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(my) Destruction Within Your Mouth

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~*~

 

Pike’s escape casts a pall over the tower. Clarke is shocked -- it seemed, well, not a small thing while she was doing it, but something that would fall between the cracks and be forgotten. Instead it’s the drop of iodine slipped into a litre of water: overnight the hustle and bustle, the constant comings and goings, are reduced to a quiet and eerie stillness.

 

She doesn’t understand it. It’s just one prisoner. It wasn’t that important, was it? Surely people must have escaped the tower before. Surely, whatever they planned to do with Pike, there must be a fallback.

 

Surely.

 

Clarke’s uneasy, though. She sees Nyko’s dark expression whenever he visits for lessons, she hears echoes of Titus’s shouting as she moves through the halls, and she can’t help but notice the number of guards in the tower has doubled.

 

Pike’s release had been necessary. Farm Station was in danger, and the rest of the Ark needed to know that -- and know they weren’t alone on the ground. She needed Pike to join Alpha Station. It had been the right thing to do, breaking him out.

 

It wasn’t a mistake.

 

It wasn’t.

 

But it might be guilt that spurs her to work even harder at her daily lessons, to sit straighter when listening to her tutors and ask Sharla for more words. (Recall is harder than recognition -- she can understand so much of other clans’ dialects when spoken, now, but remembering the sign for a word, even if she learned it yesterday, can take her minutes at a time.) She even makes more of an effort with Storm, finding time in the early mornings to go down to the mare’s stall and take a few turns around their paddock. She can ride more or less unsupervised as long as she keeps to a gentle canter. There’s always a senior assistant in earshot, though, and one approaches her now as she dismounts.

 

“You’re doing well,” he says. “Heda will be impressed by your progress when she comes home.”

 

It’s the stupidest thing to make her feel embarrassed, but it does. She can feel her face heat when she places a finger across her lips, hoping her message comes across.

 

He stares at her for a beat before nodding. “You want to keep it a secret?” He grins. “A surprise.”

 

... so stupid. It’s not like -- it’s not even -- what is Lexa going to care, anyway? She could probably ride a horse at full gallop when Clarke was playing with brightly-colored blocks. She’s not going to be impressed by the fact Clarke can now stay in the saddle for more than thirty minutes, or avoid falling flat on her face when she climbs down.

 

Still, Clarke's face grows even hotter, and she nods. She’s not trying to hide anything, she just wants to get a little better before showing Lexa. Just enough to make it worth it. Maybe make Lexa smile, even though she rarely does.

 

The stablehand nods back, then points his chin over to the main area. “Might want to scamper up the tower, then.”

 

Clarke frowns, straining to see. What is he talking abou--

 

Lexa.

 

Lexa’s back.  

 

Clarke abandons Storm, knowing she’s supposed to walk the mare back and clean the tack herself but not giving a damn, because there is Lexa: dismounting from her own horse, her face in studied lines of care. She’s talking to someone -- not Gustus, Clarke doesn’t see him among the small contingent of warriors that must represent only a fifth of the force Lexa took with her -- and doesn’t see Clarke approach.

 

“-- should be here within two days, three at the most. She’ll probably exhaust their horses, so pick out half a dozen to switch -- oof,” as Clarke comes up behind to grab her in a hug.

 

The stable master's face twitches, but he manages to maintain his composition. “Yes, Heda. I’ll do that.”

 

“Thank you,” Lexa says, faint. She turns her head so that her chin is almost touching her shoulder. “You couldn’t wait one minute more?” But her expression is soft.

 

It seizes for a brief second as she turns in Clarke’s embrace, and Clarke might be embarrassing herself, but she also has eyes. And a brain. She takes a quick summary of the situation: Lexa, but none of her most trusted warriors, back days earlier than expected, and she was too slow getting down from her horse.

 

Clarke reaches up to grab fistfuls of the fur lining the collar of Lexa’s cloak and drag the other girl’s face close to hers, raising both eyebrows as high as they’ll go: Where?

 

“It’s nothing, it’s only that Anya is more than capable --” Except she shifts as she talks, clearly favoring her right side. Clarke pushes the heavy fabric of her cloak away and reaches, finding the telltale bulk of bandages beneath her fingers.

 

Clarke is so furious she manages to drag Lexa by her collar those first few steps, but then the other girl digs in her heels. “Stop, stop,” she cajoles, looking an odd mixture of irritated and guilty. She shakes her head. “I have too much else to do first. In an hour or two, then you can take a look for yourself. It will hold until then; my warriors are not incompetent with field dressings.”

 

Clarke wouldn’t dare to presume otherwise. She sets her jaw and looks off to the side, thinking of a promise that was made only a few days prior.

 

“I was careful,” Lexa protests. After a moment, she sighs. “Fine.” She reaches to take Clarke’s hand in hers, intertwining their fingers. “Lead the way.”

 

She lets Clarke pull her along and into the elevator. As it begins its lumbering ascent, she says: “There’s no need to involve Nyko, though. Is there.”

 

Clarke doesn’t look at her.

 

“Is there?” Lexa asks, finally sounding (to Clarke’s mind) properly penitent.

 

Clarke lifts her chin, and Lexa gives a sad little sigh.

 

~*~

 

“Why bother?” Nyko demands, when Clarke shows him Lexa’s side. “Let her bleed out. Usher in the next generation, and a nightblood with a sense of self-preservation.”

 

Versi, who wanders over as they walk in, is the one who helps Clarke wrestle Lexa into one of the beds and divest her of her cloak and boots. Lexa finally protests, a little red in her cheeks, when they go for the edge of her shirt. She tucks it up herself so that the bandages are exposed and Versi and Clarke undo the wrappings. The cut beneath it is shallow but long, wrapping almost all the way around the bottom and side of Lexa’s ribcage, as if someone was trying to angle a blade in and under.

 

It wasn’t cleaned as well as it could have been, and Clarke tells herself Lexa deserves the pain as she sets to carefully washing away the crust of blood that’s already formed. Versi stands by her elbow ready to assist or dispose of bloodied swabs.

 

“I take it negotiations didn’t go well,” Nyko says, as he deigns to come over and supervise.

 

“They didn’t happen at all.” Lexa is lying on her back, trying to control her reactions as Clarke works. “Not with me. After the attacker was killed, Anya offered to take my place. They’re probably finishing as we speak.”

 

“Offered?”

 

Lexa huffs out what might be a laugh. “I don’t know why I let her get away with it.”

 

“A Second’s loyalty dies a hard death.”

 

“Mmm.” Lexa’s eyes flutter shut. “She’ll arrive soon enough with her report. It will be good to have her in Polis.”

 

Nyko grabs the back of a chair and drags it across the floor, sitting up near Lexa’s head while Clarke and Versi work.  

 

“Titus sent a messenger,” Clarke hears Lexa say to him, low and close. “We met her on the way back. It’s true?”

 

“I don’t know what message Titus sent.”

 

“So give me your version of the story.”

 

Nyko pauses. “Two warriors brought in a man,” he finally says, “badly injured. He spoke the language of the Mountain, and his clothes and manner was like theirs: no tattoos or other clan markings. But he walked in the sun and did not burn.”

 

Lexa keeps her eyes closed. “He escaped.”

 

“Yes He overpowered two young warriors, bare-handed. They’ve been questioned. They admit they were lax in their duty, and assumed his injuries were much worse.”

 

Lexa jumps inside her skin, hissing, when Clarke starts her stitches. “Sorry,” she murmurs, and then opens her eyes as she turns to look at Nyko. “And then?”

 

“Heda. He should have been stopped before he reached the city gates. At the very least, at the gates themselves.”

 

“But he wasn’t.”

 

Nyko bunches his hands into fists. Clarke notices how the tendons strain in his arms, the tension bulking up his shoulders and back. She forgets, sometimes, that Nyko is a warrior as much as a healer. “No,” he grits out.

 

Lexa leverages herself up onto her elbows. “Titus said when he was questioned at the gates, the Mountain Man spoke our language. Well enough to get past them.”

 

“That is what we have learned, Heda.”

 

“Titus also surmised,” she says, watching him closely, “that if he could speak our language before, he would have done so. He would have used it to escape detection before ever being captured.”

 

“That is my guess.”

 

“So.” Lexa lets her head fall back, looking up at the ceiling. “That leaves us all with one conclusion.”

 

“Yes, Heda.”

 

And then Lexa gives grim voice to the fear that has permeated the very air for last few days, the one Clarke didn’t fully understand until now: “There is a traitor in the tower.”

 

~*~

 

 

“Thank you,” Lexa says as Clarke finishes re-bandaging her ribs.

 

Clarke gives her a brief smile, curls her fingers into her palms so that Lexa can’t see how they’re shaking. Or how shaken she feels, having overheard Nyko and Lexa’s conversation.

 

She did the right thing. It will work out, in the end.

 

“Oh, we’re not finished,” Versi says, standing over Clarke’s shoulder. Clarke looks up at her in confusion.

 

“We’re not?” Lexa asks, clearly feeling the same.

 

“Has it really been so long?” Versi’s smile is falsely bright. “Whenever I have to patch you up, you have to drink the tea.”

 

Lexa -- Clarke marvels -- flinches. “No.”

 

Versi’s smile only grows. “Yes.”

 

... okay, Clarke has no idea what’s going on, but judging from the dread on Lexa’s face, she likes it.

 

“Versi.” Lexa licks her lips, wary. “You know I don’t -- I haven’t had to since --”

 

“Yes, when was the last time?” Versi taps her chin in a studied performance of thought. “Oh, right. Three years ago. You didn’t take a healer then, either.”

 

Lexa blanches.

 

Perfect, Clarke thinks. Here is the only possible weapon to wield against someone like the Commander -- something she doesn’t like, but knows is good for her, and so she won’t be caught acting like a child in refusing -- and Versi had it in her pocket all along. Bless her for sharing.

 

But when Versi goes to check their stores of dried herbs and supplies, her face falls. “Hmm. We seem to be out.”

 

Lexa climbs to her feet with a speed that belies the fact she has over a dozen stitches in her side. “Well, I don’t have time to wait for you to collect more,” she says, hurried. “So I will -- be going.”

 

She doesn’t even limp as she strides away, Clarke thinks, which you kind of have to admire.

 

“We’ll bring you fresh tomorrow morning!” Versi calls after her.

 

~*~

 

 

Versi comes to Clarke’s rooms before dawn to fetch her, and together they make their way up to the orchards and gardens. Most of the trees are dormant for winter, although Clarke can see a few field-workers trimming, tending, and collecting whatever materials can be used from cold-hardy varieties.

 

She doesn’t feel very cold-hardy. Inside the tower is a bit warmer, but she can see her breath all the time now when outdoors. The first time it happened it startled her, badly -- it could be cold on board the Ark, but not like this. At least not anywhere she lived, where the climate controls were maintained. It’s so eerie to watch. It makes her think of spirits and other energies, leaving her body in a cloud.

 

Both she and Versi have thick scarves wrapped around their lower faces, which doesn't allow for small talk. Versi leads her to a corner of the orchards Clarke’s never been before. There's a structure maybe ten feet in height that spreads out over the ground. She can see as they approach it’s just a wooden frame, with thick sheets of oilskin laid over top like skin on a skeleton. There are no bricks, except those anchoring the edges to the ground. The opening requires some complication machinations that Versi deals with, and then she quickly ushers Clarke inside.

 

Where it’s warm; the oilskin covering is just translucent enough to let in light but keeps the cold air out, and there are deep pits with sod banking down embers and, oh -- it’s a greenhouse.

 

It’s warm enough to take their scarves and hoods off, and Clarke follows Versi’s example. Next are the gloves, and Versi brings back a shallow basket as she shows Clarke how to strip the delicate white blossoms from the plant and place them inside.

 

They work in silence for a while, and then Versi says: “She’s happy with you.”

 

Clarke looks over, but Versi keeps her eyes on her work. “I didn’t think it would be like that. I heard how she was using you as... like a totem against all these attempts on her life. I know you’re not really a witch,” she says, briefly meeting Clarke’s gaze.

 

“I thought it was just a strategy,” she continues, looking away. “I knew she liked you, but I thought...” She folds her lips over whatever words would have completed that sentence. “I haven’t seen her like this, in -- in a really long time."

 

Clarke waits, but there doesn’t seem to be anything else forthcoming. They finish up, and as they climb back onto their feet Versi reaches out with the hand not holding the basket to take Clarke’s.

 

“It’s a good thing,” she says, fervent. “It is, I only -- everything I said before, you know it’s still the same, right?” She squeezes Clarke's hand. “You know it can’t be anything more.”

 

It should be humiliating, these constant reminders that Lexa doesn’t feel the way Clarke does. That Clarke is, essentially, taking whatever scraps are offered. It’s so unlike her. She knows that. She marvels at it, sometimes -- shouldn’t she be angry? Shouldn’t she be ashamed, being so obvious when Lexa is just... Lexa? Unyielding and, well, not cold, but unmoved beyond a certain point.

 

Clarke might be all of that, except then she thinks about the alternative -- not having anything of Lexa, anything at all -- and it’s as if her heart closes up tight and small, a lump in the center of her chest.

 

So it’s easier than it should be, to meet Versi’s eyes and squeeze her hand back.

 

Versi searches Clarke’s face, and whatever she finds there has her looking faintly astonished. “And you can live with that,” she says. She releases Clarke’s hand. “I couldn’t,” she says in a whisper.

 

The cold air slaps at their faces as they exit the greenhouse and begin the steady climb back down the hills to the tower. Clarke stumbles and almost loses her footing at a harsh, brassy sound careening through the air.

 

Versi is also surprised, but only mildly. She turns her head east with a frown -- from this vantage point they can look down onto the city, see where the road leads from the forest to the city gates. The noise comes again -- it’s like a very non-melodious trumpet -- and then the sound of hooves trammeling the earth at a frantic rate just as riders emerge from the trees.

 

“Anya’s here,” Versi says. She points out the leader, from this distance only a straight-backed figure on top of her horse. Clarke can’t help but feel that same niggle of unease deep in her gut, and the continuing suspicion that she should hurry up and remember how she knows that name.

 

~*~

 

 

“Anya’s here,” Versi repeats as she walks behind Clarke into Lexa’s chamber. That was new -- or, well, new to Clarke's understanding of things: that Clarke was now one of the people whose presence could usher others into the restricted spaces of the tower. The guards had all stiffened as they approached, but one look at Clarke’s face and they had relaxed to let them both through.

 

She’s pleased. It’s probably a new thing, one she hasn’t had a chance to notice before as she now lives almost entirely in these spaces. And it’s flattering to be given that responsibility, that trust. It’s more, somehow, than simply being allowed access.

 

Or that’s what she tells herself, and fights back the territorial urge to go and sit on the edge of the Commander’s bed, where Lexa is fighting sleep to sit up.

 

“Already?” she mumbles. “Her horses must be half-dead.” She lifts her head to spot Clarke, and a smile spreads across her face. “Good morning.”

 

Clarke gives her a smile, then looks away. She’s not going over there.

 

Versi does instead, carrying the teapot and carafe of boiled water she took from the infirmary when they dropped off most of this morning’s harvest. “Don’t make that face,” she says, and Clarke tilts her head up to the ceiling to keep from checking what kind of face Lexa is making. “It’s the fresh flowers. It’s not as bitter this way.”

 

Lexa doesn’t reply, but silence where there would usually be graciousness is just as telling, with her. Clarke watches Versi pour the water into the pot and place it on a table by Lexa’s bed. Versi then sits on the bed herself.

 

Clarke is not upset, because she’s not five years old and Lexa is not her favorite toy. She’s only... it’s unlike Versi. And from the sudden blankness on Lexa’s face, Clarke is not the only one to think so.

 

Clarke is dealt another surprise when Versi leans forward and begins to speak, quite softly, into Lexa’s ear. At first Lexa frowns, a deep line appearing between her eyebrows. Then as Versi continues -- too quiet and far away for Clarke to hear -- it slowly begins to smooth out, until she looks only thoughtful.

 

Versi’s done speaking in less than a minute. Before she rises to her feet, though, she leans in and presses a kiss to Lexa’s forehead, her other hand coming up to cup the back of Lexa’s skull. The two of them sit like that for a breath while Clarke stares.

 

Then Versi disengages and stands with the same smoothness, turning and walking away. She pauses as she passes by Clarke, reaches out to push a length of hair back behind Clarke’s ear.

 

“Take care of her,” she says simply. A bit of humor creeps into her face. “She needs a lot of looking after, and she’s your problem, now.”

 

Her leaving creates an odd sense of vacuum in the room. It’s not awkwardness -- Clarke wonders if, after everything, she might be beyond awkwardness with Lexa -- but it’s not very comfortable.

 

She moves through it by making her way to Lexa’s bedside and pouring out a cup of the newly-brewed tea, raising an eyebrow at the girl in the bed.

 

“Nothing,” Lexa says automatically. “Or...” She shrugs, and the neck of her sleep shirt is cut loose enough to fall and expose one shoulder. “Some... old memories. Things I’d forgotten.”

 

Whatever. Clarke doesn’t need to know absolutely everything about Lexa. But it’s with a certain satisfaction she holds out the cup of steaming, pungent liquid.

 

Lexa makes a face, but takes it. After testing the heat she downs it in a few swallows, and with a shudder. She hands the cup back absently and without thanks.

 

So Clarke pours her another one.

 

Lexa sighs, but seems to realize what she's being punished for as she then says: “Thank you.” She hesitates as she brings the cup to her lips. “Do you want to try it?” she asks, and offers with a hopeful look.

 

Clarke wrinkles her nose. The stuff smells like boiled dirt. She shakes her head.

 

Scowling, Lexa lowers the cup. “The one time I want you to take what’s mine,” she mutters, and then more clearly: “Yes, send her in,” to the handmaiden who has appeared in the doorway.

 

Looking back, Clarke will wonder: if she had taken the teapot and left, then, or if she hadn’t pushed that second cup on Lexa. If she hadn’t joined Versi in teasing Lexa and making the tea in the first place. If everything that came after would have been different for it -- easier, happier. Or if some things are unavoidable.

 

At the time, though, she enjoys watching Lexa grimace her way down to the bottom of the cup in her hand, and the next thing she knows there’s a third person in the room, watching her.

 

She jumps a little at the sight of this woman: lean and muscled, with so many sharp angles to her face it reminds Clarke of a knife missing a sheath. Her hair spills across her shoulders and back, a mass of unruly waves and colors that, together with the paint across her eyes, she almost looks like something born of the darkness of the forest.

 

... she looks like Lexa when Clarke first met her. It’s an odd thought. She forgets, mostly, what Lexa made her feel in the first days they met, that odd mix of fascination and trepidation. She doesn’t like being reminded of it. If she’s being honest.

 

“Who’s this?” the woman asks. Her voice does nothing to dispel the overall impression of hardness, and wildness.

 

“Welcome to Polis, Anya. I was afraid you might not be able to find us.”

 

Clarkes head jerks back in Lexa’s direction. Her tone is... new. It’s difficult to place.

 

The other woman -- Anya -- raises an eyebrow. “I know where Polis is. And that isn’t an answer.”

 

“If you know the way, then why has it been months since you visited?” Lexa asks, sitting up a bit straighter and... she’s eager, but with a playful antagonism behind it. If it were anyone else, Clarke would be tempted to term it “puppyish.”

 

“Because if you’re here, then I trust things don’t need my supervision.” She raises an arm to point at Clarke. “Third time, Lexa. I won’t ask again.”

 

“She helps me.”

 

Even Clarke can tell Lexa is being evasive, and from the way Anya rolls her eyes she’s not fooled, either. Clarke is uncomfortable, all of the sudden -- the atmosphere of the room has changed, and she’s excluded from whatever subtext or history these two are trading on. It makes her skin feel tight and itchy, and she reaches for the empty teacup intending to take it and make her escape. She can come back when it’s just her and Lexa again.

 

But when her fingers brush Lexa’s, the other girl startles. “You’re freezing,” she says with a frown, abandoning the empty cup among her blankets to take Clarke’s hand in her own. She chafes it between her own, adding: “Did you walk all the way to the orchards and back? It’s fine for Versi, she has time for the showers before breakfast, but we have to -- Jollett,” she raises her voice as she looks beyond Clarke. “Draw a bath for her. Otherwise you’ll never warm up,” she finishes quietly, speaking to Clarke as she gives her hands a final squeeze. She leverages herself out of the bed a second later. “Eat with me,” she says to Anya as she walks past the other woman. “I bet you didn’t stop for meals on the way here.”

 

Anya’s eyes, glittering and watchful, remain on Clarke for a pregnant moment. Then she relents and turns her back to follow Lexa to the tables the handmaidens have set up by the window and are already piling high with food.  

 

This is the first time Clarke has bathed in Lexa’s quarters and hasn’t wanted to luxuriate it, savor every second of the warmth and comfort it offers. This time she’s anxious for the handmaidens to finish pouring in the water and leaving her be. She climbs in to make them go away faster, and then holds her breath until the water stops sloshing and she can hear the conversation beyond the wooden partition set up for privacy.

 

“ -- don’t believe them,” Lexa is saying.

 

“It’s an insulting lie. How can they speak their language, carry their weapons, set up a fortress so close to it, and yet claim they have nothing to do with the Mountain? They think we’re stupid.”

 

Clarke grips the edges of the tub. It can’t be -- oh, please, please don’t let them be talking about --

 

“What do you advise, then?”

 

A beat, then two, of silence. “I heard you collected a wood witch. It’s become a very popular story. People love to tell it: their great Heda, clever enough to catch one, strong enough to resist the temptations that would let her escape.”

 

Clarke can picture the face Lexa is making. “I tired of the ambassadors using these attacks as a reason to question my rule. If their convictions can be swayed by a child’s story, then they had no business coming to me with their “concerns” in the first place -- and they haven’t since. It may seem silly to you, but I’m pleased with the results.”

 

“Is that her?”

 

Now Lexa is silent, longer than Clarke would expect, before admitting: “Yes.”

 

“I see.”

 

More silence. “Is there a problem?”

 

“None of the witches in my childhood stories were that pretty.”

 

The chair scrapes against the floor as Lexa stands. “You, of all people,” she begins, and Clarke catches her breath because that’s not just anger in her tone, there’s hurt, “of all people, are going to accuse me of --”

 

“No.” Gently: “No, Lexa. I do know you.”

 

A thump as Lexa settles back into her chair. “What, then?”

 

“... I trust you’re being careful.”

 

“It’s never careful enough, though, is it.” However, Lexa doesn’t sound upset anymore. “What precautions have I neglected?”

 

“I would never presume to tell the Commander of the twelve clans how to best guard her person.”

 

“Of course. But if your Second was here, a lowly nightblood waiting for her conclave, I suppose you’d have advice for her.”

 

Quietly, almost too quietly to be heard: “Do you trust her?”

 

“Yes.” Lexa sighs. “But we can talk like this if it makes you feel better,” she says, switching to English.

 

The sound of Lexa’s familiar voice speaking that language brings back a flood of sense memories: exhausted and half-starved in the woods, looking at a figure high atop a pale horse and being ushered who knew where as she said --

 

Anya would not appreciate the gift of yet another mouth to feed... while she deals with the invaders.

 

And then, a second shock coming hard on that one’s heels:

 

Anya dealt with them, that day she learned everyone else who came down on the dropship was dead.

 

Anya’s territory is where the dropship landed.

 

Which means they are talking about the Ark. And this woman killed almost a hundred teenagers and children.

 

She killed Wells.

 

“Do you know who she is?” Anya is asking in the same language. Hatred boils up in Clarke at the sound of her voice, and she sinks deeper into her bath water to keep calm.

 

“We found her wandering in the woods next to Tondisi. She was like a child. Worse than. Whoever raised her never thought she’d leave the Dead Zone, she had no idea how to survive outside it.”

 

“As you say, Commander.”

 

You were saying,” Lexa prods. “Your thoughts on this second wave of invaders. Do they know you captured those other spies?”

 

“No. And the spies do not know that the rest of their people have arrived.”

 

Clarke’s heart kicks into a new gear, beating so hard it makes the water tremble.

 

“Good,” Lexa says, open admiration in her voice. “Are they still insisting they were separated from the others, and don't know their fate?”

 

“Yes,” Anya says. “They lie as badly as the rest. They must have known we were advancing and made an alliance with the Mountain. It must have been a rescue. Why would an enemy spend so much effort to not leave a single body behind?”

 

Not a single --

 

So, then Anya’s people didn’t reach the dropship before --

 

They might all still be alive.

 

“I thought it was clever, as lies go.”

 

“It would have been. If we hadn’t found them sneaking from village to village wearing the clothes of the dead, trying to learn the territory. Of course, we would have caught them sooner, if we only,” and here she cuts herself off with a sound of disgust.

 

“Lincoln’s defection left you short-handed. You couldn’t have seen it coming.”

 

“Something made him go mad,” Anya says flatly. “To disappear like that, and so completely... I will find him. And before I kill him, I want to know what infected his brain to make him turn traitor.”

 

“I’m surprised you haven’t killed the spies by now, as well,” Lexa says, so casually, and a coldness spreads through Clarke that persists even in the warmth of the bath. “Are they yet proving useful?”

 

“Yes, I think so. One of them is very eager to treat with us. He calls himself Finn.”

 

Clarke’s breath lodges in her throat.

 

“He’s very... helpful,” Anya continues. “Very forthcoming.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“Yes. He claims they weren’t spying, or planning to carry back information to the Mountain. He says they were looking for someone.”

 

“You’re right: they are bad liars.”

 

“No,” considering, “this one is very convincing. Or was, until the rest of them appeared and started shooting their guns.”

 

“Who was he looking for?”

 

“He claims it’s just a girl who wandered off and became lost. That he’s afraid for her safety.”

 

“You don’t believe him.”

 

“I think,” Anya says slowly, “that she’s much more important than he wants to say. He was arguing once with one of the others, before we separated them. They used the word princess.”

 

Of course that stupid nickname for her would --

 

Finn’s alive. Possibly Bellamy, too.

 

Who else?

 

They’re alive. They’ve been alive all this time, while she’s been --

 

“That’s an old word,” Lexa says.

 

“It could be their leader. She might have been sent ahead, the advance scout.”

 

“Or it could be nothing.” Lexa sounds richly amused. “You see plots in everything. Remember the contingent from Glowing Forest?”

 

“They were plotting against you.”

 

“They wanted to divert the funds for the southern trade route to rebuild established roads, Anya. It’s not quite the same as designs on my life.” Her words are indistinct, as if she’s speaking through a mouthful of food. “When you have something besides forgotten words and rumors, come to me.”

 

Their conversation lapses into quieter topics, and back into their clan’s language. They talk of ordinary things, could almost be mistaken for ordinary people, instead of the most feared leader in the known world and the woman who honed her capacity for violence.

 

When the handmaidens think to check on her they find Clarke white-faced and still in a bath of cooling water. They can probably see her red-rimmed eyes, but they can’t know for sure that she’s been sobbing her heart out, silently, both fists pressed against her mouth. They exchange looks. Clarke stares back at them, wordlessly daring them to go and bring it to Lexa’s attention.

 

They don’t, and she’s dressed and made ready for the rest of the day.

 

~*~

 

 

Sometime close to noon, after several hours in the throne room, Lexa holds a hand up to signal whatever petitioner is next in line should wait. She stands and walks across the dais to Clarke, putting her hands on either side of her face to force Clarke’s gaze up to her own.

 

Clarke meets Lexa’s eyes and wonders if the misery that’s knit itself throughout her body is visible on her face.

 

Maybe it is, because Lexa’s grip tightens. “You look awful. You should have stolen some of my tea after all.” She steps back, her hands lingering on Clarke’s face for just a moment longer than might be expected. “Go back to your rooms and rest. I’m cancelling your lessons.”

 

Clarke thinks: I could have lived this life with you. I was ready for it.

 

“Don’t look at me like that,” Lexa says gently. “You can barely keep on your feet. Go. Start fresh tomorrow.”

 

Clarke walks to her rooms in a fog. She pulls off her witch clothes, wipes her face clean of paint, falls into bed and a dead sleep. She didn’t think she was tired, before, she’s not so much tired now -- instead, it’s as if her brain has taken pity on her and shut everything down at once to give her a few hours of rest.

 

When she wakes up the sun is beginning to set outside her window, her mind is humming, and her mother’s last words to her are echoing in her ears.

 

Clarke disobeyed her. She did try to take care of everyone else: getting in Bellamy’s face, insisting they try and find Mount Weather. The one time she abandoned that principle -- faced with the choice of hiding in the dark with Wells and Finn, or running away and saving herself from the hatred in her heart -- she ended up lost. In every sense.

 

She can’t deny who she is: Clarke Griffin, daughter of Abigail and Jake Griffin. She was born in space, and the air that filled her lungs for almost the first eighteen years of her life was recycled oxygen. The entire course of her life -- and her parents’ lives, and their parents’ lives -- has bent on getting back down to the ground, and surviving. Thriving.

 

And she is going to miss --

 

No. No, she has to stay focused, or she might not find the strength of will to --

 

A sob shakes her, unexpectedly, and she curls herself inward to hug her knees, forcing her breathing to go slow and steady.

 

This is not just about the fact that she’s an Arker, and that a handful of months with no voice and no name don’t erase the reality of things. This is a disaster so complex, and so long in the making, that if it goes wrong... Azgeda and the Mountain, the Mountain and the Ark, the Ark and the Grounders -- this has the potential to hurt everyone, absolutely everyone she lov--

 

No.

 

Think.

 

Lexa is convinced the kids from the dropship made a deal with the Mountain, and that the Arkers are part of that alliance. Clarke could try to explain the truth with her clumsy, rushed pictures. It might even work.

 

It might not.

 

But the Arkers will know her. They could restore her voice with their medical knowledge and tech -- maybe. If that fails she can write it all out. Even if they don’t believe her, just her presence is proof that not everything is as it seems. That their own children might still be out there, alive; that the Grounders are capable of more than slaughter.

 

In the end, the Arkers are the ones with the guns and the bombs. They’re the ones at risk to do the most damage because of a misunderstanding. No matter what she wants, she owes it to everyone -- everyone -- to deal directly with them. As soon as possible.

 

Clarke needs to leave.

 

She has no idea how, and she’s not even sure where to... just look at how long she wandered in the woods with no knowledge of the land, before. There are a lot of details that need to be worked out. Tomorrow. She’s already exhausted again, her body leaden and sore. She can start fresh in the morning.

 

There is one thing she should do tonight. To be safe.

 

And to be sure that there is no going back.

 

She’s clumsy with cold and grief, and it takes her several tries at the trunk’s lock where she’s dragged it out from under her bed before she gets it open. All her drawings are in there, untouched and unseen by anyone else. She hasn’t gotten very far: not even halfway into her story.

 

She thought she had more time. She thought she could wait until circumstances were better. She thought a lot of things.

 

She doesn’t let herself hesitate before throwing the drawings into the fire. They burn down to ash as Clarke watches, her eyes stinging from the smoke.