“You know I am totally not going to tell you,” Clarke said as she hefted the painting onto its hook on the wall. Octavia helped her get it centered.
“C’mon. It’s Christmas.” Octavia gave her an exaggerated eyeroll, which was kind of funny. She had her hair pulled back today, and it framed the planes of her face nicely.
Clarke stepped back to make sure the painting wasn’t crooked. “And?” she said after a few more seconds.
“So share some cheer and tell me who your Secret Santa mission is.”
“Raven put you up to this, didn’t she?”
Octavia didn’t respond and Clarke rolled her eyes. “I knew it.” She went back into the storage area and started unwrapping another painting, this one a bit smaller than the other. “And I’m not going to tell you. Because what if you’re my Secret Santa target?” She wasn’t. She had Jasper this year. But she also had another Secret Santa project she was working on and there was no way in hell she was going to tell anyone in the crew about that.
Octavia stood in the doorway, watching. “How about this? Tell me who it’s not.”
“Because that’s different…how?” She carefully tore the rest of the protective paper away to expose the painting. “Every year she tries to figure out who everybody’s Secret Santa mission is.” She picked up the painting and Octavia moved aside for her. “I’m not going to make it any easier for her.” She laughed like a bad movie villain.
“I hate it when you do Secret Santa like—like all secret and shit.”
Clarke laughed. “What part of Secret Santa is not clear?”
Octavia shrugged. “Did you get Lexa?”
And just hearing her name again caused little sparks in her chest and it made her warm and tingly even though there was no good reason for it to have the effect it did but it always did. Every. Single. Time. She’d been both fighting it and embracing it for years. She hoped she didn’t betray anything through body language or anything.
“Did you not just get my memo about ‘secret’?” Clarke mock-glared at her.
“You take this way too seriously. Anyway, Raven thinks you should do something a little different with Secret Santa this year.”
“Like what? I mean, there are certain rules for how this works. And we have fun with it every year.” She carefully placed the picture on a wall hook.
“Like, you know. Get laid or something.”
She laughed. “How the fuck is Secret Santa supposed to—seriously? We do this with our own crew and the only people getting laid are the ones already partnered. And I’m sorry, I’m not interested that way in our crew.”
With the exception of one.
Octavia scoffed. “Please, Clarke. Raven and I are pretty hot.”
She looked at her for a beat, then laughed again. “Okay, yes, you are. And you’re also both in committed, monogamous relationships. So how, exactly, does that get me laid?”
“So you’re saying you’d do me or Raven?” she said with a teasing glint in her eyes.
“I think of both of you as my sisters. So I can’t really wrap my head around that.”
“There’s always Lexa.”
Clarke was really glad she’d already hung the picture up because she probably would have dropped it. “Excuse me?”
“Just sayin’. I still think the two of you would be awesome together. Raven and I have shipped you with her for years.”
She summoned her best “what the fuck” look though she completely agreed with her. “And Lexa is—”
“Super attractive. Intelligent. Driven. Funny. Confident. Supportive—”
“Are you perhaps writing her Wikipedia entry?”
“No, but maybe I should.”
“Anyway, as I was saying, Lexa is in New York. She has a life there.”
Octavia shrugged again. “And? It’s not that far. We’re only forty minutes from DC, and there are these things called trains and planes. Even cars.”
“Oh, my God. Just stop. Go back to asking me about Secret Santa.”
“We’re just trying to help. After the last…um…situation.”
Clarke crossed her arms and looked at her. “It’s not like that’s the norm in my life. I mean, that’s the first and only time I’ve had a dude ask me to do his ex so he could watch.”
“Which, okay, might not be bad.”
Clarke raised her eyebrows. “Not my thing. And it wasn’t his ex’s, either. And come on. His ex? Really?”
“Octavia held her hands up. “You’re right. I’m just messing with you.”
“Besides, the ultimate ship is Clexa.”
“Seriously? I can’t with you.” She went back to the storage room and retrieved another painting, trying not to think about Lexa but failing completely. She hung this painting near the other. “What do you think?”
“About that or Clexa?”
“Looks good. On both counts.”
Clarke rolled her eyes. “Focus. On this. Me. The show. What do you think about the rest of the place?” She gestured at the art. “Honest opinion. I’m trying to create a nice space for the show and these are the two that will be teasers until it happens.”
Octavia walked around a bit, inspecting. “Nice. Clean lines, warm lighting. Great outside light from your giant front windows. But you know what would make it even better?”
She turned. “Lexa.”
“Final warning. I’m done with that part of the convo.” Because it was too close to her heart, and there was no way she was going to tell Octavia that she totally agreed with her assessment.
“Okay, okay. Then I say, more Christmas decorations.”
“Really? You don’t think this is enough? I don’t want to overwhelm and detract from the art.” She had a small tree in the front window, and had hooked up a couple of cool neon signs in the other window that flashed red and green, alternating “Holly” and “Jolly.” The front door and counter had matching wreaths and she had framed the doors and windows with evergreen garlands.
“No, I’m being totally serious. The opening is, like, a few days before Christmas. People expect more festive-ness. It’ll make them feel all warm and fuzzy and they’ll want to buy more art. Possibly Christmas presents for themselves.”
She had a point. “So you’re saying I don’t have enough Christmas out?”
“I mean, you’ve got some good Christmas going on, but you need a bit more. Some extra touches.”
“Okay…” she hesitated, not sure what else she could do because she needed wall space for paintings.
“Here’s what I suggest. You’re going to have a couple of drink stations and a food table. Let me and Raven set those up and we’ll bring more Christmas. Just a bit more of what you’ve got going on here.
“Damn, Griff. We are your best friends ever. We know Christmas and, more importantly, we know you. So let us take care of adding a little more of the holidays to your very artistic, clean, sleek space. A little more festive, a little more—” she pointed at Clarke’s blinking signs in the window, “holly jolly.” She grinned. “Make Christmas your bitch.”
She snorted a laugh. “That should be a drink.”
Octavia grinned. “And I just might create it.”
“I want the first one.”
“The second. I have to taste it to make sure I get it right.” She pulled her into a half-hug. “So is it a deal? You’ll let us give you a little more holiday flair?”
“Yeah. Just—don’t get crazy. I don’t want this place to win a tacky holiday competition. I mean, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Time and place and all that.”
“Spare me. We know you. And I also know how to make things accentuate but not overwhelm.”
“True.” And she did. She’d done a fabulous job with her pub, after all.
“So we’ll help you set up Tuesday for the event. Do you have the tables and stands?”
“Yes. They’re in the back. And they’re sort of rustic.”
“Let me see.”
Clarke took her into the back storage area to the table she’d borrowed for the food, a barnwood farmhouse table that she really wanted to replicate.
“Okay, I love this,” Octavia said. “We can do a sort of country Christmas thing without going too country. People love that shit. Like they’re just in from a sleigh ride out in a field or something.”
She laughed. “Or something. Here’re the drink tables.” They were also rustic, but that was because Clarke had purposely created the effect on their surfaces.
“Awesome. This won’t require much, but I’d like to do a couple of other things to help with the country sleigh ride thing.”
“As long as it’s not—”
“I know, I know. As long as it’s not over the top. Have some faith, woman.” Octavia gave her a full-on hug. “Do you trust us?”
“Is that a trick question?”
She laughed and pulled away.
“Just—No Santa’s workshop in here, with cheesy reindeer and fake snow and tinsel all over everything.”
“Definitely not. We are making Christmas our bitch, after all. And it’s gonna be Clarke-tistic.”
“Now that should be a drink.”
“And that could happen. So what time do you want us over on Tuesday?”
“Done. That gives you over four days to worry about it,” she teased.
“Whatever. I’m already worried.”
“Good thing you’re doing fun stuff to break up the monotony of all that worry with Secret Santa. Make people feel like damn merry elves and they’ll want to buy things. Have you planned refreshments?”
“The usual. Some wine and cheese—”
“Stop. I’ll take care of that, too.”
“But people like wine—”
“Yes, and cheese, too. But we can make even that a little more holiday-centric. And easy to nibble.”
She chewed her lip, thinking.
“Clarke. Relax. Seriously. We all know how important this is, which is why I’m telling you we’re going to make it even more amazing than you and your art already are.”
Octavia was right. She was maybe a little too bent about things, but Christmas could be stressful. “All right. Put a refreshment list together and let me see it.”
“Good talk. But I’m still not telling you who my Secret Santa mission is.”
“Damn. I thought I almost had you, there.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll stop asking for both me and Raven. But stop by for a drink when you’re done here. We can talk more about what kinds of refreshments could work.”
“Fine. You talked me into that.”
“You’ve seriously been hanging out with Raven too much,” she said with a smile.
Octavia shrugged. “We’ve all known each other for years. Why we aren’t sharing a brain yet is beyond me.”
“That…is a horrifying thought.” She made a face. “Please don’t even suggest that to Raven. She’ll get ideas.”
“Shit, you’re right.” She made a face, too. “Doctor Ravenstein.”
Clarke laughed. “Damn, why don’t we call her that anymore?”
“I don’t know. Let’s start. It’ll be our special gift to her for Christmas.”
“Definitely.” She went back to the counter, and Octavia followed her again.
“Oh, hey, speaking of Lexa, did you see she’s coming in tonight? And I’m not just bringing that up to tease you about the ship I really need to sail.”
“Stop. And duh. She messaged all of us.”
“She’s doing that dinner thing the twentieth and you’d better be into it.”
Yes. God help her, yes, she was into Lexa, something she’d never revealed despite all the teasing over the years because she was sure it would never have worked between the two of them back in their college days. They were like clash of the titans in some ways, and even though they had definitely mellowed since then, Lexa was doing her own thing and Clarke had her own life going on and she loved what she did and she loved having her own gallery and being a working artist. She had great friends, things were good with her mom—she was pretty happy over all.
But damn, Lexa had never left her head. Or her heart. And she hated how everyone else seemed to suspect it.
“Yeah. Sorry. I’m totally going. Just thinking about my schedule. My show is the day after that dinner, and it makes me a little nervous.”
“At freaking six. We’re not even setting up until noon. Come on. She reserved the back room at the pub. Just the old college crew. With our ugly holiday sweaters. Jasper keeps winning in that category, but I’m pretty sure I’ve got the winner this year.”
“We’ll see. Mine’s pretty freakin’ ugly.”
“Whatever. You’re an artist. Nothing you do or wear is ugly. Even in the ugly sweater department, it’ll be strangely artsy. I mean, you already have the sweater, so you can’t get out of this now.”
“I’m not planning to. I’m just making sure I’m organized.” She’d already told Lexa that, but she didn’t want to give Octavia any more Lexa ammo than she already had.
“Good. Because I already put you down for food and drinks.” She started toward the door. “See you when you’re done here.”
“Wait,” Clarke said. “Is Lexa paying for the dinner?”
“She already did.”
Clarke laughed. “Because of course she did.”
“Right? Damn lawyers.” She grinned and left.
Clarke watched her go out the front door, thinking about their college days.
And about Lexa and her cool green eyes that could spark with either amusement or derision. And her long dark hair the color of rich chocolate that looked good no matter how she wore it. And then Clarke thought about Lexa’s warm smiles and cocky smirks and, okay, she went there—the tattoos that graced her upper arm and decorated her spine, that she’d seen when they all did group trips and stayed in each other’s hotel rooms. And she thought, too, about the times Lexa had stood up for her, and checked in on her, and how she stayed in touch with her.
Fucking Lexa Woods had been a goddamn backbeat to her adult life and she had made Clarke think that anything might be possible, even when they verbally sparred over their class readings, feminist theory, and approaches to life. Even when Lexa frustrated the hell out of her, Clarke always felt safe, always felt that Lexa would never belittle her or deliberately hurt her.
It was a contest of equals and she had loved it, and missed Lexa badly when she went on to law school and Clarke to her MFA program. But at least they had all stayed in touch, and still exchanged goofy texts and photos and even saw each other when they could. All within the context of their shared network of friends, but it was something.
College was almost ten years ago, and now here everybody was, doing their own things, living their own lives. Everything was different, now, though in some ways maybe it wasn’t, at least for a few of them, anyway. At least not for her, in some ways, but she had lots of practice in hiding her feelings where Lexa was concerned.
So yeah. She could totally go to a dinner with Lexa fucking Woods and it would be fine. Some reminiscing, jokes, a couple of laughs.
But this year was a little different, because Clarke had made a decision, and it was going to culminate this Christmas. She went to the counter and from underneath it took the project she’d been working on, a painting she had done based on a photograph she had taken of the historic district of Polis her sophomore year of college, which was the year she had first met Lexa.
She had created the painting then fastened it to thin backing cardboard because she was carefully carving puzzle pieces out of the painting. Once the puzzle was put together, there was a message and invitation she had written on it, and it included her name, because she was done hiding how she felt.
Lexa—I should’ve said this years ago. It took me a while, but here I am, saying it now. I want to be more than a friend to you. Have dinner with me? –Clarke
Clarke finished carefully cutting the final piece with the Exacto knife and then carefully trimmed the rough edges. That done, she put all the pieces of her puzzle inside a holiday card and slipped it into its envelope. In the card she had written “Extra Secret Santa” in calligraphy. On the outside of the envelope she had written “Lexa,” also in calligraphy.
Now all she had to do was find an opportunity to get it to her, to plant the seeds for something more. She hoped. She nodded, like she had convinced herself, and put the envelope into her bag then went back to the storage room. Maybe she could make Christmas her bitch this year.
Or it could all blow up in her face.
Was she actually brave enough to go through with this?
Suddenly, she wasn’t so sure.
“Well?” Raven asked.
“We’ll see.” Octavia repositioned her phone and idly wiped the bar down. It wasn’t busy, but it might get that way this evening. The holidays always brought more business. “She agreed to let us do some more Christmasing. And I’m doing the food. I volunteered you.”
“Good. Did she say anything about Lexa?”
“She didn’t bring her up, but I did.”
“She didn’t bite. I mean, how long have we been teasing her about Clexa?”
“Fuck. It’s, like, perfect fucking timing. Woods is single. Griff is single. Why the fuck don’t they just admit they’re supposed to be together and fucking do it?”
Octavia laughed. “You tell me, then we’ll both know. Have you said anything to Lexa recently?”
“You mean besides ‘Clarke is perfect for you. Why the hell are you not hitting that’?”
“Subtle.” Octavia put the cloth back in the disinfectant. “That’s what I love about you.”
“Whatever. I also told Lexa again that Clarke wasn’t seeing anyone seriously, so fucking do something about it.”
“When was that?”
“Oh, shit. That’s right. God, she might be more frustrating than Griff.”
“True. Hold on. I have to take this other call. Fuck, let me call you back.”
“Okay.” Octavia hung up and put her phone down on one of the shelves behind the bar and started stacking clean glasses for the next shift.
“Hey, babe,” Lincoln said as he emerged from the back.
“Hi,” she said, still getting a thrill every time he greeted her like that. He slid his arms around her and kissed her and it was warm and safe and sexy, like him. He tasted like cinnamon TicTacs and she loved those jeans on him, and the way his button-down denim shirt fit his shoulders and chest. He could be a model, though she was glad he wasn’t. Because she didn’t want to share.
“How’s it going?” he asked, glancing at the bar, his arms still around her.
“Fine. Raven and I are going to put a little more Christmas into Clarke’s gallery before the show, though. And we’re going to provide the food. I mean, wine and cheese is okay for regular shows, but this is Clarke fucking Griffin.”
He grinned and kissed the tip of her nose. “Polis crew for the win. Do you need me to help?”
“I mean, I always need you, but yes, I do need you to help, too. Can you check the schedule on deliveries? We’re taking equipment over at noon that day so I’ll need you then.
“Will do. I’ll rearrange and block out a couple hours. Do you need help bringing the food in?”
Octavia pondered for a few moments. “That’s probably a good idea. It’ll go faster with my super hunky guy there to help.”
He laughed. “Whatever you say, though my super hot warrior woman can take care of anything.”
“Keep talking like that and I might put out tonight.”
“Score,” he said with a certain look in his eyes and he kissed her again, this one with a little bit of tongue and if she didn’t have so much to do right now she would’ve taken him to the back office.
“Okay, enough of that for now because it’s distracting.”
“Agree. Not sorry, though.” He released her. “Speaking of Clarke—how’s Operation Clexa coming along?”
“About the same. Lexa won’t say anything and neither will Griff. They’re the most stubborn women on the damn planet.”
He gave her a look and she grinned.
“Yeah, yeah. Besides me.” She squeezed his hand.
“Our timing was off this year, too, because otherwise we could have arranged it so that they were each other’s Secret Santas. But Monty went ahead and put the drawing together before we got back from California. It would’ve looked weird to try to rearrange everything.”
“Yeah, kind of suspicious.”
“Right?” She toyed with one of the buttons of his shirt, thinking about undoing it.
“Are you doing the whole high school thing? Where you tell Clarke that Lexa likes her and vice versa?” he said, a smile in his eyes.
“Kind of. I mean, we’ve been teasing them both since junior year, so it’s not like this is new.”
“True. I’m a guy and I can see it.” He kissed the top of her head. “Let me run some errands. Including going to Home Depot for some wood.”
“I think you’re just fine in that department,” she teased and he laughed.
“For the shelves in the back, thank you. As for the other kind, you can check that out later. Call if you think of anything else you want me to pick up.”
“’Kay. Love you.”
“Love you back.” He gave her another quick kiss and left and of course she checked out his ass because damn. He was definitely going to get lucky later. But then, so was she.
Her phone rang with Raven’s tone and she answered. “So how are we going to get this shit arranged?”
“I don’t fucking know. Can we get them into the same space as much as possible while Lexa’s here?”
“Oh, shit. I just had a thought. Lexa’s coming in today and I told Clarke to come by the pub when she’s done at the gallery.”
“That could be good. Can you encourage Lexa to stop by the same time?” She put extra emphasis on “encourage.”
“I’ll text her.”
“Cool. Let me know what happens. Dammit, let’s put some Christmas magic into Clexa.”
“Definitely. I’ll let you know what happens.”
“Yeah.” Octavia hung up and immediately texted Lexa. This was a perfect time to help whatever holiday magic was out there to get some mojo working, and launch an epic ship.