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I don't want to pretend (I don't want to be friends with you)

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Lena has been living in the village of Midvale for a few months. She should have moved on by now, but there’s a strange charm about the small town that Lena can’t bring herself to part from. Even in the winter months, there is a warmth that Lena has never experienced on her journeys across the country. After running away from her horrible family, she spent years traveling, selling herbs and medicines along the way, and never spending more than a few weeks in any place. It’s not much in the way of reparations, but Lena helps wherever she can. 

She’s never felt so drawn to stay in a place before, but Lena can’t tear herself away from Midvale. Instead of renting, she even bought an empty building and turned the main floor into a shop, with her small apartment in the attic above. 

The moss that grows on the faded stones of Lena’s apothecary seeps into the fraying, pine paint of the doors and window shutters, making the whole building look ragged and weathered—even in comparison to the surrounding shops and cottages. She has to replace a couple of the broken panes of the large windows, and the glass is a little on the murky side, but that’s how Lena likes it. Less sun shines in that way, and it makes her space cool, keeping her ingredients fresh for longer. 

Not that Lena has a lot of customers to buy her product. The village is small, and most people prefer to wander into the surrounding woods to gather their own herbs and ingredients. Still, Lena’s preserved remedies prove useful in the few emergencies that occur, and though the people are no longer wary, all but a handful of them keep their distance. One woman, in particular, is determined to befriend Lena.

She sighs as she unlocks her front door, shaking stray thoughts of blonde hair and blue eyes away. ‘Lena’s Elixers,’ is written in iron on the sign above, and the metal creaks in the slight wind. Lena rolls her eyes at the little brass bell that dings as she opens her door. She’s been meaning to have it removed but has better things to do. The dark chestnut wood of her shelves is stained a deep green, making the jars and vials of powders or liquid seem more natural, almost alive in their disarray.

Lena has a system of organization—it looks like she doesn’t, but Lena knows where everything is hidden. All healing elixirs, creams, or powders are stored together, as with any other category, with her most valuable items tucked away behind small cupboards or in nets that are tied to the shelves. It’s not Lena’s fault that each concoction suits a specific type of jar. To an average observer, her shop looks like a mess. Yarrow and lemongrass hang to dry from long ropes fastened between the shelves, amongst other flora and fauna that Lena needs for her concoctions. She stifles another sigh. She’s out of lavender and will have to wander into the woods for more. 

She peeks her head out into her back garden to double-check, but Lena knows she used the last of her stock, and her usual patch of lavender is empty. No small, purple petals bloom amongst her coneflowers or primroses. She peers into the sky, biting her lip and hoping the few clouds overhead don’t rain down on her. She grabs her weaved gathering basket before walking along the stone path in her back garden, lifting the hem of her burgundy skirts and stained, white apron so she doesn’t trip. She pauses at the apiary in the back corner to check her bees. 

“Hello, little ones,” Lena murmurs as she taps on their home in a series of knocks the bees now recognize. They buzz back at her and she smiles. The chipped pine paint of the wooden box matches Lena’s shop, and as she peels a flake of it away, she resolves to get them both repainted. One of the bees lands on her finger and she guides it to a nearby foxglove. 

Lena flinches at the sound of breaking ceramic, turning to find Kara Danvers in a pale blue dress. She looks like one of Lena’s flowers—or she would if she didn’t keep damaging the other foliage with her clumsiness. Dirt and broken pot pieces are scattered across Lena’s path, along with the mint that had been growing there, but even in the midst of Kara’s usual destruction, Lena’s chest expands with that strange warmth she hasn’t found anywhere else. 

“Sorry,” Kara says with a wince. She sighs and grabs the straw broom Lena keeps at her back door for such occasions. “I was wondering if you wanted company! I thought you might go out into the woods today, and there are… bears around here. I think. Maybe.” 

Lena raises an eyebrow as she walks over to pick up the broken pieces. Kara blushes as she sweeps the dirt off of the stones, avoiding Lena’s gaze. It’s the dozenth one Kara has broken since they met, not that Lena is keeping track. Heedless of the pristine condition of her flowing, blue gown, Kara kneels in the grass after she’s finished sweeping to help Lena gather the broken pot. The knees of her blue dress get stained green just as Lena’s apron does. 

“Have you ever seen a bear in these woods?” Lena asks, piling the sharp pieces into an empty pot nearby.  

“No, but Alex has. She’s told me stories from her hunting trips,” Kara explains, glancing at Lena with flushed cheeks and wide, hopeful eyes. She’s sweet—much too sweet, and Lena curses herself for liking it.

Kara winces and pulls her hand away from the ceramic edges, trying to hide her closed fist behind her back. 

Lena raises an eyebrow at her before she holds out her hand with a silent demand to see Kara’s injury. Kara pouts as she lays her hand in Lena’s, where blood drips out of a small, deep cut on the tip of her finger. 

“Come on,” Lena sighs before she pulls Kara to her feet. She holds Kara’s injured hand in a gentle grasp, trying not to blush as she leads Kara into the shop. They stop behind the counter where Lena keeps her more expensive concoctions. 

Kara pulls herself up to sit on the counter in a practiced maneuver she has done many times. The familiarity of it makes Lena’s lips twitch in a small smile as she pulls out a jar of seafoam green paste, along with a small bandage. That unavoidable warmth is back, striking Lena in the heart, and all she can do is struggle to ignore it. 

“How do you intend to fight off a bear?” Lena teases as she wipes the blood away from Kara’s cut, cleaning the area before applying the eucalyptus cream. 

Kara pouts at her, sticking out her bottom lip before she asks, “Do you want my company or not?” 

Lena sighs as she wraps Kara’s finger with the small bandage, letting go of Kara’s soft hands as she bites her lip. Why would someone from such noble blood want to spend time with Lena, a lowly shopkeeper? Kara is smart when it comes to finances and owning land, running El Manor—one of the few noble houses for miles around. Kara is accomplished in her own right. It doesn’t make sense for her to want to spend time with Lena, and besides, Kara can barely walk through Lena’s shop without breaking at least three things. 

 Clumsy doesn’t begin to describe it. Despite that, Kara is certain to keep things interesting. She always does, and even her clumsiness is endearing. Lena grumbles at herself before she mutters, “Fine.” 

The beaming pressure of Kara’s smile makes Lena turn on her heel to hide the way her cheeks heat up. Kara is quick to hop off the counter and follow Lena out of the shop. 

They walk across the path and into the underbrush that leads to the forest, Kara tripping over loose rocks and roots as Lena leads the way. Wind rustles the trees, making them creak. Kara’s content chatter is interrupted by chirping birds or skittering animals. Lena doesn’t see a single one because Kara’s fumbling is loud enough to scare anything away, bears included. She often accompanies Lena on gathering journeys or sits in the back garden, watching the bees as Lena tends to things. Kara helps sometimes, too—she just needs to be shown the gentle precision an apothecary needs. 

They tell stories during their treks through the forest—about Lena’s journeys across the country and the interesting people she’s met, or about Kara’s responsibilities as a noble heir. Kara always makes the long hike to the meadow by the river feel much shorter than it is, and by the time they reach it, the morning sun has dried the dew off the long grass. They settle together in the flowers next to the bubbling stream, and as they pick what flowers Lena needs, Kara talks. It’s nice, for the most part. 

Hers and Kara’s is a connection that Lena never expected to find, but sometimes she wishes that Kara was a little less open. Her honesty hurts sometimes.

“My choosing ceremony is in three days,” Kara mumbles. Lena almost misses it over the trickling water in the slow river, but she doesn’t miss the way Kara’s eyebrows are pinched together or the way she worries her bottom lip. 

“I’m sure you’ll have many options,” Lena forces herself to say. She doesn’t want to think about Kara’s choosing day. Half the village is already in love with her, and each of them will offer something more valuable than Lena ever could.

“I guess,” Kara sighs. She runs the outside of her fingers along the soft purple petals instead of gathering them, her blonde curls blowing in the light breeze. 

Lena frowns at her, wondering why having such ample choices of potential spouses is so upsetting. It’s the ideal everyone aims for, especially families of noble blood, like Kara’s. When it comes time to marry, suitors will present Kara with a gift to signify what a union with them would offer, and Kara will choose who or what she desires most. To accept a gift is to accept a marriage.

Lena has to work hard not to crush the soft lavender she picks. This is how marriage works in Midvale, and Lena has no right to complain about it. There’s no use in feeling upset, and there’s nothing she can do. She has nothing to offer, even if she could find the words to tell Kara how she feels. 

“What about James?” Lena asks. She swallows to subdue the wave of nausea the suggestion causes, keeping her eyes focused on the flowers before her. “He’s strong. Good with a blade. He can protect you.” 

“From what?” Kara scoffs. She looks around the forest as if the lack of danger there proves James’ sword unnecessary. 

“Bears?” Lena raises an eyebrow, and Kara scowls at her with blushing cheeks. Lena chuckles before she forces herself to say, “He’s kind.” 

“He is, but I don’t want to marry him,” Kara mutters, looking lost as she bites her lip and gazes at Lena. 

“Perhaps you’ll know on choosing day,” Lena offers, dropping the last bundle of flowers into her basket before she stands up and brushes dirt off her knees. Kara sighs before she follows, handing Lena a frayed bouquet of lavender. She’ll grind those ones up with the mortar and pestle. 

Kara is quiet on the walk back to Lena’s shop. She trips less with her eyes downcast, and Lena’s brow is just as furrowed as Kara’s. When they approach the backdoor of Lena’s shop, Kara hesitates and fiddles with the hem of one of her sleeves. 

“Coming in for tea?” Lena asks. Her heart beats a little quicker as she tries to swallow her hope down, tries to push it to the bottoms of her feet where she can pretend it doesn’t exist, and maybe stomp it away. 

Kara shakes her head. “No, I should get back to the Manor.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow?” 

“Tomorrow,” Kara agrees. Her crooked smile doesn’t quite reach her eyes as she pulls Lena into a tight hug. Lena melts into it, always content with how generous Kara is with affection. Kara squeezes a little tighter before she lets go, taking Lena’s warmth with her as she walks away. 

Lena closes her eyes for a moment, taking a few deep breaths before she enters her shop alone. She’s quick to hang some of the flowers to dry, or otherwise organize them, but she doesn’t open the shop. Instead, Lena goes into her little attic apartment, hoping a cup of tea might make the strange emptiness go away. 

Though the sun beams through the windows of her small kitchen, and several herbs and spices thrive along her counter, Lena has to bite her lip to suppress her frown. The kettle sits on the stove, already filled with enough water for two, and her and Kara’s favourite teacups sit next to it.

She puts Kara’s teacup away. 

Lena grinds the lavender Kara picked into a paste before transferring the substance into an empty jar. It’s a slow process, and she’d prefer to be mixing ingredients into potions rather than preparing them, but she's learned the hard way not to procrastinate on the boring parts of her job, lest her stock go to waste. 

Her shop is awash in the afternoon sun, making the faded green of her shelves seem to shift with life, like the tops of distant trees in a gentle breeze. Her head shoots up as the little brass bell rings, and she smiles at Kara. She’s wearing a flowing, yellow dress today, tied with a brown leather belt that sinches her waist and accentuates her gentle curves. The afternoon sun fights to filter in through the stained glass, making Kara glow in the colourful beams of dust. 

“You look lovely,” Lena breathes before she can stop herself. Kara’s nose scrunches up as she smiles, pink floods her cheeks, and Lena can’t bring herself to feel embarrassed. Kara glances at the ground as she bites her lip, and then shakes her head. She holds the skirt of her dress up as she makes her way to Lena’s counter, careful not to bump into anything on accident. 

“So do you,” Kara says around a nervous chuckle. “I mean, you always look beautiful.” 

Lena forces her face to stay impassive as her cheeks heat, and Kara kicks at the floor. Sometimes Kara says or does things that make Lena think maybe her feelings are returned, but the moments disappear as soon as they come, leaving her more confused than ever. Kara must know by now how Lena feels about her. She wouldn’t deal with anybody else demolishing her shop. Lena’s heart stutters, and she stops grinding the lavender so she can fidget with her fingers. Kara’s eyes snap up when Lena places the pestle on the counter with a clink. 

“Oh! Do you want some help?” Kara offers as her eyes rake over the pile of lavender. 

“Sure,” Lena agrees. Maybe if she puts Kara to work, they’ll both stop blushing and Lena’s hands will stop shaking. Maybe her heart will calm down. 

Kara walks around the counter as Lena slides the mortar and pestle toward her, along with the lavender she hasn’t ground down yet. At the very least, they’ll both have something else to focus on. Kara starts to crush the small purple leaves, and Lena shakes her head. 

“Not like that,” Lena laughs as she covers Kara’s hands with her own. “It’s not a hammer and nail. You have to rock the pestle, like a wave. Then crush and grind.” As Lena explains, she guides Kara’s hands in the proper maneuver, albeit too light to be functional. “Does that make sense?” 

When she looks up, Kara is already staring back, and her mouth is agape. Their shoulders are pressed together, and Kara’s body heat floods through the layers of Lena’s dress. Her wide, blue eyes are captivating, like a sunrise over the ocean. Kara blushes, her eyes darting to the mortar and pestle before she nods. Lena swallows. She drags her fingertips up the exposed skin of Kara’s forearms, surprised by the wiry muscle there. 

She pulls her lingering hands away and curses herself. Of all people, Lena has to want Kara? She’s going to be married soon. Lena repeats that over and over in her head, hoping that the ever-expanding affection she has for Kara might diminish. It doesn’t, but Lena will never have a chance with Kara. Not with Kara’s choosing day so close. 

Lena turns to rummage through a cupboard, or pretend to, at least. She gets so lost in thought she doesn’t register when Kara’s usual low humming moves around her shop. 

“What are these?” Kara asks. Lena turns and her eyes widen, she holds out a useless hand, but she’s too far to stop anything. 

“No don’t touch-” Lena shouts as Kara’s fingertips stroke the small, powder-blue petals of the leadwort flowers “-those…”

Kara winces as she pulls her hand away from the vase. She sighs, “What did I do?”

“You’re going to get a rash,” Lena explains. “And your skin might turn grey.”

What? Why do you have flowers that will give people rashes? You’re supposed to stop rashes, Lena!” 

“They do stop rashes. And other skin ailments. Also, they help with indigestion, but only after they’re properly prepared,” Lena explains as she pulls a flask of clear, bubbling liquid out of a hanging net. “Come here.”

Kara pouts as she ambles over to the washbasin behind the counter, and Lena pours the liquid over Kara’s entire hand. 

“That should at least stop the blisters,” Lena mutters.

“I'm going to get blisters?”

“Not anymore. You'll be itchy though.” 

“Oh…” Kara’s frown deepens as she stares at where Lena clasps her wrist. “I suppose that’s a good thing, right? I’m not sure mother of father would be pleased if people fled on choosing day because of a blistery rash.” 

“That wouldn’t happen,” Lena scoffs as she lets go, grabbing a hand towel from a cupboard for Kara to dry her hands on. 

Kara’s brows furrow as she starts crushing the lavender again, and Lena winces at the awful scraping sounds. Kara rambles, “I’m worried there will only be people I don’t like there. Not that I don’t like them, but I mean like, you know? What if it’s just James there? I don’t want to marry James!” 

“What about Sam? She’s sweet, and she’s from an honorable house,” Lena suggests. Kara fumbles with the tools, dropping the pestle to the floor. “Her family is wealthy, too. She can take care of you.” 

“I don’t need to be taken care of,” Kara rolls her eyes before she stoops to pick up the pestle. “My family has enough wealth.”

“I’m sorry. You’re right. I just… I want you to be happy.” 

Kara fails to stifle a sigh and as she pauses in her work, she levels Lena with a pleading stare that Lena doesn’t understand. It leaves Lena with the sensation of having a word on the tip of her tongue, unable to recall it. It’s like she’s standing on the precipice of something unknown, but she doesn’t know how to take the plunge. There’s something just out of reach, but no matter how hard Lena tries, she can’t get to whatever it is. 

Kara offers a gentle smile, and she’s butchering the lavender into a useless sludge, but she fits into Lena’s shop so well. She fits into Lena’s life so well. Lena has never wanted anything the way she wants Kara, but she can never say it. 

“I want you to be happy, too,” Kara murmurs.

Lena is certain of what she needs to be happy. She knows she wants Kara to keep breaking jars in her shop. Lena wants to spend the rest of her life fixing whatever wounds Kara sustains in her clumsiness. Lena doesn’t want to watch Kara marry anybody but her, but what could Lena ever hope to offer? 

The choosing ceremony approaches way too fast. Lena fidgets with the fraying straw of her gathering basket in the middle of the village square. Vendors at the wooden booths are only half-trying to sell their merchandise, and the townspeople don’t bother to pretend to be interested in shopping. Red and blue flags with the El Crest hang from streetlights and strings between peoples’ houses and shops to honor the day. 

James stands with one of his most prized swords with a ribbon tied around it—an offering of protection, as Lena predicted. Sam, the last remaining member of another local noble house, stands with a gold bracelet. It has sapphires and is an obvious show of the wealth Sam can offer. Dozens of townsfolk stand with offerings of baked goods, weapons, vases, books, and heirlooms each more beautiful than the last. 

Lena bites her lip as she averts her gaze, certain she’s about to make the biggest fool of herself in front of the entire town. If she does, she'll finally have a good enough reason to move away. She has nothing to offer, but Lena can’t stand by and watch Kara accept an engagement to anybody else without ever telling Kara how she feels. She would never forgive herself. 

As predicted, when Kara arrives in town, people flock to her like moths to a flame. Lena might be annoyed if she could blame them, but she’s no better off. Kara is the brightest flame of all, and Lena is drawn to her beyond reason. And maybe this is a mistake, and the gentle, tender friendship they built together might burn to ash, but at least Lena will have been warm along the way. At least she’ll have tried. 

Alex stands next to Kara, trying to force her many suitors into some semblance of order. Lena’s stomach lurches at the large crowd, and she keeps her distance as Alex commands everyone to calm down. 

When the crowd breaks, Lena swallows. Kara is dressed in her family robes, and the navy hangs from her body like curtains while the red sash cinches the material. The House of El crest is pinned above Kara’s heart, and her blonde hair flows in loose waves. Her reddened hand is wrapped in the white bandage Lena gave her to hide the rash. 

Lena holds her breath as James approaches with his sword. She can’t hear from this distance away, and her knuckles turn white as her grip on the basket tightens. She doesn’t bother to stifle her sigh of relief as James hangs his head for a moment, nodding to Kara with an accepting smile before he turns away, sword in hand.

Lena takes a deep breath before she steps a little closer, trying to control the way her stomach churns at each new offer that Kara refuses with a polite smile. Sam, too, is turned away, and even though Winn has prepared Kara’s favourite cinnamon buns, they are not accepted. 

One by one, the crowd thins, and Lena’s heart rate hammers harder with each step closer to Kara. The suitors dwindle enough that Lena can’t hide behind them anymore, and Alex grins when Lena looks at her. 

There are a few people left with offerings, but Kara frowns. Her usually bright eyes are downcast as Alex waves Lena forward. Lena is dressed in her usual burgundy gown and dirt-stained apron, and given the heat of her ears, Lena’s not sure she’ll ever be able to stop blushing. Lena doesn’t have any riches or food to offer, nor any weapons. She can’t offer a single useful thing to the House of El, but Lena approaches anyway, with sweaty palms and a hammering heart. 

She clears her throat, and when Kara’s head snaps up to Lena, the rest of the world fades away, and Lena once again gets lost in the expansive blue of Kara’s hopeful eyes. Lena bites her lip as she raises the full basket. Within it, Lena has placed one of every healing herb and flower she could find. Calendulas, daisies, jasmine, and honeysuckle all fight to draw the most attention amongst the green foliage, and Kara’s eyes widen at the offering. 

“I have nothing to offer but this,” Lena explains as she holds the basket toward Kara. Her voice is ragged with nerves, but it doesn’t matter. She needs Kara to know. “I bring nothing but the promise that I can be here, for each broken pot, every cut or scrape, and for every minute you want to spend with me. I can offer nothing but afternoons in the garden, or mornings of picking lavender, evenings of tea from our favourite mugs, and the promise that I’ll always be here to listen. I have nothing but flowers that remind me of you, and a promise to love and care for you in any way you’ll let me.” 

Lena’s heart pounds as Kara stares at her. Her parted lips pull into a gentle smile, and the corners of Kara’s eyes crease as her happiness grows. She places her hands on top of Lena’s on the basket before she steps forward. 

“Nothing to offer,” Kara scoffs. Tears gather in her smiling blue eyes, and she gazes down at Lena as if a few common weeds are the thing Kara has desired most. “Lena, you offer me everything.” 

Kara chuckles at the surprise that overtakes Lena’s face, and she pries the basket out of Lenas shaking fingers with a crooked grin. 

“How could I pick anybody else?” Kara asks. 

Through her confusion, Lena smiles. “You want to be with me, too?”

“I love you,” Kara breathes, and all the warmth Lena has been feeling since she first met Kara finally makes sense. The reason Lena could never leave Midvale, every little thing that kept her here reminding her of Kara, the source of that strange warmth that Lena could never get enough of, and Lena smiles as she finally understands what it means—that Kara loved her all along. 

“I love you, too,” Lena murmurs, and Kara beams as she drags her soft fingers across Lena’s cheekbone before leaning in to kiss her. 

That subtle, unknown warmth Lena couldn’t hide from expands inside her chest like the rising sun, compounding in a way that makes Lena lightheaded and heavy all at once. Kara smiles as she pulls away, slipping her bandaged hand down Lena’s arm to lace their fingers together. 

“You picked all these flowers for me?” Kara teases, a shy smile gracing her handsome features. 

“I pick you,” Lena corrects, and Kara’s blush is all the reward Lena needs. 

“I was hoping you would,” Kara murmurs. “I wanted to pick you, too.”