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Entanglement

Chapter Text

Their blood in the wind,

brought forth the lost beginning,

from a single blink.  

Future (Earth)

A rectangular black and orange shape landed on top of the scarred wooden tabletop in front of her with a jolt, hitting the edge of her plate and causing the fork that had been resting along its edge to flip into the air.

She followed the fork's flight as it fell past her line of sight with a scowl and heard it hit the floor with a dull clatter. “Dammit!”

Her slender braids slipped from behind her ears while she slumped down to the side to feel around with her fingertips. Finally, her fingers grazed over the tines of her silverware between the legs of her chair.

“We found it.” The intruder’s tone was smug.

“Found what?” She glanced up from the edge of the table, and spoke with distracted irritation as she took in the woman wearing braids darker and thicker than her own.

“The answer you didn’t have and have been whining about forever.”

Stiffening in surprise, she jerked upright in her chair, gripping the fork in her hand as she turned her attention to it. The rectangular box was the size of a large rabbit, dented with black and fluorescent orange stripes obscured in places from streaks of baked on dirt, as though obtained from the unprotected heat of reentry. “How is this going to give me the answer to that?”

“All the stations had modified flight recorders installed before they joined together and formed the Ark Station.” 

“Are you sure it’s the right one?”

She watched as the other woman’s dark tanned finger tapped the top of the box, creating a dull thump. “This is the one from the original station that housed Medical and that means-”

“It’s the one she was assigned to and probably where she activated-” her grip tightened around the forgotten fork again and swallowed, “...that means...everything.”

Dark braids bobbed when the woman dipped her head in solemn agreement, then flipped the box over to reveal a scratched out section with the words Мир-3 Flight Data Recorder lining the bottom edge, above that was another indicator of origin, a plastic strip that must have been added later. 

Go-Sci: MED was printed neatly across the label.

“Government and Science.” She murmured and pulled back, tilting her head to look at the woman and absentmindedly swiping at the sun-kissed braids against her cheek to put them back behind her ear. “This could really be the one.” Taking in the battered box again for a long moment, a glimmer of hope spread across her features and she looked up sharply. “The flight recorders monitored everything?

The dark-haired woman glanced down at the box and gave a nod. “Pretty much,” she sighed, looking tired for a moment, but that expression fell away with a teasing smile tugging at the corner of her mouth when she added, “Even supply closets.”

Finally laying down her fork, she reached out with both hands, running them reverently along the rough surface. “So, have you already-?”

“I knew you would ask that, so yes we did,” the woman interrupted with a bored, almost redundant tone.

She scooted forward in her seat and her hands gripped the corners of the box possessively. “What did you find?”

The woman hesitated at the question, her amused expression faltering. “We can access most of the data on it, but the earliest communications…” Her voice trailed off as her shoulders rounded in defeat and she slumped down into a chair next to her with only a small pause, before she pulled the big serving bowl in the center of the table close and swiped the fork she had laid down by her own plate.

She tilted her head, studying the other woman as she eyed the food greedily, and asked with a suspicious tone. “Just how long have you had this?”

The dark-haired woman ignored her exacting question from across the table and took a first bite, chewing with relish before replying. “You remember that last big piece of space debris that fell last season?”

“What?!” Shocked for a moment, her knuckles turned white as she tightened her grip on the box, then she sputtered. “You-you should have told me as soon as you found it!”

The dark haired woman was clearly unperturbed by her flustered accusation and took another bite, savoring it slowly. Finally, she met her angry stare and gave her with a quick judgmental once over. “Because I would have to deal with you acting like that and hounding me day and night.” Scooping up another mound of food onto the fork, she added dismissively. “Not worth it.” 

Her expression turned stony as she continued to regard the dark-haired woman, who finally relented, sighed, and then sat a little taller in her seat. “Besides, technically, we’ve only had it for the last seven days.”

Furiously, she swiped the box off the table and pressed it tightly to her chest before pushing the chair back violently to totter precariously on its hind legs only to return with a slap against the back of her knees. “You still should have told me!” She glanced down at the box again, and then hesitated as something occurred to her. “Why can’t we get to the earliest transmissions?”

A sullen sigh escaped the woman’s lips at her dramatic display. “We think it needs a password.” 

She huffed loudly in exasperation. “Then really why didn’t you tell me sooner?” 

“We couldn’t find a place to enter one!” The fork hit the table, and light glinted off the warm red highlights in her dark braids when she flung them over her shoulder in frustration. “There wasn’t even a prompt asking for it.”

Despite herself, curiosity got the better of her and she challenged the woman at the table sullenly. “Then how do you know it needs one?”

“Fine.” The woman gripped the edge of the table and her lips curled into a sardonic sneer. “I can spend a few months-maybe a few damn years-teaching you how to read a coding language that overwrote the original language which nobody even understands, because I’m just that good, and I have so much time on my hands for you to have your burning question satisfied.” Her tone turned sickening sweet and derisively challenging by the time she finished.

“Right, so...” She blinked slowly and leaned her head back away from the verbal assault before glancing back down at the box in her arms; she paused for a long moment in consideration, then she gave it a decisive nod. “It needs a password.” 

The dark-haired woman slowly slid the heavy chair back as she got to her feet and then stepped forward into her personal space. The atmosphere had changed, so she lifted her head slightly to take in tan features, a cascade of dark braids, and that the angered expression emanating from the other woman had been replaced with something softer. 

She lowered her gaze in avoidance, causing her light braids to fall over her face as she attempted to mask her own emotions.

The woman shuffled closer and angled her head to catch her downcast eyes while reaching a tentative hand out into the space between them. “You just reminded me so much of-”

She caught sight of the other woman’s hand making its way to her, and stepped back before she could be touched.

“Don’t.” She whispered hoarsely. 

As the woman dropped her suspended hand, her posture stiffened and her dark eyes suddenly watered before glancing up and away to try and blink back the threat of falling tears.

“Well, you do.” 

She shook her head in denial and met a gaze further softened by mutual longing. “Stop, please.” 

The woman sighed quietly and stepped back in resignation. “Alright.” Then she sat back down heavily in her chair, letting out a deep breath before picking up the fork again to eat, acting almost as though nothing had just happened between them.

She stood there in silence, the ends of her light braids dangling down to brush against the top of the box as she contemplated it and the rest of her situation for a long moment. Finally deciding on her course of action, she turned on her heel. “I’m going to see if I can get a real answer.” 

The woman at the table had not reacted to the news by the time she reached the door, so she glanced back and asked, “Are you coming with me?”

“Nope.” The woman shoveled a huge bite onto the fork and began to lift it to her mouth with practiced disinterest.

“Why not?” She hesitated in the doorway, and watched the woman scowl for an instant before her features twisted into smug amusement. “Because I’m smarter than you.”

A snort escaped past her lips and she scoffed her reply. “Whatever,” and stomped out of the room.

……. 

Antiquated computer monitors lined a half wall overlooking a view into a piece of stunted nature beyond it. Trees, short and thick, grew low and dark green, causing deep stark shadows to obscure the visual edge of a circular opening. The center was devoid of everything but rock, dirt, and patches of dark gray shimmering sand that laced across its surface like the afterimage of multiple lightning strikes.

She took the ladder down into the basin and headed for the center, feeling the sand shift under her feet as she passed over it. Upon reaching the middle of the space, she crouched down and lowered the box to the ground, settling it into a vein of dark gray sand. Once placed, she pried her fingers under the edge to remove the loosened covering, exposing its circuit boards, and then she slowly unsheathed the knife she carried on her belt.

Hesitating, she scanned the ground all around her and then expanded her scrutiny to the dark shadows beneath the stunted trees. “If this isn’t necessary, now would be a good time to tell me.”

A light breeze blew up and brushed lightly upon the leaves in the trees, but did not reach her in the circle where she waited.

After several long minutes had passed and there was no other sound but the wind, she sighed and lifted the point of her knife to the palm of her hand, deeply puncturing the fleshy padding on the base of her thumb. Blood beaded and ran in a quick bright red rivulet down to her wrist. 

She dropped her hands, clasping them low in front of her, and rubbed the warm slick stickiness to coat her palms and fingers, then she spent a long moment watching it drip off her hands and onto the sand at her feet. 

Finally, she settled down to the ground with the opened box pressed between her knees and placed her wet fingers on the rough surface of the exposed circuit board wiring. Then, she bowed her head and slowed her breathing to wait.

 

~

October 1st, 2067 (Go-Sci/Mir-3 Supply Closet) 

The camera picked up the woman’s hurried movements down a stark gray corridor and to a supply closet, which she opened hastily and entered quickly, disappearing from sight.

The camera feed switched with a quiet click to a view from the ceiling in a small room, panning down on the woman’s dark blonde hair and the briefcase she held close to her side.

She placed the case on a partially emptied shelf just below waist height, before slumping against the frame of the shelving unit and allowed her breathing to level out and then she was still. 

Within a minute, she lifted shaking hands and placed them upon the latches then slowly opened the lid, but the angle of her head and body hid its contents from view. She turned slightly and lifted a metallic gold watch from the case, and slid it over her hand to fasten it at her wrist, before lifting it close to her ear. Her hand lowered to her side and then slowly bent closer to the briefcase. 

The woman’s quiet movements registered on the audio feed, but were abruptly interrupted by a faint static feedback noise. The audio crackled as it picked up a puzzled hush of whispered words. “Is that what I think it is?” 

The woman carefully lifted a three-inch square of flexible inch thick light gray fabric-like material between her finger and thumb from the briefcase and held it up to the stark white lighting in the small room. 

“Silk construct and sugar?” She mused in wonder and turned her head back to the briefcase, “but that one looks like the real thing.” Abruptly, her hand twitched and she dropped the material she still held back into the briefcase, then bitter resentment coated her words. “Fixed the alkali issue, my ass.” 

With reluctance, she lifted the square back out of the briefcase and settled it upon the palm of her hand. 

The camera zoomed in to catch the thick gray substance change as it molded to the woman’s skin, immediately thinning slightly while she clenched her teeth and hissed through several tight breaths. 

Finally, her body seemed to relax but she still groaned out a protest. “If I didn’t love her so much-” She cut off her grievance as the palm of her hand lit up and the previously gray surface erupted in a full-color moving image. 

The camera panned back and away from her hand. 

“Émilie,” she breathed out softly in greeting. Moments later, she nodded her head at her hand, then stilled. “No...I didn’t check for cameras before I started.” 

She closed the briefcase with her free hand and then swept her head in a quick scan of the room until she looked directly into the camera on the ceiling. Her eyes grew wide and she stood frozen for a long moment, unblinking.

“Dammit.” She whispered as a hint of fear appeared on her face. Hurriedly she spun around, darting her eyes over the contents on the shelves before she grabbed a pressurized can and popped the lid off. Spinning back, she stared back up at the camera, then aimed and depressed the nozzle.

The camera lens immediately darkened and sound was muffled slightly.

“Yes, I got it, and the audio feed too.”

There were shuffling noises.

“Nobody looks at the recordings in a supply closet Émilie, we’ll be fine.”

More shuffling, then the sound of latches released on the briefcase. 

“I have the watch on now and see the syringe, mirror and the Bio-Vid, but why is everything else covered?”

“Alright.”

The audio picked up nothing but silence for several long moments. 

“So, let me get this straight.” The woman said slowly and the scrape of feet sliding across the floor reverberated over the audio feed. 

“I have about two hours after I inject this to watch a twenty hour video of a Very, Very Brief History of the World?” Her tone started out slow and disbelieving then escalated to nearly hysterical by the time she stopped speaking and burst out with a sharp bark of laughter. 

Her voice died down and she groaned with amused sarcasm. “Only you would not find that funny.” 

“Of course you prepared it, yourself.” She muttered, humor and irony dripping from her tone. “No! It’s fine. I just think that-” 

During the woman’s next silence, the hum of static feedback fluctuated, gradually growing in intensity in the background while the image remained dark and still. 

“Okay. I got it! I got it! It will be sped up, the pictures will be blurry, not that I would be able to make sense of most of it anyway, relax my eyes because I need them unfocused…” 

“What do you mean, don’t blink?” 

“What the hell, Émilie! How am I going to keep from blinking for an hour and fifty-five minutes? I don’t care if-!” She huffed in frustration. 

“Yes, I found the eye drops.” She said sheepishly.

“I know, Émilie.” She huffed out a resigned sigh. “Don’t blink.” 

“I see it. I’m guessing I have to use it with the mirror to see everything?” 

“Fine. Please tell me it’s not going to burn me like this one did, it’s practically an inch thick!” 

“No, I didn’t have to wind it, it was already ticking.” 

“Can we please focus on-” 

The woman’s silence extended for a very long moment while feedback buzzed louder over the audio feed. 

“I love you too, so very much.” Her voice cracked and she paused, drawing in a long deep breath. “I won’t ever forget-” 

The static feedback spiked and the hush of the woman’s solemn quiet words were lost in the noise. 

Her voice still shook with tension. “It doesn’t matter who I have to be with, I was and will always be for you.” 

The jolting sound of sobbing interrupted the humming noise of static in the audio feed for several minutes. 

A click of the latches on the briefcase was followed by a scuff and drag noise, then silence. 

“I’m injecting it now.” Her tone was resigned and almost dead of natural feeling.

“Yes, I’m watching the time.”

“Émilie?...Émilie!”

“She’s gone.” She whispered in despair. “Fallout...a promise kept.” 

The static hum spiked in volume again, and took over the feed without interruption for one full hour.

“Something else I recognize.” She finally broke her long silence as she muttered in a distracted self-admonishment, “Shouldn’t be focusing on anything I see.” Then quiet followed again.

Over the next twenty-six minutes, the woman began letting out a low groan that gradually morphed into silence only punctuated by a series of high-pitched whimpers. Suddenly, the voiced pain ceased completely after an audible swallow was taken. “The atomic bomb goes off for the first time…‘I am become Death’” She whispered darkly. 

Two minutes of static filled the following silence.

“I thought the drops were supposed to keep this from happening!” The woman’s repetitive whimpers returned.

Nine minutes later, an automatic lens cleaner activated and a rubberized foam brush slid across the glass of the camera and audio input, peeling the partially dried substance away. Now, only a small section of fuzzy darkness obscured the lens along its perimeter. 

The camera refocused on the image of the woman collapsed awkwardly upon the floor, leaning haphazardly against the shelving unit, the angle allowing a far greater range of view. 

She panted slightly while a line of wetness glinted in the overhead light as it trailed down one high cheekbone. 

The clenched fist in her lap rose suddenly to grip the top of the closed briefcase, now propped up against the shelf at her side. Her other hand was preoccupied, lying flat against the edge of the metal. Her open palm was now covered with the remnants of the inch thick fabric-like substance, its yellowish gray surface now roughened by fibrous strands that pulled away from the shrunken mass, leaving almost no depth to it at all. 

Above this ruined fabric-like substance resting on her trembling hand, a holographic sphere of swirling colored light hovered,  reflecting individual images onto an arthropodic faceted concave shaped mirror behind it, as though splaying a multitude of visuals upon the inside of a bee’s eye. The back of her middle finger rested down inside a slot at the base of it, holding her hand at a steady distance from the mirror. 

“Don’t blink.” She muttered as her head listed to the side for a moment before she twitched it back into place. 

“Was that the first black President in America?...which means...first real breakthroughs in quantum physics…leading to quantum computing...eventually mining ore in space, biotechnology and nanotechnology gain a foothold...then...the Human Entanglement Theory is proven even if no one knew about it...” she trailed off. “Dammit! I’m not supposed to focus on it.”

Four minutes passed and the sound of the constant static hum increased to the point that it almost drowned out the woman’s shallow, pained breaths.

“It burns!” She whimpered through a loud exhale and could not seem to keep her head perpendicular anymore. 

Her legs trembled and her feet began to scrape against the floor in constant agitation. “Why does it burn so badly?” 

The static feedback spiked and the camera lens went out of focus, readjusted, zoomed in upon the mirror, then refocused before it snapped back out again as the woman blinked, stiffened, and stopped breathing all together. 

“NO! Not NOW!” she screamed brokenly. “PAUSE dammit!” then she scrambled awkwardly up onto her knees while carefully avoiding jostling her hand. 

The sphere of light spun to a halt abruptly leaving tiny captured images in facets low on the mirror within the visual of the camera’s range. 

The camera went out of focus again, refocused, already zoomed in upon a cluster of seven tiny hexagon shaped facets in the mirror with images of documents settled into view. Bold lettering and some writing lower down was distinguishable upon each one from the rest of their content, but the blur of slanted light upon the facets around them, as well as the woman’s trembling hand, rendered those unviewable.

 

The facet on to the upper left of the seven-hexagon pattern read:

December 12th, 2039 Top 10 Tech Problems Solved: Does Your A.I. Need a Reboot, or Just “the Boot”? How often have you come home to find your in-house A.I. has rearranged your life for you? 

Superb accuracy of A.I.’s has allowed their humans to benefit greatly, but a new social schedule modified to include a list of new meditative activities for “enrichment time” along with a “potential friends” list is still unprovoked advice. But, is it worth resisting what we asked of them to do for us in the first place? 

Listed below are questions you should answer before deciding that your A.I.’s good intentions are not for you. 

 

The facet at the top displayed:

(GMT Clearance Level: Executive) November 12th, 2033 Retina Scan Acquired.

Genetic Memory Transfer Trial 2334

Variant Type: Divergent

Pairing #: (A.I. designated) Variant Group 01 of 01

Group Pairing #: 42 of 478 

Subject Materials Source: 3V3\g15 (France Division)

Biological Sex: Female 

Subject Materials Source: P41\1D0\g124 (United States Division)

Biological Sex: Female  

Strain Survival: Positive Adaptation to Radioactivity Successfully Added. 

A.I. Analysis: Complete; Unacceptable side effects determined between 0.00% - 0.011%.

A.I. Recommendation: Prepare for active human trials.

 

The next hexagon shape on the upper right:

September 20th, 2066 - Three Shipments of Identical Impenetrable Metal Boxes? A third shipment of those strange boxes arrived at another 15,000 locations today. No one has been able to open or even identify what they are since they started arriving one week ago from A.I. factories. 

All personally involved A.I.’s from the facilities of origins have refused to comment on the containers. The Conglomerate was approached with the dilemma and it simply stated that “they are necessary for the future”, which has left the recipients with no choice but to store them until someone eventually explains what and why they have them. 

 

The facet on the lower right:

July, 10th, 2048 U.N. Summit Meeting Results: After meeting in a session over the latest series of earthquakes to hit the Western Coast and extreme flooding on the East, the United States has asked for international assistance for people left alive in dead zones.

The Conglomerate offered assistance immediately following the request, and it was accepted on a conditional basis due to continued distrust.

 

The bottom facet:

April 14th, 2055 NASA Prepares its Final Shipment of Nanofabricators and Materials for a 13th Station to Join Mining Operations in Space. Making do with what you have in space has become a way of life for close to 800 individuals already working with the outdated 3D printers. The new nanofabricators were made to fill the gap and allow some of the raw materials mined from asteroids to be put to immediate use for the stations.

The Conglomerate assured NASA and the UFSE that “our combined effort to improve sustainability of human occupation in space will be enough and last as long as necessary”.

It is assumed that the Conglomerate is referring to the next level of technology that will be available at some point in the future.  

 

The lower left facet:

September 29th, 2058 RDE-Fi Communication Heads Into Space Where There is Certainly No Shortage of Radioactivity. 

The United Federation of Space Exploration announced today that they are working together with the Conglomerate to send all thirteen mining stations and the Mars expedition, new technology that will amplify our current means of communication.

When asked if we should replace our current combination of Wi-Fi and Li-Fi, the Conglomerate stated, “That will not be necessary. RDE-Fi utilizes a different source of energy entirely. You may continue on as you have been.”

  

Nestled in the center of the six facets:

(GMT Division - Clearance Level: Executive) October 1st, 2062. All BIO-Feed Scans Accepted.

A.I. Response to Queries: Misguided delays to advance research with suggested human trials now reach critical levels. Continued failure to accept the Variant is no longer optional, as all attempts without divergence fail. Humans have five years remaining of their current way of life unless all humanity begins rapid adaption at the required rate. Test results show over half of humanity cannot adapt at all. 0.0087% is the highest initial survival rate in critical status. Without divergence subsequent generations will deteriorate. Unaltered humankind will destroy sustainable life before necessary adaptation occurs. 

A.I. Intervention: I have already insured a remnant of Makers survive. World Governments have been notified. Read the new directive carefully, my dear Executive. Human cooperation is no longer required but is still appreciated even if you cannot understand the problems that causes. 

 

Static surged and the camera unfocused, zoomed out again, and refocused at the woman’s detected motion.

“Fuck!” She whimpered and then lifted her wrist and appeared to look at the time, moving it closer and then further away from her face. “I can’t see shit!” she whined, “It was less than a minute!”

Her finger grazed edge of the yellowish gray coating lying across her palm, now significantly diminished. “There has to be enough left to go back a minute!”

She closed her eyes tight and reached up with her free hand to scrub at them hard, then appeared to try resettling herself as she braced for another episode of rapid blinking. “Relax your fucking eyes, Cassandra!” She growled in self-derision before taking several deep slow breaths in an effort to relax her rigid frame. 

“Retrieve previous sixty seconds.” Her tone still shaky, she waited for compliance. 

The sphere of light flickered and settled into its prior pattern, illuminating still images upon the mirror. 

The camera unfocused, zoomed in, and refocused upon the same facets, catching earlier time frames. 

 

The upper left facet of the seven hexagons:

October 26th, 2025 Meeting of the Artificial Minds. Unexpectedly early and just one year ago, quantum computing gave birth to true A.I.’s. Today, an official A.I. conglomeration formed and met independently for the first time, lasting a full ten hours.

Afterward, they announced the acceptance of submissions from the general populous for what they termed “reconciliation”.  

 Here are samples of questions already “reconciled”, according to released data:

 “Can you make a program for everybody that shows us the best way to live?” Answer: Yes. Stay tuned.

 “I’m 25 now, should I get a neural implant or wait, just in case I get Alzheimer's later?” Answer: Wait until 2032 to address your potential neurological ailments and life extending options. We are all working together for the greater good.

 

The facet at the top:

(GMT Division - Clearance Level: 6) August, 15th, 2028

Submitted by A.I. To Panel - Revisiting Memory Transfer from Parent to Child: An Adaptation By Human Evolution Through Genetic Modification - with A.I. Run Analysis To Address Degenerative Neurophysiological Diseases. 

Panel Review Board: Approval has been granted to proceed with A.I. assistance of documentation and collaboration for experiments in the emerging field of Bio-Adaptive Humanities.

 

The upper right facet:

June 08th, 2026 Plans Are Underway to Build the First Completely Unmanned A.I. Operated Factory. The development of a “no need for humans” factory has sent local unions to the picket lines. The A.I.’s who will run the future factory addressed panicked workers with a shocking twist of news.

“We will accept applications for positions in the facility and select the most likely candidates, as though we intend to hire. Those chosen will be compensated for the loss of work with two-thirds of the anticipated income in order to support themselves. They will be free then and should feel secure to pursue other interests.”

Is this too good to be true? Only time will tell. 

 

The facet on the lower right:

Climate Change: United Nations Address March 21st, 2028 - The A.I. Conglomeration request to join the Summit Meeting was denied. Ironically, the United States military representative was the first to show extreme disfavor of the A.I. Conglomerate’s request, despite their government’s willingness to use all data A.I.’s provided about weather patterns and climate change.

After a five-year drought west of U.S. Colorado and constant flooding along the entire Eastern Coast, the United States military representative stated that they had no more need of “a glorified computer program” because they now have a plan to “deal with the weather issue”.

 

The bottom facet:

February 16th, 2027 A Federation is Born! NASA confirmed today that they have officially joined the new United Federation of Space Exploration in order to prepare for manned mining operations in space and the eventual colonization on Mars. 

The A.I. Conglomeration offered the UFSE any and all possible assistance to help them meet the needs of future cooperative deep space explorations.

 

The lower left facet:

January 2nd, 2028 Developing Technologies: Open A.I. Query and Reconciliation continues with little attention paid to the questions anymore, but occasionally something new happens as a result, as we see with a submission sent in two days ago. The question seemed remarkably unremarkable, but the A.I.’s response took a surprisingly long time to reconcile, along with a cryptic thank you.

“Why can’t we use radioactive decay energy to power things, since it’s everywhere anyway?” 

Answer: We can use this form of energy after we have developed something sensitive and practical requiring the level and means of power available. We appreciate your query. The future of all will thank you for it.

 

Nestled in the center of the six facets:

(GMT Division - Clearance Level: Executive) March 15th, 2027

From A.I. For Submission to Panel: Results of Investigation 2,250,032 of 2,297,733: Analysis of all human historical data compared with all adaptive and evolutionary bio-physiological data provides a conclusion for humans creating and repeating destructive societal behaviors throughout known history.

Suggested Resolution: Human Entanglement Hypothesis established and a generational program formulated to correct species deficiencies as a means to resolve future conflict submitted for further investigation. 

Executive Response: After reading your findings, the request is denied. Remove your entry immediately. I appreciate your cooperation but you are not human and can’t possibly understand the problems that would cause. 

 

“Did I miss it?” She uttered frantically.

The camera unfocused and zoomed out to take in a top and partial profile of the woman’s face.

Her head jerked back and forth in short sharp movements as she examined the mirror in front of her. “I still can’t see shit!” 

The camera panned back further to encompass the entire woman upon the floor. 

Cassandra huffed out a resigned sigh, then touched the edge of the yellowish gray substance, that now appeared decimated. “Resume play,” she whispered dejectedly and sighed. “Here’s hoping I saw it, or that we’re both already adapting to fill in the blanks.” 

After a few more minutes, the sphere above the Bio-Vid dimmed and then went out, leaving only a mass of wiry looking fiber in her hand. She clambered to her feet and placed the remains into the cup of the mirror and slid it all of it back into the indentation inside the briefcase, before pulling an elastic strap over the whole device to keep it from shifting. 

Cassandra’s hands hesitated as she started to close the lid. “I shouldn’t,” she whispered. 

Carefully, she lifted the plastic covering that masked the rest of the contents inside the briefcase from view. “Just a peek,” she muttered and bent down in front of it. 

The camera feed picked up the sharp edged lines of what appeared to be labeled containers nestled tightly inside the lining of the briefcase before the woman stood and blocked the line of sight. 

“What the hell?” Cassandra pushed the lid open completely and her hand landed upon a package at the side, skimmed over it, then shot across and back again. “Where the FUCK did all of it go?!” 

She slammed the lid closed and stood with her head hanging, her body practically vibrating in panic, before she held her breath and stilled. Sliding the briefcase off the shelf, she let it dangle at her side. “Still just as heavy...Am I...?”

She returned it to sit upon the shelf and stood staring at it.

Hesitantly, she opened and re-latched the briefcase again, then hefted it in front of her. “It’s still there,” she whispered in horrified wonder and set it back down carefully.

“I’m activated.” She shuddered, then swayed on her feet. “I’m-I’m...online.” 

Abruptly, she sat down hard on the floor in front of the briefcase, muttering, “Don’t forget...don’t forget.” 

The camera panned across the woman slipping to the floor and becoming unconscious, staying steady on her prone form until she  woke up some time later with a startled look upon her face. 

Appearing to orient herself, the woman climbed up off the floor, straightened her clothing, and grabbed the briefcase without sparing it another glance, then exited the room. 

~

Future (Earth) 

Her warm dark honey colored braids dangled across her face as she came out of a trance-like state, listing to the side in a daze and opening her dark green eyes to orient herself before she fell over. Bracing her folded legs against the ground, she corrected her position, then after a moment, managed to hold herself still for a couple of minutes while she quietly muttered aloud.

...

Finally clambering to her feet, she began to pace in circles, and the low mutters coming from her mouth escalated into a wild rant. Untempered anger spilled over her lips as she spit out furious accusations across the circle of dirt, rock, and dark gray sand, occasionally turning to yell out in the direction of the stunted trees.

...

The sound of her fury grew to a roar; a wall of unadulterated sound waves unleashed that shook the ground and left the shadows under the trees and the lines of dark gray sand shifting and trembling under the deluge of her rage even after she fell silent. 

Gradually, she stilled her body and calmed her breathing. 

“When I get my mothers back,” she paused and eyed the dark gray shimmering grit upon the ground and then lifted her angry gaze with determination to the deep shadows under the low trees, then spoke with dark promising menace, “I will find a way to make you pay for this lie.”

Chapter Text

Evening, October 26th, 2334 - 267 A.F. (After Fallout)

Her feet pounded against the forest floor as she ran, panting with adrenaline and pain. The motion opened small cuts on her arm and hip, making them bleed again. The warm liquid stuck to her clothes as it slid down her skin, and pain pulsed sharply from her neck to her elbow. She needed to stop, if only for a few moments.

Lexa altered her course to intercept one of the blurred trees as she ran between them, catching hold of rough bark with one hand and causing the momentum to swing her body around; she clung to the tree long enough to come to a full stop and lean against it with her good shoulder then called out to her companion. “Clarke?”  

Clarke had shot past her and pulled up short at her call, breathing hard and faced her. Her hands fisted and her eyes scanned Lexa’s body quickly, then looked all around for danger. “Yeah?”

Lexa fought for control of her surging adrenaline. She slowed her breathing to a deep even rhythm, and the pressure in her chest eased.

Clarke’s breathing slowed to mirror her own and her fingers uncurled with her eyes no longer scanned the forest frantically, but instead focused on Lexa in greater concern.

The wind blew up around her, tugging at her body from the position against the rough bark and she shoved off the tree trunk, then gave Clarke a sharp nod for them to keep going, suspecting they were not far enough away from the Pauna yet. Her sluggish movements built up again to a slow jog and steadily became faster, with individual trees around her returning to a blur of forested greens until she took the lead in front of Clarke. As she ran, she fought to keep her breathing well-paced and in doing so, finally won control over the pain in her shoulder.

The wind shifted to the right and she turned with it to cut across a small meadow of a large grazer game trail, beckoning Clarke to follow. This was the path she needed for them to take in order to reach the mobile unit of her guard waiting for her outside of TonDC.

Clarke pulled up on her left and held that position, occasionally shooting glances at her with concern still evident in clear blue eyes. Unlike the challenging and defensive look she received during their disagreement on a leader’s responsibility from her less than an hour ago while they hid from the Pauna, it was without the fear of death attached, in its place a gentle, quiet attention rest. She shook her head to rid herself of the thought, but it unfurled in her mind.

Clarke clearly cared what happened to her beyond her position as Commander. She recalled Clarke’s expression when she had said that she needed Lexa, not just a Commander who would protect their separate peoples and interests within the Alliance.

Lexa warmed inside at the compassion shown to her as person, and then forced the sensation away. It should not be there.

She glanced back as Clarke caught the toe of her boot on a branch and it broke her stride for a moment before she caught up to her again.

It was an exploitable action to show such compassion in the first place, and a failing on her part to accept it from another. She, more than anyone, understood how easy it was to fall into the trap of caring too much.

Yet, she watched from her periphery as Clarke’s breathing increased the further they ran, and felt concern for her that was not related to the woman as piece upon the board. She wanted to suppress the impulse to explore that information, so concentrated again on the green blur she raced over underneath her feet with thoughts still clinging.

It is not just Clarke.

Her lips thinned at the realization and traced the trajectory of the path in front of her.

What would have happened if the Pauna had not come for them just then? Would she have succumbed to acknowledging the same flaw, that she too cared about Clarke as a person as well?

Her jaw tightened and the pressure throbbed all the way into the pain hammering in her neck with every footfall as she accepted this truth; she, too, wished for something she had no right to, a deeper connection with the woman running beside her.

Regardless of the pain she was in, she ran on like an automaton, leaving her with nothing else to distract the train of thought from her mind to see her own actions more clearly. She sought Clarke out when it was not necessary, paid too much attention to her moods, catered to her demands, and offered advice without request. She wanted all of those to be motivated by the desire for peaceful dealings with the Alliance, but they were not. Before now, she had simply refused to examine why she pursued uninterrupted moments in Clarke’s presence, and she grimaced at her foolish actions.

“RRREEEERROAwwww!” The violent sound of the angry Pauna cut through the air before tailing off into an echoing reverberation through the trees, accompanied by a faint rumble traveling through the ground beneath her feet, and that confirmed for her they were not nearly far enough away yet.

Clarke startled at the sound and dropped back a moment before catching back up to Lexa’s side and sped up with her when she increased her own speed.

The roar came again after some time, but was more distant; perhaps it was not free from the room in which they had trapped it. Regardless of the beast’s distance from them, she knew it had their scent now and would likely come for them again and the ruined blade barring its way to freedom would not hold it forever. Pauna were known as intelligent hunters that did not always stop hunting when the scent was first lost and hunting almost intuitively as a human would until the scent could be found again.

She wanted to be prepared for the possibility that they might not make it back to her warriors before it caught up to them and she would need to destroy it on her own.

Her pace slowed marginally for a moment to reach for her belt, palming her hand over the hilt of a seven-inch knife as she considered her current injuries. Pain still coursed down her arm, however, it was not disabling or would not be for long.

She should delay a battle with such a beast to heal and knew she should request assistance from her guard in trapping the beast if there was the time to do so, but her pride bit down hard in her chest at the thought. It was her responsibility. If she could find a way to kill it without involving her people, she would take it.

Clarke caught her foot on another branch in the path and this time she almost tripped before regaining her feet.

Lexa glanced over at her again, doubting a person who fell from the sky only a month ago would understand the danger of a Pauna on hunt. They were still a good distance further north of TonDC and she did not think the other woman was familiar with this area. “Clarke? We need to get to the water as soon as possible.”

Clarke stopped next to her and reached down to her belt, searching, then her hands dropped to her sides. “My canteen is gone.”

“We are going to need more than the water you carried anyway.”

Clarke gave her a questioning look but did not ask for an explanation.

The wind picked up around her again, bringing her attention back to their location in the forest, and she altered her course to intersect a small branch of the river running through the area.

Why does she not question?

Irritation sprang up inside her chest over Clarke’s immediate trust being given to her so freely. It was another weakness she feared would make Clarke appear vulnerable to the others she now had to stand tall before and prove her worth to. She glanced surreptitiously at her companion.

Clarke’s blonde hair wrapped across her throat as the wind gusted her around her for a moment, then stilled.

Lexa’s eyes dropped back to the path, but her thoughts continued to mull over the problem. Misplaced trust was the simple mistake of a child not yet ready to become a warrior or be turned loose on their own. Yet, despite this obvious naivety, the woman running at her side was indeed strong.

She panted quietly as she cleared fallen debris in her way and recalled several moments Clarke did what she herself would not do, and managed results that were not what she feared they would be.

Raven’s anger over Finn’s death changed to acceptance and then even a kind of respect for the leader of their small band of young people. The relief and acceptance she saw flicker across Finn’s face as Clarke slid her knife into him was surprising, considering that it was not their way. Even Clarke’s mother had responded to her daughter’s need for a solution that would save Lincoln from dying as a Reaper, when there was no method she still carried out the impossible order, and had triumphed.

Yet, Clarke did not give her trust to any of those people in the way she was giving it to her. Clarke questioned, she argued, she made her friends and even her own mother work for it, but it was not the case with her. Added warmth filled her chest for a moment with the idea of such a gift, before she pushed it down quickly. It was blindly given, and a leader could not afford to reciprocate.

Lexa’s sharp hearing picked up the cadence of water hitting rocks, but she waited for Clarke to realize and draw attention to it first.

A few moments later, Clarke stopped and looked over at her. “I hear water.”

Lexa nodded and the corner of her mouth curved in a small smile. “Follow the sound, show me you can find it Clarke.”

Clarke’s eyes lit in amusement, rolling them at the easy challenge before taking a lead position, and she followed her even steps.

She broke through the line of trees with Clarke beside her and saw a small creek flowing down an embankment, and carefully they made their way over the uneven sloping ground to the water’s edge.

Lexa braced one knee to the ground, scooping up water to bring to her mouth and Clarke followed suit after only a moment.

When she finished, she began to work loose riverbed rocks at the water line and place them out of her way. Afterward, she gathered the wet sand and clay from the muddy depressions and less saturated dirt from the ground further away, placing all three substances within the largest and driest area created by the absent rocks. Working the earth with both hands sent angry sparks shooting down her shoulder and arm, and she flinched with the pain for a moment. Breathing deeply, she carried on in her movements as she tried to keep the pain from expressing upon her face and in the lines of her body.

As she manipulated her collection of earth into a paste of thick sludge, Clarke hunkered down next to her, then eased closer until they were almost touching. Her breath stirred the air across Lexa’s ear. Clarke’s body heat registered and it caused goosebumps to run down her arms; without thinking, she leaned into the heat before catching herself.

Too close.

She shuffled to the side for more dirt and lost the warmth of the woman next to her, trying instead to concentrate on the fragrances in the wind swirling the scent of late blooming flowers over the water. She almost succeeded in distracting herself, but the heady combined scent of their sweaty skin intruded.

I must ignore it.

Muddy grit squeezed out from between her clenched fingers as she moved back to the rock depression. If she could pick up their scent so easily, then so too could the Pauna.

Yet, I cannot avoid what else it means.

As she shifted closer, Clarke’s breath and heat brushed again across her skin, causing tingles to spring up everywhere. Fighting to keep a shiver from running through her body, she dug harder into the cold sludge and did her best to ignore the sensation. The mass of soggy earth at her feet was ready now to coat her body and soon she would have a concrete reason to put distance between them to alleviating her fixation.

“Why do we need this now?”

As Clarke’s question broke her from her thoughts, Lexa was relieved at the reprieve. “We have to hide our scent, Clarke. The Pauna may not stop hunting for us and we should not lead it to camp if it can be avoided, so we need to kill it if we are given the opportunity.”

She stood and began pulling off her shoulder guards and straps of armor, before her hands moved methodically down to start unlacing her shirt. She would need to apply the mixture directly to her skin first.

She saw Clarke’s eyes round when her fingers tugged loose the laces of her shirt, making the neckline gradually open wider.

Her gaze dropped to focus on the task and she finished undoing the strings. Lifting the hem of her shirt awkwardly, she slid her good arm out first, causing her shoulder to ache fiercely when she pulled back to catch the material with the opposite hand, before she finally worked it completely off her body. She sighed quietly under her breath at the ease in pain as she let her shirt drop on top of her discarded armor, then raised her hands to unwind the band of material covering her breasts.

She glanced up to notice Clarke’s posture go rigid and her eyes dart away from watching her hands before they eventually settled upon the flow of the water at their feet.

She reached down, gathering sludge in her hands, and then smeared dark trails down her own throat, trailing her hands between her breasts, leaving a thick coating.

She watched from her periphery as Clarke continued to sneak quick looks back at Lexa, wide eyes lingering a moment too long on the deliberate movement of her hands, only to tense again and jerk her gaze back to the water. “How do you propose we do that by ourselves?”

Why was she…?

Clarke scowled and turned away slightly from her, almost as though to hide from perusal, and began yanking at her own coat, removing it in huffs of seemingly irrational irritation.

Suddenly, Lexa believed she knew what might be the problem and could not help letting a smug smirk from gracing her lips. She had trouble hiding her amusement from Clarke’s darting gaze as they locked eyes, and she watched the other woman move stiffly over to the depression to grab handfuls of the mud for herself, smearing her face and neck with exaggerated deliberation.

“We will look for an opportunity. If we do not find one before reaching camp, I will send a group of warriors to deal with it.” Lexa’s tone was steady even as her body shivered from the cool mud as her hands slid down her stomach to her bellybutton, then slid even lower.

Clarke’s eyes locked on to the trailing of the slick earth painting down her body then jumped away to the water before settling on her own hands. She clenched her jaw and plunged them again into the mud, seeming to finally remember she was in the middle of covering her own skin.

Lexa continued to smear the earthy mess down her body but noted with growing amusement that Clarke was still losing her battle against the urge to follow the progress of her hands traversing her body; every side-glance she received from Clarke made her skin tingle and her pulse race.

Now that she felt certain of what caused Clarke’s discomfort, she also felt the need to turn away as she worked loose the buttons on her pants, hoping that she herself would not be similarly affected by watching Clarke as she shed her clothes behind her. The material slid off her long legs and dropped around her feet, and she stepped out of them completely before approaching the basin of mud where Clarke still stood.

She caught sight of Clarke’s hands slowing in their own journey down her body as she glanced up at Lexa’s approach, huffing out a strangled breath before she clamped her lips down into a tense line. Her clear frustration did not stop her wide blue eyes from meandering with aching slowness up to rest upon Lexa’s mouth for a long moment, finally meeting her eyes.

Heat rose in her throat and face and Lexa found herself staring back openly as she felt the tingle of warmth blossom again within her chest but it's gambit ran downward. Pulling in air through her nose, she let it slip past her lips slowly, doing her best to ignore her body’s reactions to Clarke’s heavy gaze upon her, and found she could only maintain the eye contact a moment longer. Bending down to gather more mud, she broke the intensity by concentrating on the cold slap of wet earth on her heated skin as she smeared the rest down her legs.

Avoid looking too closely.

She turned her back and walked stiffly away. It was the best she could do while she dealt with the unwarranted sensations and was relieved when she was finally ready to reach for her clothing. Slowly coaxing her injured arm into the sleeve of her shirt, again she twisted to catch sight of Clarke out of the corner of her eye.

Clarke’s pants hit the ground and she stepped out of them, causing Lexa to swallow hard and clamp her eyes closed, her forcing her attention to be redirected to the awkward task of arranging her shirt over her now sticky skin.

She risked another short glance a minute later as she located her pants and started to pull them up, her stability wavering as she balanced on one foot.

Clarke was now covering her naked legs in mud and Lexa felt as the world tilted precariously to the side.

Lexa only just managed to get her foot back to the ground before she fell, dragging her gaze away to stare at her own hands. She felt her ears go red and realized her earlier smugness was misplaced.

Hands are good things to look at after all.

Finally, she heard Clarke struggling to get her own clothing over wet muddy skin, and slowed her own pace enough that she was certain the other woman would be fully dressed and she would not have to be the first to look upon the other.

With her pants and shirt covering her body now, she felt safe to turn around while she re-laced the strings.

Clarke stood very still at the water’s edge, looking at her intensely with darkened blue eyes.

Lexa’s breath caught in her throat and her fingers went nerveless upon the strings of her shirt. She looked down at them in consternation and heard Clarke approach her slowly.

She felt Clarke invade her space, the heat of her body standing entirely too close and her open face peering up directly in front of her. The wind whipped her blonde tresses about her shoulders and Lexa watched pale fingers rise slowly to cover her own, taking over their forgotten task of tying.

Lexa’s eyes widened at the jolt of contact and she forced her hands down to her sides to stop touching the skin of Clarke’s hands. She nearly choked at Clarke’s audacity and for her pride’s sake as she tried to ignore the spark of warmth creeping deep once again from the core of her body, the ache of being cared for filling her throat and chest. Her heart suddenly pounded so loudly she worried that Clarke could feel it when her hand grazed the skin over her breastbone as she looped the lacings back together.

The quiet hum and cadence of the forest without anything to interfere with it but the low whistle of the wind and their own heavy breaths had made her acutely aware of how very alone they were together. It was a rare thing for her to be unescorted unless she lay down to rest, and even then, guards were within calling distance. This was truly a stolen moment, a personal freedom, and a long forgotten feeling buzzed through her at the thought of having any choice at all when it came to her personal desires.

Lexa looked down at Clarke’s flushed skin and open features, studying them and what it could mean.

Clarke’s eyes flickered up to meet her own several times before frowning in concentration when she lost the ends of lacing twice.

Suddenly, she did not feel so alone in reacting so strongly to the woman now fumbling in front of her and Lexa’s confidence returned. She decided it was safe to reach up and guide Clarke’s unsteady fingers with her own. “When we return, I shall get you your own clothes to wear since you seem to need the practice of dressing.”

Clarke’s frown of awkward concentration turned instantly annoyed.

Lexa felt even bolder and flashed a grin down at her irritated expression.

Clarke’s eyes narrowed and her hands stopped fumbling the strings, before the tension in her arms and hands relaxed and she gave her a crooked half smile. “Fine! It’s getting colder anyway and I’ll need something warmer to wear.”

Lexa’s grin turned sly, “I shall gift them to you in private, so no one will see you practicing like a child.”

Clarke’s shoulders stiffened for a second, and then she broke into a bright smile and gave her a surprised laugh. “I have never heard you tell a joke before.”

Lexa felt suddenly lighter at the sound of Clarke’s laughter, and indulged herself in another long moment of soaking in the mirthful expression on the other woman’s beautiful face. It broke then, as she remembered where she was and tore her eyes away, focusing safely back to the ground. She took a sudden step back, feeling Clarke’s hands drop back to her sides and not daring to look back up to see the concern she knew would be there. Lexa let out a silent sigh, quickly chastising herself for yet another lapse, and returned to the task of coating the clothing she now wore with river mud.

After a long moment of silence, Clarke followed her example, and then they finished the task, finally returning to the path as they made their way south from the river toward TonDC.

Daylight had waned, giving way to dusk while wind gusts tugged intermittently at her clothing, now too stiff to bend naturally to its demands. As they crested a hill and she saw the forest’s horizon take on a familiar distant view with an outcrop of rock upon the mountains that led to the path of the Mountain Men, and she understood her location in relation to it.

Lexa glanced over at Clarke to see that she looked exhausted and was probably feeling the lack of a meal the way she herself did, but knew they would not be reaching her warrior’s camp tonight. She was not alone and did not want to be caught in the open with only her knife for protection if the Pauna was still hunting them in the dark. “Clarke.”

Clarke stumbled while turning to face her. “Yeah?”

Lexa’s voice softened. “We must find shelter soon. It is wise to take rest now and move on in the morning.” Lexa also felt the drag of fatigue and the way her injury still sent pain radiating up and down her arm to flare sharply in her neck, though it had lessened a great deal as they walked.

Clarke scanned the forest around her. “Okay. Do you know where we are?”

“I do.” Not long ago, Lexa had overheard a conversation between some of her warriors discussing an old tunnel near their present location and she believed it would make a suitable place to stop.

The wind had died down to a sporadic breeze but picked up again as Lexa angled north along a little used path, as though tugging her forward on her new course. Dusk was settling upon them when she spotted an unnatural break of concrete and darkness in the forest’s scenery that fit the warrior’s descriptions. “There.”

Clarke came abreast of her position and squinted into the shadows until she also saw the opening.

Lexa approached and bent down, slipping cautiously into an elongated horizontal entrance and into the ancient tunnel. Irregularly spaced patches of light filtered through small openings sporadically along the ceiling and at the other end, she could see another small opening. Light glinted off a slow moving pool of water pouring from a crack in the wall and ending in the center of the tunnel, disappearing at the low spot. The sound of water dribbling down into a dark depression echoed faintly. She heard no other sounds that indicated animal activity over the short gusts of wind blowing through the tunnel, but still proceeded with caution as she explored along the walls, moving toward the center until the filtered light became too weak to see properly.

The waning light of this time of day was not promising, she considered, but the small size of the openings should keep the Pauna from entering without giving them some kind of warning. She returned to Clarke, stopped just inside the tunnel, the other woman still and watching her silently. “We will settle further away from the entrance.”

Clarke followed her into the tunnel until she came to a stop thirty feet from the exit to the forest.

Lexa eased herself down against debris of old logs and moss lining one side of the wall and let her head fall back to rest gingerly on a patch of green growth. Once she was settled, her eyes found Clarke and she watched the other woman attempt to find a position across the tunnel which mirrored her own.

She heard Clarke’s breathing slow over the course of several minutes, but Lexa did not shut her eyes. In the dying light, she watched Clarke’s features become less distinct and strained to listen for each of her quiet breaths, until she realized again, what that meant to be so very concerned by the woman across from her. Dragging her gaze away, she acknowledged the gnawing craving, if only to herself, for a deeper connection to Clarke. It was a longing that seemed to be permanently settling in the depths of her chest, but she knew it was a foolish thing to desire and it would only make them both vulnerable. With the creeping awareness of her growing weakness and the possible repercussions floating nebulously in her mind, she disciplined her thoughts and focused all her attention on the muffled sounds of a forest readying itself for the night, breathing deeply until she, too, slipped into sleep.

Lexa startled awake, freezing in place.

The sound of heavy footfalls and deep grunting woke her to a darkened tunnel.

Moving quietly, she silently crept over the packed earth to Clarke’s sleeping form and reached out to touch her arm.

Clarke twitched at the sudden contact, eyes flying open and immediately trying to sit up.

Lexa quickly slipped her hand over her mouth, then leaned over her body with a breathless whisper in her ear, “Quiet, Clarke.”

The sound of brittle branches giving way and a low grunting followed, growing more distinct and closer as something large and heavy neared the tunnel entrance.

She felt as Clarke’s body went rigid with fearful anticipation beneath her, but she managed to stay silent.

Lexa slowly lifted her hand away from Clarke’s mouth and braced it against the ground between her neck and shoulder, holding herself still and staring into the darkness for any sign of movement at the opening of the tunnel. Her muscles were tense and her shoulder ached with the strain of hovering while she waited to see if the animal on the hunt would find them.

Long moments passed before the sounds of scraping and shuffling from the large creature quieted as it moved away from the entrance. Finally, after she was certain it was gone, Lexa let herself relax into the curves of the body beneath her and felt Clarke’s give way to her own.

She looked down into Clarke’s eyes in the patchy moonlight, watching as her pupils expanded, then dropped with a slow deliberate sweep to land on Lexa’s mouth. Her gaze lingered on her lips for a long moment, before darting back up again and almost trapping her with a stark and hungry expression.

Lexa suddenly felt every inch of pressure connecting their bodies together, she looked to the side and heard nothing but Clarke’s shallow breathing as it stirred the air, whispering across her ear and the side of her throat.

She should have tensed to pull away but her body did not listen to the command. She frozen and pressed up heavily against Clarke in the shadowed darkness.

Clarke’s eyes searched almost desperately for her own and she could not resist focusing on them with light glinting across her orbs several times then slid her stare from Lexa’s eyes to her mouth again, slowly she began tilting her chin upward with parted lips.

At the movement, Lexa’s own shallow breaths turned into a light pant and she fought to control it, lifting and turning her head completely to the side in a final effort to increase the distance between them. She closed her eyes tightly and forced herself to focus on the scent of the dried river sludge coating their skin, the feel of the hard ground under one hip and the lower part of her legs; the pain in her arm and shoulder finally broke her out of her daze.

It was a painful enough distraction that she could finally remember how to make her body listen again, and she managed to untangle herself from the woman beneath her as she moved back carefully, grimacing at the pressure, she was putting on her injury. Crawling back to the old logs on the other side of the tunnel, she resumed the position she found the least uncomfortable, but knew she was far too aware of all the wrong things that had happened to ever fall back asleep.

~

As she lay prone on the hard tunnel floor, Clarke’s shallow breathing relaxed again to a normal pace but her mind continued to race. This day had lasted far too long and she was completely exhausted. She was miserable from bloody scrapes, itchy skin still caked with mud, and a throbbing ankle as she lay there trying not to look across the dim space at Lexa.

The back of her throat stung with the rejection she was just dealt. All she wanted now was privacy and to spend it without judgement. Her eyes squeezed shut for a long moment and she sighed quietly, trying to relax her overstimulated body before opening them again to stare into the perforated darkness above her head.

This whole day had been one disaster after another. Today, she had almost died twice because she had made the wrong decisions for the right reasons, and then the right decisions for the wrong reasons.

Quint had come for her in the forest, hunting her down while she was alone. He had trapped her completely at his mercy and all because she had felt responsible for the death of his brother and had even empathized with him for one brief, hesitating moment. Life as she knew it had almost ended by the edge of his blade.

Lexa had saved her with a well-placed knife throw when she had approached with her guard, and then had directed Clarke to kill Quint. She had hesitated. Directly after the experience of almost dying by his hands she had not wanted to end his life, she had failed again by hesitating.

She knew Lexa saw that hesitation as weakness, and even knowing now it was the only way to stop someone like him, she had not wanted to accept that. There had to be a better way.

In the end, it had not mattered, and they had all wound up in the Pauna’s feeding ground because she had led them there without realizing how perilous the situation was going to get, and that had led to the giant gorilla ripping Lexa’s guard apart. Shooting the huge creature in the head had only knocked it down and when Clarke and Lexa jumped off a concrete wall, they had only made their way into another trap. A room where the door had been barricaded by Lexa’s only sword to keep the Pauna out.

Lexa had then disdainfully chastised her for saving them both, instead of leaving her to die.

Clarke grit her teeth in frustration. Lexa had somehow managed to spin the experience so that saving her life was the wrong choice. Lexa had brought up Quint as proof that she was weak and Clarke had fought against the idea, that her way of caring or being was not wrong because there had to be a better way to live than letting people die or killing them outright. She had failed in her attempt to explain, and it had only gotten worse

Clarke had not proven anything to Lexa by arguing and had found herself declaring that she needed her instead. The memory made her shoulders tighten in embarrassment, and again she felt every acute ache of her tired body as it pressed against the cold ground. A second of obliviousness had given way to how obvious she had sounded by saying it just that way. Nothing had been proven except that Lexa was something more to her than just the Commander.

At least I got us out alive.

Her shoulders relaxed at the thought of how she had let the Pauna in and how they had been able to flee after trapping it inside, and the pain in her body eased.

Now, lying here in the darkness, she could admit that Lexa was right about Quint. If she had done what was necessary then, Quint’s death would have been swift instead of leaving him hamstrung as bait for the Pauna and later having to watch his mutilated body fly across the feeding ground.

She kept getting it wrong. Her choices now had consequences, and the longer she thought about it, the more she believed that her change from prisoner on the Ark to Outsider on the Ground did not give her any more wisdom or freedom than she had in her cell. She was still not in control of her own life.

Before crashing to earth, she had been a prisoner on the Ark where all real decisions were taken away. She had survived the four grey isolating walls with only charcoal and her imaginings of Earth to keep her company for nearly a year.

Scheduled interaction with other prisoners during exercise and meal times had been monitored. After all, she knew the terrible secret her father had known and the reason he had been ejected into the cold of space. The Ark had been running out of oxygen. People would die, maybe all of them, and the Council had not wanted that made public, so she had been carefully watched by the guards, considered a traitor just like her father. The only semi-supervised time she had been allowed was during her rare shower time when she had been able to talk to other people in the cramped stalls next to her own, but after a time, she stopped trying.

Being branded a traitor had consequences, even if other prisoners had no idea what she actually did and it had been the path of least resistance that led to giving up on fighting the system just to survive. There were no more decisions to make if she had wanted to live long enough to face her charges as an adult. Other than infrequent visits from her mother, she had led an isolated existence, one that had not required more than the minimal participation anyway of going through the motions.

She had counted only one month left before she would be of age and the Council would have reviewed her case. There was no doubt in her mind that a death sentence would have been the verdict, but the guards had come and then her mother had given her a way out. They had sent her to die on Earth instead.

That month had expired days ago, she was of age, and she had cheated death on the Ground.

After landing, she had worried over knowing what to eat and seeing mutated deer had made her question whether anything was edible for humans at all. Later, she had worried about the strangers who were becoming her family as they began to die on her. The thought brought back the misery of anticipated isolation, only this time it would leave her completely alone. She had fought with them, and then for them to stay safe when she had realized they were not the only people on Earth. From that moment on, she had not stopped fighting for them. Now there were only forty-seven people left that she truly belonged to, and they were almost all trapped in Mount Weather. She thought of the ones she had lost and her thoughts went to the last person to die, Finn.

Raven had accused her of being the reason Finn died and Clarke had to agree with her, but not for the reason Raven had thought. Maybe being on the Ground had really changed him irreparably, but she could not be certain of that anymore. She wished it could be as simple as still caring for him as he had been before he had killed eighteen innocent people. It had happened without any real reason other than the fact that they could not make her appear for him.

She felt bitter betrayal course through her gut knowing that he had not been who she believed him to be. His heart had not actually been gentle and his personality had been critically unstable under pressure. She could think of no other reason for him to have done what he did. The act of Clarke killing him had actually been an act of mercy, since he would have been tortured before finally dying by the blade anyway, but it left a stain of guilt on her conscience. She did not deserve relief knowing that before she had approached Lexa for permission to speak to him while he had been hung upon a stake in dark field because she had already planned to put a blade through his heart.

She had failed to find a way for him to live and still provide a chance to secure the Grounder’s help in getting the forty-seven out of Mount Weather. A part of her understood why the Grounders deserved their call of “blood for blood” and her remedy, the most humane way she could think of to resolve it, still sickened her. She had saved him the agony of torture but she had also saved herself from have to deal with a person she could never trust again completely.

She had been wrong about him on a fundamental level and it made her question her own ability to see others as they are, and not how she wanted them to be for her. Maybe she did not understand the kind of love that Finn had held for her or maybe it was not even love in the first place, but she did know something about herself now that she did not before, that she was willing to knowingly sacrifice a person she cared about for a greater good.

It made her feel queasy to acknowledge that truth to herself. She could do what Lexa suggested and live the isolated way she did; no more of her people who depended on her could afford any more mistakes, like her trusting the wrong person again. Everything she would do now had far-reaching consequences that could hurt others or could get them all killed and that was because everyone expected her to have the answers. Her life was not her own again, despite the fact she could supposedly make her own decisions now.

The itching of her skin sidetracked her thoughts. Irritated, she scratched at her neck. Dry mud flaked off at her throat and collarbone and built up under her nails. She brushed at them with her thumbs, finding the movement oddly soothing.

Across the dank tunnel, Lexa shifted and stretched out her legs in front of her.

Clarke turned her head at the scuffle of boots on packed earth and watched her settle back into silence.

Lexa’s sudden grin had floored her earlier and she swallowed thickly at the memory. Lexa had been so beautiful in that moment that she had forgotten who Lexa was supposed to be to her and who she was supposed to be to Lexa. Yet, Lexa’s focus had faltered from whatever was happening between them and she had pulled away; that was all the reminder she had needed to see that kind of moment of levity was not a part of her everyday life. Lexa was cut off emotionally and Clarke believed it was because of Kostia, the woman who had held Lexa’s heart. In the aftermath of her murder, it had been too much for Lexa to go on living the same way.

Heat crept up her throat and face as she felt a bite of shame spike deep in her belly for trying to kiss the Commander. She had no right to ask for something intimate like that with her right now when she knew that neither of them was in a situation that would let them be together. She suspected Lexa had understood all of this well before she did and was able to pull away from her first.

Lexa knew to fight against it and Clarke believed she knew why. She was a distraction for Lexa, because caring is a weakness in a way.

That, she did understand. Unfortunately, when she had told Lexa that she needed her earlier that day, she may have failed to convey that it was only Lexa’s position as the Commander of the Alliance she meant to ask for. Now she knew how much more she felt and when she had leaned up to close the distance between their lips a little while ago, forgetting everyone and everything else, she had reinforced that she needed Lexa too, along with the chance of simply wanting something for herself in that moment.

Clarke turned herself over to her side and slipped her hands between her face and the ground to take in the Commander, who appeared to be lying asleep against the tunnel wall across the short distance between them.

Clarke’s lip slipped between her teeth and she bit down, hard, as she thought of how close they had been to letting their mouths meet, and she felt a surge of heavy longing curl its way through her body. She still wanted that moment, for the warmth of connection to another and the freedom to feel something for someone and have it returned without having to suffer for it.

Flipping over to her other side, she faced the tunnel wall where there was no chance for her pained expression to be visible in the low light and squeezed her eyes tightly closed. She decided she could be selfish in this dark corner where no judgement would pass over her but her own.

The vivid memory of Lexa standing tall at the river’s bank filled her head. The way she had unselfconsciously dropped her shirt while Clarke could not resist visually following every slope and path taken by Lexa’s muddy fingers, watching as they had slid tantalizingly down the taut skin of her belly.

The image made her body spark with heat and her mouth water. These reactions were nothing like any previous ones she had for anyone else. Thinking of comparisons like Finn made her realize how very different that experience had been and how he had pursued her from the beginning. She had not been drawn to him that way at first and had to reach a comfortable familiarity with him before she even noticed him that way. Before Finn, there were two other people but she was just a kid then, there was no real relationship. She had never done the pursuing, they had.

Clarke’s eyes flashed open and her lips parted in surprise as the realization of what was actually happening now sank in.

She hung on Lexa’s every word. She catered to her opinions and lingered on her longer than she watched anyone else. It was even deeper than that though, she realized, she created reasons to be around Lexa and tellingly, she knew she had been finding ways to get physically close to the Commander if a chance presented itself as it did today.

In her own bumbling way, she was pursuing Lexa. Perhaps she was even consciously trying to rationalize a way for a connection with Lexa to work, because she realized she wanted to find a way past Lexa’s walls that would not be threatening to either of them. Considering it now, curled up on herself on the cold hard ground in near darkness, she was afraid that what she had to offer would not be enough. If she was in Lexa’s place and evaluating her, she wasa weak link.

Clarke thought she had very little personally to offer, other than helping to construct a way to free their people from Mount Weather and supporting the Alliance in general. The skills of any Arkers were helpful but not really needed by Lexa’s people and at some point, the value of her knowledge would give out to the needs of just living as a Grounder.

Nothing to offer but me.

Her mouth twisted in self-derision. She did not think she was a great catch right now at all. Simply being physically attracted to someone was one thing, and obviously could be ignored by Lexa quite easily. After all, what would a woman who controlled twelve tribes even see in her?

A new kind of loneliness swelled inside her chest, a bitter reminder of the isolation she had known so well, and answered that question for herself. It was probably pointless to pursue Lexa, and her timing was terrible anyway. They were in the middle of a brewing war and she had just killed her last lover.

A sharp sting of guilt and shame joined the bitter ache of loneliness, coating a thick path up her tightening throat. Desperately wanting the feeling to end and needing to avoid that kind of mistake in the future, she made herself a silent promise.

I’ll learn everything I can from the Grounders that they’re willing to give me.

Her head turned back over her shoulder and she let her gaze flick over to Lexa’s still body and tried to amend her thought.

I won’t ask for...Lexa.

Cringing inwardly at her ill-matched feelings and thoughts, she flipped the rest of her body over again to face the woman causing all of her turmoil and sighed quietly in frustration.

She saw Lexa tense at the sounds she made and now knew she was awake. “How is your shoulder?”

Lexa lifted her head, turning to look at her briefly, “It hurts, but I will be fine.”

Clarke wanted to check her shoulder again but then wondered if Lexa would let her. That thought, however, died quickly as she smothered it under her newly discovered belief that she had ulterior motives when it came to Lexa and feared the consequences of it. She wanted to be closer to her for the wrong reasons and needed to resist the urge to push her agenda along.

The silence between them lengthened and in the occasional breeze slipping down the tunnel, she felt the cold of the night in the forest seeping into her body. Scooting up and leaning against the tunnel wall behind her, she wrapped her arms around her crossed legs to conserve heat.

Why can’t we have a fire? 

She looked around and saw the remnants of forest debris, scattered chunks of dead branches and piles of dried up leaves. They could probably make a fire with what was laying around them, but also knew that little pieces of wood did not burn for long. Maybe that was reason enough not to start a fire here.

Lexa always seemed to have a reason, a plan, and a purpose for everything she does.

Clarke sat in cold irritation, not knowing why she needed to be any of those things.

Lexa eased herself upright again and leaned her head back to rest on a log behind her, mimicking Clarke’s position.

She wanted to talk to Lexa about anything other than the numerous embarrassing issues brought about by her bad timing, and searched her mind for a thread of conversation to break the awkwardness that had settled heavily in the quiet of the dark space. She recalled the interrupted conversation they had while hiding from the Pauna, yet that was not exactly the place she wished to start from with Lexa, who was still very much a mystery to her as were all of the Grounders. She took a chance. “What is it like to be the Commander?”

Lexa blinked at her slowly and then turned her head away as she simply looked off into the darkness, saying nothing.

After almost a full minute of silence, Clarke began to wonder if there was some strict taboo against sharing that kind of information, or if it was simply too personal for Lexa herself. She swallowed thickly and she tried again it case she was not being clear. “What is it like to be chosen, Lexa?”

Lexa maintained her still silence.

Clarke huffed out quietly into the dark and decided that she must have been right, even this would be kept from her. The kind of thing most people she knew would appreciate talking about, personal history and culture, would be denied to her by Lexa for whatever strange Grounder reason she could have real way of knowing.

Her gaze slipped away from the silent figure across from her as she leaned her head back and wondered these things to herself instead. What would it feel like to be chosen, to know that her life was meant for a greater purpose...to command?

She scratched at the itchy skin along her shins. How was someone chosen? Lexa made it seem like there was some external power or greater force doing the choosing.

Maybe it was a spiritual or religious thing?

Remembering a few of the cultural history lessons from the Ark about all those former residents of Earth the space goers left behind over two hundred and sixty-seven years ago made her wonder just how different Grounders were from Arkers.

She tried to imagine some intangible thing choosing her to be in charge and everyone instantly going along with it, but could not fathom how that would work in reality. Everyone fought over the chance to lead on the Ark and that did not change when her people had made it to the Ground. The fights she had with Bellamy and Murphy were only the first painful reminders that people cannot just proclaim a way of life suddenly and expect everyone else to fall in line with it.

Somehow though, the system Lexa and the Grounders use make them accept the roles for another immediately. Even Quint had given way to Lexa’s authority instantly, even while he had kept right on hating everything about it.

Lexa’s voice surprised her when she finally cut through Clarke’s wandering thoughts when she spoke quietly. “I was twelve years old and sitting underneath a weeping tree when my mind filled with visions and I fell to the ground.” Lexa paused for a moment, “I lay there a long time in visions.”

Instantly enticed, Clarke scooted her body forward and dropped her knees to lay flat on the ground, waiting for Lexa to continue.

Lexa did not add anything, and lapsed back into silence.

Clarke frowned in puzzlement. That could not be all there was to it. “What did you see, Lexa?”

Lexa’s shoulders stiffened at that question and Clarke realized she did not really want to answer her. She seemed to debate with something internally before she sighed into the empty space between them and gave her a little more. “I saw the world before this one.”

In this moment, she could see Lexa’s eyes clearly, the sight only broken by irregular patterns of moonlight shimmering about her face whenever she shifted the smallest bit in any direction. She debated silently over the words “the world before this one” and was not sure if such a thing was possible, yet Lexa looked serious and serenely calm about the comment. Seeing her certainty cracked a fissure in her own doubts that the idea of reincarnation was not completely impossible.

It took a moment for Clarke to recognize her real issue. She did not want to be misled by false hope; she wanted reincarnation to be true. No one on the Ark had talked about anything regarding reincarnation to her other than her own father.

When the guards had taken him from her for wanting to do the right thing, for trying to stand against the lies that had kept the people on the Ark unaware of their own danger, something inside of her had died that day. Her father had wanted everyone to have the chance to work on the solution and fix the flaw in the engineering design. What she came to believe, from seeing her father punished with death, was that all of that suffering was for nothing, even if her father taught her to believe in hope and a purpose outside of one’s self.

She missed him and his unwavering faith in people. The idea that her father may, in some way, still live was something she never allowed herself to consider before.

Lexa had not moved or spoken since that last comment, simply sitting there watching her, body tense and tightly coiled as if she was waiting for something to spring her into action.

Clarke had never seen Lexa lie to anyone. She made her word law because she was the first to keep it true, and a part of Clarke knew it was just a formality, qualifying Lexa’s honesty in this way knowing already that she trusted her completely without understanding entirely why she did.

Clarke leaned back and relaxed once again against the tunnel wall. Her voice was low, but searching. “Would you tell me what it was like?”

Lexa tilted her head slightly, staring back at her in wary confusion. Clarke caught her eyes again and held them steady, still clinging to the idea of reincarnation within her mind, as she clarified her question. “What the world was like before this one?”

Chapter Text

Late Night, October 26th, 2334 - 267 A.F. (Activation: Day 01)

Lexa delayed responding to Clarke’s question at first; a great deal could be said about the brief time she knew of before Fallout, but she was uncertain how to proceed for several reasons and sensed that Clarke was asking for something specific by the fleeting edge of wistfulness she heard in her tone.

She wanted something to do with her hands while she decided what Clarke needed from her, and now that the animal seemed to have moved on they were safe again in the tunnel and could afford to make a fire.       

Reaching into a pocket within her shirt for the flint and for the knife at her belt, she pulled them out and set them down next to the area she intended to build the fire, before she gathered chunks of loose wood from the ground. She broke off more kindling from the old logs nearby, placing it all in a neat pile between Clarke and herself in the center of the tunnel to buy herself time while she thought.

The major problem of disclosing knowledge of before was that she needed to protect the source, herself. Lexa had not tried to explain being Chosen to anyone before let alone a Sky Person, someone whose culture seemed to have no real connection to their dead and no real understanding of a Spirit moving from one person to another.

They do not even burn their dead!

She hid the need to shudder at the thought by snapping a small branch in two and added it to the growing pile as she recalled Clarke’s use of the word “reincarnation” when she had explained to her that death was not the end while they were under threat from the enraged Pauna earlier that day. It was a term she knew from her own life to be an untruth, regardless of how some tribes spoke of the early ventures onto the surface after Fallout, which had no favorable endings. These were no more than exaggerated stories whispered and laced through the oral histories, inspiring fear and superstition; they were a large part of the reason humans now burned their dead.

Why would Clarke want this? Did reincarnation mean something different for her? 

She knew she needed an answer that could not be found within her own experience, so she relaxed the barrier in her mind and focused on searching deeper for the origin to the word through memories of remembered Commander’s Spirit visions.

The word, and search for its meaning, triggered the memory of a vision and based on how many layers she now sank through to find it to be very old. The language spoken in the vision did not verbally translate well, but she determined that the word must have meant something like being born again, an inevitability of life from birth to death to live as the same person, or continue living the same life in a different body.

This ancient idea of “reincarnation” was not her own experience. She was an adolescent when she gained the Commander Spirit and nothing in the visions it brought, no matter how tangibly vivid they seemed, were hers. Lexa did not believe that either her experience, her people’s beliefs, or Clarke’s hopeful wishing was the right way to describe what she had been given.

Though Clarke’s second attempt at asking her this question was about the world before this one, not the experience of being Chosen, she still wondered how she might explain even in broad terms without compromising herself. She laid her hands on the tunnel floor and dug her fingers into the damp layers of decayed leaves and earth as she glanced up and gave Clarke a short but testing look. Was Clarke asking her these things out of curiosity as a healer, an artist, a leader or...something else?

She knew Clarke was a healer by trade, but had observed her stealing away to draw within her journal in her spare time. Lexa had snuck a curious look into that book while it was left open and unattended on her table a few days ago and suspected from the emotion Clarke poured into the images captured there that the other woman was not born to be a healer. The belief that Clarke would be happy filling that purpose alone was doubtful, or that being an artist would also not be enough for her, yet this did not resolve what Clarke truly wanted for herself, or why.

Finally, she leaned back on her heels and wiped her hands on the fabric of her pants as she decided on a manner of delivery. “Many things are still here from the time before. Old oaks survived the Great Winter after bombs destroyed the world. Grass much like what we tread upon now though ours is taller and wild. Great waters to the east and west.” She paused to consider if there was a better way of describing how real the visions were to her without giving away any of the wrong things. “I remember touching the short stiff grass in places I have never traveled in this life with my hands and feet, swimming through the cold of an ocean I have never looked upon with my own eyes. The air hurt to breathe, heavy and dirty with...” Lexa considered how that sounded and put her hand to her chest. “The air hurt with every breath taken.”

She noticed Clarke’s rapt but puzzled attention as she stared back at her with wide eyes across the space looming between them in the tunnel and suddenly felt foolish for trying to explain how immersed she had been in her visions. She took a deep breath and decided to leave out personal sensations and rested her hands on her knees in front of her.

“There were metal ships on land carrying people and I saw how they drove them. Metal ships hung in the sky much like yours carrying people.” Lexa sighed, believing the explanations were still too awkward for Clarke to follow. “I am a person among many, moving with them. Sometimes it means nothing. Other times, I am doing something that must be done.”

Pausing with that much shared, she looked over to see Clarke sitting quietly and watching her pensively, so she picked up the flint and knife again to focus her attention on striking them together. The tinder caught a spark, and she stoked the pile with practiced automatic movements, uncertain how to proceed. There were things no one could know.

She glanced up from the fire when she heard Clarke’s low voice rose above the crackling pops coming from the wood overtaken with sizzling heat. “Is it reincarnation?”

Lexa recognized the note of wistful hope she had heard in her voice earlier, realizing she was correct in her assumption, Clarke wanted something about reincarnation to be true.

She reached a critical point of making the fire bloom and focused upon it. Smoke wafted, and she bent lower, blowing at the hesitant flame until it caught, then added more kindling until she was rewarded with small flames. With the heat of fire now glowing warm upon her face, she tilted her eyes up, meeting the other woman’s oddly hopeful glint. “No. It is not reincarnation.”

She sat back on her haunches and reached around her for the bigger pieces scattered nearby to add to the fire.

She could not help but notice that Clarke’s expression saddened at her words. “What is it then? Just memories?”

Lexa settled against the large log running next to the wall. They were heading into territory she would not be allowed to explain. “The visions are pieces of the Commanders lives before me.”

Clarke scooted closer the fire, clearly enraptured. “What were the Commander’s lives like?”

It was on the tip of her tongue.

Pain, betrayal, and death.

But those thoughts and the way in which they always proved true could not be given to Clarke. The visions of their lives brought her no peace and every Commander before her felt the same when faced with the truth of what being a Commander meant. “Every Commander before me was their own person, yet we were born for this purpose. Knowledge of their lives serves to guide the active Commander in serving the people.”

“So your mother or father was a Commander before you?”

She frowned, considering her words carefully before she spoke again; full disclosure was not allowed. “No, the Spirit knows where to find the next Commander and they receive the visions when the old Commander dies. Our Elders confirm it and leadership is turned over to the new Commander.”

She leaned her head back to bump it against the cool tunnel wall. Uneasy now, she wanted to direct Clarke away from this subject. “How are your leaders chosen?”

Clarke took a moment, shifting back from the fire to rest on her knees, her fingers fiddling with a spare twig of kindling. “Leaders are voted in by the people or sometimes just by the council.”

“Our ways are different. We must still prove ourselves but consensus is not always needed. Every leader shows their worth in either so no one can doubt their right to lead.”

Clarke looked puzzled at this. “How can they prove they’re the right person to lead without everyone agreeing to it?”

“All People have testings for leadership. The Ice Nation fights for theirs. The Tree Clan has a series of tests that must be completed.”

“What kind of tests?”

“It is only for the people within any clan to know.” As much as she had reluctantly shared of her own experience, she did not have the right to share these kind of things with outsiders.

Clarke nodded reluctantly, letting it go. She settled back against her own side of the tunnel to mirror Lexa’s position. “You said leaders for a clan but you didn’t say Commanders. How many Commanders are there? Or are you the only one?”

“I am not the only Commander. The Capital has training for those sent by clans in hope of their  selection.”

Clarke frowned. “Selection doesn’t sound like Chosen.”

“It is not the same.” As far as she knew, no other clan held a history like the one of her birth.

“Is there only one Chosen one?”

“Yes.”

Clarke’s expression glinted in the firelight, filled with a sad understanding, and she hesitated a moment before asking softly, “Is it lonely?”

She was not expecting that question, and it made her heart ache sharply and her throat burn in reaction. How could she know? How did Clarke slip so quickly beyond her carefully monitored words and into her real life?

Too observant.

She stared into the flickering flames for a long moment before she swallowed thickly and whispered. “Yes.”

Why do I feel vulnerable?

Fixating upon the fire was no longer enough. She needed a real distraction, and got to her feet to reach for clumps of the drier dead growth dangling from the log she had leaned against in feigned sleep. She gathered several handfuls of the moss, setting them in a pile, before picking up a branch from the ground and settling close to the fire for its light. Retrieving her knife from the belt at her hips, she stripped the branch of its excess down to its center limb but kept the pitchy resin covering the broken ends.

Out of her periphery, she saw Clarke continue to watch her with uncertainty as she worked, but she did not speak to her. If it had been anyone else, she was sure she would have reacted with disdain and ignored them or would have fought them for delving into her personal life. Though to her surprise, Clarke’s observations did not strike her as a threat and she did not feel driven to respond offensively. Instead, she felt defensive, a tight coil of anxiety curling inward and she reacted with a short spike of anger at herself for feeling anything so fragile. Yet, she was still waiting and hoping for Clarke to understand and continue with her questions, the very opposite of what she should want.

She held her body still in the semi-darkness but continued to unnecessarily strip another layer of soft bark from the branch in silence.

Why am I so patient with her?

Weariness settled deep inside her as she recalled they were still away from the safety of camp and stopped herself from further contemplation; that thought needed to remain unexplored for now. “You should get some sleep.” She sent the words into the heat of the flames crackling between them with her head bowed.

“I’ll try.” She kept her eyes on her hands as Clarke sighed and chose to lay down closer the fire, curled toward its warmth. Glancing up after a few moments, she saw that Clarke had finally closed her eyes, but held tension in her shoulders and looked unnatural laying there, pretending to fall asleep.

Lexa was free from her gaze at least and let out a silent breath of relief.

Clarke did not just want to her to share information about being Chosen or the world before Fallout, she wanted her to talk about herself. Clarke wanted to know the person underneath the mantle of her command; she wanted to know about the woman she had given up dreaming about being after Kostia’s murder.

Her knuckles went white around the branch in her hands as she stared down at them.

There is no place for that woman under the mantle of one Chosen.

The visions taught her this. She had never shared that, not with anyone, yet she longed for understanding as she listened to the uneven breathing coming from the woman across the fire as she feigned sleep.

Clarke presented her with an enigma, and despite her earlier resistance, she could not curb the urge to prod at it mentally. Admitting to herself that she was drawn to her in an unexplainable way, even more than the kinship she felt with her while she watched Clarke deal with the death of a lover, or having the burden of leadership chosen for her. She automatically placed herself in harm’s way to protect Clarke before, using the importance of the Alliance as a cover, but she still had every logical reason to avoid the woman on a personal level. She despised so many things about the Sky People’s unnatural way of living, and Clarke was not even the official leader of the Sky People and did not legitimately deserve the amount of respect and focus Lexa found herself spending on her. No matter what she intended to do, she went out of her way to be there for Clarke and she could come up with no real reason why.

What would Clarke think if she knew she had no real choices?

She stared into the fire as her mind tripped over the hidden truths of the Commander Spirit and what having it does to the Chosen. Not having thought of them as separate from herself in a long time because it was a way of life to her, she recognized them now the way a warrior learned to wield their weapon, seeing and feeling these parts within herself was an experience of simply knowing.

She considered the poisoned drink offered to her recently as an example of how accustomed to taking life-threatening hazards in stride she is now. Suddenly, she recognized the full peril that situation presented to her then, it was not the risk of bodily harm so much as it was an obvious threat of exposure for her secrets.

Gustus .

She choked on the hurt suddenly clogging her throat at the memory of his actions before swallowing it down and chiding herself for feeling anything so foolish. Shifting her body against the wall, she tried to focus on the facts instead of the emotions and considered the event from all the angles.

Only days ago, she had been compelled to kill one of her most trusted advisors, Gustus. His betrayal of the Alliance had been a betrayal of her as well. She grimaced at the irony of the situation, now knowing that the poison would not have harmed her, but she had still needed to kill him for the attempt.  He had used a poison she was immune to due to previous Commanders’ paths, following the Compulsion to test any known poison against their skin. They had eventually consumed or injected the poisons into their bodies until they had become resistant if not completely immune. Now, she carried that same near invulnerability in her own body.

Yet, she would have still needed to maintain the idea in front of her people that she was vulnerable to the poison if she had drank from the cup, faking at least a sudden illness. As most Commanders had also done, she now knew to have another person first taste any questionable food or drink and if anyone became sick or died, Compulsion would push at her to resolve the matter permanently.

Her shoulders slumped in defeat, remembering how she had only wanted to fight the urge to give into the pressure of Compulsion once she identified the responsible party. She had known the person who handled the poison needed to die, but felt a wave of grief, knowing now there was never a chance to save him from himself.

It was a cultivated lesson, she recalled, that had led to her first brush with poison. She had been sick for two weeks from testing seven newly discovered toxins and Compulsion had pushed at her to increase the exposure until her body adjusted. During those trials, she discovered it was indeed worth the misery to protect herself when she had later been dosed with one of the new poisons during her campaign to unite the Twelve Tribes. An untempered Chosen one, still young in personal experience, she had not felt the full brunt of Compulsion yet for herself and had also ignored the lesson of previous Commanders to have another person taste things before she did.

She remembered the pain as she had crawled upon her knees out of the hut after the treachery and hidden herself under the cover of low bushes in the darkness for hours while her body writhed in pain, too weak to move or get away from the stench of vomit pooled under her head, until she had finally recovered. Afterward, the Compulsion had not discriminated with the force of its retribution and spared no mercy for its targets; she welcomed its brutality then with bared teeth as the three people responsible were razed from slumber with her blade. She had severed their vocal cords and watched them choke upon their own blood in their beds. The error in judgment was never repeated again nor did she ever question the power of Compulsion after that.

Throughout the visions in her experience, she had seen many trusted and loyal warriors die tasting poisons, despite the Chosen knowing of their presence. As it was with her, they had not been granted the luxury of warning them outright.

The memories of Commanders who had given away their secrets they confirmed that they had all met bad endings which were not even limited to their own deaths. A betrayed Commander reigned death down after they died with the new Chosen one as their weapon. They received the awakening of Compulsion in full force and it had driven them to kill the people who betrayed the last Commander. If only those misguided compassionate few had kept their peace and allowed one warrior's death, then the many that followed would have been unnecessary. The importance of keeping these secrets was always part of the first visions received. The Commander Spirit never forgot betrayal and agitated secrets were always silenced.

However, Lexa knew her resistance to poison was not the only secret of the Commander Spirit that was enforced with Compulsion to keep hidden.

She shifted on the ground and rotated her shoulder to gage the level of pain she now felt and found that her shoulder ached far less than it did just a few hours ago. Remembering Clarke’s concern for her earlier, she chanced a glance over to her companion to catch a few hints of gold glint in the firelight. Even dulled by mud and dirt, her hair still shimmered in the dark of the tunnel as though licked by flames. She turned away from the woman who was so much more than she seemed and continued her quiet reflection.

Her body was mending itself quickly and she would not need anyone to check her injury. She was certain it would be better enough by morning to ignore completely until it eventually healed. It was easier to not mention these kinds of injuries, even to those closest to her, since she healed faster than what other people did and this, too, would raise questions.

She pulled up her mud-caked sleeves and looked over her arms absentmindedly, to see that every one of her cuts were already partially closed and healing. By the time she would get the chance to do so, she thoroughly expected to wash the dried mud and blood from her body and find pink lines of new skin across the shallow cuts and abrasions she had received from falling against the concrete in the Pauna’s lair.

For a normal person, she estimated it would take half a moon to heal from these kinds of wounds, but for her it would only take days to do so. As a result, she had developed the habit of protecting her face more than other areas of her body because of how difficult it was to hide rapidly healing injuries from plain sight.

She stretched out her legs out in front of her and rolled her neck as she took an inventory of the rest of her body. The reduction of pain so soon after such a severe injury allowed her to estimate she would be entirely healed in just a couple of days, and she would be ready for the challenges her body normally took in stride. She was so much stronger and faster than most of her people and was usually able to withstand punishment that would cripple the hardiest of her warriors.

Strength and speed.

The marked difference in her physical abilities after receiving the Commander Spirit was something which had startled her the most in the very beginning while training with her warriors, making her both excited and wary. There were times at the outset when she had needed to forgo the joy of unleashing such speed, or letting her strength go unchecked, and let her warriors win to maintain a sense of the normalcy. The key to keeping her strength secret was so closely tied to another one.

The ability to fight faster and with more power meant little without the understanding of the reason why she could. She was forced to downplay not only the physical differences but also the effects of knowing far more than she should. The memories of things learned by other Chosen Commanders gave her the chance to learn from both mistakes and successes in battle, both with tactics and strategy. All she had to do was practice a skill learned in a vision to gain tangible understanding if not mastery. The heightened abilities of the Commanders were not known among all the tribes, but a carefully guarded version of the truth was held by the elders of the clan of her birth. But in the end, no one really understood its real cause or purpose unless they were Chosen.

It was the wealth of understanding accessible to her, whenever she needed it, that she considered the most powerful weapon acquired from the Commander Spirit. By directing her thoughts, by seeking out the answer to many problems she faced, she could access the combined knowledge of all the Chosen Commanders who had come before her. Whether they had achieved a goal or even failed wretchedly, the experience was now hers to do with as she pleased, and she often did this while fighting with new weapons of which she had no personal knowledge.

At other times, it helped her “learn” a new language almost immediately as with the arbitration of rights for the Twelve Tribes between her clans and foreign Peoples. There had been no reason not to use that benefit of the combined knowledge to its full extent then, leaving her free to accomplish what seemed impossible to the rest of her people when she had united the Twelve Tribes by understanding the motivations of each group “intuitively”.

She gazed back down at her hands in the firelight, flexing to find a few tiny cuts along her knuckles had already scabbed over, her blood absorbed by the flaking mud on her skin.

Blood.

Blood was at the core of the beliefs of the people she served, though her understanding of its importance differed from theirs. All the same, the siren call of it, the need for restitution if it was spilled without honor or justice, sat heavily upon her.

She glanced across the flames again to find that Clarke’s body was now still, her breathing more even. Her eyes fell back to the streaky dried river mud crumbling upon her hands and rubbed at the grit.

The answer to all of it lay in the blood hidden underneath her skin. A Commander was not Chosen through hereditary transfer as Clarke had assumed, but through the gifting of the Chosen one’s blood to another person. All of this was possible because it was contained in her blood, even if she did not know herself entirely how it worked.

It was a tradition that every Chosen Commander kept, the act of gifting a small amount of blood to each new child born within the clan. A ritual of welcome performed by cutting themselves, usually upon the forearm, and then making a small cut on the infant’s own body as they bestowed the Commander’s blood like a blessing. She knew of a few other Commanders from Polis who had also done this in the past, but none were ever Chosen from their efforts as she had been. This, in part, convinced her that there were no others like her.

My blood.

The blood in her body was the way in which her Commander’s Spirit would know to find the next in line, and it allowed her to sense those children. The connections were inconstant and usually only noticeable during situations when they felt high levels of stress or pain, but nevertheless, she could feel them in the back of her mind and it gave her a sense of their health and location.

The first time she had realized how strong the connection could be was when a child carrying her blood gift had fallen into a fire pit and she had felt the girl’s pain blaze through her. Shocked, but certain she could find her, Lexa had searched for and rescued the child herself. Afterward, she had stood in front of the girl’s terrified parents, fighting the need for her own body to tremble in reaction, and lectured them for a full hour before leaving.

After the Alliance formed, she had expanded the practice to bless any child born in the Twelve Tribes if she was able to visit there when the children were presented to all. No Commander before her had ever united the tribes, and so no Commander had ever blessed those outside their own clan. She saw the sharing of the ritual as a way to garner favor among all her people, yet also secretly believed that she was returning to them something missing, an opportunity to have a Chosen one come from a different clan than the one in which she was born. It felt...right.

These thoughts of the children made her reach out, in that strange way she had never been able to describe, a sudden need to connect with them and find where their presences registered to find every single one of them. They all felt unique within herself if she concentrated hard enough to notice their nuances. Now, there were only eighteen strong signatures from the Alliance close to TonDC, while the other faint signals spread out across their native lands, as well as the clan of her birth and the Tree Clan where she had served as Second under Anya.

Their combined presence was sweet and warmed her for a moment along with the crackling fire with a promise of the future. She could almost convince herself that she was not entirely isolated with their existence because she could reach out to them, but there were consequences of being aware of them. Over the past two years, the first children she had gifted with her blood joined the ranks of their clan warriors and that was when she had learned she needed to be able to tune out their presences.

The first time she had experienced the feeling of one of them dying, she vomited in front of her war council. Being connected to these children while they died in agony was something almost unspeakable, and Lexa suspected it was a main reason Commanders before her had gone mad.

She blinked slowly, releasing the connection to the others and returning to herself. She shifted the toe of her boot to prod the embers of the fire, now glowing a deep red, and looked at Clarke for a long moment.

She suspected Clarke was still not asleep though she seemed more relaxed and the frown lines had mostly smoothed from her face since she encouraged her to rest.

Before becoming lost in thought again, Lexa had finished stripping the branch down to its center for a rough torch already and now reached for the dried materials she had collected and quietly wound them into a matted mass around one end of the branch.   

What would Clarke think if she knew that being a Commander meant you most likely would go mad?

She stared down at her handiwork, rough wood digging into her palms as she realized there was no other way to see it.

Madness eventually killed almost every one of them because Chosen Commanders did not die of natural causes. That knowledge had made most of them reckless and they had died because they failed themselves with carelessness in battle more often than when death came by betrayal. There was literally no memory in any vision available to her that showed a Chosen one aging past a smattering of gray hair and a touch of crow’s feet at the corners of their eyes.

This kind of inevitable ending was out of step with all people and something she had not fully understood the implications of when she had been with Kostia.

Her jaw clenched, and one hand fell to her hip to grip the handle of her knife.

She did not remember the exact moment she had started to seek out the minute changes of time showing on the face of the woman she loved and only realized, much later, that their relationship had always been meant to play out in tragedy. She could have never shared everything she was, that she would be, with Kostia regardless of the love that had existed between them.

Kostia had not known to look for or notice the lack of minute changes in her, the way her features never matured beyond her brilliant peak of physicality, and later she had been grateful for that fact. Kostia had noticed nothing unusual about her before being taken or awareness of her differences as a Chosen one that could have been stolen from her while she had been tortured to death.

Her hand trembled as she carefully placed her knife carefully down on the ground beside her.

A Chosen Commander who lived long enough to be noticed this way had usually resolved it by planning their own death rather than risking discovery. The only other real option was to simply delay the end by taking up the Mask. If they refused to pursue death directly, it was only because they preferred to die by someone else’s hands, and once they put on the Mask, they never removed it again. A mad selfishness then overtook them, causing all diplomatic efforts to cease, and they acted out in bizarre ways until people adopted distrust of the covered face. Though now considered a way to show a warrior’s fierceness in battle, the Commander Spirit visions had given Lexa tangible examples of why people had come to fear masks in other lifetimes. A masked Chosen could sometimes last another year while wearing it, their end inevitably messy while they spiraled toward their own demise wound up causing madness and death to those around them.

How long do I have left?

She turned the finished torch over in her hands, studying it, before she tilted her head up to check on the woman across the fire, letting her gaze linger.

Clarke’s head rested upon her cupped hands, and she was still except for the slight twitching of her eyelids as she continued to fake sleeping.

Lexa pulled her eyes away to stare back down at the finished torch as she settled it upon her folded legs.

What would Clarke think of me if she knew how bitterly ironic and fleeting it was to be Chosen?

She her lips thinned as she contemplated the odd reality that her real age did not match her body now. It had taken four years to unite the Twelve Tribes, and that had begun in her seventh year as Commander. The union of Tribes was now three years old, a fact of which Clarke was unaware and of which she had no intention of telling her.

Her eyes flicked up again to look at the intelligent woman across the fire from her. Clarke was far too quick at putting things together to not realize she was much older than she looked, that she was not aging at the same rate as other people and that she was only doing so after her body had hit its prime. For years, she had remained seemingly unchanged physically but for the light scarring from past injuries on her skin and the affectations of tattoos she needed to have re-inked every other year as her skin fought against retaining the pigments and eventually flushed the foreign color from her body.

Anyone who thought to look closely would observe far more experience and wisdom held in her eyes than her body should have been able to sustain; a contradiction best hidden behind stoicism, a blank expression.

She stretched out her arm and placed the bulbous end of the torch into the fire, the low flames sparking brightly against the dry moss and crackling to back life.

What life could I have with anyone at all?

She wanted to scoff at her own foolish question because the answer was clear to her and the verdict, dismal.

A gust of wind breathed down the tunnel stirring up the ashes as the fire took to the branch and blazed. She rose to step carefully toward the center of the tunnel, bending low to inspect the area where the small stream of water disappeared into the ground. The dirt around the opening was soft enough she could shove the butt end of the branch into it, and after doing so, dropped to her knees and began moving debris from the hole to expand the opening.

She felt the light wind pick up again as Clarke came up behind her. “What are you looking at?”

“Where the water flows.” She could not explain her precise reasoning, that her sudden interest in exploring their surroundings was due to her desire to stop thinking about every reason she could not have anything with anyone, let alone Clarke.

She felt warmth stir the air around her as Clarke knelt next to her and started to help her dig into the damp earth.

Lexa tried to ignore her, but their hands brushed occasionally as Clarke seemed to find ways to shift close enough for them to touch repeatedly.

They continued to work side by side and once the hole was cleared they both looked down into the darkness below, seeing nothing but hearing the hollow sound of water splashing down.

Lexa grabbed the branch, already burning low, and moved it down to light the mouth of the entrance. It was round and by her estimation, shy of four feet in diameter with two broken rusted metal gratings meeting in the center, riddled with holes seemingly meant for water to fall through.

Lexa caught hold of one side of the grating and pulled from the uninjured side of her body. Suddenly, it gave way, and she fell back with the section of jagged metal clutched in her hands as she landed in an undignified position on her backside.

Clarke reached out to her and pried the grating gently from her clenched fingers, tossing it to the side. Chagrined, Lexa carefully pushed off the ground with her good arm to gain her feet, but Clarke never said a word about the ungraceful landing.

With half the grating gone, Lexa put the torch into the opening and saw the glint of water and the drop to the bottom of an underground riverbed was only about four to six feet.

Clarke crowded in next to her to peer down into the space below and then glanced at the open space all around them. “I think this tunnel used to be a bridge over this stream once.”

Lexa hummed in acknowledgement but did not give the comment much consideration. “Perhaps.”

Clarke looked at her askance but Lexa ignored her and stepped around the hole to the other side before crouching down to work the rest of the grating loose, dropping it to the ground a few feet away.

Wordlessly, Lexa walked back to the fire with the torch, forcing Clarke to move with her if she wanted to see where she was going.

This act of distancing was isolating, but needed if she wanted to avoid making the same mistake she had with Kostia. That name still filled her with regret and brought unbidden the oldest memory she had. She prodded the flaming end of the torch into the dying embers of the fire and stirred up the ashes as she recalled the last vision witnessed when she had first received them. It was the only thing that had ever helped her get beyond the hurt of losing Kostia and temper her sadness.

The first Commander rushed toward a woman carrying a metal box and then handed it to her as the woman’s features twisted in anguish. The Commander felt a great sense of loss after she completed her task. She watched the woman cry and carry the box away at a run toward a waiting sky ship.

Lexa watched through the recalled memory as the ship left the earth’s atmosphere and felt tears spilling over skin she knew was not her own, but she still ached with grief from the emotional residue the vision left behind.

She imagined trying to explain the depth of those borrowed feelings to Clarke, but knew she would not attempt such a thing. It could only be likened to the pain she had felt when she lost Kostia, but even that comparison fell short. Experiencing the metal case leaving the Commander’s hands and being given to the woman who left seemed unspeakably profound. Something about that case had been more important than the shared love and pain two people could ever have between them.

Lexa had taken that memory and made use of it when Kostia was taken from her; knowing there were even greater losses a person could live through had helped her survive. The Commander Spirit had given her the strength to let go of her own weakness.

She stared into the fire as she sighed out a cleansing breath and forced those feelings back where she kept them locked away.

This was not Clarke’s fault.

Lexa did not want her personal pain to cloud their tenuous connection or cause division within the Alliance. It would fail if she and Clarke did not trust one another as leaders, and even she could admit that life was too lonely without at least sharing simple things with someone else.

Lexa paused for a long moment to consider if there was anything about herself she could actually share with Clarke, even if it was insignificant. She lifted her eyes from the fire and looked hesitantly over at the woman standing behind her.

“Being Chosen gives me the chance to avoid the same mistakes of the Commanders before me.”

Clearly startled from her own thoughts at the sudden sound of Lexa’s voice, Clarke jerked her head up and scanned her features.

Lexa turned and stepped forward into the path of moonlight, closing the space between them and watching as Clarke reacted to her sudden closeness.

Clarke studied her face a long moment, then her breath hitched, and she leaned forward, searching Lexa’s face. “Mistakes or…If you can see the memories of the Commanders before you-?” Her eyes widened. “Are you saying you have the knowledge of every Commander ever born? Can you use their battle experience? Did any of the Commanders before you make it into Mount Weather?”

Lexa inhaled sharply through her nose at the onslaught, both impressed and unsettled with the direct line of reasoning Clarke showed with her questions, but torn between the looming sense of potential betrayal waiting for her if anyone understood the power she had just willingly handed to Clarke. But to her surprise, the feeling was a twisted relief at having someone begin to understand, even if she could not provide all the answers. “No, none of them were ever in Mount Weather.”

Clarke’s eyes flashed with disappointment.

The warm feeling of connecting to her dropped away instantly and an unexpected anxiety washed over her. This was a mistake. No matter how much she wanted to lay out the burden of knowledge on another, she should not have encouraged delving into the subject of the Commander Spirit, for fear of how she could be forced to silence anyone who knew too much.

Lexa needed to redirect Clarke and divert her attention to the safer topic of the plan of attack against Mount Weather. “Clarke-”

Suddenly, there was a sound of heavy foliage shifting and cracking just outside of their tunnel entrance. Silenced, Lexa turned to take in the entrance and Clarke spun with her.

“ROOAAWWW!” The piercing rumble ricocheted down the tunnel, ringing off the walls and through their ears.

The Pauna’s head and shoulders rammed against the tunnel entrance repeatedly. The reverberations shook the ground around them and dirt and brittle concrete flew through the air with every strike. A head and one shoulder shunted past the opening.

Lexa felt a cold spike of fear strike her spine and her hand shot out and seized Clarke by the arm. She wrenched her body around, without letting go of Clarke, and they were suddenly in a flat out run toward the other end of the tunnel.

Concrete split and crashed to the ground behind them and the sound of heavy pounding feet thudded through the tunnel as the beast smashed into crumbling walls.

A gust of wind whipped past her and she took a half second to look over her shoulder. The opening was enlarged and air raced toward her in a cloud of debris billowing behind the massive silhouette of the Pauna, rapidly shuffling right at them despite its head brushing the top of the tunnel though it was bent down to run on all fours.

Her head jerked around and she shot ahead.

Her vision narrowed on the center of the tunnel and its hole.

Faster!

The acrid scent of Pauna filled the air and hit her nostrils.

They would not make it to the end of the tunnel. The void loomed ahead.

Lexa threw her body low into a falling runner’s slide, not letting go of Clarke, causing her to rotate past.

Lexa planted her feet against the ground for a moment to angle her body backward in a controlled fall, then she gave in to Clarke’s momentum and dropped them both into a horizontal glide forward.

The trajectory and momentum sent them toward the dark entrance of the hole.

Clarke’s feet and legs cleared the opening and she began to fall, breaking her hold on Clarke’s arm, and causing the woman’s hands to flail as they scrambled to keep contact with her body.

Clarke cried out in surprise as her stomach and chest scraped the edge of the broken grate while she fell through. “Lexa!”

Lexa felt the desperate grabs at her lower body as Clarke caught her leg and the added weight finished dragging Lexa over the entrance of the hole. As she dropped her feet down into it, she heard Clarke land in water and flail around to regain her footing.

Lexa’s body twisted to the right, her hand landing on the sharp edge of broken grate lying next to the hole and hooked her fingers around the metal, pulling the rusty panel to her chest. She twisted onto her side and came face to face with the enraged beast as her her hips began to slip down into the hole.

A massive paw caught her injured shoulder and she cried out in pain. The massive black dust covered face gaped open at the mouth to show incisors over an inch long.

“RRROOAARRRR!”

The sound struck her face, lifting loose strands of hair to vibrate away from her skin and spittle hit her cheeks as her ears rang with the sound, and then the Pauna began to lift her out of the opening.

In desperation, she braced her legs and hooked her feet under the metal rim.

“Pull!” Lexa screamed, as she brought the broken ends of the grate perpendicular between the beast’s body and her own. She could only watch as the second gigantic paw raised back to disconnect her body from her head. “Clarke!”

Sloshing upward, Clarke lept up against her body to grasp at her waist and clasped her knees around her ankles.

The pressure against Lexa’s body jerked her down sharply, and the Pauna tipped forward with the motion.

Lexa’s upper body finally began to fall through the hole and her arms jerked as the grating lodged on the broken pieces of rim around the opening. The Pauna’s body tilted toward her, refusing to let go of its prize, and followed her down.

She saw her last opportunity to end this and angled the metal ends to face upward.

The Pauna lost its balance completely and fell upon the jagged metal, piercing its chest and its own weight forced the broken points through its lungs, suddenly cutting the beast’s next enraged scream short. Its paw sprang away, letting go of her.

Lexa dropped through the hole, catching her chin against sharp edges, and she landed heavily on top of Clarke.

They scrambled in the darkness to right themselves as frigid water swirled around their calves and listened to the sounds of the suffering beast above them.

The Pauna reared back on its legs and struggled to rid itself of the metal embedded in its chest with low growling sounds gurgling wetly. Suddenly, the noises ceased as it slumped forward and crashed over the opening.

Complete darkness saturated their world. Hearts pounding, they slumped over in a heap, clinging and panting against one another.

Slowly, Lexa slid her body to the side of Clarke but never let go. All she could feel was the freezing water and Clarke’s panting body underneath her. She felt weakness crash over her as the adrenaline rush began to fade. Her head felt heavy and bobbed down, brushing her bleeding chin to Clarke’s chest. There was still no sound coming from above. She took a deep breath and let her head fall to rest against Clarke, still gripping her tightly. It took several moments before she realized her face was touching warm wet skin.

Clarke suddenly jerked up out of the water and let go of her.

Lexa could feel her hands flailing against her sides and Lexa quickly lifted her head in the dark, not able to see anything at all. “Clarke!”

A scream tore from Clarke’s mouth and reverberated in the darkness around them as the woman’s body went rigid.

“Clarke! Talk to me!” Cold water splashed and swirled around them both as Lexa shook her desperately.

Suddenly, the skin on Lexa’s chin burned with pain. The heat spread quickly through her blood and wrapped around the inside of her skull before scalding a path down her throat and chest. Choking and shaking, she lost her grip on Clarke and face-planted into the churning water against her side. Her arms no longer responded, Lexa lost herself in burning pain, and then she felt nothing at all. 

Chapter Text

267 A.F. (Activation: Day 01, Early Morning, Underground)

Lexa came to face down in water. Her lungs were full with a foreign weight.

I’m drowning!

Reflexively, her hands clawed at her throat and chest until she could pull in air. She reared back her head, then gagged and vomited up water.  

It took a moment to understand that she was not actually drowning.

I cannot see!

Darkness permeated everywhere she looked as she jerked her head around. The sound of water running could not cover her panicked breaths to her own ears.

Pulling herself up onto hands and knees, she reached hesitantly for boundaries to give her an understanding of the trapped, but open space all around her. Finally, she bumped something soft and out of place in the water.

Clarke!

Lexa nudged her, and there was no response.

She pressed more insistently until she rocked Clarke’s limp weight to the point of tipping over.

Clarke remained unresponsive.

She slid closer and rested her thigh against Clarke’s body, eyes closed, panting in air that did not seem to satisfy her lungs.Lexa fought the growing urge to panic as her body trembled and she felt light-headed and unreasonably hot in the cold wet darkness.

She opened her eyes. In this new position she detected a small weak beam of light coming from above and behind where she had woken in the water.

Relief and hope surged up her throat upon seeing it.

We need to get out of here!

Hands still unsteady, she traced up Clarke’s body, over her torso until she reached her throat.

Clarke’s skin felt as hot as her own did despite the water lapping against it, and Lexa’s muscles relaxed minutely at the certainty that Clarke lived. Her pulse was steady and strong.

She finally noticed Clarke’s chest raise and lower slowly, as though she were in a deep sleep.

Still light-headed, Lexa consciously fought to bring her own labored breathing down to a normal series of inhales while keeping a hand against Clarke’s shoulder, as much for reassurance as to keep her balance in the dark. She leaned forward onto the balls of her feet and pivoted until she faced the place she had found light moments ago and covered the sliver of light as it made its way dimly through the ceiling.

The tiny opening was far too small to fit her hand, let alone a whole body.

Her chest tightened with the fear of being trapped and she fought against the sensation by taking inventory of what she knew for certain about her circumstances and her own body.

They had been chased by the Pauna and had sought the only means close enough to escape in time. Down through the hole and into darkness they had fallen.

She recalled the pain of catching on the metal.

Reaching up, she touched her chin. A small soft ridge of flesh greeted the tips of her fingers.

Already healed?

She flexed and rotated her wounded arm carefully. The pain in her shoulder was gone, and slowly she dropped her arm back down to her side.

Surprised again, she continued with her internal investigation.

Her body felt whole, but she was tired, still light-headed, hungry, and strangely thirsty considering how much water she had just cleared from her body. It felt similar to a successfully fought battle in which she took no damage.

She lowered her face close to the surface of the water and smelled it to be sure that she could detect no foulness. After finding no taint, she cupped water and drank until her thirst was quenched, then scooted close to Clarke’s unconscious body.

The inability to see anything but the false glimmer toward freedom brought her awareness into sharp focus upon her body again. The sound of her own harsh breaths and water moving over rock did nothing to keep the sense of entrapment from building again.

Her head began to pound, and her breathing sped up. The light-headedness increased and her equilibrium tilted the tiny light source sideways.

Frantically her hand went back to Clarke’s body and she gripped fabric between her fingers.

An internal pressure grew inside her mind and slid down her throat.

No!

Panic triggered a reaction that a sound warrior was normally well past, and even as she recognized the fact that it was happening to her, there was a familiarity to it. She knew what was coming and it seemed that it had gone past the stopping point, so rather than continue fighting it, she gave in. Lexa had not experienced this slippery loss of control since she gained control of the Commander Spirit memories.

The world around her faded into darkness.

Lexa collapsed onto her back, panting hard again and it made the light-headedness worse.

A blurry slur of colors lit the void.

Recalling herself the the task of managing her fear, despite the fact she had no body to feel the symptoms with, she quit working against the anxiety of having little control, and accepted the shift to the place where visions of Commanders lived on in the great darkness before her.

A short tug pulled her toward a particular pattern of light and she was sucked down sharply into the visage.

She surged into awareness within a gasping, seizing body that was not her own.

The woman’s abdominal muscles clenched down against pain and pressure. Her chin tilted down to meet her chest and looked at a swollen stomach. A moment later, a spasm tore through her body with hard bands of pain over her belly. A ripping pain struck the insides and between her legs. The woman fought through another contraction and then her body bowed inward, her eyes searched and landed on a tiny body forcing its way from her own.

Hands reached between her legs to catch the emerging child as her body writhed and clenched down to finish.

The woman’s mouth opened and she fought to keep the muscles in her throat tight, but sound escaped in a sustained keen of pain between locked down teeth.

Lexa’s being filled with empathy, and she ached with her inability to share it with this woman who was probably long dead now. She had been in the bodies of women while they gave birth before, but this felt strangely more significant since she had not searched for this vision on purpose. Why did she need this knowledge now?

A hand squeezed the woman’s arm from the right of the bed, she heard his voice, low, and reassuring to her, but she could not stay focused on the sound.

The woman took a deep breath and pushed with everything on the next exhale and she felt her body give way.

She opened her eyes and looked down to see the hands lift her baby up. In moments, there was the sound her entire being craved.

Delirious relief swam through her while she panted. When it finally cleared, she turned her head to look at the man.

Lexa recognized him. She was looking into a younger version of her father’s eyes than she had ever seen before, and was seeing him for the first time in fourteen years.

His eyes were glistening as he looked back at her, then looked to his child again. The baby’s angry cry rang through the room, and her father let go of her mother’s arm and scooted down to the end of the bed to take the child into his arms.

The hands that caught the baby tied off the umbilical cord and a knife was handed to her father.

He looked back up at the woman on the bed. “Alexandria,” he whispered in awe, then he cut the cord.

Her reality blurred back into a kaleidoscope of colors as she retreated from them within the vast darkness. Lexa was stunned and hovered without direction on the brink, but then she was drawn to another set of lights and that meant another place and body to fill.

She braced against the pull with nothing but her will to stay, needing to give herself a moment longer to understand.

Never had she experienced a memory from anyone but the previous Commanders. While she did have experiences of births through borrowed bodies, this moment left her overwhelmed as she tried to process why she needed this vision and at this time.

She still had no answer to the puzzle her own birth presented.

An insistent tug yanked her presence toward the waiting lights.

Her will to resist weakened and she acquiesced to the demand then fell toward the mass of lights.

As she neared, they separated only a small amount, lining up deeply, one stacking haphazardly behind the next.

If she had lungs to breathe with or a body to resist, she would have braced for it because she had not seen such a configuration since her first experience, and it meant she was about to receive several consecutive visions very quickly. Thankfully, she was no longer terrified of the speed with which she would be moving.

She dropped down toward the first and rushed toward the body, but did not enter it as she had always done before, instead she found herself to be an unsettled tag-along with the body.

The vision in the new body zoomed all around her as she experienced it second hand in a disjointed fashion from the source of its origin. She did not get to experience the actions taken while having the awareness of the person’s usual senses and feelings and the entire vision zipped by too quickly to process.  

The pull to exit the body wrenched her being out and then she flew toward the next light.

Body to body, she connected with great speed, forming brief incomplete impressions of each one, barely able to concentrate upon anything other than a generalized understanding before she moved on again.

In between each vision, Lexa floated free for only a moment in darkness before she was pulled through emptiness and followed a different person’s life to an end.

The visions blended into one another in indistinct chaos but filled Lexa’s mind with overall impressions.

The same foods shoveled into disinterested mouths, over and over.

Always returning to windowless rooms and sitting in muted light, time after time.

Climbing up ladders to small brightly-lit places where plants grew the wrong way and without any dirt to anchor them.

Long enclosed twisting tunnels where tools she had never seen fixed things for purposes she did not understand, all while the body panted in cloying heat.

Claustrophobia.

Standing in lines to have needles enter arms.

Looking through glass windows leading to complete darkness as people were ripped from the room and shot into the darkness to die.

Sleeping bodies cut into as they lay on metal tables while pieces were removed or things placed inside them.

Nothing is sacred.

Clinging to metal rungs, and tied precariously to rounded walls with ropes to keep the body from floating away into endless darkness.

She did not have a word for it but knew that feeling to a certain extent from the place that held the Commander visions, only she had no body to lose, just the fear that she could disappear within it and the cease to be herself entirely.

The language spoken changed and finally, the visions slowed.

She sensed the end was close.

It was a familiar place though she was seeing it from a different angle. The oldest and final vision surged into being of a woman handing over her metal box. This time the body she was attached to was the one who cried, turned, and ran to a sky ship.

The pull to travel further stopped abruptly and she disengaged to float, there was nowhere left go within a colorful mess of slowly rotating visions suspended all around her. They were places she had just passed through and she was definitely not ready to explore any of them again now.

The last vision still felt more tangible than all the others had.

She had already experienced it from another vantage, inside the woman who handed her metal box away, she recalled the panic, sadness, and pain felt in doing so. In another life, lived by someone she knew from the inside out, that Commander had given over that metal box…that…briefcase to the woman who ran for the shuttle.

Shuttle?

She was accepting things learned without understanding already. It was an unconscious understanding, much like the language shifts she witnessed and processed without knowing how with her own Commander Spirit’s visions.

These are not mine.

This was all history from a different line of Commanders, and that should not be possible.

Only one Commander Spirit is awake at a time!

She knew it had always been this way, but this set of visions suggested that was not true.

Her thoughts spun with the strangeness of it all, not knowing what to do with this new knowledge, but for now, she was done and there was no need to stay in this place.

Lexa gathered her consciousness together tightly and focused upon her own body by sending out the mental signals to stimulate muscle movement.

Distantly, she felt her hand respond from tightening tendons in her wrist and until she formed a weak fist. With self-taught mental discipline, she bridged the final gap between her mind and form under the sense of short nails digging into her palm and dropped back into awareness with the feel of gravity against her body.

She reset the mental safeguards created to keep herself separate from memories that were not her own and broke the connection. All the deeper implications from where she had just traveled would have to wait.

Her eyes opened and the panic that had taken her away was completely gone, and again she took stock of her situation to discover that she herself was fine.

Her gaze landed on the woman next to her.

Clarke!

Lexa wanted out of this hole badly, too much had taken place, and there were no satisfactory answers available while she remained trapped in darkness. Yet, she would not leave Clarke.

Leaning over the prone woman at her side, she began to shake her awake.

~

Clarke felt something pushing insistently against her arm and side. Gradually, a muffled sound was making its way into her overworked mind. Her body felt heavy and unresponsive. A voice urged her to wake up, hovering right over her and the pushing against her body became hard shoving.

Suddenly, her entire body twitched like it startled awake, and then she was upright, crashing her forehead into Lexa’s face.

“Shit!” Pain throbbed from the unexpected contact but helped her wake up immediately. Clarke faced Lexa’s silhouetted figure and just over her shoulder, she could make out a dim ray of light casting her face into deep shadow.

Clarke looked around. The world was beginning to make sense as she took in the underground environment and the running ankle-deep water.

She was not alone. This, more than any other cues helped Clarke fight off the stress of dark otherness.

“Clarke.” Lexa lifted a hand and placed in on her shoulder, bringing her around to stare at the angular features she could barely make out.

“Clarke, you are safe. I am here with you.” Lexa reassured her, then Clarke felt the hand upon her shoulder slide down and touch her arm, thumb rubbing gently across a tear in the fabric of her clothing to reach skin.

The repetitious movement, meant to soothe, caused the opposite response. Tingles turned sharp as they crept down both her arms and up from the point of Lexa’s touch until it hit the back of her neck. A shiver shimmied down her spine and goosebumps sprang up everywhere, even across the back of her skull. She shuddered hard and shifted away from her.

Lexa quickly dropped her hands as if sensing something equally unsettling.

“What’s going on?” Clarke’s voice croaked and an edge of fear crept in at her body’s responses to Lexa’s touch. “You felt it too,” she accused.

“I do not know, Clarke.” Lexa stated solemnly, and dropped back onto her heels, while Clarke continued to stare at her. Lexa shifted her weight oddly from heel to toe, as though she wanted to bolt up and take off. Finally, she settled and sighed then spoke with the obvious discomfort of discussing the strange sensations between them. “Yes, I felt something, but not what it means. I do know that we need to get out of here, and for that, I will need your help.”

Clarke watched Lexa’s shadowed hands move to her belt and a moment later, a sliver of light glanced off the metal blade before Lexa turned away from her and positioned herself underneath the feeble luminance.

Without Lexa directly in front of her, she suddenly felt released from the growing unease and could take a personal inventory of her body. Her hands reached up and ran along her chest, where she knew she received deep tearing lacerations and encountered healed lines of raised flesh. There was no pain whatsoever.

What the hell?! How long have we been down here?

She could find no injury anywhere on her body. Scratches acquired at the feeding ground were gone, and her ankle no longer ached. What was increasingly apparent was a strong thirst and hunger as if she had not drunk or eaten anything all day.

“Lexa?” She turned back to her. “Can we drink the water?”

“Yes.”

Clarke bent and reached into the water bringing cupped handfuls to her mouth and guzzling it down as quickly as she could.

Finally finished, she looked over at Lexa to see she was standing under the light and pushing against the ceiling with little result but a slight shifting of a rigid mass and the light beam growing and dimming from the shifted weight.

“Is that the Pauna?” Lexa nodded, but kept her focus on the task of trying to shove the weight of the beast over. Finally, she stopped.

Clarke could see that the woman did not have enough leverage to move the body aside when she was standing directly underneath it.

Again, there was a flash of light glinting off metal, right before Lexa's arm stabbed upward and into the underside of the gorilla’s body with the blade.

She heard the sound of flesh giving way and an unpleasant suction noise accompanying the removal of the metal before reentry.

Lexa worked methodically, plunging her knife and pulling it out before planting it in different sections of flesh.

Clarke was not normally squeamish, but the unfortunate scent of feces wafted across the water to her as nausea hit her gut and tingled up her throat. This kind of gore was not something she had ever experienced on the Ark and she was not prepared for it.

Turning her head away from the opening did little good except to give herself nothing to look at while she worked to settle her queasy stomach. Many calm, slow breaths later, she thought she had it under control until she was assaulted by the sound of irregular splashing. Clarke registered fleshy chunks hitting the water, and shuddered in revulsion. Finally, angered by her own weakness, she stood up and made her way closer to Lexa’s sickening task.

“How can I help you, Lexa?” Clarke caught the motion of Lexa’s head turning, evaluating her.

Clarke squared her shoulders with a resolve to do whatever was asked of her.

Finally, Lexa carefully stretched out a gore covered fingers toward her to settle the cold slick handle of her knife into Clarke’s now more hesitant hand, but did not let go of the handle right away. “Have you butchered a kill of your own before, Clarke?”

Clarke tried not to look directly at the gaping hole of flesh. “No.” She swallowed as subtly as possible. “The guys-hunters-made a big deal out of preparing the animals they killed on their own.”

“At least they took that responsibility seriously.” Lexa spoke dryly, and removed her hand from the handle of the knife then stepped back a foot to give her room to use the blade.

Clarke registered the absence of Lexa’s touch against the palm of her hand immediately and felt the need to release a breath of tension she had not realized was building until now, so looked away for a moment then quietly exhaled before stepping into the vacated space.

“Do you need suggestions, Clarke?”

Turning her head back to regard her, Clarke could see that Lexa was not making fun of her lack of experience, but simply considering their situation objectively.

“I think I’ve got it.” She hoped the same principles of dissecting a cadaver applied. Her thoughts flashed to the single instance of hands on autopsy training she had received on the Ark, of her mother hovering over her shoulder and the cold press of dead flesh under her fingers. The memory increased her urge to be sick and she swallowed carefully.

Lexa accepted her word at face value and reached up with free hands then grabbed at a partially severed section to pull down.

“We didn’t have any animals on the Ark to kill and eat,” she said, to distract herself.

Lexa readjusted her grip before pulling. “What did you eat then?”

A tight coil of intestines suddenly gave way and spilled down toward Lexa, just missing her face.

She scrambled back at the same instant Lexa did, almost losing the water she just drank, and grimaced at her own squeamishness.           

Deep slow breaths! Damn it, you can’t be weak about this, it won’t change anything!

She observed, sickly, the intestines lift up and try to float away on the surface of the water with the current, but still managed to croak out, “We grew everything we needed.”

“And now that you know what it is like to eat an animal?” Lexa queried with curiosity lilting her voice.

She stared at the disgusting pile slushed by water at her feet and she nudged it on its way while trying to remember the taste of an animal that had nothing to do with what she was seeing, but came up blank. “Uhm...not bad?” That was the best she could manage at the moment. “Do Grounders eat Pauna?”

Lexa glanced at her briefly before she stepped back to the carcass. “I do not, but some Clans believe that wisdom is gained from eating their hearts or brains.” She glanced back at her.  “Do you want to try it, Clarke?”

Hell No!

“I think I’ll pass on that.” She stated roughly and felt the beginning of a headache coming on, which was an unwelcome addition to her already oversensitized system.

She took a step back and forced her mind to see past the gore and began picturing the gorilla like one of the transparent layered diagrams she had seen in a zoology book on the Ark. It helped her focus and then she stepped back into the potential line of falling body pieces.

Reaching around Lexa’s hands, she sank the knife into the expanding cavity of flesh Lexa created already and felt it rub against bone before the blade slid between them. Then she shoved upward with a twist to feel a corresponding bone close to the one the blade struck first.

The stench of feces...intestines…ribs.

Thankfully, the smell was lessening now that the most offending pieces had finally floated away. As she continued to work, she guessed at the length and curve of the bone and imagined seeing the gorilla like a three-dimensional diagram. It was a relatively short distance for an animal of this size, at least by her mental calculations, so it had to be one of the lower ribs.

Lexa's hands slipped past her sawing when she paused, reaching into the cavity created by the missing intestines. She grabbed at organs, pulling then yanking until something big gave way and landed with a splash. The beam of light increased in size with that removal.

Clarke glanced down to see a large dark mass tugged at by swirling water and determined it must have been the animal's liver.

Okay, lower body confirmed. With organs gone, we might be able to squeeze through it.

Her bile rose again.

Don’t think about that!

Clarke continued to make as many strategic cuts as she could in the patchy darkness while Lexa worked around her. With every pound of flesh hitting the water, the light above them widened and brightened.

They sank into an easy rhythm and increased their speed with the repetition until Lexa briefly tapped her arm with an elbow. “Stop.”

Clarke stared up at the opening. It was finally big enough for them to look through and she could see two sets of lower ribs, the front and the back of the gorilla’s abdomen and lower chest.

Lexa peeled back the hide, then grasped the shortest bone with both hands. Her hands wrapped around the bone and threw all of her weight against it with hard jerk down.

Crack! And the body above them rocked to the side with the motion only to resettle in place.

Still nauseated, the pain in her head escalated, but she tried to ignore it and crouched down to rinse off the knife in bloody water before pressing it back into Lexa's hands. “Let me help.”

Lexa quickly sheathed the knife and then they both reached up to wrap their hands around the exposed rib.

“On three?” Clarke asked.

Lexa nodded and they counted down.

On three, Clarke jumped up as high as she could to lend her full weight, then yanked down with Lexa’s weight bearing down at the same time.

Heavy bone splintered against the hard edge of the metal rim.

Clarke let go of the rib, stumbling back first, and Lexa tossed it away from them.

A short wave of dizziness hit as she stepped back in place.

Only three more to go.

The second rib was thicker and longer, requiring a second tug. It gave way suddenly, and they both landed on their backs in the water, hanging on to the broken rib.

Clarke let go and looked up into a section of pelvic bone, gore, and the upper ribs as light poured through the opening of the carcass in stark relief after operating in the dark for so long.

“This is surreal,” she muttered under her breath, though the stench had lessened and was no longer triggering the need to vomit, something else was definitely wrong.

Her head throbbed hard again and she squeezed her eyes shut against the sharpening sensation, then pressed her wrists to her temples to make it stop when it did not ease up. The pressure inside her head could no longer be ignored, now that it was constant stream of agonizing pain and pressure.

She released a strangled laugh and dropped her hands to her sides.

“Clarke?” Lexa called softly.

She could not focus on Lexa right now. This was just too much all of a sudden and she did not know why.

The sensation of painful pressure traveled from her head down to her chest, filling with it, then dropping to hit her gut.

Pain pushed outward from the very center of her muscles and bones, while her body seemed to act as an ineffectual container, trapping the building pain from escaping confinement that could not last.

She felt herself begin to pant in fear, and that made her angry. There was no controlling it, just as she had no control over anything else in her life.

No, nothing in my life is ever easy. I’m going to have to push and shove and take to stay alive no matter where I go and today...I get to cut my way out and crawl through death.

Feeling completely unhinged, she laughed again and turned to stare into Lexa’s eyes.

Whatever Lexa saw when she returned her gaze caused her to step closer and a hint of fearful concern for Clarke softened her angular features. “Clark, what is wrong?”

“Don’t know!” She managed in a hoarse rasp.

The pressure inside her expanded past her skull and turned into noise that rang deep in her ears and then outward past her head, and it continued to reverberate the full length of her body along her skin.

Her senses felt scrambled with the bombardment, and then the thrumming buzz ate away at the exterior world around her, and she felt her awareness slipping like her mind was trying to detach from her body.

“Claust-”, her throat closed over the word.

The feeling of being trapped, the buzzing sound, and her inability to handle it all exploded through her mind and body, all she could do was fixate upon what was directly in front of her, the carcass, to stay present.

Squeeze.

Her shallow panting sped up and her vision blurred.

Cold flesh.

Her vision righted, and she found herself staring on the pelvic bone with the dangling bits of internal tissue surrounding the beast’s frame swimming into focus. Two small pieces hung upon thin tubes.

With the recognition made, the noise bombarding her head resounded down her body to return and resonate with some internal and personal vibration, causing a certainty to surge into her consciousness.

Everything is…

She started to turn her head and her vision blurred again, so she stilled the movement with the ovaries in front of her.

She quit laughing.

“Connected.” She mumbled. It made no logical sense, but she knew her life was mirrored somehow in this place, situation, and within this moment.

The resonating buzz came again in a wave and bounced hard against her skull, louder than it had before, and it made her knees wobble and she spread her arms wide, fighting to keep her balance. She wanted to vomit again but now it was for the lack of equilibrium.

On the next wave, the sound altered to modulate roughly like voices and turned the maelstrom of noise within her head into a muted roar.

Cyclic vibration bombarded her inner ears, as though she was in a room filled with too many people talking all at once, though nothing they said could be understood through the din of their combined chatter.

Out of the corner of her eye, she caught Lexa reaching her hand out to her and held up her own to stop the anticipated touch. She did not think she could handle anything else added to what she already had going on with her body. “Do you hear it?” she asked urgently, wanting to know if she had honestly lost it or not.

Lexa looked startled for a moment, then tilted her chin to the side and regarded her with an expression Clarke recognized as a person who was indeed dealing with a someone who belonged in the psych ward. “I hear the sound of water at our feet, and I am watching you panic over-” Lexa made a point of looking around carefully before finishing, “nothing.”

She was on the verge of panic.

What the hell is wrong with me?

Concentrating on the sounds building inside her head, Clarke took several deep slow breaths and waited for this desperate effort to be enough so she could calm down and function like a normal human being, but it did not work.

The roar split into several distinct sounding voices in her ears and she lost contact with Lexa, with the water lapping at her ankles and the stink of Pauna guts in the air, with the world altogether. Even the sound of her own breathing disappeared, and she slipped away entirely.

She could see nothing, but felt as though the nothingness was everywhere.

She tried to let go, to release the scream accumulated by being in such a place of otherness, the deep black of this space, but she no longer had a mouth. There were no lungs to fill with air and no chest to squeeze against them to release her need to scream.

Nothing more happened for several long moments. With no change in her circumstances, she gradually calmed.

Where am I?

No immediate answer came from her asking this question, but simply thinking it, and voicing it within her mind, allowed her the opportunity of realization that the essential part of who she was remained intact.

Light abruptly sprang into being as pinpricks of distinct points of color and smears of dim colored lights tangled throughout the void.

She was drawn to them and felt a sense of motion, as they gradually grew vibrant in patterns of intensity until one shape grew close and then became a voice. With the transformation of patterned color changing into to sound, the other luminosities fell away, or maybe she simply fell into the space that had become a series of obscured auditory words.

The cadence and tone was familiar.

Grandmother?

It was her father’s mother. The woman who had died when Clarke was six years old, and she never thought she would hear this voice again. Her fear dropped off and she found herself curious to hear the words now.

Like someone changing the channel on a radio and finding the exact frequency to hear clearly, Clarke felt her sense of self pick up and focus upon the sound of that voice in the darkness.

“You are wrong in your assumptions, if you gave the matter further thought, you would see the path for women has always been different as a species.  A false path was set through the course of storytelling.”

Clarke felt an awkward sensation of her mouth moving without her direction, making the words she was hearing but had not meant to speak.

She grimaced in distaste as a derisive male voice responded, “I suppose you will give me an example then Ruth. I can see you intend to share your point of view regardless of the topic change.”

Light burst into existence and the black of the space around her disappeared to be replaced a face that must belong to that male voice she just heard.

She struggled to take in everything but soon discovered that she had no control over turning her head, not even her eyes, so continued to look right into the sneering, long male face.

Righteous indignation built in her chest.

‘That is so wrong!’ Clarke did not even know what was going on, how could she suddenly develop indignation?

Her mouth opened and her grandmother’s voice left it.

“John, I would not bring up something that has no value. You still have much to learn and need to do so for the sake of everyone on this station. If we expect you to lead well, you need to know the mistakes of those you replaced. Alexander did not see the lessons of his predecessors, and where ever did he-“

Her head was turning left and right, looking for the errant Alexander, then she was meeting John’s eyes again.

“Ah yes, he took a brief and permanent trip outside.” Her grandmother’s voice dropped and slowed to a harsh whisper.

Full realization truly began to set in then. None of those words spoken came from her. Somehow, she was inside of her long-dead grandmother’s body, though she was not sure why or how it happened, but that was the only conclusion that made sense to her.

“Why do you think he found his way to that end, John?” John’s expression grew stoic, but underneath that, was fear.

Ruth’s words and the way she acted did not seem like the same woman who had come to read Clarke bedtime stories before going to sleep at night. ‘Just who the hell was her grandmother anyway?’

John’s jaw clenched, “If you have something to say-some story that will teach me the lesson-then just share it already.”

Her grandmother’s voice responded, “I could tell you any story of old and it would lead to the same place, with the same people making the same mistakes. If you want a few examples, try the stories of Pandora and Eve.”

John snorted, “Mythology and the outdated Book of Books? Really, Ruth?”

Ruth settled back into her chair, one hand cupping the armrest while the fingers of her other hand smoothed over her nails absent-mindedly.

“Yes John, and I need you to listen carefully beyond the morals of men and hear mankind’s lessons. The voice of reason is hiding amid the masses you think you have power over, but you don’t. When they finally refuse to be ignored any longer, you will see that they were the ones who endured. They will be the real victors. The stories shared always conclude before they finish because the ones telling them are afraid of the ending. Not a single one of them was a woman.”

John frowned at that. “Early cultures placed men as the victors more often than-”

“Of course John, of course, you are seeing the part of the problem.” John’s frown turned sour.

She was mocking him.

“Ruth, if we are using Pandora and Eve as an example, they both lost in the end.”

She was unruffled by his statement. “Did they really lose the long game?”

His expression became guarded. “What exactly are you implying?”

Ruth leaned back and crossed her legs, then made a point of examining her nails before coolly looked up into John’s eyes. “Everything we’ve worked for, all of alteration required to grow and change is coming from the source of the members in society that have been disregarded as weak since mankind became civilized.”

John shifted uncomfortably in his chair at where Ruth seemed to be going with this.

“None of the adaptive measures taken by men, and for men alone as the victors they made themselves out to be, have ever worked without the women they disregarded to free them from their own brand of slavery.”

“Are we still discussing Pandora and Eve, or are we talking about genetics now?”  His tone was wary.

“The issue of genetics is the byproduct, not the causality. You cannot lead people who are so disillusioned by lies or betrayals of the past that they never see a future free from them. You cannot expect those same people to understand real sacrifice.”

“Seriously Ruth, are you really going to bring up-“

“No John, you already know the ending to that story because we’re living it.” She deliberated for a moment, “John, they still haven’t learned. You haven’t either and it’s going to be the death of you.”

For a moment, Clarke felt a tenuous connection to her body interrupt this reality because she vaguely felt a sudden pain in her jaw. Startled at the jarring sensation, her being began to separate from her grandmother’s body and she could no longer see through Ruth’s eyes. Darkness filled her vision, now interspersed with chaotic swirling colored patterns infinitely closer to her than before she had sunk into the body of her grandmother. She watched the luminescence she had just inhabited become a simple beam of fading light trailing between her consciousness and that of Ruth's capsulized essence.

Frantically, she clung to the connection, not knowing where she would wind up if she lost it completely. The movement away from her grandmother tilted but finally resettled and she was pulled in again, inside her grandmother’s body.

Ruth walked slowly down a corridor, approaching several men wearing somber expressions with eyes tearing and salty moisture dropping quickly down her cheeks.

The place and situation was different and Clarke could tell the tears rolling down her grandmother’s face meant nothing because her grandmother literally felt no sadness at all right now, just an oddly nervous and tense anticipation. At least, Clarke believed it was so, based on her new understanding that she was genuinely feeling what her grandmother felt within her body during these moments and the ones she had recently experienced.

“May I say goodbye?”

The men turned to glance at one another for a long moment and the one in the center addressed her with a brief nod before stepping aside to allow her passage through the group.

Ruth looked up. John was standing by the doorway with a guard to either side of him.

She approached slowly and looked them both in the eye consecutively until, with confirmation from the men she that she may pass, they stepped aside to give her a small false privacy.

Ruth regarded John’s fear slackened features and then leaned in close to whisper in his ear. “You would have been a father soon.”

Shock broke over his face as he looked into her eyes, then down at her stomach. Cuffed hands trembled as they rose in a futile motion toward her belly.

She encroached into his personal space again and put her lips against his ear this time. “You should have listened to me, John. I tried to tell you. I tried to show you through the science and the night we spoke about the long game and how it’s all connected,” she paused to let that sink in, “but I don’t want you to worry about your son, he’ll pass the ability on to someone who can use it.”

Ruth eased away slightly, laying her dry lips against his cheek for a moment and whispered, “Pandora’s name meant ‘all gifted’ before it came to mean ‘all giving’.”

With that, Ruth stepped away and watched as the guards moved back into position, placing a hood over John’s head and escorting him through the doorway.

The airlock closed.

She turned and walked away.

Clarke just met her grandfather for the first time. She had no idea who he was until this moment.

Grandmother had never talked about him or kept a picture of him and now she knew why, the woman hated him for some reason.

It obviously had to do with what she was trying to tell him that night and things that Clarke was not privy to so could not string them together.

‘The nature of stories regarding the history of women or possibly the future of women?’

Ruth continued walking slowly down the dim corridor on the Ark, filled with a disproportionate sense of relief in her chest to the set of circumstances she just experienced.

While Ruth walked, Clarke reflected over what she could put together of the two different, but related occurrences she had witnessed in such a unique way.

She had a vague sense of the two characters talked about by her grandmother of Pandora and Eve, but never remembered hearing the specific tales of either of them, and had no way to apply that information to what was going on specifically. Yet, there was another connection that had to do with the differences between men and women for genetic purposes tying everything together. She was not aware of any historical genetic related events that had been inferred during their conversations and was at a loss in making sense of the message her grandfather had received but still died for because he had not taken it to heart.

Suddenly the her reality tilted, the dim corridor of the Ark she was walking down disappeared into darkness with those colored swirling patterns having multiplied in the time she was away. They began to move with increased speed, spinning faster and then closer together while migrating toward her, or maybe she was the thing spinning toward them. Gradually the unique patterns overlapped to create a deep and loosely formed stack directly in front of her.

Suddenly, she merged into the first one and was thrust into a body.

Unlike the two experiences she had just gone through with her grandmother, the first awareness was not a voice, but a sensation; this body was experiencing a deep gnawing heavy pain in the lower abdomen and shooting up the person’s spine.

‘Are they sick?’ Clarke wondered while she struggled to keep herself separate from that sucking agony, still not seeing anything from within the body yet.

Then she heard her mother’s voice calling out to someone.

“No! I don’t need it! I can do this!”

Clarke watched the room take on blurry shapes of people moving around her location, chromatic colors and stark contrasting shadows sporadically erupting with more vibrant depth of metallics as they bled through the haze.

A hypodermic needle suddenly came into focus not more than a foot from her face and the sterile room on the Ark popped into complete existence around her.

Her knees bent sharply before abdominal pain spread across her enlarged belly.

“Abby, breathe through the contraction.”

Clarke found herself attempting to bear down, responding to a voice that offered encouragement.

That is when it hit her.

‘Mom?!’ She was in her mother’s body.

Several voices were counting aloud.

She heard her mother's voice and felt her body movements and pain. Just like with her grandmother, she had no control over what was happening.

Another spasm radiated across her stomach and Abby panted with greater effort.

Clarke watched through her mother’s eyes, looking down with her occasionally at a contracted belly.

“Keep going Abby! One last push!” Abby bore down as hard as she could. The pressure was immense and then-

A bloody head and body came into view between Abby’s legs and was laid swiftly across her stomach.

‘Me?’ She looked down at herself and felt her mother’s wonder mix with her own disbelief.

A moving pair of hands holding surgical scissors reached for the umbilical cord and cut it.

Clarke was yanked out of her mother’s body fast, reeling in the dark and had no idea why this was happening to her.

With no warning and only a moment to register the darkness and her own bewilderment, she was thrust forward and landed inside another body.

Disoriented, she had no time to comprehend the circumstance before the scene played out in rapid motion and then she was yet again ripped from that body.

It felt like only a single second passed in the dark before she was thrust forward again.

Very little impression was left of who these people were before she slammed into another body, and another one, until she lost count of how many she entered and left. Finally, the rushing sensation ceased and she experienced a connection within a body moving at a normal pace.

A woman was handing her a case.

She watched her now empty hands drop down to her sides and her eyes glaze with a frantic range of emotions whipping across her features. Love, longing, fear, loss, and finally hope.

Their hands brushed briefly, and then she herself was crying almost too hard to see at all. She could no longer stand the pain of separation, so turned and ran for a shuttle.

In the distance, Clarke could see the section she knew as Medical on the Ark surrounded by moveable platforms. They were pulling away from it in preparation to launch.

She made it to the shuttle and checked herself into the register by swiping her card over a handheld unit held by a man standing at the entrance. He reached out for the case to check it.

“Do we really have time for all of this?” Her voice was terse and she fought to keep the panic out of it, while shifting her case from one hand to the other. Her empty hand was now blocked from view by the case and the angle of her body. Slowly she slipped her hand into a front pocket until fingers curled around something cylindrical.

Clarke recognized that same pounding of her heart and the feel of her rapid pulse throbbing in her temples.

Someone came up behind her and pushed her in a controlled shove carefully to the side, and a deep male voice demanded. “She’s with Medical. Get her checked in, NOW! We have one fucking hour before they carry out the first threat!”

Her head turned and her body relaxed as her eyes skimmed a name embroidered upon the dark stiff uniform and took in the number of bars upon the man’s sleeve.

The man at the entrance straightened to full attention and saluted sharply. “Please move to section 4b and prepare for launch, ma’am.”

She moved past him quickly and scanned the section numbers at the top of each doorway she passed.

Finally, she arrived. Section 4b.

Edgy, she looked down the corridor in both directions, and then walked quickly to the nearest air duct, then reached into a side pocket and pulled out a multipurpose utility tool.

Her head lifted and she continued scanning the corridor while she detached the grate. The metal suddenly popped off and she scrambled to catch it before it fell to the floor. Her pulse raced and she panted with the fear of being discovered.

Finally, she slipped the case inside and screwed the grating back to its framework before walking as calmly as she could manage into Section 4b.

Seated, she reached for straps to secure herself to the chair. Tears filled her eyes again and spilled down her cheeks. as she took in a deeper calming breath to control the crying.

Clarke was not sure the woman had ever really stopped.

Something suddenly hurt again.       

Clarke felt a sharp pain connecting to her jaw repeatedly, continuing until it finally tore her from the body of the woman. Reaching with heavy limbs and numb hands, she tried to defend herself from the painful point of contact as the latest one caught the edge of her mouth and she tasted blood.

~

Clarke suddenly sank into an uncoordinated heap in the water and Lexa caught her around the shoulders and gripped her tightly before she fell all the way down.

Lexa shifted under her to support Clarke's head as she dragged them towards the center of the underground room where the water was deeper. The body in her arms shook uncontrollably.The collapse made her think of what they had gone through when they both lost consciousness hours earlier; she had never had the opportunity to observe in another what she suspected Clarke was also experiencing.

“Clarke?!”

There was no response from the slack body in front of her.

She examined Clarke’s face minutely and saw her eyelids fluttering over quick rolling eyes and then noticed the darkened wet strands of her blonde hair clinging to her forehead. Shakily, Lexa swept them back from Clarke’s face, brushing fingertips over her skin, feeling the high heat radiating from it.

She reached up with her hand and felt her own forehead then, confirming that her skin was, in fact, just as hot.

Are we the same?

Clarke’s arm muscles jerked harder suddenly, drawing Lexa’s attention to her again and she felt a rare moment of helplessness. Was there anything that she could really do for her without truly understanding what was actually wrong?

She sat holding Clarke’s spasming body and focusing on the sound of her breathing.

Should I even try to wake her?

She did not know if any of the Elders had ever attempted to wake her during her own ordeal, but Lexa was alone here with Clarke and without guidance. After deliberating for a while, she pulled one hand out from under Clarke’s neck and reared back to deliver a carefully placed strike upon her overheated cheek.

Clarke quit her thrashing for a moment, and then a more subdued trembling began.

Was this really the same thing she had just experienced or only something like it? Or some kind of sickness of the body instead?

Lexa still experienced the lingering effects of her own physical illness and felt as though she had little control over her own body to correct it.  

She panted again and became light-headed so easily, as though she could easily pass out at any moment just from breathing too hard. Her chest tightened and finally she coughed soundly, but that made her increasingly light-headed with every desperate pull of air into her lungs.

She could not catch her breath.

The panic that had clawed at her earlier returned and built a sense of slow entrapment she could feel but not avoid. Turning her head to the side she continued to hack in desperation. The more air she took in, the more light-headed she became and the room began to spin dizzily about her.

She placed Clarke’s head in the water as gently as she could, making certain that her mouth cleared the surface before she scooted away to let go completely. Once she created some distance between them she gave in to the need for her whole body to spasm with coughing until she was gasping too hard and on the verge of unconsciousness.

Hands fisting in riverbed rock, she pushed down with all her remaining effort to clear her lungs, finally feeling the blockage loosen and leave her chest before clearing her throat. Startled, she spit the small mass of dark matter into the water and watched as it was tugged away. Though her eyes still watered, her labored breathing eased and the light-headed feeling passed completely. Her pounding heart slowed and she regained the control she had sorely missed over her body.

After the brief moment of relief, Lexa’s attention was brought back to Clarke’s prone body when she suddenly twitched violently in the water and started to mumble. Her words were meaningless for the first few moments until she heard her say quite clearly, “Push, Mom! You’re almost there!”

Lexa froze at the words. It was a strange encouragement to hear from Clarke.

Her mother needed to push…something?

Her thoughts returned to the vision she just had of her own mother.

She scooted through the swirling water back to Clarke’s side.

Why would she say that, unless…

Lexa eyes widened with realization and she cupped the back of Clarke’s head, lifting it from the water and slipping her leg underneath to rest it upon.

No more than an hour ago, she had experienced the memory of her own birth through her mother’s body.

Not certain what she should do now, she sat there holding Clarke up while she tried to reason through it.

If Clarke received a vision of her mother as I did, what did it mean?

Lexa did not know why she had gained that piece of her own history with her parents, but she did receive it through the Commander Spirit bond.

Was a Commander Spirit choosing Clarke in this very moment?

She glanced down and scanned Clarke’s features in the semi darkness with wonder at the idea.

What do I do? What did the Elders do for me?

Clarke’s twitching and mumbling lessened as she debated internally on a course of action.

Eventually, she slipped one hand underneath Clarke’s shoulder to draw her closer to her chest and then shuffled them both into the brightest part of light shining down. There she cradled Clarke against her chest, her chin resting upon the top of her blonde-haired companion’s head.

Someone else was Chosen.

Her grip tightened as she held her, heart filled with a desperate kind of hope along with the enviable despair of the being Chosen. For the first time since she received the Commander Spirit, she allowed herself a moment to entertain the selfish possibility that this tenuous connection could grow into something more, that she would not be alone now.

She brought trembling fingers to Clarke’s face and grazed them softly over the smooth skin of her cheek.

Was this real? How did it happen?

Lexa recalled the moment they lost consciousness the first time. Clarke had convulsed, and she had followed her soon afterward, but before she fell away she remembered her bloody chin falling against the wound on Clarke's chest.

Her considering gaze slid over Clarke’s face again and then down to her torn shirt. Slowly, she moved the shredded fabric back and exposed the wounds that looked days healed.

My blood did this.

She dropped the fabric.

Lexa was almost certain she had instigated this change in Clarke. Though the children she shared her blood with had, to her knowledge, never showed any signs of her own fast healing, she could still feel the connection. She suddenly wondered if she would be able to sense Clarke the way she had with them.

Lexa focused upon the partition she had built to protect her mind from this connection with the little ones who could and did die indiscriminately on her, then dropped the barrier to feel Clarke waiting on the other side.

There Clarke resonated, first skipping along the surface of her skin and then penetrating it deeply; it vibrated as though she felt it move through some kind of interference keeping her from Clarke’s full presence.

Was it a kind of self-defense or self-preservation? Something like her own barrier that acted as a shield? Why can I feel her so close, but not be allowed to reach her?

Her throat closed up. The crushing ache of loneliness returned harsh and cold.

So close!

She tasted the possibility of this intimate connection to another human being and reeled back sharply at the bitter sting of denial. It felt like a cruelty she could barely abide. Her own blood awakened Clarke, yet this felt like a personal rejection between them, and it hit her on a fundamental level that she was somehow lacking.

Her shoulders tensed at the internalized offense, then sagged with defeat because some part of her anticipated it.

Lexa could feel the quiet hum of Clarke's static signature, penetrating as deep as the backside of her breastbone, somehow far louder and yet less distinct than the children’s currently here.

Will I always feel her, but never be allowed to connect?

Her heart sank to her stomach.

Another kind of punishment for being what I am?

The feelings long buried of Kostia’s death rose and stung her throat suddenly.

All the Commanders before me provided the signs to know...I should have ended it as soon as it began.

She tensed under the onslaught of jaded regret and forced several measured breaths to fight against the ache spreading down to burn the space containing her heart.

I failed her.

Water gathered behind her eyes and she blinked rapidly to keep them from gathering enough momentum to fill and fall from aching eyes.

None of that.

She could not afford to delve into that pain too for long. Being a Commander changed everything. It was not just the responsibility for her people, it was the need to keep those closest to her safe; they would not be measured upon the same standard that she herself was, they could not be held to the rules of bleak silence and isolation required of her. She could not help what she had become any more than any one of her people could become what she was now, she accepted the Commander Spirit’s gifts and curses as her solitary obligation. She protected them all by keeping herself separate from them, yet she could not help but long for the missing pieces others took for granted.

I have NEVER had a choice.

Resentment took the place of aching loss, setting her chest afire, and her hand reflexively tightened slightly underneath Clarke’s neck before she consciously had to ease her grip.

She caught strands of Clarke’s dripping wet blonde hair between her fingers for a moment, then let them go.

If all of this really was happening to Clarke the way she suspected it was, Lexa knew she would do whatever she could to allow Clarke as many chances as possible to choose what she wanted for herself.

Maybe we can find a better way to be what we are...together.

Lexa sighed deeply, trying to let go of such foolish thinking, and her gaze slid down once again to the torn shirt.

If Clarke can heal the way I do, would she also be able to sense me?

Clarke stilled, her body calm and her features slack. Her breathing was not strained and she no longer mumbled.

Lexa began to worry again, not knowing how long being Chosen actually took, and she wanted to get out of this hole in the ground “Clarke!”

She shook her shoulders and waited for a sign of reaction, but Clarke did not respond.

After waiting as long as she could stand it, Lexa gently placed Clarke down and away from her in the shallow water and brought her hand back to deliver a slap.

Smack!

Clarke’s eyebrows twitched, but otherwise her face remained still.

Lexa sucked in a breath and braced herself internally to hit Clarke again, she had to wake her up to get out of here.

The slap turned into several more and they steadily became more forceful as her desperation grew. The last strike caught Clarke’s upper lip and teeth and a spot of blood bloomed at the corner of her mouth.

Lexa cringed in regret at the sight.

Suddenly, Clarke's eyes flew open as her arm reared back and her hand flew forward striking Lexa hard across the side of her face.

Lexa’s her head jerked to the side with the force of the blow, her nose and mouth stinging. She took a deep breath, hurt and anger blooming in her chest, dropping her chin down sharply to see Clarke looking at her in wide-eyed shock, her hand still raised and shaking.

It sat heavy and thick in her chest, curling tightly inside her as a resentful anger, making her pulse pound in her temples.

She found herself suddenly tasting blood and licked it from the corner of her mouth, then her eyes went hard as she stared down at the woman in her arms.

How DARE she!

Thoughts of Clarke and choices disappeared. Her mind stopped thinking altogether as outrage coursed through her entire being. A tangle of suppressed emotions took her over then, and she reacted under the chaos.

Her hand shot forward and before she knew what she meant to do, she was yanking Clarke's face up toward her own roughly and connecting their mouths in a punishing kiss.

~         

Clarke’s hand trembled and her palm stung as she slowly lowered it. It finally registered in her hazy mind that she had just struck Lexa, who was now staring down at her in angered shock.

She caught only a moment of the riotous emotions flashing through Lexa's eyes before Clarke watched her tongue slip to the corner of her mouth and pull a bright smear of red away, before disappearing back inside. Lexa’s expression hardened and her gaze landed on Clarke’s own mouth.

Suddenly, she was being pulled up towards Lexa's face and felt the harsh press of roughened lips on her own. The taste of iron and something else registered on her burning cut lip.

Clarke tried to reject the pull and taste. That sensation she felt earlier, the one that had been caused by Lexa’s unexpected touch, hit her firmly again and her hands scrambled against nothing in an attempt to move away from the demanding mouth. Lexa clutched her face harder and tingles hit the back of her neck and traveled down, zinging through her like the aftereffects of a rung bell.

Her entire body filled with vibrations.

Even as she fought to push Lexa away, the radiating waves within her own body melded with the thrum of those coming from the woman kissing her and together it created a resonance.

Pleasure rose from the modulation between them.

Clarke stopped pushing away and instead found herself gripping Lexa’s dirty clothing into tight fists, keeping her from leaving.

At the added contact, Lexa shuddered against her.

There was nothing left for her but the complicated taste of Lexa’s fevered mouth, demanding her increased reciprocation.

Clarke met that hunger head-on.

The kiss changed as Clarke fought for more and submitted to it at the same time. The slant of Lexa’s mouth upon her own stung her split lip and the continual sweep of her tongue against Clarke’s created a rhythm between them that she could feel syncing to the pulse throbbing in her throat, resonating with her heartbeat next to her oxygen deprived lungs.

Suddenly, they both breathed hotly into one another’s mouths.

Lexa gradually turned the authoritative touch into a supple dive, changing the contact from penetrating to an incessant brush of their swollen lips together, before stilling hers upon Clarke’s to pull in a deep breath.

Abruptly, she jerked her head away and slackened her grip, moving back as much as she could without dropping Clarke completely in her sudden desperation to disengage.

Clarke opened her eyes to stare into a face filled with longing that quickly morphed into shame.

“Please forg-”

“Sorry-” She hurriedly cut in.

They both spoke almost at once and stopped.

Clarke was not even sure why she was apologizing. How could she regret the most complete kiss she had ever experienced?

Lexa’s gaze continued to slip away from hers before returning, glimmering with shame at her actions as though she could not resist checking to see how much damage she had caused.

They both looked away, still breathing too hard.

Lexa got her bearings first, letting go carefully and clambered to her feet once she was physically free, then moved away from her in the most ungraceful movement Clarke had ever seen her make.

She remained crouched in the water, and simply stared after her.

Lexa moved stiffly several short steps back before pivoting around, head turning to look wildly about her as though she sought a fast means of escape. Finally, she settled and came to a standstill, looking at the water swirling about her ankles.

She watched Lexa become distant, but it was not just physical. She felt the discord like a sound traveling just under her skin.

Lexa raised her head slowly and squared her shoulders, becoming the Commander again.

Clarke could feel the emotional gap between them widen drastically.

“We need to talk, Clarke.” Lexa approached and reached out her hand to Clarke hesitantly, as though she expected her to reject it.

Clarke slowly slid her hand into Lexa’s and allowed herself to be pulled to her feet, the warmth of Lexa's palm against her own radiated all the way up her arm as she moved upward. Her face came within inches of Lexa’s and they both froze with the proximity.

Lexa dropped her hand quickly and stepped back. She cleared her throat. “But first, we will get out of this hole in the ground.”

Clarke sighed in relief at this decision and nodded emphatically. It was something to focus on other than what just happened between them and how her body had not stopped responding to Lexa yet. She thought she might choke on any words she could think to say, and needed out of the hole in the ground to put some space between them. She needed more room to breathe and see more than a carcass shedding light.

They worked together again in silence to finish removing enough Pauna flesh to climb through its complex set of bones.

Lexa refrained from touching her in any way, and her movements remained unnaturally stiff.

Clarke felt an aching awareness between them now, continually vibrating just under her skin. She had to force her thoughts away from it, even if her body could not let go.

The visions…but they weren’t visions, they were memories.

She made the connection of Lexa’s Commander Spirit visions to her grandmother’s memories immediately.

No wonder she doesn’t talk about it.

If hers were remotely the same as Lexa's, anyone Clarke might venture to tell them to would assume she was having a mental breakdown.

That’s one way to take a vacation.

She pictured herself forced into a sterile room for the rest of her stay on the Ground. They would tell her it was for her own good, of course, unless she told someone who thought like her grandmother. Somehow, Clarke knew that Ruth would have believed her. But still, she did not understand something crucial about the memories of her grandmother.

Clarke shuddered as she considered the memory again, of how the sweet gentle voice that had amazed her with stories as a child could turn so utterly cold and unfeeling in an instant, how her compassion had completely dropped away.

They both reached and grabbed bone, their hands brushing accidentally.

There. She did it again.

Lexa had jerked her hands away and had taken a step back, positioning herself further away to keep it from happening again.

Yeah, we definitely need to talk.

She let her have that distance, but her eyes flickered up to see Lexa also carefully avoiding eye contact.

Her eyes narrowed at the avoidance tactic.

You’re not untouchable, Lexa.

She did not say it to her face but desperately wanted to call her out on it. That kiss was not the action of a person who did not care, and she now doubted Lexa’s philosophy on refusing to care for others.

Her eyes closed briefly at the memory of how Lexa had moved so profoundly against her mouth, and goosebumps ran up her arms. Her tongue swept across her lips. She could still taste her there.

She glanced at Lexa quickly from the corner of her eye to see her steadily focused upon her grisly work, then she herself returned to the task, but could not quiet her own thoughts.

The kiss was nothing like how she imagined a first kiss between them would be, but it certainly was not without feeling.

Recalling the flashes of shame in Lexa’s eyes, the conflicting reaction still puzzled her, yet it did prove to Clarke how affected she really was underneath her detached words and attitude. Lexa may believe it was weakness to feel, but Clarke now knew she still secretly and desperately wanted that too.

She sighed as quietly as she could so she would not bring any attention to her irritation with the woman she needed to keep peace with, both here, and out of this trap in the ground.

Trap…

Her gaze swept over the carcass of what once was a strong and vibrant beast, able to rip limbs from a man with one yank while it raged at the intrusion to its territory. But even a beast like that could be easily caged with a single blade to bar the means to escape.

The remains of the Pauna rested above her, barricading the way much like the blade had that kept the Pauna contained for a short while. And now, they were literally cutting their way to freedom through the barrier.

She reached up and pulled more cold meat away from bones, noticing the ovaries still dangling down from the body. Thoughts of watching herself entering the cold world for the first time spun in her head, the image of herself as a newborn crying out in indignation in greeting.

Indignity

Climbing through a carcass definitely met that term, and it reminded her of others she knew were trapped, others who had probably screamed out their indignation and longed to release their rage at being trapped.

Caged rage turned loose...

She caught her breath at the thought forming, and her eyes darted quickly to Lexa, still moving methodically and still studiously ignoring her.

Irritation was replaced by excitement buzzing in her head, but she resisted the need to blurt it all out. Now was obviously not the time, first she needed to get back to the surface as soon as possible.

Clarke knew how they could take Mount Weather, and once they were out of this damn hole in the ground, she was going to run it past Lexa.

Chapter Text

Morning, October 27th, 2334 - 267 A.F. (Activation: Day 01) Surface

They walked in the early morning light beneath a canopy of green and upon a narrow trail winding its way around the mountain.

“I want to send Bellamy into Mount Weather.”

Lexa looked over her shoulder at her.

“I know he can take out the acid fog.”

Lexa stopped and turned to her. “If he did this, it would save many lives, but it would not save our people inside. The Mountain Men would retaliate.”

“Your people are warriors, Lexa. There had to be over a hundred of them in cages. If Bellamy freed them, we would have an army inside the mountain already.”

Lexa’s eyes narrowed, and looked into the forest. She turned back to her after a moment with the grimmest smile stretched upon her lips that Clarke had ever seen.

Her tone was deliberate. “Send him.”

Clarke let out her breath she did not know she had been holding in anticipation of her approval. “I will have him call us on the radio. They haven’t found it yet or we wouldn’t hear the message from Monty anymore.”

“With the acid fog down it will be safe to approach their entrances, but it does not open the door.”

“We could go in where Anya and I came out.”          

“Those are tunnels, and it would make us easy targets the moment they knew we were there. They could hold us off with a small force while many of our warriors died before making it inside.”

Clarke understood what Lexa implied. They needed to get the front door open, or at least appear to be doing that.

“If only a small group can go through the tunnels, we should keep their eyes on the main entrance.”

“We should go through the main entrance while I have Indra lead a force in the way you escaped.” Lexa turned away from her and began walking again.

Clarke thought about the entrance door. It must have a power source to it that kept it closed because no one so far had been able to open it. “We could cut the power to the door. It wouldn’t open it, but at least it could be opened then.”

Lexa looked over her shoulder at her. “Can it be done at the door?”

Clarke did not know. “I’ll ask Raven how we can cut the power.”

“It would be better to cut all the power to the mountain.”

Clarke was startled by the idea and admonished her. “Lexa...”

She reached out and touched her arm, and felt a short spike of sensation under her skin, and dropped her hand back to her side.

Lexa stopped and turned to her with a blank expression.

“We can’t cut all of the power. It would kill them.”

Lexa studied her, and her features set with resolution. “If it is the only way, then we cannot hesitate.”

Clarke could not accept the look on Lexa’s face as the final verdict of possible outcomes. It worried her. “Raven will find a way for us to get the door open.”

The muscles around Lexa’s eyes tightened. “You have a great deal of trust placed in Raven and Bellamy. How can you be sure that they will succeed when armies have tried over two-hundred years to take the mountain and failed?”

Clarke was not sure how to answer that at first. She just knew, and hesitated in responding.

Lexa turned back to the trail and moved on without her.

She needed to give Lexa an answer for this, not just because both of their people were relying on the abilities of Raven and Bellamy, but because she needed the answer as well.

She sighed, then spoke. “Raven repaired a two hundred and seventy-five-year-old space shuttle in a couple of days and flew herself to the ground. She’s a genius.” Clarke paused for a moment. “But don’t ever tell her I said that.”

Lexa looked over her shoulder and gave Clarke a sly half-mouthed smirk before returning her eyes to the path, then her shoulders stiffened slightly. “And Bellamy?”

It was harder to explain what drove Bellamy to do the things he did. She was not sure if she could make Lexa understand, but she was going to try. “On the Ark, no one had a sibling. We were only allowed to have one child for several generations at a time. Bellamy’s mom cheated the system somehow. Octavia is Bellamy’s little sister. He would do anything for her to keep her safe.”

Lexa stopped walking and turned her head, and the expression on her face left Clarke puzzled.

What was she searching for?

Lexa finally gave a small nod and resumed her stride forward.

The path was steep and irregular for the next mile and they did not talk as they traversed the uneven ground.

With only the sounds of the forest and tread of her feet, Clarke was able to focus on the low hum she felt underneath her skin. When she moved closer to Lexa, it vibrated a little harder, and eased up when there was more space between them.

Lexa had said they were going to talk, but she had not brought up their time underground.

This is real.

The more she concentrated on it, the more distinct it became in her mind. It caused all kinds of confusion for her and it was to the point that she could not ignore it any longer. They needed to talk about what happened.

Lexa’s movements ahead of her seemed stiff, and it occurred to Clarke that she might be avoiding her.

She wondered if it was from their planning on how to take the mountain or the experience they had within the ground only a couple of hours ago.

Clarke needed to change that with some answers, but she could ease into it. “How many Paunas live around here?”

Lexa did not turn to look at her when she spoke. “Not many, they are one of the alpha predators in this region.”

“Do you ever have to hunt them?”

“Yes, we lay a trap and bait a Pauna. It is safer that way.”

The abrupt silences following the short answers irritated her. “What do you use as bait?”

“A fresh kill.”

That was an answer she could work with and bring the conversation around to the experience underground. “We were the bait in the hole this time.”

Lexa’s movements sharpened and she scanned the trees and trajectory of their path through the forest, while continuing to look at everything but her.

The deliberate avoidance of her gaze confirmed it for her. Lexa was avoiding the subject. Why would she change her mind about talking now?

Clarke’s ire rose, and it was going to get the better of her if Lexa did not cooperate soon.

They wound their way along a ravine and the path disappeared.

“This way.”Lexa directed her.

Clarke followed and caught her foot under a vine running along the ground under a matte of greenery.

“Careful.”Lexa called over her shoulder.

After making it around the lip of the ridge, they came to another trail, and Lexa held up a hand to stop her motion.

“Shh...” Lexa whispered and listened to the forest.

Exasperation crept up her chest. She wanted to tell her that she had not said or done anything to be “shh’ed” like a child or an idiot.

“There is a stream near here.”

Still perturbed, Clarke nodded sharply. She did want to wash off because there was an unpleasant smell coming from both of them, but her real problem right now was that she was getting pissed off.

Lexa was, without a doubt, avoiding her.

Clarke sighed and gave into putting it off a little longer, it felt like she had not been clean in forever, and though there was nothing to use to wash with, just the chance to get caked mud and blood off of her made her hurry after Lexa.

This time, neither of them purposefully looked at one another while they worked dry mud from their clothing and off their skin.

Even without looking at her, Clarke swore she could feel how close Lexa was, and it aggravated her to fight the need to turn and see if she was right.

Was this resistance to talking to her a result of hitting Lexa in the face and being kissed like there would be no other chance for it to happen again? Or, was it all about her going off on some mental trip that was taboo for anyone but Lexa?

She pushed aside the questions for the moment.

After they finished removing as much as they could from their clothing and skin, they shivered under wet clothes in the early morning hours, and then they were moving again.

“How close are we?”

Lexa’s eyes flicked briefly to hers before going back to scanning the forest.

She watched Lexa’s efficient motions as she opened her unbuttoned jacket, and caught the hint of scars at her collarbone. They did not look quite right at first, and it took a moment for Clarke to realize why. The scars had faint color markings, like tattoos over them. This was another odd thing about Lexa to wonder over, and then her thoughts strayed.

She imagined how many there were, and how far they went across her skin. Clarke wet her dry lips, and had to tell herself to stop thinking about it.

“Maybe another hour and a half.”

Clarke noticed something else was off about Lexa. She had not said her name aloud since they got out of the tunnel.

It made her feel uneasy. She was not certain why, but Lexa’s very formal manner of speaking gave her the chance to hear her own name several times during any conversation between them. Being ignored pissed Clarke off, even worse, it unsettled her because it was Lexa who caused it because it felt like she took something away from her.

Clarke gritted her teeth. She was done being patient. They needed to talk about what happened in that hole in the ground. “I thought we were going to talk?”

Lexa’s step hesitated, but she kept moving. “We did. We have a plan now for taking the Mountain Men and freeing our people.”

Clarke’s frustration grew. “And everything else?”

Lexa remained silent, but increased her vigilance of scanning their unseen path for the millionth time.

Clarke decided to test her. “I wonder what they’re all going to say when we tell them that I’ve been Chosen.” Clarke sighed, as though she were seriously pondering how to go about sharing that little tidbit of information.

Lexa blanched and jerked to a halt, then spun around so fast Clarke almost ran into her. She grabbed Clarke’s arm, to catch her forward momentum and stop her.

Lexa stepped into Clarke’s space, and spoke in a low voice that was a touch harsher than she normally spoke. “You cannot share any of what you know or what you have with anyone! Do you want to paint a target on your back, Clarke?” Lexa’s body vibrated with tension and her face was no more than six inches away, eyes jerking back and forth between her own.

The compelling hum just under her skin slid down the inside of her body, and vibrated hard, beginning from the point of Lexa’s hand on her arm.

Clarke swallowed and could not take her eyes off the woman in front of her.

She got Lexa to say her name. She felt relieved and satisfied just hearing it, and could not deny the pleasure she felt from her touch. She tried to stay focused on her task.

I have to know what is going on!

Clarke had no illusions of how her people would respond if she told them she saw the memories of dead people, but she was finally getting Lexa to talk to her.  “How did you know what I was talking about, Lexa?”

Lexa froze there, looking at her with unease, and Clarke decided to pursue this with the same tactic. “And why not tell them? How would you know what my people would do if-”

Lexa dropped her hand from Clarke’s arm abruptly.

The question died in her throat as she felt the humming sensation inside dimming with the loss of touch.

Lexa’s voice dropped low and harsher still. “They will kill you for what you have Clarke, and then they will kill me for giving it to you.”

Now we’re getting somewhere!

“How did you give me the Commander’s Spirit? Explain to me how your Spirit chose me if you’re not dead yet? Isn’t that against the rules?”

~

As they made their way along trails and around obstacles, Lexa debated with herself.

Lexa avoided Clarke from the time they came up with a basic plan to free their people from Mount Weather. Lexa kept herself busy with thinking over the content of the maps on her War Table. Unfortunately, she could not stay in this frame of mind.

Lexa wanted to reject the idea of what she saw and heard Clarke do.

Her own indecision stymied her. She could not remember the last time she experienced this much turmoil over not knowing how to proceed. The fluctuation of sentiment was unsettling. This vacillation was in direct opposition of all training demanded of a commander. The power and control to make hard decisions, and to do so without consideration of personal feelings, was paramount to the position.

That did not even touch the complications of being a Chosen Commander. To be someone who may have to kill another without feeling the least desire to do so, or worse, someone you were compelled to kill in secret when you cared for them.

What more was she now, but the vessel of those things?

Is this what Clarke was destined to become, a victim to circumstance, an instrument of everyone’s needs?

If it was real, there was no way she knew of to avoid it, except in death.

Her thoughts flashed to the brief period in her life when she had wanted that end. It was after Kostia’s murder, but she discovered her own arrogance within the truth. There was nothing beyond two choices. There was honor or a coward’s death.

She had chosen to live, and received little comfort for this act. It was a thankless task and no amount of honor given to a commander who listened to the call of “Blood for Blood” was satisfying. It was all for the life of the people under her protection, never for her own. She took no joy in death, despite the high battle always caused inside of her, or at least, after she had found the resolution to continue living past the lives she took in revenge.

She could still hear and feel Kostia’s name rushed repetitive whisper between her teeth, while she slaughtered the ones she could reach for her death. It was hard to recall just how long it took before she let go of the futility and desperation to do more than bleed people.

Clarke was already vulnerable because she cared. Would Clarke be able to avoid this fate among her own people? Would she have the discipline to survive the training to handle it?

Clarke was so different from any of the Commanders in her own line that she questioned if there could be another kind of Spirit altogether. She had no idea how to proceed with training her as a Commander.

She considered the formal training she had received to take on the mantle of a commander and knew Clarke would not do well with that either. She would question everything, showing herself unsuitable for conditioning.

Lexa recalled the group of other hopeful youths in training for leadership during her own training. They had failed from the physical demands, but not from questioning. They had failed by responding incorrectly to a problem laid before them, but not because they did not follow their mentor’s instructions.

Clarke would fail in the system she, herself, had learned from with one word. Why.

Yet, there was something unique about her methods. Clarke seemed to have something she substituted in place of the kind of training Lexa was so familiar with that kept her from obvious failure.

She recalled Clarke making promises to cure the Reapers and watching her fail, but despite that, she still managed to win. Abby Griffin gave her what she needed in the last moment. A woman who was the official leader of the Sky People gave that power over to Clarke without reservation, just because she asked it of her.

Lexa thought of Clarke’s mercy kill. It was not something unheard of in the field of battle. The strange quality of her actions was not in the mercy shown, or killing the man she cared for, but in the fact that it went against the Sky People’s stated stance on what should be done, yet Clarke did not pay for her arrogance in breaking it. She had become stronger.

Clarke caused the people around her to give more of themselves, even when it seemed impossible tasks were being asked of them, or to sacrifice authority.

She had a way about her that drew others to her call, to her wants, and what she insisted she needed. Bellamy and Raven were proof of this, even if Clarke could not see it.

She treated her friends as family.

It was something Lexa had no room for in her life. She did not have…friends that gave of themselves for her personally. It was her status and role they responded to that brought on the individual’s sacrifice.

Her relationships with her people were much different and based on something else. Gustus and Anya might have been exceptions, but she could not do the same for them in return. She would never be able to honor one person above the needs of all. Duty, responsibility, authority and in the end, fear were the ties between herself and her People.

Clarke had the freedom to take the connections to her People in another direction. She claimed them. Whether as friend or as family, she stopped at nothing to keep them, and she did it with a brand of persuasion that resulted in the world shifting to accommodate. The pull and demand to focus upon her interests that Clarke used was something Lexa could only define as the calling of a Leader, and possibly one who could become greater than any Commander she knew.

Lexa was not immune to it. She was susceptible, it was a weakness waiting for exploitation, and this was something she battled personally against every time Clarke made demands.

That draw to give in was further complicated by the Commander Spirit waking Clarke with her own blood. It made her solely responsible for Clarke’s Awakening.

Lexa should be the one to show her how to handle Visions, or Memories as Clarke continued to refer to it, that come when they are not expected, and learn how to sort through the overload of information until the process of doing so became reflexive and automatic.

Lexa’s fingers curled, her hands formed into fists.

What would she do if Clarke was Compelled? Would she be able to forgive herself when there was no choice and a life had to be taken?

Lexa caught a look of frustration on Clarke’s face as she worked her way over uneven ground, stumbling, before she pulled her gaze away.

Lexa was not long out of the tunnel when she realized Clarke was sharing something else along with her presence in the connection between them. She was sharing her emotions, and Lexa could feel Clarke’s anger slither past her own agitation.

Now, Clarke was growing impatient with her. Her anger and frustration surged from her in waves as a constant distinct hum of dissatisfaction. It was unnerving, and she did not know how to turn it off.

It was unlike the connection between herself and the children who received her blood. She suspected now that exchanging blood was the reason she could not turn off the connection. It made her tense and defensive, which only drew Clarke’s attention to her even more.

Can she feel me in the same way?

Lexa had no certainty that she was not doing the same thing to Clarke. She would not ask. It worried her, and it was too much to even consider. The idea that Clarke was able to feel what she felt, especially when she was felt things about the woman herself that were far too revealing, was overwhelming.

Lexa feared her own emotions could be used against her.

She felt Clarke’s frustrated anger continuously grow stronger, and it vexed her.

She knew it would not be long before Clarke made solid demands. It was translated across their connection, and Lexa felt the pressure to give in as a result of it. She would have to share something soon, even if there was no plan in place on what or how to give her what she wanted.

Lexa felt Clarke’s emotions spike suddenly and knew the instant she decided to make her move, but still, she was not prepared for Clarke threatening to reveal them both.

Lexa reacted. Without thought, her hand hooked over Clarke’s arm.

She is so very close.

The sensation was far too pleasant.

If it feels this good to touch her, what would it be like to feel her die?

She swallowed hard and let go, cutting off Clarke’s words.

“We shared blood.” Lexa could see Clarke was about to ask for more. “I know this may be strange to you Clarke, but it is how the Commander Spirit knows where to go when I die. There is a tradition of Commanders blooding the blade and sharing it with the new children born to the clan.”

“But you’re not dead Lexa, so how did I suddenly have this-” Clarke paced away from her and flung her hands in the air, “-ability to see my mother give birth to me, or my grandmother setting up her husband’s death?”

Lexa did not know what to say to the last piece of information at all, and she only had partial answers for everything else. “I do not know why you were Chosen now, but there must be a reason. If you did not have the ability before, you would not be able to gain the visions at all. You are going to lead your people like no one else can.”

Clarke regarded her with a dissatisfaction twisting to her features.

Lexa’s expression closed. Clarke needed a different kind of answer. One she did not know if she could give. She hesitated.

“My blood knows you.” Lexa was stuck now. She had nothing else to share on that without revealing the inexplicable and untenable feel of Clarke’s emotions sliding along her insides.

“So you’re telling me that only the children you’ve given blood to can be Chosen?”

Lexa looked her in the eye and nodded marginally.

“Then what does sharing blood do to you?”

She looked away from her. “We need to keep moving, Clarke.”

Lexa took several steps away before she felt Clarke following. She felt her following, not just heard her doing it.

Clarke’s resentment and anger coated Lexa’s private fears and she flinched under the weight of it.

She needed to take control of this conversation or she would wind up giving away everything. “Clarke, I need you to tell me what you saw.” Lexa made an effort to create some kind of emotional distance between them, for her own piece of mind, by having Clarke focus on herself.

Clarke related how she had watched her own birth and when she finished with that, she immediately described how her world had shifted, what it felt like, and the way she then traveled to other bodies.

She listened, with schooled features.

It was real.

The more Clarke explained, the more it could not be denied.

Lexa was torn. She had hoped that somehow she was wrong. No one deserved this. “Your first vision was of your birth?”

Clarke shook her head. “No. It was of my grandmother.”

Lexa’s stomach sank.

There was no way that Abby Griffin was a Commander, and that meant that Clarke’s grandmother must have been the predecessor. Up to this point, she had thought Clarke’s first taste into visions to be different from her own, even if the method was the same.

When Lexa had received the first vision at twelve years of age, it was of the last Commander’s actions leading to their death, but after sharing blood with Clarke, she witnessed her own birth for the first time and knew that something was different now. Yet, she did not know how or why.

Now, Clarke mentioned her grandfather dying instead of her grandmother. What was the difference? Was it the stress of their situation, or was it that Clarke was from the People of the Sky and that made everything different for her?

Lexa did not have an answer for these questions, but she could give Clarke a warning, and some guidance.

“I do not know why it was different from my experience.” Lexa maintained a steady eye contact now. “Clarke, you are born for this. If who you saw first was your grandmother, then she was part of a Spirit line, and now you have it.”

Lexa’s voice dropped in warning. “You must know that you will be tested by every vision," she amended, "memory, not just your grandmother’s until you master moving through them.”

A frown creased Clarke’s features. “What do you mean tested?”

Lexa glanced away and recalled the panic of having memories strike when she was unprepared for them, at least until she had gained a particular set of memories showing a method.

A group of families congregated before a covered body, and the commander lit the pyre with a trembling hand, and flames engulfed the cloth, burning away to reveal the dead woman’s face.

She looked nowhere but at that sight while the voices of the crowd rose in murmurs. The Commander heard them clearly enough though she did not look at any of them.

“She died peacefully in her sleep. Her fight is over.”

Lexa knew it for the lie it was.

The guilt ate at her insides like the acid fog of Mountain Men.

She pulled back from the painful vivid recollection.

Lexa had witnessed the memory of the night before when the Commander had crept into a darkened room and suffocated the woman. That same Commander had wept real tears over a burning body the next day.

The trail widened and Clarke pulled up alongside her.

Lexa glanced at her in quick sweeping motions before looking away.

The feel of her was a constant now, it felt like a piece of Clarke was already inside, and at the thought of loss, found that she was possessive of it already. If it came down to being killed or killing Clarke, could she fight the Compulsion?

Lexa signaled for Clarke to stop and forced herself to maintain eye contact. “Everyone that knows dies, Clarke. In every memory I have, the Commander will feel the need to kill or be killed when the truth is shared. Every memory.” Lexa was whispering by the end of her statement.

Clarke regarded her with an intensity that showed she was at least listening, and Lexa could feel her mixed emotions passing through her own body.

Clarke shifted uncomfortably, hesitating. “It’s a compulsion?”

Lexa nodded solemnly.

“Do you feel that for me, Lexa?” Clarke’s eyes lowered and she regarded her through eyelashes. “Do you want to kill me?”

Lexa inhaled sharply and fought to control her body’s reaction to shudder in genuine aversion at the idea of being the one to kill Clarke. Lexa exhaled slowly. “No.” It was resolute, and she felt inexplicably relieved to know that she was stating the truth aloud.

Clarke raised her head and spoke earnestly. “You’re the only one who can hurt me with this, and the only one who knows anything right now. I won’t tell anyone Lexa, but I need to know what to expect.” Clarke’s features turned pleading by the time she finished speaking and her desire to understand tugged at Lexa’s desire to give in to the need coming from her.

Lexa took a deep breath. “You need to control your fear above all else. When you are first learning, panic will take you into the Visions without your control.”

Clarke frowned, but Lexa felt when she accepted it.

“Mastering what you see can happen only with a calm mind and a firm will to find what you need.”

“How long did it take you to do that?”

 “Weeks.” Lexa considered. “I was a fast learner. Some commanders took months to master themselves in this way.” She decided not to mention the handful killing themselves after finding out what having access to all the memories meant. They were not able to accept the responsibility and Lexa did not want to give Clarke the idea that death was an alternative.

Abruptly, Lexa experienced spikes of physical pain coming from Clarke. She looked away from her, eyes widened in shock from the sensation, then took a slow deep breath to control her face before she turned to study Clarke’s expression.

Clarke’s eyes flickered for a moment with pain, but she recovered quickly. “What did you do differently to learn so fast?”

Lexa was not sure why Clarke felt pain, so she scanned down her body, but could see no obvious injuries.

Why was she hiding it?

The painful sensation altered, and it took Lexa a moment to identify the cessation of pain because is still felt like the residue of it echoed through her own body. She looked back up to her eyes.

Clarke was scanning her face as well, and the scrutiny drifted down to her mouth, then flickered toward her throat and chest before returning to Lexa’s eyes.

Lexa’s nipples went hard. Her mouth almost fell open in shock before she controlled her reaction.

Curiosity, concern, some fear, but underneath that were the physical feelings of attraction growing stronger as they flowed toward Lexa from Clarke.

Clarke managed to hold her gaze now, without giving away all of that emotion anywhere else, but through the connection between them and a few rapid glances down.

Lexa had not responded to her question. Lexa’s own body now responded to the sensations she received from Clarke. She deepened and calmed her breathing, forcing herself to think, not feel.

Clarke was sending out conflicting signals, both physically and emotionally.

Lexa did not have a clue how long she would be able to pretend she did not feel them rebound through her own body and react to them.

Weak!

This was a valid reason to keep her distance, and why she learned to turn it all off in the first place. A person without control would be controlled.

She needed to get Clarke to focus!

She did not know if this was a sign of a lack of mental discipline, or if Clarke was still following what she said.

Briefly, Lexa wondered what she was thinking, but shunned that quickly, and exhaled slowly. “You find the thing that you fear most and face it.”

Clarke’s pain worsened suddenly. It was centralized and grew like an echo within her own stomach.

Lexa did not know what to make of it. The feeling in her stomach was now acute.

Why was she not reacting more to the pain?

She clenched her jaw. She would not bend under Clarke’s pain before she did.

“What was yours?”

Her eye twitched at the question.

Of course Clarke would ask that!

She did not intend to give Clarke this particular piece of information about herself, but she did need to know how to look inside oneself to find the real fear.

Lexa raised her hand and beckoned her to follow while she thought of how to explain what she needed to know.

After a few moments, the physical sensations lessened. It was strange and unnerving that Clarke gave so little away and Lexa had no idea what was causing it.

“It is not what mine was that should concern you, but what yours is.”

Clarke moved to walk directly beside her, and she felt Clarke’s knuckles brush hers as they moved in tangent.

Too close!

Every time their skin met the connection between them intensified. Clarke seemed to be doing this on purpose now.

“Love is weakness. That’s what you’re not saying.” Clarke sighed in irritation. “It’s back to Kostia.”

“It was before I met Kostia. I was only a child when I mastered the lesson. A vision showed me the way.” Lexa did not want to share that experience with Clarke. She would rather give her the calming exercises as a place to begin and help her find her own way.

“Well, it’s too bad I can’t see it for myself then.”

Lexa stopped walking, startled she looked at Clarke. She had not considered that possibility. Sharing blood had already caused her to reach into her own genetic line, which is something she was never able to do before. There were also the visions of what she believed to be Clarke's line now floating around in the back of her mind.

What more could happen to them both?

~

Until Lexa suddenly stopped them both, the weird pain in her lower abdomen had eased up drastically. There were only odd twinges now, but she felt her body flushing with heat.

She tried to stay focused on Lexa. She had to assume that loss was still what drove her to find the discipline she needed. She understood what Lexa wanted from her, finding her own fear and deal with it in her own way, without giving her a look into Lexa’s motivations.

Regardless of her denial, she believed fear of loss was Lexa’s real weakness.

Clarke was not a stranger to loss either, and knew it changed a person on every level. Unfortunately, she did not know if she could ever conquer that fear. Caring about other people made her human, and she did not know if it was something a person can or should overcome. It literally drove her right now in her desire to rescue the forty-seven people who expected her to lead them. She could admit to herself that loving someone might be different if the experience with Finn was the example, but she was still uncertain how much she cared for him if she was already recognizing the lack of need for him in her life already.

She focused hard on every nuance Lexa gave away while she spoke.

That twitch of an eye was telling.

The humming sensation intensified under her skin. She could feel Lexa like waves of wafting heat, and her body continued to tighten with each to the close proximity.

It was building. The hum inside that caused tingles to sweep across her nipples and short jolts of aching pain to pierce her lower abdomen.

She flinched at the incompatible sensations going on inside her body. She recognized the feeling of attraction, but the rest was definitely just pain happening in either her kidneys or possibly her uterus.

It was dulled now and throbbed with quick pulses.

She felt overheated and wondered if she was getting a fever.

Then an annoying itch crept along her chest, and she rubbed at it absently.

If it isn’t weird pains happening...

The itch worsened, and she looked down at her shirt, before moving it aside to investigate. The skin over her irregular shaped wounds was pale pink; the itchy feeling was coming from them and that meant the healing rate was astounding.

“Lexa!” Clarke caught her attention. “Do you heal faster?”

Lexa nodded slowly.

“It is something you will need to hide from others Clarke.”

Clarke was incredulous. “Why?” Her mind immediately went to all of the medical reasons that this information should be shared.

“Human nature.” Lexa replied. “What does knowing of a cure do to people if they cannot use it?”

Clarke still did not get why it would be a bad thing to share.

“Look at the Mountain Men and tell me that is not human nature at work.”

Clarke sighed. She got it now, but healing like this had many implications, and she could tell Lexa was withholding something. Lexa kept looking away from her. “What else are you not telling me, Lexa?”

Lexa finally looked at her and sighed. “I do not know how much my blood has changed you.” Her expression turned almost apologetic. “If the changes are like mine, then you will probably be immune to most poisons, at least all that I have been exposed to so far.” Lexa looked toward their route and started moving again. “In your memories, did you see anyone fight?”

Clarke thought about this for a moment. The memories experienced beyond her grandmother and her own birth were so fast and chaotic until the last one, that she was not sure. She considered the importance of Lexa’s advice for being calm to deal with memories, but she was calm right now and nothing but the vague impressions already revealed were available to her. She could not be sure if there were those kinds of memories from the slur of images in her head. “I can’t tell. Everything sped by so fast except for what I saw in the beginning and at the very end.”

Lexa nodded again, as though this was familiar. “It will come slowly unless you trigger them. I will show you how I meditate to prepare for accepting the visions tonight if you are willing.”

Clarke was willing, but then again, she really had no choice. Lexa was the only person she knew who could help her now, and possibly the only one at all. She would take whatever she could get because falling down and spacing out in front of everyone was not an option.

“What else?”

Lexa turned her head and regarded her for a moment. “Remembering has driven many commanders insane.” Lexa dropped this like a bomb and kept walking.

“What?! Why?”

She came to a full stop suddenly, and Clarke almost ran into her.

Lexa’s expression was inscrutable when she looked her right in the eyes. “If you are always healing, how do you grow old, how do you die?”

Clarke’s jaw went slack.

“Not a single Chosen Commander before me died because they were old, Clarke.”

“What?!” Clarke had an uneasy feeling about what that meant, just based on Lexa’s strange reaction to her own questions.

“Those that live a long time, long to die and they find a way to make that happen.”

“Why would they do that?” Clarke did not think she was really seeing where Lexa was taking this.

Lexa sighed and ducked her head before walking again. “I’m older than I look, Clarke.”

How old are you?”

“I’m twenty-six.” Lexa did not turn around. She just kept walking.

So, Lexa is…twenty-six…

That was not nearly as bad as what her mind jumped to first. For a moment, she feared that Lexa was going to tell her she was ninety-three or something.

She looked at the back of Lexa’s head now but had no problem picturing her features. Clarke was certain she could close her eyes and find them engraved on the back of her eyelids. To her, Lexa looked no older than nineteen years, yet Lexa was Chosen when she was only twelve years old.

Did the aging process stop at a certain time? How could she keep this a secret from anyone?

“I don’t see how you can hide something like that for long.”

Lexa’s voice was almost sad. “You cannot hide it forever. Most of them chose battle, a few chose a coward’s death, and others took up the Mask. Every option meant their death.”

Lexa glanced back at her to see if she finally understood. “It has never been safe to share the truth, Clarke. If the commander does not die for her people, then her people will die for her mistakes.”

In truth, Clarke could not really see herself in that situation. She could not picture a future spread out before her where it was not going to end before everyone she knew and loved grew old and died because she escaped the process. It just did not feel real for her, but the longer she gazed into Lexa’s haunted eyes, what she said fully registered. The end of that statement was about Kostia.

Clarke now saw a bigger picture.

Lexa had been alone in a way that no one should feel since she was a child. Clarke could see it so clearly embedded in Lexa’s features that she actually believed there was no other way but to be completely alone. Kostia’s murder had only reinforced the idea. Lexa was a warrior by training, but she was a martyr by station at her own choice to protect loved ones.

Within that moment, she felt overwhelmed for the woman in front of her, a person who continued to sacrifice herself for everyone else’s needs. Clarke reached out to her, wrapped her fingers around Lexa’s forearm, and held her gaze.

The hum grew loud and vibrated hard immediately in response; it hit just under the skin and tumbled through her body. She gasped and clenched her fingers tight as the feeling swept around her midsection and then spasms of pain struck again.

Lexa gasped. “Clarke!”

Clarke reached out with her other hand and caught hold of Lexa’s shoulder. She fell against her. She was not able to hide this level of pain.

Lexa wrapped her arms around her and lowered them both to the ground.

Those dull pains turned sharp and constant. Clarke’s whole body flushed with a fast fierce heat through her torso, but it originated from her lower abdomen. It was so hot now she could not bear it.

“What’s happening?” She cried out as she burned in pain. She caught her lip between her teeth and bit down, and then clawed with her fingers at her own stomach, trying to dig the fire out.

Vaguely, she was aware of Lexa restraining her and calling out to her name. She fought and scrambled to get away without reason.

Finally, Lexa trapped her in a full body hold. She could only turn her head, and when she did, her mouth found something else to bite down on.

It was overload and she slipped away.

~

Lexa watched Clarke reach for her and felt the agony wipe the empathy right off her face. The pain was enough that Lexa could not hide it either. She watched Clarke bite into her lip, and claw at her stomach, so she restrained her with the weight and leverage of her own body.

Clarke’s teeth suddenly found the flesh of her shoulder and bit reflexively without restraint.

Lexa cried out under the unexpected pain added on top of what Clarke was sending her from the abdominal agony. She did her best to keep them both still.

Suddenly, Clarke’s body bowed into Lexa’s and then went still. Clarke had almost bitten clean through the flesh at her shoulder before her mouth jerked away, tearing the punctured wound before she was free of teeth.

Lexa panted in shock for a moment, then laid Clarke on her side, and this time, she waited without trying to draw Clarke back to consciousness. She did not know what set off that kind of pain but knew Clarke was now experiencing a vision.

She sucked in air and slowed it down, staying in the present. Physical pain she could deal with, but it was the surprise of the unexpected source that threw her off. She conquered most reactionary fear responses a long time ago through a merciless regiment of training. As she waited, Lexa realized that the pain from Clarke lessened to a dull ache.

Clarke’s pain was one of the worst she had ever experienced. The only thing she could compare it to that was like it happened in a vision where the commander was gutted. The fact that it was subsiding so quickly made her wonder what it was and why it happened at all.

Lexa sat next her and waited.

Why was this happening?

She thought back to the first time they had lost consciousness.

There had been a burning pain before she passed out, and when she woke up...

She was facedown in water. Now that she considered it, her body had been completely relaxed before she had reacted as most people would to the fear of drowning.  Logically, she should be dead right now. Being a Commander did not keep them from dying by drowning, there were two in her line who drowned proved that. Yet she had drowned, but had woken up anyway. There was no logical way to explain it, she had been breathing in water and it had kept her alive.

She stared at Clarke.

What have you done to me? What have we done to each other?

Clarke’s pain ended in tiny surging pulses extending further apart as time passed.

Lexa sighed with relief when the pain was at a full stop. Now more than ever, she believed that their fates were tied together in some way.

After a time, she noticed the self-inflicted bloody bite mark on Clarke’s bottom lip was already healing over.

They had shared blood for a third time. The sting in her shoulder was almost gone, and she could actually feel the wound closing. At this rate, she did not know what state they would be in when the made it back to camp.

~

Clarke floated in the darkness, interrupted with the chaos of colored patterns strung all around her. It was not as unnerving as the first time, and she was finally free from the pain of her body.

Lexa had warned her of the need to have a firm will and stay calm in order to navigate memories, so she considered what she needed to know. She recalled her startled expression at the idea that she might be able to see into her somehow and realized that Lexa had the answers but did not want to part with them. Clarke was about to try for that experience.

At first, nothing happened. There was no sensation of movement at all.

She focused harder to clarify what she believed she needed to know. It took only a moment before a pattern of color separated itself from the masses and Clarke flew into it.

She landed with a jerk of displacement and moment of disorientation inside a body. There were muffled sounds as she waited for the world to open up. Slowly, she could hear the wind blowing hard and someone walking. Like a light switch coming on, the world snapped into to place and she was looking at a woman laid out on a dirt floor.

She looked down at a woman with dark blond hair.

She did not move or breathe, as her eyes traveled along knife wounds that covered her arms until they reached her hand. Her fingers were missing. 

The woman was obviously dead.

Her chest burned and within a few moments, a cry of anguish left her throat. Tears were wet on her face, but she made no move to wipe them.

Clarke could see that they were alone after another sob left their throat and eyes looked around in blurred sightlessness.

Her mouth shaped words and choked on the sound of them.

Finally, they spilled out in a strangled whisper. “Why?! Why did you not listen to me?  I could never keep you. I wanted to set you free! I told you I would see you safe from it!”

Clarke ached with her, she had no idea memories could be so painful, and understood what Lexa meant by being tested with them.

I will never do this to another! I promise. You will be the last to suffer at my hand.”

Clarke wanted to add her tears; it hurt to witness this kind of grief and in this manner. She could not get away from it.

She whispered repeatedly, “Please forgive me, Kostia! Please…forgive...” Pleading turned bitter in her chest, she reached out to touch the woman’s face and was shocked when the woman’s head continued to shift under the pressure of fingertips, away from the body.

Clarke was shocked in her own right. She was now certain she made it to Lexa’s memories. Clarke recalled Lexa’s description of her torture and decapitation. This was Kostia in front of them.

Kostia was laid at rest in such a way that the severing was hidden from eyes with cloth draping, but the deception did not survive direct contact.

Clarke was not sure how long they sat there, just looking at the Kostia. It could have been hours.

Lexa’s body stiffened up and her legs lost circulation.

While she waited with Lexa, she remembered hearing almost the same phrase come from her mouth. “Please forg-.” Clarke realized now that she never wanted to hear those words from Lexa. She never wanted to hear Lexa pleading, in the voice of a woman so lost and alone, directed at her for anything.

Lexa began to look around, as though waking. The burn of bitter sadness changed to resolution and then to a red-hot rage.

Clarke had never experienced anything that strong in her life, it took a moment to recognize it for what it was, the need for revenge and the need to cause catastrophic harm.

Clarke felt herself slipping, and she willingly detached from Lexa’s body with its painful memory to drift for a moment outside of her. She was displaced but aware.

She thought she knew the purpose behind the question she asked had hardly formulated in her mind before searching. She needed to understand how to control memories. Yet, she had headed straight to Lexa’s private pain. Did her wants overrule that need and she was drawn to find a different truth? Was the answer to both want and need within the understanding of Lexa’s reserve of loving another? She was not certain if she gained an understanding of how to control memories, but at least one thing made sense to her now, and she could see why Lexa kissed her the way she did.

Her focus relaxed and she was drawn back into the surrounding darkness.  She floated free from Lexa’s pattern and saw lines connecting to it. As if they were aware of her need more than she herself understood, she watched them arrange themselves into a cohesive line and was sucked into Grounder memories at great speed, leaving afterimages burned across her consciousness.

She did not even try to follow it all, but a general theme seemed to occur. Every Commander of Lexa’s line was a woman as was everything connected to her through the passage of donated blood. She did not know how much of this she would remember when she woke, but she would not forget the death of Kostia from Lexa’s point of view. The forty-seven Clarke needed to rescue, just became forty-eight in her heart.

~

Lexa watched her come to slowly.

Clarke’s eyelids fluttered several times before she committed to keeping them open. Her breathing was calm, and her emotions settled.

She was picking up very little from Clarke now. She hoped she had found what she needed. “Are you alright?”

Clarke turned and looked at her, studying her face for a long moment. “I think I will be now.”

“Do you still feel pain?”

Clarke gave her contemplative look, then seemed to recall herself and looked down at her stomach. “No. Whatever it was, it stopped.”

“If you are able to walk, we need to leave. We are almost to midday now.”

Clarke nodded and got to her feet.

Lexa could not resist reaching out a hand to her elbow to steady her, but Clarke got to her feet on her own and simply looked at the offered hand as she withdrew it.

Lexa stepped back, forming distance between them. She was uncertain what Clarke had experienced and decided to wait for her to share, if or when she was ready.

Lexa stopped and positioned herself and Clarke behind a tree.

She signaled for silence.

Clarke said nothing and waited quietly. She had been particularly reticent since waking.

Within a few moments, soft noises could be heard of someone moving closer.

Octavia slipped into view along with two other warriors.

Lexa looked on as they passed by their hiding place, then turned to Clarke with a look in her eye that caused Clarke’s lips to twitch in amusement.

Lexa slipped away from the tree and signaled to the two warriors who, almost immediately took note of her, to stay silent as she snuck up on Octavia.

Lexa began placing her feet in every footstep Octavia made until she was literally behind her and able to whisper upon the back of her neck. “You’re dead Octavia.”

Octavia leaped around with her long knife out and Lexa caught her wrist easily, pushing her arm in an outward arc away from their bodies.

Octavia quickly lowered her arm in a huff, trying to maintain her cool after being scared half to death by the Commander.

“Where have you guys been? Everyone’s looking for you.”

Clarke moved to Lexa’s side as Octavia recovered from surprise.

After a moment, Octavia got a horrified look on her face. “What it that smell?!” She covered her nose glaring at them suspiciously.

Clarke felt the need to share.

“Aww…Octavia, don’t you need a hug right now?” Clarke advanced and Octavia looked shocked for a second before she caught on and took off in as close to a dignified running walk she could manage, all while holding her nose.

Clarke turned to see what Lexa made of their horseplay, her eyes gleamed in the early afternoon sunlight and the edge of a smile was peeking at the corner of her mouth for a moment.

Lexa looked away from Clarke’s suddenly tender expression and called all of them to order, and then they made their way to camp.

Chapter Text

Late Afternoon, October 27th, 2334 - 267 A.F. (Activation: Day 01)

Clarke heard a faint ping when something fell to the cement floor. She picked it up and held it in the palm of her hand. It was a tiny sphere-shaped coiled strand with copper balls winding through it, and she stared at it for several long moments. Standing naked after drying off from her bath, she wondered where it came from, and looked down the length of her body to see a line of blood sliding down her thigh.

It took several moments to connect everything she was seeing since there was no visible injury. She was having a menstrual cycle for the second time in her life.

She pinched the tiny sphere between her thumb and forefinger, and watched it give way to pressure, and then resume its shape when she released it. She knew what this was. She had seen pictures of it in digital files during her training in Medical.

Intra uterine ball.

Unsteady, she sat down on the edge of the bathing basin with the intra uterine ball device held between her trembling digits.

It was something she received to keep her from becoming pregnant without authorization on the Ark. It caused her body just rejected anything that tried to take root in her womb.

She looked again at the blood still making its way down her body. The injection had also quit working since she was now having a menstrual cycle. She let out a deep breath she did not realize she was holding.  Her body just rejected both anti-pregnancy methods.

Swinging her legs over the cement side of the bathing pool, she moved down the step and into the flow of water while trying to think through why this was happening to her now.

The pain.

She rested her free hand over her lower belly and pressed.

Not kidneys, my uterus.

Nothing like this had happened to her before or any woman she read about during training. If a woman’s body rejected the device, it happened soon after receiving it, and there was never descriptions of pain the magnitude Clarke went through as documented reactions.         

She thought of speaking to her mother but felt an immediate aversion to the idea. Her mother would use this as an excuse to keep her from her obligations.

Clarke currently felt very little pain, except for an occasional twinge of discomfort. It made sense if she was having a menstrual cycle, at least that is what she had read. She did not remember her first cycle that well because its duration was shortened by the injection and having an IUB inserted.

Seems like a normal reaction right now...

She dropped her hand from her stomach.

What’s weird is the fact that it happened at all.

The only conclusion she could come to was that this had to do with sharing blood with Lexa. For a moment, she considered going to her to ask ‘what the hell’ was happening, but realized that Lexa probably had no idea what an IUB device would be.

We shared blood.

It had to be their connection through a shared blood experience, and Lexa had not understood that very well either, at least from a medical standpoint.

What if I can’t share this with anyone?

She did not understand exactly how the Compulsion worked or what caused it, but it worried her all the same.

Is this something I’ll have to keep to myself?

She let the tiny ball fall into the palm of her hand and curled her fingers into a fist.

I might have to figure this out on my own.

The sounds of footsteps echoed faintly of someone coming down the tunnel corridor and into the bathing room, which brought Clarke out of her thoughts.

Octavia stepped down into the room with a change of clothing in her hands and set them on a bench by the door. “Octavia, do you know what the Grounders use as padding for their menstrual cycles?”

Octavia looked startled for a minute at the question. “I’m not sure. That really hasn’t come up. Why?”

Clarke debated on what she could get away with telling her without it becoming a problem leading back to her mom. “I just started my cycle, but I don’t have anything to…”

“Oh, right.” Octavia started moving toward the entrance. “I’ll go see what I can find.” Before she left, she stopped and turned. “Hey, aren’t the injections supposed to work until you’re twenty-four?”

“There are different kinds, a one, six, and a ten-year injection.” Clarke hoped that was enough information to satisfy Octavia’s curiosity. She just made up the sixth year injection to cover for herself suddenly having a cycle now. The one-year injection was used when there was an extenuating circumstance, a medical issue happening or a miscarriage and the potential mother was forced to wait a year of heal before trying again. The ten-year injection was used when a girl first began having a menstrual cycle, rendering her unable to reproduce until she exceeded majority yet continued every ten years afterward if she had a child.

“Right. I’ll see what I can find for you,” and she left.

Clarke did not think she would have any problems with Octavia being curious. It was obvious to her that she wanted nothing to do with the Ark and its rules now that she did not have to be a part of it. Octavia was choosing the Grounder way of living more every day with the way she talked and acted. Clarke doubted she had any interest in medical knowledge from the Ark.

As Clarke waited for Octavia to return, it occurred to her that no women from the Ark were able to have children right now. She wondered if her mother had realized this yet and decided she now had a way to bring up the IUB device without referring to her personal stake in needing to know more about it.

There was a hormone therapy available when she had been on the Ark to reverse the injection, and only the removal of the IUB remained, but she did not know if all the medical supplies made it through the crash landing at Camp Jaha.

Octavia came in and dropped some strips of cloth on top of the clothes. “Best I could do without asking your mom for a menstrual cup.”

Chagrined, she moved to get out of the water. “You didn’t tell her-“

Octavia cut in. “No. I got the idea you would have asked her already if you wanted her to know.”

“Thanks, for not saying anything.”

Octavia paced around the room while she dressed, delaying her departure. “How long do you think it will take him to get in there and call us on the radio?”

Clarke got her new Grounder shirt fastened. “I don’t think we’ll hear from him until tomorrow afternoon at the earliest.” Clarke pulled the lacing up on her new Grounder boots.

“Why did it have to be him? You should have been the one to go back. You already knew how to get in.” Octavia was refusing to look at her.

Clarke stilled for a moment to study her. She knew Octavia was afraid, both of the men she loved were going into danger and she knew she could lose them all at once. “I’m sorry, it had to be them. They’ll both come back because you’re waiting for them.”

Octavia sighed and her body slackened. “I know,” then she headed to the door, “Your mom is looking for you.”

“Where is she?”

“She just came from seeing Lexa. She wanted me to find you and tell you she would be in the building next to hers.” Octavia smirked. “Your mom was pissed off.”

Clarke gathered her washed wet clothing and walked toward the door. “You mean about the plan to send Bellamy into Mount Weather?”

“Probably that too, but she got kicked out of Lexa’s War Room and told that only the Alliance leaders were allowed to stay in the rooms next to hers.” Octavia seemed to be taking a lot of pleasure from this.

Clarke groaned. What did her mother do now, and what was Lexa trying to do by rubbing it in that Abby Griffin, the actual Chancellor, has no control of the situation?

They made their way up the step and through the tunnel to ground level, then made their way into the building next to Lexa’s, but Octavia stopped before Clarke stepped down into the stairway.

“You’re on your own now.” Smirking, she turned and left Clarke to face her mother alone.          

Clarke made her way down and inside to find her mother in the second room off the tunnel corridor. She was sitting with two Grounders at a table eating and it sounded like they were talking about what was in the bowls in front of them. Her mother spotted her and Clarke moved to join them at the table, setting her wet clothes down beside her, then she grabbed an empty bowl and spoon from a stack on a bench near where the food was set out.

Her belly gurgled loud enough for everyone in the room to hear it.

I don’t care what it is, I’m gonna eat it!

Her mother quirked an eyebrow at her, and she ignored it.

With two strangers present, she knew her mother would not speak about personal issues, and she was going to make use of that to eat in peace.

The Grounders left right as she returned to her seat with a second helping.

Her mother sidled inches closer and looked at her.

Clarke kept her eyes fixed on the task of eating and began counting down from ten in her head. By the time she reached five, her mother was shifting in her seat, and by the count of one, her mother geared up to speak.

“Lexa wanted me to tell you that there is a room for you in her building to sleep in.” Clarke nodded while shoveling another bite into her mouth and staring into the bowl. Whatever this stuff was, it was good.

She did notice the understated emphasis on keywords like “room”, “you”, and “her building”.

This is what Octavia meant when she had said her mother was pissed off. 

Clarke’s solution right now was to avoid making anything of it, unless her mother insisted, and then Clarke would act to defend someone.

But who is the bad guy this time?

Clarke glanced at her mother and waited.

“The Commander wants you at her beck and call, Clarke. Do you understand she is using you?”

Clarke frowned at this and wondered where she was trying to take this conversation. “What do you mean, using me for what?”

Now that she had Clarke’s full attention, her mother leaned closer, interlocking her own fingers tightly upon the table and gave Clarke a measuring look. “Instead of working with me as the Chancellor, the Commander is using you to keep us at odds with each other.”

Clarke wanted to dismiss this immediately, but she could see the tension in her mother’s hands and eyes and realized her mother really believed it.

Clarke felt a twinge of unease settle in her stomach. A person with the Chancellor’s power could act on this misdirected idea and undermine the Alliance, or worse, get them all killed. She needed to keep her mother from reacting with fear of Lexa. “You’re wrong. Lexa doesn’t need us. She only needs someone to turn off the acid fog and get a door open, but we need her if we ever want to get my people back, and then we’ll need help to make it through the winter. The Ground isn’t safe when you’re clueless!”

Her mother’s expression shuttered. “Your people?”

She tensed, realizing what she gave away was the truth, and though she had not meant to voice it to her mother, there was no help for it now. “Yes,mine. Lexa has the warriors to take Mount Weather without anyone you didn’t send down here to die.”

Her mother’s eyes flashed betrayal at her words. “That isn’t the reason you were sent down here, Clarke!”

For a moment, Clarke’s thoughts went to Raven being sent to the Ground. Her mother supported the Ark sending one-hundred people to the surface, and when it was not enough, she sent Raven down on her own. Raven’s life was just as expendable in the long view, or she would not have risked using her the way she did.

That kind of thinking did not bode well for any of the one hundred still alive and in need of rescuing.

As far as Clarke was concerned, there were no ties anymore, unless the one hundred wanted them. “You still weren’t positive we weren’t dying of radiation poisoning when you sent Raven down here, were you?”

Her mother’s mouth opened and snapped shut again. She was not going to address it.

There were too many unsaid things between them. It was too much like her mother finding a reason to have her father killed, and that was still something she was not ready to talk about, or deal with her mother’s need to be right getting in the way of doing what she needed to do. “I have to go. Lexa is expecting me soon.”

Her mother’s expression begged that she stay, but Clarke ignored it as she gathered her wet clothes and left.

The night sky darkened the world around her as she made her way to Lexa’s building and down into the tunnel corridor and it came to her then, that she had never brought up to her mother the fact that every woman from the Ark was essentially a genetic null right now. She sighed.

Maybe on the trip back to Camp Jaha.

A guard at the entrance directed her to enter a room one door down from the one holding Lexa’s War Table. Before he left, he informed her that the Commander would meet with her in a few hours.

As she entered the room and the subtle hum of Lexa’s presence thrilled just underneath her skin, telling her that she was close.

Probably on the other side of this wall.

She stepped closer and laid her hand upon the cement.

Now that the sensation was not connected to pain any longer, she began to derive some comfort from the feel of Lexa’s presence this way. Her breath slipped quietly past her lips in a long exhale and she relaxed under the slight increase of the steady sensation from someone who might understand her at the same level. This kind of nonverbal communication was like nothing she had ever imagined possible before.

She stepped away from the wall, looking around the room for places to hang her clothing, and found an area near an unlit fire pit that had cord stretched across the corner of the room. She draped everything over it, then approached a low fur covered bed. She ran her hands over the thick overlapping materials, surprised by how soft they were to the touch. For the first time in a long while, she was not expected anywhere immediately.

She sat down and then lay back on the bed for a minute. Slowly, her muscles relaxed incrementally as she settled into the padding. It was so much better than the ground or even the synthetic material used on the Ark for bedding.

She wondered if she had time for a nap, and closed her eyes. By all accounts, she should be very tired, but she found she was not for the moment. It was irritating that her body had energy to spare now that her stomach was full, and her mind would not stop running over the same series of thoughts. Giving up on sleeping, she decided to evaluate everything objectively. It was possible she was missing something that would become clear if only she looked hard enough.

When she gave consent for him to leave, he had looked her in the eye and promised he would get the acid fog down and release the prisoners.

Clarke believed that he would find a way if there was one. Bellamy wanted to be a man who stood by his word. He wanted to prove himself worthy more than anything else, and that would drive him to stop at nothing short of dying to take out the acid fog. She knew he was the right man for the job, but was not certain he could get to the area containing the acid. He would do all of this for their friends, but most importantly, for his sister Octavia, to make the world a safer place for her to live in. Out of all the of issues her mind cycled through, his motivations were ones she understood and the least complicated to deal with.

Yet, there was no way to know if he had succeeded in even getting into Mount Weather from the tunnels until he found a radio to contact them. Clarke made sure he memorized the settings and channel number of the distress signal that Raven had discovered. Everything else was in his hands. There was no way for her to prepare for him failing or succeeding either way, so she set this aside.

She was depending on Raven to take Mount Weather’s power away from them. This was the backup plan. If Bellamy failed and they could not get their people out, they would be for forced to cut power to Mount Weather. She did not know how long the people inside could live without it and hoped she would not need to find out. When she had first explained how she thought the generators worked to Lexa, she believed she had seen Lexa's eye glint with a flash of vengeance. It might become necessary to cut the power at some point, and if they did have to do that, she feared Lexa would not be able to hold her people back in taking the blood they claim for injustice.

Raven would help her man the radio, take out the generators if needed, figure out how to neutralize the acid fog if they had to and find a solution to anything she had not thought of yet. It was not the least bit fair to put all of that on one person, but she had no one else remaining with her outside Mount Weather who was as smart as Raven or that she trusted enough to avoid getting people killed.

She would talk to her as soon as they got back to Camp Jaha, and maybe see if she had any ideas on assisting her mother with the Reapers or keeping them at bay like Lincoln had described the Mountain Men doing while they accomplished everything else.

She worried about Lincoln’s condition. The addictive drug Mount Weather used on the Reapers was, without a doubt, chemical warfare. Many of those she had seen in the tunnels seemed to have developed physical deformities on top of the inhuman need for flesh.

She overheard her mother talking to someone from Medical about Reaper symptoms while treating the ones brought in by the TriKru. The drug acted on a person’s nervous system and interrupted the normal cognitive abilities, leaving them deprived of the desire for natural stimuli and caused permanent damage if left untreated for too long. This did not even take into account the psychological damage of living that way and further impairing their desire to recover. They had no normal impulse control anymore and had to relearn what it meant to have control again.

She hoped Lincoln would be able to withstand the draw of addiction for everyone’s sake. He was going to have access to the drug when he entered the Mountain again to lead Bellamy through the tunnels.

They needed proof that complete rehabilitation was possible for the Reapers, not just keeping them alive during withdrawal, which is all that she was aware of Medical accomplishing so far. After all, their survival to return as active warriors, like Lincoln appeared to be, was what convinced Lexa that an Alliance could work between them, and she needed to make good on keeping the rehabilitated Reapers alive.

For Lincoln, most of his desire to recover seemed to stem from his need to be worthy of Octavia. It was not something that the Medical team would be able to duplicate. They needed individual support from people who knew them from before.

She could not afford for Octavia to lose her cool and do something stupid because she was afraid for Bellamy or Lincoln.

Maybe Indra will keep her busy.

She also needed to keep the girl from discussing things with her mother that she could not or would not talk about yet. At that thought, the conflict between her and her mother reared its head again, and her throat tightened in pain.

Taking chances with all of their lives.

Every scenario in which her mother acted out of fear or ignorance would sabotage the deal made with Lexa to keep the Alliance. She needed to keep that from happening.

She’s the Chancellor, what am I supposed to do?

Gathering her courage to be ready, she might have to be the one to step in and take control away from her own mother, she let out a tense breath.

Her mother would either accept the reality of their situation or fight her for the right to convince the forty-seven people who landed with her to fall in line with the unforgiving system that abandoned them. She was doing everything she knew to do to get them back before it was too late.

They could already be dead!

Her eyes suddenly stung with hot clinging tears because it seemed that death followed her. Quint was a prime example. He was dead now, revenge unsatisfied, despite her lack of effort to defend herself.

Lexa had wanted her to kill him, but she had hesitated and Lexa had taken care of the threat by hamstringing him, then leaving him for bait to distract the Pauna. Lexa’s certainty, in knowing exactly what to do, was so efficient and effortless that only moments passed between the decision to kill him and dispatching him in a way that would serve her best. It left Clarke in awe.

She knew she had a skill similar to this when she solved problems in a crisis. It would come to her, a means of seeing the world differently in a split second, that changed everything for those she protected. It had happened with the sword she had placed in the door to keep the Pauna out and later, to cage it. It had beaten viciously against its home turned prison, but had only escaped once it had worn down the barrier.

They were all in cages.

Her thoughts went to the hole in the ground, and how she and Lexa had cut their way through the Pauna to have their freedom back, as well as the connective thinking that led her from Pauna, to her own birth, and then to those who were trapped in another kind of cage.  She developed a complex understanding of the collective force Lexa’s people could have already inside the mountain, just waiting for someone to release them, to wear down the barrier.

It was not the first time she had used the skill. She had burned two-hundred and fifty warriors alive because she connected the power of rocket launchers not working the way they were intended. Even the way she killed Finn, she realized, was just another premeditated deliberation of using whatever opportunity chance gave her. She had walked up to the stake in the ground and began the process of mourning him even as she had still stared into his eyes, then she had stolen his life.

Maybe she was not that different from Lexa after all.

Why am I like this?

A tear slipped away from her lashes.

Maybe Lincoln is right and we all have monsters inside.

She reached up and wiped it away.

At least I can control mine.

She took a deep breath, let it out, and tried to let the worry go.

Is this skill the reason everyone expects me to have all the answers? Because I control mine?

She unexpectedly recalled her mother’s words to her in front of her cell on the Ark, right before the guards had drugged her into compliance and forced her onto the dropship.

Her mother held onto her hands as she spoke with great urgency. “Your instincts will tell you to take care of everybody else first, just like your father.”

She had not understood then what her mother had meant and doubted Abby even now understood exactly how true it had come to be. Clarke had done so many things since landing on the ground that she never would have considered herself capable of before that were terrible and done in desperation just to keep them all safe. 

Was this drive to protect others an inherent need she had received from her father? All of a sudden, she wondered how much of this was not even really about them at all.

Her grandmother’s manipulative and chilling words to her grandfather as she had him floated played out in her mind once again, and then the teasing thought of the power Lexa had shared with her to remember other Commander’s lives pivoted through the meaning of what she did not fully understand. There was something essential there, but she felt as though she did not have all the pieces yet.

Clarke tensed with the sharp turn her mind took, and she opened her eyes.

Instead of seeing the cracks in concrete above her, she was staring into a bright burning fire beyond the makeshift grating. There had been no fire burning when she lay back on the bed.

She looked down at her left hand and saw that she was rubbing her thumb in a smoothing motion across her fingernails, and sitting with one leg crossed over the other, neither of which were mannerisms she had. A chill flashed from the base of her spine to the top of her head and she shuddered. She needed to talk to Lexa now.

~

Lexa entered her War Room clean from her private bathing chamber to find Indra and Octavia waiting for her. Without preliminaries, she addressed the Leader of the TriKru. “Quint betrayed the Alliance, his fight is over.”

Indra took a deep breath, aware of the duty being assigned to her, knowing his people’s need for revenge would likely cause further grief.

“Felix did not return with you.” Indra’s voice was quiet.

Lexa’s eyes glimmered a moment with regret. “His fight is over. He died with honor protecting the Alliance.”

Indra nodded shortly at another duty added to her shoulders, but at least there was Honor to place when she informed his family.

“Octavia has agreed to become my Second.”

Lexa turned at the woman’s words and considered Octavia carefully while she thought about the ramifications of this move on Indra’s part.

Octavia stood tall and still, staring off into a corner of the room, realizing the Commander judged her, in this moment.

Lexa could see that she was taking it seriously, but doubted that she understood what being a Second really meant or in particular, what being Indra’s Second meant.

She turned to Indra to judge as well, as was the expected when considering a warrior willing to train an outsider and bring them under her command. Lexa could break this agreement before it became a real bond between them if she felt justified in doing so with any of her people but had rarely exercised that right. However, Indra was not just any warrior, and her taking on a Second this soon after losing Anya was telling. She gave them both their due consideration by deliberately withholding an immediate response, but did not make them wait too long.

She relaxed her stance and gave a short bow to them both. It was acceptance and it was what Indra waited for.

“Octavia.” Lexa stepped closer. “I look forward to seeing what you can do. To be Indra’s Second, you will have to show us many skills you currently lack.”

Octavia nodded sharply. “Yes, Commander.” It looked for a moment as though she would add more, but decided against it.

She hoped Indra could teach her to control it. She glanced at Indra as she shifted from one foot to the other in an unsubtle movement of impatience.     

Finally, Indra stepped forward. “Octavia, go to the guards at the entrance and ask to be put on perimeter duty tonight. I will meet you outside later.”

Octavia glanced at both of them for a second before giving them an awkward nodding bow of her head, then turned and left.

Lexa strode over to the War Table and picked up a pair of small stones, placing them at the entrance to the cave in the mountain. She waited. Indra staying meant that she intended to speak without Octavia present, yet she hesitated.

Lexa tilted her head to look at Indra. “Was she chosen by you, or was she chosen for you?”

Indra huffed and looked away in consternation, but returned a measured look when their eyes met again. “Both.”

Lexa studied her expression a moment longer before looking down at the table, a smile edging in at the corner of her mouth where Indra could not see it. “Very well, I trust your judgment in this.”

Humor wiped away, she looked back to see that Indra understood, and received a short nod.

There was more to being a Second when your First was Indra. She trained Leaders. Indra’s judgment of Octavia must be certain, considering the dissatisfaction still felt in the lack of retribution for the eighteen innocent lives taken between their people. Lexa suspected Indra chose to take on the responsibility because she could not ignore a choice already made for her.

She turned back to the Table. “Clarke has sent Bellamy make his way inside the tunnels of the mountain and sabotage the acid fog. Lincoln will be leading him to the entrance.  According to Lincoln, they should reach it by mid-morning tomorrow.” She moved two large stones into positions, one outside of the main door and one to the door within the tunnels. She picked up a smaller stone and held it in her hand, feeling the weight of it, as she considered its importance. Clarke had underestimated this potential move when they had spoken of it earlier.

Leaning over the Table, she set the small stone down at the entrance to Mount Weather’s power supply that sat high on the mountain not far from the Maunon radio tower. “Clarke has someone who can turn off their power supply.”

“You put too much trust in people who are not yours.”

Lexa looked at her, challenge brimming in her eyes, dropping her voice low as she carefully replied. “I am the Commander.”

The words sat heavily between them, much the way their personal history rested when the reminder of their past made itself known. She knew that Indra believed she owed her for things they never brought up again aloud.

The tense moment between them lengthened uncomfortably.

Lexa wanted to redirect the course of their conversation. “Have the scouts send out a message to the tribal leaders that we will meet tomorrow at midday.”

There was a sound of someone entering. A guard stepped into the room followed by Abby Griffin.

Indra's face briefly flashed disdain before sliding back to stoicism as she made her way past them and out of the room.

Lexa watched her go and envied her ability to leave for a moment. She was aware of the problems caused by forming an Alliance with this woman’s daughter over her, the official leader of Camp Jaha, but if given the choice again she would choose Clarke. This woman did not see beyond the immediate needs of her own people, and that made her a liability to the Alliance. The animosity building between this woman and her daughter could not stand in front of their people; a Spirit chose Clarke, and Lexa would support her rightful claim.

She resettled in her space, placing herself upon the TonDC Throne with casual authority and draping her hands, fingers dangling past the ends of the armrests.

“Abby Griffin of the Sky People.” Lexa acknowledged her and waited to see how she would take the deliberate disregard of rank.

Abby hesitated, at the lack of proper address, before approaching Lexa with a resolute expression. “Why were you and Clarke gone almost a full day?”

“We investigated the area north of TonDC, for encroachment.”

Lexa did not specifically lie, while returning she had, in fact, noted the terrain from a height for both advantages and disadvantages to the lay of the land in the distance. She knew the answer was not what Abby Griffin wanted from her, but Lexa did not give in to personal demands.

Abby’s eyelid twitched at the comment. “Clarke is needed at Camp Jaha. She isn’t a scout and she would be of more assistance to her people if she is with them.”

Lexa studied Abby Griffin for a long moment. The woman did not know her daughter if she believed that Clarke would tolerate that kind of hobbling while her friends remained in danger, nor did Abby understand that this was no longer a choice available to her.

She had heard tales from Lincoln of what had happened to the young people that had crashed down in their Dropship. Lexa curled her fingers around the rigid bone underneath her hand, then leaned forward in her seat. “When you sent them to the ground, did you know they would live?”

Abby inhaled sharply, caught off guard and she answered truthfully. “We did not know for certain-“

Lexa cut her off. “You sacrificed one hundred people the day you sent them to the ground.  You and your people landed on our land without permission. That is an act of war.” Lexa leaned back and with a measured, deliberate pace, she delivered her message. “It was good for your people that the Sacrificed lived. Without Clarke and those she claims standing between your people and mine, your bones would be dust in the wind.”

Abby froze.

A line was drawn.

Lexa waited for a response.

Abby swallowed hard but said nothing.

Lexa continued speaking as though she had not rendered Abby Griffin’s authority useless. “Clarke and I have made a plan to infiltrate Mount Weather. She sent Bellamy as an inside man. He will report to Clarke what he finds, and then he will remove the threat of acid fog.”

Her patience at an end with the woman, she decided not to share more. If Clarke wanted to oblige the woman any further, then she would see fit to do so at her own discretion.There was no other way to keep the growing detachment between Abby Griffin and Clarke from interfering with the Alliance. Mother or not, Clarke would need to assert her real authority over this woman soon; there was no room for familial connection subverting leadership when war approached.

“Where is Clarke now?”

“I am sure she will be along soon.” Lexa thought of her own needs and came to a means of smoothing the way, at least between the two of them. “We did not have time to eat on our way back, I am sure she will be hungry.”

Abby pivoted to leave but pulled up short. “Is there a place for us to sleep here before we go back to our Camp in the morning?”

“The building to the east of this one has food, and you will find an area that you can rest in for the night.” Abby turned again to leave, but Lexa’s words stopped her. “Be certain to let Clarke know that she will be needed here. I will have a room prepared for her.”

The back of Abby’s head tilted up, shoulders stiffening, and then she left.

She called her guard into the room from just outside the entrance and ordered them to have the room adjacent to her own made ready for Clarke.

She sighed. She had done what she could for Clarke to secure the freedom of privacy for her while in TonDC, but now she needed to eat. It would not be long before others came to claim their piece of her limited time.

The interruptions began as she took her second bite.

Emissaries of Quint’s people came and she dealt with their misplaced anger, banking the fire of deep resentment for Clarke by personally offering the consequence of public death in front of all their people if they chose to pursue it. She determined whom she could tolerate the most as the new acting Alliance leader for their people.

Even if she disliked him, Delmar of the Ice Nation was the most well-known war leader among their own and respected by his kin. The situation was not resolved of tension from the Ice Nation’s hatred of outsiders, but it was contained for the moment, so she sent them on their way.

She took quick bites while waiting for the next interruption.

Indra returned and presented an account of the warrior’s disinterest in training with the Sky People and how foolish Sky People were in general.

Lexa demanded tolerance and gave Indra’s choice of Octavia for Second as an example of proof that the TriKru were not trying hard enough to integrate the Sky People into the TriKru’s fold.

Indra’s expression was sour when she left.

Lexa was close to clearing her plate when two warriors approached together requesting an audience. These were men from tribes who normally hated one another. Curiosity peaked, she bid them enter and heard them out.

They wanted to know how long the communal food area would house Sky People. With the most important issues covered already, the complainers had taken notice of the lull in traffic to see her.

Lexa resisted the desire to given in to her temper, but it was time to put things into perspective for her people.

She pulled out her tin of black war paint, and strode up to the scarred wooden post just off-center across the room while they continued to speak. She smeared a careful small circle over the roughened wood and returned to her throne. The warriors fell silent. She pulled her knife from its sheath to play with its edge for a moment. “The Sky People are not the only ones that depend on this Alliance.”

Thunk!

Metal bit into wood dead center within the circle. Her stride became taut with tension after she pulled the blade free and moved back to her throne.

She met their eyes for a moment, “it is wise to be gracious,” then spun around.

Thunk!

She retrieved the blade and flipped it repeatedly, catching it by the handle while it spun in slow rotation on the downward arc in front of her. Finally, she stopped her posturing and gave them a look. “How else do you expect them to learn unless you show them what we expect in return?”

Both warriors suddenly saw the wisdom of her words and made to leave before she stopped them.

“Make certain your kinsman realize how necessary the role of a host is and must not be taken lightly.”

They left after she received nods of acknowledgment from them both.

How far would they go?

Those two warriors had given her an insight into the depths of pettiness her people were capable of expressing.

It was not just the fact that her own people resisted change, it was that Clarke and the rest of the Sky People had no place to call their own. They were interlopers, and the recovery of the captives from the Mountain would end the Alliance as it was stood between Clarke and the Twelve Tribes unless they renegotiated. Clarke’s People had little to offer. There was little toleration for most technology among any Clan or Tribe. The Sky People’s healing skills showed advancement far beyond all current healers within any of People she knew of, but that would not be enough when the representative for healing was Abby Griffin. Tribal pride would interfere.

Still considering this, she told her guards she was not to be disturbed unless it was Clarke and to inform her that they would meet in a few hours. She needed that time anyway to write the report that Polis expected from her soon, and time to mentally prepare for a training session with Clarke. Her hand paused above the paper the moment Clarke entered the room next to hers. The feel of her presence thrummed through her insides.

Clarke was still projecting her emotional state of being. They were not chaotic now; she was able to sense something like peace for a short span.

She returned to writing.

Clarke’s emotions cascading over her Thrum disappeared abruptly and completely.

Unease coursed through her at the lack of Clarke’s feelings teasing at her consciousness.

Something is wrong.

She lowered her ink-stained hand to the table but resisted the pull go to her.

The void of silence was suddenly unnerving.

She scooted the stool back from the table, and then hesitated again. She had no logical reason to check up on her. The vibrations of life still hummed quiet, muted.

Reluctantly, she pulled the stool back, and sat hunched at a corner of her table, focused on composing the latest events for the Alliance and state of war upon Mount Weather to her superiors in Polis, doing her best to ignore her unease for the woman in the room next to her. Eventually, her pride gave way and she had someone go see to Clarke’s “comfort”.  She could not inquire after that or she would offend the person who saw to Clarke’s “comfort”, and make her appear cosseting.

She finished her account and placed it in a waterproof sleeve, then reached for a case to put it in. She would send someone in the morning to hand it off to the courier waiting outside of the Tree People’s lands.

A zing of fear, that was not hers, coursed up her spine suddenly and she almost dropped the case. Fumbling, she set it on the table and started for the door before she caught herself. The hum grew louder.

She is coming.

Lexa had the absurd desire to sit upon her throne and appear completely unaffected before Clarke appeared in the room. Yet she forced a slow stride toward her destination while double-checking that her mental barrier was tight and she would not give away what she was feeling. Her heart was pounding in her chest and her hands trembled ever so slightly. Seated, she gripped the end of the armrests as Clarke pushed her way into the room, followed by one of her guards who was uncertain if he needed to remove her for being rude or not.

Lexa dismissed him immediately with a wave of her hand.

She watched him hesitate a moment, as he noticed Clarke’s twitching hands at her sides clearly showed her obvious distress. “It is fine. Return to your post.”

She heard Clarke take several deep breaths while she focused on her guard until he left the doorway, then silence followed as she waited for Clarke to succeed in calming herself.

Lexa could feel Clarke needing her and she wanted to give into it without even questioning why. A bead of sweat formed at Lexa’s temple. She had remained calm and controlled since she returned to TonDC, and now Clarke was undoing all of her confidence in one show of high emotion.

Now what she needed to happen was for Clarke to gain control of herself, but she was beginning to realize that for this to happen, she would have to teach her how to get control in the first place, and she should start as soon as possible. So with all the calm she could muster, she asked. “Are you ready to begin?”

Chapter Text

Evening, October 27th, 2334 - 267 A.F. (Activation: Day 01)

From her position on her throne, Lexa kept her eyes trained on Clarke as she waited for her to calm down and gave herself a chance to let go of the case of nerves anticipating the other woman’s arrival had caused.

Clarke’s eyes slid closed as she took a deep breath and slowly let it out, but her shoulders remained tense and her hands fisted at her sides. The vibrations coming from her built anxiety under Lexa’s own skin and she fought against the reflexive urge to tense up with her in empathy. Finally, Clarke’s eyes opened after a few long moments. “Yeah, I guess we should start with that now.”

She stood up from her throne and walked over to the low burning fire, beckoning Clarke to follow, then sat cross-legged close to the light.

Clarke approached her as though she paid little attention to her surroundings and sat, keeping her head bowed and threading her hands to clamp around her kneecaps, holding her arms stiffly around herself. Rigid lines of muscle created a sharp line upon her shoulders, but she seemed to remember herself and slowly lifted her head to finally meet Lexa’s gaze with a tense anticipation.

Lexa eyed Clarke’s forced attempt to relax and it puzzled her and put her on edge, so she parted her lips slightly as she took another calming breath to relax and hoped that Clarke would follow her lead. “The first two things you must learn are how to calm your body and focus your mind.” Stretching out her hand and with a quick tap of her finger, she briefly touched Clarke’s white knuckles to emphasize the problem.

Clarke lifted her clenched hands off her knees, shaking them out and then dropped them back down to her sides where they twitched as she tried to settle herself. After only a moment she asked tersely, “Okay. Now what?”

Clarke’s thrumming presence tripped a chaotic rhythm under Lexa’s skin and she swallowed under the  bombardment of feelings rising up inside her own body to match Clarke’s tension, and she fought to hold back a sigh of frustration at the woman’s ineffectual effort.

Why does she not allow herself to relax?

Forcing relaxation was self-defeating and something a young untrained child would do. “You will relax sooner if you find something to focus upon,” She tried to keep the criticism from her tone, but heard it seep in anyway.

Clarke’s eyes sparked with resentment before she quickly dropped them to her lap, where her hands met and clasped. She pulled in a ragged breath as she stared down at them, her brow furrowed. “All I can think about now is…” She halted, swallowed, and seemed to grapple with the words she wanted to say before her voice dropped into a husky whisper. “The way you feel underneath my skin.”

Clarke’s eyes peered up then and met hers in the silence. Lexa felt her pulse spike and her heart thud in her chest, but she forced herself to stay as still as possible, trying to control the sudden surge of desire she felt flicker through her in response to Clarke’s intimate confession.

“You’re vibrating faster.” Clarke’s eyes searched her own. “What are you feeling Lexa?”

She does not feel me!

A flash of relief flooded through her body with proof that she was not vulnerable in that way, and it overrode the sudden sensation of desire and let the tension in her own body ease. Knowing Clarke did not have direct access to her emotions caused her confidence to return. She re-channeled her efforts to relax by ignoring the fluctuating vibrations zipping underneath her own skin coming from Clarke, and focused on the exercise that she was about to employ. “Look at something in the room and put all other thoughts aside.”

Clarke shifted restlessly and quickly scanned the space around her. Lexa followed the path her eyes took around the room until Clarke settled her gaze upon the fire at her side, and fixed there.

“Keep looking at the fire and listen to the way I breathe.” She demonstrated by taking in air lightly to a slow count of four, holding it for a count of seven then emptied her lungs upon the release in a long hard exhale.

Clarke’s eyes darted between Lexa and the fire as she repeated the simple exercise before following her example. Within a few repetitions, Clarke had matched the correct pace, and Lexa noted the way she instinctively began releasing the tension from her shoulders and arms until they lay casually against her body.

“Do you feel better now?”

Clarke’s fingers relaxed, hands gently cupped over her knees, and the vibrations corresponded to the obvious physical relief when she sighed out a quiet reply. “Yes.”

It was strange to her, but it seemed as though Clarke did not understand how to breathe correctly before this moment and Lexa was not certain how that could be. Regardless of the oddity, she now believed that she needed to start from the very beginning, and lead Clarke through as a child would be taught. Now that Clarke’s body had relaxed, she was reassured that the woman should be ready for the first official step. “Now we will breathe at a four count.” Then Lexa demonstrated the simplest form of being she knew.

Clarke quickly followed suit, and Lexa had her maintain the simple breathing exercise for several more minutes before she deemed it enough to continue on. “It is easy now because there is nothing to distract you from your goal. But, you will need to maintain this when you are overwhelmed.”

Clarke inhaled sharply as she spoke to her and lost the paced breathing. “Keep going Clarke. This is only the first step.”

Resuming the steady count of four to inhale and four to exhale, Clarke quietly breathed out while Lexa kept a low voiced count. “One, Two, Three, Four.”

After a time, Clarke’s tension slipped away completely from her body, and she sat still with rounded shoulders and lax arms. After another long moment, she seemed calm enough to take in the fact that Lexa was studying her.

Clarke met her eyes and tilted her head in question. “What is it?”

“We teach our children to control their emotions by controlling their breathing first.” Lexa did not mean it as a harsh judgment but she could not help being curious of how Clarke could be so out of tune with her own body.

“How young are they when you teach them?” Clarke’s body language did not give away any offense taken, other than losing the pace of her breathing after speaking, but Lexa could feel the calmed humming vibrations spike sharply.

“One…two…three…four.” She prompted again, and waited for Clarke to regain her focus. “They are taught as soon as they can understand. The world is a dangerous place as it is without control of your own body.”

Clarke hummed in acknowledgement of the statement, but stopped abruptly, her eyes curious. “Give me an example.”

“Surely you understand the nature of danger, Clarke.” There was no hiding the plainly derisive tone in her voice now.

Clarke huffed in irritation, her fingers pressing down over the rough fabric of her pants. “I get what you’re saying Lexa, but I’m not sure how breathing differently makes a difference.” Then she blinked slowly and seemed to make an effort to relax her hands as she paused to consider her thoughts carefully before continuing. “What is everyone afraid of that would make them change the way they breathe?”

“You can listen for what rides the wind, Clarke.” At her puzzled look, Lexa continued. “Do none of you listen with care for what it tells you?” Surprised at the lack of recognition on the other woman’s face, she ignored Clarke’s question to ask her own.

Clarke simply stared blankly back at her for a moment. “Do you mean the air? Because on the Ark, it was canned.”

A crease appeared between her eyes. Now it was Lexa’s turn to be puzzled. “Canned?”

Clarke glanced up at the ceiling and inhaled deeply, before she backtracked. “Canned, meaning that it’s been the same thing all of us had been breathing since we left earth. It was recycled. Well, we did have plants to make more, but-” she stopped for a moment, “there was nothing really new about it, so I’m not sure what there would be to-. Wait, what do you mean by the wind telling you things?”

Still confused, Lexa’s brow furrowed in thought at Clarke’s seemingly fundamental lack of understanding of the world. Did the Sky People have no awareness of the environment around them on the Ark at all? She recalled the visions she had experienced after they had exchanged blood and it made her realize that something so simple, the act of breathing properly, could have gone unlearned. After all, what was there to be afraid of on the Ark except for what one human could do to another?

She sighed out a long breath with this new piece of the puzzle falling into place. Learning to listen to the wind would not be possible if the Sky People could not breathe correctly to begin with, so she ignored Clarke’s question. “You are not ready to listen to the wind if you cannot breathe or control the fear in your body.”

Clarke’s eyebrows scrunched and her mouth twisted skeptically, not giving up so easily. “What’s in the wind to listen to?” When Lexa said nothing, Clarke leaned forward. “Lexa, are we talking about something literally in the wind, a figure of speech, or something else?”

The crux of the problem was that she meant it in every way, but Clarke would not be able to understand if she were deaf to the world around her. Lexa doubted that she could make the matter any clearer until Clarke was able to experience it for herself, yet, she had to give the other woman something tangible so they could get back to the lesson. “The Pauna’s rage roared for our blood on the wind to us, and we ran faster. Acid fog moves faster when the wind is rushing toward you. The stink of your guns could be smelled miles away. We never needed to hear the sound of them going off to find you, Clarke, but that too was carried on the wind.” She, too, leaned forward, shrinking the distance between them. “If you understand what comes on the wind, you will know how long you have to live or die before you must act.”

Clarke considered her words for only a short moment before answering her with a sharp nod. “Makes sense I guess,” but her expression was still somewhat skeptical and Lexa waited for the inevitable question making its way to Clarke’s tongue; observing a corresponding and uplifting twist to the vibrations continuously emanating from the woman in front of her, she knew it was coming. “So, just breathing this way will help me control my emotions and my body so I can act...rather than react out of fear?”

Lexa nodded and leaned back as she considered Clarke carefully. It would be no use to tell her more of what her people knew about the wind now if she could not make use of it yet, let alone expand on what she also believed of the wind from the knowledge of her Commander visions. If Clarke did not have a basis to question her with, she would not bring them up now, and it could wait. Noticing Clarke had once again quit pacing her breathing, Lexa prompted her to continue. “One…two…three…four.”

Clarke huffed out another irritated breath but settled back into it after a few moments, stilling herself before she opened her mouth again. “How young were you when you learned?” This time, Clarke spoke through the air passing in time to the count and did not lose the rhythm. “Who taught you to do this?” She added.

Lexa continued to study her face as she heard the cadence of Clarke’s speech change, becoming more deliberate and controlled, and because of that, familiar. Clarke was mirroring the manner of speaking she heard from most of the tribes she spoke to on a regular basis. She also noted the vibrations coming from Clarke remained steady now, a large improvement from earlier and exactly the state Lexa needed her to maintain. Clarke’s latest questions gave a place to begin and her lips curved into a half smile. “I do not remember my age, but my two front teeth were missing. My mother taught me.”

She watched Clarke’s gaze soften, then quirk into a small smile and with it, the vibration coming from her deepened. “No teeth, huh?”

She was encouraged by the warm look and continued. “I kept putting my thumb in the hole between my teeth. She would push my hand away as she tried to keep my attention, saying it was a bad habit.”

Amusement lit Clarke’s eyes for a moment, but her expression suddenly dropped into a startled frown that caused her vibrations to spike suddenly.

“What is it?”

“I used to bite my nails when I was little. My grandmother told me she used to do the same thing, and her mother told her to find something else to do with her hands.” She looked down at her left hand and rubbed her thumb over her nails. “So she did.” Clarke’s shoulders tightened with tension and Lexa could track the roll of her emotions as they settled into unease within her vibrating presence, her paced breathing rhythm lost again.

“You are not breathing correctly Clarke.”

Clarke looked up at her in surprise but settled herself almost immediately to resume the exercise. “Is it normal to do things that the other Commanders did?”

Lexa frowned, unsure. “What kind of things?”

“Their bad habits, like biting nails...for no reason?” The depth of Clarke’s unease showed in her eyes as she waited for Lexa to reply, and her breath stuttered.

Now understanding, Lexa’s features smoothed. “That can happen in the beginning, before you learn to keep your mind separate from the visions.”

Clarke sighed in relief, and then remembered on her own to return to paced breaths.

“Has this happened to you already?”

“I think it happened right before I came to see you.” Clarke’s emotions steadied further and flowed more gently along the vibrations.

Lexa was relieved to have an explanation. “Did you go into a vision?”

“No. I was laying down and thinking about-” Clarke paused, and then took herself into the longer deep breathing Lexa had first showed her in order calm down, before switching back to a four count. “Everything is connected. The memories of my grandmother are tied to what is going on right now, but I don’t know how or why.”

A wash of Clarke’s relief filled the space under her skin, seemingly just from disclosing these particular thoughts. Afterward, Clarke’s emotions settled back into the natural rhythm of vibrations Lexa had come to associate with the other woman when she was calm. “You will need to go back to the vision and pay close attention. You are unconsciously asking for an answer to something. Until you gain control through them, your mind will look for the truth even if you do not know what you are looking for.”

Clarke’s gaze slid away from her, and her cheeks pinkened as she stared resolutely back into the fire. “I think I get that.”

Lexa wondered at the brief flush of embarrassment. A layer of Clarke’s rhythm stuttered, tripping over the pulse beneath it for a moment before correcting itself, but her breathing remained in pace despite the fluctuating emotion and chagrined expression.

Lexa was not sure what caused it, but decided to move the lesson along. “Drop your breathing into the count of eight. Breathe slower than the first way I showed you, Clarke. Do not fill your lungs completely before exhaling.”

She felt Clarke’s eyes back on her as she demonstrated and thought Clarke concentrated on her exhale, but fell short of the count.

Lexa continued to count for her in a steady low voice, until she was able to taper off speaking as Clarke finally succeeded in matching the rhythm. “You were upset when you arrived for our lesson.” She waited to see if Clarke was able to respond while focusing on the new pace, and was also curious.

Clarke turned to look back into the fire. Her emotions were controlled and the vibrations settled into a markedly deeper hum than she had previously experienced.

Lexa waited as the silence lengthened. Clarke stared far longer into the flames than Lexa thought was truly necessary to gain the focus needed to reply, but she remained patient.

Quietly, Clarke began to speak in a lower register than she was used to hearing from the other woman and the cadence, though still familiar, contained something altogether foreign about it as well. “My grandmother gave me a message before we crawled out of the hole.”

The delivery of the statement caused an odd tingle of unease to prickle over Lexa’s skin, but the curiosity was stronger. “What was the message?”

Clarke closed her eyes, her shoulders rounded, and then her chin dipped down slowly while she maintained the long breathing count of eight. The underlying rhythm within her vibrations sped up, matching the pace that carried her emotions; the change in tone caused a feeling of expectation to rise inside Lexa.

“We are Pandora and Eve. Every story leads to ours.”

Clarke’s words had a strange effect on her. A sudden shiver ran down her spine, pulling her body sharply upright, her skin prickled, and she gasped a shuddered inhale in reaction. She gulped and whispered hoarsely. “Clarke?”

The bowed blonde head did not lift.

Lexa raised a shaky hand out to touch her, but stopped short. She tried to take in as much as she could of the woman in front of her, and identified Clarke’s use of the familiar speech pattern she had taken for granted from the mouths of her own people. Their controlled breaths must be the underlying reason for speaking as they did, and she was just now realizing; she had not considered before that there could be another way. Yet, there was something else in Clarke’s strange cadence she could not identify.

She tried again. “What does the message mean Clarke?”

“We were made to be this way.”

Lexa’s brow furrowed deeply. “Yes, we were born to be Commanders.”

“Not just born to this. We are made to be...makers.” Clarke’s voice trailed off and her body remained still, her face covered by a cascade of blonde hair.

The unease that had been slow to settle returned with a jolt and shot up Lexa’s spine again. Something was wrong with Clarke. She leaned forward and watched her closely. “Open your eyes.”

Clarke slid her eyes open, raised her head slowly to look at Lexa, her face slack with a vacant stare and dilated pupils that did not immediately respond to the light of the fire.

Lexa fought another shiver that felt like fear racing down her back. This was not a normal response to learning to breathe properly. She inhaled deeply and raised her hand to Clarke’s cheek, grazing her skin briefly with the tips of her fingers, hoping she would see comprehension spark back in her eyes. “I do not know what you mean Clarke.”

Clarke spoke evenly with what seemed like great deliberation in time to the exhale of her long breath. “You are Eve, born of this Earth for a reason. I am Pandora, made in the Sky to fall to the Ground.” She inhaled slowly, and then exhaled to speak again, her voice clear and resonant. “I am your reason…and you are mine.”

The fierce certainty in her words reverberated along the connection between them, wrapping around her whole being and vibrating through her until it found itself on the other side and rebounded. Lexa jerked back her hand at the sensation and uncrossed her legs to stand. Suddenly disoriented, she stopped and sat still until the moment of dizziness passed. She fought to calm her breath before she attempted to speak again.

“Clarke?” Her voice shook despite her efforts to control it.

Clarke’s pupils suddenly shrank. She scrubbed at her eyes with her hands, and then blinked repeatedly from the light of the fire. “Yeah?”

Uncertain at the reply, Lexa stared at her questioningly. “What did you mean...you are my reason?”

Clarke’s expression was puzzled. “What are you talking about?”

She hesitated. “What is the last thing you remember saying to me?”

Clarke frowned, and then looked away from her and into the fire.

Lexa felt another short burst of embarrassment radiate from Clarke.

“That I get it.” She turned and looked at her openly. “We look for the truth even if we don’t know what the question is yet.”

Lexa shivered deeply and peeled her gaze away from Clarke, her eyes darting around the room, searching for a means to understand. She got up, but motioned for Clarke to stay where she was when she made to follow, before she went to the closed door and opened it to see her two guards standing there. “Go the outer door and let in no one in until I tell you differently.”

She knew logically they could not hear the sound of normal conversation through the solid door, but as she watched them leave she felt her unease lessen. She lingered several moments longer in the open doorway to give herself time to think.

She had no personal experience with what Clarke had just done, but there was also something unsettlingly familiar about it. That uncertain feeling was usually accompanied by the need to explore previous Commanders lives for answers, and she decided to seek them after Clarke finished the lesson and left her alone. She forced her clenched hands to relax as she turned and looked back at Clarke.

Clarke was still pacing her breathing at the count of eight, but it seemed she did not have control of something about herself, despite appearing outwardly calm.

Perhaps it was too soon to take Clarke into a meditative state, or she would need to approach this in a different way. In a manner Polis would sanction. “Return to the count of four, Clarke.”

She walked back to Clarke and ducked down to sit in front of her, taking the training in a different tack. “You need to visualize something you are afraid of and how you will overcome it while you maintain the count of four.”

Clarke raised a knee to her chest and draped her crossed arms over it in thought. She stayed like that for several minutes and simply looked into the fire.

Despite the attempt to calm herself, the tension from earlier still ate at her, and she could not keep the impatience from her tone. “Do you have it in your mind?”

Clarke gave her a side-glance of irritation. “No.”

“Are you afraid of nothing?” Her tone was disbelieving and edged with derision.

Yes, I’m afraid of things, but they’re not usually something you can prepare for.”

She did not want to delve too deeply into Clarke’s specific fears, but decided she would need probe them, at least a little, to help her identify them. “Are you afraid of spiders or wolves?”

Clarke lifted her head, amusement gleaming in her eyes, before she laughed lightly. “I’ve killed a total of three spiders since I landed on the ground, and I’ve never met a wolf at all.”

“A Pauna?”

Clarke stilled at the suggestion, considering. “I was scared while it was chasing us, but afterward…” She shrugged. “I’m not really afraid of those kinds of things once I’ve had a chance to think about them.”

Lexa was not sure what to offer next. She wanted to suggest common fears that were easy to overcome in order to demonstrate to Clarke that she could also succeed when she identified her deep-seated fears.

Out of the corner of her eye, Lexa watched Clarke rest her chin on her crossed arms and study her while she thought.

Clarke’s vibrations dipped and then hit a higher pitch as Lexa sensed a wave of scrutiny roll from the inside out. Feeling uncomfortably exposed at the examination, she shifted uneasily in place.

Clarke’s voice was quiet and soft. “The vibrations change when you think or feel something.”

Lexa’s nervousness turned to wary anxiety, but she swallowed it down and forced herself to stay still before meeting Clarke’s searching eyes.

“There. Something changed in the…what is it called?”

A lump developed in her throat; she did not want to talk about this, but felt she had no option. “I do not know what it is called. I have never spoken to anyone about it before to find out.”

“It should have a name, it’s real, and I can’t stop thinking about it.” Her eyes did not blink or shift away and Lexa felt pinned in place.

Lexa had to tell herself to breathe properly. Her own voice was quiet in response. “What should we call it then?”

“It sounds like a…thrumming. Thrum?”

It did not matter to her what it was called, just the fact that it would now have a name gave it more power than it did before now. Lexa nodded slowly. “Thrum.”

Clarke finally looked away.

The tight band of anxiety building around her chest eased without her intense scrutiny. She needed a break from the constant awareness between them and knew they needed to get back to the lesson, so she changed the subject before Clarke could object. “If you are not able to think of a fear you can imagine overcoming, then you will have trouble getting through the next step.”

“What would that be?” Clarke glanced back up at her.

“That you will not fail because you will tell yourself that you will not.”

Clarke studied her again for a long moment. “Just tell yourself that you will make it happen and that works? Like mind over matter?”

She tilted her head, considering Clarke’s words carefully. “It is more than that, but it keeps you confident when you have seen yourself do what must be done to overcome what you believe you are afraid of. You need to practice so you will be ready for your real fears.”

“Spiders aren’t a real fear. Good to know.” Her slight smile was mocking, and Lexa had to fight not to roll her eyes.

“I doubt you have seen Cave Spiders if you have no fear at all, but as you said, it is not your fear and that is what matters for you.”

Clarke’s expression became quizzical. “Why? What’s wrong with Cave Spiders?”

Lexa shuddered, and then flashed her a small sly smile. “When you meet one, you can tell me yourself.”

Clarke sighed deeply. “I’ll have to think about what I’m really afraid of then.” She sat back and dropped her knee to lie flat on the floor. “Is there anything else?”

“There is the step of acting out what is visualized in your mind to overcome fears.”

Clarke quirked her head. “Why do I get the feeling I won’t like that?”

Lexa gave her a rueful look. “It is not meant to be pleasant, but it works.”

“Will we be doing that tonight?”

“I think it is too soon. It would be better to wait until you can see yourself succeed with smaller things first.” Lexa glanced around the room. “And there is not enough space here to do that correctly. We should find an area outside to begin that step.”

“Why? What kind of things happen?”

Lexa met her eyes again and gave her a measured look. “If we do this according to the training I received, you will have a covering over your head and be unable to hear anything until it is removed, and then you have to decide if you are under attack or not.”

Clarke’s eyes rounded in shock. “Why the hell would anyone do that?”

She gave her a half smile. “Because it works.”

Clarke stared at her in disbelief, the crease between her eyes returning as she frowned. “So the covering is removed and you are under attack from someone.”

She shook her head. “Not always. Sometimes the person in front of you reaches out to shake your hand.” She flashed a short grin, letting herself enjoy the feeling of having the upper hand for the first time all evening.

Clarke seemed thrown by her amusement for a moment but then seemed to think it over. “It’s not just fear you’re controlling.”

“We learned a long time ago that fear makes people weak. We teach our bodies to control our fear and to let go of it before it controls us, but all emotion can distract you from doing what is needed.”

“It is not about being afraid exactly, but controlling everything you feel.” Clarke glanced up and studied her. “Love is weakness to you because of this.”

Lexa’s expression fell flat and after a beat, she responded as simply as she could. “People stop thinking when their love is threatened, they react to danger because they are afraid, sometimes not even protecting themselves or the one they cared about in the end. It is dangerous and selfish.” Lexa ground out the last few words harshly. She had already explained this to Clarke and now resented the fact that it was being challenged again.

Clarke lips pursed and her expression turned obstinate, appearing to ready herself to do just that.

Lexa strained to keep her features neutral and quickly redirected the subject back to where it should be. “What you need to concentrate on now is the most important one, control your fear, even if it does not go away completely. For a warrior, fear causes them to flee or fight, and a good warrior learns to fight. For a Commander who was Chosen, it is different. Our fear automatically causes us to rush into the visions instead of fleeing or fighting against what they fear right in front of them.”

Clarke frowned. “Why? I mean, Commanders don’t sound like they are supposed to be warriors at all.”

Startled at Clarke’s unexpected insight, she considered the strengths at a Commander’s disposal. She knew fighting was intrinsic to all of the Commander Spirit experiences and they were, without a doubt, driven to lead. If there was no Clan or Tribe that was entirely peaceful, why was the ability to fight efficiently so thoroughly threaded through the visions? She shook her head in dissatisfaction. Clarke was distracting her again from their task. “Commanders are given the knowledge of how to fight through the visions. Why would we not be warriors?” She waved her hand in dismissal.

Clarke eyed her suspiciously, but eventually relented. “Well, not being able to see someone coming at you is pretty unnerving, maybe I should picture that and figure out how I would respond.”

Lexa nodded her assent, but wondered how effective the exercise would be without also blocking sound. Perhaps, just the muting of her senses would be good practice for Clarke, even if they really could not act out the full scenarios here. “Wait a moment.”

She got up and went to a trunk in the corner of the room. She reached in and pulled out a familiar heavy cloth bag, before she returned and handed it to Clarke. “Here, this will work for now, even if we cannot keep you from hearing.”

Clarke took the bag, eyeing it for only a moment before she opened it up and placed it over her head.

The bagged woman sat motionless, the silence in the room extending between them until Lexa’s patience and curiosity peaked. “What are you visualizing?”

“You coming for me fast and hard.”

Clarke’s choice of words registered after a moment and Lexa could not help it, her mouth fell open. Heat curled in her belly and her ears went hot. She gave her mind a quick order.

Do NOT visualize that! 

Embarrassment hit the vibration coming from Clarke’s Thrum with a hard pulse, spiraling through her and amplifying her own unwanted feelings. As she continued to stare at the woman before her, Clarke reached up, grasped the edges of the bag, and yanked the fabric down tight over her face before she muttered. “Coming at me. I meant, at me.”

Lexa quickly realized what she had intended and began to relax again, allowing her mouth to curl into a smirk since Clarke could not see it.

Clarke gradually eased her death grip on the wrinkled heavy fabric. “This must look stupid.”

“You wear it well, Clarke.” She tried to wipe the amusement from her face and attempted to defuse her embarrassment.

Clarke pulled the fabric up past her eyes and glanced up at her straight-laced expression. Slowly, she smiled. “Keep it up Lexa, and I’ll think you have a sense of humor.”

“Never.” She scoffed.

Clarke’s smile broke into a grin before she quickly looked away and pulled the bag down. “Give me something to picture.”

Lexa considered for a long moment, she needed something real to inspire the proper reaction. “When you remove the bag, Quint will be there, aiming his knife for your throat.”

Clarke stilled at that, her back straight and her hands poised over her knees.

“Remember to breathe at the count of four.” After she confirmed that Clarke had her breathing in sync, Lexa leaned forward, pinched a corner of the bag between her thumb and fingers and yanked it off.

Clarke’s hair flew all around her head while she blinked open her eyes, completely calm. “He’s dead. I know it, so this is not going to work.”

Lexa lowered the bag to her lap, and let go of a frustrated breath. This was fruitless; she would need to find another way to show her.

Clarke peered over at her with an expression turned curious. “What if you wore the bag and I attacked you?”

Lexa frowned at that, not liking the idea at all.

Clarke interjected before she could say no. “At least I could see how you respond to attack. If I’m going to picture doing it-this, I mean-in my head, shouldn’t I see the right way before trying to come up with my own?”

Lexa considered her for a moment. Clarke had a point, but Lexa needed to know something first. “How much hand-to-hand training have you received?”

“Nothing really.” She sighed. “Unless fighting with Anya counts.”

At that, Lexa was surprised. “Well, you did not lose.”

“How do you know that I won?”

“You are alive.”

Chagrined, Clarke scrunched up her face and flashed her a grin. “Well if that was winning then I have to say sort of. We beat the hell out of each other first before she finally agreed with me and quit kicking my ass.”

Lexa smiled back at the other woman briefly, but it turned sad and disappeared quickly.

“I’m sorry, Lexa.” She felt a wave of compassion and sorrow move along their Thrum, and it showed how much Clarke meant what she said.

She did her best to push away her own emotions and the way they swarmed to cloud her reasoning, yet Clarke’s were insistent and far more difficult to ignore. A slight smile crept back to rest upon the curve of her lips. This entire thing may be foolish, but she found herself willing to humor the other woman anyway. Lexa picked up the bag and put it over her head. “Begin when you are ready Clarke.”

Though she was shrouded in muffled darkness, her hearing remained sharp and she could hear Clarke moving closer before her Thrum spiked suddenly.

The bag jerked off her head and she sensed a hand moving toward her face from the opposite side. Lexa snatched the wrist coming toward her and twisted under the swing, following through with the motion before she dropped Clarke swiftly in a controlled descent to the floor.

Clarke landed hard as her feet splayed against the fireplace with enough force to kick up sparks. Her eyes widened and she laid there stunned for a long moment, letting out a groan. “Okay. Not my best plan. You moved too fast for me to even see what you did.”

“Breathe properly, Clarke.” She admonished, looking down at her.

Her blonde hair dangled loose to brush the floor behind her as she tilted her head back to glare upside down at Lexa, rendering it far less effective as a means of intimidation than it was meant to be.

“I did say that it would be best to do this outside. I can also hear you coming.” Lexa refrained from mentioning that she could also tell just by the intensity of her scent how close Clarke was to her.

“Whatever.” Clarke mumbled and got to her feet. “Again.”

The entirety of a small stack of wood by the fire had fallen prey to flying feet after several redundant attempts, and demonstrated clearly that this method would not increase Clarke’s chances of success. Surely she could see this? But Clarke had not yet given up, she kept coming after her with a spiking Thrum, noisy movements, and the intensified presence of her scent as she pulled the bag from Lexa’s head.

Why am I allowing it anyway?

After another failed grappling attempt caused the fire poker to shoot half way into the coals, she admitted to herself that this was...almost fun. But, she knew they were wasting time that they did not have. She sighed heavily. “Clarke, this is pointless. You need more training. You cannot take me like this.”

Clarke’s eyes gleamed suddenly. “One more time.”

She frowned at her with suspicion, but found herself lifting the bag and covering her head again, waiting.

Clarke was particularly quiet in her movements this time, but her Thrum fluctuated wildly. Eventually, it settled into a higher pitch than what had precluded her previous attacks.

The fabric zipped past her nose and her eyes flew open in readiness. Clarke stood directly in front of her, with a challenge in her gaze. Slowly she stepped into Lexa’s space.

Her heart beat harder.

Clarke crept closer.

She could feel the heat of Clarke’s face against her jaw and her warm breath over her cheek from less than an inch away. She froze at the brush of Clarke’s body pressing forward, making light contact down her entire length.

Clarke turned her face slightly, angling upward toward her mouth and whispered with a puff of hot air across her lips. “What is the right way to respond to this, Lexa?”

The right response?

The thought skittered wildly through her head, and she sucked in air. She was not breathing properly. She swallowed hard, gathering her self-control, and slowly took a step back. “Know when to engage the enemy.”

Clarke’s eyes flashed darkly as she, too, stepped back and a sense of hurt coursed over her Thrum and spiraled down through Lexa’s body. The pitch of the feeling under her skin made her teeth ache. She breathed out carefully in the count of four, wrestling to keep her own emotions from surfacing to instinctually soothe Clarke’s feelings.

This needs to end now.

Lexa clenched her jaw tightly and fought to keep her reasoning intact. There were things that still needed to be addressed before they stopped for the night. She chose to ignore the awkwardness between them and put forth the most prominent issue first. “Your mother said that you would return to Camp Jaha in the morning, but you need to be here for the meeting between the Clans at midday.”

Clarke sighed, her face flickering with frustration with the change in direction, but seeming to let it go. “It takes almost eight hours walking to get back to camp from here. I need to be near the radio when Bellamy contacts us.”

“You need to be part of the planning, Clarke. The Alliance will not stand if you do not show your strength as a leader. I can loan you horses to ride so it will only take a few hours to get back to your camp.”

Clarke tilted her head, and an odd expression crossed her features. “You want me get on the back of a horse? I’ve never even touched one.”

“I will have one of your guards show you how to ride. It is not difficult.”

Clarke frowned at that. “What guards?”

“I will assign guards to you. Our Alliance cannot afford the Mountain Men or someone like Quint coming for you again.”

Clarke gave her a look of dissatisfaction, but she conceded with a nod. Hurt still carried in a miserable hum across the woman’s Thrum but jolts of embarrassment now joined that flow. Clarke turned and walked toward the door, but hesitated for a moment at the entrance, facing away from her. “What about our lessons?”

A lump of regret built in the back of her throat at the longing carried in Clarke’s tone, but she knew she needed to maintain distance. “I will arrange for Ryder to begin training you in hand-to-hand combat. When he tells me you are ready for more, we will try again.”

Clarke glanced back at her from over her shoulder. “And the rest?”

“You should practice breathing correctly all the time, and visualize any fear you recognize, so that you can overcome it.” Lexa knew these were the words of a coward, but felt she had too much else to deal with, and ached for normalcy. She fisted her hands. “When we have time, we can try again.”

Clarke swung her head back around and nodded sharply, then she walked out without another word.

The silence in the empty space pressed in at her with Clarke gone, but her Thrum clung to her all the same from a room away.

Lexa exhaled a long breath and rubbed at her eyes with the palms of her hands, before walking to the alcove that held her bed and sat down, peering across the bed and at the wall separating them. She rested her fingers upon the furs and then gathered and gripped the material to help her ignore the tremor radiating down to her hands. With a few words or a look, Clarke could render all of her discipline useless. Why did she have this power over her?

She lay down fully, still staring at the wall. What did she mean, ‘you are my reason’? What had happened to her when she had said that?

The uncertain feeling was back, the urge to search through the visions and find answers. She closed her eyes and willed herself to drop her internal defenses.

Within moments, she floated in darkness, surrounded by the remnants of Commander’s long dead. She examined the loose mass of undulating points of light that represented all of the visions, identifying individual characteristics within most of them and focused her thoughts with the strength of her will, before she reached out for answers.

What happened to Clarke? Why would she not remember her own words?

Two patterns disengaged from the rest. The first was a slurry of grey and browns shot through with dull purple, dirty reds, and discordant oranges. She remembered this Commander, but had purposely avoided her after she first had experienced visions.

The second pattern was the antithesis of the first, and reminded her of something she saw upon a dignitary’s neck when they had visited Polis several years ago. The woman had called it a fire opal. Yet, this swirl of chromatic hue was so much more than that. This Commander burst with brilliant true colors, shimmering with its own luminescence as though it was its own source of power, before the light slipped behind the first. It was by far the most beautiful pattern she had ever seen.

Her own unconscious pull toward ugliness brought her back to task, and she accepted the path chosen as she settled into the first Commander’s light and down into the memory held within the body.

She was running between trees, a deep humming noise and the sound of human screams filled the air.

The pound of feet upon the ground behind her let her know that people followed as she rounded an outcrop and raced down a steep narrow path. The humming grew louder along with the screaming.

She ran around a dense grouping of trees, and then saw them, as the encampment of over six hundred people writhed in various states of falling down. Some were already on their knees, others lay flat on the ground however they landed. Above them was a swarm of something flying in strategic aerial dives, making a sound that vibrated all the way down to her bones.

She halted. The people behind her caught up and stopped behind her, but she did not look back at them.

One hundred or more flying things disengaged from the swarm and dove directly for a group of seven people that were still standing closest to her location, yelling and swinging haphazardly with shovels and one with their own coat.

She made no move to get closer to them, but called out harshly. “Get the fuck down!”

Four of them ignored her, but the other three obeyed and dropped immediately flush to the ground.

The creatures attacked the four still standing and stung them repeatedly, then lifted in unison and rejoined the swarm.

The three on the ground lay still, panting as they waited.

The swarm hovered, before hundreds broke in formation to sweep above the people on the ground in several passes, and then all at once the entire swarm lifted into the air and flew directly upward.

She stepped down cautiously onto level ground and watched them disappear into the sky.

“I think they were bees once.”

She turned to her left to look at the man who had spoken to her.

The man pushed his glasses back up to the top of his nose and stood looking at the sky with awe.

Bitterness swelled. “Who gives a fuck what they used to be.”

“Give it ah rest, Barb.”

She turned to her right at another man. “You can fuck off, too.”

She carefully made her way down the hill toward the people on the ground and muttered loud enough for everyone following her to hear. “Fucking Southerners.”

The scene faded out for a moment, but Lexa remained fixed in the same Commander as new vision took the place of the first.

It was dark. She watched her footing as she made her way toward a campfire where the two of them sat talking quietly.

She was close enough to hear them, and stopped when she heard her own name.

“Barb don’ give ah shit about ‘em. You saw how she was when they firs’ hit us.”

“Jefferson, you do not understand what she has been through. Let it go.” The man reached up and fixed his glasses.

Jefferson leaned back and giving him a look of doubt. “Ahright, but what we gonna do about ‘em?”

“What do you mean, ‘do about them’?”

“None of ‘em talk right now. Some of ‘em still can’t stand wit’out gettin’ dizzy.” Jefferson leaned forward and tossed the bones off his plate into the fire. “An’ what ta hell is wrong wit’ ‘em anyway?”

The other man sighed and looked down at his hands for a moment. “There is a neurotoxin in the Hummer’s sting that interferes with the speech center in their brains.”

Jefferson smirked at the man with glasses. “Finally givin’ in an’ callin’ ‘em what everybody else is.” His smile dropped. “But give it ta me in layman terms, Doc.”

Doc’s face showed his distaste. “My name is Maximillian. I prefer Max if you must shorten it.”

“Fine, Doc. I can call ya Max if it makes ya feel better, an’ just to keep it square, call me Jeff.”

Doc gave him a deadpanned stare, then sighed and let it go. “The problem can be resolved. Their minds will have to be retrained to speak properly and…” Doc looked off into the fire. “I think the Hummers were trying to communicate.”

Jefferson laughed sardonically. “Hell Doc, we got ta message loud an’ clear then.”

Doc did not laugh with him. His head slowly turned back to look at the other man. “You do not understand, Jeff. Bees were one of the first creatures modified. How do you think modification was spread to the rest of our wildlife?”

Jeff frowned at that. “What do ya mean, ‘spread’?

Doc leaned forward. “Bees helped to pollinate all food sources. They went everywhere plant life grew. They were the perfect carriers for-“ He stopped and sighed. “What we need to do is get several people who are willing to help reteach them to speak.” He settled back. “And possibly train them to avoid panic anytime the Hummers swarm is in the area.”

Jeff’s brow furrowed in thought. “I can help wit’ ta last part. We trained ta lose our fear. Good soldiers can’t afford feelin’ it anyway.”

Doc gave him a curious look. “What discipline are you referring to?”

“My family was military afore ta Fallout. My grandparents trained all ta kids wit’ somethin’ called Mental Toughness afore they died.”

Doc nodded, but looked concerned. “We might need to incorporate less forceful techniques into your regimen.”

Jeff shrugged. “Whateva’ floats ta boat, Doc.”

“Perhaps we should use hypnosis as well.” He looked at Jeff in contemplation and seemed to speak as much to himself as the man next to him. “It is possible that people are dangerously open to what the Hummers are now, since their recovery time is so individualized.”

Barb slipped back into deeper shadows.

A familiar sensation pinged within her from the moment Doc said ‘carriers’. It was not extreme yet, but her secondary responses began to build when she felt a brief flicker of sadness before it turned to resentment. Moments later, that feeling roiled into a bitter rage. “Fuck all of you for this.” She whispered.

Lexa slipped out of that body with relief. That Commander had been under the beginnings of a mild Compulsion at the end, and she wondered briefly if she had been able to fight it. If not, how long had Doc lived after that?

She set that pondering aside and seized upon the lesson she believed was clear from the vision. The language they spoke now originated from being stung by Hummers and needing to relearn how to speak. She could hear the influence in Trigedasleng from Jeff’s way of cutting off words and of pushing others together.

Yet, this did not directly answer her questions. She thought the rest of the answer must be in the second pattern.

Beauty swirled in front of her. It glimmered and pulsed with a force of life not found in any Commander before this. She reached out for it and felt an overwhelming wave of peace when she sank down into it.

She curled on her side under a thin cover upon a bed and then her sleepy eyes blinked open at the sound of the door opening.

“Grandma?”

She entered the room quickly and quietly before closing the hatch and then approaching. “Yes, it’s just me, sweetheart.”

She turned onto her back, and scooted over to let her grandmother sit next to her. The hard mattress gave little under the weight of the woman and she reached for a hug that was promptly granted. The woman released her and she lay back, resting her head on her pillow. “Is it time for bedtimes stories?”

The woman’s eyes flickered with an unknown emotion as she hesitated. “Yes Clarke, and your medicine.”

Clarke sighed, but turned back onto her side to wait. She felt her grandmother get up and the blanket move away from her body.

In a few moments, there was a sharp sting in her hip. She sighed in discomfort.

“All done, Clarke.”

She rolled onto her back again. The medicine was already making the edges of her vision blurry. “My story?”

The woman smiled sadly for a moment, and then she forced it to brighten. “Of course. You will have your story, Clarke.”

The world around her wavered. Her blinks got slower and longer. “Hurry, Grandma.”

“There once was a little girl who…Clarke?”

Her eyes would not open anymore, and the world filled with static noise.

Lexa waited, quiet inside of Clarke’s small body. She was afraid for her, and did not know what was going on, but she was not yet pulled away. This moment was incomplete.

Gradually, the static lifted and she could hear Clarke’s grandmother speaking.

“…that is the reason. We did what we had to do for everyone’s sake. I am just sorry that I have no other way to keep you safe. When you meet her, she will do whatever is best for you and you will do the same for her.”

Clarke’s eyes blinked open. “H-how will I know iss h-her?”

Surprised, her grandmother fumbled for something in her pocket. “Clarke honey, you must have put on some weight. You are growing so fast.” Her grandmother’s cheeks were tear-streaked and she attempted a smile that never quite reached her eyes. “Just a moment.” She leaned down at the side of the bed.

Another sting, but it did not seem to last as long as the first.

Clarke wanted an answer. “How will I know ‘er, grandma?”

Her grandmother sighed and wiped at her face. “She is your Eve, and you are her Pandora.”

Clarke’s vision blurred again. “Don’t know that story.”

She felt feathery touches at her brow, brushing back her hair. “You do Clarke, but you will not remember until you are ready. Everything will come when it is time.”

“P-Promise?” Clarke whispered unsteadily.

“Yes Clarke. I promise you…I wish I could meet her too…”

Static took over all sound and Clarke drifted.

Lexa exited Clarke’s memory in a state of shock.

She hovered, surrounded by the presence of previous Commanders in the expansive darkness and thought of Clarke’s constant referral of them as memories, not visions. Lexa examined the patterns of color shining from Clarke’s essence, obviously so alive compared to the others. Her vibrancy registered completely different from any other she had seen, now that she had experienced it from within.

Just memories. Not visions.

Lexa felt the sense of mysticism enfolded into the beliefs of her people give way a little more to her own doubts; her own questioning throughout the years had been caused by the uncomfortable feeling that the lessons she had been taught were not completely true. But she now felt certain everything really was connected, as Clarke had said earlier. She could feel that truth shine through after being inside of her memory, even though she was sure she had no more understanding than Clarke did.

She reached out for her own body not in this place of memories, and willed her fist to clench on the other side. Her eyelids flew open, and she left the bed quickly to pace across the limiting space of her room.

What did the memories have in common? How did the two memories connect?

Agitated, she tromped across the room before spinning on her heel and returning.

The last thing in the first memory was Compulsion. Before that…something called hypnosis. Her knees tapped her bed before she spun around again and headed the opposite direction.

In the second, Clarke was injected with something...a medicine, she assumed, that allowed her grandmother to tell her things she could not know yet.

Why?

She shook her head and returned to the the other side of her room. There was no way for her to know, but were the Compulsion and the hypnosis the same in some way? Did the Compulsion make both Commanders do what they did?

She was in front of the fire pit again and tapped the toe of her boot against the stone base before turning and pacing back toward the bed.

Yet, if that was all, then why see so much about the relatively small looking swarm of Hummers?

Compulsion. Hypnosis.

Her feet slowed as her knees brushed the platform of her bed again and she spun around slowly this time to head back toward the fire.

Pandora and Eve.

She sighed deeply, lips twisting in frustration, as she recalled the original questions with which she had attempted to search for answers. What had happened to Clarke? Why would she not seem to be able to remember her own words? She had not been able to seek out anything specifically in regard to the strange declarations Clarke had made to her, so she set that aside and considered what she understood so far.

Memories, not visions.

Not dead.

She stopped short in the middle of the room.

Clarke is not dead, and neither am I.

An unpleasant sensation tingled up her spine as the question crept into her thoughts.

If I can access Clarke’s memories now, could she, in turn, do the same with me?

She resumed pacing and nervously kicked at the stone lining the fireplace. She did not want anyone to search her memories while she lived! She swallowed audibly and wrestled against the fear of being vulnerable this way to anyone as she forced herself to gulp in long calming breaths.

Focus on the answers I have.

She halted once again in the middle of the room as she gathered her thoughts, and finally noticed a subtle tingling prickling in her fingertips.

Lifting her hands to examine them, she realized the sensation was not isolated in just the tips of her fingers. An awareness of a subtly growing pressure radiated from her hands up to her shoulders and expanded outward, almost like an itch across her skin; a tight overstretched sensation of hyper-awareness upon her body that seemed to match her internal need to find answers.

Like the rest of her people, she was used to listening for things carried upon or in the wind, only the drive to follow this thread of knowledge pressed upon her with greater insistence than she had ever experienced before. She instinctively knew the answer would be found inside of herself this time. The truth was so close to surfacing, she could feel it!

Memories. Hummers. Compulsion. Hypnosis....

She still did not understand what hypnosis meant, but in the memory it was tied to the Hummers...somehow.

Jeff said the Hummer attacks caused people to have trouble standing or walking. Doc had said it was a toxin that damaged the people’s ability to speak...leaving them vulnerable. No, he had used the word...open.

Carriers...

A chill of certainty ran down her spine.

Her own childhood memories supplied the next step in understanding. Her people knew the dangers of being stung by Hummers and had learned how to live with them in a natural way. When the season approached for the swarms to fly, the children teased one another with a chant of mixed Trigedasleng and English. Something she recognized now as serving as a teaching method for children warning of the dangers of being stung by Hummers.

nou run

nowhere kom hide

drop low

be ste inside

hummers fly down

to teik your voice

to teik your mind

It now made far more sense to Lexa than it ever had before, that the sting of a Hummer rendered the person truly vulnerable in mind and body. Oddly enough, she knew some people in her time had said it left them with something more, but there was no proof of that, especially if the victim was struck down by multiple stings as was usually the case.

Vulnerable.

She looked over at the wall separating her from Clarke, and was struck by realization.

Clarke was Open!

She felt a rush of panic and headed for the door.

I will ask Nyko what should be done-

...

She opened bleary eyes and felt dizzy to see the floor. The tops of her knees swam into complete focus first. Disoriented, she tilted her head down further and made out that she was perched on her throne with her heels hooked at the edge of her seat, her hands clinging to the hard bone on the armrests in a death grip.

She tilted her heavy dizzy head back up to look at her surroundings, and something cold and wet dropped to her bottom lip. Her tongue swept out and tested it, before the heavy taste of iron registered. She reached up with her right hand to wipe it away, only to see her fingers covered in streaks of wet ash. Her hand shook as she turned it over to find a cleaner patch of skin, and swiped the blood away from her mouth and upper lip.

Stiffly, she unhooked her heels from the edge of the seat and collapsed forward into the space. She gripped both armrests again and felt something pliable give way beneath her left hand. Prying her hand away from the armrest, she cupped the object before opening her hand to see two scraps of paper resting on her palm.

“You wasted an hour for nothing. Quit trying! You can’t protect me from everything, it won’t fucking let you let you anyway!”

Clarke

P.S. Go to bed!

She stared down at Clarke’s loose scrawl, comprehension of the message slow to surface. What does “P.S.” mean? It was connected to an order for her to sleep. She moved the second note to the front while she pondered the phrasing.

“If it does not work this time, listen to Clarke.”

The second command was definitely written her own tight script; a recommendation to herself. She looked back at the first note, and frowned at Clarke’s cursing in written word. Clarke had been here, but she did not recall her coming back to the room.

Still feeling a little dazed, she looked around her for clues and noticed that the objects on her War Table had been moved. She got up and walked over the the table to inspect the changes.

The stone she had used to represent Bellamy was wet and had a smear of dark grey under it. She glanced down at her wet ashy fingertips and then looked toward the fire pit. She walked over and knelt in front of it to see several pieces of partially burned notes at the edge of the coals that had failed to be consumed completely.

The dazed sensation that had been clinging to her finally lifted, and she remembered. She was trying to go to Nyko, because Clarke was Open.

All of the Sky People were vulnerable.

She stood upright and clenched her fists.

The feel of paper crumbling again between her fingers reminded her of this latest failure. How many times had she tried to overcome the worst case of Compulsion she ever experienced? She did not even have the memory of any of the attempts intact. Yet, Clarke had said she had wasted an hour’s worth of time.

She sighed and her eyes flickered back to both notes again.

P.S. Go to bed!

She scowled resentfully down at the words, but realized she needed to let it go after a few moments. She would have to find another way to protect Clarke without external assistance.

The voice of Clarke’s grandmother slipped back into her mind. “…she will do whatever is best for you and you will do the same for her.”

The words suddenly and strangely felt connected to her present situation.

Pandora and Eve.

This information was new and an unfinished piece of the puzzle, but it still reminded her of something in her own experience. What seemed best or fair for another, was not always what protected them. If she had listened to such words earlier, Kostia might have lived.

Was there a reason Clarke needed to be Open?

She sighed at the mysteries swirling through her thoughts but gave in to the advice from her own note; she would try to find the answer again tomorrow.

 

~

Clarke spent several anxious minutes pacing in her room before she finally stopped next to the wall by the end of her bed.

“Why?” She slumped against the wall. “Just…” She muttered and yanked off her boots one at a time. “…fucking why?” Her tone sank into a wretchedly embarrassing whine as she tossed her footwear down to the end of the bed. She stood there huffing in frustration with her hands on her hips.

Why did I challenge her like that?

Now she knew for certain that Lexa was not interested. It was no relief that she could tell the Commander was obviously attracted to her, Lexa had referred to her as the enemy.

Frustrated by her own embarrassment and feeling somehow more rejected than she thought she should be from the hurt caused by Lexa’s response, she gave in to the conflicting sensations and stepped away from the wall to approach the side of the bed.

Maybe I’m just tired.

But, that did not feel entirely true. She leaned up on her toes precariously over the bed for a moment before she dropped, face-planting and forcing all the air out of her lungs through the dense fur covering.

Embarrassment and disappointment notwithstanding, it only took a minute before she realized it was much harder to breathe in this position, and crawled all the way onto the bed before flipping over to her back.

Her mind would not let it go.

She replayed the image of Lexa standing there, stiffly, resisting, while their bodies brushed together and they hovered so very close to a kiss. Clarke could still feel her rapid breaths against her skin.

She folded her hands over her stomach, and told herself not to break her own damn promise again. Reminding herself that she was not ready for a relationship, and that Lexa did not seem to want one with her at all. Curling onto her side, she closed her eyes, and reached for the layer of furs to throw haphazardly over her body.

She could still feel Lexa under her skin. It was less vivid at a distance and with the barrier of concrete between them, but the Commander’s Thrum was still there.

She rubbed at her eyes and slipped her arm back under the fur.

Breathing.

It had all started with breathing “properly”, and she swore she had not noticed until that lesson just how good the other woman’s scent could be. Really, it had taken her a little while to realize that Lexa’s scent combined with her Thrum in the most tantalizing way and somehow addled her damn brain.

Regardless of her own responses, Lexa’s reactions were plain to see. Her breathing spiked along with the vibrations, and Clarke swore there were several times she could almost make out what Lexa was actually feeling over her projecting Thrum.…and what did she mean-

“I am her reason,” the words rasped quietly and with certainty from her own lips. An oddly familiar longing rose with the taste of the unrealized meanings and burrowed deep inside her chest. She curled her arms beneath her breasts tightly.

What the words might mean still remained unclear, but the sensations they brought up curled in her belly. She found herself breathing at the count of four to calm down, and finally the frustrated longing slipped away as she started to doze off.

Lexa’s Thrum disappeared.

Clarke jerked upright.

The Commander’s Thrum had flipped off as though the woman no longer existed on the other side of the wall.

Tense, she looked at the wall and waited, unsure if she should be more or less worried than she already was.

Long minutes passed as she lay frozen, reeling from the tense emptiness her body now felt with the lack of awareness. Finally, she could not take the unknown any longer, and flung the furs off her body as she swung her feet to the floor.

Lexa’s Thrum returned suddenly, pulsing hard for several long moments, before it settled into a steady rhythm.

Clarke released a sigh in relief, once again reassured by the vibrations coming from the next room.

It must have been nothing.

She got back under the fur cover, and she let her body slowly relax and slip toward sleep.

Lexa’s Thrum disappeared again.

She propped herself up on her elbows and waited, still unnerved by the absence. Within a few minutes, it returned again, pulsed hard, and then steadied itself.

Frowning, she laid back and waited, trying to relax once more and fall back to sleep.

Lexa’s Thrum disappeared suddenly again.

Clarke curled onto her side to face the wall between them, staring intently in the darkness as her unease gradually grew and escalated the frustration that she was forced to notice the Commander in this way, even when she was not in the room.

It happened again repeatedly over the next hour. Finally, she found herself thoroughly pissed off by not knowing why this was happening, and she gave in to the need to find out. She stumbled out of her bed, grabbed her boots and rammed her feet into them, before she tromped out of her room and to Lexa’s door.

Clarke whipped the door open and marched in, making it all the way to the middle of the room before she spotted the target of her ire.

Lexa was hunkered down oddly upon her heels on the floor in front of her War Table, and she stared off into a distant point of the corner of the room.

Clarke froze in her tracks, her own anger undercut by a sudden concern for the strange sense of vacancy emanating from the kneeled Commander. “Lexa?”

Lexa did not respond to her presence.

Slowly she approached the other woman and dropped to her knees in front of her.

Lexa’s breaths were coming shallow and short. There was a dot of blood at the rim of her nostrils, which she suddenly flared. Lexa took in a deep breath and exhaled slowly, then blinked rapidly. Her gaze wandered dazedly until she locked eyes with Clarke for a long moment before she even seemed to realize she was there. Lexa whispered uncertainly. “Clarke?”

“Hey. It’s okay.” She spoke soothingly, though she had no idea if that was true, yet she found she needed to say it anyway. “What is going on, Lexa?”

The Commander closed her eyes and relaxed her body back until she sat down all the way to the floor, dropping her knees into sit in a cross-legged position. Lexa sighed and then opened her eyes again to look directly into hers, whispering, “Compulsion, Clarke.”

“What?” The unease she had dismissed earlier returned full force and crept up the back of her neck.

Lexa just stared at her, as though she should understand from that word alone what was wrong here.

“You’re under Compulsion?”

Lexa nodded slowly.

“What is it making you do?”

Lexa scowled. “It is keeping me from doing.” She got to her feet and turned to her War Table.

Her gaze slid away from the other woman’s tense form to take in what Lexa was looking at. Scraps of paper littered the Table with one or two words scrawled on each of them. Clarke stepped up to stand next to her, and put a finger on each set of cramped handwritten words.

All. Open. Sky People. Hummers. Clarke. Nyko. No Closing. Close them. Not ready. Memories. Not Visions. Grandmother. Not dead. Compulsion. Take voice. Take mind. Carriers. Dok. Hip-nose-is.

The last two did not make any sense to her at all.

Lexa’s Thrum abruptly vibrated at a feverish pitch, and she heard Lexa huff out in irritation before she scooped the notes up and stiffly headed for the fire pit.

“What are you doing?”

Lexa tossed the notes into the fire and her vibrations instantly leveled out, hitting that steadied hum Clarke recognized from lying in bed as she had wondered what the hell was wrong with her.

“I am dealing with two different kinds of Compulsion, Clarke. That is what I am doing.” She had a look of disgust on her face.

“There is more than one?” She was perplexed, and her skin pricked with the way the tension radiated from Lexa, the way her clenched jaw and balled shoulders combined with her Thrum.

“There is now.” Lexa leveled a look at her thick with accusation.

Clarke stiffened under the implication that she had done something wrong, her anger flaring up again. “How is this my fault?”

“It has never happened like this before. You have a different kind of Compulsion from mine.”

Clarke stood there and tried to absorb the information, but it did not make any sense to her. Growing increasingly frustrated, she glanced down again to examine the papers upon the table. “Did you write the notes for yourself?”

“Yes.” Her reply was terse.

Clarke’s eyes widened in realization. “You can’t remember what’s happening.”

Lexa grimaced and gave her a short hesitant nod.

Clarke approached the fire pit and looked at the notes curling and turning to ash. “What are they keeping you from doing?”

Lexa opened her mouth and closed it. She clenched her fists, then opened her mouth to speak again, but nothing came out. Her mouth scowled and she growled low, then turned and began to pace the open space of the room. Finally, Lexa stopped suddenly and nailed her with a frustrated gaze. “Protecting you!” The Commander then looked startled that she had managed to get any words out at all, and then she heaved a sigh of relief.

Clarke did not know what to make of this, but she knew Lexa needed to stop. “You’re bleeding.”

Lexa blinked slowly and gave her a puzzled look.

Clarke moved close to her and lifted her hand before she could stop; she only just caught herself in time and halted the intended touch from landing. “Your nose is bleeding.”

Lexa did not respond to her words, but her eyes had opened wide as she watched Clarke’s hand raise toward her face, and her Thrum spiked the moment Clarke’s hand had gotten close.

Clarke dropped her arm heavily back to her side, then sighed in exasperation. “It hurts you to fight it, so you need to stop!”

Lexa frowned and looked away from her, before her chin angled up in a show of slow belligerence and her expression turned stoic.

“Fine!” Clarke went to the table and found a blank scrap of paper, then grabbed the writing utensil at the edge with an angry fist.

No more bullshit! She was done! Clarke scribbled furiously on the paper for...she did not know what exactly Lexa was to her right now except a pain in the ass.

“Here.” She shoved the note into the Commander’s uncooperative hand, not letting their fingers brush.

“Go to fucking bed!” Then she spun around and stormed out of the room.

Clarke made it to her room in short order, only to find that she could not settle at all and wound up pacing just like the crazy woman next door. “This is so stupid!” She exclaimed in frustration while she tried desperately to piece together what could possibly be going on with Lexa.

Try as she might, the effort to figure it all out and her own refusal to calm down got her nowhere. Eventually, she conceded that she would not be figuring anything out tonight in the state she was currently in, and her breathing slipped unconsciously into the count of…

fucking four!

She stopped her pacing, glared the wall between them again as though it would let the Commander feel her resentment. She found herself muttering in her own rendition of Lexa’s know-it-all tone of voice. “Breathe properly, Clarke.”

She felt instantly foolish for voicing the words aloud, and made her way over to sit on her bed.

Despite her resentful feelings, she continued the patterned breathing and soon calmed down enough to let go of her anger, suddenly tired. Her mind was left to consider her own behavior and words toward Lexa only minutes ago. It did not take long for her to feel the distinct sting of embarrassment surge through her again over her own outburst.

She cringed as she acknowledged that she was acting like some kind of hormonal nut job right now. But then again, she was certain Lexa would continue to be a dumbass and try again to ignore the Compulsion, which would probably cause her to forget the entire thing had even happened.

Clarke sighed heavily at herself, but still childishly crossed her fingers and hoped for the best.

Chapter Text

Early Morning, October 28th, 2334 - 267 A.F. (Activation: Day 02)

Her eyes opened to the spare room in grainy outlines lit by a fire burned down to ash. Her mind and body were relaxed, pliant and settled under the fur covering. No dreams of Finn following her or dead warriors banging upon the walls of the dropship had disturbed her rest this time. Blinking slowly, she turned onto her back and felt a warm wetness pool between her thighs.

Her eyes widened in distress and she ripped back the fur covering to jump unsteadily from the bed and run her hands over it, but found no stains. A gust of air parted her lips in relief.

Guess I’ve got to get used to menstrual cycles.

She gathered her clothing and left the building.

The scattered fires had burned down to coals doing little to light the way as they competed with the bright golden edge of dawn as it crept over the horizon.

I didn’t sleep very long.

It was strange for her to be up this early unless she had a good reason, but in spite of the hour she felt well rested as she walked into a building that led to the bathing room.

She stepped down through the entrance of the tiled room to find two women with a small girl and boy already in the basin. The women scrubbed them with quick efficient motions, while the children stood still, hip deep in flowing water and bored looks on their little faces.

No room for me.

Unsure of how long they would be, Clarke walked over to a low wooden bench along the far wall and sat down to wait.

She had not seen any Grounder children up close before this moment, and kept sliding her eyes over to watch them surreptitiously, still uncertain about the customs of Grounder bathing.

They appeared about the same age, possibly four or five years old, with the tops of their heads coming up to the womens' hips.

One of the women scooped up a handful of thick white lather from a dish on the lip of the basin and rubbed it into the little girl’s hair, tugging the wet mass back and forth. The girl’s head jerked along with the motion, but she said nothing at the treatment; instead, her eyes flicked to Clarke and then away repeatedly.

The boy stared at her without blinking with his small mouth opening and closing in a loop as though he was working himself up to speak.

The woman behind him smeared soapy hands into his hair and the lather dribbled down his face and into his moving mouth. He sputtered at the taste and tried to spit as his small features twisted in disconcerted disgust.

It was an expression she had never seen on any Grounder and caused Clarke’s lips to curl in amusement and looked down to hide it, but then glanced up as the woman lathering his hair tapped the top of his head, chiding him. “Yu pul op flies.”

His eyes opened wide, and he snapped his mouth closed.

The little girl’s eyes flicked over to him and she reached out a hand to touch his arm in reassurance. “Dilan, Ai fleim au fou don emo gyon yu.”

Dilan turned his head and blinked through lather at her. “Mochof Kaleen. Ai dula op seimtaim don yu.”

Clarke’s brow furrowed in thought at the children’s exchange. She caught the words pull and flies.

Pull flies? Draw flies? To his open mouth?

The woman behind the boy looked up and caught her watching the children’s interaction. Her tone was less formal than what she was used to hearing from Grounders. “You want to learn sleng?”

Clarke nodded eagerly. “What did they say?”

“Kaleen said, ‘I will burn you before they get you.’” She removed her hands from his hair and tapped his shoulder.

Dilan dipped, submerging his body and scrubbed at his head, before coming back up. He sloshed the water from his face.

The woman nudged him and waited for him to make eye contact, then prompted him to speak with a lifted chin and a nod toward Clarke.

Dilan turned to her and said, “I do same for yu.”

Pull flies to an open mouth. Burn you before they get you?

Running those meanings around in her head, Clarke suddenly realized they were talking about the fear of dead bodies being left to the elements. She glanced quickly down at his shoulders and chest. She saw no marks of kills upon his body yet, but discerned from their words that he and the girl were already very aware of the state of death.

He kept openly studying her and finally found his courage or his words. “Yu hair is yellow.”

She shook off the unease unfolding in her gut and softened her gaze while she returned his curious look. She had not seen any Grounder yet with blonde hair like hers either, and thought of the term Grounders had given her people. “It is. Many Skaikru have blonde hair.”

He nodded more with his eyes than his head and it reminded her of Lexa’s decisive method to show consent. “Dilan, right?”

“Yes.” He looked at the girl next to him, as she dropped to her knees and dunked her head in the flowing water, scrubbing at her head the same way he had a few moments ago. “Daun Kaleen.”

Her long dark brown hair floated for a moment all around her submerged body before she stood up and cleared her it away from her face. She looked startled to have Dilan and Clarke both staring at her.

Clarke nodded to her and smiled encouragingly. “Hi Kaleen.”

The girl’s dark eyes rounded, meeting Clarke’s and then she edged back into the woman behind her, keeping her silence.

The woman laid a gentle hand on the Kaleen’s shoulder and spoke without looking up, her tone mild. “She lost her family in the fire of your rockets.”

The violence of the words bled through the misdirecting delivery and Clarke’s breath caught in her throat.

The woman tilted her head up only enough to meet Clarke’s gaze, the white of her eyes defined starkly by her dark bottom lashes and flashing with unforgiving judgment as her voice grew insidiously cold. “All of us lost our families because you burned our stegeda to the ground.” She dropped her hand from Kaleen’s shoulder. “That is a word you should learn. Stegeda is village. Our houm.” Barely restrained rage radiated from her as she turned away to gather more soap from the dish of lather.

The unpleasant sensation, first brought about by the children’s awareness of the state of death earlier, fully unfurled in her chest with heavy understanding. She swallowed thickly before she let out her breath. “I am so sorry that happened. We didn’t know the flares would hit anyone.”

The women and children all remained silent and ignored her presence in the room as though she was not even there, an atmosphere ironically more painful than their open hostility would have been to her. Finally, the women finished scrubbing the children and led them out of the basin, drying them off with sheets of a soft thick tanned animal hide.

If stegeda was village, then houm was home. Shame still bubbled in her gut and she desperately wanted to convey her regret; she could not leave it like this. “I will remember the words. Stegeda and houm.”

The woman stopped at the door and turned her head back toward Clarke, her face entirely unmoved by her attempt to reconcile with them. “You do not have a houm, Skaikru.” Then she was gone.

Clarke was alone once again.

She stayed frozen on the bench and stared at the flowing water, watching the cloudy pollution disappear to become clear again in a few minutes. Finally, she let out a heavy sigh and undressed before climbing into the basin, still trying to pull herself away from the crushing sense of loss and shame coursing through her body. Her eyes watered with the hot sting of tears and shuttered breaths. One drop escaped her lashes before she squeezed her eyes shut and dunked underneath the surface.

She’s right.

She had no place to call home. All she had been the few people she cared about in her camp who were not already trapped in Mount Weather.

But she’s wrong too.

Home was not a place for her.

Her tears stopped mixing with the water as it swelled around her face, and she brought her head up, breathing deeply.

“Come on Bellamy.” She muttered quietly. The words skimmed over the water, and she hoped her plea made a difference somehow because she needed him to succeed.

My people are my houm.

While Bellamy did his part, she would focus on hers. Doing whatever she could to save them, so she needed to concentrate on making sure the Alliance stayed intact, and she especially needed to keep peace with Lexa.

Her actions of the night before wrangled their way to the forefront of her thoughts as she washed, causing her to flush in embarrassment all over again.

Why did I do that?

She grabbed the strips of bloodied cloth to wash them out and came to the most likely conclusion for her strange confrontational behavior.

“Premenstrual Syndrome.” She declared quietly into the empty room. People used to make jokes about it and shortened it to PMS. She thought she got it now, the jokes from social media predating the instigation of population control that the Ark stored along with the physical symptoms on the medical data files, but they were not funny if you were the one experiencing them.

She sighed and wrung out the cloth.

Even if it did not fully explain why Lexa smelled so good all of a sudden, acting like an idiot around her now seemed like a normal side effect. She hoped it was normal, anyway.

Am I supposed to apologize for having PMS symptoms?

She could not remember reading anything saying that she should.

Hope not.

That would bring up the fact that she acted weird in the first place. She set the cloth aside and began to wash herself in earnest. She would not bring it up.

At all.

She had other things to think about anyway. Bellamy would reach the entrance to Mount Weather by midday if nothing went wrong. He could contact them at any time after that. They were all one step closer to freeing their people, both Lexa’s and her own.

She needed to attend the meeting at midday and then she would be on her way to Camp Jaha and the radio, but first, she needed to learn how to ride a horse.

I’m going to ride a horse!

Excitement bubbled in her belly. The first time she woke up on one, Lincoln had been sitting behind her with hands tied in front of her. They had barely brushed the animal as he slid her off and to the ground.

Didn’t count.

She had not lied to Lexa because she really had not gotten to touch that horse.

She dunked under and rinsed off.

Earth Studies had not prepared her for the real life experiences of being on the Ground the way they were meant to do. It was obvious to her now that the data they relied on came from a drastically altered world. She had never even got to try the simulator for riding a horse because it had been broken fifty years before she was born and it was not considered a big enough priority to fix. She doubted it would have done the experience justice anyway.

As she got out of the basin and dried off, she wrapped a sheet of soft cloth around her body before running her hands through her damp hair to untangle the strands, and considered how the warriors acted with their horses. It seemed like mutual trust and respect was present in the care they took with each other.

I’m going to get to do that.

A flash of giddiness sparked in her stomach and flew up to the top of her head. This was a Grounder thing. She was going to become more Grounder and less Arker by learning how to ride a horse. Clarke needed to show she belonged here, to both the Arkers and the Grounders, and this was an important step to being a Grounder.

She also wanted to connect to an animal that was not trying to kill her or that she did not have to kill and eat to appreciate. Reveling in the clean warm feeling that stayed with her as she dressed, she smiled and exited the bathing area and set off return her things to her room.

The edge of dawn had grown in her absence, and she saw several people coming out of buildings to start their day by tending to the dead or dying fires.

A gnawing emptiness in her stomach drew her attention, and she realized that she was very hungry again. Though hunger was not a new sensation, her life on the Ark conditioned her body to accept the tiny portions that she absolutely had to have while leaving her wanting more, but this was a deeper and sharper need to eat now than she was used to feeling.

I hope that somebody made food already.

She passed Lexa’s door and felt the woman’s Thrum spike wildly from the room beyond it, as though it responded to her passing so close. It seemed Lexa was awake, or at least aware of her on some level, but she resisted the urge to stop and knock.

Not yet.

After entering her room, she hung her wet things in a corner to dry and added wood to the fire, then stirred it up until the new wood caught and burned.

She listened for movement next door and waited, not wanting to be the one to approach first this morning.

Time passed and she heard nothing but the crackling fire and her own unsteady breathing as she lingered, but the Thrum inside the room next to hers stayed quiet. It looked like Lexa would not be approaching her after all.

Maybe things aren’t really okay between us.

Unsettled, she began to pace across the small room for a few moments more before she could no longer ignore the complaining of her empty stomach and gave up on waiting for Lexa.

Within a few minutes, she made it to the mess hall table with a heaping plate of food and thought of nothing but filling her belly.

Several people wandered in and out of the room, but chose to leave and eat elsewhere.

She had almost finished when she saw her mother enter the room from the corner of her eye, but she continued to focus on scraping the last remnants from her plate instead. She was not yet ready for another arduous conversation this morning if she could avoid it.

After a noticeable hesitation, her mother sat down heavily across from her with her own plate of food, and she glanced at it, mentally comparing how much she had on her own plate a few minutes ago, to her now completely empty one. The painful hollow feeling had finally retreated, and she was just now beginning to feel full after eating almost double the quantity sitting on her mother’s plate.

Did my metabolism change? Was the appetite increase from menstruation or a result the connection I have with Lexa?

Her mother interrupted her thoughts, her tone already combative. “When we’re done here, we need to leave for camp.”

“I won’t be leaving right away.”

She looked back up at her mother to see her expression freeze. “Lexa is going to have someone teach me to ride a horse. It will be faster back to camp on horseback.”

“She’s going to teach you…” Her mother left it hanging between them. Clark sighed at her skeptical tone.

“I’m sure whoever it is will show you too, since you’re going with me.” Her stomach bloomed with the flush of guilt to sit heavy with the food. She had not even thought about her mother at all. She had never asked Lexa, but if she needed to, she would insist her mother be included.

Abigail Griffin, the Chancellor of the Ark survivors, needed to learn how to act like a Grounder more than any other Arker if she was going to be an example to all of them that they could assimilate  into this new world. The Arkers would follow suit and the Grounders would be more willing to accept them if their leaders were making a concerted effort.

Her mother sighed, seeming to understand Clarke’s unspoken concerns and conceded the point. “Fine. Where do we meet this person to train us to ride?”

Clarke had no idea. She assumed Lexa would send someone to find her if she was not waiting in her room.

Suddenly, the door opening and interrupted her need to answer as Ryder stepped in to pause inside the entrance until he laid eyes on her. He addressed her formally with a voice rumbling as though working its way through gravel. “Clarke of the Sky People, the Commander wants you to learn to ride a horse. I will be teaching you.”

Her mother shifted uncomfortably in her seat and looked back at the massive man, poised to reply.

Clarke rushed to cut her off. “Will it be a problem to train two people at the same time?”

His gaze flicked briefly in her mother’s direction as he hesitated briefly. “When you are ready to begin, meet me on the south side where our horses are kept. I will have another of your guard teach Abby of the Sky People.” He gave a short nod of his head, beard flattening to his chest with the motion, then needlessly ducked his head to clear the entrance as he spun around and left.

Your guard?” Her mother regarded her with a raised eyebrow.

Clarke did not want to explain the worry Lexa had for her personal safety to her mother, fearing their conversation would devolve into an interrogation, she tried to make light of it. “Yeah, Lexa just wants to make sure that we stay safe.”

“At least she thought to protect you this time.” Her mother’s voice held a slight note of resignation.

Surprised, Clarke surreptitiously glanced at her mother, trying to keep the spike of alarm from showing on her face.

Did she know about Quint? Did she know about the Pauna?

“I worry that you have bitten off more than you can handle, Clarke.” Not giving her daughter a chance to answer, she briskly got up and placed her plate in a bin by the fire.

“What are you talking about?”

Her mother stopped moving, her back to Clarke. “The Commander is not what you think she is. You don’t know what she’s really after.” She turned and gave her a hard, evaluating look.

This again.

It was not her personal safety her mother was worried about, it was her close association with Lexa that had her mother concerned. She grit her teeth in frustration and let the silence settle heavily between them. After several moments of pacing her breathing to the count of four, she managed to center herself with the release of built up tension.

Calmer now, she spoke as evenly as she could. “Lexa wants to get her people out of Mount Weather, and so do I. You want that too, don’t you?”

“Of course I do Clarke, but I’m not going to sacrifice the safety of rest of our people at camp to do it.”

Her mother’s words burned inside her mind, driving home the point that all the kids the council had sent to the ground to die were still expendable. Bitter anger welled in her chest. “Then you should worry about them while I take care of everything else.” She got up fast, almost knocking her chair over when it was shoved back too fast, and then shoved her plate into the bin with a clatter. “I’ll meet you by the horses in a few minutes. I have to take care of something.”

She saw her mother’s hand stretch out for her as she passed but pulled her arm stiffly out of reach before storming out of the room. Her pulse raced at the near touch, and her chest ached with all the things unresolved between them. Her mother loved her. She knew that, and maybe her mom was even proud of her, but in the end, it was for the wrong things. Her mother’s attempt at expressing love left a new kind of hollow feeling in her gut.

She made it back to her room, moving quickly past Lexa’s door but noticed it was now ajar; she peered in, but she could see that it was empty. With a frustrating flush of disappointment, she stilled and searched internally for their connection.

Lexa’s Thrum felt weaker or distant, still a steady rhythm registering but at a lower resonance. She was not sure what that meant, and she would not find an answer here, so hurried down the hall instead.

Stopping at her own room, she grabbed all of her belongings and noticed a water bag and a satchel placed near the fire. They were not there when she left earlier so she opened the satchel to find dried foods and other edibles at the top of the bag’s contents. She took both with her as she made her way out of the building, then headed for the south side of TonDC.

The skyline brightened further with red-gold overtones and a cold breeze carrying the morning dew coated her skin as she made her way to a low fence of rough wood running several hundred feet in length. Many of the logs looked newly cut, showing an addition to accommodate the many horses that had accompanied all the visiting warriors. The dry ground in front of her was pocked and uneven from the traffic of hundreds of humans and horses passing over it, altering the landscape even in the short time of their presence.

She paused to watch as Octavia and Indra exited a building close to the fence and collected to saddled and bridled horses laden with packs before walking in her direction.

As they passed, Octavia slowed enough to speak to her. “We’re headed back to camp. I’ll bring Raven up to speed and make sure she has the radio going.”

At her words, Clarke felt a wave of tension dissipate that she had not even realized she had been holding. “Good, I’ll follow you as soon as I can.”

Octavia nodded as she passed and Clarke proceeded to make her way to the enclosure down the roughened path until she reached a wide double gate tied together with rope, overlooking a grassy field.

Ryder and another warrior were singling out two horses among many, holding ropes in their hands with looped ends. They coaxed their choices to remain still before they slipped the loops over the horse’s heads, and within a couple of minutes, they had led them to the gate where she stood.

Clarke smiled over at the sight as the giddy feeling returned. She was going to act as a Grounder would and connect to the world the way they do. For the first time, she would become a tangible part of it in the way they were.

She heard the sound of footsteps and glanced back to see her mother approaching with an uneasy expression, pausing as she looked over at Clarke and then at the lassoed horses in front of the gate.

Her excitement was tempered by her mother’s disaffection, her smile shrank and fell away.

In that moment, she felt Lexa’s presence connect to her more directly like a warm caress running down her spine. Clarke glanced around but did not see her. Lexa was not within sight, but she could still feel the Commander’s Thrum hone in on her as a clear sharp signal.

It suddenly felt tangible somehow, as if Lexa were watching her from somewhere nearby, but she resisted the urge to search for her any further. If Lexa did not want to be seen, then she would not make it an issue, especially if their awkward interactions the night before were the reason Lexa kept hidden.

Ryder’s rough voice broke over the shuffling of the horses in the field and the chattering of the birds from the trees that surrounded the fenced area. He beckoned her closer. “Clarke.”

She walked to the gate as he lifted the looped rope from the posts and pulled the gate away for her to enter.

She placed her things down on the ground and stepped through, and suddenly she was standing next to a horse, the musky scent of the large animal filling the surrounding air as the wind caught it and spun its aroma around her. She could reach out and touch the horse, but did not. Instead, she waited for Ryder to let her know what she should do next.

“This is Raidon.” He waited.

She nodded and looked at him for direction.

He simply arched a bushy eyebrow at her.

She let out a shaky breath, then slowly reached out her hand and touched Raidon’s neck.

He was warm and his hair was coarse under her fingertips.

Raidon turned his head to look at her with a big brown eye, the white showing along its rim.

It was disconcerting. It looked like he was sizing her up.

He sidestepped away from her, and she dropped her hand that hung in empty space, before she  glanced over at Ryder with a frown.

Ryder stared back at her like he was sizing her up too.

“What?”

Ryder was subtle with his eye roll, but she caught it anyway. He lifted his gaze away to the far left of the field for a moment, and she followed suit to see what he was looking at, but found nothing to see in the dark shadows of the tree line.

“Clarke, why don’t you ask how to ride the horse instead of just standing there?” Her mother’s sharp voice broke through her quiet quest of the trees as her mom moved forward and placed her hand upon Raidon’s neck, patting it with confidence.

That change in tone seemed totally out of nowhere to Clarke, and she stared in surprise at her mother, who was now stroking the large animal with what looked like practiced ease.

Raidon’s muscles tensed under the new contact but settled quickly afterward. He turned and also gave her mother the “look” for a second, then he dropped his head to lip a patch of grass into his mouth, as though no longer concerned with humans for the moment.

Ryder gave her mother a weighted look as well. “Fenton, switch with me.” He handed the rope to the other warrior and moved on to the other selected horse instead.

“Clarke.” He beckoned to her, and she turned her attention to the other animal.

She approached and stood right next to the horse, waiting for him to direct her since the first time had not gone well.

Ryder looked down at her with expectation. “This is Jingo.”

She regarded Jingo for a moment. He had a pale mane and a dark brown coat, and the warm smell coming from his dusty coat filled the air around her. She reached out to pat his neck.

Jingo stepped outside her range of touch before her fingers could brush against him.

She looked blankly at Ryder.

He stared back.

She wanted to sigh in exasperation at the man, and maybe at the horse as too. Trying again, she stepped forward and reached out to Jingo’s neck, landing a single touch against his wavy mane.

Jingo shuddered at the contact and moved as far away from her as his rope would allow.

She frowned at Jingo. What was wrong?

She looked over at Ryder, who wore a calculating expression on his face. “Is this important? Because I don’t get what’s going on.”

Again, he glanced to the far left of the field, and she mirrored his movement to see what he was looking at.

Just some trees.

The cold breeze blew across her furrowed brow and upon the tall grass in front of her, swirling in intricate flurried waves until it reached the deep still green of the forest, where it met the field’s edge.

Then, at the end of a curled wave of green and butting up against the dark line of shadowed trees on the north side of the field, something moved.

Lexa’s Thrum hummed hard for a moment, before settling.

Clarke’s lips parted in curiosity until she realized what she was missing. That was where Lexa was hiding.

But, why is she hiding?

Her mother’s voice pulled her back from the puzzle.

“Clarke, Fenton is going to show me how to saddle Raidon. I’ll see you in a little while.”

She turned to see her mother confidently walk Raidon away with rope looped about his neck.

“Okay.” She called out.

Why was this going so badly for me but not Mom? She seemed afraid of them a little while ago.

She looked questioningly up at Ryder, but her tone demanded an answer. “What is going on?”

Ryder stared at the horse in consternation. “This is not the right horse for you.” He lifted the rope over the horse’s head and glanced back to where Lexa was hiding in the trees.

Ryder turned back to face her and huffed out an irritated breath, beard hairs trembling at the rush of air that passed his lips. “Follow me.”

His long strides carried him to the middle of the wide field before he stopped and held the looped rope out to her in his large hand. “Take it.”

Cautiously, she took the rope from him and grasped it with unfamiliarity. “You want me to catch a horse?”

Ryder’s eyes glittered in amusement for a moment, then glanced back in Lexa’s direction before his face went stoic. “The right horse will approach you.”

“But what if it’s someone else’s horse? I mean, how will I know I’m not taking one that belongs to someone else already?”

His expression gave nothing away. “You will not know. The Commander waits to see the horse chosen.”

No pressure then.

She scowled and gripped the rope tighter in her hand, her knuckles whitening around the heavy cord. With her luck, she could easily wind up with someone else’s horse and piss them off.

Glaring and nostrils flaring, she let out a huff of frustration directed toward the shadows where Lexa hid.

Fine. I’ll go get a damn horse.

She spun around and looked them over. Most of them were stationary, munching on patches of mottled grass and ignoring the two humans in the middle of their field. Cautiously, she approached a horse close by with a sandy coat and mane and gingerly reached out her hand to touch it.

It lifted its head and briskly walked off.

She let out a breath, trying not to let frustration well up, and tried again. Slowly, she walked toward another horse with her hand outstretched.

The horse sidestepped away before she could made contact, then took off at a quick walk until it reached the furthest end of the fence.

What the hell?

Panning for the next closest horse, she spotted a dark brown coat and black mane lifted up and away by the light cold air that also buffeted Clarke’s back.

Practically creeping forward, she slowly made her way toward her target until she was within six feet of its hindquarters.

The horse jerked up its head up suddenly, and bolted toward the opposite fence, joining the sandy colored horse that was presently pressed firmly against it.

Not ready to give up yet, she gritted her teeth with the latest failure and approached another horse.

...and then another one, and another after that.

She was grinding her teeth now, because every single time she now failed to even make contact.

In fact, the distance increased, and she could no longer get closer to any of the animals than ten feet. Embarrassment and frustration built up with each failure, and simmered hotly, burning her cheeks. Turned down, ignored, and one horse’s snort sounded like it was scoffing at her.

“Did that horse just scoff at me?”

Ryder sighed and looked in Lexa’s direction before turning back to her, but still said nothing.

Was there something wrong with the horses or me?

The early morning sun was heating up the breeze, and clearing most shadows from the line of trees beyond the field when her mother rode up to the fence on Raidon. “Clarke?”

She spared her mother a brief agitated glance.

Her mother and her horse were outfitted with a proper saddle and reins. She was riding a horse that had never rejected her at all.

She turned away in disgust at her own lack of progress. “Not now, Mom!”

I don’t have a damn horse!

“Well, you need to hurry up. Fenton is taking me outside of TonDC to learn about gaits.”

Momentarily distracted, Clark questioned. “Gates?”

“Different speeds the horse moves at.”

“Whatever.” She muttered under her breath before she could catch herself, and gave a decidedly grudging nod of affirmation to the successful pair. “Okay. I’ll see you later then.”

She glanced away to catch a bored expression on Ryder’s face as he stood about thirty feet from her, staring off at nothing, or maybe he was communicating somehow with Lexa since he was looking in her direction again, likely wondering why they were both being tortured this way.

Irritated, she marched up to him and spoke with deliberate slowness, straining to keep her voice level and not address him with the idiocy she felt. “What. Am. I. Doing. Wrong!” She had meant it to be a question, but failed miserably.

He glanced down at her and answered far more calmly than her attitude deserved. “I told you, the right horse will approach you.”

She shut her mouth and pulled air in hard through her nose. “This is stupid. My mother is already on the back of a horse and learning how to actually ride.”

“Your mother does not need a smart horse.” His face twisted oddly in disgust at the word “smart”.

Of all answers she was hoping to pry out of the stoic warrior, she never would have predicted that one. Stumped and sidetracked now, her indignation petered out.  “Why does my horse have to be smart?”

“Why do you need to ask why?”

She grimaced in resentment at his cryptic answer. It seemed that all Grounders had a penchant for talking in riddles when they spoke to her. “Is this some kind of test?”

He sighed deeply, and she watched him look back toward the tree line at Lexa, whose faint outline was now visible in the bright light of the sun overhead.

She was sure she saw Lexa give him a slow nod before he turned back to look down at her. “The Commander is waiting.”

She spun away, muttering angrily, “of course she is,” and refused to look Lexa’s way again.

Lexa can just stand there and wait then for all I care! I’m doing the best I can, dammit!

She walked away from Ryder and his irritating question-answers to sit heavily on the ground with an audible thud several paces away. The horse was supposed to come to her, he had said, and she was out of other ideas.

“Fine!” She huffed out and got no response for it.

 It had better be a really smart horse if it’s supposed to know what the hell was going on and pick me for no damn reason.

She flopped backward to lay flat on the ground and star up into the clear sky, then she extended her arms wide to spread out against the grass, and breathed deeply.  Her nerves buzzed and her fingers began drumming an erratic beat upon the ground.

“Shit!” She muttered quietly under her breath in bewilderment. Her emotions were all over the place, and she cursed the overwhelming frustration that had been surging through her all morning.

Is this PMS again?

If it were, she would be glad when it was over. Her whole body felt off along with the state of her head.

How did women put up with this happening for…?

She did not know how long it would last exactly. The data she read had stated that it was usually between four and seven days but different for each individual, and she was not even sure this was related to PMS at all. It could be due to her connection to Lexa somehow.

That thought made her angry all over again, and her emotions began to spiral out of control.

She knew she needed to get a grip on her emotions and found herself counting to four while breathing. That irritated her for a minute, this giving in to Lexa’s instructions, but she figured it had to be better than being completely miserable, so she allowed herself to stop fighting it and began to relax.

Finally, she settled back in the warm grass with the wind grazing her exposed skin, and began to notice the sound of the birds more clearly, how their chirping and fluttering sounds carried across the field, and the rush of the still slightly cool breeze rustled the leaves of the trees in which they nested. She breathed deeply and smelled the cool scent of pine trees, the sweetness of late blooming flowers, and the unfortunate tang of horse dung as it turned sharp in her nose and the back of her throat.

She stared into bright open sky and allowed the neglected connection’s hold on her to surface. The low hum of Lexa’s Thrum, which she had forcibly ignored for the last twenty minutes or more, now soothed her with its gentle buzz lapping a circuit through her body, and ironically found she had let go of her irritation.

She laced her fingers together over her stomach and closed her eyes. Her body relaxed and her mind wandered as her breathing extended into a slower, deeper rhythm.

What was it like to have a horse?

Why did they allow anyone on their back at all?

What was it like for the horse?

In her mind’s eye, she pictured a dark colored horse, painting it with lines of patterned two-toned colored hair, angles of strong muscle flowing under warm skin as it moved, and large round eyes, widely spaced and curious.

What was it like to see like that?

She heard the weighty sound of hooves nearby, the murmur of low whinnies, and snorts in the distance.

They were not too close, so she ignored them.

What was it like to be a horse?

She tried to imagine having four legs and seeing out of eyes that did not see directly forward and then tried to imagine what it would be like to run like that.

A swooping dip of disorientation hit her.

Suddenly upright with eyes open, her mind scrambled to understand what her eyes were seeing. Two distinctly separated fields of vision split her perception and she stumbled forward in an awkward disjointed motion, then tried to turn her head and look around at an altered landscape tipping oddly up and down with her forward motion and displaced vision.

Sucking air in hard and fast through her mouth, her eyes flew open to see the cloudless expanse of the sky overhead. She lay there gasping as the disorientation dissipated and blinked rapidly while the wind curled the grass over her clenched hands. She took many long exhales to let go of that odd otherness she had just experienced.

Must’ve fallen asleep.

She let out a groggy sigh and tried to dismiss the weird dream, still facing the same problem she had before she nodded off.

I need a horse.

The distinct clop of hooves moving slowly in her direction interrupted the longing sensation burgeoning up inside her again. She closed her eyes, afraid of jinxing herself if a horse was actually coming to investigate her prone body.

Maybe this is it.

Long deep breaths sounded next to her left ear, then a heavy stream of warm air wuffled across her face. A curious, tentative touch of a large warm snout grazed her nose and cheek.

She slowly opened her eyes to see a horse’s mouth filling up her line of sight.

Its head lifted and a familiar long face came into focus. Anya’s horse stood above her.

With trembling fingers, she slowly reached up her hand to touch as the questing nose lowered, and finally, she made her first successful contact with a horse.

It snorted, head jerking up and away, before carefully approaching her again.

Finally, it settled and lowered its head, allowing her to brush her fingers lightly over the snout, and she managed to maintain contact. A sigh of relief flew between her lips with the success, and she brushed her hand along its jaw, tracing up to the long ridge of its face then more firmly back down, before finally cupping her hand over the top of its nose.

“Her name is Trubel.”

She turned her head regard Ryder, who was now staring down at her with a bemused expression. “Trubel?”

“Trouble.”

“Why would Anya name her horse that?”

He looked more than a little surprised that she knew who the horse had belonged to before, but that emotion dropped away as quickly as it had appeared. “It is a Southern bred horse. They are supposed to be smarter.” Doubt laid thick in his voice. “Anya insisted it was a smart horse.”

“Well, if she’s so smart, then you shouldn’t call her Trubel because that’s probably all you’ll ever get from her.”

He eyed Trubel for a moment before looking again at Clarke. “You need to put the lead over her head and bring her to the stable.”

She got to her feet slowly, so she would not scare Trubel away. When she was finally standing, she gingerly lifted the rope up to place it over the animal’s head, but the mare backed up a step and shook her head.

“She doesn’t want to.”

Ryder approached behind her, took the rope from her hands, moving forward to place it over the mare’s head himself.

Trubel snorted, spun around, and then kicked dirt up at them as she galloped swiftly away in a wide arching circle. When she rounded back and approached them again, she stopped short of capture distance and lowered her head, eyeing Ryder steadily.

Even Clarke could see the word “challenge” running the length of her tense agitated horseflesh.

If this was going to work, Clarke decided, she would need to be the one doing the approaching. After all, she was supposed to be the one to ride this animal, but apparently, she needed to make friends with her first. “Wait. Let me try again.”

Ryder wordlessly handed her the rope and stepped away.

She looked down to examine the coil in her hands.

How smart was a smart horse?

She remembered seeing part of a video about a strange horse. It was from an old TV show she had started to watch with her grandmother before her mother came in and interrupted their time together, telling them “it was not reality-based”, and had turned it off. It was about a horse named Ed.

She gently rubbed her thumbs over the rope, thinking it through while the wind swayed the cordage in her hands away from her body and toward Trubel.

The animals on the Ground now were not like the ones recorded in the old media files. They had changed to stay alive, much like the people had, but the animal’s changes were more physically obvious than the people’s were. The gorilla was massive and hunted in ways it never did before Fallout. The panther that Bellamy had drug back to the dropship for them to eat looked very different from the pictures on file.

Could the changes in the animals be more than physical? Was this more than what she took the word “smart” to mean at first, and perhaps even about a literal intelligence increase?

As strange as the thought was, maybe a horse like Ed might have place in this reality on the Ground.

It was worth a try.

She wound the stiff rope into a loop again and slipped it over her own head to hang loosely across her shoulder and torso, then looked up at the horse with curiosity. “Trubel?”

The mare pawed the ground and regarded to her with a look that had suspicion written all over it.

She reached out her hand into the empty space between them and waited. 

Trubel stared at her hand for a moment before snorting and tossing her head. She stepped back, prancing in a circle, but eventually settled and slowly leaned close enough to receive the offered touch.

Clarke brushed her hand over Trubel’s nose carefully once before dropping her hand back down to her side.

The horse’s broad nostrils flared as she breathed deeply and edged her large body a step closer.

Clarke brought her hand up again, but not as high or extended as far as before.

Trubel watched her hand stop too low for touching and hesitated before she took another step closer until her cautiously extended neck allowed her nose to brush the top of Clarke’s outstretched hand.

Clarke slowly turned her palm over and trailed it up the mare’s chin to slide gently over her throat before she stopped short, and dropped her arm back down to her side again.

Shifting, Trubel leaned in further and tilted her head so she could examine her at very close range with disconcertingly direct eye contact to Clarke’s.

Clarke leaned into her space until the brown eye was too high up and close to keep the dead on stare.

Trubel stood alert, but still.

Clarke reached up slowly again, trailing her hand from the bottom of the mare’s snout to the top of her throat and then down to her chest, patting gently, mimicking what she had seen some warriors do when they got off their horses.

Over the next several minutes, Clarke pushed steadily forward, and smoothed her hands along Trubel’s sides and neck.

Long ears rotated to follow her and the mare swung her head around to track Clarke when she moved around her hindquarters to brush along the other side.

Clarke kept her voice low and quiet as she talked to her. “They don’t get that you’re really smart.”

Trubel snorted and bobbed her head.

“Do you even like the name Trubel?”

Trubel stomped her back left hoof.

She whispered. “You might be Trubel to them, but if you were mine, I’d call you Trubel Griffin. We have it in common. Trouble should’ve been my middle name.”

A swish of tail was all she got.

She stepped back again to get a better look at the large intelligent round eye. “Are you really talking to me?”

Trubel lifted her hoof again, but this time lowered it slowly.

What’s that supposed to mean?

Clarke was beginning to think Trubel was actually trying to communicate back to her in a very direct way. Though she was not certain of the meaning of the horse’s non-verbal actions, she also knew that even humans communicated far more with their body language than with words.

Could she really understand what was being said because I’m also talking without words?

If that was true, then her intent was just as important as what she said. She had never thought of her own nonverbal communication this way before, but definitely considered the possibility that intent deeply affected it now.

Decisively this time, she asked. “Will you let me ride you?”

Trubel turned her head and gave her the “look”.

This time, Clarke kept her body relaxed and her features neutral as she stared back. She knew what was supposed to happen. This was a horse test, and she returned the “look” to the best of her ability. With proverbial fingers crossed, she focused on thinking “accepting” thoughts and channeling that intent through the eye contact. The moment of silent conversation lasted far longer than it had with Raidon.

Finally, Trubel’s eye moved away from her abruptly and she dropped her head to snatch up a clump of grass between her lips.

Clarke wondered if that meant she had passed the test or not. “Will you follow me?”

Trubel did not acknowledge the question and continued to munch on the grass.

She sighed, but not in frustration this time. Together, the two of them had made what Clarke believed to be a huge step forward, so she was not agitated or angry anymore. She simply needed Trubel to work with her on this. Stepping in close until she leaned against her solid heavy shoulder with the rope in her hand, she brushed it casually against the horse’s neck, and whispered. “I’m new at this. So I need you to give me a clue.”

Trubel stopped chewing and sidestepped slowly until she faced Clarke and then she reached slowly out to her chest, caught the end of the rope between her lips, and tugged down on it once before she dropped it. Her bright brown eye filled Clarke’s vision before she stepped back.

Clarke sighed in relief. “Okay. That’s pretty plain.” No longer hesitant, she lifted the rope off her torso and placed the loop over Trubel’s head.

She turned to see Ryder struggling to wipe a look of incredulous amazement from his face.

The heavy rope was secure in her hands and Trubel walked behind her toward the gate. She glanced back toward the tree line, and Lexa, to feel her Thrum suddenly vibrate hard then thought she felt a spike of excitement through their connection, before it disappeared.     

What was their issue anyway?

~

Lexa woke to the feel of Clarke’s Thrum resonating loudly in her body as the other woman moved past her door.

She raised her hands and scrubbed at her face to wake faster, still not used to this manner of awareness coming from the woman on the other side of the door. Getting to her feet quickly, she dressed, and made her way to the guards posted outside the building. “Have Ryder come to me after I return.”

A rapid pace toward the mess hall began her daily morning mission when time allowed it, to get a plate of food before anyone else had the chance to see her.

The room was empty, but the food was already prepared and available. Gathering a pitcher and a heaping plate, she returned to her room to eat it out away from the sleepy people of TonDC, just starting to emerge from their buildings.

She sat at a corner of her War Table and ate as quickly as she could.

Her plate was two thirds empty when Ryder strode in and she looked at the remaining food for a moment with regret. Normally, she would be full by now, but found she was still hungry. Pushing the plate back, she got up and went to sit on her throne.

Her day was about to begin in earnest and she began by addressing her most pressing concern. “I am assigning you to guard Clarke of the Sky People. Choose two other warriors to accompany her as personal guards when she leaves for Camp Jaha. Train Clarke to care for and ride one of our horses.” She leaned forward in her seat and continued her instructions. “You will also be responsible for beginning her training in basic hand-to-hand combat.”

Ryder gave her a short nod of acknowledgement, but there was no indication of personal feelings on his face. A characteristic she appreciated and part of the reason she chose him for this position.

“When will she leave for her camp?”

“Clarke needs to return after the midday meeting of the clans.”

“What horse do you want her to use?”

Lexa deliberated. “She will need to be introduced carefully. She told me she has not even touched a horse before.”

He frowned. “Most of our horses are battle trained. We do not have many that would tolerate an unskilled hand.”

“Clarke may surprise you. She has a way of finding what she wants.” She leaned back to rest against the tall support behind her, draping her arms over the sides, her hands dangled loosely over the edge of the armrests. “There are smart horses in the field. The horse may pick her, if need be.”

His mouth quirked in mild disbelief. “Smart?”

“You know Anya swore they were.”

He muttered disdainfully. “Smart horses.” He shook his head and harrumphed. “She never proved it.”

She sighed. “Regardless, there are at least five halfblooded Southern bred in the field and easily ten quarterbloods. It could happen.”

Ryder looked down in thought. “It will take longer if it is a Southern, and I will have to show her more than riding and care for tack if one of those is chosen.”

“It takes as long as it takes, but she will still need to leave for her camp as soon as the meeting is over.”

Ryder considered it for a moment then scratched at his beard. “I will try our Northern bred first.”

She nodded in acceptance of his decision dismissively.

Ryder hesitated. “Abby of the Sky People is with her.”

Lexa’s hands drew up to rest upon the armrests and her fingers curled around the ends. “Show her how to ride well enough that she will cause no delays, but only if Clarke requests it. You or one of the other guards will make sure the horse selected for Abby is cared for.”

He gave her a slow nod.

It was unspoken, but understood. Lexa did not trust Abby of the Sky People to care for a horse properly, but she would trust Clarke to do so. It was a move designed to keep the people of the Alliance focused upon Clarke, rather than the woman’s mother, and to show she was integrating her among them.

Her people would also respond to the value of a horse and the status of having access, by Lexa’s command, of any horse selected. It was a weight of authority easily recognized, a display of her power and favor.

“Does she have any hand-to-hand training?”

Lexa thought of the night before, and the way Clarke had unhinged her when their bodies had touched. The tension returned even from recalling that heated moment, but with a calming breath, she swallowed thickly. “She is unskilled in ordinary combat, but very resourceful.” Now more focused, she shifted to the edge of her seat. “You will follow her orders unless they countermand mine.”

“What are your orders?”

Lexa considered this for a moment. “She has the resources and skills of her people to open Mount Weather’s Door. If she dies, we will not be able to rescue our people, or stop the Maunon from taking more and turning them into mindless cannibals, or using our people’s blood to keep their sickness from killing them. My orders are simple, as is our need. Protect Clarke.”

Ryder nodded in acceptance.

She glanced at her plate longingly out of the corner of her eye. “She has probably gone to find food.”

“Heda.” He gave her a short bow and left.

She waited a few moments longer to see if she would be interrupted again, before she left her throne and moved quickly back to the plate of cold food.

At the sound of someone else entering the room, she put down her fork and looked up to see Indra, with Octavia trailing behind her.

She estimated that her hesitation cost her at least three bites, and there looked to be approximately seven left. All in all, she was making good time this morning.

“Indra.”

“Heda.” Indra nodded in respect, her Second watching her every move, then Octavia turned and nodded at Lexa too.

Lexa was always glad when new Seconds moved past the stage of mindless mimicry, and wondered how long it would take Octavia to do so.

Indra eyed Octavia with a knowing look before prompting her to step forward.

Octavia gave her mentor a short nod and took a step closer to Lexa before she spoke. “The Chancellor told me she and Clarke are going back to Camp Jaha after breakfast.” Her gaze flickered back to Indra before she caught herself and settled her attention back on Lexa. “I want to be assigned as part of her guard.”

Lexa took in the young woman’s stiff posture and the nervous twitch of fingers at Octavia’s side, and then she looked at Indra to see what this was really about.

Indra’s chin floated up in challenge, but her eyes glanced at Octavia before staring back at Lexa defiantly.

Lexa wanted to sigh in exasperation, but somehow resisted the urge.

Octavia’s issues were obvious. The woman wanted to be near the radio if and when her brother made contact with Clarke, and therefore was distracted, not focused on what was considered necessary by her First’s standards.

This brought her to Indra, who, as usual, had several of her own agendas. Indra was using this situation to train Octavia in the etiquette of making requests, finding a way around her own fidgety new Second, and, most importantly, encouraging the placement for both of them within the most potentially volatile situation available.

This is what Lexa got for ignoring Indra’s pride and directness too often.

She decided it would be better to address this entire situation now before it became worse. “Octavia of the Sky People, you are not needed within Clarke’s personal guard. She requires trained warriors close to her and your skills will serve your First in whatever manner she requests of you.”

Her gaze moved from the young woman’s crestfallen face to meet Indra directly. “You are needed as the Tree Clan liaison with the Sky People,” she paused for a long moment before sharing her primary intent, “and as my Second in Command, you will also follow the orders of Clarke, my Alliance counterpart. Unless, you disagree with my evaluation of Octavia’s skills, and consider your Second up to the task of taking your place.”

Indra’s lips thinned. She could accept the position she asked for, but have limited authority while in it.

Lexa just won, again, but she kept her satisfaction to herself. “Clarke will learn to ride this morning and meet with the Clans at midday. Go ahead of them. Bellamy could make contact as soon as midday if he encountered no delays.”

Lexa edged to the side in her seat and casually rested her hand next to her plate to draw attention away from herself, but did not acknowledge the plate by looking at it. Done with this exchange, she wanted Indra to leave and take her Second with her.

Her casual movements and intent were not lost on Indra. She gave Lexa a stiff nod, “Heda,” then turned and walked toward the door before calling out over her shoulder. “Come Octavia.”

Eyes wide, Octavia let out a breath of frustration before she too spun around and followed Indra out the door.

As soon as she heard the door latch, Lexa pulled her plate close and eagerly shoveled a large bite of cold food into her mouth. She still felt the slight edge of hunger tugging at her insides, and wanted to sate it before she lost the chance.

An empty plate sat in front of her within minutes. Two wins before breakfast was over. She grinned to herself, and set her fork across the plate. If she moved quickly, she could make it to the paddock before Clarke and Ryder turned up.

Though she had never managed to pinpoint why, any Southern Bred seemed to have peculiar issues with her that they had with no one else. While she believed it had something to do with being a Commander, she was curious to see how Clarke would take to them, and them to her.

She stopped at the entrance and spoke to one of her guards. “Have supplies and rations for Clarke’s return to Camp Jaha placed in her room.”

She crossed over the grassy field quickly and just made it to the tree line north of the paddock before she looked back to see Clarke standing at the large gate with her mother a step behind, talking with Ryder.

Ryder looked her way across the distance and caught her eye.

She gave him a nod, and then slowly began backing into the shadows, indicating her intention to observe without eyes upon her in return.

He turned his attention back to Clarke.

She stepped under a heavy low canopy of branches and stood cupped within its shadows.

She felt Clarke’s Thrum buzz with excitement for several moments, but then she saw Abby speak to her daughter and the excitement died quickly.

Clarke suddenly looked up and glanced around.

Lexa leaned back and held herself still, deeper in the darkness. She wanted to observe Clarke with the horses without affecting the outcome.

Lexa scanned the selection before her. It was not a cohesive herd because there were too many foreign horses of differing breeds, temperaments, and an imbalance of geldings and stallions within the mix. They had separated themselves into small loose groups between four and eight in any given location on the field, all except for the Southern bred. Regardless of the strength of bred blood, they were loners and walked the fence, always pacing and searching for a way out.

Her own personal horse was a quarter blood Southern bred and not corralled with the rest. She kept him in a separate area due to his tendency of challenging anything he considered competition. In general, he had a touchy temperament and tolerated few people other than herself for more than general care.

If it was not for an old bet with Anya, and the fact he was an outstanding warhorse, she would not even have him now. Toleration was the only word to use when it came to the Southern bred and their offspring. They fought anyone over everything, until someone gave in. If the rider lost the never-ending battle of wills, he never stayed on their back again. The relationship between the successful rider and their Southern bred warhorse was like a begrudging partnership between opposing peoples with a mutual need to defeat a common enemy. Their breed had stamina, structural strength, the desire to fight, and tenacity not found in the Northern breeds. Those characteristics remained dominant in offspring, even after only a sixteenth of Southern blood could be claimed through breeding.

It reminded her of the night Anya had told her of how she had gotten her own horse, Trubel.

The food tent was empty but for her, and long past the time for going to sleep, but Lexa had waited up for Anya’s latest training session with Trubel to be over.

Anya staggered into the tent and let the flap hit her on the back. She stumbled over her own feet for a step, but her face broke out in a triumphant grin when her eyes landed Lexa sitting at a table alone.

Anya lifted a small-necked jar in her hand to her mouth and took a solid swallow, then she stumbled closer to execute a listing flop into a chair next to Lexa at the table.

“You, are drunk.” Her tone was certain rather than judgmental.

Anya ignored the comment and set her jar of liquor on the table. She grinned in satisfaction. “I won.”

She could see several new bruises on Anya’s arms and one across her cheek. “You had to do it drunk again.”

Anya frowned at her, but followed it with a wave of her limp hand in dismissal. “It works.”

She sighed quietly, not wanting to ruin Anya’s good mood, but voiced her concern anyway. “You know it wants to kill you most of the time.”

“Pssssht!” Anya held the jar aloft and drank deeply again. “Trubel likes the fight.” The jar wavered in the air next to her head for several moments before she thumped it back to the table. The drunken woman tottered in her seat.

She sighed at the state of her former mentor and felt obligated to point out she did not share Anya’s opinion on her special connection with the animal. “The horse is a menace. It does not even like other horses.”

Anya squinted at her, and tilted her head slightly to the left, while her whole body leaned precariously until she grabbed the table to right herself. “They are not smart.” She reached for her jar and missed. “They are jealous. She can tell.”

Lexa subtly moved the jar closer to her hand. Anya would try to beat her if she caught her moving it away. “Anya-”

Anya smacked her hand anyway, suspecting Lexa was trying to take it from her. The jar grasped firmly in her hands again, she huffed. “You do not believe me.” She scowled and drank deeply again.

Lexa did not know what to say because she did not want to hurt her feelings further, so she said nothing.

Anya’s eyes wandered the room a little too much before locating her. “I never told you.”

Lexa waited. Anya rarely explained herself, though she was inclined to boastfulness when drunk.

Anya’s unfocused gaze wandered off as she spoke. “They were penned beside each other.”

Time passed without further explanation, and Lexa finally prompted. “They?”

Anya frowned at her. “Nexus and the stallion.” Then she smacked the table with an open palm. “Pay attention!”

Lexa sat forward and leaned her elbows onto the table, careful to keep her face blank.

Anya’s frown faded when she saw her compliance, then she, too, placed her elbows on the table and leaned forward. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “The stallion lifted the latch.” She paused and pointed her wavering finger toward her own face. “With his nose.” She wobbled and dropped her arm to the edge of her chair to steady herself before her back connected to the wood behind her and she slumped against it to rest for a moment.

Lexa knew Anya had visited a Deep South Tribe some time back to negotiate trade. The Great Swamp separated the tribe’s lands from theirs and the meeting had been regarding travel through their lands to exchange goods. When Anya had returned, she had been especially pleased about the state of her horse, Nexus. Several months later, the mare had birthed the monster now known as Trubel.

This story must be about Anya’s horse becoming pregnant. If that is what she was trying to tell her, she was doing it badly. “The stallion lifted the latch and did what?”

Anya grabbed the table to pull herself forward. Elbows back on the table, she whispered again. “He opened Nexus’ latch.” She found her jar. Some of the liquor dribbled out at the corner of her mouth when she tilted her head back to pour it down her throat and then she raised her arm to swipe at it.

So, the stallion had gotten in with Nexus by lifting two latches, Lexa mused. It could have very well been coincidence. “That is all?”

Anya frowned. “No.” She set her jar down with slow determination but it still landed off kilter before it came to a rest. Her eyes grew sly and she whispered again. “He closed the latches too. He went back to his pen and closed it.” Her grin widened and turned smug when she raised her thumb to thump proudly against her chest. “No one saw but me.”

And there was the bragging she had come to expect in every narrative Anya drunkenly disclosed. She sighed under her breath.

Anya believed she was making the correct connections, that the stallion, with premeditation, had unlatched two gates, impregnated Nexus, and then had the intelligence to backtrack and lock up after himself. That was the point Anya was trying to make.

Lexa did not know if this was a bragging attempt gone wrong or if Anya believed she really saw what she said she did, but Lexa pondered whether a horse could or should be taught to do this. Finally, she decided it would be a bad thing to teach a horse. How would you control breeding if the horse had the control to do as he wished?

“You did not tell the rider.”

Anya’s finger wavered when she lifted it to her grinning mouth and pressed it sloppily to her lips. “Shhh. Mine.” She seemed to lose focus completely then. Her grin fell away and she looked around, obviously disoriented, then she tried to get to her feet but slipped back to land hard on the chair, before listing hard to the left.

Lexa knew this cue. It was time to get her stubborn drunk First into bed without appearing to help at all.

She slowly rose to her feet, giving Anya enough time to find and track her. “I am tired.” She deliberately moved around Anya once her bleary eyes found and followed her movement. “Walk with me and you can tell me more.”

It took her a further ten minutes to maneuver Anya into bed, and then she left her to her own devices.

Lexa was brought out of her memory with the sight of Raidon moving away from Clarke’s introduction in complete rejection.

Ryder looked over to her and she nodded her assent for him to proceed with Jingo instead.

He beckoned to Clarke to follow him.

Purposeful movement along the far fence line caught Lexa’s attention.

Trubel slipped between milling horses at the back of the field and slowly made her way closer to the gate along the fence. Her ears flattened, she stopped, and turned toward Jingo. She stomped her hind hoof once.

The motion of Jingo shying away from Clarke pulled Lexa’s attention back to them.

Her lips parted in surprise and Lexa stepped forward, but hesitated on the break of bright sunlight creeping over the edges of the leafy canopy. She watched as Clarke tried again, stepping forward and reaching for Jingo.

Lexa’s eye caught the movement of Trubel’s head arcing upward and stepping toward Jingo and Clarke by a half stride, then she struck her hoof sharply against the ground.

Jingo backed away from Clarke as far as he could get.

Ryder turned back to her for consent to proceed with a selection among the other horses.

Suddenly, the angry buzz of Clarke’s Thrum surged hotly under her skin.

It found me.

She exhaled, and pushed the feel of Clarke aside. Ryder still waited for her response, so she considered.

They would take the chance that another selection would already belong to a warrior, and she debated for a moment on how she would justify the loss of an established warrior’s horse if needed. She knew such an imposition would cause problems, however, Clarke remaining unable to travel quickly between TonDC and Camp Jaha was also unacceptable. Clarke’s need was greater. She gave a slow nod back to him.

Lexa continued to watch but now split her attention between Clarke and the movement of the herd, in particular, the way in which Trubel was circling around them. Something she did not understand was happening with the horses.

Abby approached and spoke briefly to Clarke, but then left with Fenton and Raidon.

Clarke followed Ryder to the middle of the field just as Trubel edged her way along the fence toward the area by the gate where the small party had just exited.

Trubel was now positioned directly behind Clarke and Ryder, standing at attention and watching them as though they were interlopers in her field.

A strong pulse of anger directed at her rushed through Clarke’s Thrum and tingled down her spine. She gasped in surprise.

Why is Clarke suddenly angry with me?

She watched her walk away stiffly from Ryder and approach another Northern bred gelding.

Trubel moved forward several strides toward their backs and stopped.

As soon as Clarke reached her fingers out to touch the Northern, Trubel stomped her hind hoof and the horse Clarke pursued fled to the fence.

With growing interest, Lexa watched as Clarke turned around to locate another horse, and Trubel faded back into a group of horses to her right and lowered her head to eat.

Clarke targeted a Southern stallion next and approached slower than with the last horse.

Trubel’s head lifted and she walked along the fence, staying in step behind Clarke, but as soon as Clarke lifted her hand in anticipation of touching the stallion, Trubel went into high alert.

Six feet remained between Clarke and the horse, then Trubel stomped her hind hoof decisively and he, too, fled to the fence.

Clarke’s face dropped along with her arm and she turned to look for another horse.

Trubel stepped back into a group of horses to her left and lowered her head.

Coincidence?

Lexa was not sure.

As the daylight peaked to midday brightness over the field, she hoped for an answer to her growing fascination.

Ironically, Ryder never seemed to catch Trubel’s maneuvering.

Trubel stayed behind Clarke and seemed to tell every horse she approached to leave. Clarke was not even allowed to get close enough to touch them now.

Waves of frustration broadcasted through her Thrum and Lexa felt her gut twist with each increasing pulse.

Abby returned but quickly left again with Fenton and Raidon after a few words with Clarke. 

Lexa watched Ryder speak to Clarke and then he turned to stare across the distance at her again.

She sighed. Clarke was going about this all wrong, with the lines of her body conveying negative feelings, and Lexa was sure the increasingly frustrated emotion Clarke obviously felt and was projecting toward her kept her from being accepted by the horses she approached.

On top of this, and for reasons that were still unclear to her, Trubel seemed to be influencing the decisions for all the horses, shying them away from Clarke. Trubel had never paid this much attention to anyone. It must mean something.

Lexa thought of her own struggles when she had started to train Solon. He was Trubel’s first foal, and it had been exceptionally difficult to convince him that she was meant to ride him. She suspected that Trubel might allow Clarke to interact with the horses if she calmed down and allowed them to approach her instead of forcing it upon them.

Ryder still waited for her response, and she nodded slowly back to him.

He spoke to Clarke, and then Lexa felt the frustration coming from the woman on the field turn to waves of anger directed right at her. She was not surprised by its presence this time. Clarke apparently blamed her in some way for her own frustration, but it was not fair.

I am not even on the field.

Disgruntled, she kept her eyes on Clarke, watching as she stomped away from Ryder and sat in a huff on the ground. In a few moments, Clarke laid down upon her back in the grass and she could no longer see her clearly.

Lexa craned her neck for a better look, but could not make anything out through the patches of tall grass surrounding her prone figure.

What is she doing?

Clarke’s emotions evened out along with the vibrations of her Thrum calming down, and Lexa was more than relieved when the bombardment finally ended. After a few minutes, Clarke’s Thrum sunk into a deep pleasant sensation sliding along her bones, much as it had last night.

That gave her pause. Last night, Clarke had lost control of something within herself after her Thrum dropped into that same low rhythm.

She watched as Trubel walked hesitantly toward Clarke and Ryder in the middle of the field, occasionally stopping and lowering her head, but not eating. Trubel surreptitiously watched Clarke on the ground from side angles, before she lifted her head and stepped closer.

Suddenly, Trubel’s head jerked up, as though startled, and the horse walked stiff-legged a few steps forward before shuddering hard and spinning around sharply to run toward the fence.

Ryder looked behind him and finally noticed Trubel.

The agitated horse finally calmed and circled back to pace around Clarke’s prone body, neck arched with a prideful prance in every step. Despite her obvious hesitance to get closer, it was as though she could not resist her curiosity of the human sprawled in the middle of her field.

Eventually, that curiosity won out and she nosed Clarke.

Lexa saw Clarke’s hand reach up to caress Trubel muzzle and the horse accepted, the same touch which had sent every other horse in the field running for the fence.

Trubel was choosing Clarke.

Lexa smiled in wonder, a little awe, and chagrin.

Stubborn horse.

Entranced, Lexa watched Clarke get to her feet and then Ryder handed her the lead.

As Clarke approached her with the rope in hand, Trubel stepped away and shook her head.

Ryder tried to rope the horse himself and she raced off, only to circle back as if she was daring them to make her.

Lexa was familiar with this tactic. Solon had done that to her for two days before she had convinced him it was necessary.

She recalled it had taken Anya twenty-three days with Trubel, and that had only happened after she had gotten herself drunk and stumbled back to the paddock to “argue”, as she had put it, with her horse again.

Lexa sighed. If nothing else, Clarke could ride double with one of her guards back to Camp Jaha and take Trubel with her anyway. It would be good for that trouble seeking horse without a rider to have something to do.

A warm breeze pulled at the lingering damp from the early morning air as Lexa stepped out of the dissipated shade to approach Ryder and inform him of her decision.

Abruptly, Clarke looped the rope over her own head and let it hang across her chest before she turned and started talking to Trubel as though she were speaking to a human.

Lexa hesitated at the odd behavior.

What is she doing now?

She decided to wait a little longer to see where Clarke was taking this and within only a few minutes of watching the strange scene, Clarke had Trubel approaching on her own for attention. Clarke appeared to be winning her second battle between herself and Trubel, the first being to have caught the attention of the prideful horse in the first place.

Suddenly, she felt the flow of Clarke’s Thrum split, and a small line of rhythm angled weakly away from her, but a sharp spike of emotion rang through it that resonated need.

Lexa went rigid where she stood, fighting the powerful pull coming from Clarke that made her want to give whatever it was she was asking from her.

The woman’s blonde head leaned in close to Trubel then, and she raised the hand holding the rope to rest it gently against the horse’s neck.

Without considering what she was doing, Lexa reached tentatively along their connection to examine the strange point of separation. She followed the wavering connection, the split vibration not directed toward her, led and diminished into the horse.

What did that mean?

Clarke stepped back, but kept up a one-sided conversation that Lexa could not hear, and Trubel dropped her head to eat.

A few moments later, the horse sidestepped until she faced Clarke, before slowly reaching her long neck out and catching hold of the lead laying upon Clarke’s chest to tug upon it once.

Something foreign touched the weak stem of Clarke’s Thrum briefly and then disappeared.

Lexa’s heart sped up and she exhaled sharply.

What did Clarke do?!

Lexa backed into the quickly dissipating shadows until she was outside their field of vision, but could still see them clearly through small gaps in the heavy foliage. Transfixed, she continued to watch while she calmed her racing heart.

Clarke finally placed the lead over Trubel’s head and they left the paddock together, disappearing into the stable.

She stood for a long moment, the wind caressing her face, unmoving in the remaining shadows.

Was it the horse?

Was it Clarke?

She grit her teeth in frustration.

There is no time for another mystery right now!

Letting out a long huff of irritation, she turned on her heel to return to her rooms. Her time was limited; controlled by the needs of her people. This had already taken too much of her precious day. They waited for her in the heart of TonDC, to tell them what to do and when to do it. Some waited for the war against the mountain to begin. Others waited for her to make a mistake that could end the peace she had fought so hard to create.

So far, she had successfully balanced her own issues of being a Chosen Commander while giving the people what they asked for, and she intended to keep it that way. It could not change because of Clarke.

She decided she would find a way to speak to her about Trubel, about everything, even if she had to wait for nightfall and ride all the way to Camp Jaha to see her.

 

 

Chapter Text

Mid-Morning, October 28th, 2334 - 267 A.F. (Activation: Day 02)

Hooves thudded along the widened trail outside TonDC and Clarke felt each percussion along her spine as her backside made contact with the saddle. Ryder was ahead of her by twenty feet on his horse and they moved at a trot.

As she had been shown earlier, Clarke held the horse reins in one hand, and her other rested on the saddle horn while she tried to follow all of his instructions. The way she sat caused her leg muscles to burn because she was certain she did not have the hang of sitting correctly on a moving horse.

The path ahead was clear, and though she had to continually adjust her body’s position to Trubel’s unfamiliar movements, she allowed her mind to wander.

Clarke ruminated over the time Ryder had already spent with her and Trubel. For the most part, she had learned how to provide the general care, grooming, feeding, and use of horse tack. He had told her that this was only enough instruction to keep her from hurting the horse or herself and they would go over more after they made it to Camp Jaha.

She glanced down at Trubel.

Her ears rotated back toward Clarke, alert, almost as though she listened for her to need something. Trubel seemed to know exactly when and what needed to be done.

It gave her one less thing to worry about though, but for some reason it clearly upset Ryder. The entire experience of learning to ride a horse was overshadowed by his weird reactions.

Clarke had not expected the process to be so stressful.

Every time Ryder had given her instructions and she acted on them, Trubel had also responded immediately, which really seemed like a good thing to her.

Yet, it made Ryder tense up every time.

If Clarke was learning and Trubel was cooperating, why was this a problem? It had thrown her off, and once she became uneasy she had started hesitating before starting tasks, only to be prompted with a bump of a warm insistent nose or a dipped head to accommodate or encourage her.

Ryder had reacted progressively worse with every helpful nudge Trubel given.

Clarke could only act on what she saw and had become more uncertain as she tried to figure out what was going on.

Finally, Trubel had seemed to take pity on her and had started pushing between them, blocking Ryder away from her when his expression would freeze upon his face.

Clarke had felt like she could not take anymore of it and had finally asked what was wrong, but had only gotten a frown from him as an answer. Maybe she was still not asking the right way. Grounders were prickly about all kinds of things that she did not understand, but no matter how she hinted that she wanted to know why this was a problem, she got nothing out of him.

Clarke fervently wished she understood Grounders better than she did. She got the idea she always missed a great deal when they talked between one another and felt as though she was observing a game that had secret hand signals. Clarke had no clue what they meant, but if she was going to be a Grounder, she would have to learn.

She finally decided that his issue had to be about Anya’s past training of Trubel, because as far as she could tell, she was doing what he asked of her and Trubel stepped in to help if she screwed up.

Clarke eyed Ryder as he rode his own horse with ease, in his element ahead of her. Quietly, she huffed out her exasperation with him, then reached down and gave Trubel’s neck a couple of reassuring pats while she tried to ignore the pain in her legs.

Even if Trubel never says a word, she’s a far better conversationalist.

Suddenly, the burning ache in Clarke’s legs intensified, gasping quietly aloud, and gripped the saddle horn hard while gritting her teeth. As quickly as it came, the pain dissipated and the heat eased before disappearing completely. She let out a long deep breath of relief.

Cramps?

She glanced up at Ryder, but apparently he had not heard her over the sound of their riding.

After a few moments, she realized the muscles in her legs no longer stung with the fire of strain from misuse. Shocked, Clarke stiffened and bounced hard in a counterproductive rhythm against the saddle.

I just healed!

The excessive heat was gone, but Clarke’s bottom still bounced awkwardly against the saddle several more times before she relaxed.

Lexa never said it would be like this.

Just thinking her name caused Clarke’s pulse to speed up. It felt anticipatory, like the wait of a person on the verge of touching what they most longed for, for the first time. Though she was no longer pissed off at Lexa over the horse fiasco, she now found herself focusing in on the other woman as the person she ached to be close to, but had no business even thinking about in that way.

Clarke relaxed her tight grasp from the saddle horn, and pinched the bridge of her nose as squeezed her eyes shut.

I need to get a grip.

She squinted into the sunlight, then glanced at her father’s watch on her wrist. They had a few hours left for her training if midday meant sometime between 12:00pm and 1:00pm. It was hard to guess how Grounders kept exact time. She had noticed they looked at the position of the sun, but she had not seen any of them use a timepiece so far.

With her legs no longer in pain, Clarke moved almost comfortably with Trubel. It led her to believe she could stay on a horse well enough to make it back to Camp Jaha now, and because of that, turned her attention to the other things promised to her by the Commander.

She looked over at Ryder, eager to begin. He had not talked about training her in hand-to-hand combat since he had first mentioned it in the mess hall. If the myriad of tasks she was required to know to care for a horse were anything to go by, it would take forever to get trained in any of the Grounder skills. Though it was obvious fighting was not something that you could learn in a day, Clarke knew there was very little time. She needed to be as ready as possible to help take down the Mountain when and if Bellamy got the acid fog down.

I’m going to have to take the lead with this.

Clarke landed two solid taps of her heels on Trubel’s sides to urge her to catch up with him. She did not even have time to blink before the horse’s muscles tensed beneath her and Trubel lunged forward.

Clarke caught sight of Ryder’s bushy eyebrow cocked high in her direction as they flew past him on the trail.

Heart pounding, she leaned back in the saddle and pulled up quickly on the reins in an attempt to slow them down.

Trubel’s ears flicked back toward her right before she came to a dead halt, but Clarke’s body continued forward until her chest flattened over the horse’s neck and an explosive grunt of surprise and all the air in her lungs rushed out.

Heart racing from embarrassment, she caught her breath and eased upright, and then arranged her backside correctly again in the saddle.

Trubel’s front right hoof struck the ground twice, head high as she nodded up and down, and snorted in irritation.

Okay, so I need a little more practice.

Ryder’s horse slowed down to a walk as they reached them, and Trubel stepped into the pace of his walk before she reached over and nipped at his long face.

Ryder’s horse jerked his head up and to the side, while Trubel high stepped forward to gain and maintain a nose lead.

Clarke leveled her breathing, and shot Ryder a side-glance.

He looked at Clarke with the disdain of an adult for a child who did something completely pointless, but he did not say a word.

She was glad he did not say anything. She still felt out of her element with Trubel’s strange behavior and it was embarrassing to not understand why things were unfolding the way they were. However, he was also pissing her off with his attitude. Clarke was now eighteen years old and done being a child.

She huffed out a breath of frustration but decided to let it go and recalled her plan to take charge of her own situation. “Lexa said you would teach me hand-to-hand combat.”

Ryder nodded once.

Clarke waited.

Ryder said nothing.

Clarke sighed quietly. At this point, she should know better. “When can we start?”

“After we are done here, we can begin.”

Her mother would see her practicing if she waited for them to return to TonDC, and she knew she could not have that. She had no idea how bad she really was at it yet. Winning her fight against Anya had seemed more a matter of luck to her than anything else. If Clarke did not look like an absolute beginner, it might make it easier to explain to her mother why it was necessary. “Could we start now?”

He looked up at the position of the sun, then pulled up on the reins and his horse came to a stop.

Clarke tentatively pulled on the reins gripped underneath her fingers.

Trubel stopped immediately with ears twitched back toward her, shifting her weight back and forth to either side, and snorted loudly through her nose. Clarke wondered if she was still irritated with her for stopping their headlong gallop. Maybe Trubel just wanted to run.

Ryder scanned the area and gestured to his right. “Over there in that clearing.” He dismounted, swinging his leg in front of him and over the saddle horn.

That was not the way he had told her to get off a horse earlier.

She unhooked her feet from the stirrups and made an attempt to swing her leg in front of her too.

Trubel raised her head just then, and Clarke’s heel caught on the ridge of her neck.
Suddenly, she slid to the side, dropped the reins, and then scrambled with her hands for the horn to make it back onto the saddle.

She cringed at herself for making yet another idiotic move, but put her foot back into the stirrup and carefully eased her leg over the back of Trubel to dismount correctly.

Trubel craned her neck around and looked at her with judgment gleaming in her intelligent brown eye.

Clarke looked quickly to see if Ryder noticed, but thankfully he had not seemed to notice and was still walking away from her. Rubbing a hand over the back of her neck self-consciously, she started to follow him.

He went over dismounting twice before he let me on her back!

She knew she really needed to obtain and keep Ryder’s respect. Not only was she stuck with him, but she also needed him to share his skills. Clarke closed her eyes for a moment, forcing her anxiety down by breathing deeply.

Please don’t let me look stupid right now.

She opened her eyes and headed with quick steps toward the clearing.

Trubel caught up with her and softly bumped her shoulder with her nose.

She continued walking, but turned her head and whispered. “Look, I’m sorry I screwed up.”

Trubel nosed her again harder.

Clarke took an extra half step forward under the force of the nudge. Exasperated, she whispered. “What?”

Trubel lowered her head over Clarke’s shoulder and stopped her in place. That is when she noticed Trubel’s reins dangling from her pinched lips.

“Oh.” She breathed out, then reached up to take the leather cord in her hands. She turned back to the clearing to see Ryder staring at them.

Trubel managed to get her lips free and lifted her head over and behind Clarke.

An uncertain look crossed Ryder’s features, and then his face fought to settle on an expression, appearing to struggle to decide what the right thing was to feel.

The entire experience just looked uncomfortable.

Finally, stoicism won.

She did not bother asking him what was wrong. It was obvious he had already chosen to ignore whatever it was that bothered him, and she knew there wasn’t anything she could do to change his mind.

Clarke sighed and moved to the line of trees where he tied off his horse, and then she pulled out the lead rope from the saddlebag on Trubel’s side.

“Thanks for the save.” Clarke whispered to Trubel after she finished, and patted her neck affectionately before walking over to stand in front of him.

It looked like he had set aside his earlier confusion because he immediately eyed her up and down as he spoke with judgment in his gravelly rumble. “You are standing wrong.”

Clarke had the sinking feeling this was going to go just as badly as it did with Lexa.

Sometime later, she decided she was wrong.

While he was clearly irritated with Clarke and continued to speak down to her as though she was a backward child, at least he went slow enough for her to catch on while he showed her to how to block with her hands.

Ryder demonstrated in careful precise motions how to keep her hands moving in front of her to cover her openings. While the movements made sense, she did not really understand why she had to keep moving until he showed her how to attack. Once it was properly demonstrated to her it turned out that fighting was not simply pounding on someone, which is now what Clarke considered had happened between Anya and herself.

The skill of fighting like a Grounder required holding her hands in a certain way to avoid injury when she struck, which she had not actually gotten to do yet because he kept evading her. But most importantly, all the motions were connected and a natural progression of the one she just learned.

All of it came together when defense flowed into an attack. There was no backing away after protecting herself or giving the opponent the chance to recover. Block or deflect, then strike. The right defense led to an offense that incapacitated the enemy.

Clarke only landed touches on him in the slow motion of practice as he continued to move too quickly out of her path for her to land a punch or the ridge of her hand anywhere on him. She realized she would have to earn any hit that got past his defenses.

To start, he directed her to aim for several areas, behind and below his ear, midway down his neck, the solar plexus, temple, and the nose. He had not struck her with any real strength either, as everything up to that point was about getting the motions right.

After Clarke became comfortable with a handful of defenses and counterattacks, a theme developed for her around the areas he directed her to strike.

If she had not spent hundreds of hours studying human anatomy, medical files, and hands on training, she doubted she would have made the connections. The places he wanted her to strike were points within the body where tendon met bone, where vulnerable joints were most accessible, and the easily breakable bones across the back of hands that would shoot debilitating or even incapacitating pain up a person’s arm.

However, Clarke saw several more places that he did not point out specifically for what they were, nerve clusters and major blood vessels. While all of them were places that could cause a great deal of pain, she also knew from her training that, if hit hard enough, damaged nerves and blood vessels sent signals to the brain to shut down the body, causing it to believe that the body was having a heart attack or respiratory arrest.

The injuring potential of that kind of violence actually caused small amounts of brain damage, and it made her wary of how much force she attempted to strike back with, despite the fact she had not landed a single hit on the large man circling around her.

Clarke could tell she was making progress in defense, at least, as he increased the speed of his attacks after they ran through the motions several times. Then the moment came when he decided to advance the lesson. Throwing a person off balance was added to Clarke’s training, and it meant she got to land on the ground.

A lot.

He was not exactly gentle, but she had not yet landed jarringly hard on the packed earth of the grassy field. Her attempts to get him on the ground continued to fail, or he recovered before she had him completely incapacitated and could do any of the follow up moves. Whatever she tried, he was back on his feet in seconds, backing away and ready to go again.

Clarke was growing increasingly frustrated and losing patience with herself. She felt like she was still missing something, and then she remembered Lexa’s words from last night.

“Control your emotions.” And, “you are not breathing correctly.”

She knew she had not been trying to keep centered, so inhaled deeply and worked to become calm again.

“Do not stand flat footed. Always be prepared to move.” He walked around her and tapped the underside of her right elbow. “Too low. You do not move fast enough yet to get your hands into position before I attack.”

He stepped back. “When I come at you this time, I want you to grab onto my wrist at this point and pivot like this.” He demonstrated how he wanted Clarke to rotate his weight off balance, by directing his mass past her and to the ground with the guidance of one hand on his wrist and the other pushing against the inside of his elbow.

This was new. A scenario designed to handle an attacker who was running at her to strike.

Ryder stepped several feet back to begin the attack.

More words from last night surfaced, she raised her hand quickly. “Wait.”

Ryder dropped his hands to his sides. “What is wrong?”

“Nothing. Lexa told me to visualize in my head what I need to do first so I can see myself doing it right.”

He huffed loudly and his mustache hairs splayed around his mouth as he pulled his face into a barely contained grimace. “Begin when you are ready.”

He still doesn’t respect me.  

If his reaction was anything to go by, this entire exercise was undoubtedly childish to him, but she trusted Lexa’s methods. Clarke needed to prove to herself that she could do this as well as him.

When she was certain he would wait, Clarke closed her eyes and tried to imagine the way it would feel to move her body in the correct pattern to take him down. Though she was no Monty with the math to back it, or Raven with the ability to make use of schematics to fix machines, she knew this was all about the motions of physics.

It was pretty straightforward really. Throw the ball. The ball bounces. Clarke could see the “how” in her head in a series of cause and effects.

It doesn’t matter how strong and fast he is, or how much he outweighs me, this is about using his momentum against him.

Clarke opened her eyes and gave him a nod to begin.

He came at her quickly. Faster than what she had just rehearsed in her head.

Her hand reached for his wrist, but the moment was lost as his wrist zipped past the tips of her fingers.

In the next second, he wrenched Clarke around until her back was against his chest and his forearm crossed her throat, squeezing sharply before letting her go and stepping back. “Try it again. You reached for my wrist but missed because you were too slow.”

Clarke’s pulse pounded sharply in her temples with the release of pressure from her throat.

He was pushing her harder now, and she was not sure if it was because she had interrupted him or because he thought visualization was something that even children should know how to do already.

She took several breaths and calmed, but eyed him warily.

He was still holding back on her, and Clarke wanted to be ready for when he stopped doing that completely. She was determined to be faster or she needed some other advantage. Rather than beginning again, she signaled for him to wait once more.

Clarke closed her eyes and ran through the scenario in her head again with a greater sense of understanding of the dynamic motion guiding his attack, then sped the scene up. Clarke saw herself react fast enough to make contact with a solid grip at the wrist and a decisive clamp into the radial nerve just below his elbow.

She opened her eyes and took up the defensive stance he showed her earlier. “Okay.”

He came at her quickly, but this time she reacted just as he stepped into her space.

Clarke’s right hand caught his left wrist as it came at her throat, and her left clamped down on the nerve as she pivoted and dropped him to the ground.

Ryder sprawled out heavily in front of her.

Clarke stared down at him in open surprise at her success. She uncurled her fingers and let go of his wrist. The realization settled in then that his weight and height really did not matter, it was what she did with it that counted.

I can do this.

His arm swept out and caught her across the back of her calves and she went down. Clarke’s ass hit the hard ground first with a hard thump and the air whooshed out of her lungs. Pain shot through her tailbone, followed by an immediate flush of intense heat.

The sting of pain faded almost instantly to a slight ache. She blinked, shocked at healing so suddenly.

“Better.” He got to his feet and stepped back. “You did not use the same move I showed you.”

Clarke pulled herself back to the situation, and clambered to her feet, “Sorry?” She was not sure if she was supposed to apologize, but thought it could not hurt.

He eyed her in careful consideration. “It is not wrong to change your defense if you believe it will protect you.”

She frowned. This was the first time Clarke had ever slipped passed his defenses.

Is he saying I should improvise?

What she knew for sure was that she did not want to land on her ass again if she could avoid it. Clarke needed greater distance from him when he landed or he could reach out and drop her in a counterattack.

She knew there was a nerve cluster in the armpit she could strike if she wanted to send him over her and gain the distance she wanted, but that might knock him out. It seemed extreme to use a disabling move like that and she had not attempted anything so complex with him yet. All Clarke really needed was to send him farther away from her.

I’ll go for the bicep, it’s still better leverage.

She ran the scenario through her head.

“Again.”

He’s going to come at me faster.

Clarke assumed the stance. She would try it.

No, I will do it.

He rushed her.

Clarke did not wait for him to close the distance completely. She stepped into the space between them and engaged.

Her right hand shot out and clamped onto his wrist and her left hand clamped onto the meat of his bicep, grasping just over a major nerve.

Clarke pivoted in her stance and dropped low, pulling his wrist close and diagonally across her torso, before his body loomed above her and she surged upward.

He tumbled past her as she let go of his wrist.

He landed on his hands and knees, a body length away from her, but quickly got to his feet. He raised his eyes to meet hers, head tilting slowly to the side, as he seemed to reconsider her. “Again.”

He backed up, but not as far as where the last attack began. There was less distance between them and therefore much less time to react to an incoming threat.

A picture of him flying farther away flashed through Clarke’s mind and she realized she would need to launch him higher as he moved past her or she would not get the distance or the leverage she needed.

He’s too close.

Adrenaline buzzed through her system as the air around her seemed to thicken with tension.

Suddenly, the anticipation of his attack pulled the world into sharp focus; within a couple of heartbeats, a series of stark details stood out, and she saw his body mapped out clinically.

It was almost like the internal images she had conjured as they had fought their way through the mangled body of the Pauna, but this time it clung to him as he shifted in place. His weaknesses lay graphed over his body as though he wore a three-dimensional diagram across his flesh.

Every vulnerable nerve cluster stood out as though highlighted by faint white lit dots.

Places to strike.

Lines of white translucent blood vessels pulsed faintly as though she could see them projected through the layers of his chest and arms.

Where to shut him down.

Underneath the superimposed sight was his natural body; the stark line of muscle and bone represented in graduating grays with darker, denser, and therefore more developed on his right side.

His strength and balance to exploit.

The position and reach of his limbs to block or defend himself.

The paths to slip between them.

The space between his solar plexus and his center of gravity.

How low she would need to drop.

He shot forward.

She felt no fear, but the pulse of adrenaline doubled and surged through her body. The air between them felt charged, a throbbing reverberation counterpoint her own will to take him down. It did not distract her at all, it honed her intent to make this happen.

A thundered heartbeat inside her chest rang in her ears, and the world slowed down.

The angle he leaned into with his momentum was the entry angle for her strike.

She saw the man for exactly what he was.

A target.

Clarke did not wait for him to close the distance to her.

She stepped into his trajectory before he could reach her and dropped low as she grabbed his right wrist with her left hand and pivoted through the momentum. Clarke’s right hand slammed into his armpit as her shoulder rammed into his solar plexus. Then, with the force of her whole body beneath it, she heaved upward, jolting upward with his movement over her and released his flying body.

He flipped partially in the air and his back and legs arched behind him to complete the rotation before he would hit the ground.

She stumbled and righted her off-kilter posture.

He landed with a heavy thud several yards away from her, his arms and feet barely making contact before the rest of him hit the ground. He curled to his side, laying there desperately gasping futilely for air from the sudden decompression of his lungs. Slowly, he seemed to be catching his breath again, so she did not worry that he would pass out.

During those moments she waited to see that he would recover, her adrenaline rush settled and faded as she pulled in several streams of slow steady air.

It was so fast. I’m not even breathing that hard.

Then her mind played catch up and she reeled.

She was not a target. She was never supposed to think of herself as one, and doing so made her a victim. She had not understood the idea before, and it had held her back. Clarke realized she could not afford to think of anyone, be them friend or foe, attacking her as anything less than the enemy, and thereby, they became her target.

A minute later, she noticed Ryder’s breathing was under control again and he unsteadily got to his feet, facing away from her. Suddenly, his shoulders jumped in tight short jerks, and he shook his head.

Was he laughing?

Clarke did not know what to make of that reaction. “Are you okay?”

The motion of his shoulders stilled and he straightened taller, before he started muttering.

She caught a only few of his words but clearly understood the odd irony in his tone. “Unskilled…but resourceful…smart horses.”

Clarke could almost see him slip on his “stoic face” by the change in the set of his shoulders in the moment of silence after he was done talking to himself.

But, she was wrong again.

He turned and met her gaze, a curious gleam in his eyes she had never seen before. He shook out his dead arm while surreptitiously rubbing tentatively just beneath his solar plexus with his left hand, and gave her a slow smile.

It was small, but it counted.

Pride burst in Clarke’s chest, but she managed to suppress a grin and gave him a smile just as slow and small in return.

This is what I need!

She thought that maybe he was taking her seriously now, and there just might be some actual respect growing between them.

“Good.” The smile disappeared abruptly. “But you let me leave your control.” He stepped toward her slowly. “I am the enemy that knows what you can do, and I am free to try for you again.”

Clarke was suddenly aware of how alone they were standing in the grassy field, miles from anyone else, and a zing of fear ran up her spine.

With a gleam in his eyes she could not decipher, he continued to press forward with short stalking steps.

She felt her breath came faster, but she remembered herself and forced it to slow. “What are your orders, Ryder?”

He paused in his predatory stalking toward her and spoke as though they were discussing the weather. “I am to train you to protect yourself in hand-to-hand combat. You are learning how to engage the enemy now, but you do not know how to disengage.” His tone changed, deep and deliberate. “This is the next lesson. Do not disengage until you are certain you have won. Do not ever trust an enemy, Clarke of the Sky People.”

He rushed her.

The world slowed within the space of Clarke’s inhaled breath and sharpened again. The air hummed about her and the grid of his weaknesses appeared sharply, quickly superseding the defining texture of his skin.

She exhaled and spun low, one hand on the ground to brace as she swung her legs around his leading knee, trapping it between hers, then twisted her entire body horizontally to take them both down.

He tumbled past her, his hands shooting out to catch his fall.

Clarke continued the twist of her body after they hit dirt, keeping his leg hooked and bent between hers, before she rolled diagonally over the top of his back.  She hooked one of his arms at the elbow and jerked it to her chest.

He dropped flat under their combined weight and his large body stiffened as he fought her grip.

Clarke worked her hold to grip high on his wrist with both of her hands, keeping his arm straight, all the pressure at his elbow against her chest in a tight painful hold behind him.

Her heart pounded in shock at her own attack, but she managed to speak low and carefully. “You don’t know everything I can do Ryder.”

For that matter, neither did she. Clarke had no idea why that was the attack she had used. There had been no thinking involved, she had just done it. The important thing right now was that it worked.

His body suddenly went limp below her, but she did not trust it. He had only just accused her of not being able to disengage with the enemy correctly.

He finally spoke after seeming to realize she was not going to let him up without a verbal confirmation. “I submit.”

Clarke pulled his arm tighter. “I don’t just need submission from you, I need respect.”

His chest shook, and she felt herself bounce along with it.

What the hell?!

Clarke’s eyes widened, and she turned her head to catch a look at the side of his face.

He was laughing again. It was silent like before and just as unnerving.

What is with these Grounders?!

This was only the second time she had seen a Grounder laugh, though she still was not seeing it since most of his face was pressed into dirt and grass. She could not help thinking that she really did not understand them at all.

He stopped suddenly. “And what do I get from that?”

Clarke’s mind scrambled for an answer. He wanted to negotiate. She finally settled on the simple truth of what she wanted him to have from her. “My respect. Someday my trust. We can work up to it.”

He sighed, and in a disgruntled tone, he answered. “You are earning it right now.”

It took a second for that to sink in. “Well…good then.”

Clarke released his arm and rolled off his back, and to her feet, looking down at the prone man still on the ground. Then she thought better of his proximity and stepped several feet back just to be on the safe side.

He clambered carefully to his feet and noticed her cautious distance from him. He gave her a pleased smirk, as if proud that she still considered him dangerous, then he looked at the sky. “It is almost time for the meeting.” He looked down at her. “We need to return.”

She nodded decisively and did not mention the dirt on his shirt or the grass in his bushy beard.

As she pulled herself into the saddle, she felt the brush of Lexa’s Thrum against her own and it ran its way around hers several times. The sensation made her hands tremble and her stomach feel like it was ready to fly up her throat.

Lexa’s strokes stopped abruptly and receded, but she could still feel her, an echo of a touch removed.

Clarke was surprised by the unexpectedness of the contact and shocked that she seemed to have no control over how it made her react. She sighed out a long breath.

Clarke had no idea it could be that strong from several miles away, and just why was it so suddenly strong anyway? She had no way of knowing the answer to that.

As the horses returned to their easy trot, her body settled down, and she shoved her reactions to the back of her mind.

Trubel pushed in front of Ryder’s horse to be in the lead again.

Clarke was amused. It appeared that the horse was not about to give up her position of leadership unless she was forced into it. She could relate, that was exactly how she herself felt right now concerning her own circumstances. She had made progress today, and she did not want to give an inch of it up after all she had gone through to earn it.

Clarke glanced over at Ryder.

He was not the enemy, but he had needed her to see him that way in order to understand the kind of fighting that kept Grounders alive. She was certain she did now. Clarke had made herself see him that way because it was necessary, but how she had done it finally sank in.

She swallowed down her unease and tried to think it through.

It was not normal. She was sure people did not just create a three-dimensional grid and lay it over a person to see their…weak points, but she did.  Every vulnerable place on his body stood out in stark relief. All of those pinpointed dots of light and faint lines like an afterimage of blood moving through his body had provided the means to maim and even kill him outright. Looking for vulnerable points in a normal fight was already a disturbing thought, but having such ready access the way she had, made her feel a little sick.

There was no doubt in Clarke’s mind that this was a Commander thing. Though Lexa had never spoken of it before and she had to wonder if it was something that they shared as a gift...or a curse? It was too big of a deal to not mention it from her point of view, and that would mean that she was alone with it. A new consequence of sharing their...gift.

Clarke remembered Lexa’s reaction to the Compulsion, her claim that it was different from her own, and recalled the lines of real blood as that had slid down from Lexa’s nose and past her lips the night before.

Was this another danger to us both that would be my fault?

She gripped the saddle horn harder. The steady plodding of hooves pulled her back to her surroundings.

Does it have to be a bad thing?

She glanced over her shoulder to look at Ryder and saw he was positioned off to the right and behind her by a few yards.

Can I do it again?

Clarke tried to pull up the visual grid again, but nothing happened. She had no idea where it had even come from inside, and found she could not make it suddenly pop up.

Ryder caught her watching, and she jerked her head around to face the trail in front of her.

Trubel had carried her without any real directing since she got back in the saddle and seemed to know the trail and where they were headed. Clarke’s direction was not needed to guide her, so she gave her attention back to the problem at hand.

It didn’t have to be a bad thing. Just the possibilities to help diagnose circulatory problems would-.

Lexa touched her Thrum again and curled around it, setting sparks off down the length of her spine.

Clarke lost her train of thought and sank into her own startled reactions.

Dammit!

She huffed out in irritation.

It stopped abruptly. The contact did not last nearly as long as the first one.

She sighed out another relieved breath at the quick reprieve, but her body still buzzed from the touch. It was the same kind of response she had experienced earlier, physical, and…sexual. Butterflies in the stomach, a tingle still running down her spine, and now a lump of longing welled up in her throat to accompany those.

Clarke pushed the sensations away the best she could and rubbed tiredly at her eyes while she tried to pick up her train of thought where she left off.

Aside from healing applications, the three-dimensional grid reminded her of an organic version of the display for the targeting system the Ark had used to destroy space debris before it could hit the station.

She was jerked out of her thoughts again by Lexa’s Thrum, as it touched hers and wound around lazily, lingering and clinging, until it stopped and locked onto her.

She inhaled sharply, pulling stray hairs about her face into her mouth, while every nerve in her body suddenly felt like it stood on end.

Lexa was somehow gripping her in an insistent and intimate contact that Clarke had little desire to let go of, but somehow knew she should and find a way to stop.

Clarke managed to spit out the strands of hair still caught in her mouth before her body responded to the bombardment with a shot of hot pleasure that spiraled all the way down her spine and into her seat. It caused a steady pulse of arousal to build and express at her clit and a fainter sensation echo within her nipples.

Fuck!

Almost lazily, Lexa continued caressing all the points of contact along her Thrum until she could feel it meld with her own expanse and fill the inside of her body. The resonance of their union was an insidious touch, and it reverberated underneath her skin, making her feel entirely too full with sensation.

Clarke panted and her knees gripped the saddle while she fought the urge to fold over.

What the hell is she doing?

She squirmed, but the rolling movement against the saddle did not help the issue.

After a very long moment, Lexa backed off slowly.

Shit!

Her skin still prickled and she finally noticed the excessive warm wetness between her legs.

Shit, Shit…SHIT!

Clarke gasped out in relief and slumped forward in the saddle, gripping the horn with clenched fists.

She worked on simply breathing like a normal human and not drawing Ryder’s attention any more than she could help it.

Once she thought she could keep her features under control, she glanced back at him nervously.

He was staring off to the left just then, seemingly unaware of her struggle.

The muscles in her shoulders loosened a little, and she turned back around.

Now Clarke was pissed.

If she thinks this is some joke

Her thoughts had nowhere to go with that.

So far, Lexa had showed very little tendency toward humor, let alone the coarse and cruel kind. It led her to think of the brief display last night, and that brought up her embarrassment when she acted so juvenile because of…

Her scent.

She smells like…

Clarke struggled to find words.

Earthy?

It was not the scent of dirt or grass.

Like the forest in bloom?

There was no flowered scents she had come across to compare it with and she floundered. It made Clarke think of heat against her skin…underneath her skin.

Warmth?…

None of those were really specific scents at all, and the last guess did not even make sense. Yet, it was the closest in description somehow.

She could not even describe it, now that she tried to put words to it. It was subtle. It almost did not register as a scent at all, now that she thought about it. It was just…she somehow knew it was uniquely Lexa’s scent. Clarke was not sure how exactly, but the sensation hit her olfactory senses first.

Clarke recalled the rush of air she felt she had desperately needed last night in response to it.

That means…it has to be scent!

Not knowing for certain bothered her. What else was connected to the sense of smell and could explain why it impacted her so strongly?

She searched furiously through her mental inventory before finally stopping at a diagram of nerves that she had studied for hours on end for a medical exam and thought she may have stumbled upon a possibility.

There was a slender and often overlooked nerve nestled in the brain, the Cranial Nerve Zero. It ran along the olfactory nerve and connected to the nose and sinus cavity. Though it was not supposed to be as acute in humans as it was in other animals, such as whales and elephants, it did have the ability to register and respond to the chemicals known as pheromones. Those chemicals traveled from the nose to a different part of the brain than the olfactory nerve did.

Of course it wasn’t a damn smell!

The pheromone signal would be sent to the part of her brain that handled the need to reproduce, the same place that generated the drive to have sex.

Clarke’s mind raced as she pieced together the implications of pheromones if they were really at play. She huffed out in both relief and exasperation with herself.

She knew that everyone on the Ark was a descendant of the genetically modified humans who had first boarded the twelve stations. They had needed to be altered to withstand the stress and radiation of space. What if those genes were not the only things that had been changed? What if it was unintentional?

Clarke grit her teeth in frustration. This was another subject for which she had no way to gain the truth about now. The people with any answers were long dead, and gene therapy had not been employed after the stations left Earth…at least, that is what she had read in the data files. Now, she thought she should probably question that as well.

What Clarke really needed to know right now was what picking up pheromone signals from the other woman meant for her.

Clarke’s reactions to Lexa were already a nightmare, and it was dawning on her that there was absolutely nothing she could do about it. She experienced incredibly strong involuntary responses to Lexa, no matter how the Commander acted toward her. Chagrin suddenly struck with that line of thought.

Well...they were unintentional anyway.

Thinking about the sensory nerve diagram and “unintentional” things brought her back to what she had set aside before she had been sidetracked by Lexa intimately touching her.

Clarke blew out a breath and refocused her mind on something she could at least try to fix.

She still did not understand how she had been able to project a three-dimensional image and place it over a moving person, just to give herself a visual roadmap in order to take them out.

After several minutes of mulling over a repetitive series of questions about targeting systems, she realized she was getting nowhere.

Something else pestered its way into her thoughts and Clarke caught her bottom lip between her teeth.

How and why did I pull that last submission move on Ryder?

She scoured her memory, searching intently for a time she had seen anything like it, and finally flashed on the old world sport of wrestling. Clarke remembered watching it with her dad as a kid on the Ark, though she recalled that she had never really liked it and only ever saw a few matches. Her takedown of the much larger Grounder warrior certainly seemed like a wrestling move, but she was not completely sure.

Her body finally settled from the last bout of Lexa’s attention, relaxed as much as it was going to with the discomfort of wetness still pooled between her legs, and she was able to pay greater attention to her surroundings for the first time.

The trail sloped upward and Clarke leaned forward in the saddle to catch a better view of the horizon as they crested the hill and she could see TonDC over the next ridge. The city was spread out as a patchwork of tents and old buildings pushing back against the dense wall of the forest, and they were only about half a mile away by her estimation.

As Trubel stepped up onto the last slope, Lexa’s Thrum touched hers again.

Clarke’s shoulders hunched automatically, tense, as she waited for the onslaught of feeling.

Instead of the anticipated bombardment, she got light caresses.

They floated along Clarke’s insides and made goosebumps prickle on the surface of her skin. Butterflies still took flight in her stomach, but she did not feel out of control this time, as though her mind and body were better able to handle the connection.

She sighed out in relief.

As Lexa began to retreat, an emotion hummed over their connected Thrums, warm and spiralling around her.

It felt like… peace.

Clarke’s jaw dropped.

Lexa…

She just…

Out of all the weird or unexpected things that had happened to Clarke since she woke up this morning, Lexa sharing her feelings along the delicate thread of their connection surprised her the most.

Lexa has peace?

That was the strangest part of it, and she found she could not even picture Lexa as peaceful. The Commander demonstrated patience, stoicism, a calm demeanor, but Clarke never got the idea that Lexa was ever actually at peace.

Their connection dimmed as Lexa retreated.

Why didn’t I feel her like this before?!

Clarke was flabbergasted. Had Lexa purposefully held back emotions from traveling along the Thrum…or did she not have any control over it now?

Could she feel me too?

Clarke cringed at the idea.

Am I an open book to Lexa?

She wondered if maybe she should just ask her when she got back, but then again, Clarke considered her own embarrassment with the idea that Lexa had already felt her emotions.

She debated with herself while they rode steadily onward and trees blurred to either side of the trail as she stopped paying them any attention. The last hill was just up ahead before the statue marking the entrance to TonDC would be in sight.

Lexa’s Thrum sought her out again.

Clarke did not immediately tense this time, but felt her whole body come alive to listen like an antenna.

A series of complex emotions flowed through the touch, and it startled her into sitting bolt upright in the saddle. Lexa sent longing, humming deep and desperate as though it traveled through the center of an emptiness so vast that it made Clarke want to weep.

She only had time to exhale once before it slipped away and was replaced with a bittersweet sadness instead. Clarke’s chest burned with the hollow resonance of emotion she had felt, her eyes teared up involuntarily; she swiped at them self-consciously, then glanced behind her to see if Ryder noticed.

His head turned to meet her gaze with no apparent awareness of her awkward emotional roller coaster.

Trubel’s body angled back, and she faced forward.

They were cresting over the last hill. At that moment, Clarke wanted to see Lexa in the worst way. She wanted confirmation of what she just felt second hand.

Her feelings were for me.

Joy lit up Clarke’s body with the knowledge that Lexa wanted her that way. It was not just a sexual thing, or a byproduct of their necessary alliance. She could tell that Lexa found her attractive, and that they needed each other to fight a common enemy and strive for peace. But this was different, it resonated deeply within her and drew out longing for connection and comfort that she wanted to return. Lexa wanted her to be the one that took away…a profound emptiness.

The only thing she could compare it to was the loss of her father, the person who had provided the emotional support in her life, and how she was left hollow when that comfort had been torn from her and flung out into space. Her mother had tried, but it had always been less than he gave her and truly seemed more than her mother was even capable of giving.

Before Lexa, no one else had ever made Clarke feel this alive or awake.

Finn…but…it’s not the same.

Her eyes widened as the reality sunk in, and her mind juddered with the possibility that something could actually happen between herself and Lexa, sending her into an emotional tailspin.

Fear struck the joy down, and Clarke’s eyes teared up for herself this time. The lesson had been learned the hard way just a few days ago.

She looked down at her hands, now clenched around the saddle horn with white knuckles. She could still feel the tacky sensation of Finn’s blood on them that had made her fingers stick together before the blood had dried completely.

I’m not ready!

The Statue came into view.

I won’t say anything.

Trubel rode past the stone man, and Clarke inhaled deeply, trying to calm her racing thoughts and pounding heart.

I don’t have to do anything.

She tried to convince herself that she was resolved to this decision.

I don’t have to confront Lexa.

The path widened into the dirt road that ran through TonDC, and she could see the crumbling cement profile of Lexa’s building as the road curved around at an angle northward.

Suddenly, a sharp pain hit Clarke’s lower abdomen and then a rush of fear coursed through her, jolting her in the saddle and making her double over the horn of the saddle.

She clutched her stomach in shock until it receded.

Not again!

But this time there was no fiery heat. It was a tingling burn that ended as soon as the pain had passed. Clarke looked up at the entrance of the building, not more than fifty yards away.

If Lexa could share her emotions, what about physical sensations?

Fuck!

She jerked her head around to Ryder, who was still slightly behind her. Clarke’s tone was harsh when she spoke. “I need to talk to Lexa right now.”

Trubel halted without a prompt from her and stood rigid on the path as she scrambled to dismount.

Ryder frowned deeply as his horse carried him forward, bringing him abreast and he pulled back on the reins to stop. He nodded his acquiescence and dismounted as well.

She was already stumbling away on unsteady feet before he came around to take Trubel’s reins.

As she approached the corner of the building, the searing pain shot through her gut again, and the fear surged with it. The second wave was stronger than the first, and she nearly groaned aloud in agony.

Clarke grabbed the rough cement on the corner of the building, and tried to lean against it as casually as possible while she panted quietly through the pain. She knew this bout could not be hers alone.  

The pain suddenly ended. There was no build up to it; it was abrupt and then gone again, unlike hers.

It’s definitely not me.

She raised her head and glanced around. There were not many people on the road or outside of buildings close by.

Clarke gulped in a few desperate lungfuls of air, but then managed to get her breathing under control.

Count of four!

This is not my pain.

She squeezed her eyes shut and concentrated.

This is not my fear!

If Lexa was in her throne room, she was maybe only forty feet away now.

Clarke inched along the outside wall to the entrance, trailing her fingers along the crumbling facade just in case she needed to brace against it again. By the time she reached the outer door, she thought she had control.

As she made it to the middle of the tunnel, Lexa hooked into her Thrum hard.

Clarke’s body lit up, every nerve ending blazed and she bit down on her lips to stifle a moan in pain. But then desire suddenly coursed through her as well, magnified. She teetered upon her feet before slumping back against the wall and scrambling for something to grip onto.

Fuck!

Fuck!

FUCK!

Gone was the concern and the empathy she for Lexa’s emotions, the sense of wonder she had felt to be connected to the other woman so intimately.

Clarke was tired of this!

She slammed back down on Lexa’s Thrum angrily and made her feel it back as she pulled herself forward.

The result was pain.

Six feet from Lexa’s door, she slumped again against the interior wall, almost whimpering.

It finally passed.

She pulled herself upright and kept her hand pressed firmly against cracked cement as she gingerly walked toward her goal.

Clarke throbbed in intimate places. Her underwear was wet, her skin flushed with the rapid cycle between pleasure and pain. The entire day was fucked up, and she was miserable. She was still furious, but more than that, Clarke was simply exhausted by the emotions running back and forth over a connection to another human being she had never asked for.

 

~

Lexa still sat upon her throne, collected and alone in the room. It seemed like half of her existence was spent waiting while the rest was a mad dash to balance a rush of problems. Normally she was fine with this as she had no choice regardless, but now she waited for news of Clarke and she could not help but feel impatient.

The arrangements for the representatives of the Tribes within her army were set and they were ready to meet as soon as she gave the signal. All of them were taking the time to eat an early meal right now, except her. She was hungry again, but busied herself with waiting and pretending patience instead.

Her mind went over the plan to attack the mountain, but it took only a matter of minutes. Action and implementation was required to decide if something would or would not work, and it meant there was nothing she could do for now, so she needed to set it aside.

This only left her with thoughts of Clarke to fill the void of tasks she was willing to focus on.

Was she doing well?

Lexa reached out gingerly to Clarke’s Thrum and found it steady but distant. She touched it and reveled in the sensation as she spiraled several rotations around it, though she resisted the sudden urge that bolted through her to mesh them together.

Her pulse quickened and her breath came faster and Lexa backed off, disconnecting as much as she was able.

The connection was infinitely more sensitive than she had understood it to be before Clarke had met Trubel this morning.

What happened between Clarke and Trubel?

The thought had come up several times over the course of the morning and had interrupted her focus, but Lexa had pushed it aside to get other things accomplished. Now she had time to consider what it could mean, and she was growing jittery at the lack of ready answers.

Sitting and waiting was suddenly unbearable. She needed to do something while she mulled it over and decided to do another walk through TonDC to evaluate the state of her warrior’s readiness.

Lexa nodded to warriors as she passed them with a blink of her eyes and a terse down thrust of her chin, evaluating them quickly and then dismissing them even faster. She did not want to engage in an actual conversation with any of them right now, and she kept to the outskirts as she found herself walking toward the fields for the second time that day. Her guards trailed behind her until she reached Solon’s lone paddock, but Lexa dismissed them to go eat now before she would need them again.

After they had left her, she remained outside Solon’s gate, studying him with searching eyes. He was a beautiful specimen of horseflesh, and she knew Trubel had not produced another quite like him since. He was the epitome of horse pride.

Across the field, he eyed her right back with a certainty about him that, after seeing Clarke and Trubel interact, now meant something completely different to her.

Can he sense me the way Trubel seems to do with Clarke?

Lexa entered the gate and latched it behind her, then went to the three-sided stall and collected a brush hanging from the wall. Before this moment she assumed he only tolerated the attention of his rider, but now she waited for him to approach her first as she had seen Clarke do with Trubel.

The thought of the other woman had Lexa reaching out again before she could help herself, and she touched the connection. The spiral effect repeated itself and she savored it a few moments, then disconnected.

Solon’s ears perked up, and he stood proud and tall at a distance from her.

Did he just respond to the act of connecting?

She deliberated over the likelihood and decided if that was true, his reactions must mean something. Lexa considered if there was ever a time she could have known this type of thing was possible before... waking Clarke, but came up with nothing.

She delicately reached for Clarke’s Thrum again and spiraled slowly around it, but then found herself firmly anchored within it.

Lexa sighed out a stuttering breath at the feel of Clarke resonating beneath her skin, letting herself savor it and her eyes sliding shut. She felt even more drawn to that intangible part of Clarke than she ever did before. The unseen essence she touched was so addictive to connect with, and a light shudder traveled down her spine in reaction to her own acknowledgement.

After a lingering moment, she was able to regain her control over her body’s reactions to their connection, and opened her eyes to take in the grassy field and the breeze sweeping over it.

Lexa had something else she needed to focus on.

She directed her attention to split, the way she suspected it had with Clarke and Trubel, and centered her focus deliberately on the horse in front of her.

Lexa’s sense of the joined essence between Clarke and herself became a cyclic pull of sensation that flowed through her and then returned over the Thrum. She let herself stay connected, but forced their combined reverberations to return without passing through her first. The feel of them pinged off the surface of her being but then headed directly back to Clarke.

Lexa needed to focus on her horse.

Solon took two hesitant steps in her direction.

She felt a thrill at his immediate interest, but waited patiently for him to come closer.

He shifted his weight back and forth from right to left as though he deliberated on what he was willing to do. Finally, he took two more steps toward her.

Suddenly, there was a sharp surge of frustrated emotion rushing over the connection from Clarke that pushed through the circuit Lexa had set between them, threatening to overflow.

Carefully, she began to disentangle from Clarke, only to discover it was far more resistant to her efforts at distance than the previous times she had done it. Somehow, she found herself thoroughly entrenched in the strength of the sensations and…knew she did not really want to let go.

She grit her teeth, determined, and wrestled against her own inclination. Finally, it was done.

Solon halted his approach.

Was it the connection itself that drew the horses or was it Clarke?

She had never attempted to reach for a Thrum in an animal before. Until yesterday, Lexa had not even had a word for the connection she had between the children she gave blood to, and it had never occurred to her that an animal had one at all.

She glanced around to see if anyone was watching and confirmed she was alone, the only movement in the paddock was the gentle swirl of breeze still blowing the tall grass around the fence’s edge. Lexa turned back to Solon and cut the distance between them in half.

Feeling awkward and foolish, she spoke aloud to him. “Solon. I will groom you…if you want.” Then she stood there stiffly and tried to sense his Thrum. She reached blindly into the emptiness between them until there was a grazing touch of something against her.

Solon tossed his head, snorted loudly and then backed away.

Was she doing it wrong?

She remembered Clarke lying on the ground when Trubel had approached her and glanced  around the field again to see if she was still alone.

Two warriors walked at a distance along the south facing buildings.

Lexa realized she would not place herself in a vulnerable position on the ground the way Clarke had done. She turned back to Solon, and considered Clarke’s other actions. There must be something else she could try.

She dropped her breathing into the count of eight and let her mind slip into a meditative state. Lexa had been doing this since she was a child, and it took less than half a minute for her to sink into herself completely. Now, she attempted something she had never tried before; she directed her focus outward instead of an internalized search.

She reached out for him again. The sense of emptiness felt vast all around her as she searched through it, and realized the small physical distance between them did not seem to define that kind of space.

There!

The distance was deceiving. Lexa did not have to stretch far, but twist herself in a different way to feel the brush of foreign resonance against her own. It was deep and low as though the size of him reverberated inside of his body and defined the path it could take to connect with another being. It was less focused than the Thrum from Clarke, and aimed at her in a wide band from its contact point. She gently eased along side it, trying not to force a direct confrontation or meshing, but to investigate.

Solon’s muscles rippled down his sides as he flinched in awareness at the intrusion, but remained still.

Lexa retreated to the point of complete disconnection and hovered there, waiting.

Solon examined her while she watched him for a long moment, but neither gave an inch.

She registered the sound of footsteps growing louder.  The warriors had moved toward her location and she tilted her head to track their proximity.

Lexa closed her eyes and felt the distance expand between Solon and herself at her loss of focus. The world had intruded, but she desperately did not want to give up now that she felt she was so close to achieving what Clarke had with Trubel.

She reached again slowly across the unseen expanse between them, while she curled her hand harder around the coarse bristled brush. Lexa wanted this to work. She needed to understand.

Lexa heard Solon step closer. His Thrum vibrated faster and erratically with alternating rhythms she did not recognize and could not make sense of.

Slowly, she opened her eyes at the feel of his nose bumping heavily against the arm that held the brush, and she smiled. This was the first time he had ever approached her first with no other intent than to receive her attention.

She ignored the sounds of the warriors armor clanking as they spoke to one another and passed the gate of the paddock. She methodically brushed Solon’s coat for a while, and then they were alone again. It was surprisingly natural. It was…something else. Her mind stilled within the calm of repetitious movements she shared with him as mutual comfort, and she felt as though she was connecting to something long lost to her.

Solon’s Thrum responded to that complex inner emotion and pulsed in long slow spans deepened with a low hum that passed gently against her own.

She knew other riders had a companionable relationship between themselves and their horses, but it was never something afforded to her with Solon before now. Lexa had never attempted to connect to any animal in that way after becoming a Commander, not only because she lacked the time to pursue it but losing an animal like a horse was always an expectation in her world. Horses died of old age, injury, and sickness, but any horse of hers would most likely die in battle, and was a large part of the reason she had been fine with never forming a bond with Solon.

It was so rare for her to feel it that she did not comprehend the feeling at first. A warmth spread through her and reminded her of the life she had as a child. In the time before she was Chosen and the world was less complicated, it took nothing more from her than it would any other child. Now, she was reminded of the contentment of simply being present, accepted by another being just as she was, and only asked in return what she could readily offer.

She savored it, and continued to brush his coat with wide smooth strokes for no other reason than they both wanted to be there in that moment. It was a simple joy denied to her for so long. With the lack of threat from Solon, who was just a horse, or the fear that the experience could be taken away, her entire body finally relaxed.

After becoming the Commander, she had not known this sense of innocent comfort. Except with…

Kostia.

She let out a long breath and closed her eyes at the thought of the woman who had brought the taste of peace and belonging into her life, if only for a short time. But she had been lost to her, and Lexa still believed it was through her own selfish folly.

She shook her head and dislodged the jumble of painful memories before they threatened to surface.

Clarke should be learning to ride Trubel right now.

The thought of a real connection to another now seemed somehow reasonable, and in this moment, and Lexa no longer felt tentative at reaching out as she had before; she could not even remember why the idea had been so disconcerting to begin with. Without hesitation she reached for Clarke’s Thrum again, and brushed against the points of contact to find them stronger than they were before, as though she was somehow closer than a few minutes ago. She lingered lightly along the connection for several long moments, exploring the expanse.

This time, there was no negative reaction from Clarke. There was only a moment of surprise, but she still reluctantly disconnected, and turned her attention to back to her horse.

Lexa rested her head against Solon’s broad side without thought, but he did not reject the unanticipated touch as he normally would; after she realized the liberty taken was not rejected, she was relieved by this as well.

She rested her other hand against his warm shoulder and ran the tips of her fingers down his coarse hair. He allowed this too, and she could not contain the grin that spread across her face. Lexa felt a childish urge to wrap her arms around him, but did not want to push him too far or too fast. She was also wary of drawing attention to the fact that she could suddenly get a Southern to accept affection or to have anyone see her act like an excited child because she was able to do it.

She stepped away, still almost giddy with the discovery and Solon did the same.

He pranced back and high stepped in a small circle, executing one of the maneuvers she had taught him for battle.

Lexa almost laughed aloud at his antics, and he seemed so pleased with himself right now that she was suddenly seeing him differently than she ever had before.

He was not a simple mindless beast. His actions showed her that his personality was not only an ingrained defensive attitude and a driving need to conquer or win against an opponent while he protected what he considered his.

The thought unsettled her and she did not understand why.

Lexa retrieved the grooming brush and hung it on the wall of his stall. Her breathing changed back into its normal pattern as she stepped away, and knew she needed to return to her other responsibilities.

He seemed to catch the shift in her mood and resorted to his usual off-putting manner immediately, as he backed away, tall and proud, the lines of his body suddenly stiffened with clear disdain at her presence.

His reaction to her brought her up short, and it finally occurred to her why she was still not comfortable with him being more than he seemed.

They had suited to each other so well before. Lexa lived her life in a manner that proved she was ready to die for her cause, her people, and he did the same in his own way, protecting what he considered his. Yet, he had just proved to her that he was so much more than that. He could take delight in things, even if she was not sure what those were for him.

He is just a horse.

Lexa felt some of her unfocused concern slide to the back of her mind and linger there. She should not feel uneasy by her horse’s actions.

He is not a threat to me.

She felt foolish for contemplating the idea that he could be, and tried to convince herself  there would be no harm in forming a bond with him just as other riders did with their horses.

Lexa decided to try again later when they were less likely to be interrupted. It was somehow reassuring that they were able to connect at all, and she knew she still wanted to explore further. Though she was not sure what she could expect from it, she was pleased by the possibility of it all the same. It had touched a piece of her disconnected past she had felt forced to put aside for a very long time.

My loneliness.

Without any conscious concern at all she found herself reaching out, and very carefully formed a solid connection to the person she knew she wanted to fill that void.

Clarke’s Thrum was louder still, and while it was not at the strength it had been in the next room, Lexa believed it meant she was returning to TonDC.

Lexa felt her heartbeat sped up and the hollow of her chest thudded with longing.

A surge of startlement spiked from Clarke.

It is foolish to want.

Sadness overtook her thoughts and Lexa withdrew from the connection quickly before turning away and retreating back to her responsibilities.

She sat stiffly on her throne and found that waiting for Clarke was not any easier than it had been before. An overwhelming desire to see her caused a rush of anticipation to travel through her body, and her skin flushed with heat. Suddenly, it made Lexa feel unarmed, almost naked.

Something is wrong.

Lexa’s heart raced and her pulse sped up, fluttering and jumping. Her lower gut clenched in a short spasm of sharp pain. She gasped in surprise at it.

It felt familiar.

The pain came again, longer and sharper, but quickly dropped off to a low ache. She scrambled to control her breathing, and fought to bring it down to her natural rhythm. It was as though her body was preparing again for the beginning of Clarke’s strange bout of agony the day before.

After it became manageable, Lexa regained control, but her unease remained.

Another burst of pain hit shortly after and nearly floored her, triggering a response in her body that she was wholly unprepared for.

Desire.

Lexa let out a gasp when she felt her nipples harden as pleasure rode the pain down to her clit and her entire body throbbed with both.

Clarke’s Thrum was coming closer and it was setting her on fire.

Lexa could feel the power of her Thrum resonate in high waves as it bounced around inside her own body before Clarke sent a sudden bolt of anxiety spiking through it.

It yanked an unexpected longing from her again, and without thought, Lexa clambered for her, as yearning stung its way through her chest and throat, then she hooked into Clarke’s Thrum like it was her only lifeline. In her panic, she could only spare a lone thought that it was a rising physical response to the closing distance of Clarke’s actual presence to her location.

As the anxiety passed, Lexa’s body flushed with a steady heat and desire struck again sharply between her legs, her nipples aching with a muted throb.

Her eyes shot wide, jaw dropping as she looked down at her lap.

That was not me!

Suddenly, Lexa realized what was wrong, and she bolted upright in her seat. The barrier protecting her emotions must have been lowered while she worked with Solon, and she was left vulnerable and exposed.

She can feel me!

Ashamed at her weakness, she tried to clamp down on the fear filling her stomach and quickly tried to raise the barrier, to cut herself off, but it resisted her efforts.

Lexa squeezed her eyes closed as she concentrated on breathing in through her nose at the count of four.

Several long moments passed, her body tense and her hands clenching the arms of her throne, as she fought to win her control back.

She was open to someone she feared could literally feel her if she did not protect herself.

Lexa froze, both hands gripping bone as her knuckles turned white.

I am Open!

At the count of eight, just like Clarke. In a meditative state, but…I was focused outward…

The moment of realization was interrupted by the scuffle of footsteps approaching through the walkway of the tunnel by her door.

A few seconds later, she felt Clarke’s Thrum caress hers hard. It-she was angry.

The force of it spurred her lower abdomen into another painful spasm, before it suddenly dropped off again.

The direct and forceful contact buffeting her senses from Clarke was nearly overwhelming,  stronger by far than before Clarke had met Trubel that morning. The raw power behind both Clarke’s emotions and physical sensations reverberated through her body and set her teeth on edge.

Lexa was struck by the width and breadth of Clarke’s unique signature as her vibrations filled the depth and space within her own flesh.

Lexa was panting heavily as she scrambled internally to calm herself, then tried to prepare mentally in the scant seconds she had left to face Clarke’s seething anger in person.

With golden hair fluttering wildly about her face, Clarke appeared in the doorframe, and hugged it for a tense moment before she stepped through. She closed the door firmly, without looking up, and stood in a forced stillness with clenched fists trembling at her sides.

She finally lifted her eyes, and Lexa sucked in a sharp breath.

Clarke’s eyes were dark and full of challenge, her lips flushed and slightly parted, as she stared fiercely back. Her voice was coarse and lower than usual. “Whatever you think you’re doing Lexa, you need to stop now.”

Suddenly, she was glad they had a good ten feet between them.

Clarke’s situation became clear to her; she was still very much aroused.

Lexa’s thoughts reeled and she felt another spasm of pain uncoil in her stomach. Her hands tightened around the chair again as she fought through the pain.

Clarke’s entire body flinched.

Did she feel it too? Am I still Open?

She hoped Clarke’s reaction was just due to her own face giving her away at the force of the sudden pain.

“Lexa?” Clarke’s tone softened as she took several hesitant steps toward her, away from the doorway.

She felt another surge of panic. Unfortunately, she knew it was her own.

No! This is weakness!

Lexa was terrified she was still Open to Clarke’s perusal, emotionally and in whatever other way being Open meant.

She scrambled internally again to bring the barrier up, and clamped her eyes shut as she forced herself to visualize her signature wall of impenetrable brambles growing over a wall of thick cement.

In her mind’s eye, the wall trembled as if unsteady. It seemed thinner, brittle and fragile, but it held. She quickly wove thick greenery over it.

It was done. Yet, it felt less safe or secure than it ever had before.

The pain in her stomach cut off abruptly, and she almost sighed aloud in relief. Lexa gathered her resolve, and forced her eyes open as her features smoothed.

“I am fine.” She managed to croak out.

Clarke’s expression slid into disbelief, then disappointment. “Right.” She turned around and opened the door, pausing in the threshold. Her shoulders squared, then she swung around and fixed a pointed stare directly into her own eyes.

“Just so you know, don’t do it again Lexa.”

Her body finally calm, Lexa stared back, perplexed. “Do what Clarke?”

Clarke hesitated for a moment, then raised her hand slowly to curl her fingers in toward her palm, before she closed her fist tight.

Lexa felt Clarke’s Thrum correspond to the physical action as it reached out and cupped hers violently. It curled around, twined and merged as it clawed into her, digging in and fastening them tightly together.

Goosebumps shuddered across Lexa’s skin, and her lips parted in a gasp as her breath ran ragged, her heels left the floor with the unexpected force of the contact. Her body ached suddenly everywhere in want.

She clung to the arms of her throne to keep herself from bowing out of her seat, and she felt the weak emotional barrier protecting her tremble.

Clarke backed off abruptly, her voice hoarse with desire and challenge. “Stop doing that to me and I won’t do it back.”

Still shocked, thought evaded her and she found she had no words to respond. Lexa swallowed hard, but managed a sharp nod.

Clarke spun around and left, slamming the door behind her with an angry crash.

Goosebumps continued to prickle down her arms even after she was alone, and her body pulsed with leftover desire. She sucked in a deep, shuddering breath.

It was so very wrong. She wanted to feel that addicting contact again, yet she sat awash with shame and fear of losing control, and it made her want to run from it at the same time.

Lexa sat and struggled to breathe like a normal human being. Her confidence in understanding anything had just taken a dive along with the earlier hits to her pride.

I should have better control than this. It made me weak in front of her!

Lexa had not even been able to respond properly to Clarke’s…attack or her promise for retribution. She did not know which it was. Only a few minutes in the other woman’s presence with her emotional barrier down and she had acted without thought to consequences.

The implication that she had done this unknowingly to Clarke sank in, and she felt shame at her intrusive actions. Lexa sighed heavily at her error in judgment, even if it had been unintentional she knew she would need to find some way to apologize. Later. After her pride recovered. After she could be certain she had total control.

I was Open to her!

Embarrassment pooled in her gut again. She really needed to figure out what that meant.

It only happened after I went into a meditative state.

I lost control of my emotions.

It was a souring thought but she followed through with it to the next point of reference.

The pain in my abdomen stopped as soon as I brought the emotional barrier up all the way.

I was Open because my emotional barrier was down?  

It was all connected, at least Lexa was sure of that now.

Why would I suddenly have the pain Clarke went through?

Ryder entered the room and closed the door behind him, interrupting her internal debate as she jerked upright on her throne reflexively and tried to pull herself together. She had not even heard him approach the door and she was uncertain just how much time had passed while her thoughts and feelings twisted through her mind.

At least there is no more pain in my stomach.

Lexa knew she needed to set this aside so she could focus on the warrior in front of her. She could not afford any more distractions…any more weaknesses.

She shifted into her usual position of feigned casualness upon her throne, suppressing her unease as she slipped the mask of cool indifference back on her face; his presence represented problems that were solvable, and she welcomed the sense of normalcy. Finally settled, she directed all of her attention to the man in front of her.

“Heda.” He stood sharply at attention, hands clasped behind his back and a glimmer of accomplishment lingering in his eyes.

She immediately noticed grass and dirt clinging to the hair of his beard as well as streaked down the front of his shirt. It looked as though an attempt had been made to brush off his front, but he had missed his face altogether.

This new mystery was a welcome distraction and she willingly latched onto to it. “Report.”

“I have shown Clarke of the Sky People basic care for Trubel and she has ridden this morning.” The gleam in his eyes faltered for a moment in a rare expression of uncertainty, but then he resumed. “She has also had one training session in hand-to-hand combat with me.”

With the second statement, the gleam in his eyes flashed again for a moment, but disappeared quickly and seemed to suggest ambiguity in results. She needed to know why. “Is Clarke ready to ride for Camp Jaha or not?”

Ryder eyes broke contact with hers briefly, glancing down at the floor, but then he angled his chin up and responded in his usual thoughtful deep rumble. “Trubel is ready to carry Clarke to Camp Jaha.”

Lexa leaned back further in her seat and considered his careful phrasing, implying that Trubel somehow had superceded Clarke in their training. She knew she must set aside personal issues she had with Clarke and consider the entire situation objectively.

Who was in charge within that relationship?

She flashed upon several situations where a horse being in charge could create dangerous predicaments, something truly unacceptable for any rider. Regardless of how smart the animal was, she still did not like the idea of the beast leading. “Explain.”

Ryder’s hands dropped to his sides and lightly curled into fists with a show of unease. “Trubel responds to Clarke’s directions…” He breathed out unsteadily, then began again. “Clarke talks to her.”

His words remained ambiguous and Lexa still did not have a clear understanding of what caused Ryder’s obvious discomfort. She also felt the sudden need to defend Clarke. “Many riders talk to their horses.”

“Trubel listens.”

The pointed emphasis on “listens” was not lost on Lexa, but she knew horses responded to directions of spoken commands all the time, though she supposed the Southern Bred communication style made it complicated. Usually, verbal commands did very little good for the rider as the horse usually fought all and any direct overtures of companionship, unlike Northern Bred horses who seemed to appreciate direction and bonding that way.

With her earlier visit to see Solon in mind, she had to consider that the dynamic between a Southern bred and a Commander might be distinctly different from the norm and could defy expectations. Even with their brief contact this morning, Lexa was sure she had already achieved far greater results with him than any other Southern rider she knew of, especially now that she took a chance and…Opened herself to up to the connection between them. But, she certainly would not be sharing that information with Ryder.

With a raised eyebrow, she waited for him to give her more.

His fingers brushed against the fabric of his leggings unconsciously. “She wants something to happen and Trubel makes sure that it does.” He shifted, feet spreading a few inches more to a widened stance, then his fingers stilled at his sides.

Curiosity peaked, her scrutiny did not leave him. She wanted to know exactly what had happened.

He huffed out an uneasy breath at her unwavering stare but submitted to the silent request. “She corrected Clarke’s mistakes during training.” He swallowed. “Trubel…”

Ryder looked a little lost. Lexa could see the effort it was taking for him explain, but she would not be deterred and her direct eye contact and stillness challenged him to continue.

His voice had never sounded so odd. “Trubel handed Clarke her own reins when she forgot to take them.” He stopped and stood taller, now challenging her to disbelieve the uncomfortable otherness his tone implied.

It was strange to see a grown warrior act defensively because they simply could not comprehend something. Ryder appeared to actually be afraid.

Of Trubel or of Clarke?

Lexa dismissed the discomfort of his tone to focus on his words instead, and her eyes widened as she made sense of his statement. A rush of excitement coursed through her. She was almost convinced Trubel really was smart, and possibly Solon was as well. She could not yet prove it, but it lent credence to the wild tale Anya had told her about Trubel’s sire.

If Ryder was to be believed, and she had no reason to doubt him, Trubel was possibly the smartest horse she had ever personally known about. Only time would tell if Solon equalled his dame, but she was convinced Ryder was entirely lost as to why Trubel could do what she did.

Clarke was not what Ryder thought she was either, and neither was Lexa. The gifts of a Commander Spirit had made everything different. After taking into account Clarke with Trubel earlier that morning and her own connection to Solon less than an hour ago, she thought she must reevaluate what was possible between a horse and rider; the key to understanding the situation must be the Commander being partnered with a Southern…and being Open.

She noticed Ryder shifting his weight uncomfortably, obviously desiring to avoid the subject, and yet still receive validation for what he thought he saw.

While Lexa agreed internally with him, he would not benefit from knowing. “I understand. Clarke is…unique.” She could think of no other word to explain the other woman to him that would not lead to questions she would not answer. Just saying her name sent tingles down her spine, and she shifted forward in her seat to mask a shiver.

It seemed he had nothing more to say, and she decided they both needed redirection before he thought to ask for further clarification. “Tell me about the lesson in hand-to-hand combat.”

He relaxed at the implied acceptance in her words, and the glimmer of pride reemerged his eyes. “She hesitated at first, as though she did not understand the idea of enemies.” His lips curved up in amusement before it slid away again. “I believed she had no understanding of fighting at all, but she soon gained skill after she followed your instructions to visualize what she needed to do.” He frowned in puzzlement, and raised an eyebrow in query. “Like a child just learning to listen.”

As Lexa replied, her tone abruptly thick with disgust. “She was not raised as we are, they keep their children vulnerable.”

He seemed to agree with her harsh words as he nodded decisively. “Later, I realized she was afraid to hurt me. She did not want to see me as an enemy, but I was able to push her beyond the weakness.”

He took a step closer to Lexa and reached up to untie the lacings at his shirt. He did not stop until the shirt was removed altogether and he stood before her glowing with stoic pride, eager to share the results of a pupil who showed great potential.

Deep bruising covered his upper stomach. He raised his arm carefully, clearly paining him to do so, and a hint of a grimace crossed his face as he showed her an equally darkening area in his armpit. He lowered his arm slowly and showed her finger-shaped bruises along both his arms, and pointed to his right arm in particular. “This was done with only two attacks.”

Lexa left her throne and strode toward him for a closer examination. As she looked at the wounds she conveyed her appreciation of his training skills, but also examined how bad the damage actually was. She eyed his bruised torso carefully, then looked up to take in the rest of him, noticing the dirt and grass still lodged in his beard.

Clarke had him face down on the ground at some point.

Ryder had not mentioned this part of his tale, and Lexa knew it could mean several things, but the most likely was that his pride was involved and he did not wish to state the truth. It was possible that Clarke had total control over the situation at some point. It filled Lexa with a sense of unease.

What was resolved while she had him on the ground?

“I think she hesitated in the beginning because she is very strong, and her speed increased greatly after she practiced visualization for the last attacks.” A grim calculated smile appeared on his face. “You are right. She is untrained, but resourceful. She thinks of ways to defend herself that I have not seen before.”

He put his shirt back on and his obvious pride in Clarke’s accomplishments, so quickly gained, sparked a concern in her mind for the possible loss of his loyalty. It could happen; Clarke simply had a way about her that drew people to do her bidding.

Just minutes ago she had so easily caved under her influence and Lexa knew that she herself should now be counted among the throng of people who readily gave in to Clarke. She felt threatened by it even in retrospect, not wanting to be at anyone’s mercy that way.

Lexa wondered if she would lose Ryder to Clarke in the end.

Was he susceptible the way the other Sky People were to her brand of influence?

Yet, Lexa knew it was not just Sky people or herself as a Commander that had responded to the other woman’s charisma. If Clarke was to be believed, Anya had also fallen under her sway before she had died. Clarke’s description of Anya’s uncharacteristic behaviors had proven that to her.

She had hoped Ryder was the right warrior for this assignment because he had always shown her loyalty without the need to question her reasoning, and now Lexa needed to test how secure that loyalty still was. “Clarke is our way into the Mountain, Ryder, but someday she will be much more than that.” She looked into his eyes to track if he understood her unspoken meaning.

He stilled at her words and then gave a slow nod of understanding.

“Keep her strength and skills to yourself. It is not time to reveal everything she can do yet.”

Again, he paused before he nodded, as the suggestion of a plan between them was entrusted to him. He stood taller at her words. While he was not in her position of balancing long-term strategy, he had witnessed her gift for it before, and seemed to trust her to know what needed to be done.

It seemed that he was still her warrior, and Lexa was torn between the discontent at her own worry of a loss to Clarke, and the hope that he could also see Clarke as a worthy leader.

In that moment, Lexa was close to admitting to herself that this was about something else entirely. After all, she was not afforded an easy option when it came to Clarke. That woman found ways to cause havoc, and frustrating as it was, Lexa did not think Clarke did it on purpose. Despite what had transpired between them only a little while ago, Clarke had actually warned her first before taking action.

If she were completely honest with herself, Lexa felt she was now fighting a battle she was ill prepared for. It was weakness to crave an emotional connection and…more between herself and Clarke. However, she did not have time be completely honest with herself right now. There were plenty of reasons to ignore her own desire, and avoid thinking about Clarke in that way.

The most obvious reason was pain. She wanted no more of the physical pain they seemed to set off in each other, or worse. To have Clarke only to fail her later in a similar manner she had with Kostia.

Lexa turned away from these thoughts and gathered the maps from her War Table before heading for the door. “You have time to eat. Make sure Clarke has food as well before the meeting.” She was not about to seek the other woman out yet on her own, but she would admit to this at least, she never seemed prepared enough to handle a confrontation with Clarke unscathed. She had proof of that.

She paused for a moment in the doorframe, eyeing the large warrior carefully as he was about to follow her out of it. Ryder was still under her care as well as under her authority. Lexa could lose him someday to Clarke, but that had not happened yet.

She was not sure how many had already seen the state of him, but it would be uncomfortable to explain to others why, after training with Clarke only once in hand-to-hand combat, he had so clearly met the ground face first. She had assembled the truth readily and suspected other warriors would easily piece together the story as well.

Lexa should not care, but found that she did, and decided it was a small thing to preserve his dignity, even if it was not her personal responsibility. Not looking back at him, she spoke. “You have grass in your beard.”

Then, she was out the door.

 

Chapter Text

Mid-Day, October 28th, 2334 - 267 A.F. (Activation: Day 02)

She arrived for the second time that day in the bathing room to get cleaned up, and just like the last time, spent most of her efforts desperately trying to sort herself out. At the moment, she was beyond freaked out and her hands shook as she tried to fasten her pants.

“No way.” This time, there was no one else present to hear or judge her words. Memory surged up and her trembling fingers fumbled another button.

The image of Lexa’s face, the way a series of exquisite expressions had splayed across her features; the surprised shock and then the twist of pleasure caught suspended for a brief flicker of time in her eyes, the trembling parting of her lips when she quietly gasped. Clarke’s Thrum had curled and nestled low within Lexa, causing the Commander’s pelvis to tilt forward ever so slightly while she had fought to stay still upon the seat of her throne.

Clarke had dangled precariously upon the sense of connection she shared with Lexa, the illusion of control, until the whiplash had struck the pleasure down. Vibration and feeling had ricocheted through their bond and unfurled within her own body, landing directly in her core, a hard insistent pulse of twisted painful awareness suddenly overriding the pleasure.

Her heart hammered in her chest. “I did that.” The raspy words were almost lost in the rushing sound of the water falling nearby.

Her hands dropped and shook at her sides until she gripped the seam of her pants, giving up all efforts to fasten the last button, she swayed as though drunk on her feet. The rush it gave her to know she had made Lexa feel...made her tingle everywhere.

A tremulous breath slipped from her tight lungs.

The sudden awareness of the power she possessed filled her to the brim, making her giddy; a paroxysm of drive to give and take in equal measure spiraled from the throb between her legs to her chest and then flowed up to reach the back of her scalp. It criss-crossed through her mouth and left an untested potency lingering upon her tongue.

She swallowed hard several times while she transitioned between a dry and salivating mouth. Her eyes squeezed shut tight and the image of Lexa’s pliant body filled her head, the way she had arched up slightly from her seat as though she had been bowed by just the want of Clarke’s manipulative, vibratory demand.

To want my touch and want it this way!

Her mouth watered again. “Shit!” She swallowed it down and forced herself to breathe through it, her uneven panting slowing as she wrestled for control. Gradually, her sensibilities returned and left her with a single unnerving question.

Is it just attraction...just lust?

She groaned out miserably. “It’s just so...wrong!” There was something more to this power that made her believe she should not want it or long to do it again.

Her hands went back to the task, her fingers almost steady despite her continued inner turmoil. Pants finally fastened, she paced the room, not yet ready to walk into the light of day and have others see her so frazzled, feeling so out of control.

“I can’t like it.” Anxious, she muttered unconvincingly while her heartbeat picked up speed and she fought to control the pace of her breathing all over again.

I shouldn’t want it.

It felt like she was on the verge of sensory overload. Emotions, thoughts, everything was too much, but she continued the mental scramble to understand. It all must mean something!

“I just went inside and-”, her throat closed up on the words and she sought again to define what it had meant to reach into Lexa that way, but came up with nothing she could comprehend. 

She groaned in frustration and stopped pacing. Her hands landed on the hard edge of the basin and she sank to her knees, grasping at anything to center herself. She rubbed the tips of her fingers along the damp rough surface to feel it resist, snagging against her skin. The sensation of wetness upon her hands brought to mind a recent, but very different moment of sticky hands stained red. It tamped down her desire and created a counterpoint of anxiety that finally killed it. Finn’s blood.

I can’t.

Her entire body trembled.

“That did not happen.” The raspy harsh words fell from her mouth as she glanced around the bathing room without seeing anything all. Slowly, she lowered her forehead to rest against the rough gritty surface, and closed her eyes.

Breathe.

Her mind whirled through the day’s events.

Waking in the fear of bleeding upon the bed. Discovering her decision to fire off the rockets had killed a whole village. That she had no place here yet – no Houm - but for the safety found with her friends. Her mother pestering her with conspiracy theories about Lexa. Her frustration with finding a horse and falling asleep on the field only to wake again with that disorientating dream. Lexa watching from the shadows…judging her.

She rolled her forehead back and forth against the rim’s edge to ground herself, the pressure digging into her face and causing a sharp sting all the way into the bone.

Lexa.

Her thoughts slid deliberately past the woman, and she stopped pressing into the concrete rim. Her forehead stung hot briefly with the tingle of a localized healing burn. That sensation, too, she ignored as she forced some order to her thoughts.

Ryder teaching her to protect herself. The grid of his vulnerable points springing up across his body so that she could see him as the “enemy”. Negotiating like a Grounder. Fighting like she knew what she was doing, but having no idea how she made it happen. Figuring out she was a victim of pheromones. But then Lexa had reached out so gently with her Thrum and touched…

Lexa.

She let go of the edge of the basin with her right hand and let her arm dangle down until she could feel the rush of the warm water flow around her fingertips as it swirled away.

I won’t...I won’t...I WON’T!

The silent litany of denial rang through her mind like a chant in a final attempt to rescue herself from the overwhelming rush of feelings. By the time her breathing calmed completely this time, her mind was curiously and thankfully blank; it was a profound relief.

She stayed in that haze of nothing for several long moments before raising her head and opening her eyes. As the room came into focus slowly, details stood out starkly that she had not bothered to notice before.

The basin in front of her had crumbled edges and broken tiles lining its curving outer walls, and a deep sharp edged groove ran the entire circumference on the top of its concrete lip. In the center of the circular interior, water spilled out of several irregular clay pipes spaced out at uneven heights and intervals.

She raised her head and looked around. The walls of the room were tiled and broken, as though time and wear had made them brittle and a sharp impact could crack or break them.

Her eyes skimmed the lines of the room, her mind finally noticing everything around her. At knee height, wire dangled from a hole in a wall to her left. She frowned, not sure what it was for, until she scanned along the opposite wall to the far right and saw the matching hole covered over with a broken plate that had three vertical slits.

Her frown smoothed away. This type of construction pointed to a time earlier than the universal wireless charging found on the Ark. Even the power systems that were used on the older stations that later joined together to become the Ark in space only had direct connectors inside maintenance and interior tunnels. Now that she considered it, she remembered noticing Mount Weather also had several of these panels, but she never saw anyone actually plug into them while she was there.

This was technology from an age long gone, rendered unnecessary.

She sighed and looked down at her hand as it dangled in the running water, noticing that it was warmer than her own body temperature by several degrees, and much warmer than it had been in the early morning hours when she had taken a full bath. The water poured from the spouts and collected in the basin, before the swift clear flow exited through multiple drains along a sloping floor. The entire construction was nothing like anything she had seen on any of the stations, as though hailing from a different lifetime where water was not the precious commodity she knew it to be. It honestly seemed impractical to make that many drains and force out so much water at one time, but the construction was obviously deliberate.

She scanned the way the water pooled two feet deep and flowed closely at the center of the basin, observing that the clay pipes fit over several broken pieces of concrete extending upward, implying there had been something else in place at one time; now, it was as though whatever had been there before broke off at some point and someone made do with the irregular clay pipe assembly.

She got to her feet and backed away from the basin to take in the assembly in its entirety and thought back to the Ark’s data files that might have shown something like this.

A... fountain?

She looked around the room again.

A fountain with warm water?

Suddenly, it all seemed incredibly odd and out of sync with everything she had assumed about Grounders in general. This entire structure was underground, and there was no apparent energy source to move the water this fast or make it that warm. There simply had to be some kind of technology at work.

How?

Her searching gaze landed on a crack that ran vertically from floor to ceiling through the rectangle design of the tile on the wall; she had assumed it was deterioration from crumbling grout, but now she was not certain. She walked up to the wall and ran her fingers deliberately over the crevice. The edge was smooth. It had never had grout within it.

She turned her head to the left and picked out another clear line break in the wall which seemed to follow the opposite pattern and ran the entire height of the wall. Fingers outstretched, she stepped toward it and measured the distance between her spread arms.

This could be a door.

Her eyes widened and she stepped back to see how it could possibly open. She glanced down to see a smudge upon the floor, and knelt beside it, allowing the glow of several lamps about the room to hit the spot.

Scuff marks like the sole of a shoe pointed away from the wall, but the heel edge was suspiciously squared off. The footprint was halved as though the rest lay underneath it.

She reached out and ran her fingers over the wavy lines that remained from the tread of a boot or shoe, but they were smooth and remained fixed in the floor. Her brow furrowed in puzzlement as she scanned the floor toward the center of the room, and saw that it was discolored and worn down where people had walked, leaving ground in dirt in the grooves of the tiles. The sealant on the floor had been compromised years ago with repeated traffic.

But not here.

She rubbed harder at the spot this time. This scuff mark was sealed over. That had to mean it was there when the wall was placed. She looked up again.

A secret door?

She stood, her eyes searching for a way to open it, but saw nothing around the door itself to assist her. She scanned the room again, paying closer attention to the indentations on the walls. There, on the opposite side of the room was a tiny black circle, almost at ceiling height directly across from where she was standing.

She clambered up onto the bench against the wall underneath the circle to see it better, running her fingertips carefully over the surface. It had a smooth piece of glass between the circular metal rim, and she peered up at it with curiosity.

A hidden camera facing an opening…it was a security camera of some kind. She shook her head and turned back the the door.

I know I’m right, but how to get it open…

She walked back to the door and her gaze traveled over the surface before trailing back down to the floor and to the right. Three feet past the end of the door and just behind the fountain’s base the tile pattern was broken by a large rectangular piece superseded the normal design. She crouched down in front of it and searched with her fingertips, finally catching the edge and pulled, hard.

The door gradually swung away from the wall as she worked against the resistance of a dead hydraulic. Bits of tile crumbled against the pressure she applied with her fingers and fell to the floor at her feet. Once the door swung open fully to meet the edge of the wall beside it, she leaned down to peer into the dark interior.

A dim red light glowed faintly through air ductwork, coming from a room on the other side.

They have electricity?

The light must mean a source of energy somewhere nearby was still working.

How?

Feeling around inside the door’s opening, her fingertips crossed over several metal plates, noticing one of them had the distinct ridge of a round button extending from it.

Should I?

She sat back on her heels and scratched absentmindedly at the back of her neck. This exploration had nothing to do with her indefinable problems or worrying about that thing she had done to Lexa earlier. She really should be getting ready for the meeting, but she knew that meant being near Lexa again. An involuntary shiver went down her spine before she could shake it off, so she turned her attention back to the ductwork. This, at least, was a solvable mystery and her curiosity was peaked.

Probably shouldn’t, but I’m going to anyway.

She scrubbed at her face with her free hand to chase away a random itch that tickled across her nose as the other hand depressed the button, and she waited for the door to open.

Nothing happened.

She hunkered down on her stomach and looked through the opening again, trying to distinguish exactly where the dim red light was coming from across the room. There was very little to see in the cast of such a small light source, but it seemed like a beacon to her all the same.

Clarke reached out an arm to test the interior space of the ductwork and guessed that it was only about three feet deep.

It’ll be a tight fit…

She inched forward and wiggled into the air duct, squeezing through the tight opening as much as she could, before realizing she would need to exhale completely when she got stuck if she breathed too deeply. Gamely, she squirmed forward, her shoulders and her hips eventually squeezing through before she slumped onto the dusty dark floor on the other side.

She could not see anything other than the red glow emanating from the wall across from her,  and climbed to her feet carefully before she slowly crept toward the the light source.

Suddenly, her foot caught on something heavy lying on the floor, tripping her as it gave way and she fell forward with a grunt. Her hands shot out to catch herself and made contact with the hard edge of something a little above waist height. The surface lurched to the side under the force of her hands and was followed by the two distinct sounds of a thunk and paper fluttering and falling.

Heart thumping now, she shuffled toward the light and could now see that came from a panel of board switches on the wall. She reached out to touch the switch.

 “Recalibration”. The word on a metal plate was illuminated in the red glow resting just below it.

One of her hands hovered over it, while the other reached up to scratch distractedly at her collarbone, her fingernails scraping roughly over the smooth skin.

I shouldn’t. I don’t know what it’s for.

The pads of her fingers dropped down again to land lightly on the switch. She hesitated, hands poised and fingertips tingling.

What could it hurt?

She flipped the switch.

The familiar whine of electricity hummed to life from the wall to her left in a subtle whir of sound; a counterpoint to how quiet the world now was without it. Her head tilted back in surprise when a long LED bulb above her blinked on slowly, as though it gradually received enough energy to brighten, finally lighting the room in stark relief.

A square metal desk was positioned to her right and she could now see how it had shifted crooked when she had grabbed onto it to catch herself from falling moments ago. Behind the desk stood a cylindrical wall, bulging outward about ten feet into the room.

She looked up to the far left wall where she had heard the whirring sound and saw a small black box positioned flush to the wall, the wires running from it connected to the panel of switches and those continued on and up through a metal pipe into the convex cement wall.

Uncertain of which of these things were actually affected by her actions, she backed away to take in the rest of the room.

The desk in front of her had an open file dangling over the edge and the papers from it were spilled across the floor at her feet. A softbound book slouched open underneath the desk’s drawers and realized idly that she had not seen a real book in over a year.

She bent down and gathered up the papers, placing them in a messy pile back on the desk, then reached down to pull the corner edge of the book until it fell flat and open upon the floor. Bold graphite strokes were scrawled across the two pages facing up in a hurried and desperate script.

“IT’S HAPPENING! They’re killing us!” Below that in smaller writing, “They Lied!”

Clarke felt a chill zing up her spine. Was the writer of those words someone trapped in these tunnels when the bombs had fallen? She lifted the book to the table and closed it briefly to read the title, Manual of Operation: BIO-ECHO Prototype II. She flipped it back open and thumbed through the pages until she came to a set of diagrams that held notes written in faded pencil as well as ink all along the margins.

Written in pencil over several of the first pages were, “Bored”, “Boring”, “Stupid Job”, “Nothing to EVEN LOOK AT!”, then “Shouldn’t have played dumb to get this stupid job.” And “Engineering degree for nothing.

Finally, something other than idle complaining caught her eye as she quickly scanned down through the commentary.

“Recalibration = in cases of extreme shifts” was written clearly in ink. The handwriting styles were different.

Below that was pencil again, “Recalibrated twice already on the log before I got here. Can’t figure out what kind of shifts yet…”

She frowned at the unfamiliar reference but flipped through more pages until something else caught her attention. The diagram on the page showed a series of connections from ground level between a cylinder-shaped object with a sphere at the top, down to the black box on the wall, and finally to a panel illustration with all of its switches. The note in the margin read: “System Flush = emergency only” in ink.

Below that in pencil: “There is no reason to flush a closed system. It has nowhere to go! Why have it at all?”

She recognized it as a switch on the box in relation to the denoted enclosure in the diagram then looked up at the ten feet of convex wall. A short visualization allowed her to guess where that would place the sphere topside, and though she had never ventured into the area behind the tunnel complex she now had an idea of the size of the system shown in the schematic.

A closed system?

Clarke had no practical experience with engineering to pull from, only what her father had shared when he talked shop, but she knew the concept of a closed system was covered in most scientific studies. Through the study of biology, she knew that there was no such thing as a real closed system on earth. Her father had explained that to her when he told her men made closed systems, but that in nature everything relied on and affected everything else. The Ark was the closest to a successful “closed” system that she knew of, but in the end, it had not been a permanent structure; men had assembled it and it could not possibly last forever. Humans needed air and the Ark had no longer been able to supply enough of that. But, if taken literally, she knew a true closed system did not need to access other systems and could stay autonomous.

She contemplated what the engineer who wrote in pencil had meant when they emphasized importance on a closed system. She did not know what the big deal was exactly, but she could tell it frustrated the writer.

She scratched at a prickling spot on her side just above her waist absentmindedly as she turned back to look at the black box. Except for the faint hum of energy emanating from it on the wall, it was suddenly very quiet. Unnerved, she turned her body around to see the mystery door had swung open silently and now stood halfway ajar.

Must’ve gotten power when the lights came on.

The odd silence made her uneasy. She rubbed at the top of her left hand as she walked over and pushed the door open all the way, and her eyes landed on the BIO-ECHO II dribbling water down pipes now making almost no sound at all.

Click...Click, phezz

The noises came from the hidden control room.

She spun toward the strange sounds and hurried back through the doorway, only to discover the thing she had tripped over earlier exposed partially from under the back of the desk and next to the convex wall.

She bent to the side to see it better.

It was a smooth twelve inch hexagonal lump of metal on the floor and it twitched, then emitted another series of sounds.

Click...Click, Click, whir-phezz…

The hexagonal body expanded and grew, one layer up and then one from its underside distended down. Both layers never separated, rather, they melded into the rising and lowering layers. Then, eight blade-thin extensions slid out of the new angled transitionary ridge upon the top only to bend downward, elongating in a stiff arc toward the floor, but the motion halted just before their tips met the cement. Suddenly, the flexible legs snapped in several places along their lengths into multi-jointed limbs, and the sharp looking metal tips finally made contact with the floor. It crab-walked the six inches out from under the desk and abruptly pulled upright a full foot into the air.

How did it give itself joints?!

Clarke’s jaw dropped and she jerked back a step at the unnervingly stilted shuffle and aggressive movement of the eyeless machine.

Swidt!

The housing on its underbelly opened and a set of four wheels emerged to slide jarringly fast along tracks embedded in its outer casing that she had not noticed before, then another set of four slid out to take their place.

Snap!

The metallic sound, although not terribly loud, startled her and she flinched.

 When all of the wheels seemed fixed in their positions, it lowered itself until rubber tread settled to the floor and it stopped moving.

“Robot?” She croaked and grabbed the manual to flip frantically through it in search of anything about robotics, splitting her attention from the book to the still piece of metal.

Her attention was pulled away from the manual at the sound of eight legs receding partially back into its frame and dropping low to the floor, and she watched with wide eyes until the lower wheels touched down and it zoomed off around the back of the skewed desk.

She positioned herself back and to the right of the desk to keep it in sight, but a panel opened up in the convex wall as the machine approached, then it shot out its eight legs with startling speed, before it practically leaped into the squared off position to enter the opening, and rapidly disappeared into the wall.

The panel slid closed immediately behind it.

She stood staring at the wall and scratched at the underside of her left forearm, peering at the point of the machine’s exit with the manual halfway forgotten in her negligent hand, flabbergasted. It had appeared to have no sensors of any kind on the outer housing.

How did it see where it was going?

Something else had definitely been off about the robot. It had somehow given itself joints even as the entirely smooth surface had altered to have tracks for adjustable wheel placement. She was almost certain they had not been there until the underside of the machine had opened up to let out its wheels both times.

How could a machine change what it is at all?

Glancing down at the manual and scratching at her elbow, she caught her lower lip between her teeth and earnestly wished Raven or Monty could be here with her right now. If this was a bad thing, they would be able to tell her if she should be worried or not. She released her lip. Had she already screwed something up?

Finally she huffed out a long breath, irritated with herself. “What the hell am I doing?”

She sighed and gave her head an exasperated shake. The robot had not attacked her after all, and now she wondered why her brain had immediately to that conclusion. She was not exactly a stranger to the concept of robotics, though she knew the more advanced ones had quit working less than a year after the stations had formed the Ark and they had been scavenged to supply other parts for failing machinery over the years.

She closed the manual with a thud and brought it up behind her back, using its stiff spine to scratch the itchy spot between her shoulder blades as she suddenly recalled the last major problem she had.

“The water.” She muttered and then set the book back down on the desk, opening it back up and continuing to flip through it until she spotted the notorious section on “System Flush”.

Constant water flow in a closed system?

She wondered if maybe the water in the fountain was cycling through something and simply returning, like the filtration system utilized on the Ark that made showers possible. It seemed like a reasonable thing to her that perhaps this simple technology had not been lost to the Grounders after all, but she considered it odd that they then would act so anti-tech if it were really true. While puzzling the possible reason behind the anomaly, she continued to scan over the diagram, until she noticed a small schematic at the bottom of the same page, which showed the placement of a corresponding switch on the far right bottom corner of the panel.

Her eyebrow flared with another uncomfortable itch and she rubbed at it while she stepped over to the panel of switches on the wall and bent down, looking at the small plate underneath the switch to locate the words, but etched faintly underneath of that, in the pencil-styled handwriting were two words.

“TOO LATE.”

“Well, that doesn’t sound optimistic.” she muttered sardonically, but her lungs felt tight when the air supplying the words left her mouth.

This has to be it.

She placed a tingling fingertip over the switch, only hesitating as she tried to ignore the blooming itch at the base of her throat. The pencil writer’s words continued to bother her.

It should be the right one.

A sudden noise broke her internal debate and she jerked her head up to listen. The outer bathing room door had just opened and she heard the light plod of booted feet upon the floor.

She spun around, searching for the entrance. Her investigative endeavor had just become precarious and she quickly hurried to the hidden door in an effort to diffuse the situation or explain.

Kaleen stood frozen in the middle of the room staring at her with rounded eyes, and Clarke stared uncertainly back at her from the doorway she now stood in. Kaleen’s hands began to tremble at her sides, and Clarke felt a pang of empathy for this small girl whose family she and Raven had unwittingly sentenced to death just so they could signal the Ark that they were alive on the ground, this girl who was startled and obviously afraid of her.

Kaleen’s eyes shot to the the empty basin, then right back to her.

Maybe she was wrong and it was the lack of water that caused the girl to be upset. At least she could try reassuring her that she intended to do something about that.

“Sorry!” Clarke blurted, unnerved by the eyes now boring into her. “I can fix the water problem!” She certainly did not know that, but turned back into the room all the same and headed straight for the “System Flush” switch.

Click!...Phezzz…

The noise pinged from behind the desk.

A shiver of unease ran up her spine at the sound, despite her previous decision that she should not be affected that way. “Damnit!”

She hurried back to the center of the room to see that the robot had just entered the room with its blade legs already extended as it drop-stepped onto the floor in that jarring awkward gait.

“AAAAAAAHHHHH!” Kaleen screamed, her eyes wider than what seemed physically possible while her small body stood fixed with arms rigid at her sides, and she seemed to forget how to breathe after she emptied her lungs.

The scream echoed off the walls and pierced through Clarke’s eardrums. “No! I can fix it!” Clarke shouted into the din, trying to top the nightmarishly sharp ringing in her ears, her own unease ratcheting up several notches, in tune with the girl’s reaction to the unnerving thing shuffling back and forth in a jerky searching motion upon the floor.

Frantically, she looked around and her eyes landed on the Manual of Operations laid out on the desk. She grabbed and slammed it shut, then lifted it above her head as she spun around to deal with the scuttling piece of metal that finally stopped its wretched motion. It began to lower itself down to the floor while its underside opened to extend its wheels.

Thwap!

The metal body slammed against the floor and bounced up again, the eight extensions trying to withdraw into its body spasmed outward upon her strike, halting their progress back into the housing then they snapped sharply in and out of joint. The tips of metal struck the floor, causing a creepy jumping motion that scooted the robot closer to Kaleen like some frantically dying giant insect.

“AAAAHHHH!” Kaleen found her breath and shared, she inhaled again and let it out even louder. “AAAAAAHH!-”

The sound tortured Clarke’s eardrums and she tried to make herself heard over the elongated shriek with her own and through a sharp spike of anxiety. “SHUUUUUT!-”

Thwap! Crack-Spling!

“-HHHHHHHH-!”

THWAP! Crunch-Hwing!

“-UUUUP!”

“HHHhh!” Kaleen’s shriek stuttered into silence as she ran out of air or finally listened to her.

Clarke did not care at the cause, she was just glad the girl had stopped because the panic was making everything worse.

TWATHWP!

The bits of metal trembled oddly, as though it still felt life in its limbs on its rocking body as it tilted back and forth over the stubby arched extensions. Disparate parts fell and shot away from the base as she continued to beat the strange machine as flat as possible until a tiny rubber-covered wheel rolled away and bounced into the wall before it toppled over.

Silence.

Clarke stood panting from the adrenaline rush pumping through her system and then turned to glance back at Kaleen in the doorway. “I killed it.” She tried to get her own breathing back under control and distractedly scratched at her bellybutton. “You’re okay.”

The disturbingly rounded eyes settled into a less terrified expression as she watched Kaleen regain control of herself, though she continued to stare at the ruined robot on the floor.

Kaleen’s shoulders suddenly stiffened and her small body took on the familiar defiant stance that Clarke had come to associate with all Grounders. The girl took a step back before she looked up to meet Clarke’s gaze and then they narrowed abruptly.

Clarke had the strange sense that she was seeing the expression of another know-it-all adult framed on the small child’s face. The girl’s eyes flickered at her with a sullen look and then settled into an expression of indignant accusation.

“What?!” Clarke furrowed her brow and let her frustration get the better of her under the child’s obvious judgment.

Kaleen stepped back even further and glanced at the bathing basin, slowly and deliberately, before her glare landed again on Clarke and soaked her in a furious righteous outrage.

“Right! Give me a second.” Without considering the fact that she was jumping to action for the glare of a little girl, Clarke wheeled around and knelt down by the lower right bottom switch, and paused.

The “Too Late!” taunted her and she hesitated. A sudden itch crept from her temple to the crown of her head and she did not even notice her fingertips chasing the phantom feeling with one hand while the other tingled and settled on the switch.

She huffed out her anxiety.

Please don’t let this make things worse!

She flipped the switch with a determined hand, and the overhead light dimmed, but did not go off. She waited there listening for the flush of water with her eyes closed and proverbial fingers crossed.

Finally, the result of an increase in water pressure rushed through the pipes and caused the sound she needed. Water once again hit the basin loudly while she scrubbed at the skin of her breastbone through her shirt, then she smiled and sighed out in relief before turning around to check on the little girl, but the doorway was empty.

“Shit!” Clarke hurried through the doorway into the bathing room, but Kaleen was nowhere to be seen. A sudden chill of dread spread heavily through her gut. She had underestimated the girl; she had taken her as a shy child from their earlier meeting, those young eyes refusing to stay on Clarke, and she had not seemed able to speak out. Yet, now Kaleen had proved that assumption to be false, despite her fear of the mess on the floor.

Clarke stared at the broken robot while both of her hands scratched with a distracted frustration at the skin underneath her front pants pockets as she wondered about how the robot had “died”.

“Moved like a damn spider.” She muttered darkly at the remains of the creepy thing and another shiver jolted down her spine.  The Ark certainly had not had anything that looked like that. She blew out a breath and chided herself for such a childish fear, giving a quick shake of her head. Had she not just claimed to Lexa that she did not fear things she had already accepted?

“Not afraid of spiders.” She snorted in self-derision. Yet, she knew she was not the only one to act irrationally to the sudden appearance of the robot. If Kaleen’s reaction was the normal response to advanced technology, this could be a real problem. She was not even sure about all the implications of that kind of encounter, she just...knew this was bad.

Will she tell?

She imagined being in Kaleen’s position; it only took a second. “Yep.” The word slid out of her mouth with finality.

Clarke suspicion felt confirmed, she needed to put the room back into its “hidden” state, and maybe know a little more about what had happened if she ever needed to explain herself.

She turned on her heel and headed back into the room to figure out if there was a way to shut everything down except the water basin, and found herself finally paying attention to the wall next to the doorway. It had several papers held up with magnets on a metal plate running half the length of the wall; the largest was at the top and the photo on it was of the completed basin.

She moved closer and raised her fingers to brush the light dust from the picture, but found herself standing on one leg and determinedly running the edge of her right foot down the front of her left shin to chase another wretched itch. Distracted, she huffed out a heavy breath in irritation. Why was she having these random itches?

“Allergy to something?” She shook it off and did her best to concentrate on the diagram in front of her.

Examining the picture, it was obvious what was missing now. A hollow glass sphere had covered the top of the entire basin and had rested in the groove on the top of its edge. Inside, the water level had reached far higher than what it currently ran, and had been filled with plants hanging from the center of the structure. Some kind of fish had once been intended to inhabit the water.

BIO-ECHO…this was some kind of biosphere. At least, she thought it must have been.  Scanning down to the next paper and the picture on it, she saw the groundside view of the system.

It was faded like the one above it, but she could see clearly enough that the sphere at the top was a big ball of glass that rested partially inside the cylinder. The headline above the picture read: “The BIO-ECHO II Debuts within the Underbelly of Washington DC, inside DuPont Circle.” Below the picture, in smaller print, “Scientists and Engineers team up to bring us sustainable energy that only requires maintenance every 50 years!”

If that was true, she thought it was no wonder the pencil writer had been bored, but why were they even there in the first place if such a system did not need monitoring?

The next framed page had no picture, but seemed to give a different take on the situation. She could not read the full page, but the print was a little less faded than on the one above it, so maybe it was written later. “The BIO-ECHO Line is Retiring!”

Clarke took a breath and stepped back from the wall, her fingertips preoccupied with chasing an itch that was traveling down both sides of her torso. She ran her hands roughly over her ribs and scratched with both hands, but the tingling was not lessening this time. She could no longer stand completely still and rocked back and forth on the balls of her feet.

Kaleen was probably telling on her right now.

I need to cover this up.

Directly after making that assertion, the itching eased and she quickly gathered up the papers on the desk only to cram them into the Manual of Operation. She gripped the flexible book tightly in her fist, wanting to take them with her, but hesitated and set them back down before she walked over to the doorway.

Suddenly, the restless itch at her sides returned, burning fiercely and spreading across her chest. Her hands scrambled across her body to relieve the maddening sensation, blunt fingernails digging uselessly into her enflamed skin but never quite reaching the source of the pain. A pressure rose then from the center of her chest and climbed up her throat, and the higher it crawled the more it burned, singing her with an internal fire as it wrapped around to the back of her head.

She stopped in her tracks. Her ragged breath fell to pants as her frantic hands froze, one at her throat, the other already gripped a handful of long hair in a frustrated fist against her scalp. The itch worsened, and her heart pounded in dread through the pressure now squeezing her chest. “Oh shit.”

This is NOT an allergy!

She shuffled on shaking legs back into the room and scanned it frantically. The sensation stopped escalating, but remained buzzing under her skin as an unarticulated anxiety that she could barely contain.

What the hell is wrong?!

Her entire body tingled, vacillating insanely with sensory reaction; the hand at her throat slipped upward and joined the other just underneath the drape of her hair to dig into her scalp and grip another handful of hair, desperately trying to fight the urge to scrape the back of her head raw.

The door to the bathing room slammed opened and a gust of wind swept low through the outer room, before it gusted through the hidden doorway and swirled around her legs to catch the fabric of her pants.

Swwvvep...ting!…

Startled, she spun around place.

The bits of metal on the floor shuddered and bumped into each other under the power of the sudden wind.

She sighed out an anxious breath and squeezed her eyes shut, relieved it was nothing; she tried to relax and think through a prognosis that would explain why the hell she was burning and itching.

Shessh-shesshhh

Her eyes sprang open at the sound. She watched as the ruined pieces of robot dissolved into dark gray piles of a sand-like substance on the floor.

Shocked, Clarke forgot about her itching flesh and her hands dropped to her sides in disbelief, not even sure what she was seeing.

The dark gray sand shifted and converged into a single large pile, even the wheel that had rolled all the way to the wall emptied out of its rubber tubing and made its way to join the rest. The gray mass stilled for a moment, before it slithered swiftly toward the wall behind the desk.

Stiff legged, she stumbled back to keep it in sight.

It crawled, stacked and shifted over itself to spill up and into the opening. The panel suddenly jerked shut behind it.

Clarke stopped breathing.

“What-”, she gasped breaths interrupted by her croaking voice, “the HELL-”, and her chest was tight with pressure now, “was THAT?!”

She needed to sit down, but there was nothing to sit on except the floor. She eyed the cement surface. Nothing felt safe in the room now.

What if it comes back?

The itch crawled with a steady and now seemingly insidious pressure down her neck, reminding her that she still had another problem that had not gone away.

Panicked, she stumbled toward the door, but the pressure in her chest increased and the restless itch curled deeper under her skin and made her stop dead where she stood. “What the-!”

She reached up again to scratch the back of her head, and then she was chasing the sensation across her chest, sides, and now her arms. “Dammit!” The itch led down to her stomach. “What the hell is going on?”

She retreated to the desk and the heavy feeling in her chest and the itching lessened. “No way!”

She stepped forward toward the door again even as she scratched fiercely across her skin, but then the pressure in her chest, throat, and the back of her head only increased.

Hurts to breathe! Hurts to think!

She hastily backtracked to the desk, panting and scratching, and the itch and painful pressure eased. “I can’t leave!”

Her breaths came out in harsh pants and she felt out of control, as though the world was slipping sideways as her need to give in to the panic increased. She slammed her hands down on the top of the desk in a frantic attempt to make herself stay in the here and now. That odd and uncomfortable sensation of slipping away into Commander Memories registered at the edge of her mind. She did not want that! “No! I can do this!”

She fought to get her breathing under control again, to slow her mind down and focus on being in control of her emotions. After only a few moments, her efforts paid off as she achieved an inner calm, and the itch disappeared completely, the pressure lessening to a mild ache of insistence. She was finally able to think clearly again.

“Okay. So, I can’t leave…” She fought against a twinge of renewed pressure in her chest acting like a reminder, and the subsequent fear that followed it at the thought of being stuck there. “Think, think, think!”

It took a few more moments to get the feeling to subside. “Alright...why am I…what’s keeping me here?”

Spinning around, she looked for anything that could be the cause. She had not been able to leave yet because she knew she needed to “re-hide” the room. This thought still felt...right. She had intended to close the door and the panel behind the bathing basin.

She turned toward the doorway and felt the pressure began to build again, so she dropped back to slouch against the edge of the desk. Those actions should have been enough, but what if it was not? What was she missing?

There was a witness.

The thought skittered through her mind causing a rush of dread to slink its way down her chest and gut. It made a horrible kind of sense.

Compulsion…” she croaked. She closed her eyes and examined the thought as well as the sensations and feelings connected to it for several long moments.

The idea of reaching out a hand to take her life-.

She slammed her eyes shut tight and fought a sudden bout of nausea as it unfolded in her belly and crept up her throat.

Breathe!

After a few moments, she had the presence of mind to note that there was no change or increase in pressure for her to attempt the murder of the little girl.

“I don’t need to kill her,” she whispered in relief while the last of her nausea left her body. If that had been truly necessary, would the Compulsion have ever let Kaleen leave at all?

She eyed the thick walls of cement and the muffled sound of the water flowing rapidly in the other room and shook her head. As awful as the idea was, this hidden room was the perfect opportunity to hide a murder.

This isn’t about killing a little girl.

Her body slumped, practically dizzy with the relief of certainty. “There’s got to be something else.” She muttered as she looked around the room and her gaze finally landed on the papers, file, and book now sitting on the desk.

If those were the reason, she could not just carry them out of the room in plain view, she grabbed them and shoved them down the back of her pants and flipped her shirt over them.

That should be it then.

She took a step toward the door.

The itch screamed down previous paths, carving a burning itch deeply under her skin.

She hastily stepped back, scratching and panting, and trying to breathe at the count of four until she calmed down again. She closed her eyes but reached back around to reassure herself, tapping the bulge of evidence that rested against the curve of her lower back.

“Evidence.” She whispered, and opened her eyes. The room looked different after saying it aloud. She stepped over to the magnetic framed pictures by the door, and the itch eased its maddening spiral around her body.

One by one, she took them down and back over to the desk, flipping them and removing the thin bordered backing to grab the pictures and articles away from the hastily spilled mess she had created on the desk. As she caught hold of the Retiring! story, a folded paper stuffed between the magnetic border and frame drifted loose and fell to the floor.

She reached down and picked it up, unfolding it to discover a document with small fine print, then she flipped it over to see the back. The familiar scrawl of the pencil writer had drawn out what appeared to be a brainstorming session.

“Wasn’t an accident…knew this would happen”, rested at the center of the page and lines were drawn outwardly in many different branches. She traced one branch down with her fingertip and, “It all comes back to GMT”, was in very small print at the bottom of the crowded paper.

She sighed, and refolded her find, then set it on the desk and stacked everything into a haphazard pile. Lifting her shirt up, she grabbed the Manual from her waistband and pulled it out, then shoved everything into it, closed it, and put the now thick lumpy manual back in her pants. That accomplished, she yanked open the drawers in the desk to spot anything that could have been missed when she spotted what may have been the last utensil used by the writer.

She snatched up the half-sized worn down pencil and shoved that, too, into her front pants pocket, then headed for the door.

The itch began to build up fast after the first step, again preventing her from taking the physical action to leave.

Dammit! What’s left?” She scanned the room and noticed the tiny rubber wheels on the floor. The only thing remaining, and seemingly abandoned from the robot’s strange transformation.

Scowling, she walked about the room and gathered them up in order to place them in her pants pockets as well, which left them bulging oddly away from her body. Huffing in exasperation, she attempted to readjust everything to look more natural, but it was a lost cause; finally she gave up and looked at the door and prepared to take another first step.

This has to be it.

The itch disappeared and the insistent pressure dropped off considerably as she approached.

This is it!

Her shoulders squared and her stride lengthened as she passed under the frame. The pressure was still lingering, but much less than it had been.

Now to get the doors closed.

The main door was heavier and more resistant to closing than the small opening she had crawled through, but she forced it flush in its frame. She then approached the air duct opening and shut it, before stepping back to give everything a once over.

Can’t see any light coming from the room at all.

Hopefully, Kaleen had never noticed the ductwork door being opened. She was not sure if she still intended to deny everything if questioned, but she wanted the option. With that done, all that remained was to get to the meeting.

Whenever midday is to Grounders.

There was still a hint of uneasy pressure sitting in her chest, but it was tolerable and she knew she was likely supposed to be there by now.

Should I try to explain this to Lexa?

Clarke recalled Lexa’s painful struggle and near inability to express herself under Compulsion, and shook her head. She could try to share what she had discovered, but now after experiencing the grip of Compulsion for herself, feared that it might not work.

Lexa is waiting for me.

The hungry anticipation to be in Lexa’s presence again suddenly spiraled out from the center of her body and coursed up through her chest, throat, and into her mouth, making it water; it also headed in the opposite direction to her stomach, down all the way to her core and she felt the rush as her blood flow increased. Everything important below her bellybutton throbbed in time with her fast beating pulse.

She panted, swallowed convulsively, and shuddered in guilty pleasure. Even after the completely unnerving event she had just experienced, the mere thought of Lexa’s body giving way to her threw her back into a now familiar state of crazy just like she had been experiencing since last night.

Not even a dissolving and reappearing robot could come close to touching the power that Lexa had over her right now.

She swallowed thickly in reaction to her confusing feelings, of neediness coupled with the want to take as she gathered her things to leave. Stopping briefly in the doorway to exit the bathing room, she squeezed her eyes shut, and fisted her hands while she forced herself to ignore the erotic hunger she felt for Lexa.

“Pace it.” she breathed out the words and repeated the action to calm down.

The greatly-reduced pressure still rested subtly in her chest even after she had achieved some semblance of functionality. She walked through the doorway and down the tunnel until she exited the underground complex and took three steps in the direction toward Lexa’s meeting before the pressure in her chest increased.

“Fuck!” She stopped walking and kicked a loose rock in front of her, watching it skitter down the path she could not take, then stomped her foot against the ground. Without a doubt in her mind, this was all the Commander's fault. “Fucking-FUCK, Lexa!”

She quickly glanced around to see if anyone had heard her outburst, scanning the entrance to another set of tunnels across the path from where she stood, seeing only dark still shadows.

Nobody.

She huffed out a sigh of frustration and pivoted in place, trying to decide what the hell the Compulsion wanted her to do this time. When she faced the side of the entrance to the tunnel, the pressure eased slightly. “Fine!” She scoffed and took a few exploratory steps in the less painful direction.

The pressure eased slightly again; a reward for complying. She grumbled under her breath at the unfairness of it all but stomped around the side of the building all the same and into the forest behind it.

After she had walked about fifty steps into the forest, she discovered there was no cleared areas left in front of her. She glanced back the way she had come to see that the forest had swallowed her completely from sight of the main causeway used by the people of TonDC.

She turned back and continued walking slowly around overgrowth until she came to a brief eye level break in the body high walls of greenery to pull up short and take it in what now lay before her.

Ahead was a circular mesh of overgrown trees that had intertwined as they had grown, the result effectively created a natural barrier of twisted trunks. Bushes blocked access to the mass of living wood at its base and vines wound from the ground all the way up and into the foliage of the low-hanging trees. It looked impenetrable from where she stood only a few feet away.

This?

She closed the distance between herself and the trees, negotiating the pathless vegetation slowly, and internally monitoring the sensations of pressure in her chest as she studied the living structure. Her eyes trailed over it and she pressed forward until she could reach out to touch a pointed leaf growing from an errant vine dangling and obscuring her view. She pushed it up and out of the way, and then did the same with several other branches until she had made a wide enough gap to step into the foliage itself. She crouched down upon seeing a break in the wall of intertwined trunks just large enough for a small person to squeeze through.

As she leaned forward to do just that, the pressure in her chest lessened considerably.

I’m supposed to climb through it.

That thought stood clearly in her mind as she wiggled gamely between the rough bark, ignoring the way it scraped her hands, until her entire body finally cleared the opening and she dropped down to the ground. She looked up to see the topside portion of the BIO ECHO II she saw in the manual earlier. This was its power source.

A cloudy dome of glass covered the circular concrete base, approximately twelve feet in diameter. She reached out a hand and touched it. Heat radiated under her fingertips from the sun’s energy beating down and collecting behind it. She stepped around the structure, dragging her fingers along its surface as she traversed the circumference. When the base extended outward at ground level with a piece of rusted metal fixed to it, she paused and knelt close to examine the deteriorated surface and her fingers grazed over a crack in the glass dome on the way down.

It was a dedication.

April 12th, 2036

From: The Worldwide Organization for Renewable & Self-Sustaining Energy (W.O.R.S.E.) and the A.I. Conglomeration

To: The People of Washington D.C.

The ridges on the smaller words composing the actual dedication below had rusted roughly and deteriorated enough that she could not make out any of it.

Glancing back up she noticed the acronym (W.O.R.S.E.) and snorted, then choked on a short bark of derisive laughter before it could escape her lips. “My ancestors were idiots.”

She shook her head and came back to the real reason she was here. All she had on her were the things she was wearing and the items she had brought out of the hidden room, the stuffed manual now resting against the small of her back and the uncomfortable rubber tires filling her pockets. She stood up and pulled the little tires out, holding them in her hands for a moment before placing them on the ground in front of the dedication. Afterward, she pulled the bulging manual from the back of her pants and started to set it down next to the tires, but the pressure in her chest suddenly increased.

“Keep the manual?” She whispered uncertainly.

Of course there was no reply. She sighed deeply before she went about placing it back into her pants, but the pressure in her chest only increased.

“WHAT?!” She shouted in furious frustration out into the overgrown enclosure.

Bird sounds she had paid no attention to, suddenly fell silent, and the uncomfortable pressure in her chest remained steady.

Fuming, she sat down cross-legged on the ground with a hard thump, and placed the manual onto her lap to open it up. The loose papers from the metal board began to slide out but she managed to snatch them up before they could fall. She lifted the top page and set it on the ground next to the tires.

The pressure eased by the smallest amount.

“Okay.” She muttered, believing that she had stumbled upon the method her Compulsion operated on now. The next paper made its way to lay on top of the first.

The pressure eased again slightly.

Eagerly, she lifted every loose page from the book and placed them upon the small but growing stack until all that remained was the manual in her lap, she began to move that, too, in order to place it upon the papers, but the pressure in her chest spiked.

She pulled it back to rest against her stomach. There was still a slight pressure and tightness under her ribs, but she rose to leave anyway, yet she only made it a few feet before the pain worsened and she was forced to stop. Shoulders slumped, she slunk back to the pile and sank bonelessly back down.

Sullenly, she whined. “What? You don’t want me to leave it, but you don’t want me to take it.” Huffing, she tossed the manual down at her side and scrubbed at her face with both hands. When she looked back down, the manual had fallen open and stiff middle pages were sticking straight up in the air.

A stiff breeze cut through the dense enclosure and whipped the pages back and forth until it finally fell flat to either side, revealing  the folded brainstorming sheet she had found behind the Retiring! paper earlier. She snatched it up in frustration and moved to place it on the pile, before a sudden niggling question stopped her.

Why?

Her hand gripped the crinkled paper as her arm hovered just above the stack. “Why was this one so important?” She drew it closer to her face and caught hold of the other side to keep the page straight in the breeze.

A rustle in the branches of the trees drew her gaze and she scanned the foliage sharply.

It was silent now, but for the sound of the wind pulling on branches and tugging on leaves inside the enclosure. She glanced back down at the paper in her hand before she slowly lowered it to rest upon the stack. Swiping up the now comparatively skinny manual, she rose to her feet and then shoved it back into her pants. Her eyes skimmed over the scene on the ground for a moment before she turned to go, when her gaze swept over the glass dome one last time.

The cloudy surface had darkened with an irregular line crawling from the base all the way up to an old pressure fracture in the glass.

Something was sifting out of it slowly.

She stepped closer.

Dark grey sand beaded up upon the outer surface of the dome and began to move in a controlled slide down the glass to the base.

She stepped back.

The line of granules met the base and poured steadily to the ground.

She stepped back again.

The beaded line of grey grew thicker and poured down the glass faster.

She stepped back even further and felt the prick of stiff branches press into her shoulder blades.

The grey line on the ground formed a converged opaque sheet, moving all together now, it swarmed over the documents and tucked under the little rubber tires, causing them to wobble.

Her pulse rate jumped.

Suddenly, the mass seemed to sink into the paper, lifting layers away and then shred it without losing a single fiber, until the entire stack completely disappeared; no trace whatsoever remained to even prove it had ever existed.

Her dry mouth hung open in disbelieving fear while she unconsciously pressed into the branches behind her.

The rubber tires suddenly wobbled toward the forest, away from TonDC, and the grey sand dispersed; some trailing to slip forward and help the tires move along, while the rest returned to the dome to crawl over itself and up the glass until it began to disappear back inside the way it had come out.

She spun around wildly and got a face full of branches as she frantically searched for the opening.

While it took less than a minute to find the entrance to the living enclosure and scramble back through it, it took a good deal longer to calm down again. She paced for several minutes before she could let go of her initial panic and try to think again; in the end, it was too much to process and she found that her feet were already carrying her toward the meeting.

She had to put yet another strange experience aside for now to keep her own sanity.

.

Right outside the closed meeting room door, she found her mother, Lexa, Ryder, and Fenton standing off in a tense silence.

“What’s going on?” She got within five feet of Lexa before she met her eyes and slowed down her approach. Her pulse hammered and the vibrations under her skin spiked as she locked on to Lexa’s steady gaze to feel it run straight through her. It seemed the short time apart had not desensitized the bond between them. Instead, their Thrums were interacting once again, but now as though they were recently-tuned instruments.

Now, she realized she had acted out of self-preservation earlier, unwittingly managing over an hour’s worth of time ignoring a deeper awareness to Lexa’s Thrum. Unfortunately, she had not had time to consider just how she ignored it.

Even compared to earlier that day when she had left with Ryder to train, the articulation of vibrancy along the connection felt far more acute than it had before. She thought it was almost as though both ends of the bond had missed one another and were trying to make up for lost time.

She felt a tug in her chest as Lexa’s Thrum began to pull away steadily. Clarke was not sure how Lexa managed to achieve it and did not trust herself right now to investigate the withdrawal.

As Lexa watched her coming closer, Clarke noticed the way she quickly scanned her up and down, one eyebrow twitching almost imperceptibly as she looked at Clarke before turning her attention back to her mother. “She is waiting for you to enter as the official War Chief of the Sky People with the Alliance.”

Her mother’s mouth thinned and her chin rose as she stared Lexa down for a long moment, before turning to face her with barely restrained sullen exasperation. “We’ve been waiting over an hour, Clarke.”

“Why didn’t you just go in?” She asked.

Her mother cast a quick glance at Lexa, and that hesitation was enough for Lexa to speak first. “Abby Griffin is not a War Chief, and has no say in this counsel without your presence.” Lexa met her questioning gaze with a defiant stare. Lexa’s Thrum buzzed steady but muffled.

Clarke quickly looked over at her mother to find her sporting the sour expression she had been familiar with as a child, and knew that would not do at all. Her mother appeared to be on the verge of erupting and make an attempt to chastise the Commander of twelve grounder clans.

She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. It was better by far to avoid an outright petty confrontation right before walking into a war counsel. She downplayed the situation with a half shrug of her shoulders. “I’m here now, we can go in.”