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The alchemy of romance

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Kara’s never cared that much for alchemy.

She’s not like other practitioners of magic, openly sneering at a discipline that’s as close to actual science as it gets, but she’s never really managed to wrap her head around it. She sucks at math for starters, and that’s what alchemy is, fundamentally. 

It’s math and complicated formulae and logic

Sure, one extra pinch of woodworm can kill a person too, but alchemy is just so abstract . Kara doesn’t get it, and not from lack of trying. Not from lack of effort either, although that mostly comes from her friend Lena. 

Lena Luthor, top-tier friend and alchemist extraordinaire in Kara’s humble opinion, who spent so many evenings trying to make Kara understand, and who’s now invited her inside her laboratory.

That’s such a trusting gesture. Intimate, almost. As though Kara showed Lena her altar. Which is something she’s thought about doing several times, but never had the courage to. 

In the week leading to the lab visit, Kara digs up every last reference to alchemy she can find in the books she owns. Her library is mostly made up of herbalism manuals and ancient healing texts, none of which really treat the topic except from a few passing lines by Trotula de Ruggero that, after she’s read them enough times she gives herself a migraine, leave her more puzzled than before she started. Still she tries her hardest to prepare. Takes notes, digs up every scrap that she can get her hands on. Eats so much dust there’s about enough for a desert in her lungs.

Kara’s sure Lena will gladly answer all of her questions, but she doesn’t want to, like, come off as completely dumb. It’s important to her that Lena thinks her smart. On an equal intellectual level. And it’s got nothing to do with Kara’s own ego — healers are discouraged from developing too much of one anyhow, because death invariably will put you in your place — and it has everything to do with the way her heart speeds up whenever Lena’s close. Or looking into her eyes. Or talking to her. Or simply existing, really.

Although, tachicardia does run in the family.

By the time she thinks that a trip to the town’s more comprehensive library is in order, however, Saturday is upon her, and she finds herself outside Lena’s door armed with plenty of takeaway food, but very little knowledge.

Kara and Lena spend a lot of time together, and she’s been to her house plenty of times. They have movie marathons on the regular, meet at the local coffee shop each week to indulge Kara’s donut cravings, and on weekends, they collect herbs and interesting rocks out in the fields and woods beyond the town’s limits. 

But tonight, curling her fingers around the ring of the lion-shaped brass knocker on Lena’s front door feels different. 

Kara’s heart thuds unpleasantly against her ribcage, and it isn’t an unfamiliar feeling. She gets the same way whenever she’s faced with a particularly bad ailment. When she isn’t sure her skills will be enough to save her patient. 

But it’s fine, right? Lena wants her here, and it’s rare, mostly unheard of, but not unusual for close friends to share details of their respective practices. After all, if Lena wanted to know more about healing, Kara would be more than happy to teach her. That’s what friends are for, isn’t it? 

Friends share and grow together. 

Friendship is surely all there is behind Lena allowing Kara in her sanctum. Being hopelessly in love with her best friend is a Kara-only problem.

Sucking in a breath that doesn’t slow down her heart at all, Kara knocks. 

***

Lena is nervous.

Scratch that. Lena is terrified. Letting Kara see her lab is like being in front of her without wearing any clothes. Actually, the latter scares her less. 

Kara’s never given any indication that she shares the same views (which sometimes are downright prejudice) of other magic users, but she’s never seen Lena in action either. What if she changes her mind? What if the lack of —- well, anything overtly magical in the strict sense of the word — makes her realize that being Lena’s friend has been a waste of time? A mistake? Lena’s wanted somebody to share her art with for a long time (forever, really) and she’s never happier than when they are walking in the woods, and Kara brings her handfuls of pyrite or other minerals she knows Lena’s alchemical works require. 

Giving it all up — losing Kara — scares her half to death.  

Hours before Kara’s due to arrive, Lena almost calls the invite off, but then there’s knocking at her door and it’s too late. Telling herself that the fact she can’t move past her unrequited crush is her own issue, Lena swallows past the lump suddenly blocking her throat the best she can and opens the door.

***

Cat Grant, Kara’s mentor in all things magical, had tried to teach her about alchemy once. Way back when they weren’t sure what Kara’s calling would turn out to be, her teacher had walked her through one school of magic every week, and tested her to see which she’d be more attuned to. 

As an Abjurer, Cat was more than qualified for the task. Anything deadly Kara accidentally cast in her inexperience, Cat was able to cancel out without harm done. Except for that one time Kara had tried to conjure fire unsupervised — her eyebrows have not been the same since.

But even Cat, as great a teacher as she had been, couldn’t keep her awake all the way through an alchemy lesson. 

Still, there’s one or two things Kara remembers from Cat’s teachings on the matter. Chief among them is an alchemist’s emphasis on order .

It shows, she thinks, in how Lena’s house looks at a first glance. The controlled chaos of Kara’s own home is absent. Lena’s cottage is polished wood and shining brass, not a speck of dust in sight. The only plants she owns are the succulents Kara gifts her on birthdays or just buys for her when the mood strikes, and where her library is a mess of well-thumbed books and sheafs of parchment, Lena’s are categorized by subject. Then alphabetically. Then by size and color. 

It’s only after a more thorough exploration that the secret warmth of Lena’s home shines through. It’s visible in the small things, hidden until you start to pay attention.

The left cushion of the couch is softer and more yielding than the right, because that’s where Lena likes to curl up with her books; nearest the fireplace. One of the mantle stones is more worn than the rest as it’s the one Lena explained she rubs for a bit of luck before trying a new formula.

There’s always a kettle ready on the stove — enchanted to never run out of water — in case one of Lena’s rare guests would want a cup of tea. More tea varieties than Kara can name or knows how to pronounce lined in jars inside a cabinet.

The stove itself — an antique model that burns wood instead of gas — Kara’s helped cook on plenty of times. 

Those are some of her most cherished memories. 

Lena’s firelit kitchen is a place where love and warmth reside, the air thick with heat and the smell of foodstuffs. Stew gurgling gently on the stove, and a pie baking in the oven below; alchemists are excellent bakers, Kara’s discovered much to her delight. And then, there’s the two of them, sometimes joined by Sam, filling the small space with laughter and stories. 

Under the cold and orderly appearance, Lena’s house is warm. And so is she.

***

“You still wanna see it?” Lena asks softly after dinner, aiming for confidence but falling woefully short. Thing is, part of her wants Kara to say no, and there’s no spell potent enough to shut it up. It fosters doubt, uncertainty, feelings that took root the moment her path became clear. 

Lena hates everything she heard and was taught growing up, which was to hate herself, truly, for not being a proper mage like the rest of them. Not a great conjurer like her father and Lex, not an illusionist like Lillian. And it never served her well to argue that alchemy creates things too, alters reality and, sometimes, transmutes it. 

But, despite the fear curdling on her tongue, she wants Kara too see her, all of her, for what she is. And so, she cannot help but ask.

They’ve migrated to the couch, and are snuggled under her favorite hand-knitted blanket for what Kara insists on calling their “ post dinner cuddles .” Not even remotely imagining how devastating that is to Lena’s fragile heart. 

“Of course I do!” Kara’s eyes have been drifting shut, but now she blinks them open, the blue ambaric and alert. “If you still wanna show it to me.”

“I wouldn’t have mentioned it, if I wasn’t sure.” She lies, and this time her voice is a tiny bit more steady. All it’ll take to make her resolve crumble is one well-meaning you don’t have to on Kara’s part, so Lena kicks the blanket off, setting things into motion before her fears can make her reconsider. “Come on.” A shiver races down her spine, but she tells herself it’s the chill of the late autumn night. There's a small fire blazing away in the hearth, but the cottage is old, the window casings warped. The wind refuses to stay out.

It was warmer under the blanket, with Kara curled into her side. Lena’s body is just reacting, mourning the loss of warmth. There’s nothing more to it. Nothing at all.

“This way.” Taking Kara’s hand, Lena tugs her toward the back of the house.

Their fingers lace as if holding hands with Kara is something Lena often does, and where they touch it’s sparks flying. The hum of magic in the air, making the air around them ripple the same way it does on hot summer days. 

As they move down the narrow hallway, Lena becomes painfully aware she’s never let anyone else see this part of the cottage before. She makes sure her living room and kitchen feel welcoming to visitors, but traces of her presence — of her history and feelings and desires — are kept to a minimum.

It’s not like she has a lot of friends she could show it to, anyway.

In fact, the fingers of one hand are enough to count them with room to spare. There’s Kara, of course, and Sam. Jack, although he’s an ocean away, studying old stones and ley lines. 

There used to be Andrea. 

And if Kara entering her life means that her circle of acquaintances is slowly expanding — she can be convinced to spend an evening with Kara’s friends now and again — this still feels like a tremendously big step. One she won’t be able to retrace.

The lab is tucked at the very back of Lena’s home, past the bedroom and her private bathroom. Past the boiler room — she keeps meaning to have a galvanic one installed, always forgets about it — and a guest room that, over the years, she’s turned into more storage. 

The door that leads into her workspace is the most ordinary piece of wood imaginable. Rose-veined oak, it matches the other doors in the house, and nothing about it suggests it conceals anything dangerous. 

That is, until Lena fits a slender key to a specially made lock and turns it.

***

As she follows Lena, Kara does her best to keep her curiosity under control. Her friend is a very private person, bordering on secretive sometimes, and Kara’s afraid that a wrong move will send her running, like a deer catching wind of the hunter in the woods. 

She can’t help stealing a few peeks at her surroundings. The door that leads to Lena’s bedroom has been left ajar, and Kara has a fleeting glimpse of tumbled blankets and fluffy pillows, a dark green housecoat carelessly thrown across the back of a chair. She averts her eyes immediately, heat suffusing the tips of her ears. It feels too private. A glimpse of Lena’s most intimate moments. Definitely not meant for her

“Here we are.” 

Lena’s words save Kara from herself, and her attention shifts ahead, to a shut door at the end of the hallway. It’s hard to focus on it for more than a few seconds at a time, Kara discovers, as if her gaze is glancing off of it. 

Wards are one of magic’s pillars, maybe the first thing a new practitioner is taught. She’s always been aware of those protecting Lena’s home, like a headache on the cusp of itself, a faint throb of dormant power at the base of her skull. Kara’s own are boons from the gods she worships, or glyphs infused with her intent. 

The shields Lena employs are different in nature, but no less effective. A flash of pyrite to burn a thief’s hand should it tamper with the window’s latch. Wolf’s bane and argentum cornu smeared across her thresholds to ward against what horrors may crawl out of the night. Gypsum-painted letters across the casing of her front door, in a language so old it makes Kara’s head spin and her tongue twist into knots when her gaze wanders, and forgetting the effect they have on her she tries to read them. 

The same sort of power is at work here, the pure note of a plucked harp chord that grows to a crescendo in her ears the moment Lena pulls a key from the silver chain around her neck. The cuts briefly catch on the edge of her shirt’s collar, and when Kara’s mind flies to where it must have rested — between Lena’s breasts, if the length of the chain is any indication — she starts to blush all over again. 

“Ready?” Lena checks with her one final time.

“Yeah.”

The key turns, the door unlocks, and Kara realizes she’s not even remotely prepared for what lies beyond. 

***

"A liminal space ?"

The strangled note in Kara's voice fills Lena with pride. She stands a little straighter, a touch taller than she is. Ushers Kara inside a room that's at least four times bigger than it looks from the outside.

Kara's eyes go as big as saucers. 

" Wow ." She gasps, gaze cutting to the ceiling, vaulted like that of a cathedral. "This is so cool!"

It's evident, from the way she's thrust her hands into her pockets, nearly ripping right through the front of her pants, that Kara wants to touch everything and not doing so is inducing a physical sort of pain. Lena has to fake a bout of cough to hide her smile.

Silver-edged beams float into the laboratory from an overhead skylight, and lost in her exploration, Kara pauses underneath it, head whipping this way and that as she tries to drink in every detail all at once.

She looks so beautiful like this. Bathed in the moon's sempiternal glow, the pale light gathering around her temples like a halo. Lena never could see auras — her talents lie elsewhere — but she imagines Kara's might look just like this. Morning fog and clouds, dewing her skin.

Lena's cheeks flush red, and she rubs the sleeve of her soft sweater across her face, as if that could wipe the color off

She clears her throat and says:

“Do you want a tour?” 

“Please?” Kara is vibrating with excitement and a few of Lena’s most delicate instruments pick up on her energy. The platinum chased astrarium on her work table reacts, the hands on the clock face spinning, the tiny planets revolving faster around the gold plated sun in their midst, spinning on their axes. 

Whoops .” Kara reddens, realizing what she’s done. A frown digs deep lines across her blow and as she ducks her head, the astrarium slows. “Sorry.” 

“Oh, don’t worry about it.” Lena fondly runs her index finger over the symbol for the sixth house. Kara’s ruling house, according to her birth chart; not that Lena’s checked. 

The astrarium’s reaction is good, actually. The spirit living inside its metal parts is old and cranky. Easily upset. Lena’s never seen it accepting another living thing before. Admittedly though, she’s only ever brought in mice. 

“Come on.” Without thinking, Lena takes Kara’s hand again, and a row of 40 watts galvanic bulbs flickers to life. One of them burns out immediately, raining glass onto the floor, and well, maybe they need to curtail the enthusiasm just a little. 

After all, the room itself needs to adjust. It’s never held two practitioners at once. 

“Alright.” Lena is reluctant to release Kara’s hand, and the feeling must be mutual. Kara clings to her as long as she dares, fingers dragging across Lena’s knuckles, then lets her hand drop with a nod of understanding. She’s feeling it too, the sudden surge of power and how it gains in strength the longer contact is maintained. As they take an extra safety step away from one another, gazes locked, the night itself seems to release the breath it had been holding. 

After that, Lena is more careful. 

She takes Kara in a slow counterclockwise tour around the room, naming the rest of her instruments and fielding all of her friend’s questions. Kara’s thirst for knowledge is insatiable; she asks about the processes of alchemy and practical uses. Listens attentively while Lena explains the different ways the craft can be adapted to improve everyday life. When it comes to the use of ores and minerals, Lena asks just as many things: some of the substances she gathers for her work are also employed in healing magic. 

They’ve circled back to the work bench when Lena’s gaze comes to rest on the bowl of moonwater she needs to transfer into a waiting line of bottles. The water’s fully charged, and leaving it out another night would spoil it, but she can’t just ask— 

“Do you want some help with that?” Conscious that the work bench is where Lena’s own kind of magic takes place, Kara’s hung a step behind, but now she shuffles forward, close enough that her breath stirs the hair at the back of Lena’s neck. Only the memory of the shattered bulb keeps her from sinking back into Kara’s frame. She has no doubt that if she caved and did — pretending to fall, so it isn’t too obvious — Kara would catch her. 

“I’ve bottled moonwater before.” Kara is saying, taking her silence for mistrust. She’s still smiling, but a faint shadow of hurt is creeping into the blue of her eyes. “During my apprenticeship. Well, I guess it’s been a while but—”

“Okay.” Lena says, flinching when it comes out almost desperate. “I mean, I could use a hand.”

“Lucky for you, I have two.” 

Kara surely doesn’t mean it that way, but Lena’s flustered again, and angels above, the heat of it reaches all the way down south. 

“Alright then.” She rummages into one of her drawers for a funnel and hands it to Kara, biting back a gasp when their fingers brush. “You bottle up and I seal them?” 

***

Kara never thought working with another could feel this intense, yet peaceful. There’s an ebb and flow to the energy between them now, the tide lapping at the shore and then retreating. Control is one breath away from slipping yet, somehow, they manage to hang in the balance. Tightrope walkers, using one another’s weight in order not to fall.

She’s done magic work with Cat, of course, but that was more about Cat supervising and occasionally yelling at her than working together. Healing is a solitary practice. She knows that, in ancient times, if the ground itself happened to be sick, groups of healers would be called upon to hasten its recovery, but that hasn’t been done in a long time. Centuries, maybe. 

Things have changed and if Kara doesn’t share in the belief that magic is disappearing from the world, she isn’t so naive as not to know it’s been swept to its fringes. 

Alchemy doesn’t require spoken incantation, and yet what she and Lena are doing — pouring and stoppering and sealing each bottle with a dollop of melted wax — feels liturgical. It’s easy to get lost in the repetition. Stir, pour, hand the bottle off and grab an empty one. 

She knows conversation is not forbidden, but she’s loath to break the silence. When they come to the last bottle, though, curiosity has the best of her.

“So, I wanted to ask you something.” Kara knows it’s stupid. She also knows that Lena must have heard the same question hundreds, possibly thousands of times. She thinks of shrugging it away, but Lena’s looking at her expectantly, and there’s no turning back. “Is it true,” Kara begins, cringing internally, because really can she be more dumb? “that alchemists can turn lead into gold?” 

***

Lena had anticipated it. Honestly she’d started to wonder when Kara would ask. 

After all, most people believe that’s alchemy’s true goal. The transmutation of common metals into gold. But what Lena and those like her really want is a glimpse at the gears that make the universe tick. Not to become gods, but to understand nature’s inner workings. 

“Yeah, it’s true.” In theory. “But it’s very… intensive work.” intensive meaning that hundreds of alchemists before Lena was born have tried, wasting thousands of man-hours, and nobody had managed. “Honestly you are better off mining for it.” There’s enough gold under the ground to go around for anyone willing to swing a pickaxe. 

Creating risible quantities out of other minerals is frankly silly. A hobby for stuffy old men who have begun to feel death’s cold touch fall across their lives and latch to dreams like stubborn children instead of facing the inevitable.

Obviously, Lena’s never said so where anyone can hear, and especially not during the Annual Alchemy Convention. Transmutation is a serious matter for everyone involved, and the last alchemist who tried to fool the grand committee into believing they’d finally succeeded was kicked out of the lodge. 

Nobody knows what happened to once-respected Flamel after that.  

“Have you?” Kara asks, forgetting herself enough to lean in. This close, Lena can count the constellation of tiny freckles spanning the bridge of Kara’s nose. Take in every small, often overlooked detail of her face, like the faint line of the scar creasing her upper lip, from a tumble Kara has taken as a child. The way her lashes flutter when she blinks. How she licks her lips when she gets excited and — god, but it would help Lena think if she stopped doing that right now. “Can you? Turn lead into gold?” 

“Of course I can.” The words are muffled. Weirdly stretchy as if she’s speaking underwater. Lena watches them roll from her tongue in slow motion, and can’t tear her eyes away. It’s like her common sense, which usually saves her from sticking her entire leg into her mouth has vacated the premises. There’s only Kara left, and all Lena can think about is to impress her.

“Ooohhh,” Kara places a hand on her forearm, and Lena’s done for. She can tell what’s coming next, and there’s no need for clairvoyance to know she won’t be able to say no. “Can you show me?”