STORY NOTES: Written before 'Return' aired, but it starts just after 'Starcrossed' finishes.
A Place To Lay Your Heart
She is tired; her wing muscles are screaming for relief, but she presses on.
Land and sea pass beneath her, each feather rustles with the force of the winds that blow past her as she soars in the sky, far from the madding crowd beneath.
She is flying, running from her past.
She is running, but there is nowhere for her to go.
Her people are gone; they left her behind, disgust written in their faces that a Thanagarian might choose this backwards planet over her own people. Her once-friends are gone; she left them behind, rejecting them before they could reject her - some patterns are too familiar to be broken.
Her once-lover is gone; although perhaps not through his own choice.
Shayera never asked what his vote was, nor what their friends chose; a part of her didn't want to know.
And while she said she was going somewhere with no more secrets, no more lies; she has no home - nowhere to rest her wings, nowhere to lay her heart. She forsook that when she chose Thanagar over Earth, Earth over Thanagar; she forfeited that privilege when she understood that her friends could never trust her again.
So she flies on and on, while the sky arches overhead and the air grows thin and cold.
When her energy flags and her wings seize up, she goes into freefall, almost too tired to care that she's plummeting like a stone. There is nobody on this planet to truly care what becomes of her. She is alien and stranger in a world that once succoured her and now looks upon her with fear and hatred.
As she plunges towards what she thinks is death, she remembers the friends she lost, of the men she loved.
Instincts of self-preservation snap her wings out before she hits the ground, but she cannot stop her descent, only slow it enough to crash into the grass and lie there. Her pants are nearly sobs, and each gasp sways the spindly stalks that spring up by her lips. Even her inability to end her life is one more burden she carries, draining her energy and setting a new shard of anguish into her heart.
The day passes overhead, the bright sun of this land beating down on her, heavy as guilt. It is evening when she hears the motor of the tractor in the field and the accompanying dog's bark, feels the vibration of its wheels through the hard, dry ground.
She doesn't have the energy to move as it snuffles at her wings, then whines at its master.
"Easy, Max," says an old, gruff voice. "What've you found here?" He seems vaguely astonished by her presence. "Girl with wings, eh?"
Something in her says to get up, to take to the skies again. She should fly away, get away from here, but she has no energy left, no will. She longs for death, but cannot claim it - perhaps she should have asked the League... No. They would have cast her out, but they would not have killed her. She knows that much of her once-friends.
The dog walks around her, snuffling up her jeans, up her t-shirt, across her face. It licks her once and whines, putting a paw on her waist and looking up at his master.
"Alive, then? Heh." The shadow of a man falls over her face, and her eyes involuntarily track his movements, a soldier's habit. He is perhaps fifty or sixty years old, but tall and wiry with the lean build of a man who works the land. He walks with a slight limp, without the grace she is accustomed to seeing in her more-than-human teammates. "Miss?" He tilts his head at her. "You okay?"
The question is simple; the answer is not.
He grumbles to himself a bit, then kneels down beside her. "Now, Miss," he said, "My knees aren't the best here, so you're going to have to help me out. Max would be more than happy to pick you up and drag you back to the tractor, but those pretty wings of yours would surely end up messy, and I daresay you don't want that."
She lets him help her up, and into the back of the tractor, sitting with her hand limply curled around one of the hand holds beside her seat. He doesn't question her silence, doesn't demand answers of her. The dog leaps to the seat beside her and snuffles at her wings, then tilts its head in a gesture almost frighteningly like its master's, and settles with its head in her lap.
Weathered wooden post fences that stretch far into the distance bisect broad yellow-brown paddocks of drying grass. There is a hint of hills, far distant, their bluish-green slopes showing their weathered age, and the air is chill and dry.
"I'm Jim," her companion says. "That there dog making himself comfy is Max. Do you got a name, or should we just call you the bird-girl?"
She hears the wry good humour in his voice, the acknowledgement that she may not wish to reveal who she is. But she is lost to all others in the world; and she wanted to go somewhere without secrets.
"Lieutenant Hol of the Thanagarian Army." Occupational force, rather, she thinks bitterly to herself.
Jim glances at her over his shoulder. "That's quite a title you got for yourself, Miss," he says, amused. "Imagine it gets a bit heavy at times. Got yourself a term by which us humble folks can call you?"
It takes her a long time to answer that one. For the first part of her life, she was 'Lieutenant Hol.' Then, she came to Earth and became 'Hawkgirl.' Only a handful of people have called her by her name; all of them were people whom she loved.
She never gave her name to strangers; it's not who she was, who she wanted them to see.
But there are a lot of things she was that she no longer is, and she wants to be seen as herself.
So, "Shayera," she says at last, tasting the syllables on her lips, as though it's a new food, never tried. "Just...Shayera."
It's a farm in the middle of nowhere. Nearest neighbour is an hour's drive away, nearest town is two. Jim and his wife Lisa do livestock. Or did.
"Not much for the cattle to eat," Jim tells her as they sit down to dinner. "We've been in a drought for several years now."
They don't ask about her wings, although she sees the curiosity in Lisa's eyes. She doesn't hide what she is - that time is gone, like her people, like her teammates. So when Lisa takes her to the 'spare room' and begins pulling sheets out of the linen press at the foot of the bed, she asks the question that plagues her.
Clean sheets billow through the air as Lisa makes the bed, neither asking, nor seemingly expecting her help. The answer is as cryptic as the question is broad. "Why not?"
She watches as Lisa smooths the sheets down. "That's not an answer."
The older woman grins, making beautiful a face long past its youth. "Did you really want an answer, though, child?" She pats her on the shoulder. "Bathroom's down the hall, I'll lay a towel out for you. Sleep well."
The door closes behind Lisa, leaving her alone.
Alone is what she is now, help aside.
She doesn't know what they're doing, although she can imagine. They would stay at Batman's - Bruce's - place until they could get a new Watchtower into position. And then...then it's business as usual. Minus one Hawkgirl.
Fight the good fight, save the world again, and sit back to Oreos and iced mochas at the end of it. Or a good, cold beer.
For a moment, she's there again, back in the Watchtower monitor room, staring out across the expanse of space and wondering at the stars. She can hear Batman's gravelly tones from the next room, chiding Flash for something he's done. J'onn is a silent presence by the computer terminal, watching Wonder Woman and Superman deal with the latest crisis, and John comes to stand at her back, the honest solidarity of him bolstering her spirits.
His hand slips into hers, warm and intimate.
She was at home there, among her friends, among people who had no particularly good reason to trust her, but did because she worked alongside them, day in, day out.
And she betrayed them.
Slowly, she sinks to the bed as her face sinks into her hands, and she remembers the death of trust. Her excuses that 'it was all for their own good' sound empty in her mind now; then, they were a thin crust of ice upon which she danced, well aware that she could not go back once the deed was done, but never thinking she would have to build such fragile bridges across a too-cold expanse.
Alfred's reassurance is small warmth in the cold of the universe.
She would not go back, even if she could. She could never regain their trust.
Among white porcelain and peach tile, the t-shirt peels away from her skin. The dirt is less easily sponged from her skin, and she is careful of the plant that hangs over the bathtub as she spreads her wings to avoid getting them wet.
But even the water cannot cleanse her of that which stains her deeper than mere sweat and dust.
She falls asleep with tear-trails sliding down her cheeks.
Her dreams are of family gone, of friends betrayed, of times and places that are no longer accessible to her in her self-imposed exile. She is hunted, and worse than hunted; haunted.
Haunted by what nobody has ever successfully escaped: the past.
Upon waking, she is tired, but the sun is already risen, and she can smell the food cooking, even in her room.
Her clothes are dirty, and something in her shudders at reclothing herself in them, but there is nothing else to wear.
At the door to the kitchen, she pauses, not knowing what to say to these strangers who have shown her such kindness. But a "Good morning," is all they give, and her response is all they seem to ask in return.
Beneath the breakfast table of varnished pine, Max snuffles through his bowl. On the table is enough bacon, eggs, sausages and toast to feed an army, and Lisa lays down a plate and cutlery before her. "Sleep well?"
Something in her observes that these people conserve words the way they conserve water; sparse and hoarding, as though every syllable is golden. "Yes," she says. "Thank you..." But when she tries to broach the subject of their taking her in, there is already toast clattering on her plate and Jim mentions something about the western field.
The toast is dry and chewy in her mouth as she tries to divine what they want from her, why they took her in. Their conversation gives nothing away. It's ordinary chatter, about what's already been done, and what still needs to be done. It is then that she realises they've already been up a number of hours, and she's slept in. Guilt assails her, a smaller, niggling kind, adding to the weight of her burden.
When they rise from the table, Jim asks if she'd like to come out with them to check the further fields. It's something to do, perhaps with the opportunity to help - to give back some of what she has taken, and she rides on the back of the tractor while Max sits with his head in her lap and looks up at her with doggy eyes.
The farm's livestock is mostly sheep, and the daily routine mostly consists of them going out to check that they're well fed, well watered, and not in danger of any predators.
It takes surprisingly long, most of the day. Between hay bales for the cattle, and checking the levels of the dam, and driving all over the property, it passes more quickly than she'd have thought possible and the sunset's glow in the clouds overhead comes as a surprise.
She avoided thinking of them - any of them - all day, but the memories rush back and there is no respite from them. So she rides back in the tractor, silent as she went out; and Max whines softly and tosses his head about as tears drip off her chin and onto his face.
That night, when she broaches the topic of payment, Jim and Lisa regard each other, then her.
"We don't fancy you have money on you," Jim says, mildly. "And we didn't take you in expecting payment..."
"But we don't fancy you have a place to go to, either," Lisa adds.
They're right on both counts. Still, some explanations are in order. "What... What do you know of me?"
Another look is exchanged, then Jim tells her what little they experienced of the Thanagarian invasion. "Birdmen - like you - come to the town and tell us that they're here to protect us. The big cities protest, but the people out on the land don't much care. One government's pretty much the same as the next, does it matter if they got wings or webbed feet?"
"Or the horns of the devil," Lisa adds, a twinkle in her eye. "And the sheep still need feeding and watering, no matter who's in charge."
They missed most of the conflict out here, in the red-dust drought of a country that possessed few resources the Thanagarians thought worth possessing and none that could retaliate. As she explains what happened, why it happened, and her part in the whole mess, they sit there and listen without prejudice.
"I..." She doesn't have anywhere to go, anyone to go to, the previous parts of her life are over and gone and she cannot go back to them. "I'd like to stay here," she says at last, hoping that her voice doesn't tremble the way her heart does. "But I understand if you don't...if you aren't willing to..." She halts and bites her lip and says nothing more, not trusting her voice to hold firm.
"Well," Jim remarks at last, "I figure we survived one night with you in the house, we can survive a whole string of 'em." His grin is broad and wry, and what it lacks charm, it makes up for it in honesty. "And I don't mind admitting, those wings of yours could come in handy; that is, if you don't mind the step down from saving the world."
It feels like the first time she's smiled in a long while, and the relief is nearly as powerful as a blow from her lost mace. No world-shattering responsibilities. No secrets. No lies.
In the days that follow, she settles into a routine of work; sleep early, rise early, work hard and long in the day, go quietly inside at night. She doesn't go flying to look at the lay of the land, she stays on her own two feet, and if her wings get in the way from time to time, well, that's something she lives with, the way Jim lives with his limp.
She has her own flock of sheep that become accustomed to her presence, feeding and checking them daily. They are her concern, and as she learns the finer parts of sheep husbandry, she gradually remembers to smile. And as the need begins to grow, she uses her wings again, choosing the swiftness of flight for urgent situations.
But she never just 'goes flying.'
More than anything else, her wings set her apart from all people on this planet, and she can't escape them. Much as she'd like to.
So she stays and works on the farm, an ordinary, unpaid labourer alongside Jim and Lisa.
The humour of it strikes her one afternoon as the unending sun beats down upon her shoulders from the glassy blue sky. From Lieutenant in the Thanagarian army, she became one of Earth's Heroes; from one of Earth's Heroes, she has become little more than a sheepdog with wings.
It should bother her. It doesn't. It's a humble job, but she's neither the Lieutenant, nor Hawkgirl anymore.
She's just 'Shayera.'
Or so she likes to tell herself.
Sometimes there are articles in the newspaper, or news on the television about the Justice League. New and extended, with all kinds of metahumans bearing all kinds of powers. She usually leaves the room when those stories start. Time doesn't heal all wounds.
Mostly she can forget what she did, whom she betrayed, and how it felt to belong as part of a team who had a mission.
Except when she looks up at the brilliance of the stars in the velvety sky, the infinity of space from Earth, and remembers the view of Earth from space.
Then it all breaks down; the lies, the betrayal, the anger.
Sometimes, in her room, she looks at herself in the mirror, at the arch of her wings behind her shoulders, and then again she wonders if absolution would come if she removed the evidence of her difference. If she could look herself in the mirror and see herself as human - if others could look at her and see her as human, would this penance, this punishment, be any easier?
She doesn't know.
She contemplates it long and hard one night, and then receives an epiphany in the cold dark hours of the early day.
Atonement isn't supposed to be easy.
Jim and Lisa's daughter Ellie comes to visit, bringing her daughter Maddie. They've come to stay with Jim and Lisa for a few days while Ellie's husband Ben is in another city for a week.
She plans to stay in her room, avoiding them, but the best-laid plans never count on the tenacity and inquisitive nature of a six-year old. Maddie peers in the door and gives a delighted yelp. "She's got wings!" And then the game is up.
Maddie is delighted, Ellie is not.
Ellie is less trusting than her daughter or her parents, knows of the Justice League, knows who her parents' guest is...knows what she did. In Ellie, she gets the response she was expecting; fear, anger, distrust. And she has no answer that will satisfy the other woman. Her own answers barely satisfy her own questions.
"You're the one that turned on us," Ellie says, later, when the two women are out feeding the horses. "The one that told all our secrets to the Thanagarians."
She fetches hay for the horses without either confirming or denying Ellie's accusations. She doesn't need to - her wings are all the proof anyone needs to condemn her. They are her birthright, but also her curse. There is nowhere in the world where she can go and not be recognised: not with the burden she carries on her shoulders, in her soul.
There was never reason to think of her wings as a burden before.
Maddie, young as she is, thinks they're wonderful. "They're all feathery!" The little girl exclaims as she climbs on the bed without invitation. However, the child does ask before touching. Just as well. Jelly-jam is nearly impossible to get out of wings. "Can I... Can I touch them?"
Small fingers brush the feathers, awed by the softness, intrigued by the layer of skin and muscle beneath them. "It's like a chicken!" Maddie tells her mother and grandparents at dinner. "Except not plucked!"
Jim smacks his hand on his forehead, but laughs heartily; and, after seeing their guest's tiny smile, so does Lisa. Ellie doesn't laugh at all; she frowns, making her forehead a mass of wrinkles.
Over the next few days, she avoids Ellie and Ellie avoids her. It's a difficult situation.
Ellie reminds her a little of Diana: blunt, straightforward Diana who didn't bother with guile, and spoke what was on her mind. So she craves Ellie's company, remembering what she lost; but hating the way the human woman looks at her, wary of what she is, of what she did.
She lives with it, like so much else.
Ellie's husband Ben arrives, and she pauses as she leads her horse in at the gate, Max trotting at her heels. Maddie gambols about her father, squealing to be picked up as he kisses Ellie tenderly. Then Maddie spots her and bounds over, and there is no escaping the scrutiny of the stranger.
Ben is less trusting than Maddie, but more willing to make allowances than his wife. But when he asks for her side of the story, she baulks, unwilling to tell him. She's not sure why, only that there's something about him that makes her wary.
Jim and Lisa seem glad to have their family about them, and she makes herself scarce, well aware that she is the hired help and not a part of their unit.
Again, Maddie foils her plans. The child practically drags her out to the living room where the adults sit, insisting that Shayera has to watch Walt Disney's Hercules with her. Maddie sits down in her lap, making escape impossible, and sings along in a voice that is surprisingly in key for a six year old, while the other adults hide smiles.
Later, when Maddie is stowed in bed, Ben comes out and sits down in the chair opposite hers. "You know," he says, smiling slightly, "You'd make a great angel for the Christmas Nativity play."
John once said the same thing to her. The memory brings a bittersweet smile to her face.
Ben nods. "How long do you plan to be out here?"
She hesitates. "I don't know." It's not as though she has anywhere else to go. "Until..." Until she works out whether she's going to live or die. Until she sorts out what she's going to do with herself. Until she can pay back what she took from the people of Earth. "I don't know."
He seems to understand her hesitance, for he sits back in his chair and engages her in conversation about her work on the farm. She answers as readily as she can, relieved that he's not going to press her about her past - about the Justice League, or the Thanagarians. She's not yet ready to answer those questions.
He seems somehow familiar, and it's not until that afternoon when they've ridden out to see the northeastern field that she realises why.
Ben leans across his horse to kiss Ellie, partly out of mischief, partly out of affection. Ellie leans back to return the kiss with marked enthusiasm.
Shayera turns her horse around, both out of respect for their privacy and because she remembers John doing the same to her once in a while. It was usually when they were out saving the world again, and they had a moment of peace and quiet, out of the sight of the others. Not many moments like that, but she has a few memories stored away.
The melancholy hits her hard and rough.
Ben's a lot like John in some ways; the solidarity of his presence, the way he looks at a problem - direct and to the point, the passion that runs beneath the surface appearance of a tough man. And it hurts to be reminded of him.
As she turns her horse back for the house, she's glad they're not staying long.
She's sitting out in the long, dry grass of the yard while Max chases small white butterflies, when Ellie steps out of the back door and rustles her way through the parched plants to where she sits.
"You want to talk about it?"
She's startled by the question. "No." And she doesn't. That belongs to another time and place, somewhere that isn't here.
"Okay." Ellie isn't minded to push. But the kindness of asking is enough.
They sit there out in the grass, saying nothing, just thinking their own thoughts, until Lisa comes to the porch and calls them in for dinner. They go inside in a silence that is, if not companionable, at least accepting.
The roast is laid out on the table and eaten with every evidence of enjoyment. Afterwards, Maddie is loaded into the back seat of her father's truck to head back to their house on the other side of town. Ellie kisses her mother and father, and offers her hand to Shayera.
"See you around."
Ben lifts one hand in a brief wave, and a minute later, they're nothing but a spectral dust trail rising along the long driveway out to the road.
Lisa goes in, but Shayera stays outside.
She's a little frightened by how much Ellie's approval means to her. She's only known the woman a couple of days, and most of that was spent in distrust. Perhaps it's because Ellie is, if not willing to understand, at least willing to accept and offer a little forgiveness.
"Shayera?" Jim pauses behind her, frowning slightly. "You okay?"
Forgiveness means a lot. It was something she never explicitly received from her teammates, although perhaps that could be considered part of their willingness to at least discuss her return to the League.
"Yeah," she manages. "I'm okay."
He nods; taking her words at face value, then pats her on the shoulder and walks away. Several seconds later, the screen door slaps shut and she is alone out in the night.
For the first time in months, she takes to the sky for nothing other than the joy of the flight. As she ascends into the velvet night, the cool breezes of the wind caress her, and she almost laughs as she remembers the joy of flying again.
That there's a reason forgiveness is likened to giving someone wings.
The farm spreads out below her, the lights growing dimmer as she climbs higher, higher, soaring through the inky black. She climbs until the lights are tiny pinpricks, almost as small as the stars themselves. But she hasn't flown like this in too long, and her shoulders and back are beginning to ache with muscles unused.
So she flies down, a controlled descent, unlike the plunge that brought her to this place weeks ago.
The lights of the farmhouse grow bigger, a beacon guiding her back. It's comfortable and serviceable, although it's not home and never will be. Not like the skies of Thanagar. Not like the cool peace of the Watchtower in high orbit.
It's not home, but it's a place to lay her heart.
For the moment, it's enough.
---- FIN ----
AUTHOR'S NOTES: This is my first JL fic ever written, although I've been watching the show for nearly 6 months. And I know it contradicts (probably) what happens in the JLU Season 3 episode 'Return' but I like this idea...