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A Very Victorian Story of Two Girls in Love

Chapter Text

 

 

“Miss Woods?” a familiar female voice called from the door, alerting Lexa to the presence of Annie, one of her uncle's housemaids. “Miss, Mr Collins has arrived, he has been shown to the smoking room until you are ready. It is the time of day when Sir Gustus enjoys a cigar there as well.” Annie said, her tone attempting to convey additional meaning to the seemingly innocent sentence.

 

Lexa allowed a sigh to quietly escape her lips, her face still turned towards the window. She knew Annie meant well, but couldn't help her annoyance. The unsuspecting girl was trying to be helpful, implying that perhaps it would be prudent to not give her uncle a great deal of time alone with her caller – her prospective suitor, Lexa shuddered at the thought – lest he scare the poor man away. If Lexa was being honest, that is exactly what a part of her hoped Uncle Gustus would do. While this Mr. Collins was a considerably gentler soul than her previous suitors seemed to be, she was far from enthusiastic. She tolerated his attention out of necessity. She was vaguely aware of how she would be expected to marry sooner than later.

 

The idea of marriage sickened Lexa, but she had not yet found the correct words to express exactly why. It was not necessarily the idea of marriage that she abhorred, nor even the idea of children. But the idea of being in close proximity to any man for any length of period was so disagreeable to her that she invariably felt her stomach upset with anxiety.

 

Having had the habit of sneaking around the house since she was a small child she once stumbled upon a maid and a footman in the hayloft of the stables, tangled in what to her childish mind at the time appeared to be a wrestling match. Lexa smiled with amusement as she remembered that particular childhood experience, how those few short minutes came to influence her future so intricately.

 

She remembered her confusion and vague knowledge that she had seen something secret, something of which knowledge ought not be shared lightly. She conceived as much from the hushed noises they made, or how they'd freeze for a moment like startled animals, their eyes widening in panic at the smallest noises coming from below. Lexa waited patiently for them to finish their business and leave, all the while staring at them with a disgusted sort of curiosity.

 

“Miss Woods?” The voice jarred Lexa from her musings again and finally she turned around to acknowledge Annie.

 

“Yes, thank you, Annie. I shall be ready momentarily.” Lexa replied in a tone that could not be described as delicate. She felt moody and had little patience for society that day. “I dare say Mr. Collins can survive a few minutes in the company of my Uncle. If he is in any way serious about his design he ought to for if he were to succeed they would be seeing a great deal more of each other.”

 

As the housemaid submissively acknowledged her dismissal and ducked out of the room Lexa slowly stood from the little alcove she enjoyed sitting in. The view to the spacious park of her Uncle's estate was beautiful from that window. 'Hmpf... no doubt a great majority of my...suitors have been more interested in the hopes of claiming that spacious park than in me.' Lexa thought dejectedly.

 

As her hands meticulously went over each of her buttons and her eyes roamed her garments in the mirror to ensure that her attire was as respectable as anyone would expect, revealing nothing and encouraging even less, her mind wandered to her recollections of the past again. How she mulled over her newly gained insight for weeks before she decided that the safest approach would be to glean more information from the very people she had spied upon.

 

Her courage steeled by the memory of how efficient she had been in securing such a pool of information for herself at the tender age of ten, Lexa turned on her heels and marched downstairs. 'Surely if I could blackmail a housemaid into discussing her most private activities with me I can survive yet another dreadfully dull outing with this overly-polite man-child.'

 


 

“Ah, there she is now.” Uncle Gustus said gruffly. His beard barely made it possible to see his lips move, which, whenever he spoke, made him look like a mountain had come alive. He was unusually tall, even for a man and his shoulders were broad. Granted, some of his bulk started turning soft with age, most noticeably around his belly which necessitated more frequent visits to the tailor, but he was still an imposing sight to behold. 'Particularly when someone was unfortunate enough to mention sports around him and was then obliged to listen to him ramble about his chosen sport “the noble old sport of boxing”'. Lexa thought amusedly as she noticed a relieved glint in her caller's eye. That could only mean that Uncle Gustus had once again come off as threatening either by design or a happy coincidence.

 

“Miss Woods!” Mr. Collins greeted enthusiastically. “At your service.” He bowed politely. “As I was just describing the matter to your Uncle, I deeply regret to inform you so late, but if you are agreeable I would like to propose a change of plans.”

 

Lexa's eyes widened almost imperceptibly at the word 'propose' but she managed to school her features. Relief flooded her upon the next words for multiple reasons. 'Oh, does that mean I do not have to go...touring the countryside with you....? Again.' Lexa thought, her inner voice dripping with sarcasm.

 

“And what is your alternate suggestion?” Lexa asked in a measured tone. She chanced a glance at her Uncle to gauge his reaction. Judging from how nervous the usually politely smooth man was she was either going to love or hate the idea. As much as she doted on her uncle, whenever he disapproved of something it was always a toss up between the two for Lexa.

 

“My... my Aunt Abigail has a daughter from her first marriage, Miss Griffin, who I am told arrived last evening and is to stay for a month, visiting. My Aunt obliged me to impress upon you the gratitude she would feel if you were to take her under your wings and show her around society.” Mr. Collins stumbled over his words at first but he swiftly gained back his confidence. It would seem that her mere presence was enough to distract him from her Uncle's often ominous presence.

 

'Ah... babysitting. What a wonderful change of plans.' Lexa thought dryly, fighting to keep her eyes from rolling.

 

“I understand that you have some...experience in introducing younger ladies to society” Mr. Collins pressed on, vaguely aware that the woman he so desired to court did not seem to be as enthusiastic as he hoped she would be.

 

'You could say that... the old hags in the area are constantly jostling and elbowing to get a chance to press their daughters and nieces on me.' Lexa thought with some irk but have not yet said anything. She raised an eyebrow as she gently, almost imperceptibly inclined her head to the right. That was all the encouragement she could muster at that moment. She had no idea why but the very idea of chaperoning pretty young women was both exciting and bothersome at the same time. Or rather, usually in that order. Just as she realized that she got caught up in her own thoughts instead of listening to Mr. Collins ramble something caught her attention.

 

“I'm sorry, come again, please?” Lexa asked, more politely than she had been to anyone all day.

 

“Um, I said that while I am told that my cousin grew up to be a rather unusual woman she at least has the benefit of being approximately your age.” Mr. Collins repeated the essence of what he had been explaining.

 

“I see. Very well. I consent, and will happily make the acquaintance of your Miss Griffin.” Lexa replied in a measured tone that was not at all indicative of the sudden surge of excitement she felt blossoming inside her chest. She found she had so little in common with the young women of her age that were available for companionship in the area that she struggled to balance avoiding them as much as possible and tolerating them for the sake contact with her peers.

 


 

When they were finally securely perched in Mr. Collins' hansom and the horse pulling it settled into a comfortable trot on the flagstones of the pathway leading to main gate of Woodfield Manor, family seat of the Woods for several generations, Lexa noted that the man sitting to her right visibly relaxed.

 

“You seem to be relieved to be out of the house, Mr. Collins.” Lexa teased good-naturedly. Her spirits had significantly improved at the prospect of making the acquaintance of a young woman her age. The description that she was an unusual woman only served to enhance her excitement as the women typically described as usual were dreadfully dull in her opinion. Although it was implied that she was doing a favour in calling on this unknown woman she would consider herself the fortunate one if this mysterious newcomer proved to be an agreeable companion.

 

“Well” Mr. Collins replied, clearing his throat. “I do enjoy the fresh air a great deal more than being stuck inside a house on such a sunny morning.”

 

Lexa levelled him with a knowing look, before turning her gaze back on the road ahead of them. “Yes. I imagine so. And the fact that my Uncle has the habit of threatening young men who show enough interest in me has nothing to do with it?” Her tone remained teasing, already knowing the answer. She chanced a sideways glance and spotted how Mr. Collins' eyes grew wider.

 

“I...of course your Uncle is an impeccable gentleman. He was nothing but obliging.” He stammered in surprise.

 

“Oh, come now, Mr. Collins. There's no need for falsehoods like that. I am perfectly aware of my Uncle's protective nature. I believe the reason why Mr. Edwards so hastily departed last summer was because my Uncle told him that if he so much as looked at me the wrong way he would slit his throat.” Lexa replied with a cheeky grin, knowing full well what effect such words from her mouth would have on the quickly paling man sitting next to her.

 

“Your Uncle seems to be a man of steady habits.” Mr. Collins said politely. “Including his choice of words.” He muttered the last few words which confirmed to Lexa that her Uncle had indeed deemed him a serious enough suitor to threaten him. She decided to put the thought out of her mind for the time being, her mind much to concentrated on her imminent acquaintance with one Miss Griffin.

 




“Mr. Collins.” Lexa said somewhat sharply in surprise. “Am I to understand that you have no idea whatsoever about the character of the lady you are introducing me to?” When she started asking questions in the hopes of gleaning some information that would put her at an advantage she was surprised to hear that Mr. Collins had not so much as laid eyes on the woman for the past ten years.

 

“I am afraid that is the case, Miss Woods. My Aunt relayed to me that Miss Griffin had been sent to a boarding school for talented young women and she had just returned from the continent.” Mr. Collins answered sheepishly. “But from what I remember of our childhood she was an agreeable enough young girl, although a bit headstrong.”

 

Lexa remained silent for the duration of the remaining ride, the slightest hint of apprehension now mixing with her previous elation and excitement. 'Boarding school for talented women? I wonder what her talent might be...and God, I hope her company will be at least a little more agreeable than that of the Fields sisters.'

 


 

“FINN! It's about time you showed your....” Miss Griffin burst into the room unceremoniously, gaily yelling her greetings from afar only to trail abruptly to a halt when she realized that Mr. Collins was not without company. “Oh. Apologies.” She mumbled awkwardly as her feet carried her further into the room.

 

Lexa's eyes widened in a mixture of emotions she had a hard time identifying. Surprise almost bordering on shock certainly, for Miss Griffin, or so she presumed the woman must be, appeared to be dressed from the waist up in proper riding habits but instead of a petticoat she wore riding breeches. But there was also a hint of amusement at the woman's sudden shyness. It was a pleasant contrast to the boldness she displayed upon entry. She could also detect an instant appreciation as well. The light blush that now covered the blonde woman's cheeks made her appear very agreeable to Lexa.

 

“Good morning, Miss...” Clarke said, regaining quite a bit of her boldness and then glanced at Mr. Collins expectantly. She knew that etiquette would have expected her to stay mum until her cousin finally regained his senses and made proper introductions but she had already made a fool of herself anyway. That and she also did not care particularly much about etiquette anyway. The only reason she even pretended to adhere to it somewhat was because she had no way of knowing how much the lovely brunette staring at her with wide green eyes was stickler to it. She vaguely felt surprised at herself for caring so much about the opinion of a stranger but she decided to file that away for now. She would have plenty of time to examine it later if it was even a thing after they have made each other's acquaintance.

 

“Oh. Yes. Apologies.” Mr. Collins said, clearing his throat. “Miss Griffin. Miss Woods.”

 

“Very happy to make your acquaintance” Lexa said, somewhat formally and immediately stuck out her hand for a handshake. She knew that it was not obligatory yet she felt compelled. The way Mr. Collins made the introductions signalled to Lexa that he deemed her to have a higher rank in society, therefore it was her decision to offer a handshake as a gesture of friendliness and goodwill. And as she stared into a pair of incredibly blue eyes she most certainly felt the need to express just that.

 

“Likewise, Miss Woods, likewise.” Clarke could feel herself blushing from the unexpected gesture and she immediately accepted Miss Woods' hand, shaking it gently but earnestly. She felt a sudden spark of despise against society's expectations to wear gloves whenever out in public but it was extinguished almost immediately. Miss Woods' appreciative green eyes made her forget about just about anything else. Although the handshake was, to all outsider accounts, appropriate in length and enthusiasm it left both women more emotionally charged than they could explain.

 

“Miss Griffin” Mr. Collins addressed his cousin courteously. “It has been quite some time. You look lovely. I take it the continent agreed with you?” He asked politely.

 

“Oh, come now, Finn. We are family. You do not need to call me miss anything.” Miss Griffin replied almost instantaneously, lending more force to her opinion with a dramatic roll of of her eye. Lexa had to admit that Miss Griffin indeed seemed to be an unusual woman. 'Her... uniqueness is most certainly a welcome one though.'

 

“It was only polite of me not to assume, Clarke.” Mr. Collins said with much more familiarity and warmth. The blonde huffed by way of reply and concentrated her attention on the brunette who watched their interaction with apparent interest.

 

“My apologies, Miss Woods, if I may seem forward” Miss Griffin addressed Lexa, suddenly itching to secure the woman's company for the foreseeable future “but I was just preparing to ride out. I understand you did not dress appropriately for such an excursion but would you be agreeable to driving around the countryside in a carriage instead?” She asked politely.

 

Lexa had a hard time keeping the smirk off her face as she briefly pondered the fact that the very same proposition would have left her bored out of her wits a few hours ago only to become her greatest desire just now.

 

“I'd be more than agreeable, Miss Griffin” She answered with a smile. If Miss Griffin's toothy grin was any indication, Lexa would have wagered a great deal that her eyes were likely shining playfully despite her best efforts to appear cool and collected. Something in Miss Griffin's dualistic behaviour caught Lexa's interest. One minute she strived to be polite, almost as if seeking approval, and the next she let slip a burst of energy more commonly expected of rowdy school boys than proper ladies. 'And my god, how boring proper ladies were...'

Chapter Text

As Lexa expected, driving around the countryside turned out to be a considerably more entertaining outing now that Miss Griffin was present to give her a fresh perspective on all the greenery she knew much too well.

 

They were now comfortably sat in the back seat of a four wheeler, facing forward. In the absence of a driver, owing to Mrs. Collins' call on one of her close friends, Mr. Collins had been courteous enough to offer to drive the carriage for them. Lexa did not fail to notice a spark of defiance in Miss Griffin's eye upon first suggestion and she almost expected the woman to actually voice her displeasure. However, Miss Griffin's engaging blue eyes transformed almost instantaneously and she bowed in acceptance. For a moment the flash of her icy pale eyes appeared to Lexa as if Miss Griffin was conceding some sort of privilege.

 

Alas, I am quite fond of horses and handling them, for a moment I was loathe to give up the opportunity.” Clarke explained her behaviour somewhat sheepishly. She felt green eyes on her almost constantly as if Miss Woods were analysing her and she felt a great desire to prove herself. To what end she had no notion but she felt it was quite necessary. “But of course Finn's generosity will allow me to indulge in the beauties the area has to offer.” She gave Miss Woods a warm smile, her eyes twinkling, as she explained her sudden change of heart. “And in the mean time we can better acquaint ourselves?”

 

By all means.” Lexa replied without thinking much about it. She was quite taken with the young woman she just met. She was halfway up the carriage steps when she paused, wondering about the blonde woman's words. They seemed so innocent coming from her. Yet, had Mr. Collins said same thing she probably would have taken offence, assuming that he was being impolitely bold and attempting to take to undue liberties with her. 'How odd words are, that they should have so vastly different meaning merely because they had been uttered by different sexes.' The idea that men and women could mean such words in similar ways was quite inconceivable to Lexa, therefore she put the matter wholly out of her mind as she settled comfortably in the plush seat of the carriage. She arranged the many layers and folds of her dress neatly around herself as Miss Griffin sat down beside her, legs comfortably crossed at the knees, taking care to raise the leg that would be facing away from her dress.

 

***

Finn, do you remember that secret place we once snuck off to when we were children?” Clarke asked when they stopped at a place that seemed suitable for a picnic. Childhood memories were flooding her mind and she longed to explore her old haunts. She stole a sideways glance at Miss Woods who was busy unfolding the blanket they had brought with them while she retrieved one of the picnic baskets from the storage space at the back of the carriage.

 

Her cousin had been tending to the horse when Clarke snapped him out of his own thoughts. He gave her a quizzical look as he raked his memories. “Vaguely” Finn said finally, a frown appearing between his eyebrows. “But I believe it is some distance away from here.” He said confidently as he hauled the other basket out of the trunk.

 

'Hmpf... some distance away...it would only be a short walk from the river not far away...' Clarke thought with some amusement, allowing a smirk to form on her lips.

 

I also do not think that Miss Woods is appropriately dressed for such an excursion.” He added with some disapproval in his tone, almost as if he was displeased that his cousin would even bring up that memory. “Assuming that she would even be interested...” The finality of his tone implied that he had put the matter wholly out of question on authority of having known Miss Woods the longest of the two of them.

 

'Oh cousin....you are still an insufferable stickler for propriety I see....' Clarke thought sourly, recalling some less than pleasant memories from their childhood. She followed Finn silently towards Miss Woods whom they found comfortably sat on the blanket, her face turned slightly upwards to enjoy the warm rays of the sun hitting her skin.

 

Oh I do hope the maid packed some of Samuel's delightful cheesecakes, I remember having been so fond of them whenever I visited” Clarke said excitedly as they started unpacking the baskets the kitchen maid had hastily prepared for them upon request.

 

To everyone's delight there were strips of cold roast beef, pieces of lamb, half a roast fowl, half a veal-and-ham pie, some lettuce and cucumbers on the side and even a small lobster. Clarke cringed her nose at the ugly looking red fruit of the sea but a sideways stolen glance in Miss Woods' direction told her that her new acquaintance was of a contrary opinion. She was sure she saw her eyes flash in delight when she saw the beast emerge from the basket. Clarke made sure that she placed it between Miss Woods and Finn, herself not caring much for seafood.

 

Further items were unpacked from stewed fruit to pastry biscuits, a small portion of cold plum pudding, some fresh fruits, various cheeses, breads and rolls, some butter and finally three pieces of cheesecake. Clarke clapped her hands once with enthusiasm and barely suppressed the noise of delight that threatened to spill from her lips. It had been years since she last attended a proper English picnic. The French altogether had very different ideas of a picnic. 'Not that those were bad...just so vastly different.'

 

When Clarke glanced at both of her companions she saw a restrained polite interest in Miss Woods' surveying eyes and a pleased smile spread across her cousins soft features. She had always found it remarkable how soft his jawline was, almost feminine. But what Finn's facial features lacked in angular masculinity he more than made up for with his presence and determination. Or so Clarke remembered from their childhood.

 

Finn was the first to grab the large cutting knife and he proceeded to cut chunky bits of the roast fowl and a piece of the veal pie. He passed over the vegetables altogether and turned his attention to the ridiculous looking red lobster situated at his elbow. After cutting the beast open he scooped a healthy portion of its belly onto his plate. After some hesitation his hand moved in the direction of the sea beast again and Clarke could not help but intervene. Although had she been cross-questioned she could not have immediately explained her reasoning.

 

Cousin, surely you are not going to pass over Samuel's roast beef?” Clarke said, attempting to control the earnestness in her voice as she thrust the plate of beef stripes upon his person. “Here. I was served it yesterday, it is quite wonderful.” When she chanced a glance in Miss Woods' direction she saw the brunette had one of her eyebrows cocked, giving her a silent look before modestly looking away.

 

Clarke suddenly felt embarrassed at her actions and busied herself with her own plate, opting to secure one of the cheesecakes for herself early on. Afterwards, luncheon was a quiet affair. They made some pleasant remarks, praising the Collins' chef for his brilliant cooking skills. When it appeared that eating was drawing to a close the blonde spied that Miss Woods' had not touched her portion of the cheesecake but refrained from commenting, only sparing it a brief longing glance.

 

Miss Griffin, you were so quick to praise the cheesecake, would you like the last piece?” Lexa asked, her voice laced with an innocent tone. “I wanted a taste after your fond recommendation but I dare say I overindulged on the lobster and plum pudding.”

 

Clarke looked at her in surprise for a moment but wrote it off as a happy coincidence and gladly accepted the offering

 

***

“Have we brought any cards with us?” Finn asked after he smoked his obligatory post-meal pipe. He was comfortably stretched along the blanket, his head resting near Miss Woods' ankles but taking care not to impose on her personal space. “We could play a few rounds of Snap if you are agreeable?” He asked, hope clearly written across his features.

 

'Ah, snap...yes, it was one of his favourite pastimes growing up.' Clarke remembered as she rummaged in the picnic basket to see if they were provided for with entertainment. To everyone's pleasure they were and they passed the next few hours playing amicably.



***


When it grew cold enough that Miss Woods was forced to adjust the shawl across her shoulders to fend off the cooling air Clarke was about to suggest perhaps packing up. She turned towards her cousin only to see him glancing in Miss Woods' direction as well and his eyes filled with recognition and compassion. He spoke up before she had the chance, coming to the same conclusion.
'Well...he may have been an oaf at luncheon but at least he is not neglecting his duty to care for his guest in other ways.'



Once they were all seated in the carriage Clarke suggested that Miss Woods might like to wrap the blanket around her shoulders as well, seeing how her shawl would likely not be protection enough against the wind of the carriage. When Miss Woods asked if she would like to share the blanket she politely declined, assuring her that her riding habit was more than well equipped to fend of the chill of the air.



They were well over halfway home when Lexa remembered something and scooted closer on the bench to be able to whisper into Miss Griffin's ear. “Thank you, Miss Griffin, for your kind intervention during luncheon. I am fairly sure Mr. Collins meant no harm but it was very considerate of you to save some of the lobster for me. I was especially grateful that you managed it without embarrassing the poor soul.” Lexa felt quite touched at her new friend's attentiveness and a surge of fondness overcame her.



You are quite welcome, Miss Woods. It was mere chance that I spotted your look of delight when I took it out of the basket and wanted to make sure you were not disappointed. My cousin must have missed your excitement. But you have more than repaid my kindness when you offered me your cheesecake.” Clarke offered Miss Woods an explanation that would excuse her cousin as well.



After their exchange the ride home was a quiet affair and there was not much time for pleasantries for Finn was adamant that he would take Miss Woods home himself after he stopped by the gate to drop Clarke off. Knowing when she was being dismissed Clarke obliged and dismounted the carriage, somewhat saddened by the end of the pleasant outing. Her sullen mood was somewhat alleviated when Miss Woods quickly presented her with a visiting card and impressed upon Clarke her desire for their continued friendship, entreating her to visit quite soon at Woodfield.

Chapter Text

Clarke was in a sour mood the next day when she realized that it was a Sunday. As much as she hated the constraints social norms attempted to impress upon her person, there were some she could simply not avoid adhering to. She may get away with wearing suits on occasion, largely owing to her family's status in society or she might not be looked down on for indulging in hobbies largely considered manly because of her proficiency in certain feminine accomplishments but it was an infallible certainty that even she must observe the norms of paying visits.

It was an unspoken rule among the well-mannered folk of England that Sunday morning calls were strictly for the closest of friends. To visit someone with whom you were not on such intimate terms on a Sunday was, quite simply, not done. What more, it would have been considered rather barbaric. And as taken as she was with Miss Woods she was not presumptuous enough to assume that she fit that category as of yet. Therefore visiting the very next day was wholly out of question.

After ascertaining that her cousin was not available as he was entertaining his own friends Clarke decided that a hearty ride would help set her mind at ease. Almost instantly she thought of the secret hideout place close to where they had their picnic the other day and it was as good as decided. She would rediscover that secret of her childhood and if it was still in good condition she might even venture to show it to her new friend on a summer day.

 


 

Lexa had fared not much better that day. She had woken with a dreadful headache which made her anxious about being good company if Miss Griffin were to visit only to realize that a visit the very next day was quite hopeless. Miss Griffin seemed like she was well-versed in the riddles of society and surely she would not commit such a faux-pas as to visit on a Sunday. ' Although after the various kindnesses she showed yesterday I dare say we shall be fast friends.'

 


Monday



Clarke had risen on Monday with decidedly lighter spirits than on the previous day. As soon as her eyes opened her mouth formed a smile. 'Today I get to see her again.' Lunch was a quiet affair at the Collins', consisting only of Clarke, her aunt and uncle and of course her cousin. Both her uncle and cousin showed marked interest in her years spent in France. Clarke had a right time attempting to avoid trickier questions, for her mother had strictly forbidden her from giving their relations an idea of what exactly she had been studying.

Mrs Griffin was, by temperament, a proud woman and she would not suffer society, nay even her own brother, knowing that her only daughter gallivanted around France, learning anatomy of all things. It was her husband, Mr. Griffin's overindulgence of their daughter's whims that lead to this situation and she was fair powerless to do much against it. Her only consolation was that at least her daughter had not neglected the accomplishments appropriate for her sex either and was remarkably talented at singing and drawing. When Clarke had finally returned from France with her dignity and purity intact Mrs Griffin felt as if she had finally let out the breath she had taken upon her daughter's departure several years ago.

When after lunch Clarke announced that she would be calling on Miss Woods who was gracious enough to not only have presented her with a visiting card but quite earnestly entreated her to visit quite soon she was met with different reactions from each of her relations. Mrs. Collins's eyes shone with excitement, congratulating her on her new acquaintance, while Mr. Collins remained politely unimpressed, not much concerned with the goings on of the fairer side of society. It was Finn's reaction that surprised Clarke somewhat, because her cousin had shown decidedly more interest than he ought to have. His desire to accompany Clarke was, fortuitously, thwarted by Mrs. Collins who chided her son for being overeager. “Finn, please have a care for your poor old mother and refrain from acting like a half-hour gentleman*. You ought to know that calls and half-ceremonious visits by ladies are always conducted alone or very rarely with their daughters. It would look foolish and entirely inappropriate for you to visit at the same time.”

“But mother! They are hardly mere acquaintances. And do I need remind you that I have been courting Miss Woods for nearly half a year? And they had such a wonderful time together last week. I was fairly surprised when I found that Clarke had NOT been visiting yesterday.” Finn countered, honestly astonished at his mother's opinions and old-fashioned habits.

“Well you are quite the oaf, dear cousin, if you are not jesting!” Clarke exclaimed incredulously despite knowing that she had wanted to do exactly as Finn exprected.

“Nonsense! Have you not noted that they are not even on a first name basis yet?” Mrs. Collins continued in the same admonishing tone seemingly unaffected by the abuse her niece subjected her son to “Clearly Miss Woods is very favourable towards Clarke, having invited her most encouragingly, but she is not so improper as to rush into a friendship upon having met someone the first time! What are you thinking...”

It went on like that between mother and son for some minutes until Mr. Collins shifted uncomfortably in his chair and levelled his son with a glance that clearly told him that he should drop the subject. Whether because the bickering had worn down his nerves or because he was silently teaching his son to defer to well-bred women on questions of etiquette Clarke had no idea but she was glad she was afforded the good luck to visit Miss Woods alone.

After lunch she busied herself with her attire and toiletries, keen on making a good second impression. Painfully conscious that she would have to make a good first impression on whatever relations Miss Woods may have if she were in any way hopeful of continuing their friendship she spent a considerably longer time staring at her dresses than she normally would have.

She realized much too late that she had failed to acquire information about Miss Woods' relations from Finn, something that would prove to be impossible now that he had been antagonized and thwarted at lunch. 'Well...Sir Gustus is a well-known fixture in the county so he's a given.' Clarke mused, not at all satisfied. Knowing facts were one thing but Finn could have given her an advantage.

At last she resolved not to despair and made a series of quick decisions. Detesting the idea of giving up her personal comfort and wearing a dress to merely impress her host she turned to trickery. She had a pair of well-tailored trousers fashioned in the Arabic style made of enough billowing material to pass as a dress upon superficial inspection. All she had to remember was not to run about in front of Sir Gustus, for then she would not be able to conceal that the material in fact hugged both of her legs individually. In a compromise, she did, however, decide to leave her cigarette case at home. She was not in the habit of smoking daily so she was sure she could forego another day. This was easy enough to concede for she had not yet smoked in front of Miss Woods either and was not entirely sure if she would approve. And to her constant surprise, she most certainly wanted, nay, almost needed Miss Woods' approval.

It was just after three in the afternoon when she left for Woodfield Manor in a cart. Not too late, for she hoped that she would be asked to stay beyond the politely expected half an hour but not to early either in order to avoid seeming overeager.

 


 

“Alexandra, my darling niece, what has your nerves in such disarray?” Sir Gustus asked with some concern after he noted that his niece had not been able to commit to any of her usual activities for any length of time. She seemed to start one thing only to drop it and start afresh at something else. It broke the tranquillity of the afternoon time they generally spent together.

“Disarray, Uncle Gustus?” Lexa asked back in a distracted manner as she glanced at the grandfather clock in the living room.

“Indeed, dear child. In the last half hour you have started up on the piano, only to abandon mid-sheet, claiming that the small lettering of the sheet was putting a strain on your eye.” Sir Gustus replied with an even tone. “Then you took to singing but after a single song you claimed your throat was in no condition to carry on. Finally you settled on embroidery but claimed that your fingers were too stiff today to carry on.” As he finished enumerating his observations he set his newspaper aside. “So, yes, I ask what has your nerves so rattled? Are we waiting for a guest that you keep glancing at the time?” He finally asked when he caught her glancing in the direction of the clock a third time. His eyes lit with mischief and settled on a knowing look when realization hit him.

'Oh lord, he thinks I'm anxious for Mr. Collins to arrive...' Lexa thought with despair. 'Why...why would he think that?' She finally sighed in defeat, knowing that nothing escaped her uncle's keen and observing eyes.

“Do you remember that I was introduced to Mr. Collins' cousin on Saturday?” She finally asked. Upon her uncle's nod of assent she said “Well, I have taken quite the shine to Miss Griffin, Uncle. I felt a connection with her unlike with most of my peers.” She admitted. “You know how lonely I get at times...” Lexa trailed off, not particularly keen to drag that topic into their current conversation.

Sir Gustus' eyes hardened and darkened as he focused his entire attention on what his niece was saying. The doctors had advised him to pay interest to and encourage her social interactions for she was prone to shut down emotionally which would put her at a decided disadvantage on the marriage market.

“I know, Lexa. I know. Ever since your poor mother...” He started but stopped himself abruptly. He was also advised to broach that particular topic as seldom as possible. “So this Miss Griffin is more agreeable to you? And you have invited her over for tea I presume?” He asked, assessing the bits of information his niece revealed to him.

Lexa noted her uncle's slip in mentioning her mother. She dearly wished to talk about her, learn more about her, learn her through her brother's eyes but as loving as her uncle was, he stalwartly refused to discuss her parents with her.

“Well, I didn't exactly invite her for tea per se. But I did entreat her to visit quite soon. Yesterday being a Sunday was not yet acceptable but I do hope she visits today. I should rather like to show her the lakes on the grounds if the weather permits.” She finally said the thoughts that had been on her mind all day.

Sir Gustus made a noise of approval upon hearing that his niece wanted to spend the day out in the open. That too had been advised by the plethora of medical men he consulted. He spared no cost when it came to the well-being of his only remaining relative.

“Well, my darling niece, I hope for your sake that she was as taken with you as you are with her and will come flying to visit.” Sir Gustus said kindly. “I dare say I fairly approve of her for the sole reason that she inspires you to take more fresh air than you normally do.” His tone turned somewhat admonishing at the end.

Having noted that his attention had a calming effect on Lexa's anxious mood Sir Gustus applied himself to the task and completely abandoned his reading habit. Although he was a bachelor by design and never desired to have a family of his own, he doted on his niece whom he took in without a second thought when his younger sister and her husband met their untimely demise nearly two decades ago. Little Alexandra had only been three at the time and presented quite the challenge to Sir Gustus' household but in his opinion she paid off the price of hardship with her gentle heart and quick wit a hundred times over.

It was close to four when they were jarred from their conversation by the sound of the doorbell. Lexa subtly adjusted herself in her seat, composing herself. Not soon afterwards footsteps could be heard approaching the drawing room and a moment later it opened, revealing Ryder, their footman, who announced that Miss Griffin had come to call on Miss Woods, politely showing the former lady into the room and exiting swiftly to inform the staff that refreshments were necessary.

“Good afternoon, Sir Gustus, Miss Woods.” Clarke said warmly with a brave smile that belied the tumult of anxious butterflies flying up a storm in her stomach.

Chapter Text

“So... my niece tells me that you have been studying abroad in an establishment for talented young women?” Sir Gustus prompted a more serious discussion after tea had been brought in and pleasantries had been exchanged.

 

Lexa spied the smallest of flickers in Miss Griffin's eyelashes as she hurriedly took a sip of her tea, quite possibly to compose herself for an answer. She made a mental note to observe her new acquaintance's facial expressions more closely to ascertain what that flicker meant for in her experience it most often belied confusion or deception. 'Miss Griffin did not seem like the kind prone to deception... I wonder....'

 

“Well, it was not so much an establishment but rather a private tutor” Miss Griffin explained in a composed tone. “My father has a very close friend on the continent who took an interest in my education.”

 

Lexa was aware that she was staring at their guest with an interest that perhaps seemed almost inappropriate but she felt herself inexplicably incapable of tearing her eyes away. 'There it was again. That quick flicker of her lashes when she blinks too rapidly. I must know what is causing it.' Lexa thought. Momentarily distracted, she just barely managed to make use of the short spell of silence and speak up before her uncle did.

 

“Uncle Gustus, do be a dear and ring for Ryder please?* I very much wish to go outside into the fresh air.” Lexa entreated, hopeful that her show of enthusiasm for the fresh air would, if not necessarily distract, but at least persuade her uncle to refrain from cross-questioning Miss Griffin.

 

Uncle Gustus' heavy gaze only settled on Lexa for a moment before he nodded slowly, seemingly making up his mind, and he rang for Ryder. Lexa chanced a glance in Miss Griffin's direction who tactfully pretended to preoccupy herself with buttering a scone while her hosts exchanged words. She noted a strained determination in her eyes as she appeared to be entirely focused on spreading the appropriate amount of butter perfectly over the top of the scone, quite clearly avoiding returning the gaze she would have otherwise seen turned in her direction.

 

“Miss Griffin, I hope a bit of fresh air sounds agreeable to you?” Lexa asked in order to break the silence before it became too uncomfortable. “My uncle is quite adamant that I never get enough of it and I just agreed to indulge his desire today before you called. I would be quite happy if you would accompany me for a short tour around our grounds.” Lexa offered not so subtly highlighting the fact that she wished only the two of them to go.

 

Clarke felt herself relax and she was sure that there were visible signs she could not prevent her hosts from seeing. Her shoulders slumped somewhat as tension suddenly left them and strive as she might she could not help exhale the breath she had been unconsciously holding in. She hoped that she at least managed the latter in a somewhat collected manner.

 

“By all means, Miss Woods.” Clarke replied, politely smiling and nodding. “I have heard about your lovely grounds from my cousin quite a bit.” She felt grateful for the change of topic. In yet another bid to stall for time she gently bit into her previously buttered scone. Adverse as she was to social games she far from inept at them. She knew that she had just allowed her opportunity to steer the conversation to her liking to pass, choosing to put her faith in Miss Woods to come to her rescue again.

 

Lexa acknowledged Miss Griffin's acceptance with an automatic smile that didn't quite reach her eyes which were, to her confusion, fixated on the way the blonde woman's lips gingerly wrapped around the scone for a moment. Dismissing the odd way Miss Griffin's movements seemed to distract her as a symptom of truly needing fresh air she quickly collected herself and stood from the armchair she had been occupying.





Both young women had been infinitely relieved when Sir Gustus declined the necessarily extended invitation to join them on their stroll, although they would later find that their motivations had been entirely different. Lexa knew that her uncle would likely prefer to continue with his reading where he left off seeing how she had kept him from it all afternoon. It was her great fortune that her uncle was such a man of regular habits. She dearly wished to secure a moment of privacy with Miss Griffin for by this time a dread had formed in pit of her stomach regarding what she perceived as possible conceit. She absolutely needed to sort out any falsehood before she allowed any emotional attachment to form with her new acquaintance.

 

Clarke, on her part, was simply relieved that her interrogation by Sir Gustus, as well-meaning as it was, would not continue. She desperately hated lying about her education but it was the one condition on which her mother would allow her to escape her sight.

 

“Miss Griffin” Lexa said eventually, when they had wandered a safe distance away from the house. He tone was somewhat sharp for she marshalled her emotions to a calm collectedness before addressing the problem she assumed was at hand. “Kindly correct me if I am wrong but I perceived a degree of nervousness in your person that I did not see during our previous encounter. Your eyes appeared to have twitched quite nervously when my uncle asked about your time in France.” She stated her case with uncanny precision but attempted to force some degree of warmth into her voice lest she should offend the young woman now staring at her with wide eyes. “I may be entirely wrong and you might perceive me to be quite beastly for being so blunt.” She added almost apologetically. “Or else I might be quite out of bounds to ask for such intimate details about your character but I really must know. Is there some sort of secret in your history that must be concealed?”

 

Clarke had not seen this turn of events coming and she was shocked by the brunette's forwardness. She felt infinitely fortunate when Sir Gustus seemed to have approved of their friendship and anticipated a pleasant walk with the wonderful creature she was growing so fond of. She couldn't decide if the fact that Miss Woods caught onto her telling facial expressions made her admire the woman or be weary of her keen eyes. 'Well... I assume now would be the appropriate time to come clean to her if I expect this friendship to go any further.'

 

Lexa had taken the long minute of silence from Miss Griffin as a sign that she may have taken offence. She contemplated whether she had the right to interrogate this unknown woman standing in front of her. It was certainly not unheard of for people of higher rank to want to make sure that any lady they were allowing into their good graces was of a reputable nature. However, in her desire to avoid another scandal Lexa realized that she may have overstepped. Just as she was about to apologize, however, Miss Griffin spoke up.

 

“There is. Not by my own desire, however.” Clarke said, deciding that bravery and honesty made her character more commendable than pride. “My mother. My mother is ashamed of my education and wishes to keep its details well-hidden from people connected to her family.” Clarke said solemnly. She herself was certainly not ashamed of it and she decided to put on a brave face. If her new friend was to disappoint her by sharing her mother's sentiments it was all the better that she find out about it early in the acquaintanceship.

 

Lexa blinked several times in surprise. It was certainly not the answer she had anticipated. Her wild imagination had conjured images of a dark secret, possibly a wrong done either to or by Miss Griffin that necessitated her departure from the islands. The fact the woman was forced into deceiving her family's acquaintances over something as mundane as education made her blood suddenly boil. 'God, why must you will womankind to suffer the inequalities of our society so...'

 

“My apologies, Miss Griffin. I did not mean to intrude upon your privacy. I have to admit that my imagination ran away with me and I anticipated something horrid must be forcing you to a life of deception.” Lexa said sincerely, gently laying her hand on the other woman's arm.

 

Clarke noted with some interest that the genuine tone of Miss Woods had a calming effect on her incensed mood despite the slight offensiveness of what she was actually revealing. She found herself smiling at the brunette woman and felt the playfulness of it reach her eyes.

 

“Well, Miss Woods. How about we continue our walk and I will tell you all the decidedly boring details of my conundrum... if you promise to tell me the horrid things you had imagined of me.” She said the last words with a toothy grin and she could feel mischief bringing her eyes to life.




 

Clarke couldn't help the incredulous laughter that bubbled from her lips as Miss Woods revealed to her that she fairly imagined her to have committed a very gross indecency. She also noted that Miss Woods had the good grace to at least blush a very flattering shade of red upon her admission. Being the middle of summer the sun still high enough in the sky to provide them with warmth and light and the way the sun's rays danced on the expanse of Miss Woods' cascade of dark hair made for an attractive contrast.

 

“Really, Miss Woods? A pregnancy? And with a married man, no less?” Clarke asked, laughter and disbelief still colouring her voice but there was definitely mirth in it as well.

 

“I did apologise for my unruly imagination, Miss Griffin.” Lexa answered somewhat sheepishly. “I will admit that I may be guilty of overindulging in the romance novels found in my uncle's library.”

 

Clarke's laughter bubbled again for she knew quite well the type of novels her friend seemed to enjoy. The ghastly things were extremely long and the ladies were always in so much extreme trouble it was a wonder any prince could measure up to the challenge of saving their beloved ladies.

 

“My life if certainly not all that exciting, Miss Woods.” Clarke eventually said. “My father is a very kind-hearted man and a great thinker. He is very much ahead of our time and believed that if I enjoyed learning I should be allowed to do it.” She began her story and noted that Miss Woods whole demeanour completely changed. She sat up on the blanket they shared and leaned a little closer, rapt with attention.

 

“I wanted to learn anatomy but my mother would not hear of it. She fretted that me having an education would make me unmarriable.” Clarke said sourly. “Father was supportive of my desires and when Girton college was opened he was open to enrolling me. A proper education in anatomy was of course still impossible but I would have been allowed to take some classes. Mother, however, was all in tears about it. I'm told words were exchanged and the compromise was that I would tell everyone that I've been studying in France under a private tutor. And by everyone I mean my mother included.”

 

The mirth they had shared minutes ago melted under the heavy weight of Clarke's words. She saw how Miss Woods' forest green eyes filled with compassion and empathy. The brunette scooted closer and draped an arm around her shoulder in a show of solidarity.

 

“I am truly sorry, Miss Griffin. I will not pretend to have even the faintest idea of what that must feel like, being forced to keep secrets from your own mother. Not only because I do not remember mine but also because I am quite blessed with uncle Gustus.” Lexa said.

 

“Miss Griffin?” Clarke questioned the use of her name in such a formal way. Her general countenance was still filled with sorrow but there was also a shy smile pulling at her lips. “With your leave, I would consider ourselves past beyond such formalities? Clarke will do.” She offered hopefully.

 

“Only if you will call me Lexa in return.” Lexa said with an answering smile of her own. “And never Alexandra.” She added with a roll of her eyes.

 

“Thank you, Lexa.” Clarke said warmly, raising her hand to squeeze the one on the end of the arm still draped over her shoulders.

 

“Thank you, Clarke. For trusting me despite me coming after you so bluntly.” Lexa said, her fingers tightening around Clarke's in return. It was a good day in Lexa's books for she had made a new friend, one who was not only vastly entertaining but also seemed to be of very sound character.

Chapter Text

The next afternoon found Clarke perched in the alcove of a window looking onto the back garden of her relatives' home. By a lucky coincidence she had glanced out the window just the moment when a break in the otherwise overcast sky allowed a few rays of sunlight to penetrate the heavy rain clouds. A small statue that decorated the back terrace of the house was suddenly bathed in gold which created such an enrapturing sight that Clarke had immediately felt the desire to commit it to memory. She stood transfixed in the alcove, staring at the spectre to memorize the fleeting details before the shifting clouds put an end to the rare vision.

 

Retrieving her sketchbook and pencils she immediately started drawing the outlines, hoping to eventually paint it on canvas. An hour later she was busy attempting to catch the likeness of the glow of the statue in black and white with nothing but a simple charcoal pencil at her disposal. She found that the alcove was the perfect location for such work as the cushioned settee allowed her to sit with her legs bent at the knee to support her sketch pad.

 

She was staring at the piece of paper with intent, her nose hovering close over it, eyes narrowed in concentration. She was so engrossed in the fine details that she failed to notice the approaching servant until the moment she had been addressed. Her name being uttered from such close quarters made her start with alarm and much to her embarrassment a squeak of terror left her lips.

 

“My apologies, Miss, I didn't mean to startle you.” the housemaid said with genuine worry written over her features. She had only recently started at her new situation and it would not look good on her if she startled her Master's family members to death.

 

“That is quite fine...” Clarke trailed off only for a brief second before the servant's name floated to the surface of her memory. “Peggy.” She gave the brunette young woman a small smile to indicate that she had not managed to invoke her ire, she knew the girl bore no ill intentions. She looked at the flustered maid expectantly, assuming that the girl had a reason to address her but she did not want to further embarrass her.

 

Peggy stared at Master Philip's niece with chagrin for a few more seconds before realizing that she had failed to deliver the message entrusted to her. “I'm sorry Miss” she apologised again and felt herself flush an even deeper shade of red “Mr. Stevens bade me to deliver this message to you. It arrived not a minute ago.” She handed over the envelope which now bore a slight dent where she had pressed her fingers too forcefully.

 

Clarke took the note from her but chose not to comment on the damaged envelope. She had no notion as to the reason but the girl seemed to be terrified of her and she did not wish to further agitate the poor creature. She dismissed Peggy with a kind thank you. Before Clarke turned her attention to the message she watched the girl all but run out of the room.

 

It was a curious note. It was a simple sheet of paper with the four corners folded and sealed with a spot of wax that bore a curved 'W' in the middle. Clarke's stomach gave a turn at the sight for she knew immediately that she had no relations or acquaintances with that initial save the Woods'. The mere notion that Sir Gustus would write to her in such a manner was so scandalous that she had dismissed the possibility without really entertaining it. The message could, therefore, only come from Lexa.

 

After cracking the seal open she recognized Lexa's penmanship from the visiting card she had been given upon their first meeting.



                 My Dear Clarke,

                 I had planned on making some calls today but I am rather disinclined to take leave

                 of my bed owing to the fact that I feel weak when I do so. I believe it must be nothing

                 serious for I have gained some strength by resting for an hour but I am so dreadfully

                 bored. If you are not committed to other company would you do me the favour of coming

                 Yours,

                 Lexa



Clarke's facial expressions transformed rapidly with the information absorbed from the letter. A small smile played on her lips upon reading the salutation only to have them curve downwards when she learned that her friend was ill. Her brows immediately knitted together and her mind flashed to their rather long walk in the park with a pang of guilt, wondering if she was responsible for the decline in Lexa's health. Her features then relaxed when she found that the brunette's condition was not serious and she finally settled on her trademark toothy grin when she read the affectionate invitation.

 

Deciding that her sketch was good enough she abandoned her solitary pastime in favour of visiting her friend in need. Spying Stevens down the corridor she enquired about her uncle's whereabouts and was pleased to learn that he was last seen on the terrace by the drawing room enjoying an afternoon cigar. Once she had secured his permission Clarke immediately set out to Woodfield Manor.

 




Clarke was shown to Lexa's room immediately, the servants having been informed that if she were to call it would be on Lexa's specific request. The housemaid knocked on the door and poked her head in to enquire about whether her mistress was inclined to receive her guest. After a muffled answer Clarke could not make out the door swung open indicating that Lexa must have replied in the affirmative.

 

The housemaid stepped inside first as was customary for servants accompanying non-familial callers to their masters and mistresses. The girl had a dirty shade of blonde hair as far as Clarke could tell judging by the cap she had worn as part of her uniform. She stepped inside after her and allowed her eyes to briefly roam around her surroundings before settling on Lexa.

“Lexa, darling, I trust you are feeling better?” She asked by way of greeting.

 

“Oh, much better now that you have come to rescue me from my infinite boredom.” Lexa replied with a smile. She was sitting in bed, covered with numerous layers from what Clarke could tell. “Annie, would you please draw the arm chair closer?” She turned to Annie who had respectfully waited by the door for further instructions.

 

“Yes, Miss.” She replied instantly and hurried across the room.

 

Clarke awkwardly stood by the bed while she waited for the housemaid called Annie to take her leave. She wanted to ask Lexa what symptoms she could detect and offer her services if need be but she had to be conscious of what information she disclosed in front of people. She knew all too well that it would not do well to betray too much knowledge of ailments in front of the servants for that was the surest way to start gossip. Gossip was a luxury she could not afford lest her mother confine her under her unrelenting scrutiny again.

 

During these brief moments Clarke examined Lexa's room and found it to be quite stylish. The walls were covered in a deep shade of green wallpaper that had fine flower prints on it in a green that was one shade lighter. Clarke could barely see the print from a distance and she noted with approval that the design lent the room an airiness that most flower printed rooms she saw lacked. The bed frame and the wall panels were a matching dark brown which pleasantly contrasted with the light colours in the room.

 

“Thank you Annie, that will be all for now.” Lexa's voice jolted Clarke from her musings and she turned her attention back to her friend. “You may bring us tea later. I believe it would be prudent to take tea here today.”

 

“Very well, Miss.” Annie said respectfully and closed the door as she left.



“Do the servants always distress you so much, Clarke? Or were you truly that distracted by my bedroom design?” Lexa asked teasingly, her lips stretched into a toothy grin of her own.

 

“Only when I wish to speak of things that would be inappropriate for their ears.” Clarke responded to the teasing in kind, largely keeping a straight face. The only hint she gave to the other woman was a raised eyebrow.

 

She found that she enjoyed the brunette's forwardness. It was a mere echo of some of her schoolmates' brazen refusal to 'submit to society's expectations' as they called it. They and their circle of friends did so with a gusto and enthusiasm that made Clarke admire them, particularly the ones who went so far as to refuse wearing dresses altogether. Yet she had to admit that Lexa's unrelenting wit and forwardness combined with her decidedly feminine elegance affected her altogether differently. And she found that she quite enjoyed the difference.

 

“And what inappropriate topics had you in mind to broach?” Lexa asked, her face a blank mask. She had half the inclination to narrow her eyes in suspicion but she was unsure if this was not Clarke's humour again. After their outing yesterday she vowed to never be bested again. Once the necessary unpleasantness of their initial interview was over and forgotten Clarke showed that she was quite the verbal sparring partner and had managed to outwit Lexa more often than she was used to.

 

“Your symptoms.” Clarke voluntarily gave herself away with a grin. “I had wanted to ask what symptoms you were experiencing but could not do so without betraying my deeper than usual knowledge of medicine.” She finished in a more serious tone.

 

Lexa beamed momentarily at Clarke's non-verbal admission that her witticism had been caught then she turned thoughtful. “I really could not say to be honest. It is just a headache mostly. Also a slight weakness when I walk about for more than a quarter of an hour. My legs ache quite a bit but I believe that is just their protest at having been rather abused with yesterday's walk we took.”

 

Clarke listened attentively and made a mental note to contrive to lure the brunette out into open more often. If their walk yesterday had taxed her legs that meant that her uncle had been correct in chastising her for not getting enough fresh air and exercise.

 

“Have you experienced a fever at any point? Do you not feel hot now?” She started asking the customary questions.

 

“I do not think I have had a fever but you may check my forehead now if you think it prudent” Lexa replied.

 

Clarke immediately stood from the comfortable armchair and sat on the edge of the large bed. Lexa scooted closer to her, allowing the many covers to slip down as she hoisted herself into an upright position. She was wearing a simple white cotton nightgown with a lacy neckline. Clarke reached out and gently pressed her hand to Lexa's forehead. Her skin was smooth and its temperature pleasant, she could detect neither a warmness nor a coolness to the touch. There was no moisture either.

 

“You do not have a fever which is good. Would you also allow me to measure your.. heart rate?” Clarke enquired, not wishing to invade her friend's privacy. She stumbled over the word, almost saying it in the medical language but then she remembered the many awkward moments when she had to explain to her fellow students what a pulse was.

 

Lexa's eyes grew wide in surprise and she did not answer for a moment. Her left hand reached to the string of her nightgown playing with it as she contemplated the question. “If you think it necessary. I have never had that done to me. How would you do it?” She asked, her voice losing some of its customary confidence.

 

Perceiving her friend's reluctance Clarke willed her face to soften, her gaze transformed from professionally serious to gentle and she smiled reassuringly as had been advised at one of Miss Nightingale's lectures on bedside manners. The brunette's nervous fumbling with the opening of her nightgown led Clarke to understand that her friend's anxiety was brought about by the assumption that she would require her to undress or would need to be touched close to her heart.

 

“I would press my fingers to your neck just below your jaw. Then I would require you to count to sixty silently saying the last number aloud so I should know to stop counting your heart beats.” Clarke explained her usual method the way she would to her schoolmates who had studied other subjects but were willing to allow her to practice on them.

 

Lexa immediately relaxed when she realized that Clarke was not asking her to expose herself in any way. She was unsure why it made her anxious, after all Clarke was a woman as well, but she felt it would have been inappropriate. Despite becoming fast friends Lexa was aware that she had only known the woman for less than a week.

 

“Very well. Let us do it.” Lexa agreed and tipped her head to the side to allow access to her neck.

 

“You do not need to do that.” Clarke said and gently guided Lexa's head back with two of her fingers positioned below her jaw. Her touch was soft and when she pulled away her index finger brushed along Lexa's jaw. Clarke's intention was to sooth the brunette's nerves if they were still rattled in any way. “If you do that it becomes more difficult to do it actually.” Clarke explained clumsily. Lexa nodded in understanding and settled comfortably, her chest rising and falling with the deep calming breaths she took. She could not explain why but her breath nearly hitched when Clarke had directed her into the correct position.

 

“Are you ready?” Clarke asked for permission one last time. When Lexa nodded again, this time more confidently she pressed her fingers just below the brunette's jaw, feeling around for the pulse point. Lexa's skin felt incredibly soft under her fingers. It confused her to some degree that her own heart beat had seemed to speed up when she positioned her fingers. Naturally she had been excited at her first few attempts but the novelty had worn off quite a while ago and she had not felt such excitement any more. 'It is probably Lexa's own excitement spilling into me. After all it is her first time doing this...' Clarke willed her emotions to calm. “Begin.” She instructed and started counting silently herself.

 

Uh...Clarke?” Lexa said at some point, looking sheepishly at the blonde woman.

 

Clarke knitted her eyebrows at the sight wondering if there was a problem. She removed her fingers immediately when Lexa addressed her but her pulse had been steady enough before, therefore, unless the woman possessed a remarkable tolerance for pain, she could not be in any discomfort.

 

Could we begin again? I was slightly distracted by a thought and forgot to count after forty-three.” Lexa admitted and she could feel the tips of her ears burning up in embarrassment. She felt exceptionally foolish about not being able to follow such a simple instruction.

 

The furious blush now colouring the brunette's pale skin was an unmistakeable sign of her embarrassment and Clarke yearned to sooth her nerves. “Of course, Lexa. It is quite fine to get distracted, you are not the first with whom this happened. But your pulse was quite steady and normal.”

 

Clarke sat up straight moving her person father away from Lexa in order to give the woman some personal space. “As you do not exhibit the symptoms of the most common ailments my professional opinion is that you must have taxed yourself yesterday.” Clarke said, choosing the most professional words that came to her mind and schooling her features into a sombre expression. However, her tone, which she laced with humour, deliberately betrayed her.

 

Why thank you, Doctor Clarke. Does that mean I shall live to see another day?” Lexa responded with an overly affected fake gratitude. She struggled to keep a straight face, her eyes were large and rounded shining with the effort to refrain from laughing.

 

I believe so, my dear.” Clarke replied immediately with an equally playful tone. She had been used to such games with her schoolmates. They rather often exhibited such antics when she requested their assistance in practising what she had been taught. “But I shall have to prescribe you a stroll around the gardens for at least an hour, four times a week. You must build up your strength.”

 

Lexa worried at her bottom lip for a few seconds in contemplation of her reply. The witticism had sprung to the tip of her tongue immediately but she checked herself upon realizing that such a request would have implications.

 

Would you do me the service of joining me on those walks, Doctor Clarke?” Lexa asked, deciding that she indeed enjoyed the company of this blonde mystery enough to commit to spending significantly more time with her. “To supervise that I am following the doctor's orders.” She said the last with a cheeky grin.

 

Clarke could not hold onto her laughter and it burst forth from her lips energetically. Lexa followed suit almost immediately and the two girls laughed heartily at their little game for an extended minute before either of them could compose themselves.

 

It is only natural, my dear.” Clarke eventually said happily, understanding that Lexa had extended an indefinite invitation for her to visit.

Chapter Text

The next day Clarke was obliged to accompany her aunt on her calls, although as to the reason why, she had not the faintest idea for her attention immediately faltered when she realized that she would not be able to go to Woodfield. Guessing that it must have something to do with her mother’s wish for her to be finally out and her unsaid expectation of there being a suitor in the near future did nothing to improve her mood. Being twenty years old made her quite unusual for not being out yet, when most of her peers were introduced to society at the age of seventeen but she was, in truth, rather grateful. Such things were of no interest at Girton and her like-minded friends all scoffed at the ridiculousness of the affair altogether. Clarke’s only misfortune was that from May to June she had to suffer her mother’s stifling expectations and incessant woes about her only child growing up to be a spinster. While each year since she became old enough to be out she had promised her mother that she would join her on her calls she had skilfully evaded it, one year going so far as to not even come home for the summer until the season was quite over.

 

It was yet another bid to evade her mother’s control that led her to flee across the country and shelter herself at her aunt and uncle’s house, hoping that her father would intervene on her behalf and not allow her mother to persuade her brother and his wife to aid her. Clarke suspected that words must have been exchanged for she remembered her uncle and aunt to be rather less indulgent than they were currently proving to be but it was not at all clear which of her parents had come out victorious. The considerable liberty with which she was allowed to move about the city suggested that her relations had leaned more towards her father’s opinion on the matter but the very fact that she was this very minute trapped inside a carriage, wearing a dress and making social calls with her aunt had reeked of her mother’s influence. Whenever she thought of these calls her mind conjured the smell of old settled dust and tufts of dried lavender placed in unaired closets the year before. Her nostrils twitched disagreeably as she gazed outside at the passing trees and hills. From a distance she could see Woodfield Manor and her heart longed to fly to her friend rather than trudge along in the opposite direction.

 

Envy coiled in her belly as she thought of her cousin who was, of course, at liberty to visit Lexa any day, having been courting her for some six months now. It was a curious feeling, this envy, and Clarke spent the rest of her journey examining it from various angles. She had always been jealous of Finn to some extent. Him being a man had so many liberties she coveted. He was sent to Eton as all well-bred young men are and he had always been expected to go on to Oxford and make something of himself. He was not obliged to call on anyone he did not desire to see, he did not need to obtain special allowances from his father to move about the city. The only constraint he did have to submit himself to, as far as Clarke could tell, was that his mother would simply not hear of him becoming a bachelor.

 

Upon inquiry her mother had reported that her cousin had grown up to be one of those fashionable dandies who strutted about London throughout the whole season leaving for their clubs the moment their eyes were open, arriving fashionably late to the dance halls from whence they found their way to bed at the early morning hours only to repeat the process the very next day. All this Clarke had envied with a passion, but not as much, she was surprised to find, as she envied him his current company. For she realized that she envied him his liberties on principle. The pleasures of the clubs she was denied altogether simply for being a woman and so were the other pleasures of society unless she were to declare herself available on the marriage market. In which case she would still be weighed down heavily by rules of decorum, never at liberty to dance with whomever she wished to dance with, say whatever she wished to say or ignore whomever she wished to ignore. And yet all of these injustices that sparked her ire appeared to dull in comparison to how much she wished at that very moment to be drawing Lexa’s profile as the brunette read a book in the glorious afternoon sun.

 

“Clarke, dear, are you quite alright?” Her aunt jolted her from her musings. She jumped slightly when she heard her name, being so engrossed in her thoughts that after a while she even forgot to politely hum or agree to keep up the semblance of a conversation.

 

“Yes, Aunt Helen, my apologies. I was distracted by the view from the carriage.” Clarke replied, her cheeks flushing red with guilt and embarrassment.

 

“Look here, child. I know you do not wish to go on these visits with me. But your mother is quite beside herself with worry over you. You mustn’t treat your mother so.” Mrs. Collins childed her niece, although she kept her tone affectionate to take away the sting of her words. “I know how you are. But we must at least keep up appearances. Once or twice a week you shall visit with me.” She said firmly, her previously gentle tone wearing off. “The rest of the week you are at liberty to haunt Woodfield. Assuming Finn will not revolt that is.” She added with a chuckle.

 

Clarke sat in the carriage across from her aunt effectively stunned into silence. Either her aunt had undergone a dramatic change in the many years she had not seen her or her memories of the woman were corrupted by time.

 

“Oh, dear. I seem to have stunned you into silence.” Mrs. Collins said faking alarm for a moment only to smirk at her niece in the very next. “Come now, Clarke. I may be considerably older than you but I am not yet hard of sight or hearing. I can see you are quite taken with our wonderful Miss Woods and she certainly with you. You will be the talk of the city when all the mothers find out that you have not been here more than a week and already befriended the elusive Miss Woods.”

 

“Elusive, you say?” Clarke asked, her mind grabbing onto the odd description.

 

“Oh quite. She rarely visits, and then only a select few. But the balls, oh Clarke, the balls she organizes in her uncle’s manor are spectacular enough that she is the talk of the city nonetheless.” Mrs. Collins said enthusiastically. “There have been many marriages that have come out of her balls in the last few years. Hers as you know, not one of them. Everyone is absolutely on pins and needles to see when she will finally settle on a young man. You may call me biased but my Finn does seem like he might secure her hand eventually.”

 

The burning coil of envy tightened Clarke’s stomach muscles once again and she sat a little straighter, keeping the evidence of her annoyance off her face with some effort. When Clarke failed to reply again Mrs. Collins regarded her shrewdly but did not attempt to engage her in conversation again until they had arrived at their destination.

 


 

Lexa had persuaded Mr. Collins to take her to the city on the pretext of needing new gloves. In fact there was nothing wrong with her old ones but in order to reconcile her desire to follow Clarke’s medical opinion with her desire to keep the memory of their walk in the park untainted she needed to take her prescribed walk somewhere else. The city would do even if showing herself alone in the company of Mr. Collins would have lasting implications as far as society was concerned. The man had been courting her for six months during which time she had gained a sound knowledge of his character. He was a gentle enough soul and seemed to be politely affectionate. He did seem earnest in his intentions yet there was such a strange lack in him that she sometimes wondered, or rather hoped, that he was a flapdoodle.* Regardless, he was a good enough man and Lexa decided that she should be seen about the city with him.

 

He hopped out of the carriage as soon as it stopped and gallantly reached for Lexa’s hand to help her down the steps. Much to her surprise Mr. Collins appeared to be significantly more animated than what she was used to. His eyes sparkled with excitement as he started down the main street, chattering with her about shops he would recommend they visit if she were interested in his opinion.

 

“So Miss Woods, how do you find my cousin?” Mr. Collins asked after exiting a shop he insisted sold the best neckties he had ever had the pleasure of wrapping around his neck. Lexa was quite amused at his expressions. His very speech seems to have come alive.

 

“Oh I am quite taken with her, I should think. What a lovely creature your cousin is.” Lexa replied, not shying away from expressing her affection for the girl with enthusiasm. “I am rather grateful that you have introduced us, Mr. Collins.”

 

“Oh I surmised as much. Seeing how Clarke cannot stop talking about your merits. Also you have seen a great deal more of her since last week than you have of me.” Finn replied with a wry smile. Seeing how it was nearly tea time he guided Lexa towards a pleasant restaurant he knew for a fact took women customers as well.**

 

“What is that?” Lexa responded with surprise. “Is that jealousy I hear, Mr. Collins?” For the time being Lexa chose to ignore his comment about Clarke talking about her so much. She felt flattered but her mind was otherwise engaged.

 

“I do not believe I have much to be jealous of” Mr. Collins deflected the accusation “I was merely making an observation. Has she asked you to sit for her yet?”

 

“She has not. Does she draw then?” Lexa asked, her curiosity piqued.

 

“Oh, does she! She is quite accomplished in that regard.” Mr. Collins launched into a rather enthusiastic description of his cousin’s talents. Apparently Clarke had brought a gift to her aunt and uncle in gratitude for them allowing her this holiday. Prior to departing she had painted her mother’s likeness in oil and the painting. “I dare say it is perfect. I fairly thought that my aunt would crawl right out of the frame by some dark magic she had put on the canvas.”

 

“Well in that case I must absolutely ask her if she will paint my portrait as well.” Lexa said with determination.

 

“I feel envious of any wall that your beauty would grace, Miss Woods. Surely if Clarke’s talented hands were to capture your beauty you would not deny me the pleasure of having the painting?” Mr. Collins said with a bow, almost as if he were asking her to dance. His lips twisted into a coy smile, his eyes shining with laughter.

 

Well, now, Mr. Collins. Is it the city air that does such wonders to your mood? You are quite the entertainer today.” Lexa marvelled at this new side of Mr. Collins she had not seen before.

 



Clarke had endured the dreadful boredom of city gossip mostly about persons unknown to her for the better part of three hours in six households she was obliged to visit. The only times her attention truly perked were when some of her aunt’s acquaintances mentioned Lexa. Her aunt had been correct and nearly all of them looked upon her with wonder when they found out about what fast she and Lexa had become. She smiled politely and answered questions throughout the afternoon, dodging the topic of her education altogether. It was beyond exhausting and she was greatly relieved when her aunt declared that they were to head home for today.

 

“Clarke, my dear. Do you want to stop for a spot of tea?” Mrs. Collins offered as their carriage pull through the busy main street on their way home.

 

“Tea?” Clarke asked absent-mindedly as she turned her attention to her aunt.

 

“Yes, dear. Tea. Common beverage drunk across the kingdom.” Mrs. Collins said in a flat tone, attempting to humor her niece. When all she achieved as a dumbfounded look from her otherwise quick-witted niece Mrs. Collins started chuckling good-naturedly. “Goodness gracious. As talented as you are with your hands Clarke… you certainly do not have much talent in the way of acting. I can see you are quite fed up with today, child. But rest assured, your mother will be pleased when I can report to her that you have been introduced to so many families with eligible sons.” She deliberately emphasized the last words, seemingly taking a perverse pleasure in torturing her niece.

 

Clarke visibly cringed, her mind conjuring a vision of her mother’s elation of something that she herself detested. She was about to change the topic and declare that tea sounded very much to her liking when a chance glance out the window wiped every thought out of her mind. Right there, in front of her, sat Lexa and Finn in the out-door area of a restaurant, apparently deep in some amusing conversation which left them both in fits of laughter. It was only for a few brief seconds that she had seen them, for she could not allow herself the luxury of climbing on her knees to continue staring through the rear window. Yet those seconds were enough for her mind to trouble her with yet another vision. The familiar sound of Lexa’s laughter rang in her ears from the previous day and the painful coil of envy returned to her belly with a vengeance.

 

“I do not care much for tea today, aunt Helen. Would you find it dreadfully dull of me if I wanted to go home? I think I feel a headache coming onto me.” Clarke replied hastily and gingerly touched her fingertips to her temple for good measure.

 

Mrs. Collins merely arched an eyebrow in surprise. She would have thought that Clarke would enjoy eating out but decided that she must either be more exhausted that she expected or she had simply misjudged the girl.

Chapter Text

A gentle breeze caressed Clarke’s sun-warmed cheeks as she and Lexa partook in their almost daily trek towards the lakes. A few strands of her loose blond hair tickled her forehead as they were blown into her face but she was unable to tame them at present. One hand was firmly gripping the handle of the picnic basket she had been adamant to carry herself while the other was currently extended to aid the brunette accompanying her. A tree had recently fallen across the path that led to their destination and while Clarke had no mistaken notion of Lexa’s abilities to overcome such a trifling obstacle on her own she was in good spirits and decided to offer the gesture in good humour. “Miss Woods? I believe the doctor’s orders were taking a light walk rather than overcoming an obstacle course.” She took the task of representing a gentleman with such seriousness that she even bowed with an elegant movement of her neck. Her twinkling eyes and playful smirk acted to counter her efforts and betray her intention to merely entertain.

“Why thank you, Dr. Clarke.” Lexa said, her own lips twisting into a smirk just as readily. She had always been quick to respond to humour and play pretend was the absolute height of a good lark in her opinion. She gently took the offered hand, her fingertips sliding across Clarke’s naked wrist. As the blond’s fingers wrapped around the back of her hand securely she noted with some surprise how soft and warm they were while appearing rather sturdy at the same time. Her mind conjured the memory of the day before when the same soft fingertips caressed along the line of her jaw. Momentarily distracted she had miss stepped and her toe caught on the bark of the fallen tree trunk forcing her to stumble and grip the hand in hers more forcefully.

Clarke reacted without hesitation and dropped the burden from her other hand to cup the elbow of the brunette’s other arm, steadying her with both of her hands. She noted with some worry that the brunette’s gently tanned skin flushed red rather quickly. “Lexa, are you quite alright?” She asked, dropping their game immediately. Her trained eyes moved swiftly across Lexa’s features looking for any of the customary physical signs of weakness.

“Yes, Clarke. I am quite fine, thank you.” Lexa nearly choked on her words with embarrassment. Her mind was subjected to a torrent of confusing thoughts. She felt rather vexed at her present clumsiness which was altogether foreign to her nature; her mind felt sluggish to analyse what had led to her predicament for it was much too caught up in the memory of her prior interactions with Clarke, augmented by the feeling of the hand still firmly clasping her own, its thumb rubbing the back of her hand in small circles. Clarke’s intention was undoubtedly of a soothing nature yet Lexa’s embarrassment was in some part owing to the fact that she could not comprehend why it seemed to have a counter effect.

Clarke had realized that the flush of redness colouring Lexa’s skin was brought on not by a sudden surge of illness but by embarrassment when the poor creature refused to meet her eye. Desirous of alleviating the brunette’s suffering Clarke sprung to action and released her hand while retrieving the abandoned picnic basket. “Shall we carry on then?” She asked gaily, resolving to make no further mention of the affair whatsoever.

 


Their ease of conversation was swiftly regained as they carried on down the path cut into the small forest of the private park. Their play pretend of having a doctor and patient’s relationship was not resumed just yet out of tact. Clarke, however, felt a new protective readiness possess her body. Her muscles felt more readily alive, almost alert of their own accord and while she carried an easily amicable conversation her shoulders were tense with the prospect of pouncing upon the first sign of need. It was certainly uncharted territory to her mind, this protectiveness that surged in her heart for Lexa. While the majority of her attention was successfully employed in entertaining the brunette walking beside her now at her accustomed ease; she did note with an oddly pleasurable sense of irony that the less thought she tried to give her new bodily awareness the more purchase it found in her mind.

“Oh this spot seems particularly delightful just now.” Clarke admired the view, every other thought all but forgotten as her artist’s eye shone with excitement. “Shall we picnic here then?” She asked.

 

“Certainly, if it pleases you so.” Lexa offered with a smile, happiness blossoming inside her at Clarke’s evident enthusiasm.

After the contents of their basket was spread out between them they fell into conversation about their respective previous day.

“How is it that you are not yet out, Clarke?” Lexa asked after Clarke had finished recounting the dull affair of yesterday with such vivid detail that the brunette could not help but feel sympathy for the girl.

“Ah. My mother had desired me to be out for some three or four seasons now but my ability to avoid such a fate improved in direct proportion with her desperation to achieve it.” Clarke answered, her eyes rolling in disgust. “I have the most absolute aversion to marriage market in principle.” She declared.

Lexa felt a new surge of affection for her friend upon their shared distaste of the institution. She smiled indulgently upon encountering the blonde’s confused expression after informing her of it. “Does Finn know of your lacking enthusiasm for becoming a Mrs?” Clarke asked.

Lexa laughed merrily at the odd way Clarke phrased her question, the sound bubbling from deep within her throat. “My distaste for the idea of marriage does not mean that I shall be fortunate enough to avoid it altogether, Clarke.” She replied. “Fortuna has been my close associate so far. My uncle is quite the odd fellow, he both insists I marry and at the same time continues to sprout such terror in my suitors’ hearts that they flee before the situation could get serious. Mr. Collins is in fact the longest lasting one so far.” She admitted thoughtfully.

Clarke felt her body chose that moment to attempt some odd bit of acrobatics wherein her stomach felt to have plummeted at the notion that Lexa would be married despite her lack of desire to do so while at the same time an uplifting warmth spread from her midsection upon realizing that if Finn were to marry Lexa she would at least have the captivating brunette within familial bonds. The simultaneous surge of annoyance at Finn was dutifully prescribed as the product of a friendly sympathy for Lexa.

“Do you like him then?” Clarke asked. She herself was not sure should be able to recount why it interested her so but the desire to find out had overwhelmed her quite suddenly.

Lexa took a good moment to peer into her friend’s blue eyes to assess her motivation. For the briefest of moments her mind was rattled by the unsettling notion of Clarke being Mr. or even Mrs. Collins’ agent in obtaining unwillingly parted assurance of his prospects. Clarke, however, stared right back with a reassuring openness. And yet it was not her trustworthy countenance that eased Lexa’s troubled mind but the thoughtful look in the blonde’s eye and the way her fair eyebrows subtly drew together before releasing a moment later. It gave her friend a surprising appearance of vulnerability, almost as if she were the one obliged to offer information of such a private nature not Lexa.

The brunette busied her hands with moving some dirtied food containers from between them, accurately guessing that Clarke would patiently wait for a response, and moved close enough to be able to lay a hand on top of her friend’s. “I trust that you would not relay my answer to anyone, Clarke?” Lexa voiced her concern in the form of a question.

“I would never!” Clarke said earnestly. She was torn between feeling insulted for even being accused of such betrayal and happy at the prospect of being gifted the brunette’s trust. “I have a rather more selfish motivation for asking if I may be honest myself.” She added in a bid for strengthening their bond of mutual trust. “Just a moment ago there appeared a thought in my mind that if you were to marry my cousin I may at least see a great deal more of you than if you were to marry anyone else that might then drag you away to the farthest corners of the isles. I do so much desire to see more of you. If you will permit me, I have grown quite fond of our friendship. I certainly feel that I should be more content to live under the same roof with a friend such as yourself than any husband I may be forced to procure eventually.” She offered a sheepish smile to accompany her words. The hand that Lexa still had draped over hers felt soft and warm to the touch and somehow made their exchange of secrets that much more intimate. A jolt of unease constricted her chest as her words sunk in and her mind reeled at the possibility that her bid to weave the fabric of their friendship tighter might be rejected.

Lexa felt moved by Clarke’s unexpected and outlandish admission. She felt her lips stretch to give way to one of her rather rare toothy grins and as her eyes filled with mirth she squeezed the blonde’s hand. “Oh what a delightfully rebellious idea, Clarke! Only you can think of such things I’m sure.” She said with bubbling laughter. “I am fairly sure I should like that too but that sounds quite unthinkable!”

Clarke’s chest eased and constricted again at such rapid pace that she had a vague fleeting thought of whether she was developing a heart disease. She was elated at the notion that Lexa seemed to enjoy her company as much as she did hers but was at the same time saddened by the brunette’s view that living together appeared to be so unthinkable to her. She had, after all, friends at Girton who in turn had more friends who did exactly that.

Mistaking Clarke’s lack of answer as a silent request to continue, Lexa finally smiled and answered Clarke’s question. “As for my feelings for Mr. Collins… he seems to be a gentle soul which is certainly admirable. And he appears to be extremely respectful. He never once attempted any liberties with me. It was a surprise at first. I have been so accustomed to men attempting to gain special attention or liberties not permitted to others in a bid to secure their position that at first I wasn’t even sure if Mr. Collins had any intentions with me. I dare say I am quite tempted to choose him for the very reason that he seems unlikely to force… those sort of attentions on me. It is almost as if he was disinterested in it whatsoever.”

 


Their conversation gradually shifted to less personal topics covering a wide range of their interests. Lexa spoke of her fondness of flowers and all manner of plants, her proficiency with the piano and her love of dancing while Clarke talked of her love of art and painting and gave her an enthusiastic account of life at Girton, the gay society life there*, which, in its modernity, is so unlike the social circles Clarke’s mother wishes to force her into.

“Oh Octavia is what you may wish to think of as a bridge between the two worlds. She is thoroughly modern in her thinking, the first to join in on any lark and mischief we are likely to find ourselves in and yet is absolutely settled on marriage and children. I think there might be someone courting her actually.” Clarke answered one of Lexa’s dozens of questions about her friends. The brunette seemed to be genuinely interested in meeting them which gave hope to Clarke that when her month’s vacation came to end she might persuade Lexa to visit her in return. She was fairly sure that if she worded the letter to her mother right the older woman would be quite delighted to receive the socially fashionable woman in her home.

Lexa shifted her position somewhat to be able to better look at Clarke. While hands were withdrawn as the discussion of intimate secrets drew to a close they remained seated quite close to one another. The brunette turned to fully face Clarke rather than turning only her head in her direction and she pulled both of her legs up to sit cross-legged on the blanket. Being in her own home afforded her the great luxuries of not being forced to wear either gloves or a crinoline beneath her dress which was a source of utmost pleasure to her. Based on Clarke’s descriptions she herself thought quite in a modern way about such things and she much preferred simple dresses that allowed her a considerably freer range of movement.

“Clarke” Lexa said suddenly after a short spell of comfortable silence. “Could I… sit for you? Would you be interested in painting me?” Lexa asked. Mr. Collins’ vividly enthusiastic description of her talents had not quite left Lexa’s mind since the day before and she was keen to have her portrait painted. If Mr. Collins had not exaggerated his cousin’s talents Lexa thought it would be the perfect Christmas gift for her uncle.

Clarke’s eyes rounded in delighted surprise and she answered Lexa’s question with such an eager nodding as Lexa had seldom seen before. The very essence of a toothy grin lit up the blonde’s face as she retrieved a pencil and a small sketchpad with sheets of paper attached to it. “Can I sketch you now? I need to make many sketches of your face if I am to perfectly capture your likeness in paint.” Clarke declared and not waiting for an answer she mirrored Lexa’s cross-legged posture. “You may want to settle into a comfortable position. And I apologize in advance, I am rather dull company when I sketch, it takes up quite a lot of my attention.”

The next half an hour were spent in comfortable silence. Lexa moved to lie on her side with head propped on her elbow, her attention directed upon the smooth surface of the lake. It was not long before her mind succumbed to slumber, her nerves soothed by the still warm rays of the sun and the faint noises of wildlife that mingled with the hypnotic scratching sounds Clarke’s pencil produced against the paper.

Clarke admired the regal features of her friend as she stared at her face with appraising eyes. When she noted that Lexa had fallen asleep she quickly finished her first sketch from memory and started a new one, drawing her general outline first before moving onto the finer details. She found herself staring at the brunette’s lips to capture every crease and curve of her full bottom lip, justifying the deviation from her usual method of starting with the eyes with the fact that she needed sharp pencils to draw so fine a lines and she currently had no means to sharpen her pencils. ‘She is also asleep and her eyes are closed to this world…’

The blonde was more than content to fiddle with shading and detailing as her friend peacefully slumbered and she was not surprised that she had awoken before she had declared her sketch completed.

“Have I fallen asleep?” Lexa asked as she sat up.

“Only for a short while. But I am grateful for it has allowed me to study your features. How do you like it?” She asked shyly as she turned her sketchpad in Lexa’s direction to allow the brunette to assess her first attempt.

“My god, Clarke” Lexa gasped as she laid eyes on the drawing. “This is…absolutely stunning.” She said as she stared at the almost perfect likeness in wonder. Her jaw slackened as she continued taking in all of the fine details Clarke managed to capture. The hairs of her eyebrows, her eyelashes the barely visible lines across her lip all seemed as if Clarke had spent minutes studying them. The notion that Clarke has such intimate knowledge of the smallest details of her face overwhelmed Lexa for a moment but as her mind processed it her heart finally settled on a warm and pleased feeling.

“This drawing…Clarke, it is magnificent. But surely you have drawn me far more beautiful than I am.” She said, not quite believing her eyes.

Oh come, now, Lexa” Clarke replied in a teasing tone, not sure what to make of that remark. “It is true that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, but I truly have just drawn what I saw. If it is anything beautiful that is entirely your contribution.” She said with a warm smile, happy to see her friend so pleased with her drawing.

Chapter Text

“Lexa!” Clarke started. Her attempt to restrain her enthusiasm to a socially acceptable level forced her to lower her tone to barely above a whisper, a mode of communication so inapt to convey her meaning that it left her fair choking on her own words.

She was seated in the drawing room with her family, politely partaking in the daily routine of receiving visitors as was earnestly requested by aunt Helen. Clarke had been easy to oblige for she had secured Lexa’s promise to visit the day before, thus her familial obligations were of no great chagrin to her.

As was customary among the well-bred class of England, visitors filed in and out of drawing rooms in an orchestrated choreography. No social visit was more than half an hour long, thus providing other callers a reasonable estimation of when it was acceptable to arrive. As the socially acceptable period for callers was drawing to a close it was no surprise that the otherwise constant stream of callers dwindled, providing the members of the Collins family to pursue their personal pastimes as they waited for latecomers. Aunt Helen was sat comfortably in an armchair with a novel she had been reading while the men of the house were currently poised in front of the window discussing some matter or another. Clarke herself had not been listening, her attention entirely captivated by the sketch she had been working on when Lexa’s arrival brought them all together again.

“Miss Woods” Finn greeted his intended with a warm smile. “Please, have a seat.” He politely ushered the brunette towards the settee he had occupied for the better part of the day, knowing that it was far more comfortable than any of the other available furniture. It was covered in a dark green plush material, the stuffing made soft with an ample supply of goose feathers and its backrest masterfully crafted to follow  the natural inclination of the human body.

“I trust your journey was comfortable?” He asked as he sat himself on one of the straight backed chairs nearest.

“Oh, quite. William could be spared to drive me and you know how apt he is with horses. I could have sworn I was gliding across the sky rather than travelling the dirt roads of the countryside.” Lexa answered amicably. “Mr. and Mrs. Collins, I do apologize for my lateness. My uncle had such an influx of callers today he couldn’t afford to spare me at all.” The brunette said apologetically as she turned her attention to her hosts. Mr. Collins sat regally in his favourite armchair, tactfully positioned near the table where Mrs Collins was sat with her book so as their visitors would not be obliged to keep turning their heads to address them.

“Think nothing of it, Miss Woods” He politely rejected the apology. “Is Sir Gustus faring well?” 

‘Quite. You know my uncle, Mr. Collins. Always has been a bit of a recluse. But he has made such valiant effort this year, for the ball…” 

“Ball..?” Clarke suddenly chimed in, her eyes snapping away from her sketchpad. She had taken the opportunity of having her model so readily available and started a new drawing of her perched on the settee. 

“Have I not mentioned it yet?” Lexa asked with a bewildered frown. “I was fairly sure I have already secured your attendance. Well. There is a ball in a fortnight at my Uncle’s estate. And I do hope that despite my beastly negligence you will come?” Lexa entreated her friend. She could scarce imagine the affair without the golden haired woman there to grant an additional shine to the room.

Clarke hesitated for only a moment. Her lack of being out has so far afforded her the luxury of escaping the ordeal of dancing with a throng of men who would inevitably feel compelled to perform their manly duties to ensure that every woman had been taken on the dance floor at least once. Despite her disinclination to part with said luxury she felt compelled by the earnestness she found in her friend’s forest green eyes. “Certainly.” She relented with a smile. Her silence had not forced Lexa to endure the uncertainty for more than a mere few seconds yet the relief that seemed to radiate from her countenance caught Clarke off guard. Their eyes were locked on one another and Clarke felt an inexplicable tension build within her chest, as words she had yet to think of jostled to spill from her lips. She felt  compelled to say more and diffuse the tension which felt far too intimate to be exposed to the curious eyes of their present company.
“I have made quite a few more sketches of you” She said after only a few seconds of the tense silence that she felt to have stretched far longer. “Would you care to see?” 

“A few!” Finn’s merry voice penetrated the very air that had thickened to surround them in their own safe haven. Clarke felt it such an unexpected intrusion that her spine went rigid with shock for a moment before she willed her body to relax. “Clarke has done nothing else in the last two days.” Finn said. “And she is mighty protective of them too. She has been quite beastly and would not allow me to own a single one.” He complained in mock-annoyance. 

“Do not be obtuse, Finn. You have already wrangled a promise out of me. I shall gift to you any one that you like after I have finished her portrait.” Clarke chided her cousin good-naturedly. His enthusiasm for her art flattered her immensely, a truth anyone would have been hard pressed to press her to admit.

Lexa listened to the amicable quarrel between the cousins with interest. It had been over a week since she had been acquainted with Clarke and she had grown accustomed to the blonde woman’s queer antics but Mr. Collins was an entirely different matter altogether. He was always so warm and polite in her company, never obtrusive, never assuming. On occasion it drove Lexa to fury for the man seemed to have no salt about his personality… and yet that very statement appeared to be contested whenever he was in Clarke’s presence. While even now he maintained the composure of the ever impeccably perfect gentleman there was a glow in his eyes, a newfound sort of edge to his person that he kept well hidden when his cousin was not there to tease it out of him with her very presence. 

“I do not blame you, Mr. Collins, for your ardent desire to own my likeness on paper. Clarke is quite talented. And I would of course be happy to see your sketches. When do you think you shall be ready to start painting me?” She inquired.

“Oh quite soon I imagine. Perhaps as early as tomorrow if the weather permits.” Clarke offered, her eyes shining with excitement at the prospect of capturing her friend’s beauty on canvas.

 


 

The morrow was generous to Clarke’s endeavour. She gasped at the sheer beauty of the morning light as it enveloped everything in a glorious light in the room her uncle had provided as a studio. The high windows allowed ample light to penetrate the room and Clarke set about arranging the room trying her easel in various locations. 
Excitement propelled her out of bed the moment her eyes opened and she had not even bothered to dress herself. Dressed in naught but her nightgown she moved about the room with determination. Finding the perfect angle without her model being present proved to be more guesswork than anything else and Clarke was quickly growing restless.

“OH!” A sudden squeak drew her attention to entrance of the room where Lexa stood seemingly transfixed. Her left hand had not let go of the handle even as her right sprang to cover her mouth in surprise. Her generously round doe eyes grew comically wide and Clarke had to suppress her laughter at the sight.

“I…uh…Clarke. You. You’re not dressed. I apologize.” Lexa stammered, flustered at the idea of having intruded on the blonde’s privacy. She was ready to back out of the room and return at a more suitable hour when she was stopped by her friend’s voice.

“Nonsense, Lexa. I am in my nightgown. It is not as if I were in my underthings. Besides, I have seen you in yours, remember? It is only fair that you should see me in mine.” Clarke said with a playful smirk. She moved closer to the brunette who stood stock-still in the doorway. When she reached her Clarke took hold of Lexa’s hand that was still gripping the door handle as if she were afraid she would drown without its reassuring sturdiness anchoring her. She pulled the brunette into the room and shut the door behind her. 

“But that was…different. I was in bed, indisposed. And you… you are in your studio! What if you soil it with your paints? What if someone comes in?” Lexa rambled. It made no sense to her at present but she was keenly aware of Clarke’s close proximity to her. Her eyes chanced a glance in Clarke’s direction. The nightgown was a conservative one and covered the blonde’s body from the very base of her neck right down to her ankles and yet Lexa flushed at the sight. It was a form fitting piece that allowed her to see that mother nature had been more generous to Clarke with respect to her bosom than she had with herself.

“Lex, I apologize if I have made you feel uncomfortable.” Clarke apologized, a pang of guilt suddenly gripping her heart at the sight of her friends flushed countenance. Her friends at Girton made no particular fuss about seeing each other in various states of undress, particularly those in pursuit of medical education like herself. She chastised herself for having failed to consider that her friend might be too modest for such easy openness at such an early stage in their friendship.

“I do admit to enjoying tinkering with my paints just after having woken up. I was so excited to start painting you today that I could not be bothered to dress myself properly. But I shall go and change. Please, feel free to inspect my sketches while I do so, I shan’t be long.” Clarke offered with a smile then slipped out of the room to quickly make her way back to her bedroom.

 


 

After some negotiation and much testing of light and angles Clarke and Lexa had come to an agreement about the position Lexa was to remain in. She had more or less reclined on a leather settee in a half-sitting position, her head angled in a way that still allowed Clarke to see both of her eyes but also gave the brunette a very flattering prominence to her jawline. It was one of the compromises they had eventually settled on. 

Clarke, having seen Lexa in various attires, suggested that she wear one of her more elegant dresses with a more generous neckline. She entreated Lexa with flattery, her artist’s eye keen to expose and capture all of Lexa’s charms, and she was quite adamant that the brunette’s collarbones were a worthy subject of art. Yet however flattered Lexa felt at Clarke’s earnest appeal, modesty forced her to decline. The painting was, after all, intended to be a Christmas gift to her uncle and Lexa flushed pink at the notion of gifting him such a revealing painting. It would not only be immodest but also extremely inappropriate. 

“Fine.” Clarke sighed with exasperation. “Be that way then. But if I cannot have your collarbones I must insist on your jawline. It will absolutely make the painting a masterpiece if I can capture your sharp angles.” Clarke said in a tone that implied that she would absolutely not back down this time.

Lexa stared at the blonde for what felt like an eternity before she nodded in consent. She moved her head as requested, moving in slow motion until Clarke instructed her to stop. This was an altogether new side to Clarke that she found…intriguing? Clarke appeared to see her in a way that was entirely invisible to her when she looked at herself in the mirror. The force of her… animation for lack of better word quite frankly captivated Lexa. It was as if Clarke became a whole new person when she donned her artist attire. Gone was the politely teasing young woman who joked lightly and conveyed her meaning with subtle gestures and looks. This Clarke was a whirlwind of determination and demand. Her presence pulsed of an energy that allowed for no doubt that she owned the studio even as her eyes shifted from her to the canvas perched on the easel. Lexa’s thoughts were thus occupied for want of anything to do as Clarke painted when she was suddenly pulled from her musings.

“Lexa.” Clarke repeated the brunette’s name to grab her attention.

“I’m sorry, I was… lost in thought. Yes?” Lexa blinked slowly in order to bring her wandering mind back to the present.

“I was wondering if you would permit me to touch your hair. I would like to get a sense of its texture and the way it falls.” Clarke said, her face hidden behind the canvas. She could hear that her voice was casually nonchalant but she did not trust her countenance. She had not a single notion as to why her own question had such an effect on her. The closest emotion she could identify was an unfamiliar sense of embarrassment as if she were asking for something she ought not to. Yet when she examined her words objectively the very notion was ridiculous. She had helped her friends master their unruly curls in braids nearly every night. 

“Oh, of course.” Lexa consented with ease. She was not even sure why her friend bothered to ask so formally particularly after her previous display of self-confidence. ‘It’s not as if she were a man…’ Lexa thought as she sought to decipher the enigma that was her friend. ‘My friend inside this studio to be exact. I think have her fairly pegged outside of it.’

When Clarke felt confident that her countenance had resumed its accustomed hue she stepped away from her canvas and made her way behind Lexa from where she supposed she could gain the least restricted access to the brunette’s cascade of hair. She lowered herself on one knee as she inspected the partially braided mane of wavy locks flowing down Lexa’s back and shoulders. She raised first one hand to gently stroke the locks, rubbing them between her fingers to get a feel for the texture, knowing that it would help her visualize it in her mind’s eye and then transfer it through her hands to the canvas. 

Her friend’s apparent ease with the situation helped Clarke relax some of the inexplicable tension she felt building inside of her and her exploration grew bolder. “I’m sorry if this tickles.” She warned her friend as she allowed her hand to explore the way her hair fell and shifted, her fingers moving closer to her scalp where she knew most people were likely to be sensitive. 

Lexa was surprised as the sigh that escaped her lips when she felt fingers explore the soft baby hairs along the nape of her neck. Their housemaids, and Annie in particularly, often braided her hair so she thought she had a fair idea of what to expect but Clarke’s hands were infinitely more gentle than she was prepared for. The gentle touch sent a shiver down her spine which in turn made her body tense up. She felt the hand immediately withdraw from her hair which she acknowledged with a pang of disappointment.

“I’m sorry, Lexa, have I made you uncomfortable?” She heard the voice from rather close behind her.

“No.” Was all Lexa could muster at the moment.

“Your shoulders tensed when I touched your neck.” Clarke clarified the reason of her inquiry. “I… assumed that you may be accustomed to other women touching your hair seeing how it is always braided so intricately.” 

“Oh I am quite accustomed, yes. But Annie has rather rough hands, I was merely surprised by the gentleness of your touch.” Lexa found her voice. “I am not in the least uncomfortable. You may resume if you wish.” She said rather eagerly. It was an unfamiliar sensation but not at all unpleasant. A warm sense of pleasure bloomed in the wake of Clarke’s resuming touch but it was discontinued rather abruptly. 

“Your shoulders are quite tense, Lexa. Are you sure you are not in any discomfort? Your muscles should not be put under so much strain. Are you in pain?” Clarke asked, the artist in her giving way to the medical student.

“I am…” Lexa faltered, looking for the right words. “…in some pain. But it is nothing I am not accustomed to. This position I am sitting in often leaves my shoulders tense after I have been reading all day.” She explained why she thought not a whole lot about the familiar ache in her shoulders. It had been there even before Clarke’s gentle touches surprised her. It never really went away if she were honest but it felt like such a trivial matter she never bothered to mention it to anyone.

“Well.” Clarke said in all seriousness. “I dare say that is rather unhealthy, Lexa. I am quite practised in providing relief to such muscle strain. Can I help ease that pain for you?” She inquired without a hint of playfulness.

“Yes, please.” Lexa said immediately. By now she knew the blonde’s ‘Dr. Clarke-voice’ and her suggestions seemed generally sound. Expecting some form of a massage she was not surprised when she felt both of Clarke’s hands rest on her shoulders. She had thought to seek out assistance once or twice but Mrs. Beetons’* quite specifically mentioned that such remedies were better left to professionals so when Clarke offered she happy to accepted. 

When Clarke started gently squeezing the skin and muscles of her shoulders a surprised gasp of pleasure escaped her lips, closely followed by another one which she attempted to stifle. “I’m sorry.”

“No need, Lexa. That is quite the normal reaction.” Clarke reassured the woman. They had been taught not to be surprised when people made the most surprising or even on occasion vulgar sounds. It was the body’s natural reaction to pain relief and they were advised never to make patients feel embarrassment because of it. It was, in fact, a sign that they were employing the learned techniques well.

As the brunette’s muscles yielded to her touch it became easier to mould it and Clarke used her thumbs to apply pressure to the lumpy areas on either side of Lexa’s spine. The involuntary groan that escaped Lexa’s lips left Clarke’s cheeks heated. Her friends and the patients they practised on certainly never made that much noise. She was happy to be concealed outside of the brunette’s line of vision for she felt a twinge of professional embarrassment at having had such an unprofessional reaction to something Lexa could not help. “We are taught that when a patient makes such a noise that is praise of a job well done.” She attempted to encourage both herself and Lexa with her words.

“I concur with your professors, Dr. Clarke.” Lexa replied in a breathy tone. “My shoulders certainly have never felt quite so relieved.” She praised her friend as her voice broke into yet another groan of pleasure when Clarke found a particularly tense spot. Clarke continued her ministrations for another few minutes until she felt that the muscles beneath her fingers were pliable. 

“Are you feeling better?” She asked as she withdrew her hands. Before she could stand she found herself staring into the forest green eyes of her friend who had twisted around on the couch, abandoning her position.

“Yes, Dr. Clarke. Infinitely better. I am quite in your debt.” She said. Her tone was genuinely grateful for the service Clarke had provided but she couldn’t help the playful smirk pulling at her lips either.

Chapter Text

When Peggy showed Lexa to Clarke’s studio the brunette was not surprised that her friend was already deeply absorbed in her work. Upon Clarke’s request she had come earlier than usual to take advantage of the early afternoon sunlight. As Lexa approached after thanking and dismissing the housemaid she noted that Clarke’s face was quite fresh. The skin beneath her eyes showed none of the customary puffiness of the morning hours, leading the brunette to conclude that her friend must have awoken at an obscenely early hour and had been busy with her art for hours. Lexa smirked at the sight in front of her. She had not had much opportunity to actually see Clarke at work owing to the fact that the blonde was generally hidden by the canvas. The unrestricted access her eyes now had to her friend’s unguarded features made the moment precious to Lexa. Clarke’s clear blue eyes were squinted in concentration as she carefully raised the brush in her hand, it’s tip yet to touch the canvas. Lexa felt the muscles in her cheeks move of their own accord and her lips stretched into a grin as she watched Clarke poke the tip of her tongue out in concentration. She was not at all sure why the sight intrigued her but a by now familiar warmness spread through her as she silently acknowledged that her friend was adorable in her state of perfect focus.

Lexa waited until the brush was again a safe distance away from the canvas before she made her presence known lest she scare her friend at an inopportune moment. “Good morning, Clarke.” She said gently. Clarke’s startled gasp was soothed with a warm smile, Lexa feeling gratified that her precautions had not been in vain. 

“Oh, Lexa, you startled me.” Clarke said with a huff as she set her palette aside. “Good morning.”

“Can I see your progress?” Lexa asked politely. The blonde’s so far consistent refusal had left her curiosity unsated and yearning.

“Oh it is nowhere near worth seeing yet. I have only been fiddling with the background while you were not available.” Clarke replied, a shyness uncharacteristic of her person colouring her cheeks rosy. Although the denial had not been unexpected it left a hollow sadness in Lexa’s chest. With each session she yearned to see herself through her friend’s eyes more.

“If your sketches are any indication, my dear, I am fairly certain that that is not true.” Lexa offered in reply even as she retreated from the easel, accepting her friend’s refusal with a grace that belied her internal eagerness. She took her place on the settee without instruction, taking up more or less the correction position with only minimal requests coming from Clarke. 

They had spent the better part of an hour in silence, Lexa absorbed in her thoughts almost as much as her friend was in her art. “You did not seem particularly keen at the idea of a ball the other day.” She eventually said. It was not a question, Lexa needed no confirmation regarding that particular observation.

“Hmm...” Clarke replied, not yet willing to break her concentration, particularly when the topic of the conversation to be had had so little appeal. While Clarke loved dancing as a form of movement she was not at all keen to partake in it socially because of the constraints most balls presented. Or so she had been told. She had meant to broach the topic with Lexa at one point but had not yet found the most opportune moment.

“Any particular reason why?” Lexa pressed on. Neither woman were in want of stubbornness and the brunette secretly relished the moments when Clarke made her chase after her. An excited tension swelled in her chest each time and she eagerly set to the task to find out what her friend wished not to give up.

Clarke was silent for long enough that Lexa began to wonder if she had lost her friend’s attention. She had grown accustomed to it during their first couple of sessions. The first time it happened Lexa worried that she may have upset Clarke, although the matter itself was so trivial she could not recall it any more. When she asked the blonde about it she laid her palette on the little table by the easel and sat next to her to explain how frequent this was likely to be and that the brunette should never take it personally. At the time Clarke’s consideration of her feelings warmed her heart. In the present the memory made her smirk and roll her eyes at how profoundly true Clarke had been to her words.
 
“I…have not been to a proper ball before…” Clarke eventually answered, jolting Lexa from her daydream. “…out side of Girton, I mean. The idea of…dancing with men seems rather unappealing.” She confided in Lexa.

Lexa’s eyebrows shot upwards in surprise. She had not expected her friend to have any experience in the ballroom considering her valiant efforts to avoid being out. It was a revelation in itself but what truly intrigued Lexa was what her friend’s words conveyed through omission. 

“Well how else would you dance then?” She asked, genuinely curious. She herself was not particularly keen on dancing with men but what was a woman to do when a dance required one to lead and another to follow?

“Um…” Clarke hummed, distracted by the way a ray of sunlight lit Lexa’s cheek and gave prominence to her jawline. Her eyes rapidly moving back and forth between the vision in front of her and the replica she was attempting to perfect, Clarke nearly forgot to answer. “We dance with each other. I mean there are the occasional men but not very often.” She replied absent-mindedly. 

“Ah, so you mostly dance group dances?” Lexa’s eyes filled with understanding.

“We do, occasionally. But also the waltz, the polka…” Clarke replied, oblivious to the growing confusion her words stirred. She was so engrossed in the details of Lexa’s skin tone on the canvas that she failed to take note of the moment’s lull in their conversation.

“The waltz without a man to lead?” Lexa finally asked.

The question brought Clarke out of her musings and she angled her head to look at her friend from behind the canvas. Her eyes connected with Lexa’s who was still lounging on the settee but her face turned towards Clarke entirely.

“Yes.” Clarke replied simply. “I can follow decently if the occasion calls for it but I much prefer to lead.” She awarded Lexa her full attention this time, wondering if her friend would take this particular peculiarity of hers in stride much the same way she had with her other oddities.

“Show me.” Lexa said without a moment’s hesitation. The very idea came to her as a shock. Should it have been suggested by anyone else, the brunette was sure she would have been scandalized but the idea of Clarke…leading her…Clarke leading her in suit? Or a dress? The words were out of her mouth before she could second guess their wisdom.

Clarke could hear herself swallow as her brain processed the request. An excitement overcame her, one she could not have likened any of her past experiences to. She regularly danced not only with most of her classmates, but with a significant portion of their acquaintances as well, having earned a bit of notoriety at Girton for having an exceptionally good ear for music. Naturally her smile was more genuine when women of talent asked her and there were favourites whose mere eye contact was enough to spur her to action. And yet not even the most talented of her regulars sparked quite so much eagerness in her. For eagerness it was, Clarke realized as she approached Lexa who was still casually sitting on the settee. 

“Now? Without music?” Clarke asked to clarify even as she dutifully held a hand out to Lexa. Her voice was barely above a whisper, almost as if she were afraid to break whatever magic had allowed these events to unfold.

Lexa stared up at Clarke in wonder for a brief moment. Her friend appeared cool and collected as she approached, her hips moving with a sway they had hitherto not possessed or Lexa had overlooked. When their eyes reconnected Lexa noted that Clarke’s had darkened significantly. They were not the clear sky blue she was accustomed to but rather a darker blue and as she approached she noted that the woman’s pupils had mostly swallowed her irises.

Clarke felt herself caught in Lexa’s stare, doe eyes larger and rounder than usual. The brunette’s lips parted as if she was going to speak but no sound left her throat as their fingers slipped past each other as they grasped the other’s hand.

Clarke regained her composure as she felt the familiar weight of a hand on top of hers, poised to lead her dance partner to the floor. The floor which would have to be the open space of her makeshift studio for this occasion.

As she stopped them at a suitable place she straightened her back and took up the appropriate position. The majority of her weight was transferred to her right leg and she raised her left hand to request Lexa’s approach. When the brunette took hold of her outstretched hand she bent her right arm at the elbow and gently circled it around Lexa’s back until the palm of her hand rested just under the brunette’s left shoulder blade.

“Do you prefer to dance the slow waltz or the original from Vienna?” Clarke remembered to clarify at the last moment.

“I can dance both. Whichever you are more comfortable with.” Lexa replied far more confidently than she truly felt. Her senses were overwhelmed as Clarke expertly moved her into position. Upon her answer she felt the blonde adjust her weight and with the smallest tension applied to her right arm she pulled Lexa closer to her. ‘Viennese it is then.’
Clarke started humming the tune of a classic waltz from the start of the century to set the mood in the silent studio and before long started moving. She started with basic steps to determine how accomplished her friend may be and was elated when the brunette followed with ease and confidence.

When Lexa followed the more complicated steps with something akin to perfection Clarke’s eyes sparkled with anticipation and excitement, her lips twisting into a happy grin. They swayed perfectly to the music inside Clarke’s mind and the blonde started peppering the traditional steps with artistic decoration. She dipped their bodies more, angling for faster momentum, trusting that Lexa’s back muscles were flexible enough when she guided her into various poses that required Lexa to lean backwards.

Clarke noted when the brunette’s posture got heavier so when they had reached their starting position a third time Clarke slowly halted them, not wishing to overtax her friend. Lexa’s slightly heavier than usual breathing indicated that Clarke’s judgment had been sound.

They stared at each other in wonder, still locked in place in their embrace that neither was ready to dissolve. Clarke’s palm moved lower on Lexa’s back to a more comfortable position while Lexa’s left arm was draped along her right, her hand holding onto the ball of her shoulder.

“That was…” Lexa attempted to voice the thoughts whirling in her head but words failed her. “I have never been lead quite like that before.” She finally said as she regained control over her breath. She broke eye contact with Clarke for a moment to compose her erratic thoughts and her gaze landed on the birthmark just above her friend’s lip. ‘Have I noticed her having a mark above her lip before? And why does it seem so interesting?’ Her nostrils flared as she took another deep breath before closing her eyes to steady herself.

“Have I been too demanding? You appear a little flushed.” Clarke asked, concerned at the way Lexa closed her eyes as she leaned more into her embrace. Clarke internally berated herself for not taking care. If her friend could be taxed with regular walks she should have expected that such vigorous dancing would fatigue her even more. She flexed her arms around the brunette, pulling her into a secure half-embrace to support her if need be.

When Lexa opened her eyes crystal blue orbs filled with worry were staring back at her, gaze moving haphazardly as if in search of something. It was then that the blonde’s words caught up to Lexa.

“Oh, not at all Clarke” the brunette replied happily. “Not at all. I quite enjoyed this dance. But you certainly have ruined me for anyone else.” 

“Ruined you?” Clarke asked, confusion evident on her features.

“Quite. The very notion of dancing with anyone less accomplished sounds atrocious.” Lexa replied earnestly. “The way you directed my movements…” She said, her voice  hushed in wonder. “I felt as if I had sprung from your side… as if my body was the very extension of yours. You never gave me occasion to wonder, your movements just flowed into mine, it all felt so…natural.” 

Clarke felt humbled by her friend’s high opinion of her skills all the more because she felt much the same way about her. 

“If that is to be ruined then I am afraid I share your fate, dearest.” Clarke said in return, her eyes never leaving the brunette’s. “I have been blessed with a number of accomplished dance partners in the past but none have followed as gracefully as yourself. I just wish I could offer my hand to accompany you to a dance when music is available.” She said almost sadly.

Lexa furrowed her eyebrows in confusion. “And why can you not? Ask me to dance during the ball.”

“The ball? But won’t the people be scandalized?” Clarke asked in shock, momentarily alarmed at her friend’s boldness. She had been advised by some of her friends that regular country balls quite expressly forbid members of the same sex to dance with one another.

“By two women dancing when men are far more keen on standing about with their cigars and watching rather than joining in?” Lexa answered with a question of her own, her tone betraying her amusement at the blonde’s hesitance. Her friend’s transition between alluring confidence and pure naivety endeared her to Lexa. Clarke could be passionate and reckless with little regard to social conventions in one moment only to crumble into hesitance in the next.

Although her thoughts had been similar just a few short minutes ago the experience of dancing with Clarke had quite turned her opinion on the subject. Why should she submit herself to the vile necessity of dancing with untalented and far too commanding men when here was Clarke whose gentle touch lead her across the dance floor with more determination and ease than any before her.

“As I said, I have never been to a ball before…” Clarke said quietly. It had not escaped her notice that neither of them had let go of the other yet. Clarke felt comfortable in their embrace although it left a trail of confusion behind. Her memory was assaulted with imagines from some of the balls they had organized at Girton. She had one friend, Raven, whose friends often embraced one another long after their dance had ended. It made her wonder if they had felt same surge of affection or if they embraced for such a long time because of the intensity of their dances.

“And it gives me great pleasure that mine shall be your first. I would offer to make you the guest of honor…” Lexa trailed off, her nose twitching in displeasure at the thought. “However, I do not think you would enjoy the attention.”

“Would it require me to dance with everyone who had such intentions?” Clarke asked. 

“I’m afraid so.”

“In that case, I should feel greatly in your debt if you would spare me from such a fate.” Clarke said solemnly before she allowed a playful grin to dissolve her facade of seriousness. “I will attend your ball, Lexa, and I shall not shame you by being terrible company to the men present but know that you shall be the only one with whom I’d be truly happy to dance.”

“And I with you.” Lexa replied with a gentle smile as she stepped out of their embrace.

Chapter Text

The weather being exceptionally agreeable and knowing how earnest Clarke is with regard to her health, Lexa had chosen to walk the distance between her uncle’s mansion and the Collins’ estate. Her walk had been an uneventful and solitary affair over dirt roads stretching between fields and forests. The distance proved a comfortable trek for Lexa’s improving strength and she had found herself within view of the tallest chimneys of the familiar house within half an hour. She idly twirled the wild flower she had stooped down to pick between her fingers as she waited for the footman to answer the door. 

“Miss Woods, welcome! I trust your journey was pleasant?” The footman whose name Lexa believed was perhaps Charles ushered her inside amiably. After her third visit during which she spent the whole day at the Collins’, although mostly confined to Clarke’s studio, Lexa noted that the servants must have been instructed to treat her as an intimate of the family. The footman relieved her of her parasol as well as her bonnet, neither of which were customarily done during even semi-ceremonious visits.

As Mr. Collins had yet to make his intentions official there had been little reason for Lexa to have transitioned to unceremonious visits to the Collins’. Naturally she had visited with them as society permitted and expected but each visit was confined to twenty to thirty minutes at most, during which she was obliged to keep her bonnet and gloves on. When the footman first asked if he may take her travelling accessories to be freshened up Lexa paused a moment to allow the new development in their relations to sink in.

“Oh! Has there been an accident, Miss Woods?” Charles asked unexpectedly, jarring Lexa from her thoughts. She was halfway through unbuttoning her whit kid gloves when the footman drew her attention to him. His eyes were comically wide and as Lexa followed the direction of his gaze, he appeared to be staring at Lexa’s boots, which were, unsurprisingly covered in a noticeable sheen of dust. ‘Oh, dear boy, surely you are not going to make a fuss over my boots?’ Lexa thought with amusement.

“An accident?” Lexa decided to pretend not to understand. 

“Why, your shoes Miss Woods! Them as dirty with dust as they are! Have you had to walk a distance? Has your carriage run into trouble? Shall I fetch some stable hands to rush out and help the coachman?” Charles asked, overeager to help. ‘Hm. I wonder if perhaps the underbutler has made arrangements to look for a new situation. This one seems very eager to make an impression.’ Lexa mused not unkindly. She had known from her own interactions with her uncle’s servants that elbowing for a better position could be quite the spectacle among a certain class of servants.

“Nothing of the sort has happened, Charles.” Lexa said with an amused smile. Her eyes had not failed to take note of the gentle blush of joy that spread from his ears towards his neck upon hearing her utter his name. There was no doubt in Lexa’s mind that the young servant had considered it high praise that she had learnt his name, more than likely assuming that he had earned her attention with good service rendered. “The weather was agreeable enough that I had decided to walk the distance, that is all. Shall we?” Lexa gestured towards the interior of the house, indicating to the footman that she rather wished to be lead to the studio.

When Charles gave a short bow from the neck and gestured for her to step in front of him Lexa’s eyes widened imperceptibly. It was customary, nay, expected of servants to lead visitors to their hosts unless the visitor be a close family member or an exceptionally intimate friend of the family. Lexa allowed her thoughts to wander as her feet carried her towards the studio. She had known Clarke for a little over a fortnight. ‘Unless Mr. Collins was making arrangements to ask for my hand…Clarke must have quite a close bond with her relatives for them to accommodate her friendships so.’ 

“That will be all, Charles, thank you.” Lexa dismissed the footman as she arrived at the studio.

After Charles had departed Lexa knocked softly, not wishing to startle the artist who was likely at work. That her knock had not produced an invitation did not surprise Lexa. ‘Clarke must be awfully concentrated on the perfect curve of a lock of hair.’ She jested good-naturedly as she opened the door and poked her head in, eyes searching for a crown of wheat blonde hair she expected to see busy by the easel. When none was to be found Lexa’s brows furrowed in confusion. She slowly started to withdraw, intent on closing the studio door and searching for her friend elsewhere when her eye caught hold a sight she had absolutely not expected.

Clarke lay curled up on the settee Lexa generally occupied. Brow still set in a thoroughly confused manner, Lexa tipped her head to the side as she stepped inside. As she walked closer she found her steps becoming increasingly urgent as the slithering tendrils of worry gripped at her chest, wondering if her friend was feeling well. 

Lexa knelt down by the settee and raised one of her hands intent on attempting to shake life into her friend when Clarke smiled in her sleep. ‘Oh bloody hell! She’s only sleeping!’ Lexa groaned internally, silently thanking God that her friend was not suffering from any ailment. Relief flooded her and her chest was suddenly released from the compression of worry. She took a deep breath and allowed it to flush the remainder of the accumulated stress through her nostrils before she gently put a hand on Clarke’s shoulder.

“Clarke, dearest, wake up.” Lexa said softly so as not to startle her friend. When her words produced no visible result other than the broadening of the blonde’s smile Lexa gently shook Clarke’s shoulder. On her third attempt Lexa impulsively moved her hand up and gently caressed her friend’s bright blonde hair, smoothing the fallen locks out of her face in the process. “Clarke… can you hear me? Wake up?” Lexa tried again, her lips pulled into a grin that increased by the minute. ‘God, she’s a sound sleeper. I wonder… if I should just douse her in water…’ The impish thought left Lexa giggling to herself. She would never truly consider doing such a disservice to her friend but the mental image of the spluttering blonde gasping in shock was certainly hilarious.

The fact that there was, in fact, a glass of water by the settee left from their session the previous day sorely tempted the brunette. But at last she was spared from expending more effort to resist the temptation when Clarke finally opened her eyes. Lexa immediately withdrew the hand she kept stroking Clarke’s hair with and smiled at the sleep-addled blonde. 

Clarke had slowly transitioned from sleep back to the land of the living, guided by the pleasant feeling of her hair being stroked. A vague sense of longing enveloped her as the face of her beloved governess swam before her eyes, her having been the last person to have caressed her hair so. Clarke truly woke up from her sleep when the long-ago seen face of Miss Emily transformed into the very familiar features of Lexa. Her eyes snapped open and she was surprised that the brunette was indeed not more than a foot from her, smiling down gently at her. 

“Lexa?” She croaked out, confused, voice still gravelly from sleep. 

“Good morning, sleepy.” Lexa said, her eyes twinkling playfully. “Have you been painting since the crack of dawn?” 

Clarke felt a blush steadily creep up her neck as she thought about her previous night. She had laid restless in her bed, unable to fall asleep. She had eventually given up on sleep and soon found herself in her studio, intent on finishing up the background by candle light. 

“I…uh…I couldn’t sleep. I came in here around three o’clock in the morning to finish up the background. I must have fallen asleep at some point. What is the time?” Clarke asked, somewhat more awake and increasingly aware of her surroundings.

“I came very early as you asked. It is but eleven o’clock of the morning.” Lexa offered, amused at her friend’s antics. ‘Painting in the dead of the night… this girl truly has the peculiar habits of an artist.’

Clarke sat up and started moving her head in a circular fashion to ease the tension in her neck and shoulders, induced by her awkward sleeping arrangement. “Lovely. Shall we get started then?” She asked with a smile. As she put both of her hands on her knees, intent on standing up she realized her less than decent attire.  She had not bothered to dress last night, assuming that she would be painting for an hour or so and then go back to bed, she merely threw a painting apron over her nightgown.

“Oh. Uh. Nightgown again. My apologies, Lexa. Would you like me to go change before we begin?” Clarke asked sheepishly, a blush flaring from her neck again.

Lexa chuckled at her friend. She was slowly getting used to her quirks and upon examining her feelings she found that she did not feel quite as embarrassed about seeing Clarke in a nightgown as she had the first time. “Not to worry, Clarke. As you have pointed out in the past, it is but a nightgown. And I have seen you in it before. I believe my sensibilities are not threatened.” She said playfully while her lips twisted into a smirk.

Clarke offered a grateful look in return for she had not had the least inclination to waste the beautiful light they were blessed with by going back to her room to dress properly. She finally stood and as she walked over to her easel she stretched, but the pain was still rather pronounced in her shoulders and neck. She attempted to ease her discomfort with a few inefficient rubbing motions but her hands were ill-equipped to do so upon her own person. 

Lexa noticed both attempts Clarke made to relieve what she presumed was quite a bit of discomfort. She could only imagine the state her own body would be in if she had slept unnaturally curled up on such a small settee. ‘A child of ten could barely sleep comfortably on this thing let alone a grown woman…’

“Clarke… would you… um, could you…” Lexa stumbled over her words, wondering how to phrase her question politely. “You seem to be in quite a bit of discomfort. I know I am not a professional but I was wondering if you would teach me how to give a massage? I would very much like to return the favour if you are agreeable?” She finally asked, internally cringing at her own clumsy and awkwardly formal phrasing.

Clarke blinked slowly, surprised by the question. She was moved by how much Lexa cared but at the same time amused that she thought giving a massage was anything extraordinary that would have to be done by a professional. ‘What’d she say she learnt that from? Mrs Beeton’s? God knows I was wise to never pick up mother’s copy if it advises this sort of nonsense.’

She smiled kindly at the obviously nervous brunette who now occupied the settee, sitting on the edge and looking very much eager to help. “Thank you, Lexa. That is very kind of you. Are you sure you want to?” Clarke asked, giving her friend the opportunity to withdraw her offer even as she approached the settee again.

“Absolutely.” Lexa answered with a smile of her own and she patted the spot next to her. “Teach me, Dr. Clarke.” 

Laughter bubbled from Clarke’s lips. “It is not that difficult to conceive, dear. You don’t necessarily need to be a doctor to give shoulder massages.” She grinned at the brunette as she sat down next to her. “Was not your Mrs. Beeton referring to sever cases when limbs needed to be brought back to normal functioning after extended periods of bed rest?” That was the only only scenario Clarke could conceive of where the administration was better left to a health professional.

“Perhaps.” Lexa admitted, her eyes squinting at her friend. “I hadn’t paid attention to what was written in there all that religiously. Mrs. Beeton’s was a favourite of one of my governesses, she liked to read to me from it.” Lexa said, her expression as unreadable as she could manage. She felt vaguely mortified at Clarke having laughed at her but she did not want to make the situation more awkward by showing how the notion of appearing foolish in front of the blonde had upset her.

“Well either way it is kind of you to offer.” Clarke said, her tone attempting to pacify the brunette when she picked up on the her moody reply. “Just start gently at first with the tip of your fingers and as you feel my muscles yielding you can start using your palm as well.” She instructed as she sat with her back to Lexa. She pulled all of her hair over one shoulder to provide the brunette better access to the painful area.

Lexa’s temper was soothed by Clarke’s apparent eagerness. She put both hands on Clarke’s shoulders and began to gently rub with her fingers as instructed but soon found herself annoyed that the apron’s neck strap was in her way. “Clarke… can I remove your apron? It is in the way.” 

“Oh…of course, I’m sorry, I didn’t think about that.” Clarke responded.

“Thank you.” Lexa said as she untied the knot at the base of Clarke’s neck and let the offending straps fall into her friend’s lap. She turned her attention back to Clarke’s shoulders but was soon surprised when the material of her nightgown slowly began to slip past her fingers and more and more skin was revealed.

“Is this okay?” Clarke asked, revealing that she had been the culprit behind the suddenly stripped expanse of skin. “I thought I would loosen the gown a bit. You will find your task is easier as your fingers will not be quite as slippery on my skin as they are on fabric.” 

Although she knew Clarke could not see, Lexa smiled in acknowledgment of her friend’s explanation and set to work again. ‘Well, she was certainly right. And my God, her skin is so smooth… I wonder if she has a specific beauty regime…’

Lexa found that her ministrations were rather meditative in nature and she soon found that her mind had let go of the initial anxiety she had. Her hands moved across Clarke’s muscles with more confidence, aided by the soft grunts of pleasure coming from her. Lexa had raised an eyebrow when the first pleased sigh left Clarke’s lips a few minutes after she had started only to remember how Clarke encouraged her when their roles were reversed. ‘She did say that I should not be embarrassed by whatever sound she drew from me…’

“Try a circular motion with your thumbs on both sides of my spine as you press down” Clarke coached Lexa. As she expected the brunette had started out somewhat clumsily but she had caught on more swiftly than Clarke anticipated. Her eyes were closed and she melted into Lexa’s touch, finding that she had to swallow heavily each time she attempted to speak.

When Lexa followed her instruction perfectly Clarke could not keep a hiss from slipping past her lips. To her dismay the brunette’s hand stilled on her shoulders just as the attention she received had turned pleasurable. 

“Are you feeling well, Clarke? Did I hurt you?” Lexa asked, her voice concerned.

“God, no. You were doing wonderfully, Lexa.” Clarke said, her voice somewhat breathy. “If you are not too tired yet, can you continue a little more? You just found a particularly sore spot.” Clarke’s voice was almost pleading. She let out a breath she had not been aware she had been holding in when she felt Lexa’s fingers press down on her shoulders again.

Encouraged by Clarke’s obvious approval Lexa continued, her hands moving more boldly across Clarke’s exposed back and shoulders. She moved her thumbs in a circular motion, noting how Clarke’s skin had heated up from the friction. She moved farther away from the blonde’s spine and just as she realized that she could feel a lump her friend gasped loudly. “Ah! Right there. That spot.” Clarke groaned more in pain than in pleasure but the fact that she pressed further into Lexa’s hands indicated that she did not wish for her to stop.

“Do you want me to do anything differently?” Lexa asked as she started rubbing the lump her thumb had found more gently.

“Well, I can show you a technique if you are inter..” Her question was cut off when Lexa replied in the affirmative mid-sentence. “Very well. Give me your right hand.” When Lexa reached around her and offered her hand palm up, Clarke gently took hold of it and raised her own hand to guide the brunette’s arm under hers, pulling it upwards, over her chest and finally pressing her palm flush against her collarbone. 

Lexa felt the  urge to swallow heavily as her hand was pressed into Clarke’s shoulder from the front. Her skin was soft even as her collarbone felt hard against her palm. An unfamiliar warmth spread in Lexa’s belly as she waited to understand what it was that Clarke wanted her to do. Clarke adjusted her arm until it was snuggled beneath her armpit. Lexa felt herself blush as she realized the softness she felt was in fact the side of Clarke’s breast pressed against her wrist. ‘God, Lexa, stop behaving like an immature child.’ Lexa silently chastised herself.

 “This position will allow you to produce more pressure with your fingers.” Clarke explained, unaware of the torrent of thoughts and feelings her innocent actions have provoked. “Now start the same circular motions on that spot with your other hand, gently at first.” 

Lexa, distracted as she was, did as instructed and found her efforts were soon evaluated positively if the soft whimpers coming from Clarke were to be taken as such. Pride blossomed in her chest upon being able to soothe Clarke’s pain so well.

“Can…can you do this on the other side?” Clarke asked, her voice breaking over the question. She found that it was a considerable effort to concentrate on her words. ‘God, Lexa is really talented with her hands.’ Clarke thought as the brunette complied and massaged her other side with equal vigour.

To her confusion Lexa soon found herself rather distracted by the sounds she drew from Clarke. She caught herself listening very intently, more often than not repeating a specific movement to see if she could make her friend groan again. 

She felt increasingly warm which she put down to the physical effort she put into her ministrations but she could not explain the vibrating tension in her stomach. To further add to her confusion, when Lexa shifted in her sitting position she noted an unfamiliar sensation. ‘Am… am I sweating between my legs?’ She wondered distractedly. She flushed crimson, not really understanding what was happening. Her first thought was that her period* might be early but the idea was soon dismissed due to a lack of accompanying cramps and nausea. 

As another helpless groan of approval was lurched from Clarke’s throat Lexa’s mind vaguely flashed back to what she saw and heard in the hayloft. It cannot be rationally denied that her vague recollection bears similarities to the noises Clarke was making in response to her ministrations. Lexa’s mind was assaulted by memories of her childhood interrogation of the housemaid and what she said about her escapades with the footman but almost immediately she scoffed at the ridiculousness of the idea. ‘How could that even be relevant, we are both women for Christ sake..!’

“Is everything alright, Lexa?” Clarke asked, twisting in her seat when the brunette’s hand stilled for a moment. The first thing Clarke noted was that her friend’s pupils were diluted to such an extent that she could barely see her irises. There was a deep set confusion in her unfocused gaze that caused Clarke to turn fully around in alarm. She saw that her friend was quite flushed, a crimson blush reddened her skin from the base of her throat to the very tips of her ears, her lips slightly parted as if she was short of breath.

“Is it too hot in here? You skin is very red. Come, let us take some fresh air before you faint.” Not waiting for an answer Clarke jumped to her feet and pulled the surprised brunette with her towards the large door that lead to the terrace.

Chapter Text

“I would like to show you a place I loved visiting as a child if you are agreeable to an outing?” Clarke asked. She had surmised that her evaluation was correct, the studio must have been entirely too hot to be sitting in fully clothed as Lexa’s complexion returned to it’s familiar hue after some minutes out in the fresh air.

“I was under the impression that you wanted to continue your work?” Lexa asked although secretly relieved that her friend had offered. The fresh air felt soothing against her heated skin and the soft breeze in her hair was a welcome change to the stuffy air tainted with the smell of paints.

“I believe you have endured my passion for painting long enough that a day’s break is in order. I am aware sitting can be very burdensome to my subject.” Clarke offered apologetically then added as an afterthought “Also I believe the room needs to be properly aired first. I cannot paint you if the room makes you flush crimson.” Clarke said playfully with a toothy grin, hoping that the brunette will not be embarrassed by her humour.

“Very well. I am dressed for walking.” Lexa indicated at her clothes with her hand. She had not yet donned the dress she was sitting in for Clarke but was still in her travelling clothes. 

“Oh it is somewhat far away for a walk. We will need to tak…” Clarke stopped mid-sentence as her eyes sparked with mischief. “Lexa, have you learned to ride a horse?” 

“Of course I can ride a horse.” Lexa responded incredulously. ‘Really, Clarke? I wonder if there is anyone in the kingdom who doesn’t know how to ride…’

“Astride or side-saddle?” Clarke asked with a raised eyebrow.

“I can do both. But I haven’t any riding britches under my dress. I think the side saddle would be my preference today.” Lexa replied after some thought.

“Very well. Let us go then.” Clarke said enthusiastically and she turned to lead the way towards the stables.

“CLARKE!” Lexa exclaimed with more force than she had intended. When the blonde turned back to face her she wore a stunned expression, her clear blue eyes were round as saucers and both of eyebrows were raised in surprise.

Lexa could not help herself, she grinned devilishly before she supplied an answer. “Perhaps you would like to dress more appropriately?” 

When Clarke looked down she was shocked to see that she was still in her loose nightgown, her feet bare on the warm flagstones. Her face immediately heated up in embarrassment and she pinched the bridge of her nose with her fingers as her shoulders started shaking from silent laughter.

When she felt composed enough she met the brunette’s amused gaze. “Perhaps you are right.” She said in a measured tone entirely inappropriate for the humour of the moment. When Lexa merely quirked an eyebrow at her response her resolve waned and she shot her friend a toothy grin as she giggled at her own forgetfulness. 

 


 

“This is familiar. Is this not close to where we had our picnic that first day?” Lexa asked as she realized where they were. She sat on a chestnut coloured mare, both her legs dangling from one side of the animal as she sat regally in her side-saddle.

“It is.” Clarke replied, acknowledging Lexa’s sense of direction with a smile. “I had asked Finn that day if he remembered lurking about here with me when we were children but he did not recognize the place. But then again.... he grew up here. I am sure a multitude of other memories overshadow the few we gained together over the a couple of summers a decade ago.” 

‘Hmpf. As if any memory I made this summer would be capable of overshadowing you.’ Lexa’s mind formed the thought before she could catch on to it. Lexa became pensive, analysing the strange ways her friend occasionally affected her thoughts. They were certainly unfamiliar thoughts no one could claim to have ever provoked in her. They rode along in comfortable silence for a while, past the spot they had claimed for the picnic. 

“We need to continue on foot from here.” Clarke said, jarring Lexa from her musings. The brunette took a deep breath to steady herself before dismounting her ride. 

“So where are you taking me?” Lexa asked as they secured the reins to low hanging branches that would allow the beasts to graze while stopping them from wandering off. 

“It is a surprise.” Clarke said playfully, her eyes twinkling happily. She felt a sense of joy and excitement overcome her at the prospect of visiting the cave of her childhood memories. “It is but a few minutes from here. Finn and I had found it by accident. My Aunt and Uncle had arranged a picnic near by.” Clarke began to tell the tale of how they found the cave she wanted to show Lexa.

The grass, wild and unkempt as it was, steadily grew as Clarke lead them towards their destination. When she saw that it would reach up to their knees she paused. “The terrain might prove a little difficult in a dress… can I offer you my arm?” She asked politely, posture imitating what she had seen young men do.

“Oh how chivalrous of you.” Lexa said in a teasing tone as she grasped the proffered arm. Their progress was slowed somewhat by the foliage as Lexa frequently had to stop to untangle the hem of her dress from the clutches of certain rather sticky leaves. ‘Hmpf, if only I were wearing anything over my stockings…I could just hike my dress up and walk straight through this like Clarke.’

“Almost there. See those rocks? That is our destination.” Clarke announced, relieved that they made it without any serious damage to Lexa’s clothing. “Watch out for tha…” Clarke’s intention was to warn her friend of the dangerously raised root that had broken the surface of the ground in their path but was cut off abruptly when Lexa’s grip intensified on her arm. A soft whine of alarm escaped Lexa’s lips as she felt the ground twist from beneath her foot as the sole of her shoe slipped on the very root Clarke had attempted to point out and she tumbled forward.

Clarke lurched forward without hesitation in an attempt to steady her friend’s lithe frame but her momentum had been much too great for her and she felt herself tumble along. Her body acting on instinct in an effort to salvage the situation, Clarke twisted their positions which resulted in her behind hitting the ground first, Lexa’s body crashing into hers almost immediately. The force of the impact pushed Clarke’s torso back, her head saved from colliding with the hard surface by the fortunate if rather painful prior collision of her elbows. Clarke’s hiss of pain was cut short as all the air was knocked out of her lungs when Lexa landed in her lap.

“Are you injured, Lexa?” Clarke asked as soon as she was able to draw breath, not caring about her own minor injuries.

“No I am not. Which I have you to thank for. Are YOU hurt?” Lexa asked in return. She sat in her friend’s lap, her side pressed against Clarke’s chest by an arm secured tightly around her waist.

“Not in a way that needs to be addressed. I expect my behind shall hurt tomorrow.” Clarke said as she rolled her eyes. 

Lexa giggled softly at Clarke’s antics. Now that her fright had passed and they were both unharmed the brunette started seeing the humorous side of the situation. “I feel I must thank you again, Clarke. Perhaps I should now call you Sir Clarke, the chivalrous?” Lexa made an exaggerated face of being deep in thought. “But no, that would not be appropriate.” She said with a mischievous grin. “You cannot possibly have been my knight in shining armour. You see, I can quite positively claim that you have no armour, shining or otherwise.” She paused with a smirk firmly planted on her lips, one eyebrow raised in a teasing challenge.

“Oh?” Clarke asked with a raised eyebrow of her own to hide her confusion. She could feel that the brunette was jesting but she could not fathom what her intention might be.

“Well… I DID fall on something soft.” She said as she wiggled a little in Clarke’s lap. It took the pair but a moment to fall into hysterics as a sharp burst of laughter exploded from both of their lips.

 


 

“You… want me to go inside a cave?” Lexa asked, her tone sceptical as she lingered by the entrance of a cave.

“Yes. I promise it is not dangerous. There are no hidden holes or puddles and you cannot get lost in it. It is just a spacious cavern inside.” Clarke said earnestly, her eyes round and glistening with hope as she gazed at Lexa’s unsure features. 

“What if a wild animal lives inside? You have not visited this cave in a decade.” Lexa protested further.

“I do not think anything lives in there. It would have already fled or attacked because of our close proximity.” Clarke reasoned with her. 

“Well, how do you know it is not going to bury us alive once we crawl inside?” The brunette countered again. ‘God, are we really going to climb into caves like schoolchildren?’ Lexa wondered as she felt her resolve weakening.

“I shall go in first to inspect it and let you know then.” Clarke said, her tone final but not unkind. She whirled around before her weary friend could protest and within a second she was in a crouching  position and halfway inside. 

Lexa stared at her friend in wonder as she climbed inside. She waited anxiously for any noise, hoping it would be Clarke’s voice calling out to her while dreading the sound of a desperate fight for survival. 

“Well… it is somewhat smaller than I remembered but I can assure you it is worth seeing. And it is quite safe. I promise.” Clarke called out, her voice amplified by the cave.

Lexa let out the breath she had been holding upon hearing the blonde’s cheerful voice. Then she drew another breath which she allowed her lungs to expel with a huff. Finally she rolled her eyes in exasperation as she crouched to follow her friend into this insane escapade. 

It appeared to be a tight channel she had to climb into and when she first saw it her instinct was to turn back and tell Clarke that she would do nothing of the sort. Yet the memory of Clarke’s round hopeful eyes inspired Lexa to at least peek into the cavern.

“Well, what is there to see here?” Lexa asked somewhat curiously if a little exasperated still. 

“Come in and wait for your eyes to adjust.” Clarke entreated her with a childishly happy expression on her face. She was in a sitting position in the middle of the small cave. As Lexa’s eyes slowly started to adjust she could just make out the size of the hole Clarke called a cavern. It was just large enough for two or three adults to comfortably sit in without being inappropriately close to one another. With another roll of her eyes Lexa climbed inside and sat down next to the blonde, a little closer than necessary in order to soothe her nerves. 

“If the cave comes crashing down on us would you be a dear and climb on top of me this time?” Lexa teased her friend as she waited to see whatever was so amazing about the dirty cave.

Clarke chuckled at Lexa’s exasperated disbelief as she waited for the brunette’s eyes to adjust to the dim light provided by a small crack in the ceiling. 

As Lexa’s eyes slowly made out more and more of her surroundings she felt her mouth drop in awe. ‘Are those…no…how could they be?’ She leaned forward and squinted at the wall to be able to make out what she saw. “Are those…sea shells?” Lexa asked, her voice saturated with a different flavour of disbelief. 

Clarke grinned triumphantly as if she had just claimed a personal victory. She produced a small candle stub from her pocket which she lit with a match. The soft glow of the flame illuminated the entire cave providing Clarke with an unobstructed view of Lexa’s bewildered amazement. The brunette stared at the walls with eyes as round as they would go her jaw hanging wide open. 

The cave was certainly a spectacle to behold even in Clarke’s opinion who had seen it many times during her childhood. After she and Finn had discovered the cave they frequently snuck out to revisit their ‘Cave of Wonder’ as they named the landmark.

All around them the walls were littered with the remnants of sea shells of all shapes and sizes. “But… but how?” Lexa asked, never taking her eyes off the walls. She had moved closer and traced her fingers over the various shells and other shapes.

“Well, as I learned these lands were once submerged under water and these animals lived here. Then the water receded and their stranded bodies died while their shells were fossilized over a long period of time.” Clarke explained what she had heard at a palaeontology seminar she had once listened to. “I did not know this when we discovered the cave. Neither did Finn. We thought it was magic and as such named this the ‘Cave of Wonders.’” Clarke said fondly. 

After some minutes Lexa sat back next to Clark without speaking, neither of them feeling the need to break the tranquil silence that had befallen them. They were both lost in their own thoughts when Lexa’s hand moved to cover the one Clarke was leaning on.

“Thank you for bringing me here, Clarke.” Lexa said softly. Her former exasperation and uncertainty had completely evaporated. She was moved beyond her ability to formulate her feelings with words. 

“It was my pleasure, Lexa.” Clarke said her tone matching the softness of her friend’s.

“No Clarke, I assure you it is mine. This… truly is a Cave of Wonders. And you Clarke… you are a wonder that befell my life.” Lexa whispered. “I had lived here my entire life and had not known that I was within reaching distance of such beauty.” She continued while softly gazing into Clarke’s diluted eyes. “And I would have most likely died without knowing if not for you.” She leaned in closer and gently pressed a brief kiss on Clarke’s cheek. “So thank you.” Lexa’s words were barely above a whisper and her lips caressed Clarke’s skin as they moved to formulate the words before the brunette pulled back. A sudden shyness Lexa could not explain overcame her and she averted her gaze under the pretext of examining the shells above her head.

Clarke sat next to her friend in stunned silence, her skin burning where Lexa’s lips had touched her cheek. Thought after thought tumbled in her mind, all plainly written across her features which she was grateful Lexa had turned her gaze from because she would not have been able to explain the majority of them. A small smile played upon her lips as she noticed that Lexa had never let go of her hand although for the life of her she would not have been able to pinpoint exactly why that made her smile. It felt right. She wiggled her fingers until she could thread them between Lexa’s willingly parting ones and squeezed once. “You are welcome.” She whispered as softly as Lexa had.

Chapter Text

A steadily moving ray of sunlight engulfed Clarke as she sat on what she started calling Lexa’s settee in her thoughts, her legs bent at the knees to allow her to angle the bed tray in her lap to her comfort. It was a simply decorated mahogany tray designed to allow its owner to breakfast in bed if they so desired but was somewhat ill-designed to fit Clarke’s current purpose. There were several sheets of paper scattered around her, all of them heavily marked with her neat handwriting. She had been composing a letter to her closest confidant for the better part of the morning but found that the way the sheet of paper was now illuminated made writing increasingly difficult.

That the ink was barely visible in the almost painfully sharp sunlight was the smaller of Clarke’s difficulties, easily remedied by a shift in her position. Her more challenging hindrance was her inability, or, if she were being honest with herself, her unwillingness to banish from her mind’s eye the image of Lexa engulfed in the very same sunlight. Clarke found herself daydreaming about Lexa tipping her head back in contentment to enjoy the warm glow on her face, Clarke tracing her nose, lips, and eyelashes with her gaze, imagining hastily sketching the spectacle before it vanished. Before soon she was surprised to find herself actually sketching her friend from memory, the corner of the sheet of paper she had been writing on now adorned by an acceptable ink sketch of Lexa. 

Clarke bit her lip in hesitation as she contemplated switching to a new sheet of paper and copying the words she had already written. She could detect a vague sort of apprehension compressing her chest as if she were doing something that ought not to be revealed lightly but she could not pinpoint what it was exactly that made her feel this way. The majority of her letter was, in fact, composed as if one were writing a private journal rather than a letter to a correspondent. While she recounted the surprising events of the weeks she had spent at her aunt and uncle’s and her increasingly close friendship with Lexa she also wove into the narrative the inexplicable feelings the brunette stirred in her. Deciding to leave the sketch in her letter she went on to describe the fluttering of butterflies in her belly when Lexa kissed her cheek, and how whenever they touched she felt her bodily senses sharpening, being acutely aware of the patch of skin where they touched. Words of confusion flew from her pen and flowed down the sheet of paper covering the available space next to the sketch of Lexa. Clarke had decided that the drawing was the perfect illustration of her confusion and served to underline the urgency of her unasked question: Why does she affect me so?

It was not the physicality of their attachment she marvelled at. She certainly had an abundance of experience in physical affection for her friends. She had a number of passionate friendships, Raven being one of them, with whom they hugged and touched one another constantly, shared chaste kisses or even a bed on occasion.* It was the feelings Lexa’s touch evoked in her that she could not quite place. None of her friends she had ever caressed, regardless of the overflow of affection she felt for them, ever produced such a reaction from her as Lexa had.

An unexpected knock jarred Clarke from her thoughts and she nearly spilled the bottle of ink she had precariously wedged between her hip and the cushions. “Enter.” She called by way of acknowledging whoever was on the other side of the door.

To her surprise it was not a handmaid or footman at the door but her cousin. Clarke’s brows furrowed in confusion, not understanding what prompted Finn’s untimely arrival home. Immediately after lunch he had left in rather eager haste to spend the day with Lexa. Clarke had known of the plans Finn had secured a day in advance yet the reminder of his imminent departure left her in a state of longing, prompting her to write the letter to Raven. She had had close friendships with a number of women at Girton but none of them stirred quite such a strong emotion in her, not even Raven, her closest confidant. No distress ever plagued her over Raven spending time with someone, not in the way Lexa had.

“Finn! What is this? I thought you were spending the day at Woodfield?” She asked.

“That had been my design, yes.” Finn answered in his usual measured tone. “However, Miss Woods entreated me to take her to the city.” 

“I see. The weather is rather fine, the air will do her good. But…what are you doing here?” Clarke probed further.

Finn let out a sigh as he stepped further inside, closing the door behind him before approaching. “Miss Woods was also…quite adamant that I ask you to join us.” His eyebrow twitched as he said the last two words. Clarke caught the telling sign and found herself caught between the conflicting emotions of bubbling excitement and curiosity over her cousin’s apparent lack of enthusiasm. 

“However, you do not seem to share her sentiment?” Clarke asked.

Finn was silent for a moment, staring out the spacious window to compose himself. “I am somewhat conflicted about my feelings.” He blurted out eventually. There was a tension about his presence that neither of them could really explain.

“Do you not want me to go?” Clarke asked. She was eager to say yes but was conscious of her cousin’s apparent discomfort. While she would happily oblige any of Lexa’s whims she thought it would be proper to decline if Finn would rather want a day of privacy with her. The word privacy assaulted Clarke’s senses and left her with an uncomfortable pang of annoyance. It was in that moment that she realized that her sudden attachment to Lexa far outweighed her affection for her cousin. Yet another conundrum over which she will have to confer with Raven. She held her breath as she waited for Finn’s answer.

Finn turned to face Clarke after a few moments of silent contemplation and let out his breath in a defeated sigh. “It is not that I am opposed to your company, Clarke. I beseech you to believe that. It is merely… I am… perplexed, perhaps.” He said in a spell of honesty, deciding to open up about his lack of understanding, hoping that his cousin might shed some light on it. “About your fast attachment.” He elaborated. “I have never seen Miss Woods quite so attached to anyone. Nay, I have never seen her attached to any of her peers in the way the two of you have seemed to bond. I can scarce catch her alone in the last few weeks.” Words of confusion spilled from his lips as he recounted the image he had previously conceived of the woman he was courting. “What I mean to ask is… do…women… is it customary for women to bond so strongly? Have I been fortunate thus far to have been able to court her without another by her side at all times?”

Clarke listened to his words, his questions prompting memories of some of her schoolmates, their affection quickly attaching them at the hip. She had always taken those friendships in stride, accepting the silent understanding that from the moment they were so attached they were to be considered one unit, always appearing at social gatherings together, sitting together at dinner, and as Clarke only now realized, most importantly, their physical demonstrations of affection were exclusively reserved for one another.

“It… does happen, yes.” Clarke replied slowly, her mind reeling from the realization that perhaps some of her friends had felt exactly the same things she was experiencing with Lexa. Always having been on the outside of such strong attachments, her friends’ bonds had always fascinated Clarke but at the same time turned her uncharacteristically timid, shying away from asking them anything of it. It had always seemed to Clarke that such a line of questioning would have been entirely too intrusive. Those friendships appeared to Clarke as if they were of a higher level than one would experience with most peers, feeding upon a range of emotions one might only share with the rarest of kindred spirits. “I have seen a few friends form such fast attachments. It is quite impossible to resist its pull, as if your soul yearned to share its existence with that person.”

Finn’s eyes rounded in surprise as he listened to Clarke’s description of their friendship, both fascinated and disturbed at the close similarity to his own growing feelings for Miss Woods. “That sounds uncannily similar to my growing affections for Miss Woods. But… a woman’s soul cannot attach itself to another woman’s the way a man’s does. The very notion is ridiculous.”

“I am fairly sure my friendship with Lexa bears no similarities to your relationship with her, cousin.” Clarke replied, recalling the scarce few sentiments Lexa shared with her regarding her cousin. It did not seem to be as consuming as she imagined being in love might be but she could not conceive any other explanation as to why her friend would accept Finn’s attentions. ‘And yet our friendship seems to be of a more passionate nature. At least to me. I would certainly prefer such a friendship with a woman if that is the alternative one can have with a man…’

Her reply seemed to have placated Finn, his stance relaxed as some of the vibrating tension left him even as his confusion remained. “And yet what you just described seems so…” Finn was at a loss for words.

“It is most likely a quality of the female soul, the ability to induce this yearning. But surely men yearn to share different aspects of existence than another woman?” Clarke asked aloud the questions on which she wished she could ask Raven’s counsel. 

“Ah, you are quite right in that regard, cousin.” Finn replied, smiling. He felt reassured that there must be a fundamental difference in these yearnings that he does not understand for he only possesses knowledge of half. All tension left his shoulders and he clapped smartly. “Well… shall we then? It would be quite rude to let Miss Woods wait too long in the carriage.”

 


 

Always the model gentleman, Finn sat across from his company sitting in the front seat that forced him to travel with his back facing the road in order to allow the two ladies currently under his care to take the front-facing seats. While Clarke had an immense amount of affection for her cousin, mostly owing to her fond memories of their peculiar childhood, she could not help but chuckle good-naturedly at his precisely gentlemanly behavior. To no one’s surprise he was out of the carriage the moment it lurched to a halt, his arm outstretched to help the ladies in his care alight. Clarke and Lexa shared a knowing look, neither having a doubt that the other was also remembering the first time they had shared the open carriage much the same way. Clarke had been on the verge of protesting when Finn offered to drive them and Lexa could have sworn that she actually saw Clarke roll her eyes when Finn offered her his hand to help her into the carriage.

“After you, dearest.” Clarke said affectionately.

Lexa smiled at the display of affection before she briefly bowed in consent and moved to take the offered arm with one hand while holding the hem of her dress in the other. Clarke followed immediately after, taking care not to roll her eyes this time. While Clarke certainly lacked an enthusiasm for commonly accepted etiquette between the sexes she was not in the least devoid of knowledge of it and she wished to make their outing as socially acceptable as possible for all parties concerned. 

Finn offered an arm to both women, offering his right to Lexa while his left to Clarke who was left with yet another uncanny pang of annoyance. ‘Is this really what those friendships felt like on the inside? No wonder Ophelia and Margaret were so inseparably attached by the waist…’ Clarke thought of the two women Raven had introduced her to just before term ended earlier in the year. She was so engrossed in her own thoughts that she listened to her companions’ debate about their entertainment for the day only half-heartedly, mostly agreeing with whatever Lexa suggested.

It was not until after consuming a most pleasant tea in the same little restaurant she had declined to visit with Aunt Helen per force of not wishing to intrude on present company’s outing that she learnt that their evening’s entertainment was to be had at the theatre. Clarke was not necessarily opposed to the idea although had she paid more attention at the time she would have certainly asked if either of them had a private box to their name or if they were to be sat in the gallery. Her consolation was that she was fairly sure neither, but especially Finn, would be willing to sit in the pit to endure the noise and heat of a rowdy crowd.

Upon entry Finn produced a gentleman’s ticket that permitted him one visitor and he requested an additional ticket with haste, a sudden weariness coming upon him that Clarke may attempt to buy one for herself. Upon payment which Finn insisted to be his duty they were shown to a rather well placed box. There were three quite comfortable looking seats. Clarke hesitated a moment, unsure which seat to take. Her senses were overwhelmingly flooded with a desire to sit next to Lexa but she felt powerless to voice such a desire.

“Oh Mr. Collins, would you mind dreadfully if I sat in the middle? I do so like the view from here.” Lexa chimed and beamed at Mr. Collins when he consented by taking the leftmost seat so as to maintain having the ladies in his company to his right. It was but a few minutes later when Lexa asked if Mr. Collins would be kind enough to procure some oranges from the girls traipsing up and down the rows in the pit. “Oh do be a dear, Mr. Collins? I overheard one of those scrawny underfed souls selling them and now I have quite the craving for one.” 

Once Mr. Collins had departed Lexa immediately turned her attention to Clarke and leaned over the side of her chair to clasp Clarke’s hand in both of hers. “Oh I have been contriving to get a moment with you alone since we stepped out of the carriage, dearest, but not one opportunity presented itself until now. I saw that faraway look in your eyes and you were scarcely paying us any attention when we decided to come. Whatever was the matter? I have been dying to learn what was happening inside that head of yours.”

Clarke was momentarily stunned by her friend’s cunning but the sentiment was swiftly replaced with a surge of affection that she would go such lengths to secure a moment with her to ask such a trivial question. “Oh Lexa it was nothing to worry about. I was merely carried away in thought, trying to commit to memory what I wanted to write to a friend.”

“A friend?” Lexa asked, piqued interest marking her face.

“Yes. A friend I met at Girton.” Clarke confirmed. “I have found her to be quite knowledgeable in a range of subjects.” She elaborated somewhat elusively. She had opted for a half-truth but was rather disinclined to broach the subject in detail until she had had the opportunity of her friend’s counsel.

“She must be a very intimate friend if she commands your attention even when you are in company.” Lexa commented, her tone souring moodily, losing some of the glowing warmth Clarke always stoked in her soul. Her mind reeled to say more, to soothe the clipping tone with humour so as to protect her unintentionally revealed vulnerability but Mr. Collins chose that inopportune moment to return with a plate of oranges.

“Oh, Mr. Collins you are so good to us!” Lexa exclaimed, untangling her fingers which Clarke had woven together with her own, feeling the slight pull as her friend’s grasp firmed in a moment of unwillingness to let go. ‘Good god, what if she thinks I am a beast for my jealousy? And what of this friend? Could she be more taken with her than with me?’ Lexa’s mind conjured dreadful predictions of an imminent catastrophe as she attempted to make small talk with Mr. Collins, oblivious to Clarke’s distress at her clumsily hidden jealousy.

Clarke was caught in a whirlwind of emotions, equal part grateful that Finn’s unfortunate timing provided her with time to consider how to mend the unexpected injury she had caused but also anxious of what untruths Lexa may convince herself of before she had the opportunity to have her to herself again. ‘And what shall I say? Raven IS a dear friend, the closest I have,  but she had never conjured such a flurry of emotions. Oh how dreadfully inept I am to explain this difference…’ Clarke found herself annoyed with her own lack of experience, silently chiding herself for her timidity regarding asking Ophelia, the more approachable of the Margalia dyad, all those questions for which she was in desperate need of an answer.

The curtain had rolled up before another opportunity had presented itself for them to confer with one another and Clarke attempted to force herself to pay attention to this rendition of A comedy of Errors. They were halfway through the first act when Clarke’s mind was assaulted by the revelation that if Lexa was distressed by such jealousy that she was unable to hide it from Clarke surely it must mean that she was quite as taken with her as she was with Lexa. A warm blanket of calm enveloped her in that moment and she resolved to reassure her darling friend by any means possible. 

Clarke leaned over her armrest as she reached out to caress Lexa’s gloved forearm to draw her attention. “This is quite a good rendition is it not?” She asked experimentally. 

“I suppose so. Will you tell your friend about it?” The question was out of Lexa’s mouth before she could think better of it. Her body tensed as she realized her error and her lips thinned as she pressed them together to avoid further unwanted outbursts. She could feel her cheeks heat up and was grateful that they were seated in the dark for her only consolation of the moment was that Clarke could not see what was surely an unbecoming blotch of red tint in her cheeks. Not having the courage to look at Clarke Lexa glanced to her left and was relieved that Mr. Collins appeared to be entirely oblivious to their interaction.

Not having much experience with jealousy Lexa knew not how to calm her nerves, she blinked rapidly as she stared ahead. She had just resolved to  excuse herself upon some pretext but the words froze and melted on her lips when she felt the soft press of Clarke’s against her heated skin just beside her earlobe.

“Yes. I shall tell Raven what a marvellous evening I had been treated to by my new friend who has made the deepest impression upon me.” Clarke whispered closely, her carefully chosen words caressing Lexa’s soul as her breath brushed against the sensitive flesh of her ear.

Lexa’s heart raced and she was fairly sure it would leap out of her mouth unhindered for she was unable to move her slackened jaw. Emboldened by Clarke’s words she turned her head to look her friend in the eye, seeking confirmation that the words she had just heard were not falsely conjured by her own desire. 

She was somewhat surprised when she met smiling sky blue eyes from mere inches away. Clarke had maintained her position even as the tips of their noses brushed and shared breaths tickled the other’s lips. There was a kind, playful shine to Clarke’s gaze that moved Lexa. Her eyes closed per force of the relieved happiness swelling in her chest and she tipped her head forward to touch their foreheads together.

Not a second later the moment was broken by Mr. Collins’ enthusiastic bellow of ‘Bravo!’, his claps mingling with the increasing noise from the crowd below. The two women jumped apart in fright of the unexpected sound, cheeks flushing crimson as they both glanced at the man who had been blissfully unaware of their interaction. 

Chapter Text

Tension quivered across Clarke’s brows as she concentrated on the arc of her stroke. A perfect curving movement of her wrist, her fingers gentle but determined, her hand moved in a perfectly even motion over Lexa’s jawline. When the tip of her brush reached the junction between her jaw and ear she carefully removed it from the canvas so as not to inadvertently add unnecessary paint to her canvas and straightened her back, stepping away to admire her work. ‘My God, Lexa’s jawline is a work of art in itself… and I dare say I have captured it perfectly…’  Clarke thought rather smugly as she tipped her head to the side to inspect her model.

When Lexa caught movement from the corner of her eye she eagerly took the opportunity to speak. She had been confined within her own mind for surely no less than an hour as she estimated and she was in dire need to be distracted from her thoughts. Few words had been shared regarding what passed between them the previous evening at the theatre and her helpless mind was swept up in a whirlwind of emotions. “How are you progressing, dearest? Do you suppose we could take a break?” 

Clarke eyed her canvas with a rarely experienced combination of vexation and pride. She believed the portrait was of rather fine quality, no doubt in her mind, owing to the exquisite beauty of her subject. Yet Clarke found herself reluctant to pronounce her work finished; not due to unfounded insecurity about the quality of her work but because she was loathe to release Lexa from her obligation to sit for her. Clarke sighed in resignation, knowing that there really was very little she could improve on and that certainly did not require Lexa’s rigid posture any more. A nervousness overcame her and her stomach felt uncomfortably hollow at the notion that she would have less reason to spend all of her time in such private company of her friend… ‘unless…unless I could persuade her to perhaps sit for another painting in the near future.’

“Yes, I do believe we can.” Clarke announced as she removed her apron. As she rounded her canvas her eyes connected with the emerald green of her friend. The sunlight bathing her captured in her irises and made the dark green circles glow in a lighter shade, reminding Clarke of cats. Lexa had relaxed from the required position and comfortably leaned back against the settee, smiling as she watched Clarke approach, neither breaking eye-contact.

“Although I am quite reluctant to pronounce myself finished. I do so detest the idea of you not sitting for me any more.” Clarke confessed. 

Lexa sat up from her half lying position and patted the settee next to her to encourage Clarke to sit next to her rather than on the floor as she so often did. Her stomach fluttered happily when Clarke accepted the invitation. Clarke leaned against the armrest and bent her left leg in a way that her thigh was entirely pressed against the back of the furniture while her shin rested flush against Lexa’s thigh. As she draped her arm over the backrest the tips of her fingers just barely reached brown locks that cascaded over Lexa’s shoulders.

“Well I shall be frank with you, I am quite relieved to be not sitting motionless like a statue all day long.” Lexa threw back at Clarke in a playful tone “but I… may be agreeable to sitting for you if you were content to draw me instead? You can make quite as many drawings of me as you wish if you are fast enough…”

Clarke grinned broadly at the implication, happy that Lexa was as eager to maintain their private time together. She nodded happily, and her eyes sparkled with mischief as visions of how she wanted to draw Lexa swam in front of her mind’s eye.

“My mind is already swarming with ideas, Lex. You are such a divine subject, I scarcely know how I wish to draw you first. And I certainly wish you would allow me the pleasure of drawing your collarbones.” Clarke allowed her thoughts to spill from her lips unchecked. Although she was keenly aware that they had not yet spoken of it, the words they exchanged at the theatre, the hopeful shine in Lexa’s eyes as she reassured her of her deepest affection sprouted such confidence in Clarke that she was fairly sure her request would not offend.

“I shall.” Lexa agreed easily, having grown so much more comfortable with Clarke’s boldness in the three weeks she had known her. “But Dr. Clarke will have to pay the price for the whims of her inner artist. Would you be good enough to employ your scientific talent in my service and relieve me of this terrible shoulder ache?” She asked coyly, her lips stretching to accommodate the grin she could not suppress.

Clarke’s eyes widened in surprise partly at the bold words from her friend but even more so at the sudden flush of heat her body produced in reaction to Lexa’s words. Clarke quite enjoyed Lexa’s sassy nature and especially relished the way in which her friend playfully endorsed her choice of profession but was quite surprised at Lexa’s sudden forwardness in petitioning for physical contact.

“Oh certainly.” Clarke responded without pause and proceeded to remove herself from the settee only to be surprised further when a gentle hand pressed against her calf stopped her mid-motion. She glanced at Lexa curiously. She herself was quite comfortable sharing affection with her friends physically. They were constantly hugging and caressing one another at Girton as they lounged in the sitting room in their shared quarters but this was the first time Lexa exhibited any such inclinations. 

Lexa chewed at her bottom lip for a moment, a sudden surge of insecurity robbing her of her newfound boldness but as she gazed into the open features of her friend she saw naught but curiosity. Clarke’s comfort with her touch emboldened her enough to voice the thoughts that had been swirling in her mind since the previous evening. “Perhaps… could you not give me a massage while sitting next to me? I can hardly find the words to describe it but I wish so much to be near you. Is this very strange of me?” 

“Not strange at all.” Clarke hurried to reassure her as her lips stretched into a gentle smile. She considered their positions for a moment before she bent her leg further and then stretched it along the entire length of the settee, nudging Lexa with her foot to give her room. As there was now sufficient space between her legs she patted the cushioned material to indicate where she wanted Lexa to sit.

“So…you have before…with other friends?” Lexa mumbled the words only somewhat coherently as she moved into Clarke’s lap. Her mind was engulfed in a flurry of conflicting emotions. Sitting so close to Clarke within the circle of her legs made her skin heat up in an unfamiliar yet pleasant way even as her mind inexplicably filled with jealousy over what closeness Clarke may have shared with others.

“Yes and no.” Clarke replied unhelpfully. She gently took Lexa’s mane of hair and stroked the loose strands neatly until she could hold the entirety of it in one palm before she pushed them over Lexa’s left shoulder letting the ends cascade down her chest. “It is quite normal to touch so liberally, we do it all the time with my friends.” Clarke felt Lexa’s shoulders tense under her fingertips which left her wondering if she had provoked it with words or touch. “And I very much enjoy doing so with just about any of them, more so with Raven.” Lexa’s shoulders tensed further and she made a small jerking movement as if she wanted to twist in her sitting position but Clarke stopped her movement with firm hands gripping the cloth of her dress covering her shoulders. “But none so much as with you. You… it feels so much different with you. I too want to be near you all the time.” She lowered her tone to a whisper, her boldness wavering at her admission. 

Clarke had never been anything if not forward in her affections even before she attended Girton. However, her friends, Raven in particular, made sure that she was never shy to express her love for her friends with word or touch. Yet she was grateful that at that moment she did not need to look Lexa in the eye for she worried that hers would betray her. While she enjoyed the caresses and kisses they bestowed upon each other with her friends they never felt quite as exhilarating as with Lexa. ‘Is this what Marge and Ophelia feel all the time?’ Clarke found herself wondering for the hundredth time since Lexa first kissed her in the cave.

As Lexa’s shoulders relaxed beneath her hands Clarke’s mind calmed, confident that she had said the right words. Her fingers gently started constricting over Lexa’s shoulders, occasionally slipping over the soft material of her dress. She wanted to say more but felt at a loss for words, her tongue working against the roof of her mouth uselessly. As the moments ticked by Clarke found herself distracted by the scent of Lexa’s hair which at such close proximity was more pronounced. She had caught whiffs of her friend’s scent before when she helped guide her into position for the next painting session or when she had first given her a massage but found that the intimacy of it increased with their current position.

“Really?” Lexa whispered barely audibly over the lump in her throat, not trusting that her voice would not crack with pleasure if she were to speak any louder. The hope that blossomed in her chest had never felt quite so suffocating as in that moment.

“Yes.” Clarke whispered as she instinctively leaned closer, desirous of drowning in the infusion of cinnamon and something that appeared to be unique to Lexa. As the tip of her nose brushed against the shell of Lexa’s ear Clarke felt Lexa’s shoulders rise under her palm when her chest violently filled with air.

The mere shadow of worry had barely caught up with Clarke’s mind, the thought to distance herself and ask if she was making Lexa uncomfortable had just begun to take shape when she felt the material of Lexa’s dress shift under her hands.

“You told me it was easier this way.” Lexa whispered as she pulled the material down, exposing her shoulders to Clarke’s hands.

“Indeed.” Clarke agreed mindlessly. Her eyes were closed, lost in the feeling of Lexa’s hair caressing her cheek for a moment before her own need of reassurance surfaced. “Is this okay? Are you comfortable?” She asked, never moving a fraction.

“God, yes. You have such talented hands. I have never felt better.” Lexa replied, her voice somewhat strained with effort to not groan through her words as nimble fingers kneaded her muscles.

Emboldened by Lexa’s reassurance Clarke’s hands started moving with more vigour, the pads of her thumbs gently but firmly digging into the muscle of Lexa’s shoulders. The groan the escaped Lexa’s lips unchecked sent an unfamiliar surge of heat through Clarke’s body which pooled in her lower stomach. ‘Certainly none of my friends have made me feel THAT before…’ Clarke absently analysed her bodily reactions as she struggled to stay focused on what she was doing.

Lexa felt her body relax and give under Clarke’s touch. Her skin heated up and there were shivers coursing down her spine whenever Clarke’s fingers found a particularly pleasurable spot. Still somewhat conscious of the sounds that wanted to tear from her throat Lexa quelled the moans that originated deep within her chest, only allowing strangled mewls to escape her lips even as she leaned further back against Clarke.

“Don’t…” Clarke wanted to say but her voice hoarsely broke over her words. “Don’t suppress the sounds… your body wants to make. They are quite fine. Your… body only tenses back up when you do it.” She said in encouragement although she herself struggled to formulate the words as a blinding emotion she could not name coursed through her. Clarke had never found herself in such a position before, she could barely keep her eyes open. Her face was now openly buried in dark locks of hair but to her relief Lexa did not seem to mind for her only reaction was to ease further back into her embrace. 

Their combined weight slowly started to strain Clarke’s lower back as she tensed the muscles there in an effort to maintain her upright position. Eventually she found that her gradual shift towards a more comfortable position did not hinder her ministrations and she allowed her back to rest against the settee. 

She had not expected Lexa to follow her quite so readily but as Lexa’s body limply rested against her chest she found her arms caught between their bodies which now significantly limited her movement. She moved her elbows outward and her hands shifted down to Lexa’s lower back and ribs. 

“Is this still okay?” Clarke whispered. Lexa’s head had dropped against her shoulder and if not for the soft whimper Lexa offered by way of response Clarke would have considered checking if her friend had not fainted. 

“Yes. Yes, Clarke. God, I feel so shameful asking but can we stay like this?” Lexa turned her head and whispered against Clarke’s neck.

Clarke’s hand stilled on Lexa’s waist for a moment before she circled her arms around her friend, securely holding her against her. She whispered over the groan of disapproval. “Why shameful?” 

“I… have never done this before. What is it even that we are doing?” Lexa breathed into Clarke’s neck, bewildered at the torrent of unknown sensations that assaulted her mind.

Clarke fell silent for a moment, contemplating the question. ‘What ARE we doing…? It is not like I have not embraced my friends so… Octavia, Raven, Rosemary…but… they never inspired this…yearning… sure it was a warm and loving feeling…but this…’ Clarke felt Lexa’s presence everywhere across her body and was more than reluctant to put an end to it. Feeling no shame or discomfort in any way she came to the conclusion that there must be nothing wrong with that they were doing.

“I think we are sharing love and affection” She pronounced after a moment.

“So you have…with others? Is this a usual thing to be doing?” Lexa voiced her thoughts more coherently. Exercising her mind with thoughts had pulled her from the pleasant cloud of bodily experience and she wondered if the ladies she had always kept at a polite distance habitually did the same after she had departed.

“I…have embraced my friends in a similar fashion…though they never quite produced such a yearning to stay like this” Clarke replied truthfully.

“Yes, like this. I feel as though I never want to leave your embrace. Isn’t this beastly and greedy of me?”

“If it is then I share your greed, dearest.” Clarke replied, tightening her embrace. “I…wish to hold you close and pepper your cheeks with kisses to show you how earnest my devotion is.” Clarke whispered her secret against Lexa’s forehead. “I have felt you tense, seen your jealousy when I speak of my closeness with Raven. God, I wish I could kiss your worry away. I love Raven dearly but she does not come near the affection you have inspired in these few weeks I have known you.” 

Lexa felt moved by Clarke’s words and her throat convulsed against a sob that threatened to break free. Emboldened by Clarke’s admission she released the restrictive grasp she so firmly held over the impulses that assaulted her mind. Her lips moved against the soft skin of Clarke’s throat peppering it with gentle kisses, barely more than skin pressing against skin. 

Clarke felt an overwhelming sensation engulf her and her arms tensed further around Lexa’s waist as if she were afraid that her friend would disappear if she did not cling to her. She moaned softly, enjoying the attention she wished to lavish on Lexa.

“Please. Please do. Show me, Clarke. I have never felt quite as close to anyone as you. Show me so I won’t have to fear that you will disappear from my life as abruptly as you have appeared.” Lexa whispered, voice thick with longing and trepidation.

Clarke’s heart violently surged with affection, the desire to quell the gently whispered fears moving her limbs without conscious thought. Her arms hoisted her friend in her lap, moving to create the space she needed as her nose nudged Lexa’s head sideways to gain access to her cheek. “Never, Lexa.” She pressed her lips against her cheek fervently. “As long as you desire me in your life my friendship is yours. I imagine it shall be even if you grow tired of me.” Clarke whispered, punctuating her words with kisses all over the soft skin of Lexa’s cheek, occasionally venturing to her jawline, relishing the idea that she could paint it with lips and kisses.

“Oh, I won’t. I won’t.” Lexa said earnestly, her voice coming out rather more shrilly than normal.

Clarke found herself intoxicated by the salty taste that hit her tongue when a more greedy swipe of her lips gathered Lexa’s perspiration. A fresh surge of what she could only describe as a desire for more clouded her mind. Her lips opened out of their own accord and upon her next kiss her tongue swiped against heated salty skin. ‘My God…she tastes divine…’

When Clarke felt Lexa’s fingers violently tangle in the hair at the nape of her neck she froze, panic flooding her senses at the notion that she had overstepped. She immediately attempted to release her friend and put more distance between them but found that the grip Lexa had on her head made her endeavour impossible.

“Lexa?” Clarke whispered fretfully, frozen in her position, waiting for any kind of response. Seconds stretched agonizingly slowly in Clarke’s mind and her imagination assaulted her with horrid images of what was to transpire. Her ears as close as they were to Lexa filled maddeningly with her gentle panting, which, a minute ago seemed to her the most exquisite of sounds, now turned into her source of deepest terror. 

Lexa twisted in her sitting position as she struggled to regain her composure. Her hand never left the nape of Clarke’s neck as she adjusted herself, looking at her startled friend from below drooping eyelids. “Would…would you still consider that to be normal?” 

“Um…” Clarke attempted to speak but her throat felt irreparably dry, yet she tried valiantly to press sounds through her windpipe. “You mean…” 

“My reaction. My shortness of breath. The heat my body generated…the…” Lexa’s words faltered as she felt herself drowning in a wave of shame. ‘The wet feeling between my legs…’ The last words withered on Lexa’s tongue and her throat constricted again, not finding the necessary courage the voice them.

“I felt all of that too, Lexa.” Clarke said as she felt the grip of panic slowly release her chest. As the ability to feel slowly returned to her Clarke felt Lexa’s close proximity and her chest once again fluttered happily. “I still feel some of it. But I cannot put a name to what it is we are doing.” 

“Well…that’s reassuring.” Lexa sassed good-naturedly as she gently pulled herself upright. She did not leave Clarke’s embrace but Clarke immediately felt the chest hollow at the loss of weight pressing down on her. Seconds ticked by as they silently searched the other’s eyes for signs of rebuttal or discomfort but when none was to be found they smiled at each other warmly.

“Would you want to…sleep over tomorrow night?” Clarke asked, biting her lip nervously as she waited for an answer.

One of Lexa’s eyebrows raised in her characteristic questioning fashion as she answered “I do not believe Uncle Gus
 Would be particularly pleased if I proposed to sleep under the same roof as Mr. Collins. Even though God is my witness he has never been anything but the most polite gentleman.” 

Clarke’s stomach plummeted upon hearing the very reasonable rejection, silently cursing herself for neglecting to take Lexa’s reputation into consideration. She acknowledged Lexa’s answer with a sad smile that did not quite reach her eyes.

“However, I do believe he could have no objection of you sleeping over?” Lexa offered conspiratorially, an impish glint shining in her eyes.

Chapter Text

The carriage shook and swayed, semi-monotonously rocking as it lurched down the uneven dirt road. Try as William might, the wheels occasionally caught the sharp edges of muddy ruts that hardened into wheel traps after the wet weather had cleared up. William murmured an apology under his breath after yet another particularly heavy jolt, gripping the reigns with more determination, his eyebrows furrowing in concentration as he attempts to better estimate when to direct the horse sideways so he would pull the carriage and its wheels clear of the next rut.

Lexa was, however, completely oblivious to her surroundings. Her body has learnt long ago the ways to adapt to the rhythm of carriages and her mind had strayed far away, the echo of gentle lips on her skin stoking that unfamiliar warmth just below her stomach. So engrossed in her thoughts she was that she had not noticed the change of terrain, the harsh lurching of the carriage giving way unnoticed to a gentle sway as the wheel rolled smoothly over the carefully sanded and evened cobblestones of the driveway.

She glanced around, eyes focusing on the familiar rose bushes planted just between the two winding stairs as the bewilderment of surprise slowly wore off. ‘Home already? But I’ve barely just stepped out of Clarke’s studio…’ Her eyes finally landed on William who stood by the steps of the carriage, door held open with one hand, the other poised at just the perfect height for Lexa to hold onto as she alighted. His eyes were politely averted, staring straight ahead as if he were a statue, a mere instrument to aiding the comfort of his passenger. Not even the shadow of curiosity or expectation ghosted over his features. If he had noted his Mistress’s lack of presence or subsequent bewilderment he was well-enough trained a professional to hide it.

“Thank you, William.” 

“Miss Woods. Apologies for the rough ride there, Miss.” He offered an apology as Lexa’s grip loosened on his hand, his professional facade slipping just enough to let his voice become gruff with annoyance.

Lexa knew that William prided himself over his skill to handle horses, having overheard the upstairs staff gossiping about the male servants many a times. No one begrudged William this small infringement of professionalism for his pride was well-founded. In the days of his youth the ageing coachman had been a promising jockey, expected to give even George Fordham* a run for his money until an ugly accident rendered him incapable of competing ever again. Left with an aching limp and bad sight to his left eye, William was forced to retire but his love of the beasts could not be denied for long. Soon after his recovery he found himself in the employment of Sir Gustus, a race enthusiast himself, who offered to employ him as coachman and stable master. Not wishing to aggravate his injured pride any further by offering an excuse Lexa accepted the apology with a regal nod. Without need for further communication, she dismissed William to his duties as she ascended the marble steps leading to the large front doors of the manor.

As soon as she had set foot atop the last stair the large door was opened by a footman. Lexa raised an eyebrow in surprise, wondering if there were guests to be had whom had slipped from her mind due to the afternoon’s excitement. 

“Miss Woods.” The footman, James, greeted his Mistress. “Sir Gustus ‘as given me orders to commun’cate his wish that you join ‘im in the library upon arrival if it is not too great an inconvenience.” He said with a slight accent, waiting in perfect posture as Lexa walked through the door. He closed the large wooden door as silently as he could in his haste to rush after his mistress to take her travelling accessories from her.

‘If it is not too great an inconvenience…’ Lexa thought, a hint of anxiety colouring her gaiety. She was fairly certain that had been her uncle’s exact phrase, word for word. To the servants, whose observational skills Lexa was not particularly familiar with, the words may seem harmlessly cordial but Lexa knew that such cordial formality in fact belied her uncle’s vexation. ‘What could I have done to displease him so?’ Lexa absent-mindedly dismissed James to his duties as she moved along the corridor leading to the library rather than taking the stairs to her own room.

 


 

“Aunt Helen, could I have a word?” Clarke asked as she wandered into the sitting room where her aunt was, mercifully, occupied with a book of some sort rather than entertaining guests. 

“But of course, child. What nonsense of you to even ask.” Aunt Helen replied in good humour, marking the page she was at before setting the soft covered yellow book aside. The unmistakable large illustration on the front cover informed Clarke that her aunt had been engrossed in a favourite guilty pastime of reading penny dreadfuls**. She patted the empty space beside her on the settee in invitation. The small gesture of familiarity caused Clarke to blush, the memory of Lexa inviting her to sit with the exact same gesture leaving Clarke’s ears burning.

“Um, perhaps we m-might take a stroll outside?” Clarke asked, her voice cracking with the effort to maintain her composure as she glanced from the corner of her eye at her uncle Philip who had eyed the exchange with some interest, enough to make him lower his newspaper to his lap.

Helen’s eyes gleamed with understanding, coming to the conclusion that her pointed glance and the dark blush colouring Clarke’s cheeks was due to her need to discuss something of a feminine nature. Several suitable subjects presented themselves to Helen as she stood from the settee and motioned for her to take the lead. “Certainly, dear. We shan’t be too long, Philip, but there are lady businesses that do require privacy” Helen’s parting words to her surprised husband were as ever kind and humorous as always. “I trust you can entertain any lady callers agreeably while you fetch for us if someone should call?” 

“Naturally” Uncle Philip scoffed with exaggerated annoyance at his wife’s teasing dismissal, the slight twitch of his moustache belying the amused smirk he attempted to conceal as he turned his attention to the newspaper again.

 


 

Lexa stepped into the library with as much confidence as she could muster. The short distance from the front door to the library had not allotted her much time to consider what may have annoyed her uncle. Her mind was still distracted by the heartfelt confessions and intimacies she and Clarke shared and for the life of her could not think of a single misdemeanour she may have committed in recent memory. She pushed the door open, resolved to find out soon enough and stepped into the large stately room. The walls were lined with the finest mahogany bookcases from carpet to ceiling, necessitating the building of an interior balcony that ran along the middle so as to provide easier access to several top shelves.

“Good evening, Alexandria.” Uncle Gustus voice was gravelly from the smoke of the pipe he indulged in. The puff of white smoke he exhaled just as Lexa turned in his direction obscured his face from view. Lexa winced at the use of her full name, another symptom of her uncle’s mysterious exasperation.

“Uncle Gustus, good evening to you too. Pray, what might I have done to upset you again?” Lexa cut immediately to it, not wishing to delay the subject any further.

“As observant as ever, I see.” Sir Gustus said with a smile while he waited for his niece, whom he loved as if she were his own daughter, to take a seat in the armchair opposite his. “You have been spending a great deal of time at the Collins’ as of late.” He stated.

‘Ah…is this about Clarke or Mr. Collins I wonder…’ Lexa’s mind carefully collected the pieces of information her uncle casually revealed. “I have, indeed. Clarke is a most wonderful friend.” Lexa confirmed vaguely. It occurred to her that it may be prudent to keep the exact nature of her visitations with Clarke a secret, lest she reveal too much and give away her Christmas surprise.

“And Mr. Collins?” Sir Gustus prompted.

“Fares of good health as far as his wife is aware.” Lexa sassed, deliberately misunderstanding her uncle’s question. She was rewarded with a flat look. Not a single hair on uncle Gustus’ face twitched that would be indicative of any lip movement beneath his long shaggy beard. Lexa accepted her inability to lighten the mood gracefully and supplied the correct answer without further questioning. “I have not met Mr. Collins, either the younger or the senior, under unseemly circumstances, Uncle.” Lexa clung to her feeble attempt at a comedy of errors, hoping to chase the severity from his eyes.

“Then perhaps you may care to explain why the buttons on your dress are done so haphazardly?” 

Lexa’s hand flew to her chest to clutch at the offending items, cursing silently. To her surprise her immediate reaction was not a renewed apprehension of her uncle’s ire. Her mind wandered to the various servants she had met along her journey from Clarke’s studio to her uncle’s library, wondering if any have caught on to her apparent state of dress. ‘There really is nothing worse than the gossip of servants…’ Lexa dared glance down her front and was confronted with the sight of all of her buttons done in perfect order. Fury rose in her chest as she realized that her uncle had tricked her into revealing a secret her attire had not betrayed. ‘Oh God, what am I to say now… I cannot exactly tell him why I need to change dresses all the time. But… lord, he is going to think Mr. Collins has been behaving indecently… the poor fellow.’

Lexa raised her eyes defiantly at her uncle, taking strength from the knowledge that she had, in fact, not committed the indecency she is being silently accused of. “I presume you shall not be satisfied by my telling you that it is not what you think?” Lexa threw caution to the wind, braving the possible anger her continued sass may provoke in favour of stalling for time. While the vague words spilled from her lips her mind reeled as she weighed each possible approach she may take. Incriminating an entirely innocent Mr. Collins was, in Lexa’s eyes, out of the question. The only two avenues left open to her were to reveal the true nature of why she spent so much time secluded in Clarke’s studio…or to reveal the exact reason why she had loosened her dress on this last occasion. ‘Only… that may prompt uncle Gus to probe further… would he truly be quite as prejudiced as Clarke fears?’

 


 

“What is troubling you, child?” Helen asked as soon as the door behind then closed. “Has your monthly come ahead of time?” 

Clarke’s eyes rounded comically as she stared at her aunt, almost affronted at the suggestion. ‘Wh…what…why would I even… it is not like I have not been having them for years, I can take care of that!’ She thought with a pinch of indignation. She had been prepared for the possibility that her aunt might tease her endlessly for she knew  her nature well. But such a gross misunderstanding was entirely unexpected. ‘Where would she even get the idea from?’ 

Assessing her niece’s incredulous lack of response, Helen came to the conclusion that she may have been mistaken. The mystery of it immediately piqued her interest. “Ah, I see I am mistaken. I’m sorry, dear. It is just that you blushed so furiously when I suggested you have the talk with me in front of your uncle.” Her easy smile faltered for a moment and she suddenly grabbed Clarke’s arm, eyes searching hers urgently. “Oh it’s not a lack of your monthly is it?” She asked, stressing the offending word, horrified at the mere possibility that her niece would get pregnant while in her care.

“AUNT HELEN!” Clarke fairly screeched, shocked at the implied accusation. “No, I am not pregnant if that is what you are insinuating.” She ground out in a huff, growing uncertain if this was the best course of action after all. ‘How in the WORLD did this conversation get so out of hand?’

Helen let out a breath she had not noticed she had been holding in, relief flooding her. Despite her sister-in-law’s frequent reminders and pleas to  not do so she has allowed Clarke to run wild, to chase her passions as she saw fit, only dragging the miserably child with her to her calls to placate her mother. For the briefest of moments she feared that the passions Clarke had chosen to chase had put them both in a predicament.

“I’m sorry, child, I did not mean to embarrass you.” 

“And why are you so obsessed with my period anyway?” Clarke continued as if she had not heard the apology, her temper inflamed. The memory of Lexa assuming the same thing only weeks ago and her bemused reaction to said accusation dampened her ire for just a moment. “I wanted to talk about my mother.” 

“Oh.” Helen muttered, surprise clearly etched onto her features. “Well, what about her?”

“Well…what have you been telling her in all of those letters you have been exchanging?” Clarke asked. When the surprised that flashed in Aunt Helen’s eyes morphed into amusement Clarke knew she would not be spared the teasing.

“I see.” Helen smiled, her eyes gleaming with a characteristic knowing glint. “You want to know what mood you shall find her in when the week is out?” 

“Yes. And no.” Clarke replied vaguely, biting her bottom lip before finally blurting “I want to invite Lexa to come visit me. But you know mother…”

Helen regarded her niece with shrewd eyes, taking in the barely perceptible cues of nerve she was exhibiting. She had known that Clarke had grown quite attached to Miss Woods but she only now realized that she had perhaps misjudged the depth of their attachment. 

“You have…taken quite a shine to Miss Woods, have you?” Aunt Helen asked, her tone more tender than Clarke had ever heard before. Aunt Helen tended to be quite shrill, always the gayest, always the loudest in any gathering. Clarke reckoned that may be a ruse to deflect people’s attention. Whether her intention was to make people underestimate her or to forgo any curiosity directed at her, Clarke was not certain. This newfound tenderness was certainly something that had never been directed at Clarke before.

“I have.” Clarke said, the urge to voice her thoughts, her feelings overpowering her. “I have never had a friend quite like her. She has left quite the lasting impression upon me.” Clarke’s voice was soft and a smile played on her lips as she described her feelings. She failed to notice the spark of understanding that flashed in Aunt Helen’s eyes. 

“You and Finn both… this Miss Woods of yours really must be something…” Aunt Helen said in a teasing yet conspiratorial tone. “Your mother is quite charmed by the idea of you attending Miss Woods’ ball. I think she would be favourable to receiving her if you asked.” She said before Clarke had time to take her words in.

 


 

“You have always been quite smart in finding out my secrets…” Lexa complimented, a slight hint of approval colouring her tone. Despite the inconvenience of it, she had to admit her uncle’s time spent on the exercising of his mental capacities was not wasted. “My shoulders were giving me trouble. Clarke gave me a massage.” She blurted out eventually. Guilt immediately flooded her heart. She was not in the least proud of possibly betraying Clarke’s secret but she took the chance that her uncle might not question her further. However, the single raised eyebrow and the flat stare she received by way of a response suggested otherwise.

“Miss Griffin… gave you…a massage?” Sir Gustus eventually said, slowly, as if testing whether any of the words tasted foul on his tongue before uttering them.

“Yes.” Lexa replied confidently, her voice strong and unwavering.

“Lexa…” Sir Gustus said, his voice gaining an edge Lexa had never heard before. “You do understand the consequences of any liberties you may permit to Mr. Collins?” He asked, his voice low, tone vibrating with an entirely unfamiliar urgency, his eyes boring into hers.

‘Christ, why won’t he believe me…’ Lexa thought, a mixture of exasperation and temporary relief bubbling in her chest. “I have not permitted any liberties to Mr. Collins, Uncle. I believe his parents may vouch for his innocence. Clarke has been giving me massages for my shoulder pain.” Lexa said steadily, the truth of her words ringing clear in her voice.

“If you are having regular pains you should consult a doctor, not a friend you have known for two weeks.” Sir Gustus said after a pregnant pause.

“Three weeks, uncle Gus. And she IS a doctor.” The words were out of her mouth before she could stop them. Her eyes widened in shock and she dearly wished the floorboards would open up like the jaws of some great beast and would swallow her whole. She had not intended to reveal Clarke’s secret unless absolutely necessary. 

“Is she now? And how is that possible?” Sir Gustus leaned forward, his eyes twinkling with newfound interest.

“Uh…that private tutor abroad she mentioned? He has been teaching her anatomy.” Lexa said, voice tremulous, hoping that to conceal at some of the information that she had been entrusted with.

Sir Gustus leaned back again, resting his back against the plush of the armchair. His demeanour changed entirely, his eyes no longer hard and calculating but rather glowing with interest. “I would like to have a word with Miss Griffin. Soon.” 

“Well…she has invited me to stay the night tomorrow.” Lexa started to say, only realizing her blunder when her uncle’s eyes flashed, clearly scandalized by the suggestion. “Which I had declined because I had anticipated your displeasure at the idea of me spending a night under the same roof as Mr. Collins. I suggested that she perhaps spend the night here instead?” 

Sir Gustus’ shoulders relaxed with the same speed they tensed with, his mind slowly eased by the hope that his niece wasn’t quite as foolhardy as he had feared. “Very good. I shall speak with her tomorrow then.”

The finality of that statement left Lexa wondering what trouble she may have caused Clarke with her inability to keep her thoughts from her lips.

 


 

Clarke laid in bed as she had been for hours, twisting and turning restlessly beneath the covers. It was an entirely unfamiliar experience. She had always slept easily and without interruption, her brain succumbing to slumber’s pull within minutes. She lacked practices that would help soothe her restlessness, for she never had the need to master them. She felt the stinging ache of physical exhaustion assault her eyes, her body silently begging sleep to claim it. That feeling was far more familiar to her than she preferred to admit, having stayed up many a night as she prepared for exams.

She exhaled a puff of air noisily as she moved to her back once again, growing frustrated with her predicament. She contemplated vacating her bed in favour of reading by candle light until her mind exhausted itself sufficiently but found that her body protested far too valiantly. She had once flipped the covers off her body only cover up just as hastily. The cool air of the room compared to the scorching heat beneath the duvet felt like the very night had attacked her person.

As she lay trapped between the opposing needs of her mind and body Clarke wondered if she may be at risk of losing her sanity. Determined to calm her mind she closed her eyes, picturing in minute details the events that occurred through out her day. When her mind wandered to the settee in her studio her breath caught in her throat before her lungs rapidly expanded to pull in as much air as possible. A soft whimper escaped her lips as the memory of her lips on Lexa’s skin, the taste on her tongue assaulted her senses. She could see themselves quite vividly, Lexa’s soft sighs so alive in her mind that she blindly reached out next to her, wondering if she had not conjured her friend by the power of her will. She found herself unable to resist imagining what it would feel like to kiss Lexa’s warm skin again. Her lips tingled, hungry for the memory to become reality. A cold shiver ran down her spine despite the heat her body produced below the covers.

The startling sensation of liquid moving between her legs jolted her from her thoughts. “Wh-hat.. HAS my period come early?” Clarke mumbled aloud as she blindly groped around for the matches on her bedside table. She pulled her sleeping gown over her hips and pressed her fingers between her legs. Upon retrieving her fingers, she stared in abject shock when she found that the tips of her fingers were stained with a clear liquid rather than blood. ‘What in the world IS this…’ 

She rubbed her fingers together and stared, transfixed, as the liquid stuck to her fingers, reminding her of pancake batter. She brought her fingers to her nose and sniffed experimentally, surprised at the musky, slightly sweet yet spicy smell. ‘Well…at least it doesn’t smell like pee.’ She thought absent-mindedly. Not knowing what to make of her discovery Clarke stuck her tongue out, the scientist in her refusing to acknowledge defeat, and she licked her fingertips. ‘The taste is not repulsive either…this certainly isn’t pee or blood.’

Her fingers slipped between her legs again, intent on gathering more of the surprising liquid but she yanked her hand out when her spine spasmed, a pleasurable jolt coursing through her. Quickly covering herself up and blowing out the candle, Clarke huddled in the dark, her mind racing. As her body calmed so did Clarke’s nerves and she found her curiosity getting the better of her. One hand cautiously slid beneath her gown again and she pressed her fingers hard against herself. To her surprise, nothing happened. The odd wetness was still there but that startling jolt did not happen again. Clarke released pressure on herself then dragged the tip of her fingers, wanting to examine the texture of that wetness again but when her fingers reached a certain point her body reacted again, her spine arched off the bed with the shock of it. She pulled her hand away again, overwhelmed by the sensation.

Deciding to forgo any further experimentation Clarke turned on her side and pulled her legs up to her chest. She surprise had worn of quicker and Clarke attempted to still her mind but found herself unable to focus on anything except the gentle warm feeling between her legs. ‘God, what have I gotten myself into…’ 

For a while she resisted the urge to touch but eventually frustration got the better of her again, her mind unable to commit to any other thought. Anticipation and dread combined in her mind as her fingers gently ran against her slick skin, her body heating up and shivering at the same time in reaction to her rubbing motion. She kept up the motion, not only because of the never before experienced physical pleasure but because she was determined to see what would happen. She knew she could not stay in such a state for long and hoped something would end her predicament. 

After a few minutes Clarke whimpered in agony. Rather than subside the feeling continued to mount stronger. Her chest fell and rose with the shortness of her breath and the pleasure she had hoped to drive away pulsed stronger between her legs. She felt as though she was a slave to these sensations. She pulled her hand away again, worry gnawing at the edge of her consciousness. ‘Am I going mad?’ Clarke fretted the repercussions of what she may have done to her body. Despite years of studying the human body she had absolutely no idea what was happening to her own. Horrifying images of being locked in a madhouse assaulted Clarke’s mind. ‘What if this will never stop?’ she worried as the sensation refused to die down even after she had extracted her hand from between her legs. Her mind conjured vivid images, doctors inspecting her, looking down at her with pity as she sat on the floor among the other inmates, in a soiled gown, a hand stuck between her legs even as she was being observed, unable to stop rubbing herself, forever a slave to this pleasure as she slowly wasted away.

Despite the worry that gripped her soul she felt a dark, looming presence inside of her, demanding attention. The agonizing throb between her legs beat with the same rhythm as her heart and Clarke acknowledged defeat with a desperate mewl as her hand descended again. A groan borne of both relief and desperation tore from Clarke’s lips as her hand started the now familiar motions anew, and Clarke begged whatever God would listen that there be a cure to what she was feeling. 

Not more than a few strokes later Clarke’s spine arched off the bed, her hand gripping the mattress beneath her for dear life as pleasure like nothing before it coursed through her body. When she could not bear it any longer she removed her hand, relief immediately flooding her when the compulsion to press her hand between her legs desisted. As her breathing returned to normal Clarke’s mind also quieted, softly chuckling at her own foolishness. Her last thought before she finally fell asleep was that she had not lost her sanity after all.

Chapter Text

Throughout her childhood the ticking of the grandfather clock had always been a peculiar thing to Lexa. It appeared to have a menacing power of its own, its nature entirely predisposed against the wishes of humanity. Its monotonous ticking could be an overbearing presence pounding mercilessly against her ears when time was of any importance, mocking her silent pleas for the minutes to pass at a different pace than they did. Little Lexa had been convinced that the clock was an ill-natured creature who fed on human need, for the cruel and callous sound only imposed on her when she was most dependent, its ticking diminishing to a barely noticeable presence when the passage of time bore no consequence to her. 

Lexa smiled weakly at her childhood memory as she glanced at the dials which crawled around the clock, leaving her in a state of abject frustration. While she had learned that the multitude of cogs and gears making up the insides of the elaborately decorated clock had neither soul nor mind of its own, the frustrations it induced never diminished. Her current predicament was perhaps the most frustrating for she felt perpetually stranded between wishing for time to cease movement altogether or to quicken its steps. Her heart yearned to see Clarke again and for that she wished time would cease its crawl and deliver her friend to her sooner but her uncle’s ominous persistence that he would like a word with Clarke in private before they departed for the picnic they had planned made Lexa wish time would freeze them all in place. His uncompromising insistence bode ill in Lexa’s mind and she rather preferred to stay suspended in time at a point when Clarke had not yet learned of her betrayal and their bond had not yet been tested by the breach of trust. 

In her moments of clarity she soothed her fears with the confidence she felt regarding her uncle’s love for her. Uncle Gustus had never made a single decision that would jeopardize her happiness. While she has heard rumours of his ability to be ruthless when the occasion required she has never seen him be anything but attentive and fond, if not a little strict or teasing at times. The fear that gripped her soul when she thought of what he might make of Clarke’s desire to breach the realms of men was entirely alien to her. When she herself thought about it she found it to be quite innocent. Clarke merely wished to cultivate her mind and it was beyond her to decipher why men behaved so irrationally when confronted with ambitious women. Why her own uncle would align himself with such men was even more of a mystery. Thus she attempted to talk herself out of her fears more often than not to little avail.

The next time she glanced at the clock it informed her that it was close to two in the afternoon, the time Clarke was agreed to arrive. As much as she desired to rush from the sitting room and intercept Clarke, forewarn her that she had accidentally let her secret slip and ask her not to be too cross with her, she was bound by the honour of her promise to stay put. She threw the book that had lain unread in her lap for the better part of the last hour on the table, anxious for time to speed up again. She directed a futile glare at the clock, her childhood suspicions about the evil spirit of the clock rearing its head. ‘If it isn’t the clock then it must be Time itself that is evil…it forever slows down when I need it to quicken and races with the speed of stallions when I wish it to stop…’

Finally being unable to recline on the settee Lexa stood and started pacing the length of the room, the sensation of movement giving her the illusion that something was happening. She walked briskly from the window, glancing outside each time to see the carriage arriving, and back towards the offending clock, her eyes plastered on the dials helplessly, willing them to move. It felt like a unique mode of torture to Lexa, walking back and forth between the possibility of seeing Clarke and keeping track of time. Everything in the room felt suffocating, each item she took note of mocking her in some way. The window mocked her for she did not see Clarke arrive, time itself mocked her with its offensively sluggish speed. The settee mocked her for memories of another settee on which they had embraced assaulted her senses. Lexa stopped briefly, allowing the memory to comfort her, remembering Clarke’s warm embrace, the love and security she felt enveloped in her friend’s loving arms. She could feel her skin tingle with yearning, the desire to wrap her arms around Clarke suddenly overwhelming. But it was bittersweet comfort for worry reared its head again, torturing her with the possibility that Clarke may not be quite as fond of her if she found out that she had let her secret slip. 

She was suddenly forced from the maze of her fears and dreams when the door to the sitting room opened and her head whipped around so fast she felt an uncomfortable twinge in her neck. It resulted in a painful pull but Lexa was beyond caring when her gaze fell on Clarke. Her presence seemed almost absurdly impossible for a moment before Lexa’s heart swelled with happiness, pushing all other thought out of her mind. She rushed to her friend with a joyful exclamation of her name and wrapped her arms around her in crushing hug. Her hands slid up the rigid columns of whalebone that made up the frame of Clarke’s corset up until her fingers reached Clarke’s shoulders and she moulded their bodies together. Her face pressed against Clarke’s soft skin, her golden hair tickling her other cheek as she pressed and rubbed closer to the woman, her nose seeking the scent that refused to leave her mind since the day before.

When she felt the reassuring  pressure of arms wrapping around her in kind she was flooded with relief. Her breath expelled from her lungs in harsh breaths as she fought to swallow the sob that threatened to burst forth and started peppering soft kisses on whatever skin her lips could reach, haphazardly moving from the side of Clarke’s neck up towards her jaw.

“Lexa” Clarke said in awe, unsure of what could possibly have happened to propel her usually reserved friend to exhibit such a profound mixture of relief and anxiety. Her voice was breathy from the assault of sensations born from Lexa’s kisses on her skin but she struggled to maintain her focus on finding out the reason for such an unrestrained, nay, desperate show of bodily affection. Lexa certainly was affectionate with words and sentiment but never to this extent with her touches. “Lexa, darling, whatever is the matter?” Clarke asked again, gently coaxing her friend a little farther away but still enveloped in the warmth of her embrace, wishing to take a good look at Lexa’s face. 

“I… having been driving myself insane with worry, Clarke.” Lexa replied honestly, her gaze roaming all over Clarke’s calm features. The fact that her friend did not seem to be upset in the slightest further reassured Lexa. 

“But why?” Clarke asked, confused. She let go of Lexa’s shoulders with one hand to bring it up to gently caress her cheek. “What is the matter?” 

“Uncle Gus…he seemed so cross yesterday. And he was adamant that he have a word with you. I worried myself sick. Was he very cross with you?” Lexa asked.
 
Clarke was at a loss for words. Sir Gustus had appeared to her cordial if perhaps a little more frankly to the point than she was accustomed to. Certainly not cross. Although he had said he would prefer that their conversation remain private, obligating Clarke to secrecy. Every implausible lie that sprung to her mind died in her throat, the words sticking to the roof of her mouth uncomfortably. Her tongue worked uselessly in her mouth for it neither formed words she could utter nor rid her of the distasteful lies crowding her mind. In a bid to stall for time she gently snaked her hand behind the nape of Lexa’s neck and pressed her fingers into the soft baby hairs to tilt her friend’s head forward to press her lips against her forehead. 

“Perhaps we might have that conversation in a more pleasant setting? The weather is gorgeous today and I do so wish to immerse myself in it. Can we go to our picnic site first?” Clarke suggested, her eyes shone with genuine hope.

‘Well…she doesn’t seem to hate me. Perhaps not all is lost after all?’ Lexa wondered silently as she regarded her friend. Her behaviour was so reassuring Lexa couldn’t help but sink into the comforting warmth of relief. She was so grateful that Fortuna had taken her side that she happily agreed to curb her curiosity for a short time.

 


 

The luscious flora of the park at Woodfield never ceased to amaze Clarke. Although the fossilized remains of long ago deceased animals had a significantly greater appeal for her she very much enjoyed the refreshing scent of greenery found at Woodfield. She was secretly rather grateful that Lexa, knowing every nook of the park quite well, was content to allow Clarke to choose their picnic locations which afforded her the opportunity to explore something new each time. 

Clarke had chosen the far side of the small lake. The scenery wasn’t quite as beautiful as the other side, the shore here was somewhat overgrown with reeds and a dense patch of trees surrounded the strip of grass between the two but the quiet intimacy of it had an appeal to Clarke that she was disinclined to resist.

Together they made quick work of setting up their picnic spot and Clarke’s eyes lit with delight as she peered into the basket she took from Annie before departing. “Is that a cheesecake?” She asked, her voice high with excitement.

Lexa smiled indulgently, remembering quite well how fond Clarke was of that particular dessert. Remembering the very first time they met always brought a gentle smile to her lips. Upon laying her eyes on her for the first time Clarke appeared to be a whirlwind set loose upon a wheat field. ‘A very peculiar whirlwind with her manly riding breeches and loud spirited conversation.’ And yet despite her first impressions the girl’s natural playfulness and easy humor grew close to her heart. She thought it was a wondrous thing that Clarke read her so well after but an hour together that she knew to save some of the lobster for her. As far as Lexa was concerned their friendship had been set in stone from that moment onward.

“I know it’s your favourite.” Lexa said with a smile. “I rushed down to Cook first thing in the morning and told him to drop everything and make a fresh cheesecake for my picnic today!” She said, a hint of rebellious triumph colouring her voice. 

“Oh have you?” Clarke asked with interest. She knew from experience that most male cooks serving at large houses tended to be rather proud creatures particularly if they were of the French breed like at Woodfield. It was a peculiar position, that of the cook, most especially if they were men. Being the undisputed head of the kitchen they often came with lofty ideas about their art and the extent that could be encroached upon. Apparently the newly rich who had not been quite as confident in their stature as the old aristocratic breed of England had on occasion found themselves intimidated by their own cook. Or so Clarke had heard her father lament about it at dinner.

“Quite! I could see he was very cross too!” Lexa said mischievously. “Monsieur Cook has his pride, certainly, but he dared not disobey a direct order. I saw it in the hardness of his eyes though.”

‘Well… Lexa certainly feels no trepidation in handling her servants.’ Clarke took the cheesecake out of the basket and brought it close to her nose. “It smells excellent. I am glad he was not spiteful enough to make it mediocre.” 

“Oh, he would never!” Lexa exclaimed with faux shock. “That would quite possibly wound his ego beyond repair. He prides himself with his excellent references. I can usually hear him shout at the top of his lungs the entire day at the kitchen staff for the smallest of mistakes before Christmas dinners. He accepts nothing but perfection. I think the reason why Uncle Gus tolerates the constant ruckus from the kitchens is because he certainly delivers nothing but perfection. His French croissants are superb.” Lexa gushed fondly.

Clarke quickly sliced the cheesecake and offered a healthy slice to Lexa before taking one for herself. Her mouth watered in anticipation as she sliced into the wobbly column of sweet dairy with her fork and quickly took a large bite, slowly savouring the taste. She closed her eyes concentrating on the joy her taste buds experienced as the cream melted in her mouth and couldn’t help her low moan of approval.

Lexa grinned happily, elated at Clarke’s obvious joy, and the soft noise she made as she savoured the taste with closed eyes sent a thrill down her spine. She had half the mind to abandon her quest to learn what her uncle wanted to interview Clarke about, weary to ruin the pleasant afternoon they could enjoy in each other’s company but her curiosity was constantly nibbling at the edges of her consciousness. She silently debated how to broach the subject again as she consumed her own slice of cake.

“So…what DID my uncle want to talk to you about?” Lexa had decided that a straightforward approach would be the most honest. 

Clarke let a sigh slip past her lips as she set her plate and fork down. “I was rather hoping you had forgotten and would not broach the subject again. Your uncle asked me not to convey to you what had been said… but I feel quite disinclined to lie to you.” Clarke offered by way of introduction. “He…asked many questions about your whereabouts and what we did on our outings. He was particularly interested in how often my cousin joined us.” 

It was in that moment that it dawned on Lexa that her uncle had been so adamant to converse with Clarke privately because he wanted to verify her claims regarding Mr. Collins. Indignation at being cross-questioned surged in her chest for a moment. ‘As if I had ever lied to him!’

“And what did you say?” Lexa asked, curiosity now piqued by the new development.

“I did not reveal the portrait if that is what had you so concerned.” Clarke offered with a gentle smile. She moved her hand to caress Lexa’s before she threaded their fingers together. She felt the skin of her palm come alive at their touch and the memory of yesterday’s overpowering show of affection floated to the surface of her consciousness.

A pang of guilt constricted Lexa’s chest at her friend’s thoughtful gesture. “It is not the painting I was worried about but you.” Lexa said with trepidation in her voice as she cast her eyes at Clarke in a silent plea. “It would appear that he had taken it into his mind that I had allowed Mr. Collins to make inappropriate advances because I too was questioned yesterday. Apparently I had not managed to sooth his fears despite…despite the fact that in my effort to do so I accidentally told him that you are studying medicine.” Lexa felt oddly relieved after the admission.

Clarke felt her insides freeze much the same way as small forest animals would when you accidentally stumbled upon them. Her mind raced to repeat the full conversation in her head and the newfound knowledge made some of Sir Gustus’ remarks make that much more sense. It felt like she had just been gifted the missing pieces of a puzzle that would allow her to make sense of the picture she had been staring at ripe with befuddlement.

“And…did he say anything to you about it?” Clarke asked cautiously, her tone revealing nothing of her feelings.

Lexa shook her head. “Just that he wished to speak with you. But apparently his aim had been to see if I had lied to him. Are very upset with me?” Lexa asked dejectedly.

Clarke took a moment to examine her feelings as she kept her gaze steadily trained on Lexa’s face. She thought she ought to be more upset for she had shared with Lexa how prejudiced men often became when they found out about her occupation. She felt twinge of what-if inspired dread at the notion that Sir Gustus could have prevented them from making further contact if he were of such disposition but she immediately discarded the idea. Clearly Sir Gustus was not the sort of man and she had had to have more faith in Lexa’s judgment. She was fairly sure her friend would have been more cautious if she had known her uncle to be that prejudiced. As for her own feelings… Clarke was quite sure she would have been extremely nervous had she learned this before meeting Sir Gustus but now… her most dominant feeling was akin to sorrow and loss.

“I cannot say that I am happy about this, Lexa. What if… what if he had been so enraged that he forbid us to see each other again? Surly my aunt and uncle would have been at least curious. If my uncle had come to call and inquire… if my mother had found out that her brother knew…” Clarke shuddered at the thought. Her lips tensed and pursed, her mind giving into its tendency to envision the worst regardless of how valiantly Clarke tried to fight off the ominous clouds of uninvited thoughts.

“Oh Clarke…” Lexa breathed her name barely audibly. This course of events had not occurred to her when she debated how to answer her uncle’s slyly imposed question. “I am so sorry, I didn’t think that could happen.” She scooted closer to Clarke and pressed her front against her side, wrapping her in another hug. “Please forgive me… it’s just…he cornered me. And I… I didn’t want to get Mr. Collins in trouble.” The moment the words were out of her mouth Lexa wished she could take them back. They had come out entirely wrong. But before she could protest her own folly she felt Clarke sharply pull away to look at her.

“You were thinking of Finn’s well-being but not mine?” Clarke asked, astonished, perhaps a good measure hurt even. ‘Perhaps she does love Finn… and I… she has only known me for a few weeks of course she would choose his safety over mine…’ Clarke’s mind raced with unpleasant thoughts that swiftly curdled her mood.

“No, no, Clarke. Please, that is…not…that is not how I had meant it. Please…let me explain?” Lexa’s voice trembled with unshed tears, worry gnawing at her  frantic mind to set right what she had wronged.

Clarke regarded her for a moment then nodded in consent. She was bound to do so, feeling powerless to resist Lexa’s wishes even as the flames of jealousy boiled her insides alive.

“Uncle Gus…he was…uncharacteristically sly… or at least he has not behaved with me so before… he…” Lexa blushed at the very implication, her stumbling over her embarrassment. “He tricked me into thinking that my dress was buttoned up wrong. Naturally my mind rushed to the massage you had given me and how I had loosened my gown for you. I was so shocked my hand flew to my chest to cover my supposed blunder. But…that was itself the blunder for my gown was in fact perfectly done up. Please Clarke…consider what that must have looked like to him. He was so sure I had allowed Mr. Collins to spoil me. I hurried to explain, telling him that you had given me a massage…”

Clarke’s ears soaked up the information presented, the stinging flame of her jealousy slowly dying down. Despite the seriousness of their conversation Clarke had to stifle an amused smile. The very notion that her goody two-shoes* cousin could possibly do something so abominably reckless was ridiculous. Clarke could well imagine that had the accusation been delivered to him personally the chivalrous fool would have challenged Sir Gustus to a duel on the spot. It was understandable that Lexa wished to spare Finn’s reputation even if Lexa’s choice stung her.

“And…how did you come to broach the subject of my education?” Clarke prompted.

“Well… he seemed so dismissive. I…believe I felt rather personally attacked when he said if I had back pains I should see a professional and I just blurted out that you ARE a professional. I… supposed I had wanted to defend you.” Lexa admitted sheepishly. After Clarke had moved more or less out of her embrace she found little to do with her hands. Her confidence in whether her touch would be received favourably wavered again and she resolved to nervously pick at the lint on the edge of he dress, staring into her laps for fear of the further rejection she might find in Clarke’s eyes.

Clarke genuinely smiled at Lexa’s admission. Her heart soared happily as she realized that Lexa had truly not made a conscious decision to sacrifice her in favour of Finn. The last embers of her jealousy died out upon hearing that Lexa felt personally attacked when her professionalism was questioned. She leaned back closer and pressed her forehead against Lexa’s, moving closer to welcome her friend back into her embrace.

“Lex” Clarke whispered through her smile. “That was very kind of you but I would much rather you didn’t defend me like that again.” She pressed a soft kiss on Lexa’s cheek rather closer to her lips than she usually did. She tensed for a moment, her senses bombarded by the thrill that danced down her spine. An image of them wrapped in each other’s arms on the settee swam in front of her closed eyes and Clarke couldn’t help wondering if Lexa might want to repeat that. She tensed her arms around Lexa’s waist to pull her closer. “Come here. I’m not angry. I was upset but I hadn’t understood your motives. Come here. I just want to feel you close to me.” 

Lexa let a small sob escape her lips as she hastily moved closer upon invitation. The tears that pooled beneath her eyelashes when Clarke told her that she did not need her to defend her thickened into round drops and she felt one escape, leaving a moist path down her cheek. She twisted in Clarke’s welcoming embrace until she mirrored her position, moving her legs out of the way and curling them beneath herself. She pulled Clarke closer still, melting into her embrace as she burrowed her face into her neck.

Clarke felt her skin dampen quickly and realized that Lexa must be crying. Heart breaking for her distressed friend, Clarke began rocking them back and forth cooing soft words of reassurances and soothing sounds into Lexa’s ear. “Shhhh, everything is ok. I’ve got you. I’m here.” Clarke whispered again as she settled as close as she could, lips pressed against Lexa’s skin, her nose resting on her shoulder. She closed her eyes to enjoy Lexa’s warmth, comforting them both at the same time. 


After the air had been cleared between them their high spirits were easily restored. Clarke entertained Lexa with tales of mischief and trouble she had gotten into with her friends at Girton. She very much enjoyed Lexa’s relaxed spirited mood and she racked her brain for the most ludicrous shenanigans she could remember to make Lexa laugh. The one where they all went row boating was a particularly fond memory of hers.

“No! You ALL fell into the water?” Lexa ask, amazed. 

“Oh it was inevitable. The whole boat veered to the side and toppled right over.” Clarke said between laughs. “By the time we managed to struggle ashore we all quite resembled a pack of drowned rats. Or so the warden had told us when we all trudged back to the college estate. I have never seen a single drowned rat myself…”

Lexa giggled at Clarke’s antics. Her recollection of the lively time she spent away from home made Lexa yearn for adventure herself. At the same time the idea of seeing her friend soaking wet seemed to have a surprising allure and she found herself wondering if she could somehow contrive to have a boat brought to their small lake.

“It is a wonder you did not catch your death though, walking about in wet clothes like that!” Lexa said absent-mindedly as she busied herself with transferring the last slice of their cheesecake onto a plate. She had noticed Clarke throwing glances as it but her constant stream of tales prevented her from indulging. Their hands brushed as Lexa raised the fork to Clarke’s lips. “Here, have some.” 

Clarke smiled playfully at Lexa, finding humour in the notion of being hand fed like an invalid while she would have been clearly capable of feeding herself. She opened her mouth expectantly and leaned closer, her eyes never leaving Lexa’s. She saw the playful glint mirrored in her expression.

An unexpected shiver ran down Lexa’s spine when Clarke playfully arched her eyebrow which caused her hand to tremble just as the fork passed between Clarke’s lips. When she pulled her hand back she saw that she had managed to smear the cream right over Clarke’s upper lip. Momentarily distracted by the sight, Lexa found herself staring that Clarke’s lips, suddenly remembering how gentle they were against the skin of her neck. Her cheeks flushed at the memory and the feelings they stirred within her belly.

“Is everything okay?” Clarke asked, unaware of the reason why Lexa appeared to be distracted, seeing only that her friend’s eyes were glued to her lips. The discovery made her skin tingle pleasantly. 

“I..um…yes..just…you have” Lexa’s speech faltered as words escaped her. She felt quite flustered and in an attempt to free herself from the influence of the vision before her she reached out and brushed the bit of cream from Clarke’s lip with her finger. Clarke’s lip felt soft and supple under her touch and the desire to reacquaint her skin with Clarke’s kisses rose within her chest. She pulled her hand away with the intention of wiping the residue from her fingers when she was surprised by the gentle hand on her wrist. 

“Not so fast. That is mine…” Clarke whispered as she brought Lexa’s hand back to her parted lips. Lexa was captivated and watched as the very tip of Clarke’s tongue peeked out from between her lips to lick the cream off her finger. Another shiver ran down her spine as pink lips briefly wrapped around her finger before quickly releasing it. She suddenly felt conscious of how close they were still sitting to one another and she leaned in towards Clarke’s ear.

“Claaarke…” Lexa whispered her name long, her voice slightly whiny. “You make me feel things I have never felt before…” she admitted in a low voice, her lips tracing the shell of Clarke’s ear.

“As do you…” Clarke replied in kind, her eyes closing at the sensation of Lexa’s breath on her ear. “No one has ever inspired such affection within me as you do…”

When Lexa’s lips pressed against the delicate skin beneath her ear Clarke’s breath hitched and she pressed herself more against Lexa. “Lex… that feels…good. So good.” 

Encouraged by Clarke’s words Lexa pressed her lips more firmly against her skin, gently exploring for a few moments before kissing a path across her jaw. When her lips reached Clarke’s chin she pressed her forehead against hers. Clarke’s harsh breathing beat against her lips as she attempted to reign in the feelings that Lexa unleashed inside her.

“C-Clarke…” Lexa groaned, unable to resist the urge that captured her. “I…I really wish to kiss your lips…”

“I really wish you would” Clarke whispered back.

“But… isn’t that something we’re supposed to do with men?” Lexa voiced her vague concerns. She herself had never felt the desire to kiss anyone on the lips before now but the romance novels she so avidly read in her adolescent years described it happening between men and women in plentiful detail. That she now felt this irresistible desire to kiss her friend sowed the seed of confusion in Lexa’s mind.

“I…don’t think we’re not allowed. You also kiss my cheek…and what is the difference really?” Clarke’s voice was barely audible, she more or less breathed the words against Lexa’s lips, waiting for Lexa to make her decision. When soft lips pressed against hers she immediately realized just how different those kisses were. Excitement blossomed in her chest as she tasted Lexa’s pliant bottom lip, sliding her own around it. She moaned into the kiss in approval and pressed closer. 

Long moments stretched out unnoticed as they gently nudged each other’s lips back and forth exploring the sensations their kisses ignited. When Lexa finally broke the kiss she did not stray afar, their breaths mingled as she attempted to calm her racing heart.

“I…think that was much better than kissing your cheek.” Lexa said with a smile, her eyes half-lidded with a blissful expression gracing her features.

“Indeed.” Clarke agreed. “Only…now I feel like I never want to do anything else.” The moment the words slipped past her lips her body jolted violently, remembering her late night activities from last night. ‘Would…kissing long enough bring some kind of joy that would allow me to stop eventually?’ She wondered, remembering how despite her efforts it seemed impossible to stop what she had started until it became too much and her body crashed in a wave of pleasure.

“Perhaps…we might continue in the warm comfort of my room?” Lexa whispered in offering. “It is getting rather cold here.”

Clarke’s insides froze as she realized they were to share a bed tonight. She wondered if that unstoppable feeling would unleash itself upon her again or if that only happened when she was solitaryly confined. Questions of whether Lexa experienced anything similar or how she resolved her situation assaulted her mind even as she nodded in agreement that they should start back towards the mansion. She vaguely hoped that the infernal urge would not rear its head two nights in a row and force her to embarrass herself in front of Lexa.

 

Chapter Text

The very air seemed to have gained possession of a new quality. It has always had the ability to shift and change, faithfully complimenting Lexa’s moods and invisibly accentuating her relationships with people. As it thickened and thinned with tension Lexa often-times thought of the air surrounding her as a great feline companion ruffling its fur. Her very own familiar. And as well as she thought she knew this companion, Clarke had given it an entirely new mode of expression. She scarce dared think it but it was perhaps even a measure of power over her. According to the many volumes in Uncle Gus’ collection, a witch’s familiar mirrors its master’s mood but in Clarke’s proximity Lexa was unsure if the air was reacting to her or quite the contrary. With her mind’s eye she saw her feline companion purr in satisfaction whenever Clarke was near and Lexa was left wondering if the vibrating air between them was the cause or expression of it. 

As Clarke’s palm gently slid along the slope of her lower back, matching her strides to Lexa’s so as to make their walk comfortable Lexa felt exceptionally aware of their physical connection. Her very soul purred with joy as she glanced at Clarke, silently telling her how welcome the close proximity was. As a gentle smile slowly spread across her face Clarke’s eyes lit up and the air thickened to a suffocating quality between them. Lexa involuntarily pressed closer to Clarke’s side, her head tilting as she lost herself in an ocean of blue. Her eyelids fluttered heavily as she felt herself drawn closer, in irresistible attraction pulsing between them all the more as her gaze shifted to Clarke’s lips. Neither of them noticed that they had stopped walking.

“Good God, this power you have gained over me. Are you perhaps a witch come to ensnare me?” Lexa whispered. 

“I should ask you the same thing my dear, for I feel positively enthralled by your closeness and find myself never wanting to leave your side.” Clarke whispered back, her head tilting a fraction closer.

The sharp cry of a bird of prey startled them out of each other’s embrace before their lips inevitably sought out one another. As she glanced around Lexa became keenly aware of how exposed they were on the slope of one of the small hills that surrounded the mansion. The confusion and uncertainty she felt previously reared its head again, wondering if what they were doing was not in fact inappropriate. ‘But how could it be? Did the Greeks not say that beauty was inherently good?’ Lexa felt conflicted. Never in her life had she come quite so alive as with Clarke but none of the books she had read, which made up the majority of her worldly experience, described such an inexplicable pull between two women.

She stepped out of Clarke’s embrace, her face softening with an apologetic look. “I feel much too exposed here. Shall we continue our walk?” She asked wishing that the tone of her voice would convey to Clarke all that she found incapable of turning into words.

For the briefest of moments Clarke tensed up as the uncomfortable bile of worry filled her gut but found her ailment cured by Lexa’s gentle smile and earnest expression. She cussed at herself for losing herself in the moment despite Lexa’s clear wishes to secure themselves some privacy. She herself had been oblivious to the need of it until Lexa voiced her confusion and even now she was unsure if what they were experiencing could be wrong. ‘After all is this not the same as what I saw all those women share at school? If so many are doing it…’

“Of course my dear.” Clarke replied and kept her distance so as to not hinder their progress. Per force of the pull she still felt enslaved to she was obliged to carry their empty picnic basket in her left hand to avoid attempting to reach out for Lexa again.

 


 

Clarke felt anticipation bubble deep inside her chest with each step that brought them closer to Lexa’s bedchamber. For a brief moment wished Lexa had been of humbler means for the journey from their picnic site to the door of said room appeared to Clarke to take an eternity to brave. Now having been relieved of her burden Clarke found no use for her hands and she clasped them nervously in front of herself, her palm sliding over the wrist of her other hand, its thumb massaging her own skin to feint occupation.

Unsure how to ask for more closeness, for all of their previous interactions occurred of their own accord Clarke stood just inside Lexa’s room, her gaze following her friend as she moved about, removing her shawl to hang it on a peg as she went.

When Lexa turned and saw Clarke awkwardly standing by the door, clearly unsure of what to make of her predicament Lexa felt a surge of affection. ‘She seems to be just as lost as I am in this whirlwind…’ She reached out toward her in invitation. “Come, sit with me.”

Clarke smiled gratefully, momentarily relieved by the comfort of following instruction. She was habitually of a confidently initiative nature, keen on exploring that which lay unknown to her inquisitive mind. Yet the vast mystery of this uncharted territory had turned her a shade timid. Intuitively feeling that she and Lexa should match their pace in this discovery she felt reassured that Lexa was so quick to take initiative when she herself was at a loss. 

She sat gingerly on the settee, excitement and anticipation bubbling happily in her chest as her fingers traced Lexa’s cheek. Lexa moved almost involuntarily nuzzling her cheek against the warm palm of Clarke’s hand. When her lips grazed the soft skin she pressed against it more fully, leaving a wet patch in the wake of her kiss. 

‘God, Clarke…whatever spell you have put on me… I beseech you to never take it off.’ Lexa thought what she dared not voice yet as she basked in the glory of their shared journey. Seeing the familiar mixture of uncertainty and awe mirrored in Clarke’s eyes gave Lexa courage that she just may be able to be Clarke’s companion in exploring this unknown surge of affection.

When she opened her eyes the sight of Clarke sent a shiver down her spine. Her friend’s gaze  had a unique depth to it, the way the black of her eye swallowed the clear blue surrounding it lent her gaze a darkness Lexa only ever saw in Clarke’s eye and even there only just minutes on that slope. There was an alluring magnetism in this depth which she found unable to resist. As she leaned closer her eyes slowly fluttered closed and her lips slightly parted in anticipation of the thrill she was developing a craving for.

Just as she felt the first flutter of Lexa’s breath on her lips Clarke was dismayed at the intrusion of a knock on Lexa’s door. Her posture sagged in defeat, only somewhat consoled by the feeling of sympathy as Lexa voiced her own annoyance with a disappointed mewl. Their gazes locked for a moment as they both sat straighter, the spark of an unvoiced promise stirring the flames of something unnamed within their souls. 

“Enter.” Lexa said imperiously as she fought to rein her temper.

“Miss Woods, Miss Griffin, dinner will be served very shortly.” Annie said, politely standing just by the open door. 

Lexa fought the spark if ire from her eyes, the very notion of food being farthest from her mind. “Thank you Annie. Perhaps you might send us up a plate each.” Lexa said in a tone that clearly indicated it was not a suggestion. However, when halfway through her command Annie bit her bottom lip nervously Lexa squinted her eyes, annoyed at the sure expectation of being defied. She knew her maids well, most of them having served her family since her uncle took her under his wings and Annie only ever bit her lips when she was conflicted by opposing instructions.

“I’m sorry Miss. Sir Gustus very clearly told me to bring you down for dinner.” Annie said timidly.

“Of course. Than dine we shall.” Lexa said with an air of acceptance, not wishing to punish the messenger with the wrath of her ire. The unwitting maid was, after all, innocent. “You can go, Annie. We shall be downstairs momentarily.” 

The moment the door closed Lexa’s emotions jostled to make an appearance on her features. She was overwhelmed by the lingering annoyance of having been interrupted combined with a new surge of curious apprehension. Not having a confident knowledge of what to make of her uncle was unfamiliar to Lexa. She had never had cause to wonder if he approved of something or not, his behaviour had always given her clues as clear as day.

Her gaze locked with Clarke’s again who had since then regained her composure, resigned to the fate of having to endure polite conversation. “Well… I suppose we should go downstairs. Best not let uncle Gus wait for too long.”

 


 

“Impeccable timing as ever, Alexandra.” Sir Gustus greeted them with approval. 

He was sat at the head of the long table that stretched along the length the dining hall. It was a well-polished masterpiece of craftsmanship as far as Clarke could tell. The surface gleamed proudly, it had clearly been freshly polished for the occasion. Clarke had not paused to count but estimated that it could easily sit twenty or even thirty people when employed to its capacity. As at present there were only three sets of dinnerware laid out much of the table had been left bare. She only afforded a cursory glance at the legs of the table but noticed that they were ornately decorated before they reached the table and sat down on either side of Sir Gustus.

“Sir Gustus, thank you again for having me.” Clarke thanked politely after she had been seated. She was grateful that dinner appeared to be treated as an informal family affair for she had always thought that it had been awkward sitting down at formal or even semi-formal occasions. Most footmen had difficulties calculating the placement of her chair and either ended up uncomfortably pressing its edge up against her shins or else far away enough that she was obliged to pull it closer after politely accepting the useless assistance. That evening, however, the servants stood by the walls barely visible in soft glow of the candle light and appearing out of thin air at just the right time to offer assistance when needed.

The supper laid out before her seemed absolutely superb. In the centre of the triangle the three of the diners formed there was a pie and as the butler cut into it she recognized it as a veal and ham pie. On the side dishes there were pressed brisket of beef, salads, there was rice, shaped into perfect mounds. Stewed fruit accompanied the meats and there were of course, in the event that any of the diners should feel uneasy about the stomach, laid out butter with biscuits, bread and cheeses.*

Clarke being the guest of the house was served first. She graciously accepted a slice of pie but declined on the beef, its meat being rather heavy on her stomach, and requested salad and fruit sides. Politely waiting for everyone else to be served, Clarke watched with interest as the butler and footmen worked seamlessly together to pile the preferred dishes and sides on their Master and Mistress’ plates. Unsurprisingly, Clarke noted, Sir Gustus took healthy helpings of meats with rice.  Lexa took thin slices of beef with a side of fruit and instructed the waiting footman to toast and butter some bread for her.

When the servants retreated a respectable distance away to afford privacy to the diners yet be conveniently close should any of their glasses need filling Sir Gustus addressed Clarke. “And how are you finding Woodfield, Miss Griffin?”

“The gardens are magnificent, Sir” Clarke replied politely between bites. As the savoury taste spread in her mouth she hummed in contentment for a moment. “As well as the mastery of your cook. I must commend him.” 

“Ah but you have yet had the pleasure of one of his grand dinner menus. That will surly be rectified at the ball. You have invited her, Alexandra?” Sir Gustus turned briefly to his niece.

“Uncle Gus! What a thing to ask, really.” Lexa replied, astonished at the ludicrousness of the question. “But of course I have invited Clarke.”

“Very good. And she shall be the guest of honour?” It was more of a statement than a question, the upending lilt in his voice was rather an afterthought. 

“Oh no, Sir, I insisted that I should not.” Clarke hurried to explain. 

Sir Gustus raised an eyebrow in surprise and for a moment Clarke felt as though the man had seized her up with his shrewd glance. “Well it is not a man’s place to meddle in such dealings of women. However, I had been given the impression that you were to be properly introduced to society this summer?” 

Clarke stared at him with rounded eyes, even her hand holding the fork had stopped mid-motion. She was infinitely grateful to Lexa when she hurried to her rescue and drew Sir Gustus’ attention to herself so as to allow Clarke to compose herself. 

“And pray who have you been conferring with?” Lexa asked, herself surprised but significantly less intimidated. 

“Miss Griffin’s uncle came to call after you had been introduced.” Sir Gustus said simply. “But I do not understand your surprise. It is the natural order of things that men should acquaint themselves with one another when members of their household become…such intimate friends” He raised the wine glass to his lips before continuing “particularly as he so happens to be the sire of your suitor as well.”

Lexa blushed furiously at the mention of Finn, likely reminded of the web of rumours she had nearly found herself entangled in. Clarke noted that Sir Gustus’ eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly, assessing and more than likely misinterpreting Lexa’s reaction. She felt helpless to intervene, for what was there to say? Lexa had been rather secretive about her relations with Finn. She was only certain that she had not given herself to him.

“But Lexa quite knows how much I detest such attention. I was truly relieved when she agreed not to make me guest of honour.” Clarke attempted to divert the flow of conversation back at herself.

Sir Gustus hummed in acknowledgement but otherwise remained silent. For a minute he busied himself with his plate which offered a brief respite to both Clarke and Lexa who seized the moment to share a look over the dinner table. Had the three of them not been seated quite so closely, or had Sir Gustus been a man of smaller stature Clarke would have been tempted to seek out Lexa’s foot with her own to nudge in reassurance but the terrifying possibility of bumping into Sir Gustus’ legs and the possible embarrassment it may cause kept such impulses at bay. 

“And what of professional attention?” Sir Gustus said after a few bites.

“I beg your pardon, Sir?” Clarke asked to clarify.

“I hear you have been providing aid to my niece’s ailment. One I have not heard of myself.” Sir Gustus said in an unreadable tone. The shaggy growth of hair covering the majority of his face making it all the more difficult to read his expression. “What is your impression? Have you come upon the root of it?” 

Clarke’s mind seized in stupor for a moment, disbelieving what her ear so clearly heard. ‘Is he…testing me?’ Clarke wondered, moderately insulted but possibility. She schooled her features into the professionally blank mask they were taught to adopt when discussing the conditions of patients.

“It is nothing serious, Sir. Bad posture while she is secluded with a book all day.” Clarke said solemnly. To all appearances she stared confidently into Sir Gustus’s eyes as she delivered her verdict. However beneath the facade of professionalism, Clarke felt nervous. Her eyes were trained at Sir Gustus for fear that her face would betray her should she chance a glance at Lexa. Lexa’s natural posture was in fact impeccable but even so remaining in the same position unmoving had an adverse effect on the subjects of her art. That, however, was something she was obliged to keep a secret.

“I see. Well I am certainly glad that you have not only been able to provide her relief but managed to lure her out of the house.” Sir Gustus said. “I have not seen her take fresh air quite as much in the past.” 

Clarke accepted the praise with modest bow but remained silent, not particularly comfortable discussing Lexa in such a way in her presence. Despite the lingering defensiveness she felt, she was grateful that the rest of dinner was spent discussing considerably less agitating topics ranging from botany to music to history. While Clarke had acceptably broad knowledge in most common conversation topics it was a taxing task for she felt compelled to show Sir Gustus that she would not be caught out of her depth.

As dinner drew to a close and the servants cleared away the remains Sir Gustus stood from the table. “Miss Griffin…I am aware that is not customary…but perhaps you might like to join me in my study? Do you smoke?”

Clarke was caught by surprise both by the invitation as well as the question. In all the time they had spent together Clarke had yet to smoke in front of Lexa. Her smoking was less of a habit and more of a social fancy. In fact she had not taken her cigarette case out of her drawer in some weeks.

“It is most generous of you to ask, Sir Gustus. Perhaps another evening? I feel I may have overindulged myself today.” Clarke deflected the offer politely. Not only was she rather nervous of what further subjects Sir Gustus would attempt to test her knowledge, she also dearly wished to confer privately with Lexa. Dinner had been quite a strain on her nerves and she was anxious to learn what insight Lexa might have.

“Very well. I wish you a pleasant night then.” Sir Gustus said his goodbyes cordially and retreated to the privacy of his study.

 


 

“Good lord, I thought I should die…” Clarke groaned as soon as they were behind closed doors. “I had not quite expected to be examined under the pretext of supper.”

“Examined?” Lexa asked, confused. “What on Earth are you talking about, Clarke?”

“Why! Sir Gustus. The way he questioned me about the massage I had given you! The broad range of topics he cross-questioned me in.” Clarke all but exclaimed, agitated. It was impossible that Lexa should not have picked up on it. ‘She had been sitting right across from me!’

Lexa smiled at her indulgently at first but her smile gradually broadened into an amused grin. “My dear, Uncle Gus was not cross-questioning you. He was honouring you.” Lexa said not unkindly although there was a considerable edge of humour in her tone. 

“Honouring me?” Clarke asked, nearly scandalized at the notion.

“Quite. Had you not noticed how animated his talk was? He was enjoying himself!” Lexa now chuckled openly as she approached Clarke and grabbed her arms gently. “Clarke, my darling, he even invited you to smoke with him. I would have assumed you would have understood his meaning. He was treating you as he does any man of science that came to visit.” 

Clarke stood staring at Lexa in awe, surprised into silence by her friend’s interpretation. She thought back on the animated discussion they shared and belatedly realized that indeed Sir Gustus never exhibited any of the arrogance or patronization she was used to from the men she could never call her peers. ‘Is…this what it feels like to be treated as their equal?’ She wondered silently. Finally she laughed at the ridiculousness of her own folly.

“I guess I have never been treated as an equal by learned men. I was not expecting it. Did I not make a fool of myself? Did I seem defensive?” Clarke asked, anxious of the first impression she might have made.

“No you did not!” Lexa responded immediately. “You were perfect…you are…perfect.” She said, her tone softening as she stumbled over her words, suddenly aware of their close proximity again. The feeling had crept upon her without notice. One moment she was entirely preoccupied with Clarke’s anxious ramblings the next her mind found it incapable of focusing on anything but the way Clarke’s hands found purchase on her waist. She felt the air grow pleasantly heavy around and between them as their eyes silently communicated with each other, drawing one another into a closer embrace.

“You are…quite perfect yourself.” Clarke whispered, her words ending in a tender smile. “Do you think…” she began to say but her words trailed off without finishing the question, biting her bottom lip instead.

“Yes?” Lexa prompted, eyes searching the pair of clear blues for a meaning.

“If I should attempt to kiss you… do you think we’ll be interrupted a third time?” Clarke asked, smirking playfully. 

“Confident! What makes you think I want to?” Lexa sassed without much conviction. She had revisited the memory of the kiss they had shared a hundred times and the unwelcome interruptions only heightened her anticipation of doing it again. Disconcerting thoughts of confusion attempted to intrude on the moment but they were easily drowned out by want. Lexa found that she wanted to kiss Clarke, wanted to show her how much she adored her. It was, after all, but an innocent act of love. ‘Surly it lacks the… impurity… that would accompany kissing men…’ Lexa had reasoned with herself throughout the evening as she attempted to understand the difference. 

“Your eyes betray you, my dear. You have been looking it my mouth the same way I have been at yours.” Clarke replied in a cheeky tone.

“Hmpf!” Lexa hummed in an act of playful defiance. “Well I should be loathe to be quite so predictable I think. Miss Griffin, I will now go and change into my nightgown. Perhaps you may want to do the same.” And before Clarke could react she was out of her embrace and halfway through the room towards the adjoining chamber, the merry sound of her victorious chuckle trailing behind her. Clarke could do naught but stare after her dumbfounded, her mouth slightly ajar with a bemused expression on her face.

 


 

Clarke was sat comfortably on the settee they had occupied together before supper, her knees pulled high to support the book she had been perusing for some minutes. It was a volume of poems written by one William McGonagall**, an author she had not heard of before. The poetry itself was abysmally terrible but it served to occupy her mind.

Her attention was instantly diverted by the sound of Lexa’s voice. “Have you found anything of interest?”

“No. Just very bad poetry.” Clarke admitted with a playful roll of her eyes as she made room for Lexa on the settee.

“Oh you found the volume of that McGonagall fellow.” Lexa chuckled merrily. “He is quite untalented, is he not? Scottish chap. I read him for the humour of it.” 

“I see.” Clarke said as she dropped the volume on the floor, its terrible literature already a distant memory in her mind as Lexa crowded her space comfortably. 

“He is a wonderful pick me up. Whenever I am insecure about my own accomplishments I remind myself that this man managed to make a name for himself with his lack of talent.” Lexa explained as if to validate the presence of the ghastly volume in her room. 

“You’ve never told me what you do?” Clarke prompted, her curiosity piqued. 

“I sing. And I am rather good at the piano.” Lexa said.

“Will you show me? Tomorrow?” Clarke asked, genuinely interested. She always admired people who were in any measure accomplished with musical instruments for she herself had never managed to learn.

“Gladly.” Lexa’s reply was simple but her tone held a warmth she found she only ever exhibited when she conversed with Clarke. She scooted closer and when Clarke opened her arms in invitation Lexa did not hesitate to lay her head on her friend’s shoulder, enjoying the warm closeness. “I do so enjoy your closeness. I shall miss you immeasurably when you leave.” 

“About that…” Clarke said but trailed off.

“Yes…?” Lexa prompted without moving from her comfortable position.

“I have asked my mother in my last letter if she might allow you to visit, should you be so inclined.” Clarke said, her tone nervous but hopeful. She was surprised when Lexa’s head shot up so fast they nearly bumped together.

“Have you? And what did she say?” Lexa questioned. Her eyes were wide with an eager glint, silently answering Clarke’s implied question.

“I have only sent the letter some days ago. I have yet received a reply. I hope there shall be one before I depart.” Clarke said happily, now confident that Lexa would say yes if only her mother would too. 

“Oh it would be glorious to visit you!” Lexa said enthusiastically.

“Yeah?” Clarke asked, basking in Lexa’s happiness.

“Of course, darling!” Lexa exclaimed, moved by the silent confirmation the invitation provided that Clarke was just as keen on continuing their friendship. “Thank you for asking!” she planted a sloppy kiss on Clarke’s cheek. And then another. And another. Gradually her kisses became gentler and lingered longer, her lips dragging along Clarke’s skin before  breaking contact with a faint squelching noise. She gradually moved lower towards Clarke’s jaw blindly, her eyes having fluttered closed long ago. She was caught by surprise when Clarke inclined her head and the next kiss landed squarely on Clarke’s lips. A soft mewl escaped her throat as Clarke boldly fitted their mouths together, gently sucking on her bottom lip before releasing it. 

Lexa thought they had explored all the sensations their kisses provided but when the tip of Clarke’s tongue brushed against her lip her breath hitched and she gasped into their next kiss, instinctively increasing its pressure. Caught up in the whirlwind of sensation she attempted to mirror Clarke’s gesture but deepened the kiss considerably. The moan that tore from both of their throats left them dazed and panting heavily, momentarily breaking apart to catch their breaths and thoughts. 

Chapter Text

The slightly ticklish sensation of velvety caresses dulled all else in Lexa’s mind as her tongue slid wetly against Clarke’s. Lexa felt as though her presence commanded each of her faculties and she was powerless to resist the slowly churning warmth that spread from her lips to engulf her body. All of her senses were consumed by Clarke and Lexa felt her very being come apart and rearrange around the sensations she never knew existed. She could feel the expanse of her skin, hidden under the dense material of her nightgown, a maddening contrast to the feeling of her fingertips brushing against the soft skin of Clarke’s neck or the silky tangle of her hair. She only had ears for their gentle sighs, the ability to determine whose lips they rose from long gone, merely drinking down the sensation that came with it. Clarke’s mouth tasted faintly of spices and the way she occasionally pulled her bottom lip between hers left Lexa squeaking out a moan, a thrill travelling down her spine to stoke the fire that gradually built low in her stomach. 

The very idea of opening her eyes appeared like an arduous task she was entirely resolved against. With her vision incapacitated Lexa felt the darkness that surrounded her throb with life and for a moment she was not sure if it wasn’t Clarke’s presence dissolved into the air to merge with her completely. The gush of air she drank from Clarke’s lips filled her lungs and Lexa felt nought but the desire to be closer and closer still. Her senses slowly overwhelmed and Lexa was torn between the agony of feeling too much and not enough at the same time.

“Clarke…” Lexa groaned against her captor, her lips convulsing helplessly around the name before melting into another kiss.

Clarke could only moan in response, her ability to form words paralysed by the compelling urge to drink down all that Lexa so willingly offered. Her body shuddered in response to the small whimper that left Lexa’s mouth and her teeth involuntarily closed around the impossibly plump lip still between hers. 

It was a gentle bite but the sharp shock it sent down Lexa’s spine forced her entire body to spasm and she cried out in surprise rather than pain. Their lips sprang apart and eyes bore into one another’s, taking in the effect of their explorations for the first time. 

“Lex…I…” Clarke struggled to formulate words, her tongue so nimble a moment ago felt as if made of stone, barely managing to curve around the consonants of Lexa’s name, let alone voice the regret that swelled in her chest, thinking she might have hurt her friend. 

Lexa saw a swirl of unnecessary and unwelcome emotions surface in Clarke’s eyes and felt compelled to dissolve them. “You didn’t hurt me.” She guessed accurately what conclusion Clarke may have drawn. “It was…a pleasant shock.” She admitted shyly, her cheeks colouring at how obscene it felt to voice that particular thought.

Still at a loss for words but her nerves soothed by Lexa’s reassurances Clarke smiled up at her warmly, basking in the residual glow of feelings. She felt something akin to pride swell in her chest as she glanced at Lexa’s lips, its redder hue and additional plumpness no doubt the result of their kissing. 

As Lexa moved to curl more comfortably on the settee her thighs rubbed together and she felt the embarrassing flow of moisture spread across her skin. She flushed with shame and suddenly she shied away from Clarke, the worry that her body was behaving unnaturally souring her mood. Not wanting her misfunctioning body or anxious thoughts to ruin the pleasant mood she forced a smile on her face and extended her hand to Clarke as she stood. 

Clarke’s keen eyes observed the momentary lapse and silently wondered at the source of Lexa’s confusion and subsequent shyness but resolved not to pry unless she deemed Lexa to be in much discomfort. She hoped Lexa would come to her of her own accord. 

 


Clarke sat restlessly on the edge of the bed as her eyes followed Lexa’s movements. Lexa had pulled her towards the bed, suggesting that they might get more comfortable and ready for the night with a smile but when Clarke pulled the covers away Lexa all but fled the side of the bed, hastily telling her with a tight smile that she might as well extinguish the lights before so she wouldn’t have to get out from the warmth of the sheets again. 

Clarke wondered if she had done something to upset Lexa. She had never seemed quite so distant before. She moved around with the ease of routine, lowering the wicks in what seemed to be a series of those modern paraffin lamps lining the walls. As the lights dimmed with each extinguished lamp Clarke lost the view of Lexa’s face which was now shrouded in shadows. The ominously growing dark only served to accentuate the sudden gulf Clarke felt between herself and Lexa.

When all the light that remained were the two candles on the mantelpiece above the unlit fireplace Clarke moved farther up on the bed, resting her back against the far side of the headboard to give Lexa some space. She watched as her friend picked up a small brass candle snuffer to extinguish one of the candles. Her hand stilled just for a moment, suspended in air before she grabbed the curved handle of the candle holder and slowly made her way towards the bed. To Clarke’s frustration Lexa held the small stump of a candle low, just above her waist which did not provide much light, and her face remained partially covered in shadows.

The deafening silence that accompanied her nightly routine did nothing to soothe Lexa’s nerves as she attempted to collect her wits about her. She stalled the moment when Clarke would ask if she was alright, knowing that facing the question was inevitable. On most occasions Clarke’s considerate and dependable nature warmed her heart but her sense of shame over her body’s inexplicable behaviour made her wish Clarke would fail to be considerate just the one time. 

Vaguely remembering the guiltily whispered admissions of the housemaid she had interrogated after spying on them in the hayloft when she was a small child, Lexa’s deepest fear was that her responses were shamefully inappropriate. ‘Clarke is so innocent…to her this just another friendly gesture of her love for me…the poor soul doesn’t know how my depravity turns into something entirely else.’ Lexa often thought at night as she remembered their kisses and caresses. ‘Good Lord above, her hands kneading my shoulders…’ She was only too happy to believe Clarke when she reassured her of the innocence of their actions, her cheerful and earnest presence keeping her doubts at bay, only for them to return with a vengeance when she and Clarke parted ways. 

Each time Clarke touched her she willed her body to respond as it should, or rather not to respond at all if possible, not finding it in herself to deprive either of them of these small gestures of affection. When it was but small touches she found she could fight this demon but each time Clarke’s lips descended on hers her will proved to be a slave to her feelings rather than the opposite. She hoped that if Clarke were to keep her company afterward her light of innocence would embrace her and protect her from the dark shadows of doubt but to her dismay her body had betrayed her more fiendishly than it ever had.

She set down the candle holder gingerly, paying much closer attention to not making a noise than she normally would have in a last effort to stall the inevitable moment when their eyes would again connect. Lexa climbed into bed and busied herself for a few moments more, pulling the covers up to her neck. A surge of bravery inspired her for just a moment and she turned on her side to face Clarke, whose solemn features were illuminated by the light of the candle. 

Clarke watched anxiously as Lexa settled next to her, no doubt in her mind that she had ruined something between them, inadvertently made Lexa feel awkward, the lack of eye contact or words shared between them being her prime evidence. Yet her heart missed a beat and hope surged within her when Lexa turned to face towards her rather than away from her. She could see the uncharacteristic timidity in her features, even as the majority of her face was shrouded in darkness, as though she was surrendering herself. 

“What is this shadow over your brow, my dear?” Clarke asked as she settled beside her chancing a small gesture of affection in the form of gently caressing Lexa’s brow and cheek with the back of her fingers. 

“Candle light?” Lexa squeaked in response, her sass never failing her even as her nerves were threatening to expire. 

A surprised snort bubbled from Clarke’s throat, not expecting Lexa to tease her. She did not respond to the attempt at evasion but instead kept her eyes trained on Lexa hoping that the love and encouragement she wished to convey shined in her eyes as much as she thought. Now that contact between them had been re-established and to her relief Lexa did not flinch away from her touch Clarke could not find it in herself to desist. Her fingers traced random patterns across her cheek, occasionally tangling in wisps of hair behind her ear.

“I am…worried.” Lexa admitted, her voice barely audible. Feeling the need to be reassured she moved closer, her eyes seeking permission. She needed only wait but a second for Clarke to invite her into her embrace and Lexa immediately moved in to bury her face in the crook of Clarke’s neck, her scent warm and reassuring. 

“Worried about what, dearest?” Clarke asked to clarify, the gall of dread pooling in her stomach. Lexa’s response was so long a coming that Clarke slowly began convincing herself that perhaps her friend was not yet ready to discuss her feelings and she resolved to offer what little comfort she could rather than agitate her further by forcing the matter. 

“I am…worried that I am… corrupting…tainting our friendship and you shall soon learn to hate me for it.” Lexa whispered.

Clarke’s ears rang with the absurdity of the notion and she pulled slightly back, her finger hooking under Lexa’s chin to make her look her in the eye.

“Lex… I don’t even have words for that. Why would you think that? How could I ever hate you?” Clarke stressed the question, befuddled beyond words.  

“Clarke, when you kiss me…or touch me…” Lexa began, soldiering on even as shame constricted her throat, threatening to suffocate her. “I always feel… when I was a child I saw a maid and a footman in passion… I interrogated the girl…I only have vague memories but she told me of this wetness between her legs…I feel that too.” The words spilled from Lexa’s lips unchecked, the need to come clean of the matter overpowering her sense of dead. “But isn’t it beastly and abnormal? You are a woman too! And now you shall hate me for it…” Lexa’s voice broke with emotion on the last few words. 

“I will not!” Clarke responded hotly, astonished by the very notion, her heart breaking for the wonderful creature lying next to her prostrate with such absurd fears. “And if I were to tell you that I feel the same thing… would you be inclined to think I was the one corrupting you with my touches?” Clarke asked gently.

Lexa moved her head back further, her gaze searching Clarke’s open features. “Have you felt it before?”

“No…” Clarke said, meaning to elaborate but was cut off immediately. 

“See!” Lexa exclaimed with dismay and pulled herself into a sitting position. “I was the one who was subjected to this at a tender age…my God, I was the one who first kissed you. I am corrupting…” the words of anguish that spilled from Lexa’s lips were cut short by a gentle finger on her lips.

“No you are not. And even if you are I shall be happily damned!” Clarke swore fervently and in a frenzy of hope and anxiety she crashed their lips together in a kiss heated by the need to touch and claim. 

It was unlike any of the kisses they shared before, a whirlwind of hunger from the moment their lips touched rather than the slow questing of lips gradually building into a frenzy. Lexa whimpered half in desperation half in relief, relishing the way Clarke almost demanded that she yield to her. She let herself fall back against the pillows, pulling Clarke with her. Her breath hitched as she felt Clarke’s weight press her deeper into the mattress and the pooling heat low in her belly surged with renewed vigour. 

When Clarke’s lungs burned for a breath of air she tore her mouth from Lexa’s, peppering her jawline with kisses, willing her breathing under control. “If this is corruption I feel a renewed sympathy for Eve.” She whispered, her lips brushing against the shell of Lexa’s ear. “If the forbidden fruit tasted of your kisses I should be powerless to resist.” 

“Clarke…what blasphemies you speak…” Lexa whispered just as breathlessly.

“True ones.” Clarke replied with a chuckle as she pulled back to look into Lexa’s eyes, resting some of her weight on an elbow next to her. “Even if I were an angel, which I am certainly not, I would happily fall for you.” 

Despite the ridiculousness of Clarke’s words Lexa felt her heart skip a beat. There was so much sincerity behind blue eyes staring back at her that Lexa could not help but believe her for a moment. As an unfamiliar mixture of emotions overwhelmed her she moved to press another gentle kiss on Clarke’s lips.

As Clarke moved into the kiss, shifting her weight to find a compromise between comfort and not crushing the woman beneath her, her thigh slipped between Lexa’s who groaned into her mouth at the unexpected contact. Her hips moved involuntarily and soon Clarke found herself matching the rhythm, her senses focused entirely on Lexa’s reactions. Clarke recognized the now familiar frenzied movements she herself experienced the day before, wondering if Lexa was close to that breaking point where all the frustrations turned into the most exquisite pleasure she had ever felt. Her own breath grew ragged with her movements and she pressed her forehead against Lexa’s cheek, hand gripped at the sheets in an effort to ground herself. The small of her back began to ache with her unusual movements as she put excessive pressure on her lower muscles to maintain their motions.

Lexa was not prepared for the spike of pleasure that forced the air from her lungs and as her breath hitched she stilled her movements, her hands flying to Clarke’s hips.

Clarke’s eyes snapped open and her gaze locked on Lexa’s. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing…just...too much feeling. I… wasn’t ready.” Lexa murmured, a bout of shyness and embarrassment washing over her.

Clarke instinctively understood as she watched Lexa close her eyes and turn her head to hide her face in her shoulder. She moved to press a gentle kiss on the crown of Lexa’s head. “It’s alright. Nothing to feel embarrassed about.”

They stayed silent for a while. Clarke stretched out on her side next to her, an arm softly draped over Lexa’s stomach. She wondered if Lexa had fallen asleep and was about to move to extinguish the last source of light when Lexa’s whisper stilled her movements.

“Did I just… give myself to you? Or almost…”

Clarke remained motionless as she thought about the implications of the question. She had always been squeamish about the subject, for the most part due to her French tutor’s persistent shyness on the subject. While he had been willing to teach her the general anatomy of the human body he resolutely refused to explain what little was known of conception. At Girton she had been woefully forced to read up on the subject but she only did so half heartedly. The little she had retained, however, was that the apparent authorities on the subject agreed that members of the opposite sex were always involved.

“I am…not sure? I had never relished the notion of studying the subject. But… neither of us are men. I do not think it is even possible this way?” Clarke offered. She was surprised when Lexa turned her head to blow out the candle before shifting in bed, their legs tangling as Lexa pushed her on her back. 

Chapter Text

Even as her ears were assaulted by a deafening silence that hummed across her mind Clarke felt as though her skin had learned to absorb the rough music of rustling clothes accompanied by the deeper undertones of skin sliding against skin. She could see with her unseeing eyes, her mind painting the ghostly shape of Lexa’s leisurely moving lips on the inside of her eyelids, all the while keenly aware of the lusciousness of life around them. The contours of flora cradling them in a warm cocoon were dimmed by a rain-heavy mist whose whiteness she could smell, her mind miraculously able to puzzle together the various sensations as her body yielded in Lexa’s embrace. 

A faint tickle she barely noticed at first jostled its way to occupy the centre of Clarke’s attention, unstoppably fading Lexa out of her embrace until Clarke’s eyes snapped open to find complete darkness. Her mind was blank for a moment more as she tried to place herself. She had caught up with the revelation that she had been dreaming and the irritating tickle was a wisp of hair brushing against her nose. Her senses righted themselves as her mind floated to complete consciousness in her effort to rid herself of confusion.

Her confusion stretched for a moment more before the memories of the previous evening rushed upon her. She felt as though she had been staring at a picture, not able to make sense of it until her mind grabbed at a detail that finally made sense and all the rest fell into their natural place, yielding their meaning, her situation becoming as clear as a bright summer sky. She was in Lexa’s bed, tangled not only in the hot snare of sheets but also pressed closely against Lexa’s back. Her nightgown clung to her skin damply when she moved, a clear evidence that her body had overheated in their embrace. Yet despite her discomfort Clarke refused to move, cherishing the way Lexa’s chest moved steadily against the arm she had wrapped around her.

Clarke could not have recounted when they had fallen asleep but she had no doubt that she had seamlessly moved from kissing the Lexa lying inert in her arms to kissing the Lexa of her dreamworld. She remembered that the insatiable rush had come upon them and they had nearly succumbed to it but Lexa stopped her before they could reach that joyous moment when the rush broke and released them of its grasp. It was a revelation to Clarke that in the face of Lexa’s nervousness the feeling was not quite as unrelentingly demanding. After the candle had been blown out her hunger was content to savour Lexa’s lips and the rush had not overpowered them again. 

The one thing that had lodged itself immovably inside Clarke’s mind was Lexa’s uncertain question. ‘Was this pleasure, this instinct sexual after all?’ Having always shied away from the subject pronounced her a lesser expert on it than Lexa who at least had the childhood memories of a testimony from a confirmed source. Clarke had an instinctive impression that she herself had been within reach of such a fountain of knowledge, but lack of care to broach the subject kept her from discovery. ‘If only Raven was here to offer guidance…’ Lexa’s whispered recollections of what the maid had divulged and her own experiences of the previous night collided in her mind, rearranging her thoughts and feelings, shedding light on that which she had hitherto remained happily ignorant of.

It came to her as a surprise, the possibility that she might truly be exploring the secret of sexuality with Lexa, but despite the taboo* and impenetrable moralizing surrounding this base instinct she found she cared very little for the propriety, or lack thereof, of sharing it with another woman. Not when Lexa felt so divine in her arms, when the wet mesh of their lips left her hungering for more. Clarke had always followed a fairly straightforward logic in most aspects of her life. If it felt right on the inside, she cared not what others pronounced on the out. ‘But then there is the matter of sexuality… it had felt so wrong and unappealing before…’ As much as she could deduce without a knowledgeable companion to share her thoughts with, Clarke came to the conclusion that the formal disagreeableness of the matter resided more in the suggestion that one ought to do it with men rather than in the act itself. ‘Well…doing it with Lexa certainly has more appeal…’ An amused smirk twisted Clarke’s lips into a crooked smile as she burrowed her nose deeper into Lexa’s silky hair. Slowly, visions of nibbling on Lexa’s irresistible bottom lip lulled Clarke’s tired mind back into slumber.


 

The haphazardly closed curtains failed to protect against the steady advances of sunlight. Clarke and Lexa peacefully slept through the gradual lightening of the room but when an unforgiving beam of sharp sunlight reached Lexa’s face, shining on her closed eyes in a most unfriendly manner Lexa frowned in discomfort and buried her face deep into the soft protection offered by ‘skin…?’ Lexa’s body tensed, her mind softly taking stock of each sensation it could detect until she remembered. Clarke. In her half-slumbering state Lexa’s mind did not whip itself into a frenzy at their unquestionably intimate sleeping arrangement. Her body relaxed, starting from the shoulders. She felt herself gradually melt back into the embrace the morning had found her in. The softness she found her nose pressed against felt quite unlike anything she had ever encountered before. As she gradually woke more and more she realized that Clarke’s arm was securely wrapped around her waist much the same way as was hers, informing Lexa that they must be facing one another. The memory of Clarke’s reassurances and confidence soothed her slowly awakening nerves. Lexa found herself incapable of ignoring the way her body reacted each time Clarke was near. The shivers, the rush of skin hunger, that embarrassing wetness she could not place. One by one she tried to explain away their encounters but the previous night made that endeavour impossible. Every touch, gesture that felt innocent at the time now gleamed with a new, richer meaning as echoes of the maid's embarrassed words reverberated in Lexa's mind. 'Even if Clarke is right that it is a more innocent form of sensuality because of the lack of masculine...presence. Is sensuality still not a sin without marriage? And for two women...' Lexa fell into a moralizing contemplation even as she absorbed the warmth from Clarke's skin. 'but, God help me, Clarke's embrace feels divine. I’ll be damned if I allow my fears to take this moment of peace from me…’ She thought as she stubbornly pushed away the invading thoughts of propriety and normality.

Her eyes still closed, her hand gently quested across Clarke’s strong back, enjoying the sensation of Clarke’s tightening embrace. When Clarke took a deep breath and Lexa felt her move against her nose and lips, heat rose in her cheeks upon the realization that she had pressed her face against Clarke’s generous bosom. To her surprise, arms tightened around her more as she attempted to move away and the vibrations of a disgruntled groan reverberated against the top of her head, followed by a gentle kiss. “Stay…” she heard the sleep-riddled plea.

Lexa settled back against Clarke, swayed by her plea and took a deep calming breath. Clarke’s skin felt sticky with sweat and there was a unique musky smell Lexa found surprisingly appealing. Her modesty battled the temptation to taste but her resistance inevitably crumbled under the onslaught of Clarke’s offering and she soon found her lips gingerly moving against skin. As her lips dragged against Clarke and the rich salty taste spread in her mouth Lexa’s tongue darted out, the very tip collecting more of Clarke’s sweat that Lexa suddenly found irresistibly to her liking. Lexa felt Clarke move and she froze for a moment, waiting for her reaction. She was relieved when Clarke’s lips stretched into a smile against the top of her head before pressing another kiss against her hair.

“That feels nice…” Clarke whispered her encouragement. She herself moved little but offered ample response, not knowing what conclusions Lexa may have drawn since the previous night. Her own mid-night musings have fortified her. She had made peace with the possibility that their explorations of love and affection may indeed have ventured into the realm of sex. It felt right with Lexa, right in a way she had never come close to with anyone else. ‘Society and propriety be damned…’

Lexa offered a few kisses, each less tentative than the previous one as her confidence grew in proportion with her now familiar hunger. Her mouth roamed the expanse of exposed skin, encouraged by Clarke’s pleased sighs. Annoyed that her chin had caught in the material of Clarke’s gown and restricted her joyous explorations Lexa forgot about the fears and doubts she had about their intimate relations. Her fingers impatiently tugged at the strings that drew the material tight, nimbly loosening them to seek more of Clarke’s flesh. 

The knock on the door was an unwelcome intrusion, coldly breaking into their suspended world. They sprang apart as if contact suddenly burned them, Clarke’s eyes mirroring Lexa’s shyness in the wake of her newfound suspicions of the nature of what they had been engaged in. Clarke offered Lexa a gentle smile as she pushed herself away to what she deemed a respectable distance on the other side of the bed. 

“Enter” Lexa barked, her ire peaking surprisingly quickly at the intrusion. She stared resolutely forward, not giving the visitor the courtesy of glancing in their direction.

Annie opened the door and stepped inside with a conspiratorial smile that swiftly twisted into a look of confusion when she detected the familiar markings of ire on her mistress’s person. “G-good morning, Miss” She stumbled over the words timidly as she racked her brain to remember if she had forgotten an instruction, in her mind the only possible reason for her mistress’s early morning displeasure. 

Lexa’s nose was assaulted with the wondrous smell before she deigned to turn her head so that her eyes spied the plate in the maid’s hand. ‘Cook’s French croissants!’ Lexa’s features softened almost immediately. It had been a long-standing conspiracy between Lexa and her maid that whenever Cook baked fresh croissants Annie would steal one off the baking sheet the moment they were out of the oven. In Lexa’s opinion they were the most divine when they had just cooled enough to narrowly avoid scorching her lips as she bit into them. The billowing column of steam rising from the pastries warmed her heart for it signified that Annie more than likely dropped her allotted chore to faithfully hasten to her side. That Annie had the presence of mind to bring two when she knew her mistress had a visitor commended her in ways that Lexa’s heart soared with gratitude for having such a valuable servant at her disposal.

“Thank you Annie” Lexa offered warmly, her previous annoyance all but melted as her mouth watered in anticipation. “You are a gem.” 
 
Clarke watched their interaction with interest. Lexa had quite the air of authority in her handling of servants but she noted that her friend had a definite soft spot for this particular maid. ‘Could she be the one Lexa interrogated all those years ago…?’ She briefly wondered before dismissing the notion on the grounds that Annie did not look old enough to have had sexual relations a decade ago.

In the wake of Annie’s departure Lexa turned to Clarke, excitement sparkling in the green of her eyes. “Clarke. Have you ever had a fresh croissant** made by a Frenchman?” She asked. 

Clarke smiled at Lexa indulgently, refraining from reminding her friend that she spent quite a number of years under the tutelage of a Frenchman. Of course she had had French croissants before. Although if she were being honest she had to admit that she had never had them so fresh that they steamed with blistering heat on her plate. 

Lexa moved closer, confident that they would not be disturbed again for another hour at the very least, not until they were summoned for breakfast. Her knee brushed against Clarke’s thigh under the sheets as she shifted to her side in her seat, attempting to reduce the distance between them.

Clarke smiled happily, pleased that Lexa so freely and openly sought her closeness, a considerable improvement from her previous nervousness. She moved to accommodate her, her palm brushing the small of Lexa’s back as she slid her arm around her. She watched with fascination as Lexa’s long fingers tore into the pastry, which made the rich smell that much stronger. 

Lexa blew on the piece in her hand before offering it to Clarke, bringing it directly to her lips. Lexa had been so absorbed in her joy for the fresh pastry that she failed to realize the intimacy of the gesture until Clarke’s lips wrapped around the bite, lips grazing her fingertips. Even as she watched Clarke’s reaction to the taste she could do little to ignore the burning that reared its head in belly. 

‘Oh my God… I take it back. I have never eaten a proper French croissant before…’ Clarke thought as her taste buds were assaulted by the divine mixture of flavours. The bread was soft and buttery but there was also a hint of garlic in it and something else she could not quite name. She groaned with approval as she chewed, closing her eyes to savour the moment. By the time she swallowed, Lexa had prepared her next bite which seemed to have some sort of white creamy substance in the middle. When she opened her mouth to accept the offering her gaze sought out Lexa’s and suddenly the air seemed to thicken around them. Lexa held her gaze, her pupils swallowing the green of her eyes rapidly. When Clarke’s lips closed around the food they lingered just a moment longer, pressed against Lexa’s index finger in a gentle kiss. 

As alluring as Clarke’s playful kiss was, Lexa grinned with childish joy when Clarke’s eyes rounded in surprise. “It’s Theese!” Clarke tried to form the words with her mouth full, recognizing the melted cheese that filled the croissant. Lexa nodded enthusiastically. As a moment of inspiration struck Lexa leaned in when Clarke swallowed and stole a kiss. When Clarke stared at her with amused round eyes she shrugged playfully. “I wanted to see if I like the taste off of your lips more.” 

“And?” Clarke played along, excited to meet yet another side of Lexa she had not known before. 

“I think I ended the kiss too early.” Lexa said nonchalantly before she finally bit into her own croissant. She moved about happily, almost as if she were attempting to hop in her seat, savouring the taste with closed eyes.

“Perhaps you should try again then.” Clarke suggested, her voice barely above a whisper. When Lexa’s eyes snapped open she was surprised to find Clarke’s face much closer to her own than before.

“Perhaps.” Lexa whispered after she managed to swallow. Her lips parted in anticipation and the intensity of the kiss they shared consumed them, empty plate all but forgotten as Clarke pressed forward until she toppled Lexa on her back and she following without breaking their union. 

Clarke felt the rush come upon her again, an insatiable thirst to touch. Her mind wandered to a dark and unexplored place as her foot brushed against Lexa’s naked calf. While she was perched on one elbow to keep her weight off of Lexa her other hand developed a will of its own and quested across the the expanse of Lexa’s thigh, surprised to find smooth skin halfway to her knee.

Lexa’s breath hitched and she gasped into the kiss. “C-Clarke…” Lexa whispered, breathless. 

“Lex?” Clarke whispered back, her eyes searching Lexa’s for any signs of discomfort or uncertainty.

Lexa saw the change in Clarke’s eyes. Her crystal blue eyes, so bright with a playful innocence just the day before now bore knowledge a shade darker. As if the worries Lexa shared with Clarke had taken root in her soul overnight. Lexa felt her own gaze soften as she reached up to brush a lock of blonde hair. 

“You’ve realized it too. I can see it in your eyes.” Lexa whispered after a while. “These kisses… I think they bring us to the brink of… laying claim on one another.”

“Is that something you don’t want?” Clarke asked, eyes serious, questioning.

Lexa offered a smile she hoped was filled with reassurance as her hand slipped to Clarke’s cheek.  “It worries me. I worry that we may be rushing headlong into the unknown.  I have never heard of such a thing between women. And we have known each other but a month.”

Clarke turned her head to press her lips against the palm resting on her cheek. “I…think I may have friends who…are like this.” Clarke stumbled over the words. “Friends whose closeness now makes more sense to me…” 

“Do you?” Lexa asked, her eyes wide with surprise. ‘Are there…others like me…us? Could they…would they…’

“If you are permitted to visit perhaps you may like to make their acquaintance?” Clarke offered. “They may be open to… share their experiences.”

Lexa nodded eagerly, her soul hungry for answers to questions she had yet to pour into words. “I would appreciate that greatly.” 

“Then I shall endeavour to secure their friendship for you.” Clarke promised. “As for our short acquaintance… I am not in any hurry.” She swallowed thickly. The very thought of her desire made her belly swell with the familiar warmth. “My…baser instincts seem to cloud my mind on occasion but I am happy to wait for us to bloom. You may explore my soul at your leisure.”

“And you mine.” Lexa whispered back solemnly before sealing their pact with a chaste kiss.

 


 

Lexa’s laugh trilled in the air in the wake of yet another recount of Clarke's many adventures with her friends, some of whom notoriously made it their ambition to bend the rules to their will without offering the warden opportunity to reprimand them.

They still had the air of humour about them as one of the footmen opened the dining room door for them. As they passed through the door Lexa nodded her thanks as was her custom. “Thank yo-AH!” Her polite words were cut short by a sharp squeak of surprise that involuntarily left her lips. “Mr. Collins?!”

Chapter Text

 

A look of surprise crossed Mr. Collins’ face, his eyebrows shooting high above his eyes when Lexa nearly stumbled in her surprise. Mr. Collins’ attention had been directed at the door when she entered, not allowing Lexa any means or time to mask her surprised reaction. The welcoming warmth in his brown eyes now swirled with confusion and his courteous smile faltered around the edges of his lips. Ever the gentleman he rose from his seat upon her entry but it lacked his customary energy, moving as though his very body was unsure what to make of the situation.

“Miss Woods, good morning” he said, tone cautious and slightly tilting upward as if he were unsure if he would rather utter a statement or a question. His eyes searched hers and Lexa briefly wondered whether he was seeking confirmation as to her well-being. Having enjoyed his company for the better part of the past six months, the small twitch of his eyebrow informed Lexa that she had failed to supply whatever it was that his eyes had sought. “Why, you appear as though you have seen a ghost. Surely you have not forgotten our engagement today?”

That is precisely what happened, Mr. Collins.’ Lexa chose not to sass out loud, for her predicament was embarrassing enough without words confirming what her stunned countenance has already so grossly betrayed. In an effort to salvage what little was left, Lexa schooled her features into a pleasant smile. She was keenly aware of Clarke’s closeness, her proximity no doubt desirous of providing solace, although under present conditions Lexa was not quite confident whether Clarke wished to soothe her nerves or rather her own. 

Lexa did not fail to notice that Mr. Collins had greeted his cousin with a curt nod and a quick glance before his eyes sought out hers once again. His expression wavered, only just perceptibly so, the ghost of a thought swimming into his eyes before it was buried once again. ‘Oh Lord. Does he suspect something?’ Lexa wondered in dismay as her mind frantically sought to deliver her from her predicament.

“Not at all, Finn.” Clarke spoke up unexpectedly. “She has mentioned your outing to me just as we descended the stairs. If my own shock is of any use in unravelling the mystery, I believe we are merely both surprised at the early hour of your arrival.” The lie rolled off of Clarke’s tongue without faltering, her tone as confident as if she were stating that the sun rises in the East. 

“Quite.” Lexa said hurriedly as she made her way to the breakfast table, avoiding eye contact with all present company. She dared not look at Clarke for she was certain that if she were to look into the icy blues of her friend her silent turmoil would be irrecoverably exposed. For while Clarke’s words seemed to have alleviated Mr. Collins’ worries they have but served to aggravate Lexa’s. Her guilt over having forgotten the engagement she still could not remember was now augmented by guilt over having failed to mention it to Clarke as well. ‘Damn it. Was that a cleverly disguised rebuke directed at me? Is she angry with me?’ To her abject horror, she admitted to herself silently, Mr. Collins had been all but erased from her mind in the last two days.

“But Miss Woods!” Mr Collins started, his countenance was genuinely confused. “Surely you have not forgotten that Master Worth had delivered your commissioned dress! You know the milliners need two days at the minimum to perform any adjustments that may be necessary!” 

Oh no. Oh no. No. No. The dressmaker! How could I have forgotten about the dress!’ Lexa despaired silently. Each year since Lexa had been old enough to host a grand ball her uncle had indulged Lexa’s fondness for beauty by commissioning a dress at the House of Worth.

“Master Worth?” Clarke’s voice sounded almost startled as the name rolled off her lips. “You don’t mean…Charles Frederick Worth?*” Clarke attempted to clarify. That Lexa would be personally visited by the official dressmaker of Empress Eugénie had profoundly shocked her. She could feel the blood draining her cheeks as she stared at Lexa first before glancing at Sir Gustus in a half-hearted attempt to gain some clarity. Naturally, the gruff man’s facial expression betrayed nothing.

“The same.” Finn said his voice chiming happily, almost as though the feat was his personal accomplishment.

“You…have an on-call audience with the dressmaker of empresses?!” Clarke’s tone, in complete contrast to her cousin’s, was a mere shade from abject incredulity. 'Heavens above, what IS the extent of Sir Gustus' influence if he can get an audience with Monsieur Worth?'

“Heavens, no!” the words erupted from Lexa’s lips in amused surprise. “Uncle Gustus spoils me with a trip to Paris every year and we visit the House of Worth. His apprentices are quite charming professionals.” Lexa said fondly. “I have only met Master Worth the one time when his establishment was closed during that nasty affair.” Lexa confirmed with a frown. 

‘Nasty aff-… is she referring to the Franco-Prussian war as a nasty affair?’  Clarke wondered.

“Perhaps you ought to eat a bite before this generous spread is spoiled too. And then we must be off” Finn changed the direction of their conversation just as Clarke had opened her mouth to speak. There was a flash of warning in his gaze, not more than a glance before he busied himself with his plate that confirmed to Clarke that his abrupt change of topic had been quite deliberate. Squeamish as ever, her cousin yet again trumped her endeavour to engage in an interesting conversation…for propriety’s sake.

Throughout breakfast Clarke had felt inexplicably awkward. A forced smile was etched onto her lips which she knew did not give a modicum of warmth to her eyes. She was seated next to Lexa, her cousin opposite of her and Sir Gustus between them at the head of the table. To her displeasure this arrangement had not provided her with much opportunity to silently convey any secret meaning to Lexa with her eyes. Clarke was unsure if it she was imbuing Lexa with her own emotional state but she appeared to be anxious herself. 

“Clarke” Finn said her name casually after he dabbed his lips with a napkin. “How do you intend to spend this beautiful day? The weather seems to be particularly charming today.”

Clarke could not detect a modicum of malice in his voice, just his accustomed genial civility. Had it been anyone else she would not have needed much convincing that they had been masterfully gloating but her cousin’s almost angelic features made it impossible to believe such an atrocity.

“Well, Mr. Collins, I was actually going to suggest…” Lexa started to say but was cut off by Sir Gustus.

“…that you could perhaps take up my offer from yesterday evening, Miss Griffin?” Sir Gustus said.

‘Oh Lord.’ Was all Clarke managed to think as she immediately nodded with a pleasant smile. She could not possibly conceive of any excuse that would permit her to deflect Sir Gustus’ offer a second time in as many days without making it clear to him that her true intention was to avoid him. “Happily, Sir Gustus. You are most generous.” She spared a glance at Lexa, however, her friend's eyes were obscured from her as she too had turned her attention to Sir Gustus in surprise.

“Oh, what is this?” Finn bustled in his seat with attention, his eyes darting between Clarke and Sir Gustus.

“Never you mind, Mr. Collins.” Sir Gustus said good-naturedly. “You are aware that I am an old man in the habit of indulging the youth.” 

Finn’s constricted look drew a genuine smile to Clarke’s lips, the first since she and Lexa had entered the dining room. Her cousin blanched as his eyes misted over with confusion, his lips opening no doubt to protest the mysterious answer before they smacked closed again without a sound. Clarke would have wagered a pretty penny that he silently suffered from indecision. She had no doubts that his keen instinct for propriety cramped in an effort to determine whether ignoring such a remark or accusing your de facto prospective father-in-law of having illicit intentions amounted to grosser indecency. 

Eventually taking pity on the man and also desirous of breaking the uncomfortably stretching silence Clarke spoke up. “Cigars, cousin.” She said merrily. “Sir Gustus has offered to show me his cigar collection.” 

The snort that was poorly covered up as an equally inappropriate fit of coughs brought the attention of present company to a remarkably red faced Ryder who now stood motionless by the wall. His eyes, unblinking, were fixated on the opposite wall. Had his deeply embarrassed complexion not betrayed him he would have been the very essence of professionalism. 

“Ryder.” Sir Gustus but had to say his name for him to step forward bravely, his gaze politely trained on his employer’s face, at attention but not quite meeting his eye.

“Sir?”

“Do you find yourself unfit to work, Ryder?” Sir Gustus asked gruffly. There was no outright malice in his voice, yet his tone carried such imperious authority Clarke wondered how the man managed to not shrivel in his place.

“Nay, Sir. I am as fit to serve as ever.” He responded immediately.

“See that you are, Ryder. I trust you will have overcome your unfortunate coughing fit.” Sir Gustus dismissed Ryder.

“Very good, Sir. Thank you.” Ryder acknowledged his dismissal with a small bow and took up his position again. From her vantage point Clarke caught the butler briefly glowering at his subordinate before his own face became a blank mask of genial professionalism once again.

Clarke turned her gaze on Lexa after the unexpected intrusion and realized that as her friend was now dabbing her lips with her own napkin they were likely to part ways sooner than she would have preferred. She took a deep steadying breath to curb her souring mood, silently reminding herself that a few hours without the company of Lexa should not leave her quite so devastated. Yet when Lexa inadvertently knocked her fork off the table and proceeded to bend down for it her heart leapt into her throat at the opportunity. She too pushed her chair back and bent down to help, one hand raising the tablecloth. Making good use of the privacy the raised cloth provided they shared an unrestrained look, equal parts admiring the other’s beauty from such proximity and conveying emotions that were unspeakable at present. When Lexa mouthed ‘I’m sorry’ and offered a deeply apologetic smile Clarke realized that her cunning friend had knocked her fork over quite deliberately. Despite her own emotional turmoil Clarke offered an affectionate smile and blinked slowly in acceptance of the silent reassurance. 

 


 

As Clarke watched the coachman drive Finn and Lexa away she felt her heart plummet into her stomach. That Lexa’s departure should have such a profound effect on her was somewhat startling. ‘Whatever am I going to do when I must depart?’ Clarke wondered absent-mindedly, rather concerned about her mother’s lack of response to her entreaty. Her only hope was that her aunt had indeed drawn such a favourable portrait of Lexa’s character and her positive influence on Clarke that her mother would be inclined to allow the visit.

“Shall we, Miss Griffin?” Sir Gustus’ deep baritone drew Clarke out of her musings. She peered up at her host, astonished by his imposing bulk. Clarke had no recollection of ever having seen Sir Gustus stood to his full height but standing next to him she could not help but compare him to the famed strong-men of circuses. ‘Or perhaps a more dignified comparison may be one to Hercules or Achilles.’  She thought.

“Of course, Sir Gustus. Thank you again for your hospitality.” Clarke said politely. The gruff man hummed in acknowledgment but offered no further conversation as they walked down the long hallway to arrive at Sir Gustus’ study. They passed a number of servants, footmen and maids alike, most busily engaged in their particular task, whether that be dusting statues or collecting silver ornaments for polishing. Clarke noted that each servant who passed them slowed their gait as if in anticipation of an order, politely greeting the master of the house with quiet Sir’s and nods, but went about their business when they were acknowledged with but a nod in return. 

Sir Gustus slowed to a halt in front of the large and ornate double doors of his study and Clarke had a few moments to admire the expert craftsmanship. Each panel was decorated with an intricate network of geometric shapes that fascinated Clarke at a brief glance and she made a mental note to remember to spend some time tracing the patterns if an opportunity should present itself.

The doors opened and Sir Gustus indicated that she should step in first. The first time she had entered this room was just a day ago and she had been in awe of the sheer volume of books and the glory of infinite knowledge amassed in them. Her own father boasted no small collection of books but this collection…she had only seen one such collection at Girton**.

“I would like to apologize for my footman’s inexcusable behaviour today, Miss Griffin.” Sir Gustus said gruffly. “I can assure you he shall be disciplined.” 

Clarke frowned in confusion, not quite grasping in what way was his questionable sense of humour such a gross breach of conduct that it would require disciplining. Although she had, of course, understood that the man had found her explanation too amusing to confine himself to the dignity his position required, the nature of the humour had entire eluded her.

“Sir Gustus, if I may… I am afraid I do not understand why your footman’s poor judgment is so offensive to you?” Clarke voiced her confusion as she followed Sir Gustus to the more comfortable reclining area of the study which housed some excellent armchairs. 

“Please, sit.” Sir Gustus gestured towards said furniture as he stepped to a cabinet and retrieved a small wooden box. “If you decide to jest with your relations under my roof that is none of his concern. He ought not to have laughed even if your choice of mockery was most unexpected.” He said gravely, although when he turned to face Clarke she noted that there was a curious glint in his eye.

“Mockery, Sir Gustus?” Clarke asked, clearly confused over the man’s interpretation of the situation. 

Clarke’s genuine confusion must have provoked a new line of thought in Sir Gustus for he stopped a moment and regarded Clarke with calculating, observant eyes, assessing her behaviour.

“Was it not your design to aggravate Mr. Collins’ often times… painful persistence with regard to propriety?” He said the words slowly, almost as if he were tasting each word to judge if they accurately conveyed his meaning. 

“Aggravate it? Why, Sir Gustus! Of course not. His mind…appeared to be labouring under the impression that you may have suggested something… inappropriate” Clarke faltered over the last word, realizing far too late that she had just tattled about something Sir Gustus may not have been sure of. “But he’s far too much of a stickler to conventions and I was worried that he would injure himself in his indecision as to whether it was appropriate to speak up… quite the opposite, Sir Gustus, I sought to soothe his worries.”

Sir Gustus’ surprised laughter boomed unexpectedly, his shoulders shaking with his mirth, distinctly reminding Clark of the bear she had once seen rubbing its fur on bark of a tree at the zoo. 

Sir Gustus regained his composure quite quickly and approached Clarke with the wooden box. “Well, that is all good and well, Miss Griffin.” He dismissed the idea without addressing any of Clarke’s questions. However, Clarke had already set her mind on it. 

“But Sir Gustus… kindly do me the courtesy of explaining what I seem to be missing?” 

“Never you mind, Miss Griffin. Never you mind. Men will be men. And we shall forever find the basest of humour even where only innocence resides.” Sir Gustus declined to humour the request. “Now… I believe we have established that I have offered you a sampling of my cigars, or rather, cigarillos. Have you ever had flavoured ones?” He asked as he opened the box in front of Clarke to allow her to survey them. 

When Clarke’s eyes landed on the cigarillos her cheeks rapidly flushed, their shape immediately helping Clarke make more sense of Sir Gustus’ elusive reply. ‘OH MY GOD. Did I... inadvertently make the situation MORE inappropriate... Good lord.’

“Uh… I have not.” Clarke managed to reply without stammering, her cheeks still feeling quite hot in shame. “What would you recommend?”

“Oh I always recommend the one with cloves. It commends the genius of the natives of the East Indies.” Sir Gustus said earnestly as he picked up a slender dark brown, almost black cigarillo and offered it to Clarke. 

After taking one for himself Sir Gustus set the box on a small table and offered to light Clarke’s cigarillo with a brass lighter. Clarke tentatively leaned forward, one end of the small cigar reaching into the fire, the other end held securely in her mouth, ready to inhale. In light of her newfound knowledge of possible associations she was keenly aware of how obscene it looked, jutting from between her lips. When the other end was engulfed in flames she inhaled, taking care to keep her breath shallow, having heard from her peers that unlike cigarettes, cigar smoke was not meant to be inhaled. When the sweet spicy taste of the smoke hit her tongue Clarke glanced at Sir Gustus with unmasked surprise.

“Good, is it not?” Sir Gustus asked with genuine enthusiasm, the cigar bobbing between his lips as he lighted it mid-speech. 

“Oh my, it is quite the experience.” Clarke said in awe as she exhaled the next gust of smoke, relishing the exotic taste it left in her mouth. “Thank you, Sir Gustus.” 

“Naturally, Miss Griffin, naturally. Anyone who manages to entice my niece into a more active life earns my fondest gratitude.” Sir Gustus said jovially. 

They smoked in comfortable silence for a minute, each enjoying the spicy tint of the smoke filling their mouths. Clarke’s mind wandered and she imagined that it must be an experience such as this for men when they congregate in their clubs to partake in their peers’ company. 

“Now, Miss Griffin.” Sir Gustus suddenly spoke. “Let us turn to a more serious matter.” He leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees as he looked Clarke straight in the eye. “I believe you have…realized that my charming Alexandria was referring to the Franco-Prussian War as a ‘nasty affair’?” He asked, confident enough in the answer that he did not wait for confirmation before continuing. “Unlike your cousin I would be very much interested in any opinions you may have on the subject. You certainly seemed to have one before your Mr. Collins warned you off it.”

Clarke stared at Sir Gustus in awe, her cigar hand suspended mid-movement just as she was about to press the end between her now slackened lips. She was quite unaccustomed to being invited to speak her mind by men and to her embarrassment coherent thought seemed to have escaped her. She sucked a healthy helping of smoke into her mouth to give herself time to adjust to the surprising feeling of being an object of intellectual interest. 

“In all honesty, Sir Gustus, I am not quite accustomed to being asked my opinion” Clarke said as gusts of smoke billowed from her mouth. “But if you are genuinely interested I think the French Emperor’s ambition was a fool’s crusade from its conception…”

Chapter Text

The air was made thick with the sweet clouds of smoke from Sir Gustus’ fine cigarillos of which he had been generous to grant Clarke an unlimited supply during the course of their lively conversation. The dense air was but a faint nuisance, one that Clarke had failed to notice until the butler had politely inquired if they would require to have the room aired while they took lunch. Sir Gustus had courteously deferred to her regarding their lunch arrangement to which Clarke suggested, after brief consideration, that if Sir Gustus had no scruples eating in his study they might take lunch as they were. It was a socially unorthodox suggestion but Clarke found herself quite reluctant to leave the room and their conversation, greedily indulging in Sir Gustus’ wealth of opinion, so much unlike hers, regarding the great social dilemma of their century.

“But Sir Gustus, is it not the diligent and faithful work of the working class that truly upholds our civilization?” Clarke offered a resolutely different view from that of Sir Gustus. “Correct as you may be in that it is the thinkers of higher classes that guide our moral compass do you not think that that compass would rust and decay if the bellies of your thinkers were not lined with good ale and soft bread?” 

“I cannot argue against your point, Miss Griffin. My mental capacities feel greatly reinvigorated by the very meal we have just taken.” Sir Gustus agreed but his tone suggested to Clarke that it would be soon followed by rebuttal. “But you have yet to suggest an indisputable argument that would persuade the factory owner to not attempt to recover his losses if he were to finance your suggestions. If one is to grant more comfort to the workers, less hours to work, where would we see the end of it? Who would, at the end of the day, work to provide us with the comforts that we require? One can not simply go about changing such things on a whim.”

As he waited for Clarke’s answer Sir Gustus regarded her for long moments over the remnants of their midday meal. Even as he leaned forward his eyes did not leave hers, taking the cigar box blindly from the table and extending it in offering to Clarke before he took one for himself. Despite the close observation she found herself under she did not feel much like an insect under the eye of the natural scientist, waiting to be dissected an examined. No, Sir Gustus’ gaze was open with interest, waiting for Clarke to counter his argument. Clarke took the offered cigarillo despite the unfamiliar scratching ache in her throat that accompanied the last one she had smoked. Her tongue felt heavy and sticky in her dry mouth.

“Could we perhaps ring for a drink?” Clarke asked after clearing her throat failed to alleviate her discomfort.

“Certainly, Miss Griffin. My apologies for being such an inconsiderate host. A touch of scotch perhaps?” Sir Gustus offered animatedly, apparently genuinely ashamed of not having thought to offer. Clarke hesitated a moment only for she had never tasted alcohol before. It was not so much owing to the effect of the temperance movement on her opinions, for she resolutely believed that moderation of consumption was not the devil’s disguise. No, it was rather a lack of opportunity. Clarke nodded in acceptance, secretly relishing the notion that she was allowed a glimpse at the ritual she imagined was undertaken in the fashionable London clubs guarded so jealously by men.

If Sir Gustus’ butler had opinions regarding his employer’s order to retrieve a bottle of James Eadie* and two glasses, his devotion to his calling did not permit him to show it. As the remnants of their meal were disposed of and the drinks poured, Clarke’s mind reeled with the multitude of answers that were pressing to spill from her lips in answer to Sir Gustus’s claims.

The taste of the drink must have produced a comical expression upon her face for Sir Gustus’s good-natured laughter rumbled quietly as he watched Clarke hesitantly look at her glass after drinking. “Ah, I see you have not had whiskey before. It is an acquired taste, Miss Griffin. But I believed that a serious discussion merits a serious drink.” He said genially. “I can have Stevens bring wine if that would be more suited to your preferences?”

“No, no, thank you, Sir Gustus.” Clarke hurried to dissuade him. “It is actually quite pleasant.” That Sir Gustus considered their conversation serious discussion made Clarke correct her posture in her seat as her chest expanded with pride. She took a second sip of her drink, this time prepared for the burning sensation the amber liquid left in the wake of its spicy taste.

“Sir Gustus, if I may…” Clarke said somewhat nervously. “I believe your argument is a bit of a red herring, Sir.” Clarke strategically raised the glass to her lips to provide herself with a few seconds time, considering the first argument with which she attempted to break down his opposition. “You argue that my suggestions are nothing more than providing comfort to the poor. I say they are but suggestions to improve their health. You claim that if one is to grant better working conditions for laundry workers the next day perhaps the matchstick factory workers will revolt in demand of the same. But even if that were the unavoidable result, of which I am not entire convinced, should they not? Does it not ultimately benefit the factory owner if their working stock are healthier and not in constant need of replacement?” Clarke asked passionately. “Was it not a more resourceful desire for survival that separated man from ape?”** She had chosen the professions for her examples shrewdly, her medical training providing her with considerable insight into the health concerns of both. She raised the cigar to her lips, pausing for a brief moment in her argument. The hint of clove sweetened the bitter tobacco smoke and with the lingering taste of scotch created the most charming blend against her tongue.

 “Your passionate sympathy for the wretched is admirable, Miss Griffin.” Sir Gustus’s baritone rumbled as she exhaled the smoke from her mouth. “But perhaps a touch dramatic? I fail to see how the sooty-faced coal miner’s desire for comfort would be explained by Master Darwin’s theories?” Sir Gustus’s response left very little time for Clarke to collect her thoughts. “Nor do I see deceased factory workers littering the streets left and right as if it were a daily occurrence. But if the factory were to close down for the owner deemed his profits insufficient to maintain him? What would your suggestion be to the sudden influx in the workhouses?” 

“Is the profit of the rich truly of such importance that it justifies the mutilation of the poor?” Clarke countered. That Sir Gustus had not specifically responded to the industries she had singled out suggested to her that he may not be aware of the most severe ailments the workers suffer.

“Come now, Miss Griffin.” Sir Gustus frowned for the first time throughout their conversation, his brows setting in apparent displeasure. “Name but one specific condition that would make a monster out of man and render him incapable of deriving the smallest pleasures of life. That is what I would consider worthy of calling mutilation.” 

“Phossy jaw.***” Clarke said simply, her tone welling with triumph as her design bore fruit and Sir Gustus walked into the snare she had set him.

“Beg your pardon, Miss Griffin?” Sir Gustus’ confident expression wavered as his brows knitted in concentration.

“Phosphorus necrosis of the jaw, Sir Gustus.” Clarke said gravely. “A common disease of matchmakers employed in the manufacture of common matches. The yellow phosphorous is poisonous if one is exposed to it for a length of time and results in the slow necrosis of the bone.” 

Clarke could see that Sir Gustus visibly paled upon listening to her description but he stood his ground. “That cannot be a common occurrence, Miss Griffin. Surely the matchmaking industry would not thrive so if its workers died by the thousands. Perhaps a rare medical case you have come upon in your studies?” 

“I assure you it is not rare, Sir Gustus.” Clarke said, sorrow lacing her voice as she remembered the multitude of medical reports she had read on the subject. “I have read numerous medical reports upon the subject. It is a shamefully common disease in factories using yellow rather than red phosphorous. It gradually deforms the face, leaving exposed sections of dead bone in its wake.” Clarke felt her own nerves fray as the memory of the gruesome exhibition of a deceased patient materialized in front of her eyes. “The most horrendous sight I had to date seen was Dr Bristowe’s**** exhibition of a deceased patient whose exposed jaw and gums glowed a greenish white in the darkened auditorium.” 

Sir Gustus stared at Clarke, his eyes clearly showing how stricken he was by the information disclosed to him. He emptied his glass, presumably to steady his nerves, before he spoke again. “And you are saying that only yellow phosphorous produces it? Why in the name of God does the industry not favour the red poison instead?” 

“Red phosphorous is more expensive.” Clarke said simply. “And…to the factory owner the frequent replacement of their workforce is the lesser evil as compared to an increase in cost.” Clarke said, her tone coloured by a sense of hopeless sympathy. “I do not believe that if the the state forced the matchmaking industry to use the more expensive substance it would have a detrimental effect on the cotton mill industry.” Clarke said quietly as she reached for the ornate glass bottle of scotch to fill both of their empty glasses.

 


 

A sense of relief and joy washed over Lexa as William steered the horse drawing their carriage onto the pebbled path leading up to the Manor. Despite Mr. Collins’ excellent skills as a lively conversationalist the excitement and hassle of acquiring her new dress had taken a toll on Lexa and she dearly wished to recline on a settee to collect herself. That she wished to see Clarke with equal desire was a secret she rather decided to keep to herself.

Mr. Collins’ ascent from the carriage had taken him but a moment as the wheels ground to a halt and his hand was stretched out to receive Lexa’s to help her down the carriage steps. By the time they had climbed the steps the grand doors had opened an eager Annie emerged, her eyes sparkling with excitement, Lexa noted, her lips twisting into an affectionate smile. She was not at all certain whether she or her maid was the more eager and excited at the prospect of the new gowns before the annual ball. “Oh Miss Woods! Welcome home!” Annie positively glowed with excitement and Lexa’s smile grew despite her exhaustion. 

“Thank you, Annie! Yes, the dress is ready and has been delivered.” Lexa answered the question Annie had been too polite to ask with an indulgent smile. “Please ask Ryder to carry the boxes upstairs and arrange them.” 

Annie disappeared inside the house in an instant.

“Stevens, where might I find Miss Griffin? I believe she may be interested in my new gown as well.” Lexa asked the butler upon entry. She added the cleverly offered explanation of her query rather more for the benefit of Mr. Collins than Stevens. She suspected that the quietly understated rivalry she was certain she felt flowing from Clarke in waves during breakfast was, even if not by conscious design, agitated rather than mollified by Mr. Collins’ feelings.

“I believe Miss Griffin is with Sir Gustus in his study, Miss Woods. I have not seen either of them leave since the morning.” Stevens replied sombrely. 

Lexa could feel her expression change under the weight of her astonishment and she glimpsed in Mr. Collins’ direction in the hopes of determining if Stevens’ answer was but a figment of her imagination. When Mr. Collins’ eyes mirrored her own surprise Lexa resigned herself to believe that she had not been mistaken. ‘What in God’s name could they be doing since the morning?’ Lexa wondered silently. Her exhaustion all but forgotten she marched toward her uncle’s study with a determined stride, disregarding the notion of what Mr. Collins may make of her haste.

 


 

Stevens had dutifully accompanied Lexa and Mr. Collins, pacing his gait so that he walked a step behind them until the doors came into view. As custom dictated, Stevens opened the door for them and waited until they were inside. As he was personally accompanied by a resident of Woodfield, Mr. Collins’ arrival did not require Stevens to announce him.

Lexa stepped into the familiar room first but stopped so abruptly that Mr. Collins had the misfortune to walk right into her, upsetting her balance. Had it not been for Mr. Collins’ presence of mind she surly would have made a spectacle of herself in stumbling into the room, but was fortuitously saved from that fate by Mr. Collins’ steadying hands on her arms. “I apologize, Miss Woods. I had not…” Mr. Collins began to formulate an apology but the words slowly dwindled on his lips, the sight unfolding in front of his eyes more than sufficient to explain why Lexa had so abruptly halted.

Smoke had so thickly accumulated that Lexa’s first thought was to look around in fright to seek the source of the fire that surly must have started. However, as her eyes took in more of the sight she noted that both her uncle and Clarke were seated at their leisure and just then, Sir Gustus’ abrupt laughter filled the room, it was clear to Lexa that there was no cause for alarm.

As she approached the pair of them and her eyes took in more details she felt blood drain for her cheeks, and was suddenly quite glad for the benevolent cover of smoke. Lexa felt overwhelmed with the myriad of details that clamoured for her attention. Clarke reclined in one of the leather armchairs, her ankle resting on her knee. She often wore pants that were fashioned in the loose Turkish style because it afforded her the luxury of wearing her preferred clothes without drawing unwanted attention. That she sat in a position that clearly drew attention to her garment told Lexa how at ease she had become around her uncle.

“Care to share the joke?” Lexa asked expectantly, her eyes fleeting between Clarke whose lips stretched into an exceptionally self-satisfied grin and her uncle whose rarely heard chuckle still rumbled in his chest. 

Clarke poised herself in her seat, shifting her leg to cross at the knees as her gaze locked with Lexa’s in greeting. 

Lexa felt immediately ensnared by the sight, as though she had been suspended in time as her eyes roamed over the glorious sight of her friend. An as yet undetermined element in her posture seemed irresistibly appealing to Lexa. There was a glass with a generous helping of amber liquid poised in her hand, the same hand whose fingers cleverly held a half-smoked cigar. Her hair, she distinctly remembered offering assistance in taming into a discreet bun, was now partially released from its confines, the loose strands cascading over her shoulder, lending her an air of wild unpredictability. 

“Lexa, Finn.” Clarke said in greeting before raising the glass to her lips. 

Lexa felt Clarke’s eyes burn into her, their gazes disengaging neither over the rim of Clarke’s glass, nor as she blindly set it down on the table, her movement confident. Lexa’s throat constricted and she knew that Clarke had seen her attempt to swallow the feeling, the way the blue of her eyes darkened was unmistakable.

Clarke’s lips curved into a pleased smile, her gaze flickering only once, her gaze beginning to shift lower before it firmly locked back on Lexa’s. A shiver cascaded down Lexa’s spine, she was certain that the barely perceptible shift in Clarke’s gaze was her friend’s belated attempt to not return the appraisal in so plain a sight of present company. 

“I’m sure Sir Gustus was merely humouring me.” Clarke response forced Lexa to think back to whatever it was must have asked. “I was entertaining him with my humble rendition of Mr. Mill’s speech I had been fortunate enough to hear.” 

“And pray tell, Clarke, who is Mr. Mill?” Lexa asked, as she sat perched on the very edge of the settee that remained unoccupied. “And what did he say?”

“John Stuart Mill” Clarke replied. “He is a philosopher and a politician. Oh, he wrote an admirable essay regarding his views of women. He supports the women’s vote you know.” Clarke chimed happily, her eyes shining with undisguised excitement.

Lexa for the most part could not decide whether she was more impressed with Clarke for having an opinion on such matters or surprised that her uncle would be entertaining the subject. Not more than a solitary glance was enough for Lexa to determine her uncle’s every whim and mood regardless of how intricate or unintentional they may be but of his political views and such…Lexa knew nothing. It had never interested her. 

Clarke’s, however, now interested her immensely. The regal way in which she sat in the armchair, confident and comfortable in her position had an overwhelming effect on Lexa. When Clarke’s lips wrapped around the cigar held so casually in her hand Lexa felt herself weaken, a rush of heat coiling in her stomach. There was but a brief lapse in her self-control and Lexa was once again ensnared, her mind’s eye imagining sitting on the arm of Clarke’s chair, leaning in as Clarke offered her the cigar. She scarcely had any idea how to inhale the smoke but Lexa imagined her lips brushing against Clarke’s fingers as she wrapped them around the offered end their gazes locked on one another from such a small distance. Lexa felt herself swoon and shiver, the just cooling coil of heat in her stomach reinvigorating. Lexa found herself instinctively crossing her legs in a bid to contain the sensation.

She blinked as she willed her soul back into the room her body was occupying. Her glance at Clarke and the minute crease in her brows served as Lexa’s only warning that a change in atmosphere had occurred while her attention had lapsed before Clarke’s considerably graver tone broke the silence again. “Care to enlighten us, cousin, what has forced that frown upon your face?” 

“I do not care much for such talk, cousin.” Mr. Collins replied, his tone cool and strained in a way Lexa had never heard before. “I scarcely care much for the subject myself and that you should be sitting here smoking, all mops and brooms*^, and talking politics…” He said, his tone carrying a shaken quality that enticed Lexa to turn her gaze upon him. It did not sound to Lexa as though Mr. Collins was angry and as she watched him standing between the settee and her uncle’s armchair despite the fact that Lexa had left ample space on the settee for him to join her, indeed he rather looked shocked as if something entirely unsavoury was unfolding before his eyes.

“Yes, well, I as was just reciting Mr. Mill’s masterful insight to Sir Gustus, ‘although it is not true that all conservatives are stupid people, it is true that most stupid people are conservative.’” Clarke’s clipped tone delivered the crushing insult that left Lexa staring at Clarke with round eyes and her mouth hanging wide open in disbelief.

 


 

Clarke’s steps were measured, particularly on the steps leading to the second floor landing. She was inclined to believe that her gait was unsteady owing to Lexa’s unnecessary insistence that she secure a helping arm around her waist rather than due to the several glasses of excellent scotch she had consumed. Pride surged in her heart as she took the final step up the stairs without an incident and her head abruptly whipped to the side, eyes triumphantly seeking Lexa’s and rewarding her friend with what Lexa would later call, to her abject horror, an adorably blinding toothy grin.

“See? I told you I would conquer this beast!” Clarke exclaimed playfully as she straightened her posture to her full height. Her words were slurred and her tongue seemed to be heavier than usual in its movement, no doubt even in her mind that it had been made sluggish by the alcohol.

“So you have…” Lexa replied dryly, her tone contrasting the affectionate if somewhat exasperated smile on her lips. She had not expected to come home to find that Clarke had been licking up*^^ with her uncle the entire day. Nor had she ever expected that her immensely charming and considerate friend would insult her own cousin in such a way that preventing a catastrophe required her and her uncle’s joint efforts. Thinking back on it from the vantage point of mere minutes had already coated the memory with humour but Lexa had promised to herself to bring up the subject to Clarke once her friend had sufficiently sobered up. For now, Lexa contented herself with the task of hiding her friend away in her room before she could possibly inflict more damage upon her own reputation. 

Lexa sighed in relief as they turned onto the deserted corridor housing her room, silently murmuring a grateful prayer to God that they had not happened upon any member of their extensive staff. The pressure of anxiety released in Lexa’s chest as she opened the door to her room and gestured for Clarke to enter. 

Astonished beyond words anew within a very short time again, Lexa’s squeaked in surprise when Clarke spun her around the moment she had closed the door behind her, a muffled ‘oompf’ leaving her lips as Clarke’s descended upon hers. It was a greedy and demanding kiss, so unlike any of Clarke’s sober kisses, yet Lexa felt momentarily intoxicated. Clarke’s lips were tinted with the richly bitter, earthy tones of drink and smoke and Lexa found that the coil of heat in her lower belly that had been doused in the wake of the cousins’ argument roared to life once again, its smouldering embers far from having cooled, urging her to kiss back wantonly.

The way in which Clarke’s tongue caressed her own when their lips parted stoked Lexa’s passion further and she heard herself whimpering into Clarke’s mouth. Clarke’s appreciation of the sound was made unmistakable as her arms slid around Lexa’s waist and pulled her closer. Lexa gasped when lips descended on her jaw, the sensation of nips and licks, the caress of lips and tongue in the wake of playfully scratching teeth moved towards the sensitive patch of skin  Clarke had come upon just the night before. 

As Lexa felt Clarke’s lips curl around the sensitive flesh of her earlobe she was quite comically reminded of the expression she had used to mollify Mr Collins just minutes ago. ‘Clearly the devil had inserted himself upon her tongue with the drink. My ghhhhhnd, oh my ghad, he has…’ Lexa struggled for breath, her chest contracting and expanding as she panted into Clarke’s hair, hands convulsing over the fabric of Clarke’s blouse. 

Lexa failed to notice that Clarke had manoeuvred them towards the bed until she felt herself falling, falling and landing on top of Clarke who grinned at her in awe, her eyes slipping in and out of focus. “You are…the most divine creature I have ever laid eyes upon…”

“And you are behaving in the most devilish of ways today…” Lexa countered playfully, before she squeaked in surprise, astonished laughter bursting from her lips as Clarke brazenly grasped her backside with both of her hands. Lexa’s own hands wrapped around Clarke’s wrists and as she propelled her arms forward in an effort to pin Clarke’s shamelessly questing hands above her head she lost balance. In a bid to avoid collision Lexa pulled her knee up which did achieve her goal of not toppling into Clarke face first… but not without the price of pressing so close to Clarke that her friend gasped in desire. Clarke’s eyes rolled behind her eyelids in what Lexa assumed was some sort of pleasure derived from the contact - if the expression etched on Clarke’s features gave any measure of accurate indication in her current state. 

“Lex” Clarke whispered, her tone considerably softer than before, her mouth seeking skin blindly, gently, caressing more in search of comfort than anything else.

“Clarke” Lexa whispered back, gently nudging her friend to gain her attention. “Clarke look at me.” When Clarke finally did after considerable effort from Lexa the latter said “Clarke you have got the devil in you today. And while you, my dear, may be temptation enough to ensnare the very saints of Christendom” Lexa said firmly yet gently “I am certainly not inclined to allow him to share me with you.” She pressed a soft kiss against Clarke’s nose, before she moved father away. “I suggest you rest, dearest. I shall be back momentarily with food and water, uncle Gus suggested that you might be grateful for them when you wake.”

Chapter Text

 

The solitary walk down the maze of corridors and several flights of stairs was graciously uneventful, providing Lexa with a measure of relief from the taxing experience of being caught in a devastating whirlwind of hitherto unknown emotions. Although but a month had passed, such a time as when she had not yet known Clarke seemed as distant as if it had happened to an altogether different person, not Lexa herself. Clarke had, with her often boisterous but always kind spirit, stormed the walls she had constructed around her heart and made off with it before Lexa even knew her walls had been breeched. Perhaps to Lexa the greatest surprise of all was the sense of relief that intermingled with the myriad of other emotions, relief that someone had managed to breach her walls after all.

“Pierre?” Lexa called out when she reached the vast kitchen of the mansion, no doubt in her mind that the proud chef would likely be deeply engrossed in his art, quite likely perfecting a recipe he had felt lacking in one way or another.

“Mademoiselle Woods” the polite greeting sounded immediately on the chef’s thick accent. “’Ow may Pierre be of service to Mademoiselle Woods this evening?” He asked, the eminent politeness of his tone and words in plain contrast with his failure to turn and honour his visitor with eye contact.

“Have you any of the morning’s croissants left?” Lexa asked, her voice casual. She had not taken offence, in larger part owing to the fact that she was not in the habit of expecting so formal a treatment but a small part of her heart knew that their chef must be performing a delicate procedure if he wished not to take pause in it.

“Oho…Mademoiselle is craving Pierre’s cheese croissants! Per’aps Monsieur Collins has not been attentive to Mademoiselle?” Pierre said with initial good humour that swiftly turned grave as the chef considered why Lexa was tormented by so uncharacteristic a craving.

“The croissants are for Miss Griffin, Pierre. She was quite fond of them and wishes to indulge before dinner.” Lexa gently chided her chef in defence of Mr. Collins. Although there were a rather smaller than average number of faults one could accuse Mr. Collins of, negligence of her needs was by far the most preposterous of suggestions.

“Ohoho!” Pierre’s entire presence appeared to have animated with the gust of pride that filled his chest and he whirled around, spine taut and straight. It was the lively animation of his eyes that betrayed Pierre, Lexa read the emotions off his face with ease. Pierre no doubt felt honoured to have secured the good opinion of yet another satisfied guest.

Lexa left the kitchens with a considerably lighter heart than she had entered with. As any well-prepared Mistress of a large house ought to know the kitchens were the most prolific breeding grounds of household gossip. That Pierre had not supplied her with the fruit of the grapevine was a dependable sign that there were simply no fruits to reap. ‘Thank God, the staff had not been inadvertently made aware of Clarke’s… indisposition.’

 


 

Lexa silently sent another prayer of gratitude to the heavens as she was allowed to retrace her steps to her room without meeting a single soul she had not intended to meet with. She gently set down the plate of croissants and glass of water on the night stand to avoid disturbing Clarke.

Her eyes softened affectionately as her gaze travelled to Clarke only for her eyes to round in shock and her breath to hitch at the site inadvertently presented to her. Clarke had evidently decided while Lexa was away that not only were her day clothes far too much of a nuisance but so was her nightgown. As she turned on her back the blanket covering her slipped and revealed that Clarke had, instead of changing into her nightgown, merely loosened her blouse to reduce the discomfort it induced. What Lexa had been entirely unprepared for was the sight of a soft breast delicately peeking out of Clarke’s loosened blouse. She stood next to her bed, frozen in time and space, eyes staring helplessly. She felt incapable of movement, caught up in the confusing gush of relief and dread, fearful that if her limbs ever regained their ability to move they would but carry her forward until she fell against Clarke.

Lexa finally averted her eyes after several long seconds, but the sight had unerringly burned itself into her mind. The memory of the rose coloured pale nipple that sat rigidly atop her breast forced an unsteady breath to rush from her lungs. Lexa swallowed audibly, knowing that she would need to face Clarke’s state of undress again in order to conserve her friend’s modesty and cover her up. ‘Friend… am I even within rights to still considered Clarke my friend? Have our many kisses not shoved us considerably far beyond the limit of what one might do with a friend?’ Lexa mused to herself.

Her eyes betrayed her will one last time before the immodestly presented body part was covered again. Lexa dared look at Clarke’s partially uncovered chest, warmth spreading in her lower belly as obscene thoughts entered her mind. A vague memory of the maid’s stuttered descriptions surfaced to her mind and Lexa could not help but wonder what it would feel like if she were to kiss Clarke’s breast, if she were to taste what that soft puckered patch of pink skin felt like against her tongue. ‘My GOD, I cannot do this right now.’ Lexa chided herself, unwilling to take further advantage of Clarke’s current state and quickly pulled the blanket over her chest, covering the source of her temptation.

Lexa shuddered as the now familiar warmth rose in her belly. Feeling her resolve waning against the unrelenting desire to be closer to Clarke, to touch her and be touched in return, Lexa retreated to the settee. She pulled her legs up as she sunk down on it to support the book with which she quite earnestly wished to distract herself but the herculean task appeared to be far beyond Lexa’s abilities. When she found that her mind had failed to retain a single word even after her third attempt at reading the same paragraph Lexa discarded the volume with a disgruntled groan.

Although she estimated that a good half an hour had passed she still found herself under the influence of Clarke’s bold actions. She felt as though the path Clarke’s hands had taken across her body had been scorched by fire, the embers rekindling at the mere memory. Her skin felt alive and tingling where Clarke had so wickedly grabbed at her, forcing shivers to run down her spine in an almost uncomfortably continuous stream. 

Lexa closed her eyes, hopeful that she may be able to quiet the onslaught of desires coursing through her and found herself entirely unprepared to experience the opposite. As her eyes slid closed her mind painted the obscene memories of the previous night on the insides of her eyelids. She sucked in a sharp breath at the memory of Clarke’s fingers gently grazing her bare thigh, remembering the overwhelming wave of need as Clarke’s hand began to push the material higher before Lexa panicked. She bit her bottom lip hard as another shiver manifested just beneath the nape of her neck, slowly making its way across the length of her spine as she remembered the exhilarating press of Clarke’s weight against her as they slowly kissed. Clarke’s whispered words of blasphemy still burned in her ears and Lexa found her heart embracing its meaning.

Lexa hissed uncomfortably, desperate to escape the heat now pulsing between her legs. She felt every inch of her skin in ways never before, the unsatisfactory brush of material against it and the overpowering need to replace her clothes with Clarke’s skin. The brush of Lexa’s own hand against her clothed stomach had done nothing but worsen the effects. When her mind caught up with her instinct Lexa wretched her hand away, embarrassment flooding her when she realized that her fingers were slowly wrapping around the swell of her breast. ‘Air. God, I need air. Away from here…’

After Lexa pushed herself off the settee she rushed for the door, with arms wrapped around her stomach, eyes firmly cast on the ground, fearful that if she were to spare a single glance in Clarke’s direction she would be helpless to resist. 

 


 

As Lexa rushed down the hallway she prayed that her fountain of fortune had not yet exhausted itself, feeling herself absolutely incapable of facing anyone. Relief bubbled in her chest as her fingers wrapped around the brass handle of the front door only to be deflated almost immediately as a familiar voice sounded behind her back. 

“Ah, Miss Woods!” Mr. Collins said. 

Lexa felt her stomach drop with a hollow ache. Mr. Collins was the last person she had wished to see in that moment. Her chest constricted with a surge of guilt and she swallowed heavily. Time had altered its natural course again both slowing and taking up speed at the same time. Feeling the seconds stretch before her yet there was no time to think. She dared not turn around for she was certain that the sight of him would make the ache in her chest more intense. 

“I’m sorry, Mr. Collins, not right now. I.. I just can’t.” Lexa gabbled the words and without giving Mr. Collins opportunity to protest pressed the door handle down and slipped outside. Her feet carried her blindly, not even sure where she was going. ‘Away. Away. Anywhere but here… God, I… I just need quiet.’

Trapped inside the maze of her thoughts, she walked at a brisk pace until her momentary burst of frustrated energy had exhausted itself, only then looking up to see where her feet had taken her. She took a deep breath and let it out in a huff when she realized that she had instinctively went down the trail she and Clarke had so often taken in the last month. ‘Is there anything left that she had not touched and coloured anew?’ Lexa wondered absent-mindedly as she made the conscious decision to walk further up the path to the lake.

Once settled on the lake shore Lexa allowed the calming presence of nature wash over her. As she closed her eyes she focused on the sharp high pitched bird song, not allowing her thoughts to stray. As she laid down on her back she extended both her arms beside her, pressing her palms flush against the grass, enjoying the ticklish sensation of the blades pressing between her fingers. She attempted to feel it all, the soft tufts of grass tickling her, warm sunlight on her cheek, the sounds of birds and rustling leaves in her ear. Lexa felt herself gradually calm. ‘Even this I am to thank her. Before Clarke came along…Mr. Collins always had such a devil of a time trying to entice me out here…’ Her lips quirked into a half smile.

Lexa wondered what quality Clarke might possess that had such a marked effect on her. She certainly enjoyed the woman’s quick wit that was always ready to challenge, to inspire, ready to make her laugh. Her exceptionally untraditional experiences were a marvel to listen to, unfolding a world to Lexa that she had never dreamed about. But what Lexa truly enjoyed about Clarke was the inexplicable duality of her nature. Quick in her wit and scalding in her criticism yet she had such a gentle and attentive soul Lexa felt herself helpless against her draw. She loved that Clarke was always there, always interested, always engaging.

Yet there was a unique quality in her that set her apart from anyone else, even Mr. Collins. He had been far the most acceptable of her suitors, always polite, quite engaging if perhaps slightly superficial in his interests and forever making her laugh. Lexa found that she genuinely enjoyed Mr. Collins’ company and as she well knew she would be expected to choose, could have imagined herself being wed to him, leading a comfortable life by his side.  ‘And yet…’ Lexa thought, her mind working to compare these cousins, the two people who had the most claim to her in this world aside from her uncle. And yet Mr. Collins with his soft smiles and enthusiasm for beauty, his smart humour and energetic courteousness had never quite managed to bring her soul to life as Clarke did.

Before Clarke, Lexa had imperceptibly slowly wilted away, secretly inside her soul even as she performed her social duties impeccably. Before Clarke Lexa felt disinclined to engage with the world. Before Clarke, there were only her balls, or rather the image of herself as the grand hostess of balls, for her uncle to be proud of. Before Clarke there were the occasional spurts of joy, a new dress or Mr. Collins’ humour being in exceptional form. Before Clarke, there was Lexa, safe behind her walls, looking out her window and indulging the public eye with an illusion of their expectations. Before Clarke, life was a performance to be perfected and occasionally enjoyed. ‘Before Clarke… it is not even before Christ any more. She had rewritten my history as far back as I care to remember…’

Try as she might, Lexa could not ignore the one glaring difference that irrefutably set the cousins apart. The absolute blinding desire that Clarke ignited in her with the smallest of touches. With Mr. Collins… in such a context Lexa’s single thought with regard to Mr. Collins had always been relief and trust, for he had never attempted any liberties with her. ‘Had he though…’ Lexa wondered, had Mr. Collins ever pursued Lexa for the liberties she so readily granted to his cousin, would she be now so affected by Clarke? ‘Would I have enjoyed his kisses and his touches this much?’ Lexa attempted to study the matter logically, it seemed an unfair competition that one should be allowed to weave this silken chain of attraction around her while the other was not. ‘Is it though… is it quite so unfair if one has sought it out while the other had not?’

It was an hour later that Lexa, with a brow heavy with brooding thoughts, had finally stood from her place of contemplation and directed her steps towards the mansion. Committed as she was to resolving the dilemma presented to her in the form of two suitors she had decided that her own emotional relief must come after she had checked on the welfare of one and appeased the other after her impolite flight.

Chapter Text

Clarke’s eyes shut with an uncomfortable wince as excruciating pain assaulted her upon having had the courage to open them. ‘Or rather the stupidity… one must wonder if there is any difference really…’ She wondered dejectedly as she attempted to collect the far flung and blurry pieces of the puzzle* that was her recollection of the events leading to her current state. Lexa’s departure with Finn and the resulting hollow ache in her chest were very much prominent in her memory as well as Sir Gustus’ genial invitation to discuss subjects she rarely had the opportunity to converse about outside of Girton. There were Sir Gustus’ excellent cigars and after a cold lunch of veal cutlets and new potatoes there were drinks. Clarke instinctively knew that the drinks must have been the source of her demise for her body rejected even the mere memory of it. Her chest felt heavy as if her lungs had been stuffed with lint, making breathing quite an uncomfortable accomplishment. There was also an incessant pounding against her left temple which appeared to intensify upon even the slightest of movement, prompting Clarke to lie prostrate, groaning at the dizzying nausea that accompanied her mental exploration of the transpired events. Her throat constricted uncomfortably and, sticky yet dry as it was, Clarke worried that its walls may never separate again now that the involuntary motion had pressed them together. 'Lord, I am never drinking again...'

“Are you in much discomfort, dearest?” Lexa’s voice, while quite a relief to hear, broke the fog of Clarke’s self-pitying misery rather unexpectedly. Not yet feeling the strength to speak within her grasp Clarke groaned pitifully and attempted, least with her ears which appeared to be the only part of her not damaged by the foul liquid, to seek Lexa out.

“I shall take that as a yes.” Lexa said gently, her lips stretching into an affectionate smile despite her resolute opinion that Clarke had been foolish to bring this misery upon herself. “Perhaps a cool cloth might bring you some relief.” Her words served as a gentle warning before she wrung out the cloth she had soaked in the bowl of water she had retried on her way to check on her resident invalid. 

Lexa gently pressed the cooled moist cloth against Clarke’s forehead, her eyes searching Clarke’s face for any signs of discomfort, relying on her own sight rather than waiting for Clarke’s considerably diminished ability to communicate. When she exhibited no obvious signs of a worsening condition Lexa dipped the cloth back in the water and replaced it on Clarke’s cheek next, gently dragging it down the side of her neck, swiping across her throat with the most cautious of touches, almost as if she were tending to a wound. “Does this put you at ease?”

Clarke attempted to answer, feeling very much grateful for the gentle attention she was receiving, the cool cloth more than comforting against her skin. After a few failed attempts at forming words and her tongue, which felt dry and quite disgusting to taste, doing not her bidding but moving uselessly against the roof of her mouth Clarke finally resolved to nod, hoping that Lexa would notice the minuscule effort to communicate. 

Lexa, at liberty to command all of her mental and sensory capacities, saw the tiny nod and more. She saw Clarke’s lips helplessly open and close as she attempted to formulate words, as well as the sharp, involuntary convulsion of her throat, realization dawning on her immediately. “Are you thirsty Clarke?”

Not waiting for a reply Lexa set the bowl aside and moved closer on the bed, sliding her arm across Clarke’s shoulders. “Here, let me help you sit.” When Clarke’s immediate reaction was to tense her muscles rigidly Lexa assumed it was to aid her efforts but was surprised when Clarke valiantly shook her head. 

“C-can’t…dizzy.” Clarke rasped with considerable effort, her voice much deeper and gravelly than its accustomed lilt.

“Okay. I shall not move you then. But you must drink.” Lexa said gently as she lowered Clarke’s half raised upper body back on the bed. Considering what little aid was at her disposal, Lexa glanced at the rather tall glass of water on the night stand. ‘That would not do. She would likely spill most of it on herself.’ Her eyes landed on the bowl with the carelessly discarded cloth hanging off of its side. Her eyes lit with a happy spark as an idea formed in her head. 

She took the bowl in her lap again and turned to Clarke. “Open your mouth.” When Clarke dutifully parted her lips Lexa raised the soaked cloth above them and squeezed, spilling the excess liquid into Clarke’s mouth. However, when Clarke choked on the water and began violently coughing she gripped the bowl in one hand, the other attempting to soothe Clarke as she struggled to regain her ability to breathe calmly. ‘Hm…perhaps another approach.’ 

“I’m sorry, Clarke. Lets try this another way. Open up.” Lexa gently commanded again and was pleased to see that Clarke opened her mouth without hesitation. This time she guided the soaked corner of the cloth between Clarke’s lips, and watched as Clarke’s lips closed around it, her throat bobbing as she suckled on the source of liquid.

“More?” Lexa asked.

“Please.” Clarke croaked again, her voice somewhat stronger now that her throat had been moistened.

Lexa repeated the intimate gesture a few times, affection oddly blooming inside her chest. Despite knowing and disapproving of the circumstances of how Clarke had gotten into such a weakened state Lexa felt inexplicably grateful that she was the one nursing Clarke back to her strength.

“Thank you.” Clarke said as she felt the pangs of thirst subside. The liquid seemed to alleviate some of her headache as well, the interminable pounding at her temple had considerably diminished since Lexa took it upon herself to care for her. “Although…” Clarke hesitated, considering the wiseness of her words.

“Yes?” Lexa prompted, curious what Clarke might have on her mind, wondering if she needed anything else.

“As a professional… I do believe the remedy would be quite more effective if you were to…pass the water to me from your own lips.” Still not having dared to open her eyes, Clarke never saw Lexa’s expression transform from what was likely concern to what she imaged to be astonishment, but the sound of her suddenly expelled breath and strangled chuckle confirmed to Clarke that her humour had been at least partially well-received.

“Well…!” Lexa exclaimed in a clearly fake tone of annoyance. “If you can find the strength not only to joke but to think of that you surely must not be in very dire need of assistance…”

When Clarke’s left eye swiftly cracked open in response to her implied threat she rewarded her with a raised eyebrow and a disbelieving yet indulgent smile. The flash of relief she saw in Clarke’s lopsided expression made Lexa’s smile soften, her lips stretch wider to accommodate her smile and on a whim leaned forward to gently press her lips against Clarke’s forehead.

Lexa’s moist lips felt divine against Clarke’s skin to such an extent that she had nearly forgotten about the blinding nausea that accompanied too strenuous a movements. She tipped her head back slightly, angling to offer her lips to Lexa.

Feeling Clarke grow livelier in pursuit of her attention Lexa smiled into the kiss and moved her lips across the hard bridge of Clarke’s nose, pressing her lips against the tip. She had resolved to indulge Clarke’s whim when, once more, a knock on the door had interrupted them. Lexa expelled the air from her lungs through her nose in an annoyed huff, wondering if such interruptions were not unwanted instances of divine intervention.

“Enter.” She said with an eye-roll executed entirely for Clarke’s benefit as she straightened her posture on the side of the bed. When the door opened Lexa was more than astonished to find not Annie stepping inside but her uncle.

Clarke’s line of sight was blocked by Lexa but when she heard her exclaim her uncle’s name both of Clarke’s eyes popped open in panic. Clarke pulled the sheets over her chest to ensure that her wildly inappropriate half-dressed state would go unnoticed by Sir Gustus.

“Apologies for the intrusion, my dears.” Sir Gustus’ deep baritone was a surprising contrast to what her ears were accustomed to in the last few minutes. It also prompted more dregs of memories to surface, remembering bits of the most stimulating conversation she had the joy to have in several weeks. A flash of an odd memory, however, resurfaced, Sir Gustus’ tone shushed, the words escaping her mind but remembering that his intention was to reassure, to soothe. ‘What on Earth could have prompted him to try to console me…?’

When Sir Gustus’ frame came into view above Lexa’s shoulder Clarke glanced at him timidly, expecting to see disappointment or disapproval in his eyes. To her surprise, however, there resided nought but a rather passive blankness she could not decipher. “I believe I owe you an apology, Miss Griffin. I had gotten quite carried away in our marvellous conversation and had not considered the effects of strong drink on your considerably smaller frame.”

“Ah… it is fine, Sir Gustus.” Clarke said, her mind rather too numb to formulate a more refined response.

“Well, I certainly know that my dear niece is quite the prodigy in nursing people back to health. I have no fear in that regard. I have brought a remedy suggested to me by…an acquaintance. It has helped me on occasion.” Sir Gustus said, his tone friendly and if Clarke felt more coherent she may have been convinced that the shadow of a chuckle coloured Sir Gustus’ voice. Yet on his face, as she was growing accustomed to, there was not a sign of humour to be detected. “The invention comes from the Americas, as I am told it is called a Prairie Oyster**.” 

Sir Gustus turned his attention to his niece and exchanged a few words with her before he made his excuses and departed. Clarke had been entirely too focused on the possible contents of the small tea cup to have followed the last of their conversation and was therefore slightly surprised when Lexa turned her attention back to her. “Well…that was unexpected.”

“Indeed. I expected him to be…disapproving.” 

“Quite the contrary my dear.” Lexa said with mischief in her eye. “He mentioned in passing his genuine surprise at your ability to…hold your liquor as he said.”

“Oh.” Was all Clarke managed to say, slightly flustered at the unexpected praise. “So…Prairie Oyster?” Clarke asked, her curiosity piqued as she peered at the cup she could still not see from her vantage point.

“It appears to be raw egg yolk.” Lexa said with a sneer. Clarke noted the slightest twitch of her upper lip, a gesture of genuine distaste as Lexa handled the tea cup, peering into its contents before raising it to her nose. Lexa’s nostrils quivered as she sniffed at the mysterious antidote. “I think perhaps with a touch of Worcester sauce and vinegar.” Lexa said with a frown, her large green eyes filled with disgust as she handed the concoction over to Clarke. “Uncle Gus said it must be swallowed whole in one go.” 

When Clarke comically stared first at the cup then briefly at Lexa before her gaze flicked back to the cup, only to finally rest on Lexa again, her eyes very round and very blue, looking ridiculously innocent and nearly frightened Lexa could not help but burst out laughing. “I think this might be your punishment for gluttony, Clarke.” Lexa said with a chuckle.

A shadow of something Lexa could not discern flashed in Clarke’s eyes, leaving a playful mark behind, before Clarke shrugged and proceeded to tip her chin up valiantly and emptied the vile-smelling contents of the cup into her mouth. 

‘OH GOD this is disgusting!’ Clarke thought with regret as the slimy cool yolk slid along her tongue, leaving a trail of sour salty sting in its wake. ‘At least now I know why it’s called an oyster…same texture…’ Her gag reflex involuntarily provoked, Clarke worried for a moment that the disgusting slimy thing would crawl right back up her throat like a snail and she would either be forced to spit the thing out or endure swallowing it again. Not sure whether the texture of the intact horror was worse or the possibility of the raw yolk coating the inside of her mouth if her teeth pierced its frail coat, Clarke struggled to keep the thing down. When she secured her victory over the disgusting thing she peered at Lexa, surprised to find her friend staring at her with abject disgust.

“My God, Clarke, that looked absolutely revolting. The things you put in your mouth…” Lexa could not help but exclaim in horror. The very idea of swallowing the concoction made Lexa’s stomach churn uneasily. 

Upon Lexa’s phrasing Clarke’s eyes turned mischievous and she leaned forward. “I could certainly think of better things to put in my mouth.” She said cheekily, her gaze flirtatiously slipping to her mouth before puckering her lips comically for a kiss. 

Lexa mewled in horror before she jumped off the bed entirely, suddenly desirous of putting a safe distance between Clarke and herself. “I am most certainly not kissing you with THAT taste in your mouth!” When their eyes connected from a distance they fell silent for but a moment before mirth bubbled from both their lips, Clarke’s somewhat more subdued owing to her lingering weakness. “Perhaps in the evening, if you manage to procure some mint leaves to chew until then.” Lexa conceded with a fond smile as she approached the bed again. 

“Might I be allowed to hold you to that promise, Miss Woods?” Clarke asked, her tone playfully serious, her eyes merrily cheeky. The contrast, Lexa felt, must have entirely served the purpose of melting her heart and she could vouch that it was rather effective.

“Certainly…Miss Griffin.” Lexa replied without hesitation, her lips tingling from the very notion of pressing against Clarke’s. “But seeing how your condition is considerably improving, I am afraid I must depart… I have…certain obligations to attend to.” Lexa said mysteriously before she pressed a parting kiss against Clarke’s forehead again. “Rest. And eat. I have brought you some of Pierre’s croissants.”

Lexa stood, despite Clarke’s vocal protests and moved towards the door. When she turned her head to the side, standing in the door frame she was met with the sight of an adorably grumpy Clarke reaching for the plate of croissants. “Oh and Clarke?” Lexa drew her attention to her once more. “You can find mint leaves in the herb garden behind the mansion.”

Chapter Text

“Ah, Miss Woods!” Mr. Collins greeted Lexa as soon as she had entered the drawing room.

“Afternoon, F-” Lexa coughed immediately in a bid to distract Mr. Collins from her near slip in using his given name. “Feared that you wouldn’t see me again today, have you, Mr. Collins.” Lexa recovered from her slip relatively smoothly and offered a playful smile to cover her sudden embarrassment*. On her way to find Mr. Collins Lexa had wondered what ramifications it might have if she were to accept a seemingly unavoidable formal attachment to Mr. Collins. As she had done so on other occasions she had tested his given name against her lips, how the tip of her tongue rolled against her teeth, almost gently compared to the hard ‘k’s in Clarke’s name. Her mind had been submerged in those thoughts when she found Mr. Collins and her mouth seemed to have betrayed her. The true extent of that betrayal was clearly etched on Mr. Collins’ face, his eyes widening in ill-disguised surprise and the subsequent softening of his gaze spoke volumes of how much encouragement he had gained from the unexpected slip he had clearly caught.

“I have. Cousin Clarke’s unfortunate…incident and your valiant resolution to nursing her back to health have lead me to believe you would have quit my company altogether until the ball.” Mr. Collins replied smartly, his tone rather slightly more teasing than in the morning. 

If Lexa was honest,  she liked Mr. Collins’ rare smart alec* moods. She enjoyed the sassy yet respectful rapport that they had. Mr. Collins was an attentive and generous companion to have at her side, his attention never far from her needs. And Lexa had been genuinely surprised that after so many a months have passed Mr. Collins still had not expected anything of her in return but her attention.

“Oh, Mr. Collins, ye of little faith.” Lexa said kindly as she sat down in the love chair he had previously occupied. Dutifully, Mr. Collins made the gentleman’s unassuming decision to move to the armchair closest but was stopped by a hand on his arm. “Sit with me. I believe there is room for both of us.” Lexa looked at him with rounded eyes, her half smile warm and inviting. With what Lexa knew to be his pleased smile, Mr. Collins nodded, rather humbly fluttering his eyelids as he did so. 

An anxious feeling of anticipation bloomed inside Lexa’s chest, wondering if the close proximity she and Mr. Collins so seldom shared would instigate in her a desire she found impossible to resist. She rearranged her dress as they chattered about the ball, the decor Lexa had envisioned, subtly inching closer under the pretext of standing to smooth out an invisible wrinkle on her skirt. Lexa felt mildly disappointed in Mr. Collins’ lack of reaction, seemingly oblivious to the decreasing distance between them. ‘I don’t understand… Clarke would have understood my meaning immediately… do not all men have a natural capacity for such subtlety?’ The irony of it had certainly struck a chord with her. Her ire, previously directed at her past suitors who would attempt to press their lips against her hand in inappropriate ways the moment she displayed any sort of warmth, whose touches whenever conceivable lingered under any pretext, was now directed at Mr. Collins’ refusal to acknowledge an open invitation. ‘Or was that rather inability…’ His arm, conveniently laid across the backrest of the love seat they both occupied, staid there, immovable, resolute, almost as if Mr. Collins had willed his body to turn to stone. 

Lexa watched Mr. Collins closely, his animated gestures, the way his lips formed the words, the excitement shining in his eyes. And felt absolutely nothing. Only half paying attention to Mr. Collins monologue about the advantages and disadvantages of having such an insubordinate Frenchman for a chef as Pierre, Lexa turned introspective, having debated the hotheaded French with Mr. Collins enough to formulate a generic response when appropriate. Turning her attention to her own feelings, Lexa was surprised that the anticipation she had felt was there but unlike with Clarke, whose passion struck her as suddenly and all encompassing as a torrential downpour, Lexa’s anticipation with Mr. Collins was of a comparative nature. She had wished to compare her experience with Clarke to an experience with him. ‘How else am I to know if Clarke’s allure rests on a foundation of genuine interest or lack of competition?’

Quickly losing her interest in the debate of foreigners’ ability to refrain from butchering the national cuisine, Lexa made the decision to resort to trickery. “Oh Mr. Collins, I do believe something had just bit me.” Lexa faked alarm and discomfort, moving a hand to her neck. “Do be a dear and have a look.” Not waiting for a response she swiftly turned in her chair, presenting her back to a genuinely alarmed Mr. Collins. She swept her long tresses  across her other shoulder to expose her neck to his eyes, hoping that the incentive would inflame his passions. 

“I do not see anything amiss, Miss Woods.” Mr. Collins proclaimed almost immediately. 

Glancing back Lexa noted that Mr. Collins had not moved a muscle in her direction. “Well you would not from so far away, I imagine. Please Mr. Collins, just look, it is entirely too uncomfortable. Here.” She pointed to a spot half hidden by the collar of her dress blouse. 

“I beg your pardon for the intrusion, Miss Woods.” Mr. Collins sputtered as Lexa felt him move closer, his fingertips gently grazing her shoulder to move her collar to the side. Lexa closed her eyes in a bid to concentrate on his touch. The soft grazing motion did produce a pleasant sensation and a familiar shiver ran down her spine. ‘So that much works similarly…’ 

She could feel an approaching presence as the seat dipped slightly, weight being transferred. Lexa felt a soft breath on her skin and another shiver ran down her spine. Her breath hitched as her tongue curved against the roof her mouth, lips parting to utter the familiar name.

“I do see a redness here.” The words crashed into Lexa’s consciousness with the force of a steam locomotive. The very fact that there were words rather than kisses was a shower of cold water to Lexa’s desperate needs but they were also the wrong words. And the voice was wrong. Too masculine. It was not the voice her subconscious expected to hear. Frozen in shock, Lexa failed to respond. “It almost seems like a bruise. A red mark, about the size of my thumb, just on your shoulder. But it does not look like a bite mark from any critter. Seems more like as if you had been hit with a blunt object, Miss Woods.”

As Lexa had no recollection of any such incident happening, she sat there nonplussed as to what Mr. Collins might be referring to. Her mind was chiefly occupied by her gripping confusion, her body shivering as the unshakable shreds of unexpected desire haunted her, laced with guilt over her inability to extend to Mr. Collins even a fraction of the attention she lavished on Clarke. 

“Th-thank you, Mr. Collins” Lexa stammered as she struggled to hide her inner conflict from the unassuming man who had so patiently and politely waited for her.

“Oh my, you do seem rather flushed, Miss Woods” Mr. Collins said in a concerned tone as Lexa turned to face him. Lexa looked at him, really looked at him, the gentle angles of his cheeks, the subtle softening of his gaze as his eyes danced, watching Lexa in return. She attempted to take steadying breaths to calm her racing heart, her lips parting when her breaths fell short, feeling as though she was suffocating. “Would you like some fresh air, Miss Woods?” 

“Yes, God, yes…” Lexa would have exhaled had she not been so out of breath. As it was the sound that left her throat was much more akin to a whimper as she jumped to her feet immediately. Mr.  Collins gallantly offered her his arm, which she took gratefully, hoping that his physical presence might ground her. They exited the drawing room via the French windows leading into the back garden.

Several minutes later the warm summer breeze helped fortify Lexa, now considerably calmer, Mr. Collins’s arm wrapped between both of hers a calming presence. Her fingers played with the rough fabric of his waistcoat just over his wrist, in a need to distract her mind from the confusing memory of his fingers on her skin whipping up such a strong current of desire for her.

Mr. Collins attentively chattered away about the year’s theatre season, prompting Lexa’s opinion on various aspects of a show they had seen together as often as sharing his own views. “Oh but Mr. Collins I beg to disagree. That show entirely relied on the brilliance of Miss Cushman***. Imagine the difficulties it must present even as a professional to not only play being a woman one moment and a man the next…” Lexa had been employed in a complicated elaboration of the actresses’ professional merits in so successfully playing Viola as well as Viola-disguised-as-Cesario in Twelfth Night**** when her eye caught movement just at the very edge of her vision. “But to also be able to adjust her performance of whom she is in love with as she changes personalities…” Lexa’s voice trailed off as her mind ground to a halt at the sight of Clarke kneeling in the herb garden, not more than some two dozen yards from them. She barely heard the distant sound of Mr. Collins’ voice as she watched Clarke silently working. ‘…if you manage to procure some mint leaves…my God Clarke’ Lexa felt herself grow faint again as a powerful surge of desire expanded within her belly, forcing her to stumble in her steps.

“Miss Woods!” Mr. Collins sharper voice penetrated the fog that threatened to settle around Lexa’s mind. She grasped at his arm in order to compose herself. 

“Mr. Collins do take me back. I need to lie down.” Lexa breathed, fearing that if she were unable to lie down in the safety of her own bed she might not survive the powerful torrents this emotion without embarrassment or jeopardy.


 

Lexa heard muffled conversation from just outside the door of her room almost the moment Mr. Collins had closed it after a final concerned glance in her direction. Hoping that he would disarm any of the servants’ attempts to offer their services, Lexa closed her eyes, taking in deep breaths. The physical exertion of fleeing the garden had helped clear her mind of the all-encompassing fog somewhat, but the moment her eyes closed all she could see was Clarke. Her mind conjured image after image, sensations, memories, Clarke’s lips on hers, hands on her skin. “Clarke…” Lexa gently moaned as a particularly strong memory of Clarke’s fingertips grazing her bare thigh created shivers that rocked her body.

“Lexa?” Lexa’s eyes snapped open at the unexpected sound, her eyes once again resting on the unlikely apparition of Clarke, her features imbued with worry as she approached the bed. Lexa’s body worked instinctively as she all but leapt from the sheets, still clothed as undressing was not a possibility in the presence of Mr. Collins.

Clarke slowed to a halt upon Lexa’s display of energetic exertion, confusion causing her eyebrows to knit before flying into her hairline upon Lexa’s leap into her arms. Lips crashing against lips, Lexa desperately kissed Clarke, a strangled whimper begging entry as she plunged her tongue into the other woman’s mouth with devastating passion. Clarke needed but a moment to gather her wits about her and encircle Lexa’s waist with her arms.

Lexa felt control fall from her grasp entirely as she pressed herself against Clarke with abandon, showering her with frenzied kisses. “Please…” she managed to moan between kisses. “Please Clarke…” 

Not understanding what had overcome Lexa but unable to deny her Clarke yielded softly, holding Lexa tight against her body, allowing her to plunder her mouth as she pleased. Clarke’s higher mental capacities had frozen to a halt as her senses overcame her body entirely, thus it had taken her several of Lexa’s insistent tugs and pleases panted into her mouth to understand Lexa’s intent. She took a step forward and another, guiding their joint bodies towards the bed, excitement flushing her cheeks and sending shivers down her spine. The sudden rush of falling made her light-headed as Lexa fell back against the bed, dragging Clarke with her as she refused to allow their lips to separate.

Lexa moaned in relief, Clarke’s weight on top of her acting as the grounding presence she so desperately sought. Clarke whimpered against her as Lexa wetly sucked on her lips and tongue, entirely uncoordinated and uncontrolled in her movements.

Lexa thought that this madness would never lift from her mind as she clutched at Clarke’s back but was surprised to find that her mind had only truly started to fall to pieces when Clarke’s lips left hers in favour of her skin, trailing a series of wet kisses down her throat. Instinct had manoeuvred their bodies in such a way that Clarke’s britches clad thigh was trapped in the sea of fabric pooling between Lexa’s legs and when her hips flexed instinctively they both gasped at the unexpected sensation. Their eyes finally connected, both watching lust swirl in the other’s eyes under hooded eyelids. “Does…does it count as…sex… if we remain fully clothed?” Clarke panted against her ear, fearful of encroaching on boundaries Lexa might not be ready to cross with her. 

“God, Clarke… I don’t know.” Lexa groaned, thoughts coming to her sluggishly. “I don’t know any more… but I need you… God, I tried to fight it but I need you…” 

What little they spoke had dowsed the uncontrollable rage of their erupting passions, yet Lexa’s heartfelt admission was the last they had spoken for a time as lips now reacquainted in gentler exploration, bodies softly rocking against each other in slow waves more out of instinct than a wilful desire to excite.

 

Chapter Text

Consciousness dawned on Clarke in a considerably gentler manner than the last time she had risen. Unlike before, the weight on her chest was unfamiliarly pleasant, not the oppressive weight that felt as though it had attempted to suffocate her from within. Her senses awakened to a soft, almost ticklish caress accompanied by an alluring scent she was loath to resist. As she burrowed her nose deeper in an attempt to wrap the sweet scent around herself as though a blanket she recognized the silky caress as hair. ‘Lexa.’ A content smile tugged at her lips as Clarke basked in the glory of Lexa’s weight pressing into her body in various points. The fog of sleep slowly lifted from her mind and memories clamoured for her attention.

She was stunned into witless immobility for a moment as Lexa’s impossibly soft lips descended on hers. Clarke lost herself in the soft whimpers and insistent lips immediately, her mind grinding to a halt as her senses took position at the helm of her awareness. Before she knew it they were toppled on the bed, hands grasping at whatever part of each other they could reach, their bodies moving instinctively.

The trail of kisses Lexa’s lips left across the skin of her throat tingled long after Lexa’s attention had descended lower. Clarke felt as though her entire existence had narrowed to the feeling of wet lips on skin, her chest heaving to get more air into her lungs as she struggled to feel it the it at once.

Clarke bit her lip as a rush of shivers covered her body upon recalling the memory of Lexa’s lips as they explored beneath the hem of her dress blouse. Her thighs tensed as her body relived the memory, a reflexive motion she had yet to understand but one which drew her attention to the pleasant sensation of Lexa’s own leg tucked provocatively between hers, her thigh resting against her most snugly.

She kissed the crown of brown hair within easy reach. Not expecting Lexa to stir, she was surprised when she was met with content green orbs staring at her from beneath sleepily drooping eyelids. A calm acceptance shone in her sleepy gaze as the arms she only now realized were circling her waist pulled them impossibly closer still.

When words failed, Clarke smiled at Lexa and nudged her hairline with her nose in an attempt to convey the overwhelming gush of affection that filled her chest.

“How do you feel?” Lexa asked softly, her eyes never leaving Clarke’s.

“Much better. I believe the poison has left my body entirely.” Clarke said slowly, taking a moment to assess the few bodily sensations that were not coaxed into being by Lexa.

Lexa smiled at her warmly. “I rather meant how you felt regarding our…recent activities.”

‘Oh…um…spectacular? Exhilarated? Yearning?’ Words paraded themselves in Clarke’s mind, each hoping to catch her attention as though they were the contestants of a beauty pageant. “Fine. I…feel fine. It was…” Clarke trailed off as words tangled her tongue. She felt suddenly frustrated with her inability to express in just one word all of what Lexa had made her feel. “I can’t find the right words, darling. You are…everything. And you?” Clarke redirected Lexa’s question.

 “I am… coming to terms with it...us.” Lexa said honestly. Clarke saw the moment a serious edge crept into Lexa’s gaze, swelling the meaning of her calm, gentle expression, imbuing it with a deeper meaning Clarke had yet to decipher. “I will not lie to you, I am astonishingly confused. Sometimes…sometimes I feel l am suffocating beneath the waves of emotion clashing over my head. I feel…disoriented in their aftermath, unsure of what shores they have dragged me to.” Words tumbled from Lexa’s lips in an unexpectedly deep confession. “But then I see you…” Lexa continued, smiling, her fingertips making their way up to Clarke’s cheek. “I see the perfect sea blue of your eyes and realize I had but lost myself in your gaze. I see that it is the whirlwind of our emotions, these natural forces colliding and tangling that lashed these waves into being…that they are but the swirling blues of your lovely eyes… and when your gaze releases me and I find myself drawn into your embrace…and it is so much more than the barren shore my momentary fright expects…” Lexa stretched her neck, straining to reach Clarke’s lips in a gentle kiss into which Clarke leaned eagerly.

Lexa’s admission overwhelmed Clarke. Their kiss was inevitable and Clarke desperately pressed her lips on Lexa’s, hoping to silently convey the feelings her eloquent words cultivated inside her chest. But to Clarke’s displeasure the kiss was broken off all too quickly and she found herself staring into Lexa’s eyes again, the soulful greens somehow more serious, shining with an earnest honesty Clarke had difficulty placing.

She had spent many an hour attempting to perfect a painting of just Lexa’s eyes, the finer details of her irises committed to memory. She could spent eternity staring into the intricate swirl of greens that embrace the slosh of brown around the black of her pupils, only noticeable at close proximity. Clarke secretly liked to imagine that very few have the privilege of having such intimate knowledge of Lexa’s eyes.

“I was…confused enough to… test the waters as they say.” Lexa whispered the next words tentatively. “To see if it is your allure that has such devastating effect on me alone or if it was an animal attraction anyone could excite…” Lexa confessed, biting her bottom lip nervously.

“Wh…you…mean…” Clarke stuttered in confusion. The revelation shocked her enough that she struggled to rise to her elbows to get a better look at Lexa, eyes searching Lexa’s for the meaning of the cryptic words. “F…Finn. You kissed him too…” Clarke fails to ask, her voice trailing off as the surety of own conviction devastates her much less pleasantly than she has grown accustomed to in the wake of Lexa’s lips. A nauseating pressure constricts her throat as her entire body tenses in Ill-contained jealousy. Her mind immediately flashes to her earlier musings, the sickening knowledge that she was indeed not the only one allowed such closeness to Lexa taunting her.

“No. I have not.” Lexa responds immediately, her arms tightening around Clarke as she struggles to sit up. “My lips have only ever known yours…” 

A fraction of the built up tension releases from Clarke’s shoulders and her chest decompresses in relief. “But you said…” She trails off after a few words, offering Lexa the opportunity to explain in an attempt to extricate herself from the whirlwind of unpleasant assumptions.

“Do you trust me?” Lexa asked quietly. 

Not the continuation she had expected, Clarke blinked, confused, taken aback for a moment, not understanding where the question was coming from. She nodded slowly as she peered at Lexa almost timidly, watching her move away from her. 

“Sit up.” Lexa instructed her. “Let me show you.”

Clarke complied silently, her shoulders tensing again as her mind reeled with the possibilities of what liberties Finn had been gifted with if not a kiss.

“I made up an excuse of having suffered a bite from a critter and asked him to inspect my shoulder…like so.” Lexa whispered and Clarke felt her move behind her. She instinctively closed her eyes as fingertips touched her skin. Despite the sickening nausea of jealousy that swirled in the pit of her stomach Clarke shivered at her touch. “I shivered just like you… his touch was pleasant enough…” Lexa whispered from much closer, her lips almost brushing against Clarke’s ear. Clarke’s fist clenched and she snarled in anger upon hearing Lexa’s admission, feeling her body heat as conflicting passions consumed it. “But when I closed my eyes in anticipation you were the sole occupant of my thoughts… I nearly moaned your name…” Lexa whispered, her lips grazing the sensitive skin of Clarke’s ear with each word, pressing a gentle kiss against it to soothe Clarke’s mounting tension. “He didn’t do this…” Lexa breathed the words as her lips wrapped around Clarke’s earlobe and tugged gently, the tip of her tongue lashing against it softly. “But I wished you had…”

When Lexa’s hand confidently slid against Clarke’s jaw, fingertips gently hooking behind its hinge to pull, Clarke turned bonelessly, pliant under Lexa’s touch. Her eyes were closed, lips parted as her jaw hung loosely, body releasing all of the jealous tension it had built up. “I kissed you in such a frenzy not soon after…” Lexa whispered against her lips as she guided her back against the bed. “…because my will to control my body had waned, thinned dangerously just looking at you in the herb garden…” 

Clarke’s eyes sprang open in surprise when a now familiar weight settled against her in an entirely new way. She stared at Lexa in awe as she climbed into her lap, boldly straddling her. Clarke found her hands had instinctively reached for Lexa’s hips. She struggled to comprehend the double vision of seeing Lexa lean in slowly as her mind conjured the memory of Lexa leaning over her chest a little while ago. “I may not be ready to…find myself in bread and butter fashion*…” Lexa leaned in, her actions countering her words almost comically. “But when I do I want it to be you…” 

Clarke melted against the kiss, her lips opening immediately to receive Lexa, her tongue boldly swiping to invite Lexa’s own to dance, deepening the kiss to soothe the ache she suddenly felt between her legs.

Each of Lexa’s kisses had the same devastating effect regardless of whether they assaulted her lips, travelled the length of her jaw and neck or explored the soft swell of her chest, Clarke heaved with a frenzied passion soon after. When Lexa’s hand brushed against her ribs, fingers grazing the underside of her breast her breath hitched as she cracked her eyes open, barely managing to focus on Lexa through hooded lids.

“Can I?” Lexa asked, voice innocent, eyes round and hopeful. 

Clarke found herself smitten with Lexa’s increasingly frequent propensity to shed her shy reluctance. Eager to encourage, she nodded, too out of breath, too distracted by sensations to respond with words as her mind assaulted her with another memory. A rather pleasurable memory of a less timid Lexa as she blindly grappled with the strings of her blouse, her lips almost desperately delving beneath the hemline. 

Not having bothered to right her clothing yet, Lexa had considerably less obstacles than before. Her corset lay discarded by the bed and the strings of her chemise beneath her unbuttoned blouse were comfortably loose, allowing Lexa to pull the layers of fabric to the side. Clarke watched in an awe mixed with nervous anticipation as Lexa disrobed her with careful slowness. Clarke felt a surge of affection for Lexa as she realized that she so often glanced at her, holding her gaze a moment each time in silent confirmation that Clarke was comfortable with their present engagement.

Clarke reached up to caress Lexa’s cheek, nodding with a reassuring smile as their gazes connected. When Lexa’s eyes inched towards her chest so did Clarke’s and she watched Lexa pull her chemise to the side slowly, almost reverently to uncover the naked flesh of her breast. Clarke felt exposed under Lexa’s stare like never before, squirming in nervous anticipation of what Lexa would do, hoping that her sight was to Lexa’s liking. Braving a glance at Lexa’s face Clarke was awed to see a hungry tension in Lexa’s eyes.

Moving instinctively Clarke’s fingers tangled in the soft hairs on the nape of Lexa’s neck as she guided Lexa closer. Clarke had intended to capture Lexa’s lips in a kiss but was surprised when Lexa’s gaze never broke from her flesh, her mouth instead descending on her skin in a wet open mouthed kiss.

Lexa relished the soft plush feel of Clarke’s breast against her lips, lapping at her salty taste eagerly. She moved slowly despite her nagging impatience, giving Clarke time to protest should she feel too vulnerable under her touch. She was keenly aware of the soft pink skin of Clarke’s nipple so close to her lips, her mouth watering at the thought of kissing it. She knew not if that would be pleasant to Clarke but it looked so enticing, such a curious part of their body. Her own was certainly sensitive whenever she brushed against it while bathing. She was also familiar with how it reacted to cold, how the skin puckered before her very eyes but the sight of her own was nothing compared to Clarke’s. When the soft pink skin wrinkled and rose under the weight of her gaze Lexa froze, yearning to latch onto it to satisfy her own selfish curiosity but not daring to move for fear of causing Clarke alarm or pain. A rush of excitement swelled and swirled in her stomach when Clarke guided her closer, accepting the silent permission eagerly.

Clarke felt that familiar rush descend upon her as Lexa’s lips explored her chest, the ache she discovered but a night ago, which she knew would only be satisfied by touch, made it impossible to keep her hips completely still. She desperately tried to smother the dance of her hips underneath Lexa’s weight, hoping the motion wouldn’t dissuade Lexa from her explorations. She had no idea how Lexa rose this heat inside her without going near the most private places of her body but she was not about to question it. Her breaths became more shallow as she watched Lexa lavish her chest with kisses.

Lexa felt a dark sense of excitement thicken the air, her senses dulling to everything but the sway of Clarke’s hips beneath her in time with the shallow rise and fall of her chest. The motion of Clarke’s body reminded her of the soft waves of the sea, only she stirred a primal instinct within her rather than relax her senses. She slowly detached her lips from the creamy skin and hovered, gaze locked on Clarke’s face, waiting for her to open her eyes. It appeared to take some seconds for Clarke to manage but eventually darkened blues peered at her from beneath barely open lids.

“Can I?” Lexa repeated the simple question. When she received a series of small nods Lexa grinned happily before directing all of her attention to her prize, gently lowering her lips to wrap them around the enticing pink flesh. Clarke’s sharp gasp of breath made Lexa panic for a moment and she immediately released what little pressure she employed on the skin she had captured but found herself unable to move against the iron grip Clarke had on the hair at the nape of her neck. Lexa strained to peer at Clarke from her awkward angle and was surprised to see pleasure rather than pain play on Clarke’s face.

A tentative kiss elicited a soft whimper from Clarke, emboldening Lexa anew in her silent worship of Clarke’s flesh. Instinct and Clarke’s soft mewls and whimpers urged her on to explore. Enthusiastic in her ministrations, an accidental nip of Lexa’s teeth drew a hiss from Clarke’s lips, Lexa knowing that it was well received from the sharp sting of Clarke’s tightening grasp on her hair and the way Clarke arched her back pressing herself more against Lexa’s mouth rather than retreating. 

The loud unwelcome intrusion of sharp knocks on wood startled them and they sprang apart just as the door opened. Clarke was saved by Lexa’s quick thinking in pulling her on her side, her back to the door, thus obscuring her state of undress from the intruder. Clarke froze, not even a breath leaving her lips as the door creaked open, her round blue eyes trained on Lexa’s stoic expression.

“Misses, dinne…oh is Miss Griffin indisposed? Shall I have Cook prepare a light plate for her?” Annie offered, her tone sympathetic as she assessed Clarke’s possible condition.

“That will not be necessary, Annie, thank you. Clarke has had a headache. I believe she will have slept it off by now. We shall be down momentarily.” Lexa responded smoothly, her tone never betraying the fright she was coming down from. 

“Very well, thank you, Miss.” 

As the door closed Lexa collapsed against the bed groaning in defeat. “Will there ever be a time when we will not be so crudely interrupted…” She mused aloud.

“Perhaps… it is for the best for now…” Clarke admitted softly, staring into Lexa’s eyes. “I am not entirely convinced that I would not have started begging you for more had you not been forced to desist your wicked ministrations…”

Lexa’s expression of frustration softened as she raised her hand to caress Clarke’s cheek once more, a grateful smile adoring her lips at Clarke’s implied thoughtfulness in remembering that she had previously expressed a desire to wait. A desire Lexa found had less and less of a grasp on her as soon as she and Clarke were secluded in any measure of privacy.

Chapter Text

It was not more than a quarter of an hour later that Clarke and Lexa found themselves seated beside one another in the dining hall. While the physical symptoms of her ailment were significantly reduced, Clarke experienced the unpleasant gnawing of a considerable emotional discomfort. As they had been otherwise engaged throughout the majority of their day, Lexa had not found sufficient time to relay to her the full circumstances and details of her unfortunate behaviour some hours before. Likely in an effort to not leave her entirely without information, she had some hurried words with her before departing with dinner. The disconcerting suggestion that she perhaps might like to take her cousins’ sensibilities into consideration after the harsh words they had exchanged had left Clarke in a miserable snare of confusion. She had no recollection of the incident that she had been informed of having occurred but she trusted Lexa to have interpreted the situation correctly. It provided a small measure of relief when Lexa kindly leaned in and pressed a soft kiss against her cheek, whispering that she had already salvaged as much as possible. Yet sitting opposite him and not remembering a single moment of the incident cultivated an uneasy feeling deep in the pit of Clarke’s stomach, now wishing that she had the reassuring comfort of Lexa’s touch grounding her.

The dinner laid out between them was a truly splendid spread that left Clarke mildly disappointed that her stomach was not quite at its best. The potato soup appeared a safe prospect but her mouth moistened as the scent of freshly fried potato puffs invaded her senses. The various meats, while garnished in an eye-pleasing manner, turned her stomach queasy prompting Clarke to forgo the heavier dishes.

“Miss Griffin, I take it your afternoon illness has…passed?” Sir Gustus inquired discreetly, well aware that the servants waiting at table, with the possible exception of the butler, have remained ignorant.

“Quite, thank you, Sir Gustus.” Clarke answered politely between spoonfuls of soup. “I dare say that a restful night of sleep shall do me wonders and I shall be as good as new tomorrow.”

“Ah, I expect you shall want to leave soon after dinner then, Clarke?” Despite Finn’s innocent tone and general demeanour Clarke froze in her seat in an awkward manner, not entirely sure how to respond in lieu of she and Lexa having neglected to discuss further sleeping arrangements. The ball was in two days time which meant her departure loomed a meagre three days from that evening. Lexa and she had not discussed the finer details of her visit. When Clarke was not indisposed they were wrapped up in an embrace far too much for thoughts of departure to have penetrated their minds.

Before Clarke could attempt to formulate an answer Lexa redirected the attention to herself. “I have yet to discuss with the Clarke the finer details of what my summer ball typically entails, Mr. Collins.” Lexa’s tone was as uninformatively pleasant as Clarke had ever heard, in harmony with her aristocratically perfect, sculpted profile that steadfastly refused to reveal the slightest hint of the inner workings of her mind. The undeniable fact that her cousin, the very same man whose person was so intricately woven into the fabric of their history should be in possession of more knowledge of what is to come in the final days of her visit rekindled the heavy nauseating feeling of jealousy. 

A distasteful composition of irreconcilable feelings swirled in her gut as her mind assaulted her with the recent memory of Lexa’s lips so pleasurably ghosting her skin while those very same lips spilled the soul shattering recollection of the experiment she had been engaged in with her cousin while Clarke recovered. 
 
When Lexa turned to face her she felt herself willingly falling into the green of her eyes much the same way as one would fall into the mesmerizing power of the Will-o’-the-wisp* before following it through untrodden paths to their doom. ‘Lord above, am I following Lexa to my doom so happily and willingly?’ The thought flashed through her mind unbidden, her prior confidence losing its footing over her disconcerting lack of knowledge. Long ago neglected worries of her mother's ire and displeasure surfaced to compound her feeling of uncertainty.

“As Mr. Collins is well aware, I do not take visitors on the last day before the ball” Lexa elaborated, seemingly unaware of the effect her casually delivered words had. The words struck Clarke’s ears as uncharacteristically haughty coming from Lexa. She blinked in confusion, wondering how she should have been aware of this circumstance without anyone having informed her. Clarke’s stomach plummeted and where her confidence had lounged comfortably, it’s warm expansion overflowing her soul mere minutes ago in the confines of Lexa’s room, now an aching hollow took up residence, its cold void all but forcing her spirit to collapse on itself. 

“However, that is only because I am generally quite busily engaged in last minute preparations which would not permit me to be an entertaining host.” Lexa carried on in much the same tone as she had. Her eyes softened but a fraction, confusing Clarke further with the cryptic message she was sure the subtle change was designed to deliver. “If…you were of the disposition to help with supervision I’m sure I could…” Lexa said timidly, her voice trailing to a gradual halt without finishing her offer.

Clarke took the timidity of Lexa’s offer as reluctance which started filling the hollow void in her chest with shame and doubt. The heavy clogged feeling of being weighed down, her chest uncomfortably shrinking over the vilely expanding feeling left her with a sense of tremendous discomfort, as though her very skin had shrivelled too tight over her frame. Her vision seemed to have adjusted to her narrowing sense of self and her shrivelling presence, the edges of her perception dimming and darkening.

“That is quite fine, Lexa, I would not wish to be a burden. Perhaps a day’s rest at home will be beneficial to my health, ensure I am in my prime for the ball.” Clarke said with a tight smile she knew did not reach her eyes. Eyes she felt the need to avert in confusion, not able to keep them trained on a single person in the room lest her inner fear and shame be exposed to them. She felt them burn with the desire to blink which she dared not do for fear of forcing the fine sheen of tears that blurred her vision to collect and roll down her cheeks. 

She raised a spoonful of soup to her mouth, hiding behind the act of eating as a means to avoid facing her dinner companions. But just as she emptied the contents of her spoon into her mouth a ragged breath slipped her iron control, the involuntary convulsion of her throat forcing the liquid down the wrong pipe. Clarke choked and coughed, her body violently attempting to dislodge the foreign substance from her lungs. Flashes of shame and frustration at having drawn such unwanted attention to herself swelled inside her chest once again, twisting control over her breathing further out of her grasp. She vaguely heard the commotion of voices, notably Lexa’s shrill exclamation of alarm but the panicked rush of blood in her ears robbed her of the ability to understand a single word of what had been uttered around her.

Several moments passed before she regained control of her breathing and her coughs subsided. As her fear of expiring in such an undignified manner subsided a small measure of relief washed over her. ‘At least they will not be able to tell that I had been on the verge of crying because I was told I have to go home…’

It was when her lungs had been able to accept air regularly once again that she realized there was a hand on her thigh, fingers gripping tight onto the fabric of her Turkish pants. Delicately elegant long fingers far too feminine to be anyone’s but Lexa’s. Glancing up she was confronted with a pair of shockingly wide green eyes staring at her with concern. “Are you alright, dearest?” Lexa asked, her tone implying that she had been attempting to ascertain that fact for a while.

“Yes, thank you. I’m sorry for having caused a fright. I swallowed too hastily and it went to my lungs.” Clarke answered clumsily, not moving, her body frozen into a state of immobility by her inability to decide what would be appropriate in company. ‘What would be appropriate at all at this point…’

“Clearly you are not fit for travel, another night’s rest…” Lexa started to say but was cut-off.

“No, no I am fairly certain that you do not need the responsibility of an invalid to compound your day’s duties ahead of you. I shall rest tonight in my own room. Certain it will relieve the burden of your William as well, seeing how either myself or my attire for the ball would have had to be transported. Going home appears to be the more logical conclusion.” Clarke rattled off the argument that left her more or less unconvinced herself.

Sending a self-conscious smile and a shy glance in the direction of her clearly bewildered dinner companions Clarke attempted to asses the damage she had inflicted upon the mood. Finn averted his gaze after he returned her gesture with an embarrassed smile of his own while Sir Gustus knitted his eyebrows over his solid gaze he kept trained on Clarke. Clarke dreaded glancing at Lexa the most out of the three, fearful of just about any conceivable reaction she might have. The superficial glance she spared her saw Lexa blinking at her rapidly from beneath knitted eyebrows not unlike her uncle.

As she raised her spoon once again and managed to consume her food without difficulty eating recommenced at the table. Conversation flowed with more difficulty than Clarke remembered from previous nights, solidifying her belief that she had indeed embarrassed everyone at table. Once sufficient time had passed since her self-embarrassment and everyone had had time to consume their meal she suggested that perhaps they might set off if Finn was agreeable. To Clarke’s relief Finn nodded his consent and agreement without much fuss.

Chapter Text

The unpleasantly familiar swirl of nausea gripped Clarke’s consciousness as she lay prostrate in bed, feeling the dizzying effect of sleep deprivation assaulting her senses. Her eyes remained closed against the early morning sunlight yet she felt as though she were spinning. Her lungs protested each breath, the very act of expanding her chest a herculean effort that left her muscles sore. She had a vague notion that if she were not feeling quite like her insides were attempting to crawl through her throat she would find the experience fascinating from a scientific point of view. Each ache made her feel more aware of the finer details of her body than she was when she was in her prime but to her chagrin she was left far too weak to savour the moment.

She bemoaned the trials and discomforts of the night past, groaning in exhaustion as she rolled onto her side to clutch at one of many pillows strewn across the bed but not a single aspect of it was equipped to provide her with the comforts she craved. As she burrowed her nose deeper, the scent was familiar but not the harmonious mixture of spices she had come to associate with Lexa. Her arms clutched the pillow against her chest, its plush softness bringing forth a vague memory of comfort from days ago but paling pitifully compared to the solace wrapping her arms around Lexa’s inimitably human softness had brought. Its warmth rather more vexing than comforting, a mere shadow of her own warmth greedily absorbed by the material rather than the living heat that rolled off of Lexa in generous waves.

Clarke flipped the pillow in her lap, buried her face deeper into the fresh clean fabric, the rapidly warming coolness of the other side comforting her for but a brief moment in passing. Twisting beneath the sheets once again Clarke found herself on her back, limbs tangled in the heavy material, damp and uncomfortable.

The night had plagued her imagination with vague images of Lexa, keeping her mind from fully entering the restful dream scape she longingly sought. Skewered memories of chasing Lexa’s lips swam before her eyes, her insecurities tormenting her with visions of rejection. Somewhere in the back of her mind she knew their escapades ended differently but she could not will her mind to conjure those images. Lexa’s ghostly lips faded from her own, heedless of her whimpered pleas to stay. Locked inside the half-asleep half-dreaming state Clarke felt helpless. She had experienced such a state before where the dreams were so vivid they appeared all but made flesh but to her dismay she seemed unable to control them. Many a times she had made use of this unique dream scape, discovering that it allowed her to direct her thoughts which in turn took shape as sure as if she had been remembering rather than watching the figment of her imagination manifest. Not so this time. This time her fears infested and bred in her mind, black foreboding vines slithering forth from darkest corners of her imagination, locking her up in the nightmarish visions.

Haunted by memories corrupted by jealousy Clarke lied prostrate until the early hours of the morning. When morning light at last began to chase away the dark and the world outside no longer reflected the hellish landscape of her mind Clarke crawled out of bed, feeling miserable and shaken, lack of restful sleep burdening her limbs as if the poison of her fears had soaked through her skin to her innermost depths, making her heavy and sluggish. Her chest remained uncomfortable as though her lungs had been stuffed with wool, a symptom Clarke knew to associate with overindulging her smoking habit yet now readily associated it with Lexa's absence. Wearily she contemplated the merits of donning a dressing robe over her sleeping gown but had eventually decided that perhaps allowing herself to fall to such depths of misery were not yet warranted. 

‘It is not as though she had married…yet.’

 


 

Lexa jolted awake with fright, feeling disoriented for a moment as her eyes feverishly snapped to the unoccupied right side of the bed. Despite the closeness of another person being an uncharted novelty to her, she had been quick to grow accustomed to Clarke’s warmth, missing her sorely after but a night’s separation. ‘My God and what shall I do when it is time for her to depart?’ Lexa had little time to dwell on her looming doom as the noise she now knew had woken her from her uneasy slumber had been repeated.

“Enter.” Lexa called out to whomever had been patiently knocking on her door. She assumed that it would be Annie. ‘Who of course has the courtesy to knock when I’m alone…’ As Annie entered the room with a laden tray dutifully balanced in her hands she gently nudged the bedroom door closed with the sole of her shoe, applying just the appropriate amount of pressure for the the door to fall back into place in its frame noiselessly - or so Lexa assumed. ‘Annie has always been nothing but perfectly considerate of my privacy… I wonder… perhaps she had assumed that if I was with company she could not possibly be encroaching on anything…’

“Good morning, Miss.” Annie greeted Lexa, her tone chipper with the energy of someone who had already been awake for some time. “Busy day ahead of Miss, no?” She said conversationally as she set the tray down across Lexa’s lap. 

“Indeed, Annie. Thank you.” Lexa nodded as she took stock of her breakfast. As was her habit she never ate heartily neither the day of the ball nor the preceding one. The small touch of vanity she permitted herself was to look absolutely perfect in her extravagant ball gowns. Her breakfast was a simple tomato and artichoke salad* in honour of her mother’s Scottish descent.

“Would you be doing your hair today or tomorrow, Miss?” Annie asked.

“I think I should prefer to do it in the evening as part of my bath, thank you. I would prefer to not tempt fate for she might have a furious temper…” Lexa said in a kind tone, thoughtful to only vaguely refer to previous year’s incident. Over the years she has grown into the habit of indulging in a hair strengthening ritual for which she had taken the recipe from Mrs. Beeton’s. The smudge of egg yolk that had somehow not been washed properly from her head nearly ruined her white dress the previous year, a mistake Annie had been contrite about for several months. Lexa had to have several talks with her maid to persuade her not to berate herself about it. 

“Very good, Miss.” Annie answered somewhat more timidly. Even the vague reference had not been lost on her and Lexa could immediately see the slight change in her disposition.

“None of that, Annie. We have discussed the matter several times.” Lexa said not unkindly but in a tone that clearly indicated she expected no opposition. “If you would be so kind as to return in half an hour and help me dress? I should like to go over the details with Stevens.”

“Very good, Miss. I shall let Mr. Stevens** know.” Annie said before departing, accepting the gentle scolding with a deferential nod. 

 


 

 Unable to face the reality of social interaction just yet Clarke had pleaded being infirm and requested to take a thin breakfast in the room that had been converted into her temporary art studio. Peggy had brought in her tray laden with a rather large pot of apple tea*** and a helping of toast with a modest lump of butter as Clarke had requested. She had not been altogether surprised when her breakfast had been delivered not a minute after she herself had retired to her studio. Clarke noted a novel eagerness shining from Peggy’s eyes as she nodded in understanding. What Clarke had not expected was the small touch of a wee wild flower perched in a glass of water on the tray. Peggy had mumbled that she thought it’d cheer up the miss and might perhaps make the room feel more 'arty' as Peggy described. Clarke blinked at the odd surprise before thanking it with what she hoped was a kind smile despite knowing that it did not quite reach her eyes. 

Just as she sat down on the settee she and Lexa had occupied many a times and debated the merits of having retired to this room of all available spaces, a knock on the door interrupted to steady flow of misery she was quickly drowning in.

“Too sick to sit at table with your family but not unfit to fiddle with art I see?” Aunt Helen’s kind yet unmistakably accusatory voice sounded from the doorway. Clarke froze mid-movement for a moment up on hearing the words, absorbing their meaning before meeting her aunt’s eyes. She had stood in the doorway, her shoulder propped against the frame as she eyed Clarke expectantly.

“I did not feel my room comfortable enough, aunt Helen. I thought it might do me good to recline in this considerably more airy room.” Clarke blurted out the first excuse that came her mind.

“Yes… I can see how a room with French windows and a Juliet balcony**** might feel entirely too stuffy to remain in when one is in need of fresh air.” Aunt Helen said, her tone decidedly unamused as she levelled Clarke with a flat look, her irony cutting through her lie with surgical precision. 

Clarke had the good grace to glance away in silent admission of having been found out. She silently gestured for Aunt Helen to come further into the room, more out of a desire to preserve her privacy through the protection of a closed door than any real desire to discuss her feelings.

As aunt Helen made her way toward the settee Clarke gently placed the uneaten toast that had cooled in her hand back on the plate, what little appetite she had mustered now a memory of the past. 

“I can see the storm of devastation swirling in your eyes. What is the matter, child?” Aunt Helen asked as she brushed a stray lock of hair behind Clarke’s ear.

“I…just feel somewhat blue, aunt Helen. Nothing to worry about.” Clarke weakly attempted to dismiss the concern.

“Hmpf…well with your eyes being the colour of the summer morning sky… it is your fortune that we do not see everything in the colour of our eyes… you would be perpetually blue my dear. But you appear quite devastated. Have you had a falling out with our elusive Miss Woods then?” Aunt Helen persisted after a brief attempt at lifting Clarke’s spirits with her wry humour.

“No.” Clarke replied immediately, judging that it may be have been in fact too speedily if aunt Helen’s look of understanding was anything to go by. “No falling out. Perhaps a moment of miscommunication.” Clarke attempted to salvage the lie. ‘After endless moments of kissing….’

“Must have been quite a moment for you to look as devastated as when you had learned that a housemaid had accidentally set one of your early works on fire…” Aunt Helen quipped in a contemplative voice. 

Clarke remembered that incident quite well. She had not been more than ten years old, and the quality of the painting had undoubtedly left things to be desired but she had considered it to be her masterpiece at the time. Although she had not seen herself from the outside her mother had described her enough times that she could well imagine her wee child self with flowing blonde hair perpetually smudged with paint, her large blue eyes brimming with unshed crocodile tears as she stared at her mother first, than her aunt in disbelieving  mortification. 

“Surely, Aunt Helen, you must be exaggerating.” Clarke said as her lips twitched into an involuntary smile. Her aunt was known for having a such an effect on people that they smiled for her even if the thought of merriment was farthest from their minds. 

“There it is. Ironic or sad may a smile be, it still is, undoubtedly, a smile. And that is always a first step.” Aunt Helen said rather sagely. “What…miscommunication have you had with Miss Woods?” 

Clarke wondered if her aunt might be exceptionally inquisitive regarding Lexa because she as good as expected her to become her daughter in law soon. The thought made Clarke scowl bitterly for a brief moment before she mastered control over her facial expressions once again. Not expecting her aunt’s hawk eye to have missed her frown Clarke glanced in her aunt’s direction to assess the damage she had inflicted on her situation. 

“It is not of any importance, aunt. I merely believe I may have embarrassed myself by expecting to stay longer than I was welcome. Nothing I cannot make amendments for.” Clarke attempted to relay a portion of the truth in the most obscure way possible. “Has mother sent a reply yet?” 

Aunt Helen held Clarke’s gaze for a moment longer before she finally relented. “She has not. But she has not written to inquire about any other matters either. I am certain she is merely otherwise engaged.” Aunt Helen said encouragingly. “But… you truly must be right and this miscommunication of yours must be a small matter if you still wish her to accompany you home…” Aunt Helen said with an indulgent smile.

“Certainly.” Clarke said with more conviction in her voice than she actually felt in that moment. “Lexa was quite enthusiastic about the possibility of a vacation. I’m sure that’s not changed…” Clarke trailed off before she said too much. ‘…because she had done her little experiment and neglected to tell me that we are not to see each other for the last two days of my stay…’

“You have come into each other’s trust rather deeply in the month you have known one another then?” Aunt Helen prodded further. “You certainly have spent every waking moment… wrapped up in one another.” Aunt Helen fixed her with a meaningful stare for the briefest of moments before the weight of her gaze lifted. “I had to lie to your mother about the number of visits I made you accompany me on.”

Clarke felt her insides solidify and numb when aunt Helen’s choice of words hit hear ears. ‘Oh Lord, Auntie, if only you knew…’ Clarke thought as she valiantly fought to maintain her composure, feeling the weight of her aunt’s gaze as if she were interrogating her and her words were choice weapons to penetrate the fog of her deception to get at the truth of her relationship with Lexa. ‘If you knew exactly how…wrapped up we have been in each other…oh...God..what if she does know...’

“Uh…thank you, Aunt Helen.” Clarke said somewhat awkwardly. “I don’t know how to repay you, you have been so generous and understanding throughout my stay…”

“That” Aunt Helen emphasized the word “is because I know…Child. I know what it feels like. To be on the outside of social expectations. I know what it is like to find that exhilarating spark. The one spark that sets your soul aflame and you have no choice but to brave its heat. To allow its flames to encompass you and scorch you whichever way they please and hope that you rise out of your ashes like a phoenix… whilst your old and narrow-minded relatives gawk and expect you to burn as if a witch on a cleansing pyre.”

Clarke stared at her aunt in stunned silence, her wits retreating from the forsaken bogland her mind had turned into under the onslaught of her aunt’s speech. ‘What in the world does that mean?’ Clarke had all but forgotten the that  small hairline cracks in her heart as she attempted to maintain her ability to breathe through the spread of terror and excitement, their roots reaching deep into her soul in criss-crossing patterns, their vines slithering around her heart in an increasingly vice-like grip.

“Oh Child, don’t look so frightened.” Aunt Helen said gently chuckling as her lips twisted into a lopsided indulgent smile. “You are not the only one to have known the passions of the soul…”

‘Oh Lord, has she…no… no she could not have… we… she has never seen us together…has…has Finn realized what is going on? But why is she not upset?’ Clarke’s thoughts spread like wild fire over dried peat.

“Clarke, my dear. You are as pale as if you have seen a ghost. What frightens you so?” Aunt Helen asked, her voice losing its light-hearted pleasant quality in favour of concern.

“Y-you… know that I…” Clarke stammered uncharacteristically, petrified to say the words aloud that she had hitherto only voiced to Lexa, and even then only in half-mumbled, muffled sentences between kisses. Not even her rambling thoughts addressed to Raven had been of such frankness as this conversation required of her.

“I know that you study anatomy at that fancy women’s college that was opened some years ago… against your mother’s wishes.” Aunt Helen said. “As I am well aware that your passion to rise above your station as a glorified housewife is to be treated as the most heinous of family secrets. As if not every second daughter of England is plagued by such desires. But your father has confided in me, most likely to assist you in covering up any blunders…” Aunt Helen’s indulgent smile returned. “For the young are foolhardy and allow their passions to sail them whichever way they please. As they should.”

The suffocating vines slackened their grips inside Clarke’s chest upon aunt Helen’s words. She had the vague notion that perhaps her aunt was in fact a witch whose spells, disguised as the regular speech of mortal men, had the ability to take one’s breath away.

 


 

Annie returned within the required time to assist Lexa in dressing for the day as was expected of her as Lexa’s personal handmaiden. The hooks and hidden buttons that needed fastening, the chords of silk that needed weaving through hoops and tightening were placed in such unfortunate and obscure manners that they necessitated the assistance of a pair of hands that were not attached to the wearer of the dress. Despite the considerable number of dresses she owned, she was as yet undecided whether such a development was necessary to provide ample work to handmaids or if handmaids were kept busy so that ladies’ virtues may be protected by the extravagantly elaborate dresses that remained secretive about their undoing. As dressing required more than several minutes of her time each time, the single fact Lexa was certain of was that the complexity of her clothes were a nuisance to one woman or another at best, both of them at worst.

Despite her unexpectedly cynical thoughts brewing that morning, Lexa smiled with satisfaction, forgetting the hardships of her aching heart for a brief moment. She was pleased that Annie had returned with repaired spirits and handled her dress with confidence and enthusiasm. She given herself quite a deal more abuse about the previous year’s near-incident than she deserved, going as far as refraining from joining the festivities altogether. It has become another habit, one for which she was considered quite unusual among her peers, to allow the servants to dance in the ballroom once the majority of the guests have departed. 

As her feet carried her at a leisurely pace towards the ballroom where she expected Stevens to stand in waiting, she indulged in a moment of triumphant reminiscence over the first ball during which she had allowed such hitherto unseen liberties to transpire.

Lexa remembered quite vividly the signs of worry and disapproval etched on Stevens’ features when she had first relayed her plans to their butler. Professional and unwaveringly stoic though Stevens was, it was the single one occasion on which he requested permission to disagree and describe in detail the underpinnings of his most vehemently opposing views. Never having witnessed such behaviour from a high ranking member of staff and feeling it in line with her generous nature Lexa had been inclined to listen and was presented with a surprisingly complex system of arguments. 

She remembered smiling indulgently when Stevens parroted the socially sanctioned apocalyptic predictions of the wealthy classes that such mixtures would undoubtedly result in rupturing the fabric of England’s well-cultivated social system, sowing the seeds of unbecoming and unhealthy expectations in the minds of the serving class. While Lexa believed that to be highly unlikely, she admitted that the notion that it would also encourage undesirable affections between members of staff which in turn would beyond doubt beget a series of elopements had some merit. Discussing the possibility of such a staffing concern with her uncle, she was pleased when he had granted her the opportunity to conduct her experiment with the staff, justifying the decision with the need for Lexa to cultivate her expectations of a large staff of dependents. 

“Miss Woods, a very pleasant morning to you.” Stevens said cordially as ever.

“And to you, Stevens. Shall we?” Lexa gestured towards the grand double door of the ballroom which was currently open. She smiled at Stevens genially, his verbose greeting directing Lexa’s thoughts into another dusty room in the maze of her memory, one filled with a wee Lexa giggling amusedly at Stevens’ early attempts at cultivating his speech. The man had taken it upon himself to imitate the speech patters of his employer and while never discussed Lexa was confident it was due to his desire to be of better service than he already was.

“Certainly, Miss Woods.” Stevens gestured politely for Lexa to enter the room before him. 

As Lexa stepped inside the room the very first impression to command her attention was the thick heavy scent of flowers. Exotic flowers, if one cared to be specific. Lexa had decided that early in the year that the theme for decoration would be the exotic flowers of the East Indies whose account in the recently published travel journal of a returning explorer she had been most taken with.

Having always prided herself on having a rather keen eye for detail Lexa spared no energy or money to collect the finest specimens to orchestrate a unique experience for her guests. Every corner of the room provided temporary home to palm trees planted in large pots decorated with the native art of the East Indies, courtesy of a local artist Lexa had commissioned to paint such figures and symbols after familiarizing himself with the oriental style from picture books.

Between each French window, which were thrown wide open, there were further large pots housing luscious green shrubs in bloom each spouting hundreds of jasmines. Lexa breathed the fresh scented air in deep, filling her lungs with the glorious scent that reminded her of the Glasshouse she and uncle Gus visited each year in London.

Lexa had not yet stepped further into the room for she deemed it wise to observe the chaotic moment of dozens of men and women before attempting to navigate its pattern without disrupting their work.

Men were standing on tall ladders hanging freshly washed white muslin curtains while housemaids steadily unravelled the the fabric so as to avoid it touching the ground and spoiling the costly cleaning process. As Lexa observed the windows she noted that all but the last were hung yet none of them were tied back yet.

“I do not see the curtain tiebacks I have ordered.” Lexa commented briefly.

“That is my intervention, Miss Woods. I was concerned that the fresh material might be spoilt if they are to be tied overnight with the tropical vines Miss had envisioned. The decorative tiebacks shall be placed tomorrow as well.”

“Your capacity for foresight of such useful things is quite unparalleled, Stevens. Thank you.” Lexa said.

“Ah, you do me a great service, Miss Woods. I am but a humble servant to perfection and professionalism. And if you might permit me another suggestion?”

“Yes?”

“Perhaps we might tie a strip of white muslin beneath the vines so as to further protect the curtains? I am hoping that they shall survive the evening’s festivities without the need to be washed anew immediately.” Stevens suggested politely.

“Yet another thoughtful suggestion. I quite like it. Please do and if I should forget please inform me of the results of your experiment.”

“Very good, Miss Woods.”

“I believe I shall return here at a later hour to inspect, when all has been arranged.” Lexa informed Stevens of her decision after another moment of surveying the crowed. “I expect the dining hall shall be set up tomorrow?” She asked conversationally as they headed down the hall towards the dining room.

“Yes, Miss Woods.” Stevens replied promptly. “As instructed, the china and silverware shall be laid out last.”

“Very good. And the flowers? Where are all my gorgeous flowers?” Lexa asked, her eyes not yet seeing the manifestation of her vision she had conjured. 

“They have yet to be cut, Miss Woods. The hired gardeners and additional hands are expected to arrive tomorrow to strip the flower garden of its fruit.” Stevens delivered his response in his elaborate style of speech. 

Lexa smiled fondly at the man, his out of place expressions and elaborate sentences sounding quite humorous.

“And the new draperies in the smoking room?”

“The smoking room shall be decorated once all is in order in the ballroom, Miss Woods.” 

“To the kitchens then, Stevens. I fear that despite the early morning hour, the sensibilities of our kitchen maids may need be rescued from the thunderous temperament of our Pierre.” Lexa chuckled at her own witticism, disregarding the heavy sigh of disapproval coming from Stevens upon the mention of the unmanageable chef.

 


 

Clarke nibbled half-heartedly at the soggy corner of a slice of toast she had kept between her lips for far too long as she scrutinized her work. The painting upon first glance appeared to be an unintelligible spattering of white and various hues of blue paint, revealing its rhyme and reason only to the patient viewer who spared it more than the casual glance.

A stormy blue sea whipped into angry waves that threatened to assault the viewer, the foamy edges frothing with outrage. The grey sky swirled seemingly disorganized until one saw the craftily hidden lines that formed a guiding patterns and a pair of eyes emerged from the apparent lack of sense, forcing the viewer to forever see it from that point onward.

“Well no one would accuse me having been at the height of my spirits when I brought this into the world…” Clarke commented sourly. 

When Aunt Helen had departed Clarke continued to indulge the brooding anxious mood she had woken up with. Inspired by some of the things Aunt Helen had said she allowed her soul to guide the brush rather than her mind, listening to the storm raging inside her still.

She had replayed each and every interaction she had had with Lexa from the moment she had first laid eyes on her. Lexa’s almost haughty accusation of falsehood and later sheepish admittance of having assumed she had an illicit child. The nearly instantaneous warmth she had been gifted with after the matter had been cleared. She reminisced the first tentative kiss their shared and the bold subsequent explorations they could not refrain from but the memories she so fondly remembered were now tainted with doubt. ‘What could Lexa have meant to accomplish by attempting to cajole Finn into kissing her?’

As Clarke wallowed in the poisonous fumes of her doubt and withering confidence she had no option but to face what she had attempted to conceal from aunt Helen at all cost. She could not bring herself to face Finn, terrified that she would either offend him in a way that went beyond anyone’s ability to repair or if the fates were truly cruel to her that she might inadvertently reveal the rage of jealousy boiling inside of her.

‘And mother hasn’t deigned to reply yet either…’ The bittersweet thought that she would have to depart from the landscape that once bore her greatest treasure only to devolve into a wasteland gnawed at her nerves as well. Fate had played a cruel game at her expense, making the very thing that soothed her soul mar it as well while making the thing she loathed the most be her only hope of reprieve from her fears. ‘A true pharmakon indeed.’*****

 


 

“Your bath is ready, Miss.” Annie announced as she straightened her posture beside the large tub, jarring Lexa from her rambling thoughts once again. While Uncle Gus preferred to invest in new technologies and insisted that Lexa at least own one of those folding bathtubs****** she much preferred the rather larger than regular hip tub she had commissioned. 

Lexa blinked slowly, a deep breath passing through her lungs in an effort to cleanse her brooding thoughts before her evening ritual. It was a moment of vanity she greatly enjoyed indulging in yet the moment was soured in absence of a certain blue eyed siren she so wished to see. ‘I’ve been looking forward to sharing this ritual with Clarke for days…damn you, Mr. Collins for your socially acceptable bumbling…’

Lexa could of course see the irony of her current predicament. It was fairly clear to her that God had seen it fit to punish her for wanting to have her cake as well as eat it. That Clarke could feel so discouraged and uncertain in her affections that they had blinded her to Lexa’s keen attempt to extend her invitation gnawed at her conscience. Lexa was certain that had she not revealed to Clarke what had transpired during her slumber…or perhaps if it had not transpired at all…Mr. Collins’ remark would not have pierced her heart quite so deeply. 

Lexa allowed Annie to undress her with the monotonous efficiency she had grown to expect from her. The void of feeling the young maid’s touches sparked in her served as an aching reminder of the thrills and chills Clarke’s gaze alone could marshal across her skin.

“Is anything the matter, Miss? You look quite turned out of your spirits.” Annie asked unexpectedly as Lexa lowered herself into the large tub in which she could comfortably immerse herself. The regular hip tubs she had found, were not at all to her taste, the idea that she would have to sit in a small space with her knees drawn left Lexa’s lips twitching with disdain - she had commissioned for a piece that is of the same shape, it’s back rest to Lexa’s liking, but considerable larger to accommodate her limbs comfortably. As such, Lexa had high hopes that she and Clarke would have been able to share the water.

“Nothing that needs to be addressed, thank you, Annie. I am just rather tired…” Lexa lied, the discussion of her broken heart entirely out of the realms of possibility. “Could you do my hair, please?” 

For a brief moment Lexa toyed with the idea of closing her eyes and imagining it was Clarke massaging the egg yolk mixture into her hair, a purifying and softening ritual she undertook before every ball. In the last moment, however, she refrained, fearful that her desire for the woman would slip past her lips and ruin everything.

Lexa sat listlessly throughout the various steps of the ritual occasionally smiling at Annie when her maid searched her eyes but Lexa knew that her lips were lying an untruth that was not reflected in her eyes. She only hoped that Annie would not press the matter as she moved between tasks. Nails now trimmed and eyebrows thinned, Annie declared that she had never seen her mistress more beautiful. A compliment that would otherwise have fanned the small flame of Lexa’s vanity to temporarily shine brighter, tonight it only served to douse it to within an inch of extinguishing entirely. Lexa longed to hear those words from different lips smiling on a different face beneath the bluest eyes she had ever seen. Pleading exhaustion Lexa retired without dinner, the cup of cold thin soup left untouched on the night stand.