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Lexa had lost her soulmate when she was eleven years old. The two words that she had cherished and daydreamed about for years had one day simply vanished, leaving behind no trace they had ever been imprinted on the inside of her wrist. Overnight, her life had taken an unthinkable turn, and if the whispers behind her back had not been enough to rock her self-esteem, if the bullying and the taunting hadn’t broken her, it was her friends cutting ties with her that had felt like the most painful loss.

Her parents had had to put her on the registry for the Markless, which she’d always found to be ironic, as it painted the biggest mark on her yet: outcast. The Markless had a flaw; a part of them so fundamentally wrong that they couldn’t truly love, nor be truly loved in return. Few people cared to mingle with them, as history had proven them to be the criminals of this world. And if they hadn’t done their crime yet then surely they would, one day, and rare were those who wanted to take the chance to be in their lives when it happened.

Lexa didn’t know what it meant for her or what she’d done at eleven that had made her so undeserving of love, but she’d refused to let anger consume her. She’d kept her head low and kept her arms covered, even in the summer, and for the next eighteen years she’d lived her life as best she could.

In the city, blending in had been easier. There were apartment buildings for people like her, and though they were rarely the safest, Lexa had been happy enough in her studio. She’d met her first true friends in years there, and then a few more in college, where minds were more open than in her small town. Some simply didn’t care, others refused to buy into the fear mongering, and Lexa clung to them tightly, grateful for their affection and their flaws, the ones that society marginalized as well.

Her closest friend was Anya - tough like nails and no-nonsense - who Lexa had met while they studied in the hopes of one day teaching. Yes, sometimes it was a wonder to Lexa as well that she would willfully step in school classrooms again, but how would the world ever change if the new generations weren’t taught differently? Lexa had long ago found refuge in language and literature, and if she could one day extend a hand to a child shunned by their peers, if she could be the teacher she had needed in her teenage years so many times, it would be worth the pain of reviving old wounds. As for Anya, she wasn’t markless but had gotten pregnant from an encounter with a markless partner, which had brought her family so much shame that she’d started finding the entire system loathsome. She’d had her daughter’s name tattooed over her mark, packed their bags for the city and never once looked back.

The decade had seen some improvements for people like them - and the world was changing, even if slowly. There were programs started to facilitate their lives and more inclusive spaces offered. There were even dating websites, and if Lexa had once been embarrassed to even sign up, she now relied on them exclusively. Her college girlfriends might have been open-minded, but it’d never changed the words imprinted on their wrists.

Layover was perhaps the word Lexa detested the most in the English language, as people like her were the first ones to suffer from it. There had been Costia, first, who Lexa had loved as best she could, even as a broke twenty-year-old with full-time studies and two part-time jobs, but it had only lasted a year, until Costia had taken a linguistics class and met the girl whose first words to her were marked on her skin. In her defense, Costia had broken the news gently – and Lexa had loved her enough to be happy for her, though perhaps not when she had felt her heart plummet into her stomach.

Lexa had wondered afterward if it was true what they said about the Markless: if she had been able to let go of Costia because she was unable to truly love. When she had asked Anya about it, the woman had shrugged and told her one relationship was hardly strong enough proof.

Louisa had whirled into Lexa’s life over a year later, but left just as quickly when another student had tapped on her shoulder and uttered the very words she would sometimes mumble in her sleep. Lexa had been walking out of the class auditorium with her when it had happened, and she had felt herself freeze on the spot. After all, she’d spent enough nights in the same bed to know what words were on her girlfriend’s wrist. Louisa had been so flustered that she’d babbled something back, and evidently the curly-haired boy who’d asked her a question had heard back the words imprinted on his own wrist, his smile spreading so wide that Lexa had felt sickened by the sight. She’d gotten blackout drunk for the first and last time that night and woken up on Anya’s couch.

Afterward, Lexa had refused to waste her time. She dated a few markless women during grad school, but the relationships still naturally ran their course, and each time Lexa had wondered if the whispers were true: people like her couldn’t know true love.

Which, inevitably, led to the second most detested word in Lexa’s vocabulary: settling. It was a term that the Marked had coined some centuries ago, aimed at those who built lives and started families with partners they knew weren’t their intended. It happened, of course, that in this world many didn’t meet, but hope was to be maintained until one’s last breath. There were records of couples meeting as old as 101 years old, and so whoever didn’t wait was poorly regarded, though never as poorly as the Markless, who inspired fear rather than pity.

Though she didn’t care for the word and its connotations, settling was something that Lexa had accepted for herself. It was clear by now, at 29, that she should seek a markless woman who shared her values and had a compatible lifestyle. It wouldn’t be the love that movies and songs wrote about, but it could be a strong bond regardless - companionship - and together they could even have a family. It was seeing Anya around her daughter, Tris, that had planted the first seeds of yearning for a fuller life and someone to share it with.

It was with the very intention of settling that Lexa had packed her bags and moved to her dream city, much smaller in scale and population than the one that had offered her so much, but a place with a progressive enough reputation that Lexa knew she could be happy there. Anya had helped her with the move - a two hour drive away that both her and Lexa had felt weigh heavily on them. It would be the first time Lexa was far from the friend who had, by all means, saved her life more than once.

When Lexa had applied for a teaching position at the Polis private middle school, it had been with Anya’s full support. She had coached her through the high-brow interview process and then celebrated when Lexa had officially been offered the English teacher position, to be started in two months for the new school year. For once, the stars had seemed to align.

That was, at least, until Lexa had stepped into her new apartment and realized just how strongly it smelled of fresh paint. On her first night alone, Lexa had woken up so dizzy that not even a morning walk had lessened the feeling. She’d resigned herself to the fact that her new place would be inhabitable for at least a week and had quickly found a hotel to stay in for the next few days.

~

Jake Griffin was the proud owner of Griffin Hotel, a warm place with under thirty rooms and a distinctly cozy appeal to it. It was not luxurious but still well-kept, with a room near the foyer for the breakfast buffet and another sitting room with armchairs, a bookshelf, and a view on their garden. Lexa had only taken one suitcase up to her room, but after Jake had left her to it, she’d felt oddly compelled to walk for a bit before she turned in for the night.

She put on her comfiest sweater and wandered out of the hotel, finding her way to the garden and enjoying the soothing sound of the small fountain there. Through the window to the sitting room, she could see the bookshelf standing tall and wondered what titles she would find on the spines of those old books. She went back inside and walked into the room, but stopped when she noticed someone sitting in one of the armchairs.

She couldn’t be any older than Lexa, with her hair in a loose up-do and her legs curled up beneath her. She was completely absorbed in a book, an edition of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café so worn that the cover was only kept on thanks to three paperclips. There were notes sticking out of it and some ink stains on the edges of the pages. Lexa felt a sudden thrum of excitement at the prospect of a shared interest.

“I love that tomato,” she said offhandedly.

Her eyes widened as she realized the moronic string of words she had uttered. The woman’s head snapped up and Lexa felt her cheeks grow hot when she noticed her bewildered expression.

"That novel, I mean,” Lexa quickly corrected. “It’s a good one. Wonderful.”

The woman blinked at her and when, finally, her mouth parted open, Lexa was so certain that she was about to say something that she couldn’t help but feel disappointed when she merely nodded instead. But her disappointment quickly vanished when the woman’s face suddenly broke into a smile; one so sweet that Lexa felt herself smile right back.

When she motioned for Lexa to sit, Lexa promptly did.

“I’m sorry if I interrupted anything,” she said. “You seemed so engrossed.”

The woman shrugged. Lexa wrung her hands on her lap. "It’s actually the first book I ever borrowed at a library.”

At the woman’s arched brow, Lexa felt that she had been asked to elaborate. “I was nine. It was summer and I was wildly bored.”

The woman suddenly sat up and pinched both edges of the book before showing the considerable space between her fingers. Lexa understood her meaning and smiled sheepishly.

“Yes, it was definitely too dense and mature for me. But I loved the world. Then I got obsessed with frying my own tomatoes - my mom never forgave me for setting her new pan on fire.”

The woman laughed, a soundless expression that made her eyes crinkle and her tongue peek out between her teeth. Lexa had accomplished many things in her life, but making this woman laugh felt like her proudest moment.

"Clarke?”

Lexa recognized Jake in the doorway, looking over at the woman in the armchair and then yawning loudly.

“I’m turning in. You need anything, hun’?”

Evidently, Lexa had stumbled upon Jake’s daughter. When Clarke lifted her hands and signed something with them, Lexa thought to smack herself. She had been blabbing without once wondering why Clarke didn’t respond verbally.

Jake chuckled at something Clarke signed. “Fair enough. Goodnight, kiddo.”

After he left, Lexa stood up and cleared her throat. “I’m so sorry, I-” She pinched the bridge of her nose. “I’ve been talking your ear off and you probably just wanted to read in peace.”

Clarke looked up at her with a curious expression, one Lexa couldn’t read at all.

“Hm… goodnight, then.” She smiled weakly and walked out of the room, already reaching for the bedroom key in her pocket.

Though she felt like an idiot, Lexa couldn’t resist one glance back before she turned the corner. She found Clarke looking at her with a soft smile, her expression so full of wonder that Lexa knew she would not be able to forget it.

A week passed at the hotel, but while Lexa glanced into the sitting room each time she walked by it, she never saw Clarke again. She went back and forth between the hotel and her apartment, putting her boxes away while the windows remained opened wide and the smell of paint slowly faded. Eventually she checked out of Griffin Hotel, where Jake gave her a cheery look before sending her off with a basket of fresh fruit from the breakfast buffet - a welcome gift, he’d said.

With her first classes to plan and organize, Lexa spent most of her time with her nose in her books and binders. She used the rest of it to familiarize herself with Polis, where she picked up a few habits in a matter of days. There was the grocery store with the peanut-butter pretzels that melted in her mouth, the bicycle path that cut through the park, and the coffee shop owned by Raven Reyes.

Raven ran a tight ship and was as welcoming as she was fascinating. Her two loves were space and food, and evidently she had combined them with great success. Her shop, Coffee on the Moon, was exactly what it sounded like - the best damn coffee Lexa had had in a uniquely decorated setting. The coffee machines were themed like space crafts, which Lexa had noticed were wildly popular with kids (and perhaps even more adults); the walls were painted in swaths of silvers and dark blues; and the art hung up was courtesy of local artists. In the display case, well-garnished sandwiches made with local produce rarely lasted the day, if even the rush of lunch hour.

Raven seemed to know everyone and everything, an unsurprising fact given her infectious energy. One morning, Raven had come into her shop without her prosthetic leg on account of the pain, she had shared casually, but not once in the following hour had Lexa heard her complain. She was an admirable woman, and Lexa was particularly fascinated by how quickly she had charmed Anya.

Anya, who wouldn’t admit to feeling lonely while her daughter was still at summer camp, had surprised Lexa with a visit that had turned into a week-long stay. She’d met Raven quickly enough, and immediately Lexa had noticed the change in her demeanor. Usually always on her guard, Anya had seemed to… soften around the edges in a matter of minutes. It was clear to Lexa that Raven had caught Anya’s eye, not only with her wit but also her ability to run such a good business.

Unfortunately for Anya, who didn’t like to be surprised by her own feelings, she dealt with attraction rather poorly. That is, she’d be ready to snap if Lexa so much as implied there was something there. Lexa, however, could understand her need for caution: Anya was a working mother who would soon leave back to her home, hours away. It was hard to envision this relationship having a future.

And, surely, it would have remained that way had Raven not suddenly noticed the tattoo on Anya’s wrist and shown off her own: a depiction of the moon with the logo of her coffee shop covering the words she’d had since birth.

“Got it at twenty-five when my boyfriend of ten years dumped me for some chick he didn’t even know,” she explained.

When Lexa looked toward Anya then, she knew her friend’s interest was piqued for good. It was rare to meet anyone who had willingly tattooed their mark like Anya had.

“A decade gone to dust because some skinny redhead told him what he’d always hoped to hear,” Raven revealed with a snort.

“So you don’t believe in the mark?” Anya asked cautiously.

“Oh, I do.”

As equally confused as her best friend, Lexa invited Raven to sit with them at their table.

“I just don’t think the way we go about it works,” Raven elaborated. “Just because you meet - it doesn’t have to mean you’re right for each other at that exact moment, you know?”

“Or at all,” Lexa muttered.

“Well, I do think there’s truth to it,” Raven admitted. “It’s fucking beautiful, really, if we just see it as it is, but we have a messy approach.”

Lexa shook her head. “It’s just always seemed like… Do you love the person because of who they are, or do you love them because the words on your wrist tell you to?“

Raven smirked, like she had asked herself the same question a hundred times before. To do so aloud, however, was bold. “The way I see it? Just because your souls are bonded, doesn’t mean the relationship doesn’t need work. Sure, most movies show us it’s happily ever after once the first words are uttered, but in reality the words are just the beginning. It’s not easy to go from perfect stranger to soul-tied, you know?”

Anya rolled her eyes. “Cry me a river.”

Raven shrugged. “If it weren’t so taboo to admit you’re unhappy with your soulmate, maybe some would realize it’s because they’re taking it for granted. My friend Bellamy - his soulmate was this broody chick who straight up punched him for sleeping with her friend. Insulted the shit out of him; word for word the string of insults that wrap around his wrist four times. Anyway, she didn’t give a shit when he showed her. Took them three years to meet again, and then another three to even like each other. Now they’re expecting their first kid. But I think the best thing they did was to grow as people. The mark showed them the possibility for something life-changing was there - but they’d have to work for it first.”

Lexa glanced at Anya, who had yet to look away from Raven.

“Look, I know it’s fucked how you’re treated,” Raven continued, “but I don’t think the mark itself is to be blamed. I mean, I think it was designed as a way to make life a little easier, that’s all. But then… I don’t know, most civilizations blew it out of proportion and turned it into something else. Decided that those who have it are better than those who don’t - and backed up their points by turning the exceptions into the rule. That people without a mark are going to steal your jewelry or murder your kids one day, just because this one markless dude some thousands of years ago happened to be an ax murderer. Everyone loves to forget that ancient Egypt worshipped the Markless. They believed that they were in control of their own fate - freer. And don’t get me started on the Greeks! They had whole temples dedicated to them. There’s a reason the statues of their Gods didn’t have marks, but nobody likes to bring that up.”

“Moral superiority is one hell of a drug,” Anya shrugged.

Raven chuckled. “I don’t think anyone is better than anyone; it’s just a bunch of people trying to be happy.”

“Well, you’re definitely an exception,” Lexa sighed. “I’ve been reminded of my place in the world enough times to know that.”

Raven was about to reply when the door to the shop opened. When Lexa saw that it was Clarke who had just walked in, her heart jumped in her throat.

“You’re back!” Raven exclaimed before getting up to pull Clarke into a hug. “How was it? How’s your mom?”

Clarke grinned in the embrace before pulling back to sign something. Lexa watched with rapt attention, trying hard to follow the movement of Clarke’s hands, but understanding none of her language in the end. She watched as Raven tipped her head back and laughed.

“Classic Abby Griffin.”

Clarke then pulled out a heavy paper bag from her backpack and gifted it to her friend, who immediately looked inside.

“Yes!” Raven turned to Anya and Lexa. “Best goddamn blueberry pierogi in the country!”

Clarke looked toward them as well and gave Lexa a small wave.

“You’ve met?” Raven asked.

Clarke quickly signed something. Raven blinked, then burst out laughing.

“Oh fine, just go, you idiot.”

Clarke bit her lip before dashing toward the coffee shop’s restroom. Anya got up as well.

“I’ll be right back,” she excused herself.

Alone with Raven, who was now counting the pierogi in the bag, Lexa’s curiosity got to her.

“Are you good friends?”

Raven turned to her and nodded. “Clarke and I got each other through everything. There wouldn’t be a Coffee on the Moon without her.”

Lexa found incredible strength in Raven’s ability to be so open. “I wouldn’t be here without Anya,” she admitted in turn.

“How long have you known each other?”

“Since college. Anya… just helped me believe that I was more than the missing part.”

Raven’s face fell. “Shit. I’m really sorry.”

Lexa shook her head. “It’s fine. Just made me who I am today.”

“No, it’s not fine. You know - Polis doesn’t tolerate that. We have each other’s backs here, mark or no mark. I think you’ll notice when you start teaching the kids. They really give me hope.”

Lexa smiled. “I look forward to it.”

When Clarke and Anya came back from the restroom together, their demeanor caught Lexa's attention. They weren't exactly chatting but… Lexa could tell they’d communicated something to each other by the small smile on Clarke’s face. Anya sat back down at the table while Clarke signed something to Raven.

“Oh okay,” Raven answered. “I’ll see you tomorrow?”

Clarke nodded before she glanced once more at Lexa, mouthed ‘bye’, and left the shop.

Raven turned to the table. “Okay, I need to put the pierogi in the fridge and make some calls, but let me know if you need anything.”

Lexa sat back in her chair with a sigh. She watched Anya pick up her cup of coffee and then smirk.

“She doesn’t have one.”

Lexa frowned slowly. “What?”

Anya chuckled, then took a sip of her coffee. “You’re so obvious, you know? I figured I’d check when she washed her hands.”

Lexa immediately sat up, hope blossoming dangerously in her chest. “She… doesn’t have-”

“Nope.”

Lexa worried her bottom lip before grabbing her phone. Anya didn’t seem fazed in the least.

“Are you buying a hundred books on sign language?”

Lexa swiped something on her screen. “Yep.”

~

Teaching had been Lexa’s focus for so long that she had forgotten how much she loved learning as well. How exhilarating it was to study a language she knew in a form she didn’t. Lexa dug into the history of sign language first, needing to understand its roots before she attempted to practice it. She found herself at an impasse eventually, stuck between American Sign Language and its British cousin, apparently far more different than most people knew. It was a gamble to focus on ASL, one that made Lexa realize just how little she knew Clarke.

Was she completely off her rocker for delving so deeply into another language for a practical stranger? But then, how would this stranger ever become anything else if they couldn’t communicate? Clarke was close to Raven, who Lexa was hopeful might become a good friend in this city. Inevitably she would spend time with Clarke then - didn’t it make practical sense to speak her language?

Not to mention, it was a valuable skill regardless of the personal reason that had led her to it. Lexa was a teacher, who perhaps one day would encounter a student grateful to communicate that way. If she could make a difference, if she could brighten their day, it was worth it. If anything, Lexa was frustrated that she hadn’t thought of it before.

A week before she officially started her new position, she met with Gustus Bernard, the principal. Lexa had liked Gustus since the first time they spoke on the phone. He wasn’t the type to delegate his work - a man of principles who worked hard to ensure his leadership was effective. Polis MS’s methodology did not leave any student behind, and its high-performance spoke for itself. Lexa had met with other schools during the application process, many of which had seemed more interested in boasting about their reputation and donors over their educational programs. She had never been more certain of a career choice than this one.

Gustus showed her the lay of the land before it was invaded, he joked, which Lexa greatly appreciated. There was nothing quite like an empty school, both eerie and exciting. The chairs were aligned, the lockers were clean, the bulletin boards empty. Lexa was led to her office, the first time she ever had one, and immediately felt a lump in her throat at the sight of her name plate. It was such a small thing, and yet for the kid who had been pushed around and taunted in her own schools growing up, it felt enormous.

She could make her own mark in this world after all.

~

On the weekend before the big day, Lexa went to the grocery store to stock up on essential supplies. She’d gotten enough ‘brain foods’ to last a month, and multiple snacks for her office drawers.

She was in the candy aisle when she stopped short, a flash of blonde hair in an up-do catching her attention.

“Clarke?”

Clarke turned around, just as surprised, then smiled when she noticed Lexa. She waved her over.

“Hi,” Lexa said, worrying her lip as she stopped in front of her. “Um… I realized at Raven’s shop that I hadn’t really introduced myself.”

Clarke’s head tilted to the side.

“So I… tried something,” Lexa said with a nervous smile.

Hello, I’m Lexa, she attempted to sign, the movements slower than she’d like in the spur of the moment.

Clarke blinked at her, then dug around in her purse for something, much to Lexa’s confusion. She watched as Clarke pulled out a notepad and pen, then quickly wrote something.

Hi, Laxe.

Lexa groaned as she noticed Clarke’s amused grin. “E and A - always mix them up.”

Clarke hesitated before she reached out for Lexa’s hand. With a gentle ease, she moved Lexa’s fingers in the correct way; once for the E, and once for the A.

Lexa, she mouthed with a smile.

Lexa felt her worry melt off her shoulders. Clarke had the uncanny ability of making her incredibly nervous before putting her right at ease.

“I was hoping to make a better second impression.”

Clarke arched a brow before signing something slowly enough for Lexa to understand.

“I… think… you’re…”

The last word stumped her. Clarke signed it again, but Lexa’s very limited lexicon was of no help.

“A complete moron?” She finally guessed with a sigh.

Clarke rolled her eyes in mock-exasperation, then looked around. She grabbed a bag of candy and tossed it at Lexa, who looked down with a frown, then back up.

“I think I’m gummy bear too, but that’s beside the point.”

Clarke laughed before shaking her head. Lexa smiled, relieved she could at least still make Clarke laugh.

“So I’m sweet, hm? Does that mean we could… maybe… go out sometime? If you’d like?”

Clarke bit her lip. She quickly wrote something down again. As fast as she wrote, Lexa imagined it was frustrating to have to do it. Her notepad was thick and well-used, most likely not the first or the last one she carried around by a long shot. Lexa hoped there was a future where she could understand everything Clarke signed; from mundane things to detailed stories. But for now, she would have to read fast:

I have to travel for work, but come at the hotel next Friday. 7pm. Good?

Lexa felt her heart speed up. She could hardly believe it. “Yes. Of course, yes. I’ll be there.”

Clarke grinned and put her notepad away.

Bye, Lexa, she mouthed before taking hold of her cart and continuing toward checkout.

Lexa sighed happily, looking down at the bag of candy she held. On her fist day at work, an hour before her first class began, she made sure to tuck it at the very top of her office drawer. It would be a good year - she’d never felt more hopeful about anything else before.

~

Lexa’s first week of teaching was as much a learning curve for her as it was for her students. Starting middle school was a big step, and the nerves of some kids were especially noticeable. Lexa managed quite quickly to spot who the quiet ones were and who would give her trouble, and other than a few hiccups, everything had gone according to plan. Teaching the same subject multiple times a day wouldn’t always be the most rewarding thing, but she was excited about the highs and the lows ahead.

Friday came in the blink of an eye. By the time Lexa made it back to her apartment around 4pm, she had already questioned what she should wear a dozen times. She’d even texted Anya, but her friend had been no help, suggesting she forgo clothes entirely. She opted for slim black pants and a blouse in the end, left her hair loose and bought a bottle of wine on the way. Clarke hadn’t given her any hint as to what they would do, or if it was even a date at all, but wine always seemed appropriate.

When she got to Griffin Hotel, Lexa walked into the foyer and saw Jake reading a magazine behind the counter.

“Hi, Jake.”

He looked up and set his magazine aside. “Ah, I figured.”

“Pardon?”

“She’ll be right down.”

Jake tapped the call bell twice and then looked toward the stairs. Lexa noticed a few decorations and strings of lights in boxes on the desk.

“Are you having an event?” She asked.

“Good friends of the family getting married soon,” Jake nodded, looking quite proud. “We’re throwing a casual get-together in the garden tomorrow.”

Footsteps coming down the stairs made Lexa turn her head. She saw Clarke come her way and felt her heart speed up.

Hi, Clarke mouthed.

Lexa felt like a teenager all over again, as if they were on their way to prom rather than on a first… whatever this was. Clarke was wearing a pale yellow dress with a jean jacket over it, and a purse slung over her shoulder.

“Hi. I… got this. Don’t know if it’s any good honestly,” Lexa said while extending the wine.

Clarke smiled sweetly and signed thank you, which Lexa was thrilled to understand. She’d done her best to keep studying daily since their last encounter, picking up on very basic etiquette thanks to hours of YouTube videos. Clarke turned to her father and set the wine on the counter, signing something that made him shrug.

“No guarantees any will be left, kiddo.”

Clarke rolled her eyes before taking Lexa’s arm to make their way outside. Lexa had already noticed with Raven that people didn’t sign back to Clarke, instead answering her vocally. Maybe it was just the way Clarke preferred interacting, though Lexa still intended to practice as much as possible. She was a long way from a conversation, and the night ahead would surely present some challenges in terms of communication, but Lexa didn’t have a worry in the world about it. Clarke had not let go of her arm since they walked out of the hotel, which meant that, as far as Lexa was concerned, the night was already perfect.

“I’m into the mystery,” she said after a while, “but is there any way you’d disclose a general location of where we’re going?”

Clarke shook her head with the ghost of a smile on her face.

“Is it a restaurant?”

Clarke squeezed her arm, which Lexa guessed meant- “Am I lukewarm?”

Clarke seemed determined to keep her expression in check.

“A movie?”

At that, Clarke wrinkled her nose.

“Yeah, I’m not really a fan either on first d-” Lexa bit her lip. “Hard to get to know someone that way.”

They walked past a small park, where street lamps illuminated the sidewalk lined with trees. With the end of summer was coming the fall of leaves, leaving the ground covered. Lexa had never been around this part of the city before, but she was looking forward to the changing season taking over the city.

“So you were out of town?” she asked Clarke.

Clarke stopped walking and suddenly motioned for Lexa’s phone.

“Oh, sure.” Lexa watched Clarke take her phone and then type something dizzyingly fast. She gave it back to Lexa before grabbing her own and repeating the process. Lexa felt her phone vibrate. She looked down and found a text:

Clarke: Sorry, it’ll be faster like this than the notepad.

Lexa nodded. “Of course. Whatever you prefer. You can sign too; helps me rewire my brain.”

They started walking down the sidewalk again. Another message appeared:

I’m an art therapist. Sometimes I go over to Arkadia to my mom’s rehabilitation center.

“That’s amazing,” Lexa said. “What kind of art?”

Clarke signed slowly, which Lexa picked up on thanks to the context. She’d found that context was key in understanding most phrases, as there were sometimes fewer nuances in vocabulary than spoken language. She understood ‘painting’, ‘drawing’, and ‘sculpting’, though the rest seemed to be a lost cause no matter how slow Clarke signed it.

“Oh, I know, you set bowling balls on fire,” Lexa guessed.

Clarke laughed, then texted again: HOW did you get that?

“You don’t have to deny it; that was a very obvious fireball sign, Clarke.“

Clarke shook her head with amusement, eyes watering a bit. Lexa couldn’t stop smiling. "Your secret’s safe with me.”

Slowly, they made their way toward a more active part of the city, where the nightlife seemed to come alive. There were packed bars and restaurants, people coming in and out of movie theaters, and large groups chatting on sidewalks. They took a turn on a narrower street, where Clarke stopped by a heavy door and pounded her fist against it. The door was so thick that it barely made any noise at all. What kind of place could be tucked away and looking like the entrance to an abandoned warehouse?

They waited just a moment before a tall man with a shaved head opened the door.

“Hey, Clarke. Long time no see!”

They hugged before the man stepped aside to let them in. Once inside, it was like they had entered a bubble. Singing and music could be heard from the room over.

Lexa extended her hand to the man. “Hi. I’m Lexa.”

“Lincoln,” he answered with a firm grip. “You teach at Polis MS, right?”

Lexa glanced at Clarke. “Yes, how do you-“

“Oh I think you’ll find it’s a pretty small city. My wife is a substitute there. Come on in!”

Once past the narrow corridor, they were led into a room that looked like an underground bar. Lexa had never seen a place like it. It seemed like a speakeasy that had stood the test of time, now refurbished but still with a distinctive look that gave it an old-fashioned appeal. Where Raven’s coffee shop was all geared toward science and the future, this bar was firmly rooted in the past. Most of the patrons were gathered by a makeshift stage, where a woman with a smoky voice sang indie tunes backed by her band.

Clarke looked at Lexa intently, eager for her reaction.

“Wow. I would’ve never found this place in a million years.”

Clarke took her arm with a grin, leading her to the bar. The bartender, a short and robust woman with cropped hair, immediately signed at her. Clarke made a two sign before turning to Lexa, who had no clue what had just been ordered but reached for her wallet regardless.

“I’ll take hers,” she started to offer, but felt a hand cover her wrist. Clarke shook her head at her.

“I asked you out, it’s only fair.”

Clarke pointed toward the ceiling.

“I know you chose the place but that won’t change my mind.”

Clarke huffed. Lexa looked around and then brightened when she saw an empty pool table in the back.

“Do you play?” She asked.

Clarke shrugged. Lexa took Clarke’s hand and led her to the table.

“Alright, how about this…” Lexa trailed off, overly confident in her pool skills. “Whoever wins a game of eight-ball gets to cover the tab.”

Clarke arched a brow and mouthed Deal. She grabbed a cue stick and took the rack off the table, then leaned down with her cue in place. Her tongue peeked out just a hint as she focused and then took a powerful shot, knocking three balls in the pockets.

Oohs erupted around them as Lexa’s mouth fell open. Clarke stood up and stared straight at her from across the table, pretending to blow on the cue like it was a smoking gun before she actually winked.

“Fuck me.”

~

The night went by quickly, so quickly that when Lexa saw that it was well after midnight, her heart clenched in disappointment. They’d played a few more games of pool, all of which Lexa had badly lost, and then went on to try some of the cocktails on the list. They’d listened to the songs - where Lexa had fought against the urge to invite Clarke to dance, thinking maybe it was too soon - tried a game of darts, and then eventually had left to get some fresh air.

In the most casual way, Clarke had slipped her hand in Lexa’s while they walked down the longest street in the city. It was thrumming with life and excitement; neon colors in places and soft glows in others. Clarke pointed things out that Lexa missed, like the murals on the sides of buildings or the food trucks she liked. Lexa bought two gelatos while Clarke quickly chatted with friends they’d bumped into, smiling cheekily when Clarke narrowed her eyes at her.

“We said cover the bar tab, not cover the entire night…” she’d justified.

When they made it back to the front of the hotel, Lexa couldn’t believe their night was already over. Clarke let go of her hand and leaned against a part of the brick wall. Lexa took a deep breath.

“Tonight was incredible,” she said softly. “Thank you for showing me around. And crushing me at pool - it was a needed wake-up call.”

Clarke grinned. Lexa didn’t want to see things that perhaps weren’t there, but Clarke… looked at her in a way that made it hard to ignore the flutter in her chest. Trying to stall, she glanced toward the door and noticed a wooden sign propped up by it, with Echo & Bellamy carved in it.

“Echo and Bellamy… are they the ones who took six years to date?”

Clarke nodded. She seemed to get an idea then and typed a message: You should come to the party we’re throwing them tomorrow. Starts at 5pm; it’ll be fun.

Lexa felt mild panic, thinking maybe Clarke felt the need to invite her because she’d brought it up.

“Oh, I wouldn’t- I’m sure it’s friends and relatives only…”

Clarke bit her lip, perhaps just as aware this was moving fast. Inviting someone to friends’ engagement party wasn’t without its own implications. She signed something slowly, which Lexa guessed the meaning of.

“I’ll think about it,” she agreed.

Clarke seemed relieved. Her eyes flickered down to Lexa’s lips before she caught herself and quickly signed something, easy enough for Lexa to understand.

“Goodnight, Clarke,” she answered before watching her walk inside.

~

In the end, there was very little to think about. Lexa had slept the best she’d had in weeks, on cloud nine after her night with Clarke. She couldn’t explain why she felt such a need to see her again, like time was wasted without her. She had picked out her best summer dress and stopped second-guessing herself.

On her way to the hotel, she picked out flowers, figuring that if it was clearly too much, she could always play them off as a last-minute gift to the bride-to-be. She walked inside and stopped by the desk, but the foyer was empty. Lexa figured she should text Clarke first.

She’d pulled up their conversation when she glanced at the desk and did a sudden double-take.

A photo of Clarke tucked between the computer and a stack of papers caught her eye. She was wearing a graduation gown and standing next to her father with a wide smile. But the sleeve of her gown was pulled down, showing off an unmistakable mark.

Lexa’s heart sank in her stomach.

It was minuscule, just four words from what she could see, but so faded they were illegible. Anyone would miss them at a glance, but wrist tattoos were illegal for the Markless, and as such Lexa knew it couldn’t be anything else.

Clarke had a soulmate.

It was all it took to crush Lexa’s hopes. She looked away from the photo and tried to calm her breathing. But why was she so surprised? Of course Clarke would have a mark. Of course she was destined to happiness that someone like Lexa wouldn’t be able to provide.

Lexa had thought that settling wouldn’t be as bad as they said if it was with someone like Clarke. She was creative, kind, confident and unbelievably patient - and they’d made each other laugh. What else did anyone need in a partner? Lexa had thought she’d felt a connection, but the ending was always the same: dreams turned into dust. There it was - the mark that made it clear she would just be a layover again. That Clarke would entertain her until she met her soulmate and Lexa became an obstacle to walk around.

But Lexa couldn’t go through that pain again. This time she knew it would be too much to bear if she allowed Clarke to hold her heart in her hands. She couldn’t do it. Wishing for the best when the best didn’t happen to people like her… was self-destruction.

Clarke would get over it. She was with her friends, she’d be fine. Maybe tonight she’d even bump into someone else and they’d utter the words that would change everything for her.

Feeling herself tremble, Lexa set the flowers on the front desk before she darted outside. She swallowed back the lump in her throat and wiped a quick hand over her watery eyes. These feelings that had grown - she would nip them in the bud, and swiftly.

~

At the peak of the celebration, while families and friends were still enjoying the food and drinks, Clarke found herself wandering between the garden and the front of the hotel. She looked down at her watch and then around again, disappointed that there was still no sign of Lexa.

She found a discarded bouquet of flowers at the front desk and picked it up to put it in water, wondering who could’ve gotten such nice flowers only to forget them. Later, in the garden, she sat on one of the benches and watched Echo and Bellamy slow-dancing, clearly not bothered by Echo’s round belly between them. Clarke’s smile slowly fell as she noticed just how many pairs had gotten up to dance as well. She ran her hands down her dress and looked toward the cobbled path, sighing when no one appeared.

Perhaps something had come up at the last minute. Or she’d been too hasty. She looked down at her mark and rubbed her finger over it, frowning when she noticed something.

She lifted her wrist up closer, thinking it was a trick of light, but there was no mistaking it: her mark had faded more.


Clarke:  You didn’t miss much at the party- so much dancing and then it rained!

Clarke: Maybe I can show you another part of town next Friday?


 

The days went by slowly. Lexa had deconstructed the routine she’d enjoyed the last few weeks, her chest still aching from the decision she’d made. She liked Clarke - there was no denying that. She’d gravitated toward her while she peacefully read in an armchair and the attraction had only grown since. Cutting her out completely wasn’t the solution. Now that Lexa knew Clarke had a soulmate, all she needed to do was swallow back those feelings. Lexa knew they could be friends afterward - there was no reason not to be. Clarke’s qualities hadn’t suddenly disappeared because they didn’t have a romantic future.

Maybe one day they would even laugh about this. About how they’d flirted over pool and old fashioned cocktails and gelatos. Clarke would be with her soulmate and Lexa-

Lexa would have someone too. Someone she’d be free to love with her entire soul without a limited timeline looming over them. Someone she would be enough for.

~

On Friday, Lexa had driven from the school to Coffee on the Moon. She missed the drinks and food, but mostly she knew she couldn’t lock herself in her apartment forever. If she wanted her future in this city, she needed to work for it. Driving from the school to her place every day was no way to live. More than that, it wasn’t how Lexa wanted to live. She didn’t know how she’d gotten to be so morose. On some days it was harder to fight than others. But she’d picked herself up before and she could do it again.

“Look who the shitty weather finally dragged in,” Raven announced when she saw her.

It was said jokingly, which Lexa wasn’t sure what to make of. Maybe Clarke hadn’t told her anything about her unanswered texts. Lexa had stared at them a long time, drafting and erasing an apology dozens of times. But what could she say that didn’t sound like the most selfish of excuses? Sorry that I need time to squash my feelings before I can be your friend? Sorry that I would never be enough for you? It wasn’t like Clarke had led her on. She’d probably thought Lexa knew about her mark. And it’d been her mistake not to double-check with the registry.

“Rain and quizzes to evaluate,” she told Raven.

“Quizzes on your second week? Harsh.”

Lexa shook her head while closing her umbrella. What an odd summer this was. “They’re not graded. I’m just trying to get a sense of where everyone is at.”

“You want a regular?” Raven asked as she went to the coffee machine.

“Please. And a turkey and cheese.”

Raven rung her up and then walked with her to the corner table, where Lexa sat after doing a quick glance around. It was moderately busy for a rainy Friday afternoon.

“So how d’you like the job?” Raven asked her.

“It’s good. Great. The kids are already in the rhythm of things.”

“Kids adapt fast. What about the teachers? Did you meet Octavia?”

“Is she a substitute? I heard about her, but I don’t think she’s been around yet.”

“She might’ve been. O can be a bit of a ninja. I’ll tell her to keep an eye out for you.”

“Oh that’s not-“

“What about that bald bitch Titus?”

Lexa pressed her lips together. “Well… that’s one way to describe him.”

“Titus was my history teacher. Been around for as long as dinosaurs roamed the earth.”

“I noticed the antiquated belief system he has, yes.”

Raven frowned. “Is he giving you trouble?”

“Not really. If anything he’s made it clear we won’t be having any discussions at all.”

“Don’t feel bad, it might not even be a mark thing - he’s a famous grouch.”

Lexa wrapped her hands around her coffee cup. “It’s always a mark thing, Raven.”

“Well color me shocked he’s still a dick,” Raven sighed. “I’ll leave you to it, but let me know if you need anything.”

Lexa ate a few bites of her sandwich before she finally took out the quizzes from her briefcase.

~

An hour later, just as Lexa thought to finish at home, she felt herself tense and looked up. She saw Clarke through the window of the shop and clutched the paper she was holding tightly. Clarke was closing her umbrella and ran a hand through her hair before pushing open the door to the shop. She brightened at the warmth of the place and then stopped when her eyes caught Lexa.

Lexa knew she should have looked away, or maybe even gotten up, but she was frozen in place and the past few days seemed to have gone straight down the drain. Her feelings had escaped their carefully constructed cage and her heart had joined in.

Clarke walked toward her with a small smile, not quite the grin Lexa had memorized, but… tender nevertheless.

Hi, Clarke signed.

Lexa smiled back but felt sudden despair. She couldn’t do this - not yet. Clearly she needed more time before she could even look at Clarke without wanting to gift her the goddamn moon. No, she couldn’t go back on what she’d insisted was the right decision.

She mouthed a weak Hey in return until she finally had to look away. A few seconds later, her phone lit up with a notification.

Clarke: Can we chat?

Clarke pointed at the chair in front of hers, sending Lexa into a panic.

“I actually- I need to finish some work,” she answered.

She briefly looked up and saw Clarke mouth, ‘Tomorrow?

“I can’t. I was… I was planning on building this bookshelf I got.“

Clarke bit her lip, then texted something quickly. She gave Lexa a hopeful look.

I can help. I’m handy with tools.

Lexa couldn’t stand it anymore. “I just need to be alone, Clarke.”

Clarke’s smile slowly fell as she understood it wasn’t a time constraint that kept Lexa from hanging out with her. She put her phone in her pocket before nodding weakly and turning away. She didn’t say goodbye to Raven as she left the shop, pulling the door closed behind her with a harsh click.

Lexa watched as she opened her umbrella and rushed away. Furious at her own self, Lexa quickly put the rest of the quizzes in her briefcase and got up.

“Woa wait, what was that about?” Raven asked as she walked by.

“Nothing. I - there was a misunderstanding.”

“Really? So you didn’t go out with her and then completely ignore her?”

Lexa stopped in her tracks. She hadn’t expected Raven to be so friendly before if she’d known all along. “I didn’t know she… Anya told me she didn’t have a mark and I-“

“Oh again with the mark.”

“You wouldn’t get it.”

“Try me.”

Lea frowned. “You know how it feels to be the layover.”

“Yeah it fucking sucks, so what? She’s crazy about you.”

Lexa swallowed hard. “She’ll get over me. Everyone does.”

Raven stepped closer to her. “You like her, too.”

“I’m working on that.”

“No, I think you’re in deep.”

“You barely even know me.”

Raven didn’t seem impressed by the sharp rebuttal. “You express ordered like 10 books on ASL.”

Lexa struggled to close her briefcase with how shaky her hands had gotten in her haste. “I’m going to kill Anya.”

“Save your energy. You know, for someone who hates the mark so much, you sure obsess over it a lot.”

Lexa’s head snapped up. “I’m trying to protect myself.”

Raven laughed. “From who? That woman who just walked out looking like you already broke her heart? She’s been asking to be with you ever since you met and you’re going to sweep that under the rug because of a mark that - by the way? Might as well not even exist anymore at the rate it’s disappearing. But you wouldn’t know that since you ran before using your own damn words.”

Lexa exhaled, bottom lip trembling as she realized she’d effectively pushed Clarke away without an explanation.

“You don’t understand. I put myself out there and… for a while it works, I’m happy, but then someone else says something or… or it just peters out and I don’t even know why. I don’t know but the world is convinced that it’s because there’s something so wrong with me that I don’t have the ability to be with someone, let alone someone with a mark. So what if it’s true? How can I be with Clarke when I know there’s someone out there who- who could give her better?”

“You know I’m not the one you should be telling this, right?”

Lexa stopped fighting the welling of tears in her eyes. She was so tired of it all.

“Hey, Lexa?” Raven asked quietly. “It seems to me like your idea of protecting yourself is just hurting you a whole lot more.”

~

The flower shop was closed when Lexa walked by it, which did nothing to calm her nerves. The sun was setting quickly, painting the path to the hotel in bright oranges. On any other night, Lexa would have stopped to appreciate it. Tonight, she knew that stopping also meant turning around and moping in her apartment alone.

She walked straight to the hotel, not once allowing herself to question what she was doing. She’d treated Clarke like a stranger - ghosted her, Anya had pointed out - and it was time to make amends. Clarke deserved an explanation - deserved to know why Lexa had pulled and then pushed. Even if Lexa knew it meant the end of any romantic future, she couldn’t delay its inevitability any longer. She walked inside the hotel and found no one behind the desk, which didn’t surprise her much. Jake apparently spent most of his time in the kitchen, where he left the door ajar in case someone rang the call bell.

Making her way toward the sitting room, Lexa felt herself grow more nervous. When she looked inside, the air almost seemed to shift. She found Clarke standing by the bookshelf, browsing or searching for a title in particular. She rand her index on the spines of the books like they were the most precious things to her, and Lexa knew they likely were. Had Clarke read everything already? Had she stocked the shelf herself?

“Hello,” she eventually croaked.

If Clarke heard her, and it was unlikely she hadn’t, she showed no sign of it. Lexa approached hesitantly, knowing that she deserved the silent treatment. She hadn’t answered Clarke for days, it was only fair Clarke would do the same.

“I’m sorry.”

Lexa watched Clarke put a book back on the shelf and turn around. She looked at her for a long time, until finally she nodded in acknowledgement. Then, she signed something at the same time she mouthed it:

Feeling better?

Lexa felt so embarrassed, and so lost. She shook her head.

Because of me? Clarke asked.

It was this that Lexa couldn’t bear to leave unanswered. She couldn’t let Clarke believe she was to blame. It wasn’t her fault she had pinned her hopes on her.

“No, never.”

Clarke signed something that Lexa had come to understand meant, Why?

“Because I’m an idiot,” she answered simply.

Clarke frowned. She signed something again, which Lexa understood as some version of asking for an explanation. She owed her as much.

“You have a mark,” she finally said aloud.

Clarke didn’t seem to find the revelation particularly surprising.

“And I don’t,” Lexa expanded with a lump in her throat. “Before that, I thought maybe there was something between us, or that there could be, but… I can’t be that person for you. The before person.”

Clarke leaned back against the bookshelf, her expression unreadable. Lexa didn’t know how to interpret the movement, except perhaps that Clarke knew there was more to the story. She was right, as always.

“I do want to be your friend,” Lexa said quietly. “You’re so incredibly smart, and you’ve made me want… you’ve made me feel like I was enough. And I’m sorry about how I handled it; how I treated you. But I had hopes - selfish hopes that you could be more than that, and now I - I just need to recalibrate my heart. I need to crush those hopes, and then I promise I can be a good friend.”

Lexa noticed that as she spoke, Clarke’s mask had fallen to reveal clear disappointment. Anger, even.

“Clarke?”

Clarke shook her head. I don’t want that.

“Don’t want to be my friend?”

Clarke signed something quickly, but the more she signed the less Lexa followed, and the more frustrated she became.

“I’m sorry, I can’t-“

Finally, Clarke approached Lexa and cupped her cheeks. With her heart in her throat, Lexa’s hands went to her wrists, stopping her.

“Don’t do this,” she pleaded. “You don’t want this. Any of it.”

Why? Clarke asked.

“People like me… the Markless… it’s not a life I’d wish on anyone. Doesn’t matter if the city is progressive or if its people are kind. It’s just ingrained in everyone to glance at the wrist, you know? And at the end of the day, in the back of their minds, I’m always going to be a ticking time bomb.”

Clarke shook her head, tears forming in her eyes. Lexa couldn’t remember anyone ever crying for her. Maybe it was selfish to cherish Clarke’s hold on her; like for once someone would not let go of her.

She covered Clarke’s hands with hers, knowing she had to make her understand. Perhaps there were feelings now, and strong ones on both sides, but one day fate would outweigh them.

“Did you know that when schedules went out at school, and parents learned my name, two kids were transferred from my class?” Lexa revealed quietly. “And I was expecting some caution, but… It hurts, Clarke. And it hurts anyone associated with me. You don’t want to go through that for… someone who’s not… someone you’re going to leave someday.”

Clarke took the last remark with a furious glare.

“No, I know you’d never do it purposefully. I know you’d be kind about it. The truth is I like you so much I’d let you break my heart, if that’s - what you wanted from me. I’d take being happy with you for a day, even an hour. Even if it broke me, at least I’d know what others have. At least I wouldn’t spend my life wondering, even if knowing would make it worse. I’d still make you the happiest I can.”

Lexa glanced at her lips, wondering if for this moment she could take what she wanted. Wondering if she could be selfish, just this night.

“But I don’t want to wake up everyday thinking, ‘Is this the day I lose you?’ I can’t keep making choices that break my heart.”

Clarke brushed her thumb against the back of Lexa’s hand, asking her to let go. Lexa was certain that when she did, Clarke would walk away. But, instead, she pulled up her sleeves and showed her wrists. At first, Lexa almost flinched. The baring of wrists was not a gesture that ever made her feel good. The again, it wasn’t ever meant for her.

Except…

“Your mark,” she trailed off in confusion. There was nothing on Clarke’s skin; not even the hint that she had ever had a mark there. But Lexa was sure she had seen it - and Raven had mentioned it too.

Lexa glanced up at her and then down again, holding one hand when Clarke nodded gently. It was not faded into her skin or even minuscule; it was simply gone. Erased like it had been as temporary as whiteboard marker.

“I don’t understand. You had a mark, you-“

Clarke nodded, increasing Lexa’s bewilderment.

“How… why?”

Clarke motioned to Lexa’s wrists.

“Mine?” Lexa showed her bare wrists, letting Clarke examine them tenderly.

It slowly dawned on Lexa what Clarke was implying, though allowing herself to believe it was another matter. “You…”

Clarke pressed two fingers against her throat.

“You lost your voice.”

Clarke nodded, then-

“When?” Lexa asked, breathless.

Clarke made a simple sign: Ten years old.

Lexa couldn’t believe it; didn’t dare.

“I… I had a mark, when I was a kid,” she shared. “I had someone.”

Clarke smiled shyly.

Lexa’s heart started beating faster, emboldened by dangerous hope. “That doesn’t mean… there are records of people with speech disorders who have soulmates. There are shapes and-“

Clarke cupped her cheek and nodded. I know.

At Clarke’s proximity, Lexa felt like the one who couldn’t speak aloud. She couldn’t comprehend any of it anymore. Could it be true? Could Clarke losing her voice have had an impact on Lexa losing her mark?

It was of no importance when she felt Clarke’s kiss, silencing the rush of thoughts with the softest press of her lips. Lexa could hardly contain a tear, her hands so hesitant that she barely dared touch Clarke’s waist. This kiss couldn’t be compared to anything she’d felt before, not even close.

She pulled back and looked at Clarke, who reached for her hands and signed without looking away.

I want you, she said. She must’ve mouthed it as well, because Lexa could swear she had heard her, like the silent plea had been whispered in her ear, like she had been telling her for weeks and Lexa only recognized it now.

Do you want me? Clarke asked.

Lexa kissed her in response, this time with little caution. She had been cautious her entire life. She kissed Clarke like she wished she had after their date, following her lead until Clarke’s back hit the bookshelf and she gasped.

“I want you, I want you,” Lexa promised, and then again when she covered her jaw and neck with smaller kisses, trying to test how long she could make Clarke grin. She had yearned for something like this so many times, yet known it was not something she could allow herself.

Breathing fast, Clarke reached for her hand and entwined their fingers. She pulled Lexa out of the sitting room, up the stairs, and stopped in front of a door.

There, she kissed her again. It was no more than a tentative brush of lips that Lexa understood as a question. She looked into Clarke’s eyes and smiled, trembling just slightly when Clarke turned the old knob and the door opened. She claimed her lips once more and Lexa lost all train of thought.

 ~

It wasn’t the sunshine that woke her up or even the breeze from the window that was cracked open. It was the tenderness of kisses on her neck and the brief flutter of eyelashes against her jaw. Lexa awoke with a smile, fingers already lost in blonde locks. She kissed back the sweet lips that brushed against her mouth, teasing with a swipe of tongue before they were gone again.

“Hmm don’t stop,” Lexa mumbled.

Her body was still so tired by the night’s events that she was happy to lie on her back all day if it meant Clarke would remain atop her like this, half-nude and warm and soft. Lexa’s hands traveled to her waist until she finally opened her eyes.

“Good morning,” she sleepily said, relieved that she had not dreamed this up. It was unlikely any dream could match up to this reality.

Clarke shook her head.

“It’s not a good morning?” Lexa asked with a mild frown.

Clarke pointed toward the clock on the nightstand, which read 12:04pm.

“Oh.” Lexa couldn’t remember the last time she’d slept this late, but as Sundays went this one was the greatest in a long time.

“Have you been up long?” she asked, pouting when Clarke nodded. “You should’ve woken me up.”

Clarke ran her hand over Lexa’s jaw and kissed her again. Lexa smiled, hands going beneath her sleep shirt.

“You know, I’m very naked.”

Clarke arched a brow, clearly not seeing the problem.

“And you’re not. I thought I took care of that serious mistake last night, but if it’s a reoccurring problem I’ll be happy to-”

Clarke laughed and then kissed her again. Lexa ran her hands up her bare thighs and managed to sit up. She wrapped her arms around Clarke’s waist and lost herself in their embrace, wondering if it would be at all possible to simply do this all day long. When Clarke pulled back and grabbed something on the nightstand, Lexa still felt slightly dazed.

The room finally came into sharper focus when Clarke presented her with a piece of paper. It was a handwritten letter, one that Lexa guessed had been penned while she slept. Clarke sat back and bit her lip.

“Should I read it now?” Lexa asked.

Clarke nodded.

Lexa sat up against one of the pillows, brushing a hand over her eyes to ensure she didn’t miss a single word.

Dear Laxe,

Lexa looked up and noticed Clarke’s cheeky grin. “One day I’ll get you back for that one.”

I wish I could tell you these things differently, but amazed as I am by your progress in sign, I’m not as patient as people believe me to be. I’m excited for the day you and I can discuss what has led us both here at length; just the two of us in bed without phones or notes or friends acting as translators. But until that day, here goes:

When I was ten, a car slammed into my bicycle on my way to school. I was thrown off so hard that my helmet cracked in half when I hit a tree head first. When I woke up in a hospital room, my entire body felt broken. My parents asked me if I remembered anything, but I didn’t. So my mom asked me if I could tell her my name. When I said it out loud, her face went pale and my dad started crying. I realized whatever had come out wasn’t right. Simply put, I know what I want to say, but my brain and my speech muscles just can’t relay the message right.

In spite of that, I was lucky. I had a lot of people helping me and I made it out okay. With time I managed fluent ASL and speech therapy helped me relearn how to mouth out some words, though with long sentences I usually end up mouthing something that doesn’t even look like the same word. I’m sorry if that confuses you one day.

Lexa shook her head. “Don’t be sorry for confusing me. I’ll just have to learn faster.”

About a year later, I noticed that my mark looked weird. Like someone had rubbed their finger over it and it wasn’t as sharp anymore. I should’ve probably been more concerned, but… Deep down, I always knew my mark fading had to do with you. I can’t really explain how I knew it was connected to you - to how you felt about it. I just did. So even if my own parents panicked, even if some strangers raised their concerns, I was always calm about it.

When I heard you speak to me for the first time, I realized I had to think carefully.

I wanted to answer you so badly. I think you noticed that - you looked so disappointed when I didn’t. The truth is, I understood that if I did, my mark would stop fading for good. And maybe we could have been happy for a while, knowing that you and I are destined to be together, but… I think at some point in these past few days you finally set yourself free. 

Lexa, you don’t believe in the mark. Even if I told you what words used to be on your wrist, even if you recognized them, I don’t think you would place your faith back in the system. I don’t think you will ever allow anything or anyone to tell you who to trust your heart with. When my mark started fading, I understood that it was you renouncing the system for your own sake. And I don’t want to be a part of something that has caused you so much pain.

I think my mark faded because you don’t want to be inevitable. You want to be a choice. A choice someone makes because they want you, not because they need you to feel complete. Not because the world has told them you’re theirs. Not because fate has decided for them.

All I’ve ever wanted, too, was for someone to choose me for who I am. For someone to accept that they’ll never hear me say their name. That communication will be hard and that sometimes we will both get frustrated with each other. That I look odd when I laugh.

“Your laugh is my favorite,” Lexa murmured absentmindedly, not noticing when Clarke’s eyes widened and then she smiled.

You gave me all of that when you chose me without even knowing I was already yours. So please be sure of the same:

I choose you. I choose you because you make me happy. Because you’re trying to learn a new language for me. Because you have such a big heart. I choose this life with you because I know it’ll be worth everything. I know what I wanted my response to be, but I don’t know if it matches whatever was once on your wrist. It doesn’t matter to me if it did or not. I think there are other ways of knowing when a person is right for you. There are so many ways that these marks have made us forget. That’s what I want to give you: my heart’s conviction that you’re right for me and I’m right for you. We don’t need fate, Lexa.

But I understand that it’s more difficult for you. Your mark was taken abruptly and this world treated you differently because of it. I understand if you want to know what my words were going to be. And I’ll tell you in a heartbeat if that’s what you need. I imagine that we’d be able to scrub your name from the registry. That we could be a part of the system again. I’ll give you your words back, whether it means closure or a new beginning for you.

Do you want them back?

The letter ended with the simple question, but Lexa found it impossible to look up. Her eyes had filled with tears and she had started trembling. She felt Clarke’s hand gently nudge her chin up, her touch so caring that Lexa knew she was safe. She saw that Clarke had grabbed a marker and written the mark back on her own wrist: I love that tomato.

Lexa held her breath. She ran a finger over the words, her heart clenching painfully. Her first reaction was to be angry - angry that she’d been a part of this system all along, yet it had not recognized Clarke’s voice. Or perhaps it had - perhaps it had known that Clarke would not speak the words she would have if the circumstances had been different.

It wasn’t something Lexa could pretend to understand. She looked up into Clarke’s eyes and noticed her still holding the marker. Clarke then took her wrist and pointed the marker at it, silently repeating the question she had asked.

Did Lexa want her words back?

It had been so long since she’d seen them. Just two words, short and sweet. She had dreamed about them as a child, questioning what kind of situation might lead to them. She had wondered if they were in response to her own words, or if whatever she replied back would be her soulmate’s mark.

And then they had vanished. Dreams turned into nightmares. Questions never answered. Her life had changed because of a simple mark on her skin. Now, Clarke was offering to give it back. But Lexa had everything she needed. Clarke had already given her the certainty that the future was theirs to shape. She took the marker and wrote a simple word on her wrist: Clarke.

“There. Marked.”

Clarke smiled and joined their hands together so that her mark pressed against Lexa’s. It wasn’t lost on her what Clarke was giving her wholeheartedly. Clarke had her family and friends in Polis, but they had yet to know the impact of her being on the registry for the Markless. Lexa had lost work because of it. Lost valuable time and energy. But she knew how to navigate this world now. Nothing would get in the way of Clarke taking it on - she would make sure of it.

She leaned forward and kissed her, whispering thank yous as she clutched the letter close to her heart.

~

After a few hours, Lexa finally agreed with Clarke insisting they needed food and coffee. Though she had assumed they would stay at the hotel, she was happy to follow Clarke when she suggested Coffee on the Moon instead. There, Clarke made a beeline for Raven at the counter, tugging Lexa with her. But Lexa stopped when she noticed someone very familiar coming out of the restroom.

“Anya?” she called out, incredulous. “What are you doing here? Is Tris with you?”

“Uh… Hey. Tris was invited to a weekend at the beach for this rich kid’s birthday. It’s a whole ordeal.”

“Right.” Lexa glanced toward Clarke, who was already signing something quite quickly to Raven. When Raven looked her way and gave her a smirk, Lexa felt her cheeks redden. She focused her attention back on Anya, who was looking more and more like she’d been caught doing something she’d vehemently deny.

“So you decided to drive two hours north for… the coffee?”

“They’re good grinds.”

“Hm. And that’s not a hickey on your neck, is it?”

Anya glared at her. “You know, maybe I wouldn’t have ended up on someone else’s couch if my friend had answered her phone last night. Or opened her door.”

Lexa arched a brow. “I gave you the spare key.”

Anya plopped herself down on the chair she had clearly been occupying for some time, if judging by the already two empty coffees on the table. “You’re insufferable.”

“Feelings aren’t poisonous, Anya.”

“You’re not your usual bitter self - I take it you got laid.”

Lexa glanced at Clarke again, who was still chatting while Raven made their coffees.

“Oh, so the whole mark thing got cleared up, huh?” Anya asked with a chuckle.

Lexa’s eyes widened. “You knew?”

“Well of course I knew, she’s the one who showed me. I figured no one else but you could’ve said such a weird string of words.”

Lexa scowled in disbelief. “You told me-”

“Yeah, yeah, I lied. But I saw the look on your face when you saw her. Knew right then you’d try to figure out if she had a mark and would run the other way when you did. Friends don’t let friends fuck up their shot at happiness. Guess it paid off.”

Lexa pretended to be upset for just the necessary moment. Anya was right, undoubtedly so. “I guess that makes me the guardian of your own happiness.”

“Don’t.”

“You like Raven.”

“Shut up.”

“Are you curious about her mark?”

“Her mark is her shop and mine is my kid. I’m good with that.”

Lexa nodded in understanding. “You know, I think Tris would like this place a lot.”

Anya mulled it over. “Yeah?”

“Great schools, lots of parks, lower rent. I know you want to get her out of that neighborhood.”

“Hm.”

“And there are opportunities for you too. You’re the one who coached me through my interviews - you’d get a job even faster.”

“You sure you’re not just sick of being so far from me?” Anya asked.

Lexa smiled. “That too.”

~

While Clarke and her made their way toward the heart of the city, Lexa found herself comparing it to their first date. She had been so full of hope then, but it had still been so new. Now, with Clarke’s name well hidden beneath the sleeve of her sweater, and with Clarke’s hand in hers, there was nothing unsteady about her hope. Clarke was right: they didn’t need fate.

It would not always be as easy as strolling down the street hand-in-hand while they sipped on their coffees. It wouldn’t be easy to always make each other laugh in moments of doubt.

But whatever the world told them, what they shared was not settling. Their feelings were not pale imitations of what others had. Lexa had never felt stronger, knowing that they were embracing the uncertainty of the future with their trust firmly placed in each other.