"She's looking at houses," Clarke said. "She doesn't think I know, but she's not as sly as she thinks she is."
Lexa hesitated in the doorway of Clarke's apartment, wondering if maybe she should forget about lunch and go back the way she came. She'd thought Clarke might appreciate the help packing – or maybe a distraction from packing – but it sounded like she'd already recruited someone else for the task. Unless she was on the phone...
"I just wonder if it's really in your best interests to—"
"Mom," Clarke said sharply, cutting Abby off. "I already live with her. She's my wife, remember? You were there."
"I know," Abby sighed. "But where are you going to put everything? You said yourself there's no room for it in her apartment."
"Condo," Clarke corrected. "Like I said, she's looking at houses. So for now I put what we don't have room for in storage, and when we have someplace bigger, I get it out again. You're making this a much bigger deal than it is."
"You know that once your name is on a mortgage, the only way to be removed is to—"
"If you're not going to help, you can leave," Clarke interrupted. "I'm not going to stand here and listen do you go all doomsday prophecy on my marriage. I thought you liked Lexa."
"I do," Abby said. "And I like Aden, too." She paused, and Lexa imagined her rubbing the bridge of her nose and shaking her head. "It's all just happened so quickly."
"I know," Clarke said. "Trust me, I know. We've both asked ourselves, and each other, if we're crazy about a million times. The answer is always the same: 'Yes, probably, but we're happy, and isn't that what's most important?'"
"I want you to be happy," Abby said. "More than anything. I just also want you to have stability, and security, and—"
"And I do," Clarke said. "I have Lexa. I have her family. I have you, for as long as you stay... and I still have you when we can manage to overcome time zones and war zones and whatever else stands between us when you leave again. Can we please just get this mess into boxes?"
Another sigh, this one more resigned than exasperated, and maybe just a little amused. "I hope your wife knows what she's gotten herself into," Abby said. "Little drips of paint all over everything, glasses she used to be able to drink out of full of soaking paintbrushes on the counter, the scent of turpentine wafting through the air..."
Clarke laughed. "She knows," she said, "and she loves me anyway."
That night at dinner, eaten on trays in the living room because the area around the table – which was barely big enough for them to sit around in the first place – was filled with boxes Clarke had brought over of things she didn't want to have to drive to the storage unit to retrieve, Lexa decided she might as well dive into the deep end, since apparently Clarke had already noticed she was starting to wade.
"What do you think about moving to a bigger place?" she asked, trying to keep her tone casual. Although she'd eventually announced her presence at Clarke's, she'd tried not to let on how much she'd overheard. She might tell Clarke later – probably ought to tell Clarke, really, because she didn't want there to be secrets between them – but for now, she would let it seem like she was just bringing it up out of nowhere.
Clarke's eyebrows went up, and Lexa almost laughed. Clearly she wasn't as slick as she thought she was. "I love this place," she said.
"Now," Lexa interjected.
"Now," Clarke said, grinning. "Now that it has some color and life in it. But I definitely think we could use more space. A kitchen that all three of us can fit in at the same time without bumping into each other might be nice..."
Lexa looked at Aden, searching his face for whatever reaction he was trying to hide, because he tried so hard to never do or say anything that might upset them. She wondered if he would ever become a typical argumentative teen, and suspected that if he did, it would be after the adoption papers had been signed. Until then, rocking the boat was the last thing he wanted to do, even though it wouldn't change anything. Not for Lexa, and not for Clarke either.
"Would I have to change schools?" he asked.
"That depends on where we find a house," Lexa said. "It's a possibility. If you really want to stay at the school you're in, we can try to find a place in this area, but there are honestly better schools than where you are now."
"I know," Aden said. "It's more... my friends are here." He swallowed, the faint beginnings of an Adam's apple bobbing in his throat. "Tris is here."
"She is," Lexa said, "but Anya is also looking at moving, so we can try to get you both into the same school somewhere else."
"Do you think that could work?" Clarke nudged when Aden didn't say anything.
"I think so," he said quietly.
"Then I'll talk to Anya, see where she's looking, and we'll try to coordinate. Neither of us wants to move far anyway, because we still want to be near Luna, and she and Derrick aren't planning on moving any time soon. I think we'll be able to make it work."
Aden nodded, poking at the few bites left on his plate.
"There's more if you want it," Clarke said. "We won't be upset if we don't have to put away leftovers."
"Or make you put away leftovers," Lexa added. "I'm full, so whatever's left is yours."
He hesitated for less than a second before bouncing up and bounding to the kitchen, scraping the last of the stir fray onto his plate and coming back with it, courting disaster as he attempted to eat with chopsticks while walking.
Lexa held her breath until he was safely seated again. "Must Haves: enough space for an actual table to eat at," she intoned, and Clarke and Aden both laughed.
Lexa pressed a kiss to Clarke's back, between her shoulder blades, as she massaged her arms and sides in long strokes. "I'm not as sly as I think I am, huh?" she teased.
Clarke snorted, turning her head to look at her, but she couldn't crane her neck far enough with Lexa straddling her thighs. "You heard?"
"I heard," Lexa confirmed. "She still thinks we're making a mistake. Or you are."
Clarke sighed. "She thinks we're rushing into things we're not prepared for," she said, and Lexa couldn't see her roll her eyes, but she was sure that Clarke did. "She can't accept that not everyone will – or wants to – live their lives the way she lives hers. She's always been frustrated by the fact that I'm willing to accept a certain amount of chaos and uncertainty in my life, that I'm willing to take chances based on a feeling and not cold hard facts." She grunted softly as Lexa dug the heels of her hands into the small of her back. "God, Lex," she groaned, "do that again."
Conversation ceased as Lexa worked the knots from Clarke's muscles, tense from a day of packing and lifting and carrying the weight of boxes and her mother's judgment, and resumed only after Clarke made sure that Lexa was equally relaxed.
"I don't know if she'll ever change," Clarke said softly, her lips brushing Lexa's sweat-damp skin, "but she'll come around. Once she sees that we won't want out as quickly as we dove in, she'll come around. Especially when it finally sinks in that she's got the kindest, sweetest, most charming grandson a person could hope for."
"He is pretty awesome, isn't he?" Lexa asked. "Our son..."
"Our son," Clarke agreed, burrowing against her. "You think that will ever stop feeling the most amazing kind of strange to say?"
"Eventually," Lexa said, "when we're said it a couple of hundred times."
"What about 'wife'?" Clarke asked. "Do you think you'll ever get used to that one?"
"Used to? Yes," Lexa said. "Tired of? Never."
The next day Lexa talked to Anya, and after discovering that they were very much on the same page regarding the school district they ideally wanted to be in (the one Adria already attended), her house hunt began in earnest. She and Clarke had talked a little bit about what they wanted: three bedrooms, at least two baths, a big (or at least bigger) kitchen with an island with enough room for a table, or an adjacent dining area, a yard for Aden and the other kids to run around in so family gatherings didn't always have to be at Luna and Derrick's... The question was whether they would be able to find a house that gave them all those things, in the right district, at the right price.
After several days of fruitless searching on her own, she reached out to a realtor, and sooner than she expected she had a list of possible properties. She picked the ones that looked most promising and arranged for an afternoon off to go look at them. She'd hoped Clarke would be able to come with her, but her temp agency had come through with a semi-long-term placement, and Clarke had insisted that if they were buying a house, they needed the income, and she trusted Lexa's judgment.
"I was surprised you were able to find places so quickly," Lexa admitted when she met up with their realtor, Maya. "I was starting to think we were asking too much."
Maya laughed. "Not even close," she said. "You have a reasonable budget for the area you're looking, and three bedrooms is pretty standard. Trust me, I've seen much longer wish lists, and worked with plenty of people who don't know the different between 'need' and 'want'. There are very few people in the world who need a three-car garage, a pool, a gourmet kitchen, and an in-home movie theater, and yet..."
"I would go so far as to say there are no people who need that," Lexa said. "Point taken. Where do we start?"
They went to the first house, and Lexa thought it had potential, but it felt a little cramped and closed-off, and she thought they could do better. They toured three more properties, and with each one, Lexa felt like they were getting closer, but none of them felt quite right. None of them felt like home. Then again, neither had her condo until Clarke had come in and brought light and life to it, so maybe she was expecting too much.
"There's one more I'd like to show you," Maya said. "It wasn't on the list I sent you because it just came on the market. It's a little bigger than you were asking for, but it's in the district you want, and it would be at the top of your budget, but I think it's worth taking a look."
"All right," Lexa said, feeling a little silly for the swarm of butterflies chasing each other in her stomach as they drove to this new possibility. They drove right past Luna's road to get there, and the butterflies did a little swoop. Maya finally pulled up in front of the house, and Luna found herself unable to tear her eyes away.
The house was definitely bigger than she'd been imagining when she thought about their future home, but not so big as to be overwhelming, and she loved the fact that it was set back from the road a bit, with a big front yard, and trees all around. There were neighbors on either side and across the street, but not so close that they could look into each other's windows. Private without being secluded. After years of apartments and condos, Lexa could get behind that.
Maya unlocked the door and held it open for Lexa to step inside, and as soon as she did, she knew: this was home. As they walked from one room to another, the feeling grew and grew until it was overwhelming. When they reached a bonus room devoid of furniture but aglow with natural light, Lexa could imagine it filled with Clarke's canvases, drop cloths on the floor and an easel in the center – Clarke's very own studio, with room to spread out. They would need to put in a sink for her, and storage for her supplies, but those were just details.
Upstairs there were four bedrooms, which was one more than they needed, but Lexa was sure they could find use for an extra room... which they had plenty of downstairs in the finished basement as well. Behind the house was a deck that could use a little TLC, but nothing Derrick couldn't handle, maybe with the help of Aden and Tris (and Adria, if she was interested), and another big yard, this one fenced in to keep wayward children from straying too far.
"You said it just went on the market?" Lexa asked.
"Yes," Maya said. "I just got the listing this morning. You're actually the first person to see it."
"I want to put in an offer," Lexa said. "Now. Today. I don't want to lose this house."
Maya blinked in surprise, but she didn't argue. "I'll make some calls."
"Come on, lazybones... es," Lexa said, urging Clarke and Aden to stop dawdling. Normally she was perfectly happy to let Saturday breakfast – often closer to brunch – last as long as it wanted to last, but today they had somewhere to be. Clarke and Aden just didn't know it. "We need to get going."
Aden shoved the last bite of his waffle into his mouth. "Where?" he mumbled around it.
"It's a surprise," Lexa said. "You won't find out unless you're dressed and in the car in the next twenty minutes."
He perked up at that, chewing a little faster and washing it down with the last of his juice. He took his dishes to the kitchen and put them in the dishwasher, then made for the bathroom to get cleaned up.
Clarke twined her arms around Lexa's waist, leaning in and brushing her lips against Lexa's jaw, sending a shiver down Lexa's spine. "Where are we going?" she asked.
"It's a surprise," Lexa repeated. Clarke leaned back a little, meeting her eye and raising an eyebrow. "You'll like it," Lexa assured her. "I promise."
Clarke pursed her lips, but before she could object Lexa kissed her. "I promise," she repeated. "Come on." She led her back to their bedroom and had to resist the urge to press her into the sheets. As it was, it took Aden knocking on their door and announcing that he was out of toothpaste, and could he borrow theirs? to break them out of a prolonged kiss that threatened to make them late.
They finally made it out of their pajamas and into the car, with Aden in the back seat trying to guess where they are going. "Are we going to Luna's?" he asked as they neared her street. "Is there a party? Did she change family dinner to Saturday this week?"
"No," Lexa said, smiling at him in the rearview mirror. "But we're getting close."
His forehead furrowed, and so did Clarke's, because this was a residential area and there wasn't much in the way of attractions nearby for them to be headed to. When Lexa turned into a random (to them) driveway, Clarke's frown deepened. "Are we visiting someone?" she asked.
"Who's that?" Aden asked as Maya got out of her car, giving them a wave before going to unlock the door.
"Her name is Maya," Lexa said. "And this is our house."
She watched as Clarke and Aden both turned to look at the place with new eyes. It was one thing when it was just a house, but it was something else entirely when it was their house. "Would you like to see inside?" she asked, when neither of them moved.
Aden nodded first, and then, slowly, Clarke did the same. Lexa led them up to the door, greeting Maya as they passed. She said she would wait out here, let them take a look around themselves, and if they needed anything, they could find her and ask. Lexa guessed now that her offer had been accepted, Maya considered her work mostly done. Or maybe she just wanted to let Lexa have the joy of showing her family the place they would soon call home.
"It needs a little work here and there," Lexa said, "but nothing that will take too long." She led them into the kitchen, and Aden immediately climbed onto one of the stools at the island, looking around.
"This would be a good place to do homework," he decided. "Or projects."
"Instead of the middle of the living room floor?" Lexa teased. "I'm sure Clarke's knees will appreciate that." She winked at her wife – her wife - and was disappointed when she got only a faint smile in response. "There's plenty of room for all of us," she said, extending her arms and turning, demonstrating how she didn't bump into either of them, or anything else, in doing so.
"Not just in the kitchen," Clarke said as they moved to the family room. "This place is huge."
"We have a big family," Lexa pointed out. "We'll be able to have them over so it's not always on Luna."
"But they won't be here all the time," Clarke said.
"Aden's not getting any smaller," Lexa pointed out, her own smile feeling strained. She was glad Aden had wandered a little way away and didn't seem to be listening to them... although he did have a knack for pretending not to listen and hearing every word they said.
"Why don't you check out the back yard?" Lexa suggested.
Aden looked at her, and from the way his smile faltered, she knew he could tell something was off. "It's all right," she reassured him. "We'll be out in a few minutes, and then we'll go see upstairs." He nodded and went out the back door, closing it softly behind him.
Lexa reached for Clarke, but Clarke stepped away, and it felt like a bucket of ice water had been dumped over her head. "Clarke?"
"This isn't what we talked about," Clarke said, crossing her arms.
"I know," Lexa said. "But Maya showed me a bunch of houses that were what we talked about, and none of them felt like this. None of them felt like home."
"And this does?" Clarke asked.
"Yes!" Lexa said, but her enthusiasm was fading in the face of Clarke's obvious disapproval. "You don't think so?"
"I think I would have liked to have been asked, not told," Clarke said.
Lexa swallowed, her stomach in knots and her heart working overtime, and it was part nerves but also part anger, because this place was perfect, and why couldn't Clarke see it? Couldn't she see the way Aden was already imagining a life in this space? Couldn't she imagine their pictures on these walls? She was the artist – where was her vision?
"You said you trusted me," Lexa said softly.
"To look at houses and see what was out there," Clarke said. "To narrow it down. Not to make a unilateral decision on a place that is more than we need, and more than we can—" She stopped herself, her jaw straining against whatever she was holding back.
"More than we can what, Clarke?" Lexa asked.
"Afford," Clarke snapped. "A place this big—"
"It's not a problem," Lexa said. "It was at the top end of my budget, but—"
"Your budget?" Clarke asked. "I was under the impression that this was going to be our house."
"It is!" Lexa said. "But when I got the pre-approval, it was just with my financials because I didn't have yours, and—"
"And you didn't ask for them," Clarke said. "You could have, but you didn't. Did you think it would hurt your chances of getting approved? Because contrary to what my mother – and apparently you – believes, I can take care of myself. I may not have a steady nine-to-five job, but I get by. I pay my rent and all my bills on time. My credit is great. I don't need you, or anyone, to take care of me."
Lexa rocked back on her heels as if the assault had been physical and not just words. It hadn't even occurred to her that Clarke would take it that way; she'd only wanted to surprise her and Aden. They had given her a family she hadn't known she wanted or needed; was it really so bad that she wanted to give that family a home? She opened her mouth, but no words came out. They remained caught in her throat behind the lump that ached so much her eyes pricked with tears.
She turned away, sniffling, and hoped Clarke wouldn't notice. If Clarke didn't need Lexa to take care of her, what was the point? Why were they doing this, if not to take care of each other and their son?
Maybe Abby was right. Maybe they had rushed into this, and maybe Clarke was realizing it now, and maybe—
"You're still you, and I'm still me, but we're also we," Clarke said, her voice softer now. "We're an us, a unit, a team, and we need to work together. You can't just... decide for all of us, like what we want doesn't matter."
"That's not..." Lexa shook her head. "I just wanted..." But it didn't matter, did it? Clarke had made up her mind, and the chances of changing it now seemed slim. "Nothing's final," she finally said. "We can keep looking. Together." She forced a smile. "I'll get Aden."
Clarke caught her arm as she turned to go. "It's not the house that's the problem," she said. "But I don't want to live in your house. I want to live in our house."
"It is our house," Lexa said.
"Not if your name is the only one on it," Clarke said flatly.
"No one's name is on it yet," Lexa said. "I put in an offer, and it was accepted, but nothing is finalized. We can go back to the bank, have them run the numbers again, for both of us this time. We can make sure that when everything is signed, both of our names are on it. I wasn't..." She sucked in a breath. "I wasn't trying to cut you out. It wasn't because I thought you would be a... a liability, or whatever you were thinking. I just wanted to see what was possible, and maybe I got a little overexcited." She held out her hands, palms up, somewhere between a shrug and a gesture of surrender... and nearly burst into tears when Clarke reached out and took them.
"Maybe I'm being overly sensitive," Clarke said. "I've spent so many years with my mother's disapproval masquerading as concern. I want to be your partner, Lexa. I want you to see me as your equal, with equal responsibility and equal liability."
"You are," Lexa said. "Clarke..." She drew her in, burying her face in her hair when Clarke pressed into her arms. "I didn't think," she said softly, "about how you might take it. And I should have. I should have asked you, should have included you from the start. Because you are my partner, my equal... my wife. The mother to my son. You're my heart, Clarke, and I wouldn't be half the person I am without you."
She felt Clarke nod, her chin digging into Lexa's collarbone. "To be fair," Clarke said quietly, her voice muffled until she pulled back a little, "it didn't bother me until it seemed like a done deal. I should have been clearer, I guess, about where in the process I wanted to be looped in."
"We're still figuring this out," Lexa said. "Together." She ducked her head, nuzzling Clarke's cheek until she turned and their lips met. The tension in Clarke eased, and the fist clenched around Lexa's heart loosened its grip, and they clung to each other until their breaths steadied.
"Can I show you something?" she asked. Clarke nodded, and Lexa took a step back from their embrace, her hand sliding down Clarke's arms until their fingers laced together. Lexa led her to the room with the amazing light, right to the center. "This is your studio," she said.
Clarke looked around, drawing Lexa in a circle as she turned a full 360 degrees without letting go of her hand. "This is perfect," she whispered. "Lexa..."
"I know," Lexa said. "This is why I knew I couldn't wait." She watched Clarke's eyes as she took it in, the last shreds of anger and hurt disappearing as if they'd never been, replaced by awe and wonder and joy. "It needs a sink, and storage, and—"
She didn't get to finish, because Clarke's mouth crashed into hers in a bruising kiss, and if Maya wasn't waiting out front, and Aden probably bored of the back yard already, they might have christened the house then and there... and Lexa wondered if Clarke might not make sure that that happened as soon as they had the keys in hand.
If she did, she would get no objection from Lexa.
When they broke apart, breathless and aching in all the best ways, Lexa couldn't stop smiling. "Let's go let our son pick out his room."
"Would you like to do the honors?" Lexa asked, dangling the keys they'd been handed not even an hour before in front of Clarke.
Clarke took them and slid the key smoothly into the lock. Lexa admired the steadiness of her hands, because she felt like she was shaking all over, and had since this morning when she'd woken up knowing that in a few hours, the house of their dreams (and there had been plenty of dreaming, and designing, and planning done since that first visit) would actually be theirs. She pushed open the door and took Lexa's hand as she stepped inside.
"It's really ours?" she asked.
"It's really ours," Lexa confirmed.
Clarke looked around, then gently but insistently tugged Lexa toward the room that would soon be filled with canvas and paint and pencils and sketchbooks and probably a hundred things Lexa couldn't think of. The sun streamed in, casting a pattern on the floor that stretched up onto one wall, and it was there that Clarke pinned Lexa, kissing her roughly, sucking her tongue and lips until they felt swollen, fumbling with the button of Lexa's jeans and sliding down the zipper. Lexa squirmed under her touch, arching her hips and letting Clarke pull her jeans down, wishing she'd worn a skirt because it would make this so much easier, but Clarke didn't seem to mind the challenge... or find it challenging in the first place, perhaps, as she slid her fingers through Lexa's slick heat and into her core.
"Fuck," Lexa hissed. "Clarke!"
"Yes, I am," Clarke said, laughter in her voice as her teeth grazed the skin of Lexa's throat. "On both counts." She put her thumb against Lexa's clit, adding pressure and friction as two fingers slipped in and out, crooking and caressing in a way that made Lexa clench and shudder and in what felt like no time at all, come hard enough she saw stars.
When she could breathe again, she dropped to wobbly knees and yanked down Clarke's pants, gripping her hips as she applied her tongue to the most sensitive parts of her, and Clarke stumbled and almost fell, catching herself against the wall and bracing as Lexa feasted. Her sharp gasp as she climaxed echoed off the blank walls.
It was all over in a matter of minutes, but neither of them had any complaints, except that it would have been nice to have a soft surface to curl up on afterwards instead of empty rooms and hard floors. There would be time for that later... Lexa would make sure of it.
At home – but not for much longer – that night, Clarke took pictures, first with their things exactly as and where they were, for memory's sake, and then with some of the more personal stuff stripped away, for the listing that Maya would be posting to get this place sold. With the two of them, they could comfortably afford the new place (which Clarke still seemed to think was a minor miracle, considering the house's size), but only if this place sold fairly quickly. Carrying the cost of both would put a strain on the budget. Given the fact that it was a two bedroom in a good location in near-prestine condition, Maya didn't think it was really a concern. It would appeal to young professionals looking for their first home, she said, and given that that was exactly what Lexa had been when she bought it, she had no reason to argue.
"Have you picked a color for your room yet?" Lexa asked, ruffling Aden's hair.
He ducked his head away, scrunching up his face as he looked at her. "I can't decide," he said. "There's a few I like."
"We'll get samples of those, then, and do swatches on the wall. Sometimes actually seeing it in the room helps," Lexa said.
Clarke snorted. "How would you know?" she asked. "You never painted in here."
"I watch HGTV!" Lexa said, sticking out her tongue, which Clarke took as an invitation to chase it back into her mouth.
"You two are gross," Aden said, looking away but Lexa thought she caught the twitch of a smile he was fighting back.
"That's our job as parents," Clarke said. "To gross you out and embarrass you. Or so my dad always said."
"Before he died?" Aden asked.
Clarke nodded, and Lexa held her tighter, sinking her fingers into Clarke's hair to cradle the back of her head as it rested against her shoulder.
"I'm sorry," Aden said softly. An empathetic sorry, rather than an apology.
"Me too," Clarke said. "I wish you could have met him. He would have loved you."
Aden got up and came over, and they folded him into their hug, three kids with only one living parent between them... except now Aden had them to look out for him and watch him grow, and even though sometimes it was hard for Lexa to think of herself as a mother (and knew Clarke felt the same), and she knew they could never replace the one he'd had and lost and still missed, they were doing their best to be what he needed, and so far they seemed to be doing okay.
"How soon before we move?" Aden asked.
"Three weeks," Lexa said. "Just before school starts. First they need to come in and do some construction, fix up some things we can't do ourselves, get all of the painting done—"
"We could have done the painting ourselves," Clarke grumbled.
Lexa pressed a kiss to her head. They'd gone back and forth on how much of the admittedly minor renovations they could handle on their own, with Clarke wanting to save money and Lexa just wanting it done and done right. The biggest sticking point had been the painting, which Clarke had insisted they could handle on their own. She'd finally caved when Lexa had done the math and figured out that with the amount of time it would likely take, and what they would lose in wages taking that time away from their own jobs to do it, it actually made sense to pay professionals, but she still wasn't happy about it. Lexa's concession had been that they would recruit their friends and family rather than paying professional movers.
"The time will fly by," Lexa promised Aden. "Especially since we're going to the lake for part of it."
"I'm going to beat you this time," Aden said. "Without Tris 'helping' me paddle the kayak." He grinned.
"We'll see about that," Lexa teased. "Age and treachery will always overcome youth and skill." She waggled her eyebrows, and Aden laughed.
"She means she's going to cheat," Clarke hissed in a stage whisper.
Aden laughed again, and they hugged him tighter before letting him go so he could go start packing... although he still didn't have much to pack, even almost six months later.
Lexa felt her stomach flutter. The trip to the lake would start immediately after Aden's adoption hearing. He hadn't wanted a party or any kind of fuss made, which Lexa could understand, but it had felt wrong to not do something. Especially since her job allowed two weeks parental leave for new parents who weren't eligible for maternity leave, including those who had recently adopted. A week at the lake had been the compromise they'd come to, and then the second week would be spent moving and getting settled in their new home.
"It's all going to work out," Clarke reassured her. "Everything has so far, hasn't it?"
Lexa nodded, nuzzling against her temple. "I just can't help feeling like I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop."
"It's not going to," Clarke said. "I won't let it."
Clarke tipped up her face and their lips met, and it felt so good to be in her arms, it felt so right, like everything had felt right since Lexa met her, that Lexa let herself believe her.
"Aden, is it your wish to be adopted by Ms. Woods and Ms. Griffin?" the judge asked, peering at him over her glasses.
Aden looked at Lexa, and she nodded, squeezing his shoulder and indicating that he should answer. The judge had done the same thing when her mother had adopted her; once a child was of a certain age – she couldn't remember off the top of her head what it was – they at least got the chance to speak for themselves regarding their future, although she didn't know what would happen if the child said no.
"Yes ma'am," he said.
"All right," she said. "Then I see no reason why we shouldn't proceed."
There were a few words said and a few forms signed, and it was done. Aden was legally their son, and the vagaries of the state couldn't change that. Lexa put her arms around him and held him tight, pressing a kiss to the top of his head as he dug his face into her shoulder. She rubbed his back when she felt it heave, and dampness soaked through her shirt.
"It's okay," she whispered, resting her cheek against his hair. "You're okay." She took the pocket pack of tissues that Clarke offered and guided Aden to a seat off to one side. The next case was Anya and Tris; since they'd been taken as fosters at the same time, they'd also been eligible for adoption at the same time, and they'd arranged it so they shared a court date. Even if they were avoiding making a big deal of the day, because there was a tumult of emotions tied to it for both of the kids, they had been okay with sharing the moment with each other.
Clarke sat on Aden's other side, her hand on his back overlapping Lexa's. Lexa looked at her and offered a faint smile. Clarke smiled back, tracing one finger along the side of Lexa's wrist before pulling back.
When the judge asked Tris if she wanted Anya to adopt her, she rolled her eyes and said, "Duh," and it was such a typical Tris response that they all laughed, even the judge, and Lexa felt Aden relax a little, slumping so his bony shoulder dug into hers.
Afterward, they went out for lunch and ice cream, and from there it was back to the house to change into more comfortable clothes, grab their bags, and drive up to the lake house.
"It seems a lot bigger with only three of us in it," Clarke said.
"It does," Lexa agreed. "Anya and Tris are coming up for the last couple of days, and we could invite Luna and Derrick and the kids up for a day or two if we wanted."
"Or we could just enjoy the peace and quiet," Clarke said.
"That too," Lexa responded, allowing herself to be drawn into Clarke's arms and then into a kiss that lasted far longer than it should have considering they had an audience... except he'd taken off as soon as they'd started getting sappy, and when they finally came up for air, he was already in his swim trunks, heading toward the dock.
"Sunscreen!" Clarke called after him. He stopped and came grumbling back, smearing himself with white lotion and wriggling impatiently while Clarke got his back. "All set," she said when she finished, and he mumbled a thank you and bolted for the door again.
"We should probably keep an eye on him, make sure he doesn't drown," Lexa said.
"Probably," Clarke agreed. "Pretty sure that keeping him alive was one of the terms of the contract we just signed." She winked, and Lexa laughed, and they changed and went to go join Aden in the water.
Lexa was surprised – but not that surprised – when Raven was with Anya and Tris when they arrived on Friday afternoon. They'd obviously hit it off back at the wedding, and when they'd emerged from the same room the morning after, Anya had given them all such a look no one had dared say anything but 'Good morning' and 'Would you like blueberries in your pancakes?'.
All that really mattered, as far as Lexa was concerned, was that Anya was happy. Well, and that Tris was happy, especially now that she was officially Lexa's niece. But Tris and Raven seemed to get along just fine, snarking at each other and laughing it off, trying to out-do each other with ridiculous antics in the water.
"It's been a while since I've seen Raven smile this much," Clarke said quietly as they watched her wobble on the big inflatable island, trying to repel the invading teenage forces. "At least like she means it. She's good at putting on a happy face when she needs to, but she's definitely not faking it now."
"Good," Lexa said. "Because if she hurts my sister..." She let the threat trail off, mostly joking... but only mostly. Anya was an adult and could take care of herself – she'd taken care of Lexa and Luna almost as much as their mother had sometimes – but that didn't stop Lexa from being protective.
"If your sister hurts my friend..." Clarke countered, raising an eyebrow.
Lexa had to concede the point, leaving them with a stalemate. With any luck, no one would hurt anyone, and by Thanksgiving or Christmas... or maybe even sooner... they would be setting another place at the family table.
Maybe it would even be their table, in their house, and Lexa couldn't help the shiver of excitement that went through her when she thought about the fact that when they got home, they would finally get to move in. With boxes everywhere, including the ones from Clarke's old apartment, the place felt cramped, like they were rats trapped in a maze, and she was ready to start the next chapter of their story.
"You think we should go help them out?" Clarke asked, her eyes going back to Tris and Aden, who were still struggling with Raven, who was amazingly good at maintaining control of her island, even outnumbered and with a bum leg. Sure, she had Anya helping her, but Anya's role seemed to be primarily as a prop for Raven to balance against.
"We could," Lexa said. "Or we could take advantage of the fact that someone else is watching them for the moment..."
Clarke grinned, already reaching for the button of Lexa's shorts. "I like the way you think..."
After hours of lifting and loading and hauling and cursing and apologizing for cursing where little ears could hear and moving boxes from one room to another despite the fact that they were all carefully labeled as to where they were supposed to go and unpacking and then changing their minds about where they wanted things and a dinner of pizza and soda (and beer for those who wanted it and weren't driving), they were finally done. The hoards of friends and family who had shown up to help them move had come and gone, and they had the house to themselves.
It was quiet.
Almost too quiet.
Clarke collapsed onto the couch where Lexa was sprawled, wedging herself between her splayed legs and resting her head on her chest. "So. Tired," she groaned, and then made a similar sound, but with far less anguish, when Lexa sank her fingers into her hair and massaged her scalp. "God that feels good," she mumbled, her words vibrating Lexa's breastbone. "Don't stop."
Lexa didn't. Her other hand rucked up the hem of Clarke's shirt, short nails dragging along her spine and ribs, and she knew exactly what she was doing and so did Clarke, and she could only hope that Aden would keep himself busy arranging his room for a little while longer...
"I love stairs," Clarke said, planting a kiss to the sweat-damp skin just above Lexa's navel as she eased her shorts back up over her hips.
Lexa laughed, a breathless, almost soundless gasp. Her cheeks were flushed, but she hoped Aden would just chalk it up to the exertion of the day, maybe think they'd been moving the furniture (which they had, a little, inadvertently). She pulled her shirt back down over her breasts and straightened up, motioning for Clarke to do something about her mussed hair before Aden popped into the room. They'd been done anyway, barely, but she had to agree with Clarke – stairs were great. They provided an early warning system for incoming teenage boys.
"We should get a dog," Aden announced. He plopped down into the oversized armchair that had become 'his' spot back in the condo, curling limbs that seemed to get longer by the day up until he had wedged himself into a human pretzel.
"We should, huh?" Lexa asked.
Aden nodded. "We have all this space, and a big yard with a fence. It would be perfect."
"Dogs are a lot of work," Lexa said. She didn't know from personal experience; she'd never had one growing up. Maybe one of her foster homes before she'd ended up with her mom had, but it hadn't been her responsibility. But she'd always heard that they were.
"I know," Aden said. "I would take care of it, though. I would feed it and walk it and play with it and do training with it and even pick up the poop." He grinned, but it slid away a moment later. "I had a dog before. When I was a kid."
As if he wasn't still a kid, but Lexa knew what he meant. When he said 'when I was a kid' he really meant 'when my mom was alive', and maybe it wasn't such an inaccurate statement. He'd been forced to grow up fast after his mom died, and they were only able to do so much to slow that process down now that he'd actually hit the age where he wanted to start growing up.
"His name was Scout," Aden added. "He was a Border Collie mix, and he had so much energy. We used to run around the yard together for hours." His shoulders slumped. "He died right before we found out my mom was sick. It sucked."
"I bet," Lexa said. "Why don't we give ourselves a little time to settle in first?" she suggested. "School starts soon, and we still need to get you ready for that. Once we've gotten into a routine, we can talk about it more."
She glanced over at Clarke, who raised her eyebrows, but Lexa wasn't sure what it was supposed to mean. Was she surprised that Lexa was considering the possibility of getting a pet? Was she against the idea? Was she allergic? Shit, that was something she should probably know...
"Okay," Aden said. "Oh, I need a hammer and a nail."
"In the garage," Lexa said. "What do you need it for?"
"To hang up my picture," Aden said. He didn't have to say which one; Lexa knew. She smiled and went with him to find the toolbox, and the three of them went upstairs to hang up Clarke's painting, which now had three figures instead of two, because Aden had asked Clarke to paint herself in after the wedding, so they were all together always.
"It just seems a little strange, is all I'm saying," Clarke said, snapping a lid onto a container of brownies and wedging it into the cooler. "You have adoption events for puppies, not people."
Lexa snorted. "I promise you, none of the kids will be wearing bandanas around their necks that say, 'Adopt me!'" She finished cutting up vegetables and went to the fridge for the tub of dip they'd bought to go with them. "I guess in a way it's not that different. But think about it." She leaned her hip against the counter and watched as Clarke scowled at the cooler and started pulling things out to rearrange them. "When you think about foster care, what's the first thing that comes to mind?"
"Abused kids," Clarke said. "I know that's not—"
"Exactly," Lexa said. "That's the first thing that comes to most people's minds. Kids who have been through hell and are damaged beyond repair, or at least beyond the capabilities of your average joe parents. Right?"
Clarke grimaced and nodded. "But I know that's not everyone. Obviously." She gestured to Lexa, then looked over her shoulder toward the stairs, where Aden was still getting ready. "Not that your lives have been easy, but—"
"I know," Lexa said. "That's my point, and the point of events like this. First and foremost, it's an opportunity for kids and families to get together and have a good time, wherever they are in the foster and adoption system. One last hurrah before it's back to the school year grind. But it's also an opportunity for people who are thinking about becoming foster parents or adopting out of the foster system to see the kids, and see that for the most part, they really are just kids. Sure, they may have some challenges above and beyond a kid who's never had a bad day in their life, but when you have kids, it's not guaranteed that they're going to be perfect angels who turn out exactly the way you hope, either. They also get to meet adults who have done it, and talk to them, and get a realistic idea of what it means. Because it's mostly the horror stories that people hear; they don't hear the successes. They don't hear about families like mine, who found home and family and who are now trying to give to other kids what our mom gave to us. And they need to. Otherwise, what happens to kids like Adria and Aden and Tris and Jake? But if people who are maybe on the fence about whether they want to do it, or can do it, come to this picnic and meet a kid that's been stuck in a group home, waiting for a spot in a home to open up, and make a connection? Maybe that will tip the balance. And maybe that will be the next happy ending that no one hears about."
Clarke set down the container she was holding and wrapped her arms around Lexa, nuzzling into her neck. "I love you," she said. "You know that, right?"
"Of course I know that," Lexa said, tucking back her hair and kissing her temple. "What's not to love?"
Clarke laughed, and lifted her head to meet Lexa's lips. "Your humility," she said. "I just can't take how humble you are. Give yourself some credit once in a while, will you?"
Lexa laughed and hugged her, only letting go when Aden came tromping down the stairs. "Ooh, brownies!" he said, heading directly for the container that was sitting on the counter.
Clarke snatched it away. "They're for later, and to share."
"So I can't have one?" he asked.
"Not now," Clarke said. "You'll spoil your linner."
"Linner?" Aden asked.
"What else would you call a meal eaten mid-afternoon? It's too late for lunch and too early for dinner, so... linner. Like brunch."
Aden gave Lexa a look like, You married this dork?, and all she could do was shrug.
They met up with Luna and Derrick and Anya and all of the kids (Raven had decided to sit this one out, Lexa assumed, or maybe she'd gotten a better offer) at the park where the event was being held, and found a shady spot to spread out their blankets, pinning them down with coolers and collapsible lawn chairs that only Jake was short enough to get into and out of without turning into an awkward tangle of limbs in the process. There were kids everywhere, far outnumbering the adults, and Adria made a beeline for the swingset. Aden and Tris followed at a more leisurely pace, not because they wanted to go on the swings (or if they did they weren't likely to admit it) but because it was more fun than hanging out with the grown-ups.
A cluster of kids charged by, followed by a frazzled-looking woman who, if she had been a dogwalker, would have been clutching a fistful of leashes, but children were not dogs, and once they got past toddlerhood, keeping them tethered was frowned upon. The kids sported brightly colored shirts that all but advertised the fact that they were looking for homes – if not forever, at least for now.
Clarke shot Lexa a look. "You said—"
"I said they wouldn't be wearing bandanas," Lexa said.
Anya snorted. "Free to a good home. Up-to-date on vaccinations. Apply now!"
Luna reached out and swatted Anya. "Didn't Mom find you at one of these events?" she asked.
Anya lifted her chin and sniffed. "That is not the point," she said archly.
"Wait, really?" Clarke asked.
Anya shrugged, then nodded. "I was ten," she said. "Almost eleven. Which is ancient in the foster care system. Kids are automatically considered 'special needs' when they hit eight, because the chances of the getting adopted drops to almost zero. People want babies, toddlers... kids who the world hasn't had a chance to f—mess up too badly. I'd been in the system for years, and they'd basically given up on me, but the people at the group home where I was living brought me to an event like this, figuring if nothing else I could help keep an eye on the younger kids. Mom was there with whatever kids she had at the time, and she saw me sitting there by myself, pissed off and hating life, and she tried to talk to me, but I wasn't having it... and then a couple of days later they told me to pack my sh—stuff, and next thing I know, I've got a room of my own – she didn't have any other girls at the time – and an adult who doesn't look at me like I'm an inconvenience or a chore-doing robot or a crime waiting to happen. And I put her through hell for like a solid two months before I just got tired of fighting and gave in. By the time the picnic rolled around the next year, I'd been adopted. Then this knucklehead showed up," she reached out and ruffled Lexa's hair, "and the rest is history."
Lexa watched Clarke watch the kids who weren't attached to families with new eyes. But the artist in her was never content to just look, and soon enough her fingers started twitching, and she retrieved her sketchbook from her bag and started to draw.
It didn't take long for kids to notice, either. Soon she had a cluster of budding art critics of various ages crowded around her (some so close they were leaning on her, and one was in danger of pinning her arm to her side and preventing her from being able to move her hand freely until Luna reached out and gently nudged him back). "Wow," the kids said. "You're really good!" "That looks just like a person!" "I wish I could draw that good!"
"It took me lots and lots of practice," Clarke said, her eyes still on the page. "When I was little, I wasn't the best artist. Sometimes my parents didn't even know what I had drawn, and I would get so mad, because it seemed so obvious to me. But instead of giving up because I wasn't the best, I just kept drawing, sometimes the same thing over and over again, until it looked exactly the way I wanted it to, and soon my parents always knew what I'd drawn." She looked up and smiled. "So if you wish you could draw as well as I do, you probably can, if you just keep practicing. And even if you can't, that's okay too. If it's something you enjoy, that makes you feel happy, then that's what matters. It's not about being the best. It's just about being your best."
Some of the kids nodded sagely, soaking in the words of wisdom, and others nodded along because it was what the older kids were doing.
"Could you draw me?" one bold little girl finally asked.
"I don't know," Clarke said. "Can you hold very, very still for five whole minutes?"
"Yes," the girl said, plunking herself down in front of Clarke and beaming a gap-toothed smile so wide there was no way she would be able to sustain it for an extended period of time. Luckily, Clarke didn't really need her to hold all that still to capture her essence on paper. It wasn't a caricature, but it was definitely a quick sketch, but there was no mistaking the subject when she was done. She tore the page out of the book and handed it to her.
The girl held it up over her head like a trophy. "Thank you thank you thank you!" she crowed, then went tearing off, yelling, "Mommy, Daddy, look! Look what the nice artist lady did!"
After that, Clarke had a steady stream of models, and she drew every one of them until her hand was cramping and Lexa could hear her stomach growling. "Hey guys," she said. "Clarke needs a break, and I bet you're all getting pretty hungry. Why don't you go eat, and if Clarke has time to do a few more drawings later, we'll let you know, okay?"
"Aw, man," one of the kids said. "No fair! I waited and waited! I never get what I want."
His brand new name brand sneakers and the portable game system poking out of his pocket said otherwise, but Lexa bit her tongue.
"I can—" Clarke started, but Lexa shook her head sharply.
"Maybe later," she repeated. "No promises."
The kid slunk away, and the others who had been waiting followed in his wake. A few of them said thank you to Clarke even though they hadn't gotten drawings, and Lexa tried to remember their faces to make sure that if Clarke did feel up to a few more sketches, they would be the first in line.
"That was really nice of you," Luna said as they unpacked the food while Anya went to retrieve their children. "Some of those kids will remember that forever... long after the drawing has disappeared in the shuffle of houses."
Clarke winced, rubbing her left wrist with her right hand until Lexa took it from her and started massaging it herself. "You think that will happen?"
"Some of them I'm sure already have a home and walls to call their own," Luna said. "Others will eventually get them. Some of them..." She sighed, shrugged. "We always hope for the best."
"But plan for the worst," Lexa finished for her.
"I can't imagine," Clarke said softly, shifting closer until her hip was pressed against Lexa's. "It's not fair."
"Life's not fair," Tris chimed in, nearly squashing a plate of sandwiches as she collapsed in jumble of lanky limbs on the blanket. "That's what Anya always says."
"And she's always right," Anya said. "Life isn't fair. We just have to make the most of what we have and try every day to make things a little more equitable."
"You mean equal?" Aden asked.
"Not exactly," Anya said. "There's a difference between equity and equality. Equ—"
Tris clamped her hand over Anya's mouth. "We don't start school until Wednesday," she said. "No lectures until then."
Anya snorted, but she didn't continue when Tris took her hand away. She just looked at Aden and said, "We can talk about it later if you want."
He nodded, and took the plate Lexa offered him and began loading it with food. They'd all packed enough to feed the entire family, so even with two hungry teenagers there was more than enough to go around, and soon their stomachs – and in a few cases mouths – were groaning.
Tris flopped dramatically across Anya's lap. "I'm going to explode," she said. "I ate too much."
"Does that mean I get to eat your brownie for you?" Anya asked, combing her fingers through the tangle of Tris' hair.
"No way!" Tris said, throwing up her hand as if to block Anya from trying to take it, even though the brownies were still safely in their container, unopened and untouched, and nearly punched her in the face in the process.
"Easy there, killer," Anya said, taking her hand and folding it back down to her chest and holding it there. "I'm just saying—"
"No way," Tris repeated. "Everyone knows you have a special second stomach just for dessert."
"No you don't!" Adria said. She looked at Luna, then Derrick. "Right? There's no second stomach in my body book..."
"Yes you do," Tris said. "You just can't see it in the book because it's hiding behind your first stomach."
Adria looked down at her belly, alarmed, and Anya poked Tris. "Stop teasing your cousin," she said.
"You don't really have a second stomach," Luna reassured Adria. "She just means that no matter how full she is, she can always find room for dessert."
Tris opened her mouth again, but closed it at Anya's stern look, and rolled onto her side with her head still in Anya's lap, sighing as Anya's nails raked gently over her scalp. Lexa remembered a teenage Anya doing the same to her, and wondered if Tris thought she was too old to let Anya brush her hair for her. She hoped not; it had always been something Lexa had found incredibly comforting.
They gave themselves some time to digest before finally opening the brownies and cookies and other sweet treats, which they dug into much more slowly than they had their lunch – linner. Clarke picked up her sketchbook again, but more subtly this time, not wanting to attract another crowd just yet.
Conversation rambled from one topic to another, frequently interrupted by people they knew from past gatherings coming over to say hello. Aden's old caseworker, Harper, stopped by to see how he was doing, and seemed overjoyed to discover how comfortably he fit into their family dynamic. She wished them all the happiness in the world before moving on to the next group. Lexa nudged Aden with her toe, and smiled when he looked at her. He smiled back, wider and less crooked than before, and if he'd been smaller and younger, she might have scooped him up and cuddled him against her like Luna was doing with Jake, who was about as close to asleep as a kid could get without actually being unconscious.
"Love you, bud," she said softly instead.
His cheeks went pink, and he looked around like he didn't want anyone to overhear and ruin his street cred before mumbling, "Love you too."
Lexa had lost track of the thread of conversation and had maybe even dozed off a little when she was snapped back to alertness by a voice nearby snapping, "Madi, no!"
She turned quickly toward the voice and saw a woman hurrying toward them, arms out to grab a little girl... who was crouched at the edge of their blanket, a purloined brownie clutched in dirty-nailed fingers.
"That isn't yours!" the woman said. "You can't just take things from other people!"
The girl – Madi – shoved half the brownie in her mouth and bared chocolate-covered teeth at her wrangler.
The woman's hand closed around her arm, and Madi snarled and yanked away, planting her feet like she was either going to dig in and refuse to budge, or take off at top speed, but she hadn't decided yet which it would be.
The woman grabbed her again, this time by both arms, and they all bristled.
"It's okay," Luna said, her voice soft but tense. "We have plenty."
"That's kind of you," the woman said, "but it's really not. It's stealing." She looked back at Madi. "Do you know what happens to little girls who steal?"
Madi didn't answer. She just glared.
"Please," Luna said. "It's just a brownie. There's food out for everyone to share. Maybe she didn't realize that didn't apply to all the food."
"Oh, she realized," the woman said. "Doesn't miss a thing, this one. Doesn't say a thing, either." She loosened her grip on Madi, but didn't take her eyes off her until she was sure she wasn't going to run. "If we'd had anyone to stay with her, we wouldn't have brought her. She's still a little—"
"Girl," Anya said through gritted teeth. "She's still a little girl."
The woman sighed and seemed to deflate. "Madi, can you say thank you to these nice people for letting you have one of their brownies?"
Madi didn't say thank you. She didn't say anything. She just watched as Clarke's pencil moved across the page, inching closer until there was no way she could miss the fact that it was her own face taking shape. She leaned in, crumbs dropping from her fingers as they clenched around the brownie she hadn't managed to cram in.
"Here," Lexa said, offering her a napkin and moving to clear a space for Madi to sit. "Do you want to sit with us for a little while so Clarke can finish her drawing?"
Madi looked at her, wide-eyed like she hadn't even noticed she was there, and after a second she slowly lowered herself, her eyes flicking warily from one face to another to another while they all practically held their breath.
"There you go," Lexa said. "If you turn a little bit she'll be able to see your face better."
Madi frowned, then turned just the tiniest bit even though it meant she was almost touching both Clarke and Lexa. She looked down at the fudgey mess on her hands and her lower lip jutted out, just for a second.
"It's okay," Luna said. "You can have another. Are you hungry?"
"She won't answer," the woman said. "She doesn't speak except to scream."
"She probably has good reason," Anya said. Her fingers were white-knuckled where they gripped Tris' arm, but Tris didn't complain. She didn't even squirm. If anything, she looked like she wanted to crawl completely into Anya's lap, like Adria had done to Derrick, although she kept rocking forward like she wanted to move toward Madi, who looked to be about her age, but couldn't quite work up the nerve.
In a few minutes that felt like less than a breath and more than a lifetime, Clarke finished the drawing. She tore it out carefully and held it out. "For you," she said, but Madi didn't take it.
"It's okay," Adria said. "You really can have it. She drew it for you."
"You don't have to give her anything," Tris added. "It's a present." She looked at the woman who still loomed over them all. "They won't take it away from you either," she said, and it sounded like an accusation.
Madi's hands balled into fists and her face scrunched. Lexa had a thought, and rooted around in Jakey's diaper bag until she found the wet wipes. She pulled a couple out and set them near Madi's knee. "So you don't get chocolate on the paper," she said.
Madi looked at the wipes, then at her, then at the wipes again. She picked one up and began to slowly, meticulously clean her hands, one finger at time, until they were brownie-free and spotless. Only then did she reach out, taking the drawing gingerly by the corners and peering into her own eyes like she didn't recognize herself.
Maybe she didn't. The little girl in the drawing was smiling.
Clarke reached into her bag and found a folder, which she emptied of its contents and set down in front of Madi. "You can put it in there," she said, "to keep it safe."
Madi picked up the folder and tucked the drawing inside, but she kept flipping it open again to peek, like she was afraid it would disappear if she let it out of her sight for even a second.
"Can you say thank you, Madi?" the woman tried again, with the defeated air of someone who knew they weren't going to get what they wanted.
Madi closed the folder and pressed it to her chest, hugging her arms over it. It was as close to a thank you as they were going to get, but they weren't looking for one anyway.
"Here," Luna said, offering the woman a container of food she'd packed up hastily. "For her. For later."
"I can't," the woman said. "Thank you, but I can't give her something the other kids don't get."
"Please," Luna insisted.
The woman made a face, but she took the container. Lexa suspected it would end up in the garbage rather than in Madi's stomach, but at least they'd tried.
"Bye, Madi!" Adria called as she was led away. "It was nice meeting you!"
Lexa wasn't sure, but she thought that Madi paused, just for a second, before she continued on her way.
Anya sighed. "And that," she said, "is the difference between equality and equity. Equality is giving everyone the same thing and thinking that makes things fair. Equity is giving everyone what they need so that things actually are."
The ride home was subdued, and that night they held each other a little closer, gripped each other a little tighter, as they tried to push back thoughts of the little girl and the way the woman responsible for her had talked about her, and to her, the way she'd gripped her arms like she wanted to shake her.
The rest of the weekend passed in a blur, and then it was the first day of school and Clarke made breakfast while Lexa made sure Aden had everything he needed in his backpack, and fussed over his hair until he batted her away, apparently not caring that a cowlick in the back had a piece standing straight up. They didn't embarrass him by walking him to the bus stop; he was far too old for that. They did, however, watch from the upstairs window until they saw the bus pull away.
"I should get to work," Lexa said, but Clarke had other ideas. She pushed up on her toes, kissing Lexa hard enough their teeth clacked together, her fingers worming under the waistband of Lexa's pajama bottoms and between her legs, stroking her until she was slick with desire, her breath coming in ragged pants as Clarke thrust two fingers into her, coaxing an orgasm from Lexa that had her seeing stars, the press of Clarke's body against hers the only thing keeping her upright.
When Lexa could move again, she pushed away from the wall, stumbling toward the bed and pushing Clarke down onto it, then kneeling beside it and dragging Clarke's hips to the edge, her legs already splayed for Lexa to bury her face between.
And hour, a shower, and several orgasms later, Lexa finally made it out the door, leaving Clarke to entertain herself for the rest of the day since she wasn't working. Even though Aden was old enough to manage on his own, it made Lexa feel better knowing that someone would be there to meet him when he got home, at least on the first day.
They were already working on dinner when Lexa got home, and she felt a pang because that was something she'd always done with Aden after she picked him up. It wasn't jealousy, exactly. Envy, she supposed, was more accurate. She didn't want Clarke to not have the quality time with their son; she just wished she could have it too. But there would be other days – plenty of them – and she hadn't had any idea what she wanted to make anyway.
She went to the kitchen to get a kiss from Clarke and a quick hug from Aden, then headed up to their bedroom to change into something more comfortable. Clarke's sketchbook was on the bed, laying open like she'd been interrupted mid-drawing. Lexa glanced at it and was surprised... but then again not so surprised... that the face looking back at her was Madi's. She flipped to the page before, and the one before that, and they were more of the same. Different poses, different expressions, but all the same girl. She put it back on the page where Clarke had left it and finished changing, then went back downstairs.
"I can't stop thinking about her," Clarke said later, when Aden was in bed and they were close to dozing on the couch. She was leaned against Lexa, her back to Lexa's chest, their fingers intertwined.
Lexa didn't need to ask what 'her' Clarke was referring to. "I know."
"I just keep thinking about how that woman looked at her, how she treated her, how I wanted to just—" Lexa saw her jaw tense, watched her throat bob as she swallowed. "I'm sure the place where Madi's staying is fine," she said. "For some kids. For most kids." She tipped her head to look at Lexa. "She's not like most kids, though. She needs somewhere else. Somewhere better."
"I'm sure they're looking," Lexa said. "As hard as it sometimes is to believe, they really do want what's best for the kids."
"I know," Clarke said. "But what if they don't find someone? What if she gets stuck there, like they were trying to do with Tris, because she's quote-unquote difficult? Anya said kids are automatically considered special needs at age 8, but she really does have special needs. She needs people who can give her time and attention, who can make sure she gets the help she needs, who can be patient with her and—" She shook her head in frustration.
"I don't know," Lexa admitted. She knew the odds weren't great. Not for a defiant non-verbal child. There were foster homes that specialized in special needs cases, but those were mostly for medical issues, not emotional ones. And whatever was going on with Madi seemed to be all in her head. Which didn't make it any less real; it just made it harder to find someone willing to take it on.
"We could do it," Clarke said, and for a second Lexa honestly believed Clarke had heard her thoughts and was responding to them. "We could take her."
Lexa laughed. She didn't mean to; it just came out. "We talked about getting a dog, not another kid!" she said.
As soon as the words were out, she knew they were the wrong ones. She was joking, but Clarke wasn't, and Lexa could see walls going up behind her eyes, shutting Lexa out. She disentangled their bodies and started to get up, but Lexa caught her, a gentle hand on her hip guiding her to turn around, sliding down her thigh when she sat back down.
"I'm sorry," Lexa said. "I shouldn't have said that." She turned up her palm, offering her hand to Clarke but not insisting she take it. "I meant it to be teasing, but it's not funny. You've stood by me through more than I had any right to expect you to, and you never wavered. You have changed my life irrevocably for the better. If not for you... I don't know that I would have said yes to taking in Aden. Before you I was so shut down, so closed off... I wouldn't have thought I had it in me to open my life, my heart to him. Because of you I knew I could do it if I let myself. Now it's my turn to stand by you. If you genuinely believe this is the best thing for her and for our family, then let's do it."
Clarke breathed out, and her face relaxed. Her fingers slid across Lexa's palm and closed. "Maybe it's not," she said. "But I think we need to find out."
Having learned from the surprise house debacle, Lexa knew they had to talk to Aden, because their first responsibility was to the child they already had, rather than the one that they were considering bringing into the family. Lexa wasn't sure what they would do if he was completely opposed to the idea of them fostering another child, but she also didn't think it was likely. He had too big a heart for that.
They brought it up at dinner the next night, after he'd eaten enough that his sole focus wasn't on the food in front of him. Lexa tried to make it casual, but recent history had already proven she wasn't as subtle as she wanted to be, and Aden was more observant, she thought, than the average kid. "Do you remember Madi?" she asked, when he looked up from the pile of broccoli that was all that was left on his plate. "The little girl from the picnic?"
"The one who stole the brownie?" he asked.
Lexa smiled. "That's the one."
"Yeah..." he said, little lines forming as his eyebrows drew together. "I didn't like that woman who was taking care of her," he said after a moment.
Clarke made a noise that was both derision and agreement. "She didn't give me warm fuzzy feelings either," she said.
"I don't think she liked Madi very much," Aden added. "I was worried she was going to hurt her."
"We wouldn't have let that happen," Lexa said softly, reaching out to touch his arm and reassure him.
"We won't let that happen," Clarke added. "At least, we don't want to. Take that chance, I mean."
Aden looked back and forth between them. "How?" he asked finally, although Lexa could see he was already putting the pieces together.
"We want her to come stay here," Clarke said, before Lexa could quite put the words together. "We want her to be part of our family."
"Oh," Aden said. He forehead furrowed again, the lines etching deep, and his focus was back on his plate. He speared a piece of broccoli and chewed it slowly, an excuse to not have to say anything right away. Clarke sucked in a breath, her mouth opening, but Lexa nudged her knee under the table and shook her head, and Clarke closed it again and waited. After what felt like an eternity but was probably only a minute – maybe two, maybe less – Aden looked up again. "Okay," he said.
"Are you sure?" Lexa asked.
Aden shrugged. "You took me when no one else would, and that turned out okay," he said. "So maybe the same thing can happen with her." He flashed a quick, crooked smile. "That's why I got a dog, you know. When I was a kid. Because I wanted a baby brother or sister, but that wasn't going to happen so my mom got me a dog instead." The smile dropped away, and his eyes flicked from one of them to the other. "Does this mean we can't get a dog?"
Lexa laughed, from relief as much as anything. "No," she said, "it doesn't mean we can't get a dog." Even though she hadn't been entirely on board with the dog idea to begin with, now it seemed only fair. And if their house was going to descend into chaos, it might as well happen all at once. In for a penny, in for a pound and all that.
"Okay," he said. "Because I was looking at some shelter sites, and..."
Lexa only half-listened as Aden started talking about the dogs he'd found; she would ask him to show her later. She was more focused on Clarke, and the way she had relaxed when they'd cleared this first hurdle (or she supposed the second, with Lexa herself being the first) and the love in her eyes as she watched Aden grow more animated by the minute.
Lexa reached under the table to squeeze Clarke's hand, and Clarke squeezed back, looking over at her and smiling, nervous and excited and grateful all at once. "We'll go this weekend," Lexa told Aden. "You'll need to be patient 'til then."
They called the group home where Madi was staying (according to the t-shirt she'd been wearing at the picnic) the next morning. After the staff initially tried to dissuade them, saying that there were many children waiting for homes who were much more 'suitable' (whatever the hell that meant) they were finally given the contact information for Madi's actual caseworker.
"It's like they don't want her to find a home," Clarke snapped after they hung up. "If they think she's so horrible, wouldn't they want to get rid of her as quickly as possible?"
"My guess is they think we'll take her, realize she's 'difficult', and send her right back," Lexa said. "It doesn't matter what they think. It matters what her caseworker thinks. That's our next call." Clarke nodded, and Lexa dialed because Clarke's hands were still shaking with rage. After an explanation of who they were and their brief acquaintance with Madi, the woman on the other end of the line asked if they were free to come in to talk in person.
"Today?" Lexa asked, glancing at Clarke. Clarke nodded emphatically – she was between jobs again because her last assignment had been both not as long-term as promised, and a bad fit – and Lexa ran through a mental list of what had been on her agenda for the day. No meetings that couldn't be rescheduled, and no looming deadlines. She could always put in a few hours working from home in the evening. "Sure," she said. "What time?"
They sat down in the chairs across the cluttered desk of Madi's caseworker, Ms. Hannah Green according to the nameplate on her desk, trying to relax and not let themselves get their hopes up, but a glance at Clarke told Lexa it was probably too late for that.
"I have to be honest," Ms. Green said. "I was surprised to hear that you're interested in fostering Madi. She's a tough case."
"We know," Clarke said. "I mean, we've met her. Briefly."
"So you said." Ms. Green reached for a file, flipping it open. "So you're aware that she doesn't speak."
"Doesn't, or can't?" Clarke asked.
Ms. Green raised an eyebrow. "Does it matter?"
"Of course it matters!" Clarke said, then sucked in a breath and brought her voice back down. "If she doesn't speak by choice, if the cause is psychological, then we get her a therapist, help her work through whatever it is. If she can't speak, then we get her enrolled in sign language classes, get her a text-to-speech device, something that allows her to communicate. And also probably therapy, but..." She lifted a shoulder, let it fall. "It doesn't change whether or not we want her," she said. "Only what we need to do to help her."
At that, Ms. Green relaxed a little. "Doesn't," she said. "We were finally able to access her old medical and school records, and by all accounts, she was a perfectly normal little girl up until a few months ago."
"What happened?" Lexa asked, not sure she wanted to know, but knowing they needed to.
"Her parents were killed in an accident," Ms. Green said. "They were out camping. I don't have all of the details, and I'm honestly not sure the authorities were able to fully determine what happened, but from what they can tell, it appears her father went out one night, slipped on a ledge and fell. Her mother went after him – they don't know if he was only injured or already dead – but she wasn't an experienced climber, and she didn't have the right gear, and, well..." She sighed. "They were way out off the beaten path. It was several weeks before anyone found them... or Madi."
Clarke sucked in a breath. "She was stuck in the woods with her dead parents the whole time?" she asked.
Ms. Green shook her head. "The bodies weren't close to the camp. It's unclear whether Madi saw them, because of course she's not saying. They found her at their campsite. She was dirty and hungy, but otherwise surprisingly healthy. But she didn't – wouldn't – speak to anyone, and hasn't made a sound since, except to scream when someone tries to make her do something she doesn't want to."
"Shit," Lexa said.
Ms. Green let out a soft huff of a laugh. "Yes." She closed the file again. "No one has been able to get through to her. How do you provide therapy to a child who doesn't speak and can't tell you what's wrong, what's bothering them? Other than the obvious. They have her in school, but she refuses to do any work, so there's no way to know if she's learning." She shook her head. "I'm going to be honest with you. She needs help, and a lot of it. She needs people who are going to be patient with her, even when she does everything in her power to test it. She needs people who are willing to take her to therapy – quite possibly daily for a while – and to work with the school to come up with an educational plan that makes sense for her. She's the kind of child we struggle to place because they are essentially a full-time job. And I'm not saying she'll be like that forever, but I also can't give you a timeline for her recovery... if recovery is even possible." She looked back and forth between them. "I'm going to give you the paperwork you need to fill out, but I want you to really think it over, because the last thing she needs right now is to start to settle in somewhere only to lose that stability again."
"We understand," Lexa said. "Thank you." She took the folder Ms. Green handed her and shook her hand, and Clarke did the same.
In the car, Lexa sank back in her seat and looked over at Clarke. Clarke looked back at her, and the fire in her eyes was only burning brighter. "We can do this," Clarke said. "We have to do this."
"You heard what she said about it being a full-time job," Lexa said.
"Yes," Clarke said. "Conveniently enough, I am currently without one of those. We already know that your salary will handle the cost of the house and other expenses, and I have some savings to help get us through if necessary. I can take on some art commissions – I've had a few inquiries – and there's a project I've been wanting to work on for a while now, and this would finally give me time."
"You're sure," Lexa said, but it wasn't really a question.
"Yes," Clarke said. "If not us, who?"
Lexa closed her eyes for a second. She had a point. She just wished her own mother was around to talk to about it; she would be able to give them an idea of what the real challenges might be, ones that the caseworker didn't think or didn't want to disclose. She would be able to guide them based on her years of experience taking on the tough cases... or convince them that they were biting off more than they could chew, and they should stick to the practically perfect child they already had.
She opened her eyes and looked at Clarke, at the earnestness and determination in her eyes, like she could will Lexa to agree if she just wanted this hard enough. Lexa reached out and took Clarke's face between her hands, stroking her cheeks with her thumbs as their foreheads came together.
"I have to do this," Clarke whispered. "I have to try."
Lexa brushed her lips against Clarke's, drawing a soft exhale, and Clarke's mouth chasing hers as she pulled away, just for a second. "Then we will," she said, and sealed it with another kiss.
That weekend, they went to a pet adoption event at a local park, and Lexa tried not to laugh at all of the wriggly, squirming dogs wearing their 'Adopt Me!' bandanas. "Don't start," she said to Clarke, who made a motion like she was zipping her lips, then winked.
There was a big pen full of puppies, and Aden paused, but kept walking. "I don't want a puppy," he said. "I mean, I do want a puppy, because puppies are cute, but lots of people want puppies, so I bet they'll all get adopted right away." He headed toward an area where there were older dogs – not old, but not puppies – in crates, and a few on leashes being held by employees – or maybe volunteers – from the shelter.
"Hi!" one of them said. "I'm Roma, and this is Piper!" She indicated the dog straining at its leash as she tried to reel it in and convince it to sit so they could meet it. Lexa couldn't even begin to guess what kind of dog it might be. It was sort of generically brown, with floppy ears and a shaggy coat. Aden dutifully pet the pup, but his eyes were still roving.
"Can you tell me a little bit about what you're looking for?" Roma asked, her eyes going to Lexa and Clarke, looking just a little uncertain like she wasn't positive they all went together.
"Aden?" Lexa asked, directing her attention back to him. She had no illusions about the fact that they would end up feeding and walking the dog sometimes, but Aden had said he would be responsible for it, and she would hold him to it. Which meant that whatever dog they got needed to be the dog he wanted.
"I want a dog who's maybe a year or two old?" he said. "Or maybe a little older or younger, but not a puppy, and not a senior. One with enough energy to want to run around and chase a ball or a frisbee but to not be hyper all the time. Like when it's time to do homework they'll just chill out with me? And probably kind of medium-sized? I had a Border Collie mix when I was younger and that was a good size."
Roma mulled this over, then led them over to another one of the workers, and together they showed them a few dogs who they thought might fit the bill, asking them a few more questions like whether they had a fenced in yard, what kind of other activities they liked to do, how much time they were willing to spend exercising the dog, and grooming the dog, and what their tolerance level for shedding and drool was.
"I'm starting to feel like these people care more about finding dogs the right homes than CPS does about kids," Clarke muttered, and Lexa just pressed her lips together because yeah, sometimes that felt pretty damn true.
They passed a crate where a gangly-looking Golden Retriever was sprawled, looking dejected. It didn't even lift its head when they approached, and Roma walked right past, but Aden stopped. "What about this one?" he asked.
Roma looked surprised, almost like she'd forgotten the dog was there. "That's Cricket," Roma said. "She was an owner surrender; they got her as a puppy as a present for one of their kids, but once she stopped being cute and fluffy, the child lost interest, and they decided they didn't want her anymore. She—"
"Can she come out of the crate?" Aden interrupted.
"Sure," Roma said. "She might not want to, though." She grabbed a leash and opened the crate door, reaching in to hook it onto her collar. "Come on out, Crick," she said. "There's someone who wants to meet you." But the dog didn't budge.
Aden sat down in front of the crate and held out his hand. "It's okay," he said. "Sometimes I don't want to get out of bed either."
Lexa fought back a smile and watched as Aden continued to talk to the dog, whose ears finally perked up, and then her head, and slowly, very slowly, her tail started to wag. Aden patted the ground in front of him, and Cricket inched forward, and Aden scooted back and did it again, taking the end of the leash from Roma and looping it around his wrist. Finally, with a lurch, Cricket launched herself out of her crate and into Aden, almost knocking him backward as she tried to fit herself in Aden's lap and squirm around to lick his face at the same time.
Aden laughed and wrapped his arms around the pup to try to still her wriggling, and finally she settled down, still firmly wedged in Aden's lap, her chin resting on Aden's arm.
"I think we know which one is your dog," Lexa said.
Aden nodded. "Can we?"
"It's what we came for," Lexa told him, then looked at Roma. "Show us where we need to sign."
It felt like Lexa blinked and two weeks had passed.
It turned out life with a dog wasn't all that different from life without a dog – at least when you already had a kid. They both required regular feeding and watering and reminding to take care of their personal hygiene – in the dog's case, going out to do her business and regular brushing, in Aden's case to brush his teeth, comb his hair, and shower. They were both attached to predictable schedules. They both enjoyed attention and affection. The main difference was in how frequently they needed to vacuum, but thankfully a little bonus to his allowance got Aden on board with helping out with that particular chore.
The process of convincing the powers that be that they were not only capable but willing to take on Madi as a foster child turned out to be much more arduous, and Lexa didn't realize how easy she'd had it with Aden until their fourth meeting with Ms. Green and others involved with Madi's case, going over the same things they'd already been over half a dozen times. "There hasn't been any improvement," they were told.
"How can you expect improvement when nothing has changed?" Clarke countered. "She had a home once. Parents. A family. Now she's stuck in a place with a dozen other kids, and I'm sure the staff is doing their best, but it's easy to let a kid who doesn't demand attention fall through the cracks. If no one is going out of their way to interact with her, to try to help, how can you possibly think that she's going to get better?"
That shut them up, and finally, finally, they signed off on the placement.
They went to the group home on a Friday morning while Aden was at school. Cricket had been taken to doggy daycare for the day; she loved playing with the other dogs, and it would be one less thing to overwhelm Madi with immediately upon arrival. She should have been in school, but since she still refused to participate in any way, and her teacher was pushing to get her removed from her class because 'her defiance is a disruption', they'd decided that missing one day wasn't going to matter. She would be attending a new school anyway, since they were in a different district than the group home.
"Madi," one of the workers – thankfully not the woman from the picnic – said in a soft, sing-songy voice more suited to a preschooler, "there are some people here to see you!"
Madi didn't look up from the paper in front of her, but it was clear she'd heard, because she put so much pressure on the pencil she was holding the lead snapped. She tossed it aside and turned to glare at them... only to stop, her eyes going wide and round, when she recognized them.
"Hi Madi," Clarke said. "It's nice to see you again."
Madi looked at the paper in front of her, then back at them, then at the paper again, then back. Clarke took a step closer, and Lexa saw Madi tense, but she didn't move. She watched Clarke approach, only moving when Clarke got close enough to touch her. She scooted to the edge of her seat, ready to bolt, but Clarke just crouched a few feet away. "Were you drawing?" she asked. No answer. Not even a nod. "Can I see?"
Slowly, Madi reached out and edged the drawing toward Clarke. Clarke picked it up by its edges to look at it, her eyes scanning the page. "Wow," she said. "This is really good." She turned the page so Lexa could see it, and while it was obviously the drawing of a child, it was a child who was intent on doing the best job she was capable of doing. It was a copy of the drawing Clarke had made for her, almost but not quite finished. The face had eyes and a nose, but no mouth.
"Can I see the other ones?" Clarke asked, not leaning in until Madi slid the sheets toward her. Lexa got a little closer and could see that they were all versions of the same thing, and there, on table, was Clarke's original drawing that she had been copying, over and over again.
"Do you know why we're here?" Clarke asked.
"We're here because we want to take you home with us," Clarke said. "We think that you might like living there better than living here. It's a lot quieter, and you'll have your own room. You'll have to share your bathroom with Aden – do you remember him from the picnic? – but we promise he's not too stinky." Clarke smiled, but Madi's face remained unchanged. "We just got a dog, too. Her name is Cricket and she loves to play ball. Do you like dogs?" Nothing. "I know you've been through a lot," Clarke said, "and you don't want to talk about it, and that's okay. But I hope maybe you can answer just one question for me. You don't have to say anything, just nod or shake your head. Do you think you can do that?"
Still nothing, and Lexa tried not to let doubt creep in about whether they could really handle this, handle her, any better than anyone else had. But Clarke wasn't going to give up, so neither would she.
"Do you want to come stay with us? Me and Lexa and Aden and Cricket? Do you think that might be something you'd like?"
Madi looked at Clarke for a long time, then at Lexa, studying them like if she stared hard enough she could see into their heads, figure out their motivations, determine if they really meant it, if she would be safe with them, if it would be better or just more of the same. Then, slowly, she took the drawing Clarke still held and laid it on the table, picking up the tiny bit of snapped-off lead from the table, and drew in the tiniest hint of a smile.
"And this is your room," Clarke said, pushing open the door so Madi could see. They'd tried to personalize it, but they didn't know what colors she liked, or if she loved unicorns or dinosaurs or rainbows or sloths, so it was still pretty generic. But just like she'd done for Aden, Clarke had made a painting for Madi, and it hung on the wall above her bed, a picnic blanket with a sketchbook and crayons scattered on it, and on the page was the words 'Welcome home'.
Madi climbed up on her bed to look at it more closely, her fingers tracing lightly over the faint ridges in the paint before dropping to her sides again. She slid back down off the bed and moved toward the dresser, then the desk, then the closet, her fingers clenching into tighter and tighter fists.
"It's okay," Lexa said. "You can touch it. It's all yours."
Madi's eyes flicked to her, then Clarke, then she began to pull open drawers, peering inside. They were mostly empty, but they'd gotten her size from Ms. Green so they'd acquired a few wardrobe basics to get her through until they could take her shopping. They'd put some books on her bookshelves and some art and school supplies in her desk, trying to make it feel at least a little like home.
"Are you hungry?" Clarke asked when she'd inspected every corner of the room, including under the bed. "It's almost lunchtime."
Madi didn't answer – of course she didn't – but she followed them back downstairs and climbed up onto one of the stools at the island, watching them as they made sandwiches. "Peanut butter and jelly or turkey?" Lexa asked, then almost rolled her eyes at herself because she only got stared at in response, and what had she expected?
"Hold on," Clarke said. She grabbed the little pad of paper they kept on the fridge for writing down the grocery list and tore off a page, then quickly began to draw boxes and write words next to them. When she was done, she slid the paper, along with the pencil, over to Madi. "Your order, miss?"
Madi looked down at the page, then up and Clarke, and picked up the pencil. Lexa wasn't sure, but she thought she saw her sucking in her lips like she was trying not to smile. There was certainly more life in her eyes – life that wasn't anger – than they'd seen before as she handed the slip back.
"Perfect," Clarke said, setting it on the counter. Lexa looked down and saw she'd made a list of Madi's choices – type of sandwich, condiments, sides, beverage, and dessert. And it turned out that whether Madi would express herself verbally or not, she did have preferences. It wasn't a lot, but it was a start.
"Turkey and cheese with lettuce and mustard, barbecue chips, carrot sticks, and chocolate chip cookie," Lexa said. "You know, that sounds pretty good. I think I'll have the same."
"Me too," Clarke said. "But I'd also like tomato."
Madi wrinkled her nose, and Lexa laughed. "I know," she said. "She's silly. But I love her anyway."
Madi looked at her sharply, and a dart of anxiety lanced through Lexa. They didn't know this kid. They didn't know how she'd been raised. What if her parents had taught her that being gay was evil? What would that do to her already fragile psychological state?
Madi leaned forward, the stool scraping across the floor, and peered at Lexa's hands, then at Clarke's. She went and grabbed the paper from the fridge and clambered back up, quickly scribbling a drawing and turning it to them. It was two women wearing veils and holding flowers, a heart drawn between them, little more than stick figures but the intention was clear.
"Yes!" Clarke said, thrilled at the first attempt at communication Madi had initiated. "Yes, we're married." She took the drawing from Madi and added in a boy and a girl and a dog. "This is our family."
Madi took it back, studying it for a moment before setting it aside when Lexa set her plate in front of her. They joined her at the island, watching out of the corners of their eyes as she devoured the meal, leaving barely a crumb behind.
"You can go back to your room if you want to," Clarke said. "We'll clean up."
Madi pressed her lips together, then slid from her stool. Lexa didn't actually see her take it, but when she looked, the little drawing was gone.
Lexa left Clarke to look after Madi, who still hadn't emerged from her room since going up after lunch. Lexa thought maybe she'd fallen asleep; it had been an eventful day, and who knows how well she'd slept the night before. Most of the time Aden rode the bus home from school, but on Fridays Lexa picked him up and they went to the store, like they had when they were still driving him to and from school every day.
Aden looked into the back seat as she climbed in, and Lexa wasn't sure if he was expecting Madi or the dog to be there. He gave her a questioning look.
"Madi's home with Clarke," she said. "Cricket is still at doggy daycare. We'll pick her up after we do the shopping."
"Are we still doing pizza?" he asked.
"Of course," she said. "Why wouldn't we?"
Aden shrugged. "Maybe she doesn't like pizza."
"Who doesn't like pizza?" Lexa asked. "We probably should have asked what she likes on her pizza, though." She scrunched up her face. "Can you text Clarke and have her ask?"
"I thought she didn't talk," Aden said. "That's what you said."
"She doesn't," Lexa said. "But she'll write things." She explained how Clarke had made Madi a little order sheet for lunch so they knew what she wanted. "She can make a list of toppings and Madi can check off the things she likes."
"Hopefully not pineapple," Aden said, grinning. "Or anchovies."
"If we're lucky, Clarke won't even put those on the list," Lexa said, grinning back.
They were almost done with the shopping before Clarke texted back. "Just cheese," Aden said. "Clarke says she drew a big X through the whole list."
"I guess that's easy enough," Lexa said. She grabbed an extra bag of shredded cheese, because she wasn't sure how much they had left at home. Aden steered the cart toward the checkout, and they stowed the bags in the trunk so Cricket wouldn't be tempted to snack on anything on the trip home.
"Keep her on the leash," Lexa said as they stepped inside. "We told her we have a dog and she didn't seem bothered, but just in case." They dropped the bags of groceries in the kitchen and began putting them away, with Cricket doing her best to help (which wasn't helpful at all, but try telling that to her). When everything was put away and she still hadn't seen her wife, she finally called out. "Clarke?"
"Up here!" Clarke called back.
"Be right back," Lexa told Aden, who nodded and went to the living room with Cricket at his heels. She went upstairs and found Clarke sitting on Madi's bed, sketching. Clarke looked up and smiled when Lexa knocked on the door frame, but there was an uncharacteristic tightness to it. She uncrossed her legs and slid off the bed, joining Lexa in the doorway. "Everything all right?" Lexa asked.
"I don't know," Clarke said. "It seems like she doesn't want to leave her room."
Lexa frowned. Maybe it wasn't so strange, considering everything she'd been through, that she would want to stay in a small, enclosed area where she knew she was safe. It was like Cricket going to her crate when she needed some time away from Jake poking and petting her. (Jake understood the concept of 'gentle', but he was still working on 'enough'. Lexa thought maybe he could use a few training sessions on the 'leave it' command that Aden was teaching the dog.) "She might just be overwhelmed," she said. "It's got to be a lot to take in all at once."
"Maybe," Clarke said, but she didn't sound convinced. "I just keep thinking about that woman, and how she didn't want to deal with her. Maybe they made her stay in her room there, to make their own lives easier."
Lexa hated to admit it, but it was a possibility. One less problem for the staff to deal with, when there were so many other kids demanding their attention. "I would say we should ask her, but..."
"Yeah." Clarke sighed and went back to Madi, crouching next to her desk, where she was sitting with a coloring book and crayons, all neatly arranged in a row in rainbow order. "Hey Madi?"
The little girl looked at her out of the corner of her eye, her grip on her crayon tightening. Lexa hoped it wouldn't meet the same fate as her pencil lead earlier.
"You can leave your room whenever you want to," Clarke said. "Except after bedtime, but even then if you need to use the bathroom or get a drink of water or something, you're allowed to leave. You don't have to stay in here all the time."
Madi's lips twitched, but otherwise, there was no response.
"Aden and Cricket are home," Lexa added, keeping her voice low and gentle. "Aden's your—" She stumbled. Could she say Aden was Madi's brother? Was it too soon? She'd never liked it when foster parents called complete strangers her brothers and sisters; she'd only used the term herself when one of them actually earned it. But what else could she call him? Saying Aden was their son made it sound like the three of them were a family with Madi on the outside, and that wasn't the impression she wanted to give this girl who, if things went well, they had every intention of making part of their family. "Foster brother," she finally said, hoping the awkward pause hadn't been as long as it felt. "Cricket's the dog." She smiled. "Would you like to meet them?"
Madi turned back to her coloring book, her eyes narrowing and her brows drawn so tight they almost met in the middle. They watched as she reached for the crayons, her hand hovering above them, and then slowly, carefully, she picked up the green one and showed it to them.
"Green means go," Clarke said softly.
Madi set the crayon down and stood up, following them silently down the stairs.
As soon as they stepped into the living room, Cricket was up and straining at the end of her leash, her entire body wagging because her tail wasn't enough to convey her excitement at this new set of hands to pet her. Aden reeled her in and got her to sit. "Sorry," he said. "She's still learning manners."
"Madi, this is Aden," Clarke said. "Aden, you remember Madi from the picnic."
Aden nodded. "Nice to meet you again," he said. "This is Cricket. You can pet her if you want to. She might try to lick your face, but if you don't want her to, just tell her to stop." He paused, realizing his error. "Or, um, I'll tell her to stop." He looked up at Lexa helplessly.
'It's okay,' she mouthed.
Madi shuffled forward and held out her hand for Cricket to sniff, and after doing so, she immediately thrust her head under Madi's hand, so she was forced to pet her whether she wanted to or not. She gingerly stroked the top of her head, and then scratched behind her ears with a little more enthusiasm, causing Cricket to wriggle with joy.
"She likes you!" Aden said. Madi wrapped her arms around Cricket's neck and hugged her. It would appear the feeling was mutual. She let out a squeal when Cricket's tongue found her ear, and they all jumped a little. It was the first sound any of them had heard her make.
"Can I let her off the leash?" Aden asked, and Lexa nodded. He unhooked the clip from the dog's collar, and Cricket proceeded to lean her full weight into Madi, knocking her back on her butt. Clarke took half a step forward, but Madi didn't seem upset, so they left her to it.
"Do you want to help make the pizza?" Clarke asked her when the dog had finally settled down, placing herself exactly halfway between Madi and Aden so they could both reach her if they were so inclined. "We would be happy to teach you. Or you can sit and watch. Or you can stay with Cricket. It's up to you."
They waited a minute, but of course there was no answer, and finally they went into the kitchen. If Madi wanted to join them, she was welcome. Lexa got out the pans and everything they would need to make the pizzas, then took her turn at the sink to wash her hands. When she turned around, Madi was standing there, waiting her turn.
"Do we have a third pan?" Clarke asked. "I feel like we might need three, with Aden eating almost an entire pizza all by himself."
"I'm a growing boy!" Aden said, and it was true. Lexa wondered if the jeans they'd bought him for the start of school would even make it to Christmas before they became highwaters.
"We do," Lexa said. "In the drawer under the oven. And yes, I got three things of dough. Great minds and all that."
"Do we have a stool?" Aden asked. "Not a sitting stool. A stepstool."
"Somewhere," Lexa said. "Check the pantry."
Aden ducked into the pantry (really a glorified closet, but it did the job) and emerged triumphant. He set the stool at the island for Madi to stand on so she would be tall enough to get the leverage she needed to press the dough onto the pan.
"Good thinking," Lexa said.
Together, they assembled their pizzas. Madi's was a little lopsided, but the dough was spread evenly enough that it wouldn't affect the cooking. "Who says pizza has to be round anyway?" Lexa asked as they spread the sauce and sprinkled cheese.
"I believe that is what would be called 'rustic'," Clarke said. "Or perhaps 'artisanal'."
Lexa laughed. "As long as it's also what would be called 'delicious', it can be anything else it wants, right, Madi?"
No answer. Of course. But that didn't mean they were going to stop trying.
That night they woke up to the sound of sobbing. "Shit," Lexa said, shoving her hair out of her face. She pushed back the covers and made sure she was decent, then padded down the hall after Clarke, who had been quicker to rise.
"Hey," Clarke said, already leaning over Madi's bed, a hand on her back through the blankets, rubbing in slow circles. "It's all right. I'm here, Madi. We're right here. We're not going anywhere." She pushed the blankets away from Madi's face, which was red and puffy and tear-streaked, then peeled it back farther. Lexa held her breath, afraid that unraveling her cocoon might do the opposite of what Clarke was attempting to achieve with her words, that it might make Madi feel exposed and vulnerable instead of safe, but surely if that was the case she would cling to the covers. She'd shown at the picnic that she could be a fighter when she wanted to be.
When Clarke finally freed Madi's arms, the little girl immediately reached out, clinging to Clarke with an iron grip. Lexa quickly extricated Madi's legs, and Clarke slid the girl into her lap, rubbing her back and stroking her hair, telling her over and over again that they were there, they weren't going anywhere and neither was she, that she was home now, and she was safe.
Slowly her sobs became ragged gasps, and then an occasional soft hiccup before subsiding completely, and Madi was still and quiet again, cradled in Clarke's arms while Lexa rubbed her calves and feet, trying to keep her toes warm.
"Think you can go back to sleep?" Clarke asked her, when the time between blinks had stretched so that the seconds her eyes were closed outnumbered the ones where they were open. "We'll be right down the hall if you need us."
When she didn't protest (in whatever form that might have taken) they tucked her back into bed, with hugs and kisses and wishes of sweet dreams from here on. Madi looked back and forth between them, and then her eyes closed and didn't open again.
Still, they stayed until they were sure she wasn't going to drift straight back into a nightmare, and before returning to their room, Lexa brushed her hand over Clarke's back. "I'm going to check on Aden," she said. Clarke nodded, lingering just a moment longer in Madi's doorway.
Lexa made her way down the hall – it was only a few steps – to Aden's room, and quietly cracked open the door. She peered in and saw the dog first, sprawled on the bed with her head on a pillow like she was a person. Aden had his arm draped over her, and he turned his head and met Lexa's eyes. "Is she okay?" he whispered.
"For now," Lexa said. "I'm sorry if she woke you."
Aden shrugged. "It's not your fault. Or hers." He sat up a little, propping himself against his pillows, and Lexa came all the way in and sat on the edge of his bed. "I had nightmares when my mom was sick," he said. "All the time. I tried to hide them from her but I couldn't." He swallowed hard. "Then they came true."
"Oh buddy," Lexa said, scooting over and holding out her arms, hugging him awkwardly with the dog wedged between them. She felt his shoulders shake, and she nudged Cricket until she grumblingly moved out of the way. "Fuck cancer," she murmured into his hair as dampness soaked her shoulder.
He nodded, sniffling and gasping until his tears were back under control. He slumped against her, and she rubbed his back. "At least tomorrow is Saturday," she said. "We don't have to get up early."
"Can we have pancakes?" he asked.
"Sure," Lexa said.
"What if Madi doesn't like them?" Aden asked.
"Then she can have something else," Lexa said. "I can't say that nothing is going to change, because that would be a lie. But we're going to do our best to make sure we keep doing all the things that we've done as a family from the start, okay? And if you ever feel like things are changing in a way you don't like, you can always talk to us, and we'll listen and do everything we can to make things better. All right?"
He nodded, his head still on her shoulder, and she brushed back his hair and pressed a kiss to his forehead. "I love you. No matter what, you'll always be my favorite son."
"I'm your only son," he said, but his lips twitched a little, almost smiling.
"You're missing the point," she teased, and hugged him again. "Try to get some sleep."
He settled back against his pillows, and she tucked the covers around him as best she could with a dog pinning them down. "Good night, Aden," she said.
"Good night," he said, and watched her go to the door. She was about to close it behind her when he called her name, and she stopped and poked her head through again. "I love you too. And Clarke."
"I know," she said. "I'll tell her."
"'Kay." He rolled over and put his arm around Cricket again, and she closed the door and went back to her own room, leaving the door open just a fraction so they could hear Madi if she started crying again.
"Aden says he loves you," Lexa said as she climbed back into bed, sliding her arms around Clarke and pulling her into her body.
"I love him too," Clarke said. "Is he okay?"
"More or less," Lexa said. "And he knows."
Clarke sighed, her arms tightening around Lexa as she laid her head in the same place Aden's had just been, but on the opposite side, so she was spared the wet patch his tears had left behind. "Do you think she ever will?" she asked.
"Love you?" Lexa asked.
"Say it," Clarke corrected.
The answer was the same either way. "I hope so."
In the morning they had pancakes, and Madi wanted blueberries and chocolate chips, but after a taste test she decided that maybe having them both in the same pancake wasn't such a great idea. Aden stood by Lexa's side, and arranged the chocolate chips in one pancake into a smiley face, and then added whipped cream and fruit around it to make a little picture on the plate before setting it in front of her.
Madi's eyes went wide, and then, for the first time, she smiled. It slipped away a second later when she realized she was going to have to eat it, but Aden snapped a quick picture on his phone and showed it to her, and with the reassurance that it was preserved for posterity, her hunger overcame her and she dug in.
Clarke made Madi little red and green cards that she could show to answer yes or no questions, and dug out an old white board from her college dorm days so they wouldn't waste a piece of paper every time she needed to create a menu card or other alternative to verbal communication. It would have made life a lot easier if Madi would at least write down what she wanted to say, but whatever it was that kept her words locked tight inside her apparently extended to their written form as well. She wouldn't even nod or shake her head, but the cards helped.
They took her to family dinner the next night, knowing they might end up leaving early if it proved to be too much, but as soon as they walked in the door, Adria adopted Madi as her new best friend, and Madi made no objection. Adria was unfazed by Madi's silence; she talked enough for both of them. By the time they left Madi was clearly exhausted, and Clarke ended up carrying her into the house piggyback.
On Monday they met with the school Madi would be attending – Madi was staying with Luna and Jake for the duration of the meeting, and had seemed calm enough about it when they left – which proved to be more contentious than they'd expected, and by the time they left, Clarke looked ready to explode.
"She's not stupid!" she said. "They act as if her not talking indicates a lack of intelligence, but we know that's not true!"
"We do," Lexa agreed.
"They just aren't willing to take the time to get to know her!" Clarke went on. "If they actually made an effort—"
"I know," Lexa said. "I know." She was frustrated, too, but she was trying to keep her own anger reined in. One of the had to be the calm one, and how any times had Clarke talked her down from a freak-out? Today it was her turn. "I think that's really the heart of the problem," she said after a moment.
"What, the fact that they don't care enough to find ways to work with her that aren't the same cookie-cutter techniques they've been using for so long they think it's one size fits all?" Clarke snarled.
Lexa shook her head. "Time," she said. "Maybe there's lack of caring, lack of desire to change or try something new, but when it comes down to it, time is really the enemy." Clarke raised an eyebrow but waited for her to go on. "Madi is one kid in a class of... what? Twenty? Twenty-five? Even if the teacher wanted to work with her and help her, any extra time she spent with Madi would be time she wasn't spending on the other kids. And the needs of the many are going to outweigh the needs of the few. Whether it's right, whether it's fair... that's the way it is."
"So what's the answer?" Clarke asked. "Just put her in a room by herself and forget about her? That's what it sounds like they want to do."
"Not by herself," Lexa said. "In a smaller class, where the teacher will have more time to spend with her." But the class they were talking about was one for students who struggled academically or behaviorally to the point where they couldn't be in a mainstream classroom. That wasn't Madi. She could keep up, she just couldn't – or refused to – demonstrate it.
"It makes me want to just pull her out of there completely," Clarke said. "Just get the workbooks or whatever and—" She stopped, looked at Lexa. "We could," she said. "I could."
"Could what?" Lexa asked, feeling as if Clarke's train of thought had switched tracks and Lexa had missed the connection.
"Teach her. Homeschool her. Enroll her in online school. They exist. We've seen commercials. Maybe that would work better for her. It would let her work at her own pace, without some old bat of a teacher glaring at her and expecting her to be someone she's not. At least not right now." Clarke's eyes lit up. "It actually makes a lot of sense," she said. "With all of her therapy appointments and everything, it would make it easier to schedule because they could be during hours when kids are normally in school, and she could do her lessons around them. And maybe in a few months or a few years or however long it takes, she'll be ready to attend school again."
"That's a lot to take on," Lexa said. It did make sense – a lot of sense – but she didn't want Clarke getting in over her head.
"I know," Clarke said. "They said that she might be a full-time job for a while. So maybe part of that job is teacher. I can handle it. I figured out how to find out what she wants to eat, didn't I? And the cards. Well, she started that herself with the crayon, which proves she's smarter than they want to give her credit for, but it's working. She trusts me. Trusts us. If I keep working with her, along with therapy... If it doesn't work out, we can go back to the school, come up with a plan. But don't you think it's worth trying?"
Lexa opened her mouth, but she was out of objections. So instead she said, "Okay." If anyone could work a miracle with Madi, it was Clarke. "Let's do it."
They fell into a routine. In the morning, they got Aden off to school, and Lexa went to work, leaving Clarke at home with Madi and Cricket. They enrolled her in an online school, but even that required heavy modification, because although Madi would read the lessons, she wouldn't do anything that involved writing, at least not words. But Clarke did what she could, spending hours a day (and sometimes into the evening) looking for resources to make sure that Madi wouldn't fall behind if she ever did return to a regular school.
She went to therapy nearly every day, but now that they had discovered that she would use drawings to communicate, her therapist had a way of reaching her and getting a response, even if it sometimes took some interpretation, and carefully worded questions that could be answered with a red card or a green one.
Slowly, the nightmares decreased in frequency and intensity, and Madi was easier to soothe and get back to sleep, although more than once one of them laid down with her 'just for a minute' and woke up disoriented hours later with a crick in their neck. But if it meant Madi slept, what was a little bit of pain? That's what parents did, wasn't it? Whatever it took.
"I wish I could be homeschooled," Aden said one day when they came home to batches of cookies cooling on the counter. One of the day's lessons had been measurements, and fractions, and what better way than by doing a little baking? A lesson in geology and rock layers had resulted in parfaits (with little dinosaur candies mixed in some of the layers for a little bonus paleontology), and a chemistry lesson had ended with cake.
"You like school," Lexa reminded him.
"Mostly," he said.
"No one likes school all the time," she said. "Especially not middle school. At least you've got Tris there, right?"
He smirked. "Yeah."
"What did she do now?" Lexa asked.
"Nothing," he said, shrugging, but spots of color had appeared on his cheeks that said otherwise.
"She just told some kid off, that's all," Aden said. "He said some stupid sh—stuff about how I'm probably gonna end up—" He stopped, biting his lip.
"End up what?" Lexa asked.
Aden shook his head. "It doesn't matter. He's an ass—idiot."
"Aden..." she said again. "I'm not going to get upset."
He sighed and picked up another cookie, taking a big bite and chewing slowly. "He said how I was probably gonna end up a faggot because I live with two dykes. Or maybe that's why I live with you, because I already am one, and my parents didn't want me."
Lexa sucked in a breath. If she'd been an animal, her hackles would have been up, and if that little asshole had been in front of her, she might have ripped him a new one. How could kids be so cruel? How could adults teach them to be like that? Because they certainly weren't born with those kinds of opinions.
"It's okay," Aden said. "I didn't know what to say, but Tris was there, and she was like, 'Uh, actually, his parents chose him, because he's awesome. Unlike your poor parents, who got stuck with you, and probably wish they could trade you in for a model with a brain.' And then he kind of lunged at her and she kicked him in the nuts and she didn't even get in trouble because he wouldn't admit that he'd been taken down by a girl."
Lexa put a hand over her mouth, trying to physically rearrange her expression. "I am not laughing," she said. "It's not funny and I'm not laughing. Violence is not the answer."
"I didn't kick him," Aden said. "And it's maybe a little bit funny." He grinned at her.
She pulled him into a hug, pressing her cheek against his hair, and it wouldn't be too much longer before she wouldn't be able to do that anymore. "I'm sorry you got picked on because of us," she said.
"I'm not," Aden said. "I don't care what stupid people like that think. I would rather have two moms than none, and I know you want me. Like Tris said, you chose me. So who cares what he says?"
Lexa nodded, blinking hard because she was pretty sure that was the first time he'd ever actually used that word to refer to her and Clarke. Even if he never called them that instead of their names, even if he never said it again at all... he'd said it once, and meant it, and that was enough.
Clarke and Madi came into the living room from Clarke's studio, where they'd been drawing or working on a project. Madi's favorite class was art, of course, and any time Clarke could incorporate it into another subject, she did, taking advantage of Madi's increased focus and engagement. "I see you found the cookies," she said, sliding an arm around Lexa and kissing her cheek, then her lips when she turned her head. "Don't ruin your dinner."
"Don't worry," Aden said. "Cookies go into the dessert stomach."
Lexa laughed, and Clarke did too. Madi looked at the curiously, but then tugged on Aden's arm until he looked down at her. She pulled him toward the living room, where Cricket had retreated when Aden's attention had been diverted from her to the cookies. She got up when they came in the room, shoving her head between them for some dual ear scratching action. But Madi had other ideas. She made her hand into a fist and held it up over Cricket's head, and Cricket's rear hit the floor. Madi rubbed her head, then pointed to the floor, and Cricket sank the rest of the way down. She held her hand out flat, her palm facing Cricket, then slowly backed across the room. Cricket wiggled, but she didn't move until Madi patted her hand on her chest, and the dog launched herself across the room and into Madi's arms to get her reward of hugs and belly rubs.
"That's amazing!" Aden, who had been watching the entire demonstration with his mouth hanging open, exclaimed. "Madi, that's so good!" He fell onto the floor next to her and his dog and hugged them both, and Madi's face looked like it might split from grinning so wide.
Lexa wrapped her arms around Clarke, who looked up at her with brimming eyes. "She's been working on that for weeks," she said softly. "She couldn't wait to show him."
"He's right," Lexa said. "It's amazing. She's amazing. You're—" Lexa shook her head, the words getting stuck in her throat.
"Let me guess," Clarke said. "I'm amazing too?"
Lexa snorted, and nodded, and took advantage of the fact that both of the kids were distracted to kiss her thoroughly, making a silence promise of more and better later, when the kids and dog were safely tucked in for the night.
A month passed, and every day was a little better than the one before. Lexa remembered their life before Madi, but it felt much longer ago than just a few short weeks. It wasn't all smooth sailing, and some days were better than others, but at least it felt like they were making progress. It was incremental, and slow, and some days it felt like they were barely clinging to the status quo, but at least they weren't backsliding, and they were reminded over and over by Madi's therapist, and her team, and Luna, that sometimes just treading water was okay. It was better than the alternative.
Madi smiled more, and sometimes she nodded or shook her head instead of using her cards, and more and more often she would scribble drawings on her white board to let them know what she was thinking or feeling. When they watched TV or movies, she no longer always sat on the floor with the dog or in Aden's chair (which he never tried to take away from her if she got there first). Instead, she started out at one end of the couch, and slowly crept her way closer. Sometimes, she even made her way into Clarke's lap, or wedged herself between the two of them. She was still shyer with Lexa than she was with Clarke, but Clarke was the one who was with her all day, every day. Lexa knew it would take time to build that same level of trust. She didn't push for more than Madi was able to give; she knew it would likely backfire. Instead, she just made sure to be there for Madi when she needed – or wanted – her. She also made sure that easy-going Aden didn't get forgotten or pushed aside, which would have been easy to do. She suspected he was tired of her thanking him for being so kind and patient and understanding with Madi, but she kept saying it anyway, and making sure he got plenty of attention that had nothing to do with her besides.
And then a single word changed everything.
They were in the living room, settling in for a movie night, bowls of popcorn at the ready (including a small one for Cricket, who liked to try to catch the fluffy white kernels in midair) when someone said, "Clarke."
Clarke looked at Lexa first, but Lexa shook her head. She hadn't said it. They both looked at Aden, but the voice had been too soft, and too female, to be his. They turned and saw Madi standing in the doorway, holding a piece of paper, chewing on her lower lip.
Goosebumps prickled all along Lexa's arms and legs as she realized why they hadn't recognized the voice. You couldn't recognize something you hadn't ever heard before.
"What, Madi?" Clarke asked, holding out her hand to her, motioning her to come closer.
Madi approached slowly, one halting step at a time, finally extending the arm that held the paper when she was close enough for Clarke to take it from her. Lexa leaned over to see what Madi had drawn, and for a second it felt like her heart stopped, and then restarted with a shocking thud against her ribcage, because this she recognized.
They weren't wearing veils this time, or holding flowers, and there was still a heart, but it wasn't just between them anymore. Next to Lexa was Aden, and next to Clarke was Madi, and in front was Cricket, and the heart surrounded all of them.
"What's this?" Clarke asked.
Madi's jaw and throat worked, and her forehead furrowed, but no words came out, and her shoulders slumped.
"Is this our family?" Clarke asked.
Madi reached into her pocket for her cards, then stopped. She started to nod, then shook her head. She lifted one hand and pointed to her chest.
"You? Your family?" Clarke asked.
Madi nodded emphatically.
Clarke made a sound, half-laugh, half-sob, and pulled Madi into her arms, and into her lap, and she didn't try to hide the fact that she was crying. Neither did Lexa, as she held her arm out to Aden to draw him into the hug, and she thought she might have heard him give a little sniffle as he wedged himself onto the couch with them.
"That's right," Lexa said. "We're your family now."
"And always," Clarke added.