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Love on the Ground

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Love, on the ground, isn’t always gentle; it isn’t always kind. Sometimes, love is a hand around your neck and a blade to your throat.

Sometimes, love draws blood.

Love, on the ground, is untameable. It’s wild and unyielding, nipping at your heels. When you shun it, love is imposing, and when you crave it, love, well.

Love can slip through your fingers.

Love, on the ground, perseveres. The bombs destroyed everything, leaving shadow creatures and the damned behind to bear witness to what was done. But love cannot be irradiated. Love cannot be twisted and bent at the hands of mankind, its molecules cannot be warped, its essence cannot be tainted.

Love is love is love.

It’s the only thing worth fighting for. Even here.

***

Clarke can’t meet Lexa’s eyes when she presses the dagger to her throat.

She’s not the one Clarke wants to hurt and she knows it, deep down, beneath the bits of her that are ripped to shreds, that will never be stitched back together.

Two breaths later and and she frowns because the knife is still in her hand, because the all-powerful commander -- the heda -- isn’t even trying to disarm her. It gets worse when Lexa leans into the blade, offering herself up to the empty threat.

Clarke grips the handle and shoves her backward, and she hates herself for hoping she didn’t break skin.

“Fight back,” she says, reedy and desperate.

“I am.”

Lexa stares at her, chin raised high, and her voice is rough from the force on her windpipe. Another hidden piece of Clarke is torn up at the sound, at the realization that everywhere she goes pain trails in her wake.

“No, you’re not.”

She shifts her weight, backing off an inch, begging Lexa to step in, to force the blade from her hands and sweep her legs out from under her. What a relief it would be to be knocked to the cold, hard ground.

“Not all weapons can be seen, Clarke.”

Hope flares in her chest for an instant, at the thought that maybe there’s been a knife pointed between ribs all this time. But when she finally meets Lexa’s eyes she notices they’re wet -- practically brimming -- and it hits her that they’re fighting two separate battles entirely.

Her knees buckle and she falls to the floor, dagger clattering across the bricks. There’s a dry sob building in her chest and she holds it there, revels in its weakness.

Lexa kneels beside her, gloved hands resting on her thighs. She lifts one an inch before curling her fingers into a fist and moving it back. They stay like that for a few moments -- Clarke doubled over in agony while the cause of her torment is a quiet presence by her side.

It starts to feel an awful lot like comfort.

“I need to hate you,” Clarke whispers, keeping her sight trained on Lexa’s hands. “Everything I’ve done, it has to be your fault.” Her voice cracks and Lexa’s knuckles whiten. “Otherwise, how can I live with myself?”

Out of her periphery Clarke sees Lexa duck her head in a shallow nod. Then Lexa relaxes her fingers and presses her palm to the floor, inches from Clarke’s knee.

There are traces of dirt beneath her nails and some cuticles are bloody, just like hers. Clarke doesn’t mean to do it, but her left hand falls forward and lands with a soft slap on the bricks. Their pinky fingers are nearly touching.

Lexa lets out a shuddering breath.

“I hate myself enough for us both.”

***

Clarke stays in Polis.

It’s the path of least resistance, or at least that’s what she tells herself. Besides, she’s sick of running.

Lexa arranges for her to have a room in the opposite wing of her state house, behind the cavernous hall where the clan heads meet. The first thing Clarke does is hide her gun beneath a loose floorboard under her bed.

Lexa assigns her an attendant named Dinah -- a gentle woman with wrinkles beside her eyes who combs her hair and makes sure she eats a little, even on the bad days.

Every so often, when the woman checks in before bed, she’ll mention news she’s heard of the Skaikru and Camp Jaha. They are smoking meat for winter, she’ll say; they are building a barracks that will keep them warm through the cold months.

Clarke knows these are Lexa’s words uttered from another mouth, but she finds solace in them just the same.

Otherwise, the commander leaves her be.

***

Time is a funny thing.

Before the bombs, they used to say that time heals. But they were wrong -- time is like a scab; it layers itself on a wound until it mutes the pain.

Time scabs get thicker over time, but new skin never grows. The wound is always fresh beneath all those years.

Clarke isn’t sure how much time has passed when she first ventures out from the state house. Initially she doesn’t travel more than a few blocks before retreating to her room, but soon she can’t quell the restlessness in her legs any longer and she spends whole days walking around the city.

Polis is vibrant in a way she didn’t know existed. It’s as if the city itself is alive, and not just the people in it. Merchants sing and children laugh and she gets why the Trikru warriors are willing to die to defend this place.

Clarke learns to avoid the busy streets, where people bow their heads when she passes and mutter soft words of thanks.

She wonders what Lexa told them. It makes the scab rip clean off.

***

It’s ridiculous, because they technically live in the same house, but she never runs into Lexa.

There’s a weak part of Clarke that expects to find her around every corner and is disappointed when time and again she’s not there. She starts to wander the state house like she wandered the city, telling herself she only wants to explore its pre-war libraries and ornate meeting rooms; the figments of the past are better company than the ghosts of her present.

Sometimes, when she’s feeling reckless, she’ll slip into the other residential wing and walk slowly down the hallways, dragging her fingers along the chipping walls. Her movements are not quiet or stealthy but, somehow, she never sees another soul.

One night, she asks Dinah if her heda is in town.

“Oh yes,” she says with a small smile.

She says nothing more.

***

The next morning, Clarke turns a corner and there Lexa is.

She’s standing in the corridor leading to the kitchens, where Clarke always stops at first light to grab a piece of fruit before setting out for the day. Even though she must have been expecting her -- waiting for her -- Lexa’s mouth falls open, and it takes a few seconds before she schools her features back into their steely places.

The hint of vulnerability eases Clarke’s nerves and she only falters slightly before resuming her quick stride. She forces herself to keep her eyes steady on Lexa as she approaches, but she doesn’t quite trust herself to look into her face.

Instead, she lets her eyes drift downward, taking in the commander’s casual dress and the small bundle under one arm. When she’s about a foot away Clarke stops and, as she drags her eyes back up, Lexa shifts on her feet.

Her eyes are as impassive as ever when Clarke finally meets them, but her jaw is set tight. She swallows before she speaks.

“Clarke.” Her voice cracks and she clears her throat. “You look well.”

“Do I?” Clarke huffs out a dry laugh and glances down her body; at her jeans hanging loosely on her hips and the stains on her shirt that won’t come out, no matter how hard Dinah scrubs. “If this is what passes for ‘well,’ I must’ve really looked like hell before.”

Lexa’s eyes follow her gaze, then she jerks them to the side.

“I’ve brought you some warmer clothing,” she says, holding out the bundle. “You did not bring much with you, and our winters are harsh.”

“Thanks.” Clarke takes it from her and runs her fingers over woven fabric and soft fur.

She waits for whatever is coming next, because seasonal clothing delivery is clearly not one of the commander’s duties. Maybe she’s going to tell her that she’s outstayed her welcome, or that she’ll have to pay the price for threatening the Trikru leader’s life.

But Lexa only nods and turns on her heels, walking swiftly away. The sight makes Clarke’s stomach lurch and she closes her eyes, willing the old pangs of betrayal away.

“Lexa,” she calls out, hardly realizing it.

When she opens her eyes Lexa has stopped at the end of the corridor, looking at her with raised brows. Clarke exhales with the relief of another time.

“Clarke?”

She doesn’t know how to breach this silence, this distance. There are apologies she needs to hear as well as ones she needs to say. There’s anger and resentment still swirling inside her, and she thinks if she yells loud and long enough it might just force them out. Then there’s her broken wing of a soul that wants to be nursed back to health until she can carry on.

And, somewhere amongst all of it, there’s a girl at the end of the hall who says her name like it means something else.

“I--” she starts, then shakes her head.

Lexa’s brow knits together as she takes in the anguish that must be written out on Clarke’s face. She closes her eyes for two beats, and when she opens them again she simply nods.

“It need not be said.”

After one last look she’s gone, leaving only the sounds of her steps ricocheting off the walls. Clarke feels as empty as the space between the echos.

***

She can’t believe her luck when she finds it.

There’s a string of fortified tunnels running beneath Polis that the grounders use for many purposes, from armories to drying sheds to prison cells. Clarke knows they’re from before the bombs because they have concrete steps and tiled walls, but she can’t recall their original purpose.

She used to know, she’s sure -- Earth Skills was her favorite class, next to art -- but her brain is too murky, now. These last few months have kicked up so much cognitive dust she’s not sure it will ever settle.

But when she finds it -- an unused stretch of tunnel on the outskirts of town -- she thinks it might help. Because it’s quiet underground, with gentle traces of sunlight seeping in through cracks in the ceiling.

She can truly be alone, here. It’s a place free of grateful looks from strangers, a place without a soul to relay her actions back to Lexa.

Maybe here -- sitting against a soot-covered wall and her boots propped up on a metal bar -- she can find the girl she used to be.

***

Lexa, suddenly, keeps turning up.

Clarke sees her in the streets, outside of the council room, on her way to the bath house.

Most times, Lexa will meet her eyes and nod. Sometimes, if she’s otherwise occupied, Clarke will pass by unacknowledged, though she never feels unregistered.

Soon, she finds herself looking for Lexa whenever she leaves her room, though she refuses to name the feeling that builds in her chest when a day goes by without a sighting.

(It’s not disappointment.)

(Definitely not.)

***

And it’s not excitement when she finds her in the library, either.

Lexa almost looks guilty when Clarke stumbles upon her in a sunny corner of the room, sitting between two tall stacks with a book propped open on her knees. If she didn’t know any better she’d actually think she startled her -- that Lexa was so caught up in the story that she was oblivious to her heavy, Sky People footsteps.

“Oh, sorry, I had no idea you were in here.” Clarke hesitates as Lexa closes the book and sets it down before she can catch the title. “I’ll go.”

Her legs, however, are rooted in place, and the corner of Lexa’s lips creeps upward.

“No, stay,” she says. “There’s something we need to discuss.”

“Okay.” Clarke sits across from her, leaning her back against the opposite stack. Being this close to Lexa for the first time in weeks makes her anxious, so she takes the nearest book she can reach and thumbs through its pages to satisfy her fidgety hands. “Discuss away.”

Lexa searches her face. “What do you hope to gain from your time here?”

“Uh, I’m not sure.” She shrugs one shoulder. “Honestly, I haven’t really been thinking long-term since I got here. Or since I walked away from Camp Jaha, really.” Clarke swallows, willing those thoughts away. “Why do you ask?”

Lexa stretches her legs out in front of her and moves her left hand to her hip, as if searching for the handle of her sword. When she doesn’t find it she settles her hands in her lap.

“There are those who question your motives,” she says. “Most are grateful for your part in freeing our people from the Mountain, but some wonder. They see you walking a different path each day and fear you are scouting the city. That I let a spy inside our walls.”

A laugh escapes Clarke before she can help it, because most days it feels like she can hardly put one foot in front of the other. Some spy she’d make.

“You know that’s not true, right?”

“I do.” Lexa nods. “But I need a believable alternative to report to naysayers -- one you will not refute.”

Clarke smirks. “Tell them I’m defecting.”

“That is not funny,” Lexa says, and something about the way she looks at her makes Clarke’s smile fade.

“Fine.” Clarke focuses on the sound the paper makes as the pages sift under her thumb. “Say… say I’m recovering. I have a wound that won’t heal -- one they can’t see.”

The commander appears to consider this and then she picks up her book, the matter apparently resolved.

“You’ll like that one,” she says, nodding to the book in Clarke’s hands. “It’s about a healer who brings a man back from the dead using a bolt of lightning. They refer to the wrong person as the monster, though.”

It makes Clarke think of an alliance that started when her mother turned a reaper back into a man using another sort of bolt, and her fingers tighten on the book’s spine.

“And yours? What’s that one about?”

“This one is part of a series,” she says. “Children are dropped into an arena and forced to fight to the death.”

Clarke chuckles and shakes her head. “You would read that.”

Lexa juts out her chin. “There are tender moments, too.”

“I bet.” She places her book back on the shelf and starts to rise. “I’m not feeling up to this one just yet.”

“Wait.” Lexa sits up straight as if she’s going to bar her from going, but then she stops herself. Clarke watches as she rises to her knees and scans the shelf in front of her until she selects another book. “Try this one. It’s the first in a series.”

Clarke takes it and settles back down. “What’s it about?”

“A young orphan who learns he can perform magic,” she says, moving to sit beside Clarke. “He is sent to school with other children of the same sort. It’s rather fantastical but it helps to… take one’s mind off things.”

“Do any of the children kill each other?”

Lexa shakes her head. “Not in the first few books, anyhow.”

Clarke presses her lips together to hide a smile and shifts to sit with her legs crossed. She freezes when her knee presses into the side of Lexa’s thigh, but the commander only opens her book, as if she hasn’t noticed, so Clarke stays put.

They read side-by-side until the light is too dim to continue.

***

Clarke has never ventured this far into the tunnel.

She normally stays near the entrance for, even though the Mountain has fallen, the fear of lurking reapers is difficult to erase. Luckily this portion of the tunnel is bright, due to the large amount of cracks in the ceiling -- which is probably why the grounders let it go unused.

There’s a wooden crate off to one side that looks like it will make for a more comfortable seat than the floor. But when she starts to tug it back toward the entrance its contents spill out, and Clarke gasps with disbelief.

She’s seen these in movies from before -- delinquent teenagers used them before the bombs to write curse words on vacant buildings. Tall, thin cans that spray out mists of paint.

They can’t possibly still function, but Clarke can’t stop herself from reaching for one with an orange cap. She does as she’s seen on film -- she shakes it, holds it out, and presses her finger down on the nozzle.

The can makes a hissing noise and she drops it, jumping back. But then she sees it -- a dripping orange dot on the concrete wall.

She practically squeals in delight for the first time in god knows how long.

Grinning, she picks the can up and shakes it again, stepping closer to the wall. Part of her wants to paint something, but the can feels so unlike a brush and she doesn’t know what she’d want to create, anyway.

So, like the vandals in the movies, she starts to write.

The first word written on that wall in 100 years is a shaky, orange, “SORRY.”

***

At first, Clarke returns to the library hoping to find Lexa.

More often than not, she isn’t there. On those days, Clarke sits on the floor between the two stacks near the window and holds her head in her hands, berating herself for seeking comfort in the person who was the catalyst for her pain.

After she’s given herself enough emotional lashes, she picks up her book and reads about witches and wizards who could fix all her problems with a flick of a wand. When she comes across a spell she’d like to use she whispers it aloud, rolling the strange letters off her tongue, just in case.

Soon, her library trips are less to do with the commander and more about losing herself in another world -- one where good always, always wins; one where she doesn’t exist.

On the occasion that Lexa is there, nothing is markedly different. That is, Clarke still sits in her spot, next to Lexa, and picks up reading where she left off.

But, in a way, her presence changes everything. There’s something about being near her that makes Clarke’s shoulders relax and the ever-present knot in her gut loosen.

Lexa feels like absolution -- the kind that’s not hers to grant. Clarke allows herself to sink into it for these small stretches of time, because phantom forgiveness is the best she’ll ever get.

On the bad days, closeness is not enough. On those days, Clarke will press the toe of her boot against Lexa’s ankle, or bend her elbow so that it nudges her side.

Soon, Lexa catches on. On the bad days, she’ll inch over until their shoulders touch, until their hips and legs are in line. And Clarke is so grateful for them -- those little gifts of weakness given freely by someone who so values strength.

It’s not long before the bad days are indistinguishable from the good.

As soon as Clarke sits down they lean into one another, their breathing falling into sync. Lexa might rest her ankle on Clarke’s shin, or place her warm hand on her thigh.

One day, when the world seems extra bleak, Clarke lets her head fall to Lexa’s shoulder. It’s easy to pretend that the peace of this moment is all that exists, and her eyes flutter closed. She continues flipping the pages of her book so it seems like she’s still reading, but on the third time Lexa’s hand covers hers and presses it back down.

Heat rises to Clarke’s cheeks and she’s about to stammer out an explanation when she hears a book snap closed and, then, feels Lexa’s head gently rest on top of hers.

For all her armor and severity, Lexa’s body is so soft. Clarke melts into her, pressing more of her weight against her thin frame than the stack of books behind them. She feels a bit guilty, siphoning off Lexa’s strength. Then she hears Lexa sigh and wonders if she might be fortified by these touches, too.

A few strands of brown hair fall across Clarke’s forehead just as she inhales. Lexa smells like one of the first flowers she ever saw on the ground -- the kind that grow in delicate bunches, clusters of purple petals that curl toward the sun.

Clarke places her book on the floor and moves her hand to rest palm-up on Lexa’s thigh. An instant later, five small fingers twine with hers.

There’s a spell for saving memories so you can relive them again and again and again. Clarke says it silently to herself.

(It works.)

***

Clarke pulls the fur-lined jacket tight around her as she walks into her tunnel, which offers little respite from the winter’s winds. But she doesn’t mind the cold -- it feels like penance.

And so she comes here most days to add to her wall of confessions.

There are so many that the space can hardly contain them -- words run together and overlap, colors bleeding into one another. It almost looks like the wall is sagging in places -- like it just can’t bear the weight of all her sins.

Today, she shakes the last can -- red -- and paints out four letters that span from the floor to the ceiling, that run the width of her regrets.

“STOP.”

She traces the red letters over and over until the paint -- and her tears -- run dry.

(It doesn’t work.)

***

Lexa never asks about the splotches of color on her skin.

She’ll turn her hands over in hers and trace the black, blue, and green shapes with her fingers, but she doesn’t question her about their origins. Clarke wonders if she knows what she’s been up to -- if she has a scout trail her when she leaves the state house grounds. In all her misery, she’s never bothered to check.

But when Clarke walks past Lexa on the way back to her room with hands covered in red, she soon hears footsteps following behind her. It makes a flicker of warmth rise beneath her sternum and she quickens her pace so she can ease the commander’s concern.

“It’s not blood,” Clarke says once Lexa closes the bedroom door behind them.

“I know it’s not blood.” Lexa practically spits the words out and Clarke flinches. “But there are those who do not have such a keen eye, Clarke. False rumors have been started from less.”

“What are you talking about?” Clarke frowns, reeling from Lexa’s anger. “Someone walking around with blood on their hands can’t be a rare occurrence here, no offense. Besides, your people respect ruthlessness. How could that kind of rumor be harmful?”

Lexa’s hands curl into fists and she looks to the ceiling, taking a deep breath.

“Believe me, those who claim you are a spy could turn stained fingers into murder by nightfall.”

Lexa takes a step toward her and Clarke moves back, bumping into the bed. Her eyes roam over Clarke’s face and whatever she finds there make her own features soften. Lexa unclenches her fingers and takes another step forward.

“I am doing everything I can to convince my opponents that you are only here to rest,” she says softly, moving even closer. “But carelessness like this,” she takes one of Clarke’s paint-covered hand in hers, “could be the match they use to light the tinderbox. Once that happens, as you know, my hands are tied.”

Clarke meets Lexa’s eyes and realizes they’ve been filled with fear, not anger, all along.

“Jus drein, jus daun,” she whispers. Lexa squeezes her fingers and nods. “I’m sorry -- I wasn’t thinking. I’ll be more careful.”

“It would be best if you stayed on the grounds for a few days,” Lexa says. “So we can be sure there is no threat.”

“Okay.”

Lexa squeezes Clarke’s hand one more time and then turns to leave. Clarke calls out to her just as she reaches for the doorknob and she stops, but doesn’t look back.

“Does my being here… Am I putting you in danger, Lexa?”

Lexa breathes out a quiet laugh. “No more than usual, Clarke.”

***

It takes four days for Dinah to scrub all of the red paint from Clarke’s skin.

Clarke tells her she can wash her hands on her own but the woman insists, and by now she has learned not to argue. Three times a day Dinah submerges Clarke’s hands in a wooden wash basin filled with soapy water and rubs them raw with a coarse cloth.

Sometimes they sit in happy silence, but every so often Dinah will murmur about local rumors in a tone so low and soothing Clarke finds herself listening more to the lilt of her voice than the content of her stories. It takes her two days to realize that some of the tidbits Dinah shares aren’t gossip she’s heard at the well -- it’s privileged information that someone outside of the commander’s inner circle wouldn’t know.

Clarke pays better attention, after that. She doesn’t want to be a leader anymore, but these glimpses of reality help anchor her to the ground. And it’s nice to hear Lexa’s words, even spoken from another mouth.

As soon as her skin is clean she goes to the market and trades a pair of fur-lined stockings for a ladder, a paint brush, and a bucket of whitewash. By nightfall, her wall of confessions is gone.

Although it’s not gone, really -- even if no one can see them, she knows they still exist under a thin layer of paint, like another kind of scab.

Clarke sits on the overturned crate and stares at the wall as darkness falls around her. She realizes, then, that she doesn’t want to paint over the past, not even the atrocities she’s committed. It has to have a lasting mark -- it has to mean something, it has to have counted for something.

Some good has to come of it. Clarke stands and kicks the crate in frustration because she has no fucking idea where to start.

***

The season’s first snowstorm hits a few days later.

Clarke spends the morning wrapped in blankets with her face pressed against the window beside her bed, unable to tear her gaze away from the white flakes swirling toward the ground. It’s not at all like it looked in the movies.

She wonders how the snow would taste on her tongue.

There’s a knock on the door.

“Come in, Dinah,” she says, still looking out the window as the door creeks open. “You don’t have to knock, you know.”

“Clarke. It’s me.”

She turns to find Lexa standing in her doorway holding a pair of clunky, furry boots. Clarke lifts her hand in a poor attempt to hide the grin that’s stretching across her face. Lexa smiles too, for a second, before pressing her lips together and staring at the ground.

“You look all bundled up,” Clarke says, taking in her fur-lined coat and hat. “Where are you off to?”

“Well.” Lexa clears her throat. “Snow is largely a nuisance for us, but I heard those who are not used to it find it… enchanting.”

Clarke doesn’t even try to hide her smile this time. “Are you inviting me to go out into the snow?”

Lexa nods. “If you would like.”

“Definitely! Just let me get dressed real quick.”

Clarke throws off her blankets and climbs out of bed, shivering as the cool air hits her skin. She’d been dressing in the clothes Lexa had given her for weeks now, but she’d never figured out which, if any, were meant as pajamas, so she still sleeps in an oversized t-shirt from the Ark.

As she bends to pick up yesterday’s pants from the floor, she hears the boots Lexa was holding fall to the bricks with a thud. Clarke glances up to see her Lexa staring determinedly somewhere off to the left.

“I didn’t realize you were not dressed,” the commander says to the wall. “I’ll wait for you outside.”

As she turns to leave, Clarke catches a glimpse of two pink cheeks.

***

Everything Clarke thought she knew about snow turns out to be wrong.

Once they enter the gardens she spreads her arms wide and turns her face up to the sky, watching the flakes dance in the breeze. She’s surprised to find that they melt the instant they touch her skin and that some gather on her lashes until she blinks them away.

The earth is more quiet and still than she’s ever seen it. It feels as if they’re in a snowglobe -- like there’s an invisible dome surrounding them, keeping them safe. She turns to ask Lexa if she feels the same way, but she finds her watching her with an eyebrow slightly raised.

“Is it true that no two are alike?” Clarke asks instead, dropping her arms. “I read that in a book once.”

“I have heard that, too.” Lexa smiles at her, then looks off at the white landscape. “Though I don’t know how one could ever know for certain. There’s so much of it.”

“That’s true.” Clarke examines some of the flakes that are still frozen on the sleeve of her coat, white crystals standing out on the black fabric. She points to her favorite one -- a perfect circle with five sharp points. “For all we know, this same shape fell from the sky in Sweden a thousand years ago.”

Lexa breathes out a laugh, a cloud of condensation puffing out from her mouth. She kicks at some snow with her boot. “Snowflake reincarnation.”

“Well, I’m not saying it has the spirit of the first snowflake,” Clarke says, elbowing Lexa’s arm. “Only that they’re genetically identical.”

Lexa raises her eyes skyward and shakes her head. When she meets Clarke’s gaze again it’s staggering, the warmth that she finds there. Her eyes look more gray than green, out here -- like they’re trying to blend in with the clouds. A snowflake catches on the corner of her lashes and Clarke fights the urge to brush it away.

“No. I don’t think so,” Lexa says after a moment. “I think that was the first and the last time snow will ever take that shape, and we are the only two who will ever see it.”

Her words make Clarke’s cheeks warm and she has to glance away. Despite all the time they’ve spent together lately, these little tender exchanges still catch her off-guard.

Only Lexa can take a conversation about precipitation and steep it in deeper meaning. Clarke marvels in the strength of her faith in the order of things. She wishes she could be more like her -- someone who truly believes it takes as long as it takes, someone who can press forward against the blade of a knife.

Lexa is unwavering, and Clarke wonders how the heda could ever put her faith in someone as broken as her.

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” Clarke says, turning toward her.

Lexa shifts closer, too, and her eyes roam down Clarke’s face, landing on her lips. Before she can help it Clarke does the same, and suddenly she’s watching Lexa’s front teeth sink into soft, pink flesh.

It’s a heavy moment, and there’s something like gravity drawing Clarke in. She lets it take her, for an instant, leaning forward at the same rate as Lexa until the smoky puffs of their breaths meet.

“Clarke,” Lexa whispers, and there’s so much wrapped up in that word. It’s a question, a command, an affirmation; it’s so many things, and Clarke isn’t worth of any of it.

She jolts back, her last defense shield slamming into place. “Uh, sorry I--” Clarke shakes her head helplessly and Lexa just nods, straightening her spine.

Lexa takes a few steps forward -- lengthening the void between them -- and picks up a handful of snow, which she then tosses into the air. Clarke watches, arms hanging at her sides, as the wind sweeps the snow away.

“You’re lucky,” Lexa says. “It’s too dry.”

Clarke takes a step toward her. “Too dry for what?”

“For snowballs.” Lexa glances up at her and there’s a hint of mischief on her face that makes Clarke sigh in relief.

“Was that a threat, commander?” Clarke bends and scoops snow into her hands, but when she tries to pack it into a sphere it crumbles between her fingers.

“I wouldn’t threaten someone so unpracticed in the ways of war.” Lexa smirks, eyes trained on Clarke’s pout.

“Really?” Clarke tosses the powdery snow at her, and it sprays across her coat. “I seem to recall things a little differently.”

Lexa’s smile drops and Clarke holds up her hands as if she can call back her words.

“Sorry, that was a bad joke,” she says, walking up to Lexa. “I didn’t mean to bring that up.”

The wind picks up, howling through the space between them. Lexa opens her mouth and closes it again before she finally speaks.

“I didn’t know what I didn’t know, Clarke.”

It’s another ambiguity, but she understands exactly what she means. Clarke reaches for her hand -- it’s just as cold as her own.

“I know,” she says. “Me neither.”

Lexa brushes her thumb over the back of Clarke’s hand and it’s like the stroke of a match. Clarke swallows back the sparks.

“Well since we can’t make snowballs, there’s something else I’ve always wanted to do.” Clarke tightens her fingers around Lexa’s. “Come on.”

There’s a small clearing in the center of the gardens and Clarke tugs Lexa toward it, breaking into a jog toward a pristine stretch of snow.

Each step brings something new, and she focuses on the sensations instead of thinking about everything that just passed between them. She always thought snow would crunch underfoot like leaves, but it turns out to shift beneath her boots, squelching as it compacts into itself.

Every so often one foot will slide out from under her, and she’s pretty sure she’d have landed face-first in the white stuff if Lexa hadn’t linked their arms together after the first slip.

“Okay, this is good,” Clarke says, stopping and surveying the spot.

Lexa peers at her. “It is good for what?”

Clarke slides her arm free and nudges her shoulder. “Do you trust me?”

“I believe you know the answer to that.”

Lexa looks at her like she’s trying very hard not to glance away, and Clarke takes in a shaky breath as she remembers when they last spoke about trust. She closes her eyes and for an instant they’re back inside the tent, bloodthirsty and naive.

Maybe life should be about more than just surviving.

Her own words ring in her ears as she grips Lexa’s shoulders and spins her around, so her back is to the untouched snow. Then Clarke walks a few paces to the side and turns the same way.

There are two trails of footprints leading to where they stand. The swiftly falling snow is already filling them in, but Clarke finds comfort even in their temporary evidence. She turns to Lexa.

“Just do what I do,” she says, holding her arms out to the side. “Ready?”

Lexa holds her gaze for a moment, and then she nods.

Clarke is smiling when she takes a deep breath and lets herself fall back. She hears a soft thud a second later, and when she opens her eyes Lexa is lying on the ground beside her, staring right back. Her eyes are green again.

They begin to move their arms and legs, sweeping the powder aside until they have made two identical indents in the snow. When they’re done, Lexa helps Clarke stand and they walk arm-in-arm back to the house, both following an unspoken agreement to only step in the same footprints they made on the trek out.

Clarke glances back before they turn inside and halts in her tracks, tugging Lexa to a stop, too. They lean into each other -- these two girls with so much blood on their hands -- and stare at their creation until the cold seeps into their bones.

It looks like two angels walked into a clearing, laid down side by side, and disappeared.

Chapter Text

The Sky People are faring well during their first winter, Dinah tells Clarke one night. Their traps have caught three bears in the last month and they’ve salvaged plenty of thick blankets to stave off the cold.

She doesn’t mention where they found the blankets, but when Clarke shivers Dinah runs a soothing hand down her back, like she knows.

Once she finishes braiding Clarke’s hair and stoking the fire, Dinah wipes her hands on her pants and says goodnight. Before she shuts the door she turns back and looks at Clarke with kind, tired eyes.

“I know your path has not been an easy one,” Dinah says, and Clarke knows her words are her own. “I have not made mention of it because it is best to leave the past undisturbed.”

Clarke nods, trying to will back the sting in her eyes; even hearing her trials acknowledged in the abstract stabs through time’s dulling layers. Dinah watches her for a long moment.

“Have you heard the phrase ‘sonraun souda kik raun,’ Clarke?”

“No,” she whispers. “What does it mean?”

“It is an old, old expression. My mother taught it to me when my baby brother fell ill and died. ‘Sonraun souda kik raun.’ Life must be lived.” Dinah bows her head and reaches for the doorknob. “The only way is forward.”

***

That night Clarke dreams she’s beneath the sea.

Her lungs are straining to breathe and she kicks and kicks and kicks, feeling the water give way beneath her legs and stream through her fingers.

The sun is there, blurry and bright above the surface, but no matter how much she tries it doesn’t get any closer. Waves roll home, up on the surface, and she thinks it would be a certain kind of peace to get dragged under. Hopelessness courses along her veins, burns through her tired muscles.

She takes a long, deep breath.

Clarke wakes up gasping with her heart pounding in her chest and hot tears running down her face. Soon a giggle builds in her throat, and then she’s laughing, doubling over, until the happy tears mix with the sad.

She didn’t drown.

She didn’t drown and she’s relieved.

***

The fireplace in Lexa’s room is three times the size as the one in Clarke’s.

They go there sometimes to warm up after being out in the cold for too long, especially when the snow is wet enough for snowballs.

To the untrained observer Lexa’s quarters might appear barren, but to Clarke the minimalism makes the few personal touches stand out all the more; there are three books stacked neatly on the table by the bed, a dried flower pinned to parchment hanging on the wall, a crown of twigs on the windowsill.

It takes a few visits for Clarke to notice the relics from Lexa’s past -- the familiar braid sitting on her dresser, a sword with a “G” scratched onto the handle lying on the floor, and a necklace with a yellow stone hanging from a hook, part of its chain stained with something that isn’t rust.

Clarke keeps her ghosts hidden underground, but Lexa -- she sleeps among hers.

***

In front of the fireplace sits a large chair. It’s like a simpler version of Lexa’s throne, wider and covered in furs. The two of them can just fit.

When they come inside, Clarke usually sits hugging her knees to her chest until her teeth stop chattering. Then she relaxes beneath the blanket Lexa drapes over them and curls into her side. Her favorite thing is when Lexa reaches for her hands beneath the covers and presses Clarke’s palms together before running her own hands over them, back and forth, back and forth, warming them with friction.

There were factions of spiritualism on the Ark, though Clarke’s family never took part in anything like that. She always envied them a little -- that whatever they believed in was a source of such comfort.

The night after they buried Wells, Clarke snuck off to a quiet spot behind the drop ship and knelt in the dirt, but each plea she whispered to the universe was only met with pain.

But this -- this is different. With her forehead against Lexa’s and their hands pressed together like steeples, it feels like a prayer and an answer all in one.

***

Clarke finally decides what to do with the white wall in her tunnel.

She’s sitting alone in the library when she gets the idea. As soon as it hits her she marks her spot in her book (the third in the series) and runs to her room to find items to trade for supplies.

She knows Lexa would procure her everything she needs if she asked, but this feels like something she should do on her own. This time she trades her dagger. She’d stopped carrying it with her weeks ago, anyway.

Clarke places the items in a box and shoves it under her bed. She’ll start as soon as the snow melts.

***

“Did you mean it when you said you hated yourself?” Clarke feels Lexa nod against her head, and she pulls away to meet her eyes. “Why?”

Lexa stares into the fire and tugs the blanket up under her chin. “A few months ago you yourself would’ve been all to happy to answer that question for me.”

“I was angry with myself, Lexa -- with the world. You get that right?” Clarke finds her hand under the covers and squeezes. Lexa nods again. “So stop avoiding the question.”

“I only meant to say--” She closes her eyes and swallows. “I do not regret the choices made in my capacity as commander, Clarke. Each decision has had the sole purpose of protecting my people, which I have sworn to do. There is no fault in that.”

Clarke twines their fingers together and watches the light of the fire play across Lexa’s face. When she finally opens her eyes, they’re filled with flames.

“I will never be sorry for my actions,” she says, turning toward Clarke. “But I can never forgive myself for the consequences, either.”

Clarke nods, and she doesn’t realize that tears had been building in her eyes until Lexa swipes a damp thumb across her cheek. She understands why it was so easy to forgive Lexa -- all she did was walk away. It’s that simple.

All this time Clarke had thought Lexa’s hand was over hers and Bellamy’s, forcing them to push down the lever. But she finally gets it -- she’s worked out what Lexa had been trying to teach her about leadership all along.

Lexa didn’t force her to kill Finn -- she was upholding justice. Lexa didn’t permit the bombing of TonDC -- she was protecting Bellamy. And Lexa wasn’t condemning Clarke to a doomed fate on Mt. Weather -- she was rescuing her people from one.

A leader makes choices in a vacuum, and the person wearing the crown suffers the real-world consequences. The decisions aren’t personal, but the fallout always is.

“There’s no place for heart in leadership unless you want it sliced out of you and handed back, bloody and beating,” Lexa says, voice wobbling. “And I am cursed because my heart grows back again, and again, and again.”

A single tear crests Lexa’s lashes and Clarke reaches out to cup her cheeks, swallowing against a lump in her throat.

“That’s not a curse, Lexa,” she says. “It just means you care. It means you’re human.”

She meant for the words to bolster her, but Lexa’s chin falls to her chest. When she speaks, Clarke has to lean in close to hear.

“I don’t think the commander’s spirit chose wisely, with me.”

Clarke doesn’t believe in reincarnation, but she knows in her heart that Lexa is wrong. Nothing on the ground is black and white; two conflicting beliefs can be equally true. You can commit heartless acts without losing your heart, and the dagger that slits your throat can heal it, too.

And so Clarke lifts Lexa’s chin with two fingers and leans into the blade.

Lexa’s lips are wet from tears when Clarke kisses her, and at least one of the girls is trembling. Clarke goes slowly, summoning strength within herself and trying to pass it back to Lexa -- the person who’s been darning her tattered soul for months.

Lexa takes in a shuddering breath and presses forward, her nose damp against Clarke’s cheek. Their lips part and come together again and again, and it’s almost too gentle. Clarke has never felt quite so vulnerable and her hands shake with the effort to not move away.

She startles when Lexa closes her fingers around Clarke’s wrist and drags her hand down to press it against her chest. Even through her winter layers, Clarke can feel Lexa’s heart hammering inside of her, like she wants to run, too.

The beat against her palm steadies her and Clarke’s nerves transform into something else, settling hot and low in her stomach. She changes the angle of the kiss, nose brushing over Lexa’s, and meets her mouth once more with parted lips.

Clarke tastes traces of salt when she runs her tongue across her bottom lip, and she wonders if her tears taste the same. The thought is soon forgotten when Lexa lets out this soft little whine that’s clipped at the end, like the sound was never supposed to get past her throat.

She’s caught off guard when Lexa slips her tongue into her mouth, trying to gain the upper hand after faltering. Clarke smiles against her lips as she leans into the kiss, pressing her back against the arm of the chair. They kiss like the tide -- surging forward and pulling back like none of this is in their control.

Lexa hisses in a breath and grips Clarke’s waist with one hand while the other grazes up her side. The sensation gives Clarke goosebumps and when she whimpers, Lexa clutches the fabric of Clarke’s shirt, knuckles digging into her ribs.

The fire crackles loudly and they can hear the logs collapse on each other, succumbing to the heat. The sound reminds Clarke of reality, but she’s not ready to return just yet. She plants a trail of wet kisses along Lexa’s jaw and grazes her teeth down her neck.

When she finally pulls back, flushed and panting, Clarke sees that her nails have left five red crescents around Lexa’s heart, like she was trying to rip it from her chest. She kisses each mark and then rests her cheek in the center, breathing evening out as Lexa sifts her hands through Clarke’s hair.

“Lexa,” she whispers, tapping a finger below her collarbone. “There is no weakness, here.”

She feels Lexa’s lips on her forehead before she drifts off to sleep.

***

This winter is lingering longer than most, Dinah tells Clarke. She describes the Trikru’s frustration with unfamiliar English words: restless, stir-crazy, cooped-up.

Dinah gives Clarke a strange look when she asks her what they mean, but once she does Clarke just laughs. She explains that the words must’ve disappeared from the Sky People’s vocabulary because they’d describe every single waking moment on the Ark.

No one is more restless than the commander herself. She starts pacing the stacks in the library instead of reading, glaring out the windows as if to scare off any threatening storms.

One morning Clarke is awoken before first light by a knock on the door. She finds Lexa on the other side with her shoulder guard on.

“What’s happened?” Clarke steps forward as a tremor runs through her. Now that her eyes have adjusted to the dark she can see a bow strapped across Lexa’s chest and a quiver slung over her arm.

“Everything is fine, Clarke,” she says, holding up her hand as if to stop her train of thought. “I can’t stay inside another day and you need to learn how to hunt properly.” She reaches down and picks up a spare bow, a quiver full of arrows, and a shoulder guard, then hands them over. “Dress warmly,” she says, eyes drifting down Clarke’s bare legs. “Meet me in the kitchens when you are ready.”

The sun is just starting to rise when they reach the forest. Clarke yawns and takes one last bite of her apple before tossing it off to the side.

Lexa stops and stares at her. “You just scared all of the animals away.”

Clarke huffs. “I didn’t know we’d started yet!”

“There is no ‘start’ or ‘end,’ Clarke.” Lexa rolls her eyes and continues walking. “One must always move like they’re both hunting and being hunted.”

“What was I supposed to do with it, put it in my pocket?”

“Not unless you want to get mauled by a bear.”

“Great.” Clarke throws up her hands. “Why did you even let me bring an apple, then?”

Lexa clears her throat, keeping her eyes on the trail ahead of them. “I felt sorry for frightening you earlier,” she says quietly. “And I know you like them.”

“Oh.” Clarke catches up to Lexa and bumps her hip against hers. “So to make up for it you let me bring a piece of fruit that I wouldn’t be able to quietly dispose of?”

Lexa glances over at her and nods. Clarke laughs.

“Well, weird apology accepted.”

***

Once she masters the art of walking quietly, Clarke is pretty sure she proves to be a better hunter than Lexa had expected. She hadn’t survived on her own for months on luck alone -- something she proves when the snares she sets quickly catch two fat rabbits.

The movement of the bow and arrow doesn’t come naturally, at first. Frustration unfurls inside her when her third arrow bounces off a tree, but then Lexa steps behind her and corrects her stance with two firm hands on her waist.

“Shoulders wide,” she says, and Clarke can feel Lexa’s breath on her neck. “You cannot hesitate. From the moment you lift the bow, it is one swift movement.” Clarke nods, but Lexa doesn’t step away. She feels Lexa’s fingers tighten on her waist. “I hate to think of you being on your own for so long,” she whispers. “I sent scouts looking for you.”

Clarke swallows, closing her eyes. “I didn’t want to be found.”

“I know.” Lexa wraps her arms around her and leans forward, pressing her nose to the side of Clarke’s neck. “I am glad you came back.”

Clarke’s brow furrows as she wonders how she could’ve come back to a city she’d never been to before. Lexa kisses the skin behind her ear just as the meaning of her words hits her.

After holding her for another moment Lexa moves away. On her next try, Clarke’s arrow lands straight-on, splintering the bark of the tree.

***

The sun is low in the sky when Clarke nearly clips a deer, and Lexa smothers a laugh at the silent temper tantrum that follows. It’s for the best that she missed, Lexa says, because they’d have to lug the carcass back to the city on their own.

“Wait, we’re really alone out here?” Clarke says.

“Yes.”

“There aren’t any guards tailing us, keeping watch?”

Lexa shakes her head. “This is what it’s like in peacetime. We keep scouts stationed at outposts in a ten mile radius around Polis, but there are no imminent threats.” She steps closer and touches Clarke’s elbow. “You did this.”

Clarke chuckles humorlessly and bends to tighten her laces to avoid Lexa’s gaze.

“Acknowledging the good that’s come of your actions doesn’t absolve you, Clarke,” Lexa says, voice soft. “But it helps to remind yourself why you had to make such a choice. That way, when the time comes again, you will not hesitate.”

Clarke stands and crosses her arms, eyes trained on the ground. “No, you don’t get it,” she says. “I won’t have to make a choice like that again. That’s not my life anymore. So you can stop with the leadership advice.”

She doesn’t look up when Lexa walks over to her and reaches for her hand, where it’s tucked against her chest. After a moment Clarke sighs and lets her arms fall to her sides so Lexa can link their fingers together.

Clarke steels herself for another sermon about how she can become a leader people look to, how she was born for it, the same as Lexa. But the commander just tugs on Clarke’s hand until she meets her eyes.

“Do you hate me, Clarke?”

“What?” She frowns and searches Lexa’s face. “No, of course not.”

“When you first came to Polis you told me you had to hate me, or else you couldn’t live with yourself.” Lexa steps closer until their boots are touching, and takes Clarke’s other hand in hers. “So if you don’t hate me, you need to find another way to move forward. That is what I’m trying to teach you.”

“Sonraun souda kik raun,” Clarke whispers, blinking against the sting in her eyes.

“Yes,” Lexa says, eyebrows knitting together. “You have saved more lives than you’ve taken, Clarke. You put an end to 100 years of bloodshed that might have lasted for 100 more. Please try to see that.”

Clarke’s shoulders sag and she exhales, suddenly feeling very tired. When Lexa’s arms close around her she’s so grateful because she isn’t sure if her legs can bear her weight.

“I’m trying,” she says into her hair. “I really am.”

***

The sun has long since set by the time they bring the rabbits to the kitchen and eat the stew that the cooks prepare from their game.

Later, Clarke holds Lexa’s hand as they walk toward the living quarters and, tonight, she doesn’t let go as she turns to her wing. If Lexa is surprised she doesn’t let on -- she just follows Clarke to her room, dismisses a grinning Dinah, and shuts the door behind them.

They take turns cleaning up in the washbasin and undress in contented silence. Clarke can’t help but sneak glances at Lexa as she takes off her armor and pushes her pants down her legs, revealing tight shorts beneath.

It’s not until Lexa grips the hem of her sweater and pulls it over her head that she notices Clarke staring. She’s wearing a sleeveless shirt underneath but it’s thin and clingy, and even though Clarke knows she’s been caught it takes a moment to tear her gaze away.

Lexa’s smirk is insufferable and frustratingly adorable all at once, so Clarke crosses the distance between them and tries to kiss it off.

Lexa goes still for an instant but then she melts into her, leaning forward until their breasts touch. Clarke giggles against her lips and flattens her palm on the small of Lexa’s back, angling her hips against hers.

“Sorry,” she says when she breaks away a minute later. “That’s not why I-- I couldn’t help myself.”

It’s another moment she wants to keep forever -- Lexa half-dressed in the middle of her bedroom, staring at her with swollen lips and heavy-lidded eyes.

“It’s alright,” Lexa says, trace of a smirk still on her face. “Some things cannot be helped.”

Lexa reaches out and hooks a finger in the waistband of Clarke’s pants, pulling her back to her. Clarke gasps, startled by the feel of Lexa’s finger on her skin, and she can see the flash of the commander’s smile at the sound.

For the first time in this city, Lexa kisses her. There’s none of the urgency that drives Clarke’s caresses; Lexa takes her time because she wants to, every press of her lips purposeful and gentle and fluid. Each motion leads seamlessly to the next, but builds to nothing.

She kisses like this is all there is, a moment suspended, a pocket outside of time.

It’s the kind of embrace people used to write poems about, before the bombs, back when writers had time to anguish over something as simple as love.

Lexa’s steady tempo makes Clarke desperate and her hips tilt forward, burning toward crescendo. She has to pull away, then, and when she leans her temple against Lexa’s she’s relieved to hear her panting, too.

Lexa follows Clarke into her bed and at first they just lie on their sides beneath the covers, facing one another in the dark. They move together slowly; Lexa slides her ankle between Clarke’s shins, then Clarke reaches for Lexa’s hand just as Lexa starts to shift forward, only stopping when their heads rest on the same pillow.

Clarke wakes at first light to find herself on her back with Lexa sprawled half on top of her, one leg slung over Clarke’s hip and her cheek nestled on her chest. She keeps her eyes closed and tries to soak up every little sensation -- Lexa’s warm weight on her body, the matching rhythm of their breathing, the soft fingers resting above her hipbone, touching skin where her shirt’s ridden up.

She may never find absolution, but what does it matter when there’s this?

***

The snow has melted but the ground is still frozen when Clarke returns to her tunnel, box tucked under her arm.

She’s been thinking about this for so long that the premise of actually starting makes her jittery, so she takes her time laying out the brushes and arranging the pots of paint, hoping to settle her nerves.

Eventually, she just takes a deep breath and begins.

She paints happy endings.

She starts with the children -- the ones she condemned to the most painful kind of death. She paints them alive and smiling, growing up and having children of their own. She paints them having picnics in a meadow and swimming in the sea, laughing faces beneath the sun.

It takes her days to finish that section of wall. The light is short this time of year, so she begins waking before dawn so she can paint as long as possible.

After the children she moves on to the drop ship kids, the ones lying in shallow graves just a few days from here. She paints Finn fishing in a creek, bare feet dangling in the water, and if she concentrates she can imagine that he’s out there, somewhere, living off the land.

Clarke saves Wells for last, painting him the log cabin from the TV show he wouldn’t shut up about back on the Ark. At the last minute she paints a yellow dog next to him, to keep him company and make sure that he’s safe.

Next come Anya and Gustus and the people Finn killed. It feels presumptuous to create an approximation of Costia, so she paints the necklace with the yellow stone from Lexa’s bedroom, the one that she somehow knows was hers.

She stalls like this for days because she’s not ready to face it, not yet. When she’s run out of lives to finish, she stays away from the tunnel for a week before she can build up the courage to return.

Then she paints her dad.

He’s here, on the ground, with his arm around her mom. She takes her time to make sure she gets his lopsided grin just right and, when she’s done, it’s like he’s there, smiling out at her. They’re standing by the shore, next to a little white house with a triangular roof, like the kind that existed before. She paints three levels of windows -- her dad always said that he’d give his left arm to live in a house with stairs.

When she’s done, Clarke sits on the overturned crate and looks at her wall, confessions covered in happy endings. She thought this would make her feel better but the accomplishment rings hollow -- aside from the slightly less sharp ache in her chest, nothing has changed.

The dead are still gone and now her soul is splayed out on the cement, for anyone to see.

***

(Clarke dreams she slips away to Camp Jaha and steals a jar of rocket fuel to bring it all down to rubble. Even in sleep she can’t go through with it -- her heart won’t survive another blow.)

***

Lexa doesn’t ask where Clarke disappears to.

She’s busy most days attending to Trikru affairs, often rising even before Clarke. They never share schedules or make plans, but they always find one another at some point, in the library or the kitchens or the gardens, and they spend the evening together until it’s time for bed.

Since Clarke led Lexa back to her room after their hunt they haven’t spent a night apart -- another thing that they needn’t discuss. It just keeps happening, night after night, until Clarke can barely remember a time when she slept alone.

Most nights, sleeping tangled up together is enough, but sometimes Clarke craves more; she needs to feel Lexa’s lips soft and warm beneath her own, to press herself against the length of her body, to run her greedy hands over her skin.

She always stops things before they go too far, even though it feels like there’s a fire burning inside her, one that even sleep doesn’t douse. Some nights she thinks she hears Lexa sigh when she pulls away, but seconds later she’ll curl up beside Clarke and hold her until the morning.

***

Lexa has trouble sleeping.

Clarke kicks herself for not realizing sooner -- for forgetting that, no matter how strong the commander appears, she’s trying to keep just as many ghosts at bay.

On the bad nights, they stay up talking. Clarke tells her about the Ark and Wells and what it felt like to hurtle toward the ground. Lexa tells her about her mother and Costia and how proud she felt when she was called to lead.

When they speak of the past, they don’t interject or ask questions -- they simply let the other talk until their words run dry. Clarke learns that these quiet confessions are even more cathartic than writing words on a crumbling wall.

There are lighthearted times, too. They are constantly tickling and teasing and flirting, kissing new places and dipping brave fingers beneath clothes.

“Where’s your weak spot?” Clarke asks Lexa one night. “Your Achilles heel?”

Lexa narrows her eyes. “I have no such thing.”

“Everyone has a weak spot,” Clarke says, tickling her ribs. “Is it here?” She slides her hand down and pushes up Lexa’s shirt so she can circle her belly button. “Here?” Lexa shakes her head and Clarke wrinkles her nose at her. “Come on, you must have something. A bad ankle? A bum knee?”

Lexa stares at her for a long moment and then she reaches out, pressing two fingers to Clarke’s sternum.

She blinks, confused, but when Lexa lifts her eyebrows she understands. Clarke covers Lexa’s fingers with her palm, holding them in place as she leans in to kiss her. Then she places two fingers in the same spot on Lexa’s chest.

“Me too.”

***

One night Clarke can’t find Lexa anywhere. She crawls into her bed to wait and falls asleep beneath furs that smell like her.

It’s nearly morning when Clarke feels the mattress dip, and she rolls onto her side and reaches out for her without opening her eyes.

“Shh, don’t wake up,” Lexa says. “Everything’s alright.”

Clarke smiles as Lexa’s arm drapes over her hip and her knee slips between her legs.

“Would you tell me if it wasn’t?”

Lexa kisses her temple and rubs circles on her back, and if she answers the question Clarke doesn’t remember in the morning.

***

Clarke doesn’t mean to start painting Lexa.

She keeps visiting her mural every so often to add details and fix mistakes. One day she just started on a new stretch of wall, lost in thought, and when she came to there were two familiar gray-green eyes staring out at her.

Painting her feels different from the others. Before, her heart felt heavy with the weight of false amends, but now her chest fills with something light and airy -- a tentative sort of hope.

She takes her time painting snow angels and hardbound books, roaring fires and rabbit snares. For the first time on this wall, she paints herself. Before long there’s the two of them cuddled up in Lexa’s bedroom chair, there’s Lexa teaching Clarke to shoot an arrow, there’s Clarke leaning into Lexa’s side on the library floor.

She paints in abstracts, creating colors and shapes that somehow encompass the soft comfort of holding Lexa in her arms.

After a while Clarke realizes she’s traded painting fairy tales for reality. She waits for the guilt to hit her, but it never comes.

***

Lexa says she can smell spring in the air, so she arranges for her and Clarke to ride out to the coast.

Twice she has to postpone the trip because of unexpected clan meetings, and while Clarke is curious about what could be so pressing during times of peace, she swallows her questions down.

When she can finally get away the sky is clear, and when the wind dies down Clarke feels its warmth on her face for the first time in months. It’s only an hour’s ride and they take their time, letting the horses fall in step side-by-side.

Clarke smells the ocean first and minutes later she can hear it. The anticipation overpowers her and she grins at Lexa before urging her mare into a trot, eager for her first glimpse of the sea.

She could never have imagined its expanse, the way it glitters in the sun, the pulse-like roll of its waves. After tying her horse to a tree she runs down the grassy dunes, nearly twisting her ankle in the sand.

Her lungs are burning by the time her boots splash into the water. The waves lap over the brown leather before they retreat, pulling a layer of sand along with it, reclaiming the grains for its own.

How long ago was it that she dreamed that she was trapped beneath the sea? That she took a watery breath and choked herself awake? It’s like she’s on the other side, now, looking down at the surface. She feels strong standing at the mouth of the ocean and not feeling tempted to let its might pull her under.

There’s a splash to her right and then Clarke sees Lexa’s reflection, shimmering next to hers in the waves.

“The shore suits you, Clarke.”

The comment makes her smile, because what does that even mean, but when she meets Lexa’s gaze she’s just so damn earnest that Clarke can’t help but reach out for her hand.

“Thank you,” she says. “I always wondered what it’d be like. We could see it on the Ark -- from space the Earth is mostly blue.”

Lexa shifts so that she’s facing Clarke instead of the horizon. “Is it anything like you’d thought?”

She lets out a long sigh, thinking of prison cell sketches and naivety. “Nothing on the Earth is like I thought it would be.”

Lexa drops her hand and when Clarke turns to her, she won’t meet her eyes.

“Everything must be worse than you’d imagined,” she says, jaw set tight.

It’s breezy, today, and wisps of Lexa’s hair float beside her temples. Sunlight glances over her features, creating a sort of halo, and she looks so, so beautiful, but then again, she always does. Even now, as her shoulders bear the weight of the treacherous ground.

Moving closer, Clarke touches the crook of her elbow and lets her hand slide down her arm until their fingers link together.

“Not everything.” She squeezes Lexa’s hand until she looks back at her, eyes smiling. “I mean, the ocean’s pretty great.”

Lexa’s mouth drops open and she kicks into the next wave, splashing both of their pants. Clarke laughs and circles her arms around Lexa’s waist to stop her from getting away. Her feet are thoroughly soaked now, but she can feel Lexa’s giggle vibrating through her chest and that’s all that matters.

“Come to think of it, there is something else that’s better than I imagined.” She smiles as she kisses Lexa’s jaw and then the corner of her mouth. “But I don’t want to say too much,” she murmurs, lips moving over hers. “It might go to her head.”

Lexa laughs when Clarke kisses her, and she knows that sound is what she’ll remember most about today.

***

Dinah won’t tell Clarke what’s wrong.

At first she attributed the older woman’s quietness to a spring cold, but soon she notices other changes in her behavior that don’t add up. She’s in Clarke’s room more often, it seems, and she jumps at any unexpected sound.

“What’s going on?” Clarke asks her one night. “Are you in danger? Did someone threaten you? Just tell me -- whatever it is, we can fix it.”

Dinah just looks at her with round, sad eyes and shakes her head.

“There is no use worrying,” she says. “It is a waste of energy.”

It only takes Clarke a few seconds to register why the words sound so familiar. She sets off into a jog down the torch-lit corridors in search of Lexa.

***

She finds her in the council room, standing with Indra beside a large, round table, speaking in hushed tones.

Clarke lingers by the doorway, feeling out of place in such an ornate room. Not long ago she wouldn’t have waited for them to finish -- she’d march right up to the commander to demand an audience, to interject with her opinion on whatever plan they are hatching.

She shifts back and forth on her feet, fighting the urge to approach. That’s not her life, anymore.

Clarke flinches when a door slams and she looks up to find that Indra has gone. Lexa motions her over to the table at the center of the room like she’s been expecting her.

“Clarke,” she says, lifting her chin. “Is something wrong?”

“I’m not sure.” Clarke widens her stance and crosses her arms. “Why don’t you tell me.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Dinah is acting like there’s an assassin around every corner and I have a sneaking suspicion that you know why.”

Lexa considers this for a moment, her jaw working back and forth. “I do.”

“Okay, good.” Clarke exhales and drops her arms to her sides. “So?”

“It’s privileged information,” Lexa says, squaring her shoulders. “I can only share it with clan leaders and my advisors.”

“Are you serious? Then why does Dinah know? Don’t act like you haven’t been feeding her information to give to me all this time.”

“I wanted to let you know your people were well. You were too proud to ask.” Lexa huffs. “I have not informed Dinah of this matter. She knows nothing more than trivial rumors.”

“They don’t seem trivial to me.” Clarke steps closer and places her hand on the table. “Will you just tell me? Please?”

Lexa takes a steadying breath. “You don't want to be a leader anymore. That’s what you said in the woods. Has that changed, Clarke?”

“What, I--” Clarke blinks and takes a step back. “No.” She sets her jaw. “No, it hasn’t changed.”

“Then you needn’t worry.” Lexa moves closer until their hands touch, then she hooks her index finger through Clarke’s. “I’m afraid I’ll be needed here for a few more hours. Which room will I find you in?”

Clarke opens her mouth to ask again about what’s going on, but she stops herself. Lexa is only obeying her wishes. She can’t pick and choose what information she wants to know and what she doesn’t -- that’s not how it works.

She feels Lexa’s finger tighten around hers and Clarke knows this can’t be easy for her, either.

“Yours,” she says.

Chapter Text

It’s habit that keeps bringing Clarke back to her tunnel.

The wall isn’t complete, but every time she dips a brush into paint she can’t get herself to press it to the concrete. After a while she gives up entirely, sitting on the crate and staring at the dichotomy of her creation -- lives unlived and half-lived, false endings and hopeless beginnings.

She has half a mind to paint a fairy tale for her and Lexa. There are so many possibilities she’s dreamed up while lying awake at night -- the two of them running away together, building a cottage, fishing in a river, living off the land.

In the end, she decides not to. She doesn’t want to taunt herself, or mar Lexa’s side of the wall with anything untrue.

So she sits on her crate and lets her eyes go out of focus. She thinks of her friends, the ones she fought so hard to save. She thinks of ways to make happy endings that won’t chip away like paint.

***

Spring has finally arrived and Clarke can feel the sun on her face as she walks to a hidden corner of the gardens, bow and quiver slung across her chest.

After sinking five arrows deep into a tree she shrugs off her jacket, straining muscles welcoming the fresh air. She lines up the next shot but it’s wide, and she swears as it ricochets off the bark.

“You’re forgetting your stance.”

Clarke spins around to find Lexa just behind her, like she’s been there all along.

“That was the first one I missed.”

“Yes, I know,” Lexa says, coming to stand next to her. “You’re learning quickly.”

Clarke arches an eyebrow. “Is this when you tell me that I remind you of yourself when you were young?”

“No.” Lexa smiles, glancing down at the ground. “I’ve always been better with a blade than with a bow.”

Clarke grins. “That gives me an idea.”

She marches up to the target tree and yanks out her arrow. Then she picks up a sharp rock from the ground and scratches a large ‘X’ onto the bark.

“What’s this?” The corner of Lexa’s lips quirk upwards.

“Best out of three,” Clarke says. “Your dagger versus my arrows.”

Lexa shakes her head and chuckles, but then she lifts her chin and squares her shoulders. The next thing Clarke knows, she’s standing before the heda in all her glory. At first she nearly laughs, because all she wanted was a friendly game, but something about Lexa’s seriousness makes her competitive spirit rise up, too.

It feels good.

“You first,” Lexa says, inclining her head.

Clarke sets her legs in the stance Lexa first taught her and closes her eyes, envisioning the shot. When she finally lets the arrow fly it lands just inches off the bullseye.

“Yes!”

She throws up her arms in victory, which makes Lexa raise her eyebrows. Her celebration is short-lived, though, because a whooshing sound cuts through the air. When she looks at the tree Lexa’s dagger is there, in the middle of the X.

Clarke can practically feel Lexa’s haughtiness, and she glares at her back as the commander pulls the dagger and the arrow from the tree.

“You’re insufferable sometimes, you know that?” she says when Lexa returns.

“You, meanwhile, are always a joy, Clarke.”

“Oh god!” Clarke groans and covers her face with her hands. “Oh no. No no no.”

Lexa frowns at her. “What is it?”

“You’re using sarcasm,” she says, trying to keep a straight face. “I’m doomed.”

Clarke is still laughing when she takes her next shot, but she somehow lands the arrow right where she wants it. Lexa looks as surly as ever when she steps into position. She’s even worse when her knife splits the arrow right down the middle.

Lexa turns towards toward Clarke with her arms crossed and this smug little grin on her face, and it sends sparks coursing through Clarke’s veins, heating up her skin. Lexa’s just about to reach the dagger when Clarke grabs her by the waist and spins her around, pressing her back against the tree.

They decide to call it a draw.

***

“I will be leaving for a few days,” Lexa says between bites of venison. “On a scouting mission. The morning after next.”

Clarke stares at her, fork suspended halfway to her mouth.

“What?”

Lexa nods and focuses on her plate, pushing the food around.

“It cannot be avoided.”

It was supposed to be a celebratory meal. Lexa arranged for the kitchens to stay open late so they could eat in peace and celebrate Clarke nabbing her first deer -- a clean kill.

Clarke sets her fork down, feeling the meat turn to lead in her stomach. She closes her eyes and sees a snowglobe smashing.

“Where do you have to go?”

Lexa looks at her and glances away again. Her jaw tenses. “Clarke…”

“Hey, I’ve changed my mind, okay?” Clarke swallows, hating how desperate she sounds. “I know I said that part of my life was over, but I can’t stand being in the dark anymore.” She reaches across the table and covers Lexa’s hand with hers. “I can’t just sit here while you’re off risking your life, not even knowing where you are.”

“Scouting is hardly risking my life, Clarke,” she says, turning her palm over and linking their fingers. “And you should not make such a decision based on your emotions.”

“I’m not, I--” Clarke closes her eyes and takes a steadying breath, forcing the panic down. “I’ve been thinking about this for a few days now.”

“That is good to hear,” Lexa says gently. “But a few days is not enough to be sure.”

Clarke frowns and pulls her hand back into her lap. “That’s not for you to say.”

“Maybe not.” Lexa nods, turning her palm flat on the table. “But it is my information to give.” Clarke opens her mouth to argue again but Lexa holds up her hand. “I will be gone for three days,” she continues. “If you still feel the same when I return, I will tell you anything you’d like to know. You can even join me in clan meetings, if you’d like.”

There’s a stitch between Lexa’s brows, giving away her impassive eyes. She turns her palm up on the table and Clarke exhales.

“Okay,” she says, reaching to join their fingers again. “Okay.”

***

Clarke wakes at first light the morning that Lexa is due to leave.

The commander is still asleep and Clarke will never get over how young she looks like this, curled up all soft and vulnerable. She rubs Lexa’s arm and kisses a slow path from her shoulder to her neck.

“Time to wake up,” she whispers when Lexa stirs. “It’s not too late to change your mind, you know. Run away with me. I know somewhere we can hide.”

Lexa’s smiling when her eyes flutter open and she rolls onto her side, nudging her nose against Clarke’s.

“In another life,” she says.

“Sounds good.” Clarke lifts her chin and kisses her. “I’ll meet you there.”

***

Clarke stays in bed and watches Lexa dress herself in armor.

There’s something so graceful about the way her fingers work the laces and the buckles, moving over metal and leather. It’s regal and somber, like a ritual, so Clarke hugs her knees to her chest and looks on with reverence.

Lexa is sitting on a stool next to her dresser with a piece of charcoal in her hand when she notices Clarke staring. Lexa smiles, ducking her head, before picking up a small mirror and moving to sit next to her on the bed.

The charcoal makes a quiet flutter of a sound as Lexa drags it across her cheek, eyes steady on the mirror to make sure she’s got it right. Clarke stands before she even registers the movement and gently takes the stick from Lexa’s hand.

“Let me,” she says.

Lexa stills for a moment before she places the mirror on the mattress, nodding mostly with her eyes. The floor is cool on Clarke’s knees when she kneels in front of her, and when she touches Lexa’s cheek her skin is so warm.

Clarke doesn’t need to ask how the paint is supposed to look because it’s etched into her memory, even though she hasn’t seen Lexa with black around her eyes for months. She glides the charcoal along her skin with precision, blending it with her fingers, moving the dust away with soft puffs of her breath.

She’s nearly done with her left side when Lexa closes her eyes, but it doesn’t hide the way her bottom lashes glisten with unshed tears. Clarke swallows and cups her chin, continuing on in heavy silence.

She focuses on the contours of Lexa’s face and the angles of the sooty lines because she’s safe in the details; because if she steps back and looks at everything blown-wide she knows she’ll find a girl who doesn’t want to go just as much as she doesn’t want to be left behind.

When Clarke finishes, she doesn’t stop. If she stops, time will be up.

So she drops the charcoal to the floor and smoothes her fingers over the blackness, tracing its teardrop curves. She touches the bridge of Lexa’s nose and the creases of her eyelids and the ridge of her cheekbone and, fuck, her hands are shaking now, because she’s run out of skin.

Lexa opens her eyes and lets out a shuddering breath. She leans forward and rests her forehead against Clarke’s, and it’s like her whole body is quivering.

“You’ll mess it up,” Clarke whispers.

Lexa loops her arms around Clarke’s neck, pressing their noses together. “I don’t care.”

Since Clarke arrived in Polis, Lexa has been giving her time like she has it in spades. She left Clarke to herself for as long as she needed, let their lives wind together at Clarke’s slow pace.

And part of Clarke believed in it, this stolen time. She heaped herself in it, squandered it, fooled herself into thinking that they could be happy like this, here, forever.

This is what it’s like in peacetime, Lexa had told her, but now she sees their time together for what it truly is -- an anomaly. A trick of the light.

Because Lexa’s time has been ticking down since she became commander.

“It’s not really a scouting mission, is it?”

When Lexa shakes her head, Clarke can feel the smudge of the charcoal on her skin.

Time has run out, but Lexa kisses her like they exist outside of it. Her lips are steady and sure and for the first time Clarke hates it -- this measuredness of hers. Clarke’s thoughts are hectic and she needs Lexa to feel it, to quake with the franticness of uncertainty, to waver in the face of fear.

The first hint of it is there in Lexa’s gasp when Clarke presses her back onto the bed, nestling her knee between the metal cuffs on her thighs. Clarke doesn’t take her time at all when she kisses Lexa’s neck, and when she meets her lips again there’s frenzy on Lexa’s tongue.

“Clarke,” she gasps, impatient fingers slipping beneath her shirt. “Clarke.”

Armor that was so carefully strapped into place is hastily pushed aside, and when Clarke’s thumb finally brushes over Lexa’s nipple the commander arches into her and it’s like she can finally feel it, the time that’s sifting through their fingers.

Clarke surges forward, pressing her thigh closer to where Lexa’s hips rise to meet it, feeling Lexa’s pulse race beneath her lips.

Beja,” Lexa says, cupping Clarke’s cheek and opening her eyes. “Clarke, please.”

When Clarke finally slides her fingers inside her, Lexa’s head tips back and she looks so delicate, with smeared warpaint that reveals the furrow in her brow. She comes with a gasping shudder, hands gripping Clarke’s shoulders so hard her nails nearly draw blood.

There’s urgency still simmering in Lexa when she rolls Clarke over and kisses a path down her body, swirling her tongue around her hipbone, swiping at the freckle on the inside of her knee.

Clarke tries to stay quiet, to be strong like her heda, but she can’t stop her name from slipping past her lips.

“Lexa,” she says, fingers tangling in her hair.

“Lexa,” she whimpers, back arching off the bed.

Lexa.”

They’re lying in each other’s arms, hearts still hammering in their chests, when there’s a knock at the door. Lexa hurries to right her clothing and fix her warpaint as best she can.

When it’s time for her to go they face one another, looking at each other helplessly.

“Come back,” Clarke says, as sternly as she can manage.

Lexa nods, standing stockstill.

“I--” she starts, then closes her mouth. Her eyes are pleading. “Clarke.”

Clarke steps forward and wraps her arms around her, pressing her lips below her ear.

“I know,” she whispers, eyes stinging as Lexa clutches her to her chest. “It need not be said.”

***

(It’s not until Clarke undresses that night that she notices the warpaint on the inside of her thighs.)

***

She thought it would be comforting to sleep in Lexa’s bed, tucked in beneath her furs, lying next to the pillow that’s still curved from her head.

But an eerie feeling settles over her -- one she can’t shake. Lexa sleeps among her ghosts and, there alone, Clarke begins to feel like one.

So she wraps a fur around her shoulders and hurries back to her room, bare feet slapping the cold brick floor and echoing through the state house halls.

***

Three days is not a lot of time.

It’s something Clarke has to constantly remind herself as she tries to keep busy, determined not to mope around now that Lexa’s gone.

Lexa can take care of herself.

Those six words play in an ever-present loop in the background of Clarke’s thoughts. She’ll be fine, she’ll be fine, she’ll be fine.

Fear and assurance roll through her mind like the push and pull of waves.

She’s lost somewhere amongst their surf when she walks out of her bedroom the next morning and knocks right into a Trikru warrior posted outside the door. He doesn’t speak when she mutters an apology or move when she stumbles away, but he sticks to her like a hulking shadow.

Clarke zigzags through the city, trying to shake him, but when he follows her between two buildings she doubles back and shoves him up against the bricks.

She’s weaponless, but he stills under the pressure of her forearm as if it’s a knife.

“Why are you stalking me?” She grits her teeth and pushes harder. “I don’t need protection.”

The warrior lifts his chin and then, with one swift movement, he knocks Clarke to the ground, where she lands sprawled in a murky puddle. He steps forward until he’s looming over her.

“Yes, you do.”

***

Dinah seems calmer now, with a guard outside the door.

“Do you think I’m a spy?” Clarke asks her that night. She’s grown so cynical, but she needs to know where the woman’s fears lie -- if they’re for her, or of her.

Dinah huffs out a chuckle. “You would make a terrible spy, yongon,” she says. “Clomping around like there’s no one to hear, your hair shining like the sun. No, I don’t think such things.”

Relief floods through Clarke, surprising her, and she exhales.

“Good. I’m glad,” she says. “Even if that was kinda an insulting way to say so.”

Dinah laughs again and walks to where Clarke is sitting, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder.

“We cannot be all things,” she says. “But you have many strengths. More than most.”

She squeezes her shoulder and then turns to leave for the night, but Clarke catches her at the door. Dinah startles when Clarke wraps her arms around her middle, hugging her from behind. Somehow, the woman turns in her embrace, and Clarke is encompassed by warm, loving arms.

That night Clarke dreams of her mom and what it felt like to be strong.

***

It has to mean something. It has to have counted for something.

Clarke takes her fear for Lexa and turns it into loathing for herself.

She goes back to her tunnel to glare at the mural, atrocities covered in lies. It didn’t help anyone but herself and the selfishness of it makes her sick to her stomach. How could she do that -- take the lives that she snuffed out and twist them to help heal their murderer?

Her gaze drifts to the right, to the part of the wall that’s true. Spring sunlight is filtering through the cracks in the ceiling, and the concrete is warm when she touches the swirl of colors that match the comfort of Lexa’s embrace. Acknowledging the good that’s come of your actions doesn’t absolve you.

Clarke closes her eyes and looks for the good. She leans her head against the wall and when she finally pulls away there are twin glistening lines on the paint, streams stained by her tears.

She knows, now. She knows what she has to do.

***

The third day comes and goes.

(She’ll be fine, she’ll be fine, she’ll be fine.)

***

Clarke is awoken to hands clamped on her shoulders, shaking her and pulling her out of bed.

She kicks and thrashes blindly but it doesn’t help because a large form is pushing her back against the wall, pinning her in place. Terror runs through Clarke as she blinks into the darkness, taking shallow gulps of breath.

This is it. This is it and Lexa will think it’s her own fault.

A whimper escapes Clarke at the thought and the figure steps back, letting her collapse into a defeated heap on the floor.

“Get up, Sky girl,” growls a familiar voice. Clarke squints and she can just make out her features, illuminated in the moonlight. Indra. “Heda is hurt. Dress quickly. Now.”

***

It’s an odd sensation, the feeling of relief and terror all at once.

Somehow it makes Clarke eerily calm, and her voice sounds unfamiliar and commanding when she orders everyone but the healer and Indra out of Lexa’s room.

One of the generals makes a fuss -- em laik natrona -- and Indra unsheathes her sword, but Clarke stops her with a shake of her head. The man tenses when she walks up to him, and his nostrils flare as his fingers tighten around a dagger.

“Muchof,” Clarke says, “for protecting her.” She extends her right arm and he blinks, eyes darting between her hand and her face. “I am not a traitor. Let me help her.”

He hesitates, but then the general growls and lunges forward. Clarke doesn’t flinch when the blade presses into her throat. Behind her Indra shouts and swords clang as they’re drawn, but all Clarke hears is the sound that’s absent -- the complete lack of Lexa’s voice.

“You’re wasting time.” Clarke steps forward into the sharp slice of the knife. The man frowns and his gaze drifts to watch the trickle of blood slide down her neck. “Do whatever you want with me after. If you want her to live I’m the best chance you’ve got, and you know it.”

Clarke balls her hands into fists, trying to stanch the flow of precious seconds. When the general finally drops the dagger and stomps out of the room with the others trailing behind him, she closes her eyes and takes a steadying breath before turning to the bed.

Lexa is lying unconscious on her back, stripped down to her shorts and undershirt. It makes white-hot anger flare inside of Clarke -- that some warrior took the liberty of taking off their heda’s armor, of seeing her this vulnerable.

But Clarke can work with fury. She lets it fuel her, lets it burn up the poison inside her, lets its pluming smoke choke back the overwhelming panic that’s crawling up her throat.

There’s so much blood.

It’s streaking down Lexa’s face, clotting beneath her fingernails, seeping into the fibers of the bedsheet like dark-brown veins. It can’t all be hers. It can’t.

Clarke kneels next to the bed and presses her palm to Lexa’s sticky cheek. A red drop from Clarke’s neck lands just below Lexa’s clavicle. The air smells like pennies.

“It’s okay,” she whispers. “You’re safe. I’ll keep you safe.”

***

There’s a spell in Clarke’s favorite book that heals wounds and mends broken bones.

She doesn’t whisper it.

There is no magic, here.

***

She works methodically, cleaning Lexa’s skin with a wet cloth before assessing her injuries.

The gash in her forehead is bleeding the most and Clarke stitches it as best she can with the healer’s crude tools. Indra cuts away Lexa’s shirt so Clarke can get at the source of blood on her left shoulder, and she blanches when she sees a small, round wound.

She turns Lexa on her side to make sure the bullet wasn’t still lodged inside her, and she finds more than an exit-wound; her whole back is torn up, flayed and littered with shrapnel.

“Oh my god.” Clarke swallows and takes a shaky breath. “Who did this?”

“Sky People,” Indra says.

“What? Why would my people do this?”

Indra crouches next to the bed and looks Clarke in the eye. “I never said it was your people.”

***

Clarke pulls 73 slivers of metal from Lexa’s back. When she’s done, it feels like they’ve both been shredded to ribbons.

***

“You’re hurt.”

Clarke turns her face into the pillow, fighting against consciousness. Her dream is already receding from her mind but she thinks if she drifts off quickly enough, she can just catch it.

It was a good one. Lexa was there.

“Clarke. You’re hurt.”

Her eyes fly open. Lexa is here, too.

Here and awake.

“Hey.” Clarke inches closer carefully so as not to disturb the pillows keeping Lexa propped on her side. “How are you feeling?”

Lexa tries to shrug and grimaces. “Been worse.”

Her stoicism is somehow both adorable and heart-wrenching, and Clarke smiles as she blinks back tears.

“You were shot in that shoulder, but it was a clean wound,” she says, reaching out to brush Lexa’s hair behind her ear. “And you have a nasty cut on your forehead. I stitched it up as best I could, but you’ll probably have a scar.”

Lexa’s lips curve upwards. “You did it?”

“Yeah, of course.” She cups Lexa’s cheek and brushes her thumb across her skin when the commander leans into her touch. “But it wasn’t easy -- almost came to blows with one of your generals.”

Clarke can feel Lexa’s jaw tense beneath her hand.

“Is that how you were injured?” she asks, eyes falling to Clarke’s neck like she’s just remembered. Without waiting for an answer, Lexa tries to sit up but she only makes it a few inches before she closes her eyes in pain. Clarke helps ease her back down. “Where is Indra?” Lexa says through gritted teeth. “Tell her to bring me the one that did this.”

Clarke runs her fingers through Lexa’s tangled hair and murmurs soft pleas to get her to calm down. It makes her feel so light -- this protectiveness of Lexa’s; that her own body is bloody and battered, and yet the only revenge she seeks is for a scratch on Clarke’s skin.

“He was only looking out for you,” Clarke says, hand returning to Lexa’s face.

Lexa closes her eyes and takes a deep breath, then nods. “Thank you for taking care of me.” She turns her head, pressing her lips to Clarke’s palm. “Have I any other injuries?”

“Yes. You lost a lot of blood. And there’s your back...” Clarke swallows as memories from last night flood her mind. “Your healer applied an ointment to numb the pain, but it’s pretty bad.”

Lexa’s brow furrows for a moment before her eyes clear in understanding. “The explosion.”

“What happened out there, Lexa?”

It takes some effort, and probably a considerable amount of pain, but Lexa reaches out to touch Clarke’s cheek. Clarke takes a shaky breath and closes her eyes. It’s only been four days, but she’s missed her so much.

“Tell me,” Lexa says, brushing her knuckles along Clarke’s jaw, “is your mind still made up?”

***

As promised, Lexa tells her everything.

Those at Camp Jaha were not the only Arkers to survive the fall from the sky. Another group has made themselves known, one that does not value peace.

Their first skirmish with the Trikru occurred just days before Clarke’s arrival in Polis, a coincidence that ignited the accusals that she was a spy.

This group of Sky People attacked any grounder that stepped foot on the land they claimed as their own, but soon they began advancing on the capital, which made rumors fly. It was an unprovoked raid on a village just one day’s ride from Polis that forced Lexa to strike back.

Abby and Kane intercepted the Trikru army along the way, pleading for the three groups to find a way to coexist. It took much convincing, but Lexa eventually agreed to march ahead with the Camp Jaha leaders with the hopes of forming another truce.

They were met with gunfire and bombs.

***

“Is my mom okay?”

“Yes. Kane shielded her from the blast.”

“Did he live?”

“I believe so, but I cannot be sure.”

“And Polis? Are they marching on the city?”

“Not yet. We suffered many losses, but our army beat them back.”

“So, what now? Another war?”

“What would you do, Clarke?”

***

(She knows what she has to do.)

***

This is what Clarke knows:

Peace is hard to come by, on the ground.

The Trikru generals respect her, now, and when she joins their clan meetings in Lexa’s place they do not dissent.

Lexa heals quickly, as if she commands her body to mend just as easily as she commands her warriors to fight.

The cut on Lexa’s forehead forms a scar. She tells Clarke it almost looks like a lightening bolt.

The gun Clarke hid under her bed all those months ago still works.

***

It’s bright and cheerful in the library. A few of the windows are propped open and a gentle breeze flows through them, filling the room with the scent of wildflowers.

But Clarke doesn’t notice any of it, because her head is in her hands and she can’t stop crying.

It feels like a small miracle when Lexa sits on the floor beside her, gently resting her tender back against the shelves. She moves the book from Clarke’s lap and then leans in to kiss her tears.

“It had that effect on me, too,” Lexa says, lips moving against her cheek. “The last line.”

Clarke swallows back a sob and rests her forehead against Lexa’s, trying to gain control of her breathing.

“It’s not fair,” she whispers. “That they get a happy ending.”

She feels heartless, begrudging her favorite characters their peace, and when Lexa pulls away Clarke thinks she deserves it. But then a warm weight settles in her lap and Lexa’s arms wrap around her shoulders, guiding Clarke’s head to rest on her chest.

Clarke holds her tightly and nuzzles her nose against her skin. By the time Lexa speaks, she’s almost forgotten why she was upset.

“You must understand, Clarke,” she says. “Happy endings such as those do not exist -- not as they’re written in books. But we continue to fight for them all the same.”

“Why?” Clarke sniffles and shivers. “What’s the point of chasing something that isn’t real?”

“They are real. But one must know where to look.” Lexa kisses her temple. “Nothing is infinite on the Earth -- it is not the way of things. Happy endings live in the space between. The trick is to hold onto them while you can.”

Clarke hugs Lexa closer -- holding onto hers -- and nods in understanding.

“I have something to show you,” she says.

***

Clarke feels Lexa’s fingers tighten around hers as they walk down the stairs to her tunnel. It’s humid out -- an early sign of summer, Lexa says -- and the air underground is stifling.

When Lexa sees the mural she drops Clarke’s hand and stands in front of it, face impassive as she takes everything in.

Her eyes, though -- they give her away; a spark of understanding flickers there when she sees the lives Clarke created from dust. Lexa’s fingertips brush over the back of her own hand in the same way she’d trace the splotches of paint on Clarke’s skin, the ones she never asked about.

Clarke drags the empty crate near the center of the wall and sits, taking deep breaths to steady herself. It’s surreal, being here together, watching Lexa walk the length of her soul. She’d never planned on bringing her here, but now she sees it was inevitable. Her mural is the product of Lexa’s gifted time.

The second half of the mural -- the side that’s real -- draws a shaky breath from the commander’s chest. She steps closer and touches the brush strokes, fingers smoothing over snowball fights and crackling fires and rumpled bedsheets.

It’s not until Lexa is standing in front of the portrait of herself, gazing into her painted reflection, that Clarke notices her once-sharp pain is so dull she can barely feel it.

***

Eventually, Lexa nestles in next to her on the crate. Clarke leans into her side, gathering strength from her quiet comfort.

“There’s this theory they taught us, back in school,” Clarke says, her voice echoing through the space. “It says that the universe never ends -- it just keeps going and going. So the teacher said that anything you can imagine exists, somewhere, because it’s limitless.”

Clarke feels Lexa’s hand on her knee, but she can’t bring herself to look at her, yet. She has to finish this.

“At the end of the lesson, she asked us students to call out different scenarios that could exist out there and, to prove her point, she said yes to every one. ‘A planet with three-headed aliens.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘A world where I have a brother.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Another Earth where the bombs never go off.’ ‘Yes.’”

Clarke wipes a tear from her cheek and Lexa takes her shaking hand in hers. She doesn’t say anything -- just brushes her lips over her knuckles -- and Clarke is so grateful.

“Somewhere,” Clarke says, looking out at her painted lies, “all of this is true.”

Lexa kisses her shoulder and, even though she hasn’t spoken a word, Clarke knows she understands. They sit there for a moment, taking in the wall as if Clarke painted worlds into existence.

After a while Lexa stands, and Clarke lets her guide her to the end of the mural, to the part that was painted from memory and not imagination. Clarke lets her vision go out of focus and it all becomes a colorful blur, a kaleidoscope of snow globe moments.

When she meets the commander’s gaze, she sees that her eyes are wet, too.

“And this,” Lexa whispers, “this is true, here.”

***

Tonight, they go slowly.

They don’t squander time -- they savor it, trapping it between their slick bodies.

Lexa slips her tongue into Clarke’s mouth and there’s no rush, because she knows where to look, now. There are happy endings all over Lexa’s skin and Clarke’s determined to touch each and everyone.

She tastes them as she goes -- at the base of her neck, the tops of her breasts, the insides of her thighs -- and soon Lexa’s body is buzzing with their promise. Where Clarke tastes her last is even wetter than her tongue, and she laughs against her as Lexa’s hips lift off the bed, seeking more pressure from her mouth.

Clarke hurries, then, because sometimes the best endings are the ones for which you don’t have to wait.

Later, when Lexa’s hovering over her, Clarke nips at her jaw; needs to feel her between her teeth. Lexa settles her hips between Clarke’s legs, rocking into her, and when Clarke closes her eyes she feels Lexa’s teeth scrape along her bottom lip.

Their love is a sharp sort, but it’s gentle, too. There’s tenderness buried in their bite marks, devotion in the scratch of their nails.

It feels like forever by the time Lexa pushes two fingers inside her, and when she does Clarke sinks her teeth into Lexa’s shoulder to muffle her moan, to trap the moment for as long as she can.

There’s a tug low in Clarke’s stomach as Lexa circles her thumb over her clit, but she tries to hold it off -- tries to keep herself on the precipice -- because maybe, if she doesn’t fall, she can find infinity in Lexa’s touch.

“Clarke,” Lexa whispers, lips brushing against her earlobe. “Ai Clarke.”

And that’s all it takes.

***

This is what Clarke has to do:

She needs to make good from what she’s done by helping her people.

She sacrificed so much of herself for them and, as hard as she’s tried, she can’t just walk away. Thanks to her, the Sky People have survived. And maybe, with her guidance, they can flourish. Maybe they can carve out a life that’s worth living here, on the ground.

But they can’t do it alone. If she’s learned anything in her time on Earth, it’s that the only chance they’ve got to escape from this misery is by working together. The Mountain Men didn’t understand, but maybe this new group from the Ark can see reason.

Maybe Clarke can help.

Optimism she thought long dead springs to life, flutters bright and hopeful beneath her fingertips.

And maybe, just maybe, she’ll build more bridges than she’s burnt, she’ll save more lives than she’s taken, and, perhaps, she’ll stumble into a certain kind of peace.

***

Lexa sees her off, riding out with her a mile past the city gates. She didn’t object when Clarke shared her plan, almost as if she’d seen it coming all along. But Clarke can tell that it’s weighing on her -- it’s there in the stiffness in her jaw, the sad resignation in her eyes.

The forest is so still, out here, its canopy providing some relief from the sun. Clarke feels hot and uncomfortable back in her Arker clothes. She pulls on the neck of her t-shirt as Lexa ties both of their horses to a tree.

When Lexa turns to her Clarke shifts on her feet, suddenly restless, because she can’t bear another goodbye. The commander looks down to where her boots kick up dusty dirt and Clarke sees her throat work before she forces a tight smile.

“Run away with me.” Lexa says. “I know somewhere we can hide.”

Clarke crosses her arms and laughs in spite of herself. “That’s not funny.”

“It wasn’t meant to be.”

Lexa steps closer and reaches for Clarke’s hand, where it’s tucked against her chest. Sighing, Clarke lets her pull her in. She wraps her arms around Lexa’s waist and presses her nose against the side of her neck.

“In another life,” Clarke says. “Actually, no -- screw that.”

“Clarke?”

“I don’t want to wait for another life.” She steps back and grips Lexa’s arms above her elbows, fixing her with a pleading look. “This isn’t the end for us. Happiness shouldn’t be an outlier, restricted to the space between. We deserve better than that.”

Lexa nods, her eyes glossing over. “I hope you are right.”

“I am,” she says, leaning her forehead against Lexa’s. “Do you trust me?”

It’s funny, because the day is so warm, but when Lexa exhales Clarke swears she can see her breath.

“I believe you know the answer to that.” Goosebumps rise on Clarke’s skin when she feels Lexa press two fingers to her sternum, just above her t-shirt. Lexa’s voice breaks when she speaks. “Keep my weak spot safe, Clarke.”

Clarke nods against her, swallowing around a lump in her throat. She places her fingers in the same spot on Lexa’s chest. “Watch out for mine, too.”

Lexa answers by lifting her chin and meeting Clarke’s lips. They stand there, in the middle of the forest, kissing with their hands over each other’s hearts.

There’s a spell in Clarke’s books that splits your soul into pieces, but here, on the ground, she found someone who’s done just the opposite.

Magic, it seems, exists after all, and Clarke has found it in Lexa.

***

Many, many, many years from now, mankind truly rebuilds. Buildings are repaired, roadways are re-paved, and, in a small city by the coast, the train tracks are hammered back into shape.

A teenage girl trudges through the tunnels a week before the subway is due to re-open for the first time in 200 years. She’s grumpy and sweaty in the orange jumpsuit the corrections department makes her wear, not caring when the paint she’s carrying spills over the lip of the can.

There’s just one tunnel left to paint and then she’ll have paid for her crimes, though, if you ask her, her graffiti made those vacant buildings prettier, thank you very much. When she finishes art school and becomes a famous painter, the police commander will be sorry he covered those up.

The girl sets the can and roller down when she reaches the final stretch of wall, the only one not yet wiped clean. She yawns and turns her headlamp on to gauge how much work is cut out for her.

What she sees makes her breath catch in her throat. This -- whatever it is -- isn’t vandalism.

She can’t quite make sense of the first part of the mural, with its disjointed collage of smiling faces. But the next part -- the longest part -- makes her tear up.

It’s a lifetime. Two, in fact, twined together, spanning the length of the wall.

They start as young girls, one with yellow hair, one with brown. Together, they hunt and read and play in the snow. They curl up beside a fire, holding one another. They look so sad.

The teenager runs her hands over the paint as she slowly walks along the wall, stepping further into their lives.

She sees blood and guns and plumes of smoke, then crops and sheep and looms. She sees a metal structure that she recognizes from her history books surrounded by rows of houses with pitched roofs.

She sees a cottage in the woods, nestled beside a river, where the girls sit on a wooden dock. She sees the two of them swimming in the ocean, horseback riding through a meadow, lying on the grass and gazing up at the stars.

She sees these two women grow old together. And with each step the girl takes, the sadness leaves their eyes.

She sees them holding hands on a moonlit walk and smiling at each other across a game of chess.

She sees yellow hair fade to white and wrinkles sprout beside wide, green eyes. She sees them lying in a big, plush bed, holding one another with thin, weary arms.

In the last painting they are young again. They’re standing side by side in the snow, holding hands. Footprints stretch out before them, leading to the center of a clearing, where two angel-like shapes are embedded in the snow.

The artist has drawn a thin dome around the scene.

Hot tears are streaming down the teenager’s cheeks, now, though she’s not sure why. She crouches down to collect herself, wiping her face with grimy fingers.

That’s when she notices three short words written at the bottom of the mural in shaky letters, like the person wasn’t used to holding a paintbrush in their hand.

All was well.

The teenager paints over the mural as quickly as she can.

And then it’s gone.

***

(Although it’s not gone, really. It’s all still there, beneath the layers.)

***

Love, on the ground, is the only thing worth fighting for.

And, oh, how they fought.