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in love and war and politics

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As planned, they go hands off and radio silent for the rest of the weekend after Clarke Griffin's "date" with Roan Azgeda hits the social media circuit. Being young, pretty, influential, and affluential in Los Angeles has the same result whether you're an actress or a politician or just the relative of someone with a famous last name. Unchecked by Clarke or her team—Lexa's stand down orders must be eating them alive—the story of a budding romance begins to grow all on its own.

"Just let LA do what it does best," Clarke tells Sterling, the man in charge of her marketing and PR team, when he calls her Saturday afternoon, frantic. "We'll take control of the narrative later; for now, they can do our job for us and spread my name."

That doesn't stop him from forwarding her every media enquiry and article he receives, as if he'll be able to overwhelm her and Lexa and force them to change their minds. But Tuesday marks the beginning of the first long road-trip of the season, so Clarke lets the messages go ignored.

The constant vibration of her cell phone provides a steady metronome to her preparations for the trip: packing coordinated outfits, memorizing names and statistics, rehearsing conversations, and mentally rewriting her speeches as she organizes her suitcase. She spends most of Monday demonstrating her proficiency to Lexa, Sterling, and Jackson, as they give her the final briefing for the trip. A full day of strategizing.

The first trip of the season is never quite smooth. She has two green interns coming with her, as well as the heads of PR, Fundraising, and her education policy teams. On Tuesday morning she strides into the private airport conference room they're meeting in, prepared to take charge of the group, only to find Lexa standing at the head of a quiet and attentive team as she gives them their final orders.

Just as Clarke imagined back when she first interviewed Lexa, her campaign manager looks every bit in control of the situation, cutting the usual imposing figure in her form-fitting black suit and heels (heels, of course, even though they're about to board a flight). Clarke stops short at the sight with an appreciative smile.

"Morning, Miss Griffin," she says with a nod.

"Ward," Clarke replies cordially.

She greets the rest of the team, who all look cool and prepared, as Lexa hands over a stack of papers and files—and a warm coffee. She describes each of the files as Clarke thumbs through them.

"Your airline ticket, travel itinerary, hotel reservations, a speculation article on you and Roan—"

"I read it this morning as I brushed my teeth."

"—good. Bios on some of the people we'll be meeting today and tomorrow—"

"I have them mostly memorized."

"—And a final draft of your speech to the education board on Friday—-"

"Which I wrote."

"—and has been edited only for a few technicalities. Any questions about any of it?"

If pressed, she could come up with a few sarcastic ones about the possibility of Lexa really being human, but not in a room full of employees and interns and not when they still have Los Angeles international airport security to go through.

"Not at all," Clarke says coolly. "Let's get a move on."

Lexa has the team functioning like a well-oiled machine, but there's still something impressive in the way they fly through the crowds and security checkpoints of LAX, with coffees in one hand and suitcases in another.

That's not to say it's a casual morning. She's in deep conversation with Jackson through most of it, regarding their upcoming meeting with the Silicon Valley leaders—and then with Harper, who wants to discuss their education policy for Friday's speech. The conversations—as well as one anxious moment when Bree, the youngest of her interns, misplaces her ticket—take them all the way to the first boarding call. When Clarke finally gets a moment of calm she intends to leaf through the papers in her arms, but her attention is almost immediately drawn to Lexa standing beside her.

She glances down her body: Lexa's toe drums a mindless staccato on the airport tile; higher up, her fingers tap out of tune against her thigh. Glancing up to her face, Clarke sees that Lexa's gone a few shades paler.

Well that's interesting.

Lexa doesn't say anything and Clarke sets herself on silent observation. It doesn't look to be a problem: when the line starts to move, Lexa still walks like she owns the plane they're boarding. But when they settle into their first class seats, after Clarke organizes her carry on and reading material and nods politely at the flight attendant, she looks over to find that Lexa has stopped tapping. Instead, she's replaced the anxious movement with taut, rigid muscles and a set jaw.

"It's a short flight, at least," Clarke tries. She keeps her voice low to keep from interrupting the end of the safety protocol presentation. "Only ninety minutes up to Sacramento.”

"Good."

Lexa's gaze is fixed on her lap, on the cell phone in her hand—her fingers fly over the screen, almost frantically, even as the plane rumbles to life and they make the announcement about electronics.

This isn't the Lexa who leads meetings or has interns skirting her in the halls. This isn't the Lexa who has Clarke feeling like she has to be at the top of her game every day. She sits in her seat like it's a throne but her shallow breath and the visible tendons in her neck betray a brand new vulnerability. She looks small, something Clarke had never thought possible. It's enough to pique a curiosity in her that overrides her courtesy—she leans over enough to glance quickly at Lexa's phone screen.

"Chess?" she blurts out, forgetting that you're generally not supposed to announce when you're looking over someone's shoulder. But Lexa doesn't seem to hear her. Clarke has to prompt her two more times—Miss Ward?—before Lexa looks up in surprise, as if Clarke hadn't been there all along.

"I—" She stares at Clarke for a moment, then clears her throat. "I'm not a fan of flying."

The plane starts to pick up speed, rumbling down the runway even as she says that. Lexa pulls in a deep breath. When it clicks for Clarke, she nods for Lexa to get back to her game.

She's playing chess well. Clarke can tell within a few seconds of watching the game play out on Lexa's phone screen, but it's more clear in the intensity of Lexa's green eyes, the press and twist of her lips, the confident swipes of her fingers—this, Clarke watches for much longer. Lexa only picks up speed as the plane shudders through the takeoff, never slowing or hesitating against the computer opponent. Game and girl are equally entrancing.

It’s not until several minutes later that a small “ding” of the seatbelt notification snaps them both out of it. Clarke and Lexa look up in surprise; they’ve reached cruising altitude already.

Lexa slips her phone away, game unfinished. “Old habit,” she explains, raising her chin confidently to Clarke, as if nothing had happened. “Takeoffs are the worst.”

“We should play sometime,” Clarke replies. “My dad taught me. I haven’t had anyone good to play against for a while.”

Lexa’s brows raise. “Of all the things I imagined you would do with your nonexistent free time, chess is not one of them.”

“Well, we don’t know each other very well.”

“Apparently.”

The lilt of Clarke’s voice and the twitch of Lexa’s lips make it a joke, but when she looks more closely at Lexa and sees the color slowly returning to her face, Clarke realizes the truth of it. Seeing her wound tight like that, unsteady and strangely vulnerable, was just one glance behind the mask, a small reminder of the universe inside Lexa Ward that Clarke has no idea about. She should know more. More importantly, she wants to know more. Maybe it’s the fact that they’ll be sitting here for the next hour and a half with nothing else to talk about or maybe it’s the fact that external observations can only go so far for people like Lexa—either way, the questions pile up on Clarke’s tongue and she’s burning to get them out.

“Who taught you to play?” she asks softly. “You’re good.”

Lexa can’t quite discern the purpose of that question: Clarke isn’t the type for foreplay, and since their first meeting they’ve always just jumped right into the important information. Efficiency.

“My sister,” she says slowly, testing the water. “Anya. Older, by three years. Said she wanted to teach me strategy.”

She’s still a little shaken. Clarke starts to smile until the plane itself shakes and Lexa jumps, swallowing hard; Clarke decides to keep her talking.

“Strategy? Was she trying to get you into politics?”

“I think she just wanted an excuse to beat me at something. We still play. Christmas Eves get rather competitive.”

“With…chess?” Clarke raises a dubious eyebrow.

“With everything.”

That explains more. Sometimes Clarke feels like she’s laid bare for the world to examine, her history and her life on display. And Lexa, just from working alongside her for the past weeks, has gotten a front row view to it. But these snapshots Lexa lets slip of her in competition with an older sister, holidays together with a competitive family, are a welcome leveling of the ground they face off on. Who knew she was human?

“Is she in politics too?” Clarke asks curiously.

“Anya’s too emotional, headstrong,” Lexa replies. “That’s why I can beat her at chess. She went into journalism instead, and writes for the New York Times. Plus freelance work on the side.”

She’s genuinely impressed. “Quite a duo.” But when Lexa accepts the compliment without response, Clarke presses her. “Any other siblings?”

“Younger brother, Aden.”

Clarke smiles. "Anya, Aden...and Alexandria. Cute."

That is the moment she knows she overstepped. By her own self-awareness and by the way Lexa grimaces, her nose crinkling and her lips pressing together for a half second. It passes quickly but Clarke is already backpedaling to where she was a half hour ago, everything from her tone to her body position readjusting.

“I’m sorry, Miss Ward, I didn’t mean to stray so far into—”

“It’s fine.” Lexa waves a hand, shakes her head. “It’s not that. I just prefer Lexa, and rarely ever use my full first name. Hearing it is always strange.”

Griffin, Griffin, Griffin. “I know the feeling.”

Though she's not inclined to drop their professional manner of addressing each other again, Clarke silently rolls the feeling of Lexa on her tongue. She likes it. For a moment she wants to say it aloud, just to hear it, but she’s already made one misstep today—a second would not be tolerated. Rather than let silence fall between them, or let Lexa seek out refuge in another chess game, Clarke pulls out the sheaf of files on their upcoming trip.

“Let’s go over the background on the party leaders for the meeting Thursday.”

Lexa looks at her again, brow raised. “We went over these yesterday, you handled them just fine.”

There’s a strange sense of disappointment that deflates Clarke a little when Lexa relaxes instead of challenging her. Still, though, she holds to it: “I need to know them perfectly. Just in case anything comes up Thursday.”

“Now I see the reason behind the valedictorian accolades.”

Clarke doesn’t play into the slight undercurrent of cynicism there, but simply hands off the folder to Lexa and waits for her to start asking test questions.

 

*

 

They get little else done on the plane ride, besides a reaffirmation that Clarke knows the profiles inside and out—like any valedictorian would. Clarke keeps Lexa talking through the landing about mindless nonsense, anything so that she doesn’t have to reach for her phone again. She still wonders at the girl’s nerves. But by the time they stand to disembark from the plane, Lexa is back to her full height and grandeur, the interns and employees none the wiser to her fleeting moment of weakness. No one but Clarke.

But she doesn’t get the chance to dwell on it, because they are whisked into waiting cars as soon as they exit the airport and taken straight to the hotel. Clarke gets an hour to freshen up—with Bree acting as personal assistant and “image specialist,” touching up Clarke’s makeup—before the image tour begins.

First up, a round-table interview with a half-dozen local journalists in the business center of the hotel. The set-up isn’t designed for them to write articles about her, but rather to give Clarke the opportunity to throw out quotes and maxims and let the journalists run wild. Lexa and Sterling watch it like hawks—it isn’t necessary.

“And, Representative, you have supported small businesses in the past, but with greater ability to write laws, how will you continue doing that?”

“Laws are the problem. Endless, overcomplicated bureaucracy that requires an army of lawyers to keep from strangling small businesses. I don’t want to work with lawyers. I want to work with my people, with policy they can work with. That’s the most important part.”

“On a more pop culture note,” another asks, “Anything you can tell us about Roan Azgeda?”

She raises an eyebrow. “I admire his mother’s approach to politics and would love to discuss some of her policies. Beyond that, there’s nothing to tell yet.”

Chuckling, the interviewers dutifully copy that sidestep down. This is so easy.

And that’s how the rest of the morning and the entire afternoon continues—a series of half hour or hour-long meetings with groups and organizations and businesses, taking pictures and shaking hands and spouting the same easy practiced lines. Lexa has meticulously scheduled them at locations all over downtown Sacramento, even a photo op on the steps of the State Capitol building. It’s all smooth and professional, and truthfully nothing less than one would expect from a girl who comforts herself through flight anxiety by playing chess on her cell phone.

Surprisingly though, given the ease with which Clarke switches between chatting with local kids to talking commercial rent control with business owners to posing for a picture with them all, this isn't what she likes best. She loves the people and the kids for sure, but the calculated image management of it all, in fact, it exhausts her. But she can handle it fine because she was raised the daughter of Jake and Abby Griffin and grew up in an environment where social etiquette was everything, with her mother's job. This is second nature. It’s just not her favorite part of the grind.

"I'm gonna be president one day, and make homes for all the dogs," announces one of the eight year olds of the class she's meeting with. Clarke grins and hands her a Griffin16 pin.

"That sounds like a great plan. I'll vote for you," she replies. "You'd make a great president." The girl's smile lights up the room and she wraps her skinny arms around Clarke's waist before she goes running back to her mother with prize in hand.

Then again, there are moments like that, moments that strike true. Those moments she loves.

But when you get down to it, her heart lies with the behind-the-door talks, the double meanings and vague threats and strategy to it all. The chess games that play out over months. Making decisions and enacting change that will actually mean something, not just smiling for cameras. It wasn’t her mother’s fundraising galas that drove her to this profession, but the late nights her mother would spend talking through points and counterpoints of debates, bouncing ideas off Clarke as she sat watching The Lion King.

That’s what she’s thinking about later that night in the dim light of the hotel bar, staring into her wine glass as she swirls it mindlessly. Tomorrow will be one of those days: a far more difficult meeting with the party leaders to discuss her campaign and their possible endorsement. Earning the love of the public with a nice smile and some well-fitting clothes is one thing, but standing up to the questions of her superiors and begging them for their support is quite another.

She suppresses a smirk and takes a sip of wine.

“We did good today,” comes Harper’s voice from her left. She settles into a seat next to Clarke. “Especially on the education front.”

“Yeah, all those fourth graders will for sure be voting Griffin next November,” Sterling jokes as he takes a seat on Clarke’s other side.

“Which makes them already better educated than some.”

Clarke grins along with them and watches as the rest of her small team files into the bar to join her for drinks. She looks after the entrance for a moment longer, with hopes that Lexa will appear trailing the group, but to no avail.

“We did do good today,” Clarke announces to the group, turning back to them brightly. “I’m thankful you’re all here with me. Everyone order a drink, you deserve it.” It’s praise rarely lavished on them when they’re back at the offices in LA, but they’re out tonight, toasting to a successful PR day and enjoying each other’s company: they already are relaxed, and their boss’s approval means smiles from everyone.

“Just not too much,” Clarke adds, with a cheeky smile. “I need everyone sharp for tomorrow’s meeting.”

“The party leaders,” Jackson says, nodding. “They like your mother, at least.” Jackson worked for Abby for several years, before jumping to Clarke’s campaigns after Abby’s retirement.

“I’m not my mother.”

“Are you ready for tomorrow?” Sterling asks her.

A new voice sounds from behind the group. “You should ask her the voting records of the party leaders, she’ll show you how ready she is.”

“Miss Ward!” Clarke is smiling before she even turns to see Lexa standing there—she had spent the afternoon with her, of course, it feels wrong celebrating without her. Lexa’s presence in the bar completes everything.

“Griffin,” Lexa says with her usual cool formality, humorous in this context now. Clarke’s eyes sparkle.

“What do you want to drink?” she asks. “It’s on me.”

“On you?”

“On the campaign, technically.”

“Whiskey, then,” she says to the bartender. Sterling whistles low. But despite Lexa’s slim frame and her reserve and her softly feminine voice, anything less than whiskey would be a disservice to her perfectly-tailored suit and the type of languid confidence she wears it with. The rest of the group, including Clarke, have traded their business casual for something more relaxed, but Lexa still fits perfectly by popping just one button down from her collar.

Clarke wonders for a moment what the most expensive whiskey this bar would have, and wonders if she should order it for Lexa. It seems only fitting. Especially after the flight today.

But she doesn’t speak up as Lexa takes a seat a few chairs down and the bartender slides her a whiskey neat—it was a strange, fleeting idea anyway. For once the group doesn’t seem tense with their campaign manager there, and they relax into conversation again once Lexa integrates herself.

“So are you ready for tomorrow?” Sterling asks again.

“As Miss Ward said, I know the party leaders backwards and forwards.”

“I’ve never been more confident in a candidate,” Lexa says, tipping her glass towards Clarke. Clarke nods her appreciation.

Harper’s eyes glint. “So what’s the second glass of wine for?” she teases. “Nerves?”

“I don’t get nervous,” Clarke fires back confidently. “Tomorrow will be difficult, perhaps the hardest of the trip, but I’ll come out of it just fine.”

“Then let’s toast to it,” Lexa says, eyes intent on Clarke as she sits forward with her glass. “To future Senator Griffin.”

 

*

 

Representative Griffin. It’s not that we don’t believe in you. It’s just that this incredibly important race means a lot to the nationwide party, not just the state of California.”

Clarke was right. The meeting with the party leaders is, without a doubt, the most difficult of the trip. It is the only agenda item of the day, and she spent the morning preparing for it, but nothing would have been enough preparation for this.

“We want to take the time to consider all options,” the party director says.

“It simply requires a great deal of consideration on our part,” Congressman Connors adds helpfully.

Clarke’s struggle isn’t so much in the ideological debate. It’s in the frustration, the impotency of being unable to challenge the condescension and patronization in their smiles. She has more confidence in her own ability and independence than anything else, which feeds her tendency to argue with anyone. If she rubs someone the wrong way, so be it: she can make it without their help or support. She can stand on her own, or stand with people at her back, following her. Either way, she will accomplish what she wants come hell or high water.

But now, Clarke is distinctly aware of her powerlessness. She’s sitting across the conference table from a handful of Democratic party leaders, politicians more than twice her age, and she’s in the spotlight for their scrutiny. She needs their endorsement of her campaign; it’s not something she can simply cajole into her possession if they’re unwilling to give it to her. And they know this, too, hence the polite smiles and the languid sips of coffee as she sits waiting for the conversation to continue. They’re icing her.

“I understand the wariness,” Clarke says, each syllable evidence of her determination to maintain composure. She waits until her words have their attention again, a few seconds later. “I’m young—”

“It’s not your age,” one of them grunts. “It’s your inexperience.”

“But you’ve read my proposals—”

“We have, Representative Griffin. But the concern is the election, not the politics.”

It’s a sinking realization. “You don’t think I can beat Cage Wallace in the general election.”

One of the older men at the table speaks up. “Policy in general is decided as a group. As a party. We all work together, my dear. You wouldn’t have to do it all yourself. We want the same things.”

Clarke blanches as the use of “my dear” and clamps her jaw together as he continues.

“But our job, as the leaders and influencers of the California party, is to ensure that we have the best chance at securing the senate seat for the party. We need a candidate above reproach for this race, so we must take our time and make a very careful decision about who we will choose to support officially.”

“I understand,” she says, lowering her head demurely. Play their game. “Have you spoken to the other two candidates in the race yet?”

“Briefly. Congresswoman Sydney and Lieutenant Governor Vie are under careful consideration for our endorsement as well, and we will speak to them more in depth in the following weeks.”

Congresswoman and Lieutenant Governor are also far weightier titles for a Senate candidate. Clarke’s stomach twists as the half-dozen or so politicians go back to perusing the information she had compiled for them, summaries of her work and her proposed policies. If the decision were simply about what was contained in those packets, simply proposals to do better, the men opposite her wouldn’t be agonizing over the decision they seem to be now. Clarke Griffin would be the clear choice. But life is never that simple.

She wonders, throat dry, if perhaps her make-up was too noticeable; or if she should have chosen pants instead of a knee-length skirt. She should have paid more attention, given more thought to how they would judge her appearance. They always do. She’s been in mahogany offices like this a thousand times and faced the same evaluation every time.

None of the men bother to look up at her for a few seconds, so she casts a glance to her side where Lexa sits silently at the end of the table, taking notes and observing. Her campaign manager is glaring at the men, but she shifts her attention to Clarke and reads the frustration on her face. Lexa can only offer a small nod of reassurance.

“Miss Griffin,” one of the congressmen asks. “I read that you were talking to Silicon Valley for the Future and expending support for them. What came of that?”

“We’ve received initial donations, and later ones will be spaced out accordingly.” Not quite a lie.

“They’ve also donated to Vincent Vie, and have held public communications with Cage Wallace.”

Clarke purses her lips. “Well, they’re bipartisan, but the important thing is—”

“Have you actually spoken to them yet, or was it just a standard donation?”

“I’m…meeting with them tomorrow.”

There’s a quiet tutting from one end of the table and she refuses to give whoever does it the satisfaction of her attention. Her steely gaze locks on the congressman who had initially questioned her, until he shifts uncomfortably.

“We’ll take it into consideration. We just need more time to think about all of this, Representative Griffin.”

Clarke stands suddenly, pushing her chair back behind her with the force of the movement. “Would you mind excusing me for just a moment while you consider? I need some air.”

At their leave, Clarke stands and strides from the office as rapidly as she can manage without running.

 

*

 

From the chairs where they wait in the hallway, the rest of Clarke’s team look up with hopeful smiles—they turn to looks of confusion and worry when they see her stalk past them without a word, turn sharply into an empty office, and shut the door behind her. As soon as she’s sealed off from the rest of the world, she hisses an exhale through gritted teeth, curling her fingers into fists and then releasing. She kicks off her heels, tosses her purse onto the desk, and leans over it, palms flat against the desk. She tries not to shout.

The door opens behind her and she hears Bree’s quiet voice, prodding her with questions.

“Miss Griffin…” Are you okay? Can I get you anything? What happened? What did they say?

Clarke just shakes her head and stays hunched over the desk, willing Bree to just let her recover on her own.

“Bree, give us a moment,” comes Lexa’s soft voice.

Clarke doesn’t look up until the door closes behind Bree. When she finally does, she’s greeted with the sight of Lexa standing in the center of the room, regarding her carefully, waiting with her hands behind her back. At her service.

“I had to get out of there,” Clarke begins.

“I know,” Lexa replies simply.

“It’s just…” And then her fingers are flexing again, curling in and out of fists, and before Clarke knows it she’s pacing the room and cracking at the seams with the force of her frustration. “They’re enjoying this. My own damn party leaders, my people. They’re progressive but still so stuck in ruts that they can’t see the bigger picture, they can’t fucking understand what I can offer them.”

“Miss Griffin—”

“He called me dear. They don’t care to take me seriously right now. This is how it always fucking is, I can’t—” Her words choke off in a groan of frustration. “If they would just listen and understand, I can convince them that I’m worthy of their time.”

She shows no signs of slowing down, the momentum of her frustration spilling over itself as it quickly grows and becomes unstoppable. Lexa tries with quiet interruptions that go unheeded as Clarke’s rant continues and she paces back and forth in front of Lexa, who still stands motionless but for her eyes that follow Clarke.

Clarke knows how it looks, ranting barefoot and wild-eyed. But she doesn’t have the willpower to bury it right now, to hide it away even with Lexa watching.

“Miss Griffin, you need—”

“The reason I got a chance in the first place was because of my mother, but I’ve worked twice as hard to prove myself to entrenched old politicians like them and I still get treated as lesser. God, it could be worse, at least I’m here, at least I have a voice, but what they’re doing in there is so wrong that I can’t get my stomach to settle or my lungs to fully fill, I just need to—”

Without warning Lexa’s hands close around Clarke’s upper arms with a vise-like grip. She backs Clarke against the desk and steps into her space when she can go no further, eye to eye. The fluidity of the movement stuns Clarke into immediate submission. Lexa leans in, inches away.

Her lips form one deliberate word.

"Clarke."

That stops everything.

It’s the first time she’s used Clarke’s name. That thought registers dimly in the back of Clarke’s mind. She tries to understand the softness of it, the way Lexa drags out the sound slowly yet somehow puts enough urgency into her voice that leaves Clarke stumbling over her words.

“I—”

"Hey." The tip of Lexa’s tongue appears briefly between her lips as she waits for Clarke to recover from her shock. “Breathe.”

With Lexa's fingers tight on Clarke's biceps, her face this close, her eyes dark and concerned, Clarke can't find it in her to do anything else. Her voice fails her. She nods for Lexa and releases a shuddering breath.

"Again."

Clarke breathes, this time without gritting her teeth.

"You're still tensed," Lexa notes.

In any other case, she would point out that any tension in her shoulders may have something to do with the pressure of Lexa's hands, but Lexa's concern is genuine, and her presence and pressure so close anchors Clarke here, now. She doesn't shrug out of her grip—instead, she lets the physical contact reassure her the way Lexa intends, and focuses her attention on consciously relaxing her muscles beneath Lexa's touch.

It's not an easy task. They hold like that for several seconds, but the silence allows Clarke's mind to drift back into the meeting. "They’re just so—”

"Clarke," Lexa interrupts again, the sharp sounds of her name wrapped in an unfamiliar tenderness. The shock of hearing it, let alone hearing it like that draws Clarke back into the present once more; she cuts off her rant and breathes deep without needing to be told.

"I know, I know," Clarke says, groaning, "Sorry."

"Don't be. You’re justified, but you have to be clearheaded when you go back in there.” She pauses as Clarke’s eyes drift shut in a forced attempt at calm. Lexa squeezes her shoulders and the calm deepens. Once Clarke is taking slow, steady breaths, Lexa speaks up again, much more softly. “Are you going to be okay?”

Clarke nods.

Lexa lets her hands fall from Clarke's shoulders and she stands up straighter, clearing her throat as she reassumes her usual stance. But she doesn't step back, and the intensity of her gaze doesn't falter.

“When we go back in there, you can be diplomatic. Play into what they want you to say, and we’ll take a grace period to build up the campaign a little more so that they’ll be more willing to work with us a few weeks from now. Or, we can walk out. Same two week period applies before we go back—but it’ll show them you don’t consider this a joke the way they think you do.”

“Okay,” Clarke agrees. “Okay, I’ll figure it out. I can pull it together. I need to go back in.”

She stands like that for a few more seconds, releasing the last of her anger, breathing in serenity. This close, she can pick up the slightest hint of whatever scent Lexa is wearing, something rich, woody. She lets it calm her. But when she finally nods to herself and shifts to move away, Lexa’s hand on her shoulder once more stops her.

“Wait. One more thing.”

Clarke frowns as Lexa takes Clarke’s bag from the desk beside them and fishes through it quickly, withdrawing a silver tube of lipstick. “Just, before you go back in…let me…just so you feel better…” Her words trail off as her eyes drift down to Clarke’s mouth and her own lips part slightly. There’s a small pop as she opens the lipstick to touch up Clarke but it doesn’t break the heavy silence between them, and Lexa doesn’t move to break her gaze. The seconds start to drag out.

Looking up at Lexa, Clarke’s heartbeat feels oddly powerful in her chest, the blood pounding in her head like a bass drum and sending a prickling warmth all the way to her fingers and toes. She’s sure Lexa can hear it this close, but her hazy green eyes don’t flick up to meet Clarke’s gaze in acknowledgement of it. She appreciates that. The last things she needs are more questions she can’t answer.

Instead, Clarke raises her chin slightly, pressing her lips together as a sort of prompt for Lexa, who still rolls the lipstick tube in her hand. Lexa’s brow furrows, before she snaps back to life.

“You should do it,” she says, jumping back and shaking her head as if she couldn’t understand why she might have suggested otherwise. “I’ll…let me get you a mirror.”

When Lexa steps back it’s like she takes the heat of the room with her. Her skin suddenly cooling, Clarke becomes aware of the rest of the room around them, the lobby outside, the cabal of veteran leaders waiting to pass an unfair judgement on her and force her to smile as she accepted it. For just a few seconds, the world had narrowed to her and Lexa, and only her and Lexa.

But she buries whatever had shocked through her in those seconds. In fact, she needed that moment, needed to be anchored to one thing for a while so that she could recover. Grateful to Lexa, she dutifully touches up her makeup in the compact mirror Lexa holds out to her, reapplying the perfect mask before marching back into the lion’s den.

“Good,” Lexa says when Clarke pulls on her heels and holds her arms out for Lexa’s inspection. Then, soft again, “Are you sure you’re ready to go back in?”

“I’m going to be fine. Let’s wrap this up, I’d like to get on the road.”

 

*

 

“Listen.”

Clarke Griffin strides back into the room with the same force she had left it with, but with an entirely different focus. She doesn’t give them a chance to greet her. She doesn’t bother sitting down but leans forward onto the table, palms flat, just as she had in the small office minutes before.

 “You have two other candidates in this race who have a chance of standing up to Cage Wallace,” she says. “You have Diana Sydney, whose policies would struggle to pass even in a Democrat-controlled environment. I know, I’ve read them. And I’ve known her through my mother for years. All Cage has to do is spout a few moderate aphorisms at the first debate and you might as well hand him the Senate seat. Vincent Vie has a leg up on Sydney but he’s made so many dealings with Wallace and his ilk that the media will tear him apart, won’t give him a chance.”

The firmness in her voice borders on threatening, just close enough to stun the men into silence. Good. She doesn’t let them recover.

“And then you’ve got me. You can look at me and see that I’m young, or you can look at me and see that California is injecting something fresh into this decrepit system that is so tired it threatens to collapse in on itself. I have Abigail Griffin’s name, and because of that, I know you read my policy proposals. And you know they’re good.

“If I lose this election, it will be because of your lack of support, not because of anything I do. We have a chance to take the Senate and make sure things flow smoothly if the right president gets elected. When they look to California, I won’t be the one to ruin that chance. It’s going to fall to you when Cage Wallace makes his inaugural speech next year and starts doing everything he can to cripple a liberal president. Unless you make the right choice, right now. I can beat him.”

They stare at her.

Clarke looks to each of them in turn and pushes off the desk, standing tall again to indicate her willingness to wait for their decision. When the men start looking sideways at each other, pleading with someone else to respond, Clarke hazards a similar glance—over her shoulder, to Lexa. Her campaign manager looks just as stunned, eyes wide and lips parted.

Good. Satisfaction shoots through her at that sight. If she can impress Lexa Ward, she can impress anyone.

When she returns her attention to the party leaders, confidence coursing through her. She raises her chin and crosses her arms over her chest—she won’t wait for much longer for an answer, and Lexa’s initial advice of walking out jumps up on her list of possible choices.

Finally, the congressman sitting in the center, the party leader, speaks up. “You…make a very compelling argument, Representative Griffin. I apologize if any of us have given the impression that we mean to underestimate you. I believe…I believe I speak for everyone at this table when I say that your proposals and character are worthy of additional consideration from the members of this party. I can see the merit in them already from this brief read-through.”

She has long since learned to hear the meanings beneath flowery diplomacy: the shift in attention from her situation to her proposals is just a cover, a way to distract from a lack of apology for the mistake that was made. He’s backpedaling. He knows she’s the real thing.

“Thank you, Congressman Connors,” she says, not bothering to drift back towards the decorum they would expect from her. “I’ll leave you with them, then, and I’ll wait to hear from you in the next week.”

The look of cool gratification on Lexa’s face as they walk out together of the room says it all.