She wasn’t prepared for it.
Maybe she could have handled it, if it happened in the middle of camp. She could have run, then, back to the tent she shared with her friends. Maybe found one of them there. Used their presence as a bulwark against this.
She hadn’t needed backup when she saw him in front of Lexa’s tent, and he’d threatened her, then. But she’d been ready for it. She’d been on the alert, every inch of her aware. She hadn’t been in her own place, doing her work, feeling secure in the way she fit into the organism of the healers’ tent, of the entire camp, like a hand into a glove. She’d been... happy. And then she looked up.
Well, it happened. And it happened when she was working. She has responsibilities. She can’t run from them.
(She did, though.)
At least she didn’t run too far. She can be proud of that. Right?
It isn’t Hern’s fault. He doesn’t know. Definitely not about... and not how she’d only just managed to start drawing deep, even breaths again. Too quickly, if she’s being honest, but why be honest.
Hern drawing aside the fabric that sections off the pharmacy makes her breathing shallow again, a constriction at her sternum like a rubber band. Breath whistles through her throat.
She has to get it together, or he’s going to ask --
“Clarke.” He doesn’t try to approach her, sitting on the ground, back against the tent wall where it’s stretched tight to the ground. “He’s gone. Sanga patched him up and sent him away.”
She really hadn’t been prepared. It’s not any help now, to think what she could have done.
The fact remains that when Gustus walked into the healer’s tent, Clarke had made a sound like someone’s elbow caught her stomach. And even knowing she’d caught the attention of others, she couldn’t stop her body’s instinctive response -- at the sight of him the blood had drained from her face so quickly it felt like rivulets of raw egg sliding down her cheeks, her neck, sparking tiny shivers all over that still haven’t passed.
She’s just glad she kept it together enough to turn around and hide in the pharmacy. Not that she’s... she’s not scared. If anything, she feels numb -- a little detached and observant, able to catalogue what she’s doing or how she’s acting but somehow unable to connect to it. She feels fine. It’s the rest of her she can’t control.
Or -- maybe it’s the other way around, maybe this feeling is at the very limits of control, and she’s afraid even the smallest loosening of her grip could let loose something... something she doesn’t want.
She shuts her eyes. She couldn’t make herself do that before, but -- Hern is in the room, now. He doesn’t like her anymore. But she still trusts him. Breaking that sensory input gives her the wherewithal to bring moisture into her mouth, swallow. Say: “I’m fine.”
She is. She’s not in the dark, like she was when --
And she’s not -- Gustus isn’t going to come in here and -- he can’t come in here --
Brains are stupid, Clarke decides. You subject them to a painful sensory overload once, and they pull this shit. Talking to the Council didn’t make her feel like this, and they’d locked her in solitary for a year.
Or, they’d had the guards do it, and Clarke hadn’t bothered to interact with any back at the fallen Ark. When she’d seen the Council again it wasn’t like she had the memory of their voices asking the same questions, over and over again, their presence at her back while --
Her back feels like it’s on fire.
“Okay,” Hern says, and goes back to the main area.
Clarke wraps her arms tighter around herself, grits her teeth, and shakes.
Lexa doesn’t ask if she’s fine. Doesn’t even say her name, which, that’s too bad, Lexa seems to enjoy that. She just walks into the pharmacy and over to Clarke, slowly, and kneels. Not too close -- far away enough that the animal part of Clarke’s brain can pretend it’s not caged.
It’s a nice gesture, though it’s not really needed at this point. It’s been at least fifteen minutes since Hern left, and the panic attack has passed. Clarke’s glad; she’s not sure she could live with the guilt that Lexa might drop everything the moment she hears Clarke is having a rough morning. They have jobs to do. That’s the whole point of how hard they fought to get here.
But she’s not shaking, anymore, and she doesn’t feel like... she’s just tired.
“I made him come back to base camp,” Lexa says, from where she’s kneeling. “He’s been -- he’s part of the mobile unit on the field. He’s usually in command, there, when I have to be somewhere else.” She swallows. “He was injured very badly in the last attack. He’s too important for me to risk losing, so I sent him here, to safety, to recuperate. Some of his stitches broke while he slept.”
The irony, Clarke thinks, is that Gustus has no real stake in this game. He probably didn’t like Clarke, once he heard who she was and how she’d ended up as Lexa’s favorite -- but nothing he’d done to her had been personal. He was doing his job.
He was following Lexa’s orders.
It’s almost funny, then, that it's the sight of him, and not...
It’s not funny.
“Clarke,” Lexa whispers.
She’s stiff in every muscle when she shifts, flexing her fingers from their death grip on her arms and sitting up. Her spine cracks when she forces it straight -- out of the curved, cowering position she’d taken up against the far wall. Her brain feels like it’s rattling around inside the emptiness of her skull, but she can still work. She’ll hand off all the stuff that requires actual coordination to Hern. Hydrate. Sit down a lot.
Stuff still needs to get done, whether or not she feels like she can handle it.
“I’m --” She can’t quite choke out the lie of being alright. She takes a deep breath instead, and then another one. “Tell him to send a message next time. I’ll have one of the healers go to him.”
Lexa is watching her carefully. “Would you turn him away, if he could not?” There’s no judgment in the question, she’s just the commander of an army asking if her second-in-command would ever be denied medical treatment.
“No.” She can say that pretty easily, so it must be true. She tries it again: “No. If he’s that incapacitated, and he can’t send someone or waste any time -- I'll handle it. In the meantime, I’m allowed to make my life the tiniest bit easier.” She meets Lexa’s eyes. She wonders what’s in her own, that the other girl flinches. “I’m allowed that much.”
The moments tick by in silence, neither of them speaking, the only noises coming from the main tent and just outside it: talk, snatches of laughter, general business. It’s not a comfortable silence, but not uncomfortable, either. Neutral. Clarke thinks she might prefer the restfulness of that, after so much emotion all at once.
She can see the gathering of energy as Lexa prepares to rise to her feet, and says: “Wait.”
Lexa settles immediately, expectant. Clarke holds up a finger -- she needs... she hasn’t actually wrestled the remainder of emotion inside her into words, she just needs...
“Do you remember when we talked in the forest? About apologies, and what you deserve?”
Clarke is looking down at the ground -- it’s easier to concentrate when she doesn’t have to see Lexa’s face. She only hears the quiet “yes” in reply.
“Okay. Good.” She curls all her fingers back into her palm, thumb folded over them in protection. “I want you to say it anyway. To me, right now.
“Not because you deserve any kind of reply,” she continues, a little quicker. “Not even because you might or might not do things differently, if you could go back in time. This isn’t about -- this isn’t about anything, except you and me. And I want to hear it. I want to hear you say --” She has to cut herself off, the rise of emotion fast and frenzied, an unstable engine choking on fuel in her chest.
She breathes in and out until she can speak without feeling like her bones are about to rattle apart: “I want to hear you say it.”
She directed all of this at the ground, still unsure what it would do to her to look up. She keeps her eyes down after, waiting.
So she sees the shuffle of Lexa’s knees first, scooting closer. And then the hand Lexa sends into her field of vision -- reaching, but carefully, giving Clarke every opportunity to shy from it or move out of range. Clarke doesn’t want to do either of those things, and so there goes the second hand. Lexa’s wearing those gloves again, the ones with tiny little bones fashioned from silver along the long fingers. The sight burns away at Clarke’s protective numbness, a little bit. She loves the stupid things.
Both hands finally make contact, one on either side of her face. Lexa lifts her head slowly, gently. She’s a lot taller like this, with Clarke sitting and Lexa on her knees. Lexa has to tilt Clarke’s face up to bring her own in close -- again, so slowly, giving Clarke the chance to move away.
Clarke doesn’t. Lexa keeps her hands on Clarke’s face and leans across, and down a little, bringing their foreheads together in the lightest of touches. Her hair falls from behind one shoulder, making a curtain that muffles the already dim light in this section of the tent. It makes the space seem even smaller, like the width between their bodies only.
“I’m sorry,” Lexa breathes. Her thumbs brush over Clarke’s cheeks -- again, lightly, lightly, like she’s afraid Clarke will break. Or like a child who’s already broken whatever was precious. “I’ll never be able to tell you how much. I can’t --” She shakes her head, and although she’s so close Clarke can see the savage way she bites into her lip. “I won't ever stop being sorry, even if you forgive me. I’m not sure I want to. If you have to live with this, then so will I.”
She draws back, her mouth looking almost raw. Her eyes are dark with all the pain Clarke won’t allow herself to feel.
It... eases. Almost like a bonding agent poured into the deep cracks -- Clarke can still feel the fractures in her soul, but she can feel what’s holding them together, too.
They stay like that for how long, Clarke doesn’t know: her sitting, blissfully empty of feeling, Lexa kneeling over her, watching her with an intensity that feels like the only thing tethering Clarke to herself.
Someone calls for Heda, outside. Lexa shifts further back, onto her heels, her hands the last to slip away with obvious reluctance. She rebuilds her walls as Clarke watches -- slipping out of their stolen moment and back into the role that’s needed.
Clarke doesn’t resent her for it, not even a little bit. She’ll have to do the same thing in a few minutes.
Then Lexa reaches back. She brushes away a tear Clarke didn’t notice falling down her own cheek with rough fingertips, and then curls her fingers around it like a weird memento, before she rises and goes.
Nothing could have prepared her for when Wells is brought to the healers’ tent on a stretcher.
She can see how bad it is in a single glance. His color is -- bad -- and the looseness of his body where one arm flops over the edge, one ankle, makes her go cold.
Clarke doesn’t even remember, later, rushing over from the other side of the tent or pushing other people out of the way to get to him. It’s just: the sight of them bringing him through the entrance and then, blink, she’s feeling for his pulse and holding her hand in front of his open lips in hopes of breath.
“What happened?” she demands. His pulse is horrifyingly faint, but at least the whisper of air coming from his mouth is steady, in and out. She can’t see any injury. That scares her more than the rest.
“Ambush,” comes a voice from right beside her. She turns to see Anya, breathing hard from helping to carry Wells. She’s covered in blood, practically sticky with it -- but from the bright anger in her eyes, Clarke doesn’t think any of it is her own. “He spent the last few days with Heda on the southern ridge. They’re planning on drawing out Nia’s soldiers there, forcing an attack in a few hours, so she sent him back to base camp for a rest.” (Clarke has the errant thought: someone ought to be put in charge of telling Lexa to take a break.) “They must have staked out the route back days ago. They were waiting for us.”
“For Wells?” Clarke asks. It takes effort to let go of Wells’s wrist, to let others lift him into a cot.
“Has he told you what he’s been doing out there?”
He has not. He’s made a point of it, actually, saying stuff like, “Remember when you decided you were just going to stay on the front lines of a losing war and not come back to safety with me?” whenever she asks. Clarke figured he wasn’t really mad at her, more making his point that when she didn’t listen to him, there were always going to be consequences. Petty, petty consequences.
Except she would have pelted him with half-burned leftovers until he talked if she’d known he was in this kind of danger. Anywhere near it.
“He’s good,” Anya continues, not waiting for her answer. “He and the Commander both have an eye for strategy, and when they work off each other... Nia’s generals have noticed the results.” Her mouth tightens. “I pushed him down, out of the way of their weapons, but he slipped and hit his head on a rock.”
He doesn’t wake on his own, or with a light slap to the cheek. When Clarke pushes back Wells’s eyelids his pupils contract, even in the low light of the infirmary, and Clarke is swept with a relief so strong she understands religion for a second. There’s a slight split on the back of his head, but it’s clotting already. She does a quick check all over, lifting up his clothes with a mental apology. No other bumps or swelling, no wounds or stings.
It could have been worse. Looking at the blood decorating Anya’s clothes in arcing, arterial spurts, it could have been much worse. Still, she has a renewed respect for what Lexa must have felt like, discovering her wood witch lacked even the most basic training in self-defense.
The others, she notices, are waiting to hear her verdict -- Anya and beyond her, Versi and Hern. She thinks maybe if she looked to her blind spot she’d see Sanga hovering in the shadows.
“Concussion,” she tells them, and they must have guessed it already, but it still ratchets up the tension in this corner of the tent. He’s already lost consciousness, which means there’s nothing they can do, really. Not with what they have. Nothing but sit and wait.
Clarke has a split second to consider... what, finding a wagon or something, throwing Wells in the back, hitching it to Storm and riding for the Ark? It’s a stupid idea, putting someone with a head injury in that kind of setup. Not to mention the danger in Clarke venturing outside of camp with Nia still looking for her chance.
She wants to, anyway. The Ark would have supplies. Machines to check for a brain bleed. IV drips to keep him hydrated before he wakes up.
He’s going to wake up.
She forces her racing mind to calm. “We’ll watch him in shifts.” In case he takes any kind of turn.
“I can stay with him.”
“You need to get cleaned up, first,” she tells Anya. “No,” when the other woman makes as if to protest, “you’re a hazard to other patients with that blood everywhere. Wash, eat, and be back in an hour.” And because her best friend won’t sit up, open his eyes, and look at her, and Clarke is not the only one who takes refuge in being petty when she’s scared -- which is part of why they’re best friends -- she finishes with: “Sanga, stay with him until she comes back.”
It speaks to how scared they all are that he immediately comes forward and sits, instead of pretending not to hear her.
If only, Clarke thinks bleakly as she turns back to her own duties, that made her feel any better.
Wells doesn’t wake up. The battle Lexa sent him away from rages on -- Clarke hears the reinforcements assemble and head out, deals with the injured that can survive the trip back to base camp from the bloody field. It’s enough of a demand on her attention to keep her from hovering over Wells and checking his pulse every sixty seconds, but only just.
It helps when Anya comes back. “Get back on duty. Use my station,” Clarke tells Hern, Versi, and Sanga, because they can’t waste three competent healers or an empty bed when there’s this much demand. Some of the warriors coming in now just want to be patched up enough to return to the battle, and had to walk back to camp because Nyko’s mobile unit is overwhelmed. She can see the reluctance on the apprentices' faces, even with Anya standing sentry. Clarke thinks if she weren’t there, sitting on a stool and glowering at Wells with an intensity that says she’ll make him conscious through sheer force of will, they might take a lot more convincing.
If Anya wasn’t there Clarke would have a hard time convincing herself not to walk over, but she realizes, with a weird little jolt, that she trusts Anya to keep her apprised. Or, to be more exact, she trusts Anya to do everything in her power to keep Wells alive.
“You aren’t needed on the battlefield?” she asks softly at one point, careful to not let it sound like an accusation.
Anya shakes her head. Her elbows rest on her knees where she’s bent forward, eyes fixed, fingers laced together. “Lexa gave him into my keeping. She’d want me to stay by him until there is nothing I can do.”
It won’t come to that. It won’t come to that. Clarke takes a deep breath in and lets it out. It’s never been harder to dismiss her own emotions and focus on whatever tasks demand her immediate. Even now, she can’t turn back to them without saying: “Thank you.”
“I’m not doing it for you.”
That was obvious already, but Clarke feels better for having said it. She also feels better every time she can look up and over to that corner of the tent and see Anya standing sentry as Wells drifts.
An hour or so later when she looks over she can see that nothing has changed: Sanga is bent over Wells, checking him, but Wells’s eyes are closed and Anya looks like she’d rather beat the concussion back with her bare fists that just sit there, but is doing it anyway. Clarke has a sudden flashback to her and Wells riding horses, the bitterness in his tone when he gestured to Anya and said: Every inch between us and that woman makes me feel an order of magnitude safer.
Now look at them.
Look at all of us, Clarke thinks, throat aching. Even if she visualized their situation like a board full of simple, black-and-white squares, she’s not sure she could place all the moves and countermoves that have brought them here.
It’s too theoretical to imagine, anyway. Too clean. She puts it aside to solve the problems in front of her, almost all of them covered in blood.
When Anya finally catches Clarke’s eye and gestures her over, Clarke’s heart is in her mouth. But when she comes close enough she sees that Wells’s eyes are open.
Clarke falls onto her knees once she’s close to his cot; she doesn’t even try to hide the fact that’s what happens. She bends over and presses her forehead to his shoulder. All she can do for a while is keep from sobbing openly.
The clumsy hand that comes up to smooth down her hair doesn’t help. “Sorry,” Wells rasps.
“You asshole,” Clarke chokes out. “You try that again and I will float you.”
“We’re not in space anymore.”
“I will find a way.” She raises her head just in time to see Sanga heading over, drawn by her theatrics, and shuffles just far enough down the bed to give the other healer full access. She doesn’t get up off her knees. Wells, after finding it, doesn’t let go of her hand.
Aside from exhaustion and a slight unsteadiness when he tries to sit up, Wells appears to be fine. As fine as he can appear without an MRI, which leaves just enough uncertainty to frazzle Clarke’s nerves. Technically they should observe him over the next two days, but with the battle raging they can’t spare the resources, or the bed. It’s already late, though, and the darkness has placed something of a pause on the fighting, so they can at least keep him here through the night.
Clarke doesn’t sleep. She can’t -- she’s needed. She goes from station to station and checks what procedures are being done, decides who to encourage and who needs to hear stop, let them go, move on to the next. She makes sure all the patients being kept for observation are fed and watered. She sends out for fresh supplies when the stock in the pharmacy dwindles. She stokes the fires when it’s needed in the laundry. The rush may have slowed, but when the sun comes up they need to be prepared for the next wave. She does anything and everything she can.
At some point Clarke staggers when she tries to stand upright. Someone grabs her elbow to steady her, and when she turns, it’s Versi.
“Here,” the other girl says, shoving a ceramic mug at her.
The liquid inside is opaque. Clarke hesitates, but honestly, Versi is not the type for subterfuge. If she wanted Clarke dead she would simply beat her to death, and in full view of the rest of camp.
She drinks. It’s lukewarm, thick with powdery residue, and incredibly nasty.
“What is that?” she asks as she hands back the mug. She can feel the residue coating her tongue.
“Plains Rider recipe.”
“Recipe for --” It takes effect before she can finish the question. In a shivery little rush the aches of her body fizzle into something negligent, and the return of her energy is so sudden it makes her heart pound.
As soon as it calms down she looks around in order to thank Versi, but the healer is already gone.
Hern is the other one to surprise her that night. Or, well, that morning -- as the sky begins to lighten she catches him sitting by Wells, the two of them deep in conversation. Something about the tableau they make urges her to get close without attracting their attention, listening to their low voices.
There’s nothing unusual in what they’re saying to each other. It’s banal, really -- Wells still struggles with the Woods Clan language even without a head injury, and Hern, she can tell, just doesn’t like speaking English. It’s mostly Wells eking out basic sentences and questions, Hern providing words and help when knowledge fails. It’s nothing.
It’s not nothing. There’s a softness in their faces that goes beyond what they’re talking about, and they laugh a little too much for a language lesson. Maybe it’s just the delicate light filtering through the tent, but something about them feels like a bubble of protected, private space, the shadows sheltering their silly little whispers.
When Hern excuses himself and gets back to his duties, Wells watches him for a long time. Long enough so that even when Clarke walks over to his bed he seems reluctant to turn and face her.
Definitely not nothing, Clarke decides.
“Is there something I should know?” she asks, hoping maybe he’s feeling sick enough to be susceptible.
Even recovering from a concussion, Wells just eyes her back. “No,” he says flatly, and that’s all she gets, and then Octavia comes by to help him back to their tent.
The battle continues.
Clarke sets up a bedroll for herself in the pharmacy. When she’s too tired to be trusted with anything surgical -- or with anything requiring a steady hand or un-blurry eyes -- she can direct the ebb and flow of patients, figure out where to get more powdered willow bark, or help wind the bodies of the dead in sheets before they're burned. They do it with massive pyres, bodies stacked together in the heart of searing fires lit half a day’s walk from the camp, in fields scoured and sewn with gravel to keep the flames from spreading. It seems to work, but Clarke can smell charred flesh when the wind changes.
In fact, Clarke doesn’t think she’s done anything more hands-on in medical than boil bandages since before Wells woke up. It doesn’t matter -- they have yet to run short on people even though she keeps bullying the healers into going back to their tents for the rest she isn’t getting. It’s like the infirmary itself is her patient: she keeps her fingers on its pulse, forcing circulation when that fades.
She sees Hern, and Versi, and Sanga intermittently. She gets to know so many others: a healer from Broadleaf who doesn’t speak the Woods Clan language but understands it fine, several faces she vaguely remembers from the apprentice dorms but can never put names to. And still more. They all know her, and she gets used to the feeling of imbalance, the nagging sensation that if she were a nicer person, she’d be able to return the favor. It only ever lasts a minute or so before the next crisis rushes through the tent like a wave, and her head goes under the waters of chaos with it.
Clarke loses track of how long they keep that up. Eventually the wounded that stagger or are carried in bring good news with them: the tide is turning, and Nia’s forces are being beaten back to the city gates.
Slowly. But surely.
Clarke breathes out, long and slow, once she hears it. She gives herself a moment to feel it: they won. There is probably worse to come, but... they won.
Then she blinks and shakes her head as if that will clear it. She’s fuzzy and a little numb, but it doesn’t matter, there’s still so much to do. She has to check which patients can be sent to their tents, which stations are ready for new patients, make sure they have enough supplies --
Someone grabs at her shoulders just as she’s about to slip sideways off her balance. The massive hands in her peripheral vision make her heart pound, until she jerks away to see --
“What are you doing here?” she blurts out.
He lets his hands fall to his sides. There are deep shadows under his eyes, and his hair is spackled with dirt, and darker substances. “My job.”
She turned around too fast, and spots are forming in front of her eyes. She grabs at the edge of someone’s cot to stay upright. “Who’s with L -- the Commander, in the field?”
“Several well-trained apprentices who have spent many days watching me run the mobile unit, and know how it’s done.” He frowns at her. “You should learn the art of creating a second-in-command.”
“I thought that’s what I was.”
“Third-in-command, then. Go back to your tent.”
“I’m needed here.”
“Not while I’m at camp.”
She straightens. She’s not sure how, exactly. Something in his tone pokes at a place in her bares teeth as a reflex. “I’m fine. You’re in charge, of course. But if you need someone to run errands, or carry messages...” She sways, but she tells herself he didn’t notice. “There needs to be a better system of sorting who comes through the door first, I can run out and canvas who’s heading our way and who has what injuries --”
It makes her stop short, which is when she realizes she was pretty much babbling. It takes a couple more blinks for the double-headed Nyko to coalesce into one man. He doesn’t say her name in quite the same tone as Lexa, that awful, awful day when she was waiting for Clarke in her rooms at the tower. But it’s not that far off. She wonders what made him go out of his way to learn it fully.
“You’ve done enough,” he continues, in that not-great tone. It makes bile tickle at her throat, and the urge to argue -- she can feel her expression scrunching into a scowl.
And then he sighs softly under his breath. “You’ve done well,” he says, and now he speaks with no emotion whatsoever. “Go to bed before you have to be placed in one here, alongside the rest of the wounded.”
The fight drains out of her. Everything except: “I can do this.”
“Who are you trying to prove that to? Me?” One corner of his mouth tics into his cheek, the only break in his neutrality. “I can see what you’ve done here, Clarke Griffin. You pulled through on this battle, but there is the rest of the war to fight. I want you rested so that you can do the same good job as many times as necessary.”
Her vision is not still spotty. It’s just dark inside the tent. “You think I did a good job.”
He raises his arm to point to the tent’s entrance. “Go.”
She can barely remember the walk back to her own tent, afterward, and she only catches a glimpse of Octavia and Wells’s surprised faces before collapsing onto her covers.
Clarke sleeps for half the day, and when she wakes up she eats the over-generous portion of food the others set aside for her before going to sleep themselves. It’s early dawn at this point, the sky still grey but lightening with each passing minute.
She grabs a few things and heads to the common bathing area. It’s just like Lexa described, in the woods: a section where water is heated and then dumped over naked bodies without much ceremony. It’s still a relief after several days of sweating and sleeping in the same clothes, though, and the cold air feels bracing in the aftermath. It’s not too busy at this time of day, so she’s able to ask a couple questions of the soldiers that are there.
The battle hasn’t ended yet. There’s a clear victor, but Nia’s troops are making them fight for every inch as they retreat behind the city walls.
Clarke wrings out her dripping hair as best she can and heads back to the healers’ tent, ready to do it all again.
She tenses when she sees Bryn at her station -- she’s not in the mood, right now, she just doesn’t have the energy -- but when the soldier turns her face, she doesn’t give the teasing grin Clarke is expecting. Instead she’s wincing.
“Don’t say it,” she mutters as soon as Clarke is in range.
Clarke doesn’t get it until she looks down at Bryn’s arm. Her left arm.
She bites down on her lips to keep any errant sound from escaping. “Hmm,” is all she allows herself as she stoops to gather her supplies from storage.
Bryn turns her rueful look onto her own arm, which is raggedly torn open just below the deltoid muscle, her dark skin even darker with surrounding bruises. There’s a gob of moss in her right hand, and Clarke can see she used it to staunch the bleeding from the way the wound has long since clotted.
“Why is it so hard to keep your guard up on that side?” Clarke asks, because she’s afraid if she doesn’t say something she really will end up laughing. And even with Nyko more or less back in charge, Clarke has a vaguely professional reputation to maintain.
“Lots of reasons,” Bryn grumbles. “And it’s just an arm. I keep my attention on the important parts. Either of the legs go out and I’m in the dirt. Back’s where the spine lives. Upper front has the heart. Lower front, any number of organs -- a puncture to them is a nasty death.” Her look by this point is mutinous. “My left side is the least of my worries.”
“A reasonable argument.” Clarke swabs at the wound. The blood is not just clotted but caked in some places, bits of moss dried in place with it. She has to put force into her ministrations, but to Bryn’s credit she takes it. “Anya might still make you run laps.”
Bryn gives a heavy sigh. “It’s all three of us being back on the same battlefield that’s the trouble. You fall into old patterns. When we were training as Seconds, Lexa and I fought as a unit, and she would stand at my left.”
Clarke works a particularly stubborn patch of dirt and blood as hard as she can without, hopefully, reopening the wound. “How long has it been?”
“Since Lexa ascended.” Clarke wonders if she’s imagining the shadow that passes over Bryn’s face. “You know how that happens?”
Clarke nods, not trusting herself to speak. Especially not to someone probably used to the custom.
But Bryn surprises her: “It’s disgusting. In my village people used to avoid creating children with anyone known to have a single nightblood in their family. They won’t take the risk of another.”
Clarke pauses to stare. “Lexa talks as if --”
“Oh, not all the villages are like that,” Bryn says, waving away the possibility with her left hand -- and then wincing. “But the closer you get to Polis, the more people feel the same. You hear the stories of the children living in the tower, and then eventually you hear how they died. It’s hard not to feel it.” She grimaces, and Clarke doesn’t think it has anything to do with cleaning her wound. “Lexa wouldn’t know anything about it, anyway. Nightblood children are handed over in their fifth summer.”
“Handed over to who?”
“The Flamekeeper. Whoever holds the post is in charge of the education and rituals surrounding the nightbloods.”
Clarke has to stop what she’s doing again. She thinks of Titus: the way the air around him shimmered with fanaticism, the emotional detachment that only ever gave way to anger or thirst for control. She could guess he’d maybe gotten worse after the death of his apprentice, but...
That man. Raising children. Shaping their perception of the world to fit his own.
“Exactly,” Bryn says to whatever Clarke’s thinking that shows on her face.
Clarke closes her eyes. That explains way too much about Lexa.
(It probably isn’t good form to hope someone is dead, inside the tower.)
“Is that why you didn’t like Costia?” she asks, going back to work. “Because she would have been the next Flamekeeper?”
Bryn is silent for a long moment, and Clarke wonders if she’s crossed some sort of line. “No. She would have been an improvement over Titus. Though that’s not hard.”
The wound’s as clean as Clarke is going to get it. She reaches for her next set of instruments: a sharp, curved needle, suture, and thread. The last is made of hemp, as far as she can tell -- she wonders if they’ll ever be able to power the fallen Ark regularly enough to maybe supply synthetic fibers for the clans in future. At least it’s not catgut. “You still didn’t like her.”
Bryn smirks. “Don’t be jealous of a dead girl.”
Clarke ignores the heat in her cheeks. “No one talks about her, except Lexa. Or Versi.”
Not even Lincoln, and Clarke had asked once, when it was just them still up by the fire, remembering he’d’ve had to know Costia pretty well to recognize who gave Clarke her braid. He’d just shaken his head.
“Some deaths are so bad,” he’d only say, staring into the flames, “they leech the joy from every memory.”
Clarke, who still feels seared from the inside-out when she thinks about her dad, had to let that one go.
“Her (first parent) was Woods Clan -- he and Titus grew up together as boys,” Bryn continues in the present. “He fell in love with an emissary from Plains Riders, Costia’s (third parent).”
Clarke blinks as she processes the new compound word. Well, Lexa had told her not everyone formed two-parent units.
“Back then, before the Coalition, the only way to abandon your clan with honor was to promise to eventually send someone else in your place.”
“Or an apprentice, if you’re the master of a trade -- or someone in that same clan who is as unhappy as you were in your own. The debt stands until the exchange is made, and before it is, your former leader has the right to call you back to die in a war, or marry to solve a dispute... it can all get very sticky. Costia joined Woods Clan a few years before Lexa’s ascension. Which is a little young, but the last Commander wanted all the old negotiations finalized before they passed.”
Clarke frowns. “But Versi came with her. Does she have to get someone to join Plains Riders for her?”
Bryn shakes her head. “Versi was (word). Plains Riders didn’t have much use for her, so she was allowed to leave.”
The word Bryn used, Clarke finds out with some discussion, means “premature” -- Versi was born at 30 weeks, small enough to sit comfortably in the palm of the what-they-call-a-midwife’s hand. (Clarke prefers the Woods Clan word for that as well: “life-beckoner.”) She struggled to survive, and then she struggled to fit into their way of life. She was simply too small, her musculature too underdeveloped, to control a full-grown horse as expected of a Plains Rider child. By the time she could she was hopelessly outpaced by her peers, always seen at a lack.
“Costia rode beautifully, though,” Bryn adds. “Which put her at odds with our warriors. So she was first a messenger for the tower with the intent to train as an ambassador, except Titus selected her to be his apprentice. So she and Lexa saw each other almost every day, and then...”
Lexa’s penchant for falling in love with girls who are-but-not-quite her people might be amusing, except... Clarke swallows, bending her head a little further over her work in the hopes Bryn can’t read her face. “Did Lexa ever let her ride Storm?”
The resulting silence makes the top of her head itch until she caves, looking up through her hair at Bryn. Who is fighting a smile with such force Clarke can see where she’s sucked in the side of her cheek. “You idiot,” she says, and Clarke would bristle, but it’s said with affection. “No. Lexa practically grew up on that horse. It was too old to serve as a battle mount by the time she ascended. She should have placed it back among the breeding herds, but she kept it at the tower stables. For parades, so her new horse wouldn’t be overburdened, she claimed. But we all know it was so she could visit the older animal.”
“What parades?” Clarke asks, hoping to distract from what she betrayed with her earlier question. She isn’t paying enough attention and pulls the fiber a little too roughly through skin, and Bryn grunts.
“She used to take promenades throughout the city, before. She wanted to be more available to the people.” Bryn rolls her eyes. “Titus fought her on it all the time. So did Costia.”
Clarke pauses, needle in the air. “You almost talk like you think she was bad for Lexa.”
“She wasn’t. But Lexa was different after she met Costia. And then even more so... after.”
Clarke resumes her work without saying anything, but keeps her eyes on Bryn’s face to make it clear she’s listening.
“We scrapped a lot, growing up.” Is it Clarke’s imagination, or does Bryn sound wistful? “You’d think we’d be sick of fighting already, but this helped. You have to be calm and calculating when there are other lives on the line. All the anger you would feel, all the fear, it builds up inside. Fighting with someone who won’t actually kill you is a good way to work it out. And Lexa and I were hotheads. We’d still be ready to go when everyone else was sick of us.”
“You were a hothead?” Clarke mutters. And then: “Lexa doesn’t seem like that to me.”
“Wait until you see her throw a real tantrum. I don’t mean Heda in a cold rage. When Lexa’s angry, she breaks things.”
It’s odd for Clarke to hear Bryn so easily split Lexa into two halves, especially since she knows Lexa, and guards her regularly. Surely she should understand better than anyone how much of Lexa is her role as Heda, and how much of Heda’s power is just Lexa’s force of will working on the world?
But maybe that’s exactly why: maybe that’s what it takes to watch a girl you practically grew up with mold herself into something half myth, and a little more monster.
“I’ve never seen her like that.”
Clarke thinks about it. She’s about to insist, but then: when they came back from the Blue Cliff village -- after the first time she met Bryn, actually -- and Jollett wouldn’t let her into Heda’s quarters; the tug of war over the doodle she did of Lexa looking stupid; even ‘I meant for you to hear it.’
Yeah, okay. Lexa could be a little childish.
“I’m not surprised if you haven’t,” Bryn says without waiting for an answer. “That’s what I mean when I say she was different, before Costia. More...” She frowns a little, then shrugs her uninjured shoulder. “More open.”
“Or maybe she’s not as angry anymore.”
Bryn snorts. “Please. Lexa is always at a simmer about how everyone could be living their lives better, according to her standards, but we choose not to.”
... well, so is Clarke, once she thinks about it.
“She’s just better at keeping on top of it now,” Bryn continues. “She shoves it all down and sits on it.” Bryn rolls her eyes a little. “Costia taught her that. And no, I didn’t love her for it.”
“You don’t think a leader should learn self-control?”
“I think Lexa all but killed off her own passion to make Titus happy. And sometimes Costia.” Bryn makes a face at the memory. “Passion is what keeps us alive in the first place. It’s what brings me through a battle and back on my feet after injury. I can see the need for calm, but I also think it’s possible to control yourself into a living grave.”
Clarke wonders, herself. No one can question Lexa’s self-control -- and Clarke can always bare her back to anyone who tries. But that doesn’t have to be the same thing as self-denial. And while it’s hard to gather the sense of a person from collective memories, what Bryn is saying doesn’t quite match with what Versi says of Costia, or what Lincoln won’t. Or even what Clarke knows of Lexa. Despite everything, Clarke can’t fathom Lexa loving someone who also asked that she reject her deepest self.
(Obeying, maybe, because Titus had in fact raised her. But loving? No.)
Clarke suspects it was more complex than that, since it usually is: that Costia of the famous inner peace showed Lexa how to control herself, without hating her more emotional impulses. That would have been everything in the wake of the ascension ritual, in the face of overwhelming responsibility and need from her people as their newly-anointed leader. It’s probably how Lexa survived it.
It was probably only after her death that Lexa lost the trick of it, and tumbled off the tightrope she used to walk between the two. And Bryn, who’d already watched Lexa turn herself inside-out for her people, felt more comfortable blaming the girl who’d died than the battle-sister who was still suffering.
It’s weird -- it’s definitely weird -- but Clarke kind of wishes she could have known Costia. She’s really not sure what kind of life she’d be living right now, in a world where that was possible, and of course she is jealous. A little bit.
On the other hand: it feels like it might almost be worth the risk, to be able to stretch out her hand and meet the fingers of someone else who tried as hard as she has to keep Lexa alive, and not just surviving, someone else who loved her enough to understand the difference.
“That’s why I pick on her.”
“Hmm?” Clarke looks up from where she’s been lost in thought.
“You know. Fight with Lexa. Rile her up. I’m trying to remind her that passion is a good thing. She gets too much in her own head, she’s going to convince herself there’s nothing left of her but the Spirit.” Bryn slants her a glance. “We’re friends.”
Clarke doesn’t say a word. She purses her mouth a little, maybe.
Bryn is equally bemused. “You think I could get away with talking to her like that, if we weren’t?” She grins. “Who else but a friend would urge you to go out and get laid more often? Ow.” She glares at where the needle had slipped a little. “You did that on purpose.”
“No, I didn’t.” Mostly she hadn’t. “Lexa doesn’t need help in that area.”
“I didn’t say help, I said urging. Sex helps to remind you what life’s worth living for, as much as fighting.”
“Ah. The legend of Bryn the --” she uses the word Versi did at Blue Cliff, because she never did find out what it meant, but she remembers it -- “becomes clear.”
Bryn’s eyes go huge. “You didn’t learn that from Lexa.”
“No.” She decides to spare Versi, even with everything the way it is now, at the last second. “Someone else. Sorry, is it awful? I figured no one else would tell me what it means.”
“I’m... honored?” Bryn sounds doubtful. “As insults go, that one’s archaic. I only know it myself from older poems.”
... huh. Clarke doubts Versi, from the Plains Riders, is all that versed in Woods Clan epics. So where could she have picked it up? About Bryn in particular?
Maybe from someone else required to immerse themselves in dusty records and arcane knowledge -- someone like Titus’s apprentice. Maybe Costia had been well aware of what Bryn thought of her, and felt much the same. Maybe she was a little less milk-of-human-kindness and honey-sweet than Versi insists.
Clarke decides she would have liked Costia more for it. “So what does it mean?”
“Does poetry really have to mean anything?” Bryn hedges. Then she rolls her eyes. “It’s a word for someone who’s never satisfied. The name of a character who drinks up a river and eats an orchard barren, but still goes searching. This is very upsetting for the villagers who live near the river and the farmers who gather the fruit, of course.”
“Of course,” Clarke murmurs. She pulls the last stitch before tying and snipping off the fiber.
Bryn eyes her. “This is a sympathetic character, okay? You really ought to hear the whole three epics to get it. Anyway, she ends up marrying the moon, which is great, because the moon always has a different face and the (word) has to chase her across the world every day, so they’re never bored. Happy ending.”
Clarke cleans up the fresh blood that trickled down from the needle punctures. “If the moon’s already taken, aren't you out of luck?”
Bryn throws up one hand. “I like life, is that bad? I like women, and poetry, and the blood beating in my ears in the middle of battle. You have to find what you love in this world and make it a shield against what you don’t. Passion can die, you know. Smothering is a very effective way to kill it.”
She meets Clarke’s eyes with sudden significance, and Clarke wants to shake off the chill it carries. “Lexa wouldn’t do that.”
Bryn opens her mouth but hesitates. “I used to think she already had. That’s why I got in her face so often. I channel my passion into everything I do, and it makes me stronger. It keeps me alive.” She frowns. “I thought without expressing hers, she’d be... weaker.”
“Something changed your mind?”
Bryn leans back, weight favoring her left side. “The way she was in the tower, after you escaped.”
Clarke leans forward, still sitting on her heels. She traces an aimless pattern on one of the small rugs marking the border of her station -- they’re rough-woven, easy to switch out and clean every shift. “It’s strange to think you were there the whole time, and I never really noticed.”
She expects Bryn to laugh at that, but she doesn’t. “The two of you had a hard time paying attention to anything besides each other.” When Clarke looks up Bryn’s eyes are unfocused, as if she's rifling through her memories. “We weren’t told what happened to you, of course. We all rode out from the tower, leaving you behind in it. Our party met up with Anya and Tris.” She pauses. “When Heda left, she left with only Anya. There was a message that we were to rest and return to Polis without wearing out the horses.” She shakes her head, once. “I knew something was wrong. I only heard her ride out, but Lexa doesn’t work an animal like that unless she’s lost inside of something.”
Clarke doesn’t like to think about it.
(The memory isn’t something she can physically throw away, like she’d prefer, so she leaves it buried in the clutter of her mind: Lexa sitting on her bed at the tower, mud still spattered on her boots. “Clarke Griffin.”)
“By the time we returned, you were gone. The story passed around the halls was that you had been secreted away somewhere safe, but... it was like there was lightning trapped under Lexa’s skin. It was an energy she carried from room to room. I’ll be honest with you, little witch: it frightened me. I think it might have frightened her.”
Clarke wonders. “She thought she was going to war with the Arkers, and the Mountain. She had a lot to be upset about, not just me.”
“We’d known about the Sky People for weeks. All that time, she never broke the Lake People ambassador’s nose.” Bryn nods at Clarke’s small noise of surprise, working the stiffness from her shoulder. “He made a very poor joke about Heda being jumpy without her witch’s protection.”
“Exactly.” Bryn sighs. “He didn’t deserve it, but then, they should be sending more diplomatic ambassadors.” She sighs again. “I thought that Lexa felt things less. I thought that had to be true, for her to be able to be so controlled. I never imagined that control was her way of harnessing the things she feels, just as I do by expressing them.”
“I knew,” Clarke says.
Bryn’s eyes are sharp. “I think her life would be a lot easier if it weren’t true. Yours, too.”
Maybe. But Clarke’s not sure she would trade this wretched tenderness she feels for anything easier. “I can’t believe she broke his nose. Please tell me she apologized.”
“Are you joking? It healed pretty straight, and it was a badge of honor.” At Clarke’s look: “I don’t know if you’ve heard, little witch, but our Commander is something of a legendary fighter.”
“She’s not my Commander. Not really. Wait -- he was proud she’d hit him?”
“He was proud he could say she hit him, and he survived it. Not that she’d really been trying to put him down, but the details don’t always matter that much to Lake People.” Bryn squints at her. “You’ve never seen Lexa fight, have you.”
Clarke rifles through her memories: Lexa roughhousing in the infirmary, Lexa training the nightbloods, even Lexa lost to logic when she cornered the assassin at the market -- but no, never actual fighting. The scrapping with Bryn couldn’t count either, not when it seemed to be their version of a quick game of chess, a safe way to let off steam. She’d never seen Lexa fight to stay alive, or to keep others alive. She shakes her head.
Bryn’s grin stretches across her face. “Come with me.”
It’s not that far a walk to the battlefield, which throws Clarke. She has the vague memory of Wells explaining the realities of infantry combat around their campfire to Octavia, how most of the films on the Ark focused on post-Industrial warfare and therefore painted an entirely different picture of the scope and stakes. Still, it’s odd to walk for roughly an hour, climb up a hill, and have the battle be right there.
Or, not right there -- about five hundred yards away from their vantage point if taken at a straight shot, and Clarke knows walking over this terrain takes a lot more time than distance alone implies. They’re definitely not in danger of being ambushed, and Bryn swathed her in so many shawls before they left camp (“It’s not like your friend Wells, where he had a routine. No one will expect you to be outside the boundary and they won’t be waiting for us. But let’s hide that hair, to be safe.”) she doesn’t think anyone could pick out her silhouette or features regardless. And Bryn promised her that Nia was holding her remaining reapers in reserve, now, after the last several battles took out at least a third of her monstrous army. Thanks to Lexa’s and Wells’s strategy.
It still feels too close. Her skin prickles from being out in the open, even with Bryn’s encouragement and goading by turns. But she wanted to see.
And it’s awesome, but in the original sense: fear and fascination bound up until she can’t pull one apart from the other and can only stand there, riveted and shaking. It isn’t just chaos. She can see segments moving forward or back in tandem, like the limbs of a monster sprawled across the space, thrashing with internal agonies. But it’s savage. She’s not a warrior and she can’t spot the subtleties of hand-to-hand combat, all she can really pick out are people hacking at each other, weapons directed at arteries and openings. People trying to kill each other.
“Here.” Bryn startles her by handing over a contraption she pulls out from a hidden pocket in her jacket. She has to guide Clarke’s fingers in opening it up -- it’s designed to lay flat, but when pushed at the right place the metal hinges swivel and lock, propping up two different lenses, one objective and one magnifying, in front of each other. Bryn motions for Clarke to bring it up to her eyes, and points the direction to aim it in.
The sudden focus of faraway things brought into intimate detail makes Clarke’s stomach lurch, and it takes her brain a second to parse the information: that’s the back of someone’s head, that’s a hand gripping a sword, that’s someone bringing their own sword down to meet it, and that’s --
Lexa with her face painted in streaked-black tears and the wink of the medallion between her eyes, in the thick of it, like the moment in a nightmare where vague unease coalesces into specific terror.
When Clarke let herself imagine it -- which wasn’t often -- she’d pictured Lexa in a frenzy. It was the only way Clarke could imagine being in battle: lost to it, letting it take you over, so that the lives that fell beneath your blade were the equivalent of radar blips. Clarke puts people back together. It’s her guiding light in a world that grows darker with each day, the certainty she can cling to when everything else spins out of control. She’d always imagined the ability to take them apart came from the opposite urge, a kind of hatred for the universe and any symmetry in it.
But what Lexa is doing is... weirdly, inexplicably, almost beautiful. She’s not lost to anything. Clarke can see that in the relative calmness on her face, the focus in her eyes as she moves through the fray. The way she flows from one attack to the next makes it look like nothing exists except the opponent in front of her. She is her own Archimedean point.
“Is she fighting five people at once?” Clarke asks after a moment, stunned.
“Wouldn’t be the first time. Wouldn’t even be the most I’ve seen her take on.” Bryn retrieves her simple binoculars. “Lexa doesn’t have limits like you or I do, little witch. She was made for this.”
“No one’s made for this.” Clarke can smell the blood on the wind, even at this distance. Blood is the least of it: decay, feces, and urine lurk beneath. No one dies prettily.
“She is, as much as anyone can be.”
Clarke has her own thoughts on that.
“It’s not a fault,” Bryn says mildly, probably because she can read the expression on Clarke’s face. “We all have a role to play -- even you. Lexa knows her purpose, that’s all. When she lives it, it makes it easier for the rest of us to know ours.”
Clarke shouldn’t be surprised. It was the same with Anya, wasn’t it? That despite everything, despite proximity and deeper perspective, the other Woods Clan warrior had been the same: invested in Heda. The idea of her. Bryn got even closer, in her own way, and she appreciated parts of Lexa that Anya didn’t -- but she still thought of her role as Commander as a forgone conclusion. A strength that could never waver.
Anyway, Clarke knows what she’s really looking at.
As soon as they’re back at camp, she stalks her way inside Heda’s private quarters to make preparations.
Lexa is in such a state she doesn’t notice Clarke when she first staggers into her quarters. Clarke doesn’t blame her. It’s been a while since she saw Lexa on the battlefield, and it started raining with a vengeance in the past hour. Lexa is soaked to the skin, moving in a way that makes Clarke certain she’s holding back shivers. At least all the dust and kicked-up dirt from the fighting was rinsed out of her hair.
It still doesn’t take long for Lexa to notice her. Not that Clarke is hiding: she told Nyko she was finishing up when the worst wave of the injured had passed, knowing Lexa wouldn’t return to camp until the very last Azgedian warrior limped back behind the walls of Polis. Clarke explained what she wanted earlier, so when she arrived at Heda’s tent she was able to kick off the process. She’s perched on the end of Lexa’s bed, booted feet swinging. She’s only a few feet away from the brass bathtub she noticed last time she was in these quarters, which is now filled with steaming water, cloudy with herbs and epsom salts.
(This version of a bathtub, unlike the one in Lexa’s quarters constantly refreshed by hot water, has an insulated chamber running along its bottom. She watched them line it with hot coals. They keep the pre-heated water warm, but there’s enough distance between them and the tub bottom to keep the metal from getting too hot. The cleverness of the damn thing thrills her.)
Lexa stops dead. She blinks at Clarke, and then turns her eyes on the bathtub like it’s a crouched predator. “What is that.”
“You know what it is.” Clarke stands up. “You brought it from the tower.”
“Nyko brought it. I was busy fishing you out of a river. Remember?”
“Nyko’s a smart man, he knows what's good for muscle fatigue. You must have had it on campaign before, or why else would he think to bring it out of the tower?”
“Nyko is a smart man with a lot of bad ideas,” Lexa says, casting the bathtub a dark look.
Okay, this is ridiculous, Clarke knows she likes baths. It’s not worth arguing about right now, though. Not when: “Nyko says the wound where your stitches burst has already closed.” It makes sense -- or, sense considering Lexa’s stubbornness -- that someone Lexa isn’t actively avoiding would be put in charge of her health and well-being. That doesn’t make Clarke happy that it’s Nyko, and not her.
“I told you I heal quickly.”
Yeah, and Clarke is going to get to the bottom of that, too. Someday. “But the muscles under the skin are still recovering.”
When she’s wet through like this, Lexa’s glare doesn’t have its usual imperious command. “As we’ve just discussed, Nyko is my healer. And more than capable of assessing my needs.”
“Nyko’s busy when he’s on the battlefield. He doesn’t see you favoring that side when you fight.”
Lexa’s eyes go very wide. “And you have?”
“Bryn escorted me out there.”
Lexa turns on her heel and Clarke has to lunge to keep her from marching right back outside. Not that she has any illusions she’s physically preventing Lexa from going anywhere, but wrapping her arms around Lexa’s waist and tucking her chin into the other girl’s shoulder is, she’s betting, just as effective. She’s also betting Lexa doesn’t want to walk out of her quarters with her wood witch hanging off her like this.
Lexa doesn’t call her bluff. She halts in her tracks, and Clarke uses the advantage to wind her arms tighter and press herself closer. Just in case, she thinks.
The rain has worked into the leathers Lexa wears for battle, bringing out the odor of animal hide. Everything she’s wearing underneath is soaked in sweat. She should smell rank. She does, Clarke tells herself. But you’re too love-stupid to care, drunk on the chemicals in your brain. Roofied by your own endocrine system.
Admitting it doesn’t do much to lessen the effects.
“I was safe,” she says quietly. “Bryn wanted to prove a point, but you know she wouldn’t risk my life.”
“She wanted to show off,” Lexa grates.
Clarke sighs. She figures, why not, when is she going to get another chance like this with Lexa exhausted and her defenses down, nudges her hair to the side and presses a quick, soft kiss to the nape of her neck. It goes through Lexa like an electric shock. “That’s just what she does, right? Don’t let her get to you.”
Lexa doesn’t respond. But she doesn’t try to pull out of Clarke’s hold, either. After a moment she angles her head to the side. Just a little, but Clarke recognizes an invitation when it’s offered. She plants another kiss, this one even softer, slower, right where the curls are beginning to frizz with the rain beneath Lexa’s ear.
“She doesn’t get to me,” Lexa says, before Clarke has a chance to pull away. Clarke smiles so that Lexa can feel it against her skin. “She doesn’t.”
“Mmm. So you’re not angry right now?”
“I’m going to peel the skin off her face,” Lexa says, utterly calm.
Clarke presses her forehead to the back of Lexa’s shoulder, holds her tighter. “Don’t do that. She’s got a nice face.”
“... I’m going to peel the skin off her face slowly.”
This shouldn’t be so much fun.
Clarke takes a deep breath and steps back, leaving only her hands on Lexa’s hips. “Come on. Get in the bath.”
Lexa gives her an inscrutable look. Clarke isn’t sure what to make of it until she turns, and starts undoing the straps on her armor, holding Clarke’s gaze.
Clarke turns as if she always meant to be busy over here in the corner, making sure the... it doesn’t matter what she’s busy with, what’s important is that she’s doing something, not watching Lexa get naked. Definitely not listening to the sounds of armor and sodden clothes hitting the rugs underfoot, buckles jingling.
“I told you Woods Clan isn’t much for privacy,” Lexa says, in a way that says Clarke is going to regret bringing teasing back into their relationship, starting now. “You don’t have to look away for my sake.”
“Sky People aren’t much for looking without doing something,” Clarke says, trying to keep it light. “So, do you want me to look?”
There’s no answer. A second later she can hear a hiss from Lexa as she slips into the steaming water, and a second after that Clarke feels safe enough to turn around. Lexa is safely under the salt-clouded water. Although “safely” is a relative term when Clarke can still pick out the shadow of her long limbs. And even though the water is deep enough to almost reach her collarbone, Lexa has both arms up and braced on the sides of the tub as she gets comfortable, the muscles in her arms and shoulders standing out as if sculpted. There’s a flush growing on her face from the heat, traveling down her throat to her sternum to--
“Okay,” Clarke says, switching off that thought. “Well. I hope this helps. Stop lying to Nyko about your pain levels. He’s not going to keep you out of the fighting, but he needs to know what extra measures to put in place. I’m going now,” she says, inanely, because there’s no need to announce it, also it wouldn’t kill you to slow down, Clarke, you don’t want to look like you’re running --
“Wait,” Lexa says, when Clarke has her hand outstretched to push away the heavy curtain at the entrance to her quarters. “Can you stay?”
Clarke wants to say yes so badly she thinks for a moment that she already has, she stands there frozen as if waiting for the signal of her own voice. When it doesn’t come she takes another deep breath. “Are you sure?”
It wasn’t actually that long ago, the last night in the woods with just the two of them, where Lexa pushed her away and said I can’t. It just feels that way with everything happening since. So it’s still new, this negotiation of admitting how much they want to be together, and yet... not being together. She’s not sure where this falls on the boundary placed -- that Lexa has placed -- between them. It feels too close to the line for comfort.
The water sloshes quietly as Lexa shifts in the tub. “Tell me how Wells is doing.”
Clarke decides, as she turns around, that it’s reassuring she’s not the only person in this relationship who knows what buttons to press to get what she wants. “He’s fine. He should be back out with you on the field, soon.”
Lexa is watching her closely. “I thought you might try to prevent him.”
Clarke spots a low stool in the corner and drags it out. “That’s not how our relationship works.” She hesitates, then tries to make it look like she didn’t, choosing to sit less than arm’s length away and facing Lexa. The stool is very low, so, small mercy: she can’t see over the edge of the tub anymore. “We don’t try to stop each other from doing things that might be stupid; everyone else does that for us. We just make cranky noises about it.”
That prompts a shockingly sweet smile from Lexa. “Did you get into a lot of trouble, growing up?”
Clarke pauses. “No?” She frowns. “No, we didn’t, but... we might have gotten into a lot more, if we’d been someone else’s kids. My mom wasn’t the Chancellor, then, but Wells’s dad was. Mom was just on the Council.”
“I know.” Lexa scoops up some of the water into her hair with both hands -- she shivers, but Clarke guesses it’s because it’s helping her warm up. There's gooseflesh along the skin of her arms, even where the dark lines of her tattoo stand out.
Clarke thinks about putting her own, warm mouth there, and then decides not to think about that. “You know?”
That smile again. “I asked.”
“Oh, so Wells has been tattling?”
“No.” The smile fades, but doesn’t quite disappear. “After you demanded an audience in my tent, and while we were in talks with your Council, I ordered the others to listen where there was idle talk and gather as much information... as possible.”
The words about you could fit into that small hitch, if Lexa let it. Clarke tries not to feel warmed by the thought of Lexa being so intent on her, even as she pretended spectacular indifference. She fails. “I know you don’t like my mom, but you might have liked Thelonious Jaha even less. He was inflexible.” She has to lapse into English for the last word, but she doesn’t mind -- the two of them fall into Woods Clan language naturally around each other, now, and Lexa isn’t using occasional ignorance as an excuse to break the spell.
“I don’t not like her.” Lexa picks at the salt-corroded metal rim. Her hands are covered in small cuts and scrapes laid atop old scars. Her thumb knuckle looks a little swollen, and Clarke swallows down the offer to bind it for her. “I admired her commitment.”
“Oh, she’s committed.” Clarke thinks maybe she sat with this bitterness too long before confronting Abby, and didn't properly process it after that confrontation. It now feels like a part of her, like something that will always lie just beneath the surface. “She’s the one who turned my dad in to the Council. She loved him, but he was a threat to their directive.”
She startles when she feels wet fingers touch her cheek, coaxing her to raise her head. She isn’t avoiding Lexa’s eyes on purpose. It’s a short stool.
Lexa doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t take her hand back, either, tracing her fingers along the top of Clarke’s cheekbone. She’s leaning her face along her arm where it lies against the edge of the tub. Clarke would move out of range -- might even get really angry -- if she could find anything like pity in the other girl’s eyes. Thankfully there’s nothing like that, more a kind of tired softness.
“You of all people aren’t in a position to criticize who raised me, or how,” Clarke reminds her anyway.
“I know.” Her fingers reach a little higher, flick away the tear Clarke hadn’t even been aware was making its way out of the corner of her eye. Lexa pulls her hand back and goes under the water for a long minute. When she comes back up there’s steam rising from her skin and scalp. She rakes her wet hair out of her face, muscles moving and bunching in her shoulders, before settling back.
“Can I ask questions, too?”
Lexa shoots her a look. “Yes.”
“Thank you, Heda,” Clarke murmurs, mock-obsequious, and it’s supposed to needle Lexa, but the other girl’s eyes grow dark with something other than annoyance. Clarke ignores what that does to her pulse. “Why do you think Nia hasn’t tried to negotiate terms of surrender yet?”
“Because she wants to be in the best position possible before that happens.”
“She wants to capture you, first.”
Clarke sits with that. No one’s actually put it into those exact words for her. She wonders if they thought the same, but didn’t know if she could handle it. “I feel like you might be a little less open to surrender if she killed me.”
Lexa shakes her head. “She won’t kill you.”
“... but she... Costia --”
“Killing Costia didn’t get her what she wanted,” Lexa says, not meeting Clarke’s eyes. “It hurt me. But I didn’t stop fighting for the Coalition. It exists.”
“So... what is her plan?”
“I don’t know.” When Lexa looks over, Clarke can see how much this frightens her. “Nia has something we don’t know about. Some kind of weapon or information -- something she wants to use against me, through you. It’s why she hasn’t killed the nightbloods. But I still don’t know what it is. Or how to stop her.”
Clarke forces a swallow past the anxiety thickening her throat. “What could she possibly do to me that would force you to agree to terms?”
Lexa props her elbow up on the edge, leans her face into her hand so that her fingers shade her eyes. “I don’t know.” Then, clearly not wanting to admit it: “Something worse than death.”
“But,” and Clarke has to be careful here, “as long as she refuses to negotiate terms, she can barricade herself inside of Polis and refuse to come out. If it comes to that.”
“It won’t,” Lexa says, with far more ease than Clarke thinks the discussion warrants. “It won’t,” she repeats gently, dips her fingers into the water and flicks a few drops in Clarke’s direction. “We were enemies for much, much longer than we ever were allies. I know how to draw her out.”
“But you’re not sure how to win.” Clarke isn’t trying to make this worse. She just knows that someone, somewhere, needs to be having this conversation.
Lexa stills. Clarke is always amazed at her knack for it: the utter motionlessness of her face and body at will. Maybe it’s a trick Lexa learned from lying in wait as a Second, dependent on her superior’s orders. That doesn’t mean it isn’t as unnerving as hell. “Are you proposing an alternative?”
Clarke looks down at her fingers twisting around themselves. “It’s not just people fighting in battles that suffer. It’s everyone inside the city, too. The Ice Nation army is eating up the stores that were supposed to last the winter. If the siege goes on too long, the food could run out.”
“I’m well aware.”
Twisting tighter and tighter, until the knuckles are white and bloodless. “One wood witch for the sake of all those people isn’t the worst trade in the world. And you said so yourself, she won’t kill me.”
Lexa moves so fast Clarke doesn’t even have time to react. She reaches out and grabs Clarke’s face, forcing her to look up. The fact she does it with one hand, even the slipperiness of her wet fingers -- these things don’t lessen the strength of her grip. She spends a long moment searching Clarke’s face, eyes flickering here and there. Clarke wonders what she sees.
“I have done terrible things,” Lexa says finally. “But I have never -- ever -- asked anyone who fought with me to give more than I have given myself. And I have no intention of surrendering to Nia. Ever.”
“Not even for the good of the clans?” Clarke asks with real curiosity.
“You’ve never been inside the borders of the Ice Nation. Nia is a bad queen, Clarke. There are plenty of leaders within the Coalition I dislike, but Nia goes beyond that. Her people are half-crazed with desperation because she thinks it makes them easier to control. I would see Woods Clan all but wiped out rather than yoked by a tyrant. And if Woods Clan falls, then the Coalition will disperse and the other clans will do whatever it takes to protect themselves. But Nia,” and her grip on Clarke’s face tightens, “cannot be given what she wants.”
Clarke has to admit, whatever Nia is doing is beyond the scope of the political maneuvering of the Council. Even at its worst, the Council really had been trying to look to the greater good. She can already imagine Bellamy telling her, “That doesn’t absolve them,” and he’s right. But failed idealism is still idealism, at its heart. It’s not whatever nihilistic force is driving the leader of the Ice Nation.
“So you’re not holding me back from her because of...”
Lexa’s grip eases, releases. Lexa doesn’t even try to conceal how she turns it into a caress, the slickness of her fingers easing all friction. “Whether you or I survive, that’s secondary. But Nia absolutely must not be allowed to win.”
The water on her cheek prickles with cold as it dries in the air. “You wouldn’t consider it? Not even as a last resort?”
Lexa leans back in the bath with a sigh, eyes drifting almost shut. The steam rises around her lazily, coaxing out wispy curls from her hairline. “What are you looking for here, Clarke?”
“The truth.” She raises her chin. “Be honest with me, Lexa. Please.”
“Honest with you.” Lexa sinks a little deeper, until her chin falls beneath the waterline. Clarke has a moment where she gets to confront whether she’s truly more comfortable, the less she can see of Lexa’s body, or sulking about it, when Lexa raises one leg up. She sets the ball of her foot against the far edge of the tub, toes gripping the rim. It makes the bulk of her calf muscle cut a defined shape, water slipping down her skin. Clarke swallows.
Lexa has nice legs.
... she knows all of this, they had sex, that one time. Or, that one night. A couple times. Clarke remembers that! ... except when she can’t, not as well as she expected, because the night in question was bookended by first anger and grief, and then betrayal and despair. She remembers, but it also feels dream-like, as if she imagined it -- unconnected to everything that came before and after, an oasis of feeling. Or happiness.
Sometimes she wants to ask Lexa, did that really happen?
Except that would definitely... definitely cross the line of what they’re doing now. Clarke only has to imagine how Lexa would look at her in response to know... she can’t actually ask.
And she definitely shouldn’t be thinking about wrapping her hand around the warm, slick skin of Lexa’s calf, feeling the muscle move. Of feeling all that power and strength under her fingers. Under her whole body, the way she did when --
“Honest with you,” Lexa repeats, and Clarke comes back to herself with a jolt. She sucks in a deep breath of steam, and it doesn’t help her light-headedness. “You care a lot about honesty now, for someone who didn’t used to offer much.”
There’s a sickening swoop to Clarke’s stomach, but then a second later her brain catches up to her heart and points out: Lexa doesn’t sound bitter, or accusing. She just sounds... quiet.
“Yeah,” Clarke feels she can say, casually, after she takes a moment. “Well. That was the past, Lexa. We’re in a different place, now.”
Lexa sinks a few inches further, until the water comes up right under her nose. The steam is turning it pink, along with her ears, and Clarke has a sudden wrench where she’s mentally caught between wishing she could run her hands down Lexa’s legs into the water to make her gasp, and wishing she could kiss her nose to make her laugh. This ‘being in love’ thing is bullshit, she thinks to herself. How are you even supposed to know which direction is up, like this.
Lexa tips her head back, then, letting it fall into the water so her face is the only thing above it. “Are we?”
Clarke has a second to think, can she even work up the anger to yell at Lexa when she’s this turned on, and then answers herself: absolutely. But Lexa is already sitting up and saying: “I didn’t mean the way that sounded.”
It’s really clear, from the way she holds herself -- unselfconscious, not bothering to cover herself, or be aware of what is or isn’t hidden in the water -- that Lexa has no idea what she’s doing to Clarke. She was honest about Woods Clan’s lack of concern around nakedness.
Which is unfair on a level Clarke really doesn’t need, right now, but that’s not Lexa’s fault. Lexa is trying to be serious. She deserves the same from Clarke.
It’s a new skill, and it still takes a lot of effort, but Clarke has seen the way it pays off with Lexa, so: she doesn’t say anything.
“I said before,” Lexa begins again. “That if I’d known who you were, I never would have made you the wood witch. Not just because -- you agreed to it, but you didn’t know what you were agreeing to. Not the whole of it.”
That’s true. Clarke didn’t know the legend of the wood witch, how Lexa was using her as a prop for her propaganda. Or what had happened to the last person poised to act in tandem with Lexa’s role as Commander, and empire-build a future together.
“You’re right, I didn’t.”
Lexa swallows, throat moving. The water clinging to her skin slips down her arms, her back, in slow droplets. “I told you, I never ask anyone to do more than I would.”
Oh. Oh. Well, even more guilt from Lexa isn’t what Clarke wants to add to this situation, actually. “It doesn’t matter. No, really,” when Lexa opens her mouth, “and I knew the second time. When I escaped the Ark and made you take me along.”
Clarke expects some Commander-like retort to that -- “You didn’t make me do anything, I am the supreme high leader and strategist and I was two steps ahead the whole time blah blah” -- but Lexa just looks at her with shadowed eyes.
“Lexa, it’s okay. You’re right that I didn’t know the first time, but you can see for yourself: it didn’t matter. Once I knew, it’s what I wanted for myself, anyway.”
Lexa’s settles down again, back against the far end of the tub, with a small sigh. “That might just make everything worse.”
Clarke eyes her. “Having the same goals, once you take away any direct conflicts of interest, makes things worse?” Her eyes narrow. “Makes what worse, exactly?” When Lexa doesn’t answer, she ventures: “You never did tell me who you thought I was, before you figured it out.”
Lexa sends her a sideways look. Clarke’s heart beats a little faster, but when Lexa finally opens her mouth it’s to say: “And I’m not convinced you do know the dangers. Even now. Or you wouldn’t...”
Clarke picks up the thread she leaves trailing. “Wouldn’t want to be with you?” She hesitates to bring this up in a clearly vulnerable -- emotionally and literally, not that Lexa seems to remember she is naked -- moment, but: “Bryn was right, though. As long as the story of the wood witch is out there, Nia has a target on my back. It doesn’t matter whether or not it’s just a story. We might as well --”
“What?” Lexa asks like a whip crack. “Start a life together? Make plans? Try to build something to last on a foundation of ashes and blood?”
“I told you in the forest, I want whatever I can get, for whatever time we have.” Clarke’s throat tightens. “You talk like you’re the one taking all the risk of losing someone. I’m not the one who goes onto the battlefield and hacks away at people on a regular basis, or lets them hack away at me.”
“No, you’re just sitting here asking if you’ll be offered up to a bloodthirsty tyrant as a sacrifice.”
“I’m not --” Clarke hunches over so that she can rest her forehand in her hands, struggling to make her breathing even. It’s a little scary, how emotional Lexa can make her, and how quickly. “I’m just asking you to explain the strategy to me. The endgame. What might or might not happen.” She raises her head. “I can put up with a lot of awfulness as long as I know why it’s necessary. I don’t want things to just happen to me, I want to be a part of it.”
“Is that what you think of me?” Lexa plays with the surface of the water, cupping some of the cloudy stuff in her palm and then letting it wind down her wrist in a thin stream. “That I’d throw you away, as easily as that?”
“I didn’t think you’d do it easily.” Clarke leans forward, putting her folded arms on the edge of the tub. They’re at an angle like that, so it’s comfortable to lay her cheek along her bicep as she watches Lexa’s face. “I just want to know.”
Lexa lets her hand fall back under the water. This close Clarke can smell the herbs mixed in with the salts, pungent and stinging. It feels like they’re warming her lungs as much as the heat from the water when she breathes them in, making her a little lightheaded. “... Lexa?”
The water splashes as Lexa abruptly brings her arms up out of it, resting her elbows on the edge. She works her fingers into her wet hair and closes her eyes. Droplets form at her temples.
“Lexa. You didn’t answer the question.”
“I don’t want to answer it,” Lexa breathes out. “Leave me alone. Go poke your fingers into someone else’s soul.”
“Lexa.” Clarke feels stung, and surprised to feel that way.
“Every time you say my name, it’s like one of your people’s punishments. It rips the air from my lungs.”
Clarke isn’t even aware she’s about to stand until Lexa reaches up to jerk her back down to sitting. Clarke opens her mouth to tell her where she can get off, asking her to stay and then acting like --
“I know what I’m supposed to say, as your Commander,” Lexa says, fingers wrapped around Clarke’s wrists.
“You’re not really my Commander.” Not that they ever worked out the details.
“I know what I should say,” Lexa says, ignoring her. Probably for the best. Clarke’s feeling a little unsteady. “What my duty demands.”
“I won’t hold it against you,” Clarke says softly.
Lexa’s hold slips from Clarke’s wrists to her fingers, twining theirs together. “No?”
“I think we’ve already faced the worst of what someone in your position can do. And it’s not like you didn’t warn me what it meant to follow you into this battle.” Clarke holds on tighter just in case Lexa takes that as a rejection -- but Lexa doesn’t move away. She stays with her head bowed, arms hanging outside the tub to hold onto Clarke. Clarke had to go onto her knees -- the stool got kicked to the side -- but she’s more level with Lexa like this. She can see the nape of Lexa’s neck where her hair is swept to one side, the water beading on her eyelashes as she breathes, unsteadily, in and out. “And if you say handing me over has to remain an option, I won’t take it personally.”
Lexa makes a sound too weary to be a laugh.
“Lexa.” She says it as gently as possible, conscious of what Lexa just confessed. The other girl gives a slight shiver anyway. “I understand. It’s not about what either of us want. I accept that.”
“I can’t,” Lexa whispers.
“What do you mean?” Clarke bends her head closer. The steam from the water warms her face. “... Lexa?”
Lexa releases Clarke, but only to reach for her again -- hands sinking into her hair and bringing her wet mouth to Clarke’s.
Clarke wants to -- should -- push away, put a stop to it. This is the line they agreed not to cross. But the fierceness of the way Lexa clings to her and the desperate gentleness of the kiss is a contrast that leaves Clarke slow to react. Lexa kisses her again, and then again, as if she’s pleading. Each kiss is a little more demanding, and Clarke can’t help but respond -- reaching her own hands out to Lexa’s shoulders, sinking her fingers into the muscles of her back. Lexa gasps low in her throat.
Okay, Clarke thinks. Now stop.
They don’t stop. Clarke drags her nails across Lexa’s skin and Lexa groans, and that’s where it stops being clear who does what or with what consequences. There’s just the feeling of Lexa against her lips and under her fingers, warm and slick, and an ache low in her belly that feels deeper than hunger. It feels like something wrenched back into place after so long out of joint.
It’s that thought which, finally, convinces Clarke to try and pull away -- she can’t have this, and Lexa knows that, so it’s almost cruel.
Except Lexa doesn’t let her. Lexa’s fingers wind even tighter, until she’s almost pulling Clarke’s hair. Lexa deepens the next kiss with an urgency that borders on demand. Lexa’s hand releases its grip to smooth down her neck, and then slips open the ties of Clarke’s shirt. It falls off Clarke’s shoulder, and Lexa takes the opportunity to splay her fingers possessively across Clarke’s collarbone.
Clarke wants this so much she’s shaking, and she can barely stay kneeling. The bed is only a few steps away. She knows exactly how they do this. For a second she flashes back so strongly to Lexa pressing her down into the mattress, anchoring her with hands at her hips and jaw, that she almost thinks she’s there. Until her eyes flutter back open and she’s kneeling by the tub with her shirt about to fall to the floor.
She has no words for how much she wants this.
“Lexa?” she whispers into Lexa’s mouth, barely managing to make it a question instead of a plea.
And Lexa pushes her away, shoving herself so violently that her back hits the edge of the tub, water sloshing onto the floor.
It hits like someone punches her in the stomach. Clarke stumbles to her feet, walking to the far side of the tent as she pulls her clothes back on, fixes the ties with shaking fingers. It gives her enough time to gather herself, remember where she is.
How angry she is.
“That wasn’t me,” she says abruptly, turning with her hands in fists. “That wasn’t my fault.”
Lexa has her knees up, peeking out of the milky water. She’s bent over almost double, arms balanced across them, forehead pressed to her arms. The water is still moving around with the force of her retreat. “I know,” she says, her breathing unsteady. “It never is.”
That makes Clarke stop, suspended in the middle of... she’s not sure anymore.
She’s not sure of much, really.
Lexa raises her head. Her lips are flushed and swollen, but the look in her eyes makes Clarke feel like someone scooped her heart out of her ribs. “It’s always me. Not you.”
That’s not quite true, by Clarke’s reckoning of things -- their first kiss was her, the initial kiss in the woods was her. But she’s willing to bet Lexa has her eye on the bigger picture: Lexa allowed it, so it’s all on her.
Clarke kind of hates her sometimes. Loves her. It’s all really mixed up.
She sets her jaw and focuses just beyond Lexa’s right shoulder, mostly so that she doesn’t end up looking at her reddened mouth. “Just take the baths, okay? I know you probably don’t have time for them every day, but a regular soak will help the muscles heal.” She adds, more quietly: “I’m not going to come in here to make you again.”
Lexa is silent for so long Clarke wonders if that’s it, that’s all she gets before she leaves -- until finally the Commander nods.
“You shouldn’t need me to scold you into it,” Clarke says, feeling brittle. “You know better.”
Clarke blows out a hard breath. There’s still a stupidly delighted flutter in the bottom of her stomach, and she can feel Lexa’s fingers like she left indentations on Clarke’s body. “So why did you make me go through all of this?”
Lexa’s eyes are downcast, but Clarke can see the look in them is distant. “When you’re going through hardship, it’s best to simply... go through it. Any indulgence, no matter how small, reminds you of what you can’t have.”
Clarke knows exactly what she means.
She turns and leaves the tent.
Clarke is in an absolutely foul mood several hours later, when the sun begins to slip down over the horizon. She doesn’t take it out on her patients or coworkers -- she’d like to think Abby taught her better than that -- but there’s a knot of pain inside her ribcage that twists tighter and tighter until it’s a struggle to breathe around. She’s so grateful when the end of her shift is signaled, she wants to cry. All she wants to do is go back to her tent and shut out the world for a while. Maybe get a hug from Wells. She’s more than earned it.
There’s a slight commotion around the healers’ tent as she’s cleaning and putting away her supplies. Clarke wouldn’t pay it too much attention -- there’s always some discussion going on, about an ongoing battle or reports from throughout the camp -- except she sees Versi shoot up to her feet and run outside.
“Is there trouble?” she asks Hern.
“Depends on what you mean.” With an inscrutable look, he adds: “The contingent from Plains Riders is here.”
As knotted-up as Clarke feels, that piqued her curiosity. She follows the general flow of excitement outside to find the source.
She sees the horses first. They’re gorgeous. She feels guilty thinking that about any horse that isn’t Storm, but these are almost different animals from her retired warhorse. They’re so many inches taller (no, wait, you measure horses in hands), and totally alert: ears in constant swivel, eyes bright with intelligence. Storm is wonderful -- Storm is perfect -- but she’s older and steadier. Especially in the days since their trek through the woods, as Clarke hasn’t asked much of her but to stay by their tent and eat food. Sometimes she takes her for a quick ride on the far side of the camp, and she thinks Lincoln’s been teaching Octavia the rudiments of riding when he has time, but not much else troubles Storm’s days.
These horses, on the other hand. They don’t look like they get a lot of time off. She can pick out the sinews and muscles on them from here. They look like breathing works of art.
Then someone -- Versi -- shrieks, and Clarke jumps as her attention snap-focuses onto the entirety of the scene: two dozen or so warriors, on horseback and off. Versi has catapulted herself into the embrace of the person who is clearly their leader -- it radiates off of her the way it can Lexa. Well, Clarke revises, remembering what Anya said about Sacra: not quite like Lexa, she doesn’t have the same seriousness or sense of purpose weighing even the smallest movements. But there’s a brightness about her. All the other riders watch her, the way the horses pay attention to their surroundings; she’s not their ultimate leader, but when away from home, Clarke can tell she’s the one they look to.
She’s not very pretty. (You’re being petty, Clarke tells herself, and then promptly ignores herself.) But she’s not: she looks sun-faded, hair and eyebrows bleached to a pale reddish-blonde, except where it’s brought out a thick smattering of brown freckles across her nose and down both arms. Clarke can tell from her vantage point, half-hidden by trees, that Sacra doesn’t give a damn if other people think she’s pretty. Clarke can spot the intelligence in her eyes from where she stands, and when Versi makes her laugh, her whole body seizes up with joy.
That, strangely, sets an alarm bell ringing in her head. She doesn’t have time to figure out why before Lexa strides around the corner to greet the party. The onlookers part for her, and she reaches Sacra and Versi. Clarke shrinks behind a tree -- not that Lexa is going to look for her, and she’s pretty far off. Not so far that Clarke can’t see her hair is still slightly damp from the bath.
Lexa smiles -- smiles -- as she faces Sacra, holding out her hand in greeting. Sacra takes it, uses it to pull Lexa into a full embrace. She’s a little taller than Lexa. The new warmth on her face just adds to the pull of her charisma. When Lexa pulls away Sacra doesn’t let her go. She places her hands on Lexa’s shoulders with self-assurance, like she knows she won’t be pushed off.
Instead Lexa says something -- Clarke’s too far away to hear what, but it must be cheeky, because those closest to them laugh. Sacra returns with something that sparks a second ripple of laughter, especially from Versi. Lexa smiles in response, but it’s a little rueful. Her eyelashes dip.
And Clarke -- knows.
Anya implied it. Versi stated it, and now that Clarke thinks about it there’s very limited ways Versi would be in the position to know, since she’s not part of Lexa’s personal entourage. (But she’d been on two campaigns with her.) Clarke didn’t want to jump to conclusions, and she had been very careful not to.
It’s so obvious, though, looking at Lexa now. Sacra is one of those warriors too powerful in their own right to feel threatened by Nia -- the only kind of person Lexa has allowed a personal connection with since Costia’s death.
So. Lexa and Sacra were lovers, once.
Clarke turns away. She doesn’t need to see any more of this.
She makes her way back to her personal tent. Wells isn’t there, so he must be feeling well enough for Anya to drag him out for some light combat practice -- Anya seems like the kind of person to believe the best cure for illness is exercise. Octavia is who knows where.
It’s good, actually, because Clarke wants -- kind of needs, actually -- a few moments to herself. She goes over to where Storm is hitched up and puts her arms around the horse’s neck. Storm noses her pockets for treats and then blows noisily in Clarke’s ears when she doesn’t find any, but allows it.
Clarke listens to her breathing, grounds herself with the feeling of the horse's sun-warmed coat beneath her hands. Storm is beautiful. And loved. Even if she isn’t as useful to Lexa as she once was. Even if there are clearly more captivating horses out there.
The thing is, they’ve been here before. Right before returning to Polis from Blue Cliff, when Lexa had explained: they could be together, but not together. And Clarke had gotten the sinking certainty that if there’d been too much suspicion surrounding their relationship, Lexa would know just how to defuse it. How to distract people from looking at her relationship with Clarke too closely.
And she’d warned Clarke, hadn’t she?
“Whatever it takes .”
There’s a welcome feast for the Plains Riders contingent. Clarke will not be attending.
“Why are you being stupid?” Wells asks her, bewildered. He still gets tired very easily, especially in the evenings, so she doesn’t want to call him out for being rude. “Don’t you want to eat decent food? I know I do.”
Octavia took over cooking duties while Wells was recovering. She is even worse than Wells.
(Clarke half-suspects this is deliberate; Octavia is determined to be taken as a Second and serving as their camp cook doesn’t fit her impression of what that entails. Clarke has her own thoughts on the matter, given how often Woods Clan warriors serve on campaigns and how good Lincoln can cook. But she knows when not to broach a sensitive subject.)
“Bring me back something,” she says, refusing to get up from her cot. Her boots are off, but otherwise she hasn’t bothered to change for bed. She’s just... too tired.
“Like, I don’t care.” She turns her head to face him from where she was trying to appear nonchalant, contemplating the ceiling of the tent. She knows it didn’t fool Wells. That’s why he’s pestering. “Their lead warrior is... she’s kind of Lexa’s ex, okay? I don’t want to go to the stupid dinner.”
He frowns at her. “So what?
So I’m pretty sure Lexa believes sleeping with her will help keep me safe, because that’s how the girl I’m in love with thinks, which is beginning to get on my nerves. “I don’t feel like making the effort.”
His frown grows deeper. It’s kind of eerie; between how exhausted he is and that expression, she can really see his father in his face. “You’re giving up our first good food in a week because you’re jealous?”
“I don’t need to explain --”
“Look, I know things between you are weird,” he breaks in, “but Lexa’s in love with you. Don’t do this to yourself just because someone she used to be involved with shows up.”
Clarke blinks at him. “Did you just... say what I think you said? Do you actually believe that?”
He gives an irritated little sigh. “Yeah. Not thrilled you’re making me admit it. She’s good at hiding it. But... yeah.”
Clarke turns all the way onto her side. She shouldn’t ask. “How can you tell?”
Wells gives her a wary look. “I’m still not a fan of hers, or whatever the two of you are doing.”
“No. You’re just following her onto the battlefield every day and risking your life to do it.”
“That’s different,” he mutters, “that’s... everybody does their part, right?” He rolls his eyes at her. “Alright, if you insist: she’s good -- she’s very good -- at appearing impartial. But I’ve been around her enough, now, that she can’t quite hide...” He sighs again. “She says your name like it’s something sacred, okay?”
Clarke doesn’t think she lets her reaction to that show, but Wells looks upset anyway. “Clarke, it doesn’t make up for anything. It doesn’t solve any of your problems. You get that.”
Probably a lot better than Wells does. Still, it’s something to fold up tight and tuck between her ribs, right next to her heart, and after a day like today... “You sound like you can’t make up your mind whether you like her or not.”
Wells looks away, impatient, and for a second Clarke wonders if he’s just going to stalk off to the feast alone. Then he spots something in the corner, and drags it over: a stool. He settles with bad grace, forearms balanced on his knees so that his hands dangle. They look bigger than she remembers, until Clarke realizes her mental image of them is from years of watching him type on consoles, when his forearms didn’t have corded muscle.
She’d give a lot to know what changes other people see in her.
“I admire her,” he says after a long moment of sitting. “I didn’t want to. What she did to you was messed up, and I don’t care what happens, or how you feel about it -- I don’t think I’m ever going to forgive her. I’m pretty sure she knows that.”
Probably. The same way Clarke intuits Anya might tolerate her, now, but she’ll never forgive Clarke for what the reveal of her identity did to Lexa, or the aftermath.
It's easier to get over something that happened to you, than suffering inflicted on a person you love.
“But she is...” He trails off into silence again for a beat too long, linking his fingers together. “Incredible. Smart doesn’t begin to cover it -- she remembers everything I tell her, and once we get through my memories of all those books on ancient warfare, I’m not sure she’ll need me around. She knows how to ask the right questions, too. We’ll be stuck, and she’ll say something that can adjust our perspective on it just enough to make it solvable.
“It’s more than that, though,” he says, getting quieter, more somber. “Once she knows the solution she never hesitates, or holds back. She’s...” He makes a slight grimace.
“You can say ‘ruthless.’ It’s okay.”
“It’s not really the right word, though. If she were really ruthless, we would have recaptured the city by now. We would have sacrificed two-thirds of the surrounding population and maybe even more of the citizens inside the walls, but we could have done it. And that’s the war Nia wants us to fight. So I need a word for someone who can not only see that, but can resist it -- who can somehow redirect all our efforts into creating an entirely different war, even when all the advantage is on the other side.” Wells looks up at her, and again, Clarke isn’t sure how much of what she’s feeling shows on her face, but whatever does it’s nothing Wells likes. “Look, she’s an incredible commander. That’s why I don’t want you near her.”
Clarke sits up and swings her legs over the edge of the cot so she can face him, knees almost touching. She leans, mimicking his posture, and raises her eyebrows in a silent invitation to continue.
“My father,” and if Clarke didn’t understand how seriously Wells is speaking, she does now, “was an incredible Chancellor. I’m pretty sure your mom is incredible, too.” He meets her eyes, mouth in a hard line. “We both know what happened to their partners.”
And Wells’s mom had died when they were very young. Not for any violent reason -- there’d been a pathogen making its way through the Ark that year, mutating with a speed that made it hard to track. Five percent of the population succumbed without even realizing they were symptomatic -- not until they were hooked up to respirators in medbay. Apollonia Jaha had been one of those. People whispered, after, that Thelonious had been too concerned with castigating Science Station into developing counter-measures to notice his own spouse was sick.
“I don’t think it’s the same, though,” Clarke says. “You’re seeing Lexa in a very special circumstance. She isn’t usually this focused, and she has a full life inside the tower.”
“Yeah? And how many people are privy to that?”
Clarke frowns. “I don’t understand the question.”
“How many other people know her as a person?”
Plenty, Clarke wants to say, thinking of the handmaidens and the nightbloods and everyone in the tower who loved Lexa, but she knows that’s not true. Bryn is one of the few people left alive who had practically been raised alongside Lexa, had known her since before she’d amputated whatever didn’t fit inside the role of Commander. Even sometimes missed the parts of Lexa that were no longer on display. But just this morning Bryn, of all people, was looking out at Lexa on the field and seeing what she needed to see. A fighter who would never tire, a leader who was born for blood and brutality instead of forced into it by necessity. And not because she’s selfish, or shortsighted, but because that is the purpose Lexa -- Heda -- serves. That’s what Lexa encourages. She believes the best way to love her people is to make sure they never really know her.
Just look at what she’d done when she first realized Clarke did know her.
“Wells, they got her when she was really young.” Emotion makes her voice hoarse. She’s not even sure how much of this she’s supposed to be sharing, but she wants him to know -- “She was raised by... a fanatic, I guess. He convinced her, and the kids she grew up with, they had to do awful things. She’s been told since she was a little kid that this is what it means to be the Commander.”
He sits back, thoughtful. “That makes sense. She’s only a few years older than us, I think? So it makes sense it’d’ve had to start early, to already be at this point.”
She shakes her head because she doesn’t think -- she doesn’t want him to be saying -- “It isn’t who she is. It’s just who she thinks she has to be.”
For the first time, she can pick out pity in his expression.
“Clarke,” he says, after a long moment. “When it comes to someone with this much willpower, and drive, and determination...” He sighs and climbs to his feet, brushing imaginary dirt from the front of his pants. He walks to the front of their tent before looking over his shoulder. “Do you really think there’s that much difference between the two?”
Clarke stares back at him.
“Think about it,” he says, and goes.
Hours later, Clarke sits bolt upright. The camp is never really quiet, not even in the dead of night, but it’s been dark for hours now. Octavia and Wells are sleeping on their cots. Clarke hasn’t been able to do the same.
You know what? she thinks. Fuck this.
She shoves her feet into her boots and grabs her jacket. It’s not the smartest decision to crawl out from under the covers, this time of night. Her breath fogs the air after several hours without the sun to warm it. Clarke doesn’t feel the cold. She’s too angry.
She stomps halfway across the camp to find Lexa’s tent. It’s lit with torches, like always. She’s surprised when she walks in and Lexa is just there, sitting on her throne like she's been waiting.
Of course she has, Clarke realizes in the next second. She knows Clarke. She guessed what was coming.
The thought brings Clarke to a sudden halt. She’s breathing hard. Her instincts are screaming at her to attack, to charge, but her knowledge of Lexa is keeping her still.
Lexa straightens in her throne, and then stands. She doesn’t come down off the dais. It gives her the advantage of height, and Clarke resents it.
“You weren’t at the feast,” Lexa says.
That she speaks first feels like a victory, and it allows Clarke to calm herself. A little. “You knew I wouldn’t be,” she guesses.
Lexa gives her a somber look. “Have you eaten?”
“Wells brought me back something. He takes care of me.”
The smallest tic along Lexa’s jaw as the hit lands. Clarke’s not proud of aiming for her weak spot, but... well, she doesn’t really have an excuse. Beyond how incredibly angry she is. Even more so at the confirming signs -- the smudges under her eyes, the slight messiness of her braids -- that Lexa was sitting here waiting for Clarke for what might have been several hours after she should have been in bed.
She hates that they both know so much, care so much, and still can’t seem to find their way to a better place.
“I’m glad,” Lexa says, quietly, and Clarke shouldn’t be shocked at Lexa’s capacity to make her even angrier, but that note of resignation is doing what she thought impossible. “You deserve to have someone who puts you first.”
“Did you ever think,” Clarke begins, barely containing her fury, “to ask me what I want? Instead of deciding what I do or don’t deserve?”
Lexa steps down from the dais. She still has her cloak on, but not the pauldron or the forehead piece. Enough distance from her immediate duties of Commander to breathe, but never too far from them. “I don’t have to ask to know that you want someone who can claim you in public. Someone you have just as public a claim on.”
“I’m not asking for you to ride with me on horseback through the streets of Polis, or get married in front of a crowd of spectators, Lexa,” Clarke says through gritted teeth. “Just that you don’t parade around with anyone else.”
Lexa stops an arm’s length away. Her expression makes it feel like a whole galaxy could fit in the distance between them. “As long as Nia thinks I’m in love with you, you’re in more danger than you can begin to understand. Capturing my wood witch would win her an advantage, but capturing my...” Lexa swallows. “Capturing you, Clarke? That might win her the war.”
Clarke stares at her. “You are in love with me.”
“Yes. But I can make people think otherwise.”
The camp, Clarke has come to understand, is like a living organism. Lexa is its beating heart. Where she goes, attention follows. People always know if she fought in the battle itself or stayed on the sidelines, if she rides out and with whom, what her looks and moods are that day. Lexa had people watching Clarke, but Clarke didn’t need to try the same: Lexa is the gossip running through the camp like lifeblood. Everyone sees her even if, as Wells pointed out, few actually understand who they’re seeing.
It was the same in the tower. It’s possibly the same everywhere Lexa goes. If Lexa and Sacra become involved, everyone -- everyone -- will know about it.
Even Nia, eventually.
“But I don’t get it,” Clarke continues, as Lexa remains silent and expressionless. “Because I’m still your wood witch. You can’t change that.”
She catches herself, stares at Lexa. The only light is from a bank of candles, casting a warm glow over the other girl’s features. She looks like one of those paintings from the masters in the Before, lost to the fires: all golden tones and caressing shadows. Motionless except for the beat of her pulse at her throat.
Lexa said it just this afternoon, didn’t she? She’s the one who’s unable to keep from crossing the lines between them.
And also: she never doles out any responsibility where she isn’t willing to take on more.
If she had Clarke tortured in part to drive them apart, to try and make Clarke afraid of her --
“I could probably forgive you for sleeping with someone else,” Clarke says, even as the words feel like little cramps above her heart. “I would hate every second, but if it would fool Nia? If it would help? I would understand it. I think you know that.” She sets her jaw. “But you wouldn’t be able to forgive yourself.”
Clarke is comfortable with lying to people. Perhaps even a little more comfortable lying to herself than she should be. It’s not an immediate concern, though, because she knows it’s a big part of how she survived the months since crashing to Earth. (Maybe it’s even how she survived solitary.) Clarke is good at surviving. Whatever that demands.
Lexa is capable of subterfuge. Clarke is pretty sure Lexa would be capable of anything she set her mind to.
But when Clarke commits to a... shaky truth... it’s to use it as a tool. Maybe the unvarnished version sounds a little too harsh to the ear, maybe she doesn’t trust people to understand the nuances in the time frame she requires. Maybe it’s a deception -- from a certain angle -- but her wider purpose is aligned with what the other person believes about the world. Otherwise, Clarke wouldn’t be asking for their help.
Lexa climbs inside her lies, tries to live inside them. Love makes you weak. She can never be as strong as she needs to, be the Commander she needs to, unless she does it alone. She, Lexa, needs nothing. Lives for nothing but her people.
“I must have something for myself ,” she admitted to Roan in the dungeons, knowing Clarke could hear: the only audience in the world with a clear perspective on what it cost to be the Commander. She knew it only worked when she held something back, was honest, at least sometimes, at least to herself, that her self-control had its limits. That she was more than someone born to fill a set role. She deserved more.
But it’s possible just saying it out loud had frightened her, because she’s been fighting it ever since. And this -- this would be the end to that fight, smothering the part of her she’s kept hidden and safe under the weight of other people’s perceptions. Sacrificing the last part of her that couldn’t be totally controlled. Sleeping with someone -- or even just allowing everyone to believe she was -- she didn’t love, while not even allowing herself to touch the person she did. It would be the final shovel of dirt, effectively burying Lexa alive.
She probably understands that. But she’ll do it anyway, if she thinks it’s for Clarke’s sake.
The anger drains out of Clarke like someone cut a hole in the bottom of her heart. She stares at Lexa -- they’ve both been quiet for a minute now, and Clarke can only imagine what thoughts are racing behind Lexa’s half-lidded eyes -- and knows with sickening certainty that the second she walks out of this tent, it’s over.
She can’t fight this fight on these terms. Not when Lexa is determined to use her own psyche as both battlefield and weapon.
“You’ll tell yourself it’s yet another reason we should never be together,” Clarke says into the silence. And then, because the anger isn’t completely gone: “And maybe you think that will make things easier if you have to hand me over to Nia.”
Lexa jerks, a reflexive head shake that she freezes in mid-motion. Clarke, watching her, has a sudden realization.
“Oh,” she says softly. “I get it. You doubt you’re able to do that. You think -- you’re hoping -- this will somehow help you give the order. If it comes to that.”
Lexa is white to the lips. She won’t meet Clarke’s eyes.
“Lexa,” and Clarke is surprised to find that beneath everything else -- the exhaustion, and hurt, and anger and despair, there is still tenderness -- “remember in the woods, when I said I trusted you? This is part of that.” She sighs. “I know in a choice between me and -- well, whatever, you’ll do what’s best for everyone.”
“And you accept that?” Lexa bursts out, anger rising to the surface. “You want that? I can never promise you safety, or certainty. I can’t even promise you I’ll survive the winter. You could have anyone you wanted,” her voice breaking a little. “You could have everything. You just have to love someone who can live that life with you.” She swallows. “Someone else.”
“I know that. I’m not here because I don’t think I have other choices.”
“So why?” Lexa asks, and Clarke can hear the barrage of questions unasked: why choose someone whose love costs so much, why endure unnecessary hardship, what could Lexa possibly offer to balance it all out.
“You know, I’ve been thinking, for a while now, that my job is to save you from yourself.” Clarke manages a wry little smile. “Which is... I thought I’d gotten better at not doing that, but I guess there’s a learning curve. The truth is, I can’t save you. No one can.” She raises her head high. “If this is what you want, this never-ending game where I try to bring us together and you try and keep us apart, then you’ll probably win it. You’re smart. And you’re a strategist. You almost won once before, and you know me even better now. You can find better ways to drive me away. Or maybe you’ll just make me angry enough to retaliate, and we’ll go around and around like that until we forget how much we love each other, and only remember how to play this stupid game.”
Clarke clenches her hands into fists, driving her nails into her palms and using the sting to ground herself, to rein in the anger. It doesn’t serve her; not with that persistent suspicion that this is her last chance to make her case before everything becomes irretrievably broken. “If that’s what you really want, you’ll make it happen. You’re capable.” She has to laugh, even in the middle of this. “You’re capable of almost anything; you’re Lexa. And maybe you regret what you can’t give me, but you don’t regret your choices.” Or, almost never -- thinking of whispered apologies in the furthest corner of the infirmary tent. “I want a life with you. But only if it’s our life -- not one where you make the decisions and we both suffer the consequences.”
“... how is being with me, and under threat from Nia, not suffering --”
“Because you didn’t decide this, Lexa!” Clarke bursts out, unable to keep it contained long enough to let her finish. “If anything, you fought this every step of the way! But at the same time, you can’t keep to your decisions. You push me away one second and you pull me back the next.”
She sees, immediately, that it was the wrong thing to say. Lexa isn’t the most demonstrative person, especially when they’re fighting, but her expression closes up with a finality that takes Clarke’s breath away.
“You’re right,” she says before Clarke can undo the damage, and Clarke’s heart sinks. The way Lexa says it does not bode well. “I’ve been a hypocrite, and I’ve hurt you in the process. All the more reason,” bringing up her eyes to meet Clarke’s, “for it to end here.”
“I can’t love you the way you deserve,” Lexa says. She has that set to her mouth that Clarke hates, she always gets it when she -- “So this is finished. No more pretending we might someday... or hoping that...” She swallows. “We’re finished.”
... oh, yeah. Fuck this.
Clarke draws in a deep breath. She feels like she can, all of the sudden -- who cares if she’s careful, now, right? They’ve ruined everything. There’s no more reason to be gentle, or hold back. Or there might be, if she thought Lexa had good reasons. If she wanted to walk out of this tent with any hope still between them.
It’s a relief to lean into how much she doesn’t care.
“Your problem was never about loving me,” she says, and she knows this feeling: this is the flip side of her interest in people and her instinct for knowing what drives them. That’s empathy, even if she sometimes uses it to her own advantage. (Everyone’s advantage in the end, she’d argue.) But this -- this is when she’s past caring about the other person, or partnership. Sometimes all she wants is to be able to rake her fingers through the dark corners of someone’s soul and dredge up all the dirt she can find, shove it in their face: you thought you could hide this? “Your problem is who that love makes you.”
Lexa turns away. “I said we’re finished.”
Clarke chases her. “You don’t know what I’m saying, do you?”
“What’s more, I don’t care.”
“What it means, Commander,” Clarke persists, following her up onto the dais, “is that you love me. You’d jump into a river to save me, you’d fight as long and hard as you could to keep me safe. But you don’t like being the person who would do those things. You think she’s weak.”
“I don’t know who she is,” Lexa says, whirling back to face her. “You were right, out in the woods. You don’t make me a different person. But I’m certain that whoever that person is, she's not who is needed. Maybe if circumstances were different -- if we weren’t in the middle of a war --”
“Then you would find a different excuse,” Clarke interrupts. “Maybe this isn’t the best timing, but it isn’t about timing. I love you,” and it tears through her chest raggedly, as if speaking the words leaves a wound. “And if that means I have to keep secrets, okay. If it means we have to strategize, okay.” She takes a deep breath. “But I won’t be with someone who’s ashamed of who they are when they love me.”
It brings Lexa up short, her lack of response as loud as a shout. The crackle of the torches around them is almost intrusive. The line of her shoulders softens. She looks less like a warrior in the middle of a fight for her life, more like the girl Clarke loves.
“Clarke,” she says. “You are... I don’t have the words to describe... I would never be ashamed of you.”
Clarke shakes her head. “You can’t love me separate from yourself. If I love all of you, and you reject parts of yourself, you reject my love with them.”
“You don’t understand.” Lexa swallows, fingers curling into and then uncurling from fists at her sides. “I know who I have to be to serve my people. To make sure you and everyone else survives --”
“There’s more to life than surviving it.”
The look in Lexa’s eyes is very bleak. “Says someone who’s had the privilege thus far.”
“You know,” Clarke says, and she can barely feel her lips, she’s so angry, “I think if Costia knew how you were using her death as an excuse to avoid living, she’d be the person who’d hate you the most for it.”
Lexa jerks like Clarke slapped her. “This isn’t about Costia,” she says, and finally, finally Clarke can hear the toll this is taking in her voice: hoarse, ragged around the edges.
“No, it isn’t.” It sucks, after all the pain Lexa has dealt her, that hurting her back almost hurts more. “It isn’t about me, either. You’re the one who’s being a coward.”
Lexa actually picks up and throws something, too quickly for Clarke to glimpse what. Whatever it is lands harmlessly, with a soft whump, just outside the ring of light cast by the torches. Clarke doesn’t think Lexa was trying to scare or startle her, anyway, just find a physical release for the excess tension radiating from her frame.
She turns and walks right into Clarke’s personal space, after, mouth almost in a snarl. “This is how I keep from being a coward,” she says, in a terrible voice. “How else can you expect me to go out there, day after day, and kill the same people I once swore to protect? To ask the people who still follow me to die in a war I couldn’t stop? Knowing the best outcome is I will be allowed to die, in order to end it?”
Clarke had thought, before, that she’d seen Lexa being honest about her pain. But never like this. Her eyes are dark with it.
“I can only risk everything, use up everything, when I have no reason to hold back," she says. "If I have something to live for, I won’t be able to fight. I’ll be too terrified of losing.”
“You don’t think I’m scared?” Clarke whispers back to her. “Do you think this is easy for me, any of this, after losing my father, and my people, and your trust, and --” She has to reign herself in; it feels like her very sinews are holding her emotions in check. “You’re not the only one who’s tired of having so much to lose.”
“So why are you doing this?” Lexa asks, sounding almost broken. “Why are you --” She looks away and closes her eyes, throat moving as she swallows, and swallows, forcing down whatever truth could have choked her. “This is only making it worse.”
“I told you before, Lexa: you make choices. Your life is brutal and unforgiving because you chose that path. You keep choosing it. You could have passed the role of Commander onto someone else when Costia died, people would have understood. We could have gotten here faster and hid inside the city walls. We could have run away, any time we were in the woods. Don’t tell me it wasn’t an option,” as Lexa opens her mouth, still not opening her eyes, “because it was. It is. You can’t act like you’re a victim of your own life.”
Clarke steels herself, remembering: you have to tear the heart out of her. “You want this life. Maybe not the danger, or the worst consequences, but this is the person you want to be: the person who stays, and keeps fighting, despite every logical reason to give up. It’s hard, but denying how much you have to give, how much you want to give it, would be worse. You have so many reasons to choose a different way to live. You don’t. Because this is what you want.”
Lexa opens her eyes. “Yes,” she says, and the word falls like a stone from her lips.
Clarke sees in her face the moment she says it that Lexa is expecting to be punished for her honesty. She’s expecting to have her heart ground into dust by the truth: you are only here because you want to be here. You deserve to be alone.
“You keep talking about what I deserve,” Clarke says. “You never ask what I want.”
Lexa is silent for a few seconds before realizing she’s being given an opening. “What do you want?” she asks, like every word is a mortal wound.
“I want the same thing.” Clarke has to catch her breath to keep her intensity from making it a shout. “I don’t want you in spite of the life you lead. I want this as much as you do. I’m choosing too, Lexa. I get it, I understand the risks and the danger, but just like you, I understand why it’s worth it. I want to live a life that makes a difference, and you have no right to tell me otherwise just because I have other options.”
“I never said --”
“You didn’t have to. You act like you’re the only one who could possibly make that choice, the only person who is, I don’t know, noble enough to accept it.” A sudden, searing flash of insight: “Or maybe you can endure it this way. Maybe it’s easier to risk yourself, day after day, if you think the people you love won’t do the same. Because you told them it’s not worth it.”
Maybe, after the conclave, Lexa had decided it was better to be the sacrifice than the survivor.
“I’m not the only one,” Clarke continues, even as she can see what it’s doing to Lexa, knowing if she doesn’t speak the whole truth now it might never be said. “Costia chose. Gustus and Anya choose every day. All of them -- all of us -- want to fight with you, not just by your order.” She pauses, breathing hard. “This isn’t about what you deserve, either. This is just another choice. If you end up alone, you can’t insist it’s because you’re the Commander. You have to admit, now, after everything: it’s what you want.
“I love you. I love that you choose this life, despite what comes with it. I don’t think being scared of the pain it can still bring you is weakness. I love you, and I’m not ashamed of who that makes me, even though more than one person has told me it should. And that means one day,” her voice breaks, “if you’re forced to choose between me and what this life demands of you, I will love you through it. Whatever you do.
“This is the life I want to share with you,” she says, coming that smallest step closer. “Who we are now, and here. I know that’s hard for you to understand, so I’m willing to give you all the time you need to do that. But in this moment, I need you to believe me. Even if it doesn’t make sense to you.
“Can you believe me?” she asks, so, so softly. “Do you believe I don’t just love you, I want you -- I choose you? Knowing what that means, and that I have other options. Maybe even better ones, if I wanted a different life. I still choose you.”
Lexa searches her face for what feels like a long time. Then, once, she nods.
“Okay.” Clarke's mouth is dry. “I understand this is hard. That I’m asking you to live with uncertainty, and parts of yourself you have a hard time accepting. I know that, but I’m saying if you can’t choose me back,” and yes, she’s leaning a bit into the emotional appeal here, but she’s still Clarke freaking Griffin, “and decide you want me more than you’re scared of the future, of yourself, then you are choosing to be alone. That’s another choice you are making, because it’s what you really want.”
Clarke discovers she’s shaking as she asks: “Is it what you want?”
The moment seems to pull and stretch between them, lengthening into agony as Lexa stares back at her, wordless.
Something breaks inside Clarke: a small but sharp splintering. It pierces her heart through.
“No,” Lexa whispers, and now Clarke can see she’s shaking, too.
There’s no accompanying explosion, not even a swell of music from whatever triumphant corner. It’s just the same silence that’s surrounded them so far, the content crackle of flames from the torches and candles.
“You have to say the whole thing, Lexa,” Clarke whispers, because -- because she can’t take anything here for granted. Not when so much is at stake. She wants to be sure.
“I love you. I don’t want to be alone.” She says it bluntly, lacking her usual grace, but there’s a wildness lurking beneath. “You are what I want.” Lexa’s eyes are a little too wide, as if she’s already afraid of whatever consequences the confession will bring. “You’re what I choose.” She swallows. “Even if you end up hating me for it.”
Clarke is... a little unsteady, to be honest, and she stumbles as she reaches for Lexa. Lexa springs forward as if to catch her and they collide a little too hard, tangled. Neither of them move to pull apart.
“You almost broke this,” Clarke says, and if she’s crying the tears are lost in Lexa’s hair.
“I just -- I’m so sorry.” Lexa’s arms are wrapped so solidly around Clarke it feels like they grew into place like that.
“That’s twice now.”
“I know,” Lexa whispers. Her arms, impossibly, hold Clarke tighter. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s scary,” Clarke whispers. “I’m scared. I get it.”
Lexa gives a little laugh. “You’re not acting very scared.”
“Because you made me more angry than anything else.” Clarke tucks herself even deeper into Lexa’s shoulder, knowing there’s danger in being discovered the longer they’re like this. Not caring. “And really, this is what I do when things get scary. Just... run head-on into situations and start demanding people get it over with.”
Lexa’s fingers delicately stroke the back of her neck. “I’ll remember that.”
Clarke sighs. “Yeah. You’re not the only one who does stupid things when they’re terrified.” She forces herself to step back. Lexa’s hold immediately loosens, but doesn’t fall away. Clarke waits, until she’s at least far away enough that she’d have to take a step forward to kiss Lexa -- because she’s feeling reckless about discovery, but not that reckless -- before raising her head. “Now what?”
The way Lexa looks at her is like a kiss. She releases Clarke, but only to bring her gloved hands up to cup her face: fingers in her hair, thumbs perilously close to her mouth. “This is what you want? You’re sure?”
Lexa brings their faces together, rests her forehead against Clarke. Who is more than ready for a kiss, is thinking: this could be it, for a while, but that’s okay. As long as they’re together, really together, she can wait as long as needed until --
“Do you want to move your things into my tent?” Lexa asks, so close their lips brush.
The touch is enough to make Clarke catch her breath, but the second she processes the question she is awake, the lack of sleep and the exhaustion of their confrontation falling away in a rush as her heart pounds in her chest. “I thought...”
“I told you,” Lexa says, so close that if Clarke tries to focus she’ll end up cross-eyed, so she closes her eyes to breathe her in instead, “I’m not very good at half-measures. Not when it’s you.”
“That’s not a good way to keep it a secret,” Clarke says quietly.
Lexa shifts back and gives her a small, sad smile. “Because that’s not what I want, either. But it’s your choice.”
Clarke stares. Well, she only has herself to blame: she knew Lexa was the kind of person who, once convinced, would apply just as much energy in bringing something about as she previously had in preventing it. That was why she made you work so hard to convince her.
“Okay,” she hears herself say. “Tomorrow, after dinner, I’ll --”
“Or you could do it tonight,” Lexa interrupts gently. “Now.” She gives a little smile. “I need to sleep, and so do you. I’m not... I just want you there. And I’m sick of pretending I don’t.”
Clarke opens her mouth to say no, it can wait.
“Give me ten minutes.”
She doesn’t need much besides her clothes, and Storm, and she’s hoping maybe if she does this now when Wells is asleep it will be less... messy. After all, how mad can he get after she’s already moved out?
Yeah, she’s not going to think too hard about that.
“Great strategy,” Octavia whispers from her cot in response. “And you knew I’d be awake, so I get to explain when he gets up?”
Clarke pulls the drawstring closure on her bag tight. Octavia doesn’t sleep too soundly when Lincoln is serving a watch on the camp perimeter. “Yeah.”
“Thanks so much.” She keeps her voice down, though -- Octavia’s a lot of things, but she’s not a snitch. “What am I supposed to say? Where are you sneaking off to, in the middle of the night?”
Clarke clears her throat. Throws her bag over her shoulder. This is what they decided, right? No more secrets. No more hiding. “I’m. I’m moving into Lexa’s tent.”
Octavia doesn’t respond. She waits until Clarke finally looks over and to see the way the corner of her mouth curls up. “You little slut. I might actually be proud of you.”
Clarke stares her down. “Go to bed, Octavia.”
Octavia's smirk deepens, but she turns over as if to follow orders, tucking her chin down into the pillow.
Clarke gathers up the rest of her stuff. Her heart is still pounding -- not as bad as before, but enough to make her annoyed at herself. It’s just Lexa. Or, well. It’s Lexa. She doesn’t have to act like --
She makes herself stop, halfway back to the Commander’s tent with her stuff under her arm, pressing the heel of her hand hard against her jacket until she can feel the pressure underneath, on the skin over her heart. She forces herself to stand there and take steady breaths, in and out, until it slows to an acceptable rate.
She wants this. She can do this.
They will figure out a way to make this work.
And in the meantime...
Storm nudges her, blowing, as if to say: bad enough you wake me up, now you’re wasting my time?
Clarke strokes her nose in apology, sets her shoulders, and moves on.
She very determinedly does not meet the eyes of the guards in front of the tent as she hands over Storm’s reins, and then walks back in. Or the next pair of guards stationed inside, after a bit of a labyrinthine trek through the interior, at the entrance to the Commander’s private quarters. Thankfully, she doesn’t have to: they spring aside the second she’s in view, letting her pass.
Cool. Well. That’s five people down, out of the whole camp. That’s a place to start.
Lexa’s asleep. It’s clear she didn’t mean to be -- she’s only half under the covers, and she’s fallen against the pillows at a weird angle, like she just tipped over from sitting. The sight of her like that digs into Clarke with a tenderness so fierce it feels like it has teeth and claws. She puts her pack down to take care of her, sliding her fully under the blankets Clarke remembers from once upon a time, shifting her to a more comfortable position. It’s something of a learned skill with sleeping patients, after the past couple weeks, and Lexa’s eyes don’t open as her breathing evens out. Clarke resists the urge to stare at her. She realizes she’s never really had the chance to see Lexa this defenseless. Not on purpose, anyway.
She puts her things away quickly and changes for bed. She extinguishes all but one or two of the candles Lexa left burning for her, and slips under the covers like a ghost.
The bed is huge. More than enough room to make a little space for herself, settling close enough to Lexa to not feel alone but not too close to disturb --
Lexa drags in a deep breath and rolls into her, her front to Clarke’s back, arm winding around her waist. “You took so long,” more sleepy than complaining, already pulling Clarke into a deeper embrace, fitting their bodies together. Clarke’s heart starts the stupid pounding again.
“Yeah, sorry. I’m here now.”
Lexa noses her way into Clarke’s hair and settles with a sigh, like they’ve done this every night of their lives and not just the twice before, the last time angry and aching and thinking the only way it was allowed was when they were alone and surrounded by wilderness. “I wanted to say --” She interrupts herself with a yawn.
“In the morning.” Clarke says it like she isn’t feeling vitally overwhelmed with each passing second, almost drunk on the surreality of what she can’t yet trust to be happiness: did she actually do this? Is this real?
“Mm.” Noses a little deeper, holds Clarke closer. “Did you mean it before, when you said I was your home?”
“Yeah.” Carefully, so that all her atoms stay knit together, Clarke sinks into the embrace: she weaves her fingers with Lexa's, where Lexa's hand is at her waist.
Lexa makes an appreciative noise. “I don’t remember my home. They collected me as a nightblood when I was very young.”
“What about Polis?”
“No,” softly. “You can love a place without it being home. And I’ve never really needed that sense of... safety.”
An even deeper sigh, and Lexa gently pushes at Clarke’s shoulder, encouraging her to turn and face her in bed. Clarke does so, even though she feels like her hard-beating heart is audible outside her body like this: almost pressed together, a small world of them and blankets. She never lets go of Lexa, and their hands end up clasped between them on the bed. Lexa’s hair is long enough to lay on, and a few errant curls tickle Clarke’s fingers.
“Not everyone feels secure because of the same things,” Lexa says. Her words are almost slurred with exhaustion, but her hands are gentle where she brushes Clarke’s hair away from her face, traces the slope of her cheek. “And I haven’t felt like I needed anyone else’s protection for a long, long time.”
Clarke lets her eyes drift half-shut. There’s still too much adrenaline in her system to feel tired, but it’s nice to let things lapse into a haze only seen through her eyelashes. “It's not like that. Home is... my mom used to tell me I couldn’t put everyone else’s needs before mine. And she’s right, but I can’t just live for myself. I don’t even know how. So you pick and choose, right? And maybe she’s right to be worried about me, because it’s hard to hold back, once I choose. I don’t know, my mom’s the practical one, and I try to be, but...” She squeezes Lexa's hand, trying to recapture her conviction from earlier. Somehow, having what she wants makes her more anxious than when she thought she was about to lose it. She can feel her pulse in her sides, in her throat. “I have to have something that tells me which direction to head in. I have to be, uh, oriented.”
Lexa puts her whole palm against the side of Clarke’s face, and it’s soothing. It takes a little of the edge off. “Because you could do anything you set yourself to. You can be whoever is needed.”
“I mean, your confidence in me is encouraging. But yeah. Yeah, I can at least try. So I need something to focus on, or I get pulled in too many directions.” Clarke takes a shaky breath. “Home is what you fight for.”
Even with exhaustion deepening the lines of her face, Lexa smiles: soft, almost shy. And with something Clarke wants very badly to think of as hope. “Welcome home, then.”
And with that, suddenly, Clarke can breathe. Her heart slows. She tears up a little, whatever, but she distracts herself from how stupid that is by falling forward into Lexa's body, hooking her leg over Lexa's hip and stretching her free arm across Lexa's shoulders. It's too close to sleep comfortably. She doesn't want to let go.
Lexa, even while falling asleep, holds her just as close.
“Clarke, I --” Finn rises too, with a lot less grace, brushing twigs and detritus from his pants. “I, actually, uh. I have something for you.”
Oh, wow. No . No little trinkets, no love tokens, no pieces of folded paper. “I really have to go,” she says, already more than ten feet away from him.
“Clarke.” She’s not sure what, but something in his voice makes her stop mid-step. “It’s not from me. It’s from your mom.”