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in love and war and politics

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“And the next major endorsement we have lined up comes from the tech sector, a nonprofit from the Silicon Valley.”

Jackson presses a button on his laptop and red lettering smashes into view on the projector screen. He reads it aloud on the chance that Clarke’s campaign team are illiterate: “Silicon Valley for the Future. It’s a nonprofit, bipartisan education group comprised of different companies. The group wants to throw their public support behind us, and the companies will be donating individually to us. This is a huge win for us: everyone give a round of applause to Miss Ward for securing it this morning!”

There is a chorus of polite murmurs and acknowledging smiles from around the conference table, congratulations directed to Lexa; she accepts with a careful inclination of her head, nothing more. Clarke adds the small gesture to her growing list of observations.

In some other life, Lexa Ward had had something to do with the military. Somehow. Clarke knows it. It's readily apparent with just a few seconds of observation but in the interest of understanding all of her employees as well as she can, Clarke put several hours into the study of her new campaign manager before she decided on this very important conclusion. Lexa commands attention and respect in the way she carries herself through the office, making heads turn and then duck back to work so as to avoid being subject to one of her calculating glances. If not for Lexa's habit of gauging every move and individual like pieces of a chess game, thinking carefully before she opens her mouth or makes a decision, Clarke would have picked something regal for Lexa's past life--certainly, her slender, straight-backed posture almost demands it--but the machinations going on behind her eyes at all times move Lexa out of passive regality and into action. She's plotting, planning, and thinking at all times.

And it’s gotten quite distracting, she’s found.

“Miss Griffin?”

The sound of her name jars her from her ruminations. She snaps her attention back to the presentation to find Jackson staring at her, waiting for an answer. “I’m sorry, can you repeat that?”

“I asked if we could confirm plans to meet with the Silicon Valley group leaders next week when you travel to speak with your other campaign endorsements up north.”

“Oh. Yes, that’s the plan. I have several meetings lined up for the trip.”

“Excellent.” He bends to change the slide and starts his next point. “Beyond the tech sector, our other targets are more bipartisan groups…” It’s the beginning of what will be a long speech, so Clarke feels the pressure ease off her, and consequently, her attention shifts again.

She turns her head to the left just enough so that Lexa slides into her peripheral vision. She catches sight of Lexa’s green eyes and the feeling of being under a microscope rushes over her, and it highlights the exact reason she’s distracted by Lexa in the first place. Not because she’s attractive—Clarke chides herself for even considering that as a possibility, and even worse, feeling guilty about it. Because it’s definitely not that, she’s an adult. A professional adult. But Lexa’s distraction lies in the fact that as much as Clarke may have committed herself to studying Lexa in the days since she’s been working, Lexa does the same right back. As she does with everyone and everything else, Lexa observes Clarke carefully whenever they’re sitting in meetings or discussing future plans or even greeting each other first thing in the morning. She wonders what determinations Lexa is making about her.

“Miss Griffin,” Lexa says, the sound of her voice and the sound of her name breaking Clarke out of her train of thought again. But it’s been a long day already, there’s no wonder her attention is waning. She gives the whole of it to Lexa: “Do you have any other suggestions or desired industries we should approach next?”

That, at least, she has a ready answer for. “Bird in the hand,” she replies coolly, “Stick with education and tech for now, donors will step forward themselves if we focus on the positive groups and focus on building the campaign more as we move forward. The donations from the tech sector should be a good start.”

Lexa looks to Jackson and he nods. “That we can do. Let’s wrap this up, and everyone can start working on researching good pathways in what we already have.”

Clarke stays silent for the last few minutes, but she stays attentive as she allows the group to discuss the best route forward under her guidelines. And when they begin filing out a few minutes later, she and Lexa stay seated: they have things to discuss.

Sarah, her secretary, is the last out of the room. She stops at the doorway and turns back. “Oh, and before I forget, the journalist from the Times should be here in about fifteen minutes. Should I bring her to your office or here?”

“Here, will be fine,” Clarke says with a glance at Lexa, who nods confirmation.

“Absolutely.”

“Thank you, Sarah.”

Once Sarah leaves, Lexa stands and moves down the table, tucking in chairs and reorganizing the room before the journalist arrives. Clarke busies herself with the notes she had taken during the meeting, but Lexa’s voice soon interrupts her.

“Do you feel prepped for this interview?”

“Shouldn’t be a problem. Straightforward and simple.”

“It’s your first one of the season, so there’s a demand for a good story. I don’t think it’ll be that simple.”

Clarke looks up with a raised eyebrow to find Lexa leaning back against the conference table, almost slouching in a way that is decidedly unlike the impeccable posture she’s displayed so far. Her arms are crossed. It would be arrogant, if the look on her face wasn’t neutral as always. Most importantly, Clarke has learned to read the look on her face and be able to tell when the gears are turning: Lexa’s planning.

“What do you mean?” Clarke asks, setting aside her notes. She’s memorized them anyway.

Lexa drums her fingers on her arm, pensive. “I’ve been thinking about it. The Times is going to want a good story, so they will try to work outside your terms for the interview. Anything unsavory Niylah Hunter might bring up to blindside us with?”

Clarke’s eyebrow rises even higher. “Do I look unsavory?”

“Not many politicians do, but they are anyway. I know the basics of your story but I need to know if there are any surprises the media or your opponents could throw at us.”

“Nothing that comes to mind. I already have it hard enough in this job without adding a substance or sex addiction.” Lexa shifts uncomfortably, flushing a little, and nods in an attempt to end the conversation on that note. But Clarke is curious now, so she presses her: “What basics of my story do you know? And how?”

“Things the public knows, Miss Griffin,” Lexa says reassuringly. “I did my research even before you hired me, it’s part of my job. Your childhood, daughter of Senator Abigail Griffin, class president and valedictorian of your private schools growing up. A UCLA education, good extracurriculars. Campus activism?”

“A few clubs,” Clarke says, with a casual shrug. “I didn’t realize I’d published my autobiography.”

The corners of Lexa’s mouth twitch. “Well, your leading several student movements against a variety of injustices counts as school clubs, I suppose. After UCLA, Harvard Law and then a few years as an associate in an LA law firm.”

Clarke finishes for her: “And then my start in politics with a state rep term. You’ve summed it up pretty well; nothing unsavory here.”

“You’re absolutely sure?”

“With the way you’re painting this, I’ll probably bore the interviewer.”

“Not quite.” And there’s that look in her eyes again, revealing her inner machinations and piquing Clarke’s interest again. Now that they’re alone, she can afford to give Lexa her full attention and study every interesting thing about her.

“Listen,” Lexa says, dropping her voice. “If you want to succeed in all of your endorsement plans, if you want the public to rally behind you, you’re going to have to make a name for yourself. We can use this interview to get some real attention on your campaign: Cage Wallace is the darling of the race right now, we know he’s going to get the nomination. Attack him, drag him down a little, and it’ll put a spotlight on you for sure.”

Not a chance.”

Lexa moves to protest, pushing herself off the table she had been leaning against, but Clarke is already shaking her head against any argument she may make. “I am not running a low road campaign,” Clarke asserts. “That’s not what my mother was about, that’s not what I’m about. I’m not going to attack the other hopefuls to make myself look better.”

“Miss Griffin, I admire your integrity but—”

“It’s not integrity, it is strategy. I’m trying to be legitimate—”

“Legitimate is boring.”

“Illegitimate can sink a campaign!”

“Only if it’s done incorrectly!” Lexa fires back, her decorum vanishing. It’s replaced by a strange fire in her eyes, in her voice, a fire that sends a flash of heat through Clarke’s body and forces her to her feet. They stand on even ground, eye to eye, and Lexa Ward doesn’t back down. “If you do it right, you can get the whole public to fall in love with you and support you through anything.”

“I’ll do that via positive policies and maturity,” Clarke snaps in Lexa’s face. “That’s what people need, I’m not running a Hollywood campaign.”

Lexa scoffs. “We are in Hollywood!”

“Miss Griffin?” Sarah asks quietly from the doorway.

Her secretary’s low voice makes Clarke realize how loud she and Lexa had been getting in their disagreement; when she turns to look at Sarah, the look on Sarah’s face makes her realize how close they are to each other. Clarke instinctively steps back out of Lexa’s reach and the world cools again, allowing her to take a breath of fresh air and compose herself. Lexa does the same:

“I have the journalist here for you,” Sarah says slowly, looking between them as if ashamed for interrupting a serious discussion. Lexa smiles pleasantly at Sarah as if she and Clarke weren’t hotly debating inches from each other’s face just seconds before. Everything is fine.

“Send her in, Sarah,” Clarke says with a nod.

“I will. Also, I’m confirming your travel plans for next week.” She checks the notepad in her hands. “You’ll be leaving next week on Tuesday, correct? I have six airline tickets and six hotel rooms for you and the team you’ll be traveling with. Am I missing anything?”

Clarke’s eyes flick to Lexa and she answers instinctively: “Add another ticket and hotel room for Miss Ward, please.”

“Yes ma’am.”

Sarah ducks out again and Clarke turns back to Lexa, and is surprised to see her brow furrowed in confusion. It’s a strange change of pace, from disagreement to travel invitations, especially when the initial plan was to work with only a small team of assistants and interns from the fundraising team. But that was back when Clarke ran this herself, fought her own battles. And, back before Lexa voiced disagreement with her campaign strategy.

She’s a politician. She knows how to play these things.

“I need you there,” Clarke says simply. “You did well with getting the tech companies on board with us, you can travel to meet them. And the party leaders up in Sacramento. Next Tuesday through Sunday, you’re available, right?

“That’s what you hired me for.”

“Great…that’s settled then.”

A knock on the conference room door announces the journalist’s arrival, and it breaks the heavy silence that had settled between them. Clarke inhales a silent breath of relief at having a reason to step further away from Lexa—she has a strange desire to step closer and keep arguing.

As if reading her mind, Lexa’s voice sounds behind her as she crosses the room. “And you also hired me to advise you—I still think you should go on the offensive for this interview.”

“That’ll be all, Miss Ward.”

The moment the door swings open, Lexa assumes her demure disposition and takes a seat, leaving Clarke to greet the journalist: Niylah Hunter stands there with an earnest smile. She’s young and fresh with a mostly page-two body of experience, but Clarke will take her sort over prickly, jaded front-page journalists any day. As she had told Lexa, this should be simple, straightforward.

They cover introductions quickly as Niylah takes a seat at the table, arranges her notes and tape recorder. “And you can just call me NIylah,” she tells Clarke and Lexa when she’s almost ready, “We can keep things casual for this.”

“Excellent.”

When she’s finally prepared everything, Niylah readies her pen on the notepad. “So, Representative Griffin, before we get into the typical questions about your campaign and your plans, I have to ask the burning question: Everyone knows Cage Wallace is the front runner of the opposing party right now, and a quick review of both your voting records shows that you clash on many of your ideologies. Do you have anything to say about your potential primary race opponent?”

It’s one hell of an opening, foretold by her campaign manager as if Lexa had paid her to ask the question first. And damn it, she can feel Lexa’s eyes on her again. Observing every detail. She has to resist the urge to look over at her.

“It’s going to be a long race,” Clarke says pleasantly. “I think Mr. Wallace will run it well, and I look forward to meeting him in debates.”

Lexa shifts a little in her seat—Clarke refuses to look at her.

“Alright, good to hear.” But it’s not hard to detect the note of disappointment in Niylah’s voice as she scribbles down Clarke’s answer. “And now, let’s get into your backstory. Your mother was in politics as well, wasn’t she?”

Simple. Straightforward. Just as she’d said. 

 

*

 

Three days later, Clarke is almost finished with her morning workout on the stationary bike at her gym when it hits her.

This feels good.

She feels good.

She pulls in a heavy lungful of air, smiling, and it takes another few minutes of testing this strange new feeling as she pedals imaginary roads and hills before she realizes exactly what it is: she’s awake. There’s energy in her legs and her pumping heart. Her morning workouts are so routine that she can zombie through them without thought, but for the past three days, she’s gotten a full eight hours of sleep each night and it makes the world a little brighter, a little fresher, like spring has swept away a dreary cold winter.

And for that reason alone, she can count the quick-fire decision to hire Lexa Ward a victory, because Lexa shouldering some of her workload lets Clarke get to sleep before eleven PM. It’s a hell of a new experience for her.

When she enters the office an hour after her gym session, Lexa is already there—she stands bent over the shoulder of an intern, looking at the campaign website on his computer screen, but she instantly stands to greet Clarke.

“Morning,” Lexa says, then cocks her head toward her shoulder with an inquisitive look. “You’re chipper this morning.”

This golden feeling of being alive must be shining out of her face, if Lexa feels it worthy of note. “It’s been a few good days,” Clarke replies. “Anything new I should know about?”

They’ve slipped into an easy routine over Lexa’s first week of employment—each morning, one or the other is waiting near the entrance of the office. Whenever her counterpart appears, they fall into step on the way to Clarke’s office, trading the necessary information all the way until Clarke takes a seat at her desk and picks up her itinerary for the day. The effortless efficiency of a well-oiled machine. There are no pretenses or unnecessary pleasantries to the exchange. Even Lexa’s comment about Clarke’s mood was out of place, but she’s in high enough spirits to dismiss it.

“Good news, bad news, the usual,” Lexa says as they sweep into Clarke’s office. She knows which Clarke likes first, so she doesn’t bother asking. “Good news: Niylah, the journalist for the Times, finally published the article about you.”

“Well, that’s a step in the right direction. It’s about time. The interview was, what, Monday?”

“Yep. Paper’s on your desk. It factors into the bad news, though…” Lexa pauses to give Clarke the chance to pick up the paper and glance over the front page for her name. “It’s not front page.”

“Where is it?” Clarke asks, flipping the paper open.

“Page four.”

“That’s…not bad.”

Lexa just shrugs, allows her boss to have the last word as Clarke skims the article. It’s not bad, but it’s not what they wanted—at least, not what Clarke would admit she wanted. She finishes the article quickly and tosses the paper back onto her desk. “It’s good,” she says. “Even-toned, gets the message across. I’m happy with Niylah. What did you think?”

“If you’re satisfied, I’m satisfied. It did get your message across.”

Clarke deigns not to ask Lexa about the subtle tone of disappointment in her voice, because she already knows why it’s there. She feels the same way. The article is essentially an even-keel biography of Clarke’s history, with a few mentions of her victories as a state representative, and a paragraph at the end detailing her vague campaign goals. It’s perfect for a page-four story, a bigger story would have been a better start to the campaign. They both know it.

Clarke can’t allow it to get to her, though. She made this choice, she can deal with it. “We can play with the narrative in future interviews. What else do we have today?”

“I have another call with Silicon Valley for the Future this morning; you, I believe, have emails to return. And…” Lexa is halfway to the door when she pauses and looks back with an uncharacteristic hesitation. “I was going to make a coffee run after the phone call. Would you like something?”

“Uh…” She stutters in her surprise at the suggestion that Lexa would stoop to running for coffee. “Yeah, yeah. The usual, would be great.”

Lexa nods, the barest smile on her lips as she leaves. 

 

*

 

Despite the bad news about her first interview, Clarke coasts on the wave of peacefulness and zen from the early morning as she works through her emails. Every so often she’ll catch Lexa pass by the window of her office, with a cell phone pressed to her ear, but she hasn’t yet returned with the coffee; thankfully, Clarke doesn’t need the energy boost the way she usually does.

Bu when Lexa finally does push through Clarke’s office door, coffee in hand, the look on her face tells Clarke that she just might need the boost now.

“What’s going on?” she asks. More bad news.

The way Lexa wordlessly hands over the coffee and works her jaw says right off the bat that whatever bad news she has is worse than poor article placement. Clarke steels herself and nods at Lexa—just say it. Lexa still pauses for a second before answering.

“The tech companies have changed their campaign contribution amounts: ten grand total from all of them.”

Clarke blinks. “Each company pledged a full five thousand. We should have gotten fifty thousand from them total.”

“As best I can tell, they’re hedging their bets,” Lexa says with a sigh, taking a seat in one of the two chairs opposite Clarke’s desk. “The money isn’t quite an issue right now, there’s essentially no difference between one and five, not when the whole campaign will cost millions. But—”

“But it represents an unwillingness to completely commit so early,” Clarke finishes for her, resisting the urge to groan. Fuck. She had wanted Silicon Valley behind them off the jump. She chews her lip for a moment, then closes her eyes. “All right, you can say it.”

“Say what?”

I told you so. About the interview. I should have come out stronger.”

Lexa’s silence forces Clarke to open her eyes and search for a nonverbal answer instead—she can’t find it in Lexa’s stoic face, so she waits.

Lexa considers her for a moment, then says, “I’m not going to say I told you so. You made a decision that I respect. It simply changes our options going forward. If you want nationwide donations to start pouring in early, you’ll have to do something that makes a little bit of noise.”

She tamps down the little flame of pride that had flared up in her chest at Lexa’s praise. Her mother always told her that allowing people’s good words to go to your head enables the bad ones to go to your head just as quickly. But there is something about it being Lexa’s respect that she has earned that makes her smile. Lexa Ward doesn’t strike her as the type to give it freely, and it softens the blow of the morning’s bad news.

Lexa sits deep in thought, her tongue grazing back and forth over her teeth as she stares at a spot on the desk. Clarke is loath to break into her deep thought, but she speaks up anyway because she’s tired of these moments of not being able to read this woman.

“Tell me what you’re thinking.”

She hesitates. “I know you don’t want to run a dirty campaign…”

“I won’t.”

“But we can get clever. Forge some alliances.”

“I trust you, Miss Ward,” Clarke says suddenly; Lexa looks up in surprise at the compliment. “I trust you with this. What do you have planned?”

 

*

 

Never, in a million years, would she have picked this for herself. She should have gone for the negative interview.

Instead, she has a storm of clicking shutters and lightning-like camera flashes. A plastered on smile. Heels and a skirt, for god’s sake. The weight of a man’s hand in the small of her back as he guides her past the photographers outside the restaurant, pressing close nonetheless as they snap pictures of the “rumored” new couple. They duck into a waiting car and finally she takes a breath and lets the fake smile fall from her aching cheeks.

This Friday night was supposed to be spent with Raven, after the girl had had a near breakdown at work today, but Clarke had to shift plans for this, because—

“Nice touch with the photographers,” her date says in her ear, with a low laugh.

“My campaign manager’s idea. She called them this afternoon.”

 Because of Lexa Ward.

Because of Lexa Ward, Clarke is shoved in the backseat of a town car with Roan Azgeda slouching beside her, grinning, the picture of the tabloid gossip that surrounds him. Long-haired, handsome, a future politician but a current opportunist: the son of a high-ranking congresswoman Nia Azgeda, Roan was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and became the playboy of Los Angeles in his recent years. Like all cringe-worthy redemption stories, he’ll straighten out and become a golden boy politician one day.

“There weren’t as many photographers as I expected,” Roan continues, “But a few more dates and they’ll be flocking. You know how LA is. A love story between two young leaders, they’ll love it.”

Clarke rolls her eyes at his casual tone—she had balked when Lexa suggested this plan, but after her own mishandling of the interview, she wasn’t really in a position to refuse another of Lexa’s strategies.

“Like I said, Roan, this isn’t a love story. We’re using you for your name. Your mother supports my campaign, we all get some good attention, and in turn, your mother gets a political ally once I’m elected.”

“And I get a pretty girl on my arm and my mother pays off my house in the hills.”

She gives him a side-long glare, not forgetting how comfortable he had been with his hand on her back on the way out of the restaurant. Noting this, Roan sits up in his seat and leans forward until he has her attention.

“Listen,” he tells her, voice suddenly serious, “My girlfriend was about as excited to find out about this as you are right now.”

“Your girlfriend?” Clarke asks in surprise. That wasn’t part of the plan.

“Relax. She lives cross-country and our relationship is pretty quiet. She’s not going to damage this set-up. I just don’t want you to think I have any intentions of this being more than I signed up for when your campaign manager approached me. It’s a four year relationship, Griffin, some media relationship is not going to ruin it.”

“Good, I’m glad that’s where you stand.”

They fall into silence as Roan’s driver winds towards Clarke’s apartment, Roan slouching back into his seat and Clarke sitting primly in hers—she’s bored already, longing for the moment she can slip out of her heels and feel her bare feet flat on the floor. A long date at the end of a long day at the end of a longer week.

She picks up on a sort of bitterness emanating from him in the silence, though, and takes a breath. “Thank you, by the way, for agreeing to this.”Thanks for agreeing to a fake relationship so I can win a political race—that’s not something she thought she’d be saying. She’ll have to thank Lexa for that. “I can handle Diana Sydney and Vincent Vie, but when I come up against Cage Wallace, I’m going to need public support and media backing.”

“And being in love with Roan Azgeda will give you all the public support you need.” He gives her a wry smile.

“Well, you know Los Angeles.”

“It’s a weird place. But I’m happy to help, Griffin, especially if it means taking down Cage Wallace. Dude’s a prick.”

“At least we can agree on that.”

This is not a huge risk. If Roan’s willing, and she’s willing, and if Lexa’s smart enough—all three counts seem to be true—this can only benefit the campaign in the long run. It’s a fair move. They’re not exactly playing dirty. That’s what Lexa kept assuring her of, and though Clarke agrees, she can’t shake the weight in the pit of her stomach.

This is politics. It’s what you signed up for. It’ll be worth it when you win.

 

*

 

The text comes across the following morning before dawn, when Clarke is bleary-eyed and on her way to the gym:

[5:41 AM] Lexa Ward: You got some social media capital built up, Griffin. They liked your date last night. Pictures are spreading. Sending you the article links and pictures now.

The images ping across one by one, a chronological series of Clarke and Roan walking out of the restaurant, in laughing conversation, as he gallantly guides her past the reporters and opens the car door for her, and Clarke smiles at him as if they’re alone in the world. Article links start coming across next: they’re all positive, and they all mention favorably her best political moments.

[5:42 AM] Clarke Griffin: Eating food and drinking alcohol on the campaign’s dime is a difficult job, but someone has to do it.

[5:44 AM] Lexa Ward: And you looked good while doing it, the most important part. Good work, Griffin. I’ll see you on Monday.

She only caught a few hours of sleep last night, so she’s back to feeling like a zombie as she heads into the gym—but she can’t help herself smiling anyway.