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Something Borrowed

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atermoiements (french) - distractions or hesitations leading to procrastination

hiraeth (welsh) - a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past

Part I

“What are you thinking about?”

“That there are galaxies in your eyes.”

“You can’t say things like that, Clarke.”

“Why not?”

“You know why.”

Clarke does know. The wedding dress Lexa is still wearing should be reason enough, but it’s the sadness in her favourite pair of green that speak universes of ‘what-if’ and ‘too-late’. It’s the quiet way her ex-girlfriend had bit her bottom lip, eyes on the floor, waiting for Clarke’s reaction after she stepped out of the dressing room. It’s the way Clarke couldn’t hold in a gasp upon locking gaze on the most breathtaking image and how her heart stuttered at the knowledge that it wouldn’t be her waiting down the aisle to lay eyes upon it. It’s the way she ran out of the shop and Lexa chased after her, tulle and all, and how they ended up on a park bench, silent and hurting, sitting in ruminating quiet until the stars came out. Together but worlds apart.

“I’ve always loved them. A place to get lost in interminable atermoiements.”

There were endless hours spent counting grey and golden flecks, procrastinating chores and deadlines in favour of watching the world contract and expand with every kiss and touch and, just ten more minutes, love. She lived lifetimes in the space between blinks and blushes.

“After-moments?”

“Close enough.”

“Your French has gotten better.”

“Yeah.”

“Paris looks good on you.”

There’s no malice or bitterness behind Lexa’s observation, only an undeserved kindness, nonetheless Clarke feels the knot in her stomach tighten that pursuing her dream meant gaining a cute Parisian lilt and a haircut de rigueur but losing the raison d’être for painting in the first place.

“Not as good as Polis ever did.”

“Clarke.”

“I’m sorry. It’s the jet lag talking.”

“I’m surprised you came straight from the airport.”

“Of course. You’re my best friend. You said you needed to tell me something important. And I had something to tell you too. Guess your news beat mine.”

“I’m sorry. With all this wedding planning craziness, I got my dates and venues muddled. It’s not how I wanted you to find out.”

“It’s fine, Lex. Coffee shop, bridal shop, easy to mix up,” she teases though the tightness in her throat says nothing is easy about this. “I’m happy for you.”

“Are you?”

Clarke has to look away. The galaxies threaten to subsume her, if not the fatigue of a twelve hour flight and the emotional exhaustion of rehearsing a speech that now will never leave her tongue.

“Really, I’m happy for you and Costia,” is about as honest as she can be, her hireath for Lexa carried across the ocean is too heavy to let out other truths. Mainly, it’s a gut punch that her happiness sits two feet away yet is now meant for another.

The sound of shifting fabric is followed by a long exhale.

“I waited,” Lexa whispers, seemingly more to herself and the ceiling of stars than to her companion. “As long as I could.”

Clarke knows this too. The missed video chats and unreturned calls and the growing distance were worn ground they treaded one too many times until friendship was the only salvageable relationship left. Although what Clarke had not revealed before was how close she came on several occasions to giving up her residency or quitting her shows. Standing immobile at the gate, ticket in hand, ready to ask for forgiveness, and find a way back home. Then, imagining Lexa’s smile, smaller than usual but there again after an extended absence, because of Costia, inevitably prevented her from ever making it onto the tarmac. Instead, she asks the more important question now, “Are you happy?”

“She’s good and kind.”

Clarke hasn’t formally met her fiancée yet but it’s the best answer she could hope for. Lexa deserves better than what Clarke couldn’t give then. “I’m glad,” she says and means it, even if eye contact remains difficult.

“What news did you have?” Lexa asks a moment later, her voice coming out as unsteady as Clarke feels.

“It doesn’t matter now.”

“It does to me.”

“It’s not really news. I mean, it’s old news.”

Clarke swings her legs, and still not looking up, gives Lexa a helpless shrug of one shoulder. When she says nothing further, there’s a light kick to her shoe that draws her attention back to the constellations contained within two warm irises.

“I already have something blue,” Lexa says, pointed, and stares meaningfully into Clarke’s eyes. “C’mon,” nudging with another tap of her foot, “give me something old.”

She considers her words carefully, weighing caution against consequence. But tired of pretending while the ache grows larger by the second, Clarke finally gives utterance to the magnitude of feelings held inside for too long.

“I’m still in love with you.”

Another helpless shrug. This one a little more vulnerable, a little more defeated.

Lexa’s gaze is penetrating and unreadable save for the persisting sorrow. After an unspoken stretch of time, Clarke closes her eyes, unable to take in their intensity any longer, overcome with blinding regret once more. They burn with the effort not to let out the sob rising in her throat. Not to break down here.

“You know, I never got it,” Lexa finally speaks, seeming to come to a conclusion just as Clarke resigns to leave. Clarke nods, not understanding either how she could ever have let go in the first place. She’ll need a few days to sleep off the time difference and cry over how different things could have been. Mustering a weak smile, she turns to go, prepared to use the discomfort of Air France’s long haul cabin as an excuse for her sudden departure. A hand gently wraps around hers. “I never got it back. You never gave it back.”

“What?”

“Something borrowed.”

Lexa overturns Clarke’s hand so that her palm faces up. She traces two halves with the pad of her finger, like how she used to in the mornings, waking Clarke up in degrees of tenderness. The touch is no more than a faint brush but Clarke’s answering heart thumps a little louder. Breaks a little less.

“I know it was supposed to be a loan, I didn’t mean to keep it,” Clarke cries, the tears falling unbidden. “I’m sorry. I don’t think I can give it back.”

Lexa presses more firmly. The drawn heart imprinting more deeply, as embedded as the one Clarke carries.

“It’s okay.” Threading their fingers, Lexa squeezes. Her gaze softens. Gentle and knowing and entirely distracting. “It’s always been yours.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

Part II

It’s not her day. The radiator is blown, or is it the drive belt. Maybe it’s the alternator, whatever that is. Clarke doesn’t know the culprit behind the interstate breakdown but it forced her to pull the sedan over somewhere between Washington and Oregon, compelled by the worrisome smoke coming out from under the hood. Now sitting on the curb of a country side street, the roughness of the concrete digging into her bum, she kicks aimlessly at a pebble on the asphalt.

“Rey, I don’t know what popping an el capó means. It just stopped working, ok?” Clarke sighs into her phone, not really keeping up with her friend’s Spanglish rantings. Whenever distracted in her garage, the mechanic tended to straddle two linguistic borders.

She should have known better than to trust the rental from a place called Wheels & Deals. But after leaving it to the last possible minute, torn about going at all, Clarke was desperate to find a ride back into the city from visiting her mom out of state, in time for the rehearsal dinner. It had been an excruciating choice but the elder Griffin’s sympathetic yet stern look guilted Clarke into being a better person than the one that’s been moping for the past two weeks and ignoring her soon-to-be-married exe’s messages. It hurt too much.

“Can you just come get me, please?” Clarke asks pleading, tired and dejected, with no energy left to learn the inner workings of a car or decipher creative Latin contractions. French was already a struggle. With firm instructions from Raven to stay put and not be intimidated by the wandering Seattle hipsters and their plaids and beanies, as well as the promise they’ll get pissed drunk together later, Clarke hangs up and waits.

On the hour mark, the sound of a familiar engine rings in her ears, but it’s not the one she was expecting. Raising her head from where it's rested on her knees, a knot immediately forms as she realises who the driver might be stepping out from the white Cabriolet. She closes her eyes, not ready to face Lexa, even if that was the endpoint of her impromptu road trip.

“You must be Clarke.”

The unfamiliar voice snaps Clarke out of one spiral and sends her just as quickly down another. Standing in front of her is a lanky girl in a flowy, strapless dress, hair pulled up to show off a fading summer tan. Far from the type of roadside assistance that she had in mind.

Costia.

She’s prettier than in pictures, her presence more heart-stopping in person.

“I was told you needed a lift.” A hand is offered that Clarke mechanically takes, gently pulled up on her feet. A nervous laugh follows as Costia properly introduces herself. “It’s great to finally meet you.”

The knot in her stomach grows exponentially and Clarke is unable to return the niceties, stupefied. Sensing her bewilderment, Costia helpfully explains. “Raven got held back. Another customer came into the shop with an emergency just as I was coming to pick up this beauty,” she says, head cocking to the ’89 vintage automobile that featured prominently during the latter half of Clarke’s college years. If she survives this encounter, Clarke is going to kill Raven. “I was planning to take it for a test spin. Two birds, one stone. Thought I could give you a ride.”

Though it’s phrased as an offer, it’s proposed as a tentative question. Clarke finds herself unable to say no to the accompanying smile, small but warm, and curses Lexa for being with someone that’s good and kind.

“It’s extremely nice of you, and out of the way. Thank you,” Clarke says, finally pulling her head out of her ass. With a bravery she doesn’t feel, she draws Costia into a quick hug. “And it’s lovely to meet you, too. Lexa’s told me so much.”

Lexa hasn’t. It was only towards the tail end of a painful night eight months ago over FaceTime that her tipsy ex-girlfriend finally revealed she was dating someone. During what would have been their seven year anniversary, Lexa let it slip after a few commiserating beers. Clarke didn’t know her heart could break more until she heard the too soft words, “I think I could love her.” Not much else has come forth since then, other than basic information that they met at a writing workshop Lexa ran, in which Costia was an editor who had signed up, looking to scout new talent. They’d been together a year before Clarke learned that the sound of devastation could be so quiet, delivered as a tangential comment through bits and pixels over WiFi waves.

Standing with her arms cordially around Costia, all flesh and bone, the rawness of the news back then hits her harder now. But Clarke squashes the pain as deep as she can. If she can endure the car ride back, tonight’s gathering, and tomorrow’s ceremony, then she’ll jump back on a plane and eat her weight in croissants and cry three years of regret into the Seine. It was on false hope to book an open end-date ticket but after a fortnight of stifled sobbing into her pillow, her plans to permanently move on solidified. Not least of which because what was once a hypothetical is presently materialised and embodied in the form of hazel eyes looking at her expectantly.

“Ready?” Costia asks warmly, patient. “Raven said she sent a tow, we can leave this one here.”

Clarke nods and follows her to the Volkswagen after grabbing her overnight bag from the trunk of the rental. Past the initial awkwardness of being in the same confined space as Lexa’s fiancée, their hour-long journey back to Polis isn’t as uncomfortable as Clarke anticipated. Costia is easy and affable, chatting when wanted but also content to let the muted sounds of the satellite radio flitter through the air when Clarke stared contemplative out of the window, flooded with memories.

The smell of worn leather activates a sensory recall of the touch and feel of Lexa’s hand on her thigh as the other one tapped happily on the wheel while they drove through the foothills of the next town over, on their way to the last standing outdoor drive-in theatre in the northwest area. More time was spent making out and with their hands all over each other than their eyes on the screen of the black and white neo-noir film.

The pine air freshener still hangs from the rear view mirror, though its scent has long faded. It had taken numerous trial-and-errors before Lexa found the one that reproduces the perfect mix of western hemlock and western red cedar of Forest Park, just so she can stupidly scent mark the used vehicle—an early college graduation gift—as belonging to the Woods. When Clarke made fun of her for her territorial ways and excessive care, she earned a gorgeous pout along with the conceit that, all good writers need a good car to roadtrip with a beautiful girl.

Unknowingly threading into the same subject, Costia breaks Clarke out of her thoughts with talk of the Cabrio. “Lexa loves this old beater. It’s apparently been broken for a couple years now before we met. She’s been working on it on and off all this time,” she shares, then puzzles over, “Not sure why but getting it running again seems to mean a lot to her.”

Lexa knows even less than Clarke about the difference between a wrench and a windshield wiper so the news of her foray into automotive repair is surprising. She had previously relied on the technical expertise of Raven’s maintenance magic to keep it in top functioning form.

“It’s a great car,” is all that Clarke supplies, keeping to herself that the battered seat in the back is where she and Lexa first made love, suffusing the interior with the intensity of their arousal, the sound of their laughter and the first stirrings of love. That its greatness came from its brokenness. How it took an inventive contraption involving a cassette tape and a pencil to connect her iPod to the audio system; how the windows only half worked at random times, as was the same case with the convertible roof; how the floor mats became temporary homes to the detritus of late-night diner runs.

“I haven’t had the heart to tell Lexa her hands are better with a pen than a ratchet so I finally got Raven to take a look. It’s supposed to be a surprise,” Costia continues, her voice turning affectionate, if not oddly unsure. “My wedding gift for her.”

Evidently, Lexa has found herself that perfect, beautiful girl to go along with the writer-and-road aesthetic. Clarke offers a supportive smile, trying for something bigger than she succeeds to form, constrained by the ache in her chest. She closes her eyes, hoping to block out imminent visions of the union tomorrow, while her senses are overwhelmed by the echoes of an unrecoverable yesterday.

The rhythm of the car’s gentle movements changes. She doesn’t realise she’s fallen asleep until it comes to a full stop.

“Where are we?”

“Getting gas. It’d be a bummer to rescue you only to get us both stranded.”

Yawning, Clarke hums agreement. She excuses herself to use the restroom while Costia fills the tank. The cold splash of water once inside marginally helps to gain a second wind, albeit it does little for her weakened nerves. On her return, Costia is sat at a nearby picnic table in front of the neighbouring burger joint.

“Sorry, with all the getting-ready of the venue this morning, I’m famished. Hope you don’t mind,” Costia says between bites when she catches sight of Clarke approaching. Clarke shakes her head about to verbalise it’s no bother when Costia pushes a second burger across the table towards her. “In case you’re hungry too.”

Clarke stares, unexpectedly feeling a burn behind her eyes. Costia’s thoughtfulness is making it worse for her capacity to keep her shit together. Taking a deep breath and blinking away the threat of tears, Clarke accepts the kindness. “Thanks.”

A tray with a large serving of fries is also pushed to the centre. They eat in silence for awhile, both retreating to their own separate worlds, which in all likelihood feature the same absent figure, until it occurs to Clarke that overstuffing on empty calories might not be such a good idea given the night’s itinerary.

“Won’t this ruin our dinner?”

Observing Clarke for a minute, Costia says softly, “I may not have an appetite later,” something strangely resigned in the vagueness of her prediction. After what looks to be an internal deliberation, and coming to an unknown conclusion, she reaches into her pocket then.

“I found this in the glove compartment when I was looking for change earlier.”

Costia pulls out a crinkled piece of paper, yellowed and oiled stain. Clarke knows what it is even before she unfolds it and straightens out the crumbled edges, sliding it across with equal awe and care. Her hand trembles the slightest taking it.

“It’s amazing,” Costia notes. Genuine yet melancholic. “You’re very talented.”

It’s a sketch of Lexa, asleep against Clarke’s shoulder, which is slightly out of frame. It had taken the full hour while she slept for Clarke to get the shape of her eyes right in its rested state, as well as the curve of her mouth, slightly ajar. Lexa’s features are so prominent and expressive, it requires restraint not to over-draw the slopes or get lost in the curves.

“She looks so peaceful here,” Costia comments, a wistfulness tinging her tone implying that’s not always the case.

“We went hiking that day. It wasn’t even a hard climb but she pretty much passed out when we reached the top,” Clarke partially fills in, leaving out the part where Lexa’s crash might also have to do with Clarke lamely twisting her ankle only a quarter of the way into the trail and Lexa having carried her the rest of the hill up, refusing to be detracted by Clarke’s lack of coordination and compromised mobility, keen on seeing the Fall colours from the peak.

After taking in the vista, they had taken each other in, and despite the pain in Clarke’s ankle, their fervour against a tree had produced one of the biggest orgasms to date for them both. Afterwards, Lexa napped while Clarke whiled away the time in her sketchbook, settled comfortably on the blanket Lexa brought with them. She remembers as the graphite moved across the page, her eyes were constantly darting back and forth between the auburn of Lexa’s hair and the autumnal hues of the forest below and beyond. Serene and happy, she thought forever came in shades of brown.

Whatever inner calmness Clarke felt then is nowhere to be found on hearing Costia’s next set of observations, when dipping back in to where the conversation has turned.

“Lexa is amazing with words. It’s disgusting, really, how good she is. So, it worries me when there are a lack of them. She’s been really quiet since you came back.” Expression tightening in contemplation, Costia amends, “Not just quiet though. Withdrawn.”

Clarke’s heart lurches. The distance between them had been agonising though needed for Clarke to rearrange the way it beats, but she hadn’t realised what the silence would do for Lexa.

“She hasn’t been sleeping much, and weirdly, started spending a lot of time writing at the park, which hasn’t happened ever in the time I’ve known her,” Costia remarks, eyes welling. “It scares me what that could mean.”

“Lexa loves you,” Clarke is quick to assert, cutting off any implication of cold feet. The truth of Lexa’s feelings for Costia cuts deep but it’s a reality Clarke is learning to accept. She ignores the other truth, and the kernel of hope, that Lexa might have been waiting for her to come back.

“She does,” Costia affirms with quiet certainty. Something else, however, something knowing, presses on her that’s making it difficult for them to maintain eye contact. “But with Lexa, I’ve felt somehow like we’ve been operating on borrowed time. She has never given me reason to doubt her commitment to us, but there’s been an underlying hint of something holding her in reserve. Finding this today, and meeting you, I get it now.”

Eyes widened in alarm, Clarke rushes to correct, “There’s nothing to get, Costia. I’m her past and you’re her future.”

“I don’t think Lexa sees it that way, even if she hasn’t acknowledged it yet to herself. I didn’t have a name for it then because Lexa guards her heart well, but whenever she was on a video call with you, there was this kind of thrumming joy. Her foot tapped unconsciously.” Sure, Lexa has a nervous tic, Clarke recognises, but she doesn’t know what Costia is alluding to until a hand reaches out to stop Clarke’s drumming fingers. “Like that.”

Oh.

“I ...” Clarke retracts her hand swiftly in guilt, having never registered how much she and Lexa mirror each other.

“Clarke, you’ve always been her present.”

Clarke shakes her head, panic rising at the direction this conversation has taken. Insistent, she argues, “I’m not her anything, and haven’t been in a long time.”

“That may be so,” Costia replies, conceding for the moment, but then throws them off course with an abrupt change in topic. “As an editor, I’ve read a lot stories. I’m overly familiar with how narratives work, the different paths they can take. Even when the writers think they’re being original, it’s unlikely their version hasn’t been done before. The best fictions are the ones that can surprise us, or so we’re made to think. But lately, I don’t believe that’s entirely true.”

Clarke listens, not quite sure where Costia is headed with her divergent rumination but finds her attention held captive anyway by her soft timbre and attentive way of storytelling. It’s not hard to see how Lexa would gravitate into her magnetic circle.

“There’s something to be said about a story following a well-trodden path—that we know how it ends, expect it even; the delight is in how the characters get there. Stories that have moved me have always ended with, she gets the girl, in the most banal and basic way. Sometimes, the most radical ending is the one we want and expect.” Costia pauses for the emotion that has deepened the sadness in her eyes. She draws a slow breath, as if coming to a decision at a fork in the road, looking at Clarke with such understanding and inevitability that it strikes a deep chord of sorrow, “I think the writing is clear on the wall here for how yours and Lexa’s story ends.”

“Costia ...”

“As an editor,” Costia repeats, the break in her voice straining Clarke’s in pathos, “I know when to intervene and when I need to step back.” She gives a stricken smile, looking to the side for a moment to wipe a tear. “One of my favourite proofmarks is a symbol called a stet. It’s a prompt for reversal typically identified by an ellipse. Three dots noted beneath crossed-out words.”

She looks down at her hand to stop its shake under the guise of playing with the engagement ring that gleams in the late afternoon light. As if drawing courage from its brilliance, Costia picks up the thread again, appearing newly determined.

“Sometimes editors get overzealous with corrections, and our insertions and edits interrupt the text not always for the better. Stet is Latin for, let it stand. To leave as is. It’s a directive for the writer to return to what was; never mind the suggested change. It’s another way to indicate, as you were.” Costia turns her gaze back to look at Clarke, the watery pool there likely reflecting Clarke’s own. “So, this is me, stetting for you and Lexa to be as you were.”

She yields with crushing acceptance. The tears fall. Love surrendered.

Before Clarke can respond, the crunch of tires slowing to a stop on the gravel grabs their attention. A cab pulls into the gas station. Costia stands up, wiping the crumbs off the table. Slow and methodical as she packs up their food tray.

“That’s for me,” she informs, motioning to the taxi and acknowledging the driver with a head tip. As Clarke belatedly pieces the picture together, urgent to catch up, Costia reaches into her pocket again, this time retrieving the keys to the Cabrio, and placing them into the palm of Clarke’s hand. Closing Clarke’s fingers around the set, the metal pressing gently but hotly into skin, she murmurs with heartbreaking finality. “She’s all yours.”

Though the ‘she’ is obvious, the double meaning is not lost on either of them. The significance charged and palpable.

Costia’s phone rings then with perceptive timing. “Hi Lexa,” Costia answers, after taking a step back, politely excusing herself with a small wave of hand. Clarke doesn’t mean to, but she overhears Lexa’s voice thinning through the receiver. Small and forlorn. Costia, we need to talk. After a two week absence, hearing Lexa’s voice, however faint, sends a flutter through her. She turns to give them full privacy, walking away as Costia’s broken response trails out of earshot, “I know, we do. I’ll be home shortly.”

Once done with throwing away their trash, Clarke numbly makes way to the Cabrio to lean against the driver side door, relying on its steel frame to keep her standing. The keys feel heavy in hand, the weight of what just transpired still churning in her stomach. The pulsing in her ear is near thunderous, her heart sounding in danger of beating right out of her chest. Costia joins her a minute later to say goodbye.

“I’m going to head out.”

“You don’t have to do this.” Clarke makes one last plea. She can’t be the cause of Lexa’s heartbreak twice.

“I’ve borrowed enough time,” Costia refutes, wrought with meaning, her decisiveness only betrayed by the smallest of tremble of her chin. “Do you love Lexa?”

God, does she ever. So much so that Clarke would rather break her own heart then cause further damage to Lexa’s. Or Costia’s. The question is possibly the final lever; Clarke’s answer determining three fates. Swallowing with difficulty, she considers lying, along the lines of, only as a friend now. The lie tastes like sand, but if this is what’s needed to ensure Lexa’s happiness, Clarke would be willing to consume the entirety of the desert.

She can’t though. Costia has been nothing but open and generous with her vulnerability. She owes her the same at the very least. Besides, Clarke has always been a horrible liar and so it wouldn’t take much for Costia, a near stranger, to read the signs of cracks in her facade and easily pick out the untruth.

“I’ve never stopped,” Clarke settles on, honouring Costia’s kindness with the utmost honesty she can manage past the tightness in her lungs and the quiver of her own lower lip. “But whatever we were, whatever I may want us to still be, whatever I feel, is moot,” Clarke tries to impress the ineffectuality of her want on what’s best for everyone involved. “I have no right to ask for more. To take away from what you and Lexa have.”

“Do you love her?” Costia asks again, reiterating the supposed to be uncomplicated question.

Seeing her searching look for confirmation, a desperation for absolute resolution, Clarke deflates, letting go of all pretenses. There’s no use in evading what’s bare between them.

“I do.”

Costia nods tightly. There is both grief and relief in her eyes. The taxi honks. She holds her hand up to let him know she’s coming.

“Take your time going back,” Costia advises quietly. It’s said soft and sad. “No rush. Dinner tonight is cancelled.”

And just like that, Clarke is left standing with the keys to the car of the love of her life, having just uttered the two nuptial words meant to be said tomorrow by someone other than her.

Heart in her throat, she pulls out her phone, finally answering Lexa’s texts.

I’m sorry.

Part III

Rapt, rapt, rapt.

Clarke turns over, trying to wiggle away from the loud, insistent noise. Burrowing deeper, she ducks her head down and pulls the blanket up higher to cover her ears. Go away bears, she mutters before drifting off again.

Barely a minute in, the knocking returns, more forceful against what sounds like glass.

“Clarke!”

Funny, bears don’t speak. How does it know my name? Squinting into the daylight, she opens one eye to inquire only to find herself curled up in a fetal position, facing the back seat of the Cabriolet, still wearing yesterday’s clothes. A sudden chill has her tugging the leather jacket closer around her torso. When she focuses further to take in more of her surroundings, there’s a blurry outline of a face pressed up against the foggy window.

“Clarke, open the fucking door.”

Her warm breath inside the car shrouds the world in a murky layer of moisture making the features of the shouting figure hard to identify. The voice, however, is clear.

“Lexa?”

Clarke fumbles for the window crank handle but miscues her reach, hitting the door latch instead, effectively unlocking the vehicle. The door immediately swings open and she would have ended up head-first on the ground if it hadn’t been for a strong hand catching her at the last minute.

“Get out,” Lexa seethes, while manhandling Clarke with contradictory gentleness. She steps back to give her moving room, a hand lingering on her elbow until it’s safe to let go. Even when she does, delicate fingertips remain a ghost of a cradle ready to catch, the care at odds with the fire in Lexa’s eyes.

With the grace of a fawn, Clarke ambles to plant her feet. The firs and hemlocks and cedars watch on in disinterest as she attempts to right her bearings, unsympathetic to her struggle to un-cloud heavy-lidded eyes from sleepiness. Gauging from the slip of sun through their leaves, it’s late morning or early afternoon. The last thing Clarke recalls is throwing herself a pity party after parking the car at their favourite lookout point over the city, on the edge of the urban forest. Given the night’s upturned agenda, the secluded location felt fitting. Aching and alone and full of remorse for causing irreparable harm, Forest Park’s high altitude and distant perspective were necessary. The bottom-shelf booze, hastily purchased somewhere after pulling off the motorway and before entering the dirt road, had kept her company well past midnight. The regret of that one decision, amongst many, pulses punishingly in her temples.

Sharpening her focus, in front of her is a fuming and haggard-looking Lexa, moving in patternless back and forth. There are bags under red-rimmed eyes, unsuccessfully covered by a pair of dark-rim spectacles; her hair is piled clumsily on top of her head, tendrils of brown falling out; an oversized hoodie hangs listlessly off her lithe frame; hiking boots, messily laced, struggle to keep her grounded in her pacing. While Clarke smells a day old and feels a thousand years tired, Lexa is beautiful. Even in, especially in, her ill-tempered and dishevelled state.

None of the tulle Clarke had previewed is in sight. No lace or silk or veil. No indication that today was supposed to be anything but an ordinary day. Yet, outfitted in subdued greys, Lexa looks stunning of the desaturated woodland variety against the palette of muted greens and soft champagne—not the flute type expected of today’s abandoned ceremony but the pale rose of the horizon kind awash this hour and time of year.

“Lexa,” Clarke calls out quietly, voice soft as if careful not to disturb a wounded animal.

“You complete asshole.”

Lexa has no such consideration for being quiet or soft. No qualms for the startling way the aspersion pierces through Clarke’s haze.

“I am so incredibly furious with you.” She cuts to the chase, faltering mid-stride to convey, a storm gathering behind her diction that is a sharp contrast to the serenity of the scenery. Her jaw hinges under pressure to control the wafting anger, at the same time her eyes desperately scan for signs of bodily damage on Clarke. She looks conflicted between wanting to throttle Clarke and sweep her up in a hug relieved that she’s physically okay.

In response to the wincing volume, Clarke tries for levity, “Could you maybe be mad with your inside voice?”

Her attempt to diffuse the standoff with facetious humour has the opposite effect. Lexa levels her a look. “How could you?”

Voice a quiet thunder, she sounds incredulous and hurt and betrayed. Its shake drains the last dregs of sleep. Clarke sobers.

Swallowing thickly, she apologises, “I never meant for this, I’m sorry. I’ll talk to Costia—”

“That’s not why I’m angry,” Lexa interrupts, chest heaving. Clarke is dumbstruck. Why else would Lexa be upset. “It’s not the only reason,” she revises. “No one’s heard from you since yesterday, Clarke. Costia said she’d left you at the gas station but you never made it back to Raven’s place and she couldn’t get a hold of you and was worried something happened on the road.”

Coming up short of a fiancée, a best friend and a car all in one day would understandably leave anyone untethered, but the panic behind Lexa’s eyes about Clarke’s absence speaks to an altogether different fear of loss. Clarke’s hand twinges to reach out to comfort, instead, it closes in a fist to prevent from breaching Lexa’s personal space, which doesn’t seem like the brightest idea at the moment.

“I was fine.”

She wasn’t but it’s been a reflexive, deflective answer these past weeks to mollify family and friends concerned she’s one bridal bouquet away from a nervous breakdown. Going by the answering glare, a mix of disbelief and distress, her alternative measure of reassurance appears to be a worse course of action to take.

“How was I supposed to know that!” Lexa erupts. The root of her frustration reveals itself when her voice breaks as a hand presses against her chest before falling limply by her side in a helpless gesture, “I couldn’t get a hold of you.”

It really wasn’t Clarke’s intention to ghost anyone. Eyebrows scrunching, she un-pockets her mobile. If Raven or Lexa did try to get in touch, her phone’s contact history doesn’t reflect it. Then again, getting a signal in this area is notoriously a hit and miss.

Spotty reception aside, the last image on the screen distracts her from further pondering the communication barrier. The fog of last night lifts a little, the grainy picture a clue that she had fallen asleep replaying old videos. Lexa’s sleepy protests against Clarke’s filming one morning—part of an art project on domestic intimacy—were some of the affecting sound bites that finally lulled her under. The footage showed them wrestling afterwards over the incriminating recording of Lexa snoring and drooling, ending with Clarke only pretending to capitulate to her empty threat of loving Clarke less if she didn’t delete the evidence. Spit on my face is not art, Clarke, followed by a tackle then tactical pouting, led to her easy surrender. This, along with numerous other under-a-minute clips in her phone’s archive, were a balm to her heart’s disquiet.

“My phone died,” she fibs, exaggerating the low percentage of battery, better to have Lexa think the power must have depleted than to know Clarke cried until the screen became blurry and she had to shut it down. The meek excuse of failed technology, as expected, does not quell Lexa’s agitation.

“You said we’d talk. After the park, you were supposed to call.”

“I ...” Clarke struggles for a response, thrown by the sudden shift. The now obvious, deeper source of Lexa’s grievance.

“You sent me one cryptic text yesterday and then nothing, after two weeks of also nothing. I didn’t know if you were in one piece, I thought you might have been hurt. Or worse, that you were already half way across the world. Back to Paris.” Despite the harsh timbre, Lexa sounds terrified of both possibilities. Visibly shaken with rage but there’s also a waver of distraught seeping through. Underneath the fury is an unmissable layer of vulnerability. “You can’t drop a bomb like you’re still in love with me and then go radio silent. You completely disappeared on me. You can’t dothat, Clarke. Not after what happened. Not after everything. How could you?”

Emotions heightening, Clarke feels her own anger bubbling in turn at the unfair assailing and accusatory tone, prompting a sharp pivot from defensive to offensive. Stalking forward unannounced, she backs Lexa up until she’s pressed against the rear of the wooden bench of the viewing platform.

“How could I?! I was hurt. I AM hurt!” Clarke bellows. Lexa flinches at the change in tenor. “You want to talk about bombs?” Clarke asks, voice a tremble, losing the fight to control its treble. “You never told me about Costia. I found out about her a year after you were dating and only because you were drunk, on our anniversary—when I was about to tell you how desperately I wanted to try again, how wrong I’d been to let go. How miserable and alone I’ve been and how much I missed you. Us.”

Taken by surprise of the reveal, Lexa’s mouth falls open prepared to interject, but Clarke steamrolls on, raising a hand to indicate she’s far from done.

“You want to talk about nothing? I knew next to nothing about her and barely anything about your relationship, and then, without so much as a warning, I find out you’re getting married in half a month. The worst part of it? I was delirious from a red-eye because the entire time in the air, while everyone else slept, I spent it perfecting a speech to ask you to give us—me—another chance. I stupidly thought maybe, just maybe, since you didn’t tell me much about Costia, it meant it’s not that serious. That your happiness wasn’t tied irrevocably to her yet. That if I was finally brave enough to say it, you’d take me back. Instead, you were getting ready to tie the knot and I had to watch you try on wedding dresses for fucks sake, and then, as if that wasn’t enough salt on wound, I had to spend an hour in a car with your fiancée. The same car she had fixed as a gift to inaugurate the start of a life with you. The same car,” Clarke gestures emphatically behind them, her monologue taking on a frantic pitch, hot tears forming, “where you and I had sex god knows how many times and I could still feel you upon my skin after all these years. And where you joked that I’m the only one you’d ever get down on your knees for, which I thought to mean maybe one knee someday. So excuse me, if I just needed some time to process all that.”

Red in the face from the verbal exertion, Clarke gasps for large breaths of air. The thickened atmosphere makes the steadying effort difficult. Her throat burns. They’re nearly chest to chest, of which Clarke only becomes aware when the warmth of Lexa’s body heat radiates against her. She tries not to think of Lexa’s hands on her hips, the hot press of them, which have subconsciously held on to hold Clarke back. Inches apart, under different circumstances, it wouldn’t take much for either to lean in and brush their lips together. As it is, there is so much unaddressed pain between them, they might as well be in different timezones.

The rawness of Clarke’s held-in anguish has flung the pair into an estranged hinterland that neither knows how to cross to reach the other. Lexa’s eyes are a glasshouse of torn emotions, her face pulled in fraught lines. She looks as stricken as Clarke feels.

The standstill lingers indeterminately as they each grasp for a way forward.

A staggering silence later, the stalemate breaks when Lexa lowers her shield. Shoulders dropping. Hands too. In supplication, in sorrow. In surrender.

Taking her cue, Clarke steps back, relieving the surface tension but introducing a new coldness. Hugging arms around herself to fight the chill, she looks away, allowing Lexa the privacy to discretely wipe tears as she tends to blinking clear her own blurred vision.

“I thought you were okay with Costia.”

Lexa looks genuinely perplexed, the crease in her forehead between her eyebrows deepening as does the vein by her temple while she seemingly replays the substance of their exchange. Her look of confusion would otherwise be endearing—the wrinkle an oft-feature of past teasing—if Clarke’s insides weren’t so gutted by its cause.

Hanging her head out of view, Clarke brushes quickly at the remaining wetness trailing on her face. Palms press roughly into what must be ruddy cheeks. Defeat hangs from the sweat of her brow as she reconnects their gazes after drawing a shaky breath.

Until recently, Costia was an abstract idea. A vague conception. Their run-in made everything more real than Clarke had been ready to face.

“I haven’t been okay in awhile,” she answers, indirect but altogether truthful. More so than she has allowed herself to admit. By the fall of Lexa’s face Clarke knows she must sound broken. All of the bluster from seconds ago is gone. All of Lexa’s anger rushes out of her in that moment. Clarke catches the twitch of her hands like she wants to re-close their distance and soothe but refrains, holding post.

“She’s lovely and gorgeous, and as it turns out, the nicest human ever,” Clarke rounds back, pushing past strained vocals. A searching look, Lexa studies her face for a deeper reading. Helping along, she supplies, “I have nothing against Costia. But, Lexa, in what world would I be okay with you with someone else?”

“You didn’t want me, Clarke.” Lexa stresses. “You’re the one who decided we should be friends. After six years together, you broke up with me without an explanation. Not a good one anyway.”

“That’s not why ... It wasn’t ...” Clarke fumbles, then regroups. Admittedly, let’s be friends, I think we work better that way, was not her finest hour and the least imaginative and most inauthentic breakup segue. After too many silent fights and sleepless nights—the inertial consequence of long distance—it had seemed the only plausible route back then. With nothing to lose now, she might as well continue to be totally honest. “I was scared you were going to hate me.” Lexa’s head nearly rears back but Clarke hurries to continue before she has a chance to prematurely react. “You were slipping away day by day. I didn’t want to lose you entirely. I saw the road we were headed down and might not be able to come back from.”

Though Lexa did well to hide any outward signs of misery every time Clarke missed a call or forgot to check in (timezone math is hard), their conversations successively shortened while the light in her eyes steadily dimmed. The irony that both were doing extraordinarily well in their respective writer and artist residencies, at the cost of a shared residence together, was getting harder to swallow. Neither could or would ask the other to give up professional growth for personal gain, an unspoken mutual sacrifice that widened the growing chasm between them. Silent but stewing.

“What do you mean?”

“I didn’t know how long we’d last,” at Lexa’s frown, again Clarke quickens to add before Lexa can form the wrong idea about her lack of faith in them, “enduring being together but not together, how many more years you could take of me being half a world away. Friendship felt like less of a burden.”

“You were not a burden, Clarke,” Lexa adjures then reiterates what was said at the park, eyes imploring, “I would have waited.”

Unconsciously, Clarke’s gaze falls to Lexa’s hand where her arms have crossed at the chest, to where the engagement ring shines plaintively. She quietly observes, “But you didn’t.”

Still overwhelmed with residual hurt, it slips out without thought, sounding more pointed than she’s aware. Regret fills her instantly seeing how the missive lands on Lexa’s chest; how the unintended challenge to Lexa’s fealty cuts hard across her face. Before an apology can emerge, the wounded look transitions into a weighty one like she’s deliberating something significant. With a soft almost inaudible exhale, Lexa turns on her heels.

Not having given earlier thought to how Lexa arrived on the mountain, it surprises Clarke that there’s no other vehicle in sight when she turns to follow her direction of travel. She must have hiked here, the familiar trek they used to do on foot together. Lexa heads for the Cabriolet instead of the trailhead, crossing the short distance to the parking spot in long, determined strides.

Shit.

For a heart stopping second, Clarke thinks this is how things will truly end between them. In pain and regret.

“Lexa, wait,” she calls out, desperate.

Rather than go to the driver side and take off as Clarke was scared to have pushed her into doing, Lexa rounds the passenger side and rummages for something unseen under the seat. She returns to sit on the bench, with the retrieved item in hand, letting in a deeper, more perceptible, intake of breath. Clarke stands unsure of a next move. On Lexa’s wordless signal that her company is wanted, she follows suit, taking a seat at the other end and leaving a significant (safe) gap between them. The proximity is both too close and excruciatingly too far.

In Lexa’s lap is a white leather bound book. Clarke’s old sketchbook.

“I did wait,” Lexa says, subdued, quiet enough that Clarke has to strain to hear, sounding the most docile since their confrontation. Her usual gentleness, if not yet warmth, returns. Reflexively, Clarke’s heartbeat and breathing recalibrate to match Lexa’s new even rhythm as they shift focus to the traces of another, happier, time.

They sit in reverent silence for a moment as a wave of nostalgia crests over the preceding heaviness.

Lexa gingerly leaves through the pages, as careful as if handling one of her cherished finds from a secondhand shop. In a way it is secondhand. Clarke had lent it to her during her last Paris visit, when they took a day trip to the seaside. Lexa had forgotten her notebook back at Clarke’s place in their rush to catch the train.

That memorable day in Marseille was a spontaneous outcome of trying to escape the heatwave that had gripped Europe in late summer. Tripping out of Clarke’s pied-a-terre a frisson of excitement in the early hours of morning towards Garde du Nord station, three hours later they left behind the August humidity of the 19th arrondissement for the azure vistas of the archipelago dotting the historic city.

Trading in the Pacific for the Baltic, Lexa had screamed her delight at winning their water fight and impressively drenching Clarke into a feigned state of grumpiness for the rest of the afternoon. Held tightly in her arms and closely against her chest, a shivering Clarke begrudgingly nestled into Lexa, partially accepting transferred body heat as apology, while internally cursing against her own ignorance of sea temperatures being shockingly colder than expected. Drying off on the beach afterwards, it took two orgasms stealthily given under their shared towel before Lexa was fully forgiven.

They lapsed the remainder of time drawing and writing, soaking up the sun of southern France and occasionally sneaking in kisses under the large brims of overpriced souvenir straw hats, the traditional Provence attire. An evening stroll along the harbour of the old port to chase the last rays of the Mediterranean, ended with an open-fire grilled dinner under the string lights of the boat-lined quay. As they savoured the textures and aromas of the day’s fresh catch sold by fishmongers who double in the evenings as charming waiters, bottled happiness bubbled forth from the crisp rosé accompanying their indulgence of the local cuisine.

They couldn’t afford an overnight stay in a cabana on the beach like the wealthy glitterati that glided into the port on their yachts; but on the train ride back, with shortness of breath after extended make-out sessions, the only poverty Clarke acutely felt was shortness of time with Lexa.

The sketchbook is a remnant of when they were time-poor but plentifully, achingly rich in love. Clarke’s breath catches at what was.

“You still have it.”

Informed of the sketchbook’s accidental packing and wayward journey home with Lexa, Clarke had offered it for keeps, but Lexa declined taking full possession and considered it instead a precious loan to be returned when they were together again. I’ll keep it safe.

Nodding, Lexa recounts, “I carried it with me everywhere after my return stateside. It made me feel closer to you,” looking sheepish to admit, nervously playing with the page corners. “It wasn’t until a meeting with an Italian publisher that I started using it. She had said a word I hadn’t heard before, struggimento.” She oddly averts her gaze and doesn’t expound on the meaning. Rather, Lexa goes on to relay that Clarke’s sketchbook was handy in her satchel and the only writing surface she happened to have that day to scribble into.

It’s not surprising. Lexa is a scribbler. Scraps of paper and tear-out sheets could be found throughout their Polis apartment. Many of which were undisguised love notes pinned to places that Clarke wouldn’t miss. When it came to her, subtle Lexa was not.

“I developed a habit since then. It’s become my journal for jotting down indescribable words not easily translatable to English.“ She offers it for Clarke to peruse, finger still trailing over the page, causing their hands to brush in the exchange. The book’s first quarter is filled with Clarke’s familiar strokes while the rest consists of Lexa’s recognisable fluid penmanship. “Komorebi, for instance,” Lexa says, gesturing to their wooded surrounding, “is Japanese for the sort of scattered, dappled light that happens when sunlight shines in through trees.”

A murmur of agreement threads between them watching the dance of filtered light.

“I got that one from an illustrator named Anjana Iyer, who has a book project, Found in Translation. Some others I gleaned from a different writer and illustrator, Ella Frances Sanders. These are all elusive concepts and emotions borrowed from different languages and cultures, which have no direct Anglicised, lexical equivalents.”

Foreign terms and their definitions are neatly written with care but animated by marginalia markings connecting them to less ordered and more hastily captured thoughts. Clarke’s name makes repeat appearances, denoted only as C., but clearly part of attempts to approximate the terms’ true meanings through discrete examples. The initial could well refer to Costia but the specificity of certain annotations suggest otherwise.

wabi-sabi (japanese) - an appreciation of transient and imperfect beauty—such as the fleeting splendour of cherry blossom. (C.’s eyes. Late fall by the lake.)

cafuné (portuguese) - the act of tenderly running one’s fingers through someone’s hair. (Mornings. A tangled lion.)

chéngquán (chinese) - to become whole, to make complete. (I miss her.)

struggimento (italian) - an intense longing; a yearning sitting somewhere between ardent want and deep pain. (03/03/16)

As Clarke stares at the significant date, she struggles not to tear up again. Ranging from highly unique circumstances to particular affective states to more complex and bittersweet experiences, the emotional granularity of the chosen words paint a variant and nuanced picture of Lexa’s heartbreak.

In the margins, Clarke finds a portrait of an unfinished life. Fragments of what she and Lexa used to be.

“There is one word for every day that we’ve been apart. It might not seem long to you, but I did wait, Clarke. It didn’t feel short to me.”

Sure enough, the last entry is a reference to Clarke’s recent arrival, dated two Fridays earlier.

iktsuarpok (inuit) - the feeling of anticipation while waiting for someone, constantly checking to see if they have arrived.

“Lexa ...”

“Funny thing is, Costia and I met because of this collection,” Lexa continues, crossing another emotional terrain while Clarke scrambles to traverse the last. Riding the momentum like she needs to get it off her chest before losing nerve, Lexa carries on. “A year or so after we broke up, I needed to do something with this magpie of immense but impractical words. They felt too big to be contained in these pages alone. That’s what the writing workshop was about. Using these as prompts, it was my way of finding them a home in other people’s stories.”

The new details illuminate what had previously required Clarke’s overactive imagination to fill in the blanks of her and Costia’s meet-cute. She listens, attentive, offering an encouraging smile but doesn’t comment yet as the cartography of their overlapping histories starts to map out.

“Some of the shorts were amazing. There was one about thunderstorms and a pair of old warriors which was my favourite,” Lexa shares then returns to her train of thought. “Through mutual connections, Costia volunteered to be an editor for the final publication coming out of the workshop. We hit it off professionally. She’s ruthless with a pen. From there, we started spending more time together. Mostly over manuscript reviews, or that’s what they were to me, anyway. Apparently, Costia saw it differently, as more than work meetings. She had been trying to flirt but I didn’t realise until she kissed me one evening after our usual weekly dinner.”

Clarke’s heart constricts, pulling taut at an uninvited vision of the pair locking lips. She squeezes her eyes shut for a second but then wills the kiss and their domestic routine out of mind, eager not to derail Lexa’s privileged openness with superfluous jealousy.

“If I’m being honest, in hindsight, I think I had mistaken Costia’s kindness and attention—my admiration of her editorial brilliance—for something more than I actually felt between us. I didn’t tell you about her precisely because I wasn’t sure about my feelings. Subconsciously, saying them out loud would make it, not necessarily more concrete for me and Costia, but less real for you and me, like it would somehow diminish the possibility of an us again. It’s a selfish thought but if I kept the two separated, not let what Costia and I were becoming overlap with what you and I may still be, then I didn’t have to choose.”

Between head and heart, Lexa doesn’t say but the conflict of choice is clear.

“But if you weren’t sure to begin with, then why ...”

“... did I date her?” Lexa finishes the rest of Clarke’s question. Clarke nods. Though not wholly keen on the answer, it’s a needed detail to attenuate her irrational thinking that Lexa could have gotten over her so quickly and easily. The condensed timeframe has been the most difficult part to process in all this. Lexa gives a rueful smile. “It was flattering to be wanted.” The implication hits Clarke squarely in the chest. “So I tried my best to be with Costia, to reciprocate, because she is lovely, and obviously, very attractive. I didn’t recognise it then as loneliness and misplaced affection, or how completely unfair I was being to her, even if my intentions were genuine.”

Lexa looks at Clarke. A significant beat passes before she stares back out to the city. Her voice softens in hushed confession. She visibly swallows as though about to admit to something she shouldn’t.

“My heart didn’t skip or stutter around Costia. It was steady. I misread that calmness for peace, and so thought it could be the right kind of love. Gentle enough that it didn’t hurt.”

The yearning in her voice tugs painfully at Clarke’s heart. It aches for her. As hard as it is to hear, Clarke can understand Lexa’s desire for something not so volatile, for someone steady. Present.

“You can still have that peace,” she submits quietly, having the grace to let go similar to how Costia had bowed out yesterday, if that’s what Lexa wants, even if the thought of it kills her. Against self-preservation, she urges, “It must be enough if you’d planned to wed.”

In lieu of an immediate answer, Lexa fiddles with the band on her finger, then removes it, holding the ring up against the cloudless sky to survey before pocketing it into her joggers.

“Costia proposed,” Lexa discloses, clarifying the circumstances of their engagement and indirectly addressing Clarke’s earlier assumptions about who initiated. “She saw a future with me,” where you didn’t, goes unsaid but not unheard. “She’s an incredible person, I grew to love her and didn’t see a reason to object.” The knot in her stomach notwithstanding, Clarke can’t argue with the sound logic, except, Lexa makes the case on her behalf. “There were no obvious grounds to say no, not until that day in the park with you, and I was reminded what being in love felt like. What a skip and stutter could do. The objection pounded loudly in my ears.”

There’s a similar loudness now making itself known in Clarke’s set. A hammering at hearing the first tacit indication of Lexa’s unextinguished feelings for her. While the notebook is an artefact of past affection, these sonorous words externalise a potential future. In light of present circumstances and the subject focus at hand, Clarke must modulate hope of such possibility; nonetheless, it drums insistent.

“Costia deserves more than enough,” Lexa summarises. “She deserves someone whose heart beats irregular for her. Someone who doesn’t carry around words that remind them of someone else.”

As she processes Lexa’s inference, one wiggling but important hypothetical presses on her. “And if I hadn’t shown up?”

“Self-aware me would like to think I would have arrived at the same conclusion on my own, but I can’t speak for what deep-in-denial me would have done.” The honesty hangs between them before Lexa gives a deprecating chuckle, shrugging. “Maybe get married and have kids then send you an invite to their kindergarten graduation as the world’s worst, oh by the way, news delivery?”

The speculative scenario compresses painfully upon Clarke’s chest, her lungs cave a little at the thought of Lexa’s future family that doesn’t include her, even if she finds the image of mini Lexas with hazel eyes adorable.

“In a parallel universe, we’d be saying our vows right now and I can see myself being happy with Costia and our imaginary children,” Lexa continues and then fixes Clarke’s gaze for an extended hold, causing butterflies to form in Clarke’s stomach, before she says, “but in this one, there’s you.”

The wings flutter to a swelling intensity. Ignoring it, Clarke doesn’t mean to fish but curiosity gets the better of her and she probes gently, “What about me?”

“You’re you,” Lexa replies without second thought, earnest and succinct, like Clarke’s personhood and general existence is everything there is to be said on the matter. It reminds Clarke of the way a concise history of Lexa’s affection for her starts and ends with her name.

On Clarke’s shy nod of acknowledgment, another round of silence envelops them.

“I am really sorry, Lexa,” Clarke says, after another beat. “None of this is what I had imagined when I got off the plane.” Or rather, when she got on the plane Europe-bound in the first place.

“Me too,” Lexa agrees, sounding faraway and forlorn.

“I need to apologise to Costia,” Clarke supplements and over-dramatises, “God, meeting her nemesis wasn’t likely on her bridal to do list.”

Despite the solemn cloud overhanging, Clarke’s inflated characterisation draws a small laugh out of Lexa, the first in a long time. Clarke memorises the sound. “You’re not her enemy. It’s not your fault.” At her skeptical look, Lexa furthers, “We mutually ended things. If anything, I’m the villain. I should’ve ended it much earlier. I take full responsibility for not seeing it sooner. You know, even after we called off the wedding last night, I worried about you.” Lexa turns back to fix her gaze intently on Clarke. A poignant pause. A timid smile. Anger long dissipated, her eyes soften. “That really should’ve been my first clue when my first thought is always you.”

The admission sends additional flutter to an embattled rib cage but Clarke neither adds or takes away from that belated realisation, a shared sentiment. They let the ensuing minutes of contemplative quiet stretch out the significance. Clarke reads more of the notebook. Lexa sits in absorbed introspection, legs crossed at the ankles and kicking aimless to and fro in a slow pattern. Were it not for the preceding clash, the stillness of the scene can be pulled from any past footage of their Sundays in the park. As her eyes catch on lítost, the Czech word for deep, impelling regret, Clarke aches for a fuller return to the leisure hours of a Seurat-like afternoon en plein air.

“What happens from here?” She braves to ask an uncounted time thereafter. In not so many words, they have each signalled a requited love, but the practicalities of manifesting it remains an open question—what happens with us, an uncertainty given the entanglement they’ve twisted themselves into.

“Besides finding a new living arrangement and returning registry gifts? I don’t know,” Lexa answers honestly. “Costia and I talked all night and I came up here today to give her space but ended up yelling at you.” She looks down at her empty left hand, which has since folded around the edge of the bench. It occurs to Clarke that they have shifted closer sometime ago without notice and are within touch, a palm’s width apart, her right hand similarly wrapped around the wood in mirrored image. It’s a good thing then her grip is tight and she’s seated because Lexa’s next revelation would have knocked her off her feet. “I had originally planned to move to Paris after my grant ended and ask a girl to marry me but somehow ended up with a different ring and still no girl.” She shrugs, the gesture and disclosure more casual than the tears welling in her eyes communicates, as she softly concedes, “I’m not in the best position to answer that question.”

Clarke stares. Blinks. The import sinks in. Despite the stirred up emotions again, she replies even-keeled, “I have a new word for you. Backpfeifengesicht.”

“What’s that?”

“A face badly in need of a fist.”

Clarke turns her head, tilting her chin slightly forward to Lexa in offering. Though it’s done in jest, she half closes her eyes bracing for impact just in case.

The woods go eerily quiet. A collective breath held in wait. Then the serious set of eyes observing her, a confusion of forest green, brightens in understanding. Lexa laughs. Small still but even more indelible this time for the pretty tilt of her lips, an action that usually meant she was holding back a larger one. Clarke joins in. Soaking in the pocket of lightness. They bask in the absurdity of the moment. Tension ebbs further away.

“Anya taught it to me.” Lexa’s German half-sister had colourfully let Clarke know her exact feelings about their breakup.

“Why am I not surprised,” Lexa says with fondness before eyes narrow in thought, lips pursing as her protectiveness flares, “Wait, did she really punch you?”

“No, no. But there were a string of other choice, probably not so nice, German words she didn’t fail to slap me with after I called things off.”

“If it’s any consolation, I didn’t get off easy either. My sister has a very mean I told you so scowl.” Picking up on Clarke’s puzzlement, Lexa addresses her questioning look, “She was mad I didn’t talk to you about my intentions.”

“Ugh, why didn’t you?” Clarke charges, head dramatically falling back against the top of the bench and uses Lexa’s earlier disparagement back against her, “You could have told me, you asshole, that you were planning to propose. I wouldn’t have friendzoned you like a sacrificial idiot.” She lightly shoves at Lexa’s shoulder.

“How else would I win in the relationship martyrdom Olympics?” Lexa wonders with utter seriousness that has Clarke smiling into a second laugh.

“I think Costia has you beat there, babe.”

The term of endearment falls out unbidden, of which Clarke doesn’t become aware until Lexa’s cheeks bloom rose. “You’re right, she does.”

“You really did pick a good one. Costia has got to be the most mature, jilted bride I’ve ever met. I can’t believe she fixed up what Anya basically calls our sexmobile.”

The blush deepening, Lexa laughs at another Anyaism. “Our sapphic sedan.”

Though they’re able to somewhat make light of it, the gravity of the situation hasn’t left Clarke’s mind. “God, we’ve made such a mess.”

Lexa doesn’t contest. Laughter tapering, her eyes lower to the ground. It twists something in Clarke to see the enduring sadness that she placed there.

“How can I fix this?” Clarke wants to know, turning serious again at Lexa’s pensiveness, and softly adds, “What do you need from me?”

Tentative but with drawn up courage, Clarke reaches out to squeeze her hand in sincerity. It’s their first intentional touch, but while short, seems to be affective. Lexa smiles in gratitude.

“More time,” Lexa answers simply, looking back up, a benign but meaningful request. They regard each other for the moment. It strikes Clarke the difference in conversation she’s had separately with the two former brides-to-be. Where Costia concluded that her time with Lexa was ending, Lexa here is asking for more of it with Clarke. That, in addition to, “And for you to recharge your phone.”

“I can do that,” Clarke says without hesitation.

Satisfied with the commitment, Lexa bends down to tie her laces before getting to her feet and making apparent motions to leave. Head cocked towards the direction she came, “I really should ...”

“Do you need a ride?” Clarke asks at the same time, hurrying to stand too and hand Lexa back her notebook and car key.

Without providing explanation, Lexa shakes her head no on both accounts. An implicit later sits at the corner of her mouth, that there’ll be another opportunity to return them. Clarke doesn’t know for how long they’ve been sitting and talking but she feels a sudden sense of bereft that Lexa is leaving. Wringing her fingers around the notebook’s coil binding, she gives a tight smile. With a bashful one returned and hands stuffed into her hoodie’s kangaroo pocket, rocking on the back of her heels, Lexa is the same college girl who nervously asked Clarke out at the doorstep of her studio. No flowers this time, but in the same way, her next unassuming ask catches Clarke off guard.

“I could really use a hug though. Can we maybe ... ?”

Clarke has never wanted so badly to be useful. Eyes glistening, she nods fervently. Then there are arms and sighs and a terribly missed, familiar warmth.

“I just needed to breathe you in,” Lexa whispers, part confession, part conflict.

“I’m sorry,” Clarke repeats, tears welling over, painting wetness against Lexa’s neck where her head lies in the crook of her shoulder. A hand brushes gently through her hair and pushes the back of her head closer.

For a halcyon moment of unbroken hearts, they stand in cafuné and komorebi.

“I’m sorry I yelled.”

“It’s ok.”

“I have some things to figure out and also to make sure Costia is okay,” Lexa tells her, verbalised no louder than the light sounds of fingers tenderly stroking. “Give me time, then we’ll talk again, and I promise I’ll use my indoor voice.”

Clarke laughs. “Ok.”

Lexa pulls back and Clarke immediately misses her warmth. “One final thing,” she says, and by her thickened enunciation, is fighting to contain a measure of emotion. Instinctively reacting to the break of her voice as well as the quiet plea of her glossy gaze, Clarke strokes the apple of her cheek. Her thumb’s gentle movements an advance notice of automatic agreement.

“Anything.”

“Please don’t disappear again.”

“I can do that too.”

Part IV

Clarke doesn’t disappear but she does end up leaving the country, though not permanently and despite Lexa’s mild panic at the news. She returns to Paris because while jumping on a plane to declare love is idealistically romantic, it’s not life practical to abruptly leave behind so many untied strings. And while Lexa has made somewhat of a similar declaration albeit in less direct terms, the uncertainty of next steps after a non-wedding means it’s best for Clarke to give Lexa space in addition to time. Room for head and heart to reorient and realign.

It’s also the only way Clarke knows how to straddle the precarious line between friendship and fondness without asking for more. Loving Lexa from a distance is familiar ground she can tread while they figure out new paths to take, alone and together. Because there is a certain immobility around the stone of what they can or can’t yet be, in the moment, as reluctant as she is to go, it makes sense to move back to the safety of a distant love.

Most critically, couch surfing at Raven’s place has its limits of college sleepover novelty. So, out of kindness to her spine and on the reassurance to Lexa that, “I’ll be back,” Clarke books another open-end ticket. It’s not a goodbye, she tries to impress through the tightness of their airport hug. All the same, Lexa clings on a little longer—hands fisting unconsciously into Clarke’s sides—before braving a smile and wishing her a safe flight. It takes unknown strength to walk away (a second time) from furrowed brows and that pout and those eyes.

“I’ll call you when I land.”

“Please, do.”

Clarke does, and everyday after. Keeping to her word, she remains within reach. They stay in touch, texting at first, and before long, continuing with video calls again. Clarke makes up for her physical absence with an attentive digital presence—her phone is her tether to Lexa. The long distance is not easy, the nine hours between Polis and Paris flattens time like a sheet of paper folded in half. Dinner is breakfast. Dusk and dawn slip by like ships in the night. While one sleeps the other is awake. Clarke measures her days again by the passing hours between grainy yawns and scratchy Hello, Clarkes, waiting for the small window when both of them are available to chat.

This time though the opening doesn’t feel as narrow as before, as it had for years. Sometimes fickle and faint, the communication an imperfect compromise—the pauses long when Lexa’s thoughts become too jumble and the sighs deep when Clarke can’t reach out to smooth her worries—but somehow the makeshift arrangement works. They find a navigable in-between of things said and things unsaid. It all seems manageable. Most days, Clarke does manage. The first several weeks, anyway.

By Fall, pixelated screen caps of Lexa’s face aren’t sufficient anymore. Neither is the infrequent sound of her voice distorted by poor internet connection. How did she ever survive this the first go. She misses Lexa more than ever. More than is bearable.

The City of Lights at the change of season is normally a page out of literary dreams. With the crisper weather, Parisians reclaim the city back from tourists after their rentrée from coastal summer sojourns. The capital hums with activity. Autumn is her favourite time of year for colourful foliage and big scarves, pastries and galleries, and roasted chestnuts and steaming cups of chocolat chaud along the river bank. The Seine is lovely in its preparation for impending stillness, the gardens putting on a last stunning show, the Eiffel ever luminescent. None of it holds a candle to Lexa’s warmth. With the crunch of leaves under one single set of footfall where she aches to hear two, Clarke is lonelier than ever.

At the start of winter and with the change of air, however noble her decision, whatever the initial sensibility behind their separation, being half way across the world no longer makes sense. (Clarke is not sure it ever did.) Being alone on Thanksgiving has never felt so unsparing and sad. A murmuring melancholy overtakes the silence of her flat. More weeks pass and the chest pangs don’t alleviate. In the interim, Lexa hasn’t revealed much about the state of her progress, little indication of where she falls on the timescale of grieving the end of a relationship. Clarke doesn’t push either, but as the calendar pages turn, their mutual passivity is a source of acute longing. An inaction, at least on Clarke’s part, that is untenable for how empty her days feel.

The decision comes at the end of a business trip to London after her appointment with a prospective art buyer. With several hours to spare before her return train at St. Pancras, she wondered the street of the famed Bookseller’s Row some blocks over from the gallery site of her meeting. Idly strolling, it had been an accidental but fateful find encountering Cecil Court’s secret alley of over two dozen old bookshops, all secondhand. All vestiges of texts and linguistic ephemera that made her think of her favourite writer. One particular title caught her eye and determined her fate.

The deal was later sealed while awaiting her train’s platform call seated among other Eurostar travellers, as Clarke stared up into the neon pink of artist Tracey Emin’s textual installation suspended from the station’s Victorian glass roof. A single, scripted sentence.

I want my time with you.

In this cathedral of red brick and iron, under the watchful eye of gilded numerals and gold dials of the station clock, eighteen handwritten letters delicately hang from the vaulted space. Unassuming but profound, they sum up more than eight years of Clarke’s story with Lexa. The pulsating light tubes gave tangible form to what Clarke had held off consideration out of respect for a relationship’s closure. With her earlier paper purchase on her lap giving added weight to the realisation, the glowing aura of the personal pronouns ‘I’ and ‘you’ provided a double underscore for what she needed to do next.

Driven by the same pull that had thrown everything into disarray three months prior, in short order, Clarke closed up her studio, made arrangements for all her work, and officially moved out of her flat. Within a week, she was on a one-way flight out of Charles de Gaulle, and now stands in front of a stumped Lexa.

“Clarke? What are you doing here? I thought you were still in Paris,” Lexa asks baffled on opening the door, as she hovers in the threshold of Anya’s apartment.

“I got you something.”

“What—” Before Lexa can finish, and before Clarke loses nerve, she pulls out two books from the carry-on duffle slung over her shoulder.

“Remember the thing I had in London?” Lexa nods, eyes glued to the books Clarke places in her hand. “On my way back, I came across a bookshop called Tenderbooks.” One of the more contemporary shops of Cecil Court, the green storefront called to her like a beacon.

“Brilliant name,” Lexa softly comments, even as confusion continues to knit her brows together.

“I saw this,” Clarke goes on, pointing to the volume in Lexa’s left hand, Found in Translation, the title Lexa had mentioned before and which she seems to recognise, and then shifting her gaze to the second book in the right hand, she shyly imparts, “and was inspired to do that.”

Found in Love, reads Clarke’s personalised cover which Lexa mouths quietly to herself while her finger traces the illustrative lettering in awe. “You made this?”

The stitching isn’t machine perfect like the original on which it is modelled, but Clarke did her best to hand bind a new cover over the old one of the notebook. She had taken all of Lexa’s untranslatable words and turned them into drawings, using the side notes as visual reference. Feverishly produced during the seven days between her train ride and plane ride, the illustrations layer atop Lexa’s textual elucidations. Words and images wrapping around the other in thoughtful embraces. Careful and Tender. Of desires unspoken and hopes conveyed.

“I want my time with you,” Clarke says as answer, the lingering brightness of Tracey Emin’s text burning in her chest and bathing it in the same pink light that had illuminated the train station that night. It’s an inverse echo of Costia’s dawning acceptance of her expired time. The plain English of Clarke’s words strikes a contrast to the linguistically complicated ones she had drawn, but together, they tie the knot between the inexpressible of what she feels for Lexa and the incredible ordinariness (and clarity) of what she wants with her.

“I ... you ... me ...”

“Yes,” Clarke smiles as Lexa flounders for a response, some calculations behind in making the elusive connection. With reckless honesty, she delivers the grand speech she didn’t get to the first time, “I know you’re still working through things and I will wait as long as it takes but if I could be selfish and impatient for one minute. I don’t want to be friends. Not just friends. It was my worst idea ever. Worse than moving to Paris without you. Didn’t think either of them through. It’s been the worst ever since then. I am so over my head, incredibly and inexorably in love with you, and I was stupid to think that friends is all we should ever be. I want you, in every way.”

Lexa gapes.

Clarke expands, chuckling lightly at her inadvertent impression of a fish, “It’s okay, you don’t have to answer now. No pressure.” Lexa’s eyes widen like Clarke’s speech didn’t just push things well over into the action item column. “Well, a little pressure. When you’re ready, if that’s what you want too, I’ll be here. I’m not going anywhere. Not anymore.”

Pushing forward, with charcoal stained fingers and jetlag courage, she cups Lexa’s face before pressing her lips to a flushed cheek. Presses in a long, lingering kiss at Lexa’s sharp intake of breath. “Merry Christmas, Lexa.”

After taking a step back and tightening the grip of the strap on her shoulder, Clarke retreats down the hallway, departing as unexpected as she arrived. “Nap first. Then apartment hunting,” she informs to a stunned Lexa over her shoulder. The implied meaning locks her best friend in place from following up.

Clarke turns the corner out of sight just as Lexa’s hand comes up to trace the ghost of the smile left on her cheek.

Something clicks after that day.

“What are you thinking about?”

“That there is stardust in your veins.”

“Lexa, you can’t say things like that.”

“Why not?”

“You know why.”

Because she and Lexa are still tentative around each other despite the elephant of feelings between them, because weekend meet-ups at the lookout has become routine since the new year but some wounds still run deep, and because, most crucially, if Lexa continues to say things like that, Clarke can’t hold back from wanting to close the gap on the bench and lace their fingers and connect their lips. Lexa’s casual attractiveness in the disarming combo of white tshirt and dark jeans makes it all the more trying for Clarke to wait until she is ready.

Ever since her whirlwind holiday return, the door opened wider for more of these in-person contacts and loosening of boundaries. They’ve done inconvenient things to Clarke’s dwindling self-restraint.

“In Homeric epic ...” Lexa changes tact, paying no heed to the increased beating of Clarke’s heart.

“Don’t fancy writer-argue with me,” Clarke warns. Teasing. Fights a smile, knowing it’s already a lost battle.

“In Homeric epic,” Lexa continues undeterred, hand waving away Clarke’s amused protest, “winged words are ones that, once uttered, cannot be taken back.”

“So don’t say them.”

Lexa observes her, deliberating the directive. It’s been like this for awhile, where novels are written behind Lexa’s telling gaze but the ink rarely spills forth. Something here is different though, confirmed when Lexa says, decisive, “I don’t want to hold back anymore. I don’t want to take it back.”

“So don’t.”

“There’s always been something unreachable about you that I couldn’t put my finger on. I think I know what it is now.”

“What is it?”

“Stardust.”

“Lexa,” Clarke scolds, no force behind her grumble.

“... in your veins.”

Clarke groans but allows Lexa to pull her in close by the shoulder. Their physical intimacy has reestablished progressively with subsequent outings. The arrival of Spring has been helpful to further their renewed closeness along, less layers between them hampering direct contact, though things remaining vaguely on friendly terms. Except, very little feels friendly about the tactile way Lexa takes Clarke’s bare arm and traces invisible lines up and down, skating around supposedly hidden constellations.

Lexa’s ring is no longer there, Clarke notices, not for the first time. The tan lines which hint at its prior location get fainter each time she looks.

“There’s stored brightness that courses through you. Makes your hair yellow. Causes freckles to surface in summer.”

“Dr Abigail Griffin would tell you that’s just my overproduction of melanin.”

“Nope, your mom doesn’t know what she’s talking about. They should revoke her license. I don’t think that’s it,” Lexa argues, adamant she knows better than a walking medical dictionary. Quirking an eyebrow, Clarke challenges her unique take, amused to see where it’ll go. Considering Lexa’s well-documented obsession with the stars and planetary systems, Clarke expects a thesis on fixed luminous points or diffuse filaments or dark matter to explain the origins of star formations and how they arguably might have slipped under Clarke’s skin. Lexa’s insistence is simpler than that. “There’s no other explanation for why else you run so hot all the time.”

Her whole body, the traitor, heats up like a supernova at the scientifically unsound reasoning. Her cheeks warm in equal betrayal. Yet, it’s a convincing argument if Clarke has ever heard one equating her unusually high core temperature to distributed celestial light. Certainly more poetic to think she’s composed of the same hydrogen as the dust of stars than some other bodily functional, emitting gas.

“Trust me, Lexa. There’s nothing stellar going on here.”

“I do trust you, Clarke,” Lexa says, a double meaning apparent in the gentle squeeze of Clarke’s hand, an undeniable allusion to their rebuilding relationship. Nonetheless, she holds firm, “But you’re wrong,” convinced of Clarke’s special lustre.

As Lexa tests out non-platonic waters and subjects Clarke to needless poetic appraisal, Clarke holds these pithy interactions dearly. They feel like confessionals tucked underneath plays of words and turns of phrases. She does her best to reciprocate the truth-sharing. Not pushing but, fake protests notwithstanding, also not shying away from the advances, despite the goosebumps they invariably invoke. Lexa’s ways are unconventional but they work to inch them towards some sort of resolution for moving forward. With Lexa’s growing smiles and the notebook a steady companion nowadays, it makes her think of words like,

merak (serbian, turkish) - a feeling of bliss and sense of oneness with the universe derived from the simplest of pleasures

and

forelsket (norwegian) - the euphoria associated with falling in love; an intense, intoxicated happiness.

Her infatuation grows tenfold when Lexa bumps their shoulders. Raising a smug eyebrow, she calls attention to the redness of Clarke’s arm where her hand lingers, “See, you’re burning up,” as if she has nothing to do with it. “Admit it, you’re hot, Clarke.”

“Sure, whatever you say, Lex.”

If conceding means more fragments like this with Lexa—between the stilted and the awkward moments as they try to restitch the timeline of an interrupted history—then Clarke contently yields.

More weeks pass.

More late evening chats.

More fragments start to piece themselves together to a larger whole.

“You seem happy,” Clarke remarks one Sunday as she takes note of the late May buds blooming. There’s a telltale change in the air. That sweet musk when trees and foliage conspire to the same fragrant project. When the scent of renewal dangles temptingly within reach and fruits become ripe for the picking.

Perched on the hood of the Cabriolet next to Clarke in a similar laid fashion, back against the windshield, but with her head upturned to the sky instead of the forest, Lexa looks a devastating kind of pretty like the idyllic of a pre-summer day.

“I am,” Lexa concurs.

A set of distracted eyes flicker down to Clarke’s lips. Lexa guiltily looks back up on Clarke’s throat clearing. It’s been months of this cat and mouse game since Clarke’s blustery hallway drop-in. Each month, Lexa gets worse at not looking at Clarke’s lips, and Clarke gets worse at tempering the butterflies the stolen glances elicit. They’ve taken to holding hands as well, by Lexa’s unspoken initiative one day, straddling the romantic line but not quite crossing it. The years and distance haven’t made them physically dissonant, the opposite really. Like their discourse on stars, she keeps finding excuses to touch Clarke in small but consequential ways. Clarke keeps letting her. It only adds to the flurry of activity in Clarke’s stomach and chest.

Struggling against desire, she valiantly sets her want aside to ask, hedging, “Why’s that, figured out a few things?”

“Somewhat. One, Costia recently returned one of my drafts not covered entirely in red. It either means my writing has dramatically improved or she no longer wishes me death by a thousand paper cuts,” Lexa begins to enumerate, “Two, she also says to thank you for the intro to that Portland photographer, Luna. They have a second date. Both seem smitten. So, Cos is going to be okay.” She pauses her list to exhale and smile warmly on the last count, and then muses, “Three, it was a childhood fact, but I can also confidently conclude in adulthood, Anya makes a terrible roommate. I may be in search of a new one soon.” Lexa leaves the hint hanging pregnantly between them before getting to the gist of what’s behind the light in her eyes. “I’m generally sorted. But I still don’t quite know what to do about this persistent, inconvenient stuttering in my chest. It’s gotten more irregular lately.”

Lexa tangles together the fingers of their held hands. Taps out a familiar rhythm against the back of Clarke’s knuckles.

“Maybe I can help with that,” Clarke chances, hope mixing in with metered happiness that Lexa is possibly—and quite literally—signalling her readiness. Their open flirtation recently indicates as much, if not the open warmth of Lexa’s searching eyes. “My mom is a cardio specialist, that practically makes me a heart surgeon by blood.”

At Clarke’s quip, Lexa’s smile widens to reach her eyes, the kind of uninhabited show of contentment that Clarke adores so much and has been seeing more liberally in recent weeks.

“Maybe,” Lexa conjectures, dragging out the first syllable, her gaze returning to its previous target. Where Clarke anticipates further wit and another retreat, Lexa inches closer, which doesn’t seem possible given the smallness of gap between them. Turning on her side to face Clarke fully, Lexa leans forward to whisper apropos of nothing, “I’m ready,” the only pre-flight warning before a set of warm lips meets Clarke’s unready pair.

At the spark of the first touch, it only takes a second to melt into the unexpected kiss. She sinks into the pillow of Lexa’s lips. Folds into the suppleness of time their contact collapses.

The kiss is a kind of retrouvailles, the French word that Clarke has not quite been able to translate to English but it uniquely describes a meeting with someone dear after being away for awhile. A kind of softness of encounter after an extended absence, the joyful feeling of the embrace that follows, the hellos, the touches. To find again. A return. Years of longing compacted into breathless minutes.

It is neither rushed nor too slow, the reunion an adequate tempo to attenuate to deeply missed intimacy. And it is so, so indescribably intimate.

Clarke is close to crying at how amazing the slide of their mouths feel again, how soft yet firm they move against each other, the easy give and take following an indiscernible pattern. Lexa whimpers, asking for entrance with her tongue and Clarke is helpless to accommodate, a moan pulled out of her with a well-timed stroke of her bottom lip. Fingers thread into her hair and tug at the collar of her shirt in gratitude, looking for purchase, seeking to close non-existent space.

Their knowledge of one another means an exactitude in just the perfect amount of pressure, when to apply, when to level off. There’s a unique way Lexa telegraphs intent with the gentle push of her tongue before the gasp-inducing impact of its sweep into the roof of Clarke’s mouth. Clarke’s knees would buckle if she wasn’t already atop a solid surface, one that has somehow become Lexa’s lap where Clarke must’ve rolled over and strong hands are holding her securely by the hips.

They change angles for a draw of needed air but resume without skipping a beat. A kiss years in the remaking, Clarke sinks into each press while Lexa chases every sigh to its last exhale, savouring one another in equal tugs and pulls. The heat of Lexa’s mouth on her radiates all the way down to her toes while the burst of light behind her eyelids give credence to Lexa’s previous supposition of Clarke’s stardust composition. Her body certainly feels like it’s been atomised into a million scattered particles.

All of it leaves Clarke wanting more when Lexa finally pulls back, a shy non-apology on bruised lips. The flush to her cheeks and the mess of her curls steal the remaining breath from Clarke. She has an impulse to dip in again and never ask for it back. If this is the privileged sight to greet her daily, foregoing oxygen seems a fair trade.

Soft fingers tuck an errant strand of hair behind her ear before cupping her face. Clarke leans into the touch. Lexa’s gaze gentles into something hallow. “Hi.”

“Hey.” With what little air is left in her lungs, Clarke barely manages the reply. Lexa laughs, light and airy, at her flat effort at casualness.

“Was that okay?”

Clarke slowly shakes her head, turning into the palm of the hand caressing her cheek, she answers with an imprint of ‘yes’ into the warmth of Lexa’s skin. The grounding gesture finds Lexa leaning forward and brushing their foreheads together.

“I’m kinda, a lot, in love with you,” Lexa whispers, sounding scared but also sure, and repeats, “I’m ready.”

For nothing better to say, “I don’t think you are,” Clarke weakly contests, voice croaking while she licks her very dry lips, and adds with put-upon sobriety, “the kissing could use some practice.” The swooning feeling still swooping its way though her stomach and up her chest cavity tells her how blatant of a lie it is but Lexa plays along anyway.

“Oh yeah?” Her hand feels like hot iron where it has relocated to Clarke’s side, a light up and down brushing tracked to her divided study between Clarke’s eyes and lips.

“Yeah. Points for enthusiasm. Technique is not terrible but may benefit from more years of work.”

Eyes gone unfocused and insides completely liquid, her evaluation really has no leg to stand on. Its wide inaccuracy causes little dent anyway to the ego of the unflappable writer accustomed to her work being parsed and picked apart.

“Noted.”

Whatever blissed-out look Clarke is sporting, contrary to her criticism, must be an invitation for a second kiss because Lexa pulls her down again and reverses their positions to swallow her smile. Amplified by the new weight against her body, this kiss is deeper and even more head spinning in the way Clarke’s entire body vibrates under Lexa’s warm soft exploration. With a productivist ethos, Lexa thoroughly labours to disprove Clarke’s contention. She kisses with the intensity of ten thousand suns and the petalled gentleness of a flower coming into bloom. The third and fourth kisses aren’t so much the meeting of lips as they are rote exercises in Clarke’s total dismantlement.

“Better?”

“Yep, not bad.” Clarke continues the charade, dazed beyond awareness of anything but the shape of Lexa’s mouth and the brilliance of her eyes. Face hovering above Clarke, she looks a ridiculous kind of gorgeous and an unwise kind of enamoured that makes Clarke feel almost undeserving to be the recipient. She swallows tightly and softly speaks two intersecting truths, “Nearly there, but not yet. Maybe one day, practice partner willing, it’ll feel right.”

Lexa observes her, taking in the sincerity swimming in Clarke’s eyes and sifting through to the second, important, meaning underneath her teasing. Her response to their parallel conversation comes in the form of a query.

“Do you want to be mine?”

The question causes an attentive skip of Clarke’s heart. An infinitesimal murmur of recognition. By her phrasing, Lexa is asking a question within a question, for Clarke to be someone more than a kissing apprentice with whom she can learn the trade. To be hers. A yearning so keen cracks open Clarke’s chest, which expands to accommodate the width of Lexa’s fond, expectant smile. There’s no English or foreign word for it, nothing in Lexa’s notebook for this fullness of feeling. Language too imprecise. Yet, Clarke doesn’t need complicated syntax or notional semantics to answer Lexa.

“I do.”

Her second try at these two words mark the surface of a hidden vow, of more tries to come. There is a kind of promise writ large in the gentle curve of her lips she hopes Lexa reads. After so many borrowed words and borrowed cars and borrowed time, Clarke wants to give Lexa something that is wholly hers to have. Untranslatable. An unmuted, permanent love. Of galaxies and stardust.

Reaching up, it is Clarke who initiates this kiss, and presses the promise of many more onto the slope of Lexa’s mouth.

“Me too.”

From something borrowed to someday vowed.

Love, a language.
I spoke to her in French.
She answered me in Forever.