"Wait! There has to be another way."
"Just give up, Clarke. There's no place else to go."
"Did you suffer some trauma or something?" Octavia asks Clarke, on the third day of swim lessons.
"Define trauma," Clarke says distractedly, swiping a clump of her wet hair away from her face.
"Water-related trauma," Octavia clarifies, taking Clarke by the wrist and attempting to guide her closer to the center of the lake where one of Indra's warriors is helping a small group of people from the Ark tread water.
Clarke kicks frantically until Octavia lets her go. "Sorry," Clarke says, then adds, "Is that your way of asking me why I suck at this?"
Octavia watches her flail around for a moment. "No, I'm asking because you're acting like a giant fish-snake tried to bite off your leg the first time you jumped in the water."
Clarke tugs uncomfortably at the shirt sticking to her skin before letting her feet touch the bottom of the shallow lake and standing up. The water pools around her chest, nowhere close to threatening. Octavia kicks up and backstrokes a smooth circle around Clarke.
Clarke sighs. "I'll figure it out."
Octavia tenses and looks around suddenly, feet landing next to Clarke's; Clarke hears it a moment later and instinctively steps in front of Octavia.
"Really, Clarke?" Octavia mutters, shoving her out of the way. Clarke flops gracelessly into the water. Octavia smirks. "You can barely stand up straight, your legs are shaking so much."
Octavia paddles quietly to the edge of the lake, where they'd left their weapons. She picks up her sword without climbing out of the water. The footsteps from the nearby woods grow louder as Octavia reaches for Clarke's gun, but then Lexa steps into the clearing with a guard at her side.
"Heda," Octavia greets, dropping her sword.
Lexa nods in acknowledgment. "Any progress?"
Octavia says something in Trigedasleng that Clarke doesn't catch. Lexa glances over at her, and the corners of her lips twitch in amusement.
"What?" Clarke asks.
Octavia grins at Lexa. "Commander," she says with a quick salute before diving underwater and swimming back to the rest of the group.
"What did she say?" Clarke tries again, slowly trudging toward dry land. Her body feels heavy and difficult in the water, like it doesn't belong to her.
"She commented on your swimming," Lexa says lightly, stepping closer to the water. Her guard stays near the edge of the woods.
"I'm sure it was hilarious," Clarke mutters, using her arms to climb out of the water. The air is colder than she expects, and she shivers, her arms wrapping around her body protectively.
"Do the Sky People not have hair ties?" Lexa asks, leaning down to pick up the blanket that Clarke had brought to use as a towel.
Clarke looks up at Lexa through a curtain of messy wet hair.
"Perhaps," Lexa continues, pulling the blanket open, "you would have less trouble concentrating in the water if your hair was kept out of your eyes."
Clarke stubbornly tucks her hair behind her ears and reaches for the blanket. Lexa drapes it over the back of Clarke's head and bunches the fabric together under Clarke's chin in a makeshift hood. Clarke holds the blanket together from the inside and curls into its warmth.
Lexa's hands drop back to her sides. "Done with your lesson for the day?"
"I think Octavia's done with me for the day," Clarke says, glancing back at the water. "Maybe for the entire week."
"She will make a good warrior," Lexa assesses, "but her patience leaves much to be desired."
"Our people have been testing her patience since the day she was born. I'd say she's doing pretty well." Clarke picks up her pants and manages to slip them on, but her blanket hood falls away from her head. She lets the entire thing drop to the ground and reaches for the rest of her discarded clothes. "Anyway, it's my fault. I'm bad with water."
Lexa's gaze turns to her, appraisingly, as Clarke slides into her boots. She peels off her wet swim shirt, inhales sharply at the cool breeze against her skin, and quickly pulls on a dry top, then swings her jacket over her shoulders. She picks up her gun and tucks it into her belt. The blanket, she leaves for the others. She feels Lexa's eyes following her movements, observing. She seems to be waiting for something.
"If you are done here," Lexa finally says, "then you are needed back at camp."
Clarke wrings out her swim shirt and tosses it over her shoulder. "Lead the way, Commander."
Lexa turns to her guard. "Stay here," she orders him. She points to the lake. "Protect them."
Lexa leads Clarke into the forest, and though Clarke knows her way, she follows a few steps behind.
"Are you afraid of water, Clarke?"
"It's just new," Clarke says. "I'll get it."
"Swimming is a crucial skill on the ground," Lexa comments.
"Along with ritualistic torture and murder," Clarke mutters to herself. Lexa turns around abruptly and Clarke almost walks into her. "I know, okay? I'm trying. There weren't exactly any pools on the Ark."
Lexa clenches her jaw. "Is that truly how you regard us? Do you see us as savages still?" When Clarke attempts to walk around her, Lexa moves into her space. "Answer me."
Clarke tightens her fists. "We would never have tied Raven to a tree and taken turns carving into her."
Lexa's shoulders seem to relax. "You're angry because you disagree with our customs."
"Raven was innocent," Clarke emphasizes.
"Tell me, Clarke," Lexa says evenly. "Had she been on your Ark and believed to have poisoned your drink, what would have been her fate?"
"Death by flotation takes seconds," Clarke counters. "It's incomparable. And she would've had a fair trial."
"Were your methods perfect, then? In one hundred years, how many innocent lives did your people take? How many were floated as a warning to the others, to keep them obedient?" Lexa paused purposefully, eyes searching Clarke's features. "Your people locked you up for petty crimes and then sent you down here to die, and yet you still align yourself with them. You landed as invaders on our land, burned my warriors alive, tried to protect a man who massacred an innocent civilian village, and you have the audacity to think us savage? To pass judgment on how we enact justice and maintain order?"
Clarke bristles. "If that's the way you feel about us, then why haven't you killed us all already?"
A flash of anger passes through Lexa's eyes, but her words are calm. "Your people begged for peace. Do you wish now for the alternative?"
Clarke shakes her head. "No, of course not."
"Then we are speaking in circles, Clarke," Lexa says calmly, turning back toward camp.
They walk the rest of the way in silence.
Clarke wakes before dawn. She hasn't been sleeping well since--well, since she landed, but more recently, since she started trying to learn to swim, her dreams have become more vivid, loud. In them, she free falls into bottomless oceans, chokes on mouthfuls of cold water, over and over, until she mercifully awakens in a sheen of her own sweat.
Clarke gets dressed, grabs her sketchbook, and slips out past the camp gates. She's been sharing her time between Camp Jaha and the Commander's base camp; she hasn't slept well at either. She sits down and leans against a fallen tree trunk about a quarter mile outside camp to wait for the sunrise. A few minutes later, Lexa approaches and quietly takes a seat beside her. Clarke looks over. Lexa's hair is untied and falls in messy curls over her shoulders. Her sword is sheathed at her side, but she is not dressed for battle. Her guard is not with her.
"Your footsteps are heavy," Lexa tells her. "You need stealth training."
Clarke shuts her eyes and leans back against the trunk. "I wasn't trying to be stealthy, and I don't need to be babysat."
"Your lack of sleep is affecting your judgment," Lexa says, unfazed. "It's not safe to be out here alone."
"Shouldn't you be entertaining your overnight guest?" Clarke asks without thinking.
Lexa seems taken aback by the question, and she waits a long moment before speaking. "She's sleeping, as one does at this hour."
Clarke looks up at Lexa, at the profile of her face against the purple sky. "I thought love was weakness."
"Do not confuse love with pleasure," Lexa responds evenly. "We are allowed to respect our bodies' cravings."
Clarke's cheeks feel warm. "You don't think the body needs love?" she presses.
"Now you are confusing need with want." Lexa looks at her curiously, almost softly. "No one is forbidding you from choosing a partner, Clarke. But leaders have powerful enemies, and the person that you choose becomes a target."
"You mean Kostia."
Lexa tenses. She shifts, like she's either about to leave in a sprint or draw her sword, but Clarke reaches for her arm, fingers stretching over the fabric of her long-sleeved shirt. At Clarke's touch, Lexa stills.
"She deserved better than the fate I inflicted on her the moment I chose her to be mine," Lexa finally says.
Clarke rolls her eyes. "Was she coerced into loving you? Threatened? Bribed?"
"Of course not," Lexa says stiffly.
"Then she chose you as much as you chose her." Clarke's heart thumps quietly in her chest, tender. "Would you have loved her if she were the leader and you weren't? If you knew the risks, that you could die at the hands of her enemies, would you have done it any differently?"
"I should have protected her," Lexa insists, eyes blinking everywhere but at Clarke.
Clarke sits up abruptly, commanding Lexa's attention. "By rejecting her? By pushing her away? By condemning love for the rest of your life? Is that what she would've wanted?"
That strikes a nerve. "You know nothing about Kostia," Lexa says angrily.
"You're right," Clarke concedes. "I don't. But I know she was lucky to have known you before you turned into this."
"You know nothing about me either," Lexa continues, calmer now. "Do not rush to presume I was so different before her death."
The sun is rising in the horizon, coloring the sky in bright pink and orange. Clarke hears the camp start to spring to life somewhere behind her.
"You openly admit that you loved her," Clarke says softly, "and now you pride yourself on loving no one. That's, that's different. That's something."
Lexa doesn't say anything. The silence stretches. When it becomes obvious that Lexa has no intention to carry on the conversation, Clarke picks up her sketchbook and shuffles to her feet. Lexa follows, using her sheathed sword to push herself up. She looks young without her armor, vulnerable. She looks like a girl unburdened by the world in which she was born. But her eyes flare with all the destruction that she has witnessed, all the losses that she has suffered.
"What's in your book?" Lexa asks as they're making the short trek back to camp.
"Drawings," Clarke answers, her grip tightening around the cover. "Lincoln gave it to me when he caught me doodling in the sand."
Lexa slows by a half-step. "You are an artist. May I?"
Clarke hands Lexa the book as though it were her beating heart. Lexa cradles it in her hands, taking great care to open it gently. Her pace slows as she studies the pages--depictions of strange flora and fauna, of tools and weapons, a few rough sketches of maps, star charts.
"I was going to draw the sunrise," Clarke explains to fill space. "Before..."
"Before we argued philosophy," Lexa says, uncharacteristically tongue-in-cheek. She turns another page; her eyes light up at the new images. "Worry not. The sunrise will be here again tomorrow morning."
Clarke narrows her eyes. "You're mocking me."
Lexa closes the notebook as gently as she'd opened it and holds it to her chest. "Come with me."
"Where are we going?" Clarke asks, though she follows without much protest.
Lexa zips between trees along the outskirts of camp until the forest opens into a small clearing with a stream of water running through the middle. The water, clear like it's been untouched, appears from higher ground and rushes down over some smooth rocks, then follows the stream into the distance. Sunlight peeks through the foliage, peppering the water with shimmering gold. An arc of color extends over the juncture where the waterfall meets the stream.
Clarke slowly takes it all in. "Wow, this is..." She kneels down next to the stream and runs her fingertips over the surface of the water.
"I thought you might like to draw it," Lexa offers from a few feet away.
Clarke turns to Lexa, and her breath catches over her next words when she finds Lexa watching her with the quietest intensity, as though she's searching Clarke for something. Lexa's arm tightens around Clarke's sketchbook at having her gaze returned; Clarke feels the echo of a squeeze mirrored in her chest.
"I wouldn't do it justice," Clarke says, pushing herself to her feet. "The colors are too--" She motions toward the rainbow, now faint. "And I only have a black pencil."
"An artist who lives in the village to the south draws portraits with color pastels," Lexa tells her. "If you can curry her favor, she might be willing to share."
Clarke deflates. "Doubtful. I'm just branwada skaikru to them."
A hint of pride colors Lexa's smirk. "You are learning quickly. Come. We should return before morning meal."
Lexa doesn't give back the sketchbook; Clarke doesn't ask for it.
"You know I got a bum leg?" Raven asks Clarke on day seven.
Octavia rolls her eyes. "Leave her alone, Raven."
Raven shrugs. "Clarke's competitive. Might make her want to fight me or something."
Clarke slowly paddles away from them, strokes awkward and fractured. She tries to kick her feet as instructed, but her heart is pounding too fast and she forgets to breathe, and her face dips under the surface, and she inhales a mouthful of water, and she's gasping and choking until Octavia grabs her around the torso and pulls her upright.
"All right, all right, I got you," Octavia says, attempting to avoid being hit by one of Clarke's flailing limbs.
"I could probably hack together a flotation device for the buoyancy-deficient princess," Raven offers.
Clarke catches her breath enough to cough out, "Screw you, Raven."
Raven grins. "That's more like it."
Octavia's grip loosens, and Clarke immediately starts to flap around uselessly as she feels her body sink. Octavia grunts and drags her to shallower water. Clarke plants her feet at the bottom of the lake and breathes easier. She knows her face is red from the exertion, and she turns away from Octavia, who offers her an encouraging tap on the butt before gliding out of arm's reach. Most of the people of the Ark have successfully learned how to swim; Octavia and the warrior whose name Clarke still doesn't know are overseeing the last group.
Raven swims over, kicking with only one leg. "You'll get this," she reassures her. "Not all injuries are visible, you know?"
"I'm not injured," Clarke knee-jerks, even though there's no pity in Raven's voice.
"Well, I am," Raven points out, motioning toward the healing cuts on her arms and abdomen. "Work with it or work around it."
Raven swims away. Gracefully, Clarke notes, almost effortlessly. Clarke climbs out of the water and changes, then heads back to camp.
There's a package waiting for her on her bed when she returns. The word CLARK is written in thick black letters across the brown wrapping paper. Clarke smiles and traces her fingers over the letters; the charcoal smudges. She unties the rope and lets the wrapping paper fall apart to reveal a small wooden box and a leather-bound book. She flips up the latch on the box and opens it to find a set of freshly made pastels inside. Clarke turns to the first page of the new sketchbook, chooses a purple from the box, and sketches a violet from memory. The pastel is softer than she's used to, but it produces a nice rich color. She's delighted.
Clarke leaves her gifts on her bed and dashes outside. Brimming with too much energy to give it much thought, she barges past the guard stationed beside the opened door of Lexa's home.
Lexa isn't alone. She's seated next to one of the girls Clarke's seen stay the night, and they both look up as she enters. Heat spikes unexpectedly at the pit of Clarke's stomach, hot like envy, rolling through her in waves. Clarke opens her mouth to apologize for interrupting, but the guard grabs her around the arm, nearly pulling her off the floor.
Lexa waves her arm, and he lets Clarke go. She leans over and whispers something to the girl, who smiles and gets up to dismiss herself. Lexa nods her head at the guard, who also makes a hasty exit. She turns her attention to Clarke.
The first thing that comes out of Clarke's mouth is, "There's an E at the end of my name."
Lexa just looks at her like she's completely lost it.
"It's silent," Clarke continues. "Like the L in Lincoln. The second one."
"I see," Lexa finally says.
"Thank you for the gift. You really didn't have to do that." Clarke grows unnerved when Lexa says nothing. "I didn't mean to interrupt. Should I go call her back in?"
"No," Lexa replies impassively, "she will return tonight."
That catches Clarke by surprise. "Right. Because, right."
Lexa stares at Clarke for a moment. "If you have something to say to me, I invite you to speak."
Clarke hesitates. "If you're so hellbent on not loving anyone, what happens if one of your... guests falls in love with you?"
Curious amusement flickers across Lexa's features. When she speaks, it is deliberate. "You told me I was heartless. Explain to me then, Clarke, why you're concerned that someone would fall in love with a heartless person."
"I'm not," Clarke says weakly. "Never mind. It's none of my business."
"It isn't," Lexa agrees. "But now I wish to know. What do your people do when love is unrequited?"
"Nothing." Clarke thinks about Finn and Raven, about emotional entanglements. "We move on."
"Why do you think it would be any different for us? I don't lie about my intentions. You are making this arrangement an issue that it is not." Lexa's voice softens, but the challenge behind her next words is clear. "Does it cause you discomfort, when women are not punished for their curiosity?"
Clarke forces herself not to flinch when she says, "No."
"Clarke, you had a question for me; now I have one in return. Why are you so--" Lexa pauses. "The word you chose was hellbent on convincing me that love is worth my time?"
"Because I think you care," Clarke says. "I think you care a lot. About your people, the ones who live today, the ones whose fights are over. You cared about Anya, and about Gustus."
"Do you think that I care about you, as well?" Lexa asks lowly.
It stings more than Clarke cares to admit.
"I will remember how to write your name, Clarke," Lexa continues, "but do not delude yourself into thinking I would change my way of living for you because you fell from the sky with lust for a utopia that does not exist."
Clarke actually does try to be stealthy this time, because it's the middle of the night. It's reckless and probably a little bit stupid, but she hasn't been sleeping anyway, so she steals away to the lake for a dip. The water is freezing, but she bites through it. Clarke wonders about self-inflicted wounds, about whether this constitutes punishing herself for her inability to shake her own feelings of doubt, that maybe Lexa had been right about banishing love to keep her heart safe, her mind clear.
Somehow, Lexa catches up to her a few minutes later, shuffling into the clearing looking equal parts tired and annoyed.
"I shouldn't have to tell you how unwise being alone in water in the middle of the night is, especially when you can't swim."
Clarke doesn't answer her.
"You are upset with me," Lexa observes quietly.
"I'm not," Clarke says. "Stop following me."
"Who else is going to fend off the nocturnal wildlife for you while you freeze yourself to certain death?" Lexa asks dryly. When Clarke ignores her, she lets out a humorless laugh. "Clarke. This isn't a threat, but I can catch you easily in the water. I would rather us not be two cold and wet fools instead of one, however."
"Did you come out here just to insult me?" Clarke huffs, but she slowly makes her way to the shore.
Lexa holds open a blanket and wraps it around Clarke as soon as she climbs out. Lexa makes her sit down on the grass, and Clarke doesn't protest, shivering into the blanket. Wordlessly, Lexa kneels behind her, carefully pulling Clarke's wet hair out from under the blanket. She parts it into several strips and starts braiding. Her grip is strong, but her movements are cautious and intimate. She's almost done tightening the first braid against the side of Clarke's head when Clarke speaks.
"You should get back to your, um--" Clarke shuts her eyes, tripping over the words. "I know my way back."
"She decided that she didn't want to spend the night." Lexa's fingers still over Clarke's hair. "Is that why you're angry with me?"
"I'm not angry," Clarke maintains.
"Dishonesty doesn't suit you, Clarke," Lexa says evenly.
Clarke bristles. "Fine, I'm angry," she spits out without turning around. The sleep deprivation gets to her head; she slips. "I'm angry because for some reason, I care. I care about the people of the Ark, I care about the people who have died, some by my hand, and I even care about you, and not only because the survival of my people depends on this alliance, but because that's who I am. So yes, I'm hellbent because I care about you and I want you to care about me. But maybe that's just not who you are. I don't even know who you are. I don't know anything about you that matters. Is that what you wanted to hear?"
Lexa is quiet for a moment, then her hands start braiding again, with the same steady precision as before. Frustration rages in Clarke's throat, and she spins around, slapping Lexa's hands away from her hair. She opens her mouth to say something scathing, but Lexa's reflexes are quicker; she shoves Clarke to the ground, one hand around the column of her neck, the other on the hilt of her sword.
Clarke hears her heartbeat drumming in her ears, but Lexa never draws her weapon, and the hands that moments ago had been threatening Clarke with violence now tangle helplessly into her hair, and Lexa's looking at her like she might die if something between them doesn't shift. Clarke moves her hands to Lexa's shoulders, and she means to push her away, but they slide to Lexa's collarbones, thumbs smoothing over Lexa's throat, and Lexa actually shudders. Clarke has never, ever seen the Commander like this, pliant under her fingertips, needy, like she would give up entire kingdoms to be messily touched for a few minutes.
The kiss, when it comes, is rough and pleading. Lexa gasps, groans, makes all the sounds that she never makes when they are talking about strategy around a table, about sacrifice, and death, and weakness. This is weakness, Clarke thinks, this is everything Lexa has been warning her about. This is weakness, and she is drowning in it. Lexa's hands pull at the hair that she had so carefully braided; it comes undone, unravels through her fingertips. Clarke wants, needs, takes, and Lexa gives it to her without objection.
The blanket falls open, and Lexa's body moves everywhere, palms heating up Clarke's skin, legs climbing over legs, hips pressing insistently. But the night is chilly, and Clarke's clothes are still wet, and as much as she fights the shiver, because she desperately does not want to move, Lexa senses it and pulls away, lips swollen, eyes glazed, breathing heavily into the small space between them.
"We should," Lexa starts to say, then ghosts her lips over Clarke's exposed neck, exhales hotly. "Clarke, it's too cold out here. I don't want you to fall ill."
What Clarke wants to say is, "I don't care." What she wants to say is, "Warm me up." What she wants to say is, "Wait." But she doesn't say any of those things because Lexa is getting up and moving away, and the cold takes Clarke by surprise, jars her from the moment, confronts her with the reality of their situation.
Clarke pushes herself to her feet and rushes to pull on her clothes and boots. She has to pick up a light jog to catch up to Lexa. For a short while, it is silent as they walk together through the woods. Clarke briefly wonders if it'd all been a fever dream, delusions caused by not enough sleep and too much wild energy. Maybe Lexa had only shown up long enough to drag her out of the water. Maybe Lexa's hands hadn't been painting atlases across her skin.
"What is troubling you at night, Clarke?" Lexa finally asks. "You haven't been sleeping well."
"Neither have you, apparently," Clarke deflects.
Lexa glances at her, a hint of a smile playing on her lips. "I sleep fine, except on nights when the Leader of the Sky People loses her mind."
Clarke makes a sound of minor annoyance but doesn't otherwise argue the point.
"Your insomnia?" Lexa presses.
"Octavia has managed to teach every other person from the Ark how to swim," Clarke says in resignation, "even the ones scared of their own shadows."
"But not you," Lexa finishes for her.
Clarke shakes her head.
"Have you suffered trauma?" Lexa asks her.
"Octavia asked me the same thing."
"How did you answer?"
"I didn't," Clarke admits.
"How do you answer now?"
Clarke shivers, pulls the blanket tighter around her shoulders. "When Anya and I attempted to escape Mount Weather, we were cornered by the Mountain Men. They were armed to the teeth, and the only way out was a high drop into a pool of water at the bottom of their dam. It must've been a hundred feet, but Anya didn't even hesitate. I couldn't go back there, so I jumped in after her. I must've passed out shortly after I hit the water, but I remember feeling like, like I was going to die."
"And that made you afraid?" Lexa asks. "We all die, Clarke," she adds, softer.
"On the Ark," Clarke explains, "before its systems started failing, the majority of people only died for one of two reasons: old age or flotation. There were diseases, but they were well-contained. There were murders, but random acts of violence were very rare. I was never supposed to know what being submerged in water felt like in my lifetime. My child, if I had one, wasn't supposed to either, nor my grandchild, unless they were very, very lucky."
The camp gates appear in the distance, and Lexa slows to a stop. She turns to Clarke, and under the cover of darkness, she smiles. "I am glad that was not the case."
Clarke's heart feels tender. "Me too."
Clarke draws. She draws everything she drew before, but in color. She draws landscapes, she draws the sky. She draws all the things she's never seen before. And she draws Lexa. She draws the way Lexa's eyes had looked moments before she'd kissed her, because she never wants to forget. She draws Lexa's hands, tangled in her hair. She draws faceless women, bodies wrapped together. She draws the way she'd felt when Lexa touched her.
"Indra's going to kill you," Octavia says, startling her.
Clarke slaps her sketchbook shut. "Won't be the first time she's tried."
Octavia quirks an eyebrow over her war paint. "Has she ever tried because you're having filthy thoughts about the Commander?"
Clarke flushes. "What?"
"Don't what me, Romeo," Octavia says, glancing pointedly at the sketchbook.
"And Juliet? What do you think I did under the floorboards for sixteen years?"
Clarke changes the subject. "Why are you dressed for combat?"
"Village in the south is being harassed by giant birds," Octavia tells her. "I thought you knew about it. The Commander put together a team, twenty-some strong, to provide support."
Clarke tears through camp in search of Lexa. When she finally finds her in the stables, checking up on her horse, she's had the time to get furious.
"Why did you leave me off the support team?" Clarke demands.
"Clarke," Lexa warns.
"Is it because of what happened at the lake, because--"
Lexa raises her voice. "Clarke. That's enough. You're not on the team because you don't speak our tongue, and Indra might kill you if I leave you alone with her. But if you wish to join, then join."
Clarke had been preparing for more of a fight, and her body buzzes with the unused energy. She turns to leave, but Lexa grabs her arm, jerks her back.
"Do not ever accuse me of not being able to think rationally," Lexa says, eyes blazing fire.
Lexa cuts her off. "Yes, you were. Never do it again. I do not make decisions based on emotion, not for you, not for anyone." The not anymore goes unspoken.
"Okay," Clarke relents. "I'm sorry."
"Go get ready," Lexa tells her. "We depart at noon."
Indra is, as Lexa had predicted, upset about the new addition to the team, but Octavia says something to her that seems to calm her nerves. Indra and Octavia take the lead; Lexa and Clarke stay at the rear. They march mostly in silence. When they reach the gates of the village, Lexa starts firing off commands. Clarke doesn't catch enough of it to understand, but everyone else, including Octavia, break off into three groups and set off. Lexa turns to Clarke.
"Come with me."
Clarke follows Lexa around the borders of the village, staying low in the bushes. Lexa watches the sky for any sign of the birds. Clarke hears them before she sees them sprawling into the open sky, torsos the size of small horses, dark wings blocking out the sun. By Clarke's count, there are five of them.
Lexa shifts, gets close to Clarke's ear. "We have to lure them away from the village. They would crush houses if they fell here."
Clarke nods and follows Lexa through the brush, taking careful, quiet steps. A bird in the sky above them squawks loudly as it flies past, and Clarke startles, stumbles over a protruding root and collapses to the ground. Lexa grabs her by the back of the collar and pulls her to her feet.
"I told you to get stealth training," Lexa mutters, breath hot over the shell of Clarke's ear.
A bird spots them and whips up a strong wind changing direction mid-air. Clarke reaches for her gun.
Clarke doesn't need to be told twice; she takes off. But she doesn't know the layout of the land as well as Lexa does, and a few minutes later, she finds herself faced with a cliff that overlooks a fast-moving river. The bird is still chasing her, its angry cries getting louder as it approaches. Clarke turns, holds up her gun and fires in quick succession. One bullet hits the bird on the leg, another clips its wing; it slows momentarily and comes to a hobbling stop on the ground several feet away, kicking up a cloud of dirt and dust.
Clarke covers her mouth and pulls the trigger again, but the gun clicks helplessly. She's out of ammunition. The bird flaps its wings, rises high in the air, and nosedives down at Clarke.
Out of nowhere, Lexa tackles Clarke out of the way, taking the brunt of the bird's beak on her shoulder. The impact knocks her backwards; she loses her footing and tumbles over the cliff, landing with a splash in the river below. The bird is squawking in pain as it falls to the ground; Lexa has managed to spear it with her sword. Clarke sees Lexa's body start to float downstream, carried by the strong current. Clarke doesn't think; she takes a deep breath and jumps.
The fall isn't as high as the dam at Mount Weather, but the landing is more shallow, and Clarke scrapes her knees hard on the riverbed. She doesn't have time to dwell on the pain; she chokes on a breath of water, feels the current dragging her body against her will. She shoves her feet off the first hard surface she can reach and manages to break to the surface. She gulps in one lungful of air before she's being pushed under again. The fear rushes back; fear of dying, fear of failure, fear of not seeing their plans through. She fears what will happen to the people of the Ark if she dies, if Lexa dies as well and a new leader is chosen who despises them as invaders.
Clarke breaks the surface again, gasps for air. She reaches for something to grab onto, but the current is too strong, and her hands slide off the smooth surface of the rocks lining the river. Clarke twists painfully to her back and stops fighting the current, allows it carry her as she tries to catch her breath. The sun hangs high in the sky, blinding white against clear blue. Clarke's ears dip underwater, and for a moment, it is serene. She makes peace with the mortality of human beings, of their fragility, of the external forces that she cannot control. She accepts that she has done everything in her power to ensure a future for her people. She just wishes there were someone to tell her that her fight is over before she goes.
But water moves with violent impunity, cares very little about personal revelations, and a wave of water rushing over a small cliff hits Clarke in the face, jarring her. Using the last of her energy, Clarke's arms wrap around a clump of plants in the water, and that slows her down enough for her to pull herself out of the river, coughing out mouthfuls of water.
The adrenaline is wearing off, and now Clarke feels her bloodied knees, her sprained wrist, her bruised ribs. She looks downstream and catches a glimpse of maybe brown hair, but the maybe is enough. She pushes herself to her feet, collapses, gets back up, and takes off as quickly as her battered body will carry her. She runs for nearly a mile before the current slows.
Lexa's body is floating motionlessly in the middle of the river. She'd somehow either lost her armor or removed it on the way down. The open wound on her shoulder is bleeding out into the water, and Lexa's skin is ghostly pale, her lips starting to lose color. Her eyelids flutter as her head bobs underwater; she sputters.
Clarke dives in without hesitation. Her movements are jerky and inelegant, but she manages to paddle herself to Lexa. Her hand immediately applies pressure against Lexa's shoulder; Lexa groans, her head rolling in pain.
Lexa's boot, Clarke quickly discovers, is caught on something. Clarke sucks in a breath of air and holds it as she dives underwater. The water is clouded red with Lexa's blood, and Clarke has to feel around with her hands. She pulls at Lexa's leg, but it doesn't budge. Her shaking hands can't figure out the straps on Lexa's boots. Clarke runs her hand up around Lexa's waist to find the knife sheathed on her belt, pulls it out. She holds herself underwater as she hacks away at the seaweed tangled around Lexa's boot.
Clarke's lungs are burning when she finally cuts away the last piece, and Lexa's body slackens against her. Clarke breaks to the surface and takes a breath, sees stars on the backs of her eyelids when she blinks. She fumbles around until she gets Lexa's knife back to her belt, but she doesn't have the energy to fight the river, so she clamps down on Lexa's wound with one hand and lets the current carry them a little further downstream.
The river widens, and the current slows to a near stop. Clarke tries to paddle them closer to shore with only one arm, but progress is slow, and she has to stop every few seconds to readjust her grip on Lexa's body. Clarke starts to lose feeling in her arm, but thankfully, Lexa begins to regain consciousness. Her head rolls back onto Clarke's shoulder.
"Apply pressure to your shoulder," Clarke says, close to Lexa's ear. "My hand's cramping."
Lexa's eyes flutter open. Instinctively, her body jerks away from Clarke; she clutches her shoulder and groans in pain.
"Don't try to be a hero," Clarke mutters, getting her arm back around Lexa's torso.
With Lexa mostly supporting her own weight, Clarke gets them to shore and gives Lexa a boost out of the water. Clarke hooks her arm over the side to keep from drifting away, but she doesn't have the strength to pull herself out. Lexa coughs out some more water before curling heavily into her injured shoulder and taking a few sharp breaths. The water has washed away most of Lexa's war paint, accentuating the paleness of her skin from blood loss, but she slides closer to the water and offers Clarke her good arm.
Clarke grabs Lexa's arm and works up the energy to lift herself out of the water and roll to her back. She shuts her eyes and just lies there for a moment, letting the sun beat down on her body.
"Your knees," Lexa says suddenly, moving her hand to Clarke's thigh.
Clarke jerks; she doesn't have it in her to speak, but she feels her body reacting to Lexa's touch.
Lexa doesn't move her hand. "They need to be bandaged."
Clarke sits up, pulling her legs out of Lexa's reach. "Let me check your shoulder," she says, moving to Lexa's side.
Lexa winces in pain when Clarke pulls her hair away from her shoulder, but the groan that leaves her lips when Clarke presses her fingers to her neck carries a hint of gratification. Lexa's pulse flutters rapidly under her fingertips, and Clarke pushes again, this time on purpose, and Lexa says, "Clarke," tongue clicking over the K, "please," exhaled low in her throat. Pink tints Lexa's cheeks as she keeps her eyes fixed on her lap. Clarke forces herself to focus on the blood staining Lexa's skin instead of all that she could get away with. She pulls the collar of Lexa's shirt until it tears open and peels it gently off Lexa's shoulder. Clarke's hand brushes accidentally over the notches on Lexa's shoulder blade. Lexa's body goes rigid, but she doesn't say anything.
"Your collarbone's broken," Clarke assesses. She holds out her hand. "Give me your knife."
Lexa's hand hovers protectively over her knife, but she pulls it out and hands it over. Clarke shucks off her jacket, then peels off her shirt before slipping back into her jacket. She uses the knife to cut her shirt into two halves.
"We need to get back to camp, get this cleaned out and set properly," Clarke says as she fashions a bandage with the first half, wrapping it once around Lexa's shoulder and again over the back of her neck. The second half, she uses as a sling to keep Lexa's forearm lifted to alleviate the strain off her collarbone.
Lexa doesn't look at her. "It was foolish to jump in the river after me."
Clarke rolls her eyes. "It's like you don't know how to say thank you."
"Clarke," Lexa says quietly, like she means to address something important. "Thank you."
Clarke rises to her feet; Lexa follows a moment later, cradling her arm. She squints into the distance, looks up at the sky.
"We've been carried a long way," Lexa tells her. "We should hurry if we want to make it to camp before sundown."
They walk for nearly an hour before Lexa breaks the silence.
"After Kostia's capture, I made poor tactical decisions with the sole intention of rescuing her. It cost many of my people their lives, their homes, and despite these sacrifices, I could not save Kostia. I cannot afford to be affected again."
It sounds like an apology for the world in which they were thrown. It sounds like a prayer for their circumstances. It sounds like please understand.
"You talk about love as though it's all-consuming," Clarke says.
"Is it not, for you?" Lexa asks, carrying the weight of her words on her tongue. She doesn't wait for an answer. "Clarke, if we were not leaders..."
"We are," Clarke cuts in. "Don't do this, Lexa."
Lexa nods and stares ahead.
"My mother had my father floated," Clarke reveals a few moments later. "She thought it would keep our people safe. She loved him, spent twenty years of her life by his side, but she did it anyway. I was locked up because of her actions."
"She understands sacrifice," Lexa says evenly.
"So do you," Clarke says. Her heart hurts. "So do I."
Lexa's response sounds practiced. "We do what we must to survive."
"I want to believe there's more to life than surviving," Clarke says. Then, "I swam today."
"Not very well," Lexa says, but her tone is light and teasing.
Clarke laughs, the sound soft and foreign to her ears. "Well enough to save your ungrateful ass."
Lexa glances at her. "And how did my life get in danger if not for you cornering yourself between a mighty beast and a giant cliff?"
Clarke mimics Lexa's tone of voice. "You couldn't leave me to die," she says, echoing Lexa's words back at her. "That was weakness."
"I don't sound like that," Lexa protests half-heartedly. "And you mean to mock me, but it was. I should have left you." But the bravado has been replaced with something resembling resignation. "I should have been strong enough to let you go."
Clarke braces herself. "Do you regret it, then?"
Lexa doesn't hesitate. "No."
"I don't think I could live the rest of my life without someone to share it with," Clarke admits then, maybe mostly to herself.
The muscles of Lexa's neck shift as she swallows thickly.
"We live in a world of uncertainty," Clarke continues. "Everyone is at risk every day, whether we love them or not."
Lexa sounds drained when she asks, "If it makes no difference, then why compromise yourself?"
"Because nothing else in the world feels like the lake," Clarke says quietly, and she hadn't realized how much vocalizing it would physically hurt her.
Lexa clenches her jaw. "Clarke."
"I know," Clarke says, laughter caught in her throat. "You can't be affected. We don't have to rehash this every time."
"I am affected," Lexa allows, and she stumbles over her next step as though her legs don't know how to carry her sudden weight.
"But you don't want to be," Clarke adds gently, "because of what happened with Kostia."
Lexa doesn't say anything, but when Clarke trips over some uneven terrain, Lexa grabs her hand to steady her. She doesn't let go until hours later, when the sounds of base camp can be heard in the distance. Lexa squares her shoulders, as much as she can with a broken collarbone. She prepares to be the Commander that her people need her to be, the one with cold impartiality, without attachments.
The sun is low in the horizon when they finally make it to the camp gates. Cheers erupt from the guards at the sight of their Commander, and two rush out to help her, though she mostly swats them away.
"Were the rest of the birds taken care of?" Lexa asks.
"Indra and the others killed two," one of the guards says. "The rest flew off."
Lexa nods. "Casualties?"
"None. Minor injuries. One broken arm. They've been fixed up."
"Good. Bring clean clothes for both of us and leave them outside the healer's tent." Lexa turns to Clarke. "Follow me."
Lexa takes her to their healer, a young man who has been at Camp Jaha tailing Abby at every opportunity. As soon as he sees them, he jumps up and immediately gets to work preparing strips of bandages.
"We have better medical supplies at the Ark," Clarke says. "I could go get them."
"You're going nowhere on those knees," Lexa tells her. "Remove your torn clothing and sit down."
Clarke does as she's told. Lexa sits down a few feet away and says something to the healer that Clarke doesn't understand; he moves over to Clarke and starts washing out her skinned knees. He pulls out a bottle of moonshine.
"I'm fine," Clarke tries to say. "You need to check the Commander's collarbone."
"Save your energy, Clarke," Lexa says. "He's not going to disobey a direct order from his Commander."
Clarke winces when the healer swipes a dab of alcohol across one of her knees, then wraps a bandage around it and pins it in place. He repeats the same process on her other knee. Lexa says something else in Trigedasleng, and the healer immediately checks Clarke's wrist. It's sprained; he wraps some stiffer bandages around it.
Clarke leans her head back in resignation. "Are you enjoying yourself?"
Lexa dips her head to hide her smirk, but the movement strains her shoulder, and she exhales painfully. Clarke stands so suddenly she almost knocks the healer over. She walks the few paces to Lexa's side and sits down next to her. The healer follows with his supplies and starts to work on Lexa's injured shoulder. Clarke extends her hand, pressing it over Lexa's on her lap, and Lexa looks up. Her eyes are soft when she laces their fingers together and holds Clarke's hand.
The healer is skilled despite his youth, and he patches up Lexa's shoulder without much fuss. He brings them the clothes that the guard had left outside and leaves to give them some privacy. They dress quietly.
"Clarke," Lexa says after she's managed to pull a clean shirt over her bandaged shoulder. She stands.
Clarke waits. Lexa grabs her by the arm, pulls her closer, and then she's kissing her, and Clarke responds without thinking, her unbandaged hand sliding unapologetically to Lexa's torso, up her shoulder, her neck, her face. It's a mess of a kiss, too much fire and not enough air, and Lexa's arm is pinned awkwardly between their bodies, inhibiting Clarke from getting closer. Lexa groans and breaks away too soon, trying to catch her breath.
"I lost a lot of blood today," Lexa explains between breaths, color high in her cheeks.
Clarke wants to kiss her again. "It's okay. It's okay. You should rest."
They leave the tent together. The sun has already set. Clarke follows Lexa into her home, mostly because Lexa hadn't indicated to her that she wanted her anywhere else. She should've asked, Clarke thinks, when Lexa turns around to look at her. She's about to when Lexa moves behind her to close and lock the door.
The first thing Lexa says is, "You are not a replacement for who I've lost."
"Okay," Clarke says. She tries not to flush with affection, tries not to shake.
"We are at war," Lexa continues, "and we may be at war for many seasons to come."
"I know," Clarke says, "I know."
"I will be the Commander of my people until my dying breath, and you--I still don't understand how your leadership works, but I assume the same could be said for you."
Clarke closes the distance and kisses Lexa again, because her body physically doesn't know what else to do. Lexa sighs into her mouth; Clarke feels the tension being drained from her body. Lexa pulls away long enough to guide Clarke to the bed, and Clarke lies down. Lexa moves to straddle her hips; it's too much. Clarke wants more.
"Let me finish," Lexa says.
Clarke slides her hands to Lexa's thighs, stretching. "Okay. What else?"
Lexa shifts her hips. "I don't remember," she admits, her uninjured hand gripping the hem of Clarke's shirt. "All--all I can think about right now is all the things I would do to you if I had use of both hands."
"Don't tell me that," Clarke pleads. "Collarbones take weeks to heal."
Lexa slides her hand between Clarke's legs. "I'll make do with one."
Lexa sleeps well into the afternoon. She wakes with a start, and Clarke almost has to restrain her to keep her from leaping out of bed.
"I need to get to the war room," Lexa says. "I've slept away half the day."
"Indra's taking care of it," Clarke reassures her. "You need to give your shoulder time to heal."
Lexa sighs and lies back down. "You weren't very concerned about my rest last night."
Clarke slides to Lexa's uninjured side and tucks her head under her chin. "Forgive me, Commander."
Lexa's chest vibrates with a laugh. She strokes her fingertips idly over Clarke's hair.
"What are you thinking about?" Clarke asks quietly.
"That this isn't the end of the world," Lexa answers.
Clarke smiles. "No, it isn't. Are you afraid?"
Lexa pulls Clarke closer. "Not right now. Are you?"
Clarke shuts her eyes, tilts her head up to press a light kiss to Lexa's neck. "Only of what my mother is going to say to me when she finds out about this," she murmurs.
"I'd worry more about Raven," Lexa says.
Clarke lets out a laugh. "I hadn't even thought about that."
"I still have your sketchbook," Lexa tells her, "the old one. I never returned it."
Clarke turns to look at her. "Why did you keep it?"
"Because it was yours," Lexa says simply. "Do you want it back?"
"No, it's yours now," Clarke tells her.
"Would you show me your new one as well?" Lexa asks.
"Yes, but," Clarke flushes. "I drew some other stuff in the later pages, after the lake, I, um."
"Oh." Lexa's eyes light up in surprise. She jostles Clarke's body closer until one of Clarke's legs slips between her thighs. "Was it as good as you imagined?"
Clarke lifts herself up just enough to press a line of kisses along Lexa's jaw. "You should know better than anyone how good I thought it was," Clarke mumbles against Lexa's skin. She runs her hand gently over the bandages covering Lexa's shoulder. "I didn't imagine the cast though. I wanted to put my hands all over your collarbones. You sort of have a thing."
Lexa squirms, ducks her head, laughs quietly. "I hoped you wouldn't notice that. No one has before."
Clarke moves her hands down Lexa's sides, pausing at the scars peppering her body, the body of a warrior, of a leader, of a lover. Clarke wonders how many pairs of hands have touched Lexa's skin before hers, how many people have torn moans from her throat, seen her body wound so tightly, arching and begging for release. Clarke's chest suddenly feels too small to carry her heart.
Lexa touches Clarke's cheek, drawing her attention. "What's wrong, Clarke?"
"Those other girls," Clarke manages, "will they still spend the night, when I'm away at Camp Jaha?"
Lexa's eyes soften. "Not if you don't want them to."
Clarke swallows hard. "What do you want?"
"I want you to not worry," Lexa says, tugging her down to kiss her, slow and torturous and reassuring. "I am not affected by them, the way I am by you, but I see that it causes you discomfort."
Clarke shifts. "I don't want to disrupt your habits."
"I can tell you are trying to be brave for me," Lexa tells her, finding her hand and twining their fingers together, "but if you don't like it, I don't care for it, either."
"You can't make choices just to appease me," Clarke says. "That was everything you were afraid would happen."
"Clarke, there is a difference between the decisions I make as Commander and those I make about who keeps me company at night. Do you trust me to know the distinction?"
Clarke's body shakes with relief. "Yes," she says, "Lexa, I do."
Lexa hunches over the war room table, a map of Mount Weather stretched out in front of her. The war council stands around the table.
"That is the plan," Lexa says, looking around the room. "Any objections?"
"Heda," Octavia says, "if Indra and I could flank from the west, it would allow Clarke's team to sneak through the tunnels from the south."
Lexa considers this. "Indra, does this seem feasible?"
Indra looks over the map. "Yes."
Lexa nods. "Then that is what we will do." She raises her voice. "Begin preparations. Mobilize the forces. Three days from now, we strike."
Clarke steps around the warriors filtering out of the room until she's standing next to Lexa.
"Be careful," Clarke says.
"I'm always careful," Lexa responds. Then, "I will."
Clarke smiles faintly. "Lead us into battle, Commander Lexa."
Lexa brushes her knuckles over Clarke's jaw. "Stand by my side, Skaikru Heda Clarke."