Actions

Work Header

(my) Destruction Within Your Mouth

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

~*~

 

“I still don’t like this,” Abby says from the doorway to Clarke’s bedroom. She’s watching Clarke put on her boots. Her own clothes are the same as those she wore yesterday -- Clarke is guessing she never went to bed, will probably take a shower and a quick nap before resuming the day’s activities. It’s a routine Clarke is familiar with from the days her mother had back-to-back surgeries, sometimes going a whole week without a full night’s sleep.

 

“You were out-voted.” 

 

Abby grimaces. “The pitfalls of democracy.” 

 

“Don’t joke.” Her heel thuds into place, and Clarke rises to her feet. “It makes sense for me to be part of the escort, Mom. Nobody else speaks their language, or can anticipate their responses like I will.” She makes sure her face is a blank when she turns to her mother, like her heart isn’t hammering away like a trapped rabbit’s inside her chest. “There’ll be three others with me from the Ark at all times, including Kane. It’s not as if they’ll try to hurt any of us while they’re visiting our camp.”

 

“It’s not as if they’ll discuss top secret information in their language in front of you, either, so I don’t see why --”

 

“Yeah, but they might if I’m not there.” Clarke twitches away when Abby reaches to fix her collar, pulling it straight herself. “Come on, Mom. Let me help.”

 

“You could tell me what that other woman said yesterday that you found so shocking.”

 

“I misheard,” Clarke lies. “I thought it was -- you know, cursing and stuff. She guessed and corrected it.” That’d been her story since Abby had thought to ask. 

 

And since the first time she’d told it, she’d known her mother remained unconvinced. Her forehead furrows with concern, now, looking at her daughter. 

 

“Or,” she says quietly, “you could tell me where we stand, now.”

 

Now that Clarke had revealed she knew the truth of Jake’s death.  

 

“Later,” Clarke lies again. One emotional crisis at a time, and right now she had to play welcoming host to the ex-lover that ordered her tortured for information. 

 

If she’s lucky, she thinks to herself as she walks out of their shared apartment, that one will take so long to wrangle she just won’t have the time for a crying, screaming fit about how her mother is a murdering bitch.

 

 

~*~ 

 

Lexa is wearing Arker clothes. 

 

It’s doing weird things to Clarke’s brain. 

 

The clothes were on request by the Council, which had to admit they had no idea if they were being monitored in their own camp. And in the worst case scenario, there was always the possibility that if someone outside the Council didn’t like the idea of treating with the Grounders, they would run to the Mountain on their own. So: an undercover operation, of sorts, and one requiring a wardrobe change. 

 

The party from the Grounder camp consists of Lexa, Anya (seeing her in Arker clothes is another trip, but she's scowling enough about it to soothe the cognitive dissonance), a taller man Clarke doesn’t know, and a burly man who seems to be acting as Gustus’s replacement for this outing. Probably bad form to bring the man who personally sliced open your leader’s daughter. Couldn’t fault Lexa on her diplomacy. 

 

But it’s hard to think about those things -- a genuine effort -- with Lexa in Arker clothing: pants a muddled color from repeated washings, threadbare shirt, and an under-stuffed vest because no one person was relegated enough filling to really keep in the warmth, but it was better than nothing. Lexa had even combed her braids out (Clarke has a flash of her leaning back into Jollett’s hands, letting the handmaiden take all the necessary care -- had anyone helped her at camp?) so that her hair lies in soft waves over her shoulders, falling into her eyes whenever she turns her head too sharply, listening to Kane’s explanation of each remnant of the crashed Ark and its function.

 

Lexa isn't uncomfortable, or pulling at her hem and neckline like the others. She's wearing the clothes like it's natural; like they're hers.

 

Because it's Lexa's job to adapt to every new challenge, and quickly. Clarke knows that. It messes everything up, though, because Clarke looks at her and even though she knows, she knows this is the same Lexa who has led armies and held the leaders of various clans in the palm of her hand, her brain keeps trying to find a different context. Keeps trying to tell her the person she sees in front of her could have partnered with her on a science project, could have smiled across the room at her during the Unity dance, could have been...

 

(She’s looking too much. She worries that Lexa will catch her at it -- or maybe part of her wants that, maybe that’s why there’s so much adrenaline in her system during a simple tour of the Ark that Clarke can taste it. But Lexa doesn’t look. That seems to be her strategy since their confrontation in the tent, excepting that one moment where Wells grabbed Clarke’s hand: not looking.)

 

... she isn’t even sure she knows what she wants from Lexa anymore. She doesn’t know why her own mind insists on torturing her on what they never could have had in the first place. 

 

But then Clarke doesn’t have much else to do besides let her mind wander. Just as Abby predicted, no one in the Grounder party is stupid enough to speak their language in front of her -- and boy, Lexa must be regretting she tried to arrange for any instruction in other dialects, because they aren’t even taking that chance. Barely anyone but Lexa and Kane are speaking, anyway, both of them in low, polite tones. Lexa’s eyes search the crowds of people out enjoying the fresh air and sunshine (in other words: whatever promised bounty of the Earth they can) with laser-like focus, and her questions are anything but idle. She’s even mimicking the pose she used to take during more demanding audiences, with her hands clasped behind her back.

 

The throb of familiarity makes Clarke ache, and she finally has to look away. 

 

The tour of the Arker camp ends in the infirmary. Kane is explaining well before it’s in sight that they want samples of blood from one of Lexa’s people to run a few tests, making sure to establish a baseline familiarity between them and the Arkers; nuclear fallout versus solar radiation. It wasn’t, Kane promised in an aside to Clarke with her eyebrows in a scowl, because they were checking for degenerative properties or any excuse to believe they might exist. He promised.

 

Thankfully Abby isn’t there -- Eric Jackson has all but taken over since her elevation to Chancellor. He already has everything set up: bed laid out neatly, vials and syringes ready and waiting on a trolley. “So: who is today’s victim?” he asks as he snaps on the gloves -- and then checks himself at the grim looks on the Grounders’ faces.

 

The tall warrior Clarke doesn’t know steps forward. From the way he holds himself, an onlooker might think he was prepared to die on the battlefield. 

 

... which he is, obviously, but Clarke doesn’t understand why he might think the battlefield is here

 

Eric gestures at one of the cots. “If you’d lie down.”

 

The warrior looks over, and his gaze lingers on the restraints. They’re tucked under the mattress for convenience, but designed to stand out against the cot’s design in case of... unexpected necessity.

 

His sudden stillness is as good as a flinch.

 

“Is there a problem?” Kane asks, sensitive to the shift in mood. 

 

“You asked we bring someone who knows more about what they do with my people under the Mountain,” Lexa says in her perfect English.

 

“Yes.” Kane is clearly confused. “But that’s not something we have to discuss until we meet with the rest of the Council.”

 

Lexa and Anya exchange a look. “Each of us today has a role,” Anya picks up the thread. “The Commander to negotiate with you. Irfax to tell you about the Mountain. Myself to protect the Commander. Ryder to protect her in case I fall.” The glint in her eyes as she turns to fully face Kane says how unlikely that would be. “Ryder and I won’t submit to tests for that reason.”

 

“And my blood is useless to you,” Lexa says. “It’s different from most, even among the clans.” Kane seems ready to ask questions about that, but closes his mouth when Lexa takes the few steps forward necessary to place herself beside Irfax. She doesn’t reach for him, but Clarke thinks she sees the warrior’s shoulders relax anyway. “Irfax knows about the Mountain because he was there. He’s one of the few -- the very few -- that managed to escape.”

 

Irfax, Clarke notices, has faint scars circling each wrist. As if from being restrained. 

 

“I’m so sorry,” Kane interjects smoothly. Ever the diplomat, he seems to have surmised what is being left unsaid in a matter of seconds. “If the setup here makes him uncomfortable... I’m afraid we don’t have another space readily available, as all the equipment needs to be sterilized, and then there’s safe disposal, but perhaps --”

 

He cuts off as Lexa turns her head to her warrior. “Can you bear it?” she asks, almost too quiet to reach Clarke. 

 

But it does. Lexa speaking in the familiar cadence of the Woods Clan language is like a punch to the stomach. 

 

Irfax doesn’t answer. Instead he simply walks over to the cot and lays down. He looks like he’s a bad jostling away from being sick all over the floor, but he does it. 

 

Clarke knows a little bit about how he feels. 

 

No one expects Lexa to follow, but she does, hopping up onto the bed next to his and shrugging off her Arker jacket. She’s already rolling up one sleeve before Kane finds the wherewithal to venture: “Commander?” Anya is a second ahead with her shocked “Heda.”

 

“Maybe you can’t use my blood, but I don’t mind giving some. I never ask my warriors to do anything I won’t do myself,” Lexa tells them both without looking over. Instead she shares a glance with Irfax -- not smiling, but with humor in her eyes and the slightest uptick to the corner of her mouth, as if to say, we’re in this together

 

Irfax does smile back at her, puppyish, and it makes Clarke knock about ten years off his age. He’s probably not much older than she is.   

 

It’s all a little too much. Nausea sinks long talons into Clarke’s gut and twists, and she excuses herself from the main party just as Eric is finding a vein. 

 

She could find her way around the infirmary in her sleep. Right on the other side of the partition Eric has erected is a low-pressure sink and a cabinet full of medication that isn’t potent enough to require being kept under lock and key. She grabs at something that will settle her stomach and chases it with a mouthful of water. It’s still running what’s left from the Ark’s filtration system and tastes comfortingly bland. 

 

Clarke tips forward until she can lean her forehead against the closed cabinet doors, closing her eyes. 

 

She used to be a part of that.

 

She’s not even sure how to describe it, but that... circle of understanding that enclosed Lexa and Irfax, and even Anya as she almost imperceptibly rolled her eyes at Lexa’s grand gestures -- Clarke used to be a part of that. Included in the circle.

 

She fought for so long -- so hard -- to stay outside of it. She already had her people, she didn’t need... she didn’t want... 

 

Now she’s back among her own. She’s never had to fight for her place among the Arkers. They’ve always known her, and although no one ever talked about it openly, known what role she would probably play in the Ark’s hierarchy as she got older. She never had to explain herself with them or ask for understanding, never had to prove herself, never...

 

When those kids found her in the forest, and fed her, and kept her alive, they didn’t do it for Abby Griffin’s daughter. When the apprentices in the tower looked after her, they weren’t thinking, “we need to keep the future chief medical officer from slipping away into a depression.” Nyko had tested her at every turn. But Clarke had passed.

 

And Lexa...

 

“I see you are well acquainted with the Chancellor.”

 

Clarke almost jumps out of her skin at the sound of Lexa’s voice. She’d forgotten the other girl was on the other side of a thin partition -- and Lexa, of course, has no idea where Clarke could have gone. That she could still be so close.

 

“Abby?” Eric responds. “She used to be head of Medical. That’s a picture we took together when I first graduated and came to work in the infirmary -- Abby and her husband were the reason I made it through school in one piece.”

 

“You also know her husband.” 

 

Clarke knows why she’s asking. Eric has a picture framed from his graduation ceremony. Not many people made it through the medical program anymore, something Abby used to implore the Council to investigate. Privately, she would confide to Jake and Clarke that they couldn’t expect younger people to commit to the extra years of training when other positions offered opportunities for extra rations and privileges right away. Abby had made a project out of Eric -- urged him to let her know if he or his family needed anything during his internship. She didn’t like the infirmary crowded with personal memorabilia, but she allowed Eric the picture in the hopes it might inspire other gifted candidates to approach her. 

 

Clarke isn’t in the picture with them, but Jake is. 

 

Clarke has a moment of confusion, but then remembers: the portrait she drew, and then later the photograph which unraveled everything. Lexa has seen both. 

 

There’s no reason she would commit Jake’s image to memory. Maybe Lexa just has a good eye for faces.

 

“I assume he shares a similar rank to your Chancellor. Perhaps I’ll meet him with the rest of the Council.”

 

Clarke feels a wash of heat. 

 

“Oh.” Eric hesitates, awkward. “He, uh. He died.”

 

“I see. You lost a lot of people in the descent to the ground,” Lexa says, and it’s a stab of ice right to Clarke’s heart.

 

“Yeah, um. It was before that. Over a year ago, now. Sorry, I -- can we talk about something else?”

 

Clarke doesn’t quite catch what Lexa says in response. The roaring in her ears is too loud.

 

Clarke had a place among the Woods Clan, once. A place she had earned. A position she valued.

 

She traded on it to save the Arkers. All that trust, and respect, and other forms of currency -- all spent. 

 

She’s not sorry. The people on the Ark didn’t deserve to be slaughtered or starve to death in the wilderness, even if Clarke is still tempted to drop certain members of the Council in the deep woods and walk away. And now, with the Mountain and the Ice Nation... Clarke knows the fates of the Arkers and Lexa’s people are linked. 

 

She did what was needed. For everyone. 

 

Lexa, apparently, doesn’t agree. Lexa -- who had held Clarke when she cried over Jake, had given her the words to finally find peace over her father’s death -- is still considering the possibility of how deep Clarke’s deception might have gone. 

 

Lexa is still trying to figure out how much of what Clarke did, earned, was nothing but lies.

 

Clarke swallows down her lingering nausea. 

 

Fine. If that’s the way... fine.  

 

So Lexa thinks Clarke has no more currency to spend with her, or the Woods Clan. She thinks Clarke has declared an allegiance and that’s the end of it.

 

She’s wrong.

 

Clarke pries her clenched fingers from the rim of the sink, pushes her hair away from her face and take in a few deep, cleansing breaths.

 

Lexa’s wrong, and Clarke knows it. Anya knows it -- she said as much when Abby first met with them, Clarke is essential to the future of the Woods Clan. Clarke is the wood witch, and they need her. 

 

(Lexa needs me, a small voice whispers.)

 

And whatever Lexa’s problems with Clarke, they won’t keep her from doing what’s best for her people. 

 

Clarke rinses her hands mindlessly, then her mouth for good measure. It abates the bitterness somewhat. 

 

Lexa can try and ignore her all she wants. She can try and pretend everything they shared was part of some larger game, if that really makes her happy. But Clarke has known since their last meeting that Lexa isn’t leaving for Polis without her. 

 

And then, she thinks to herself as she shuts off the water with a vicious twist, we’ll see how much longer she can go without looking at me. 

 

 

~*~

 

This resolve carries her through the rest of the tour: the cafeteria, the sleeping areas, the timid patches of garden some of the Arkers are attempting to cultivate. (All the preserved seeds and cuttings were lost with Farm Station, but a couple intrepid explorers sampled local flora before Lexa’s army forced them behind the new walls. Looking at Lexa is a little painful when she’s being so obviously ignored, so Clarke ends up looking at Anya, who is obviously struggling with something, her frown growing deeper and deeper as she watches the younger children help water the new growths. As they’re leaving she knocks her shoulder into Clarke’s and snarls under her breath, “tell their idiot parents the ones with yellow berries are poisonous,” before marching back to Lexa’s side too quickly for Clarke to reply.) She still feels the urge to go up to Lexa herself, grab both sides of her face, and make her... but she can resist it. She can bide her time. She can wait.

 

Then Lexa gets her shut out of the meeting with the Council.

 

And Kane is the one to tell her, because Lexa won’t --

 

He stops her with a hand on her shoulder just as she’s about to walk into the conference room. He hung back, waiting in the doorway, even though he and Lexa were always at the head of the group and often with their heads together. He waited for Clarke.

 

“I’m sorry,” he says, quietly. “It’s been requested... there’s really nothing more you can do, here. The meetings are recorded, so I’ll play it back to you if I think we need any translating. But I think it’s best if you stay out of this.”

 

Clarke just looks at him. There’s a lot of gossip floating around the fallen Ark about him -- she knows most of the details of the stunts he tried to pull while they were still in orbit, but by all accounts grounding was enough of a shock to put that nonsense out of his head. And he seems genuine in attempting to connect with Lexa and her people in a way Clarke can’t afford to treat lightly, given the attitudes of the rest of the Council. She really does need him as an ally.

 

But oh, right now she wants to fight him. 

 

“I deserve to be in there,” she manages to get out evenly. 

 

He squeezes her shoulder once and then gives her two firm pats. “You’ve helped bring us this far, Clarke, and no one is going to forget that. But this isn’t your area, not really. And it seems like your presence isn’t going to make things go smoother at this point.”

 

Throwing a fit now will only convince him of what he’s saying. “Try to keep the Commander and my mom from going at each other, please.”

 

Kane gives an approving nod before letting his hand fall away. He’s the last one into the conference room, so he shuts the door behind him.

 

Clarke doesn’t waste time staring at the closed door, wallowing. She heads to Wells’s room.

 

“Hey,” Wells says, looking up at her knock.

 

“Hey.” She leans against the doorjamb instead of coming inside. “Remember when we were twelve, and you found that key that opened the cover to the ventilation ducts after Mecha Station finished the repairs?”

 

Wells pauses in the middle of turning a page, body tensing like he knows what’s coming. “... yeah.”

 

“Remember how I never ratted you out on keeping it?”

 

Comprehension dawns -- he could always see where she was heading, a few seconds before she got there -- and Wells sighs.

 

 

~*~

 

The ducts are designed to be crawled through, so it’s not as tight a fit as expected. Clarke hasn’t been in them since the excitement of that first exploration wore off and they both became convinced they’d be found out and thrown into the Skybox. Wells then glued the key to the interior top of his desk drawer, where it’s lived since.

 

Wells refuses to climb in with her -- “Some of us have grown in the past six years.” “I’ll feel your biceps later, Wells.” -- but promises to stand guard by the opening of the main shaft, which they know from that long-ago adventure is the trunk of the ventilation system running through the center of Alpha Station and feeding directly to the infirmary and the Council spaces, with smaller, un-navigable branches winding into personal quarters. Clarke’s primary concern is wriggling down through to the conference room without kicking the steel sides, which resonate like a drum. 

 

It takes longer than she thought it would. Crash-landing kicked up a lot of dirt into the innards of the Ark. It’s just Clarke’s luck that she also has to worry about inhaling half the dust and debris that lingers without the air being constantly filtered and re-circulated. After five minutes and a couple near-miss sneezes, she uses the neckline of her shirt as a makeshift mask.

 

“ -- matter to us, if your people are leaving?” 

 

Clarke is sweating by the time she hears Abby’s voice, meaning she’s reached the right conference room. It’s Lexa’s voice that freezes her in place, breathing shallow as she strains to listen:

 

“Possibly it doesn’t matter at all. Unless you imagined surviving through the rest of the winter, next spring, and next summer without harvesting your own food.” Lexa is about as dry as the earth surrounding their camp, still scorched by the Ark’s descending heat. “And I suppose you’ll have no problem dealing with Blue Cliff, whose territory begins a short walk west from where you landed, without word from their Commander that you’re trustworthy. They don’t speak the language you share with the Mountain, if you were wondering.” 

 

The following silence is awkward, and Clarke really wishes she could see the faces of the Council at that moment. Unfortunately the ventilation shafts for individual units are much narrower, branching off from the main conduit with just enough room for someone to stick in an arm to do whatever work is necessary. She has to content herself with shutting her eyes and imagining. 

 

“But you are leaving,” comes a voice she doesn’t recognize -- maybe someone added to the Council to replace one of Sydney’s defectors. 

 

“Yes.” Lexa might be wearing Arker clothes, but that particular tone... that’s Heda. That’s how she sounded at Rock Line, addressing the crowd: like she carried all the potential strength and righteous fury of her collected people inside of her. “There are reports of an attack descending from the North. If you are not a threat, as you insist, then my attention is needed elsewhere.”

 

Clarke catches her breath. So she was right. Now it’s all but official -- they’re at war with Azgeda. 

 

Or Lexa is. 

 

But it won’t just be her going to fight, will it? She takes the apprentices into battle. All those people in Polis, the ones Clarke saw in the halls of the tower, in the infirmary, at the marketplace -- they’ll be part of it, too. Suffering, bleeding, possibly dying. 

 

While Clarke is expected to just sit here, safe inside the Ark.

 

She wasn’t thrilled when Anya talked about needing the wood witch for the upcoming war. Ignoring the fact that anything that made Anya gleeful was bad news for Clarke, she’s not sure she can play that part anymore. Lexa might need her -- need the symbol of her self-control and force of will, her talisman against real harm -- but Clarke genuinely can’t imagine it. Can’t wrap her head around the idea of being the wood witch again, draped in silence and decorated in gold by Lexa’s hands. 

 

She’s not even sure it can work that way anymore.

 

It doesn’t matter. Lexa will use whatever she can get, and Clarke... Clarke won’t have to rot away in here while all those people fight a war without her. She can help, she knows that, and even if they don’t want her help anymore, it doesn’t matter. Not what she feels about Lexa, or what Lexa thinks of her. Nothing matters more than defeating Azgeda.

 

She’s terrified about what’s going to happen out there, if she’s being honest with herself. But it does make things simpler. If it weren’t a war -- an actual war, like something out of their history textbooks -- it’d be a relief. 

 

Her thoughts have taken her attention away from the conversation in the conference room, but listening back in she doesn’t think she’s missed much. No one on the Council seems happy to be dealing with the Grounders, but it’d be difficult for even the more obtuse among them to listen to Lexa talk for five minutes and call her de-evolved. And as Kane pointed out: once you know someone, in this case the Wallaces, has lied to you? It taints everything else. 

 

She feels a bit of a twinge at that. 

 

It’s not the same, though. Clarke never actually...

 

Anyway, it’s not the same.

 

Lexa is used to dealing with far worse than the Council, Clarke remembers, as she listens to the familiar patterns of Heda’s smooth maneuvering. They’re in no position to threaten violence, there are no generational grudges or revenge plots at work, and to be honest, it’s clear they’re just not used to being in a position that doesn’t command near-absolute authority. This isn’t complicated, she realizes, contrasting their negotiations in her mind with the dozens of meetings she used to sit in on with Lexa. The Ark has things it needs to survive. The Woods Clan is willing to trade for certain promises in return. It’s simple.

 

(Once everyone is in the same room and talking, anyway. And who can they thank for that? Exactly.)

 

It’s very simple. But it means everything. Clarke has to press a hand over her mouth, hard, to keep from sobbing out loud in relief as Lexa gives details on when and how they can expect fresh food supplies. She didn’t expect it to hit her this hard. It’s just... it really means so much, knowing that -- for whatever reasons -- Lexa is on this, is taking care of this. It’s not just Clarke trying to keep these people alive and feeling like she has to fight for every inch. She’s almost exhausted herself in the process. It was worth it -- there are so many families on the Ark, so many young children and bystanders. Clarke couldn’t just let them die. But it was so hard. It took so much to get this far. 

 

Now she doesn’t have to carry them anymore. They won’t be killed by Grounder warriors outright. They won’t die of starvation. They know the truth about the Mountain.

 

Clarke did the last, but Lexa assured the first two. It doesn’t fix everything else. She’s still so, so angry, she still has scars and she still doesn’t forgive. But for one moment -- just the one -- Clarke closes her eyes tight and allows herself to feel all the gratitude she has. 

 

The Ark is as safe as she could have hoped. And they did it together. Sort of. 

 

“Heda,” she hears Anya say, just as everything is wrapping up. “That’s not all we want from them.”

 

Clarke opens her eyes, even though she still can’t see anything but darkness. 

 

Moment over. 

 

“Shut up, Anya.” 

 

Clarke kicks out reflexively, only just managing to avoid hitting the side of the conduit and giving herself away. She’s not sure why the words are so shocking -- maybe because they’re so casual when Lexa has been excruciatingly formal in Clarke’s earshot since discovering who she was? Maybe it’s the tone. It probably won’t sound this way to anyone who doesn’t know Lexa well, but Clarke does: Lexa is exhausted, too.

 

For whatever reason she’s left breathing a little too quickly in the aftermath, one fist pressing hard into her upper ribs, just above... She calms herself down, but a curious ache rises up as her surprise fades. That’s not just Heda in that room. That’s the Lexa she remembers after long days, or when Clarke crept into her room on a too-early morning. That’s the girl she --

 

“I’m sick of arguing about this, too, but you know I’m right. You lost too much ground to the Ice Nation by letting them creep up while you were distracted, and it has to be for something in return. Bad enough there are stories of your wood witch escaping, but if word gets out we couldn’t even get her back --”

 

“You think Nia cares about a children’s story?”

 

“Of course she does.” Forget Lexa -- Anya's never sounded like this. Clarke knows the older girl less well, but it’s still unnerving to hear her so desperate, on the verge of pleading. She can only picture how confounded the Council members must be, watching this sudden and impassioned exchange conducted in a language they can’t hope to follow. “She could have recruited mercenaries from any of the other clans if all she cared about was numbers. This war won’t just be fought on the field -- she wants us crippled by fear and horror. She’s bringing monsters, and we need to fight back with more than pretty speeches.” 

 

Lexa doesn’t answer. It’s so frustrating, not being able to see her face. Clarke can’t tell if she’s quiet because she’s being swayed, or because she’s just tired of entertaining her general’s arguments. 

 

“We need the wood witch,” Anya continues, finally, voice lower but no less fervent. “We need something on our side that’s more than human, that makes our people feel we are somehow protected from the nightmares we’ll be facing. Or at least that you are. Even if they know it’s just a story, it will help.” She pauses. “I understand you don’t like it. But you... this is not like you, Lexa. You know what has to be done, and why.” 

 

Still, Lexa doesn’t say anything.

 

“It can be arranged so that you don’t have to... she only needs to be seen with us riding to Polis, or around the camp once we set up a headquarters on the field.” Anya is as close to gentle as Clarke can imagine her being. “Leave her to me. I’ll guard her, and dress her, and make sure Clarke doesn’t --”

 

“If you’re talking about my daughter,” Abby breaks in, “I think you should be talking to me.” 

 

The reaction to that is confusing for Clarke. No one speaks up, but she can hear mutters, whispers, and the tension in the room rises up into the ventilation shaft like it’s physical heat. 

 

She understands once Lexa speaks: “You think so, do you?”

 

She sounded warmer when talking to prisoners she was about to condemn to death. 

 

Clarke can only imagine the look that accompanies that tone, those words, and she’s weirdly proud of her mom for standing up to it. “I understand from Kane that your people become full members of society from a much younger age. But Clarke is still a child, and my responsibility.”

 

“Is she.” Lexa is almost... she’s quiet, but Clarke can hear her sharpening her dagger in the tone of her voice. Like she’s eager to draw her weapons, here and now. “I can see our ways are very different. For instance: my people would consider tossing someone into an unknown territory, without knowledge of the danger or the skills to combat them, as a sure sign of abandonment. Of them and of one’s responsibility.”  

 

“You’re talking about the dropship. So she told you about --” Abby cuts herself off. Clarke holds her breath. “I gather you have a certain amount of experience. But you’re still a young leader. You might not understand the more terrible demands of authority, the sacrifice required --”

 

“Among my people,” and the knife is bared, now, sharpened to an edge that could split hairs, “we demand sacrifice from ourselves, as a sign of strength. We don’t sacrifice our kin or kind, or ask those we don’t consider full members of society to pay the price for our survival. When I found your daughter,” voice like a lash, “she was starving and struggling to keep herself alive. Considering what happened to the rest of those you sent into my territory, I don’t think her fate was the exception.” 

 

“Did you offer her any better?” Abby counters. “Do you know what shape she was in when she finally reached home? Did you know about those cuts, those bruises -- you had to, you either did them yourself or you ordered it done. Now you think you can stand there and lecture me about --”

 

“Yes, I ordered it.” Lexa is stony, all emotion drained away. Clarke’s stomach clenches to hear it. “She was a prisoner of war. A spy. Are you so shocked by how we treat our enemies? Well,” bitter, oh so bitter and bleak: “I’m shocked by how you treat your own. I’m not surprised you speak like the Mountain and share their love of the past. Perhaps you are not our enemies anymore, but I see nothing in you of honor.” 

 

“Why are you helping us, then?” Kane asks. “If you don’t think we’re worth saving.” 

 

Lexa takes longer than Clarke would have expected to answer. “I learned not to judge an entire people by their rulers long before I met any of you. There may be those among you who are capable of better. Your daughter didn’t share your shock,” and Clarke can imagine her facing off again against Abby, arrogant and condescending where Clarke’s mother is probably white-faced with restrained anger. “She understood the game she played and the possible consequences.”

 

(Clarke has only a split second to wonder if that’s true -- and it is, kind of. Did she ever consider Lexa would go as far as she did? No. Would she have done anything differently, if she had known?

 

... no. Except worked harder not to get caught.) 

 

“She took on the dangers for all of you,” Lexa is saying. "She weighed her own safety against the lives of everyone here and made her choice. And when she comes back to you,” quietly, “you call her a child.”

 

... Kane was supposed to stop them from tearing each other apart. He should have let her stay, she would have been able to calm them down, if she was actually in there --

 

If you were there, a voice whispers, Lexa wouldn’t be saying these things in the first place

 

“Heda,” Anya interjects, and Clarke never thought she’d be grateful for Anya.

 

“No, you will listen to me, General,” Lexa switches to their shared language. “We pull up stakes in two hours. You heard the same reports I did: Nia and her army have a head start to Polis, and even with the extra distance they can move faster, because we need to recruit as we retreat. We might not reach the city in time.”

 

“We might.”

 

“We might not. And we both know how much advantage Nia gains if she takes the tower.” There’s something in Lexa’s voice that Clarke can’t quite place. Not sadness, not anger, but... “She has managed to bring the absolute last kind of war I want to our doorstep. It’s going to be the days before my ascension all over again -- all that blood and desperation. All that death. Do you remember?” Lexa gives the smallest sigh. “This is how it ends between me and Nia. One way or another.”

 

She’s not afraid, but it’s not quite resignation, either. More like she’s facing the inevitable. 

 

It hits Clarke, sweating hard and breathing in the dirt of impact: Lexa thinks she might die.

 

Oh, fuck that. If she thinks Clarke is going to allow --

 

“That’s why we need the wood witch, Heda.”

 

“I don’t care.” Lexa practically snarls the words, and Clarke starts. “If I give up the flame to the next then so be it. I have served my people. But this will be on my terms, and I don’t care if you think we need her there. I don’t want her. ” 

 

Clarke knows Lexa.

 

She knows when she’s telling the truth.

 

 

~*~

 

Clarke takes a few minutes after the conference room clears to make her way back. No one’s going to come looking for her, anyway. Everything she heard made that clear.

 

Wells hustles her back to his room as soon as she emerges, nervous someone will start asking questions about the state of her face and clothes. And also, he tells her as he clicks his door shut and practically pushes her into his bathroom shower, because she’s getting dirt everywhere.

 

The shower is a good idea. It gives her space to tip her head into the low-pressure stream and breathe, releasing the claustrophobia of the vents, the overall helplessness of being able to only listen as Lexa...

 

She breathes in and out, slowly, steadily, watching the grime wash off to swirl down the drain. 

 

This isn’t the first time she’s felt trapped by the decisions of people who thought they were doing what was best for the good of all. It isn’t the first time that Lexa’s been the architect of her intended confinement. Or even the second. 

 

So stop, she tells the shiver in her bones, acting like this is devastating. This isn’t even new.

 

The water shuts off long before she’s ready to come out, and to Wells’s credit he doesn’t knock on the door to rush her. When Clarke emerges it’s with a clean face, only slightly damp hair, and back in her clothes with the majority of the dust shaken out of them.

 

And a plan.

 

 

~*~

 

She shares it with Lincoln first.

 

He’s hard to get alone. Octavia sticks to him like a shadow, and Bellamy sticks to her like an older brother with a complex. Finn usually follows the three of them around when he’s not by Raven’s bedside, looking lost, or -- when his eyes meet Clarke’s -- guilty.

 

(She shouldn’t feel so angry to see it, not after having her heart broken and pieced together again and then shattered in the meantime, but it’s so hard, sometimes, to bite back the urge to scream at him it was a couple of days, it was a mild flirtation, get over it. If he feels guilty about betraying the girlfriend who risked life and limb for his sake, he can’t make it Clarke’s deal. Clarke is not the one who didn’t take a chance on the person she loved. Clarke is not the one who couldn’t re-assess when circumstances threw them into unimaginable chaos, who couldn’t stop and listen, and who refuses even now to just look... at...

 

... so it’s possible a lot of that anger isn’t really about Finn. Clarke doesn’t have time to think about it.) 

 

She ends up lumping it and joining Finn and Bellamy where they sit outside to watch Octavia and Lincoln spar. It’s a regular evening activity for them, every day an hour or so after dinner. Lexa and her entourage have long since departed for their own camp -- without saying goodbye -- so apparently Lincoln persuaded Octavia there was no more need to hide him in her old under-the-floor space. 

 

“How’d it go?” Bellamy asks when Clarke sits, not looking away from his sister. 

 

“Better than expected.” Clarke inches a little closer, hoping it’ll send a sign to Finn, who is doing something very tiresome where he spends long moments looking at her despairingly, and then long moments where he pretends she doesn’t exist. She thinks it might have succeeded in making her feel sorry for him, some other lifetime. After undergoing a master class in being shut out, however, it feels too blatantly manipulative to tolerate. “No one burned anything down, at least.” 

 

Bellamy makes a sound that isn’t quite a laugh. “Wells almost punched out my spleen when he figured out I helped you. I’m glad it was worth it.” 

 

“Wells wouldn’t do that. He doesn’t get physical with people.”

 

Bellamy slides her a long look out of the corner of his eye. “You’ve been away for a while, princess. A lot has changed.”

 

“Not Wells.”

 

Again with the not-laugh. “If you say so.” He shifts, scratching the side of his face. “So, what, we just sit still and pretend to play nice with the Mountain now? For how long?”

 

“As long as it takes, I guess. I’m sure the Council will put some kind of plan in place, make sure the Wallaces don’t suspect anything.” 

 

“And the rest of the kids from the Skybox -- what? We’re just supposed to give up on them?”

 

She turns to get a better look at him. “I never said that.” 

 

“Yeah? So where’s your plan to go in there and get them? You’ve spent all this time negotiating with your precious Grounders, prioritizing our relationship with them -- what about the people who came down with us? How many of them are still counting on you for a rescue?”

 

She has to clench down, but she doesn’t rise to the bait of Bellamy’s anger -- or his arrogance. She feels like she can read him better, now. Maybe it’s the meetings she spent silent and watchful in a corner while Lexa dealt with representatives who were much more natural in their condescension. Maybe it’s because Bellamy is wearing thin after these last, awful months, but he doesn’t make her want to lash back anymore. 

 

That doesn’t mean she has to take it. She’s done being silent. 

 

“Why me?” she counters. “What about their fearless leader, the one who promised them a world where they could do anything they want?” She draws back, takes a breath. She doesn’t want this to be an actual fight. “Why do you want me to take care of everything?” Barreling on before he can respond: “I’m doing what I can -- I’m doing everything I can -- but this is bigger than just me. Or just you. So you need to start coming up with your own ideas.” 

 

“I tried that. It’s how we got into this mess.”

 

That.... okay, that makes her a lot less angry. “A whole lot of things you had no idea about got us into this. Although yeah, you were a jerk.” He twitches and scowls at that, but she ignores it. “But this war is being fought on too many fronts to take care of everything. You need to step up and try again. Or at least start supporting someone else -- someone who’s got some free time?”

 

His frown deepens. “Why? What are you busy with now that we have a truce with the Grounders?”

 

She forces herself to turn away casually. “Isn’t Raven from Mecha Station?” she asks Finn. She finally does feel a twinge of guilt -- she still hasn’t actually gone and met the girl. She was moved from the infirmary back into her own quarters for recovery, although she still isn’t ready for physical therapy. 

 

Finn almost jumps out of his skin. “Uh. Yeah. Yeah, she’s a zero-G mechanic. Youngest in generations.”

 

“There you go,” Clarke says, turning back to Bellamy. “According to my mom, the Mountain’s advantage is mostly down to their tech. Even if ours is more advanced, they have more of it after ours got wrecked in the crash. Go talk to a tech person about what we could do next. Now, if you don’t have any other problems you want me to solve for you,” as she climbs to her feet, brushing off her pants. She starts walking away before Bellamy can finish his eyeroll. Screw him, anyway, he knows she’s right.

 

She lets the momentum of that exchange carry her forward, unflinching, between the two combatants, forcing them to halt. “Lincoln, train with me for a while.”

 

Octavia makes an incredulous noise behind her. 

 

Lincoln looks like he’d do the same, but he’s too polite. “What do you fight with?”

 

“Whatever lets us talk together,” Clarke says in the Woods Clan language. She doesn’t wait for his response, marching over to Octavia with a hand held out for her weapon.

 

Octavia’s eyes narrow as her grip tightens. “I want in. Whatever this is.”

 

“Lincoln can fill you in,” Clarke says. “But the three of us standing around and talking is a lot more noteworthy than your boyfriend taking ten minutes to kick my ass.” 

 

“No more than ten minutes,” Octavia mutters. She tosses the staff with a bit more force than necessary so that Clarke almost fumbles the catch. “And I get to watch.”

 

Clarke waits until Octavia takes her seat beside Bellamy before switching away from English again with Lincoln: “Okay. I have no idea what I’m doing. Help me make this look good.”

 

Lincoln raises an eyebrow. “Try to find the point of balance between both hands. No, fingers this way,” holding up his own so she can see. He looks thoughtful as she adjusts her grip. “I’m surprised the Comman... that no one trained you in the basics.”

 

“I was a healer apprentice. I guess they thought I was too old to start training into any kind of warrior. Not all of us are Octavia.” 

 

A flash of warmth, and pride, is all she gets for that, right before he snaps his stick across hers in a way that makes her hands sting and she drops it. He waits for her to pick it back up, and does it again.

 

“Lincoln,” is all she says, stooping for the dropped staff.

 

“Watch for it.”

 

She does, and this time... he’s probably moving at one tenth the speed he’d use in a real fight, but it still takes a new kind of focus to see the tell, the shift in his chest muscles and his eyes that show where he’s aiming. She swings her own stick, and he just misses.

 

“Good, but next time don’t move your feet. If you can’t keep your stance you’re stuck on defense.”

 

Clarke plants herself a little more solidly before bringing up her staff. But she’s feeling a little petty -- partly because Bellamy already got a few swings in, partly because she is petty -- so she can’t help saying: “Lexa did teach me how to ride a horse.”

 

Lincon’s next blow lands with a strength that sends a crack echoing through the courtyard. Clarke manages to keep her staff in her hands, though, and she lets herself take some pride in that. “The Commander cared for your safety. The ability to run from a fight is life or death.”

 

“You don’t like it when I call her Lexa.”

 

He aims another strike. Clarke evades it, although he does force her to shift one foot backwards. “I don’t care.”

 

“You do.” She probably wouldn’t have noticed it before living with another tight-lipped Woods Clan warrior, but: “You got angry when you heard about Pike, too.”

 

Way too quick for her this time, he delivers three quick blows. The staff thuds into the dirt, and Clarke’s hands are buzzing from the reverberation of impact. 

 

She sighs, crouching low as she reaches for it again. Her fingers touch the wood, and Lincoln speaks.

 

“I shouldn’t care,” he says, almost too quietly to be heard. “I made my choice.”

 

Clarke stands slowly, letting her staff dip in a way that signals she’s not quite ready to spar again. She hopes. “Why?”

 

He frowns. “Why what?”

 

“Why did you choose against your people? Was it just because of Octavia? Because you were in love with her?”

 

The frown dissolves, leaving an impressively blank expression. “No. It was more than that.”

 

Clarke waits, but when he doesn’t follow that up with an explanation she nods at his own staff. “Can we try it the other way around for a second?”

 

His stance shifts in acceptance. “You won’t score a hit, but as long as you don’t accidentally hurt yourself consider it a win.” 

 

Clarke is miffed for about ten seconds, or around the time it takes to realize how easy Lincoln made striking out with the staff look -- it’s heavy and unwieldy, and it’s a trick to keep herself balanced while the staff moves through the air. She trips over her own ankle with her first attempt and takes it slower after that, nowhere near fighting speed, but at least she’s not flailing.

 

“I was tired of how this world makes us into monsters,” Lincoln says finally, shifting out of her way with the ease of flowing water. “I tried to rescue one of your kind once, and failed. I’ve carried the weight of that death since. I didn’t want any more.”

 

“I released Pike for the same reason.” Clarke keeps her eyes on Lincoln’s staff, but she can feel his on her. “I thought if he could get here in time it would avoid a war. When that failed, I knew I had to come here myself.” She thinks she’s getting the hang of balancing out the weight of the staff with her own, the shifting of feet which gives her the swing without losing steadiness. She tries again, faster this time. “I wasn’t choosing between Lexa’s people and mine. I was choosing hope over a massacre.” 

 

“It doesn’t matter why we chose. We’re still traitors.”  

 

("You will never speak to me like you know me. Not tonight, not ever again.")

 

“Yeah.” Clarke swallows down the lump in her throat. The second’s distraction is enough to make her tip over with the force of her next swing, and she ends up in the dirt, breathing hard. “You were angry about Pike because I took advantage of -- of everything. Because I played Lexa, and despite everything, she’s still your Commander.”

 

“... is she yours?” 

 

Clarke sighs and looks up at him. “No. But she never really was. She and I are... different.” 

 

“Because you were..?”

 

Her cheeks heat. “No. Even before that, we were closer to partners. A partnership,” she amends. “She didn’t command me, or not much. We worked together.” 

 

Clarke is shocked to see something like pity in Lincoln’s expression. But she realizes, as he lifts his gaze and looks at the wall surrounding the Ark, as if through it to the camp deep in the forest, that he’s not directing it at her. 

 

“Lincoln,” she says, leaning forward, “if you chose not being a monster, and I chose preventing hundreds of useless deaths --”

 

“I told you, the reasons don’t matter.”

 

“But we didn’t not choose them,” motioning beyond the wall. “Right?”

 

He sighs and holds out a hand to help her up. “You’re making this too complicated.”

 

She accepts his hand. “I’m not.” As he pulls her up: “Unless these really are your people now, and you think this is where you’re meant to be.”

 

He narrows his eyes. “Don’t you feel that way? Isn’t this your home?”

 

Clarke lets out a long breath. “I...” 

 

She really doesn’t regret leaving Polis for the Ark -- for coming back to what was supposed to be home. But she’s ready to admit it isn’t that. Not anymore. 

 

It’s not any of the Arkers’ faults. Not the myopic, condescending Council’s, not even her mother’s. They’re not the ones who changed.

 

Clarke just hadn’t appreciated how much she had, until she tried to fit back into her old life, her old role, and realized she could barely breathe in this place. 

 

She doesn’t get much sleep, either. Sometimes the tug of scars on her back keeps her awake. Sometimes it’s the knowledge of how Nyko must think of her, now, or Versi. The looks on their faces if she ever saw them again.

 

So maybe she doesn’t have a home anymore. Maybe there’s nowhere she really belongs. Maybe she’s traded that away, too. 

 

This isn’t about getting it back. It’s the same choice as before, just carrying her in a different direction. And that’s why she thinks it’s the right one. 

 

“No,” she says again. “This is bigger than how much they hate us, or the fact that Anya will probably end up cutting us both into pieces with a dull knife.” She meets his eyes. “I’m not needed here. And there’s too much at stake to stay just because here, I’m safe. So I’m going where I’m needed.”

 

“The Commander will have a different opinion. On both of us.”

 

“I’ll risk it. And if you trust me, I’ll talk her out of killing you.”

 

He gives her a look.

 

“Hey," she says lightly. “I talked her out of killing everyone here. What’s one more?” When he doesn’t answer right away, she amends with: “This will be easier with you, but I’m not... I just wanted to give you a choice.” She outlines her plan in broad strokes. She finishes with: “So, you have a couple days to decide.” She gives him a small, tight smile. “Don’t do me any favors. I just think Lexa’s wrong -- you’re not a traitor. Neither am I.” 

 

And Clarke plans to make Lexa eat her words to the Council. But Lincoln doesn’t need to know that part. 

 

Lincoln considers for a moment. “If I join you, Octavia can’t be a part of this.”

 

“I’ll let you handle that.” 

 

She’s pretty sure he’s in for a rude surprise, but like she told Bellamy -- she’s done trying to fix every single problem. She’s delegating. 

 

 

~*~

 

Wells is a lot simpler to deal with.

 

“You’re going with them?” he interrupts, halfway into her spiel. Clarke just nods. “Then I’m going with you.” 

 

“I don’t --” She blinks. She really hadn’t considered... Wells belongs here, safe. Well, safer than marching out to a battlefield full of unfriendly... She wouldn’t have dreamed of asking --

 

“If you leave without me, I’m telling your mom the minute I can’t find you.”

 

“Wells, I... I’m not trying to get away from you, I don’t -- but I can’t --”

 

“So it shouldn’t be an issue. What should I bring, and when are we going?”

 

Simpler, but not easier.

 

“Wells,” she says, just before she’s about to leave him for the night, “you’re not going to get yourself killed because of me, are you?”

 

“You mean like when I got myself thrown in the Skybox for you?” he asks, folding his arms. “Or hey, remember that time I followed you around the woods while surrounded by trigger-happy delinquents who wanted a life without consequences?” 

 

Those memories shouldn’t make her smile. They feel almost nostalgic, now. “Point taken. But...” She thinks about the underlying dread in Lexa’s voice, talking about what was to come. “It’s a war, Wells. This isn’t kids’ stuff.”

 

“Oh, so you think it’s your thing, but not mine.”

 

“I have to go. But I can take care of myself, I did it before. You don’t owe me anything, especially after... Wells, this is serious, and I won’t hate you if you decide I’m not worth all this trouble.”

 

He doesn’t say anything at first, but his expression softens. 

 

“... what?”

 

“How long did it take you to make a plan to come find me, once you found out I might still be alive?”

 

She shrugs. “Not that long. Lexa kept changing her plans for me, which made it harder to -- what?” at his slow-growing smile. 

 

“We’re stuck with each other, Clarke.” 

 

She wraps her arms tight around herself, holding in the feeling that gives her: warmth, relief, gratitude. Good feelings are dangerous. They spill everywhere, making you lose control, making you say things like: “You said you’d watch the Commander. To see... you know.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

The smile has already dropped from his face, but she pushes, anyway: “What did she look like?” When talking about Clarke, or looking at Clarke -- anything.

 

Clarke will take anything. 

 

It's Wells's turn to shrug. “There’s more than one reason I’m not letting you do this alone.” 

 

 

~*~

 

Then, last of all, her mom.

 

Not that she’s telling her mom. 

 

Abby looks up in surprise when Clarke walks into their quarters. Probably because Clarke has made sure not to be there when Abby is, and awake, since the first meeting with Lexa. When Clarke played the card that she knew --

 

“Hi.” 

 

“Hi.” Abby blinks. “Hi, Clarke, honey.” She looks down at the table where she’s sitting, the scant evidence of a rushed dinner. “If I’d known you’d be here, I would have made you something.”

 

“It’s okay.” Clarke leans back against one of the countertops. “I ate earlier.” 

 

Abby stares at her. She swallows and curls the hand on top of the table into a fist. “That was a stupid risk you took, going off into their camp on your own. I didn’t raise you to be so careless with your life.”

 

It makes Clarke relax -- she’s not sure how this would have gone if Abby had tried to be tender, or remorseful. This is much more familiar. “You weren’t listening to me, and neither was anyone else on the Council. You didn’t give me much of a choice.”

 

“I gave you every opportunity to convince me. But you failed, and instead of accepting my decision, you went behind my back and --”

 

The thread of vitriol in Abby’s tone makes it click. “Is that what Dad did?”

 

Abby presses her lips together so hard the skin around her mouth turns white. “Yes.” 

 

Clarke doesn’t break eye contact. “Did you know they would float him?”

 

“It wasn’t an easy decision for the Council, Clarke. Your father was important and well-liked. And when Thelonius was Chancellor he asked for all perspectives, all outcomes to be argued fully.”

 

“But you knew that was probably what would happen.”

 

Her mother doesn’t look away, either. “Yes.”

 

Clarke waits for more. Doesn’t get it. “So why?”

 

Abby closes her eyes, the fine lines around them deepening for a second. “I won’t ever be able to give you an explanation you’ll understand, Clarke. He was your father.”

 

“He was your husband.” Clarke finds she can’t quite force out the words that should come next: why couldn’t you put the person you loved first, why couldn’t you shield them from the consequences. 

 

Abby gives her a helpless look. “I told you, nothing I say --”

 

Clarke holds up her hands. “No, I...” She forces herself to stop, to breathe. “When he told you he was doing what was right, why couldn’t you believe him?”

 

It’s not quite the same thing as -- as she and Lexa in the tower, her back raw with new scars and her voice newly returned in her throat. Not every piece lines up in the same direction. 

 

But...

 

“Clarke.” Abby shakes her head, looks down at the table. Closes her hands into fists and opens them a few times, almost ritualistically, before looking back up with utter desperation in her eyes. “What if he’d been wrong?”

 

No, not the same. 

 

Too close for comfort, though.

 

What if the Arkers had aligned with the Mountain before Clarke had the chance to come back? What if they’d been waiting behind their walls with the Mountain’s weapons, or with reapers? What if the only thing that had ever held the Mountain back -- their inability to live in the sunlight -- was no longer an issue?

 

What if Clarke had been lying?

 

She hadn’t been. Of course. But it wasn’t a great sell, coming off of months of deliberate deception, refusing to learn how to communicate, and then, of course, releasing a prisoner of war. Was it. 

 

From that perspective...

 

“Did you love him?” she hears herself asking, as if from far away. “Even when you..?”

 

It relaxes her mother, which Clarke didn’t expect. But then maybe this is the one question she actually anticipated. “Yes,” Abby says, and everything about her -- the way she holds herself up, the deep resonance of her voice -- convinces.

 

“Okay.” Clarke nods, once. “Okay.”

 

Her fingers itch to reach up into her hair and --

 

“Are we okay, Clarke?”

 

Clarke blinks away her thoughts and tries to concentrate on the woman in front of her. “We’ll get there, I think.” 

 

Now Abby brings her arms in, hands gripping each other -- as if she wants to reach out to her daughter, but knows how it would probably be received. “I’m glad,” she says, with a smile that’s shaky around the edges. “I know it’s... it’s a lot, Clarke. But we’ll take each day as it comes.”

 

Except it’s their last day. 

 

Which is where Clarke finds the strength to walk over to her mother and put a hand on top of hers, leaning into her shoulder. She can’t do any more -- there’s still so much anger. Clarke’s only now realizing how much of the past days has been moving inside the heart of a storm that rages just at the end of her fingertips. 

 

But it’s not all for Abby, and so Clarke holds still when her mother twists their hands together and squeezes. Who knows when they might meet again? Clarke’s been moving inside of her anger and hurt for this long -- she can manage a little longer.

 

 

~*~

 

Clarke lies awake in bed long after the lights go off and the sounds of her mother preparing for sleep fall into silence. Her door locks, so she doesn’t bother to change out of her clothes or get under the covers. Her small pack is ready and waiting on her desk. All she has left to do is stare at the numbers on the clock in the darkness, waiting for the minutes to tick by.

 

Her fingers are tangled so tightly with the thin braid in her hair that the weight of her hand is a constant, painful pull against her scalp.

 

It doesn’t make any sense to her. 

 

Clarke shifts restlessly, curling up on her side. She still can’t lie on her back for very long. 

 

She’d found more time to ask Lincoln about it in the days they used to cement the plan. The four of them -- Wells and Octavia as well, because Lincoln failed there as miserably as Clarke predicted -- were a lot less conspicuous in a group than just her and Lincoln together, so there was that silver lining. She’d tried to focus on that, whenever they got together, instead of the sinking guilt of dragging two more people to the front lines of a war that had nothing to do with them. 

 

“I know it makes you uncomfortable,” she said to Lincoln in a language no one else at the table could follow, “but can I ask you about the braid?” Wells and Octavia had been too busy arguing over who would have more luck stealing rations from the kitchen workers (Octavia maintained that Wells hadn’t stolen a thing in his life, while Wells came back with “Why steal anything when I can play the pitiful new orphan to be consoled with extra food?” “What makes you think that will work?” “Because they’ve been offering, Octavia.”) to notice. Besides, Clarke tried to make a habit of speaking like she was still part of the Woods Clan for a few minutes each day at least -- it eased an ache she didn’t otherwise care to name, or examine. 

 

Lincoln gave her an impassive look -- but that might have been because they were eating. He was always very methodical at mealtimes, she noticed: cutting his food into pieces, chewing just as much as necessary, and swallowing almost too quickly to be safe. Definitely too quickly to taste much. She’s never seen him eat anything besides Ark fare, but she’s willing to bet this isn’t how he usually treats his food. 

 

“I’m not taking it out,” is what he said after washing down his last mouthful. 

 

“I’m not asking you to,” Clarke retorted, and then made herself pause. “Why not?”

 

He grimaced. “Because I don’t want to fight the Commander of the twelve clans for you.” 

 

The thought left Clarke a little breathless. “Does it -- do I belong to her, with this thing still in my hair?”

 

Lincoln scowled. “What did you people do to each other up in the sky? No person owns another.” Shaking his head: “Octavia doesn’t expect me to act that stupid, does she?”

 

“So what are you talking about?”

 

Lincoln pushed his plate away with the air of leaving a bloodied enemy’s body on the field of battle. “I don’t know how to explain it to you, or what your people have that’s the same. A braid is a braid.”

 

She directed a look at his shaven head. “You don’t favor them.”

 

“Not wearing them. No.”

 

“Because you don’t want others to claim you?”

 

He frowned. “You have it backward. A braid doesn’t leave you marked. It’s... a promise. From the person who gave it freely.”

 

“A promise to what?”

 

“To...” For the first time, Lincoln truly seemed at a loss for words. “It’s not a promise to do anything. It’s a promise of self.”

 

Clarke adjusted her mental translation: pledge, not promise. To devote.

 

“One person can carry the braids of many others, but if one of those tried to undo someone else’s braid, they’d be saying that person is unworthy. That their promise” (devotion, Clarke corrected herself) “falls short of the mark.” He shrugged. “Which is when the Commander would remove my ribs with her bare hands, even after what you did.” 

 

Clarke found it in herself to smile. “You don’t want anyone to devote themselves to you, Lincoln?”

 

He was quiet for a long moment -- long enough for Clarke to wonder if she should apologize for the question, and then: “For a long time, I wanted to stand apart from those things. I feared myself, and what I was capable of. I feared the wounds that life could give me. No, I didn’t want to be anyone else’s devotion.” 

 

“... and now?”

 

“There is more than one way to pledge yourself to someone. A braid between lovers is very,” and then he used a word she didn’t know, and the nostalgia of it was almost too much. When she asked him to explain -- and that was new, that was nice -- he returned with: “Don’t you tell stories of the people who lived before you? Not just in your mother’s time, but in your grandmother’s grandmother’s time?” 

 

Old-fashioned, Clarke thought, but then he continued: “Stories of great courage, great love? Great battles lost, and we tell the stories to keep the dead alive in the only way that’s left?”

 

Mythic was probably a closer word, then. Clarke nodded. 

 

“It’s from those kinds of stories. Most of them are from so long ago that each clan has their own version -- your people probably have them, too. But you think of them as,” and he used a word that sounded like a compound, a combination of dust and broken, “just like the people under the Mountain. They lock these things up in rooms, and Octavia says you keep yours in machines,” using the English word. “But it’s different for us, the clans. We survived the fire, and the poison, and the dark. They were not just stories for us. Many people thought they were only fit for children, for ceremony, but for others they were a reminder that a better world existed, once. It could come back again.”

 

... oh. Oh. 

 

Chivalric.  

 

A token of devotion that was more than heart or mind, but soul. 

 

“Does the person who inspires devotion have a choice?” she asked Lincoln. “Or do they have to shave their heads to avoid... tokens,” switching to English for the last word. 

 

“If you don’t accept it, why hold still for it?” He grimaced. “Or let someone else remove it if you don’t want it gone?”

 

“What if the other person doesn’t understand what it means to accept?” she asked. 

 

Lincoln gave her a long, considering look. “Most clans know. Even before the Coalition there were alliances between two or three clans at a time. They never lasted long. But it was enough to trade languages, customs. It was important to know the enemy.” 

 

That would explain why Versi’s take on it had been a little different, a little less... nuanced. “You just said you were allies.”

 

His eyes were dark. “Back then, it was only a matter of time.” He shrugged off the heaviness of the moment. “But as I told you before, it asks nothing of the person who receives the braid. You don’t promise anything. And it’s easy enough to remove, if you want.”

 

Clarke’s private wrangling with the thing would beg to differ, but maybe that’s because she wasn’t raised knowing special Woods Clan braid-knotting magic, or whatever it was that Lexa did. 

 

She could, of course, just cut the damn thing off.

 

She hasn’t yet.

 

“Do people ever ask someone to take out a braid they gave?”

 

“Of course.” She saw him come to the decision to share: “Lexa asked Costia to remove hers, after the,” and again, he used a word she didn’t know.

 

That time she just asked him to translate. “Ascension,” he told her in English. “When she defeated the other nightbloods to become Commander.”  

 

Something about his emphasis -- or lack of it? -- on “defeated” made Clarke pause. “What do the nightbloods who aren’t chosen to be Commander do, after that?” 

 

She realized, a second later, that she’d never seen Lincoln so visibly uncomfortable before. It still wasn’t very obvious, but she already knew him well enough to understand what it meant when he refused to raise his eyes from the pitted tabletop.

 

“Lincoln,” she said softly. 

 

She’d wondered about it, even in the tower. Why Lexa seemed so alone and set apart if she had been raised in a gaggle like the other nightbloods. Why she treated them with such aching tenderness. 

 

She thinks part of her must have guessed it all along. The Grounder world was so violent, so stark: she had to have known there was no happy secret to explain missing children. 

 

He finally returned her gaze. “I told you: this world makes us all monsters.” 

 

Clarke’s skin prickled. Part of her wanted to refuse the idea, to protest that wasn’t Lexa.

 

At the same time it was like a puzzle piece slotting into place. 

 

If you’re told often enough, and early enough, that the price of your destiny is the sacrifice of the ones you love...  

 

At some point, it has to become almost easy to accept. 

 

The knowledge settled with a dull ache, but it also made things simpler. Because of course she’d second-guessed herself and wondered if it was too big a risk, but this made it obvious: she had to go back to Polis. And she had no idea how, but she knew she wasn’t going to let the current crop of nightbloods suffer the same fate. 

 

Among other things.

 

“Because Heda can’t be pledged like that to one person, right?” she asked when she could find her voice again. 

 

Lincoln nodded. “Costia understood. She was training to be the Flamekeeper -- it might have been her idea. But Lexa undoing the braid herself would have sent the wrong message.”

 

“Did she,” Clarke asked, impulsively, “Costia, I mean, did she ever... give the Commander..?”

 

His face did something complicated, and Clarke wondered just how much time he must have spent with Costia to recognize Lexa’s braids -- if they were better friends than she first assumed. “I’m not sure she would have thought to. Heda wears many braids that are symbolic of her people’s devotion, so for one person to add their own would be... strange? And Costia wasn’t Woods Clan -- even if she had, it wouldn’t be the same.”

 

“Why not?” Clarke asked, feeling unsettled for some reason. 

 

“I love Octavia,” and part of Clarke burned to hear him say it so easily, “but she grew up with different stories. I can’t expect her to feel what I feel, in the same way. I don’t need her to.”

 

Octavia turned her head to look over her shoulder at them both. “Okay, that’s three times you’ve said my name.” Her eyes narrowed. “That means I get to know why you’re talking about me.”   

 

“Lincoln was just explaining why it isn’t important if you never give him a braid,” Clarke said, putting her chin in her hand. Lincoln... almost made a noise, she saw him swallow it at the last second. 

 

Octavia just widened her eyes before turning fully around to face Lincoln. 

 

“I don’t, I never wanted --” And Clarke is mean, but part of her enjoyed seeing Lincoln as discombobulated as he had just made her feel.

 

“I know,” Octavia interrupted him. She reached out and placed her palm directly on his scalp, just behind his temple. “And I wouldn’t change anything about you.” She smiled -- Clarke realized with a start it was the same smile as when they first set foot on the ground. “It’s you and me, anyway.”

 

Slowly, slowly, Lincoln’s expression lightened into something Clarke was tempted to call his version of a smile. He tipped his head forward, and Octavia leaned in until their foreheads touched.

 

A small groan drew Clarke’s attention to Wells, who rolled his eyes. “Prepare yourself,” he said under his breath. “They do this kind of thing. A lot.”

 

Clarke managed a sympathetic smile to share with him, although it hurt. Just seeing the two of them, like that, tore her up until she could barely breathe. 

 

She got control of herself anyway, because that’s what she did these days. “Well?” she asked, back to Woods Clan language while Octavia turned back to Wells with a snippy remark. 

 

Lincoln stroked his chin, looking thoughtful. “Maybe if I grow a beard..?” 

 

Now, Clarke sits up in bed.

 

That conversation was two days ago. She’s been playing it back in her head each night since. 

 

She’s adjusted to the relative darkness of the room, and when she raises her head she can see herself in the mirror on the other side of the small room. 

 

She isn’t leaving the Ark for Lexa. It’s not like Lincoln and Octavia: the two of them defying all else for the sake of each other. Clarke still has a role to play in all of this, a purpose, and if anyone is going to take it from her... well, it won’t be Lexa who succeeds. That’s what they come down to in the end. 

 

But.

 

She pulls the braid forward, apart from the rest of her hair. It’s too slender to pick out the details of the pattern in the mirror, but by now it’s practically imprinted on the skin of Clarke’s fingertips. 

 

They had something, once. Clarke hadn’t even known they did when it was happening -- she thinks Lexa must have counted on her not knowing Woods Clan customs, at least not in depth. And then Clarke burned it all down, metaphorically. Even a little bit literally.

 

Now Lexa is more than ready to return the favor, if her ring of fire around the Ark was any hint.

 

But

 

She’s still very aware of the new, sensitive skin of the healing scars on her back. Every time she moves the wrong way there’s a twinge -- almost, but not quite, like the shock she gets every time she brushes her hair away from her face and feels the shift and weight of that secret braid. 

 

Clarke squeezes her eyes shut and asks herself: what do you want?

 

She stays like that for a long time -- until time runs out, and she has to leave her bed. And the Ark. 

 

She still doesn’t know the answer.

 

 

~*~

 

It’s actually very easy for the four of them to escape the compound, for two reasons.

 

The first being that Abby is not expecting it. Not like this -- she’s been watching Clarke since Lexa and her core contingent headed back to Polis, but for a tantrum. Or a confrontation. Either way, she thinks Clarke will come to her, ask her for permission, however unaware Clarke might be that she’s doing it. Abby expects it because that is what Clarke does -- even before sneaking out to parlay with Lexa, Clarke spent days trying to talk her and the Council around. That’s how they are. 

 

Only Clarke has decided, after successfully drawing Lexa into peace talks, and after listening to Lexa and her mother manage her fate: it’s how they were.

 

The guards on the wall are nowhere near as vigilant as they used to be, knowing Lexa and the bulk of her troops are no longer hiding in the woods. Just in those few days they’ve become downright arrogant, re-assuming the kind of swagger and strut Clarke remembers from the corridors of Alpha Station. Not all of them are the same guards -- there was a recruitment drive after the arrival on Earth and the need for heightened vigilance. A lot of the newer guards are cocky, wannabes who never made the cut before demand outstripped supply, the kind of Arkers most likely to be loud about their distrust of Grounders. They tend to band together and take the same shifts in the dark hours of the earliest morning, when there’s barely any activity to report or respond to. Clarke, who knew a few of the older guards on sight, didn’t have trouble finding out when those were.    

 

The second reason Clarke thinks they can do this is Lincoln.

 

“You realize,” Octavia says, as she and Clarke and Wells watch Lincoln approach the guards at the gate from the shadows, “that if they really hurt him, I’ll end you.”

 

Wells makes an exasperated noise, but Clarke feels for her. And she understands watching someone you love walk away from you into danger. “Fair,” is the only response she gives, and keeps her eyes trained on Lincoln’s back where he stands and calls out to the guards, one hand leading Storm by the reins.

 

(“She’ll make it even more convincing,” Clarke told him earlier, at Storm’s makeshift paddock. She’d already given Storm all the rehydrated carrots she picked out of that evening’s dinner, which Storm had eaten doubtfully. “A horse means long distances -- and they think of her as a Grounder animal. Deep down they want her gone, too.” 

 

Lincoln was unamused. “I don’t ride horses. They’re for open battle, or retreat.”

 

“We are retreating. Kind of.” Clarke leaned into Storm’s side, one arm slung over her neck. “She’s helped me save everyone. Twice. I can’t just leave her.”

 

“It will be twice as difficult to cover our tracks. Why should I get that trouble just because you’ve fallen in love with the Commander’s old horse?”

 

“Wait, how did you know she used to be Lexa’s?” 

 

“She’s only had two, and her mounts almost have as many kills as a blooded warrior. We tell stories about our leaders, Clarke, the Commander more than any of them.” He pointed an accusing finger. “I know five involving this animal alone.”   

 

Clarke leaned in close. “Hear that, girl? You’re famous,” she whispered. Storm’s ears flickered as she whuffed Clarke’s jacket, searching out more limp carrots. “Doesn’t that make her some kind of clan treasure, then? Can you really abandon her to the care of Sky People?”

 

Lincoln glared.)

 

Clarke can see the moment the guards take the bait: they turn toward Lincoln almost as one, stepping away from their posts to form a loose knot around him. They look almost comical in comparison -- shorter, scrawnier, angrier -- but she can also see the sudden tension in Lincoln’s body. “Now,” she whispers to the others. They don’t go for the main gate -- they scale up the wall, instead, hoisting each other up and onto the top.

 

They’ve thrown their packs over the side, and Octavia and Clarke each have one of Wells’s arms as they help lower him down to the ground with them, when they hear Lincoln grunt in pain.

 

Octavia whips around, dropping Wells (who only falls a couple feet, landing with an “oof”) and getting her clothes tangled in the loops of barbed wire. The latter is what saves them, because it catches her long enough for Clarke to drag her back down into a crouch. “Don’t,” she hisses. 

 

“Kelsey McGillan just hit him,” Octavia chokes out.

 

Clarke digs her fingers into the other girl’s arms. “He’s a distraction, that's the whole point. And if you don’t get on the ground, he’ll have let this happen for no point.

 

Octavia wrenches herself free with something that sounds like a sob, practically throwing herself down onto the ground below. Clarke waits to see her get to her feet -- it looks like she didn’t sprain anything, which makes them lucky, because that was stupid -- before looking back.

 

She’s just in time to see Lincoln catch another punch. At least it’s a bad one. There’s a reason Troy Nakamura was never awarded a level in self-defense class, even though he bragged about re-enrolling every year. Lincoln is clearly overplaying his reactions, and Clarke’s chest loosens in relief. She catches his eye and gives the okay signal before slowly squirming over the wall, lowering herself into Wells’s supportive hands. 

 

They agreed on five minutes longer after that, enough time to sprint across the clearing and into the woods. Lincoln had spent the days before surveying where he thought they could run without finding a Woods Clan camp. 

 

They must make it in under three minutes. Clarke knows they had to overestimate, allow for anything to go wrong, but she feels genuinely guilty for the extra minutes where they all -- but especially Octavia -- have to hide themselves and wait.

 

When Lincoln finally makes his way across the tree line Octavia throws herself at him.

 

“You okay?” Clarke asks him, a little shaky. She doesn’t use English because he deserves the chance to tell the truth. And if he isn’t okay, she deserves to hear it.

 

He gives her a disbelieving look as he drops Storm’s reins to wrap his arms around Octavia. “I’ve been hit harder by Woods Clan children. And I only had to hit back once -- they were happy enough to believe I was a deserter and let me go after that.”  

 

Clarke isn’t quite sure that’s something to brag about, but she’s not going to stand up for people she deliberately picked as cowards and bullies. She’s about to offer him something for the slight swelling of his face, but Octavia reaches up and drags it down to hers before Clarke can open her mouth.

 

Two seconds into some very aggressive kissing, Wells sighs heavily. “I warned you,” he mutters to Clarke as he picks up Octavia’s pack, along with his own, and starts trudging deeper into the woods as a not-so-subtle hint. Lincoln follows soon after, pulling Octavia along.

 

Clarke brings up the rear with Storm. She takes a moment: she can still make out the dark shape of the fallen Ark through the trees. She waits, looking back at it, for some last twinge -- of regret, of self-doubt, of feeling like she’s leaving home.

 

There’s nothing. 

 

“Bye, Mom,” she says softly, and walks into the woods.

 

 

~*~

 

Lincoln doesn’t have any trouble finding the trail of Lexa’s caravan. They have to make sacrifices to catch up, sleeping only a few hours at a time and eating from their packs’ rations as they walk. But Storm turns out to be an unexpected bonus, smart enough to start fidgeting and blowing a couple times before even Lincoln hears the search parties about to stumble across them. Clarke insists on a separate hiding place whenever that happens, because she won’t leave the horse and she refuses to risk the others. But after the first two sunsets, they stop hearing people call out Clarke and Wells and Octavia’s names among the trees, and Lincoln admits he’s glad they brought the animal. 

 

It’s several days after that Lincoln finally comes back from his nightly scout-aheads and tells them the Commander’s forces are camped out in a nearby clearing.  

 

Clarke stands. “Let’s get this over with,” she says. She feels a weariness that has nothing to do with the trials of the last handful of days, and when Wells wordlessly rises to walk behind her she doesn’t have the energy to protest. She just reaches out for his hand.

 

They have to be careful to make sure it happens well away from Lincoln and Octavia, in case this doesn’t turn out well. But it doesn’t take long to let themselves get captured by Lexa’s scouts. 

 

 

~*~

 

Well, Lexa is looking at Clarke, now.

 

And she’s furious.

 

“Search the woods,” she says, voice gravelly with restrained emotion. “The traitor’s the one that got them this far -- there’s no way a couple of Sky People were able to track and follow us without being noticed.” 

 

Wells throws a look at Clarke. The way Lexa says “Sky People” doesn’t bode well.

 

Neither does her next move, which is to order Clarke and Wells tied to stakes in the middle of the camp. “I have no intention of disturbing the rest of my night for this,” she says before she disappears into her tent.

 

Her warriors aren’t vicious in carrying out her command. They do their work quickly and efficiently, even though it would be very easy in these circumstances to leave a few bruises, pull a few muscles. Once they’re finished, Clarke’s bonds don’t even cut off the circulation. But she’s still sitting on the ground with a pole rigid against her spine and her hands lashed together behind her back, completely immobilized, and the cold of night beginning to creep in.

 

“Clarke,” Wells says quietly, once the guards have moved back to their regular posts and the general interest of the camp in their presence dies down, “can you give me an honest answer to one question, please.”

 

“Yeah, okay,” Clarke says. She’s a little distracted -- shouldn’t she be able to stand up, at least? The angle of the pole prevents her from getting her legs under her, so apparently not, the mechanics of this set-up are kind of impressive.

 

“What now?”

 

Clarke slumps the few inches she gained back down into the dirt. She lets out a sigh. “We made it here, Wells. She’s got to come out and talk to us eventually.”

 

“I don’t mean it that way. I haven’t asked because we’ve been surrounded by other people, but, come on. Just between you, me, and everything you haven’t told me about the Commander. Do you have any idea what you’re doing?” 

 

If Clarke turns her head she’d be looking at Lexa’s tent. She can just catch the light within from the corner of her eye. 

 

But if Lexa could resist looking, so can Clarke. For now. 

 

“No,” she says. “Not really.” 

 

All around them the shadows lengthen, and a long night approaches. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(next chapter)

 

“We all have something to protect, Klark kom Skaikru,” and Clarke almost jumps to hear her name pronounced in the sharper consonants and deeper vowels of the Woods Clan accent. “Whatever you think, I don’t want you dead because you’re the most vicious, manipulative bitch I’ve ever met. You are, but I want you dead because you’re that, and you’re not on my side.” 

 

“I am, though,” Clarke says, although she takes a second to gather herself. Coming from Anya, it's... further from an insult than expected. “I am now.”