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The White Queen Running

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She hates waking up. When she’s asleep she can forget, sometimes. Sleep lets her -- not rest, but switch off like a faulty unit, cease processing, power down. Stasis is a relief she can’t preserve when she’s awake. Dread builds in the center of her chest as her consciousness rises, a weight settling on her sternum, and it’s not real -- it can’t be real -- but it makes her struggle for breath all the same as she opens her eyes. And remembers --

-- everything.

Clarke stares up into darkness. Breathe in, breathe out. Again. See? she thinks. You can do this all day.

She drags herself up onto her elbows. Her head is still a little fuzzy. That happens more and more -- she doesn’t sleep well, and the adrenaline of her days (making her way alone, in the woods, avoiding, hiding, running) is burning out the sensation receptors in her brain. Or that’s probably what her mom would tell her. If her mom were here.

But Abby Griffin is back at Camp Jaha, and Clarke is -- she hunches over, scrubs at her face with both hands. Where is she now?

She can smell water outside the open window, the breeze carrying the scent into the room. Not salt water. There’s a river nearby.

Clarke frowns. Didn’t she leave the bay weeks ago?

She extricates herself from the bed, frown growing. The mattress is thick and soft, and there are furs tangled around her legs. She barely needs them. The air is warm. Strange, considering the frost she remembers waking up to the past few mornings, the way it crackled in her hair and covered her clothes in tiny, beautiful crystals.

... if she’s been sleeping on the ground, though, how did she end up in a bed?

She waits. But this seems to be one thing she isn’t able to remember in gutting, picture-perfect recall.

The stones beneath her bare feet are smooth and worn. The only light in the room comes from the stars outside the window -- she’s still amazed by how much light there is at night once you’re clear of the trees. That’s even without the spotlight of the near-full moon hanging in the sky, shining like a silver coin.

No, wait. That’s wrong. Because she may not care where she’s going or what happens to her, but how long is important, and she’s been using the moon to keep track. She’s seen two fulls since she walked away, watching Bellamy get smaller and smaller in the distance. And she remembers looking up at the sky at the crescent, a sliver wrapped around the edge of a the darker circle and thinking it would soon be three. (Three months of turning her back on them, three months of dreading the moment when she wakes up.)

It’s the tip of the scale that penetrates the fog of misery and self-loathing. Instead fear, bright and sharp, hooks into the edges of her mind. She’s already on high alert, hair standing up on her arms as she backs away from the window, when she sees the face out of the corner of her eye.

It jumps out from the shadows, and she only has an impression of braided hair and the dark, aggressive lines of a tattoo before she screams. She throws her arm up defensively and reaches for her gun, holstered at her hip -- only her fingers are grasping something cool to the touch and carved, and she looks down to see them wrapped around the bone handle of a knife that curves like a talon.

She probably knows then, because she never takes off her gun. But her brain is still slow and scared, and it doesn’t snap the connections in place before a door on her right opens to reveal a young woman with a blade in her hand. By now Clarke can recognize a warrior of the Ice Nation: the touches of fur peeking out from her boots and collar, the patterns of the tattoos on her wrists. Clarke jerks back, arm still up, and the woman freezes.

They stare at each other for a long moment. Clarke tightens her grip on her knife, breathing ragged. She didn’t think -- after the Mountain -- but maybe they’d taken her for subtler, more devious reasons and considering what they were capable of, what they’d done to --

“My queen?” the woman asks, weapon at the ready. “Are you in distress?”

Wait.

Wait.

Clarke looks to the corner, sees the action repeated when she does, and as she lowers her arm, in a mirror placed against the far wall. She can see the ripples in the surface, now, the tarnished edges. And that face -- pale skin, wide eyes, the dip and curve of blue ink along one cheekbone --

That’s her face.

Clarke throws back her head and starts to laugh.

 

________________________

 

It’s a dream.

Of course it’s a dream. Or a hallucination. Maybe she’s dying. People report all kinds of visions and experiences when they’re dying -- before they’re brought back, that is.

Clarke doubts anyone is going to bring her back.

It was the cold, she decides, sitting on her bed as her bodyguard searches the room. (Clarke told her the truth, too relieved to feel stupid, but the warrior still insisted on inspecting the space herself.) The frost was a harbinger and winter was her doom. She’s probably shivering under a bush somewhere slowly turning blue. Dying by inches.

She presses a hand over her mouth to smother another laugh.

It’s just too... too much. A Grounder Queen. Of the Ice Nation. Subtle, she directs at her subconscious. Real subtle. If you can’t hurt the one who hurt you, might as well take the role of someone who did, right?

Clarke keeps sneaking glances at herself in the mirror. The tattoo beneath her left eye is just the beginning, she’s got more running down one shoulder and wrapped around the opposite ankle. Her hair’s been shorn away on the right side of her head, beginning just below her temple. Whatever remains has been braided tightly against her skull to expose a wedge so close-cropped she can just about make out the dark pattern of more tattoos on her scalp. She’s got a warrior’s scars, too -- one right across her mouth, more on the backs of her hands and forearms. Her upper arms are unmarked, but wow check out her triceps. She... she looks so badass.

A fit of giggles siezes her chest, and she has to bend over double to hide her face.

“My queen?” her guard asks, concerned, because Clarke’s never actually been good at subterfuge.

She straightens. “It’s alright, Genai,” she says without thinking. Her mouth moves on muscle memory, but it’s like pulling at a loose thread that comes and comes: Genai, friend, bodyguard, some years older, once killed a snowcat that was about to eat your face, still teases you for being too slow. Clarke lets her breath out, slow, at the sudden onslaught. “I’m fine.”

Genai moves closer to the bed, weight shifting on the balls of her feet. “We are not among friends,” she says. “You are not the only one who feels uneasy.”

“But I’m the only one who ended up screaming at my own reflection.”

They’re not even speaking Trigedasleng. Rookie mistake, she tells her brain. How can she not know it’s a dream? Even English might confuse her for a bit, but this is some kind of garbled nonsense she can still understand -- typical dream logic. A dream before dying.

Genai actually rolls her eyes before plopping down on the bed next to her. She’s one of those Grounders who looks almost elemental, more of Nature than Man at this point; there are fine lines in the skin of her eyes, the result of the harsh reflection of sun on snow. The same sun has lightened her hair and darkened her skin until she’s the same dusky-sandy color all over, broken up only by dark tattoos. She doesn’t ask permission before leaning in to put her hand on Clarke’s forehead, who makes a face. Indra was never this presumptuous with -- does even Clarke’s own subconscious think she’s a crappy leader? That she can’t command that same fear and respect even if covered in tattoos and built in her arms? Disappointing.

“You’re still a little warm,” Genai says. “I said it was a mistake to travel to Polis in summer.”

Of course that’s where she is. Clarke swallows back bile before guessing: “But my presence was requested.”

Genai makes her own face. “You are a Queen and you are needed at home. I do not understand why a representative would not have sufficed for this year as well. The Commander oversteps, even for a meeting of all the clans.”

Her heart stutters. “She -- she’s not here, though.”

The woman’s face grows even more sour. “No,” she grumbles, “the great Commander can demand a Queen travel at the foulest time of year, causing her to have a fit in the road --”

“Genai, I’m fine,” and hey, that feels familiar.

“-- and become insensible for days, but does she bother to receive her guests?” A snort. “Delayed in returning from inspection, they tell us. As if the dust from their horses were not still in the air of the courtyard. She has avoided paying you respect since your coronation, and she avoids you now.”

Clarke can’t tell Genai, but she didn’t expect anything else. Lexa is never in her dreams. Sometimes Clarke is looking for her, even hiding from her, but Lexa herself doesn’t appear. If Clarke’s mind threatens any danger of Lexa -- the remembered curve of shoulder leading to neck, a glimpse of dark-painted eyes -- her body reacts as if it were the sensation of falling. The bottom drops out of Clarke’s stomach and adrenaline jerks through her limbs, and the next thing she knows she’s awake and gasping. Safe from whatever would have happened next.

Maybe that’s what this dream will be: wandering the streets of Polis and the halls of Lexa’s home, forever searching, lying in wait with a curved knife and hoping for the chance to carve out her still-beating heart. Still an improvement over those where she’s standing alone in front of the Mountain, and just waiting, and waiting, and waiting.

Something must show in her face, because Genai’s eyes widen as she searches Clarke’s expression. She leans forward, intent. “What is it?”

“It’s nothing.” Nothing that can be fixed. Or undone.

A hand grips hers where it lays on top of the blankets, and Genai lowers her voice, anxiety bleeding through: “Klark.”

Clarke starts. The Grounder accent is clear in her intonation: cutting consonants and guttural on the vowels, imbued with the aggression they love so much. “Is that still my name?” she wonders aloud.

(Or, that was how the warriors pronounce it. Lexa said it differently. Not quite right, she could never capture the arch of the “r” correctly, a bit too hard a click for the “k.” But she listened to the Arkers when they addressed Clarke and tried, and tried again -- “Was that correct?” -- until she came closer than the rest. She always asked with her eyes intent on Clarke’s face, like it mattered.

Clarke hates her with a heat she can feel in her shaking hands.)

Alarm spreads across Genai’s face. “I’m getting their doctor,” she says as she stands. “I don’t think you’ve recovered --”

Clarke catches her arm before. “No, I’m --” she shakes her head. “I’m just tired.” And she feels it, suddenly. She’s tired of this dream. “Just let me rest again, and I’ll be fine in the morning.”

That’s supposed to be a way out of a dream, right? To go back to sleep? If it didn’t wake her up, at least it would put her into a new dream.

She lies back down as the other woman leaves the room, and hopes her next waking will be easier.

 

________________________
________________________

 

“Wanheda.”

It catches in her chest and she shudders. “Don’t call me that.”

“You did not come to me for niceties.”

“I didn’t come to you at all, you found me --

“And you accepted what I offer. Will you spurn it now for your pride?”

Another roil of her stomach, acid burning a line in her chest all the way into her throat. She coughs, capitulates. “No.”

“Good.” Clarke is too busy not throwing up to look at him, but she feels and hears and he settles in front of her cross-legged. “Now. You are a legend. You breathe poison upon the wind and the mountains tremble. Your touch spreads fire across the earth and brings lightning down from the sky. You were born in the nothingness of space, and the first air in your lungs was tainted by the darkness between the stars.”

She really is going to be sick. “It wasn’t like that.”

“I told you, this cannot be about your pride.”

“I’m not --” She jerks her head up, and it’s a mistake. The room spins, and she gags. “I never wanted any of it. I only did what I did to save people.”

“And yet, you are Wanheda.”

She screws her eyes even more tightly shut, struggling to keep her breathing even. Whatever he gave her to drink tasted like death, and now it won’t leave her mouth no matter how much she swallows. She can feel it spreading, crawling down her throat and up into her brain.

“You have already begun the raun-keryon. You have ingested enough poison to fell five grown warriors. You first swear you wish to balance out the death you have brought into the world, and now that none of it was your aim?” He makes a sound of disgust. “Your soul will travel nowhere on the force of lies. You will simply die.”

“It’s the truth,” she grates out. Sheer force of will gets her chin up, lets her meet his eyes. She can barely focus -- her whole body is one big cramp, zings making her limbs twitch as her muscles try to shock her body into running from whatever is killing it.

“Then I am sorry for you. It will only make your quest more difficult.”

 

________________________
________________________

 

Clarke wakes up.

She sits up, blinking away the dream-within-a-dream. Same bed. Same room with a window looking out onto water. Same mirror in the corner, the same strange reflection of her own face.

Same dream.

It has to be a dream.

She looks down at her hand knotted in the blankets -- it’s her hand, with the odd-length ring finger and the familiar shape of the wrist bone. But it’s covered in white or half-healed scars from a life she’s never led.

(Your soul will travel nowhere on the force of lies.)

No. Her memories are fragmented and hazy, but there’s no way she actually... It’s ridiculous to even consider it.

Except she’s still here.

Clarke dresses quickly, shucking off her soft sleep shirt and pants after she finds a knapsack filled with clothes. It’s made of worn leather and the top flap has been embroidered with the same symbol that swipes down her cheekbone. The items inside are a bit different from what she remembers seeing on the bodies of Grounders since she arrived -- more sleeveless options, lighter fabrics. But she doesn’t feel uncomfortable when she pulls them on. In fact, she feels a lot warmer than she remembers being before the season really started to change.

Everything fits as if it had been made for her.

When she opens the door to her room she sees another guard, another stranger like a remembered dream. Moon-round face, black hair cropped close except for two long braids that follow the line of his skull, dark eyes -- Trest, taking over the morning shift for Genai. The sight of him prompts a cascade of information, again: younger, Genai’s second, family lives in the northernmost habitable regions and he makes you their delicacy of ice and fat and berries slurried together.

“My queen,” he stands immediately. “Genai said you didn’t sleep well. I sent for food.”

It’s that same strange language again, but along with the tug of new memories is the reminder that Trest, growing up in an isolated area, still struggles with Trigedasleng. They’re speaking a dialect distinct to the Ice Nation, itself isolated from so many of the clans. “No,” she says, walking past him. “I feel like going down to the hall. You can eat whatever they bring,” she throws over her shoulder, and makes sure to smile. Trest is always eating.

What is going on, how do you know this, something inside her wants to scream. She mentally shoves it into a closet and locks the door. She just needs to --

Clarke halts, turning on her heel. “Trest, how much longer until...” she searches her memory. The only word that comes to mind is Trigedasleng: “Sonteina geidatu?”

She asked Lexa one of those nights that seemed to stretch out interminably as they waited for the next crisis to force them into a reaction. They were seated around one of the communal campfires, for once, but just enough apart from the laughing, bandying warriors that Clarke felt comfortable in leaning closer to ask: “Where were you when the dropship landed?”

Lexa gave a short sigh, the kind Clarke now knew spoke of remembered frustration. (Oh, and hadn’t she been so proud of herself then, for picking up Lexa’s tells. The soft glow in the pit of her stomach when she thought she was learning, finally seeing the person behind the posturing and warpaint. Before the truth became as undeniable as a knife in the back: Lexa might be flesh beneath her armor, but beneath that was only stone.) “Part of the Coalition is a yearly summit of all twelve clans,” she had said. “I could not simply excuse myself, even with reports of invaders falling from the sky.”

Clarke was still able to smile, a little bit, at being called an invader. “Couldn’t you reschedule your big meeting?”

Lexa widened her eyes, that too-familiar look Clarke only received when she’d said something that only proved how differently they understood the world. “No.”

“Why not?”

Lexa hesitated. “There’s... no other time,” she said, visibly struggling. “The rest of the year the people need their leaders for planting or taking in the harvest, or when defending themselves from both raiders and animals that have grown hungrier and more desperate.”

“So, September, then.” Clarke knew when the dropship had launched, because the people of the Ark had made sure to give her knowledge of time passing. They wanted her silent, not insane.

“I don’t know September.” Lexa shrugged, lacing her fingers together as she leaned forward to rest her elbows on her knees. She was as relaxed as she ever was, coat unbuttoned and hanging off her shoulders. The light from the fire caught in the hollow of her throat. “There’s a ceremony when the length of the days becomes equal to that of the nights, just before the darkness grows stronger.”

“The autumn equinox.”

Lexa repeated this phrase before offering: “Sonteina geidatu. We try to meet as close to this time as we can.”

Sonteina geidatu,” Clarke said dutifully, her mind on stories of the old Earth. “Do you celebrate in spring, too?”

“Of course. A ceremony for each season.”

And because she gave her answers so easily, because those nights felt like they were only hesitating, hovering on the edge of something new, instead of the dark drop into a precipice -- or maybe because of the way the fire made Lexa’s skin look almost golden, lit the brighter tints of her hair -- Clarke found it in herself to ask. “When you have the winter ceremony, could I come visit you? See what it’s like?”

Lexa was silent, staring into the fire.

“I don’t mean to -- I don’t want to impose --”

“I am going to bed,” Lexa announced, and Clarke might have been offended, except she did sound... weary. Clarke was so used to thinking of conflict as Lexa’s element, that which filled her lungs and made her heart beat. She’d never seen anyone so alive as Lexa in the midst of war. But maybe, she thought, watching Lexa rise to her feet, even the great Commander could grow tired of pitting her heart against the whims of the world.

“Clarke.”

Clarke forced herself to focus. Lexa was buttoned back up and didn’t meet her eyes. Instead, she stared to the side, off into the shadows, as she said: “Please consider yourself as having an open invitation to my home.”

“Thank you,” Clarke said after a moment. Lexa nodded and walked off to her tent.

Genai had said it was summer. Clarke isn’t used to thinking of September as summer, but Grounders tell their time by the sun and stars.

“Today is sonteina geidatu, my queen,” Trest says, a slight frown on his face when he uses the term, as if she’s giving him a test.

“Right.” She can’t help her grip tightening on the handle of her knife, but she tries to keep her expression open and easy. “I’m a little confused after -- everything. I think I’ve lost a few days.”

“You were very ill,” he agrees.

“Yes.” Clarke draws a deep breath. “And when did that start? More or less?”

Trest searches her face for a second before answering: “Eight days ago, my queen.”

The day the dropship landed.

 

________________________

 

Trest tells her how to find the eating hall -- she only needs a guard while she sleeps, awake they assume she can counter anyone foolish enough to threaten her while she’s a guest of the Commander -- but she has no intention of going there. She’s not even sure she could keep food down.

No, she wants the map room. That was another tidbit shared between war councils and fireside conversations -- Clarke had admired the wealth and models and maps at the Commander’s disposal, and Lexa had described the artisans at work at the capitol who created detailed reproductions of the landscape. It had made sense when Clarke thought about it; since there was no written form of Trigedasleng, visual representations were vital in planning and communicating campaigns.

It’s an easy enough task. All she has to do is grab the first person who isn’t dressed like a warrior and ask for directions. Lexa had talked about that, too: now that the Coalition was in place, those of all nations were welcome to marvel at the skills and knowledge of the Woods Clan.

“But that’s more than just maps, right?” Clarke tried to tease her. “Your people make other things, and those are on display in other places?”

“True,” with a shrug. “But that is my favorite room.”

When Clarke walks in, she understands why.

The building she walks through -- the capitol building? surely not Lexa’s home -- is an artifact of the world before. The hallways twist and the ceilings vault, a far cry from the squat and uncomplicated Grounder structures she’s seen erected in the field. The walls are covered in a rainbow of ancient graffiti tags, the unnatural colors bright even beneath years of dirt. Sections of the outer walls have crumbled with age, or maybe destroyed, and she can see where the concrete has fallen away to expose the steel reinforcements, now twisted and broken. These have been patched over with wooden planks and even rough, thick swathes of fabric. But here and there they fall away, and Clarke can peer out to see just how high they are off the ground, how the wind picks up at this elevation.

The map room is tucked deeper into the building, away from the questionable protection of the outer walls. There’s no door that Clarke can see. Instead a rich, heavy tapestry hangs over a double-wide frame. Clarke pushes past, and as it falls behind her she can immediately feel the change from the hallway to this room. It’s warmer with the thick fabric to keep out the sneaky gusts of wind that skitter around one’s ankles in the hallways. It’s also quieter -- hushed, even reverent. It seems much more removed from the bustle of activity Clarke just left behind in the main areas, as if she’d traveled farther than simply past the tapestry.

The contents of the room itself are stunning. There are over a dozen tables, each covered with meticulous models and recreations of landscapes she only vaguely recognizes from her experiences on the ground. As she walks by she catches glimpses of bleak plateaus covered in the semblance of white, sparkling snow; sloping sand dunes; even white-capped ocean waves painted on carved wood to turn it into water. Long steel rods are bolted onto the walls, and rows upon rows of flat maps hangs from them like petals on a flower that’s drawn up tight and protective.

And there’s someone already in here.

There’s a girl about Clarke’s age sitting in a carved wooden chair that is set against one of the few empty tables, her back against one arm and her legs slung over the other. Her clothes are softer and simpler than those worn by warriors -- a roughspun shirt with the sleeves rolled up above her elbows, dark pants tucked into leather boots. Her black hair is cut shorter than Clarke has seen on most Grounders, ending just above her shoulders with thin braids throughout. It only serves to throw the severity of her profile into relief as she sits with her back to the doorway. There’s a strength to the cut of her nose and chin which nearly belies prettiness, until she turns her head and Clarke catches the wide arch of her eyebrows, the quick appraisal of clear eyes.

“Um. Hello?” Clarke starts.

The girl stands as Clarke hesitates in the doorway, expression hard. “We do not speak the language of the Ice Nation in Polis,” she says, although her answer is in that language.

“Oh. I --” Clarke is opening her mouth to apologize for not knowing Trigedasleng when she suddenly realizes she does know it; has the whole repository of the main Grounder dialect at her disposal. That is never going to stop being unnerving. She switches with unthinking ease. “My apologies, I haven’t been well and I’m. A little disoriented.”

The girl shrugs, which is not exactly accepting the apology. “What do you want?”

Maybe she’s some kind of curator, standing guard and helping the curious. The lack of introduction is a little off-putting, but Clarke can’t imagine Ice Nation warriors are well received in the capital despite everything. “A map. One that shows both Polis, TonDC, and the immediate surrounding villages.”

The girl rests one hand on her hip. She’s imposing, even without warrior’s clothing. She has no tattoos that Clarke can see, no weapons besides the requisite knife at her hip. Her presentation would be completely unremarkable, except for a large silver ring on her right thumb. Somehow, she still manages an air of authority that catches at Clarke’s attention. A whisper of deja vu.

Clarke shakes free of it. There are more important things at stake.

(You wish to balance out the death you have brought into the world.)

“Can you help me find a map like that?”

The young woman folds her arms. “Why would I?”

“Well. We’re allies, now. And,” Clarke rushes to add, “it’s what your Commander would want.”

A dark look flashes across the woman’s face, and for a second Clarke is sure she’s said exactly the wrong thing. Then she gives a small sigh, shoulders slumping as the barely-concealed hostility leaves her frame. “Sit,” she says, turning to the small stepladder and climbing up to the second row of hanging maps.

Clarke obeys. “Thank you,” she says. “I appreciate your help.” The girl doesn’t turn from where she’s turning the sections. “My name is --”

“I know who you are.” There’s no more suspicion, she’s merely factual.

“I see.” Clarke licks her dry lips. “You speak the language of the Ice Nation, too.”

“I was a scout on the border between our territories. Sometimes knowing your language was the only thing that saved my skin.” She raises an eyebrow in Clarke’s direction, looking back over her shoulder. “But as you say, we are allies now.”

“Oh.” Close proximity to the Ice Nation would go a long way in explaining her attitude, especially if she’d served before the Coalition was in place. Perhaps she could help Clarke to understand just what she’d gotten herself into. “How long were you a scout, if you don’t mind me asking?”

Her hands pause only a moment in perusing the maps. “Five years, until the peace agreements.”

“Right.” Clarke searches her memory. “About a year ago.”

This causes the young woman to stop and turn, giving her a hard look. “Two years ago. When you became Queen.”

“Of course,” Clarke agrees, trying to cover with a smile. If anything, the other girl’s expression grows more suspicious. Oh, screw it, Clarke thinks, and blurts out: “What happened to Nia?”

“The Queen before you?” She turns her whole body, reaching up on either side to secure her perch as she faces Clarke, who can’t help noticing the gorgeous musculature of her arms. There’s definition all the way down to the precise turn of wrists. It draws Clarke’s attention to her hands and the unique shape of her ring: cut at an angle, so that a broader piece juts out above her knuckle before the band tapers around the base of her thumb. “You did.”

“I -- what?”

“You’re wondering if I know the story?” She turns back to the maps, movements jerky this time as she rifles through them at a slightly faster pace, even callous in how she flips from one to the next. “There are auguries cast at the naming ceremony of every Ice Nation child. Yours resulted in a prophecy: should Nia’s reign begin to corrupt and fester, you would be the one to bring your people back to peace.”

Lexa never talked about the Ice Nation -- not if she could help it -- but the other warriors had, in whispers and with warning looks. They were a strange people, they told the Arkers. They lived on the roof of the world, closer to the sky where spirits lived, and the whispers of those beings filled their dreams. Their lives were filled with rituals and prophecies and strange power. Clarke had only cared inasmuch as how effective that kind of psychological warfare must be, and how Nia must wield this fear like any other weapon.

“Your parents were among Nia’s advisors and your father decided to share these omens with their Queen as a warning, in the hope that she could avoid her own downfall by becoming a better ruler. Instead she put a sword through his heart and swore you would be dead by the time the sun set on that day.” She finds what she’s looking for, starts to unhook the map from its securings. “Only your mother was not so trusting, and she had already left your home, with you, and fled into the barrens -- a wasteland where nothing thrives and the cold freezes the breath in your lungs. Nia sent warriors to search for you for years. Some of them died in the attempt. Others returned and swore you must be dead, that no one could survive out there.” She lifts the section free, and grunts a little at the weight. “Except you did. Fifteen years after Nia chased you off, you returned exactly as prophesized. You journeyed through one of the worst winters of remembrance, arriving in a storm so terrible they say it sounded like the world itself was screaming. You walked out of that and into Nia’s hall to demand your right to Queen’s Combat, having been trained for it every day of your life by your mother, until she died out in the snow.”

Clarke knows she should be paying very careful attention right now, only her eyes keep snagging on the ring. There’s a pattern etched into the surface, on the broader section, but she can’t quite make it out from where she’s sitting. When the other girl lets the heavy map fall to the table it makes Clarke jump, and she ends up looking straight into the young woman’s eyes.

“You bested Nia in minutes,” she says quietly. “I hear it took much longer for her to die.” She turns back to the map and begins to unfold it to the full expanse, the oilskin rustling with each careful movement. “Queen Klark of the Ice Nation: the girl who walked out of a storm. I told you, I know who you are.”

Clarke searches the girl’s expression, taking in the strong line of her jaw, the tension in the way she holds it. “Do I know you?” she asks gently.

“We’ve never met. But when she came back from your coronation, she told me all about you.”

“She?” But she’s already looking down at the table, at the girl’s hand as it rests there, and the ring. Which bears -- not a pattern, a symbol. One she can never forget, even though she only ever saw it balanced between the eyes of a girl she knew for a handful of days.

“You’re Costia,” Clarke breathes, and the bottom drops out of the world.

 

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Clarke hasn’t spent much time thinking about Costia. She doesn’t have time, between one crisis and the next. And Lexa -- only mention Costia and she becomes an open wound. Clarke only did it once, and only because she needed to save a friend.

You have wrecked quite a bit of destruction to save your friends, a voice in her head whispers as she bends over the map. Isn’t that how you ended up here?

So she only has the vaguest impressions of who Costia must have been. Beautiful, probably. Tragic, definitely. Someone who knew Lexa before she swallowed so much bitterness her blood turned to ichor and her face was almost permanently painted in dark tears. Someone who loved her when her heart was whole.

Clarke is unprepared for the reality of this girl, sitting and watching, her eyes following Clarke’s every twitch. She doesn’t look tragic, or doomed -- but then, maybe she isn’t. This time.

Clarke flinches from the phrase parallel world whenever her mind throws it into her path, shuts down every train of thought that might carry it as cargo. Quantum physics has never been her favorite subject even before the theories start to get loopy. She’s still fuzzy on the details of how she got here, even why -- what does it matter who she saves here, when her hands are still drenched in blood back in the real world?

Except when she finds what she’s looking for, she knows it does matter. If she can prevent even a fraction of the destruction coming to them at full speed, she will. Maybe she can’t reap the benefits herself (how does she get back home? is she supposed to drink more poison, because that stuff was foul) but the universe has spent the last few months beating her and everyone she loves bloody. Given the chance to change the rules and land a sucker punch -- or six -- she will take it.

If she’s given the chance.

Clarke straightens, hands poised just above two places: Polis, the city sketched as nestled like a jewel in the surrounding forest; and a single drawing of three huts together, representing a village some distance from TonDC. The village is close to a bend in a long, winding river, close to a looming mountain done completely in black.

“How long would it take to cover this distance on horseback?” she asks the girl in the chair next to her.

Costia’s eyes flicker over the map. “A day and a half, on a fast horse.”

Clarke’s hands clench into fists. “When is L-- do you know when the Commander will be back?”

Her expression is opaque. “No.”

Clarke swears, looking back at the map. “We don’t have enough time to wait for her.”

“Time for what?” When Clarke doesn’t respond, she continues: “I have to warn you: you and your people will not be harmed inside the capitol, but take one step outside its walls without supervision and it will be treated as an act of war.”

“Whose supervision?” Clarke asks, still eyeing the map like it can give up its secrets.

“Someone of our Clan. Someone trusted by the Commander and her advisors.” Clarke looks up to see Costia narrow her eyes. “Did she talk to you about me?”

No use pretending she doesn’t know who Costia means. “I don’t remember,” she says. It’s true, anyway, and hopefully can be chalked up to two years’ passage. Instead of... whatever she’s doing right now, soul-hopping in a world of leader spirits and reincarnation. None of which she believes in, last time she checked. Lexa -- her Lexa, if only in the most technical sense -- would probably laugh to see Clarke now. If she were capable of it.

“Because you’re looking at me as if you know something I should as well.” A pause. “Or not looking.”

Sorry, Clarke doesn’t say. I don’t mean to be rude, I’ve just had some bad experiences looking at ghosts. “It can’t be Anya,” she mutters to herself instead. “She’s too far, and she wouldn’t believe me anyway.”

Costia straightens suddenly, the movement sharp enough to be noticeable even out of the corner of Clarke’s eye. She turns to find the tension back in Costia’s frame, her head poised as if scenting the first hint of smoke from a forest fire. “I know she didn’t talk to you about Anya,” she says. “Do you still have spies in our territory? You agreed when you were crowned --”

“Costia,” Clarke interrupts. “It has to be you.”

She goes down on her knees in front of the other girl, who startles and draws back. Clarke presses the advantage, bracing her hands on either side of the chair. Costia stares back a her wide-eyed.

“We don’t know each other,” Clarke says. “But I do know that Lexa wouldn’t choose someone who didn’t value her people like she does.” Costia opens her mouth and Clarke presses in even more, gripping the armrests of her chair so tightly they creak. “Which is why I’m telling you that unless we do something, unless we leave now, a village outside of TonDC is going to be completely destroyed in two days’ time.”

Costia’s mouth hangs open for another beat before she closes it, teeth coming together with a muted click. “Not by your people.”

“No.” Clarke swallows down the urge to lie. “By... by a new power. Invaders.”

“From?”

Clarke meets her eyes, tries to put all the sincerity she has into that look. “They fell out of the sky. They don’t mean any harm -- it’s not an attack, they just want to communicate with their people.” And I won’t tell you how to stop that, she thinks. But that doesn’t mean people have to die for it.

“People from the sky,” Costia says flatly. “Has the girl of prophecy received one of her own?”

“Something like that.”

“And I’m supposed to trust you on this,” she continues. “To believe you’ve had a vision, and lead you into the heart of my lover’s territory on the strength of it?”

Clarke’s heart twists in her chest. “I know what I’m asking might be difficult --”

“Difficult is not the word.”

“ -- but isn’t it worth it? If I’m right? Costia, think of the lives we would save. I know that’s important to you -- you wouldn’t have served so close to the Ice Nation if you didn’t know the value of taking risks.”

Costia takes a moment to search her face. “You’re good at that, aren’t you?” she then asks softly. “Knowing what to say to have others do what you want.”

Clarke feels her cheeks heat. “I’m not -- I don’t --” She swallows. “Okay, yes.”

Costia looks down at her hands in her lap, idly twisting her ring. “You’re asking a lot.”

“I know.”

“No,” the other girl murmurs. “I don’t think you do.” She hesitates. “It would require me to act in the stead of the Commander, assuming her power and demanding that others to treat my orders as if they came from her mouth.”

Clarke thinks of the mantle of power Lexa wears like a birthright, how she never gives the slightest quarter to her generals. She bites down on the urge to blurt out You can do that? because of course she can. She’s Costia.

And this is another world.

“I can prove it,” Clarke says, laying down the ace in her sleeve. “I can show you the invaders’ camp. But only if you agree to immediately evacuate the village afterward.”

“I can agree to that,” Costia says, slowly.

“No,” Clarke retracts, remembering past agreements and how easily they’d been broken. “I want you to swear it. On --” your life, your love, and a dozen other obscene options pop into her head before she settles on: “On your loyalty to her.”

Costia sucks in a sharp breath, and this close Clarke can see the pulse start to pound in the vein of her neck. Her eyes are hard, and for a second Clarke thinks she’s pushed too far. But then: “I swear,” between clenched teeth.

Clarke stands, lightheaded with relief. “Thank you.”

“Don’t,” Costia says, not looking at her. “Be ready to leave in half an hour. You may bring exactly two of your retinue, no more. I don’t care what you tell the rest, but if any of them attempt to follow us into the forest I will leave you all behind and deal with this myself.”

“Understood.” Clarke makes as if to leave, but turns back on impulse. “You won’t be sorry about this, I promise.”

“Don’t,” she says again, softer.

Clarke moves quickly out of the room, almost running from the desolate look on Costia’s face. But not quickly enough to miss hearing the other girl mutter, low and rueful: “She’s going to kill me.”

 

________________________

 

She doesn’t consider bringing anyone but Genai, half because she’s the only Ice Nation person Clarke has spoken more than a dozen words with, and half because the strange certainty in her head wouldn’t tolerate otherwise. Genai listens to the whispered plan without expression, though a few times Clarke sees some emotion flicker just behind her eyes.

“Do you know what you are doing?” is her only question at the end.

Clarke prepares to lie, then changes her mind. “Maybe not,” she ends up admitting. “But I know what I have to do.”

Genai tips her head back and closes her eyes, as if begging for patience, before coming back to herself with a short sigh. “I will put together your things,” she says as she throws off her covers. “Go wait by the stables. Make sure this Costia does not decide to leave without you.”

Clarke does so, and steals a few minutes no one will ever miss hanging over the door to the stables and looking her fill at the horses. Genai comes to an abrupt stop as she walks up with Trest in tow, looking first at Clarke’s expression and then the animals in their enclosures.

“At least it’s not snowcats,” she mutters. “Although an affection for these southern horses is just as useless, they look like they’d tip over in a good wind.”

“You will have to resign yourself to our inferior horses for this journey,” Costia says, coming around the corner. She turns to give instructions to someone inside the stables before continuing: “Your horses are too slow and heavy to make good time.”

“They were good enough to get us here,” Genai says.

“Really?” Costia’s eyes flicker to Clarke briefly before looking back at the warrior. “I heard she had to be carried in a litter.”

Genai’s face reddens, and Clarke somehow knows she’s about to make this so much worse, so she reaches out and puts a hand on the older woman’s arm. Genai subsides, although Clarke can practically feel the outrage boiling beneath her skin.

Costia watches this exchange, but Clarke can’t quite decide on the tenor of her expression as she does. The other girl has brought only a small pack with her, similar to the ones Genai and Trest have slung over their shoulders. What catches Clarke’s eye is the short half-cape she’s now wearing -- more specifically the trim around the collar, where a fabric Clarke recognizes has been threaded through the soft suede at intervals, exposing the deep orange-red color.

The stable worker walks out with four horses on leads. One of them immediately stretches toward Costia, and she spends a few seconds with her face pressed against its neck as she strokes its forelock and whispers something Clarke can’t make out. Clarke’s attention is pulled away from the other girl by Genai, who has handed off the packs to Trest and is now maneuvering a wide leather belt around Clarke’s hips.

“I can do it myself,” Clarke protests, only to remember a second later that she probably can’t.

“You never tie it right,” Genai says, frowning as she works. The belt works in conjunction with the the knife sheath she already has on. Clarke reaches around to touch a slightly longer blade, though still curved, attached to the back of the wide piece of leather. Then, beginning several inches from her navel and circling around her hips, is an assortment of a kind of weapon she doesn’t recognize. They’re all roughly the same: two equal pieces of tough, braided fiber and a third slightly longer, with weights dangling from each end, coiled and looped so as not to make any noise when she moves. However, the end weights grow heavier from front to side, and a voice in her head whispers catching weight, crippling weight, as her hand touches them. It’s growing harder and harder to ignore how much the voice sounds like her own.

In the very front, as an afterthought, two lengths of braided twine tied with a small piece of fabric between them has been tucked into a pouch. When she pulls it out she sees that the way it’s constructed makes the fabric curve like a miniature hammock, and Clarke can almost feel the shape of the exact kind of rock she could place there, the torque and heft she’d use to send it flying.

A sling? Really? It’s kind of a let-down after waking up as a Grounder; she thought massive swords were part of the package. The responding disgruntlement at the back of her mind -- she wants a sword, she’s welcome to carry around a sword in a frozen wasteland, that’s weight that won’t put food in her mouth and will make her sweat out valuable water, but have at it -- does nothing to soothe her ego. I bet Costia has a sword, she thinks, and turns to check.

Costia does not have a sword. Costia has already mounted her horse, and even though Clarke isn’t as used to the animals as she’d like to be she can tell this one is a breed apart by the delicate, strong lines of its legs and the perfect arch of its neck. Its tack is simple, but Clarke can see additions on either side -- one of them a quiver full of arrows, and the other is clearly a holder for the accompanying bow when Costia pulls it out to check the string. It’s different from the bows Clarke remembers from preserved films: shorter and deeply curved, notched where the string would draw back. Costia uses her thumb to do just that, the string itself fitted into the angle of her ring.

Clarke climbing onto her own horse as she takes all this in, but a growl from Genai draws her attention. “Shadow-walker,” the woman hisses.

Clarke starts as it touches off another loose string of memories. “You said you were a scout,” she says to Costia, nudging her horse closer.

“I was.” If she recognizes the nickname, it doesn’t show on her face.

“You were a spy.” Saboteur, more like. The agent known as Shadow-walker was infamous, with more than half a dozen stories about the refugees she’d snuck out of Ice Nation territory or caches of weapons and supplies she’d raided right from under Nia’s nose. No one had known who she was or what clan she belonged to, since she reportedly rode the wind itself and sent anyone who pursued her home with an arrow in their throat. She hasn’t been active since Nia’s death, but Clarke has the vaguest memory of doubling the soldiers at every border post, just in case.

To Clarke’s surprise, Costia grins. It lightens some strain Clarke hasn’t even been aware she’s carrying until now, makes her eyes flash with humor. “That, too,” she agrees, and then by some silent signal her horse begins to trot toward the main gate.

“How did you know?” Clarke asks Genai, now mounted, as she draws her horse up next to Clarke’s.

“The fletchings on the arrows are very particular,” the other woman says, eyes still on Costia. “We had standing orders to slit the throat of anyone found carrying them.” She pauses. “Although if it had been known that Shadow-walker and the Commander’s favorite were one and the same...”

“What?” Clarke can’t seem to stop herself from asking, even though she knows, she knows.

Genai purses her lips, shrugs. “Nia wanted that one very badly,” she says. “Almost had her, a few times.”

A shudder crawls up Clarke’s spine, and she maybe sets her heels into her horse’s sides a bit too hard as they set off.

 

________________________

 

Even Clarke can tell they’re making good time. She has no sense of where there are in relation to where they’re going, but the landscape seems to be ever-changing, the distance melting away beneath the hooves of their horses. Costia leads, and seems to unerringly know which paths will be straightest and easiest on their animals.

They only call a halt for the day when the forest makes it nearly too dark to see their hands in front of their faces, though Clarke can still see glimpses of the setting sun between the leaves. Costia takes care of that night’s meal before she’s even dismounted, firing two arrows in quick succession and landing a pair of fat birds with mottled brown and grey feathers.

The campfire that night is silent as they recover from the effects of riding for so long and so hard. Genai and Trest are asleep in their bedrolls as soon as they lay down in them, but Clarke finds herself still wakeful. Costia is the only one who isn’t drained from the day’s activity -- she looks comfortable sitting on the forest floor in front of a dying fire, long fingers busy with the longer pinions she pulled from the wood birds earlier. Makes sense, Clarke thinks. If she was a scout, this must have been the kind of life she led for years.

But not for the last two years. Clarke wonders why she stopped.

Even her horse is less fatigued than the others. She hasn’t tied it up with the rest, and it stands behind her now as she sits, lipping at her hair. Costia laughs and says something to it too quiet for Clarke to hear, but the horse blows loudly in response.

“Does he have a name?” Clarke asks.

Just like that the other girl’s face is closed off again. “She.” 

“She’s beautiful.” Clarke can’t help it if she sounds a little wistful. She likes horses, has ever since she cried herself sick reading Black Beauty in the Ark’s archives. They’re one of the few things she always admired about Earth that haven’t ending up disappointing or containing some hidden sting since they landed.

“Oh, she knows.” Costia sounds indulgent as she tips her head back, giving the horse better access to nudge. “She’s from a Nomad line, and they treat their horses almost like part of the clan.”

“You’ve traveled in the Dead Zone?”

Costia hesitates. “No,” she says. “She was a gift to the Commander. Who gave her to me.”

It doesn’t hurt, Clarke tells herself. If Costia’s alive, then it’s supposed to be this way. Maybe that conviction is what prompts her to lean up on one elbow and meet Costia’s eyes across the embers. “I thought she wasn’t supposed to leave Polis during the summit,” she says. “But Genai says she was out on inspection when we arrived.”

The walls are back in place, Costia’s face containing a careful blankness. “The decisions of the Commander are not subject to the approval of the Ice Nation,” she says. “Not even its queen.”

“No, I just...” The words die in Clarke’s throat as Costia’s eyes return to the fire, communicating better than any words that the discussion is finished. Clarke resists the urge to apologize and turns over in her bedroll, putting her back to the other girl.

It doesn’t matter. She lets sleep tug her down into its embrace. I’m not here for that.

 

________________________
________________________

 

It should scare her how easy it is, now, to draw the gun and aim it at a living, breathing body.

It should. But it doesn’t.

“Is this the traditional welcome of the Sky People?” the man asks from across the fire. He wears a mask that made her jump when it first appeared above the flames: rough bark set in angular layers to mimic the dip and curve of cheekbones and brow bone, even though it’s larger than any human face. The mouth opening is a thin, rectangular slit. The eye holes are tiny squares, and she’d barely be able to see them except every now and again the firelight catches in glints to reveal something living beneath. “It leaves much to be desired.”

“Who are you?” It’s been weeks since she spoke with another living thing, and you can tell from her voice. Her lips chapped and raw from dehydration, and she can taste where the lower one splits, the surprising tang of blood in her mouth. Still, her arm is steady as she holds the gun.

“There is no word for it in your language.” He gives an exaggerated, open-handed shrug. Every inch of his skin is covered, even his hands. Age, race, features -- aside from height and the general shape, she can’t tell a thing about him as a person. “I am a healer.”

“I’m not sick. So you can leave. Now.”

He laughs. It’s awful, this dry, rattling sound that doesn’t sound human. “No, you are not sick. You are dying.”

Her heart beats a little faster, and she makes a show of disengaging the safety. “I said leave.”

“Didn’t you hear me, Sky Commander?” He tilts his head to one side, and the angle of it is obscene because of the mask: he looks like a life sized doll, something made of cloth and straw that can be stretched out of its joints. “Your soul is dying. It is like a fire upon which you have heaped only wet wood. You have taken on too many deaths for one lifetime, and whatever spark is left is in danger of being smothered.”

Her arm begins to ache. She tries to flex it without really moving, but her hand twitches and she just gives up. She lowers the gun. It’s not an attack of conscience about killing yet another person, though, she’s just tired. So tired that, even though she doesn’t believe in reincarnation, the idea that this life could be her last is close to comforting. That after this she would simply... gutter out.

It probably shows in her face, because the man across from the fire raises both palms toward her in the universal gesture. “This world is full of death, Sky child. But the extinguishing of a soul is a terrible thing. We have already lost too many in the wars that remade the Earth. The pledge of my kind is to salvage and shepherd all that are left -- even those that once tried to flee into the Sky.”

“You literally want to save my soul,” and she can’t help laughing.

“I will do what I can.”

“There’s nothing you can do,” she says, the laughter going out of her in a breath. “What I did -- it’s done. I can’t change that. Neither can you.”

He moves his hands slowly, as if to give her the advantage of observation. He lifts the mask from his face. Beneath, his face and skull are tightly wrapped in black cloth, folded so that only the area just below his eyebrows to just below his lips is bare. Black paint covers the exposed skin so that he appears all one color except for the whites of his eyes, the inside of his mouth.

“As we have discussed, this world is full of death. But it is not the only world.” He sets the mask on the ground beside him. “The soul repeats in all directions -- forwards and backwards in time, but also side to side to side.”

“Sounds complicated.”

“The breadth of unappreciated complexities of the universe would overwhelm you, Sky child,” he says sharply. “They are not for you or your kind to understand. Be honored that they be made known to you in part.” He scrutinizes her for a long moment before continuing. “There is a ritual. The raun-keryon.”

“Let me guess.” An almost-smile tugs at the corner of her mouth as she leans her head back. “It’s difficult and demanding.”

“Yes.”

“Painful?”

“Like you have never endured before.”

“So there’s a good chance it will kill me.”

“It has claimed more lives than it has released.”

“And what’s the upside?”

“Peace,” he says, and she shivers at the promise in his voice. “The storm that now rages inside you, quieted.”

“Sure,” she says finally, lifting her head to meet his eyes. “What have I got to lose?”

 

________________________
________________________

 

They wake up at dawn to resume their ride, and it’s not long before Clarke begins to catch remembered landmarks from the many trips between Lexa’s camp, TonDC, Camp Jaha, and the dropship in the past. Still, her heart kicks up in her chest when she recognizes they’re only within twenty minutes’ walk to the ship. “We should leave the horses here,” she says, and she sounds breathless as well.

They dismount, and Trest stays behind.

Her heart is outright pounding by the time she leads Genai and Costia to the best vantage point she knows, right before the land falls away and cradles the spoils that have dropped from the sky. The dropship below could be a model from one of Lexa’s war table setups, except for the figures surrounding as they walk in and out of the ship, around the camp.

“Mountain Men,” she hears behind her, and Clarke whirls to find Costia gray-faced and holding on to her bow with hand that’s white at the knuckles. Clarke follows her glance back to the ship to see what she sees: the clothes, the tech, the guns.

“No,” Clarke says. “Costia, they’re not.” She places a tentative touch on her shoulder and the other girl starts, finally looks at Clarke. “They have nothing to do with the Mountain. They don’t even know there are people in there.” She holds the other girl’s gaze, willing her to believe.

Costia looks at her for long moments, her breath still coming a little too fast. “You said they came from the sky,” she says. “But they carry the Mountain’s weapons.”

“It’s a long story.” She squeezes Costia’s shoulder lightly, once, before taking her hand away. “One we don’t have time for right now if we want to save the people of that village.”

“If the Mountain Men have found a way to walk the earth --”

“Costia.” She waits until the other girl’s eyes focus on her face. “You swore to me.”

“I did,” she mutters. She sends one more dark look to the delinquents below. “We need to find Anya’s unit for the evacuation. And let me tell you,” she says, directing the same look now at Clarke, “If you’re wrong about any of this? She’s the one you’ll deal with. Whatever lenience you think you can curry from the Commander, you won’t find any such thing in Anya. She will cut out your heart if you cross us.”

She turns and disappears back into the trees before Clarke can find a reply.

Clarke lets out a breath she wasn’t even aware she was holding, giving one final look at the chaos surrounding the dropship.

A sharp scream penetrates the noise of preparations, and Clarke starts. Oh, no, Jasper -- how could she forget about -- but then wouldn’t Anya’s people already know about their presence? How many days would it have been, now, was he past saving? Maybe there was some way --

She’s still reeling from the implications when she sees a figure emerge from the dropship entrance, shoulders bowed, head hanging with exhaustion... and wearing a set of goggles so familiar she can recognize them from here.

“My queen.”

She’s been so busy gaping down at Jasper, she’s failed to notice Genai sidling up to her. She turns to the the older woman’s solemn face.

“I will only ask this once more, but I must,” Genai says. “Do you know what you are doing?”

Another scream ripples into the forest. It’s too high-pitched to be Jasper’s, even if she couldn’t see him down below -- see him flinch badly at the sound. Whoever is making that awful noise, it’s a girl.

She’s been so stupid. She just assumed... but Costia lives and Clarke is the Ice Nation’s queen, and it’s going to require more than simply pushing all the other pieces into place. This is blindfold chess, and she has joined in the middle of someone else’s game.

“No,” she admits. “I don’t.”

 

________________________

 

When she first asked Lexa about the village, it became a fight.

“It’s not necessary information,” was the cool response from a Commander who was very much in control: she held most of the cards and wasn’t, at any point, about to let Clarke forget that. Finn’s death had forged a complicated truce -- they didn’t like each other, but they didn’t have to. They had both taken serious wounds, and they needed each other to find the necessary strength to finish off a common enemy.

But something in Clarke couldn’t help pressing the issue, like a bruise.

“Does it have to be?” she countered, gesturing at the map stretched out on the table between them, the models that showed their position in relation to the dropship, the fallen Ark, the Mountain. “I just want to know where it was.”

Lexa folded her arms. She had an expression on her face that was all too common in those early days, half disinterest and half scorn, which she slipped on and off with the ease of a mask. “You want to distract yourself with past events instead of focusing on the issues at hand.”

“C’mon, Lexa, all you have to do is point.”

Something in her eyes flickered at that -- always did when Clarke left off her title. Clarke would marvel at herself sometimes: she knew better, she’d grown up surrounded by people who insisted on the intricate dance of diplomacy and all the petty details that came with it. She knew the easiest way to get someone to cooperate was to pretend you cared about the same things they did, and if Lexa cared about anything it was her expected role in this strange, savage society. Still, Clarke couldn’t completely resist the urge to needle her, to find a way past that impervious exterior to whatever lurked underneath, and yank.

“I’m surprised, Clarke,” Lexa said, her tone dropping another several degrees. “You don’t strike me as someone to revel in the blood of your kills.”

So maybe Clarke wasn’t the only one willing to play a little dirty.

She bites down on the inside of one cheek to keep from retaliating in turn. “We have a saying,” she said. “Those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.”

“We are trying to end a war that has lasted for generations,” Lexa said. “If we are lucky, you will have many opportunities to inflict the same casualties as your people did that village.”

Clarke shook her head. “You still don’t believe it was a mistake, do you?”

“I believe I am lucky to have an ally who can cause so much destruction and claim it was unintended. Now, if I could only coax her to regard the enemy in front of us, and with intent --”

“You don’t understand.” Suddenly, it was of utmost importance that she did. What has started out as a kind of penance now left Clarke with something to prove. “Every single warrior that tried to harm us -- the three hundred that burned -- I don’t regret any of that.” She rushed on at the almost imperceptible tightening of Lexa’s lips: “But the village? They weren’t... that wasn’t supposed to happen.” She looked blindly down at the map, searching for a way to make herself understood. “I understand what’s required in war,” she said. “But I also know that certain kinds of casualties should be avoided. Maybe not at any cost, but -- if at all possible.” The tightness in her throat was making it difficult to swallow.

“You see a difference between the deaths of the enemy’s soldiers, and the deaths of the enemy’s people.”

“Of course.”

“Not everyone does,” Lexa said, sounding thoughtful.

I wouldn’t have killed Finn if I didn’t. But maybe Lexa didn’t know that. She knew Clarke had a choice in where she placed the knife, but maybe she thought the deciding factors were opportunity, or even their alliance. She knew that Clarke had pleaded for his life, but not what had finally reconciled her to taking it.

(Only -- if Finn deserved to die, then Clarke often lay awake wondering what it meant that the rest of them were spared.)

“Here,” and Clarke was startled out of her thoughts by a single, precise tap as Lexa brought her finger down on the map in front of them.

Clarke leaned forward with her weight on her hands, staring as if closer inspection would give her answers. “Did they all die?”

“There were some survivors, but not many. Younger children mostly, as their families made sure they were safe first.” Lexa walked around the table so that she was standing next to Clarke, although she leaned against the table with her back to it. “They’ve been fostered in nearby settlements.”

“Oh.” She breathed out, shaky. “Good.”

“Clarke.”

She didn’t feel ready to look Lexa full in the face, not just yet, but she tilted her head to the side to show she was listening.

“I won’t say you don’t bear the responsibility for their deaths,” Lexa said, and unspoken was: I won’t lie to you. “But...”

Here she hesitated, the first time Clarke ever heard her do it -- the first time she realized that whatever Lexa kept locked up and locked down inside herself, it might be more than previously bargained for: here be monsters.

“But this is not an uncommon burden among leaders,” she finished quietly.

“It’s a new one to me,” Clarke said, straightening. She used the cuff of her sleeve to wipe at her eyes, and she could see Lexa watch her do it. Still, she appreciated that the other girl didn’t feel the need to comment, only waited a few seconds for Clarke to gather herself before turning back to their previous business.

If only, Clarke thinks as they follow Costia deeper into the woods, I had thought to listen to what she was really saying. That Lexa herself had experience in sacrificing innocent lives to reach her goals, and the rationalization in place to do it again. Or to force Clarke’s hand in doing it again.

Well, Clarke isn’t going to be like her. She isn’t going to sit back and shrug off the terrible things that had happened because of necessity or what is best for my people. And while it’s more and more apparent that she’s out of her depth, struggling for footing in strange waters while the sand shifts beneath her feet, it didn’t mean she’s giving up. Maybe she can’t undo what’s already done, maybe this isn’t even her world -- but that just reinforces what she already knew, that she has nothing to lose.

(Even less to go back to, something deep inside her whispers.)

Costia stops in front of them without warning. She stands like that for several seconds, unmoving, before taking an abrupt left. “This way.”

“How can you be sure where we’re headed?” Clarke asks. They’re all on foot, each with their horse on a lead.

Costia flicks a glance at her over one shoulder without pausing in her stride. “You keep asking for my people’s secrets, Ice Queen, and I’ll start to doubt the purity of your intentions.”

“No -- I didn’t mean --” Clarke flounders. Genai takes pity on her, tapping on her shoulder to point out the subtle markers Costia is following -- a careful slash in a tree trunk, a too-neat piling of twigs. Genai hasn’t said anything since Clarke’s admission at the dropship, but she’s since positioned herself so solidly at her queen’s back she looks like it would take ten other warriors just to shift her, with Trest bringing up the rear.

“I see your bodyguard knows the ways of these woods,” Costia says. “Genai, isn’t it? Tell me, how many Trikru fell beneath your blade before we all clasped hands and swore to be friends?”

“Not as many as the Azgedakru that fell to you, Shadow-walker,” Genai shoots back.

Clarke is surprised to hear Costia laugh. “That goes without saying,” she says, and the look she directs back at them is nearly impish.

“Stay close,” she says as she turns forward again. “Two years isn’t enough for some to quit the habit of killing your kind on sight.”

 

________________________

 

In retrospect, Clarke should have known exactly who she meant.

There isn’t even a split second of warning before the warriors fall from the trees and on top of them. Clarke’s body is two steps ahead of her brain, a knife in each hand as she turns toward the nearest figure. But she sees the face of another ghost and her muscles lock up like she’s been dashed with ice water.

The next thing she knows she’s on her back, winded, staring up at eyes rimmed in dark paint as she gasps for breath. Oh, I did not miss this part.

“Anya!” Costia’s voice cuts through the sounds of struggle. “Anya, they’re with me!”

If Clarke didn’t know any better, she’d think Anya almost looks regretful as she barks the order to back off.

... who is she kidding, that’s exactly the look on the warrior’s face.

Genai is there to help her to her feet. There’s a red mark on the older woman’s arm that will become a bruise, but Clarke had clearly seen Genai holding her own before she herself hit the ground. Trest had, as well, and it stings like a lash when her bodyguard says: “You were taught to handle yourself better than that. My queen,” she adds, with pointed deference.

Clarke shrugs her off.

“-- Ice Nation into my camp,” Anya is growling at Costia, who stands with her arms folded. “What were you thinking?”

“Is it your camp?” Costia tilts her head to one side, the setting sun painting golden stripes along her face as it filters through the trees. “That’s funny, I thought it was the Commander’s camp -- they’re all her camps -- and your job is to keep things from falling apart in her absence. I’m afraid I’m the bearer of bad news, by the way.”

Surprisingly, Anya doesn’t rise to the bait. “I don’t have time for little tricks and traps of words, Costia. Make your point.”

“I am here on a mission for her,” Costia says, and Clarke can’t help but marvel a little at how neatly she avoids a lie.

But not neatly enough.

“She didn’t send you on a mission,” Anya says. “She said she left you in Polis two days ago.”

Costia’s eyes widen, and then cut to the side as she huffs in exasperation. “Of course she ran to you. I should have expected it. Is she here now?” she asks, and Clarke can feel her pulse thudding in her fingertips.

“We had word from Indra and she rode to TonDC. But don’t think that’s license for your mischief, she’ll be back in the morning.”

“Oh,” Costia catches Clarke’s gaze as she reaches down to twist off her ring, “that’s license enough. Klark, which village did you say it was?”

Clarke recites the location. She can see it just by closing her eyes: on a map, on a table, the sunlight softened by the fabric of the tent as a single finger taps down: Here.

“You and your warriors are going to clear out that entire village before night falls,” Costia says to Anya.

“Are we?” Anya almost laughs. “On whose authority?”

Costia holds up the ring between them, angled so that Lexa’s symbol faces outward.

Anya stares down at it for one breath, two. When she raises her head her expression is as impassive as ever. “She’s going to kill you.”

 

________________________

 

Somehow, the next few hours are the worst. Clarke endures them tight-lipped and anxious, hands worrying anything within reach: her horse’s lead, the hem of her shirt, the strings of the weapons hanging at her hips. She manages to knot her fingers in them a few times, and after that Genai knocks her hands away.

The problem is that her part is done. She’s relayed all the information she can -- or, all that she’s willing to share -- and now it’s up to others to see the plan through. All she’s allowed to do is hang back at the edges, just beyond the village, and watch. She offers her own and her warriors’ help in evacuating, but Anya shoots her a look that could boil blood in the vein and doesn’t bother to answer. She’s not much friendlier toward Costia.

Costia stands with Clarke, and seems a bit withdrawn herself. She’s wrapped herself up in her cape as if for warmth, but the evening feels balmy enough to Clarke. She watches the taller girl rub her cheek against the fabric every now and again, eyes thoughtful.

It’s full dark by the time they finish, but finally every man, woman, and child has gathered up their essential belongings and allowed themselves to be led back to Anya’s base camp. Clarke and her entourage stay out of their way, but they’re still the subject of glances -- full of fear, loathing, suspicion, even accusation.

Clarke’s stomach curdles, even as she tells herself they don’t know how much worse it could be. They’ll hate her even more, maybe, when their homes are destroyed. But the Ark will know the ground is survivable, and these villagers will be alive.

It works out, she tells herself. Though at this point she’s not sure who she’s arguing with.

She makes to follow them once the last family has passed by, but Costia’s arm bars her way.

“Now we wait,” Costia says without looking at her, “and see if you’re as good at telling prophecies as fulfilling them.”

 

________________________

 

When the rockets finally fall, the fire rips through the abandoned buildings like a providence. Clarke has forgotten what it’s like to have the Ark’s resources at hand. She’s spent the last weeks struggling to start fires with nothing but patience and careful, twisting pressure. She takes precautions, but she’s usually more concerned with keeping her efforts alive rather than keeping them under control.

Each rocket doesn’t just land but blossoms like a flower of destruction, flames wrapping themselves around every corner to burn away at the shadows. Within minutes the entire village is engulfed.

She’s been puzzled, sometimes, at the Grounders’ eagerness to consider the Sky People a threat, or Anya’s unwavering certainty that they’d meant to start a war. She thinks she understands now. You can’t cause this kind of destruction and then say no one is really to blame.

It might even be worse. Acts of war can be negotiated, recompensed. But those who cause accidental slaughter might need to be simply put down.

She looks over at Costia. The other girl’s expression grows stonier as the growing flames light her face, the unhappy line of her mouth getting deeper, darker.

The crackling flames do nothing for the sudden chill in Clarke’s bones.

 

________________________

 

“I want an explanation,” Anya says once they’re alone in a tent back at camp.

Persuading Genai to leave her side had been easier than Clarke expected -- the older woman was a little shaken after seeing the rockets land. Even Trest was watching Clarke with something a little too close to awe. Watching them walk off into their own tent had only given Clarke the sense of putting down one -- one of many -- burden down.

And she’s tired now, tired like she hasn’t been since... Her head is spinning, and it can’t decide whether to land on the screams that should have been Jasper’s, the look on Costia’s face watching the village burn, or her own building panic as she scrambles for her next move.

“So do I,” Costia throws back over one shoulder. She’s poking around in corners of the tent, rummaging through bags and piles. “I want one for how there can be an entire encampment of strangers in your part of the woods and you didn’t know.

Anger sparks in Anya’s eyes, but to her credit she bites down on the impulse. “Good question,” she mutters after a moment. She walks over to the entrance of the tent and has a quick, quiet exchange with the warrior standing attention there. When she walks back she looks more thoughtful than anything else, although she gives a quick eye roll before snapping out: “Just tell me what you’re looking for, you’re making a mess.”

“Food,” Costia’s voice is muffled from where she’s belly-down on Anya’s bed, searching through whatever’s on the other side.

“You need to start carrying your own rations.” Anya reaches for a bag closer to where she stands and tosses it to the other girl, who makes a sound of delight before reaching in and sticking a round, flattish cake between her teeth.

“Extra weight,” she says, munching. She turns onto her back but otherwise stretches out where she is, long-limbed and comfortable. “I can always hunt the difference.”

“Yes, I’ve heard this argument before -- better fast and hungry than slow and dead,” Anya says, dry. “I also heard about when Nia boxed you into the steppes, and by the time you made it home your skull almost came though your skin.”

Now it’s Costia’s turn to roll her eyes. “Lexa exaggerates,” she says through a mouthful. She holds up one of the cakes to Clarke with a questioning look. Clarke holds out her hands, and a second later she’s catching one of the rations and nibbling. It tastes like some kind of grain held together with a slightly sweet syrup. It’s not bad.

“If you get food in my bedding I will send you back to her in pieces.”

Clarke chokes. Costia just grins and leverages herself to her feet, taking the bag of rations with her.

A word from the tent’s entrance, and the flap is being pushed aside by --

Lincoln.

Clarke sucks in a sharp breath. She thinks -- she hopes -- she’s beginning to get an idea of what she has to do next.

“Hup, Lincoln,” Costia says from her corner, startling Clarke out of her thoughts.

Lincoln’s eyes flicker to Anya, who has once again donned her favorite scowl, as he walks into the tent. Still, he gives Costia a tiny nod: “Hup, Costia.”

Clarke blinks at them both.

“Stand at attention, scout,” Anya growls, and Lincoln falls into form: hands at his sides, gaze centered. If he’s noticed Clarke or thinks her presence strange, he doesn’t let it show.

“Fourth quadrant,” Anya says. “Near the river. When was the last time you did a sweep?”

“Five days ago,” Lincoln says. He doesn’t even twitch.

Anya looks over at Costia, who shrugs. “From the looks of things, they’ve been there four days at the least,” she says.

Clarke knows they’ve been there for eleven. But the delinquents are unused to the ground, or what’s required to set up a sustainable camp. To experts like the Grounders they might look like they’ve just started.

She wonders if Octavia knows her boyfriend is this good at lying.

Still, Anya doesn’t look pleased. “You’re off scouting duties for the next few days, and others will cover your quadrants. Stick to camp. If I find out,” her voice dangerously low, “that you have been remiss in your reports...”

She lets the threat trail off. Lincoln dips his head in deference, but the other two have dismissed him already. Clarke thinks she’s the only one to notice the movement of his throat as he takes a hard swallow just before he exits.

She’s so tired.

Clarke lifts her head from her hands, not even sure when she placed it in them, to find she’s missed part of the conversation. Anya and Costia are talking, but lower, and they take turns sneaking looks at Clarke.

“-- at least seventy-five able-bodied and healthy,” Costia is saying. “Probably more, since I didn’t see supplies beyond what they killed the night before, so there must be a hunting party. Also, at least a few inside a metal structure where they keep the injured -- which isn’t pieced together from scrap. It looked like a relic but it was completely intact. Old, but intact.”

Whatever playful animosity there seemed between the two women once has dissolved, and they lean into each other’s space as Costia delivers her report like a soldier.

“No rations, but they bring the weapons needed to wipe out a village?” Anya doesn’t sound disbelieving, just attentive. Not as if she were listening to intelligence delivered by a subordinate.

Costia nods. “Guns as well. Almost enough for every warrior.”

“I see,” Anya says heavily after a moment. “So the enemy has finally emerged from their mountain.”

“No,” Clarke blurts out. She manages to sway closer to them both. “They aren’t from the Mountain -- none of them have ever captured your people or set the reapers on them.”

“They’ve only just burned down an entire village.”

“That wasn’t --” Clarke shakes her head. It seems obscene to even try and defend after watching it happen. “Do you really want to go up against someone with that kind of power without even asking who they are or what they want?” she asks instead.

Anya’s expression darkens. “I do not need that information. I only need to know that they will die like any other enemy --”

“Anya,” Costia interrupts, catching softly at her elbow. “We can’t make a move tonight. Not with the refugees so close by. You said she would be back in the morning?”

Anya nods, still regarding Clarke with deep suspicion.

“She won’t want us to act without her, anyway. Not on something like this. We’ll report as soon as she rides into camp, and then we’ll decide.”

Clarke is willing to bet a swallow of moonshine she isn’t included in that “we.”

Anya shakes off her hand, but nods. She walks up to Clarke, looking more reluctant every second but still saying: “The Mountain takes as many of yours each year, and I know the reapers plague your lands. Perhaps you are afraid of war, but you must swallow your cowardice.” Her eyes are resolute. Clarke has a flash of them looking at her through a mask of mud, blood speckling her lips, before a blink brings Clarke back to this current moment. “If only for the sake of those pledged to you -- or who you have pledged to.”

Anya brushes past with so much force Clarke nearly stumbles backward, before leaving the tent.

“It is strange,” Costia picks up as she exits. “I heard you were entirely devoted to your people, but you don’t seem so concerned with them now.”

“I’m doing this for them,” Clarke retorts. “And every clan of the Coalition.” She ignores the kick in her stomach that feels too much like guilt -- guilty about what? But there’s only the distant sense of something neglected, left behind. “None of you have any idea what’s at stake.”

Costia steps closer. She’s not aggressive, not like Anya. But she’s still intense, her eyes trained so closely on Clarke’s face that Clarke starts to feel a little bit like prey. “And you do.”

Clarke straightens. “I do.”

“How?” like the trap closing over her ankle.

“I...” Clarke blinks at her, brain sluggish. “I saw the ship they came down in, and their weapons, I can guess --”

“You’re not guessing. You know something.” She shifts even closer, so close a hard inhale would made Clarke brush up against her. “This is quite a few visions for one person, even the Queen of the Ice Nation.”

Clarke forces herself to take a step back, tells herself it’s not really retreat. “Does it matter?” she asks, voice a little shaky. “As long as our people are safe?”

She doesn’t wait for an answer. She’s already halfway out of the tent when she hears Costia’s quiet reply:

“That depends on who you consider your people.”

 

________________________

 

She wants, more than anything, to go climb into the bedroll she knows is laid out between Trest and Genai.

She finds Lincoln instead.

It’s not that hard. It’s a warm night, and many of the warriors are still awake and gathered around the central fire. He’s easy to spot -- the only one of them sitting like he’s carved from stone, the light of the fire flickering over his still features.

Clarke sits beside him on a felled tree trunk. He’s a little removed from the others to begin with, and her presence sends them scooting even further away with whispers and dark looks.

“I see my reputation precedes me,” she says.

“They heard you knew about the attack on the village before it happened,” Lincoln says. “They’re afraid that -- don’t pay them any mind.” He keeps his eyes on the fire, but his voice is gentle.

Clarke takes advantage to examine his profile in the low light. She’s not used to thinking of Lincoln on his own, separate. He tends to tuck himself at Octavia’s back to defend or direct. Sometimes he’ll step out, but usually it’s when things are falling to pieces so fast it’s hard to focus on him amidst the chaos. But here he is, with none of that for cover, and he’s concerned about a stranger from a once-enemy nation feeling unwelcome.

Maybe one day, when Octavia doesn’t hate her so much, Clarke will apologize for not looking for that sweetness sooner.

“What are they afraid of?” she presses.

He rolls his shoulders. “That you might look into their hearts and see their secrets. They won’t bother you as long as you’re with --”

“Secrets?” She drops her voice even lower. “Like a hidden cave near the strangers’ camp, close enough to observe? One filled with drawings and other evidence that they’ve been on the ground longer than five days?”

He had jerked his eyes away from the fire the moment she mentioned the cave, and now he grabs her wrist. It’s unobtrusive, below the line of sight for anyone watching.

“Do you want them to kill me?” he asks, voice hoarse. “Just speak a little louder.”

“That’s not what I want.”

“Then what?”

“One of them was hurt,” she says, and she’s barely moving her lips at this point. “I could hear her screaming. I want to know how.” If she has the how, she can probably figure out who.

His breath is coming a little faster, but if he’s scared of her he’s hiding it well, otherwise. “She went into the water on the first day. She didn’t know about the danger -- and they were too slow pulling her out.”

“Octavia?” she whispers. Octavia had been making that awful sound?

That does startle him, and he lets go of her wrist with wide eyes. “That’s the name they used.” He watches her, as if waiting for more, but Clarke presses her lips together. “It was only a bite, but they didn’t treat it well. Infection set in.”

Clarke presses her fist into her stomach and desperately wishes she hadn’t eaten in Anya’s tent. “Do you know how bad it is now?”

He shook his head, almost imperceptibly. “I haven’t seen her come out for two days.”

Clarke tries not to remember the litany of awful, really gross things that can happen with an infected wound. Nothing seems to keep the parade of full-color images from flashing into her mind, not even staring into the brightest part of the fire until her eyes burn.

“They’re not a real threat.” She almost doesn’t catch it, Lincoln is speaking so quietly. “That’s why I didn’t...” He swallows. “I am loyal, and I know my duty. But they’re like children -- no, they know less than children. The first few days they walked around like they had never seen trees, or water.” There’s a hint of pleading in his eyes when he turns back to her. “The enemy has no reverence for anything but whatever lies under their mountain. Whoever they are, wherever they came from --”

“The sky,” Clarke says, and hears him suck in a breath.

“Reparations will be demanded for the village,” he says after a moment.

With difficulty, Clarke manages to get to her feet. “That’s what I’m trying to avoid,” she says. She’s done. She has nothing left to give to this day. Whatever else she needs to figure out, it can be after a night’s sleep.

“Why?” Lincoln asks, still sitting.

Clarke barely has to look down at him. She’d also forgotten how tall he is, jeez. “I don’t think they’re a real threat, either.”

“That’s two of us,” he says. “In the whole camp.”

She nods before heading off to her tent. “Tomorrow we’ll try to make it more.”

 

________________________
________________________

 

She’s not awake.

The weight of her own body is infinite, bearing her down. Gravity barely allows for the rise and fall of her chest. Every inch of bone and muscle and sinew sinks toward the earth, as if to return for good. She’s locked into a small space in her head, no connection or control. Opening her eyes might as well be the wish to move mountains. She’s not awake.

But she’s aware.

The sounds of a fight: the scuffle of clothing, pained grunts, dull thuds and smacks as bodies launch themselves at each other. A crash as someone hits the wall behind her head.

“Idiot!” Oh, that’s a growl she knows -- that’s Indra. In the middle of kicking someone’s head in, from the sound of it. “Do you know how many are hunting her? Do you know the price placed on her head? And you have stripped her of all defenses and awareness, leaving her open to every attack.”

This can’t be about her, can it? She didn’t know Indra cared.

“If she dies the Sky People will hold us responsible,” Indra hisses.

Ah.

Someone spits, probably clearing their mouth of blood considering how Indra lands her punches. “I care about the worlds of souls and spirit, not your petty maneuvering of nations. Hers was so rotten with death I tracked her by the stench. I have a duty that does not answer to any leaders of the flesh --”

“You will show respect,” punctuated with the sound of another blow.

“Indra, enough.”

If Clarke could flinch, she would. But all she can do is curl in even tighter in the space behind her eyes, still feeling horribly exposed and vulnerable knowing Lexa is there. Is close, judging from her voice -- standing just over the bed. Too still and quiet for Clarke to notice before she spoke.

“Commander, he is insolent --”

“But not wrong. I can direct bodies into battle, but I have no control of how their spirits wander.” If Lexa has any opinion on this Clarke can’t make it out: her tone is empty, like a cracked cup with its contents silently drained away. “Have Nyko prepare the litter. He will put her in it himself. No one else touches her.”

If Lexa tries to touch her, she’ll shatter apart.

She listens to Indra exit, still grumbling. Lexa starts to follow.

“I remember you.”

The sound of Lexa’s steps halts.

“The little leader with the big eyes, looking at everything.” He sounds raspier than Clarke remembers -- Indra got him in the throat. “They brought you to me, said you should understand this world even if it is not yours to command. I showed you a raun-keryon then -- a man from the southern shores. Do you remember?”

“Yes.”

It’s strange, and she almost hates herself for it, but from that single word Clarke knows exactly what Lexa looks like in that moment: chin slightly raised, eyes a half-mast. As if to say go on, do your worst.

“Then you know if you plan to wake her by force, you may as well draw that blade across her throat. Now, and quickly. It will be kinder.”

A soft, sharp inhale. Clarke has a moment of panic -- should wouldn’t, would she? -- before the resigned exhale follows.

“I know,” Clarke hears as she tips backward into darkness, Lexa’s voice fading like a light in the far distance.

 

________________________
________________________

 

The light is just enough to cast grey shadows inside the tent when Clarke opens her eyes. Trest snuffles into his bedroll on her right. Genai sleeps on her left, limbs splayed out like someone dropped her there.

Clarke wriggles from under Genai’s arm and ankle and out of their tent. The camp is quiet, if not still, with warriors moving about sluggishly as they shake off sleep and yesterday’s exertion.

She surprises herself by heading toward a lone figure, sitting slightly apart from the main activity in the shadow of a cluster of trees. Clarke sits down beside her. Pine needles carpet the ground at their feet, releasing a mildly spicy scent into the cool morning air.

“Trouble sleeping?” she asks.

“Mmm,” is all she gets from Costia.

“Me, too.” Hard to relax knowing what this morning would bring. That can’t be the reason for Costia’s wakefulness, of course, but it’s enough that Clarke doesn’t have to be alone as she waits for what comes next. She’s sick of being alone, she realizes.

There’s a slight commotion on the other side of camp, the sound of horses’ hooves. Clarke might have missed it, but the girl beside her stiffens.

Costia!

Clarke knows the voice. She’s only heard it roar like that in the middle of battle, though.

Costia is on her feet and reaching for the nearest branches of the tree behind them.

“Where are you going?” Clarke asks, just managing to snag the other girl’s arm as she rises to her feet.

“Up,” the other girl says, as if it should be obvious. “She’s a terrible climber. She’ll get stuck trying to catch me, and I can be safe in Polis by the time Anya gets her down.” Then, remembering herself: “And if you tell anyone that I’ll say you’re a lying ice witch.”

“You can’t just run --” Lexa can’t climb trees? No, it has to be some weird quirk of this world. She’s pulled back into the moment as Costia tries to eel out of her hold. “She’s your commander!”

The other girl raises a disbelieving eyebrow. “Never stopped me before.”

She breaks Clarke’s hold with a sharp twist just as Lexa rounds the corner with an entourage in tow. Costia falls to slump back against the tree with a low groan.

Clarke has been trying to prepare herself. Ever since she accepted what was happening -- that this was, in its own way, real -- she’s known this was coming. She’s not Lexa, has been playing on a loop in the back of her mind, the constant white noise that pushes through whenever she has a moment to breathe, and listen. Not the one you know. She’s not the same.

But you can’t tell by looking at her.

Lexa’s been a nightmare figure -- without actually deigning to appear in said nightmares -- on Clarke’s mental landscape for weeks, now, face full of dirt and blood. If Clarke thinks of her, she can’t help but be caught in that moment: the sounds and smell of death around them, bile burning in her throat. Lexa is all hope ripped away in an instant. Lexa is the promise of a painful death for everyone Clarke loves.

It’s not that Clarke ever forgot. But it’s been a relief, she understands as she watches the Commander approach them, to pretend she never knew that Lexa is also beautiful.

“It’s not a toy, Costia,” Lexa says, stalking forward. She’s practically snarling, teeth bared. “You can’t use it to move my warriors about any way you please! I told you it was a last measure, only to be used when you fear for your life --” She comes to a halt so abruptly Anya has to sidestep to avoid running into her.

Clarke’s not proud of it, but there’s a certain vicious pleasure to be had in watching Lexa’s eyes find her, the sudden show of white when they widen, the way she actually shifts back until she catches herself.

Clarke doesn’t understand it, but she doesn’t have to. Lexa’s scared of her in this world? Good.

“What is she doing here?” Lexa asks in that skipped-record silence.

Costia folds her arms, eyes down. “I heard a rumor that she was personally invited. By the Commander of the twelve clans.”

“You --” Lexa twitches, schools her expression. “I would speak with you,” she says, turning her head away from Clarke in something dangerously close to a dismissal. “Alone.”

Costia pushes off the tree toward one of the open tents, not waiting for Lexa to catch up. The commander in question almost turns back, as if to face Clarke -- but then a muscle in her jaw flexes as she sets it, and she follows her lover instead.

Clarke let out the breath she didn’t know she was holding and lets herself step further back into the shadows, until the support of the tree trunk is at her back.

“My queen.” Clarke hadn’t even noticed Trest and Genai among the warriors following Lexa, but as the others dissipate to whatever their business is at the camp, they remain. Genai moves closer after a whispered conference with her Second, who plants himself at the edge of the space and glares fiercely at anyone directing curious looks their way.

Genai comes to lean against the tree at Clarke’s side. She doesn’t press, doesn’t even look at her -- she scans the camp, watching the activity of warriors at work -- but her presence is steadying, solid. It helps Clarke sort through the chaos in her brain.

Which includes the reluctant awareness that something else is going on here, and her even more reluctant acknowledgement that it might not be something she can afford to ignore.

“Genai.”

“Hmm?”

Clarke opens her mouth, closes it. She has no idea how to ask these questions without sounding like... She settles on: “I don’t remember my coronation very well.”

Genai gives her a sidelong glance. “Not surprising,” she murmurs. “It was a busy time. You had to deal with political demands as well as raider activity. And you received your first tattoo,” with a nod at the mark on Clarke’s cheekbone. “Pain can be distracting.”

“Yeah,” remembering wounds and falls and beatings she’d taken, how she’d missed jumps of time afterward. She clears her throat. “But I feel like I’m -- I’m forgetting something.”

“Like?” Genai is back to watching the camp. Clarke searches her expression for any hint of suspicion or wariness, but finds none.

“Something to do with Lexa,” she says.

This does make Genai look at her, and Clarke remembers, too late, how few people use that name.

“There’s not much to remember,” Genai finally says, but she switches to the language of the Ice Nation. “She stayed through the festivities, but that was only expected of a respectful guest. As I said, you were busy with a multitude of concerns. She asked for an informal audience with you, once, to give counsel on acting as such a young leader. It was considerate,” she says, but her tone is cool.

Clarke frowns. She keeps waiting for something to start that loose-thread-pull of memories, but nothing Genai says sparks recognition -- or would explain the pure panic her appearance caused in Lexa. Not that most people would have been able to tell that’s what it was. Clarke thinks you would have to know Lexa very well to read it as anything other than vexation at finding the leader of another nation deep within her territory, in one of her warriors’ secret camps.

“We’re allies, now,” she muses aloud. “I have no intention of violating the treaties,” with a quick glance for Genai’s reaction. The older woman’s expression remains sanguine. So I’m probably not planning a secret war, Clarke thinks. What, then?

What would make Lexa look at her like that?

“Did we fight? Did I antagonize her in some way?” she asks, grasping at whatever straws are available -- she can’t imagine Lexa being intimidated by physical violence, but if she’s as scary a fighter in this world as people say...

Genai shakes her head. “It’s no easy thing for two leaders to share the same space, especially if one is expected to swear fealty to the other. You acquitted yourself well around her. I was proud of you, and I thought she respected you in turn, especially when you took the lead in an attack on the raiders. The Commander of the twelve clans does not follow just anyone into a battle,” and there -- that’s not just pride. Genai sounds smug.

Clarke gives her bodyguard a closer look. “You don’t like her.”

Genai shrugs. “She is the Commander, but she is not my queen.”

Neither am I. Clarke wraps her arms around herself, fingers digging into her skin as if she could orient herself that way. No, there’s nothing -- nothing but a similar sense of bafflement whenever she tries to conjure up memories. She shakes her head, saying to herself: “Maybe something happened when you weren’t around.”

“I was always around.”

“Even you have to take a break sometimes.” Clarke lets her head fall back against the tree. The knock does nothing to soothe her impatience with herself, her lack of memory, this whole situation. “Maybe I said something during the audience, and now she thinks I’ll snap if she looks at me sideways.” Not too far from the truth. If for the wrong reasons.

“I was present during the audience,” Genai says. “Any time the two of you were together, I was present.”

“You can’t know --”

“I made sure of it.”

The emphasis brings Clarke’s head up like a startled deer’s. Oh no, she thinks, horror crawling up her spine. Please, no. Please don’t let me have some kind of... crush, in this world. “You didn’t think that I would...”

Genai eyes her for a second, but shakes her head.

Which leaves one other option.

Clarke lets her arms fall to her sides. She feels the effects of a bad night’s sleep now that the adrenaline of the first confrontation has passed -- her body is leaden, her head heavy. “She wouldn’t have,” she says. “She’s not like that. With me.”

She’s thought about the kiss. More than she would like to admit. Not that -- it wasn’t -- only in attempt to understand. It was practically a gratitude some nights to let go of the events under the Mountain (to stop retracing her steps and think if I had done this or if I had said that and maybe and maybe and maybe) and turn to Lexa instead, assembling and disassembling what she knew of the Commander like a puzzle with key pieces missing. She’d built a half-dozen working models of Lexa, staring up at the night sky dry-eyed and wakeful. Hypotheses of who she might really be as a person: if we assume x then we can extrapolate y and explain how that fucking bitch is still breathing.

The kiss was part of a small collection, just bits and pieces really, that she never managed to make fit. Or she could make them fit one at a time, but never all of them together. They warped all hypothetical Lexas all out of joint. Clarke eventually decided she didn’t need to understand Lexa. She knows her: savage, heartless, and cold.

Everything else is ephemera. There’s lots of weird junk floating around the solar system. It doesn’t change the nature of the thing itself, the deep and unending void of space.

Genai shifts her weight against the tree. “Of course, my queen,” she says smoothly, and Clarke has to grin at how obviously she’s being played off.

“Even if,” she says, feeling indulgent of this woman who clearly cares so much about the person Clarke is pretending to be, “it were possible, she wouldn’t. She loves Costia.”

“Yes, I’ve heard the stories. And the songs,” she adds. “But I’ve also heard stories about past Commanders. If they want something for themselves, who’s to stop them? They don’t expect to be denied, even with a surfeit at home.”

It’s ridiculous that this, out of everything, is what makes her chuckle. But it does. “Lexa’s not like that.”

When she looks back up, Genai has a strange expression on her face: equal parts rueful, affectionate, and... sad? She further surprises by reaching out and cupping Clarke’s cheek, running her thumb across the skin.

“I wish I could have known your mother,” she says, her voice as gentle as her hand. “To have trained you as she did, to give you the kind of skill you possess -- she must have been remarkable. But I have always questioned why she did not teach you to protect yourself in other ways.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I thought at first it was because of your age. You were so young -- no, don’t give me that look, you were. You can be a blooded warrior and barely more than a child. But it’s been two years since, and this is simply who you are. You never learned how not to walk in the world heart first.” She takes her hand away. “And I,” she says, sounding grim, “was not about to let her break it.”

Too late, Clarke wants to say, but it’s stupid. Lexa doesn’t deserve to have that much power over her. Clarke isn’t foolish enough to let her. Anymore.

Still, it’s nice to move closer and put her head on Genai’s shoulder, feel the other woman’s hand come up, fingers soft against her shaved head. Nicer still to pretend that somehow, in this place, she’s protected.

A younger warrior approaches Trest, who nods and looks back at them both beneath the tree. “They’re asking for the queen,” he calls back.

Clarke sighs as she straightens. That’s one thing these two worlds have in common: nice feelings never last.

 

________________________

 

“The Commander wishes to see the invaders’ camp for herself,” Anya says as they approach. “I’ve sent for your horse, but your guards will stay here.” She’s adjusting the tack on her own mount as she talks.

“Why?” It’s becoming harder and harder to keep her head down and go along to get what she wants. “I assume she’s bringing her guard.”

“Be happy you are coming in the first place,” and Clarke doesn’t jump, she does not jump, just because there’s Lexa coming out of the nearest tent. She doesn’t look at Clarke as she talks, busying herself with the fit of her gloves.

“I’m the one that told you where to find them.”

“Exactly.” Lexa meets her eyes for the briefest of moments. “But it was argued that if we allowed you along, you might be able to give further... insights.”

Clarke has only a vague awareness of certain memories: a flat, bleak landscape bereft of anything but ice and rock, where the wind howls like a living thing. Still, it seems welcoming in comparison to Lexa at this moment.

She’s not Lexa, is the reminder she puts back on repeat.

It shouldn’t bother her, anyway.

It doesn’t.

“I will not allow my queen to travel unprotected,” Genai says at her back.

“She will have all the protection she needs,” Lexa snaps. “She travels with me and as my personal guest. Anyone who approaches her will answer to me, just as you also answer to me. Is that understood?”

Clarke thinks she can hear Genai’s teeth grinding. “Yes, Commander.”

“Good.” Her eyes flicker once more over Clarke before she leverages herself into her saddle. “Get on your horse before we leave you behind.”

Still worried about leaving us alone together? Clarke wants to turn and ask her bodyguard -- but that’s petty. Lexa has always been good at confusing people on what she really cares about.

She’s mounted and about to head toward the camp entrance, where the others are gathered and waiting, when Genai places a hand on her leg.

“Be careful,” she says. “I can see how important this is to you. But please: act with caution. Don’t allow them to become suspicious.”

“Of what?” Clarke asks, thrown. “There’s nothing for them to be suspicious about.”

Genai holds her gaze. “Only because they don’t know you as I do.”

Clarke’s breath snags in her lungs. “Genai --”

“We will talk on this when you return,” the older woman interrupts. “Go. Remember what I said.”

She takes her hand away and urges the horse on. Clarke twists in the saddle, trying to catch her eye. The other woman doesn’t look in her direction.

 

________________________

 

Lincoln leads the small party with more surety through the woods than Clarke did a day -- has it only been one day? -- before. He brings them to a small clearing on the high ground, just above a long, steep slope that falls down to the dropship. That’s where everyone dismounts, and Lexa orders the rest of them wait as she and Costia take the short walk to the better vantage point.

So much for her personal protection. Still, Clarke feels more at ease without Lexa around.

There’s something niggling at the back of her mind as she looks around. It truly is a small party, with only a handful of warriors alongside the people she knows. She frowns, scanning their faces, before it hits her.

“Where’s Gustus?” she blurts out.

That garners a dark look from Anya, but so does breathing in her general direction. Clarke holds her gaze and lets the question hang between them.

“Someone had to stay behind and represent in Polis,” Anya says. “As well as greet the other clan leaders as they arrive.”

“Keep them from killing each other, more like,” mutters someone else.

“Gustus will handle them fine,” Anya throws over one shoulder. “This business will be over shortly, and then our Commander can turn to matters of real importance.”

Unease bites at Clarke’s mind. “A hundred invaders in the middle of the woods -- you really think it will be sorted out that fast?”

For once, the look Anya gives her has something of happiness in it -- or, not happiness. Satisfaction. “She was my second. I know something of how the Commander’s mind works.”

Her heart thuds heavily in her chest as Clarke forces herself to look away.

It’s not a long wait at all for Lexa and Costia to return on foot. They’re of a height, Clarke notices, standing almost perfectly shoulder to shoulder. She has yet to see them touch while in public, but there’s still an energy between them, in the way they move carelessly inside each others’ personal space.

Costia’s horse is near to Clarke’s, but she has a hard time catching the other girl’s eyes when she comes near. “What did she say?” Clarke asks anyway. “Did you tell her they were only trying to communicate with their people? That they’re not from the Mountain, and the village was an accident?”

“I have relayed all those things as you explained them to me,” Costia says.

“And?” Still, the other girl doesn’t look at her. “And?

Finally, Costia looks over. “I’m sorry. I know you wanted to avoid bloodshed. But it’s not your decision.”

No, as she takes in the deeply pitying look on Costia’s face. This can’t be happening.

Not again.

She abandons her horse. She’s so angry she passes back into calm -- into a kind of fog, if she’s being honest, one where Costia calling her name can barely penetrate. Something of it must show on her face, because no one moves to stop her as she walks up to where Anya and Lexa are conferring.

“ -- hungry and disoriented, they won’t put up much of a fight,” Lexa is saying, as if she were discussing dinner plans. “The reinforcements from TonDC should arrive by nightfall. Attack at your discretion.”

“Should we take any prisoners?” Anya asks.

“Try and see if you can get any information from the injured. Then,” and here she shrugs, casually.

“Why are you doing this?” Clarke wishes her voice weren’t shaking, but she feels lucky she managed words in the first place -- it feels like there’s a scream loitering in her throat, and it’s an effort to push past it into sense.

The two of them turn toward her in an eerily similar movement. Anya opens her mouth, but Lexa raises her hand to cut her off.

“You have my gratitude for bringing this to my attention,” Lexa says. “And for your efforts in saving the villagers. However, your help is no longer necessary.”

“You’re going to kill them all.”

“They’re invaders,” Lexa says, as if Clarke is the one who’s unreasonable. “They destroyed an entire village without provocation.”

“There are more coming,” Clarke says. She’s desperate, because she can’t know that for sure, how or when the Ark will come down without her mother on board.

Oh, the arrogant lift of that chin. She hasn’t forgotten that, either. “Then we will deal with them in turn.”

“As the Woods Clan will deal with any and all those who try to undermine its strength,” Anya puts in, pointed.

Clarke laughs in their faces. She laughs even harder at their resulting surprise, their anger.

The unit on non-Newtonian fluid is always a favorite for the Ark kids, enough that they allow for the necessary resources every year. A shallow pool is laid out in the gymnasium and the kids are allowed to test it for themselves: how fast do they have to run to maintain the fluid’s surface structure, how much movement does it take to keep from sinking.

She’s been doing so well up to this point. Shock, and panic, and disbelief -- she’d managed to outrun them all. But now, now she can feel herself slipping down, down, down.

(The awareness in the back of her mind pushes forward another sensation: standing on a wide, frozen lake, muscles tensing to keep her balance on the slick surface, and then a sound like tree branches snapping: the ice, beginning to crack.)

“I can’t believe,” she gasps out, “that I thought for a minute -- for one second -- that you would be any different. That you could possibly listen. Of all the worlds there are and all the souls you could possibly wear,” she says, and Lexa’s eyes widen, “you’ll always be a monster.”

She thinks Anya’s going to hit her, but Lexa steps in front. She grabs Clarke’s arm just above the elbow and marches her deeper into the forest as she calls back no, Anya, they do not need to be accompanied.

When they’re out of sight and earshot Lexa pulls away as if the touch scalds. She stands with her back to Clarke for a moment, and from the lift of her shoulders Clarke assumes she’s taking deep, steadying breaths.

“Your behavior is unacceptable,” she says without turning around. “You cannot continue to challenge me in this manner, not in front of my people. This is my home,” and here she turns her head -- just enough that Clarke can see her profile, the rigid set of her mouth. “Not yours.”

She’s not Lexa, but she is -- and all the two of them ever do is re-enact the same damn tragedies.

Clarke can’t breathe.

She presses both fists to her sternum as if she can push her lungs into submission, force the air in and out. Her diaphragm hiccups, and she squeezes her eyes shut in concentration.

A soft touch on her forehead has her jerking away before she consciously registers the familiar scars on Lexa’s palm, the same drift of scent Clarke remembers. She brings her head up.

“I --” Lexa is unexpectedly awkward as she draws her arm back. “I heard you were unwell.”

Clarke stares.

It’s the half-breath Lexa needs to slip back into her Commander persona as her shoulders draw back, her spine straightens. “You appear to still be suffering the effects,” she says to the space just left of Clarke’s ear. “I would recommend a swift return to Polis, where my physicians can attend to you.”

“Don’t,” Clarke says, hoarse. “Don’t act like it matters to you.” That doesn’t work anymore.

Lexa’s eyes only briefly meet hers before she looks away again. “Think of your people if you won’t think of yourself.”

The irony is enough to make her choke.

“I wonder if that’s all you ever saw in me,” she confesses, tilting her head back so she doesn’t have to look at Lexa when she does it. “My people. If I was just a way to maneuver them into place, use whatever advantage you could bring to hand.” Tears are a hot prickle at the back of her eyes, but if she holds still and keeps looking up at the canopy of leaves above her, maybe they won’t spill. “Sometimes I think I’d understand what happened if you did.” She straightens. “I wouldn’t forgive you, but I’d understand.”

Lexa is looking at her like Clarke is a wild animal. Her hands are suspended in the air as if she’d been about to reach out and decided against it -- only without fully committing to the retreat. “What are you talking about?”

“Nothing,” she shakes her head. “Nothing yet. Though I wouldn’t put it past you to find way to screw her over in this world, too.”

Strong fingers wrap themselves around her wrist, gently -- so gently it makes Clarke feel sick. “We’re heading back at once,” she says, making as if to pull Clarke along. “You’re -- you’re sick, you’re not making any sense.” When Clarke resists, the tension pulling tight between them, Lexa turns back with a look that’s almost pleading. “Klark, maybe you can’t hear yourself, but please believe me when I say that something is wrong.” She’s speaking softly, but not soft enough to hide the thread of fear running through her words.

It helps, Clarke tells herself, to hear Lexa call her by someone else’s name. “I’ve been trying hard for her, you know,” Clarke says, thinking of that someone. “It’s not her fault I decided to take over for a little while. I didn’t want to mess up too much. Even this --” she motions with her free hand to the space between them, “-- whatever this is, I thought I’d leave it alone. Return her life in as close to the original condition as possible.”

She can almost feel the chill coming off the icy surface of the lake, the gunshot sound of cracks breaking directly under her feet.

“But that’s not helping, is it? If I want this to work I have to stop playing by the rules.” She shrugs, one arm still suspended by Lexa’s hold. “I might be doing her a favor, anyway.”

“What are you --” Lexa searches her face, intent. Clarke can actually see the moment where things click over and suspicion fills that look, the slight drop of her jaw that says she’s as taken aback, as caught off guard, as Lexa gets. Now or never, Clarke thinks, as Lexa opens her mouth to say: “Who are --”

Which is as much as she gets out before Clarke does something she’s been dreaming about for weeks, and hauls off to punch Lexa right in the nose.

 

________________________

 

Above her head she can still hear birds singing, wind rustling through the leaves. As if the world hadn’t just tilted on its axis. As if the Commander of the twelve clans wasn't lying in the dirt at her feet, insensible. Her face is smooth and serene in a way Clarke has never seen while Lexa’s eyes are open.

She stoops down and checks Lexa on autopilot, running careful hands along her scalp -- no cuts, no blood there -- and gently lifting her eyelids. She’s fine. She’ll be fine.

Clarke might be in a little bit of trouble, though.

... so she should probably get going, shouldn’t she?

She rises and turns -- and then goes right back down again when inspiration hits. She knows who will come looking for them first. And panic will buy her precious seconds.

She barely grunts at the sensation of her knife slicing into the skin below her bicep. It’s hard to feel it past the buzz of adrenaline. She paints blood across Lexa’s face with shaking fingers, making it look much worse than it is. She even puts some on the blade of her knife -- it fell from Lexa’s grasp when Clarke hit her -- before putting it back on the ground.

Sorry, Costia, she thinks as she gets up to go. But love is weakness.

She circles wide through the woods toward the others as she doesn’t trust her skills at remaining silent. (Her back-of-mind awareness is completely unhelpful, seems to have a prevailing attitude of: ugh, trees.) She unloops the sling from her belt and picks up stones as she goes, on instinct.

By the time she can see the rest again her heart is pounding even louder, blood thudding in her ears. Costia is still with her horse, but every now and again she turns her head to where Lexa pulled Clarke deeper into the woods.

Clarke takes the smallest of her pebbles and puts it in her sling. It falls out the first time, but then her hands remember the movements needed, and it skitters off to knock against Lincoln’s foot.

(It’s becoming too easy, it’s all blurring a little too close together -- her, and the memories of the person whose life she’s now living. It should worry her. It does. Or it will later, once she has the time to deal with it.)

He sees her immediately, because ugh, trees and she has no idea how to stay concealed in this landscape.

...or any landscape. Because she grew up on a spaceship in the sky.

(Later, she promises herself.)

Lincoln says something to another warrior and disappears, only to reappear at her side in seconds. He reaches out to grasp her arms, his grip so tight she can feel her bones creak. “Where is the Commander?”

She doesn’t fight his hold. Instead, she lets the force of it bring her in, up close and personal. She tries to put every ounce of conviction she can into: “You’re not a killer. You’re capable of it, but you know there are other options. Maybe you’re even willing to fight for them.”

“I do what is required,” he grates out. “I am a warrior of my people.”

She holds his gaze. “She’s going to kill them all. Octavia, the girl you saw? They’re going to torture her for information, and then they’ll kill her as well.”

His grip spasms on her arms.

“There has to be another way,” she says. “I know you believe that too. Help me find it.

He stares down at her, jaw tight, eyes wild. She’s distracted by the sight of Costia, finally heading off into the trees.

Lincoln follows her gaze and visibly pales. “What did you do?” he whispers.

“What was required.” At his sharp look: “Nothing permanent, I swear.”

Lexa!” Both their heads turn as a panicked scream rings out, startling a cloud of birds into flight. Anya is off in the same direction like a shot with her warriors following.

“When they come back, it’ll be for me,” she says to him. She lets the implication rest between them: unless he gives her a way out.

She watches his throat as he swallows. “Tell me what you need.”

“To reach the camp before they reach me.” She draws a short, hard breath. “And when we get down there for you to stay at my back, and trust me.”

He’s pulling her down the slope as the words are still coming out of her mouth.

It takes all her concentration just to stay on her feet as they head down the hill, to keep from tangling and tripping in the undergrowth or fall face-forward as her boots slide against loose rocks. Lincoln helps her, one hand on the back of her shirt hauling her upright when he’s not dragging her forward. By the time the land begins to flatten out her lungs are burning, the muscles in her legs quivering. It’s a shock to her system when Lincoln yanks her down into the dirt -- but not more than if the arrow now imbedded in a tree reached its intended target.

“Wait,” she gasps out. She stands, and this is easier when there’s no time to think about it: unhooking one of the three-tailed weapons from her belt (catching weight) and letting it swing, once, over her head before it flies off. She does that twice more -- it feels good, and right, like the stretch and snap is waking up more than just unused muscles. She watches each take down a warrior, tangling their legs together, she fits better inside her own skin.

Any more and she has to start in on crippling weight.

Clarke grabs Lincoln’s hand and resumes running.

Soon the the trees begin to thin, and she can see the sun reflecting off the ancient and charred exterior of the dropship. “Bellamy Blake!” she shouts in English, and unlike other things it takes an effort. “I have a message for Bellamy Blake!”

When they burst into the camp a moment later it pays off -- everyone’s too shocked to start shooting.

(And tired, grey-faced with hunger, and treading too near the edge of desperation. She can see that in every face turned toward them, the way the skin clings to their bones and how they wear the dirt and filth of the last few days like it isn’t worth the effort to get clean. Clarke doesn’t remember it being this bad.)

With one exception.

A shot goes off so close to her ear a ringing fills her head after. She raises her hands, slowly, before turning to see someone she -- actually, she’s pretty comfortable with his absence from her life. If she’s being honest.

“What the fuck,” Murphy croaks out, sighting them both down the barrel of his rifle. “What is this? Where the hell did you come from?”

“I have a message,” she says again, refusing to let it show how strange it is to hear a Grounder accent coming from her own mouth, “for Bellamy Blake. And if you shoot at me again, John Murphy,” she adds just for him, “I will put you in the ground myself.”

It’s worth it to see the blood drain from his face even as re-aims his gun.

“Murphy.”

Clarke shifts to see Bellamy standing at the entrance of the dropship. He looks like he sounds: wrecked. The hand that holds his gun is shaking. There are smudges so dark under his eyes they look like bruises.

“Who are you?” he rasps out. “What do you want?”

She walks over. The crowd parts, though most are recovering enough to put their hands on their weapons or draw them. She spares a thought to how the two of them must look: the knives, the tattoos, even the sheer bulk of Lincoln as he sticks to her back. He’s breathing a little hard, but he’s also put his empty hands into the air.

It feels like it takes forever to reach Bellamy. As she gets closer she hears Octavia beyond, reduced to low, gasping sobs. Bellamy braces for each -- a controlled stillness that’s as good as a flinch.

He’s how she remembers, for the most part: his hair slicked back and his eyes hard. She once came so close to hating the person he is right now. Maybe if she hadn’t been half-starved and terrified herself at the time, it would have helped. Maybe she would have spotted what she can see so clearly now, peeking around the edges of the facade: the contained desperation of a gambler who has risked everything on one wild throw.

Or maybe it takes one to know one, she thinks as she steps forward. “I can save your sister.”

His knuckles turn white where he’s holding himself up by the frame of the ship’s entrance.

“Give him your weapons,” he says, nodding at the approaching Atom.

She removes her entire belt and hands it over. Lincoln takes a little longer to divest himself of five different knives, but he does so without protest.

Bellamy looks at her for a long moment, as if debating with himself. Whatever fight he’s having with himself, she thinks as his shoulders slump, he’s losing.

“Come inside,” he says as he steps back to let them pass.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Alice looked round her in great surprise. "Why, I do believe we've been under this tree the whole time! Everything's just as it was!"
"Of course it is,” said the Queen, "what would you have it?"
"Well, in our country," said Alice, still panting a little, "you'd generally get to somewhere else -- if you ran very fast for a long time, as we've been doing."
"A slow sort of country!" said the Queen. "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"