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(my) Destruction Within Your Mouth

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~*~

 

 

The other apprentices crowd against the locked door, ears pressed against its surface or the crack where it meets the jamb. Clarke keeps to her own space. She fingers the open stores of supplies -- seeds, dried leaves, bark shavings -- and breathes deep of their mixture of pungent scents, trying to calm the furious beat of her heart.

 

“Do you hear anything?” Versi asks the others in a whisper.

 

Clarke watches as they collectively hold their breath.

 

Hern finally straightens, shaking his head. Sanga steps away with a sigh. Only Versi remains in position as she gnaws on her bottom lip.

 

“Who do you think it was this time?” Hern asks as he takes a seat at the table in the center of the room.

 

Sanga snorts as he does the same. “We don’t know who it was the other times, do we? Not for sure.”

 

“The ambush on the road to the Lake people, that was (word),” Hern continues, using a term Clarke hasn’t been able to suss out the meaning of quite yet. She knows it’s not good, whatever it is, it’s almost always accompanied by a scowl or even a shiver of fear.

 

Sanga puts his elbows on the table and holds up a finger. “The poison in the beer we thought was from Blue Cliff,” adding another finger.

 

“We were lucky then,” Hern says, grim. “If one of the handmaidens wasn’t from that clan, and knew about the bad harvest...”

 

Sanga holds up a third finger. “The horde of (word) during the meeting at Tondisi.”

 

“No,” Hern says, frowning. “(word) are everywhere, especially that close to the mountain.”

 

“Have you ever heard of more than five or six in a pack?” Sanga demands. “It was dozens, and they all fell on the camp in the middle of the night?” He shakes his head. “It was the mountain. They wanted the Commander dead.”

 

... she does know that word, but it doesn’t make any sense in context. What do murderers have to do with Mount Weather? She bites down on the inside of her cheek in a surge of frustration.

 

“That spear that went astray at the training grounds,” Versi says, quietly. “Remember? It missed her by less than a hand’s width.”

 

The boys look at her in surprise. “That was an accident,” Sanga says.

 

“Was it?” Versi demands.

 

Herns face darkens, and he looks down at the tabletop. Slowly, Sanga puts up another finger.

 

“Four,” Versi says. She’s standing with her head leaning against the wooden door, still, although from her expression it’s more for support than anything else. “Four attempts to kill her in just this year.”

 

Clarke remembers a cat-footed intruder in the middle of the night and thinks: five.

 

The deadbolt shoots back with a thunk, and Versi stumbles further into the room. Just in time -- it swings open to reveal the robed man from earlier. He casts his eyes over them as a group before they alight on Clarke, and he steps forward.

 

“This one?” he asks the room at large. “This is the mute?”

 

“Not her,” Nyko says as he halts in the open doorway.

 

The robed man takes this as confirmation and reaches out, snagging Clarke’s upper arm before she can collect herself and avoid his grasp. He pulls her forward. She would fight back, slip out of his hold, except something about him frightens her -- a bleakness to his look, a low-simmering zealotry that makes her uneasy. She’s not even sure he sees her. Not as a person, anyway. Just a means to an all-important end.

 

“Titus,” Nyko barks. “I said --”

 

“I’ve chosen. Every moment you delay is a moment she suffers.”

 

“The others have more experience, more training --”

 

“You ask for assistance, and I will grant you the use of one apprentice.” The man -- Titus -- tightens his grip on Clarke. “But I choose the one who cannot speak of what she sees.”   

 

Nyko doesn’t nod so much as jerk his head, clearly impatient and unwilling to waste the time as he turns away. Titus drags her along and out the door into the main area. Clarke stumbles, but she doesn’t think he notices -- he wouldn’t notice if her legs gave out altogether.

 

She has one last glimpse of the other apprentices, wide-eyed -- she didn’t realize until just now how terrified they are -- until the door is slammed shut behind her.

 

 

 

~*~

 

 

“Each of you, grab legs and arms,” Nyko orders at the remaining warriors, back by the table where they’ve laid out the unconscious Commander. He strips out of his outer garment as he talks, leaving him in something sleeveless.

 

The warriors look at each other, uneasy.

 

Legs and arms,” Nyko snarls. “She will wake up once I begin to cut. I don’t want her doing damage to herself.” He grabs one of the bottles of boiled water stored above the sink -- no running water, but the drains work -- and starts to lather his hands and all the way up to the elbows. “You,” as Titus drags Clarke closer. “There’s sleep-flower in my coat. Get it.”

 

Clarke does so, discovering a ball of the stuff wrapped in a soft cloth. Nyko has lectured the apprentices about the use of it, but only for surgical patients, and those are kept in the other wing. It’s flower sap dried into a dark and sticky mass, and from what she can tell it works like an herbal anesthesia.

 

“A piece the size of this,” as he indicates the first joint of his thumb before going back to scrubbing. “Make her swallow it.”

 

Clarke stumbles for a second, knowing what that requires -- but then she clicks into the mindset she had to cultivate working under her mother, all those evenings and breaks from school. If you really want to do this, you should see what it takes, Abby had said, and Clarke had learned: the ability to shut off the part of your brain that saw the patient as someone who would feel pain, discomfort, even humiliation because of your decisions. To start thinking of them first and foremost as a collection of mysteries to be solved, though housed in tender skin.

 

She tears off a chunk of the sticky mass -- it takes some doing, and it gets under her fingernails -- before striding over to the raised table. Lexa is, the Commander is lying still on its surface, the accompanying warriors standing as Nyko asked with their hands on her limbs. All of them are watching as she breathes, frighteningly slow and shallow.

 

Clarke steps up to the corner closest to the Commander’s head. She’s pretty sure the tremor in her hands goes unnoticed as she reaches for Lexa’s -- the Commander’s --

 

Oh, float this. If she keeps thinking of a patient as a warmongering leader with a very intimate say in Clarke’s own life or death, nothing will get done.

 

Clarke has to thread her fingers through Lexa’s hair, stretching her fingers to anchor the other girl’s head. Lexa’s mouth falls open a little as Clarke turns her as needed. Clarke pushes the medication in with two fingers, trying to avoid snagging on the unconscious girl’s teeth or tongue, trying to ignore the damp heat of her mouth. Lexa’s breath stutters as she withdraws her fingers, but Clarke quickly cups her chin to close her lips. She strokes the other girl’s throat. Lexa’s eyelids flutter and Clarke’s heart jumps, but then the muscles move in a sluggish swallow.

 

“Did she take it?” Nyko asks, coming up behind her. Clarke checks Lexa’s mouth before nodding.

 

“Onto her stomach,” he says to the warriors, gesturing widely without letting his clean hands come into contact with anything. “Bring up the case,” he tells Clarke. She stoops to drag it out from where it’s kept on the shelf beneath the table. There’s room enough for Lexa and the case on the tabletop -- Clarke is very carefully not thinking of how small she looks without the aura of command she carries like a cloud, how exposed -- and the warriors shift her to accommodate. Clarke opens it at Nyko’s gesture, revealing row upon row of old but cared-for medical instruments; scalpels and pliers and tweezers gleaming dully in the low light. They’re basic, barely beyond what you’d find in a first aid kit on the Ark, but Clarke knows the precision of their make is beyond the ken of this particular society.

 

Nyko has her run to wash her own hands, his impatience almost causing her to lose the soap. When she returns he’s already had them cut open the back of Lexa’s shirt and pull her hair to the side. Her face is turned toward Clarke like this, cheek pressed into the wood of the table.

 

There’s some kind of design inked onto Lexa’s back to cover the length of her spine. Clarke would be paying a lot more attention to it, except instead she’s watching Nyko peel back a bandage lower down on her side, the slow reveal of --

 

A bullet wound.

 

Lexa’s been shot.

 

They’re alive, is her first thought, and hope swoops in her chest like the wings of a bird. The delinquents are alive, and they’ve used their guns to shoot the Commander.

 

Well, she wouldn’t put it past them.

 

“A-are you sure?” one of the warriors ventures, looking nervous at questioning Nyko. “It might be something else, perhaps in the food --”

 

“You said no one else was affected.” Nyko inspects the wound closely.

 

“But she was fine. She was fine all the way back, until we were almost at the city gates. Then she blacked out -- she almost fell off her horse.”

 

“Did you find the (word)?”

 

“Right away,” the warrior says, her coppery braids bouncing as she nods. “Heda killed him herself. She threw a dagger into his heart almost in the same moment we heard the gun.”

 

The word in their language is close enough for Clarke to know its meaning immediately. She stares down at the slack features of the girl in front of her and thinks, Which one of my friends did you kill? But then:

 

“You’re sure it was a Mountain Man?” Nyko asks.

 

Clarke’s head snaps up.

 

The warriors exchange looks. “Who else would use a gun?” one of them mutters.

 

“Did you see him for yourselves?” Nyko barks.

 

The first warrior, the one with the braids, nods again. “Yes. Yes, I’m sure it was one from the Mountain.”

 

Wait, what?

 

But Clarke doesn’t have time to work her way through it, because Nyko is holding out his hand and asking for one of the instruments in the case. He orders Clarke to go and get another bottle of sterilized water, as well as clean cloths, and she’s too busy running around the room to think about anything else. By the time she returns he’s reopening the wound, slow and precise with his ancient scalpel.

 

When the dark liquid first rises in a swell on Lexa’s pale back, Clarke thinks this is it, she’s dead, no one can a survive an infection that severe. Then Nyko presses deeper, the liquid spills down her side in a viscous line, and Clarke realizes she’s not looking at pus or intestinal leakage -- that’s blood.

 

Black blood.

 

Lexa moans, and Clarke shoves the overwhelming barrage of questions aside to step back up to the table. Lexa is twitching with every centimeter the blade travels now, and the warriors are having to lean into their assigned limbs.

 

“I thought the girl gave Heda the medicine,” one of them mutters, glaring at Clarke.

 

“Nightbloods,” Nyko says, not looking up from his work. “It helps their pain, but it doesn’t put them out. Heda insists on being special --” Lexa grunts and Nyko pauses, his gaze flickering to her face for a second before resuming “ -- in too many respects.”

 

Clarke matches the glare she’s still receiving. Nyko’s defense, even if it’s more about nuclear-mutated physiome (black blood, what the hell) than for her sake, makes her feel brave. So when Lexa twitches again, the muscles in her back shivering, Clarke reaches out to place a gentling hand on the warm skin between her shoulder blades.

 

Lexa’s eyes snap open and meet her own.

 

The next thing Clarke knows they’re struggling to keep her on the table and contain the thrash of limbs. They haven’t even taken off Lexa’s boots, and Clarke winces in sympathy as a kick clips one of the warriors on the chin.

 

“Heda,” Nyko says, “I need you to be still, I need -- Lexa.”

 

Lexa ignores him, gives another wrench of one shoulder to free that arm from restraining arms, and shoves at Clarke so hard she finds herself stumbling a good five paces across the room.

 

As soon as Clarke regains her balance she finds Lexa up on her elbows, a heated look in her eyes.

 

“Get her out of here,” she says. The words are so rough with pain it takes a moment for Clarke to understand what she said. Her eyes widen as she looks at Lexa with -- no, she doesn’t feel betrayed, that. That doesn’t make any sense.

 

“I need her,” Nyko says. “I can get rid of her if you want, but later. Right now --”

 

“No.” Lexa shakes her head, and the movement is uneven, like she’s struggling with the weight of her own skull. “Not me. Her.” She takes a deep breath, shoulders heaving. “She doesn’t want to be here.”

 

Clarke finally calms down enough to remember the opiate-based properties of herbal anesthetics, take in Lexa’s dilated pupils.

 

Oh, yeah. She’s stoned.

 

Nyko casts his eyes skyward for a moment with an expression of appalled disbelief that makes Clarke’s cheeks heat. “That was before, Heda,” he says patiently. “She’s fine now. She’s very happy to be here. Aren’t you,” he growls at Clarke.

 

This has got to be -- this is some kind of cosmic joke. Clarke meets Lexa’s waiting look, knowing her face is probably deep red. She nods.

 

Lexa frowns at her, suspicious.

 

“Please lie back down, Heda,” Nyko says.

 

She does so with bad grace, turning her face away from Clarke as she does. “She still cries too much,” Clarke hears her say, and feels her face get even redder.

 

“I warned you that might happen,” Nyko says as he resumes his work. He motions for Clarke to come back to the table’s edge, to clean away the blood that’s obscuring his view of the wound. “A new situation, a new city, these things can be difficult at first.”

 

“I didn’t cry that much when I was brought to Polis,” Lexa says. Her voice is muffled where she speaks into her folded arms. “And I was a child.”

 

“Not just any child,” Nyko says. His tone is equal parts placating and genuine feeling. “The nightblood destined to be chosen by the Spirit. Brace yourself,” he adds.

 

Clarke watches as he cuts even deeper into the flesh cauterized by the path of the bullet, searching for its source. Lexa hisses but doesn’t move away from his blade. Now that’s she’s more or less conscious she seems able to control her body’s reactions, even drugged. But Clarke knew that.  

 

When Nyko speaks, it’s gentler than anything Clarke has heard from him this far. “The Mountain Men grow bolder since you formed the (word).”

 

Lexa sighs. “True. But this has to do with the invaders somehow. The ones that burned the village. Too many coincidences, otherwise.” Her words are softly slurred around the edges.

 

“I defer to my Heda in these matters, as always,” Nyko murmurs. “Pull the skin apart for me,” he tells Clarke. “Gently.”

 

She does, wiping away the blood first so her fingers don’t slip. He exchanges his scalpel for a pair of straight blade forceps, reaching into the wound with intense focus. Whatever he’s doing makes Lexa suck in a hard breath.

 

“There,” he says finally. A second later he holds up his prize: a bullet with a hollow point, its tip leaking virulent yellow.

 

Clarke stares.

 

There was never any need for a bullet of that make on the Ark. There certainly weren’t any like that among the supplies on the dropship.

 

Someone else on the ground has guns.

 

 

~*~

 

 

Nyko finishes up quickly. He irrigates any lingering toxins from the wound and stitches it closed afterward. He only calls on Clarke for any task which absolutely requires more than one pair of hands, and sometimes waves her back as soon as that’s finished.

 

Clarke might wonder what this says about his suspicions, except she begins to wonder if it’s about her at all. He treats the warriors in much the same way as soon as Lexa is good to roll onto her back and sit up, almost physically herding them toward the door as he says they’re done, they can go to their own quarters. Clarke hangs back, watches as Lexa swings her legs over the edge of the table with her face set in a grimace. Her ripped shirt hangs from her shoulders. Clarke looks away.

 

“Stop that,” Nyko says as he comes back to her. “You’re staying here for the night.”

 

“I want my bed,” Lexa says. Her head tips all the way forward in exhaustion -- or maybe the drug -- until it’s resting on Nyko’s shoulder. “I want to go to bed.”

 

“Here,” Nyko repeats. “In case there are complications. I want you near whatever supplies are needed.”

 

Lexa pushes off the table to sway on her feet, and he places a careful arm around her shoulder for support. Nyko turns his head to face Clarke, his face darkening with a scowl. Clarke starts until she realizes he’s aiming it just past her.

 

“She’ll be fine,” he says, voice tight. “You can stop hovering like a vulture.”

 

Clarke turns to see the robed man -- Titus, she should remember his name -- seated just behind her in the shadows of the torchlight. Has he been there this whole time? He must have been -- silent and still, watching as they struggled to save Lexa’s life.

 

Titus rises to his feet. He’s a tall man, and his reserved bearing only adds to the impression of his looking down at them from a great height. “As your duty is to the flesh, mine is to the flame.”

 

Clarke sometimes wonders what the point of learning their language was, since these people so often refuse to make sense.

 

Not that she’d like this man if he did. She pulls herself from his path as he strides forward. He opens the door to the pharmacy room and ushers out the remaining apprentices.

 

Versi makes a sound Clarke swears is unintentional on seeing the table spattered with black blood. Nyko’s already taken Lexa somewhere, possibly behind one of the partitions. So Clarke deliberately catches Versi’s eyes and shakes her head. The other girl calms, though she reaches out to grip Sanga’s hand so hard Clarke can see his wince from across the room.

 

Hern is the last to walk out of the smaller room, and Clarke knows her uneasy feelings about Titus are valid from the the way Hern watches him like he’s a snake about to strike.

 

“All of you will go back to the dorms,” Titus says. “Tomorrow you will perform your duties as if nothing has happened. You will speak to no one of this.”

 

He takes a moment to look each of them in the face. “If I hear of rumors or gossip, I will know who is behind it. Understood?”

 

The other apprentices nod before shuffling toward the doors. Clarke goes to follow them until a heavy hand lands on her shoulder, and Titus holds her back.

 

“Not you,” he says.

 

“I told you Heda will survive,” Nyko calls over to them. “The secrets of your precious ritual are safe. You might let the girl get a night’s sleep.”

 

Lexa has an arm thrown over his shoulder as she wobbles over to one of the infirmary beds. She’s changed out of her torn clothing, Clarke notices, and her boots, into the lighter, looser clothes they keep for patients undergoing examination. She climbs onto one of the empty mattresses with abandon, seemingly unconcerned with Nyko and Titus’s bickering as she plops down onto her stomach. Maybe she’s used to it.  

 

“She stays,” Titus says. “In case she is needed.”

 

Nyko grumbles for a while longer while Titus is imperious and unbending in return. Clarke decides to follow Lexa’s example and ignore them.

 

The entire tower is littered with old furniture from Before, overstuffed chairs and chaise lounges patterned in what must have been rich fabric before almost a century of dust and mites did its work. She finds one of these by the window and drags it over close to the bed Lexa’s chosen, settling in. She doesn’t think she’ll sleep tonight. Her heart’s still pounding, and her head is whirling with all the things she’s seen and heard.

 

She sees Titus leave just as she’s getting comfortable. Nyko walks over to survey them both: Clarke in her chair, Lexa already passed out. He sighs.

 

“I’m sorry,” he says gruffly.

 

Clarke shrugs. She’s past caring about something like that.

 

“You aren’t tired?” He watches her closely as she shakes her head. “You can take the first watch, then. We’ll move her at dawn. Wake me if there’s any redness or swelling at the wound site, if she vomits, if she --”

 

He lists symptoms for the next five minutes, and Clarke nods along with them. When he finishes he settles into the nearest bed himself, still clothed. He’s snoring, soft and low, within moments.

 

Clarke switches her gaze back to the Commander.

 

Her face is turned toward Clarke where it lays on the pillow. Her breathing’s better: deeper, easier. The tension’s gone from her face as well, leaving her with the kind of smooth, even features Clarke remembers from pictures of classic paintings.

 

I could still kill her, Clarke thinks.

 

An entire infirmary and pharmacy at her disposal -- she could mix up something lethal with what she has at hand, she knows enough now about their herbs to cook up a lethal interaction. It’d be easy. It’d be even easier getting it into the Commander while she’s in this state. She’s maybe as weak and as helpless as Clarke will ever see her. If Clarke forces something on her now, she’d only be at half strength. Maybe less.

 

Clarke would be killed, of course. Her breaths would be numbered as soon as the Commander drew her last. But it might be worth it. To take out the one person really responsible for the deaths of one hundred others. Would it be worth it?

 

For Wells, and Finn. For everyone she’s lost.

 

“The ones that burned the village.”

 

Clarke heard about that before, back in the orchards. She’d chosen not to listen, let it get swept aside in the tide of her grief. Was it true?

 

She can imagine it. She can picture the uncaring chaos at the dropship as if she left it just yesterday -- the disregard for anything resembling coordination or teamwork. Bellamy’s thug tactics. Their fear, hunger, desperation. She can see something going terribly wrong in the middle of that, especially if they had no idea (and she hadn't, not until she was days down the river in the wrong direction) there were other people in the surrounding woods.

 

Clarke’s eyes sting. She presses a hand over them. She washed up, but blood’s hard to get out completely -- there’s still some traces under her nails, and the familiar scent of it clings to the skin.

 

Black blood.

 

And a bullet that wasn’t made on board the Ark. The certainty of people already inside the mountain.

 

The tears spill over and down her fingers. We were so unprepared, she thinks. We didn’t know enough, we didn’t know anything.

 

They’d wandered right into the middle of a tornado -- no, they’d been dropped into the eye of one by the Council, and left to weather its passing.

 

Do you blame the storm for what happened next?

 

“You’re crying again.”

 

Clarke nearly jerks out of her skin in surprise. When she takes her hand away there’s Lexa, staring up at her from the bed.

 

“If you don’t stop that,” she says, “I’m taking you back.”

 

She’s not slurring her words anymore, but she speaks with the deliberate precision of someone who knows their faculties are compromised but can’t quite get them back under control.

 

Lexa shifts a little, rocking on her stomach until she works her hands under her pillow. Clarke watches, fascinated, as she almost nuzzles it -- probably getting an extra load of sensory feedback due to the opiates. Probably.

 

“Maybe I should take you back,” she mumbles into her pillow. “Trade you for a different wood witch. One who doesn’t cry so much.”

 

Clarke rolls her eyes. She wipes at her face, pressing her palm into the skin as if she could rub away the memories along with the tears they inspire. When she’s finished she holds both hands up to indicate her tearless face: There. Happy?

 

“Mmm,” Lexa hums. She’s struggling to keep her eyes open. “Maybe I could find a prettier one, too.”

 

Clarke gapes at her.

 

Then she finds herself laughing helplessly, soundlessly. She probably has something like emotional whiplash, she just -- it’s a relief, despite her ongoing grief and the gnawing sense of loss, to understand it doesn’t cancel out the silly, smaller irritations, like a doped-up warlord who doesn’t like her attitude. To have a chance at a life where these are her problems. She’s smiling when she looks back at Lexa.

 

Lexa is watching with her own smile. Something small, and secret, and yet so sweet Clarke’s breath catches.

 

“Maybe not,” she says softly.

 


Then she lets her eyes fall shut, taking one last deep breath and sighing out before falling back into sleep.