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She thinks it’s probably about noon when she first hears the screams and the sounds of clashing metal, the noises that tell her that up ahead is death and dying. She’s on a road, or what was once probably a road – it’s some kind of dirt track flattened among tall grass and weeds – and she considers dropping to one side for cover. But eventually she decides it’s not worth it; if the fight comes her way so be it. She has six bullets in her gun and a few more mags in her pack. If there’s a fight she’ll be ready for one. She proceeds cautiously.

She’s partway into a stand of trees on the border of a larger wood when she finds the first body. He’s a Grounder, but not like any Grounder she’s ever met – his skin and hair are far lighter, his clothes thicker and furrier, and his numerous tattoos are an icy shade of blue. Not Trikru, then, she thinks. She’s not sure how she knows that, but she does. He’s got an arrow through one eye – there’s nothing she could do for him, if she cared to. She steps carefully around his body and continues.

There are more bodies soon – she almost trips over one of them. This one’s dressed in a far more familiar fashion and her stomach rolls as she realizes that she recognizes the woman’s face. She can’t conjure up her name, and that makes her feel even worse, if it’s possible, but she knows she’s met her. It takes her about ten more steps into the forest to realize where she’s seen the Trikru warrior.

She was one of Lexa’s personal guard.

She breaks into a trot, and then a run, hating herself for every step but unable to stop. As she continues through the forest the dead grow more numerous, knots of them clenched tight around one another in furious clusters of death. She soon becomes aware that they’re spaced in a loose ring, and she’s racing towards its center.

She bursts into a sun-drenched meadow. It’s hot and swarming with bugs, the same midges and horseflies that have been plaguing her all day, and she almost doesn’t want to step into the flattened tall grass that’s matted with blood on which the things are feasting. But she does, because she recognizes the body lying in the middle of all that death, recognizes her far better than the nameless Trikru warrior who gave her life to protect her. She recognizes her, because she seems to alternate between dreams of kissing her and driving a knife through her heart every night. When she isn’t hearing the screams of those she’s actually killed, that is.

Her steps are leaden as she makes her way to the curled form. She’s drawn on by some inexorable pull, the same force that’s kept her feet moving on this journey to nowhere even as she’s been slowly dying of thirst and hunger. She wonders, idly, what she thinks she’s going to do when she gets there, when she finds the Commander alive or dead. If dead, will she laugh, or cry over the body? If alive, will she finish the job?

She doesn’t know.

A few more steps in and she sees the slow rise and fall of her chest, hitching in pain when it reaches its apex before sinking down again. Her feet slow even further. She doesn’t want to go on. She won’t go on. She’s going to turn right around and walk out of that clearing, leave Lexa – the Commander – to the blowflies and mosquitoes, to the slow steady burn of the sun and to whatever wild beasts will creep out of the forest come nightfall. She might return to this meadow someday and look on the bones, bleached white and pure, but she’s not going to get any closer. Watch her stop, watch her turn – any minute now –

“Clarke?”

The voice is so ragged, a croak, and she hasn’t heard the word in so many days that she almost doesn’t recognize it for what it is – her name. She realizes belatedly that she’s managed to half-turn away, but the sound snaps her back around like a fish that’s been hooked. And the person on the ground – the girl, the Commander, Lexa – is slowly reeling her in. Part of her hates and rages; another part gives with a sigh and relaxes into having something, at last, besides endless empty miles.

“Lexa, what…happened?”

Lexa struggles to turn, to focus her eyes on Clarke. One hand is clenched tightly around her dagger; the other is pressed against a seeping line of red across her midsection.

“Ice Nation…they broke the alliance as soon as…as soon as we left the Mountain. Indra sent me off with a guard to get to Polis, where I’d be –” She pauses, face screwing up in a rictus of pain, and then draws in a gasping breath to go on. “Safe. But we couldn’t make it. Horse threw a shoe and they caught up.” She laughs, a bitter sound that reminds Clarke of bones snapping, reminds her that she knows what bones snapping sounds like. “My kingdom for a… Damn horse.”

Clarke blinks in surprise that Lexa knows that line, and is reminded that Lexa is a deep, dark pool that the sunlight doesn’t touch. She thought she’d been granted a glimpse under its surface, but it had turned out that in fact the surface had been all she was allowed to see after all. Slowly, she sinks to her knees and surveys the damage. There’s not much to see – absent immediate medical assistance, Lexa will die, probably within a few hours. She’s losing too much blood.

“Clarke, please… I know you owe me nothing, not after… But if you can just give me the comfort of…” She can’t finish, can’t get the words out, so she acts: presses the knife, weighty wood handle and intricately whorled blade, into Clarke’s upturned palm. Clarke wants to drop it like a heated thing; instead, she curls her fingers around it. Lexa sees, and she nods. “Please. Send me on. My people need me, now more than ever.”

Clarke is surprised at the visceral hatred that rises up in her at Lexa’s words: my people. After everything, of course, it’s always that – that’s not the surprising part. What surprises her is how much fury she can feel – she’d thought that she was done with feeling anything besides a constant throbbing ache, the pressure of all the lives she’s taken or allowed to burn out. What’s one more life, after all, to be added to that crowd of souls haunting her just under the breastbone? And yet, she finds, she doesn’t want Lexa’s to join them. Perhaps the greater punishment will be to make her live.

She raises the knife towards the Commander and sees her eyes slide shut – preparing, perhaps, for peace, and yet Clarke can see the tight flinch in her body and knows that there is at least a part of Lexa that isn’t ready. For all her talk about her spirit returning, choosing the next Commander to lead her people, Lexa is in some way as frightened of death as anyone. Her eyes fly open when she realizes that Clarke isn’t using the knife to end her – she’s using it to cut the least filthy strips out of every piece of clothing she can get her hands on, Lexa’s and hers both. The Commander’s eyes widen. “What are you doing?”

“Saving you,” Clarke says, her voice harsh. “It’s weak, I know. Don’t feel obligated to thank me.”

Lexa sighs and huffs something that might be a laugh, letting her head fall back to the grass. “I suppose I deserved that.” She lets out a small whine of pain as Clarke brushes her hands aside from the wound and begins to clean it, using a rag dipped in alcohol from the flask she’d filled at Mount Weather before she’d set out on her journey. She’s been pulling from it steadily at night, to make herself sleep. It’s the only way she can. It’s a miracle, she thinks, that she has any of it left.

Once she's satisfied that she's bound together enough cloth to bandage the wound effectively, she starts to; but as Lexa’s blood starts racing through her fingers, she realizes that a bandage isn’t going to be enough. Lexa needs stitching. Among the few things she’d taken with her from Mount Weather is a rudimentary medical kit, complete with needle and surgical thread; a bloody, corpse-strewn meadow is not exactly the ideal operating theater, but it’s going to have to do. Clarke drenches Lexa’s wound with more alcohol and then presses the bottle to her lips. “Drink up. This is going to hurt.”

The Commander looks for a moment like she’s going to decline, and Clarke considers whether or not she wants to have this battle, but eventually nods and drains the flask in a couple of pulls, leaving her shuddering and grimacing. Clarke runs the needle through the flame from her lighter several times, threads it, and prepares, but Lexa’s hand on hers stills her. “Wait. Something for my teeth, so I don’t bite my tongue off.” Clarke nods, fetches a wad of bandaging.

“This good?” Lexa nods and Clarke lets her stuff it in her mouth. “Ready?” The Commander nods again, squeezing her eyes shut.

At the first pull of the needle through skin she feels Lexa’s hand scrabbling against the ground, searching for something to grab onto. Eventually Lexa’s hand finds the edge of her jacket and fists itself in it. She wants to slap it away, tell her to stop, that if she jogs Clarke’s arm she could doom herself, but she doesn’t. She’ll save Lexa from an assassination attempt, but not her own stupidity.

The noises coming from her are soft but wrenching, agony squeezing itself out through the wad of bandages and through her tightly clenched eyelids. She’s never seen Lexa show this much pain before, not even when a mutant gorilla broke her arm – she must really be at the end of her rope. She thinks Lexa passes out, at least momentarily, because her face almost relaxes, and eventually it’s over. The gash is seeping blood around the stitching but it’s no longer a streaming red river. Lexa’s eyes flick open again as Clarke works methodically to wrap it. It’s difficult, with the way the Commander is lying on the ground, but Clarke manages. When it’s done, Lexa’s body relaxes into the grass and she takes the wad of cloth out of her mouth with a sigh. “Thank you.”

“It’s not over yet,” Clarke says through her teeth. “You’ll still die if I leave you here, won’t you?”

Lexa shrugs. “Probably. It’s possible that those who were looking for me to be at Polis have missed me by now, or that survivors from Mount Weather have arrived and sent out a search team. Or the Azgeda may have others out looking for me as well. But it’s more likely that wild beasts will smell the blood and come to eat the carrion.” Lexa’s voice is detached, uncaring, as she says these things, her eyes on the mercilessly cloudless sky above. But now she turns and Clarke feels those grey-green eyes pierce her to the core. “Clarke, why –”

“Don’t,” Clarke snarls. She doesn’t know why and she doesn’t want to think about why. “Ask me again and I’ll leave you here.” She’s not sure whether or not that’s an empty threat.

Lexa clamps her mouth shut and nods. “All right,” she says in a low, calming tone. “All right.” Clarke realizes that she’s breathing heavily and her fists are clenched. She forces her body to relax.

“Do you think you can walk?”

Lexa frowns, concentrates, flexes her limbs experimentally. “Maybe. I don’t know.”

“Well, you’re going to. Or you’re going to crawl.” Maybe she’ll make Lexa wish she’d left her there to die. That might be satisfying.

She slides an arm under Lexa’s shoulders and slowly levers her up until she’s sitting; the Commander lets out a sharp hiss as the movement jars her wound, and Clarke lets her sit there for a moment with her eyes screwed shut. When she nods, Clarke brings the arm down to her waist and gets a good grip on the tattered fabric of her cloak. “Ready?”

“Yes,” Lexa gasps, and they rise together. Lexa’s leaning heavily against her, panting harshly, her hands like claws gripping onto Clarke wherever they can.

They've limped out of the meadow and on into the forest before Clarke realizes she has no clue where they're going. Lexa probably will die if they don't get her better medicine than alcohol and bandages. She’s just been going on for so long, following her feet without a thought to where they’re leading her, that she hadn’t bothered to consider that she can’t continue on this way, not with a dying Commander in tow.

Lexa seems to understand Clarke’s hesitation, because she gasps out, “There’s a small village not too far from here. We keep moving as long as we can, rest for the night, and we make it there in the morning.”

Clarke nods. “We just have to survive nightfall.”

It’s been bitterly cold the last few nights, and blazingly hot during the days. Clarke has a bedroll attached to her pack and she’s been lying in it, shivering, when she does finally manage to make herself stop and try to rest. She knows that as the season advances exposure is going to become a bigger problem, but she figures that she’ll cross that bridge when she comes to it. Worst comes to worst, she can take refuge in the old dropship, figure out a way to seal it up and prevent heat from escaping, and ride out the winter there. She doesn’t want to – it’s in Trikru territory, and far too close to Camp Jaha for her liking – but it might be her only option if she can’t find somewhere better.

But she’s not taking Lexa there. She waits as the Commander peruses the sky and the trees for a few minutes, getting her bearings, and then she nods her head towards a low sloping hill. “There. Southeast. The forest should end soon and then we will come to a road. It won’t be long until we reach the fields outside the village.”

Clarke nods and begins to walk. Lexa’s weighing on her heavily but all Clarke can think about is how small she is, how light, for the things that she’s said and done and been. If Clarke didn’t know better she might think that Lexa was a girl under all that armor and warpaint. But Clarke does know better. Lexa’s the Commander through and through and Clarke’s just…something that doesn’t bear thinking about.

They continue in silence for a while; Clarke’s not sure how long. She can only tell the movement of time by the shifting of the shadows through the trees. She focuses on making their way through the tangled woods, grateful that Lexa seems to be in too much pain to speak; all of her breath appears to be reserved for keeping her feet going, for continuing to live.

By the time they come to the end of the treeline, as Lexa predicted, the sun is bleeding out across the plain. A road – dirt and weeds poking through copious cracks in black asphalt – is stamped across the weaving grassland like a scar. The vastness of the thing makes Clarke suck in a breath. “Is that…”

“The road to Polis,” Lexa says, the first words she’s uttered in several hours besides murmured directions, accompanied by vague gestures, to keep Clarke on track. When Clarke makes to set them on it, however, she closes her hand around Clarke’s upper arm. “They’ll be looking for us on the road,” she says. “We should follow it, but from a distance, where we can drop into the tall grass if we see someone coming.”

Clarke knows she’s probably right and knows that she’s going to wind up agreeing, but she feels like arguing with Lexa anyway because who the fuck does she think she is telling Clarke what to do at this juncture? She’s not the great leader anymore, she’s a stupid traitor who Clarke patched up for some idiotic reason and she doesn’t get to make demands.

“We’ll make better time on the road,” Clarke says. “Easier footing.”

“Easier footing for horses too,” Lexa points out in a winded voice. “It’s a hawe – a thoroughfare, a way to get somewhere fast before you have to branch off to a smaller track. If we go cross-country-”

“Your people could be riding along it too,” Clarke argues, letting go of Lexa and folding her arms across her chest. Lexa sags around her wound, jaw clenched. It feels weak and a little bit beneath her to be playing this game, but then again what does it matter? No one’s out here to judge or care besides Lexa.

“Too risky,” Lexa gasps out, and all of a sudden her legs are buckling and Clarke has to move forward to catch her, lean her body against her own and sink the both of them to their knees on the grass. She knows that if they don’t get up soon, like now, they’re not going to get up again, or at least Lexa won’t, but God she’s so tired and Lexa’s breathing is so ragged and she scourges herself for feeling any kind of sympathy but it’s there, she can’t deny it.

“There’s a track not far from here that will lead to the village,” Lexa murmurs in her ear, her breath stirring the sweaty hair wisping out of Clarke’s messy bun. Her head is leaning, involuntarily, on Clarke’s shoulder; Clarke knows it’s involuntary because throughout the entire day Lexa hasn’t put any more weight on her than is absolutely necessary, has only touched her the amount required not to fall, and has remained as far away from Clarke as is humanly possible when you’re being supported by someone because you can’t stand yourself. This is a moment of weakness that Lexa’s allowing herself, Clarke thinks, and for a moment Clarke allows it too. Then she stirs, and Lexa leans back on her heels. “It passes by a stream we should be able to reach by sundown. We can camp near there for the night.”

At the word stream Clarke realizes just how thirsty she is, and the fight goes out of her. She nods and stands, and offers Lexa her hands to grab. With a pained groan, the Commander uses them to pull herself to her feet, and they continue on.

Lexa makes them drop into the tall grass and wait while the sun bleeds out over the plain before she’ll even let them attempt to cross the hawe. “You can see people on that road for miles,” she tells Clarke when she protests. “I’ve ambushed entire packs of Reapers and run them back to their holes because they don’t think tactically. It would be suicide for us to try to get across without the cover of darkness.”

Clarke grumbles something approximating an assent, and stretches out in the long grass to wait. Lexa does the same, but takes it a step further – she closes her eyes. Maybe she’s just that confident that the tall grass will hide them, or maybe she’s too exhausted to help herself – either way, in a few minutes it seems to Clarke like she’s fallen asleep, or passed out.

With little else to do, she watches Lexa. The Commander’s face is far younger and more open in sleep than she’s ever seen it, creased as it’s always been by pain or fear or rage. It makes Clarke wonder who the girl Lexa could have been had she not been called to lead her people. What could she and Clarke have been if they had met in another life, one where Lexa wasn’t also Heda and where Clarke hadn’t pulled a lever and let three hundred people die screaming? At the thought, Clarke snorts. The idea of a reality where Lexa hadn’t betrayed her and and Clarke hadn’t betrayed herself and they both hadn’t done it to save their people is so foreign that she lets out a grim little chuckle, which makes Lexa’s eyes snap open.

After a moment of staring at Clarke, she turns to look at the sky, which has gone a deep shade of lapis and begun to speckle with stars. “We’re probably safe to cross,” she says, and Clarke nods, feeling every muscle in her body groan in protest as she climbs to her feet. She lets Lexa lie there looking up at her for just a minute too long, watches her face change from confusion to acceptance that she’s just going to have to try to find her feet herself and that Clarke really is that cruel, before she holds out her hand. Lexa scowls and Clarke half-expects to hear how a leader doesn’t play these games, but Lexa only presses her lips together more tightly and takes the hand that’s offered.

The scrape of their boots across the unfamiliar surface is unnerving to Clarke. The rusting hulks of what she thinks used to be cars are slowly decomposing at various intervals along the road, and there’s a concrete barrier, or what’s left of it, dividing the hawe into two parts. It strikes Clarke that, excepting a few instances where there appears to have been a collision, the cars on one side of the road are all pointing in one direction, and those on the other are facing the opposite. It boggles her mind to think that somehow they’d all agreed to use half of that vast expanse to travel in one direction and not the other. How did one change directions if one had gone the wrong way? And how many people had there been, to have so many cars and to need so much space?

They pass through the eerily silent graveyard of rust and rot nearly without incident. The barrier is a little bit of an issue – as they approach, it becomes very clear that Lexa isn’t getting over it herself without ripping her stitches open, and Clarke is far too exhausted and hungry to be able to carry her. They wind up having to walk nearly a quarter mile out of their way before they find a gap in the barrier, where a collision has crumbled enough of it that they can clamber through. As they’re doing so, they hear the echo of hoofbeats. Clarke’s head whips in the direction they’re coming from, but it’s gotten dark enough that she can’t make anyone out. Lexa, however, is yanking on her with as much strength as she can manage – which, Clarke is alarmed to feel, isn’t much.

“We need to go, Clarke, now!”

“They could be Trikru!”

"They could just as easily be Azgeda!” Lexa hisses. “We need to get out of sight and as far away from here as we can.”

“Fine,” Clarke snarls, and grabs the Commander by the scruff of her jacket, practically towing her across the hawe and towards the waiting tall grass. She knows she’s being rougher than she needs to be – Lexa’s pained gasps are proof of that – but is she really to be blamed for being pissy about giving up the prospect of a ride instead of a day and a half of walking? All right, fine, she feels a little guilty, but they don’t have time for guilt. The horses are getting closer; she can make them out on the horizon now. They don’t have much time.

They manage to throw themselves the last few feet across the hawe and roll down a steep embankment just before it would be impossible for the riders to have not seen them. Clarke has held out hope as they limped the final stretch that they’ll be able to make out what clan the horsemen are from, but it’s too dark and they go by too fast for them to be able to tell. Lexa hisses at her to put her head down – if the riders have torches or lamps they’ll see the whites of their eyes glinting in the dark – and by the time she looks up again, the squad is gone. She hears Lexa let out a breath.

"We should go, Clarke. The stream is not far.”

Clarke groans and buries her head in her arms. “Just give me a minute.”

“We don’t have a minute. They could be patrolling and be back at any time. We were lucky they missed us this time, but next time we might not –”

“Shut up, Lexa, or I’ll leave you here,” Clarke snaps, completely at the end of her rope. “If you think I’m not serious just watch me, I swear to God.”

She turns, expecting some comment about how a leader doesn’t let herself indulge in such pettiness, how she rises above or some bullshit, but all she sees is acceptance. It’s the face of someone, Clarke realizes, who has given herself up to circumstance: she has accepted that she has no control over her fate at this juncture, and that her survival or death will be due to circumstances outside of her control. To Clarke, in short. Six days ago Clarke might have reveled in it, been gratified by it, found it to be some sort of justice. Now, though, it just makes her feel empty. She has nothing to gain by Lexa’s suffering or death. It won’t make her hands any less red.

Without speaking, she stands and offers Lexa her hands one final time that night, and they make the last push to the stream. It’s not far, as Lexa promised; just down an embankment and across a couple of rolling hills and Clarke can see it glinting in the moonlight, rippling calmly in the night breeze. From what she can tell, the water runs clean.

Its banks are high and close enough to provide something of a windbreak, so at least she has that to be thankful for, she thinks as they approach. When they reach the stream she dips her canteen into it, drops in a couple of iodine capsules, and shakes it until they dissolve. When it's done she drinks greedily, taking about half of the canteen before offering it to Lexa. The Commander takes a few wary sips before handing it back to Clarke.

She props Lexa up against a mossy boulder by the stream’s edge while she unrolls her bedroll and pulls a packet of berries and dried nuts out of her pack. After a moment of hesitation, she grabs another and hands it off to Lexa, who accepts it without comment. There are disturbingly few packets of foot left in the pack – even with harsh rationing, Clarke’s going to have to either find some form of civilization, or teach herself how to hunt. She finds herself thinking of what Lexa had said, before the battle had begun: “You should come with me to the capital. Polis will change the way you think about us.” She wonders what Lexa had meant: food you didn't hunt yourself, baths, running water? It would be easy, she thinks, to return there with Lexa, to take refuge in these creature comforts. But nothing about Lexa is easy, and Clarke does not deserve ease.

“Is our silence to be enforced throughout the night, or am I permitted to speak?”

Lexa’s voice, hollow and wooden as it had been in the days Clarke first knew her, disrupts her train of thought. After a moment of consideration, she says, “You can speak, but only when I tell you. I ask the questions.”

Lexa nods, and Clarke wants to scream at her. Lexa has no right to this calm, this serenity, when Clarke feels like a walking war zone. But Lexa has bowed her head to fate, and Clarke perversely finds it even more aggravating than her usual stubbornness. There is silence for a while, growing ever more weighty, until Clarke’s words burst out of her like bullets from an automatic.

“How do you do it?” she says, fully turning to Lexa now. Her face is silvered by moonlight, her eyes unreadable under the streaked coating of warpaint. “There were kids there, Lexa, who died screaming, and I can feel them all inside me. I see them every night. And I know you know how it feels.”

By the end of it, Lexa is staring at her, head high, jaw firm, but Clarke knows this face: it hides someone about to break. Clarke can't look at it. She turns away.

“That’s the final lesson, the one I wasn’t able to teach you, Clarke, before I had to relearn it myself.” Lexa pauses, sighing, and Clarke turns to see her face gazing up at the stars, twinkling offensively in the night sky. She fights off a perverse urge to rip them down.

"The Azgeda - the Ice Nation – perform ritual human sacrifices sometimes, to their gods. They are the only clan among the Trigedakru that maintain that practice. And yet all of our people perform it, though we do not acknowledge it – and so do yours.” Lexa turns to stare directly at Clarke. “To be a leader is to be a human sacrifice. Our people offer up their unflinching loyalty, their unquestioning obedience, and in return all they ask is that we give up the things that make us human: love, weakness, mercy. They require that we become monsters so we may do what is necessary to keep the other monsters away. That’s what I was born for, raised for, trained for. And perhaps you did not have the upbringing that I did, but…” She draws a shaky breath. “It’s what you’ve been raised up to do, too.”

Clarke shudders as a memory hits her with a visceral force: her mother, desperately clutching her close as she’s being led to the dropship where she’ll be sent to Earth with ninety-nine other kids to die – “Your instincts will tell you to take care of everybody else first.” And then another: “I bear it, so they don’t have to.” Clarke feels like she’s going to be sick.

“How?” she chokes out. “How can they ask us to do that, knowing…”

“They don’t know,” Lexa says, and Clarke hates her for how level her voice is, and for how much sympathy there is in it. “They don’t want to know. They want you to lead them and to be what they need you to be so they can raise you up as a hero or condemn you as a monster, whatever the situation requires. All you must do is what must be done, even if it requires cutting your heart out and leaving it bleeding in the dust as you walk away.” Clarke’s eyes flick up to Lexa’s at the force with which she says those last words, and finds them boring into hers. And she knows.

“Why?” she asks again, this time more softly, more broken. “Why do you let them do this? Why do I?”

Lexa turns away to look at the stars again. Perhaps she takes comfort in their unblinking light, their unsympathetic gazes. Sympathy is not something Lexa is comfortable with, Clarke has learned, and there had probably been a bit too much in her last question. “You know the answer to that, Clarke,” Lexa says slowly, finally. “Now you know.”

Say it.” Her voice come out like rocks grinding.

“Duty,” Lexa intones, like she’s speaking ritual words. “Family, honor, love. All of these last are taken from us in the end, so that there is nothing but duty. But they are why we begin, and when they are gone we persevere because…the living are still hungry.”

She started strong but her voice cracks as she goes on, listing the things that once drove her but are now the things she can only mourn. Clarke feels her cheeks grow wet as the slow voice continues into the night, breathing despair before it stops.

Clarke is the one to break the silence. “How,” she says brokenly, once more. “How did you… How can I…” She can't finish, but Lexa, as always, knows. She's been through these same questions herself. Who answered them for her? Clarke wonders. Were they the same answers Lexa is giving Clarke?

“By recognizing yourself for what you are, Clarke,” Lexa says, and her voice is still soft and broken but there is something ringing behind it like a clear, quiet bell. “You are a vessel into which your people pour their hopes and dreams, their needs and wants, their murder and their anger and all the unspeakable acts they know unconsciously must be committed but can't bring themselves to do. Or you must abdicate. You must leave and never return, and let the burden pass on to another.”

Which is what, Clarke realizes, she's doing now. Who knows – in a year from now, Bellamy could be joining her out on these roads, hollow-eyed and soul-scarred beyond all recognition. All of a sudden it's too much – she can't handle it, can't take in any more guilt. She's a vessel, and she's overflowing. She puts her head into her hands and sobs.

Clarke feels Lexa’s hand rest tentatively on her head. It's a strange sort of absolution, from the traitor to the martyr, but there is comfort in it nonetheless. And perhaps there is no one better to offer it than Lexa, Clarke thinks. After all, she had been a martyr too.
There doesn’t seem to be much to say after that. Clarke lets herself fade into unconsciousness and is awakened a few hours later by the clenching ache in her chest, and by the chill of the night air. She stares up at the sky that had once been her home and knows there won’t be any more sleep tonight. Upon turning her head to look at Lexa, she finds the Commander’s gaze fixed on the same thing. When Clarke speaks she starts a bit, but settles quickly.

“What’s next for you, presuming we make it to your village? With the Ice Nation and everything.”

Lexa hesitates for a minute, as if considering whether or not to tell Clarke her thoughts, but seems to decide that there’s no harm in it – if Clarke meant to kill her she could do it at any time, and Clarke thinks that Lexa would probably just tip her throat up for the knife. “It will not look good for them, attacking me just as I have managed to do what no one has done for fifty years: release our people from Mount Weather.” She stops abruptly, swallows, and Clarke can see her glancing at her out of the corner of her eye. Clarke feels as though she has been turned to stone, and stone can’t be angry. After a moment Lexa goes on.

“It’s possible that other clans are rallying against them right now. They’re not popular; they’ve been known to take slaves from other clans, or at least they did before the Mountain Men started taking all of us, and they were once four tribes but their Queen conquered the other three to form the Ice Nation. But I’m sure I’m not exactly popular either. I broke my share of heads in building this coalition – I wasn’t afraid to depose a couple of leaders who weren’t going to budge, and I made and enforced some unpopular decisions. And my people have no time for weakness; strength is the only way to survive, and it may be that they see the Azgeda ascendant and are already to rallying to them, believing my star is fading. So the best thing to do, for the coalition and for the Trikru, is for me to make it to Polis and prove them wrong.”

Clarke nods, accepting it…until she doesn’t. She frowns, turning the nascent thoughts over and over in her mind, until she can put them to hesitant words. “What if you don’t?”

Lexa’s eyes snap to hers, and they blaze with certainty. “If I can make it to Polis, I must. I am Heda. My duty to my people comes first.”

The repetition of Lexa’s words just before she’d left her at the door to the Mountain makes Clarke’s blood boil, makes her seriously question her decision not to take Lexa’s knife and end it right there. She glares at Lexa and sees the same pained determination staring back…until there’s a flicker. It’s unnerving, like how the stars flicker sometimes – something that’s supposed to be constant and unending, and yet it wavers. Clarke’s eyes widen in surprise before she turns away. Whatever it is that Lexa’s wrestling with, she doesn’t want to see.

“Do you think I haven’t thought about it?”

The voice is low, soft, and there’s emotion throbbing just under its calm surface. It reminds Clarke so forcibly of how Lexa had sounded as she’d answered Clarke’s accusation just before she’d left – I do care, Clarke – but whether Lexa cared and was sorry or not didn’t matter to Clarke, not when it meant that Clarke’s people still weren’t getting out of Mount Weather, and that it would take mass murder to free them. Clarke tries not to care now. She almost succeeds.

“It wouldn’t be hard. I’ve been trained since I was very young in how to move silently and pick good hiding places. They’ll come looking for me, but soon they won’t be able to continue because there will be chaos. Maybe my people will assume the Azgeda did it, and will go to war with them. Maybe they will simply accept that I’m gone, and begin the search for the new Heda. I’ve nearly managed to convince myself on a couple of occasions that it might even be for the best. I’m a controversial figure, hated by some and loved by others. It might be that the best hope for peace among my people is to remove myself from the equation.”

Clarke blinks, unseeing, into the darkness, hearing Lexa’s voice like the quiet sighs of the breeze through the tall grass. It’s almost surreal to hear these words coming out of her mouth. Never in her time of knowing the Commander has she ever heard her speak like this, voice thoughts about the way things could be if she could just slough off who she is like snakeskin and steal her way into another life. One where she’s not the Commander, not Heda, just Lexa, just the girl she looks like when you see her without her armor and with her face bare of paint.

“I’d only have to wait for the chaos to start and then I’d be able to make my way through it. Where would I go, though? There’s nowhere on Trikru lands where my people don’t know me by sight – I didn’t want them to think I was just some adolescent despot ruling from a distance, so I made sure of that. I’d have to leave, and I could never come back.” There’s pain in Lexa’s voice at the thought, pain that echoes Clarke’s as she thinks of Camp Jaha, of the Ark, of her mother and her friends whose faces she yearns for but can’t stand to see.

“I think I’d head south and then east. The ocean’s that way, and it’s Boat Clan territory but they tend to live clustered around the coastline, and leave large areas uninhabited. It wouldn’t be hard to live there while the furor dies down, and once it did I could probably find a village, one that’s smaller and more remote, and live among them. Grow up. Learn a skill that isn’t commanding armies and killing people. Grow old, if I’m lucky. Be someone that I was never supposed to be.”

Clarke turns now, hearing the longing in Lexa’s voice for this life that neither of them will ever have. There’s a small, sad smile playing around the Commander’s lips as she imagines, and Clarke finds herself thinking that it’s a nice fantasy. They could even go there together, to a place where Lexa’s not Heda and Clarke’s not Klark kom Skaikru, conqueror of the Mountain, murderer of children. The more she thinks of it, the more she wants it – and the more she knows she can never have it. But she decides that she can let herself play along anyway.

They might reach a point where they decide not to travel together anymore, and split up, but for now they’ll need one another. Lexa will die without Clarke’s care, and the Commander might be her last choice in the universe for a traveling companion, but she knows the terrain of Earth, its dangers and its hidden treasures, far better than Clarke does. So they’ll travel together to the ocean – Clarke’s only ever seen pictures, but ever since she was young the concept has fascinated her. Water was carefully rationed on the Ark – its reservoirs were only so large, and its refreshment and recycling systems only worked so fast – and she’d never taken a shower that lasted longer than seven minutes. Her first time seeing a river had been a revelation – though somewhat tarnished by the giant snake it housed – and yet it had had a clear beginning and an end; she could see across its banks. But a body of water so large that you could literally get lost on it? The thought had captivated her, and she had drawn it thousands of times on the walls and floors of her cell in the sky.

“What is it like?”

The words startle both her and Lexa, even though they came out of her mouth hoarse and creaky, like she hasn’t spoken in days. She can feel Lexa’s eyes on her and she turns to meet them with a level stare, daring her to answer with anything other than a description. After a moment of consideration, Lexa swallows.

“It’s…big.” Clarke snorts, and Lexa shoots her a withering look before she goes on. “Bigger than anything you’ve ever imagined except the sky. It feels like the size of the sky, almost, and you can see where it connects to the sky on clear days, and sometimes further on clear nights. You can see every star on its surface when it’s calm, but it’s most expressive when it’s just about to storm, or just after. It’s like its own entity, with its own emotions, ones you can always see on its surface. That’s how the Boat People see it, anyway – they call it Nomon, which means mother, because they say that we all came from the sea and we’ll all go back there someday.”

At a certain point Clarke just turns her face back towards the sky and lets Lexa’s voice wash over her, painting her a picture with her words just as Clarke does with charcoals and pencils. She tries to imagine the sky moving like Lexa says the ocean does, roiling with storms and rippling peacefully in their aftermath, tries to imagine the sense of serenity that Lexa says it brings. She tries to imagine what being in a boat feels like, the waves rocking it like a cradle, and for the first time since the Mountain she’s able to find sleep without liquor or violence.

She’s not certain which wakes her up first – dawn, or Lexa’s voice, which is quiet but still feels like a slap because it’s hers. She’s grumbling to her feet before she’s fully opened her eyes, and has a bare minute or two of relief as she wipes the sleep from them when she doesn’t remember who she is, what she’s done, or just how many miles are still left in her bones. Then she sees the dawn lightening the tips of the mountains on the horizon, and she recalls everything. She turns with sudden wrath to the girl on the ground, still propped against the rock where she’d left her the night before. Lexa had managed to make her forget, had given her a night of peace when she had been getting used to the war in her chest, and it makes the return of that conflict all the more painful. She hates Lexa more in that moment for her ability to make the pain – not go away, nothing will ever make it go away, short of death – but be still. Because when it comes back it’s like the roaring of the ocean’s wrath, greater and more terrible than ever. She’s never been closer to taking the Commander’s knife and plunging it into her chest than at this moment.

Maybe Lexa understands this, because as she looks up at Clarke she meets her wild eyes with calm ones, grey like the sea reflecting a stormy sky. Acceptance, understanding, and a kind of absolution that comes with it – knowing how Clarke feels, having felt precisely the same way herself – somehow this knowledge is more powerful than Bellamy’s forgiveness. And Clarke hates that Lexa’s the one who’s able to offer this kind of peace, because she thinks she might become addicted to it if given enough time. She might come to love Lexa for it, twisted as this is, given enough time. It might truly, honestly be better to kill her now, before that can happen.

Weak, she thinks to herself as she walks forward, sees Lexa clutch at the handle of her blade – whether to offer it to Clarke, or keep it from her, she can’t tell – and brushes her hand away. Weak, as she puts her shoulder under Lexa’s arm and lifts her to her feet with a grunt, marveling at how light she is, heavy though she should be with armor and muscle. Weak, her heart thumps back at her as she mutters, “We should get going if we’re going to make it to the village.”

Lexa nods, breath harsh and ragged in Clarke’s ear, and Clarke’s mind spits back Weak one final, venomous time as she reaches into her pack and pulls out her canteen, freshly filled with water from the stream, and offers it to Lexa. She gulps greedily this time, giving in to her body’s demands, and Clarke watches her swallow and thinks, I’m not the only one. When she’s done, she takes the canteen back and they travel along the streambed for a time, looking for a place where the banks aren’t so steep.

As they stumble along, the mud sucking noisily at their boots, a thought strikes Clarke. “All streams lead to the ocean, right?”

Lexa nods and says, a little breathlessly, “Yes. All streams lead to rivers, and they all flow eventually to the sea.”

Clarke nods, taking in this information, thinking about the stream they’re following and how it will meet all of the rest again, become one. Whatever path she chooses – to follow her weakness to Polis, or to return to Camp Jaha, or to see how far she can follow this stream – there is, at least, always a chance that she will meet again with those she’s lost.

It’s this thought she follows as they ford the stream, struggle up the banks, and wade across the sighing sea of grass towards the southeast, the smoke of the village rising towards the lightening sky on the horizon.

We will meet again.