Clarke’s arms have never been so sore in her life. Her back muscles, too, ache like never before—even worse than during those early days, when her body was still adjusting to the physical demands of life on Earth, and to sleeping on the ground. Fortunately, one perk of being Wanheda and the Sky People's ambassador at once--and sharing Lexa's quarters more nights than not--is that she can get a soothing bath drawn for her almost anytime.
She sinks deeper into the cool, herb-scented water with a thankful groan and closes her eyes. “Remind me why I’m trying to learn archery again?”
“Because you are bad at throwing knives and too slow at sprinting.” Lexa sounds amused from where she’s sitting outside the tub, skillfully undoing Clarke’s braids.
“Flatterer,” retorts Clarke. She flicks a droplet of water over her shoulder without looking.
“It will be good to show the other clans that your people are participating in the summer games. And to show them the skills of Wanheda,” Lexa reminds her more earnestly.
“What skills? I can barely hit the target,” Clarke mutters.
“You are learning quickly. Your body must build muscle and remember the movements, but you have a good eye.” Lexa finishes unbraiding and runs gentle fingers through blonde waves, massages Clarke’s scalp. Clarke makes a noise in her throat and tips her head backward into the motion. She almost protests when it stops, but Lexa is only standing and shucking off her remaining clothes to join her in the tub.
She scoots forward so Lexa can step in behind her and then settles back against her body, the mix of hard muscles and gentle curves that Clarke knows so well.
“I don’t mind the learning part so much. It’s just so hot outside,” Clarke complains. “Is it always like this in the summer?”
“Yes,” and she hears that amused tone again. “And it will get even hotter in another month’s time.”
“Ugh. You know, some of us didn’t grow up with things like seasons or weather. Or jusdreinas.” She has come to loathe mosquitoes and the itchy red welts they leave on her skin, and the fact that they seem to completely ignore the Commander, of course.
“You are adjusting very well, Skai prisa. And by the time the games start, I promise you won’t be so sore,” Lexa adds, voice warm with a quiet pride. “In the meantime, I know a good way to relax your muscles…” Her hands sink lower in the water, gliding over supple skin, and Clarke arches back against her with an entirely different kind of heat rising within.
Almost two months later, it is indeed hotter. The air feels heavy, weighed down with thick humidity that makes Clarke’s hair frizz. Sweat prickles at the small of her back, under her leather and metal armguards. Stormclouds are building in the west, promising late afternoon showers and hopefully a bit of relief from the baking heat.
“Ogud.” Clarke obeys the command, pulling an arrow from her quiver and smoothly nocking it in readiness.
“Lok.” She draws the bow, remembering to use her core, keep her arms taut and steady, and aim carefully.
“Trig.” She breathes out, and releases the arrow.
Not a bulls-eye, but it’s close. The arrow’s tip is sunk deep just outside the central ring painted on the hay-stuffed target.
“Keep your breathing steady. Nodataim.”
She obeys, readying another arrow. Her arms are tired but not yet wobbly, muscles strengthened by daily practice in the past several weeks.
Several more arrows sink into the target in succession, the last two actually hitting bulls-eye dead center. Clarke pauses and grins with triumph, wiping sweat from brow.
Indra is less impressed. “Nodataim,” the gruff warrior orders.
She sighs and draws another arrow.
“You have much improved, Clarke kom Skaikru,” says a voice behind her.
A reply is on Clarke’s lips, but it’s forgotten the moment she glances over at the speaker. Lexa has clearly come from her own swordfighting practice: she has stripped down to a sleeveless grey tunic that clings to her with sweat, showing her glistening shoulders and tattoos. A hint of a sultry smile plays around her lips, deepens when she catches Clarke staring at her.
“Are you all right, Clarke? Is the heat affecting you?” Her tone teases, full of fake concern.
Ignoring her, Clarke draws, takes aim, and fires. Another bulls-eye. Triumphant, she glances back at Lexa--only to catch the commander staring at her own sweat-slicked back and shoulders, mouth slightly open.
“Are you all right, Heda? Is the heat affecting you ?” she says with a smirk. She’s enjoying the fact that Lexa seems to appreciate the muscle she’s been putting on lately.
“Mockery is the product of a weak mind,” Lexa tells Clarke with her own smirk, before turning. “I must go bathe and change before the feast. I will see you in a little while, niron .”
Clarke blatantly watches her saunter away, shivers despite the baking heat.
Indra rolls her eyes and mutters something in Trigedasleng that sounds like “useless” and “thirsty”.
She tries—without much success—to focus again, and after a few more shots that are much less accurate, Indra finally gives up. “Stretch your muscles well,” she orders. “And get plenty of sleep and water tonight. Your practice will be useless in the games if you’re too sore.”
Clarke obeys, stripping off her arm guards and taking her time to stretch. The archery range is in a small clearing, surrounded by trees and brush, but a light breeze carries from the silver flash of the river she can see a quarter-mile away. The river gives its name to the Louwoda Klironkru, the clan that had the honor of hosting the summer games this year. Down by the river there is a wider cleared space, a meadow that floods sometimes in the spring but is dry by summer’s end, where members of that clan are setting up tables and benches for the feast.
It will officially kick off the games. And the thought of that makes her suddenly a bit nervous.
Really, nobody’s expecting her to win the archery contest. The Skaikru have obviously never competed before, and besides, they didn’t exactly get to learn skills like horseriding and archery while living on a space station. But if she does too badly, it’ll make her people look weak, especially given that their standing in the coalition is still a little tenuous...Worse yet, it might make Lexa look weak, in aligning herself with Clarke.
So, no pressure or anything.
Even though the thoughts of a cool bath with Lexa tantalize her, Clarke spends an extra ten minutes stretching, just to be sure.
After the speeches and toasts are made by both Lexa and the leader of the Louwoda Klironkru, drums start playing to begin a short procession. A representative of each clan, a competitor in one of the games, carries a banner with their clan’s symbol and lodges it in a line along the riverbank. Raven carries the Sky People’s banner; she’s competing in the knife-throwing contest, which it turns out she’s scarily good at. (Octavia is participating in the unarmed combat competition and in the horse race.) While all the other competitors are dignified and solemn-faced under their clan warpaint, Raven grins and winks at Clarke as she passes her table. She has painted a thick, black, horizontal stripe under each eye, like those worn by the football players in the old recordings they used to watch on the Ark.
After all the pomp and ceremony comes the feast--possibly Clarke’s favorite part of any Grounder celebration. She usually tries to sample everything she can, all the new flavors she’d never dreamed of on the Ark. Knowing this, Lexa hands her a skewer of something small and roasted.
“Tri-hola. A local delicacy,” she calls it, before crunching away on her own skewer.
Clarke stares at it. It’s...a bug. Roasted, but obviously an insect, not much larger than her thumb. “...‘Tree-screamer’?” she translates. “Why’s it called that?”
Lexa looks at her like the answer is obvious. “They make noise in the trees in summertime. Like the ones you can hear right now, until the sun goes down.”
“Wait, that’s an insect making that noise? Something this small?” Clarke is stunned, glancing around at the nearest trees. Of course she’s heard the noise, it’s been nearly inescapable all summer. Almost reminiscent of the electrical buzzing of malfunctioning lighting on the Ark, but much louder.
“Yes.” Lexa gives her that familiar look of curiosity and amusement. “What did you think made the noise?”
“I dunno, I assumed it was some kind of bird or squirrel?”
Lexa laughs, surprised and loud enough that nearly everyone notices. It’s rare to see the Commander show her amusement like that.
Fortunately nobody takes offense that Clarke opts out of eating the tri-hola. She’s also wary of another bug-looking food brought by Floudonkru and boiled with a special mix of spices and herbs--“crab” is the old gonasleng name for them, Lexa says. In any case, there’s plenty of other delicious food: all kinds of wild berries, roasted sweet corn and summer squash, perfectly ripe tomatoes that burst on her tongue like a mouthful of tangy sunshine, and more sauce-slathered babaku. (Apparently there’s a rivalry between some of the local villages about which one makes the best sauce.)
She asks Lexa about where all this food comes from, partly out of curiosity and partly from political instinct. It could come in handy later in trade negotiations.
“The valley of the Louwoda has rich soil for its fields and orchards,” Lexa explains. “You can’t see them all, they’re built into the forests in meadows here and there, or along the riverbanks. The people are primarily farmers, not warriors. In the past, they only fought when other clans tried to take what they produce instead of trading fairly.”
“That makes sense.” Clarke has learned a little about the clans’ various trade specialties: Trikru is known for lumber, leather goods, and alcohol; Azgeda for metalwork and furs; Floudonkru for fish and a very pungent sort of fertilizer made from the inedible parts of fish.
“Which means the Louwoda fighter will probably lose in the hand to hand combat matches tomorrow,” Indra chimes in from a couple seats away.
Next to her, Octavia asks, “What about the other contests? Who’s favored to win them?”
“Ingranrona will likely win the horserace, as they usually do. Ouskejonkru and Yuljeda have particularly strong swordfighters this year,” Indra observes, then adds with a bit of pride, “Trikru, we usually win the unarmed combat and kechaflag.”
“But for the others, the knife throw and sprinting, anyone could win this year,” Lexa says. She glances towards Clarke, a considering look on her face. “You are currently among the top favored in archery, Clarke.”
Clarke swallows her mouthful of berries hard, almost coughs. “What?! Me? But I’m--” she looks at Indra, “you said just last week I’m no better than a Trikru child--”
“Trikru children learn the bow very early. Some are quite skilled,” Indra says dryly.
“Hey I’ve got a bet on you winning, Clarke, so don’t fuck it up,” Raven calls out as she comes over and squeezes onto the bench next to Octavia. “Murphy’s running a betting pool.”
Kechaflag, as it turns out, is where participants have to climb a tall, heavily-greased wooden pole stuck into the ground and grab their kru’s banner from the top. The one who manages to do it fastest wins. It’s an undignified and wild competition, where competitors often slip down the pole and tumble on their asses. It’s the second competition of the day, after sprinting races, and watching it makes Clarke laugh so hard she nearly cries.
“Okay, I get why the other competitions are valuable outside of these games,” she says to Lincoln, as they both watch another contestant slide two feet down their pole. “Archery, fighting, knife-throwing, they’re all training for your warriors. But why this?”
Lincoln chuckles a little as the Trikru competitor--currently in the lead--attempts fruitlessly to push upward, her greased feet slipping and flailing against the pole. “It’s fun,” he tells Clarke, with a rare, wide smile. “It is a tradition from a part of Azgeda, and a test of strength and persistence. But mostly it’s just to make people laugh. Everyone needs that, sometimes.”
Lexa is farther away, watching with the natblidas, but even from afar Clarke can see the light in her eyes and hear the musical laugh that escapes her sometimes. She looks younger, softer, freer of the burdens of her role when she’s around the nightbloods. Clarke watches now as she leans down to listen to one of the littlest ones, then picks him up so he can get a better view.
A wave of fondness and warmth and joy rushes through Clarke, and she makes a sudden decision. “Hey, Lincoln, I wanted to ask you about something, um, cultural…”
The unarmed combat competition starts well before sundown, when the heat is still oppressive. Clarke is sweating buckets as she watches Lexa stretch and limber up outside the fighting ring. She fights the urge to pace.
“It’s so damn hot, these matches should be postponed,” she growls. “You’ll all get dehydrated.”
Lexa just continues to stretch, cool and unperturbed. Clarke is too amped up to even appreciate the fact that she’s fighting in very little clothing, only tight leggings and something like a vest, because she’s also wearing basically no protective gear.
“Do you know why these games take place in the summer, Clarke?”
“Because suffering builds character?” the blonde snarks.
“Summer used to be the season when clans’ gonas would raid each other,” Lexa begins, in her patient Heda-teaching-the-natblidas voice. “They would fight instead of tending crops or preserving food for winter. They would burn each others’ villages instead of strengthening their houses and stables. After the coalition was formed--”
“After you created it,” Clarke corrects her.
Lexa rolls her eyes but smiles. “--this was no longer the season for war. Instead, I wished to replace it with something allowing each clan to show their strength without bloodshed.”
Clarke raises an eyebrow, looking pointedly at the bloody lip Lexa had earned during her last round in the ring, still oozing black.
“Without much bloodshed,” Lexa amends.
“And whichever clan hosts it gets to show off their wealth and hospitality, plus they benefit from more trade from all the competitors and spectators,” Clarke observes, though she’s aware this is a blatant attempt to distract her from her worries. “That’s why you rotate the location every year, right?”
“Indeed. This is only the fifth year, but already some of your fellow ambassadors are arguing about who will host the games next summer.”
“It’s smart,” Clarke says. “It reinforces the value of the coalition and brings people together.”
“And it shows that their Commander can defeat the best warrior of all the clans.” Lexa smiles wryly. “Some clans, like Azgeda, need that reminder more often than others.”
“What if you lose?”
Lexa gives her a Look. “You should know by now, Clarke. I do not lose.”
As the drums sound to announce the next bout, Lexa finishes stretching and stands tall, putting on the persona of the Commander once more. A slow chant starts up from the crowd. “He-da, he-da, he-da…”
Clarke has to swallow her fears and manage to get out a tight “Good luck,” earning a stoic nod in return. And then she watches the girl she loves stride towards yet another fight.
Of course, the thing she forgets about Lexa right up until she’s fighting is that...she’s badass. She may be slender and shorter than most of her opponents, and so soft-spoken around Clarke and the natblidas...but in a fight she’s ferocious, fearless, skillful, even a little bloodthirsty.
Lexa wins the fight, and then the next, final round, against the leader of the Azgeda clan, and earns wild applause from her people. She bows her head to receive the metal disc on a leather loop, as it’s placed around her neck. When she looks up and finds Clarke’s eyes, a wild sort of pride glows in her gaze.
(And later, when they come together in the blessed nighttime coolness of their tent, she kisses Clarke with the same ferocity she showed in the ring. Maybe there’s an upside to fighting after all...)
The next day dawns slightly cooler after overnight rain, and Clarke is grateful as she nears the archery range with Indra, who gives her some last-minute advice.
“Remember to control your breathing. There is not much wind, but a little crossbreeze from your left side.”
“Got it.” Clarke focuses on the target, chews her lip.
“You will do well,” Indra says, with a certain grudging respect in her voice. “Turns out you have a natural talent for this, sky girl.”
“Wait, really?” Clarke stares at her.
The general almost smiles. She leans briefly towards Clarke. “You learned much faster than the Commander did. She is still much better with the sword than the bow. But you did not hear that from me.”
Clarke smiles, and feels a little more confident. As she strings her bow, she ignores the awed and sometimes frightened whispers of “Wanheda” from amongst the spectators of various clans. While the gruesome title still makes her stomach twist sometimes, she doesn’t mind it as much today if it means some of her competitors will be intimidated.
She also has to ignore the fact that the Commander is watching from the sidelines as well, looking composed and regal as ever, even though more than a few spectators know by now that that she’s watching her niron compete. They don’t exactly hold hands or anything in public, but...all of the visitors are staying in tents right now. It’d be pretty hard to hide where they’ve both been sleeping. The gossip about Heda and the Skaikru ambassador flies as fast as the mosquitoes.
So, yeah, no pressure.
Clarke lets out a slow breath and adjusts her arm braces.
There are three rounds, first starting with all the clans’ competitors, then the best six, then the best three, shooting twelve arrows each time. The Louwoda ambassador calls out the instructions to start and then:
"Ogud." She nocks the arrow.
"Lok." Draws and aims the bow.
"Trig!" She fires.
Clarke’s first arrow goes a little wide, though still within the target rings. She frowns, adjusts her stance, and wipes her hands on her shirt.
Your heart shows no sign of weakness. Lexa’s words from what feels like ages ago pop into her head. Together they’d narrowly escaped being mauled by a giant gorilla creature, right after she’d narrowly escaped being assassinated, not long before they narrowly escaped a deadly missile strike. She’s more than strong enough for this. Hell, she’s Wanheda.
Nine of her arrows hit bulls-eye that round. Ten the next. And in the final round, her arms aren’t even tired as she shoots arrow after arrow, landing all twelve in the center of the target.
As she lowers her bow at last, Clarke’s focus breaks and she realizes there’s a loud cheer coming from the crowd.
“Skai-kru! Skai-kru! Skai-kru!”
She’s a little stunned. Not only has she won the competition, but also some respect towards her people, her clan. And it’s for something that isn’t burning or killing.
As she spies a certain small, private, yet proud smile on the sidelines, she understands why Lexa really wanted her to participate in the games...and the depth of Lexa’s faith in her abilities.
Titus is the one who has to award the first-place medallion to Clarke, though he’s clearly not happy about it; she just smiles smugly at him as he places it around her neck. The crowd cheers again, for her and the other two medal-winners, some of them waving versions of their clan banners, but Clarke only has eyes for the Commander. For the girl whose love grows deeper with each passing season.
Half an hour later, she escapes the congratulating and commentary and makes her way towards the river. Somehow she knew she’d find Lexa here on the shore.
Lexa turns towards her, her expression warm and fond especially without the warpaint. “Hey. Congratulations, ai niron.”
“Thanks.” Clarke steps closer to her--closer than any other ambassador would dare, than nearly anyone would dare--and stops only a foot away. Without a word, she lifts the medal from around her own neck and carefully, gently, raises it forward over Lexa’s head. There’s a hint of a pause as she stares a question into those green eyes, a moment in which neither of them breathes or blinks. Then Lexa inclines her head just a couple of degrees, allowing Clarke to lower the leather-strung medal and settle it against her collarbone.
Clarke then shifts her hands up again, to cup Lexa’s face, and leans in even closer. But instead of their lips touching, their foreheads meet gently instead.
She hears Lexa’s breath catch. Strong hands come up and cradle hers.
“Grounders don’t just say they love someone, if it’s serious.” Lincoln had told her when she’d asked. “They give their niron something of personal significance and then touch their heads together.” He’d had to explain that last part, the forehead thing, and how powerful it was. Clarke hadn’t truly understood until now, when she can feel Lexa’s breath on her lips and the warmth of her skin against Clarke’s forehead. It feels incredibly intimate and vulnerable and pure.
“Ai hod yu in,” she tells Lexa. Her voice doesn’t shake or falter.
“I love you, too,” Lexa replies. Neither does hers.