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The Blind Side of Love

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The red-brown leaf ceased its struggle to hang on; surrendered instead to the pull of gravity, to the flow of the wind. It floated aimlessly, helplessly, above the taxicabs and sidewalks, caught in a dance of impromptu rhythm and improvised steps until at last, it landed.

The pencil paused mid-stroke, its movement interrupted by the unexpected intruder in its path. Clarke Griffin brushed the leaf away with her left hand before sitting back to examine her progress. She took in the perfectly straight lines forming an exact black-and-white replica of the park around her: the bench she currently occupied, the naked trees, the piles of leaves decaying nearby, the people strolling along. She glanced up from the sketchpad to compare the nearly seamless recreation with its live, three-dimensional counterpart, and she sighed.

How could she possibly fill a blank page with everything she saw? How could she capture the laughter, the sounds, the sadness and desperation with a mere stroke of the pencil? Could she? Was it possible?

The questions hovered above the ever-present ghosts of self-doubt. The need to start over pushed forward; the need to create and recreate until there was nothing left to question. The sheet ripped easily from its spiral binding, became nothing but a crumpled ball of disillusionment, and disappeared into an eternity of discarded attempts.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” he said, in a tone that betrayed his lack of sincerity. His lips brushed against hers in a hasty greeting, and he sat beside her, one hand deep in the pockets of his long black coat, the other holding a lit cigarette.

Light blue eyes lingered on the empty-white nothingness of the page. “Is it five already?” she asked, though she was well aware that it was almost six. “Guess I lost track of time.” She looked up then, into her boyfriend’s dark brown eyes and searched for something to cling to. “Class run late?”

“The professor wanted to talk about my last paper,” he said as the smoke broke free from his lips and escaped into the air around them. From his pocket he withdrew the folded pages of his mid-term. “Check it out.”

The large “A” lay emblazoned at the top of the cover page, written in bright, permanent red ink. She smiled, trying to feel proud, but feeling a detached sense of resentment instead. “Is this the one you barely worked on?”

“Genius comes easily to some people,” and he laughed, flicking the cigarette butt into the air. His longish-brown hair fell into his eyes, and out of reflex, Clarke reached over to smooth it back. He smiled at her, kissed the palm of her hand as it grazed past his cheek. “I’m sorry I’ve been so busy lately.”

Clarke looked at him for a long moment, taking in the beautiful eyes that had once held the power to disarm her. Where had that gone, she wondered. What was left in its place? “It’s really okay, Finn,” she said, knowing that one of these days she would have to tell him the truth.

He leaned over to kiss her and she smiled against his lips, tasting the bitter-sweetness of familiarity. She wished she could take a snapshot of that moment and frame it against the darker shadows of her thoughts. She wanted to whisper, “I love you,” out of habit, if nothing else. But she stifled the impulse and pulled away.

“So, what were you working on?” he asked, sitting back. His gaze landed on the notebook on her lap.

Clarke glanced down and shrugged, feeling angry with herself for having nothing to show him. How she wished she could make something wonderful appear in the empty surface of the page, just so he could see that he was not the only one with a validated future. Instead, she felt naked, her failure exposed in the implied absence of motivation. “I… I had something, but I threw it away.”

His laugh sounded mocking. “What’s the point of that?”

Clarke glanced away, her gaze shifting from the blank page towards the Washington Arch. He was right. What was the point? “Maybe there isn’t one,” she said after a moment, looking at him. “Maybe I’m just trying too hard.”

“Maybe you should just rethink this whole artist thing,” he replied thoughtfully. “I mean, your Mom is spending so much money to send you to NYU, just so you can, what, study art?” He placed another cigarette between his lips. “It’s not too late to change your mind.”

She watched him struggle with the lighter, momentarily distracted by the click, click, click of every failed attempt.

“Fucking thing.”

Clarke drew in a breath. “I have to go. I have a project for class I need to work on.” The lie filled her with a strange sense of pleasure. Finn glanced up, paused in his futile attempt to start a flame. The unlit cigarette dangled from his mouth, and he withdrew it a second later. “I thought we were getting something to eat?”

“Well, you were late. I don’t have time now.”

“That’s real nice, Clarke. You could have told me you had something to do tonight. I would’ve made other plans.”

She rose, rolling her eyes as she did so. “Well, I’m telling you now.”

He stared at her, as if debating whether it was worth it to start a fight, as if debating whether or not he cared enough to bother. At last, he looked down and shook his head. “Whatever. Can I come over later?”

The question hung in the air between them like a truce, and Clarke decided it was best to accept it. “Sure.”

“Cool. Is Raven going to be there?”

“She’s working late.”

Finn smiled. “Then I’ll be there early.” He kissed her again. “See you tonight.”

Clarke stared after him, suddenly lost in what felt like desperation. She looked down at the sketchpad in her hand, resisted the urge to toss it into the wind, to forget for just one moment that her life boiled down to nothing more than empty pages waiting to be filled. Is that how Finn saw her, as a waste of time and money? What was the point, he’d asked her. What was the point of trying to capture the trivialities of life, to freeze the natural movements of the world in blocks of lines and shadows?

The leaves at her feet rustled to life, and Clarke watched them struggle senselessly against the pull of the wind. She brushed the scattered strands of blonde hair from her face, and held the notebook to her chest.

There was no point, she finally decided, moments later, as she started to walk away. No point at all; just the simple, unquestionable fact that this was what she wanted to do.

~*~

The magazine fell on the small circular table, its sound drowned by the constant noise of conversation.

Clarke stared at the cover, its bright pink surface shining awkwardly in the dull, yellow lighting of the coffeehouse. When she looked up, brown eyes were watching her expectantly. “I’m sorry, I left my mindreading powers in my other jeans,” Clarke said finally.

Raven Reyes settled into the empty seat across from Clarke with a loud, dramatic sigh, and stared at her best friend with mock impatience. “Page thirty-two.”

“Please?”

Raven rolled her eyes. “If you would be so kind, please, as to turn to page thirty-two, please, I would be much appreciative.”

“You could’ve thrown a ‘thank you’ in there for good measure,” Clarke replied with a smile.

“Politeness is overrated.” Raven nodded solemnly. “It goes against my higher purpose.”

“Which is…?” Clarke flipped open the magazine and began searching for page thirty-two, a task that proved difficult in the face of numberless pages.

“To be brutally honest in every and all situations,” Raven answered simply. “I’ve made it my personal goal to abolish b.s.”

Clarke smirked and paused in her search. She looked up at her roommate with an arched brow. “Since when?”

“It’s my New Year’s resolution,” Raven declared.

“It’s October.”

“So, I’m getting a head start. Did you find the page yet?”

Clarke returned to the mission at hand. When she finally found page thirty-two, she stared at the black-and white ad with confusion. “Lip augmentation surgery?”

Raven puckered her lips so they stuck out as far as they would go. “It’s all the rage,” she said a second later. “I’ve decided that’s why I haven’t landed any good roles in anything; my lips are too thin. I’m thinking a cross between Liv Tyler and Angelina Jolie.”

“Wow.” Clarke sat back against the chair. “Every time I think you couldn’t get crazier… you speak.”

“So you’re saying…?”

Clarke leaned forward. “I’m saying you’d look like a freak.”

Raven frowned thoughtfully. “Well, then, there’s always the circus. Step right up! See the Over-Lipped Lady!”

Clarke let out a long laugh. “I’m almost tempted to encourage you on that endeavor.”

“You’re a true friend,” Raven said, grabbing the magazine and turning it over so she could look through it.

After a second, of flipping idly through the pages, she shrugged. “Maybe it’s my hair. Maybe I should go for something spunkier.” She pulled several strands of dark brown hair away from her face and let them slip through her fingers. “Hm,” she said thoughtfully, and continued to look through the magazine.

Clarke watched her friend with amusement, relieved to be in the presence of such pleasant distraction.

“It’s just not fair that some people get to pull off any look,” Raven said suddenly. “It’s like Lexa Woods. The girl can try thirty different hair styles and still look drop-dead gorgeous.” She held up the magazine for emphasis.

Clarke glanced briefly at the plethora of pictures featuring the actress in question. She shrugged after a moment. “I guess some people get to compensate for their lack of talent by being beautiful.”

“Ooh, harsh. I hope you’re not that mean to me when I’m on the silver screen.”

Clarke stared at her best friend seriously. “You’ve got actual talent.”

“Well, I’m certainly glad you think so.” Raven smiled. “Although, she was really good in Silence Speaks.”

“I haven’t seen that. I just know she sucks on that show …”

“Guardian?” Raven supplied. “I don’t think she’s bad in it. I think the show’s just cheesy. You can’t really do much with a script like that.”

Clarke shrugged, not having much of an argument for that, nor particularly caring. She glanced around the coffeehouse, momentarily fascinated by the murmur of conversations. All around her life went on in a giant mixture of words she couldn’t quite distill. Sometimes she wished she could step outside of herself just long enough to experience something other than her own life.

“So, what’s wrong?”

Clarke turned back to catch Raven staring at her. “What makes you think anything’s wrong?”

“Because I know you. You’ve got that distant gleam in your eye. The one that screams, ‘I hate my life and everything it stands for because I’m an artist and I’m deep like that.’”

Clarke couldn’t help but laugh. “Shouldn’t you be working?”

“I’ve got about five minutes left to listen attentively to your every problem before I return to the land of coffee-making. So, let’s hear them, in reverse alphabetical order. Although, I think I can already guess that they all start with the letter F.”

Clarke looked away from Raven’s inquiring gaze. It was too much, she thought, to sort through every individual strand of bothersome emotion. There were no specific problems, none that she could point to with any amount of conviction and say, ‘There, that’s what’s bothering me.’ There was nothing, really, nothing but a broken jigsaw puzzle, with all the adjoining pieces scattered randomly across her mind, overturned and undecipherable. She stared at Raven through the silence, and shrugged. “I’m really not sure.”

“Ah, well, maybe I can help.” Raven shifted in her seat, wobbling the table as she placed her elbows on the wooden surface. “Let’s see, your boyfriend’s a self-absorbed dolt, who seriously, seriously, needs to look up words like ‘personality’ and ‘humor’ in the dictionary before ever attempting to have a conversation with another human being. His laugh, on the bizarre occasion when he manages to at least amuse himself enough to elicit the hyena-like sound, is deeply irritating. You’ve been dating him for, what, like two years and I still haven’t figured out what you see in him. He’s cute, sure, in an Aston Kutcher meets Seth MacFarlane sort of way, but I mean, look at you, Clarke, you’re fucking gorgeous. And I’m sorry to say this, but your sex life is about as exciting as—”

“Okay, I beg you to stop,” Clarke interrupted, holding her hands up in the air. “But thank you for your enlightening summary of everything that’s wrong with my boyfriend.”

Raven frowned. “That was hardly everything. Then there are your parents…”

Clarke rolled her eyes and glanced at her watch. “I should go. Finn’s coming over, and I think your five minutes are almost up.”

“Okay, fine, but we’re not through with this yet. Remember, I know where you live.”

Clarke began gathering her belongings. “That’s very comforting, thank you. ”

“So, about the lip thing…”

Clarke swung the backpack over her shoulder and smiled. “You are nuts.” She leaned down to kiss Raven’s cheek. “Be careful getting home. I’ll see you later.”

“Don’t forget to use protection!” Raven called after her.

Ignoring the suddenly attentive glances of the people around her, Clarke headed quickly for the door.

Chapter Text

The rain fell like tears against the windowpane, distorting the view of the city below. She stared through the streaks of water at the world surrounding her own: New York City stretched out before her like a postcard-perfect image of itself; perfect, even while glimpsed through the flawed gaze of circumstance.

She leaned her tall, lithe frame against the wall, and looked away from the window. The outside lights cast rain-patterned shadows across the floor of her hotel room. It was strange how beautiful silence could seem contrasted against the tumultuous reality of her existence.

She had been standing there too long, she knew. She should change. She should get ready for the charity event that awaited her, but motivation eluded her, and the peacefulness of the moment was too tempting to let go of.

Instead, she remained by the window, staring down at the world many stories below; at the taxicabs and neon signs; at the people concealed beneath umbrellas, and felt, as always, disconnected; felt, as always, set apart. The questions that always lingered in her mind pressed forward. The questions that hovered in the air at every interview, that punctuated every answer she gave swirled around her head with increasing urgency: How long could she keep this going? How long until she fell apart?

She sighed, her breath staining the glass for a brief instant before fading away. How long indeed.

Then came the inevitable knock, followed by the inevitable sound of the door opening behind her. Light flooded her vision, and she blinked rapidly, as her view of the City turned into a reflection of the room. She glanced at herself for half a second, just long enough to catch the glimpse of disappointment in her light green eyes, before turning around to face her visitor.

Bellamy Blake stood in the doorway, his muscular frame blocking the view of the brightly lit hallway behind him. He looked model-beautiful, dressed in the black tuxedo she had picked out for him before they’d left L.A. She stifled a smile at his discomfort. “Lexa, just in case you didn’t notice, the room came fully equipped with electricity.” He motioned to the light switch for emphasis.

Lexa Woods leaned her back against the window. “Ha ha.” She grinned at her best friend before adding, “You look great.”

“I suppose I do look rather handsome,” he replied, smoothing the sides of his curly brown hair with his hand. His dark brown eyes betrayed his pleasure at the compliment. “You owe me big time for this, regardless.”

Lexa smiled, the kind of smile that she reserved for him, and him alone. If only I could fall in love with you … and the thought made her smile flicker. She turned away from him and walked to the bed where her dress awaited. She stared at it for a long moment, as if doing so meant the same as putting it on. “Do you think they’d really miss me if I didn’t show?”

“Um, please don’t say you’ve changed your mind. I’ve undergone a dramatic transformation on your behalf.” He motioned to his attire. “I was very happy in my track pants before you waved that black-tie invitation in my face.”

“You could just as easily take it off,” Lexa replied patiently.

“Are you serious?” Bellamy looked at her sceptically. “Or is this one of those crazy girl things I don’t understand? Like, you’ll tell me that you don’t want to go, so I’ll go change, and then two seconds later you’ll knock on my door wearing your diamond-studded dress and yelling that we’re going to be late and it’s all my fault.”

Lexa arched an eyebrow. “I know how you women work. First you confuse us, then you abuse us, and then you seduce us.”

“That’s very deep, Bellamy, but I have no desire to seduce you.”

Bellamy narrowed his eyes. “So, you just want to confuse and abuse me? I knew it. I’m on to you, Ms. Woods, don’t think I’m intimidated by your Hollywood stardom.” He paused for a moment. “So … should I change?”

Lexa fixed her gaze upon the dress. Tonight, she would be nothing but another recognizable face among many, a star shining no more brightly than the rest. She would spend her evening making small talk with people she’d pretend to remember from prior gatherings; she would smile graciously as strangers showered her in fake admiration; and then eventually return to this empty hotel room and lie awake wondering how so much attention could breed such overwhelming loneliness.

To Bellamy, she said, “No,” and sighed. “I said I would go, so I’m going.”

“And here you had my hopes up. I’ll let you get ready then. I’ll be in my room when you’re done.”

He started to leave, but Lexa stopped him. As he turned back toward her, she smiled, “I do owe you,” she said.

“Well about that seducing…”

“Nice try. Now get out of here or we’ll be late and it’ll be all your fault.”

His laugh echoed in the hall as he closed the door.

~*~

Clarke lay awake trying desperately to block out all of the thoughts pounding furiously in her mind. She stared up at the cracked, water-stained ceiling above her bed and listened to the familiar sounds around her: the heater creaking in protest of its over-extended lifespan, the sound of Raven getting ready for bed, the out-of-context murmurs of her surrounding neighbors.

Beside her, Finn snored softly, the sound momentarily drowned by the sudden rush of police sirens outside. She waited until they faded away into the distance, and then turned on her side to face the window. The slivers of light shining through the blinds cast matching shadows across the wall, and she stared at the pattern of prison-like bars for a long time.

She wished that Finn had gone back to his apartment and left her to sleep in peace. She could feel the warmth of his chest against her naked back. She could hear the soft snores against her ear. She closed her eyes and attempted to shut out his presence, but the effort yielded an unexpected flow of tears instead. She wiped her face against the pillow and sniffled back her emotions.

Everything felt wrong, broken; and she didn’t know where to start piecing things back together.

She thought of the many attempts at art she’d cast away lately. She had put so much of herself into every stroke of the pencil; she had tried so hard to express her passion through each movement of her hand. She had failed; time and time again, she had ended up with nothing more than a handmade photograph that conveyed nothing beyond its mere existence. Where was the passion? Where was the risk, where was the edge she was so entirely lacking?

She sighed into the darkness and turned halfway around to make sure that Finn was still asleep. She slid slowly out of bed, searched the floor for her scattered clothes, and put them on. Casting one last glance at the bed, she opened the door and stepped out into the hall.

Raven peered out of the bathroom at that moment, a toothbrush dangling precariously from her mouth. She spoke through a foamy mouth, “At ah you ‘oin uht?”

“Can’t sleep,” Clarke said in hushed tones, closing the door to her bedroom softly. She walked out into the small living room and lay down on the couch. She concentrated on the sound of running water, of Raven spitting into the sink, of the faucet screeching with effort.

Raven reappeared a few seconds later and watched Clarke silently. “What’s the matter with you?” she asked finally, taking a seat on the arm of the couch.

“Just have a lot on my mind, I guess.”

“Like?”

Clarke sat up and leaned back against the opposite arm. “Like the usual. I feel like a broken record.”

Raven remained quiet for a long time, and then slid down onto the couch cushions. Clarke instinctively moved her legs so Raven wouldn’t sit on them. “I’ll refrain from telling you the usual, then, just to avoid sounding repetitive.”

“Thanks.”

“No problem.”

They sat in awkward silence for several minutes, until finally, Raven spoke, “Okay, screw it. I can’t live like this. Just break up with him!”

“Shhh!” Clarke kicked Raven’s thigh with her foot. “Are you insane?” she whispered.

Raven rolled her eyes, but whispered, “Look, I know this really hot guy at work that I would love to set you up with. He’s nice, he’s smart, and he makes a mean cup of coffee. Plus, he thinks you’re a bangin’ piece of white ass.”

“He sounds charming, really, but no.”

“Clarke, please drop the deadbeat in there and try something new for a change. I’m sure that once you get some actual good lovin’, your artistic constipation will be a thing of the past. I mean, when was the last time you had an orgasm, really?”

Clarke groaned.

“Look, I’ve told you a million times, you can do better, much, much better, and you deserve much, much better. I’ll break up with him for you.” She started to rise, but Clarke leaned forward and grabbed her arm, pulling her back down on the couch.

“You drive me nuts,” Clarke declared, laughing slightly.

“Well, the feeling is mutual. Now, please stop moping and go to sleep, or I’ll be forced to do something drastic. I hate seeing you like this.”

“I’ll go back to bed soon. I’m just going to hang out here for a bit and watch some late-night TV.”

“Whatever.” Raven shrugged and stood up. “Oh, I almost forgot, I don’t have to work tomorrow until late, so I can set up shop by the Met while you’re at class.”

“Thanks,” Clarke said, feeling suddenly overwhelmed with gratitude for her friend’s kindness. “I really appreciate that.”

“Oh it’s no problem, I love selling your paintings to all the clueless tourists. It’s fun.”

“I meant, for everything.”

“Thank me when you’re actually happy,” Raven answered with a smile. “Night.”

Clarke sighed and grabbed the remote. She waited until Raven had disappeared into her room before clicking on the TV. She stared blankly at the flickering images on the screen, letting their hypnotic rhythm lull her to sleep.

~*~

The clouds rolled by in search of definition, continuously shape shifting, as if afraid to be seen for what they really were. Lexa sighed softly against the window of the limousine, watching the metamorphosis with a detached sense of fascination. She waited until the crocodile in the sky changed into something undecipherable before lowering her gaze.

“…and the flight back to L.A. leaves tomorrow morning at 8:15,” her assistant went on from her place beside Lexa. “If that’s too early, I could try to reschedule for a later flight, but--”

“She’s not listening,” Bellamy interrupted, and Lexa looked at him briefly before turning back to the window. “What’s another word for ‘devour’?” he asked, his eyes not rising from the monitor of his laptop.

“Ingurgitate?” Anya offered, pushing her black-rimmed glasses up the bridge of her nose. Bellamy made a mildly disgusted face.

”Consume,” Lexa said, fully aware that it was the first time she’d spoken since they’d gotten in the car.

He did look at her, then, and smiled. “That might work.” The sound of his typing filled the air, and Lexa pressed the side of her head against the window, closing her eyes.

“Okay, how does this sound?” Bellamy cleared his throat. “She was consumed in a whirlwind of passion, completely enthralled by the feel of his lips—”

“What the hell are you reading?”

“Star Wars fanfiction,” he replied. “It’s not as profitable as writing for Hollywood, I’ll grant you, but all the fangirls love me.”

“That is wrong on so many levels,” Anya said. “Though, I can see where ‘ingurgitate’ might have been the wrong word.”

Bellamy smiled to himself. “Actually, I’ve been bored while waiting on the green light for my next project.”

Lexa arched a brow in his direction.

“I know you’re dying to know, Lexa, but really, I must beg you to turn off your curiosity. Art cannot be corrupted by the contaminating influence of those above us. We, the few, the proud, the independent artistes, must stand strong against the evils of corporate America, and the temptation of the all mighty dollar.”

“You are so full of it,” Lexa replied, chuckling. “You just know we’re going to laugh at you.”

“Well, there’s that,” Bellamy admitted. “What can I say? I like keeping the world on its toes. I want the posters to read: ‘From writer-director Bellamy Blake comes yet another titillating and visionary ride, a suspenseful, edge-of-your-seat adventure about the trials and tribulations of fruit.’”

“Fruit?”

“They have feelings, too, you know. They make fascinating subjects. Also, their actor’s salaries are just within my budget.”

“Anya, could you please instruct the driver to pull over at the nearest mental institution?”

Anya rolled her eyes.

Bellamy shook his head and returned to his computer, muttering about Hollywood stars and their inability to comprehend art.

“It’s the Guggenheim,” Anya muttered suddenly, “I’ve always wanted to go there.”

“So go,” Lexa said a second later. “I’ll give you the rest of the day off.”

Anya whirled around. “Are you nuts? Didn’t you hear the agenda for today?”

“No, she didn’t,” Bellamy piped in.

“Bellamy, could you tell the driver to pull over?” Lexa turned to Anya and looked at her assistant seriously. “Let’s cancel everything for today. I have the flu.”

“No you don’t,” Anya said, just as seriously.

“It’s called pretend. I do it for a living.”

“You had the flu two weeks ago for that radio interview.”

“A migraine?”

“Two days ago for the morning talk show.”

“Well, it’s back with a vengeance.”

“Maybe you should get your head examined,” Bellamy suggested. “Or was that already on the agenda?” He received a sharp look in reply.

As the vehicle rolled to a stop, Lexa reached across Anya’s lap and opened her door. The outside world poured in, saturating the air with the pungent scent of city life and the strident melody of people struggling to co-exist. “Watch out for cars, and have fun.”

Anya shrugged. “It’s your career. I’ll make the calls.” She reached for her cell phone and started out of the car. “See you guys later.” were her final words before shutting the door.

“What are you doing?” Bellamy asked the second the door closed.

“Taking a break from responsibility?”

“You’ve been doing that a lot lately. What’s with you?”

Lexa sighed, not wishing to get into it. Whatever ‘it’ was. “I don’t know. I just feel …” Lost. She shrugged instead of finishing the statement. “I just need a break.”

Bellamy softened his gaze. “Well, Guardian wraps up in a few weeks. You’ll get a chance to relax.”

Lexa thought of the movie script offers sitting unread on her nightstand and she inwardly sighed.

“Yeah…” Her gaze drifted back outside, to the sidewalks full of people moving about their lives. She wondered how many of them had agendas to keep? Perhaps they all did, in their own way. Yet she allowed herself the freedom to envy their anonymity.

The car stared moving again. “Where to?” Bellamy asked her, but she ignored him. It was easier, in the end, to watch others live their lives, instead of attempting to give direction to her own. She leaned her head back and surrendered to the view, as stranger’s stories, lifetimes of experiences flew by in flashes of instantly forgotten images: as short films in fast-forward.

She longed to catch a glimpse of something meaningful in it all, though she knew, the way she knew she’d snap out of all of this soon, that there was nothing meaningful to find in the chaos of other’s lives. They were all stuck in the consequence of choices made by a distant, unrecognizable version of themselves. But in those seconds of stolen time, in those rare moments when reality didn’t knock as persistently upon the walls of consciousness, they could at least pretend.

Chapter Text

The day had dragged interminably. The minutes had frozen into hours.

She’d come back to Central Park on a whim, wishing only to escape the suffocating walls of the hotel room, wanting only to partake in something other than her own life. It was enough to sit there; concealed as she was beneath a wig and large sunglasses, and watch other lives go by in streams of fragmented conversations. It was enough just to simply blend in.

“Hey, aren’t you that chick from TV?”

Lexa looked over to find Bellamy walking toward her. “How did you find me?”

“Anya inserted that nifty tracking device into your skull, didn’t you know? How else could she keep up with you?” Bellamy looked around. “Nice day.”

“Yeah,” and Lexa nodded. “How’d you really find me?”

“First of all, it’s rather presumptuous of you to assume I was looking for you. I happened to be jogging, minding my own business, when the sight of a young woman in a hideous wig startled me. Upon closer investigation I discovered that the woman was none other than my best friend.” He sat down beside her and smiled. “So there.”

“So you’re saying that you just happened to be here?”

“Yup.”

“And that you weren’t tipped at all by say … the hotel manager I spoke to on my way out?”

“Nope.”

“You’re sure?”

“Couldn’t be surer.”

“Right.”

“Okay,” Bellamy said shrugging. “I may have heard something about you going to Central Park. I just thought it was an excellent idea.”

“Mmm, it was.” Bellamy merely nodded, and Lexa turned her attention away. They fell into amiable silence. “I was thinking,” Lexa said, her voice soft against the stillness between them, “that I might want to move here. Maybe after the show’s over.”

When Bellamy didn’t say anything, Lexa turned to look at him, only to find that his attention was fixed on a blonde woman several feet away.

“Or maybe just have threesome with some elephants from outer space,” Lexa added casually.

“What?” Bellamy turned to her in a second. “What threesome?” He gave her a lopsided grin. “Sorry. I was just … um…”

"Checking out the local white meat?" Lexa guessed.

"It's what's for dinner.”

Behind her sunglasses, Lexa rolled her eyes. "Gross."

"There's nothing gross about the union of a man and a woman," Bellamy replied. "Or even a man and two women. Or three…"

Lexa laughed. "You can barely handle yourself, what are you going do with three women?"

“Hey!” Bellamy frowned. “I’ll have you know I can handle myself just fine. Why—“

“T.M.I!” Lexa interrupted quickly. “Really.”

“You started it.”

“So what do you think?”

“About?”

“About what I said earlier?”

Bellamy ran his hand up and down the wild hair at the back of his head and looked thoughtful. “I think if you’re going to have a threesome, then you could do better than elephants. I mean, you’re not a bad looking girl, and elephants, well, they smell…”

Lexa wanted to strangle him sometimes. “About me moving to New York after the show.”

“And leave L.A.?” He frowned. “But I thought you loved it there?”

“It was just a thought.” She shrugged it away as if it wasn’t important. After a moment, she sighed. “Should we head back?”

“I guess.” Bellamy yawned and stood up. “Should we call Anya? Maybe she’d like a ride back to the hotel.”

“I’m sure she’s having a blast all on her own,” Lexa answered, somewhat distracted by the tables of artwork along the way. She glanced at him briefly and smiled. “Unless you miss her…”

“Will you quit it with that? I do not have feelings for Anya.”

“Mmhmm.” She would have argued further, but then she saw it: a charcoal sketch drawn on simple canvas paper. She halted in her steps and stared at it for a long moment, unsure why she’d even stopped, unsure why she couldn’t just keep walking.

“Uh, you okay?”

She walked a few feet, and finally turned to Bellamy and said, “Could you get that picture for me?”

Bellamy glanced back at the item in question. “What am I, your slave?”

“Bellamy,” Lexa said, her voice edging toward annoyance. “I know Clark Kent could pull it off with a simple pair of glasses, but I don’t wanna push it.”

“Fine, fine.”

Lexa watched him from several feet away. She rolled her eyes again at the sight of him flirting with the brunette behind the table. It took him far longer than necessary to get the picture and walk over to her, but once he did, she was too pleased with the purchase to mind.

“Here’s your picture, your highness.”

“Hitting on the artist were you?” Lexa asked, distracted at once by the picture he’d handed her. She stared at it and smiled. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, beautiful,” he said flatly, and they resumed their walk. “Actually, that wasn’t the artist. That was the artist’s friend. The artist’s very cute friend who just gave me her number. Although, admittedly, she did make me work for it.” He held up a business card for emphasis and flipped it over to the other side to illustrate a phone number written in green ink.

“Very impressive.”

Bellamy pocketed the card and smiled smugly. “One day you too could be this smooth.”

Lexa didn’t glance at him as they walked. “I’m not sure smoothness is the problem,” and a trace of bitterness seeped through the words before she could help herself. She looked around, eyes narrowed.

“Where the hell is my driver? I told him to wait.”

"Lexa, you know I'm just teasing, right?" Bellamy asked, suddenly serious. "I know it's tough for you."

She didn’t answer, stared down at the drawing in her hand instead and sighed.

“You’re not going to find anyone to love if you don’t let anyone get close to you.”

“I let you get close to me.”

“Yes, but much to my dismay, I don’t seem to be your type.”

“And therein lies the rub.”

~*~

“I’m sorry I’m late,” Clarke anxiously said before Raven could open her mouth. “It’s all Shakespeare’s fault. But look, I brought you fine New York cuisine.” She handed over the two hotdogs she’d bought from a street vendor.

“How touching.” Raven accepted Clarke’s offerings and placed them down on the wooden foldout table. She was, in fact, starving. For hours she’d sat behind the carefully arranged pieces of Clarke’s artwork, inhaling car exhaust and stupidity. For hours she’d listened to the sounds of beeping horns and angry, frustrated souls battling it out in the war zone of New York City traffic. She’d listened to a thousand out-of-context conversations, answered hundreds of questions – most of them having nothing to do with the art on display – and pointed dozens of people in the wrong direction. She was exhausted. “But Shakespeare’s been dead too long to be your scapegoat, and I think I deserve better than hotdogs.”

Clarke considered Raven’s comment carefully before responding. “Fine, I’ll just double what I currently pay you.”

Raven gasped in mock surprise. “Double? Oh, no, Clarke, that’s too much. I mean, that would be like, hmm, let’s see, two times zero equals – hold on, this is tough math – oh yes, zero. No, really, that’s too generous. Just give me fifty percent.”

“I’ll also throw in sexual favors from Finn.”

“Okay, that’s just gross. I’d rather sleep with this hotdog. Sauerkraut and all.”

“And if I hadn’t been a vegetarian before, that totally unnecessary visual right there would’ve tipped me right over the edge.”

Raven shrugged; too busy chewing to comment right away. “Mmm. There’s really nothing better than phallic-shaped mystery meat cooked and served by hairy men beneath two-toned beach umbrellas.”

“Um, okay. I believe ‘anyway’ is in order. How’d we do today?”

“Rough day, but I did sell your baby.”

“What baby?”

Raven wiped at her mouth with a napkin before responding. “Your charcoal sketch, a.k.a. the love of your life. I sold it to the hottest guy ever. Even gave him my number.” She wiggled her eyebrows and took another bite.

“I wasn’t even sure I wanted to sell that one,” Clarke said, visibly disappointed. “But, I guess if he liked it enough to buy it.”

“Mmhmm,” Raven agreed between mouthfuls. “I even doubled your asking price.”

“What? Why?”

Raven shrugged. “Well, he asked for my number, and I asked how badly he wanted it. And he said, ‘How badly do you want me to want it?’ and I said, ‘Badly enough to pay double for this sketch.’”

“And?”

“He didn’t even bat an eye. I should’ve tripled it.”

Clarke laughed. “Only you can manage to do business and get a date at the same time. I really should start paying you for this.”

“When you can afford to pay me, I’ll gladly accept a salary from you. In the meantime, here.” Raven held up an envelope and stood up. “Today’s winnings. Don’t spend it all in one place.”

“Off to work?”

“There’s no rest for the wicked. Is that how the saying goes?”

“What saying?”

“About the wicked?”

“The musical?”

“Never mind.” Raven gathered her belongings. “I’ll see you tonight. Good luck.”

“Thanks.”

Clarke watched Raven until she disappeared in the crowd. Then she sat and looked around. Trying to sell her art was like getting slapped in the face repeatedly by unapologetic, uncaring hands. At the end of the day, or at least, at the end of most days, Clarke couldn’t decide what hurt most: having her work blatantly ignored, or having it completely disregarded after closer inspection. And still, she came back, time after time, because sometimes, she got lucky. Sometimes, someone cared.

Her cell phone went off, the personalized ring tone disclosing the caller’s identity instantly. She struggled with the button on her cargo shorts, before managing to flip the device open and put it to her ear. “Hey,” she greeted her mother.

“Where are you for it to be that noisy?”

“Oh, I’m at the park,” Clarke answered. “Want me to call you back later?”

“No. I just wanted to tell you to come for dinner tomorrow. Miller said he wants us to know something important.”

“What does he want to tell us?”

“If I knew do you not think I would tell you?”

“Haha. Okay, I’ll be there tomorrow, what time?”

“Six-thirty. And Miller said to bring Raven.”

“Okay.”

“Well I’ll let you go. I love you, remember.”

“I love you, too. See you tomorrow.” When her mother hung up, Clarke sat back in the chair and stared at the phone in slight confusion. What would her stepbrother have to tell them?

“Could you tell me where the Guggenheim is from here?”

Clarke looked up and inwardly sighed before saying, “Yeah, just cross the street and walk straight down. It’ll be on your right.”

“Thanks.”

Maybe I should start painting maps instead. She rolled her eyes and settled back against the chair. It was going to be a long day.

Chapter Four

Lexa sat on the pale cream carpet, her back against the edge of the bed, her features bathed in the traces of a setting sun. The conversation with Bellamy had unsettled her. You’re never going to find someone to love, he’d said, as if things were so simple. As if she could go up to someone and say, “Hey, want to go on a date sometime?” and live happily ever after.

If only she could love Bellamy.

If only she weren’t in the public eye.

If only…

She sighed and let her head fall back against the mattress. The painting she’d purchased earlier sat beside her, staring back at her expectantly whenever she glanced in its direction. She still didn’t know why she hadn’t packed it along with everything else, or why she kept staring at it.

It wasn’t like her to be drawn to art, never having been one to spend time at galleries or museums. But there was something about the picture, about the loneliness it radiated, that called to Lexa in a way she couldn’t explain. It made her feel less alone, sitting there in the silent room, watching as another pointless day faded into memory.

~*~

“I love you,” he said, turning to look at her from his place on the bed.

But Clarke kept her gaze on the computer monitor, her Shakespeare paper a blank canvas on the screen. Do you? she wanted to ask, because she’d heard him, and because despite herself, she really wanted to know.

“I love you, too,” she answered when the time for truth had passed and all that remained was the sense of expectation.

“Do you want to do something later?”

“I’m trying to write a paper,” she answered, looking at him, daring him to start a fight.

“After that.”

“I’m not sure there will be an ‘after’ this. I think it’s going to take all night.”

“How long can that possibly take?”

“Yeah, well I’m not good at papers,” she replied, an edge in her voice. “We’re not all geniuses in this room, remember?”

Finn sighed in thinly veiled exasperation. “Okay, look, I’ll just shut up and leave you to your homework.” He rolled off the bed and stood by the side of it for a moment, gazing down at Clarke thoughtfully. “Dinner tomorrow?”

“Can’t, family stuff.”

“What family stuff?”

“Miller wants to talk to us about something.”

“About what?”

“I can safely say that I have no idea.”

“Oh.”

Clarke bit her lip and looked up at him. “I’m sorry, I’d invite you—

“No, it’s okay. I guess I’m just not as part of the family as I thought.”

“Finn—“

“Sorry,” he said. “If it’s a family thing, then it’s a family thing.”

Clarke bit her lip, opting to leave out the fact that Raven had been asked to come along. “It’s more of a Miller thing.”

“And he hates me, right?”

Clarke frowned up at her boyfriend. “He doesn’t hate you. He just doesn’t know you very well.”

“Yeah, well he doesn’t seem particularly keen on remedying that situation.”

Finn looked visibly upset, and Clarke didn’t know what to say to make him feel better. It was true that her stepbrother hadn’t taken to Finn; unlike the rest of her family, who practically worshipped him. She simply had no explanation as to why. “It’s just one evening. I’ll go, hear what Miller has to say, and then maybe we can get together when I get back.”

Finn nodded after a moment of reflection. “I’ll just wait for you here. Raven’s off tomorrow, right?”

Crap. Clarke looked away, focused her gaze on the computer monitor and the awaiting paper, which seemed, at that moment, the lesser of all evils. “Um, actually, she’s coming with me.”

Finn’s silence unsettled her, and Clarke forced herself to look at him. “Why?” he asked.

“Miller wants her there.”

Finn nodded. “I see.”

“They’ve known each other forever, Finn. It makes sense—”

“Save it, Clarke. Just … call me whenever.” The slamming door punctuated his statement.

“Great,” Clarke muttered, shifting to adjust the weight of the laptop on her lap. “Just great.”

~ * ~

The hotel restaurant was as upscale as it was noisy. The mutter of conversation threatened to drown even the distinct sounds of clattering silverware, as the VIPs in the room chattered on in dull, monotonous voices. Lexa stifled a yawn, and stirred her drink. “This place is lame.”

“I know,” Bellamy agreed, drawing his glass of beer toward his lips and taking a sip.

“Oh I don’t know,” Anya piped in, “I kind of like it.”

“That’s because you’re lame,” Bellamy replied, and Lexa laughed softly. “We should’ve gone somewhere else for dinner. It’s our last night in New York.”

“Until next time,” Lexa answered. “Provided you’re still unemployed and bored.”

Bellamy frowned and leaned his elbows on the table. “I’m not unemployed. I’m between projects.”

“Well, if you need a quick paycheck, I’m sure I can find you something,” Lexa replied.

“No, thank you.” Bellamy reached for his beer again. “I want nothing to do with your seedy Hollywood money.”

“Oh, good, then I guess you’re paying for dinner.” Lexa picked up the menu. “Mmm, good thing I’m starved.”

Bellamy smiled. “I’m here merely as a favor to you, Smarty Pants, and you know it.”

“And I appreciate it.” Lexa turned serious for a moment. “I don’t know what I’d do without you sometimes.”

“Oh, gag,” Anya said. “It’s no wonder people keep asking me when you two are tying the knot. You’re nauseating.”

“I love you so much Bellamy.”

“And I love you, Lexa. My heart beats–”

“I beg you to stop. For the sake of my appetite.”

Lexa smiled to herself. “So, Bellamy, are you going to call her?”

“And the cryptic use of pronouns was lost on him,” Bellamy said, by way of an answer.

Anya leaned forward. “Call who?”

“Bellamy got a girl’s number today,” Lexa revealed. She so enjoyed watching Bellamy squirm.

“He seems to have a thing for brunettes.”

Bellamy’s eyes widened in horror, and he glanced nervously at Anya, who tucked a strand of brown hair behind her ear. I’m so going to pay for that, Lexa mused, but she didn’t care. It was entirely too entertaining. “So,” she said, casually, “are you going to call her?”

“I wasn’t planning to,” he said, while his eyes tossed daggers in her direction.

Lexa shook her head. “I’ll never understand you. Why bother getting her number if you have no intention of calling it?”

“What’s the point of calling her when I’m leaving tomorrow?”

“To say, ‘Hey, I’m just calling so you don’t think I’m an asshole.’”

“Oh yeah, that’s charming.” Bellamy shook his head.

Lexa shrugged. “I’m just saying if it were me, I’d want you to call. Anya, wouldn’t you want him to call?”

Anya stared.

“See, she’d want you to call.”

Bellamy rolled his eyes and reached into his back pocket. A second later, he produced the card with the number in question. He placed it in front of Lexa. “If you care so much, you call her.”

“Now that I’d like to see,” Anya stated.

Lexa glanced at the card, then up at Bellamy and Anya. They were both watching her expectantly.

After a moment of consideration, she reached for her cell phone.

~*~

“… and then he slammed the door,” Clarke concluded. She licked the ice cream off the spoon and shook her head. “He’s so infuriating sometimes.”

Raven nodded, reaching across the table to dip her own spoon into the tub of Cherry Garcia. “Well, I, for one, am glad he’s not going with us tomorrow. There’s only so much of Finn I can take before wanting to poke my eyes out with a rusty fork.”

“That paints a lovely image, thanks.”

“Speaking of painting--”

“No, I didn’t,” Clarke answered before the full question was finished. “I haven’t painted a thing in two weeks.”

“I maintain it’s sexual frustration.”

“Noted.”

“So, how’s the paper coming? Did you finish?”

“I’m sitting here eating ice cream and whining about my boyfriend. Of course I haven’t finished. I got as far as--” The telephone interrupted the rest of her statement. “Ugh, I’ll get it. I’m sure it’s Finn, calling to yell some more.” She reached for the receiver, while simultaneously licking ice cream from the side of her mouth and standing. If she was going to get into another fight, she needed space to move around. “If you’re calling to continue the fight, Finn, don’t bother,” she began, and Raven instantly gave her the thumbs up.

“And before you say anything,” she continued, spurred on by Raven’s support, “I think it’s really shitty of you to get mad at me because my stepbrother chose not to include you in his personal affairs. Sometimes, you really are a spoiled little brat, you know? And I’m getting tired of being your little lapdog. I’m sorry, if Miller isn’t as in love with you as the rest of my family is, but I can’t do anything about it. And if you think I’m just going to sit here and feel guilty because my family doesn’t include you in every little event, then you’re sadly mistaken. So, the next words out of your mouth better be, ‘I’m sorry.’”

Silence greeted her, save for a lot of background noise.

“Finn?” Clarke pressed.

“Uh, I’m sorry,” said the female voice. “Wrong number.”

Clarke lowered the receiver from her ear and closed her eyes.

“What’s wrong?” Raven asked. “Clarke?”

“It, uh, wasn’t Finn,” she answered after a second.

Raven dissolved into uncontrollable laughter.

~*~

Lexa placed the cell phone back on the table and regarded her companions. “Sorry, Bellamy, looks like she’s already cheating on you.”

“But you didn’t say anything,” Anya stated.

“Believe me, I didn’t have to.” Lexa smiled. “Think she was expecting someone else. A male someone.”

Bellamy crossed his arms. “Guess she moves on fast. And here I thought I was the player.”

“All the world’s a stage…” Lexa replied.

Chapter Text

“God I hate Shakespeare.”

“That came out of left field,” Raven replied, as the raggedy old elevator came to a stop on the 12th floor. As they stepped out into the shabby hallway that led to Clarke’s mom’s apartment, Clarke let out a frustrated groan.

“Sorry, it’s that damn paper. I was up all night, and I still didn’t finish. I suck at writing.”

“Look at the bright side, I sold two of your photographs and one of your sketches today.”

Clarke brightened at the news. “Yeah?” She knocked on the door marked 122C. “When were you planning on telling me that?”

Raven shrugged. “Was gonna wait ‘til the next time you got mad at me…but I figured this was a good a time as any.”

Before Clarke had a chance to reply, the door opened and she was swept into hug. Her stepbrother, Miller, kissed her cheek several times before letting go. "You got ugly!" he announced.

He received a slap on the arm. “Oh, you’re one to talk,” Clarke countered jokingly. Miller was anything but ugly, and she was sure he knew it. It had been a few months since she’d last seen him, and as he turned to hug Raven, Clarke took the opportunity to observe how well he was looking. His dark hair was slightly longer than when she’d last seen him. He looked taller and fitter than she remembered. “Have you been working out?”

Miller winked at her. “Joined a gym.” He flexed his arm as evidence.

Clarke glanced quickly at Raven who was making a show of fanning herself. She laughed. Abby Miller stepped into view a second later. She dried her hands on her trousers as she walked toward them.

“Sweetheart,” she greeted Clarke with a kiss on the cheek, and then turned to greet Raven. When she stepped away from the girls, she said, “David and Dillion went to the store for some groceries. They’ll be back soon.” She ushered them toward the living room. “Come, sit. I’ll bring you something to drink.”

Clarke sat down as instructed and gazed around the apartment. It was small by anybody's standards. The living room barely fit the couch she was sitting on; but it was home.

“So how’s the art world these days?”

Clarke glanced up into Miller’s curious brown eyes and shrugged. She didn’t want to say that she’d reached the end of a creative road. “Good,” she said instead and tried to convince herself that it wasn’t a lie. It was almost too easy to forget that she hadn’t done anything in weeks.

“I sold some of her stuff today while she was at class,” Raven boasted proudly. “And tons of people stopped to look and compliment the artwork.”

“There is no money in art,” Abby announced, returning from the kitchen with a tray of orange juice. “But no one ever listens to their mother.”

Clarke smiled, accepting a glass. “I listen to you.”

“You listen to me?” and her mother rolled her eyes. She placed the tray down and sat down on the couch beside Miller. “How many times have I told you that a career in medical science would provide a more beneficial lifestyle?"

Clarke glanced down at her paint-stained jeans and baggy sweatshirt. “What’s wrong with being an artist?”

Abby replied with a look that obviously meant the question did not dignify a response. “I’m just glad you’ll have Finn to take care of your bills, is all I’m going to say."

Miller cleared his throat. "Well, I'm pretty certain Clarke is capable of taking care of herself," he said. He dropped his gaze and took a sip of his drink without further comment.

Though she was used to the one-on-one debates between her mother and stepbrother, Clarke couldn’t help but wonder if they realized she was sitting there. It was strange to feel like an abstract concept, molded this way and that by the gravitational pull of opposing ideas.

Perhaps she would’ve said something then, voiced thoughts that only presented themselves in the quiet moments between words. Perhaps she would have, if the door hadn’t opened then.

David Miller entered the small apartment with a bag of ice over his shoulder and grocery bags in his hands. An older, shorter version of Miller, David shared his son’s dark hair and eyes, but lacked his son’s easy-going personality. Clarke respected her stepfather, but she struggled to understand his mindset at times.

Dillon entered behind his father, carrying several bags of groceries in one hand. Though he seemed taller every time Clarke saw him, puberty hadn’t yet fixed his lanky form and somewhat awkward demeanor.

Miller rose at once to help, and David passed on the items to his son before greeting his stepdaughter.

“Beautiful,” he called her, and leaned down to kiss her cheek.

Clarke smiled.

“Hello, Raven,” he said, kissing her cheek as well. “How’s the coffee-selling business?”

“It’s quite the marvel, Mr. M,” Raven answered, brightening at the mention of coffee. “It takes special skill to brew the stuff just right.”

“You must be very proud,” David said, in a tone that managed not to sound sarcastic. He greeted his wife with a peck on the lips and sat beside her. “Are you girls staying for dinner?”

Clarke shook her head. “I have a lot of homework, actually.”

“I don’t,” Raven said, pouting. “I love your mom’s cooking.”

Abby beamed proudly. “I made pasteles.”

“Beef or rice?” Clarke asked flatly.

“Beef,” Abby answered at once, “That’s what Dillon and David like.”

Clarke managed to stifle a sigh. “But I don’t eat meat, mom.”

“Ah,” Abby signed. “What’s with this no meat thing anyway? What's changed?”

“Her indifference towards cruelty to animals, I’d imagine,” Miller interjected, reappearing from the kitchen with Dillon in tow.

Thankful for the interruption, Clarke glanced at Dillon. “Hey, Notorious Dork. What’s with the wannabe clothes?”

He gave her a dirty look in reply and adjusted the black bandana around his dark brown hair. “So what’s all this big announcement stuff?” He pulled up a chair and plopped down on it, slouching down and looking bored.

Everyone looked expectantly at Miller, as if remembering for the first time that he was the reason for the family reunion.

Miller reclaimed his seat and stared at everyone in turn. His mood turned suddenly dark and he swallowed. “Um…”

“Did you get some chick pregnant?” Dillon guessed.

“No…” Miller stared down at his hands.

Clarke stared at her stepbrother in concern. She’d never seen Miller look so sullen. Worry and dread rose to the forefront of her emotions and she struggled to imagine what Miller could possibly have to say.

“Are you moving?” It wasn’t the worst thing she could imagine, but it was up there.

But Miller just shook his head.

It was Raven’s turn to guess: “Joining the army?”

“Getting married?”

“I’m gay,” Miller said, glancing up.

The room fell deathly silent, as everyone absorbed the information. The cup fell from Abby’s hand, spilling the remainder of her juice across the ivory carpet. And like a flag marking the start of a race, there was an eruption of shouting.

Clarke sank down in the couch, not yet able to muster a response, while all around her, her family spiralled out of control.

* Dillon stormed out of the apartment, shouting, “Faggot!” on his way down the hall.

David was on his feet, his voice lost in a sea of words that Clarke could not distill.

Miller rose, towering over his father, his jaw clenched.

Clarke glanced at her mother in alarm, hoping she’d step between them and stop things before they got out of control. But her mother was out of control herself, lost to sobs and whispered prayer.

“Miller,” Clarke said in a voice that was not her own.

And her stepbrother glanced at her quickly, his eyes searching hers for … something. Clarke didn’t know how to help him at that moment, didn’t know how to make things better.

As David rambled on about morality, Miller seemed to understand what she was trying to say, even if Clarke herself didn’t. He glanced back at his father, eyes filled with anger and pain, and then he quickly walked out of the apartment.

"Damn it!" David cursed. Without a glance in anyone’s direction, he disappeared down the hallway. A second later, a door slammed closed.

Abby smoothed the length of her skirt as she stood from the couch. She wiped at her tears and excused herself before following after her husband. Clarke stared at the empty living room with a detached sense of confusion. What had just happened to her family? “Well,” Raven said, and Clarke had almost forgotten she was there, “that went well.”

Chapter Six

“Definitely not straight,” Lexa decided. “What do you think?”

Anya, who stood beside her, cocked her head to the side and contemplated the question for a long while. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Seriously?” Lexa looked again at the framed picture hanging over her bed. “It looks a little crooked to me.”

“Well, which way do you want me to shift it?”

“Left. No, right. No.” Lexa bit her lip and stepped closer. “Maybe it is straight.”

“Does that mean we can stop obsessing over this now?” Anya reached for her bag. “Not that it’s not beautiful, but I’ve been dragging the damn thing to every frame shop in Los Angeles ever since we got back, and honestly, the first frame was perfectly fine. So were the next damn twelve. And the only thing that’s not straight in this room is your answer about the TV Guide cover. So which is it: are you in, are you out? The people need to know.”

Lexa sighed, but nodded. “I’m in.”

“Okay, but that means you’ll have to reschedule your dinner with …” Anya paused as she flipped through several pages of notes. “Andrea Jefferies.”

Lexa headed for the door, assistant firmly in tow. Halfway down the stairs, she paused. “Who the hell is Andrea Jefferies?”

“She’s a director,” Anya prompted. “She wanted to talk to you about a role in her film.” Pause. “Lexa, you spoke to her yesterday. You told me to schedule her in.”

Lexa vaguely recalled such a conversation. She pondered the name as she continued her descent.

“Right,” she said, finally remembering. She stopped at the foot of the stairs and looked up at Anya. “Call her back, cancel, don’t reschedule.”

“Um, okay…?”

“I finished the script last night.” Lexa made a face to illustrate disgust.

“That bad?”

“Let me put it this way: Yes.” She continued onward, toward the living room. “It started out fine. I thought, ‘Hey, this could be a pretty decent role,’ and then the aliens come to Earth to procreate with the human race, and my character gets eaten by a weird plant/monkey hybrid.”

“Say no more. Dinner cancelled.”

Lexa sighed and plopped down onto her plush leather sofa. “Why can’t I just land something … challenging, you know?”

“Well, if challenging is what you’re looking for, here’s something: your mom called to remind you about your sister’s play in two weeks. If you can’t make that, you absolutely, have to make it to the after-dinner at eight, or – and I quote – ‘your sister will never ever speak to you ever again.’”

“Is that supposed to be a threat?”

Anya smiled and sat down beside the actress. “You should at least make the dinner. You shouldn’t piss your mother off too much, because then I have to deal with her, and we both know I hate her. Full offense.”

“None taken. Maybe I’ll drag Bellamy along. They always act at least halfway human when he’s around. Act being the operative word.” Lexa caught the strange look that passed across Anya’s face and she arched a brow. “What?”

“What?” Anya was looking at her pen. “Nothing.” She coughed. “You should call Bellamy.” She stood, and started toward the front door. “Call me if you need anything else. The, uh … the frame looks great.” Door opened. Door closed.

Lexa sat frozen in place for about two minutes before finally reaching for her phone. Bellamy picked up on the second ring. “Hey, it’s me,” she said.

“I know it’s you. What’s – oh wait, got another call. Hold on.”

Lexa waited patiently, and then impatiently. She was about to hang up and call back when he switched over.

“Um, Lexa, can I call you back?”

Lexa frowned. “Sure…” She heard the click, and was once about to hang up when Bellamy’s voice came back in a big rush.

“Do you think she knows? I mean, what did you say? Was it obvious? Do you think that’s why she’s calling? Crap. I knew we should’ve told her. She’s going to freak out. What exactly did you say?” Lexa scratched her forehead, trying to piece together the pieces of this suddenly intriguing puzzle. “Anya?” Bellamy prompted. “Are you still there?”

Anya and Bellamy. Bellamy and Anya. Lexa narrowed her eyes. The sneaky bastards! How long had this been going on? She started laughing. “Oh you two are so busted.”

“L-Lexa?”

“So busted.”

“Uh…”

“When did this happen?”

“It’s not what you think,” Bellamy said quickly. “It’s not like we’re … you know, dating or anything.” He said the word “dating” as if it were a disease. “It was just sex. Once. Okay, twice. The third time doesn’t really count.”

“Ah-huh.”

“And we were going to see a movie tomorrow night, but that’s it.”

“Mmhmm.”

“We were going to tell you. It’s just … it just sort of happened, and we weren’t really sure what to tell you, since you know, it’s nothing.”

“Nothing,” Lexa repeated, amused. “Of course.”

Bellamy let out a deep breath. “Are you mad?”

“Yup, totally pissed,” Lexa answered, smiling. “So, when did this ‘nothing’ start?”

“New York. The last night we were there. We both had too much to drink and …”

“And then the nothing happened?”

“Right.”

“I knew you liked her,” Lexa said. “I just had no idea she liked you back.”

“Neither did I,” Bellamy admitted. “You know, cause of the gay thing.”

Lexa frowned. “What gay thing?”

“Anya’s.”

“Anya has a gay thing?”

“Well, yeah. I thought you knew? I mean she was like in love with y– I’m saying too much. I am. I need to shut up before she kills me. No gay thing. There are no gay things, except mine. I am very, very gay.”

“Bellamy, what the hell are you talking about? Anya’s not gay.”

“That’s right.” He paused. “She’s bi. But if you tell her I told you, I swear to God, I will … I will … well I will be really pissed at you for a very long time.”

Lexa rubbed her temple with her free hand. This was way too much information to process in one phone conversation. “Okay. Look, I really don’t care that you and Anya are dat—“

“We’re not dating!”

“Fine, that you and Anya are nothing-ing or whatever, but please, please, don’t break her heart and make her hate you because I really, really need her to remain my assistant.”

“Spoken like a true romantic.”

“Bellamy, I’m serious.”

“As am I. Are you sure you don’t want me to set you up on a date? I know someone. Very discreet.”

“I’m hanging up.”

“Just don’t tell her about the g…”

Bellamy’s voice faded as Lexa took the phone off her ear. A second later, she shut it off. She stared at the device in her hand, not really looking at it. Bellamy and Anya. And Anya was bi. Why hadn’t Anya told her that? Not that they were best friends or anything, but still. Then again, it wasn’t like Lexa had been particularly forthcoming with any personal details of her own.

She looked blindly at the receiver for a second longer, and then put it back on its base. She stood once that task was finished and made her way back to her bedroom.

It’s not straight, Lexa thought, glancing up at the picture as she crawled into bed. “But then, that’s probably appropriate,” she said, to no one and nothing in particular. She sighed and reached for the book on her nightstand.

The card fell onto the bedspread from somewhere between the pages, and Lexa stared down at the white, rectangular shape resting against her navy blue covers. The name Clarke Griffin stared up at her in black, bold letters. Beneath the name: an email address.

She hesitated briefly, putting the book back on the nightstand. She picked the business card up, and held it in front of her. She didn’t know why she’d kept the card, but she knew it had something to do with the fact that the artist’s name was on one side of it.

Minutes passed as Lexa contemplated the ridiculous notion of emailing a perfect stranger. Why shouldn’t she? Surely an artist would want to be complimented on their work? She glanced at the computer on her desk and back at the card. What would she even say?

Moments later, propelled forward by unidentifiable means, she sat at her desk and hit a random key, bringing her laptop to life. A picture of a sunset stared back at her, and she moved the cursor on her screen until her browser opened. She couldn’t email this person as herself, could she? No, she decided, signing up for a new email account. She filled the name as Alexandria Nicole, opting for her birth name, and her middle name.

Registration completed, compose email screen opened, she typed the email address written on the card, wrote ‘Your Art’ into the subject line, and sat back.

After a minute, she began to type:

Ms. Griffin,

I’m not sure if you’re used to receiving emails from strangers or not, but I couldn’t keep myself from writing to say that I really love the art piece I purchased from you last week. I’m not much of an art critic, and don’t pretend to know much about it. However, when I saw your sketch, it took my breath away. And since few things in life have such an effect on me, I figured the least I could do was let you know.

I don’t reside in New York, but if I ever find myself there again, I wondered: do you have your work on display at a gallery? Or should I simply take my chances at Central Park again?

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Alexandria Nicole.

Lexa read over her words, feeling like a monumental fool.

The cursor hovered over the ‘send’ button, while her mind registered a thousand different reasons why this was a bad idea; something she was certain to regret twenty minutes after the fact; something that would haunt her into the wee hours of the morning while she tossed and turned in bed, thinking, Whyyyyyy did I send that?

And yet, she clicked anyway.

Email sent.

Chapter Text

Clarke had been six years old the day her father left. She had been sitting on the front steps of their small house in Queens, watching the two brothers from across the street toss a football back and forth. She remembered that Juan, the younger of the two, pushed his brother into a puddle of water left over from a long week of rain. They’d yelled and thrown punches at each other until their mother came running out of the house waving a leather belt in one hand. The boys then scattered in opposite directions, laughing as they ran.

Clarke had watched the mother roll the belt around her hand (in a way that made Clarke think of a snail) and head back into the house. With nothing left to watch, Clarke was forced to listen. Behind her, inside the door to her own life, her mother cried, and her father yelled. Then, without warning, all of it stopped.

In the sudden silence, the screen door sounded louder than usual. Her father’s footsteps were drowned by the painful screech of the door swinging closed. He walked by her and turned around at the last step. “I’m sorry, Clarke,” he said, before walking away.

Since then, her only communication with her father had been in the form of the occasional letter turned occasional email, and in the checks he sent each month. He was as faithful in his financial contributions as he could never be in his marriage to her mother. She could never hate her father, Clarke knew, but she had yet to forgive him. Fourteen years was not enough to mend that kind of wound.

Perhaps a lifetime wasn’t, either.

His latest email stared back at her from the list on her monitor, and Clarke read it without responding. Was she okay? Sure. Had she received his latest check? Yes. What was new? Well, other than her stepbrother being gay, not much.

“You look joyful this evening.” Raven walked into Clarke’s bedroom and sat cross-legged on the bed.

“Homework?”

“Father.”

“Ah.” Raven nodded, and popped open the can of soda she was holding. After a long sip, she asked, “Any updates from the family about you-know-who admitting he’s you-know-what?”

Clarke sighed, placing the laptop next to her on the bed and leaning forward. “I’m pretty sure they’ve gone into complete denial at this point. Mom called earlier and she didn’t even mention it. It’s as if it never happened.”

“So, what, they’re just going to pretend he’s straight?”

“I really don’t know.”

“Have you talked to Miller yet?”

“No. I honestly have no idea what to say to him.”

“I’m sure he doesn’t care what you say, as long as he knows you support him.” Raven cocked her head to the side. “You do support him, right?”

Clarke looked pointedly at her best friend. “Of course I do! It’s just … it’s Miller, you know? Miller. I just can’t picture him … you know …”

“Taking it up the—”

“Aaargh!” Clarke covered her ears until she was certain it was safe to unclog them. “That’s not quite what I meant. I just don’t picture him, being … gay. He’s just Miller, my geeky—“

“Extremely hot…”

“Stepbrother.”

“Why are the hot ones always gay? How is the human race expected to survive if only the ugly people are breeding, you know?” She paused. “Present company excluded, of course.”

“Thanks for that.”

“I’m just saying, there’s going to come a point when no one is going to want to sleep with each other because everyone is too damn ugly.”

“Mmm, I’m not sure about that. Sometimes, really ugly people have really good looking kids.”

Raven looked incredulous. “Like who?”

“I don’t know! People.”

Raven shrugged, taking another sip of her drink. “Ah well, it’s not like all the gay people aren’t breeding these days anyway.” She brightened. “Hey, do you think Miller will let me give birth to his kids?”

“Okay, this conversation is starting to veer into a creepy place.”

“Wonder if he’s got a boyfriend.”

Clarke thought about it. “You think? Hm. I wonder what kind of guy Miller would be dating.”

“Only one way to find out.”

“I’ll call him tomorrow,” Clarke decided.

“Or just drop by unannounced so he doesn’t have time to hide his boy toy. Ooh, or boy toys. You think Miller’s into orgies? He looks like the kinky type.”

“And again with the creepy place.”

“Sorry. Oh, speaking of creepy, where’s Finn tonight?”

“Debate team practice.”

“Ugh, lame.” Raven made a face. “So when are you dumping him?”

Clarke sighed and sunk down into the pillows behind her. “Do we really have to have this conversation again?”

“Yes, because I’ve got hot guys lined up for a chance to date you, and they’re not going to wait forever. Wake up and smell the testosterone.”

Clarke smiled. “What makes you think I’d jump at the chance to date any of these guys?”

“Ah, hello, did I mention the hot part? First, there’s Atom. He’s training to be an Olympic swimmer. Swimmer, Clarke.”

“I’m familiar with the word…”

“Then I’d hope you’re also familiar with the hotness of swimmers’ bodies. Then there’s Chris. He’s not a swimmer, but he’s still hot in a rock-and-roll sort of way. Plus, how cute would it be if you dated a guy called Chris?”

“I’ll go with not at all.”

“Fine. Lastly, and I’ve saved the best for last, there’s Anthony. He’s got the most gorgeous green eyes you will ever see in your life, and he’s an artist.”

Despite herself, Clarke was intrigued. “What kind of artist?”

“He’s a sculptor,” Raven said, and it was obvious she was pleased with herself. “He even goes to NYU, which is where he’s seen you.”

“Really?” Clarke couldn’t recall noticing any male sculptors with gorgeous green eyes at school. “I don’t think I’ve seen him.”

“Well, he’s certainly seen you.”

“And you know this how?”

“I know many things, Clarke. I am like the Oracle of the Village.” She paused. “So if you’re not interested in the swimmer guy, can I have him?”

Clarke laughed. “You can have all three of them.”

“Mmm,” she considered. “Think I could convince Miller to join in?”

“I think I just threw up a little in my mouth.”

Raven laughed and got up. “I’ll leave you to your cybering, or whatever it was you were doing before I interrupted. TV calls. Want to join me later? I think there’s a really bad vampire movie on.”

“Count on it. Let me just finish up with my email. I have to write to Professor Satan and ask for an extension on that damn Shakespeare paper.”

“You still haven’t finished it?”

Clarke sighed. “Do you think having a brother come out of the closet counts as a family emergency?”

“Not in New York City.” Raven laughed and walked out the door.

Left alone, Clarke picked up the laptop again and regarded the screen. She had no idea what to write back to her father. She had no idea what excuse to give to her professor. And she had no idea who Alexandria Nicole was.

Frowning, she clicked on the mysterious email titled “Your Art”.

After reading it over several times, excitement began to overshadow her initial confusion and disbelief. Wow, was all she could think, and she somehow contained her giddiness long enough to hit reply.

Dear Ms. Nicole,

Clarke paused after that, trying to think of something to write that wouldn’t sound completely idiotic.

Thank you, I’m so pleased you

So pleased that what? That she thinks I’m a good artist? That she liked the art she bought? I can’t say that. She deleted her initial response and tried again.

Thank you for being so kind as to write to me. I can honestly say no one has ever done that before.

God, I sound like such a loser. Why don’t I just put ‘squeeee’ in the subject line and be done with it? She took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

If you don’t mind me asking, which piece did you buy? I can’t help but be curious, as this is the first time anyone has ever written to me about my art.

I don’t have any of my work in a gallery, though perhaps someday, if I’m lucky. In the meantime, you can always find me at Central Park should you ever find yourself in New York again.

Again, thank you so much for writing to me. I can’t express how nice it felt to read your email.

Sincerely,

Clarke Griffin

After running the spell checker three times, she finally hit send.

Chapter Eight

Lexa sighed without looking up from the book she was reading. “You’re in my sun.”

“Is that any way to greet your best friend? It’s been at least two hours since our last conversation. Haven’t you missed me?”

“I’m not even going to ask how you got into my house.”

“Anya dropped me off. She’s got keys.” Bellamy pulled the nearest lounge chair closer and sat down. He looked around the pool area for a minute before continuing. “I tried the doorbell but I guess you didn’t hear it.”

“I heard it,” Lexa said pointedly.

“So you were just ignoring me? I thought maybe you’d fallen and couldn’t get up. I came to rescue you from certain death.”

“Or maybe I was out?”

Bellamy let out a long laugh. “Right.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“It means that I was with Anya. Considering the fact that we make up your entire social circle, odds are that you’d be home.” He nodded at the book. “Reading.”

“I resent that.”

“Because it’s true…”

“It is not. There are a million places I could be at the moment, and a hundred people I could be with.”

“And yet, you’re with your book.”

“It’s a good book.”

“Which brings me back to my original point.”

“Which is?”

“That if you’re not with Anya or myself, you’re usually alone.”

Lexa sighed. What was the point of arguing when she knew he was right? “Speaking of being alone, could I get back to that?”

“Well, fine … next time you don’t answer your door I’ll just let you lie there, all naked--”

“Naked?”

“I figured you’d be naked.”

Lexa shook her head and put a bookmark in her book. “Does your girlfriend know you’re picturing me naked?”

“First, she’s not my girlfriend. And second, I didn’t say I was picturing you naked, only that you were naked.”

Lexa arched an eyebrow.

“Okay, I pictured you naked, but in my defense I picture you naked a lot less frequently now than I did when we first met. Besides, that bikini you’re wearing right now doesn’t leave much to the imagination anyway, so--”

“Okay, just stop talking. What did you come here for that was so important you had break in?”

“How can I stop talking if you ask me a question? Do you want me to answer it by batting my eyelashes in Morse code?”

“Remind me again why we’re friends?”

“Is that what we are?” He smiled, but then turned serious. “The truth is, I need to talk to you about something important … and you have to promise not to fly off the handle. You’re not PMSing by any chance, are you?”

“If I were, you’d probably be dead right now.”

“Excellent.” Bellamy scratched the back of his head nervously. “How much do you trust Anya?”

“What kind of question is that?”

“I just mean,” Bellamy said slowly, “do you consider her a friend? You know, the kind of friend you might, I don’t know, confide in?”

“Why?”

Bellamy coughed. “Well…”

“What did you tell her?” Lexa demanded.

“Nothing!” Bellamy said quickly. “I swear. I haven’t told her anything. It’s just…”

“Yes...?”

“I just think … that maybe you should. You know, tell her.”

“Tell her what, Bellamy?”

He met her gaze. “You know what.”

Lexa frowned and shook her head. “Why? It’s none of her business.”

I know that, it’s just that … well, see …”

“Yeah?”

“She thinks that maybe …”

“Just spit it out, Bellamy!”

“Okay. Okay.” Bellamy took a deep breath. “See, she’s gotten it into her head that you have feelings for me, and she wants to break things off because she thinks that at any moment you’re going to admit that you’re in love with me, and I’m going to come running to you. She’s also freaking out that you’re going to fire her out of jealousy.”

Lexa found the thought so ridiculous that she laughed. “That’s insane,” she said.

“From your perspective, maybe, which is why I think you should just tell her the truth. It’s not like she wouldn’t understand. And I mean, really, it should be me worried here. The second she knows you’re gay she’s gonna dump me and go after you.” He frowned. “You’re not into her, are you?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Bellamy.” Lexa sighed, rubbing her temples.

“It might help you to tell someone who really understands, anyway. I’m the only one you’ve told and what the hell do I know about it?”

Lexa sighed, not wishing to get into this particular topic of conversation. All she’d wanted was a day in the sun, perhaps a dip in the pool, or a walk on the ocean. She made sure to keep thoughts of her sexuality as far away from her conscious mind as humanly possible.

“Just because you don’t talk about it doesn’t mean it’s going to go away,” Bellamy said softly. “As much as I’ve secretly hoped for it to.” He smiled sadly. “I get that you’re not going to change. I mean, if you can resist my charms all of these years…”

Lexa looked away.

“Some day you’re going to meet someone you really like and you’re going to have to face things.”

“Maybe, but I’d rather that time not be now.” She chewed on her bottom lip, looking around beyond the vanishing edge pool to the ocean beyond. “It’s not that I don’t trust Anya,” she said, turning back to her best friend. “I’m just not ready for anyone else to know. First it’s Anya, and then it’s someone else, and someone else, and …” She looked away again. “I share too much of myself already, Bellamy. My life is hardly my own. I can’t control half the things they say about me in the press. I can’t control the pictures they put on the Internet, or the rumors that get spread. But this, I feel like, for now, this I can control, because no one would ever guess it. And if they can’t guess it, then they can’t hurt me with it.”

“You can’t keep this up forever, Lexa.”

“Was it your goal to depress me today? If so, congratulations.”

“Thanks, I try. While I’m on a roll with that, the other thing I came to tell you today, Lexa, is that I’m going to have to break up with you.”

Lexa smiled. “Shocker.”

“Not that it hasn’t been fun being your beard,” Bellamy added. “But, I’m sorry to say, you’re horrible in bed.”

“If you tell that to the press, I will have you hunted down and killed,” Lexa said with a laugh. “I do have a reputation to maintain.”

“I’m sure the tabloid’s number one hot chick will have no trouble replacing me.”

“No one could ever replace you, Mr. Blake, which is why I shall never date another man so long as I live.”

“Good. Though, about Anya…”

Lexa studied her best friend for a long moment. Finally, she smiled. “She’s got you seriously whipped.”

“Does not.”

“Does too.”

“Lexa, I am entirely unwhippable. I’m impervious to— Oh hey, Anya.”

“Impervious to what?” Anya asked. She slid closed the glass doors that led into the house and walked over.

“Impervious to acid damage,” Bellamy continued smoothly. “And next level, I’ll have a weapon that can freeze up to ten bad guys at once.”

“Oh, not that fucking video game again.” Anya made a face. “Lexa, I picked up your dry cleaning and put it in the closet --”

“Just where Lexa likes things,” Bellamy said.

Both Anya and Lexa turned to him. Lexa glared while Anya just looked confused. Bellamy shrugged. “What? Lexa is very organized. She likes things in their rightful place.”

“Okay, whatever,” Anya said, turning back to Lexa. “And your agent faxed a copy of a new script he wanted you to look at. He also said to call him.”

“Thanks, Anya.”

Anya and Bellamy exchanged a strange look that Lexa didn’t understand, but that soon caused Bellamy to say, “Um, I’ll be inside. I have to … um … file my nails. See ya.”

Lexa watched him go before turning back to Anya, who was now sitting on the lounge chair Bellamy had previously occupied.

“I know you know that Bellamy and I …” She waved her hands as if that illustrated the rest of the sentence. “And I know you guys have been friends for a really long time, and if you feel that Bellamy and I being …you know … would interfere with my being your assistant or --”

“Anya,” Lexa said, “I really don’t care that you’re sleeping with Bellamy. I really wouldn’t care if you guys started dating, or if years from now you got married, had children, and all that jazz. Really. As long as your relationship with him doesn’t affect the work you do for me, then I’ve got no problems with it.”

“Okay, good. I really wouldn’t want to do anything that might make you uncomfortable. I know you care about him—”

“As a friend,” Lexa quickly interrupted.

“Yeah,” Anya smiled, though Lexa could see the uncertainty behind her eyes.

“Anya,” Lexa began hesitantly. “The truth is …”

“Look, Lexa, I understand, really. I know that for whatever reason —”

“I’m gay,” Lexa said, interrupting the rest of Anya’s monologue. She let the word hang in the air between them.

Anya said nothing, but stared.

“Are you okay?”

“Fine,” Anya said, before squinting. “Why wouldn't I be?”

“I don't know. You look weird.” Is that indifference? Disgust?

“Is this new?"

“Well, I knew when I was fifteen, and now I’m twenty-two so … I guess it depends what you mean by ‘new’?”

“Fifteen?”

Lexa would have been amused by Anya’s reaction had she not been so petrified at the same time. She’d blurted it out without planning to. Almost in the same way she’d told Bellamy the day he’d tried to kiss her. Perhaps it was the easiest way to do it; like ripping off a band-aid.

“I had no idea. You’d think my gaydar would be a little sharper, considering…” She chewed on her bottom lip, but opted not to continue.

“Bellamy is the only other person who knows,” Lexa said. “And it’s just … it’s not something I actively think about or wish to discuss or anything. I just wanted you to know so you wouldn’t think that I was in any way attracted to Bellamy.”

“Oh. Is that why he wanted to talk to you? He wanted to convince you to tell me …”

“It was more of a suggestion,” Lexa said. “I wouldn’t have told you if I didn’t trust you, Anya. It’s obviously not something I want getting out.”

Anya looked at Lexa for a long time. “Thanks for confiding in me,” she said finally. “Really, Lexa, I appreciate you trusting me with this.” She frowned and shook her head.

Lexa didn’t know what to say, so she remained silent.

“So … so, is there … someone…?”

“No,” Lexa said. “No one at all.”

“Okay…” Anya nodded and continued to chew on her bottom lip. “Because I might know some girls that—”

“Anya…”

“They’d be very discreet.”

“Please don’t make me fire you.”

Anya smiled. “Okay. Well, I guess I’ll leave you to your book.” She stood up. “I’m taking Bellamy shopping for a new Xbox controller. He accidentally dropped his in the toilet.” She held up her hands. “Don’t ask.”

“Wasn’t gonna.” Lexa watched her assistant disappear into the house and sighed to herself. Well, that wasn’t so hard…

~*~

Lexa paused in the doorway to admire the framed picture hanging over her bed. All day, she had wondered about the email she’d sent out. Had the artist received it? Had she read it? Had she written back? The questions kept coming back as she’d read, as she’d stared out at the ocean, as she’d spoken on the phone. So many times she’d stopped herself from running up to her room to check if there was a response. She’d held back simply out of stubbornness, out of the conviction that the inbox would be empty; out of fear that she would be disappointed if it were.

She crossed the room, tossing the faxed copy of the screenplay on her bed as she passed. She planned on reading it before going to sleep. But, first, she had some lingering questions to put to rest.

The computer hummed to life and Lexa waited patiently for it to boot up. She leaned back on the chair, her mind elsewhere. She thought of her earlier admission to Anya, and wondered what repercussions it would have on their working relationship. She had made the right decision, she knew, in telling her assistant, but who would be next, she wondered. How many people would she tell before it became public knowledge?

She knew that it was likely that the whole world would eventually find out, but for now, she welcomed the opportunity to hide behind the safety of others’ misperception; to let the media run amuck with rumors and assumptions. She could live with lies about lies. It was the mockery of truth that she knew would hurt.

It was the lies laced in truth that she didn’t know if she could handle.

Her desktop image stared patiently at her, and she leaned forward to move the mouse around. With only minimal hesitation, she opened the email account she’d created for the sole purpose of communicating with a complete stranger. Even now, a week later, she felt uncomfortable. Why should she write to an artist in New York whom she’d never seen nor met? What about the artwork on her wall made her want to dig deeper, to go so far as to care?

The browser loaded the page, and it took Lexa a second longer than necessary to notice the “1” next to “new mail”. She wrote back, Lexa thought in surprise, wasting no time in opening the message.

When she finished reading, she sat still, wondering whether or not to write back. It would be rude not to, she decided.

Dear Ms. Griffin,

The artwork I bought from you was a charcoal sketch you titled “Shadow”. I guess you could say it was love at first sight. I love the way that the figure stands outside the circle of people, while its shadow stands within it. I’m not sure what you meant by it, since, like I said before, I’m hardly an art connoisseur, but I couldn’t help feel like I could relate to that image. To that feeling of being watched but not actually seen.

I hope I haven’t offended you if your intention with the piece was to illustrate something entirely different: childbirth, for instance. I’d feel really dumb if that were the case. I just found it so amazing to be touched by something someone I don’t even know created. I’m afraid that to this day, I’m mostly only ever touched by films.

Anyway, I wanted you to know, just in case you ever wondered if what you were doing was worth it, that to me, a stranger in the West Coast, it certainly is.

All the best,

Alexandria.

PS: Nicole is actually my middle name, but if you ever write again, feel free to call me Alexandria.

Chapter nine

It was raining the day Clarke decided to visit her stepbrother, and she almost opted to put it off for another day. She’d stood at the entrance to her apartment building, holding an umbrella over her head, watching the potholes on the road fill with soiled water. She’d considered turning back around, changing into her pajamas and spending the day making sure that the windows in her bedroom didn’t leak. Then she remembered Miller’s face the day he’d stormed out of her parents’ apartment, and she knew she couldn’t wait another day to talk to him. Already she had waited too long.

During the trip to Queens, she’d sketched the sleeping homeless man stretched out across the seats in front of her. On her way off the train, she tucked a pack of crackers under his arm, feeling sad that she didn’t have anything more to give him.

The wind picked up during her walk to Miller’s apartment building, making her umbrella obsolete. Trying to distract herself from the rain, she tried to think of what to say to Miller once she got to where she was going. She couldn’t think of a single thing to say beyond, “I’m sorry.” The possibility that he might not even be home didn’t enter her mind until she was a block away.

She could have called, Clarke knew. She could have called and done all of this over the phone. She could have saved herself the trip to Queens, saved herself the awkwardness of facing her stepbrother almost two weeks after his announcement, but she owed him more than a phone conversation. She owed him, at the very least, a hug.

A woman and three of her children were exiting the building as Clarke approached, and one of the kids was nice enough to hold the door open so Clarke could sneak in. She thanked the boy with a smile, and voiced her appreciation to the mother, who seemed more irritated than pleased by her son’s gallantry. Clarke blamed it on the weather.

The umbrella left a trail of raindrops on the floor as she walked inside. It formed a puddle by her feet as she stood in front of Miller’s apartment, staring nervously at the crooked black numbers on the whitepainted door. She could hear music coming from the other side.

After a moment, Clarke knocked.

The music grew louder as the door opened, and Clarke stared stupidly at the strange eyes looking back at her.

“Yes?” said a guy that Clarke didn’t recognize.

“Hi, I’m sorry, I’m looking for Nathan Miller.” she said, wondering if she’d somehow gotten the wrong door, or if Miller had moved without telling anyone.

“And you are…?”

“Clarke Griffin,” she said. “I’m—“

“Oh, my God!” he smiled, his tone rising and his demeanor changing to one of pleasant surprise. “You’re Clarke?” He let the door swing open and he looked Clarke up and down. He smiled and stretched out his hand. “I’m Monty.”

Clarke was certain she was missing something, but she shook his hand anyway.

“I know you have no idea who I am,” he said. “But I know all about you. Come in.” He stepped aside. “Miller’s not here right now, but you’re welcome to wait for him. You’re soaked. Do you want a towel or anything?” He disappeared into a room, and the music stopped abruptly.

“Ah, no, thanks. I’m okay,” Clarke said when Monty emerged.

“Some coffee? Tea?” Monty moved toward the kitchen, which was immediately to the left of the entrance. He cleared a stool by the counter, and motioned for Clarke to take a seat. “He’s going to be so happy to see you. He’s been all mopey ever since he came out to your parents." He arched a brow, looking confused. “Did you say coffee?”

“Um, sure,” Clarke said. She left the umbrella and her messenger bag on the floor by the door, and stepped into the kitchen to sit down.

“So you’re probably wondering who I am, right?” He didn’t wait for her to answer before continuing. “I am your brother’s little secret. Or as he likes to call me in public forums, ‘his roommate.’”

Clarke blinked in surprise. “So you’re his … his … ”

“Yes." Monty grinned. “And I’m so glad to finally meet you. He talks about you all the time.”

Clarke instantly felt sad. Why hadn’t Miller told her the truth sooner? Why hadn’t he ever introduced her to Monty before? What else about his life didn’t she know? “I’m glad to meet you, too,” she said sincerely. "I’m sorry if I seem so shocked by all of this, it’s just that Miller never—“

“I know,” Monty said, and placed a cup of coffee in front of Clarke. “He’s amazingly good at hiding. Do you want milk? Sugar?”

“I like it black, actually. Thanks.” Clarke stared down at the mug, not really looking at it. When she glanced up, she smiled. “So, how long have you and Miller been together?”

“A little over two years.”

“Two years?” Clarke asked in surprise. Why hadn’t he told her? She could understand why he would hide it from her mom and his father, and even Dillon, but her?

Monty smiled sympathetically. “If it makes you feel better, he did want to tell you a long time ago. He was just a big wuss.”

Clarke merely nodded and sipped at her coffee. She glanced up when she heard the front door click open.

A second later Miller was standing in the doorway, holding a dripping umbrella, and staring in surprise at Clarke. “Clarke,” he said, closing the door behind him. “What are you doing here?”

“I was in the neighborhood.” She smiled tentatively, and put down the cup. “Thought I’d drop by and apologize for being a horrible sister.”

“I wouldn’t say ‘horrible.’” Miller smiled and stepped forward to give Clarke a hug. “I’m really happy to see you,” he whispered in her ear, then pulled away. “How are you?”

“Actually, I came to ask you the same question,” Clarke said and stared up into caramel eyes. “I’m sorry for not coming by sooner. It wasn’t that—

“I know, Clarke,” Miller interrupted. “I should have told you sooner. It’s just that I was—“

“A big wuss,” Clarke supplied.

Miller glanced at Monty and then back at Clarke. “I see you two have been talking.”

Monty smiled at Clarke. “Do you want any coffee, babe, I made a fresh pot?”

Miller stiffened and glanced at Clarke, who only smiled at the exchange between them. “No thanks,” he said after a second.

“Miller, relax,” Clarke said, laughing at her stepbrother’s nervousness. “If you’re worried about making me uncomfortable, don’t. I live in the Village and go to art school. I know more gay guys than straight ones.”

“Are they cute?” Monty asked.

Miller smacked him on the arm. “Hey!”

“I was just asking!” Monty rubbed his arm. “Asshole.”

“Yeah, but you’ve never seen me as a gay guy before,” Miller said. “I’m still your stepbrother.”

“And you always will be.” Clarke smiled. “No matter what. Besides, I like Monty much better than that girl you were dating a few years ago. What was her name? Natalie?”

“Natalie?” Monty smiled. “You dated a ‘Natalie?’”

“Not exactly,” Miller said.

“He kept bringing her to family dinners,” Clarke said. “And I never said anything, but I’m pretty sure she was hitting on me at one point.”

Miller scratched the back of his head. “Ah, yeah, sorry about that.”

“You dated a lesbian?” Monty laughed. “You never told me that.” His eyes widened. “Wait, Natalie? The Natalie we know? The one who was here the other day asking us for sperm?”

Miller coughed.

Clarke arched an eyebrow. “Okay, this is getting a little too Queer As Folk for me now.”

“So, how’s Finn?” Miller asked, glaring at his boyfriend. “How’d he take the happy news?”

“Uh.” Clarke bit her bottom lip. “I haven’t actually told him yet. We haven’t really talked much the past couple of weeks.”

“Trouble in paradise?”

“I’m not sure it’s been paradise for a while,” Clarke admitted. “Things have been a little strained. Raven thinks I should just break up with him.”

“What’s stopping you?” It was Monty who asked.

Clarke glanced at him and shrugged. “Not sure. I guess I’m just used to being with him.”

“Dump him,” Monty said.

Miller turned back to Clarke. “Don’t listen to anyone else. You should do what you feel is right, when you feel it’s right.”

“Yeah,” Clarke said. The problem was, she was too scared to do what felt right. Guess being a wuss runs in the family.

~*~

Clarke stared at the flickering channels on the television screen. The flashes of images and half-spoken words were lulling her to sleep.

“There’s nothing on,” Raven murmured, her thumb pressing down on the channel button with barely a pause between presses. “Maybe we should invest in Direct TV. If I get another job, I’m sure we can afford it.”

Clarke forced her eyes to open and she mumbled something that was supposed to be, ‘Over my dead body,’ but sounded more like, ‘Sure, whatever.’ She stared at the television for several more seconds until she couldn’t stand it any longer. She grabbed the remote and tossed it over her shoulder.

Raven jumped up to glance over the back of the couch and then stared incomprehensibly at Clarke. “What … you just … what the …”

Clarke breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed. “You were driving me insane.”

“Okay, normal people would say, ‘Hey, you’re driving me insane, could you please stop that?’” Raven said. “Normal people don’t just grab a person’s lifeline out of her hands and toss it into thin air, okay?” She stood up and retrieved the remote control from wherever it had landed. A moment later, she sat back down beside Clarke.

“Hey, didn’t you say it was a guy who bought Shadow?”

Raven shut off the television and turned to face Clarke. “I have only one word for you, Clarke: context. What in the name of the holy lordy Lord are you talking about?”

“That sketch you sold of mine, the one you called my ‘baby’ and ‘the love of my life.’ Didn’t you say it was a guy who bought it?”

“A hot guy, yeah. Well, he was wearing big shades, so I didn’t get a very good look at his face, but going by his body alone, mmm. You know, he never called. What an asshole.”

“Hmm,” Clarke said thoughtfully. “I don’t get it.”

“That’s because you’re not out there enough,” Raven said, patting Clarke’s shoulder sympathetically. “Believe me, after a while you get used to the jerks who take your number and never call it. It’s just one of the many things about being single in New York City that you’re missing out on.”

“Huh? No, that’s not what I meant. Alexandria said she bought Shadow, but unless she looks like a guy…”

Raven held up her hand. “Who the hell is Alexandria?”

“The woman who wrote me about my art.”

“Ah, right. She said she’s the one who bought the sketch?” Raven shook her head. “That was definitely not a woman. I was looking in all the right places, and unless she was packing something—“

“I beg you to stop,” Clarke interrupted.

“Maybe it was like a really, really butch woman,” Raven contemplated seriously. “It would explain the big shades. Maybe she was between operations.” She started to nod, and then stopped, looking horrified.“Oh, God, I gave my number to a girl! I checked out her butt! Does that make me gay?”

“She did say she related to the image because she often felt like people were looking at her, but not really seeing her.”

“Oh, my God, I am gay.”

“You’re not gay. You thought it was a guy, and maybe it is a guy. Maybe Alexandria is really Alexander.”

“That’s it!” Raven snapped her fingers, nodding. “Wow,” Raven said. “I feel so bad for calling her an asshole now.”

They looked at each other and then burst out laughing.

~*~

Hours later, after a shower and a short, but exhausting phone conversation with Finn about the possibility of his spending the night, Clarke sat in bed, alone, with her laptop. Her conversation with Raven regarding Alexandria’s gender had sparked Clarke’s curiosity. She wanted to ask, but she worried that she might inadvertently offend the stranger. And in the end, did it really matter?

She had spent part of the day toying with the possibility of not writing back. What more was there to say?

Still, it was rude not to reply. Clarke only worried that in writing back she might come across as pretentious or self-important. She wasn’t used to talking about her art with anyone that wasn’t Raven, and with Raven, she didn’t care how she came across.

The fishbowl screensaver overtook the monitor while Clarke decided what to write. She watched the digital fish swim from side to side for several minutes, until finally, she clicked a button.The compose email screen waited patiently, the cursor ticking away the passing seconds.

Biting her lip, Clarke began to type.

Dear Alexandria,

“Shadow” has always been one of my favorite pieces. I hope it doesn’t sound pretentious to say that. It’s just that some of the things I draw or paint turn out to mean more to me than others.

To be honest, I’m not even sure I ever meant to sell it. It must have gotten mixed up with everything else. I guess it might sound weird to say this, but I’m glad that it was sold after all. You’re the first person who’s ever written to me about my work, and it’s really meant a lot to me to hear such positive things from a stranger.

Since I’m being so honest, I guess I can admit that lately I’ve been filled with a lot of insecurities. I’ve always been able to turn to my art as a way to express my deepest fears or my private feelings, but lately I’ve felt stuck. It’s hard, I suppose, to convey a clear message when what you’re feeling is so scattered.

Thank you for saying that my art has been ‘worth it’ to you; I’m glad. I’m not sure that I’m very good at replying to this kind of email, since I have no practice with it. I hope that I’m not coming across as entirely full of myself. I’ve never been very good at taking compliments.

Sincerely,

Clarke.

P.S. If you ever write again, please call me Clarke.

Chapter Text

For most of her life, Lexa had wondered about her mother. What would she have been like, had she lived? What would Lexa, herself, be like? Would she be different? Happier? Had her mother lived, would they have been a picture-perfect family? Or would her parents have grown tired of each other, argued, eventually divorced?

Lexa had spent many hours of her life envisioning a different past. She couldn’t help but think that she’d be a better person, had she known her mother; the one that died when Lexa was four, who lived on in Lexa’s mind only through the stories her grandmother would tell her, through captured moments in time.

“She really loved photography,” her grandmother once said, when Lexa was ten, and not at all sure where the subject had come from. They were sitting in the living room of her grandmother’s house, drinking hot chocolate, building a jigsaw puzzle. She remembered the way her grandmother leaned back in her chair, a wistful smile on her face. “Your mother, she loved taking pictures. She would take pictures of everything: animals, children, a ball of dust on the floor…”

Lexa remembered trying to imagine her mother pointing a camera at something, hitting the button, waiting for the flash. She tried to conjure up a clear picture of her mother’s face, using the photographs she’d seen as guidance, but failed.

She didn’t remember much, had no conception at the time of life and death, of the idea of Heaven; no understanding that her mother was gone. She remembered, or thought she remembered, holding her father’s hand at the cemetery, watching him cry. She remembered him picking her up, holding her tight.

She held that memory as the defining moment before her life began to change, as the moment when her life chose its path.

Backtracking through time became a hobby of Lexa’s. She liked to revisit the history of her life, step backwards in the footsteps of past decisions. She didn’t remember everything, didn’t know if some of what she did remember actually happened or if her frequent thoughts had disrupted the frail boundaries of past reality.

She did remember telling her grandmother that she wished to be an actress. To Lexa, it seemed the perfect way to be everything at once. Now, looking back, she recognized that it was also the perfect way to be nothing. But her grandmother had smiled, peered down at Lexa and said, “You can be anything you want, Alexandria. Anything at all.”

It was mostly luck, Lexa conceded, which landed her in commercials. But it was her grandmother’s support, her father’s absence, his new marriage, the birth of her half sister that pushed Lexa forward.

Forward and into the spotlight. Somewhere along the way, with her father’s permission, and her grandmother’s approval, Alexandria Woodsmen became Lexa Woods.

“How does it feel?” her grandmother had asked when all the papers were signed.

“A little like having a birthday,” Lexa had answered. “You know something’s changed, but everything still feels the same.”

“Good,” her grandmother had said. “Good.”

Chapter Eleven

“You know,” Janet Woodsmen began, her voice breaking through the sounds of silverware on plates and muffled conversation, “I’m beginning to think this was a horrible choice for a restaurant.” Her gray-blue eyes regarded the menu with thinly veiled disgust. “There’s simply nothing to eat.”

Lexa stifled a yawn from behind her own menu and stole a glance at her watch. She had been at the Guardian set for most of the day and had wanted nothing more than a long, hot bath after work. What she got instead was a reminder from Anya not to miss her scheduled family time.

“It’s a shame,” Janet continued, “that you had to miss Jan’s play. She made a fabulous Juliet.”

“The director said I was the best she’d ever seen,” Jan added without an ounce of modesty. She pushed light brown curls behind her ear and smiled at Lexa.

“Wow,” Lexa said, peering up over the menu to glance at her half-sister. “I’m sorry I missed it.”

“Perhaps you could see about getting Jan set up with that agent of yours,” Janet said. “I hear he’s very good.”

“He is.” Lexa returned her attention to the menu, hoping the subject would drop on its own. She had seen Jan’s acting, and it was certainly not something she planned to endorse.

“I don’t want Lexa’s agent,” Jan said. “I’d rather get my own.”

“Well, maybe Lexa’s can suggest some people.”

“I’ll check with him,” Lexa said, closing the menu. “So, where did Dad have to run to this time?”

“Paris,” Jan said with a sigh. “He was supposed to take me with him, but he got called out on some big 'emergency' during the play.”

“He’ll take you next time, honey. And you know you have school. Maybe for Christmas we can all go.”

Janet looked at Lexa. “You are, of course, invited.”

“Ah, well, I guess we’ll see.” Lexa would have rather walked barefoot through a sea of lava. “I’m not sure what my schedule will be.”

Jan rolled her eyes. Then she smiled. “So, what’s the story with you and Bellamy? I heard he dumped you for your assistant.”

“Where did you hear that?”

“It’s all over the Internet,” Jan said, as if it were common knowledge. “Someone at school said she read that you were heartbroken.”

“Yeah, well, it’s hard to get up in the mornings, but I manage.”

“He left you for your assistant?” Janet asked. “I had no idea. That doesn’t say a lot about your ability to keep men, Lexa.”

“Did he cheat on you?” Jan’s eyes lit up at the prospect.

“Ah, no. We were long over before anything happened with Anya.”

“That's not what I read. Do you mind if I tell people you're really upset about it? It'll give me something to discuss in homeroom tomorrow.”

“Your support is invaluable to me, Jan.” Lexa glanced at her watch again. Had it only been half an hour since she’d arrived?

“Do you have your eyes on someone else?” It was Janet who asked. “Because if you don’t, Mary Jo Thornton’s son is finally single.”

“Finally? Was someone counting the days?”

“Oh, he was dating the most dreadful woman,” Janet said. “You should have heard the stories Mary Jo told me. The girl was one of those,” and here she lowered her voice, “Hispanics. Not only that, but she was their maid’s daughter! God, can you imagine?” Janet shook her head. “Anyway, her son’s name is Daniel. I’ll have him give you a call.”

“I’d rather you didn’t. I’m not really … emotionally ready to jump into another relationship.”

Jan snorted. "I knew you were heartbroken."

“Really, Lexa, don’t be so dramatic. So, Bellamy dumped you. Time to move on. I’ll have Daniel call you. Maybe you can take him to one of those celebrity parties you’re always attending. You’re going to need a date after all.”

Lexa didn’t know what else to say to deter her stepmother. She knew once Janet made up her mind about something there was no going back. "Fine, but please don't give him my cell phone number. Have him call Anya's."

"Aren't you afraid she's gonna steal him too?" Jan asked with a laugh.

"Speak of the devil," Lexa said, as the individualized ringtone she'd designated for Anya's calls filled the air. She reached for the device as quickly as possible and answered with a cheerful,

"Hello?"

"Sorry to bother you while you're having the time of your life with your family, but I just wanted to ask if it was okay if I brought a friend to dinner on Friday?"

Instead of replying, Lexa said, "Wow, they need to reshoot that now? Right now? But I'm having dinner with my family..."

"Very smooth, Lexa. No, but seriously, is it okay?"

"Well, I guess it’s fine. Tell them I’m on my way."

Anya laughed. "Good luck with your escape."

"Thanks, Anya. Talk to you later." Lexa snapped the phone shut and regarded the two women at the table with what she hoped was a regretful expression. "Sorry, emergency at the set. I have to run."

"What, do they need you to perform open heart surgery or something?" Jan asked.

"You're funny tonight," Lexa said, rising from the table.

"Don't forget about Daniel," Janet said, as Lexa leaned down to kiss her cheek.

"I won't think of anything else." Lexa waved to her sister and headed straight for the exit, breathing a sigh of relief the second she stepped outside.

~*~

Some time later, Lexa lay in bed, feet on pillows, staring up at the picture an artist thousands of miles away had drawn. She’d been staring at it for what felt like hours, tracing each line, each curve with her mind’s eye, wondering what it was about those black lines on that white canvas paper that made her feel at peace.

The glow from the open laptop caught Lexa’s attention and she turned to look at the email on the screen. She’d rewritten her reply to the artist’s email dozens of times throughout the course of her day.

During filming, during breaks, during moments of silence her thoughts had invariably returned to the email she’d yet to write. Dear Clarke, she would write across the pages of her mind, and then she’d pause to contemplate the million things she could say after that.

If she were honest with herself, which she seldom was, she’d admit that what she really wanted to write was a question: Why do you feel stuck? For reasons she couldn’t explain, Lexa wanted to know. In truth, she wanted to know a lot more than just that.

She sighed, looking back up at the picture. If she was smart, she’d let it go. She’d forget about the email, she’d forget about the artist. She’d already said what she’d meant to say. She’d only meant to express her appreciation over the art piece. Anything further was crossing the line. She didn’t want to lie, but she couldn’t tell the truth. The best thing to do was to stop, not reply, move on.

And yet, she wanted to know. Why do you feel stuck? Lexa wondered. Sometimes I feel stuck, she wanted to write, often, I feel scattered.

She let the sound of crashing waves fill the room as she stared at nothing in particular. After a moment, she pulled the laptop closer and clicked “reply.”

Dear Clarke,

Let me first assure you that your email didn’t come across as pretentious at all. I know quite a lot of pretentious people, so you can trust me to know the difference. :)

If my email made you feel at all better, then I’m very glad that I wrote it. Especially if it made you feel better about selling something you didn’t mean to sell. Though, if you want me to send it back to you, I will. I’d hate to keep it if you miss it or if it’s something you were saving or anything like that.

Ever since I read your email there’s been something I’ve wanted to say, but have worried about crossing the line with you. I know that we don’t know each other at all, but I thought that maybe that very fact might actually make it easier. Anyway, you mentioned feeling scattered and stuck, and I just wanted to say that if you ever wanted to talk about it … well, my inbox is always open. Otherwise, you’re welcome to tell me to mind my own business. :)

Take care,

Alexandria.

Chapter Twelve

“I’m glad we’re doing this,” Finn said, lowering the volume of the music in the car.

Clarke turned from the window to look at her boyfriend. “Doing what?”

“This. Going to your parents’ for dinner,” he said. He glanced at her briefly before returning his gaze to the road ahead. “I’ve missed us lately. I know I’ve been busy with some of those projects, but next semester should be smooth sailing until graduation.”

“Yeah,” Clarke said, turning back to the window. Her mood had been sour all afternoon. It started with a last minute invitation to dinner that she’d wanted to get out of, but had been talked into, first by her mother, and then by Finn. After finally agreeing, a fight erupted over whether or not to take Finn’s car. Clarke thought it was ridiculous to drive when her family lived near the subway stop, but Finn wanted to show off his brand new stereo system and a few other “goodies” she didn’t quite understand. So, she’d given in to that, too.

Now, naturally, they were stuck in traffic, and Clarke was too busy weighing the pros and cons of jumping out of the car and meeting him at her family’s to care whether or not he was glad they were doing this.

“Do you think the car will be okay on your parents’ street?”

Clarke turned her head slowly in his direction. “What?”

“Well,” Finn shifted in his seat, “it just occurred to me that your family doesn’t live in the nicest of areas.” He shrugged. “But hey, that’s why I invested in that great security system, right? I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

Clarke rolled her eyes and looked away.

“Clarke, are you okay?”

“Fine.”

“Are you still upset about me taking the car? C’mon, don’t be like that. You know how I hate taking the subway. Isn’t this nicer?”

“You call sitting in traffic nice?”

“It’ll clear up soon. Besides, this gives us a chance to talk. I’ve been thinking, you know, about what will happen after I graduate. I was wondering what you thought about it?”

“About what?”

“Us. I’ll be at Harvard. You’ll be here …”

“Yeah…?”

“Well, I thought maybe— Hold on.” He reached into his pocket and withdrew his ringing cell phone. “Hey, man, what’s up? … Nah, I’m just out with my girl. What’s going on? … Tonight? Yeah, I guess … sure, sure… after dinner, okay? … Okay, catch you later.”

Clarke waited expectantly for an explanation after Finn clicked off the phone. Though the one-sided conversation didn’t paint a full picture, past experience did.

“That was Jason. He invited us over to the pub tonight.”

“And?”

“I told him we’d stop by after dinner. That cool?”

“No, it’s not ‘cool’. Why do you always do that? Is it so difficult to ask me first if I even want to go anywhere else tonight?”

“Do you?”

“No!”

Finn frowned. “Why not? I thought you had nothing to do tonight?”

“That’s not the point. I just don’t want to go.”

“Yeah, but why? I thought you liked the guys. It’ll be a few quick drinks and then we’ll be off, I promise. I thought I’d stay over your place tonight, anyway.”

Clarke breathed deeply and counted to ten. Two seconds later, they were moving again, and Clarke lost her steam. Later, she promised herself. We’ll talk about this later.

~*~

Dinner began pleasantly enough. Clarke’s mood improved considerably upon arriving at her family’s apartment, and she started to believe that perhaps she’d overreacted about not wanting to go. After all, they were her family. Why wouldn’t she want to see them?

“Is that all you’re eating?” Abby said, staring at Clarke’s plate. “White rice? What about the chicken?”

Clarke sighed. “Mom, I’ve told you, I’m a vegetarian. I don’t eat meat.”

She turned to Finn and smiled, lifting the plate of chicken. “How about you, Finn?”

“Oh, I’d love some, thank you.” Finn lifted his plate and accepted the food with his usual charming smile. “I always miss your food, Mrs. Miller.”

“Doesn’t Clarke cook for you?” Abby regarded Clarke with a look of curiosity.

“Ah, sure she does,” Finn said, winking at Clarke. “A few weeks ago she made me … ah, what was that you made me?”

“Eggplant parmesan,” Clarke said, not looking up.

Dillon laughed. “I bet anything cooked by Clarke tastes like a science experiment.”

“It was actually pretty good,” Finn said, surprising Clarke. She’d been certain he’d hated it.

“So,” David said, turning to Finn, “congratulations on getting into Harvard.”

“Thank you, Mr. Miller.”

“Your parents must be so proud,” Abby said, smiling.

Finn grinned. “Yeah, they are.”

“I guess you’ll be taking a lot of trips over there,” Abby said to Clarke. “It will be tough being apart after all of these years together.”

Finn was nodding, moving food around with his fork. “Yeah, actually, I was thinking maybe, if Clarke keeps up her grades, she might be able to transfer next year.”

Clarke looked at Finn sharply. “What?”

“Well, I just hope you can convince her to study something more practical,” David said. “All this art business is fine for a hobby, but spending money for an education on it …” He shook his head.

“With all due respect, Sir, I support Clarke’s decision to study art. I mean, if that’s what she wants.” He smiled taking Clarke’s hand in his. She was too stunned to comment. “If all goes well, we’ll be married by the time I graduate Law School, anyway. I’d love to start a family.”

“Just as long as she finishes school first,” Abby joked.

“Absolutely,” Finn agreed. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Clarke opened her mouth to speak but sound wouldn’t come out. Transfer? Marriage? A family? Her life was flashing before her eyes and she hadn’t even finished dinner yet.

“So, I guess Miller won’t be stopping by? I wanted to show him the new goodies on the car.”

Silence fell like a blanket across the table.

David cleared his throat. “We’re not speaking about him today.”

*“Turns out the Almighty Miller is a big fag,” Dillon said with a snort.

“Dillon!” Abby scolded.

“What? It’s true,” Dillon said. “He’s probably off somewhere trying on dresses.”

“Enough!” David slammed his hand on the table so loud that the silverware rattled. “This is not a subject to be discussed at the dinner table.”

Clarke bit her lip and slipped her hand out from beneath Finn’s. How could they be so cruel as to dismiss Miller like that? And how could they sit there and discuss her future as if she weren’t there? But most importantly, why did she let them?

Suddenly, and quite clearly, she remembered why she hadn’t wanted to come tonight.

~*~

“Why the hell didn’t you tell me?” Finn yelled, his fists hitting the steering wheel. “I wouldn’t have brought up the subject if I’d known!”

“It was none of your business!”

“None of my business? You made me look like a jerk back there, Clarke. David was all pissed off…”

“This may come as a shock to you, Finn, but the whole world does not revolve around you, okay? And my family’s personal issues are not your concern.”

“Not my concern? Not my concern, Clarke? We’re practically engaged!”

“No, we’re not! And that’s another thing! Where do you get off telling my family that I might transfer to Harvard? I’m not transferring to Harvard.”

Finn shrugged, glancing at the rearview mirror before cutting someone off. “You might get in. I mean, I know it’s a bit of a long shot, but I figure --”

“Okay. Stop the car, Finn.”

“What?”

“Stop the fucking car, or I swear I’m going to jump out of it and into oncoming traffic.”

Finn obliged, pulling over into the nearest available spot. “Let’s talk about this.”

Clarke was halfway out the door. “There’s nothing to talk about. As far as I’m concerned, you and I are over.”

She let the sound of the door slamming closed punctuate her sentence.

Chapter Thirteen

Clarke knew it wasn’t over; a two and a half year relationship didn’t end with a five word proclamation and a hasty exit. She knew he would call, and if he didn’t call, then she would call. It wasn’t over, but it was close.

It was almost over, which, in some way, was good enough. It was enough to feel relieved that she’d had the guts to stand up for herself that half a second before she’d fled.

She wished she weren’t such a coward. For all of Miller’s hiding, at least he’d been brave enough, eventually, to come clean, to be honest, to face his fears. She wished she saw herself being that brave someday. Perhaps, tonight, had been a step in that direction.

The apartment was dark, empty, when Clarke stepped inside. She was relieved not to have to face her roommate and the bombardment of questions that would surely follow. Yet the stillness unsettled her; she didn’t want to be alone.

From the fridge, she grabbed a bottle of grape juice and took it with her to her room. She dropped her messenger bag – the closest thing to a purse she carried – by the door. Outside, a car passed by, horns blaring, kids yelling. She sat at the edge of the bed and uncapped her drink.

Mozart’s “The Turkish March” began to play from somewhere in her bag, and Clarke stared, but made no move to answer the cell phone. It was Finn, and it was too soon. She needed more time to prepare her closing argument, to build a better defense against his case.

She sighed against the silence, held her breath against the chance that it might ring again. When it didn’t, she relaxed, looking around the room, sipping her juice. She needed new posters, she decided after a moment of reflection, or maybe just more of them. The ones she had were starting to wear at the edges, and they did little to cover the ugly walls behind.

Her laptop, which she’d forgotten to turn off before she’d left, whirred softly behind her, and she turned to look at it. Had her email been answered? she wondered, having forgotten all about it until that moment.

Dali’s Swans Reflecting Elephants stared back at her from her desktop wallpaper and she clicked into her email client. While her email loaded, the cell phone began to chime again. Clarke rolled off the bed and picked up the bag.

She dug her cell phone from its depths and glanced at the screen for a moment before shutting it off.

Back on the bed, she looked at the monitor. The name ‘Alexandria Nicole’ stared back at her from the inbox. She smiled as she clicked on the email.

When she was done reading, she clicked ‘reply’ and bit her lip thoughtfully as she began to type.

Dear Alexandria,

I’m glad to know that I pass the non-pretentious test. Since you’re such an expert and all, I guess I’ll have to trust your judgment. :)

Please don’t ever think that I regret you buying my artwork or that I want it back. I couldn’t think of anyone I’d rather have it, honestly. It’s just a strange thing, I think, selling art. There’s really just the one, you know? And when it’s gone, you have no idea where it is, or who has it, or if they even appreciate having it. Perhaps, they just gave it to someone as a gift (a just-got-back-from-NY memento) and that person hated it and threw it away. Sometimes I worry that’s what happens. And so, when it comes to a piece that really matters to me – like ‘Shadow’ – I can’t bear the thought of someone, somewhere, tossing it in the trash.

It means a lot to know you like it. Not because it’s flattering to my ego (though it is) and not because it gives me some self-confidence (though it does), but because I know it’s safe and appreciated, and not sitting in a landfill somewhere.

About the scattered/stuck question, I don’t know how to answer it. I’m really bad at self-analysis. The past few months I’ve mainly just felt like everything I create is entirely lackluster. It’s been a long time since I’ve done anything I really cared about.

The truth is, I’ve been feeling really numb. Not just in my artwork, but in general. My relationship is in a nearly-over status (as of like, two hours ago), and my family drives me insane. But I really don’t want to bore you with the details. It’s sweet of you to ask, but I imagine you have better things to do than read about my problems.

There is, however, a question I have for you, that I’ve held back on for fear of crossing that line you mentioned. I really hope I don’t offend you in any way. It’s just that, well, you said you bought ‘Shadow’ and the day you bought it, it was my best friend at the table selling it. She said, though, that the person who bought it was a guy, whom she gave her number to. And … well … I hope the nature of my confusion is clear enough.

I probably sound like a jerk saying anything. But, since you were brave enough to ask me a somewhat personal question, I figured I’d take that chance too.

It’s now your turn to tell me to mind my own business. :)

Until later,

Clarke.

“She’s going to think I’m such an ass,” Clarke muttered, reading over her email.

Regardless, she hit send.

When the message disappeared from the screen, she glanced through the rest of the messages in her inbox. Her father hadn’t replied, but the GAP was having a sale.

Absently, she spent the next half an hour surfing the Internet, visiting her usual websites, though little held her attention. The Internet, she found, was only interesting when she was procrastinating on something. Otherwise, it was an endless source of pointlessness.

A ‘new message received’ flag popped up on her task bar, and Clarke clicked back over to her email client.

She was surprised to find that Alexandria had written back.

Dear Clarke,

You know, it never occurred to me that it might be hard for an artist to part with their work. I mean a musician can listen to their own music whenever he or she wants and still share it with the world. A writer can always make copies. But an artist creates one beautiful thing at a time and then parts with it.

It’s sad to think about. I’m not sure I could do it (assuming I had any artistic talent whatsoever – which I assure you I don’t). I think I’d end up hoarding all my own work. How’s that for mature? I’m glad, though, that you feel your work is safe with me. Would you like me to take a picture of it so you can rest easy at night knowing that it’s in a nice home, with a nice person that promises to clothe it, and feed it daily? ;)

Seriously, though, I do love it. I spent most of last night staring at it. Is that weird? Before I go on, let me answer that question of yours since I’m a little worried about what you’ve come up with to justify my seeming dual-gendered existence. I didn’t buy the picture myself. I was with my friend and he’s the one who did the actual purchasing.

Now you’re probably wondering why my friend didn’t call your friend after getting her number, and all I can say to that is that he’s an idiot. I apologize on his behalf. I told him to call, but we were leaving New York the following morning and he thought it was pointless.

Male logic.

Hopefully that clears up any confusion you may have had on the matter. I’m sorry for confusing you in the first place. :)

Regarding my ‘having better things to do than read about your problems’ comment, the truth is, I don’t. Not really. I mean, there was a very good book I was in the middle of reading when your email popped up on my screen, but I think it Will keep. The truth is, if you want to tell me more about your ‘nearly-over’ relationship or your insanity-inducing family, I’d be happy to listen (read?)

On the other hand, I don’t want to pry, and if you were simply trying to be polite because you really didn’t want to get into your personal life with me, I completely understand. I just didn’t want it to be because you thought I didn’t really mean what I said about wanting to know.

I’m not in any kind of relationship, so I can’t relate to your situation, but if it makes you feel any better, my family drives me insane, too. :)

Until next time,

Alexandria.

Clarke found herself smiling, and hit ‘reply’ again, wondering if it would seem strange to reply so quickly. She decided against caring. If Alexandria didn’t feel weird about it, why should she?

~*~

Lexa knew that refreshing her inbox every few minutes bordered on pathetic. She’d felt self-conscious for replying immediately after reading Clarke’s email, not wishing to give off the impression that she had nothing else to do; but the thought that the artist might reply just as quickly encouraged her. As time passed, however, Lexa began to feel uncomfortable with her own impatience.

She pushed the laptop away and tried to concentrate on the book she was reading, but after a while the words swam together and her thoughts wandered back to the matter at hand. She’d promised herself that she would stop replying, and yet she found she couldn’t. With every email sent and every email received, the opportunity for a casual disappearance grew dimmer. Where before it might have seemed natural not to reply, now it seemed impossible.

Maybe she’ll stop writing to me, Lexa considered, though the thought bothered her more than she cared to admit.

Anonymity was a luxury she had given up on long ago, but now that she was experiencing a small taste of it – however wrong it felt – she couldn’t let go. It was the reason why, against all common sense, she couldn’t help but email the artist. She was curious about Clarke Griffin. A part of her, however small and seemingly illogical, wanted to be her friend.

Lexa sighed and put the book on her nightstand. After a few minutes of staring at the wall, trying to think about anything but her email, she finally gave up and grabbed the laptop. The inbox took a several seconds to reload, but when it did, Lexa was surprised to find an email waiting for her.

Dear Alexandria,

Allow me to admit that I’m rather relieved by your ‘dual-gendered existence’ explanation, as my friend and I had come up with quite the creative take on the subject. I don’t think you want to know.

Anyway, whether staring at my art piece for a long time is weird or not I can’t say. I’ve been known to stare at art for long periods of time (though not usually my own, unless I’m in the process of creating it).

Weird or not, it’s nice to know. You do amazing things to my self-confidence, just so you know. I never really thought as parting with my art work as a sad thing, really. Usually I’m so pleased when someone likes it enough to buy it that I don’t care that I won’t have it any longer. It’s when I start to think about what they may be doing with it that I worry a bit. Generally, though, I try to think of all my sold art as framed somewhere beautiful. With the proper lighting, of course. It’s all about lighting. I think I trust you to be taking proper care of my piece without the picture evidence to prove it. You don’t seem like the art abusing type. :)

So, about my life …

My boyfriend and I have been on a bumpy road for a while. I’m not sure if it’s his fault, or mine, or both of ours together. He’s ambitious in a Harvard Law School kind of way, and I’m ambitious in a Dreams Happen kind of way, and I guess we don’t see eye-to-eye on most things. He values ‘the proper career’ and money above all other things, and I’m just not sure I can go along with that forever.

Tonight, we went to dinner at my parents’ and he basically told my family that we were engaged (which we aren’t) and that he didn’t mind me being an artist because we’d be married by the time he finished Law School anyway. My parents were all thrilled with the idea, like we were living in the 1950s or something.

I just sat there in shock. Do you ever find yourself thinking, “What the hell is going on here?” One second I was amazed because he actually said he supported my art studies (something he had never done before!) and the next he was dragging me down the isle while our kids yelled, “Mommy! Mommy!” in the background. I had a moment of sheer terror right there in my parents’ dining room.

On the drive home we had a horrible fight which concluded with me yelling that we were over. I’ve been sitting in my room ignoring all of his phone calls since.

And you know, I just keep thinking, “Where did we go wrong?” We were so good together once. He was so sweet and supportive at the beginning and slowly he transformed into this other person I no longer recognize. Is it me that changed? Did we both change? I don’t know … I’m not even sure what to say when he calls. Are we really over? Is that what I want?

I know you said you couldn’t relate because you’re not in a relationship, but maybe any of your past experiences can help me out. As an impartial observer, what do you think? My best friend, my usual confidante, is entirely too biased to be of any use to me. She’s been bugging me to break up with Finn from the start, but the thing is … I loved him once. I keep thinking that that feeling will come back. Love doesn’t just vanish into thin air, does it?

Until soon,

Clarke

Lexa stared at the email for a long time. Instead of replying, she shut the computer and rolled out of bed. She crossed her bedroom and stepped out into the balcony. The breeze scattered her hair the second she walked outside and she smiled briefly against the wind. It felt good to be outside, she decided, and leaned against the railing.

Below, her pool glowed turquoise in the increasing darkness. She stared out at the ocean, at the fading colors in the sky. She’d missed most of the sunset, she realized, and felt annoyed with herself for letting the time slip by unnoticed. She never missed a sunset if she could help it.

“Look for me in the clouds at sunset,” her grandmother had said in the moments before she died. “I’ll be waving.”

Lexa didn’t like to think of that moment, avoided the memory and the pain of losing her grandmother at all costs, but she did turn to the clouds at sunset, when she could. It made her feel less alone.

Love doesn’t just vanish into thin air… Does it? Lexa wondered. She didn’t know. There were few people Lexa could claim to love, and she didn’t imagine that it was the same kind of love that Clarke felt for her boyfriend. How could she help Clarke? She had no past experiences to go on, only fictional ones.

She sighed deeply, the sound carried away by the wind. What was she doing with her life? A twenty-two year old with no past relationships, no true prospects. Was her career really worth it? Was there really that much to lose?

And even if she were open to love, to the idea of a relationship, how would she ever find someone to love?

How would she find someone to love her for her?

If love did in fact just vanished into thin air … why bother?

Chapter Text

“Hey,” he said, by way of greeting, and Clarke glanced up from her sketch pad to see Finn looking down at her. “I’ve tried calling you.”

Clarke looked down, unable to meet his gaze. “I know.”

He lit a cigarette and sat down beside her on the bench. For a long time, neither of them said anything. Finn seemed content to watch the other students pass by, and Clarke didn’t know what to tell him.

“How was class?” he said finally.

Clarke drew in a breath. “Look, Finn, about the other night—“

“I forgive you,” he said.

“Forgive me?” Clarke said, stunned. “I’m not apologizing.”

“You totally flew off the handle there, Clarke. I think an ‘I’m sorry’ wouldn’t be out of order.” He flicked his cigarette. “First you embarrass me in front of your family—“

“Wait, wait, how did I embarrass you?

“You didn’t warn me that the subject of Miller was suddenly taboo. We’re a couple. We’re supposed to tell each other things like, ‘Hey, my stepbrother is a homo now. Don’t go bringing him up at dinner.’” He flicked his cigarette again, and Clarke watched the ashes fall to the ground. “Guess he wouldn’t have been that interested in the car, after all.”

Clarke stared at Finn’s profile, torn between screaming at him and hitting him with her notebook. How was it possible to love and hate someone at the same time? “I meant it when I said we were over,” she said at last. “I don’t want to be with you anymore.”

Finn looked at her. “Don’t be stupid.”

“Excuse me?”

“If you break up with me, and who’s going to help you pay for all the stuff you can’t afford on your own? ‘Oh, hey, Finn, I’m a little short for art supplies, could you spot me?’ or ‘Hey, Finn, our cable got shut off again’.”

“I have never asked you for money,” Clarke said, trying to keep her voice even.

“Yeah, but you were all too happy to accept when I offered. And I always offered.” He tossed the cigarette on the ground and turned his body to face her. “I’ve been there for you and your family every step of the way. When Dillon got thrown in jail for whatever stupid stunt he pulled, who put up the bail money, huh? Me. When your parents’ car stalled, who bought them a new battery? Me.”

“They’ve always paid you back,” Clarke said. “And why do you always make everything about money? You think I’ve stayed with you all of this time because of your money?”

“I’m sure it didn’t hurt.”

“You’re deluded.”

“Then why did you?”

“Because I loved you,” Clarke said softly.

Finn looked away. “And you don’t anymore. Is that it?”

“I’m not in love with you anymore, no.”

Finn nodded slowly. “I guess there’s nothing else for me to say, then.” He stood.

“Wait,” Clarke said, and dug in her bag for her cell phone. “You should probably have this back.”

Finn took the object in his hands and stared down at it. After a moment, he swung his arm back and threw the phone against the wall next to them. It shattered into several pieces and scattered across the ground.

Several people stopped to stare in their direction.

“For the record,” he said, “I still love you,” and with that, he walked away.

~*~

“So, what did you think?” Titus motioned to the script between them, linking his hands together in expectation.

Lexa picked up her glass of orange juice and looked at her agent with a look that she hoped didn’t require elaboration.

“I thought you might hate it.” Titus sighed. “Well, the good news is I do have something else that just came through. It’s an indie, though it has a pretty good budget. Enough to pay your usual salary, anyway. The director is fairly unknown, though she’s been around for a while. Her name is Costia Calloway. Heard of her?” When Lexa shook her head, he continued, “Well, she’s done some television shows, a few low budget pictures, nothing major, but she’s got a few awards under her belt. Sundance loves her.” He dug into his briefcase for the script and dropped it on the table. “She really wants you for the lead.”

Lexa picked up the stack of papers and glanced at the title. “Summer’s Dance,” she read.

“Only catch is, you’d have to play gay,” Titus said with a shrug.

Lexa put the script down. “I don’t think so.”

“Well, you’ve been begging me for something different for a while, so I’m delivering different. You’d even get to die at the end.”

“Sounds uplifting,” Lexa muttered. She glanced at the script. She’d passed up many roles in the past for the simple fact that she did not want to play a lesbian character, and yet, here was another one, beckoning. “The lead, huh?”

Titus smiled, cheering up. “Oh yeah. Great role, too. I think it’d be a great career move, Lexa. Get you out of that Guardian rut you’re in. People see you in something like this, maybe it won’t be so hard to get you some of those roles you’ve been lusting after.”

She picked up the script again and flipped through it.

“She highlighted your part,” Titus said.

“Elizabeth Doyle,” Lexa read. “Do you know where this is filming?”

“New York,” Titus said.

Lexa glanced up at him. “New York?”

“Yeah, they’re filming on location. Where the hell is that waiter?” Titus looked around. “His tip is going down by the second.”

Lexa chewed on her bottom lip as she considered the screenplay in her hands. The lead. In New York. I love New York. But a lesbian? “I’ll read it,” she said finally. “When do they need to know by?”

“Sooner the better, I imagine, though they didn’t specify a date. Filming starts in March, I think. I can get you a meeting set up with the director if you want. She sounds like she’ll bend over backwards to get you in this film, and that’s never a bad thing.”

Lexa smiled. She put the script in her bag and sat back to enjoy the suddenly beautiful day around her. “No, not a bad thing at all.”

~*~

“Wow, maybe for him the sex really was that good,” and Clarke looked up from the newspaper she was reading to see Raven entering the kitchen with a large bouquet of red roses.

Clarke smiled. “Wow, who was the lucky guy?”

Raven placed the flowers on the table and grinned at Clarke. “Oh, no. These aren’t for me. These, my friend, are for you.” She picked up the card and cleared her throat. “Dearest Clarke, I miss all of the mind blowing orgasms you gave me. I especially miss that thing you do with your tongue—“

Clarke snatched the card from Raven’s hand.

Clarke, I’m sorry. Can we talk? Love, Finn.

“What the hell,” Clarke said, staring at the words.

“Boy’s got it bad. Who knew?” Raven leaned down to smell the flowers. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he came around here singing, ‘I can change, I can change…’”

“Singing what?”

“From South Park. You know, when Sadaam is trying to win Satan back. In the movie…”

Clarke stared at her blankly.

“Wow. Okay, never mind.” Raven sat down. “But you know, it really is like you’re Satan, all sensitive and stuff, and Sadaam wants to convince you that he’ll do better. He won’t do better, Clarke. Trust me.”

“There are so many things wrong with what you just said.” Clarke shook her head. “Anyway, he can send all the flowers in the world. I’m not taking him back.”

“That’s the spirit. So, what do you want to do tonight? Girls night out? Girls night in?”

Clarke shrugged. “I’m not really in an out on the town mood,” she said.

“Girls night in it is,” Raven said. “Pick a movie theme: romance, horror, action…”

“Tell you what,” Clarke said, standing, “I’m going to grab a quick shower and then we’ll go see what’s out.”

“It’s a date.”

~*~

“It’s not a date,” Anya insisted as quietly as possible while still being audible over Lexa’s chopping. “She’s a friend. You said it was okay to invite her over.” Chop. Chop. Chop.

“When did I say that?” Lexa demanded, sliding the perfectly sliced onions into a pan. She glanced into the living room to make sure Anya’s ‘friend’ hadn’t heard them and returned to the cooking at hand.

“On the phone,” Anya prompted, sniffling. She hated onions. “Shit.” Her eyes burned and she wiped a tear away.

Lexa frowned at her. “Well there’s no sense in crying about it. I’m not going to fire you for bringing her here.” She glanced into the living room again and shook her head. She continued her chopping. “And anyway, when you said ‘friend’ I didn’t really picture her being …”

“What?” Anya said, blinking rapidly to keep the tears at bay.

Lexa waved her knife around. After a moment, she shrugged. “I don’t know…”

“Gay?”

“No,” Lexa said firmly. “Well, yes. Actually I hadn’t thought about it. I just didn’t expect someone so…”

“Butch?”

Lexa shifted uncomfortably.

“Do you have a problem with that?” Anya studied the actress for a moment.

“No…” Lexa focused on chopping the rest of the onions. “Of course I don’t.”

“It’s not a date,” Anya said again. “But … if you’re interested, I’m sure I could talk her into…” She ventured a hopeful smile.

Lexa held up the knife. “Don’t make me hurt you.”

“It’s not like I told her anything about you,” Anya said defensively. “I just thought … maybe …”

“We’d hit it off and live happily ever after?” Lexa arched a brow.

“God no.” Anya shuddered. “I don’t think Sarah’s been with one person for more than one ... ah … not something I should be telling you.” She coughed. “More like … I thought, maybe you two could—“

“Okay, I think I get the picture. Two things: first, she’s so far from my type it’s not even funny and sec—“

“Really?”

“Really what?”

“Not your type?” Anya glanced back at Sarah and bit her lip thoughtfully. “I’m usually better at gauging these things.”

“And second,” Lexa continued, “if you ever try to set me up again, I’ll kill you. Clear? Good. Now go set the table.”

“Yes, Boss.” Anya went to get the plates and silverware from the cupboard. Items in hand she started toward the dining room table, but paused. “Umm … just for curiosity’s sake, and not at all for future reference … what is your type?”

Lexa stared at her assistant, and considered tossing a tomato slice at her in reply. Instead, she said, “When I find her, I’ll let you know.”

~*~

Clarke yawned into the sleeve of her sweater and struggled to keep her eyes open through what had to be the eighth car chase scene she’d sat through that evening. Raven’s movie selection methods consisted of finding the DVD covers with the hottest actors and proclaiming them ‘Must See’ movies.

If she had to sit through one more scene where something exploded, her brain would be the next in line. “I’m sorry,” she said after several minutes. “I can’t keep my eyes open anymore.”

“What? But we haven’t even gotten to the good parts yet. I’m sure he takes off his shirt at some point.”

“As riveting as that plot development sounds, I think I’ll skip out. All the other topless male models we saw before this one will just have to tie me over until tomorrow.”

“Party pooper,” Raven said, tossing a handful of popcorn in Clarke’s direction. “Listen, speaking of male models, I was thinking that tomorrow night we could hang out with some of the guys I work with.”

“Not this again.” Clarke sighed, plucking popcorn from her hair.

“Look, I entirely respect your free woman movement, but let’s face it, you could still do with a little fun in the bedroom.”

“Is everything about sex with you?”

“And acting. Oh, and coffee. The rest is optional.”

Clarke stared at her best friend and smiled patiently. “I know this might seem like a radical concept, but I’m actually okay with not having sex for a while.”

“That’s only because you haven’t been doing it properly. I can’t even begin to fathom the nightmare that Finn must have been in bed.”

“He wasn’t that bad,” Clarke said, feeling defensive for no good reason. “Not that I have very much to compare him to…”

“Exactly. You need a point of reference. Or two. Maybe at the same time?”

“I’m going to bed.”

Raven shut off the TV and shifted on the couch to face Clarke. “I just don’t want you moping around the apartment for the rest of your life. There’s a whole world out there, Clarke. You should learn to live in it.”

“I just don’t think of living life as hopping from one guy’s bed to another. I want more than that…”

“I thought you didn’t want another relationship?”

“I don’t. Well, I do. Eventually. Just not right now. For now, I just want to … I don’t know, go to a museum sit there for hours not having to worry about having to exist on someone else’s schedule. I want to go to bed, not worrying about whether or not I’m taking up too much room. I want to just be alone. And sex, while important, is not the center of my universe.”

Raven quietly contemplated Clarke’ words. Finally she said, “All right then. I guess we’ll just take a trip to Toys in Babeland tomorrow. My Bullet is being funky, anyway. I think I wore it out.”

“Was it really necessary to share that tidbit of information?”

Raven chuckled. “Your problem, Clarkey, is that you need to loosen up.”

~*~

Later, as Clarke sat in bed staring at her computer screen, she wondered if Raven was right. Was it really that she didn’t want to sleep around, or was it simply that she was too scared to? The thought of meeting up at a sleazy bar and hooking up with a random guy was entirely unappealing. So what if he was good looking?

There had to be more to a person than that. What about conversation? Or getting to know someone?

Was she stupid to want those things?

Despite what Raven suspected, the problem with her and Finn had never been that he was bad in bed. To the contrary, it was probably one of the few points in their relationship where she felt like they connected. If sex had been the problem, Clarke would have considered herself lucky. Finding sex was easy. Finding respect, trust … love … Those were the things you had to dig for.

~*~

Lexa wondered at what point it was considered okay to kick people out of her home. Was it okay, for example, to interrupt her best friend and her assistant in the middle of their make-out session on her couch to tell them – kindly – to please take it elsewhere?

The movie on the screen flickered on, but Lexa was too grossed out by the kissing noises happening a few feet away from her to pay much attention to the plot. Then there was Sarah. Sarah had been staring at her since the lights had gone out. Lexa wondered if subtlety was something lacking in the lesbian community or if the girl simply didn’t care if Lexa knew.

In an attempt to dissuade her, Lexa turned her head to look at her, but Sarah caught her eye and winked. Lexa swirled her head around and decided to concentrate instead on the many ways she would make Anya pay for this.

“You’re really beautiful,” Sarah whispered. “But you probably get told that a lot. I hope I’m not too forward in saying it.”

Lexa remained silent, wondering if this was a nightmare she would mercifully awake from.

“I can’t believe I’m sitting in Lexa Woods’s living room,” Sarah continued. “I mean, I knew Anya worked for you and everything, but … wow.”

A low-pitched chuckle caused both of them to turn their heads in Bellamy and Anya’s direction. Lexa rolled her eyes.

“Weird seeing your ex with someone else, isn’t it?” Sarah said. “I mean, Anya and I weren’t really a couple or anything, but you know. It’s still weird seeing someone you’ve slept with kissing someone else.”

“You slept with Anya?” Lexa asked, and suddenly realized she’d said it loud enough to be heard across the room. Kissing noises abruptly stopped.

“What?” Bellamy was saying.

Fuck.” Anya said.

“You slept with her?” Bellamy hooked a thumb in Sarah’s direction. “Seriously?”

“Hey! What is that supposed to mean?” Sarah said. “’Seriously?’”

“Just once,” Anya sighed dismissively.

“Well, one night,” Sarah countered. “But if I recall there were multiple sessions.”

Bellamy gaped.

Lexa, for her part, covered her face with her hand.

Sarah,” Anya groaned.

“I need to get out of here,” Bellamy said, rising from the couch. “This is a little too weird for me right now.”

“What the fuck? You knew I slept with women.”

“You could have told me this was one of them.” Bellamy headed for the front door, Anya right behind him.

“Don’t walk away from me!”

Sarah jumped up to follow them. “Hey, who the hell is driving me home?”

The slamming door thundered throughout the house.

“Well, that’s one way to get rid of people,” Lexa decided.

~*~

It had been over a week and Lexa had yet to reply to the artist. If it weren’t for the fact that she kept thinking about it, Lexa would have considered the entire matter behind her. And yet, she still found herself at the computer almost every night, checking to see if Clarke would write to her anyway. Each time, the inbox turned up empty and Lexa would be left with the undeniable compulsion to reply; just one more time.

It was the not knowing what to say that always stopped her. She simply didn’t know how to offer relationship advice. And by now, she imagined, the time for it had passed.

Dear Clarke, she typed, surprising herself, and yet not moving to close the reply window. A part of her felt it was inevitable that she should reply eventually, despite herself. She sat back against the pillows to think about the rest. Her bedroom was dark, save for the light from her computer screen. Before picking up the computer, she had been trying, unsuccessfully, to sleep. Her thoughts invariably drifted to Sarah, and she wondered if she’d been stupid not to take advantage of the opportunity. How often were gay women sitting on her couch, calling her beautiful? So what if she hadn’t been attracted to her? Beneath the baggy pants and extra large T-shirt Sarah was still a woman … that had to be enough, no?

Yet the thought of kissing Sarah didn’t excite Lexa in any way. And the fact that Sarah had slept with Anya made the entire situation even less appealing.

Lexa shook her head at the thought, dismissing it and Sarah along with it. She had never been the type to settle for anything, why should she start now?

Turning back to the task at hand, she started typing.

I’m sorry for not writing to you sooner. I want to say that I’ve been busy or that things came up, but the truth is, I just didn’t know how to reply to your last email. In the spirit of honesty, I should admit that my relationship experience is practically zero. Actually, I’m not sure that it would even merit a ‘practically’, I just didn’t want to sound like a complete loser. I generally save those kinds of admissions for at least the third or fourth sentences in a paragraph.

But despite the fact that I know nothing about love – having never been lucky (unlucky?) enough to be in it – I want to believe that true love doesn’t just vanish. The romantic in me wants to believe that love conquers all, that you can live happily ever after, and so on and so forth.

Unfortunately, I imagine that love, like life, is nowhere near as simple as that. First, you have to meet someone you’re attracted to, not just in looks, but in personality. And how often does that happen? Well, perhaps you have better luck in that department than I do… But then, even if you meet someone you’re attracted to, whose personality rocks your world, what are the odds that they find you equally engaging?

To be honest, I’m not really sure how people even manage it. I have two friends who recently ended up in bed together and now seem to be in a relationship. I sometimes wonder: how did that happen? Did they just look at each other and know that the other wanted the same thing? Did they talk about it? Was it just a feeling?

When does that moment occur, that friendship turns to lust, and like turns to love, and it just so happens that it’s mutual?

It all sounds terribly unlikely, don’t you think?

I guess the reason that I’m burdening you with all of these rambling thoughts at what would be three in the morning for you, is that tonight a friend tried to set me up with someone, and despite the fact that my lack of romantic endeavors should make me desperate to be with anyone with a pulse, I find myself incapable of settling.

No matter how unlikely the chances that I may meet that ‘right’ person, I can’t bring myself to be with the wrong one. Still, I keep thinking, what if what I think is the wrong person at first glance, actually turns out to be The One upon closer inspection. How close do you have to look before you know for sure?

Until soon,

Alexandria

Chapter Fifteen

Clarke absently tapped the rubber end of her number two pencil against the open text book in front of her, certain that somehow, the rhythmic beat helped her concentrate. She read through three sentences before her gaze wandered around the kitchen. The time on the microwave read 7:49, and she stared until the numbers changed. Ten minutes remained of her allotted study time, and she sighed, feeling anxious to move on to something else.

The apartment was quiet, save for the soft hum of her laptop, and despite her resolution to study, she couldn’t help but read over the words on the screen. Though she had yet to reply, Clarke had still to close Alexandria’s last email. It gave her something to think about during her moments of procrastination, when thinking about love and life and relationships seemed far more interesting than solving redundant equations.

Clarke glanced up at the time again: 7:51. It was close enough to eight o’clock, she decided, slamming shut the Pre-Calculus text. She still had days before the next exam. Relieved, and feeling productive, she pulled the laptop closer and the homework out of the way.

After grabbing a bottle of juice from the fridge, she sat back down and began her reply.

Dear Alexandria,

Having only had one relationship, I’m certainly no expert in the ways of love. I don’t remember exactly how Finn and I got together to begin with. I remember the basics, the where and when and how we met, but I can’t recall the precise moment when we went from strangers to friends to more.

All I know is that we met at an art gallery many years ago. My best friend, Raven (my now roommate), thought it would be fun to crash an upscale benefit party, hosted by a totally overrated New York artist at a totally overrated art gallery uptown. I remember we got dressed up in our fanciest attire, and that Raven made me rehearse a “script” she made up to get us in. We worked on the “lines” during the subway ride. I suppose this is where I reveal that my best friend is an actress. We paint a pretty clichéd picture of New York, don’t we? Struggling artist, hopeful actress…

Anyway, I thought Raven’s idea was both hysterical and ridiculous, and I think the only reason that I even agreed to go was that I never thought we’d actually get in…

As it happened, the guy checking invitations turned out to be an old high school friend of Raven’s and he let us through. It’s weird how things happen, isn’t it?

Needless to say, Finn was there. His family is very New York elite. They are everywhere that matters, and by extension, so is Finn.

I try to remember the moment we met often, but it’s fuzzy. I don’t remember if we were looking at art or if we were just standing near art, but I remember he smiled at me. The exact dialogue escapes me, probably because I was so nervous about being caught there. So I remember that when he smiled at me, I got really nervous. I thought, “Oh no, he can see I don’t belong here…”

But he only wanted to chat about how boring the party was and how his parents had forced him to attend. I found him easy to talk to, and I started to relax, forgetting about the party or the fact that Raven had disappeared into the crowd and left me all alone.

I can’t say that I thought anything would come of it, though. It was only a conversation, and I figured that once we ran out of subject matter he would smile politely and excuse himself. I could tell, just by looking at him, that he was really wealthy. Only, he didn’t come across as cocky or self-involved. I guess that’s why, in spite of myself, I gave him my number when he asked. Well, that, and I didn’t know how to refuse.

I’m tempted to say, “And then the clock struck midnight and I fled the party, leaving behind one of my cheap Payless shoes…” But, I won’t.

A few days after the party, after it had become just a fun story to tell friends, Finn called. I came clean on the phone, about how my friend and I had crashed the party and how I was very far from being the heiress to a family fortune or anything like that. I thought the information would turn him off, but to the contrary, he seemed all the more interested. Sometimes, I think he was just trying to rebel against his parents by dating me. Who knows? All the same, I agreed on a date. It went well … and I guess more dates just followed.

It’s strange because I feel like most of it just happened. One date followed another, until a kiss came, and then time passed, and one thing followed the other. There was never a moment when I wondered, “Am I even attracted to him?” I didn’t question it. I just let it happen.

I guess my feelings on it sound terribly unromantic, but that might only be my current feelings clouding the memory. The truth is, I think that for the most part, these things happen. And maybe because they ‘just happen’ they sometimes end up … well, ending. I’m sure that if people started to think over every minute detail of everything they might never date at all.

Hm. That’s not to say that you will never date at all …

I find it inspiring, actually, the idea of not settling. Of knowing what you want and waiting patiently for it. I suppose maybe I’ll aim for that next. Only, I guess the question for me is mainly: how do you know what you want?

Clarke sat back to stare at her own question, surprised at having written it. She had always known that she wanted to be an artist; known it since the moment she’d picked up a pencil to write her very first ‘A’ and ended up with a drawing of the kitchen window instead.

She remembered staring at the window, at the way the light filtered through the leaves of the trees outside. She remembered thinking there was nothing more beautiful than the beams of light shining upon the paper on the table; a paper that suddenly seemed terribly empty despite the wide lines. She could think of nothing more suitable to fill it with than the power of that moment. It was a rough attempt, far from perfect or even good, but when the pencil finally lifted from the page, she felt happy; whole.

Clarke stared thoughtfully at the question on the screen, pondering whether or not to erase it. Didn’t she know what she wanted? Didn’t the usual conglomeration of adjectives – funny, smart, caring, artistic, etc – conjure up an adequate image of The One?

I want to believe that when I find the Right Person it will be obvious. That there will be a moment, something fast and barely palpable that will say, ‘This is it.’ But that’s just the romantic in me talking, and to be honest, I’m not sure I’m much of a romantic at all. It’s more likely that I’ll finally give in, let my roommate set me up with some of the eight million guys she’s always trying to set me up with, and one of them will be close enough to ideal that a blind date will turn into a second date, and so on and so forth.

I guess I don’t know how to answer your question about how close to look before you know. Maybe it depends. Maybe, with some people you have to dig. Maybe with others it’s immediate. You never know until you try, right?

All the same, whatever it is that you’re looking for … I hope you find it.

~*~

Lexa dropped the marker on the coffee table and stretched out her hand. She sighed with relief. “Done. Thank God. If I have to sign one more picture of myself I’ll …” She paused to think of something suitably dramatic. “… fling myself into the sea.”

Anya snorted. “I can’t believe you stopped to think and that’s what you came up with. Fling yourself into the sea?”

“Shut up. I’ve been signing my name over and over for the past three hours. Do you know what that does to a person’s brain?”

“It flings it into the sea?”

Lexa shook her head, capped the marker, and tossed it at Anya.

Her assistant laughed as she batted the object away. “Nice aim. And anyway, you shouldn’t complain. I’ve been licking envelopes. My tongue is numb, and how do I know the glue isn’t poisonous?”

“Like on Seinfeld?”

“Yes, exactly. You're not paying me enough to die on your carpet. Death by licking.” Anya frowned slightly. “Envelopes,” she added pointedly. “Licking envelopes.”

Lexa decided not to comment further. Any conversation involving tongues and licking could only lead one place. “So what’s next on today’s fun-filled agenda?”

“Next up is a little game I like to call ‘Replying to Phone Messages Gone Ignored For Far Too Long’.”

“I already don’t like this game.”

“Tough. This is why you pay me the big bucks.” Anya took a minute to put away the signed copies of photos, and took out a stack of notes. “First up, Janet.”

“Uh.”

“She called twice on Monday to remind you about Daniel Thornton’s phone call. Then she called again on Tuesday to ask how the phone call went. On Wednesday she called three times to demand why you had not answered Daniel’s call. Yesterday she called to say that you were embarrassing her, and to please have the decency to return people’s phone calls.”

“Who the hell is Daniel Thornton?”

Anya went on to the next slip. “Doctor Daniel Thornton called Monday night to say that Janet had given him your number. He wanted to ask if you would like to join him for dinner on Thursday night.”

“Right. Well, I’ve been swamped. Did you tell them I was swamped?”

“I told Janet you were filming and your hours were crazy. I told Daniel that you didn’t swing that way.”

Anya smirked, and then dodged a pen cap. It hit the couch behind her. She laughed. “I told him the same thing. That you’d be filming late into the night and that you probably wouldn’t be able to get back to him until the weekend.”

“Urgh.”

“That’s the spirit. Next up is Costia Calloway.”

Lexa glanced up at the name. “She’s that director…”

“Yeah, and she’s going to be in L.A. Saturday and Sunday and begged for an hour of your time whenever possible. I checked your schedule and you’re free pretty much all day Saturday if you want to do lunch or something.”

Lexa nodded. “Yeah, definitely. Set it up.”

Anya jotted something down. “So, what’s the film about? I saw you reading the script the other day. Is it good?”

Lexa nodded and found herself smiling despite her reluctance to accept the role. “It’s really, really good actually.”

“But?”

“How do you know there’s a but?”

“There’s always a but with you.”

Lexa let out a long breath and looked over at Anya. “It’s a lesbian role.”

Anya’s interest peaked. “Really?”

“Yeah.”

“Who will you be kissing? Is she hot?”

“Are you quite done?”

“No. Can I read it?”

“Glad to know that you see my dilemma,” Lexa said dryly, taking a sip of her drink.

“Is it a lead role?”

“Yep.”

Nice. So what’s the dilemma?” She suddenly looked serious. “Are you worried it’s going to out you?”

Lexa sighed. “There’s that, but … it’s a lot of things.”

Anya put down her stack of messages and regarded Lexa with a concerned expression. “Want to talk about it?”

Lexa bit her lip. She didn’t even want to think about it, let alone talk about it. But she supposed she had to. If she was going to meet with the director she needed to have her thoughts in order. “I’m going to sound stupid.”

“That’s hardly new,” Anya joked. “Try me.”

“Well, you know … I’ve done love scenes in the past, right?”

“Yeah, and that scene with you and Lincoln Forrest in Rivera Crescent was hot." Anya waved her hand, “Sex scenes. Continue.”

Lexa arched an eyebrow at her assistant, but shook her head, continuing. “Well, I didn’t mind doing them because I always thought of it as part of the acting…”

“But with a girl it wouldn’t be acting?”

“No! It would … that’s … the problem.” Lexa ran a hand through her hair in frustration. “I just never figured that my first kiss with a girl would be … fake.”

Anya smiled teasingly. “Aww, who knew Lexa Woods was such a romantic?”

Despite herself, Lexa blushed.

“Maybe we just need to get you a girl to make out with before you start filming,” Anya suggested.

“That … no.” Lexa shook her head. “I don’t want to hook up with some random person.”

“Mmm, well finding your one true love in time might be more of a challenge,” she said, reaching for her PDA, “but I think you have a free hour next week between the photo shoot and the talk show interview. I’ll stylus it in.”

Lexa smiled. “Funny.”

Anya smiled sympathetically. “I guess you just have to decide what’s more important to you: a role you want to play, or your reservations about playing it.”

Lexa thought about it for a long moment. Finally, she sighed in a way that meant they were in for a change of subject. “How’s Bellamy doing? I haven’t heard from him since your dramatic exit the other day. I keep getting his voice mail.”

It was Anya’s turn to shift awkwardly. She capped and uncapped the pen in her hand several times before replying. “He was ugly upset. We had a horrifically tense drive to Sarah’s and then a horribly silent drive to my place." She huffed, growing frustrated. “I had no idea he’d be such a child. He’s known all of this time that I dated women, I thought he wouldn’t care. I half expected him to ask for a threesome.”

The last part was said jokingly but Lexa heard the insecurity in the words. “He’ll come around,” she said, believing it was true, yet hoping she wasn’t wrong. “He really cares about you, Anya. He wouldn’t be this upset if he didn’t. He’s just scared.”

Anya nodded. “You know what’s ironic? I was so suspicious out about you and him. I really thought you were in love with him and that any day you would turn around and tell him, and that would be it.” She clenches her jaw again, frowning. “Anyway,” Anya continued, “I knew that if there was a chance that you cared for Bellamy in that way, he would come running to you without a second thought, and you know, that’s fine, I would’ve gotten over it. I’m not a child. But now it’s just that, well it’s only that now… I … I think I really like him. In the gross, lovey way.”

“Oh,” was all Lexa could manage, surprised at how shocked she felt by the confession. She swallowed, feeling awkward and out-of-place in a conversation about love. “Have you told him that?”

“Are you crazy? It’s Bellamy. He’d freak.”

“Well, he’s already freaked in what appears to be the opposite extreme, so maybe this will bring him back to a healthy middle ground.”

“Ugh.” Anya sighed, then rubbed her eyes. “Thanks for listening to me get all serious.”

“Any time. It’s not every day a girl confesses to being in love with my best friend.”

“Ah, well. You pay me to keep your life interesting.” Anya sat up and picked up the stack of messages again. “So, back to work.” She pushed Lexa’s cell phone closer to the actress and then handed over a slip of paper. “Time for a game I like to call ‘Lexa Calls Back People She Doesn’t Want to Talk to While I Read That Juicy Movie Script.’” Anya clapped her hands in anticipation. “Where is it?”

“I’m really starting to hate your games.” Lexa paused and sighed. “It’s on my desk.”

~*~

After Anya had gone and the sound of company and conversation had faded into silence, Lexa lay back on the lounge chair and stared up at the sky. Above her, the moon burned dimly, if at all, its light temporarily lost behind patches of clouds.

She had missed another sunset.

The realization upset her less than she was used to, and she closed her eyes in an attempt to visualize her grandmother. Though it had been only four years, the image Lexa held in her mind was beginning to wane. The green eyes, so similar to her own, were growing harder to picture. The voice, the laugh, the sounds were all but gone.

Lexa opened her eyes and forced her thoughts to drift. She thought of her pending meeting with a director whose movie script she both loved and dreaded. Other notable scripts would come, wouldn’t they?

Why take this one?

Why not take it?

It was probable that the only females Lexa would kiss would be in front of a camera anyway. Who was she going to meet hidden away in her house? Who would she risk dating in the Hollywood world? Who outside of it would she even trust?

Her thoughts shifted to Clarke, and Lexa’s heart sped up at the recollection that she hadn’t checked her mail in days. Her filming schedule had allowed for very little, and suddenly, the thought that she had an unread email in her inbox filled her with a sense of urgency.

Upstairs, the laptop hummed to life with a touch of a key, and Lexa sat at her desk waiting for her webmail to load. At the sight of the name Clarke Griffin, Lexa smiled, double-clicking the name as fast as modern technology allowed.

She read over Clarke’s words, feeling both fascinated and guilty. At the end of the email, she paused at the words, “You never know until you try,” before continuing.

When she’d finished reading she sat back on the chair and frowned. Even if she was open to trying, whom would she try with? Sarah was very much out of the question, which only left Anya, and Lexa was pretty sure that was out of the question too.

Sitting up, she hit ‘reply’ and settled her fingers on the keyboard.

Dear Clarke,

Once again I apologize for the delay in my reply. This time I blame work and its crazy, demanding, inhumane hours. Things should start to settle down soon, though, so you can expect more timely emails from me. Assuming, of course, you don’t get sick of me in the meantime, which would be understandable, and even expected.

Hm. Normally, I’m not so self-deprecating. I’m sorry.

I’m not normally so overly apologetic, either. In fact, maybe I’m not me at all. Perhaps I’ve been replaced by a pod. A self-deprecating, overly-apologetic … pod.

Never mind. Let me start this email over: Dear Clarke,

I am not sorry for the delay in my reply, nor do I think you may ever tire of waiting around for my emails. Normally, I’m not so arrogant …

[We’ll just pretend I wrote a relatively normal-sounding intro to this email and have moved on to relevant topics of conversation…]

I don’t know that I’ve ever considered myself a romantic – though a friend called me just that earlier today. I’ve never believed in love at first sight or anything of the sort. These days, honestly, I’m more prone to believe that I’ll be single forever. Unlike you, I don’t expect much would ever come from a blind date.

Actually, since we’re on the subject, I have a blind date on Saturday evening. Dinner. With a doctor. My stepmother forced this upon me and well …

Lexa stopped typing, and for a long time her finger hovered over the backspace button. If she continued down this path, she would have to admit certain truths to the artist, and she wasn’t certain that was the best course of action. Even if Clarke had no idea who Lexa really was, it didn’t mean she wouldn’t one day find out. And then what? Would she release all the emails between them to the press? Would the media be able to track back the emails to Lexa?

Horrific scenarios flashed through Lexa’s mind, complete with tabloid headlines. What would stopClarke from blabbing?

And still, Lexa didn’t delete anything. She wanted to trust the artist. She wanted to hold on to the belief that they could be friends. Friends who might exchange emails their entire lives and never meet, but friends nonetheless.

Frowning, Lexa removed her fingers from the keyboard.

There was also the matter of how Clarke might take Lexa’s admission. What were the odds that a New York artist was homophobic? Lexa had no idea.

Without much thought, she dug her cell phone out of her pocket and dialed.

“Lexa?”

“Bellamy?”

“Lexa?”

“Bellamy?”

There was silence and then a loud sigh. “What can I do for you?”

Lexa hesitated, foreseeing the consequences of what she was about to say. “If I ask you something, do you promise not to ask me any questions in relation to what I’m about to ask you?”

“Uh…”

“I ask. You answer. I hang up.”

“All right …”

“Okay.” Lexa took a deep breath. “What do you think are the odds that an artist in New York is homophobic?”

“What?”

“That’s a question!”

“Sorry. I would like to know what you’re talking about.”

“Hey! That’s a thinly veiled question!”

“You said nothing about thinly veiled questions.”

“Never mind. I’m hanging up. Oh, and by the way, you’re being an idiot. Call Anya.”

“What?”

“Bye!” Lexa hung up before Bellamy had a chance to say anything else. She contemplated her next move, and then dialed. Anya picked up on the second ring.

“If I ask you something do you promise to just answer without asking any questions, thinly veiled or otherwise, about what I’m about to ask you?”

“Does my job depend on it?”

“Of course.”

“Then shoot.”

“Hypothetically speaking, what do you think the odds are that an artist in New York is homophobic?”

“Well that would depend. Are they originally from New York?”

“I don’t know.”

“Okay… well, are they religious?”

“I don’t know.”

“Did they vote Republican?”

“Anya, I don’t know. I don’t know her very well.” Lexa flinched. “Hypothetically … of course.”

“Her?”

“That’s a question.”

“Lexa, what the hell? You can’t just call someone up and ask a question like that without it raising some eyebrows.”

Lexa sighed. “Look, just close your eyes and think about it. Your normal, run of the mill artist type … homophobic?”

There was a pause and then, “I would say no, but you can’t know for sure. It’s never a good idea to make assumptions on this matter.”

“Okay. Thanks, Anya.”

“Lexa … why are you asking this?”

Lexa hadn’t ever considered telling Anya and Bellamy about Clarke. Partly because she felt guilty about lying to a stranger, partly because she was embarrassed about having emailed the artist in the first place, and partly because she’d never expected the emails to go on for so long. Anya and Bellamy would naturally blow the whole thing out of proportion. How would it look to them that she, Lexa Woods, exchanging emails with a girl, lying about her identity, while still divulging her inner most secrets?

Naturally, they’d jump to the very incorrect conclusion that Lexa might have more-than-friendly feelings toward the artist, and turn the entire situation into something awkward and exaggerated. Telling them the truth was out of the question. She’d never live this down.

“Lexa? Still there?”

“Oh, yeah. I’m here. Look, Anya, there’s nothing really to talk about. I was just … uh. I was working on a short story and my main character is an artist in New York and I was just wondering whether or not she should be … ah, homophobic. So there. Now you know. I like to dabble in the literary arts after dark.”

“How illicit. Whatever. Talk to you tomorrow, Shakespeare.”

Lexa hung up the phone and breathed a sigh of relief. She had no idea if Anya believed her or not – she doubted it, actually – but at least it had gotten her off the phone.

The email stared back at her from the computer screen and Lexa placed her hands on the keyboard once again.

Actually, since we’re on the subject, I have a blind date on Saturday evening. Dinner. With a doctor. My stepmother forced this upon me and well … he’s not really my type. I expect much awkwardness and uncomfortable silence. Does it count as a date if you know beforehand that there is no chance in hell that anything will come of it?

Lexa sat back, thinking. She’d opened the door to the possibility that Clarke would ask some direct questions. Now it was just a matter of deciding, if the questions ever came, whether or not she’d lie.

Chapter Text

“Hi,” he said in a tone so unfamiliar that Clarke didn’t know who had spoken until she’d looked up. Finn stood in front of her, hands deep in the pockets of his coat. His gaze drifted around the park before settling back on Clarke. “It’s getting kind of cold to be out here.”

The wind blew strongly at that moment, dragging an empty water bottle across the ground. Clarke watched it silently, briefly irritated at the person who had tossed it. Under normal circumstances she would have picked it up. Instead, she did nothing but hold the pages of her sketchpad down as the wind picked up again. “It’s fine,” she said.

“Did you like the flowers?”

Clarke looked down, feeling tired now. She wished he would leave. “What do you want, Finn?” He sat down beside her without waiting for an invitation. He must have known she wouldn’t offer one.

“I wanted to apologize.” Clarke stared at his profile, trying not to appear as surprised as she felt. Finn? Apologizing? To her? “It wasn’t your fault that I …” Finn hesitated and started again. “My parents were putting a lot of pressure on me to find someone else.” He glanced at her quickly. “It’s not that they don’t like you it’s just that you’re … you’re not …”

Clarke tried to ignore the sinking feeling that always accompanied the thought of Finn’s parents. Of course she knew that she was not upper class. Of course she knew that his parents didn’t approve of her, of her family, of her and Finn’s relationship. Of course she knew they had threatened to cut Finn off if he didn’t break up with her. They had made it abundantly clear that she wasn’t good enough for him.

Finn shifted to face her. “Things got really ugly, and I had to tell them that we’d broken up.”

Clarke swallowed, hating that this hurt her. “When?”

“Six months ago,” he said. “I’m sorry, Clarke. It was the only way they’d leave me alone. The only way they’d leave us alone. But, it wasn’t enough.” He paused and breathed deeply, indicating that was to follow was much worse. “They set me up with someone. The daughter of one of my father’s business partners. She’s headed to Harvard as well, and we … we really hit it off. That’s why I’ve been so distant. I’ve … I’ve been seeing her.”

Clarke blinked at him, unable to formulate words.

“I meant it when I said that I love you. It’s why I brought up your transferring to Harvard and being engaged. I wanted to believe that you and I could make it. That whatever I was feeling for Vanessa was only temporary…”

“Vanessa,” Clarke said softly, thinking the name would spark something in her. Anger or bitterness or something. Anything besides emptiness. “Did you sleep with her while we were together?”

Finn looked away. “I’m sorry.”

Clarke nodded. “Thanks for telling me,” she said, rising to her feet.

“Clarke…”

“It’s fine,” she said, not sure if it was true or not. The cold was getting to her now, and she needed to walk. Perhaps if she walked it would rid her of the numbness settling in on her. “Please stop calling me.”

“Do you hate me?”

“No,” and this she knew was true. “But I don’t want to see you again. Not any time soon. Maybe someday, in ten years or so, we’ll run into each other by accident, and we’ll be able to smile at each other and think back on this moment in a bittersweet kind of way. Maybe then, I will be happy to see you. Maybe. But right now, if I were to see you again, if I were to run into you and see you smiling and laughing with a group of friends, if you were to call me up and say ‘hi’, I think I would hate you. And maybe I will hate you anyway, once I walk away from you now and think about this. I can’t promise I won’t. But right now, at this very moment, all I feel is relieved. Relieved that this is over. Relieved that I’m not longer yours to hurt. Send my best to Vanessa. I wish you both the best. Goodbye, Finn.”

The empty water bottle caught her eye as she walked away, and she bent down to pick it up.

~*~

“I can’t believe that asshole.” Raven was scrubbing the table top so hard that Clarke thought the paint would come off. “Cheating on you like that? You! How dare he? Who does he think he is?”

Clarke looked around at the other patrons who were now staring curiously in their direction, and realized that telling Raven about her meeting with Finn at Raven’s place of employment hadn’t been the wisest thing to do. “Raven, people are staring,” she whispered.

“So?” Raven dropped the cloth on the table and regarded the man seated closest to Clarke. “If she were your girlfriend, would you cheat on her?”

Clarke covered her face with one hand and sank lower into the chair.

“I’m gay.”

“Of course you are,” Raven replied. She looked around. “Any guy here not gay? Hell, any lesbians in the house?”

“Have you lost your mind?” Clarke half-whispered, half-yelled through clenched teeth.

“I wouldn’t,” said a male voice. “She’s a fox.”

“There you go,” Raven said to Clarke. “Proof that Finn is an idiot.”

Clarke turned half way around to see what had to be a sixty year old man leering at her. “Ugh.” She turned back to Raven. “Look, I’m going back to the apartment. And, officially, I can never come back to visit you here again.”

Raven took Clarke’s statement to mean that she should sit down. So she did. In a low voice, she said, “I know a couple of guys who could track Finn down and beat the crap out of him. What do you think?”

“I think I’m a little scared of you right now.”

Raven narrowed her eyes at nothing in particular. “I’m so glad you’re done with that bastard. And trust me, if I ever run into him, he’s going to be really sorry.”

Instead of replying, Clarke ventured a smile. Ironically, Raven’s anger worked to soothe Clarke’s pain. The walk from the park had been a dark, emotional event. She might have shed a tear or two, though she would never admit it. Finn deserved no tears. He hadn’t deserved them before his confession, and certainly not after. And after venting over an appropriately named Venti-sized caffeinated drink, she felt better. Not quite skip-all-the-way-home better, but better all the same. “I’ll see you at home later?”

“Oh you bet. I’m picking up movies, pizza, and more junk food than you have ever seen in your life. We’ll have a huge Gilmore Girls-type Friday night extravaganza. Lorelai would be proud.”

“Hardcore. Can’t wait.”

Once outside, Clarke hailed a cab, a luxury she couldn’t quite afford but that felt necessary at that moment. If she walked, she would think, and she was tired of thinking. At least this way, her thinking time would be reduced dramatically. She wanted to focus, instead, on the positive. And once she figured out what the positive was, she’d give it her full attention.

“Nice night,” she said absently to the cab driver, hoping he’d hear her through the plastic divider between them. His reply came in the form of a grunt, and Clarke gave up trying to decide if he was agreeing with her or not. She glanced out the window, at the City passing by in a blur of motion. It was a nice night, she decided, watching as familiar buildings grew closer and then vanished into the past.

Clarke was relieved when the cab pulled up to her building. She’d kept a close eye on the meter, ready to yell, “pull over,” if the cost exceeded the amount of money she carried. As it happened, she had just enough.

“Have a good night,” she said politely, only to hear a dismissive grunt in reply. Perhaps she hadn’t tipped enough to warrant a full word.

The apartment was dark when Clarke stepped inside, and she moved quickly to turn on the light. Listening, as she always did, for sounds that might give away an intruder. Hearing nothing, she wandered into her bedroom and closed the door.

The room smelled of cigarette smoke and stale cigars, neither of which were her doing. She lit an incense stick to cover the odors seeping in from other apartments and sat down at the edge of the bed.

The mattress squeaked, and she moved to a spot that didn’t feel as lumpy as the rest.

In the corner, her easel stood buried beneath two shirts and a jacket. That is what her passion had become: a hamper. She thought of Alexandria and felt like a fraud. When was the last time she’d painted? It had been weeks.

This is not how it was supposed to be. She should’ve been standing over a canvas, paintbrush in hand, clothes covered in oil and paint; happy and alive, if slightly crazy from the paint fumes. She should not have been sitting in bed, sulking about a guy she wasn’t even in love with. Michelangelo wouldn’t have sulked. He would’ve hit a rock with a hammer and created a masterpiece or sat down to write a poem that encapsulated the very essence of love and passion. Then again, she was hardly Michelangelo and Finn was hardly Cavalieri, and neither relationship could be remotely compared to the other, so where she was headed with that train of thought was anybody’s guess.

Somewhere, the theme to I Love Lucy played and Clarke listened to the muffled sounds of dialogue before moving to take the laptop out of its case. The computer, like most of Clarke’s valuable belongings, was a gift from Finn. It was also the only gift that she would likely not be returning or giving away to Goodwill or burning in a fire of spiritual and emotional cleansing.

Her email loaded slower than usual, or so it seemed. She smiled, however, when the name Alexandria Nicole appeared in the inbox. There were few things lately that Clarke looked forward to; a cup of coffee first thing in the morning, the end of classes, the start of a fresh roll of toilet paper, and Alexandria’s emails.

She began to read, smiling at the words on the screen and forgetting for a moment that she didn’t know the girl at the other end of the screen. She hadn’t talked to Raven about Alexandria much, or at all since their discussion on Alexandria’s potential gender confusion. It seemed like an outlandish thing, to be communicating with a stranger via email. She’d heard of people doing that before, but she’d never considered herself the type of person to fall victim to online friendships. Is that what this was? Friendship? She hardly knew anything about Alexandria as it was. What they shared was something in the category of Other; something still untitled.

Still, Alexandria made her smile, made her wish to know more about the woman behind the emails. How old was she? What did she look like? What did she like to do? Did she go to school? Did she have a job?

Dear Alexandria,

I was sitting here thinking that I know so little about you. Perhaps that’s a good thing – I’m not sure what the usual protocol is for online communication. It’s new to me, this whole thing of emailing someone I don’t know. I was asleep while my entire generation jumped onto the Internet head first and began using chat rooms and forums to meet other people.

I have always been old fashioned in that respect, I guess. Words on a screen never seemed like enough – but then, I’m an artist and all about the visual. Words and I have never been friends. In fact, I have to think really hard when I write to you, hoping I’m not sounding terribly idiotic and running everything though a spellchecker as I go so that I don’t end up sounding like a moron. I’ve not yet managed to figure out how to sound like ‘me’ when I write. Is there a way to sound like yourself in emails? I’m not sure. I just know I used the word ‘sound’ entirely too many times in that paragraph and though it seems fine to me, I think my Lit professor would frown deeply at this email.

Usually I would just erase it or cheat by using a thesaurus but I’m not sure you care if I use the same word 800 times in one paragraph or if I forget a comma somewhere. You can tell me if you do care, of course, and I’ll just proceed to bang my head against an easel or something.

It’s weird, isn’t it? That we started talking about love and relationships and I don’t even know how oldmyou are or what you look like or even what your hobbies are. Maybe you’re used to this kind of exchange, so I apologize for being such a newbie.

Regardless, I was hoping that you could tell me more about you. I’ll take anything, the most mundane details are accepted, as well as any quirks you wouldn’t normally admit to the general public. I suppose that’s one advantage to being relatively anonymous.

I’m sorry if this email is excessively long or rambly (and unlike you, I do normally over-apologize, especially in situations where nothing is my fault). Today I had one of those days that I wish I could forget. I can’t forget it, of course, which is why I’m rambling to you. Rambling is so much easier than forgetting.

Today my ex-boyfriend appeared out of the blue to tell me that he’d been dating someone else on the side and that he’d also slept with this girl while we were together. I know I should be angry, which I am. I told him I was relieved, and I am that, too. The weird thing is, I’m more angry at myself than at him. I’m angry that I let the relationship go on so long when I knew it wasn’t working. I hadn’t been in love with him for months … why didn’t I end it then? Why did I keep thinking something would change?

He’s an asshole for cheating and lying, but I wasn’t a saint, either. I might not have physically cheated, but my heart wasn’t in it. I couldn’t muster enthusiasm for anything we did together anymore. When he slept over I’d end up sleeping on the couch just because I couldn’t sleep with him beside me. I began to get irritated by the mere thought of him. His phone calls grated on my nerves. I started to hate the sight of him chewing, the sound of his laugh, and the fact that he always smelled of cigarettes (no offense if you’re a smoker).

None of these things add up to my being the kind of girlfriend he should’ve wanted to have, right? He couldn’t have been happy. No matter how much he claims to love me, I can’t begin to fathom what he saw in me. And I guess that whatever it was, it wasn’t enough.

(Oh yeah, I’ve been also known to be self-deprecating. It comes with the territory of being a dark, brooding artist-type.)

I just wish I didn’t feel so bitter about a relationship that had been doomed for ages. I blame the melancholy.You start thinking about how things were at the beginning, and how happy you were, and how in love you felt. You start to remember the things he used to do, and how they made you feel, and then the present comes tumbling down. Suddenly, you’re twenty-one years old, sitting in your bed, rambling to a stranger about a guy you used to love but don’t anymore, and you think, ‘Oh my God. This can’t possibly be my life.’

So there you have it. My current mental state. This email would be even better if I were drunk. But enough about me …

So, you mentioned a blind date. I guess the question on my mind while reading your email was: what’s your type? I thought doctors were all the rage? What’s wrong with him? Too old? Too young? Too short? Too tall?

Actually, if he’s a blind date … how do you know he’s not your type?

Chapter Seventeen

The date had been going well, to Lexa’s surprise. Daniel was neither boring nor self-absorbed, and Lexa began to understand how one might end up in a relationship after all. If she had been even remotely interested in him physically, she might have agreed to a second date. And maybe a third, and then who knew? They might be picking china patterns by the end of the year.

“I need to apologize to you, Lexa,” Daniel said, looking uncomfortable for the first time all evening. His blue eyes darted around the restaurant nervously, and Lexa began to wonder if she’d been wrong about him all along. Perhaps he was a con-artist, or a Pap in disguise. Perhaps the real Daniel Thornton was tied up and gagged in the trunk of a car somewhere.

Lexa put down her glass of Château Margaux and regarded her date, with what she hoped was a curious-but-not-panicked expression.

“I know that our mothers set this up, and I’m truly honored that you’d even want to go on a date with me, considering who you are and everything. And I realize this must make me an idiot in about thirty different countries. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be dating Lexa Woods, right?” He reached for his drink and finished it before continuing. “It’s mainly that ... my last relationship … she and I were very serious and I … I’m not quite over her yet. God knows I should be. I mean, she broke my heart in every way imaginable. I’m just … not.” He breathed, meeting her gaze. “I wanted to tell you that because you’re so lovely and I feel horrible agreeing to this date when I knew I wasn’t over Angelica yet.”

Lexa relaxed and offered him a sympathetic smile. To say she was relieved was an understatement. “I understand completely,” she said, and was pleased when he returned her smile. “Why don’t we just enjoy the rest of the dinner and then at least we can tell our respective mothers that we made it through the evening without embarrassing either of our family names. That’s all they really care about anyway.”

Daniel laughed. “Isn’t that the truth?” He studied her suddenly and looked pensive for a moment. “Forgive me for asking, but, why are you single? I can’t imagine there’s a shortage of men wanting to take you out to dinner.”

Lexa lowered her gaze, feeling uncomfortable under his scrutiny; as though he might be able to guess what it was just by looking at her. “I guess I’m just picky.”

He nodded, as if she’d said something wise. “That’s good. Don’t settle. I dated so many women. Family approved women, of course. I was pretty certain at least one of those Stanford girls would turn out to be the One. Didn’t happen. Then I started working and you know, crazy hospital hours didn’t leave me much of a social life. And one day, after I’d given up on ever meeting anyone at all, there she was: Angelica. The maid’s daughter. It was a disaster from the beginning.” He shook his head sadly, and shrugged. “But you can’t help who you love, right?”

~*~

Her cell phone chimed the second Lexa stepped into her house, and an image of Anya hiding out in the bushes outside crossed through her mind before she answered. “You have impeccable timing. Are you stalking me?”

“Always,” came Anya’s voice. “Your paychecks have funded my entire criminal career.”

Lexa took off her heels and carried them the rest of the way to her bedroom. Her feet ached and she was anxious to change into something comfortable. “I guess that means I don’t need to fill you in on the details of my date tonight since I’m sure you have video footage already. Let me know when it’s up on YouTube.”

“You seem to be in a good mood,” Anya noted. “It couldn’t have been a total disaster.”

Lexa sat down on the bed and rubbed her feet. “It wasn’t, actually. It was quite nice, in fact.”

“Oh? Does that mean you’re thinking of dating him?”

Lexa rolled her eyes. “Yes. One evening with a man I could talk to and suddenly I realized I’d been wrong all along. I’m cured! Bring on the men.”

There was a pause before Anya said, “I really can’t tell if you’re joking or not.”

“I’ll work on my punch line for next time. Anyway, the date went fine. We ate, we talked, he told me all about the woman he’s in love with, I listened. He paid the check. He opened the door for me. And then he drove me home.”

Anya laughed. “Seriously?”

“Seriously.”

“So he’s in love with someone else?”

“Yes. Angelica. She sounds like a nice girl. Smart, too. Did you know she was the Valedictorian at her high school? She even got a scholarship to Yale but her father got sick so she had to stay around here and help out the family.”

“Wow, he really did tell you about her.”

“Oh yeah. I even saw baby pictures. He’s got it bad. Poor guy. He was really nice. If I’d been straight, or even bisexual or pansexual, I’d have definitely been upset that his heart is taken.”

“Well it all worked out for the best then.”

“Absolutely. It’s over and done with, and that’s the last time I agree to a blind date.” She reached over to turn on the lamp on her nightstand. “So, was that the reason you were calling? To find out about the date?”

“Partly. I wanted to tell you I finished reading the script.”

Lexa switched the phone to the other ear. “Oh yeah? What did you think? Be honest.”

“Honestly? Honestly, I think it’s great, Lexa. I think that if you turn down this role, you’re going to regret it somewhere down the road. You’ve wanted a part like this for as long as I’ve known you...”

“I have.”

“And this character, Elizabeth … I can’t imagine anyone else playing her. This could very well be a once-ina- lifetime opportunity. Why dismiss it on account of your personal life? It’s just acting.”

Just acting, Lexa thought. Right. “I have that meeting with the director tomorrow, right?”

“Yeah that was the other reason I was calling, to remind you. I emailed you the details and the directions to the restaurant. Brunch is okay, right? She suggested brunch and I figured you wouldn’t care.”

“Brunch is fine. Thanks, Anya.”

“Sure. I also attached a picture of her I found online so you would recognize her easier.”

“You’re the best.”

“I know. So, listen, guess who called me today?”

“The Pope?”

“Bellamy.”

Lexa smiled. “And?”

“He finally took his head out of his ass. He yelled. I yelled. I hung up on him. He hung up on me. He was frustrating to talk to, but I think he’s getting over it.”

“I’m glad you guys managed to work things out.”

“Thanks for calling him an idiot and telling him to call. Sometimes he needs to hear it.”

“Oh don’t worry. It wasn’t the first time I’ve called him an idiot, and it likely won’t be the last.”

Anya snorted. “I believe it. We also discussed your very cryptic phone call about the homophobic artist in New York. Any chance you’ll illuminate us with the details sometime soon?”

“Are you saying you didn’t believe I was writing a story?”

“Not in hell.”

“Great.”

“So?”

“What so?”

“Who is she?”

“She who?”

“The artist?”

“What artist?”

Lexa.”

Lexa smiled into the phone. “You’re the stalker. Figure it out.”

“I’ll break you down eventually. You can’t – wait, shit.

“What?”

“It’s the artist. The one who made that painting that you had me cart all over Los Angeles. What did you do? Did you call her?”

Lexa had forgotten how it easy it was to piece it all together. She should’ve never made those phone calls. “I didn’t call her,” she said impatiently. “And don’t go blowing things out of proportion. It’s nothing. I just emailed her to say that I liked her painting. That’s all.”

“That’s all?” Anya sounded doubtful and Lexa didn’t like it.

“Yes that’s all! What else would it be?”

“I don’t know. Why did you want to know if she’s homophobic?”

Lexa sighed, a headache beginning to pound at her temples. “I was just wondering. I don’t know. It wasn’t for any particular reason.”

“Does she know who you are?”

“No.”

“You didn’t tell her it was you?”

“No!”

“So… what, she thinks you’re … who?”

“Alexandria.”

“Alexandria who?”

“Just Alexandria.”

“And she didn’t think it was odd when your email came through as Lexa Woods?”

Lexa hesitated.

Anya started to laugh. “Oh no. You just made up a new address?”

Was her assistant psychic? She was unnerved by the conversation. “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s nothing. And talking about it makes it seem like something, and that makes me uncomfortable.”

“Sorry.”

“And don’t tell Bellamy.”

“Oh, c’mon. This is too good not to discuss.”

“Anya!”

“Ooh, I’ve got another call. Probably Bellamy. Talk to you tomorrow!”

“Anya!” The phone went dead and Lexa’s shoulders slumped. So much for keeping this a secret. Her own fault. She should’ve known calling them would arouse suspicion. They were nothing if not nosy.

Resigned, she dropped the phone on the bed and headed into the closet to change. Tomorrow was another day, and she had important decisions to make.

Chapter nineteen

Decisions sometimes came in bulk, Lexa learned the following morning as she read over Clarke’s last email. She felt a mix of emotions as she read: panic at the thought that Clarke wanted to know more about her, as well as an odd sense of flattery over the same; anger at Clarke’s boyfriend for cheating; sadness that Clarke blamed, in some part, herself; and other things that she didn’t have a name for.

She sat back on her chair, sipping soda that doubled as her breakfast, and contemplating her options. Not writing back would be insensitive, Lexa recognized, though writing back could only lead to a myriad of complications. Complications which she had foreseen, but chosen to ignore. She should’ve ended things at the beginning, or better yet, not started things at all.

Now she was stuck. Stuck between wanting to be honest, and not knowing how.

She sighed, placing the can on the desk and hitting the reply icon on the screen.

To: Clarke Griffin

From: Alexandria Nicole

Subject: Re: Your Art

Dear Clarke,

Lexa waited for the right words to come to mind. When they didn’t, she removed her fingers from the keyboard and looked around her room. Her gaze landed on the time and she leaned back, letting the chair swing back and forth. She had three hours to write back to Clarke, shower, get dressed, and get to her scheduled brunch date with Costia Calloway.

Why writing back to Clarke rated first on her list of things to do, she wasn’t sure. Something told her that if she didn’t write back before she left, she wouldn’t be able to concentrate on anything else. That fact danced along the edges of her mind, inching toward a mild sort of worry.

The cursor on the screen ticked away the seconds, and Lexa straightened up.

Dear Clarke,

I’m also a novice at this communicating-through-email thing, so I wouldn’t worry too much about the protocol. I’m perfectly happy playing it by ear. To be honest, I didn’t expect our virtual interaction to last more than an email or two. I’m not known for trying to befriend strangers out of the blue.

I’m sorry about how things turned out with you and your ex-boyfriend. I know you feel somewhat responsible for the outcome, but I still think it was a shitty thing he did. He could’ve told you if he was unhappy. But it’s not really my place to comment one way or the other. Regardless, I hope that you find happiness, or at least the path back to your art. I think perhaps the latter would lead to the former...

Anyway, about me. Let’s see. It’s an odd thing to summarize oneself. Where do you begin? You asked about my age, so I guess I’ll start there: I’m twenty-two. My hobbies … hm. I read a lot. I like to cook (contemplated culinary school for a while, actually). I swim when I have the time. I don’t have any odd hobbies or special skills. I don’t collect things or fly model airplanes in my spare time or anything of the sort. I guess that makes me pretty boring (or just normal, depending on your world view – which in mine kind of amounts to the same thing).

I guess that’s all pretty common and maybe doesn’t paint a very good picture of who I am. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure who I am. I like to think I do, or pretend that I do, but I don’t. Not really. Maybe that’s why I chose acting as a career.

Lexa frowned thoughtfully, debating whether or not to leave the last paragraph in. She didn’t want to lie, but it didn’t mean she had to put the whole truth on a silver platter for Clarke to dissect.

Not yet, anyway.

She highlighted the last paragraph, and clicked a random key. Then she rolled her eyes. “I sound so lame.”

She ran a hand through her hair in frustration and let out a deep breath. She glanced out, through the sliding glass doors that led to the balcony, out to the ocean beyond. After a couple of minutes, she turned back to the computer.

(…) which in mine kind of amounts to the same thing).

What about you? It’s probably natural for people to assume that art is your hobby, but I bet, to you, it’s everything but.

Anyway, moving on. My blind date actually turned out to be better than I expected. He was kind, funny, good-looking, and in love with someone else. I know you asked how I knew he wasn’t my type before I met him, and the truth is that the fact that it was a ‘him’ kind of gave it away.

Lexa stared at the screen, knowing she should delete what she’d written, but not really wanting to. If Clarke were ever to discover who she really was, these emails could serve as evidence. Copies would circulate the Internet, get plastered on magazines, and come back to bite her in the ass. If this ever got out, the media would have a field day. “And it would be great publicity, I just bet,” she muttered.

She tapped her fingers on the keyboard. “Why are you doing this to yourself, Lexa?” Shaking her head, she continued to type.

Consider yourself person number three on the list of people in this world who know that about me. I guess anonymity does go a long way toward aiding honesty along.

Anyway, I hope you’re doing well.

Until soon,

Alexandria

She sent the email without reading over it, knowing she would delete everything if she got a second chance. “She’s going to think I’m a creepy stalker-type,” Lexa mumbled as she rose from her desk. “With a mullet.”

~*~

Rain fell hard against the window, drops breaking into smaller versions of themselves then sliding down in zig-zag patterns only to gather on the sill. Clarke crossed her arms against her chest and sighed. A perfectly good day, ruined. “I hate it when it rains on days I want to sell my art.”

Raven snorted from the couch. She’d borrowed Clarke’s laptop and was gazing intently into the screen. Without looking up, she said, “It’s getting too cold out, anyway. Fewer people stopping to look. Maybe you should look into displaying it somewhere else. Preferably indoors.”

Clarke turned away from the window and walked toward her friend. “There’s a big student art exhibit coming up,” she said, sitting beside Raven. “Only two students per class get picked, though.” She shrugged. “Odds aren’t good.”

“See, that’s your problem.”

“Excuse me?”

“You have no confidence. You want something, you need to go after it. Even if it means stretching your comfort zone a little. Who picks the students?”

Clarke hesitated only briefly before saying, “Professor Kane.”

“And have you ever spoken to this Professor Kane outside of class?”

Clarke frowned. “No. I have a class right after his. I usually have to rush out to get there in time.”

“And this next class is an art class?”

“No… Lit.”

Raven sighed and put the laptop on the coffee table. “Do you see where I’m going with this?”

Clarke settled back on the couch. “No…”

“Priorities, Clarke. If you want your stuff at that exhibit, you need to go the extra mile. Your talent only goes so far, I’m sorry to say. Sometimes the artist needs to speak louder than the canvas.”

Clarke shifted uncomfortably. “So you want me to … what? Just go up to him? Strike up a conversation?”

“You’re his student. Certainly you have questions you want answered. Or deep, philosophical observations about whatever kind of art he likes most in all the world. Just make yourself noticed. If he remembers your face and your name, he might take a closer look at your art.” Raven shrugged. “All the same, you might still not get chosen, but it’s something. If not this, maybe he’ll pick you for something else. You never know.”

Clarke imagined herself going up to Professor Kane after class and starting a conversation about Surrealism and André Breton, about art as a revolutionary movement. Wouldn’t he see through that? Wouldn’t he dismiss her as just another student wanting to make the grade? If her art was worth it, wouldn’t it get noticed on its own? “I’ll think about it,” is what she said to Raven, in an effort to drop the subject. “What are you up to?”

Raven retrieved the laptop again and pointed at the screen. “Checking out open call auditions. I really need to get myself an agent. But some of these look promising. Want to come along? There’s one in a couple of hours.”

Clarke glanced at the window and the rain still coming down strong. “I think I’ll stay in dry land today.”

“Suit yourself.” Raven handed the laptop over to Clarke. “Thanks for letting me borrow it. I saw you twitching earlier. Do I need to send you to Webaholics Anonymous?”

Clarke took the object and settled it on her lap. “It’s not that. It’s just …” She stopped short, thinking it a weird thing to admit.

“It’s just…?”

Clarke shrugged, hoping it didn’t sound like a big deal. “I emailed Alexandria a couple of days ago and I was hoping she’d write back today.”

Raven nodded, looking perplexed. “Seriously?”

“Yeah, why?”

“I never figured you for the obsessive pen pal type.”

Clarke frowned. “I’m not obsessive.”

“Mmm, whatever you say, Twitchy.” She nodded at the laptop. “So, go ahead. Check if she wrote you.”

Clarke felt uncomfortable checking her email with Raven looking over her shoulder. Her interactions with Alexandria had always felt like a private matter. Something that wasn’t meant to be shared. Hurting Raven’s feelings, however, was out of the question, so, hesitantly, Clarke moved the cursor around until the mail client popped up.

Mail loaded on the screen, a virtual cocktail of junk mail, store sales, and more junk. Clarke was both relieved and disappointed by the absence of Alexandria’s name.

“Guess she’s busy,” Raven said, moving away from Clarke. “Speaking of busy, you want to go out tonight? Hit a bar, watch me get drunk and flirt with random people?”

Clarke was about to decline when movement on the screen caught her eye. The name Alexandria Raye appeared in her inbox, and suddenly, her spirits lifted. Clarke closed the laptop and turned to Raven.

“Um, sure. Yeah. If the rain stops. I hate getting wet.”

Raven sat back, surprised. “Really?”

“Yeah, the feel of wet clothes is—“

“I meant about going out tonight?”

“Oh.” Clarke nodded, not really thinking about it. “It’s Saturday. And I’m single, right? I should have a little fun.”

Raven grinned. “I’m going to hold you to that. No excuses.”

“Except for the rain.”

“What if it’s just a drizzle?”

“We’ll see,” Clarke said, smiling at her friend’s enthusiasm. “Don’t you have an audition to get ready for?”

Raven nodded and stood, then paused, looking thoughtful. “Did you ever stop to think that this Alexandria person could be a forty-year-old, beer-bellied, child molester named Bob or something? Cause I was thinking, it could also be a serial killer. You know, he pays clean-cut guys some money to purchase street art, gives them extra to flirt with the salesperson and get their business card, then uses that information to get close to the artist. Pretends to be a fan. Lowers the creep factor by claiming to be female. Gets private information. Then bam! Shows up at your door one day as a surprise, and boom. You wake up to find yourself tied up at some old warehouse, naked and bloody.”

Clarke blinked at Raven. “Entirely too much TV for you.”

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Raven said, walking away. “I just hope the Medium lady has a dream about you before it happens and comes to warn you. ‘Cause unless this has happened many times before and they’re on the case, the Bones people and the SVU people will get there entirely too late. And I’ll be forced to say, ‘I tried to warn her, officers.’.”

~*~

Lexa arrived fashionably late to the brunch meeting, and thanks to Anya’s quick thinking, recognized the director without trouble. Initially, she’d thought the photo Anya had sent her was old, but standing face-to-face with Costia Calloway, Lexa realized the director was simply young. Pretty, too, she thought, but didn’t dwell, putting on her poker face and shaking hands before sitting down at the table.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” Lexa began, though she really wasn’t. When it came to business, she never waited for other people. She felt it gave her a disadvantage.

Costia Calloway smiled easily, showing straight white teeth. Her brown eyes contemplated Lexa briefly. “I’m really glad you agreed to meet with me today, Ms. Woods. Your assistant made it clear you were pretty busy these days.”

Lexa reached for a glass of water. “My agent told me you really wanted me for this part.”

“I wrote it for you,” Costia admitted. “With you in mind, anyway. Naturally, if you decline I’ll have to find someone else, but I’d rather it didn’t come to that.” She opened the menu. “Do you know what’s good here?”

Lexa was momentarily distracted by the way the director’s curly hair fell across her face. “Uh,” she opened her own menu, feeling flustered. “I’ve never been here, actually. I thought you were recommending it.”

“The hotel manager I spoke to suggested it, actually,” Costia said. “I asked him what the best place to convince a high profile actress to star in my movie would be and he pointed me to this.” She looked around. “How is it making you feel? Like you want to give in?”

Lexa couldn’t help but smile. “Maybe after some scrambled eggs.”

“Excellent.” Costia met her gaze for a moment. “Look, Ms. Woods—“

“Lexa.”

“Lexa,” Costia repeated as if trying it out. “I’m sure you have plenty of other, better offers on the table right now. My movie is small, it’s got a respectable budget but probably not what you’re used to. I was told it was a long shot getting you to star in this, but I’m nothing if not stubborn. What will it take for you to say yes?”

Lexa considered the director’s words. She had been thinking about this role for weeks. She had re-read the script so many times she practically had it memorized already. And still, until that moment, she hadn’t made her final decision. It wasn’t until meeting the director that Lexa realized something she hadn’t considered before: it could be fun.

She could tell by the director’s eyes that Costia Calloway thought the issue was money. The thought almost made Lexa smile. “Out of curiosity, how much of your budget has been put aside for my salary?”

Costia looked surprised by the question. “We’re prepared to offer you the usual sum. Is it not sufficient?”

“May I take your orders?” the waitress interrupted.

Lexa relaxed, glancing briefly at the menu before placing her order. Costia followed her lead and before long, they were alone again.

“Tell you what,” Lexa said. “Take whatever you were going to spend on me, divide it by four, and pay me that instead.”

Costia stared at her, suddenly at a loss. “I’m sorry, I don’t…”

“I’ll take the role,” Lexa said, knowing, as she said it, that it was the right thing to do. “But I don’t want that much money. To be honest, I don’t need it. I’ve not yet developed a drug addiction so I can spare the change.” She smiled at the look on Costia’s face. “You were right, this place is very persuasive.”

Slowly, Costia began to smile. “Well. Maybe I’ll bring my mother here sometime.”

“Are you trying to get her to star in a movie, too?”

Costia laughed. “Not quite. Though if I were to film a current rendition of Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot she’d be the perfect candidate for the role of Tutti.”

Lexa grinned, feeling more relaxed than she had in days. She’d expected the decision to weigh on her, and instead, she felt light. It had been the right choice. Whatever happened from here on out, whatever the consequences, she’d deal with them.

She thought of Clarke and the email she’d sent earlier in the day. She’d have to deal with those consequences, too.

Whenever they came.

Chapter Text

When Raven came back from her audition, Clarke was finishing her email to Alexandria. Either she’d been typing for longer than she’d thought, or Raven’s audition had ended early. She kept her gaze on the screen until the email disappeared from her Outbox. Then she slammed close the laptop and turned halfway around to look into the kitchen.

Raven was staring into the refrigerator. “We seriously need to go shopping. All we have is left over Chinese from who knows how long ago and beer.” She pulled out a bottle of beer and closed the door.

“That was a fast audition.”

Raven uncapped the beer and tossed the cap into the trash, then walked over. “It was a nightmare.”

“The boring kind of nightmare, or the interesting, let-me-make-some-popcorn kind?”

Raven took a long sip and plopped down beside Clarke. “Definitely the popcorn kind.” Then she smiled. “If we had any.”

“I’ll settle for the story then.” She made herself comfortable. “Shoot.”

“Well. Let’s see. First, it took me forever just to find the building because nobody knew of Clairmont Theater and even though I had the address I kept missing the place because I didn’t realize I was actually looking for an apartment building.”

“Okay…”

“And not even a fancy one. No. That apartment building makes ours look luxurious. Anyway, I walked into ‘Clairmont Theater’, went up to the third floor, as per the instructions, and knocked on door 312. By that point, I was starting to get the idea that this was not quite what I was hoping for. But, I figured, an audition is an audition. So, I knocked and waited. And waited. Finally, the door opened and suddenly there was a man standing there wearing … cut-off shorts.”

Clarke held back a laugh. “Just cut-offs?”

“Just cut-offs. He was holding a can of beer in one hand, and looking me up and down like I was the stripper he’d sent for.”

She laughed then. “That’s insane. What’d you do?”

“Well … he asked me if I was there for the audition. At first I thought of saying I had the wrong door, cause seriously… “ She laughed. “…but then I said yeah, and he invited me in. At that point, I started digging into my bag for mace, just in case. Anyway, I followed him into this tiny little living room only to find … a really hot naked guy.”

“What?”

“Totally naked. Totally hot. Long story short, it was an audition for a porn video.”

Clarke blinked. “Okay. Please tell me that you didn’t actually participate in…”

Raven snorted. “Of course not, Clarke. I am a serious actress. I got into Juilliard. I have talent coming out of my ass. And if my idiot mother hadn’t cheated on my father and my idiot of a father hadn’t set fire to the house and my entire life hadn’t fallen into chaos … well … I’d be in a much better place career-wise right now. But no. I’m answering calls for porn videos instead.”

Clarke touched Raven’s arm lightly.

Raven took a deep breath and smiled. “The good news is, I got that guy’s number.”

Clarke dropped her arm. “The one in the cut-offs?”

“Ha! No, no… the naked one.”

“You’re going to date a porn star?”

“Hell no.” Raven laughed and put the bottle of beer on the coffee table. “I could never date a guy who sleeps with women for a living. I’m just going to have sex with him next Friday. Then I can cross ‘sleep with a porn star’ off my life’s to-do list.” She stopped to consider. “Although, I don’t even know if this guy’s big enough.”

Clarke arched an eyebrow. “Okay, is this going where I think it’s going? Cause ew.”

Raven looked confused, then as comprehension dawned on her, she grinned. “Oh! No. Trust me, he’s big enough.” Raven chuckled. “I meant, a big enough star. I don’t know crap about porn. What if he’s a nobody. I mean, it’s one thing to sleep with a porn star, but … what if he’s not a star. He’s just a … porn … guy.” She thought about it. “Then again, he could always become a star later, and I would’ve missed my chance to say, ‘Hey I know that penis from somewhere.’”

Clarke cleared her throat and grabbed Raven’s beer, then drank down the rest of it.

Raven grinned. “I love making you blush. It’s almost too easy.” She pointed to the laptop. “So, did the serial killer ever write you back?”

“Yes, and I told her to come over and bring her sharpest knife.”

“Your idea of cyber sex is decidedly twisted. Just make sure I’m outta here, I don’t want to be caught in the middle of this sordid mess.”

“Duly noted.”

“But seriously, she wrote back? Anything new? Anything interesting? I’m allowed to ask about your new friend, right?”

Clarke smiled. “Of course. Um…” She tried to think of something in Alexandria’s email that might seem like shareable information. Nothing really popped out. “Um… well, she went on a blind date.”

“Really? How did it go? Total disaster?”

“Actually, she said it went well. He just … wasn’t her type.”

Raven nodded. “Too bad. Did she say what was wrong with him? Bad hair? Bad teeth? Ooh! I went out with this guy once, he was super nice, but the way he chewed …” Raven made a face.

“Um.” Clarke hesitated. Alexandria had said not many people knew about her being gay, but … would she really care if her roommate knew? It’s not like they knew each other. Still, it felt wrong to betray Alexandria’s confidence. “She didn’t really say.”

“Oh.” Raven glanced at Clarke for a moment, studying her face as if trying to read her thoughts. “You just don’t want to tell me. It’s cool. She told you things in confidence. I get it.”

Clarke felt incredibly awkward. On the one hand, she didn’t want to talk about the things Alexandria had privately shared with her. On the other, Raven was her best friend. If the roles were reversed, Raven would have told her. Not because Raven was a gossip queen, but because that’s what best friends do. They share. “She’s gay.”

Raven smiled. “You didn’t have to tell me that just because you felt guilty.”

“I didn’t.” It wasn’t really a lie, was it? “Anyway, there you go. The reason he wasn’t her type.”

Raven considered it. “Well, as far as reasons go, that’s a good one.” She stood. “Anyway, I’m going to go get changed. We’re still on for the bar tonight, yes?”

“Absolutely. I’ll just watch TV while you get ready.”

Raven halted in her steps. “Wait, you’re not wearing that are you?”

Clarke glanced down at her NYU t-shirt and jeans. “I was planning to … why?”

Raven grabbed Clarke by the hands and pulled her up. “Let’s go raid my closet. We’re going out together, and we’re both going to look fabulous.”

Clarke allowed herself to be pulled.

~*~

“Lexa,” Bellamy said, as he swallowed, “this is so delicious.”

“It’s decent,” Anya said, by way of agreement.

Lexa smiled and poured everyone more wine. “I appreciate the flattery.”

Anya reached for her glass and turned to Lexa. “So, when are you going to tell us about your meeting with the director? Are you doing the movie, are you not?”

“Is it true she’s hot?”

Lexa stared at Bellamy, then at Anya. “You don’t mind him asking that?”

Anya shook her head. “Who do you think told him she was hot?”

Bellamy nodded. “And see? I didn’t throw a tantrum. I am above that now. Dr. Petrie’s helping me manage my insecurities. Turns out, it’s all my mother’s fault.”

Lexa cast a questioning look at Anya, who shrugged and said, “His new shrink.”

“What happened to the old one?”

Bellamy finished chewing. “Oh… he knew way too much about me. I had to cut him loose.”

“Oh, sure.” Lexa turned back to her meal.

Bellamy and Anya exchanged glances.

Then Bellamy spoke again. “So… the director? The movie?”

Lexa took her time with the bite of food in her mouth, then followed it with some wine. Both Bellamy and Anya were staring at her expectantly and it amused her. “I took the role.”

“That’s great,” Bellamy nudged Anya and held up his glass. “A toast. To Lexa getting it on with another hot chick, and everyone getting to watch.” He grinned and clinked his glass with a passive Anya.

Lexa simply shook her head, and continued eating.

“And the director?”

Lexa let the question hang in the air, while the sound of waves crashed in the distance. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had so much fun during a meeting with a director. Normally, she would’ve been in and out as fast as she could, but with Costia … she’d found herself stalling.

Remembering the question left unanswered on the dinner table, she shrugged and gently stabbed a piece of broccoli on her plate. “She was … interesting.”

Anya and Bellamy looked at each other, but didn’t say anything.

Their silence unnerved Lexa more than anything they could’ve said. “What?” she asked, finally.

It was Anya who spoke first. “I don’t think we’ve ever heard you describe anyone as … ‘interesting.’”

“What are you talking about? There’s tons of people I find interesting.”

“Name one,” Bellamy said.

Clarke. The name popped into her mind as easily as if someone had whispered it in her ear. Lexa cleared her throat and pretended to be thinking. “Um.”

Anya took that to mean defeat. “Exactly.”

“Pretty soon she’ll be moving in here, and your publicist will be putting out lesbian scandal fires left and right.” Bellamy sighed, smiling dreamily. “I can’t wait.”

Lexa rolled her eyes. The mere thought of a lesbian scandal with her name on it was enough to give her nightmares. “Look, she was an undeniably attractive woman, sure. But, to think that anything more could come of that is ridiculous. For one … she’s probably not even interested in women.”

“Oh, she is,” Anya added assertively. “One hundred percent.”

Lexa froze. “What?”

“Costia Calloway? She’s been out for years. Quietly so, sure, but definitely out. I learned all about her while I was looking for her picture.” Anya smiled mischievously. “Would you like to know?”

Lexa frowned. “No.” She tried to concentrate on her meal but her curiosity got the better of her. “Okay, fine. Just a very abridged version.”

“She was married,” Anya said, sitting up, and when Lexa looked at her, she smiled brightly. “She married a really rich guy from New York. He was gayer than sin, but trying to hide it. I guess it was a mutual arrangement cause from what I’ve read, so’s she. Costia was seriously involved in theater back in New York. She started out as an actress, and was pretty big in some circles, but then she started directing and that seemed to stick.”

Lexa leaned forward. “I don’t think I’d ever heard of her before.”

“Hollywood brat,” Bellamy said.

Lexa stuck out her tongue.

Anya shook her head at their antics. “Anyway, her husband died. He left her everything. The guy had some serious assets. She took over his estate, his theater company, you name it. One thing led to another, and she got into film. And that brings her to now. But more to the point, there’s pictures all over the web of her and other women, and interviews with her not really denying these relationships. Oh and also, I found her Facebook and she put ‘lesbian’ under sexual orientation. And, best of all, she’s single.”

Lexa absorbed the barrage of information and took another sip of wine. “I’ll keep that under consideration for when I turn into someone that actually asks women out.”

“She’s hot, and available, and according to you, ‘interesting’. What more do you want?”

Lexa rolled her eyes, feeling uncomfortable and on the spot. Just because Costia was interested in women didn’t mean she was interested in Lexa. The thought was ludicrous. Besides, it’s not like Lexa was interested either. “Let’s change the subject, shall we?”

Bellamy nodded. “I agree. We’ve tortured you long enough about the director.”

Lexa stopped chewing and arched a brow in his direction.

“Oh, absolutely,” Anya agreed, in an uncharacteristically enthusiastic tone that spelled nothing but trouble.

Lexa sat back and waited.

“Tell us about the artist.” Bellamy grinned.

~*~

Clarke focused on peeling the label off the bottle of beer she’d been nursing for over an hour. Occasionally, the sound of drunken laughter would cause her to look up and around the crowded bar. They’d been lucky to nab a table just as they’d walked in. Outside, a line was forming.

Raven had left the table twenty or so minutes before, having spotted a guy she’d allegedly been cruising for weeks. Clarke strongly suspected that by ‘weeks’ Raven meant ‘minutes’ but Clarke hadn’t said anything. Every once in a while, she’d catch Raven watching the door and looking at her watch as if she was waiting for someone. It seemed like an odd thing to do while in the presence of Mr. Right Now, but Clarke had given up long ago trying to understand Raven Reyes. It was best to just go with the flow.

She finished peeling off the label and took of a sip of the now warm beer as her gaze trailed across the room. Everyone seemed to be having a great time, and she wondered why she felt incapable of doing the same. Why couldn’t she, for example, spot a good-looking guy and go over there, say hi, introduce herself?

Why did she feel rooted to her chair, married to a crappy-tasting drink, waiting for her best friend to finish having a good time and return to her?

Clarke took another sip and slouched down. When she got home, she’d write to Alexandria again and ask her if there was a cure for loserness. The thought made her smile briefly, only long enough to feel self-conscious about smiling at a bottle of beer. Her thoughts wandered to the email she’d sent earlier. Had Alexandria read it?

Had she replied? Something to look forward to once she got through the tedium of the evening. She was about to drink again, when a voice stopped her.

“Clarke, right?”

Clarke looked up to see a guy standing in front of her. He was smiling down at her as if they were long lost friends at last reunited. She sat up straighter. “Uh, that’s me.”

“I’m so sorry I’m late,” he said, and took a seat across from her. He shrugged out of his jacket and let it fall over the back of the chair. “I hope you weren’t waiting long. I got stuck in that stupid line outside. Did you know this place got so crowded? I had no idea.”

Clarke merely blinked at him, trying to figure out how to tell him that he had the wrong person. She searched the room for Raven, and their eyes met. With a sinking feeling, Clarke realized that this guy didn’t have the wrong person at all. This was a set up.

From across the bar, Raven gave her two thumbs up and a big smile. In return, Clarke sent her what she hoped was a poisonous glare. It only caused Raven to smile brighter.

Reluctantly, she dragged her attention back to … Hell, she didn’t even know his name. She looked at him, having already forgotten everything he’d said to her and having nothing to say as a result.

“Look, um, I don’t know what Raven said to drag you over here, but whatever it was, it’s not true.”

He frowned. “It’s not?”

“I don’t think so, no. I’m not into kinky threesomes. I don’t like to be spanked. If you try to tie me up I will scream bloody murder. I didn’t star in a porno when I was fifteen. I don’t have a French maid costume…” She paused and looked at him. “Any of those come close to what she’s told you?”

He was grinning at her. “She said you had recently gone through a break up, and weren’t ready for anything serious.”

It was Clarke’ turn to frown. “Oh.”

“So it’s not true?”

“No… no, that sounds about right.”

He studied her face for half a second. “You had no idea I was coming, did you?”

“Not a clue.”

“Anthony,” he said suddenly, stretching out his hand. “Anthony Harris.”

She shook it and let it go. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“Is it?”

“So far I don’t hate you, so sure.”

He smiled at that. “I’ve seen you around, at school.”

Something clicked in the back of Clarke’ mind. “Wait, are you the sculptor that goes to NYU?”

“That’d be me.”

Clarke nodded. “Raven did mention you.” She recalled Raven mentioning his eyes. Even in the darkness of the bar, she could tell they were a beautiful shade of green. She hesitated, then took a deep breath. “Anthony, you seem very nice and everything, it’s just … while I’m not looking for anything serious, I’m not really looking for anything casual, either.”

To her surprise, he simply offered a lopsided grin. “Yeah, Raven warned me that you might say that, but told me I was welcome to try anyway.” He smiled. “You seemed like the type that would be worth the try.”

He held up his hand to stop her from saying anything. “Don’t comment. I wasn’t trying to charm you or flatter you. It’s just the truth.” He reached into his back pocket and took out his wallet. “Look, I get that you’re not ready for anything. And I’d say ‘let’s be friends’ but I’m not going to presume that you’d even want to be my friend. That, and I think you know I’m attracted to you. So…” He handed her a business card. “.. if you are ever ready for something casual, or something more than casual, or anything at all, please give me a call. I promise not to stalk you in the mean time.”

Clarke took the card, feeling momentarily speechless. “Okay,” was all she managed.

He stood, grabbing his jacket in the process. “It was really nice meeting you, Clarke. I’m sorry if this was at all awkward for you. I really thought Raven would have told you.”

“It was fine.” Clarke found that she meant it, despite her initial reaction. “If I run into you, I promise I’ll say hi.”

“Cool. Beautiful girls noticing me is never a bad thing.” He smiled again, and then walked away.

She watched him leave. When she turned back, she was startled to find that Raven was seated in front of her.

“So?” Raven said. “Isn’t he great?”

“He was fine. We talked for five minutes. Five minutes does not a great person make. And what the hell were you thinking not telling me about this?”

“Would you have agreed to it if I had?”

“Of course not!”

“That’s what I was thinking.”

“Ugh.” Clarke looked at the card in her hand and then put it in her pocket.

“So what’d you tell him?”

“I told him I don’t do threesomes, S&M, or French maid costumes, and that I’m not ready for anything with anyone.”

Raven shook her head. “You really know how to cover all your bases.”

“Years of practice. Can we go home now?”

Raven looked around and shrugged. “Yeah, we might as well. There are absolutely no hotties in this joint.”

“What about the one you’d been ‘cruising for weeks’?”

“Who? Oh… him? He’s got horrible breath. No way am I kissing him. Officially, the cruising is over.”

“Well, there’s always the porn star.”

“Amen to that.”

~*~

Lexa stood on the balcony several hours after Anya and Bellamy had parted. It was after midnight, perhaps even after one. She had officially lost track of time.

They had asked her about the artist, and Lexa hadn’t known what to say. She didn’t know much about Clarke and the things she did know didn’t seem at all like things to be discussed with others over dinner. She didn’t tell them that earlier in the day she’d told Clarke, a perfect stranger, what she’d swore to herself she’d never tell anyone else after Anya. She didn’t tell them that all day she had been avoiding her computer for fear that Clarke might want nothing to do with her after knowing the truth.

She feared an empty inbox as much as a full one and she didn’t know what that meant.

She swirled the glass of wine in her hand, staring at the amber liquid as it spun gently against the sides. She’d thought the extra alcohol would give her the courage she needed to face her fears, but it hadn’t. So far, her computer remained off, and she hadn’t gotten any closer to turning it on.

The thought of Clarke no longer writing to her should’ve been a relief. An easy out that Lexa wouldn’t have to feel guilty about. The end to their … whatever it was that they had, had to come eventually. The lies would pile up until Lexa wouldn’t be able to take it. Something would eventually have to give.

She went around and around the same subject in her mind too many times in the day. People stopped emailing each other all of the time. Why couldn’t she simply stop? What did she fear she’d lose if she did?

Bellamy and Anya had asked, and Lexa had dismissed the subject, saying it was nothing so many times that even she didn’t believe it. But if it wasn’t nothing, what was it? Addiction to anonymity? Blind optimism that this might somehow work out okay in the end?

With a sigh, she turned back into the bedroom. She’d turned on the lamp on her desk earlier, and the room was bathed in orange hues and soft shadows. She put the glass on the desk and powered up the computer, not bothering to sit. She would check her email. If there was nothing, she would go to bed and try to forget about the hole she’d dug herself into. If there was an email … well, then she’d take her cue from there.

The boot up process took longer than usual, or at least it seemed that way as Lexa stared at the monitor, waiting. As she moved the mouse around and clicked on the appropriate programs, she told herself that she didn’t care one way or the other what Clarke thought of her. She wanted desperately to convince herself of that.

Lexa hesitated at the login information. The cursor hovered over the ‘enter’ button and then clicked.

In the split second it took for the page to load, she held her breath in anticipation, hoping an empty inbox wouldn’t disappoint her as much as she feared.

But there it was: a new message. Her spirits lifted briefly until she realized that Clarke could have very well written back to say she was disgusted, or perhaps to link Lexa to the nearest Save Yourself From Sin website.

Fearing the worst, she opened the message.

To: Alexandria Nicole

From: C. Griffin

Subject: I think it’s time we changed the subject title

Dear Alexandria,

I was thinking about what you said, about it being weird to summarize oneself, and I realized that you’re right. It’s not like I’d go up to someone I don’t know very well and say, ‘Hi there, please summarize yourself.’ That would be weird. Still, I can’t help but be curious about you, I guess because I don’t have anything else to go by than what you tell me. I can’t, for example, make my own assumptions about who you are based on your body language or your tone of voice.

For all I know, you’re not at all who you say you are. My roommate, by the way, suggested you might be a serial killer. I’m telling you this because I don’t actually believe that you are. Of course, with my luck, you’ll show up at my door with a chainsaw and prove me wrong. I’d have no one to blame but myself for that, I guess. I did give you the idea. Maybe you were thinking of using an axe, but I said chainsaw and you thought, ‘Oooh!’

I’m so bad at not going off on a totally inappropriate tangent. Please forget I said anything about serial killers and chainsaws.

I guess my point is that since I’m not used to missing so many visual clues about a person, I’m at a loss here. But it occurs to me as I type this that it doesn’t really matter. Already I know that you’re the sort of person I can talk to. Or type to, anyway. And I really enjoy reading what you have to say. That’s good enough, right?

All the same, here are some factoids about yours truly so that you can begin to regret having ever emailed me.

1. I’m 21. My birthday is September 5th.

2. I like to claim photography as a hobby but the truth is that I haven’t picked up my camera in ages.

3. For a long time I decided to collect toilet paper squares. I know this will sound very strange, and I’m embarrassed to admit it, but yes. Toilet paper squares.

4. I have since realized that that is insane, and stopped.

5. I have ten toes.

6. Divided equally between two feet.

7. My hair is blonde, my eyes are blue, and I have always wished one or the other was green.

8. I can’t cook. Well, I can … but I don’t. I’m pretty sure Raven and I have every take out menu in Manhattan.

9. I think Christmas is my favorite time of the year. That is probably un-PC to say. I’ll say, ‘the Holidays’ instead.

10. I like to sing in the shower. But so does everyone … right? lol

Anyway, back to the ever-present subject of love which seems to be the constant theme of our exchanges…

Thanks for allowing me on the short list of people who know males aren’t your type. I strongly suspect that the anonymous aspect of our online friendship (I can call it that, right?) had a lot to do with you trusting me with the info, but I appreciate it all the same.

My stepbrother recently came out to our family, after years of hiding it. My family didn’t take it well at all. I think I’m the only one that’s still speaking to him. To be honest, I’ve not been speaking to my family much either, lately, so I don’t know for sure. But I’m pretty certain that were I to go visit, I’d find empty spaces where pictures of Miller used to hang. Their reaction is so upsetting to me that I try not to think about it.

I met my stepbrother’s boyfriend, the one he’d kept a secret, and loved him instantly. I’m still sad that Miller didn’t tell me sooner. I want to understand why he didn’t, but the truth is, I don’t. He had to know it wouldn’t change anything for me. I guess he didn’t know that, or he would’ve said something. I suppose what hurts about it is that I always felt that he and I were close; closer than my real brother and I are, anyway, and suddenly it felt like I didn’t know him at all.

It would have been nice if I’d known beforehand so I would’ve been prepared to stand at his side when he told everyone. Instead, he shocked me right along with everyone else, and I simply froze. The family erupted into chaos and I couldn’t think of a single thing to say. I suppose that judging by my initial reaction he might’ve thought he’d been right in not telling me. But I was just surprised. Surprised and hurt that I’d had no idea. And I think, as a result, a little angry.

You probably think it’s stupid of me to make this about me, when obviously it’s not. I guess I’m just sad to think that for years he led a different life from the one I believed he did; a life I would’ve been more than happy to be a part of. But I suppose it’s pointless to think about the past. I lay awake sometimes thinking about so many things I have no control over. Why do I do that to myself?

Anyway, enough about that. Tell me, now that I know who’s not your type, care to tell me who is?

Until later,

Clarke

P.S. I’m sorry my emails to you always run so long…

Lexa re-read the email several times before sinking down on the chair. She almost laughed with relief.

Clarke didn’t care. She had worried, like an idiot, for nothing, and now she felt stupid. Stupid and somewhat self-conscious that she’d cared so much what a stranger thought of her.

Then again, isn’t that what she based her career on?

Relief slowly gave way to sadness, as she read the email one more time. She didn’t want to lie to the artist.

The fact that Clarke seemed so willing to trust her tore at Lexa’s heart. She wanted, quite badly, to lay everything out on the table; to pour out every last detail about herself and not worry about what would happen. She wanted to trust Clarke. She wanted to take a chance for once instead of hiding behind her fear of what-if scenarios.

And still she knew she couldn’t, or rather, wouldn’t, tell Clarke the truth. It was nice having someone in her life that liked her without wanting anything from her. Who liked her without knowing she was famous, or rich, or anything at all. Whatever they had, this online friendship … it felt nice. It felt, unlike almost everything else in Lexa’s life, real.

Hesitating a brief moment, she pushed the chair forward and hit ‘reply’.

To: C. Griffin

From: Alexandria Nicole

Subject: I guess we better come up with a new subject

Dear Clarke,

You’ll be relieved to know that I’m not a serial killer. Of course, you’ll just have to take my word for that, since I’m not sure there’s a way to prove such a thing. For all I know, you could be the one with the chainsaw tearing down my door one of these days. Disgruntled New York Artists are the future threat of America. ;)

I might regret asking this but: how does one go about collecting toilet paper? And … why? What did you do with the toilet paper once you collected it? And … why? What about toilet paper that didn’t come in squares like from those giant rolls in public bathrooms, what then? Did I already ask why?

Anyway, since you started it, I’ll humor you…

1. As I mentioned, I’m twenty-two – my birthday is on August 10th.

2. My hair is, at the moment, dark brown, which is actually its natural color. It does, however, tend to change color very frequently through unnatural means – not to blue, though (yet). My eyes are green. For a long time, I wanted them to be blue. I don’t know why. I rather like them now.

3. I have always wanted to go to Paris, but I keep putting it off. Next year … maybe.

4. I also have ten toes … but I’ll let you guess how they’re distributed.

5. Apples are my favorite fruit. Bananas come a close second.

6. I always wanted a brother. I got an evil, moronic, self-absorbed half-sister instead.

7. Cookie Dough ice cream is my fave. I could live on the stuff.

8. I have been known to watch countless hours of the Food Network without changing the channel once.

9. Halloween is my favorite holiday, but I have often wished to live somewhere with snow so that I could fully appreciate the Christmas-time feel. People in shorts and tank tops in mid-December kind of ruin the experience.

10. I have never felt compelled to sing in the shower. But I’m sure you’re not alone in that. :)

There you go.

You’re right in that the fact that we don’t really know each other played a big part in my telling you that I’m gay. Until very recently, only one other person knew and I had hoped to keep it that way for as long as possible. Then one turned into two, and now three. I always feared the day when the numbers would begin to multiply. And the weird thing is that, so far, I don’t regret it. I’ve told the right people, I suppose.

What I fear, I think, is telling the wrong one.

I’m sure that your step-brother not telling you sooner had all to do with his fear of your reaction, and wasn’t meant as a reflection of how he feels about you. He probably didn’t know for certain how you’d react, and maybe telling your whole family at once seemed like the easiest way for him to deal with your reaction. Perhaps one-on-one was simply too hard.

It’s a weird thing, worrying what the people you love most in the world will think of you once you tell them. If it makes you feel better, it’s very likely that some days he kicks himself for not telling you sooner. :)

Secrets are never fun, especially when you want so badly to tell the person everything…

But anyway. You asked about my type. I’m sure that I have one ... but I haven’t really thought about it. I guess I want all of those things that everyone wants. Someone I’m attracted to that’s also funny and smart and nice and understands me to the extent that I need to be understood (whatever that is) and isn’t a psychopath or a sociopath or any negative-type of path (or road or walkway).

It’s so hard, I think, to narrow it down into specific characteristics. I think I’m looking for someone that has, not the qualities I have always wanted in someone, but rather, all the qualities I didn’t know I wanted.

What’s your type?

Until soon,

Alexandria

P.S. I don’t mind your emails running long. :)

Lexa sent the email and stood from the desk. As she walked down to the kitchen to put her glass in the sink, she suddenly thought of Costia Calloway. From their brief interaction Lexa had already decided that she liked the director. She was looking forward to working with her. Maybe, someday, they could even become friends.

But if the opportunity to be more than that ever presented itself, would Lexa take it?

Chapter Twenty

Winter was Clarke’ favorite time of the year. She enjoyed seeing the holiday decorations start to appear all over the city, and waiting for the first snowfall of the year. It was the only time of year when Clarke felt hopeful, as though change – the good kind of change – was right around the corner, if only she was patient enough to wait for it. It was a time of giving, of caring, of wiping the slate clean and starting over.

Winter, however, also meant that the bulk of Clarke’ art would sit in a corner of her bedroom, taking up room and going nowhere. Though her father’s faithful checks paid for the majority of Clarke’s bills and expenses, she still appreciated the extra cash that came from doing something on her own. It was for that reason that she’d spent the afternoon circling job openings in the newspaper.

Her morning had been spent in front of her easel, trying her hand at something artistic for the first time in weeks. The end result had been better than she’d expected. Good enough, in fact, to join the pile of paintings waiting to be sold. But in the end, that’s not where she put it. In the end, she put it to the side, thinking that perhaps someday it might make a good gift for Alexandria.

She’d found it a strange thought at first, painting something and thinking of Alexandria when she was finished, but she decided to go with it. Who was she to question inspiration?

She stared down at the newspaper and the many red circles she’d placed upon the page. The other nice thing about the holidays was the surplus of job openings.

“How’s the job hunt going?” Raven asked, suddenly stepping into view.

“Retail by the pound,” Clarke said.

“Ooh, joy.” Raven poured coffee into a mug and leaned against the counter as she sipped.

Clarke glanced at the time on the microwave and arched an eyebrow. “Did you just wake up?”

“Indeed.”

“It’s three.”

Raven nodded as if it was perfect normal. “I was on the phone until late.”

“Oh?”

“Kasey called.”

“Kasey…”

“The porn star.”

Clarke laughed. “He has a name now?”

“He’s actually really deep. I wasn’t expecting that. You know he’s just doing the porn stuff to put himself through med school?”

“What happens when one of his patients finds a video of him?”

Raven smiled. “He refuses to tape his face. See? He’s thought ahead. He’s a smart boy. He also does escort services on the side. I would totally do that if I was a guy. Get paid hundreds of dollars an hour to accompany an old rich lady to the opera or something. Men are so lucky.”

“Maybe I should get a job doing something like that,” Clarke said thoughtfully. “I’m sure there’s some old rich men who’d like a young woman by their side in public.”

“Sure. And it’s not like you couldn’t outrun them if they tried to get frisky.”

Clarke nodded as if seriously contemplating the option. “Well, that solves my job problem.”

“Great. So, listen, I have awesome news.” Raven pushed several newspapers to the side and sat down at the table.

Clarke perked up. “Oh? I could do with awesome news. Lay it on me.”

“Well, it turns out that Kasey’s sister has a friend whose brother is seriously a V.I.P. in the theater world, and the brother is also sort of friends with Kasey’s sister so he tells her stuff, and then she tells Kasey stuff.”

“I’m going to pretend I got all that.”

“It’s not important. So, anyway, he told Kasey’s sister that the Santivell Theater is hosting a series of semiopen call auditions. There’s going to be a bunch of different directors there. And it’s all pretty upscale. So basically, to find out about it, you have to either be someone in the know, or know someone in the know, or … well, you get the idea. It’s not being advertised in public channels. So basically, the cream of the crop of desperate New York actors are going to be there.” Raven smiled brightly.

“I’m guessing that includes you?”

“Hell yeah. Kasey told me as long as you know where and when it is, you’re set.”

“That’s really great, Raven,” Clarke said, grinning.

“And of course you’re coming with me.”

“And why would I do that?”

“Uh, let’s see … moral support? And because you’re my lucky charm. Every play I ever got, you were at the audition.”

“That’s so not true.”

“It’s mostly true.”

“Fine. When is this little shindig, so I can clear my totally busy schedule.”

“In two weeks. December 16th. Noon. Santivell Theater.”

“Done.”

Raven bounced in her chair. “I can’t wait. You know, Kasey said there might even be some movie directors there. Can you imagine?”

Clarke smiled at her best friend’s enthusiasm. Raven had the talent, the looks, and the ambition. All she needed was the right person to see her at the right time. Maybe this would be Raven’s big chance.

Secretly, she hoped her own big chance would come soon too, as she stared down at the assortment of depressing red circles. She grabbed the phone receiver and clicked it on. “Time to schedule some interviews.”

~*~

Winter always reminded Lexa of what she’d lost. She couldn’t remember a single Christmas from when her mother had been alive, but she liked to believe that they had been happy times. She liked to think that her father, back then, had been a better person, less of a work-a-holic, someone devoted to both wife and child. Her grandmother would have been there, too. The family mansion would have been lit with Holiday cheer and decorations, instead of the cold, depressing house it had become.

The Christmases Lexa could remember hadn’t been all bad, yet her memories weren’t particularly good. Her father had been absent for a few of them, leaving her in the company of Janet and Jan. Her grandmother, who resided in the guesthouse, always stayed away on Christmas mornings. Lexa suspected that Christmas, for her grandmother, was difficult. She had both a daughter and a husband to mourn, and her own happy memories to revisit in private.

Lexa would sneak off to visit later in the day. They would have dinner and talk about Lexa’s gifts. Her grandmother would give her something. Always just one thing, despite her endless amounts of money.

Her grandmother’s presents were always Lexa’s favorite, no matter how many others had come in the day.

The last Christmas Lexa got to spend with her grandmother, her gift had been an ankle bracelet. Lexa had put it on the moment she’d received it and not taken it off until the day her grandmother died. That day, she took it off. That day, she twirled it around in her hand and found, for the first time, the inscription: “Action is the antidote to despair.” Joan Baez. Lexa had always liked that quote, and it pained her that she’d not known the inscription was there, and that her grandmother had watched her put the ankle bracelet on, and not said anything.

On this particular morning, Lexa had removed the piece of jewelry from the box she kept it in and held it in her hand the entire ride to the cemetery. Every month, when she could, Lexa made the same trek.

It had once been her grandmother’s ritual, and one that Lexa had always looked forward to. Hand in hand, they would walk to her mother’s tombstone, lay flowers, and pay respects in their individual ways.

But this day, Lexa walked alone, letting the small drops of rain drip down the lengths of her long, leather jacket. She clutched, in her right hand, the ankle bracelet she had yet to put back on. In her left, she carried a bouquet of pink roses, her mother’s favorite.

The cemetery was free of wandering mourners or grounds keepers and Lexa was grateful for the privacy as she walked along the rows of tombstones towards her own dearly departed.

At her mother’s grave, she kneeled, not caring that the grass was moist. She placed the flowers gently below the name Lexa Woodsmen, and stood back up. Her grandmother’s gravestone was beside her mother’s. From her pocket, she withdrew a puzzle piece. It was part of the last jigsaw puzzle they’d been building together; the one left unfinished. She put the piece on top of the grave and moved away.

Into the cool morning air, still wet despite the sudden lack of rain, she sighed, and pushed her hands deep into the pockets of her jacket. “I’m sorry I couldn’t visit last month,” she said in a near whisper. “I’m sure you know I had some crazy filming hours. I think it’s going well, though, this season of Guardian. They changed a few of the writers and I think that’s helped.” She looked at the ground. “Anya and Bellamy are dating, which is nice. They’re a good couple once you really think about it. I’m pretty sure they’ll have one of those relationships filled with bickering and stupid fights. They’re both so stubborn and ridiculous.” She smiled. “But they’re good for each other.”

The sound of a bird flying over head caught Lexa’s attention for a moment. She watched it until it flew out of sight, then turned back. “I took the lead in a lesbian movie. I’m not at all sure how you’d feel about that, but I like to think you’d be okay with it. I like to think you’d be okay with everything. With me.” She bit her lip. “I’m sorry, grandma, that I never told you. I think I’d deal with it all a little better these days if you’d known, and told me what to do. I think I could use some of your wisdom.”

She hesitated and said, “I have a penpal in New York. Well, I suppose it would be more of a keyboard pal … or something. She’s an artist. You’d both like her, I think. She seems sweet. The problem is that I’m lying to her, or at least, not so much lying as not really telling the whole truth, and I wish I knew what to do about that. I can’t tell her who I am and I can’t seem to stop replying to her e-mails, so …” She shrugged. “I’m stuck.”

The wind picked up, whipping strands of hair across her face. She moved them away, tucking them behind her ear and waited for the wind to pass. “I guess there’s a part of me,” she continued, once it had, “that thinks maybe someday I’ll be able to tell her everything. Maybe someday I’ll feel comfortable with her knowing who I am and trusting that she won’t turn around and hurt me or blackmail me in some way. As much as I don’t think she would do that, it’s not a risk I’m willing to take right now. I don’t know her well enough and she doesn’t know me and …” She paused, thinking things through. “I guess I hope that her knowing me, really knowing me, will help her forgive me, and not think differently of me once she knows who I am.” She paused, shrugging. “Not that I really expect that to ever happen. Her not thinking differently of me, I mean.”

The drizzling started again and Lexa looked up to find that the sky had darkened considerably. It would rain soon, but she went on, “And then there’s the director of that film I agreed to do. We really hit it off, which is incredibly rare for me, and … I caught her looking at me a lot when she thought I wasn’t paying attention. Who knows what that means? Lots of people look at me, I guess. Not … not to sound conceited.” She sighed, feeling frustrated. “It’s so hard to know how people feel or think or what it is they want. If she did like me … not that I’m saying she does, but if she ever did … and if I ever came to like her … I think I would flee the first chance I got. I think I’d deny any form of attraction and go on with my life.”

The wind got stronger, suddenly, pushing through the leaves of the trees. “What a sad life, though,” she whispered. “I don’t think you’d be proud of me, if you were alive to see me now. I know it, actually. But, I guess, if either of you were alive … or if both of you were alive, I don’t think I’d be so scared to lose the things I love. Acting is the one thing I have left. Why gamble with it?”

She opened her palm, watching the drops of rain land upon her skin. A drop hit the ankle bracelet, then another, briefly magnifying the word ‘action’ before sliding away. She closed her hand and put it back in her pocket. “I have to go,” she said softly. “I’ll try to come for Christmas.”

The rain fell harder as she walked away. She didn’t watch it drown the flowers or soak the piece of the puzzle she’d left behind.

~*~ Clarke stared disdainfully at the blinking lights on her modem. She’d received Alexandria’s email the day before, but her Internet connection had crashed in the process of her typing a new subject line. She’d waited patiently for it to return, as it usually did, but one day later, the lights still blinked randomly at her.

“Please come back,” she pleaded. “I’ll love you forever.”

The modem didn’t seem to care for her advances, and Clarke was forced to give up staring at the thing and do something productive instead.

She dug her laptop case from beneath the bed and placed her computer inside. If the Internet wouldn’t come to her, she would go to it. New York City was laden with free wi-fi spots, and Clarke was confident that she’d find a spot in no time.

An hour and a half of walking around later, she finally parked herself on a table and booted up. She’d ordered a large coffee and a chocolate muffin, and it was delivered promptly by a guy in a blue apron. She thanked him and relaxed into the chair. Coffee and the Internet, what more could anyone want?

Smiling, she started up her email and watched the spam mail load into the junk folder.

“Hey.”

She heard the voice, but didn’t look up right away, thinking that it hadn’t been directed at her. But then it came again and she looked up to find Anthony staring down at her. His green eyes sparkled as he smiled.

“I swear I’m not stalking you,” he said. “I saw you when you were in line and just wanted to say hi.”

“Hi,” she said. She nodded at the cup in his hand. “Sustenance?”

He glanced at the cup and chuckled. “Yeah. Finals are going to be tough this semester. I’m going to be pulling a few all-nighters.”

“Same here.” She lifted her own cup by way of evidence. “I have four papers to write for one class. It’s gotta be a form of torture, this whole college thing.”

“Definitely.” He smiled at her for a moment. “Well, it was nice running into you. I have to get back to my studio and get to work. See you around?”

“I’m sure.” Clarke smiled back and waved as he walked away. She watched him through the window until he crossed the street and disappeared into the crowd. Turning back to the computer, she saw that Alexandria had written again. Grinning, she opened the message.

To C. Griffin

From: Alexandria Nicole

Subject:I can’t sleep

Dear Clarke,

It’s four in the morning over here, and I can’t seem to fall asleep. I guess I, too, suffer from the Thoughts of Things I Can’t Control Syndrome, and I was hoping you’d figured out a cure. It’s likely you won’t get this in time to help me, but I thought I’d try anyway.

Hope you’re having a good [insert appropriate time of day here].

Your online friend,

Alexandria

Clarke smiled and hit reply.

To: Alexandria Nicole

From: C. Griffin

Subject: I hope you managed to sleep by now

Dear Alexandria,

I’m afraid I have no cure for you. Usually, I just stay up and let the thoughts run their course. Eventually, they leave me alone and I’m able to sleep. They (the ever-elusive, ever-mysterious ‘They’) say warm milk helps, but I’ve tried that, and I think They are full of crap.

I wanted to apologize for not writing back sooner. My stupid Internet decided to crash on me. I’ll have to call the provider later (I hate dealing with those people), but for now I’m sitting in a café with free wi-fi.

It’s quite heavenly, actually. After I’m done procrastinating with you (don’t you feel used?), I have about one million pages of literature to finish reading so I can then proceed to write two million pages about totally meaningless things regarding said literature. I exaggerate only slightly.

I have the next two days off from school, then a week and a half of finals, and then freedom for three glorious non-academic weeks. I plan to spend these weeks of freedom as a slave to corporate America (a.k.a. working retail). I went to a job interview earlier in the day and they hired me on the spot. I guess I look like the honest, hard-working type. That, or the holiday rush is starting and they’re desperate.

Anyway, the other night I went out to a local bar with Raven. The plan, I thought, was to have a good time by watching Raven make a fool of herself. Instead, the whole thing turned out to be a set-up with a guy Raven had been trying to introduce me to for a while now. He turned out to be pretty nice, actually, and what should’ve been a totally awkward situation didn’t end up badly at all. Still, I told him that I wasn’t ready to date anyone and he was nice enough to understand.

I ran into him a few minutes ago, actually. He happened to be here, too. New York feels really small when that sort of thing happens.

Even though I told him I wasn’t ready for anything, I’m keeping the card he gave me. I think it’s too rare nowadays to find people that don’t instantly creep you out. It has to be a good sign, right? Maybe, after finals, I’ll give him a call. Do you think that’s a bad idea? Maybe it’s too soon…

Oh, you’ll be happy to know that I spent the morning painting. It had been a while, too long, really. It felt wonderful to step back and see something worth sharing. I’m holding on to it for now.

I’m looking forward to the time off from school. I’ll be working part-time, just enough to get a little extra cash now that it’s too cold to be selling my artwork in public. I had hoped to get some of my work in a showing of student pieces (it’s a huge honor to be chosen), but I haven’t heard anything yet.

Raven told me I had to go the extra mile to be noticed, and I’m sure she’s right, but that’s not who I am. I don’t want my art to be chosen because I was more memorable than everyone else. I want it to be chosen because it was memorable on its own. How will I ever gauge its true value if I don’t let it stand on its own?

Is that naïve of me?

I guess it is. I guess I just want to be true to myself, above all things. While I want to succeed, I don’t want it to be at the cost of who I am.

So… listen, I was wondering (and you’re more than welcome to say no) if I could have your number so I could call you sometime? I felt bad that I had no way of letting you know my Internet was down. Not that I think you were losing sleep over that or anything. I just … I don’t know. I hate not having a way to communicate with someone. I picked up a new phone earlier with free night time and weekend minutes anywhere in the US. So it won’t cost me anything to call you …

Again, you’re more than welcome to say no if you think it would be too weird, or an invasion of your privacy or … anything like that. No hard feelings, I promise. :-)

Well, I’m afraid I must leave you now and get started on my work for finals. I hope the day finds you well.

Your friend,

Clarke

~*~

“Call me?” Lexa frowned at the screen and moved away from it as though it might suddenly ring and put Clarke’ voice through. “She wants to call me? Why would she ever want to do that?”

She didn’t reply to the email. Instead, she closed the laptop and sat back, pondering what to say.

In all of her wildest imaginings, the thought of Clarke suggesting to call her had never occurred to Lexa. She had pictured them sending emails back and forth for a long time to come, until one got tired of the other. There would be a natural progression toward the end of their communication. But a phone call?

The phone’s sudden ringing made Lexa jump and she stared in dumb surprise at the object on her desk until it rang again. She picked it up and looked at the name and number on the display screen.

Costia Calloway.

On the third ring, she picked up. “Hello?”

“Hi, Lexa,” came the director’s voice. “How are you today?”

It took Lexa a brief moment to remember that she’d given Costia her personal number before leaving the restaurant. Why she’d done that, Heaven knew. “I’m good, Costia. Yourself?”

“Well, I’m currently lost somewhere in West Hollywood, so I can’t say I’m doing great. I’m supposed to meet with one of the producers and she gave me crappy instructions. Other than that, though, I’m wonderful.”

Lexa smiled into the receiver, feeling somewhat reserved. Why was Costia calling? “I’m sorry to hear that. Well, not the part about being wonderful otherwise. Getting lost isn’t fun.”

“I’ll find my way, don’t worry. The reason I was calling was to ask how your schedule was looking for the rest of the month. I know it’s Christmas and everything …”

“It’s pretty light this time of year, actually.” Lexa’s stepmother, sister and father were indeed spending the Holidays in Paris. She’d been reluctantly invited, and she had enthusiastically declined. If she was ever to go to Paris, it would be with someone she actually wanted to spend time with. Clarke would love the Louvre. The thought, however innocent, made her frown.

“Excellent. I know your lawyers are still going over the contract we sent their way and we haven’t made anything official yet, but I was hoping you’d be able to accompany me to New York in a week or so.”

Lexa’s heart jumped in her chest. “New York?”

“Yeah. I’m doing some casting calls for the film and I was hoping you could be there to help me audition people for the role of Samantha. I’ll have you back for Christmas, don’t worry.”

“Well, I’ll have to verify with my assistant. She’s the keeper of my time, but assuming I don’t have anything pressing, I’d love to.”

“Great! Well, you’ve got my number. Just have your assistant call if it’s a go or not. We’ll take care of your expenses and everything, so all you’ll have to worry about is showing up.”

“Sounds good. Good luck finding your way.”

Costia let out a soft laugh. “Thanks. Take care.”

Lexa snapped the cell phone shut and sat there. New York. A week or so of passing by every twenty-something girl and wondering if that, by chance, was Clarke. A week or so of trying to cast her fake lesbian lover, before ever finding a real one. A week or so of working closely with Costia Calloway.

She flipped the phone open and dialed.

“Hey, I’m pulling into your driveway as we speak,” Anya said when she picked up. “I got your dress for the party Friday night. Also, I called your blind date doctor and it turns out he’d love to go with you. So now you’ve even got a date. Now all you need are shoes and the desire to actually go.”

Lexa smiled as she walked down the stairs to open the door for Anya. “At least the shoes will be easy enough,” she said, as Anya came up the steps to the door. She hung up the phone and held the door open.

“You’re the best.”

“Don’t I know it.” Anya headed up the stairs to hang the dress, and Lexa followed. “So what were you calling about?”

“Oh, I was wondering what my schedule is like for the rest of the month. Do I have anything important anywhere?”

Anya shrugged as she hung the dress. “You have eight thousand holiday party invitations, but that’s about it.”

“I’m going to the one on Friday just to show my face in public before Christmas, and then I’m done until New Year’s. Make a note of that somewhere.”

“Uh, I think I can remember you not wanting to do anything. What are you doing for Christmas Eve, anyway?”

Lexa shrugged. “I don’t know. I thought I’d cook myself something and watch Christmas Story for the billionth time. You?”

“Having dinner with Bellamy. You should join us.”

“Don’t you guys want to be alone?”

“On Christmas Eve? No way. Bellamy is cooking.”

Lexa cringed. “Okay, never mind. How about you two come over here for dinner?”

Anya grinned. “Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me. I’m doing it for myself. Last time I had Bellamy’s food I thought I was going to die.”

“I don’t know what the hell he uses as seasoning. Rat poison maybe.”

Lexa laughed. “Hey, listen, Costia needs me in New York in a week or so. Can you call her back and arrange all of the … arrangements?”

“New York?” Anya suddenly looked intrigued. “New York with Costia? New York with Costia and the artist?”

“It’s not New York with Costia. She’s doing casting calls. I’m going to help by standing next to random women and waiting for Costia to gauge our potential onscreen chemistry.”

“Interesting. Can I watch?”

“Not a chance.”

“I’ll just ask Costia if I can watch when I call her back.” Anya smiled sweetly. “What about the artist? Are you going to try and make contact?”

“Of course not. Our interactions are restricted to the Internet.” She froze, remembering Clarke’s question about calling her. “Hey, what do you think of my voice over the phone? Do you think I’m easily recognizable?”

Anya blinked at her in confusion. “What?”

“Like, say you didn’t have caller I.D. and I called you out of the blue, would you recognize my voice over the phone?”

“Of course.”

Lexa frowned, then shook her head. “Yeah but you talk to me all of the time. I need someone who doesn’t.”

“You’ve totally lost me.”

Lexa looked at Anya and shook her head. “Never mind. Don’t you have shoes to find me?”

“Uh, no. I’m having Manuel bring you a fine selection of designer shoes. He’ll be here in two hours.” Lexa sighed. Her fashion guru of choice was friendly and lovable but he would undoubtedly make her try on every pair of shoes in his selection. He’d be there forever. “Yay,” she said flatly.

Lexa looked at her computer briefly, recalling the unanswered email. “Anya, can you get me someone on the phone who’s never spoken to me personally?”

“What is this about?”

“Can you just pretend I didn’t ask something totally weird of you?”

“Not a chance.”

Lexa smiled. “Then do it because it’s your job.”

Anya frowned at her, then flipped open her cell phone. “You’re being entirely too cryptic lately. It’s oddly intriguing.” She put the phone to her ear. “It’s ringing.”

“Who are you calling?”

“My father.”

Lexa started to protest but Anya interrupted her by saying, “Hello, Dad,” into the phone. “How are you? … uh-huh… I know, yeah … uh-uh… So, listen, there’s someone here that wants to talk to you.”

Lexa found herself with a phone pressed to her ear. Reluctantly, she took it, and cleared her throat. “Hello?”

“Hello? Who’s this?”

“I’m sorry to bother you, sir, but by any chance, does my voice sound familiar to you?”

“Is this Anya? Anya? Can you please stop playing these stupid games. I told your brother the other day about my bad knee. Do you think I need you to play games with me when I have a bad knee … do you? Answer me, young lady…”

His voice trailed away as Lexa removed the phone from her ear and handed it back to Anya.

“Sorry, Dad. Talk to you soon.” Anya hung up and smiled at Lexa.

“That was incredibly awkward. And wrong.”

“It really was. I found it terribly amusing.” Anya sat down on the bed. “So what was that all about?”

“Helloooo?” a male voice called from somewhere downstairs.

“Up here,” Anya called down.

A second later, Bellamy was standing in the doorway. He looked between Anya and Lexa for a long moment. “I’m not interrupting anything, am I?”

“Why yes,” Anya said. “Lexa was just about to tell me why she just had me call up my Dad so she could ask him if he recognized her voice.”

“Ooh, Cryptic Lexa is back, goody.” Bellamy ran to the bed and bounced onto it. “Tell us more, Cryptic Lex.”

“Wait,” Anya suddenly demanded. She turned and whispered something in Bellamy’s ear.

He laughed. “I don’t think so.” He whispered something back.

Anya frowned. “You think?”

“Yup.”

“Okay.” Anya turned back to Lexa. “Go.”

Lexa stared at them for a very long moment. “I’m going to take a shower.”

“Yes!” Bellamy yelled, pumping his hand in the air. “I am so good. You owe me twenty.”

“Damn it.”

Lexa watched her assistant draw a twenty dollar bill from her wallet and hand it to Bellamy. “The two of you scare me, you really do.”

“Is it about the artist?” Bellamy asked.

“Last time Cryptic Lex emerged it was because of the artist.” This from Anya. “Is it?”

“Does she want to talk to you on the phone or something?”

“Oh, does she?”

“I’m sure she wouldn’t recognize your voice,” Bellamy added. “Even if she thought you sounded like Lexa Woods it’s not like she’d really think it was you.” Anya was nodding. “And besides, it’s not like you have a terribly out of the ordinary voice.”

Lexa just looked at them. Without saying anything at all, she walked into the bathroom, and closed the door.

Chapter Text

“And time!” Professor Kane called to the sound of resentful murmurs. “Paintbrushes down. Leave your paintings at the easels. Please make sure you’ve put your name legibly on the canvas before walking out. Enjoy your Holidays! See some of you next semester.”

Clarke put her paintbrush down and stared at the painting before her. It was finished, more or less, and the arrangement of blue hues on the canvas actually looked presentable. She made sure she’d signed the corner as legibly as possible, and retrieved her messenger bag from beneath the stool.

“Clarke Griffin, please come see me before you leave.”

For a moment, Clarke thought she’d heard wrong. That the professor had called a name that closely resembled her own, but wasn’t. Yet as she looked around, she noticed the looks the other students were throwing her way and she knew it hadn’t been a mistake. Professor Kane had called her. Swallowing nervously, Clarke made her way past the rows of others’ finals and waited for the students saying goodbye to the professor to disperse.

It was the first time the professor had ever called her to his desk after class, and she hoped desperately that she wasn’t somehow in trouble. Had she forgotten an assignment? Had she accidentally looked around while painting, leading him to think that she had copied someone else’s work? She tried not to think about it, as she waited.

The last of the students finally left the room, and the professor turned his heavy dark eyes to her. “Clarke,” he said, in a voice that gave no indication whether he was mad or not.

“Yes, Professor?”

He nodded as he turned to look down at something on his desk. Clarke tried to see what it was, to gain a clue as to what was coming, but nothing popped out. “You submitted a piece called Silence, did you not?”

Clarke nodded, her heart beating somewhat erratically. She tried draw forth a memory of the painting but came up blank. “I did.”

“It was …” He paused to look up at her. “… inspired.”

Clarke let out a breath. “I’m sorry?”

The dark brown eyes regarded her quietly. When he spoke again, his tone was unreadable. “I would like to feature your painting at the Student Art Show next week at the Hederman Gallery. You may pick three other pieces, approved by me. Your pieces can be put for sale, if you wish them to be. An expert from the gallery will work with you to determine an appropriate cost for each piece. Please be back here Monday morning, at eight sharp, with the pieces of your choice. Bring several options, as I’m very picky and short on time. Good day, Clarke.”

It hadn’t hit her yet, what he’d said. Not fully. But she recognized that it was a good thing, and responded accordingly. “Thank you, sir! I will be here Monday at eight.”

He had already dismissed her and his disinterest was evident by the way he turned his attention to student work left in the room. She watched him with interest, knowing she should leave, but wanting to see what he thought of her final as he passed it. To her disappointment, he barely gave it a second glance.

She left, then, and walked out of the room. In the hallway, she paused to absorb what the professor had told her. Inspired, he’d called it. Inspired.

She smiled and continued on her way to the subway station. Her art had been chosen. Hers. She walked in a daze. Picturing her art pieces framed and on display. She imagined people walking around them, stopping to look and point and comment. She placed herself in the background, a proud observant. She would be poised and confident. She would politely offer compliments on others’ works.

She would shake hands and answer questions and try not to let her excitement show instead as arrogance.

She pushed open the door to her apartment building, not remembering the trip home at all.

The first thought she had as she rode the elevator to her apartment, was of emailing Alexandria to tell her. It wasn’t until she’d unlocked the door to her apartment that she realized that her first thought should’ve been of Raven.

~*~

Lexa had spent an extraordinary amount of time in the middle of a very boring conversation with a man who claimed to be a film director, but that Lexa strongly suspected had simply crashed the party. Her date had gotten a call from the hospital earlier in the evening and had had to cut their evening short.

Lexa had stayed behind, despite not wanting to, because leaving at that point in time would have been in bad taste.

“I have a yacht,” the man was saying. “I don’t sail much anymore. I busted my shoulder rock climbing. Have you ever been rock climbing, Lexa?”

“I have not,” Lexa answered.

“Oh it’s a rush! You’d love it. Maybe I could take you some time …”

“Lexa,” a voice said behind her.

Lexa could’ve kissed whomever it was for saving her, however briefly, from the yawn of a man beside her. When she turned, she nearly blushed. “Costia,” she greeted, trying to hide her surprise behind, what she hoped, was a casual smile. The director was dressed elegantly in a black, spaghetti-strapped dress. The fabric clung to her every curve, and Lexa hoped she wasn’t staring.

The man, whose name she remembered was Rick, cleared his throat.

Lexa turned and smiled politely at him. “I’m sorry, Rick. This is Costia Calloway. She’s a director too. Costia, this is Rick Shay. He was just telling me about rock climbing.”

Costia shook his hand and smiled at him. “Really? You know I climbed K2 last year. Made it to the summit. What’s your highest altitude, Rick?”

Rick coughed. “It’s um … I’m going to get a refill on this. You ladies want anything?”

“I’m good,” Lexa said.

“Same here.”

They watched him leave and Lexa sighed with relief. “You’re my hero. He wanted to give me rock climbing lessons.”

Costia laughed. “Rick Shay barely knows how to climb out of bed.”

“You know him?”

“He’s my friend’s ex-assistant. He got fired for … well, pretty much what he’s doing now.”

Lexa smiled. “Did you really climb K2?”

“I barely know how to climb out of bed myself.” Costia smiled.

Lexa nodded. “Guess I’m surrounded by pathological liars tonight.”

“It wouldn’t be a Hollywood party otherwise.”

Lexa laughed at that. “So true.”

Costia was looking around. “So, where’s your date? I saw him earlier but he disappeared.”

Lexa found it curious that Costia had noticed her date, considering he’d been at her side for all of two seconds. “Oh, he had to go back to the hospital. He’s a surgeon.”

Costia looked impressed. “Nice. That’s so much more noble than what we do.”

“He’s a good man.” Lexa felt uncomfortable, suddenly, and searched for a different topic of conversation. “Oh, I don’t know if my assistant called you, but New York is a go.”

“She did call me, actually. Though I think it was more so she could ask if she could watch the audition process.”

Lexa was going to kill Anya. “I hope you hung up on her.”

Costia replied with a soft laugh. “Actually, I told her it was entirely up to you.”

“Ooh, poor Anya.” Lexa smiled.

“I take it the answer is no?”

Lexa shrugged, taking a sip of her champagne before responding. “I’ll likely give in at the last minute. I just like torturing her for as long as possible.”

Costia regarded her curiously. “You have a strange working relationship.”

“She’s a good friend. A good friend that likes to drive me nuts any chance she gets. It’s worse now that she’s dating my best friend. The two of them are ruthless.”

The director laughed. “Sounds like fun.”

“I suppose it is,” Lexa admitted.

“Anyway, I’m setting you up at the Plaza. Anya said that was usually your hotel of choice. I’ll be staying there too. Is that okay?”

“That you’re staying there too?”

“Um… well, I meant the hotel choice, actually … but if my staying there presents a problem…”

Lexa realized the director was serious. “It’s all fine. I was just teasing.”

Costia wrinkled her nose. “Sorry. I just didn’t want to assume you’d be okay with everything.”

“Contrary to popular belief, I’m not that picky.”

“I sincerely doubt that’s true,” Costia said with a laugh. “Your assistant did lay a long list of demands at my feet.”

Lexa was nodding. “Yeah, those are for her. Evian water in a martini glass with a twist of lemon and half an orange?”

Costia grinned. “That was number eleven.”

“Yeah, I’m going to kill her.” Lexa finished off her drink.

“I could always set her up at the Plaza and you at the nearest motel.”

“Hm. As delightful as that sounds, I think I’ll just rough it at the Plaza.”

“How very brave of you.”

Lexa smiled, but worried that their conversation was inching ever closer toward awkward silence.

“I was actually about to leave right before I came to say hi to you. Can I offer you a ride home?”

Lexa regarded the director, thinking it a kind offer. “Thanks, that’s nice of you. I actually have my limo outside. I had the chauffeur drop Daniel off at the hospital and come back.”

“Right.” Costia nodded as if she’d been stupid to think differently. “Well, it was very nice running into you, Lexa. I guess I’ll see you in New York next week. I’ll fax Anya all of the details tomorrow so you have them.”

Lexa smiled, feeling a mixture of disappointment and relief at the director’s departure. She started to watch Costia leave, then looked away.

She put the empty glass on a passing tray, placed a call to her chauffeur, and made her rounds of goodbyes to the people that mattered. She smiled charmingly at each of them, repeating their names so they knew she remembered; to feed the illusion that they were all friends, and that they all mattered to one another.

Outside, she found her chauffeur waiting faithfully for her return, and she smiled at him as he straightened himself up and approached the door to open it. She ignored the flashes of ever-present cameras, the voices calling out her name in a desperate attempt to catch a good picture.

“I trust you had a pleasant evening, Ms. Woods.” His voice sounded far away in the noise that surrounded them.

“I did, thank you, Samuel.” She slid into the plush leather seating and breathed a sigh of relief as the door closed behind her.

She watched the flashes of light continue as someone else emerged from the restaurant. Already, she lay forgotten in their minds, replaced by the next potential photograph. She had chosen this life, she reminded herself. She had positioned herself as the object of fleeting interest and passing attentions. Without ever coming out, she still risked losing it all eventually; in a week, in a month, in a decade. There would come a time, perhaps soon, when the cameras wouldn’t point in her direction, when the voices wouldn’t remember her name. There would come a time when she would think back on moments like this and she’d ask herself, what had she gained from it all? What had it all been for?

~*~

“I wonder what she looks like,” Clarke found herself saying. She dug her spoon into the carton of ice cream and scooped up a huge chunk of cookies ‘n cream, which managed, despite gravity, to land in her mouth without consequence.

Raven was in the living room, surrounded by all of Clarke’s art. Clarke had placed her best friend in charge of choosing the pieces for the art show since she, herself, was incapable of making such a decision. “What who looks likes?”

“Alexandria,” Clarke said. “All I know is she has brown hair and green eyes. I keep picturing her short. A little chubby, maybe. It’s so weird being friends with someone and not knowing what they look like. Come to think of it, I don’t even know what she does for a living. Maybe it’s something bad. Maybe she’s a drug dealer.”

“I like this one,” Raven said, holding up a canvas.

Clarke glanced in her direction, noting that the painting Raven had chosen was the one she’d made for Alexandria.

“I’m not sure I want to display that one.”

“Why not? I think it’s great.” Clarke shrugged. Why not, indeed. It was silly to keep it as a gift for someone whose last name she didn’t even know, and who, come to think of it, hadn’t replied to her email in days. “I asked for her phone number and she didn’t write back. Do you think I freaked her out?”

“I still think she’s a beer-bellied middle-aged bald guy who likes to kill kittens.” She held the painting higher. “Can I put it in the pile?”

“Yeah, sure. Professor Kane has last say, anyway.” Clarke dropped the now empty spoon into the now empty carton and put her chin on the back of the chair. She watched Raven for a moment. “Do you think online friendships are weird?”

“I think friendships in general are weird. I mean, look at us. Who’d think we’d be friends?” Raven stepped over the myriad of art on the floor to come sit at the table. “Why, are you having second thoughts about your email buddy?”

Clarke shook her head, soft blonde hair brushing against her cheek with the movement. She pushed the hair back and out of her face. “No, not really. I guess I’m just having trouble keeping it to the online arena. I want to call her and meet her or something. You know? Make sure she’s real.”

“And not a serial killer.”

Clarke smiled. “She’s not a serial killer. And I highly doubt she’s a middle-aged man.” She moved her shoulders as if to shrug and acquiesce to the truth. “But yeah. I mean, I guess I never know for sure, and I don’t really feel comfortable asking her directly.”

“Maybe she works for the FBI or the CIA or one of those secret government organizations.”

“See? That’s the thing. She very well could work as a government spy.”

“Or a terrorist.”

Clarke sighed thinking it a depressing subject now and wishing she hadn’t brought it up. The truth was, she missed Alexandria’s emails, and the weight of their absence confused her. She turned to the scattered pieces of art. “Did you narrow it down?”

“Yup. Did I mention how proud I am of you? Cause I am. I can’t wait for the showing. I’m already making flyers and passing them out at work.”

Clarke smiled, her mood brightening with the memory of her upcoming show. “Let’s hope Professor Kane likes the rest as much as he liked the one I submitted. He’s such a scary man.” She rose and began to collect the artwork.

“Did you tell your lesbian about the art show?”

“She’s not my lesbian. And no, ‘cause she hasn’t written back to me since I asked for her number. For all I know she thinks I’m totally intrusive and doesn’t want anything to do with me anymore.”

“I’m sure if she knew you were hot she’d be singing a different tune. Maybe she thinks you’re ugly.”

Clarke rolled her eyes. “It’s not like that.”

“Well, if she’s that weird about things, maybe it’s for the best.”

“Maybe.” She added nothing else to that, feeling no desire to reveal how panicked she felt at the thought of Alexandria never writing to her again. Clarke carried a stack of paintings to her room. She placed them down on their usual corner and sat on the bed. All day she had busied herself with a long to-do list of chores. She had selected the outfit she would wear on her first day of work; she had sat down to pay the bills; she had written a list of presents to buy the people she knew; she had studied for Art History.

Now, she had run out of steam and things to do and the only thing she could think about was checking her email.

“I’m taking a shower,” Raven announced from the doorway. “A couple of guys I know from work are having a get-together at their apartment tonight. Wanna come?”

“I can’t, I’m sorry. I still have a lot of studying to do.” It was a good excuse, even if it wasn’t exactly the truth. Saying that she simply didn’t feel like going didn’t feel like enough of a reason.

“See you later then.”

Raven disappeared into the bathroom and Clarke got up to close the door. Alone in her room, Clarke stood and looked around. Her bed was disheveled as usual, and she suddenly wished she could get into the habit of making it in the mornings. A made bed always looked nicer, cozier, inviting.

She liked the idea of her room as a place of relaxation, as a place she could go to escape from the world. It could’ve been, maybe, except the heater was partly broken and no matter what she did the room never felt warm enough. The ceiling was stained from occasional leaks. The walls could use a few coats of paint.

It wasn’t a cozy place, not big nor luxurious, but it was home. It was the home she hoped to look back on someday and smile fondly over, while being secretly pleased that she no longer had to live there. She took her computer and her books and went back out into the living room, depositing everything on the coffee table. She would study after all, she decided, settling down on the couch. She would study because she had to and because she didn’t want to feel like she’d lied to Raven. She would study because studying meant she wouldn’t check her email and find herself disappointed to find only junk mail waiting for her there.

~*~

Lexa had never thought of herself as the type of person that might pace around a room. She had always made decisions in a calm, rational manner, and usually in the company of a nice French wine. Pacing, she had always thought, was for crazy people.

Yet, there she was, burning a path in the carpet of her room from having walked back and forth so many times. She held her cell phone tightly in one hand and Clarke’s business card in the other. She had spent the entire morning trying to convince herself that calling Clarke was a terrible idea, that they would have nothing to say to one another. They’d fall into awkward silences and then struggle to fill the void with meaningless chit-chat. It would be painful and uncomfortable the whole way through and they would both sigh in relief the second it was all over. Why put them both through that?

She then spent the earlier part of the afternoon convincing herself that maybe that’s exactly what they both needed; to find out that their friendship, however nice on a computer monitor, had no chance of extending beyond it. It was a noble way to end things.

Undoubtedly, the experience would mar the fragile threads of their communication, spreading into their email exchanges and eventually causing the entire thing to self-implode. It would be mutually painless; an unspoken agreement to walk away with no hard feelings.

Lexa began to dial and then hung up before pressing the final number. She couldn’t just call without any warning. What if Clarke wasn’t there? What if she was busy and Lexa was interrupting? She looked at the computer, knowing she hadn’t answered Clarke’s last email and feeling irrationally guilty over it. “She probably hasn’t even noticed.”

She sighed, sitting at the edge of her bed. She stared at the phone. What excuses would she even give for not writing back? She had been busy, sure, but she could’ve written. She flipped open the phone again and started dialing. She could feel her heart doing summersaults in her chest as she pushed each number. She forced herself to breathe as she pressed the phone to her ear and listened to it ring. “I need to get my head examined.”

“… and what do you need to be friends with a middle-aged man for anyway? Think of the kittens,” said a voice, followed by, “Hello?”

Lexa cleared her throat realizing for the first time since dialing the severity of what she was doing.

“Hello. Is Clarke home?”

“It’s a strong possibility. Whom might I say is calling?”

“It’s .. um, Alexandria…” The name felt awkward on her tongue, having been years since she’d used it.

There was a slight pause. Then, “No fuckin’ way. The lesbian? Really?”

Lexa flinched slightly at the term ‘the lesbian’. Clarke had told. Of course she had…

“Look, I’m really glad you called, cause she’s been moping around like--”

From the other end of the line came muffled screaming, and a ruffling kind of sound that culminated with a loud thud. Then there was a different voice on the line, saying, “Hi? Hello?”

The voice gave Lexa pause, as she thought for a split second how sweet it sounded. “H-hi, Clarke?”

“That’s me. Sorry about Raven. She’s heavily medicated.”

“Am not!” Lexa heard in the background.

“Well, she should be, anyway,” Clarke amended with a short laugh.

Lexa could hear a door closing and she wondered if Clarke had changed locations. “It’s fine,” she said, trying to find something to say. She hadn’t thought to imagine what Clarke’s voice might sound like. She had, on occasion, wondered what Clarke looked like, but had never managed to settle on a single image. Her voice, on the other hand, had never entered Lexa’s thoughts. “Is this a bad time to be calling?”

“Not at all. I wasn’t doing anything important. Raven was just leaving to a party. Hey, how did you get my number?”

“It was on your card.”

“Oh! Right. I forgot you had that. Wow. I can’t believe we’re actually talking on the phone.”

Clarke sounded nervous and it gave Lexa an odd sense of courage. “I’m sorry about not writing to you this week. I wish I had a good excuse.”

“You don’t have to apologize. It’s not like we have some kind of immediate response rule or something. I think I’m just glad you’re okay. You are okay, right?”

“I’m fine.” Lexa smiled at the sound of concern on Clarke’ voice. Then wondered why Clarke should care at all. “Just tired. I went to a party last night and got home pretty late.”

“Was it fun?”

Lexa thought of Costia briefly. “It ended well enough. I spent most of the time talking to a guy that was trying to impress me by talking about his yacht and mad rock climbing skills.”

The sound of Clarke’ laughter made Lexa’s heart skip. “Did he finally get the hint that you weren’t interested? Unless yachts and rock climbing are the secret keys to your heart?”

“Hardly. I was mercifully rescued by someone much nicer.”

“Oh?”

Clarke sounded intrigued and Lexa knew she was inching toward dangerous waters. “Yeah, um ... a colleague I guess you could call her.”

There was a brief pause before Clarke said, “I’m sorry if this crosses the line for you or anything, but … what is it that you do exactly?”

Lexa hesitated. “I’m actually between projects at the moment so … I’m not doing much of anything.”

“Oh.”

Lexa searched her room for a way out of the conversation. She had no idea how to answer Clarke’s questions without putting a big fat lie on the table. She sighed softly. “I have a degree in creative writing with a focus on screenwriting.” It was a random thing to say, but at least it wasn’t a lie. It was a dusty kind of truth, the kind she had stored away beside her occasional dream of being a chef.

“So you’re a writer?”

“I wouldn’t go as far as calling myself that. A wannabe, maybe.” Lexa wanted desperately to change the subject. “So, how are your finals going?”

“One more to go and then freedom. Oh! I wanted to tell you, I got selected for that student art show!”

“Congratulations!” Lexa felt an inexplicable desire to hug Clarke through the phone, to pull her close and bounce around like children. “You must be excited.”

“I don’t have the words, actually,” Clarke said with a laugh. “I’ll send you an invitation if you want. I know you can’t make it, being all the way in California…”

“I’d love one,” Lexa said. “When is it?”

“It opens next Thursday and runs through the weekend.”

Lexa’s mind spun with the realization that she’d be in New York then. “Is it a school thing?”

“Well, sort of. Not really, though. It’s being held at the Hederman Gallery, which is one of the more upscale galleries downtown. The show’s going to be a mixture of well-known contemporary artists and student artists from several Universities in the state. Part of the proceeds from the artwork get donated to art education programs. It’ll probably attract a wide range of people, I think. Last year’s was pretty successful from what I read.”

The thoughts running through Lexa’s mind were only the next in an already long line of stupid ideas. “That’s amazing, Clarke,” she said. “You completely deserve it.”

“Thanks. I’m still a bit in shock, honestly. I mean, I talk about it, but it hasn’t really hit me yet, you know? Anyway, I’ll write to you afterwards and tell you all about it.”

“I’d like that.” But I wouldn’t miss being there for the world, Lexa found herself thinking.

~*~

Clarke held the phone tightly to her ear, afraid to miss anything of what Alexandria might say. She’d felt Alexandria’s hesitation in talking about her work. Perhaps Alexandria shared the same frustration Clarke did, that of being unable to transcend the expectations she’d placed upon her art. There was more to it, Clarke knew, or thought she knew, but she’d let the subject drop. Maybe someday Alexandria would feel comfortable opening up about whatever it was. In the meantime, Clarke didn’t want to push.

“So tell me about your merciful hero,” Clarke said. “She who saved you from the evils of boring conversation.”

Thousands of miles away, Alexandria laughed, and Clarke found that she liked being able to hear the sound so close to her ear.

“I don’t know much about her, honestly. She’s nice as far as I can tell.”

“And… attractive?”

There was that laugh again, nervous and reserved. “Yes, I think she is. What about that guy that your friend set you up with?”

“Anthony?” Clarke conjured up his memory. “I don’t know him at all.”

“But… attractive?”

Clarke smiled. “He has beautiful eyes, actually. And the rest of him isn’t bad.”

“What color are his eyes?”

“Green.”

“Is that your favorite?”

“Eye color?”

“Sure … or in general.”

Clarke ran inventory of all the colors she could think of. “I love forest green. I think that’s my favorite color. Yeah, I think I like green eyes. I did say I always wanted green eyes.”

“And blue hair.”

“That too.”

“Why didn’t you ever dye it blue then?”

“Honestly? I’m not that brave. I fear my hair would fall out at the mere sight of bleach.” The laugh came again, and Clarke was pleased to find it lacking in both nervousness and reservation. For the first time since Clarke had answered the phone, Alexandria sounded relaxed. “But I take it you don’t have that fear?”

“So far, my hair has managed to stay firmly rooted to my head despite all of the horrific things that have been done to it.”

“I hope you didn’t jinx yourself just now.”

“If my hair starts to fall out, I’ll know who to blame.”

“Yourself?”

“Nope. You. I wouldn’t have jinxed myself if you hadn’t asked about my hair.”

Clarke grinned. “You wouldn’t have jinxed yourself if you hadn’t been so overly confident and tempted the hair loss gods.”

“Hmph,” came Alexandria’s reply, and Clarke felt an odd surge of affection for this girl she barely knew.

Her cheeks were beginning to ache from smiling so much. “It’s nice getting to talk to you like this,” Clarke found herself saying. She had been nervous about calling Alexandria, even if it had been her idea. She never imagined that Alexandria would call her first, or that their conversation wouldn’t feel as awkward as she’d expected it to.

“I thought it would be a lot weirder than it is,” Alexandria said.

“So you think it’s still somewhat weird?”

“No. Not weird. I guess I’m still a little nervous. Is that stupid?”

Clarke smiled briefly. “No, I’m nervous too. It makes sense to be, I think.”

“I guess.”

They fell into silence then, and Clarke panicked until she realized that it didn’t feel necessarily uncomfortable. “This call must be costing you a fortune.”

“Nah, weekend minutes.”

“They’re great, aren’t they? I feel like I need to make friends in other states more often just so I can take advantage.”

“You can always start emailing people out of the blue. That seemed to work okay for me.”

“Oh, so you email everyone whose work you like?”

“Yes. Just this morning, I thought the guy who bagged my groceries did an awesome job. I emailed him to tell him so.”

“I’m amazed you found time to call me, then, what with all of the other people you need to flatter.” Clarke could tell Alexandria was smiling and the thought made her heart jump slightly. She suddenly and fervently hated the fact that they lived on opposite sides of the country, and that neither had any way of knowing if they would ever get to meet.

“Clarke?”

“I’m here, I’m sorry. I spaced.”

“Am I boring you?”

“Terribly. What were you talking about? Rock climbing? Yachts?”

“Nope. Hiking. And canoes.”

Clarke laughed, feeling, all the while, a mild sense of regret that Alexandria wasn’t sitting in front of her at that moment. It seemed like a trivial desire, the need to see someone when talking to them, but it felt strong.

She wondered if Alexandria had similar thoughts, or if she was content for Clarke to remain a series of typed letters on a computer screen; a voice at the other end of the phone.

“Are you spacing again?”

“I am. I’m sorry. I think I’m just tired.”

“I shouldn’t have called so late. I forgot about the time difference.”

Clarke glanced at the clock. It was barely ten. “It’s not late at all. I’ve just been up late studying and waking up early and I think the lack of sleep has turned my brain to mush.”

“Get some sleep then. It was really nice talking to you.”

“Thanks for calling,” Clarke said, somewhat disappointed to see the end of the conversation. “Maybe I can return the favor sometime.”

“I’ll email you my number.”

Clarke smiled at that. “Okay. Have a good rest of your day, Alexandria.”

“Good night, Clarke.”

Clarke clicked off the phone and stared up at the ceiling from her place on the bed. A print of Lucas van Valckenborch’s Autumn stared down at her. Another gift from Finn she intended to keep. He’d brought it back from one of his family trips to Paris. It had always been one of her favorite paintings.

The thought of Paris drew her back to Alexandria and she smiled at the sound of the voice still resounding in her ear. Alexandria had a nice voice, Clarke decided. It was decidedly not a middle-aged man’s.

She dragged her laptop from its place at the foot of her bed and opened it. She found the invitation the professor had emailed her the evening before and saved it. Opening a fresh email, she attached the file.

To: Alexandria Nicole

From: C. Griffin

Subject: You are cordially invited…

Here’s the invitation I promised. I really wish you didn’t live so far so you could come. :)

Your friend,

Clarke

P.S. I really enjoyed our phone conversation. I’m really sorry for being so spacey.

~*~

Lexa stared at the phone for a long time after hanging up. With Clarke it always felt as if she were living a different version of her life; the one that might’ve, could’ve been had she picked a different path. It was easy to imagine the other side of the coin; the life without fame, if not fortune. It was easy to pretend that Alexandria Nicole Woodsmen was still a living, breathing human being, instead of a memory; instead of the idea of the person she could have been.

If she had lived that life, if she had risen each morning and gone outside, blended into the crowd, lived just as Alexandria Woodsmen, heiress to a family fortune, sure, but nothing special beyond that; if that had been her life, would she be happy? Would she have found fulfillment in being ordinary? Had she met Clarke then, in that other life, would she have felt it okay to reveal every minute detail of her life, every pointless thought, every dream, without fear of consequence?

Lexa stared at the phone and recognized at once that a situation, already complex, had become something more. Now, beyond the faceless words on a computer screen was a voice; a person.

A very sweet person, Lexa thought, tossing the phone on the nightstand. She lay back on the bed and stared at the ceiling above her, at the white ridges of paint that hung like upside-down mountains on a snow-covered field. She listened to the ocean, to the wind, to the sound of raindrops on the windows. A minute passed, then two; and she felt, for the briefest of moments, a deep pang of regret; a longing for a different life.

But it passed as quickly as it had come; returned to the realm of unwelcome emotions and left her alone to think about Clarke’ voice; and how wonderful it had felt to make her laugh.

Chapter Twenty-Two

Anya examined the printed piece of paper in her hand for the longest time, reading through it several times in case she had missed something. “I’m sorry,” she said, looking up at Lexa. “You want me to do what?”

“I want you to find a reason for me to be there,” Lexa said. “Find me a charity, a cause, whatever. Just let them know I’m coming. Oh, and tell my publicist. I wouldn’t mind some press at this event.”

Anya looked back down at the invitation. Since when had Lexa cared about art? When was the last time she’d gone out of her way to be anywhere? “Is this about the artist?”

“Yes,” Lexa said, looking up from the suitcase on the bed. “Yes, it’s about the artist. Okay?”

Anya stared at the actress, unsure of what to say next. She placed the invitation in her portfolio and nodded. “I’ll get it done.”

“Thanks.” Lexa returned to her packing, surveying the items piled up on the bed and running a mental check-list of the things still left unclaimed. “I hate packing.”

“I know you do. You should hire a professional packer.”

Lexa paused to look at Anya. “Do they have those?”

“I’m sure they do. You want me to look into it for you?”

Lexa made a face. “No. I think that would be a little excessive.”

“So, is that all for now? I have about eight billion errands to run before we leave tonight.”

Lexa smiled. “You should hire an assistant to do all of that.”

“Maybe someday,” Anya said, with a laugh. “Bellamy and I are working on a screenplay together.”

“Good luck with that.” She meant it, even if she was in no hurry to lose Anya to the outside world. Anya, like everyone else in Hollywood, had dreams that transcended the everyday routine of the nine-to-five job.

It had been part of the reason, Lexa knew, why she’d become Lexa’s assistant in the first place.

“Thanks,” Anya said as she moved toward the door. On the doorway, she stopped and turned around.

“Lexa, if you want to talk …”

“About?”

“Anything…”

Lexa looked at her assistant, saw the genuine concern and interest radiating behind wire-rimmed glasses. “Clarke will have her work in an art show. I want to be there.”

“But she won’t know it’s you.”

Lexa shrugged. “I’ll know it’s me.”

“I bet that would be nerve-wracking, seeing her in person.”

There were scarier things, Lexa thought, but she honestly couldn’t think of any. She smiled. “It’s going to be terrifying.”

Anya offered a sympathetic smile, then looked serious again. “I know you’re going to hate me for asking this but … do you have feelings for her?”

“I admire her artistic talent,” Lexa said naturally, easily, as if it were the simplest of truths. “I feel that if I were anyone else in the world instead of who I am, we’d be great friends.”

“What’s stopping you from being her friend anyway? You’re a great person, Lexa. She’d see that no matter what.”

Lexa stifled the impulse to sigh. “Thanks, but we both know it doesn’t work that way. Once she knows who I am, she won’t see me the same way. Lexa Woods isn’t someone to befriend. She’s someone to ask for an autograph, she’s a picture to hang on a wall. She’s someone to envy for her air-brushed perfection and Hollywood life. She’s as fictional as the characters she plays.” She shrugged, feeling depressed. “I’m just the person that plays her. Nothing more.”

To Lexa’s surprise, Anya smiled. “You have feelings for her.”

She did sigh this time. “Anya...”

“Relax, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you’re in love with her or anything as dramatic as that. But you care. You care enough to go to the art show, and you care enough to worry whether or not she’d recognize your voice on the phone. Fuck, you even cared enough to wonder whether or not she’d still like you if she knew you were gay. Did you ever tell her, by the way?”

Lexa didn’t answer. She simply tossed a shirt into the suitcase and ignored the smile on Anya’s face.

“How did she take it?”

“She took it fine.”

“You know, you’re allowed to care about people, Lexa. You’re allowed to make friends. It’s not like you’re made of stone.”

I wish I was, sometimes, Lexa thought to herself. Things would be easier. “Didn’t you have errands to run?”

Anya let out a sound that closely resembled a motherly sigh. The kind of sound reserved for moments when words could not express the appropriate levels of frustration. “I do. See you tonight.”

Lexa listened to the retreating footsteps and the sound of the front door opening and closing. For a long time, she stared at the empty spaces in the suitcase. She wanted, at that moment, nothing more than to call Clarke again. To tell her she was packing for a trip to New York. That she’d be at the art show on Thursday. That maybe, afterwards, they could go out for coffee and talk about how weird it was that they were both there, in the same place, instead of thousands of miles apart.

She couldn’t call and say that, so she didn’t call at all. Instead she moved around the room, collecting the vital pieces of her life that would follow her to New York.

~*~

“Black or blue?” Clarke held each garment up to her chest.

“The event runs several days,” Raven said by way of an answer, meanwhile shoveling a spoonful of cereal into her mouth.

“Yeah, but opening night is special. I mean, I’ll still be excited on Friday and Saturday and Sunday, but nothing will equal Thursday night. It has to be the right dress.”

Raven nodded in understanding. “Then I guess it depends what you’re going for.”

“Well, I want to look good; professional, but artistic. I want to convey class, while still reserving the right to look creative. But not too creative. Not like I’m trying too hard. I don’t want something that says, ‘Hey, I’m an artist, and here are my clothes to prove it’. You know?”

Raven dropped the spoon in the bowl and regarded each dress in turn with what looked to be serious contemplation. “Definitely the blue.”

Clarke looked at the dress. “You think?”

“Yeah. It shows more cleavage.”

Clarke nodded. “Okay, the black it is. Thanks.”

“Any time. Hey, I’m going on that date with Kasey tonight so don’t worry when I don’t come home.”

“The porn star? I thought you already went out with him?”

“No, we spoke on the phone. He had to cancel our plans for Friday so we moved them for tonight. It meant taking the night off from work but since I’m fully expecting the best sex of my life, I figure it’s worth it.”

“Okay, then.”

“Speaking of sex, how was the phone conversation with your lesbian?”

“She’s not my lesbian.” Clarke hung the dresses in the living room closet and frowned at her friend. “And what does my phone conversation have to do with sex?”

“Did you have phone sex?”

“Of course not!”

“Then I guess nothing. How did it go? She sounded rather young and feminine for a bald, middle-aged kitten killer.”

Clarke smiled, deciding to ignore Raven’s comment. “It went really well. She’s every bit as nice as she seemed online.”

“Have you exchanged pictures yet?”

“No.”

Raven was nodding. “She’s probably fug.”

“What does it matter what she looks like?”

Raven shrugged. “It doesn’t, I guess. What’s the point, though? Of talking to her, I mean. What can you tell her that you can’t tell me?”

Clarke shrugged and sat down at the table. “It’s not really about that. You have tons of friends besides me.”

“I have people I go out with to drink and have fun with sometimes. It’s not like we talk about deep and meaningful things. I don’t tell them the things I tell you. But you and her … all you do is exchange personal narrative. What for? Doesn’t it get redundant?”

Clarke thought about it, trying to decide why talking to Alexandria seemed so much different than talking to Raven.

“You’re very different people. I like getting her perspective on things. It’s not better than yours or anything. It’s just different. Besides, I find her interesting. And she’s funny.”

“I’m funny.”

“This isn’t a competition.”

Raven shrugged.

“And she’s funny in a different way.”

“What way is that?”

“I don’t know. She’s … witty, I guess.”

“I’m not witty?”

“Raven, you’re still the funniest person I know. I don’t have an exact definition for what you are.”

Raven seemed pleased by that. “So she’s witty.”

“Yeah... I think she is, anyway.” Clarke regarded Raven curiously. “Why all the questions?”

“I read somewhere that people surround themselves with those that fulfill a basic need in them. I was wondering what need Alexandria was fulfilling for you.”

Clarke thought about it and sat back. “Guess I really needed a long distance friendship with a lesbian.”

Raven laughed. “Guess so.”

~*~

New York, Lexa thought, looking up at the skyscrapers from the window of the limousine. Here she was again. Anya was saying something into her phone, but Lexa tuned her out and instead, concentrated on the sights outside. Clarke was out there somewhere, she realized, watching the crowds of people pass by in clumps of blurry faces. She might have already passed her and never known it. Clarke was out there, somewhere, eating dinner, planning for her art show, living her life. And Lexa was here, moving slowly along in New York City traffic, watching the world, living her life.

“Bellamy’s flying up tomorrow,” Anya said suddenly, and Lexa turned her head to find Anya smiling smugly.

“Why?”

“He said it’s because he finds New York inspiring, but I strongly suspect he misses the sex. Or me. Or both. Hopefully both.”

“All fine reasons.” Lexa turned her attention back to the window.

“Costia’s meeting you for drinks at the hotel bar at nine thirty.”

“I remember,” Lexa said. She had been looking forward to the distraction since Anya had first mentioned it. “What are your plans for the evening?”

“Room service,” Anya answered simply. “And calling Bellamy. And maybe a really long bath. Not sure which will come first.”

It sounded like a pleasant way to spend an evening, Lexa thought, as the hotel came into view. Her own plans were equally simple in nature: check her email, take a shower, meet with the director, check her email again.

She wondered what Clarke’s plans were like. Did they involve checking her email as well? Lexa tried to imagine Clarke, sitting at a computer somewhere, typing. She still couldn’t quite picture her. The Clarke in her mind was as blurry and undefined as the people on the sidewalk.

Anya was back on the phone, introducing herself to whomever was on the other end of the line. “Please tell the manager that Lexa Woods has arrived.”

~*~

“Have you heard from Finn?” Clarke’s mother asked, her voice rising slightly over the noise of water falling into the kitchen sink.

In the living room, David and Dillon played a video game, the sound of their competitive bickering mixing with the sound of water, of her mother’s voice. Clarke finished drying a plate and put it in the cupboard. “No.”

“Why did you two break up again? Having an occasional fight is normal in relationships.”

Clarke grabbed another plate. “He was cheating on me, mom.”

“He did?”

Clarke took a deep breath, but didn’t answer. She waited until a moment had passed, and then another. “I spoke to Miller earlier.”

Abby paused in her actions, only briefly, before continuing.

Clarke sighed softly, feeling something in her break. “He’s doing well,” she said anyway. “I know you don’t care and maybe David doesn’t care either but … well, now you know.”

Abby didn’t say anything. The two of them fell into silence as the water continued to run, and the video game music played on to the sounds of David and Dillon laughing.

“Will you be coming to my art showing at the gallery?” Clarke ventured. It had been the reason she’d called and agreed to dinner.

Abby turned to her and smiled. She dried her hands on her apron and touched Clarke’ hair. “Of course, Clarke. You think I would miss my baby’s big moment? Not for the world.”

Clarke felt the sudden sting of tears at her eyes and she quickly turned away so her mother wouldn’t see. All evening she had feared asking, certain that what she considered to be a great achievement would be viewed by her family as a trivial matter; something to nod at and dismiss. “Thursday is the opening night,” she said, putting another dry plate away. “You should come then.”

Her mother returned to the dishes. “Are you bringing a date?”

Clarke frowned at the question. “I hadn’t thought about it.” She thought of Anthony and the card in her pocket. He was an artist. Maybe he’d want to come. “But there’s someone I can ask.”

~*~

Lexa ordered a martini when the waiter came around. It had been a spur of the moment decision, the kind of choice she felt stupid about immediately after making it. She hated martinis; she was well aware of that fact. But as she’d looked at the list of drinks, she’d been overcome by the need to choose something different.

“Did you have a nice flight?” Costia was looking at her, her attention so focused that Lexa thought, for a brief instant, that she’d been asked something more important.

“I did, thank you.” This wasn’t a date, Lexa reminded herself, no matter how many outfits she’d gone through before finally walking out of the hotel room. She blamed Anya. Lexa hadn’t needed to know that Costia was gay; it was superfluous information. And now it was all Lexa could think about.

Here they were, the two of them, sitting across from each other in a bar, soon to be having drinks over what would (eventually) become professional conversation, and all Lexa could do was wonder whether or not Costia found her attractive.

“I hate flying,” Costia was saying.

“Really? I find it kind of relaxing.”

Costia offered a half-smile. “Really? I envy people like you. I spend the entire flight gripping the armrests, convinced that every little sound is the engine giving out. Sometimes I even glance out to make sure the wings are still attached.”

Lexa laughed. “I don’t know. I guess I always feel free up there. Like things are out of my control and I have nothing to worry about.”

“Except the engine giving out.”

She smiled because she couldn’t help it. “Yeah … well, I didn’t worry about that before, but I probably will now. Thanks.”

“Anytime.”

The waiter arrived with their order, and Lexa was grateful for the interruption. The glass in front of her gave her something to look at besides Costia’s smile. She felt nervous and self-conscious around the director, as though Costia might guess the truth about Lexa simply by looking at her.

She forced herself not to think about it. Instead, she sipped and listened to the low rumble of undecipherable conversations, of inconsequential moments that hid the passing of time. She let the sound settle over them.

“How’s your drink?”

Lexa glanced down at the martini glass and then back up at Costia. “It’s disgusting, actually.” She laughed, feeling embarrassed for having ordered it in the first place. “It’s not what I usually order.”

“What made you get it?”

What indeed. “I guess I was in the mood for something different.” Lexa shrugged slightly, feeling uncomfortable and on the spot, as if the act of ordering a drink she didn’t like said something about who she was as a person.

Costia only smiled, looking amused. “Want to try mine? I haven’t drunk from it yet.” She pushed her glass toward Lexa.

Surprised, Lexa looked up and caught Costia’s gaze. She had to remind herself once again that this wasn’t a date, that Costia was simply being nice to her because she was Lexa Woods and no other reason than that. “What is it?”

“Gin and tonic. If you like it, I’ll trade you. Martinis are actually my favorite.”

Lexa arched a questioning brow. “Huh. Why did you order a gin and tonic then?”

Costia looked embarrassed. “You’re going to think it’s stupid.”

“Try me.”

“Well … okay. I was reading Life, the Universe and Everything on the flight here and in it one of the characters goes temporarily insane in pre-historic Earth and spends a few weeks jumping in and out of a gin and tonic. Well, it’s a small lake, really but … anyway, it was on my mind when I ordered.” She paused. “You probably think I’m insane.”

“Ford,” Lexa said, remembering. “You can’t go wrong with Douglas Adams.”

Costia looked pleasantly surprised. “You’ve read it?”

“I did. A long time ago.” Lexa glanced down at the offered drink and picked it up. She took a sip, enjoying the bitter but pleasant taste of it. It wasn’t the first time she’d had a gin and tonic, but it was rare to find it mixed properly. After a moment, she pushed the martini in Costia’s direction, thinking, as she watched the glass slide across the table, how much like a date this felt despite it not being one.

“It’s all yours.”

Costia accepted the drink, smiling gratefully. “That worked out well, then. What do you usually order?”

“Vodka and cranberry juice.”

“I’ll have to try that sometime.” Costia tasted the drink, then put it down on the table. “So, you’re probably wondering why I asked you to meet me here.”

“You mean it wasn’t just to steal my drink?”

Costia laughed. “That was merely a bonus. I got a call yesterday about a big audition event going on next week. Seems like a group of semi-professional actors will be auditioning before a large panel of directors from different theater companies, and I thought we could check it out.”

Lexa picked up her drink again. “’We’ as in you and me?”

“I’m dragging Ella Peters along, she’s one of the producers, but I was hoping, since you’d be in town, that you’d be able to join us.”

“For the purpose of…?”

“Providing a third opinion?” Costia seemed to sigh. “Don’t get me wrong, Ella is a great person and she’s really gone on a limb for me with this film, but we’ve hit a bit of a brick wall in terms of casting. She’s insisting on big name actors all the way, while I believe there’s nothing wrong with finding new talent.”

“I take it I’m where you made a compromise?”

Costia smiled. “Like I told you before, Lexa, I wrote that role with you in mind. I just don’t want to leave certain venues unexplored simply because it might yield actors who lack notoriety. I know this might sound incredibly naïve to you, but honestly, I just want to make sure I have the right cast, not just one that’s box office friendly.”

Naïve or not, Lexa found Costia intriguing. It was rare to find people in the business still untainted by fame and fortune. It made Lexa wonder how long, in Costia’s case, it might last. “And what makes you think I don’t agree with your producer?”

“Just a feeling…” Costia looked embarrassed again. “You probably think it’s terribly arrogant of me to make assumptions about you when we’ve only just met…” She sighed. “And it is. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t worry, I’m used to it. I sort of expect people to assume things about me, which I guess makes me more arrogant than you.” She smiled. “Anyway, I’m not saying I agree with your producer, but it’s true that using new talent is riskier in a film like this.”

“’Like this’. A gay film, you mean?”

Lexa didn’t say anything, afraid she had offended the director without meaning to.

But Costia was nodding. “No, it’s okay. You can say it. Believe me, I’ve heard it all before, numerous times, and this from the people on my side. And you’re all correct.” She paused to take a drink. She shrugged as she put the glass back on the table. “Maybe I should just agree to an all-star cast and stop trying to swim upstream.”

“You don’t strike me as the type to give in so easily.”

Costia looked up and caught Lexa’s gaze. “Now who’s making assumptions?”

Lexa laughed. “I do recall you once telling me that you’re nothing if not stubborn.”

“Well, you’ve got me there.”

Costia’s smile was disarming, Lexa thought. She wondered if others thought the same or if she had simply reached a new level of desperation. “Count me in.”

“I’m sorry?”

“The audition event. Count me in.”

Costia smiled again, and Lexa decided to simply enjoy the view.

~*~

The lights were on when Clarke opened the door to her apartment and she was momentarily irritated with Raven for leaving them on, but irritation soon gave way to alarm as Clarke realized that she wasn’t alone.

Suddenly panicked at the thought of an intruder, she began to backtrack out of the apartment with the full intention of phoning the police the second she was outside.

She was in the process of shutting the door when a voice stopped her.

“Oh good, you’re home.”

It was Raven.

Clarke pushed the door open and stared at her roommate from across the entryway. “You scared me half to death. I thought you were gone for the night!”

“Why are you yelling? It’s not my fault you’re a paranoid freak.”

Clarke sighed and stepped inside. She closed the door and brushed past Raven on her way to her bedroom.

Raven trailed behind her. “Don’t you wanna know what happened?”

“He cancelled.”

“I wish.”

“His penis fell off from the sheer weight of it.”

Raven snorted. “One more guess.” She leaned against the doorframe to Clarke’s room. “Actually, never mind. You’ll never guess this.” She walked in and plopped down on the bed. “Mr. Porn star, it turns out, doesn’t believe in sex before marriage.”

Clarke paused in the process of taking off her messenger bag. “What?”

“Exactly. That’s exactly what I said. Only I cushioned it with a lot more foul language.”

Clarke had to laugh. “But he sleeps with women for money.”

“Apparently that falls within his religious and moral boundaries. But sex for free? No. God would frown upon that.”

“Go figure.” Clarke joined Raven on the bed. “So it’s over then?”

Raven frowned. “No, I’m seeing him on Thursday. He’s coming to your shindig. Speaking of, what did the parentals say?”

Clarke smiled brightly. “They’re coming. Mom actually seemed … proud.”

Raven arched an eyebrow. “Is it a full moon or something?”

“I wonder. That would explain a lot.”

“And your lesbian? How’s she doing?”

Clarke sighed. “Will you quit calling her that? She has a name.”

“Fine. Your Alexandria. How’s she doing?”

Clarke gave up. “I don’t know. I’ll check my mail before I go to bed.” She bit her lip. “So … I was thinking of asking Anthony if he’d like to come with me on Thursday.”

Raven gasped. “As your date?”

“Do you think that would be too weird?”

“Are you kidding? It’ll make his day. Boy’s been bugging me to go out with you for ages. He thinks you’re the hottest thing since that guy from Prison Break.”

Clarke frowned. “I’m not sure that example works very well.”

“Oh, he’s bi. Didn’t I tell you?”

“He is?”

Raven let out a long laugh. “I kid. Well, I think I kid. Who knows these days? Besides, you’re all with the pride lately. First your brother, then your lesbian. A bisexual boyfriend would complete the set. I could probably find you one.”

“How is it that you can take a perfectly normal conversation and steer it into something else entirely?”

“Years of practice. How am I doing?”

“Impressively well.”

“Super. And now I’ve run out of people to ask you about, so I’m going back to my room to blast mood-appropriate music. What goes well with my-porn-starring-boyfriend-won’t-have-sex-before-marriage?”

“Sarah McLachlan?”

“I like to save her for the truly dark days. This just borders on the ridiculous.”

“Weird Al?”

“Done.” Raven started to rise. “Any other pressing subject matters you’d like to discuss before I retreat into my cave?”

“Did you just call the porn guy your boyfriend?”

Raven froze. “Did I? Maybe I should blast some Sarah after all. What is wrong with me? Just pretend I didn’t say that.”

“Got it. Enjoy your Weird Al in bliss.”

Raven waved and closed the door on her way out.

Alone with her thoughts, Clarke studied the bedroom quietly. She wanted to call Anthony and get the asking over with, but it felt somewhat late for a phone call. She hadn’t yet rehearsed the dialogue either. It wasn’t the sort of thing she could just improvise, even though she was sure lots of people would’ve done just that.

Raven, for example, wouldn’t have hesitated in picking up the phone. But I’m not Raven Clarke thought, feeling both regretful and relieved by the reminder.

Instead of the phone, she reached for the computer and turned it on, having decided to prolong not having the conversation with Anthony until the last possible moment. She wasn’t altogether sure she even wanted to bring a date, though the thought of introducing her parents to someone other than Finn was appealing. Perhaps it would help them get over her ex-boyfriend if they saw her moving on.

“Who am I kidding?” she asked the monitor. “Going for a starving New York artist after dating a rich lawyer-to-be would be a disaster.” In response, the computer welcomed her to Windows.

Her inbox proved disappointingly devoid of news from Alexandria, and Clarke couldn’t remember whose turn it was to reply. Deciding it didn’t really matter, she opened a new message.

To: Alexandria Nicole

From:C. Griffin

Subject: Just saying hi

Dear Alexandria, I couldn’t remember whose turn it was to reply and I’m too lazy to check my message archives, so I’m taking the initiative. I just got back from a rather surprising (though pleasantly so) evening with my parents. I went with the intention of finding out whether or not they were planning to come to the gallery, and my mom said of course; that they wouldn’t miss it.

You’re probably thinking, “Well of course she would say that. What mother wouldn’t?” But my parents – well, my mom and her husband, though he’s proven more of a father to me than my real one – have always been against my wanting to be an artist (or, rather, choosing it as a career path). If it weren’t for my biological father’s guilt money, I’d either be on the road to medical school (funded by financial aid) or living under a bridge somewhere.

You probably think I’m exaggerating, but trust me, I’m not. I’m not entirely sure what’s prompted their sudden support. Perhaps it’s their guilt over the current situation with Miller (my stepbrother). I tried bringing him up and my mom acted like she didn’t want to hear about him. I told her that he was doing well. I hope she relays the message to David. No matter what, Miller is still his son; he has to care.

It seems wrong somehow to feel so glad to have my parents’ support at a time when Miller has only their contempt, but I can’t help but be excited. I keep thinking if only I can get them all there at the same time. If only David and my mom can see that Miller is still Miller …

Well, it’s probably silly of me to think I can fix things simply by tossing them into the same place at the same time. I just hate seeing my family like this. Split apart by something so … I want to say trivial, but it isn’t that either.

You’re probably sick of me talking about this, so I’ll change the subject.

I’m thinking (read: strongly considering while possibly drunk or at least highly medicated) of asking Anthony (that guy I mentioned before) to be my date to the gallery on Thursday. Of course, thinking about it is a lot easier than actually doing it. Doing it involves picking up the phone and dialing numbers and waiting for the other party to pick up the phone and inserting random chit chat in order to build courage to actually ask what I wanted to ask in the first place … and then of course, there’s the question of whether or not I’d even go through with it. And if I did, that would mean facing the moment of possible rejection, followed by the awkwardness and embarrassment and the urgent need to get off the phone as quickly as possible.

I’m not even sure why I’d even want to bring a date, other than my mom brought up the subject and I feel that showing up with a new guy is better than showing up with no guy at all.

But I also don’t want to give Anthony the impression that I’m ready to start dating him or anything. How do you convey: ‘I am asking you out but I don’t want to date you’ in a clear-but-non-offensive way?

There should really be a series of universally known cues for that sort of message. People should be forced to undergo Dating 101 in high school instead of being thrown to the wolves and having to go around pretending they know what the hell they’re doing when they don’t. Hmm, I think I’m starting to sound like you a little bit.

What else? Oh. I ended up quitting my job before I really started it. They’d scheduled me to work all four days of the art exhibit and weren’t budging on the matter. I guess I’ll go back to the job hunt next week.

Anyway, enough about me. How are you? I haven’t heard from you in a while and I’d love to know what you’re up to.

Until later,

Clarke

“Hey,” Raven said suddenly, peering in from the now open door. “Sorry to interrupt your Sapphic love affair.”

Clarke’s gaze lingered briefly on her Outbox, waiting for the message to disappear. Then she looked up at Raven. “Have we reached the point where we’re past knocking?”

Raven let the door swing open, but didn’t enter. “Why, were you doing something naughty?”

Clarke only sighed and shut the laptop. “What can I do for you?”

“I just wanted to let you know things are all set with you and Anthony for Thursday.”

“What do you mean?”

“I took care of it for you since I knew you’d be too chickenshit to do it yourself.”

“You called him?”

“Contrary to the belief of Internet geeks like you, the telephone is still a perfectly viable form of communication.”

Clarke resisted the urge to throw something at her best friend. “What did you say?”

“I told him you wanted to do him after your art thingie on Thursday, but only if he agreed to be your escort for the evening.” At the sight of Clarke’ panicked expression, Raven quickly added, “Relax, I’m pretty sure he knew I was joking.” She stared to shut the door but paused. “Wear some sexy undies, though, just in case he took me seriously. Oh, and you’re welcome!”

~*~

It was past eleven when Lexa stepped inside the hotel suite. Exhaustion hit her the moment she closed the door, and she leaned back against it, letting out a long breath. She surveyed the room, the large expanse of tastefully decorated walls and carefully chosen furniture. For the first time, she noticed the arrangement of fruits, cheeses, and wine on the table, and the note attached undoubtedly welcoming her, urging her to have a wonderful stay.

She pushed herself forward, kicking off her shoes in the process and falling onto the bed the moment she was close enough. Thoughts of the director danced at the edges of her mind, but were easily replaced by other, more pressing ones.

Images of what Thursday might bring invaded her mind, along with a myriad of questions she couldn’t answer. What would it be like to be in the same place as the artist and not be able to reveal who she was?

Would she have the courage to approach Clarke, pay her a compliment? Or would she hide, avoiding contact at all costs?

She wanted to believe that she’d be brave enough to talk to Clarke, even if it was only as Lexa Woods, and not Alexandria Nicole. She wanted to think that she might even, given the chance, make Clarke smile, make her, even for just an instant, forget that a famous actress stood before her.

And yet, through the fantasies of what might be, something nagged at her. Something she hadn’t been able to pinpoint but that she knew she wouldn’t like.

Lexa’s mind wandered and she forced herself to sit. Despite her exhaustion, she didn’t want to sleep. She didn’t want to go another day without writing back to Clarke, especially now, when they were so near to each other.

“So near and yet so far,” Lexa mumbled as she went to retrieve the laptop from its case.

The email that awaited Lexa when she’d finally managed to log in was a pleasant surprise. She couldn’t remember either whose turn it was to reply, but she had a strong suspicion that it was hers. She read Clarke’ email over a few times, pausing each time at the section about Anthony. Something about it bothered her. After a moment, she clicked the reply button.

To: C. Griffin

From: Alexandria Nicole

Subject Re: Just saying hi

Dear Clarke,

First, let me say how glad I am that your parents are being supportive. I imagine that it’s a great feeling for them to share your excitement on this, even if it’s somewhat clouded by the situation with your stepbrother. I don’t think you should feel guilty about feeling happy. You’ve accomplished a wonderful thing and you should be proud. I don’t know your stepbrother, but from what you’ve told me, I’d like to think that he’d agree with me on that.

You should know by now that I fully agree with you on the Dating 101 idea. Though, I think you’re more advanced than I am in that regard. At least you’re actually considering the possibility of calling someone and asking them out. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten that far, which I suppose makes me the biggest 22-year-old loser on the planet. (Feel free to jump in and argue with me on that point at any time, by the way). ;)

Anyway, I’m sure you have nothing to worry about. He sounds like he’d go out with you in a second. And from what I know of you, I think he’d be a fool not to. :)

From my end, things are pretty uneventful. I had a few drinks tonight with She-Who-Saved-Me-From-Boring-Conversation. It wasn’t a date or anything, but it was nice to feel like I was expanding my social circle a bit, even if the outing was mainly work-related, and not a social call at all. I like her. She’s nice and funny, but … I think that’s about as far as I’m willing to go with my feelings on the matter.

Lexa stopped typing, feeling an odd desire to pour out her feelings onto the screen. It was the dangerous part of this anonymous exchange: the lack of visible boundaries, and the alcohol in her system wasn’t helping matters any. Her finger hovered over the backspace button, but didn’t press down. After a moment, she continued typing.

I envy that, despite your shyness, you’d still consider the idea of asking someone out. I wish I could do that. I wish I could give someone half a chance before shutting all doors to the possibility of anything. I think my main issue extends from not knowing when people are genuinely interested in me. How do you tell the difference between someone being polite and someone being attracted to you? Is there a way?

The more I tell myself that I am perfectly content being single, the more I recognize that it’s just fear of the alternative. At the same time, I don’t want to just fall for the first gay woman that crosses my path, no matter how nice and funny she is. That’s assuming, of course, that she’d even be remotely interested in me, and so far, she’s not given me any indication that she is. So, really, I am just babbling for no other reason than I’m partly drunk.

Anyway, enough about my pathetic (lack of a) love life, tell me more about you. Are you nervous about Thursday? I can’t begin to imagine how excited you must be. I’m not sure what the protocol is for wishing an artist good luck – break a paintbrush? Hm. I doubt that’s right. Good luck, all the same. I wish you always the very best.

Take care,

Alexandria

Chapter Text

“Isn’t that like the tenth outfit you’ve tried on?” Raven asked from the doorway. “Don’t get me wrong, I totally approve of this madness, but it’s very un-you-like.”

Clarke contemplated her reflection in the full-length mirror, frowning at the image before turning around. “I’m going insane. I mean, picking an outfit was easy when all I needed was something that said, ‘I’m a sophisticated but modest artist.’ But that was before I knew Anthony would be my date, and that my parents would be there. Now I need something else. Now I need something that says, ‘Hey, I’m sexy, but I still don’t want to date you,’ to Anthony, and ‘I’m still a good Pristine girl,’ to my parents, whilst still conveying the overall artist/sophisticated/modest thing.” She paused to examine the pile of clothes on her bed. “Which of those says that to you?”

Raven frowned briefly. “You know outfits can’t talk, right?”

Clarke sighed and headed toward the closet, shedding clothes as she went. “Not helping.”

“I wish I had my phone on me to capture this moment.”

“I’m really glad you don’t.” Clarke slipped her head into another dress, and turned toward the mirror. “Too revealing. Why are my dresses so revealing?”

“Um, those are all mine.”

“That explains it.”

Raven smiled. “Spoken like a true best friend.” She approached the bed and the mess of clothes thereon. She began sorting through the chaos. She picked a long skirt from the pile and threw it at Clarke. “There’s your Christian image.” She threw a button-down shirt that Clarke knew was a little too tight. “There’s your sexy but off-limits.” She walked to the dresser and chose a pair of earrings and a matching necklace. “And here’s your artistic but sophisticated.”

Clarke frowned at the clothing. “How did you do that?”

“Magic. You can borrow my new boots. They’ll go perfectly.”

“I thought you were wearing them?”

“Change of plans. I have a porn star with religious and moral convictions to seduce. It’s all about the boobs and the high heels tonight.”

“Good luck with that.”

“Thanks. I’m off to shower. Are you excited?”

“About you showering? Why, yes, my heart’s aflutter.”

“Har har.”

Clarke let out a breath. “My stomach’s been in knots all day.”

“Relax. It’s going to be great. Your artwork is going to be flying off the walls.”

Clarke laughed. “At $950 a pop, I don’t think so. I told the guy at the gallery that he was insane to put that price tag, but he said it was a normal amount for that sort of event.”

“He should’ve priced them at $10,000.”

“Heh. Right. Why not a million?”

Raven grinned. “I bet someone would buy them.”

“I bet someone would have to be insane.” Clarke smiled. “But thanks for the flattering comments. They do help.”

“You are most welcome,” Raven said, as she walked away. “But I still think someone would buy them.”

***

“I can’t go,” Lexa said suddenly, making both Anya and Bellamy look up from their meals. It had been at the back of her mind for days now, unclear but persistent, and now she knew: she couldn’t go to Clarke’s art show. “I can’t go tonight,” she said again.

“Cold feet?” Bellamy asked.

“It’s normal to be nervous,” Anya grunted, shoving a fork into her mouth.

“Especially if you have the hots for her.”

Lexa glanced up sharply. “I don’t have the hots for her. I barely know her. I just can’t be there.”

“Why?” It was Anya who asked.

Lexa put down her fork. “Because the second I step inside that gallery the whole thing will become about me being there. Who’s going to be looking at the artwork when Lexa Woods is parading through the halls? I mean, I know it sounds horrifically presumptuous of me, but it’s the truth. It should be Clarke’s night.”

“I thought that’s what you wanted, though, to get Clarke some free publicity?”

“I did,” Lexa said, picking up her fork again. She glanced around the restaurant, trying to gather her thoughts. “I’m just worried it won’t turn out that way. I don’t want tonight to be about me. I can’t have that. It’s not right.” She tried to hide her disappointment. She’d wanted to be there; still wanted to. She looked at Anya. “I need a favor.”

“For God’s sake,” said Anya.

“Run,” Bellamy whispered.

“I need you to go for me.”

Anya sighed. “And just what do you want me to do there?”

“Just one small thing.”

***

Fragments of disjointed conversations hung in the air as Clarke moved through the gallery. She listened only briefly, catching words and phrases that, more often than not, had nothing to do with art. She smiled when smiled at, spoke when spoken to, and dutifully took in other people’s work. Every now and then she’d pause to look around, hoping to find a familiar face in the myriad of strangers.

She stifled a sigh, feeling lonely and out of place on a night when she wanted desperately to belong. Most artists had come with their own clan of admirers. And even the student artists had groups of their own.

Overall, the night was not turning out quite how Clarke had imagined. At the edges of her excitement was an undercurrent of awkwardness she hadn’t anticipated. As amazing as it felt to see her artwork on display, she couldn’t shake the feeling that this was a world in which she’d never feel at home.

“Hey, are you Clarke Griffin?”

Clarke’ heart sped up at the sound of the unfamiliar voice. She spun around and faced the girl standing there.

“Yes?”

“I just wanted to tell you that all of your paintings have been sold.”

Clarke was certain she’d heard incorrectly. “I’m sorry?”

“Someone came in and bought them all,” the girl explained, somewhat impatiently. She brushed strands of blonde hair from her eyes. “I’m on my way to Monty them.” She held up a pack of red circular stickers.

“Thought you’d want to know.”

“But… who?”

The girl shrugged. “You’ll have to ask the higher ups. I am just the sticker girl.” With that she turned away.

Clarke stood in stunned silence until a familiar voice caught her attention.

“There you are. Thank God. Did you hear about the subway mess? One of the trains lost power and they’ve been stuck down there for like an hour and a half. So glad I took a cab. It’s positively pouring out there, too. How’s it going here?”

“Apparently all my artwork sold,” Clarke said, still not quite believing it.

“I so knew it would,” Raven said, looking smug. “I’m so proud of you. I should get your autograph now before you get so famous you don’t remember my name.”

“As if you’d ever let me forget it.”

“Heh, ain’t that the truth. So, who bought it?” Raven looked around. “Is he tall? Rich? Good-looking? You should marry whoever it was. It’d make a great tale to tell the grandkids.”

“I haven’t a clue.”

“Speaking of tall, dark and handsome, where’s Anthony?”

Clarke shrugged. “He left me a message saying he’d meet me here.”

“Hope he’s not stuck in that subway mess like Kasey is. Idiot decided to take the subway and got himself stuck. Can’t say he didn’t have it coming, though. Karma’s a bitch.”

“He’s getting punished for not sleeping with you by getting stuck on a train?”

“God works in mysterious ways, my friend.”

“Since when do you believe in God?”

“Since She started being on my side. That’s the kind of God I can roll with.”

Clarke decided to drop the subject before they got struck by lightning. “Miller and Monty aren’t here either. I hope they’re all okay.”

“I wouldn’t worry too much.” She grabbed a flute of champagne as a tray passed by. “Free food and drinks. Sweet. You need to land some more of these gigs. A girl could get used to this kind of luxury. Speaking of which, did you happen to catch sight of that huge limo parked outside?” She looked around. “Who do you think it belongs to?”

Clarke hadn’t noticed, nor did she care. “Who knows? I’m still trying to figure out who might’ve bought my artwork so I can thank them.”

“Hm.” Raven sipped her drink as her gaze wandered around the room. She elbowed Clarke and motioned with her chin. “What about that guy? He looks like he’d blow some cash on your paintings.”

Clarke followed Raven’s gaze to the balding middle-aged man in a pinstriped suit standing near the back exit.

He caught her gaze and winked in her direction. Clarke instantly turned away. “You know, come to think of it, maybe I don’t want to know.” She thought of the painting she’d intended for Alexandria and felt depressed at the thought of someone else having it. She’d never have displayed it if she’d thought it would sell.

“We’ll have to celebrate after this,” Raven was saying. “We should invite Monty and Miller. Make it a triple date.”

Raven continued on to list a number of places they could go, but Clarke stopped listening. They were standing near the front windows, and she glanced outside. The rain had stopped, but drops of water still rolled down the glass. As much as she wanted to relax and have fun, she couldn’t help but feel a sense of detachment. All night she had been unable to shake the feeling that something was missing.

“Stop looking so fucking emo,” Raven said suddenly. “This is a happy night. Let’s go mingle. Oh and at some point, I want to stand in front of your artwork and stare at it until someone comes around so that I can break down in tears and proclaim it the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

“And why?”

“Because I correctly anticipated how dull this place would be. A girl needs to make her own fun. We can always stand in a corner and make out when your parents get here. That’ll surely take the heat off of Miller. I’ll definitely need a few more glasses of champagne but if you’re game…”

“Yes, definitely. Let’s do that.”

“Really?”

“No chance in hell. I’d be up for chasing down the lady with the cheese tray, though.”

“You’re on.”

***

Lexa was glad when the rain eased up. She’d been watching the front of the gallery from the backseat of the limo, studying all the people that came and went, wondering if she’d somehow recognize Clarke.

Despite herself and all of the warnings in her head, Lexa wanted to see her. She wanted to push open the door and walk right into the gallery. She wanted to find Clarke, pull her aside, and tell her everything.

She wanted things to be different. She wanted things to stay the same. She wanted too many things that could never be.

She pushed her hands into the pockets of her coat and let her head fall back against the seat.

“No one’s stopping you from going in there,” Bellamy said, breaking the silence. He sat across from her, eyes closed, listening to his iPod.

“I’m stopping me.”

Bellamy opened his eyes and removed the headphones. He smiled softly. “I never thought you’d be the type to fall in love over the Internet.”

“I’m not in love.”

“Then why are you so scared of seeing what she looks like?”

Lexa glanced at him. “What makes you think that I am?”

“You mean you’re not the least bit worried about being attracted to her?”

Lexa frowned briefly at the question. The thought had never entered her mind. “It’s not like that. I just like talking to her.”

“You like talking to her. That’s why we’re sitting in a limo parked less than twenty feet from where she is, not daring to go in there because it might take away some of her spotlight? Newsflash, no one knows who she is. The spotlight isn’t anywhere near Clarke Puffin tonight.”

“Griffin,” Lexa corrected.

“Whatever.”

When Lexa said nothing, Bellamy continued. “Lexa, if you just wanted to be her friend, you wouldn’t be sitting here staring out that window like a lovesick puppy. You’d have stayed at the hotel watching TV while Anya ran your errands. The fact that you insisted on coming tells me that you can’t bear the thought of not being here. Doesn’t that seem just a little bit odd to you?”

Lexa let out an exasperated sigh. “What do you want from me, Bellamy? You want me to say I have feelings for her? Well, I don’t, okay? Getting a crush on a girl I barely know, who I’ve never met in person, who doesn’t know the whole truth about me, and who’s straight, well … it’s not big on my to-do list. So if you would kindly stop putting these sort of thoughts in my head I’d greatly appreciate it.”

“I’m sorry,” Bellamy said. He remained silent for all of five seconds. “Then what would it hurt you going in there?”

Lexa shifted in her seat, annoyed that Bellamy was getting to her. Going into the gallery hadn’t been part of the night’s agenda.

“Want me to go in with you?”

“No, you can’t,” Lexa said after a moment.

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t want Clarke’s friend recognizing you.”

“My picture’s been all over the press. If she hasn’t put two and two together…”

“You look different in person.”

“Different how?”

“I don’t know. Shorter.”

“Lexa…”

Lexa stared out the window at the gallery, trying to make up her mind one way or the other. She did want to see Clarke, if only from across a room. She did want to be a part of this night, even if Clarke wouldn’t know it. “I’ll go,” she said finally. “But you have to stay here.”

“Fine. But you better give me a full description. Especially if she’s hot.”

Lexa rolled her eyes and reached for the door handle.

Chapter Twenty-Four

“Oh. My. God,” Raven said suddenly. “Is that … it can’t be …”

Clarke turned around to follow Raven’s gaze, fully expecting to find some strange guy she’d never seen before but had undoubtedly heard about heading toward them to ask Raven why she’d never called. What she saw instead was a woman with a striking resemblance to Lexa Woods. “It can’t be,” she echoed, but her gaze didn’t budge. She watched as the Gallery Director nearly trampled a server on his way to meet the woman.

“Holy fuck, it is her,” Raven whispered in Clarke’s ear. “Pinch me.”

Clarke pushed Raven’s arm away and took in the actress from afar. Lexa Woods’s hair was long and dark brown, falling around the actress’ face in shiny, silky strands that looked fresh off a shampoo commercial.

Deep green eyes darted around the gallery as if looking for someone. Full lips suddenly parted into smile at the man talking to her, and her search stopped to regard him. She wore a grey sweater and a short black skirt beneath a long black leather coat that clung perfectly to every place that mattered. Tall long legs made the actress tower over the man chatting anxiously in her face. Clarke looked away, not wishing to be caught staring.

“Man, I really thought most of her was just airbrushed but she really is that beautiful.” Raven was shaking her head.

The general murmur of conversation returned to normal after the element of surprise had passed, and Clarke ventured another glance at Lexa Woods, but the actress was gone. Though Clarke hardly considered herself a fan, she couldn’t help but feel awestruck. “What do you think she’s doing here?”

“Maybe she really likes art.”

“Right.” Somehow Clarke doubted it. “She seems like an airhead to me.”

“Just because she plays an airhead doesn’t mean she is one.”

Clarke shrugged. “I doubt very much she’s acting.”

Raven laughed. “So harsh. I’m going to go ask for her autograph.”

“Knock yourself out.” Clarke was tempted to follow, out of curiosity if nothing else, but stood her ground. She watched Raven walk away and turned her head just in time to see Anthony walking in.

***

Lexa found Anya easily. Her assistant was talking to a young woman who seemed more than a little interested in whatever Anya was saying. Anya looked as if she was searching for an excuse to get away and found it the second she spotted Lexa.

Lexa watched the young woman’s gaze as it trailed after Anya. “Another ex?” she guessed when her assistant was within ear shot.

Anya laughed. “Yeah right. What are you doing here? I thought you had to stay hidden away lest you steal the limelight.”

“Blame your boyfriend. He practically pushed me out of the limo.”

Anya smiled as if she and Bellamy had planned it all along. They probably had.

Lexa looked around, hoping not to look as nervous as she felt. “So? Point her out so I know who to subtly stare at.”

“I haven’t a clue actually,” said her assistant. “I did what you asked but it didn’t involve any direct communication with the artist so… “

Lexa sighed. “Great.”

“I could ask…”

“No.” Lexa stuffed her hands in her pockets. “Being here will just have to be enough, I guess.”

“Excuse me, Ms. Woods?”

Lexa knew what the girl wanted before she even turned around, so she wasn’t surprised to see the outstretched hand with the pen and paper in it. Lexa offered her usual smile and accepted the objects.

“Who shall I make it out to?” “Raven. Raven Reyes. Or just Raven. Just Raven is better.”

Lexa’s grip on the pen faltered and she ended up dropping it. Raven, Anya and Lexa all reached down to pick it up, nearly causing a three-way concussion. It was Raven who got to it first, and Lexa forced herself to look at the girl. The hair was longer now, but it was definitely the same brunette that had been at the park the day she’d asked Bellamy to purchase Clarke’s artwork. Raven was a pretty girl, and Lexa could now see why Bellamy had asked for her number.

Amused brown eyes looked up at her as they offered the pen back. “Thanks,” Lexa said, relieved to have something else to do. “I’m not usually such a klutz.”

“Yes she is,” Anya whispered.

“I heard that,” Lexa said good-naturedly, without looking up. She managed to spell her name correctly, somehow. “There you go.”

Raven accepted back the pen and paper with a grateful smile. “I just wanted to tell you that I think you’re great in everything.” She paused. “Well, almost everything. Even you have to admit Seabord Cyborg wasn’t your best work.”

“Oh, see, that wasn’t me,” Lexa said quickly. “That was my twin sister; my evil twin sister who suffered from a rare but serious condition which caused her to accept horrible movie roles in my place. She’s since been institutionalized.”

Anya snorted.

Raven laughed. “Well, then in that case, I think you’re great in everything.”

“Why thank you,” Lexa said, grinning. “That’s sweet.”

Raven smiled. “Anyway, I won’t take up any more of your time. Thanks again for the autograph.” Raven nodded at them and walked away.

“Nice recovery,” Anya said. “Did her breasts distract that much that you couldn’t even hold a pen?”

Lexa watched Raven walk away and turned to Anya. “That’s her best friend.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously.” Lexa flagged down a server and took a glass of champagne off of the tray.

Anya coughed. “So, if that’s the best friend, then it’s safe to assume that that’s Clarke…?”

Lexa froze. “You see her?”

“Assuming that’s her.”

“And?”

Anya looked at Lexa. “And … not at all what I’d imagined.”

Lexa wasn’t sure what Anya meant by that. It took her a moment longer to finally gather her courage and turn around.

She’d pictured Clarke a thousand different ways, even while trying not to. She’d told herself it didn’t make any difference: tall, short, fat, thin; letters on a screen didn’t need a physical description. Still she hadn’t been able to stop herself from trying to put a face and a body to the artist. And now that she was standing only a few feet away, getting her first glance at the real-life version, she knew she shouldn’t have bothered imagining; never in a million years would she have accurately pictured Clarke.

Clarke was smiling. It was the first thing Lexa noticed when she turned around. The smile lit up almond-shaped blue eyes; light blue, the sort of light that bordered on a different color altogether. Wavy blonde hair was twisted and clipped back, while a few stray curls framed her beautiful face. Lexa let her gaze roam, because she couldn’t help herself. Clarke’s skin was a light, lighter than Lexa had imagined on most occasions, and perfectly smooth.

Lexa’s gaze trailed down Clarke’s neck, pausing briefly at the assortment of necklaces, and continuing down to the tight shirt opened several buttons from the top, down to the long skirt which clung to the undeniably gorgeous body beneath. Her heart hammered in her chest, and she forced herself to look away.

“Well,” came Anya’s voice, “I guess we just found your type.”

***

Anthony had apologized for his tardiness, which Clarke hadn’t really minded quite as much as her family’s. They, on the other hand, had apologized for their absence by phone, leaving messages on her voicemail.

Her parents hadn’t wanted to venture so far downtown with the subway problems as they were, and Miller had been threatened by Carlos if he came anywhere near him.

So much for a family reunion, Clarke thought, watching the passing traffic. She’d gone out to check her messages and hadn’t wanted to go back in right away. She breathed in, the cold air scented with cigarette smoke and the aftertaste of rain. She crossed her arms and shivered, knowing she should go back inside.

There was no sense in moping. The night was still going well. Her artwork had sold, and people seemed to like it.

“You’re going to freeze out here.”

It took Clarke a moment to recognize the voice. “I don’t mind the cold,” she said, turning.

“Want me to bring you your coat at least?”

Anthony looked so concerned that Clarke had to smile. The temperature had plummeted since she’d last been outside, and she knew that staying out there wasn’t healthy. “Nah, you win.”

Once inside, Raven materialized in front of Clarke in the way Clarke imagined demons did. “Don’t look now,” Raven was saying, “but Lexa Woods is checking out your stuff.” She frowned. “Your artwork, I mean. Not your …” She waved her hands around Clarke’s breasts.

“Totally unnecessary clarification, thank you,” Clarke said, grabbing Raven’s hands and pushing them back down. She glanced over Raven’s shoulder because she couldn’t help herself. The section of the gallery with Clarke’s art was visible from the entrance, and Clarke had a clear view of Lexa Woods. Or, at least, Lexa Woods’s back. “She’s talking to the Gallery Director.”

“What are they saying?”

Clarke squinted. “From the way her shoulders are angled and the way her head is tilted several degrees to the right, I would have to say they’re talking about slow dancing aliens.”

“Har har.”

“Ask a stupid question…” It was Anthony who said this, and Clarke grinned at him.

Clarke moved so that she was no longer facing Lexa Woods. Raven, who had no qualms about staring at the actress, turned around.

“I wonder who makes that coat she’s wearing,” Raven said. “I’ve never seen it before.”

“You could probably feed a small country with the price of her clothes,” Anthony said. “Such a waste. We live in a society that would rather spend money on shoes than on helping another human being.”

Clarke glanced at him, surprised and pleased by his comment.

“Hold your horses there, social issues boy,” Raven piped in. “This is Clarke’s night and on Clarke’s night there will be no conversations that require deep thoughts.”

Clarke wouldn’t have minded discussing the subject further; it sure beat talking about Lexa Woods’s outfit. But she remained silent, thinking that perhaps she and Anthony could discuss it amongst themselves at a later date; perhaps over coffee. She filed the thought away for later.

“I think they’re talking about you,” said Raven a second later.

“What?”

“The Gallery Director is pointing at you and Lexa Woods is staring right this way,” Anthony answered.

“Heads up,” Raven said, covering her lips with her glass. “Director man headed to you.”

Clarke turned to find Marcus St. Marks walking toward her. He was dressed in one of his usual designer suits; salt and pepper hair combed to the side to hide unseemly bald spots. He was fit for a man in his late sixties, but for the first time all night, he looked breathless and agitated. Clarke could’ve sworn he was sweating. “Hello, Mr. St. Marks,” Clarke said politely the moment he was close enough.

“Marcus, please,” said the man, adjusting his suit. “Ms. Woods wishes to talk to you about your work.”

Clarke arched an eyebrow. “She wants to talk to me?”

“Yes, yes. And I don’t think it’s a good idea to keep her waiting.” The man put his arm around Clarke and began leading her toward the actress. He whispered, “Ms. Woods has her eye on one of the most expensive paintings in the show. Keeping her happy is of utmost importance. A purchase from her would benefit us all.” It will benefit your pocket and reputation, Clarke thought, but only nodded. She was too nervous to speak.

What in the world could Lexa Woods possibly have to say to me?

***

This hadn’t been part of the plan; not that Lexa had had a plan. But if she’d had a plan, talking to Clarke would not have been part of it. She’d been looking at Clarke’s artwork when Marcus St. Marks had approached her for the billionth time since she’d stepped foot in the gallery. The dollar signs in his eyes flashed as brightly as the Rolex on his wrist, but Lexa had been content to humor him, going as far as feigning interest in an overpriced painting one would have had to be blind to appreciate. She would buy it, certainly, for charity if not genuine interest, and then send it straight to her stepmother.

With luck, it would be cursed.

Marcus St. Marks, though an annoying and greedy sort of parasite, shared one very critical point of interest with Lexa: Clarke. The Gallery Director had seemed sincere in his praise of the artist, volunteering information without Lexa having to ask. And though she hadn’t expected the brief but thorough analysis of Clarke’s paintings, Lexa had been more than happy to listen.

Lexa imagined that her interest in the subject had been more than apparent, because a second later Marcus St. Marks was pointing Clarke out in the crowd and half a second after that insisting that they meet.

She’d been watching Clarke all evening because she couldn’t have helped it even if she’d wanted to. She’d been unsure, at first, that she had the right person. She almost hoped she’d gotten it wrong.

What were the odds, really, that Clarke would turn out to be the kind of beautiful that would make Lexa Woods take notice? Even if it hadn’t been Clarke, Lexa would’ve watched the young woman. She would’ve watched and stared and tried to think of a way to wander closer, to strike up a conversation, just to get a better look. It wouldn’t have been the first time Lexa had spoken to someone just because she found them attractive. She’d spent many years hiding her pleasure at exchanging meaningless conversation with a gorgeous woman. But this was Clarke. Not a beautiful stranger at a Hollywood party. It was Clarke. And Lexa had never felt more intimidated by anyone in her life.

“Ms. Woods?”

Lexa’s breath caught at the sound of the Director’s voice. She turned, trying to act calm, even if she wasn’t. Her gaze fell on Clarke, and she offered what she hoped was a neutrally polite smile.

“Ms. Woods, allow me to present Clarke Griffin, one of New York’s most promising young artists.” Marcus St. Marks looked like a proud father standing beside his daughter, and Lexa was annoyed by his act.

Clarke couldn’t have possibly looked more uncomfortable. After a moment, the man spoke again. “Well, I’ll leave you two ladies to it, then. Ms. Woods, please let me know the moment you need anything.”

Clarke was the first to speak when the Director had left them. “Mr. St. Marks said you wanted to talk to me.”

Did he now? Lexa looked away because looking at Clarke was entirely distracting. She looked up at the artwork instead, thinking it a safe place to rest her gaze. “You’re very talented,” she said.

“Thank you.”

Clarke was nervous, Lexa could tell, but it wasn’t the sort of nervousness the actress was used to. There was nothing that hinted that Clarke was a fan, or that she was particularly impressed that Lexa Woods would want to talk to her. The artist seemed mostly impatient, like she wanted to get away. Lexa wasn’t sure if she was hurt or intrigued by this. What do you think of me? Lexa wondered. What would you think of me if you knew the truth?

Saving these thoughts for another time, Lexa focused instead on the art. One painting in particular had given her pause. It was a painting similar to the one Lexa had hung above her bed, only this time there were two figures instead of one. “I like this one a lot,” she said, trying to think of something to say that wouldn’t sound moronic. “It’s easy to get so wrapped up in your own loneliness that you forget there are others out there just as lonely as you.” She’d said this quietly, and for a moment Lexa thought that Clarke hadn’t heard. She dared a glance in the artist’s direction, only to find light blue eyes staring curiously at her. “I’m sorry. Did I say something wrong?”

Clarke shook her head, looking embarrassed. “No. I’m sorry. You reminded me of someone else just then.” Lexa only nodded, panicked at the thought of Clarke figuring things out.

“I tend to paint a lot about loneliness,” Clarke said after a second. She shrugged, seeming shy suddenly. “I don’t know why. It’s not like I’m alone.”

“You can be surrounded by a thousand people and still feel alone,” Lexa said.

A look Lexa couldn’t decipher passed across Clarke’s face. The artist looked at her, then; really looked at her, and Lexa worried that the artist had managed to piece it all together. Clarke looked like she wanted to say something, but changed her mind. “I suppose you’re right,” is what she finally said.

If Clarke suspected anything she hid it well, and Lexa couldn’t decide whether she was more relieved or disappointed. “I appreciate you coming over to talk to me. I didn’t mean to interrupt your time with your friends.” Lexa glanced in Raven’s direction only to find the redhead and the guy Lexa guessed was Anthony staring back. They instantly looked up at the ceiling as if they’d been looking at it the entire time.

Lexa stifled a smile and turned back to Clarke.

Clarke was shaking her head. “I’m sorry, they’re not very subtle.”

“It’s okay; I’m kind of used to it by now.” She made a face. “Sorry, that sounded rather arrogant of me.”

“Yes.” Clarke smiled. “But I can imagine that it’s true.”

Lexa arched a brow. “My being arrogant?”

To Lexa’s surprise, Clarke laughed. “I’m afraid I wouldn’t know about that.”

“Fair enough.” Lexa smiled. She didn’t want to end the conversation, but she’d also never meant to start it in the first place. She stretched out her hand. “It’s been a pleasure, Ms. Griffin. Best of luck.”

Lexa’s skin tingled the moment it came into contact with Clarke’s. It was a brief handshake, but Lexa could still feel Clarke’s hand long after the artist had thanked her and walked away.

***

Clarke had never been one to think much about celebrities, and in the rare moments when she did think of them, it was seldom in a favorable light. She’d never been one to care for autographs. There was no one whose picture she’d want to hang on her wall. For the most part, she found her country’s obsession with fame and Hollywood life idiotic. People were starving and suffering all over the world while those with the means to help cared more about the latest celebrity gossip.

What had people like Lexa Woods ever done to merit such attention? Clarke had never understood the mentality behind treating actors like royalty while the true heroes – the teachers, the social workers, the police officers – were left scraping the bottom of the barrel, trying to make ends meet.

It was for this reason that Clarke had never thought much of Lexa Woods. The Hollywood star had always seemed to Clarke as entirely self-involved. It was easy to imagine that the actress’ extreme beauty was simply nature’s way of making up for a total lack of intellect. But as Clarke walked away from Lexa Woods, she couldn’t help but feel that she’d been unfairly harsh in her prior assessments.

After all, what did Clarke really know about her?

Clarke hadn’t known what to expect of the actress, but comments such as I think that’s a pretty frame wouldn’t have surprised her. What Clarke hadn’t expected was Lexa Woods, of all people, talking to her about loneliness. She hadn’t expected the mixture of confidence and vulnerability that coated the actress’ words. It had made her forget, however briefly, that she was talking to a Hollywood star and not a random person in a gallery. She’d had to stop herself from asking any of the myriad of questions that had sprung to mind, because despite her belief that famous people weren’t any different than anyone else, Clarke couldn’t help but feel a certain element of shyness in Lexa Woods’s presence.

Up close, the actress had been even more beautiful than she’d been from afar, and Clarke had been momentarily startled by that fact. Even with her bag full of preconceived notions about Lexa Woods, Clarke couldn’t deny that the actress had a fascinating sort of energy about her; every movement was fluid, never awkward or forced. Her face was a textbook example of perfect symmetry in action. And the eyes; Clarke had tried to calculate how many different tubes of paint she’d have to mix in order to duplicate that shade of green.

She’d lost count.

“What did she say?” Raven asked, closing the distance between them. “Tell me everything; word for word and with careful attention to inflection.”

“I’m surprised you don’t know, given how much you were staring,” Clarke said, ignoring Raven’s request. “You guys couldn’t have been more obvious.”

“I’m sure we could’ve,” Raven said. “Now shoot.”

“Where’s Anthony?”

“He went outside for a smoke. Quit stalling before my head implodes.”

Clarke frowned. “He smokes?” She felt a sudden pang of disappointment.

“Seriously. Brain imploding. Any second now.”

“She seemed to like my paintings,” Clarke said casually. “She didn’t say much.”

“You suck. Lexa Woods asks to talk to you about your art and you come back with ‘she didn’t say much’? She had to have said something. I saw you smile. Hell, I saw you laugh. And it wasn’t even that forced laugh you do when you don’t want to laugh but feel like you have to. It was genuine. And considering how much you’ve claimed to dislike Lexa Woods, that’s huge. So spill.”

Clarke sighed. Raven was exhausting. She looked around to make sure the actress wasn’t right behind her. “She said she liked one of my paintings in particular, and then said something about loneliness, and—“

“Really? You think that means she’s lonely?” Raven appeared thoughtful. “Well, her boyfriend did recently dump her.”

Clarke rolled her eyes. “Anyway, she said something and then apologized for sounding arrogant, and then I said I could see how what she’d originally said was true, but she asked if I meant her being arrogant, and that’s when I laughed, and I’m really bad at retelling conversations.”

“Yes, you royally suck.”

“And then she shook my hand and that was it.”

“Wow. You shook Lexa Woods’s hand. I didn’t get to do that. Do you think I should go back and do that?”

“If you want her to think you’re a complete freak, sure.”

“I liked her,” Raven said thoughtfully. “She seemed very… I don’t know … present in the conversation. Like she wanted to be talking to me even though I’d just come up to her out of the blue and pestered her for an autograph.” She shrugged. “Probably just an act. But it felt nice all the same. I hope I’m that friendly when I’m famous.”

Clarke found herself scanning the crowd as she listened to Raven talk. There were more people than there had been earlier in the evening and she could only hope that meant the mess with the subway system had been fixed. Her gaze suddenly fell on Lexa Woods and lingered there for longer than she’d intended. The actress was talking to Marcus again, or rather, listening as he talked to her, and all the while people passed by and stared as they noticed her.

Watching her from the other side of the room, Clarke wondered if this was one of those moments when Lexa Woods felt alone.

Chapter Text

Lexa stifled a yawn and stole a glance at the time on her cell phone. The day had been a long one, starting with a 5:00 a.m. wake-up call that Anya had set up and Lexa had forgotten about until the voice on the other side of the phone had welcomed her angrily into consciousness. Many hours later, Lexa sat inside a room inside a building somewhere in New York City, watching fellow actors – some of whom she recognized, some of whom she didn’t - audition for a part in Costia Calloway’s next film.

An actress Lexa recognized but couldn’t place walked into the room, looking politely hopeful. The people in the room welcomed her kindly, if a bit tiredly, and asked her to begin whenever ready.

In the center of the room, a camera rolled, and Lexa watched the girl’s monologue with growing interest. Victoria Kelley, Lexa remembered the girl’s name suddenly. She was auditioning for the role of Lexa’s younger sister, and Lexa thought, watching as the girl read off the lines on the paper, that Victoria Kelley would be perfect for the part.

Costia was the first to thank her when the girl was done, and Lexa could sense the smile on the director’s face the second Victoria Kelley had left the room. “That’s our Sara.”

Lexa silently agreed. It had been a long day, but it was looking up.

“What did you think, Lexa?”

Lexa looked at the director. “She’s perfect.”

Costia looked pleased. “We’ll have her come back and read with Lexa tomorrow, then. Just to be sure.” She stretched. “The good news is we’re done for the day.”

“Thank God,” the guy working the camera said with a laugh, and everyone let out a collective chuckle of agreement.

Lexa turned the sound back on her phone, only to have it chime in her hand the moment she did so. The name “Clarke” stared up at Lexa from the digital display screen and she blinked a few times to make sure she wasn’t hallucinating. She felt her heart speed up as she answered. “Impressive timing,” she said by way of greeting, and she felt everyone’s eyes on her suddenly. Costia’s looked particularly curious. Lexa averted her gaze, feeling embarrassed. Her tone of voice, Lexa realized, changed considerably when talking to Clarke.

“Is that right?” came Clarke’s voice. “Why’s that?”

“I was just finishing up something,” Lexa said, knowing, as she said it, that it would lead to questions. She quickly added, “Actually, could I call you back in five minutes?”

“Ah, so my timing was actually off by five minutes.” Clarke sounded amused. “I’ll have to work on that. Talk to you in five then.”

It turned out to be closer to twenty minutes. Getting to a place of privacy took longer than Lexa had anticipated, especially after Ella Peters suckered Lexa into a conversation about designer shoes that Lexa thought would never end. But it had ended, eventually, somehow, and Lexa had escaped.

She began dialing as her limo driver opened the door for her. She’d given Anya the day off to spend with Bellamy, and Lexa was suddenly grateful for the solitude.

“Satan’s house of kinky sex worship,” came a voice that wasn’t Clarke’s. “How may I spank you?”

“What are the options again?” Lexa asked, playing along.

Raven didn’t miss a beat. “You’ll have to speak to our resident sexpert, Mistress Spankalot. Oh and here she comes now—“

“I told you not to answer my phone,” said Clarke, in a voice that sounded far away. And then, closer, “Hello?”

Lexa smiled into the phone. It had been less than 24 hours since they’d spoken face to face, but it felt like longer. The previous evening felt like a dream. “Satan’s house of kinky sex worship?”

Clarke laughed. “Sorry about that.”

“And I’m sorry that my five minutes turned into almost half an hour. Are we even?”

“Sure, that seems fair.”

Lexa watched the scenery outside the window. If she’d been honest with Clarke from the start, would they be having this conversation? How nice it would be to be able to say, “I’m free for the evening, do you want to grab dinner? I’m in the neighborhood. I could pick you up.” But she hadn’t been honest from the beginning. “So, how did it go last night? Tell me everything.”

“I was going to email you all about it, but then I decided to call you up instead. So, last night. Hm. Last night was definitely interesting.”

“Oh?”

“Well, there was this stupid subway malfunction, and my parents couldn’t make it. And my brother couldn’t make it either because my step-father is insane. But on the plus side, my artwork all sold. Someone bought them all. Crazy huh?”

Yes, I am, Lexa thought. “Congratulations,” she said.

“I wish I felt happier about it.”

“You don’t?”

“No. I mean, I do. I just … there was one … and this is going to sound really stupid, but there was one I wanted to keep.”

“Oh.” Lexa frowned, wondering which one.

“For you,” Clarke added softly a moment later; then quickly followed it up with, “I know that sounds kinda weird…”

Lexa’s heart was doing strange things. She didn’t know what to say.

“I’ve embarrassed you,” Clarke said. “I’m sorry. It’s just that when I was painting it, I thought of you. I thought it would be something you would like. A kind of sequel to the one you bought … or something. Anyway, I didn’t think it would sell which is why I agreed to display it but well … it sold. I did take a picture. I can send you the picture.”

Lexa found her voice. “Yes, I’d love to see it.”

“Cool. Um. So, anyway. Uh, Lexa Woods showed up at the gallery, which was pretty surprising.”

Lexa swallowed nervously. “Wow,” she said, knowing it sounded horribly flat. She couldn’t muster fake enthusiasm for herself.

“I know,” Clarke said, “I wasn’t all that excited either.”

Lexa felt something painful in her chest. “Oh, you don’t like her?” she forced herself to ask, thinking, as she spoke, that she didn’t really want to know the answer.

“As a rule, I’m generally not into the whole celebrity, Hollywood stardom thing. I think the world has better things to focus on, you know?”

“Absolutely.”

“And truthfully, she always seemed kind of a bimbo to me.”

Lexa frowned. She’d been called many things in her life, but never a bimbo. “She went to Yale, you know,” she found herself saying before she could stop.

“Yeah, but she’s famous…”

“And graduated second in her class!” This she nearly yelled. “A very close second.”

“Whoa, whoa, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you were a fan.”

What the hell am I doing? Lexa ran a hand through her hair and took a deep breath. “I’m not a fan. I just … um … don’t think she’s a bimbo.”

“Well I don’t either,” Clarke said, “anymore.”

“Oh.”

Clarke started laughing. “Do you have a crush on her or something?”

“No,” Lexa said, thinking the question so ridiculous she almost laughed. “She’s not really my type.”

“Really? I’m surprised. I mean, she’s pretty hot.”

“You think I … uh, she’s hot?”

“I thought everyone did. I think Raven put her on her list of celebrities she’d have a threesome with.”

“Oh, she’s not on yours?” Lexa asked.

“Uh, I don’t have a list of celebrities I’d have a threesome with.”

How about a twosome? Lexa thought, but quickly pushed the question aside.

“Do you?” Clarke asked.

“I’m not really a threesome kind of girl,” Lexa said.

Clarke laughed. “How did we get on this subject again?”

“I’m pretty sure you brought it up.”

“So I did. Huh. Anyway, yeah, last night was interesting. And I think Lexa Woods is actually pretty nice. I mean, I haven’t met any other famous people to compare her to but in human terms, she was nice.”

Lexa smiled. “I’m glad you had a good time last night.”

“Yeah, it was good. Anthony came. He invited me out for a drink after but I was too tired. I think I will ask him out for coffee one of these days though. I think we have a lot in common.”

“Great,” Lexa said, but she knew she didn’t mean it. And the fact that she knew she didn’t mean it, worried her. I will not fall for a straight girl, she thought. I absolutely will not.

“So, what about you? Any romantic prospects?”

“Nope.”

“What about She-Who-Saved-You-From-the-Perils-of-Boring-Conversation? I was gonna give her an acronym but I think it’s too long … SWSY … FPBC … how would you pronounce that? Sausy.” Clarke laughed. “Sausy Fipbic”

Lexa laughed. “Sausy is not a romantic prospect. She’s someone I spend time with on a professional basis. And that’s it.”

“That’s how many of history’s most torrid love affairs have started.”

“Mm. I doubt any of them involved someone named Sausy Fipbic.”

Clarke giggled. “That’s not really her name. What’s her name?”

Lexa hesitated. “Costia. Costia Fipbic.”

Clarke was laughing, and Lexa knew she was quickly becoming addicted to that sound. “I’m sorry to say this, but I have to go,” she said regretfully, watching as the hotel came into view. The last thing she needed was her real name getting called while on the phone with Clarke.

“Yeah, I should start getting ready for tonight, anyway. Email me?”

It was the first time Clarke had ever asked her for anything, and Lexa recognized at that moment that there would be nothing she would deny the artist. “You got it.”

“Later, Alexandria.”

She snapped the phone closed just as the limo rolled to a stop.

A man smiled cheerfully as he opened the door for her. “Welcome back, Ms. Woods.”

***

“Get Cynthia on the phone,” Lexa said the moment Anya opened the hotel room door.

Anya frowned. “I thought I had the day off?”

“That was before I found out about the bimbo image crisis,” Lexa stated seriously. She glanced over Anya’s shoulder at Bellamy, who was doing his best to cover himself with a sheet. She smirked. “Sorry to interrupt.”

Anya shook her head and stepped out into the hallway, closing the door. “You didn’t. He’s just a nudist. What’s this about a bimbo crisis?”

“People think I’m a bimbo.”

“What people?”

“Some people.”

“But you went to Yale.”

Lexa laughed wryly. “Well! Apparently if you’re famous, people think you attend an entirely different school called Yale. Yale School for Total Morons.” She paused. “I wanted to do a really witty thing there, like Yale as an acronym but all I can come up with for the Y is … Yemen.”

“Are you okay?”

“Do I look okay?” Lexa asked.

Bellamy opened the door, dressed in a white t-shirt and black sweatpants. “Is this girl talk or can I join in?”

“I think Lexa is having a meltdown.”

Lexa pushed her way into the hotel room. “Clarke thinks - thought, or hell, maybe she still thinks – that I’m a bimbo. A bimbo! Me!” She started pacing. “Call Cynthia and tell her she’s fired as my publicist unless she can turn me into the Albert Einstein of celebrities by tomorrow. I can’t have people thinking I’m an idiot.”

“Maybe if you wore your glasses more,” Bellamy suggested, only to get elbowed in the stomach by Anya.

“It was that stupid SoW Award ceremony, or whatever the hell it was called. I should have never agreed to it,” Lexa said. “She probably saw me say that thing they made me say about how much I love my hair, only to cut out all the other stuff after that so it was just a shot of me going, ‘I totally love my hair.’ I’m gonna sue those bastards. Can I sue them?”

“Uh,” said Anya. “I’ll check on that.”

Lexa sat down on the bed. “I’m not having a meltdown.”

“Okay,” said Bellamy, leaning against the nearest wall and crossing his arms. “So, if I’m reading through all of the b.s. correctly, you’re freaking out that Clarke turned out to be way hotter than she appeared in all of your X-rated, girl-on-girl fantasies, and now you’re worried that you won’t be able to dodge Cupid’s arrows forever because he’s aiming them straight at your oversensitive, undersexed heart.”

Lexa opened her mouth to say something, but shut it.

Bellamy smirked. “Just how hot is this girl?”

Lexa fell back on the bed and covered her face with the nearest pillow.

“You just need to get laid. You’ve got way too much pent up sexual frustration making you all angsty and confused. Find a chick you trust to be discreet, tear her clothes off, and let go. You’ll feel better, trust me.”

Lexa tossed the pillow aside and sighed at the ceiling. “You know what? Fuck it. You’re right.” She got up from the bed. “You guys have been a lot of help.”

“We have?” Bellamy arched an eyebrow, looking stunned.

Anya frowned. “Do you still want me to call Cynthia?”

“No. Enjoy the rest of your day off.”

“Where are you going?”

At the door, Lexa paused. She smiled. “I’m going to call Costia.”

***

“I have to admit,” Anthony began, “I was a bit surprised that you called me.”

“You mean, as opposed to Raven calling you?”

Anthony laughed and nodded. “Something like that, yeah.”

Clarke looked around the café, at the rows of empty tables. She and Anthony were the only people there, and it felt strangely intimate. She turned back to him. “I guess I wanted to thank you for coming to the gallery the other night. I did intend to call you myself to invite you to that, but Raven beat me to the punch.”

Anthony chuckled. “She said something about you being rusty with any method of communication not involving the Internet.”

Clarke rolled her eyes and shook her head, idly stirring the coffee in front of her. “She’s just jealous because I made a friend online. Raven is easily threatened and overly possessive.” She paused. “But … not in a creepy, Single White Female type of way. She just—“

“She cares, I get it,” Anthony said, nodding. “It’s nice having a friend like that.”

“It is. She’s like a sister.”

“I always wanted a sister,” Anthony said. “Got two brothers instead; one younger, one older.”

“Me too,” Clarke said. “Well, they’re both step-brother’s, but my older brother I’m close to.”

Anthony smiled.

Clarke bit her lip and took a deep breath. “Look, before we continue forth with this conversation, I just want you to know that I’m not trying to confuse you or lead you on or anything. I’m still not sure I’m ready to—“

“Clarke,” Anthony said, interrupting. “Relax. Really. I’m not expecting anything or reading into this in any way. I’m mostly flattered that you’d want to spend time with me at all. So, just drink your coffee. I’ll drink mine. And that’s all this has to be.”

Clarke studied his face for a moment. Sensing his honestly, she relaxed. “Okay.”

“Of course, Raven did tell me you were going to sleep with me the other night, and you didn’t, so we should probably get on that.”

Clarke froze, cup of coffee half-way to her lips.

Anthony started laughing. “I’m sorry. Raven begged me to say that, and I couldn’t resist.”

Clarke put the coffee down and shrugged. “Well, I was going to ask when you wanted to ‘get on that’, as you put it. But since you were just kidding…”

It was Anthony’s turn to freeze. “Uh…”

Clarke grinned. “Sorry, couldn’t resist.”

Anthony shook his head. “Touché.”

***

Lexa stared at the menu in her hand, wondering what the hell she was doing. Across from her, Costia was on her cell phone, talking to someone about something that Lexa had given up trying to follow.

She hadn’t called Costia after her alleged meltdown. She’d dialed the numbers and stared at them, but hadn’t completed the call. She hadn’t wanted to make a rash decision based on advice from Bellamy, of all people. But she’d thought about it. She’d thought about it all evening, and all night. And the truth was that Bellamy was right. She had to loosen up. It was either that or lose her mind.

She’d run into Costia at breakfast the next morning, and somewhere between the miniature croissants and the sliced strawberries, Lexa had summoned up the courage to ask Costia to dinner. The director had seemed surprised, but had accepted easily. And now here they were.

“… I’m having dinner with Lexa right now, can I call you back later? … Yes … yes … I know. I promise I’ll take care of it. Okay. Okay. Bye.” Costia let out a sigh. “I’m shutting this off. I’m really sorry about that. Did I mention I hate producers? The lot of them can go to hell.”

Lexa arched an eyebrow.

“I mean that in the nicest way possible, of course.”

“Of course.” Lexa smiled.

Costia took a deep breath. “Okay, let’s just cut to the chase. Is it bad news?”

Lexa put the menu down and frowned at the director. “Is what bad news?”

“The reason you asked me to dinner. You’re not dropping out, are you, Lexa? Please don’t tell me you’re dropping out of the film.”

Costia didn’t suspect a thing, Lexa suddenly realized. And why would she, Lexa thought. It’s not as if she’d worn a ‘Nobody Knows I’m a Lesbian’ t-shirt. “I’m not dropping out,” she said.

Costia let out a long breath. “Okay, I think my heart stopped beating there for a moment.” She sat back. “Okay. Okay, good. Anything else I can handle. Lay it on me.”

Well, I’m a closeted lesbian looking to lose my virginity in the hopes that doing so will salvage whatever’s left of my sanity, and since you’re the only attractive lesbian I know… Lexa cleared her throat in the attempt to clear her mind, and dared herself to look at Costia. “What makes you think I have any kind of news?”

A dark brow lifted in question. “You mean you don’t?”

Lexa simply shook her head.

“Oh.” Costia grinned. “How refreshing.” She grabbed the menu. “Usually the only time actors invite me to dinner it’s to let me down easy.” She paused. “And there was this one time when one wanted to sleep with me.” She laughed.

Lexa quickly averted her gaze and picked up the menu again. “And did you?” she asked after a moment. She’d had a couple of drinks before Costia had arrived, and now she was regretting that decision. The selfedit button was quickly headed toward out-of-service status.

Costia glanced up at the question. “No,” she said, and then added, “Not really into men.”

“Yeah, me neither,” Lexa said under her breath.

“I’m sorry?”

Lexa caught Costia’s gaze and almost repeated herself, but the waiter intervened. He took their orders while Lexa silently pondered what she was doing here.

The director was looking at her when Lexa glanced up. “I’d like to run something by you to see what you think,” Costia said. Lexa relaxed slightly at the thought of not having to come up with her own topic of conversation. “Go ahead.”

“Last night at dinner one of the producers suggested that I play Samantha. Something that had honestly never crossed my mind, but that they had apparently given a lot of thought to during their clandestine meetings. Obviously, that’s provided the perfect Samantha doesn’t walk through the audition doors, but … what do you think?”

Lexa blinked in surprise. This she hadn’t expected: Costia playing her on-screen lover. She moved her head to the side, studying Costia thoughtfully. She regarded the dark brown hair, the silky strands pulled back in a way that reminded Lexa of Lara Croft. She imagined those brown eyes looking back at her in a different context. She thought of Samantha’s dialogue spoken in Costia’s voice. It made sense, suddenly. “I could see that,” Lexa said.

Costia looked pleasantly surprised. “Yeah? Well, I guess we’ll see then. I’d still like to audition a few people. And maybe set up a screen test to see if you and I have any chemistry whatsoever in front of a camera.”

Lexa took a sip of water and nodded because she couldn’t think of anything to say. She’d lost her nerve. She thought she’d at least get around to coming out to Costia but she didn’t know how to at this point. And maybe it was for the best. She’d been stupid to think she could, overnight, turn herself into the sort of person who’d make advances toward another woman. She wasn’t that person; didn’t know how to be that person, no matter how much alcohol was in her system. And Lexa knew that Costia would never come on to her; not without an invitation, and maybe not even then.

“May I ask you something?” Costia said suddenly.

“Shoot.”

“When I first spoke to Ray about getting you for this film, he told me you’d never play a gay role. Then he called back and said you were considering it. What made you take it?”

Lexa was caught off-guard by the question. But the answer was simple enough. “I loved the script,” she said honestly. “It’s really beautiful. Though, I guess what really sold it for me was … well, you.”

Costia looked surprised. “Me?”

“You were different from most of the directors I usually meet with. Not yet corrupted, I guess.” Lexa smiled. “I’ve been doing commercially viable movies for a long time, while waiting for something different to come along. And you delivered different. Great script, great role, intriguing director … I couldn’t refuse.”

“Intriguing?” Costia grinned. “I don’t think anyone’s called me intriguing before.”

“Well, there you go.”

“Huh.” Costia nodded to herself. “And your qualms about playing a gay role?”

Lexa sighed at the question. “It’s not what you think. It’s not that I have an issue with it because of any political or religious views or even because I’m uncomfortable with the idea. I just … um …” How to explain? “I just wanted to remain off the gay press’ radar for as long as possible.”

Costia frowned briefly at that. “That’s a curious answer. Any particular reason?”

“I wanted to avoid speculation.”

“Ah,” Costia said, as if she understood. She smiled. “Well, they say that people thinking you’re gay just means you’ve officially reached stardom.”

“And I’d be all for them thinking it,” Lexa said, finding courage, suddenly, “if in my case it weren’t true.”

Comprehension dawned on the director’s face and she sat back in her chair, looking stunned. “Okay,” she said, after a moment, “I think my brain just exploded.”

Lexa laughed. She should have felt more nervous than she did. She should’ve felt more concern, even regret. But all she felt at that moment was relief.

And maybe just a tiny bit of panic.

Chapter twenty-six

Lexa looked down from her balcony seat to the theater below, silently surprised by the turnout. The rows of plush red seats were filled with hundreds of bodies, and all of them after the very same thing: a shot at stardom.

Costia leaned forward, her arm brushing against Lexa’s. “This is going to be fun,” she said, sounding every bit like she meant it. The director was practically bouncing in her chair.

“If you say so,” Lexa replied with a short laugh. She sat back. Nothing much had changed between them since Lexa’s confession two nights prior. The initial shock had passed, their dinner had arrived, and the conversation had drifted on to neutral topics. If the director had any thoughts or feelings on the subject of Lexa’s sexuality, she certainly wasn’t telling Lexa about them.

Ella Peters poked her head in through the red curtains and then walked in. “Thank God I found you. This place is a zoo. I had to jump over a guy pretending he was dead. At least, I think he was pretending.” She chuckled at herself and moved to take a seat. The producer was dressed in one of her usual somber-colored suits. Her brown hair was pinned back and away from her aging face. She looked, to Lexa’s eyes, like every other producer she’d ever met. But Ella was, in Lexa’s estimation, a kind woman; a kind woman with a job to do.

Costia was dressed in jeans and a tight red hooded sweatshirt. Her long brown hair was partly concealed beneath a black bandana.

Lexa found the contrast between them amusing, and she hid a smile as she turned her attention back to the crowd.

“I hope you’re not wasting my time with this, Costia,” Ella was saying as she draped her coat over the back of her chair. “If we’d wanted a bunch of amateurs we would’ve called for a bunch of amateurs.”

“You’re free to leave,” Costia said, sounding neither impatient nor annoyed. “If I see anyone noteworthy I’ll have them come for a proper audition.”

“I’ll stay for a few minutes,” Ella said after a moment of thought. “Since I’m here.” She seemed to notice Lexa for the first time. “Oh hey, Lexa. I didn’t see you there. I was blinded by the red on this girl’s shirt.”

Lexa smiled. “Hi, Ella. I believe Costia has a meeting with a bull after this.”

Ella let out a loud, shrill laugh. “Oh I believe it.” She elbowed Costia. “She’s funny. I never thought she’d be funny.”

Costia sent Lexa an offended look but looked more amused than anything. “As it happens, I do have a meeting with a bull. Of sorts.”

Ella snorted, but Lexa missed the joke; if it had been a joke. The actress glanced back down at the crowd. She liked the energy emanating from the room; it lacked the desperation she was used to back in L.A. She scanned the faces, trying to see if anyone stood out. No one did.

The doors to the theater opened, catching Lexa’s attention briefly. A small of group of people walked in and quickly began searching for an open seat. The doors began to close, and then swung open again.

Lexa was about to look away when recognition dawned. “Oh shit.”

“What’s wrong?” Costia was leaning forward again, looking at the actress with concern.

Lexa sat back as if the railing had burned her. “Nothing,” she said quickly. “I just remembered something. It’s not important.”

The curtains behind them parted again, and this time Anya walked in. “Line for the bathroom is eternal,” she announced, and took a seat beside Lexa. “Did I miss anything?”

The actress shook her head. She waited until Costia’s attention turned elsewhere, and leaned over to whisper in Anya’s ear, “She’s here.”

“She who?” Anya frowned briefly in confusion then her eyes widened. “You’re kidding?”

Lexa shook her head.

“What the hell is she doing here?”

Lexa shrugged. She was about to say she had no idea, when she remembered Clarke mentioning that Raven was an actress. Of all the days and all of the auditions in New York City … Lexa looked down at the throng of people again. It took a couple of minutes, but she finally spotted Clarke, and beside her, Raven.

The artist was dressed casually in a black hooded sweater and jeans. She wore a long, multi-colored scarf around her neck. Her light hair was loose, settling past her shoulders in layered waves. Lexa thought she looked even more beautiful than she had at the gallery.

“Neo looks really cute today,” Anya whispered.

Lexa frowned at her assistant. “Who?”

Anya glanced pointedly in Costia’s direction. “Code name. Learn it. Use it.”

Lexa rolled her eyes and slumped down in her chair. But after a moment, she said, “She does.”

“I’ll be back in a sec,” Costia announced, rising. “I just want to check on a couple of things with the person in charge of this shindig.”

“I’ll come with,” said Ella. “There’s no reception in this hellhole.”

Lexa watched them leave and turned her attention back toward nothing in particular.

Anya leaned closer. “Has she made a move on you yet?”

“Nope.”

“Maybe she’s shy? Or an idiot.”

“Maybe she doesn’t want to risk offending her lead actress by assuming anything.”

“Yeah but you’ve at least flirted with her, right?”

Lexa shrugged, feeling unnerved by the conversation.

Anya flailed her arms. “Well then of course she’s not going to make a move on you. You need to let her know you’d welcome her advances, you fucking idiot.”

“Would I?”

“Why the hell wouldn’t you?”

“Remind me again how much I’m paying you to be a complete pain in my ass?”

Anya smiled. “Definitely not enough.” She glanced at the curtain, making sure no one was about to come in. “You need to like … invite her to something.”

“I asked her to dinner.”

“That doesn’t count! That was before T.O.” At Lexa’s blank look, she added, “Before the outing. All you did there was confuse her. Now you need to make your intentions known.”

Lexa sighed. “Anya, I have no intentions. What if things don’t work out? What if it turns out that we bring out the worst in each other and all we do is fight and the movie goes to hell; or what if she falls in love with me, and I don’t fall in love with her and she gets all sad and jealous? The mere thought of the potential drama that my involvement with her might cause is enough to give me hives.”

“Tell me again why you don’t have a therapist?”

“I’m being perfectly rational.”

Anya nodded. “Oh yeah. Perfectly. That’s why you had a mental breakdown at the thought that Someone Who Shall Remain Nameless thought you were a bimbo. That’s why you keep glancing over that railing. ‘Cause having the hots for a straight artist who thinks you’re two different people is perfectly rational.”

Lexa frowned and crossed her arms. “I have it all under control.”

***

“Wow, so many people,” Raven said, looking around. “I feel like we’ve come to watch a performance instead of audition.”

Clarke nodded distractedly. “Yeah absolutely.” She looked around. “Do you think the line for the bathroom has died down yet?”

“How should I know? Why didn’t you pee before we left?”

“Because you dragged me out of the apartment like the place was on fire. I was lucky to grab a jacket.”

Raven held up her hands in front of Clarke’s face. They were trembling. “Look at me, I’m nervous. I never get nervous.”

“You’ll be fine. You’re always fine. I’m not even sure why I’m here.”

“Holy mother of fuck,” Raven said suddenly.

“What?”

Raven motioned with her chin, and Clarke followed her gaze until it landed on the balcony seats. Behind the black railing sat none other than Lexa Woods. “Holy mother of fuck,” she echoed.

“Okay, I’m officially freaking out. Why is Lexa Woods here?”

The guy in front of them turned around. “I hear she’s here with a director and a producer trying to cast for her next movie.”

“No shit?”

The guy shook his head. “If there was ever a place to be today it’s here. To think I almost told my agent I didn’t want to come.” He laughed and turned back around.

Raven sat very still. “Wow,” was all she said.

Clarke glanced up at balcony again, trying to catch a better look, but it was far, and the railing blocked most of her view.

“Do you think she’ll remember me?” Raven asked.

“I don’t know,” Clarke said. “It was only a few days ago. Her memory can’t be that bad.”

“I knew I should’ve gone back to talk to her more. Maybe you should audition. She’ll remember you for sure.”

Clarke smiled and shook her head at the thought of auditioning. “Right.” And then she remembered a far more important matter. “I really do have to pee. I’m going to brave that line.”

“Just go into the men’s room. That’s what I do.”

Clarke laughed. “It may just come to that.”

***

All under control, Lexa repeated to herself, doing her best to look anywhere but down at the crowd. So what if she found Clarke attractive? Lots of people had to find Clarke attractive. Lots of people had to find her funny and interesting, too. It didn’t have to mean anything.

She looked down because there simply wasn’t anywhere else to look that didn’t feel ridiculous. Her gaze wandered to the spot where Clarke sat. It took her half a second to register the fact that it was empty. She scanned the seats and isles to see if Clarke had wandered elsewhere, but there was no sign of the artist.

“I’m going to get some fresh air,” she found herself saying a second later.

Anya looked incredulous. “In New York City?”

“Maybe I feel like inhaling car exhaust,” she said, standing.

Anya shook her head but made no move to stop her.

Lexa walked through the curtains and down the ramp that joined with the other sections of the theater. The clusters of performers were gone, having presumably migrated to the auditorium. Their absence left behind an eerie kind of stillness in the hallway. Lexa looked around for Clarke, trying to determine where she could have gone; trying to ignore the many warning bells in her mind. “What am I doing?” she whispered to herself, but had no answer.

She walked down the main staircase. She wandered outside. No sign of Clarke. By the time she returned to the theater, she’d given up, or come to her senses, or both.

And then, suddenly, there was Clarke, walking hurriedly out of the men’s room. She halted in her steps at the sight of Lexa. Light blue eyes went round with surprise.

The actress smiled in silent greeting, and glanced over Clarke’s shoulder to look at the men’s restroom sign. She arched a brow in question.

Clarke looked embarrassed. Her cheeks reddened ever so slightly as she glanced behind her. “There was a line … and then the cleaning lady … I … um … don’t do this often.”

“I won’t tell anyone,” Lexa teased. She could stand there all day looking at this girl, she thought, as a million alarm bells chimed in her head. She ignored them. “I was looking for you.”

“You were? For me?”

“I saw you from the balcony,” Lexa found herself admitting. “I didn’t know you acted on the side.”

“Oh, I don’t. My best friend, Raven, she’s the actress. I don’t know if you remember her, but I think you guys met—“

“I remember. She’s not easy to forget.”

Clarke nodded, looking somewhat nervous and awkward. She put her hands in the pockets of her sweater. “I’ll be sure to tell her you think so.”

Whatever you do, don’t look at her lips. “Anyway,” Lexa began, deciding to get to the point before she forgot that she’d come up with one, “the reason I was looking for you is that I have a proposal for you.” She’d lain in bed the night before thinking of the many ways in which Clarke might fit into her life; and after many hours, she’d come up with one. “I’m going to be moving here in a couple of months,” she continued, thinking it surreal that she was speaking these thoughts aloud, “and I’m getting a new apartment that will undoubtedly need some personal touches. Long story short, I really want your artwork on my walls.”

Clarke blinked at her. “You want my artwork? On your walls?”

“You seem surprised.” Lexa went on. “Anyway, yes: your artwork, my walls. I’d pay for your time, your supplies, and of course, the art itself.”

“You’re serious about this.”

Lexa looked into light blue eyes and smiled softly. “Why wouldn’t I be serious?”

Clarke stared at Lexa silently for a long moment. “Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why me?”

“Why not you?” Lexa countered.

“Because…” Clarke started to answer but trailed off. She was silent again, looking pensively at the carpet. “Okay,” she said, looking up. “I’d be happy to.”

***

There had been many instances in her life when Clarke had thought that she was dreaming. There was the incident in the first grade when she’d accidentally peed herself in class because she’d been too shy to ask the teacher for permission to go to the bathroom. To this day she still refused to tell anyone about that, even Raven. There had also been the cafeteria incident in middle school, during which she’d slipped on a puddle of milk on the floor and landed with her lunch tray all over her brand new clothes; to the amusement of her fellow students.

Many years later, Clarke Griffin Milano found herself in a fancy New York theater, hurrying out of a men’s bathroom. And because it was her life, and not anyone else’s, there simply had to be a Hollywood star passing by at just the right moment to catch her. And not just any Hollywood star, the only Hollywood star that actually knew who she was.

“… got your card at the gallery, so I’ll have my assistant get in touch with you, if that’s okay?”

Clarke felt her head move up and down. It was, she decided, still possibly a dream. The theater did have a rather strange, empty quality to it. She could hear the sound of conversation, but it was distant and muffled. Would a dream involve distant and muffled sounds? She didn’t know.

Lexa Woods was still in front of her. Clarke half expected the actress to morph into someone else entirely, like her mom; or maybe something, like a bat, or a magical carpet. But no, the green eyes looking down at her were distinctly Lexa Woods’, and Clarke was certain that if it were a dream, she wouldn’t be noticing Lexa Woods’ perfume, which Clarke didn’t have a name for, but decided she liked.

In a dream, also, Clarke decided that the actress would not have been dressed in jeans and a black V-neck sweater over a white button-down shirt, no matter how nicely fitted it all was. In a dream, Lexa Woods would have been wearing a dress; something weird and expensive, worthy of red carpet mockery and the Worst Dressed list. No, this wasn’t a dream. Clarke had really just agreed to create artwork for Lexa Woods’ apartment. “I, uh, look forward to the call.”

“Great,” said the actress. “I should be heading back in there. I kind of wandered off. I’ll be in touch.”

Clarke watched her walk away for longer than necessary; if it was even necessary to watch someone walk away. She shook her head, and headed back into the auditorium to find her seat.

“Did you fall in?”

Clarke plopped down on the chair. “This really isn’t a dream?”

“Why would it be a dream?”

“I ran into Lexa Woods.”

“In the bathroom?”

“No, outside of it. And if that wasn’t weird enough, she said she was looking for me.”

Raven’s mouth fell open slightly. “That is weird.”

“Oh, it gets weirder. She said she wanted my artwork on the walls of her New York apartment.”

“You’re shitting me.”

“I shit not.”

Raven took a moment to absorb the information. After a minute of reflection, she came back with, “This is fucking huge. I mean, if she throws celebrity parties, everyone’s going to see your work. You’re gonna become like … Clarke Griffin: Artist to the Stars.”

Clarke laughed, though her heart sped up a bit at the thought. At that very moment, anything seemed possible.

“Did she say anything about me?”

“Only that she liked your ass.”

“Seriously?”

“No. But she did say she remembered you and that you were hard to forget.”

Raven grinned. “She said that? Really?” She bounced in her chair. “I’d never been so excited about a woman remembering who I am before. I feel giddy.”

“And witty and gay?”

Raven laughed. “No matter what happens with this audition, we should go out and celebrate afterwards.”

Clarke glanced up at the balcony, out of reflex, and maybe curiosity. Lexa was leaning over to talk to someone else. Clarke had no idea what she’d just gotten herself into; wasn’t entirely certain that it was real. Her excitement was tinged with a distinct level of trepidation. She didn’t want to get her hopes up. “Let’s not celebrate this yet. I don’t want to jinx it.”

“What, you think she’s going to change her mind?”

“She doesn’t even have an apartment here yet. I think it’s a bit premature. Let’s celebrate when we know it’s for real.”

“As you wiiiiiiish.”

Clarke smiled, but said nothing. She was content to sit in silence and let her mind wander. Why me? she wondered again, staring up through the balcony railings. Of all the artists in the world … why do you want me?

Chapter Text

Lexa had been spacey and distracted since returning to her seat. She’d ignored Anya’s questioning glances, and later, the questions themselves. She didn’t want to admit to her assistant – to herself, really – that she’d stalked the artist, and then offered her a job for no other reason than to be closer to her.

The sound of clapping broke through her thoughts, and Lexa regarded the stage where another actor had taken the spotlight. She watched his performance for a full minute before losing interest. So far, no one had caught her eye. Ella Peters had left half an hour into the auditions, proclaiming it a waste of her time. Lexa might have been tempted to follow suit were it not for the fact that Raven’s audition was coming up.

There was another round of clapping, and Lexa glanced down to see a familiar brunette take the stage. Raven Reyes introduced herself and the two contrasting monologues she’d prepared. After a short pause, she began.

Lexa hadn’t been expecting much. All performances up to that point had been adequate, perhaps excellent at times, but certainly not what they were searching for. Raven, on the other hand, was something else entirely.

As Lexa sat in her balcony seat, watching Raven Reyes, she found herself shaking her head. What were the odds that Raven would be this talented?

“What do you think?” Costia asked, when Raven had finished and the thunderous clapping had died down.

“She’s worth calling in.”

“Agreed.” Costia wrote something down in the notebook she carried. “I also liked that other girl; the one with the hot pink scarf and the funky glasses.”

Lexa must have been spaced out during that one. “Uh, yeah. She was good.”

“Great. I feel good about this.”

Lexa smiled at the director’s optimism, but felt a pain in the pit of her stomach. Her life, which up until this point had felt simple and straightforward, was suddenly spinning out of her control. Even if she had never emailed Clarke, she would still be sitting there in that theater, agreeing to grant Raven Reyes an audition.

“Maybe it’s some fucked up version of fate,” Anya whispered, as if reading her thoughts.

Lexa ignored the comment. Ignoring things seemed, for the moment, like the best thing to do.

***

“I still think we should go out and celebrate or something,” said Raven, as she tossed her keys onto the kitchen table. “I mean, just the fact that she suggested – hell, just the fact that she came up to you. When does shit like that happen? Never. Shit like that doesn’t happen. We should celebrate the anomaly that is your encounter with Lexa Woods.”

Clarke sat down on the couch and kicked off her shoes. “If we’re to celebrate anything, it’s your totally kickass audition today. When did you get that good?”

“I’ve always been that good,” Raven said, without an ounce of modesty. She dropped down on the couch beside Clarke and popped open a can of soda. “Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean crap. Lexa and her posse will probably cast that guy … the one that was drooling during his monologue.”

“It was some pretty impressive drool.”

“Or how about that girl, the one who clicked her tongue after every other word. It was like, ‘Today tsk I went to the bank tsk and it was great tsk.’ What was that?”

Clarke laughed, both at the memory, and at Raven’s rendition. “There were quite a few disasters up on that stage.”

“Thank God, too, ‘cause it would’ve been so boring with no one to make fun of. Anyway, back to this whole Lexa Woods business … I feel like we should be screaming and jumping around or something. Just sitting here feels wrong; like it’s no big deal that a major celebrity wants to hang your artwork in her apartment. I don’t know how you can act so blasé about the whole thing.”

Clarke felt anything but blasé. She had fidgeted in her seat the entire time she’d been at the theater. As much as she hadn’t wanted to think about it, or get her hopes up, she couldn’t quite stop trying to picture what it would be like to work for Lexa Woods; she couldn’t help but worry about all of the things that could go wrong. What if the actress didn’t like what Clarke came up with? What if Clarke was unable to meet Lexa Woods’s demands?

The ringing of the telephone broke through Clarke’s thoughts, and she was secretly thankful for the interruption. As much as she prided herself in telling Raven everything, she was embarrassed by her worries. Why, for once, couldn’t she just feel proud?

From somewhere in the apartment Clarke heard Raven say, “This is Raven Reyes,” in the voice she reserved for Matters of Great Importance. Curious now, Clarke turned around in the couch to catch her best friend walking back into the living room. “Absolutely,” Raven said into the phone, “…where? … ten o’clock? I’ll be there … Do I need to prepare anything? … Oh, sure … no that’s no problem … see you then.” Raven clicked the phone off and stared at Clarke. “Okay, now it’s my turn to ask if this is a dream.”

“Who was that?” Clarke asked.

“That? That was fucking Costia Calloway! She was only like one of my favorite theater actresses ever. And then she completely dropped off the map and reappeared as a film director at Sundance a couple of years ago. And now she’s calling me because she saw me today and wants me to come in and audition for her next film.”

“Holy shit!” Clarke hopped off the couch. “Okay, now I feel like we should be screaming and bouncing around.”

Raven suddenly looked panicked. “Oh God, I need a haircut. And a new outfit. We need to go right now. Get your coat.”

Clarke frowned at her best friend. “Your hair is fine.”

“Fine? Fine?! I can’t get a role in a movie looking fine, Clarke. I need to look spectacular. I need to blow them away. Looks first, talent later. Come on. We’ve got serious ground to cover.”

***

Lexa stared at the computer screen, at the flashing cursor ticking away the seconds of wasted time. For days, she’d gotten only as far as writing “Dear Clarke” before getting distracted or interrupted or simply giving up. It had been easy at first to tune in to that other part of her; to slip into the character of her distant, other self, and forget, however briefly, that she was pretending.

But now the thought of emailing Clarke made Lexa feel only ashamed. Each time her fingers moved over the keys, her mind would flash back to the artist, standing before her, beautiful and unsuspecting. Everything she thought to say felt like a lie, and lying was out of the question.

She closed the laptop and placed it beside her on the couch, feeling depressed and alone in her empty hotel room.

The knock at the door was soft but audible in the sudden silence and Lexa frowned briefly before moving to answer it.

Costia stood in the hallway, looking somewhat hesitant to be there. She smiled shyly. “I hope this isn’t a bad time?”

Lexa regarded the director with mild curiosity. “Not at all,” she said. “Would you like to come in?”

“No, that’s okay.”

Lexa felt nervous suddenly, and didn’t know why. She now regretted telling the director the truth about herself. It made her feel exposed. It made her feel unbearably shy. But at least she could pretend to feel otherwise. Acting was, after all, what she did best.

“I just came by because … well, what are your plans for tonight?”

“Officially none.”

“And unofficially?”

“None.” Lexa smiled. “Why? Did you schedule some exciting auditions for tonight?”

“Actually, I got a couple of tickets for Wicked and it was either invite you or invite Ella Peters or just go by myself, and honestly, the first option was the most appealing so … here I am. You are, of course, under no obligation to say yes.”

Lexa’s nervousness escalated. “Uh…”

“It’s not a date,” Costia added, “if that’s what you’re worried about. I mean, unless you want it to be. Not that I want it to be a date ... or not want it to be. Uh…” She took a breath. “How am I doing on the smoothness scale?”

Costia looked so nervous that Lexa had to smile. At least she wasn’t alone. “Wicked sounds fun,” she said, because it was the truth and because the thought of being outside was less depressing than the alternative.

“Excellent. Glad this wasn’t as awkward as I feared.” Costia laughed. “Seven o’clock sound okay to you? Meet up in the lobby?”

“It’s a plan.” She’d almost said ‘date’ but stopped herself.

“See you then.”

Lexa closed the door and leaned against it. She let out a long breath and tried to relax. Costia had asked her out. Sort of. Costia had maybe kind of asked her out, which made tonight a sort of kind of maybe date to which she had said yes.

She thought of Clarke suddenly. At that moment, she wanted nothing more than to talk to the artist. She wanted to gather up her mess of feelings and drop them at Clarke’s feet, to sit quietly by and watch the artist sort through them. She wanted it to be Clarke who sat in her room, telling her what to wear. She wanted it to be Clarke that stood at the other end of the evening, eagerly awaiting the details of her date.

Lexa desperately wanted Clarke to know her, really know her; not as Alexandria, not as Lexa Woods, but as her. The part of her not captured on film. The part of her few others saw.

She sighed sadly, glancing at the computer. Perhaps she could drop Clarke a quick email. Just to say hello. Saying hello wouldn’t be a lie.

Back on the couch, Lexa stared at the empty email message before starting to type.

Dear Clarke,

I’m sorry I’ve been so bad about writing to you. I’m not the best at online communication. However, I really wanted to say hi and see how you’re doing.

Currently, I’m freaking out a bit over the fact that She Who Saved Me From Boring Conversation asked me out. Well … that’s not entirely true. She invited me to go with her to see a play. The date-or-not-date aspect wasn’t quite clear as she kind of stumbled through that section.

I have no idea what to wear.

I hope your day is going well.

Take care, A.

***

Lexa wondered why everyone felt the need to leave the theater at the exact same time. Did they all have important meetings to get to? Was the air inside so suffocating? Had someone shouted, “Fire!” the moment the curtain had gone down? She watched the crowds of people as they pushed their way toward the exits.

“So what did you think?”

Lexa turned to Costia. They were both still seated in their VIP seats, waiting for the masses to disperse. “I loved it,” she said. “I feel like watching it all over again.”

Costia smiled brightly. “That can be arranged. I’m sorry I could only get two tickets. I’m sure you would’ve liked to invite Bellamy and Anya along.”

The comment surprised Lexa, but she didn’t show it. “They’re actually out on a tour of the city.”

“So, you and Bellamy … you were never really …”

“A couple? No. The media liked us together so we went along with it.” Lexa shrugged, feeling uncomfortable with the conversation.

Costia nodded. “Yeah, I know how that goes.”

Lexa wondered at that, but didn’t ask.

“Looks like the coast is clear. Shall we?”

Lexa trailed after Costia, wondering what might come next. Despite her nervousness she didn’t want the evening to end. She enjoyed the director’s company. More than that, she dreaded the thought of returning to her empty hotel room.

“Are you hungry?”

She was, Lexa suddenly realized. She was starving. “Very.”

“I wasn’t sure if you wanted to go back to the hotel or not …”

Lexa smiled. “What did you have in mind?”

Costia laughed and looked away. Lexa thought she saw her blush. “For dinner? I have just the place.”

***

Clarke settled into bed and pulled the covers over herself in an effort to keep warm. The temperature outside had dropped considerably and the temperature inside her room wasn’t faring any better. She shivered and pulled the laptop closer.

She’d spent the evening chasing Raven from store to store, giving half-hearted opinions about outfits she’d never personally wear in her lifetime, and trying desperately to think up a good excuse to escape. But she’d stayed through to the end of the madness, as a good best friend would, and now she was happy to be home, tucked away in the peacefulness of her room, freezing her ass off.

Clarke watched the email load on her screen. She hadn’t heard from Alexandria since their phone conversation. Their email exchanges had tapered off over the past couple of weeks and Clarke wondered if she should take the hint and stop writing. But just as she had the thought, the name Alexandria Nicole caught her eye.

She read the email over a couple of times. She’d developed a strange habit of reading Alexandria’s emails too quickly the first time around, as though it might suddenly self-destruct and disappear forever. Then she clicked reply.

Dear Alexandria,

Well if she stumbled her way through asking you it definitely sounds like a date to me! That’s exciting. I can’t wait to hear (read?) all about it.

Things on my end are … well. Where to start? This morning I went with Raven to an audition thing because she likes to drag me along to these sorts of things. I think she gets bored going places where she has to wait around and needs to have someone there to hear her talk.

Anyway, long story short, I ran into Lexa Woods just as I was coming out of the men’s room (don’t ask). I was terribly humiliated, especially since she actually a) remembered me b) came over to talk to me. If that wasn’t bizarre enough, she also claimed to be looking for me. (!!!) And then she told me she wanted to hire me to create some art for her new apartment.

See, I’m typing this but I almost feel like all of it is a dream I had instead of something that actually happened.

Then, because the day just wasn’t surreal enough, Raven got a call from some movie director who wants her to audition for a film. She spazzed out and dragged me to every store in downtown Manhattan in search of … hell, I don’t even know what it was she was looking for. I’m even unsure as to whether or not she found it.

So yes, today has been insane. I keep randomly pinching myself because it all seems too … incredible, really.

It might all go nowhere, of course. Lexa Woods could just as easily forget all about me tomorrow (I sort of expect her to actually) and Raven might not get a role in the film. But at this moment, it’s wonderful just to feel … validated.

Anyway, I’m afraid I must end this now because my fingers are about to fall off from the cold. I dream of one day living in an apartment with proper heating.

Bet it’s nice and warm where you are. :)

Hope you’re having fun on your date!

Your frozen friend, Clarke

***

Lexa shivered and dug her hands deep into the pocket of her coat. Costia’s idea of ‘just the place’ wasn’t quite what Lexa had imagined. She’d pictured a restaurant with walls, and tables, and chairs; a place where the two of them might sit across from one another and exchange conversation over a bottle of wine.

Lexa stared up at the big, somewhat gaudy sign that read Gray’s Papaya and arched an eyebrow at Costia. “Here?”

Costia smiled. “Both the best and the cheapest hot dogs you’ll ever have. My treat.”

Lexa couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a hot dog. She wasn’t entirely certain that she ever had. “The best, you say?”

“Hands down.”

“Okay then.”

“What do you want on it?”

“Surprise me.”

Costia laughed. “How brave of you.”

The director got in line and Lexa stood off to the side. Despite her best attempts to blend into the wall, she was recognized almost immediately, and spent the subsequent minutes signing her name onto ketchup-stained napkins and posing for pictures with strangers.

Costia eventually rescued her by placing a hot dog in her hand and dragging her away from the crowd. “I’m sorry about that. I forgot who you were for a moment. You could’ve stayed in the limo.”

Lexa smiled, liking the thought that Costia could see her as something other than a famous actress. “I didn’t really mind. It kept my mind off the cold.”

Back in the limo, Lexa glanced down at the hot dog. It was piled sky high with sauerkraut. She’d never felt quite as intimidated by a meal before. “You sure this is safe to eat?”

The director laughed and took a bite of her own. “Mmm.”

Lexa took a deep breath and gave in. After the second bite, she decided Costia wasn’t quite as insane as she’d originally imagined.

“Well?”

“It’s quite good.”

Costia grinned. “I was worried you were going to hate it.”

“Yet you seemed so confident.”

“Never let them see you sweat.”

Lexa smiled and returned to her food. She thought of Clarke, because thinking of Clarke had become a constant. Did Clarke like hot dogs? It was an odd thing to wonder. What difference did it make if she did or didn’t?

“What would you like to do now?” Costia asked. “If you’re not already sick of me, that is.”

Lexa finished eating and glanced at the director. “Where did all that confidence go?”

“Honestly?”

“Unless you’d rather lie.”

Costia took a deep breath. “You make me nervous.”

“I make you nervous?” Lexa frowned briefly. “Why?”

“Because I have no idea what you’re thinking. I have no idea if you’re having fun or if you’re bored or if you enjoy my company or if you’re just humoring me.”

“I suppose that’s true. But then, I don’t know any of those things about you either.”

“Really? Do I seem bored?”

“I’m not sure. Honestly, I’ve been too busy being nervous myself to wonder.”

Costia looked surprised. “I make you nervous?”

“Very.”

“You don’t seem nervous.”

“I’m an actress.”

Costia laughed at that. “Okay. Well, why do I make you nervous?”

Lexa sighed and looked away. The limo was inching along with no particular destination, and she was on the brink of blunt honesty. What was it about New York that made her feel like an entirely different person? What was it about being here that made her want to take risks? “You make me nervous because I’ve never so much as kissed another woman, and being around you terrifies me.”

Costia looked at her for a long moment. The sound of traffic hung in the background, distant but audible against the silence. “Because I’m gay?”

Lexa caught the director’s gaze. “Because you know I am. Because I don’t even know if this right here is a date or not, so I’m not altogether sure what to expect. I can’t even decide if I want it to be a date or not. I’m worried you’ll mistake me for someone with experience when I’m anything but. I’ve been hiding my entire life and I’m comfortable in that place. Miserable, but comfortable; lonely, but comfortable. So yeah, you make me nervous. Petrified, even.”

Costia seemed to absorb that. She smiled. “How about you get back to me when you decide whether or not you want this to be a date, and we’ll go from there?”

Lexa relaxed suddenly. “Okay.” They settled into an easy silence. After a moment, she added, “I am having fun, by the way.”

Costia smiled brightly. “Me too.”

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Lexa stirred the cup of coffee in her hand, watching the spinning brown liquid briefly before looking up. Costia was looking at her and Lexa smiled, somewhat casually, somewhat awkwardly from across the room. Now that they were in the company of others, Lexa felt reserved. She dropped her gaze and returned to her seat, saying hello to the casting director as she passed by.

Though the previous evening had ended professionally enough, Lexa still worried about who might’ve seen them together and how it might have looked. She’d spent half the night berating herself for not being more careful and the other half wondering what kissing Costia might feel like. There had been other thoughts, too, mainly centered around Clarke.

“You look tired,” Ella Peters said suddenly. “Rough night?”

Lexa took a sip of coffee and nodded. “Didn’t sleep very well.”

“Had a hot boytoy in your bed?” Ella laughed and sat down beside Lexa. “Ah, to be young and beautiful.”

Lexa glanced at Costia who was looking back at her, amused. She cleared her throat and turned back to the producer. “I’m afraid my bed was quite empty last night.”

Ella looked as if she didn’t believe Lexa, then she laughed. “Well if that’s true then I’m sure it wasn’t for lack of offers, eh? I heard you and that studmuffin director broke up. Shame. You two made a beautiful couple. Don’t you think?” She directed the question at Costia who’d taken a seat nearby. Not waiting for the director’s answer, the producer continued, “Are you still single?”

“Quite so,” said Lexa.

“You know, I have a son. He’s not a male model or anything, God bless him, but he’s a sweetheart. I tried to set him up with that one over there,” she said, motioning to Costia, “but it turns out she swings in an entirely different direction. First date didn’t go quite as planned.” She chuckled.

“Most awkward night ever,” Costia mumbled.

Lexa bit her lip. “I’m kind of … not really looking for anyone right now,” she said, hoping that was enough to deter the woman, knowing, somehow, that it wasn’t.

Ella was digging into her purse. “I’ll just give you his number. If you’re feeling lonely when you move to New York, give him a call. He can give you a tour. You don’t need to get married or anything.”

Lexa accepted the piece of paper without looking at it. “Will do…”

“Okay, then,” Costia said, rising suddenly, “if no one else has a son, brother or distant third cousin they want to try and set our lead actress with, let’s get started.”

Lexa put the guy’s number away somewhere that looked like she wouldn’t forget about it, though she knew she would. She missed the safety of her relationship with Bellamy, realizing just then how simple it had made things.

The door opened, catching Lexa’s attention. A young woman stepped in, looking both nervous and confident as she walked to the center of the room.

Costia sat next to Lexa and handed her part of the script. To the girl, she said, “You may start when ready. Lexa Woods will be reading with you.”

The girl took a moment and then began. From the second she first spoke it was clear that she wasn’t right for the part, but Lexa read her lines as though the real Samantha stood before her.

The audition ended minutes later and Ella Peters was the first to speak once the girl had exited. “My vote is still on our esteemed director for the role. We’re wasting our time with these auditions.”

“Seriously, Costia,” said the casting director, whose name Lexa had entirely forgotten. “I told you from the beginning that part was all you.”

Costia seemed thoughtful. “I’ll do a screen test and then we’ll see. There’s always the question of chemistry.”

“Oh, please, Lexa would have chemistry with a rock,” said Ella.

Lexa arched an eyebrow, but said nothing. She wondered if they’d forgotten she was still in the room.

“I’m not sure how to take that,” Costia said.

Ella snorted. “You’re slightly more attractive than a rock. Anyway, are we seeing more people? I’ve got a hair appointment at three.”

Lexa smiled to herself, enjoying the easy banter between the two women. It was the first time in a very long time that she’d felt so at home in a work environment, and though she knew things might change once filming started, she was glad to be a part of this group of people. Whatever the consequences of playing this role, it felt worth it.

The door opened then, and Lexa felt her breath catch at the sight of Raven. Despite the fact that she’d been expecting her, Lexa was all the same surprised. The brunette had dressed simply in a leather jacket, black sweater, and dark jeans tucked into black military boots. It was a far more subtle look than the one she’d sported at the gallery, and much less distracting.

“Glad you could make it on such short notice,” Costia was saying.

“Happy to be here,” Raven said.

“I hope you’ve had enough time to look over the scene and get a feel for what it involves,” Costia said. “Feel free to start whenever you’re ready.”

Raven was nodding and looking calmer than Lexa had expected. The brunette’s gaze travelled quickly around the room and lingered briefly on Lexa before turning to the pages in her hand.

Lexa watched the exchange of dialogue with interest. Raven was auditioning for the part of Lynn, the main antagonist, and doing a great job of it. Costia, too, seemed right at home reading for Samantha, and Lexa sighed quietly, thinking that Costia playing her onscreen lover was a recipe for emotional chaos, no matter how right for the part the director was. And Raven … Lexa didn’t even want to consider the many complications that might arise from Raven landing a role in the movie.

Maybe it was fate, Lexa considered. Maybe fate was set on punishing her for telling lies over the Internet.

The scene ended and Costia thanked Raven for coming. And just like that, it was over. Lexa watched the door close, thinking the entire ordeal terribly anti-climactic.

“She’s great,” the casting director said.

“She is,” Costia said, looking at the headshot of Raven in her hand. “Unfortunately, she’s got little to no film experience and no agent. She’s not even been professionally trained.”

Ella chuckled. “I thought you were the one that wanted to scrape the bottom of the barrel of New York City actors?”

“I’m all for finding new talent, and hell, she’s got it in spades. But the lack of experience and representation raises a few flags for me.”

“For me as well,” said Ella. “That girl we saw the other day … what was her name? She’s on that show about the tennis instructor? Well, her. She was perfectly good for this role.”

“She was okay,” Lexa found herself saying, realizing too late that she’d spoken aloud. They were all looking at her now, so she opted to say something else. “I mean, it’s good. It’s fine to play it safe.”

“But?” Costia prompted.

Lexa shifted in her seat. It wasn’t her place to be voicing casting opinions. She was just an actress. “I don’t know … it just seems to me that some risks are worth taking.”

The casting director spoke after a moment. “You know, I’ve been looking for a lead for a short film project a friend of mine is doing. I think this Raven girl would be great for it. We could try her out first and see how it goes. Filming shouldn’t take more than a couple of weeks.”

Costia looked thoughtful. “That could work. Ella?”

“You know how I feel about casting a bunch of unknowns for this film,” the producer said with a shrug. “When it flops, you know who to make the checks out too.”

“That’s what I love about you, Ella, your positive attitude.” Costia rolled her eyes.

Lexa didn’t say anything more, thinking she’d said enough already. There was a part of her that wanted to jump to Raven’s defense, to battle strongly and adamantly in favor of casting her. But there was also a part of her that agreed with Ella.

The auditions that followed were, in Lexa’s estimation, entirely forgettable, and by the time the last person wandered out of the room, Lexa was grateful that casting actors was not in her job description.

Joe, the camera guy, was the first to leave the room. He gave a quick apology, explaining that his wife had gotten held up at work and couldn’t pick up the kids from school. He handed Costia some tapes and wished everyone Happy Holidays before making his disappearing act. Lexa had never seen anyone pack camera equipment quite so rapidly before, and she was rather impressed.

Meanwhile, Ella had begun gathering her possessions. “I’ve got to run, too. My husband’s boss is throwing his annual Holiday party and it’s all the way in Jersey. I’ve got six hours to do my hair, my nails, and get a bikini wax.” She stood and smiled warmly at Lexa. “Lexa, it was a pleasure meeting you. I can’t wait to see you again. Have a safe flight back to L.A. Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and all that.” She glanced at Costia. “You, I’ll see later.”

“I’ll ride down with you,” said the casting director. “I’ve got a meeting with my son’s principal. Guess who’s not getting that gaming console he wanted for Christmas?”

Ella snorted and the two women disappeared through the door, chatting back and forth about the perils of motherhood.

It struck Lexa suddenly that she had absolutely nowhere to be, nowhere to go, and no real life outside of that casting room. She had, up until that moment, forgotten entirely about Christmas.

“You okay?” It was Costia asking.

Lexa reached for her coat and nodded. “Yeah, I’m fine. I just realized that Christmas is coming up and I haven’t done any shopping.”

“You’ve still got a week. When’s your flight?”

“Tomorrow morning. Anya and Bellamy wanted an extra night in the City.”

Costia nodded and slid on a pair of black gloves. “If you’re not doing anything tonight, my friend’s throwing a party downtown, and you’re more than welcome to join me.”

Lexa considered the offer for a split second, but said, “Thanks, that sounds fun, but I think I’m going to just crawl into bed, order up some room service, and watch TV.”

“Ooh, that does sound good.” Costia smiled.

If Lexa had been the flirting type she might’ve said, “You’re welcome to join me,” but she wasn’t, so she didn’t. Instead, she wrapped a scarf around her neck and returned Costia’s smile.

“So what are your plans for Christmas?” Costia asked, as they headed out of the room and toward the elevator.

Lexa’s plans were bleak at best. She vaguely recalled agreeing to make dinner for Bellamy and Anya. “Well, my family’s in Paris…”

“You’re not joining them?”

“Ah, no. The further away they are, the happier I am. So, I’ll probably spend Christmas Eve with Anya and Bellamy. What about you?”

“I’m going skiing,” Costia replied. “Really festive of me, huh?”

“Sounds fun, actually.”

“Want to come? It’ll just be me and a couple of friends. We like to do unconventional things for the holidays. Last year we went white water rafting. Next year we’re thinking … sky diving.”

Lexa smiled. It all sounded nice. Terrifying, but nice. “I think I’ll pass, but thanks.” The elevator chimed and they stepped inside. “I’m more of the quiet Christmas at home type.”

“I’d love that, actually,” Costia admitted a moment later. “But I’m alone, so what’s the point? I think I’d just get depressed waking up on Christmas morning with no one to share it with.”

That sounded like a pretty accurate description of Lexa’s most recent Christmas mornings. She was especially not looking forward to the next one, and for a moment she actually considered Costia’s invitation.

The elevator doors opened before Lexa could make her mind up one way or the other. “Can I offer you a ride anywhere?”

Costia paused to consider. She glanced at her watch. “I’m meeting with my realtor in an hour to look at a couple of apartments so I should probably hang around here.”

Lexa nodded. Parting ways with Costia always felt awkward. “Well, have fun at your party tonight. And be careful skiing.”

“Thanks. Have a safe flight.”

“See you in a few weeks.” Lexa started to turn away, but stopped. “You know, the other night?

Costia looked back at her expectantly.

“It could’ve been a date,” Lexa said. She smiled at the surprised look on the director’s face. Then she did walk away.

***

Clarke jumped up from the couch the moment she heard the keys jingle in the door. “How’d it go?” she asked impatiently. She was practically hopping with anticipation.

“I think I kicked ass,” Raven said in a tone that gave no indication as to whether or not she was pleased about the fact.

Clarke let out something that sounded like a shriek and hugged Raven. “I knew you’d nail it.”

Raven hugged her back, and then said, “I don’t think I’m going to get it.”

Clarke’s elation gave way to confusion. “But why?”

Raven hung her leather jacket on the rack by the door. “I’ve got no experience, no agent, nothing to show for myself except a few lousy plays that no one’s ever heard of.”

“Yeah, but if you were good…”

Raven sighed. “It doesn’t work that way. Trust me; I’ve got no delusions about this role. Not after seeing the sort of people they were auditioning. On the plus side, I got a bunch of autographs.”

Clarke wasn’t sure what to say. She’d expected the situation to be a little more black and white than this.

Raven had moved into the living room, and Clarke followed. “Oh so guess who was in the room I auditioned in?”

“Who?”

“Your future boss.”

“And again I say, who?”

Raven smirked. “Lexa Woods. Crazy, isn’t it? First she shows up at your art thing. Then she randomly follows you into the men’s room and offers you a job. And now I get called in to audition for her movie.” She paused to consider. “Do you think she’s stalking us?”

“It was outside the men’s room, not … never mind.” Clarke sat down on the couch.

“What are you watching?” Raven asked, noticing for the first time that the TV was on. She sat down next to Clarke.

Clarke smiled. “Guardian.”

Raven laughed. “I don’t believe you. Really? You hate that show.”

Clarke shrugged. “There was nothing else on.” She watched Lexa Woods on her TV screen for a moment. “Maybe she is stalking us.”

“I got to read lines with Costia Calloway,” Raven said suddenly. “Holy shit. That just hit me.”

“Who’s that again?”

Raven ignored the question. “She was like, this close to me.” She stood up and came to stand in front of Clarke. “We breathed the same air. She… talked to me. Costia Calloway, Clarke!”

“Still don’t know who that is, but it all sounds very exciting.”

Raven sat down again. “It would’ve been so nice to get that role,” she said, sounding depressed. “I mean, jeez, Lexa Woods’s the lead. How insane is that?” She pointed to the screen. “I could’ve been acting with her. Hell, you’re going to be decorating her apartment, that’s even crazier.”

“I’m sure she’s forgotten all about it,” Clarke said, because she couldn’t help but think that it was true.

Raven sighed. “I really hope this wasn’t the highlight of our year.”

“Well this year is almost over.”

“That’s true,” Raven said. “I suppose it’s okay if it’s the highlight of our year then. Speaking of, are we doing Christmas at your parents’?”

“I guess. It’s going to be so weird without Miller there.”

“But so nice without Finn there,” Raven added with a grin. “Maybe we can do New Year’s with Miller. I’ve been dying to meet Monty. We can throw a party here.”

The thought of spending New Year’s with her favorite people made Clarke smile. “I think that’d be wonderful.”

Raven turned off the TV. “Let’s go buy a Christmas tree.”

“Now?”

“Yeah, all the pretty ones will be taken. We’ll take the ugliest one we can find and make it all pretty.”

Clarke giggled. “Let’s get two. We’ll both decorate one and Monty and Miller can judge the best makeover.”

“Oh you’re so going to lose.” Raven jumped up. “Let’s go!”

Clarke smiled and followed Raven. For the moment, she forgot all about Lexa Woods and the job offer that might never be.

***

Bellamy was sitting in her hotel room when Lexa walked in, and she paused at the sight of him sprawled on her bed watching TV. Then she closed the door. “What are you doing here?”

“And hello to you, too, my dear best friend,” replied Bellamy, shutting off the TV with the remote.

“How’d you even get in?”

“I smiled at the maid, and she let me in.”

“That’s it? You smiled?”

“You can’t tell, Lexa, because you’re a lesbian, but I’m actually ridiculously handsome.”

Lexa smiled and removed her coat. “Where’s Anya?”

“Sleeping. She always takes a nap after sex.”

“Thanks for the tip. And back to my original question, what are you doing here?”

“Waiting for you.”

Lexa sighed. “You know if anyone saw you sneak in here they’re going to think we’re having an affair.”

Bellamy shrugged. “So let them. Tell me about your date with Costia.”

Lexa frowned at him. “How could you possibly know about that?”

“One of your fan blogs has pictures of you at Gray’s Papaya. There’s a very cute one of you and Costia, each holding a hotdog, getting into a limo. Very New York of you.” He stretched out on the bed. “So, tell me the juicy bits.”

She sat on the couch and regarded him for a long time. “I was hoping the outing would slip under the radar.”

“You’re always on the radar.”

“So it seems.” She signed again and kicked off her boots. “I told her that she terrified me and that I was a virgin.” She shook her head and let it fall against the back of the couch. “I’m a disaster with women.”

“You’re honest. I bet it’s refreshing for her. Plus, I’m sure the whole virgin thing has her all intrigued.”

“Or turned off.”

“Who wouldn’t want to be the first to get into Lexa Woods’s pants? You could totally make a reality show about it.”

“I think that’s the most depressing thing you’ve ever said to me.”

“I could try harder.”

“Shouldn’t you get back to Anya?”

“She’ll be fine. Tell me about Costia.”

Lexa stared at the ceiling. “She’s funny. She’s smart. She’s talented. She’s a shopping list of perfect qualities.”

“And she’s hot.”

“And she’s hot,” Lexa agreed.

“But?”

Lexa thought of the way she’d felt when she’d first seen Clarke at the gallery, and then again at the theater. She thought of the voice at the other end of the phone line and the way her stomach fluttered whenever the name Clarke Griffin appeared in her inbox. She didn’t want this for herself. She didn’t want to be the sort of person who yearned for the unattainable. “I think I’m going to see where things go. If she wants things to go somewhere, I mean. I don’t even know how she feels.” She stopped to consider. “Though she did invite me skiing with her and her friends for Christmas.”

“And what’d you say?”

“I said no.”

“Off to a good start.”

Lexa shrugged. Then she smiled. “I feel like I should be paying you $300 an hour for this conversation.”

“I’ve upped my fee to $400; which reminds me, you have several outstanding bills.”

“Take it up with my accountant.”

Bellamy sat up and came to join her on the couch. He patted her knee. “So what else is new?”

Lexa knew he was asking about Clarke without asking about Clarke, but she didn’t know if she wanted to tell him that she’d stalked Clarke in the theater and then asked her to paint the art that would go into her future apartment. It all seemed ludicrous; like an elaborate daydream gone too far.

“Anya told me that Clarke was at that thing you went to with Costia…”

She looked at him. “Of course she did. What else did she tell you?”

“Was there more to tell?”

She hesitated but finally gave in to the desire to talk about it. “I followed her. Well, I saw her leave so I went to find her. And I found her. And I asked her to paint for me. I asked if she would please look at my new apartment once I got it and decorate its walls with her art.”

Bellamy was silent for a long time. Then he said, “Seriously?”

“I know it’s crazy…” “They say love is crazy.”

“I’m not in love.”

“How would you know what you are? You’re dating your director while pining for your Internet penpal who thinks you’re someone else.”

“Pining? I’m not pining. And I’m not in love. I’ll admit to a crush. A small one.”

“Okay.”

Impatient to switch the focus of the conversation, she said, “Did I mention her best friend might end up in my movie?”

Bellamy brightened. “The hot brunette?”

“The very one.”

“Interesting.”

“That’s not what you’re supposed to say.”

“What am I supposed to say?”

Lexa sighed. “I don’t know. Something clichéd and untrue like ‘everything’s going to be fine.’”

Bellamy shrugged. “I’m just a guy. My job is to encourage you to get laid.”

“Great.”

“Speaking of which, you should sleep with Costia. In a romantic cabin somewhere. On Christmas day. An orgasm makes a great gift.”

“So, you think I should go skiing with her?”

“Is that what they’re calling it now? Fine. Yes. Go ‘skiing’ with her.”

Lexa smiled. “Go spoon your girlfriend or something. Our hour is up.”

Bellamy grinned and stood up. “I’ll leave you to your brooding, then. But before I go, ask me what I think.”

Lexa looked up at him, anxious for him to go but also dreading the silence that would follow. “What do you think, Wise Bellamy?”

“I think that if it’s Clarke that you want, it’s Clarke you should go for.”

“She’s straight.”

Bellamy smiled. “So, blindfold her and go down on her, she’d never know the difference.”

“Okay! And that’s your cue to leave.” Lexa started pushing him toward the door. “Goodbye, Bellamy.” He left willingly, winking slyly at her as the door closed in his face.

Chapter Text

Dear Clarke, Lexa typed, as her plane floated thousands of miles in the air. Somewhere nearby Bellamy and Anya sat, talking quietly amongst themselves in that private way that made Lexa feel left out. But she didn’t really mind. Not at that moment. She was content to just sit, and type, and not think for once; to ignore her worries and fears and guilt, and simply be.

The plane shook suddenly, and Lexa thought of Costia and her fear of flying. She smiled briefly and looked outside. The clouds stretched out endlessly against a light blue sky. The plane shook again and the captain’s voice filled the air, apologetic but confident that everything was fine.

The one flight attendant on duty came to Lexa’s side and offered to refill her drink. Lexa nodded and thanked her. With nothing else to distract her, she returned to the email she’d begun.

So, you wanted to hear about my date. I think it went fine. The play we saw was wonderful. Dinner was unconventional but interesting. And then in the car she admitted that I made her nervous because she didn’t know what I was thinking, and I admitted that she made me nervous because I’m a complete novice in the ways of love and dating and women and that I wasn’t sure if I wanted it to be a date because … just because. But she just kind of smiled and said to let her know when I’d made up my mind one way or the other.

The evening ended with a half-wave type of thing and no plans for an encore.

But yesterday I saw her and I think I implied that the other night was a date – and then I kind of left her standing there, looking surprised and confused.

She invited me to a party and I said no. She invited me skiing with her and her friends for Christmas and I said no.

I’m sure I must be the queen of mixed signals.

What about you? How are you? How’s Raven? How’s the art? Are the holidays stressing you out? Are you one of those people that does all of the shopping back in September or do you wait until the last minute (like me)? Do you celebrate Christmas or something else? I never thought to ask.

I’m cooking dinner for my friends on Christmas Eve. My family’s in Paris until January so Christmas Day should be a pretty solo affair. I haven’t even bought a Christmas tree yet.

Anyway, I’ve been meaning to ask: what’s your favorite book? Assuming you like to read and that you have a favorite book. I have too many to list but the first that comes to mind is The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. Have you read it? Actually, anything of hers is wonderful.

Hm. And now I think I’m out of things to randomly ask you. Actually, here’s one more: do you like hotdogs?

Your friend, A.

***

Clarke yawned into her sleeve as she waited for the laptop to boot up. She glanced around the coffee shop and squinted across the room at the menu pinned to the wall, written in faux colored chalk and perfectly aligned lettering. She couldn’t see a thing.

Raven appeared suddenly behind the counter, her dark hair pinned back into a high pony tail which swayed from side to side as she walked over. “Wasn’t expecting you so early,” she said by way of greeting.

Clarke nodded absently. She wasn’t quite sure what she was doing there at ten o’clock in the morning when she knew perfectly well that Raven didn’t get off until four-thirty. But the alarm had unexpectedly gone off at eight and Clarke had been unable to get back to sleep because the television next door had been cranked to the highest volume setting and she’d been forced to listen to the high-pitched squealing of cartoons until even the pillow over her head couldn’t muffle out the sound. Then the Internet connection had crashed, and the cable had gone out, and the apartment had practically pushed her out the door with the threat of eternal boredom should she remain. But none of this seemed important right then. “What’s your strongest coffee?”

Raven raised her eyebrows. Then her lips parted into a cryptic smile. “We call it ‘the Eye-Opening-AssKicker’. Want one?”

Clarke briefly wondered if that’s what it was written under on the menu. “Sure, why not?”

“Coming right up!”

Clarke waited until Raven had disappeared behind the counter again and turned her attention to the computer screen. Her email loaded and she sighed at her father’s name on the list. She’d been a bad daughter of late. Her father’s emails had gone unanswered for weeks, and still she couldn’t bring herself to email.

She felt guilty, especially now, only a few days before Christmas. She should at least send him an e-card if not a real card. It was the least she could do. But not today. Today she was tired and grumpy and not at all looking forward to last minute Christmas shopping with Raven.

She skipped instead to Alexandria’s latest email and read it over, slowly this time, because she was too tired to read it fast. The words made her smile, and lifted her spirits in away that not even the ‘Eye-Opening-AssKicker’ managed to do – though it did wake her up slightly.

Dear Alexandria, began her reply.

I’m glad that your date went well, though it sounds like you, my friend, are a tease. :) No matter. I’m sure that our esteemed Saucy Fipbic finds your mixed signals appealing and that you’re well on your way to become the future Mrs. Fipbic. I hope I’ll be invited to the ceremony. ;)

Life, on my end, has returned to its normal, boring self. Raven had her audition but hasn’t heard back one way or the other, and nothing of consequence has happened to me. I will note, however, that it’s entirely possible that Lexa Woods is stalking Raven and I, as she happened to be present at Raven’s audition. Coincidence, you say? Hah!

Okay, well, maybe.

Anyway, my favorite book. Hm. It’s actually been a while since I sat down to read anything that wasn’t on a syllabus. And I suppose it’d be kind of predictable if I said Harry Potter but I admit to being a big fan of the series. I’d ask if you’d read it but I figure you have. For a while I was really into the Terry Pratchett Discworld series. Have you read that? I’ve been meaning to get back to it but I forgot where I left off.

I haven’t read The Poisonwood Bible. Maybe I will. :)

Hotdogs. What a terribly random food item to ask me about. Here’s where I confess to being a vegetarian at the risk of being mocked and ridiculed. Though you’re from L.A. so I doubt it’s terribly shocking. In my culture I might as well say I’ve given up eating altogether, for all the fuss it’s created.

Here’s where I ask you some totally random questions in return then, isn’t it? Okay. Let’s see.

Do you like … cashews?

What color is your toilet paper?

Which reminds me, I never really answered your question about my rather strange penchant for collecting toilet paper squares. It started as an art idea, I think. I thought it’d be cool to create a collage of toilet paper from every bathroom I’d ever been to. I’d even take a pen and write down the date and place I’d gotten the paper from. But, eventually, I started to forget to do it until I stopped completely.

Public bathrooms were a little tricky because of the lack of a pre-cut square (in most), and they’d always use that same generic type of paper so I kind of gave up on those after a while.

I still have a shoebox filled with them somewhere in case that collage idea comes back to me.

You must think I’m really fucking weird.

Anyway, today I’m going Christmas shopping with Raven, which should answer two of your questions. I am definitely not the type of person that shops early. In fact, if left up to me, I’d probably shop on Christmas Eve.

What’s on your wish list this year? :)

Your friend, Clarke

***

“She thinks I’m stalking her,” Lexa said into the phone.

Bellamy’s voice sounded groggy and full of sleep. “It might be the fact that you are. And what the hell time is it?”

Lexa glanced at the time. It was six a.m. “Sorry, I thought you might be up.”

“Who’s calling at this hour?” came Anya’s voice. She sounded annoyed. Then her voice was closer. “Uh … hello?”

“Hey, it’s me.”

“Lexa?” There was a pause. “Are you dying?”

“No. I don’t think I am. But since you’re awake, tell me something. Say someone thought you were stalking them, how would you … unstalk them?”

There was a muffled sound and then the phone went dead.

“Hello?” Lexa said. She frowned. “Guess they’re not morning people.” She tossed the phone back on her bed and regarded the computer. She read Clarke’s email over again. Clarke had been joking about the stalking bit, she knew, but the fact that she’d thought of it in those terms bugged Lexa. It wasn’t her fault that Costia dragged her to the same place Raven was auditioning. The rest … well, she had to admit the rest was mostly her fault.

She sighed and pulled the laptop closer.

Dear Clarke, she wrote.

A tease? Hm. I’d never thought of myself that way before. You think she thinks of me that way?

I don’t know about this “future Mrs. Fipbic” business, though. I think all of the mixed signals are caused by the simple fact that I’m uncertain as to whether I like her or I just want to like her because I think I should.

The fact is that she’s beautiful and smart and talented and as far as I can tell, nice and sweet and thoughtful. She’s a Unicorn. She’s a mythical creature, possessing all of those amazingly perfect qualities that make you think, “Well, she can’t possibly be real.”

Only she’s real and potentially interested in me and it turns out that maybe I don’t want a Unicorn. Maybe I want a perfectly ordinary horse. Or… perhaps I’m after a totally different mythical creature. Like … a siren. Or a … fairy. Well, I digress. Do you see what I’m saying, though? Good. Explain it back to me.

So you’re a vegetarian. Gasp! Shock! [insert outraged rampage] /sarcasm

I was actually a vegetarian for about a year. But then I wasn’t anymore. I do love veggie burgers though. I have a wonderful recipe for them if you want it.

Your toilet paper story made me laugh. I do think you’re rather weird. But in a good way.

My toilet paper is white. Would you like a square? :)

And I do like cashews. I prefer peanuts though.

And here’s where I confess something you might not actually believe: I’ve never read Harry Potter. I know, I know. I just … haven’t. Maybe I will finally get around to it.

The Discworld series, though, I love. Have you read anything by Douglas Adams? The whole Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is wonderfully funny. I was actually talking about it with Ms. Fipbic the other day.

I can’t believe you have me calling her that. My friend Anya nicknamed her ‘Neo’ for reasons that elude me.

Oh, you asked about my wish list. Hm. None of the things I really want are material. I think I just want to find my mythical creature. No, let me amend that: I want to figure out what it is I want.

Christmas is in two days. This year has gone fast.

What’s on your wish list?

Your friend, A.

Chapter Thirty

It snowed heavily and steadily on Christmas Eve, ruining plans across New York City. The snow continued to fall even hours after her mom had phoned to say the food would keep until the next day and not to bother setting out. Clarke had been secretly relieved. She was content to sit in her bedroom, watching as the normally bleak and dreary world outside her window disappeared beneath mountains of white.

Across the street, her neighbor obsessively shoveled snow off his stoop, only to have it accumulate again moments later. Clarke stared, fascinated by the sight of the old man in the big blue coat struggling against the inevitable.

She smiled and hugged the blanket around her shoulders tightly, trying to get warm. She was grateful for the snow; grateful that she was home, instead of out there; grateful for the simple things. She thought of Finn for the first time in a long time and wondered how he was. Was he happy? Was he well? The questions drifted in and out of her mind without answers and she found she didn’t care.

Raven knocked once and then opened the door without waiting. She walked in, wearing a Santa hat and Christmas tree earrings that jingled as she walked.

“I made you some hot chocolate.” Raven held up a mug of steaming liquid and offered it to Clarke.

Clarke accepted the mug without hesitation. “That sounds heavenly, thanks.”

“Yeah, I added some miniature marshmallows,” Raven continued. “Oh and rum.”

Clarke paused with the mug at her lips. She slowly brought it back down. “Sorry, did you say rum?”

“Yeah I found the recipe online. I thought it’d give it a nice kick.”

Clarke frowned briefly but didn’t want to offend Raven.

“Also, there might be a carrot in there…”

“A carrot?”

“Yeah, it was an accident. I think I got it out, though. Mostly.”

Clarke put the mug down on her nightstand. “Thanks…”

“No problem. So, what do you want to watch first tonight? We’ve got the classics: A Christmas Story, A Christmas Carol, the 1951 version, of course, not the other posers, It’s A Wonderful Life, and Miracle on 34th Street. I’ve also made enough popcorn to last at least three movies. So, whenever you’re ready…”

Clarke bit her lip. “Actually, can I have a few minutes? I’ve been meaning to email my dad to wish him a Merry Christmas. Shouldn’t take long.”

“See ya in a bit then.” Raven shut the door on her way out.

Clarke stole another glance out the window. The man remained unwavering in his attempts to clear the snow from his front steps, and Clarke briefly envied his determination.

She moved to the bed, and sat down, pulling the computer onto her lap. She found a free e-card service and addressed one to her father, wishing him the best. And though she knew that Raven was waiting for her, she found herself opening an email to Alexandria.

Dear Alexandria,

I hope this Christmas Eve finds you well. I can’t write much because Raven is waiting for me for our annual Christmas moviethon, and I really have to figure out a way to subtly dispose of the carrot & rum hot chocolate she made me, but I really wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas in case I don’t get a chance to write to you tomorrow.

It’s snowing here. It’s snowing so hard that everything is now white and sparkly and beautiful. I should take a picture now before it all starts to melt and turn to slush. Christmas plans at my folks’ were cancelled due to the weather and I can’t say that I mind all that much. I’m happy here in my cold apartment, spying on crazy neighbors and watching black and white movies with Raven.

What are you up to today? Making dinner for your friends, I think you mentioned. What are you making?

I really don’t believe you at all about Harry Potter. You must have read the books and then banged your head and forgotten you read them. You must have amnesia. How many fingers am I holding up?

(Go out and get Harry Potter at once – you weirdo!)

Clarke paused in her typing because Raven was at the door again.

“The popcorn’s getting cold,” Raven whined from the doorway.

“You know you’re just going to end up throwing it at the TV anyway,” Clarke said.

Raven snapped her fingers. “Good point.” She left again, and Clarke shook her head.

She continued.

Anyway, regarding Ms. Fipbic, it seems to me that perhaps you’re just scared to like her because you’re – as you said – a n00b (sorry, that’s a Finnnism) at love and maybe you’re worried that you’ll – I don’t know – suck in bed (er, so to speak). ;) Or! Maybe you’re intimidated by her Mythical Creatureness.

Or maybe you just don’t want a Unicorn.

Though you know, people are hardly ever as perfect as they seem. It’s possible that she’s a completely ordinary horse when you get close enough. Or maybe she had an accident when she was young and got a tree branch stuck in her forehead and so it LOOKS like she’s a unicorn but really she just has a piece of wood sticking out of her head.

Though perhaps you don’t want to be dating someone with a piece of wood sticking out of their head …

Never mind. I think I lost the metaphor somewhere.

My point was something along the lines of: don’t force yourself to like her if you really don’t like her, but don’t dismiss her on account of a perception. Especially since I think you said you didn’t know her very well. She might be full of perfectly loveable flaws.

Anyway, I really have to go or Raven is going to dump her bucket of popcorn on my head.

Merry Christmas!!

Your friend, Clarke

i>PS: I’d say yes to the veggie burger recipe except I’ve decided to give up cooking – I’m really just not good at it and punishing people by making them eat my food is terribly cruel. Thanks, though. :)

***

“… and then my brother called to say his wife is pregnant again, which is just … stupid. And I said congratulations but what I really meant to say was, ‘Good going, idiot, you can barely support the other three you have’ …’”

Lexa nodded at Anya’s story while slicing tomatoes. Somewhere in the living room, Bellamy was yelling at the TV, and Anya stopped talking long enough to yell at him.

“I can’t believe he brought his Xbox here,” Anya said to Lexa. “I swear, sometimes, I really think he’s a child. Are you sure I can’t help you with anything?”

“You can pour me some more wine,” Lexa said, and tossed the tomatoes into a pan. “It’s my fault, anyway, I meant to have dinner ready by the time you guys got here, and I got stuck on the phone for like four hours. Ray really needs to get a life. Who wants to discuss work on Christmas Eve?”

Anya snorted and filled Lexa’s glass. “You know his wife left him? He’s always been obsessive but now that he’s single it’s even worse. What did he possibly have to say for four hours though?”

“Oh, it wasn’t just him. It was Cynthia, too. She wanted to talk about some charity auction thing she wants me to do after New Year’s. And then my father called from Paris to say they were having a great time and that it wasn’t too late to join them. And then Ray called again because he’s got a wonderful script he wants me to read. And then my real estate agent called to say she found me a fabulous apartment in New York. And then Ray called one more time because some Japanese people want me for an ad campaign. Finally I just had to shut off my phone. Which reminds me I should really hire a manager.”

“You’ve fired how many now?”

“Four. They were all imbeciles. I need someone I can trust.”

“Hire Bellamy,” Anya suggested.

Bellamy chose that moment to shout, “Take that you pre-pubescent asshat! … Oh that’s right! Go cry to your mommy!”

Lexa and Anya looked at each other and laughed.

“Who is he talking to?”

Anya shrugged. “Who knows. Some kid on Xbox Live probably.”

Lexa shook her head and returned to the business of cooking, while Anya went on about Bellamy’s gaming adventures. Her mind drifted to Clarke’s last email, snippets of which began to pop into her head as she moved around the kitchen.

“Why are you smiling like that?” Anya said suddenly.

“Hmm?”

“You weren’t listening to a word I was saying were you?” Anya smirked. “Were you thinking of Costia?”

“Don’t you mean ‘Neo’?”

“Not unless you have her hidden around here somewhere.” Anya leaned against the island. “So?”

“So?”

“Are you going to tell me?”

“Tell you what?”

“Lexa.”

The actress shrugged. “It was nothing. Clarke just said some funny things in her last email.”

“Ah, Clarke.” Anya began to nod. “Wait, is she the reason you called the other day to ask something about stalking?”

“Yes, right before you hung up on me.”

Anya shrugged. “So you’re stalking her now? I didn’t peg you for the stalker-lesbian type.”

Lexa stopped stirring the food and looked at Anya. “I think New York makes me insane. Now that I’m back here I feel normal. I feel like everything is where it should be. I go there, and suddenly I’m stalking artists and dating directors and eating hotdogs.” She resumed the stirring. “Maybe doing this movie was a bad idea.”

“You’re going to be fine.”

Lexa sighed. “I need to tell her the truth.”

Anya shrugged. “And then you’ll still be fine. Even if things suck for a while, you’ll still be fine. Trust me.”

Lexa nodded. Then she looked up again and smiled. “She has a collection of toilet paper. And normally I would find that really weird, but with her I don’t. With her, it’s fitting. With her, I think it’s adorable.”

“Like rolls of toilet paper?”

“No, no. Just squares, from random bathrooms.”

“You have really strange taste in women.”

Lexa sighed. “But see, that’s the thing. I don’t want to find these things adorable. I don’t want to wonder things like ‘does she like hotdogs’ in the middle of a date with someone else. I don’t want to spend half the night thinking about how cute she looked at the theater, or how beautiful she looked at the gallery, or how insane I am for asking her to paint things for me just because I wanted an excuse to be closer to her, and a justification for why I was following her. I just want to … not feel this way. How do I stop feeling this way?”

“Can’t help you there.”

Lexa sighed and picked up her glass of wine. She took a sip and put it back down. “I thought maybe if I could just stop writing to her … but I can’t. And then there’s Costia.”

“What about her?”

“I kind of swung the door open to the possibility of more with her and now I don’t know if I should slam it shut again or see what happens. I’m not even sure how into me she is.”

“Oh, she’s into you,” Anya said with an eye roll. “You could always just tell her you don’t want anything serious and just sleep with her.”

“You’re starting to sound like Bellamy.”

“She’s hot, she’s nice, she’s experienced, and you can trust her not to out you to the world.”

“And you need to get laid,” Bellamy added, walking into the kitchen. “I was this close to getting you a call girl for Christmas.”

“Okay I was wrong, that’s the most depressing thing you’ve ever said to me.”

***

Lexa sat in bed some hours later, absently flipping through the TV channels before settling on a cooking show. Bellamy and Anya had decided to spend the night, and though they’d blamed the alcohol, Lexa knew that they’d planned it all along so that she wouldn’t be alone on Christmas morning.

She looked forward to sitting in the living room the following morning, opening presents and basking in the fleeting fulfillment of material things. They would like their gifts, Lexa knew, but she wondered what her friends really wanted for Christmas. What did they yearn for in their most private hour? Probably nothing she could wrap with a bow.

On the TV, a woman cracked an egg open and told Lexa the key to making the perfect omelet. She listened for a moment, letting the soothing voice and flickering images fill her mind.

And then she thought of Clarke. She thought of her own personal meltdown back in New York at the concept of Clarke thinking her an idiot. She replayed their conversation at the gallery in her mind, followed by the one at the auditions. She wondered at the impression she’d made. She wondered if Clarke thought her as silly as she thought herself. And then she tried to imagine what Clarke might do if Lexa told her the truth.

She was past worrying about Clarke outing her to the press, though the fear of that still lingered somewhere in the back of her mind. Far more upsetting to think about was the very likely possibility that Clarke might never speak to her again. Far more terrifying than a parade of headlines questioning her sexuality was the thought of there never being another email from Clarke in her inbox.

And that, in itself, was what kept her up at night. A crush she could deal with. She’d had those before; on acquaintances, on fellow actresses, on women at the set. But this fear of losing something that wasn’t hers to begin with was something new; something more. And she could only hope that it would pass quickly by, leaving her unscarred.

She reached for the computer and stared at the email from Clarke she’d left open on the screen. She smiled as she read over parts of it and was smiling still when she began her reply.

Dear Clarke,

Merry Christmas! I hope your moviethon went well. It’s been a while since I’ve had one of those.

Over here, it’s a little past two in the morning and I was just sitting here watching a lady on TV teach me how to make omelets when I remembered that it was my turn to reply.

My evening was full of friendly banter and good company and entirely too much wine. My friends decided to spend the night here and I’m grateful for their company. It would’ve been a very lonely Christmas morning otherwise.

I envy you the snow. Not much chance of a white Christmas here in sunny L.A. You should definitely take pictures so I can live vicariously through you. :)

On the issue of Harry Potter I guess I must have banged my head then, if you insist! And as far as I can see, you’re holding up … eleven fingers.

And I’ll make you a deal: I’ll read Harry Potter if you read The Poisonwood Bible. And if I make it to the second book, then you have to read The Color Purple.

Deal? :)

Your take on Saucy’s mythical creatureness amused me. Maybe you’re right and she’s a perfectly ordinary horse with a slab of wood in her forehead. And maybe I shouldn’t dismiss her so quickly on what could very well be a misperception. I did, after all, tell her that our last outing was a date, so I should at least follow that up with something less … cryptic.

But enough about me – what ever happened with that guy your friend tried to set you up with? You haven’t mentioned him in a while.

And random question of the day: What’s your favorite sound?

I’ll leave you to ponder that.

Merry Christmas, Clarke.

Your friend, A.

PS: You never told me what was on your wishlist!

***

The Christmas movie marathon ended sometime after four in the morning and despite the late hour Clarke couldn’t sleep. She blamed the inordinate quantities of caffeine and junk food she’d consumed throughout the night. She blamed the cold. She blamed the full moon – though she wasn’t entirely sure that there was one.

She watched the shadows on the ceiling flicker with the passing of cars. She thought briefly of Lexa Woods and the call she was now certain would never come. And she couldn’t decide whether or not she was disappointed. She thought of Raven and Miller and Monty and how much she looked forward to having them all in the same room for New Year’s.

And then she thought of Alexandria, whose last name she still didn’t know. What was she doing now, at that moment? Was she having fun? Was she happy? Was she even still awake?

The thought of Alexandria comforted her; the thought of her emails made Clarke smile. And after a moment, Clarke picked up the computer from the floor and turned it on.

Her father had emailed to say thanks for the card and to wish Clarke a Merry Christmas. It was a short note, an afterthought, really, and Clarke didn’t bother to reply. She was far more interested in Alexandria’s latest email, which Clarke had secretly hoped for, but hadn’t really expected.

Dear Alexandria,

It’s nearing 6AM here and I’m still wide awake. The moviethon was great fun but I’m now regretting the Gilmore Girls-esque junk food fest that Raven prepared. Have you ever had Nutella, sliced bananas, m&ms, peanut butter, marshmallows, licorice, whipped cream and gummy bears all sandwiched together between two giant chocolate chip cookies?

Here’s my advice: don’t do it.

I’m so going to hate my life in a few hours. I can’t sleep. My stomach is starting to hurt. And both Raven and I are due at my parents’ at 11:30. I’d kill for a clone of myself today.

Oh, and by the way, you’re on. I’ll track down the Poisontree Bible or whatever it was called tomorrow. Well, not the tomorrow that is today because I haven’t gone to sleep yet, but rather the tomorrow that actually is tomorrow because today is already today. Got that?

I’m glad you’ve decided to give Saucy a shot. I have a feeling the two of you are going to be really happy together.

You know, it occurs to me that if you actually start dating her and fall madly in love with her, we’ll have to stop calling her Saucy. What was her real name again? Coleen?

Anyway, the snow has stopped, much to my disappointment. I hate to admit this, but a part of me was hoping for a blizzard so I could sleep in today, which is horrible because it’s Christmas and I should want to be with my family. But at this moment, the thought of going outside into the cold, slushy, icy world is terribly unappealing. Especially while dragging along a bunch of presents.

Oh, my wish list! Right. I had forgotten you asked about that. Well, I asked for art supplies mostly because they’re expensive and I tend to go through them really quickly.

But in the grand scheme of things … hmm … I want a lot of things, I think. I want my family to support my choices. I want them to stop treating Miller like some kind of vermin. I want Raven to get a good role in something, in anything, as long as it makes her happy.

I want world peace. :)

I do hope you figure out what you want. Sometimes I think I don’t know myself but then it seems clear. I want to be happy and I want those I love to be happy which seems kind of lame, I know, but isn’t that what we all want, really?

But I guess if we experienced happiness as a constant thing then we’d start to take it for granted and so maybe it’s best to wish for a healthy balance of the two. Though it seems terrible to wish someone unhappiness just because you don’t want them to be greedy with the happiness. So you have to wish them happiness and then think quietly to yourself, ‘But not TOO much.’

I’m sorry, it’s late and I’m rambling nonsensically. I should try to sleep.

I do wish you happiness, Alexandria. And maybe there’s no such thing as too much.

Merry Christmas. :)

Your friend, Clarke

Chapter thirty-one

The phone rang early on January 1st, which no one had expected mainly because such things shouldn’t happen, and though Clarke was the furthest from the phone, she was the only one that dragged herself out of bed to answer it.

Miller and Monty had come prepared to spend the night and their inflatable mattress now took up most of the living room. But Clarke smiled at the sight of them snuggled up under the covers, oblivious to the sound of the ringing phone, or perhaps just too hung over.

“Hello?” she said, hiding her annoyance, or at least trying to.

The voice at the other end of the phone sounded entirely too awake. “Hi! Is this Raven Reyes? My name is Jacob Ryans and I’m the director of Little Purple Butterflies, which you might’ve heard of. Anyhoo, Sierra Murphy gave me your number. She’s the casting director for Summer’s Dance and a good friend of mine, and she told me you would be absolutely perfect for my lead. Which is fabulous because I really need a lead. I know it’s a holiday and all but I was hoping you’d be available for coffee or maybe brunch so we could talk about the film and everything. What do you say?”

Clarke rubbed her eyes with her free hand. “I’m sorry, this isn’t Raven. Hang on.” She knocked on Raven’s door, too tired to wrap her mind around everything the guy had said to her. When Raven didn’t answer, Clarke knocked harder, and heard a groan from somewhere in the living room. Exasperated, she turned the handle and walked in.

Raven’s room was a mess of clothes and papers, and the bed was a rainbow of laundry that might’ve been clean or dirty or a combination of both. Clarke crawled on the bed and dug Raven’s arm from beneath the covers. Her best friend moaned in protest as Clarke put the phone in her hand. “Phone call,” Clarke said.

“I’ll call back,” Raven mumbled.

“It’s a film director.”

Raven was up in a flash, as though the words had been infused with caffeine or perhaps electricity. “Hello? Hi? This is Raven.”

Clarke smiled to herself and left Raven to her phone call.

In the living room, Miller was stretching. “How much did we drink last night?”

Clarke smiled at her stepbrother. “Entirely too much.” She looked down at the mattress to see that Monty was still sleeping. To Miller, she said, “Coffee?”

“I knew I loved you for a reason,” Miller said, yawning. He followed Clarke into the kitchen. “Did I hear the phone?”

“Some film director,” Clarke said, realizing after saying it that she should’ve sounded more excited. “I’ll, um, give that the proper intonation it deserves after I get some caffeine in my system.”

Miller looked surprised. “A film director, really? I better get Raven’s autograph now before she starts to forget the little people.”

Clarke smiled and turned to the business of making coffee. She’d drank less alcohol than the rest of them during their big New Year’s extravaganza, but her head was still killing her.

Miller sat at the table and Clarke saw him looking at the book she’d left there. “The Poisonwood Bible,” he read off the cover. “I think I read this in college. Is it still on the syllabus?”

She hadn’t told her stepbrother about Alexandria. Didn’t really know what to tell him, except, “This girl I met online recommended it.”

“You’ve been hanging out in chat rooms lately?”

“Not exactly. She bought a painting from me a while back and emailed to say she liked it. We hit it off.”

Miller smiled and flipped through the book. “That was nice of her.”

Clarke nodded and found herself smiling. “Yeah, she’s really nice. She’s kind of private, though. I don’t even know her last name, actually. Or quite what she does for a living.” She filled the mugs with coffee and joined Miller at the table. “But then she tells me things like … that she’s gay. And that she’s never been with anyone ever. And that she’s never read Harry Potter or been to Paris. And it makes me think about what’s really important to know about a person, you know?”

Miller was looking at her curiously. “So what’s important to know about a person?”

Clarke shrugged and looked down at the dark liquid in her cup. “I told her about my toilet paper collection.”

He chuckled. “Man, I’d forgotten about that.”

“She must think I’m such a freak.”

“You are a freak.”

“I never even told Finn about that.”

Miller was quiet for a moment while he sipped his coffee. “So it’s definitely over between the two of you?”

“Couldn’t possibly be more over.” She smiled to show that this was a good thing. Then she took a deep breath. “He was seeing some other girl.”

“I always knew he was a bastard.”

“Yeah, well, it was for the best. At least I don’t have to feel guilty for not loving him. It makes it easier, in the end, to think of it as his fault.”

“So are you seeing anyone now?”

Clarke shook her head. “Not really. There’s this guy Anthony that Raven set me up with, and he’s really nice and everything. We talk occasionally. But I don’t know.”

“No spark?”

“I guess. I like talking to him, and he’s an artist. But … yeah. I don’t know. He’s kind of flat. You know, boring.” She wrinkled her nose. “That’s a horrible thing to say, I think.”

Miller only smiled. Then he said, “So you’re looking for someone more exciting.”

Clarke shrugged. “I’m not sure I’m really looking, honestly. But, I guess. Not a daredevil or anything, but someone … I don’t know. Unpredictable. Maybe.” She frowned and shook her head. “I haven’t really thought about it.”

There was movement in the living room, and then, “Do I smell coffee?” Monty stumbled into the kitchen a moment later and stole Miller’s mug. He sat down at the table and took a long sip. “Mmmm.”

“Hey!” Miller grabbed the mug back. “Get your own!”

Monty blinked.

Clarke smiled and got up to get another cup. “So guess who Raven and I met.”

“Brad Pitt?” was Monty’s guess.

“George Clooney?” was Miller’s.

Clarke returned to the table and handed Monty some coffee. “Lexa Woods,” she said.

Monty leaned forward in his chair, smiling. “Really? What was she like?”

Clarke frowned briefly. “Uh…”

“How’d you meet her?”

“She was actually at the gallery that night you guys couldn’t make it,” Clarke said, shrugging apologetically.

“So unfair. What’d she say?”

“She loved my art,” Clarke said, letting herself feel proud. “Then I randomly ran into her a few days later, and she said she wanted me to paint some stuff for her new apartment.”

Monty stared at her in shock. “Okay, you’re making this up.”

“I’m not!”

He shook his head and picked up his coffee. “I don’t believe you.”

Clarke grinned. “Of course, that assumes that she still remembers who I am and ever actually calls me. But it was really flattering at the time.”

Raven walked out of her room and joined them a second later, still holding on to the phone. “Guess who’s starring in a short film?”

There was a chorus of cheers across the table that came to a halt when they realized how much it hurt their heads to actually speak above a whisper.

Raven helped herself to the coffee and sat down at the table. “I’m meeting with the director for a late brunch so we can discuss my part.”

Monty grinned. “That’s quite a way to start the new year.”

“Tell me about it.” Raven smiled brightly and sighed happily as she settled in the chair.

Clarke had a sudden feeling that it was going to be a very interesting year.

***

Lexa awoke to the sound of her cell phone vibrating on her nightstand and though it took her a long moment to decipher the true nature of the buzzing sound, she managed to breathe a groggy, “Hello?” before anyone hung up.

“What did you mean by ‘it might’ve been a date’?”

The sound of Costia’s voice woke Lexa up slightly, and she rolled over and sat up. “Uh…”

“I mean, were you still not sure when you said that, or were you just trying to drive me insane? I’m okay with either.”

Lexa rubbed her eyes and tucked her hair behind her ear in an attempt to stall. “Maybe both,” she said finally.

Costia laughed. “Good enough. So, um, I’m in L.A. for a couple of weeks and I was hoping I could accidentally bump into you somewhere. If you’re interested in being bumped into.”

Lexa didn’t know what she wanted. Maybe eggs. Eggs and bacon sounded good. Anything beyond a breakfast menu was beyond her right then. “I’ve got a photo shoot today and then I’m back on the Guardian set tomorrow and we’re filming straight through until the end of the month. You might be able to catch me by the catering cart if you’re lucky.” She paused a moment to think about her schedule more seriously. “I’m being auctioned off next week at a celebrity charity thing.”

“Does the winner get to date you?”

“The winner gets to sit at a table with me and talk to me for all of ten minutes while a bunch of other people stand around and make sure said winner doesn’t prove to be a psycho. Very exciting stuff. But there’s bound to be a really boring party afterwards.”

Costia’s laugh was soft. “Maybe I’ll stop by then. I love boring parties.”

“Be careful, though. They might want to auction you off, too.”

“No one would bid on me.”

Lexa hesitated but said, “I would.”

There was silence in which Costia could’ve either been smiling or rolling her eyes or maybe a combination of the two. Finally, the director said, “Hmm.”

Lexa fell back against the pillows. “Very articulate.”

There was the soft laugh again, followed by, “Yes, well.” Costia cleared her throat. “Actually there was another reason I was calling.”

“Yes?”

“It’s looking very likely that I’ll be playing Samantha, and I can’t decide if that maybe means we shouldn’t be accidentally bumping into each other places.”

Lexa frowned briefly. “So you’re calling to say you want to see me, to find out if I want to see you, and also to tell me that maybe we shouldn’t want to see each other?”

Costia laughed. “It sounds kinda crazy when you put it that way. I want to see you. I want you to want to see me. I just don’t know if it’s the best idea.”

Lexa was shaking her head. Of course it wasn’t the best idea. “So, what do you propose?”

“How about we see where we are after we’re done shooting?”

“Sounds good.”

There was a pause, and then, “I may still accidentally bump into you at that charity thing.”

“You’re a very confusing woman.”

“Guess we’re even.”

Lexa smiled at that. “See you around, Ms. Calloway.”

“Bye, Ms. Woods.”

Lexa stared at the phone long after they’d hung up, unsure of how to feel. She placed it back on the nightstand and looked around the room, taking in the sunlight pouring in from the balcony. It was only 9AM, which gave her a few hours to relax before posing for the camera. She hated photo shoots. She hated the interviews that came with them. She hated how phony she seemed in her attempts to sound genuine.

She’d fallen asleep with the laptop beside her and she pulled it closer and turned it on. Before long, she was starting an email to Clarke. In the subject line she wrote, “Women are confusing.”

Dear Clarke,

I just had a phone conversation with Saucy that went sort of like this:

Her: I want to see you again. When can I see you again? Me: How about at this place on this day? Her: Great. I’ll be there. Me: Looking forward to it. Her: Actually, I was really calling to say maybe we shouldn’t see each other. Me: So, you want to see me but not see me? Her: Yep. Me: Okay then. Her: But I’ll still probably see you at that place. Me: …

So there you have it.

So basically she thinks us getting romantically involved might negatively impact our working relationship – which makes perfect sense. But then she still wants to see me? I crown Saucy Fipbic the new Queen of Mixed Signals.

But anyway.

I start work again tomorrow. Today, really, which means my emails are likely to slow down in frequency and quantity. I apologize ahead of time. It’s very time consuming hiding all those dead bodies. ;)

Anyway, I should run. Gotta get the rope and the duct tape ready.

All the best in the new year. I don’t think there’s such a thing as too much happiness. :)

Your friend, A.

P.S. I started reading Harry Potter.

***

Clarke sat at Washington Square Park sipping coffee and reading The Poisonwood Bible. It was cold, too cold to be sitting outside, but Clarke didn’t mind. She enjoyed the feel of the icy breeze on her face. She liked the smell of melting snow. She loved New York in the winter. Even in gloomy weather, Clarke still found it beautiful.

The book was good. Different than the sort of books Clarke read, in the rare occasions when she did read. Mainly, she liked going over the words and thinking of Alexandria having read them before her. It made her want to read Harry Potter again, too, and experience it anew. She wondered if Alexandria was enjoying it, or if she’d put it aside and forgotten about it.

Her online friend hadn’t lied when she’d said that her emails would wane in frequency. It had been over a week since the last one, and Clarke missed turning on her computer to find an email from Alexandria waiting there. She’d decided, instead, to throw herself into the business of reading

Alexandria’s favorite books. She’d bought The Color Purple along with the other, knowing she would want to read it even if Alexandria didn’t make it through the Harry Potter experience.

School didn’t start up again for another week, and her artistic inspiration was once again at a standstill. The money from the artwork she’d sold at the gallery had come through and she’d stared at the check for a long time, unsure whether to deposit it or simply frame it. She’d deposited it, in the end, because the money was useful, but the entire time she’d stood in line at the bank she’d felt a sense of wonder that someone had paid nearly $3000 for her work.

She thought of Lexa Woods then, and let herself feel flattered by the compliments the actress had paid her. Even if the call never came, she was still grateful for the sentiment behind the offer. And if she was honest, a part of her hoped the call never would come. She didn’t want to disappoint the actress if she should find herself completely devoid of inspiration.

The artist finished her coffee and tossed the cup into the garbage can beside her. After a moment, she returned to the book.

***

Lexa stood by the bar, waiting for a refill on her champagne. Beside her, one of her co-stars from Guardian went on about his holidays abroad. She thanked the bartender and turned her full attention to the young guy beside her, who was still working up the nerve, she knew, to ask her out.

“So what did you get up to?” he asked, dark hair sliding over hazel eyes. “Any fun parties? I heard Jeff Sark threw a crazy wild one for New Year’s. Did you go?”

He was bordering drunk, the fact evident by how close he was standing, but Lexa didn’t mind. Having him by her side meant few others would saunter up to her. Skyler Rodriguez was beautiful in a way most others found intimidating. “I missed it, actually. I had a small gathering at home.”

He smiled in the way he knew made most women melt. “So I heard you and Mr. Blake finally broke up.”

“Interesting segue,” Lexa said, picking up her glass.

“He’s an idiot for letting you go,” Skyler said, undeterred. He leaned against the bar and swirled the liquid in his glass around. “I never liked him.”

“Dirty martini, please,” someone said behind her, and Lexa recognized the voice immediately.

She almost smiled, but didn’t turn around. “Yeah, I don’t know what it is about directors I find so appealing,” she told Skyler.

“Bah. Stick to actors. We’ll treat you right. Speaking of which, Lexa, I was actually meaning to ask if you’d like to come to a party I’m hosting next weekend? It’s small … intimate.” He smiled that smile again.

I’ll have to check my calendar, but if I’m free, sure,” she said, knowing she wouldn’t be free. Costia chose that moment to cross her field of vision, martini in hand. “Costia,” she called.

The director turned her way and smiled in greeting. “Lexa, hi. Didn’t see you there.”

Lexa knew that was a lie. “Skyler, do you know Costia Calloway? I’ll be starring in her next film.”

They shook hands, and Skyler grinned. “If you’re looking for a male lead…”

Costia smiled in return. “It’s more of a girl-on-girl thing,” she said, and Lexa nearly choked on her drink.

Skyler laughed. “Never mind then. That’s great though. I’ll be watching. If Lexa’s in it, I’m there.” He winked in Lexa’s direction. “Anyway, if you’ll excuse me, ladies, I’ve got to go to the little boy’s room.”

They watched him go, and Lexa turned to Costia. “I almost didn’t think you’d show.”

“I almost didn’t,” Costia admitted, coming to stand where Skyler had been. “But then I thought, ‘it’s for a good cause, so…’”

Lexa grinned. “Do you even know what the cause is?”

“You know, I actually don’t. And I gave a huge check at the entrance. Tell me it’s not for something like ... handing out make-up to underprivileged poodles?”

“That’s next week,” Lexa said, with a laugh. She sipped her champagne, and was glad, suddenly, that Costia had shown. She didn’t know what it meant for them, but she liked having the director there. “It’s for a children’s hospital, actually.”

Costia breathed a sigh of relief. “Good. So how much did you go for? I missed the exciting stuff.”

“Twenty-five grand.”

Costia whistled. “For ten minutes of your time?”

Lexa nodded. “Crazy, I know. And the guy spent the first five minutes staring at me, and the other five babbling incoherently about … fishing, I think?”

“Poor guy,” Costia said. “That’s what you get for being so beautiful.” She said the last part in a whisper, but Lexa heard her anyway.

Lexa didn’t embarrass easily, but she was suddenly at a loss for words. She looked at the director, dressed in her black suit, with her long dark hair loose around her shoulders, and decided to change the subject. “You look like you’re on your way to a corporate meeting.”

Costia shook her head, and glanced down at herself. “I just got out of one, actually, with a bunch of stuffy men in suits. I can’t wait to change out of this.”

Lexa only nodded. After a moment of silence, she said, “Costia, why did you come?”

The director looked at her but hesitated. “You really want to talk about this here?”

Lexa looked around. Skyler was making his way back toward them, and she suddenly felt tired. “Can I give you a ride back to your hotel?”

Costia nodded. “Sure.”

Skyler reached them. “Who’s up for an afterparty?”

“We’re actually heading out,” Lexa said to him. “When do you sleep? We’ve got to be at the set in like five hours.”

Skyler grinned brightly. “That’s when not being the star comes in handy. I’ll crash in my trailer between takes. Don’t you worry about me. Let me walk the two of you out.”

Outside, her limo was waiting for her, along with Samuel, her chauffeur, and half of Hollywood’s paparazzi. The cameras flashed as they walked out and Lexa could only imagine what the blog headlines would be saying in the morning. It didn’t help matters any that Skyler had opted to put his arm around her as they’d walked out.

Samuel opened the door as they approached and greeted them cordially.

Costia climbed into the car.

Lexa turned to Skyler and said, “See you tomorrow.”

He kissed her cheek just as a camera flashed in their direction. And then the door closed and she and Costia were alone.

“This is going to be all over the Internet tomorrow,” Lexa said, shaking her head. She lowered the partition once she knew Samuel had climbed into the driver’s seat. To Costia she asked, “Where can we drop you?”

“Beverly Hills Hotel.”

Samuel waved a hand to mean that he’d understood, and the partition went up again.

“Fancy,” Lexa said, referring to the hotel.

“Wasn’t my idea,” Costia replied, settling into the plush leather seats. “I’m meeting with a studio about a potential TV show that may or may not happen. We’ll see. It’s in the can’t-jinx-it-by-talking-about-it stage.”

Lexa nodded, understanding. “So.”

“I have no idea why I came,” Costia blurted. “I was in that meeting and the only thing I could think about was how nice it would be to see you again. And I know that I’m all over the place with the signals and you must think me totally insane. There’s just this part of me that wants to keep things strictly professional and then there’s this other part of me that can’t stop thinking about kissing you.”

Lexa’s heart began to pound furiously in her chest at the words and the images that accompanied them. It would be so simple to lean over and kiss the director, to forget reality for a short while and give in to her curiosity, perhaps even her desire. But what then? She looked away, at the lights passing by her window. “It would be selfish of me to kiss you,” she said softly, “because I want to, but beyond that, I don’t know what I want.” She turned to look at the director. “I do know that I don’t want to gamble with this film.”

Costia smiled softly. “Neither do I.”

Lexa felt a wave of relief. “So … friends?”

“Friends,” Costia agreed.

Chapter Text

Clarke glanced at the time on her cell phone as she hurried out of the Barney Building. Class had ended early, for a change. The professor’s obsession with a certain Tuesday night television show meant that class was held in turbo speed.

“Hey, beautiful,” a voice said near her ear, and Clarke turned to see Anthony standing there. She smiled.

“Hey stranger,” she said, as he fell in step beside her. “Long time no see.”

“I kept meaning to call and say hi, but family holiday stuff, you know? How are your classes this semester?”

He’d cut his hair, Clarke noticed. The sides were shaved off and the top was spiked. She thought it made his eyes look greener somehow. “Art & Contemporary Culture is going to kick my ass. I’m sure of it. The rest are okay. What about you?”

“Lots of electives. I’m loving Media Fundamentals, though. I opted for Digital Art.” 


“Bold move for a sculptor.” She smiled. “Are you headed to class?”


“I’ve got Psych in a couple of hours,” he said. “You?”


“I’m done, thankfully. I’m meeting Raven in Central Park. Did she tell you? She’s shooting a film there.”

“No kidding?” He looked impressed.

“That’s awesome. I hadn’t talked to her in a while.”

“Yeah, I think today’s the last day, though. I’m Raven's date to the wrap-up party.”

“Raven's got good taste.” He grinned in a way that managed to look sweet, somehow, and Clarke looked away, feeling shy all of a sudden.

They came to a stop at 3rd Avenue. “I’m headed to Lafayette,” Clarke told him.

“I’m gonna get something to eat before class. We should get together sometime,” he said, looking hopeful.

“That’d be nice. Give me a call?”


“Count on it.”

They headed in opposite directions, and Clarke stuffed her hands in the pockets of her jacket to keep them from freezing. Despite her love of winter, she was looking forward to spring. The muddy piles of snow and leafless trees were beginning to depress her. And it was only the first week of February.

Her phone began to chime somewhere inside her messenger bag, with a tune assigned to unknown numbers. She dug the object from the depths of her bag, and stared at the unfamiliar number on the display screen.

“Hello?”

“Hello, is this Clarke Griffin?” a female voice asked.

“This is me, well, her.” Clarke rolled her eyes at herself. “What can I do for you?”

“I’m Anya, Lexa Woods' assistant. Do you have a moment?”

Clarke halted in her steps, and nearly got trampled by a stroller. She got out of the way, and quickly said, “Ah, yeah! Sure. I mean, I do.”

“Ms. Woods was wondering if you were still interested in contributing your art to her new apartment?”

"Sure, yeah. I’d love to.” Clarke rolled her eyes again, knowing she sounded like an idiot.

“Great. Would you be available to meet with her sometime this week?”

Clarke’s stomach fluttered at the prospect of meeting with the actress. “Um, sure. I have classes but maybe after...” She paused, then said, “I’m free on Friday.”

“That works. How about Friday at two?”

“Great.” 


“I’ll send you a text message with the address. Thanks for your time, Ms. Griffin.”

“Take care.” Clarke dropped the phone from her ear and shook her head. A minute later a text message came through with the details of the appointment and Clarke stared at the series of letters and numbers in mild disbelief.

She snapped the cell phone closed and threw it back in her bag. Her hands were cold again and she rubbed them together before putting them back in her pockets. Then she hurried toward the subway station.

Somewhere along the way it hit her that the phone call she’d been both anticipating and dreading had finally come. She didn’t forget about me, Clarke thought, as she headed down the stairs and into the warmth.

***

Lexa stared expectantly at Anya the moment her assistant hung up the phone. “Well? What did she say? How did she sound?”

Anya lifted an eyebrow, looking amused as she put the phone down on the kitchen counter. “Like ... she’s terrified.” She regarded Lexa seriously. “Are you sure you’ve thought this through?”

"Yes,” Lexa said. “And by yes, I mean of course not. If I thought this through I’d be forced to have myself committed.” She took a deep breath. “What do you mean by ‘terrified’?”

“Just that.”


Lexa frowned. “Do I seem intimidating? I don’t want to intimidate her.”


"Yeah, good luck with that.” Anya shook her head and looked around. “I love this apartment.”

Lexa allowed the change of topic, and surveyed her surroundings. She’d fallen in love with the apartment the second she’d seen the pictures. She loved the hardwood floors, the floor-to-ceiling windows, the state of the art kitchen, the gorgeous view. It had cost almost as much as her beach front property and it was worth every penny. “Do you think it comes across as pompous?”

Anya glanced at her curiously. “Is this about Clarke again?” 


“No,” Lexa lied. “Okay, maybe. I just don’t want her to think I’m a snob.”

“Lexa, I doubt she thinks you live in a cardboard box.” Anya looked around again. “Besides you have no furniture. The only thing it comes across as is ... empty.”

Lexa smiled at that. “Like a canvas.”

Anya rolled her eyes. “Okay, on that note, I’m out of here. I have to go finish unpacking before Bellamy gets here tomorrow.”

"Have fun.”

Anya disappeared out of view and a few seconds later, the sound of the door echoed through the apartment. Lexa let the stillness settle before disrupting the silence with her movement. She climbed the stairs that led to her bedroom and collapsed on the bed. She turned the stereo on and let the radio pick the soundtrack for the evening.

Lexa hadn’t brought much to New York. The bed was new. She’d had it delivered before arriving. The stereo, the flat-screen TV, the bedside tables, all of that she’d purchased in the days following her arrival. She wanted New York to feel like a fresh start.

KT Tunstall began to play just as her cell phone chimed and Lexa grabbed it off the nightstand and checked her missed messages. She had only a text message. From Clarke.

L. W. actually called. Sort of. Details later. Off 2 party w/ strangers.

Lexa smiled and replied.

Have fun :)

She let the phone slide out of her hand and onto the covers. She wanted to pretend that she wasn’t petrified about Clarke coming to her apartment. She wanted to pretend that she and Alexandria were entirely different people, and that she wasn’t actually lying to anyone but herself. But none of that was the truth.

Clarke would be stepping into the apartment in a few days and Lexa Woods would be there to welcome her. And at some point, preferably before things got any more complicated than they already were, the truth would have to come out. How or when, Lexa had no idea.

Chapter Thirty-Three

Clarke stared up at the structure in front of her and let out a shaky breath. Finding Lexa Woods' apartment building hadn’t been hard. It was a brand new development on the Upper East Side and Clarke had passed by it several times before and wondered what it would cost to live in such a place. She took in the sleek and modern architecture and tall, shiny windows and focused on breathing.

She glanced at the time on her cell. She was early, but not too early, and after a couple of calming breaths she made her way toward the doorman.

“Ms. Woods is waiting for you,” he said, after she’d convincingly proved her identity. He opened the door and tipped his hat.

Clarke stepped inside. The lobby was busy with people in business suits talking on cells or with each other. There were chairs and couches that made Clarke think of IKEA furniture but that probably cost much more. What am I doing here? Clarke wondered as she started toward the elevators. She couldn’t have felt more out of place. She thought of her own building: dark and dingy and falling apart; the light past the front door flickering in and out. Any day now she’d walk in to find no light at all, and then it would take a week or so for the landlord to bother fixing it.

Clarke called for the elevator.

A woman in a pink velour track suit walked up. She fixed her perfect blonde curls in the nearest reflection she could find and glanced Clarke up and down out of the corner of her eye.

The doors opened and an older woman walked out yelling something at the two men behind her, who apologized severely for whatever infraction they’d committed. Their voices echoed in the lobby, mixing with the others in a chorus of pretention.

Clarke stepped into the elevator after the track suit lady, who waited with a bored expression to see what button Clarke pushed.

A model-perfect brow lifted slightly at the sight of the other lit button on the panel. “Are you sure you’ve got the right floor, honey? There’s only one apartment up there.”

The tone aimed for politeness, Clarke guessed, but fell short. “I’m sure,” she said.

"I heard a movie star moved into the penthouse,” the lady said conversationally, her tone softening ever so slightly at the thought that perhaps she was standing beside someone who knew someone important.

Clarke only offered a tight smile in reply, and waited quietly for the doors to open on the eleventh floor so the lady would leave. Nothing else was said between them, and the ride to Lexa Woods' penthouse apartment was blissfully free of interruptions.

The elevator doors opened into a brightly lit hallway and finding the actress’ door was simple enough. Knocking was decidedly harder, and Clarke looked at the time again just to make sure she wasn’t late. She could always call and say she couldn’t make it after all, that life had thrown a curve ball and her time would be swallowed up by other matters. She could always change her mind. There were other artists. Better artists. Artists far better suited to this type of work and this type of lifestyle.

It would be a lot easier on everyone if Clarke changed her mind before Lexa Woods changed hers.

But then the door opened and Lexa Woods was suddenly standing in front of her wearing a big green sweatshirt with a giant “Y” and the word “Bulldogs” emblazoned at the center and skinny light blue jeans that were frayed at one knee. She looked so different that Clarke almost didn’t recognize her.

The actress was looking at her apologetically. “You looked like you were about to bolt back to the elevator.”

Clarke must have looked confused because the actress pointed to the camera above the door. Of course, Clarke thought.

"Please come in?” Lexa Woods said in a tone that sounded almost like pleading. “I promise if you absolutely don’t want to do this, you don’t have to. But since you’re here ...”

Yes, since I’m here,Clarke thought and nodded, feeling embarrassed for being so transparent in her nervousness. The actress moved to the side, and Clarke walked in, distracted instantly by the sight of the apartment. The ceiling was at least twenty feet high, and the windows stretched all the way up, leaving a clear view of Manhattan. The walls were pristine white and the floors were light, polished hardwood.

Everything was so beautiful that it took Clarke a minute to realize that there was no furniture anywhere; no chairs, no couches, no tables. And then the smell of coffee reached her nose and she was distracted all over again.

"Would you like some coffee?” The actress had closed the door and was on the move. Clarke noticed that she was barefoot and she wondered if she should take off her own shoes. She felt a bit like she was standing in a museum, though it was far warmer, and there was nothing to look at but a beautiful actress that at this moment looked very much like any other person; someone that might’ve sat beside her in class, or passed by her at a coffee shop.

And the thought of coffee reminded Clarke that she’d been asked a question. “Um, sure. I’d love some,” she said, and followed the actress.

The kitchen was open, facing the incredible view of the city, and everything in it looked like it came out of a professional chef’s dream. Lexa Woods might’ve not had any furniture but she’d clearly spent a fortune on kitchen appliances. “Did you find the building okay?”

“It was hard to miss,” Clarke told her, leaning against the black marble countertop, before thinking perhaps she shouldn’t touch anything at all. She moved away and tried not to stare as Lexa Woods moved around the kitchen.

"Yeah, it’s a bit of an eyesore.” The actress placed a mug in front of Clarke. “Black?”

Clarke frowned briefly. “How did you know?”

Lexa Woods smiled and walked to the refrigerator. She took out a bottle of milk and said, “It was in your bio. From the program at the gallery. It said your biggest addictions were ...” She scrunched up her face in thought and counted off in one hand, “Salvador Dali paintings ... watching really bad movies with your best friend ... and black coffee.”

Clarke vaguely recalled writing that. “Oh.” She looked down at the steam rising from the mug. “I didn’t think anyone actually read those.”

The actress poured milk into her own mug. “Well, before inviting you over, I wanted to check that your hobbies didn’t include murdering celebrities.”

"Oh they edited that part out.” Clarke offered half a smile and picked up her coffee. It was hot but delicious, and she wondered what brand it was.

The actress grinned and then proceeded to put about six spoonfuls of sugar into her mug. Clarke must have looked horrified because Lexa Woods stopped what she was doing. “What’s wrong?”

Clarke looked down and away. “Nothing.”

"No, really. What’s the matter?”

Clarke looked back up and sighed. “You’re just massacring that poor coffee.”

Green eyes, made even greener by the sweatshirt, regarded her curiously, then dropped down to look between the spoon of sugar in her hand and the mug. She looked up again. “I am?”

"Completely. You probably shouldn’t even call it coffee now.”

“What should I call it?” The actress looked amused, and Clarke was relieved that she hadn’t offended her. “I don’t know ... ‘noffee’.” She rolled her eyes at her inability to come up with anything better. “You should try it pure ... sometime ... I mean, if you want.” She felt like an idiot. She was sure the next words out of the actress’ mouth would be, “Who are you to tell Lexa Woods how to take her coffee?”

But Lexa simply shrugged, and said, “Okay.” And she poured the contents of her mug into the sink. She rinsed the mug and filled it back up again. “Better?”

Clarke was too surprised to comment. She watched as the actress attempted a sip only to make a face that Clarke had never seen before.

“That’s disgusting,” she said, and Clarke found herself laughing.


“It’s an acquired taste,” Clarke admitted, and drank her own contentedly.


Lexa Woods picked up the milk again. “I think I’ll just enjoy my ‘noffee’ instead.”

Clarke only smiled to herself. She was starting to feel glad that she hadn’t run away, or rather, that the actress had caught her before she did. She would have hated to miss out on the face Lexa Woods had made.

And also the coffee was divine.

***

Lexa tried not to focus on the fact that Clarke Griffin was in her apartment, and tried instead to concentrate on being herself. At least, the closest approximation to herself she could be considering how nervous she was. She had spent her entire morning staring anxiously at the time, willing it to go faster or maybe stop altogether; she went back and forth depending on her level of panic.

And now that they were standing only a few feet apart, Lexa felt an undercurrent of excitement, which somehow surpassed her ever-present fears. Clarke was standing in her apartment, looking as beautiful as Lexa remembered; yet she was acutely aware of the artists’ nervousness which radiated through every word and every movement and served to make Lexa wonder if they could ever be anything beyond strangers standing awkwardly in a room.

Lexa noticed that Clarke was still wearing her jacket, and she kicked herself for not having noticed sooner. “I’m sorry. I’m a terrible hostess. Are you too warm?”

Clarke glanced down at herself; at the black Converse, the skinny jeans, or just at the jacket itself, Lexa wasn’t sure. “Um,” said the artist, “a bit.”

Lexa would’ve given anything to make Clarke feel at home. But how could she? There wasn’t even any furniture. “Yeah, I’m sorry. I turned up the heat like crazy because I’m not used to the cold.” She glanced around. “I can show you where to put your stuff, if you want.” She headed for the stairs. At least her bedroom had some semblance of personality.

Clarke followed several steps behind and at the top step she paused and looked around. “This is your room?”

Lexa took in the semi-open space, trying to see it as Clarke did. “Yeah it wasn’t supposed to be, exactly. I think it was meant to be like a ... den ... or an office. It’s a lot smaller than the master bedroom, but I like that it’s open. I like just walking up the stairs and being in my room. And it’s cool just looking down at everything. Plus,” and here she pointed upwards, “I really love that.”

Clarke glanced up and noticed the skylight. Her face broke into a smile at the sight of it. “That’s so cool. I love this,” she said, motioning to the room in general. “I’d love a bedroom like this. Mine is so ... dark.”

Lexa didn’t know what to say to that, because her only instinct was to offer her every possession to Clarke on a silver platter. “You can just drop everything on the bed.”

The artist placed the bag on the floor and removed her jacket, but kept her scarf, which Lexa remembered from the day at the theater. Underneath, she wore a black hoodie sweatshirt with a faded pattern across the chest. She tossed the jacket on the bed and regarded Lexa with a somewhat expectant expression.

Lexa hadn’t planned on bringing Clarke to her room, and having her there felt strangely intimate. She had to remind herself that Lexa Woods and Clarke Griffin weren’t friends. Not yet. Maybe not ever. “So,” she said, turning to look down at the apartment below. “What do you think?”

Clarke walked over and stood beside her. She looked pensive as she surveyed the view. “I’m not really even sure what you want.”

At that moment Lexa wanted many things that could never be. Being that close to Clarke was distracting and she moved away. “I was thinking a mural.”

"A mural?”

Lexa nodded. “Yeah, on that big wall when you first walk in.”

“And what do you want me to paint on this wall?”

“Anything you like.” Lexa shrugged. “You can do graffiti art for all I care.” She looked around. “It’s just all so boring, you know? I’d love to walk in and see something original.”

Lexa was looking at her strangely. “You seriously want me to paint your wall?”

“Is that weird?”


“Well, what if you don’t like it?”

Lexa figured there was little chance of that. She’d seen a few of Clarke’s paintings. In fact, she owned four of them, and there was nothing about them she didn’t love. “I think what you do with a paintbrush is magical,” she said, knowing that if anything else between them could be construed as a lie, that this, above all else, was the absolute truth. “I doubt there’s anything you could do that I wouldn’t love.”

Clarke looked momentarily speechless and Lexa decided to save her from having to say something. “I opted not to buy any furniture until you knew what you wanted to paint. I didn’t want to limit or influence your creativity in any way.”

Clarke sighed. “I think you think I’m something that I’m not. You’d be better off just hiring a professional.”

"And what are you?” 


“I’m just an art student.”


“Oh.” Lexa wondered what Clarke was really afraid of.

“I don’t want to waste your time, Ms. Woods. I don’t even know if I can come up with anything to paint.”

Lexa looked at the artist thoughtfully. She wondered how it was possible for someone so talented to be so unsure of herself. Lexa might have accepted any number of excuses from Clarke, but self-doubt was certainly not one of them. “Well, I guess I have a problem then.”

You do?”

Lexa nodded. “I mean, there are other artists who do beautiful work, don’t get me wrong, but out of all of them, you’re the only one I want.” That hadn’t been quite what she’d intended to say, and if she were the type to blush, she would have. But it was the truth, at least, in more ways than one, and she liked being able to tell the truth.

Clarke only stared at her.

“You can take as long as you want to come up with whatever it is you end up painting. I’m in no hurry. My guests can just sit on the floor.”

There was a flicker of a smile on Clarke Griffin's lips. And then, “Let me see this wall.”

***

Clarke agreed to it, in the end. She agreed to a mural and whatever else Lexa Woods wanted her to do because she had run out of excuses, and turning this opportunity down would be monumentally stupid. But there were other reasons, too. She’d been surprised by the actress’ words, and her praise, which had seemed to Clarke at once genuine and pleading, flattered her. For whatever reason, Lexa Woods wanted her to paint for her, and Clarke could think of no higher compliment than that.

"I guess I can come up with some rough sketches and you tell me what you like best,” Clarke suggested.

The sound of the lock at the door echoed softly through the large apartment, interrupting whatever the actress might’ve said next, and Clarke turned to see a young woman enter the apartment. She looked vaguely familiar, and Clarke thought she might have seen her at the gallery. Her hair was brown and was clipped back away from her face. She was young, in her mid-twenties, Clarke guessed, and was dressed in jeans and a black coat. She carried in her hand a plastic bag and had a cell phone to her ear. “... well, you’re not supposed to reheat a cheeseburger for ten minutes in the microwave! What did the fuck did you think was going to happen? Anyway, I just got to Lexa's. I’ll call you later." She noticed Clarke and Lexa watching her and looked surprised. The phone snapped shut. “Sorry, I’m just dropping this off,” she said, lifting up the bag in her hand.

“Clarke, this is my assistant, Anya. Anya, this is Clarke Griffin.”

Anya walked over and shook Clarke's hand. “Pleasure to meet you,” she said kindly. To Lexa, she said, “Where do you want these?”

Clarke idly wondered what was in the bag, out of curiosity and nothing more. The actress waved in the general direction of nowhere in particular and said, “Anywhere is fine. Thanks, Anya.”

"I live to serve,” she said, as her cell phone rang again. She made an apologetic face and answered, while moving off in the direction of the kitchen. “... she’s busy at the moment, but I can have her get back to you ...”

Clarke regarded the actress. “I should get going,” she said, because she suddenly felt like she’d been there too long and maybe Lexa Woods had other matters to attend to. “I’ve got some errands to run.” She didn’t know why she felt the need to make up an excuse.

"Sure, let me get your stuff,” the actress replied, and headed up the stairs. The assistant was off the phone by the time she walked back over. She smiled at Clarke.

Anya waved and headed for the door. “I’m off to make sure Bellamy didn’t burn down the apartment!” she said loud enough for Lexa would hear. “See you later!”

The actress was walking down the stairs, Clarke's jacket and bag in hand.

"Have fun,” she said to Anya. And then they were alone again.


Clarke accepted her belongings.

“Thanks. Oh, and um, how should I ... uh, contact you?”

"Oh! Right. Hang on.” Lexa Woods rushed back up the stairs, taking them two at a time, which Clarke found amusing. She returned moments later with a pen and a small notebook. “Let me give you Anya's number. You can get in touch with her any time.” She started to write, then glanced up, looking apologetic. “I’m sorry. I’m a little hard to reach sometimes, so it’s just easier if you go through her.”

Clarke didn’t know why Lexa Woods felt the need to apologize to her. But she shrugged anyway and proclaimed it okay. She took the piece of paper when it was offered to her.

At the door, Lexa Woods said, “Thanks for doing this,” she said, her tone soft and somewhat vulnerable.

The thought of Alexandria popped into Clarke's mind and it suddenly hit her just how similar their voices were. She almost laughed at the thought. “I just hope you don’t end up regretting it...”

The actress shook her head at her, and then said, “Oh, I almost forgot.” She took an envelope out of her back pocket and pointed it at Clarke. “I know we never discussed a fee, but I thought this might be enough to get you started.”

Clarke tentatively accepted the envelope and peeked inside. She didn’t know what she’d expected, but certainly not this. “Ten thousand dollars?” She offered the envelope back. “I’m sorry, Ms. Woods. That’s entirely too much money. All I did was stare at a wall.”

"Please call me Lexa. And that seems to be the going rate for staring at walls these days. I Googled it.”

Clarke tried to think of something to reply back to that but her mind went blank. She lowered her arm. “Take it,” Lexa insisted.

Clarke wondered what ten thousand dollars actually meant to someone like Lexa Woods. It was probably what she spent a week on shoes. But to Clarke, it was a ridiculous amount of money. “I think you’re insane,” she said, before she could stop herself.

“I’ll take that as a compliment.”

The actress smiled, and Clarke found herself thinking how unfair it was for someone to be that beautiful. She smiled back. “I guess I’ll be in touch.”

"I look forward to it.”

Clarke walked away then. As she waited for the elevator, she glanced back, but Lexa Woods had disappeared inside her apartment. She glanced down at the envelope in her hand. She’d never held a check with so many zeros attached to it before.

She didn’t think about the money, though, on her ride back down to earth. She thought mostly of Lexa Woods' words, and how nice it felt to have someone else believe in her.

Chapter Text

Clarke crumpled another ripped page and tossed it on the kitchen table. It rolled and bounced off the many others that had suffered the same fate. The ideas weren’t flowing. She was too self-conscious, too worried about what the actress might think. She needed to let her mind go and not overanalyze every stroke of the pencil.

Keys jingled outside in the hall and a second later, the front door opened. “Hi, honey, I’m home!” Raven called.

“In the kitchen.”

Raven appeared carrying a series of shopping bags. She glanced briefly at the mess of paper balls on the table before smiling brightly in Clarke's direction. “I just blew the $300 I made doing that short film, but it was so worth it. I got the hottest pair of jeans ever.”

Raven dug into one of the bags and withdrew a pair of jeans that looked very much like every other pair of jeans Clarke had ever seen. “Um, hot,” Clarke said, because there was no use in saying anything other than that.

“I also got...” Raven reached into a different bag and withdrew a blue and black striped scarf. “...this. For you. Aaaaand socks to match!”

“Aw, shucks.” Clarke held up her gifts and shook her head. “Wasn’t Christmas like a month ago?”

Raven shrugged. “Yeah, but we were both broke. Now we’re rich. Well, you’re rich.”

Clarke hesitated. “I’m not depositing that check from Lexa Woods until I know I can actually come up with something.” She motioned to the piles of paper. “As you can see, it’s not going well.”

Raven sat down and kicked her shoes into the living room. One hit the back of the couch, and the other missed their lamp by an inch. “Okay. I’ve got something that might help you with that.”

Clarke slouched down in the chair and stared curiously at her best friend. She crossed her arms. “What could that possibly be?”

Raven reached into another bag and withdrew an item from its depths. “I actually bought it for me, but I can see that you’re in a crisis. So here.” She handed a box to Clarke.

Clarke took it and sighed. “A vibrator? How is this going to help me? You want me to paint a giant vibrator on the wall of Lexa Woods' penthouse?”

Raven grinned. “Hey, she might be into that. And besides, it’s not just any vibrator. It’s the Rabbit. See? They angled the bunny part for better contact. And it vibrates. Just don’t get too addicted. You saw what happened to Charlotte in season one of Sex & the City. There’s really such a thing as too much mast—“

"Okay,” Clarke said, interrupting. She slid the box across the table. “It’s all yours. Really. I’m good.”

“Whatever. Be a prude.” Raven took the box and threw it back into the bag. “Call Anthony at least. Go out. Make out. Do something.”

Clarke shrugged and offered a tentative smile. “He did look kind of cute with his new hair cut.”

“There you go! Excellent. Glad that’s settled.” She stood up, grabbing bags as she went. “I gotta get ready for work. We hired this new guy. His name is Roberto. I get to train him tonight.” She looked pensively into the living room. “I can’t decide if I’m attracted to him or if I find him repulsive. Such a fine line.” She shrugged, and headed to her room.

Clarke grabbed her sketchpad. The blank page mocked her. She bit her lip thoughtfully and grabbed her cell. She’d taken to text messaging Alexandria these days because she found it was the best way to get a speedy answer. It was almost as good as a phone conversation, but not as intrusive.

She found Alexandria's name in her list of contacts and typed:

if u had to paint a mural on a famous person’s wall, what would u paint?

She sent the message, and waited. The answer came faster than she’d expected.

A stick figure holding a banana, it said.

Clarke laughed and typed back, why a banana?

A moment later, the phone chimed with, Because it’s my second favorite fruit.

Clarke spent four minutes trying to remember what Alexandria's number one fruit was and was almost about to check her email archives, when she remembered. She typed, then why not an apple?

And then the answer, Because I would’ve eaten it.

Clarke was grinning by the time she decided to clear the mess on the table and return to her room. She’d go for a walk, she decided. Maybe the cold would help clear her head. Maybe the city would reveal to her what Lexa Woods might possibly want painted onto her very expensive wall.

She grabbed her coat, and her new scarf, and made sure her copy of The Color Purple was in her bag before setting out.

***

Lexa was sitting in bed reading Harry Potter when the phone rang. A part of her was hoping that Clarke would decide to call. She’d almost called her herself after the stream of text messages had ended, but decided against it.

Her heart sped up as she reached for the phone, expecting to see the name ‘Clarke’ on the display screen. She was disappointed but also relieved to see the name ‘Costia Calloway’ instead. She sat up and removed her glasses, sliding them in between the pages of the book. “How’s my favorite director today?” she asked.

"Excellent, actually,” Costia said, and Lexa could tell she was smiling. “I have good news.”

"I’m all for good news.”


"We’ve got all the main parts cast and should be ready to roll at the end of the month.” 


“Good to hear,” Lexa said, and it was, mostly. “Did you find someone to play Lynn?”

“We decided to go with Sophia Carmichael. I had her read for me again last week, and she nailed it. I think she’ll make a great Lynn.”

And it didn’t hurt that her new show was a hit, Lexa thought, but kept silent. It was for the best that Raven hadn’t been cast. It was for the best, and yet... “What about Raven Reyes?”

“Who? Oh! I actually heard really good things about her in that short film she did for Sierra’s director friend. But everyone agreed that Sophia was a better fit.”

“What about one of the smaller roles? Have they all been cast?” Lexa needed to let it go. She knew she did. But a different part of her wanted to do all she could to help Raven out. Chances like this didn’t come often.

The director was silent for a second, and Lexa could hear the sound of a television in the background and the shuffling of paper nearby. “Sorry, I was just looking at my notes. Um, we have a tentative yes for the role of Shannon, but it’s on shaky ground because the actress has this thing coming up and blah blah blah. Honestly, I’m sick of talking to her, she’s such a pain in the ass. Raven hadn’t occurred to me for that part but ... well, what do you think?”

Lexa couldn’t even remember who Shannon was in the script. She searched her brain but came up blank. “Sorry, who’s Shannon again?”

“She’s the one Elizabeth seduces at the bar.” 


Lexa felt the blood rush to her face. Oh God. “I thought her name was Jane?”

“Yeah, there were some issues with the name so we had to change it. Remind me to get you the new script. So, Raven, then? I can see that. I’ll see if she’s up for it and have her come in. It’d be a joy to replace that other girl, actually. I hate working with divas. Good call.”

What the hell did I just do? Lexa thought, suddenly panicked as the scene in question played in her mind.

“So how are you enjoying life in New York?” Costia continued.

Lexa looked around her room and stared up at the sunlight streaming from above. She stifled the urge to sigh. “I love it,” she said, pushing thoughts of the movie aside. “How about you?”

“It’s so good to be back. My new place is great. Which reminds me, the main reason I was calling is that I’m throwing a cast and crew party in a couple of weeks. Thought it’d be a nice way to relax and get to know each other before we jump into the fray.”

“Sounds fun,” Lexa said, and actually meant it despite the fact that she usually hated parties.

“Great. I already cleared the date with Anya earlier so I’ll send you an Evite with the details.”

“Okay.”

“Okay,” Costia echoed. There was a pause, and then, “Is this awkward for you? Talking to me? I mean, after our last conversation in L.A.?”

Lexa frowned at her comforter. “Ah ... no. Why? Is it awkward for you?”

“No, not really. I just thought it might be. I’m glad it’s not.” She paused again. “Maybe now that I brought it up it is a little.” She laughed. “Okay, I’m off then. Talk to you later.”

Lexa shook her head, amused. “Take care, Costia.”

She tossed the phone aside and grabbed the script off her nightstand. She flipped the pages until she came to the scene in which her character seduced another. She read it over quickly and closed her eyes. What had she done? There was no way she could do a love scene with Raven.

She opened her eyes and let out a long sigh. Maybe she’d get lucky and Raven Reyes would refuse to play gay.

***

Clarke had travelled all the way to the Upper East Side after a craving for frozen hot chocolate gripped her and wouldn’t let go. The thought of calling Anthony and inviting him to join her crossed her mind while waiting in line to get seated, but she couldn’t imagine asking him to come all the way uptown just so she wouldn’t have to sit alone. She’d settled instead for Alice Walker’s company and the comforting sound of strangers’ chatter.

After a very healthy dinner of fries and the infamous chocolate drink, she squeezed through the crowds of people still waiting in line and wandered back out into the street. The night was cold and her breath plumed out in front of her like the fading traces of a ghost. She shivered, now thinking that a frozen drink had been a terrible idea in winter. She tightened her scarf around her neck.

Clarke was aware, as she began to walk, of her proximity to Lexa Woods' apartment, and she wondered if that had been the reason she’d decided to head north instead of simply stopping by Raven's coffee place or sitting at the park. She hadn’t planned on stopping by the actress’ apartment, but her feet led her there of their own accord, and despite the fact that she felt nervous and out of place in Lexa Woods' world, she did want to do a good job. She wanted to prove that she could do this.

The building appeared before long and she stared up at it before crossing the street.

This was stupid, Clarke thought, as she approached the building and the doorman who’d undoubtedly give her a hard time. Lexa Woods was likely not even home, or perhaps had guests and didn’t wish to be interrupted. It was rude to show up unannounced in the middle of the evening with no good reason for being there except that she was stuck in her inspiration and thought being in the apartment might help.

She hesitated and then a voice she didn’t quite recognize was calling her name. Clarke turned to find Lexa Woods' assistant walking her way.

“Are you here to see Lexa?” the pretty brunette, whose name she remembered as Anya, asked, looking both pleased and surprised to find Clarke standing there.

“I.. uh.” Clarke wasn’t sure what to say. That she was just passing by would be a lie but the truth made her feel self-conscious. “She’s not expecting me,” was what she went with.

“Don’t worry, I'm sure she'll be thrilled to see you,” Anya said, smiling oddly, before she suddenly began digging into the bag she carried. A second later she withdrew an unmarked envelope and what looked to be a screenplay. “Could you give this to her for me? I’m running really late to meet my boyfriend and you’d save me some time.”

Clarke took the items and nodded.

“Great,” said Anya and then approached the doorman and exchanged a few words with him which Clarke couldn’t quite hear.

When Clarke walked over the doorman smiled at her and opened the door.

“Thanks,” said Anya and then she was off.

Clarke smiled nervously back at the man and continued onwards through the lobby. The elevator ride was uneventful and with each passing floor she grew progressively more nervous. This had definitely been a stupid idea, and now she was stuck. She couldn’t very well run off with Lexa Woods' stuff.

The doors dinged open and Clarke made her way toward Lexa Woods' door. There was little reason to hesitate with a camera pointed down at her, and so she knocked, softly, thinking maybe she’d get lucky and no one would answer. Perhaps she could leave the items with the doorman if the actress wasn’t there.

But she heard footsteps and then the sound of the lock and then Lexa Woods was standing in front of her once again. Clarke was surprised to see that the actress was wearing glasses. She was dressed in jeans again, though these were perfectly fitted, and the white zip-up hoodie sweatshirt she sported was open just enough to reveal a white tank top beneath. She had a book in her hand, her index finger marking the page, and Clarke instantly recognized the cover as Harry Potter.

“Clarke,” Lexa said, looking somewhat startled. 


“I’m sorry to show up like this,” Clarke said. “If you’re busy, I can come back some other time...”

The actress removed her glasses and shook her head, her silky dark hair falling across her face. “No, I’m not busy at all. I was just cooking dinner and um ...” She seemed to remember the book in her hand and she looked embarrassed. “Please come in?”

Clarke walked in, amazed by how little things had changed, but impressed by the apartment all over again. She was suddenly aware of a delicious smell coming from somewhere in the vicinity of the kitchen and it occurred to her that maybe fries and frozen hot chocolate hadn’t been much of a meal. Music was playing, too, but she didn’t recognize the song. She turned to the actress. “I ran into your assistant downstairs and she asked me to give you these.”

Lexa accepted the items, looking somewhat perplexed. “I’m sorry, Anya gave these to you?”

“Yeah, she said she was running late.”

Lexa looked confused. “She did, did she?” But then she smiled. “Thanks,” she said. “Please, take your coat off. I know it’s an oven in here. You can leave your stuff on my bed.” The actress headed up the stairs and Clarke followed, removing her coat as she went.

Clarke was in love with Lexa Woods' bedroom. It was big, but not obnoxiously so. She loved that you could stand to the side and look down at the rest of the apartment. She also loved the flat-screen TV and the ridiculous stereo system, from which another song was playing that Clarke didn’t know. And then there was the skylight. She glanced up and noticed that it had begun to rain.

Clarke dropped her coat and her messenger bag on the bed.

“Sorry, I just need to check on dinner,” Lexa said, her tone apologetic. “I’m trying this new recipe,” she continued, as she started down the stairs. “And I have no idea how it’s going to turn out.”

Clarke couldn’t imagine Lexa Woods cooking, and she followed the actress back down to the kitchen where an assortment of food items awaited.

“What are you making?” Clarke ventured to ask, because curiosity was a temptress she couldn’t ignore for long. She noticed that there were now white cushioned stools beneath the counter, but she didn’t sit.

Lexa was looking into the oven, where something was baking, and Clarke figured that’s where the delicious smell was coming from. “Let’s see,” said the actress. “I was feeling a bit Greek today so I ended up making some hummus. Ooh, want to try? I need a second opinion.”

A plate appeared out of nowhere and suddenly there was a dollop of hummus and triangles of pita bread in front of her. Clarke arched an eyebrow. “You made your own hummus?”

“Yup. Tell me what you think. You can be brutal. I can take it.”

Clarke thought perhaps she was having a dream because it didn’t seem real that Lexa Woods was offering her homemade hummus and hadn’t even bothered to ask what the hell Clarke was doing in her apartment.

Clarke dropped her gaze and looked at the food. She spread the hummus over the pita bread and took a bite. After a moment, she blinked in surprise. “That’s really good,” she said, somewhat shocked by how true it was. She decided to sit down after all. “You really made this?”

“I’m glad you like it.”

“I usually just buy it at the store, but this is even better.”

Lexa looked pleased. “Um, and then I made a vegetarian Greek Lasagna, which might turn out to be a disaster because I decided to add feta cheese even though the recipe didn’t call for it. But lasagna without cheese didn’t sit right with me. And then there’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ice cream for dessert, which I didn’t make myself. Such things are better left to the likes of Ben & Jerry. It doesn’t quite go with the whole Greek theme but I think that’s okay. Would you like to join me for dinner?”

Clarke looked up, startled by the question. “Me? You haven’t even asked why I’m here.”

"Is it because you haven’t come up with anything to paint and are freaking out?” 


Clarke stared at the actress for a moment. “Yes...”

Lexa smiled softly. “Then I guess I don’t have to ask.” The oven beeped behind her. “What would you like to drink? I’ve got a 2002 Cabernet Franc to go with this but I’m wondering if it’ll be as good with a vegetarian dish.” Green eyes looked in her direction. “Want to find out?”

Clarke had no idea what Lexa Woods was talking about, but she guessed it had something to do with wine. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had wine with dinner. She also couldn’t remember agreeing to eat with the actress, but she found herself saying, “Sure,” as though she had. After all, this could still prove to be a dream, and any moment now a parade of chickens in pink tutus could march across the living room playing the Star-Spangled Banner. But nothing of the sort happened and Clarke was forced to consider that this might be for real. “Are you a vegetarian?”

“Not as a rule, no.” Lexa glanced at her and then looked down as she poured wine into glasses. Her eyes were momentarily hidden beneath incredibly long eyelashes and Clarke thought of all of the airbrushed magazine covers she’d seen the actress in. She wondered how it was possible for someone to look even more beautiful in person. “I picked up a vegetarian cookbook recently,” the actress continued, looking up again. “I wanted to try a few of the recipes.”

“Oh,” Clarke said, still thinking it odd that Lexa Woods cooked. “I think the only dish I’ve ever mastered is eggplant parmesan and even that turned out to be disgusting.” She thought of Alexandria and their emails on the subject, then pushed the thought away as she accepted the glass of wine.

“I’m sure it couldn’t have been that bad,” Lexa said with a slight grin. “You should taste my best friend’s cooking. Trust me, you will never feel bad about anything you make after you’ve sampled one of Bellamy's creations.”

Bellamy, Clarke thought, the name ringing a bell. Bellamy Blake? Her ex. How interesting that they’d remained friends after he’d dumped the actress for her assistant. Best friends, at that. She vaguely recalled Raven commenting on the subject but it hadn’t quite hit home until that moment.

Clarke didn’t know what to say, so she said nothing. Instead, she watched as the actress served the food in white square plates, complete with a basil garnish. She’d never seen anyone put food on a plate with such care before. “I feel like I’m watching the Food Network,” she said, smiling shyly.

“Let’s just hope it tastes good,” Lexa said, and put a plate in front of Clarke and another next to her. Silverware came next, and before long, the actress had come around to sit beside Clarke. “If it’s gross we can just order pizza. Or Chinese.” She glanced at Clarke. “What do you prefer?”

Um, both, I think,” Clarke said. “Well, not at the same time.” The food smelled wonderful and she took the actress’ cue and picked up a fork and cut a piece. She was careful to blow on it before sticking it in her mouth, remembering the many times she’d accidentally burned her tongue whilst in the company of strangers. She was relieved when the food didn’t prove to be too hot to eat. “Wow,” she said, a moment later. “That tastes even better than it smells.”

Lexa was looking thoughtful. “Yeah, it’s not as bad as I imagined.” The actress took a sip of wine and regarded Clarke. “So, what can I do to help you find some artistic inspiration?”

Tell me what to paint, Clarke thought dryly but didn’t say it. “I have no idea. I just thought maybe being here would give me some ideas.”

“And?” 


“It just made me hungry.” Clarke smiled.

Lexa laughed at that. She shrugged. “You could always just throw a bucket of paint at the wall and smear it around with your hand. Could look kinda cool.”

“You could do that yourself, why pay me to do it?”

“Because,” Lexa said, meeting Clarke’s gaze, “I firmly believe that you’re going to be a famous artist one day, and I would love to have a Griffin original on my wall.”

Clarke shook her head and continued eating, thinking the actress was delusional. “Or I could turn out to be a nobody and die penniless and alone under a bridge somewhere.”

“Why alone?”

Clarke didn’t know how to answer that because she didn’t know why she’d said it. “Just being melodramatic, I guess.”

Lexa was silent and for a minute or two the only thing audible was the clinking of silverware and the sound of Garbage’s #1 Crush playing from the speakers. Finally a song Clarke recognized, if maybe not a version she’d heard. “Maybe it’s my fault,” the actress said suddenly. “Maybe I’m stifling your inspiration by asking for something.”

Clarke wondered if that was it, but ended up shaking her head. “I think there’s just days or weeks or months when I wake up and the only thing I can do is think about painting or drawing and other times when the thought of it ... depresses me. Because I just ... I don’t know, I feel ... numb.” She looked away, feeling embarrassed.

“Well, would it help if I told you what to paint exactly?” 


“Yes,” Clarke said, feeling somewhat relieved. “I think it would.”

The actress nodded and wiped her mouth with a napkin. “Okay, be right back then.” She slid off the stool and disappeared up the stairs.

Clarke frowned, wondering what the actress was doing. She took the opportunity to finish her meal, not wishing to appear like a starved pig. Clarke was on her last bite when Lexa reappeared. She carried a book, a pen, and a small spiral notebook in her hands, and she pushed her dish to the side to make room.

Lexa held the book and said, “Okay, pick a number from one to,” and here she flipped to the end before finishing with, “five hundred and two.”

Clarke felt her eyebrow lift in question. “Um, fifty-eight.” 


Lexa wrote down this number, and then said, “Okay and then pick a number from one to twenty.”

"Seven.”

Lexa wrote this down too, and then said, “Okay, let’s see.” She flipped to a page in the book and began counting. On the notebook she occasionally wrote something down. After about a minute of this, she looked up and glanced at the notebook. “Okay so we’ve got monkey, nose, river, tower, which I guess means you’ll have to paint a ... monkey’s nose on a tower in a river?”

Clarke bit her lip. “A monkey’s nose on a tower in a river? This is what you want on your wall?”

“Apparently,” Lexa said. “I figured I’d leave it up to fate. I mean, I suppose it could also be a nose in a river with a monkey in a tower. You can choose.”

Clarke was unable to keep from smiling. “Okay,” she said, pushing her own dish aside. She slid the notebook closer, and took the pen from Lexa's hand. She began to draw. She drew a nose, using the curve of it to also form the tail of the monkey wrapped around the base of the tower. She finished with the river, upon which the tower sat.

“That’s amazing,” Lexa said, standing to look at the drawing, and Clarke was suddenly incredibly aware of how close they were standing. Their arms brushed as Lexa pulled the notebook closer to her, and Clarke felt her skin tingle with the contact. “It’s kind of surrealist.”

Clarke sat back down in order to put some space between them. “Hardly,” she said, but blushed anyway, because the drawing had been meant as a joke, and had somehow turned out better than she’d expected. And for some reason her arm was still tingling.

Lexa glanced at her. “I don’t know, maybe if underneath you write: ‘This is not a tower with a monkey wrapped around it.’”

Clarke smiled. “Magritte would be so proud,” she said, surprised by the reference. “So, you’re familiar with his work?”

“I think The Son of Man is one of my favorite paintings,” Lexa said. “Maybe because I love apples.” The actress looked momentarily flustered, and then said, “Um, can I interest you in dessert?” Apples seemed to be a popular fruit, Clarke thought. Then said, “Thanks, but I should really head home. It’s getting late.”

Lexa nodded easily. “Okay, I’ll get your things, then.”

“Wait, um, can I help you clean up?” Clarke felt incredibly rude waltzing in unannounced, eating the actress’ food, and then running out the door.

“Don’t worry about it,” Lexa said, already on her way up the stairs. “Can I call you a cab?”

“I’ll just take the subway,” Clarke said, momentarily alarmed by how much a taxi ride might cost. “Are you sure you don’t want help?” she asked, as the actress reappeared, holding her things.

“I’m sure,” Lexa said, stuffing her hands in the pockets of her sweatshirt. She seemed shy suddenly. “Thanks for trying my experimental food.”

If that was her experimental food, Clarke wondered what her specialties were. “Thanks for inviting me for dinner. It was nice of you considering how rude of me it was to just show up like this.”

“You’re welcome any time,” Lexa said, and Clarke didn’t know why, but it sounded very much like the actress meant it.

Clarke bit her lip and reached into her messenger bag. A moment later, she took out the check Lexa had given her. “Please take this back. At least until I feel like I deserve something from you. I’m not going to deposit it anyway, and having it around makes me nervous.”

The actress hesitated but took the check. “Okay,” she said.


Clarke felt better instantly. She smiled. “Okay. Good.” She reached for the door. “Until later then.”

"Until later,” the actress said.

Clarke walked out onto the hallway, and as she walked toward the elevator it occurred to her that something had changed. She wasn’t sure what it was exactly. But something had changed between her and Lexa Woods.

It felt like a good thing.

***

Lexa closed the door and leaned her forehead against it, her hair tickling her cheeks as it fell forward. She let out a long breath and moved away from the door. On her way to the kitchen, she found that she was smiling. Clarke had stopped by. Clarke had stayed for dinner. And through it all Lexa had managed not to make a complete fool of herself.

She took in the state of the kitchen and decided to ignore it for the time being. She sat back down on the stool and looked at the drawing Clarke had made. Lexa had loved every second she’d spent in the artist’s company, but her favorite moment had been the one spent watching Clarke draw.

Her gaze traced over the picture on the notebook and she smiled sadly. From the pocket of her sweatshirt she withdrew her cell phone and dialed.

Her assistant answered on the first ring. “Don’t fire me.” 


Lexa reached for the bottle of wine and refilled her glass. “Start talking.”

“Well,” began Clarke, in a tone that begged to be found innocent of any and all charges, “I got to your building and I saw Clarke standing there looking like she was about to change her mind about coming to see you. So, I improvised. I figured you’d rather see her than Bellamy and I, anyway.”

Lexa sighed. “So you trapped her into coming up?”

“I wouldn’t say ‘trapped’... that sounds so...” 


“So very much like what you did?”

“Oh, be real. If I’d shown up and said, ‘hey I saw Clarke downstairs, and she looked like she wanted to come see you but then she changed her mind and I did nothing to stop her’ you wouldn’t have fired me on the spot?”

“I guess.” 


“So, how’d it go?”

Lexa let herself smile, because she couldn’t help it. “She stayed for dinner. Speaking of which, what did you and Bellamy end up doing for food?”

“Um, this is New York, Lexa. There’s a restaurant every half a step. We managed just fine without your weird ass veggie food. Back to you and Clarke.”

“There is no ‘me and Clarke’.”

Anya sighed audibly. “I guess falling for a straight girl is just a lesbian rite of passage or some shit.”

Lexa felt depressed suddenly. She pushed the notebook with Clarke’s drawing away and stood up. “I gotta go. My kitchen’s a mess. Talk to you tomorrow.” She snapped the phone closed before Anya could protest, and dropped it on the counter.

Her good mood had vanished, replaced instead by a feeling akin to panic. What was she doing? Clarke was straight. She was straight and that wasn’t going to change just because she happened to like Lexa's cooking. She was straight and Lexa was lying to her and once she knew the truth none of this would matter anymore.

An upbeat song began to play from her very randomized selection of music and Lexa decided to pull herself together. She’d focus on cleaning the mess in the kitchen because she had no idea what to do about the mess in her life.

Chapter Text

Clarke blinked. The shapes in her room were blurry and undecipherable as she attempted to make sense of her surroundings. The sound of the phone echoed through the apartment, and she pulled the covers over her head. She refused to get up this time. She’d stayed up entirely too late finishing The Color Purple, and then later still to write an email to Alexandria detailing just how much she’d loved it.

The phone rang again, a half-ring, interrupted by the merciful voice of Raven saying, “Clarke and Raven’s house of kinkiness. How may I spank you?”

Clarke relaxed when the call turned out to be for Raven. She must have drifted back to sleep again because the next thing she knew, Raven was on top of her, bouncing on her bed.

“Wake up, oh my God,” Raven was saying, her voice an octave higher than usual. “Guess who just called me.”

Clarke opened one eye, shut it, and opened the other. Raven was on top of her, gazing down at her excitedly, and Clarke had never wanted to hurt someone so badly in her life. She closed her eyes again only to be shaken. She groaned. “Ihateyouleavemealone,” she mumbled.

“Clarke! That was the casting director for that film I auditioned for. They want me to come back in and read for some other part!”

The news filtered through Clarke’s foggy conscience. “Wow,” she managed, her voice hoarse and full of sleep. “I promise to be really excited for you in like six hours.”

The bouncing resumed and Clarke tried to recall if she’d left anything nearby that might be used as weapon. The bouncing stopped. “Jesus, this room is colder than mine,” Raven said, and a moment later she’d lifted the covers and slipped in, shuddering. “Hang on, I want to be spooning you when I tell you the rest of the phone conversation.” Raven felt like an icicle and it was all Clarke to do not to punch her. “Ooh, you’re warm.”

“I hate you so much right now,” Clarke whined, as Raven wrapped herself around her. She winced as cold feet brushed against her leg.

“Okay,” Raven said, once she was settled. “So the woman, Sierra Murphy or something like that, was like, ‘Would you be opposed to doing nude scenes?’ And I was like, “Uh, depends on what kind,” and she was like, ‘Well would you have a problem shooting a sex scene?’ And I said, ‘Like… porn?’ and she laughed and was like, ‘No no. Tastefully done, of course. But you might have to strip down a little.’ And I was like, ‘Well, sure, that’s fine.’” She paused. “Are you listening to me?”

“Your mouth is next to my ear, how could I possibly not be?”

“Okay. So, then she was like, ‘Oh good, good. We’d like you to come in and read for a different part.’ And I was like, ‘Great!’ And then … are you ready?”

Clarke sighed into her pillow. “Yes…”

“Then she was like, ‘Would you be opposed to doing a sex scene with a woman?’”

Clarke’s eyes flew open. “Really?”

Raven giggled. “Am I freaking you out being all over you like this?”

“No, it’s turning me on, actually,” Clarke said and grinned.

“Ooh, baby.” Raven laughed and disentangled herself from Clarke. “Actually, I’m freaking myself out. You feel kinda good.” She paused to straighten out the other pillow. “So what do you think? I might get to have sex with a chick on camera.”

Clarke turned to look at her friend. “So you said you were okay with it?”

“Of course! Why wouldn’t I be?” She sat up so her back was against the wall. “I hope it’s someone hot.”

Clarke rubbed her eyes and sat up too. There was no use in pretending she might actually get some sleep. She yawned. “So, when’s the big audition?”

“Tonight actually,” Raven said, frowning. “I hope I can find someone to cover for me at work. I’m gonna get fired one of these days.” She shrugged. “Hey, do you think Lexa Woods had anything to do with them calling me back? You know, since she knows we’re friends.”

“I don’t know,” Clarke said, but suddenly wondered if the actress had said anything. Why would she? Lexa Woods didn’t owe her any favors. “Maybe you were just really good.”

Raven nodded thoughtfully. “So, will you make out with me later?”

Clarke stared at Raven as though her head had suddenly multiplied.

“Well they’re bound to make me kiss some random woman and I need it to be natural. The last time I kissed a girl was back in high school and there was a beer bottle spinning around on the floor. I figure a little refresher wouldn’t hurt. You game?”

The thought of kissing Raven was utterly disturbing to Clarke. “I don’t think so. Seems a tad bit incestuous.”

Raven considered this and nodded. “Yeah, I guess it should be someone I don’t really know, anyway. Who can I get to make out with me? I need some lesbian friends.” She snapped her fingers. “Oh! One of the girls in that short film I did I think said something about wanting to experiment. I’ll give her a call.”

“You’re just going to call her and say, ‘Hey, will you make out with me?’”

Raven rolled out of bed. “Yeah. Why?”

“And she’s going to be like, ‘Yeah sure!’”

Raven snorted. “She better be. Fucking best day of her life.” She winked at Clarke and headed out the door. “Wish me luck!”

“Good luck,” Clarke called after her, and laughed. She slid back under the covers and settled into the warmth. If she was lucky, she’d manage a few more hours of sleep.

***

The phone rang while Lexa was still trying to figure out what to reply to Clarke’s last email. There were a lot of things she wanted to say; a lot of things she would have said had she not felt so guilty each time she started to type something. Clarke’s visit was still fresh in her mind, and it was all she could think about as she stared at the words on her screen. She couldn’t go on pretending to be Alexandria. Not anymore.

Lexa had spent part of the night imagining scenarios in which she would come to tell Clarke the truth. Each one seemed lamer than the last and each ended with Clarke walking angrily away. Would Clarke be angry? Lexa didn’t know. Lexa didn’t know at all how the artist might react and it was this that kept her from picking up the phone and saying, “Clarke, I need to tell you something.”

But she was saved from these thoughts the moment the phone rang, and a different sort of worry wrapped itself around her as she answered. “Hi, Costia.”

“I am running super late to a meeting so this is a mega quickie. Hi, Lexa. How are you? Good? Good. Are you busy tonight?”

She wasn’t, but she almost didn’t want to answer truthfully until she knew what the director needed her for. “Why?”

“We’re having Raven Reyes come in for an audition. I managed to convince Sierra to get me some rough footage of that short film she did recently. She looks great in front of a camera. I just need to see the two of you together. Please say you’re free.”

Lexa had been dreading this call since the moment she’d opened her mouth and suggested Raven for a different role. She ran a list of excuses through her mind but it seemed inevitable that she’d be force to audition with Raven at some point or another. “I’m free,” she said, trying not to sigh.

Her only hope now was that Costia would hate them together.

***

“You should’ve just kissed Costia,” Anya said distractedly, while typing something on her phone. She’d insisted on coming along and Lexa had been too preoccupied with the business of panicking to put up much of an argument. “At least your first girl kiss would’ve been for real. And I still don’t get what the big deal was with that. A kiss wouldn’t have killed the movie. Unless it led to sex.” She frowned thoughtfully, her thumbs pausing in their movement. “Would you have slept with her in the back of the limo?”

Lexa focused on the changing numbers above the elevator doors and let out a long breath. Only four more floors to go and she’d be back in the audition room. Maybe Raven wouldn’t show up. She turned her head to find Anya looking at her. “What?”

“Nothing. You look really good today, if that makes you feel any better.”

“Great,” she said dryly.

“Look, it’s just a kiss, you’ve done a million of those before. Lips are lips. Who cares who they belong to? And who knows, maybe it won’t even come to that.”

“I guess,” Lexa said, letting the possibility of that soothe her somewhat. “But what if she gets the part?”

Anya shrugged. “Then it will just be a few more kisses.” She considered. “And the tearing off her clothes, and the going down on her … but other than that…”

Lexa covered her face with one hand.

The elevator doors dinged open.

“We’re here,” Anya said cheerfully and practically skipped out of the elevator.

Lexa followed, far less enthusiastically. The waiting room was empty, but the sound of voices spilled out from the open door. Lexa took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She would do this. She would get through this and then deal with whatever came next.

Costia was in the middle of a sentence when Lexa walked in, but she paused mid-word the moment she spotted the actress. Whatever she’d been in the process of saying seemed forgotten. “Lexa,” she said, brightening suddenly. “Good to see you again.”

Lexa smiled at her, her gaze lingering only long enough to be considered polite, then moving on to greet the others in the room. Ella Peters was there, along with Sierra Murphy. But that was all. She’d expected more people.

“Lexa,” said Ella, without warning or preamble, “have you ever kissed a woman before?”

Lexa froze only briefly in the process of removing her leather coat. “I haven’t,” she said smoothly. “Are you offering to be my first?”

They all laughed, and Ella picked up the conversation once the laughter subsided, “Well, at least Costia’s been around that block a few times.”

Lexa lifted an eyebrow at the director who seemed to blush considerably all of a sudden.

Costia cleared her throat. “Let’s save the embarrassing stuff for the party. At least we’ll all be too drunk to remember anything the next day.”

There was a round of good-natured laughter which died down at the sound of a soft knock.

Lexa turned to see Raven standing uncertainly in the doorway. “Sorry, there was no one out there so …”

Costia jumped instantly into director mode. “Please come in. Thanks for coming on such short notice … again.”

“Thanks for having me back.” Raven’s gaze fell on Lexa. She looked somewhat startled to see the actress there.

Costia took a moment to introduce everyone, and there was a round of polite but distanced nods. “So,” she said, handing Raven part of the script, “we’re having you read for a different type of role than last time. I’m not sure how much Sierra told you on the phone but essentially your character has one long sex scene with Lexa’s. If you have reservations about that, if you think you’d be uncomfortable in that type of scenario, speak now. I promise there’s no hard feelings.”

Raven smiled, her teeth white and perfectly even. “If there’s one thing I’m not uncomfortable with, it’s sex.”

Costia chuckled. “Okay! Well, take a few minutes to look over the script. And we’ll see what you’ve got.”

Lexa watched Raven on the monitor by the camera, thinking that she looked beautiful and at ease, even while just standing there reading quietly to herself. Lexa suddenly felt an unsettling mixture of pride and nausea.

Costia walked over, eclipsing her view of the screen. She handed over the script. “You ready?”

No, she wanted to say, but only offered a brief smile. She accepted the pages.

“Don’t worry,” Costia said softly. “I’ll be gentle.” She winked, and walked away.

Anya slid over a couple of chairs to land next to Lexa. “She’s prettier than I remember from the gallery,” she whispered. “I wonder where she got that jacket. I think I’ll ask her after you’re done making out with her.”

Lexa sighed. “I’ve officially muted you.”

“Want a mint?” Anya smirked when Lexa took one. “The key is to forget that you’re you and that she’s her and that you’re secretly in love with her best friend.”

Lexa was about to protest the term ‘in love’ or at the very least kick her assistant in the shins, when Costia intervened.

“Everyone ready?”

Lexa stood up and joined Raven in front of the camera. They were practically the same height, though Raven was perhaps half an inch shorter. It worked well, Lexa thought. “Nice to see you again,” she said, thinking it would be rude not to say anything at all.

Raven seemed surprised that Lexa had spoken but she covered it up quickly. “You, too. Wish it were under less awkward circumstances.”

Lexa smiled at that, and then they waited.

“Action.”

Lexa slipped into character, letting Elizabeth take over. She pushed all thoughts of Clarke and Raven from her mind, and when she looked up from the pages in her hand, she saw only a stranger at a bar. “So, what would you say is your favorite line?”

Raven looked up and then around as if uncertain she’d been addressed. “I’m sorry?”

“If someone were trying to hit on you, what line would work, usually? Something about your eyes, maybe?”

Brown eyes reflected both confusion and amusement. “Are you trying to hit on me?”

“Well, not yet. I have to settle on a good way to do it first. I mean, if that’s okay with you, of course.”

A smile and then, “Take your time.” Pause. “Can I buy you a drink while we’re both waiting?”

“I wasn’t planning on drinking tonight.”

“Which is why you came to a bar?”

Lexa offered a hint of a smile. “Well, if I drink it will lower my inhibitions and then getting up the nerve to ask you to come back to my place would be monumentally easier. I like a challenge.”

“I see. I guess that means I should stop drinking, then. I might say yes too easily.”

Lexa grinned. “And I would certainly hate that.”

“Have you decided on how to hit on me yet?”

“I was thinking I’d say something about fate and how it brought us here tonight.”

“Wouldn’t that be a bit presumptuous?”

“Well, I think fate is allowed to be arrogant.”

Raven smiled softly. “I meant of the idea that fate would go through all that trouble for a one night stand.”

Lexa stopped to consider. “Maybe. But I think fate is on my side for once.”

“Why’s that?”

“Anyone else would’ve slapped me by now.”

There was a laugh. “That’s possible.” Raven stepped closer and Lexa knew that she should be panicking, but Elizabeth wasn’t the type to panic and so, at that moment, neither was she. “Anyone else probably wouldn’t do this.”

Raven pressed her body against Lexa’s, and the lines between fiction and reality blurred for Lexa as soft lips touched hers.

***

Clarke scanned the list of incoming emails and sighed, pushing the laptop away. A mixture of disappointment and annoyance overcame her; disappointment that Alexandria hadn’t written and annoyance at herself for caring so much. She stretched out on the bed and reached for her sketch pad. Asobi Seksu’s “Thursday” played from her computer as she stared at the blank page of the notebook. She let the music carry away the seconds spent lying there, doing nothing.

The song drowned the sound of the front door opening, but from her bed Clarke had a clear view of Raven walking into the living room. “How did it go?” she called through the open door, simultaneously muting the computer.

Raven came to a stop in the doorway to Clarke’s bedroom. “I’m going to tell you something, and you’re not going to believe me.”

Clarke sat up. “You got the part?”

“No. Well. I don’t know.”

“Oh.” Clarke leaned back against the headboard. “Go on then. Don’t keep me in suspense.”

Raven leaned against the doorframe and crossed her arms. “Guess who I just made out with.”

“Um, the person you had to audition with?”

Raven smiled. “And who do you think that was?” She sighed at Clarke’s blank stare. “Here’s a hint: she’s starring in the movie.”

It took Clarke a moment longer than it probably should have to think of Lexa Woods, and when she did, her jaw dropped. “No way.”

Raven only nodded, grinning like the Cheshire cat.

“You kissed Lexa Woods?” Clarke asked, trying to wrap her mind around the thought of her best friend making out with the actress.

“Mmhmm.” Raven pushed herself away from the door and sat on Clarke’ bed. “We had this totally flirtatious scene together, which apparently only gets steamier. And then I had to kiss her.”

“Wow,” said Clarke, trying to picture it all and failing.

“I really thought it’d be weirder, but … I don’t know. I was totally into the scene and acting with Lexa was really intense, you know? And when it came time to kiss her I wasn’t nervous at all. It was so cool.”

“Kissing her?” Clarke was trying to go along with Raven’s enthusiasm, but her emotions weren’t letting her. She felt strange suddenly; overcome by a flurry of emotions that made no sense to her.

“No, I mean the whole experience. The first audition was fine, but it was a lot more involved this time. I guess ‘cause I was acting with someone instead of just reading lines. But, oh my God, I kissed Lexa Woods.” Raven was practically bouncing on the bed.

Clarke forced a smile, curiosity getting the better of her. “And what was that like?”

Raven grinned. “It was hot. And I’m hoping it looked even hotter cause I really want this part.”

Clarke wanted to know more; she wanted details she didn’t know how to ask for. She decided to drop it. She was starting to make herself uncomfortable. “So when do you find out if you got it?”

Raven shrugged. “No idea. Hopefully tomorrow.” She stood. “I’m gonna go call everyone I know and tell them that I made out with Lexa Woods. I’m going to make so many people jealous tonight.”

Clarke watched her go, trying to decipher what about the thought of Raven and Lexa kissing bothered her so much. Perhaps nothing did, she considered. Perhaps she was just frustrated that she couldn’t come up with a single idea for Lexa’s wall and any mention of the actress only served to bring her down.

That had to be it, she decided, turning the music back on. Either that or PMS, she added, hitting a key on the computer to make the screensaver disappear. She glanced at her inbox because she couldn’t help it, but there was nothing new.

She sighed and opened a fresh email.

To: Alexandria Nicole

From: C. Griffin

Subject: Random and totally out of context question

Do you ever feel weird for no reason?

-C.

P.S. This email is a shameless attempt to get you to write back to me. P.P.S. Did you finish Harry Potter?

Clarke thought of Lexa Woods as she typed the final words, and it occurred to her that she could have just as easily been asking the actress the same question.

Clarke stared thoughtfully at the screen for a long time before finally hitting send.

***

The lights were on in her apartment when Lexa came home and had she not been warned by the doorman that she had an unexpected guest, she might have been concerned. “Bellamy?” she called.

“In here.”

Lexa followed the sound of his voice and found her best friend in the kitchen, seated on one of the stools Anya had brought over in a moment of defiance. Bellamy was dressed casually in a blue t-shirt and jeans, and though nothing in his demeanor betrayed his mood, Lexa could tell something was wrong. “Hey,” she said, looking at him carefully. “What’s going on?”

Bellamy sighed and looked at her. “I think I need to break up with Anya.”

Lexa’s heart sank. “Oh, no. Why?” She frowned at him. “Are you cheating on her? You better not be che—“

“I’m not cheating on her,” he interrupted, sounding frustrated. “It’s this whole … “ He waved his hands around. Then he looked indignant. “You know I had to get rid of all my girl-on-girl porn?”

Lexa had no idea how to react to that. “Um … okay?”

“I was worried that she’d find it and want to watch it and then get all turned on and then realize that maybe she’d rather have a girlfriend.”

Lexa rolled her eyes and removed her coat, draping it over the counter. “Yes, because Lesbian Bitches II can have that effect on a woman.”

“You never know. Oh, and by the way, you’re welcome.”

“I’m afraid to ask.”

“I dropped everything off at your place,” he said, winking. “Figured you could get some enjoyment out of it.”

“Excellent! I’ll just invite Anya over and we can enjoy it together.”

Bellamy frowned. “That’s just mean.”

“You’re being idiotic,” she said flatly, and walked over to the fridge to get a bottle of water. “You need to put your male ego aside and get it through your thick skull that she loves you. God knows why.”

“I’m really good in bed. And I am a great cuddler.”

“Then what are you so worried about? Stop being such a wuss and admit that you’re totally in love with her and that it freaks you out because you’ve got the emotional maturity of a gnat.”

“Hmm…” Bellamy seemed to consider this, then looked up sharply. “Hey, didn’t you have that audition thing with the hot brunette today?”

Lexa let out a long breath and leaned against the counter, thoughts of the kiss flashing through her mind. “We kissed. For like an eternity it seemed like before Costia finally yelled cut.”

“Wonder if Anya managed to get some of that on video?” Bellamy looked thoughtful. “Man, I hope so. Was it like full on make out session? Was there tongue?”

Lexa rolled her eyes at him.

Bellamy only grinned. “Oh come on. Tell me something. Did you enjoy it?”

Lexa thought back to the moment in question. There had been a split second of panic in which she’d forgotten that she was supposed to be acting. But she’d somehow managed to sink back into character, and then it had felt like every other kiss that had ever come before. “Her lips were soft,” she said, because that had been her first impression. “But other than that, it was … acting.”

“You should’ve gotten Claire an audition.”

Lexa frowned briefly. “Clarke.”

“Clarke, sorry,” he amended. “How’s that going, anyway?”

“Well, I’m still lying to her, and earlier, I made out with her best friend. So, you tell me.”

Bellamy smiled. “That just sounds like my life back in college.”

Lexa sighed. “Don’t you think Anya is wondering where you are?”

“Yeah, she probably is.” He turned serious suddenly. “And you’re right, I am totally crazy about her.”

“Crazy being the operative word here.”

“And it does freak me out.”

Lexa smiled sympathetically. “Just don’t do anything stupid. Or … you know, anything stupider than you usually do.”

“I can make no such promise.” Bellamy stood and grabbed his coat from the stool next to him. “So when are you telling Clarke the truth?”

“I don’t know. Soon.”

Bellamy looked at her, but said nothing. He offered a kind smile and kissed her cheek. “She’s not going to hate you.”

“How can you possibly know that?”

He shrugged. “I don’t. I just thought it was one of those b.s.-type things you wanted me to tell you. Like ‘it’s going to be fine.’”

“Okay. Just stick to encouraging me to get laid. You’re much better at that.”

He grinned and headed toward the door. “Thanks for the chat. I feel a lot better.”

“Wish I could say the same!”

Bellamy laughed and walked out the door.

Lexa stood with her back against the counter, letting the silence descend upon her. Her thoughts bounced around from nothing in particular to Clarke and back again.

Tomorrow, she decided. She would tell Clarke the truth tomorrow.

Chapter Thirty-Six

Anya and Bellamy dug into their breakfast with abandon, and Lexa wondered when it was that they’d last eaten. She watched them now, sitting in her kitchen, shoveling mouthfuls of eggs and bacon into their mouths as though they’d been wandering through the desert and at last found an oasis.

“God, this is so good,” Bellamy said, between bites. “What did you put in this?”

“Eggs,” Lexa said flatly. She watched them for a moment longer. “I’m sorry, did you guys spend the past week in the jungle?”

Anya swallowed half the glass of orange juice before replying. “We had a long night.”

“We were talking,” Bellamy said.

“Talking,” Anya echoed slowly.

“Right.” Lexa could all but see the quotation marks around the word “talking,” but she smiled anyway. She leaned against the counter that separated them.

“So,” said Anya. “What did you call us over for? Not that we don’t appreciate the breakfast, because we do.”

Lexa cleared her throat. “I’m planning to tell Clarke the truth. Today.”

They stopped eating abruptly.

Bellamy frowned. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

“Why wouldn’t it be?”

He put down his fork and looked at her, his brown eyes shining with something like concern. “Because what’s stopping her from releasing all those emails to the press?”

Lexa almost sighed. “She wouldn’t do that.”

“You can’t know that.”

“I do and she wouldn’t.” Lexa insisted because she was certain it was true. Clarke would never stoop that low.

“Maybe you should have her sign a non-disclosure agreement before telling her.” This from Anya.

Lexa hadn’t expected this. The months of teasing had only prepared her for more teasing. “Are you guys kidding me?”

“You made me sign one,” Anya pointed out.

Lexa did sigh then. She grew serious. “Look, I’m telling her. Today. For better or worse I want all of this lying to end. And I need you guys to be onboard with this.”

They exchanged concerned glances but finally nodded. “How do you plan to tell her?” Bellamy picked up his fork again and Lexa relaxed.

“Well,” Lexa began, “I have no idea. That’s why you guys are here. I figured you could help me rehearse.”

“Rehearse,” Anya repeated, looking doubtful. “Shouldn’t it be a little more natural?”

“Yes, if I want to fall completely apart in front of her.”

“Okay,” Bellamy said, “How about … you kiss her. She’ll be so startled that when you go, ‘and by the way I’m really Alexandria’ she’ll be too distracted to notice.”

Lexa resisted the urge to slap him over the head. “Why don’t I just flash her as I tell her?”

“That might work too.”

Lexa turned to Anya. “Any ideas?”

“You could just email her.”

Lexa had considered that. “But then I run the risk of her not believing me.”

Bellamy chuckled. “You could attach a picture of yourself holding up a sign that says, ‘no really it’s true.’”

Lexa grabbed his plate and pulled it away from him, out of reach.

“Hey!” Bellamy pouted, holding up his fork menacingly. “Give that back.”

Lexa ignored him. “I thought I’d just invite her over and … then … just tell her.”

Bellamy had come around the island to get his plate back. Lexa let him.

“Then that’s what you should do,” Anya said.

Lexa nodded. That’s what she’d do. She’d invite Clarke over and then confess. But how to confess? How to even begin explaining?

***

Another class day over and Clarke couldn’t have been more glad to have it all behind her. She rode the elevator up to her floor watching the flickering light above her threaten to give out. The elevator groaned with the effort of existing, and Clarke briefly wondered what it might feel like if it were to suddenly give out and plummet to the ground. But the thought was morbid and she pushed it aside. The doors opened, slowly, noisily, but altogether proudly - as if to say, “And here you thought I wouldn’t make it.”

The hallway was well-lit, surprisingly. A new light bulb? Clarke wondered. A neighbor turned the corner, dragging along a toddler who was yelling something Clarke couldn’t make out. Clarke tried to smile politely, trying to offer something akin to understanding, even sympathy. But what did Clarke know about having a child? The question was crystal clear on the neighbor’s face as she silently passed by, the kid trailing behind, shouting.

Clarke unlocked the door and stepped inside the apartment. The TV was on which meant Raven was not at work. “I’m home!” she called. She closed the door and dropped the keys into the pocket of her jacket. She made her way to the living room.

Raven was lounging on the couch, her feet propped on the coffee table and Clarke’s computer on her lap. When she looked up she was grinning. “Guess who’s been cast in the next Lexa Woods movie?”

It took Clarke a few long seconds to realize that the answer was Raven. “They called? You got it?”

“About an hour ago. I called to tell you but I got your voicemail.”

“I turned off the phone for class.” Clarke was smiling, trying to build up the appropriate level of enthusiasm, but Raven seemed calm; like she was over it all, which made Clarke unsure of what to say. Finally, she dropped down on the couch beside her friend and said, “How can you be so nonchalant?”

Raven turned her head in Clarke’s direction, her straight brown hair in a pony tail. “I yelled and screamed and jumped around so much that one of the neighbors came over to tell me to shut the hell up. And now … well now I’m just fucking exhausted. You, however, have a lot of screaming and jumping to catch up on.”

Clarke smiled and leaned over to peek at the computer screen. “What are you doing?”

“Research,” Raven said simply. “Or stalking, depending which way you look at it. I’ve been researching everyone that’s in the film. I left Lexa Woods for last though so we could stalk her together.”

Clarke frowned and stood up, shrugging out of her jacket. It was hot in the apartment for a change. “I don’t want to stalk Lexa Woods.”

“Oh, come on, sure you do,” Raven said in a tone that bordered on whiny. “She’s all over the web. We can read up on all the gossip and then we can each take turns finding out what’s true. For example, she was seen kissing her co-star from Guardian a few weeks ago at some charity event. Can you find out if they’re together? He’s pretty hot.”

It was the first time Clarke had thought of Lexa Woods as potentially not single, and a part of her wondered what else the web might reveal about the actress. She sat back down. “I’m not going to ask her if she’s dating someone.”

“Why not? That’s easy enough to slip into a conversation.” Raven turned her attention to the screen. “Did you know Lexa’s not even her real name?”

Clarke wasn’t surprised, but she was suddenly curious. “What’s her real name?”

“Er,” Raven said distractedly, looking at something on the screen. “Hang on. I’ve got her Wikipedia entry bookmarked.”

Clarke waited patiently, her mind still trying to wrap itself around the fact that her best friend had landed a role in a movie. Playing a lesbian. A lesbian who got to have sex with Lexa Woods. Clarke blinked away any mental images of what that might entail.

“Okay, found it,” Raven said. “’Lexa Woods was born Alexandria Nicole Woodsmen on August 10, 19—‘“

“Wait, what?” Clarke grabbed the laptop somewhat suddenly and violently away from Raven. She read over the words, their meaning sinking in. That was Alexandria’s name. That was Alexandria’s birth date. What the hell? Clarke handed the computer back to Raven and stood, her head spinning with questions.

“What’s wrong?” Raven sounded concerned. “Clarke?”

Clarke forced a smile. “Ah, nothing. Sorry. I just um … I need to lie down, I think. Cramps.” She started toward her bedroom and shut the door, knowing Raven would come knocking eventually. She looked around the room, not really seeing anything. Her mind was racing. Alexandria. Maybe it was a coincidence? Such things happened. Didn’t they?

Her phone began to chime, interrupting her thoughts and Clarke dug it out of her jacket pocket. She tossed the jacket on the bed and looked at the display screen: Anya. Frowning, she answered. “Hello?”

“Good afternoon, Ms. Griffin, it’s Anya, Lexa Woods’s assistant. Lexa was hoping you could stop by her apartment tonight?”

Clarke’s frown deepened. “I haven’t come up with anything—“

“She just wants to talk.”

Clarke didn’t know what to make of that. What would Lexa Woods want to talk about? The artwork she hadn’t yet started on? The fact that her best friend was now in her movie? “Okay, sure, what time?”

“Any time today is fine,” Anya replied. “Feel free to drop by.”

“Okay.” Clarke hung up feeling overwhelmed. She had to talk to Alexandria. They had to clear the air. Clarke dialed Alexandria’s number and waited for her voice to appear suddenly in Clarke’s ear. She couldn’t remember the last time they’d talked. There was the click of someone picking up, followed by the robotic sound of Alexandria’s voicemail, “You’ve reached 3-1-0…” Clarke hung up.

She picked up her jacket and walked out of the door. She’d go visit Lexa Woods. Maybe the trek would clear her mind.

Raven was looking at her funny when Clarke passed. “Where are you going? I thought you had cramps?”

“Lexa Woods has summoned me to her lair,” Clarke replied. “Be back later.”

“Find out if she’s dating Skyler Rodriguez!”

Clarke let the request hang in the air as she headed for the door.

***

The ride uptown felt longer than usual. Clarke tried to pour her jumbled thoughts onto a sketchpad, if only to contain them for a short while, but her mind kept drifting to Alexandria. What was going on?

A man sat beside her on the subway. He reeked heavily of alcohol and the pungent scent of him fell on Clarke like a wave. At the next stop, she moved to sit elsewhere and landed next to a girl with short spiky hair who smiled at Clarke as if she knew something Clarke didn’t.

Once above ground, Clarke tried Alexandria’s number again. It rang and went to voicemail, and Clarke gave up. She hurried down the sidewalk toward Lexa Woods’s apartment. She kept glancing at her phone, willing it to ring. She shouldn’t care this much, she reminded herself, but her stomach was in knots; she felt anxious.

The doorman waved her through without protest and Clarke hurried toward the elevator. The sooner she got to Lexa Woods’s apartment the sooner she could leave.

Clarke knocked on Lexa’s door and waited. She could hear the actress’ voice on the other side and wondered if Lexa had company. “… don’t want to bring a date to the party,” Clarke heard Lexa say, and then the door opened. “Sorry, Costia, can I call you back?” the actress said into the cell phone at her ear. She looked surprised to see Clarke standing there.

Clarke took a moment to inspect the actress’ outfit du jour: blue jeans and a white t-shirt. She thought of Raven’s approval of Lexa Woods’s taste in clothes and wondered what she’d say if she knew the actress seemed perfectly at home wearing Levi’s and what looked to be a Fruit of the Loom t-shirt. Lexa had a watch, Clarke noted. And that much looked expensive. “Your assistant said to come whenever…”

Lexa looked nervous. That was the first thing Clarke noticed. The second thing Clarke noticed was the smell; or lack thereof. She’d gotten used to smelling food when walking into Lexa Woods’s apartment. But there was no coffee brewing and no food cooking. There was simply the soft, lingering scent of Lexa Woods’s perfume—or was it soap?—as she passed by to close the door. The actress’ hair was wet; that was the third thing Clarke noticed.

“Thanks for coming,” Lexa said, sounding apologetic. And nervous. Why was Lexa Woods so nervous? If she wanted to fire Clarke all she had to do was say so.

Clarke slipped out of her jacket. The apartment was its usual sauna-like temperature and Clarke idly wondered at Lexa’s electricity bill. She followed the actress into the kitchen.

“Would you like something to drink?”

Clarke settled on one of the stools by the marble counter as the actress headed for the fridge. “No, thanks. I’m okay.”

Lexa let the fridge close and walked over to sit on the remaining stool. She placed her cell phone on the counter and sighed. “So, you’re probably wondering—“

Ringing interrupted whatever Lexa Woods was about to say, and Clarke glanced at the cell phone between them before realizing that the sound was coming from much further away.

Lexa slid off the stool and looked apologetic. “It’s my other phone, sorry,” she said, heading off in the direction of the stairs. “I’ve been waiting for this stupid call from my agent. Sorry. I’ll be right back.”

How many phones did one person need? Clarke glanced up to see the actress in her room. The ringing had stopped and Lexa was speaking in hushed tones with whomever as on the other end of the line. Clarke looked around, taking a moment to observe the view beyond the windows. Her mind drifted back to Alexandria. Maybe she could text her. Maybe Alexandria was somewhere where she couldn’t talk. But maybe a text message she’d get.

Clarke took her cell phone out, glancing briefly to make sure Lexa was still on the phone. And then she typed, We need to talk. Call me, into the text area. She hit send and put the cell back in her pocket.

A second later, Lexa Woods’s cell phone beeped, and Clarke only glanced at it because the sound caught her attention. But then she stared. There on the screen of Lexa Woods’s very expensive phone was the last name she expected to see.

Her own.

Chapter Text

The screen on Lexa’s phone turned off after a few seconds and Clarke finally tore her gaze away. Her mind shut down, and a broken record took over. “Oh my God,” were the only words running through her mind. Her heart hammered in her chest as she took out her cell phone again. With shaking fingers she pressed the buttons. Calling Alexandria … appeared on the screen. She didn’t bother putting the phone to her ear. She simply watched Lexa’s, thinking perhaps it had been a coincidence. Or a trick of the lights. Or proof that she needed to get glasses.

But then, there it was. A ringtone with a song she didn’t recognize. Incoming call from Clarke. “Oh my God,” and this she said aloud. She stood because sitting felt impossible.

Lexa was already walking back, and Clarke looked up just in time to see the actress freeze mid-step. Comprehension dawned. For the longest time, neither said anything. The phone on the kitchen counter continued to ring.

Clarke locked her cell phone and silence fell over them.

“I was just about to tell you,” Lexa said softly.

Snippets from emails and phone conversations suddenly flashed through Clarke’s mind. All of that … had been Lexa Woods? She sat back on the stool, because now standing felt impossible. There was no Alexandria. There had never been an Alexandria. It was this that shocked her. It was this that was unfathomable. And still she couldn’t formulate any words.

Lexa took a tentative step forward. “Clarke … I …”

There was nothing after that and Clarke forced herself to look up, to look at Lexa Woods and dare her to continue.

“I don’t know where to begin,” Lexa said. “I thought it would come to me once you were in front of me but …”

The silence was unbearable, but Clarke didn’t know what to say. She barely knew what to feel.

“I never meant to lie to you,” Lexa began suddenly. “I fell in love that day in Central Park when I saw your sketch on that table. I … I’ve never felt like I had to have something quite so badly before. And I took it home and I had it framed and I would stare at it, and I know it may sound crazy but it made me feel … I don’t know. It made me feel … better; less alone. And I thought you’d want to know that I loved it. Only, I couldn’t tell you who I was because I didn’t think you’d believe it. And because I have this thing about privacy, too. And really all I wanted was for you to know that it meant something to me, you having created that sketch. It affected me, somehow.”

Clarke only stared at the actress because she couldn’t yet muster a reaction. The words weren’t quite sinking in. All she could think about was how one moment she’d had a friend in California and now … what? What was she left with?

“I know you must think I’m a horrible person,” Lexa continued. “I hadn’t expected that the emails would continue or that they would spiral into something so …” She let the sentence hang, and picked up another. “I didn’t want the fact that I’m Lexa Woods to taint the way you saw me.”

Lexa looked so pained that Clarke looked away for fear that she’d be tempted to comfort the actress. She suddenly felt too many things at once. She felt a rush of anger and sadness and a lingering sense of loss. Mostly she felt tired. The fall-asleep-and-wake-up-days-later kind of tired.

“Please say something.”

The actress’ voice was soft and pleading and Clarke forced another glance at Lexa. “I think I should go,” she said.

***

“Please don’t.” She sounded pathetic even to her own ears. She couldn’t begin to imagine how she sounded to Clarke. This wasn’t at all how Lexa had envisioned things. Clarke wasn’t supposed to figure it out. Not today. Not moments before Lexa was about to tell her.

Clarke’s face revealed nothing of her thoughts, and Lexa had no idea what was going on behind those beautiful blue eyes. “Why not?” She met Lexa’s gaze. “What do you want me to say? That it’s okay? That I understand? Well, it’s not. And no, I don’t understand. So I think it’s for the best if I go.”

Lexa’s vision blurred with tears and she looked away. She wouldn’t cry. Not now. Not in front of Clarke. “Okay,” she said, forcing the emotions out of her voice. Clarke passed by her and Lexa turned to watch her go. A part of her hoped that Clarke would turn around and say something else, something to soften the blow of the departure. But she didn’t.

The front door echoed through the apartment as it slammed shut.

***

Clarke couldn’t remember getting back home. She couldn’t remember anything beyond walking out of Lexa Woods’ apartment. And now she was standing in front of her door, staring at the number as if it might suddenly come to life and make everything better. She sighed and unlocked the door. She could hear music coming from Raven’s bedroom the moment she stepped inside and she suddenly regretted coming home.

She almost turned around to head back out, but Raven wandered out of her room at that very moment.

“Oh, you’re back,” Raven said cheerfully. “Guess what?”

Clarke kicked the door closed and tried not to sigh at her best friend. “What?”

“Costia Calloway called to invite me to a party.” Raven all but bounced as she said this. “And because I’m the greatest friend in the whole world, I asked if I could bring you, and she said yes!”

Clarke had never felt more depressed. “A party?”

Raven was grinning. “Yeah! For the movie. The whole cast’s going to be there.”

That was all Clarke needed: a party with Lexa Woods. “Thanks, but I’ll pass.” She brushed against Raven as she passed.

“I’m sorry, was I speaking Chinese just now?” Raven trailed after Clarke. “This is a big deal.”

“Yes, for you it’s a big deal.” Clarke was in an awful mood and Raven wasn’t helping. She shouldn’t have come home. She should’ve gone for a walk through the park or stopped for coffee somewhere. Once in her room, she began removing her coat.

Raven leaned against the doorframe and crossed her arms. “What’s wrong?”

Clarke dropped her scarf on the bed and took a deep breath. She considered, for the briefest of moments, telling Raven everything that had just happened. But Clarke wasn’t altogether certain what had happened, other than she’d simultaneously lost an employer and what appeared to be an imaginary friend. “Just stupid people in the subway pissing me off,” she said instead.

“Yes, but I guarantee none of them are invited to Costia Calloway’s party,” Raven said, and smiled.

Clarke forced a smile in return. Raven didn’t deserve to be on the receiving end of Clarke’s bad mood.

“Look, the party isn’t until Saturday and hopefully by then you’ll be free of cramps and PMS.”

“Raven, I hate parties. You know I hate parties. Why would you drag me to this?”

“Because this isn’t just a party, Clarke. This is a celebrity gathering. Forget stupid college parties. Those are way behind us now. We’re stepping into an entirely new world of social interaction.”

Clarke dropped down on the bed. “Fine,” she said, not meaning it. On Saturday she’d come down with a migraine. Or a cold. Or whatever would get her out of having to go.

But for now, Raven looked satisfied and that was enough for Clarke. Her best friend mercifully retreated from the bedroom and Clarke closed the door. Alone with her thoughts, she returned to the bed and lay down.

There was no Alexandria.

This was still the thought going through her mind. There was no funny, mysterious girl in California who liked to read books that Clarke would never dream of reading on her own. There was no one to text message during class, out of boredom, and no one to text her back. There was no one to email in the middle of the night.

Her thoughts inevitably turned to Lexa Woods. The actress’ words were still dancing around in Clarke’s mind and Clarke still didn’t know how to feel. Somewhere between Lexa Woods’ apartment and her own, the anger had dissipated. But the confusion remained.

There was no Alexandria. But there was a Lexa. A Lexa that liked to cook random and elaborate meals for no apparent reason. A Lexa that dressed simply but lived extravagantly and who seemed to have a very strong and mystifying aversion to furniture.

Clarke frowned at the ceiling. Maybe she should have stayed and talked things through. Maybe she had been hasty in her departure and entirely too cold in her reaction. The memory of Lexa’s tear-filled eyes flashed suddenly through Clarke’s mind and she felt a sudden flood of regret for having walked out.

But were those tears real? How did you trust someone who’d lied to you for months? How did you trust someone who played pretend for a living?

How much of Alexandria was Lexa? And how much was a lie?

***

Lexa had been surprised by the knock at the door and she had rushed to answer it, thinking—hoping— that perhaps Clarke had returned to continue the conversation. But it was a false hope, and she knew it before she checked on the identity of her visitor. Sighing, she opened the door. “What are you doing here?”

Anya smiled and held up a bag. “Getting you really drunk.”

“Thanks, but no thanks.”

Anya put the bag down. “You look like shit,” she said.

“Goodbye, Anya.” Lexa closed the door and started to move away. But the knock came again. “I’m not in the mood!”

“You have to talk about it,” came Anya’s voice from the other side.

“I really don’t.”

“Well can I at least use your bathroom?”

Lexa hesitated. “How do I know you’re not lying?”

“Because you’re my boss and I would never dream of lying to you.”

Lexa rolled her eyes but opened the door. “Make it quick.”

Anya rushed in and headed toward the kitchen. “Sucker,” She laughed. “I’m putting the vodka in your freezer.”

Lexa wasn’t in the mood for this. She swung the door closed and headed up to her bedroom. She crawled into bed and pulled the covers over her head. Maybe if she ignored her, Anya would go away.

Lexa closed her eyes in the darkness beneath her comforter. She felt like a mess. After Clarke had gone, Lexa had read the text message Clarke had sent earlier in the day. There were also a bunch of missed calls that must have come while she’d been on the phone with Costia. Clarke must have suspected something. And it was almost inevitable that she would eventually. But did it have to be today?

She heard Anya on the stairs and a moment later, the covers were yanked away.

“This isn’t good,” Anya said, tossing the covers off the bed entirely. “Sulking doesn’t suit you. Come on. Talk.”

“What is there to say?” Lexa crawled across the bed to get the covers back. “She hates me, which is the least depressing of my thoughts. At this point I’m merely hoping that she hates me. If she hates me at least that means she cares. If she doesn’t hate me then that leaves … what? Indifference. Ugh.” She pulled the covers over her head again.

Anya sighed and sat down at the edge of the bed. “If she were indifferent she wouldn’t have walked out. She would’ve said ... I don’t know … ‘pass the cheese.’”

Lexa frowned and pushed the covers aside. “’Pass the cheese?’”

“I don’t know what indifference sounds like.”

“But ‘pass the cheese? Who says ‘pass the cheese?”

Anya thought about it. “Mice?”

Lexa rolled her eyes and sat up. After a moment, she said, “I hate this. I mean, I saw it coming but …”

“Give her time. She’ll come around.”

But Lexa shook her head. “I don’t want to believe that. I can’t believe that. It’s better if I just have no hope at all.”

“You’re going to be acting in the same movie as her friend, so odds are you’re going to see her again anyway.”

Lexa covered her face with her hands. “I had totally forgotten about that.” She had forgotten entirely about Raven. “What if Clarke tells Raven everything? What if Raven gets pissed off and decides to out me?”

“Then we’ll deal with it,” Anya said calmly.

It sounded so rational coming from Anya’s lips that Lexa had no choice but to believe it. She sank back into her pillows. “I’m tired,” she said, hoping Anya would take the hint.

Anya looked at her with concern but nodded. “Fine,” she said. “But I’m leaving you the vodka.”

Lexa almost smiled. “Thanks for coming by to check on me.”

Anya stood. “You’re welcome. Bellamy wanted to come instead, but his idea of cheering you up was bringing over porn and ordering a stripper.”

“And thanks for that too.”

Anya paused on her way down the stairs. “I do think she’ll come around,” she said, and then continued on her way.

Lexa listened for the sound of the front door and when it came, she let out a breath. Clarke might forgive her, she knew, but it was more likely that she’d never want to talk to Lexa again. And as much as it killed her to sit by and do nothing, doing something felt inappropriate. She couldn’t call and she couldn’t just show up at Clarke’s doorstep. Emailing was a silly idea, and text messaging was worse.

So she was left only with waiting and secretly hoping for the best.

***

Clarke woke to the sound of a car commercial on television and she watched the flickering images on the screen until her mind began to clear. She sat up on the couch, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. And then she heard the knock on the door.

Yawning, she stood up, wondering at the time. The light in Raven’s room was off and the door was open, which meant her roommate was out. Did Raven work that night? Clarke couldn’t remember. She hated naps. Time always felt displaced afterwards. She reached the door and paused with her hand on the lock. “Who is it?” she called, and wondered if anyone anywhere would honestly answer, “a murderer.”

“It’s Anya.”

The name sounded vaguely familiar to Clarke’s fuzzy mind, and the door was halfway open before she fully remembered who it was.

Lexa Woods’ assistant stood in the hallway, looking hesitant. “I’m sorry for showing up like this,” she said.

Questions floated through Clarke’s mind. “How did you know where I live?”

“Costia Calloway gave me the address,” Anya said, and had the decency to sound embarrassed about it.

The name Costia Calloway also sounded familiar but Clarke couldn’t quite remember who that was. Someone from Raven’s movie?

“Look, before you ask, Lexa didn’t send me here. In fact, she’d kill me and definitely fire me if she knew I was here.”

Clarke felt awkward standing there in the open doorway. She could almost hear her mom’s voice in her head yelling at her about manners. “Do you want to come in?”

Anya looked grateful and smiled slightly as she entered. “Is your roommate home?”

Clarke shook her head as she closed the door. “No, she seems to be out.”

Anya looked relieved. “Look, I don’t want to impose. And I probably shouldn’t even be here talking to you about this, but I thought … Well, as displeasing as the reality is, I can’t stand the thought of waiting around without at least trying to help.”

It was odd how so much of her real life felt like a dream these days. Clarke stepped into the kitchen. “Would you like something to drink?”

“No, thanks.”

Clarke took a bottle of juice out of the fridge and filled a glass. “So, how would you like to help? Are you here as Lexa Woods’ character witness?”

“She’s not … she’s not who you think she is.”

Clarke snorted and put the juice back in the fridge. “Well, that much I learned already.” She motioned to a chair, but Anya shook her head.

“Look, I’ll be blunt. I get that her lying to you was awful, but you have to understand where she’s coming from,” Anya began. “She’s not some unfeeling asshole that gets her kicks from hurting people. That artwork she bought from you at the park … she honestly loves it. She had me cart it to a dozen different places until she found a frame she liked. And it’s not because she’s picky about shit like that. She just wanted it to be perfect.”

Clarke put the glass of juice down as a way to show that she was listening.

Encouraged, Anya continued. “And her writing to you was a big deal for her. I’ve known Lexa for years and she’s never done anything of the kind. She’s a very private person, especially lately because she’s so popular. And her lying to you may have been partly to protect herself, but it was mostly because that was the only way she had of being herself and of knowing that you were genuine. She doesn’t get to experience that often, if at all.” Anya sighed, shaking her head. “She’s constantly surrounded by ugly people with ugly hidden agendas. Befriending you was special to her, because she didn’t have to worry about you wanting anything from her, or you simply talking to her because she’s famous.”

Clarke was quiet as she mulled over Anya’s words. She shrugged and sat down. She felt too emotionally drained to stand. “I understand,” she said. “But I still don’t know what she wants from me.”

Anya seemed to deflate, and after a moment, she too sat down. “She doesn’t want anything. Your friendship’s just important to her.” She watched Clarke for a moment. “I have no idea what the two of you wrote to each other. But you kept emailing her, so you obviously found something worth liking in the person you were writing to.”

“I did,” Clarke admitted, thinking of the emails and the phone calls and the text messages. “I liked her very much.”

Anya nodded. After a moment, she said. “I have to admit I’m kind of envious of you. Tell Lexa, or anyone any of this…” Anya left the sentence hanging. “For years I wanted Lexa to open up to me. And I’ve gotten a lot closer to her, but there’s still a wall with her. There’s always a bit of distance. But she has none of that with you. She’d lay her secrets at your feet if you asked her to.”

Clarke didn’t know what to say to that. She didn’t even know quite what to make of it.

Anya gave a somewhat sheepish grin. “She’s still the same person you were writing to. All that’s changed is her name, which is technically her birth name. I just wanted to give you some perspective. I doubt you’d trust these things coming from her. I’m not even sure she’d know where to start defending herself, or if she’d even be able to justify trying to.”

Clarke only nodded. She still didn’t know how to feel about everything. Understanding why someone did something was a long way from overlooking it. And still, there were questions. “Why did she tell me she was a lesbian?”

Anya looked surprised. She looked down at the table. “I think you should probably talk to Lexa about that.” She sounded nervous.

Interesting, Clarke thought. She’d been expecting a different reaction. A laugh, maybe, to show how ridiculous the notion was. But Anya looked uncomfortable. Could it be? Had Lexa Woods been telling the truth? Clarke had spent the day being irritated by the lies, thinking that the actress had made everything up. But now she wasn’t so sure. If Lexa Woods was gay that meant she’d outed herself to Clarke. But that was crazy. Why would she do that?

“Talk to her,” Anya said again, as if she could read the thoughts dancing in Clarke’s head. She stood. “I should go. I’ve got a car waiting.” She smiled, “Thanks for listening. I thought you’d slam the door in my face.”

Clarke stood, too. “I can slam it after you leave, if you want.” She ventured a smile.

Anya smiled and headed into the hallway. “Catch you around,” she said, opening the door. “Hopefully.”

Clarke had no answer for that but she nodded politely. She closed the door as Anya retreated down the hall. Alone once again, she turned to face the apartment. It was probably good that she’d taken a nap because sleep wouldn’t come now. The thoughts and the questions were zooming through her brain at turbo speeds.

She picked up her glass of juice from the counter and headed for her room. There was only one thing to do now, she decided. She’d read through all the emails again and try to put herself in Lexa Woods’ shoes. Maybe then she’d get some answers.

Or at least more questions to add to the pile.

***

Lexa was awake when the first knock came. She’d been staring at the alarm clock for hours, marvelling at how slowly time passed in the absence of distraction. She hadn’t slept. She’d busied herself with thoughts and the occasional show on television, but she hadn’t slept.

The clock switched to 7:04am just as the second knock came. Lexa wanted to ignore it, thinking that it was probably Anya again. Or maybe Bellamy. Or worse yet, a stripper. But she got up anyway, because it was the wrong time for any of those visitors, which meant it might be something important.

Her hand was on the handle when the third knock came, and she barely registered who it was before she swung the door open. “Clarke.”

Clarke was standing in the hallway, looking tired and dishevelled, dressed in paint-stained jeans and her usual black coat. Her wavy blonde hair fell loose around her shoulders, and she looked perfectly serious as she said, “I have questions.”

Lexa opened the door and let the artist in, trying not to let herself feel relieved or even hopeful.

Clarke removed her coat and sat down on the second step. “I’ve been up all night reading your emails to me,” she said, looking down at the ground, or maybe at her feet. “And then I spent a while looking up things about you on the Internet.”

Lexa cringed at that. “A terrifying thought...”

Clarke looked up. “There’s a lot of rumors about you and that guy from your show.”

“I just bet,” Lexa muttered.

“So it’s not true?” Clarke pressed.

Lexa felt depressed suddenly. Clarke wanted celebrity gossip? That’s why she’d come? “No. It’s not remotely true.”

Clarke watched her curiously, looking like she wanted to say more but not knowing quite how to phrase it. She looked down again. “It was weird reading the emails again,” she said softly. “Trying to insert the thought of you where my image of Alexandria used to be …”

Lexa waited, her heart pounding heavily in her chest.

“And it wasn’t hard. Which was weird because I don’t know you very well. But you were always so vague about everything in the emails …” Clarke looked up again. She took a deep breath. “Why did you tell me you were gay?”

The bluntness of the question took Lexa by surprise, and she hesitated. Paranoid thoughts ran through her mind. If this conversation ended up on YouTube she would never forgive her own stupidity. She had no reason to trust this girl. No reason at all. And still she said, “Because I am.”

Clarke stared at her. “But why did you tell me? Why would you trust me with that?”

Lexa sighed, relaxing somewhat. She couldn’t stand anymore. She was starting to feel dizzy. So she walked over to the stairs and climbed past Clarke. She sat two steps above her, forcing the artist to turn around. “Because,” she said, finally, “when you’re a famous artist I can blackmail you back with your toilet paper square collection … and you wouldn’t want that, would you?”

Clarke cracked a hint of a smile and stretched along the length of the step, her back against the wall. “Artists are supposed to be quirky,” she said matter-of-factly. “People would find it adorable.” She turned serious. “Why did you really tell me? Why even admit it now?”

“Because I didn’t want to lie to you about it,” Lexa said. “Because I wanted to trust you. Because I do trust you.”

Clarke shook her head. “You’re insane.”

“You’ve called me that before.”

“Then I guess it must be true,” Clarke said.

“Must be.”

They sat in silence for a few minutes. Lexa didn’t know what to say because she couldn’t tell what Clarke was thinking. Was it a good sign that Clarke was there, talking to her about these things? Or was it just a prelude to goodbye?

“I won’t tell anyone,” Clarke said after a while. She looked up at Lexa. “Not even Raven.”

Lexa didn’t know what to say. Saying “Thanks” seemed trite. So she let the silence settle over them again.

“I have more questions,” Clarke said. “But I’m falling asleep.”

Lexa was entirely too wired to think about sleep. Clarke had more questions. Did that mean this wasn’t goodbye?She thought about asking Clarke if she wanted to crash on her bed for a few hours, but that sounded inappropriate. “Do you want coffee?” she asked instead.

Clarke seemed to consider it, but shook her head. She stood and grabbed her coat. “I should get going or I’ll end up asleep on the subway.”

Lexa stood too. “Let me call you a car, at least.”

“It’s okay, really,” Clarke said, making her way toward the door. She paused with her hand on the handle. “The whole … hiring me to paint on your wall thing … did you mean that or was that just an extension of your guilt?”

“I very much meant it,” Lexa said, hoping she sounded as honest as she felt.

Clarke looked thoughtful, but her features betrayed nothing as she opened the door. Then she paused again. “Look, I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about all of this,” she said. “There’s a part of me that understands and a part of me that wants nothing more to do with you. And a part of me that wants to forget the whole thing and just start over.” She looked pensively at the floor. “What do you want?”

“I want to be your friend,” Lexa said simply, though she knew it wasn’t simple.

“Why?”

“Because,” Lexa began, not really knowing where to go with this. “Because you’ve been here for at least fifteen minutes and in all of that time you’ve managed not to make fun of my Spongebob pajama pants.”

Clarke did smile then. “I thought they were kind of cool.”

Lexa ventured a smile.

“Catch you later,” Clarke said.

Lexa watched her walk away and then retreated back into her apartment. She felt exhausted suddenly, but also relieved and somewhat giddy. Everything wasn’t fine, but she no longer felt hopeless.

Now, she thought, as she climbed the stairs to her room, if she could figure out a way not to fall in love with this girl, everything would be perfect.

Chapter Text

“So, Ray threatened to fly to New York just to talk you out of making me your manager.”

Lexa switched the phone to her other ear and used her free hand to scroll down the website page. Couches. She was standing in her kitchen, looking at potential couches because the lack of furniture was starting to bug her. “That was sweet of him. What’d you tell him?”

“I asked him if he’d ever met you. When has anyone ever talked you out of anything?”

Lexa smiled. “Hey what do you think of this couch?” She emailed the link. “I like that sandy-cream color.”

Anya sighed in her ear. “Lexa, are you sure about this?”

“Well, no. That’s why I asked for your opinion.”

“I’m talking about this whole manager thing. I printed a list of management agencies that would love to represent you. Wouldn’t you like to give one of those a shot? Nice couch, though. Would it fit in my apartment?”

“Oh sure, steal my couch.” Lexa moved on to a different website. “Stop asking me if I’m sure about the manager thing and start telling me what I should do about this ad campaign they want me for. Did Ray fill you in?”

There was a deep breath from the other end of the line. “Yeah. I think you should do it, and not just because you’d look hot in a tie, but because the photos will be coming out around the time Summer’s Dance will be generating a lot of buzz. It’ll be great publicity for you, and you’ll win over any reluctant lesbian fans.”

“Because I’m in a tie?”

“Never doubt the seductive powers of hot women in ties,” Anya said wisely.

“You know I’m trying hard not to be a lesbian poster girl, right?”

“Yes, but it’s stupid.” Anya laughed. “I get to say things like that to you now.”

“Yay,” Lexa said unenthusiastically.

“Look, I really think the smartest thing you can do right now is embrace the gay and lesbian community. The gay press is already showing interest in the film. And if you shy away from them they’ll question why. If you embrace them they’ll call you an ally. And no one seems to be questioning your sexuality anyway, even with those pictures of Costia getting into that limo with you. People were far more interested in you and Skyler.”

Lexa let Anya’s words sink in.

“But back to the point, you won’t be the only actress in the ad campaign,” Anya continued. “And half the proceeds go to charity. It’s a win-win.”

Lexa smiled softly. “Okay,” she said. “Let Ray know I’m in for the photo shoot.” She emailed another link. “What do you think of that one?”

There was silence, followed by the sound of clicking. “I think… hang on, it’s loading really slowly for some reason.” A laugh. “Wow, that has to be the ugliest couch ever made.”

Lexa giggled. “Looks like a reject from the Beetlejuice furniture collect—“ The sudden knock at the door interrupted the rest of her sentence. “I think Clarke is here.”

“Okay, then. Go get her, Tiger.”

***

Clarke took a breath and knocked. She listened for sounds, tell-tale signs of what she might have interrupted. But the apartment at the other side of the door was silent, and so she waited for whatever came next.

The trip to Lexa’s apartment had been uneventful and her morning equally so. She hadn’t gotten enough sleep. She’d kept herself awake with thoughts she shouldn’t be having and images that shouldn’t have lingered. She wanted to believe that it was all normal. That befriending a famous movie and television star was bound to elicit … what? Attraction? Is that what she’d felt for the woman on the screen? Confusion felt like a more accurate word.

The lock clicked open, and Clarke held her breath as the door opened. Lexa appeared in the doorway seconds later. Images from the films flashed briefly through Clarke’s mind at the sight of the actress, and she pushed them away, replacing them with more appropriate versions. Lexa was dressed in jeans and a blue-sleeved baseball tee; an outfit that begged to be looked at only when worn by someone like Lexa Woods.

“Hey,” Lexa said, and smiled. Clarke liked this smile. She’d seen it once or twice before, but never on film. It was, Clarke suspected, the kind of smile Lexa reserved for certain people. That she was one of them gave Clarke an odd sense of confidence.

Clarke stepped into the apartment, reaching instantly for the buttons on her coat. Lexa’s apartment was kept at tropical island temperatures and Clarke could almost envision the Earth’s resources struggling to keep up. “At what temperature do you keep your thermostat?” she asked.

“At a very normal, human temperature,” Lexa said as she closed the door.

“Really? That’s funny because I just ran into Satan in the elevator and he was like, ‘Wow, I just came from Lexa Woods’ apartment and boy was it hot in there.’”

Lexa narrowed her eyes. “I was going to say that I was glad you were here, but now I’m not so sure.”

Clarke grinned, somewhat smugly, and handed her coat to Lexa, and then her scarf. “Why are you glad I’m here?”

“Because I need your help.”

Clarke watched the actress as she headed up the stairs. “It doesn’t involve any heavy lifting, does it? If it does, I just remembered I have to be somewhere.”

“Oh yeah?” Lexa paused at the top of the stairs and glanced down. “Where?”

“Somewhere. Important. Where the lifting of things is not only unnecessary but also forbidden.”

Lexa disappeared out of view. She reappeared moments later and started down the stairs. “That sounds entirely like a place you just made up. Thankfully, no heavy lifting is necessary.”

“Happy to help, then,” Clarke said and followed Lexa into the kitchen.

“I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but I have no furniture,” Lexa said.

Clarke glanced around the empty space. “Really? Somehow that escaped my notice.”

“Sarcasm both noted and appreciated. So, I’m starting with the couch and I’ve narrowed it down to a few choices…”

Clarke frowned at the laptop on the kitchen counter. “Wait, are you shopping online?” She was unable to keep the disapproval from her tone.

Lexa glanced at her, eyebrow raised in question. “Yes?”

“But you mean to go out and purchase the couch in person,” Clarke said hopefully.

“No?”

Clarke sighed at the actress and walked over to look at the computer. On the screen was a sand-color couch with an astounding number of digits after the dollar sign. “Holy shit, did they import this couch from Mars?”

“Pluto, actually,” Lexa said. “It’s nice, though, isn’t it?”

“Not sure, I’ve never been to Pluto,” Clarke teased. “I think you’re crazy to spend this much on a couch you’ve never sat on. How do you know it’s comfortable?” She wanted to argue further that a couch was meant to be purchased in person so that one could compare the different levels of comfort, but she was distracted by Lexa’s proximity. She was distracted by her scent. What was it today? Apples? Clarke swallowed nervously but didn’t move, even when Lexa stepped closer to use the touchpad.

“It’s got really good reviews,” Lexa said as she scrolled down the page. “This person says it’s the most comfortable couch they’ve ever sat on.”

Apples, Clarke decided. She should not be noticing these things, she also decided. Her heart should not be beating wildly. And she definitely should not be wondering how it would feel to move even closer. It was clear that at some point in the past twenty-four hours her mind had short-circuited, turning her into a perv. A perv with lesbian tendencies. This was not at all alarming, no. Clarke was relieved when Lexa moved away. “You trust the opinion of a person named ‘Spankybottoms928’?” Clarke managed.

“An unfortunate name, but he’s got only his parents to blame,” Lexa answered easily. “Is it really that hot in here? You’re sweating. Can I get you a drink?”

She was indeed sweating, though she wasn’t entirely sure why. “Water would be wonderful,” Clarke said, and was grateful when Lexa handed her a cold bottle of Evian. Evian. Of course. “Thank you.”

“Maybe sand is too bland a color,” Lexa said thoughtfully. “I was looking at a red one. But I might be too boring a person to have a red couch.”

Boring was not quite the word Clarke would use to describe Lexa Woods. “Do you really want my opinion?”

“Absolutely.”

“I think you should go out there and try couches until you fall in love.”

Lexa looked at her curiously. “Fall in love with…?”

“A couch,” Clarke said.

“I think you’ve misunderstood the term ‘lesbian.’”

Clarke laughed, shaking her head. “I’m serious. You’ll know the one when you sit on her.” Lexa burst out laughing.

“It!” Clarke said quickly, blushing furiously. “I meant, it.”

***

Spending time with Clarke, Lexa found, was both addictive and unbearable. Standing beside her only made Lexa want to stand closer. She’d had to move away, in the end. She’d had to put distance between them. She had to keep herself from staring, from smiling too much.

Lexa didn’t know what the key to not falling in love was. She didn’t know at what point she’d lost control; at what point her feelings had taken over. If only she could step aside from her emotions; hang them on a coat rack and put them back on later, when Clarke wasn’t around, then, maybe, denial would come easier.

Why wasn’t friendship enough?

“God,” Clarke said, and laughed. “So, here’s where you change the subject to spare me any further embarrassment…”

Lexa was smiling, but something inside her ached. “I’m not sure if there’s any topic that’s safe with you now,” she teased, but complied. “So you said you had questions…?”

“Oh.” Clarke looked uncomfortable still. Her gaze dropped. “They’re not really questions.” She shrugged and picked up the bottle of water again. She started playing with the cap. “It’s just me being nosy, really.”

What sorts of things did Clarke wonder about? The personal lives of actors Lexa knew, maybe? The behind the scenes gossip of movies she’d done? Clarke didn’t strike her as the type of person that cared about such things, but Lexa didn’t know Clarke well enough to be sure of that. “Ask away.”

Clarke smiled shyly. “Okay. So, ‘Saucy’ … it’s the film director from your new movie, isn’t it?”

Lexa hesitated briefly at the question. This is what Clarke wondered about? “Costia, yes,” she said finally. “How did you guess?”

“Well, you told me her name before,” Clarke said. “But I’d forgotten it.” She looked embarrassed again. “If I tell you how I guessed it you’re going to think I was stalking you.”

Lexa smiled at Clarke’s tone; at the way Clarke’s nose wrinkled when she said things she was shy about. “I see,” Lexa said, curious now about what Clarke had found, and how.

“Okay, see, it was killing me that I couldn’t remember her name. But then I remembered you went out on a date with her back in December. So really it was just a matter of … umm ...”

“Stalking me online?”

Clarke laughed. “It sounds so wrong when you say it like that!” She shook her head. “I’m on a roll with embarrassing myself today. So, are you two dating? You never told me.”

Lexa found it interesting that Clarke cared so much about her personal life. At least she wasn’t uncomfortable with it. That was something. “We admitted our mutual attraction to one another and decided to revisit all of that after the film was done shooting.”

“How mature of you.”

“Yes, I thought so,” Lexa stated proudly. But she shrugged. “I don’t really know what’s going to happen.”

“Because of the piece of wood sticking out of her forehead?”

Lexa laughed, having forgotten that particular image. “Yes, exactly.” She didn’t know what else to say on the subject. She couldn’t very well say that she didn’t think anything would happen with Costia because Lexa was too busy fighting her feelings for someone else. The only thing left to do was change the subject. “How about you? You have a date tomorrow. Are you excited?” Lexa knew the topic bordered on masochistic, but it seemed like the right thing to ask.

Clarke looked momentarily pensive. “I don’t know that ‘excited’ is the word. I’m a little nervous and a little curious to see what comes out of it. I told Will, my step-brother, that I thought Anthony was a little boring. But I think he’s just … nice. Maybe, after Finn, I just don’t know how to recognize nice.”

“Is that what you want? Someone who’s nice?”

“Who knows,” Clarke said. “Nobody is just one thing.”

“This is starting to sound like our emails,” Lexa said, aiming for levity.

Clarke smiled. “I liked our emails.”

“Me too.” Lexa looked around the apartment, feeling the lull in the conversation approaching. She searched for something to say; something that might keep her heart from shriveling at the thought of Clarke with someone else. She thought of what Clarke had said about the couches. “Do you want to go out somewhere?”

Clarke looked surprised. “Uh, sure. Where do you want to go?”

“To a store, maybe. And if there happens to be couches there, well, all the better.”

“You want me to go couch shopping with you?”

“I’ll buy you dinner for your troubles.”

“Bribing me with food,” Clarke said, shaking her head. She paused to consider. “That works, actually. Let’s go.”

***

“Oh look,” Lexa said suddenly. “It’s Harrison Ford!”

Clarke immediately slid over from her side of the limo, not caring that she was practically on top of Lexa. “Where?” she demanded, looking frantically through the dark-tinted windows at the people on the sidewalk.

Lexa pointed, and Clarke continued her search until she realized that Lexa was pointing at a balding black man playing a violin. “Fuck you!” she said, and Lexa laughed. “I was really excited for a second.” Clarke fell back against the plush leather seats. Her leg brushed against Lexa’s as she moved, and Clarke grew irritated with herself for noticing.

“Are you saying that being in the company of one movie star isn’t enough for you?”

“Harrison Ford is more than a movie star; he’s a legend.”

Lexa rolled her eyes, but smiled. She looked away, her gaze back on the world beyond the window, and Clarke watched her silently before looking elsewhere. She wanted to ask what Lexa was thinking, but it was the sort of inappropriate curiosity she would have to keep to herself.

Clarke glanced outside and wondered how she’d come to be sitting in a limousine next to Lexa Woods. The actress had bought her artwork and now here Clarke was, sitting beside her, on their way to buy a couch.

“How do you feel about women in ties?” Lexa asked suddenly, and Clarke turned to look at her.

“In what sense?”

“They want me to do an ad campaign for ties,” Lexa said.

“Is that all you’ll be wearing?” Clarke meant to be teasing, but her heart sped up at the thought.

Lexa looked thoughtful. “I don’t know, actually.”

Clarke turned in her seat so she could look at Lexa without hurting her neck. “It doesn’t bother you? Being naked in front of the world?”

“No,” Lexa said simply. “People are so distracted by the outside it keeps them from looking in.”

Clarke frowned slightly. Is that what Lexa wanted? To be seen only on the surface? “What if you dated someone and they didn’t want you to do nude shots?”

“Then I wouldn’t.” Lexa glanced at her. “Would it bother you?”

“If I were dating you?” And the question made her heart speed up again.

“Not me necessarily. Harrison Ford, for example.”

Clarke laughed at the thought of herself with Harrison Ford. She liked him as an actor but anything more seemed too ridiculous to contemplate. “I guess,” she said anyway. “I can’t imagine it, being with someone in the public eye.”

Lexa looked away and Clarke wondered if she’d said something wrong.

“Hey, is that a furniture store?” Lexa asked.

Clarke let it go, the thought that she’d somehow offended Lexa; the presumption that Lexa Woods might care what Clarke Griffin thought. “Looks like it,” she said. “Ready to find your true love?”

“Yes, let’s go sit on her.”

Lexa giggled as Clarke slapped her arm.

***

It was warm inside the store and Lexa began to uncoil the scarf around her neck as she looked around. She was pleased by the lack of attention thrown her way as she walked between the displays of chairs and tables. Clarke was ahead of her, already moving toward the section with the couches, and Lexa watched her until she felt it prudent to look away. Here they were, Lexa thought, at a furniture store; together. It didn’t get stranger than that.

A salesman glanced Lexa’s way, and she quickly turned her back to him. It was only a matter of time before someone approached her and she wished to delay the inevitable interaction for as long as possible.

It was incredibly nice, this moment; standing between a dark wood dining set and a loveseat, feeling somewhat normal.

Lexa caught up to Clarke moments later. The artist was sitting on a floral print sofa, looking pensively up at the ceiling. Lexa glanced up to see if there was something exciting up there, but no, it was simply Clarke’s way of measuring comfort.

“Not only is it ugly,” Clarke said, “but it’s not comfortable at all.” She stood and moved on to something else. “Did you say you wanted something sand-colored?”

“I said I liked the couch in the picture,” Lexa said, “which just happened to be sand-colored.”

Clarke moved from couch to couch, shaking her head. “These are terrible. See? This is why you have to try them out.”

Lexa plopped down beside Clarke. She had no idea what Clarke was going on about. “This couch is perfectly comfortable.”

“Are you kidding? It’s lumpy.”

“It’s not lumpy.”

“Right here, it’s lumpy.” Clarke moved over so Lexa could take her spot.

Lexa shook her head and slid to the side. “You’re insane.”

“There’s obviously something wrong with your butt.”

Lexa frowned at this. “There’s nothing wrong with my butt! Perhaps it’s your butt that’s lumpy, ever think of that?”

Clarke narrowed her eyes. “Did you just call my butt ‘lumpy?’”

“Oh, hey,” Lexa said, standing, “how about that couch over there.” She moved in the direction of a random piece of furniture in the hopes that Clarke would forget to kill her by the time she caught up.

A man, wearing what had to be the world’s most glaring toupee, crossed in front of Lexa and grinned widely. “What an honor,” he said to her. “What an honor to have you here, Ms. Woods.”

Lexa inwardly sighed but outwardly smiled. “Hello,” she said, because she wasn’t quite sure what else to say. Clarke was still sitting where Lexa had left her, and Lexa pointed in her direction. “This is my personal couch shopper, Clarke Griffin.”

Clarke looked as if Lexa had suddenly grown five heads.

“It’s a pleasure,” the man was saying, practically bouncing over to shake Clarke’s hand. “Please, what can I help you find? Whatever you’re looking for, I’m sure we’ve got it.”

“We’re just … uh, looking around,” Clarke said.

“Oh, sure, sure,” the man said, nodding. “Well, my name is Christopher. I’ll be right over there. Just holler the second you need anything.” He grinned at Lexa. “Such an honor.”

He left them alone, thankfully, and Lexa glanced at Clarke to find her glaring up at her.

“Personal couch shopper?”

Lexa gave her most innocent smile.

“You’ve never made someone from New York angry before, have you?”

“Can’t say that I have.”

“It’s not a pretty sight, I must warn you.”

“I doubt that very much,” Lexa said before she could stop herself. She looked into Clarke’s beautiful blue eyes and smiled. “You don’t have a lumpy butt.”

“Thank you,” Clarke said, sounding pleased. But there was something else, Lexa noticed; something that looked like a blush.

***

Clarke was pleased with their final selection. After sampling practically every piece of furniture in the store, there had been a unanimous decision. It was odd, considering the fact that Lexa’s butt was clearly defective when it came to recognizing comfort, that they had, in the end, loved exactly the same one.

The buildings rolled past the window of the limo, and Clarke stared out at the lights and the silhouettes of people strolling down the sidewalks. She felt strangely disconnected from them at that moment, in a way she wasn’t used to. The entire world felt a million miles away; as if there, within the confines of that vehicle, an entirely different dimension existed. A dimension in which street artists and famous movie stars went shopping for couches together.

“Sorry about that,” Lexa said, and Clarke glanced at her to find that the actress was finally off the phone.

“No worries, I get that you’re popular.”

“So, I promised you dinner…”

Dinner. Clarke had forgotten about that. “I might have to take a rain check,” she said regretfully. “I have a ton of homework that I should probably get a jump start on.” It sounded like a lame excuse, despite the fact that it was the truth. She hoped Lexa wouldn’t think she was lying.

Lexa’s face betrayed nothing; neither relief nor disappointment. “Okay,” she said. “I’ll drop you off.”

Clarke started to protest, but Lexa was already lowering the divider and telling the driver where to go. “How do you know my address?”

“Because I am wise beyond my years,” Lexa said simply.

“Oh, sure,” Clarke said, “you can’t even tell a lumpy couch from a non-lumpy couch.” It was weird, she thought, that she should feel comfortable teasing Lexa Woods this way. Only it didn’t feel weird, which was, maybe, the weird part about it. But she liked seeing Lexa smile. More than anything, she liked making Lexa smile.

“My wisdom, obviously, does not extend to my butt.”

“I see,” Clarke said, and it was she who smiled. She wanted to change her mind about dinner; to ignore her pressing responsibilities and remain in Lexa’s company for as long as possible. But it worried her that she didn’t want to part ways. It didn’t seem quite right; quite the appropriate reaction to a day spent shopping.

“So, do you know what you and Anthony are doing tomorrow?”

The question came out of left field, but Clarke was grateful for the distraction. Her thoughts were beginning to worry her. “Not sure,” she said. “He said something about a museum.”

“And would you consider that to be your ideal date?”

“Is there such a thing?”

“Isn’t there?”

“Maybe.” Clarke thought about the question, trying to conjure up a vision of the ‘ideal date.’ Nothing sprung to mind, though today had been fun. Not that this had been a date. “I think it’s more about the person you’re with.”

“Okay,” Lexa said slowly. “So then is Anthony the ideal person you’d want to go to a museum with?”

Clarke laughed at the question. “I don’t know. He might be.” She thought of Anthony and his spiky hair and his pretty green eyes. She pictured him at her side as they strolled through the Met. It sounded fine; not ideal, but fine. But what more was there to a relationship besides good company? “What about you? Did you have fun on your date with Saucy? Was it ‘ideal?’”

“I did have fun.”

“But?”

“But we agreed not to take things further until after filming.”

“Right, you said that,” Clarke said, but felt there was more to it than that. “And you didn’t even kiss?”

There was a moment’s hesitation on Lexa’s part, and Clarke worried that perhaps she’d crossed the line. “No, we didn’t,” Lexa said, sounding more embarrassed than anything else.

“I’m sorry if I’m being nosy.”

“I started it,” Lexa said, and smiled. “Besides, you can ask me anything.”

Clarke let the statement hang in the air between them. She liked the sound of it, even if she didn’t altogether believe that it was true. She watched the shadows and the lights dance across the black leather of the seats as she thought of a question she didn’t quite know how to ask.

“What?” Lexa said suddenly, and Clarke glanced up to see that Lexa was looking at her. “You look like you want to say something.”

Clarke hated being transparent. She shook her head as if to dismiss the subject. “It’s nothing.”

“And by ‘nothing’ you mean …. something you’re too shy to say?”

“Are you a mind reader?” Clarke narrowed her eyes at Lexa.

“Oh did I forget to mention that? Yes. In fact, I come from a very long line of fortune tellers and mind readers.”

“Right.”

Lexa frowned. “I can prove it. Close your eyes and think of a shape.”

Clarke complied if only because doing so meant that they were no longer talking about her. She thought of a circle; a big, blue, perfect circle, and it was so vivid in her mind that a part of her almost expected Lexa to guess correctly.

“You’re thinking of … an orange triangle.”

Clarke opened her eyes and laughed. “Fraud.”

“What was it?”

“A blue circle.” Clarke grinned as she said it, a part of her relieved that Lexa couldn’t read minds after all; ridiculous as the notion was to begin with.

“I was close!”

“How is that even remotely close?”

“It was close in that it wasn’t. So, what were you too shy to say before?”

“Oh, we’re back to that subject, are we?”

“We never truly left it.”

Clarke thought of the question and then tried to find the right words with which to ask it. The best she could come up with was, “Is Raven the only girl you’ve ever kissed?” It sounded blunt even to her own ears and she almost winced. For the next few seconds she feared Lexa’s reaction. She feared Lexa’s interpretation, as if the question were laced with a hidden meaning; a truth she couldn’t see.

“In what sense?”

Clarke was thrown by the question. “How many senses are there?”

“Six, I think.”

“Ha,” Clarke said dryly. “What did you mean?”

“Well, technically, yes, she is the only girl I’ve kissed, but it was really my character kissing her, so in the sense of it being me, then no.”

Clarke struggled to comprehend the difference. “So in terms of your body, yes, but in terms of your emotions, no?”

“Right.”

Either way, it didn’t make Clarke feel any better. A knot rose in her stomach and settled there. She didn’t like the thought of Lexa kissing Raven. She didn’t know why she didn’t like it, but she didn’t like it. She caught a glimpse of familiar buildings through the window on Lexa’s side. She had forgotten how drab her neighborhood looked; how utterly rundown and unkempt. What would Lexa think? How could Lexa ever comprehend a world without shiny surfaces and brand new things? “Thanks for the ride,” she said, as the limousine rolled to a stop.

“Thanks for coming with me today,” Lexa said and smiled, somewhat shyly, it seemed to Clarke.

“Did you want to come inside?” It was rude not to invite her, Clarke knew, though the thought of Lexa Woods in her apartment filled Clarke with a sense of panic.

“I would, but you said you had to study, so perhaps another time?”

Clarke nodded, feeling relieved. A different part of her wondered if Lexa simply didn’t want to be seen in an area like this. She reached for the door handle. “Catch you later, then.”

And Lexa smiled again. Clarke would remember that moment for a long time: the flawless beauty of Lexa Woods framed against the backdrop of Clarke’ dark, broken world. She would want to paint it; to capture forever the impossibility of it all, the sheer unlikelihood of its occurrence. But she wouldn’t; she knew she wouldn’t. There were things best left inside like secrets; to be opened and examined when nobody could see.

She stepped outside, into the air that smelled dirty but familiar, and shut the door.

Chapter Forty

“I used to come here when I was little,” Anthony said conversationally, as they walked into the Guggenheim the following morning.

“Oh yeah?” Clarke spoke, but her attention drifted, grabbed away by the museum itself. She couldn’t help but feel a sense of awe each time she passed through its doors. It was always the brightness she noticed first, the pouring down of light from above, and at times she imagined that this was what heaven must be like. She stared up at the spiral ramp as it curled ever upward, and smiled.

Anthony was talking, and Clarke suddenly remembered he was there. “… and then my mom would catch up with us eventually.”

He laughed and Clarke took the cue and laughed too, feeling guilty that she’d missed the story. She thought about apologizing and asking him to repeat it, but before she could make up her mind, the moment slipped away.

They headed for the ticket line and Clarke tried to think of something to say that might spark some kind of conversation. In front of them in the line was a young couple dressed in matching outfits. Their daughter, or at least the child Clarke took to be their daughter, stood to the side of them yelling, “zebra!” at the floor.

“Do you want kids?”

It took Clarke several seconds to realize that Anthony was addressing her. “What?”

“Not with me,” he said quickly. “I mean not … I mean, you know, in general.”

It wasn’t quite the topic Clarke would have envisioned discussing while standing in line at the Guggenheim but she supposed there were worse places. “Uh,” she said, in an effort to stall. She didn’t have an answer to this question. “Maybe. One day. You know, in the far, far future.”

“That far away, huh? That’s interesting. I’ve always wanted kids; lots and lots of kids.”

“Like… twenty?”

“Okay, not that many,” he said with a laugh. “Like … six.”

“Six,” Clarke repeated as the line moved forward. She glanced at the little girl in front of them who was now spinning in circles while chanting nonsense. She tried to picture six of those. “Well, good luck.” She smiled at him. “But what if your wife doesn’t want six kids?”

“Well, I’d make it clear before we got married.”

“Like on the first date?”

He laughed. “Maybe! Or maybe I’ll use it as a pick-up line from now on. You know, get it out there right away.”

“Let me know how that works out for you,” Clarke said and laughed. The line moved forward again. “But what if you meet the perfect woman and she doesn’t want to have kids?”

“Then she wouldn’t be the perfect woman.”

Clarke nodded thoughtfully at that. “I admire your conviction,” she said, though what she meant was that she envied it. She desperately wanted to be the sort of person that knew exactly what she wanted.

“Well, what about you? Isn’t there something you feel really strongly about?”

There were many things that Clarke felt strongly about: the environment, animal rights, art. But she didn’t wish to dig deeper than that. Not now, nor there, standing in line at the Guggenheim, sandwiched between strangers. “Not really,” she said finally. “I mean, I’m sure there must be, but I’m not too picky.”

Their turn came eventually and Clarke insisted on paying her way. She might not have known what she wanted, but she knew what she didn’t want: she didn’t want to fall into old patterns. She didn’t want anyone holding money over her head.

She glanced at Anthony as they took their tickets; at the rumpled shirt and frayed jeans that almost matched her own. Being with Anthony felt right in a theoretical kind of way; she liked the idea of it, of him. But her thoughts drifted as she and Anthony walked together up the spiral ramp; drifted up and away from the present and toward the evening ahead.

***

Lexa surveyed the contents of her closet hoping something would pop out and say, “Wear me tonight,” but her clothes were decidedly silent that afternoon. Behind her, Anya droned on about interviews and TV show guest spots, and Lexa mumbled noncommittal replies in the hopes that these were enough to make the subjects pass.

“So, that’s a ‘yes’ then to the bubble gum commercial in Japan?”

Lexa turned around. “What bubble gum commercial?”

“The one I’ve been talking about for at least five minutes,” Anya said with what sounded like impatience. “Lexa, focus for a second here.”

“Sorry, it’s just…” Lexa turned to the closet again so she wouldn’t have to face Anya. “It’s stupid.”

“Clarke,” Anya said, not bothering to phrase it as a question.

Lexa didn’t answer. She didn’t want to confirm that yes, it was Clarke; Clarke, who at that very moment was out on a date with a guy.

“I still have no idea if she’s going to be at the party tonight,” Anya said.

Lexa turned the light off in the closet and headed out of the room. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “And that was a ‘no’ to the commercial.”

Anya followed Lexa out of the spare bedroom and out into the newly furnished living room. “Ray’s flying in on Wednesday. He’s got a new script for you he wants to deliver in person.”

“Great,” Lexa said flatly, and flinched at the lack of emotion in her voice. She wanted to care. She wanted to be excited by the prospect of a new role. But she couldn’t muster anything akin to enthusiasm.

Anya walked past her and plopped down on the freshly delivered couch. “Did I mention how happy I am that you finally have proper seating in this place?”

Lexa managed a smile at that. She took in the new addition to her apartment and her spirits lifted briefly at the sight. She, too, was happy. The black and white sectional sofa had arrived early that morning and fit perfectly in its allotted space. “It’s amazing what a little furniture can do,” she said, moving to take a seat next to Anya.

“Seriously,” Anya said, propping her feet up on the matching ottoman. “It’s starting to feel cozy, even.” She sighed contentedly. “Most comfortable couch ever, by the way; unlike that block of cement you have back in California masquerading as a couch.”

Lexa’s thoughts shifted inevitably to Clarke and she tried unsuccessfully to push thoughts of the artist away.

“So,” Anya said, “since you’ve got no attention span whatsoever for work-related matters, care to tell me what’s got you looking so tragic?”

“Nothing new,” Lexa said with a sigh. She didn’t want to talk about Clarke. She didn’t really want to talk about anything. “How’s Bellamy?”

“I’m not sure actually,” Anya said, frowning. “He sent me a very perplexing text message earlier about cock rings.”

“Wow, that’s so not the response I was expecting.”

“He said he wanted to try something new for next time he saw me, and then his next message said something about getting stuck. And then he texted again to say not to worry; So, I have no idea what he did to his penis now.”

“And that’s the last time I ask after Bellamy’s wellbeing.”

Anya smiled. “So … Clarke?”

“It’s nothing. She’s on a date. And that’s fine. It’s good. It’s very good. It’s … great.”

Anya nodded. “Yeah you look thrilled.”

Lexa slouched down on the couch, feeling defeated. “Why is it that your emotions never follow what your mind tells them to? I want to be happy for her.”

“But you’re jealous.”

“I have no right to be. But yeah, I guess that’s what this feeling is.”

Anya patted Lexa’s hand. “I have no words of wisdom for you.”

“I just need filming to start. I need a distraction.”

“Ah, yes,” Anya said with a smile. “The film in which you get to make out with both Costia and Clarke’s best friend.”

“Shut up,” Lexa said, frowning. “Shouldn’t you go call your boyfriend and make sure he’s still anatomically male?”

Anya smiled and took her phone out of her pocket. “Good one,” she said, dialing. “I think I’ll open with that.”

***

Raven was waiting in the hallway when Clarke wandered into the apartment. She was dressed casually in a pink bathrobe with a matching towel wrapped around her head. “Tell me everything,” she demanded before the door had even closed. “And walk with me; I still haven’t picked an outfit for tonight.”

Clarke complied, following Raven into her bedroom. “He wants six kids,” was the first thing she thought to say.

“Wow,” Raven said, her face wrinkling. “You guys move fast.”

Clarke sat down on the edge of Raven’s bed. “Who tells someone that they want six kids on the first date?”

“Wait, he wanted six kids on your first date?”

“No, I mean, who tells someone that on the first date? And I wanted to be like, ‘Well tough luck. Ain’t gonna ever happen with me,’ but I don’t know! What if I do want six kids some day?”

“He wants exactly six kids? What if you accidentally get an extra one? Do you give it away?”

Clarke let out a chuckle. “Maybe.”

Raven held up a dress and shook it at Clarke. “Opinion.”

“It brings out your eyes.”

“It’s red. Are you telling me I’m possessed?” She turned to the mirror and held the garment against her chest. “You don’t think it makes my left knee look darker than the other?”

“What?”

“Never mind. So he wants six kids? Well, he probably doesn’t want them now right? Someday. And like you said, maybe someday you’ll want the same thing. How was the rest of the date? Actually, just fast forward to the juicy parts. Did he kiss you?”

Clarke smiled. “No, he looked like he wanted to, but … I don’t know. I don’t know, Raven. When I’m with him, I just don’t feel … whatever it is you’re supposed to feel when you’re attracted to someone. And he’s cute. I find him attractive. But… shouldn’t there be more than that?”

Raven rolled her eyes. “Attraction is all you really need some times. Who cares if he doesn’t turn out to be the one you spend the rest of your life with? You’re twenty-one, Clarke. Stop thinking about the long term and think about the here and now. Like, tonight. Maybe you’ll meet someone who makes your heart pitterpatter. You never know.” She held up another dress. “How about this one?”

Clarke glanced at it pensively. “I think that one makes your left eyebrow look thicker than your right.”

“Funny. Maybe I should dress down. I wish I knew what everyone else was wearing. What is Lexa wearing?”

Clarke brightened at the mention of Lexa. “Clothes, I imagine.”

“Helpful. What are you wearing?”

“I don’t know. Are you sure it’s even okay for me to go to this party? I have nothing at all to do with this film.”

“The director said it was perfectly fine, I told you. In fact, she sounded rather cheerful about it. Come to think of it, she might think we’re a couple.”

Clarke shook her head. “Super. I’m off to shower, then.”

“Wait, you didn’t finish telling me about your date.”

But Clarke was already out the door. “Six kids. No kiss. That about covers it!”

“Find out what Lexa is wearing!”

***

“One vodka and cranberry juice,” Costia said, appearing suddenly at Lexa’s side.

Lexa smiled at the director and took the offered drink. “Excellent service at this party, I must say.”

“I take my role as hostess very seriously.” Costia smiled and took a sip of her own drink. “Having fun?”

Fun. Not the word Lexa would’ve used to describe the evening so far. Her emotions were too scattered and, mostly, she just wanted to go home. There was nothing more exhausting than making conversation with strangers when your mood was shot. “The karaoke was a nice touch,” she said, motioning toward the area in question. One of her future co-stars had taken the stage and the room cheered her on as she sang a very off-key rendition of Madonna’s “Ray of Light.”

“Why, thank you. When will you be going up there?”

Lexa laughed. “Hmm, a quarter to never. You?”

“Right after you,” Costia said and laughed. “Well, at least Anya’s having fun.”

Lexa followed Costia’s gaze to find her new manager taking the microphone. “Ah, damn. I wish I had a camera.”

“Don’t worry, I’m recording it,” Costia said, a mischievous smile on her lips.

Lexa had at one point or another heard Sober Anya sing, and it had been painful enough, but hearing Drunk Anya sing was an entirely different journey through auditory torture. “You so better make me a copy.”

“I suppose that can be arranged. But it’ll cost you.”

“Are you trying to flirt with me, Ms. Calloway?”

“Probably,” Costia said, grinning. “Too many margaritas for me.”

Lexa smiled, feeling something that closely resembled contentment for the first time all day. “So, if you weren’t partly drunk you wouldn’t try to flirt with me?”

Costia bit her lip as she looked down at the floor, brown hair momentarily obscuring her beautiful profile. When she looked back up she looked embarrassed. “Actually, I’ve only had one drink. It just seemed like a good excuse.” She shrugged, a half-smile on her lips. “I guess that answers your question.”

“I guess it does,” Lexa said, and her smile brightened.

***

The party was in full swing by the time Raven and Clarke arrived, and Raven led them straight to the barslash-kitchen. Once there, Raven wasted no time in flirting shamelessly with the bartender, who then served her his signature drink: the Disgruntled Inuk. “It came to me in a dream,” he said, “when I was traveling through Greenland.”

“Mmm,” said Raven. “Tastes like coconuts. Intriguing. So, do you usually bartend private parties?”

Clarke rolled her eyes and turned away from the conversation. The sound of off-key singing caught her attention and she looked across the room to see Lexa’s assistant in front of a microphone. Clarke smiled at the sight, if not the sound, and let her gaze wander. She still didn’t know why she’d come. Despite Raven’s insistence that it was okay for her to be there, Clarke felt uncomfortable and out of place. Everyone else was smiling, drinking, lost in conversation; while she was trying to reinvent excuses for why she’d said yes to this outing.

Clarke knew why she’d come, even though she didn’t quite know how to admit it to herself. She’d come to see Lexa. There was no other reason than that. And at that moment, Lexa was across the room, talking to a hot brunette.

“Do you think she’s hotter than me?” Raven had moved closer to her and was pensively staring over at Lexa.

“Lexa Woods?”

Raven snorted. “No, not Lexa. I know she’s hotter than me. I’ve made peace with her being hotter than me. I mean Costia.”

Costia. Clarke looked back at the blonde, instantly recognizing her from the photos she’d seen online. Of course. “Yeah, she’s totally hotter than you,” she said.

“Damnit.” Raven sighed. “I really need to up my hotness factor. Did I tell you about that guy, Steven…”

Clarke was only half paying attention to Raven. She was too busy staring at Lexa and Costia, thinking they looked incredible together, and hating herself for hating that they did. “What the hell,” she said, not realizing she’d spoken aloud until Raven responded.

“Exactly! I have perfectly symmetrical boobs. And I told him that.”

Clarke turned to Raven. “Can I ask you a totally hypothetical question?”

“Totally hypothetical like totally based on truth or like really actually hypothetical?”

“Yes.”

Raven stirred her Disgruntled Inuk. “Shoot.”

Clarke wanted to ask if it made sense to feel jealous when she had no reason to feel jealous, but the answer was clear. It made no sense. There was no reason on earth why the sight of Lexa and Costia standing next to each other should make Clarke feel anything at all. “Never mind. I think I’m just losing my mind a little bit.”

“You need sex,” Raven said as if it was obvious. “Tell you what, you can have the bartender.”

“I don’t want the bartender.”

Raven shrugged. “Your loss. It’s a well-known fact that bartenders are awesome at …” She glanced around and lowered her voice. “You know.”

Clarke didn’t know, and didn’t really want to know. “Next topic. Shouldn’t you be mingling or something?”

“Clarke!” A cheerful, and very drunk Anya stood suddenly before them. She looked at Raven. “You must be Raven. I’m Anya, Lexa’s ass…uh, manager.”

Raven blinked. “You’re Lexa’s ass manager?”

Anya let out a somewhat hysterical laugh. “Hey, I think my boyfriend hit on you once. Isn’t that hilarious? I’m gonna get another drink.”

They watched Anya stumble her way to the bar.

“Wow, she’s wasted.” Raven laughed. “Why would she ever think that Bellamy Blake hit on me? Not that he wouldn’t; I’m hot enough. Still, I think I’d remember.”

Clarke felt a tinge of guilt at the realization that she still hadn’t told Raven the truth about Lexa, but guilt was instantly replaced by a new bundle of emotions.

“Costia,” Raven said suddenly. “Hey!”

Clarke looked over at the director as she walked closer, thinking it incredibly unfair that beautiful people should look even better in person. Clarke wanted desperately to find a flaw, a weakness that might make Costia Calloway less intimidating. But she found none.

“I’m so glad you could make it,” the director said warmly, and smiled at Clarke. “I’m Costia,” she said, stretching out her hand.

“Clarke.” It felt strange, shaking hands with Saucy Fipbik, trying to match up the idea of her with the reality of her. This was who Lexa had gone on a date with. This was who Lexa considered perfect.

What would be considered an appropriate emotional reaction to this moment? Probably not jealousy. “I’m going to get a drink,” she blurted, because a drink suddenly sounded like a great idea.

***

Lexa had wandered out into the balcony after her conversation with Costia. The director had excused herself, told her they’d catch up later; asked if there was any chance Lexa might want to remain after the party, or even grab lunch the next day. They’d been interrupted by people before Lexa could give an answer, and the actress had been relieved. She still didn’t know what to say. It was tempting to ignore their agreement and give in; to let Costia distract away her feelings for Clarke. It was tempting.

A gust of wind scattered strands of brown hair cross her face, and Lexa shivered against the cold air. She was alone on the balcony, the only one crazy enough to step outside for any reason that wasn’t smoking. But she needed a break from the socializing, from the handshakes and introductions, from the drunken conversations. It was a nice party, but the view from the balcony was nicer.

The wind drowned the sound of the sliding glass door opening behind her, so Lexa was startled by the voice when it came. “Isn’t it a little cold to be out here?”

Lexa recovered quickly from her surprise. “It’s not that bad,” she lied.

Clarke shook her head as she walked over, a glass of white liquid in her hand. “Yeah, you strike me as the type that likes the cold. It’s not like your apartment is set to a million degrees or anything.”

“You exaggerate,” Lexa said. “It’s barely a thousand.”

Clarke smiled and held up her drink. “Have you tried this yet?”

“What is that? Glue?”

“A Disgruntled Inuk. Here.” Clarke offered her glass. “Don’t worry; my highly contagious lip rash is only moderately contagious now.”

Lexa tried the beverage and wrinkled her nose at the taste. It was a mixture of coconuts and vodka and something undecipherable. “I hate coconuts.”

“Really? I didn’t know that about you.” Clarke took the glass back and leaned against the railing. “I love this apartment. You should’ve moved here. TriBeCa is so much cooler than the Upper East Side.”

“Is that right?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“Yeah but I live near the Met and the Guggenheim. What does TriBeCa have?”

Clarke looked thoughtful. “The film festival?”

“Guess I’ll have to move.”

“Guess so.” Clarke smiled softly and took a sip from her drink. “I was actually in your neighborhood earlier; with Anthony.”

Lexa tried not to let the last two words bother her. “And how was the date?” She did want to know, in a masochistic sort of way.

“It was good,” Clarke said. “We went to the Guggenheim.”

Lexa waited for further details, but none were forthcoming. “I see.”

Clarke sighed. “It was kind of weird,” she said a second later. “I mean, it was good. I had fun. I just don’t know. I’m attracted to him, and he’s nice. I just don’t know if I want a relationship with him. And Raven says I shouldn’t think in terms of relationships so much. I should just live and have fun. And I think by ‘have fun’ she just means ‘have sex’ but I’m not really sure that’s me.” She finished her drink.

Lexa wasn’t quite sure what to do with all of that information. She liked the idea of Clarke not wanting a relationship with Anthony. She didn’t like the idea of her having sex with him. “So, what is you?”

Clarke glanced at Lexa, her blue eyes troubled. “That’s what I’m trying to figure out.”

***

Clarke hadn’t meant to admit that to Lexa. She’d meant to say something else, something general and dismissive, something that would shift the subject toward a more festive topic. But before Clarke had a chance to backpedal out of the conversation, Lexa said, “I don’t know, you seem to be well on your way.”

And despite herself, Clarke couldn’t help but ask, “How so?”

“Well, you already know that you prefer TriBeCa to the Upper East Side. You know that you’re not repelled by the taste of coconuts and vodka; that’s a monumental self-realization. And you know that standing out in the cold with me is somehow preferable to listening to a bunch of drunk people sing karaoke. What else do you need to know?”

What it’s like to kiss you. The thought flew into her mind so unexpectedly that she almost dropped her glass. What is wrong with me? The wind hid the sound of her hammering heart. “Nothing,” she said, her voice sounding odd, even to herself. She tried again, hoping to mask her sudden nervousness. “That about covers it.”

Lexa met her gaze and Clarke looked away, worried that her thoughts were obvious. “So, I think Costia asked me out,” Lexa said, causing Clarke to look at her again.

With forced cheerfulness that she wished would turn genuine, she said, “That’s great.”

“Is it?” Lexa looked pensive as she leaned against the railing.

“Isn’t it?” Clarke felt overwhelmed. A part of her wanted to be a good friend, to encourage Lexa to go out with the director and see where things led. A different part wanted to tell her it was a bad idea, even if she had no reason to believe that it was. Another part still could only think about how gorgeous Lexa looked in the soft light of the balcony. It was the latter part that scared Clarke most, that made her want to make up an excuse and run back to the party; that made her wish she’d never come looking for Lexa in the first place.

“We’d agreed it was best to wait,” Lexa said, and Clarke remembered that they were still in the middle of a conversation that had nothing to do with her own jumble of emotions. “Seems like a bad idea to go back on that.”

Clarke wanted to agree, but she also wanted to disagree, because she didn’t see the point of them waiting for something that was inevitable. “Do you like her?”

“I do,” Lexa said after a moment.

It bothered Clarke that the answer bothered her. But she forged ahead, trying to pretend she felt otherwise. “Then maybe you should go for it. You’re both professionals.” It sounded like the right thing to say, even if it felt lousy to say it.

Lexa didn’t reply; instead she stared thoughtfully at the buildings in the distance.

Clarke was certain that at any other time she wouldn’t have minded the silence. But the lack of conversation left her vulnerable to thoughts she wasn’t ready to delve into. “Do you think it’s lame that we’re in the middle of a party mutually questioning our potential relationships?”

Lexa’s laugh was short, but cheerful. “Probably.” She put her hands into the pockets of her hooded sweater and smiled. “Can I tell you a secret?”

“Depends. How much would it sell to the tabloids for?”

Lexa considered the question. “I’m not sure it would.”

“Then go ahead.”

“I hate parties,” Lexa said in a near-whisper.

Clarke snorted. “That’s common knowledge.”

“Oh, really?”

“I’m pretty sure there was a blog post about it somewhere, which I found while not-at-all-stalking you.”

Lexa’s smile was cocky. “I thought we’d already established that you were stalking me?”

“Well, I take it back. I can’t be held responsible for the things I admit while under the influence of sobriety.”

“So I should only take you seriously when you’re drunk?”

It sounded like the sort of thing that might bite her in the ass later, but she went along. “Exactly.”

“Hmm,” Lexa said. “I’ll remember that. Can I get you another drink?”

Clarke laughed, feeling slightly better now that they’d moved away from their personal lives. And yet a nagging feeling persisted, dancing on the edge of her consciousness. I do not have a crush on Lexa Woods, she insisted, though all signs pointed to the contrary.

A gust of wind blew in their direction, colder than the ones before it. Lexa shivered, and Clarke had to fight the urge to move closer.

Okay, she thought, swallowing nervously, maybe a little one.

Chapter Text

“Waffles,” Monty said, his voice mixing with the sound of silverware banging on plates and the muddled voices of conversation. “No, pancakes. What are you getting?”

Clarke had been staring at the plastic-covered menu for at least five minutes and the only thing she’d registered was the fact that her left hand was now sticky. She dropped the menu on the table. “Waffles,” she said, though she wasn’t hungry. She’d left her appetite at Costia’s party, somewhere between the balcony and the moments that followed.

“Then I’ll have pancakes,” Monty said decisively, putting down the menu and picking up a glass of orange juice. He regarded Clarke over the rim of the glass as he drank. When he was finished, he sat back. “So.”

Clarke wasn’t sure why she’d called Monty and asked him to breakfast, or why she’d given him strict instructions not to bring Miller. At the time, it had seemed like a good idea. But now she wasn’t sure she felt like talking. She wasn’t sure there was anything worth talking about. So she had a small, microscopic crush on a famous actress that was sort of a friend. So what?

“You know, your brother probably thinks I’m hiding something from him,” Monty said by way of a hint.

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry, just tell me what’s up. Did you even sleep last night?”

Clarke bit her lip, her gaze on the table. “Not really.”

“Are you pregnant?”

Clarke glanced up sharply at the suggestion. “No,” she said. “God, no.”

“In trouble with the law?”

“It’s nothing like that,” Clarke said, sighing. “It’s just … have you ever had feelings for someone and been unable to explain why you had feelings for them?”

Monty laughed. “Feelings don’t come with a manual. They just come. Is this about that Anthony guy?”

“I wish.”

“A different guy?”

Clarke shook her head.

“A … girl?”

Clarke hesitated, but nodded. And then the waitress was at their side, asking for their order.

“Pancakes,” Monty said automatically.

“Waffles,” Clarke said, and watched as the waitress took the menus and walked away.

Monty was silent for a few seconds. “Interesting.”

“Interesting,” Clarke echoed, and reached for the cup of coffee she’d forgotten was there. “That’s all you have to say?”

“For the moment,” Monty said. “Where are you on this matter? Are you at the ‘does this mean I’m gay stage?’ Or somewhere before or after that?”

Clarke frowned at the question. “I hadn’t gotten there yet.”

“So, this is a brand new development.”

“It’s about twelve hours old.”

“Interesting.”

“Stop saying ‘interesting.’ You’re supposed to have all the answers.”

“Then ask me something.”

Clarke sipped her coffee, trying to get her thoughts in order. Her mind was a mess. She needed sleep. “You should have all the questions, too.”

Monty smiled gently. “Okay, here’s a question. Did you stay up all night because you’re having feelings for a girl? Or is it because you’re having feelings for this particular girl? Or is it because you’re having feelings for someone at all?”

“That’s three questions,” Clarke said, in an effort to stall. But the answer was obvious. “It’s all of them. I haven’t felt this way in … God, I don’t even know how long. And liking a girl would be confusing enough, but why did it have to be this girl?” She met Monty’s gaze. “And before you ask, I’m not telling you who she is.”

“Is she straight?”

“Nope.”

“Taken?”

“Nope.”

“So she’s gay and single?”

“She likes someone else.” Clarke sighed. “But it’s like you said, feelings come and go, no? I just wanted to talk about it with someone that wouldn’t make a big deal about it. Raven and Miller… they’d blow it way out of proportion.”

“Well, I’m glad I can be that person for you.”

Clarke smiled, feeling moderately better. She finished her coffee just as the meal arrived, and they each took turns bathing their meals in syrup. “So, what’s new with you? How’s work?”

Monty rolled his eyes. “Awful.”

“Miller said you worked for some guy on Wall Street?”

“I work for an asshole,” Monty said, between bites. “When he cheats on his wife, my job is to run out and pick out some nice jewellery for her. When he cheats on his mistress, I go out and pick out a brand name purse. The man is a dick.”

“Wow,” Clarke said. “I can’t believe women fall for a jerk like that.”

Monty laughed. “He’s rich, he’s good-looking, and he’s charming as hell. Who wouldn’t fall for that?”

Clarke thought of Lexa and felt herself blush. Is that what she was attracted to; the fact that Lexa was rich and charming and gorgeous?

“I’d love to change jobs, but the pay is nice, and the work is kind of fun. I mean, I do get to shop for stuff I’ll never afford in a million years. I just wish my boss wasn’t such an ass,” He shrugged. “But back to you for a sec, and then I promise I’ll shut up about it. Why do you think you have feelings for this girl?”

The question caught her off-guard, the wording sounding strange to her ears. Feelings for a girl. Was she actually here, discussing these things with another person? Was she really admitting that she had feelings for Lexa Woods? She felt a wave of panic at the thought. She swallowed it down and took a deep breath. “I don’t even know if that’s what this is,” she said, her voice quiet. It felt strange to talk about Lexa this way. As if it really mattered what she felt for the actress. As if Lexa would even care. And still, she couldn’t help it. “I just … when she’s near me, I want to be closer to her, you know? Like the space between us is too much. I look at her and I wonder what it would be like to kiss her. And it freaks me out. I don’t go around having these kinds of thoughts about people. I don’t even know what it means.” She looked at Monty. “What does it mean?”

“I can’t answer that for you,” Monty said, his tone sympathetic. “But it sounds like the beginning of something.”

“Something?”

“Something you shouldn’t ignore.”

Clarke shook her head and spread syrup across her plate with her fork. “This is stupid,” she said. “I’m sure it’ll pass.”

“Probably,” Monty said, watching her.

“Haven’t you ever had a crush like that; something fleeting and inconsequential that you later looked back on and rolled your eyes at?”

“I’ve had many of those.”

Clarke felt relieved. It was nothing; nothing but too many Disgruntled Inuits clouding her judgment. “I’ll just stay away from her until this passes.”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why avoid her if it’s nothing?”

Clarke sighed at the question as she searched for an answer. Because being around Lexa was confusing; because she was terrified that these feelings wouldn’t go away otherwise.

“Can I give you some advice?” Monty asked, when Clarke didn’t answer.

“Please.”

“I find that the best way to get over someone is to spend as much time with them as possible.”

Clarke frowned. “How does that help?”

“Simple. The more time you spend with someone, the more you learn about them, and the more reasons you find not to like them. If you cut off contact you just put them up on a pedestal and leave them there. It doesn’t help you at all.”

“Interesting theory,” Clarke said, thinking it over. There were bound to be a million things she wouldn’t like about Lexa Woods. And spending more time with the actress wasn’t an unappealing idea. Of course, that assumed that Lexa would even want to spend time with her in return. “Okay, but what if you spend time with someone and only find more reasons to like them?”

“Well,” Monty said, sitting back. “Would that be so bad?”

“Well, it defeats the goal of trying to get over them.”

Monty thought about that for a long moment, and then he shrugged. “Some people you’re just not meant to get over.”

***

Lexa stood in her living room with a cup of coffee in her hand. She smiled as she sipped, surveying the world outside for a while; enjoying the view of the city from many stories above.

“... won’t go for that, Cynthia,” Anya was saying, annoyance evident in her tone. “Fine. Fine. I’ll talk to her.”

Lexa didn’t turn. She knew what was coming. The inevitable place she’d need to be. The inevitable appearance she’d have to make. The inevitable pictures she’d have to pose for.

“You should get curtains,” Anya said, suddenly. “It’s so fucking bright in here.”

Lexa liked the brightness, especially on cloudless days like this. She loved the bars of light dancing across her floor. “So, what’s the verdict?”

“You need to be seen, Lexa,” Anya said, as if it had been her idea and not someone else’s. “I hate saying this, but Cynthia’s right. It’s not good for you be hidden away for too long. She’s sending me some invitations for you to look over. You go, you make nice, you flirt with the stud of the week, you smile for the cameras, and home you go.”

“Okay,” Lexa said, knowing there was no use in arguing. It was time to play nice with the New York paps. It was time to rejoin the public scene and ensure that the flame of fame never wavered.

“That’s it? No argument?”

Lexa turned to face her new manager, who sat on the couch looking pained and irritated. “You look like crap.”

“I drank too much at that damn party,” Anya said, rubbing her temples.

Lexa smiled sympathetically. “If it makes you feel better, you gave a great performance on stage.”

“God, don’t remind me.”

Lexa tried not to laugh. She was counting on Costia to send her a copy of the video. It would make an excellent birthday present for Bellamy. “Go home, Anya. Get some sleep. You could’ve told me everything over the phone.”

“I know, I just wanted to make sure you were okay,” Anya said, sounding more like herself and less like the grump she’d been moments before. “I was pretty gone last night, but not gone enough that I didn’t see you talking to Clarke.”

“Talking to her isn’t going to break me,” Lexa said, taking a seat on the couch. “We’re friends. At least, I think of her as a friend. I don’t know what she thinks of me.” She shrugged and sipped her coffee, trying to seem unaffected by it all; trying to pretend that being on the balcony with Clarke hadn’t been the highlight of her day, that she wasn’t depressed by the impossibility of it all. “I was supposed to have lunch with Costia today but she called earlier to cancel. She said something about drowning in red tape.”

“You don’t sound too disappointed.”

Relieved, more like, but she shrugged that off too. “We’ll reschedule. It’s not like we won’t be seeing entirely too much of each other starting Tuesday.”

Anya nodded and yawned.

“Go home,” Lexa said again. “Really. I’m fine. Right now it’s you that doesn’t look it.”

“Looking and being are entirely different things,” Anya said, but started gathering her things. “By the way, I put a call out for a new assistant for you. I figured you’d want to replace me as soon as possible.”

“Thanks, Anya, but I’m not sure anyone in the world could replace you.”

Anya snorted as she stood. “You got that right.” She smiled. “I’ll call you later so we can discuss the many terrible parties Cynthia wants you to attend.”

“Can’t wait.” Lexa was grateful for the silence that followed the closing of the door.

She sat on her couch and drank her coffee and tried unsuccessfully to think of something other than Clarke. There were things she should be doing, things other than this unproductive business of yearning for the unattainable. But her mind kept going back to the night before. Lexa had felt something, standing on the balcony with Clarke; something she couldn’t pinpoint no matter how often she ran the scene through her head. But something intangible and undecipherable had passed between them, she was certain of it. As certain as someone could be of something they couldn’t name.

Music interrupted her thinking and she turned briefly toward the kitchen counter, where she’d left her phone. The ringtone filled the silent air until Lexa moved to answer. There was only one person with that ringtone. “Hello?”

“Hey!”

Lexa smiled into the phone, setting the cup of coffee down on the counter and settling down on one of the stools. Through the line she could hear the unmistakable noise of traffic mixed in with what sounded very much like drums. “Where in the world are you?”

Clarke let out a soft laugh which sounded even softer against the sounds in the background. “I’m in front of the Met.”

That didn’t explain the drums, but Lexa decided to let that go. “You know, for someone who thinks the Upper East Side is thoroughly uncool, you sure spend a lot of time up here.”

“I never said it was uncool, I just said TriBeCa was cooler.”

“So what brings you up here, to my relatively inferior neighborhood?”

“I was hanging out with Monty and he got called up to do a work errand so I tagged along. But we’ve since parted ways. What are you up to?”

Lexa looked around the apartment, hoping it would reveal an answer that was less pathetic than ‘sitting on my couch, trying not to think of you.’ “Just enjoying my last day of freedom.”

“Cops finally found the dead bodies you left buried in L.A., huh?”

“It was bound to happen sooner or later,” Lexa said, and smiled, all the while wondering why Clarke had called.

“Hey, did you have lunch yet?”

Lexa’s heart sped up at the question. Did Clarke want to have lunch with her? “I had coffee…”

“For lunch?”

“I woke up late,” Lexa said, though it wasn’t much of an explanation. “Why do you ask?”

“Well, if you’re not busy, I thought you might like to try the best veggie burgers in the city? I was on my way to pick some up.”

Lexa wasn’t certain she had understood Clarke correctly. “You want to buy me lunch?”

“Well…yeah,” Clarke said, sounding shy now, her voice nearly drowned out by a passing car. “I mean, unless you don’t want me to.”

Clarke’s uncertainty made Lexa’s heart ache; she couldn’t think of anything she’d rather do than have lunch with Clarke. Of course, she couldn’t say that. Not in those words. “Hmm, the best veggie burgers in the city with the best artist in the city; sounds like a good deal.”

“Ooh, flattery,” Clarke said, sounding more confident now. “Maybe I’ll throw in fries.”

Lexa laughed, feeling both lightheaded and giddy at the thought that the girl she had feelings for was buying her lunch.

“So, be there in like … twenty minutes or so?”

“See you then.” Lexa waited until Clarke had hung up to do the same. She sat for a minute or two, staring nervously at her phone; half-expecting Clarke to call back and say she’d changed her mind, or had dialed the wrong number originally and was terribly sorry for her mistake. But the phone remained silent, leading Lexa to believe that everything was as it should be.

She glanced quickly at the time. Seventeen minutes left to shower and get ready, which left no time at all for sitting around feeling doubtful.

Lexa showered quickly, lingering under the spray only long enough to convince herself that none of this meant anything; that Clarke was just being friendly. And that was good enough, Lexa thought, as she picked out something to wear from the plethora of options in her closet.

She opted for dark skinny jeans and a deep blue t-shirt that she’d often been complimented in. Not that it matters, she reminded herself, as she slipped into the clothes. The knock came soon after, and Lexa hesitated only briefly to regard her reflection. Her hair was still wet, but it would have to air dry. She often wished her mirror could talk just so it could tell her how she looked. Not that it matters, she repeated again, walking away from the mirror and her uncertain reflection to welcome Clarke into her home.

Her heart sped up as she turned the knob, anticipating those few, awkward seconds that accompanied any initial greeting. She smiled as Clarke came into view, unable to help the way her stomach fluttered at the sight of her.

“Hope you’re hungry,” Clarke said as she walked in, the scent of food trailing in behind her. She glanced into the living room area and then back at Lexa. “The couch arrived! It looks great.”

“Yeah, this girl I know helped me pick it out,” Lexa teased, closing the door. “She’s a little weird, but I think she has good taste.”

Clarke made a face that read something like, “Hey.”

Lexa decided she liked that face. “You can hang your jacket on my brand new coat rack.” And she motioned to the object in question as if she were modeling a first place prize on a TV game show.

Clarke handed over the bag of food and began unwinding her scarf. “Fancy,” she said. “Did it come with the couch?”

“Anya brought it over. I think she was tired of having to put her things in my room.” Lexa watched with veiled interest as Clarke removed the excess layers of clothing. She wondered if Clarke knew how sexy she looked with her hair half-way up. She caught herself staring and dropped her gaze to the bag in her hands. “This smells good.”

Clarke met the comment with a smile. “I hope you like it,” she said as she hung her jacket. “Next time I can treat you to the best vegetarian hotdogs in the city.”

Next time. “Are you trying to convert me to vegetarianism?”

“Even if that were my ultimate goal, I wouldn’t tell you,” Clarke said, hooking her thumbs on the back pocket of her jeans. “It would ruin my carefully constructed plans for Vegetarian Domination.”

Lexa lifted a brow. “V.D.?”

“I clearly didn’t think that through enough,” she admitted, and laughed.

Lexa shook her head, amused. She headed toward the kitchen to set up their meal. “I was surprised by your call,” she said, before she could think better of it, “I would’ve figured you’d be out with Anthony.”

“Oh,” Clarke said, sounding surprised. “Well, he said he’d call. He hasn’t yet. But I hear that’s normal in the dating world.”

“I’m sure he’ll call,” Lexa said, trying to sound supportive. She hated the thought of Clarke with someone else, but hated the thought of someone hurting Clarke even more.

Clarke shrugged as she joined Lexa in the unpacking of the food. “Oh, what happened with Costia? I forgot you might have plans with her today.”

“She had to work,” Lexa said, aware that Clarke was standing entirely too close. She hated that she enjoyed the closeness; it felt like a betrayal. She stepped away, moved toward the cupboard to grab a couple of glasses. “What would you like to drink?”

“Water is fine. Sorry about Costia.”

“Don’t be,” Lexa said, filling the two glasses with water. “Starting this week we’ll practically be living together.” She looked over to see that Clarke was looking at her strangely. “Something wrong?”

Clarke shook her head, offering a quick smile. “No, nothing at all.” She walked around the counter to sit down. “Are you excited about the new film?”

Lexa hesitated before answering. The truth was that she had mixed feelings about the movie. She loved the story, loved the idea of it, but playing a lesbian still terrified her. The thought of doing love scenes with both Costia and Raven filled her with panic. “Umm,” she said, as she joined Clarke. “I’m not sure how I feel about it exactly.”

Clarke looked at her curiously, as if trying to guess what Lexa meant by that. Then she looked away. “Dig in,” she said, sliding a paper-wrapped burger toward Lexa.

Lexa accepted the offering with minimal complaint, recognizing at once that she was starving. She was aware that Clarke was watching her as she took the first bite, and though she hadn’t given much thought to the claim that this was the best veggie burger in New York, the burst of flavor in her mouth told her that Clarke could very well be right. “This is delicious,” she admitted.

Clarke looked satisfied with Lexa’s assessment and turned to her own meal. “The fries aren’t as good,” she said, sounding regretful.

Lexa took her cue and tried one. “It’s not bad,” she argued. “A little soggy, maybe.”

“A little soggy?” Clarke picked up a fry and held it by one end, demonstrating as it bent in the center to form a slightly deformed “L.”

“Okay, I see your point,” Lexa said with a laugh, and returned to her food. “Hmm, you know, this burger is really good, but I’m not sure it’s the best in the city anymore.”

Clarke looked at her in surprise. “Oh?”

“Yeah, you still haven’t tried my recipe,” Lexa said. “I mean, if you’re up for the challenge.”

“You think you can make a better veggie burger than this?”

“Oh, I know I can.”

“Well, that I’d have to see,” Clarke said. “Challenge accepted, though I reserve the right to be perfectly honest. I take my veggie burgers very seriously.”

“I wouldn’t expect anything less.” Lexa ran her weekly schedule through her mind. “How about next Saturday?”

“It’s a date.”

***

It’s a date. Now why had she said that? It wasn’t a date. Clarke knew that. She didn’t even know if she wanted it to be a date, were a date even an option; which of course it wasn’t. She glanced briefly at Lexa, aiming to say something else to dismiss the ‘date’ comment as a kind of joke, but her phone chose that moment to interrupt the suddenly silent air. “Sorry,” Clarke said, digging into her pocket to retrieve the object. “It’s my parents.”

“No worries.”

“Hello?”

“Why do you never call?” In the background of her mother’s voice, Clarke could hear the overacted chatter of her mom’s favorite TV show, which must’ve meant David wasn’t home.

“I called on Friday. Dillon said you were out.”

“Why does no one tell me these things? When are you next down? I want to introduce you to someone.”

If her mother wanted her to meet someone, it could only mean one thing: setup. “Who?” she asked, already guessing the answer. No doubt a medical student, no doubt good-looking, no doubt male.

“A nice decent boy, you’ll like him. He’s a colleague’s son. He’s doing his master's degree here in New York. Very handsome guy.”

“Mom, oh my god, I don’t want you setting me up. I’m already sort of seeing someone. I told you about him.”

“You’ve told me nothing,” her mother said, sounding annoyed now. “All I know is that he’s an artist like you. Two artists together. How do you plan on sustaining a living?”

“We’re not going to starve just because we’re both artists, please, mom. Don’t be ridiculous.”

“I’m your mother. I’m allowed to be worried.”

“I’m at a friend’s place; can we talk about this later?”

“What friend? The guy you’re dating?”

“Female friend.”

“Oh. I have some leftovers here that I want you to come and take. You can make some for you and Raven.”

Clarke often wondered how her mother’s brain functioned. How had they gotten from a romantic setup attempt to food? “You know I don’t like to cook,” she said. “Why don’t you offer them to Miller?” It was risky, Clarke knew, bringing her step-brother up, but it felt important to keep mentioning him.

There was silence from her mother’s end of the line, and had it not been for the background noise Clarke would’ve thought perhaps her mother had already hung up. But then she spoke, “Pick it up before Friday.” And the line went dead.

Clarke sighed, momentarily forgetting that Lexa was still sitting beside her, doing her best to look uninterested in the conversation. Clarke had a feeling the actress had heard every word; Clarke’ half anyway. “Sorry about that,” she said, and dropped the phone on the counter next to her now undoubtedly cold burger.

“Everything okay?”

“Yeah,” Clarke said, and meant to change the subject, but Lexa was looking at her with concern and before she could stop herself she was babbling. “It was just my mother trying to drive me insane like usual. One second she’s trying to set me up with some random boy I’ve never met, the next she’s telling me Anthony’s not good enough for me because he’s an artist. At least she’s moved on from trying to get me back with Finn.” She shrugged, suddenly feeling like she’d said too much. “Is your mom like that?”

“My mom died when I was young,” Lexa said, and Clarke suddenly froze.

“God, I’m sorry,” Clarke said, wishing she could go back and delete the question from the transcript of their conversation. She’d known about Lexa’s mother, had read about it somewhere on the Internet, but it was hard to remember sometimes that the person she read about online was the same person sitting next to her.

“It was a long time ago,” Lexa said as if to mean that it didn’t matter. But Clarke could see a flash of something in Lexa’s green eyes that made her think otherwise. “My step-mother drives me crazy, though, if that answers your question.”

It didn’t, not exactly. “Does she try to set you up with hot random guys too?”

Lexa looked genuinely amused by the question, as if the thought were ridiculous. “Guys, yes. hot, no. We don’t get along. You know, we pretend, for my father’s sake, and for the sake of giving in to appearances. She’s big on appearances. She likes the idea of me, of me being famous and all of that, but she doesn’t like me. I’ll always be someone else’s daughter to her, a stain on her otherwise perfect marriage.”

Lexa managed not to sound bitter, somehow, and Clarke was surprised that the actress could speak so matter-of-factly about something that had to hurt her. “What about your father. Are you close with him?”

Lexa looked thoughtful, as though the question had never occurred to her. “Not really,” she said finally. “I know he loves me, but we both know that I don’t fit in with his life; that I don’t want to fit in with it. He tried for many years to get us to be a family, but it never worked out.” She looked hesitant, as if she wanted to say more, but wasn’t sure she should. Then, “I was very close with my grandmother. But she passed away a few years ago.”

Clarke could tell that this wasn’t a subject Lexa talked about very often, and Clarke wanted to hug her, or take her hand, or do something to show that she understood that the topic was painful. But she wasn’t brave enough for physical contact, no matter how badly she wanted to close the space between them. “You’d never mentioned her before,” she said, trying for something different than the usual ‘I’m sorry.’

“I know. I don’t really like to talk about it,” Lexa said, her tone gentle, as if not wishing to offend.

“Because it hurts too much?” Clarke knew she was pushing the subject, but she couldn’t keep the words from tumbling out of her mouth. Lexa didn’t answer, so Clarke added, “My father left when I was little. I don’t really like to talk about it either.”

Lexa looked at her, a sad smile playing at the corner of her lips. She was silent for several seconds, until finally she said, “Do you want me to heat up your burger?”

The shift in conversation startled Clarke briefly and she glanced at the burger in question, having forgotten it was there. “Oh. No, it’s fine. I don’t mind it cold.”

“Are things any better between your family and your step-brother?”

This conversation was starting to feel like a rollercoaster. “No, it doesn’t look like it,” she said, the subject depressing as always. “I don’t think they’re ever going to get over it. It’s frustrating.” But it was more than that, Clarke was starting to realize. She’d thought all along that her persistence in mentioning Miller was done out of love, out of a desire to see her family reunited. And while that was a big part of it, it wasn’t the whole truth. Buried deep beneath her selfless acts of goodwill was a deeper, more selfish reason: She was terrified that one day it would be her at the other end of her mother’s contempt.

“You okay? I’m sorry I brought that up. I didn’t mean to upset you.”

Clarke forced a quick smile in Lexa’s direction. “I’m fine,” she said. And she was. With any luck at all, her taste in women was limited to Hollywood actresses, which hopefully meant that she wouldn’t have to worry about these types of feelings bubbling up again. Now all she had to do was figure out a way to push her current feelings back to wherever they’d sprung from, and then she’d be perfect. Right. In any case, it was time to change the subject. “So, why aren’t you sure how you feel about the movie?” she asked, picking up her burger before it got any colder than it already was.

Lexa tucked a strand of brown hair behind her ear and stared pensively at the view from the windows. Clarke watched her, quietly wondering how many other people harbored secret feelings for the actress. When Lexa looked back at her, Clarke looked away, pretending she’d been focused on eating. “I think I’m just nervous about being with Costia on screen, while …”

“Being with her off-screen?” Clarke supplied, her stomach knotting at the thought.

Lexa looked embarrassed, though she didn’t go as far as blushing. “Nothing’s happened,” she said.

“But it could.”

Lexa nodded slowly, as if processing the idea of that. “Yeah, I guess it could. But, you know, I’m nervous about that, too.”

Lexa’s openness surprised Clarke. It was strange to see the actress looking so shy and uncertain. It made Clarke want to … what? Kiss her? Hug her? She took a sip of water while thinking of something to say that wouldn’t give away how she felt about the situation. “She’s probably nervous, too.”

“Costia Calloway?” Lexa let out a soft laugh. “From what I gather, she’s had her share of women.”

“Yeah, but probably none as beautiful as you,” Clarke said, and the words were out before she had a chance to stop them.

Lexa looked at her suddenly, startled, and Clarke could swear that the actress was blushing now.

Anxious to change the words lingering in the air between them, Clarke said, “I mean, being that you were just named one of the world’s most beautiful people, it seems like a safe bet.” She smiled, hoping to look casual, though she felt nothing short of mortified by her inability to edit herself.

Lexa seemed to recover from her surprise, and was smiling at Clarke in a way that would’ve appeared flirtatious had Clarke not known any better. “Were you stalking me again?”

“Raven was, actually,” Clarke said, grateful to have the spotlight off herself for a change. “She’s really excited.”

“I’m really happy she got the part,” Lexa said, smiling still. “She’s really good.”

Clarke detected something else hidden beneath the words, and she found herself wondering how Lexa felt about her scenes with Raven. “Is she your type?” she asked, because her mouth had lost all communication with her brain and was apparently flying solo.

“Is who my type?”

“Raven.”

“As in … am I attracted to her?” Lexa sounded both perplexed and amused.

The question had plagued Clarke from the moment Raven told her that they’d kissed. Clarke hated the idea of Costia and Lexa together, but even worse was the notion that Lexa might be at all attracted to Raven. Worse still was the knowledge that none of this should be bothering her in the first place. It was none of her business who Lexa found attractive. “Sorry,” she said, feeling foolish. “I shouldn’t have asked that.”

“She’s more Bellamy’s type.”

It was Lexa’s diplomatic way of saying that she wasn’t interested, and though she didn’t want to admit it, Clarke was relieved. “You prefer directors to actors?” Clarke teased, thinking of Costia.

“I don’t put much emphasis on career choice, honestly,” Lexa said a moment later. “Why? Is there someone you want to try and set me up with?”

Yes, me. If she weren’t so petrified of the idea, Clarke quickly amended. “No, I just find it mystifying that you’ve never had a girlfriend. I thought maybe you just had a really specific type … like a bald, one-eyed hunchback … with a beard.”

“That does sound terribly sexy.”

Clarke loved Lexa’s smile. She was certain it was to blame for all of these feelings. No one with a pulse could resist a smile like that; she was sure of it. “I’ll be on the lookout, then.” She thought of Monty’s advice, how spending time with someone might lead to getting over them, but spending time with Lexa just made things worse. “What are you doing tomorrow?”

“Interview and photo shoot in the morning, and I am pretty sure that I’ll have to be at some kind of party tomorrow night. Why?”

“Are you free for lunch?”

Lexa shook her head regretfully. “I’d be free for dinner?”

Clarke thought of the food her mother wanted her to pick up, which would undoubtedly come with an assortment of other food that Clarke would be forced to prepare. “Have you ever made a meal out of leftovers?”

“I haven’t, actually.”

“Would you be at all interested in helping me cook whatever random ingredients my mother forces upon me when I go visit her tomorrow? No pressure, if you don’t feel like it.”

“I thought you hated cooking?”

“Oh, I do. But you love it. So, I figure my hatred of it and your love of it would coalesce to create a balanced cooking experience.”

“And in an odd way that makes perfect sense. Count me in.”

Clarke was shocked by her own audacity, but relieved that Lexa had accepted her somewhat spontaneous offer. “So, say … around … six?”

Lexa smiled again. “It’s a date.”

Chapter Forty-Two

The sunlight chased shadows across the black carpet of the limousine as the vehicle pushed forward through mid-day traffic, and Lexa watched the moving patterns with mild interest before shifting her gaze to the window. Date. That was the word Clarke had used and Lexa had echoed it, thinking it safe. But there was nothing safe about the way she felt around Clarke, and especially about Clarke, which made it all the more difficult to stop obsessing about word choice versus intent.

“The photos from today turned out great, by the way.”

Lexa said nothing as the moments of silence ticked by. She didn’t know how to express that she didn’t care.

“And that photographer was pretty hot, huh?” Anya continued, simultaneously tapping away on the keys of her cell phone. “What was her name? Something exotic, I think.”

“Jane,” Lexa said, and almost smiled.

“Still, she was hot.”

Lexa hadn’t noticed. She vaguely recalled the lights shining down on her as she struggled to maintain a photogenic pose, listening as the woman’s voice guided her from one captured moment to the next. She mostly remembered thinking about Clarke. “How did you do it?”

Anya frowned as she looked up from her iPhone. “Do what exactly?”

“Get over me.” Lexa stared intently at her friend, searching for the answer in her eyes. “You said you’d liked me before … how did you get over me?”

“You’re seriously asking me that question?” Anya sounded both startled and embarrassed. She looked away, as if debating whether or not to answer. And then, “There’s no trick to it, Lexa. There’s no one way to get over someone.” She looked down at her phone again but made no move to resume typing on it. “I’m guessing that’s what you’re really asking.”

“It is,” Lexa admitted, and the thought that she might have offended Anya entered her mind. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked that.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Of course it matters. Your feelings matter to me. Even the ones I didn’t know about at the time.”

Anya didn’t respond right away, and the sound of surrounding traffic took the place of silence in the interim. “Lexa, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but … have you ever considered that maybe you only like Clarke because you think you can’t have her? That maybe you only allow yourself to feel something for her because you think it’s safe?”

Safe; there was that word again, and Lexa frowned only briefly before resting her head against the window. She let the question loiter in the empty spaces of the limo as she watched the buildings pass. What was the purpose of finding reason to emotions? There was no such thing as safety where feelings were concerned. There was only the hope of love and the fear of love and both weighed down with equal force. “I can want her,” she said finally, “and still fear having her.”

“But would you still want her if you had her?”

“Yes,” Lexa said easily, knowing it was true. “Not that there’s any chance of that happening.”

“You can’t possibly know that.”

“Well, I’d rather think that there isn’t,” Lexa admitted. “Even if she liked me … even if I could bring myself to hope that she’d return my feelings … what’s the point? She’d always leave me in the end.”

“Well, that’s a shit attitude.”

“We’re all with the bluntness today, aren’t we?”

Anya shifted in her seat, looking serious. “Lexa, you can’t go into a relationship thinking it’s not going to last. Granted, odds are that it won’t, but that’s not to say that the journey to the breakup isn’t meaningful. Just because two people find out that they’re not made for each other after months of putting up with stuff like Mexican robots and impromptu penis rings doesn’t mean the relationship was a total waste of time.”

The words registered one-by-one in Lexa’s mind, and she looked at Anya in surprise. “You and Bellamy broke up?”

Anya bit her bottom lip in response. Then she said, “It depends on how you feel about it. If you’re upset, then no, we’re quite happy together.”

“Anya,” Lexa said, feeling impatient. “Why didn’t you tell me? When did this happen?”

“About a week ago.” Anya sounded relieved as she launched into the topic. “We got into a huge fight about … well, it doesn’t matter. We just realized it wasn’t working out. We want different things; we’re not at the same place emotionally, et cetera.”

“So, just like that? It’s over?” The thought was depressing. Lexa struggled to wrap her mind around the notion that two people could one day be madly in love and the next … what?

“Well, we’re still friends,” Anya said. “I love Bellamy and I know he cares for me but the timing isn’t right. Honestly, it’s all a bit of a cliché.”

“Complete with Mexican robots?”

Anya let out a laugh. “He didn’t tell you about Buttercup? Wait, no, not just ‘Buttercup’ but ‘Buttercup!’ with an exclamation point at the end.”

“I think I’d remember that conversation.”

“It’s this mystery script he told no one about. And somehow, God only knows, he secured funding. And I was all excited about it until he told me it was about a killer Mexican robot named Buttercup whose battery runs on nachos.”

Lexa’s mood lightened and she giggled. There was something uplifting about Bellamy’s insanity. “Please tell me it’s going to be a musical.”

Anya brightened suddenly. “Oh my God, I hope so. It’s actually a far more exciting project now that I don’t have to think of it as my boyfriend’s. Anyway, he’s still being all sorts of secretive about it,” she added, as her cell phone chimed. She took at look at the screen and shook her head. “Did you take a look at those invitations I gave you? Inquiring minds want to know what parties you’ll be attending.”

“I think I’ll go by that night club that’s opening tomorrow night,” Lexa said, mentally sorting through the options. “I was thinking …” She paused, realizing she hadn’t thought it through enough and perhaps shouldn’t voice it.

“You were thinking…?”

She considered saying something other than the truth but decided that was senseless. “I was thinking of asking Costia to meet me there … you know, accidentally on purpose. But I don’t know, maybe it’s stupid.”

“I think as long as you’re not caught making out with her in the bathroom, it should be fine.” Anya smiled. “So you’re going for it then?”

“I don’t know,” Lexa said, because that was really the truth of it. “I feel like I should do something other than pine over Clarke. And I like Costia … I just can’t figure out to what degree I like Costia, or to what degree I could like Costia.”

“You overanalyze this stuff too much. You either like her or you don’t. You either want to sleep with her or you don’t. You can think about it all you want but it’s not going to change how you feel when she’s in front of you. And the same goes for Clarke; you can downplay your emotions to your heart’s content but it’s not going to make you want her any less.”

“Maybe I should fire you as my manager and hire you as my shrink.”

“You could,” Anya agreed with a smile, “but I don’t think you could afford me.”

***

The apartment smelled faintly of bleach and fried food; the remnants of another productive day in Abby Miller’s life. Clarke sat in the living room, thinking that her mother looked both exhausted and depressed. Guilt rose within her with such force that she swallowed. She should’ve visited sooner and called more often. She should’ve been more available. But she’d been selfish, caught up in frivolities and silly crushes, and now here was her mother, looking sullen and worn down.

“You have paint all over your jeans,” Abby said.

Clarke glanced down at her jeans and wondered what her mother saw instead. The guilt was still there, however, making her want to please her mother. “Maybe we can go shopping for new ones sometime.”

Surprise shone clearly in Abby’s brown eyes. “Sure,” she said, “if you want.”

“I want,” Clarke said confidently, thinking that maybe it was true. Maybe if her clothes weren’t covered in paint, a certain movie star would notice her then. And she pushed that thought away before it could take shape in her mind. “Where’s David?”

It seemed like an innocent enough question, but her mother’s mood darkened. “I don’t know,” she said, in a tone that implied the end of the conversation. She reached for the remote and turned on the television. “I’m going to watch the end of my show.”

The sudden shift caught Clarke off-guard and she struggled to make sense of her mom’s reaction. What had she missed? “I’ll just pack up the leftovers,” she said, standing.

“I threw them out.”

“What? Why?”

“They went bad.”

Clarke stared at her mother, hoping for an explanation or at least a moment of clarity through osmosis; neither came. Abby turned up the volume on the television and settled into the chair.

“You should watch this,” she said, “it’s really good. There’s a young guy … Robert. He’s in love with a girl but he doesn’t know that she’s really the spirit of his dead sister, June.”

“I’m gonna go say hi to Dillon,” she said, annoyed that her mother was shutting her out. She headed down the hall, feeling less guilty. Now she remembered why she hadn’t visited in a while.

She knocked on her brother’s door. When he answered, she entered, trying to remember the last time she’d been in there. She couldn’t put a date to it, but little had changed. The twin bed remained against the left wall, sheets unmade and half-way to the floor. The walls were plastered with predictable images: Cars, Demon Hunter, BattleMechs, and the occasional half-naked woman.

Clarke was nearly done with her inspection when her gaze landed on a familiar face. Hidden within the collage of wall decorations was a fold-out of Lexa Woods, clad in a black bikini; water and wet sand sprinkled across her tanned skin. Clarke’s first instinct was to stare, to take in Lexa’s perfect form and commit it further to memory. But then she felt a jolt of anger at herself, and then at her brother. She had the sudden urge to rip the poster from the wall and sling hypocritical comments at Dillon.

“Um, are you just gonna stand there all day?”

Her anger deflated at the sound of his voice. Dillon was sitting at his desk, playing a video game on his computer. “What are you playing?”

“Star Wars,” he said distractedly, his fingers moving quickly over the keys. “What brings you to my lair?”

“Mom’s being weird.”

“Yeah.”

Clarke leaned against the side of his desk. She watched him quietly for a minute or two. His dark hair was getting too long, and his brown eyes sparkled with the monitor’s reflection, the moving images flickering as his gaze darted from one side of the screen to the other. “What’s going on with her?” she asked, returning to the subject at hand. “She won’t tell me.”

“She thinks Dad is sleeping with the lady downstairs,” he said casually, his attention on the game.

The words shocked her and she blinked. “What? Why? Is he?”

Dillon snorted and then laughed. “Dad is too much of a pussy to cheat on her. But don’t worry, I looked into it to make sure. She don’t need that shit again, not after what your dad did.”

“Doesn’t,” she corrected.

“Yeah,” he said, nodding, distracted still by the action on the screen, but sounding passionate about the conversation matter. “I’d kick his fucking ass if he pulled the same stunt that other bastard did.”

Clarke thought of her father and felt her anger for him return. “Why does mom think David is cheating?”

“Because he’s seeing some shrink downtown,” he said. “I went through his stuff and found the receipts and the appointments. He’s got to go like three times a week. There was some letter from his boss, too, demanding that he see someone ‘cause of some stress-related breakdown he’d had at work. But of course he’s too fucking macho to admit that. So he keeps making up shit about where he is and what he’s been doing. He came home with some take-out the other day and said he’d gone to pick them up from somewhere, and then today that lady came by asking for him or some crap and somehow it came out that the food was from her. Abby flipped the fuck out.”

“Jesus,” Clarke said, wrapping her mind around the story. Wondering where she’d been through it all. “Why is David having breakdowns?”

“Miller, probably. He’s all torn up about it; goes around acting like he lost a son. Abby I think is just relieved it wasn’t you that turned out queer.”

Panic, that’s what Clarke felt at the words; fear so strong that it left her momentarily breathless. Her gaze flashed to the poster of Lexa and she felt ashamed.

“How’s Miller?” Dillon asked softly, so softly that Clarke almost didn’t hear him.

“He seems okay,” she said carefully, unsure why he was asking; surprised that he had. “Why?”

He looked at her quickly and shrugged. “I miss him.” His voice was quiet, as if worried that someone else might overhear. “I don’t hate him or nothin’. You know?”

Clarke didn’t know, but she suddenly wanted to. “You reacted pretty strongly…”

“Yeah, well.” He shrugged again, uncomfortable with the topic. The game appeared forgotten. “Look, this is the sort of shit that spreads around. Suddenly everyone’s whispering about it. You know how it is, don’t pretend you don’t. Those fucking assholes on the stoop with nothing better to do than sit around talking shit about other people. And before you know it, you can’t go anywhere without hearing crap like, ‘Oh, that’s Miller’s son, his brother sucks dick,’ and suddenly they’re wondering if you’re gay too. I don’t need that kind of shit, you know? You’re a girl so it’s cool if you hang out with gays down in the village, but it’s different up here and it’s different for me. It’s hard enough trying to keep some fucking asshole from breaking my face with a baseball bat for no other reason than he thinks I looked at his girl. He don’t need added reasons like thinking I was looking at him instead.”

Clarke sighed, wanting to hug him and take him someplace safe. But nowhere was safe, so she simply hugged him.

“Let go,” he said, but didn’t sound convincing, and after a second, she felt him hug her back. “I miss you, you know. When are you bringing that new guy of yours around? I gotta see if he’s good enough for you.”

Clarke pulled away, taking a seat at the edge of the bed. “It’s nothing serious.”

“No? Abby made it sound like you were in looooove.”

“She would. What about you? Any prospects?”

“I’m saving myself for Raven, you know that.” He smiled. “How is she? I heard she’s in some Lexa Woods movie?”

Lexa’s name sounded odd coming from her brother’s lips. “She is.”

“That’s so fucking cool,” he said, shaking her head. “Hey, is it true that there’s like … chicks kissing in it?”

Uncomfortable now, Clarke frowned. “Where did you hear that?”

“Read it online somewhere. I was looking it up to see if Raven was mentioned, but there wasn’t much. Just that Lexa Woods would be making out with chicks. Is it true?”

“That’s what I hear,” she said.

“Hot. She’s so hot. Do you think Raven would introduce me?”

The change in conversation had become decidedly disturbing, Clarke realized. It was bad enough that her brother had Lexa’s picture on his wall; the thought that he might also lust after her made Clarke’s stomach turn. “I’ll ask her,” she said, and stood. “I should get going.”

“Okay, see ya.”

“I’ll call you,” she said, her guilt from earlier returning. “We should hang out sometime.”

“With Raven?” he asked hopefully.

“What, I’m not enough for you?”

“When you can introduce me to Lexa Woods, maybe.”

Clarke was tempted to say that she could; that, in fact, she was headed to Lexa’s apartment soon to cook now-nonexistent food and hang out. But she only smiled and said, “Fair deal.” She forced herself not to glance at Lexa’s poster before stepping back out into the hall.

***

“Your pre-cooked ingredients smell remarkably like Chinese food,” Lexa said, as Clarke walked past her into the apartment, carrying a white plastic bag in one hand. She did her best not to stare too intently as Clarke passed.

“Change of plans,” Clarke said, looking apologetic as she handed the bag to Lexa.

“Didn’t make it to your mom’s after all?” she guessed, peeking into the bag to make sure her senses weren’t lying. Familiar white cartons stared up at her.

Clarke shrugged out of her jacket as she answered, “Long story. I hope you like Chinese. The veggie hotdogs place was inexplicably out of buns.”

Lexa wondered if she’d get to hear the long story or if the subject was closed to discussion. “I do love Chinese,” she said, and began leading them toward the living room.

“Hey, that’s new,” Clarke said suddenly, stopping to look at the new coffee table. “How do you manage to get new furniture from one day to the next?”

Lexa placed the food on the new table; a late-night purchase inspired by insomnia and boredom. “I ordered it online and it arrived this afternoon,” she said. “But don’t worry, I called in and asked someone to sit on it for me to make sure it wasn’t lumpy.”

Clarke narrowed her eyes in an attempt to look menacing, but succeeded only in looking like she was trying to read something from far away. “Joke all you want,” she said, giving up on the squinting. “This couch is godly and I bet you that your friend Spankybottoms would agree.”

Lexa grinned at her from the kitchen, and then returned to the business of getting the drinks. She guessed that water would always be Clarke’s beverage of choice, so she didn’t even bother asking before pouring Evian into a glass. But then she hesitated before bringing the drinks over, suddenly embarrassed by her assumption. Maybe Clarke liked drinking something else with Chinese food. “What would you like to drink?” she asked, hoping that Clarke wouldn’t notice that the drinks had been served.

“Water, please,” Clarke said, busy placing the cartons of food on the table and therefore oblivious to what Lexa was doing in the kitchen.

Lexa felt both pleased and relieved as she carried the filled glasses toward her destination. She added ‘drinks water with meals’ to the list of things she knew about Clarke. The list was nowhere near long enough; she wanted to know more. Get a grip, she thought as she took a seat, doing everything in her power to avoid eye contact. She was certain that the words ‘I want you desperately’ were written all over her face, and Clarke would take one look at her and know everything.

“I wasn’t sure what you liked,” Clarke said, opening cartons, “so I went for variety.”

“I like everything,” Lexa said, distracted by the delicious smell of food as well as Clarke’s proximity.

“Good, ‘cause I think I got pretty much everything,” Clarke said, and laughed. “You’re not on a diet or anything, are you?”

“Not at the moment,” Lexa said, picking up a carton to inspect its contents. Shrimp lo mein; her favorite.

“So you’re just naturally perfect?”

Lexa risked a glance in Clarke’s direction, startled by the unexpected compliment. “Well, I do have a personal trainer and sometimes work with a consultant dietician back home,” she admitted.

“Ah, so not naturally perfect,” Clarke teased.

Lexa contemplated Clarke’s words. She was used to women complimenting her appearance, but seldom did these comments come without an obvious hint of envy. She couldn’t figure out what Clarke was thinking. Women didn’t just call her perfect without betraying a certain level of sarcasm. Any positive comment was generally followed by an unspoken and scathing afterthought and Lexa had learned to read between the lines. But when it came to Clarke, she drew a blank. “I’m hardly perfect,” she said, just to see what Clarke would say to that.

“No,” Clarke said, as if agreeing. She’d picked up a carton of food and dug in with abandon. She looked thoughtful as she chewed. “I’m sure you don’t think so. But to … to other people looking at you … you are.”

What other people, Lexa wanted to know, forgetting all about the food. She had the overwhelming urge to grab Clarke by the shoulders and say, “Be direct, damnit!” But she did nothing of the sort. Instead, she watched Clarke eat until she realized she was staring, and then she looked away. “Do you usually eat from the container?”

“Oh, God, I’m sorry!” she said, clearly embarrassed. “It’s such a bad habit. Raven has this thing where she likes to imitate stuff on TV, and people in movies are always eating out of the box, with chopsticks, I might add, which is totally impractical. I know, because she managed to fling pork fried rice all over our living room several times before giving up and switching to a fork. Long story short: I hate doing dishes so the concept was appealing… and now here I am; Chinese food faux pas central.”

“Try saying that ten times fast.” She glanced down at the open carton of shrimp lo mein. “Do you eat shrimp?”

“Nope,” Clarke said. “That’s all yours.”

Lexa picked up a plastic fork and shrugged. “Then I’ll join you in being totally improper.” Clarke’s smile was reward enough for doing something that went completely against her dining etiquette. “So, why the change of plans?”

Clarke looked confused for a moment, as if trying to recall what the plans were originally. “Oh,” she said, comprehension dawning. “My mom thinks her husband is cheating on her with the lady downstairs.”

Lexa wasn’t sure what she’d been expecting as an answer, but that was hardly it. “Is he cheating?”

“According to my younger step-brother, who fancies himself a private investigator suddenly, David is merely going to a psychiatrist three times a week because he’s having trouble coping with Miller’s sexuality. And it appears that he prefers dealing with a wife that thinks he’s cheating to admitting any sign of weakness, emotional or otherwise.”

“Wow,” Lexa said, because nothing else came to mind as an appropriate response.

“And so my mom claims that she threw the leftovers away, but knowing her temper as I do, I’d not be surprised if she’d instead flung them at the wall instead.” She paused to contemplate the thought.

“You’re not going to tell your mom that he’s not really cheating?”

“I thought about it,” Clarke said. “I thought about it all the way back here, and at the Chinese restaurant, and on the walk to your apartment, and I’m still thinking about it. I just feel like it’s none of my business, you know? I don’t want to get involved. Maybe I can send her an anonymous letter instead.” She shrugged. “I bet your family isn’t quite so dramatic.”

Lexa thought of her father, whom she hadn’t spoken to in … she couldn’t remember their last conversation, actually. She couldn’t recall being around any of them long enough to witness any drama. “I can’t imagine my stepmother flinging food at any walls, if that’s what you mean.” Though the visual amused her; Lexa wasn’t sure that Janet knew how to throw anything besides a dinner party.

“Yeah, I guess it’s a little scary that I can totally imagine my mom doing it.” Clarke laughed. “I hope these food-tossing tendencies don’t run in the family.”

“I have trouble picturing you mad,” Lexa said.

“Hmm,” Clarke said, thoughtful again. “I guess I just bottle things up. I tend to avoid confrontation. I think that’s why I stayed with Finn for so long: The fear of the dreaded breakup conversation.”

The topic of breakups brought Anya and Bellamy to Lexa’s mind. Had they avoided the breakup conversation or dived right in? The thought that they were over depressed her. Did love just vanish into thin air? Could she wake up one morning and not care about Clarke at all?

“You okay?”

Lexa forced a smile in her direction. “Yeah, sorry—“

An unfamiliar sound interrupted the rest of her sentence and they both turned to look in the direction of its source.

“Sorry, that’s my phone,” Clarke said. “I can just let it go to voice mail.”

“I don’t mind,” Lexa said, knowing she was partly curious to know who it was, which only made her feel nosy.

Clarke seemed to battle with the decision to answer or not, but she eventually made her way over to get the phone out of her bag. “Hey, I didn’t think you’d call.”

Lexa focused on eating, doing her best to appear uninterested.

“No, I totally get what that’s like,” Clarke was saying quietly, though Lexa could still hear. “It’s fine… I had fun too…”

It was Anthony, Lexa could tell, and she felt a painful surge of desperation. She could, at that moment, envision herself striding across the room, pushing Clarke against the wall and kissing her with everything she had, trying to squeeze one more second of hope out of this impossible situation.

“Oh, my God!” Clarke yelled suddenly, and Lexa looked over, instantly panicked that Clarke had somehow read her mind. But Clarke was smiling into the phone. “How did you manage that?”

Lexa took a deep breath, trying to regain control of her emotions. She would not let jealousy drive her insane. She had to accept that Clarke was with Anthony. Period. Roll the credits.

“Of course I want to go,” Clarke said, sounding more enthusiastic than Lexa had ever heard her, “trust me, I’d cancel any other plans if I had them.”

Angrily, Lexa speared a defenseless shrimp and popped it into her mouth. Of course she’d want to go. Of course she’d cancel any other plans. And Lexa’s vow not to let jealousy get to her flew briskly out the window.

“See you then,” Clarke said, and Lexa heard the phone snap shut.

Do not do anything idiotic, Lexa instructed herself, because she felt very much on the brink of throwing herself at Clarke and begging for a chance. Clarke approached and Lexa pretended to concentrate on the food, worried that one look at the artist would unravel what was left of her self-control.

“I’m sorry about that,” Clarke said, dropping her phone on the table and reclaiming her spot on the couch. “There’s a gallery opening tomorrow night and Jennifer Myers Quinn is the featured artist and Anthony, somehow, managed to snag an invitation and asked me to be his plus one. I can’t begin to tell you how much I love her work; and to be in the same room with her, oh, my God.”

Clarke sounded so excited that Lexa couldn’t help but smile, and then, while trying to suppress thoughts of stabbing Anthony with a plastic fork, she remembered something. “Jennifer Myers Quinn?” Frowning, Lexa put the food down on the table and headed to the kitchen counter to look through the invitations her thoughtful publicist had sent her way.

There, toward the top of the pile, was an invitation to witness and experience the unveiling of Jennifer Myer Quinn’s “breathtaking” new collection. She’d paused at the invitation when she’d first seen it, thinking Clarke might love to go, and regretting the fact that she couldn’t invite her. Showing up with Clarke as her guest was out of the question. She stared at the invitation, thinking. “I’m going to that,” she said after a second, knowing, as she said it, that it was a stupid and selfish idea. She handed the invitation to Clarke. “Maybe I’ll see you there.”

If possible, Clarke looked even more excited. “What do you know? Small world.” She looked at the invitation and bit her lip. “I’m going to have to skip class tomorrow and buy a new dress. This looks fancy.”

“I’m sure you’ll look beautiful,” Lexa said, before she could edit herself. That wasn’t at all what she’d meant to say.

Clarke looked up, surprise written across her face. Then she smiled. “I’m pretty clueless when it comes to fashion, actually. I think I’ll have Monty go with me, though. He’ll make me look amazing. Gay boys have special powers.”

“I’ll have to find myself one of those, then.”

“I don’t think you need any help with looking amazing.”

***

Had she really spoken those words? Clarke wondered. Had she actually told Lexa that she thought she looked amazing? And why not, she’d already called her perfect. Why not keep adding fuel to the fire of potential awkwardness? Next she’d start tossing embarrassing confessions into the air. So, I’ve been picturing you naked a lot, for example. Or, better yet: So, sometimes I fantasize about running my tongue up your perfectly toned stomach. Her heart beat erratically now and she picked up her glass of water in the hopes of swallowing down her embarrassment. When she felt confident enough to look at Lexa, she found the actress staring back at her. Feeling defensive, she said, “What? Surely, that’s not the first time someone’s said that to you.”

“No, I suppose not,” Lexa said.

And don’t call me Shirley, Clarke added silently in her head, because lines from movies had an insidious way of floating into her brain at inopportune times. And she was almost surprised that Lexa hadn’t said it, because Lexa had to have seen Airplane! at least as many times as Clarke had. And if she hadn’t, then surely that fact needed to be remedied as fast as humanly possible. She wondered if asking Lexa to watch a movie with her sometime would sound too much like asking her out on a real date; and then decided she didn’t care. “Please tell me you’ve seen Airplane!” Lexa smiled, as if the abrupt change in topic didn’t seem at all random. “I thought maybe you’d think I was a dork if I said anything.”

“Such wasted opportunity,” Clarke said, shaking her head, relieved that Lexa had seen it, and disappointed that it meant she didn’t get to introduce her to it. At least they’d managed to move away from the ‘amazing’ comment. She looked around, trying to find something else to talk about. They could keep talking about movies, Clarke supposed, but that seemed too generic a topic. She spotted the pages of a screenplay on the table behind the food. “Is that the script for the film?” She couldn’t remember the name of it; no matter how many times Raven mentioned it.

“That’s the one.”

“May I? Raven walks around with it like a protective shield. I’ve not managed to pry her hands free of it yet.”

Lexa laughed, and stood up to retrieve the screenplay. “I’m sure I was like that once,” she said.

Summer’s Dance, Clarke read off the front page. She hated that title. And she wasn’t sure if it was because Costia had come up with it or because she really did hate it. She flipped through the pages, scanning the words without really reading them. “Do you know all your lines already?”

“I think so.”

“So, if I read a random line, you’d know what the next one would be?”

“If it’s mine, probably. Why, are you challenging me?”

“Maybe.” Clarke smiled and turned on the couch so she was facing Lexa. She cleared her throat. “Your armpits taste like candy corn.”

Lexa snatched the script from her hands. “It does not say that.”

Clarke giggled and grabbed it back. “That was part of the test.”

“I would never be in a movie with lines like, ‘Your armpits taste like candy corn.’”

“Oh please, you starred in a film called Seabord Cyborg, which had way worse lines than that!”

“It terrifies me that you actually watched that,” Lexa said, sounding amused.

“I wanted to know what a ‘seabord’ was, which is the only reason I kept watching.” But mostly, you were really hot in it, even though you were only like sixteen, which must mean I’ve turned into some sort of pervert in addition to everything else. “Which, by the way, was never actually explained.”

“It was a type of genetically-enhanced plankton designed to take over the world,” Lexa said, as if it was obvious. “And then, you know, it mutated.”

“Into a cyborg.” Clarke was trying not to laugh, but she was smiling.

“Yes, but there was a very good reason for that.”

“Right… because it was magical.”

“Right!” Lexa grinned. “I can’t believe you paid enough attention to get that.”

It was one of your scenes, Clarke thought. “The point is you can’t claim you’d never be in a movie with lines about candy corn armpits. You just can’t.”

“Okay, fine. You win.”

“Good,” Clarke said, pleased with herself. What’s my reward, she wanted to ask, but there was no way to say that without sounding flirtatious and she wasn’t quite brave enough for that. She looked down at the script, trying to find an actual line of dialogue to test Lexa with. “Your things are in the bedroom,” she read, and looked up to see that Lexa was looking at her strangely.

“I didn’t come for my things.”

Clarke looked down to confirm that this was right. And then continued. “What’d you come for then?”

Lexa said nothing, and Clarke looked up, ready to tease. “Can’t remember your line?”

“I don’t really have a line there...”

Clarke looked down again to see what Lexa meant, and found, instead of dialogue, a couple of lines of text describing the action that should follow. She swallowed, and then looked up, conjuring a moment of bravery that might only last long enough to say, “I believe you’re supposed to kiss me, then.” She held her breath, feeling that she had, with those words, actually admitted to picturing Lexa naked, to fantasizing about her body, and to everything else she’d been feeling lately. Because why else would she say it?

The look on Lexa’s face was undecipherable, but then the actress smiled and said, “Actually, Samantha kisses Elizabeth, so technically, it’d be you kissing me.”

There was, Clarke thought, a challenge in Lexa’s tone, as if she were really saying, I know you’d never do it. So haha! And Clarke felt a rush of indignation, fueled further by the smug look on Lexa’s face. Oh, you think you know me so well, Ms. Woods.

Clarke picked up the script once more, reading over the text, feeling a strange sense of determination to prove that she was not freaked out by the prospect of kissing a woman, because she had a sneaking suspicion that that’s what this was about. “Just checking to see if I need to use tongue or not.” And the look of shock that passed across Lexa’s face was incredibly gratifying.

***

She’s kidding, Lexa told herself. She’s not seriously going to kiss me. But she eyed Clarke nervously now. She was starting to think that maybe Clarke would kiss her after all. Okay, so what if she does? It’s not like it means anything. But Lexa knew that was a lie. Of course it would mean something; to her, at least. And she couldn’t figure out how they’d gone from discussing magical plankton to this.

“We’re supposed to be closer to each other,” Clarke said, and Lexa thought she detected a sudden hint of shyness in her voice.

When the girl of your dreams wants to kiss you … you let her, right? Lexa tried not to freeze as Clarke slid closer. “You take this testing of lines very seriously,” she said, trying to hide how nervous she felt.

“I live with an actress,” Clarke said, as if that explained everything. “So, I ask the question, and we stare longingly into each other’s eyes, and then I kiss you?”

“It sounds so romantic when you say it that way.” Lexa wondered how far Clarke planned to go with this. She decided to play along, “But yes, and then I strip you naked and ravish you on the kitchen table.”

Clarke looked only briefly surprised, before saying, “You don’t have a kitchen table.”

“Coffee table, then.” Was it wrong that all of this sounded incredibly appealing? Was it wrong that she was getting turned on? What am I doing?

“Coffee table it is,” Clarke said. “Ready?”

Before Lexa could figure out a way to properly back out of … whatever this was that they’d somehow gotten into, there came the merciful sound of a knock at the door. Oh, thank God, was all she could think, as she walked over to answer it. “What are you doing here?”

“Visiting you,” Bellamy said, stepping forward to wrap her in a hug. “Miss me?”

Lexa hugged him quickly and then stepped back to inspect him. She’d not heard from him in days and she’d half-expected to learn that he’d been depressed over the breakup, alone in his apartment, overdosing on ice cream and porn. She was relieved to see that he looked fine; better than fine, actually. “You look good.”

“Why do you sound surprised?” Bellamy stepped into the apartment and closed the door.

Lexa hadn’t forgotten that Clarke was still in the apartment, so she ignored his question and led her second guest into the living room. “Clarke, I’d like to introduce you to Bellamy Blake. Bellamy, this is Clarke Griffin.”

“Wow,” Bellamy said, “I can totally see what Lexa sees in you.”

I’m so going to kill you. Lexa tried sending the message telepathically, but Bellamy was too busy checking Clarke out to notice.

“Uh,” Clarke said. “I can totally see what she sees in you … too.” She threw a questioning glance at Lexa, which Lexa answered with a look that she hoped said, “He’s insane, ignore him.”

“Hope I wasn’t interrupting anything,” Bellamy said, remembering his manners suddenly, or at least pretending to.

“Not really, Lexa was just about to strip me naked and ravish me on the coffee table,” Clarke said, and smiled smugly at Lexa.

She didn’t just say that, Lexa thought.

“Please don’t let me stop you,” Bellamy said, and shot Lexa a look that could’ve read any number of ways, ranging from, “What did I miss?” to “Where’s the popcorn?”

Clarke laughed and then said, “Lexa, where’s your restroom?”

“Door behind the stairs,” Lexa said. She waited until Clarke had disappeared behind the closed door and then slapped Bellamy’s arm. “Are you crazy?” she whispered.

He rubbed his arm and laughed. “She’s funny,” he said. “Unless there’s something you haven’t told me?”

Lexa glanced nervously at the bathroom door, worried it would open at any moment. “Nothing’s changed, and I need you to behave.”

“Where’s the fun in that?” He winked.

“Where are you staying?”

“With Anya,” he said.

“I thought you guys broke up?”

“Oh yeah, we did. But it seemed criminal to deny ourselves the mind-blowing sex while I was in town.”

“Never mind. What are you doing tomorrow night? Are you free? I need you to be free. You need to be my date to a gallery opening.”

Bellamy grinned. “Oh the press is going to have fun with that. ‘Woods and Blake Together Again!’ They’re going to think you stole me back. And, sure, I’m free. And does the reason we’re attending this shindig have anything to do with a certain C-L-A-R-K-E?”

“She knows how to spell her name,” Lexa whispered, smacking his arm again. “And yes. Is that obsessive and stalkerish?”

“Totally. What time should I pick you up?”

“Seven.”

“Cool,” he said, then, as the door to the bathroom opened, he stated, loudly, “She thinks my penis is too big. That’s why she dumped me.”

Lexa narrowed her eyes at him. “Oh, I thought she said it was because of that weird fungus she found near your—“

“Clarke!” Bellamy said, interrupting her. “Welcome back. I’m going to leave you lovely ladies to your coffee table adventures. I just wanted to tell you, Lexa, that Anya hired me as your assistant until you find a suitable replacement. Isn’t that great? I’m going to be around you all the time; night and day.”

“Tell Anya she sucks.”

“Just one of her many great skills,” Bellamy said, grinning. “Clarke, it was a pleasure to meet you. I hope to see you again sometime. Lexa, I’ll see you tomorrow. No need to walk me to the door. I’ll find my way. Have fun. Good night. Adios!” And then he was gone.

“So that’s Bellamy Blake,” Clarke said, after a moment. “He always seemed so much…”

“Saner?” Lexa supplied.

Clarke smiled at her. “I was going to say ‘taller.’” She looked thoughtful for a moment. “So, you’re hiring a new assistant?”

“Apparently,” she said. “Why, are you interested?”

“No, not me,” Clarke said, and laughed. “But, um … I know someone that might be qualified. I mean, if you’re taking applications or whatever.”

Please don’t let it be Anthony. She was afraid to ask. “Sure. Have them call Anya. You have her number?”

“I do.”

“Great,” Lexa said, and felt suddenly awkward, remembering where they’d been before Bellamy had arrived. She looked around for something to say.

“Shall we clean up?” Clarke suggested.

“Yes!” It came out sounding far more enthusiastic than she meant it to, but Clarke only smiled at her.

And then they both proceeded to ignore the screenplay on the couch.

Chapter Text

“The thing is,” Clarke said, as she followed Monty around the clothing store, “when I’m with her I feel like … nothing else matters, you know?”

“Mmhmm,” Monty said, handing Clarke a dress to add to the growing pile in her arms.

“But then,” Clarke continued, adjusting the weight of the clothes so they wouldn’t fall, “when I’m not with her … when I’m walking home, or when I’m in bed, all the other stuff … the stuff that didn’t seem to matter before suddenly does matter. And then all I can think about is how my family is going to react. Or … or what this means in terms of me. I mean, I don’t want to go crazy over what to label myself. I don’t even want to label myself. I just know that I want her, you know?” She paused as she noticed a lady giving her a strange look. “I’m trying to question my sexuality over here, do you mind?” she snapped.

The woman looked both surprised and offended, but hurried away without a word.

Clarke took a deep breath and looked up to find Monty smiling at her. “What?”

“Nothing,” he said, putting an arm around her. He began steering her toward the dressing rooms. “You’re going to be just fine.”

“Thanks, that helps me a whole lot.” Monty guided her into the first available stall and slid the curtain closed behind her.

“So what’s the problem?” he asked a second later.

Clarke glanced briefly at the white curtain between them as if it might contain the answer to the question. What’s the problem? “The problem,” she said, as she sorted through the clothes, “is that I don’t know what I want.”

“Clarke, you’ve got a date with Anthony tonight and all you’ve done is talk about this mystery girl. It’s pretty obvious to me what you want. Is she going to be wherever it is you’re going?”

Clarke bit her lip as she began to undress. “Yes,” she said.

“So you’re really meaning to look hot for her.”

“Yes.” There was no sense in denying it. She took a black nylon dress from the pile and slipped it over her head; the material hugged her body like a glove. “Does that make me an awful person?”

“No, but it makes you an awful date.”

Clarke slid the curtain open so that Monty could inspect her. “Well?”

He looked her up and down and smiled. “Perfect. Don’t try on anything else.” He grabbed her by the wrist and turned her around so she was facing the mirror. “You have nice legs.”

“Clarke,” he said, “if you like her, then at least let her know. Don’t worry about all of the other stuff right now.”

“I can’t just tell her,” she said, horrified by the thought.

“Then at least let her know you’re not straight.” He paused. “Unless you’re still thinking you are straight…”

“No,” Clarke said, thoughts of Lexa flashing through her mind. “I mean, I don’t know for sure because my experience with women is entirely limited to the thoughts in my head, but those thoughts have definitely not been straight.”

“Well, then, I recommend telling her that much at the very least. And you really need to stop leading Anthony on. ‘Cause even if you sleep with him and enjoy it, that’s not going to make you any less not-straight.”

“You’re right.”

“I’m always right,” Monty said, stepping back. “Shoes are next.”

“Wait,” Clarke said, grabbing his arm. “Let’s get some coffee first. I want to talk to you about something.”

“Oh no, I’m not the mystery girl am I?”

Clarke smiled. “No, but how would you like a chance to be Lexa Woods’ personal assistant?”

***

Catching Costia alone took longer than Lexa anticipated. Light chatter and conversation rose up the moment the director dismissed them for the day, and Lexa was forced to participate out of politeness. She liked her fellow cast members. She found their uninhibited enthusiasm contagious. Raven, especially, was intriguing, for many reasons that did not all have to do with Clarke. But there was still the barrier Lexa erected around people; the persistent fear that they might see the truth. And so she remained friendly but guarded as they asked her questions, worried that her emotional distance would make her seem cold.

Costia passed by on her way out of the meeting room and Lexa excused herself from the group to follow after the director. “Do you have a second?”

“For you, I have almost a second and a half.” Costia smiled and led them to her office. “Sorry for the mess,” she said, as she pushed open the door.

Lexa walked in, taking in the piles of paper scattered across the desk and the myriad of neon Post-It notes hanging from the walls. “It’s like Office Depot exploded in here.”

Costia laughed and leaned against the edge of the desk. “What can I do for you?”

“Are you busy tonight?”

“Are you asking me out?”

Lexa hesitated, the words sounding entirely too formal for her comfort. She withdrew the nightclub invitation from her back pocket and handed it to Costia. “Any chance you were thinking of being there tonight?”

Costia let out a surprised laugh. “A couple of my friends mentioned it to me over the weekend. I told them I’d pass. Were you thinking of being there?”

“I promised I would be.”

“Well, then I’m sure I could be persuaded to change my mind.”

Costia’s smile made Lexa want to sigh. This right here was the sure thing; a beautiful woman who was clearly interested in her, who would undoubtedly respect her need for secrecy. So why couldn’t she stop thinking about Clarke? Why couldn’t she stop wondering what their kiss might have been like, had it happened? The question had kept her up half the night. But Costia was there now, smiling at her in a way that made Lexa want to toss aside her reservations and simply take a chance. She smiled back. “How might I persuade you?”

“Well, you might, for example, tell me what you’ll be wearing.”

“I’ve been saving my very sexy penguin outfit for a special occasion.”

Costia laughed and shook her head, looking down at the ground for a moment. “That does sound incredibly appealing.”

“You definitely don’t want to miss it.”

“Then I guess it’s a date.”

Yes, I guess it is, Lexa thought, feeling a momentary pang of sadness that she quickly pushed aside.

***

“Just to be clear,” Monty said, staring at the piece of paper Clarke had given him, “If I call this number I’ll be magically transported into Lexa Woods’ presence?”

Clarke sipped her coffee and shook her head. “No. You call that number, and you find out what you have to do next. I guarantee nothing!”

“I can’t help but think this is a prank of some sort,” Monty said, but he clutched the paper like a lifeline. “How did you get this?”

“I have mafia connections,” Clarke whispered.

“I’m serious.”

Clarke giggled and looked around the coffee stand before turning back to him. She’d thought long and hard about whether or not it was wise to give him Anya’s number. Did she really want Monty to be Lexa’s personal assistant? Not that the odds of that happening were necessarily high. Clarke was sure Lexa had plenty of candidates lined up and she had no way of knowing whether it was something Monty would want to do. Still. Why not? “I told you that she’d liked my paintings and might hire me to make art for her apartment, remember?”

He looked at her blankly and then said, “You were serious about that?”

“I told you I was!”

“So what you’re saying is that you’ve been hanging around Lexa Woods all of this time and you didn’t tell me?”

“Yeah, but it’s not like we’re best friends or anything,” Clarke said quickly, worried that Monty would somehow piece everything together. “It’s not like we hang out.” And eat Chinese food together, and shop for couches and almost kiss ... “There wasn’t much to say, really.”

“But you’ve met her?”

“Well, yeah.” Clarke was beginning to panic. She hadn’t expected the questions. She should have expected them, of course, but she hadn’t, and now she was certain that she would accidentally say the wrong thing and the identity of her secret crush would come tumbling out. “Sort of. I mean, in passing.”

Monty leaned closer and smiled. “What’s she like?”

“She’s uh…” Clarke circled through all of the adjectives she could think of: gorgeous, funny, smart, warm, charming. But none of those seemed appropriate. What else? She likes to kill her coffee with milk and sugar and lives in a sauna and somehow thinks shopping for furniture online makes perfect sense. She bit her lip to keep from smiling. “She seemed nice. You know, nicer … than I thought she would be.”

“Nice?” Monty looked disappointed. “That’s it?”

“Yeah,” Clarke said, thinking ‘nice’ was a perfectly good and neutral way to describe the actress. “You can always call that number and see if you can’t find out for yourself what she’s like.”

Monty looked at the number in question and took out his cell phone. “Then I shall.”

“Right now?”

“Why not?”

“Try not to mention me,” she said quickly.

“So I got this number … where? Out of thin air?” Monty was already dialing.

“Pretend you’re psychic.”

“Shh, it’s ringing.”

Clarke held her breath as she waited.

“Good afternoon,” Monty said, his voice suddenly deep and professional, “My name is Monty Green and I’m calling about the personal assistant position….”

***

“Have I mentioned,” Bellamy said, hours later as they walked into the gallery, “how much I admire your ability to juggle two different women on the same night?”

Lexa tried hard not to glare at him as they made their way through the clusters of people. “I’m not juggling anyone.”

“Stalking Clarke at an art gallery at 7:30PM followed by a night of drinks and flirting with Costia; sounds like juggling to me.” He put his arm around her. “I missed this,” he whispered in her ear. “Don’t let me fall into a relationship again. Faking one with you is so much more fun.”

Lexa ignored him and focused instead on scanning the crowd for signs of Clarke. Being there was stupid, she knew this, and yet she couldn’t help herself. “This is really sad, isn’t it? When did I become the sort of person that follows straight girls on their dates?”

“Probably around the same time you fell in love with one.”

Lexa didn’t bother arguing that point. She wouldn’t admit it, but she wouldn’t deny it. They paused in front of a painting of a deer in the woods, and she said, “I wonder which of the paintings here she likes most.”

“So you can buy it for her?”

So I can share in her pleasure of it, she thought, but it seemed too pathetic a thing to share aloud. “This is stupid,” she said, shaking her head, “we should go.”

“And miss out on all the thinly veiled awkwardness? I don’t think so. Besides, she’s here, and leaving would be rude.”

“She’s here?” Lexa felt rising panic combined with nervous anticipation. She didn’t want to see Clarke on her date … but she wanted to see Clarke. Being in the same room with her would be enough. They wouldn’t even have to speak. “Where?”

“I think she’s the one making out with the Brad Pitt-lookalike over there.”

“What?” Lexa turned in the direction Bellamy motioned, but saw nothing remotely close to what he’d described. And then she heard him chuckle. “I really hate you.”

Bellamy was grinning. “I’m sorry, that wasn’t nice.”

“You go right ahead and be evil,” Lexa said, accepting a glass of wine from a passing waiter. “When you fall in love, I mean really fall in love, I’m going to remember all of this.”

“I’m not going to fall in love,” he said smugly. “I am officially immune.”

“Yeah, I thought I was immune, too, and now look at me. One day, when you least expect it, the girl of your dreams is going to waltz into your life and I’m going to be right there to go, ‘I told you so.’”

“You keep thinking that. In the meantime, the girl of your dreams just walked in.”

Lexa froze at the words, forcing herself not to turn around. It would be enough to be in the same room, she told herself. Knowing she was there was enough.

“Is that her boyfriend?”

“I don’t know; I’m trying not to look too obvious here.”

“Yeah, ‘cause you blend right into a crowd, Lexa. Especially in that sexy red number you’re wearing. Anyway, I don’t see what you’re so worried about. You’re much hotter than he is. Your breasts are nicer, anyway.”

She smiled in spite of herself. “Did she see you?”

“I don’t think so, but she’s looking around. Let’s go mingle a little closer to them, shall we?”

“No!” Lexa said quickly. “I don’t want to intrude on her date.”

“It’s not intruding. It’s called being friendly stalkers. Come on.” He took her hand and led her through the crowd.

She would say hello, Lexa decided, a simple, casual hello. And then she would leave and that would be that. Clarke would be free to enjoy the rest of her date and Lexa would only have to feel minimally ashamed and embarrassed for being there. But her convictions trailed away the moment she spotted Clarke. Lexa’s breath caught at the sight of her. Her steps halted and Bellamy stopped to look at her.

“What’s wrong?”

It shouldn’t hurt this much to look at another person, Lexa thought. “We should go,” she told Bellamy, but her gaze invariably drifted back and then it was too late. Clarke was looking at her, smiling at her, even, which somehow made it worse. But Lexa smiled back and started toward her, meanwhile searching for a way to push aside her attraction; to exchange yearning for disinterest. And still, her mind was filled only with the thought that Clarke looked beautiful.

Anthony, or at least the guy Lexa took to be Anthony, blinked at her in surprise. Lexa looked at him quickly, trying to find an obvious, fatal flaw, but what she found was a normal-looking guy; an all-around normal guy that would likely provide Clarke with a normal relationship and a normal life. And that was more than Lexa could ever promise. She shook his hand when Clarke introduced them, hoping her smile was friendly enough. She didn’t hate him, as much as a part of her wished to. She merely envied him the freedom to love without fear. “Nice to meet you,” she said.

There, Lexa thought, she’d said hello. Now she’d politely excuse herself and drag Bellamy with her. “Bellamy and I were just—“

“About to get more wine,” Bellamy interrupted, holding up his empty glass. “And maybe discreetly hit the buffet. Can I bring anything back for anyone?”

“Oh, I’ll go with you,” Anthony said, finally breaking out of whatever haze Lexa’s presence had put him in. “I’ll get you a drink,” he said to Clarke.

Lexa watched Bellamy walk away with Anthony firmly in tow, and she decided she’d kill him later. She turned back to Clarke and searched her brain for an appropriate thought. “Having fun on your date?” she asked.

Clarke glanced in the direction Anthony had gone and seemed to relax. “Yeah, but I’m thinking this will be the last one.”

“Why?” Lexa tried not to look as surprised as she felt. “Did something happen?” She didn’t know whether to feel hopeful or fearful. If he’d hurt Clarke, Lexa would kill him. Or at least hire someone to kill him.

But Clarke was shaking her head. “No, I just don’t see it going anywhere. It doesn’t seem fair to keep dragging it out.” She looked around. “I probably shouldn’t even be here with him. It’s selfish.”

Yes, it was selfish for Lexa to feel as happy as she did, but she couldn’t help it. “But you’re here,” she said, “and the art is beautiful.” You’re beautiful, is what she really meant.

Clarke seemed to brighten at the mention of art and she turned toward the painting on the wall. “I love this one,” she said.

Lexa regarded the painting and its bright, warm colors swirling around the canvas. “It’s cheerful,” she said, thinking it a shallow thing to say, but saying it anyway.

“I know, I think it’s like a jolt of happiness.” Clarke smiled. “I can’t imagine looking at this and not feeling instantly happy. I’m definitely buying a print.”

But Lexa could do better than that. She took note of the name and filed it away for later.

“What are you doing after this?”

“I have a date,” she said, trying to sound confident, though she felt mostly uncertain. “Sort of.”

“A ‘sort of’ date?”

“I’m afraid a ‘sort of’ date is all I can really manage at this stage in my life. We’re just meeting up at a club. I’m not quite sure how much of a date it’s really going to turn out to be.” She paused to look at Clarke. “Why?”

“Just curious.”

“What are you doing after this?”

Clarke looked over her shoulder to make sure Anthony wasn’t anywhere near. “Ending things with Anthony, and that’s about it.”

“I’m sorry, that doesn’t sound fun.”

“No, I suppose not as fun as a ‘sort of’ date.” Clarke smiled at her and shrugged. “It’s my own fault. I thought I could grow to be more interested in him, but it’s sort of impossible when I’m already interested in someone else.”

“Someone else?” There was someone else? How had she not known about someone else?

“Yeah, but I don’t think she’s interested.”

She? Did she just say ‘she?’

“And we’re back,” said Bellamy, appearing suddenly at her side with a small plate of cheese in his hand.

Lexa met his gaze and gave him a look that she hoped conveyed a forceful, “Not now!”

But Bellamy was oblivious. He held a small cube of cheese to her lips and said, “Try this one, you’ll love it.”

She glared at him, but accepted his offering. She did love it, or would have loved it had she not been so distracted. She looked at Clarke, who was busy thanking Anthony for the glass of wine he’d brought her. “You have the worst timing ever,” she whispered in Bellamy’s ear.

“Do I? Maybe I’ll add that to my resume.”

Lexa sipped her wine and silently replayed her conversation with Clarke. She’d heard Clarke say ‘she’ but each time she thought back, the pronoun became increasingly muddled. Perhaps her desire was causing auditory hallucinations. Clarke couldn’t have said ‘she.’

Could she?

***

Clarke tried to keep her breath steady as she smiled at Anthony and took the drink he offered. She’d give anything to know what Lexa was thinking. It had been stupid to tell her now of all times and here of all places but it had come tumbling out all the same. Now the confession hung awkwardly between them, and Clarke didn’t know when she’d get another chance to bring it up.

She risked a glance in Lexa’s direction and felt a momentary sense of sadness at the sight of Lexa and Bellamy together. They looked so perfect at each other’s side that it was hard to believe they weren’t a real couple. But more than that, Clarke couldn’t imagine herself in Bellamy’s place. She’d never get to stand that close to Lexa at an art gallery, or take her hand. Nothing real could ever come of these feelings.

And still, she couldn’t keep her gaze from traveling down the length of Lexa’s body, over the silky darkred fabric of the dress which clung to every curve with deliberate precision. Looking at Lexa made her ache. It made her stomach clench and her breath catch and it seemed impossible that all of these things weren’t plainly written across her face.

Anthony was talking, Clarke realized, as his voice cut through her jumble of inappropriate thoughts. She was relieved that it wasn’t her he was addressing. She caught the tail end of a sentence that finished with, “quarterback,” and decided she was safe from having to contribute. She caught Lexa’s gaze and held it. What are you thinking?

“We should leave you two to your date,” Lexa said suddenly, breaking eye contact. “It was really nice meeting you, Anthony.”

“Pleasure was all mine, believe me.” Anthony was all smiles and Clarke tried to mimic his enthusiasm as they exchanged goodbyes. “Wow. I can’t believe I was just talking to Lexa Woods. She must be a big fan of art; she’s at like every gallery.”

The statement annoyed Clarke and she tore her gaze away from Lexa’s retreating back to look at her date. “Yeah.”

“She seems nice. I always sort of figured she’d be stuck up.”

Clarke nodded and looked around the crowded gallery, trying to spot Lexa, to keep track of where she’d wandered off to, but her search came up empty.

“God, I love this painting,” Anthony said a moment later.

She followed his gaze and smiled, instantly forgetting her annoyance. “Me too. I think I’m in love with it.”

“Lucky painting.” He grinned at her. “Too bad it costs more than my tuition.”

“Seriously. I still can’t believe we’re here. Have you seen Jennifer Myer Quinn yet?”

“I overheard some people saying that she wasn’t coming.”

“Really?”

Anthony smiled. “I also heard she’s a bit of a snob.”

“Maybe she doesn’t like crowds,” Clarke suggested. “Or … cheese.”

“Perhaps she’s afraid of cheese.”

Clarke laughed, but her gaze strayed again, darting from one strange face to another until she spotted the one she was searching for. There were people blocking most of the view, but Clarke could see well enough to note that Lexa was on the phone, smiling and then laughing, and then suddenly looking directly at her. Embarrassed, she looked away and back at Anthony. Looking at him felt safe. Looking at him didn’t make her miserable and frustrated.

He smiled at her. “You look beautiful tonight, in case I hadn’t mentioned it.”

He had, but she smiled back at him anyway, feeling a mixture of disappointment and regret. Liking him would’ve been easier; so much easier. But no, she had to suddenly dig out her inner gay and put it in front of Lexa Woods. She couldn’t have started small. With that cute, short-haired girl in her Art & Contemporary Culture class, for example; she was probably gay. But that would’ve been too easy and Clarke Griffin didn’t do easy. Clarke Griffin liked to shoot for the moon; or the stars, in this case.

“Ready?”

“Hmm?” Clarke regarded Anthony. “Sorry?”

“To walk around.”

“Yes, absolutely. Let’s walk around.” She risked one final look in Lexa’s direction to find the actress gone. She stifled the urge to look for her, and followed her date to the next art display.

***

“What if she did say ‘she’?” Lexa shouted the question near Bellamy’s ear in an attempt to be heard over the dance music.

“You’re obsessing,” he shouted back. He took her hand and led her through the throng of bodies gyrating to the music. Upstairs, they reached the sanctuary of the VIP area. “Jesus, it’s loud down there.”

“You’re getting old,” Lexa teased and slid into the first available booth she saw. Through the glass windows beside her she looked down at the mobs of people set aglow by pulsating neon lights.

“I am pushing thirty.”

“But you don’t act a day over twelve.”

A waitress appeared and launched cheerfully into a well-rehearsed introduction. Lexa waited patiently for the girl to be done before placing an order for her usual drink.

“I’ll have a dirty martini and maybe your number, if it’s available,” Bellamy said.

Lexa sighed as the waitress cast nervous glances in her direction.

“We’re currently seeing other people,” Bellamy explained. “She doesn’t seem to think I’m man enough for her because I wrote her a love ballad, and because sometimes I cry after we make love.”

“Uhm, sorry, I have a boyfriend,” said the blonde. “But I’ll go get you those drinks.”

“Denied,” Lexa said, laughing. “And stop this. It’s how rumors get started.”

Bellamy sat back. “Rumors are good for your career.”

“Yeah, they fill my life with joy. Besides, I thought you were sleeping with Anya.”

Sleeping with Anya, yes; married to Anya, no.”

“So you’re just going to sleep around?”

“Yes and why shouldn’t I?”

“STDs, look it up.”

“Orgasm, try one.”

Lexa crumpled a cocktail napkin into a ball and threw it at his head.

“Yeah, that’s mature.” He looked around. “So, when’s your date getting here?”

“I don’t know. Nothing was really set in stone.” Lexa sighed. “If Clarke said ‘she’—“

“Blah, blah, blah…”

“If she said she, then … that means … that means that maybe I have a chance.”

Bellamy cocked his head to the side and leaned forward. “Lexa, if Clarke is even remotely gay, I’d say you have more than just a chance.”

“Really?”

“I know no one has ever told you this, but you’re really hot. So if she likes girls, odds are that you’re at the top of her list.”

The thought was uplifting, but also depressing. “It’s just … I don’t want her to think that I’m hot. Well, I mean, yes, of course I do. But not just that, you know? I don’t want to just have sex with her.”

“Well, if you don’t want to, can I?”

She kicked him under the table. “That’s not even remotely funny.”

“Ow.” Bellamy frowned at her. “I was just kidding, no need to get violent. I would never go after Clarke.” His gaze wandered to the door. “But her, maybe.”

“That’s Costia.” Lexa waved her over.

“Of course it is. Please have sex with one of these women, Lexa. Please.” He smiled widely as Costia approached. “Ignore me, I’m not really here.”

“Bellamy Blake,” Costia said, smiling. “I’m a fan of your work.”

“No one’s a fan of my work, except my mother, and that’s because she thinks I made Titanic.”

Costia laughed and sat beside Lexa, smiling at her as she did so. To Bellamy, she said, “I honestly thought Acorns from Jupiter was brilliant.”

Lexa snickered and Bellamy smiled brightly. “That movie is how Lexa and I met, actually.”

“Oh yeah?” Costia glanced briefly at Lexa. “How did that happen?”

“Well,” Bellamy began, pausing to accept the drinks the waitress brought over. He waited until Costia had placed her own order to continue, “it was playing at a really small, obscure film festival in San Francisco, and I was probably the only person in the theater during its showing. And then she walked in and sat down. And I thought, ‘Wow, she’s hot.’ So, after a short while, I moved to sit next to her, and asked how she was enjoying the movie, and she was like, “It’s quite possibly the worst movie ever, I just figured it’d be a nice place to be alone.’”

Costia laughed. “Nice.”

“I was, of course, offended and told her it was my film and tried to explain the finer points of my brilliance. She was entirely unapologetic and made fun of the movie the whole way through. Naturally, I fell madly in love with her right then and there and we’ve been best friends ever since.”

“Well, for what it’s worth, I really enjoyed the movie,” Costia said.

Bellamy turned to Lexa. “Marry her.” He grabbed his drink and stood up. “Now if you’ll excuse me, ladies, I’m going to go pretend I have things to do somewhere else.”

Costia laughed and moved to the other side of the table so she was sitting across from Lexa. “So.”

“So,” Lexa echoed, feeling awkward now that Bellamy wasn’t there to lighten the mood.

“I brought a couple of friends. They’re down there somewhere.” Costia motioned to the dance floor below. “You can meet them later. Unless of course you just wanna get out of here now and go back to your place?”

Lexa swallowed nervously and Costia laughed at her.

“Relax, Lexa.” She thanked the waitress and picked up her newly delivered drink. “I don’t even know what we’re doing here exactly.”

“We’re having drinks.” She smiled and willed herself to relax. Costia looked beautiful and that didn’t help at all. There was a part of her, however small, that was intrigued by the notion of going back to her apartment with Costia, of being, if only for one night, someone other than herself. It would be easy enough, she thought. It was, after all, what she did best.

“That we are.” Costia sipped her drink thoughtfully and said, “You know, I think I’ve figured it out.”

“It being…?”

“You. Well, your reluctance, really.” Costia smiled and put down the glass. “I thought at first it was because of your career; that you were just trying to be careful. Then I thought it was simply that you were shy. And then … I met Clarke.”

Lexa froze at the words, feeling a rising wave of panic. “What about her?”

“I saw you guys talking at the party.” Costia was silent for a second, studying Lexa’s face. “I think it’s the first time I have ever seen you look truly happy. And it occurred to me that maybe you simply had feelings for someone else.”

Jesus, did everyone know? She looked down at the table, captivated by the red liquid in her glass.

“So, I’m right?”

“Yeah.” Lexa looked up and nodded.

“So this between us is …?”

Lexa sighed and looked back out at the dance floor, feeling guilty and depressed. “It’s me trying to get over it, I guess. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Costia said, and looked sincere as she smiled. “I’ve kind of enjoyed this strange back and forth thing between us. It’s been oddly refreshing.”

Lexa didn’t know what to say next. Was that it? Her sort of date had ended before it had even begun, and she felt mostly relieved. Costia had figured it out. She was glad, and yet it worried her. Who else had seen her with Clarke? Who else had put it all together?

“Do you want to dance?” Costia asked suddenly.

“Dance?” Lexa had expected Costia to get up and leave. She wanted to stay?

“Yeah, you know… your body … my body … music?” Costia finished her drink. “You want me to distract you. I’m more than happy to comply.”

Lexa glanced at the crowd of people below. She wasn’t sure there was room for two more bodies down there. But … “Sure,” she said. “Let’s dance.”

***

“So,” Anthony said, as Clarke’ building came up, “I had fun tonight.”

Clarke counted the spots of dried chewing gum on the sidewalk and nodded. “I did too.” She looked up at him as they came to a stop at the steps below the door. She’d officially run out of time. It was now or never. “Anthony, I—“

He stopped her with a kiss, a soft, tentative kiss that startled her and left her feeling like the world’s biggest jerk. She froze as she struggled to determine whether she wanted this or not. She could sink into him; she could let him be for her what Lexa never would be. She felt his lips part against her mouth and she pulled away, somewhat harshly.

Anthony’s eyes betrayed confusion and hurt. “I’m sorry,” he said, suddenly looking embarrassed. “I-“

“No,” Clarke interrupted. “Don’t apologize. This is all me. You’re great. It’s just that I kind of have this … thing.”

“Thing?”

She could almost see the unspoken options flashing across his eyes: herpes, a third nipple, a penis. She quickly added, “This crush...on someone.”

“Ah.”

“On a girl,” she added, because if she was going to be honest, she might as well go all the way.

He blinked in surprise. “Oh.”

“And I’ve been trying to sort of work through that, and I ended up dragging you along with me, which is awful, I know. I’m sorry.”

He stared at her, looking mostly confused. “So you’re a lesbian?”

The word sounded harsh though his tone was mainly curious. “Um.” She didn’t have an answer to the question. She had mostly questions where an answer should’ve been. “I’ve mostly just gotten as far as admitting I’m not straight. Beyond that …”

Anthony looked disappointed, as if he couldn’t see a distinction between the two things and would’ve been happier to hear she was gay. “Okay.” It sounded like more of a question.

They stood in awkward silence for several seconds, and Clarke struggled to think of something to add. “I’m really sorry,” was all she could come up with, and it sounded incredibly lame and unoriginal.

But he shrugged his shoulders and tried for a smile that almost looked genuine. “It’s okay. I’m the one that pursued you. Besides, you didn’t seem too keen on the six children idea…”

Clarke smiled, hesitantly, afraid that he’d snap at her for assuming things were okay. “I’m sure you’ll find someone who is.”

He nodded and looked up at the building. “Do you want me to walk you to your door?”

“I’ll be fine.”

“Okay.” He stood there, looking uncertain. “Well, um, I hope things work out with you and um … whoever.”

Clarke didn’t know how to comment on that, so she simply nodded.

He started to walk away and then turned back. “Is it Raven?”

Clarke would’ve laughed if he hadn’t looked so serious. “Raven? No. Definitely not Raven.”

“Just checking.” He smiled and said, “See you around, Clarke.”

“Thanks for tonight,” she said, feeling a desperate need to say something more. “I really did have fun.”

“Me too.”

She watched him walk away, knowing she’d done the right thing. And with that came a newfound sense of determination. Tomorrow, she decided, as she stepped into her building. Tomorrow she would tell Lexa Woods how she felt.

Chapter Forty-Four

The lights above the elevator door lit up with each passing floor and Clarke focused on the shapes of the numbers as they came to life. She didn’t remember getting here. She didn’t remember buying the two cups of coffee she was now holding. She remembered her bedroom. She remembered not being able to fall asleep. She remembered rehearsing what she would say to Lexa, rearranging the words, waiting for the right combination to reveal itself.

The elevator dinged softly; another floor gone by and she still didn’t know what she would say. She could turn back; there was still time to change her mind. But then what? Did she want to go from day to day, swallowing her feelings? Wasn’t it better to put it out there and move on? She didn’t know.

She watched the numbers and willed her heart to slow down. She would do this. She would admit her feelings and face the awkwardness that would follow. She would assure Lexa that it changed nothing; that they could continue to be friends. Eventually, Lexa would return to California and they could resume their emails – or, more likely, lose contact altogether – and at some point, these feelings would fade or better yet, move on to someone else. But she would always have this day; the day she put her fears aside and took control of her life.

The doors opened and she stepped out, colliding almost immediately with the person standing there. She managed, somehow, to keep the coffee from spilling as she struggled to regain her balance. “I’m so sorry, I-“ She froze as she looked up. It took her a second to register that it was Costia standing there, dressed in wrinkled clothes and reeking of alcohol. Clarke’s gaze flashed quickly to Lexa’s door and a feeling she didn’t recognize rose up inside her, dark and overwhelming.

“Clarke!” Costia sounded as surprised as Clarke felt. “Hi! I um …” She seemed to be searching for an excuse as to why she was standing there at this hour.

They’d spent the night together. That’s all Clarke could think as she looked at Costia. They spent the night together. Clarke suddenly felt ill. What was the right thing to do now? Jump back in the elevator and ride down with Costia? No, that would be too awkward. “I just wanted to ask Lexa a quick question about this art project she hired me for,” she said. “Is she in?” There. That was casual. It didn’t scream, “I just came by to tell your girlfriend that I want her.”

“I think she was in the shower when I left, but she’s home.” Costia moved to block the elevator doors from closing.

Clarke tried not to dwell on the fact that Costia had been in Lexa’s apartment, that it only served to confirm her suspicions. She couldn’t think about that right now. She focused instead on how ridiculous it felt to be standing there with two cups of coffee; how obvious and transparent it made her feel. “Um, would you like one of these? They gave me an extra one by mistake.”

“Yeah?” Costia accepted the cup with something that resembled relief. “Thank you. That’s really sweet.” She sighed. “I drank way too much last night and I’m a mess and I really have to be at the studio and… sorry, you really don’t need to hear any of this. It was really nice running into you again. Literally.” She laughed as she backed away into the elevator.

“Yeah, it was.” So nice.

“Thanks again!”

Clarke forced a smile that vanished the second the elevator doors closed. She stared at her reflection in the mirror that remained and shook her head. Now what? Talking to Lexa was out of the question. Costia knew she’d been there, so leaving was out of the question. “Crap.” She felt like kicking something; herself preferably.

“Hey, you left your…”

Clarke whirled around at the sound of Lexa’s voice.

“…Clarke?”

Lexa was standing in the open doorway, wrapped in a dark blue towel and nothing more. Drops of water fell from the tips of her dark hair and landed at her bare feet. Clarke struggled to form a complete a thought as she stared. “Hey.” Confusion shone in Lexa’s green eyes and Clarke felt compelled to add, “One of my classes is meeting at the Met this morning, but I got here early, so I thought I’d say hello.” The lies were coming easily now and she didn’t know whether or not that was a good thing.

“By staring at the elevator?”

“I had something in my eye…”

“Did you get it?”

“Yup, all good.”

Lexa studied her silently for half a second. “Is everything okay?”

No! Clarke wanted to shout. “Everything’s great, why?”

“Well...” She eyed the elevator door and then said, “I thought maybe … well, you said you were breaking up with Anthony last night. Did that go okay?”

Clarke felt monumental relief that she had that to fall back on. “It sucked, actually,” and that much was the truth. “But it had to be done.”

Lexa nodded. “Do you want to come in?”

“Sure.” Why not drag out the torture? She followed Lexa into the apartment and told herself to breathe. Images of what Lexa and Costia might have done the night before flashed persistently through her mind and she pushed them away. “So, your sort of date seems to have gone well.” She added what she hoped was an encouraging smile. She didn’t want to know about this. Why was she asking?

“Hmm, what makes you say that?”

Clarke watched a drop of water slide down Lexa’s arm and stifled the urge to wipe it away. Her skin looked so soft. “I ran into Costia as she was leaving.”

“Oh.” Lexa looked amused, suddenly. Her eyes sparkled as she smiled. “You think we slept together?”

“Didn’t you?”

“I’m hardly that easy.”

Was that a no? It sounded like a no. “I see…”

“She was drunk and my apartment was closer to the club, so I offered her my couch for a few hours.”

Clarke practically sighed with relief. “I’m terribly sorry I put your virginity into question, then.” She smiled, a real smile, and held up the coffee in her hand. “I brought you coffee,” she said, and was thankful she’d given her own away to Costia.

“You insult my virtue and then you hope to make it up to me with coffee?”

“Do you have a better idea?” It came out sounding more flirtatious than Clarke had intended but she decided to go with it.

Lexa didn’t seem to notice. “My mural,” she said.

“What?”

“Tonight.”

Clarke glanced at the wall in question. “Tonight?”

“Would you be free around … eight?”

“You’re serious?”

Lexa smiled. “Very.”

Clarke felt panicked, for entirely different reasons than she’d expected during this visit. “But I still don’t know what I want to paint.” She hadn’t even thought about it.

“Doesn’t matter; you don’t even have to bring anything. Can you be here?”

Sure, who needed sleep? Or to do homework? “I suppose…”

“Good.”

Lexa walked closer suddenly, and Clarke briefly registered the fact that she had a silver cell phone in one hand. She focused on this because it was far less overwhelming than the fact that Lexa was right in front of her now; her body only inches away. Clarke stood still, afraid that any movement would give away how badly she wanted to reach out and touch Lexa. But isn’t that why she’d come?

Before she had any chance at all to make up her mind, she felt Lexa’s lips against her cheek. She closed her eyes at the sensation and fought the urge to turn her head; to meet those soft lips with her own. She felt Lexa’s fingers brush against the back of her hand as they pried away the cup and Clarke thought she might moan or pass out or do something equally embarrassing. Such innocent contact shouldn’t feel so good, but her body seemed to disagree. She could smell the soap on Lexa’s skin, the shampoo in her hair, the mint on her breath. All the words she’d come to say grew foggy in her mind, while her emotions swelled and swirled inside her, alive and vibrant against the dark backdrop of her fear.

“Thanks for the coffee,” Lexa whispered, and Clarke opened her eyes when she felt her step away. “That was really thoughtful.”

Seconds passed as Clarke tried desperately to compile a thought and then to voice it. “It was nothing,” she said at last. “I just poured a few drops of coffee into a cup full of sugar, just how you like it.” If possible, Lexa’s smile made Clarke’s heart pound harder. She could tell her now. She could blurt it out in a breath or two and get it over with. She could then begin to deal with the rejection; with the endless spectrum of reasons and excuses why they could never be.

“I should probably get ready,” Lexa said. “I have to get to the studio.”

“Sure, of course.” Clarke felt embarrassed suddenly for showing up uninvited and taking up Lexa’s time.

“See you tonight?”

Lexa sounded shy and hopeful and the tone made Clarke look up. She couldn’t tell what Lexa was thinking and it frustrated her. “I’ll be here,” she promised. Half-asleep and comatose and probably failing out of college… but I’ll be here.

***

Lexa stirred the iced tea in her glass, impatient and irritable, but mostly hungry. “Where the hell is he?” She looked around the restaurant, ignoring the curious, interested glances from strangers, the cell phones stealthily capturing her image as she looked past.

“His flight was late,” Anya said. “Calm down. Eat a roll.”

“I don’t want a roll,” Lexa snapped, but grabbed one anyway. She cast an apologetic glance in Anya’s direction. “Sorry. I didn’t get enough sleep.”

Bellamy cleared his throat and leaned forward. “Tell us more about that. You and Costia were looking very cozy together when I left you.”

“They were?”

Lexa shook her head at Anya. “No, we were not.”

“Oh c’mon,” said Bellamy. “You can’t possibly tell me nothing happened.”

“Nothing happened.”

Anya was frowning. “But you would tell us if something had, right? You wouldn’t get all … silent and mysterious.”

“Of course she would.”

Lexa ripped a piece of bread. “Nothing happened. She passed out on my couch and snuck out while I was in the shower.” And then ran into Clarke; Clarke, who had stopped by at six in the morning, with coffee, just to say hi. Why? Lexa had asked herself that very question all day; obsessively.

“You mean she snuck out after you enjoyed a sensual shower together.” Bellamy winked and Lexa threw the piece of bread at his head. She laughed when it landed in his glass of water.

“Can we pretend to be adults for five minutes?” Anya didn’t seem able to decide which one of them to look at disapprovingly first.

“There’s absolutely no plus side to that,” Bellamy argued, fishing the piece of bread out of the glass with a spoon. “You’re paying for this water,” he said to Lexa.

She smirked and turned to Anya. “What’s up?”

“Did you look at the applications I sent your way?”

“Applications for…?”

Anya’s nose flared. “For your assistant!”

“Right.” She’d forgotten entirely. “I did not. But I will.”

“When?”

“When I get a chance.”

“Which will be when?”

Lexa looked at Bellamy. “Which will be when?”

“Crap, was I supposed to be keeping track of that stuff?” Bellamy frowned. “Hmm.”

“Please hire someone,” Anya begged. “Do it for my sanity.”

“Okay, how about right now? Do you have the applications?”

Anya rolled her eyes. “Of course I do. I even narrowed it down for you. Mostly everyone was entirely under qualified, but these are the better ones. Sorry, none of them will be as awesome as me.” She handed over some files. “I highlighted the pertinent parts.”

Lexa opened the first file and stared down at the first page. It was a questionnaire. “You asked them what their porn name would be?”

“Yeah, but I didn’t highlight that,” Anya said defensively. “I was trying to be thorough. I didn’t know what you wanted to know.”

Lexa flipped through the pages. “Did any of them mention Clarke?”

“Lexa, I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but most people are not as obsessed with her as you are.”

Lexa decided to ignore that. “She told me that she knew someone that might be interested… I was wondering if they contacted you?”

“When?”

“I don’t know, sometime between Monday and now.”

“A guy named Monty Green called yesterday,” Anya said. “He’s the third file. He didn’t mention Clarke. But that’s the only person I’ve heard from between then and now. Plus, he didn’t really have a good answer for how he found out about the job. So…”

“Monty,” Lexa said, skipping to the last file. “Clarke knows a Monty…”

“You really want to hire someone based on the fact that they know the girl you’re crushing on?”

“Why not?” Bellamy asked. “She can always fire him later.”

Lexa looked through the stapled pages. “No questionnaire?”

“No time, sorry, though I’m sure I can find out his porn name for you if you want. He faxed over his resume last night. It looks pretty solid. He’s currently working as a personal shopper, but was a personal assistant before that.”

“Cool,” Lexa said. She handed the files back to Anya. “Let’s set up an interview.”

“For when?”

Lexa looked at Bellamy. “For when?”

Bellamy sighed and looked at Anya. “Don’t pretend like you’ve not kept track of her schedule. I saw you tapping away on that PDA of yours every time you told me to write something down.”

“Fine.” Anya withdrew the gadget in question from her bag. “Costia doesn’t need you on Friday, so maybe sometime then.”

“Done.” Lexa picked up her cell as it started to vibrate on the table. She looked at the incoming caller and accepted the call. “Where the hell are you? I’m due back in forty-five minutes and we’ve not even ordered.”

Her agent’s voice sounded far away, drowned by louder, more persistent noise. “…tr…”

Lexa frowned. “What?”

“The…fu…” And the line went dead.

“Ray?” Lexa shut the phone off and addressed the rest of the table. “He’s ‘the fu.’”

“The what?”

Lexa shrugged and put the phone back on the table. “My guess is he’s been kidnapped by aliens that only allow him to speak in monosyllables. Bummer. Let’s order.”

Bellamy picked up the menu but shook his head. “You wouldn’t be so blasé about the whole thing if you were the one on the spaceship.”

“Might be fun on that spaceship,” Lexa said, as she looked around for the waiter. “As long as they have food, I’m happy.”

“They’d just anally probe you while reading you Vogon poetry.”

“Oh, that reminds me! I need a favor.”

“Okay, but I don’t know where I’d get a Vogon costume on such short notice.”

She paused to rethink the context of her statement. “Okay, there was a perfectly logical thought process there that has nothing to do with anal probing or Vogons.”

“Mmhmm.”

Anyway,” Lexa said, “I need you to pick up a few things for me and drop them off at my apartment.”

“Intriguing,” Anya said, joining the conversation. “What sort of things?”

“Paint,” Lexa said. “Lots of paint.”

***

Clarke stood at her bedroom window, watching the weather argue with itself. She watched as the sun disappeared behind clouds, its absence briefly bathing the room in muted shades of gray. Raindrops fell and scattered against the glass, sliding down in jagged, aimless lines. Then the world was bright again, light reflecting from car windows, from small puddles on the ground. Shadows spilled in textured patterns across her arm, her floor, the unmade covers on her bed.

It was appropriate, this weather; the ying and yang of light and dark which matched her mood quite perfectly. She should be in class instead of standing in her room, sipping lukewarm coffee and staring at the sky, seeing and sawing between happy and depressed, between wired and exhausted. She should be standing in front of a canvas, paintbrush in hand. She should not be thinking about Lexa Woods. She should not be thinking about Lexa Woods in a towel, kissing her cheek.

Clarke sighed and flipped open her cell phone, typed a text message and sent it on its way. She should not be sending Lexa messages. Random, disembodied thoughts like the one she’d just sent: “My grandfather used to say that when it rained while the sun was out it meant the witches were getting married.” What did Lexa care?

And still. She couldn’t help but want to be connected to Lexa at that moment; at every moment. What was Lexa doing? Thinking? Who was she with?

Is this what infatuation felt like? Had she somehow stepped over the line of sanity and walked blindly into obsessed-stalker territory? A ridiculous thought, really. This wasn’t her; losing sleep over someone, skipping classes, obsessively checking her cell phone for a response.

She put the mug of coffee on her bedside table and sat at the edge of her bed. What would fix this? Telling Lexa? And what if she couldn’t? What if she couldn’t find a good moment to broach the subject? How did you tell a famous actress that you had a crush on her? It was stupid. Lexa would laugh at her. She’d think, “Who doesn’t?” She’d dismiss it, change the subject. That might be even worse than awkward silence followed by an even more awkward rejection.

Clarke rubbed her eyes. She’d managed a nap but she was still tired. Her mind kept running around in circles, building imaginary conversations that might never come to pass. A part of her was tempted to just send a text message: “I like you.” Simple, straightforward, but perhaps too easily misinterpreted. “I have a crush on you.” Too … blunt; random. She didn’t know how to narrow all of what she felt into a simple statement. Perhaps an email would be better.

The laptop lay open on her bed, an email at the center, addressed to one of her professors. She read over the contents of her attempted excuse for missing class and deleted the text. She’d come up with something later, maybe. She minimized the first email and opened a new one. The blank space below the subject line stared at her expectantly, awaiting her confessions. But the thoughts stilled in her mind, and minutes later she gave up. She surfed the web, letting the nonsense in, hoping to find the words to express her feelings in random YouTube videos.

Eventually, she came back to the email and started to type, quickly, thoughtlessly:

I shouldn’t be sending you this email. I know I shouldn’t because there’s a lot of things I shouldn’t be doing lately, like thinking of you - and not in the normal thinking-of-you way, the other kind of thinking of you. The kind of thinking of you that keeps me up at night sometimes because the thought of you does crazy things to me. My feelings for you have evolved into something nameless, something that – at least in my realm of experience – defies definition. Or perhaps I’m too scared to define it because I’ve never been here before. In this scared, bumbling, rambling place. I’ve never been the one chasing after someone. I don’t know how to be that person. So I’m running a marathon around what I’m really trying to say, which is that I like you. I’m not arrogant enough to think that you could ever return these feelings but I thought if you knew, then at least I could move on. I have no expectations from you. I don’t want things to get awkward. I just wanted you to know so that I can stop thinking about telling you and maybe get some sleep.

-Clarke

And she sent the message before she could change her mind. She stared at the outbox folder until the email disappeared and she took a deep breath. She’d done it. Her heart felt like it might pound its way out of her chest, but she’d done it.

She looked around the room, biting her lip. Now what? She grabbed her cell phone again. In her typing frenzy she’d missed a text message from Lexa. It said: “Did the witches marry each other?” Clarke smiled and then her smile faltered as she remembered the email she’d just sent. She replied: “Yes, they totally did. PS: Can you check your email where you are?”

She stared at the phone until the response came and then she held her breath as she opened it. “My cell can do anything. But I got nothing from you. Did you send something?”

Confusion replaced her nervousness and she frowned at the response. Perhaps the email was delayed? She turned to the laptop and checked the sent folder to make sure it hadn’t gotten jammed. But no, it had sent. The problem was something else entirely. “Oh shit.” She blinked, read the name again and let out another stream of curses. Her professor. She’d sent the email to her professor; her very old, very female, very unfriendly professor. “Fuck!”

In a blind haste, she opened another email and shot off what she hoped was an apologetic retraction to her earlier message. She double-checked that she hadn’t accidentally addressed that to the wrong person and sent it on its way.

She stared blankly at her closed door, trying not to think about what she’d just done. The thought of her professor reading that email made her want to crawl under a rock and die. The universe was clearly trying to tell her that confessing her feelings to Lexa was a grave mistake. “No,” she wrote in reply to Lexa’s text. “Was just wondering.”

She tossed the phone aside, put the laptop on the floor, and pulled the covers over her head.

***

Ray caught up to them as they were getting into the limo, looking so dirty and disheveled that they didn’t recognize him. It wasn’t until he called Lexa’s name that they even looked in his direction.

“Jesus, what happened to you?”

“Long fucking story,” her agent said, slapping white dust from the sleeves of his dark suit. “Sorry I’m late.”

“Get in, I’ve got to get back to the studio,” Lexa said, after staring at him for a moment. “Tell us on the way.”

Ray helped himself to a bottle of water from the limo’s mini-bar and settled into the leather seats with a deep sigh. “I fucking hate New York,” he said, uncapping his drink.

“Looks like you went swimming in a pool of flour,” Bellamy said.

“Yeah, well.” Ray rubbed at his eyes and sniffled. “Plane ended up in fucking Newark because of some shit problem with JFK, and then the cab broke down on the Turnpike. The driver didn’t speak a word of English. I don’t know what the fuck he was saying. I went out to pace around, get some fresh air, calm the hell down, and some truck sped merrily along, spilling this white shit in the air, which then landed all over my brand new Armani.” He drank half the bottle of water in one long gulp. “Fucking hate New York.”

“Technically, it should be New Jersey you hate,” Anya said, but Ray only glared at her.

Lexa bit her bottom lip to keep from laughing. “Well, glad you made it.”

Ray eyed her. “You look good.”

“You always say I look good.”

“You always do look good,” Ray said, and finished his water.

“So what’s this great script you’ve got for us?” Anya said, her voice all business now.

Ray put the empty bottle aside and picked up his briefcase. “How do you feel about France?”

“I have no specific feelings about France,” Lexa said cautiously. “Why?”

“They want you for the lead in a romantic comedy.” Ray handed her the bound pages of the screenplay. “Set in France. Starts filming in June. Big budget, big studio, big names. Full pay.”

Lexa handed the script over to Anya without looking at it. “We’ll take a look at it.”

“Look at it fast,” Ray said. “The director wants to meet with you next week. He’ll be in New York. But the offer’s as good as yours.”

“You came all the way to New York for a romance comedy?” Anya asked.

“No, I came all the way to New York for this,” and he handed Lexa another script.

She read the title The Bridge of Moes several times over before it finally sank in. She’d read this script two years before and fallen in love with it. She hadn’t gotten the part. “I don’t understand. I thought they’d already found a lead.”

Ray grinned brightly. “Change of plans. Change of directors, too. Whole big Hollywood mess, actually. Point is they’re scrapping the whole thing and starting over. And as far as the lead goes, they now want you.”

“Oh, my God.” Lexa stared dumbly at the pages in her hand. Here it was at last, the type of film she’d always dreamed of doing. The script she’d loved from the very first page. “So, that’s it? I’ve got it?”

“It’s about as sure as anything is in Hollywood,” Ray said with a shrug. “But yeah. They want you. Should I tell them it’s a yes then?”

Lexa smiled, happier and lighter than she’d felt in years. “Yes. Absolutely, yes.”

***

Clarke had somehow gathered what was left of her pride and dragged it all the way to the Upper East Side. She’d ignored her email and skipped all of her classes and had strongly considered transferring to a different university entirely, because the thought of walking into class and facing her professor made her insides shrivel. On the plus side, she’d been too preoccupied with overwhelming humiliation to think of Lexa. Much.

But now she was back in Lexa’s building, in Lexa’s elevator, in Lexa’s hallway, and finally, in front of Lexa’s door, which, to her surprise, was partly open. She knocked softly, worried that she’d arrived just in time to witness a robbery in progress, because that was the sort of day this was shaping up to be. But soon Lexa’s voice greeted her from the other side of the door, inviting her in.

Clarke pushed the door open and stepped inside and then immediately froze. The lightwood floor near the wall had been covered with a long white tarp, upon which rested dozens of cans of paint of varying shades of color. In the center stood Lexa, dressed in baggy ripped jeans and a white t-shirt. “What….the hell?”

Lexa was smiling. “You look surprised.”

Clarke closed the door and started removing her jacket. “You could say that. What’s all this?”

“For an artist you’re astoundingly ignorant on the basics.”

“You’re not half as clever as you think you are.”

“Deep down I think you think I am.”

“Deep down I think you’re crazy.” Clarke walked over and stood just outside the edge of the tarp. She surveyed the random assortment of paints and brushes before looking up. She’d somehow forgotten that Lexa had asked her to come over to paint. She’d been too preoccupied with the business of trying to tell Lexa how she felt to consider the plans set before her. “So … you just want me to paint something now?”

“I can start,” Lexa said easily, and picked up a paintbrush. She dipped it in a can of pink paint.

Clarke stared in horror as Lexa drew an uneven circle on the pristine white wall. “What are you doing?”

Lexa regarded her creation. “An Easter egg, maybe.”

“You can’t just… you can’t…” The words failed her as she stared uncomprehendingly at the actress.

“I can’t what?” Lexa was taunting her. “C’mon, this is fun. Draw an Easter egg with me.”

“Are you high?”

“On paint fumes a little,” Lexa said, and began to color in her ‘egg’. “This could be like a themed wall. Ooh, the Halloween one would be cool.” She made another pink blob on the wall. “Seriously, come paint some eggs with me. And maybe a bunny.”

“You’ve lost your ever loving mind,” Clarke said, but she leaned down to pick up a paintbrush. It was too late to salvage the wall. She watched as Lexa painted what looked like horns on the egg. “What’s that supposed to be?”

“Bunny ears.”

She stepped over the cans of paint in her way and walked over to Lexa. “It looks like you’re painting satanic bubblegum.” The statement earned her a deep frown, which only made Clarke smile. It was this, she thought, it was this moment and her feelings about this moment that she couldn’t begin to explain, never mind verbalize. She felt giddy inside; horrified by Lexa’s attempts at art, but content to be here, witnessing it, being a part of it. It was this, she thought, that she wanted more of. “I’ll paint the bunny.”

***

Eventually, Lexa gave up trying to paint satanic bubbles across her wall and stood back to watch Clarke instead. It was fascinating to see images come to life, to watch the random shapes suddenly take form and become recognizable. She stood and stared, mesmerized by every deliberate stroke of the paintbrush, by how simple Clarke made it seem. She would be content to stand and watch Clarke paint forever.

“You’re staring at me,” Clarke said, without turning toward her. She was putting the finishing touches on the rabbit’s face.

“I was just thinking how much better my side of the wall turned out.”

Clarke did look at her then, blue eyes narrowed. “I assure you that this is the best psychedelic Easter bunny in the whole of the Upper East Side.”

“The use of neon paint was a nice touch.”

“Well, I had to figure out a way to keep up with your special brand of crazy.” Clarke stepped back to regard her creation, coming to a stop beside Lexa. “I think it turned out pretty good.”

Clarke sounded genuinely pleased and it made Lexa smile. She would gladly paint across every surface of her apartment just to get a repeat of this evening. Clarke was standing so close that their arms were almost touching and Lexa’s heart sped up. “The yellow paint is supposed to glow in the dark.”

“Do you have a black light?”

“I don’t. I could turn off the lights and see what happens, though.” She hit the switch but soon the lights from the City spilled in from outside. “Not dark enough, I guess.”

“No, but wow,” Clarke said, moving toward the window. “Your view is unbelievable. Do you ever just stand here in the dark and stare out?”

“Sometimes.” Lexa crossed the room. She looked at the bright lights of buildings near and far, of Central Park in the distance, and tried to see what Clarke saw. I could give you this, she wanted to say, but didn’t. Instead, she pulled the ottoman from its place by the couch and rolled it to where Clarke was standing. “Sit. I’ll bring the champagne.”

“There’s champagne? Are we celebrating something?”

“Psychedelic bunnies, satanic bubblegum, what’s not to celebrate?” Lexa removed the bottle from the bucket of ice she’d left it in and dried away the moisture before grabbing a couple of glasses and heading back. She paused briefly to take in the sight of Clarke silhouetted against the backdrop of New York. She wanted to remember this; she wanted the image of this moment forever burned into her mind.

Clarke relieved her of the glasses when she approached. “If you poke my eye out with the cork, my mother will kill you.”

“I’m deeply offended,” Lexa said, removing the foil from the bottle. She untwisted the wire cage and draped a towel over the cork. “I’ve yet to injure someone with a cork.”

“Yet.”

But the cork in question gave way as Lexa turned the bottle, and she eased it off without struggle. “And voila.” She filled a glass and handed it back to Clarke, then filled the other. “You doubted me.”

“After watching you wield a paintbrush, how could I not?” She waited until Lexa sat down and asked, “Are we really celebrating psychedelic bunnies and satanic bubblegum?”

“Partly.” Lexa met Clarke’s gaze, and she wondered if the artist was bothered by their proximity; if she was even aware of it. “My agent had really good news for me today.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, I got a role I’d desperately wanted and thought I’d never have.”

“That’s definitely worth celebrating.” Clarke smiled and held up her glass. “To getting that which you thought you’d never have.”

Their glasses clinked and they both drank, and after a moment, Lexa said, “What about you? Anything interesting happen today?”

Clarke chuckled and turned her gaze back on the view. “Today has been a really weird day.”

“Because of the witches getting married?”

“Yes, that’s definitely at the top of the list,” Clarke said, and smiled. “So, what’s this role you got?”

“The Bridge of Moes.”

“The Bridge of Moes,” Clarke echoed. “That tells me nothing, but okay.”

“I’m scared to jinx it,” Lexa admitted.

“So, I guess that means you’re going back to California once you’re done here.”

The statement caught Lexa off-guard. It had never occurred to her that Clarke might care if she left or not. “It looks more like I’ll be heading to France first.”

“France? Is that where it’s set?”

“I’m doing a romantic comedy first. Then it’s off to … who knows. The story takes place on an island, but I’m not sure where they’re filming.”

Clarke nodded and smiled again, though Lexa thought she saw it falter. “I’m happy for you. It all sounds really exciting.”

The shift in Clarke’s mood was palpable and Lexa wasn’t sure what to make of it. “I’m sure it will be interesting.” She studied Clarke’s profile, trying to decipher her thoughts. “I was thinking of making New York my more permanent residence.”

Clarke looked at her in surprise. “Oh?”

“Yeah, I like it here.” You’re here.

“Have you even gone anywhere?”

“What do you mean?”

Clarke pointed to the world outside. “Have you seen anything of Manhattan? You know, something other than fancy restaurants and nightclubs?”

“There’s more than that?” Lexa joked, but Clarke only rolled her eyes at her.

“There’s this tiny café near where I live that has the best coffee and the worst live poetry readings you will ever encounter.”

“Worse than Vogon poetry?”

“What the hell is Vogon poetry?”

Lexa laughed. “According to Douglas Adams it’s the third worst poetry in the whole universe.”

“Then yes, this might actually be worse.”

“Let’s go then.”

“Go where?”

“To this café of perpetual hyperbole,” Lexa answered, and stood. “I just need to change real quick.”

Clarke stared up at her. “Are you always this impulsive?”

“Does it bother you?”

“No,” Clarke said after a moment. She finished her drink and rose to her feet. “I kinda like it.”

***

The café felt even smaller than Clarke remembered, though everything felt smaller after Lexa’s apartment. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been here, couldn’t believe that Lexa had wanted to come. The space was almost dark, lit by small candles at each table, most of which were empty. A spotlight cast an orange glow upon the stage, where a woman stood, reading from a small, spiral notebook.

“The…” said the woman, and rang a tiny bell, “HYMEN…. broke…”

Clarke could hear Lexa snicker behind her as they moved toward an open table. “I told you it was bad,” she whispered, when they reached their destination.

“… SAND … in the webbed toes of proverbial wombs ...” Ding.

“I think this is officially my favorite place ever,” Lexa said.

A woman appeared out of nowhere and placed two cups of coffee in front of them, then walked off without a word.

“They just bring it,” Clarke explained. “It’s really good, though. Try it.”

Lexa reached for the sugar and poured in packet after packet.

“Doesn’t diabetes concern you at all?” Clarke asked, watching the display with a mixture of horror and fascination.

“Ask me again in twenty years.” Lexa sipped her coffee and looked surprised. “This really is good. Without milk, even.”

Clarke grinned, pleased and somewhat relieved that she and Lexa were on the same page; at least where coffee and bad poetry were concerned.

“SHAKE THE PELVIS…” Ding. “Shake … the pel pel pel…vi…sion…”

“Wow. Just wow.”

“That about sums it up.” But she wasn’t listening to the poetry. She was too busy watching Lexa while trying not to look obvious about it. Clarke wondered if she’d ever get around to telling her what she’d been meaning to tell her all day. She should have come out with it back in the apartment. They’d had champagne, a gorgeous view … it would’ve been the perfect moment.

“…SALMON…”

This, on the other hand, was not the perfect moment, and she was almost certain that there would be nothing left to do but part ways after this. “Do you have to be up at the butt crack of dawn again tomorrow?”

“I can sleep in a little. Why?”

“Just wondering.” It could wait, Clarke thought. It didn’t have to be tonight. In a month or two Lexa would head off to Europe and none of this would matter. “Would you like to see my apartment after this?” she asked, without thinking.

Lexa turned to look at her, and the surprise was clearly written on her face. “I’d love to.”

“Great,” Clarke said, and felt her stomach flutter with anxious anticipation. There was still time.

***

Clarke tried not to feel self-conscious about the state of her building, tried not to look too closely at every glaring imperfection. Already she worried that Lexa regretted her decision to come along. “I’m sorry the elevator’s broken,” she said, as they reached another flight of stairs.

“I don’t mind.”

It was the polite thing to say, Clarke knew, and she couldn’t tell if Lexa meant it or not. She should have told Lexa to go home. All of this was selfish, and stupid, and would surely end in embarrassment and humiliation, her quota of which had already been reached for the day.

“Actually reminds me that I could use the exercise,” Lexa added.

“Yeah, I noticed your butt is starting to sag a little,” she teased.

“You’ve been looking at my butt?”

That wasn’t the part she’d expected Lexa to focus on. “Well, it’s hard to miss in those jeans.”

“Interesting.”

Clarke chewed on her bottom lip and kept on climbing steps. At this rate Lexa would figure it all out before they even got to the apartment. They reached her floor a moment later and Clarke unlocked the door, grateful that Raven had gone out for the night. Now all that was left to do was open her mouth and confess. “Sorry for the mess,” she said, as they stepped inside. She turned on the light and looked around, suddenly worried that something embarrassing had been left out of place.

But Raven had cleaned up. The dishes on the kitchen counter had been washed and put away, the pile of laundry on the couch no longer visible. She was relieved enough not to feel embarrassed about everything else: the cheap furniture, the water stains on the ceiling, the cracks on the walls. But she did look at Lexa, trying to gauge her reaction. “It must seem really depressing compared to yours,” she said, when she couldn’t read the actress’ expression.

“I wasn’t comparing,” Lexa said, meeting her gaze. “I was just thinking it was nice to see where you live finally.”

Finally. Clarke didn’t realize Lexa had been waiting for an invitation. “Do you want something to drink?”

“I’m good.” Lexa was inspecting the art on the walls of the hallway. “Are all of these yours?”

Clarke glanced at the framed paintings, trying to remember how she felt about them; trying to determine whether or not to feel embarrassed that Lexa was seeing them “They’re old,” she said by way of an answer, because she was too nervous to put her thoughts in order. She couldn’t get used to the sight of Lexa in her apartment. “Do you want to see my room?”

“Of course.”

Clarke tried to envision the state of her room as she led Lexa in its direction. If she’d known she’d be inviting Lexa Woods over, she’d have performed a total makeover, but there was no time now. There was only the faint hope that magical elves had appeared during the day and cleaned up after her.

No such luck. She winced slightly at the myriad of art supplies haphazardly piled in a corner, at the assortment of sketchbooks and textbooks she’d never gotten around to putting away. The carpet looked even more stained than usual, spots of paint randomly scattered across its surface. At least she’d had the foresight to make the bed. “It’s a bit of a nightmare,” she said.

Lexa came to stand by the bed and looked around. “I like it.”

“You like it.” Clarke stared dubiously at the actress, who seemed perfectly at home in her dingy apartment.

Lexa removed her jacket and tossed it on the bed. “I do. It’s very you.”

“Very me?” Clarke looked around again, trying to figure out what Lexa meant by that.

Lexa stepped toward a section of the wall. “What’s this?”

“It’s a photography project I was working on,” Clarke said, looking at the collage of photos she’d glued to the wall. “Of New York life.”

“Did you take these?”

“Yeah.”

“They’re amazing. I didn’t know you took photos.”

“I don’t,” Clarke said quickly, feeling shy all of a sudden. “I mean, not really. I was just trying something.” Lexa glanced up suddenly and Clarke followed her gaze. Above them was her failed attempt at ceiling art, a painting of a sunset that never quite got finished. “I didn’t have a canvas handy…”

Lexa smiled at her. “So where is it?”

“Where is … what?”

“Your toilet paper collection.”

“I can’t believe you remember that.”

“I can’t believe you think I’d forget.”

Clarke shook her head. “I’m afraid it’s top secret. You don’t have the proper clearance.”

“I see.” Lexa sat at the edge of the bed and glanced up at her, looking so beautiful that it made Clarke ache.

It was now or never. “Ask me again about my day,” she said, more forcefully than she’d intended.

Lexa regarded her with curiosity, a question in her eyes. “Okay. Tell me about your day.”

“I didn’t have a class at the Met,” she said, opting to open with a confession, thinking that would make the rest come easier. She could hear her heartbeat punctuating every word. “I came by this morning because I couldn’t sleep, because I desperately wanted to tell you something. I took a cab, I picked up coffee, I rehearsed what I would say. And then I ran into Costia, and I thought she’d spent the night with you and I felt like … like dying, or-or throwing up or maiming her; maybe all at the same time, which would be weird and messy.”

She watched Lexa’s expression, trying to gauge a reaction, but Lexa looked mostly confused. She continued. “And so I thought that I’d just leave, but then there you were … in a towel. And I’m not sure if you know this, but you look really good with your hair wet … and your legs are really …”

She saw Lexa’s eyebrow curve upward and she decided to stick to the point. Or maybe that was the point. She was too nervous to think. “And then you kissed my cheek which kind of fried my brain even more than it already was. So I came home and took a nap and that did nothing. And I woke up still with this monologue in my head, which, by the way, sounded nothing like this one now. It was way more eloquent and had big, flowy words … anyway, I wrote you this email, because I thought maybe that would be easier. For both of us. Well, mainly for me; but for you too. But I sent it to my professor by mistake, which is why you didn’t receive it…”

Lexa was looking at her intently and it made Clarke swallow. She momentarily forgot what else she wanted to say. She felt like she was drifting in a sea of senselessness, trying desperately to find her point. “I just wanted you to know that … I was really happy that you hadn’t slept with Costia because … because I like you. You know … like you. And I thought you should know.” She breathed, feeling instantly stupid. “Anyway, if you still want to see the toilet paper collection I can get—“

She felt a touch on her arm like a jolt of electricity. Clarke looked down and found Lexa’s hand there, stopping her.

“You like me?” Lexa was standing now.

Clarke looked at her, meeting green eyes. She couldn’t read them. “Look, I know it’s crazy. You’re you and I’m …” She waved her free hand, pointing to everything, to nothing. She wanted this moment to pass. “… not you.”

Lexa’s hand was still on her arm, sliding down, slowly, fingers trailing down her wrist, her palm. Clarke closed her eyes briefly, trying to calm herself, to breathe. Then she looked up. A strand of dark hair curled in front of Lexa’s face and Clarke reached up to push it away. Her hand came to rest on Lexa’s neck, and then she leaned forward, propelled by a courage that sprung from somewhere foreign and unrecognizable. She brushed her lips against Lexa’s, softly, quickly; a question in the touch. Her lips tingled as they lingered millimeters away. She felt suddenly terrified that she’d made everything worse.

But she felt Lexa’s hand move to her hip, felt her step closer until their bodies were pressed together. And all of these sensations hit her at once: Lexa’s thumb caressing the skin above her belt, the warmth of her body, the softness of her lips as they moved against hers. She felt suddenly breathless, dizzy, she pulled Lexa even closer, kissing her hungrily, desperately. She wanted more.

Somewhere in the apartment, a door slammed.

They pulled apart, waited; their labored breathing the only sound in the room.

“Clarke? You home?” The voice came from far away, but the steps grew closer.

“You have to hide,” Clarke whispered to Lexa, already pushing her toward the closet. “If she sees you here she’ll never leave. Never mind the endless barrage of questions.”

Lexa frowned at her, but obliged. “You know, this is kind of ironic.”

Clarke shut the closet door, rushed to the bed and sat down, trying to find a casual pose. She could still feel Lexa’s lips on hers. She was shaking. She’d been kissing Lexa. Lexa had been kissing her. She was going to kill Raven.

“Clarke?” Raven called her name in lieu of knocking. She entered a second later. “Hey, good, you are home.”

“I thought you were gone for the night?” She tried to keep the annoyance out of her voice, but she was too flustered.

Raven didn’t seem to notice, lost to whatever thoughts floated in her head. “I am, but I came to get you. Best party, I swear to God. You have to come. You’ve got to change, though.” She started toward the closet. “How about that red—“

“AAAAHHHH!!!” It was the only thing that she could think to do.

Raven whirled around, startled.

“Cramps,” Clarke said quickly, feigning pain. “Really bad.”

“Well, shit. Did you take something?”

“No,” she said, and then wondered which answer might make Raven leave quicker. “Yes.”

“Well, here, get in bed.” Raven was pulling down the covers, urging her under. “Wait, at least take your pants off. Why are you in jeans? You’re shaking. Are you cold? I’ll make you some tea.”

“No,” Clarke said quickly. “I was just going to change and go to bed. You go. Have fun.”

Raven hesitated, looked at her with concern.

“I’ll be fine,” Clarke insisted. “Really.” To her relief, Raven started toward the door.

She paused in the doorway, pensively staring back. “Didn’t you have your period like a week and a half ago?”

Clarke clenched her jaw. “Yeah, it’s being weird.”

“That’s not good. You should see someone.”

“I will.” Go. Please, for the love of God.

“Is that a new jacket?”

She glanced at the object on her bed and felt a wave of panic. “Uh, no. It’s ... a friend from class left it. I’m going to return it tomorrow.”

“Right,” Raven said, staring at her now, and Clarke was certain it was all over. But Raven only shrugged. “Well, feel better. Call me if you need anything. It’s not that far.” She closed the door and Clarke held her breath as she listened to the retreating footsteps. It felt like ages before she finally heard the front door close.

She jumped up, fearful now that everything would be awkward. Lexa had kissed her. The reality of what that meant hadn’t quite hit her yet. She didn’t even know what it meant; didn’t really care at that moment. “Sor—“She started to apologize but Lexa’s lips were on hers again, her arms around her waist, pulling her close. Desire shot through her; spread everywhere at once, red hot and overwhelming. Lexa’s hair fell forward, tickled Clarke’s cheek, and she brushed it back, deepened the kiss until they fell back against the wall.

“Jesus,” Lexa gasped, as Clarke fell against her. “You’re driving me crazy.”

Clarke smiled against Lexa’s lips, feeling both giddy and lightheaded. The moment was beginning to take on the surrealistic qualities of a dream. She felt like she was somewhere else entirely; floating, melting, standing beside herself. She didn’t know how long this might last but she didn’t want it to end. Lexa kissed her again, and Clarke wondered how anyone’s lips could feel so soft. She felt bold, alive. She started moving toward the bed, pulling Lexa with her, not daring to break the kiss.

She felt Lexa’s hands on her sides, steadying her as they lowered themselves onto the bed. Clarke couldn’t think. Her body was on fire and Lexa was on top of her, kissing her still. Clarke could feel her against every inch of her and somehow it didn’t feel like enough.

“Wait,” Lexa said suddenly, breathlessly, pulling her lips away. “We should talk about this.”

Talk. The word sounded strange, foreign. Clarke opened her eyes and drew in a breath at the sight of Lexa above her. Talk. She could barely think. “Okay,” she managed, her nervousness returning. She felt like she was coming out of a trance. “Let’s talk.”

***

Lexa stared up at the unfamiliar print above the bed and tried to think of things that might bring her body temperature down, but all she could think about was Clarke; Clarke beside her, Clarke beneath her, Clarke kissing her. She closed her eyes. She could still taste Clarke’s lips, could still feel the softness of her body. She’d never felt so out of control. She couldn’t believe any of this was happening. “I thought you were straight,” she said softly, expelled the words like a breath.

“Yeah, I feel very straight right now,” Clarke said, turning her head, smiling at her. “I’m so turned on I can’t even think.”

It would be in bad taste, Lexa thought, to have a heart attack now. But what she felt right then was something between panic and elation and her heart beat to the rhythm of each extreme. She could feel her body respond to Clarke’s words and she wanted desperately to reach out and touch her again. But the uncertainty of what any of this meant stopped her.

Clarke turned on her side and looked at her, her features serious. “I know you and I make no sense,” she said, her voice a whisper. “I know that not very long from now you’re going to be traveling to who knows where and for who knows how long and that it’s ridiculous for me to even think of starting anything with you. I know that you can’t be ‘out.’ I know that any day now you’ll be going to work and making out with my best friend and also with a gorgeous woman that clearly wants you. And I can’t pretend that I don’t hate the thought of it. I can’t even promise that none of these things will ever faze me and that I’m okay with it all. I don’t know if I am. I honestly hadn’t thought past you rejecting me. But …” Clarke paused in her monologue, was quiet for a second then said, “But, I think what I’m saying is that … if you want me … I’m yours.”

Lexa could only blink. She was really here, in Clarke’s room, hearing these words. This was really happening. If you want me … “Clarke,” she began, “I’ve wanted you since …” She tried to think back, but failed. Her thoughts were too jumbled to think linearly or even coherently. “I can’t remember. Since before we even met. Since before I even went to your show at the gallery. Since forever, it feels like. There’s no ‘if’ … there’s just a lot of … fuzziness.”

“Fuzziness,” Clarke repeated.

“Yeah,” Lexa said, thinking it was about as good a word as she would manage under these circumstances. “I’ve never been here before.”

“In my room?”

Lexa smiled. “In anyone’s room; kissing … talking about … this.”

“This.” Clarke looked thoughtful. Then she smiled. “You’ve really wanted me all that time?”

“You couldn’t tell?”

“Oh yeah,” Clarke said, and laughed. “Everyday I thought, ‘Wow that Lexa Woods really wants my sexy bod.’”

“It is sexy,” Lexa said, smiling, feeling a rush of confidence. She reached out and took Clarke’s hand, loving the silky softness of it. Every time they touched it felt electric. “So… what now?”

“Now … I think you should go back to kissing me.”

Chapter Text

“Guess what?” The question came in one rushed breath, and Clarke became vaguely aware of something cold against her ear, against her hand. Her phone, it occurred to her. She was on the phone. She couldn’t remember it ringing or her reaching to answer it. Her mind started to swim. Sleep. She wanted more sleep.

“Clarke?”

“Mmm?” she said, through the images in her mind. Random shapes: A house; a purple shovel.

“I left you like five messages last night. Where were you?”

Last night. There was something about last night. But the shovel was now dancing Salsa with a hotdog and that was terribly intriguing.

“Clarke!”

Clarke forced her eyes open, slowly, and tried to focus on something, on anything, but the room looked strange, changed somehow. She closed her eyes again and that felt worlds better. “I’m so sleepy,” she mumbled, wanting simply to hang up and succumb to the warmth of the sheets and the softness of the pillow. “Talk later.”

“Not later. Now. Pretend you’re awake for half a second and listen to me: I got an interview with Lexa Woods!”

Lexa. It all came back suddenly: painting on walls, cold champagne, terrible poetry. And kissing. Lots of kissing. Clarke’s eyes were open now. She was staring at the poster above her bed, the one Finn gave her what felt like a million years ago. Finn. He felt like a part of someone else’s life; part of a story someone else told her. Something had changed. She had changed. Lexa had kissed her.

“Clarke? Did you hear me?”

“That’s awesome!” she blurted, smiling, feeling overwhelmingly happy; for Monty, sure, but for herself, mostly. Lexa had kissed her. Lexa had kissed her.

“You need to help me figure out what to say in the interview. Can you meet me for lunch?”

Clarke pulled her mind away from the tempting memory of Lexa’s mouth on hers, and tried to focus. “I can’t, I’m sorry. I have class and I really need to see one of my professors and sort out a really big misunderstanding.” And Lexa. I desperately need to see Lexa. “Why don’t you take Miller?”

“Because he’s more nervous than I am. So, how’s your thing going?”

“My thing?”

“Your Sapphic fling thing.”

“It’s not a fling.”

“Oh? What is it then?”

“It’s…” Clarke paused, having no real name for it. They’d kissed. They’d admitted they had feelings for each other. But there had been no promises made, no rules established, no hints given for what came next. “I don’t know. I don’t know what it is. We kissed.” And her heart skipped at the words, at how real and solid they sounded out there in the real world.

“Wow,” Monty said, sounding interested now. “How was it?”

“Amazing.” Overwhelming. Terrifying. Confusing. Enlightening. But mostly amazing.

“Aww. How cute. Does that mean I can tell Miller?”

“No!” She felt somewhat panicked at the thought. “Not yet.”

“Hey, relax. I’m kidding. I’d drag you out of the closet before you’re ready.”

“Thanks.” She yawned, her eyes feeling heavy again.

“Well, I’ll let you go. I still have a good hour, hour and a half of freaking out to do. Later.”

Clarke put the phone on the nightstand and looked up at the print on the ceiling. She’d always thought of it as a promise; his promise to her that one day they’d go to Paris, walk through the Louvre together, hand in hand. It had been a nice thought at the time, a persistent fantasy; a kind of hope. But there was none of that left now; just ink on paper, faded edges to match fading memories. There was, too, a kind of relief that went with it. A sense of moving on that had only partly to do with the fact that Lexa had kissed her back. Whatever came next, good or bad, happy or heartbreaking, it would at least be hers and hers alone. Her decision. Her life.

She stood, struggled for balance on the springy mattress, and took the poster down.

***

Was it a dream?

Lexa woke with the question in her mind; or the feeling of the question, if not the question itself. She replayed the previous evening in her mind; each word, each touch, each kiss, until there was no longer any doubt.

Definitely not a dream.

Definitely not a dream, and yet it didn’t feel quite real, either. It didn’t seem quite real. There was, at the edge of it all, a nagging certainty that what she felt remained one-sided.

It was easier – painful, but easier – to believe that Clarke had simply lost her mind; that the combination of paint fumes, champagne and bad poetry had caused a chemical reaction resulting in temporary insanity. Clarke would wake up with a sort of hangover and likely not remember a single thing. That, at least, would be preferable to the alternative: an awkward, ‘don’t-want-you-to-get-the-wrong-idea’ type of conversation.

Far less painful, but way more terrifying was the notion that Clarke had actually meant what she’d said. It meant … it meant what, exactly?

At least rejection had a clear trajectory. Heartbreak was more solid, more concrete. She could stock up on ice cream and tissues, listen to sad-angry music. She’d eventually get over it and go back to a healthy kind of misery; the usual kind, the familiar kind.

This place she was at now, this murky space between hope and sheer panic was something new entirely. Clarke had kissed her. More than that, she’d made Lexa confess. There was no going back from that. Clarke could easily hide; she could chalk it up to curiosity or experimentation, and Lexa would smile and nod and say, “Of course. I understand.” But Lexa couldn’t hide behind an excuse; wouldn’t want to, even if she could.

She rolled over in the bed, and the sheets rolled with her. The bedroom was dressed in the orange-yellow hues of morning, a bold reminder that the day was still before her, along with its questions and uncertainties.

Lexa wanted not to think about last night, because the truth was that despite all of her fears and doubts she wouldn’t trade her time with Clarke for anything. She’d never felt anything so powerful, so real, so heartbreakingly perfect. She wanted to go back to it later, when she knew how to feel about it, when she was sure it was safe to tread upon the footsteps of memory.

And then, there it was, Clarke’s ringtone, cutting smoothly through the silence. Lexa froze at the sound. She wasn’t ready. She wasn’t ready to hear Clarke say that she’d changed her mind, that it had all been a big misunderstanding. She wasn’t ready to pretend it was okay, to feign cheerfulness and say it that it was fine, that they could just be friends.

But the sound persisted and she couldn’t ignore it. She couldn’t ignore Clarke, rather, and that was really the problem. “Hey.” Her voice came out sounding like someone else’s, some weak, uncertain version of herself.

“Hey, did I wake you?”

Clarke sounded very much like she always did, and Lexa didn’t know what to make of it. Was it good? Was it bad? “Not at all. I was just …” She looked around, searching for a lie. She couldn’t find one. “…thinking.”

“Oh.” There was a brief pause after that, and Lexa held her breath. “Anything in particular?”

Lexa hated this; this awkward tension suddenly between them. So she said, “Dolphins.”

“Dolphins,” Clarke repeated, dragging out the word. “And do you often find yourself thinking about marine mammals at this hour of the morning?”

“Sometimes. They are, after all, the second most intelligent creatures on Earth. After mice, of course.”

“Of course.”

Lexa could hear Clarke’s smile. She wished she could see it. “I wasn’t really thinking about dolphins.”

“What were you really thinking about? Whales? Manatees?”

“Dugongs.”

Clarke laughed, and Lexa wondered if this was the calm before the storm. “You’re stalling,” Clarke said after a few seconds.

“You’re letting me.”

“Fair enough. So…”

Lexa picked a piece of lint off her covers. Her heart was racing. Here it comes, she thought, the apologies and backpedaling, the sugar-coated regret. “So.”

“Last night…”

... was a mistake, Lexa guessed.

… should have never happened?

… you were kidnapped by lesbian pod people?

“… was … I can’t think of a good adjective. Wonderful? Is that too lame?”

Wonderful? Lexa switched the phone to the other ear. “Wonderful?”

“Too lame? I knew it. Sorry, I-”

“No, I mean … you thought it was wonderful?”

“Well … yeah.” Clarke sounded uncertain now. “Wait, are you saying you didn’t?”

Lexa could hear a trace of worry in Clarke’s voice and she hurried, “No! I mean, yes! I did. I just thought … I thought maybe you …” She felt stupid now. “I thought maybe you’d changed your mind.”

“About…?”

“About…” Lexa had no idea. They hadn’t established anything. They’d barely talked. “I’m not sure. I guess about what you said.”

“About being so turned on I could hardly think or about being yours?”

Lexa’s stomach fluttered at the word ‘yours’. She swallowed. “Both. Either.” She desperately wished they weren’t having this conversation over the phone.

Clarke didn’t say anything right away and Lexa worried she’d screwed things up. “Can I see you today?”

“Yes! Well …” Lexa ran a quick overview of her schedule. “I have to be on set. We’re filming today and - I’m not sure why - but I find directors prefer it when there’s an actor in front of the camera.”

“Really? How weird. Well, how about after?”

“It might be really late…”

“I don’t mind.”

“Then I’ll call you when I know a time.”

“Okay. Lexa?”

“Yeah?”

“I meant what I said last night. All of it.”

Lexa smiled, feeling for the first time all day like she could actually breathe. “Me too.”

***

Clarke stared at her reflection in the bathroom mirror trying to pinpoint exactly what Lexa saw in her. She was okay-looking, objectively speaking. Pretty, even, in the right kind of light.

She moved her head from side to side, trying to get an outsider’s perspective. She’d always felt her left earlobe was longer than her right; unlike Lexa, whose earlobes were perfect. All of Lexa was perfect, which is why this made no sense. In the light of day, thinking both clearly and rationally, she knew it made no sense.

And yet.

And yet Lexa had kissed her. Lexa had told her she felt the same way. Lexa had gone so far as to worry that Clarke might change her mind, which was ridiculous; more than ridiculous, really… it was… well, whatever was more ridiculous than ridiculous.

And so, here she was, locked in her bathroom, contemplating lopsided earlobes and hiding from her best friend.

Clarke had decided - at some point between last night and now - that she would have to tell Raven. She would have to tell her, at the very least, as much as she’d told Monty, because there was no going back now and Raven deserved to know.

Still, she was hiding. She was starting to understand why Miller had taken so long to come out to her. There was something paralyzing about it all. Raven would be okay with it, of course. Clarke knew she would be. But lingering around the corners of her certainty was the fear that things would change; that Raven would see her differently.

“You want some coffee?” Raven asked from the other side of the door. “Just made a fresh pot.”

“Ah, sure, thanks.” She didn’t really want coffee. Her stomach hurt at the mere thought. Perhaps she could just email Raven. “Oh sure, cause that worked out so well for you last time,” she mumbled, and her forehead hit the mirror with a soft bang. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She would do this. She’d blurt it out, quick and painless. It would probably be awkward for a minute or two, and then it would pass.

She gathered the bits and pieces of her scattered determination and opened the door. She found Raven in the kitchen, sipping coffee and staring down at a newspaper. Clarke briefly wondered if there was a How-To guide for this sort of thing. She should have Google’d this.

Sensing her presence, Raven said, “I put your favorite mug on the counter.”

“So it turns out I like girls,” Clarke blurted, because she was quite certain there would be no smooth segue into this particular subject.

Raven raised her head slowly, so slowly that for a moment Clarke thought she was stuck in slow motion. “You’re kidding.”

“No?” Clarke felt a rising sense of panic. Raven had to be okay with it. She had to be. “I mean, I’m sure it comes as a surprise-“

“That you finally admitted it? Ah, yeah! I’ll say.”

Clarke opened her mouth and then shut it again. She decided to sit down. “What do you mean ‘finally’?”

“I bet Miller fifty dollars like … a billion and a half years ago that you were gay. And he said there was no way in hell you were. And I just figured you’d be like eighty by the time you figured it out, since you’re such a fucking prude and everything.” Raven smiled smugly. “He owes me fifty bucks.”

Clarke had envisioned this conversation a few different ways, but somehow this particular scenario had slipped past her. “You had a bet? Why? I mean … why? Why did you think I was?”

“Let’s see. Well, there was Nicole.”

“Nicole who? The little girl next door?”

“There’s a little girl next door?”

“Mrs. Platt’s granddaughter.”

“Oh, that’s right. No, I’m talking about that girl Miller was pretend-dating. Wasn’t her name Nicole?”

“Natalie,” Clarke corrected.

Raven smiled. “You even remember her name. Anyway, you were totally hitting on her.”

“I was not!” No, she had definitely not envisioned this scenario. Was it too late to switch to a different one? “Are you insane? I remember her hitting on me…”

“And you were so into it!”

“I was not!” Was I? Clarke tried to think back. Raven was making her feel confused, which wasn’t much of a feat considering she was already confused.

“Step back in time with me,” Raven said, and moved her hands around the air in strange patterns.

“What are you doing?”

“Creating ripples. You know, to illustrate that we’re going back in time.”

“Raven…”

“Okay, you and Nicole-“

“Natalie.”

“Natalie, right. You and Natalie were standing in your mom’s kitchen, and she was talking to you and being all flirty and you were leaning into her, touching her arm and giggling like a teenager.”

“First, I’m pretty sure I was a teenager, and second, I don’t remember giggling. Laughing, maybe. She was funny.”

“Right. She was insanely dull. I remember nodding off during one of her soliloquies about … garbanzo beans or some shit. Then again, you dated Finn, so maybe you just like dull people. Anyway, after Natalie there was Elma.”

“Our guidance counselor?” Clarke was horrified.

“Yeah you were crushing on her hardcore. Hey, she was young. Cute. I get it. And then, oh, yeah, that girl you partnered with for that art project you had. The one with the spiky hair and nose ring; I caught her checking you out. You two could’ve made beautiful lesbomagic together.”

“In what world does her checking me out make me gay?”

“You’re the one who brought her here. I bet she would’ve been really good in bed.” Raven grinned. “And then, of course, there was your lesbian. I had really high hopes for her. Alas, she seems to have vanished into thin air …” Raven shrugged sadly. “What ever happened to her? Lover’s quarrel?”

If possible, Clarke suddenly felt even more uncomfortable. “Um, she got busy with work.”

Raven nodded slowly. “You know your lip twitches a little when you’re lying?”

“No it doesn’t.” Does it? Clarke bit her lip just in case.

“So who is she?”

“What she? Who?”

“The owner of the Prada knock-off on your bed last night. What’d you do, hide her on the fire escape? I can’t believe you didn’t tell me sooner. How long have you been dating her?”

“I’m not,” Clarke said quickly, and that panicky feeling started up again. “I mean … we’re not.” She cleared her throat. “This is all sort of new…”

“The gay thing?”

“The gay thing,” Clarke said. “I’m still not sure what I am, exactly.” “Lesbian? Bi? Pans? There’s not that many options.”

Clarke shrugged. “Honestly, I just hate the thought of adopting some pre-existing label, along with all of its stereotypes and assumptions. I mean, can’t I just be me?”

It was Raven’s turn to shrug. “People are going to slap you with a label no matter what you say, so you’re better off picking one out for yourself.” Raven got up and poured coffee into the mug on the counter. She handed it to Clarke. “If it makes you feel better, I’ll see you as I’ve always seen you.”

“A prude?”

“A prude,” Raven confirmed. But she smiled. “That got slightly more interesting.”

***

Lexa stared at her phone, and then looked around the dressing room, and then stared at her phone some more. Clarke hadn’t called – or texted – and Lexa couldn’t decide whether it would seem too needy – or worse, desperate - to text for no reason. A couple of days ago she would’ve done it without a second thought, but now …

“Lunch has arrived, ladies,” Bellamy announced, walking in with a brown bag in one hand. “Turkey sandwich for the queen.” He bowed before Lexa.

“How is that a cheeseburger?”

Bellamy glanced at the plastic wrapped item in his hand and then at Anya. “Did you order a turkey sandwich?”

“Tuna salad.” Anya didn’t bother looking up from her own cell phone as she answered.

“Hmm.” Bellamy looked into the bag. “Well, I got a chicken Caesar wrap. And something that strongly resembles a Sloppy Joe.”

Lexa sighed and yanked the bag out of his hands. She reached for the wrap. “When do I get to trade you in for a real assistant?”

“Hopefully soon,” Anya answered. “You’ve got that interview with Monty Green tomorrow. And for the record, I’m still not sure hiring your crush’s brother’s boyfriend is a particularly good idea.” Anya grabbed the turkey sandwich out of Bellamy’s hands as he walked by to join her on the couch.

Lexa looked at her phone again, daring it to ring or vibrate or do something besides mock her. “I haven’t hired anyone yet,” she said. “The least I can do is meet with him, right?”

“If you say so,” Anya said, unwrapping her sandwich. It was the first time Lexa had seen her without her cell phone in hand. “He was hardly the most qualified of the bunch. What if he sucks?”

“Then I fire him.”

“Yeah? Just like that? And you don’t think that’ll make things at all awkward with Clarke?”

“I’ll just rehire him for something else.”

“Like?”

“Like whatever!” Lexa was starting to feel impatient. This was not the issue at the forefront of her thoughts and she wanted to move on from it. “Besides, there’s no guarantee that he’d even want to travel around with me, so this might just be temporary, if it is at all.”

“I think she wants us to drop the subject,” Bellamy whispered to Anya.

“Here’s a new subject, then,” Anya said. “Why do you keep looking at your phone every five seconds?”

“I was just going to ask her about that!”

Lexa put the phone down, annoyed that she was so obvious. “I was just checking the time.”

“Since when are you so anal about time? Besides, there’s a clock right above the door.”

“I bet it has something to do with Clarke,” Bellamy said.

“Or Costia.”

Lexa did her best to glare at them, but it wasn’t her best effort. She was too distracted by the mess of other thoughts circling around her brain. Did she tell them? Did she wait?

“My money’s on Clarke,” Bellamy said.

They stared expectantly at Lexa, who sighed and glanced at the phone again. This was stupid. She was obsessing and she knew it. “Clarke kissed me last night,” she said, hearing the words out loud for the first time and thinking that it didn’t make the whole thing any less surreal.

There was a long period of silence during which both Bellamy and Anya stared at her.

“Seriously,” Lexa said, anxious to get the first few moments of this conversation over with, “this is your reaction?”

“Hang on, I’m just picturing it in my mind,” Bellamy said, only to get punched in the arm by Anya. “Ow! Like you weren’t doing the same thing.”

Anya ignored him. “She really kissed you?”

“Like really kissed me,” Lexa said, tossing her untouched wrap on the table. “And I really kissed her back. And I don’t know what happens next, or what she wants to happen next, or even what I want to happen next.”

“Sex,” Bellamy said. “That’s normally what you would both want to happen next.”

“Thanks,” Lexa said. “That’s really helpful. I feel like … everything’s spinning out of control. This is what I wanted. She’s what I’ve wanted. But the truth is that … I just don’t know. Do I let this happen because I want it to, or do I stop it because I know where it will end? I can’t give her a normal life; even if she’s okay with it all for now things are going to unravel eventually. The press is going to pick up on it … they’ll drag us both through the mud. I don’t want that for her. I don’t want her to get caught in all the bullshit. So, do I stop it knowing we’re both going to get hurt or do I let it happen out of selfishness?”

“I really think,” Bellamy said, “that you should start with the sex.”

***

She’d chickened out of meeting with her professor. She’d had every intention of knocking on the door during office hours and apologizing face-to-face for the terribly inappropriate email she’d sent the day before. But she couldn’t do it. She’d made it all the way to the woman’s door, but couldn’t will her arm to move.

So she’d called Monty and agreed to meet him at Saks Fifth Avenue. And now she trailed behind him, looking at display after display of clothing neither could afford. “Do you think labels are important,” she asked him, because she had been thinking about what Raven had said.

“Yes,” Monty said, distracted by the shirt in his hands. “I see it as an investment in my future. I’m thinking … Armani. Although, Lexa does like Prada. And I saw her wearing Dolce & Gabbana jeans at her last interview and this really nice tank, which I’m also pretty sure was D&G.” He put the shirt back on the rack. “What was she wearing last time you saw her?”

Clarke tried to conjure up an image of Lexa, but all she could think about was kissing her. “Um. Jeans? A t-shirt?”

“What kind?”

“Blue? White?”

Monty sighed at her and gave her a disapproving look. “Brand?”

“How should I know? Besides, that wasn’t my question. I meant … labels like … well, the sexuality kind.”

“Ah,” Monty said. “Go on.”

Clarke followed after him as she talked. “Well, I was talking to Raven about everything—“

Monty stopped and spun around, causing Clarke to nearly collide into him. “Whoa, whoa. You told Raven?”

“This morning.”

“So she knows…?”

“About as much as you do,” Clarke said, hoping that was good enough.

“Go on.”

“Well.” Clarke tried to find a way to phrase the question without sounding like an idiot. She didn’t know exactly what she was asking. “How do you figure it out? At what point do you wake up and say ‘okay, this is what I am,’ and then make it your identity and actually feel like it’s yours, rather than someone else’s idea of how you should be?”

Monty blinked at her somewhat blankly. “And here I thought we were just going to have a light-hearted shopping trip,” he said. “Do you like girls?”

“Yes, it would seem so,” Clarke said.

“Guys?”

“Yeah.”

“Then by the power vested in me by the Supreme Council of Gayhood, I now pronounce you bisexual. Congratulations and welcome to the other side. Your card’s in the mail.”

Clarke sighed at him. “That doesn’t answer my question.”

“Your question has no answer, Clarke. Or at least no answer I can give you. I can, however, give you some advice: Don’t tell your girlie friend right away because, from personal experience, there’s a chance that when you tell her that you’re bisexual she could be biphobic and will probably think you want a threesome with her and some random guy. And then she’ll freak out and go running to the first gay guy she finds and then he’ll have to spend three perfectly good hours listening to endless, monotonous whining about how she should’ve never gone home with a girl that wears heels, when all I wanted to do was go home.”

“What?”

“Sorry,” Monty said, running a hand through his hair. “It’s been a long day.”

Clarke replayed the words through her mind, trying to make sense of them. “I don’t wear heels.”

He regarded her seriously. “Forget the heels. Look, Clarke, you are what you are. People will see you as they see you, which in my experience says a lot more about who they are than who you are. Being true to yourself and giving yourself permission to be who you are and to love who you love … that’s what it’s all about. The rest … the rest is unimportant in the grand scheme of things.”

***

“I don’t want a threesome,” was the first thing Clarke said as she stepped into Lexa’s apartment.

The words took a while to register in Lexa’s mind, partly because she was distracted by the sight of Clarke, and partly because the statement made no contextual sense. She closed the door and leaned her back against it, waiting.

“And I don’t want you to think that I’m going to run off with the first guy that winks in my direction,” Clarke continued in the same impassioned tone. “And this isn’t a fling, or … you know, part of the whole college experimentation thing.”

Lexa wasn’t quite sure what to make of these declarations. “Did I miss a conversation somewhere?” she asked.

“This morning you said you were worried that I’d changed my mind,” she said. “And I’ve been thinking about that all day … about all of it. And it finally hit me on the way over here why you’d think that. And I wanted you to know that I would never regret what happened last night, no matter where we go from this moment forward.”

Lexa couldn’t help but smile. “And threesomes played a part in this … how exactly?”

“That was Monty’s fault. And Raven’s. Well, no, it was mostly Monty’s. He said that you—well, not you you, ‘cause I didn’t mention you specifically—but that … actually, I don’t remember. Something about threesomes and bisexuals and heels. Regardless, I just wanted to make it clear, in case you ever thought I might want one, that I don’t.”

“Good to know,” Lexa said, more amused than anything else. She couldn’t take her eyes off Clarke. Images from the previous evening flashed vividly through her mind. She pushed them aside for the moment. “Are you hungry?”

“No, I’m okay.” Clarke started taking off her coat. “I can’t believe we did that to your wall,” she said. “How long are you leaving that there?”

Lexa followed Clarke’s gaze. She rather liked what they’d done to the wall. “Until you want to change it.”

“Me?”

“Well, you’re the artist.”

“I suppose I am.” Clarke met her gaze and held it. Neither said anything for a very long time. “What are we doing, Lexa?”

“Staring awkwardly at each other.”

Clarke smiled, but shook her head. She started toward the living room, and Lexa watched her for a couple of seconds before following. “Talk to me,” Clarke said, as she sat on the couch.

Lexa didn’t know where to begin, so she started by sitting down. She’d been thinking about Clarke all day, trying to zero in on what she wanted. But what she wanted had always been clear; it’s what she feared that made things difficult. She wished she had a script to read off of, some past experience to go by, but there was nothing.

“Do you want to be with me?” Clarke asked softly.

The question took Lexa by surprise, silencing all other thoughts. “More than anything.”

There was a flash of relief on Clarke’s face; relief and something else. “But it’s complicated,” she guessed, her tone light.

Lexa tried for a smile, but didn’t quite manage one. “People follow me constantly. They take pictures of me constantly. They write about my life and the people in it, and they don’t care who they hurt in the process. There’s only so long we can go without you appearing in a photo beside me and it’s only a matter of time before they start following you and writing about you. It kills me, Clarke, the thought of dragging you into all of that.”

Clarke nodded, but the question was still in her eyes.

Lexa’s heart ached. She didn’t want to lose Clarke. She didn’t know how to keep her. “I don’t want to put you through that.”

“Is it really me you’re worried about, or is it fear that you’ll be outed?”

Lexa frowned at the question, partly thrown by it. “Honestly, if you’d asked me that a few months ago, I would’ve said that being outed was my biggest fear in the world.”

“But not anymore?”

“No.” And Lexa was surprised to find that it was true.

“So what is it now?”

That one was easy to answer. “Hurting you,” she said. “Watching you suffer because you’re a part of my life, and ultimately losing you because of it.”

“But that might happen even if we’re just friends,” Clarke said.

Lexa had thought of that. She’d thought of it and then proceeded to push it from her mind. It hurt to hear Clarke say that it was a possibility. “I know.”

“I’m saying,” Clarke said, “that that’s not reason enough for us not to be together. If you tell me that you don’t want to be with me because you fear for your career, or that you’re worried it will out you to the world and you don’t want that … then that’s one thing. But if you’re saying you don’t want to be with me because you’re worried about what people will say about me and how I will feel about it …?”

“I just don’t want to see you get hurt.” And that seemed like reason enough for Lexa.

“Lexa, I didn’t kiss you last night because I thought it might be fun to try it. I kissed you because I’ve never felt like this before, about anyone. I know a relationship with you would be complicated. I know at times it might be downright frustrating. Hell, it might even be painful. But that’s what relationships are. And I don’t want to give up on it simply because you’re worried what people might say about me.”

There was, what felt, like a sudden glimmer of hope, though the worries were still there. “So you want to be with me is what you’re saying?” Despite everything that had transpired and everything that had already been said, she found it incredibly hard to believe that this was real; that Clarke might actually consider something more serious.

Clarke ventured a smile. “Well, I think I deserve at least a real date.”

A date. It sounded so harmless. So tempting. “Are you asking me out?”

“Are you going to keep speaking in questions?”

Lexa smiled at that. At the back of her mind was the voice that spoke of warnings and bad ideas. But it had grown considerably smaller and now was barely audible. “If you’re asking me out, then I accept.”

“Great. Are you busy now?”

“Is that a trick question?”

“Maybe.” Clarke grinned at her. “What movies do you have?”

Lexa hesitated, but only briefly. There would be time to sort through the rest of the questions and worries and concerns. For now, she was content to go with the flow, for however long it lasted. She stood and offered Clarke her hand. “Let’s go look.”

***

Clarke had no idea if they’d actually gotten anywhere with that conversation, but she felt cautiously optimistic as she followed the actress up the stairs. It should have been easy, moving forward, over and beyond the neutrality of friendship, toward Whatever Came Next. But dating Lexa meant dating her management team, her fans, and the public at large, and Clarke understood Lexa’s fears. At some point, when the novelty of being in a new relationship wore off—and maybe long before—Clarke would have to face a very difficult reality.

And so there remained between them a question with no answer.

Clarke paused at the top of the stairs to look around Lexa’s room. This wasn’t her first time there, but it almost felt like it was. Everything between them felt different. But the room was much as she remembered it: neat, comfortable. The lighting was soft, yellow, pouring from a lamp in the corner. Across from her, the impossibly large flat-screen TV stared back at her from the middle of the entertainment center. Unavoidably, her gaze fell on the bed, and thoughts of kissing Lexa danced across her mind.

“So, what are you in the mood for?”

For a moment, Clarke was certain that Lexa had read her mind, but the actress was standing near the TV, staring down at an open drawer containing row after row of DVDs. Clarke walked over and scanned the titles. The selection was mind-boggling. She decided to sit down. “This might take a while.”

Lexa sat down next to her, and Clarke fought the impulse to lean closer. “They’re in alphabetical order.”

“Seriously?” Clarke looked through the titles again and found that yes, they were in fact in alphabetical order. “Were you that bored?”

“Anya was that bored,” Lexa explained.

Clarke smiled and turned back to the task at hand. She had no idea what movie to pick. She didn’t really care what they watched. “Idea,” she said, and grabbed Lexa’s hands. “Cover my eyes.”

“Is this how you usually make decisions?” Lexa sounded amused as she moved behind Clarke.

Perhaps it would be from now on, Clarke thought, enjoying the fact that Lexa was closer now. “Any excuse for you to touch me,” she said.

“You don’t need an excuse for that.”

Lexa’s hands were suddenly over Clarke’s eyes and Clarke briefly forgot all about the movie. “I’ll keep that in mind,” she said, surprised that she could think at all. She reached forward and felt across the rows, her fingers trailing over the spines. “Let’s go with… this one.” She opened her eyes when Lexa’s hands moved. She started laughing. Seabord Cyborg. “What are the odds?”

Lexa snatched the DVD out of her hands. “That shouldn’t be there!”

Clarke half turned and reached for the movie, but Lexa held it up. “Oh, come on. It will be fun.”

“Not in a million years.”

Clarke turned to face Lexa and, kneeling, managed to grab the movie back. “Ha!” But a second later, she felt Lexa’s fingers brushing lightly over her stomach and she shrieked. “No fair!” she yelled, laughing, doubling over.

And then, without warning, Lexa was kissing her. Or, maybe, she was kissing Lexa; it was hard to tell, and it didn’t really matter. Nothing else really mattered. She didn’t notice that the movie was no longer in her hand as her fingers tangled in Lexa’s hair.

Clarke pulled her lips away moments later. She pressed her forehead against Lexa’s and closed her eyes, trying to catch her breath. “We can make this work,” she said, not caring that she sounded somewhat desperate.

She felt, more than heard, Lexa sigh. “Not if you make me watch that movie.”

Chapter Forty-Six

Raven was sitting on the couch when Clarke walked out of her room the following morning. “Tell me there’s coffee,” Clarke said, on her way to the kitchen.

“It was real, wasn’t it?”

Clarke stopped and turned to face Raven, simultaneously searching her brain for the missing pieces of the conversation. Coming up blank, she said, “What?”

Raven stared at her from the couch and then she sighed, somewhat dramatically. “The jacket,” she said, as if it were obvious.

“Is this one of those times when you decide to engage me in a random improv exercise without telling me and I spend half an hour wondering what the hell you’re talking about, only to find out later you’re just fucking with my head? ‘Cause if it is, I don’t have time today.”

“I’m talking about the Prada jacket on your bed,” Raven said. “Are you dating some sort of older, rich, power lesbian that can’t be seen with you? Holy shit, is she a politician?”

Clarke was stunned. “You got all that from a jacket?”

“Oh, my God, she’s a politician? How old is she? No, scratch that, how rich is she? No, wait, how did you even meet a politician, you hate politics. Wait… too many questions… I can’t focus.”

Clarke shook her head and walked the rest of the way to the kitchen to find an empty pot. “You didn’t make coffee?”

“I did, but I drank it.”

“The whole thing?”

“Don’t change the subject! You’re dating a politician!”

Clarke expelled a breath. “I’m not dating a politician.”

“Oh.” Raven sounded disappointed. “So … what, then? Some corporate big shot? Ooh, is she like the CEO of something?”

Clarke hated lying and sooner or later she would have to tell Raven the truth. But now was not the time. Besides, she’d have to talk to Lexa about it. “What makes you think I’m dating anyone? Maybe I’m playing the field.”

Raven snorted. “You? Right.” But she seemed to consider the idea. “Can I give you some advice, as someone who’s been gay longer than you?”

Clarke leaned against the kitchen counter and crossed her arms. “You’re not gay.”

“Uh, helloooooo!” Raven held up the screenplay and waved it around. “My advice is not to settle for the first lesbian that crosses your path, okay? Sure, she might be fun for now and it’s new and all that, but odds are that you’ll be able to do better. I mean, look at me, I came out when I was fifteen and my first girlfriend, Sarah Solantis, was … you know, ugly. And now, years later, I’m hooking up with Lexa Woods. You need a goal. Now, I’m not saying you’ll ever get someone like Lexa Woods, obviously, but still, a goal is good.”

Clarke nodded slowly, buying enough time to fully process the layers of irony and nonsense. “I’ll keep that in mind, thank you.”

“Seriously, Clarke, who the fuck is she? You’re killing me here. Give me a hint. Tell me if she’s at the very least not as dull as Finn.”

Clarke smiled. Driving Raven nuts gave her a strange sense of satisfaction. “I’ve got to get to school. I’ll catch you later.”

“Wait!” Raven yelled as Clarke started to walk away. “You’ll be there tomorrow, right?”

Clarke turned around slowly, worried suddenly. “Ah…where?”

“My scene with Lexa, we’re filming it tomorrow. You’ll be there, yes?”

Clarke couldn’t quite imagine anything more awkward than watching her best friend get it on with her … Was Lexa her girlfriend? Had they established that officially? “I have class,” she said.

“It’s Saturday.”

Damn. She couldn’t come up with another excuse fast enough. “Uhm…”

Raven sighed. “You promised. C’mon! You don’t have to stay for the whole thing. Come for an hour or two.” And, because she knew it would work, added, “It would mean a lot to me.”

It was useless, this business of arguing with Raven. She was unrelenting whenever she really wanted something, and Clarke felt too heavy with guilt over all of the lying to put up much resistance. “Okay, sure, I’ll be there.”

***

“Hmm,” Bellamy murmured, and looked up from his laptop. He’d arrived at Lexa’s apartment nearly an hour earlier than planned and cited Anya’s failed Internet connection as the reason. Lexa strongly suspected he just wanted to catch her making breakfast so he could have some. “What’s a shorter way of saying ‘tigress in the bedroom’?”

Lexa looked at him curiously over the kitchen counter between them. “Are you doing some kind of pornographic crossword puzzle?”

“No, I’m twittering about our sexcapades. Or is it tweeting? Twittering. Tweeting. Hmm.” He shrugged. “Anyway, I seem to get an influx of followers whenever I write about sleeping with you. So you’ll be happy to know we have a very healthy sex life.”

“I’ll be sure to note that in my diary,” Lexa said dryly, and sipped her coffee.

“Granted, I’m just guessing you’d be a tigress in bed what with all those years of pent up sexual frustration. So maybe I should be asking Clarke…?”

Lexa smiled, both at the mention of Clarke and at Bellamy’s obvious attempt to get information out of her. “Subtle.”

“Hey,” Anya called from the front door, interrupting whatever Bellamy might’ve said next. She walked into view seconds later. “What’s new?”

“Lexa was just about to tell me about having sex with Clarke.”

Anya stared, wide-eyed. “You had sex with Clarke?”

Lexa strongly considered not answering the question, but decided that would simply invite more pestering. “I haven’t slept with Clarke.”

“Oh,” Anya said, and took a seat on the empty stool beside Bellamy. “Well, you don’t want to rush into anything. It’s your first time.”

“You want to rush into it,” Bellamy said, closing the laptop. The sound of it snapping shut punctuated his statement. “It’s your first time. Get it the hell over with. Is it ‘cause you’re scared you’ll be really bad? I can walk you through it.”

“I think I’d be a little bit more qualified to walk her through it,” Anya said.

Lexa frowned at them, slightly offended. “I don’t need either of you to walk me through anything. But thanks for the vote of confidence.”

“Well, satisfying women can be tricky,” Bellamy said.

Anya looked at him. “Not if you know what you’re doing.”

“I always know what I’m doing.”

“Right. Two words for you: Atlantic City.”

“I was drunk and that doesn’t count anyway because of the … well, you know.” Bellamy cleared his throat and turned his attention back on Lexa. “Are you worried she’s going to be into weird stuff?”

Anya grunted her agreement. “I slept with this guy once that wanted me to peel an apple while we—“

“Oh, my God! That was one time!”

“Wow,” Lexa said, setting down her cup. “Okay. That’s my cue to go shower.”

“Wait,” Anya said, her voice all business now. “The studio heads want to meet with you next week about The Bridge of Moes. The director wants to have a sit-down as well. I spoke to Costia and she said she can work it out as long as it doesn’t go over three days and that you’re back by Friday. Problem is the studio can only meet with you on Tuesday and the director is in New Zealand until Thursday. So do you want me to try and reschedule either of them, or are you okay with leaving late on Monday and coming back late Thursday?”

“That sounds good to me.”

“I love it when you cooperate,” Anya said, and smiled.

“You should invite Clarke to come with you,” Bellamy suggested. “Give her a little taste of L.A. life. Get her naked in your Jacuzzi; get a little taste of her.”

Anya smacked him upside the head. “You’re such a perv.”

“And particularly annoying today.”

“It’s because I wouldn’t sleep with him last night,” Anya explained. She glared at him. “Since, you know, we’re broken up.”

“Okay, she doesn’t need to know that,” Bellamy mumbled.

“Yes, because you guys not sleeping together is too much information,” Lexa replied, but her thoughts shifted back to Bellamy’s earlier suggestion. Clarke in L.A. At her house…

She caught Bellamy watching her. He grinned. “You’re thinking about her naked in your Jacuzzi, aren’t you?”

“Smack him for me, will you?”

“On it,” Anya said.

***

Clarke managed to track down her professor mostly through blind luck. She spotted the woman hurrying past the Kimmel Center at an impressive, age-defying speed, and Clarke made the on-the-spot decision to chase after her. By the time she caught up, she was out of breath and squeaked out a weak sounding, “Professor Indra!”

The woman slowed, giving Clarke a chance to fall into step beside her. “Ms. Griffin,” she said, in a tired, dismissive tone. “Come to propose?”

Clarke blinked at the question, feeling mortifed. “I just wanted to apologize for that highly inappropriate email-“

“You already apologized in your second highly inappropriate email, Ms. Griffin. I don’t appreciate being stalked for redundant purposes. Perhaps instead you’d like to explain why you haven’t been to class all week or why you haven’t turned in your project?”

“I…” Clarke didn’t have much of an explanation other than she’d been preoccupied with matters of the heart. A heart condition? That sounded like a good excuse.

Professor Indra stopped abruptly and turned to face Clarke. “Do you want to know what the difference is between the work that got you into this program and the work you’ve turned in lately?”

“No,” Clarke said, then quickly added, “I mean yes.”

“Passion,” sighed the woman, in a voice loud enough to cause several people to stare. “Were you having regular intercourse when you first started here?”

Clarke didn’t even know how to even begin processing the question. She looked around at the people passing by, as if one of them might save her from this conversation. “Uhm…”

“Sex, Ms. Griffin,” the professor said, impatiently. “You are an artist of passion. Find passion and paint it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m running late for the gym.”

Clarke watched her walk away and stood in the middle of the sidewalk, too stunned to move. She almost missed the fact that her cell phone was ringing. She glanced at the screen and hesitated. “Hi, Miller,” she said, and decided to start walking again.

“Hey, little sis. How’s your day going?”

“It’s going… weirdly. I think one of my professors just advised me to get laid.”

“That sounds … awkward.”

“Awkward is the theme of my day,” Clarke said, thinking back on her conversation with Raven.

“Well, in keeping with that theme, I’m calling to ask if you know why Raven called to collect on a bet we made years ago and then hung up when I told her I had no idea what she was talking about.”

She was going to murder Raven. “I’m sorry, Miller,” she began, feeling a rush of nervousness, “I meant to tell you sooner…”

“Tell me what, exactly?”

Clarke considered the best way to phrase everything that had transpired in the past few days. She decided there was no best way. “That I’m sort of maybe kind of … seeing… a girl.”

“Sort of maybe kind of?”

“It’s complicated,” Clarke said, letting out a breath. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”

“Hey, if anyone should understand, it’s me, right?” Miller said, lightly. “Are you happy?”

“Sort of maybe kind of.”

Miller let out a long laugh. “Okay…”

Clarke thought about the question more carefully, trying to weigh her emotions against her perceived notion of happiness. “I’d say … I’m cautiously content.”

“Well that sounds amazingly levelheaded. Listen, we should get together one of these days and have lunch or something. We can talk.”

“Yeah, that would be great,” Clarke said, relieved that Miller wasn’t asking more questions.

“Good. I have to get going. Monty is shutting down over this whole Lexa Woods interview. Talk to you later?”

“Definitely.” She hung up and looked around, momentarily disoriented. She’d been walking aimlessly and now couldn’t remember where it was she’d meant to go in the first place. Before she could decide on a new direction, her phone rang again, and she smiled at the name on the display. “Before you say anything,” she began, “I’d like to let you know that I’ve officially reached my quota of awkward conversations for today, so whatever you’re calling to say better not be awkward. Okay? Go.”

“I’d like to propose an orgy,” Lexa said, “with my stepmother … and a cat.”

“Okay, I’m hanging up now.”

Lexa laughed and said, “I was actually calling to see how your day was going.”

“Let’s see,” Clarke said. “Raven wants me to come by and watch the two of you make out tomorrow. And then my professor, the one I propositioned accidentally, told me the way to improve my art was to get laid. And then Raven decided to out me to my brother…”

“Wow,” Lexa said. “And it’s not even noon.”

“Tell me about it. Oh! Speaking of awkward things, I forgot to tell you last night to please not feel awkward or weird about the whole Monty interview thing because I don’t want you to feel forced to hire him just because you and I are ...” She wasn’t sure how to finish the sentence.

“…having somewhat incestuous, bestiality orgies?”

“I don’t think a stepmother counts as incestuous.”

“Well, that’s why I said ‘somewhat.’”

“I really hope your line isn’t bugged,” Clarke said, smiling. “Imagine the headlines.”

Lexa laughed. “I promise I won’t hire Monty just because you and I are … dating.”

Dating. The word made Clarke’s heart skip a beat. “Dating,” she said. “Is that what we are?”

“Well you did ask me out last night.”

“Technically, I asked you up to your room last night,” Clarke corrected. “And then we spent an hour making out. So … yeah, I guess that means we’re dating.”

“Good, glad that’s settled. So, where are you now?”

Clarke took in her surroundings. “I am entering Washington Square Park.” She spotted an empty bench and headed for it. “You?”

“Trying to decide what to wear. Want to come over and help me? I can send a car for you.”

Clarke smiled. “I’ve been around you long enough to know you’re perfectly capable of dressing yourself.” She wanted to say that she could come over later and help her undress but then shyness kicked in.

“Just trying to come up with an excuse to see you.”

“You don’t need an excuse for that,” Clarke said, grinning. “But I really have a lot of homework to catch up on so … maybe tonight?”

“Tonight it is,” Lexa said.

Clarke hung up the phone, smiling fully. She didn’t even care if she looked ridiculous. She sat on the bench and watched strangers pass by for a few minutes before digging her sketchpad out of the bag. A white page stared up at her in waiting.

She thought of Lexa as she began to draw.

***

Monty was already seated and waiting when Lexa arrived at the restaurant, but he jumped to his feet the second he spotted her. She noted that he was young, good-looking, and dressed to the nines in an outfit that must have cost about as much as her own. She ignored the whispers of surprised excitement that trailed after her, and focused all of her attention on him. “You must be Monty,” she said, and smiled.

“Oh, my God, it’s really you,” he said as he shook her hand. “I’m sorry, that was weird.”

Lexa laughed and sat down. The waiter handed her a menu and she thanked him before turning her attention back on her dining companion. She was relieved that he was nervous because the truth of the matter was that so was she. This was someone important in Clarke’s life and she wanted him to like her. “So,” she said, “should we just get the stressful interview portion over with?”

“Is there another portion?”

“Eating?”

Monty dropped his menu on the table. “Then by all means. I’m too nervous to do anything besides sweat.” He made a face. “Pretend I didn’t say that.”

Lexa sat up and cleared her throat in mock seriousness. “So, Monty, why do you want to work for me?”

“Okay, do you want the serious, corporate job answer that I’ve been rehearsing in front of the mirror all week or would you prefer the truth?”

Lexa smiled. “The truth.”

“Okay.” Monty took a deep breath. “I’ve been a fan of yours for a really long time, and working for you would be really cool. Actually, sitting here with you now is really, really cool… well, anyways. And I know that’s a pretty lame reason, but you asked for the truth. So… that’s the truth. But! In addition to being a total fanboy, I’m both qualified and willing to do pretty much anything you ask, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.”

Lexa considered the answer and shrugged. “Works for me,” she said, and smiled. “Can you start next week?”

He blinked at her. “Wait, that’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“I’m hired?”

“You’re hired.”

“Oh, my God?” he said. Oh, my God…”

Lexa grinned and picked up the menu again, giving him time to absorb the information. There was little chance that she wouldn’t have hired him, and there was no sense in prolonging his nervousness. Now, for the fun part. “So, tell me about yourself,” she said, pretending to scan the menu. “I hear you have a boyfriend.”

***

The trek to Lexa’s always gave Clarke ample time to think. It was during these moments when the worrisome aspects of her life would emerge, taking over her every thought. On the one hand, she was happy; she was happy in a blinding, freeing sort of way. A very vivid part of her wanted to laugh and dance around the train car, hugging random strangers and maybe breaking into song. But trailing behind these pleasant, if absurd, moments, were other, more persistent reminders of all that could go wrong.

The subway train screeched to a halt and Clarke watched as passengers exchanged places. It was comforting, the constant refreshing of faces she’d likely never see again. Two girls came to stand next to her, continuing a conversation that must have started long before.

“Well, you can’t tell your mom,” one told the other, and already Clarke could relate. She wondered what they’d think if she joined in. If she opened with, “I know what you mean. I can’t tell my mom I’m dating a woman.” And not just any woman. Lexa Woods. She wasn’t sure which part might freak her family out more, come to think of it.

It was easier to think of Lexa as simply Lexa. If Clarke stripped away the fame and its attached responsibilities and thought only of the person—the Lexa in ripped jeans and glasses—then things didn’t feel quite as overwhelming. But there was no picking and choosing when it came to a relationship and Clarke knew that. She knew, too, that it would take time to get used to it all; whatever ‘all’ turned out to be.

“Just tell her we fell asleep studying,” the same girl said. “She won’t know Travis was there. Besides, it’s sort of the truth.”

“I think I’m going to throw up,” the other replied, and Clarke moved away, just in case.

The train sped up and slowed down and soon stopped altogether, and Clarke walked out of the now open doors and away from the girls and their problems. Their voices melted into new, more persistent sounds, and by the time Clarke stepped out into the cool New York air, she’d forgotten them entirely.

The walk to Lexa’s building came with its own distinct palette of conflicting emotions. There was, at one end of the spectrum, the giddy anticipation of seeing Lexa again. And at the other: fear in its many shades of color. Fear, mostly, that she’d arrive at Lexa’s door to find that the actress had changed her mind; that this brittle road they walked upon had crumbled without her knowledge.

But even through the thickening fog of uncertainty, Clarke was perfectly clear on one thing: She was in love with Lexa. She was in love and there was no turning back from that. The exact moment she’d gone from having no idea how she felt to being entirely decided on the subject had come and gone without preamble. There remained simply the realization that these feelings had been there almost from the start, and were now as obvious as they were irresistible.

Lexa’s apartment building came into view moments later and she hurried toward the door. Inside, she found the doorman arguing with a man in clown suit. Their voices echoed loudly, reverberating off the high ceiling. She paused only long enough to verify that she wouldn’t be noticed, and then continued toward the elevator. The arguing grew louder, but she only caught the words “hooker” and “parrot” before the doors closed.

The ride up was a quiet one, and before long, the doors re-opened. Walking toward Lexa’s apartment was usually her least favorite part of the trip. Somewhere between getting off the elevator and knocking on the door, all matter of extreme emotion would rise to the surface and settle painfully in her stomach. On this occasion, it felt somewhat worse.

She knocked.

It didn’t take long for Lexa to open the door, but it was plenty of time for Clarke’s paranoia to take over. She envisioned Lexa standing there, looking troubled and somber, breaking the ice with something vague but telling, something like, “We have to talk.” Perhaps in the hours since they’d last spoken Lexa had realized that whatever there was between them wasn’t worth the effort; that there was too much to lose and too little to gain. This had become Clarke’s biggest fear.

The knob turned, and Lexa was suddenly in the doorway, smiling, somehow looking more beautiful than Clarke remembered. Her hair was up, held at the back by crossed chopsticks. Clarke had expected her to still be dressed in whatever outfit she met Monty in, but the actress had changed into her usual ensemble of t-shirt and jeans. “What took you so long?”

“Is that your way of saying you missed me?” Clarke asked, finding confidence in Lexa’s smile. She felt light, her worries slipping away. She left them in the hallway and stepped inside. The apartment was cooler than usual and she wondered if that was on purpose. Perhaps she was becoming the sort of person that read too much into everything.

Lexa closed the door. “I always miss you,” she said, in a way that made Clarke’s heartbeat skip.

“I bet you say that to all your other girlfriends,” she teased, and was reminded of their earlier conversation. It still felt strange to think of Lexa as her girlfriend. She couldn’t wrap her mind around what that meant exactly. But here in Lexa’s apartment, in Lexa’s presence, she felt none of the fears or worries that clouded their time apart.

“Only the hot ones.”

“Ah, well, now I feel truly special.” But she smiled, because she did feel special. Lucky, too. She met Lexa’s gaze. The actress was staring at her. “What?”

“Nothing,” Lexa said, and shrugged. “You’re just really beautiful.”

The comment surprised Clarke, and she blushed, unable to help it. She wasn’t sure she’d ever get used to Lexa saying things like that to her. She didn’t know what to say, besides, “Thank you.”

Lexa smiled, sensing her embarrassment. “I’m making dinner.”

“Is that what that smell is?” Clarke asked, thankful for the change of subject. She wasn’t used to being in the spotlight, however pleasant the attention. The air smelled vaguely of food, but nothing particularly recognizable. She followed Lexa into the kitchen. On the counter waited a vast array of vegetables and fruits and fresh spices. “Wow, hungry much?”

“Well, not exactly.” Lexa turned to her, looking somewhat sheepish. “See, I was bored so I decided it might be fun to see what might happen if I used a random ingredient from each of the first fifteen pages of this cookbook.”

Clarke glanced briefly at the book in question and then back at Lexa, thinking her fascinatingly strange. “You’re so weird.”

“Says she who collects toilet paper.”

“I did that in the name of art. And, anyway, I never said that you being weird was a bad thing.” She met Lexa’s gaze again and was momentarily struck by how badly she wanted to kiss her. She wished that she didn’t feel so shy at times, wondering how she’d ever managed to make that first move. She wanted to skip ahead to the part where they felt entirely comfortable with each other. She glanced away and focused on the oven. “So is that your creation in there?”

“Yeah.” Lexa crossed her arms and tilted her head thoughtfully. “Does it smell bad?”

“Not bad,” Clarke answered, and came to stand beside her, close enough that their arms touched. “Not good, either. Kind of like garlic … and feet. What’s in it?”

“Garlic … and feet.” She smiled when Clarke laughed. Then she turned serious and said, “I hired Monty.”

Clarke wasn’t entirely surprised by the statement. Monty had left her a somewhat hysterical voicemail message which Clarke had struggled and failed to comprehend. The switching of trains hadn’t given her much of a chance to call back. But she’d guessed the news was good. She looked at Lexa and said, “I hope you didn’t do it because of me.”

“I didn’t,” and Lexa sounded sincere, but there was something else in her tone that Clarke couldn’t place. “We should probably tell him about us…”

The statement sounded like a question and Clarke thought it over for a second before saying, “I’d really like to tell Raven before anyone else.”

“Do you want me to be there when you tell her?”

The question caught Clarke off-guard. She’d expected more of an argument; a logical explanation as to why it’d be best to wait a while before telling people. “When?”

Lexa shrugged and her arm brushed against Clarke’s again, making her skin tingle. “Whenever you want.”

Whenever I want. “You don’t mind?”

“Mind?”

“I mean…” Clarke hesitated, trying to find the right words. “I just thought you wouldn’t want other people to know yet.”

“I told Bellamy and Anya, why shouldn’t you tell Raven?”

Clarke knew the answer, but didn’t know how to phrase it. She felt overwhelming relief at the thought of telling Raven everything about Lexa. But she worried about pushing the actress’ trust. “But are you sure? I don’t mind waiting if you’re worried at all that things won’t work out between us…”

Lexa frowned at her. “Why? Are you planning on dumping me soon?”

Clarke instinctively laughed at the question, thinking it ridiculous. But her heart beat faster at the suggestion that Lexa was hers to dump. She grinned and said, “I think I can put up with you for another day or two.”

“Oh, good.” Lexa smiled in the way that Clarke loved. But then her expression changed. “You can tell Raven whatever you want, whenever you want. I’m sorry I’ve made you feel like you had to do otherwise.”

“You didn’t,” Clarke said quickly. She shrugged, feeling awkward. “I just wanted you to know you could trust me, so I never said anything.”

Lexa looked at her quietly, and Clarke wondered what she was thinking. Finally, she said, “As I recall, I’m the one who lied to you …”

Clarke narrowed her eyes at the reminder. “You’re right,” she said. “And I’m still sort of mad at you for that.” But she smiled to show that she wasn’t really serious. She looked away for a moment, trying to gather her thoughts. “I guess I’ll tell Raven. Maybe after your scene tomorrow.”

“So, you’ll be there?”

Clarke hadn’t stopped to wonder what Lexa might think of the idea. “Would you rather I wasn’t?”

Lexa hesitated, but said, “I don’t mind. Do you not want to be there?”

Clarke almost laughed. “Not even a little bit.”

“Does it make you jealous?”

Jealous. The word conjured up visions of her mother tossing plantains at people. Or of how moody and angry Finn would get when he thought some other guy was looking at her. She didn’t want to toss plantains at Raven, but the thought of her kissing Lexa made her stomach turn. How could she not be jealous? “Of you and my best friend getting it on … naw…”

Lexa moved so that she was standing in front of Clarke instead of beside her. “It’s not real, you know?”

“The jealousy?” Clarke asked jokingly. She felt incredibly distracted all of a sudden. She was distracted by Lexa’s eyes and her long eyelashes and her perfect lips. It occurred to her that she’d never felt this in her prior relationships; this sort of nervous anticipation. She couldn’t remember ever feeling this desperate need to touch someone before.

“The getting it on part.”

It took Clarke a second to remember what they’d been talking about. “Right,” she said. “That’s why Raven is currently at home, practicing how to unhook your bra with her teeth.”

Lexa laughed. “She is not.”

“She could be.”

Lexa took Clarke’ hand. “Here, I’ll show you,” she said, and led Clarke around the counter.

“How to unhook your bra with my teeth?”

Lexa turned back to her, shaking her head and smiling. Clarke could swear the actress was blushing. Instead of replying, she patted the stool and said, “Sit.”

Clarke pulled it closer and complied. “What are we doing?”

“I’m gonna show you what to expect tomorrow so you don’t worry so much. Pretend that we’re at a bar.”

Clarke sat up and took a deep breath. She did her best to bring up the memory of the last bar she was at. She tried to visualize shelves of bottles where the oven and microwave were, tried to see everything in a dimmer shade of light. But the image faded quickly and she was back in Lexa’s apartment, staring at shiny appliances. Still, she said, “Okay.”

“Okay, now pretend you think I’m hot.”

Clarke smiled at that. “I’m not sure my imagination stretches that far.”

“Well, then I’ll settle for non-repulsive.” Then Lexa leaned against the marble counter and said, “And now say something flirtatious.”

“Um.” Clarke tried to think of something to say, but came up blank. She couldn’t recall ever hitting on anyone in her life. So, she went with, “Come here often?”

“That’s your best pick-up line?”

“Yes,” Clarke stated seriously. “Is that not enough to make you want to fall madly into bed with me?”

Lexa grinned and moved closer. She seemed to hesitate before saying, “Do you want to come to California with me next week?”

The question felt out of place in the context of the moment. “Is that part of the pretend scene?”

“No, sorry, I just didn’t know how to bring it up.” Lexa looked shy and embarrassed in a way that Clarke had never seen before. “I have to go home next week for a few days and I was thinking … well, hoping … you’d consider going with me?”

The word ‘home’ bothered Clarke. It was an uncomfortable reminder of all of the uncertainty yet before them. But she couldn’t think about that now. She turned instead to the question at hand, and tried to make sense of it.

“I know you have school and everything,” Lexa was saying. “And that maybe it’s too soon …”

Clarke regarded her curiously, surprised by the fact that Lexa was nervous and very near babbling. “Do you think it’s too soon?”

“No! I mean, maybe?” She hesitated and said, “Too soon for what, exactly?”

“I don’t know. You brought it up.”

“Oh. I did. I guess … too soon to jump on a plane with me and travel across the country? I mean, I wouldn’t have asked if I thought it was … but if you think it is…”

“I don’t,” Clarke said, because she didn’t, and really, the thought of doing anything at all with Lexa was always extremely appealing. “I’d love to go.”

“Seriously?”

“Sure.” Clarke smiled at the surprise on Lexa’s face. “I mean, I’d have to check with my professors and also see if it’s not too late to get a good price on a plane ticket.”

Lexa looked confused, but then she smiled. “Oh, no, don’t worry about that. I’m chartering a private jet.”

Lexa said ‘private jet’ in the same way someone might’ve said ‘lawnmower,’ with a sort of casual nonchalance. It suddenly occurred to Clarke that she was back in a relationship with someone for whom money was no object. She’d forgotten this, somehow, or maybe she’d done a good job of ignoring it.

“Clarke?”

Lexa’s voice broke through her thoughts, serious and concerned, and Clarke looked up at her. “You can’t pay for everything,” she said in response. “I mean, I can’t compete with a trip to California, but I don’t want things to be like … you paying for everything.”

If Lexa was taken aback, she didn’t show it. “Okay,” she agreed. She looked pensively toward the window, then back at Clarke. “Well, we’ll need groceries when we get there.”

“Okay,” Clarke said, feeling somewhat better. Groceries she could do. “Deal.” She shook Lexa’s hand, mostly because she wanted to touch her. She ran her finger down her palm. “So where were we?”

Instead of answering, Lexa leaned down and kissed her, making it difficult, if not impossible, to remember things like parental disapproval, and money issues, and the fact that their relationship might fall apart at any moment. Clarke was certain that the world might end around them and she’d neither care nor notice, because Lexa’s lips were too soft, and whenever she pulled her closer or kissed her deeper, all the blood in Clarke’s brain would rush down to other parts of her body, making it impossible to think at all.

The oven beeped, and it might’ve been the first time or the eighth time, Clarke couldn’t be sure. She pulled reluctantly away and said, “You better not kiss Raven like that tomorrow.”

Lexa smiled and kissed her again, the oven forgotten.