Hotel rooms are almost never well-lit. Part of it, Clarke suspects, is that the low golden light from the solitary desk lamp in her room induces drowsiness, and a tired customer is more likely to enjoy a good night’s sleep and therefore ignore the uncomfortable bed and questionable art deco furniture. Except in Clarke’s case, she really needs to stay awake through this Skype meeting, and the lighting is just working against her after such a long day.
“Your point about his shifting positions on taxes was a good one, Clarke,” Wells is saying, reviewing his notes, “but he handled it even better. How are you going to approach that one?”
“I’ll give it to him,” Clarke replies, and maybe there is a little bit of her 14 hour day in that concession. “If the entire article is an attack on the things he says, then it’ll be dismissed. Miss Ward, what do you think?”
“I agree,” comes Lexa’s voice through the speakers. “Anything too glowing or too critical will be dismissed.”
Clarke’s laptop screen has two windows open, one with Wells and one with Lexa, and the three of them have been going over Wells’s promised interview with Cage Wallace for almost an hour at this point. Wells had come through with the interview this afternoon, forcing a late night conference between the three of them. According to him, some of Clarke and Lexa’s questions had made him squirm, and some he was obviously well-prepared to handle. Now it was up to Clarke to use this weapon to her tactical advantage.
“Plus,” adds Lexa, “If this article glosses over it and focuses on the more obvious negatives, he’ll adjust his arguments to focus on those aspects, and he won’t be prepared for you to attack him on this point in the debate.”
“Exactly. How does that sound, Wells?”
His brilliant white smile shines out from her computer screen, counteracting the sleepy light just a bit. “I think it’s genius.”
“How soon do you need the copy?” Lexa asks him.
“I know you’re on a road trip, Clarke, but if you can get it to me in the next three days, that would be excellent. Even just a bare-boned draft would be fine, I can fill it in, you won’t have to—”
“No, no,” Clarke interrupts him. “I can take care of it.”
“We’ll get it to you soon,” Lexa adds. Clarke gives her a wan smile of appreciation.
“All right, all right,” Wells surrenders. “I know what kind of writer you are, Clarke, I look forward to reading it. Now, more importantly…when are you getting to San Francisco to come visit me?”
“I think my next campaign trip—” It takes her a second to register that he’s grinning broadly again and has dropped the business talk, and that second of confusion is enough for him to start laughing at her. “Sorry,” she says, shaking her head, ignoring the way Lexa has a small grin too. “I mean, as soon as I get some time off I’ll head up to San Francisco, I’d love to see you.”
“So in that case, it probably will be your next campaign trip. Whenever it is, I’ll take you out to dinner. I gotta interview you for your article as well.”
“Even if it’s during a campaign trip, I will make time,” Clarke assures him.
Wells swears her to it, walks them through the final few questions of Cage Wallace’s interview, and reaffirms the day he needs the copy by. “By then, just send me what you have—don’t kill yourself over it, Clarke, I can fill in things pretty well,” he says, and she swears to that too, even though all three know that she will turn in a perfectly edited and completed article by Thursday.
When they finally end the meeting, Wells bids them goodnight and ends the call but Lexa remains. Her window expands so that her face fills Clarke’s screen. Left alone with her campaign manager at last, Clarke closes her eyes and sits back in her chair—it’s painfully uncomfortable, probably another intentional design to force her to the bed. She releases the tension in her shoulders with a thankful sigh when Lexa’s voice finally breaks the silence.
“So. How were the meetings today?”
“Long,” Clarke answers, though it feels redundant when she sighs it like that. She doesn’t open her eyes. “The school board meeting ran over by an hour. You would not believe the size of the PTA here.”
“I expected that,” says Lexa, with traces of apology. “The smaller the town, the bigger the PTA. But listen. You just have four more days of this, then you’re back home here for a few days at least.”
It’s day nine of fourteen. A two-week focused road trip through central California. In every small farm town the future Senator rolls through, Clarke has a meeting with local leadership, to listen to them instead of talk to them. It’s beneficial for her decision-making, sure, but it also cultivates a calculated duality. Clarke Griffin: Hollywood fame and genius; small-town relatability and charm. Approachable and human. Real. Appealing all around. It’s not the kind of trip that requires last minute changes or strategy, so Clarke left Lexa behind at the office to handle the real work.
“Four days, four hundred more miles.” Clarke realizes her tone has dipped too far toward bitterness and pulls it back before Lexa can try something to cheer her up, which she has taken to doing lately and which always leaves Clarke feeling guilty. Guilty that she has driven her campaign manager to such unnecessary emotional exchanges… and maybe guilty for finding it endearing.
So, to avoid it, she opens her eyes and adopts a new vigor. “Anyway. Not that I’m complaining. Is everything okay at the office without me?”
Lexa, the defacto commander of the office in Clarke’s absence, raises a brow in offense.
“I’ll be completely honest with you. Without you, everything fell apart. The break room coffee machine caught fire, but we put it out eventually. Jasper spent sixty percent of our budget on strippers for our celebration of your absence, and two of the interns started a fight club with a journalist.”
“As long as the journalist doesn’t talk about it,” Clarke replies with a yawn. She will not reward Lexa’s sarcasm with a smile she's searching for. She refuses.
“Actually, Dax recorded it and put the videos up on your official twitter account. I told you to stay on top of that.”
Lexa can read the amusement in Clarke’s eyes now, and gives her a small smile.
“If you think it’ll benefit my polling demographics,” Clarke says, “So be it. You’re in charge.”
“Were the strippers good, at least? Jasper always has punched above his weight class, I can’t imagine he would buy cheap ones.”
Bang. She can practically hear the way the two of them smack against the invisible outer boundary of professionalism.
As much as Clarke hates long road trips and misses her own bed, there has been a hidden benefit in the nine days she’s been away so far: it is much more difficult to stray near those boundaries. It’s usually an effortless task. But with Lexa, frayed nerves and the late nights in the office and the casual references to the rich, hidden tapestry of her personal life, those boundaries are increasingly foggier. When they’re reduced to nightly skype meetings just to go over the day’s events, she has no way to stumble toward them, even accidentally.
Except for tonight. But, well, she can blame that on Lexa, who is smiling wryly and accepting the blame for that particular breach.
“Anyway,” she says, impassive again but for the ghost of earlier amusement in her eyes. “Yes, Clarke, the office is fine without you. We’re managing.”
“Did the latest campaign finance information get filed with the state?”
“And has Jasper started the work on the donor and finance website?”
“And Monroe had that meeting with the new volunteer staffers?”
Lexa sighs. “Yes, Miss Griffin.” At the indignant grimace that flashes over Clarke’s face, Lexa rolls her eyes. “This is my job.”
“What, overseeing the volunteers?”
The only thing that Clarke gains from Lexa’s chuckle is that she’s too damn tired to understand. “No,” Lexa says, “The coordination, the oversight, the everyday work. I’m the one that is supposed to handle this, not you. Especially not when you’re on a campaign trip.”
“What’s my job, then?” she scoffs.
“Your job is to write that article for Wells Jaha and tear Cage Wallace apart. Your job is to make it through the rest of this week and then get back here for the donor gala Saturday night. And then, your job is to win the debate in San Diego four days later.”
The air already feels heavy around her, and it just presses down more with each successive task list until Clarke closes her eyes again and leans back in the chair. “God,” she groans. “I’d rather take overseeing the volunteers as opposed to the gala. You know I don’t like to shake hands and fake smiles and schmooze for money.”
“You are perhaps the first politician I’ve ever met to say that.”
Clarke opens one eye. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“It was,” she replies lightly.
She gives a small smile to show her gratitude and lets her eyes drift closed, but the inside of her eyelids are burning with the image of Lexa’s face, lips fighting back a smile and eyes glowing.
“You should get some sleep, Clarke,” Lexa says after a moment. “The world won't come crashing down overnight.”
The shitty desk lamp has done its job and Lexa, tender and concerned, closed the deal--Clarke gives in and says goodnight with the promise of meeting again at the same time tomorrow night.
After she shuts her laptop—just as it was after she closed her eyes--she can't shake the picture of Lexa’s face brightening with her smile. Is it unprofessional to admit that she's attractive? Very attractive? She refuses to acknowledge the memory of the fantasy she has used to get herself off weeks ago, but she can admit that Lexa is. Not so much that Clarke would stray across any professional or ethical lines, or anything that would make Lexa uncomfortable. But maybe it eases the weight on her shoulders to admit it; the time away from the office and from Lexa has given her a clear head and a chance to look at this all logically.
Clarke turns and glares at the suitcase she's been living out of for the past week. Hidden blessings.
She's tired and frayed, and yes, the probably uncomfortable bed at the Hilton in Fresno is calling out to her, but she has since learned the danger of going to bed with those kind of thoughts swirling and that ache sitting low in her stomach.
Instead, she opts for a shower, scalding and steaming away the day with the water turned up to a temperature just shy of the point of pain, just where she likes it. She stands under the water long enough to be grateful she isn't paying the water bill.
The next morning announces itself with the vibration of her cell phone.
[5:49 AM] John Mbege: Ward moved today's meetings up, nothing until 11AM. She said to sleep in
Clarke rolls over in the bed, smiling in relief against the pillow, even though she knows deep down that the flood of sunlight that just washed through her is not entirely due to the fact that she gets to spend a few more hours in bed.
Oh well. She'll deal with that later.
Sacramento, Santa Rosa, San Jose, Santa Cruz, Bakersfield, Fresno...nineteen different cities and towns in fourteen days with discussions in each ranging from the danger of big agriculture on local farmers to local streetlight ordinances. And people. Thousands of people. And each long day ends in a different hotel room with a different skyline until they all blend together and it takes a word from an intern to remind her of which city they're in each morning.
One day, Clarke would love to travel the world. Maybe draw some of it. But God, she gets homesick. Homeweary, if there is such a thing. Her own bed feels like a dream she will never realize.
But finally, come Saturday morning, it's finally within reach: just one more three hour car ride before they're back in Los Angeles for the donor gala later that night. Sure, she’ll only be there for 36 hours before she has to leave again for San Diego to prep for the Friday night debate, but that's two whole nights she can spend in her own bed.
Instead of going home first, the car takes Clarke directly to the hotel room where Sterling and his publicity team await her, ready to dress her up for the evening. Apparently four hours is not enough, if Sterling’s frustration with her dallying through lunch is anything to go by. He has two separate stylists and Bree waiting to clean her up, which is exactly two more stylists than Clarke needs.
“I'm going to thank donors for giving me money, and this is what I'm spending their money on,” she complains, arching her eyebrow at him in the mirror as he reshuffles the cards he’s using to help her memorize which donors gave what.
“Your appearance makes as much money as your speeches,” he replies offhandedly. “The jewelry, the dresses, the hair—it's all on purpose.”
“Speaking of which, what color dress would you prefer?” Bree asks her.
"What are my options?"
"There are a few but Miss Ward and Sterling narrowed it down to a blue or a green. Cooler colors would work best with the event space. The dresses are hanging in the closet."
"Miss Ward helped pick them?"
"I think she preferred the green, but yes."
As if on cue, Clarke's cell vibrates with a new message:
[6:01 PM] Lexa Ward: If you're ready, the next half hour is the best time frame for your entrance. I'm waiting in the lobby with Mr. Azgeda and two of your new security team.
[6:03 PM] Clarke Griffin: I just have to pick a dress.
Ten minutes later, the silver elevator doors slide open and Clarke steps into the lobby wearing a slinky black dress with a slit that bares her leg to above the knee; the upper half shows off her shoulders and chest and the clinging material shows off everything else. Blue would have been more appropriate and the green more respectable and she would have chosen either nine times out of ten, but she fell in love with the black dress and some small part of her wants to see the way Lexa reacts to the fact that she was disobeyed.
If nothing else goes right about this night, Lexa's reaction makes it all worthwhile. Roan sees Clarke first, over Lexa's shoulder, and his appreciative smile makes Lexa turn to look too. It's like the walls come down, and in that moment of exposure, Clarke can read everything on her face. Her lips part in shock. Her eyes narrow in momentary indignation, probably about the green dress; then they go wide and her whole body stiffens up as she drinks in the sight of Clarke walking towards them. Her throat bobs and Clarke catches the briefest flash of something deeper and darker across Lexa's face, something that makes Clarke flush warm from her neck down her spine.
Lexa's cheeks tinge pink too by the time Clarke gets close enough to see them, but since Lexa is avoiding looking at her, Clarke doesn't think Lexa notices the color across her chest.
"I—Clarke," she says, into the space between them instead of meeting her gaze. "I thought you were going to wear the...the green dress."
"Is this okay?" Clarke asks.
"That's—that's fine. You look—"
"Gorgeous," Roan finishes, and Lexa nods, clearing her throat. Clarke doesn't really look at him as she tries to reconcile the sight in front of her: for some reason, she hadn't considered the fact that Lexa would be wearing a dress for the gala as well, but there she stands, in a silver dress and her hair pinned high. It's low-profile and pretty and conservative and so very Lexa Ward, save the smooth expanse of her upper back that the dress displays. The only other time Clarke has seen so much of her skin was the morning in the hotel fitness center, where she had been equally speechless.
Lexa forces her to figure it out quickly, though. "Miss Griffin," she says after clearing her throat a few more times. "Allow me to introduce your two new personal security personnel, Gustus and Ryder."
The two other men standing with Lexa and Roan, wearing tuxedos of their own, incline their heads. They tower head and shoulders over Clarke and Lexa, and even over Roan, so there's no doubt the two men are here for security. Clarke greets them warmly, still floating on the cloud of Lexa's reaction.
"Ryder will also be your chauffeur for events, trips, and when you need a car service work."
"Ryder the driver?" Clarke grins.
"I should have business cards with that at this point," he replies with a laugh.
"I promise I'm a good passenger, Miss Ward can attest to that." The grin she flashes Lexa goes unacknowledged, but Roan picks up the slack as he steps to Clarke’s side.
“And do I get a security detail, Miss Ward?”
Her brow arches. "You? When you're with Clarke, you'll be protected by Gustus and Ryder. Why would you need them without her?"
"Ooof," he groans, hand over heart in mock pain. There really is no protocol for when your attractive campaign manager innocently insults your media charade boyfriend, so Clarke resorts to her default etiquette and steps between them with a deep breath.
"Miss Ward, didn't you say now would be an excellent window for my arrival? We should get going." She smiles at each of them, including Gustus and Ryder, in turn. "What are the travel arrangements?"
"Ryder will escort you and Mr. Azgeda, and I'll take a separate car. I was going to drive with Gustus, but since Mr. Azgeda fears for his safety, I'll send Gustus with you three."
Roan groans again, and this time, Lexa raises her eyes to meet Clarke's: she can see the mischievous glow in the deep green, and has to bite back a laugh.
Roan looks between them, eyes narrowing. "Okay...are we ready, then?"
"Yeah!" Clarke says quickly. "Yes, we're ready. Let's go. Miss Ward, you’ll be right behind us?”
“Absolutely, Miss Griffin.”
Lexa continues to surprise her in ways that Clarke knows shouldn't be surprising--as if she would throw a poorly-organized, poorly-decorated event. No; she steps out of the car, smiles to the photographers lined up outside, and strides up the steps and into the building with Gustus on one side and Roan on the other. Inside, the event space is decked out, no expense spared: against one wall is a long, low bar with two tuxedoed bartenders; red, white, and blue banners hang from the walls and she reads Griffin for Senate everywhere she looks; and beautiful, wealthy people in evening wear are split between the half of the room filled with dinner tables and the dance floor.
“This had to have cost so much,” Clarke groans. It was Sterling. Had to have been. He always was extravagant.
“It's not for you, though,” Roan mutters. He nods to the crowd. “It's for them. And they love it, which means they not only don't mind their money being spent this way, but they’ll probably give more.”
“Which is why we start the meet and greet now,” comes Lexa’s voice. She slides into the space Gustus vacated at Clarke’s right shoulder and Clarke feels her skin heat up. “I know it's not your favorite, but go around, greet them, thank them, listen to their stories and laugh.”
Clarke pushes down the strange flutter of nerves. “You're coming with me?”
“If you’d like.”
It's not that Clarke can't function at these events. In fact, she's a natural: she slides from table to table, group to group, entering and withdrawing from conversations seamlessly and delighting her guests. Roan stays by her side for most of it before escaping to the bar, letting her have her own spotlight; but Lexa stands with her through it all, prompting Clarke with names or companies under her breath on the very rare occasion Clarke doesn't recognize someone. On her second glass of champagne, Clarke promises herself to do something to thank Lexa later.
The process takes almost two hours, and she's nowhere near done, but at least she's two hours closer to the end of the night. She's considering the idea of going to find Roan to use him as a conversation buffer when she hears Lexa’s voice in her ear.
“This next group,” she murmurs, “you should know pretty well. I'll be over with Gustus and Ryder at the entrance should you need me.”
I do, Clarke wants to say, before she turns and nearly releases a yelp: Raven, Octavia, and Lincoln are striding toward her, the girls in elegant dresses and Lincoln in one of the finest suits she's seen all night. Lexa slips away while Clarke is wholly distracted with their approach.
“What are you guys doing here?” She demands, grinning broadly. They each take a turn hugging her, proper decorum be damned.
“Lexa called me up, invited the three of us,” Raven says.
“We have figured out that the only way to see you is to visit you at work,” adds Octavia, “so we couldn't miss this opportunity.”
“You're one to talk,” Raven drawls before looking to Clarke. “How long are you here for this time?”
“I leave early Monday morning for San Diego, to meet with the office there and prep for the debate Friday night.”
“I might as well get a travel job too,” Raven says, “for the amount you're both here anyway.”
“You're welcome to take up photography, I'll teach you,” Lincoln tells her. “Are you ready for the debate, Clarke?”
“More ready than I was for tonight,” she confesses. But already, being with her friends is relaxing her.
“You better kick Cage Wallace’s ass,” says Octavia. “I hate that guy.”
Lincoln nods. “I do too.” Raven hums in agreement.
“I can handle it,” Clarke says with a wave of her hand. “It's not as bad as meeting hundreds of wealthy people though. Did you guys eat yet? Did you get drinks? Let's go grab some champagne--”
"Actually…” Octavia shifts back and forth on her feet, exchanging a glance with Lincoln. “Since we're all here, I thought I'd tell you guys...I'm pregnant. Four months."
Clarke's jaw hits the floor. "Oh my fuc--"
And she's spared the embarrassment of finishing that expletive by Raven, who smacks Octavia's drink out of her hand and sends it flying a solid five feet. The glass shatters and draws every eye in the vicinity but none of them care, because their best friend is going to have a baby and Lincoln is laughing out loud and they all feel like they're in college again.
"Raven, what the fuck?" Octavia demands, finger still curled around where the stem of her drinking glass used to be.
"You can't have alcohol when you're pregnant!"
"I was just holding it--"
"Excuse me for being cautious about my future godchild. No alcohol anywhere near you." She gives Lincoln's bottle of beer a scathing look.
Octavia rolls her eyes. "Look you know I don't care that you or Clarke sleep with girls, but I need you to know that you can't absorb or exchange fluids through your fingers. You know that right?"
"How charming, this kid is going to have such eloquent parents," Clarke grumbles as Lincoln laughs again.
Octavia's sarcasm vanishes quickly, as do all of Clarke's thoughts about the gala, as she fills her friends in on all the details they ask for: they don't want to know if it'll be a boy or a girl, no they don't have names yet, yes they can be joint godparents, and they'll stay in LA for a year after the baby is born but resume the nomadic lifestyle as soon as he or she is old enough.
"I'm so happy for you," Clarke says for the millionth time. "Come on. O you can't, but Linc, let's go grab the best stuff the bartender has and you can have a drink."
"As long as Raven doesn't attack me," he replies with a grin at the girl, who smiles sweetly.
She only gives a few businessmen and women passing greetings as she and Lincoln make their way to the bar, and even those are automatic; as soon as they are standing together at the bar again, out of earshot, she's out of politician mode.
"I'm just so happy for you guys, Linc," Clarke gushes. "You're going to be a great dad."
"And you'll be a great aunt," he replies warmly.
"Just don't take him or her away from me for too long when you go exploring the world, okay?"
The bartender arrives with the expensive bottle of Dom Perignon Clarke ordered and pours four glasses before handing the rest to Clarke. "Of course not," Lincoln promises. "But I didn't get to see much of the world until I met Octavia and we started traveling--our kid is going to get an early start." Clarke watches Lincoln search the ballroom for Octavia and when he finds her, his face lights up like she is the world. And for Clarke, that's as golden as finding out that Octavia is pregnant: they're perfect for each other. Lincoln, Octavia, and their beautiful kid, traveling the world.
Her strange wistfulness is interrupted by Lexa, appearing at her side with a glass of her own, untouched, champagne.
"Is everything okay?" She asks. Clarke only remembers the shattered drink glass after a few seconds.
"Oh, that was nothing, just an accident." She brushes it away with a careless gesture then taps Lincoln on the chest. "Lexa, this is Lincoln; Linc, this is my campaign manager, Lexa Ward."
"Ah, Bellamy's replacement?" Lincoln says with a smile. He reaches past Clarke to shake her hand. "This is a better party than he ever threw. Nice to meet you, Lexa, thanks for the invitations tonight."
They exchange their pleasantries as Clarke works on muting her excitement about Octavia; her first instinct when Lexa had walked up was to blurt it out to her, and that isn't the kind of info you share with your co-worker at something like this. For her part, Lexa looks like she has something to say as well, and at the first break in the conversation with Lincoln, she leans forward and wraps her fingers around Clarke's forearm with a polite smile at him.
"If you don't mind, Lincoln, I need to speak with Clarke privately for a moment," she says. "There's something we need to handle."
"Absolutely. Go save the world, Clarke." He gives her a playful shove and she gives him the bottle of champagne to take back over to Raven and Octavia.
Once they're alone, Lexa tugs on the arm she's still holding and pulls Clarke into step with her, hurrying them out of the main event space and into a dimly-lit side side hallway. Lexa checks the length of it to ensure they're alone, and only then does she stop and release Clarke's arm with a little exhale of relief.
"What's going on?" Clarke asks, a little breathless and well aware of the tingling in her arm where Lexa's hand had been.
"Were you really drinking Dom Perignon Rose?"
"Yeah but not enough to get anywhere near drunk--did you honestly just drag me in here to check what I was drinking?"
Lexa shakes her head. "Of course not. I just--Nevermind. But we have an opportunity."
"An opportunity...for what?"
She seriously reconsiders her previous assertion that she didn't drink enough champagne to get drunk, because her thoughts already feel jumbled and out of order and the way Lexa is looking at her, the way Lexa is standing just inches away, just makes it worse. She has no idea what opportunity could mean--just that Lexa looks very pretty in this half-light.
"Listen," Lexa whispers. "James Thurston just walked in. His company only donated 25 percent of the maximum, but they're surrounded by people who have donated the maximum allowable amount to your campaign. If we do this right, we could make several thousand dollars to your campaign in the next five minutes."
The flashing of her green eyes clears Clarke's head, somehow. "And what's your plan?"
"Put them in a discussion with other donors and guilt them. It shouldn't be difficult, but I need you clear-headed."
"I'm fine," she lies, trying to wet her dry mouth.
"Okay." She nods. "Okay."
In that dark hallway, away from the party and everyone there, they take the moment to breathe, with Lexa's eyes drifting over Clarke's face and burning with her strategy and planning. It's dangerous, Clarke realizes, it's dangerous to be this close, voices this low, in the dark.
At that moment, someone stumbles into the hallway several yards down. Surely they can't make out any details, but Lexa jumps back to allow fresh air between their bodies again, like a teenager who got caught, not two political minds plotting campaign donations together. That's all this is, Clarke reasons as she takes a deep breath.
“Okay,” Lexa says, for the third time. “You’ll go and meet...” she frowns suddenly.
“I'll meet with a group of maximum donors,” Clarke finishes for her, “And you'll greet the cheap CEO, bring them into the conversation with my group, and I'll handle it from there.”
“Yes, that’s...that's perfect.” She still frowning, trying to find the thread of the conversation she had lost along the way; had the conversation been lighter, Clarke would have asked if Lexa had been the one drinking, not the other way around. But they have donors to go meet, and more importantly, Clarke needs to get out of this damn hallway.
“Let's go take care of this.”
She's attuned to the sound of Lexa’s voice, even in a crowd; she turns away from her conversation with four important donors to see Lexa striding toward her, with a tall, gray-haired man in tow.
“Miss Griffin, this is Mr. James Thurston, of the…” She trails off, pretending to search for the name. Clarke, likewise, stares expectantly between them as if she has no idea who this man is.
“Walker Investment Group, Representative Griffin. Nice to meet you.” He has a firm handshake, a respectable hairline, a nice pressed suit--this shouldn't be difficult.
“Oh, of course, Walker Investments. Nice to meet you as well, Mr. Thurston. Allow me to introduce you to several of my most prominent supporters.” Clarke goes around the circle, listing the names and titles and companies of each of her acquaintances. “They donated the maximum amount as early as possible, and it's been an absolute gift to have their support through the race so far. Have you tried the wine, yet?”
The look in his eyes says it all: he’ll be reaching into his pocket before the end of the night. Clarke locks gazes with Lexa just past the man and she nods imperceptibly.
The glamor of the night fades quickly once Clarke leaves an hour later. Raven spends the night at Clarke’s apartment and Octavia and Lincoln come calling early for a breakfast date at the pancake place down the block. The pancakes Clarke indulges in, but the baby talk--potential names, gifts, their own baby stories--she steps back from and just listens. Now that the gala has passed, there is only one thing on her mind: the debate.
Her strongest team travels with her to San Diego the next morning, five days out from the debate. She’ll be up against the two other Democratic hopefuls, Vincent Vie and Diana Sydney, and the two Republican ones: Cage Wallace and Jason Gilmer (a nonentity in the race).
So the work she does with the San Diego branch covers everything. During the day, her time is split between sitting in on meetings and interviews and discussing cold calling with the interns, whatever it takes to keep busy. The rest of the day, she's working with her policy advisors on everything the debate moderators could possibly throw at her. The days are busy, frantic, with everyone going on different directions, and they leave her tumbling into bed at night, bone-tired. But not before she's spent three hours in her hotel room, rehearsing her arguments.
Those hours to herself are the most important. And there is only one person she trusts and wants in the room with her then.
Two days out from the debate. This hotel room has become a shoddy second home, albeit one without a couch or chair. Rather than one of them sitting on the bed and one at the desk, Clarke and Lexa opt for equality and spread out across the floor, surrounding themselves with statistics and facts about their opponents and talking points to memorize. Lexa quizzes Clarke, Clarke bounces ideas off Lexa, Lexa practice argues points that are so inane Clarke ends up more frustrated than prepared. Long into the night.
She’s stopped looking at the digital clock on the bedside table and her cell phone has been turned off and hidden to avoid distractions, so Clarke can only measure time with the frequency of Lexa’s yawns compared to how often she flips to a new page in her notebook. Clarke is feeling the effects of this dim light, but if Lexa’s sleepy hooded gaze is any indication, they’ve worked well past midnight.
“Let’s call it a night,” she says.
Lexa shakes her head. “Then we’ll be worse off tomorrow. We can go a bit longer.”
“Let’s take a break, at least,” Clarke pleads. “We need a break. Put down the stuff, we can relax for five minutes.”
Turning her head to look at Lexa is too much effort right now, but the silence tells her Lexa has given in. A moment later, the papers flop to the floor.
“Too bad we don’t have any alcohol. A drink right now would calm everything,” she mumbles.
Lexa practically flings herself up from the floor in a movement that is far too quick for the way she looked like she was about to fall asleep against the foot of the bed a moment ago. She leaves the front door hanging open and returns before Clarke can even gather her thoughts to wonder why she ran out, only this time, she has a bottle of champagne in her hands.
She hands it to Clarke as she sits down. “It's the Rose you couldn't drink at the gala. I took a bottle with the expectation of giving it to you after the debate, but now seems a better time…”
“Now is a great time.”
They sit on the floor of Clarke’s hotel room and drink $300 champagne out of complimentary green and white paper cups, and Clarke’s heart feels so full it might burst.
“This article,” Lexa says, laughing as she scrolls through her phone. “This article is one of the highlights of my political career.”
“Too bad we can never take credit for it,” Clarke says. She refills their cups for the third time, down to half a bottle left of champagne.
Lexa reads aloud. “‘Wallace is the walking, talking product of the tax breaks for the wealthy he quietly endorses, smooth and supremely comfortable with feeding off of the same people his political campaign claims to endorse. He runs a masterclass of shaking hands and charging for it.’ That is the most eloquently aggressive thing I've ever heard, Miss Griffin.”
Clarke hums her appreciation. “I love the next line though, the one you added. About the clashing?”
“‘One article is not enough to chronicle the epic clashing of his political ideals of supporting the status quo, evidenced by his voting record, with his campaign slogan: Building For The Future.”
“Yeah, that one.” In celebration of Wells’s article being released the next day, Clarke takes another long drink of her champagne and sits back against the foot of the bed, breathless and content with Lexa by her side. “I am still so grateful to Kane for recommending you to me. Best campaign manager I've ever had.”
“What did happen to your former campaign manager? Bellamy Blake?” Lexa asks.
Clarke shrugs. “He was ready, we were prepping the campaign, then a week before I declare he just...ups and leaves to Europe.”
“So...at the prospect of working with you, your campaign manager fled the Western Hemisphere?”
“Wow.” She doesn't have to feign her indignant scowl, even while Lexa smirks at her.
“Perhaps you should have disclosed that when you interviewed me.”
“He just had to work on himself. He was dating on and off with Raven, he and Octavia were in a rocky place...he needed time. I don't fault him.” Plus, I ended up with you. She holds that back, because somewhere in the middle distance, she can feel the outer boundary of professionalism. “And I know I get intense with the workload sometimes, I’m sorry for that. Thank you for sticking with me.”
Lexa waves her cup of champagne. “My job,” she says, as much to assuage Clarke as to make up for her earlier teasing.
“Sometimes it's just… one night off. That's all I need.”
“Mm. Should I tell your boyfriend to take you out more?”
“My fake boyfriend,” Clarke says, and it seems of paramount importance Lexa is aware of that fact. “You pay him.”
“Not enough, apparently.”
“It's not more fake dates I want, because I'm not personally benefiting from that. My career is. I haven't… it's frustrating. I'm… frustrated.”
“Ah.” It takes a second, but Lexa’s eyes widen when she catches Clarke’s meaning, something that had slipped out before Clarke could reel it back. “Oh.” She hurriedly takes a sip of champagne and looks away.
Clarke can't stop talking. It has to be the champagne. At least I didn't straight up say, I need to get laid. “The last time I felt like this was when Bellamy and Raven started dating and then I didn't have any means for a casual… You know. Threw myself into my work instead.”
Lexa chokes on the champagne she just downed. “You—you were sleeping with your campaign manager? Bellamy?”
Clarke’s turn: she spits her champagne out. “What? God, no, I didn't mean him, I--” Suddenly, her own words hit her ears and sobriety hits her like a truck. “I’m so sorry, Lexa,” she sputters, “this is so unprofessional. I'm better than this, I should have never started this conversation. Just...forget I said anything.” If she could stand and back away, she would.
The weight of the silence between threatens to push Clarke through the floor, which she would honestly appreciate at this point. She can hear Lexa gulping down the rest of her champagne, hear the empty cup set down, hear the deep inhale—and then exhale. Clarke has to sit through three more torturous breaths before Lexa speaks.
“At this point, with us drinking alcohol on the floor, at one AM, we might as well go all the way.”
“The story. We can forgive ourselves this night, so you might as well finish what you were saying about Bellamy and Raven? You weren't sleeping with him?”
She sounds… more than politely curious; the thought of Lexa wanting to know more of Clarke’s secrets makes her shiver.
“It wasn't Bellamy,” she confesses, “And it wasn't when he was my campaign manager. We were in college and I, uh, was sleeping with Raven.”
What ensues may be the most damning silence of the night. Fuck professionalism: Clarke needs to know Lexa’s reaction. She turns, her attentions prompting a speechless Lexa to choke out something.
She nods. “We were roommates. We were out of our minds with stress at UCLA. It was casual and easy, mostly when we’d had a lot to drink. And when she started dating Bellamy, that ended and we all stayed friends.”
Lexa still doesn't seem to comprehend. “So… so you're…”
“Bisexual,” she says with a nod.
“Wow.” Lexa sits back against the bed, eyes focusing on the wall in a frown as if her whole perspective on life had just changed. “Okay.”
“Is that a problem?”
“Of course not, no, no, why would I have a problem with it?” Lexa says quickly. “I had no idea despite my research. How many people know?”
“Close friends only. Probably some girls I slept with in college, though I doubt they remember. And my mom,” she adds. “My mom built a platform around LGBT+ rights when I came out to her.”
“I remember reading about that, but I didn't know it was because of her daughter,” Lexa says. “We could have done the same, had I known about it.”
“Not a chance. Who I sleep with is not a tool to better my chance of getting elected.”
“Well, at the very least, I perhaps wouldn't have picked Roan Azgeda for your media partner.”
“Who, then?” Clarke shifts, turning her whole body to get a better look at Lexa’s face for some hint--she hates that she feels her heart rate pick up, she hates that she can't ever pull in a deep breath of air around Lexa, but somewhere, in the back of her head, she has a name she desperately wants Lexa to say, no matter what it might mean. It's all hypothetical anyway, isn't it? She wishes she couldn't but she searches Lexa’s face anyway, looking harder the better Lexa conceals any and all emotion.
“I'm not sure,” Lexa says casually, looking at Clarke’s hands instead of her face, and Clarke’s strange bust of hope comes crashing back down. “But it's over and done now. And we should probably call it a night on the debate practice, as well.”
For the second time tonight, she’s on her feet before Clarke can react, heading for the door.
Clarke’s shower is even longer tonight.
The day of the debate seems to drag on forever, even if she is moving at a nonstop pace through practice arguments and speeches with her policy advisers. And when they finally make it to the University of San Diego, where the debate will be held, everything doubles. Backstage, John and Harper have her spitting out facts about the other candidates while she's being caked in TV makeup and her clothes are being decided for her; on a break from the makeup chair as she goes to get a bottle of water, she runs into Vincent Vie and Diana Sydney and greets them warmly, just moments after rattling off memorized lines about the superiority of her campaign. She's pulled away from that conversation by a quiet word from Lexa, but when they turn away, Cage Wallace stands before them.
“Clarke Griffin,” is his only form of greeting. His hands stay in the pockets of his expensive suit, belying his amicable smile.
“Cage.” She’d introduce Lexa, but she doesn't particularly want him knowing her name. “You had a good interview in the San Francisco Chronicle.”
Good, for her accurate description of his physical wealth: perfect hair and expensive clothes and the look of entitlement that makes people like him stand out in a crowd. The rest of it wasn't great for him, and the parts that were are her main targets in tonight’s debate, hence her ability to engage with him now.
“Yeah, yeah it was. Wells Jaha is a friend of yours, isn't he?”
“A fellow UCLA alum,” Clarke says dismissively.
Cage just nods. “Well, I'm looking forward to when he interviews you and the other candidates, Clarke.” Her lips curl at the sound of her name. “Tonight should have a lot to write about.”
Workers from the TV stations televising the debate appear for both Cage and Clarke at the same time, ending the exceedingly pleasant conversation before Clarke can grind her teeth enough to put her dentist’s kid through college. “Ten minutes until we’re live!” Echoes through backstage. Ten minutes. Ten minutes.
“Are you okay?” Lexa asks once they're a suitable distance away from Cage.
“I'm going to go make sure everyone is in order, then I'll meet you in your dressing room before you go on.”
She gives Clarke’s arm a tight squeeze of reassurance then slips away in the crowd, leaving Clarke to be herded back into her dressing room. Final makeup checks. The TV station mic-ing her and giving her a list of dos and donts. Mbege, Sterling, Harper, Jackson, all quizzing her on different elements of the debate until she's answering the questions with the wrong answers and her head is spinning. She just needs to breathe.
Then, Lexa appears in the doorway. They lock eyes across the room and Lexa reads the expression on Clarke’s face in a heartbeat.
Lexa barely raises her voice above the usual quiet tone and yet it ripples through the room like a shockwave, every person shrinking before it—except Clarke. It galvanizes Clarke. As everyone files out and Lexa comes striding toward her, she has never felt more prepared to go on stage, and more nervous, her blood pounding in her veins.
“Five minutes. Nervous?” Lexa asks her once she's close.
Clarke nods. She’s never been one for nerves before--in fact, most of her coworkers in this job and her old ones were convinced she didn't have them. But the twisting, fluttering in her stomach she feels now...it needs a name and the only thing she can think to call it is nerves.
“If I could just leave the podium and punch Cage Wallace, I would be so content,” she mutters. “It would require no thought.”
“You’d probably get thank you cards.”
She lets out a bitter laugh as Lexa steps closer, examining Clarke’s face with concern. Her hands twitch forward as if to take hold of Clarke’s but she pulls back; honestly, Clarke can't tell the difference.
“You’re going to do great,” Lexa says, something she’s said several times now but that Clarke hasn’t heard for the buzzing in her ears. But she looks at Lexa, head swirling with facts and stats and lines to repeat, and the green-eyed girl is the light that cuts through the fog, clear and present and feeling like hope.
“Thank you,” Clarke says suddenly. “Thank you. I don’t know what I would do without you, Lexa.”
From the way Lexa freezes up and she looks even deeper into Clarke, Clarke has cut through her fog as well.
The next thing she knows, Lexa is stepping into her space, clear and present and feeling like hope with the way her arms circle Clarke’s shoulders and pull her tight. She whispers good luck into Clarke’s hair and Clarke’s thank you probably comes out as jumbled as her thoughts, because every coherent idea that starts to form in her head is interrupted by the idea that she’s in Lexa’s arms, that she’s breathing in Lexa’s scent, that the quiet sigh that escaped Lexa’s lips was more than just an exhale.
They don’t pull away.
She’ll never be able to explain what it was, whether it was an accident or intuition or the sudden fluttering need in her stomach, but when Lexa tips back ever so slightly, lessening the pressure of her body against Clarke’s, Clarke closes her eyes and turns her head. She brushes cheek-to-cheek with Lexa, velvet warm skin, pulls away, brushes against her cheek again, sighing at the feeling of contact. Their noses bump together.
Clarke’s lips search for her.
So do Lexa’s.
It’s the puff of air against Clarke’s lips that wakes her up, the hot breath and the hot streak of desire that comes with it, begging Clarke to pull Lexa’s breath into her lungs with a deep kiss—something she can never, under any circumstances, allow herself to want during the daylight, let alone act on. The two women rip apart from each other like the other is scalding. Clarke clamps her mouth shut but Lexa isn’t fast enough, capable of just one sound:
The stutter sounds like gunfire from her lips, and the panic in her voice is as dangerous, as damning, as final. Clarke backs even farther as if the distance will steady the earthquake beneath her feet. What did she just do? We almost kis—she can't even bring herself to finish that thought. Clarke isn’t even sure if it was an accident, or who pushed for what—Lexa looks as guilty as she feels.
“It’s fine—” she chokes out. “That wasn’t—I’m sorry, that wasn’t meant to be—that—and I.”
“You’re on in five,” Lexa interrupts, voice thick and weak all at once. She says it to Clarke’s shoulder. “You have to get out there.”
Clarke tries and fails to swallow down her apologies, and ends up just nodding lest they all come spilling out. “Okay.”