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(the truth is like) blood underneath your fingernails

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Lincoln is dragged off in chains and Lexa leaves her behind, and this is it: Clarke versus the mountain. She should have known it would come to this.

She meets Octavia in the tunnels. They look at each other like they’re strangers, like they are all they each have left.

(They are.)

‘What happened?’ Octavia asks, and Clarke looks past her to the locked doors of the underworld.

‘We were betrayed.’

She gives her the cliffnotes version: an alliance abandoned, a deal struck, Lexa’s many lives being worth all of Clarke’s – being worth Monty, and Jasper, and Bellamy.

Heda wouldn’t do that,’ Octavia says, but Clarke can tell she doesn’t believe it.

She thinks about Tondc burning, two hundred and fifty lives turned to ash; herself on the dropship, hitting the button to end three hundred and seeing the way their bones fused together in the aftermath. She thinks about “I made this choice with my head and not my heart” and says:

‘Lexa would,’ and wonders:

Would I?

 

 

--

 

 

‘Leave two scouts with horses,’ Lexa tells her guard as soon as they are in the trees and out of Clarke’s sight. Her throat is tight but her voice is level. ‘Stay out of sight. Watch the Sky Girl. Escort her back to camp when she is ready.’

The walk back down the mountain does not come with the atmosphere of victory. Lexa takes long strides amidst her army, guards ever-present on her flank – and she can see the hundreds that they have liberated from the mountain walking weakly with the masses, all of them dirty and ragged and pale – but the blood drying on her skin is not enough to have made for a war and it feels like everybody knows it. Her people should be happy, she thinks – should be cheering their way through the trees – but instead they walk a thousand-fold, subdued.

I freed them, she reminds herself, and no one else had to die. I brought them home. I am bringing them all home.

(Something in her head whispers “not all”; she drowns it out with the sound of a march that feels less like a victory and more like a funeral.)

Indra’s party rejoins them some ways down the mountain, herding a dozen groggy reapers between them, and Lexa grits her teeth at the appearance. The General’s second is gone and it does not take much at all to figure out why – because loyalty is a tricky thing but Lexa knows all about it, and how to wield it (and how to cheat it). There is a weight in her chest at the loss of the young warrior – such promise wasted for want of forty lost lives.

Freedom comes at a cost, she thinks, this has always been so.

But she remembers the look in Clarke’s eyes – the hopelessness, the sting of betrayal hardly tempered by her understanding, the teary acceptance warring with defiance, with anger, with the loathing that hadn’t yet begun – and Lexa wonders why, if this is the cost, she must always be the one to pay it.

One of her scouts rides after her within the hour, pulls up next to her in the woods and reports:

‘The Skaikru girl went into the tunnels, heda. Would you have us follow?’

‘No,’ she says after a moment, because she cannot send them into the tunnels alone for one girl, for a Skaikru – but she also cannot bring herself to abandon Clarke any more than she already has. Without her army the mountain is impenetrable, their forces infallible. Clarke will see this eventually. ‘Hold in the woods. Wait for her to return. There is nothing else left for her to do.’

He nods and rides back off the way he came. Indra watches her with stony eyes and says nothing, and Lexa stiffens her jaw and turns away – heda again, heartless.

(She realises then that if Octavia is not coming back, Clarke certainly will not be.)

 

 

--

 

 

They stand in the dark and argue for longer than Clarke knows, but don’t leave – they have nowhere else to go, nothing else to do. They are out of bombs, and out of back up, and since now should not be the time to rehash past grievances and debate morals – all they’re good for now – they eventually they lapse into silence.

Clarke does not know how long they sit down there in the dark with their backs against the cavern wall, but she has only been there five minutes when the first body falls.

Every second that they are down there is another surgical procedure done in the dark, another of her forty-seven used and left for dead, another Mountain Man left to roam the open ground with all of it’s other monsters. The silence wraps around them, broken by nothing but the sound of distant shambling – some creature or another in the dark, a stray reaper, a lone wolf – the echoing drip of water on rock, and the pace of their own breathing.

And then, every twenty minutes or so – Clarke doesn’t know how long exactly, but she’s sure it’s regular – the shuffle and thump of another body down the trash chute and onto the ground beside them. She tenses more with every limp body that slides down into the caves and forces herself to see every face. Fox crashes down, dead – the fifth since she showed up, the tenth in the pile – and Clarke feels her stomach roil.

(Here they are: the last of her hundred – as much refuse to the Mountain as they were to the Ark).

‘It was for nothing,’ she says, because the quiet presses heavy on her chest and the realisation occurs to her all too suddenly. ‘Sending Bellamy in there, sacrificing Tondc, killing Finn. It was all for nothing.’

Beside her, Octavia’s breath hitches.

‘You did what you had to do,’ the young warrior says. All of the anger of days past is gone, now, and she is nothing but moral fortitude and situational hopelessness. Clarke shifts at the tone. ‘It wasn’t good, and wasn’t ethical, but it was what had to be done given what we knew and where we were at the time. And the fact that it didn’t work out? That’s not your fault, Clarke.’

‘Lexa betrayed me because I gave her the opportunity.’

‘Lexa betrayed us all because she's a vicious bitch and she was offered a more generous deal – and that’s on her,’ Octavia bites out. ‘But she’s gone now. She’s not coming back. It’s just you and me. So stop feeling sorry about the things that didn’t work out, and come up with something that will. And then –’

As avid as the pep talk is supposed to be Octavia would not seem to know how to finish it. Clarke understands: she does not know what soldiers do after war either.

‘We go home, I guess,’ she offers, but it feels wrong in her mouth. She doesn’t know where home is – if it is the crashed parts of Alpha Station and the valleys around it, or the dropship in all its disrepair. She might have thought it to be the furs of Lexa’s bed and the warmth of her arms someday in the future if it had it not been for “the duty to my people comes first” and “they weren’t part of the deal”. That possibility was gone now – as dead as her forty-seven would be if she could not breach the damned doors.

‘I have no home,’ Octavia mumbles, and Clarke does not need to look at her to find the lost little girl beneath the warpaint. Octavia’s home was a hole beneath the floor, a warrior who taught her for a couple of weeks and left her behind with a slash on the throat and the sick weight of disappointment. Clarke scowls and bows her head.

‘Then we’ll build one,’ she says.

There is a long silence where she contemplates clarifying – they will build one for their family in all its forms: Bellamy, Monty, Jasper, Miller, Harper, Raven and her indignation and her scrap. They will invite in the Arkers and scoff at their self-righteousness when the adults refuse. They will save as many of the innocent from the mountain as they can and burn the rest. They will rehabilitate the Reapers, find Lincoln with the Grounders and bring him home.

‘We are not Sky People, and we are not Grounders,’ Clarke says. ‘We’re the space in between. They chucked us all out like garbage. The fall, waiting for the fucking impact.’

Felkru,’ Octavia whispers with the ghost of a smile at her lips.

It is a joke but Clarke knows right then that it will turn into something else over time. Someone will say that word to her in the future, and she will think back to this moment – alone in the dark with Octavia; desolate right to their bones but friends again.

‘We could lead them together,’ Clarke offers lightly. She smiles sadly when Octavia shakes her head – she expects it.

‘We couldn’t,’ the warrior says. ‘I can't do the things that you will – that you need to. I can’t be that kind of leader; and besides, there's no room in this world for co-Commanders – we should know by now. But I can stop questioning your every move.’

‘Never do that,’ Clarke says, suddenly serious. She thinks of Jaha, his secrets and his executions; Kane and his wavering spine; Abby and her hypocrisy; Anya, coated in mud and blood and whispering her own prayer; Lexa – Lexa. ‘Never stop. Question every decision I ever make, Octavia. Point out every moral conflict, every possibility I miss when I blink. Push me on when I fall short; pull me back when I go too far. Be my second. Do not let command do to me what it has to others.’

Clarke will be as compassionate as Abby and as ruthless as Lexa, and stop trying to please them both. She will relinquish herself to leadership as she should have from the start – but she will not do so alone. She will not be reckless.

Something nudges at her fingers, and the contact knocks her back out of her own thoughts. Octavia is pressing the hilt of a knife into her hand, and Clarke turns her palm to receive it.

‘I will give you my sword,’ Octavia vows, and her lips are curled but her eyes are serious, ‘my friendship, and my honesty for the rest of my days.’

‘May I never be without them,’ Clarke says: acceptance.

‘Now find us a way into the mountain, Commander,’ Octavia grumbles. No sooner have the words left her mouth than a muffled clang resounds from the door beside them. Clarke pushes to her feet and tucks Octavia’s knife into her belt, trading it for the weight of her gun. The door grates open, and Clarke readies herself for whatever lies beyond it.

‘I may not have to.’

Bellamy breaks open the door – Bellamy, who she thought would be dead and bled by now – dressed up like a soldier and worse for wear. It has been a week since she last saw him, but to Clarke it feels like a lifetime. Octavia shoots forward and crushes her brother in her arms. He stares at Clarke over her shoulder with relief and follows it with confusion when he notes the empty tunnel behind them (Fox and her dead fellows aside).

‘Just us,’ Clarke tells him dryly and watches the way his eyes harden. ‘Next time we go to war remind me that we can do things on our own and I’ll spare us all the trouble.’

He grits his teeth and manages a nod, and Monty’s head pokes around the door behind him. Jasper follows with a body in a biohazard suit, and Clarke tenses only for as long as it takes to recognise Maya within it.

‘Six of us against a mountain,’ Bellamy says when Octavia has let him go and moved on to their friends. ‘Interesting odds, I’ll admit.’

He doesn’t offer her reprieve – doesn’t say “we can leave them behind” or “we can choose to fight another day” – and Clarke is grateful. They have lost too many of their forty-seven already, whittled down over time. She is tired of planning. She will take down Cage and anyone who follows him now, or die trying. Another body thumps out of the chute, and Clarke doesn’t flinch.

‘I’d bet on us,’ she tells him simply. ‘After the day I’ve had? I’d take the whole damn thing down alone if I had to.’

‘Good thing you don’t have to,’ Bellamy says, and gestures her in. ‘Let’s give ‘em hell, princess.’

They lock the door behind them when they go in – no one is coming to help them anyway. They talk quickly when they are inside the walls about what to do and how to do it, and Clarke is quick with her decision because she cannot afford not to be. She sends the boys back into the vents to take the Mountain’s control room.

‘We’ll give you an hour head start to get up there,’ she says, and wonders how many bodies will be used and thrown aside in that time (two, or three, or four, or more). ‘I want you to have a hand on the trigger. If putting a bullet in Cage’s head doesn’t stop this we will kill them all.’

‘You want us to irradiate them,’ Jasper prompts cautiously. He looks at her as though she is a stranger – a monster – and Clarke thinks to herself that he is not incorrect. It has only been weeks but he is damaged now and she is some new kind of animal forged on the ground that he cannot comprehend – so his caution doesn’t bother her.

‘As a last resort,’ Clarke promises idly, unapologetic, ‘yes.’

Beside them Maya fidgets, and Clarke is forced to turn to her and take her in: Maya, whose people they are talking about killing, whose people have been killing their own. Clarke wonders if it is awkward for her to stand alone with them in silence – the boys, and Clarke who attacked her in the past, and Octavia who she doesn’t know but who looks like nothing less than death incarnate with her dirt, and her scowl, and her war paint.

‘I'm sorry,’ Clarke says to her, and feels it somewhere deep in her bones but struggles to show it on her face, ‘for last time. I was cruel to you, and you were just doing as you were told.’

‘If we’re honest,’ Maya replies, voice muffled and made tinny by her suit, ‘if I woke up locked in a strange room that I’d never seen before with no clue of how I got there, my reaction wouldn’t necessarily be all that placid either.’

Clarke nearly smiles, but stops herself.

‘I am also sorry,’ she says instead, ‘for the losses that you've sustained in my absence – and for the ones that will yet come. People are going to die, Maya – even if Cage does stand down. And you will know all of them.’

Jus drein jus daun,’ Octavia whispers as if to remind her – as if she could ever forget.

‘If we have to imprison and torture kids in order to survive,’ Maya says quietly, and it does not sound like an agreement of any kind so much as cold resignation, ‘then we don’t deserve to.’

When it comes from her lips it would appear that Jasper cannot fault it. Clarke considers the matter settled, clasps arms with Bellamy – not unlike with Anya, after the mountain and before she was shot to death – and whispers “may we meet again”. He echoes it back, and then he and Monty and Jasper are gone, and Clarke is left to once again count the seconds with Octavia at her side – only this time Maya stands with them.

 

 

 

--

 

 

When they have left the area that Cage dictated over the radio, Lexa sets up camp. She would go straight on to a town, or to Polis, but there are hundreds of her people liberated from the mountain that are too weak to walk much further, and fifty reapers bound in chains that they do not know how to handle. She rules with her head, and knows not to push them too far.

(Clarke is in the tunnels, alone, and Lexa’s heart whispers to wait.)

Lexa walks among the ranks for the rest of the night, urging the weary to rest and paying particular attention to the small band of Skaikru that followed them home. They have made their own fire, amidst Lexa’s army but apart from them. Most of them are resting, but Lexa knows that young doctor, Jackson, is off with Nyko and the rest of her healers tending to the sick. The young girl that Clarke knew – Monroe, Lexa remembers the blonde calling her – sits with the rest by the flames, quiet and scanning the crowds, and Lexa considers speaking to her until the young thing catches her gaze across the fire and glares. Lexa cannot contain the way she withdraws.

‘I would leave them be, heda,’ Indra grumbles, appearing at her side without warning. ‘The young girl sits watch as though among wolves.’

‘She does not do so without reason,’ Lexa says, and swallows thickly. ‘We're all nursing our wounds this night. Theirs are not as bloody to the eye, but they have been cut no less deeply.’

‘More deeply,’ her general says – idle, almost as though she doesn’t mean to. She doesn’t apologise, and Lexa doesn’t make her. ‘Will they still help us with the reapers?’

‘With our treaty in the dirt?’ Lexa asks, and turns her eyes to the slowly lightening horizon. It is a more important topic to the general than it sounds – Lexa knows, she saw many familiar faces in the drugged horde, Indra’s brother among them. ‘I do not know.’

She wouldn’t in their place. Abandoned on the eve of battle, every promise in tatters and forty of her people dead? Lexa would scrabble the last of her forces and her finer technology together and fight back. Jus drein jus daun. No mercy for the honourless. She certainly wouldn’t help her betrayer – but she is not Skaikru.

(They could loose a thousand bullets and fell a thousand men, and history would record it as a war that started not with a gunshot, but with a knife in the back.)

Nyko comes to her when the sun rises above the mountains, Jackson at his side. They both look haggard, and Lexa imagines that beneath her warpaint she is just the same. Her healer gives her a report on the condition of their people – emaciated, starved, weak limbs and weak bones, but they will recover – and despite the optimism of it he is grim.

‘And the reapers?’ she asks when he is done, and knows innately that his jaw clenches beneath his beard. ‘What do we do with them now?’

‘You give them to us,’ Jackson tells her stiffly. It catches her off guard. He has never spoken to her, but he is straightforward and clearly too tired for politics. ‘We take them back to Camp Jaha and start detox, return them to you when it’s done. Clarke isn’t here, but she’s still our leader – and I’ve known her all her life. It isn’t in her nature to turn away those who need aid – even when they've wronged her.’

‘Can we trust you with them?’ Lexa asks – because she has to, because Clarke is somewhere beneath the mountain thirsting for blood and her word may not even have held enough weight if she were the one there to give it.

‘I might ask you the same,’ Jackson says, weary, and she struggles to cover her cringe before she utters her compliance.

Lexa is the heda and she does not regret her decision – she’s not allowed to – but she has already done enough damage to her reputation with the Sky People without piling further upon their distrust. Besides, she can do nothing with the reapers herself aside from watch them die. At midday she sends the Skaikru home with the reapers and a troop of her warriors to guard them. She watches them disappear into the trees and stands strong in their absence.

(She would run straight for the hills if she thought her cowardice would never catch up to her.)

 

 

--

 

 

When their hour is up they creep out of their hiding spot in the depths of the mountain and start roaming the halls, making their way to the labs. The sounds of drills and muffled screaming get louder with every step.

They pass four soldiers along the way – suitless thieves, all of them, trawling the halls half-heartedly and thinking the fight is over – and Octavia dispatches them one by one. She is silent, and sharp, and deadly, and she leaves each of them bleeding from the throat in their separate hallways, staining the concrete red. Clarke yanks an assault rifle from the stiff fingers of one of the dead and throws another to Octavia for the young warrior to sling over her shoulder, a pistol to tuck in her belt.

Maya leads them down to the labs, and they find a guard standing outside with a finger on the trigger of his gun. He turns at the sound of their footsteps, and Clarke takes one shot at his head before he has time to open his mouth, let alone lift his weapon. He drops like a stone. At the sound of her gunshot, the drilling behind the door ceases. She storms through with Octavia on her heels, guns drawn, and finds six frightened looking doctors, Raven strapped to one of their tables and all that remains of her hundred shackled to the wall. There is one soldier facing back at her with a gun – and then there is Cage with Abby held directly before him and a knife in his hand at her throat.

Clarke doesn’t need to wonder how her mother got here – she knows that it was the rebellious streak these adults nurse in their worst moment, the stubborn refusal to admit that maybe, just maybe, they didn't know all there was to know about this new world. Abby has been caught by Cage’s subterfuge and her own foolishness, and Clarke will be left yet again to clean up the mess in her wake.

‘Put your gun down, Clarke, for your mother’s sake,’ Cage calls to her, and she does not like the way his tongue curls around her name, or the certainty on his face that he will win this Hollywood stand-off – that she will back down at behest of her soft heart, and forfeit.

‘Don’t let him get away with it,’ Abby says suddenly. Their eyes connect, and it is like – for the first time in years – they are seeing each other again. The sad mother who wanted better for her child is gone, and Clarke finds herself for once beneath the gaze of the proud Chancellor, willing to do what needs to be done for the good of the many. She nods, slightly. ‘They’ll never stop. Do what you’ve got to do, Clarke.’

‘I’ll kill her,’ Cage reminds, and digs in the knife just a touch. ‘You couldn’t live with it.’

‘A good leader puts the needs of their people ahead of their own,’ Clarke says flatly, and for once the words don’t feel like they belong to someone else. ‘You might have won if you’d known that.’

She fires two shots, and ducks so that Octavia can take out the soldier: he falls to a knife in his throat, thrown with expert precision. Clarke makes her way across the room while Octavia goes about freeing their friends and finds her mother and Cage both on the floor, both bleeding from the shoulder – and her mother bleeding from the gut. Clarke swallows her tears, grits her teeth and goes for Cage.

He still has the knife in his hands and he swings it at her when she gets too close; Clarke grabs the blade with a gloved hand and pretends not to feel the way that it nicks and saws through her bared fingers while she drops to her knees on Cage’s chest and crushes the air out of his lungs. She twists her other hand into his hair and yanks his head up, slams it back into the pavement (once, twice, three times) until his body sags, but leaves him breathing.

‘Clarke,’ her mother calls, and the blonde is slow to respond. She slips off of Cage’s still body and kneels at her mother side, puts on a brave face and pets at brown hair. Abby looks up at her with teary eyes and says, ‘You need to take the pin. Be the Chancellor.’

Clarke fumbles at the collar of her mother’s jacket to do as she’s bid. She doesn’t bother with white lies – “you’ll get through this, you’ll live”. They don’t have time for that; Abby’s tone sounds a lot like a farewell. Her mother coughs and blood comes out.

‘They’re going to say you’re too young,’ Abby tells her with eyes that say “like I did,” and apologise for it all the same. ‘They’re not going to listen to you. You'll make them.’

‘I’m gonna do bad things, mom,’ Clarke whispers, and her mother gives her a sad smile with bloody lips.

‘But you’re going to do them for the right reasons – and that’s going to be enough,’ her mother says. ‘You’ve grown, Clarke. I’m proud of you. Don’t ever think I’m not.’

She’s gone not long after the words leave her lips, and Clarke reaches out with cold, bloody fingers (she notes with abject fascination and a slight roil of the stomach that she is missing one – apparently Cage has sawed between the intermediate and proximal phalanges of her left ring finger and left it a bloody stump) to close her mother’s eyes. Her heart aches so she buries it. Her jaw tics as she stands up; she finds Raven free from the table and watching her with sad eyes, Octavia stone cold in corner with her sword in her hand, Kane and Wick freed from their bonds and standing idle by the wall with Harper, and Miller, and the few of her people remaining – all of them privy to her last moments with her mother, some of them armed now, all of them wary. She looks to the doctors with dark eyes and gestures to Abby’s still body on the ground.

‘Here is your first marrow donation,’ she says. ‘Get to work.’

When she calls Maya in and announces that the girl will have a life above the ground no one argues with her. It is the first time in her life that an order has gone unquestioned.

Octavia – with hardly any prompting at all – moves to Cage’s body and drags him over to the wall to shackle him. She pulls a dirty rag from her belt and shoves it into the man’s mouth so that no one will hear him when he wakes; Clarke watches with an interesting combination of fulfilment and disgust. The radio on the dead guard’s belt crackles to life, and Clarke wanders over to grab it even while she directs Raven and Wick to stay with the doctors (“If you suspect anything sinister, kill them. And make it hurt,” she says). Then she takes it from the room and leaves the sound of the drills behind with her heart and her mother’s dead body. Octavia and Kane follow her – and then so do the rest of their people.

‘Bellamy,’ she says into the receiver. ‘If you’ve got a radio near you, now would be the time to use it.’

She doesn’t particularly care that the other guards can hear their every word – there is nothing she is planning to say that they can use against her. There is a short moment of silence before his voice comes back, static-laden:

‘Control room’s secure, boss,’ he says, but he sounds morose. She doesn’t ask why – doesn’t want to know, honestly. ‘We’ve got some guards outside the door though, trying to bash their way in. We might be on something of a time limit here.’

‘Can Monty get on the PA system?’ Clarke asks, and there is a longer silence this time, presumably the two of them discussing it. While she waits, Clarke hands rifle to Harper and directs her to take a group up to assist – the back-up Bellamy didn’t ask for and won’t wholly admit he needs. She watches the girl go off with four of their remaining thirty and knows she might never see them again.

‘What do you need, Clarke?’ Monty asks then, clearly having taken over communications.

‘Hold the radio up to the microphone,’ she tells him. ‘Let them hear me now.’

She waits until the speakers out in the hall fizz to life before she speaks again.

‘People of Mount Weather,’ she says. ‘My name is Clarke Griffin. You would remember me, I think. I made an impression. In the time since I last walked these halls, your leaders have committed a long list of terrible crimes - including the detainment, torture, and eventual murder of several members of my forty-seven, the attempted assassination of both myself and the heda of the Woods Clan beyond these walls, and the eradication of an entire village via the use of a missile. And all this while the rest of you hid safely away within your bunker, playing at being civilised.’

From the corner of her eye she sees Kane fidgeting.

‘The acts of the few do not accurately reflect the ideals of the many - and so I am prepared to pardon you. I will even, with time, bring you above the ground,’ she continues. ‘But not your leaders. I have already detained Cage Wallace. His father, wherever he may be, will surrender himself without fight or else be shot down.’

Clarke glances at Octavia. The girl looks back at her with eyes blazing and a stiff jaw and nods – once and not again. She swallows the last dregs of her humanity and remembers that she is the last person left with her father’s blood in her veins, and that someone tried to steal it.

‘Stay out of our way and you may come out of this standing,’ she says in parting. Her finger twitches the button, bloody, and she longs to release it – to clip the radio to her belt and draw her gun, to fight, to win, to see this through and finally rest. She leaves her listeners with this: ‘Fight, and I will put you down like the dogs you are.’

(The only monster that will leave this place is her.)

 

 

--

 

 

The sound of hoofbeats has her heart racing, and Lexa spends her day learning not to let it show. Every messenger that comes to her tent has her catching her breath, waiting for the worst, knowing that there is bad news coming and wondering if this is it – this horse, this scout, this message. She sleeps little.

Her afternoon is spent watching two of her guards beat Lincoln for his insolence and feeling her stomach churn. Lexa cannot blame him, really – she would have tried to stay with Clarke too, in another life where responsibility meant less to her than emotion – but she doesn’t stop them, either.

He disobeyed his heda, and he must pay the price. It is that simple.

When they are done and Lincoln is bloody, she dismisses them. Nyko brings her a bowl of water and a washcloth to her tent and Lexa cleans the warrior’s wounds. He glares at her all the while – and his gaze does not seek to burn her alive so much as it does to drown her. There is no fire to it – just blame, and disgust. She dabs at his split lip with the cloth and wonders if he will spit at her.

‘You think ill of me,’ she says after a while when the bowl is running red. ‘You think I made the wrong choice.’

‘I think that you did was best for your people,’ he says simply, and Lexa finds that his understanding hurts more than condemnation ever could.

‘You are my people,’ she says, but the words don’t sound right – and she swallows thickly when she realises: they aren’t hers. Lincoln just scowls.

‘You’re just like her,’ he grumbles, and Lexa recoils. ‘Heavy handed when it counts, but so eager to mop up the blood in the aftermath. Clarke tortured me once too – and came back after with a bowl of water and a rag, as though her sad eyes could erase the pain that came before.’

She wants to ask, want to know why – she wants to devour that fact like she does any aspect of Clarke’s history, the mystery of her life before Lexa. She bites her tongue, because she forfeited the right when she forfeited the war.

‘Her hands were gentler.’

And that’s it, she thinks – that’s the difference between them. They are both leaders, they are both ruthless when they need to be – but Clarke has a softer touch and healing hands, and Lexa is hard, and cold, and deadly.

Lincoln’s shoulder is bloody – the gunshot wound Clarke gave him and stitched up afterwards, reopened by Grounder fists and Grounder customs. This time when she mops up the blood, she digs her fingers in. Lincoln doesn’t make a sound.

 

 

--

 

 

Resistance is larger than she would like, but nonetheless futile. Ten of the guards they come across lower their weapons and hand them over. Clarke splits her forces again – sends Miller off with a small force to the mess hall to round up the mountain’s remaining medical staff and handpick candidates for an immediate bone marrow procedure. She sends Kane with the rest to herd the guards who have conceded into a room and keep them there.

She and Octavia continue with another four of their friends (strangers now, all of them) and lose all but one of them to bullets and fury before they reach the President’s office. Then they lose the last – felled by the gunfire of the small squad shielding Dante from retribution – and Clarke and Octavia are left to deal with these six soldiers personally.

Clarke finds her clip empty four shy of the whole group. Octavia dispatches two of the remaining with tactical efficiency and struggles with the third, and Clarke notes it idly as the last man tackles her to the ground. It’s Emerson – face twisted in rage and fear now, but she remembers his smirk outside the doors as he funnelled her army away with pretty words and slick promises, and it makes her seethe. He is a flurry of fists in her face, a weight on her chest – but Clarke is as precise as she is angry, and she ends her second fist-fight of the day by burying the dagger Octavia gifted her in the man’s throat. She pulls it back out with a grimace and is met with the slick sound of suction and a thick spray of blood across her face – soaking her hair, her brow, her lips. The taste of metal and death on her tongue is not something she will ever forget.

Her second pulls the dying man off of her, offers her a feral smile and a hand to pull her to her feet and says:

‘We should work a little more on hand-to-hand in the future.’

Clarke just scoffs loudly and leads her in to arrest the former President. Dante surrenders then without a fight, lets her put him on the PA and address his people. He asks them not to fight, not to argue, but to trust that Clarke is honest, is true, and will save them all – and she doesn’t even have to hold a gun to his head to make him do it.

Later – when the war beneath the mountain has settled and all the guards have turned in their guns, and Bellamy comes out of the control room with Monty at his side and blood on his hands – they count their losses. The list is longer than she would like: Abby, and the seven people who made up her travelling company that were killed by the Mountain Men during her capture; thirty-two of her forty-seven, dead or dying, succumbed to Cage, and monsters masquerading as medics, and bullets in the final fight. Her hundred have made their way down to less than twenty and she feels every single absence keenly.

When next she addresses the people of the mountain, she does it covered in blood and dirt, standing in the middle of their mess hall. Clean, frightened faces stare back at her, and Clarke struggles not to wipe her bloody hands on every crisp shirt she sees.

‘My people have died within your halls today,’ she says to them solemnly. ‘And we will strip the marrow from their bones before they cool so that all of you may reach the ground.’

Their evident relief spurs disgust in her and little else – she has lost too much today to feel glad for the gift she is giving them.

‘You will repay that debt for the rest of your lives,’ she continues, and pretends not to notice the tightening jaws and fists of the masses. ‘We will give you rain and sunlight on your faces, and you will build houses and farms, and contribute to a better future so that one day – when your blood has diluted across generations and the fresh air is toxic to no one – your grandchildren can look back at you with anything other than shame.’

She tells Kane to bring her the remaining guards. There’s thirty-seven of them in all, and she lines them up in the front of the mess. She walks down the line and questions them individually, and Monty and Harper whisper in her ear any time they spot a lie. Every once in a while someone in the general populace will speak up – will mention a civilian killed, blood spilled in the search of the forty-seven – and a guard will sweat and backtrack, and stumble on their words. In the end, Clarke draws a line down the foreheads of eighteen soldiers with her own bloody fingers, and lets the other nineteen go. Octavia marches Dante out to her then, and Clarke draws three lines on his aged face (from his hair to his chin) and says:

‘You have committed more crimes in your presidency than I will ever be able to list – with the wellbeing of your people in mind.’ She pauses and debates his sentence, scowls at the words before they leave her lips. ‘You will live. And that will be your punishment – because your son will not.’

She chooses five people from the general populace – Dante as the unsuited sixth, stolen marrow in his bones – hands them oxygen suits and names them witnesses. They follow her out of the mountain with the guilty. She makes the marked men kneel and watch the sunset – last rights, the only gift she can give them besides a swift death. There is some struggling, but Monty has an assault rifle in his hands and emptiness in his eyes, and none of them run. The witnesses stand idle in their suits, breathing tanked oxygen and apparently knowing better than to waste it on arguing. Bellamy holds Cage at the end of the line – makes him watch in the dying light as Clarke exacts justice in the only way she knows how, now.

‘You walk the ground, unfettered,’ she whispers in the ear of every man she stands behind – gentle, soothing, calm. She leaves their view of the hills and the trees and changing skies clear. ‘You've succeeded at your task, and brought your children a future above the ground. Jus drein jus daun. Rest well.’

She slits their throats one by one as the skies turn from blue to orange, red, purple, black; when they have ceased gagging and gone limp she leaves them face down, blood spilling out into the dirt. It takes time – coaxing all eighteen of them unto death – and Cage watches it all with wide eyes and the growing look of a feral animal backed into a corner. He struggles, and Bellamy twists his arm until he stops.

‘Cage Wallace,’ Clarke says when she comes to him, and the other eighteen are dead. ‘You did not have a superior to spur you. Your actions were your own. You took things that did not belong to you, killed children for their bones. You burned an entire village to the ground. And despite your posturing, and your pretty speeches, you did it only for yourself.’

He grits his jaw and glares at her, and Clarke ignores him and looks to Octavia, holding out her hand and gesturing to borrow her sword. Her second seems cautious in drawing it, more so in handing it over, but does not vocalise any concern.

‘Men like you – selfish, reckless, cruel, guiltless – are a danger to others. Men like you cannot be allowed to live,’ Clarke says as she hefts the sword. Cage glares at her in panic, and Clarke glances at Bellamy and orders: ‘Bare his neck.’

‘You won’t be able to live with yourself!’ Cage cries, as though the words will mean any more now than they did when he said them with a knive to her mother's throat. He thrashes in the Bellamy’s grip, and Octavia rushes to help with holding him down. ‘I’ve seen it – I saw it! You’re weak, Clarke. You’re not a grounder – you’re just pretending. You will never forget this, you'll die with it in your head, our blood on your hands!’

Clarke thinks of the things that he has done – missiles, reapers, stolen marrow, and all his other skeletons – and knows somehow that those ghosts don’t haunt him. He is remorseless, and she hopes never to be.

‘I’m counting on it.’

Clarke is not strong and Octavia’s sword is not made for cleaving. It takes nine swings to separate his head from his shoulders. He doesn’t die until the fifth.

Afterwards – when she is standing over his remains, exhausted and bloody from head to toe – Octavia has to pry the sword from her fingers. Clarke swallows her revulsion and breathes life back into her own body. The adrenaline has long since left her and she is running on determination and too-little sleep. The sun has set and she hasn’t rested since hours before the flare went up the day before – and there are still things to be done before she can even so much as falter.

‘Octavia,’ she says quietly, coughs after the name and then forces it out stronger. Her second comes to attention. ‘The Commander will have left scouts behind. Find them. Bring me their horses.’

The young warrior nods and moves to comply, and when she disappears into the trees Clarke turns to Bellamy and tilts her head.

‘You’ll need to keep the mountain men running decontamination until we can give them all a transfusion. I don’t know how many donations we’ll need, considering the dead from both sides,’ she says. He frowns. ‘Get the guards who can walk free out here to wrap the bodies and bring them inside the doors. We’ll burn or bury them tomorrow – whichever their custom. Do the same for those inside.’ She pauses. ‘Leave Cage’s torso for the scavengers. He does not deserve the honour.’

‘And where, exactly, are you planning to go?’ he asks warily, and Clarke sighs and wishes she could just stop doing things that "have" to be done.

‘To get what we’re owed.’

 

 

--

 

 

‘Heda,’ Ryder says. ‘Riders come – from the mountain.’

He does not need to say more than that. It has been more than a day. If her scouts are returning then there is news – something has happened with the Mountain Men, something has happened to Clarke. Lexa pretends that the words do not shock their way down her spine and forces her feet to be slow to action. She strides from her tent with stiff shoulders and makes her way to the edge of camp to greet the riders. The sound of hoofbeats echoes to her from the darkness, and her company hold torches to the night. The beasts erupt from the shadows – two of them – and pull up at the edge of camp, and Lexa looks up to the figure on the first creature’s back and finds –

Clarke, bloody from head to toe and regal in spite of it. Her lip is split and swelling, and violent shades of purple and yellow are showing across the skin of her jaw. The Commander’s relief is immediate (“you’re not dead,” she wants to say, “you lived, and I can justify everything just by that”) but does not last; Lexa has always seen the sky in those blue eyes, but now she sees only ice. The girl with the kind heart is hidden somewhere beneath the blood and dirt she wears like war paint, and Lexa finds it unsettling.

‘Hail, Clarke kom Skaikru,’ Lexa calls. It catches uncomfortably in her throat but she forces it out, forces it to sound natural. ‘Come. I will have water prepared for you to bathe. It would seem we have much to discuss.’

Clarke meets her greeting with silence and a long stare, and Lexa wonders why the way the blonde clenches her jaw seems so familiar. The bloodied woman lifts an unevenly bandaged hand in gesture to her companion, the second rider – Octavia, Lexa notes, though she is loath to lift her gaze from the bloodied Sky Leader for even a moment. Indra’s second – former second, she reminds herself – is only slightly less bloody and no less cold. She gives an idle nod at Clarke’s silent direction and reaches for the sack tied to her saddle.

The Commander does not watch her unfasten it – she is too busy with the staring contest Clarke has begun. It is like standing on the mountain again in front of the doors, pleading her case and pretending not to plead at all – only now Clarke is not asking her to rescind her promise, to call it a joke, to take it back and follow her heart as she was then. She is not asking for anything at all.

There is a flash of motion and a thud, and the guards around her jerk to attention and go for their swords, but Lexa stills them with an idle hand. Octavia has thrown the sack to her, and it rolls to a stop on the ground before her feet. The Commander toes at the fabric, exposing brown hair and a white face, rat-like and cruel even in death. The Sky People have brought her a head, and Lexa struggles not to think of the last Clan that did the same and the love that she lost in the incident.

‘The mountain is ours now,’ Clarke says, and it is music to Lexa’s ears but it sounds like a death sentence. ‘Thirty-two of my forty-seven died, five of my soldiers, two civilians and one healer. I cut the President’s head off and left his body for the wolves. The men who owned these horses will find their way back to you in the morning – unharmed but for their tired feet. Where are my Skaikru? I do not see them among you.’

‘I sent them back to Camp Jaha with the reapers,’ Lexa grinds out, and doesn’t get the chance to continue. Clarke just nods – like she expected this, like it is okay for Lexa to have betrayed her trust and still sent the killers to her camp for recovery.

‘When we rehabilitate the reapers we will give them the option to come home,’ Clarke tells her. ‘You will bring me Lincoln now. He is no longer one of yours.’

Lexa is hesitant when she turns to Ryder and directs him to fulfil the request. Lincoln was hers, once, and should pay the price for treason – but she remembers standing on a hillside and watching Clarke put a bullet through his shoulder to save his life and knows that he isn’t one of hers anymore. Lincoln is no more Trigedakru than Octavia, coated in blood and warpaint, is Skaikru – and Lexa doesn’t know what Clarke will do with these people who come from both clans and belong to neither, but she is anxious to find out.

‘Clarke,’ she starts, but doesn’t know how to finish. She considers “get down, come inside, let us speak alone” and “I’m sorry”, but the former is too long and the latter is too hard to say, and Clarke talks over her anyway.

‘You will give Camp Jaha and the surrounding fields to us,’ the blonde says – only there is little blonde left beneath the blood and dirt and ash in her hair. ‘Tondc’s remains, and the woods for five miles around; the mountain, and all the land between the three. You will order the exodus of your people within that area with immediacy. In return, we will allow them to leave unharmed.’

‘These are not fair terms,’ Lexa argues, and watches Clarke swallow her scoff. She wonders if Clarke knows how much she sounds like the voice over the radio that offered her the lives of the stolen in return for Clarke’s forty-seven.

‘This is not a negotiation,’ the Sky Leader says. ‘Jus drein jus daun. We have bled for you. You will give me these lands – or you will offer up forty of your children, and your best and brightest warriors, right now, and I will slit their throats where they stand so that we may call it even.’

‘You would do well not to threaten our Commander, Sky Girl,’ Indra calls, dark as ever and Clarke doesn’t even allow her the grace of a scowl. ‘We could kill you where you sit.’

‘You won’t,’ Clarke says dryly. ‘Blood is not the only thing your Commander owes me.’

Lexa grits her teeth and thinks back to a simpler time when it was just the two of them in a broken cage with a pauna howling and beating at the door. Clarke is right: she saved Lexa once where others would have left her to die, and that is a debt that cannot be repaid.

(Thus far she has only squared it with grief.)

Lexa hears the scuffle of feet on the dirt beside her and knows that Ryder has returned with Lincoln in tow. Her guard pushes the former reaper forward and the Commander watches him stumble towards Octavia and knows that this – this one man abandoning her for something that she can never give her people, for love, for compassion, for Octavia, for Clarke’s leadership – is only the beginning. The realisation is a harsh one.

‘My people will not just up and leave their homes without argument,’ is all that she has left to offer. The Sky Leader takes it for what it is: grudging agreement.

‘I trust that your people are as capable of moving as your allegiances are,’ Clarke says coldly, pulling on the reigns to turn back the way she’d come and jerking her head at her second: ‘Come, Octavia.’

‘Yes, heda,’ the young warrior replies, and Lexa starts at the term.

Octavia offers a hand down to her beaten partner and pulls Lincoln up onto the horse behind her. The three of them are gone in seconds, back into the dark, nothing but the rhythm of hoofbeats and the head on the ground behind them, and Lexa is left to wonder if that is really what Clarke has become.