

“I’m not.” Lena prided herself on her ability to appear neutral. But that was obviously the wrong move here, because when has she ever been neutral around Kara? “Do you know why Lex and Clark stopped being friends?”

Kara stared off into the distance and hummed, brows knitted together in contemplation as she thought about the question. “No? At least I don’t think so. Clark never talked about Lex much. Why?”

“I had a run-in with my brother yesterday, after I dropped you off at the observatory. He said something about Clark being untrustworthy.” There was a brief internal struggle before she added, “and you.”

Kara’s eyebrows almost receded into her hairline. “Me? But I’ve never even met Lex.”

Kara’s reaction was enough to quell any doubts Lena had, and she suddenly regretted bringing it up. As if she didn’t already know that her brother was a paranoid madman.

“I think it was more of a guilt by association thing. And I doubt that Clark even did anything to him. My brother can be… irrational. Our conversation didn’t go well. So if I seem off, it’s just because I’m dealing with that. I apologize, I didn’t mean to take it out on you.”

“Oh, Lena.” Kara leaned forward, placing a sympathetic hand to Lena’s arm. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know. Um, before I came, I’d read online that he wasn’t going to be involved this season. There’s some rumor going around about his behavior on set last year?”

Lena chuckled mirthlessly. “Try the last five years, at least. I don’t know, maybe longer. You know that website, The Daily Spoiler?”

“Um… yeah, I think I’ve heard of it. It’s like a gossip blog, right?”

“Something like that. A couple months ago, they went beyond posting filming locations and spoilers. They posted anonymous accounts of these three contestants who said that Lex had sexually harassed them. So the network suspended Lex from the show and banned him from set while they investigated. Now two of the women came forward and gave their names. They were… not popular contestants. So now everyone’s busy gossiping about their time on the show instead of focusing on the allegations. I don’t think that third woman would give her name now. Maybe there are others out there who won’t come forward because of this. Who knows?”

“But you didn’t know.” It was a statement, not a question.

“No. The two women that came forward were all from recent seasons after I’d left. But… someone knew. Lex wouldn’t give me a straight answer, but I’m pretty sure that Mercy knew what was going on. Lex implied it yesterday during our… lovely conversation.”

“What did he say?”

“Nothing worth repeating, it was the usual accusations of betrayal, thinly-veiled threats, and long-winded rants,” answered Lena. “So, just a normal Luthor family bonding moment.”

Kara squeezed her arm gently, a tender look on her face.

“That must have been difficult. Are you sure you don’t want to talk about it?”

“No, I’m okay. Really. He’s- I love him, he’s my brother, but ever since our dad died and he took over, it’s- he’s different. Or, I don’t know, maybe not. Sometimes when I think back, there were certain moments from our childhood that makes me think, well, maybe he’s always been this guy and I just couldn’t see it. But then there were the moments that were so good-” Feeling a surge of emotion threatening to overtake her, Lena drew a sharp, steadying breath. “You know what? It’s really not worth talking about.”

“I think it might be,” Kara said softly.

Then it was quiet for a moment, Lena taking the time she needed for her mind to sort through what she wanted to say, Kara giving her the space to do it.

“I can’t reconcile the brother I have in my mind with the man that I know he is today,” Lena said at last. “And if I’m being perfectly honest, despite everything that I say that I believe about female empowerment and believing women… all I really want is for all of this not to be true. There’s a little six-year-old part of me that doesn’t care about what’s right, I just want my brother back.” As a slow, shuddering breath escaped, her voice cracked. “And that- that’s hard to admit. Because what does that make me, other than a hypocrite?”

Quickly, Kara rose from her seat and kneeled down before Lena, offering comfort with a tight embrace.

“Lena. You do not have to feel guilty for loving your brother. It’s okay to feel conflicted. It’s okay to feel like you can’t choose. It doesn’t make you anything but human.” Kara pulled back from the hug but kept Lena’s hands in hers. She looked at Lena with so much earnest affection, it startled her a little. “You are an amazing person. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone like you.”

Lena suddenly realized that she had tears rolling down her cheeks. From Lex, from Kara’s words, she didn’t know. But she knew that she probably looked pathetic. Wiping at her cheeks with a sleeve, she laughed and said, self-deprecatingly, “And so pretty when I cry, right?”

“Yes,” Kara said without hesitation.

All Lena could think was Oh. She felt her heart flutter dangerously. Moth to the flames, she thought. Clearing her throat lightly, she drew her hands back under the guise of pouring herself more wine. Kara, getting the hint, sat back in her chair. But maybe scooted her seat a little closer.

“Thank you,” Lena said after taking a moment for a drink. “I’m sorry for dumping all this on you. It’s just overwhelming, sometimes. My position within my family and the company comes with a lot of responsibilities and demands. Sometimes I don’t have an appropriate outlet. Maybe I should take up knitting.”

That was a joke - maybe not a very good one, but a joke. But Kara looked serious. The blonde had her head bowed, staring down at her hands with a dejected expression.

“Kara?”

After a long silence, Kara said, “I’m sorry.”

“What for?”

“You have so much on your plate, and I- I know that I’ve been… needy. Asking you to come over every night, asking you to stay over every night. I’ve been completely monopolizing your time.” She raised her eyes to Lena, sincere and contrite. “I’m not trying to make excuses, I know I ask for a lot, but this whole situation has been difficult, and you just, you make things better, so-”

“Kara.” It was rude to interrupt someone, but it was unthinkable for Lena to allow her to continue down this path. “I need you to hear me. You are not asking a lot. You are not monopolizing my time. I like spending time with you. You are not needy.” She paused, reconsidering. “Okay, maybe a little, but I don’t mind. Filming is difficult for me too, and you make things better for me.”

Kara smiled, a little shyly, eyes sparkling with delight.

“Well, then... maybe it’s okay that we need each other?”

“Yes,” Lena agreed, feeling some of the heaviness that she had been carrying since her conversation with Lex melt away. “It’s okay.”

At the end of the night, when everyone was ready to go to bed, Jack went to the bedroom that Lena had formerly occupied and Lena went to Kara’s. There were no questions, no discussions, no hesitation.

***

Kara started off being really, really excited about the day. Today’s group date was going to be a cooking competition between the contestants. Kara was promised that several of the men did in fact know how to cook.

“And I can eat the food? Veronica won’t give me the stink eye again?” she asked Lena for the third time on the way over.

“Well, you can eat the food, that’s the whole point, but I can’t promise that Veronica won’t give you the stink eye.”

Lena dropped off Kara at the shooting location, promising that she would see her later that night, then headed for LuthorMedia’s headquarters. Kara was left with Veronica, who looked a little bit less pissed off after yesterday’s successful picnic date. They borrowed the set of a cooking competition show owned by the same network. The set consisted of individual cooking stations, and a shared walk-in fridge, pantry, and shelves of equipment.

The remaining seven guys who hadn’t had a date yet this round competed: Ben W., Schmidt, Jason, Ben L., Manchester, William, and Cisco. Lena had tried to put Manchester on the picnic date instead of today’s date. She was quickly and firmly shot down. Lillian had acquiesced on several things lately, but splitting up Manchester and Ben was not going to be one of them. (“We need drama,” Lillian said. “Kara Danvers brings about as much drama as a librarian shelving books. Those guys aren’t going anywhere.”)

The contestants were given 90 minutes to make Kara something. The guys ran around the set, frantically grabbing equipment and ingredients. Kara flitted around from station to station, chatting with the contestants about what they were preparing and trying their ingredients.

She helped Ben W. roll out the crust for his calzones, diced up carrots for Ben L.’s chicken dish, and crushed up Cheetos for Jason’s Cheetos-crusted fried hot dog. Cisco let her try some tostones. Manchester fed her some bits of bacon he’d fried up for his full English. William, making cupcakes, gave Kara a taste of chocolate frosting from his fingertip. Schmidt refused to let her touch anything on his station. (“Kara, the feast that I’m preparing for you is the equivalent of a culinary orgasm. Getting a taste now is the equivalent of only watching the last 30 seconds of The Breakfast Club. You just wouldn’t get the full emotional payoff.”)

Toward the end of their cooking time, Lillian’s stubbornness paid off. Ben L. was crossing the kitchen with a bowl of chicken stock and Manchester was going the opposite direction when he delivered a not-quite-accidental shoulder bump. Ben staggered back, spilling the stock on himself. Manchester smirked and started to saunter off.

“That’s it? You’re not even going to apologize?” Ben called after him. “That’s fine. Just fine. I guess I can’t be surprised that a thug like you never learned any manners.”

Manchester did an about-face, stepping into Ben’s personal space.

“You wanna say that again to my face?”

“You’re a thug,” Ben returned evenly. “I mean, it’s not your fault. It’s statistically likely that you were raised by a single parent on welfare, who clearly didn’t have the sagacity of teaching you manners.”

“You don’t know the first thing about me.” Manchester’s fingers flexed and curled at his hands, like it was taking a great deal of restraint not to strangle Ben. “I’m tired of your fucking dog whistles and baseless assumptions.”

“Baseless? Look at you, you’re a step away from tearing my head off. No, I think I’m exactly right about what to expect from people like you. Again, not your fault, you’re just a byproduct of your culture which glamorizes gangbangers and violence.”

Manchester looked like he was on the verge of throttling the other man. William, whose station was closest, stepped forward and patted Manchester’s shoulder.

“Ches, mate, he’s not worth it.”

“Oh, sure, it makes sense you’d come to his rescue. You minorities all have to stick together, don’t you?” Ben flashed a fakely innocent grin, smug and unpleasant. “And by that, I mean Brits, of course.”

William shot him an unimpressed look. “I know what you’re doing. You’re not going to get a rise out of me.”

“We’ve got a civilized one over here. Guess model minorities aren’t such a myth after all. Good for you.”

Manchester responded by giving Ben a hard shove. He stumbled back, crashing into the station behind him, sending the plates and ingredients crashing to the ground. It was Schmidt’s station, who looked on the verge of hysterics. Then he did become hysterical. He dropped to his knees, clutching the sides of his head, and let out a wail like a dying animal.

As Schmidt sobbed openly and loudly, Ben made retaliatory strides toward Manchester while the other contestants rushed forward to break up the fight.

Pandemonium broke out as the men grappled and shouted over one another.

Enough!”

Stomping into the fray, Kara swerved and shoved her way into the center of the fracas, where Manchester and Ben L. each had a grip on the other’s shirt. She pushed them apart and stood in the center.

“This is ridiculous. You-” Kara pointed at Ben L. “-you hide your hateful beliefs behind your degrees and pedigree. You like to pretend that just because you’re not out burning crosses and wearing white hoods, you’re somehow not being racist? Well, you are. Every other word out of your mouth is absolutely vile. It’s shameful that someone who is so privileged and educated can be so bigoted. And you-” she turned to Manchester “-you think you can literally knock some sense into him? You can’t. You’re just giving him exactly what he wants.”

She held up both hands, one palm turned out toward each man. “I’m done with this.”

Kara walked away from her contestants. Veronica hurried to William’s side, furiously whispering instructions in his ear and literally pushing him out the door to follow. Two cameras trailed behind, giving the two of them a wide berth.

Kara stopped in the hallway outside the studio, leaning against the wall and closing her eyes to get her bearings. William joined her, parking himself at a respectful distance. After a little while, he came closer and asked how she was. He told a couple of bad jokes that got her to laugh. He complimented how she handled the situation. Sitting side by side in the empty hallway, he told her stories of the difficulties his mother faced as a new immigrant in England, the remarks he still received to this day. Having opened up and shared a painful, personal story, the Bachelorette playbook dictated that he had earned his kiss. Kara obliged with the unspoken rule, touching her hand to his cheek as she kissed him softly.

Later, Lena watched the dailies from LuthorMedia’s offices with Andrea and Siobhan. Siobhan was ecstatic. “Finally, some action!”

And Lena was totally fine with it.

***

No matter what Veronica said, Kara refused to continue the date. Gourmet cooking be damned. She acquiesced to filming a five-minute segment of her giving William the group date rose in the hallway, but that was it. She refused to go back into the studio, and remained seated in the same spot in the hallway. William had gone off with Jack to do his ITM to talk about the kiss.

(“It was good, yeah.”

“Can you describe it as incredible?”

“Yeah, sure. My kiss with Kara was incredible.”

“And it was worth the wait?”

“My kiss with Kara was incredible, and it was definitely worth the wait.”

“Can you see yourself falling in love with her?”

“Uhh, well, it’s a bit early still.”

“Okay, how about someone like her?”

“Sure. My kiss with Kara was incredible, and it was definitely worth the wait. I can totally see myself falling for someone like her.”)

“It’s in your contract,” Veronica repeated again. “You can’t just cancel dates on a whim. Do you know what Lillian would do if she knew you were in breach?”

“No, but why don’t we ask her?” Kara asked suddenly. “Let’s go see Lillian.”

“You want to… go see her? Right now? You want to go see Lillian Luthor?”

“Yes,” Kara stated surely. “I want to see her.”

“Fine, forget it. You want to go back to the house? Let’s go.”

“No, you suggested that we go see Lillian, and I think that’s a good idea. I have some things I need to talk to her about.”

Veronica huffed impatiently. “We can’t just go see her. She has a whole company to run. She doesn’t have time for your nonsense.”

“Well, I’m the lead of the biggest moneymaker her company has, so yes, I think she does have time for my nonsense. So why don’t you call her and see if she can see us now?”

Growing fatigued, Veronica shook her head. “You know what? I don’t care. It’s your funeral.” She stepped away, pulling out her cellphone to make the call. She came back, and in a somewhat surprised tone, said, “she said to come over. I guess we’re going.”

They drove to LuthorMedia’s office in stiff silence. Veronica recklessly weaved in and out of traffic, like she was receiving a modicum of pleasure from making Kara squirm.

At LuthorMedia’s headquarters, Veronica escorted Kara through security and into the elevator headed for the executive-level floor. On their way to Lillian’s office, they passed by an office with Lena’s name on its nameplate. Kara slowed to peer inside the office, which she was disappointed to find empty, but didn’t get the chance to linger as Veronica urged her along.

Soon, Kara found herself in the hot seat across from Lillian. Veronica was by her side, looking smugly pleased in anticipation of a Lillian Luthor verbal lashing directed at someone other than herself.

“Ms. Danvers. How can I help you?”

“I’m canceling tonight’s date. I’m not up to it.”

“All right,” Lillian replied with a careless shrug. “Is that all?”

“No,” Kara answered steadily. “I’m cutting Ben at tomorrow’s ceremony.”

“Ben W.? Sure. I’m surprised he’s lasted this long anyway.”

“You know who I mean.”

“And you know that’s not happening.” Lillian leaned back in her chair, a placid smile on her face that somehow came across as eerie. “I’m sure you’re savvy enough to know how this goes. We need Ben Lockwood, that means you need Ben, and you need to tell the audience how you want to give him another chance because- Veronica, what do we say?”

“She knows his heart and she sees the good in him,” Veronica recited dutifully.

“I do believe that there’s good in everyone, but Ben is seriously making me doubt that. That guy sucks.” Kara grimaced at the thought of continuing any interactions with him. Maybe, in another context, she would feel differently. If she had met him in everyday life, she’d probably feel compelled to befriend him just so she could make him see the error of his ways. Some people - mainly Alex - said that she had a savior complex.

“It’s reality TV. Nobody’s really who they say they are. It’s all a performance. Ben’s playing a villain, as he’s well aware. I’m not even sure if he believes in half the things he says. There’s good money to be made in conservative media, and Ben knows that.”

“How is that any better? He’s still spewing hateful things and you’re just giving him the platform to do it.”

Lillian shrugged, utterly unconcerned. “If it makes you feel better, the more he’s on the show, the more he’ll be crucified on social media when it airs.”

Kara gaped at Lillian, incredulous by the suggestion. “Of course that doesn’t make me feel better. Why would that make me feel better? Two wrongs don’t make a right. People being mean to him isn’t going to make his viewpoint any less repugnant, and it’s not going to encourage him to change.”

“Fine. If seeing him getting his comeuppance isn’t your thing, maybe consider that I’m asking you nicely,” said Lillian icily. “You don’t want me to ask you another way.”

“Lillian, I’m cutting him tomorrow. I’m not spending another minute with him.”

The older woman studied Kara impassively, Kara stared back defiantly, refusing to look away.

“Veronica, give us a minute,” Lillian said without taking her eyes off Kara. “Wait outside the door. Don’t go far.” Veronica glowered slightly but did as she was told. Lillian waited for the click of the shutting door before she said, “Did you know, Ben is quite fond of Lena?”

Immediately on guard and perplexed at the mention of Lena, Kara frowned. “Okay? Everyone loves Lena.”

Lillian let out an amused, genuine laugh. “I assure you that’s not true.” At the dig, Kara’s frown morphed from quizzical to annoyed. “Don’t take it like that. I know my daughter. I’m just being honest when I say that Lena has her faults. She’s not beloved in every setting, but she does excel at flattering the egos of small, self-righteous men. Men like Ben.”

“She doesn’t like him either,” Kara quickly said, wary of the association Lillian was drawing. “Or his views. I know that.”

“No, of course not. But I asked her to come back to the show in part because she’s good at handling difficult situations. If one of my field producers fails at handling a cast member, I send Lena in to fix it, and she usually does.” Lillian leaned forward, laying her hands atop her desk, one on top of another. “Ben is our most difficult contestant. He’s quite a diva, you know. He’s no fool. He knows how vital his role is to our season, so he’ll demand extra favors, refuse to wear the things we ask him to or demand to start his shoot at the time that he wants. Sometimes we’ve needed Lena to talk some sense into him. Gayle tries, but she doesn’t have Lena’s finesse. But if Ben’s no longer around, I would have less of a need for Lena’s skills.”

Lillian paused here, entirely for dramatic effect. She looked like a tiger contemplating its prey. “Did you know that LuthorMedia is about to start production on a new series? I think you’d like it. We sequester fifteen women and fifteen men for six weeks, and we have them go on dates with one another in these pods where they never see the other person. They’ll have to decide whether to get engaged, sight unseen, just based on their emotional connection. They’ll see each other only if they get engaged, then we send them off on vacation to see if their emotional attraction trumps physical attraction. It’s an interesting concept, isn’t it?”

Thrown by the sudden change in topic, Kara blinked slowly. “Uh, yes? I’d watch that, I guess.”

“I think we’re bound to have a few difficult situations during the shoot. There always are. And if my best producer isn’t really needed here, then I suppose it only makes sense to send her where she is needed.” Lillian leaned back in her seat, having laid her royal flush out on the table. “We start shooting in two days. In Atlanta.”

As Kara slowly absorbed the not-so-subtle threat, her eyes widened with dismay. “You wouldn’t.”

“You couldn’t be this dramatic on camera? It’s only Atlanta. I’m not banishing her to Minsk or anything. It just means that you’ll have to get through the rest of this shoot without her.” Off Kara’s look of abject misery, Lillian added, “Come on now, Ms. Danvers, it’s not that serious. I’m not even asking for all that much. If you want to give me a reason to keep Lena around, you’ll keep Ben. I’ll even make you a deal. You don’t want to be around him? Fine, we’ll do our best to keep him away from you. You don’t have to go on any solo dates with him. You don’t have to talk to him much during group dates or cocktail parties, just enough for show. You just have to not eliminate him until we say it’s time.”

Kara stared at the woman before her with a hard, disdainful look tinged with defeat. “You are unbelievable.”

“My dear,” Lillian sighed wistfully. “I really do wish you could save the dramatics for the camera. That would really help the show so much.”

Lillian nodded at the door, her way of dismissing Kara, who quietly rose and left. She swept right past Veronica, who had been impatiently but obediently waiting outside the door.

“Hey, Kara, what-”

Kara stalked on, resolutely ignoring Veronica’s attempts at conversation or slowing her down. She headed toward the office which she had seen with Lena’s name. This time, the brunette was in her office.

“Kara!” Lena lit up at the sight of her, all dimples and dazzling smile. Like a chain reaction, it sparked a smile on Kara’s face as well, despite the mood she was in.

“Hey, Lena.”

“This is a pleasant surprise. What are you doing here?”

“She demanded to see Lillian,” Veronica said flatly.

Demanded? Wow. Anything the matter?”

“No, no, everything’s fine,” Kara assured her friend. Why bother Lena with this? There was nothing she could do. “So, this is your office? It’s nice.”

It wasn’t quite as impressive or extravagant as Lillian’s, which was to Lena’s preference. Kara walked around the room, examining photographs on the walls. She stopped before Lena’s graduation photo, taken in front of MIT’s Great Dome. She was flanked by Jack on one side, her father and Lex on the other. It had been one of Lena’s favorite photos. At least up until a few months ago. It was hard to look at anything involving Lex these days.

“Veronica, can you please give us a minute?” Lena asked.

Veronica’s face slackened with slight disbelief and indignanty at being summarily dismissed twice by a Luthor within twenty minutes. But Lena was her boss too. So she went out the door, stomping a little as she did. Lena got up, circled around her desk, and leaned against the side closest to Kara. Then she waited for Kara to be ready.

It didn’t take long. When the door shut behind Veronica, Kara marched over to where Lena stood. “Can I have a hug?”

Lena answered with action, encircling the blonde in her arms. Kara’s head came to rest upon her shoulder. “I saw the dailies,” Lena said. “How are you doing after… all that?”

As soon as Kara pulled back, Lena found herself missing the warmth. But a 3-second hug was the appropriate amount of time for a friend hug.

”I’m… actually okay. I guess I should’ve expected it. But hey, me storming off like that was a nice touch, right? I hope they use it in the previews.”

“Believe me, they will.” There was something not quite right here, so Lena said. “Kara. Are you sure you’re okay?”

She could see the struggle in Kara’s face. But after a brief moment, Kara just said, “I’m fine. You know, I think I’m just disappointed. I was promised a cooking competition. I was so looking forward to doing my Padma impression.”

It was clear to Lena that there was something more going on. But if Kara wasn’t ready to share, she wasn’t going to push. “Okay. So let’s make it happen.” Lena pushed off her desk, circling around to start gathering her things.

“What?”

“It’s a good thing you’re friends with the boss,” Lena said as she typed out a message on her phone. “I’m getting Jack, Nia, and Brainy to meet us at the house and we are going to compete for you. You can Padma to your heart’s content.”

Kara rushed forward in one fluid movement, nearly tackling her friend with a powerful hug. Lena staggered, steadied herself, and awkwardly returned the hug one-armed with her phone-free hand.

“What was that?” she asked with a chuckle.

“Just appreciate you,” came Kara’s muffled response.

***

By the time they got back to the house, Brainy, Jack, and Nia had returned with bags of groceries. In the short time they had, Jack had somehow managed to acquire a chef’s jacket and wore a bandana over his head. When Kara walked in the door, he handed her a blindfold and headphones.

“Why?”

“No cheating,” he said sternly. “We can’t have you throwing the competition by knowing who cooked what. You’ll just pick Lena’s.”

“I would not!”

“No cheating!”

Exasperated, Kara yielded. Partially because she suspected that Jack might have a point. Jack steered her to the living room, parked her on the couch, put the headphones over her head and chose her music for her.

Halfway through folklore, Kara was pulled out of her isolation and taken to the kitchen counter, where she was presented with four dishes: a burnt pancake, a spaghetti carbonara, a mangled-looking burrito, and a fried egg. Kara went down the line, tasting and commenting on each dish. Normally, during a reality TV cooking competition, a judge might give constructive feedback, discuss what works and what doesn’t. This is how Kara Danvers gives criticism:

“I find blackened pancakes to be such an interesting concept! I can’t believe no one’s tried it before!”

“There’s an interesting texture to this burrito. I think… oh, yup, that’s what I thought, it’s a banana. Well, chicken and bananas are a very creative interpretation, so I’m glad I tried it!”

“This egg is amazingly fried! I love that it has salt on it!”

Kara said nothing about the spaghetti. Because once she took a bite, she promptly took a second, third, and fourth bite. Upon seeing Kara’s reaction, Jack scowled at Lena.

“Ugh,you cheated.” Still, he grabbed another fork and started digging into the pasta himself.

“You burnt a pancake,” Lena retorted.

“At least I didn’t put a banana in a chicken burrito.”

Brainy shrugged indifferently. “I thought that the creamy texture would lend umami.”

“Do you know what that is?” Nia asked.

“No, but I overheard Schmidt telling the contestants how their dishes must have it.”

“Why would you try to create something if you have no idea what it is?” Lena asked.

“Fortune favors the bold,” Brainy replied solemnly.

Kara made a series of high-pitched noises around a mouthful of pasta, gesticulating wildly in the air with her eyes wide.

“What is this?” Jack asked, bewildered. “Are you dying? Having a seizure? What are you doing?”

With what seemed like great effort, Kara chewed and swallowed rapidly, with such speed and intensity that she almost choked on her food, then revealed the reason for her sudden fervor: “You could say that fortune flavors the bold!”

As Nia cracked up, the other three stared at Kara, unamused.

Lena sighed, “Oh, Kara.”

Jack, with over-exaggerated contempt, scoffed, “You nearly choked just to make a stupid pun?”

Brainy looked confused. “I don’t understand. What does that mean? How can fortune flavor one who is bold?”

“It’s a terrific joke,” Kara said insincerely, because it clearly wasn’t. “You just have to let it marinate for a while.”

Jack groaned louder. “No, no, stop it.”

With complete earnestness, Brainy asked, “Oh, so I’ll get the punchline later if I think about it?”

Nia lovingly placed a hand upon his arm. “Brainy, no. It won’t make any more sense later.”

“I admit that my joke was half-baked,” Kara said. “But even if you didn’t find it a-peeling, you don’t need to roast me over it.”

“Someone make her stop,” Jack grumbled. “Puns are the worst. It’s terrible humor.”

“Jack, come on,” Nia interjected. “There’s no need to grill her just because her joke didn’t pan out.”

“Not you too!”

“Relax,” Kara added gleefully. “It’s all meant ingest.”

“Lena,” whined Jack in a high pitched tone. “Make them stop.”

“Don’t worry,” Lena replied. “They’ll… run out of steam.”

“No,” Jack gasped dramatically. He jabbed an accusing finger at Kara. “You’ve got Lena doing puns! Puns! Lena, what happened? I thought we agreed that we hate puns?”

Lena shrugged. “It doesn’t seem worth it to get embroiled in an argument. Might as well join them.”

“This is like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. You’ve all become pod people. But you know, for puns.” Jack scowled at his friends-slash-torturers. “Well, Brainy, at least you and I are sane.”

“I don’t know, Jack,” returned Brainy mildly. “Maybe you just need to… simmer down.”

Jack whined pathetically as Kara jovially gave Brainy a high five.

***

They had been summoned by Morgan Edge. The senior production team were gathered in a conference room at LuthorMedia’s offices, waiting for Morgan to make his appearance, which he did fifteen minutes past the appointed time. He strolled in, barking into his Bluetooth headset, and, without acknowledging anyone else in the room, spent another five minutes standing at the back of the room finishing up his conversation. Lillian kept a pleasant, placid smile on her face the entire time. This was not her first time dealing with Morgan Edge. It wasn’t Lena’s first time either, but she’s had far less practice. She was disciplined enough to keep a scowl off her face, but she wasn’t going to smile at the man. Andrea and Mercy did their best to remain neutral, but as the minutes ticked by, their impatience became more apparent. Siobhan just looked really happy to be included.

Morgan finally finished his phone and ambled over to the end of the conference room where everyone else was gathered. “Ladies, how are we doing?”

Lillian replied, politely but firmly, “We’re all very well, Morgan. What’s this about?”

“Okay, right to the point. Your son, Lillian, and this mess he’s brought on all of us. It’s a nuisance. I want to nip this in the bud. This website that keeps posting these bullshit stories- can’t we shut them down?”

“We’ve tried,” Mercy replied. “We’ve offered money. We’ve tried suing. It hasn’t worked.”

Morgan made a grunt of discontentment. He was not a man who liked hearing no. “But these two women who just released their names - Desire and Valerie? They were the villains of their seasons, right? Surely we can use that. What if we did a retrospective on their seasons? That would remind people how awful they were, right? Oh- or- I think this is good- let’s post a ‘Top Ten Bachelor Villains’ feature online. We’ll include both of them.”

“Their names are Desiree and Victoria,” Lena corrected sharply. “And what are you suggesting? That we smear the victims?”

Alleged victims,” Mercy emphasized. “Besides, it’s hardly smearing if we’re just showing things that happened on the show.”

And Lena thought, the audacity of that woman. She hadn’t planned on a confrontation, but Mercy’s comment unleashed something furious within. “Alleged? Really? Are you going to say that you didn’t know? Because Lex suggested otherwise.”

All eyes turned to Mercy, who, caught off-guard, opened her mouth to speak but, for the first time in a long time, could not find the words. Lena stole a glance at her mother, who remained impassive as ever, but there was a slight tug of her lips which Lena registered as surprise.

Andrea was nowhere as practiced as the Luthors at restraining her emotions and erupted with, “Wait. You knew? You knew what Lex was doing?”

“I knew that there were rumors of complaints,” Mercy rebutted. “Unsubstantiated, unverified complaints. I didn’t know all of it. Look, when Otis was around, he had suggested to me that some contestants… had issues with Lex’s behavior. I didn’t know whether it was true or not. They were just rumors.”

Otis was Mercy’s brother. He had briefly worked on the show for a few years and, from what Lena had heard, became very close to Lex. He had left the show earlier in the year, a couple of months before the rumors started to swirl around Lex. Apparently he was now off working on an oil rig in Kazakhstan. According to Jack, Otis said that not only was the money better, it was far less stressful to work in the remote, desolate, petroleum-scented fields of Tengiz than to wrangle 30 Bachelor contestants. Lena had never met him. But he was Mercy’s brother and had apparently gotten along fantastically with Lex and Lillian, so she doubted that they would have much in common.

“Did you bother to look into it?” Andrea pressed. “Or even just ask the women?” Lena couldn’t recall the last time she saw her friend with a backbone, but here she was, interrogating her boss and when Mercy remained silent, Andrea shook her head with a barking, disbelieving laugh. “You knew all along what he had been doing and you- you, what, did nothing? Told no one?”

Mercy’s gaze fell on Morgan. “That’s not exactly accurate.” As the room’s attention shifted to the network executive, each woman struggled to absorb this new information. Siobhan looked petrified and unsure. Andrea looked disgruntled and disgusted. Lena, though, was somehow entirely unsurprised by this development. This meeting suddenly made sense. Of course he wanted this whole thing to go away.

And for Lillian, the salient point was: “You went above my head?”

“Look, look, ladies,” Morgan said in what was supposed to be a soothing manner but really just came off as patronizing. “All that’s done now. The past is the past. What does it matter who knew what when? Right now, we have to focus on protecting the show and that means we have to discredit these rumors.”

“A little late, don’t you think?” Lena asked rhetorically. “After the network suspended Lex and banned him from set?”

“Just standard protocol when an employee has been accused of something like this, pending the outcome of an investigation,” Morgan answered calmly. “Cat Grant takes these things very seriously.”

Lena looked to Andrea at the same time as Andrea looked to her. There was a moment of understanding as the two friends exchanged a silent question. It was Andrea who ventured, “Did Cat Grant know?”

“Cat knows what she needs to know and you don’t need to worry about things that don’t concern you. Now what are we doing about these two accusers?”

Despite its form, Morgan wasn’t asking a question, he was issuing a directive. A tense silence filled the room as the attention now turned to Lillian. Morgan was expecting his employee to fall in line. The others were waiting to see if she would.

“Siobhan,” Lillian finally said. “Start compiling a list of top ten villains from the franchise. Pull together some clips. Take a look at Desiree’s and Victoria’s seasons. Let’s just see what we have.”

Morgan smiled triumphantly, nodding with great satisfaction. Citing another meeting he had across town, he said goodbye and took his leave, followed shortly by Siobhan and Mercy. Lena and Andrea remained with Lillian, regarding her with silent anger.

“We’re just gathering information,” Lillian said calmly. “Evaluating. It doesn’t mean we’re going to release it or use it.”

“This is a dangerous path,” Andrea warned.

Lillian doubled down on the justifications. “We post top ten lists all the time. People like those. This is nothing new. We would’ve done this anyway.”

“Would we?” Andrea asked rhetorically. “Lillian, this isn’t right. You know it isn’t.”

Lillian, unaccustomed to being challenged by her subordinate, snapped, “I pay you to direct the show, not give me your unsolicited opinions. This season’s been a disaster and we have another rose ceremony tonight. I would suggest that you focus more on your job that you’ve been hired to do while you still have one.”

Just like that, the flame that had been stoked within Andrea was snuffed out, as she bowed her head, muttered a quiet assent, and retreated from the room.

Then it was just Lena. “Mom,” she said softly, maybe a bit manipulatively. “Don’t do this.”

Lillian chuckled mirthlessly. “I thought you of all people would be happy. Your hero, your big brother, maybe he’s innocent after all.”

Fighting back the lump rapidly growing in her throat, Lena forced out, “But we both know that he isn’t.”

Lillian closed her eyes, looking pained and strangely vulnerable. But when she looked at Lena again, her face was once again blank, her eyes steely.

“Just get out.”

***

During the rose ceremony, production arranged for Mon-El to get time with Kara first at the cocktail party.

“He’s been driving me up the wall,” Jack had said. “Can we please just let him get his time? He’s my pal and all, but my god, can that man whine.”

The two of them hadn’t seen each other since Kara’s panic attack in the escape room, which was only five days ago, but in Bachelorette world, felt like eons. Evidently Mon-El had been anxiously asking after Kara since then. Lena wondered whether there was more to him than she had initially thought.

From the control room, the senior production team watched the scene unfold. On the monitors, Kara and Mon-El were in a room away from the other contestants, sitting next to one another on a loveseat.

“How are you feeling? I was worried about you,” Mon-El said earnestly on screen. “I kept asking to come see you, but they wouldn’t let me.”

Kara seemed touched, and she took a hold of his hand.

“I’m doing much better. I’m sorry our date ended like that.”

“Kara, you never have to apologize for something like that. I’m just sorry that it happened at all. I’ve grown to care for you. A lot. I hated seeing you like that, I just wish I could have prevented it altogether.

“Did Jack tell him to say that?” Lena wondered out loud.

“I don’t think so,” Andrea replied. “I think Mon-El might actually be serious about our Bachelorette.”

Lena hummed, feeling something churn in her stomach. Probably from eating Jack’s food last night.

“I never got to thank you. I don’t know what I would’ve done.”

“I’m just glad to help,” Mon-El said. When a lull in conversation set in, he shifted closer. “Kara… is it okay if I kiss you?”

When she nodded her assent, he moved in. It started off sweet, like her kisses with James and William did. Unlike the others, this one heated up, quickly turning into a full blown make out session.

Mercy broke out into thunderous applause, and congratulated Lillian on her pick.

Lena suddenly felt the need for fresh air.

Excusing herself from the room, she escaped from the control room, stumbling out into the humid night. The Mansion stood in front of her. If a building could appear taunting, this one did. Leaning against the wall, Lena closed her eyes, fighting the sensation of something foul and bilious bubbling up in the throat and reminded herself to take deep breaths.

Totally, totally fine.

***

Lena was back inside for the rose ceremony.

Lillian and Mercy were at the front of the room watching the monitors, so it felt safe for Lena to take a seat on the couches in the back.

On screen, the men without roses lined up in two rows, waiting to see if they would be picked. Off to the side were the contestants who already received roses this round, Mon-El, Kenny, James, and William. Kara took her position in the center of the room and started the ceremony.

The roses were given out. Winn. Jason. Ray.

Lillian nudged Andrea. “Let’s get Ben L. in there.”

Andrea obediently repeated the instructions. They watched Veronica step into frame and whisper in Kara’s ear. Kara nodded, picked up the next rose, and waited for her next cue.

Manchester. Nate.

“What’s going on?” Lillian asked impatiently. “Where’s Ben’s rose?”

“Afraid of losing your villain?” Lena said from the back of the room. “Don’t worry, I’m sure we’ll find a way to manufacture more drama.”

Andrea, in an attempt to placate, said, “It’s fine, we can edit the callout order in post.”

It didn’t work. If anything, it made Lillian more irate. “I know we can, that’s not the goddamn point. The point is, I asked for it to happen and it hasn’t.”

Nodding, Andrea spoke into her headset, “Veronica, please make sure that Ben’s next.”

Veronica stepped into frame again and whispered to Kara frantically. Kara just looked at her. Veronica frowned and stepped backwards. Kara picked up the next rose.

“Ted,” she said.

Lillian inhaled sharply, clearly trying not to lose her shit. Lena now made her way to the front, standing next to Lillian for a better observation of her mother’s ill-tempered display.

“Looks like she might cut the racist professor,” she said breezily.

“For all of our sakes, I hope that’s not true,” Lillian answered cryptically. Lena looked to her questioningly, but didn’t get the chance to inquire further.

Andrea got on her headset again. “Veronica.”

This time, when Veronica tried to whisper to Kara, Kara just shook her head and stepped backwards, refusing to let her producer close enough to remit her instructions. Veronica froze, unsure what to do. It was one thing to instruct the lead through whispers, but another thing entirely to do it blatantly in front of the contestants. After a beat, Veronica backed down, and Kara picked up the next rose.

“Little shit,” Lillian muttered when Kara called out Mxy’s name.

Then there were four men left. Cisco, Schmidt, and the two Bens. Kara held the last rose in her hands, which she looked down at contemplatively. That shot would definitely end up making it to air. She looked up at the remaining contestants.

“Ben,” she said. The two Bens looked at one another, unsure of who she meant. In contrast, Kara did not look at all flustered or unsure, as if the lack of clarity was entirely deliberate. Then, at last, she said, “Ben L.”

As Ben L. made his way up to accept his rose, Kara cast a long, willful stare directly into the camera closest to her, looking away only when Ben L. was standing before her.

Lillian’s nostrils flared and her chest heaved with restrained fury.

As baffled as Lena was, she knew better than to probe in that moment.

She waited until later that evening - or, more accurately, later that morning, as she and Kara collapsed into bed, side by side, at nearly three AM.

“What happened today?” she asked, her own hushed voice sounding too loud to her ears in the dark. “With Lillian and Ben? What was that all about?”

Kara remained silent, and for a moment, Lena thought that the blonde would refuse to tell her or, worse yet, flat out lie and deny that anything had happened. She didn’t know whether that would be surprising. Whereas Kara was all openness and honesty, Lillian was secrecy and and furtiveness. She couldn’t say who she expected to win out.

But Kara came through.

“I told Lillian that I wanted to cut Ben. She told me that if I did, she would send you away. So I did as she wanted, but I guess I wanted to, I don’t know, not make it so easy for her.”

Lena tried to digest this information. “She wanted to send me away?”

Kara grunted in the affirmative amidst a long, tired yawn. “To Georgia.” Kara rolled over on her side so that she was facing the brunette. “I feel kind of bad subjecting the guys to Ben for a while longer, but I don’t think I can do this without you.” In the dark, Kara’s hand found its way to Lena’s waist. “I hope that’s okay. You didn’t have your heart set on going to Georgia, did you?”

Lena’s heart felt so full that she thought it might burst. “Well, I’ve always been intrigued by the Coca-Cola museum. But I think I’ll stick around for now.” She put her arm around Kara’s shoulder, pulling the other woman in until they were snuggled close together. “Thank you for keeping me.”

Kara emitted a low chuckled laced with sleepiness.

“Does that mean you’ll accept this rose?”

Recklessly, Lena pressed a kiss to Kara’s forehead.

“Always, darling.”

 

Chapter Text

All in my head should I play it safe
Hide away feelings and play the game
I hear a change, when you say my name
Yeah, searching for the words to tell you
You, I cannot pretend no more
You, tell me what's behind that door
You, I would risk it all and more
You could be who I've waited for

“Waiting For” by rum.gold featuring Jamila Woods

 

 

The day after the rose ceremony, Kara had her first one-on-one date with Jason, who was a sweet man and very nice to look at, but by all accounts, not the brightest guy. They were standing on a tarmac with Sam, Jason’s producer, waiting for their date to start.

“I can’t believe we’re going to space!” Jason exclaimed happily. “I can’t wait to fart in space. Is it going to make a noise? Am I going to smell it the entire time in my spacesuit?”

“Jason,” Sam said with the patience of a woman accustomed to dealing with a young child. “Once again, you’re not going to space. You don’t need a spacesuit. You’re going into a zero gravity simulator. It’s pretend.”

“Is that pretend?” he asked, pointing.

“No, Jason,” Sam replied. “That’s a plane. You’re going to get on the plane, then the plane is going to take you up in the air-”

“-into space?!”

“No, just in the air. It’s going to climb up really high at a steep angle, then when it levels out, it’s going to feel like you’re floating in zero gravity.”

“Like in space?”

Like space, yes” Sam confirmed. “But not actual space.”

It was unclear whether he actually understood those words.

“Can I still let one rip and see if it makes a noise?”

Sam looked to Kara. It was her date, after all.

“Sure?”

Jason whooped happily. Then asked Sam if craft services had any beans.

The beans came back up thirty minutes into the zero gravity flight.

Despite all the preparations, protocols, and wealth of airsick bags available, Jason managed to vomit over himself.

“Don’t worry, girl, I’ll still kiss you,” he told Kara, wiping at a yellow stain from his shirt.

“Um. I think I’ll pass,” she said politely. “But thank you.”

Kara gave him a rose at the end of the date anyway.

“Why?” Lena asked later that night, curled up on the couch next to her, nursing a glass of wine as the blonde worked her way through a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey.

“What?” Kara called over the hubbub. Nia and Jack were currently engaged in a lively debate over whether they should start playing a tabletop game called The Campaign for North Africa, a game that supposedly took 1,500 hours to complete, which Jack took as a challenge and not a deterrent.

(“Why, Jack? We’re never going to finish it.”

“Because I have it!”).

Brainy sat off to the side, shooting with his camera and trying his best to stay out of the fray.

(Nia begged, “Brainy, come on. What do you think?”

Brainy hemmed and hawed, then answered, “As a good documentarian, I can’t interfere with my subjects.” To which Nia and Jack both promptly called bullshit.)

Lena shifted closer to Kara. “I said, why did you give Jason the rose? You don’t see him as a serious candidate, do you?”

“No, I guess not. I don’t see him as, you know, the one or anything, but he’s really sweet. Sam says dealing with Jason is a lot like dealing with her daughter Ruby, so I figured that at the very least, it’s good practice?”

“For what? When you have kids?”

Kara poked at a fudge chunk with her spoon and answered, a little bashfully, “Um… yeah.”

“I didn’t know that was so important to you.”

“I mean, it hasn’t been my mission in life or anything, but it is something that I’d like eventually.”

“That’s good. It’s good to know what you want. It makes it easier to weed out the guys that you’re incompatible with. No point in keeping around someone who’s adamant about not having kids.” Lena took a delicate sip of her wine. “How many do you want?”

“Two,” Kara answered promptly. “Open to more, but at least two. Alex and I have such an incredible relationship. I really don’t know who or where I’d be without her. I would love for my kids to have that as well.” She nudged Lena’s knee with her own. “How about you? Do you want any?”

“I could go either way, I think. I’m a little ambivalent about it all. Growing up as a Luthor was… traumatizing, and I spent a long time believing that no child should be subjected to this family. So no, it’s never been a priority.”

“But you said you’re ambivalent now?”

Lena shrugged. “I don’t know, I find myself thinking more and more about it these days. Part of me does find it incredibly appealing. But I’m not so much into the idea of pregnancy, so I’d have to find a partner who’s willing to put her body through that hell. Or a surrogate, which just complicates things even more. I’m not a trusting person to begin with, so the idea of having a stranger carry my child is difficult to adjust to.”

“Well, if you have a need…” Kara patted her own tummy. “I eat healthy. Kind of. And I’m not a stranger.”

Lena let out a small, incredulous laugh. “Kara Danvers, are you offering to be my surrogate? Do you know how insane that is? You’ve known me for less than three weeks, and you’re just offering up your body?” Okay, poor choice of words. “I mean, your… womb.” That was only slightly better. Less sexual, but somehow more awkward.

“I’m supposed to be getting engaged in seven weeks, and that’s going to be the rest of my life, so I don’t see why I can’t make a commitment now for nine months. Besides, I think I’ve already spent way more time with you than I’ll have spent with any of the contestants by the end of the show. You would be a fantastic mom, Lena. If that’s something that you want, I’d be honored to help.”

Characteristic of Lena, overwhelmed by the compliment, she sought to deflect by retreating to the safer territory of lighthearted teasing. “Well, it’s just good to know that you would have my babies.”

Characteristic of Kara, she responded with absolute earnestness, “I would. Litters.”

“Lena,” Jack now interrupted with a sharp whine. “Nia’s being mean to me.”

“Speaking of handling children,” Lena muttered. “Jack, stop being ridiculous and pick a game we can finish this decade. Nia, be nice to Jack. Brainy, you’re doing amazing.”

After another ten-minute long argument, Nia and Jack finally agreed on Catan, which neither of them were particularly thrilled about, the sign of a true compromise.

While they set up the game, Lena called Kara into the kitchen. “Sorry, it was getting to be a bit too lively in there. I just wanted to give you a heads up on what’s happening tomorrow. You have a two-on-one date. You know how it works?”

“Sure. Two goes in, but only one leaves.” Kara sighed, “I wasn’t looking forward to that one.” Going on a date with two men meant that the person who did not receive a rose went home right away.

“They decided on the contestants.” Lena hesitated briefly. “It’s Ray and Nate.”

Kara’s face fell immediately. “No! Why would they do that? That’s so mean.”

“I think you’ve answered your own question.”

Ray and Nate had bonded in the Mansion. They were fast friends since night one and were now practically inseparable. When the contestants were not on a date, there wasn’t much to do except talk to each other. Lucky for Ray and Nate, they were having a great time together. And now they were in direct competition with one another. Only one of them would get to stay after tomorrow’s date.

“I want to keep them both,” said Kara sulkily. “They’re fun guys. I have a good time with them.”

“I know. But you’re not here to make friends, and you’re certainly not marrying either of them.” It was pretty clear that while they all liked each other, there was no romantic chemistry between Kara and either man.

“You don’t know that. Friendship is the best foundation for a solid relationship! Maybe something will happen!”

“Will it?”

“No,” Kara conceded dejectedly. “But I love talking to them. It’s not fair that I have to make one of them go home when Ben and Mxy are still here.”

In moments like this, Lena hated her own show.

“Maybe it’ll help if there was something special for you to look forward to after you get through this date.”

“Yeah.” Kara inhaled deeply, trying to shake off the despondency she felt. “Of course. I’m seeing you tomorrow night, right?”

“Flattering, but I wasn’t referring to me. I come over every night, that’s hardly special.”

“It is to me,” insisted Kara stubbornly. Lena couldn’t help but smile affectionately at that.

“I was referring to your date the day after tomorrow. I’m not supposed to tell you this early, but I think we can make an exception this one time.”

“Okay, hit me. What am I doing?”

“It’s a group date, and you’ll be administering a polygraph to the contestants.”

“Oh.” Kara valiantly tried to look excited by that. “Y- yeah, that could be interesting.”

There was a playful glint to Lena’s eyes. “But you don’t know the first thing about administering a polygraph, do you?”

“Nope.”

“You could do with a bit of help then?”

Kara had no idea where she was going with this, but Lena seemed excited, so she humored her a bit. “Sure. Will Dr. Jonn be helping me or something?”

“His name came up, yes. But I was thinking of going in a different direction.” Lena seemed to relish in the teasing. “Maybe someone from law enforcement? Like, say, an FBI agent?”

It became evident why Lena had milked the reveal for all it was worth, because Kara’s reaction was swift and gratifying. Her eyes brightened, her posture shifted with invigoration, and she split into the widest grin Lena had ever seen on her face.

No.” Kara studied Lena’s face closely, looking for any sign of trickery, not that she really believed that Lena was capable of it. It would be too cruel. “Alex?!” When Lena nodded, Kara let out an ear-piercing shriek and practically jumped into the brunette’s arms. “Ohmygod I’m going to see Alex!”

When Nia poked her head in to investigate, Kara was still firmly glomped to her friend like a koala clinging to a tree. “You told her about Alex?”

“Uh-huh,” Lena eked out breathlessly under Kara’s suffocating embrace, wearing a dopey smile on her face.

***

On the bright side of things, they had perfect weather for the two-on-one date that was to take place on a sailboat. It was warm with a slight breeze by the ocean, not a cloud in sight.

On the not-so-bright side, everyone was having a miserable time anyway.

Kara, Ray, and Nate stumbled through awkward, stilted conversations on their boat picnic. Kara felt so bad about the whole thing that she couldn’t even eat the food that she wasn’t supposed to eat.

When it was time for Nate to have his alone time with Kara, Ray was sent below deck to film his ITM. Nate and Kara chatted idly for a bit about nothing of any importance or interest.

Growing serious suddenly, Nate said, “Kara, look, you should pick Ray. I like you a lot, so I have to be honest. Ray Palmer is the best man you will ever meet. Much better than me. He’s intelligent, kind, selfless, and he’s got the best jawline you’ll ever see.”

“Well, maybe on a man,” Kara interjected.

“What?”

“Nothing. Sorry, go on.”

“Yeah. So. Pick Ray, okay?”

“Thank you, Nate. You’re a really good friend.”

Soon, Ray was brought up and Nate sent below so that Ray could get his time in. Almost right away, he started, “So, Kara, listen, I have to tell you something-”

“I should pick Nate?”

Ray seemed a bit taken aback, but nodded. “Yeah. He’s the most amazing guy. He’s got the biggest heart of anyone I have ever met. He’s brave and loyal and he’s going to be an amazing father someday. You can’t go wrong with Nate.”

“Okay,” Kara responded with a tired sigh. “Thank you, Ray.”

When the sailboat docked at the end of the night, Ray and Nate stood at the end of the pier, Kara before them, holding a single rose in her hands. Ray and Nate exchanged nervous glances. With a reassuring smile, Ray held his hand out. Nate took it with a grateful grin. They held hands in solidarity as they waited for Kara’s decision.

“Ugh, I don’t want to choose!” Kara had half a mind to fling that damn rose into the sea. But that wasn’t an option. She was under contract, which Veronica reminded her of with just a sharp look. “Fine. I don’t know, Nate, I guess.”

Nate and Ray turned to one another, each looking devastated. They pulled each other into a tight hug.

“This sucks. I love you, bro,” Nate said, fighting back tears.

“This totally sucks,” Ray said, also on the verge of tears. “But I love you too.”

Kara just stood there awkwardly on the dock, waiting for it to end.

***

In one of the edit bays at LuthorMedia headquarters, Andrea and Brainy stood before standing desks, going through the day’s footage as Lena observed from a couch against the wall. The trio watched as, on screen, Ray sincerely asked Kara to pick the other guy.

Andrea groaned unhappily. “This little bromance is doing us no favors. We’re going to have to edit out all this lovey-dovey ‘pick him’ bullshit. We can’t have our contestants stepping aside for each other. They’re supposed to fight for her. This makes our lead look so unappealing.”

Lena, with more defensiveness than was probably warranted, said, “This isn’t Kara’s fault. I’m not sure any woman on earth can come in between those two.”

“I’m sure Lillian will see it that way too,” Andrea said sarcastically.

“It’s a flaw with the format. We have 30 guys in one house and force them to spend all of their time with each other with nothing else to do. It’s hardly surprising that they’d form a stronger bond with each other than with the lead, whom they barely had any time with.”

“Or bond with their producer.”

It was obvious that Andrea was no longer referring to the contestants. This again. Sometimes Lena missed her friendship with Andrea and wished that they hadn’t drifted apart when she moved away. On the other hand, she had always been somewhat passive aggressive, and Lena didn’t miss that. The best thing to do was to ignore her altogether. But not everyone in the room got that message.

“My understanding is that a strong bond between producer-contestant is vital to the process,” Brainy said. “That emotional bond is crucial to eliciting honest responses in interviews. Haven’t Kara’s ITMs gotten much better since Lena took over?”

With a churlish scowl, Andrea grudgingly admitted, “Yes, but there are pitfalls to that bond.”

Brainy, with the innocence and curiosity of a young child, asked, “Like what?”

“Feelings. Romantic ones. A few seasons ago, we had a Bachelorette contestant get too close with one of the producers. He was kicked off the show and she was fired. Luckily, we caught it early enough and it happened before the third rose ceremony. If that guy had made it to the end, it would have been a disaster. Can you imagine a love triangle between the lead, a contestant, and a producer?”

“Yes,” Brainy replied. “There’s a real reluctance for reality television to break the fourth wall even though production influence is obviously integral. I don’t understand it. Why not let reality television be real?”

“Because that’s not what people really want. They just want the illusion of reality. They don’t want to see everything that goes on behind the scenes to create the drama that they crave. Once you break the spell, that’s it for our show. The public might be fascinated for one season, but it’d be like killing the goose that laid the golden egg. It’s not sustainable and they’re not going to keep tuning in. For us, what goes on behind the scenes has to stay there. That means we don’t get too close and we don’t get too involved with the cast. Maybe you can get away with that crap on some dinky cable channel like MTV, but we’re on a major broadcast network. Breaking that fourth wall will destroy our show.”

“You know, since the advent of streaming, broadcast and cable don’t mean what it used to.”

“Tell that to my paycheck. I’m happy with where I am. You want to make The Bachelorette like it’s a Werner Herzog movie, you can take that shit to Hulu.”

“I think he gets the idea, Andrea,” Lena said.

Without missing a beat, Andrea shot back, “Do you?”

The two women glared at one another. The tension was so palpable that even Brainy picked up on it. “Uh…” he nervously eyed his bosses. “I suddenly feel the need to excuse myself.”

Without taking her eyes off Andrea, Lena replied, “That’s a good idea, Brainy.” She waited for him to leave the room and close the door behind him. “Don’t speak to me like that in front of the crew again.”

“I don’t see why that matters. It’s just Brainy. You’re such good friends with him anyway, right?”

“If you’re going to preach to me the finer points of on-set professionalism, I’d expect you to adhere to the same standard.”

For all of her faults, Andrea could be reasonable when it came to professionalism. After taking a moment to mull it over, she nodded in concession. “Point taken. Anyway, I’m glad he stepped out. There’s something else I wanted to mention. You know how Morgan wanted us to do that piece online on franchise villains that just happens to heavily feature Desiree and Victoria?”

How could Lena forget? Even for this show, it was a vile move. “Of course.”

“It’s a bad idea. It doesn’t look good for the show or the network. But I’m thinking that probably no one else at the network knows what’s going on besides Morgan.”

“Probably not. His entire job is to be the intermediary.”

“I think the network’s legal team wouldn’t be too happy to hear what Morgan’s planning,” Andrea said. “I met their deputy GC at the last holiday party. Thomas Coville? Nice man. He’d probably be receptive to stopping the release if someone told him about it.”

“Ah. And that someone would be me?”

Andrea shrugged. “Morgan has a lot of friends. And not all of us have that Luthor name as a shield.”

Lena doubted that her surname would spare her from the wrath of Morgan - or Lillian - if they found out that someone had gone behind their backs. But what choice did she have?

“I’ll take care of it. Thank you, Andrea.”

“Thank you.”

For once, it just felt nice to be on the same side as her old friend. A temporary truce reached - at least for that hour - they resumed working, more amiable than before.

When there was a knock at the door, they looked up, expecting Brainy but seeing Maxwell Lord standing there instead.

“Max. What are you doing here?” The surprise was evident in Andrea’s tone. Maxwell did not make a habit of stopping by the office unless he had to. Some people thought it was laziness, others said it was pure arrogance. He thought that his on-camera work spoke for itself and that he didn’t need to do anything else to justify his multi-million dollar paycheck, including show up at the office.

“Oh, just… looking around.” And he was, indeed, craning his neck and looking all around. There was a nervous energy about him.

“What are you looking for?” Andrea asked.

“Nothing,” Max said unconvincingly, before adding. “Hey, uh, do we have like a, uh…” He struggled to find the words he was looking for. “I don’t know, like a- facility or like a room where we keep old… stuff?”

Lena and Andrea exchanged a look. This was, to put it mildly, fucking bizarre.

“Like what?” Lena asked. “Files? Footage?”

“No, more like… stuff. You know, objects. Things that we don’t use anymore.” When he saw that the two women were staring at him like he was crazy, he let out a short, uncomfortable laugh. “You know what? Nevermind. I, um, I can find my way.”

He departed just as quickly as he had appeared, leaving Lena and Andrea absolutely mystified by the strange display.

Andrea remarked, “What the hell was that?”

Lena just shrugged.

***

 

Kara started off in a bad mood that night, reeling from the events of the day. Even a session with Dr. Jonn didn’t make her feel any better about Ray’s elimination.

Upon returning home, she gave herself a generous pour of red wine and curled up on the couch with a bag of Lindt truffles, unwrapping one after another in rapid succession and popping them whole into her mouth. Nia sat with her and coaxed her out of her funk by reminding her that she was going to see Alex tomorrow, which did brighten her mood a little. She perked up entirely when Lena showed up with carrot cake, along with Jack and Brainy. They sat down at the dining room table to eat the cake. Lena gave Kara the first slice, a hefty portion.

“What’s your sister like?” Nia asked.

“Hot, apparently,” Lena said teasingly as Kara flushed a light pink. “And single.”

Jack found that immensely interesting. “She’s gay, isn’t she?” He looked pointedly at Lena. Kara shifted her eyes between the two, looking a little uncomfortable.

Lena rolled her eyes at him. “Yes, Jack, she’s gay, I’m gay, very astute of you.”

“So will you two register at Crate & Barrel or Williams Sonoma? Because I’ve actually got a gift card for the second one if that sways your choice at all.”

Lena crumpled up her napkin and tossed it at Jack’s face. He made no attempts to dodge it and let it bounce off his cheek.

“Stop trying to throw me at every gay woman you come across.”

Jack scooped up the crumpled napkin and threw it back at Lena, who caught it in one hand.

“Well, someone’s got to. I need to get you U-Haul’d and married off ASAP. I’m dying to be an uncle and I’m not getting any younger here. Besides, when’s the last time you got laid?”

Lena suddenly found it difficult to look at anyone in the room. She felt her ears burning with embarrassment, but at least she knew she didn’t blush. Not for the first time (that day, or even that hour), she wondered why she was friends with this idiot. She thought that maybe she could get away with simply not responding. But that was dumb, because now she just had four pairs of eyes staring at her and the moment grew increasingly awkward the longer she said nothing.

“It… hasn’t been that long.”

Jack looked at her skeptically. “Who was it? That professor you met at the Amsterdam conference?”

“No, we didn’t, um-”

“Well, you must’ve slept with the one who looks like Cate Blanchett?”

The look of dismay told everyone what the answer was. Jack gasped exaggeratedly, feigning disappointment. “You poor girl. She was a looker.”

“I don’t know why I tell you things. Could we not discuss my sex life?”

“Point of fact, we’re not discussing your sex life because there’s nothing to discuss. Because you don’t have one. Let Jack fix that.” Jack leaned across the table, directing a faux whisper at Kara. “Kara, what’s Alex into? Pitch Perfect? Roller derbies? Vegan potlucks? Mariska Hargitay?”

“I- I don’t know,” Kara answered, feeling flustered and not just by Jack’s rapid-fire inquiries. “She likes Homeland?”

“That’s perfect. Lena went through a huge Claire Danes phase in high school.” Jack nodded sagely, as if all the puzzles of the universe were finally falling into place.

As Nia chimed in on her love for Romeo + Juliet, the conversation fell away from the topic of Alex. Kara sat quietly in her seat, half-heartedly eating her cake by scooping small morsels with the tip of her fork. She felt a nudge to her side and looked up to see Lena’s beautiful face nearby exhibiting concern. Not for the first time, she found herself briefly stunned by her friend’s ethereal good looks. It was… disorientating.

“Are you okay?” Lena whispered. At the other end of the table, Nia and Jack were heatedly debating whether “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” was about Jake Gyllenhaal while Brainy looked absolutely lost.

“Yeah, um, I just…” She couldn’t even put it into words. She couldn’t rationalize this feeling or explain what had caused it. “It’s just the whole thing with Ray and Nate, you know? It’s been bothering me, that’s all.”

With a look of commiseration, Lena touched her hand to Kara’s.

“I’m sorry, darling. But you’ll get to see Alex tomorrow.” When she squeezed Kara’s hand tenderly, Kara felt a rush of affection and warmth that dissipated just as suddenly as it came on when Lena continued, “I’m really looking forward to meeting her.”

Kara forced a smile that she hoped didn’t look too unnatural. Lena studied her momentarily, but before she could ask more questions, Nia drew her back into the conversation with a question on whether Donnie Darko made any sense.

Kara poked at her dessert, trying to make sense of the gloom in her heart.

***

Although she still harbored inexplicable apprehensiveness about the day, as the hour drew closer to the group date, Kara became increasingly excited about seeing her sister again. It had been nearly three weeks since she saw or talked to Alex, which was definitely an unwelcome record. They had never gone more than two or three days without talking, texting, or emailing each other, even when Alex spent six months volunteering in an isolated village without electricity in Djibouti. Now they were only separated by about thirty miles, but contractually forbidden from contacting each other, the American legal system triumphing over the sisters where a lack of infrastructure could not.

So it really shouldn’t be surprising when Kara became a blubbering mess the instant she saw her sister.

Thankfully, the moment was not captured on camera, a fact that would have to be kept hidden from Lillian for all eternity. They were shooting that day’s date on the set of a police drama that aired on the same network, the polygraph to be administered on the set’s interrogation room. While Kara was getting ready in her dressing room, Lena furtively arranged for Alex to stop by. Lena believed that some moments shouldn’t be broadcast to the entire world. She left the sisters alone, telling them they had maybe ten minutes before she had to take Alex away. Then Kara collapsed in her sister’s arms, deflated, like a teddy bear without its stuffing. In what seemed like one impossible breath, Kara poured out a condensed version of her woes.

And Alex, who had looked disapproving and wary when Kara first told her of the opportunity to be Bachelorette and then only wary when Kara told her of the exorbitant amount of money she would receive in exchange, was good enough to bite back a triumphant I told you so and offered sisterly consolation.

“I’m sorry it’s been so hard. But you’ve met some guys that you really like, right?” They were now on the couch, Kara curled up in a fetal position with her head in Alex’s lap, and Alex comfortingly stroking her hair. “And your producer seems nice, letting us meet like this even though it’s against their stupid rules.”

“Lena,” Kara mumbled in reply. “She’s not really my producer. My producer’s Veronica and she hates me. But Lena’s been helping me a ton.”

“That’s good. Just keep her away from the guys you really like because, wow, who needs a distraction like that? I can’t believe they let her be a producer on this show.”

Kara bolted upright in excitement. “I know, right?! That’s what I said!” Then, as the implications of Alex’s words sunk in, she narrowed her eyes. “Wait. Alex, are you into her?”

Alex’s brows knitted together; her strange little sister was acting stranger than normal. “I don’t even know her.”

“But you think she’s attractive.”

“Uh. I mean, I have eyes and I can see that she’s a conventionally attractive person.”

That answer evidently didn’t placate Kara any. To the contrary, she only seemed to be getting more agitated, increasing the speed of her speech. “If she asked you out, would you say yes?”

Alex scrunched up her nose in bafflement at the question. “I don’t know. Does she even like women?”

“What if she does? Is that the only factor? Like, if you knew she was gay and she asked you out, you would go out on a date with her?”

It was beginning to feel more and more like an interrogation. And they weren’t even on set yet. “Kara, what the hell?”

 

Her sister’s vehemence seemed to pull Kara out of her frenzy; she shook her head as if she was physically shaking off the sudden insanity.

“Sorry, sorry. It’s- it’s this show, I think it’s made me a little crazy.” She forced a small, unconvincing laugh.

But before Alex could probe, there was a knock at the door, and the woman of the hour poked her head in, back to escort Alex to where she was supposed to be. Kara looked on with strained placidity which barely masked her anxiety as she watched Alex leave with Lena. Ten minutes later, a PA came to retrieve Kara. She followed the PA onto the set where, now with the cameras rolling, she pretended that she was seeing Alex for the first time in weeks and feigned surprised joy. Their performance was passable, but there were no tears, much to Veronica’s disappointment.

Alex and Kara were taken to the interrogation room, where Veronica explained the setup: contestants would be brought in one by one, Kara would ask them questions off a notecard, and Alex would look at the results of the polygraph but not tell Kara whether the contestant had lied. At the end, Alex would tell Kara how many lies were told, but would not reveal who lied and what the lies were - unless Kara asked to know.

“You all know that I’m not really a trained polygraph examiner, right?” Alex asked. “And there are all kinds of problems with its accuracy. I had to take one when I first joined the FBI, and they tried to tell me that I lied about having never been convicted of a felony. I think they only believed me in the end because it was easily verifiable information. These things are problematic.”

Veronica regarded Alex with a bored, dismissive look. “Honey, this is reality television. It doesn’t have to be real.”

As Veronica swept out of the room, Alex turned to her sister, “That’s Veronica?” Kara nodded. “Yeah, I don’t like her.”

One by one, the contestants for the group date were brought in and hooked up the machine. The questions started off as silly, vaguely embarrassing questions, followed by more personal questions. Each person got the same ten questions:

Is your name ____?

Do you wash your hands after going to the bathroom?

Do you sleep naked?

Have you ever peed in a public pool?

Have you ever ghosted someone?

Do you want kids?

Have you ever committed a crime?

Have you ever cheated on someone?

Are you ready to get married?

Are you romantically interested in Kara?

When they were halfway through the contestants, they took a break and Kara was whisked away to do her ITMs. That’s when Jack made his move. Under the guise of offering Alex a snack, he took her to the craft table, where Lena was getting her customary afternoon tea.

“Lena! This is Kara’s sister, Alex.”

“Yes, I know. We met earlier. I brought her to set.”

“Oh? Did you get a chance to chat?”

“Kind of busy around here, Jack.”

“You’ve got time,” Jack said breezily. “You two should catch up. Chat. Maybe you’ve got common interests. Or see who you know in common.”

“Jack,” Lena sighed wearily. “This is Los Angeles. There’s like four million people in this city. Just because we’re both gay doesn’t mean we know the same people.”

Jack held up his hands in peace. “Okay, okay. I’m just saying. Maybe you both like partying at Paradiso. I don’t know.”

“You do know, and you know that I don’t. Now get back to work.”

Jack gave a somber salute, turned on his heel, and goose-stepped away for far longer than was really necessary to carry the joke through.

“I’m sorry about him,” Lena now said to Alex. “He’s an incredible idiot, but the British accent fools people into thinking he’s charming so he thinks he’s a lot funnier than he really is.”

“I’ve met worse.” Alex browsed through a basket of packaged cookies and chips. “So… how’s Kara doing?”

“It’s been a rough start, but I think it’s starting to get a little bit better. So, as well as can be expected, I think.” The thought occurred to Lena that she had given Alex and Kara a chance to catch up alone - did Kara admit something to Alex that she couldn’t to Lena? Not that she would blame her - she wouldn’t expect to compete with Alex for Kara’s confidence. But if Kara was distressed, she wanted to know about it and fix it, or at least try. “Why? Did she say something?”

“No, she was just… a little kooky? Not that that’s really all that unusual for Kara. She’s always been an odd one.”

“The oddness isn’t without its charms.”

“No arguments there.” Alex was gladdened to hear that at least one person in the crew found her weird little sister endearing. It relieved her to no end to know that someone was looking out for Kara, who could be so naive and vulnerable. Feeling kinship, coupled with a lull in conversation, she said, “So… funny that Jack mentioned Paradiso. I’ve been there a couple times.”

“I’ve never been. Not a fan of the club scene. I just know the person who used to run their social media. Jack likes to masquerade as a lesbian by dropping the few references that he knows.”

“I see. Uh. Would that person’s name happen to be Bo?”

Lena had the sinking feeling she knew where this was going. She’s had similar conversations before. “That’s her. We went out a couple of times a long time ago.”

“I dated Lauren. Also a long time ago.”

Yep, there it was. “Of course you did,” Lena sighed. Four million people in this city. “I suppose I’ll see you at the wedding in December?”

“I already bought them a blender.”

“Just don’t tell Jack, okay?” She couldn’t imagine the hectoring she would get if Jack found that her ex was marrying Alex’s ex. Actually, she could. That’s why she’s not telling him.

“Oh, no, definitely not, I’m not giving him that satisfaction.”

The two smiled as they shared a moment of understanding. Neither of them realized that they were being watched. Across the room, Kara, who had finished up her ITMs a few moments before, was staring at them. She couldn’t hear what they were saying, but she could certainly imagine it. When she saw Alex toss her head back and laugh at something Lena said, she quickly strode across the floor.

“Lena, um- Snapper wanted to see you for a minute,” she lied. Badly and obviously. Alex and Lena exchanged confused looks, which Kara hated. Nevertheless, Lena excused herself to find Snapper. As soon as she was out of earshot, Kara whispered furiously to her sister, “Don’t say yes.”

Alex looked mystified. “What?”

“If she asks you out, don’t say yes, okay?” Kara asked, desperation evident. “She- she’s my friend a-a- and if you guys don’t work out or something it’ll just be awkward for me. Please just don’t go out with her.”

“Kara!” Veronica called from across the set. “We have to get started.”

As Kara backed away from Alex, she hissed again in a low voice, “Just don’t, okay?”

As Alex watched her sister retreat, she wondered if there was anyone sane left on this set.

Alex and Kara went back into the interrogation room. Interviewed more men. Then they called all the contestants back in the room and Alex tallied the results of how many lies each man had told. One of them told no lies, three of them told one lie, two of them told two lies, two told five, and one lied on every single question, including the one about his name.

Maxwell stepped into the room, all polished veneers and insipid smile. “Kara, now you have a choice to make. If you want, Alex will tell you who lied and what they lied about. Or you can trust the process and your instincts by declining to know the results.”

An incredulous Alex looked at Maxwell as if he was the stupidest man on earth. “Of course she wants to know the results. What was the point of doing all this if we don’t tell her the results?”

The real answer, the one Maxwell couldn’t give on national TV, was that it was more suspenseful to keep Kara and the audience in the dark about the test results. For the rest of the season, the audience would get to speculate about the results, who lied, who didn’t. But the answer that Maxwell could give was this:

“At this point, Kara has had the chance to get to know the guys. Real connections are being formed, these are real relationships. Kara, by now, you probably have a good sense of who these guys are and who’s here for the right reasons. So the question is, do you trust your partner in a relationship? Or do you need to verify the truth with a polygraph?”

“That’s complete bullshit,” Alex said in footage that would never make it to air. “These aren’t real relationships. She barely knows these guys, why wouldn’t she look at the results?”

Maxwell’s bland smile stiffened; he clearly hadn’t been expecting much pushback. Usually people just played along. “It’s your choice, Kara.”

“Uh, well, I-” Kara could see Veronica off to the side, motioning, bringing a downturned open palm across her neck. “No?”

“Excellent choice, Kara.” Maxwell clapped his hands together. “You’ve chosen to trust the guys and trust the process.”

Alex’s expression showed that she thought this was the dumbest thing she’d ever seen. She almost felt an impulse to tell Kara anyway, but resisted it. The whole exercise had been a farce anyway. To start with, she didn’t even believe in the efficacy of the test.

“But honesty should be rewarded,” Maxwell now said. “Alex, why don’t you tell Kara who our most honest contestant is?”

This was probably one of the most pointless things she had ever done in her life. “Uh, sure, it’s Winn.”

“Winn!” Maxwell broke into thunderous applause. The other contestants joined in reluctantly. “Congratulations, buddy. You’ve earned yourself some extra time with Kara. Alex, can you tell us who was the most dishonest contestant?”

Yep, definitely one of the most pointless things she had ever done. With a bored, tired sigh, Alex answered, “Ted.”

The small-town veterinarian turned bright red. “I- I was nervous! I forgot everything!”

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Alex said drily. “Those things aren’t one hundred percent accurate and I’m not a trained examiner, so.”

“I think we can stop there,” Veronica piped up, before they wasted more time filming things that they would just have to edit out. Since the contestants weren’t allowed to interact with the Bachelorette when they weren’t filming, they were ushered away to another room. Maxwell retreated to his trailer and the crew started setting up for the next shot. Now that the interrogation session was over, it was time for Alex to go.

She went to Kara to say her goodbyes. It would be a few more weeks before they saw each other again. The thought was excruciating. With slow, sad reluctance, the sisters hugged each other.

“You going to be okay?” Alex whispered.

Feeling lost but needing to appear brave, Kara nodded. “Yeah, I think so. I’m starting to get the hang of this thing. And Lena’s been looking out for me, so…” Speaking of Lena. “I’m sorry about what I said before. You can go out with Lena if you want to.”

Separating from her sister, Alex heaved a deep sigh. “Kara. You really, really need to figure out whatever the hell is going on with Lena inside that weird little head of yours.”

“I don’t-” The words died on her lips. Maybe she could lie to everyone, including herself, but not to Alex. “Okay. Yeah. I hear you.”

Alex reached out her arms, inviting Kara in for a final hug. Kara accepted, and as she felt her older sister’s arms encircle her, burst into tears again at the thought of not seeing her again for the next few weeks. Veronica, on her way to collect and eject Alex from set, faltered in her steps as she saw the sisters embracing. After a beat, she retreated quietly. She could probably yell at a couple PAs first before she kicked Alex out.

***

From the studio’s control room, Lena and Jack watched as Kara bestowed the group date rose on Winn. Winn leaned in for a kiss. It was closed-lip and passionless, but it caused Lena to inhale sharply and redirect her attention to the spreadsheet on her laptop. Hello, Excel, my calming old friend.

“Excuse me,” Jack said emphatically. “What was that?”

“What was what?”

“Don’t play dumb. I’m on to your tricks, Luthor. I heard you breathe.”

“Oh, well, pardon me for breathing.”

“You did it in a weird way. And now you’re staring at Excel like you want to make out with it. You’re stressed.” Jack jabbed a finger at the screen. “Because Kara kissed Winn.”

Ugh. Why did Jack have to be so Jack all the time? Lena held up her hands. “You’ve got me. I want Winn Schott. I’ve fallen madly in love with him and his Wookiee socks.”

Like the true juvenile that he was, Jack came back with, “Hardy, har, har. First of all, we both know that you’re already madly in love with a man with Wookiee socks-” Jack directed two thumbs at himself “-so, no, you can’t be in love with Winn too because that’s just pathological. Second, stop deflecting! What’s going on with you and Kara?”

“Nothing’s going on. We’re good friends. And if you thought something was going on, why would you try to set me up with her sister?”

“That’s because I thought you just wanted to bang her! That’s totally different than having an emotional collapse watching her kiss someone.”

Lena scoffed with amusement. “Emotional collapse? A little over the top, don’t you think? I’m surprised you haven’t auditioned for our show.”

Jack, rolling his eyes, waved his hand dismissively. “Lena, please. Despite my devastating good looks, great hair, and irresistible accent, we both know that would be a waste of time because Asian men don’t fare well on the show.”

Lena jerked the side of her head at the screens, where Kara and Winn were rejoining the group. “I don’t know. Jason, Kenny, William? Not bad for top 12.”

“True. We’re having a glorious renaissance under the reign of Danvers. Can you imagine how exciting it would be if one of them makes it to-” Feeling himself starting to go off on a tangent, Jack cut himself off. “Hey, wait a minute. Don’t distract me from your budding forbidden lesbian romance with my strong feelings on the invisibility of Asian male sexuality in popular culture. Tell me what’s going on. Or I’m going to be, you know, annoying about it.”

“Oh, now you’re going to be annoying?”

“Yeah, I wasn’t even trying before,” Jack retorted proudly. “You’re really not going to want to see me try.”

“Jack…” Lena emitted a weary sigh; she was starting to feel like a broken record. “We’re just friends.”

“But you like her. Like, you like like her.”

Sometimes Lena was pretty sure that, despite his age and fancy college education, Jack was a thirteen-year-old girl at heart. “Yes, Jack. I find Kara attractive. But it’s fine, it’s just a little crush. I know the score. She’s straight and looking for a husband.”

Jack suddenly seemed serious as some of the impish spark faded from his eyes. “Okay, but… what if she isn’t?”

“Then I would quit,” she answered bluntly. “Jack, you don’t have to worry. I’m not going to destroy the show over this.”

Jack gawped at her like she had suggested The Phantom Menace was the best Star Wars movie. “The show? Who cares about the show? It’s an outdated, racist, misogynistic piece of crap. I mean, no offense, Lena.”

“Well, I mean, some offense taken.” Not that he was entirely wrong, but he could be more tactful about her family’s legacy.

Jack, with way too much earnest than suited him, said, “I care about you, Lena. I want you to be happy. And if Kara is-”

She interrupted him with an abrupt, amused snicker. “Jack, that- that’s awfully sweet, but I assure you that Kara is not my happiness or any nonsense like that. It’s just a crush. One that isn’t reciprocated so there’s no danger of anything developing there.”

Although Jack looked skeptical, he gave a conceding nod. “Okay, but if it turns into something more, I’ll be the first one to know about it, right?”

“Sure, Jack,” Lena said with the sole purpose of humoring him. “If it ever turns into something more, you’ll be the first to know.”

***

Rose ceremony again. Kara would be eliminating two men this week. The Bachelorette stood in the center of the room, feigning conflict as she had been instructed. Truth was, by this point, she was sure of who she wanted to keep, who she had to keep, and who it was time to let go. One by one, she called out her contestants’ names. When she was down to three men, she took a long, deliberate pause, as Veronica had asked her to do, before calling out the final name.

“Mxy.”

Mxy gleefully bounded up to the center of the room to accept his rose, leaving the two eliminated men - Nate (looking only a bit disappointed) and Ted (looking significantly more dispirited) - standing forlornly in their spots.

As she hugged Nate goodbye, Kara whispered to him, without caring whether this would play well for the producers’ narrative, “I didn’t want you to have to stay in the house without Ray. You wouldn’t have been happy.” The smile on Nate’s face made clear that he didn’t disagree.

Ted approached, looking like a sad, kicked puppy. “Is this because of the polygraph? I’m sorry that I did so terribly, I swear-”

“Ted, no. I don’t think you’re dishonest. I just, I think that if you’re so nervous that you failed all ten questions, you can’t be having a very good time here. I- I just don’t want to put you through any more of this, especially if I don’t think this isn’t going to work out.”

Ted nodded, forlorn but understanding, and said goodbye to Kara.

Maxwell then appeared on the scene, collecting millions of dollars to make astute observations like: “Gentlemen, there are now nine of you left in this competition.” And announcements like, “Pack your bags, because we’re heading to-” dramatic pause “-Barcelona!” (Of course, Maxwell pronounced it Bar-THHHH-lo-na.)

Kara and the men erupted into forced cheers and applause, raising their champagne flutes and toasted one another. It sure looked like a lot of fun. But Kara was starting to understand that there was somewhere else she wanted to be, and it wasn’t here.

That night, she found what she wanted, curled up in bed next to Lena. They lay side by side next to one another, Lena holding her phone up above with an outstretched arm, because Kara insisted on watching that video of mama panda startling her baby panda with a sneeze. After she made Lena replay the video five times, she sidled up to the brunette, muffling her giggles by nestling her face against Lena’s shoulder.

When the laughter subsided, Kara sighed, “You’re coming, right? To Spain?”

Lena hummed in the affirmative. “Afraid so. Can’t get rid of me that easily.”

“If we leave the day after tomorrow, what’s happening tomorrow?”

“Nothing. Just a day off. We don’t film for the next three days. One day of prep here, one day of travel, one day of prep there.”

“What are we doing then?”

“Anything you’d like, darling. What would you like?”

“Nothing in particular. I’d just like to spend it with you.”

Lena hummed contemplatively for a moment. “Okay, let’s sleep in tomorrow. We’ll lounge around the house all day watching trashy TV, eat some leftover pizza for lunch. Then we’ll go grocery shopping and I’m going to make you a three-course dinner.”

Kara looped her arm around Lena’s waist, sighing contentedly. “Sounds perfect.”

***

They went grocery shopping at an upscale market which touted organic, local, sustainable produce. Lena promised that Kara could pick out whatever snacks she wanted. Kara wandered off to do just that, only to return in ten minutes with a disgruntled look on her face.

“This place is the ninth circle of hell.”

Lena, who was appraising a wide selection of chard, turned to Kara with a raised brow. “A lake of ice reserved for imprisoning and torturing traitors for all eternity?”

“They don’t have Oreos! Or Fruit Roll-Ups!” Normal people would have reserved the timbre of Kara’s current voice for distress calls and emergencies.

“I’m sure I saw them.” Without even thinking about it, Lena took Kara by the hand and led her to the snack aisle. “See? There they are.”

“Lena, please,” Kara said, looking scandalized. “These are not Oreos. They’re chocolate creme cookies.”

“Kara, that’s what an Oreo is.”

“No, Oreos are Oreos. Chocolate creme cookies are the sad, wannabe Oreos ripoffs. And these-” Kara grabbed a bag of the other snack Lena referred to. “-what is this? Fruit leathers? Why would anyone want to eat anything leather?”

“It’s pretty much the same thing. It’s just, you know, for people over the age of twelve.”

“Uh, that’s where you’re wrong, Ms. I Graduated From MIT Luthor,” Kara answered, deliberately playing up the obnoxiousness. “They are absolutely not the same. It’s way too healthy and they don’t have the kind that gives you tongue tattoos.”

“That’s a thing? Oh, my god. Please don’t tell Jack. He’ll be unbearable.”

“Too late, I’m already planning on getting him baby Yoda ones for Christmas.”

Of course Kara Danvers already planned out a Christmas gift for Jack. Lena wasn’t even surprised.

“What am I getting then?”

“Nuh-uh, I don’t think so. The Danvers have a very strict no-peeking-before-Christmas-morning policy.” Despite her complaining, Kara dropped two packages of sad, wannabe Oreos ripoffs into Lena’s basket. Looping her arm through Lena’s, they continued down the aisle. “What time is Jack coming over?”

“I’m not sure if he is. He’s having dinner with his parents. And I gave Nia the night off, so she’s taking Brainy out.” Lena slowed her stride, casting an uncertain look to Kara. “Is it all right? I know you like having a lot of company, but it’s just going to be us tonight.”

“I like having the right company,” Kara corrected, tightening her hold on Lena’s arm. “And I think I’ve got it.”

***

The speakers on the kitchen countertop emitted the gentle crooning of a jazzy pop singer with a piano, a half dozen candles illuminated the room with flickering glow, the aroma of garlic-lemon chicken permeated the air, and Kara, sitting at the counter with a glass of red wine in her hands, watched raptly as Lena sliced up strawberries with deft, graceful movements. She fixated on Lena’s long, slender hands, fingertips pressing into the flesh of the fruit as the other hand dexterously moved the knife through with quick, smooth motions. Lena’s hair was tied back in a ponytail, but a loose strand cascaded over her eyebrow. Kara took in her profile, sleek and Grecian, like a marble figure from a museum. Lena set aside her knife, and brought a finger to her lips to clean off the strawberry juice. Suddenly feeling dryness in her throat, Kara blindly raised her wine glass to her lips for a long, deep swig, enjoying the feel of heat spreading through her body.

“These strawberries are incredible. Want to try?” Lena pinched a strawberry in between two fingers and lifted it up in offering.

Kara froze, unsure whether she was supposed to take it with her fingers. Impulsively, she went with what she wanted, tipping her head forward and capturing the fruit with her mouth, feeling the brush of Lena’s fingers against her lips as she did.

Lena’s eyes widened in surprise and Kara felt a jolt in her chest as she thought she clearly chose wrong. Then a slow smile spread across Lena’s face to show that she did not mind, and Kara relaxed. And wished that she had more strawberries. It had been a damn good strawberry.

Lena had told Kara that she was known to cook “a dish or two.” Well, Lena Luthor turned out to be a big fat liar because she made: as an appetizer, a burrata and tomato salad drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette; main of crispy roast chicken, garlic and lemon under its skin, served with creamy polenta the color of the sun and crispy brussels sprouts specked with finely diced pancetta; for dessert, strawberry mousse topped with chocolate shavings.

Kara said little during dinner. Some things were more important than talking. When she was finished, the first thing she said was, “So there’s no way that you’re single. None. You might not have realized it, but someone snuck into the courthouse in the middle of the night and changed up the marriage records. It’s impossible that someone hasn’t married you already.”

Chuckling, Lena reached for Kara’s plate to clear the table. “No need to flatter me, darling. I’ll cook for you anytime you’d like.”

“Oh. In that case, I hope you remain a spinster so I can have your cooking all to myself. Here, sit, let me take care of the dishes.”

When the table was cleared and the dishes washed, Kara brought to the living room a glass of red wine for Lena and a beer for herself. Lena sat in the middle of the couch, arranging a playlist on her phone that piped through to the living room speakers. Despite the availability of the armchairs and the adjacent loveseat, Kara sat down on the couch, leaning her back against its arm to face Lena and the length of the couch. She placed her feet flat on the cushions, pulling her knees to her chest. Lena set her phone aside and took notice of Kara’s position.

“That looks comfy,” she remarked facetiously. Kara shrugged noncommittally. Was it the most comfortable position? No. Did it allow her to face Lena and look at her? Yes. Lena lifted her arms up in offering. With a shy, pleased smile, Kara stretched her legs out, resting her calves atop Lena’s thighs. Lena’s hands came back down, hands on Kara’s shins. “Good week?”

“Long week. This filming schedule is brutal.”

“It used to be much worse. We used to do six week shoots instead of ten. We shot every single day and didn’t get days off like we do today.”

“No days off? When does anyone get to spend an amazing day with their producer friend?”

Lena began working her fingers against Kara’s calves in a gentle massage. She was just sitting there anyway, might as well do something productive.

“They don’t. That’s not exactly the goal of the show.”

“Well, then, I say they should re-evaluate. None of my suitors have bothered to cook me a three-course meal and give me a massage, you know.”

“I’m sure they would if we gave them the opportunity, darling.”

“Yeah, but their food wouldn’t be as good as yours. I can already tell.” Kara leaned the side of her head against the couch’s back. She studied Lena’s profile, sleek and stunning. “I’m really glad I get this time with you. I know that you didn’t have to spend your day off with me.”

“I don’t,” Lena acknowledged. “But I want to.” They sat quietly together for a spell, listening to the music, indulging in the closeness of the moment. “Perks with your producer friend aside, are you doing okay with the rest of the experience?”

“Yeah. I think I’m getting used to it. These last few dates have even been kind of fun.”

“What do you think of the guys? This is about the point where things start getting serious.” With a teasing grin, Lena asked, “Have you started to fall for one of your men yet?”

The question landed like an invisible grenade, sending Kara’s heart racing with trepidation. Because if she was honest with herself, the answer was terrifying. But honest she was, and had been ever since she spoke to Alex. Really, she’d known all along. She was aware that her friendship with Lena was unusual, but she had refused to name the feeling that had been growing daily inside her for fear of making it real. But that was foolish. It was real and there whether she wanted to acknowledge it or not.

She stared down at her hands, her mind racing, wondering if this was the moment. The door had been opened. If she went through it, it might change everything, and not necessarily for the better. But if she did not… well, that path was lined with regrets and “what could have been”s and “if only I had”s. She simply had to decide which was less repugnant.

Timorously, she took the step.

“I… I think- I think yes. I’m starting to fall.” Her voice was so soft, it barely carried above the playing music. “But not for one of the men.” Right as Lena turned to Kara with a questioning look, Kara lifted her head. Her resolve strengthened when she looked into those startlingly green eyes. “In fact, it… it’s not a man at all.”

The song playing came to a finish, and silence filled the room in its wake. As the full implication of Kara’s words settled, Lena’s lips parted, eyes widening with shock and an emotion Kara could not pinpoint. Kara offered a weak, sheepish smile. “Say something?”

Lena stared unblinkingly. Her eyes were starting to glisten. Her jaw moved slightly but no sounds came out.

The music started again, moving on to some upbeat pop song that was currently popular on the radio. Lena, jostled, grabbed her phone to shut it off. Now, jolted from her stupor, she pushed aside Kara’s legs, scrambling to her feet and took a few quick strides like she just had to get away.

By now, even Kara could tell this was not going to turn out the way she wanted.

“Lena?” It was surprisingly difficult to say just two syllables without letting her voice crack.

Lena stood in the center of the living room, her back turned to Kara, unmoving. At long last, without turning around, she said, “You’re confused.”

Someone somewhere along the way must have drugged Kara, because she could feel every sensation in her body, augmented, exposed. Painful. She could feel everything. The punch-drunk swimming in her head. The prickling of her hot, flushed skin. The expanding and contracting of her lungs with every breath she still managed. The cracking of her heart.

And all she could muster was a shaky, shattered, “Yeah?”

Lena finally turned around, looking at Kara with those brilliant, brimming eyes that made Kara’s heart swoon and ache.

“Kara. You- what you think you’re feeling isn’t real, okay? It’s just- we’ve been spending so much time together, maybe too much time. It’s understandable that you would start to think that there’s something more here than friendship, but… that’s really all this is. I’ve been your confidant these last few weeks in a very tumultuous situation. When people are in stressful situations, small measures of attachment can feel like it’s more than it really is. Of course you’re confused. It’d be impossible not to be.”

Mind buzzing, the only thing Kara could think of to say was “Oh.” And then, in a daze, in an almost automated way, she blurted out: “It doesn’t feel that way though. Like friendship. It feels… different.”

“Of course it does. It feels different because everything’s different. This isn’t a normal situation.”

“But I’m friends with Nia and Brainy and Jack. This doesn’t feel the way it does with them. Does it for you?”

“No,” Lena admitted. “We’re closer than that, yes. But that doesn’t mean- look, up until last week, you’ve never even kissed a woman. Before you came here, have you ever had romantic or sexual feelings for another woman?”

Kara’s mouth flapped uselessly. “Well- I guess… no, but-”

“So if you’ve gone your entire adult life never having met a woman you’re attracted to, what are the chances that it’s happening now for the first time?”

“But... it’s never been you before.”

By the way Lena’s mouth fell open and her breath hitched, Kara thought, just for one dumb, fleeting moment, that maybe she was about to give. That maybe Lena would say that she felt the same way. But in the next moment, that Lena was gone, and in place was a cordial but restrained version of her that said, “You’re not gay, Kara. Or bi. For god’s sake, you came on this show to find a husband. You’re just confusing normal friendship feelings for romantic ones because of the situation we’re in.”

“Oh, well, thanks for clarifying that,” Kara said sardonically.

“I’m sorry, dar-” Lena caught herself, a little late. Now was not the time for endearments. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to sound patronizing. It’s just- I’ve seen this kind of thing happen before. Sometimes cast members think they’re developing feelings for their producers because of how close you get to each other in such a short amount of time. But it isn’t real. I promise.”

Downcast, head bent, shoulders sagged, Kara gaped at her own two feet, the words not real not real not real skipping on repeat in her brain. Her head was starting to hurt. Which was a nice distraction from the throbbing ache in her chest.

“Kara,” Lena said, slow and careful. “Do you need some space?” Kara snapped her head up, thinking that she heard wrong, that Lena could not, would not do this as well, taking away her companionship. “If this friendship has become too intense-”

“It’s not,” Kara answered quickly. “You’re probably right. I’m sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking. Obviously this is just a friendship.”

But Kara, so sweet and forthright, was transparent in her appeasement. So Lena, in a voice full of regret and reluctance, said, “Some boundaries would probably be good for both of us. Like sharing a bed. It’s been… nice, but I think it muddles things.”

Feeling numb and stupid (so fucking stupid), Kara could only nod. “That makes sense. Um, yeah. If you want to go, I… I understand.”

“I can’t leave you alone, Kara,” Lena replied softly. “I- I don’t think Jack will be here tonight. I’ll just take that room.”

Right. Kara had admitted her feelings to someone who was contractually obligated to constantly stay with her. That had happened. She didn’t even know how to process this. She suddenly felt the overwhelming urge to get away whereas, just a minute earlier, she had been distressed by the thought of Lena distancing herself. She could not be around Lena. She could not be without Lena. For the first time since they met, Kara wanted and needed to be alone. She could not bear the thought of even looking at the brunette. Another minute, another second, and she was going to lose her mind.

“Okay. Goodnight, Lena,” said Kara in a hoarse voice.

Desperate to make everything okay, Lena took a couple of steps forward, and almost pleadingly, uttered, “Kara-”

“No.” Kara backed away, inching toward the refuge of her room. “No, I can’t- I’ll see you tomorrow morning, okay?”

Kara turned quickly and practically fled down the hallway, leaving Lena standing there in the living room, stockstill and numb.

A moment later, the sound of Kara’s bare feet pattering against the wooden floorboards sounded, followed by Kara’s rapid re-entry into the room.

“I’m just gonna…” Gesturing at the bottle of wine at the table, she snagged it in one swift movement, then retreated just as fast as she came.

The entire time, Lena remained frozen, rooted to the floor. She stood there, listening to the fading of Kara’s footsteps away from her, waiting for that sharp click of a closing of a door, before she allowed herself to sink to the floor, depleted, defeated, devastated.

 

Chapter Text

Yeah, you can say what you want
But it won't change my mind
I'll feel the same about you
And you can tell me your reasons
But it won't change my feelings
I'll feel the same about you

“Say What You Want” by Texas

 

 

“There’s going to be a change.”

Lena, lying supine in bed, pulled her phone away from her ear and peered at the screen. It was later than the time she normally awoke. But she had been up most of the night in a state of turmoil, so maybe her late start and less-than-chipper attitude could be excused.

“Mother, it’s early.”

“It’s 8AM, Lena,” came her mother’s affronted voice. “Don’t tell me you’re still in bed at this hour.”

Lena drew on the mantra she had developed specifically for Lillian: Do. Not. Engage. “What’s the change?”

“One of our producers in Atlanta has to drop out of our new production out there. She went into labor or her wife or dog did or something- I don’t know, some kind of baby was involved. Anyway, I need Veronica out there, so she’s not going to Barcelona today. You’ll be Kara’s handler now. She works better with you anyway.”

That was a big change. A sudden, ill-timed change. “Mother, we’re supposed to be at the airport in three hours. Does Veronica even know?”

“I don’t see why that matters,” Lillian replied flippantly. “She’s going to the airport anyway. She’ll just be getting on a plane to Atlanta instead of Barcelona. You can tell her at the airport. Or Mercy can. I don’t care.”

She could tell that Lillian’s mind was already made up and it was probably pointless to try and argue otherwise. But Lena would try anyway. In light of how she and Kara left things last night, being assigned to be her producer was probably not the best idea. “I have other duties. Being a handler is incredibly time-consuming, maybe Sam or Jack should handle Kara.”

“They don’t have the same kind of relationship you do, and they both have other duties as well. Unless you’re saying that they’re not busy? Because if they don’t have enough to do, maybe we don’t need both of them.”

Lena hated how the mildest pushback could lead Lillian to making threats. It was almost as if Lillian enjoyed it and just needed an excuse to do it. Scratch that, it was exactly why she did it.

“Message received.” Without any goodbyes, Lena hung up the phone. She dropped her phone and draped her arm across her face, forearm covering her eyes. Maybe if she just stayed here, unmoving, she wouldn’t have to face the events of the day.

She lay there for a long, long time, until she heard clattering from the kitchen. Knowing that if Kara was awake on her own accord then it must mean that they were running behind schedule, Lena roused herself from the safe comfort of her bed.

She took her time getting ready.

When, at last, her teeth couldn’t possibly get any cleaner, she ventured out, heart pounding, mouth dry, hands damp, thinking, this is going to be so awkward.

“Morning, Lena!” greeted Kara with a mouthful of cereal. “Coffee?”

Or maybe not.

Hesitantly, almost suspiciously, she approached and gingerly took a seat next to the blonde at the kitchen counter. Kara already had an empty mug waiting, and she poured hot coffee into the mug from the French press.

“Good morning,” Lena said cautiously. “How was… the rest of your evening?”

“It was okay. I drank a lot, woke up in the middle of the night, puked it all up, then went back to bed. I’m feeling much better now.”

It was like she was describing the weather. It was unexpected, to say the least. “Oh. Well. That’s… good.” Lena sat quietly sipping her coffee as Kara ate her cereal, mindlessly tapping her fingernails against porcelain, mind racing and waiting for the other shoe to drop.

With a small sigh, Kara set her spoon down and pushed her bowl away. Lena braced herself for the fight, the recriminations, all that angst-ridden melancholy.

And here it was, Kara opened her mouth and said, “Okay, let’s talk.”

“Talk?” The word sounded funny in Lena’s mouth.

“Yes. I was going to wait until after breakfast, but it’s obviously bothering you, so let’s just get it out of the way. Let’s talk. Should I go first?”

Since she had no idea what she would possibly even say, Lena nodded. “Yes, please.”

“I value your friendship a great deal, Lena. I thought about it a lot last night and while I do have feelings for you, I- I can put that aside and just be your friend, if you’ll have me. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry if what I said last night made you uncomfortable. I- I, um, wanted to be honest about how I felt but I didn’t really think about how it would make you feel. Um, I know we’re friends but this is still your workplace and it can’t be very comfortable being hit on at work. So I really am sorry if I made you feel uncomfortable.”

“Oh.” To buy herself some time, Lena took a long, slow sip of coffee. “To be honest, I wasn’t expecting that.”

“Expecting what? An adult conversation?” Kara chuckled lightly. “Would you prefer that I deny that anything was wrong and we just live in passive-aggressive denial until one of us breaks down in a drunken spiral and starts yelling?”

“Prefer, no. Be used to, yes.”

“Sorry,” Kara said with a not-sorry shrug. “I like to fix things, and I’m not all that handy, so I do it by talking things out. Alex says it’s one of my most annoying qualities.”

“I guess now is as good a time as any to tell you that, as of this morning, Veronica’s no longer your handler. I’ll be taking over.”

“They didn’t fire her?” Kara looked far too concerned about the employment of a woman who had shown her nothing but disdain. But, Lena supposed, that was just the way Kara was.

“No, no, they just transferred her to the production in Atlanta. But… we’ll have to spend a bit more time together. I’ll be around more during the day on your shoots. So it’s good that we’re…” What was that weird, foreign phrase Kara used? “...talking things out.”

“I agree. I know that my feelings might make things weird between us and I totally respect your need for boundaries. So things might be awkward, but I figured, as long as we’re talking, that’s a good sign, right?”

“Kara, darling.” Instinctively, Lena reached for Kara’s hand. She drew back before contact was made, but the movement didn’t go unnoticed. “This isn’t about my need for boundaries. I’m worried about you and these feelings that you’re misreading as romantic. I don’t want you to think that you’re making me uncomfortable because you don’t.”

Her expression clouding, a hint of displeasure passed over Kara’s face, but it dissipated upon the slamming of the front door and the sound of Nia’s and Brainy’s voices filling the house. The couple strolled into the kitchen, hand-in-hand. Morning greetings were exchanged, then Nia said, “The car’s going to be here in half an hour. Kara, you’re all packed, right?”

Blanching slightly, Kara squeaked as she hopped off the stool, making a mad rush for her room to finally start packing.

***

At the airport, Kara became extremely excited when she learned that she would be flying in first class. She practically broke out in a jig when Lena told her about the first class lounge and took off like an excited puppy, leaving Lena to run after her in heels. Kara’s enthusiasm only dampened when she boarded the plane and saw that first class consisted of only four seats; Jack, Brainy, and Nia were being shuttered to the back of the plane along with the other contestants and crew members.

“I feel really bad,” whispered Kara, leaning over the wide center console which separated her seat from Lena’s. By the time they had boarded, Mercy and Andrea had taken the other two window seats on opposite sides of the plane, leaving only the center seats. “It’s not fair that we get to be up here while our friends are in the back.”

“The perks of being a lead. We have to keep you separated from the contestants. Can’t run the risk of you interacting with them off-camera.” Lena reached out and patted Kara on the forearm. “I can’t let you go back there, but how about I switch seats with Jack, Brainy, and Nia, let them take turns sitting up here for a bit?”

She felt it before she saw it - the feeling of being stared at and scrutinized. Lena looked up and her eyes met Andrea’s judging look. She pulled her hand back.

“I don’t know if they’ll let us do that,” muttered Kara, eyeing the flight attendants who hawkishly watched the division of classes.

Tilting her head to the side, Lena replied, with arrogance that suited her all too well, “They are going to let me do whatever I want.”

Half an hour after the plane took off, Lena was crammed in a middle seat in coach, sandwiched between Jason and Mon-El. Brainy and Nia had both declined her offer, sweetly opting to sit next to each other during the flight. But Jack had leapt out of his seat before Lena could even get a full sentence out. Squeezing past her in the aisle, he had whispered “good luck” to her, which she didn’t quite understand at the time.

“How is she doing?” Mon-El asked within sixty seconds of Lena sitting down. “Did she mention me today?”

Before she could answer, Jason leaned over and said, “Hey, Lee?”

“Please don’t call me that.”

“I’m trying to write a poem for Kara. What rhymes with bootylicious?”

“That’s ridiculous,” Mon-El said, then immediately followed up with, “Unless she likes that. Lena, does she like poetry?”

“Um. Well-”

“Oh, I got it! Fishes!” Jason beamed proudly at his own genius.

Mon-El narrowed his eyes, his thoughts plainly exhibited on his face: I can’t believe this man is my competition. “You think bootylicious is best rhymed with… fishes?”

Jason evidently took that as a compliment, nodding enthusiastically. “I think I might be really good at this. Maybe I’m a poetry genius, like Drake.”

“We’re not allowed to talk without the cameras,” Lena blurted out, which was sort of true. Cast members weren’t allowed to talk to each other without the cameras around. God forbid something happened off-camera.

“They said we’re not allowed to talk to each other, but I thought we were allowed to talk to you,” Mon-El said. “We could talk to Jack.”

“We have special rules for when we’re flying,” Lena answered, not in the least bit convincing. “Internationally, that is. Some countries like Bahrain have very restrictive laws on how television can be produced. So there’s a UN resolution that reality TV cast members are forbidden from speaking at all when over international waters.”

That was, of course, a huge pile of bullshit, but as Lena learned from her family, you could say all kinds of insane things as long as you said it with enough confidence. Apparently that was enough, because Mon-El shrugged and popped on his headphones. Jason had stopped paying attention three words in and was trying to come up with a rhyme for bassdrop, which he thought was one word. Lena put on her own headphones and closed her eyes, trying to get some sleep in the middle of the afternoon to try and adjust for the 9-hour difference between L.A. and her destination.

She was awoken hours later by Jack whispering her name. She opened her eyes to a dim cabin, the majority of the passengers reclined and asleep. Jack was standing in the aisle, leaning over a sleeping Jason, looking tired and groggy, his hair sticking up in all directions in the telltale sign of a man who had been unceremoniously awoken himself moments before.

Lena straightened immediately. “What is it? Is Kara okay?”

“She’s fine. She’s sleeping, like I should be,” Jack grumbled. “I don’t know. Andrea told me to get you.”

Lena gingerly climbed over Jason’s slumbering figure, then Jack did the same to take her spot, eager to go back to sleep. Lena made her way up to first class, where Andrea and Mercy were standing at the front, heads bowed together and whispering furiously at a low volume, careful not to disturb their sleeping lead, lying her seat which reclined fully into a bed, with an eye mask on and a blanket drawn to her shoulders.

As Lena approached, she got a better look at Andrea and Mercy in the dim lighting, and it was obvious that something was very wrong. Mercy was pale, her face alternating between angry and anxious, and Lena thought that she was even trembling slightly.

Lena, adopting the established tone, whispered, “What’s going on?”

Andrea looked at Mercy, saying do you want to tell her or should I? without the words. When Mercy said nothing, Andrea sighed and said, “Mercy won’t be continuing on with us. When we get to Heathrow, the rest of us are going on with our connecting flight to Barcelona, but she’s taking the first plane back to L.A.”

“Why?”

In response, Andrea handed Lena her cellphone. “See for yourself.” On screen was The Daily Spoiler. There was a new article that had been posted a couple of hours ago. It was short but ruinous and boiled down to this: Mercy Graves had known for years that Lex Luthor was sexually harassing contestants and had done nothing about it. “Morgan already emailed. Network’s suspending Mercy from the show, pending their investigation.”

“All right,” Lena said slowly as she absorbed the information. “What are the instructions to the cast and crew?” Obviously the cast couldn’t find out. The behind the scenes drama couldn’t surpass the on screen drama.

“I don’t know that any of the cast would notice her absence since they don’t see her much to begin with. If any of them do ask, we’ll say she had personal matters to attend to. As for the crew, we can’t keep it from them. They’re going to find out anyway. Everybody reads this trash website.” Crinkling her nose in disgust, Andrea waved her phone-clad hand to illustrate the point. Lena resisted the urge to point out that Andrea read it more than anyone. “The network’s preparing an email right now for the crew, telling them what’s going on. They’ll be instructed to not say a word about it to the cast.”

“This is bullshit,” Mercy muttered bitterly.

Lena was entirely unsympathetic and although she knew it wouldn’t help to pour salt in the wound, she couldn’t resist saying, “Actually, it sounds factual to me. You did know.”

Her temper flaring, Mercy contended hotly, “I didn’t know know. I told you, all I knew was what Otis had told me, and he didn’t even say all that much. And you know what, I still told Morgan about it anyway. He was the one who told me to let it go. So I did what I was supposed to do. And now Morgan’s going to be the one to tell me that I can’t work on my own show when he’s the one who made the call to do nothing? And he’s the one saying we should remind everyone what awful people Desiree and Victoria were on the show to try and discredit them with this ridiculous, harebrained ‘Top Ten Villains’ feature. But no, of course I’m the one who’s suspended. How is this fair?”

“Keep it down,” Andrea hissed, eyeing the sleeping Bachelorette lying a few feet away.

Lena refrained from telling Andrea that she knew from personal experience that Kara slept like the dead. That probably wasn’t the right thing to say right now. So instead, she told Mercy, “If you’re asking me if I think Morgan should lose his job too, the answer is yes.”

If it wasn’t for the possibility of being arrested, Mercy probably would have slugged Lena in the face.

Before Mercy could escalate with her own retort, Andrea intervened with, “Okay, let’s not make things worse.” Mercy muttered something about needing time alone and left to lock herself in the lavatory. She remained there for the rest of the flight.

***

In the lobby of their hotel in Barcelona, Jack robbed Lena of her hotel room key by swiping it out of her hands.

“You’re switching rooms with Nia,” he said. But as far as Lena was concerned, that wasn’t going to happen because of who Nia’s roommate was. She tried to reach for her keycard, but Jack’s long arms kept it out of reach. “Oh, come on. You have a single. If you switch with Nia, Brainy can stay with her instead of bunking with that weird, beautiful man who hogs all the bathroom space with his hair products.”

“You mean you?”

“Precisely. Nia and Brainy can share a room, I get my own room, you get to stare at Kara’s ass all night. Win, win, win, win. You can go ahead and call me brilliant now.”

“I don’t think so. Give me my key back.”

Jack pouted. Lena couldn’t help but think he was nowhere as cute with it as Kara was. “What? Why not?”

“Maybe because I’d like to have my own room?”

But while Lena frequently called him an idiot, with his full endorsement, Jack Spheer was not a stupid man. “Lies. You’ve been staying in Kara’s room this whole time, sharing a freaking bed and now you want your own room?” His eyes widened as the dime dropped. “Something happened! What? What is it? You promised that you’d tell me right away if something happened!”

With a nervous glance at the rest of the crew and cast standing not too far off, Lena shushed him hurriedly. “Keep your voice down.”

Obediently, Jack did lower his voice, not that it really helped. His excited fidgeting was attracting enough attention. “Lena, come on. Tell me, please?”

“I will! Just… later, okay?” Jack grumbled, but had enough sense - what little of it he had - not to keep pursuing the subject for the time being. “Just… trust me when I say that it’s not a good idea for me and Kara to share a room right now, okay?”

“Yeah, about that…”

At that opportune moment, Nia appeared, blindsiding Lena with a fierce hug. “Lena! Jack told me that you offered to switch rooms! That is so, so nice of you!”

And what could Lena do, except return the hug and glare at Jack over Nia’s shoulder?

Jack, feeling guilty, started, “So, Nia, about the rooms-”

“Don’t charge anything crazy to the room,” Lena interrupted. “You start ordering champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries, and someone’s going to notice, okay? This is still a work trip.” Nia was so excited and Lena wasn’t going to damper her spirits. Nia didn’t deserve that, neither did Brainy. No, she was just going to have to make Jack feel super guilty about this whole thing and lord it over him for the rest of his life. He did deserve it.

With an embarrassed, excited giggle, Nia answered, “I would never do that. This is so amazingly kind of you already. I don’t know how to thank you.”

“It’s fine. You and Brainy both work so hard. You deserve perks when you can get them.”

With another delighted squeal and a fierce hug, Nia accepted the room key and went off to find Brainy.

“I’m really sorry,” Jack said sincerely. “Do you want to stay in my room? Or we can switch?”

“You know we can’t leave the lead alone. And it’s bad optics for you to share a room with her. Mon-El would throw a tantrum.”

“We could ask Sam to switch?”

She waved her hand, discarding any future suggestions. “It’s fine, Jack. I can make this work. At least we’re not sharing a bed.”

Lena went to find Kara, who was sequestered in the hallway because her contestants were all in the lobby. Production didn’t even want her to look at the contestants if the cameras weren’t on. Lena told Kara of Nia’s room swap, and although she looked a bit surprised, Kara said nothing and quietly followed Lena to their room. They were in a suite; the door from the hallway opened up to a very small living room which just barely fit a two-seat sofa and an armchair, with a door next to the wall-mounted television that led to the bedroom which housed two twin beds. The twin beds were placed flush against each other and shared a single headboard, like a king sized bed that had been split in half.

Halting in the doorway between the living room and the bedroom, Lena looked on and remarked in a forced, neutral tone, “Right. European hotels.”

Peering over Lena’s shoulder, Kara looked over their sleeping arrangement. “So much for not muddling things.”

“We’re adults,” Lena replied, although she sounded a little unsure. “We can handle this.”

They brought their suitcases in and started unpacking. The room was just so small. The only closet was barely two feet away from the side of the bed, the narrow path could only be navigated by the two women continuously moving out of the way for one another by climbing onto the bed or stepping to the side. Contact was inevitable. A shoulder bump here. A brush of arms there. A back of a hand grazing along the side of a thigh. All with the bed right there. If Lena wanted to, she could crash into Kara right now, lips first, tumbling down to the mattress, run her hands down that well-defined torso, fingers meeting at the buttons at Kara’s waist and fumbling for-

Lena stepped away. “I think I’ll unpack later. I, uh- I need to speak to Jack about tomorrow’s shoot.”

Kara stood, unmoving, a blue polo shirt dangling from her hands. “Okay.”

Lena fled. Down the hallway to Jack’s room where he let her in without questions. She stepped in the room. Although it had only been twenty minutes since she saw him in the lobby, he had somehow already managed to unleash a tornado of candy bars and clothes everywhere. She stepped over a pile of sweaters on the floor to get into the room and made her way to the bed, where she had to push aside an assorted collection of chocolates to make room for herself to sit.

Jack, less fussy about these things, flopped down next to her, right on top of his snacks. “Did you give up already?"

“No. Just… taking a breather.” Lena shifted uncomfortably, reaching underneath where she sat and pulling out a Butterfinger. Jack held out his hand and she passed it over.

Jack unwrapped the candy and took a large bite. “Is it story time now?”

It was. Lena told him the whole story - what had happened the night before they flew out. The day she spent with Kara, having dinner together, and then what Kara had said to her in the living room. What she said back. What Kara said to her the next morning. By the time she was done, Jack was sitting cross-legged on the bed, popping M&Ms in his mouth as he listened with captivated attention, like a little kid taking in a campfire story.

“Wow,” he said with a mouth full of chocolates. “So you took Kara out on a lovely, romantic date, cooked her an elaborate dinner, literally wined and dined her, and then you go all surprised Pikachu when she told you that she had feelings for you?”

Lena winced. “I hate when you talk in memes. And it was not a romantic date. It was a... friend date.”

“Uh-huh,” said Jack with monotone skepticism. “Tell me, was there music playing?”

Lena was suddenly lost for words. “Uh, well…”

“You played her Norah Jones, didn’t you?”

“That’s not fair, you know I enjoy her music.”

“Lena, Lena, Lena.” Jack accompanied the refrain with a dramatic sigh. “My sweet, naive Lena. You can’t just go around cooking girls delicious dinners and playing them Norah Jones. What did you expect to happen?”

Lena didn’t know what to say to that. Jack had a point. “It doesn’t matter. Kara- she’s just confused. She’s mistaking feelings of friendship for something more than it is. Friendship for women can be… intense. Sometimes straight women end up treating their lesbian friend like a boyfriend because it’s convenient and they enjoy the attention.” She didn’t like the way Jack was looking at her. Like she was a crazy creature and he just wanted to do his best not to set her off. “What, Jack?”

“It’s just that… Kara kind of has like, nine boyfriends right now? She’s really not starving for attention? So all of this ‘oh, she’s just using me as a boyfriend stand-in’...” Jack scrunched up his nose and shrugged easily. “I mean, it just sounds like a crock of shit. Also, need I point out again that you literally took her out on a date? So it sounds to me like she’s treating you like a romantic partner, you’re treating her the same way, so, I don’t know, maybe you’re just dating.”

Ugh, Jack. Sometimes she really regretted being friends with him. But then, who would call her out on her shit? “Look, if we met out in the real world- yeah, maybe things would be different. But she’s the lead of our show, the entire premise of which is heterosexual marriage. She’s going to be engaged to one of our contestants in a few weeks. This is not the time to entertain her straight girl crushes.”

“It’s really interesting that you keep referring to her heterosexuality. If she’s just a confused straight woman, that makes it a lot easier on you, doesn’t it?”

Lena swatted at his arm. “Stop trying to pretend like you’re the voice of reason here. It’s a weird look on you.”

“Babe, I’m just saying things as they pop into my head. You’re the one who called me the voice of reason.”

“Well, I take that back then. Anyway, regardless of what Kara is, there’s too much at stake here. I’m not risking the show and all of our jobs for her… temporary insanity.”

“If it makes you feel better, between Lex and Mercy, it sounds like the show’s imploding anyway, so…” he flashed a wide, impish grin. “Carpe diem, you know?”

“You really should stop encouraging your boss to have an affair with the lead. It's insane.”

Jack shrugged lazily, popping a fistful of M&M’s in his mouth. “Yeah, well. I need some flaws to balance out all this.” He gestured at his face, moving an open palm up and down. “Otherwise I overwhelm people with my perfection.”

Lena shook her head, as if she could physically shake off the strain. “I can’t talk about this anymore. Distract me. What’s new with you?”

Which was an absurd question, given that Jack had been spending all his time either on set or hanging out with her. He tried to rise to the challenge anyway. “Um… do you wanna hear about the slap fight I got into on Reddit about cheese?”

“That sounds incredibly stupid,” she replied. “Yes, please.”

So he did. And it was incredibly stupid, full of pedantic corrections, and references to logical fallacies and Nazis. It at least provided Lena with secondhand entertainment and a welcome distraction from the mess that was her life.

By the time she got back to her room, Kara was already in bed. She had left the light on in the bathroom and the door slightly ajar, letting in a stream of light into the room so that Lena could find her way in the dark. Lena quietly got ready for bed, turned off the lights, and slipped under the covers. In the dark, she couldn’t see Kara but could feel her presence, could hear deep heaving, almost gentle snoring, of her breath. Maybe, given everything that’s happened over the last 48 hours, she should feel discomfited or anxious. But as she drifted off to sleep, keenly aware of the proximity of the other woman, she felt nothing but soothed.

***

Kara’s first date in Barcelona was a one-on-one with William. Now that Lena had been officially designated Kara’s handler, she had to be on set for every date. She’d forgotten how miserable these dates could be. The long hours spent on set, periods of boredom waiting for something to happen alternating with the frenzy of absolute chaos. Today’s date was taking place in an ice bar named Fortress of Solitude, which featured cozy little booths (all carved out of ice, of course) for couples to snuggle, affording them some semblance of privacy. Or at least it would for a normal couple on a date who didn’t have five cameras following them around and filming every moment.

William, along with every other sensible human being in the room, was clothed in a heavy parka, gloves, and hat. It was literally freezing. Then there was Kara, chilling in a light sweater and jeans, sitting on an ice bench, sipping a drink like it was a regular bar. Lena thought it was remarkable how the woman seemed immune to extreme temperatures.

“Are you sure you don’t want my coat?” William asked again for the third time, looking concerned. “I really don’t mind.” Which was a blatant lie because, despite his warm attire, he had his arms folded across his chest, both legs pistoning rapidly in a futile attempt to raise his body temperature.

“No, I like the cold. I usually run warm.”

The two of them were sitting side by side on a bench, a polite gap in between them. There was an opportunity here. The obvious move here was them to cuddle up close - they were having a date in subzero temperatures for a reason. And if the cast members were too polite to make the first move, it was the on-site producer’s job to suggest it.

That producer now being Lena.

She could hear Andrea’s voice in her head, “What are you waiting for? Make the suggestion.”

That wasn’t figurative. It was a literal voice, Andrea’s instruction being piped in through Lena’s earpiece. Andrea was in the mobile control outside, sitting comfortably in a cushy chair, probably with a snack, doling out comments and instructions over the radio while Lena was bundled up in the freezing cold. No wonder Veronica looked pissed off all the time.

“Maybe you should move a little closer to each other,” Lena now said evenly. Coldly, one might say. “For warmth.”

William looked very pleased at the suggestion, while Kara stared back at Lena with a blank, inscrutable look. But she complied and shifted closer to William until their bodies were touching.

And came Andrea’s voice into Lena’s ear, “Seriously? This is the best we can do? Is this Bachelorette or a middle school dance?”

Lena strained to keep her expression and tone neutral. “William, you look so cold. Are you still cold?”

He looked immensely grateful for the help. “Uh, yeah, a bit.”

As Kara turned her gaze back to Lena, a steel glint set in, and her jaw clenched slightly, which went unnoticed by everyone else except Lena, who had grown to know Kara’s expressions and tics so well. You know, because it was her job. That’s all. Cooperatively, Kara encircled one arm around William’s torso, heavily leaning into him. William looked ecstatic, and placed his hand on top of her thigh.

At the close of the date, after Kara gave William the date rose, he kissed her. She kissed back.

And Lena reminded herself: Inhale. Exhale.

***

“You’re a bit of a masochist, aren’t you?”

Looking up from her computer screen, Lena found Andrea standing in the doorway of the hotel conference room, which the show had booked for the week to serve as a makeshift production office. After they wrapped on filming at the ice bar, Kara asked to go to a supermarket before heading back to the hotel. Evidently, for Kara, the major tourist attraction of any foreign country was its supermarkets and the stockpile of local snacks and junk food. A few days ago, Lena probably would have gone with her, but now she delegated the task of escorting Kara to Nia. Maybe Lena could stay locked up in the conference room until Kara went to bed. She wouldn’t necessarily say that she was avoiding Kara. More like… temporarily prioritizing work. Even if that work was reviewing the budget for a new show LuthorMedia was thinking of greenlighting. It had nothing to do with the Bachelorette or her actual job description, but, as Lena rationalized, she was a Luthor and therefore everything that fell under the umbrella of LuthorMedia was her job.

Lena said nothing and waited for Andrea to give in. Which she did when she clarified. “It’s late, Lena, and we’re in a beautiful city. Why are you still working?”

Lena leaned back in her seat, rolling slightly away from the table. “I thought that you of all people would appreciate the effort. I know how devoted you are to the show.”

For a moment, Andrea just stood in the doorway, watching Lena with a vaguely reluctant expression. At last, she took a few steps into the room. “I have to ask you something.”

Lena felt weary before the question was even asked. Whatever it was, it wasn’t going to be easy. Nevertheless, she said, “All right.”

Andrea took a deep breath. “Did you know about Lex? What he was doing?”

It was hard not to be offended at the question. “How would I have known?” Lena returned sharply. “I haven’t been here. You were his director, Andrea. I should ask you the same question.”

“Well, I didn’t. I wouldn’t have kept it to myself if I had known.”

“But would you look the other way if Morgan asked you to?”

It was telling that Andrea took a few seconds to consider her answer. “I would like to think that I wouldn’t. But I honestly don’t know.”

“At least you’re honest about that.”

Andrea looked away, staring off into space, clearly contemplating whether she should say what was on her mind. Lena waited for her decision. At last, making up her mind, Andrea took a few steps closer. “Can we speak frankly?”

“I wasn’t aware that we weren’t.”

“Yes, you were,” Andrea returned bluntly. “We haven’t been honest with each other in years, Lena.”

Lena had always wondered whether they would ever have that post-mortem on what was once a close friendship. Over time, as relations cooled, she thought that they would never acknowledge how their friendship had deteriorated. They were both too passive-aggressive and emotionally stunted to address the issue. But it looked like it was happening now. “Okay. Let’s speak. Frankly.”

Andrea nodded, and took a seat across the table from Lena. “I know that you hate the show and everything that it stands for, but I think you’ve taken it out on the wrong person. I think everything that’s gone wrong with us is because you resent the fact that I didn’t walk away when you did. And that’s not fair. You helped me get this job, then you fault me for excelling at it.”

“I don’t fault you for that. I fault you for siding with Lex and Lillian every opportunity you had. We had a real chance at change when you came on board. We could’ve pushed for a person of color as lead. We could’ve let the cast discuss real issues on camera - race, religion, politics, we could’ve tried to make the show better.”

“And that’s the difference between us. You’re myopic in your goals, Lena. When you look at the show, you see its white cast and what we show the audience, and yes, that includes some outdated conventions. Do you know what I see? I see a room full of women in creative control. Every single senior producer is a woman, Lena, in a male-dominated industry. You know how rare that is. So maybe I’ve let Lillian and the network win on some things, but that’s because I think it’s more important to preserve the show and its crew than to risk everything on some lofty social justice principle. And now we have the most diverse cast we’ve ever had. Sometimes change has to happen in small increments.”

Lena scoffed. “You call this change? Our front runner is still white, Lillian refuses to let James have a one-on-one date with Kara, and we’ve also managed to keep around one of the most racist people we’ve ever seen for the sake of entertainment.”

“Mon-El is here because Kara wants him to be. Just like James and William and Kenny and Jason. That is change, and it’s change I’ve been working my ass off to get to while you were off having a tantrum on the other side of the country.” Her calm demeanor cracking, Andrea’s voice rose as passion overtook her. Collecting herself, she took a breath, and started again in a more even tone. “I’ve always considered you my friend, even if you don’t consider me yours. So it’s in the spirit of friendship that I tell you that you need to do something about you and Kara.”

Lena’s instinct, per usual, was to deny. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Come on, Lena. I saw the date today. I had to prompt you for every little thing. She’s not making the connections that she should and I think we both know why. Look, I don’t know what’s going on with the two of you and I don’t really want to know. What I do know is that the show won’t survive another scandal. Not after what Lex did. We’re talking hundreds of jobs here, Lena. Forget your career and mine, we’ll have other opportunities. Think about Jack, or Nia, or Brainy, and Sam and her daughter. You think it’ll be so easy for them to pick up gigs as good as this one? Their jobs depend on you not fucking everything up.”

It wasn’t as if Lena hadn’t thought about that. It wasn’t as if she wasn’t already trying her best to avoid Kara. But it was one thing to think these things to yourself and quite another to have someone else expose it for you.

“There’s nothing going on,” Lena said insistently. “Jack’s been around me and Kara more than anyone. He doesn’t think there’s a problem there.”

“Jack loves you to the exclusion of reason,” answered Andrea. “I only love you to the point of. Jack would give up just about anything for you. I thought maybe you’d be willing to do the same for him.”

Having delivered the killing blow, Andrea’s job for the evening was done. She rose from her seat.

“Do better, Lena.”

***

The next date was a group date at an “urban adventure park,” an outdoor structure of concrete pillars with a mess of platforms, crossbeams, and wires where people can zipline, bungee jump, wire walk, climb ropes, and otherwise participate in all manners of activities not suitable for an acrophobe, which of course meant that one of the contestants selected to go on this date had a debilitating fear of heights.

Kenny looked up at the platform twenty-five feet up in the air, color draining from his face. “Uhh. Can I just sit this out?”

Next to him, Mon-El was eagerly clipping his harness into a carabiner. “Come on, man, I thought you were an astronaut? Don’t tell me you’re afraid of heights?”

“I’m an analyst. I sit in a cubicle and stare at numbers all day,” Kenny replied. Around him, the other members of the date were getting their gear on to climb up on the platform. Kara, Mon-El, James, and Jason were all excited for the day’s activities. Winn and Mxy seemed a little apprehensive, but were dutifully going along with it, leaving Kenny the only one to balk.

Kara, coming to his rescue, interjected, “He doesn’t have to do this if he doesn’t want to. Right, Lena?” Kara looked to the producer for help, who was standing off to the side, trying to stay out of the cameras’ view.

Lena hesitated. Then chose to do her job. “Well, it’s technically part of his contract.”

That was not what Kara had wanted or expected to hear. She had expected Lena to back her up on this, if only because it was the right thing to do.

“I don’t think Kenny should have to do this if he doesn’t want to,” Kara said defiantly.

Lena looked over her shoulder at Sam, who was Kenny’s handler. Getting the message, Sam stepped forward and patted Kenny on the shoulder. “Hey, come on, let’s take a walk.”

As Sam led Kenny away for a pep talk, the others got started on their activities. Kara agilely climbed up the ladder to the platforms high above, and started on the ropes course, moving with ease and comfort through the air like gravity meant nothing to her. Lena watched her from below, a mix of emotions coursing through her. First, there was worry; for although she knew that Kara was tethered to a belay system, she had doubts about the security of the devices and frankly, the facility’s belayer looked about fourteen years old and possibly drunk. And then, there was… excitement? Stimulation? She won’t concede to “arousal” but observing Kara’s physical prowess… did things to her. Lastly, there was conflict, for feeling things that she knew she shouldn’t be.

It was a welcome reprieve to have Mon-El ask to pull Kara aside from some one-on-one time. Lena approved the request. The pair unhooked their harnesses and stepped into the refreshment tent, which might not have been the romantic location, but at least shielded them from the curious, jealous stares of the other contestants. Then there was Lena, whose stare was professional and purely observant, if you asked her.

Over her protests, Mon-El gallantly escorted Kara to her seat and then went off to bring her a Gatorade. If he had asked, she probably would have preferred water instead, but maybe it was the thought that counted. When he returned, they chatted amiably about the day’s events.

It was incredibly boring.

And so, when Mon-El moved away to procure Kara an unsolicited refill, Lena took the opportunity to prompt her lead. “We should try to move conversation a little deeper,” she suggested. “We’re not going to find out if he’s a good fit for you as a husband if the conversation revolves around the weather.”

Kara looked a little baffled, which was disconcerting. At this stage, she should already know what to do and how the game was played. “Deeper, okay. So I should ask him about- I don’t know, his politics?”

“Kara, you know we don’t talk about that.” Things that Bachelorette never talked about: politics and religion (unless it was a vague reference to faith or Jesus). They would never air anything that risked alienating their audience. “Ask him about his past relationships. Ask him if he’s ready for marriage. Things like that. It also wouldn’t hurt if you were to…” There was no pleasant way to say it. Lena gritted her teeth. “...exhibit some… sensuality.”

“Sense what now?” But it wasn’t like Kara didn’t understand. “Should I take my top off and mount him?”

Lena bit the inside of her cheek to suppress the urge to scream. With tremendous restraint, she said steadily, “If the urge strikes you.”

Kara eyed the camera crew standing not far off, knowing that she couldn’t say what she really wanted to say. “Is that what you’d really like me to do?”

Purposefully, sadistically, masochistically, Lena maintained steady eye contact. “Yes. It is.”

Mon-El’s return cut off any arguments Kara would have raised. With one last hard stare to Lena, as soon as Mon-El sat down, Kara leaned over, grabbing her suitor by the side of his head and pulling him in for a long, searing kiss that scalded and shredded Lena’s insides. By some miracle, she kept it together, observing impassively as the camera crew around her swirled around her for a better shot. Mon-El, eager and ecstatic, reciprocated without hesitation, his hands prowling over Kara’s body.

This was one of the worst things Lena had ever done to herself.

When Kara broke away from Mon-El, she cast a glance to Lena - for approval or just a reaction, Lena couldn’t be sure, but whatever it was she was looking for, she didn’t get it. There was only Lena’s ever statuesque demeanor. Frustration plain on her face, Kara looked on the verge of something - kiss Mon-El again, throw something, scream out loud - anything destructive.

Sam’s arrival thankfully halted whatever Kara was going to do next. “I finally got him on ropes,” she announced as she strolled into the room. “He’s only three feet off the ground, but I guess that’s progress. Kara, can you help? Maybe we can get him up on the platform if you hold his hand.” At the thought of Kara even holding hands with another man, Mon-El scowled and looked away.

“Only if he wants to,” Kara replied firmly. “I’m not going to talk him into it.”

As it turned out, persuasion was not needed. Whether it be bravado or just the irresistible lure of holding Kara’s hand, Kenny readily agreed. After climbing up to the top of the platform, twenty-five feet up in the air, Kara and Kenny sat side-by-side, holding hands, legs dangling off the edge of the platform, cracking corny jokes like a couple of teenagers hanging out on high school bleachers. Finally, it was Kenny who suggested that they try the wire walk.

“Are you sure?” asked Kara. “You don’t have to. You know you have nothing to prove.”

Kenny nodded confidently. “You can’t be brave without fear.”

Kara went first, traipsing across strung wire like she was on solid ground, barely touching the guide rope that ran parallel to the wire at chest level. When she reached the other side, she looked back at Kenny with an encouraging smile. Kenny drew a calming breath and took that first step. Then another. Slowly but steadily, he inched his way forward, both hands firmly clutching onto the guide rope. It was evident that he was nervous. Even from the ground, Lena could see that he was trembling. Despite that, he soldiered on, every step a challenge he overcame. Kara watched anxiously from the platform. The crew and the other contestants observed from below. Although Kenny was their competitor, the men shouted out words of encouragement and cheered him on. When Kenny was at last near the end where Kara awaited, she reached out her hand and pulled him into the platform and into a fierce bear hug as the crowd below erupted into enthusiastic applause. Kenny beamed and waved down below, perspiring from exertion and nerves but looking proud as hell at conquering his fear.

Mission accomplished, it was time to head back down. Kenny went first and started climbing down the ladder.

That’s when it happened. On the third rung down, still shaking slightly from adrenaline, his foot slipped and the misstep sent the full weight of his body into nothing but air. Then gravity did its work, pulling his body towards the ground; his fingers briefly scraped uselessly against upper rungs before losing grip. Kara darted forward, arms outstretched, but it was too sudden and too fast, and her hand barely grazed Kenny’s before he plummeted. The facility’s belayer, young and lackadaisical and brazen enough to be careless for the climb down, was too slow to act.

Kenny hit the ground with a thud.

***

Kenny’s not dead. It’s not that kind of story.

But he was carted off to the hospital in an ambulance, looking pale and sweaty from the pain and the sight of his leg at an odd angle, but at least conscious. Kara tried to go with him. Lena had to be the one to stop her. It didn’t go over well.

Lena had never seen Kara so angry. So angry with her.

The date was, of course, over. Kara was silent on the car ride back to the hotel, resentment seeping from every pore. As soon as they got to the hotel, she stomped up to the room and slammed shut the bedroom door behind her, leaving Lena locked out in the room’s small living room.

Which was maybe for the best, because then began the endless phone calls. Lillian. Morgan. LuthorMedia’s lawyer. The owner of the adventure park. Lillian and Morgan. The network’s lawyer. Insurance agents. The adventure park’s lawyers. LuthorMedia and the network’s lawyers. This was a major fuck up, and everybody wanted to weigh in, investigate, probe, prepare a defense. In between these calls, Lena called Sam periodically to get updates on Kenny’s condition. When she finally had news, she knocked on the door to the bedroom.

“Kara? Can I come in?”

From the other side of the door, Kara murmured an assent. Lena entered, and found Kara curled up on the bed, covers pulled up to hide half her face, eyes puffy and red from crying. She approached slowly, unsure whether Kara was still mad at her, and gingerly sat down on the edge of the bed.

“I heard from Sam,” Lena said. “He broke his leg. He might need surgery, so we’re taking him back to the States so he can rest at home.”

Without removing the covers from her face, Kara asked muffledly, “He has to go by himself?”

“No. We’ll hire a nurse, fly them both first class. He’ll be well taken care of.”

Kara was quiet for a moment. Then said, “I should’ve gone with him to the hospital.”

“Sam was with him,” responded Lena quietly, already feeling guilty.

At the mention of Sam’s name, Kara bolted up, throwing aside the covers. “That’s the least she could after making him go up there when she knew he was afraid.”

“Don’t blame Sam for this. She was doing her job. And she didn’t make him do anything. Neither did you. Kenny went up there because he wanted to - and regardless, it was an accident.”

“Job? Just doing her job?” Agitated, Kara scrambled off the bed. “That’s a hell of a job you guys have. Locking claustrophobes in wardrobes and making acrophobes do wire walks- what the hell, Lena? And what else? Making two friends go on a two-on-one date so that one of them has to go home? Having Ben on the show and making me keep him around? You’re not making a dating show, it’s torture porn. All you do is make people suffer! Then you point a camera at it and broadcast it for people’s entertainment!”

Every word was a gut punch. Truth always hit the hardest. Lena had no illusions about what the show was, what her family had created. But, on the other hand:

“You knew what you were getting yourself into,” she said calmly. “You’ve seen the show. You partook in that entertainment and you enjoyed it when you were on the other side of the screen, so don’t pretend like you don’t understand why this is happening. You were a participant before you ever signed a contract. You’re upset now because it’s harder than you expected, but you knew exactly what this show was. Kenny did too. Both of you knew what would be expected of you and what we would ask you to do, and you chose to come on the show anyway.” She watched Kara visibly deflate, her words having scored a solid hit. It made her feel like shit. Conciliatorily, she reached out. “Kara-”

Kara cut her off with a sharp shake of her head. “I’m tired, Lena. I’m very tired. I’d like to go to bed now.”

Without waiting for a response, she stopped around Lena and went for the bathroom. She closed the door behind her, shutting Lena out with a soft click.

***

Lena had tried to reschedule the next day’s date. She really did. But her attempts were firmly rebuffed. Apparently the date involved nonrefundable helicopter rides. They were scheduled to leave Barcelona in two days to move on to their next city. They still had a rose ceremony to film and the crew was scheduled to have a day off before they left the city.

The date was a two-on-one. With Manchester and Ben.

“At least you’ll be able to get rid of Ben now,” Lena said encouragingly in the car ride over to the date location. They were heading toward a helipad, where a helicopter would take the trio up to the mountaintop of a national park, and they would spend the afternoon hiking. Lena didn’t know who came up the idea of putting Manchester and Ben together in a small metal box in the sky, but it was either stupid or brilliant, depending on whether that person had intended to plan for homicide.

“It’s fine,” answered Kara dispassionately, eyes resolutely glued to the scenery out the window. She had barely looked at Lena all day. All last night too. After she got out of the bathroom, she had wordlessly climbed in bed and went to (or at least pretended to) sleep.

They soon arrived at the helipad, where Manchester and Ben were already waiting by the helicopter, Manchester standing as far away from Ben as he was permitted to. Ben looked really pleased, likely relishing his chance to perform today and push Manchester’s buttons.

Kara got out of the car and started the long approach to the helicopter. It really wasn’t good television to have the lead drag her feet and look like she was heading for an execution, but given the circumstances, Lena supposed they couldn’t ask for more. A few feet out of the car, Kara suddenly froze in her path and stared at the two men ahead of her. They stared back, befuddled at her sudden lack of movement.

“You all right?” Manchester called out.

Kara turned to Lena, who had been following close behind her. “Do you have the rose?”

Hesitantly, Lena replied, “Yes, but we’re not doing that yet.”

“Give it to me, please.”

“Kara, the date hasn’t even started.”

Slowly and firmly, Kara enunciated clearly, “Give. It. To. Me.” She was rooted firmly where she stood. Lena got the feeling that she would stand there all day if she had to.

With a nod at a PA, the rose was retrieved and handed over. Now with the rose in hand, Kara confidently stalked toward her contestants. Lena watched as she ignored Andrea’s confused screeches in her ear. She knew that she should probably try to stop Kara from doing whatever it was she was about to do. But she also knew, from watching Kara’s bold, steady movements, that there was no stopping her. Everyone had a limit. This week, with Kenny’s hospitalization, Lena’s rejection, being constantly prodded by the woman she had feelings for to cozy up to the contestants, and just the general overall fuckery of this show, Kara had reached hers.

As Kara neared the men, Ben broke out into a wide, smarmy smile. “Kara! It’s so good to-”

“Shut it,” Kara snapped. “I have no interest in hearing anything from you. This charade has gone on far enough.” She held up the rose, making sure that the men got a good look. Then she closed a fist over it, crushing it, then tore and shredded the petals. She brushed her hands together, sending the last remnants of the destroyed flower fall. “I don’t need a date to tell me that I don’t want to spend any more time with either of you. Ben, you’re a terrible person. Manchester, I’m sorry you had to deal with him but it’s just not going to work out between us. I just- I can’t blame you for the way you’ve reacted to him, but at the same time, it’s too intense for me.” She turned back to Lena, suddenly looking much more complacent. “Okay, I’m done.” With sure, relaxed strides, Kara went back to the car.

Through her earpiece, Lena could hear Andrea’s loud, angry expletives. The door to the mobile control trailer burst open, and out flung the director in a storm.

Lena held up her hands placatingly. “I’ll handle this.” Leaving Andrea standing there, glaring and heaving, Lena walked back to the car, climbing in the backseat where Kara was and shutting the door behind her.

Kara was seated primly on the far side, staring straight ahead. Lena took out her earpiece, and settled in on the other side of the car. The pair sat in silence next to one another. Finally, Kara turned her head and looked at the woman next to her. Lena met her eyes.

In an instant, the two of them broke out into hysterical cackling. The kind of deep, satisfying laughter that infected every cell, knocked the wind out of you, and made it hard to breathe.

“I can’t believe you did that,” wheezed Lena as she struggled to get control of herself. “You just ruined tomorrow’s rose ceremony. We lost three guys this week and now we have no one to eliminate!”

“Oh, well,” Kara replied lightly. “If you want, I’ll just eliminate everyone tomorrow and send everybody home.” She peered out the window, at Andrea’s scowling, pacing figure. “She’s really mad, huh?”

“Andrea doesn’t like it when something doesn’t go according to plan. She just needs a few minutes.”

“And… you?” Kara ventured carefully. “Are you mad?”

“No,” Lena answered quietly and in return, “Are you?”

“No. I mean, I was. Last night was…” She shook her head. “It was hard. Seeing Kenny like that. But you were right, it was an accident. It wasn’t Sam’s fault.”

“You were right too. This show does cruel things for entertainment.”

“But we’re willing participants,” Kara reminded her.

“I suppose,” Lena sighed. “Doesn’t always feel that way, does it?”

Kara shook her head. “I’m sorry we fought.”

“Me too.” Lena made a movement, clearly looking for a hug, which Kara was all too happy to give.

After breaking from their embrace, Kara asked, “You’re really not mad about what I just did?”

“No. I didn’t expect it but sometimes that’s a good thing. They’re always saying they want drama, and that was definitely dramatic. Andrea will realize that once she calms down.”

“Good,” said Kara softly.

“Kara.” Lena leaned over, resting her hand on top of Kara’s. “I know it’s been a hard week. It’ll get better.”

Kara let out a small, mirthless chuckle. “I don’t know if it will.”

“Of course it will. Ben and Manchester are gone now. We mostly have good guys left, so the dates will get easier. It’ll be fun.”

“But I don’t want-” Kara cut herself off abruptly. She had her hands balled up in tight fists in her lap as she worried at her bottom lip. Lena hated the sight of it.

“Darling, what is it?”

“I don’t… I don’t want to make things difficult for you,” murmured Kara in a low, dejected tone.

She knew then what Kara was getting at. She sat back, pulling her hand away, which only made Kara look even more miserable. “Oh, Kara- it’ll get better, I promise. You’ve been so distracted by all the drama with Ben, you haven’t had the chance to focus on the men. Now that he’s gone, you’ll be able to focus on your relationships and you’ll see what a real romantic connection is, and it’s not this.”

That was apparently the wrong thing to say, because Kara’s gaze took on a hard edge and Lena could practically see the other woman retreating behind an emotional barricade.

Kara looked out the window. The conversation was over. “Can we just go?”

And that was it. Having little choice in the matter, Lena called for the driver to take them back to the hotel.

***

Since they had already lost three men that week, there was no need to eliminate anyone and the rose ceremony was cancelled. Still, they went ahead with a cocktail party to give Kara more time with the men. But more importantly, they had already booked and paid for the liquor and the venue for the party. So the show went on.

With only six guys left, it was a lot more intimate than previous gatherings. All the men had their time with Kara. In that sense, it went smoother. On the other hand, they were getting to the time where jealousy started to rear its ugly head.

While Mxy had his alone time with Kara, Mon-El launched into a 15-minute long rant about how annoying and ridiculous he was. James and Winn tried to soothe him, but he was getting more and more worked up until Jack had to take him out of the room and away from the cameras. Protect the Wifey. The audience likes a bit of jealousy, but not psychotic jealousy, which their front runner was veering dangerously close to.

Lena was unimpressed with the whole display. At least Mon-El’s never had to watch, let alone encourage, Kara to make out with another man. Amateur.

He’s never had to tell Kara that maybe she should bring James into the next room so they can be alone, then, upon finding only one armchair in the room, suggest to Kara that James’s lap would be a suitable seat. He didn’t drop hints all over the place that Kara should think about caressing Jason’s chest. He didn’t encourage Kara to kiss Winn just to “test the chemistry.” He didn’t have to choke down the bile in his throat when William stuck his tongue in Kara’s mouth.

So, yeah. Mon-El could just shut the fuck up, thank you very much.

Kara was in a good mood for most of the evening. She made jokes, chatted easily with her guys, flirted and kissed them. And Lena thought that maybe this evening was the turning point. Now that Kara was finally making romantic connections with her contestants, she would abandon whatever silly notions she had about supposedly having feelings for Lena.

As the evening dwindled, there was a noticeable shift in Kara’s mood. When there was a spare moment, Sam whispered to Lena, “What’s with Kara?”

“It’s just been a long week. Especially with Kenny getting hurt.”

Sam instantly looked guilty. Even though no one blamed her (except for Kara, in those fleeting moments in the hotel room that no one else knew about), it was clear that she still felt responsible because Kenny was one of hers.

“Maybe we should take her out tomorrow,” Sam suggested. “See the city. Blow off some steam? I could probably use it myself.”

Lena agreed readily.

***

Sam organized a trip around the city the next day for Kara and her favorite crew members: Nia, Brainy, Jack, and Lena. For the most part, Lena and Kara didn’t say much to one another. Lena wouldn’t say that they were avoiding each other, per se, just… maintaining proper boundaries.

At one point, while everyone was in line for ice cream and Jack sat with Lena to claim a table, he said, “So I take it you haven’t carpe’d Kara’s diem yet?”

“I don’t even know what you’re trying to say,” Lena replied shortly.

That really wasn’t an invitation for clarification, but obviously, Jack interpreted it differently when he said bluntly, “I’m saying you should bang her.”

“Jack. Don’t be ridiculous. Do you have any idea what that would do to our show?”

“Nope,” Jack answered proudly. “When you’re this pretty, you don’t have to think about consequences.”

Before she could call him an idiot, the others came back, and she secured his silence with a glare.

They (mostly Sam and Jack) decided to end the night at a club. That wasn’t Lena’s thing at all, so she decided to call it a night. Or, at least, she would have if Jack hadn’t had the foresight to steal her wallet and room key.

“One drink,” he promised.

“Two,” Sam corrected.

“Two,” Jack repeated. “Two drinks and you can leave.”

That was annoying, but totally on brand for Jack. It wasn’t the first time he’d done something like this and probably not the last. Lena had come to expect this kind of behavior from him, and she was fine with it.

Except.

After forty-five minutes, she had finished her drinks. She went to the bathroom. By the time she came back, her friends had all dispersed. She went to track them down to say goodbye. She couldn’t find Brainy and Nia - and, really, with how handsy they were getting with each other, she wasn’t sure that she wanted to. She found Sam, Jack, and Kara on the dance floor.

When she said that she was leaving, Jack said, “Hold on there, I’m just going to get a drink from the bar. I’ll be right back.”

Taking Sam by the hand, he pulled her away, leaving Lena alone with Kara, who was already three shots in and dancing up a storm. Lena swayed awkwardly, trying not to stick out. She was definitely not a dancer, but she could shuffle along until Sam and Jack returned.

But they never did.

After twenty minutes, Lena finally forced herself to conclude that she had again fallen victim to one of Jack’s harebrained schemes. Lena couldn’t just leave their half-drunk lead in the middle of a night club. Especially not with drunken men periodically staggering up to try and grind against her. In this sea of people, Kara, with her shiny blonde hair and taut physique that swayed and gyrated perfectly to every beat, was like a siren-staffed lighthouse shining so brightly that the men were unwilling to resist an approach. Lena had to physically push a couple of them away. She’d witnessed enough of that on set.

“Let’s get some water,” she suggested to Kara.

Kara acquiesced, following Lena to the bar, where she asked the bartender for a double shot that she promptly downed.

Exasperated, Lena admonished lightly, “Kara, I need to get you sober.”

“Don’t wanna be,” returned Kara petulantly. “I’ve had an awful week, Lena. I just want to let loose.”

“It wasn’t so bad, was it? I know what happened with Kenny was hard, but there were good parts. Ben’s gone now. And last night, with the guys? You had a good time at the cocktail party.”

Kara gaped at her, incredulous. “No, I didn’t. I hated it. I hated all of it.”

This was a complete surprise to Lena. She had no idea that Kara was so good at pretending. “But… you seemed like you were having fun. What was wrong?”

Kara’s entire face and body language screamed, are you fucking kidding me? But with a savage shake of her head, she said, “Nevermind.”

Then she stalked off towards the direction of the bathroom. Lena didn’t have any choice but to follow. It was too crowded at the bar to have this conversation anyway. Thankfully, the bathroom was empty, and Lena locked the door behind her as she entered.

“Kara, I don’t understand. You were having fun last night. I saw you. Giggling while sitting in Mon-El’s lap.” Lena tried to say that bit as neutrally as she could. Bitterness? What bitterness?

Kara threw her hands up. “Because you asked me to!”

“So… what, you don’t like Mon-El?”

“I mean, I kind of do. Yeah, he’s handsome and it’s nice that he likes me a lot, but…” Kara was wringing her hands nervously. “I just- I don’t feel as strongly for him as I do for… you.”

Right. So that was still a thing. And here Lena thought Kara was finally coming to her senses. How foolish.

“Kara,” Lena tried gently. “You need to give it some time. You’ll see, as you spend more time with the guys, you’ll realize that these feelings you think you have for me aren’t real.”

That was the wrong thing to say. Because Kara growled in frustration and cried out, “Stop! Stop that!”

“Kara, what-”

“Look, I’ve been trying. I really have. I know this is your job so I didn’t want to go around bringing up my feelings and making things awkward for you, but you- you really have to stop doing that, telling me that I don’t feel what I feel.”

“But it’s true.” Or at least it was to Lena. It had to be. So she kept repeating it, over and over. “You’re not even into women. You’re just mistaking feelings of friendship for something more just because of this crazy, high-pressure environment and-”

And that was really the wrong thing to say.

Agitated, Kara broke in with, “Stop invalidating my feelings! It’s fine if you don’t want me, okay? But stop telling me I don’t feel what I feel. I don’t know why you keep doing this- maybe it’s easier for you or something, but it’s not easy on me and you’re starting to make me feel crazy here. I don’t know why I feel what I feel, but I do. I don’t know if I’m into women or if it’s just you or if I’m gay or bi or pan or whatever- I just, I don’t know! All I know is that my brain is telling me that I want to strip you naked and run my tongue all over your body and I don’t want to do that to my friends, okay?!”

“Oh,” Lena said in a daze. “Okay.” There was really no getting around that one. “Um, I- I’m sorry. I didn’t realize- I didn’t mean to invalidate your feelings, I just… I’m sorry.”

Quietly, Kara said, “Tell me why you did.”

“I…” This was a treacherous path. “I think you know why.”

“Yes. But I’d like to hear you say it.”

Maybe that was fair. After all, she had spent the better part of the week gaslighting her friend, even if that hadn’t been her intention. “It’s easier for me to tell you - tell myself that your feelings aren’t real, because…” She didn’t want to say it. She couldn’t say it. But then, there was Kara staring back at her with such hopeful, trusting eyes. She was defenseless. “Because I have feelings for you too.”

God, it felt good to finally say that. Even as Lena thought, what the fuck did I just do.

Relief flooded Kara’s features. She broke out into a wide grin. “Thank you.”

Now whatever temporary satisfaction Lena had derived from her confession, it was rapidly being replaced by anxiety. “Kara. This can’t happen.”

“I know,” Kara answered reassuringly. “But it’s just nice to be on the same page, you know? Just so I know that I haven’t been imagining the whole thing.”

“You haven’t. And I’m sorry for making you think that you have.”

“I forgive you.” Kara now looked a thousand times happier, a tremendous burden lifted just from the knowledge that Lena felt something for her too. Even if it couldn’t go anywhere. “So… now what?”

“Now…” Lena hesitated. It was a good question for which she had no good answer. At least, no answer she liked. “Now we… quietly have feelings for each other. As friends.”

“As friends,” Kara agreed. She stretched out her arms, gesturing for a hug which Lena was only too happy to give, stepping into the blonde’s personal space and embracing her.

Eyes closed, Lena clutched Kara close to her, allowing herself to indulge in this moment, the pleasing pressure of Kara’s arms against her back, the scent of Kara’s skin in her nose, the heat radiating from her body.

“You know,” Kara remarked after a long moment. “Sometimes friends hook up.”

Laughter bubbled from Lena. “Is that right?”

“Uh-huh.”

Staying pressed up against Kara in a very friendly hug, Lena said, “I hope you’re not getting any ideas.”

“No,” Kara said cheerily. “I’m just over here stating facts.”

Chuckling, Lena finally pulled away from Kara, taking a step back. A small one.

“It’s probably not a good idea for us to be that kind of friends.”

“I wasn’t suggesting otherwise,” Kara responded with over-the-top innocence, even as her eyes roamed down Lena’s body, leaving Lena’s skin hot and prickling in its wake. “Just regular friends then.”

“Regular friends,” Lena echoed without an ounce of sincerity.

Right.

 

Chapter Text

What's it gonna be 'cause I can't pretend
Don't you wanna be more than friends
Hold me tight and don't let go
You have the right to lose control

“Don’t Let Go (Love)” by En Vogue

 

 

They decided to walk back to the hotel from the club. They took a small detour that took them past the Sagrada Familia. They walked in meandering zigzags, unhurriedly strolling through the sparsely populated streets, soaking up the warm summer night.

“Will it be okay?” Lena asked. “For me to be your handler?”

Kara’s answer was swift and resolute. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. You’re like the only thing that’s making this whole experience bearable.”

“It won’t get too complicated?”

The blonde shrugged carelessly. Clearly, it didn’t matter to her if it got complicated. “It’ll be fine.”

“Right. We’ll just… keep things platonic. We can do that.”

“Yep. Platonic.” After a moment, Kara added, “You know, sometimes I hold hands with my friends when I walk.”

A dimpled, silly smile found its way to Lena’s face. “Is that so?”

“It is. It is so.”

Lena inched closer. When she was close enough, Kara gently took her hand, interlocking their fingers together. Hand in hand, they took their time making their way back.

Then, later, lying in bed next to one another, Lena asked, “Do friends cuddle?”

She was flirting with disaster. She knew that perfectly well. But after her admission in the nightclub, it felt easier to give in now. To do what she wanted, to ask for something that she knew would make her feel better, to ignore the consequences. To tell herself it was okay as long as it vaguely fell under the umbrella of friendship. The dam had burst.

Wordlessly, Kara tossed off her cover and scooted over to Lena’s side, who lifted her own cover to welcome her in. Kara snuggled close, wrapping her arms around the brunette’s torso, throwing one leg over Lena’s legs, burrowing her face into her neck. Lena returned the embrace. They lay like this for a long while.

Then Kara moved her hand down Lena’s back to the edge of her shirt. Her hand slipped underneath, then slid up, palm flat against the warm skin. Lena’s breath quickened, her grip tightened, pulling Kara flush against her. Kara shifted her own body, moving until she was almost fully on top of the other woman. She nuzzled her nose along the crook of Lena’s neck, greedily inhaling to capture the scent of her skin.

Friends did that too, right? When their friend was warm and soft and lovely and smelled amazing?

Kara bucked her hips down, grinding against Lena’s hips, gasping when a bolt of electrifying want jolted through her.

Okay. And. Most friends probably don’t do that.

“Kara,” came Lena’s shaky, uncertain voice. “What is this?”

“Um… aggressive cuddling?” Then, nervously, she asked, “Too aggressive?”

Lena’s reassurance came quickly. “No. Not at all. I- uh, I like it. It’s just been a long night and you’ve been drinking. So maybe tonight we just… passively cuddle.”

“Of course.” Kara started pulling back to roll back to her side of the bed, only to be foiled by Lena’s arms tightening around her.

“I said passively cuddle, not no cuddles.”

Happily, Kara curled back up against her friend, folding herself against every curve, tucking away in every nook she could find. She closed her eyes, letting the pleasant buzz from alcohol and Lena’s embrace carry her off to sleep.

***

Production decamped for Florence the next day. Once again, Kara was separated from her contestants on the flight, ending up in first class next to Lena. They sat next to one another, prim and proper, barely interacting, both mindful of Andrea’s presence a few feet away. But when Lena helpfully took a glass of champagne from the flight attendant to pass to Kara, her index finger slowly and deliberately brushed the inside of Kara’s palm. Kara bit at her bottom lip and hid her smile behind the glass she raised to her lips. She thought about all the ways she would cuddle Lena later.

But you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and reality TV stars who planned on aggressively cuddling their platonic producer friend at night. Those plans were thoroughly dashed while they were checking in at the hotel, by Andrea, approaching them with two keycards in hand.

“Mercy and I were supposed to be in the presidential suite. It has two rooms,” she told Lena. “Since Mercy isn’t here, you should take her room. The hotel will refund your single.”

Lena blinked, scrambling for an excuse. None came to mind. “All right.” As soon as Andrea’s back was turned, Kara’s face crumpled. She looked really pathetic, and in Lena’s eyes, completely adorable. “It’ll be fine. You’ll have Nia around and we’ll still see each other. We’ll just be in separate rooms at night.”

“But we’ve shared a room just about every night for weeks now. I’ve gotten used to having you there.”

“I know what you mean,” returned Lena quietly, gazing intently into Kara’s eyes, feeling the tension of all the words between them that they couldn’t say, all the things they couldn’t do. But even though the tension hurt a little, Kara had been right, there was comfort in knowing that she wasn’t alone in how she felt. It was a nice moment.

Which was dispelled by: “What are you two doing?” There stood Jack, his face a mixture of hopeful suspicion and repressed delight.

Nothing,” Lena bit back sharply.

“Just going to our rooms,” Kara answered.

“Our separate rooms,” Lena emphasized. In her head, it seemed like a good idea to make that distinction. But now that she said it out loudly, she realized that the emphasis actually just made her sound guilty, which was evident by the way Jack’s eyes narrowed while his smile widened. She needed a distraction. “And don’t think I’ve forgotten about you and Sam ditching us last night. Retribution is coming.”

That did the trick. Jack, instantly preoccupied, launched into a whine trying to justify his decision and pestering Lena for what she had planned for him.

By the time Lena got away from him and went up to the room, Andrea was already there, luggage unpacked and laptop set up in the suite’s living room, furiously typing away.

“And you call me a masochist,” Lena said in lieu of a greeting.

Andrea was too deep in it to acknowledge Lena’s friendly jab. “This is damage control. Daily Spoiler put out another story. They found out about Kenny.”

“Well, that was inevitable.” The only surprising thing about this development was that they didn’t get a hold of the story sooner. Kenny’s accident had been very public. There was no way they could keep it under wraps.

“It’s not just that. It’s basically a hit piece about our safety standards, of lackthereof, in this shit site’s opinion. They talk about Kara’s panic attack. The near brawl we had during the cooking competition. Even Ben getting a cut during the MMA fight date. They’ve basically spoiled the whole season.”

Lena couldn’t tell whether Andrea was more offended by the site’s accusation of an unsafe set or posting of the spoilers.

“Spoilers get out every season, Andrea. But they have a point about how we conduct the show. There’s been too many incidents this season.”

“Of course you’d take their side,” Andrea grumbled half-heartedly with no real malice behind it. “While I have you, were you able to get in touch with Thomas Coville? About killing the villains feature?”

“We touched base yesterday. He said he’d look into it, but he sounded appropriately offended when I told him, so I think he’ll do something. I just hope he does it before Siobhan puts the feature together.”

Andrea hummed. “You know, I get the feeling that Siobhan will suddenly have a lot of last minute work to finish that’ll take her focus off this project.”

“How unfortunate for her.”

“It’s a crazy business.”

It was, once again, nice to be on the same side. Lena enjoyed the moment with her old friend, knowing that it wouldn’t last.

***

The next day, Kara was scheduled for her first one-on-one date with Winn. The Bachelorette was besides herself with excitement. The excitement wasn’t so much for her suitor, even though she was very fond of Winn. But her affection for him was no comparison for her enthusiasm for the date activity itself. They were scheduled to partake in a pasta-making class with a chef whose family had been making pasta for six generations.

“I’m actually going to eat it this time, right?” she asked Lena on the car ride over. “Like, for real for real this time?”

“Unless Winn gets into a fist fight with the chef, I don’t see why you wouldn’t.”

Kara groaned. “You’ve just jinxed it.”

“I have not. It’ll be fine. Nothing will go wrong.”

Kara groaned even louder. “Double jinx! My dates always go terribly wrong every time you tell me that it’s going to be fine.”

“To be fair, almost all of your dates have gone terrible wrong, with or without my reassurances.”

“Well, it’s no wonder I like you then,” Kara replied drily. “Must be kismet.”

Apparently they were joking about that now. Which was fine. Lena could roll with this. Friends joke. “Maybe it’s sabotage,” she returned lightly. “Maybe I just wanted you all to myself.”

Kara’s eyes glazed over as her breath visibly hitched. Lena worried that maybe that was too far. But then Kara replied, with breathless awe, “I could live with that.”

Lena resisted the urge to say anything more. She was in enough trouble as it was.

Soon they arrived at Chef Fabio’s kitchen, where Winn was already waiting with his producer, Gayle. They were all greeted by Chef Fabio, an elderly, vibrant, cheerful man whose enthusiasm for pasta was only rivaled by Kara Danvers. Chef Fabio greeted everyone with kisses on both cheeks and ushered them all into his kitchen.

The thing was - and maybe disaster wasn’t quite the right word for it - hiccup, let’s say - Chef Fabio’s English was not great. Scratch that, it was non-existent. As it turned out, production had set up the date with Chef Fabio’s son, the fluent English speaker of the family who was sick that day, leaving the elderly Fabio to instruct Winn and Kara.

Chef Fabio led them to their cooking stations where the ingredients and materials were laid out. “La prima operazione da fare è setacciare la farina e sistemarla a fontana sul piano di lavoro.”

Winn and Kara looked at one another. It was clear that neither of them spoke Italian.

Winn tried anyway. “I… think he’s saying that he wants us to go play a piano in the lavatory?”

“Prima is first,” Kara said helpfully. “I know that much.”

Valiantly, Winn tried to follow the instruction by asking questions in the only other language besides English that he vaguely knew, which was not Italian. “Chef, um, dónde está el baño?”

“Al Bano?” Chef Fabio asked. “Ti piace Al Bano? E Romina Power?”

Winn blinked slowly. “Uh, what?”

This was too much. Although production wasn’t really supposed to be involved on the dates, this was obviously not going to happen without intervention. So Lena stepped up.

“Scusami, chef, forse posso tradurre?”

Chef Fabio was overjoyed, gesturing for Lena to come join them at the work stations. As she did so, she relayed his message to Kara and Winn, “He’s asking you to sift the flour and form a pile on your work surfaces.”

With Lena translating, the pair was finally able to continue with their lesson. While Chef Fabio was busy showing Winn how to make a flour well, Kara leaned close to Lena and said, “I didn’t know you spoke Italian.”

“Poorly,” Lena qualified. “But enough to get by.”

Kara quickly glanced around the room to make sure that everyone else was paying attention to Winn and Chef Fabio. Then, with a hand covering her mic, she whispered softly, “That’s so hot.”

Lena bit down on her bottom lip to stop a ridiculous grin from spilling out onto her face.

The next non-disaster hiccup: Winn and Kara were terrible at this. It really wasn’t all that complicated, but the pair of them, otherwise grown, competent adults, seemed to be challenged when it came to pasta-making. Chef Fabio had to demonstrate every step for Winn, leaving Kara to fend for herself.

Well, maybe not quite. At least she had Lena.

Kara said that she’s never kneaded dough before. So Lena showed her. Covering Kara’s hands with her own, Lena puppeted Kara’s movements, narrating as she did. “You just want to push the heel into the dough away from you. Then we fold it back over and do it again.”

“Uh huh,” muttered Kara, gazing foolishly upon Lena’s profile. She was keenly aware of how close Lena was, feeling heady by her presence, the scent of her perfume, the feel of her warm hands on her own.

Lena glanced over and, noticing Kara’s stupor, nudged her gently. “Pay attention.”

“I am,” Kara retorted cheekily. “Believe me, I am. I’m paying very close attention. Rapt.”

“To the class.”

“Oh.”

While the dough was resting, Kara and Winn were supposed to be discussing their hopes and dreams and what they’re looking for in a romantic partner. Instead, there was this:

“Boba Fett-uccine,” Kara said.

“Fettuccine al-Greedo,” Winn returned.

“Bow-TIE fighter pasta.”

“Rey-violi.”

“Macarobi-wan and cheese?”

“Meh,” Winn said with a slight wince.

“Right, not my finest. Okay, what’s a Jawa’s favorite pasta?”

The pair exchanged a conspiratorial grin, then shouted in unison, “Rotini!”

From over her headset, Lena could hear Andrea’s pained moans like a dying animal. So, she tried to do her job by redirecting the conversation. “Winn, why don’t you tell Kara what you’re looking for in a relationship?”

“Uh, I like strong women. Someone who’s intelligent and confident in that intelligence but, you know, not arrogant about it. Someone who’s loyal and kind. But most of all, I’m looking for a relationship where I can just be myself, and laugh and talk for hours on end. The woman that I would want to be with is my best friend.”

Kara nodded enthusiastically. “Yeah, same. That’s exactly what I want.”

Winn nodded and mindlessly added, “Right, I guess that’s pretty basic so of course you’re just looking for the male version of that.”

“Oh. Uh… yeah. Right, because I’m here to find a husband. So. Male version. Yes. Did I not say that?” Trying to recover, Kara turned her attention to Lena - which, given the circumstances, might not have been the best idea. “Okay, your turn!”

“Uh…” Lena chuckled self-consciously. “I’m not on the one on a date here.”

“But you guys are always asking us questions,” Kara said. “It’s only fair.”

“This is about you and Winn. We don’t want your date to feel left out.”

“Well, hold on there,” piped up Winn. “Kara has a point. These things are uncomfortable because it’s so one-sided. I feel like a test subject.” Purposefully, Lena glanced around at the bright lights and multiple cameras as if to say, well… you are. “Point taken. So shouldn’t you try to make us comfortable?”

With an acquiescing sigh, Lena said, “All right, fine. Uh… I don’t know, everything you said sounds good. Other than that, honesty and trust are important. I think sometimes people conceal who they are upfront and you find out too late that they’re not who they say they are.”

“Of course,” Winn agreed readily. “You can’t have a relationship without trust. Right, Kara?” But Kara was staring off into the distance in the direction of her precious resting dough, waiting to be turned into pasta. “Kara? Are you with us or are you just thinking about food?”

“Hmm? Oh, yeah. Hey, do you guys think the dough’s ready to be rolled out?”

Indeed it was. While Chef Fabio worked with Winn again, Lena helped Kara roll out and cut up her dough. As they worked, they chatted idly about where Lena’s fondness for cooking (“What’s not to like? It’s like a chemistry experiment you can eat”), debated the merits of pineapple on pizza, discussed why a sponge would choose to live in a pineapple under the sea, traded jokes from their favorite childhood cartoons…

“Lena,” came Andrea’s hiss over the crackle of her radio. “Can you make sure that Kara dates her, you know, date?”

Lena pulled a face. “Okay, now I’m in trouble. You need to go talk to your date.”

“Uhh…” Kara looked over at Winn, who had somehow, despite the language barrier, convinced Chef Fabio to attempt a large Yoda-shaped ravioli. “I think my date’s having a pretty good time.”

“Sure, but he needs to be having a good time with you.”

Producing a disgruntled noise, Kara blew out air with puffed cheeks in a display of petulance. “Fine, fine. But you need to come back over here and try the pasta when it’s done. You did help make it.”

Lena promised that she would, and when Kara’s dish was finally complete, Lena came back over to her station and, ignoring Andrea’s annoyed growls in her ear, allowed Kara to feed her a forkful of pasta.

As a compromise, she convinced Kara to give Winn a kiss when she gave him his date rose. And if that kiss was a dry, quick, closed-lipped peck, Lena wasn’t going to complain about that.

It was late when they finished filming. They were all supposed to head straight back to the hotel to rest up for the next day. Instead, Lena instructed their driver to let her and Kara out along the way. They bought gelatos and wandered through narrow, crooked streets from one piazza to the other. Kara had ordered two scoops of gelato, so Lena did too, then ate only one and wordlessly passed her cone over when Kara was finished with hers. Gratefully, Kara threaded her arm around Lena’s and walked with her body half-leaning against the brunette.

“Is Andrea okay?” Kara asked. “She seemed tense today. Well, tenser.”

“She’ll be fine. She’s just upset about this story that got out.” Lena paused. She really wasn’t supposed to tell Kara about what was going on in the outside world, especially about a story about the show itself. Kara had to focus on the journey. “And that story aside, there’s just a lot going on right now.”

“Like what?”

“Morgan Edge and his crazy scheme to discredit Lex’s accusers. It’s completely unethical, which is perfectly on brand for Edge, but Andrea has an idea…” Lena trailed off again, realizing that perhaps she was oversharing.

Reading her mind, Kara responded gently, “It’s okay, you don’t have to say if you don’t want.”

But Lena did want to. She had been dying to talk to someone about Andrea, Coville, the villains feature Morgan had cooked up, but knew that it wouldn’t be wise. Then again, this was Kara. Even if she wasn’t the very symbol of trustworthiness, she was locked down on set with no access to cellphones or internet. Who would she even tell?

So Lena filled her in, told her about the attempt to get in touch with Thomas Coville to stop Morgan.

“But What if Morgan found out what you did?” Kara asked worriedly.

“He’d be very, very angry. As would Lillian. But I don’t see that I have any choice in the matter. What Morgan’s doing is wrong and he has to be stopped, simple as that.”

“Yeah,” Kara muttered quietly. “Simple.”

They shifted the conversation to lighter topics then. Lena told her about her semester abroad in Rome, Kara shared a story about her summer backpacking in Thailand. They talked about the places they’ve been, the places they’d like to visit, the things they’d like to do.

As all good things must end, eventually the gelato was finished, and their walk ended with their arrival at the hotel.

“I’ll walk you to your room,” Lena said as they reached the hotel’s entrance.

“Afraid that I’ll run off?”

“Exactly,” Lena answered breezily, as if the real reason wasn’t that neither of them wanted the night to end.

Unhurriedly, they made their way through the lobby then opted to take the stairs up to the third floor instead of the elevator, stopping for an unneeded rest at every level. At long last, in what felt like a short amount of time to them, they arrived at the door of Kara’s room.

Then they just stood there.

“So,” Kara said.

“So,” Lena echoed.

Then there was silence. Not exactly uncomfortable, but perhaps skittish in the way that silence in a charged moment could be.

Even though the door was right there, there was no doubt that Kara was lingering. “I had a really nice day today.”

Even though the stairs were right there, there was also no doubt that Lena was lingering. “I’m glad. I did too.”

“We should do it again some time.”

“Have a good day?”

“Yep.” Kara emphasized her ‘p’ with a pop.

“All right. I’d like that. Maybe tomorrow.”

Kara nodded. “Well, it would certainly be a good day for me if you’re around.”

It wasn’t one of their more scintillating conversations. But you would never know it by the way these two fools were grinning at each other.

“I guess we should say goodnight,” Lena suggested quietly.

The smile on Kara’s face didn’t fade, but her shrug was a bit sad. “Okay.”

After a moment more of purposeful gazing, Lena moved in for a hug. Kara, welcoming, met her halfway. Their two bodies joined together, like perfectly cut pieces of a dovetail joint satisfyingly sliding into place. They each looped their arms around the other, applying pressure that was more longing than friendly. In this firm, prolonged hug, Lena could feel Kara’s breasts pressed up against her own. Her body, falling victim to the feeling of Kara’s body against her, responded in upper and lower halves: the higher, with the quickening of her heart, and the lower, with a telltale clenching of muscles. Kara tilted her face down into the crook of Lena’s neck and inhaled deeply, before releasing a contended, happy sigh from the back of her throat.

With the utmost reluctance, Lena peeled herself away.

“Good night, Kara.”

“Good night, Lena.”

Lena walked all the way back to her room with a dopey grin.

***

The next day’s one-on-one date was scheduled with Mxy. They were set to have a life drawing class followed by a “surprise” private concert with a nondescript singer that no one had ever heard of except for the most diehard country music fans.

In the car ride over, Lena cautioned, “Please don’t destroy the rose before the date. That stunt only works once.”

“But he knows that he’s not getting a rose, right? Like, we all know that, right?”

“I think even Mxy’s worked that out.” They were heading to hometowns next week. Kara would be traveling to her contestant’s hometown and meeting their families. That meant it was time to be serious. There was no room for comic relief anymore and as much as Mxy fancied himself Kara’s destiny, his fate was written on the wall.

So, no one was really surprised that Mxy was being dour. He was red-eyed when he showed up for the class. Throughout the class, he avoided looking at Kara and responded to her attempts at conversation in short sentences. He barely paid attention to the instructor and made lazy, perfunctory strokes on his paper. He was just going through the motions, waiting for it to be over.

“I feel so bad,” Kara whispered to Lena. “Maybe I should give him the rose?”

“You could. But then you’ll just have to let someone else go at the ceremony. You have to pick four people for hometowns. And even if we let you keep them all, eventually you’re going to have to eliminate them all until there’s only one left. That’s the show.”

“Ugh, I know. He’s being so mopey though. I feel bad for him.”

“I don’t,” Lena said bluntly. “He voluntarily agreed to appear on a show to romantically compete with 29 other men. I’m sorry that things didn’t work out in his favor but he was happy enough to perform for the cameras when things were going well. He’s more than capable of putting aside his feelings for a few hours instead of flaunting it and making it your burden, but he chooses not to.”

“Maybe he can’t help it. It’s not easy, you know, pretending like you don’t feel something when you do.” Kara’s tone had an edge to it. Clearly, this wasn’t just about Mxy anymore.

Lena touched her hand to Kara’s forearm in reassurance. “I know, darling. I- I understand how difficult it is. But it can be done.” She cast a purposeful glance at the crew. “Especially when the cameras are rolling.”

“Okay,” Kara responded softly. “I just… I don’t know if you really understand how difficult it is to pretend like everything’s normal. Especially if those feelings you have are… um, really, really strong. Like if you don’t- uh, it’s not easy to understand unless you’ve- unless you are experiencing it for yourself, you know?” Despite Kara’s rambling, stuttering ways, Lena did know.

“I do understand.” She emphasized this with a gentle squeeze of the hand that was resting on Kara’s arm. “You’re not the only one who feels that way.” Maybe that was a bit too on the nose. The cameras were on. “Uh, in understanding that it might be difficult for Mxy. But I- we have a job to do.”

“Right,” Kara answered, mollified for now. “As long as we both… understand.”

When they moved on to the dinner portion of the date, Maxwell showed up to introduce the “surprise” concert, a singer-songwriter in a cowboy hat who looked entirely out of place against Florence’s Renaissance architecture. But apparently the Bachelor fandom loved its country music. Lena never liked shooting these concert segments. Instead of an actual concert, they had the musicians play the same one or two songs over and over again to make editing easier later. Listening to the same song, let alone some sad, sappy ballad, being played for an hour was enough to peel away at anyone’s sanity. In short, no one particularly enjoyed these things but probably no one hated it as much as Mxy and Kara did in this moment, who were forced to sway and dance with each other on an empty dance floor while the crew around them captured every awkward moment on film.

Kara pulled away from Mxy and excused herself to use the bathroom. On her way there, she commandeered Lena to help with a wardrobe issue. Once they were around the corner and out of the prying eyes of the crew and cameras, she had Lena turn off her mic before dropping the pretense. In the distance, they could still hear the musician playing the same old song. They only had the venue booked for so long. They weren’t going to stop for anything so silly as bathroom breaks.

“My dress is fine. I just needed a break.”

“I’m sorry. I know it hasn’t been the most pleasant evening. It’ll be over soon.”

“It could be worse. At least I have you.” As Kara took a step closer, her hand found its way to Lena’s. “Dance with me.”

Instinctively, mindful of the crew around the corner, Lena took a half step back, despite her body’s desire to the contrary. She instantly regretted the act as she watched Kara’s face fall. Then Lena felt as though she had no choice but to step back into Kara’s personal space, closer than they were before. Evidently her need to ensure Kara’s happiness trumped all sense of reason or self-preservation.

“I’m afraid that you’re looking in the wrong place for a dance partner. I’m a terrible dancer.”

“There’s nothing to it. It’s just… standing and swaying.” Kara lifted her hands, palms out towards Lena; she paused, waiting for permission, which was given by Lena’s nod. Kara placed her hands on either side of Lena’s hips and led Lena into a gentle sway. “See?”

Resting her hands upon Kara’s shoulders, Lena allowed herself to be led. “I admit that this is… not unpleasant.”

“Wow, such high compliments.”

“It’s for your own good, Kara. It’s perfectly pleasant until I step on your foot.”

Without missing a beat, Kara replied, “I guess we better enjoy it while we can then.” She tugged Lena closer, holding her in her arms. Lena enveloped Kara in her arms, resting her head on the blonde’s shoulder as they danced to the same song they’ve heard twenty times that night.

Somehow, this time, the sappy country ballad didn’t seem so bad.

***

The date eventually ended with Kara explaining to Mxy that their connection just wasn’t there and that she couldn’t give him a rose. Mxy took the news well, having sulked out most of his petulance during the day. It was, to Andrea’s disappointment, not quite as dramatic a goodbye as she had hoped. But she did make sure to instruct Snapper to drive Mxy around, for hours if necessary, and talk about his abandonment issues until he cried.

That night, Kara and Lena hung out at the hotel with Jack, Brainy, and Nia. Conveniently, Jack and Brainy’s room adjoined Nia and Kara’s, and shared a connecting door, which meant that the door was left perpetually open during the group’s stay like one big sleepover. It left Lena a little envious. But spending the night away from her own room would certainly raise questions with Andrea.

“I’m going to end up sleeping in the tub tonight,” Jack grumbled as he flopped down next to Lena, who was lounging on his bed. In his hands, he held a bottle of beer, which spilled a few drops when he flopped down. He indifferently smoothed his hand over it, as if that did anything. With his free hand, he gestured at the other members of their group dancing in the room to a pop song, with Nia and Brainy dancing increasingly closer together. “Kara already told me that she won’t share with me if Brainy and Nia decided to commandeer one of the rooms for themselves.”

“I’m sure she was joking.”

“Yeah?” Jack arched an eyebrow. “Have I got your permission to sleep with the missus, then?”

“Don’t call her that. And don’t… say it like that.”

At that moment, Kara looked over at them. Locking eyes with Lena, she smiled and gave a little wave. Lena could not help the grin that overtook her face.

Jack, eyeing her suspiciously, poked at her side. “What’s going on here anyway?”

“Nothing,” Lena replied hastily in a low voice, although she was pretty sure that the others couldn’t hear them over the sound of the music.

“Don’t you lie to me, Luthor.” Jack squinted at her in a show of scrutiny. “I know all your tells.”

“I wouldn’t. We don’t lie to each other.”

Honesty was one of Jack’s better qualities and one of the primary reasons they were still friends. They didn’t lie to one another, not since what Jack referred to as The Big One, i.e. Lena’s now non-existent heterosexuality, back when they were still dating. Lena, of course, maintained that it was not a lie if you believed it. But now Jack looked startled by the statement. He looked down at his beer bottle and started to peel away at the label.

So Lena prompted, “What?”

He shook his head. “Nothing. I mean, you in fact do lie to me all the time. Mostly because you lie to yourself all the time, but it still counts.”

And that… was kind of a fair point. “Fine. But I’m making a factual statement when I say that nothing’s going on between me and Kara. It’s the truth.”

“Riiiiiiiight.” Jack had the unique talent of making a single word sound very obnoxious. “We’re still doing that song and dance, then?”

“There’s no song and dance, Jack. There’s just me and Kara being good friends.”

“Oh, god,” groaned Jack as if in genuine pain. “I can’t believe it. You know what? I officially withdraw my support. I no longer ship you two. This is just too pathetic. You’re like, the poster child for being a gay mess, aren’t you?”

“I have no idea what that means.”

“It means that you’re a sad, sad lesbian who’s in total denial about how much you want to bang your best friend.”

Lena regarded him with faux innocence. “But, Jack, I thought you were my best friend.”

Jack grunted, but nodded with delight. “That’s right. Fine, your back up best friend.”

She shrugged lightly. “I’m not in denial. I know what I feel. But it can’t happen, so it won’t.” Jack thrust his hand out abruptly. Lena gaped at his hand, mystified. “What is this?”

“Fifty dollars you change your tune by the time we leave Florence.” As an afterthought, he added, “And you have to admit that you’re a big, gay mess.”

Without another careless shrug, she took his hand and shook it, if only to shut him up. He broke out into a wide, sly grin.

She didn’t trust that one bit.

***

Even though there were other men who still hadn’t had a one-on-one, by Lillian’s decree, Mon-El was given a second solo date with Kara. Production was really keen on pushing this storyline.

Today’s date was taking place at their hotel’s spa. It was named The Sun Spa, which slogan was “rejuvenate yourself with the power of the sun!” with all kinds of corny sun-themed treatments with varying degrees of fun. Kara allowed herself to be subjected to the “Infrared Sauna” (which felt like a regular sauna but, you know, red) and a “Solar-Heated Stone Massage” (she was pretty sure they just heated up the rocks in a microwave). She did not enjoy “Red Sun Treatment,” which consisted of lying under another infrared lamp while in a full-body mud wrap which was itchy, suffocating, and frankly made her irritable as hell.

It wasn’t a bad date. Mon-El was gregarious, charming, and so happy to be spending time with Kara that he didn’t seem to notice that she was subtly pulling away from his caresses and kisses.

But Andrea sure as hell did. During a break in filming, she emerged from the conference room down the hall that the show was using as a control room and pulled Lena aside.

“What’s going on with Kara?”

Even though Lena knew exactly what she was talking about, her answer was an innocent, “What do you mean?”

Andrea scowled, clearly unconvinced. “Last week she was all over him. I thought we were making progress. Today we’re back to ‘teenage girl at middle school dance.’ Why’s sexless Bambi back in the picture?”

Lena shrugged. “She’s a complicated woman. Maybe she’s just not feeling it today.”

“You’re not prompting her as much either,” Andrea observed shrewdly. “Did something happen?”

“No. No significant acts come to mind.” Which was technically true, if you asked Lena. Some things were said. No actions were taken. It wasn’t like Lena had forgotten about her last conversation with Andrea about Kara. It was more like she was choosing to compartmentalize it. Put it in a little box where it belonged.

“You two didn’t have a fight?” Andrea pursued doggedly. “Because you can’t fight with the lead, Lena. It’s not a real friendship. You’re here to do a job.”

Lena sighed tiredly. “Andrea, I know what the job is. I don’t need you reminding me every ten minutes. Maybe we’d get better results if you were focused on doing your job instead of worrying about mine. Now please go back and do the job that LuthorMedia is paying you to do.”

That seemed to do the trick. Although clearly annoyed by Lena’s flex of power, Andrea did as she was told and went back to her control room, where she remained for the duration of the shoot.

After the spa session, Mon-El and Kara moved on to the dinner portion of the date, which took place in the hotel’s restaurant adjacent to the spa. It was actually only 3PM and as usual, the cast wasn’t supposed to touch any of the food presented to them, but what the audience would see was a late night candlelit dinner with elaborately plated dinners. Okay, well, Kara did pick at her lasagna even though it was congealed and gross from sitting out for three hours. Kara had refused to heed Lena’s warnings about food poisoning, bravely declaring that she had a stomach of steel.

When “dinner” ended, Kara said goodbye to Mon-El with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. Jack left with Mon-El to escort him back to his room, and as he left, he flashed Lena a broad grin and a thumbs up. Which was weird. But, well, Jack was weird.

Lena approached Kara, who was in the middle of removing her mic and transmitter. “Do you want to go back and rest in your room? Or, it’s still early, so if you’d like to see the city, we can make that happen.”

“Actually.” Kara looked very pleased with herself. Suspiciously so. “I had something else in mind entirely.”

Whatever it was, Lena was sure that Jack had a hand in it. Which probably meant it wasn’t good. She braced herself. “What is it?”

“I was thinking we could go back to the spa.”

“I think you’ve tried all the treatments they had to offer.”

“Not for me. For you. I got Jack to persuade the hotel to throw in another massage,” Kara explained. “I thought you could use some relaxation.”

Oh. That was nowhere as devious as Lena had been expecting. “That’s really kind of you. Although I’m not much of a spa person.”

Kara shook her head dramatically. “Not into beaches, not into dancing, not into spas. I mean, it’s a really good thing our relationship is purely platonic. How would I ever take you out on a date?”

“Why do you think I was trying to warn you off? I’m literally undateable.”

“Poor Lena. I’m sure there’s some poor sucker out there who can’t resist a night full of gorgeous home-cooked meals, board games, and intellectually stimulating conversations.” Kara tsked her tongue, voice dripping with playful sarcasm. “But not me. Nope. That sounds awful.”

Without quite realizing it, Lena found herself steered back to the spa. Kara led them to a room with two massage tables set up next to each other and two masseuses awaiting. Lena’s first thought was that it was clearly set up for a couple’s spa. But she quickly banished that thought from her mind. Friends could have spa days too. Right?

The masseuses stepped out to allow the pair to get undressed to their underwear and slip under the sheets on their respective tables, facing down. Lena wasn’t even at all tempted to sneak a peek in Kara’s direction, thankyouverymuch. Okay, fine, maybe the thought crossed her mind, but she would never. The masseuses came back in and started their work. They were professional and probably very skilled in what they do, but Lena couldn’t stop squirming. Flinching, more like.

After ten minutes of trying to massage a tense, slippery eel, Lena’s masseuse said, politely with masked exasperation, “Madam, it would be better if you could try to relax.”

Kara, thoroughly enjoying her massage with no problems, snickered. “I don’t think Lena knows the meaning of the word.”

Lena lifted her arm in gesture for her masseuse to stop. She rolled onto her side, keeping the draped sheet over her body. “I’m sorry. This isn’t working for me.”

Kara stopped her massage as well, mirroring Lena’s movements and rolling onto her side. To the masseuse, she said, “Would you please excuse us for a minute?”

Lena waited for the masseuses to leave. “I’m sorry, Kara. I know you meant well and this was really nice of you. But I just… have a hard time relaxing, especially around people I don’t know.”

“Okay. So it’s not the massage itself?”

“I just… I’m just not a very touchy person in general. It’s really uncomfortable for me.”

That was certainly news to Kara. “But we hug. Like, all the time.”

“Um.” Lena focused her attention on a stray thread on her sheet. “That’s… different.”

“Oh,” Kara responded quietly. “So, um, would you be okay if I did it to you? Uh, the massage, I mean.”

Some primal part of Lena deep down was screaming yes yes fucking please. But instead, what came out was a restrained, “I suppose that would be all right but I wouldn’t want to put you out.”

Kara made a pfft sound. “Oh, please. Like I would mind?”

Rummaging beneath her sheet, Kara put her bra back on before hopping off her table. Any thoughts Lena might have had of further protest was quickly quashed by the display of Kara’s toned abdomen. Stomach of steel, indeed. Someone needed to slap a warning on that thing. Warning: willpower hazard. This object has been known to cause dizziness, speechlessness, depraved thoughts, and sexual hysteria in useless gays. Stare directly at your own risk.

The lure came closer as Kara approached Lena’s table. With strong, sure hands upon the brunette’s shoulder blades, she pushed Lena back down, face first. Laying her hands over the draped sheet, Kara worked her fingers into Lena’s back.

“How does that feel?”

“Good,” came Lena’s almost strangled reply. Maybe relaxing wasn’t quite the right word, but it sure as hell felt really damn good. “You have talented hands.” Oh, she shouldn’t have said that, because now she’s just thinking about how talented Kara’s hands could be on other parts of her body. Lena chanted to herself, Be gone, dirty thoughts, be gone.

After a few minutes of exquisite turmoil, Lena was not quite prepared for what happened next. Leaning down, Kara brought her lips close to Lena’s ear and said softly, “You know, I think I can get a better angle up top. If you’re okay with that?”

Lena must have lost her damn mind because while she meant to say no for the sake of her own self-preservation, what she actually said was, “Yes, please.”

Kara then climbed on top, straddling Lena’s buttocks. And Lena was on the verge of delirium.

With slow, steady movements, Kara kneaded her fingers into Lena’s back. Her hands traveled up until it reached the creamy soft roundness of Lena’s uncovered shoulders. Her hands lingered there, more caress than massage, gently running both palms across the smooth, heated expanse of Lena’s upper back. The gesture, although light and delicate, sent an electrifying shiver down Lena’s back, leaving a trail of goosebumps in its wake.

“Are you cold?”

“No,” Lena replied swiftly.

“Because I can warm you up.” Adjusting her position carefully, Kara shifted until she was nearly lying prone atop Lena. “Is this okay?”

“Yes,” Lena gritted out, desperately trying not to sound hysterical.

“Good.” Kara’s head bowed down, so close that her lips nearly brushed against the shell of Lena’s ear. “Glad to be of help.”

Lena turned her head to the side so that she was lying cheek-down. As lightheartedly as possible, she teased, “Is that what this is? Because it feels like you’re trying to seduce me.”

She could see Kara out of her peripheral vision, first pulling back slightly in hesitancy, then leaning back in, closer than before. “Would you mind?” When Lena didn’t answer, Kara dragged a finger along her spine. “That would be against the rules, wouldn’t it?”

In reply, Lena could only produce a mangled noise, which sort of sounded like a yes. Kara nuzzled her nose against Lena’s neck, ghosting her lips along the skin there.

“What are you going to do about it?” Kara whispered. Lena, feeling dizzy and overwhelmed, honest-to-god whimpered. Luthors did not whimper.

“Wanna know what I think?” Kara pressed a soft kiss to Lena’s shoulder. “You’re my handler, aren’t you?” She lifted her head up and to the side, staying close but just far back enough to look Lena in the eyes. “So handle me.”

Some small part of Lena inside was screaming for her to do the right thing and put a stop to this, the part that was still Lillian’s daughter, who learned perfect manners and propriety, who cared about the Luthor name, its legacy, however tainted, and this show that they had built their lives on.

But.

Lena could feel the heat of Kara’s half-naked body flush against hers, the softness of silky skin, the firmness of toned muscles, the swell of pert breasts against her back, the warmth of breath against her cheek. Her nose was filled with Kara, that addictive, indescribable but faintly sweet scent of her skin mixed with her fruity shampoo. Kara’s face was so close that her lips ghosted Lena’s cheek, sending a shiver of want down her spine.

And. Well. For God’s sake, she was only human.

“Oh, fuck it,” Lena muttered softly to herself.

With a tilt of her head, she surged forward fiercely, capturing Kara’s mouth with her own.

Kara reacted swiftly, kissing back desperately, fervently like a dehydrated castaway trying to capture every last drop of fresh water, as if the mirage would disappear if she hesitated. Kara’s lips parted and her tongue brushed against Lena’s, pulling a filthy, wanton moan from the brunette. With a slight push of her shoulder back, she signaled her desire to roll onto her back. Kara lifted herself up on her elbows to give Lena some room, and respectfully gripped the top edge of the sheet between them to keep it in place while Lena turned over.

As Lena settled back down, she grabbed Kara by the back of her neck and tugged her down, eagerly joining their lips together again, tongues sliding, exploring, tasting. It was still a massage of sorts. Who said massages had to done with hands?

Feeling desire pool between her legs, Lena dimly wondered whether the thin sheet between them would be marked by this. But then Kara sucked on her bottom lip, and she decided that she couldn’t give a shit either way. She’ll just leave a generous tip. She had more important matters to focus on. Like Kara’s lips. Kara’s neck. Kara’s ridiculous body.

Lena considered herself ladylike. She was restrained with her desires and had been accused of moving too slowly on more than one occasion. That version of Lena did not seem to exist any longer, replaced by a horny mess who roamed greedy hands down Kara’s back and over the curves of her buttocks. She was a bursting dam, an erupting volcano, weeks of repressed urges exploding. It didn’t help that Kara was egging her on with breathless sighs and gasps in the fleeting moments when her tongue wasn’t lapping against Lena’s. Kara slid her hands along the length of Lena’s torso, accidentally-but-not-really causing the thin sheet between them to slip further down with every motion.

Then, there was the sound of approaching footsteps and chatter outside.

Hurriedly, Kara rolled off and staggered to her feet, dashing for her clothes as Lena sat up and rearranged herself. They still looked really awkward when the two masseuses walked back in.

“Are you ready to resume, madame?” Lena’s masseuse asked. Lena just shook her head numbly, seemingly unable to speak.

Kara spoke up for the both of them. “I think we’re all done for today.”

They dressed quickly and quietly, and made their way out. Lena left a very generous tip.

Side by side, at a close distance, they walked to the elevator bay, each thrumming with nervous energy, equal parts euphoric and unsure, each reveling in what had just happened but, unknown to each other, harboring the same unease: what now?

It was Kara who was brave enough to wordlessly broach the topic, meeting Lena’s eyes and smiling shyly. Lena returned the smile, with slight apprehension, then looked away to stare at the descending neon number above the elevator. Kara bit her bottom lip, feeling- well, before she could even process what she was feeling inside, she felt Lena’s hand intimately brushing up against hers in reassurance.

Kara felt like fireworks inside.

 

Chapter Text

In my dream, you split apart the ocean, in a single heated motion, and we settled in agreement
With glee, our dangerous liaisons and clandestine creations were fine with me
I wanna do what lovers do with you
I wanna walk the edge of the Earth with you
I wanna say to you the minute we feel the heat
Would you be my lover

“M’Lover” by Kishi Bashi

 

 

 

They went to bed separately the night before. Sharing a room with Andrea, it was difficult for Lena to roam around late into the night. Besides, they had a show to make. So the only responsible thing to do was to walk Kara to her room and say goodnight, while maintaining a careful, respectful distance in case they ran across one of the crew members.

That night, Lena fell asleep thinking of when she would see Kara again. She woke up with the same thought. Got dressed. Had breakfast. Prepared for work. All thinking of the moment she would see Kara again.

Kara was scheduled for a group date that day with James, William, and Jason. They were going on a Vespa tour around Florence, followed by a wine and cheese tasting. Lena was to ride in the car with Kara to the city center, where she’ll meet the guys and begin their tour.

Lena was already waiting in the backseat when Kara climbed into the car with a breathless, “Hi.”

“Good morning,” returned Lena nonchalantly.

The driver started the car and pulled away. Lena glanced towards the front, wishing that the show had sprung for a limo with a partition. As it was, all she and Kara could do was sit quietly next to one another. Nevertheless, Kara experimentally placed her hand on the middle seat. Lena mirrored her movements, then slid her hand over until her pinky grazed against Kara’s hand. Reacting, Kara curled her own pinky around Lena’s. The two rode in silence, looking out their respective windows like strangers deigning to share a space, all the while their little fingers were discreetly intertwined, anchoring one another.

They reached city center and filmed three takes of Kara greeting her dates with varying levels of enthusiasm. Like a practiced actor, Kara obediently went through each take, hitting her marks, repeating her reactions. When Andrea was finally satisfied and called for them to move on to the next set up, Lena walked by, brushed her hand against Kara’s lower back, and whispered a quick “good job” in Kara’s ear. Kara beamed with unrestrained pride as she watched Lena walk off to coordinate the Vespa rental.

“That’s the best one yet,” someone said from behind her. When Kara turned to locate the source, she saw James. “Your smile. We just did three takes, and don’t get me wrong, your smile is always beautiful, but that one was the best one. Most genuine, I mean.”

If Kara was less Kara and a bit more Lena, she might have found a way to redirect the conversation or cast off suspicion. But because Kara was who she was, she answered back with a toothy grin and, “She works so hard, so I’m really glad when something goes well. I’m just happy she’s happy.”

When James smiled back at her, it was kind but a little forlorn. “Well… I- I’m… glad, Kara.”

Lena gestured for Kara to come over and pick out her scooter, so Kara left James, bounding off without a care or second thought about the exchange.

Kara and her three contestants each had their own scooters, and they rode through the streets of Florence, following their tour guide. Jason kept trying to pop a wheelie on his scooter until Sam literally threatened to ground him and send him back to the hotel.

Their Vespa tour of Florence was less exciting than it would eventually appear on TV. To get the best shot, they constantly stopped and started so as to allow production time to set up their cameras, and rode down the same streets three or four times to get better footage.

They rode to their next venue, a restaurant with a secluded back garden where they snacked on wine and cheese. Production had finally wised up and figured out that it was impossible to stop Kara from eating the date food, so they finally dispensed with their admonishments to the cast not to eat the food.

During a break, Lena pulled Kara aside to talk about the date roses. There would be no rose ceremony after this date. They were heading into hometowns, which meant that she had to end up with four contestants. Mon-El and Winn each had a rose from their respective solo dates, which left two roses to be given out.

Lena and Kara stood a ways apart from the cast and crew, out of earshot but still in sight.

Lena asked, “Do you know who you’d like to keep?”

“What, I get a say this time?”

“You’re on a date with three men of color. Lillian could care less what happens to any of them.”

Kara made a face, her contempt on clear display. “Your mother is something else.”

“Believe me, I know,” Lena concurred. “We’ll be doing hometowns next week, so you should think about whose family you would like to meet. Who you can see yourself getting serious with, and so on.”

Kara stared at Lena, trying her best to keep her expression neutral. “Okay, so none of them?”

Lena arched one of her perfectly shaped eyebrows, making Kara grow a little hot under the collar. Lena reached out and made a show of adjusting Kara’s mic, which didn’t need adjusting at all. “I know that’s not true. I know you have very strong feelings for each of these men and it can be very hard to parse out your feelings in this situation.”

“Oh. Um… yeah,” Kara said slowly, catching on to Lena’s not-so-subtle reminder of her hot mic. “You’re right. I’m just… all mixed up. Because of how strong my feelings are. For the guys.”

“You like James the most, don’t you?”

“I do.” At least that wasn’t a lie.

“Okay, so that’s one. Then you just have to pick between William and Jason.”

Kara frowned in contemplation. “William’s nice. Oh, but Jason’s such a sweetheart. They’re, um, both attractive men, if one was looking for an attractive man.” Seeing Lena’s quirked brow, she hastily added, “Which I am, of course. Uh, William’s smart, and intelligence is such a turn on for me. I mean, he’s not like freakishly, insanely smart like some other people-” Lena cleared her throat lightly. “Right, and Jason’s… well, he makes me laugh. And at the end of the day, I just…” Kara allowed for a pregnant pause as she met Lena’s eyes. “I just want to be with somebody who I truly enjoy spending time with.”

Lena struggled to find the words. Hoarsely, she managed, “Right. That… sounds like a lot to process.” She drew a breath to steady herself. “Uh, does it help if I tell you that William’s hometown is in London?”

Kara just looked confused. “I don’t know. Should it?”

“Well… Jason’s from Florida. So, if you picked him for hometowns, then that means we’d have to go to Florida.”

“Oh.” Kara considered this new information. “Orlando? Miami?”

“Jacksonville.”

When Kara said her final goodbye to Jason, he took it exceptionally well. He gave her a high five, said that she was dope, and then asked if this meant that he won’t get to pitch his shark swimsuit idea to Mark Cuban. (“No, Kara, it’s not a swimsuit that looks like a shark, it’s a shark swimsuit, like a swimsuit for sharks. It’s in the name.”)

It was possible that Jason never understood what show he was on.

***

At the end of the night, the cast, minus Jason now, was supposed to get a ride back to the hotel from the restaurant. The show’s PAs would be responsible for returning the Vespas to the rental company, but Kara volunteered to return her own. She had changed out of her dinner date clothing and back into her regular clothes, looking casual and relaxed, finally free of the mic that was tethered to her for most of her waking hours. She was leaning against the seat of her red Vespa, caressing its handle bars longingly as she made the request to Lena.

“How often do I get to ride a Vespa around Florence? There must be some perks that come with being the Bachelorette, right?”

“I suppose that could be arranged,” Lena nodded. “I can follow behind in the car?”

Kara grinned widely and patted the back passenger seat of her Vespa. “Or…?”

“Oh, no.”

Kara pouted slightly. “You don’t want to?”

“You’re asking me if I want to ride through Florence on the back of a motorcycle with you?” If Lena sounded slightly panicked, it was just because she couldn’t comprehend what was happening to her. She had never considered herself lucky before this moment. She’d had literal dreams about a situation like this as a sexually repressed teenager. Except that she didn’t know Kara back then, so the blonde starlet in her dreams might have featured Keira Knightley.

Kara shrugged sheepishly. “It’s just a Vespa. Come on, it’ll be fun. It’ll be like that Audrey Hepburn movie you like so much.”

“That was Rome.”

“I didn’t say it’s a perfect reproduction. Besides, you’re much prettier than Audrey Hepburn.”

“Wow, you would say anything to get me on that thing.”

“I was being honest,” said Kara sincerely. “But, yes, I would.” Kara lifted up the lid of the top box and took out the extra helmet stored inside, offering it to Lena. “So? What do you say?”

There was never really a chance that Lena would say no. She took the helmet and clambered on the back of the scooter. She knew that she probably looked ridiculous with a large, bulbous white helmet on top, but she found herself not caring much, especially not with the way that Kara was looking at her - like she was the most precious thing that she’d ever seen.

“You should hold on tight to me,” Kara instructed as she took her place on the Vespa. “For safety.”

Lena wrapped her arms around Kara’s midriff, marveling, not for the first time, at the strength and power she found there. “I don’t think that’ll be a problem.”

They started off, following the other three Vespas being ridden by the show’s PAs. They followed along for a few blocks. Then, when the other scooters made a turn, Kara determinedly pulled back on the throttle and went straight, deviating from the route.

“Kara, you missed the turn,” Lena shouted over the noise of the road.

Completely unfazed, Kara responded with an easy, “Oh? Did I?”

She made a sharp left, pulling them into a small, deserted side alley. She braked, bringing them to quick stop and dropping the kickstand. She jumped off the scooter, then turned around and stepped into Lena’s personal space as she placed a hand upon the brunette’s thigh.

“God,” Kara expelled breathlessly. “I’ve been dying to get you alone all day.” She leaned in, eager to kiss Lena again. Lena, already feeling her pulse quickening in anticipation, hungrily tipped forward to welcome Kara’s lips against hers and to feel the— THWAP. A sharp, sudden collision, as Lena’s and Kara’s large, round helmets slammed against the other, sending the pair ricocheting in opposite directions.

After a brief moment of stunned silence, Lena broke out into a belly laugh. Kara attempted a scowl, which only came off puppyish and adorable, prompting Lena to laugh harder.

Kara unclipped her helmet, carelessly casting it aside, allowing it to fall to the stone-paved streets with a thud. Her hands quickly moved to undo and discard Lena’s helmet. “Just be quiet and come here.”

Finally, she covered Lena’s mouth with her own; with unrestrained desire, she seized Lena by the hips, pulling the other woman in close at the same time she was pushing her up against the scooter, desperately trying to get closer. Pressing up firmly against the brunette, she nearly toppled the scooter over with the two of them on top of it. She steadied them both by bracing her hand on the stone wall behind them. All the while, they kissed, Kara taking great care not to let her lips leave Lena’s for a second longer than necessary. She brushed her tongue against Lena’s, moaning indecently at the contact.

That sound from Kara - that sharp, desperate keen, was quickly becoming one of Lena’s favorite noises. She coiled her arms around Kara’s neck and wrapped her legs around Kara to bring their hips firmly together. She moaned at the contact, at the growing ache at her center.

When Lena started her day, she didn’t quite anticipate that she would finish it by making out with Kara Danvers on top of a scooter in a dingy alley. By the way Kara’s hands were prowling up her body and skirting the side of her breasts, they were going to quickly move beyond making out if one of them didn’t act like a responsible adult.

With great reluctance, she gently placed her hands upon Kara’s shoulders and broke them apart. “We should get back. Someone will notice.”

“Okay, but…” Kara’s voice was raspy and raw. “I want to- um, when can we be together? Alone, I mean. I need- I mean, I’d like for us to, you know, be… alone together.”

Arching a brow teasingly, Lena smirked slightly. “Is this how you ask for sex?”

“No!” Kara flushed deeply, a lovely shade of red spreading over her cheeks. “That’s not what I- I wasn’t talking about that. I meant more like… spending time together. I just, I just want to be with you. Just us, without all the scrutiny.”

Lena couldn’t resist. “Oh. So you don’t want to have sex with me?”

“I didn’t say that.” The redness was now spreading to Kara’s ears. “I’m not opposed to it, if it happens, uh, organically. That’s- uh, that’d be… you know, um, okay.”

“Try not to sound so excited,” Lena said drily.

Kara huffed with faux indignation. “I just can’t win here.”

Chuckling, Lena placated Kara with a gentle stroke on the arm. “I’m sorry, darling. You’re just so cute when you’re flustered.” For good measure, she leaned in and gave Kara a soft peck on the lips. “We leave Florence in a couple of days. We’ll head to London first for hometowns. I can oversee the hotel bookings to make sure that I have a single room.”

“Oh,” Kara said, struggling to sound unaffected. “And then, um, I suppose Nia and Brainy would want to switch rooms like we did in Barcelona.”

“That seems likely.”

“I guess we would have to share a room then,” Kara observed with a grin.

A low heat coiled in Lena’s lower body just at the thought of it. “Mm,” she sounded in affirmation. “Alone.”

***

When they got back to the hotel, they ran into Andrea in the lobby. After a couple of minutes lightly debriefing each other, Andrea asked Lena, “Are you coming up now?”

“Well...” Lena cast a glance at Kara. “I’m going up to Kara and Nia’s room for a bit.” She felt compelled to clarify, “Jack and Brainy are there too. I think Sam’s coming by too.”

“Oh,” Andrea replied, her tone a little odd.

Lena, still able to tell when her old friend was feeling left out, offered, “You should come too. We have wine and music. It’ll be fun.”

Uncertainly, Andrea looked to Kara, almost for permission. Upon seeing Kara’s beam and eager nod, she smiled. “Okay. That sounds nice.”

The three of them went upstairs to join Nia, Brainy, Sam, and Jack in the two connected rooms, which Jack had now dubbed the “party suite.” The group drank wine, listened to music, danced, and chatted. Kara and Lena tried to maintain a respectful distance, although there may have been some hand-brushing here and foot-nudging there. Andrea didn’t seem to notice, or if she did, chose not to make a stink about it.

It was nice, it was pleasant, so of course it couldn’t last.

When a loud, frantic knock sounded at the door, Jack answered, finding Siobhan on the other side, phone pressed to her ear. She didn’t acknowledge him, but looked past him at Andrea and Lena.

Temporarily pulling her phone away from her ear, she hit mute and hissed, “What are you doing? Morgan and Lillian are on the phone and they’ve been trying to reach you two. They’re going nuts.”

While Lena looked indifferent, Andrea hurriedly pulled out her cellphone and blanched at the number of missed calls. Frantic, she seized Lena by the arm, dragged her across the room, swooped up Siobhan and shoved them all in the bathroom where she commandeered Siobhan’s phone, unmuted, and put it on speaker.

“Morgan, Lillian, hi,” Andrea said, trying to keep her tone steady despite the three glasses of wine she’d had. “Sorry about that. You have us all now.”

“Where the hell have you been?” Lillian demanded angrily. It didn’t matter what time or day it was. Lillian expected her employees to answer when she called.

“Nevermind that,” barked Morgan impatiently. “I just got off the phone with Thomas Coville, one of the network’s attorneys. Somehow he knew about the villains feature we were going to run online, and he said we couldn’t include Desiree or Victoria if we did it. Now, I ask you girls, how did he know about that?”

Andrea and Lena shared a knowing glance. A small smile tugged at Andrea’s lips.

“You did just suspend Mercy,” Andrea answered. “Maybe this is revenge.”

“She wouldn’t do that,” said Morgan dismissively. “It’s in her best interest for these women’s allegations to go away. She would want them discredited. It’s because of these women that she’s suspended, she wouldn’t be looking to protect them now.”

It was remarkable how Morgan was able to completely absolve the true culprits. The fault didn’t lie with Lex, the root of their troubles, and the fault didn’t lie with him, the person who ignored the allegations and then suspended Mercy. Everything that happened was obviously the fault of the womenfolk.

Continuing the trend, Morgan now said, “Ms. Luthor, I seem to recall that you had some reservations about the feature.”

“I did and I do,” Lena answered blithely. “It was a dumb idea then and it’s a dumb idea now. I’m glad it’s dead.”

“I see.” Morgan’s tone was low and dangerous. “Did you by any chance share your feelings with Mr. Coville?”

Before Lena had the chance to self-sabotage with honesty, Andrea interjected, “Morgan, you’re not the only person from the network who has contact with the show, and this feature wasn’t exactly a secret. Thomas Coville could have found out through anyone.”

Morgan scoffed, clearly believing (rightly, incidentally) that no one from the show would have dared speak to anyone from the network besides Lena. But, lacking any solid proof, he could only sniff and say, “Fine. But, Ms. Luthor, if I find out that you had anything to do with this, I’m going to bury you so fucking deep.”

Unable to help herself, a peal of laughter escaped Lena, which was the most cutting response one could give to a man like Morgan. The deadliness of the ensuing silence on the other end of the line was palpable. The call ended abruptly.

“I think he hung up,” squeaked Siobhan, so insightfully.

Andrea looked to Lena with a familiar, weary expression. “Lena, that wasn’t smart.”

Lena shrugged carelessly. “What’s he going to do?”

“He can fire you?”

Maybe it was the alcohol she’d been drinking. Maybe it was her newfound impulsiveness unleashed by the change in her relationship with Kara. Maybe she truly just didn’t give a fuck anymore.

Whatever it was, it prompted Lena to respond flippantly with, “Let him try.”

The three of them exited the bathroom. When they stepped out, they found the others loitering outside the door, like they had been eavesdropping. Which, of course, they were.

“You shouldn’t have been listening,” Andrea admonished with annoyance.

“Um, you were all being really loud,” Sam rebutted. “If you didn’t want people to hear you, don’t be so loud?”

Few people could get away with sassing Andrea Rojas. But Sam happened to be one of those people. Andrea just rolled her eyes and left, Siobhan following closely on her heel. This left Lena alone under the questioning, worried scrutiny of her friends.

Jack cleared his throat lightly. “Lena, would you like to share with the class?”

Lena took the time to pretend to think about it. “No.”

“Mr. Edge sounded really angry,” Nia said nervously. “Is he going to fire you?”

“Well, he can’t really fire me. Technically, I don’t work for him or the network, I work for LuthorMedia.”

“He could make Lillian fire you,” Jack pointed out. “And we all know that when the network says jump, Lillian says how high and then asks if she could please have the privilege of fetching a snack for them while she performed.”

Lena appeared more concerned with the dwindling amount of wine left in her glass, frowning as she peered in her glass, “That man’s all bark. I can handle him.”

She sauntered off into the other room in search of a refill. Jack got up and followed her.

“So what are we going to do about mega-douche Edge?”

“Well, first, there is no we in this. You’re not involved.” Lena found the opened wine bottle on the desk and busied herself with pouring. “Second, nothing needs to be done because nothing’s going to happen.”

“Uh, excuse you. If you’re involved, I’m involved,” Jack retorted. “I’m not going to make you face that ruthless rat bastard by yourself.”

“Jack, please. Morgan Edge doesn’t scare me.”

“I can’t believe I’m the one saying this to you, but I feel like you should be taking this more seriously. You haven’t been around, Lena. You don’t know what Morgan’s capable of.”

Lena took a long sip of her wine. “I suppose I’ll find out.”

She sauntered away without a care, crossing back into the other room. As she did, she passed by Kara, standing in the doorway connecting the two rooms, and accidentally-on-purpose brushed up against the blonde.

“Pardon me,” she murmured lowly even as she gave Kara a flirtatious once-over. Kara gaped at Lena’s retreating figure, eyes fixed on her posterior.

“You know,” Jack said, now leaning against the door frame. “She wasn’t like this before… you know... before. I think you broke her.”

“I’m just that good,” Kara responded facetiously even as she looked on with worry. “Jack… do you really think it's going to be bad?”

“Yes, no, maybe? Hard to say. Morgan’s a right bastard but our Lena’s crafty.” When he saw the look of concern on Kara’s face, he touched her shoulder to offer assurance. “Kara, Kara. Oh, look, it’ll be fine. I’ve got her back. I won’t let anything happen to her. Promise.” He raised his hand in the air. “Scout’s honor.”

“Jack, that’s the Vulcan salute.”

“Oh, whatever, like I know what a scout is anyway.”

***

For their day off, Sam arranged for a tour of the Tuscany countryside in two vintage Fiats, led by a tour guide on a Vespa. Brainy drove one car with Nia and Sam as his passengers, Lena drove the other with Kara and Jack.

Jack, crammed in the narrow backseat, whined, “Why am I in the back? I’m the tallest one here.”

“Because Kara’s the star, so she gets to sit upfront, and you don’t know how to drive stick.”

“I mean, I probably know how to handle stick better than you do.”

“On a car,” Lena emphasized, rolling her eyes at his juvenile innuendo.

They drove through the countryside, following their tour guide, who relayed interesting stories to them via a walkie-talkie. They had coffee and pastries in Strada, roamed around Greve where Kara bought five different souvenirs just for Alex alone, had lunch at a renowned restaurant in Panzano, and stopped by several wineries along the way. In their last town, they visited a house where Machiavelli once lived during his exile, and had dinner at the restaurant next door.

When dinner was coming to an end, Jack went outside to call their tour guide back to escort them back to Florence. After ten minutes, he hadn’t come back yet, and Lena went to find him. She found him outside, leaning against the wall and fiddling on his phone.

“Did you get distracted by Clash of Clans again?”

Jack straightened up and quickly shoved his phone into his pocket.

No,” he said indignantly. “Tour guide’s on his way, thank you very much. And by the way, you owe me two hundred and fifty bucks.”

“Do I now?”

“Yessss.” Jack looked incredibly delighted. “Judging by the absolutely disgusting way you two have been ogling each other all day, I’m pretty sure that your spa date went well. I think you’ve lost our bet.”

Lena hummed noncommittally. “Wasn’t that for fifty?”

Jack, seeming to take that answer as confirmation, bounced up and down on his heels, practically halfway to a jig. “Well, I’ve just convinced our tour guide to take two hundred dollars to let me ride on the back of his Vespa back to Florence.”

“Okay,” Lena said slowly, feeling like there was more to this.

“And I’ve convinced him that, you know, if your car was to get lost for a little bit on the way back, it wouldn’t be a big deal.”

Catching on, Lena regarded her friend fondly. Jack’s harebrained schemes were useful on occasion. Wordlessly, she moved toward him in gratitude, hugging him tightly. He returned the hug, bestowing her with so much affection. Nonetheless, he couldn’t resist telling her,

“For the record, you’re still a gay mess.”

***

Kara and Lena drove around in their little car for a while, rather aimlessly, windows down to enjoy the warm summer breeze, flipping through Italian radio stations while they conversed in their typical, meandering way. They talked about Lena’s love for Fellini, Kara’s love for fettuccine, their mutual appreciation for Fibonacci. Their discussions could have gone on all night, easily flitting from one topic to another, but then Kara suggested that they pull off to the side, to a secluded spot their tour guide had shown them earlier in the day for a view of Florence from afar.

Sitting in the car, they stared off at the city lights in the distance, each acutely aware of the significance of two people attracted to one another sitting in a car in a secluded area, but each somehow still apprehensive about making the first move.

“Lena…” Kara started quietly, still staring out the window at the city in the distance.

“Yes, Kara.”

“I… I just- I wanted to say… that is, to tell you…” Kara turned her head. And that was probably a mistake, because the instant she glimpsed Lena’s profile, regal and beautiful, softly illuminated by moonlight, any words she had planned died before leaving her lips.

Curious by the silence, Lena looked over, and was surprised - although perhaps she shouldn’t be at this point - to find Kara staring back at her with awe, affection, and yes, burgeoning lust. Unthinkingly, her eyes drifted to Kara’s lips, as she felt that telltale warmth spread throughout her body.

“What is it, Kara?” Lena’s voice, low and hushed, sounded like sex.

Kara, dumbfounded, could only say, “Get in my lap.” But because that sounded rude, she added, “Please.”

Before she could even finish saying please, Lena was climbing over the middle and straddling Kara in the passenger seat. Fiats were not known for spaciousness, and it was a tight fit, but that didn’t seem to serve as a deterrence. As soon as Lena settled, Kara was pulling her for a hot, eager, open-mouthed kiss, unleashing all that desire she had been repressing since… well, okay, only since the last time they’d kissed, which was yesterday, but already felt like too long ago.

Lena threaded her hands through Kara’s silky golden locks, moaning faintly as she felt Kara’s hand prowling over her body. Kara’s hands explored enthusiastically with dire need, trying to sate the desperate craving she felt for Lena. She traversed up the side of Lena’s torsos, cupping her breasts from the side and squeezing gently.

“Ohmygod,” she mumbled against Lena’s lips. “These are fantastic.” Her fingers deftly moved to unbutton Lena’s blouse, tugging it loose and slipping it down her shoulders. Kara paused, staring at Lena’s exposed chest, at the black bra she had underneath. She visibly swallowed at the sight. “Um, wow.”

Lena thought that was a good sign. But confirmation wouldn't hurt. “Good wow?”

“Um. Yes. Can I…?” Kara brought up one hand, hovering.

“Please.”

Gingerly, Kara placed her hand over one breast, her face tense with concentration and astonishment as she caressed and kneaded.

“I like this,” she said, a little bit to herself, wonderment in her voice. “I mean, I really like this.” Then, with slight petulance, “I can’t believe I didn’t know. Nobody told me.”

“I’m sure some girls have tried.”

“Maybe. I didn’t know.” Kara’s hand dipped under the black bra, pushing the material out of the way. An exalted sigh escaped her. “God, you’re perfect.” She surged forward, kissing Lena feverishly. “I like you so much.”

As she kissed Lena, Kara touched and touched and touched, navigating the brunette’s body, craving to feel as much of her as possible. Not to be outdone, Lena snaked her hands beneath Kara’s shirt, finally palming at the well-developed abdomen muscles that had starred in so many of her late night fantasies. They were practically melded at the lips. Kara only broke away so she could turn her attention to Lena’s neck. She peppered kisses along the smooth skin of Lena’s shoulder blade.

“You’re so soft,” Kara mumbled, reluctant to pull her mouth away from Lena’s skin. “Your skin is fantastic. What’s your routine?”

Suffice it to say, Lena hadn’t expected the question. “Uh. Just cleanser and moisturizer.” She gasped then, as Kara rolled a thumb over her nipple; she thrust her chest forward, eager to put more of herself in Kara’s hand.

Nonchalantly, Kara followed up with, “Which moisturizer?”

“Um.” It should’ve been an easy question, but basic details escaped Lena at this point. “CeraVe? Nothing fancy. Sometimes I use argan oil.”

Kara hummed with interest, grazing her lips against Lena’s neck. “Have you tried rosehip oil?”

Pulling back slightly, Lena shot her a look which plainly said are you serious right now. “Darling, do you really want to exchange skincare routines right now? Or do you want to make out?”

“Uh, both?” When Lena narrowed her eyes, producing a look that was equal parts intimidating and hot, Kara hastily amended, “I mean, make out. Definitely make out.”

The matter settled, Lena leaned back in, ensuring that Kara had a better use for her mouth. They first kissed hungrily, tapered off into slow sensuality, before building up the intensity again. They lost themselves in this push and pull, ebb and flow, vacillating between frenzy and leisure.

Kara could feel that compelling, consuming ache between her legs, driving her to grab Lena by the hips and thrust up with her own in a feverish need for contact. She whimpered helplessly, swerving and twisting desperately to find relief, but unable to find the right angle in this cramped space.

“Here,” Lena uttered throatily. She pushed up slightly on her knees against the seat, wedging one knee between Kara’s legs, pushing her thigh up against the seams of her jeans. “You can grind if you want.”

Kara was all too eager to take her up on it. Angling her hips and aiming her center at Lena’s thigh, she pressed forward, pulled back, then forward again, bringing herself into a steady rhythm. Lena leaned in, exerting as much force as she could muster while she latched onto Kara’s neck with her mouth, restraining herself from leaving a mark.

Kara moaned as she thrust herself against Lena’s leg, wishing that the barrier of clothing wasn’t there. The rhythm of her hips grew unsteady and wild as she cantered toward a crescendo. When it struck, she dug her fingers into Lena’s bare shoulders, arched her hips, and choked out a sharp wail.

Lena held her close as she recovered. After allowing Kara a few moments of respite, Lena pulled back, shrugging on her blouse and starting to button it back up. When she looked up, she saw Kara staring at her, wide-eyed and extremely confused.

“What are you…” Kara stumbled for the right words. “Why, um. Well, don’t you want to… uh… have a turn?”

“I’m afraid we don’t have the time. Or space, for that matter.” Lena leaned and placed a gentle kiss against Kara’s lips. “I can wait until tomorrow night.”

“Tomorrow night?”

“Mmm. We’re in London tomorrow. I’ll have a single room.” The look in Lena’s eyes made Kara feel hot all over, like the orgasm she’d just had meant nothing. “Consider that a preview.”

Kara groaned sadly. “That’s so cruel. How am I supposed to get through the next twenty-four hours?”

“Sorry,” Lena said in a not-sorry voice as she climbed back over into the driver’s seat. “Can’t be helped. Someone’s going to notice if we don’t get back soon.”

As Lena took a few moments to make herself presentable again, Kara regarded her thoughtfully.

“Lena,” she broached cautiously. “What if… well, what if someone did notice?” When Lena looked back at her, Kara gave a hopeful, sad shrug, like she already knew the answer but needed to hear it anyway. “Or what if we just didn’t go back?”

For a moment, Lena tried to think of an alternate universe where that was feasible. She tried to imagine a world in which they could do that and the consequences wouldn’t be terrible. But they didn’t live in that world.

“For starters, it goes without saying that you’ll lose that six figure appearance fee they paid you for the show. I’d lose my job, of course. There’d be no season, so that’s millions of dollars down the drain. They’ll certainly sue you for the breach, if only to make an example out of you, and you’ll end up in a financial hole so deep that bankruptcy will seem like salvation. There’d be no season to air, so LuthorMedia and the network would suffer heavy financial losses. Insurance may offset some of the damages, but at the end of the day, it’s likely that the network will dump the show. Maybe we’ll get picked up by another network, but probably not. The crew will have to find new jobs. Some of them will be fine. Others won’t be.”

Kara blinked slowly as she processed information that some part of her already knew.

“Oh,” she said numbly. “All right. Just checking.”

Reaching across, Lena took Kara’s hand in hers and gave a reassuring squeeze. “Let’s just… focus on tomorrow. One day at a time.”

“Okay,” responded Kara softly. It wasn’t like she had very many choices anyway.

***

Remember what we’ve learned about best laid plans.

In the morning, Lena could tell that something was wrong as soon as she got up. Andrea was nowhere to be found. As she made her way out of her room, she passed by a few crew members, who were either glued to their phones or in a mad rush somewhere, too frantic to even greet their boss.

She went downstairs and knocked on Jack’s door. He answered the door, looking frazzled and excited. He gave her a once-over, taking in her calm demeanor.

“I can already tell that you haven’t looked at your phone yet. I don’t understand how that’s not the first thing you do in the morning,” he said as he let her in.

“I need coffee before disaster.” She found Briany, Nia, Kara, and Sam all gathered about in the room, looking gloomy. “Okay, who died?”

“Morgan Edge’s career,” Sam replied. “Daily Spoiler posted a new story. Apparently he’s known about what Lex has been up to the whole time. Not only did he instruct Mercy to ignore it, but since this whole thing broke, he’d been trying to launch a smear campaign against the victims. Network’s placed him on leave as well. Can’t say it’s a total shock. He’s always struck me as the smarmy sort.”

“Good fucking riddance,” Jack muttered darkly, the amount of vitriol taking Lena by surprise. “Him, Mercy, the lot of them deserve to be booted, knowing what they did and doing nothing.”

Sam patted Jack on the back reassuringly. To Lena, she said, “Network’s freaking out. Even I'm getting calls from their lawyers. Reporters, too. They smell blood.”

“This isn’t so bad, right?” Nia asked nervously. She looked around the room for reassurance. “I mean… it’s just Morgan Edge. It’s one guy.”

“It could be,” Sam answered. “Morgan’s high up at the network and he was trying to bury the story in a really despicable way. You know they say the cover up is worse than the crime. It makes you wonder who else knew, how far up it goes.”

There was another knock at the door. Jack got up to answer. Before he could open the door all the way, Andrea pushed past him, storming into the room. She was holding Lena’s phone in her hand, which she tossed at her.

“Answer your goddamn phone for a change, why don’t you?” she seethed. “Lillian’s been trying to reach you.”

Lena, unperturbed, returned serenely, “I do, but I don’t see what I’m supposed to do about the situation. Morgan made his bed. Now he has to lie in it.”

“How about damage control? Your presence is demanded back in LA. Your flight leaves soon. I suggest you leave now.”

That did catch Lena’s attention. “What about London?”

“We’ll be fine. You need to get back to HQ to help deal with the fallout.”

A protest almost made its way past Lena’s lips. But, some small part of her, the part not carnally obsessed with Kara Danvers and the promise of a rendezvous in a hotel room tonight, knew that this was the rational move.

“I’ll get my things.”

She headed for the door. At the same time Kara rose to her feet, Andrea also moved to follow. Their simultaneous movements did not go unnoticed by Lena, nor Jack.

Quickly, Jack called, “Andrea? Have you got a moment? I need to ask you something.”

Andrea paused, half-turning. “Now? Can’t it wait?”

“I’m afraid not,” Jack said with a serious face.

By this time, Lena had stepped out into the hallway, Kara close behind her. The last thing they heard before the room’s door shut behind them was Andrea’s annoyed, yielding sigh.

In the empty hallway, Kara and Lena stood facing one another, Kara looking more worried and anxious than Lena had ever seen her.

“Are you okay?” Kara whispered. “Are you… upset? About what happened with Morgan?”

“Of course I am,” Lena replied. “That bastard should’ve been out on his ass a long time ago. I’m just sorry that it didn’t happen sooner.”

Kara looked marginally less anxious, but still asked, “And this won’t be bad for you? For LuthorMedia?”

“Oh, no, this is very bad,” Lena answered breezily. “If there were no consequences, I’d have gone to the press myself a long time ago. I don’t know what’s going to happen now, but I can’t say that I’m sorry the story’s out. It’s almost easier, to have the choice taken away from you. At least my hands are clean. This time.”

“I’m sorry, Lena,” said Kara in earnest. “For everything that you’re going through. I just- I wish it could be different.”

“Me too. And I’m sorry that I’m missing our… alone time tonight.”

If it was even possible, Kara looked even mopier. “Oh. Right. Yeah, that’s-” As if the realization was just hitting her now, she gasped, “Wait, when are you coming back?”

“I’m not sure. I may not see you again until you get back to LA.”

“I have to get through hometowns without you?” Kara looked positively panicked, the face of a woman who’s finally realizing that she’ll be without her anchor for the first time during this entire experience.

“You’ll be fine.” Stepping closer, but still maintaining a respectable distance, Lena lightly rested her hands upon Kara’s shoulders. “You have Nia and Briany and Jack and Sam. They’ll look out for you.”

Although Kara looked unconvinced, it wasn’t as if there was much for her to do now to change the circumstances. In any event, their moment had come to an end. With the sound of the door opening, Lena dropped her hands to her side and took a step back just as Andrea emerged from the room.

“For god’s sake, Jack,” she tossed over her shoulder. “Yes, fine, submit a reimbursement form for your lattes. I don’t care. Lena. Come on, let’s go. What are you waiting for?”

With a final nod of goodbye to Kara, Lena trailed Andrea back to their suite, where she started packing the last of her things. Just as she was almost finished, Andrea appeared in the doorway of her room, looking unusually unsure, like she had been working up the nerve to do this.

“You know we have a problem with the crew.”

Lena, preoccupied with figuring out how to zip up her luggage - magically, her suitcase seemed to have shrunk for the return trip - absentmindedly replied, “What’s that?”

“We have a leak.” That grabbed Lena’s attention. Stilling her movements, she looked up and saw Andrea’s serious expression. Andrea continued, “For years, I’ve wondered how that site had gotten so much information out of us. I’ve always figured it’s just something as simple as paying off one of the PAs. It’s different this time though, they know things that a PA shouldn’t know. I thought it was weird when the site ran that story about Mercy. Not too many people could’ve known that she knew about Lex. But now, with this story about Morgan…” Andrea shrugged. “Only a handful of people knew that he knew. The people who were in the conference room that day when Mercy told us - you, me, Siobhan, Lillian.”

Given that list, the most likely suspect was clear. Presumably, the Luthors would not harm their own show, Mercy would not leak a story about herself, and if Andrea was the one raising the issue, that left one person. “And you think it’s Siobhan.”

“Maybe. I don’t know. All I know is that it’s not me.”

Lena could read in between the lines. “Sounds like you haven’t ruled me out. So why tell me?”

“Like I said, Lena. I’ve always considered you my friend. So, to my friend, I say, if it is you, tread lightly. If anyone finds out that you’ve violated your NDA, you’re done. A lawsuit would be the least of your worries. Cat Grant has influences everywhere, even outside the industry. She finds out that you violated a non-disclosure agreement, she’ll make sure that all her contacts know about it. She’ll make sure that you never work in any field that values confidentiality.”

There were many reasons why Lena did not entirely trust Andrea, but in that moment, she appeared genuine.

“It isn’t me, but I’ll thank you for the gesture.”

Andrea walked Lena to the lobby, where Jack was loitering, waiting to say goodbye to Lena like a sad puppy. As they waited for the car to show up, Jack made idle conversation about the topic of the day.

“So Mercy knew and Morgan knew. I wonder who else knew about what Lex was up to?”

“No one, I hope,” Lena answered. “I can’t imagine anyone else being so amoral.”

Andrea, clearly discomfited, said, “We shouldn’t be talking about this.”

At the same time, Jack said, “I bet Otis knew.”

“What about Otis?” Seemingly out of nowhere, Maxwell Lord materialized, paying great attention to Jack, something that he had never done before. In fact, in all the years that they’ve worked together, this may be the first time they’ve ever made eye contact.

“Er…” Jack shifted uncomfortably, not exactly intimidated, but weirded out by Max’s sudden attention. “I was just saying that Otis probably knew about Lex’s behavior on set.”

The smile on Max’s face was plastic and fake. Maybe that was just from his Botox though. “Why would you say that?”

“I mean, he was Lex’s friend and Mercy’s brother. No way he didn’t, right?”

“Oh. Right.” Apparently satisfied by Jack’s response, Max went back to ignoring his existence, turning his attention to Lena and Andrea. “It’s crazy, isn’t it? All these crazy accusations flying around. Crazy, crazy times. Poor Morgan.” There was a lull, and it was clear that no one quite knew what to make of the situation. “Anyway. Let’s hope everything goes back to normal soon.” As suddenly as he arrived, Max departed in the same fashion. They watched him walk away, mystified at his behavior.

Jack turned to the others. “Yeah, that guy definitely knows something.”

***

Flying back to LA by herself, Lena ordered two whiskeys and slept through the entire flight. She didn’t have the time to think about how weird it was to be alone for the first time in weeks.

While waiting for her luggage, she went through her work emails.

In the car ride to her apartment, she read the news and played Scrabble on her phone.

By the time she arrived at her apartment (or, at least, the furnished rental that had been temporarily designated as her apartment), she had already grown bored of the distractions her phone could offer. She stepped inside the unfamiliar space, surrounded by furniture she didn’t recognize, with most of the objects familiar to her still packed away in boxes in a corner of the living room.

For the first time in a long time, she felt lonely.

Later that night, before she went to bed, she checked her email and saw that there was a new email from Jack. She opened it and saw a photo attached, a selfie from their last dinner in Florence that Jack had taken with her and Kara behind him. Jack had cropped himself out of the picture, leaving just the two women in frame, huddled close together.

Remarkably, despite all the time they had spent together, she had almost no pictures with Kara. Kara wasn’t allowed to have a phone and Lena was not one to be glued to hers. Besides, after spending the entire day surrounded by cameras, the last thing either of them wanted to do was to pose for photos. But now, Lena wished that she had taken at least one.

Lena saved the picture to her phone, knowing that she would look at it many more times in the coming week.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

I hear you like a whisper
In the corner of my lovesick thoughts
Like sand through a filter
Trying to capture what time forgot
I need you to be here
I need to see you crystal clear
Like diamonds in a coal mine
In the moonlight when you appear

“Ease My Mind” by Hayley Kiyoko

 

 

LA had lost its luster.

At some point since her return, Lena had considered permanently settling back here after the show finished. Now she struggled to remember why. What did she miss? The never-ending traffic? The vacuous people with empty smiles and emptier heads? The steady parade of “on the verge” aspiring stars? The endless talks of organic matcha, whispers of that “secret” burger joint that everyone already knew about, the complaints about the smog, the way everyone freaked out and forgot how to drive whenever a drop of rain appeared?

Lena also knew that she was being irrational. The problem wasn’t with the city, it was with the people in it, or, more accurately, who wasn’t.

She missed Kara. It had been only less than 48 hours since she left her, but she already longed for her presence.

At work, she sat through one endless meeting after another, with various network executives, PR consultants, lawyers, and the other white, middle-aged men in expensive suits.

While they strategized on what to do with the “Morgan Edge situation,” Lena’s mind inevitably wandered to thoughts about Kara, how she was doing, what she was doing. Who she was doing it with. Then she would quickly banish the thought from her mind. She knew what the situation was when she decided to kiss Kara, the Bachelorette who was there to find a husband. Regardless of what they did in stolen moments, they had no claims to one another.

She would lock these thoughts away in a little box inside of herself. Compartmentalize. She had to.

Then she wondered if, in her absence, Kara would start connecting better with one of the contestants. Mon-El, probably. He was so keen on her. And she seemed to like him too. If Lena hadn’t been around, maybe this would have been easy. Mon-El was a perfectly fine suitor when there was nothing else to compare him to.

No. She had to focus on something else. Work.

But it was difficult to compartmentalize when part of the job included reviewing the dailies from Kara’s shoot in London. She met William’s parents, who seemed like decent enough people, if a little mundane. She watched William take Kara around London, watched Kara’s eyes sparkle at her first bite of salt beef on Brick Lane, watched Kara laugh at William’s silly jokes, watched them end the night on top of the Eye, William leaning in for his kiss.

Lena turned off her screen. This hurt. More than she thought it would.

Maybe she should have done this earlier, from the very beginning; that is, left the set and Kara to allow her to build her relationships with the contestants. But selfishly, that wasn’t a choice, not for her.

No, no. Back to work. Not the dailies anymore. Maybe the budget. Calm, soothing Excel.

Lena stayed at the office late, hours after everyone else had left. There seemed to be little reason to leave at a reasonable hour.

She was lying in bed, trying to get through Kafka on the Shore, when her phone lit up with Nia’s name. That was unexpected.

Curiously, she picked up, “Hey, Nia.”

“Hey,” came the voice of her literal dreams, decidedly not Nia’s.

“Kara.” Lena sat up, Murakami discarded and forgotten. “You’re… calling me.”

“I know, I know, it’s against the rules. I’m not allowed to touch the phone. But I just…” Kara sighed deeply. “I missed you. I- I hope this is okay.”

It wasn’t. That is, not Lena if was doing her job properly and cared about that sort of thing. But she was reaching the point where she didn’t.

“Of course it’s okay. More than okay. I’m so happy to hear your voice. I’m just surprised. Isn’t it like six AM over there?” As if Lena didn’t already know. As if she didn’t automatically mentally add eight hours to the clock every time she glanced at it and thought about what Kara was up to. “What are you doing up so early? I know you have a travel day today, but you don’t need to be at the airport until the afternoon.”

“I set an alarm. Um, I wanted to make sure I reached you before you went to bed.”

Lena’s heart fluttered at the thought that Kara Danvers, lover of beds, pillows, blankets, and all things sleep-related, woke up early just to talk to her. “Well, then, I’m glad you did.”

Kara laughed, sounding relieved and elated. “Tell me about your day.”

“Oh, it was absolutely thrilling. I had six meetings back to back and then ate my dinner in front of my computer staring at spreadsheets.”

“Lena,” Kara admonished. “You can’t do that to yourself. You’re working too hard.”

“We can’t all spend our day traipsing around London with a dapper gentleman.”

Kara made a derisive noise. “Don’t let Jack hear you call him dapper. He might get a big head. Or, bigger head.”

“I would never describe Jack that way. I was referring to William.”

“Oh. Him.”

“Well, that doesn’t sound promising.” And incongruent with what she had seen in the dailies earlier that day, where Kara seemed to be enjoying herself. “I thought you had fun today?”

“I guess. It was fine. William’s… nice. He’s fine. But I…” Kara inhaled sharply. “Everything was fine. Production really did a great job setting up the tours and activities. I had a good time.”

“But?”

“But I- I wished that it was somebody else that was doing those things with me.” Lena didn’t know what to say to that. She was silent for so long, it caused Kara to prompt nervously, “Lena?”

“I’m here. I… I know what you mean. I…” Lena drew a steadying breath, trying to gather the nerves. Why was this so hard? Oh, right, because she was Lena Luthor and never learned how to express her feelings unless those feelings were rage and disappointment. “LA isn’t the same. I keep catching myself wishing that I was back at the set, in the house. With you.”

This time, it was Kara who was silent for a long time. Finally, she let out a quiet, pleased sigh. “I like you so much.”

Lena smiled so wide that her cheeks hurt. “So. Tell me how your day went.”

Kara did, telling her about meeting William’s parents and seeing London. For Lena, it was strangely fine to listen to Kara describe her date and meeting her boyfriend’s parents. It felt more like Kara describing her day at work, which, given that she was literally being paid to do it, wasn’t too far off. It helped that Kara had remarkably little to say about William himself despite having spent the whole day with him.

They were on the phone for hours. As the evening dwindled, drowsiness seeped into Lena’s voice and barely suppressed yawns worked its way into her sentences, but she stubbornly refused to hang up.

Finally, with a laugh, Kara said, “Okay, I’ve kept you long enough. You need to go to sleep.”

“I’m not sleepy,” Lena protested sleepily.

“We’ll talk tomorrow,” Kara promised.

It was getting quite difficult to keep her eyes open anyway. “Fine. Call me.”

“I will. I miss you.”

“I miss you too,” Lena returned softly.

Disconnecting and setting her phone aside, she was asleep within a minute of her head hitting the pillow.

***

In the middle of her seventh meeting of the day, her phone buzzed, a welcome interruption from endless refrains of let’s circle back on this, just putting this on your radar, we’ll put a pin in it. She saw a text message from Nia, which she normally might have put off until the meeting’s end. But she thought that it might be Kara.

She was right. When she opened the message, she saw a picture of Kara holding a burrito to her lips.

Nia (14:15): Kara wants me to tell u that burritos @ newark airport are really good

Lena (14:15): Somehow I don’t believe that.

Nia (14:15): Kara pinky swears

Lena (14:16): Must be true then.

Lena (14:16): How was the flight?

Nia (14:16): good

Nia (14:16): waiting for the car now

Nia (14:16): meeting winn’s family tmrw

Nia (14:16): andreas like weirdly excited about it

Nia (14:17): and i don’t even think she likes winn very much

Nia (14:17): so somethings up right?

Lena (14:18): Winn’s father is in prison for murder.

Lena (14:18): Multiple ones.

Nia (14:18): r u serious?

Lena (14:19): Yes.

Nia (14:19): holy shit

Nia (14:19): kara doesn’t know?

Lena (14:19): We’re not supposed to tell her. But I may have alluded to Winn having some serious, penitentiary-related family drama. I don’t think it’s fair to completely blindside her with it.

Nia (14:19): holy shit

Nia (14:20): also kara really wants to know what were texting about

Nia (14:20): I’m just going to tell her to ask u herself tonight

Lena (14:21): You’re going to let her borrow your phone again?

Nia (14:31): Should I not?

Lena (14:32): No, I’m very glad for it. I just don’t want you inconvenienced. It’s your phone.

Nia (14:33): it’s cool

Nia (14:33): I’m just hanging out with B anyway i wont need it

Nia (14:33): anything to help THE CAUSE

Nia (14:33): as jack says

Lena (14:39): I don’t know what you’re talking about.

***

When her phone lit up that night with Nia’s name, Lena answered the phone with, “So Nia’s down for ‘the cause?’”

Kara was quiet for a moment. “Uh. Well. I haven’t said anything to her. She might have… guessed. And when I say guessed, I mean that Jack might have gone around one night singing ‘Lena and Kara sitting in a tree‘.”

“Of course he did,” Lena said with a heavy sigh. She supposed she couldn’t fault him too much. She chose to be friends with him, and she knew perfectly well what he was like.

“It’s fine, though,” added Kara quickly. “Nia’s super trustworthy. She won’t say anything.”

“No, no, I know. I trust Nia.”

“Well… okay. Um. Good. That’s good.”

“So. How’s New Jersey?”

“Ah, well, Newark’s… colorful.”

Kara launched into a story about her misadventures on the way to the hotel, which included surly TSA agents, misplaced passports, and a drunk man who peed on their car at a stoplight. They talked about their day. Lena carefully but pointedly skirted the edges of her contract by vaguely alluding to Winn’s father being absent and doing her best to prepare Kara for tomorrow’s events.

***

Lena had been asking around Maxwell Lord.

He had been behaving strangely for weeks, skittish and awkward where he was normally arrogant and charming. She recalled that strange incident when he stumbled upon her and Andrea in the edit bay, asking about some kind of archive or storage at LuthorMedia. Then there was that odd interaction between him and Jack right before she left Florence.

It could’ve been nothing. Max could be a bit of a diva. Still, she couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that something was amiss.

She checked in with the personnel in various departments, from facilities to archives to finance to Human Resources. She found out that Max had been skulking around the office, showing up far more frequently than he ever had in all his time on the show, but otherwise no fruitful information. Until now.

“Yeah, I helped out Mr. Lord,” said the junior IT technician, whose name tag said Chuck. They were in the basement of LuthorMedia, where the IT staff was, in Chuck’s small cubicle where he sat while Lena towered over him. As if he wasn’t unnerved by her presence already.

Even though she didn’t even know what she was looking for or why, she felt relieved just to hear something concrete for once. “How did you do that?”

“I just had to track down the phone he was looking for. It was being stored offsite with all the other equipment we have to sort through and recycle. I had to requisition a bunch of boxes and go through them, but I found it eventually.”

“Phone? His phone?”

“No, it was an old work phone of a former employee.”

“Do you know why he wanted it?”

Chuck’s face clearly said, Are you crazy, woman? I don’t ask questions around here. But he replied with a polite, “Sorry, no.”

“Where’s the phone now?”

“Mr. Lord picked it up the day you all flew out. I didn’t have the passcode for him though. All the employee passcodes are stored in a… uh, different database.” When Lena stared at him questioningly, Chuck added, “The last guy just wrote them down in a notebook. We don’t know where the notebook is.”

That answer was, to put it mildly, deeply unsatisfactory. “Are you serious? This is a multi-million dollar production company.”

Chuck shrugged helplessly. “Hey, there’s a reason why he was the last guy, right?”

Lena sighed in resignation. It never ceased to surprise her how really expensive, professional operations seemed to be held together by Scotch tape in some respects.

With slight apprehension, she asked, “Do you know the name of the former employee?”

“I have it here somewhere.” Chuck swiveled in his chair and tapped away at his keyboard. “Okay, here we go. Graves, Otis.”

Immediately, Lena felt relieved that it wasn’t Lex’s. Maybe this was a whole lot of nothing. Maybe whatever was happening with Maxwell and Otis has nothing to do with Lex or even the show.

Nevertheless, after she thanked Chuck for his help and went back to her office, she called Jack.

“Do you know why Maxwell Lord would want Otis Graves’s old cellphone?”

“Uhh… maybe they were secret lovers and he wanted to delete his nudes?” Jack suggested, which was frankly as plausible a theory as anything else these days. “Then again, maybe not. As far as Max was concerned, we were all peons unless your last name was Luthor. Not really a man of the people, you know?”

“What’s Max like these days?”

“Oh, super weird,” Jack exclaimed, excited by the gossip. “Like he used to be this sort of normal guy, right? Maybe an arrogant jerk but that’s not unusual for this business. He’s completely obsessed with this Morgan Edge thing. He won’t stop talking about it. I’ll just be at the craft table, and he’ll walk up to me and start talking about how Morgan doesn’t deserve this and he’s such a standup guy, which I’m pretty sure Morgan’s own mum wouldn’t even say about him. So yeah, he’s being super suspicious.”

Lena’s heart sunk at that. “So… whatever this is, it’s about Lex.”

“Or maybe him, Morgan, and Otis were involved in a love triangle. Or maybe they were poly.” Jack sniffed sharply. “Gotta say I’m a little hurt that I wasn’t invited.”

“Do you take anything seriously?”

“I take the cause very seriously.”

Of course he had no shame in bringing that up. “Yeah, about that. Can you stop going around the set telling people about me and Kara?”

“It was only Nia. And in my defense, I was very drunk.”

“Just… don’t mention it to anybody else?”

“I won’t,” Jack said in earnest. “And… I am sorry I accidentally told Nia. I do feel bad about it.”

“It’s okay,” Lena said with a light sigh. “I think she knew already.”

“Oh, yeah. Actually, she thought that you two had been banging this entire time. She was like, why else would two grown women voluntarily share a bed? She was shocked when I told her that you two haven’t even had sex yet.” Jack paused. “Right?”

“Goodbye, Jack.”

***

Sam Arias (17:33): Hi, Lena, it’s Sam Arias. I’m here with Kara and she wants to know if you can explain hockey to her.

Sam Arias (17:33): We’re at the Devils game with Winn, by the way. None of us know what’s going on and someone just threw an octopus on the ice.

Lena (17:34): What I know about hockey is that I think there may be ice involved. What is this about an octopus?

Sam Arias (17:35): That’s actually still more helpful than Jack’s response, which was to recount the plot of the Mighty Ducks.

Sam Arias (17:36): And I don’t know. Someone else just did the same thing. There are now two octopi on the ice.

Lena (17:36): What? Real ones?

Sam Arias (17:37): Yes. And now there’s three.

Lena (17:37): Why?

Sam Arias (17:39): We really don’t know. The Detroit fans are really excited. So I guess this is a thing.

Sam Arias (17:40): Why did we think it was a good idea to take these two to a hockey game? Nobody knows what’s going on.

Lena (17:41): It’s Newark. It was either this or we have them hang out at a superfund site.

Sam Arias (17:42): Kara and Winn are supposed to get on the ice during intermission and have a shoot out, whatever that means. I’m genuinely worried for Winn’s safety.

Sam Arias (17:42): I can’t have another contestant hospitalized.

Lena (17:44): Kara will take care of him. She’s apparently a very good ice skater.

Sam Arias (17:45): is there any physical activity she’s not good at?

Lena (17:51): I don’t believe there is.

***

They were on the phone again that night.

“Okay, so, I know you told me that Winn’s father is the source of an ‘intense’ amount of drama, but I still feel like you undersold it?” Kara sounded like she was crunching on a snack on the other end of the line.

“I did tell you to brace yourself for the worst. I think that mass murder falls under that category.”

“That’s insane. His dad sounds like a complete psychopath but Winn and his mom are like, the sweetest people in the world.”

“Yes. Well… it’s a good thing that our families don’t necessarily reflect who we are.” At least, Lena hoped not. “How’s Winn doing?”

“He’s okay. He was pretty emotional when we talked about it, but he seemed fine by the end of the night.”

“Good. I’m glad. It couldn’t have been a surprise to him that the show would make this a plot point, but I worried about how he would handle it.” Lena tried to imagine how it would feel for her if she was featured on national television to talk about her brother. It was an unpleasant exercise. “You know, originally, Gayle had wanted to set up a visit with his dad. Mercy was really into it. It took Andrea and I weeks to convince them that it was a terrible idea. We were only able to convince them otherwise by pointing out that if we mishandled the situation, it would result in severe backlash and poor ratings for the rest of the season.”

“Is that really all they care about?”

“It is.”

“That’s awful.”

“That’s show business, as Lillian would say.” And Lex. And Lionel. It was practically the Luthor motto.

Kara was quiet for a moment. “I think I have to let Winn go.”

That was unexpected. Lena was sure that milquetoast William would be next. “I thought you liked Winn?”

“I do! A lot! He’s a really great guy, but… I know there’s no romantic future for us, and… Winn and his mom have been through so much already. I can’t- I think it’ll hurt more if I did it later. Honestly, I should’ve done it a long time ago. Like maybe it would’ve been easier for him if I cut him upfront.”

“I’m sorry this is so hard. I know you don’t want to hurt anybody.”

“But I knew what I was signing up for,” Kara conceded with a heavy sigh.

“Hmm. So did your contestants. Winn knew the odds.”

“Sometimes I wonder why anyone ever signs up to be a contestant. To share one person with twenty-nine other people, just hoping that you might be special enough to be picked? Seems insane to me. But then…”

Hearing reticence, Lena sought to reassure with a tender, “What is it, Kara?”

“I think to myself that if you were the Bachelorette, I’d definitely sign up and take my chances.”

This woman. Not for the first time and certainly not for the last time, Lena felt a surge of warmth and affection at Kara’s sweetness. “I miss you.”

“Me too,” Kara returned with a soft sigh. “God, Lena, I can’t stop thinking about our last night in Florence. In the car. I should’ve asked you to stay out later.”

“Believe me, if I had known that this was going to happen, I would’ve dragged you into the backseat.”

Kara inhaled sharply at the thought. “You wouldn’t have to do much dragging. I should’ve taken more of your clothes off.”

“At least you got somewhere. I didn’t even get your shirt off.”

“Yeah?” The pitch of Kara’s voice dropped, taking on a sinful undercurrent. “And what would you do with me once you had my shirt off?”

Were they doing this? “I’d run my hands over you. I’d want to feel those toned muscles under my fingers. I’d want to take my time looking at you and studying that perfect body of yours. I’d want to drag my tongue against your abs, kiss my way up your body until I had your bra strap in my teeth, and I’d tug them down while I unhooked you.” Yup, looked like they were doing this.

Breathlessly, Kara prompted, “Go on.”

“I’d put my mouth on your breasts. I’d take my time with you, licking your nipples, until you begged me for more, then I’d take it all into my mouth.” With her free hand, Lena palmed her own breast, sighing as she pinched lightly at a hardened peak.

“Wait,” Kara croaked. “I need to take off my pants.” There was a rustling on the other end, and when her voice came back in the line, Kara sounded strained. “God, Lena, I’m so wet already.”

Lena moved her own hand south. “Tell me. Tell me how you feel.”

“I- I’m- oh, I’m warm. Hot. Really wet. I- I have my fingers on my clit and and I’m imagining that it’s you doing it to me.”

Lena moaned as her fingers found their way beneath her underwear, replicating Kara’s movements. An unbidden moan escaped as she rubbed at her own clit. “Oh, Kara.”

“Are you touching yourself?”

“Yeah. I, I wish you were here. God, Kara. I want to taste you. I want to feel you. Tell me what you’re doing.”

Closing her eyes, Lena mimicked the movements Kara described, imagining that Kara there, on top of her, against her, inside her. Kara’s voice, low and throaty and punctuated with impossibly appealing moans, drip-dropped into Lena’s ears, flowed through her body, coiled itself in her lower belly, igniting need and spurring her on.

“Kara, I’m close.”

“Okay, baby,” Kara whispered. “Come for me then.”

Lena plunged two fingers in for the finish, choking out a wail, dropping her phone in the process. She lay there for a moment, exhausted, until she heard the distant, tinny call emitting from her phone.

“Lena? Are you still there?”

With great effort, Lena reached for her phone, hitting speaker. She was too exhausted to even hold the phone to her ear.

“I’m here. That was… good. I needed that.”

“Me too.” There was a shuffling from the other end, like Kara was dressing herself. “I can’t wait to see you again.”

“You will. Very soon.”

“And um, maybe we can do that for real?”

“You can count on it,” Lena promised.

***

Nia (08:15): Kara wants me to tell u that u look really pretty today

Lena (08:15): ?

Lena (08:15): She hasn’t seen me today?

Lena (08:15): And I’m having breakfast in sweatpants.

Nia (08:16): ugh

Nia (08:16): she says ur pretty everyday

Lena (08:21): That’s really sweet.

Lena (08:22): Please tell Kara I think she looks lovely today too.

Nia (08:22): u dont pay me enough for this

Lena (08:22): You’re my favorite PA.

Nia (08:22): fine fine

Nia (08:26): what r u having for breakfast

Lena (08:27): Muesli with flaxseed, dried cranberries, and coconut milk.

Nia (08:28): Kara says and BOSS THIS IS A DIRECT QUOTE ew why is lena eating pigeon food

Lena (08:28): It’s not pigeon food. It’s heart healthy.

Nia (08:29): she says maybe for the heart of a sickly bird

Nia (08:29): who has given up on life

Nia (08:29): and dreams

Nia (08:30): and fun

Nia (08:30): AGAIN THESE ARE DIRECT QUOTES FROM KARA

Lena (08:31): You can tell Kara that there was flaxseed in those pancakes I’ve been making for her.

Nia (08:32): lol

Nia (08:32): that was the best reaction ever

Nia (08:33): now she’s mad and pouty

Nia (08:33): she says u r going to have words tonight

Lena (08:34): Looking forward to it.

Nia (13:58): Kara wants to know what time u r going to be home tonight

Lena (13:58): I should be back by 9. Why?

Nia (13:58): she wants to watch a movie with u over zoom

Nia (13:59): she says u cant stay at the office that late

Nia (13:59): it’s not healthy for you

Nia (13:59): also you should be leaving earlier so u can spend time w/ her

Nia (14:00): bc she misses u

Nia (14:00): and a ldr takes work

Nia (14:00): oh wait I wasn’t supposed to text you the last part

Lena (14:01): LDR?

Nia (14:01): no

Lena (14:01): Did Kara just refer to this as a long distance relationship?

Nia (14:01): no

Nia (14:01): no

Nia (14:01): im just typing what karas saying

Nia (14:02): yeah shes just kinda freaking out rn

Lena (14:02): Did Kara say this was a LDR??

Nia (14:03): i am being instructed to say no

Lena (14:03): Nia, I swear I’ll pull the boss card.

Nia (14:04): i would very much like to be excluded from this narrative ~ tay swift

Lena (14:04): Fine. Please tell Kara we’ll have words tonight about this.

Nia (14:04): kk

Nia (14:05): ok i told her and THIS is the best reaction ever

***

“So, I’m in a long distance relationship.”

Kara let out the loudest groan Lena had ever heard. “I was hoping you’d forgotten.”

“In five hours?”

“I don’t know. You’re a busy woman.”

“Kara. You can’t call this a long distance relationship.”

The line went quiet. When Kara spoke, it was with the clipped reservation of a woman trying to control her emotions. “R- right. Because we haven’t- um, I know we haven’t defined our status and it’s super complicated because, uh, well, I’m contractually obligated to date four other guys right now. So, I totally respect your decision. I didn’t mean to push a relationship on you. Anyway, I was mostly joking. Kind of.”

“Kara.”

With a slight quiver in her voice, Kara answered, “Yeah?”

“I meant that you can’t characterize this as a long distance relationship when we’re only apart for a week. We still live in the same city.”

“Oh. Right.” Apprehension evident in her voice, Kara added, “So, then, um. How do you feel about the relationship part?”

Lena hesitated. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t thought about it. She had. A lot. But their situation wasn’t exactly normal. Deflecting, she teased, as lightheartedly as possible, “Because having four boyfriends wasn’t enough?”

“No,” Kara retorted promptly. “Look, I’m not… I’m not trying to force a relationship on you. I know it’s complicated and it’s so unfair to ask anything of you when I’m… in the situation I’m in. I just… I don’t know, I guess I still wanted to put it out there anyway. We don’t have to talk about it now. I just wanted to let you know how I feel about you. How I think of us.”

Us. Kara thought of them as us. Lena should’ve been ecstatic at that - and, okay, a part of her was, but the rational side of her couldn’t ignore the situation they were in. She was not one who dared to hope.

“Can we talk about this when we see each other soon?” Lena managed to say, sounding calm enough. “Just a couple more days.” Fortunately, James also lived in LA. After visiting Mon-El’s family in Ohio, Kara would be back in LA for James’s hometown. And they would be together again.

“Okay,” Kara answered, sounding mollified. “Yes. Okay. Let’s do that.”

***

Lena went prowling in Maxwell Lord’s office.

Max’s office was opulent and immaculate. They had spent a lot of money to decorate the space, only for it to be used maybe twice a year. There weren’t many places for Lena to look. She didn’t even think the cellphone would be there. She had no idea why Max wanted it, but given Otis’s involvement and the timing of everything, she could guess that it probably had something to do with Lex.

Max’s desk was empty. Not even a scrap of paper or paperclip was to be found. The shelves were filled with HR manuals and guides that looked like they hadn’t been touched since the day they were set down.

Coming up empty, Lena turned to go. As she headed out, almost on a whim, she investigated a painting of a vase with orchids hanging on the wall. The frame felt more solid than expected and, with an experimental grab, swung open to reveal a small office safe.

She stared at it for a moment, unsure what to do. She could probably get someone from facilities to open it up for her, although she wasn’t sure how she would even begin to explain why she would do so, not without creating gossip. She wondered if it was worth it, if Max would keep the cellphone in there, if that cellphone was even worth finding at all. Maybe none of this had anything to do with Lex. For all she knew, maybe Max wanted it because he had texted Otis his secret recipe for banana bread.

She closed the painting, covering up the safe once more.

***

At Kara’s insistence, they were using FaceTime that night. Even though she was scheduled to fly back to LA the following night, she “just can’t wait another second to look at your beautiful face,” as she told Lena.

“How was your date with Mon-El?” Lena asked, to be polite more than anything else. She didn’t mind hearing about Kara’s time with William or Winn and even James, but Mon-El was different. There was something there between him and Kara that she did not like, which was as close as Lena Luthor would ever get to admitting that she felt threatened.

Although they had never explicitly discussed this, Kara seemed to be aware of how Lena felt, because she instantly looked wary. “We don’t have to do this.”

“I don’t mind,” Lena lied. “I might not be there in person but I’m still technically your producer. I should know these things. So, tell me. How’s Ohio?”

Evidently not totally convinced, Kara’s brows furrowed with skepticism. But she said, “Okay, um, well, it went well. Mon-El took me around his town, and apparently his family’s a big deal? They’re practically royalty there. They have three generations of high school football stars and that’s… apparently very important to people. They had a parade down Main Street for his homecoming. The high school glee club put on a performance where they changed lyrics in old 80’s songs to include his name, like Don’t Stop Believing in Mike. Those kids were really talented! I mean, it was also completely embarrassing. The entire time I was just thinking, wow, they’re all so going to regret this in ten years, but it was still really fun.”

“I’m glad you had a good time.” Which was sort of true. She certainly didn’t want Kara to have a bad time.

“That’s enough about me,” Kara said hastily, sensing Lena’s discomfort. “How was your day?”

“Uh. Well. How much do you know about breaking into a safe?” From there, she recapped for Kara her adventures in trying to figure out what was going on with Max, Otis, and that mysterious cellphone.

“I didn’t know you had such a Nancy Drew streak,” Kara remarked at the story’s conclusion.

“Part of me feels like I should just let this go. I don’t even know why I’m digging. If this whole thing is about Lex, like I suspect it does, it’ll just dig him and my family into a bigger hole.”

“Because you’re you.” Kara gazed upon the other woman fondly. “You’ll always do the right thing because that’s who you are.”

Lena was awash with warmth. Few people believed in her like that. “I miss you.”

“You’ll see me soon. I’ll be back in LA tomorrow but I think it’ll be pretty late?”

Lena hummed in affirmation. “Your flight lands at 12:20 AM. So, technically, you land the day after tomorrow.”

“Wow, you have the flight time memorized and everything. You really are good at your job.”

“I think we both know that my interest here isn’t strictly professional.”

Kara broke out in a dopey grin. “So… will I see you at the house then?”

“You will,” Lena confirmed.

“Okay. And um, I guess Nia probably doesn’t need to stay with me if you’re in the house,” Kara said, dropping hints the size of anvils.

Lena found herself grinning back. “I suppose not.”

“Which means Briany won’t be there. And I’m sure Jack would like to head back to his own place after being away for so long.”

“He would.” Or at least, she would make sure that he did. “Looks like it’ll just be the two of us. I wonder how we’ll pass the time.” She arched a brow suggestively, knowing what result that would yield. She was right. Kara grew redder as her smile grew wider and sillier.

“I’ll have to find a way to keep you entertained.”

“I’m sure you won’t disappoint.” Lena held two fingers to her lips then pressed them against Kara’s lips on screen. “Until tomorrow.”

***

Nia (23:48): i don’t know what u 2 talked about tonight but karas doing a crazy number of push ups in her room rn

***

In the morning, Lena arranged for food and flowers to be delivered to the house that evening. She had thought about going to the airport to pick up Kara herself, but there was no plausible way to explain her presence. Not even ”total devotion to the job” would justify driving out after midnight to pick up the lead when perfectly good transportation was available.

All day at work, she drifted in out of daydreams, her body tingling with anticipation with the thought of seeing Kara and being with Kara. She crossed and uncrossed her legs many times throughout the day.

She did an interview with a reporter from Variety about Morgan Edge, adhering to the company line that “Everyone is disheartened to learn of the allegations, there will be a thorough investigation, the operation of LuthorMedia and filming of Bachelorette will not be impacted.” The reporter had to jump off halfway through the call and asked to call back later. So Lena thought nothing of it when, towards the end of the day, her secretary buzzed her, telling her that a journalist was on the phone. Lena picked up the phone, ready to resume the interview.

“Ms. Luthor, this is Perry White from The Daily Spoiler,” came an unfamiliar voice, gruff and impatient even though he was the one who initiated the call. “I’m calling because we’re about to publish a story tonight about Maxwell Lord’s recent behavior on set. Sources tell me that it’s connected with the show’s cover up of your brother’s sexual harassment of contestants. Would you care to comment?”

Lena made a mental note to have a discussion with her secretary on who qualified as a journalist. To Perry, she only offered a simple “No.”

She hung up the phone. Then picked it up again to call Lillian. Lillian appeared in her doorway within minutes. It spiraled from there, spreading through various executives of LuthorMedia and the network. Soon, people in fancy suits started showing up and took over the largest conference room they had as they strategized what to do next.

At twenty minutes to midnight, Lena finally accepted her fate and sent a text to Andrea, Nia, and Jack explaining that she was going to be at the office all night.

The story went live at midnight. Within five minutes, their phones started ringing with various media outlets looking for comments. Maxwell Lord’s name was starting to trend on Twitter. Now that there was a visible figure with a recognizable face attached to the scandal, the public suddenly cared a lot more.

At a little bit past two AM, one of the network’s executives got a call. He stepped out to take it and when he came back, he began whispering in the ears of everyone who was there from the network. Within fifteen minutes, all of the network’s people had packed up and left.

Lillian watched as the last network executive stumbled out the door, offering a half-hearted excuse of an early morning. She turned to Lena seated next to her. “They’re going to kill the show. They’ll order us to stop production tomorrow.”

That wasn’t a surprise to Lena. Maxwell Lord was the face of the show.

But, to her mother, who looked more worn and fatigued than Lena had ever seen, she said, “We don’t know that yet.”

Lillian didn’t look at her; she just kept staring off into space and muttered, almost to herself,

“It should’ve been you who stayed.”

Whether that was a compliment or an admonishment, Lena couldn’t tell.

***

Eventually, Lena turned up at the restaurant where Kara was meeting James’s family for lunch. She only had time for two hours of sleep on her office couch and a quick shower at the office gym. The crisis wasn’t over and she knew that she ought to be at the office to salvage the situation, but it seemed fairly futile by this point. Then there was her desire to see Kara.

A small crowd of fans were gathered outside the restaurant. It was fairly typical to get a few onlookers whenever they filmed in public. Their filming locations were public to anyone who cared to follow. What was atypical was the presence of one decided non-fan.

“Alex,” Lena greeted with surprise. “What are you doing here?”

Alex was looking grumpier than usual. “I woke up this morning and my phone was flooded with messages with words like Maxwell Lord and sexual harassment scandal. Like I wasn’t going to come right over?”

“Kara’s fine. Maxwell was involved in the cover up and not the actual harassment.” Wait, there was something she was missing. “Allegedly.” Because that was still the company line.

“As far as you know. Birds of a feather and all. If Lex’s a creep, his friend’s probably a creep too.” As if suddenly remembering who she was talking to, Alex looked momentarily contrite. “Not that… everyone associated with Lex is like that.”

Lena chose not to address that. “I promise you that Kara is okay.” When Alex continued to look skeptical, she added, “Look, if we’re quiet about it, I’ll sneak her out to you and let her tell you herself. Can you wait by the back? And try not to look so… conspicuous.”

Instinctively, Alex huffed, “What is that supposed to mean?” Lena just cast a sharp glance down Alex’s all black attire, leather jacket, combat boots, and aviator sunglasses. In LA. During summer. “Yeah, okay, I’ll leave my jacket in the car.”

The restaurant was booked for the shoot, and empty except for the production crew and a few eager wait staff lurking in the background, aspiring actors hoping to make it on camera. Lena nodded hello to her crew as she made her way through. She approached the only occupied table in the place, coming in from behind Kara. James was the first one to spot her.

“Lena! Hey!” He seemed genuinely happy to see her. Although that was nothing compared to the look on Kara’s face as she whipped her head around, eyes wide. To Kara’s credit, she didn’t squeal or jump into Lena’s arms like she looked like she wanted to. “Mom, Kelly, this is Lena. She’s the big boss around here.”

“Hardly.” Lena greeted James’s mother and sister and made polite small talk about their day. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to interrupt your meal, but could I speak with Kara for a moment? Won’t take long, I promise.”

Before she had finished speaking, Kara was pushing back her chair and getting to her feet. The Olsen family’s consent secured, Lena led Kara away in search of a more private location to talk. She tried the kitchen, but found a couple of young line cooks dicing vegetables for that night’s service. Looking for another spot, Lena tried the first door she saw, which opened up to a small walk-in pantry. It would do for a quick conversation to tell Kara about Alex waiting out back without being overheard. She waited for Kara to step in before closing the door behind them.

The door clicked shut, and Lena turned around to deliver her message, only to suddenly find herself pressed up against the door she had just closed, Kara’s mouth against hers, Kara’s hands cupping her face, their bodies flush.

Kara kissed her with frenzied need, and in fleeting moments where her lips were free, muttered, “Oh, god, I’ve missed you. Lena. Lena.

This wasn’t exactly what Lena had brought them in here for, but, well, it would just be rude not to reciprocate, and Lena was not raised to be rude.

She could kiss Kara forever, anywhere, anytime. Kara was an uncommonly good kisser, exerting pressure where pressure was needed, backing off and surging forward at just the right moments like an expert dancer. Lena’s body ached and reacted, feeling wetness pooling between her legs, obsessively thinking about how good it would feel if Kara would move a hand up her skirt, push aside her underwear, and use the slickness there to rub where Lena needed her to.

It almost happened. Kara’s hand dipped below, palming Lena’s ass before navigating its way around, up her thigh, pushing up her skirt.

With the self-discipline of an austere monk, Lena murmured, “Kara, wait.”

Although she emitted a sharp whine, Kara stilled immediately. She pulled back and looked at Lena with hunger, mixed with embarrassment at the sound she had just made. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to, uh, make that sound. I’m perfectly fine with stopping, of course.”

“No, I want this too.” For a brief moment, Lena entertained the thought of picking up where they left off. But that really wasn’t an option, no matter how much she wished to the contrary. “But I brought you in here to tell you that Alex is waiting for you out back. She’s worried about you. I can get you five minutes with her, okay?”

Normally, being able to see Alex would have been the highlight of Kara’s day, if not week or month. But right now, she just looked back at Lena with a glazed-over expression and a perfunctory nod. “Then we meet back here?”

Lena had to admit, it was incredibly flattering how badly Kara wanted her. Which made it all that much harder to say, “I’m afraid not, darling. Your boyfriend’s family is still waiting for you out there.”

“Maybe I have food poisoning,” Kara replied half-jokingly. When her suggestion was shot down by a mere look from Lena, she added, “Okay, then tonight? At the house?”

It pained Lena to no end to answer, “I’ll do my best. Things are really crazy right now.” Kara looked so upset, Lena sought to kiss it away. “I’m sorry, darling. I wish I could spend more time with you.”

“No, you don’t have to apologize,” Kara responded hurriedly. “I’m just sorry that you’re dealing with so much. I wish… I just wish things were different.”

“Me too. But we really do have to get going.”

After a quick straightening of clothes and hair, Lena escorted Kara to the backdoor and let her out into the alley for a quick chat with Alex. Kara returned a few minutes later, eyes red and moist, but smiling bravely. Lena took her hand in sympathy as they walked back, only dropping it when the Olsens came into view.

With a quick hug, short and restrained, she left Kara again.

***

The call came in at the end of the day. It was almost 6PM then, Lena, Andrea, Lillian, and Siobhan were in the conference room, planning the next few days’ events. They had a rose ceremony tomorrow, followed by a day off before they traveled to Hawaii for the next phase of the show: fantasy suites. For the first time, the Bachelorette and her contestants will have the opportunity to spend an overnight date together with no cameras around. Usually, that meant sex. Between Kara and her men. This was an event that Lena and Kara had yet to discuss, even though, on a normal season, a producer would have gone over it with her contestant by this point. It was typically a milestone event for the cast and the audience, and should have been the subject of a few ITMs by now: who the lead wanted to take and what she wanted to do in the fantasy suite. For obvious reasons, Lena had purposefully avoided the topic.

Lillian’s secretary came in and told her that she had a call on the phone from the network. When Lillian returned, she held a tumbler half full of whiskey, telegraphing the message she was about to deliver.

“It’s done,” she said calmly as she sat back down in her seat. “They called it. The network wants us to stop production. They don’t want to film anything with Maxwell Lord right now and they don’t see the point in filming the show without a host.”

Lena had to admit, with great reluctance and shame, that in that instant, her first thought was, Now I can be with Kara. But this thought was vanquished quickly, replaced by the thought that the hundreds of people they employed on the show were now unemployed. LuthorMedia had other shows, and maybe senior staff and a few junior producers could be shifted to another show, but they wouldn’t be able to find positions for most of the crew.

Not that this was on everyone’s minds. “But the Atlanta production’s still going, right?” Siobhan asked. “Can I transfer over?” Her questions were ignored by the adults in the room.

“Is this coming from Cat Grant?” Lena asked.

Lillian barked out a mirthless laugh. “No, of course not. Some lackey. As always, Cat Grant does not seem to care or know that we exist, no matter how much money we make for her.”

Andrea said, “Then maybe she cares about how much money she’ll lose if we pull the plug now. We’re almost to the final three. Everything in Hawaii’s booked and paid for, not to mention the amount we’ve already spent to produce this season. It’ll all go to waste if we stop now, and we don’t even know how things will shake out with this scandal.”

Although Lena was fairly certain that the scandal would not go away, she added, “Andrea’s right. It’s foolish to stop production now. We can work around Max’s absence.”

“I’m not the one you have to convince, dear,” Lillian said coolly, sipping on her drink.

“Fine,” retorted Lena curtly. “Get me a meeting with Cat Grant and I’ll tell her myself.”

With a saccharine, patronizing smile, Lillian said, “Sweetheart, if Cat Grant paid me any mind, do you think we would be in this position right now?”

“Then I’ll go to her office and wait until she can see me.” Lena was already getting to her feet. “I’m not giving up without a fight.”

“I don’t think she’s in LA,” Siobhan interjected. “I’m friends with her assistant. Well, Instagram friends. Cat’s attending a conference on Sustainability in Mass Media in New York.”

New York. Of course Cat Grant would be in New York. That meant traveling. That meant being away from Kara again. Lena should have expected this.

“Then I’ll go to New York,” she said. Taking charge of the situation, she instructed, “Don’t stop production. Film the rose ceremony, make preparations, and I’ll meet you in Hawaii.”

While Andrea was already nodding along, Siobhan looked to Lillian, who acquiesced with a half-drunk shrug.

Lena left to gather her things from her office. Before she left the building, she stopped by facilities and found the manager there, who was just about to leave for the night. She stood there, arms folded, until he managed to find the master key to the safe in Maxwell Lord’s office. Now armed, she went back into his office, opened up the swinging painting, and unlocked the safe.

And there, in the center, the only object in the safe, was a well-used, scuffed iPhone with a cracked screen. She took the phone and dropped it into her purse. This time, when she left, she didn’t bother closing up the safe. It was unlikely that Maxwell Lord would ever set foot in that office again.

***

Lena (10:20): Are you at the house?

Lena (10:21): Jack.

Lena (10:23): Jack.

Lena (10:24:) I know you’re at the house. Wake up please.

Jack (10:25): wtf why would you text me so early

Jack (10:25): why do you hateme

Lena (10:25): It’s 10:25. Work started at 9.

Jack (10:26): im at work

Jack (10:26): im at the house

Lena (10:26): You need to be awake to be working.

Jack (10:27): tyrant

Jack (10:27): what do you want tyrant

Lena (10:28): I’m on a plane to New York to talk to Cat Grant. I’ll meet the crew in Hawaii when I’m done. Can you please let Kara know?

Jack (10:28): too early to have that condo

Jack (10:28): convoy

Jack (10:28): CONVO

Lena (10:28): Just do it.

Lena (10:29): Please.

Jack (10:29): youre not the boss of me

Lena (10:29):

Jack (10:29): ok ok im going

Jack (10:29): tyrant

Lena (10:29): Let me know how it goes.

Jack (10:58): ok done

Lena (10:58): How did she take it?

Jack (10:58): hilariously

Jack (10:58): i think she was looking fwd to having you stay atthe house tonight

Jack (10:58): CANT IMAGNE WHY

Lena (10:59): I feel terrible about this.

Jack (10:59): she’ll be fine

Jack (10:59): its not physically possible to have an aneurysm from sexual frustration

Jack (10:59): it just feels like it

Jack (10:59): i was in a long term relationship w a hot lesbian so I know

Lena (11:00): I hate you.

Jack (11:00): miss you too

Jack (11:00): hurry back pls so i can make fun of you in person

Lena (11:00): I will.

***

Lena packed everything she would need for a long trip in one large suitcase. She anticipated going directly to Hawaii from New York after a successful meeting with Cat Grant. Because failure was not an option.

Although sometimes it was the most likely outcome.

Lena spent her first day in New York trying to do things properly. She called as many people as she could think of, trying to get a line in to Cat Grant. Despite repeated calls and borderline threats, Cat’s assistant insisted that Cat Grant would not be available for a meeting until December.

So on the second day, Lena resorted to camping out in the waiting room of CatCo’s New York office, figuring that Cat Grant would show up eventually.

She waited the entire day, laptop out so she could work remotely. She watched the dailies from the day before, of the rose ceremony and Winn’s heartbreaking elimination. He cried, Kara cried, even Jimmy teared up. As she waited, she texted with Kara via Nia’s phone, who had the day off and was excited to be traveling to Hawaii the next day but sad that Lena wasn’t with her. They texted about all the things Kara was looking forward to in Hawaii. Neither of them mentioned the upcoming fantasy suites.

Day two also ended with no progress, other than a pitying look from Cat’s assistant when she left for the day.

On day three, Lena returned to CatCo. She settled in for a long day of waiting. She was there for a few hours before anything happened.

“Ms. Luthor?” Lena looked up and saw a thin, genial-looking man standing there. His voice was familiar. “Thomas Coville.” He held his hand out to her. This was CatCo’s deputy general counsel whom Lena had contacted to stop Morgan Edge’s ill-conceived plot to smear Lex’s accusers, so she instantly felt fond of him.

She stood and shook his hand. “Mr. Coville. Pleasure to meet you in person at last.”

“Same here. I heard about the show. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. Not until I’ve spoken to Cat Grant.”

Coville looked genuinely sorry. “I’m afraid that won’t be possible, not if you were hoping for an in person meeting. She left for Singapore last night.”

The universe was conspiring against her. But Lena would not give up so easily. “Maybe you can help me then. We can’t stop production on the show. It would be foolish to stop now. You’d be flushing millions down the drain.”

Coville shook his head. “I’m just a lawyer. I don’t have any say in programming.”

“Don’t sell yourself short. I’m sure you were part of the cost-benefit analysis team. I’m sure you know that under the terms of our contract, CatCo pays most of our production costs in exchange for distribution rights, but LuthorMedia retains all rights to the show. If you cancel our contract now, you forfeit your distribution rights, and we’ll just find another network to pay for the rest of the season. Most of the season is done and paid for anyway. It won’t cost Bravo much to complete the season and they’ll get a shot at our 10 million viewers. CatCo will have spent millions for another network to reap the benefit, and for what? You don’t even know what’s going to happen with these allegations.”

Coville tilted his head in acknowledgment of Lena’s point, but said, “But Max’s become a liability. We can’t afford to keep him on set while all these allegations are going around.”

“So don’t. What does Max really do anyway? Nobody’s tuning in for Maxwell’s two minutes of insipid platitudes. We can finish the season without him. Let me show you the numbers. You’ll see how much CatCo will lose if we stop production right now. You’ll see that it’s not worth it.”

Coville seemed to take a moment to digest what Lena said. Then he sighed and shook his head again. “Ms. Luthor, I’m really not a numbers guy.” Lena started to feel her heart sink. “But if you have the figures with you right now, I can get you in to see a guy who is. He’s the one you need to talk to if you want results.”

Lena didn’t have to be told twice. Quickly gathering her things, she followed Coville down the hallway. “Thank you.”

“Just between us, I hope you get what you want. I’m a fan. I’ve been watching some of the dailies. That Kara Danvers is something.”

Lena, always glad to hear Kara’s name mentioned, concurred with a hearty, “No arguments there.”

“And, ah, just between us- she’s going to pick Mon-El, right?” Coville looked hopeful. “They have such great chemistry.”

Lena just forced a smile.

***

She spent ninety minutes with Cat Grant’s numbers guy. By the time they were finished, Lena knew that she would be getting what she wanted. The numbers guy and Coville stepped out of the room to make a few calls. Only Coville came back to deliver the good news.

The show would live to see another day. For now. They could resume production (not that they ever stopped), and they would re-evaluate as more information came to light.

As he walked her out, Coville said, “Ms. Luthor, I’m very fond of the show. But I’m heading the investigation into the allegations against Lex. I hope you understand the network’s position here. If the allegations are... publicly substantiated, I just don’t see CatCo holding on to the show. At that point, I doubt any network would touch it.”

His emphasis was not lost on Lena. She knew how the game was played. For corporations, justice had a monetary value. If they could pay for this whole thing to go away, they would, because the show made them a ton of money. The investigation may very well result in a private settlement. It didn’t even really matter whether the allegations were true or not. On the other hand, if the public thought the allegations were true (even if they weren’t), the network would have to cut its losses and dump the show. Along with all the employees who depended on it for a living, who had nothing to do with the scandal.

“I understand.” She shook his hand. “Thank you.”

***

It was already dark when Lena’s plane touched down at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Oahu. She had spent the last 15 or 16 hours in transit. There was nothing more she wanted to do than to collapse into bed and sleep away the stress of the last few days.

Okay, well, there was one thing.

She ordered a car and, instead of heading to the hotel to rest like she should, asked the driver to take her to the restaurant where Kara was filming her dinner date with William. Her ride pulled up behind the mobile control trailer. Luggage in tow, she knocked on the door of the trailer, which was answered by Siobhan. Greeting Siobhan, Lena hauled her bag into the trailer. The only other person there was Andrea who was, as ever, glued to the monitors surveying Kara and William like a hawk.

“Oh, good, you’re here,” Andrea said without a greeting, looking at Lena, or an acknowledgement of what Lena had just accomplished in New York. Lena didn’t take it personally. Andrea was in work mode. “We’re having trouble with Kara. We’re nearing the end of her date with William and she still hasn’t offered him the overnight card yet. I don’t know what the hold up is. Jack’s talked to her but it didn’t seem to work. Can you step in?”

While seeing Kara was on the top of her list of things she wanted to do, convincing Kara to offer a room key to her suitor was definitely not one of them.

But Lena, the consummate professional when she didn’t have her lips glued to the lead’s, said, “Of course.”

Out she went of the mobile control and into the restaurant.

This time, Kara was seated facing the restaurant entrance and saw Lena the moment she stepped in. While Kara had been looking at William, who was apparently in the middle of a fascinating story, she tore her gaze away as Lena entered. Her reaction was instant. Evidently uncaring of how it looked, Kara leapt out of her seat, tossed a perfunctory “excuse me” at William and made a beeline for the brunette. The camera crew hesitated, unsure of whether they were supposed to film this, until they received instructions from Andrea to go ahead and follow.

“Lena!” Kara greeted breathlessly. “You’re here! Finally!”

If it weren’t for the cameras and the crew, Lena would have said hello in a much more tactile way. As it was, she just said, “Hello, Kara.”

Now Jack came bounding up, no less enthused than Kara at seeing Lena. “Lena, love!” He looked her over. “You look like shit.”

“She does not!” protested Kara indignantly. “You look lovely as always.”

“I think I’m more inclined to believe Jack here. I feel like shit.” Lena looked to William, who was far away enough to be out of earshot. “So, Kara, I hear that you haven’t offered William the overnight card. Is anything the matter?”

Kara stared back at her, wide-eyed but face carefully blank. “Do I have to?”

“Well, no, of course not. But it’s the normal practice, otherwise you send him home now.”

Kara maintained a neutral expression. Although someone who knew her well could read the challenge in her eyes. “And you want me to offer him the overnight card?”

Inwardly reluctant but outwardly calm, Lena answered, “It would be good for the show, yes. The audience expects it.”

Kara pressed her lips into a thin line. “Okay. Then what happens? We go to the fantasy suite and then what? Am I supposed to have sex with him?” Lena, not expecting the bluntness, let her facade slip, and was momentarily stunned into silence.

Jack interceded. “We don’t dictate what happens in there. Sometimes the couple just talk off-camera. Ask questions we normally don’t let you ask, politics and religion and so forth.”

Kara was still staring at Lena, who offered nothing but silence. When she finally realized that nothing was forthcoming from Lena, she said, with a mixture of resignation and petulance, “Fine. I’ll do what you want.”

As Kara stomped off to rejoin her date, cameras trailing behind her, Jack turned to Lena. “Um. Was that really the best idea?”

“It’s what the audience expects.”

“I meant for you. You know as well as I do that by this point, the lead’s got a ton of pent up sexual energy. Things happen in the fantasy suite even when people think they’re just going to talk. Kara’s got it worse than any lead I’ve seen, and I’m pretty sure you’re mostly responsible. And in case you haven’t noticed, my boy William’s a looker. Now you’re encouraging our horny Bachelorette to stay overnight with him? Why do you hate yourself?”

“Like you said, nothing has to happen,” Lena replied calmly. “And if it did, fine. That’s the show.”

Jack gave her a hard look. “I swear to god, Lena. I’m going to need to burn this show to the ground before you can be happy. And yes, I know I’m being dramatic but I don’t care.”

Lena watched as Kara pulled out the overnight card. William was already grinning and nodding his head. She suddenly felt beyond fatigued, the events of the last few days catching up to her all at once. She wanted to crawl beneath the covers and sleep forever.

“I’m going to bed,” she said flatly.

Jack could not resist a parting shot. “Yeah, looks like they are too.”

***

Despite the chaos in her mind and the sick feeling in her stomach, Lena fell asleep promptly as soon as she got into her room. She didn’t even bother changing her clothes. She simply fell into bed and passed out immediately. It was only a little bit past eight PM then, an unusually early night for her. But she had been overworked for weeks now and could barely recall the last time she had a decent night’s sleep.

Tonight wouldn’t be that night either.

She was awoken by the sound of loud knocks at her door. Groggily, she stumbled to her feet, nothing that it was nearly two AM. She opened the door and found Nia there.

“Hi, Lena. Nice to see you. Sorry that this is the first thing I’m saying to you, but uh, Kara wants- needs to see you.”

That was enough to chase away any remaining drowsiness. “What’s the matter? Is she okay?”

Nia seemed to struggle with the question. “I think so. But she kicked William out of the suite and now she’s asking for you. So… will you come?”

To Lena, it was absurd that Nia even had to ask. “Of course. Give me a minute.”

She took a quick minute to freshen up in the bathroom, and came out to follow Nia to Kara’s suite. She knocked on the door twice before using Nia’s keycard to unlock the door.

Stepping in, she called out, “Kara? It’s me.”

The door opened up to a hallway which curved left and emptied into the suite’s living room. Traveling down the hallway, Lena rounded the corner. And there, sitting on the couch, still in her vividly red evening gown, was Kara. Although Lena had already seen her earlier in the night, and had in fact just about memorized her face by now, she still faltered momentarily, breathless and awed by the vision before her. She wondered if she would always feel that way (part of her already knew that the answer was yes).

As she heard the sound of the front door slowly swinging and clicking shut, she suddenly realized that she and Kara were, for the first time in a while, completely, happily, mercifully alone, with no distractions or interruptions. The same thought seemed to hit Kara at the same time, as her gaze grew heated and greedy. Under Kara’s lustful scrutiny, Lena felt herself clench below as heat flushed through her body, leaving her aching and wanting. All her exhaustion, worry, and anxieties vanished all at once, replaced by swirling, heady images of Kara beneath her, against her, on her. She could already feel desire pooling between her legs. She recalled the sound of Kara’s desperate moan in her ear, Kara’s supple skin beneath her hands.

Lena had never wanted anything more.

There was so much they needed to talk about. That would be prudent, to untangle the mess between them, to air their anxieties and grievances.

But then Kara tilted her head in the direction of the open bedroom door in silent broadcast of her invitation with all the subtlety of exploding fireworks.

And Lena answered, in a scratchy voice thick with desire, “Yeah.”

 

 

Chapter Text

It's like I'm powerful with a little bit of tender
An emotional, sexual bender
Mess me up, yeah, but no one does it better
There's nothin' better
That's just the way you make me feel
So real, so good, so fuckin' real

“Make Me Feel” by Janelle Monae

 

 

Lena fell backwards onto the mattress, ungraceful and harder than she expected, but that mattered little to her, not with Kara crawling up the length of her body with exploratory hands and a predatory stare. Then Kara’s mouth was upon hers. She lost herself in Kara’s kisses, relishing the way the blonde’s hot, desperate moans reverberated against her skin.

Tugging at the edge of Lena’s shirt, Kara said, in a half-question, “We can take this off.”

Nodding helplessly, Lena raised her arms to allow Kara to strip her shirt off. Then Kara sat back on her haunches, sighing in deep appreciation.

“God. You are perfect.” Eagerly, her hands returned to Lena’s body, touching, caressing. She traveled down to the buttons of Lena’s jeans, undoing them and tugging down.

When she discarded the jeans to the side, Lena prompted, “You too. I want to see you.”

Together, they made short work of Kara’s dress. Taking turns, alternating between fervent kisses and feverish touches, they undressed one another.

The last piece of garment discarded to the side, Kara gazed down at the woman sprawled out on the bed beneath her, taking in the round curves and dark curls set against pale skin; she felt overwhelmed by the sight before her, almost painfully so, like she would burst if she kept looking but that she would go mad if she did not.

The only way to alleviate the pressure was to touch.

She placed both hands on either thigh, caressing gently, luxuriating in the feel of smooth, supple skin. Her hands traveled north, around the side of full hips, over a tender belly, down under full breasts, then turned to delicate exploration through touching, massaging, kneading. Her thumb inched up the swell of Lena’s breast until it met a hardened peak; an index finger joined in, squeezing lightly. Kara dipped her head down, pink tongue darting out for an experimental lick, then two, then three; then, emboldened, taking the other woman’s breast fully into her mouth.

All the while, Lena watched, with labored patience and breathing, biting on her lower lip with increasing strength as she resisted the urge to urge on. It was Kara’s first time becoming intimate with another woman’s body. She wanted to be considerate, to give Kara the time to do what she needed, what she wanted. But when she felt Kara’s mouth hot and wet against her breast, an irrepressible moan escaped. The moan, reaching Kara’s ears, ignited some primitive, primal part of her brain, causing her to suckle harder as a low growl sounded from her throat, thrusting herself down atop Lena’s thigh, grinding and chasing pleasure.

With a frenzy of kisses up Lena’s torso, Kara’s lips found their target, focusing on a pulse point on the side of Lena’s neck.

“I’ll take care of you, babe,” she promised, murmuring against Lena’s skin. “You’ve taken such good care of me all this time. I wanna return the favor.”

Reaching down with one hand, she braced her palm against the inside of one of Lena’s thigh and pushed it apart. Then, moving down, the blonde slowly settled herself in between Lena’s spread legs. She exhaled softly in astonishment at what she saw.

Seconds ticked by. Lena, growing self conscious, muttered, “Are you- is everything okay?”

“No,” Kara said as Lena’s heart dipped in dread. “You are so, so, so beautiful. I can’t even process it and I think I’m about to lose my mind.”

“O- oh,” answered Lena, swallowing hard, heart swelling. “I- thank you. That’s-”

Lena cut herself off sharply as she finally, finally, finally felt Kara’s fingers press up against her clit. She drew a sharp, deep breath, squeezing her eyes tightly shut as she felt the sensation spike throughout her eager body.

“You feel so good,” Kara whispered as she rubbed in slow, small circles. “You’re so wet and warm. For me.” Her voice was filled with wonder. “I didn’t know I could do that.”

Lena gasped, feeling more than hearing the words, her mind being overtaken by the sensations in her body. Kara leaned her face in a little closer, inhaling deeply.

“And god, you smell so fucking good too.”

At that, Kara removed her fingers, replacing it with her mouth. At first, a tentative lick. Just a light swipe for a taste. She had never tasted another woman before. Her conclusion? Yeah, she could do this. She could definitely do this. Especially if Lena kept making those keen noises. Urged on by those lovely, breathy sighs, Kara dove in. Her tongue lapped and probed at warm folds, scaling the entire length of Lena’s pussy, greedily taking in the taste of her juices. Kara flattened her tongue against the hard nub of Lena’s clit, then wrapped her lips around, sucking gently.

Her fingers found their way back, they teased and dipped at the entrance. Slipping one finger in, she pushed in slow, drew back slow, then pushed in deeper, drew back, then deeper still, slowly teasing her way in.

Kara,” Lena hissed. “Oh my god. Kara. Kara. Oh. Oh.

Kara crooked her finger inside Lena, searching for the spot that she knew would drive her wild, and when she did, Lena screeched and raised her hips off the bed. With her free hand, Kara pushed her hips back down, her mouth never leaving her clit, her finger still buried inside.

She built a slow and steady rhythm, her tongue flickering against Lena’s nub as she slipped a second finger in. Lena whined. Dug her fingers into the sheets. Toes curled in. Kara picked up the pace, working faster, deeper, her tongue matching the speed.

With a desperate, choked cry, Lena came, hips bucking wildly into Kara’s face. Kara didn’t seem to mind. She kept her mouth on Lena, but eased off on the pressure, bringing the woman down gently from her high.

Lena lay on the bed, a damp, quivering mess, her body sapped.

Before she even had the chance to shake off her post-orgasmic stupor, Kara said, in a firm, rough voice, “Get on your hands and knees. I want you from behind.”

With two short sentences, Lena’s body reignited with arousal, as if she didn’t just come a minute ago. With limbs still shaky and weak from her climax, she turned over, positioning herself like Kara wanted.

Kara palmed her ass with both hands, caressing as she uttered desperately, “God. You’re so gorgeous. It’s ridiculous.” From behind, she reached under and re-entered Lena swiftly with no preamble, plunging in two fingers, working her way up from a leisurely pace. As the momentum built, she pushed her hips against her plunging hand to increase the force of each thrust. With her other hand, she went around and rubbed at Lena’s clit.

Lena groaned as blinding pleasure flooded her. She grabbed onto a pillow beneath her to help her ride out the waves. The second orgasm was even more intense than the first. She couldn’t suppress the scream that escaped as Kara brought her over the edge.

With her head still clouded, she barely registered Kara’s hands grabbing firmly at her hips, until she felt her body being pulled down and flipped over. Lena did not know that she could be turned on by being manhandled. But here we are. In her daze, she only just faintly recognized that Kara was kissing along her inner thigh.

“Oh, Kara, I’m so sensi-” Then Kara’s tongue found its way back to her clit and Lena forgot the English language. All of it. Gone, vanished, along with any other semblance of rational thought.

Her third orgasm was so good that it almost bordered on painful. Lena was pretty sure that her body, flooded and overwhelmed with shattering pleasure, blacked out as a self-defense mechanism.

By the time her brain was capable of processing information, Kara was lying next to her, lazily tracing her hand over Lena’s abdomen, patiently waiting for Lena to come back to earth. When she saw that Lena had opened her eyes, her hand began creeping down again.

Laughing weakly, Lena grabbed a hold of the blonde’s hand. “Stop, stop. Enough. I need a minute.”

“Quitter,” retorted Kara, so smugly that it should’ve been annoying. But she’d just given Lena three incredible orgrasms in quick succession so as far as Lena was concerned, Kara could say whatever the fuck she wanted however she fucking pleased.

“Just give me a minute and I’ll return the favor,” muttered Lena in a low, tired voice.

With so much affection, Kara caressed Lena’s face. “No, you should sleep. I know you need it.”

“I owe you,” insisted Lena, even as sleep threatened to steal her consciousness.

“It’s not a competition,” Kara said, then pressed a gentle kiss to Lena’s temple. “But I’ll be happy to collect when you wake up. Sleep.”

So Lena did.

***

They rolled into each other in the middle of the night, half-awakening. Pressing herself against Kara’s heated body, Lena sought to wrap herself around the blonde. She gave soft kisses against Kara’s lips, the heat between them brewing until it boiled over into an animated duel of lips and tongue.

Lena’s hand dipped down into the valley between Kara’s thighs, pressing there just so. Kara gasped helplessly. Lena coaxed her legs apart for better access, and used the slickness there to rub Kara into a frenzy until Kara could take no more, then changed tactics, thrusting her fingers in. Kara’s eyes rolled into the back of her head, crying out In pleasure.

“Fuck,” Kara gritted out. “Fuck, Lena. Fuck.”

Chuckling, Lena whispered lowly against Kara’s neck without breaking her gait, “That’s the idea, darling.”

As she neared climax, Kara emitted high-pitched, wanton whimpers. She could feel her orgasm approaching. She desperately wished for it at the same time she wished it would never reach her, to continue this exquisite, pleasurable torture at Lena’s hand.

But hit it did, and when it happened, she captured Lena’s mouth in a fierce kiss which drowned her sharpest cry.

All at once, she felt a flood of emotions and affection that overwhelmed her. Going with the moment, she stared adoringly into Lena’s eyes and murmured, “I love you.”

Lena’s eyes widened in surprise, but before she could say anything, Kara held a silencing finger to her lips.

“No, don’t say anything. Not yet. I just- I just wanted to say it. I don’t want you to respond just to respond. We can talk about it later.”

Hesitantly, trepidation clear all over her face, Lena replied, “Okay.”

***

It was early. Or late, depending on how you wanted to look at it. They had fallen asleep again. Kara awoke to find Lena staring at her. She tried to tease Lena for being a creep, but quickly discovered that it was impossible to tease someone when you’re busy screaming her name in the throes of an orgasm.

Lena asked, “Should we talk now?”

”We could,” Kara said reluctantly, thinking of how little time they had together and what she’d rather be doing during that time. “When are we filming again?”

“Not for a couple days.” Production liked to leave a couple of days in between fantasy suite dates. Their theory was that it increased the likelihood of sex, which translated to better ratings.

“So… it’s not really urgent.” Kara’s hand dipped down between Lena’s legs. “We have time.”

“Um.” Lena struggled to remember the conversation topic as that familiar, but not at all tired, sensation flowed through her body. “No.”

“You know what I’d like?” Kara pressed firmly with her fingers.

Lena gasped, “Tell me.”

Kara started moving her hand. “I’d like to stay in this room with you for the next couple of days until we have to leave. I’d like for you to be completely, totally naked during that time. I’d like to fuck you over and over again and see how many times I can get you to scream my name.”

And that sounded more than all right to Lena.

***

While Kara went for a shower, Lena called for room service. Then she called Jack. By the sound of his gravelly greeting, he was still asleep even though it was nearly noon. And, sure, Lena had just woken up herself, but she’d been fucking Kara on and off all night, what was his excuse?

“Jack, I need your help.”

“Must be serious,” he let out a loud yawn. “You hate the ‘h’ word. What is it?”

“We have a production meeting today. I can’t make it. Can you cover for me?”

Jack responded with sleepy indifference, “Uh huh. That it?”

“Not quite. You might have to cover for me a bit more than that. I, just, um… I’m going to be off-grid today and tomorrow. I’ll be back for the next shoot though. But if anyone asks for me in the meantime, just tell them I’m… I don’t know, indisposed.”

She could feel him hesitating. Not that he had any qualms about covering for her - he would never - but it was just that she had never asked for anything like this.

“Lena,” he said gently, sounding a bit more awake now. “Is everything all right?”

She instantly felt bad for making him worry. They didn’t lie to each other. Honesty was the cornerstone of their friendship, and the only reason she wasn’t more upfront now was because she thought he should maintain some plausible deniability for the sake of his own job. But it wouldn’t take much to clue him in.

“Yes,” she said swiftly. “Everything’s fine. And just so you know, Kara’s- Kara is going to be unavailable for the next couple days as well. So if anyone asks for her- um, please make something up?”

She could hear the rustling of sheets over the line. She could see, in her mind's eye, Jack bolting straight up in bed, a maniacal grin coming to his face.

“Ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod. Lena. Is it happening? Is it going to or- no, did it happen already?!”

“Nooooooo.” Since when was Lena capable of sounding coquettish? Ugh. Sex with Kara was turning her into a monster. “Kara’s just going to be unavailable for a couple of days. On a completely unrelated matter, I will also be unavailable for a couple of days.”

Jack just squealed, “ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod!” He was probably out of bed by now, prancing and pacing around in excitement. “Oh, I want details. Wait, eww, no. Do I? I do. No. Maybe? It’s kind of hot. But you’re my bud and it’s so weird to think of you like that now.”

“So don’t!”

“I can’t help it, you shouldn’t have told me! Now it’s too late. I’m simultaneously turned on and grossed out. Thanks a lot.”

“Jack. Are you going to be able to help or not?”

“Absolutely,” he answered, now serious. “Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely. You go ahead and be indisposed with the lovely Ms. Danvers. You tell me the details later. Or please don’t. I don’t know, I can’t make up my mind.”

“I assure you that you will never know any details.”

“I’m disappointed.” After a pause, he added, “And relieved.”

Shortly after she ended the call with Jack, there was a knock at the door. She threw on a bathrobe to accept the room service delivery of their food. She was just setting the tray atop the coffee table in the living room when Kara emerged from the bathroom.

Upon seeing Lena, Kara pouted and whined discontentedly.

“What’s wrong?”

“You’re dressed.”

Lena glanced down at her attire. “I wouldn’t call this dressed.”

“You have a bathrobe on. That’s clothing. You’re dressed. And we agreed that you’d be completely naked in this room for the next couple of days.”

“It was for a good cause,” Lena assured her. “Room service came by. You didn’t want me to answer the door naked, did you?”

Petulantly, Kara responded, “Well, maybe I do.” With a light shove upon Lena’s shoulder, Kara pushed the brunette down on the bed, her hands immediately going to work at the knot at Lena’s waist. “Your body is too perfect to be covered up.” Making short work of the bathrobe’s knot, Kara flung open Lena’s robe and began tugging at the sleeves to get it off.

Lena made no attempts at dissuasion (because she wasn’t out of her frickin’ mind), but she did make a mild, half-hearted attempt at reminding Kara: “Darling, you haven’t eaten all day.”

Kara huffed as she threw Lena’s bathrobe aside. “Beg to differ.”

“You haven’t eaten food all day.”

“So?” Kara began kissing her way up Lena’s pale, slender neck, her hands roaming between hips and breasts. Lena kept her hands at her side. Not that she didn’t want to; she very much did. But she didn’t want to start something she couldn’t finish and her first priority, well above getting laid, was making sure that Kara Danvers was cared for, which included feeding her.

“We have food now. Are you sure you don’t want to eat first? Potstickers are better while they’re hot.”

Kara pulled away to look Lena in the eyes and, with utter seriousness, replied, “Lena, fuck the potstickers. They can wait.”

And, well, there was just no arguing with that.

***

They’d fallen asleep again, woke up next to one another entangled, brought each other to orgasm yet again, and were now basking in the aftermath. Kara was lying with her face down, eyes closed as Lena raked her fingernails across the bare skin of her back.

“Kara?”

“Hmm?”

“What happened with William?”

Kara cracked one eye open. “Nothing happened with him, I swear.”

“Oh- that- that’s good to know. But I meant what went wrong? Why did you kick him out?”

Kara shrugged lightly. “He just… wasn’t what I wanted. You are. So I asked for you.”

Lena was not immune from flattery, least of all from Kara. But Lena, so stunted in her emotions and unsure of whether any of this was the right thing to do, could only respond by kissing Kara softly. It was the only way she knew how to express how she felt in the moment.

When they pulled apart, Kara uttered softly, “Lena?”

“Yes, darling?”

Kara hadn’t moved, but there was a slight tenseness to her body, which Lena tried to soothe by running an open palm up and down her back. “I- uh, you know, I kiss the guys because… well, it’s not that I don’t want to, exactly, but I mainly do it because it’s good for the show.”

Lena felt her heart drop. “You don’t- oh, Kara, you know you don’t have to do anything that you don’t want to. Do you feel pressured to kiss them?”

“No, it’s not that exactly. I don’t mind, and under normal circumstances, it’d be fun. I mean, it is fun, but...I just- I just mean to say that… um, well, I just wanted you to understand that all those times, I’d rather be kissing you instead.”

God, this woman made her heart hurt in the best possible ways. But in the moment, all Lena could say was, “Oh.”

“Lena?”

“Yes?”

“I-” Kara faltered, suddenly looking small and unsure. “When you… when you’re encouraging me to be… affectionate with the guys, does it- well, do you feel… anything?”

“Are you trying to ask me if I get jealous?”

“Um. Well. Yes.”

“Do you want me to be jealous?”

Instead of answering immediately, Kara rolled onto her back, taking the opportunity to steady herself. “No? I mean, I don’t want you to feel hurt. But I know that… if the situation was reversed, I’d feel… something. Look, I pretty much told my sister that she wasn’t allowed to date you, so I have no idea what I would do if I had to watch you kiss other people. I just, I just wanted to know if it affected you.”

Lena took a hold of Kara’s hand, and stared at their interlocked fingers. “Well, I’ve acted and dated actresses before, so I know what it’s like to be on both sides of the situation, watching your partner kiss another person. It’s not a foreign concept to me, but if I’m being honest…” She met Kara’s gaze. “Yes, I get jealous. I don’t want to share you.”

Kara sighed faintly, relieved. “It won’t always be like this.”

“No,” Lena agreed, feeling vaguely hopeful. “It won’t.”

***

“L-E-G. Four points.”

“All right. Let’s see... H-E-X-A-G-O-N. With a double word bonus for thirty-six.”

“Hmm. In that case, I’ll go with H-O-T. With a triple letter score, that’s eight points.”

“Kara.”

“What?”

“You’re not taking the game seriously.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Because you just wasted a triple letter score on an ‘O.’ And also because the only words you’ve spelled are moan, tit, bum, leg, and hot.”

“Hey, I just play the tiles I’m dealt.”

“Darling, it was your idea to play Scrabble in the first place.”

“It was, but then you distracted me.”

“How did I do that?”

“You opened the board with lime, which is green, like the color of your lovely eyes, and it got me thinking about how astonishingly gorgeous your eyes look when you’re coming and clenching tightly around my fingers.”

“Get this board off the bed. I don’t want to play anymore.”

“Yup, okay.”

***

At some point, lying entangled with one another in the dark, Lena started laughing.

Kara, half-asleep, instinctively kissed Lena at the corner of her mouth and whispered, “What is it?”

“Nothing. I just suddenly remembered how Lillian and Andrea referred to you as sexless Bambi throughout filming.”

Kara propped herself up on her elbow, suddenly looking awake and indignant. “Excuse me?”

“Well, sweetheart, in the beginning, you barely touched anyone. You didn’t even kiss anyone until- what was it, the end of week two? That’s forever in Bachelorette time.”

Indignant, as if to prove a point, Kara covered Lena’s naked breast with an open palm. “Uh, excuse me, it’s not my fault that you weren’t a contestant. It would have been a lot different if you were.”

“Would it?”

“My god, yes. You were stunning. I couldn’t take my eyes off you that first night. If you had been a contestant, I would’ve called the whole thing off on the spot. I’d storm off the set and say, ‘‘that’s it! I know who I want! No more filming!.’”

With a jubilant laugh, Lena pressed a kiss to Kara’s lips. “Imagine that. I suppose it’s a good thing I wasn’t a contestant then. It’s not like we have a backup Bachelorette waiting in the wings to take over.”

“Worked out fine anyway.” Kara pulled the brunette close to her, then rolled the both of them over. She climbed atop the other woman, hunger evident in her gaze. “I don’t care how we got here. I’m just happy that we are.”

“Well, I’d be happier if you were sitting on my face.”

“That could be arranged.”

***

In the middle of the night, with the lights off, the pair huddled close together under the covers, it was easy to tell each other things that were difficult to say, embarrassing stories, memories that still ached.

Lena told her about her first kiss with a girl, at age fourteen, at an older, popular, rich latchkey kid’s party, alcohol flowing with zero parental supervision like they were on a teen melodrama. The latchkey kid took her aside, told her that she was beautiful and kissed her sweetly, outside next to the pool. Then her friends came out. The latchkey kid pushed her into the pool and laughed. So for the next several years, Lena killed and buried whatever part of herself that felt something during that kiss and swore she’d never be that stupid again.

Kara shared the story about her first week back in school after her parents passed, six months after the accident, living in a new town with the Danvers. She freaked out in the middle of biology class when her teacher said the word cadaver. Eliza picked her up and she didn’t go back to school for a week.

Lena talked about how she hid from the world for a week after finding out that Lionel was her biological father and not an adoptive father like she had long thought.

“Wait, what?”

“Oh, yes. For a very long time, they told me that I was adopted and no one knew who my father was. I was an adult by the time they finally told me that Lionel was my biological father. Then suddenly, a lot of things about my relationship with mother- I mean, Lillian, made sense. I wasn’t a child she adopted. I was her husband’s bastard child she had to tolerate.”

“That’s so messed up,” Kara whispered. “Why?”

“I guess it was easier than telling everyone that my father had an affair. It was a more favorable narrative that the Luthors chose to adopt a poor little orphan girl out of the goodness of their hearts.”

“What were things like between you and your dad after you found out?”

“He passed away not long after. Death bed confession, I suppose.” Even now, years later, she could feel her eyes stinging to talk about it. “I loved him so much. I still do. Lex thinks I’ve put him up on a pedestal, and maybe that’s true. He was a very good father to me, and I grew up thinking he was this honest, brilliant, wonderful man. Then again, he lied to me my entire life. So did Lillian. And I think Lex too, even though he claims that he hadn’t known. So that’s my life, growing up in a house of deceit.” She let out a mirthless, self-deprecating chuckle. “Explains a lot about me, huh?”

“No, just the opposite.” In the dark, Kara’s hands found their way to Lena’s waist, encircling and pulling her closer. “You’re amazing, Lena. You’re strong and selfless and kind and good, I don’t know how you managed to become any of that. You’re incredible. Everyday, I look at you and I’m just floored by you and I feel so lucky that I get to know you and be with you.”

Lena fell silent then, her brain short-circuited by Kara’s effusive praises.

“God, Kara,” she expelled breathlessly, rolling on top of the blonde. “You can’t just say things like that.” She kissed Kara then, pouring her feelings into actions.

In between heated kisses, Kara said, “Maybe I’m just saying it to get into your pants.”

Chuckling, Lena answered, “I’m not wearing pants, my dear.”

“Oh, that’s convenient.” Kara’s hand dipped down, teasingly stroking at Lena’s heated center. “That’s very convenient.”

***

It felt strange to be putting clothes on again after days of being naked, the only sensation felt against her body had been the cotton sheets of the bed and Kara’s skin. As much as she loathed it, Lena knew it was time to emerge their little cocoon of sex and feelings and late night confessions. Kara was due for a date with James today. An overnight date. Lena did not want Kara to offer him the overnight card. But Lena also needed her to, as the producer of this show, who needed to film something the audience would engage with.

Tugging a shirt over her head, Kara looked over and said, “You know nothing’s going to happen tonight. Between me and James, I mean. I’ll offer him the card and then we’re just going to talk. He’ll be out of here by midnight.”

Inside, she was doing a jig. But outwardly, Lena was serene. “That’s fine. If that’s what you’d like to do.”

Kara had not taken her eyes off of the brunette. “Then I’ll see you back here at midnight?”

Lena, being Lena, was careful not to seem too eager. “If you’d like, yes.”

“Well, they do call it the fantasy suite,” Kara answered with a cheeky shrug. “And, well, you’re it. You’re my fantasy.”

Lena met her gaze. “If you send for me,” she replied. “I will be here.”

***

While Kara and James swam in a lake with a picturesque waterfall, Lena observed from the shore. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a figure approach her. When she turned her head, she found Jack standing there with the widest shit-eating grin a human being was capable of displaying.

He said hello like this: “Soooooooooo?”

Although she knew perfectly well what he was getting at, he looked way too smug for her to give him the satisfaction. At least not right away. “So what?”

“How was, er, being indisposed with the lovely Ms. Danvers?”

“It was…” she paused deliberately. “Fine.”

“Fine?!” he squealed. “Just fine?!”

Lena looked around, and relaxed when she saw no one else in the vicinity. Jack could attract so much attention. “What are you even doing here? James isn’t even your guy. You have nothing to do here.”

“I came by to see how you were. Whether you were still standing or wearing a turtleneck in 90 degree Hawaiian heat.”

Lena rolled her eyes at him. “I thought you didn’t want the details.”

“I don’t. But I do. But I don’t. It’s complicated. I don’t know, I’m invested here. How was it? Did she cry? Did she say I love you?” When Lena looked back at him in surprise, he giggled and did a little hop. “I knew it! She just seems like the type.”

“Please go away. I’m working.”

“Yeah, you’re really doing a fantastic job seeing to your lead’s needs. No doubt about that.”

Seeing Andrea approach from behind him, Lena gave him a sharp nudge with her elbow. “Please shut up.”

“Why? Sorry, babe, you can’t gag me like you do- oh hey, Andrea,” Jack broke off sharply when he finally saw the director.

Andrea regarded him curiously, almost suspiciously. “Jack. What are you doing here?”

“Oh, just saying hello.”

Andrea looked dubious at his response. “We’re pretty far from the hotel. Quite a long way to come just to say hello.”

“Uh, well, you know…” Jack waved his hands wildly in the air, gesturing at the environment. “There’s pretty stuff here. Waterfall. Birds. Trees.” Having made the moment sufficiently awkward, he nodded. “Anyway. I’ll see you two later then.” He sauntered off, but not before giving Lena a thumbs up and a grin.

Andrea watched him walk away. When he was far enough away, she remarked, “I think it’s him, Lena. I think he’s the leak. He’s the one who’s been selling us out to The Daily Spoiler.”

Lena’s immediate response was to laugh. “Jack? Are you serious?”

“At first I thought it was you or Siobhan because I didn’t think anyone else knew about Morgan Edge besides the people in the conference room that day. But it didn’t make sense. Siobhan would never sabotage her career and no matter how much you say you hate the show, I don’t think you’d try to kill it like this. Then I remembered that Jack had been sitting with us on the flight to Barcelona, when we got the news about Mercy. He could’ve heard Mercy and I talking about Morgan before I sent him back to get you.”

“Andrea, come on. He was asleep.”

“He could’ve been faking.”

This was absurd. She tried to get Andrea to see how illogical this was. “How could it be Jack? He didn’t know about Mercy.”

“Maybe he did. He was friendly with Otis. Maybe Otis let something slip before he shipped off to… wherever he is now. And Max- well, you were there that day, at the hotel in Florence. Max was acting strange and Jack had commented on it.”

“From what I understand, Max was acting strange that whole week. Everybody was commenting on it.”

“But Jack’s like you,” Andrea persisted. “He’s the only one on the crew who hates the show even though it pays his bills. He’s always going on about how sexist and racist it is. But unlike you, he doesn’t have his family’s company riding on this. What does he have to lose from its destruction? It’s just a job to him. Not to mention, he took it so personally when the story about Lex broke.”

A memory surfaced. Her and Jack, standing in the kitchen, in a moment that seemed forever ago. Jack looking pained, saying, You wouldn’t have known. And then you’d be the one spending your nights pondering what you’d missed, how you could’ve missed it, what you could’ve done differently, and if it’s really worth the money to stay in this job.

Lena could feel her skin starting to prickle. But she pushed back, “Because it would hurt me. And Jack would never do that.”

“Maybe he doesn’t see it that way. Maybe he thinks he’s doing you a favor.”

Another memory came, something that Jack had said to her just the other night. I’m going to need to burn this show to the ground before you can be happy. She felt dread creeping over her.

“It’s not Jack,” she declared anyway.

Andrea shrugged lightly. “I’m just saying. Be on your guard.”

Andrea then went off to carry out her official duties on the show, other than planting paranoia in Lena’s mind.

Lena mulled it over. For all of thirty seconds. Because this was Jack and Andrea’s accusation was completely baseless and absurd. Lena promptly dismissed the thought.

It could never be Jack.

***

Andrea, Siobhan, and Lena were gathered in a conference room at the hotel, on a call with Lillian, coordinating the logistics for the rest of the season and laying the groundwork for the next.

“We still think Mon-El’s going to be her pick, right?” Siobhan asked.

“I don’t know,” Andrea answered. “She had good chemistry with James today and for some reason things with Mon-El aren’t progressing as much as I expected. Lena?”

“Uhh.” This was awkward. “I’m not sure that Kara knows herself who she’s going to pick.”

“Well, that’s not a good sign,” came Lillian’s voice over the speakerphone. “It never turns out well when the lead’s still undecided so late in the game. I’d at least like for the couple to still be together when we do the reunion.” The couples on the show almost never lasted. The producers have learned to set the bar low. It was a success if the couple managed to still be together by the final episode, a live reunion episode with the entire cast.

“She’d probably last longer with James,” Andrea guessed. “She might favor Mon-El. She certainly has more chemistry with him, but I can see the relationship being volatile after the show. Mon-El can be a little difficult.”

“I’m okay if she picks James,” Lillian said, even though she had tried her best to sabotage him every step of the way. But she had a good reason for endorsing him now. “That works nicely for us to set up Mon-El as the next Bachelor.”

Although she already knew the answer, Lena couldn’t resist. “And if she picks Mon-El?”

Lillian sighed in irritation. “Then we’ll work some editing magic. Maybe we can give Ray or Nate a good edit that’ll resonate with the audience. We still have two, three months while the season’s airing to make our pick.”

“You really shouldn’t discount James,” Lena said. “He would make a great Bachelor.” She thought it over, then added, “That is, if we even get another season.”

Lillian sighed again, this time tiredly. “Can we just have one meeting in peace without you pushing your social-whatever agenda?”

“No,” Lena answered easily. “You knew that, mother.”

“My children are going to be the death of me,” Lillian grumbled before hanging up. Lena thought it was more than a bit unfair that Lillian was putting her at the same level at Lex, the probable sexual harasser and show destroyer. But then again, she supposed that being placed at the same level as Lex was already an improvement as far as Lillian was concerned.

“You know James would be good,” Lena now said to Andrea. “What’s Mon-El going to get us? We’ve had season after season of men like Mon-El.”

“I do know. I also know that it doesn’t matter because James is a risk. We have a proven success formula. We know our audience’s type and we’re going to stick to it.” Andrea got to her feet, gathering her things. “But hey, like you said, there’s no use arguing about it. We might not even have a next season.”

***

“Are we going to talk about the fact that I said I love you?”

Kara did indeed send for Lena that night. At ten minutes past midnight, Lena already had her tongue and fingers inside the blonde, extracting gratified sighs and desperate keens.

Now, in the aftermath, Lena was resting her head in Kara’s lap. Lena tilted her head to look up at Kara. “I was waiting for you to bring it up.”

“But I was waiting for you to bring it up.”

“You told me not to respond. I thought you’d tell me when you were ready to talk.”

“Yeah, if you were just going to do it for the sake of doing it. You know, I kind of took a big step there. I thought you’d say something when you were ready.”

With amusement, Lena pointed out, “I did ask if you wanted to talk, you know.”

“What? When?”

“The first night. You said that it wasn’t urgent and that you’d rather fuck.”

“I didn’t say it like that.” Then she thought about it. “Okay, maybe I did say it like that. But you were naked. And I was… affected. So.” Kara nodded decisively, as if her horniness in response to a naked Lena was excuse enough. It probably was.

Lena laughed heartily, kissing Kara on her hip. “All right, we’ve established that we’re both not great at this. Do you want to talk?”

“Um, well, I haven’t exactly changed my position. I love you.”

Even as the words made her heart clench, Lena said lightly, “I got that.”

“I… I don’t want to pressure you or anything. But I do want to make sure you’re… okay with it.”

“I’m still sleeping with you, aren’t I?” Seeing Kara’s pouty disapproval at her quip, Lena laughed, then kissed her away up the length of Kara’s body to her lips, chasing away the frown. They made out lazily for a moment, strife easily forgotten. When Lena finally pulled back, she looked at Kara seriously. “Kara… I don’t want to say anything I can’t take back. If I say it, that’s it for me. I’d be all in. But... I don’t think we’re ready for that yet. You’re still dating three guys.”

“Yeah, only because I’m under contract. That’s not going to affect us.”

Which, to Lena, sounded absolutely absurd. Things changed quickly in Bachelorette world. Lena had seen it many times. People fell in love overnight. And Kara still had yet to spend her overnight date with Mon-El. Who knew what would happen there? As much as she loathed to admit it, Kara and Mon-El seemed to have a connection. There was still time for Kara to change her mind. Her and Mon-El would spend a few more days together, making out in exotic locations, doing adrenaline-filled romantic activities. There was a theory that adrenaline promoted sexual attraction, which was why the show tended to place the cast in intense situations. Lena thought that there was still a chance that Kara was one bungee jump away from falling in love with Mon-El.

Lena took a moment to carefully consider her words. “I think you should make a fully informed decision at the end of it all. A lot can happen between now and the final ceremony.”

Kara looked back at her, more sad than anything else. “You’re just always waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

“I am,” Lena agreed readily. “Because it always does.”

“It doesn’t have to be that way.”

“Well, what’s the plan here, Kara? You’re still under contract. You’re here to find a husband and you’ll be receiving marriage proposals from two men soon. Is now really the time to be talking about this?”

Stubbornly, Kara insisted, “But maybe we can figure it out together.”

As nice as that sounded, Lena would not permit herself to hope in this way. She would not set herself up for failure. “I don’t want you to make any promises you can’t keep. What’s wrong with waiting another couple weeks? Once this is all over, if you still feel the same way, we can talk.”

For a long moment, Kara was quiet, her body rigid with tenseness and discomfort. “Lena…”

Tired of circular conversations and craving Kara’s body once more, Lena broke in gently with, “Darling, can we just… be with each other? We have so little time together.”

Kara regarded her quietly. Lena could almost see the inner struggle within her. But at last, Kara sighed, and replaced words with kisses, touches, and caresses late into the night.

***

Jack (09:14): hey

Jack (09:14): andrea wants toknow if youre coming to prod mtg

Jack (09:18): do you want me to save you a bagel

Lena (11:34): So that’s a no, I did not make it to the production meeting.

Jack (11:34): lol

Jack (11:34): hope you were having fun w kd

Jack (11:34): i told Andrea that you had the shits

Lena (11:36): Great. Thanks so much for that.

Jack (11:37): yourev v welcome

Lena (11:39): How did Andrea take it?

Jack (11:39): can’t tell I think she believes me but she did look at me funny

Jack (11:39): but shes been lookingat me funny a lot lately

Jack (11:40): I think shes into me

Lena (11:41): I really doubt that’s the case.

Jack (11:42): supper me pls

Jack (11:42): support

Lena (11:43): I don’t think your ego needs any support.

Lena (11:43): Where’s my bagel?

Jack (11:44): i ate it

Jack (11:44): come to the prod mtgs if you want a bagel

Jack (11:44): ppl who skip prod mtgs to bang pretty girls dont get bagels

Lena (11:48): I don’t know what you’re talking about. I wasn’t feeling well.

Jack (11:49): yeah like I said you had the shits

Jack (11:50): are you sequestered today or we getting lunch

Jack (12:15): hellooooo

Jack (12:29): omg are you two ducking again

Jack (12:29): fffffffucking

Jack (13:17): btw I had sushi and it was delish

Jack (13:46): are you ignoring me?

Jack (14:01): :(

Jack (14:37): ok nobody ducks for 3 hours straight so why are you ignoring me

Lena (15:12): I was not ignoring you.

Jack (15:13): omg finally

Jack (15:18): okay but you werent real banging that entire time right

Jack (15:18): like its just not realistic to do it for that long

Jack (15:20): lenaaaaaaa

Lena (15:20): Jack, I have no idea what you’re talking about.

Lena (15:20): But I will say that there’s a reason why I’m not dating you. Or men in general.

Jack (15:21): wow this is not a good day for my ego

***

When Lena awoke, she found the cover that had previously enveloped her cast to the side. Kara was somewhere down by her knee, tracing her fingers over Lena’s skin.

“What are you doing?”

“Trying to find an inch of you that isn’t perfect.” Kara pressed her lips to Lena’s knee. “But I don’t think that exists.”

Lena chuckled lowly. “I assure you that they do, darling.”

“Where?” Kara demanded indignantly.

“Um… I have a birthmark on my thigh. There’s a weird-looking mole on my shoulder I should probably get checked out. And I’ve always thought that my ass was shaped funny.”

“Hmm.” Finding her way to Lena’s birthmark with a line of gently peppered kisses, Kara found the allegedly offending blemish in question and pressed long, lingering kisses against it. “Perfect.” Kissing her way up, she placed more kisses against the swell of Lena’s hips. “Perfect.” Moving further up, relishing in the knowledge that she left a trail of goosebumped flesh beneath her pecks, she arrived at Lena’s shoulder and placed a hot, open-mouthed kiss on the mole. “Perfect.” Kara drew back slightly to look Lena in the eyes. “Although I do think you should get it checked out for your own health. But you look perfect.” She placed a kiss to the side of Lena’s neck. “Feel perfect.” A kiss at Lena’s jawline. “Taste perfect.”

With a line like that, Lena felt like the only appropriate response was to kiss Kara senseless and fuck her until she passed out.

So Lena did.

***

“Someone who doesn’t understand my caffeine addiction. I need that cup in the morning. It’s not an option.”

“Morning coffee, check,” Kara said. “Okay. One of mine is not sharing food. I once dated a guy who refused to share anything. Like not a single French fry or even a ketchup packet. That got old really fast.”

“That’s definitely not a problem for me,” Lena reassured the naked woman in her arms.

“Nope. I finish most of your food anyway. Okay, what’s another one of yours?”

“Let me see.” Lena took a moment to think it over. “Ah, someone who’s rude to wait staff. That’s a dealbreaker for me.”

“I completely agree but I also completely think that’s cheating. Of course that’s a relationship dealbreaker.”

“You’d be surprised,” Lena replied. “I’ve dated quite a few people who thought it was okay to snap their fingers to get a waiter’s attention or order them around.”

“Well, I’m very nice to wait staff.”

“I know, darling, you’re nice to everyone. You’re very sweet.” Affectionately, Lena kissed the top of Kara’s head. “What else?”

“Um… well, I’m a big dog person,” Kara answered. When she saw Lena wince, she said, “Oh, no. Don’t tell me you hate dogs.”

“I don’t hate dogs,” Lena said hesitantly. “I’ve just… never been all that into them either. I’m more of a cat person. Or fish.”

“Fish? Fish are not pets. They barely do anything. They just… sit there.”

“Oh, sweet Kara, you clearly never had a fish. They’re quite fascinating once you get to know them.”

“Nope, never had a fish and I’m never going to.”

“You’re going to say no to Nemo?”

“Uh, if you find me a talking orange clownfish from Australia with one lucky fin, we’ll talk. Until then, no fish for me.”

“How about this? You get a fish and I’ll… try fostering a dog.”

“That’s not fair. A foster is temporary, but I’ll be stuck with a fish forever.”

“Well, nobody fosters fish, Kara. Come on, I’ll take the fish off your hands if you don’t like it.”

“Fine,” Kara huffed. “Deal.”

“See? We can work through dealbreakers.”

“I do have one more. And it’s a really big one. Biggest one of all, and it’s absolutely non-negotiable for me.”

Curiosity piqued, Lena looked at Kara, giving her her full attention. “All right. Tell me.” She just hoped it wasn’t anything ludicrous.

Kara rolled them both over until the brunette was under her. “My biggest, number one, nonnegotiable dealbreaker in a relationship,” said Kara, pausing for dramatic effect. “Is that their name isn’t Lena Kieran Luthor.”

Lena felt struck - shaken, really - by Kara’s disarming honesty, the unabashed way she professed her feelings, the way she put herself out there again and again, undeterred that Lena had yet to respond in equal measure. It was a kind of love Lena had not experienced before, one without quid pro quo’s. Lena has never really thought that she was the type of person who could cry from happiness, but the way that Kara made her feel in that moment, she came close.

But for now, all she could say was, “You’re a dork.” And pulled Kara in for a kiss, expressing herself in the best way she knew how to.

***

Kara found herself alone in bed when she woke up. She could hear a low murmur coming from the living room. She rolled out of bed and went in search of Lena. She found the brunette in the living room, sitting on the couch looking pensive, her cellphone on the coffee table.

Gently, Kara called, “Lena?”

Still staring down at her phone, Lena said, “That was Thomas Coville on the phone. He’s one of the lawyers at the network. High up.”

“Yeah, the one who helped you stop Morgan. I remember,” Kara nodded. “Um, was that- was that about Lex?”

Lena nodded slowly. “He was calling with news. Uh, he told me that the network’s come to an agreement with Desiree and Victoria.”

“An agreement?” Kara inched closer. “What does that mean?”

“It means they’re paying the story to go away. No lawsuit, no press, no tell-all book. This is the end of their story.”

Kara blinked slowly as she struggled to absorb the information. “What about Lex?”

“Gone. He’s banned from the show. That’s part of the deal. They want him out from the company too. They’ve agreed to buy his shares of LuthorMedia and after that, he’s going to have nothing to do with any of it. He’s basically being paid off too. The network’s paying for everything and everyone to go away.”

“What about the others? Mercy and Morgan and Maxwell? And the show?”

“I can’t imagine that Mercy or Morgan would be allowed back. Regardless of what Lex did, they didn’t handle it well. If you’re going to keep something from your boss, you’d better be able to contain the situation, and they couldn’t do that. I don’t think anyone knows what to do with Maxwell yet. As far as the show…” Lena shrugged uncertainly. “We’ll have to see, but the public will probably forget all about it by the time we air. They were just allegations after all. This will all just… be a blip. Just another forgotten scandal.”

“So… back to normal then,” Kara said hesitantly. “And this is… good?”

“For the show, yes,” Lena answered neutrally.

“But you’re not happy about it.”

Frustration briefly passed over Lena’s face. “I don’t know. It doesn’t feel right. After everything that happened, all the hand-wringing and anticipation and crazy anxiety, and it just… goes away quietly with a few checks.”

With gentle movements, Kara closed the gap between them and sat down next to Lena. She took the brunette’s hands in her own. “You were hoping for more?”

“I don’t know what I’d hoped. Public condemnation for my brother which would undoubtedly jeopardize the show? I don’t want that. But this...” Lena drew back, leaning against the couch with her knees drawn to her chest, arms wrapped against her legs. “Andrea would call this a victory. The culpable parties gone, the women compensated, no more drama or scandal. Everybody wins, right? But it feels… anticlimactic? I guess, after everything that went down, I expected more of a bang than a whimper.” She shook her head and let out a dry chuckle. “I guess I’ve been working on this show for too long. Not everything has to have the most dramatic ending ever.”

Scooting up to lean against the couch and emulating Lena’s posture, Kara sat next to her, their bodies just slightly touching. “I don’t think it’s dramatic to want more. What Lex did was awful. Maybe he should have more coming to him.”

“Maybe. But we don’t get to make that choice. Perhaps I should just be happy that we ‘won.’ At least the show survives and everyone keeps their jobs.” Despite the proclaimed victory, Lena looked small and tired.

Kara reached out and placed a reassuring hand on Lena’s back, caressing in long, soothing strokes. They sat there for a long time, Lena brooding and Kara comforting. At long last, Kara coaxed the brunette back to bed. Lena, curled up safe and sound, the inner conflict temporarily alleviated just by Kara’s presence.

***

It was the morning of Kara’s date with Mon-El and Lena woke up with a tight feeling in her stomach. She rolled out of bed without kissing Kara good morning, pattered in the bathroom, and took her time getting ready. Part of her thought, she loves you, nothing’s going to happen with him tonight. But then another part of her, the hidden, scarred part that retained every cutting remark Lillian had ever made to her since childhood, thought that she wasn’t good enough, would never be good enough. Looking at herself in the mirror, she told herself, it’s going to be okay even if something does happen tonight. Maybe she’ll still choose you in the end. She hoped that Mon-El was lousy in bed.

When she came out of the bathroom, she found Kara sitting on the bed, dressed and ready to go, looking solemn. “You asked me what the plan was.”

Cautiously, Lena stepped forward. “I did.”

“Okay, fine. I don’t know your plan, I don’t know the universe’s plans. Here’s my plan. I’m going to go through with the rest of the season. I’ll do everything production asks of me. I’ll offer Mon-El the overnight card, I’ll take him back here, and then absolutely nothing is going to happen. Because I love you and I don’t want to do anything with anyone who isn’t you. I’m going to give the show the proposals that it wants, and I’m going to say no to both of them. Then I’m going to come find you, tell you again how much I love you, and ask you to be my girlfriend. I hope you say yes, but I’ll respect whatever decision you make. That’s it. That’s my plan. You don’t have to like it, you don’t have to agree with it, but that’s what I’m going to do.”

For a long moment, Lena said nothing. Couldn’t, in fact, her heart so full it swelled to her throat, choking her up. Kara Danvers was going to be her permanent weakness. And she could fight it no longer.

With two confident strides forward, she closed the gap between them and knelt down before Kara. Taking Kara’s face in her hands, she pulled the blonde down, placing soft, sweet kisses against her lips.

When Lena pulled back, she looked Kara full in the eyes and said, “I love you too.”

It seemed only right, only natural, for clothes to come off, for the pair to express their declarations of love through touch.

They ended up showing up an hour late to the set that day. Lena had to make up a bald-faced lie, a flimsy excuse that Andrea would have torn through if Jack hadn’t cheerfully intercepted and rallied everyone to get on with the shoot.

Still, Lena had to weather Andrea’s disgruntled, suspicious stares for the rest of the day.

Somehow, she couldn’t find it within her to care.

 

Chapter Text

You do something to me that I can't explain
Hold me closer and I feel no pain
Every beat of my heart
We got something going on
Tender love is blind
It requires a dedication
All this love we feel needs no conversation
We ride it together
Making love with each other

“Islands in the Stream” by Kenny Rogers & Dolly Parton

 

 

Once upon a time, teenaged Lena, unsure of herself and her sexuality, still dating men, had asked her friends if sex was supposed to feel like a chore. Her friends, teenagers themselves, had speculated that maybe sex was different from “making love” and that the latter would be vastly superior.

As Lena grew up, she found that it was all nonsense. She discovered that the chore-like nature of sex had more to do with the gender of her partner rather than her feelings. For her, sex and love were related but different things. Good sex was good sex, regardless of whether she had any feelings for her partner. Sex with love was nice, but not an absolute requirement, and not so much better than meaningless sex that it made a huge difference.

But that was before she met Kara Danvers.

They were together in the fantasy suite again, Lena once again taking the place of the contestant who was supposed to be there. As Kara planned, she offered Mon-El the overnight card and took him into the fantasy suite. She spent an appropriate amount of time chatting with him, then asked him to leave. A few minutes later, Lena was there, helping Kara out of her dress.

But this time, now that Lena had said it, sex felt different. Astoundingly, incomprehensibly different. Maybe it was just the exhilaration that came with the lack of emotional inhibition. She had kept her feelings bottled up for so long, and now that she didn’t have to hold back anymore, she was floored by the feelings that followed.

It was so trite, so corny. But here they were. Kara, naked above her, whispering quiet, loving praises as she rubbed at Lena’s clit. She stared into Kara’s blue eyes, feeling lost, feeling loved, feeling overwhelmed by the sensations Kara pulled from her body and heart. She wanted to do all sorts of things she had never thought herself capable of. She wanted to serenade Kara with sappy love songs (she was tone deaf), she wanted to read Pablo Neruda by the seashore (she had never enjoyed his work and did not like the beach), she wanted to perform an embarrassingly grandiose romantic gesture (something ridiculously over the top, like fill Kara’s workplace with flowers).

It was so cliched and saccharine that Lena almost felt gross about it.

High on Kara’s presence, she croaked out, “God, I love you.”

With an arrogant grin, Kara tenderly eased two fingers inside her lover. “I love you too.” She placed open-mouthed kisses against Lena’s neck and shoulder, sucking at the delicate skin there. “Love you, love you, love you, love you.”

***

It was the middle of the day and they were lounging on the bed, eating snacks and watching trashy television. Which happened to be The Bachelor.

On screen, a very young Maxwell Lord was chatting with a blandly handsome man, who was talking about how he just knew that his wife was in that room full of thirty women.

“Surprise, surprise, she wasn’t,” Lena commented. “Lucas and his fiancee lasted all of three weeks after the final episode aired.”

“Isn’t that usually how it goes?” Kara asked rhetorically as she dipped pretzel sticks into a jar of nutella. The show was notorious for its poor track record. For all of its proclamations on finding true love, the odds that one of its couples made it down the aisle was laughably bad.

“It is,” Lena admitted.

“It makes me wonder why anyone signs up.”

Lena turned to look at the woman, curiosity piqued. “Well, you did.”

“Well, first, I think I had a skewed perspective of what the show could deliver. It did work for Clark. He and Lois are so deliriousily happy together and it was so tempting. But then, I had no idea how grueling the process would be. Second, you all threw a massive pile of money at me and I’m still paying off student loans here.”

Lena nodded. “Fair enough.”

They watched as Lucas babbled on about what a deep, genuine connection he had with Brooke and how he felt that she could be his wife. (In the end, he did not pick her.)

Waving a Nutella-coated pretzel at the screen, Kara asked, “Why do you think people still watch this? Everybody knows how it ends, right? Sure, there might be an engagement, but it doesn’t last. It never does. Not unless you’re Clark.”

“Different reasons. Some just like the mess, but I think some people do want a love story, even if they know it’s temporary.”

On screen, Maxwell was now clapping his hands together, grinning insipidly as he uttered one of the show’s catchphrases: “Let the journey begin!

Lena continued, “We always call it a journey and we know it’s ridiculous, but it’s also very true. I think for a lot of people, it doesn’t matter how the story ends, it’s how we get there. Nobody really expects an epic, happily-ever-after fairy tale from us. But our audience is just going along for the ride.”

Kara hummed in understanding. “I suppose that’s good for me. If it’s the journey that matters, maybe it won’t be that bad when I reject both proposals.”

“We’re certainly going to promote it as the most shocking finale ever. You’re not exactly playing by the rules here.” Lena touched her hand to Kara’s hand, stroking gently. “Darling, you know that some people won’t take that well, right? Sometimes our audience can be… opinionated. They can get very upset when things don’t happen exactly as they expect. So, at the end of it, when there’s no engagement… I think you’ll get some negativity on that. It may not be so easy for you afterwards.”

Kara shrugged easily. “That’s fine.”

“Kara, sweetheart, I don’t think you understand the enormity of the situation.”

“No, I do.” Kara set her snacks aside on the nightstand, then rolled over to intertwine her body with Lena’s. “Or I think I do. I’m just saying, I don’t care how bad it’s going to get. I can take it, because you’re worth it.”

Lena beamed fondly at the woman in her arms, feeling a surge of affection. “And people say the show doesn’t help anyone find love?”

Kara returned the grin, moving closer to press her lips against Lena’s. “I love you too.”

***

The soft ding from her cellphone alerted her to a new email. Lena rolled over in bed, grabbing her cellphone and blearily peered at the screen. When she saw the email, she bolted straight up in bed.

Kara stirred next to her, and voiced groggily, “Babe?”

“It’s the IT guy. He found the passcode.”

Kara remained perfectly still as she absorbed the news. Slowly, she sat up. “Uh… okay.” She paused. “Should we…?”

Lena felt a little sick. A swell of anxiety washed over her. But she answered steadily, “Yes.”

Lena retrieved Otis’s cellphone from her suitcase and took it into the living room, Kara trailing behind. Lena took a seat on the couch. Kara sat down close next to her.

Observing Lena’s unease, Kara ran her palm over the brunette’s thigh. “It’s okay. It could be nothing.”

“Right, right,” Lena responded, even as she knew that wouldn’t be the case. Lena took in a deep breath. Steadily, she tapped in the passcode. The screen unlocked, and she scanned the icons found there, unsure of what’s next. “Where do we look?”

“Camera?” Kara suggested.

Lena started browsing through the saved photos and videos. There was a lot there. Otis Graves was apparently a huge fan of selfies and food photography and took dozens of pictures every day.

“Wait,” Kara said suddenly. “Go back. That one there.” She was pointing to a video. The still frame of the video showed Maxwell’s face in profile. Lena selected it.

The video was shaky, saturated in red, with loud booming bass music in the background, evidently the private room of a nightclub. Maxwell was seated on a couch, head bowed over the center table as he snorted up a line of white powder.

Off-screen, a familiar voice sounded slurred words. “I’m telling you, Maxie, it’s so easy.” The screen blurred as the phone swiveled to reveal the speaker, Lex, splayed out on the couch, his head lolling back and forth uncontrollably. “The trick is picking the right one.

The camera turned back to Max, who straightened up, sniffing sharply. “Yeah? How’s that?

Well, no frontrunners, obviously. Anyone the lead’s interested in gotta be off-limits.

But that’s all the hot ones,” Max whined.

Not necessarily. You’ve seen the women we cast. Sometimes they’re so fucking crazy, hotness doesn’t make up for it. But that crazy’s useful, makes the whole thing so much easier. Crazy ones don’t have friends in the house. That’s really important, I mean it. Girls gossip. They have one friend in the house and your business’s going to be all over set the next day.

Right, no friends in the house,” Max echoed, seeming more interested in setting up his next line than Lex’s lesson.

It helps to stir shit up between the women too. If you see your pick starting to get close to someone, you have to shut that down fast. Usually the crazies do a good job on their own making all the other women hate them, but it doesn’t hurt to be thorough. Anyway, the more drama there is, the easier it is to give them a villain edit later. Once everyone in the house turns on them, you just have to be a little nice and they’re yours. A compliment here, a touch there, and it’s done. And if the nice guy routine doesn’t work, just tell them you’re going to give them a good edit and they’re just so grateful. I never do, of course. It ruins the whole plan if they’re not the villains.

An on-set fuck toy,” Maxwell said with a high-pitched giggle.

“Exactly, exactly. It’s so easy. They can’t wait to fuck you. I mean, they’re just begging for it.” Lex laughed, sounding giddy and deranged.

Well, yeah,” came a gruff voice close to the camera, presumably Otis himself. “They’re stuck in a house with twenty women who hate them and a lead who doesn’t care. They’re probably starving for any positive attention.

Exactly!” Lex exclaimed happily. “Shit, I’ve had so many beautiful women over the years thanks to the show. Helen Bryce, Desiree Atkins, Ariana Carlin, Victoria Hardwick. Erica del Portent. And those are just the repeat fucks, I don’t even remember them all. It’s easy to get a one-off fuck in when they’re leaving. They just got dumped on national TV, they’re humiliated and they’re just gagging for some good dick to prove that someone wants them. Like fish in a fucking barrel.” His ensuing laugh was high-pitched and shrill, like a hyena’s.

Otis asked, in that same flat, gruff voice, “What if they tell someone? It’s not a good look to be sleeping with contestants, is it?”

They can try but who’s going to fucking believe them? That’s the brilliance of this and that’s why they have to be the villains. Nobody cares what they have to say. But you know, a bit of leverage doesn’t hurt. Usually I hold something back, some really awful moment they had during the season that I won’t air. A stupid fight, a breakdown, maybe even a racial slur or something. If they shit talk me, that clip’s getting uploaded right away and they know that. Keeps them in line.” Lex leaned forward, picking up a bottle of vodka on the table. He frowned as he swished it around. “Fucking empty. Didn’t we call for service like ten minutes ago? Where’s our server?”

Maxwell giggled again. “Yeah, that bitch’s not coming back in here after I honked her boob.

Women can’t take a fucking joke these days.” Lex unsteadily got to his feet, clutching the empty vodka bottle in his hands. “Want a job done right, takes a man to do it. I’ll be back, boys.” Lex staggered out of the room, the door closing behind him.

Maxwell, slumped back and sinking into the couch, looked over in the camera’s direction. “Hey, Otis, do you have- Wait, are you recording?” Max sat up straight, eyes widening in panic. He stumbled forward and swung his hand at the camera. The image spun and blurred, and then the screen darkened with a closeup of the room’s carpet.

Maxwell’s voice rang out. “What the fuck are you doing? Did you lose your goddamn mind? You need to delete this shit now. You know what a fucking psychopath Lex is. He will literally just kill you if he knows about this. I’m not kidding. He might even do it himself. He’s fucking nuts.”

“Okay, okay,” came Otis’s voice. “Relax, I’ll delete it right now.” The screen shook as the camera was picked up. “Okay, here we go.” There the video concluded, although obviously not deleted.

Kara and Lena sat in stunned silence, struggling to process what they had just witnessed.

“Holy shit,” Kara said softly. “That was…”

“Vile,” Lena finished hoarsely. “Despicable. I can’t even- that’s my brother. Or it used to be. I don’t know. I don’t know who that person was.”

Lena looked so lost and defeated, Kara did the only thing she could think of. She pulled Lena close to her, letting the brunette shrink and fold herself into her arms, as if physically cradling her would shield her from harm.

They remained like that for a long while. Lena was waiting for the nausea to subside. But it didn’t happen. Some things would take a long time to fix.

Finally, Kara nudged Lena gently. “Come on. It’s late. Let’s go to bed. We can figure it out in the morning.”

Morning would bring clarity. Or at least that’s what they had told themselves in those hours that blurred the lines between late night and early morning. But the morning made nothing easier. Some things would take a very long time to fix.

Lena ordered breakfast in. Sitting on the living room couch, they dined in silence on croissants and coffee, each absorbed in their thoughts.

“What are you thinking?” Kara finally asked.

“Honestly?” Lena leaned over to set her coffee cup down on the table. “I’m thinking that I don’t have the faintest idea what to do.”

“Okay, well, let’s talk it through. What are your options?”

Lena took a moment to mull it over. “Option A, I do nothing. Let sleeping dogs lie, so to speak. The network’s paying to have this whole thing go away, including Lex. If he’s gone, if there’s no danger of him doing this again, then what good does it do to stir things up? It’s not a crime to be a manipulative shit, the most we would get from releasing the video is publicly exposing Lex. It’ll get him blacklisted in the short term, but hard to say in the long run. You never know with Hollywood. So is it for retribution? If so, retribution for whom? The women who’ve chosen to take a settlement? The women who haven’t come forward? Is it my right to presume what they would want? Perhaps they’d prefer to forget everything and move on.

“Option B, I release the video. Because maybe… maybe it’s not about the long term consequences or even the people he’s manipulated. Maybe there’s a broader justice, maybe the truth matters more than what any individual wants. Maybe the whole world should see these men for who they really are...” At that, Lena looked down at her hands, unable to verbalize this next part.

Lucky for her, Kara already understood. “But he’s still your brother. You still love him.”

“I know what he deserves,” Lena replied, her voice barely above a whisper, brimming with defeat and shame. “I just… I don’t know if I can bring myself to be the person who does that to him. Even if he does deserve it.” She shook her head fiercely. “That aside, I can’t imagine the show surviving this. And what do I say to all my employees then? What have I destroyed their livelihoods for? I’m sure there are a dozen more options between A and B, but I haven’t figured it all out yet.”

“What about showing it to the network?” Kara suggested.

Lena shook her head. “I think they’ll just bury it. They have a deal in place with everyone. They’re not going to blow it up. If I hand it over, I’d just be giving up control over the video and I’m not ready to do that yet.”

Kara took Lena’s hand in her own. “Whatever you decide to do,” she said. “I’m right behind you. I know you’ll make the right choice.”

Lena chuckled mirthlessly. “That makes one of us.”

***

They had the day off before tomorrow’s rose ceremony. They had already spent their last two days off sequestered in the fantasy suites, relying on Jack to make up excuses for their absences. But it would be difficult to do again for the third time. So they agreed to go out with the crew.

Besides, as Kara said, “It’ll be good for you to get outside and take your mind off everything. Unless you just want to stay in and have me find ways to take your mind off things. Because I’d be happy to try.”

That was devilishly tempting. Especially with Kara biting her bottom lip and inching closer. Given another minute, Lena would have opted to strip them both naked and fall back into bed. But there was a knock at the door, followed by Jack’s already impatient call for them to hurry up.

When Lena opened the door, she found Jack standing on the other side by himself, covering his eyes with one hand.

“Are you decent? Is everyone decent?” He peered through a slit in between his fingers, making a great show of sighing in relief. “Oh, look at that. You are capable of putting on clothes and leaving your room.” With a roll of her eyes, she started pushing him toward the elevator.

They spent the day at the beach. Admittedly, beaches weren’t Lena’s thing. But Kara Danvers in a bikini was. So, it all evened out. Sam found them a quiet, nearly deserted spot favored by the locals, a cove featuring a thin stretch of sand nestled among rocky cliffs dotted with alcoves and caves. Brainy and Sam swam in the ocean while Jack and Nia took turns jumping off a jutting rock into the water below. Lena lay on the beach beneath an umbrella. Next to her, Kara lay out in the sun with a pair of dark, oversized sunglasses.

“I can feel you staring at me,” Lena said.

“You’re gorgeous,” Kara returned, making zero effort to look away. “From the moment I first saw you, I couldn’t stop thinking about you and how you were the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. At the time, I thought, ‘oh, I guess I’m just envious of her looks.’ But no. It turned out that I actually really wanted to sleep with you.”

“I suppose it’s lucky for me that you figured out what you really wanted.” Lena lifted her head, slid her sunglasses down the bridge of her nose, and gave Kara a lascivious once-over. “You’re really not so bad yourself.”

Kara flushed deeply under Lena’s gaze, emitting a small whine. “I can’t believe I agreed to come out today. I could have you naked in a hotel room right now.”

“I concur,” Lena replied in a voice that sounded more like a purr. She replaced her sunglasses and lay back down. “But we had to do it. It was getting a little suspicious.”

Knowing that she was right but disliking the result, Kara grunted in discontentment. She stared out in the distance, at their friends cavorting at the shoreline. She suddenly wished that they had no friends at all.

“We could go for a walk,” she suggested suddenly. “Check out the caves?”

Lena turned to face Kara once more, silently studying. “All right,” she said finally.

Kara leapt to her feet, then held out her hand to help Lena up. Kara didn’t see the need to drop her hand once Lena was up, and Lena didn’t seem to mind. Hand in hand, they headed toward one of the caves along the side of the cliff. It was a small, low-ceiling cave that stretched into the darkness, a dead-end hallway naturally carved into the side of a mountain by time and weather.

Leading Lena by the hand, Kara ventured a few feet in, enough to be shrouded in darkness. Then she stopped, gently but firmly pushed Lena against the rock wall and kissed her, eagerly working her tongue into the brunette’s mouth. She pressed her body flush against Lena’s, hands upon her waist, toyingly tugging at the swimsuit’s waistband.

And Lena, pragmatic, sensible Lena, who knew better than to publicly make out with the lead of her show with crew members in the vicinity, responded by arching her hips into Kara’s, moaning keenly as she pulled Kara closer.

So much for pragmatic, sensible Lena.

Distracted by mind-bending desire, when Kara palmed her breast over the thin fabric of her top, all she could do was surge forward and gasp into Kara’s eager mouth. When Kara hooked her thumbs into her swimsuit bottom and started pulling down, Lena was already too far gone to care.

But when Kara sank down to her knees, Lena finally had the presence of mind to say, “You don’t have to do that. That can’t be comfortable for you. The cave floor here’s… uh, cavey.” That’s right, Lena, put that big brain to good use.

But Kara was already slipping the swimsuit bottom off and hoisting Lena’s leg over her shoulder. “Totally worth it,” was the last thing she said. And then the only noises that remained were quite obscene.

Kara’s tongue probed, then lapped the length of Lena’s slit with slow, broad movements. But as much as she enjoyed taking her time tasting every last drop, she knew they had little time. Already attuned to what Lena liked and how she liked it, she quickly latched her lips around Lena’s clit and sucked sharply, causing the brunette to buckle and hiss. Lena threaded her fingers in Kara’s hair, pulling her closer, deeper.

In the beginning, Kara kept one hand on Lena’s hip, the other tightly clamped on the thigh lifted upon her shoulder. As Lena began gyrating harshly, Kara released the hand that had been on Lena’s hip and shoved it down into her swimsuit, seeking relief. She matched the rubbing of her clit in time and rhythm to the lapping of her tongue against Lena. When Lena came with a suppressed, shuddering cry, Kara quickly followed, her scream muffled by her face still buried against Lena’s sex.

Kara slowly sank down, catching her breath. After a moment, she felt Lena’s hand on her shoulder. Still kneeled, she helped Lena step back into her swimsuit bottom, then took the brunette’s hand, shakily rising to her feet.

Lena pulled Kara up, then up against her, pressing her mouth against the blonde, tasting herself. “I love you.”

“Damn right you do.”

They headed back to their spot in the beach. Lena groaned out loud as she saw Jack already standing there, looking all around, evidently looking for them. Jack grinned and waved when he saw them. As they neared, his eyes narrowed suspiciously, then widened comically with glee.

“Holy shit,” he said when they were close. “Fuck me.” He paused, eyeing Kara’s knees, which were tellingly reddened and dimpled. He looked at Lena. “Or, rather, fuck you? Were you two- but where- Wait, in the caves?! Luthor, you filthy animal!”

While Kara just grinned shamelessly, Lena scowled at her friend. “Okay, Jack. Get it all out now before Sam gets back.”

Jack looked far too giddy at the invitation. “The caves?! That’s so rude. There are bats trying to sleep in there.”

Exasperated, Lena retorted, “There were no bats.”

“None that you noticed, but you were a tad preoccupied there, weren’t ya? Incidentally, getting it on in a cave while your friends are like, right there? That’s like the start of every bad horror movie. We’re now going to be horrifically massacred by a brain-eating zombie in a hockey mask and a chainsaw because Kara just had to… you know, explore your cave.”

“What zombie?” Sam was approaching, Brainy and Nia training closely behind her. “Are we in danger? Is there a zombie in the caves?” Jack froze, perfectly resembling a deer in headlights with his large, brown eyes brimming with panic.

“I went in the caves,” Kara intervened smoothly. “But Jack thinks it’s Maori sacred ground, so, I’m sorry if I’ve cursed us all.”

“I don’t think so,” Sam said, frowning in concentration. “I don’t recall reading anything about that.”

“I could be wrong,” Jack said hastily. “I’ve got my caves all mixed up.”

“Oh… okay.” Wisely, Sam decided to take Jack’s explanation at face value and turned to Kara. “Well, how was it? Anything interesting?”

Jack couldn’t resist answering for Kara. “I think Kara found it surprisingly soppy.”

“Oh, so it’s a wet cave?”

Jack looked like he was on the verge of hysterical laughter. “You could say that.”

Sam gave Jack a strange look for his strange response. “Uh. Okay… well, were there any animals in there?”

“There were definitely some strange, high-pitched noises.” Jack was enjoying himself entirely too much. “I’d call it caterwauling.”

“I’m going to go for a swim!” Lena exclaimed forcefully and suddenly.

Jack asked with a smirk, “Since when do you swim?”

“Since now,” she replied through gritted teeth, trying to rein in her murderous stare. Lena hurried toward water, Kara on her heel.

“I wasn’t done!” Jack called as he rushed after them.

Sam watched them go off, then turned to Nia in bemusement. “Do I want to know what that was?”

“Nope,” she replied swiftly. “You really don’t.”

***

They had dinner out at a local restaurant, a casual outdoor spot that specialized in heaping piles of meat and poi. While everyone was finishing up their meal, Jack hopped up and offered to go wait in the insanely long line for the shop’s famed taro ice cream. After finishing her meal, Lena followed in a few minutes to find him and keep him company. When she spotted him, he had his back to her, tapping furiously away on his phone.

“Hey.”

Startled, Jack yelped as he did a little hop, nearing dropping his phone. After a brief fumble, he recovered, hastily stuffing the device into his back pocket.

“You scared me.”

“What are you doing there? Writing the Great American novel on your phone?”

“Nothing,” he said quickly. “Why?”

A cloud of suspicion passed through Lena’s mind as she thought of what Andrea had said.

“Jack…” she started slowly. “Is there something you want to tell me?”

“What- uh- is there? I mean, your hair looks fantastic today?”

That did nothing to assuage her. “Are you sure there’s nothing?”

“Nope,” he said firmly and swiftly. “Not a thing. Anyhow. Whatcha doing?” She watched him closely, and he squirmed under her scrutiny, looking like he was on the edge of folding. She could read him well. There was something he wasn’t saying. She knew it and he knew it. Feeling cornered, he said defensively, “I don’t have to tell you everything, you know.”

“No,” she agreed, a little sadly. “I guess you don’t.”

Clearly affected by her sad countenance, Jack added, “You don’t tell me everything, do you? And I promise, it’s nothing bad. It has nothing to do with you.”

He was certainly behaving strangely. Or at least, stranger than he usually did. Lena considered pressing the issue. Then she thought better of it. Whatever it was, it couldn’t be that bad. Because this was Jack. He was probably just writing fanfiction about The Mandalorian. And although they had an honesty policy, she could let this one go. Mostly because if she pried, he might start telling her about Star Wars lore and canonical inconsistencies between The Clone Wars and Revenge of the Siths. It’s happened before. That was two hours of her life that she’ll never get back.

“All right… well, I came to keep you company.”

He looked very pleased by that. “Well, goodie. Finally, some alone time.” Jack rubbed his hands together gleefully. “Tell me everything. How are things going with you two?”

“Jack…” she answered warily. “We shouldn’t discuss that.”

“Why not?”

“Plausible deniability.”

He whined, “Oh, come on, Lena. Who cares?”

“I do. I don’t want you to lose your job.”

He made a face at her, actually sticking his tongue out even though he was a grown man. “It’s my job. And I say I don’t care.”

“Don’t you? You complain about it a lot, but I know you like it.”

“I like you more,” he said easily. “I also like gossip more.”

“Jack…”

“Fine, fine. Okay, one producer to another, do you think that our lead is going to be engaged to James or Mon-El by the end of the season?”

“Um… I’d say… no.”

Jack grinned in delight. “Will she be single at the end of the season?”

“Probably not.”

“Last one.” In that instant, he looked quite serious. “Are you happy?”

“Yes.” Lena could feel her cheeks aching at how widely she was smiling. “Very happy.”

***

Rose ceremony nine was the easiest ceremony yet for Kara.

Frankly, she did not care who stayed and who went. She was fond of James. She had grown to really like Mon-El, and maybe, in a different life, they could belong to one another. That was not this life. So it did not matter to her one bit who left.

Ultimately, she let William go. William teared up as he said his goodbye, looking truly pained. Of course, she felt bad. He had seemed like a nice man. But he wasn’t Lena.

Kara could not muster up the tears. She wasn’t that good of an actress. All she could do was bow her head and gaze sadly into the distance.

Andrea was decidedly not happy by her lack of tears.

But neither Lena nor Kara really gave a damn about that anymore.

***

On the limo ride back to the hotel, Lena said suddenly, “What if Lex gets another job?” Kara turned to her questioningly. “He has enough money to retire, but men like Lex don’t work for the money. If he wanted it, he could be showrunner somewhere else. He has the credentials. He has the name. Who knows what he’ll do next? The rumors will fade one day. Then there’s nothing to stop Lex from getting into power. Start a new production company, make his own shows.”

“So… does that mean you’re going to release the video?”

Lena sighed. “I don’t know. I’m just speculating. For all I know, he’ll just take his money and disappear to an island somewhere. What’s not speculative is that the video would harm our show, if not destroy it. How do I do that to my employees? But then, what if I bury this video and Lex does this again, and I could’ve stopped it?”

“What if…” Kara hesitated over the suggestion she was about to make. It wasn’t something she was familiar with. “What if you… let him know that this clip exists and that you’d use it if he was out of line?”

Lena was almost impressed. “Kara Danvers, are you proposing that I blackmail my brother?”

“I would never blackmail someone,” Kara insisted. “I would just… make sure that they had a good reason to behave.”

“Well, it’s not like I haven’t thought of it. But you don’t know Lex. He really doesn’t take well to ultimatums. If he feels threatened, he’ll take the nuclear option, whatever that is. He would rather take you and me and everyone down with him than be put in a vulnerable position.”

“Maybe you don’t have to decide right now. Everyone involved has been removed from set. Maybe you could wait until the season’s over to decide what to do. One thing at a time.”

That was probably prudent. Lena was busy enough trying to keep her dalliances with Kara under wraps. The last thing she needed was to obsess over her psychotic brother. She scooted closer to Kara, placing her head upon the blonde’s shoulder, wrapping her arms around her waist.

“I’m really glad I have you.”

“Of course you do,” reassured Kara, returning the embrace. “I’m on your team, Lena. Always.”

***

They were set to leave Oahu tomorrow for Auckland, their final destination of the season, where Kara would ultimately get engaged. Or at least, that was the show’s plan, even if it wasn’t Kara’s.

They were in Lena’s room. Kara was lounging on the bed next to Lena’s open suitcase, an array of haphazardly arranged clothes sticking out everywhere. Lena stood there, fists on her hips, looking down frustratedly at her things. Lena, despite being neat and orderly in all other aspects of her life, was an absolute disaster when it came to packing.

“I’m cursed, Kara. I’m being haunted by an evil spirit whose sole purpose is to hex and shrink my suitcase every time I’m about to leave some place.”

“Or you just always end up buying things when you go on a trip,” Kara observed, picking at the new blouses Lena had purchased.

“I don’t understand. You buy thirty souvenirs in every location. How are you packing everything?”

“I plan,” Kara said, shrugging smugly. “I’m a big planner, you know.”

Lena emitted a small grunt, looking a bit frustrated. How could she, Lena Luthor, have this one small aspect of her life where she wasn’t one hundred percent organized? Unthinkable.

“Okay, big planner,” Lena conceded with a shrug. “Help me then.”

“I could do that,” Kara said slowly as her gaze roamed over Lena’s body. “But I bet I could think of a better way to pass our time.”

As always, Lena felt herself growing heated and excited by Kara’s lustful stare. But: “Kara, we’re not done packing and we have to leave in like twenty minutes.”

Kara shrugged. “I bet I can get you off in ten. Plenty of time.”

And, well, Lena Luthor did not back down from challenges.

***

The morning they flew out, Lena avoided a minor disaster. She was in the conference room with Andrea, reviewing the itinerary when Andrea said, “I don’t know if Jack should come with us.”

Immediately, Lena responded with, “What are you talking about?” But she solved it herself before she even finished the question. “Andrea, you’re being paranoid. Jack’s not the leak.”

Although it was clear that Jack was keeping something to himself, Lena was convinced in her heart that whatever it was, it wasn’t this.

“You have to admit he’s been behaving strangely,” Andrea persisted. “Showing up at the waterfall even though he wasn’t even James’s handler? And the other day, when you had food poisoning? I just asked him if he knew where you were. He went into this spiel about- well, I don’t even know, but it took him five minutes just to tell me where you were.”

Lena struggled to remember which day it was that she was allegedly “out of commission” due to food poisoning.

She shrugged lightly. “Jack’s a strange guy in general. And you know what? Even if he was the leak, it doesn’t matter anymore. The Lex story is dead, and Jack’s Mon-El’s handler. We’re not going to fire his handler right before the proposal.”

By Andrea’s expression, Lena saw that she had landed a solid point. They couldn’t afford to lose Jack at this point. They were almost at the finish line. Everyone was exhausted, grumpy, and on edge, especially the contestants, who, unlike the crew and the lead, weren’t even being paid to do this. It was difficult to predict what would happen if they suddenly took away Mon-El’s friend and confidant. They couldn’t risk upsetting the balance now.

“Fine,” Andrea acquiesced reluctantly. “But when we finish the season, I’m going to have to tell Lillian about this and let her handle it.

Lena felt her irritation flaring at the thought of Jack being subjected to Lillian’s intense, unpleasant interrogation. It was ludicrous, all of it. As devotedly convinced as she was of Jack’s innocence, she couldn’t be sure that Lillian, so paranoid and distrusting, would come to the same conclusion.

But it was the end of the season. Lena was tired too. She would have to save this fight for another day.

“Do what you want,” she said shortly.

“I know he’s your friend, Lena, but you should be careful.”

Lena successfully resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “Sure.”

Andrea studied her carefully, concern evident. “You trust so blindly, Lena,” she said softly. “I know you don’t trust easily, but once you do, you become so resolute in it. It worries me, how much faith you have in people like Jack. What’s going to happen if he breaks that trust?”

To Lena, this was all nonsense, fantastic hypotheticals. Andrea might as well have been asking her what her plan was for winning the Quidditch World Cup.

“I suppose we’re lucky that we never have to find out.”

***

It was late by the time they arrived in New Zealand. Everyone was exhausted and eager for rest. With listless impatience, at the airport, the cast and crew waited for their transportation to their hotel. The vans arrived, and Kara climbed in the back row with Lena, while Jack, Nia, Brainy, and Sam filled the remaining seats. Within five minutes, everyone except Lena and Kara was asleep.

On the ride, Lena said in a sotto tone, “I’m looking forward to seeing Clark again. I haven’t seen him since his season, but I still remember how kind he was. I was just an intern back then and the cast didn’t know who I was, not at first. But from day one, he always treated me like someone important.”

With two men remaining, it was time for Kara’s family to meet them. They were flying in Alex and Eliza for the occasion, but they weren’t going to miss out on a chance to feature the only successful Bachelor couple to exist. Clark and Lois would be coming as well.

Kara, looking worn from the journey, was gazing out the window, seemingly mesmerized by the strobe of streetlights they sped past. “That’s Clark,” she answered without much enthusiasm. “Champion of all.”

Not having expected this tepid response, Lena looked over, touching a hand to Kara’s in concern.

“Are you feeling all right?”

Kara turned her head. Some of her lethargy seemed to dissipate, as a warm smile spread over her face the instant their eyes met. “I think I’m just tired. All the traveling and filming has been catching up to me. And, um.” Kara cast a surveying look at the others in the van, all seemingly fast sleep. In a low voice, she said, “Well, you know I haven’t been sleeping much lately.”

Feeling heat in her cheeks, Lena murmured, “Sorry, darling. The season’s almost over though. There’s less than two weeks left.”

Kara pulled a face. “And then the press tour and the reunion show and more press.”

“There’s a reason why we pay the leads six figures to do this.” With their hands resting together on the middle seat between them, Lena caresses the back of Kara’s hand with her thumb. “Let’s get you some decent sleep tonight, okay?”

At the hotel, everyone waited in the lobby as Siobhan checked them in and distributed room keys. Lena and Nia were standing next to one another. Siobhan passed, handing Lena her single room key and Nia her key to the suite that she’s meant to share with Kara, then moved down the line. Lena and Nia looked at one another. Wordlessly, they exchanged their keys.

Lena took Kara upstairs. Lena ordered Kara to bed and offered to unpack for both of them. She had just opened up Kara’s bag when she felt a pair of firm hands at her waist, avid lips at the back of her neck.

Giggling at the tickling sensation produced by Kara’s breath upon her skin, she said, “You’re supposed to be sleeping.”

In between kisses to Lena’s neck, Kara replied, “Yeah, but this seems more appealing right now.”

Turning around, Lena draped her arms over Kara’s shoulder and kissed her languidly. “I thought you were tired.”

“I was, until I ended up alone in a room with you. Then I had other ideas.”

“Hmm,” responded Lena with feigned disinterest. “And what ideas might those be?”

Kara’s roving hands found their way down to Lena’s waistband, unfastening the buttons she found there. “Take off your pants and I’ll show you.”

So Lena did.

***

Kara was due for a family visit the next day. Today they were shooting Kara with her family, without the contestants, and she would tell them about the two remaining men and how she felt about them. Then over the next couple of days, Kara would introduce James and Mon-El to them to see if they met the family’s approval.

Kara was subdued on the car ride over, barely reacting even when Lena reminded her that she was about to see Alex.

“I’m sorry,” Lena said apologetically. “I shouldn’t have kept you up so late last night.”

Never apologize for that,” Kara returned heatedly. “I regret nothing.”

After that, Kara made an effort to seem upbeat, but Lena could see from her body language and the smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes that Kara was fatigued. This was nothing new. Most leads looked worse for the wear by the end of the season. The rigorous filming schedule and endless emotional rollercoasters took a toll. The copious amounts of sex she’d been having with her producer late into the night probably didn’t help either.

They arrived at the house that production had rented for Kara’s family. Alex was already waiting outside, pacing impatiently. At the sight of her sister, Kara finally perked up. The camera crew barely had time to set up their shot before Kara bolted out of the car and ran to Alex, colliding into her with a fierce hug.

“Wait, wait,” Andrea radioed into Lena’s earpiece. “Can we do that again? I want to get a better shot.”

Lena thought about it. Kara and Alex were still holding each other, Kara babbling excitedly. She didn’t want to interrupt that. Anyway, she already knew that Kara couldn’t reproduce that level of excitement.

“No,” she said firmly. “I think that was good.”

Immediately, Andrea started protesting. “But camera one wasn’t-”

Lena interrupted, “Andrea. Sometimes it’s better to have something real than something perfect.”

Andrea sighed in annoyance but didn’t push.

Kara, having finally peeled herself back from Alex, was excitedly waving for Lena to come over.

“Lena!” Kara linked arms with the brunette when she neared, looking excited and just a bit apprehensive. “This is my sister, Alex. Alex, this is Lena.” Slightly biting down on her lower lip, she darted glances in between the two women.

Alex looked at her little sister like she was nuts. “Um… yeah, I know. We’ve met. Multiple times.”

“Oh, right, right. Well, this is different.” Kara found herself curiously examined by the other two. Clearly that warranted a follow up. “Um, well, because back then she wasn’t, uh… my producer.”

That didn’t lessen Alex’s confusion any. “I thought she was like the supervising producer.”

“She was. I mean, is. But now she’s like…” Kara gesticulated vaguely with her hands. “You know, my producer.”

“What Kara means,” Lena cut in, thinking to herself with too much fondness, For god’s sake, Kara, the cameras are rolling. “Is that I wasn’t assigned to be her handling producer last time. So I’ll be taking a more active role in today’s shoot. Kara was just trying to reacquaint us to make you more comfortable.”

Alex regarded Lena with an appraising eye. “Right. Sure. Well, should we go in?”

Kara turned to Lena, looking excited but a little apprehensive. “Um, so, are you ready to meet Eliza?”

It finally occurred to Lena that they probably should have talked about meeting Kara’s mother before this moment. Lena suddenly felt petrified. Was she ready? Absolutely not. Did she have a choice? Also absolutely not.

“Yes,” Lena answered with as much bravado as she could muster.

“She’s going to love you,” Kara reassured.

Alex was standing there with a pinched expression on her face, like she was trying very hard not to say something she shouldn’t. “Okay, you two, let’s get a move on.”

Kara looped her arm around Lena’s, ready to guide her in. Maybe Lena should exercise more discretion here in front of the cameras, but feeling nervous, she allowed herself this small comfort as she headed inside to meet Kara’s family.

And it didn’t go exactly as planned.

The purpose of this family meeting was for Kara to tell her family about her two remaining contestants, the men who were expected to propose to her soon. But somehow, the conversation always seemed to steer itself back onto Lena. Or rather, Kara always seemed to find a way to make it about Lena or involve her in the conversation.

Like this: “James is a photographer. Did you know that Lena takes amazing pictures? The other day, she took this really breathtaking picture of a mongoose we came across in Oahu. Lena, show them.”

Or this: “Mon-El’s a nickname. Mike’s his real name. Mon-El’s a nickname he got from his frat brothers. I can’t remember the story. Oh! But Lena has this really funny story about a nickname she had in college.” (Spoiler alert: it was not really funny. Maybe mildly amusing.)

In all fairness, Kara was not the only guilty party.

When Lena tried to move the conversation along by prompting Kara to talk about Mon-El’s interest in football, Lois asked Lena whether she had an interest in sports. (It turned out that Lois and Lena were both big fans of Naomi Osaka, which led to a ten-minute long discussion until Andrea, over the radio, told Lena to focus.)

When Kara was telling her family about James’s sister being a psychologist, that somehow spurred Eliza to ask about Lena’s major in college. (Lena answered out of politeness, which led to an involved back-and-forth with Eliza about their thoughts on plasmon lasers. Lena redirected the conversation when she heard Andrea’s pointed remarks over the radio.)

Kara told them about the group picnic date she had with James, which led to a discussion about food and that devolved when Alex, remembering Kara’s off-hand comment earlier about Lena’s cooking, asked her for her chocolate babka recipe. (By then, Andrea seemed to have given up, resorting to communicating through exasperated sighs and annoyed growls.)

Later, on the car ride back, Kara said apologetically to a stunned, tired-looking Lena, “I know my family can be a lot. We have scientists, journalists, an FBI agent… being inquisitive is kind of our thing.”

“Nobody expects the Danvers inquisition,” deadpanned Lena.

“Well, if it makes you feel better, we don’t expect almost fanatical devotion,” Kara returned easily. “But we do actually have nice red uniforms. Lois got us all red bowling shirts one year.”

“They were awfully curious about me.”

“Yeah.” Kara fidgeted nervously in her seat, needlessly adjusting her seatbelt. “Um, I’ve been told that I’m not, uh, subtle. They probably picked up on that. And my family’s the type to be like, if she’s important to Kara, she’s important to me. So, you know… they’re interested.”

Lena wondered just how much Kara’s family had been able to deduce about their relationship. They were really very keen on questioning her. Well, except for one person.

“Clark was pretty quiet. He’s not how I remembered.” Clark had said very little during the gathering. He wasn’t unfriendly, but he was definitely reserved, maybe even distant. This was not the amiable, charismatic Clark that Lena had once met.

“Probably just tired from the trip,” Kara suggested. “And he’s an old man, or so he likes to tell me.”

The explanation assuaged Lena’s anxiety. There was no use pretending otherwise: the approval of Kara’s family, Clark included, meant a great deal to her. She and Kara had a plan. Lena fully anticipated a future where she would need the approval of Kara’s family.

Seeking confirmation, she asked, “Do you think they liked me?”

“Oh, they absolutely loved you,” Kara gushed.

“All right then,” Lena said evenly, tampering down her exhilaration. “That’s good.”

***

The next day, Mon-El’s was due to meet Kara’s family. Maybe it was just that Kara’s family were tired from grilling Lena the day before, but there was a marked difference to how they treated Mon-El. While cordial and welcoming, they were far less questioning. Or maybe it was just that Mon-El was very good at talking about himself, and they didn’t feel the need to pry.

Kara and Eliza were pulled aside into one of the bedrooms so that Eliza could give her feedback in private. Mother and daughter sat side by side in the bed, contemplating her suitor.

Eliza said, “He’s certainly very handsome.”

“Yeah,” replied Kara blandly.

“And he’s… well… he seems fun.”

Needing to rescue the conversation and get something usable, Lena asked Eliza, “What would you say if Mon-El asked you for your blessing to propose?”

Kara stiffened slightly and diverted herself with running her hand over the quilt next to her. Eliza turned to Lena with a probing look.

“What would you say?” Eliza asked in return. “If it was your daughter, I mean.”

Lena briefly considered a white lie for the sake of her job, then went ahead and did the exact opposite.

“I would say that it's not my consent that’s needed because my daughter’s a grown woman and she can make up her own mind.” It was easy for Lena to ignore Andrea’s groans over the radio. She’s had plenty of practice by now.

Eliza smiled warmly. “I suppose you’re not the type to ask your partner’s parents for approval first.”

“I would if it was important to her for some reason. But no, otherwise I think it’s between the two of us. Approval’s nice, but not necessary.”

“Good enough,” Eliza nodded. “Well, I’ll just say that I trust Kara’s decisions. I’m sure she’ll choose well.”

“For the record,” Kara added. “I agree with Lena on this. I’d prefer that my partner ask me and not my mother if I’d like to get married.”

And with that being put out into the universe, it was inevitable that Mon-El would later ask Eliza, in their private time together, if she would give her blessing for his proposal.

Actually, his exact words were: “I’d like to ask for your permission to have Kara’s hand in marriage.”

Eliza smiled and just gently patted him on the hand.

“Well, Mon-El…” she began slowly. She kindly explained to him that Kara was a grown woman who did not need her mother’s permission to get engaged and that she trusted her decisions.

Later, when filming his ITM with Jack, Mon-El was elated and boastful.

“Oh, It. Is. In. The. Bag. Did you see how Eliza said she trusted Kara to decide? I think she was trying to tell me that Kara’s going to say yes to me. She just couldn’t tell me outright, you know, because of the show.”

With great ambivalence, Jack said, “Uh, yeah, I didn’t get that. Look, mate, maybe you ought to manage your expectations a bit, yeah? You don’t know what her answer’s going to be yet.”

“No need,” responded Mon-El with a surplus of confidence. “Mark my words, Jack. That woman’s going to be my wife.”

Jack could only smile and nod along.

***

On the day that it was James’s turn to meet Kara’s family, Sam filmed his ITM with him beforehand.

“You could be meeting your future in laws today. How do you feel about that?”

“Good,” James answered with a light nod. “Fine.”

“You’re not nervous?”

“No. Kara’s good people and I’m sure her family’s lovely.”

“Are you going to ask her family for their blessing to propose?”

“Um. Yeah, I don’t know about that.”

From behind the camera, Sam frowned, studying her contestant closely. “Are you okay? You don’t seem that excited.”

“Of course I’m excited. Look, no matter what happens, Kara and I are going to be lifelong friends. I know that. So her family’s going to be part of my life. So, yeah, I’m really looking forward to meeting them.”

“James… it doesn’t sound like you think Kara’s going to pick you.”

James shrugged, light and a touch sad. “Kara will pick who she picks. I’ll be happy if she’s happy.”

***

Kara’s family loved James. Especially Clark, who was enthused to find out that he and James knew a couple of the same people in the journalism world. So the meet-and-greet turned into more of a bonding session between Clark and James while Eliza, Alex, and Lois chatted to Lena.

A couple of hours in, Lena heard Andrea saying her name over the radio. “Hold that thought,” she said to Eliza. She stepped into the hallway and told Andrea to go ahead.

“The hotel just called. They said that Thomas Coville’s there, asking for you.”

Caught off guard, Lena’s mind raced through dozens of explanations of why that would be. She radioed back, “Coville’s here? He didn’t call me.”

“I didn’t know he was coming either,” Andrea said, sounding neutral, although Lena detected a hint of uneasiness. “I suppose you should go see what he wants. Sam can take over for you here.”

“Okay. On my way.” Lena went back in the room and apologetically explained, “Something just came up. I’m sorry, I have to go back to the hotel. Sam will be working with you for the rest of the day.”

She said her goodbyes to the family, but Kara got up and followed her into the foyer. “Lena, what’s going on?”

“I don’t know yet. It’s probably nothing,” Lena answered. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.” To chase away the worry lines from Kara’s forehead, Lena reassuringly rubbed her arm. “I’ll see you soon. Enjoy your time with your family.” Kara, although obviously disconcerted by this development, nodded.

When Lena got back to the hotel, she went straight to the front desk. The concierge told her that Coville was waiting in the cafe. She headed down the hall in search. It wasn’t hard to find to find the man who had asked for her. There was only one person in the cafe. He was sitting by the window, his back to her, reading a magazine.

She would recognize that figure anywhere.

Slowly, with a heart teeming with anxiety and dread, she advanced. When she reached his side, she said in a voice she struggled to keep steady, “What are you doing here?”

Turning around, Lex Luthor looked up at her, flashing a megawatt grin that was equal parts malicious and gleeful. “Hello, baby sis.”

 

Chapter Text

Wouldn't cause you any harm
I just want you in my arms
I can't help, I can't help myself
Baby, there's a shark in the water
There's something underneath my bed
Oh, please believe I said
Baby, there's a shark in the water

“Shark in the Water” by VV Brown

 

 

The seconds ticked by. Lena could hear it. In the quiet hotel cafe, currently occupied by only the Luthor siblings, the wall-mounted clock tick-tocked loudly in the empty space.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Lena spat out.

Lex looked utterly unfazed by Lena’s vitriol. “I feel like you say that to me every time you see me. That’s not very healthy, is it?”

“Why are you here, Lex?”

“I’m enjoying this flat white. It’s not bad for hotel coffee. I ordered you one. You should try it. It’s still hot.” Lex gestured at the empty chair across from him which had a cup of coffee placed before it. It was clear that Lex had a game he wanted to play, and nothing was going to happen until Lena agreed to the rules. Swallowing her pride, she sat down. Lex grinned victoriously. “Was that so hard?”

“You can’t be here. You made a deal.”

“Last I checked, neither CatCo nor LuthorMedia owns this hotel. I’m a paying guest. I have as much a right to be here as you do.”

More of his childish games. He might as well have been holding his hand inches from her face while sing-songing I’m not touching you.

“Can you just tell me what you want and we can be done with this?”

Lex looked disappointed by Lena’s lack of willingness to engage. “I came to get what’s mine.”

“You’re off the show, Lex. You know that.”

“I meant the money that’s due to me. I still own shares in LuthorMedia. You all want to buy me out, you have to give my fair value.”

“And we have lawyers and accountants who’ll work out the valuation. What does that have to do with you being here?”

“Ah, you see, in the course of that valuation, my team came across something very interesting. A potential future revenue stream. I noticed that LuthorMedia currently holds the purchase option to a very interesting project by one Querl Dox. You’re probably familiar with it since you’re likely featured in it. Evidently Lillian thought it was a good idea to let Brainy film whatever behind the scenes footage he wanted. There must be some very interesting stuff in there. It could be worth millions. Who knows? Anyway, I can’t possibly sell my shares without getting a look at the material. My lawyers have already contacted mom about getting a copy of all the raw footage. I should be getting it any day now.”

This, like everything out of Lex’s mouth, was complete bullshit. “Brainy’s footage isn’t worth millions and you know that.”

“I know no such thing,” answered Lex with a smug grin. “Maybe it’s the next March of the Penguins. I’m not selling my shares until I see the footage. Even if it’s not worth anything, I’m sure there’s something interesting in there.” As he leaned across the table, the smirk disappeared from his face, replaced by a dark glower. “I’m not the only shitbag to work on the show. I’m sure Brainy captured some less than saintly behavior on set.”

“Is that what you’re after? Revenge?” Lena shook her head incredulously. “Lex, why? This is your crew. They’ve done nothing to you.”

A switch flipped, and she witnessed rage in Lex’s eyes as he dug tightly closed fists into the tabletop. “My crew? Some crew. They’re treasonous snakes. Not one of them defended me. Well, why should I be the only one under a microscope? I’ve lived and breathed this show my entire life. I know these people. I know the drugs they take, the affairs they have, the secrets they hide. If the world’s going to know about my personal life, maybe I should spread some of that around.”

It hurt to see her brother like this, so full of hatred and anger. Lena could only sigh wearily, and watch him with sad eyes. “But Lex, what would that accomplish?”

He eased up, relaxing and adopting an easy, breezy grin. “It’d make me feel better and I think that’s enough.”

“It’s not going to happen. Lillian’s not going to let you have it.”

“She doesn’t have a choice,” Lex replied. “The network wants me to go away, but they can’t force me to sell my shares. I've told them that if they want my cooperation, they’re going to have to give me everything I ask for. You think Lillian won’t yield to the network? Of course she will.”

“Lex,” Lena said, too exhausted for his games. “Why did you ask for me?”

“I am so, so glad you asked.” Lex looked delighted, bordering on maniacal. “Brainy wouldn’t release the footage to me without Lillian’s authorization, but he was still very keen to talk about his project. I asked about you, because I care. Apparently he captured some scintillating material on… what did he call it?” Lex snapped his fingers, pretending to search for the words. “Oh, yes, the indescribably powerful bond you have with Kara Danvers.”

Lena’s heart started racing. She could feel it outpacing the ticking of the clock that still reverberated in the room. Resting his elbows on the table, Lex touched his fingertips together as he leaned forward, examining Lena closely, watching for a payoff.

Stubbornly, Lena stared back at him with a blank expression. “You’re deluded if you think there’s anything of interest on there.”

Lex chuckled, unfazed by her dismissiveness. “Am I? Darling Lena, I’ve been working this show far longer than you. I was very, very good at my job. I’m a master of understanding how people behave and most of all, I understand you. So, yes, I think it will be interesting. After all, you’ve been fucking her all this time, haven’t you?”

“This is ridiculous,” Lena replied with a practiced, bored lilt, betraying nothing of the panic she was starting to feel inside.

“Is it? I warned you about women like her, didn’t I? Did she tell you what a hard time she’s having on the show and how you’re the only one who makes it all better? Did she pour her heart out to you and make you feel like the most important person in the world? Did she throw herself at you and tell you how much she wants you?” Reflexively, Lena flinched at his words. And that was enough. He chuckled with jubilance. “Don’t worry, I was in your shoes once too. I know how you’re feeling.”

As self-controlled as she was, even Lena had her limits. “Do not compare me and Kara to you and your victims. I am nothing like you.”

“Still playing the role of Saint Lena? Fine by me. I don’t care. As long as you recognize that Kara Danvers is like all the rest, a manipulative liar who’ll do and say whatever she needs to in order to get what she wants.”

Beneath the table, Lena dug her fingernails into the top of her thigh, keeping her hands busy so that she didn’t strangle her brother on the spot.

“Lex,” Lena croaked out, her facade beginning to crumble. “Why are you here?”

Having finally scored a victory, he sat back in his seat, looking very pleased with himself.

“Well, you’re my baby sister and I love you.” Lex smiled, sweet and serpentine. “So I just thought I’d give you a heads up before I destroyed your life.”

***

When Kara returned that night, she found Lena sipping on whiskey, sitting in the living room of their hotel suite, with the lights off save for one lone desk lamp which cast a long shadow over everything in the room.

She was by Lena’s side in an instant. “What’s wrong?”

Lena took a long swallow of her drink, her mind calculating the right moves. She longed to tell Kara everything. Her instinct was to confide all, to give over every part of herself and leave nothing buried. She wanted to lose herself in the comfort and safety of her lover, to selfishly use Kara’s sympathy to wash away her fears and troubles.

But.

What good would it do now? Kara, noble to a fault, would blame herself. Lena could already hear Kara’s self-admonishments, “I’m sorry, if it wasn’t for me, if only I’d waited to tell you how I felt, if I hadn’t kissed you, if I hadn’t said I love you…” She had to protect Kara. They were so close to the end now, and she had already been through so much already. Lex was her responsibility. She could handle this.

Lena set her glass aside and turned to Kara, turning on her practiced charm. “It’s okay, darling, I just have a headache.” At least that wasn’t a lie.

Kara seemed skeptical. “You left so suddenly though.”

“I did,” Lena conceded, mulling over just how much she could lie to Kara. The answer was not very much. “Okay, yes, something did happen but I’ve got it under control. I’ll tell you everything soon, very soon, but for now, I need you not to ask me. Is that all right? Can you understand that?”

“Of course. Of course I do,” Kara answered passionately. “You take all the time that you need. But are you sure? Because I’m here for you.”

“Positive.” She cupped Kara’s face in her hands and drew the other woman closer, kissing her with soft affection.

***

They had the day off from filming, but Lena told Kara that she had work to do, which was true. Disarming the psychotic bomb that was her brother was a full time job. So she sent Kara off for sightseeing with Sam, Jack, and Nia, but kept Brainy.

“You’re going to show me everything you filmed,” she told him.

“Technically, as per the terms of my contract, I need Lillian’s written authorization.” When Briany saw the frosty expression on Lena’s face, he quickly amended, “But it’s probably okay to show you. You’re a Luthor and you work for the show.”

Brainy pulled out his laptop and the external hard drive where he kept his footage and booted it up. He had hours upon hours upon hours of material. She didn’t even know when he had time to film all this.

Incredulously, she watched as the screen depicted people being filmed from unlikely static angles. “Brainy, did you set up cameras all over the set?”

“I had permission.”

“Maybe we’ll just look at the highlights,” Lena said once she realized that it would take days to see everything. And that’s only if she didn’t sleep.

“They’re all highlights,” insisted Brainy.

She was going to have to put it in terms that Brainy understood. “Okay, take me through your ‘A’ story.”

Brainy pulled up various clips and fast forwarded to various moments while he narrated how he envisioned framing the story.

“Ostensibly it’s about the making of a reality show, but I consider that to be the ‘B’ plot. This is really a love story. My ‘A’ plot is the unlikely story of how two people from different worlds found each other and discovered their bond as soulmates.”

“This is…” Lena stared at what he was showing her on screen. “Brainy, this is about you and Nia?”

He looked at her, baffled by the question. “Of course it is. What else would it be about?”

“Um. Let’s just look at your ‘C’ story.”

Brainy frowned, looking mildly put off by the thought of not exploring his major storylines, but complied.

“Now, I have multiple ‘C’ plots, mostly human interest stories about the interpersonal relationships on set.”

Lena braced herself for the worst. Brainy took her through it. There was professional jealousy and competition between two assistant camera operators angling for the same promotion. There was Siobhan, struggling to raise funds to save her aunt’s financially distressed magic shop. There was Gayle, who was apparently trying to adopt a child. And there was a romantic entanglement.

Lena gaped at the scene before her. “Is that Jack and Sam kissing?!”

“Oh, yeah, we have a great little twist on the classic will-they-won’t-they. They dance around it all season and then when it finally happens, there’s zero chemistry. Look at how disgusted they look from their kiss.”

“That son of a bitch,” Lena muttered softly to herself. The nerve of that man, harassing her all season for gossip while keeping this to himself. But she would have to deal with that later. “Brainy, didn’t you have something about me and Kara?”

“Oh, certainly. I just didn’t think it was as interesting.”

Maybe that was a good sign. Maybe Brainy didn’t capture anything scandalous after all. “Show it to me, please.”

He did.

“Brainy, are those cameras in the house?”

“Just in the common areas. And Kara okayed it, she knew they were there. So did you. I’m sure I told you.” Brainy paused. “Didn’t I?”

“No, Brainy. You did not.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

He had captured a great deal of their interactions. Their conversations early on while they were getting to know each other, the lingering hugs, the sideway glances Kara cast her way that seemed so obviously romantic now. The practice kisses they shared early on. Their day at the beach. Kara’s confession in the living room of having feelings for her.

Although Lena knew that there were more pressing matters at stake, it was hard not to feel a little offended. “And you thought this wasn’t interesting?”

“Eh,” Brainy shrugged.

He opened a new file and fast forwarded. Kara appeared on screen, sitting cross-legged on a bed in her hotel room, phone to her ear as she said, “I just wanted to let you know how I feel about you. How I think of us.”

“You and Kara have a touching friendship,” Brainy said. “But depicting friendship is only interesting to a point.”

Lena didn’t quite know how to respond to that. “Right…”

Brainy stared at her. “That was a joke. I can see that you’re not just friends. I just didn’t want to incorporate storylines that I thought people wouldn’t want to see out in the public. So I consider all the footage I have of you and Kara as cutting room floor material.”

That made more sense. Even Brainy wasn’t that dense. “Then… what else do you have on the cutting room floor?”

The answer was a lot.

Once, in a moment that seemed to have taken place forever ago, Lena had told Kara that if you had enough footage on someone, anyone, it wouldn’t be difficult to humiliate them on national TV. At the time, she had been referring to the cast, but it was true of the crew too. Brainy hadn’t just been filming Kara. He was filming behind the scenes, which meant that he had filmed everyone and everything whenever he possibly could.

Brainy had captured a deluge of moments, private, humiliating, and scandalous; his cutting room floor was a collection of people at their worst or most vulnerable. The long hours on set bred familiarity among the crew. He had footage of one grip tearily confiding to another that he was terrified of his wife. He had a production designer in conversation with a make-up artist, confessing that he didn’t know how to come out to his parents. He had a camera operator admitting that she was in love with her married best friend. He had a PA seek advice from another crew member about how to hide her antidepressants from her grandmother, whom she lived with and who did not believe in psychiatry. He had scenes of crew members gossiping, fighting, hurling epithets, or venting their grievances to one another about the job, their bosses, their family, their friends, all sorts of things that people say to each other in moments of anger and frustration, not meant for their subjects to hear.

“Brainy,” she said, stunned. “How did you get all this?”

“I didn’t do it on purpose. I just walked around with my camera. People don’t always notice me,” he answered, a little dispiritedly. “Or they don’t want to. I’ve been told that I’m… odd.”

“You’re not odd, Brainy. But this. All this footage you have- why didn’t you delete it?”

Brainy looked perplexed by that. “I was documenting. How can I delete it? It wouldn’t be an accurate record if I did.”

“But you acknowledged yourself that people wouldn’t want this getting out. It’s not even going in your movie.”

“I’m actually thinking this might be more of a miniseries.”

Brainy.”

With zero irony, Brainy solemnly responded, “I document, Lena. This is part of the process. I can’t just selectively erase whatever I see fit. It should suffice that these scenes aren’t part of the narrative. They won’t be released.”

“But it’s not up to you. You signed a contract agreeing to sell everything you’ve filmed on set to LuthorMedia. Someone else could release it.”

There Brainy went, looking confused again. “I can’t fathom that’s even possible. Why would that happen? The raw footage is of no interest to anyone.”

Lena found it equally endearing and frustrating that Brainy, in all his naïveté, could not understand that someone would want to release the footage for no other reason other than to sow chaos.

“You have to delete this. No one else can see this. It doesn’t do any good to keep it.”

“Right. I could delete the footage on the hard drive and the backup,” Brainy said slowly. “But I don’t think I can do anything about the LTO tapes in the vault.”

Lena felt a wave of dread wash over her. “It’s in the vault already?”

“Of course it is. It’d be irresponsible not to back it up physically on tapes.”

She could feel a fierce headache coming on, worse than the one from last night. She squeezed her eyes shut and pinched the bridge of her nose in an effort to relieve the pressure. “So, just to confirm, all of this incredibly damaging footage, it’s all been physically backed up on tapes in LuthorMedia’s storage facility back in Los Angeles. Even if you delete everything you have access to, LuthorMedia can just turn over the tapes they have in the vault. And there’s nothing we can do about that.”

“That’s accurate. But who exactly is this exposition for?”

“For me, Brainy,” Lena replied with a heavy sigh. “I just needed to affirm how screwed we are.”

***

Lena spent the rest of the day pouring over documents that she had the legal department email to her. She went over LuthorMedia’s articles of incorporation, their shareholder agreement, Lex’s employment contract, his buyout agreement, and every other piece of document Lex had ever touched, trying to find something in there that could help. She was still working away on her laptop when Kara returned, carrying armsful of shopping bags from her day out of the town. She dropped the bags on the floor and took a seat next to Lena on the couch.

“You’re still working?” Kara placed her hands upon Lena’s shoulders, kneading her fingers against the tenseness there. Lena sighed in relief and shifted to allow Kara better access.

“Duty calls.” Lena closed her laptop, not wanting Kara to see that she was reviewing Lex’s contracts.

“Time for a break?”

Lena turned to face her. “Sure. What do you want to do?”

“Well…” Kara was biting her bottom lip, radiating nervous excitement. “I, um, I got us something.”

“What is it?”

“Well, uh, it’s… um, maybe I’ll just show you.” She leaned over, rummaged through the bags to pull out a smaller, nondescript brown bag which she handed to Lena. As Lena started taking out the box inside, Kara started a rambling explanation. “Um, I know we haven’t really talked about it, so it’s totally, totally okay if you don’t want to use it. It was an impulse buy. Jack had us go into the store, I think as a joke, but then I saw this, and then I just, uh, started thinking about it and uh… couldn’t stop thinking about it.”

Having taken the items out of the bag, Lena looked down at Kara’s purchases. There was a sleek black harness and a gray, slightly curved shaft.

“Oh,” she said, staring at the strap-on in her lap. “Okay. So tell me what you were thinking about.”

Kara, feeling emboldened by the glint of interest in Lena’s eyes, scooted closer and placed her hand on the brunette’s thigh. “It’s just an idea, we can do something else if you’d like. But I was thinking about wearing it. I want to see the look on your face when I bury myself inside you. I want to fuck you until you beg me to stop.”

Lena looked at her then, staring with complete adoration. “You’re amazing.” Tugging at the blonde by the collar of her shirt, she dragged Kara forward for a long, searing kiss. When she pulled back, she took Kara by the hand and started pulling her towards the bedroom. “Come on.”

“Right now?” asked Kara, letting herself be led.

“After what you just said? Yes, I want it right now.”

“Okay, but I think I need to read the instructions. I’ve uh, never, you know?”

Lena chuckled lowly, drawing Kara closer for another kiss. “I’ll show you, darling.”

She knew that there was work to be done. She knew that Lex was out there, lurking and plotting, and that she had complicated things further by choosing to withhold this information from Kara. But her body and mind were achy, tired, and run-down from the season, from the endless drama and bullshit and the Lex of it all. So she was not going to feel bad for taking the time to indulge herself. She wanted to forget. She could think of no better way of forgetting than this.

“This is so weird,” Kara now said, looking at the toy jutting out from the harness around her hips.

Lena, peeling off her underwear and pants and kicking it to the side, scooted up the bed. “We don’t have to use it if you’re not sure.”

“Oh, no, I’m definitely doing this.” Kara started crawling up the bed, eyeing down at the bobbing toy as she did. “But it’s weird.”

Lena stopped Kara’s crawl up with a firm hand on her shoulder. “Not yet. Get me ready. Go down on me, but don’t let me come.”

“Bossy,” Kara grumbled in a half-hearted complaint. But she followed directions, moving down and positioning herself between Lena’s parted legs. By now, she considered herself somewhat of an expert on Making Lena Luthor Feel Good. She started with slow, lazy lashes through Lena’s folds, trailing up until just a hint of her tongue brushed up against hardened clit, then pulling away to start from the bottom again. Unhurriedly, she kissed and sucked and licked until she felt the telltale tensing of Lena’s thighs and heard breathless moans. Abruptly, she pulled away completely.

“Karaaaa,” protested Lena in a tone brattier than she thought herself capable of.

“You told me not to let you come,” Kara shot back with smugly fake innocence. “I’m just following your orders.”

“Fine,” Lena huffed. “I’m ready.”

“Maybe I’m not ready.” Kara climbed up, capturing Lena’s mouth in a long, filthy kiss as she teasingly moved the toy against her entrance.

“Kara,” Lena let out pleadingly. “Play nice.”

“I always play nice,” Kara said, even as she cruelly pulled back from Lena’s hips that angled up in search of contact. “When I’m asked nicely.”

Frustrated, Lena gritted out, “Kara.”

But Kara could be stubborn too. “Ask me nicely.”

Lena did one better. She grabbed the blonde by the side of her face and pulled her in, kissing her deeply. When she let go, she said, “I love you.”

That wasn’t what Kara had in mind. But this was her Achilles’s heel. The chink in the armor. The exhaust vent on her Death Star. A weakness she was only too happy to let Lena exploit. In that moment, she would have done everything and anything Lena asked. She had no choice. Heeding Lena’s command with one swift jut of her hips, she pushed the toy in, filling Lena up. Lena cried out in contentment, and Kara echoed her, finding satisfaction in the brunette’s reaction.

“You okay?” Kara croaked out, holding still as she allowed Lena time to adjust.

“Yes,” Lena hissed. “Go ahead and fuck me.”

With a throaty, helpless moan, Kara began moving. The end of the toy attached to her was ridged, and she groaned as she pushed the toy against her lover, but the greatest source of pleasure came from watching the face of the woman beneath her. Her brows furrowed tightly in exquisite pleasure, Lena bit down on her bottom lip as she struggled to maintain eye contact. The room, the hotel, the world faded away, as Kara fucked her in earnest. The pressure built and built. At last, she could hold on no longer, and she tilted her head back, squeezing her eyes shut, screaming out as an orgasm ripped through her.

Kara slowed to a stop. She placed delicate kisses against Lena’s shoulder, waiting for recovery. At last, Lena cracked open her eyes and, in her post-orgasmic stupor, stared up at Kara with affection and amazement.

Kara grinned, feeling beyond pleased with herself. “Again?”

“Again.”

***

They were heading into the last week of production. Kara would have two dates each with her final two suitors, and at the end of it, both men would be proposing to her. The last week required delicate handling by production. By the last week, cast members were typically fatigued, emotionally spent, and just begging for the entire process to end. It was incumbent upon the producers to assuage any last minute nerves and panics.

So it was perfectly understandable that Andrea gave Lena a withering glare when, on the morning of Kara’s date with James, Lena told her that she would not be producing the date.

“What the hell is going on?” Andrea demanded. The two of them were in the hotel’s conference room. They were meant to be going over today’s call sheet before Lena told Andrea that she'd be sitting out. “And don’t give me that ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’ crap. Something’s up. You never even explained what happened with ‘Thomas Coville’ the other day. I know Coville’s still in New York, so who was it?”

There was a part of Lena that longed to tell someone what was going on. But it seemed unfair to drag others into this mess. “I don’t think you really want to know.”

“I’m asking, aren’t I?” When Andrea saw the uncertainty on Lena’s face, she spared her old friend the difficulty of deciding. “Was it Lex?” Seeing Lena’s surprise, Andrea scoffed. “There’s a very short list of the number of people who are melodramatic and unstable enough to impersonate a network executive just to lure you away from set. So let’s have it. What does he want now? Aren’t we paying that guy to go away?”

The internal struggle for Lena was violent but brief. She was tired of pretenses. She was tired of having secrets. Andrea was here, Andrea was asking, and Andrea was safe to tell because she didn’t need to be shielded the same way Kara had to be.

So out it came. All of it. Everything that she had kept bottled up over the past few weeks. Breaking into Maxwell’s safe, finding that damaging video on Otis’s cellphone after the network decided to settle, Lex showing up at the hotel, his demand, Brainy’s footage, what it captured of the crew. Of Her and Kara.

When she was done, Andrea looked back at her, a little stunned and a lot irate.

“And that’s it,” Lena wrapped up. “Now you know everything.”

“My god, Lena,” Andrea spat out. “What is it with you Luthors and your inability to keep it in your pants for one season ? It’s just ten weeks! Ten!”

As harsh as it sounded to Lena’s ears, she couldn’t say it was undeserved. Chagrined, she looked away and bowed her head. “I don’t expect you to understand. Sometimes I don’t understand it myself. It just… happened.”

Andrea sighed. “I knew that it was a bad idea to let Brainy film everything. It was an extraordinarily bad idea. And for what? A salary reduction that amounts to a pittance in the grand scheme of things? Lillian really let her greed get the best of her.” Having spent a moment to vent and lament the situation, she then quickly shifted from outrage into crisis-solving mode. “What’s our exposure here? Even if Lex gets Brainy’s tapes, he won’t be legally allowed to release it, right?”

“Do you really think that would stop him?”

It was a rhetorical question. Having worked closely with Lex for the past few years, Andrea knew him well enough to know that Lex perpetually operated like a wounded animal, vicious, ferocious, reckless. Legally or not, Lex would find a way to get the footage out there, just for the sole purpose of extracting misguided revenge.

Andrea tried again. “Then we go to Lillian and explain that she can’t authorize that release.”

Lena shook her head. “You know the answer to that one as well.”

Lillian needed the network’s approval above all else. In part for her own ego, but mostly due to greed. A good relationship meant more pick-ups of LuthorMedia productions which meant more money. The early cuts from their Atlanta production looked good. Lillian anticipated a bidding war between CatCo and Netflix. She wasn’t going to jeopardize that by disobeying. If it meant sacrificing one show and its crew for the sake of maintaining her relationship at the network, Lillian would do it.

“Then we go to the network. Coville or maybe even Cat Grant.” Even as Andrea spoke, the consequences played out in her mind. “We would have to explain why we can’t show Lex the footage, and that would mean they’ll find out what happened with you and Kara. There’ll be consequences.”

Lena shrugged carelessly. “Losing my own job would be a small price to pay, but it wouldn’t even matter. If the company doesn’t turn over Brainy’s footage, Lex won’t sell his shares. So long as he remains a part owner, nobody’s safe. It’s only a matter of time before he figures out how to get his hands on the footage.”

Picking up the thread, Andrea finished out the scenario. “And the network would probably sever ties with the whole company if Lex remains a part owner. Otherwise it’s too risky to keep working with us. I know I would.”

“But we can’t let Lex get a hold of Brainy’s footage,” Lena said. “That thing is incredibly damaging, professionally and personally. Not only would we lose the show, some of our crew - quite a few of them, actually - are going to have their personal lives ruined over this.”

Andrea squeezed her eyes tightly shut, rubbing at her temple. “God, Brainy. Why? I wish he hadn’t done this stupid project.”

“If you’re going to blame someone, put it where it belongs. Blame Lex. Blame me.”

“Believe me, I do. I’m excellent at multitasking,” snapped Andrea. “What a fucking mess.”

Feeling the guilt brewing inside her, Lena could not muster any comeback. “I know.”

“We only have one move here.” When Lena looked at her questioningly, Andrea added, “Otis’s cellphone. We tell Lex what we have. He has leverage on us, and we on him. Mutually assured destruction, right? It worked for the Cold War.”

“Well, that’s debatable. And this theory of deterrence only works on a rational decision-maker, which Lex is not. He won’t like feeling threatened.”

“Then we appeal to his capitalistic nature. We make him a deal. We want something from him, he wants something from us. It’s a fair trade.”

Just the thought of it made Lena’s skin crawl. “You want me to just give it to him? It’s the only tangible proof anyone has of what he’s done. What about the women he’s manipulated?”

“I don’t mean to sound callous, but what about them? Where are they? They’re not here asking for anything. The ones who have come forward chose to settle, and the ones who haven’t… haven’t. What do you think even happens if we hold on to that video? Do we just keep it forever and lord it over Lex’s head until he snaps? Do we release it? And what then? What consequences are there for Lex? Because I can tell you what the consequences are. He’ll be a social pariah for an indeterminable amount of time and then that’ll be it. There won’t be any other consequences because we’ve seen this play out before. This industry is rife with men like Lex. I’m sure you can name a dozen off the top of your head. Nothing’s going to change, Lena. Is it worth destroying our show for that?”

“All the more reason to do something about it. What are we doing if we continue to maintain the status quo?”

“We’re not maintaining the status quo!” Andrea erupted, Lena’s words inadvertently touching upon an old sore spot. “For all the grief you’ve given me and Lillian over the years about how antiquated the show is, we’ve actually managed to build one of the most diverse crews in the industry. We give people opportunities they would never get anywhere else. I fought for that. Did you think that was easy? Especially with your brother in charge? No, Lena, I’ve worked my fucking ass off to build this crew. Why should all of that be thrown away because of one man? It’s not fair and it’s not right, but the fact is that you can’t punish Lex without punishing your employees. And you’ll never change anything if you go for the nuclear option every time.”

This felt like a familiar argument. It was always the same thing: Lena advocating for sweeping change, Andrea pushing back for slow increments. At the end of the day, they didn’t disagree on ultimate goals, but the means by which they got there. But that was enough to create a divide.

“This is wrong,” Lena said, although the fervor was disappearing from her tone. “If we turn a blind eye, how does this make us better than Morgan Edge or Mercy Graves?”

“We’re not turning a blind eye. We’re choosing the lesser of two evils. You’re talking about speculatively remedying the harm that’s already been done to a handful of women versus preventing actual harm to hundreds of people. Just on the numbers alone, it seems clear to me what ought to be done.”

Lena scoffed indignantly. “So what, this is for some kind of greater good?”

Andrea shrugged, more resigned than careless. “We’ve gone over all other options, Lena. What alternatives do we have?”

Lena thought that maybe she had told Andrea in the first place because she knew that this was the conclusion Andrea would take her to. Lena thought that maybe she needed to hear this awful conclusion from someone else other than her own conflicted inner voice. She thought that maybe external validation would soothe the conflict within. But now that she heard it said out loud, she only felt dread and unease.

Still, unable to think of another option, she answered, “I’ll talk to Lex.”

“Good.” A silence fell over them. Andrea, her mind already working at solving other problems, said, “Kara’s going to say no to both James and Mon-El, then? For you?”

Lena’s lips tightened into a thin line, wary and unaccustomed to discussing this with Andrea. “I hope so.”

“All right.” Andrea was silent for a moment, eyebrows furrowed in concentration at the puzzle before her. “I think we can work with this. Here’s our narrative: our lead just turned 30, she’s feeling that societal pressure to settle down, so she comes on the show. She meets our guys, they get along but there isn’t just that life-altering, engagement-worthy spark. Our Bachelorette’s still holding out for a fairy tale, and she decides that she won’t compromise her chance at true love just to conform. So at the end of it all, she rejects both proposals, choosing to remain single until she can find her true love. A good portion of our audience won’t like the storyline, but women are marrying later in life now, I think we might score a hit there. Of course, you two have to lay low for a while. No public appearances for at least three months after the final reunion, ideally six, but nothing official for a year. Any sooner, it’ll look suspicious. Anyone asks, it’s a friends-to-lovers story that only blossomed after the season was over.”

Lena regarded her with surprise. Andrea was the last person she expected to be tolerant, let alone to be plotting an acceptable outcome. “You’re not going to tell Lillian? The network?”

“I mean, let’s face it, Lillian probably knows or at least suspects, like I did. Beyond that, what’s the point?” Andrea shrugged lethargically. “What’s done is done. Now we move forward.”

“Oh. I-” Lena didn’t quite know what to say. “Okay. Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me. This is for the show and our crew,” Andrea retorted sharply. She started moving toward the door. They had spent long enough on this, and she was now going to be late for today’s shoot. At the door, she paused, her hand already on the handle. “Lena.” She turned around. “Look, I wish you had listened to me, but...” she emitted a reluctant grunt. “Well, I’m sorry for that comment about you Luthors keeping it in your pants. I absolutely do not approve of what’s happened between you and Kara, but I shouldn’t have lumped you in with Lex. You and Kara… it’s not the same thing. I just wanted you to know that I know that.”

Lena didn’t realize how badly she needed to hear that until she did. “Thank you, Andrea.”

“You’re welcome.” Before she left, Andrea tossed out one last rejoinder. “But I’m going to be fucking pissed if you two break up in like two weeks like everybody else in the franchise. This better be worth it.”

***

In the early morning, Lena woke Kara with a delicate touch on her bare shoulder. Grumbling, Kara stirred and turned over in bed to lie face up, sprawled across the bed; the thin sheet covering her naked body twisted and bunched up to uncover one leg.

“No,” Kara whined.

“I’m afraid so.” Reflexively, Lena placed her hand upon Kara’s bare thigh, caressing the smooth skin there. “Time to get up and get ready.”

“Don’t wanna.”

“You’ll have a fun day today. You’re taking a day trip to Hobbiton with Mon-El today. Don’t you want to visit the Shire? I hear the hobbit holes are really cute.”

Kara grabbed the pillow next to her - Lena’s, actually - and covered her face with it. “I don’t wanna go. It’s too early. And you’re not even going to be around today to keep me company.”

For the second day in a row, now with Andrea’s backing, Lena made excuses to not be on set. While the crew was off filming Kara and Mon-El’s date, she would be meeting Lex at the hotel’s cafe.

“Jack can entertain you. If you ask him, he’ll reenact all three Lord of the Rings movies for you.” Actually, there was a good chance that Jack was going to do that even if he wasn’t asked. He had pushed really, really hard for Hobbiton to be a date activity.

Kara pulled the pillow away from her face. “Lena, I’m tired.”

“Well, you can sleep in the car. It’s a long ride.”

“No, I mean… of the whole thing. Traveling the world and seeing new things everyday sounds nice in theory, but now I’m… tired of it?” Kara sat up, taking Lena’s hand in hers. “I know how that sounds, but I really just want to get back to my normal life, but with you in it. I don’t want any more helicopter rides and cocktail parties. I want to get up in the morning and go to work and text you funny memes during the day. I want to meet up with you after work and just unwind with a drink at our favorite bar. I want to cuddle with you on the couch and watch trashy TV- or even boring documentaries if you want. I want to fold our laundry while you do the dishes. I want to do perfectly ordinary, mundane things with you.”

There was such a thing as having too much of a good thing. After nearly ten straight weeks of none-stop adventures, most people would be ready for a break.

“Just a few more days, darling,” Lena said assuringly. “It’ll all be over soon. After the final rose ceremony, we’ll have some downtime together. I promise I’ll do my best to bore you to death.”

“I could never be bored with you.”

“You say that now, but we’ve never been together in the real world,” Lena reminded her, revealing a point of insecurity for herself. She knew, better than anyone, that relationships that were perfect in the Bachelor bubble did not fare as well out in the real world, with its normal stressors and problems.

“Well, I look forward to proving you wrong,” Kara said confidently. “We’re going to be fantastic together. Real world, fake world, upside down world, bizarro world, Wayne’s world, in all the worlds, we would be fantastic together.”

That was what Lena needed, for Kara’s bountiful, fearless optimism to extinguish her pessimistic doubts and insecurities.

She looked down at their interlocked hands. “So. Our laundry?”

“Yeah, our laundry,” Kara confirmed, unembarrassed. “I mean, maybe not this month or this year or even next year, but one day. Some day. Your stuff, my stuff, it’s all going to be our stuff one day.”

Lena hummed. “Well, that’s a sudden turnabout. What happened to ‘I don’t want to pressure you into a relationship’?”

“That was before I knew that you loved me back. I still don’t want to pressure you into anything. I just wanted to let you know where I stand and where I see us going. But I won’t talk about it if it makes you uncomfortable.”

With great affection, Lena brushed a strand of hair away from Kara’s face. “It doesn’t make me uncomfortable.”

“Okay then,” Kara said with a wide grin. “So, I’ll just be here, waiting for the day we share laundry.”

***

In the sparsely populated hotel cafe, Lex sat across the table from Lena, in the same spot they had occupied last time, sipping on his coffee. “This hotel’s coffee is really growing on me.”

His pleasantries, as always, were just a game, one that Lena did not want to play. “We can’t give you Brainy’s footage.”

Lex looked extremely pleased to hear that. “Can’t? That must mean there’s some good stuff on there.”

“What do you want, Lex? More money? If you have problems with the valuation of your shares, I can help you talk to the accountants.”

That was not the right thing to say. Lex tensed, his hands balling into fists, flipping from jovial to menacing in an instant. “I don’t need your fucking help. I want what’s mine. I am still a part owner of this company, and I have a right to oversee my investments.”

Lena studied her brother carefully, wondering if there was any part of him that she still recognized. Surely, her big brother was still in there somewhere. She just had to say the right words to find him.

“Lex, please. Do not go down this road. It won’t do you any good. You’ll just end up hurting people.”

Lex blinked at her slowly in surprise. “At the risk of sounding boorish, well, duh. Of course I want to hurt people. Was I not clear about that? I thought I was pretty clear. That’s exactly why I’m doing this.”

“And that includes me?”

For a moment, he almost looked rueful. But only for a moment. “Well, you did betray me. I didn’t hear you coming to my defense. However, I forgave you for that a long time ago. That’s what big brothers do, right?” He smiled after her in a way that might have been intended to be caring. He didn’t pull it off. “No, Lena, I’m afraid you were just collateral damage.”

“So who do you want to hurt? Lillian? The show?”

“Why not? You, of all people, know how toxic the show is.” He leaned forward then, his demeanor excited and conspiratorial. “You and Andrea have been trying to fix it for years, but it hasn’t worked. You should be helping me, Lena. Together, we can burn it to the ground. We can build something better.”

Incredulously, she shot back, “It hasn’t worked because you and Lillian made sure it hasn’t. It’s just a stupid show, it’s not a thing with feelings and a life. The people who work on the show are and that’s who you’d be hurting.”

“But that’s a wonderful bit of irony, isn’t it? What comes around goes around? The show spent years giving contestants villain edits, exploiting people, showcasing them at their worst. Now the crew gets a taste of their own medicine,” he said triumphantly. “It’s genius, really.”

“You are so full of shit. If that were the case, it’s you who should be getting a taste. You were the showrunner, you made all the calls.”

Lex was, of course, unconcerned about the hypocrisy. “Eh, win some, lose some, you know how it goes. Anyway, are we done catching up? Because I have a spa appointment.”

Lena could not just give up. “Lex…”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, will you stop? You’re starting to bore me.” Lex sighed, putting on an imitation of what he thinks concern is supposed to look like. “Hey, I get it. You care. And yes, things are going to be awful for whoever misbehaved behind the scenes. I can’t even begin to imagine how our target audience is going to hate Kara Danvers. Leading on a nice, all-American boy like Mon-El while fucking her female producer on the down low? That’s not going to go over well. We both know she’s in for a world of shit. I get that you want to protect your… whatever she is, but you know what?” He shrugged carelessly. “That’s life, little sister.”

Lex rose to his feet, digging a hundred dollar bill out of his pocket and tossing it on the table. “But, hey, coffee’s on me, okay?”

As he began to move away, Lena made her move, hand darting to seize Lex by the wrist, stopping him. She still had one last card to play.

“Let’s make a deal then,” she said. “Because I have something that you want.”

***

They had a day off before the last stretch of filming: a date with each suitor, then the final rose ceremony. In just three days, all this would be over.

At Jack and Briany’s insistence, they visited the Museum of Transport and Technology. Normally, museums of any kind would have received Lena’s full-hearted endorsement. This time, she came along as a concession and not a willing participant. She was more in the mood for sulking with a glass of a whiskey, rather than watching Jack and Brainy cavort about with other children. But Kara wanted her there. And she could not say no to Kara.

“Are you all right?” Kara now asked. Lena had been lost in thought, staring vacantly at Jack and Brainy, who were attempting to climb onto the front of a green tram.

“I’m fine,” lied Lena with practiced confidence.

But this was Kara, who scrutinized her carefully with a discerning eye, seeing through the pretense. “Lena. You know you can tell me anything, right?”

With Kara looking at her like that, eyes wide and trusting, Lena found it difficult to resist the urge to give in. Tell her everything. But still, there was the desire to shield Kara from harm and guilt. At least until this was all over, and they were so close to the end now.

She settled on a compromise. She nodded toward Brainy and Jack, hanging out the door of the green tram like misbehaving school children.

“Do you know the trolley problem?”

“Um, like the thought experiment? The one where you have a trolley heading for five workers on a track, and you can push a button to make the trolley change tracks but then it’ll kill one person on that other track?”

“Right. When asked, most people would push the button. As a hypothetical, anyone can be a utilitarian and favor the greater good. There’s about a million variations of the trolley problem. There’s the so-called fat man variation. When the question is what if you could push one fat man onto the tracks to save the life of five, most people would say no. So for these people, it’s acceptable to sacrifice one person to save five, as long as the required action is to push a button instead of pushing a person.”

“That just seems like common sense. Nobody wants to be a murderer. Pushing a person is more personal than a button.”

Lena hummed in assent. “But then there’s the fat villain variation. If that one fat man was responsible for tying those five people to the tracks, most people then go back to thinking that it’s okay to push one person.”

“I guess it’s seen as justifiable then. I mean, personally, villain or not, I’d find a way to save everyone.”

Lena could not help turning to Kara with admiration. If they were not in public, she’d be expressing that admiration in more intimate ways. “Of course you would. But that’s not the point.”

“What is?”

“Defining individual moral limits. See, if you agree that the fat villain should be pushed, then the question becomes, what if you’re uncertain of his villainy? What if he was forced to be a villain or what if he could be redeemed? How villainous does he have to be before you decide that it’s okay to push him?”

“Well, then, in that case, I’d say that if anyone has to be pushed into the tracks, I’d say it’s the person who’s coming up with all these variations,” Kara replied facetiously. “Otherwise it doesn’t end, does it?”

Lena sounded an interested hum, turning over Kara’s words in her mind. “That’s true.”

“Is this about Lex?”

Kara was worrying at her bottom lip, her demeanor nervous and troubled. Lena could feel something bubbling up from within, the urge to spill everything to the one person she most wanted to confide in. Although they were in public, Lena chose to be brazen, taking a hold of Kara’s hand.

“Yes, but I can’t talk about it right now. But soon.”

That did nothing to erase Kara’s worry, but with a reluctant nod, she said, “I understand.”

***

Although Lena had told the network that they didn’t need Maxwell Lord to host the show, the truth was that having a warm body to nod along sympathetically and sprout trite platitudes was a useful device to show the lead being prodded along without showing a producer on screen. But they no longer had Maxwell. But they did have Clark Kent.

While the rest of Kara’s family returned home after their visit with the suitors, Clark remained behind in New Zealand. He stepped in as the host stand-in, hanging around to offer Kara a sympathetic ear. From what Lena had heard, Clark had done a stellar job, which was unsurprising, given his existing rapport with Kara. Lena had missed Clark’s first appearances over the last two dates, having been otherwise preoccupied by Lex’s shenanigans, but today, she was on set for Kara’s date with Mon-El.

It happened quite by accident. She was looking for Jack and stepped into one of the crew trailers which was frequently used as a makeshift mess hall. The trailer was empty save for one person. That was Clark Kent, sitting at one of the tables, having a bowl of the soup of the day. Split pea soup. For some reason, she found the sight faintly ridiculous. Or maybe it was just the fact that she instantly felt a little awkward in his presence, also for reasons she could not articulate.

“Oh. Hi, Clark. Have you seen Jack around?”

“I’m afraid not, Ms. Luthor.”

It occurred to Lena that perhaps this was the root of her discomfort. She had expected small town, farmer boy, meat-and-potatoes Clark Kent to be folksy and amiable, like she had remembered him from his season, but instead he treated her with polite, distant formality, like an alien ambassador attempting to decipher earth customs.

Still, she tried to set him at ease. If only for Kara’s sake. “Please, call me Lena.”

“Okay, Lena,” he said, in a tone that still sounded stiff to her ears.

“Are you enjoying your time on set?”

“Yes. It’s been a long time, but it’s coming back to me. It’s like riding a bicycle.”

“That’s good to hear.” Already, she was running out of things to say. That wasn’t good. At this point, she was planning a future with Kara. Vacations. Holidays. Thanksgiving. Christmas. How was she to get through any of those things if she couldn’t even hold a conversation with Clark? “Ah, well… Please let me know if there’s anything I can do for you.”

She was turning to go when she heard him call her back.

“Lena,” Clark said. “Did you know that your brother and I used to be friends?”

“I did. Although I’m not sure why the two of you stopped being friends.” Although, not-so-secretly, Lena would have accepted ‘Because your brother is an unbelievable douchebag’ as a perfectly valid answer.

“That’s not important right now, but I will just say that… things were ugly for a bit. There’s still some animosity there, and I think…” Clark hesitated. “What I mean to say is, I think I may have let my relationship with Lex cloud my judgment of you. If you sense awkwardness, please understand that it is my fault and not yours. I hope that we will get to know each other better one day. Maybe after the show, away from this environment.”

Lena had to admit that it thrilled her to hear Clark say that. Lena was not one who needed another person’s approval. But Clark’s opinion mattered because he mattered to Kara and Kara was all that mattered to her.

“I’d like that.”

***

Next day, Kara had a date with James, visiting a vineyard on Waiheke Island. During the ferry ride over, Sam realized that her contestant was nowhere in sight. Lena offered to go look, and left Sam with Kara at the front of the bow. James wasn’t hard to find; it wasn’t a very big boat. She found him on the top deck, deserted because of the windy day. He was leaning against the rails, gazing down at Sam and Kara below.

“James. What are you doing up here?” She had to raise her voice to make herself heard over the whipping of the wind.

“Just getting some air.”

“Yeah, there’s definitely that up here.” She leaned on the rail next to him, adopting his posture, resting her forearms on the rail. “You okay?”

James had been, and in fact remained, her favorite contestant. In the beginning, she thought that he had been so right for Kara, a pair of gentle, optimistic, beautiful, do-gooder journalists. Maybe he was still right for Kara. Some part of Lena believed, and maybe would always believe, that Kara deserved better than her. But Kara wanted her, and even there were limits to Lena’s penchant for self-sabotage.

“I’m good. Just tired.”

Kara was not the only cast member exhausted by this point. Lena nodded in sympathy. "I understand. I’m sorry you’re feeling tired. This is a long, difficult process.”

With a knowing grin, James corrected, “Journey.”

Lena laughed, feeling fondness for him. “You’ve got me.”

Down below, Kara was now craning her neck to see where Lena was. When she spotted the brunette on the top deck, she flashed a wide grin and waved, then turned her attention back to her conversation with Sam. Lena had waved back, but still wore an ear-splitting grin after Kara turned away.

James was watching her. “She’s very special, isn’t she?”

“Hmm,” Lena concurred distractedly, still staring down at the shapely figure of her lover.

“I don’t have a shovel speech, nor is it my place to give one. But I really like Kara and I would just want to make sure that she’s going to be well-treated.”

Surprised, Lena turned to face him. There, she saw recognition and acceptance. She expected reproach, but found none.

Nevertheless, she was flooded with guilt. “James, I-”

“It’s okay,” he broke in with a genial tone. “It really is. I’ve known for a while now that it wouldn’t be me. I knew the odds when I signed up. It turned out I had more competition than I’d originally thought, but that’s okay.”

“But you’re still here? Even though you know it isn’t you?” Lena frowned in confusion. “Are you going to propose anyway?”

“Sure. It’s expected, right?” James shrugged. “Hey, I’ve gotten to travel the world and make some amazing friends. I think a rejected proposal is a fair trade-off.”

“Wow. Okay.” This was probably the easiest rejection that Lena had ever seen. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry about how things turned out.”

James smiled, genuine and friendly. “Yeah, but you’re not really that sorry.”

Lena found herself chuckling, infected by his good humor. “I suppose not.” She paused, then said, “Look, um, I don’t know if I’ll be able to make it happen, but we might be able to to-”

“Make me the Bachelor?” James shook his head. “Sam said that you’d been advocating for me. I appreciate that, I do. And don’t get me wrong, I love that you’re trying to diversify and I’m a hundred percent behind that. I look forward to having a person of color as the lead one day. Just not me.”

That was a surprise. By Lena’s count, at least 90% of contestants came on the show with a view toward having a shot at becoming the next lead. Not only did the show pay well, but the subsequent influencer money from ads and sponsorships was often enough for someone to quit their boring day jobs.

“But why not?”

“First black Bachelor?” James grimaced. “Being the first anything is a heavy mantle. People attach all sorts of expectations to the role. I don’t want to be the spokesman for the black experience on The Bachelor. I’d have to be perfect and I’m just not. I don’t think I’m prepared for the scrutiny. Besides.” He nodded at Kara below. “I really did sign up for Kara. I thought she seemed special. I’d go through this experience for her, but not for thirty random women I know nothing about. I think I’d rather take my chances out there.”

“Right. I can understand that.” Lena felt a little dumbstruck at the thought. All this time, she had been pushing for James, but she had never asked herself whether James even wanted to be the lead. Although in fairness, it was very unusual to come across a contestant who didn’t. At least Lillian will be happy. It was all clear for Mon-El to be the Bachelor.

“Anyway. We just have to get through a couple more days.”

“Right,” Lena agreed, looking at Kara in the distance, heart thrumming at the thought of what the future held for them.

***

On their last day off before the final rose ceremony, Lena went day drinking with Jack and Kara. Brainy and Nia had begged off to spend the day alone, and Sam had stayed behind in the hotel to FaceTime with her daughter. When it was her turn, Lena went to the bar to fetch the latest round of drinks. When she got back to the table, she found Jack and Kara whispering conspiratorially to each other.

As she set the tray of drinks down, she asked, “What’s going on here?”

Kara, who’s already had quite a bit to drink, answered uninhibitedly, “Oh, we’re just discussing how often we think about you naked.”

Lena blinked. “Excuse me?” She wasn’t sure what the appropriate response was here. “Why is that a topic of discussion?”

“Dunno,” Kara shrugged. “It just came up.”

“She brought it up,” Jack said hastily, himself deeply inebriated as well.

“Well, you asked me what I was thinking! I was just being honest,” Kara said indignantly. “Lena, I think about you naked, like, all the time. Like, it’s really distracting. I’ll be on a date and Mon-El will be telling me a sad story about his childhood puppy or something and my mind will be like, bup bup bup, Lena, naked, bed, naked, Lena, naked, Lena.”

“Uh.” Lena moved Kara’s beer away from her. “I think maybe you’ve had enough.”

“For the record,” Jack said. “I never think about you naked.”

Kara snorted. “Liar.”

“It’s true!” Jack insisted. “Okay, maybe, like once or twice a year, when I’m by myself and I can’t get to, you know, it. But I think a lot of crazy things when I’m in the moment. One time, I thought about Margaret Thatcher in leather chaps.” He grabbed at his beer before Lena could take it away from him, and muttered lowly, “It was surprisingly effective.”

Lena made a face. “I really do not need to hear about this.”

“I normally don’t think of you sexually. I swear,” Jack held up his hand in promise. “I mean it. Honestly, it doesn’t do much for me. I mean, the sex just wasn’t very good.”

Kara gasped indignantly in abject horror, nearly falling out of her chair in the process. “You take that back! How dare you?! Lena is amazing in bed!”

“I’m sorry! It wasn’t for me! It’s hard to enjoy yourself when like, your partner just isn’t very into it, you know?” To Lena, he said apologetically, “I’m sorry, babe. You’re obviously very beautiful, but good times were not had. You’re like sexual fondant for me. I love you, but I didn’t enjoy having sex with you. I’m sorry. Do you hate me?”

“Uh... no.” She patted Jack on the top of his head, mussing his hair. “That’s perfectly fine, Jack.”

Kara’s face was contorted, like she couldn’t make up her mind whether to be offended or pleased at Jack’s lack of desire to sleep with Lena.

Finally, she settled for defending Lena’s honor. Or what she thought was defending Lena’s honor in her drunken state. “Well, for your information, Lena Luthor is positively, amazingly, absolutely goddamn incredible at sex. She’s like a gold medalist in cunnilingus!”

Jack burst into a fit of high-pitched giggles. “You said cunning-li, ah, cunni-gus, um cun-nil… oh, well, whatever, that’s a funny word.”

Drily, Lena remarked to Kara, “Say it louder, darling, I don’t think they heard you in Australia.” When it looked like Kara was about to take her seriously, she patted Kara’s shoulder to stop her. “No, no, sweetheart, that’s enough. I think it’s time you had a rest. Let’s go back to the hotel.”

Jack, still giggling maniacally, said, “I bet you’re just going back to do the rumpy pumpy. I’m on to your secret sex codes.”

While Kara mumbled and put her head down on the table, Lena turned to Jack.

“Speaking of secret trysts, how’s Sam?”

Jack instantly stopped laughing. “You know about that?”

“Brainy showed me what he’d filmed. He caught you two kissing.”

Jack cringed at the memory. “Oh. Uh. Yeah. That happened.”

Finally, the shoe was on the other foot. Now she could tease Jack about his adventures. “So? Are you going to tell me what happened?”

“Well, we’ve been texting since the season started. Nice texts. Fun texts.” He paused, then added, “If you must know, we’ve been sending each other erotic poetry. There’s often a role-playing element. I, Percy Shelley; she, Mary.”

Lena truly did not know what to do with that information. “I… don’t think I needed to know that.”

Jack shrugged lazily. “Anyway, it was nice over text, but it apparently didn’t translate to real life.”

“Is that what you were hiding all this time? Why the big secret?”

“Oh, Sam didn’t want me to tell anyone. I think she was embarrassed.” Jack sniffed haughtily. “She must have been worried that people might gossip. Say that I’m too hot for her.”

“Uh huh,” Lena deadpanned. “I’m sure that’s it.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” Jack said guiltily.

She laughed easily, touching her hand to his arm. “Jack, please. You don’t have to tell me everything, especially not about your sex life.” She frowned. “Or… whatever it was you were doing.”

“Erotic role-play poetry,” he supplied helpfully.

“Okay.” She deeply regretted asking about this. “Can we go back to the hotel now?”

“Yup, Yup.” Jack got up. The two of them then helped Kara to her feet, flanking the blonde as they collectively stumbled out. Over Kara’s head, Jack asked Lena, “You’re really not mad at me? I know you’ve got like this thing about lying.”

She rolled her eyes at him. “Don’t be absurd, Jack. It’s not lying to have boundaries in friendship.”

“Oh,” he replied quizzically, possibly because the concept of boundaries in friendship was foreign to him.

“Jack,” she reassured him. “You have my full permission to always lie to me about your erotic poetry.”

“Erotic role-play poetry,” he corrected.

“Especially that. In fact, please always lie to me about that.”

“I make no promises.”

***

The text came in the evening, while Andrea and Lena were in the conference room, looking at the dailies. Andrea had asked Lena a question and, receiving no response, turned around to look at her and found that Lena was staring intently at her phone.

Andrea could guess what that was about. “Lex?”

Lena nodded. “He wants to meet tomorrow.”

“On the day of our final rose ceremony. Of course he does. Your brother is incredibly theatrical.”

“Might as well wrap up everything in one day.” Lena set her phone down on the table before her, sighing lightly as she stared at the device apprehensively. “One more day and it’ll all be done.”

Andrea observed her curiously. “Are you getting cold feet?”

“No,” Lena said steadily. “Getting cold feet implies that I was comfortable with it to begin with, but I wasn’t and I’m not now. I’m not sure that it’s the right thing to do. I feel like I’m making a deal with the devil.”

“This is Lex we’re talking about. Devil’s not too far off,” Andrea quipped. “Would you feel better if I tell you again that you don’t have a choice?”

“Maybe.”

“You don’t have a choice,” Andrea told her.

Lena considered how that made her feel. “No, that didn’t make me feel better.”

“That’s too bad,” Andrea said flippantly. “But you don’t have a choice. So tomorrow, meet Lex, give him what he wants, and end it.”

Andrea turned back to her work, the conversation finished as far as she was concerned. Lena stared off into space, dreading what tomorrow will bring.

 

Chapter Text

Caught in the riptide
I was searching for the truth
There was a reason
I collided into you
Calling your name in the midnight hour
Reaching for you from the endless dream
So many miles between us now
But you are always here with me

“Here With Me” by Susie Suh and Robot Koch

 

 

On the day of the final rose ceremony, the crew headed to the cliffside location they had picked out for the big day. Lena stayed back at the hotel, where she now paced the living room of her suite, waiting for Lex.

He was punctual. As always. When she opened the door, he strolled in and handed her a thin document that had been folded up into thirds.

“As promised. Copy for you. My team’s sending the original by courier to HQ. Should be there already, or soon.”

He started to head into the room, but she stopped him with an outstretched palm. “Where’s your phone?”

He scoffed in disbelief. “Are you serious?”

“I think we could both use a little reassurance that there won’t be any more recordings. Here, I’m leaving mine here.” Lena took out her cellphone from her pocket, held it up for him to see, then set it down on a shelf by the entrance door.

Lex shrugged indifferently. “Fine by me.”

He dug out his cellphone and handed it over. He moved into the living room and went straight to the minibar, where he started fixing up two drinks. Lena set his cellphone down and looked over the document he had handed over. It was a copy of the sales agreement for his shares of LuthorMedia, signed and notarized.

She followed Lex into the living room. “If you don’t mind, I’ll just wait for confirmation. Our lawyers have instructions to call the room when it’s all done.”

“Ouch, Lena. Where’s the trust?” Chuckling, he handed her a glass of whiskey. “I’m just kidding, I know you can’t trust me.” Lex sat down on the couch, taking a generous gulp of his own drink. “While we wait, shall we chat? Tell me all about this girl you’ve been seeing.” She glared at him, letting him know that his humor was not appreciated. “Oh, come on. She could be my sister-in-law one day and you don’t want to talk about her?”

“I don’t want to talk about anything with you,” Lena answered shortly, taking a seat in the armchair facing Lex.

“Well, what else am I supposed to do? You took my phone and now you won’t even talk to me?” Lex tsked at her, shaking his head. “Where are your manners, Lena? You’re being a terrible hostess.”

She let out a heavy, drawn out sigh. “How about a game?” From underneath the coffee table, she retrieved a chess set. “One that we both would like to play?”

Lex mulled it over. It was evident that he preferred games involving psychological torture. But since Lena was giving him nothing, he acquiesced with a nod. They set up the board game. They started to play.

Years ago, when Lena was first brought into the Luthor household, one of the first things she did was play a game of chess with Lex. Somehow, at the tender age of four, Lena was able to beat her teenaged brother, who was no intellectual slouch. It seemed that Lena had lost her touch in the intervening years, because she quickly lost the game. Then another. And another.

After her third loss, while resetting the chess pieces, Lex said idly, “Sex with Kara Danvers must be mind-blowing, because you are playing like an utter brainless fool.”

Lena’s victory in the fourth game was swift and decisive. So was the fifth.

At the conclusion of the sixth game, she looked up from the board and coolly said, “Checkmate.”

Lex sat back in his seat, looking like he was on the verge of knocking the pieces right off the board. “I’m tired of this,” he said petulantly. He got up and helped himself to another drink. “Can’t we just talk and catch up?”

“Let’s just sit quietly. I’m sure the call will come any minute now.”

Lex made a noise of assent, came back and sat down, slowly sipping his drink. Silently, Lena started counting to herself.

She only reached eight before he cracked.

“So. How's everything going with you?” When she looked back at him with a blank expression, he added, “I’ve taken up the saxophone. Did I tell you that?” She continued to stare at him passively, unwilling to engage. He sighed, rolling his eyes. “Come on, I’m just trying to make conversation.”

Still, she remained stony. Lex tapped his fingers against the couch’s armrest. Irritation clouded his expression and his jaw tightened in a way that made Lena instinctively, defensively ball up her fists. But then the moment passed just as suddenly as it came, and Lex was smiling again.

“I’m learning Blue Bossa,” he said, leaning forward in his seat excitedly. “Do you remember how dad used to take us for a ride in the Rolls and he’d play us Joe Henderson and Art Blakey and Horace Silver? We’d eat ice cream in the back seat and make up silly lyrics to the songs? I remember that you had a whole song made up to Song for My Father and it was all about… what were they, those furry owl toys you had?”

She had not intended on engaging with him, but the nostalgic ache within her got the better of her. “Furbies,” she replied stiffly.

“Right, that’s it. Remember how when they first came out, dad got you all the different versions they had for Christmas? We had so much fun that winter break, taking all of them apart and seeing how they worked.”

“I seem to recall being traumatized one day when I came home and found that you’d skinned my Furbies.”

Lex waved his hand dismissively. “Okay, yes, you were a little upset at first. I made it up to you, didn’t I? I taught you all about infrared sensors that day. You loved it.”

And she had. Traumatic Furby flaying aside, she had fond memories of that time. That had been Lex. Terrifying and traumatizing, but then loving and reassuring to make up for what he did. Rinse and repeat. That was still Lex today.

“Of course,” Lex now said darkly. “Dad was extremely unhappy when he found out what happened. Nevermind that you dissected the toys with me. I got the brunt of the blame there, didn’t I?”

“I was six. You were fifteen. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that you were the more responsible party.”

“Like that mattered. Dad would’ve taken your side regardless.” Bitterness imbued his tone. “You were always his favorite.”

“And you were mine,” Lena returned sharply. “But I don’t even recognize you now. What happened to you?”

Lex laughed coldly. “I’m a Luthor, sis. It’s in our blood.”

“Neither Lillian nor dad ever did what you did. Do you genuinely not see what you’ve done? All those things you said in that video, you had an exact plan for how to prey on emotionally vulnerable women and intimidate them into silence. Don’t you see how wrong that is?”

Lex fixed a steady, studying gaze upon her, a look which soon turned pitying. “Oh, baby sis,” he sighed. “Do you really think dad was the saint you thought he was? Even you can’t be that naive. You think my ‘plan’ was vile? You disapprove of my behavior? Well, who do you think I learned it from?”

Lena’s jaw loosened in shock, she blinked rapidly as her mind whirled, attempting to come up with a logical way to reject what Lex was saying.

When he saw her reaction, Lex smiled. “Come on, this can’t be a surprise. I mean, you were his bastard child. And he only brought you home because your mother died and there was no one else to take you. Then he didn’t even bother to tell you that he was your biological father until he was dying. How could you possibly be surprised that Lionel Luthor used the show as a personal dating service?”

A memory intruded into Lena’s mind. She was a teenager, carelessly bursting into Lionel’s office. He was in front of his desk, standing close to a distraught, sobbing woman, a contestant from that season, his hands tightly gripping her shoulders. When he saw Lena, he dropped his hands, stepping away from the woman. “It’s okay, Lena. Ms. Kyle’s just having a bad day. Go wait for me in the lobby.

Lex said, “I should say personal fucking service, really. I don’t think you can call what he did dating.”

She remembered the time when she answered the house phone, in the days when people had landline phones in their house, only to be met with a woman’s hysterical screeching about Lionel being the devil’s spawn. Lillian swept in, took the phone from her and hung up. “A wannabe contestant who didn’t make the cut,” she had said. “Poor thing’s unhinged.

Lex said, “You think I’m bad? You have no idea what dad was like.”

One time, she was on set, observing an elimination. When the Bachelor eliminated a contestant, her face crumpled in shock and disbelief. Instead of saying goodbye to the Bachelor, the contestant fled the room and barreled towards the control room, where she banged on its door and screamed incoherently until security removed her.

Lex said, “At least I took no for an answer. I don’t think dad even knew how to spell the word.”

Lena remembered being on set. Mostly she recalled the cast and crew fawning over Lionel, telling her what a great and kind man he was. But now, she also remembered the occasional furtive, hateful stares, which hadn’t seemed all that odd. “You try to be a decent person,” Lionel had told her cheerfully. “But it’s just a fact of life that not everyone’s going to like you.

Lex said, “It’s kind of funny when you think about it though. If you had any doubts whether you were a true Luthor, this should settle that. You didn’t even know this was a thing, but you ended up fucking a cast member anyway, like me, like dad. It really is in our blood, isn’t it? Gosh, I feel so much closer to you now.”

“Enough,” Lena blurted out. She squeezed her eyes tightly, as if that would stave off the flooding memories, moments that were innocent enough up until five minutes ago.

Lex held up his hands in surrender. “Easy there,” he said, as if she was overreacting.

Shakily, she got to her feet and crossed the room to a desk on the far side. She opened its top drawer and retrieved Otis’s cellphone. She returned to Lex, stopping a few feet away, and tossed the cellphone into his lap.

“Here. Otis’s cellphone. Just take it and go.”

“Well, now, if you had just given this to me when I first came in here, we could’ve avoided an unpleasant conversation.” Lex tucked the cellphone into his suit pocket.

She expected him to go then, but he made no moves. “Well then?”

“Just finishing my drink,” he said, swirling the small amount of liquid he had left in his glass.

But Lena understood it for the pretext that it was. Some animals liked to play with their prey before the kill. And here it was.

Lex drained the last bit of whiskey in his glass and set it down on the coffee table. “You know, sis, how when I first came in here, I said that I know you can’t trust me?” He flashed an impish, fakely sheepish grin. “That’s because I might have been a little rash. See, I was angry that you had this thing over me.” He patted his jacket pocket where he had tucked away Otis’s cellphone. “A deal’s a deal and I’ve honored my word, I’ve sold my shares. But before I did that, I might have sent an email to Cat Grant telling her everything that’s been going on. You. Kara Danvers. I might have told her that it’s all on film if she’d care to see the proof, she just has to get it from Brainy.”

Lex rose to his feet, shrugging lightly. “Sorry if that blows things up for you. But I have to try and stay on good terms with Cat Grant, you know? We’re both going to be in the industry for a long time. Who knows? We may work together again someday, when all this unpleasantness is behind us. The nice thing about Hollywood is how forgiving it can be. And, you know, I have a lot of friends. You might have stopped me from getting access to Brainy’s footage, but I don’t need his footage to tell people what I know. I think an awful lot of people would be interested to hear about what you and Kara have been up to behind the scenes. Don’t you?”

He watched her closely, excitement in his eyes, a hint of a smile on his lips, eagerly waiting for her reaction.

As a tidal wave of emotions flooded her, Lena felt her eyes well and sting with tears.

With a sad, tender smile that held the last bit of affection she had for her brother, she said, “I know, Lex. I know you can’t be trusted. That’s why I had to make sure that everyone sees you for who you are.” She inhaled deeply, trying to dissolve the lump in her throat. “There’s no instruction for the lawyers to call the room. I already spoke to them this morning. Everything’s done. I just wanted to get you away from your phone for a while. I uploaded the video right before you came in and sent a link to the major media outlets. They say that a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes. So I just wanted to give the truth a head start.”

The smile on Lex’s face stiffened and waned. “You did what?”

His sister was lying. She had to be. Lena wasn’t capable of something like this. Betray the show, betray him. It was inconceivable. Despite his paranoia, Lex had never truly considered the possibility that Lena would - or could - do something like this. Despite everything he had done, all the hurt he had inflicted upon her, he had never thought her capable of hurting him. That wasn’t their dynamic. That wasn’t the way things were supposed to be.

“I can’t risk having you continue in this industry with your reputation intact. You don’t belong in a position of power. It might not be tomorrow or next month or next year, but one day, you’ll cross the line again and I’m going to be left wondering if I could’ve made a difference. If I let this go, I know I’ll regret it one day. You need to be put down and discredited. Even if it’s temporary, I had to try. There needed to be a record out there in the world of what you are.

“See, you’re my personal trolley problem, Lex. You’re an amorphous, ever-shifting moral quandary that’ll keep coming back, again and again. There is no end with you because you’ll never let that happen. You’ll never go quietly. You’ll never leave me or Kara or the show alone. The nuclear option is the only option with you.” She shrugged, meaning nonchalance but conveying sorrow more than anything else. “Sorry if that blows things up for you.”

Lex stared at her, a hard, hateful stare. He went to the entrance of the hotel room, where his phone still sat on a shelf. Examining it, he saw that Lena had put it on mute when she took it. He had missed dozens and dozens of calls, texts, and emails from his team. The story was out, spreading like wildfire. Maxwell Lord, the most recognizable face in the room, received the lion’s share of attention, but Lex certainly didn’t go unnoticed.

Scrolling with the notifications, Lex saw what Lena had done. A redacted version of the video was making its way across major social media platforms, which had bleeped out the names of the women Lex had referenced in the video. A handful of reputable news outlets had privately received the full video; their articles made references to the women without identifying them. This was the only solution Lena had been able to come up in the time she had. Maybe some of the women would thank her for bringing the truth to light, maybe they would curse her for dragging up old memories they’d prefer to stay buried. She didn’t know. So without having the time to contact everyone named in the video, she withheld their names from dissemination, but for the sake of authentication and preservation, sent the unredacted version to outlets she thought (hoped) would protect their privacy.

If Lex had caught this early enough, there was a chance he could’ve tampered reactions. Spin the story, put out a sympathetic narrative, maybe even convince a friend in the industry to release or engineer another story to overshadow this one. He was crafty and media-savvy enough to have a fighting chance of burying bad press. But having been in this room for hours, unaware of what was happening, it was now too late. The story had gained traction, and like a runaway train, and it would be difficult, if not impossible, to stop it now.

Lex clutched his phone tightly in his hands, staring down at his life falling apart before his eyes.

“Lena, what have you done?” he moaned. “You’ve killed me, do you know that? You’ve destroyed me.” He looked up at her, his eyes filled with confusion and rage. “And you’ve destroyed the show. Our family’s show. What do you think is going to happen now?”

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “You’re probably right. I don’t know that the show can move past this. I’ve spent so long trying to save the show, save our employees’ jobs, our company. This is the last thing I wanted to happen. But you’ve left me no choice. I can’t let you walk away from this. Maybe I would’ve made a different choice if I truly thought it would save our show and our crew, I don’t know. But let’s face it, you wouldn’t have stopped. You can’t stop. There’s too much hate and bitterness in you. It would’ve only been a matter of time before you came up with something else to hurt us.”

“Bullshit,” he said numbly. “You don’t care about me. You don’t care about the show. What mattered was Kara Danvers. You did this to protect her. You did this to discredit me and make sure that nobody believes me when I tell them what’s been happening behind the scenes this season. Because now it would seem like deflection on my part, isn’t it? It’ll look like I’m just trying to shift the blame.” He forced a dry, mirthless chuckle. “Well done, Lena. You’re every bit as ruthless as any Luthor.”

“I did it for everyone that you could come into contact with in the future, but you think what you want,” Lena answered, even as some small part of her admitted that he might have had a point about her motivations. She had many reasons to do this, but protecting Kara probably ranked higher than she would have liked to admit.

Lex, spiraling, hissed at her with venom, “Oh, Lena. You think Kara Danvers was worth it? You stupid, stupid, cuntstruck woman. You’ve been so, so blind. How did you not see? It was Kara. Kara Danvers is your leak. Her, Clark Kent, Perry White. They’ve been trying to take us down since day one. All this time, while you’ve been fighting to save your show, Kara’s been working against you, trying to destroy you, the show, us. And you’ve let her because you were too foolish and blind to see what was right in front of you.

“You think you did something good today? Well, the joke’s on you, Lena. It’s always been on you. Nobody’s ever loved you enough to be truthful with you. Not dad, not mom, not your precious Kara. Nobody but me, and now you’ve killed that too.”

Lena stared at him, unmoving. “I don’t believe you.”

“Of course you don’t, because you’re a damn fool.” Lex raised his phone, tapping away at the screen. “See for yourself then.” He pulled up a photo, and held up the phone for Lena to see. “There. That’s Kara Danvers, a week before she started filming, sitting with Clark and Perry White. Clark’s the one who wrote those articles about me on the Daily Spoiler, then he was too much of a coward to put his name on it. I knew he was up to something, so I had him followed and lo and behold, there he was with Perry White and our next Bachelorette. I could’ve prevented all this, you know, if Cat Grant or mom or you had bothered to treat me with any respect instead of exiling me.”

Lena took in the image before her, her mind unable to comprehend what she was seeing. There was Kara and Clark, sitting in a cafe, across the table from a man whose face she recognized from The Daily Spoiler website, Perry White. Another person sat beside Perry, figure obscured, but it looked like the four of them were deep in discussion. It didn’t make any sense. She had discussed the website with Kara before and Kara had never mentioned once that she knew Perry.

Insistently, stubbornly, hopelessly, she said, “That could be anything.”

“Ask her then.” Lex was calm now, looking at her pityingly. And that was so much worse than any tantrums he could throw. “She’s lied to you all this time. I don’t know, maybe she at least cares for you just a little, enough to stop lying now that she’s gotten what she wanted.” He shrugged. “I’m done. Congratulations, sis. You win. How does that feel?”

***

She found herself on the edge of a cliff.

She didn’t quite remember how she got there. She dimly recalled Lex leaving the room. Then she must have called for a car, because now she was here, standing in the vast expanse of a lush green field, the edge just a few feet away, dramatically dropping off in a steep slope which disappeared into dark blue waters. In the distance, she saw the platform that production had set up, a floral arch at its center. Cameras surrounded the platform, the crew adjusting lighting and microphones as they waited for the first contestant to arrive.

Then there was Kara, standing beneath the arch, looking as heart-stoppingly, breath-takingly beautiful as Lena had ever seen. She wore a cream colored gown, blonde hair cascading down upon her shoulders, a vision that Lena would have sworn that she’d dreamt up.

Kara beamed when she saw Lena, a smile which faded when she saw the expression on the brunette’s face. Lena stepped forward, onto the platform, ignoring the curious glances from the crew.

“Lena, what’s wrong?”

“Was it you?” The question came out as a desperate demand. “Tell me it wasn’t you.”

Kara froze, mouth silently moving as she searched for the words. And that response, that look of fear and distress to such a vague question, told Lena everything that she needed to know. And she felt something inside of her break and crumble.

A PA stepped forward. “Ms. Luthor, James is about to-”

“Leave us,” Lena said sharply, looking at no one but Kara. “Clear the set now.”

“But Ms. Luthor-”

“NOW!”

With bewildered, intimidated murmurs, all crew members in the vicinity abandoned their post and equipment, retreating en masse to the trailers in the distance.

Kara, still staring at Lena, stammered, “What- how did you-”

“Lex. He’s here. He wanted to get Brainy’s footage, but most of all, he wanted to torture me. And he did. I gave him Otis’s cellphone, but not before I uploaded the video and sent it out to the media. So now that’s out there. As you’ve wanted all along, right? Well, as his parting shot, Lex told me what you were up to, with Clark, with Perry White.”

Kara squeezed her eyes tightly shut, exhaling shakily. “Okay, Lena, listen-”

“You’ve lied to me. This entire time.” Even to her own ears, Lena’s voice sounded cold and foreign. “You’ve been working with Perry White, feeding him everything you’ve learned- everything that I’ve told you because I trusted you. I don’t even understand how you could have communicated with-” In Lena’s mind, a piece of puzzle snapped into place, something that now seemed patently obvious. Something that she should’ve seen long ago if she hadn’t been so blinded with love. “Nia. I wasn’t the first person you used her phone to call, was I?” She laughed hollowly. “You and Nia have made a damn fool of me. And who else? Who else knew? Brainy?”

“I don’t know,” Kara whispered. “I don’t think so. I never told him. I… I don’t think Nia did but I’ve never asked. W- we tried not to talk about it.”

Lena braced herself for the next one. “Jack?”

“No,” Kara said heatedly. “It was just me and Nia. I swear. And we- we didn’t mean to-”

“When I met your family,” Lena interrupted. “They all knew.”

Hesitantly, Kara nodded. “Well, yes, but-”

“So all their questions and interest in me, what was that? Trying to get more information out of me? Or was that just pity?”

Kara’s face twisted with anguish. “Lena, it wasn’t like that. Please, if you could just let me explain.”

Lena stood stock-still, afraid to move, afraid that a single movement would shatter her. Kara remained there, watching her carefully. “Lena?”

“You asked to explain. So, explain.”

“Oh. Um, for some reason I thought you were just going to storm off.” When Lena didn’t react, Kara hurriedly added, “Okay, look, before I came on, before I’d ever even met you, Clark told me about this woman from his season. He and his runner-up, they ran into each other a couple years back and she ended up telling him about all these things that Lex had done during their season. But she didn’t want anything to do with the show or Lex anymore and she didn’t want her name out there. So Clark started asking around and he started hearing all these stories about Lex but it was hard to get anybody to come forward. Eventually, he got a few of them to talk about it, but- you saw what happened, it wasn’t enough. People thought they were lying.

“So Clark asked me to keep an ear out for anything I might have picked up. So I did, at least in the beginning. I- it wasn’t the entire time. I stopped when things started happening between us. And Clark, he just- we just wanted to make sure that Lex couldn’t hurt anybody else. Lena, you and I, we were working towards the same thing. You wanted to stop Lex too. And I didn’t tell you because I wanted to protect you. It’s- you’re under contract, you have an NDA. I didn’t want to make you complicit in what I was doing. I just, I just wanted to protect you. I didn’t want you to violate your contract.”

“You didn’t want me to violate my contract? And sleeping with me was, what, for my health?”

“Well, the boost in serotonin would…” No, not the right response there. “That was… different. I, I don’t know. I didn’t think it would be so bad if people found out about us being together. But if Lillian or Cat Grant thought you were helping me leak stories to Perry, I thought- I don’t know, I thought it’d be much worse for you. And I swear, I was going to tell you everything as soon as the season was over- tomorrow, I was going to tell you tomorrow.”

“And where do you think that would’ve gotten us? What difference would that have made?”

“I- I don’t know! I thought maybe you’d understand. I mean, you did the same thing, didn’t you? You didn’t tell me that Lex was here- to protect me, didn’t you?”

“Don’t you dare,” Lena spat out. “That is not remotely the same thing and you know it. I never deceived you. I told you that there was something happening and I asked you to wait until I could explain. You didn’t give me that courtesy. You were happy to let me carry on in the dark, like a fucking idiot, like a fool.”

“That’s not what I was doing!” Kara cried in protest. “I never thought you were a fool. I wanted to tell you, so many times, I really did. But then… I don’t know, I ended up telling you about having feelings for you and you didn’t take that well but then you did and things were going so well for us and I just… I just didn’t want you to hate me. I know it was selfish, but I was scared and I- I didn’t want to lose you.”

“And because I’m a Luthor,” Lena said flatly. “It’s time to finally be honest, isn’t it? Admit it, you didn’t want to tell me because you didn’t trust me.”

“I- I- well, maybe a little in the very beginning, but that was very early on a- and obviously I misjudged you.”

“Well, which is it, Kara? You’ve given me three different reasons now. You were protecting me, you were afraid to lose me, you misjudged me. Make up your goddamn mind on which excuse you want to use.”

“There can be multiple reasons!” Kara cried in frustration, wringing her hands nervously. “It was complicated, okay? It was all of it. It- I just- I’m sorry, Lena. I had a lot of reasons for what I did, but none of it matters because I was wrong. I hurt you and I’m so, so sorry for that.”

Kara’s tears flowed freely now. She didn’t bother to wipe away the streaks down her cheek. There seemed to be little point in it when more was forthcoming.

Lena looked back at her with a plain, inscrutable expression. “Okay.”

“Okay?” Kara repeated in perplexion. “Okay, so- so where does that leave us?”

“Where that leaves us,” Lena responded evenly. “Is that there is no us. Not anymore.”

Kara’s face crumpled, looking like the earth had fallen out beneath her. “Don’t say that. Lena, please. I know I messed up, but w- we can work through this, I know we can.”

“You asked me for a chance to explain, and I did, but it doesn’t even matter. You can’t explain away broken trust or rationalize away a broken heart.” Lena’s vision of beautiful Kara blurred behind her tears. “Over and over, you asked me to trust you. You asked me to be brave and honest, and I shared with you things that I had never shared with anyone else. I told you how everyone in my life had deceived and betrayed me. You knew what this would do to me, but you still pushed and pushed and pushed.

“And that’s what really hurts the most. Maybe it’d be okay if you just lied, maybe it’d be okay if we were just producer-and-contestant, or even just friends. But that wasn’t all, was it? Even with all this, knowing what you were hiding, you came after me. You broke down my walls, you told me that you had feelings for me, you seduced me, told me that you loved me, and then, worst of all, you got me to say it back to you. And I- I told you how I didn’t want to say something I couldn’t take back, how I’d be all in, and I asked you to wait. But you, you didn’t, you convinced me that we could have a future together, but all this time, you were lying to me. You said it yourself, you were afraid to tell me because you knew how it would hurt me. You knew what would happen. I ask you, how can this possibly work without trust?”

Frantic now, Kara responded desperately, “It- it just can! I don’t know, we can talk things out. We can’t just quit on each other!”

“It’s not quitting when we were never playing by the same rules to begin with,” Lena answered coolly. “Our relationship was built on a lie- multiple ones, really. You know, the fact that you were able to deceive me for so long about something so big just highlights the fact that we don’t actually know each other very well. I’m sure there were signs, huge, glaring signs that I didn’t see or didn’t want to see. We met in a bubble. Anything could work in this environment. We don’t know each other, not really. I must have lost my mind to think that it was a good idea to risk everything for a stranger. And look where it’s gotten me.

“So I’m done, Kara. You…” Lena shook her head in defeat. “You can still get engaged to James or Mon-El or whoever, if you want to walk out of here with someone. But it’s not going to be me anymore.”

“Lena,” Kara choked out hoarsely. “Please. I love you.”

Lena looked back at her, sad and exhausted. “I don’t see why that matters.” She backed away from Kara. When Kara tried to follow, she stopped her with a shake of her head. “Please don’t. Please. Goodbye, Kara.”

Lena started for the trailers. Kara didn’t try to follow again.

As Lena neared the largest trailer, the mobile control room, she noticed that its door was open and that nearly all the crew members on site were crowded near the entrance. She soon saw why.

Through the open door of the trailer, she could see the monitors showing multiple camera feeds. All pointed at the platform, where Kara was now kneeling, her hands covering her face, shoulders heaving as she sobbed. The crew members were now turning to Lena, regarding her with shock, confusion, and curiosity. Lena should probably care about this, or maybe find it humiliating. But this didn’t seem to matter anymore either.

Andrea was inside the trailer, her headset around her neck, looking forlorn and disappointed, but not as angry as Lena would have expected.

Without a word or any acknowledgement to her crew, Lena moved on. She headed to the parking lot. She heard rapid footfalls behind her.

“Lena, wait.” Lena paused and turned to find Nia running after her. Nia came to a halt before her, looking very young and very anxious. “I’m so sorry you had to find out like that. We really didn’t mean to hurt you. We were just… we just wanted to help people.”

Dispassionately, Lena looked upon Nia with the detachment of a stranger. Nia squirmed and shifted around, unaccustomed to this aloofness from Lena.

Finally, Lena spoke, in a flat, even tone, “Nia, you’re fired.”

Without waiting for a response, Lena turned and walked away.

***

Lena was almost finished packing when the knock sounded at her hotel room door. With a pit in her stomach, she answered. She was relieved to see that it was only Jack on the other side. He looked flabbergasted and worried.

“What… the hell happened today?”

She let him into the room and went back to her packing, folding up her clothes and laying them in her suitcase.

“I released footage of my brother and Maxwell Lord behaving like the predatory, imbecilic misogynists that they are, thereby guaranteeing the show’s continuing involvement in scandal. I found out that Kara and Nia have been lying to me and leaking stories to Daily Spoiler all this time, so I broke up with Kara in front of the entire crew, then I fired Nia. I think that about sums it up.” She tucked away a pair of rolled up socks in a corner of her suitcase, shoving hard to make it fit. “Oh, and I had a poached egg with toast this morning. How’s your day going?”

“That’s very funny,” Jack said in a tone that indicated the exact opposite. “Can you stop packing for two seconds and talk to me?”

“Afraid not. I’ve got a car waiting to take me to the airport.” Lena tried to close her suitcase, only to find that it was overstuffed. How had she managed to fit everything in the first place? Then she remembered that Kara had helped her pack last time. She pushed the thought out of her mind.

Incredulous, Jack repeated after her as if he didn’t understand the meaning of the word. “Airport? Where are you going?”

Lena started pulling clothes out of her suitcase, stuffing them into a plastic bag. “I’m not sure yet. I’ll see what’s available when I get there.”

What?! Lena, what are you doing?” When she didn’t acknowledge him, he seized her hands, stilling her movements and forcing her to look at him. “Hey. Lena. Come on. Talk to me.”

She drew back. “I think I’ve talked enough.” She closed her suitcase, which closed smoothly now. Picking up the plastic bag haphazardly stuffed with excess clothing, she shoved it into Jack’s arms. “Please bring these back to the States for me if you have room. Toss them if you don’t.”

He dropped the bag onto the bed. “Lena, you’re not thinking clearly. You can’t just take off like this.”

“As a matter of fact, I can.” She hauled her suitcase off the bed, waving off Jack’s attempt to help. “Can you do something for me? Do you still have that friend at Legendary?”

“Um, yeah?”

“Can your friend find something for Nia there?”

He folded his arms across his chest, looking at her with puzzlement. “You know, if you wanted her to have a job, you could’ve just not fired her.”

“That really wasn’t an option, not after what she did. If I hadn’t, Lillian would have. Anyway, it doesn't even matter because I’m not sure that we’ll even have a show for long. Maybe it’s a blessing that Nia gets a head start on her job search. So can you help or not?”

Relenting, Jack nodded. “Yeah, yeah, of course. I’ll see what my friend can do.”

“Good. Ask Andrea for help if it doesn’t work out. She has plenty of contacts in the industry.”

“I could just ask you?” Jack asked hopefully.

“That reminds me.” From her purse, Lena pulled out her personal cellphone and work cellphone, handing them both over to Jack. “Hold on to these for me.”

Jack gaped at her. “Okay, babe, I think you’ve gone beyond the normal Luthor-level of insanity. What the fuck are you doing?”

“Moving on to greener pastures.”

Jack looked at her uncertainly. “Okay, but you’re not gonna…” He made a ghastly strangling noise as he mimed pulling at a noose.

Lena’s face twisted with horror. “Oh, god, no. Why would you say that?”

“Well, excuse me! You’re behaving erratically and giving your stuff away and talking about moving on to greener pastures. What am I supposed to think?”

“That I’m getting away from this toxic environment and I’m asking you to hold on to my phones so no one tries to call me.”

“Oh, right. Yes, that also makes sense.,” Jack murmured. “But I still think this is utter lunacy. Lena, come on, stay. Don’t leave like this.”

For a moment, she looked tempted. Jack swore that her grip on her suitcase loosened. But then the moment was gone.

“I can’t.” Stepping forward, she hugged him with one arm. He returned the embrace with both arms, as if a tighter hold would somehow convince her to stay. “I’m sorry. I have to go.”

When she broke away, he didn’t try to stop her. Inwardly, she thanked him for making it a little easier.

She took the elevator down to the ground floor. As she passed through the lobby of the hotel, she heard the concierge call out, “Oh, there she is. Ms. Luthor!”

Looking toward the concierge’s desk, Lena saw the concierge waving at her. A slim woman was at the desk, her back turned to Lena, but Lena could still tell that her wardrobe was immaculate and expensive. Lena approached in response to the concierge’s gesturing, and as she neared, the slim woman turned around.

“Ms. Luthor,” Cat Grant greeted.

“Ms. Grant.” Maybe Lena should be surprised. But after the day’s events, she was scraping the bottom of her emotional barrel. She didn’t even have it in her to feel surprised. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m here to see you. Congratulations, you’ve succeeded where the rest of your family have failed for so many years: you have my attention.” Cat Grant tossed one look over her shoulder, and the concierge hastily excused herself and scurried off. “I was on vacation with my family in Gold Coast when I received a disturbing email from Lex Luthor. Considering the source, that’s saying a lot. Then this morning, somehow a video of Lex and Maxwell filmed by a LuthorMedia employee was leaked and immediately I’m getting reports that you’ve been asking around about old cellphones. I thought that I’d come over and see just what the hell was going on, but as soon as I land, I’m getting reports of some salacious drama happening between you and Kara Danvers, all caught on film. So, Ms. Luthor, would you care to explain yourself?”

Lena thought about it. Tilting her head, she studied the woman before her, the fabled Cat Grant, one of the most powerful women in the industry.

“No,” she answered easily.

Cat’s eyes widened slightly in disbelief. “Excuse me?”

“There’s nothing to explain. Or, rather, there’s nothing that I care to explain at this point.”

Cat folded her arms and leaned against the concierge desk. “And why is that?”

“What would be the point? It’s too late for any of that.” Lena shrugged, this small gesture embodying with the defeat she felt. “You know, my mother has always felt that you never gave our family or the show its proper due, but I never agreed with her. I understood where you were coming from. It’s just trashy reality television, right? It’s cheap fodder for the lowest common denominator, so why bother to pay it any attention?

“But the lowest common denominator numbers tens of millions. Like it or not, the entertainment we produce has an influence. By burying your head in the sand, you allowed that influence to be wielded and molded by people like Morgan and Lillian and Lex. It exists in the form it does today because you’ve allowed it to. I can’t fault you for Lex’s behavior, that disgrace is his and his alone. But when the news broke, you chose to hand it off to Morgan Edge. If Andrea and I hadn’t stepped in, he would’ve dragged the victims’ names through the mud. Even after that, you chose not to get involved. You handed it off to someone else and let the decision be made to pay everyone off.

“So many things could have been different to avoid the outcome we have today. It didn’t have to happen like this if there had been the right oversight. But you didn’t care what Lex was doing. You didn’t care what Morgan was doing. Because it was all so beneath you. You were even going to dump the show as soon as the bad PR hit rather than try to look out for the crew who’ve all had a part in making you rich. And now, once the shit has really, truly hit the fan, when everything is finally irrevocably broken, you come in and now you ask for an explanation?

“Ms. Grant, you abdicated your responsibilities here a long time ago. So I don’t see any reason why I should explain myself to you now.”

From the glower on Cat Grant’s face, it was clear that she had not expected to be spoken to this way. It had perhaps been a very long time since anyone dared.

Visibly seething, Cat gritted out, “Ms. Luthor-”

“Don’t bother. I quit.”

Turning on her heels, Lena walked away from her boss. She was getting very good at that now.

***

Kara still hadn’t moved from the spot where she crumpled to her knees, immobilized in her grief. A couple PAs approached, but she steered them away with a mild shake of her head. Eventually, she felt a presence by her side. She shook her head, but the presence remained. So Kara sat, ignoring. She felt the presence drape something over her shoulders. A jacket. It was only then that Kara realized that she was cold.

When the presence refused to leave, Kara finally turned to see who it was, and was surprised to find Andrea Rojas sitting there, staring out at the calm waters beyond the cliff’s edge.

“What a beautiful spot,” Andrea said. “This is a wonderful place to get engaged.” When Kara said nothing, she added, “What a shame.”

“I guess I ruined the season.”

“Yes, you did,” answered Andrea plainly, making no attempts to soften the blow. “I might have credited you with ruining the show as well, but I think the Luthor siblings knocked you out of the running for that one.”

“I’m sorry.” If Kara sounded half-hearted, it wasn’t because she didn’t feel guilty, but she was rather preoccupied by her misery and remorse over Lena. It was difficult to self-flagellate further.

The two women continue sitting side by side in silence. Around them, the crew was starting to dismantle the set. There certainly would be no proposals today. It was unclear whether they still had a show.

“What happens now?” Kara asked after a long lull.

“I really don’t know. For once, this really is unprecedented. They’ll probably send us all home and see how things play out in the media before they decide what to do with us. But if I had to guess, we’re looking at cancellation.”

Kara didn’t think she should ask this next question, but knew that she had to anyway. “Do you know where Lena is?”

“Running, probably,” Andrea sighed. “Last time we had a fight, she moved across the country for five years, so after all this, it’s anyone’s guess where she is.”

Kara had been right. She shouldn’t have asked. A new wave of misery washed over her. As she felt the tears swarm once again, she bowed her head to hide, not that this fooled anyone, least of all Andrea.

Guilted and backpedaling, Andrea said, “Hey, I was joking. Sort of. There were a lot of reasons why Lena moved away back then. That doesn’t mean that’s what she’s doing now. But Lena… she has a lot of amazing qualities, but one not-so-amazing quality is that when she’s hurt, she lashes out. Most of us would just drink a bottle of wine and cry ourselves to sleep, maybe scream about it a bit. Lena? She either runs away or silently plots against you. So maybe you should consider yourself lucky that she’s just running away. She’s hurting right now and she needs time to heal, but she’ll be back.”

“But will she forgive me?” Kara whispered, as if she didn’t really want to know the answer.

“I don’t know. Eventually, maybe. Given enough time,” Andrea answered truthfully. “I really can’t say for sure. What I do know is that… either way, for you, it’ll hurt less eventually. I know that doesn’t feel true right now, but it is.”

With the back of her hands, Kara wiped away at the tears on her cheeks. “Why are you being so nice to me?”

“Because someone needs to be. Don’t get me wrong, I’m also very angry at you. Tomorrow, I’m going to scream at you for at least an hour for everything you’ve done this season. And at some point, you’re going to be in a world of pain when Lillian and Cat Grant figure out what to do with you for leaking everything. But today…” Andrea shrugged. “Well, you get a break today.”

Kara forced a hollow laugh. “Thanks for that.”

“Do you want to call Alex?”

Kara contemplated it. Then answered, “Not yet. I think I just want to feel bad for a while longer.”

Andrea nodded. “Yeah, I understand that.”

 

Chapter Text

Oh, I wanna say what I wanna say
Would it hurt if I tell the truth
Oh, is that so terrible
But I'm looking for love, love underneath
All of the words we choose to speak
I'm looking for love like on a silver screen
I wonder if love, love is looking for me

“Silver Screen” - JONES

 

 

 

Six Months Ago

“You’re on the what?”

“I’m on the shortlist to be the Bachelorette!” Kara jabbered excitedly into the phone. “They had me sign a contract to appear on the show and everything. It’s not like official official or anything. I think they still have two or three other contenders- well, you remember what it was like. But I think my chances are pretty good.” There was a lull and Kara thought that maybe the call had dropped. She pulled the phone away to look at the screen. Still connected. “Clark?”

She was pacing in the living room of her apartment. She had signed the contract that morning. This was apparently standard practice for the show, to vet and then sign contracts with a few finalists to lock in their schedules before making a final decision. Alex, who was still lounging on her couch, was the first one she told. Clark would be the second.

Finally, his voice came back on the line. “Why didn’t you tell me that you applied?”

“Well, I didn’t. They reached out to me. I didn’t really think I was in the running. But now, I guess I feel pretty optimistic about it. They don’t make you sign the contract unless they’re really serious, right?”

From the couch, her eyes glued to the television, Alex hollered, “Clark, for what it’s worth, I told her that it was a dumb idea.”

Kara shushed her sister. “They would be paying me so much money just for doing this for ten weeks! I- I can pay off my student loans and maybe even take care of what’s left on Eliza’s mortgage.”

Clark said, “But Kara, it isn’t just ten weeks. You know that right? You’ll have a year’s worth of press engagements. Then the media attention - that’s for life. I still get recognized on the street and it’s been ten years since my season.”

“It’ll be worth it,” insisted Kara. “You know how hard it is to make a living in journalism. Isn’t it nice to know that you can just make a post promoting some musical festival and be able to pay rent that month? And, well, besides…”

“What?” Clark prodded.

Still from the same spot, Alex shouted across the room, “She thinks she’s going to meet her Prince Charming and live happily ever after!”

“Alex!” Kara whined at her sister for her betrayal of their sisterly secrets.

Alex stretched her arm over the back of the couch. “Here, give me the phone.”

Even though Alex was a good six feet away, Kara still protectively clutched the phone against her chest. “No! I’m talking to Clark.”

“I have things to say to him too!”

“He’s my cousin!”

“Oh, sure, now he’s your cousin. But when Christmas comes around, suddenly he’s ‘my family too’ and I have to chip in for the fifty presents you buy him.”

“He chips in for your presents too!”

The phone emitted a faint, tinny call, “Um, Kara? Kara? You there?”

Kara returned the phone to her ear. “Sorry, I’m here.”

“Kara, you know that Lois and I were the exception and not the norm, right? You have just as good a chance of meeting some random guy in a bar than to find someone on the show. Better, even.”

“Maybe? I don’t know! But if some show wants to pay me an exorbitant amount of money to send me on exotic dates around the world with a bunch of attractive men, I don’t see why that’s so bad.”

Clark fell silent once again. Kara didn’t know what to make of it. From what she had heard from him over the years, she knew Clark had enjoyed his time on the show. She had expected more support from him.

“Okay,” Clark finally said. “Well, I guess I wish you luck then.”

***

Five Months Ago

“Did you see the article I sent you?”

Sandwiching her phone between her shoulder and ear, Kara continued making her breakfast, cracking eggs into a frying pan, as she talked to Clark.

“Um, the one on The Daily Spoiler? I mean I wouldn't really call it an article, but yeah, I read it.”

“Why wouldn’t you call it an article?” Clark asked, a slight edge to his tone.

“I don’t know, it’s just some guy’s blog, right?”

“That doesn’t mean it can’t be thoroughly researched and well-written.”

“Eh.” Kara busied herself stirring her spatula in the pan, breaking up bits of egg.

“What’s wrong with it?” Clark sounded oddly offended. But, Kara supposed, Clark had always liked sticking up for the little guy.

“Well, I don’t know how ‘researched’ it is. It’s just quoting three completely anonymous sources, right? As for well-written… I mean, it’s okay. It was overly verbose for what it was, in my opinion. It’s way longer than it needed to be.”

The line went quiet. Kara was really starting to wonder whether her phone and Clark’s just somehow had a bad connection.

“Anyway,” Clark said crisply. “Let’s focus on the content. We have three women coming forward and accusing the showrunner of sexual harassment. Kara, this doesn’t sound like a safe environment for you to be in.”

“Isn’t he your friend?”

“No,” Clark responded, swiftly and coldly. “Even if he were, he wouldn’t be after this.”

“True.” Kara scooped her eggs out of the pan and onto her toast-laden plate. “Well, I already signed the contract. I don’t know that I can just back out. Anyway, I don’t think we have to worry about him. He’s not going to be around for this next season.”

“What are you talking about?”

“He’s been suspended from the show. I got a call from Lillian Luthor as soon as the story broke to assure me that he wouldn’t be around. I felt really bad for her, having to talk about her son like that. She sounds like a nice lady.”

Clark sighed heavily. “Oh, Kara.”

“Anyway, I have to get going. Can we talk later?”

“Sure, Kara. We’ll speak soon.”

***

Four Months Ago

“I’m the Bachelorette! They picked me!” Kara crowed over the phone to Clark. “Can you believe it? They just called. They’re going to announce soon.”

“I guess it’s official then,” Clark said, sounding oddly distant and soft-spoken.

“Any advice for me?”

Clark was quiet for a long moment. Finally, he replied, “Just follow your heart.”

Later, much later, after Lena was gone and Kara’s world was shattered, Kara would think back to this moment and wonder if she had heeded Clark’s words a little too well, because her heart wanted to protect, wanted to shield, and just plain wanted Lena. Ultimately, trying to fulfill her heart’s desires cost her the only thing she’d ever truly wanted.

***

Three Months Ago

Kara answered the door in fuzzy bunny slippers and a fluffy pink bathrobe, a spoonful of ice cream still dangling from her mouth. She nearly dropped the spoon when she saw who it was.

“Clark!” She enthusiastically greeted him with a warm hug. “You’re here! What are you doing in LA?”

“I came to see you.”

Kara scrunched up her nose in confusion. “Really?”

Clark inclined his head, silently asking for permission to come in. Kara let him in, leading him to the couch, where she plopped down and picked up the pint of ice cream she’d left on the coffee table. She held it out to Clark in offering, who shook his head.

“So what's going on? How come you didn’t say you were coming? Not that I’m complaining, you know I love seeing you, but I would’ve planned something if I’d known.”

“Do you remember the article about Lex Luthor I sent you a couple months back from Daily Spoiler?” When Kara nodded, he pointed at himself. “I wrote that.”

“What? Really?!” Suddenly, Kara recalled what she had said. “Oh, well, you know, now that I think of it, it was actually a really nice article. Not too wordy.”

Clark chuckled, waving off her concern. “Kara, relax, I’m not here to challenge the well-deserved critique. I came to ask for your help.”

“Sure, anything.”

“You might want to hear what it is first. But before that, I want to explain how I got involved in the first place. I think it’ll help you understand where I’m coming from.”

“Sure.” Kara set her ice cream aside and sat cross-legged on the couch, facing Clark. “Full attention.”

“Do you remember Lana Lang?”

“Uh…” The details came to Kara in pieces. “The woman from your season? Wasn’t she the runner up?”

“Right. Of course, Lois was the one for me from day one, but I liked Lana a lot. We lost touch over the years, but we ran into each other at a charity event a few years ago. Lois and I got to know Lana and her husband very well. About a year ago, Lana was over for dinner and she ended up telling us that she’d had a… relationship of sorts with Lex. It had started during the season. And the things she said… well, a lot of it just didn’t sound right.

“She told us about how Lex would wake her up in the middle of the night to film her ITMs and ply her with alcohol. He’d always find ways to make sure that they were alone, in situations she didn’t know how to get out of. He’d ‘joke’ to her about how much influence he had over edits, about what he could do for her with the right edit. After the show was over, he showed up at her house repeatedly, he sent extravagant gifts to her workplace, and asked her out over and over again until she gave in. It was a long time ago, and Lana was so young then, she thought that these were romantic gestures. She got involved with him for a short period. She tried to end it with him several times, but it didn’t take. He kept coming back, pleading for more chances, and she always gave in. It didn’t end until a new season started and Lex moved on to someone else. She told us these things as if they were supposed to be funny, but by the end of it, she was crying in Lois’s arms. I don’t think Lana even realized just how badly Lex had manipulated and damaged her.

“After that, I asked around a bit, and I found two other women who had stories to tell about Lex, but I know there are more out there. I think Lex’s been preying on contestants for years. I think Lana was early on and he was more brazen with her, but since then he’s learned to pick on women that he knows people won’t take seriously. The women I’ve spoken to don’t want their names out there. Neither does Lana. She’s married now, her husband has political ambitions, and to be honest, I think that on some level, Lana feels like because she eventually had a relationship with Lex, that she somehow doesn’t get to feel wronged by what he did to her. Of course that’s nonsense, but Lana has to accept that herself. I don’t think she’s in a place where she can handle the kind of attention that would come with coming forward.

“I got the women to let me publish their accounts anonymously, but that’s as far as I’ve gotten and it hasn’t worked as well as I’d hoped. I don’t think people really believe them. I get it. Like you said, they’re just anonymous accounts on some blog. Who’s going to believe it?”

Kara blinked slowly at her cousin, struggling to absorb all that he’d told her. “B- but… Lex is gone, right?”

Clark shook his head gravely. “Suspended, not gone. I know they’re just waiting for the story to die down before they put him back. We need more. And not just on Lex, but also the people who’ve turned a blind eye to this. Somebody on that set must have known what he was up to.”

“Okay, so… what do you need from me?”

“Just keep your ears open. As the lead, you’ll have a lot of influence and access on set. You might hear things that others won’t. Maybe there are rumors about other contestants or even a witness. Maybe you’ll find out the names of the people who’ve let Lex get away with this for years.”

“Oh, um, wow,” Kara said slowly, fiddling with her glasses nervously. “So I’d be like a spy?”

“No, Kara,” Clark replied, so serious and earnest that it was ridiculous. “You’d be a journalist.”

Kara nodded, staring off into the distance as she contemplated the logistics. “But I won’t have my cell, right? Aren’t they pretty strict about me contacting anyone?”

“We have someone who can help. Perry - that’s the guy who runs the site - he has an in with a PA on the show. Her name’s Nia. She’ll get you a line of communication to us.”

“Can’t this Nia get you what you need?”

“She’s too junior and she’s assigned to overnight duty. She won’t have as much exposure to the senior crew like you will.”

“Right.” Kara was already nodding, eager to agree. “Clark, of course I-”

“Kara, wait. I’d be remiss if I didn’t warn you of the consequences. You’ve already signed a stringent non-disclosure agreement. The show takes that NDA very seriously. This is a serious breach of your contract. Make no mistake, if anyone finds out what you’re doing, they will come after you.”

“Oh,” Kara answered numbly. Her contract had been the last thing on her mind.

“Kara, if it was up to me, you wouldn’t be going on the show at all. I was hoping my article would somehow halt filming, but it clearly didn’t. Maybe it would have more weight if I’d put my name on the article, but… well, I thought people would easily connect Lana to it if I’m associated. She doesn’t want to be linked and I have to respect that. Filming starts soon, and I know it’s too late to stop it. If you are going to be on the show… well, it’d just be nice if we can get some good out of it.”

“Of course,” Kara said readily, without a trace of hesitation. “Of course I’ll do it. Won’t be a problem at all.”

***

The week before Kara was due to show up on set to start filming, Clark arranged for a sit-down with her, Perry, and Nia at a little cafe downtown. Nia and Kara were the first two to arrive. While they waited for Clark and Perry, Kara paid for their coffees and chatted with Nia.

When the social preamble came to a natural conclusion, Nia said, “I… I’ve never done anything like this. Like… spy stuff?” Nia awkwardly fiddled with her paper cup, peeling at the cardboard sleeve. “I guess you’re used to this? You’re a journalist too, right? Like Clark?”

“I am, but I can’t say I’ve done something like this before. Most of what I do is harass people over the phone then type up what they say on a computer.” Seeing the pensive, nervous look on Nia’s face, Kara reassured, “Hey, it’s going to be fine. You don’t have to be that involved. You don’t have to know what’s going on. We won’t even talk about it. I’ll just use your phone from time to time. That’s all.”

Apprehensively, Nia nodded. “It’ll be fine?”

“Of course,” Kara said readily. “This’ll be easy. You’ll see.”

***

When Kara stepped out of the limo that night, she was a bundle of nervous energy. Not only over the prospect of appearing on national television or potentially meeting her spouse, but at the undercover role she was about to play. When she was getting out of the limo, she saw Nia coming forward with a helping hand. So Kara accepted Nia’s help climbing out of the car and introduced herself, as if they’d never met. Nia, not expecting the pretended introduction, stumbled a bit, and it earned them Snapper’s scolding, but Kara thought that only made it all the more convincing.

She could do this. She could be a double agent. It was even kind of exciting.

Then she saw her.

Lena Luthor, standing in the distance with the crew.

She had seen Lena’s photograph before, of course. She knew what the younger Luthor sibling looked like.

Photographs did not do this woman justice.

Suddenly, Kara felt an inexplicable tightening in her chest. There was a rush in her ears that drowned out Maxwell’s meaningless prattling. Everything else faded away, like the world had faded into sepia and all that remained in brightly vivid colors was Lena Luthor.

She heard Maxwell pointedly clear his throat in irritation. She turned her attention back to him, forcing a smile as she tried her best to answer his questions.

Heart still beating fast in her chest, Kara thought, What the hell was that?

The rest of the night passed by in a blur. She met so many men, all handsome and agreeable in their own way, that they all started to run together. She could hardly recall who was who.

So it made perfect sense to her that, throughout the evening, her mind returned to the captivating Luthor woman she’d seen. After all, at least she could put a face to a name there, even if they hadn’t even spoken to one another yet.

Lena, she thought, would be someone she’d like to get to know better.

***

“...and she brought me pizza. We just met and she’s already bringing me my favorite pizza from my favorite pizza place across town,” Kara said into Nia’s phone. She was sitting on the bed in her room, waiting for transportation to take her to her group date that day, a mixed martial arts competition. As she had agreed with Clark, she was using Nia’s cellphone when she could to update him on what was happening. “I don’t know, Clark. I just have a really, really good feeling about her, you know?”

“I hear you,” Clark said gently. “But, Kara, I also had a really good feeling about Lex when I first met him. The Luthors are charismatic people. Don’t get sucked in.”

“Okay, but Lena’s not like Lex, like at all.”

“Have you two discussed Lex?”

“Well… no, not really. But I can tell she doesn’t condone what he did.”

“Be careful, Kara. He’s still her brother. I find it hard to believe that she had no idea what he was up to.”

“But she just got back!” Kara protested indignantly. “She hasn’t even worked on the show for like five years.”

“Well, that’s not strictly true. She may not have been on set, but she was always a part owner of LuthorMedia and involved in some capacity,” Clark retorted stiffly. “Besides, does she really not know what kind of person her brother is?”

You didn’t,” Kara answered, feeling offended for reasons she couldn’t quite explain.

On the other end, Clark let out a sigh infused with regret, and Kara instantly felt bad for what she had said.

“All I’m saying is… be careful. She’s still a Luthor and family comes first. I don’t know if we can trust her.”

“I get it. I’ll be careful,” Kara promised. “But I really think she might be different.”

There was a long pause from the other end. Kara could just imagine the expression on Clark’s face, uncertain and wary.

At last, he replied, in a manner more placating than sincere, “I guess we’ll just have to see.”

***

A week went by before Kara was able to talk to Clark again. Although she had access to Nia’s cellphone, she was rarely alone. She was either on set, surrounded by crew, or at the house and there was always someone else there, Lena or Brainy or Jack.

The day after her panic attack at the escape room, she spent a lovely day with her friends at the beach. When they got home, Jack was already skulking around the backyard, eager to fire up the grill. Lena went out to help him and, instinctively, Kara started to follow when Nia asked for help in the kitchen.

“Clark wants to talk to you,” Nia said once they were alone in the kitchen. “I’ll grab the stuff we need to set up the table. Hurry back.”

So Kara took Nia’s phone and locked herself in the bathroom to call Clark. He sounded enormously relieved to hear from her; he had heard about the panic attack from Nia and was eager to make sure that she was okay. Kara assured him that she was.

“I wanted to make sure you were okay, but I also wanted to give you a heads up,” Clark now said. “The other two women have agreed to go public. The story drops tomorrow. It might shake things up a bit, get people talking on set.”

“Okay, um, I guess I’ll keep my ears open.”

“And…” By the way he slowly enunciated the word, it was clear that Clark was reluctant to broach this next subject. “Maybe it’s time you asked Lena about it.”

Kara immediately felt annoyance bubbling up. “Clark, she doesn’t know anything. She didn’t know what Lex was doing.”

“But have you asked her?”

“I don’t see the point.”

“Kara,” Clark said in his gentle good-ol’-buddy voice that he reserved for small children and difficult interviewees. “Maybe Lena didn’t know anything about it at the time, but she might have heard something since she’s gotten back. Don’t you think we should do our due diligence? We follow every lead.”

Giving in, Kara nodded slightly, even though Clark couldn’t see her. “Yeah. Okay. I hear you. I’ll… see what she’ll tell me.”

As soon as she’d said it, a queasy feeling roiled through her stomach, a feeling she quickly chased away by saying goodbye to Clark and rejoining her friends.

***

“Do you know why Lex and Clark stopped being friends?”

In an instant, Kara’s heartbeat skyrocketed, beating so ferociously within that she could almost feel her chest ache. By some miracle, she was able to keep her facial expression neutral as she smoothly lied, “No? At least I don’t think so. Clark never talked about Lex much. Why?”

And Lena believed her.

With disturbing ease, Kara feigned surprise to hear that Lex tried to warn Lena about her. She pled ignorance to rumors about Lex’s behavior and the website responsible for exposing it.

This time the queasy feeling was much harder to ignore.

***

With triumphant joy, Kara whispered into the phone. “I asked. She didn’t know a thing about it.”

Kara was hiding in the bathroom with Nia’s cellphone again. She could hear everyone else in the kitchen, laughing and joking, torturing Jack with more food puns as they shared bites of the food leftover from their extremely uncompetitive cooking competition.

“Did she tell you anything else?”

“Well…” Kara hesitated. “She mentioned that Lex implied that Mercy Graves might have known, but nothing concrete.”

“No, that’s good. That helps.” Clark sounded cheerful and optimistic, which only increased the size of the knot in Kara’s stomach. “We’ll have to do some more investigation on our end, but that’s a good lead.”

“Clark…”

“What is it?” he encouraged kindly.

“I was thinking…” She could hear his answer in her head before she could even ask the question. “What if I… told Lena? About what we’re working on?”

A long silence followed. But Kara knew that he was still there.

“Kara…”

“I know, I know,” she said hurriedly. “But Clark, she’s on our side. Wouldn’t it be so much easier if she could help us?”

“You know where I stand on the Luthors.”

“That’s not fair,” Kara retorted hotly. “You don’t even know her. You can’t prejudge someone based on who their family is.”

“I know the Luthors well. It’s not just Lex. Lionel, Lillian - they’re cut from the same cloth. What are the chances that Lena’s any different? Besides, even if she wasn’t exactly like them, I don’t see her turning her back on her family and her company.”

And although she knew that there was logic in that, Kara couldn’t help but push back. “Lena’s not like them. You’re completely wrong about her.”

She could hear Clark inhale sharply, trying to think of ways to get through to her.

“Look, Kara, say that you’re right about everything. Do you know how much trouble she would be in if Lillian Luthor thought that she was working with you? She would destroy her. The show doesn't play around with its NDAs. Why risk it?”

That was a solid hit. Reluctantly, Kara said, “O- okay. I see your point.”

Not that that assuaged her guilt any.

***

Kara found herself constantly distracted. She’d be on a date, filming an ITM, or like now, sitting in a session with Dr. Jonn, and her mind would begin to wander. Where was Lena? What was Lena doing? Would she laugh at that thing Kara just said? Especially today, she had more questions about Lena than usual, mainly why the hell am I thinking about her so much?

“Kara?” Dr. Jonn prompted. “You’re spacing out again.”

“Sorry, sorry,” Kara shook her head. “What were we talking about?”

“Your visit with Alex?” Jonn looked perplexed. “You were so excited, I thought you’d have more to say.”

“Oh… yeah. It was good. Fine.”

Jonn seemed unconvinced. “Do you want to tell me what’s really going on?”

Kara hesitated. “This is like… a real therapy session, right?”

Jonn looked like he was caught halfway between amused and offended. “Yes, Kara. And I take confidentiality very seriously. You can tell me anything.”

“Alex, er, she said something kind of strange to me when I saw her, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head.” Kara fidgeted in her seat, using the pretense to delay saying what she had to say. “She, uh- and maybe this is a little crazy, but she- she implied that maybe… there was- that I maybe had feelings for, um, Lena?”

Jonn, the professional, maintained a neutral expression, but there was a glint to his eyes that Kara read as, well, no shit. “Hmm.”

“You… you’re not surprised,” Kara observed.

“You talk about her a lot. I still don’t know the names of the vast majority of the men you’re dating, but I know where Ms. Luthor went to school, her coffee order, and the shade of green that really brings out her eyes,” Jonn replied drily.

“Oh,” answered Kara, feeling a little foolish. She wondered if this was obvious to everyone but her.

“Yes, it was obvious,” Jonn said, as if reading her mind.

“Okay. So… now what? What do I do?” She had asked out of reflex, but as soon as the words left her mouth, she remembered what Jonn had said to her in their first session. “Right, you’re not here to tell me what to do.”

“No, I’m not,” he affirmed. “Anyway, you already know what you want to do, don’t you?”

“I want to tell her,” Kara blurted out. “I tell her everything.” But that wasn’t true. “Well… there is something else that I haven’t- there’s something else I need to tell her, a- and, well, but I can’t. She’d… I think she might be in a lot of trouble if I tell her now.”

“Do you want to share with me?” His demeanor didn’t change a bit when Kara shook her head. “That’s all right. Are you ever going to tell Ms. Luthor about this other matter?”

“Yes,” Kara answered swiftly. “I just… don’t know when.” That was true for Kara. She had already determined that she and Lena would be lifelong friends. Maybe she couldn’t tell Lena about what she was doing with Clark and Perry right now, but one day. “I know that I can’t tell her about this other thing right now, and that- I don’t know, I feel like one secret’s bad enough, how can I keep two secrets from her?”

“Sounds like you know what to do then.”

“Yeah,” Kara mumbled uncertainly, not quite convinced that she was bold enough to do what she wanted to do.

That uncertainty lasted up until the moment Lena, curled up on the couch next to her, looking soft and lovely and inviting, asked her, “Have you started to fall for one of your men yet?”

And then Kara found out that she was indeed brave enough. “I… I think- I think yes. I’m starting to fall… But not for one of the men…. In fact, it… it’s not a man at all.”

But Lena wasn’t quite brave enough yet.

***

Kara was heartbroken.

But she put on a smile and tried to be friends with Lena. That was fine. She could deal.

She tried to sleep on the flight to Barcelona, but found it difficult to do. For one, Jack was in the seat next to her, snoring loudly. For two, she couldn’t quite quell the cacophonous babbling of anxiety and turmoil in her mind. She liked Lena. Lena, Lena, Lena, who evidently didn’t like her back. Lena, whom she was keeping another secret from.

There was a strained, hushed ruckus. Andrea had made her way to Mercy’s seat, clutching her cellphone. Kara could make out the words “Lex” and “Morgan” then “Daily Spoiler” which sent her heart into a nervous, frantic thump. Then Andrea woke Jack up and sent him to fetch Lena. Kara remained perfectly still beneath her blanket. She stayed in the same position when Lena came up into first class. She listened to Mercy rant and rave about Morgan and she realized, with increasing dread, that she was now privy to another piece of information that Clark would want. Information that she had promised him. Information that would help him and Perry take down Morgan, who certainly had it coming.

Somehow, Kara still felt unsure about sharing this new piece of information with Clark. Every time she thought about it, all she could think about Lena.

The next night, while Lena locked herself away in the conference room to work (avoid Kara), Nia and her cellphone visited.

So when Clark asked, “Have you heard anything? I thought the Mercy story would get people talking.”

Kara responded, after a moment’s hesitation, “No. Not a thing.”

Although Lena had broken her heart, helping Clark was starting to feel like a betrayal. Even though, on a logical level, Kara knew that it was probably the right thing to do. Lex deserved to be exposed. She knew that. But betraying Lena felt worse than having her heart broken. And so Kara resolved not to do it any longer.

Which lasted all of a day, until Kenny fell off that platform and broke his leg.

“Kara.” Gently, Lena placed a hand upon her shoulder to stop her from getting into the ambulance. “You can’t go with him.”

Kara shrunk back, glowering. “What do you mean ‘can’t’? I’m going.”

“Sam’s going with him. We need to get you back to the hotel.”

“No. I want to go with Kenny.” When all she got in return with Lena’s sorrowful but unyielding stare, she spat out. “Unbelievable. You’re putting a stupid reality show over Kenny? What is it, you’re afraid you can’t get a camera crew into the operating room?”

Lena visibly flinched at that, but calmly answered, “No, there’s just nothing you can do for him. Sam’s going. She’ll be with him the entire time and she’ll let us know if anything happens.”

Kara could only glare as Lena went off to call for their driver. Kara stalked off and found Nia.

“Call Clark,” she whispered in a low, hurried tone. “Tell him what happened today. Tell him about the fights Ben and Manchester have had. This show has zero safety standards and it’s about time that people know that.”

***

Lena had feelings for her.

Lena had feelings for her.

Lena freakin’ Luthor had feelings for her.

And even though Lena had said that nothing could happen, it felt really, really good just to know that Lena liked her back. Now every moment, every glance, every touch, filled Kara with giddiness and excitement in a way that she had not felt this entire time she was supposed to be going on dates with her future spouse.

Walking through Florence, arm-in-arm with Lena, licking away at sinfully rich gelato, Kara was ecstatic. Life could not get better than this.

But then she was foolish enough to ask about Andrea and Lena answered, “She’ll be fine. She’s just upset about this story that got out.”

Guilt. Remorse. Shame.

She was responsible for that story. She’d heard from Nia that Perry had published the story about the show’s safety issues. It was the right thing to do though, Kara told herself. She had no idea that one could feel so guilty for doing the right thing.

Then Lena went on to tell her, in great detail, without reservations, all the gory details about what Morgan Edge had been up to. Even though Kara had already overheard a good deal of this, she pretended that this was all brand new information, feigning surprise and intrigue at appropriate moments, and hating herself for the pretense.

***

This was now Kara’s plan: when the season was over, she would tell Lena everything. She hoped that Lena would understand. She hoped that Lena would forgive her. And if Lena did forgive her, she was going to ask if Lena wanted to go on a date. Because Kara was already sure that she would not be getting engaged to any of her contestants. They still had a few weeks left to go, but it didn’t seem possible for her to connect with any of them in the same way that she had connected with Lena.

Feeling guilty over the extra stress she had caused Lena over the Daily Spoiler stories, Kara sought out Jack’s help to arrange something fun for her. A massage session after her spa date with Mon-El.

But it turned out that Lena wasn’t a fan of massages. At least not from a stranger.

So Kara, altruistically, naively, stupidly, said, “So, um, would you be okay if I did it to you? Uh, the massage, I mean.” Thinking that this was a friendly gesture to help her friend alleviate stress.

But Kara had severely underestimated the effects of her own lust on her rationality and decision-making skills. She had not anticipated it, having never experienced desire like this.

She found herself straddling Lena, their bodies pressed close together. Kara, the sudden seductress, leaned in close and whispered in Lena’s ear, “So handle me.”

Then Lena kissed her. And Kara’s whole world shifted.

Later, after Lena was gone and Kara was left to endlessly replay the time they had shared in her head, Kara would come to think of this moment as The Catalyst, the moment when everything changed. Perhaps if they had just stayed friends, Lena would be quicker to forgive and Kara could have salvaged things between them.

But, still, of the long list of things that Kara would later come to deeply regret, she could not regret this moment.

***

“Are you sure you haven’t heard anything?” Clark asked, sounding uncharacteristically anxious.

“Nope,” she answered flatly.

“There’s no way that Mercy was the only person who knew. She’s a middle manager. I don’t see her making decisions on her own. She would have told someone.”

“I don’t know what to tell you.”

Clark was silent for a moment. “Kara,” he started delicately. “Remember what’s at stake here. We’re trying to help people. People like Mercy and Lex should be exposed, shouldn’t they?”

“Of course they should,” she agreed readily. “I just don’t see why this has to happen now.”

More silence. Finally, Clark said, “You know something, don’t you?” Kara’s own silence served as affirmation. “Kara, why? I thought you understood how important this was.”

“I do! I just, I just don’t see what difference it makes if the story comes out now or six months from now.”

“Because people are interested now. You know that we have to strike while the public attention is focused on this. And what’s going to be different six months from now?”

“I- I- I don’t know. Just… things might be different once I’m not filming anymore.” Maybe she would be able to tell Lena about everything once they finished filming. It didn’t change the fact that Lena was under the thumb of a powerful NDA and shouldn’t be anywhere involved with leaking information to the press, but in Kara’s mind, maybe, somehow, some way, things would be different down the line. At the very least, it would be easier - safer - to tell Lena when they were both far away from the set, with its stressors, rigorous schedules, inquisitive minds, and loose lips. But truth be told, Kara was past the point of rational thought. Sometimes the only response to a painful situation was to delay it. For this was Kara’s new plan: play things by ear, one day at a time.

“This is about Lena, isn’t it?”

“I don’t want to betray her, Clark. She’s been nothing but good to me. She’s my…” What was she exactly? “Friend. A very good one.”

“I’m sorry that this is difficult,” Clark said, sounding sincerely contrite. “I hope that you change your mind.”

That statement proved to be prophetic.

The night that Lena invited Andrea to hang out with everyone in the rooms, Siobhan turned up. Andrea ushered her and Lena into the bathroom. Kara and everyone else could hear the conversation in the bathroom, Morgan yelling over the phone, threatening Lena. When they emerged from the bathroom, while Andrea and Siobhan seemed shaken, Lena appeared completely unperturbed by the fact that Morgan could find ways to make her life and career hell.

Kara watched from the doorway as Jack tried to reason with Lena, only to have her brush him off. Then Lena walked away, and Jack tried to reassure Kara, “I’ve got her back. I won’t let anything happen to her. Promise.”

But Kara knew that Jack, though well-meaning and kind, could not make promises like that and keep them because he was well-meaning and kind. Some things required a firmer touch.

So later that night, after everyone else had left, Kara asked Nia for her cellphone. She called Clark. Once again breaking the promise to herself that she would no longer share information behind Lena’s back, she told Clark everything that she knew about Morgan.

She hung up the phone, still feeling guilty about the whole thing, but hoping that this was enough to keep Morgan away from Lena.

And it was. But the unintended consequence there was that it also kept Lena away from her, as Lena was ordered back to LA to deal with the fallout of Morgan’s suspension.

Standing in the hallway, Kara said goodbye to Lena.

“I’m sorry, Lena. For everything that you’re going through. I just- I wish it could be different.”

***

Life without Lena sucked. It sucked hard. (“Uh,” Nia tried to tell her, “It’s only been like two days.” Kara only whined pathetically in response.)

Kara could be professional about this. When the cameras were on, she gave it her best. She spent a day in London with William. She met his parents. She ate delicious food and she saw beautiful sights.

But, as soon as she was back in the hotel room, away from the cameras, she flopped down on the bed and curled herself up into a little ball, where she lay, wallowing in her loneliness and sadness.

“Oh, god, fine, here.” Nia tossed something at her, which landed with a thud next to Kara on the bed. Kara moved only her arm to pick up the object. Nia’s cellphone.

With strained effort, Kara raised her head off the bed to look to Nia. “Why? I don’t want to talk to Clark right now.”

Nia was standing at the foot of the bed, hands on her hips, looking vexed. “Not Clark. Just call her already. I mean, maybe not right now because she’s at work. But call her in the morning. I can’t take the sad puppy look anymore.”

For the first time in days, Kara smiled her first genuine smile.

***

And it was so, so, so easy to feel good when talking to Lena. Just talking.

It was also easy when she didn’t have to talk to Clark. So she didn’t.

And that’s how she was blindsided by the next story.

After a week of hometown visits, traipsing across the world, inching her way back to Lena, she finally landed in LA. Her hometown. And more importantly, Lena’s. Lena was going to be at the house tonight. Just the two of them. Kara wanted to break out in a giddy dance just at the thought of it.

But when they landed at LAX, while waiting for their luggage, Jack approached her trepidatiously. “So… change of plans.” He told her that Lena wouldn’t be coming that night. She was stuck at the office, dealing with the fallout from the story about Maxwell Lord.

Later that night, back at the house, Kara asked Nia, “Did you tell Clark about Maxwell?”

“Yeah, he just asked if I noticed anything weird on set,” Nia said with an easy shrug. “So I told him about how weird Maxwell’s been. Everyone’s talking about it.” Picking up that Kara was displeased, Nia frowned, concern creeping into her expression. “Was that wrong?”

“No, no,” Kara answered, quick to absolve Nia of any notion that she might have done anything wrong. “I was just curious.” This was her guilt, her problem, and Nia didn’t need any part of it.

But Nia looked pensive and uncertain. “I know that… I mean, I see now that maybe that was bad for the show. My job. Brainy’s job. And Jack’s and Lena’s and everybody else. But I thought that… I don’t know, I thought that this was the right thing to do. It is the right thing, right? Clark’s just… he’s just trying to… protect people. Right?”

“Yes,” Kara responded, unable to conceal ambivalence in her own tone.

***

Lena finally showed up. While Kara was meeting James’s family at an LA restaurant, Lena swept in, and Kara’s heart, achy and despondent for the past week, suddenly felt soothed. But her time with Lena was all too brief, as Lena let her out the backdoor of the restaurant to meet with Alex.

As soon as Lena closed the door, giving the sisters some privacy, Alex said, “God, Kara, I’ve been worried sick. There are all these stories coming out every other week about the show, and I don’t know what’s going on, but-”

“It’s Clark,” Kara blurted out. “And me. Me and Clark. We’re the ones leaking the stories. Or I was at first. Clark asked me to tell him things so that he can take down Lex and at first I thought it was the right thing to do - I mean, I guess it still is, but now, I don’t know, because these stories are also threatening my friends’ jobs a- a- and I’m also lying to Lena and I want to do the right thing but I don’t want to hurt her and I think I’m in love with her and I just don’t know what to do anymore.”

“Uhhhh.” Eyes wide with amazement, Alex blinked slowly as if that would help her process this information. “You’re in love with your producer? The woman producer? The woman producer who is the sister of the man you’re trying to take down?” Helplessly, Kara nodded. “Oh, what the hell, Kara? You came here to date thirty dudes! What happened to the thirty dudes?!”

“I don’t know!” Kara whined. “They’re fine, I guess. But they’re just, they’re not Lena.” Kara took a step forward, then half-collapsed into her sister’s arms, letting out a loud, pitiful sob. “What do I do, Alex? I like her so much but I’m lying to her and I hate it and I want to tell her everything b- b- but god, how can I do that to her? She’d be in so much trouble if she got involved.”

“Um.” Alex patted her little sister, trying her best to console her while attempting to make sense of the situation. “Okay. Well. Maybe it won’t be so bad? I mean, it’s not great, but you’ve really only known each other for a few weeks. It’s not like you hid a whole second life from her for years or anything. Maybe she’ll understand.”

“I don’t know, Alex. What if she doesn’t understand? What if she hates me?” Sad and helpless, Kara looked to her big sister. “Alex, what do I do?”

“I don’t know, Kara,” Alex answered, looking deeply pained by her own inadequate response. Her little sister was in distress and she didn’t know how to fix it. “But please be careful, Kara. You’d be in a lot of trouble if people found out what you were up to, and I know you like her, but Lena is a Luthor, right? So-”

“So nothing,” Kara interrupted fervently. “I’m tired of everyone making assumptions about Lena just because of her last name!”

“Okay, okay,” Alex tried to placate. “I’m sorry. Look, I don’t really know her. I’m just trying to look out for you. Just… please be careful. You’re actively working against her family and her company, so… please. I’ll trust your judgment but I just want you to be sure that your vision of Lena is really who she is and not who you want her to be.”

“It is,” Kara insisted. She would not, maybe could not, admit that Alex’s words left a small seed of doubt in her mind.

But what small doubts had been left were thoroughly erased just a few days later.

“I love you,” Kara said, as she found herself drowning in the ecstasy of a powerful orgasm and looking into Lena’s rich, stunning green eyes.

Maybe she should’ve told Lena then, at some point during their days-long sex marathon. And at one point, she came so close to it.

Lena said, “I don’t want you to make any promises you can’t keep. What’s wrong with waiting another couple weeks? Once this is all over, if you still feel the same way, we can talk.”

And Kara tensed up, thinking of how far she’d already let things get while sitting on this lie. She’d ran through a million excuses. She didn’t want to hurt Lena. She didn’t want to make Lena complicit. She would just wait until the season was over. She didn’t want to put Lena in a bad position. But, at the end of it all, maybe the truth was just that she was too cowardly to face the music.

The words threatened to spill from her lips. “Lena…”

But Lena silenced her, asking her to just allow them to be with each other. And Kara was only too happy to take the out.

Later, after Lena was gone and Kara spent sleepless nights self-berating, she would come to regret this act of cowardice, along with all the other times she had nearly told but didn’t. The night they sat on the back patio, when Lena first asked about Lex and Kara pretended not to know anything. That time she sat in a parked car overlooking Florence, before she let desire distract. The nights they had spent apart in different countries but talking on the phone, before Kara convinced herself that it would be better to wait until they were together in person.

All these moments, Kara would eventually come to regret, and ask herself why oh why she didn’t do something different. (But would she have? She would come to ask herself that as well, over and over, with no clear answer. Given the choice, would she have involved Lena and endangered her? Or would she have exercised self-control and not entangled Lena in a romantic relationship? Could she have?) She wished that the situation was different, she wished that she had a second chance, and above all, she wished that she had never hurt the woman she loved and would always love.

But, as they say, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

***

For a brief moment there, it seemed like maybe things would settle down. The network had reached a settlement with Desiree, Victoria, and Lex. Lex was off the show, along with Morgan, Mercy, probably Maxwell. So Kara, perhaps naively, felt temporarily relieved at the thought that maybe she would be in the clear for now. Surely Perry and Clark would drop the story for now. And Lena… well, she could deal with that when the season was over, but at least she would no longer have to feel torn between choosing to help Clark or Lena.

But then there was Otis’s cellphone. And the contents on there. And somehow Clark knew that the cellphone existed.

“I do have other sources,” he told her on the phone one night. “I know that Lena has the phone and the passcode. She must have unlocked it by now. So what’s on it?”

Kara was out to dinner with Lena and their friends. Lena had gone off to keep Jack company while he waited in line for their dessert, so Kara stole off to the bathroom with Nia’s cellphone. It was risky, but Kara had few moments away from Lena these days, not that she was complaining about that. Truthfully, as much as she loved her cousin, she didn’t want to talk to him much these days. But Nia, the poor messenger, had been telling her that Clark was insistent about speaking with her. Clark had been crushed by news of the settlement. He had wanted justice and that, to him, meant public exposure and censure of the culprit. Now that his sources had been paid off, his ideas of achieving justice were slipping away.

“I don’t know,” Kara replied, dull and unconvincing.

Sounding hurt and frustrated, Clark said, “Why aren’t you being honest with me? I thought we were on the same page here. Kara, if you have evidence of Lex’s wrongdoing, you have to release it.”

“It’s not my call to make.”

“Then whose is it? Lena’s?” The answer was delivered through silence, and Clark scoffed disbelievingly. “Kara, you can’t possibly leave this up to Lex Luthor’s sister.”

“That’s not all she is! You don’t know the first thing about her and you just assume that she’s going to do the wrong thing. And who are you to even say what the right thing is? Lena has an impossible choice to make. She has the fate of the entire crew on her shoulders. Are their livelihoods really worth sacrificing just to expose one man’s past wrongs? God, Clark, I don’t know what the right thing to do is and Lex isn’t even my brother. And you expect Lena to decide right away? How are you so sure?”

“Lex has to be stopped,” Clark insisted vehemently. “He’s going to do this again. I know he is.”

“Well, then, Lena will come to that conclusion herself. She knows him better than anyone.”

“You have too much faith in that woman.”

“And you don’t have enough in me,” Kara retorted angrily. “What is this really about? Because the Clark I know doesn’t believe in ‘the ends justifies the means’. From where I stand, all I see is two privileged, rich men trying to destroy each other and the only person that I see who’s even considering the collateral consequences is Lena. She’s going to make the right choice once she’s had the time to think it through. So just back off right now, okay? She needs room to breathe and more articles aren’t going to help. I swear, Clark, you write one word about this cellphone, we’re not going to be on speaking terms for a long time.”

“I…” Clark faltered. “I’m just trying to help.”

“Yeah, you’re trying, but are you actually? Who are you even helping? Victoria and Desiree, they’re taking their money and running the other way. Lana Lang still doesn’t want anything to do with this mess, and you haven’t been able to get anybody else to come forward. So why does it seem like this is just about what you want? What about what the women want? Or does that not matter?”

He said nothing for a long time. Finally, he replied in an even tone which still carried a hint of strain, “That’s not fair.”

“Nothing about any of this is fair, Clark. Look, I have to get back to the group.”

“Yeah,” he replied quietly. “Okay, Kara. I suppose I’ll… see you soon.” It was only then that Kara remembered that she would see Clark soon, in New Zealand, where her family was due to meet her final two contestants.

For once in her life, she felt no excitement at the prospect of seeing her cousin.

***

Kara’s family met Lena and they loved her. Even so, from the sideways glances and the furrowed brows when she thought no one else was looking, Kara could tell that Eliza was worried. She could hazard a guess what was troubling her. Either Clark or Alex would have filled her in by now on what Kara was doing, spying to get dirt on Lena’s brother. Lois had certainly known all along. Clark didn’t keep secrets from his wife.

But if Alex, Eliza, or Lois felt any kind of way about the situation with Lex and Kara’s involvement, they didn’t let it show with Kena. They asked her questions, talked to her, and treated her like someone important to Kara, which she was and which was obvious to Kara’s family.

By contrast, Clark was so uncharacteristically quiet that Lois ended up pulling him into the kitchen, and Kara overheard her hiss in a low tone that he was being rude. Clark apologized profusely to his wife, and attempted to be in a better mood, although it was a little too late in the day by that point.

She barely had a chance to talk to him privately that day. Nor the next day, when Mon-El effectively monopolized the conversation and everyone’s time. Clark was quiet that day as well, so at least it wasn’t just Lena that he was displaying a lack of interest in.

When it was time for the family to meet James, Clark perked up at having met a kindred spirit.

Then Lena was called away, back to the hotel. Sam pulled James and Eliza into the next room to film their one-on-one heart-to-heart, Alex and Lois were engaged in a heated, nerdy debate over the social acceptability of using literally to mean figuratively, so Clark and Kara found themselves alone in the kitchen, away from prying eyes and ears.

They exchanged a knowing glance. Clark turned off the transmitter pack to his mic. Kara followed suit. And braced herself for another lecture.

“I owe you an apology,” Clark said.

Astonished, Kara sputtered, “O- oh?”

“I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said. And I… I think maybe you were on to something. I think that I… I felt guilty about what happened to Lana on my season, for not having known, for letting it happen. So I wanted to get even. I wanted Lex to pay. And I… maybe let that guide me instead of considering all the consequences. I still absolutely believe that releasing the video is the right thing to do, but I understand that it’s a difficult choice, and I shouldn’t have been so dismissive. I’m sorry if I made you feel like I didn’t trust you. I do. And if you trust Lena to do the right thing, then I will too. And I’m really sorry if I’ve put you in a terrible position all this time. That really was not my intention.”

“Alex told you, didn’t she?” Kara asked. “About me being in love with Lena?”

“Not in so many words. I felt awful after our last phone call. I went to Alex for advice. Multiple times, trying to figure out why you were so mad at me. Finally, she asked me to consider how I would feel if I found myself in a position where I had to lie to Lois. And suddenly everything made sense, why you became so reluctant to share information with me…” Clark shrugged. “I get it now. If she’s your Lois, I understand how tough it must have been for you all this time.”

At her cousin’s display of sympathy, Kara’s defenses crumbled and her eyes welled as she allowed herself to feel the pain lurking underneath. “Clark. I’m so afraid of what’s going to happen when she finds out. What if she hates me for this?”

“She’ll understand.” But this attempt at reassurance felt hollow to them both. “Look, I do think things will be calmer once the season’s over. Once we’re all back in LA, you can explain everything to her. It’ll be safer to tell her once you’re out of this environment. We’ll all figure it out together.”

Kara nodded. Clark held out his arms, and she stepped forward, accepting his hug.

And for that one, brief moment, Kara was foolish enough to tell herself that maybe everything would be okay.

***

“Tell me it wasn’t you.”

“You and Nia have made a damn fool of me.”

“Where that leaves us, is that there is no us. Not anymore.”

“So I’m done, Kara. You… you can still get engaged to James or Mon-El or whoever, if you want to walk out of here with someone. But it’s not going to be me anymore.”

Kara sat there for a long, long time, staring out over the cliff’s edge at the ocean below. The sun was starting to set. Andrea had departed long ago, having sat with Kara for nearly an hour before she was called away by a PA’s report of an urgent phone call. The set had been dismantled and packed away. A couple of PAs still lingered in the background, waiting for Kara.

Kara heard footsteps. She expected a PA, or maybe Andrea returning. But when she looked up, she saw an unfamiliar woman towering over her.

“Are you just going to stay there all night?” the woman asked.

“Do I have somewhere else to be?”

“Hmm. Bachelorette dies of pneumonia on Hobbit island. I suppose that’s one way to end a season. Still a better ending than what we have now.”

“I’m sorry - who are you?”

The woman looked offended by the question. “Cat. Grant.”

“Oh.” Of course, Kara recognized the name. She probably should have recognized her face too, but she wasn’t exactly at her best right then. “If you’ve come to yell at me, it might be more satisfying for you to do it tomorrow. Or next week. I don’t really have anything left in me right now. You might as well yell at a tree stump.”

“I’m not surprised. I saw the footage of your break-up with Ms. Luthor. It was very dramatic. If she had been a male contestant, Lillian would’ve been ecstatic.”

Upon hearing the word break-up, Kara’s heart ached fiercely. Momentarily, she thought she forgot how to breathe. She’d lost Lena. She had her and lost her. How could anyone move past that?

A full minute passed as Kara wallowed. Cat Grant was still standing there.

Finally, Kara asked, “Uhh… what are you doing?”

“I’m waiting for you to stop feeling sorry for yourself and stand up.”

“Well, gee, I’m sorry that I’m taking a moment after being dumped by the love of my life.”

“Apology not accepted,” Cat replied, deliberately ignoring her sarcasm. “Ms. Luthor’s gone. Lex’s video is all over the internet and the public’s calling for his head on a stick and for me to dump the show as quickly as possible. Do you think that’s what I should do?”

“I don’t think it matters to you what I think.”

At that, Cat finally smiled. “Correct. But it does matter to me how we’re going to deal with this.”

“We?”

“There are always choices to be made. As dire as things may seem, there’s always a way out. So.” Cat tilted her head, looking down at Kara intently. “What are you going to do? Are you just going to sit there and feel sorry for yourself all night? Or are you going to get up and do something to save your friends’ jobs?”

Kara’s mind buzzed and turned with indecision. What was wrong with sitting and feeling sorry for herself? She certainly had good reason to, didn’t she? But Cat was making it sound like there was something she could do to help - not Lena, it was too late for that - but Jack, Andrea, Brainy, Sam...

Pushing her hands against the earth, she staggered to her feet, her legs feeling weak from sitting in one position for so long.

“Okay. So what happens now?”

 

 

Chapter Text

Your love makes a fool of you, you can't seem to understand
A heart doesn't play by rules and love has its own demands
But I'll be there to take care of you if ever you should decide
But you don't want to waste your life in the middle of a lovesick lullaby, but
Anytime will do, my love
Anytime will do, no choice of words will break me from this rule
Anytime will do, my love
Anytime will do, the choicest words will take me back to you

“Will Do” by TV on the Radio

 

 

On Lena’s flight back to the US, there was unsettling turbulence which made the passengers aboard yelp out at sudden dips, then self-consciously, nervously chuckle to mask the anxieties underneath.

Lena had always hated flying. Despite her countless flights all over the world, being in an airplane always reminded her of how helpless she was, trapped in a relatively small steel tube 35,000 feet in the sky, at the mercy of gravity, relying on recycled air, trusting in the competency of a series of complete strangers who built, designed, and piloted the aircraft. Even as some part of her thrilled at the exhilaration of being carted off to far flung destinations, a large portion of her remained petrified at the total loss of control.

It was a lot like falling in love that way.

It had been four months since she walked away and left Kara standing on top of that cliff, beautiful and heartbroken. She’s thought about Kara everyday since then. She wondered where Kara was, what she was doing, and in her lowest, most self-loathing moments, who Kara was doing them with. The show created a bubble, one in which it was easy to trick someone into believing they were in love. Now that Kara was out of that bubble, Lena had little doubts that she would have quickly moved on, having realized that what they had shared was only a fleeting infatuation.

At least that’s what she told herself all those nights she lay awake in the beachfront chalet she had rented on one of the lesser-known Malaysian islands. The days she spent reading, walking, listening to music, sometimes swimming. (It did not escape her notice that she wound up hiding out on a beach, which she disliked and Kara loved. Even her escapist coping mechanisms subconsciously drew towards Kara.)

Her list of topics she did not permit herself to think about (which of course meant she thought of nothing but): Kara. The show. Lex. Her father. All the things that made her insides ache.

She divorced herself from the outside world. She didn’t have her phones with her and she didn’t check her emails. She stuck to English-language Malaysian newspapers, which were unconcerned with the happenings of American reality television. She avoided anyone who appeared remotely American. All this just to avoid news of the show, LuthorMedia, or CatCo. When Lena decided to make a clean break, she decided that she would adhere to it with fanatical devotion. She did, however, send Jack a postcard every few days because she knew that he would worry if she did not. She sent a couple to Andrea and Sam as well. Once, she bought one that she thought Nia and Brainy would like, but guilt at the memory of firing Nia stopped her from sending it. (For each postcard she saw, she wondered whether Kara would like it. Then admonished herself for thinking of it.)

She might have stayed at that beachfront chalet indefinitely. She certainly had the resources to do so. But she was due back in LA for a wedding she had already committed to before everything went down. Besides, it was monsoon season on the island, and the property’s caretaker already thought that she was insane for staying as long as she did. So she packed up her things and got back on the plane.

It felt strange to be in LA again. The air smelled, felt, even tasted different. Her body felt heavier, as if gravity worked differently in this part of the world, or maybe it was just the psychosomatic effects of her anxiety at work.

And. The people were behaving strangely too.

She swore that some people looked at her funny on the flight. The flight attendants appeared to whisper conspiratorially while glancing at her. A passenger in the next row over kept turning her head to look at her. She convinced herself that it was just her mind playing tricks on her, the side effects of having spent too long in relative isolation. While waiting for her things at the luggage carousel, she thought that a few people were paying more attention to her than they were to the conveyor. It was weird, but again, Lena thought that it must all be in her mind. She was just tired from traveling.

She went home. Or what passed for a home in LA, the furnished rental with her possessions still boxed up. She turned on her computer for the first time in months. But before it even finished booting up, she suddenly felt impossibly fatigued at the thought of wading through the deluge of emails waiting for her.

So instead, she cleaned the apartment and then went to bed.

She woke up early, just a little bit after 5AM, jet lag wreaking havoc on her sleep cycle. She drove out to the nearest 24-hour grocery store in search of coffee. She went through the deserted store, grabbing coffee beans and other necessities, then made her way to checkout, where a lone cashier was stationed. The cashier was young, probably barely out of her teens, eyes glued to her cellphone, perfectly playing the part of disaffected youth.

The cashier perked up as soon as she saw Lena, nearly dropping her phone in the process. “Ohmygod hi!”

Although confused by the cashier’s sudden change in demeanor, Lena politely returned, “Hello, good morning.”

The cashier was grinning widely. “How are you?”

Lena was pretty sure that she had never seen this girl before. But perhaps the girl was just bored and relieved to see another human being. “I’m very well. How are you?”

“So, so good,” the cashier gushed, still staring at Lena with starry eyes.

“Um…” Truth be told, as young and innocent as this girl seemed, Lena was starting to feel creeped out. “That’s great.”

The cashier stood there for a long moment, staring at Lena in adoration before realizing that she had a job to do. “Oh! I’m sorry!” She reached for one of the items Lena had placed on the counter and began scanning. “I don’t know where my mind is. I’m uh, I’m a fan, sorry.”

Lena realized that the girl had mistaken her for someone else; she had been compared before to some actresses. Not quite knowing whether she should correct the cashier, Lena just politely smiled and nodded.

As the cashier continued scanning, she said, “My friends and I watch the show every week. We can’t wait to see how it’s all going to end.”

Hesitantly, Lena said, “Thanks?”

“I don’t suppose you could give me a hint on how it all turns out?” the cashier asked.

Lena shrugged noncommittally. “Sorry, there are rules.”

The cashier looked a bit disappointed, but nodded in understanding. “Well, I think the two of you are just incredible. I really, really hope that everything works out. You’ve… you’ve just really been an inspiration.”

Lena suddenly wished that she was the actress the cashier had in mind. It would be nice to be able to touch people’s hearts like that instead of producing a scandalous, drama-filled reality TV show. She was also starting to feel a bit bad for not correcting the cashier’s misconception, but it also felt too late to address it.

“Thank you,” she answered, hoping for this encounter to end.

The cashier finished ringing up the items and loaded them into Lena’s tote bags as Lena swiped her credit card. The cashier handed the bags over.

“Okay, but like, can you just tell me this one thing?” the cashier asked hopefully. “You’re still in contact with Kara though, right?”

Lena froze. Arm still outstretched, holding onto her bags. “What?”

“I know that you can’t tell me if you’re still together,” the cashier said hurriedly. “But like, it’s not spoiling anything just to say whether you guys still talk, right?”

What the cashier was saying didn’t make any sense. Lena recognized the words and syllables, but strung together, it was incomprehensible to her.

Lena stuttered, “I, uh- I don’t-”

Now ashen-faced, the cashier shook her head apologetically. “Oh! I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to ask you something you can’t answer. I can wait! I’m really looking forward to the finale!”

In a daze, Lena walked off with her groceries. She drove back home, her mind buzzing with questions and possible answers. When she arrived, she dumped her bags in a pile by the door and went straight for her computer. She sat there, fingers poised above the keyboard, unsure of what to do.

Finally, she typed in her own name.

And hit search.

***

The sun was blazing in the sky by the time she was done.

Confused, lost, and just a little bit frightened, she grabbed her keys and headed out the door in search of refuge. She reached her destination in twenty minutes. She went inside the familiar apartment complex, found her way to the door and pressed the doorbell twice.

After what seemed like an interminable wait, the door swung open.

A groggy-looking Jack stood there, in boxers and a t-shirt, hair sticking out in every direction, clearly having just rolled out of bed. He blinked at her, too sleepy to be surprised.

“Hey,” she whispered.

At that, his face shifted into a scowl. Quickly, he retreated, slamming the door shut in her face.

Lena stood out in the hallway, letting the pain of rejection and hurt wash over her. She inhaled shakily, gathering her strength, then turned to leave.

She made it ten feet down the hall before the door swung open again.

“Hey! Hey!” Jack called after her. “Where are you going? You’re supposed to ring the doorbell again.”

At the sound of his voice, she halted in her steps and broke out into a pleased, relieved smile. She took a second to school her face into a neutral expression, then turned back to face him. “I thought you wanted me to go.”

“I wanted you to grovel.” He stepped out into the hallway and pointed at his open door. “Get in there.”

She made her way into his living room, waiting for him to flop down on his favorite spot before taking a seat. He folded his arms across his chest and glared at her, more petulant than menacing.

“So. You’re back. Finally. After months of nothing but sending me flipping postcards.”

She sighed lightly. “What’s wrong? You didn’t like them?”

“No, they were lovely. I especially like the one with the tiger in sunglasses. Absolutely adorable.” He looked momentarily un-angry, then recalled his original train of thought. “But! I am mad at you, Lena Luthor. You just- you just left! You ran away!”

There was no refuting that. She cut and ran and hid. No matter how much it felt necessary in the moment, Lena was painfully aware that she had not chosen the bravest route. “I… I needed space.”

Jack pursed his lips in dissatisfaction of her excuse. “Yeah, sure, fine, you needed space. You needed so much space, you cleared off to halfway around the world and shut everybody out. Shit was falling apart here, Lena. If it weren’t for Cat freakin’ Grant’s divine intervention, we wouldn’t even have a show right now. We needed you. I needed you. But you weren’t here. Again.” Jack sank back into the couch, now seeming more sad than angry. “You know, it kind of hurt my feelings when you moved away from LA. You didn’t just leave the city or the show or your family. You left me too. And now this, running away for four freaking months. You were just totally gone. I couldn’t even reach you.”

“I…” She swallowed hard, trying to find the right words. “I’m sorry, Jack. I… in New Zealand, Lex told me some things. Not just about Kara, but about my dad and… what kind of a man he might have been. I don’t even know if any of it was true, but it really messed with me. I just felt like I had to get away. I couldn’t deal. Not after everything else that’s happened this season.”

Jack sat up and scooted closer to her, placing his hand on top of hers. “And I get that. I do. I don’t mean to make you feel bad for doing what you needed to do to take care of your own mental health. I just wished that it didn’t involve shutting me out or that you would’ve at least taken the time to talk to me. And can you honestly say that it helped to run? Did it make you feel better?”

And of course it had not. Although running away alleviated the acuteness of the pain, it did not cure it, and contributed nothing toward healing. For four months, Lena existed in a state of unease, vacillating between angst and distraction, prolonging the pain.

Flipping her palm over so that she held his hand, Lena said with utmost sincerity, “I’m sorry. I really am. I was… I was in pain and lashing out and you’re right, I ran away. I’m sorry. I should’ve at least talked to you.”

Jack stared at her for a long moment, his face betraying nothing. “Do you promise not to do it again?”

“I…” That was a promise that was difficult to make. Escaping had been her go-to defense mechanism, one that had served her well. But one look at Jack’s stony face and she knew that she had to do better. “Yes. I promise.”

Jack instantly broke out into a wide, toothy grin and pulled her into a bear hug. “I forgive you!” He released her and gesticulated wildly with his arms. “See how easy that was? You made a mistake and you hurt my feelings. But that’s okay, because everybody makes mistakes. You apologized very sincerely, so I forgave you and now we’re good. See what the power of forgiveness can do?”

Obviously, Jack wasn’t just talking about their friendship. Lena couldn’t help but wonder just how mad he really was to begin with, or if it was all just a ploy to get her thinking about Kara. Jack was such a devious man. Better not to engage.

“Jack, I came to ask you what happened? The show is airing? And I’m somehow a part of it?”

Having spent the morning reading articles and watching clips, Lena saw that CatCo, instead of dumping the show like she had expected them to, went on to air the latest season of The Bachelorette. Or at least, some kind of programming with the Bachelorette title affixed to it, because the show that she saw bore no resemblance to the show that her family had created.

Jack looked nervous, like he was bracing himself for admonishment. “Er… first, keep in mind that you weren’t here, so… you can’t really complain about the decisions that were made in your absence.”

“Jack.”

“Okay, okay. After the whole business with Lex’s video, there was an incredible amount of backlash, like you’d expect. People were calling for the show to be cancelled. Then Cat Grant held a press conference with Kara, Clark, and Perry White - I still don’t know how she got them all on board - and suddenly, the narrative is that the network’s been working with Kara and the Daily Spoiler this entire time to investigate the allegations and weed out all the bad actors. And of course, they made it known that you were the one to release that video. You were doing your own separate investigation, and they promised that it would all be covered in the latest season. It worked. Lex and his cohorts were classified as rogue elements. People supported the network, Kara, and they wanted the show to air to see how it all played out.

“So that’s what we gave them. We went back in and shot a bunch of ITMs with Kara to explain what she was doing, filmed some reenactments. We had to do some tricky editing, frankenbyted some things together, and took out stuff that didn’t fit the Kara-as-network-spy narrative. But other than that, we just tried to show things as they really happened. I mean, we still showed Kara’s dates with the guys, but we also showed what was happening behind the scenes with Kara and Clark and, um…”

“And me,” Lena supplied. “Imagine my surprise when I came back only to find out that I am apparently now a reality TV star.”

“The goal was transparency. I mean, it’s what happened. We spent a long time trying to figure out if we could spin the narrative to exclude you, but it just got too complicated. You were too involved. Besides, the entire crew watched you break up with Kara on camera, so we were never going to be able to keep that relationship under wraps indefinitely, especially with Lex still out there ranting and raving about how unfairly he’s being treated. Cat Grant said that it was better to just get it all out now rather than wait for another story to leak. So we just… showed people what happened. Brainy’s footage helped, of course.”

With some dread at the possible answer, Lena asked, “And how much of his footage did we show?”

“Just the stuff related to you and Kara to tell the story. CatCo purchased all the footage and destroyed the embarrassing bits. They let Brainy keep the rest to make his movie.”

At least that was a piece of good news. But there was still so much to process. Lena squeezed her eyes shut, trying to accept her new reality. Of course, she had known all this already, having spent the morning watching footage of herself on national TV, her relationship with Kara on full display for the entire world (or at least America) to see. It was surreal, to say the least.

“So… The Bachelorette, a show designed for conservative middle America, the whole premise of which is to watch a straight couple get engaged, is now somehow about an undercover investigative journalist looking into sexual harassment allegations while falling for her female producer. How does something like this even happen?”

“Cat Grant made the call. What was anyone going to say to her? And, yeah, this season has been, um, controversial.”

“The reaction hasn’t been good?” Lena asked worriedly, somehow still caring about the show’s performance.

Jack’s eyes sparkled with delight and excitement, eager to talk about this topic. “It depends. A good portion of our core audience was put off, but we generated a lot of interest from new viewers. People have opinions on you and Kara, good and bad. Some people absolutely hate it and think Kara’s some dirty hussy for leading on her men. Other people are really invested in the relationship. Kara’s gone completely dark on social media. I think she…” Jack fidgeted in his seat, his empathy for Kara on clear display. “Well, of course nobody likes seeing hateful comments, but I think it was hard for her to even read the supportive messages, her knowing how things turn out with the two of you.”

Lena sighed, feeling a dull ache bubbling up from within. Thankfully, she was temporarily granted a reprieve from her grief by the opening of Jack’s bedroom door; out tumbled two disheveled women, yawning widely. They stopped dead in their tracks when they saw Lena.

“Oh! Oh! Oh! It’s Lena!” the taller one cried out.

The shorter one whined, “Jack, why didn’t you say she was coming over?”

“Sorry, love, she just showed up. She does that. No sense of boundaries, this one.” Jack got up and approached the women, gently escorting them towards the door. “Lena and I need to catch up. Heather, let me know how your baseball game goes. Valencia, I’ll see you at your open mic on Saturday?” The women said goodbye to him with kisses to his cheek and, after a longing, departing look at Lena, left the apartment. Jack closed the door behind him. He turned back to Lena, looking sheepish but also a bit smug.

She arched an eyebrow at him. “Well, then.”

“They’re… appreciative of the show. I’ve been hanging out with Kara. Every time we go out, she’s approached a ton. If she’s not interested, they usually say goodnight, but one out of ten times, they start looking at me, so… I’ve been making friends.”

Lena’s heart started pounding. Although she loathed to find out the answer, shakily, she asked, “If she’s not interested?”

“Oh, well, you can hardly fault her, can you? The show’s made Kara absurdly popular. She’s absolutely mobbed by eager, attractive prospects every time she leaves the house. So, yeah, she’s been indulging. Different person every night.”

Something inside Lena broke, squeezing so tightly within her chest that it was hard to breathe. All at once, she was inundated by despair and a sharp, acrid pain she had rarely felt before.

With her face crumpling, she croaked out miserably, “Really?”

Triumphantly, Jack clapped his hands together. “No, you dingbat, she’s too busy crying her eyes out over you every night. But that reaction right there says it all, doesn’t it? You’re still in love with her.”

Lena didn’t know whether to feel relieved by the truth or just pissed off that Jack had tricked her again.

“It- it doesn’t matter.”

“Oh, come on. What could matter more besides love?”

“Trust, maybe? Honesty?”

Jack dipped his head in acknowledgement, but still said, “She did her best, you know. She agreed to help Clark long before she ever met you. She couldn’t have seen this coming. Well, you saw the ITMs we went back and filmed, right? She told her side and it wasn’t as bad as you’d thought, right? I think she really did want to protect you.”

Lena felt irritation bubbling up. Maybe it was unreasonable, but some part of her expected Jack to take her side just because. “She pursued me. She didn’t have to do that, knowing what she was hiding. Even if she lied to protect me, she still made me believe that we were on the same page, but we weren’t.”

“Yeah, I know that she did wrong. But like I said, everybody makes mistakes. Maybe she shouldn’t have pursued you, but… she fell in love. Maybe you could forgive her for that. You’re very alluring, you know. She wasn’t even into women, but you just sucked her right into your sapphic black hole.”

Unamused by Jack’s attempt to make light of the situation, Lena retorted fiercely, “So that justifies it, does it? She couldn’t have waited for the season to end to tell me that she loves me? Or to get me to say it back? I asked her to wait. I very clearly told her that I didn’t want to say anything I couldn’t take back. Being in love doesn’t excuse her lack of self-control. It was just selfish.”

Jack regarded her contemplatively, brows knitted together in concentration. After a long moment, he said, “Listen, babe, I’m utterly devoted to you, but you have got the emotional accessibility of a raw potato. You don’t exactly open up easily. So I’m not saying that what she did was right, but I get where she was coming from. If there’s even a sliver of opportunity with you, it needs to be seized before you close up again. Yes, she was selfish. Yes, she should’ve controlled herself. And yes, she should’ve been honest. But I think she was scared. So I can understand it even if I don’t agree with it. I think you can too, if you took the time. Because, well, if anyone’s going to understand avoidance issues, maybe it’s the woman who ran away from her problems to the other side of the world.”

Jack’s barb stung a little, but Lena could admit that there was some truth to his assessment of her. Then again, Jack wasn’t the one with his heart broken. “I’m glad you’re so magnamious, but I’m not. You don’t understand. She broke my trust, and it’s too late to get it back.” For a moment, Jack was silent, watching Lena intently and hesitantly, causing her to prompt, “What is it?”

“Two years, Lena. We were together for two years before you told me that you weren’t into my entire gender. Talk about a lie. That was a big one.”

For obvious reasons, Lena didn’t relish revisiting this topic. “That was different.”

“It always is when you’re the one doing the hurting.” Sensing objections, Jack held up a hand to stop her because she could protest. “No, look, it’s all ancient history now, but I was devastated back then. Angry, even. Because no matter how much you claimed to not have known, it sure felt like you deceived me for two years. But I put that hurt and anger aside because I knew that you hadn’t meant to hurt me and because I knew that you were someone I still wanted to know. And I’m so happy that I did, because look at where we are now. Where would we be if I held on to that hurt?”

Struggling with the cascade of emotions that flooded her, Lena reverted to an old defense mechanism, a quip. “Well, I wouldn’t have had to watch Ex Machina three times.”

“Exactly and you’re welcome,” Jack nodded. “My point is, it’s never too late. Love and trust aren’t finite resources. They’re experience points you grind so you can level up and get to the really good loot.”

With a light, exasperated sigh, Lena said, “You know that I don’t speak videogame.”

Jack rolled his eyes. “I’m saying that you should at least try, ya fucking coward. I know it’s hard and scary but I think you could find real happiness here. You are magnanimous, Lena. I’ve seen you forgive your family a thousand times for so much worse. So I can’t help but think that your reaction to Kara is… I don’t know, misplaced anger. Because, unlike your family, Kara hasn’t abused and conditioned you to the point where you think leaving isn’t an option and perversely, she shoulders the blame for your emotional baggage.”

As always, when the conversation got too heavy, Lena felt a sense of unease and dread. Seeking to deflect, she said lightly, “Jack, just because you almost minored in psychology doesn’t mean you get to go around analyzing other people’s childhood traumas.”

To which Jack responded with surprising seriousness, “You’re doing it again. You’re back, but you’re still running. You push people away, Lena. You know you do. The only reason that we’re still friends is because I’m shameless and you can’t get rid of me. Do you really think Kara can’t be trusted again? Or are you just looking for excuses so you don’t have to be in a real relationship that makes you vulnerable?”

But Lena, practiced in avoidance, opted to change tactics from deflection to going on the offensive. “Why are you taking her side, Jack? You know she almost cost you your job because of her lies? Andrea thought that you were the leak.”

Jack shrugged lightly. “I’m not taking her side. You know I’m Team Lena, ride or die, through and through. I’m only saying this stuff because I think it’ll be good for you. We’ve known each other a long time, Lena, and I’ve never seen you as happy as when you were with her. Because what’s the alternative here? You’re still stupidly in love with her and who knows when, if ever, that’s going to change? So you either stay hopelessly in love but apart, let it eat you up inside when you see her with someone else, and eventually die of a broken heart, or you just... try to work it out. And if it doesn’t work, then it doesn’t, but then at least you’ll know that you’ve tried.”

“It’d be a waste of time,” Lena rebutted. “Kara and I are done. It’ll never work between us. Why would I try when it’s just going to end in heartbreak?”

Stubbornly, Jack shook his head in defiance. “You’re scarily smart, but even you don’t know how it’ll end. What do we always say on the show? It’s about the journey, right? It’s not where you end up but how you get there. Because everything goes to shit eventually, doesn’t it? All relationships end. If you don’t break up or get divorced, one of you’s bound to die eventually. The happy ending’s happy only if you choose to end it in the right place. If you want to end it here, you can, and it’ll be miserable and depressing, but maybe there’s a less sad shit ending, the one where one of you dies of old age and leaves the other person behind.”

“That’s… very inspiring.”

“Lena, your journey with Kara doesn’t have to end here. In fact, because all lesbians in LA seem to know each other, I’d wager it’s not the end and you’ll probably find your way back to each other eventually. That can happen now, with you putting on your big girl pants and talking to her. Or it can happen ten years down the line, when you’re both married with kids and you start up a torrid affair after a chance meeting at your kids’ ballet recital. Because I don’t think you’ll ever really be over her. Do you?”

There seemed to be little point to address a question when they both knew the answer. Dodging again, she replied drolly, “I think you’ve been watching too many romantic dramas. People aren’t fated for each other. LA’s a big town. The chances that we’ll run into each other is extremely slim.”

“Well…” Jack said slowly. “I don’t know if that’s quite true. The finale’s next week and we’re shooting the live reunion. Now that you’re back, Cat Grant’s going to want you to appear. With Kara.”

Lena narrowed her eyes at him. “And who exactly is going to tell Cat Grant that I’m back?”

“Oh, I most definitely am,” Jack answered cheerily. “I’m not keeping anything from that woman. Cat Grant scares me in a very real way. Honestly, it would make it a lot easier on me if you went and talked to her yourself so I don’t have to.”

That was extremely unappealing, particularly given how her last conversation with Cat went. But Jack had literally welcomed her back with open arms after she’d abandoned him (again). This was the least she could do for him.

So she said, “Make me a cup of coffee and I’ll think about it.”

And Jack, so solemn and focused only minutes earlier, was instantly distracted by the prospect of not having to talk to Cat Grant. He whooped loudly, jumping onto the couch then hurling himself over the back of the seat to get to the kitchen, even though it would’ve been a lot easier to get up and walk to the kitchen like a normal person.

***

On a whim, she went to CatCo’s LA headquarters, thinking that it was unlikely for Cat Grant to be 1) in LA, 2) at her office, and 3) available to see her. Cat Grant was a ridiculously busy woman. And this way, Lena could at least say that she had tried. But of course, within moments of setting foot in the building and giving her name at reception, Lena found herself being ushered into the elevator and escorted to Cat’s office.

When she walked into Cat’s office, she found Cat sitting at her desk, hands primly folded before her, making it perfectly clear that she had been waiting. When Lena appeared in the doorway, Cat nodded at her in greeting. She waited until Lena was standing before her, then gestured at the guest chairs across from her desk.

“Please, Ms. Luthor, have a seat.” Cautiously, Lena did. “So. You’re back. Are you all caught up on what’s happened while you were gone?”

“More or less,” replied Lena guardedly, wondering what Cat had up her sleeve. After the way she had spoken to Cat during their last interaction, she fully expected retribution.

“Good. Well, your timing is impeccable. The reunion finale is next week. Can I count on you to be there?”

Lena wondered what horrors Cat was planning for her at the finale. “Why would I?”

“If I have to explain that to you, then you’re not anywhere as savvy as I’d thought. Ratings, Ms. Luthor. What else? Your appearance on the reunion would mean a great deal. Your absence over the last few months has not gone unnoticed. People are very, very curious about you. It’s still your family’s show, isn’t it? I’d assume that you have a vested interest in its survival.”

With great suspicion, Lena asked, “Since when do you care about the show?”

“Since one of my junior employees gave me a public dressing down after I’d taken the trouble of interrupting my vacation and flying to a different country to see her.” Although her tone was neutral and indifferent, there was a sharpness to her gaze.

“Are you looking for an apology?”

“No. Just mutual understanding. You got to say your piece, now let me say mine. CatCo owns several networks and media outlets. Your little show is just one of hundreds of projects my company’s involved in. So I delegated my responsibilities as anyone in my position would. It’s unreasonable to expect my direct involvement in everything that happens in this company. I expect my employees to keep things running smoothly, otherwise they cease to be my employees. That’s how a company works.” Cat’s tone was steely and defensive. Clearly, she had been thinking about what Lena had said to her four months ago. “So while I accept the failure in responsibility that you’ve assigned to me for how everything turned out, I, in turn, have to look to my employees and hold them accountable.”

“Sure,” Lena said tiredly. She didn’t care for Cat’s justifications and explanations. It didn’t matter anymore, and she just wanted the whole thing over with. “I’ve already resigned from my position at LuthorMedia.”

A ghost of a smile passed over Cat’s face, like she had been waiting for this. “You misunderstand. It’s not your resignation I want.” Cat leaned back in her seat. “Just the opposite. I want you to assume control of LuthorMedia. I won’t require Lillian to divest herself of her interests in the company, but I’ve made it clear to her that, if she wants our companies to continue working together, there must be a change in leadership. I’m thinking that should be you.”

Flabbergasted, Lena gaped at Cat Grant, feeling like there must be a trap somewhere. It wasn’t possible that Cat Grant was asking her to take control of LuthorMedia, not after everything that had happened.

“You can’t be serious.”

“I don’t have the time to be anything but.” Cat punctuated her remark with a glance at her watch. “Look, it’s simple. As juvenile and histrionic as I found your display, you made some good points. There should’ve been more oversight. Obviously, Lillian wasn’t getting the job done.”

“I slept with the lead during filming,” Lena said incredulously. “I’m hardly the model for on-set ethics.”

“All the more reason I know you won’t be doing it again,” Cat said with a light shrug. “In my experience, moral failings typically don’t come from mustache-twirling cartoon villains like your brother. They come from regular people who are trying to do the right thing and failing.” Cat paused then, gazing upon Lena intently. “I think it’d be helpful to have someone in charge who understands what that feels like.”

“And the fact that Kara was the leak the entire time and I had no clue? That doesn’t alarm you?”

“What alarms me is the fact that I apparently have to sell you on this job,” Cat replied breezily. “No, Ms. Luthor, that doesn’t alarm me. Fool me once and so on. I don’t think that’s likely to happen again.” As an afterthought, she added, “Well, so long as Ms. Danvers isn’t on the show. Clearly you have a huge blind spot for her.”

“And if I say no to doing the reunion episode?”

“Separate matters. One has nothing to do with the other. Obviously, I hope you agree to both. I don’t like being turned down.”

“I…” Lena truly did not know what she wanted. “I don’t know if I can reconcile with Kara, if that’s what you’re looking for. Kara and I, what we had was bubble love. It’s easy for things to work on the show, but it doesn’t translate to everyday life.”

Cat shook her head dismissively. “Tell your relationship woes to your therapist. I’m only asking that you show up to the reunion. What happens from there is up to you.”

“I need to think about this.”

“So do.” Cat slid a card across the table. “That’s my personal cell. Let me know your decision soon as you can.” As Lena picked up the card, she gazed down at it with confusion, unsure why Cat was taking such a personal involvement. Seeing her expression, Cat added, “Should you decide to take over LuthorMedia, my pledge to you is that I’ll be more accessible. If something requires my attention, you let me know. I expect that you’ll exercise proper judgment and not bother me with silly things.” Cat nodded her head at her office door. “It was good to see you, Ms. Luthor.”

Taking her summary dismissal well, Lena rose from her seat. But she had one last question. “How did you get Perry White on board with your plan? I can’t imagine he loved the idea of telling the public that he was working at your behest this whole time.”

I didn’t. Perry listens to Clark, Clark listens to Kara, so I just had to get Kara on board. If you were to thank anyone for keeping your show on the air, it’d be Kara.” With that, Cat gave a small shrug. “Or don’t. I don’t care either way.”

Lena nodded, shelving her emotions at this information to be processed later, and headed toward the door, only to pause as she heard Cat call out her name.

“For what it’s worth,” Cat said casually, her head bowed over the paperwork on her desk. “Maybe it was bubble love, maybe not. You’ll never know if you don’t give it a shot.” Cat looked up from her work, and smiled when she saw Lena’s look of surprise. “What can I say? I’m a romantic at heart. Now get out of my office already.”

***

It’s not that Lena didn’t like weddings. But she was never great at casual socialization outside of a business setting, so although she appreciated the love story, heartwarming speeches, and pretty outfits, she wasn’t especially looking forward to going to a wedding of an ex-turned-casual-friend that she only saw once or twice a year. However, she had made a commitment to go, so she would. She might have reconsidered her stubborn stance on honoring social commitments if she had known that her relationship with Kara had been broadcast over national television and that she was now apparently, at least according to a certain population, a Lesbian Icon.

To say that she was perturbed by the attention didn’t even begin to cover it.

From the moment she set foot in the venue, she was aware of the curious eyes upon her, the excited whispers, the nervous energy of the hovering crowd. Then a woman approached to say hello, a friend-of-an-ex (somehow not even the same ex whose wedding she was attending), and, the seal broken, the well-wishers and admirers trickled in until Lena found herself surrounded by eager fans and their excited chatter.

“How’s Kara doing? Is she here tonight?!”

“Can I get a selfie? My best friend’s going to die when she finds out that I met you tonight!”

“I love you two together! Total relationship goals.”

Lena found it all equal parts flattering and frightening. James had been right: being the first anything was a heavy mantle. As touched Lena was by the outpouring of support, she also knew that these people might be singing a different tune next week when they see the final episode, when they see her leave Kara alone on the cliff, when they see that she didn’t show for the reunion. The public was fickle and demanded perfection. And in that moment, all Lena could think of was all of the ways in which she was not perfect and what a disappointment she would be when everyone found out.

She thought that the attention would die off as the wedding started. And at least for the ceremony, it did. Bo and Lauren exchanged their vows and all the attention was on them. But when they moved into the reception portion, when there was no central entertainment available, the attention came back. The wedding guests hovered near her table. She even saw one woman try and switch the placards just so she could sit at Lena’s table.

She excused herself from the table and retreated. She sought refuge in the hallway, finding her way to an empty, quiet stairwell where she could lean her overheated, anxious body against the concrete walls, letting the cold stone soothe her.

Her respite lasted all of a minute.

With a crashing bang, the door flung open, revealing one of the last women in LA that Lena had wanted to see.

No, not that Danvers.

“Alex.” Amidst all the chaos and turmoil of the last few months, Lena had forgotten that Alex knew the happy couple, having once dated Lauren. If Lena had remembered, she most certainly would not have come.

“Lena!” Alex seemed no less surprised to see her. “Uh… I didn’t think you’d be here. I didn’t know you were back in town.”

Lena didn’t know what to say. Lamely, obviously, she answered, “Well… I am.”

At least Alex looked equally uncomfortable and thrown. “I was, uh… looking for the bathroom.”

Trying to be helpful and also to end this awkward encounter, Lena said, “It’s the other way. Down the hall to the right.”

“Okay. Thanks.” But Alex continued lingering in the doorway. “So… how are you?”

So Alex wanted to chat. Fantastic. Lena mustered every last bit of self-discipline she had to force a polite smile. “Fine, and yourself?”

“Oh, you know…” Alex shrugged. “Working. Attending weddings. Comforting my heartbroken little sister and reassuring her that there is life after love and being forced to listen to that Cher song on repeat. The usual.”

Lena knew that it was a bad idea before she even opened her mouth, but she seemed powerless to resist. “Well, at least one of you is honest.”

The shift in Alex’s demeanor from neutral to terrifying was instant and made Lena wonder whether Alex carried a gun when she was off-duty. “Kara is the most honest, principled person I know. She just made a mistake, a lapse in judgment. How long does she have to be punished for it?”

Lena didn’t really need the admonishment. Truthfully, she already regretted the jab. It was petty and unnecessary. “Is… is she here tonight?”

Alex rolled her eyes. “No, Lena, I did not bring my little sister as my date to a wedding.” Lena told herself that she did not feel a deep pang of disappointment. Alex, oblivious to her internal struggle, carried on, “But… well, you do know my date.”

Out of politeness, Lena prompted, “Oh? Who is it?”

“Um, it’s Kelly. James’s sister? We met that day at the restaurant when Kara met James’s family. I saw her leaving and I was curious about how things were going with Kara, so I went and introduced myself and things just… progressed from there.” Sheepishly, Alex shrugged.

“You’re dating your sister’s ex-boyfriend’s sister?”

“Oh, come on, Kara and James barely dated. I mean, from what I saw, Kara was pretty preoccupied with somebody else.” Alex gestured at Lena, as if the implication wasn’t clear enough.

“Right.” Lena really did not need the reminder. This was enough small talk, right? “Well, it was good to see you.”

She moved to leave, seeking to squeeze by Alex to reach the door behind her. Alex took one step to the side, blocking her path, looking serious and intense.

“Do you love her?” Alex demanded.

Lena blinked, staring at her interrogator as her brain scrambled for an answer. “I don’t think that’s any of your business.”

“If it affects my little sister, I make it my business. Kara thinks that she still has a chance with you. Does she?”

“I think I made my position on our relationship perfectly clear when I told her that it was over.”

“Kara sees sunshine during an eclipse. Her blind optimism in everything is irrational and illogical and it’s what makes her wonderful. But now it’s… it’s hurting her. She thinks that you might still love her because you never said that you didn’t. So when she’s not beating herself up over what she did, she’s indulging in the fantasy that the two of you can still work this out.”

Lena dug into the coldest part of herself for a response. “That’s… that’s really not my problem anymore.”

“No, I know, I just…” Frustration flickered over Alex’s face and she bit down on her bottom lip, reining herself in. “I’m only asking, as one… sibling to another, one human being to another, whatever, I’m asking that you… be kind and settle it for her. If there’s really nothing left between you, please tell her that. Tell her that you’ve moved on. Tell her that you don’t love her anymore. If you can say that, if she can just hear you say those words, I think it’ll help kill that last bit of stupid hope she’s holding on to. End things for good.”

And it shouldn’t have, but the thought of doing that made Lena’s insides hurt. It was hard enough the first time. “You… want me to hurt her? Again?”

“Must be cruel to be kind.” Alex looked pained at the thought. “I wouldn’t ask if I thought there was another way.”

Lena shook her head slowly, dumbfounded. “It’s not possible that she still loves- I mean, we… we barely knew each other.”

“Yeah, tell me about it. Preaching to the choir there. This is insane to me, but Kara… she says you’re it. She’s so sure about you. And I…” Alex faltered with a weary sigh. “I just want my little sister to be okay. It’s been four months and she’s still not anywhere close to being over you. I’m out of ideas.” Alex stepped back, starting to make her exit. “Please consider it. I know you’re still angry, but I don’t think you want her to suffer.”

With an imploring stare in place of a goodbye, Alex finally left. Lena leaned her heated forehead against the cold concrete, drawing in deep breaths to quell the ache in her chest.

After a long moment, she steadied herself, reaching into her pocketbook and taking out her cellphone. She sent a single short text.

I’ll do it.

Cat’s response came swiftly. Good.

***

The day arrived.

Lena found herself sitting in her car in the lot outside the studio where the reunion was being filmed. She’d been there for half an hour, watching the flow of crew members she recognized, hustling toward the official end of the season. She wasn’t sure whether the cast had arrived yet, and didn’t know how she would handle it when she saw Kara again for the first time. So she sat in her car, petrified and paralyzed.

A gentle knock sounded at her window. When she looked up and saw the familiar face before her, she felt a strange mix of emotions. Hurt. Fondness. Regret. Sympathy.

She opened the car door and climbed out. “Hey, Nia.”

Nia, arms folded across her chest, shuffling from foot to foot, shyly returned, “Hi, Lena.”

Lena closed the car door and leaned against it, folding her own arms. “I didn’t think you’d be here.”

“Oh, yeah. I’m not working or anything. Brainy invited me, so…”

Silence fell over the pair. Each avoided the other’s gaze, stressed and discomfited by the moment.

Lena started, “Look, Nia-”

Simultaneously, Nia said, “Hey, I think I-”

Each halted by the other, they both stopped talking. Awkwardly, self-consciously, they chuckled. Lena nodded for Nia to go ahead.

“I just wanted to say sorry again. For lying to you and all. I- I really came to think of you as a good friend during the season. So… I’m really sorry.”

With a contrite bow of her head, Lena said, “And I’m sorry I fired you.”

Nia shrugged in understanding. “I know you had to. Anyway, Jack told me what you asked of him, about getting me that other job. So it balanced out?”

“You know… I’ve been asked to take over the company. I could reinstate you.”

Nia shook her head, chuckling with a slight grimace. “I’m actually pretty happy at Legendary, but thank you. Brainy’s kind of upset about us not working together, but to be honest, I think it’s better this way. I love him, but I think having a little space is nice.” Looking past Lena at the studio behind her, Nia asked, “So you’re doing the reunion?”

“Well, I am the star of the show,” Lena replied drily.

“Must have been quite a surprise to come back and find yourself a celebrity.”

“If I am one, I’m D-list at best. And Jack says I don’t get to complain about the decisions that were made when I wasn’t here, so…” Lena shrugged lightly. “Fair enough. So I’ll do the episode, nod and smile, fake excitement when they announce Mon-El as the Bachelor, answer all the burning questions about me and Kara, then I’ll move on.”

“Mon-El?” Nia scrunched up her face in confusion. “Oh, you haven’t heard.”

All Lena could think was, oh god. Now what? “What?”

“Mon-El’s not going to be the Bachelor. He’s married.”

“He’s what? Already?”

“No, he was already married when he was on the show. He got married like three years ago on this tiny island called Isle of Man that’s like sort of its own country or something. I don’t know, it’s confusing but I guess that’s why nothing turned up in his background checks. Apparently Mon-El and Imra have been on and off for years. The whole thing came out when the season started airing. I think that actually helped a lot of people get on board with the you-and-Kara storyline, because they knew that the front runner was already married.”

“Oh, wow,” Lena muttered, somehow not entirely surprised by this development. “So who’s going to be the Bachelor?”

“Don’t know,” Nia shrugged. “They’re not announcing it tonight because they haven’t picked.”

“And... how did Kara take it?”

Nia gave her a pointed look. “You know, I think Kara had other things on her mind.” Lena cleared her throat lightly and looked down; she wondered if these references would ever hurt less. Genially, Nia asked, “And you… well, how do you feel about seeing her again?”

Letting out a light sigh, Lena straightened her back, trying to fill herself with confidence she didn’t quite feel.

“I guess it’s time for me to find out.”

***

Jacked paced nervously in the hallway, his fingers fidgeting with the wire running from his earpiece, listening to the radio chatter of the crew bustling about the set, coordinating every move. The audience was in their seats and the live show had begun. The first portion of the finale consisted of them showing footage from the day of the final rose ceremony interspersed with live audience reactions. They would soon move into interviews. First James and Mon-El, then Kara, then Lena. Who would be seeing Kara again for the first time.

“Is she still here?” Andrea, stepping out of the control room, demanded of Jack.

Yes, she’s still here,” Jack answered with a slight roll of his eyes. “She’s in makeup.”

“Yeah, well, Lena has a history of bolting.”

“Not anymore,” Jack declared proudly. “I fixed her.” He was not at all deterred by Andrea’s look of skepticism.

A PA approached them. “Ms. Rojas, we’re ready to take Ms. Luthor to the green room.”

“Finally,” Andrea grumbled. “Okay, take her to room B.” As the PA started to leave, he was stopped by Jack’s ah-ah-ah. Andrea looked over to him. “What?”

“I think we should take Lena to room A.”

Andrea narrowed her eyes at him. “That’s occupied.”

“Is it?” Jack looked to Andrea meaningfully.

She groaned, tired and annoyed. “Jack, no, absolutely not.”

“Come on!” he whined pathetically. Taking a step closer to her, he said in a sotto voice, “Don’t let their first meeting be on national TV, Andrea. You know what that’ll do. Nobody’s really themselves in front of ten million viewers.”

“They can be themselves after we film. It’s their first time seeing each other in months. It’s going to be emotional and it’s good TV.”

“But is it good friendship?” Jack asked, as obnoxiously as he could. “Andrea, we have to take care of our awkward, rabbity little Lena. She’s just so useless, ya know? If we make her face Kara under these circumstances on live TV, who knows what kind of nutty self-sabotage she’ll engage in? Let’s give them a chance. They just need a few minutes alone to work it out. I know it.”

Andrea glared at Jack, letting him know just how much she did not appreciate his blatant manipulations. Jack just gave her his best puppy dog eyes.

Andrea sighed again. Finally, she said to the PA, “Take her to room A.”

***

Lena was being led down the hallway to the green room, where she would await her cue. But of course, she knew the studio better than the PA, and had to gently correct him on his direction.

So when they stopped outside of green room A, she asked kindly, “Are you sure this is where we’re supposed to be? This is usually reserved for the lead and host.”

The PA nodded. “Positive. Ms. Rojas said.”

Maybe there had been a change in protocol. Lena thanked the PA and went in through the door.

She really shouldn’t have been surprised to find Kara Danvers there. Yet there was a violent jolt of emotions upon seeing her, which Lena wishfully attributed to surprise at seeing Kara. Or maybe just seeing the position that Kara was in.

Kara was standing stiffly in the middle of the room, eyes cast upward. An attractive young woman was standing behind her, very close to her, fiddling at Kara’s strapless dress, running her hand across the waistline.

“Really, my dress is fine,” Kara was saying. “I don’t think it needs to be adjusted.” When she heard the door open, she looked over. Seeing Lena, her jaw dropped open. On reflex, she took a step forward to get closer. “Lena.”

The young woman looked rueful and sighed in disappointment. “Okay, I guess I better go.” But she lingered, looking at Kara with hopeful eyes, who in turn only had eyes for Lena. The young woman sniffed and swept out of the room, closing the door behind her and leaving Lena and Kara alone.

Thick silence settled over them.

“Who was that?” Lena asked, hoping that she sounded casual and not at all inflamed like she felt. But she had no right