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Within Me An Invincible Summer

Chapter Text

Now

It's spring and the rains have swollen the river. Already the water is receding and then it will be time to plant, to enjoy the bounty of the rich, fertile soil left behind. They’ll harvest their spring vegetables too and begin the months of plenty, when life is easy and soft. Clarke likes to sit in a tree along the river banks and sketch the fields, the laborers building new fences and roads, the children darting in and out of the settlement. Sometimes she stares along the river, letting herself get carried away by the current.

She wonders about the inland; she hasn't gone farther than the Appalachians and that only once. There's so much more of the continent to explore; she's seen it from space and knows they've confined themselves to an infinitesimal slice of it, but on blowsy spring days, with cool breezes coming off the water and fresh spring flowers growing thick everywhere, she can hardly bring herself to care. Life is finally good and if it's not exactly carefree, it's at least far easier than it used to be.

A gaggle of children run up to her tree, arguing with each other. She watches them, waiting for one to speak. All of them were born here on the ground, many delivered by Clarke herself. What a luxury it is to be able to stop and have children and raise them in prosperity. She's thought idly of having children of her own but so far the time hasn't been right.

Finally one of them calls up to her. "Clarke?"

"Yes?"

"There's someone at the village to see you."

She slides out of the tree, tucking her notebook in her satchel. "Who is it?"

The child shrugs. "Dunno. She just rode up on a horse and asked for you."

"A horse? She's Trikru?" Clarke asks, already walking back to the village with the kids trailing behind her.

"She's pretty," says one of the younger boys.

"She looks like one of the Trikru," says an older girl, Pilar. She attends Clarke's healing lessons; no aptitude for it, but a good head on her shoulders in general. Clarke’s going to recommend she try guard training.

"They came to invade us!" says another boy.

"Don't be dumb," says Pilar.

"They're not here to invade," says Clarke, certain she's right, but also not completely sure why a Trikru messenger would be looking for her at all. The Tree People protect the borders and in exchange the Sky People share part of their harvest. It's the arrangement they've had for over ten years now, and it's suited them both just fine. Normally they see Trikru after each harvest, when guards come to escort them to Polis, or for the occasional group of traders making their regular progression through the territory.

They finally arrive at the edge of the village and some of the kids scatter, off to play or go to class or find their parents. Pilar and some of the older ones stick close by, curious to see who this new person is and what her relation is to Clarke.

Clarke finds the main throughway and looks towards the settlement entrance, where a solid dark horse stands. And next to it, a woman in all black, dark brown hair falling in thick waves around her shoulders. Clarke's breath catches in her throat and she freezes in place.

The woman approaches slowly, leaving her horse behind. "Hello, Clarke," she says when she's finally within a few feet. Her face is almost entirely blank but for the slightest tic of her brow.

Clarke can barely manage words. "Lexa?"

*

Then

Clarke wanders. It's dangerous with things so unsettled in the wake of the mountain, but she can't be with her people, if they even think of themselves as her people anymore, and she doesn't have anyone else. In the back of her mind a voice whispers that she knows where she could go, but she's gotten good at ignoring it.

She gets familiar with a bit of land twenty or so miles from Camp Jaha; there's a nice clear stream running past a big rocky hill with an overhang deep enough that it shelters her at night. She covers up the front with thick leafy branches, cross-hatching them to create a barrier that mostly keeps out the wind. She digs a fire pit outside and even manages to fashion a couple of crude cups from concave rocks. She doesn’t even consider the dropship; they’d look for her there.

Food is harder, but she has a rudimentary knowledge of the local plants now, and after four frustrating days, she finally manages to catch an animal in a trap. She wishes idly for a bow and arrow, or a spear, something she could use to take down larger game. She saw how they preserved meat in Tondc and thinks she could replicate the technique with a bit of practice. It would be nice to not have to go checking all her traps every day.

And then the weather turns, with all the suddenness and ferocity of a snarling animal. The wind grows harsh and rattles the bars of her impromptu shelter. She tries to daub it over with mud from the stream but as the temperature plummets, so does her resolve. The overhang isn't big enough to have a fire inside, and she's worried about someone spotting the light at night while she's sleeping.

So she moves on, hoping to find a cave, something bigger. She does find one, its entrance covered with a ratty blanket and some camouflaging foliage, but it shows signs of recent habitation if the mix of fresh and charred logs in the firepit inside are any indication. She has no desire to see other people.

She moves on, trying to keep to the rock formation the cave is a part of, but it tapers off after about three miles with nothing to show for her diligence. She circles, even considers finding a tree and sleeping in its branches if they're big and stable enough. She's read about houses in trees, places where children can play and make believe at having their own little territories. She imagines Lexa up in a treehouse, yelling down at Clarke that no Sky People are allowed, and involuntarily snorts to herself.

The sound of her own voice startles her. She hasn't spoken out loud in over a week. The realization makes her pause, makes her wonder if it's possible to lose her voice through disuse. She could just fade away into the trees, silent and alone, not even an echo to mark her passing.

She's so attuned to the sounds of the forest now that the merest shuffling off to her left puts her on high alert. The person she was before, the girl who thought that because she had trust she was safe in these woods—that person wouldn't have heard them coming. But Clarke does, and scurries for cover in some thick bushes.

They come into view in a minute, a band of Trikru with bows and arrows, moving with the stealth of a hunting party, not a war band. They're clearly looking for something, perhaps animal sign.

Clarke holds her breath as she freezes into total stillness, and eventually they leave, headed vaguely back in the direction of Tondc. She stays hidden for a few minutes longer until she's absolutely certain they're out of sight, and then collapses into the underbrush.

*

Now

Lexa's horse goes to the stables, where she fiercely eyes the girl who comes to collect the animal for grooming until the girl blushes and stammers a promise to be very thorough. Clarke thinks she catches the barest hint of a smile bending Lexa's stern mouth as the girl leads the horse away. She hasn't seen Lexa in–Clarke counts back in her head, going by harvests. Three years. The last three years Lexa has managed to be absent from Polis during the harvest festival.

The first time, Clarke had remarked on it, thinking out loud that it wasn't like Lexa to miss a Trikru celebration. She always ensured that she saw and was seen at ceremonial times, keeping the bond strong with her people. Indra had grunted and told her it was none of her business, Heda was a busy woman with a nation to run.

The second year Clarke wondered again, but once again Indra would hear no questions on the topic and so she was left without answers. The third year she stopped asking. After all, there were reports that the Ice Nation was growing restless, filtered several times through messengers and traders, but circulating widely enough that they managed to reach the Sky People.

"Is everything all right?" Clarke asks.

Lexa stands with her forearm resting casually on the pommel of her sword, hand dangling. "All is well, Clarke."

Clarke is about to rebut that everything is clearly not well if Lexa has come all this way, alone, but she can see that they've gathered something of an audience. "Why don't we..." She tips her head, indicating that Lexa should follow her.

Together they slip down an alley and emerge into a quiet street dotted with smaller huts, rougher and more rustic than the ones away from Main Street. These were some of the first homes built in Nova, and Clarke's is among them.

She leads Lexa into an unassuming house, more a wooden hut than anything else. There's only two rooms, the house split evenly between the front and the bedroom in the back. The front is just big enough to avoid being cozy, with shelves along most walls, a desk by the window to catch the light, and a large map of the settlement pinned up on the remaining wall. The shelves are stacked with paper, lined with rows of jars containing pencils and brushes, overflowing at the bottom with hide canvases stretched over wooden frames.

Lexa inspects the map, eyes tracing the streets, drawn to scale with incredible precision. "You drew this," she says, and it's not a question.

Clarke stays silent, just watching Lexa. It's so strange to see Lexa in her home, her dark Grounder clothing and much-used sword in stark relief to the simple wooden furniture and light colors Clarke used to decorate. Lexa isn't even wearing her shoulder guard, the symbol of her office. She just has light armor strapped on and Clarke can see that beneath it she's as wiry and strong as ever. Age has treated her well, though it's finally sapped the last of the youth that clung stubbornly to her face even as she turned thirty. Her cheeks seem sharper than before, but Clarke supposes that a person can change a lot in three years. A person can change in three hours.

Finally Lexa turns away from the map and faces Clarke, studying her as readily as Clarke examines her in return. "I wish to stay in Nova,” she says.

Clarke blinks. "Stay?"

Lexa's hand reaches for her hilt, though she grips it now instead of draping her arm over it. "Yes. For a while. If it is not an imposition."

"Uh." Clarke tries to find words, can hear her brain screaming deep inside that she should be better at speaking than this. "How long is a while?"

Lexa's hand tightens. "I don’t want to cause trouble. I will leave, if you wish." And she starts to do exactly that, no fanfare, just action.

"No, wait," says Clarke, hand reaching out but stopping short of touching Lexa. "It's just surprising. I haven't seen you in a long time. I wasn't expecting you at all. Of course you can stay."

Lexa seems to deflate, shoulders easing. "Thank you, Clarke."

It's so strange and so familiar to hear the way Lexa says her name. She finds she's missed it.

"I will find a suitable camping spot," Lexa says, and then tries to leave again.

"You don't have to sleep outside," says Clarke, edging towards the door. "We have some spare houses. You can stay in one of them."

"I don't wish to-"

"You're not imposing. It's okay." Clarke adds a little smile, because she knows Lexa finds hers reassuring whether she’d admit it or not. "Come on, I'll show you."

*

Then

Winter settles in for good, cold taking root in her bones, a permanent chill she can't seem to shake no matter how close she huddles around the fire. She's barely surviving and desperation drives her back to the cave, uncaring if there's anyone in it.

The cave is empty when she stumbles in, the few bits of dry wood she managed to gather on her way clattering out of her arms. She can barely manage to strike flint and steel together and she finds herself wishing she'd taken a lighter with her when she left Camp Jaha. She wishes a lot of things about the way she left Camp Jaha.

Just the clothes on her back, the pistol in her belt, a few things in her pockets–it's remarkable she's survived this long, really. She wouldn't have but for the odds and ends she picked up from the Grounders, from watching Octavia train, from listening to-

The tinder in the firepit finally catches. She tries not to think about what it means that there's fresh tinder here waiting for the next person. She feeds the flame a few branches, then finally adds a medium branch and feels heat start to fill the space. The cave isn't terribly deep and in the back she finds furs and more firewood covered by a dirty tarp. She adds logs, banks the fire up until it roars in her face and she has to scoot back from it lest she get burned. It's a relief to finally feel warm again.

Her body is exhausted from the cold, from shivering for hours, and she just barely manages to roll herself up in the furs before she passes out.

Her sleep is dreamless, dark, a welcome relief from months of nightmares. But she's woken short of being truly rested by a kick to her leg, and when her body instinctively jerks back, she finds the pointy end of a sword in her face.

The hunters have found her.

*

Now

Clarke is hesitant to leave Lexa alone. But when she asks again why Lexa has come to Nova, Lexa just purses her lips in an enigmatic little smile and says, "It was time for me to see what you built on my land."

Which doesn't make a lot of sense; Lexa visited the village four years ago on a progression through her territory and scouts routinely check their borders, bringing regular reports back to their commander. Otherwise she’s been content to leave them alone, so long as they check in during the harvest. If this were another official visit, Clarke would expect bodyguards, entourages, the usual pomp that follows Lexa around in her role as heda.

It's just Lexa today, standing in the middle of one of the empty village homes, tapping a finger on her sword in a slow rhythm.

"I'll have food brought by. And your saddlebags from the stables. And if you need more blankets there's probably some in the closet. And...I guess that's it," Clarke finishes clumsily.

Lexa actually seems amused. Clarke has very rarely seen her out and out amused. "I will be very comfortable here, Clarke. Thank you."

"Okay. So. I'll leave you alone to settle in." But still she doesn't leave, stuck to the floor while Lexa just regards her with that eerie calm she's able to muster at will.

“Is there something else you wished to discuss?” Lexa asks.

“No. I mean. No,” says Clarke. She manages a perfunctory smile and then walks out, very aware of Lexa behind her until she shuts the front door. She can see a gaggle of kids at the end of the street, watching her curiously. Everyone in the village knows that Lexa is commander of the Tree People, but the younger kids generally don’t come with the harvest caravan to Polis. It’s quite a treat for them to see her in the flesh.

“Don’t you have classes?” she calls, and they scatter, giggling.

Clarke heads for the council building, knowing everyone will want a report from her. Heda Lexa doesn’t just stop by for visits. If she’s here there must be some deeper purpose, and yet–could she really just be visiting? In the nearly fifteen years she’s known Lexa, she’s never known her to step away from her duties for more than a day or two. Lexa only truly relaxes in Polis, and that infrequently, usually during one of the big yearly Trikru celebrations. Clarke isn’t sure there’s even a Trikru word for “vacation.”

Bellamy is waiting for her in the foyer of the council building. She can see the question on his face. “Is everyone here?” she asks.

“Almost.”

“Okay.” She adjusts her shirt, straightening out her clothes even though she led the council herself for years before deciding to take a break.

Bellamy leads her to the work room off of the main hall, the place where the village councilors gather to discuss things when they’re not formally in session. There’s a large table in the middle and several whiteboards up on the walls and everyone is currently milling around inside, wondering why Lexa has come to Nova. They all stop as soon as Clarke enters. She can tell they want to hit her with a barrage of questions and she’s grateful that they don’t.

“She’s not here in any official capacity that I can tell,” Clarke says, and that sees to the last of their restraint. Instantly there’s a flood of questions, complaints, worries about this signifies. Clarke holds up her hand. “She just wanted to see the village for herself. There’s nothing wrong. I don’t think she’s here to cause trouble.”

“Then why is she here?” asks Monty.

“I...I don’t know. I just know why she’s not here. I believe her when she says she just wants to stay for a while.”

An unspoken current runs through all of them, the memory that once Clarke believed in Lexa, and Lexa betrayed them. But it’s been so long, and they’ve worked with the Tree People for years now without a problem. There’s even been some intermarriage between the groups, starting with Octavia. Then at the very first harvest festival in Polis, one of the younger warriors asked Lexa’s permission to leave because he was madly in love with a girl of the Skaikru and afterwards it became normal to see one or two people every year coming or going from the village.

“Can you get a more definite answer from her?” Bellamy asks.

“Don’t worry,” Clarke says in spite of the clamoring voice within her also demanding answers. “I’ll figure it out.”

*

Then

They weren’t looking for Clarke, per se. They were just a hunting party stopping in a known safe spot before returning to Tondc. But upon discovering Clarke in their hideaway, they promptly disarm her then prod her into the deepest corner of the cave with their bows trained on her.

“I’m sorry if I was trespassing,” she says.

They glare silently.

“I just needed a warm place to sleep.”

The glaring turns reticent. She doesn’t recognize any of them from Lexa’s war camp at the mountain. They look young, younger even than Clarke.

“Are you guys gonna say anything? What’s the plan here?” she asks. It’s more words than she’s strung together for a long, long time and she can feel her throat creaking with the effort. “Got any water?”

They exchange glances. One hands over a waterskin and Clarke accepts it gratefully, dribbling out a mouthful. At least now she knows they understand English.

“You’re Skaikru,” says the one who gave her the waterskin. She takes it back, drinking from it too. “Clarke kom Skaikru.”

Clarke frowns. “You know who I am?”

“All Trikru know you,” says the girl, prompting one of her hunting mates to prod her sharply. They’ve said too much, it seems.

“Well...” Clarke can see now that they’re nervous. Perhaps they were too young to join the army that marched on Mount Weather. They lack the self-assurance she’s come to associate with Grounders. “If you’re not gonna kill me, I’m gonna go back to sleep.” With that she pulls one of the furs over her legs and leans back against the cave wall. It’s not the most comfortable position, but she’s accustomed to sleeping on hard surfaces. It’s not a minute before she drifts off again.

When she wakes she can see sunlight filtering through the ragged gaps in the covering over the cave entrance. The hunters have relaxed somewhat. Two of them are asleep, while the third watches her over the top of the fire. It’s the girl, and as she sees Clarke with her eyes open, she motions with the waterskin.

Clarke holds up her hands to catch it as it’s tossed to her. The water is slightly stale, but cold, and it loosens her tongue nicely. “What’s your name?” she asks.

The girl glances at her companions, still sleeping a few feet away. She looks back at Clarke. “Anna,” she says.

“Anna,” Clarke repeats, rolling the syllables around in her mouth.

“You will come to Tondc with us,” says Anna. Her English is passable, but it’s clear she’s not entirely fluent yet. Clarke is beginning to realize how young these three are. It’s another thing to hate about this world, how the dirt and the wary eyes and the constant calculation of survival odds ages people, makes it harder to tell true ages. How she feels so old she can think of these three as children, yet still be a child herself in the eyes of many.

“Why?”

“Not allowed to wander in our territory,” says Anna.

The boys start to wake up, stirring at the sound of their voices, and Anna promptly closes her mouth. As soon as everyone is properly awake they smother the fire, then gesture for Clarke to leave the cave first. She considers bolting as soon as she’s clear of the cave entrance but she doesn’t want to bet on some twitchy tree kid not shooting her in the back with an arrow. So she lets herself be herded and for the next hour watches the three of them silence.

They stop at a stream to refill their waterskins, Anna rearing up and using her knife handle to smash through the thin layer of ice on top. She lets Clarke drink, watching her with no small amount of curiosity.

“How have you heard of me?” Clarke asks at last, still crouched by the stream.

“Oso souda gyon au gon heda,” says one of the boys, ignoring Clarke’s question to speak to Anna.

It goes by too quickly for Clarke to get the exact translation, but she hears enough. “Heda? You’re taking me to Lexa? What does she want with me?”

“Shof op,” says one of the boys, but Anna just rolls her eyes.

“Heda na tel em op,” says Anna, and they scowl, but decline to reprimand Clarke again. “Commander been looking for you since the mountain.” The way she says the mountain with awe bordering on reverence makes Clarke’s skin crawl. But she supposes to the Grounders, who have long fought the Mountain Men, hearing of that place’s demise must seem like a great and wonderful omen.

“Why?”

Anna shrugs. “Just know if you found, bring you to Tondc.”

“Great,” Clarke mutters, mostly to herself. She stands up, dries her hands off on her pants. “Let’s get this over with.”

*

Now

Clarke brings food to Lexa herself. For one, the council all agreed Clarke should remain Lexa’s main point of contact. For another, no one else really wants to do it.

She hefts the rough sack on her shoulder and knocks on Lexa’s door, which swings open almost immediately. Lexa has removed her armor, leaving her in a simple black shirt underneath. “Clarke,” she says.

“Thought you might be hungry,” says Clarke. She waits for an invitation, only entering when Lexa stands aside, one hand gesturing.

“Thank you,” says Lexa. She doesn’t close the door, perhaps to not make Clarke feel as though she’s been penned in.

Clarke thumps the sack on the floor by the square wooden table that takes up the center of the room. Most of the houses in this part of the settlement are like Clarke’s, small but comfortable, with only two or three rooms and a few windows covered with translucent animal skins or drapes. Glass is still rare, even though they can make and process their own now instead of salvaging it. The houses are still far bigger than anything they ever had on the Ark. In the early days Clarke would marvel that she could roll over and over in bed and still not fall off. “It’s mostly the last of the winter stores,” she says. “You caught us between harvests.”

“It will be more than enough, I’m sure,” says Lexa. She looks as though she wants to help, but doesn’t want to step so far inside Clarke’s personal space. She holds herself very still as she watches Clarke pull out some loaves of bread, apples, dried meat, a goodly sack of nuts.

“Everything in the house okay?” Clarke asks.

“Is there a place to bathe?”

Clarke nearly blushes, feeling about twenty years younger than she really is. Lexa has always thrown her off balance like this. “Yeah. We designated a spot in the river. This part of the village isn’t hooked up to the public water supply. I’ll show you.”

She leaves the food behind; no one will take it. They don’t want for anything in the village unless they get a bad harvest, and after the first time an unnaturally dry summer left them short on food, they’d taken to doubling their emergency stockpile. It’s another thing that the kids in the village don’t think about that the founding adults all remember: going without, worrying about supplies, always having to think about the stress on the system.

Lexa brings her sword, slinging the belt over her shoulder. It’s a short and pleasant walk down to the river where they’ve roped off an area for bathing, complete with a floating dock that juts out into the water a short ways. Someone has tied a thick rope to a sturdy branch hanging over the river to make a swing. Clarke stops short of stepping on the dock. “Oh, soap. I can go get you soap.”

“I brought some,” says Lexa, showing Clarke the little wedge of soap she pulls out of her pocket.

“I’ll, uh, leave you to it then,” says Clarke, but Lexa clears her throat. Her mouth opens but before she can ask, Clarke has the answer. “It’s safe without anyone standing guard, Lexa.”

Her jaw clicks shut and she dips her head fractionally. And just like that she’s turning, shedding her clothes with precise, matter-of-fact movements, setting her sword on the dock. She’s just reaching for the button on her pants when Clarke has the presence of mind to turn around, but by then she’s already seen the long, smooth line of Lexa’s back, interrupted by a scattering of scars and the solid black lines of tattoos. There are a few more than she remembers, but then, it’s been years since she last saw Lexa in anything less than full Trikru garb.

“Um. Can you find your way back?” Clarke asks.

“Yes,” Lexa says, and then there’s a faint splash and Clarke can’t help but peek over her shoulder. Lexa is neck deep in the river, scrubbing vigorously at the slope of her shoulder, then down to her tricep-

“I’ll see you back at the village,” Clarke blurts, and just barely manages not to scurry away.

*

Then

Tondc looks astonishingly good for having taken a direct missile hit so recently. The debris is mostly clear and there are children and animals running through the streets, earning the curses of adults trying to put up new huts or cart in building materials. Heads turn as the hunting party guides Clarke along, heading for the largest tent near the center of the village. She can hear the murmuring in her wake and tries not to look to either side.

Soon they’re at the entrance to the tent, being stared at by two hulking guards. A familiar face emerges, pushing aside the flap and immediately glowering at the ragged, dirty, underfed girl in front of her.

“Indra,” says Clarke.

Indra narrows her eyes, then addresses the hunters. “Werr yu don hon em op?”

“Kom trimani,” says Anna.

Indra scowls and the hunters subtly cringe away from her.

“Is Lexa in there? Can we just get on with this?” Clarke asks.

Indra’s scowl deepens somehow; she sends the hunters on their way, Anna glancing back at Clarke but not daring to linger. “You are nothing but trouble,” Indra says.

“Tell me something I don’t know,” Clarke says right back, and walks into the tent without being invited.

Lexa is waiting for her, standing by her war table where a map has been spread out instead of the model of the mountain Clarke remembers. “Leave us,” she says, and whatever the other Grounders in the tent were doing, they all stop and file out obediently. Only Indra lingers, eyes burning into Clarke who, quite frankly, resents it. Indra wasn’t the one abandoned in the middle of a war. Indra wasn’t the one left trying to cobble together a solution out of nothing. Indra wasn’t the one who had to watch innocents die terrifying, painful deaths.

Lexa gives Indra an extra flick with her chin and at last Indra obeys, slipping out but not so far Clarke can’t see her shadow still lurking around the entrance.

“What do you want?” Clarke asks. Her voice is flat, uninterested. She doesn’t actually care what Lexa wants, and she makes it obvious.

If Lexa is impressed or put out by the shortness of Clarke’s words, she doesn’t show it. Clarke hates that about her, that if Lexa wants she can simply shut down her whole face until she might as well be carved from stone. “I heard you left the Sky People camp. It is not safe to be alone, Clarke.”

“I’m doing fine, thanks.” Clarke shifts in her jacket, still feeling the chill in Lexa’s tent even though a pair of braziers burn bright on either side of her throne. Lexa, she notes, has added a fur pelt around her shoulders that drapes down over her shoulders to dangle by her hips. She looks even more regal than usual. Clarke feels more than a little unkempt; it’s been too cold to do anything but splash water on her face in the morning. Her resentment swells; she’s been living in the dirt and cold like less than a beggar, but Lexa looks warm and, if not comfortable, at least well-fed.

“That is not what my hunters reported.”

Clarke doesn’t even know when Anna and her two friends had time to tattle on her to Lexa but she bristles all the same. “You have no right to take an interest in what I do. So if that’s all, I’ll be going.”

Lexa levels a stare at her, calm but for the slightest tightening around her eyes. “Very well. I will have supplies prepared for you. You can at least accept that, or you will die this winter.”

Clarke wants to tell Lexa to throw her supplies in a fire and add a finger for good measure, but she remembers all too acutely how cold she’s been, how hard it is to find food now. Her stomach has known nothing but water all day. “Fine,” she says grudgingly, feeling petulant and not enjoying it.

She’s just about to the tent flap when Lexa speaks, so softly Clarke might have missed it if she were moving any faster. “You could stay. I won’t force you. But you are welcome to shelter here until it grows warm again.”

Again, the impulse to throw the offer back in Lexa’s face. It would feel good. She doesn’t want anything from Lexa. But her stomach pinches in on itself and an icy breeze wends around her body, chapping her exposed skin. She turns back to Lexa, hands clenching into fists. It’s a fight just to stand there, to look back at Lexa without grimacing. She flashes back to that night at the mountain, remembers how her stomach turned sour and the sorrow and fear and disappointment ran through her veins like ice. The words come out in a clench of teeth. “If I stay, it’s on my terms. I can leave whenever I want. I don’t owe you anything. I don’t want to see you.”

Lexa dips her head. “Agreed.”

“Great.” And then, in spite of herself and the brittle anger threatening to shatter into rage, she murmurs, “Thank you.”

To her credit, Lexa doesn’t seem to take it at anything but face value. She just returns to her map, effectively dismissing Clarke. “Go. Get warm. I will have someone bring you warmer clothes.”

Clarke does leave then, almost barging into Indra, still faithfully within calling distance. She pulls up short just in time. “I’m staying.”

If Indra were a less dignified woman, Clarke could see her rolling her eyes. As it is, she simply purses her lips in open disapproval. “Of course.” She says it like she was expecting it, like she was only waiting for Clarke to come find her, and Clarke almost leaves Tondc right then and there. But her pride is no match for winter.

“This way,” says Indra. She takes off at a fast clip, sword swinging with the rhythm of her stride. Clarke has to jog to catch up and when she does she doesn’t bother to say anything, just stays on Indra’s heels. They come to a small hut on the edges of the village, freshly rebuilt by the look of it. Inside there’s a small firepit, a cot piled with furs, and a waterskin dangling from a peg by the door.

“You are to stay here. Make no trouble and you will find no trouble.” And that’s all Indra has to say, leaving so abruptly that Clarke doesn’t have a chance to ask a single question.

*

Now

Lexa doesn’t find Clarke so much as Clarke hears the commotion of her return to the settlement. She walks serenely down one of the side streets, headed for her house, ignoring the small gaggle of children trailing after her. Clarke sends them scurrying with a shoo gesture and meets Lexa in the street. Her skin is glowing from the scrubbing and already she’s picked up some color from the sun. “How was the bath?”

“Very good,” says Lexa, sword wrapped up in its belt and dangling from one hand.

They stand there, looking at each other with dusk settling all around them, birds roosting in the nearby trees and kicking up a chatter. “That’s good. Good.” Clarke nearly scuffs the ground with her toe, even though she’s been far too old for anything like that for over a decade.

“What do your people wish to know?” Lexa asks.

Clarke starts walking while she makes a guileless face which doesn’t fool Lexa for a second.

“My arrival was like throwing a rock into a bird’s nest,” she says. “Reassure them I am here temporarily. Think of it is a sort of reprieve from my duties as commander.”

“So who’s in charge while you’re gone?”

“I have been training a second. It is customary to ensure there is a responsible person to watch over our people between the end of my command and when the next commander is found.”

Clarke stops. “What do you mean end of your command?”

“It will not be for some time,” Lexa says, mouth quirking pleasantly at Clarke’s sudden concern. “It is simply wise not to leave these things to chance.”

They continue walking, Clarke feeling a little embarrassed. There’s still so much she doesn’t know about Trikru culture. “Oh.”

“Whenever I am able, I teach groups of girls. The most promising of these go on to train with me, and from them I pick seconds.”

“What about Indra?”

Lexa shakes her head. “She is a fearsome lieutenant, but not suited to lead our people. She knows this as well as I do.”

“Oh,” Clarke says again. “That’s very...self aware of her.”

“Of course she is aware of her self,” Lexa says, slightly confused but long accustomed to strange Sky People idioms and phrases.

“So...how are these girls chosen?” Clarke asks, moving on quickly from the misunderstanding.

“Any Trikru girl may come to Polis for her education. We recognize that greatness may appear in anyone, at any time.”

“Like how you were chosen,” Clarke says.

“Something like it.” And then they’re at Lexa’s house and Clarke has no more reason to talk to her, other than that she wants to. But she’s not ready for that yet.

Lexa pauses in the middle of pushing open her door, glances over her shoulder at Clarke.

“Good night, Lexa,” she says.

“Good night, Clarke,” says Lexa.

Clarke watches her door shut, and then watches it a little longer. It’s only until she sees a shadow moving in the window that she continues on her way.

*

Then

Clarke waits in her hut. And waits and waits and waits. Clearly, Lexa isn’t coming. There’s a bit of wood in the pit so she starts a fire and then when she’s finally warm her thoughts turn to food.

As though summoned, there’s a knock on her door frame and a timid figure pokes her head in. “Hello? Heda sent me?”

Clarke sits up straighter on her cot, folding her hands in her lap. “Hi. Come in.”

The girl comes in, all eighty scrawny pounds of her. She can’t be more then eleven or twelve and she’s hauling two sacks, one bulging, the other only about half full. “Heda says these are for you.”

Clarke accepts the bags, opening the full one first. Furs come out, including a cloak and a sturdy pair of lined boots. The other bag holds food. Clarke grabs the first thing her hand grasps and shoves it in her mouth – some kind of crunchy tuber, tasteless but dense. The girl watches her savage the tuber until there’s nothing but a scraggly root stem left. Clarke wipes juice from her chin, not embarrassed in the least by her hunger. “What’s your name?” she asks, mouth still half full. She’s already reaching for another one.

“Oro.”

“Thank you, Oro.”

The girl can’t quite look her in the eye, just stands there watching Clarke eat.

Clarke takes her in, the angular jut of her collarbones, and wonders if the Tree People even have food to share. But then she realizes Lexa would never take food out of the mouths of her people for an outsider and she eats with renewed appetite. Still, she uses her free hand to dig up another root and hands it out to Oro.

Oro just giggles. “You’re supposed to cook them first.”

“Will they make me sick if I don’t?”

An amused shake of the head.

Clarke shrugs and chews, taking back the root for herself. “What do you call these?”

Grounna,” says Oro.

“Grounna,” Clarke repeats thoughtfully, trying to mimic the pronunciation exactly.

If Oro was shy at first, watching Clarke sloppily eat raw roots has helped her get over it with a quickness. “You’re Clarke Kom Skaikru.”

Clarke pauses for half a chew, but keeps going like the notoriety doesn’t bother her. Like she doesn’t mind that her name is known because of the body count attached to it.

“You brought down the mountain.”

More chewing.

“Are you coming to Polis with us?”

Clarke finally bothers to look up from her food. “Polis?”

“Heda is going to Polis tomorrow. She just told me.”

“Lexa told you personally?” Clarke has never seen Lexa speak to any Trikru but her warriors and she can’t imagine her actually deigning to deal with children.

“I’ll get to serve her in Polis,” Oro says, puffing up her narrow chest with pride. “Of all the girls in Tondc she’s only taking two of us with her.”

“Mini-Lexas. Great,” Clarke mutters to herself. She cocks an eye at Oro. “So you’re just here to watch me eat?”

“I’m supposed to bring you anything you need. But it has to be today because tomorrow-”

“Polis,” Clarke finishes for her. She should be ecstatic. A winter in Tondc but minus Lexa? It’s ideal. But all she can think about is the night they took Mount Weather, when Lexa invited her to come to Polis, hope lighting her eyes. There’s too many familiar faces in Tondc, people who survived the missile in spite of her. “What’s Polis like this time of year?”