Clarke is awake at dawn, her body rising automatically with the sun. She’s up early enough to make sure Bellamy and Lincoln are taking the right map and twice as much ammo as they should need. She remembers how her father used to sneak chocolate into her lunch bag, and for a second, the familiar pang of loss clenches in her chest. Loss for him, loss for a world where you sent your loved ones off with sweets instead of bullets.
When she shows up with their water bottles, Bellamy doesn’t hug her goodbye; he just ducks his head and says, “princess.”
As he steps away, she steps forward, squeezing a fistful of his jacket in her hands and he stops in his tracks.
“Bellamy. Just, come back.”
He doesn’t say anything but he nods and it’s enough to feel like a promise. He’s still staring at her when Octavia flings herself at him. She hugs him fiercely, and then with more sweetness, throws her arms around Lincoln.
Clarke aches for her and in equal measure, seethes at her. Octavia, who has lost so much and still lets herself have so much to lose. She should know better.
Lexa sends a young Grounder, who looks barely old enough to hold a spear, to bring Clarke to her tent. For a brief moment, Clarke misses the knowledge of Bellamy’s presence, the safety signified by the sound of his step behind her, but she pushes the thought away.
They try to take away her knife before she enters the tent, but as she opens her mouth to protest, Lexa calls from inside to let her in. With an annoyed grunt, the guard swings the door open. Without asking permission, Clarke takes a seat next to Lexa.
Her hair is loose by her face and her skin is rosy and flushed, as if she’s just been scrubbed clean. Without the black war paint, she looks surprisingly vulnerable, like a child.
For the first time, it occurs to Clarke that there may be something to their masks. She tucks the thought away for future consideration.
“A drink?” Lexa asks and after a second’s pause, Clarke nods. Her attendant pours a dark, murky looking substance into metal two cups, tasting Lexa’s before she hands it to her. After Lexa gives a pointed nod at the second cup, the attendant tastes that one too, her lips pinching together, and then offers it to Clarke.
Once the attendant disappears out of the tent, Clarke finally says, “that wasn’t necessary. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t trust you.”
“Then you are a fool, after all,” says Lexa, but she appears amused rather than critical. “Your people should protect you.”
Clarke shakes her head. “That’s not how we do things.”
“Times change,” she says.
Clarke’s not sure how to respond, so she tips back the drink, surprised by the earthy, rich taste. She doesn’t feel the burning sensation she associates with moonshine until it reaches her belly.
“You claim you trust me. My people tell me two members of your camp left this morning. Will you tell me why?”
“They’re looking for a way inside Mount Wether. Having a man inside will increase our chances of getting past their defenses.”
Bellamy caught out in an open field, his skin bubbling and oozing as the mist swallows him, her name on his lips. She shakes off the image like a fly.
Lexa nods. “Good. Tomorrow we should meet to discuss strategy. Bring your advisors.”
She’s just been dismissed, she realizes, but she continues to finish her drink with deliberate slowness. It’s important for Lexa to remember that she’s not the only leader here. It’s important for her to remember too.
Her daydreams of Finn have faded, but they’ve been replaced by images of Bellamy, marrow spooling out of his body through long tubes. Bellamy mangled, his limbs piled into an old railway cart. A bubble of blood pooled at the corner of his lips, his hands clasped around the knife lodging in his ribs. Her name is always on his lips, but she doesn’t know whether it’s regret or recrimination.
There are so many ways to die. And it feels like it’s her curse to learn all of them.
Her body burns with the urge to do something. Waiting is not her strong suit, despite what she told Lexa. Waiting means remembering. Waiting means that she is inching closer to failing her friends. Waiting is making her reckless.
For the first time since she stepped onto the ground, a kind of rhythm develops to her days. And now, she lets herself into Lexa’s tent without an express invitation and the guard nods at her, not friendly, precisely, but less wary. It’s a look she’s getting used to.
Last night, Clarke spent all night quizzing Lexa on hunting methods. Tonight, Lexa is fixated on democracy.
“It seems flawed,” she says, after Clarke gives a rundown that would’ve made her history teacher proud. “What if the people choose badly?”
Clarke shrugs. “That’s what the next election is for.” But this explanation just earns her a skeptical look.
“Our way is safer. People know that if they attempt to replace me, the next Commander will exact justice. The spirit remembers.”
“When were you chosen?”
“I was twelve.”
“So young,” says Clarke.
“Too young,” says Lexa. “I’d only made one kill. Not everybody was ready to accept me.”
“How did you know?” she asks.
“I fell unconscious for two days at the funeral.” She pauses, as if some thought has gotten tangled in her. Clarke thinks sometimes, that maybe if she’d ever seen the ocean, she might know a way to describe the stillness in Lexa’s eyes, the way they seem to take on the appearance of everything around her.
“I had the strangest dreams,” Lexa adds.
A dozen possible medical explanations run through Clarke’s mind, but she bites them back. Convincing Lexa that reincarnation is not a viable form of government legitimacy doesn’t serve any of her goals. Besides, look where their system got them. Democracy sent a hundred teenagers to the ground as test monkeys.
“You must have somebody’s spirit inside of you,” says Lexa, staring at Clarke evenly. “Your people don’t know what it is, but they recognized your strength.”
Clarke closes her eyes. Her father. Wells. Finn. Her head seems achingly, painfully full of other people these days.
Lexa pulls out the now familiar glasses and pours them equally matched drinks. There’s no sign of the discomfort Clarke knows she must feel, but she holds her injured arm stiffly to her chest.
This drink is stronger, more pungent than their usual drink. It reminds her of acid reflux.
“Let me see that arm,” Clarke says and when Lexa nods, she unwraps it from the makeshift sling. She probes at the bone, feeling the small, compact muscles. Lexa’s hands are calloused, almost scaly, but the rest of her skin is shockingly soft. She can sense Lexa’s eyes on her and there’s a sudden, strange heat in her cheeks.
“It’s healing well,” she says. Her fingers feel clumsy as she begins to wind the strips of fabric around her arm. She reaches Lexa’s shoulder and pauses, still avoiding meeting her eyes, until Lexa reaches out and tilts her chin up, her finger brushing against Clarke’s lips.
“You can say no,” Lexa says, but her hand is still traveling up Clarke’s face, brushing against her cheekbone. "This was not part of our agreement."
It’s not until Lexa gives her an out that Clarke realize she doesn’t want one. Nobody has touched her since Finn. It’s keeping him alive in her. Maybe Lexa’s hands can undo that memory; draw out that hurt from her body. And she needs Lexa to trust her.
Clarke rocks herself forward, for once not second-guessing herself, letting herself kiss as hard as she wants to. Letting herself want as much as she wants to.
The kiss is bruising, teeth clinking against teeth, her fingers jabbing into the arm she’s supposed to be healing. Her tongue tastes like booze, bitter and strong. She kisses her neck, letting herself feel the beat of her pulse in her mouth, tasting her collarbone, noting the absence of the chemical tang of their soaps.
It reminds Clarke of all the differences separating them, of all the ways they are incompatible and it’s a relief, like an extra layer of skin wrapped around her.
Late at night, Lexa’s voice takes on a dreamy quality. “Tell me about space,” she says. “Tell me about your ships.”
They trade childhood stories like currency. Lexa tells her about the year she spent living on the edge of the ocean, how she learned to hunt underwater. About the way the salt lingered in her hair for weeks afterward.
She smiles and for the first time, her smile doesn’t feel like mockery or like it’s hiding a secret. It gives Clarke the courage to finally ask her what she saw during those two days spent in a coma.
Lexa hesitates. It occurs to Clarke a beat too late that a leader ordained by destiny probably isn’t used to such direct questioning. She answers eventually, but her voice is halting.
“War,” she says. “The earth was burning. Anya told me it was a vision of the past.”
“Is that what you think it was?” Clarke asks, noting the subtle inflection on Anya’s name.
Lexa shakes her head, her fingers playing with the uneven edge of her braid. “It was a vision. But not of the past.”
She looks up, her eyes meeting Clarke’s. Steel matched by steel. “It’s why we cannot fail in what we are doing.”
When they said to keep your friends close and your enemies closer, she’s pretty sure that this isn’t what they meant.
But it changes very little between them. She’s still a wary and sometimes unpredictable ally. In her heart, Clarke still wonders whether, after Mount Wether falls, the Grounders will wait to climb back down the mountain before they turn on her people.
After one especially contentious planning session, Raven finds her outside and pulls her aside.
“She’ll feed you to the wolves if she thinks it would help her,” she warns.
“I’m sure you’d be happy to give her a hand,” Clarke snaps back, uneasy at the possibility that people have noticed her nighttime absences.
“I was just trying to be a friend,” Raven says in a clipped voice. “I don’t know if you noticed, but we’re kind of short on those these days.”
Clarke has noticed. The whispers of unrest rippling through the camp are hard to miss.
They’re all tired of waiting for the Mountain Men to swoop down on them at night. For this fragile alliance to break instead of bending. For a boy who most of them only know as a criminal. She closes her eyes, letting the image wash over her this time. Bellamy tied to the floor, his face flecked with strands of saliva, his eyes stained deep red.
It’s time, she realizes, to find another way. Their survival cannot hinge on one person. They are all disposable, even her. Everybody is a potential sacrifice and she must be the fire. Because she is the only one strong enough.
She tries to imagine a world where she was a painter instead, and she can’t anymore.