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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!"

Chapter Text

Someone grabs Clarke’s shoulders and slams her face-first against the wall of the dropship when she crosses the threshold. She huffs out a laugh as she catches a glimpse, breath misting against the pitted metal. “Hello to you too, Miller.”

The hands patting her down pause, and she hears Bellamy say: “They’ve been spying on us this whole time. Learning names, probably listening in on us for days--”

“Hey, Bellamy,” she cuts in, “you the Chancellor of this operation? Who’d you have to shoot to get that job?”

Clarke cranes her head over her shoulder just far enough to see him pale and take an unconscious step back. She watches the thoughts tick over in his brain, all coming back to the inevitable conclusion: this wasn’t something she could have overheard.

He raises his gun and Miller stumbles away from the line of fire. Clarke turns until her back is against the wall, hands loose at her sides. Atom has mirrored Bellamy in the corner with his gun on Lincoln, who takes his cue from Clarke.

“Who are you?”

She has to give him credit, you can barely see his hands shake. “You should ask how many we are.”

He twitches. “How many, then.”

“Thousands. Hundreds of thousands. The final war didn’t wipe everyone out, and they’ve had ninety-seven years to repopulate, build cities and governments, form clans and alliances.” All of three of them are watching her now, even Atom, with steadily growing fear in their eyes. “You landed in Trikru territory, and right now they have over a hundred warriors waiting in the woods for the signal to wipe you out as an invading force.”

“We can handle ourselves,” he says, and she can see he’s trying to convince the other two as much as her.

“It’s not the Dark Ages, Bellamy. It looks like that, but they remember some of the world before.” Clarke watches him frown in confusion before adding: “They have biological weapons -- hemorrhagic fever. It’ll kill a handful and weaken the rest of camp.”

Now Lincoln is staring, and oops, that’s probably some secret weapon of the Woods Clan she’s not supposed to know about. Oh, well. She keeps her eyes on Bellamy.

“What is it you want?” he asks.

“To see Octavia. See if I can save her.”

His head swings left, right. “If you think I’m letting you anywhere near my sister --”

“What other choice do you have?” The trick with this Bellamy, she remembers, is getting right in his smug-looking face. Maybe she has to manage that with her back to the wall, but she can still do it. “What if gangrene sets in? That’s not just an ugly death, it’s a slow one.”

He holsters the gun and covers the distance between them in two long strides. She’s not quick enough to block him when his hand shoots out to grab her by the throat, slamming her up against the wall of the dropship. She has to fight every instinct to counter him, throw him off. This is a friend, she tells her Grounder brain and its misdirected neural pathways. He just doesn’t know it yet.

“Why would you help her?” he asks through a throat full of gravel.

“I don’t want anyone else to die when I can prevent it,” she says. She hopes the truth is, for once, enough to save her.

His grip tightens, and she fights to breathe normally. It’s no use being angry with him -- this close she can clearly see how much he looks like walking death. He’s so, so angry, and not even because she brought up the possibility of Octavia’s death, but because she’s dared to offer him hope it might not be inevitable.

“If my sister dies,” and she watches as it completely unmoors him to speak the possibility aloud, how his mouth slackens and he struggles to get himself under control, “I’m putting a bullet in you and your friend. I don’t care how many more there are of you out in the woods.”

Clarke puts her hand on top of his. “I know,” she says, feeling strangely gentle.

He releases her and steps back. “The overgrown Grounder stays down here.”

“Nope,” Clarke returns, pushing her way past him and over to the ladder before he can object. She snags Lincoln’s arm on the way over, meeting Atom’s eyes as she almost dares him to shoot her. The muzzle of his gun drops as he moves out of their way.

Bellamy follows them so closely he’s almost in Lincoln’s back pocket, and he doesn’t back off once they reach the upper level. Clarke can’t bring herself to care --she’s too busy fighting off memories as the dark, fetid environment wraps around to enclose them.

She spots Octavia right away, laid out in a corner and tossing her head. Someone’s seated on the floor next to her, head in their hands. They must be dozing, because they don’t look up until the floor creaks as Clarke steps forward.

It takes a second for Monty to blink away sleep, and another to focus on them in the dim light. She watches the path his eyes take over her, pausing at her braids, tattoos, bared and muscled arms. All the high points of her Grounder glory.

“Woah,” he says softly.

The smile pulls at Clarke’s mouth without her permission. “Hi,” she says, helplessly glad to see him.

“They’re here to help,” Bellamy says behind them. Monty just nods, a little open-mouthed.

Clarke kneels down by Octavia’s side. “What have you done so far?”

Monty shrugs, and she notices he doesn’t look much better than Bellamy. “Not much we could do. No medical supplies, and I don’t recognize half the plants outside. We have some,” here he looks almost embarassed, “home-brewed alcohol, we used that to clean the bite as best as we could once we noticed something was wrong.”

They were smart enough to keep the wound unwrapped, at least, and Clarke touches the skin around it gently. Octavia shivers, but doesn’t open her eyes or otherwise respond. Clarke leans in close, and her stomach churns when the smell reaches her nose.

“Well?” Bellamy demands as she sits back.

She sighs as she exchanges a look with Lincoln. He picks up the cue immediately, moving to the other side of Octavia’s sickbed. “The skin around the bite has already started to die,” she says. “I need to cut it away.” She holds out one hand and he stares. She wiggles her fingers. “My knife.”

He gives her a hard look, but reaches around to where it’s tucked into the back of his pants. Monty, two steps ahead, is already handing her the bottle of moonshine and a clean-ish rag, which she uses to disinfect the blade as best as she can. Lincoln is busy pulling Octavia’s leg into his lap when Bellamy shoves his gun into his face.

“Hands off my sister,” he growls.

Clarke considers using the knife on him. “Someone needs to hold her leg still, or this could do more harm than good.”

He wavers between the two of them. “You’re not going to... give her anything?”

“Like what?”

“We’ve been giving her the moonshine whenever the pain gets bad,” Monty says.

Clarke shakes her head. “Alcohol’s a blood-thinner, it could cause her to lose too much.” She looks down at Octavia’s insensible face. “She’s probably had too much already, but I don’t want to delay.”

“Wait.” Bellamy shrugs off his rifle and hands it to Monty, pushing at Lincoln’s shoulder. “I’ll do it.”

“You sure?” Clarke asks, but Lincoln is already moving. “This is not going to be easy,” she warns.

Bellamy shakes his head as he settles in. “She’s my responsibility. You wouldn’t understand,” he mutters before she can respond. He jerks his head at Lincoln. “Sit up by her head if you want to be helpful. She’s gonna start throwing punches once she’s half-awake, so maybe you can keep her from knocking us on our asses before we’re done.”

He wraps his fingers on either side of the festering wound with a gentleness that makes Clarke ache.

“Ready?” Clarke asks him.

“No.” He swallows heavily. “Do it.”

________________________

Clarke makes it through the first cut before Octavia wakes up.

It gets worse from there.

________________________

“Tell me about Costia,” she says to Lincoln.

She keeps her voice low as to not trouble Octavia, who still shifts every few seconds, whimpering. Monty excused himself as soon as they were finished, looking like he wanted to go somewhere quiet and throw up for an hour or so. It doesn’t hurt to avoid disturbing Bellamy -- he’s not sleeping, exactly. His body has clearly forced a shutdown but he still has the same hyper-vigilance she’s seen in parents waiting outside while her mom operated on their children. Even now, with his head tipped back against the wall of the dropship and his eyelids almost-but-not-quite shut, he looks like he’s tilted on the edge of leaping to his feet and training his gun back on them both. All he needs is a push.

So Clarke keeps her voice down.

“What?” Lincoln’s voice is rough. He’s sitting a careful distance away from Octavia, and every time he looks towards the darkening bruises on her wrists guilt crosses his face in a spasm.

“Costia. How do you know her?” Costia, Clarke has decided, is the key. She was helping, before. She recognized what Clarke was trying to do, even if she was suspicious about how it was done.

And she is -- Clarke sets her jaw -- the closest thing Lexa has to a weak point. Clarke doesn’t want to exploit that, exactly, but she needs a way in. Bringing the Grounders together with the hundred, and eventually the rest of the Ark, is going to take more work than anticipated. She needs leverage. She needs vulnerability -- a soft spot where she can apply very. Careful. Pressure.

Despite everything, if she wants this to work? She still needs Lexa.

“We trained to be scouts together,” Lincoln says finally. “She’s younger, but she was too good to be kept back with her age group. That’s all.” And then, before she can interrogate that further, he throws out: “And we’re both fosterlings.”

“I thought...” Clarke tries to remember what Octavia has said about Lincoln. “I heard you still had a father living.”

“I do. He fostered me when I was eight years old.” He shrugs slightly at her look. “Many parents die -- in battle, in raids, by the Mountain. It’s an honor to raise children who were not born to you or your partners.”

“I see. What happened to Costia’s first family?”

He shrugs. “I don’t know. She doesn’t talk about them.”

That makes sense. Except -- “Wait, how do you know she’s a fosterling?”

“Her name.” He smiles a little. “We’re all given a different name to help us start anew. The old name came from families that are dead. But with this name -- we are each other’s family. We know our brothers and sisters wherever we meet.”

“How?”

“It’s always one of the old names, tied to the world before. Lincoln, Jefferson. Anacostia, Alexandria.”

“Oh.” It takes a second to piece apart the sounds, find the syllables on common, and then she finds herself doing it with the others. “Wait -- is Lexa is a fosterling?”

He cocks his head at her, considering, and she reminds herself for the umpteenth time to stop using that name. “I heard they were born in the same village,” he says finally. “Whatever happened, it probably happened to both of their families.”

Clarke realizes she never thought of Lexa as being from anywhere, or belonging to anyone. She was a creature of the moment, half bloodlust and half steely-eyed strategy. Clarke tries to picture her as a little kid and fails, miserably.

But the attempt inspires a feeling of -- warmth, or something, curling its way into the colder recesses of her heart. All places she’d deliberately hollowed out while she wandered in the woods.

She strangles it.

“What does she care about? Costia, I mean,” she says, to bring their talk back on track. “If I want to convince her to help us avoid more conflict, what would make her listen?”

He shakes his head. “The Commander, and striking out at the Ice Nation in any way possible,” he says. “That’s all she cares about.” He pauses. “But I heard she hasn’t taken any missions in the North for a while.”

“Did you hear why not?”

“Officially, we would never lead an offensive against a nation that has since joined the Coalition.” He shifts, as if trying to get comfortable on the unyielding metal floor. “That doesn’t rule out missions just to gather information, though. Or it usually won’t.”

“So. Unofficially?”

He meets her eyes. “There’s a rumor the Commander asked her not to.”

Bellamy rouses with a jerk, chest heaving as he takes in the room with a quick scan. When he sees that they haven’t moved from their relative positions, he relaxes. A bit.

“Any change?” he asks.

Clarke finds herself holding her breath as she checks Octavia’s leg. It doesn’t help -- she finds exactly what she didn’t want, has been avoiding through her conversations with Lincoln. “She’s still bleeding too much.”

Bellamy looks back and forth between them as if searching for answers. “So what now?”

Lincoln is already moving into place.

“I need my knife again,” Clarke tells Bellamy. “And something to make an open flame.”

________________________

Octavia doesn’t even have it in her to scream when Clarke brings the hot metal down on her wound. She just sobs and shakes. Bellamy’s concentrating too hard on holding her leg still to notice the way Lincoln brushes away the sweat-soaked hair plastered to her cheeks with his fingertips. The sight helps Clarke, though, in a strange way.

When it’s over, she can barely take the time to put the knife away safely before stumbling over to open the hatch, handing her head over the opening to take in in fresh air and dissipate the smell of burning flesh.

“Okay,” she says after a few deep breaths. “Now she can have the moonshine.”

She grabs the bottle from Bellamy, once Octavia signals she’s finished by turning her head away, and takes several long pulls herself. It burns all the way down to her stomach and out to the tips of her fingers and toes. Both Bellamy and Lincoln demur when she holds out the bottle, and so Clarke puts it carefully back on the floor. She puts herself down just as carefully, one hand on Octavia’s shoulder so she’ll know if the younger girl wakes. Clarke dips into sleep and prays she doesn’t dream.

________________________

“So. Where is this other world?

“Everywhere. Beside us. Inside us. The worlds are not like rooms in a building, connected by passageways. They are laid on top of each other -- warp and weft on the loom of existence.”

Yeah, he’s lost her. And the smell of whatever he’s pounding to paste inside a stone bowl isn’t helping her concentration. “How do I start?”

“You already have. When your soul allowed you to see me at your campfire, that was the first of three parts of the ritual.”

“What’s the second part?”

“It is not easy, what you are about to do,” he says, seemingly ignoring her question. “There are limitations.”

Clarke fights the urge to roll her eyes: now he tells her. “Like?”

“Time. Space.” He grabs another handful of something from one of the jars lining the walls of his hut and adds it to his bowl. “You cannot go back in your time without losing some of it, in order for the mind to maintain its rationality.”

“If I go to all this trouble, and then can’t even remember what I’m there for--”

“Only the time since beginning the raun-keryon will be lost, and only as your spirit adapts. It will return to you. Eventually.” He spits into the bowl, and Clarke flinches, knowing where that mess is about to end up. “Also, I am in service to the souls of the Trikru, and our souls are tied to the land. My power does not reach the sky.”

It takes a moment and a half to parse this before she ventures: “You can only send me as far back as I’ve been in the ground.” He nods, and she wraps her arms around her knees where she sits in front of him. “Okay. I can work with that.”

“A final limitation.” He places the bowl to one side of his mat and faces her. “You must acknowledge and name your,” here he says an unfamiliar word in Trigedasleng. “It is the second part of the ritual.”

“I don’t know what that is.”

“It is a person.” He says the word again, slower. He grimaces when Clarke does nothing but blink in response. “Not all souls can travel with intent. They are easily lost, light enough to blow away in a wind or to be drawn into an unintended orbit. If you would go to another world you must know your tether -- another soul with whom you have known many lives, many worlds.”

Soulmate, Clarke thinks, and then discards the idea with a violence which almost feels physical. “I don’t think I have anyone like that.”

“If you did not, the spirits would not have led me to you. No matter how deeply you drank of blood.”

Clarke shrugs. “Sorry to have wasted your time.”

The crack of skin on skin as he slaps one hand against his thigh startles her. He’s still wearing the fabric coverings and paint, but the warmth of their shelter has caused it to melt a little at the corners of his eyes and mouth. It makes him seem a little more human, but also a little bit more frightening -- seeing a person with so much intensity with flesh like an ordinary mortal’s.

“Do not be confused, Commander of Death,” he says. “I do not care for whatever fleeting connections you have made in this lifetime. I do not want to hear of love, or hate.” He leans forward, dropping his voice low. “You are a person of destiny. Whether it is one of greatness, or one of despair, that will depend on your choices alone. But that destiny is not only yours. There is a person in this world who shares it, and you have felt that connection almost since the first moment you met. Say the name.”

It’s difficult to swallow past whatever’s happening in her throat. “You already know who it is.”

He gives a brief, grim chuckle. “The secrets of great ones are not secrets at all. However, it must be you who says it aloud -- your soul that flies toward them.” He settles back on his haunches. “They have the power to anchor you in one world or another, or even pull you from one to the next. You will not awake in this other world until you are near them, and your soul knows itself to be safe.”

Safe. As if that were a word she would ever associate with...

“Say the name.”

She shuts her eyes. Opens her mouth.

________________________

Clarke wakes up with a start.

The upper level of the dropship is blissfully quiet. Octavia is still sleeping, the previous day’s agony almost completely absent from the lines of her face. Lincoln is curled up on the bare floor beside her in an attempt to fold his bulk into something innocuous. It makes Clarke smile.

Bellamy is sitting at the far end of the room with his back to the wall and his gun balanced on his knees. He nods when Clarke rises, eyes red-rimmed. She can feel them tracking her every movement as she checks Octavia’s temperature, the skin immediately surrounding the wound.

“Sleep is the best thing right now,” she tells him when everything appears more or less in order. “It’s amazing how the body can heal itself, given the chance.”

“Any lasting damage to the leg?” he asks, voice rough. He can’t quite control the tic in one corner of his mouth, and it flickers in and out of a grimace of grief.

Clarke shrugs. “We won’t know anything for certain until later. But I think we got the worst of it.”

He draws a long, shuddering breath, ducking to press the back of one hand against his eyes. “Thank you,” he chokes out.

It hits her square in the chest, a much-needed balm to her sore and stinging heart after the past few days. She lets her head hang down for a moment to take it in: I fixed something, I saved someone, I can do this.

“I still have questions,” Bellamy says.

“Yeah,” Clarke raises her head. Moment over. “So do I.”

________________________

It takes a little persuading to get him to leave Octavia’s side -- “I’m only telling you for now, we can take it from there” -- especially as Lincoln is with her. They compromise: Atom brings up three portions for breakfast and keeps one for himself while he sticks around in their absence.

(Clarke offers half of her food to Lincoln while Bellamy scarfs his down, but he waves it off.)

Bellamy leads her just far enough out in the woods that they won’t be overheard. “Talk,” he says, as he settles against a tree. She takes in the sight of him: hostile, hulking, still way too keyed up after watching her take a knife to his sister in several unpleasant ways. This is going to be a disaster.

“It would be so easy to lie to you right now,” she says. “You won’t believe me, anyway.”

“You know the names of everyone in this camp, and you know what I did to get here,” he says, mouth tight. “Try me.”

Clarke leans back against a tree trunk. “On the Ark, you took the unit on general and special relativities with Mr. Leibowitz, right?”

He narrows his eyes before nodding.

“Do you remember causal loops?”

“Yeah. What about them?”

She tells him the truth.

________________________

“That is insane,” Bellamy says, head in his hands.

It’s roughly the twentieth time he’s said that in the past ten minutes, so Clarke figures her response is no longer required. She just nods and chews on more cooked meat, making a face at the taste. She forgot what food without spices can be like.

“That is insane,” he says again in a few minutes.

She wonders how much sleep he got last night.

“Do you,” he begins and Clarke perks up, because finally, something new, “even get how -- how unbelievable --”

“Octavia told me you used to read The Iliad out loud to her. If she’d been really good, you’d do the voices,” she interrupts.

Bellamy groans, knuckling at his eyebrows with a look of real, painful distress. “Please don’t do that.”

She shrugs. “I thought maybe you needed more convincing.”

He drops his head into his hands with another groan. “This is insane.”

She knows she should have more patience, but they don’t have time. So she lets irritation bubble up and settle in her shoulders, holding them as if she’s prepared for a body block. “For someone who spends his half of casual conversations referencing epic tragedies and ancient legends --”

“I asked you to stop doing that,” he says, muffled from behind his hands.

“-- this is, honestly, a lot more resistance than I expected. Secret worlds, magic rituals... You love this stuff.”

“In stories,” he hisses, eyes bright as his hands drop to his sides. “Stories that serve as a larger metaphor for the basic human condition and, and help us better understand the emotional parallels in our own lives through dramatic exaggeration --”

“So find a parallel and use it,” she grinds out, “because I need you to pull it together.”

His eyes narrow. “Okay, Cassandra,” and she’s pretty sure she’d be insulted if she had any idea who that was. “Answer this one: if you know about all of us because you were on the Ark in some,” he gestures wildly into the air, “other version of reality, then how the hell did you end up on the ground,” one finger stabbing downward, “in this one?”

“I don’t know.” At his look of disbelief she returns: “How was I supposed to hammer out that detail? Grab one of my warriors and say, excuse me, but I was supposed to be born on a space station orbiting the earth instead of featuring in a prophecy that led to killing your last queen and taking her throne, who should I talk to?”

“So in fact,” he says after a moment of staring, “you’ve been underselling how weird this is.”

Clarke lets her head fall back against the tree, closing her eyes. “You have no idea.”

“Okay,” she hears, and his drawing in a deep breath. “What was your name on the Ark?”

It’s still her name, but she swallows down that objection. “Clarke Griffin.”

“Well, if you’re telling the truth, then you remember your lineage.”

He’s talking about her family tree, the names and circumstances of each family member born on the Ark -- the trivia that gets drilled into every Ark child from a young age. She used to think it was an attempt to foster a sense of pride and belonging amidst the hardships of daily life on the Stations. Then she took genetics, and realized it was a failsafe against inbreeding.

Bellamy is waiting for her nod, and she gives it. “Good. I want you to talk to someone. Follow me.” He starts walking back toward the tents.

“Wait -- Bellamy, wait,” and she has to make an effort to keep up. “What does it matter how it happened? We need to figure out how to defend ourselves against the Grounders in the woods, they might attack at any time --”

“Humor me,” he calls back. “I’m taking a lot on faith, here, the least you can do is answer a few questions to prove you’re not just a crazy person with a knack for good guesses.”

She pinches her lips together even as she speeds up. “Octavia also says you cry real tears every time someone named Hector dies. Or is that just another good guess?”

“Stop doing that!”

________________________

The stares are just as curious as before, but at least no one’s going for their weapons. Bellamy leads her along the edges of camp, making for a tent that seems set apart a bit from the rest and the nucleus of the chaos.

“This guy was a huge loner before he got thrown into the Skybox,” Bellamy says as they approach. “He told me he used to kill time by reading through the old records and passenger manifests.”

Once within reach he stretches out a hand to shake one of the tent poles, making the fabric ripple. “Hey, man,” he says, “you decent? We need to talk.”

She hears movement inside the tent, someone grumbling as they wrangle the opening fastenings, and she only has the slightest warning of his voice saying, “My basic decency doesn’t disappear with my clothing, unlike some,” before Wells Jaha steps out into the early morning sunshine.

Clarke barely registers the pain when her knees hit the dirt, the air sucked out of her lungs. She’s shaking, so hard she can almost feel her own bones rattle, and she must like a ghost herself because Wells is crouching down in front of her with a face full of concern, one hand stretching toward her as he says “Hey, hey, are you oka-- ooph.”

That last comes out of him in a grunt as Clarke throws herself at him and wraps her arms around his neck. He jerks a little in her hold and it only makes her tighten it, fingers curling as she fights down the sobs clawing at her chest.

She’s close enough to feel his head shift as he looks up at Bellamy, who says: “You think she’s acting strange now, just wait.”

“I’m sorry,” she says abruptly, pushing herself away from Wells. “I’m so sorry.” She manages to stand even with a quiver still in her knees. “I -- you surprised me. Wait.” She pushes away a few stray tears with the heel of one hand. “What are you doing here? Why were you get locked up in the first place?”

“He roughed up a guard,” Bellamy answers as Wells straightens, leans away from her with a look of caution. “Why?”

I came for you, echoes in her mind. She shakes her head. “It doesn’t matter, I just -- oh, no,” she gasps, and her hands are back on Wells, fists balled up in the material of his shirt as he twitches with alarm. “There’s a girl, Charlotte, blonde hair, about twelve. You have to stay away from her. If she comes near you, run, promise me.”

Again, Wells looks to Bellamy, who’s frowning. “I don’t remember hearing that name --”

“You!” She whirls on him, releasing Wells, who takes an obvious step out of reach. “You gave her the knife!”

Bellamy puts his hands into the air at her expression. “I didn’t give anyone a knife.”

“You were on a hunt, you told her to ‘slay demons’--”

“I haven’t gone on those since Octavia got worse, and I didn’t give anyone a knife!”

“Hey,” Wells breaks in, “at what point do I get to know what’s going on?”

Clarke makes the effort to calm herself, and Bellamy lowers his hands. “Tell him the names,” he says to her.

She almost snaps at him for the tone he takes, but they roll off her tongue easily enough: the names of all of those the boarded the Ark and eventually became her great-grandparents. Wells’s eyes widen.

“Wow,” he says when she finishes.

“What?” Bellamy asks, impatient.

“Those are --” He looks back and forth between them, obviously thrown. “Those are all names from the lost passengers.”

Bellamy staggers a bit before sitting down hard on the ground.

“Who?” Clarke asks him. He just shakes his head, threading his hands through his hair. She looks to Wells instead.

“Before the last war, three hundred and ninety people boarded the spaceships that later formed the Ark,” Wells begins.

“Four hundred people,” she interrupts, because of course she knows how this story goes.

“No,” Bellamy says at their feet. He doesn’t look up. “Three hundred and ninety.”

She turns her confusion back on Wells, who still looks wary. He finally gives a small shrug before continuing: “It was supposed to be four hundred; their names are all recorded in the book. But then ten people didn’t arrive by the departure time. The U.S. station had to launch without them. We light candles for them every Unity Day.”

She decides Bellamy has the right idea, and sits down herself, feeling winded. “Do we know why they didn’t make it?”

Bellamy says: without looking up. “Supposedly, they were travelling down the Northeast corridor to the takeoff point when a storm hit. Tracks were closed, couldn’t get out of it in time.” He laughs under his breath. “Some butterfly probably flapped its wings.”

“You believe me,” she says.

He raises his head to meet her eyes. He hesitates. “I don’t not believe you.”

“Still waiting to be told what the hell is happening right now,” Wells says above them. He looks around uneasily before crouching down. “And not for nothing, man, but you probably have some fires to put out after letting her and her friend into the dropship yesterday. Didn’t make you the most popular person at camp.”

“Yeah, thanks,” Bellamy says with a nod.

“I’m just sick of it. If there are more of them in the woods, we need to stop fighting each other yesterday.”

“Since when are you guys so close?” Clarke asks, watching the easy way they talk. “Don’t you hate Wells’s father?”

Bellamy looks surprised at the question, as does Wells. “Thelonius Jaha? I’m not crazy about anyone who sits on the Council, but I don’t hate him.”

Clarke frowns. “So he’s not... who heads the Council?”

Bellamy is suddenly very interested in pulling up grass from the ground, and it’s Wells who answers. “Chancellor Cartwig.”

“Callie?” She gapes at Bellamy. “You shot Callie?”

He returns her look with a glare. “It was the only way to get onto the dropship.”

“She’s the sweetest person in the world!”

“Maybe where you come from,” he says. “But she’s the Chancellor who floated my mother and locked my sister up in the Skybox; I’d do it again. And gladly.”

“You shot the Chancellor?” Wells asks. He draws back with a look bordering on awe. “If they ever follow us down, you are dead.” His face transforms. “That’s why you had us trash the wristbands.”

“Wait, wait,” as Clarke’s head starts to spin. Wristbands make her think of Abby, but there was no Abby -- not on the Ark -- and no Jake, and that meant... “How did they find out about the systems failure on the Ark?”

The two of them turn as one, eerily similar looks of surprise on their faces.

“That’s for real?” Wells asks.

________________________

“Her name is Raven Reyes,” Wells says as he guides them through the labyrinth of tents. “They put her in solitary well over a year ago. She was supposed to have a trial when she turned eighteen, but they just left her in there. As soon as she woke up on the dropship she started telling everyone why.”

“How did she figure it out?” Clarke asks.

“Well, she gave me an answer for that, but I’m not sure it was in English.” He shrugs when she looks at him. “I almost failed basic mechanics, and I’m supposed to follow zero-g specifications? She noticed something when training for her first spacewalk, put two and two together and decided we were all doomed. She’s been battling it out with Blake ever since we landed -- he gets people to take off the wristbands, she creates and sets off rockets, and back and forth.”

“So none of you believed her?” Clarke asks, casting a backward look to Bellamy, whose face is a storm cloud. “You thought they sent down a hundred delinquents down to Earth for what, fun and games?”

Bellamy’s face only darkens. “Now ask me if I give a damn why the Council does what it does.”

“You --” She bites her lip. Right. Dropship-era Bellamy. She sighs heavily instead of turning to beat him around the head the way she really wants to. “Well, unless it’s a very different kind of Council with Callie at the helm, they just sentenced over three hundred people to death in order to conserve what oxygen there is left. And that’s on you.”

She sees him flinch out of the corner of her eyes, but Wells throws back a frown. “What is she talking about?” he asks Bellamy over her head before shifting his gaze back down. “Listen, there was no way we could know for sure, and he’s not the only one with reason not to trust the Council --”

“Your father is on that council.”

His mouth thins. “Yeah.” He faces forward as if that answers everything.

Clarke stares at his back as they continue through camp in silence. She always knew their relationship was strained. It’d been hard to miss. But she’d never seen Wells this openly bitter about it. She watches him walk up to a tent and wonders what lies at the root of that particular change.

“Hey, Reyes,” he calls out. “You in?” At the following silence he pushes aside the front flap and looks inside, the lines of his face falling into an expression Clarke recognizes from the times she would propose something even she knew was stupid. He turns to lock eyes with Bellamy. “Her stuff’s gone. His, too.”

Her attention snags briefly on his, too, but Clarke is distracted when Bellamy swears viciously in response. He takes off and Wells is only a half-second behind, leaving her with no choice but to follow.

Bellamy tears through the camp and into his tent, but Wells holds up an arm to block Clarke from following him inside. “Give it a bit,” he says under his breath, and the two of them stand together listening to the sound of things being thrown around and to the ground. Finally there’s silence, no sound of movement within. Wells nods to her, and lifts the tent flap so they can enter together.

Bellamy stands in the middle of chaos with his hands back in his hair, head bowed so they can’t see his face.

“She took the map, didn’t she,” Wells asks.

Bellamy’s grip only tightens so that his knuckles go white.

“What map?” Clarke looks back and forth between them. The memory drops into her mind with an almost palpable click. “Not the map to Mount Weather.”

Wells jerks in surprise, and Bellamy lets out a low groan.

“Why do you even have that map?” she asks. “There’s no way they gave it to you.”

“They gave it to a guard who came down with us,” Bellamy says as Wells continues to stare at her. “The map and a stun stick -- he was supposed to corral us to the mountain. We took it off him.”

“You mean you took it off him.”

He drops his hands and tilts his head back, as if asking for patience. “Yes, okay. I took it off him.”

“Please tell me he’s still alive,” she gets out through gritted teeth.

Bellamy makes a face, but Wells jumps in: “He is! He’s alive, we just. Uh.” Wells grabs at the back of his neck, eyes darting nervously around the tent. “We took his uniform, and then maybe chased him away from camp without giving him anything to replace it.”

Clarke closes her eyes and tells herself to be calm. The guard probably didn’t wander that far, not if he hadn’t been caught by any of Anya’s scouts. Maybe he was hiding just beyond the trees and sneaking back to scavenge at night. “What were you going to do with the map?” she asks, and even she can hear the dangerous edge to her tone.

“Nothing,” Bellamy says, sullen. “We didn’t need it.”

“But Raven knew about it.”

“The whole camp did, the guard was talking big before, you know,” Wells mumbles. “She wanted to head up a search party. Blake said no.” He shrugs. “I guess when you arrived and provided such a great distraction, she took the opportunity.”

Raven Reyes was headed for Mount Weather. Raven was out there in the woods with over a hundred Grounders, with a leader Clarke had personally pissed off. And even if Raven got past them, she might still be speared just like Jasper had been. Even if she wasn’t, that left the Mountain itself -- and being trapped inside, alone, with Cage Wallace and his drill-happy experiments.

Raven.

“She can’t have gotten that far, right?”

Bellamy’s still scowling, and it’s Wells who answers: “She probably didn’t leave until early this morning -- dark enough for people not to notice she was moving on out, but light enough to actually see where she was going. So not too far.”

“Okay.” She scrubs the back of her hand across her mouth, swallowing down the saliva that had flooded her mouth and the burn of bile. “Okay, I need to go and bring her back.”

“Why?” Bellamy asks. “It’s just an empty military base.”

“Because it’s not empty,” she says. “No,” she shakes her head at the looks on their faces, “I don’t have time. I need to leave now.”

“I’m not going anywhere until Octavia wakes up,” Bellamy says.

“So I’ll go on my own,” Clarke say.

“I’ll go with her,” Wells says quietly. “Reyes might shoot on sight. Besides, this way it’s two against two.”

“Who’s out there with her?” Clarke asks.

Bellamy rolls his eyes hugely, and Wells smothers a grin. “Loverboy. Gets himself thrown into Skybox to be close to her, no way he’s letting her out of his sight now. I think he might actually be attached to her hip --”

A needle-sharp prickle of foreboding in her stomach. “Finn? She’s with Finn?”

Wells throws his hands into the air. “Okay, will someone please tell me what is going on?”

________________________

They don’t.

Clarke tells Wells he’s welcome to stay at the dropship, but he only gets that mulish slant to his mouth she remembers way too well and stomps off to gather together his gun and some supplies. She contemplates starting without him, but -- out of everyone, he’s maybe the one person she can’t guarantee is safer staying put.

Which reminds her.

“You need to put together some sort of drill,” she says, turning back to Bellamy. “Make sure everyone can get from where they are to inside the dropship in ninety seconds tops. Practice it at least a few times, okay?”

“Why?” he asks, looking at her from beneath curls that are becoming mussed with all his head-rubbing.

“Every now and again, the people inside the mountain release an orange-colored fog that burns like acid. It’s directed at the Grounders, but they don’t care about collateral damage.” She swallows. Not yet, anyway. “Sometimes you’ll hear a horn in warning, but that’s all you’ll get before it hits. And it moves fast.”

He sighs. “Welcome to Earth, I guess.”

“Hey.” She waits until his eyes are on her again. “You said the guard had a shock baton. I don’t suppose you’d consider handing it over?” He’s already shaking his head, so she nods. “Okay. Keep it safe. I don’t know when the Ark will make it down, or even if it will in one piece in this world, so just -- keep it safe. Please? It might end up being really important.”

He searches her expression. “You know, you keep acting like we’re friends.”

It takes the wind out of her a little to see the confusion in his eyes. “We are. I mean, we were.”

He shakes his head slowly. “You said your father was a senior engineer. That your mother was on the Council.” He gives her a wary look. “There’s no way I didn’t hate you.”

Okay, yeah, that might take some explanation.

She doesn’t really have time for one, though, so instead she steps in and puts her hands on his shoulders, waiting until he brings his head up to say: “I know you’re scared. I know my showing up, and telling you all of this, doesn’t exactly help.”

Clarke tightens her grip, really digging her fingers in, so that he almost draws away only to be halted by the look in her eyes. She watches as he swallows nervously.

“The Bellamy Blake I know,” she says softly, “is a true leader. He fights for his people. He bleeds for them. And I know they would follow him straight into hell.”

She releases him and steps back as he blinks at her.

“He’s inside of you. All you have to do is look, and you’ll find him.” She pauses in the middle of turning to exit the tent, throwing back over her shoulder: “As soon as possible, please.”

A second later she sticks her head back inside his tent. “And keep a tight leash on Murphy. That kid is a floating menace.”

________________________

She tells Wells she needs to detour by the dropship and makes a pit stop by Octavia’s bedside. She’s improved even since this morning: her breathing is deeper, her sleep looks more natural. Lincoln takes the news of Clarke leaving camp with more ease than expected.

“You don’t think I’m abandoning you?” she tries to tease him -- still in English, as Atom watches them warily from the corner.

“Perhaps I would deserve it, after abandoning my own,” he returns. His tone is light, but he keeps his eyes down and on Octavia when he says it.

“Hey,” she puts a hand on his arm. “What we did was to prevent a war. Anya, and the Commander, everyone -- they’ll understand that. Eventually.”

The smile that touches his mouth is hardly worth the name. “Queens might have the advantage of time, but warriors? Eventually might be too late for me.”

Her grip tightens. “I’ll make them understand it.” She lets steel enter her tone at the thought of any of them trying to punish Lincoln for her decisions. Part of her almost welcomes the idea: one punch wasn’t nearly enough.

His smile looks a little bit more real at that, and she leaves him in the dropship feeling as settled as she can about the matter.

She and Wells set off double-time, climbing over rocks and trudging through the forest at a pace that has him breathing heavily within minutes. She feels fine, herself, but she remembers how challenging the ground was those first few weeks. Daily calisthenics were a required part of life on the Ark, but using dilapidated equipment in an ancient gym is something entirely apart from pitting your body against a natural landscape with all its surprises. When the sun is a little closer to its zenith she calls for a break.

“So,” she opens with as Wells attempts to duck his head and hide his panting breaths. “You’re close with Bellamy.”

He grimaces as he braces his hands just above his knees. “Yeah, I guess?” He chuckles, and she’s surprised to hear the cynicism just beneath. “Why, want me to pass him a note for you during Earth Skills? Sorry,” he starts before she can respond, shaking his head. “I shouldn’t -- that’s an Ark joke, I guess you don’t --”

“Were you friends on the Ark?” she cuts through. She knows she should drop it, but -- it’s so strange, thinking of the two of them up in space, without her. Absolutely fine without her.

“Nah.” He lowers himself to the ground, resting back on his hands so he can angle his head up at the canopy of the trees. “He’s older, and even if we’d been in the same age groups,” here his expression darkens, subtly, “my father wouldn’t have approved.”

“You seem fine taking orders from him now.” Clarke doesn’t even know the anger is there until she opens her mouth and it jumps out, like it was tucked behind her teeth and waiting to escape. But the words are like a match to a fuse, and suddenly she can feel it throughout her whole body. She’d been so happy to see him -- happy wasn’t even the word. Seeing him alive was like a stun stick to the heart.

Except the shocks hadn’t stopped there. The follow-ups had been lesser, maybe, but frequent enough that she couldn’t ignore them: the way he constantly looked to Bellamy for direction, the way his shoulders hunched as if to curl himself inward and out of sight, the way he laughed off what had happened to that guard...

Wells was alive, but he was a stranger.

“I don’t take his orders,” Wells says, but he won’t meet her eyes. “I just, I think he’s got some good ideas.”

Good ideas?” Maybe this is a mistake. Maybe she should have left him back at camp. Bellamy she can understand, Bellamy she can forgive. This is just how he was back then. But she can feel her breath coming faster, hurt swelling in her chest as she bites out: “Shooting off and screwing around in the woods?”

“It’s not like that, it’s...” He sighs. “Listen, I don’t know what he told you about where we’re from. I don’t know a lot of things,” he puts in, pointed, “which is one of the reasons I’m coming along -- but life up there wasn’t exactly easy. Especially not for the people in that camp.” He pulls at the grass, not up from the ground but gently, letting the strands slip through his fingers. “They’ll figure it out, they just need to blow off some steam.”

“Were you blowing off steam when you attacked a guard?” Wells could barely bring himself to take out members of the other team when they’d been forced into the ancient game of dodgeball in history classes. Wells was the first one to dive into a fight, but only because he didn’t wait for backup while trying to break it up. Who are you, she wants to scream.

Wells looks... sheepish. “Is that what you’re worried about?” he asks, sitting forward. “Listen, I’m not violent or anything.” He links his hands together, angles her a look with his chin tilted downward. “I’ll tell you a secret if you promise not to tell anyone else.”

And that’s, oh, that’s so familiar, it kicks like a horse right between her ribs. She finds herself holding her breath at the onslaught -- Wells at five, at twelve, at fifteen, using those same words with the same look -- as she nods.

He half-smiles down at his hands. “I didn’t actually attack anyone.”

“They put you in the Skybox for it.”

“Well,” he drawls, “the guy was beat up, but I wasn’t the one who did it. There was kind of an unspoken agreement that’s what we’d tell people, though.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” shaking her head.

The amusement drops from his face. “I was pretty much alone, up on the Ark,” he tells his intertwined fingers. “My mom died. I didn’t have any real friends. My dad...”

Jake was the one who encouraged Clarke to make friends with Wells. Wells was the reason they stayed friends -- his sweetness, his ability to keep up with her, his fearlessness in calling her out -- but Jake had been the one to point the boy who stood a little apart from the others students in her creche and ask why don’t you go talk to him, sweetie or would your new friend like to stay for dinner? She remembers Abby scolding him for it, saying it would look like they were currying favor with the Chancellor through his son. Jake had shrugged it off: You’ve said yourself that Jaha can be a hard man to like. Imagine if you had to love him. They’re only kids, Abby.

“Anyway,” Wells picks up, “I found a lot of ways to kill time. Reading old records, wandering different sections of the ship -- most of the guards didn’t bother me about it because my dad was on the Council, and, I don’t know, I was pretty pathetic. So one day I heard the sounds of a fight, and I followed them.”

He twists his mouth up. “Someone was cleaning out a residence where both parents had been floated. Their little girl was the only one left. She went kind of berserk, I guess, started hitting the guard. I took one look at the situation and I knew, I just knew she would end up in Skybox for it. She was really young, too,” he adds, quieter.

“So I pulled her off, pushed her away, told her to run. I don’t even think she knew what she was doing until then -- she got this look on her face and took off. I was standing there alone when backup arrived, told them the guard tried to tell me where I could and couldn’t go, so I put him in his place.” He rolls his shoulders in an ambivalent motion. “He never said otherwise, probably because it’s a better story than getting beat down by a kid.”

Oh. Oh, so that’s why she hadn’t seen Charlotte among the other hundred, no matter how hard she looked.

“Why would you do that?” and it almost comes out as a croak.

“I don’t know,” he almost laughs. “I had this idea that I could make my life mean something if I saved someone else’s. I was pretty tired of just. Existing.” He raises his head to meet her eyes. “I guess it sounds stupid when I say it like that. Listen, you can’t tell anyone -- especially Bellamy, thinking I beat up a guard is the only reason he likes me.”

Clarke stands, walks over to offer him a hand up. He watches her as he takes it and she gives him a tight-lipped smile. He deserves more, but if she tried for it she’d probably start crying all over him.

“You alright?” he asks.

“I’m fine,” she rasps, clearing her throat. “You just remind me of someone I used to know.”

________________________

It was shockingly easy to track their quarry through the woods. Clarke still isn’t particularly adept in this area -- weeks out in the forest have been a crash course in honing all the theory of her Earth Skills classes into reliable practice, but she still goes hungry some nights. But she forgets where they started: kids raised in the vacuum of space, in cold halls and rooms without windows. She’s following a path that, to her, now seems as clear as a hand in front of her face: broken branches, trampled undergrowth, footprints in the dirt.

Wells acts like she’s magic. He wants to know what she sees, what else he should look for. “I was considered pretty good at this stuff on the Ark,” he says, flashing her a smile, “but I guess the bar’s been raised. Might take me a while to catch up to you.”

Might not take as long as you think. Clarke bites down on her tongue. She’s getting by on her own skills right now -- what she thinks of her own, anyway. That still, small voice in the back of her mind has been quiet since she entered the dropship, and she wonders if it’s gone for good. If she did something to make it leave.

They hear the others before they actually see them. Ark kids don’t know much about stealth in the woods. Clarke’s heart rate picks up at the sounds of both familiar voices. That bridge she decided she’d cross once she came to it it is now on the horizon.

It’s Wells who spares her, putting out an arm to block her path with an apologetic look. “Let me?” he asks, and she’s grateful to fall back and put herself just out of sight.

She can’t quite make out words, but that’s Wells, low and soothing. Another voice chimes in, female and higher-pitched, surprised and then angry. She listens, almost straining, for a third voice, but it’s just the two of them for the longest while.

Their conversation picks up energy, volume, and then Raven is almost shouting:

“ -- smart, except you’re acting as Bellamy Blake’s lackey -- don’t come any closer!”

A shot rings out among the trees, and Clarke is running over before she can think about it.

The three of them turn as soon as she bursts into sight. Raven’s gun is angled to the far left -- Clarke feels a rush of relief, it was only a warning shot -- and Wells is standing with his hands upraised. And Finn --

Finn.

Clarke had just wanted to see him. Once she knew he was here, on the ground -- she just --

There are good memories. But they’re obscured, as if wrapped in a heavy veil or buried under a layer of dirt. The way he used to make her feel is inextricably mixed up with the feeling of being too late, the horror of him coming into view with bodies at his feet. She can’t think of his mouth on hers without the knife slipping between his ribs.

She has so few good memories, these days.

She had only wanted a new one: Finn, happy and alive. Happy and alive with Raven, the way he was meant to be. And there wasn’t any danger like this. She, Clarke, couldn’t be any kind of...

She wouldn’t be anyone he would do terrible things for. She wouldn’t be anyone at all to him; a stranger, just another Grounder.

So she isn’t prepared for the way his eyes widen when he focuses on her for the first time. She can see both him and Raven processing the sight: an unfamiliar face, clothing no one’s ever worn on the Ark, the primitive weapon Clarke didn’t even realize she’d drawn, now naked in her hand. They’re both quick enough to reach the plausible conclusion, and it plays out on their faces at around the same time. Raven is shocked.

Finn is enraptured.

Clarke forgot, amidst memories of blood and guilt, that Finn was the first of them to press for peace talks, to insist on finding a common ground -- to be fascinated by what the Grounders might have to offer.

His mouth sags open as he continues to stare at her. “Wow,” he breathes out with a grin.

Oh. Oh, shit.

She did not think this one through.

________________________

Raven believes her about the Mountain.

Or if she doesn’t, she caves without particular grace after the revelation of the ground being inhabited, and in light of both Wells’s and Finn’s support. Obviously Wells was in Clarke’s corner before they got there, and Finn... his excitement seems to grow with every look in her direction. Clarke catches his eyes lingering on the ink curving along her cheekbone, or the design peeking out from under her hair, and quashes the urge to hide behind Wells.

“I guess it was too good to be true,” Raven says with a sigh. “You stock up a facility like that and leave for an extended space vacation, sure, someone’s bound to break in.” She peers up at the sky. “But I don’t think we can make it back to the dropship before it’s completely dark.”

Wells jerks his thumb at Clarke. “If anyone can get us there in time it’s her, trust me.”

So of course that’s when they’re attacked.

Raven turns her head as she says, “Finn, you feel up for the trek back --” A crease appears between her eyebrows. “Finn?” She turns, head whipping back and forth. “Finn?

Clarke is opening her mouth to echo the call when a weight slams into her back and knocks her face-first into the dirt. She tastes blood, salty and metallic, as she bites down on her cheek at the impact. Raven screams, Wells shouts, but she can’t see what’s happening. Clarke leverages herself up onto her elbows, catches a brief glimpse of the erupting chaos -- two warriors on Wells, also on the ground, another two disarming Raven as a third lifts her from behind -- before a booted foot plants itself between her shoulderblades to force her back down.

That’s all it takes for Clarke to know. The pressure on her back forces the breath from her lungs in a cough, but she croaks out: “Costia, don’t hurt them, please.”

The foot disappears and hands are grabbing at the back of her jacket to lift her off the ground. Clarke doesn’t resist as Costia spins her around and slams her up against a nearby tree. “They’re not soldiers, I’ll tell them not to fight back and we’ll go with y-”

The first blow lands on her cheekbone, snapping her head to the side. Her ears start ringing, and she’s still blinking when the second punch comes from the opposite side.

Costia flips her so that Clarke’s face is pressed against rough bark. The taller girl wrenches her arms back almost out of their sockets and then Clarke feels bindings being wrapped around her wrists.

“Orders are to take you in unharmed,” Costia says, tugging them tighter. “As long as you don’t resist. I’m guessing we can use the other three to ensure your good behavior, since it doesn’t matter what happens to them.”

“I wasn’t resisting, and you hit me anyway.” The cut on the inside of her mouth has opened up, and she has to spit blood. “Twice.”

Costia puts a hand on her shoulder as she leans in, the grip hard enough to almost make Clarke cry out. She leans in close enough for her breath to fan against Clarke’s ear as she says: “That’s for what you did to her face.”

When she pulls Clarke away from the tree and towards the others, Clarke goes without a struggle.

________________________

They haven’t brought the throne out to Anya’s camp yet, but Lexa is clearly capable of making do with less. When Costia brings Clarke into the tent Lexa is sitting on a plain chair but her spine is just as straight, the set of her head just as haughty, as if she were surrounded by all the trappings of power.

Costia forces Clarke to her knees in front of their Commander, and she goes with a grunt. Her body aches after an entire day spent walking through the woods, and her whole face throbs with every pump of blood. Lexa’s face, she’s meanly pleased to note, still looks a little swollen as well.

“Queen Klark of the Ice Nation,” Lexa begins, and any satisfaction Clarke feels drains away at her tone: subarctic. Lexa runs hot beneath her calm exterior, and Clarke knows that, but sometimes Lexa pushes past rage and into someplace scarier. A place where she makes decisions with the brutal efficiency of a sharp blade cutting through soft skin.

That is not the place Clarke wants her to be in right now.

“You will be charged with treason,” Lexa continues. Her face is like a mask, the muscles held almost immobile as she looks down at Clarke on the floor of the tent. “Of siding with an invading force and seeking to undermine our Coalition.”

Costia has moved to stand on her right, slightly behind her chair. Anya mirrors the position on Lexa’s left. Clarke has an epiphany: Lexa balanced between them just as she balances between Anya’s ruthless drive and Costia’s inventive cunning, as if on a knife’s edge. Finding the point of equilibrium between their opposing gravities. Oh, and one more: the overwhelming needs of her people. Which places Lexa not on the edge, but right on the knife’s point.

Either way, there’s no room for another influence, she thinks as Lexa stands. Or another person to exert it.

Lexa walks until she’s standing right in front of Clarke, who wonders: If I never had a chance to begin with, does that make things better or worse?

“You will be brought before the council of ambassadors, who will rule on your punishment. It will most likely be death.”

“You’re not going to threaten to kill me now?” Clarke asks. Honestly, she’s a little surprised.

“It was discussed.” Beyond Lexa, Anya’s mouth twists up into a momentary expression of chagrin. “But the execution of a queen should be something more than quick work in a forest camp.”

Clarke has to smile. “No use making an example of me without an audience.”

“No.” Lexa crouches down with one knee on the ground. “But I have no such consideration for your conspirators. Their deaths will begin in the morning.”

The breath catches in Clarke’s lungs.

No. No, wait -- she knows how this plays out. She knows Lexa can’t harm her without dealing serious damage to the Coalition. Just from what she’s observed in the last days alone, Lexa needs her. She needs someone ruling the Ice Nation who has no hunger for conquest, no greater concerns outside of the welfare of her people. Lexa can make threats -- she’s very good at them -- but she’s not about to slaughter the first friendly monarch on her northern border in generations.

(And now that Bellamy’s been warned the delinquents in the dropship have at least a fighting chance, even if she was stupid enough to get herself captured.)

Except Clarke hasn’t factored for conspirators.

“They have nothing to do with this,” she says.

Lexa tilts her head to one side looking almost disappointed. “You know I can’t take your word for it.”

“Treat them like prisoners of war,” Clarke urges. “Barter them back to their people in exchange for -- for anything, but don’t punish them because of me. They know how to use the technology under the Mountain, you can use that.”

Lexa holds her gaze for a long moment. Candles have been lit throughout the dark tent, and their light brushes along her high cheekbones, picks up the color in her eyes. “Even if I were willing to do so, that only accounts for three out of five.”

Forehead creasing, Clarke thinks furiously. Did Bellamy send any of the hundred to follow them? No, she would have noticed; like Raven and Finn, none of them have any ability for stealth. So who else would Lexa associate with her, think had possibly helped --

Genai. And Trest.

“Lexa, don’t do this,” Clarke whispers, pleading.

The Commander’s face remains a careful blank. “Give me a reason not to. I know you are hiding something. Tell me what you can -- a secret, a word -- that will stop this from happening.”

Clarke’s eyes slide shut.

Telling Bellamy hadn’t been easy. But it had felt like reaching out to grab someone’s hand. Maybe their fingers were curled tight and you had to pry them back, carefully, one by one. Still, isn’t that what hands are for: reaching out and holding, offering help?

This feels like peeling off her clothes to stand, naked and vulnerable, in front of an enemy.

It feels like peeling off her skin.

She opens her eyes to the implacable look on Lexa’s face, and knows she doesn’t have a choice.

Raun-keryon.

Chapter Text

Raun-keryon.”

It’s like setting off a bomb.

Anya suddenly shifts into a defensive position with her hands balled into fists at her sides. She swears so viciously and creatively it takes even Clarke’s Trigedasleng-enhanced brain a few minutes to toss up the meaning.

“At least keep your lies believable,” the woman spits. “Perhaps your spies discovered the sacred ceremonies of the Woods Clan, but they would never be extended to a member of the Ice Nation.”

“I’m not from the Ice Nation.” Clarke swallows. “In my world.”

Costia’s face had gone blank with Clarke’s revelation, too perfectly empty to be anything but the result of conscious effort. Curiosity creeps into it now, softening her eyes. “Are you one of ours?”

“No. I’m not part of any of the twelve clans,” Clarke says. “Maybe that’s why the rules were -- bent -- for my case.”

She can see the moment it clicks for Costia. “You’re with the invaders.” She draws a short, sharp breath. “That’s how you knew about the village.”

“So either she’s lying, or she’s been manipulating us from the start,” Anya says, drawing her knife as she strides forward.

“Anya,” Costia says, still standing behind the chair. Apparently that’s all it takes to halt the older woman’s progress across the room, though she strains at it as visibly as if it were a leash. Cosita’s wrapped herself in her arms again. She did the same thing when the village burned, and Clarke wonders if it’s her go-to response when unnerved. Even with her relative quiet here’s the sense of contained energy about her, in her hard knuckles where she grips her own arms, the way her gaze moves constantly between the other three people in the room.

The real stillness at the center of the storm is Lexa, still crouched low, who keeps her eyes on Clarke face. Measuring. Watching. Comparing.

Finally she makes an impatient motion, and Clarke realizes she’s gesturing to be presented with Clarke’s bound hands. Clarke obliges, angling her torso.

“You guessed,” Clarke says as slim fingers deftly undo the knot. She doesn’t get up -- she’s pretty sure nothing could keep Anya from cutting her throat if she did -- but even kneeling is more comfortable once her shoulders aren’t being forced back.

Lexa’s chin dips as she rises to her feet and she shakes her head. “It’s not the kind of thing you guess.” She directs one last look at Clarke before turning. “I had suspicions.”

“You can’t be taking this seriously,” Anya hisses.

Lexa walks back to her chair without answering. Costia takes a step closer, runs two fingers down the length of Lexa’s arm where it rests. When she reaches her hand, Lexa turns it over to lace their fingers together and looks up. “Well?” she asks softly.

Costia’s thumb plays over the back of Lexa’s hand, their skin a study in contrasts. “It wouldn’t be inconsistent with her behavior since Polis,” she says. “You know there’s only one way to be sure.”

Lexa nods, turns her head. “Anya, I want you to --”

“No,” Anya says. “Even if it’s true, you can’t ask me to waste my time combing through the woods looking for him. He’s a ghost. He appears only when needed, not when sought.”

“So tell him his Commander needs his presence at your camp.” Her expression hardens. “And I’m not asking.”

Anya’s head jerks back at the reproof, but she schools her body language into respect and obeisance quickly. She dips her head. “Commander.”

“Take Tris with you. Chose one of your other warriors to serve in your stead,” Lexa says, in a clear dismissal. Anya makes her way out of the tent, but not before throwing Clarke a look that could pare flesh from muscle.

Clarke almost misses her once she’s gone. Open animosity is comfortable compared to whatever it is behind the masks of neutrality both Costia and Lexa are wearing as they look at her now.

Their hands are still intertwined. Clarke doesn’t let her gaze linger, but she holds the image in her mind, lets it sink into her bones. The weight of... whatever it makes her feel... is grounding.

“You would not have been approached for this ritual for the sake of one village,” Lexa says. “What is coming?”

“War,” Clarke says simply.

She expects the natural questions to follow, but instead Lexa opens her mouth and hesitates.

“When you fell ill on the road,” she says, “I take it that was the effect of the ritual.”

“Yes,” Clarke says, wary.

Lexa nods. “You came back to yourself in Polis,” she says, and Clarke realizes where this is going.

Clarke looks to Costia, widening her eyes: Get control of your girlfriend. The look she receives from the other girl in return is opaque.

But Costia does remove her hand from Lexa’s. Lexa’s fingers twitch, and a muscle in her neck tightens. She folds them back into her palm without looking away from Clarke.

“I assume Polis is where your path intersected with your keryon teina,” Lexa says. Quietly. Deliberately. Like she’s unsheathing a weapon.

The Trigedasleng equivalent is a different word from soulmate. Clarke likes it better. Mate doesn’t belong with soul; it implies missing pieces or partner. Souls, if they exist, should be self-contained.

But teina: entwined, intertwined, tied together. Yeah, she likes that. It reminds her of the stories of savage old Earth, where two people were bound at the wrist and told to live and die as one. Or each given a knife and told to live -- or die.

With her and Lexa either scenario applies.

“Tell me who it is,” Lexa says.

Clarke clenches her teeth so hard she feels something pop in her jaw.

Lexa leans back in her chair, crosses one leg over the other. “Your keryon teina should be brought here if you wish to complete your quest successfully.”

“Really, I wouldn’t want to bother them.”

“If you could name them for the ritual, that means they’re present and known to you, in your world,” she continues as if she hasn’t heard, and Clarke wants to yell at her. “Their presence can still draw you back if countermeasures are not taken.”

No danger of that. Whatever’s happening to her real-world body, prone and insensible, seems very far away in this moment and difficult to care about. But she can’t imagine her Lexa going to much more trouble than shoving Clarke into a dark room and throwing away the key. Ah yes, the great Wanheda. Shame no one managed to find her in the end. Probably got eaten by a panther.

There might even be a dark kind of amusement to be had at this whole situation, except Costia’s standing behind Lexa’s chair, and holding herself like she’s brittle enough to break into pieces.

“Fine,” Clarke says, because she’s tired of this farce, and why is it her concern if Lexa hurts the people she claims to care for? Why is it a surprise? “It’s you.”

Clarke’s not sure how she expects Lexa to react. But it wasn’t this: slumping back in her chair, looking as if she has aged twenty years in the last two minutes. She looks tired, Clarke realizes. She’s never seen Lexa look like that.

And Clarke finds herself laughing.

“You,” she’s actually snorting a little, one hand over her mouth to contain the rough, almost ugly barks of mirth coming out of it, “you should see your face. Both of you,” she adds. It’s been a long day, and she got punched twice.

“Do you think we’re together?” she asks, straightening. “Lovers, maybe?” She shakes her head as she meets Lexa’s eyes. “We’re not even friends.”

“Then what are you to each other?” Costia asks. Lexa is oddly silent, her eyes never leaving Clarke’s face.

Clarke shrugs. “Destined. Leaders who work together, fight together, and together accomplish what no one else has in ninety-seven years.”

Lexa’s hands tighten on the arms of her chair. “Explain.”

“Curing the reapers. Banishing the acid fog.” Here she can taste her own bitterness, feel it curling her tongue, but she reminds herself it’s not a lie -- Lexa’s decisions helped bring about events as much as Clarke’s hand on the lever, those deaths are on them both. So she manages to finish with: “Bringing down the Mountain, once and for all.”

She can see the moment it catches at Lexa, like that first moment of heat and smoke as flame catches at kindling. The way her eyes brighten and her breath quickens.

Clarke also sees Costia, who is not so moved. Who looks at her lover like she’s losing her.

Maybe she does love you, Clarke thinks. She loves this more.

Lexa leans forward, elbows on her knees. “How?”

“An alliance.” It takes effort not to choke on the word, even now. “The Sky People are part of a larger force over two thousand strong. We -- they,” she catches herself, “know how to disable the Mountain’s defenses. They have medical knowledge and tools that can counteract what the Mountain does to your people.”

“Our people,” Lexa says softly.

Clarke lets out a steady, controlled breath to keep from snapping. “I’ve only been awake a few days. It’s an adjustment.”

Lexa leans back in her chair. “If the people of the Sky and Mountain have so much in common, why isn’t there an alliance between their peoples? What brings the Sky to the twelve clans?”

Because the Mountain holds their children prisoner, Clarke opens her mouth to say, and realizes --

That’s not the case. Not here.

It’s not likely to be, either. Not now that she’s warned Bellamy and convinced Lexa (hopefully) not to attack. In all likelihood Dante Wallace is watching, but hasn’t yet seen a reason to intervene.

“That’s... a story that can wait for morning,” she manages past the heavy pounding of her heart.

Lexa narrows her eyes.

“It’s a very long one,” Clarke persists. “I’m tired,” and punched, “and I want to see Genai and Trest. Now.” Her stomach feels leaden at the thought of how they must have been treated in her absence.

She closes her eyes for a long second, and when she opens them again Lexa is looking at her like Clarke is just another map laid out on her war tables, another point of strategy to play.

“How much do you know of them?” she asks. “Of who you are?”

Clarke frowns at her. “I know exactly who I am. If you’re talking about -- Klark,” and it takes an effort but she thinks she manages the edged contestants of Grounder pronunciation, “I have most of her memories, although it usually takes some sort of trigger. She’s in there, she’s just. Sleeping, maybe.”

The slightest crease appears on Lexa’s forehead. “You talk as if she were a separate person.”

“She is.” At Lexa’s look, Clarke insists: “She is. I told you, I have a completely different life.”

Lexa’s frown only deepens. “What were you told about raun-keryon?”

“I don’t really remember. Or I do, I’m remembering more all the time,” she hastens to add, “but it’s coming back piecemeal.”

It’s not overt, but Clarke notices that Lexa keeps rubbing the tips of her fingers together as if she wished something occupied her hands. “If our efforts against the Mountain were successful,” she says, “why engage in the ritual at all?”

Clarke ignores the headache this ignites behind her eyes. “There was a human cost.”

“And myself?” Lexa asks carefully. “As your... partner in these efforts, is my soul also wandering?”

“No,” Clarke almost spits.

“Why not?”

Clarke looks at her for a long moment. “You’ve been a leader much longer,” she says finally. “You’re more comfortable with the sacrifices required.”

You bloodless, betraying bitch.

Lexa’s eyes widen, and for a split second Clarke is afraid she spoke aloud.

But the Commander only stands, sparing Clarke a final look before striding over to the tent’s entrance and speaking in a low voice with the guards stationed there.

It’s then Clarke notices that Costia is nowhere to be seen. She doesn’t know when the other girl left, but she guesses that Lexa does.

“Your bodyguard and her second will be brought here,” Lexa says as she steps back from the tent entrance. “We can arrange for accommodations for the three -- Sky People? -- afterward. They’re being held safely with instructions to remain unharmed, so there’s no need to worry.”

“Oh.” Belatedly, Clarke realizes she should probably get on her feet. Would not do for Genai to see her kneeling. She winces at the stiffness in her muscles as she rises, rubbing at her thighs. It takes her a moment to realize Lexa is seated back in her chair, looking as comfortable as she gets and as if she intends to remain there for some time.

“Um. You don’t have to stick around for this.”

Lexa folds her hands together. “I thought you might require some assistance in explaining the details of your circumstances,” she says. “You just admitted to being uncertain on some of the finer points of the ritual.”

Clarke lets a frown sink over her features. “I wasn’t planning on telling them about it. There’s no need for them to know the -- details.”

A head tilt. “Do you think that’s wise? You may require their assistance, their support, in the future and that may be harder to grant if you are not truthful. For instance, if they perhaps feel that your deception allowed you certain advantages,” here she reaches up and traces one finger, as if by coincidence, along the slight swelling of her face, “when their guard was down.”

Looks like someone is holding a grudge.

Just great.

 

________________________

 

 

But if Lexa thought she’d get to see Clarke squirm under the force of Genai’s disappointment, or even disapproval, she’s out of luck. Not that Clarke is ever sure about the reasoning for what Lexa does. But Genai more or less swallows the story without a quiver, and Trest takes his cue from her (with a few looks of wide-eyed wonder at Clarke). The older woman remains typically stoic throughout Lexa’s summation of raun-keryon and its impact. It gives Clarke ample time to take in the bruises just beginning to darken on the side of her mouth.

What did you expect when you left them behind? Did you think they’d be held peacefully?

“Do the people of the Woods Clan frequently untether their souls like this?” Genai asks when Lexa is finished.

This appears to catch Lexa by surprise. “Not frequently,” she murmurs. “But it is sometimes a necessary measure in the aftermath of war.”

“Necessary?” Genai’s voice lashes out. “It’s perverse.”

“By all means,” Lexa says, with an eyeroll so slight Clarke just barely catches it, “let us discuss the perversities both the Woods Clan and the Ice Nation have been known to indulge in. I’m sure some of the older warriors from your entourage in Polis will have interesting stories, and the scars to accompany them.”

Genai flushes, ugly and dark, and for the first time Clarke realizes neither she nor Trest carry the extensive and deliberate scarring of Azgeda warriors. She doesn’t remember on her own face, either. There’s a tickle of something at the thought -- like the earlier thread-pulls of memory, only this one fails to unravel with any understanding. It slips from her mental grasp.

“Perhaps another time,” Lexa says, with a patently false smile. She lets it drop. “All that is required is that you continue to protect your queen regardless of this ritual or your feelings on the matter.”

Genai’s head comes up with a jerk, and for a moment it looks like she’ll charge the Commander. Clarke makes a sound, stepping forward, but a glare from Genai stops her.

“No one with loyalty could do differently,” she growls. “Their fates are locked together for as long as this ritual lasts, correct? To refuse to protect her would be nothing less than abandoning my own queen.”

“Then you understand why I require it,” Lexa says quietly.

Genai gives her a hard look, but her head snaps down in a brief nod as she steps backward. “Commander,” she grinds out, one hand latching on Clarke’s arm just above the elbow as she almost physically hauls her out of the tent.

Clarke manages one last look over her shoulder. She tries to be discreet -- she still wonders how one ends up a legendary queen-slayer from the savage Ice Nation with a bodyguard who has no respect, and she has no intention of broadcasting the fact for Lexa’s amusement.

The last thing Lexa looks is amused. She holds it together for the few breaths is takes Clarke and her two guards to cross to the tent’s entrance. But in the split second between Genai’s hand releasing the opening flap and when it falls back into position, Clarke catches Lexa’s eyes falling shut, the way her mouth twists. She looks like someone who’s taken a mortal blow and can only now show how much effort it takes to swallow down the pain.

 

________________________

 

 

“Genai,” Clarke says as soon as they’re clear of the Commander’s tent. It’s gone almost full dark when she was inside, and there are torches lit every few paces.

Her bodyguard says nothing. She drops her grasp on Clarke’s arm and continues at pace through the camp.

“Genai,” Clarke tries again, “I’m sorr --”

Genai whirls around to clap her hands on either side of Clarke’s face, shocking her into silence. Just beyond she can see Trest watching them both with a worried look. The other woman holds her like that for a long moment, the tips of her fingers digging into Clarke’s cheeks, the edge of her jaw.

“Do you have her memories?” she asks.

“Some of them,” Clarke says. It’s a tough to speak like this.

“Do you remember,” Genai says, “when three children became stranded in a cliff cave trying to rescue an abandoned nest of whitebird chicks?”

“... not really?”

“You scaled the cliff yourself. I turned my back to call in reinforcements and the next thing I knew you were halfway to the cave, hanging by your fingertips. You spoke with them for hours, even though,” Genai’s gaze flickers to the tent they just left and back to Clarke’s face, “important guests were waiting on your presence. You scraped your entire right side in getting them down, and so badly that we almost had to postpone your coronation ceremony.”

Clarke blinks back at her.

Genai’s grip only tightens. “You were wearing the exact same expression you have now.”

She releases Clarke to step back.

“Come along, Klark of another world,” she says as she turns. “If your friends are waiting, I can guess you won’t be worth talking to until we get them free.”

 

________________________

 

 

Prisoners, Clarke learns, are kept in a fenced-off area in the center of camp. There several trunks have been stripped clean and driven deep into the dirt. Each prisoner is seated with their backs to the rough wood, their arms forced back to circle around the trunk where their hands are bound together.

“It’s not as uncomfortable as it looks,” Finn says to her when he’s released. He gives her the smile she remembers from early days: head tilted to help his hair falls just so, the quick flirt of his gaze as he checks her reaction. She used to enjoy that. It had been annoying, sure, how he kept pressing against her boundaries, testing, but she also remembers how it felt... easy. She had only ever been required to react to Finn, and he’d delighted in it. There was never any sense of his holding back, of waiting for her. Of patience for emotional honesty paid in turn.

It doesn’t feel easy anymore. His smile makes her feel stiff, almost chilled, and when he begins to lean into her space (and he’s still only just interested, she knows what he’s like when he focuses with intent) she takes a step back.

She tries to cover by looking to Wells, who’s watching the two of them with a raised eyebrow. “I’m sorry,” she says to him. “I didn’t mean to drag you into this.”

“Might help if you explained what this is,” he says, rubbing at his wrists.

“A Grounder camp,” she says. The awareness that Genai and Trest, standing behind them, can probably hear her speaking English and using Arker slang makes her shoulders hunch. “Their leader is over in that tent,” nodding her head, “and she’s agreed to discuss a... mutually beneficial arrangement.”

He frowns at her, not in confusion so much as curiosity. “We’ve only been here an hour or so,” and of course Wells would remember how to chart the sun’s progression against the clock, “how did you manage all that?”

Clarke tries to pull off nonchalance with a shrug. “There are different factions among the Grounders and I’m an important ally. I convinced her you have a lot to offer.”

“Yeah,” he says slowly. “Still waiting to hear how you’re so sure about that, too.”

“A little help, here?” Finn calls to them, and it breaks the moment. Clarke and Wells jog over to where he’s standing a little apart from two warriors, who are looming over the still-bound Raven. “Raven,” Finn says to her, “just let them cut you loose. She kicks whenever they get close,” he says to Clarke in an aside.

Raven is sitting with her knees drawn up. The uncertain light of the torches warps her regular scowl into something borderline demonic. “You can do it,” she says through her teeth. “But if another one of these mutated freaks tries to put another finger on me, I’ll make them eat it.”

Clarke sighs. She waves the warriors back before crouching as close as she can to Raven while still staying out of reach of her booted feet.

“Raven,” and her use of the name causes a muscle to jump in the other girl’s cheek, “they’re not going to give any of you a blade, even if it’s just to get you free.”

Raven eyes Clarke. “Yeah, I guessed that when they went over us looking for weapons.”

“So why are you making this difficult?”

At this Raven finally turns her head, gaze searching. After a moment she says, barely moving her lips, so quietly Clarke almost doesn’t catch it: “Because they missed one.”

Panic washes over her in a quick wave leaving goosebumps behind. Clarke pushes past it as she rises to her feet, throwing a smile at the two waiting warriors as she moves to kneel behind Raven. “Show me."

Raven’s fingers uncurl to reveal where she’s already sawed through her restraints, the frayed edges hidden against her palms. She also twitches back the edge of her cuff, showing Clarke the small knife beneath.

“Okay,” Clarke says, “here’s what’s happening.” She bends close. “I’m pretending to undo your knots myself.”

“They were pretty tight,” Raven warns.

“Believe me, I’ve pulled off more impressive stunts in the last few days. No one will question it.” She unwraps them carefully, making sure the clearly cut edges of the rope are hidden by the bulk of her body. “Now I’m putting them in my pocket, very casually, so that no one else sees them. And we’re done. Act like it’s nothing and it will be.”

She stands, and Raven gets to her feet. When Raven turns around there’s a belligerent cast to her mouth. “You going to take the knife, too?”

“If the Grounders find out you’ve got it, I don’t know if I’ll be able to intervene,” Clarke says. “So maybe next time wait until you’re not surrounded by the entire camp before you try and stage a break-out.”

Raven waits. “And?”

Clarke breathes out, slow. “And I promise they mean to treat you well, now, that shouldn’t change. But if it does, and something goes really wrong...” She nods. “I know I can trust you to make sure Wells and Finn get away safely.”

Raven opens her mouth, but whatever she is about to say is lost when Finn comes up and hugs her from behind. “Hey,” he says, leaning his head against hers. “You ever think we’d end up in a place like this? Were you watching their training sessions? Rae, their whole society is militarized.” He sounds soft and eager, the discoverer of a new world.

“I couldn’t watch because I was tied up in the other direction.” Raven reminds him tartly, but her mouth is halfway to smiling before she even turns around to return the embrace.

Clarke takes one look at them, caught up in each other, and flees.

“Hey,” Wells calls out as she passes him. “You’re just gonna leave us?”

“You’ll be fine, I promise,” she calls back. “They’ll feed you and put you some place safe for the night. I will see you in the morning, okay?”

Genai and Trest fall in behind her as she leaves the prison area, but Clarke halts abruptly when she realizes she has no idea where she’s headed. “Tent?” she asks simply. She’s too tired for even a quick trip for one last meal before bed.

Genai nods and takes the lead through camp. “The Commander has designated that you have your own tent,” she says, sounding torn between pique at the high-handedness of it all, and grudgingly acceptance of the apparent respect. “Trest will take first watch.”

This is bordering on ridiculous. “You spent the day being held prisoner and questioned about my whereabouts. The entire camp is surrounded by the Commander’s personal guard, and none of them are going to come anywhere near me without her say-so.” Clarke waits until the older woman looks back at her. “The both of you need to sleep. Besides,” she adds, “I’ll need you in top form tomorrow and the days to come. You can take the nights off.”

The ease with which Genai capitulates tells Clarke just how hard the past day and a half has been on the older woman, and it shakes Clarke a little to realize it. She’s still fighting that shakiness when she enters her own tent, which is her excuse to herself later for how long it takes her to realize that there’s already someone inside.

Clarke nearly jumps out of her skin, hand scrabbling at her hip for her knife -- damn, damn, Lexa never gave it back -- before her eyes adjust to the light of the few small candles. She sags when the familiar features of the figure laying out on the bed come into focus.

“Costia,” she says, and resists the urge to cover her face with her hands. She should have expected, well, maybe not this, but something. Costia doesn’t strike her as someone who could leave well enough alone. “Can we do this later? I’m really -- I’m so tired,” and the way her voice cracks proves it.

“I have one question,” Costia says, sitting up. She takes a long swallow from a bottle in her hand, the glass dark and mottled. When she finishes Clarke can smell the bite of alcohol drift into the air. “Just the one. I’ll leave you alone after that. I don’t think I even want to know much more, as long as you tell me this.”

Truthfully, Clarke doesn’t have enough in her for another fight. She knows how ugly this could get. Whatever Costia is drinking will probably make it worse. But she can always lie. No, Lexa and I have never touched each other. No, I never wanted her to touch me. It might not even feel like deceit: incorrect in the letter, maybe, but true to the spirit of what Clarke now wishes with all of her weary heart.

“One question,” Clarke says.

“In your world,” Costia begins, and Clarke braces herself. But then the other girl hesitates. She takes another swallow before getting out:

“Is Lexa dead, or is it just me?”

 

________________________

 

 

Whatever Costia’s been drinking in Clarke’s bed, it’s surprisingly sweet.

Clarke coughs when it goes down. Still strong, though.

“That’s good,” she says, handing back the bottle. “What is it?”

Gyon klin wine,” Costia says. “From a nomad group to the west. They only make it once a year, but they send a portion to the Commander with each harvest as a gesture of good relations.” She holds out the bottle again.

“We’re drinking up her wine?” Clarke asks, but she takes it anyway. She likes the idea, actually. “She does like to travel in style.”

They sit side by side on Clarke’s bed, which only a little thicker and sturdier than the bedrolls they initially left Polis with. It’s nothing like the sumptuous setup she remembers from Lexa’s tent. Resentment at the difference, she tells herself, is what makes her stomach twist -- not the memory of the person who would fall asleep in that bed. Or how the implicit trust of her doing so used to make Clarke feel like she was in freefall.

“No, hers is locked up safe back home.” Costia watches her drink, chin in hand. “I took this from Anya’s private stash.”

Clarke chokes mid-swallow.

“That’s part of how I figured it out,” she continues as Clarke struggles to breathe normally. “You look at Anya like you know her -- or know enough to be wary of her, which I suppose is the same thing. And you know Lexa well enough to anticipate what will matter to her. When we met,” and she takes the bottle back, “you didn’t know me at all.”

“You could have been away on a mission,” Clarke says, not caring if her phrasing is a tacit admission.

Costia pauses with the bottle just at her mouth. “Except you knew of me.”

Clarke rubs at her forehead. The wine doesn’t help her tiredness, it only dulls the ache that seems to have sunk into her very bones. It also prompts her to honesty; anything else doesn’t seem worth the incredible effort. “Okay. Yes, you’re dead. Sorry. But Lexa is... fine.”

Clarke might kill her if she gets half the chance. Has spent much of the last few weeks fantasizing about it. This doesn’t seem the moment to bring it up.

Costia tips her head far back as she drinks. When she finishes she merely sits for a moment before she nods once. “Tell me how.”

“You said one question,” Clarke says, but it’s a losing battle. “Sometimes it’s better not to know.”

“So it was a bad death."

Clarke sighs out in frustration. “It’s not an issue here, in this life. There’s no reason to put yourself through this.”

“There is, if there’s any possibility it could still touch Lexa. Oh,” she laughs at Clarke’s surprise, “you think I don’t know my early death means someone was trying to get to her? Besides,” she says, quietly, “it’s the only way that, of the two of us, I go first.”

“You take risks, Costia.” She tries her best to keep anything like accusation out of her tone -- she’s only surprised at the certainty in the other girl’s.

“Oh, yes. And still it’s nothing compared to how quickly the spirit passes from Commander to Commander.” She eyes Clarke from across the bed. “Did you meet ever Titus?”

Clarke shakes her head.

“He served as the Flamekeeper to three Commanders before her. And he was not an old man.” She swallows another mouthful, her mouth curling in as if the wine has turned sour. “But they are given all the nicest things.”

“I...” She’s so used to thinking of Lexa as the threat -- the shadowy Commander demanding her death, the trickster who brought Thelonious Jaha to his knees, a Grounder leader with enough manpower to wipe them off the face of the earth. It’s so strange to consider she might be constantly under threat, as well. “I meant what I said before. We don’t know each other well.”

This time it doesn’t even feel like a lie.

“But she told you about me.”

“Only in commiseration.” Clarke knots her fingers in her bedding. “I had just lost someone important to me.”

This gives Costia pause. “I’m sorry to hear it.”

It’s stupid, because minutes ago she left him safe in Raven’s care. But it brings back the memory of that day in a rush: waking up in the morning feeling like she had bled out as well, how unprepared she had been to catch the smell of burning meat beneath the woodsmoke. She has to force down a shudder. “Thank you." It takes a second to blink back the ache of tears building behind her eyes. “So you have to understand,” she says, “it was just the one time. I don’t have all the details.”

“Tell me what details you can.”

“Costia, this isn’t what you want.”

“I didn’t let you drink my wine because I want your opinion, and I don’t need your advice about how to protect my --”

“It was Nia,” Clarke interrupts. “She found out who you were to, to the Commander,” Clarke covers, with only the slightest hitch.

Costia is sitting with her head bent, and Clarke can’t see her face. “And then?”

Her stomach roiled. “I really don’t think --”

And then?”

Clarke swallows back her protests. Between being forced to talk about keryon teina and this, she’s surrounded by masochists. “She tortured you for information. I don’t know if you died of it, or she killed you separately, but. That was the end of it.”

“Liar.”

What’s the point, if she doesn’t even appreciate what Clarke’s trying to spare her? “She sent Lexa your head.”

For a whole breath, there’s nothing, no sound in the tent. Two breaths. Three.

Clarke’s head comes up at the sound of shattering glass, and she looks to see Costia has thrown the empty wine bottle to break against one of the tent supports.

“Fucking bitch!” she screams. She’s already off the bed and on her feet, hands balled up into fists and ready to fight. She looks wild when she turns back to Clarke, eyes wide and tendons standing out in her neck. “Where did you bury her?”

Clarke gapes.

“Tell me you buried her somewhere instead of just throwing her body to the dogs.” She reaches out to grab Clarke’s shoulders. “Well?”

“Why?” Clarke gasps out.

“Because I’m going to dig her up and take her apart,” Costia roars.

At this a guard pushes his head into the tent, probably drawn all the way across camp by the noise. He visibly cringes at the sight of the enraged Costia, and especially at the way she appears to have the Queen of the Ice Nation pinned.

“We’re fine,” Clarke says before he can open his mouth. “Everything’s fine.”

“Tell me she didn’t retaliate,” Costia says as soon as he retreats. The angry flush has receded from Costia’s face, leaving her pale.

“I -- what? Who?”

“You know who.” Her grip tightens. “Tell me the Coalition is intact.”

Clarke can actually feel her shaking through the single point of contact. “It is,” feeling almost breathless in the face of her fear.

Costia releases her, sinking down onto the floor as all her energy drains away. “Are you sure?”

“I don’t know for sure. I think you died at least a year ago.” The words don’t make the other girl even flinch this time. “But when I arrived on Earth the Coalition held. None of the clans are involved in war, except against the Mountain.”

Costia buries her face in her hands, shoulders pulled in so far she looks as if she’s about to curl up like a bug. “It was a goad,” she says, muffled. “Nia was trying to provoke her to attack.”

Clarke knows. She knew as much before, back when she heard the story for the first time. She knows even better now, with a vague awareness of what is expected from clan leaders even in times of war. As well a memory not her own: Nia’s throne room when she first entered it, the walls lined with pelts and snarling carcasses.

Executed prisoners of war are sent back in state. You only take the heads of trophies.

Costia raises her head. There’s no evidence of tears. “If the Woods Clan moves against the Ice Nation, they’ll use relations with the Boat People to gain greater access to the border. Ice Nation will convince the Blue Cliff Clan to join forces under threat of losing territory, and then Shadow Valley will be forced to join sides, and on and on and...” She makes a gesture: her fingers uncurling outward, hands dipping down toward the ground. “The entire Coalition shatters.”

“It didn’t,” Clarke assures her again.

Costia props up one arm on her knee and leans her forehead into it. “Good,” she tells the crook of her elbow. Again, like a benediction: “Good.”

“I thought you’d be angry,” Clarke admits into the sudden silence.

“Why?”

It takes Clarke a minute to find the right words. “She didn’t fight for you.” She flashes back to standing in the dark, watching an army move past her -- but she shakes her head because, no, that’s not what they’re talking about. “I know she cared, but...”

When Costia brings her head up she’s frowning. “She’s dreamed of bringing the clans together since... The Coalition is her entire purpose. Did you think I wanted my death to be the reason she loses it?”

Clarke opens her mouth, closes it.

I made this decision with -- no, still not what this is about.

“You truly don’t know her well, do you,” she hears Costia say, and for once the truth doesn’t make it easier to meet the other girl’s eyes.

Costia stands, sighing. “We need more wine for this.”

 

________________________

 

 

The second bottle (Clarke decides, much later) is a mistake.

She feels boneless, comfortably supine on her inferior bed. The tiredness from this day -- this ridiculous day -- is still there, but submerged into a sea of well-being. All the aches have been replaced with an almost liquid feeling in her joints, a swimmy sense in her head that whatever was bothering her just a while ago is now far, far below while she watches from above. She might float away if not for the weight of Costia’s legs thrown over her lap.

Costia takes a more unorthodox approach to relaxing, her back on the floor of the tent and her body twisted up to stretch perpendicular across Clarke in the bed. Clarke’s not sure when this happened, but she’s also not sure why it might be a point of surprise. She knows it would have been, at some point. But that was before the second bottle.

“What did you want most when you were a child?” Costia asks. Her eyes are at half-mast, hair fanning out behind her head to make a dark halo against the rugs.

“Me?” Clarke returns. “Or...” She taps the side of her head.

“I meant you, but.” Costia smiles, looking unexpectedly delighted. “Can you do that? Ask her questions?”

Clarke shrugs and settles back further. “Sometimes it feels like that. When I first woke up it was like a voice in my head, or someone giving me a guided tour of my own mind.” She frowns. “Her mind.”

“And now?”

“It’s... quieter.” But she isn’t struggling to piece things together, or retrieve the memories she needs. Now it’s less like giving over her body to some better instinct and more like the instincts are, simply, her own.

“Yes,” Costia says softly. “I’ve heard that’s eventually what happens.” She rolls her head back and forth, an adapted shake for her position. “You didn’t answer my question.”

Clarke thinks back. It’s harder to pinpoint than she expects. Gratitude was drilled into Ark kids from such a young age: for their ancestors’ survival, for being the genetic dice throw to inherit their luck, for limited water and recycled air and refurbished possessions, because that was all there was. How could you -- how dare you -- ask for more?

When she had dreamed of Earth, it wasn’t so much about being on the ground itself. Which was probably a good thing looking back to how dangerous it all turned out to be. No, it had been the hope of a life that didn’t demand gratitude for every little thing that only served to remind you of what you lacked.

“A pony,” she says finally, because she’s too drunk to try and parse all of that for a girl who grew up swimming under waterfalls, or dancing through fields of flowers, or whatever it was Grounder children did. “You?”

“The people of the Ice Nation, dead,” the other girl says without hesitation. “All of them. Men, women, children. Bodies on a bloody field, as far as the eye can see.”

Clarke struggles up onto her elbows to see her better. Costia’s face is unlined and peaceful in direct contradiction to the violence of her wish. “They killed your parents.”

“They raided our village.” A brief tic of facial muscles, a stillborn expression. “They destroyed everything.”

Clarke hesitates. “If it was a raid, then it wasn’t Nia’s warriors,” she says, drawing on that well of new understanding. Knowing, somehow, that Nia had drained both the land and her people to the point of desperation, until the villages along the border often resorted to taking what they needed to survive from people who still had it. “It wasn’t a focused attack. That’s why they left the children alive, right? They only wanted --”

“Don’t.” The low tone doesn’t hold any heat, but it’s enough.

Clarke lies back down to look up at the ceiling of her tent. “I’m sorry.”

A brittle laugh. “It’s nothing I haven’t heard before.”

That’s surprising. She only remembers guarded mistrust and acrimony about Azgeda from Trigeda warriors. “From who?”

“From Lexa.”

Oh. “She’s younger than you, right? Maybe she doesn’t remember it as well.”

“It’s not something you forget, no matter how young.”

The warm weight of Costia’s legs disappears from Clarke’s lap, and she turns her head to see the other girl gathering herself to sit cross-legged. She leans to pull the wine bottle closer and takes a short drink before continuing.

“We disagree on a lot of things,” she says, “but this -- whenever we spoke about this, we fought.”

Clarke isn’t sure what to say, so she remains silent and watching.

“Even when we were children, she didn’t...” Costia licks her lips. “She said it was Nia’s fault alone for failing her people. She said it was more important for the clans to find a way to live together, to fight the enemy that preyed on all of us, rather than avenge past wrongs. I couldn’t understand it. How she could... to live through that, everything we’d ever known burned to the ground, and talk of peace.” Her hands clench around the bottle. “I called her heartless.”

Oh. There’s a vague memory swimming through the wine -- Lexa not just shutting her out but shutting down, her walls going up with a speed that took Clarke’s breath away -- along with reluctant guilt, the idea that Clarke might owe an apology.

That’s idiotic. She doesn’t owe Lexa a thing.

“Then, my first solo mission,” Costia says with a noisy sigh. “Just reconnaissance, but it was the first time I was told to explore past the settlements close to the border and deeper into Nia’s kingdom.” She lifts the bottle to her mouth before pausing. “Should I be telling you this?”

“I don’t know, should you?” Clarke sasses.

Costia grins. “I enjoy my work.” She drinks before settling the wine between her legs with a cough. “And she was right, damn her,” with unexpected venom. “I’ve never seen such misery inside the territory of a settled clan.” She closes her eyes as if recalling the images to mind. “Starvation, and disease, and filth -- all while Nia and her favored warriors surrounded themselves with the spoils of their suffering.” She shakes her head without opening her eyes. “I couldn’t bear the thought of going home and telling her she was right this whole time. I thought she would be so smug.”

Clarke tries to picture it. “Was she?”

“Oh, much worse. She was hurt.” She raises the bottle to her mouth and tips her head back to expose the long line of her throat as she drinks. “It was supposed to be a two-day mission, but I stayed away and sulked for six. When I returned...” She sighs, her shoulders dipping downward. “She’s careful not to give too much away. She has to be, she’s always being watched. But then I mess up or push her too far, and she -- she gets this look on her face. As if her naked heart is in my hands.”

Not everyone. And the way she said it: like it was nothing and everything, all at the same time.

“I see you know it,” Costia mutters against the mouth of the wine bottle before taking an even deeper drink.

“Okay,” Clarke says, reaching for the bottle. “You’ve had enough.”

Costia releases it without a fight. She leans forward to put her weight on her fists. “Soul-tied. With a girl from the Ice Nation. Or one who drops out of the sky.” She throws her head back to laugh, short and bitter. “Do you even know what that means?”

“I got the general idea,” Clarke says. She doesn’t know where the seal to the wine bottle went so she tucks it against her side.

“Inevitability,” Costia says, eyes hot and filled with an emotion Clarke doesn’t care to place. “Every world, every life, and somehow the two of you end up breathing the same air. Unless one of those souls chooses to fade. Or is displaced, but that only happens if --” She presses her lips together and makes a lunge for the bottle. “Give me that.”

Clare retaliates by raising to to her own lips and drinking. “Quit hogging,” she rasps.

Costia glares. “But that means I can’t get free of you, either! My life depends just as much on yours. If you’re not here,” she slaps the rugs covering the ground, “then I’m dead. If I survive,” as she sits back on her heels, hands gesturing open-palmed at the space between then, surrounding them, “this happens.”

“Costia,” Clarke swings her legs over the side of her bedroll, sitting up in an attempt at emphasis. It’s a mistake, and she sways in place for a second. “Listen to me. Nothing is happening. I’m here for the Mountain. Yes, I suppose -- going by sheer probability -- that the Commander and I might be more to each other in some lives. But it won’t happen in your world, and it definitely didn’t happen in mine.”

Costia stares at her for a moment before she starts to chuckle, shaking her head.

“What?”

“It’s --” A giggle. “It’s so funny when you do that. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t laugh, you’re trying so hard --”

Costia.”

“-- but of the three of us,” Costia resumes, dragging the heel of her palm under one eye, “clearly, the only one you’ve managed to convince is Lexa.”

Clarke feels a sudden weight like a stone placed on her chest.

“I wouldn’t count on that lasting much longer, either,” Costia says. She almost sounds gentle. “Right now she’s too angry at herself to think things through. But she’s not stupid.”

The candle flames’ quiet crackle is the only sound in the tent.

“Fuck,” Clarke says, heartfelt. She drains the bottle.

 

________________________

 

 

They’re even less sober when fully vertical. Clarke has to wedge herself under Costia’s arm to keep her upright as they wobble and waver out into the night air. But it’s an easy journey to Lexa’s despite that, since the Commander has placed Clarke’s new tent just a short walk from her own. Clarke is surprised at how quickly they arrive. She’d been convinced earlier that walking Costia back was a bad idea. She had a reason for that, too, she’s pretty sure. It’s been lost between the wine and the wobbling.

Oh well, she thinks, and the opening to the tent is drawn back just as she’s reaching for it.

“There you are,” she hears a voice breathing in relief, “I was beginning to fear --” Lexa stops, the light of the moon overhead catching the stillness of her features, except for the slight widening of her eyes.

She’s ready for bed. Clarke has seen her like this before, a few times. The soft line of Lexa’s face and eyes, without war paint, is something Clarke has always --

Hated. She hates it.

Hates Lexa.

Yes.

“I had some wine,” Clarke supplies weakly. Costia still has both arms wrapped around her neck, nose pressed into her hair. “She had more.”

“Yes, she would,” Lexa says under her breath. “Costia,” and if she’s supposed to sound reprimanding she’s failing miserably. “Tell me I don’t have to replace Anya’s gyon klin supply. Again.”

Costia makes a disgruntled noise, too loud for the quiet of camp and almost directly into Clarke’s ear. Clarke flinches, but Costia only squeezes her tighter as she turns her face forward, leaning her cheek against Clarke’s temple. “She should stop hiding it in the same places.”

“You know she saves it for when her Seconds --”

“It’s not for saving, it’s for drinking.”

“It was only two bottles,” Clarke breaks in, uncomfortable. It’s the kind of argument a couple has had so often the edges have worn off and fondness peeks through the cracks. Being caught in the middle like this is a bit like squeezing between computer panels in the navigation bay, desperate not to accidentally set off anything more volatile.

That memory feels... odd, for second. Almost ill-fitting.

Lexa turns to her, seems about to speak -- but there’s nothing forthcoming. Her lips remain slightly parted as if whatever she wants to say is caught in her throat. Costia’s gaze darts between the two of them, a frown unfolding across her face. The moment stretches, snaps.

“It wasn’t enough,” Costia says and pushes away from Clarke abruptly, who staggers a bit with the shift in balance. Lexa’s hands come up as if to hold her upright only to again hover, undecided, in the air between them.

“I like her.” Costia’s voice seems to bring them both back to themselves -- Lexa’s hands go back to her sides, and Clarke stops holding her breath in anticipation of being touched. Clarke looks over to see Costia is already leaning back against the bed Clarke remembers (who is she kidding) so well and kicking off her boots. “But I don’t think,” with a pointed look to Lexa, “that surprises you.”

Lexa turns her head just far enough to return the look, and so Clarke can’t see her face she does. Instead her gaze strays down to the exposed line of Lexa’s neck where she’s pulled her braids to the side and over her shoulder, the soft hairs at her nape.

Not yours, she thinks muzzily, the wine coming back to her in waves. Not even in the right world.

“Lexa.”

The way Costia says the name is like a solid blow to Clarke’s chest, because she has never, ever allowed herself to imagine saying that name with the same thrum of promise. She will swear that right up until she has both feet in the grave, instead of what constantly feels like the one.

She looks up to see Costia, stretching out one hand, fingers soft and beckoning.

Lexa shifts as if to step toward the girl in her bed, and then pauses. Her head turns back in increments until Clarke can just catch the edges of her expression, smoothed-out and frictionless. “Thank you,” she directs at the ground, “for keeping her safe.”

Lexa steps back and the entrance to the tent falls closed behind her.

Clarke turns and walks the first few steps almost at a run. Stops herself, bending over with her hands on her thighs as she tries to catch her breath. (Where would she have lost it? Why?)

She’s not sure what she’s doing, bent nearly in two and gasping like an idiot in the middle of camp. But she knows what she’s not doing. She’s not remembering a gentle hand on the back of her neck, fingers in her hair, the soft tug of invitation. She’s not recalling the softness -- soft eyes, soft touch -- and how it surprised her. Because if she had ever allowed herself to think about how it would happen (she never did) she would have imagined something uncompromising, even cold, beneath the natural heat of mouths. Something easy to put aside in the face of so many other obligations. She never expected hesitancy, never tenderness, never infinite care like the constant question: is this what you want?

Because she hadn’t wanted it. Not until it was hers to lose.

She focuses every single molecule of her being on not doing any of that.

Clarke doesn’t remember the rest of the walk back to her empty tent, her own bed, just the sound of her breathing in the dark as she lies there and aches for something she refuses to name.

 

________________________

 

 

For the first time since waking in this world, she doesn’t dream.

 

________________________

 

 

Clarke looks at her horse. Her head won’t stop pounding. Her whole body disagrees with the decision to get out of bed. The saddle seems to be placed impossibly high above her head. She looks back at Genai, desperate. “I can’t do it.”

The older woman folds her arms across her chest. “Let this be a lesson to you. Perhaps, if a wandering soul or spirit is unused to the demands of another world, she should not mix with spirits of an alcoholic sort.”

Clarke takes another look at the task before her and whimpers.

Insult to injury: the Arkers are already seated on docile ponies that are fitted with the tack used for transporting very young children. They watch this entire exchange like it’s part of the Unity Day pageant, thanks to Genai’s oh-so-accommodating use of English.

“Did someone have a party last night?” Raven asks. She tilts her head to the side. “Did someone not invite her new friends?”

Clarke groans and mushes her face up against her horse’s side. He turns his head around to lip at her braids. “I’m sorry. It was wrong. I am already being punished.”

“At least you’re not suffering alone?” Raven points her chin and Clarke removes her face from her horse to look.

Costia is very nearly green, poor thing, but it’s possible Lexa looks even worse. Even without paint on her face there are shadows under her eyes that look like someone put them there with charcoal and light fingertips. And Clarke knows, the way she’s holding her mouth means she’s unhappy. The two women are talking close, Lexa on the ground while Costia is mounted and holding on to her beautiful horse for dear life. Lexa has a hand on her knee, and Costia keeps shaking her head.

“Are they coming?” Clarke asks Genai without looking away. “Why? I thought we were just returning the prisoners and asking the Sky People to decide who will represent their interests in talks at TonDC.”

“Perhaps the Commander does not want to invite them into this camp just yet. Perhaps she believes negotiations will be smoother if she extends herself in this way.”

Clarke finally turns to face her, raising her eyebrows.

“Perhaps,” Genai says in an undertone, “she issued a standing order to be informed of your movements, and announced her intention to keep you close at all times.”

“She still doesn’t trust me?”

Genai shrugs. “Perhaps.”

It does nothing for her headache.

Neither does the next few minutes, which she spends grunting and trying to heave herself over the bulk of her horse, only to slide back down again. She doesn’t mind Wells’s attempts to hide his smiles, or Raven’s open laughter, or even how Finn looks vaguely embarrassed on her behalf. She does mind how it feels like her bones are rattling every time she slams back down into the dirt, though. She’s beginning to suspect Genai’s not above a little revenge (or distrust) for recent events. She’s hanging half-on and half-off her patient horse, about to turn and accuse her bodyguard of such, when someone grabs her hips and heaves.

One of those hands lingers for the second it takes for Clarke’s world to stop spinning where she’s now properly seated. By the time she looks down Lexa is already stepping away.

“Or perhaps you are guaranteed to find trouble, whether you are born in the sky or on the ground,” she hears Genai muttering as the warrior climbs atop her own horse and leads the way.

 

________________________

 

 

The trip back to the dropship is uneventful. They have to go slow for the inexperienced riders, so the dip and sway of the horse beneath Clarke isn’t as bad for her head as it could be. By the time the sun has inched closer to its zenith she feels almost normal.

It helps that she keeps her eyes on front and center. She focuses on the ridge of her horse’s neck and tells herself any back-the-neck awareness, any skin-prickle suspicion of eyes on her, is all in the imagination.

Her peace of mind is eroded as the get closer and closer to their destination. They’ve taken a different route, intended to approach rather than observe, but Clarke can still recognize familiar sights. She knows when they should be close enough to the delinquents’ camp to start hearing the sounds of one hundred teenagers set loose in the woods. Only, there’s nothing but birdsong and the wind rifling through the leaves above their heads.

Her body takes the lead without asking again. She spurs her mount into greater speed and breaks the ranks before anyone can catch her, crashing through the underbrush as she canters into camp. She might hear someone calling her name as she goes, but her heart is beating too loudly in her ears to be sure.

The dropship is deserted.

Immediately her eyes are straining to search between the tents and smoking fire pits, looking for acid-marked bodies. There are none, but her heart only kicks harder in her chest as she throws herself off her horse and toward the husk of the crashed ship.

“Klark!” comes a shout from the trees -- Genai breaking through on her horse, and Clarke can see she’s only a beat slower than Lexa on hers. Clarke doesn’t wait for them as she barrels into the dark and heavy environment of the dropship, screaming for Bellamy, for Monty, Miller, Harper, anyone.

There’s nothing. No one.

She pulls herself up the ladder into the upper space. Octavia is gone. Even the thin bedding they had laid out for her is --

Wait.

It’s not gone. It’s been propped up against the far wall, at an angle, so that the wide stretch between corners covers up the most space.

Clarke tosses it to the floor. It takes a moment for her eyes to adjust in the low light and pick out the blocky, rushed letters. They’re written in the same soot that coats the hull after re-entering the atmosphere.

CLARKE
THEY CAME IN THE NIGHT
KNOCK-OUT GAS
O IN FOREST
DO WHAT YOU HAVE TO DO

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

She doesn’t remember walking out of the dropship and back out into the sunshine. She comes back to herself standing in the entrance, one hand gripping the frame of the ship’s entrance.

“Klark?” Her bodyguard is suddenly there, warm hand reaching to cover Clarke’s. The feeling of that hand over her own, the familiar weight and callouses, is so overwhelmingly familiar it tips Clarke over the edge into vertigo. Because it shouldn’t be.

Clarke can’t help it. She flinches away.

Genai looks hurt before schooling her expression with effort. She draw back, a little stiffly, and Clarke can see Lexa standing just beyond. The Commander makes no move to come any closer, and she’s typically inscrutable -- but Clarke doesn’t doubt for a second that those eyes are taking in every detail, every reaction, and cataloguing them away somewhere inside her head.

But her attention is drawn away by the approach of the Arkers, who’ve managed to get down from their horses. There, Clarke finally finds an echo of the emotions struggling within her own chest. Raven’s mouth is drawn thin as she takes in the abandoned tents, the quiet of the dropship. Finn has both hands threaded through his hair as he looks around in honest devastation. Wells...

Wells walks up to her, hands thrust deep into his pockets. His mouth is pulled to one side in an expression she remembers from nights he stayed in the Griffin quarters right up until curfew because the only alternative was his own, likely empty home.

“I’m so sorry,” she chokes out. “I thought they would be safe, I -- they should have been safe.”

“Let me guess,” he says, eyes hard. “Those guys you mentioned from the Mountain.”

She nods.

“Seems a lot of work if they just wanted to kill us off,” he says. “Easier to leave the bodies here. So. Are they okay?”

“For now.”

Wells doesn’t need to be told explicitly what’s implied in her choice of words: not for long. He swallows and looks away for a second. “We’re going to get them back,” he says when his gaze returns to hers. It’s half a question, half a demand.

“Whatever it takes,” Clarke promises.

“Okay,” he says with a nod. “I’m holding you to that. Oh, hey,” he says suddenly, seeing something in her face that makes him reach out a tentative hand and place it on her shoulder. She’s wanted Wells for comfort, and for so much longer than even the raun-keryon can account, that she can’t help her head bending forward to his chest as she forces down a sob. He only hesitates for a second before bringing up his other arm to wrap around her shoulders. “Hey,” he says in a voice meant for her ears. “We’ll make it right.”

“Lincoln,” her head comes up with a gasp. She’s not sure when she knotted her fingers into the fabric of his clothing, but she doesn’t let go as she looks around in a panic and he doesn’t loosen the hold on her shoulders. She spots Costia making her way over to the group, almost leisurely, her gaze scanning the higher points where enemies might be waiting in the trees. “Do you know where he might hide out in the forest?” Clarke asks. “He has a place -- he has a girl with him, she’s badly injured, he’ll want to make sure things are safe.”

Costia nods at her before sharing a look with Lexa and taking off into the cover of the trees.

“Raven.” The panic is receding in waves, now, like the slow exit of the tide, and leaving diamond-hard determination in its wake. “You can strip what’s left of the ship for materials that might come in handy. Right?”

“Sure.” The other girl sounds subdued, but it doesn’t keep her from running a critical eye over the carcass of the dropship. “Might need help carrying what I can collect.”

Clarke looks to Lexa, who gives a shallow dip of her head. “Have your second return to the camp,” the Commander tells Genai. “Have him inform a warrior named Ryder what we need.”

Finn -- she had lost track of him, she hadn’t noticed him getting this close -- leans in even closer. His eyes are warm, his tone nothing but soothing, as he teases: “Any instructions for me, Princess?”

Clarke jerks away so hard she walks right out of Wells’s arms and two steps back, almost ending up pressed against the sooty exterior of the dropship. Her heart feels like it could pound right out of her chest.

Finn blinks at her in surprise and dismay, his hands coming up a little. “Hey, woah, I just --” His shoulders hunch at Wells’s glare. “Because she’s ordering everyone around! I didn’t mean it in a bad way.”

“Come on,” Raven says. She grabs his arm and pulls him into the ship. “Help me prep things.”

“It was a joke.”

Clarke waits until their voices fade into the interior before raising her eyes to Wells. He frowns. “You okay?”

“Fine.” It comes out a little rough.

“You went white to the lips.”

There’s nothing she can say to that, so she ignores it. “Do you think there’s anything left worth taking from the tents?”

He nods, eyes still on her. “Could be.”

She squints up at the sun. “If you search the ones on the east side, I’ll take the ones on the west.”

Wells hitches one shoulder and takes off. When Clarke turns Genai is still watching her with a trace of residual sadness, and Lexa... is looking past them into the dark depths of the dropship, with a hard set to her jaw that makes an alarm go off in the back of Clarke’s brain.

“My Queen,” Genai says, distracting her. The older woman shifts, looking uncomfortable. “My duties require... I understand it might be distressing, but --”

“Help me search?” Clarke asks, rummaging up a smile from somewhere. It’s probably worn as thin as she feels, but it eases a tension in the other woman. She nods and, this time watching Clarke’s face carefully, reaches out to squeeze her shoulder.

“I am sorry for your friends,” Lexa says as they make their way past her. She shoots a quick look at Genai. The older woman is clearly unhappy, but she takes two steps more so that the Commander and Clarke have the illusion of a bubble of privacy.

“Thank you.” Clarke’s a little surprised at the condolence, but she’s still feeling shaky enough that any support is welcome.

“Will you proceed in your plan against the Mountain?”

Clarke nods. “It shouldn’t change much, actually,” she admits. “They were captured in my world as well. Just not this early.” And not Bellamy. She can’t linger on that now, though.

“Good.” Lexa’s gaze never leaves her face.

“I want a pardon for Lincoln,” Clarke remembers. “He’s part of it, with the others. They’ll be my responsibility back at camp.”

“Fine,” Lexa says. She almost says it with the vehemence of a curse, just under her breath. “We will arrange to have them settled with your people. And when that is finished,” Lexa adds, in an even lower tone, “you will explain to me what is so important about these people, even half-starved and untrained, that the Mountain Men would work to secret them away in the night.”

Clarke nods even as trepidation unfurls in the pit of her stomach.

________________________

 

“Here,” Genai says, taking two cups of something steaming from Trest. “This will make you feel better.”

Clarke does feel pretty awful, but she isn’t aware anyone else noticed. The entire day had been nothing but the feeling of running through mud: with each step legs straining to break free of the sludge sucking at your boots.

Finding Octavia and Lincoln in the woods had turned out to be the easy part. Not so easy had been convincing the younger Blake to abandon the area surrounding the dropship.

“I’m not going anywhere without my brother,” she’d snarled, though she hadn’t even been able to stand upright. She kept trying to leverage herself against the wall of the cave, only to collapse back down every time she tried to put any weight on her left leg. Lincoln had been right beside her, watching. He was smart enough not to reach out and try to help, but sometimes a particularly rough scrape against rock made his hand twitch.

“Octavia,” Clarke had started, unthinking.

Octavia had jerked back as if burned. “I don’t know you,” she had hissed, pressing even more urgently against the cave wall. “I don’t know any of you, but you -- this Grounder bitch --”

“Hey,” Raven had stepped forward from where the rest of them were waiting at the cave’s entrance. “Okay, you don’t really know me, either. You were floor-baby, we met when we woke up on the dropship.”

“Not funny,” Octavia had gritted out.

“Come on. Points for trying?” Raven had crouched down on her heels so she was eye-level with the other girl. “Bellamy left a message on the wall of the dropship. For her.” She had looked back over her shoulder at Clarke for a second. “He trusts her. No idea why, but you can see it for yourself.”

“I can’t go with you,” Octavia had protested, and suddenly she was on the verge of tears. “Even if they were taken like you said -- what if they escape and make it back here, and we’re gone? Do we even know how to get back here?”

“I’ll show you how to remember,” Wells had said, putting himself into the conversation as he moved forward. “It’s basic Earth Skills, picking up your direction from the sky and marking our way -- you’ll pick it up in a snap.” He had put a hand on Raven’s shoulder and they had shared a brief look. It had startled Clarke, their easy familiarity, and she had a moment to wonder what had been said during the night the three Arkers had spent at camp, while she drank with Costia. A tiny prickle of apprehension filtered through the overall morass of worry and two-steps-ahead thinking that filled her head, but the next thing she knew Wells was moving forward to help Lincoln carry Octavia outside, each on either side, and she didn’t have any time before they had to move on.

She wonders if that’s part of the reason this day has been so hard: watching the four Arkers come together as a group that so clearly doesn’t include her. She takes a deep swallow of what Genai gave her and chastises herself. What did she expect? She’s not one of them. She can’t ask them to rely on her, not really, and she can’t... She’s caught by a thought like she’s choking on it: Bellamy is supposed to be here.

Her eyes sting as she looks into the fire. That’s the real problem. She’d won over Bellamy. It’d been hard, and it’d been a huge gamble, but it’d been worth it. He believes her.

Now he’s trapped inside the mountain.

She tightens her grip on the clay mug until her hands shake.

No, she can do this. She can still do this. Bellamy was under Mount Weather all that time in her world, as well -- he can still fight for her down there. He will.

But she feels so alone, up here. The people she loves are strangers, there’s no one she knows in her corner. She could try the same blitz tactics on Wells, Raven, or Octavia that she used on Bellamy, but what if it fails? Could she handle Wells looking at her with disgust, disbelief? Can she risk alienating Raven, who might be the key to everything to come? Octavia wouldn’t come out of the damn cave for her.

She’s not even going to entertain the idea of telling Finn.

She can’t do this alone, though. She can hardly keep track of what’s going on in her head, there’s no way she can serve as the sole architect of this plan.

That leaves only one person she knows well enough in both worlds.

No. She drains her drink and puts the mug down on the ground. Out of the question. Look how well that turned out last time.   

She’ll have to muddle through this on her own. It doesn’t matter if she feels hollowed-out and rudderless to see the Arkers at their own fire, talking softly, sometimes laughing. She’s endured much worse feelings. She knows for a fact they won’t actually kill her.

(It doesn’t help that Finn keeps craning his neck to watch her with wounded eyes, like a little kid who played a too hard and now wants to apologize for the bruises.

Clarke doesn’t want him to apologize. She doesn’t want to be anywhere near him. He’s better off.)

“What are you making?” she asks Genai in an attempt to distract herself. The older woman has something hooked around the toe of her boot and drawn tight up the length of her leg, where she’s fiddling with the ends in her lap.

Genai angles herself so that the light of the fire falls more squarely on her work, and she’s not fiddling, she’s braiding. She has a rough fiber Clarke recognizes between her hands, and she’s making another one of those throwing/catching things Clarke has on her weapons belt, which they had found in Bellamy's abandoned tent. 

“You used up all the lighter weights,” the older woman says as she returns to her task. “You should replace them yourself, of course, but I doubt you’re up to the task in your current state.”

“I knew how to use them,” Clarke says. “Maybe if I tried --” She extends a tentative hand, but Genai twitches out of reach.

“No,” firmly. “Perhaps I don’t have any say in how souls wander or where, but I can at least assure myself my queen has proper weapons.” She yanks at the fiber for emphasis.

The warm light of the fire casts deep shadows in the hollows of her bodyguard’s face, throwing her features into emphasis. It sparks a curiosity Clarke shoved to the side last night. “Genai.”

“Hmm.”

“Your face isn’t scarred.” She reaches up to trace the raised line that runs over her mouth, but that’s different. That’s clearly from a fight or an accident, nothing like the deliberate patterns she remembers etched into Ice Nation flesh. “Neither is hers.”

Genai’s eyes flicker to her face before returning to her work. “Isn’t that something you remember?”

It’s so, so odd, the feeling of being in someone else’s brain. She can’t quite put the feeling into words, except it’s almost like wandering around an unfamiliar space in the dark with her hands outstretched. She doesn’t know what she’s reaching for until she’s up against it, and there’s always the fear of sharp edges. It’s like that now: she knows it’s a memory she could claim for herself, if she pushed. But the place it's kept pulses with remembered nausea and hot, boiling rage.

“Nia cut the faces of all her warriors with her own hand,” Genai resumes, correctly reading her reluctance. “She claimed it was a mark of honor, and she cut herself in turn to prove it. You weren’t truly a warrior, and you weren’t given a warrior’s full portion, until you’d been cut.” She grimaces briefly. “But once you had the scars, you were known to have killed for the Ice Nation wherever you went.”

“I guess that didn’t carry you very far past the border.”

“It did not.” Another yank at the braid in her lap. “Neither did whatever rations or supplies you were allotted before the ritual of her favor. Nia was very clever. No one ever argued with that.”

“But you don’t have scars,” Clarke prompts when it seems like the other woman might lapse back into silence.

Genai casts her a sideways glance. “Do you think I managed to avoid killing for her?” she asks softly. She shakes her head. “I spilled all the blood she asked of me, and more. At the time I did not see another way of surviving.”

Clarke takes a moment to think of Genai -- who worries over Clarke’s weapons and sleeping accommodations, who is never more than three feet from her elbow and sometimes simply drags Clarke where she wants her -- spattered in gore, her blade dripping red into the snow. Trigeda blood goes unspoken, but Clarke doesn’t doubt this detail for a minute. It makes her throat close up.

“I was set for the ritual receiving of her mark,” Genai continues, “along with several others. I think she enjoyed pitting us against each other, seeing who would show the pain first.”

Clarke waits, but there’s no follow-up. “And then?”

“And then.” A small smile. “Just as Nia was about to make her first cut on the first warrior, a very small, very cold girl walked out of storm raging outside and demanded Queen’s Combat.”

“No,” Clarke breathes.

“Yes.” The smile stretches wider. “As the challenged, it was Nia’s choice of when the fight would be held. She chose that very minute, thinking you would never be at a greater disadvantage.”

“But she died anyway.”

“She did,” Genai says, sounding deeply satisfied.

Something tickles at the back of Clarke’s mind. “You helped.”

Genai shakes her head. “One of the new warriors attempted to strike you when your back was turned. He was currying favor with Nia, of course -- interference is forbidden, but she would have denied it ever happened even as she elevated him for it. If he had succeeded.” She shrugs lightly. “I stopped him, opening up his belly in the hopes his slow death would discourage other... volunteers.”

But Nia would have noticed that as well, and Genai would have died along with Klark. If Klark had failed. Clarke tries to put all of this into her question of: “Why?”

“Desperation,” Genai says. “I saw an opportunity for a different way of life. I took it.” Her smile had faded with the story of killing the other warrior, but it re-emerges now. “Your very first edict was to banish ritual scarring. You said warriors would fight for you because they were loyal, or not at all.”

Bitterness bubbles out of Clarke into a light laugh. “How many did she lose?”

This makes Genai pause with a slight frown. “Fewer than you might think,” she says. “Trust is a heavy coin. If spent, you might find it paid back in unexpected ways.”

The impulse to look toward Lexa’s tent is like a physical weight, dragging at her. She resists.

“What if you’ve already been betrayed?” she asks, barely able to see what’s in front of her. “How can you possibly put that trust in someone a second time?”

Genai unhooks the end from around her boot and stands, motioning for Clarke to follow. She begins to wrap and tuck the completed lengths into the belt. “I suppose that depends.”

“On what?”

“On how desperate the other person is for a different way of life.”

Clarke can’t hold in a snort. “She isn’t.” Oh, Lexa talks a great game. But when it comes down to the wire...

What did you do?

What you would have done.

Genai pauses, hands still tightening the belt across Clarke’s hips. “People can surprise you in the difference between what they do and what they hope for.” She takes her hands away but doesn’t sit, instead frowning down at her handiwork. “I suppose in the world you come from, Nia still reigns.”

“Yes.” Clarke can’t quite keep down the impulse which makes her say: “Sorry.”

Genai shakes her head. “I’m only wondering what I must be like. In that place.” She tries for a smile, but it’s shaky. “If you’re allied with the Woods Clan, you may still kill me in some future battle.”

Clarke reaches for her without thinking. “I would never --”

But Genai slips free before the hold settles. “You might not recognize me with the scars.”

Clarke lets her hand fall back to her side.

“Maybe we are as trustworthy as the choices we are given,” Genai says. She hesitates, a slight furrow on her forehead. “Do you really know no one from the Ice Nation?” she asks, sounding plaintive.

Clarke searches her memory. She’d seen their warriors, but did that really count as -- oh.

“There’s a friend of a friend,” she offers. “A girl about my age, or older? Her name is Echo.”

Astonishment washes over Genai’s face. “Echo? Our Echo?”

“Do we know Echo?” Clarke had assumed she would still be trapped in the Mountain.

“We --” Genai’s mouth curves into something real. “I think that’s a story for another time. Now,” she nods toward Lexa’s tent, “I don’t want to keep you.”

________________________

 

Lexa is alone. Clarke isn’t sure if that makes this easier or harder.

She’s leaning over the solid wooden table Clarke remembers from seemingly endless war conferences. The intricate models she also remembers are missing, but Lexa’s attention is taken up by a flat oilskin map.

“That looks a lot like a map you have back in Polis,” Clarke opens with, because it’s easier than leading with what she’s really hear to talk about. And it’s true; it covers the same area as the one Costia helped her find in the map room, what feels like years ago.

“It’s the same,” Lexa says without looking up. “I questioned Costia about your activities at the capitol, and I sent for it when you,” and she hesitates for the barest second, a muscle jumping in her jaw, “made it clear your allegiances lay elsewhere.”

That makes sense, it’s not such a significant portion of Trigeda territory to have two of the same map, much less one laying around -- “Wait,” Clarke says, shaking her head to stop her thoughts from derailing, “are you still angry about that?”

“Why would I be angry,” Lexa asks, her tone so flat as to make it clear it’s not a question. She still doesn’t look up from the stupid map.

Oh, screw this, Clarke thinks, whirling around to march out of the tent. She gets about three feet from the entrance before she turns on her heel and goes right back in, ignoring the look the guards exchange over her head as she pushes the opening flap aside.

“You’re not allowed to be angry with me,” she announces as she re-enters. She doesn’t startle Lexa -- not much does, Clarke remembers -- who is now standing upright with her arms crossed. But at least the other girl’s gaze flickers in her direction for a moment. “Do you know why?”

“Enlighten me.”

“Because when I got here I had no idea what was going on, or what here was. All I knew was that I had the chance to save my friends and prevent hundreds of deaths, and I took it.” Clarke is careful not to advance further than the other side of the table. Historically, pressing Lexa into a corner has not worked out to her advantage. She grips the edge of the wooden surface instead, putting all the strength there she wishes she could wrap around Lexa’s neck. “And when I woke up? You weren’t even there! Maybe if you’d been around I might have taken the opportunity then to tell you what was going on, before you decided to start killing people.”

Okay, that’s at least ninety-eight percent a lie, but she’s willing to lean hard into the remaining two percent for the way it makes Lexa shift guiltily.

Except in the next moment Lexa fixes Clarke with a glare, eyes narrowing. “You had that chance,” she says. “I pulled you aside in the forest. You could have told me then.”

“I...” The words dried up in her mouth.

“Instead, you struck me.” Then, like it took effort to get the words out, like it hurt more than the physical assault: “You called me a monster.”

Clarke swallows, looks down at where her fingernails dig into the table.

“Did we truly have an alliance in your world, or is that a lie as well?”

“No,” Clarke manages, hoarse. “We did. I swear to you.” And if she’s quietly thankful she can repeat Lexa’s use of the past tense, she won’t let it show on her face.

A quiet sigh brings her attention back up from the table, looking across it to where Lexa now stands facing her with both hands flattened against the map. Her head is bowed, but she brings it up to meet Clarke’s eyes. “But you have no faith in me.”

That’s not true, Clarke realizes, and it surprises her. She has no faith in Finn -- desperate, lingering affection, a need to see him happy as she tries to stay at least a dozen feet away at all times, but very little faith. He’s a good person. She still (still) believes that. That’s different, though, from knowing what might set him off. Or which direction he might choose to jump.

She knows exactly which direction Lexa would choose. That’s their entire problem.

“I believe,” she says slowly, “that you will do whatever is best for your people.”

“I count your people among my people.” The quiet urgency of Lexa’s words focuses Clarke’s attention on her face. The Commander’s expression is carefully empty, but with the sense she is holding something back, that there are words she is keeping inside her mouth through sheer force of will.

Or maybe she’s reading too much into things. Clarke sighs heavily, letting her gaze roam over the map between them without really taking in its details. Maybe she’s making this too complicated, as well. It’s a different world. A different Lexa. If Clarke emphasizes the threat to all twelve clans...

“You wanted to know why the Mountain Men took the invaders.”

Lexa frowns at the seeming change in topic before admitting: “Yes.”

Clarke reaches out, touching fingertips lightly to the solid black of Mount Weather on the map. “At first, they’ll care for them because they think that’s their responsibility. They’re preserving an entire way of life in there, and they think Sky People are the ones it’s being safeguarded for. But there’s something else.” She drums her fingers against the map. “Do you know why they harvest the people of the clans?”

“The world itself hates them, makes them sicken,” Lexa says, brittle with hatred. “They use our blood as a cure.”

Clarke nods. “They need more of it all the time, though, because they keep getting sick. Have you heard of,” and she searches her wonderful new repository of knowledge for a Trigedasleng equivalent to the idiom, “treating the symptoms instead of the disease?” She waits for Lexa’s nod. “The bodies of the Sky People contain the cure for their disease.”  

It doesn’t take more than a second for Lexa to make the connection, and she draws back with a sharp inhalation. “The Mountain Men will be able to walk freely on the earth.” Her mouth flattens out. “So. I should have killed these Sky People when I had the chance.”

Clarke is anticipating the upsurge of anger this time, she’s able to get on top of it before it crests and takes her over. “Sure,” falsely pleasant. “That might have worked. Or maybe, when the other thousands of Sky people make their down to Earth,” and she isn’t even going to entertain the doubt it won’t happen in this world, it has to, and she trusts Callie as Chancellor to make the right decisions, “that would have cemented the alliance between them and the Mountain. Sky People will give the cure ten times over, and happily, to shore up an army against those that slaughtered their children.”

The stubborn lines of Lexa’s expression deepen. “We have held out against the Mountain for generations.”

“When they were trapped inside their stronghold. When their numbers were limited. And they’ve still managed to terrorize your people and restrict your technology for close to a hundred years.”

Our people,” and it’s almost a snarl.

Clarke slams both palms down on the table. “Stop that. Fine, you want numbers? I lost about fifty people when I came down with the others on the dropship. You lost hundreds.” Many of them at Clarke’s instruction, but there’s no need to get into details. “Helping the Sky People is about helping our people.”

It’s a slow process as Lexa takes this in, digests it -- Clarke can actually watch it happen. First her jaw works, minutely, and then her stance shifts. The tension unspools from her shoulders as she leans back over the table, her weight on both hands, mirroring Clarke’s position. Her head hangs a touch lower, though, and Clarke finds herself contemplating the shadows the eyelashes cast on her cheeks as Lexa finally says: “Leaders without your current -- advantage,” practically spitting, “often have to act as quickly as possible, and with the information at hand, in order to save as many as they can.”

“In wartime, maybe,” Clarke says. She doesn’t care if she’s being brutal, she knows where this road leads and she is past politeness. “But if peace is really want you want, Lexa, you have to start thinking much further beyond the present moment.”

The Commander doesn’t have to raise her head to meet Clarke’s eyes, and it’s only after long moments of meeting and holding them that Clarke realizes which name she used. She clears her throat and takes a step back from the table.

“So the question is,” she says, looking down at the map so she has a reason not to look at Lexa, “what do you plan to do next?”

“I can command the clans into battle, but it would serve you better if you could persuade them your cause is worthy.” A sigh so soft Clarke almost doesn’t catch the sound. “Truthfully, I’m not sure I count myself persuaded.”

“I...” She’s not surprised. How can she be? She remembers what it first took to win Lexa over. “You do believe me, though.”

The responding silence draws out long enough for Clarke to sneak a glance at the other girl, but by this time Lexa has turned her head to stare into the middle distance. “Anya and Tris should return soon,” she says finally.

It’s not the answer she’s expecting. “I don’t -- I thought you understood -- that you felt --” She’s too clumsy with her words, she ends up gesturing helplessly at the space between them. She realizes: Lexa has never actually affirmed their possible connection, only accepted whatever Clarke put forth.

Clarke can’t imagine Lexa allowing her destiny to be dictated to her by someone else. But she can, she realizes with growing unease, imagine Lexa accepting a destiny that served her people even if it failed to touch her.

The thought she might be alone in this, be the only one who feels like this, is a sudden wrench that leaves Clarke breathless.

“Whatever I believe, or feel,” Lexa says, straightening, “it’s not enough to lead an army on.”

Clarke bites back the impulse to blurt out but you feel it, wondering what’s wrong with her all of the sudden. This connection they have, whatever it is, whatever it means -- it’s real, or she wouldn’t be here. That’s all that’s necessary to know. How it affects Lexa is... not.

“If I can get the opportunity,” she says instead, “I will convince the other clans this is our best chance against the Mountain.”

“And me?” Lexa asks, not quite a challenge.

Clarke raises her chin as she meets that cool, assessing gaze. “And you.”

Lexa’s eyes dip back down to the map between them. “I will call the leaders and representatives at the current summit to reassemble at TonDC. It’s unprecedented to meet outside of Polis, but I can claim we have new information about the Mountain which must be observed at closer range.”

It’s not even a lie, Clarke thinks, but she’s distracted to find Lexa watching her closely. “What?”

“Do you object to the plan?” the Commander asks after a moment.

She looks back down at the map, fingers tapping as she tries to sift through memories colored by desperation and actual, heart-in-mouth fear. “Which side of the city were you planning to establish base camp?”

“North side,” Lexa says.

“Uh, yeah, no,” Clarke says, doing a couple quick calculations. “South side, please.”

“There’s a stretch of open land unoccupied by ruins, and it will be easier to accommodate whatever armies choose to join us there,” Lexa says with a slight frown. “And setting up camp on the north side won’t require entering the city itself. You haven’t met the leader of TonDC, but she won’t look kindly on --”

“There’s a giant gorilla loose in the northern woods,” Clarke breaks in.

Lexa’s mouth hangs open for a moment before she snaps it shut. “Indra told me it died the winter before last.”

Clarke shrugs. “Maybe it did. But in my world it was alive. And -- and cranky,” she says, widening her eyes with the emphasis.

“Cranky.” Lexa seems to be tasting the word. She tilts her head to the side. She reminds Clarke of a sparrow, the way they peek up as they hop closer. “Did you kill it?”

It startles a laugh out of her. “I don’t think anything could, short of a bomb. I emptied half a clip into the thing and it barely paused.” She shakes her head. “We trapped it.”

“We?”

“Oh.” She shrugs, feeling awkward. “The Commander of my world, and me. It was chasing us through the woods, and we --” attack her and you attack leave me no way you couldn’t leave me behind that was need your spirit to you’re safe “ -- tricked it back into an old cage.” She swallows. “It’s not something I’d try to do again.”

Lexa’s just staring at her.

“So. Um.” She fingers the edges of the map, worn soft and frayed. “I’d stick to the south side of the city.”

“Yes.” Lexa comes back to herself, looking down at the drawn circle of upright spears that represent TonDC. “Of course.”

Clarke breathes out a soft sigh of relief. “Good. Well, I -- I should probably turn in for the night.”

She has her hand out to draw back the tent’s opening when Lexa says suddenly: “Do you...”

Clarke turns. She watches the way Lexa hesitates, gives the impression of drawing back as she remains rooted to the spot. She knows whatever Lexa asks her next, it wasn’t the natural conclusion of that first question.

“What is it like,” Lexa asks softly, “to walk through a world already known to you, without secrets or surprises?”

“It’s not like that,” Clarke says. “You were there this morning. I don’t always know what’s coming.”

“Still,” and there’s a curve to her mouth Clarke might call wistful, “you’re more prepared than most.” She slants a glance across the expanse of the tent. “I’d think it would feel -- comforting,” she settles on.

The multitude of candles inside the tent cast her face into shadows, gentling the strong lines of her cheek and jaw. She seems almost approachable like this -- always did, always felt closest to human. Clarke used to tell herself to look for this Lexa, to trust she was there even when it felt like Clarke was dealing with a creature of sheer willpower.

It’s too easy to conjure up the image of Lexa at the Mountain. Those same eyes smeared with paint and blood. And nothing, absolutely nothing of softness about her as she turned away to leave Clarke bereft and gasping.

Maybe they can avoid ending up there, this time. But Clarke has to work with Lexa, trust Lexa, and know what she’s capable of becoming.

“It doesn’t,” she says, and leaves the tent.

________________________

 

Clarke’s not sure how long she’s been sleeping when the bed dips. She flails, hand reaching instinctively for the blade that isn’t belted to her hip. I really have to get my knives back , she thinks blearily. “Costia?”

“Shh.” The older girl is sitting on the edge of the thin mattress as she unbuckles her boots.

“You’re not supposed to be here,” Clarke says, still deeply tangled in sleep.  

Costia gives a small huff of amusement. “That’s cute, coming from you.” She pushes at Clarke’s shoulder until Clarke has no choice but to roll onto her side, making room on her pallet. Costia slides into place and under the blanket, the chill of the outside air still on her clothes. The bed holds them both, but with not so much room that it doesn’t take long for the heat of another body to make a real difference. Clarke is toasty and warm within minutes.

“Anya’s tent is empty,” she drowses.

“Mmm.” She thinks Costia has already fallen asleep, and then: “I didn’t feel like being alone.”

Clarke remembers nights in the forest she lay awake and staring up at the sky, drinking in the blanket of stars which were infinitely more beautiful when glimpsed between shifting tree-tops as opposed to outside an observatory deck. The thought of returning to the people she knew and loved was like a piece of shrapnel lodged between her ribs, stabbing at her whenever she thought to relax. And yet being out there by herself, lacking even the sympathy of another breathing human body, was an ache all its own.

“Okay,” she mumbles into the shared pillow, and tumbles back into a sleep without dreams.

________________________

 

The next few days conjure up a stunning level of deja vu. It doesn’t take long to gather up the camp and its inhabitants. By the time everyone is on horses and wending their way back through the forest, all that’s left is an unremarkable clearing with several scorched areas where cookfires once burned.

The process of relocating is unfamiliar, even if Clarke feels a shiver of apprehension when Indra walks out to greet them at the border of TonDC. She was too busy helping the inhabitants of the Ark settle into their new situation to see the Grounders set up camp, last time around. But as soon as the tents go up and the new site -- on the south side -- is scouted, she feels like she might as well have fallen back in time instead of into another world.

Costia is the one who carries Lexa’s summons to the other leaders, back in Polis. She’s already gone by the time Clarke wakes up in the bed they shared the night before. Clarke never thought she would miss Costia, the way she’s genial and abrasive by turns, but it leaves Clarke dealing with Lexa alone. And that’s what makes it all blur together for her: days spend poring over maps and discussing strategies, the low tones of Lexa’s voice as her hands hover over familiar landmarks, and the scent inside the tent (melting beeswax, leather oils, something sharp and clean beneath all that she thinks is Lexa’s soap) is enough to transport her. Sometimes she’s halfway to the horses, preparing to make the trek back to the fallen Ark, before she comes back to herself.

There are a few differences. She’s strategizing for a different side, for one.

“I remember assembling more troops from the Ice Nation,” she says, frowning down at the map.

“How many more?”

Clarke thinks back. “At least twice this amount.” They’ve cut markers from scrap pieces of wood, carved with the symbols of the twelve clans, to place about the map and represent the manpower and positions at their disposal. It’s all theoretical until the other leaders arrive and agree to lend their support, of course.

Lexa moves closer, coming to lean against the table with her back to the map, an arm’s length from Clarke. “You disbanded much of your standing army when you came into power. You sent people back to their homes to be crafters, farmers, and teachers.”

“Well, I’m sure that’s great statecraft, but it doesn’t help with the current situation.”

“They will return if you ask them,” Lexa says. “They are still loyal to you. If not more so.”

Clarke pushes away from the table in frustration. It’s the distance from the simulated battlefield that makes her breathe easier, she tells herself, and not the distance she creates between herself and the Commander. “It feels wrong to ask them to fight for me,” she says, wrapping her arms around herself. “I’m not really their queen.”

Lexa opens her mouth only to close it in the next moment, looking thoughtful.

“What?”

“You are very convinced of that,” the other girl says.

“I told you, I have a completely different life. It’s not just that I wasn’t born on the ground -- I wasn’t raised to be a leader, I wasn’t trained as a fighter, I’m not...” She trails off with a swallow. “I was treated like a criminal for a long time.” And now I’m responsible for so many deaths I catapulted myself into another world in an attempt to feel better.

She raised herself above the crowd and commanded “follow me” once before. Look where it landed her.

“It seems you have been raised with very different beliefs.” Lexa’s tone is still deeply thoughtful, and when Clarke looks up she sees the frown that creases her forehead and pulls at her mouth. “Different from -- ours,” she adds, almost awkwardly. “I imagine this experience must feel very unnerving, as a consequence.”

“Why,” Clarke asks, quashing the urge to roll her eyes, “what do Grounders believe?”

Lexa’s frown deepens with her use of the English term. “That souls are not as malleable as you would have them.”

Clarke thinks it over for a minute. Religion hadn’t been banished on the Ark, that kind of overt fascism would have provoked riots. Still, it had been recognized by early generations as the source of so much inter-personal conflict on the ground, and they had quickly established parameters. No religious demonstrations outside of personal quarters, which also managed to restrict gatherings under basic safety protocols. Any discussions of religion must be conducted under pre-approved circumstances: a classroom, or a gathering monitored by a Council representative. This led to the gentle dissuasion of Council members themselves having any particular religious association -- how could they be objective arbitrators, otherwise? Again, no one ever actually laid down the law that politics and religion could not be mixed. But Clarke couldn’t remember the last time anyone who was openly religious won an election.

So her exposure to religious concepts -- reincarnation, divine providence, the permanence of the spiritual self -- had been in academic settings as she and her peers were given a presentation of beliefs from the World Before, like a catalogue of clothing styles that had long gone out of fashion.

Clarke shakes her head. “We’re not big into that stuff.”

“Then how do you reconcile yourself to your own actions?” Lexa asks. “By engaging in raun-keryon , don’t you implicitly acknowledge that your self -- your true self -- remains intact despite the world you find it in? Or the life you lead there?”

“That doesn’t make sense, though.” Clarke shifts onto her back foot as she crosses her arms. “What, so none of it makes any difference?”

Lexa shrugs. “Compare it a single object casting shadows upon a wall, but from multiple sources of light. They can differ in size, in intensity, in angle... but they are, essentially, representations of the same thing. Tell me,” she continues before Clarke can open her mouth to mention her entire religious philosophy sounds like a misinterpretation of Plato, “in meeting the people you know from your own world, have any of them led you to believe otherwise?”

Bellamy, still wrestling with his better angels as he deals with the devil to keep his sister alive. Raven, still burning up like a comet to remake the world according to improved specs. Finn still charms and smiles like love is his birthright, all while searching for it in the wrong places. Wells threw her at first: he’s angry, isolated. But all she had to do was scratch at the surface to find the iron-willed idealism that makes him the best person she’s ever known.

And Lexa...

She shakes herself free of the tangle of her thoughts. “Their lives are more or less the same. It doesn’t compare.”

“You don’t have a point of comparison for yourself, either.”

“I --” Clarke straightens, indignant. “Yes, I do.”

“You’ve never met yourself in this world.”

“I’m in her head.”

“That’s what you have experienced, not who you are.” Lexa places one hand on the table between them, only her fingertips touching the surface. “Three people know you as both of the Ice Nation, and of the Sky. Your two warriors, who persist in following you and protecting you as their queen --”

“They’re just guarding the packaging.”

“-- and myself,” she continues, ignoring her interjection. “So for once,” and she lifts an eyebrow, “I have the advantage of knowledge over you. I say you are the same person.”

She cannot believe it. She cannot believe she is in a damn parallel universe living as a Grounder queen, and Lexa is still lecturing and lording over her. “Listen,” she bites out, “I know all the psychology textbooks burned up when the bombs fell, but there’s a central concept called nature versus nurture --”

“Your English is better,” Lexa says, a muscle flexing in her jaw, “and you prefer your name to be said differently, and you look at me as if --” She cuts herself off with a jerk of her head, glancing off to the right. “Do you really believe these are the things that make up who you are?”

“How do I look at you?” Clarke asks without thinking.

Lexa’s expression shutters. “Whatever else you might think of me, you will allow me to recognize the person to whom I am soul-tied.”

Clarke runs a hand through her braided hair in frustration. “You don’t even know her that well. You met once, right? What makes you so certain?” She catches the ends of her hair and tugs on them absently. The sharp pain in her scalp helps offset the way her heart is beating. “You didn’t know we were soul-tied until I told you.”

This makes Lexa hesitate, softly wide-eyed. “That’s true,” she says. “I didn’t make the connection, not before...” She glances back down at the table. She keeps her face angled downward for a long moment, and Clarke gets the impression of Lexa chewing over her next words, formulating responses only to then throw them away. The sheer intensity of the process leaves Clarke more than a little fascinated, and she’s embarrassed to find she’s been watching the other girl’s face this entire time when Lexa finally opens her mouth.

“Is there truly so little between us in the life you know?”

It’s such a shift from what she’s expecting it takes her a second to compute. “I told you, we take down the Mountain.” Not together, but as the result of combined actions. “That’s not little.”

“And there’s nothing more.”

The thing that amazes her, ever since arriving here, is how much is the same. A whole new universe, and yet the same people come down on the dropship, Lexa ascends to Commander, and Clarke’s ancestors end up meeting and marrying. Generations upon generations of people making the same choices, despite everything. Making the same mistakes.

She tries to draw conviction from that as she meets Lexa’s eyes and says: “No. Nothing else.”

Clarke’s forgotten the way Lexa’s face can hold so many flashes of expression without committing to any one, there and gone like the flicker of fish just beneath the water’s surface.

“I don’t believe you.”

“Well, it’s true,” Clarke says, feeling her hands ball at into fists and her shoulders jump.

“No,” and Lexa tilts her head infinitesimally, her words almost too soft to be heard, “I don’t think it is.”

Clarke gapes at her.

“You -- I --” she stutters. “You don’t -- okay, you are different. You’re never like this in my world.”

Lexa seems unperturbed, folding her arms and cocking one hip to lean against the table. “Oh?”

“You don’t ask questions you already think you know the answers to.” And she knows it’s childish, but her ego is stinging and so she adds: “You have better manners than that.”

Lexa takes this in, considers. “Perhaps in that place I am simply more accustomed to you lying to me.”

Clarke takes a step back as if in response to a physical blow. Lexa continues to level Clarke with the same cool, appraising gaze, tracking her every movement like Clarke might betray secrets with a muscle twitch.

“This is pointless, I have things to do,” Clarke says, and doesn’t wait for Lexa’s response before practically sprinting out of the tent.

She has to check on Octavia, anyway.

________________________

 

Octavia still doesn’t like her, but she likes the Trigeda healers less.

“You’re the one that cut me open, right?” she had rasped, one evening when Clarke came by to inspect her dressings before bed. “So you should be the one to fix me. Take responsibility.”

Clarke checks in on her several times a day. The tent allotted to the five of them isn’t much bigger than the one she sleeps in alone, but the atmosphere inside is surprisingly pleasant. The other Arkers have adopted Lincoln as a unit, teasing him about his massive height, begging him to pick them up and carry them around the way he does Octavia. He doesn’t joke the way they do, but Clarke thinks she’s seen him smile more in the past few days than the months in which she knew him before. He also doesn’t leave the tent much -- he’s been placed under Clarke’s protection, but that doesn’t guarantee him acceptance from the other warriors in the camp who remember how he helped her -- but none of them do. They seem content to stay inside. Octavia sleeps or pages through Lincoln’s drawings, Raven tinkers with the parts they unloaded from the dropship, Wells and Finn talk with their heads together in close conferences which break apart the second Clarke steps inside. She’s sure they’re up to more than meets the eye, but they’re also surrounded by guards, so she doesn’t prioritize worrying about it just yet.

Today, when she checks Octavia’s wound, she spends a long time pressing her fingers to the edges, watching the way the blood rushes back to the area once she removes them. She sits back on her heels after, and looks up at Octavia, who spends these visits scrutinizing her every move.

“Want to try some walking around?” she asks.

Octavia’s face immediately brightens before she thinks better of it, and scowls. “You think I’m all better? Already?”

“No. But I don’t think there’s any danger of it re-opening, if you’re careful. It’s better to start working the muscles as early as possible. Just be gentle.”

Octavia’s halfway onto her knees before Lincoln catches the movement and crosses the tent in three steps, abandoning the Trigedasleng lesson he was giving the others. He glares at Clarke, before glaring at Octavia, who sinks back down onto her bedroll.

“She said I could go out,” Octavia says, stabbing one finger at Clarke. “She says I should walk.”

“Let me take you outside first,” Lincoln says. “You trip and fall in here, you might ruin something Raven’s working on.”

“I’m sick of being carried,” Octavia mutters.

“Aw, c’mon, O,” Finn says, approaching. “Me and Wells want a turn. Let us have a chance to prove our manhood, too.”

She pulls a face, but eventually allows her arms to be slung over the boys’ shoulders, their arms around her torso. It takes a minute for them to gather up her legs as well, and Raven takes point in front, directing them and distracting Octavia from her bad mood. Clarke follows and Lincoln falls in step with her silently.

“How are they doing?” she asks him.

He keeps his eyes on Octavia. “You need to talk to them. Soon.”

“About what?”

“What they’re doing here. What you’re doing here.” He gives her a brief glance. “I’d like to know my part in it as well.”

“We okay over here?” Raven calls back, indicating an area set off from the main activity of the camp. There are a few logs set around a dark circle of ash, probably where someone had lit a fire the night before. Clarke nods and the boys stagger, threatening to drop Octavia in the grass as she laughs.

Getting Octavia onto her feet is slow going. After she snaps at him once Lincoln doesn’t hover, instead sitting down on one of the tree trunks and bringing out a small knife to carve wood scraps. He still watches, though, and gives her encouraging smiles every time the determination on her face wavers. Raven’s the one who’s allowed to hold her elbow and guide her around the clearing. Octavia’s expression is rigid with pain, but she only leans into Raven’s hold after a particularly bad stumble. Raven takes the opportunity to whisper something in her ear that makes Octavia nod and straighten, to try again.

Clarke watches her the entire time, ignoring how both Wells and Finn are watching her just as closely.

She’s about to call it quits for the day when her eye is caught by a horse making its way out of the trees. Lincoln raises his hand in greeting before Clarke is fully turned around.

“Who’s that?” Octavia asks, her knuckles white where she’s gripping Raven’s shoulder. Clarke can see the older girl biting back a wince at the grip.

“Costia,” she tells them. “Octavia, take a break.”

“I’m fine, once more around --”

“At least for a few minutes. Sit down.”

Octavia’s face knits up with frustration, but Raven shoots Clarke a grateful look. She rises to help Raven maneuver Octavia onto one of the logs, who hisses as she stretches out her injured leg.

“Who’s Costia?” she asks as Clarke stoops to examine the wound. They had to cut off and roll up one of her pant legs for easy access. “She knows Lincoln pretty well,” Octavia adds under her breath.

Clarke casts a quick glance over her shoulder. Costia has dismounted, walking her horse over to Lincoln. The two of them are talking in low voices. Costia’s wearing a different cape, Clarke notes -- not the one with red trim, but something longer and mottled in color, properly camouflaged. “She’s a scout for the Woods Clan.”

“Are they... together?” Octavia asks.

“Who?” Clarke blinks when she finally understands where Octavia’s head is at. “Costia and Lincoln? No, they trained together, that’s all.” Then, because if anything Octavia appears even unhappier: “She’s with the Commander.”

Both Raven and Octavia turn to look at her, and then each other, with surprise written all over their faces. “So the three of you?” Raven offers.

What?” Clarke nearly topples over sideways.

“You’re always in her tent.”

“We kind of assumed --”

“No,” firm. “We’re preparing for a war, we’re not --” Clarke shakes her head so hard she feels it in her neck. “No.” She shakes her head again, this time at herself for getting distracted, and turns back to Octavia’s leg. Things seem good. It’s still quivering, minutely, from the strain of exercise, but there’s no tearing or weeping at the site of the injury. “How much does it hurt?”

Octavia grits her teeth, still sneaking glances at Lincoln and Costia. “No pain, no gain, right?”

“Be honest with your doctor.”

“So you can put me back on bed rest?”

“So I can make you better.”

Octavia flinches away from her hard look. “It hurts a lot,” she finally admits. “And it feels deep -- like, not just where you had to cauterize it, but underneath that. All the way down.

Clarke sits back on her heels, stomach churning. “That could be nerve damage.”

“Okay.” Octavia keeps her eyes on Clarke’s face. “When does that go away?”

“It might not.”

It’s the left leg. Clarke knew that, she just never -- it’s the same leg Raven had to wear a brace on, after Murphy put a bullet at the base of her spine. Which can’t happen now, because Murphy is under the Mountain. So Raven is safe.

But Octavia might never walk without assistance again. And it’s the same leg.

The wind picks up, and Clarke shivers.

“Wait,” Octavia says, voice cracking, “are you saying -- is this permanent?”

“O.” Raven places a careful hand on her shoulder, but the younger girl shakes it off.

“No, I want her to say it,” her voice rising enough that Wells and Finn glance over. “I want her to admit it. She took a chunk out of me, and now --”

“Is there a problem?”

This is the first time she’s heard Costia speak English, Clarke realizes. Her accent is pretty good -- not as good as her accent when speaking the Ice Nation’s language. But better than Clarke can currently manage. Apparently Klark didn’t have much opportunity to speak the language of the invaders, and it still takes effort to move her mouth into the right shapes.

Costia doesn’t wait for an answer before stooping down to the ground, motioning for Clarke to make room. She takes Octavia’s leg in her own lap to inspect the healing wound, gently rotating the limb. Octavia doesn’t protest but watches with the kind of hope Clarke remembers from her mother’s patients -- the hope of a second opinion -- with her lip between her teeth. Lincoln sits down behind her, putting his hand on her back, and this time she allows the comfort.

“This is a fair job,” Costia says. “I’m not a healer, but I have seen much worse done in the field.”

“It’s damaged.” Octavia speaks in a whisper. As if this way she can still pretend, as if to say it louder would make it real. “I might never get better.”  

Costia mets her eyes and then, deliberately, shrugs. “It happens,” she says. “We lose things. That is life.”

Octavia’s mouth starts to wobble. “You don’t understand. I spent sixteen years depending on other people. Everything I ate, and wore -- I had to sit and wait for it to be given to me.” She presses her lips together hard. “I can’t go back to that.”

“Why would you?” Costia asks as she places the leg back down.

“I can’t even walk --”

“Walking is not the only way to get places. Is there pain in the upper part of the leg, or just the lower?”

Octavia frowns, flexes her muscles. “Lower. I think.”

“And it will probably improve, enough, with time. You might still be able to ride.”

Octavia’s laugh is guttural. “I don’t ride now. Who would teach me?”

Costia lowers herself to sit cross-legged, elbow on one knee and chin in hand as the contemplates the girl in front of her. Everyone holds their breath.

“So. You like Lincoln,” she says finally.

Octavia flushes a bright red. Lincoln gives Costia a look that, in a just world, would leave her bleeding out in the dirt.

“Did he tell you he used to be a scout?”

“A camp scout is still a scout, Costia,” Lincoln says. He takes his hand from Octavia’s back to pick up a wood chip and throw it. Costia catches it one-handed, grinning, and the shift to playfulness bleeds the tension from the entire group. Finn moves to be on the other side of Raven and Wells sits down on the ground by Clarke. Octavia allows herself to be pulled into Raven’s one-armed embrace, her head on the other girl’s shoulder as they listen.

“He’s lying,” Costia tells her. She winks. “He wants to impress you.”

“Costia --”

“We train for battle from a young age, have you noticed?” Costia asks.

It’s Finn who answers. “It’s not just because of the Mountain, is it? There’s a truce between all the different clans, but it’s recent.”

Costia nods. “All of us must be ready to join the fight, no matter of what nature it may be. Whatever one’s chosen path, they must also know how to defend their homes, their families. But there are children with a talent for it, those who climb trees a bit faster, hit with more force, who can run like the wind is under their feet.”

“They become your warriors?” Finn asks, leaning forward.

Costia laughs. “We are all warriors. Those children become scouts.”

“Why?” Octavia asks from Raven’s shoulder. “Why are you so important?”

“Warriors are the bones and muscle of the body that makes up a clan, but scouts are the blood. We spy on the enemy -- sometimes,” with a flick of her eyes to Clarke, “but we also survey our own territories. We investigate and bring word back to the Commander. We are her eyes and ears among her people, because we can travel unnoticed and unannounced.”  

“What if your Commander is corrupt?” Octavia asks, and Clarke knows she’s thinking about the Council, a life spent under the floor. “What if I don’t want to help enforce her laws?”

“That depends.” Her smile is very, very slight. “If you retire peacefully, then we have no quarrel. But if you work to undermine her, the rest of us will tear you apart.”

Octavia watches her for a long moment before turning her gaze to Lincoln. “Is that why you aren’t a scout anymore?”

Lincoln’s eyes widen almost comically, and Costia throws her head back to laugh.

“I have no fight with the Commander,” he protests.

“Although she’s not very happy with him, recently,” Costia says, still smirking. A shadow falls over his expression, and she reaches out to push at one knee. “Even though she is angry, she understands.” Again, she throws a brief glance to Clarke. “Better than you may think.

“No, Lincoln left our company for a much simpler reason. He grew.”

Raven scrunches up her forehead. “He grew? That’s a problem?”

“He grew, and he grew,” Costia draws out. “Scouts are supposed to go unnoticed, as if they were of the people.”

“I am just as much of the people as before.”

“You are a small oak tree,” she says cheerfully.  

“What would you have had me do,” he asks, shaking his head, “starve myself? Cut my limbs down to size?”

“He thinks he is joking,” Costia says to Octavia, “but it is no easy thing to lose a trained scout to camp work. There are never enough of us.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Octavia asks, refusing to be charmed.

“I’ve been wondering how to bring Lincoln back onto the field for some time,” Costia says. “I’ve had time on my hands, recently, to think over this kind of problem. Now I think I have the solution.” She smiles, a real smile. “You.”

“Leave her alone, Costia,” Lincoln says, rising to his full height.

“I might, if I thought that was what she wanted.” She keeps her eyes on Octavia. “Is it?”

The younger girl’s face slackens with shock. “You want me to be a scout for your clan?” She looks up at Lincoln, who sinks back down slowly. “As a team?”

“It would be close to perfection.” Costia interlaces the fingers of both hands as she lays them in her lap with an expression that’s practically demure. “They will look at you and see an invalid, a poor cripple who can’t walk on her own. Then they will look at him, and see a soft-hearted caretaker -- a giant, but a gentle one. You may not go unnoticed, but pity often makes people feel comfortable. Safe.”

“You’d do all that just to get him back to work?” Again, she turns to Lincoln. Do you even want to?”

“You shouldn’t worry about what I want,” he says, but the skipped-breath of hesitation beforehand is telling.

“I don’t get it,” Octavia says to Costia. Her jaw is clenched tight, her whole face consumed with longing, and Clarke’s heart aches. “I’m not one of your people.”

Costia shrugs. “I saw you in the cave -- sick and scared, surrounded by strangers, you still fought. You were loyal. Also, Lincoln likes you, and I have known him long enough for that to carry a great deal of weight. This is not a gift, Octavia of the Sky People,” she says leaning forward. “This will be a difficult doing. Even if you succeed, your life after will not be easy.” She hesitates, eyes softening. “But I know something of what it is like to live without purpose. I can offer you that.”

Two years since she was sent on a mission to the Ice Nation, Clarke remembers. Perhaps it was two years spent in Polis, paging through maps and wondering how to fix problems like Lincoln.

“I still can’t fight,” Octavia says. She ducks her head down. “I appreciate what you’re trying to offer, but I don't see how it could work.”

Costia gets up, walks back over to her horse, which is grazing the fresh grass. She comes back with her bow case and quiver of arrows.

“Hold these,” she says, dropping both into Clarke’s lap. While Clarke scrambles to keep both from falling into the dirt, Costia has already drawn out an arrow to pass to Octavia. “Try not to touch the feathers or the point,” she says, balancing it on her fingertips.

Octavia takes it gingerly, her eyebrows going up in surprise. “It’s heavier than I thought.”

“Can I?” Finn asks, reaching across. Octavia passes it over at Costia’s nod, Raven leaning out of the way with a slight look of distaste. Finn handles the arrow with even more respect, bordering on awe. “Did you make this yourself?”

“I did,” Costia says. “Except for blades, we insist on making our own weapons. You can’t rely on someone else’s work.”

From the corner of her eye Clarke can see Wells frown, suddenly, turning it on her. She chooses to ignore it.

“This,” Costia says, taking the arrow from Finn, “can punch through bone and muscle. If your aim is off, it can still pin a fully grown warrior to the ground. They’ll bleed out trying to wrest themselves free.”

“It doesn’t seem that sharp,” Raven says, sounding doubtful.

“It doesn’t have to be.” Costia places it back in the quarrel Clarke holds and takes out her bow instead, offering it to Raven. “Try and draw the string.”

It’s the same short, curved bow Clarke saw Costia use effortlessly to bring down game on their first trip to the dropship. So it’s a bit of surprise to see that Raven’s only able to pull it back a few inches before it slips her grasp. “ Ow,” as she sticks her fingertips into her mouth.

“Let me see it,” Octavia says, eagerness coloring her voice for the first time since -- since Clarke has met her in this world. But Costia puts a hand out to stop her from taking it.

“My apologies,” she says. “I forget none of you have grown up observing these weapons being used.”

“Costia.”

Clarke turns her head to see Lexa, accompanied by one of her guards, walking toward the clearing. She’s not wearing warpaint, but otherwise is every inch the Commander: coat buttoned to her throat, the hem rippling about her ankles with each step.

“Do you have new from Polis?” She uses Trigedasleng, and keeps her tone neutral.

“The other leaders are all coming,” Costia says. She uses the same language. “They grumbled about needing several days to prepare for the journey, but Gustus promised to shepherd them along before that.”

“You are expected to report the moment you arrive at camp.”

“Telling you sooner won’t make them arrive sooner.”

The Arkers watch this back and forth avidly, even without comprehension. Except for Wells, who leans forward to murmur in Clarke’s ear, “You don’t make your own weapons.”

She starts. “What?”

“The other night. That woman who’s always with you made those,” he points to the three-tailed weapons on her belt, “and wouldn’t let you help.”

“I’m Ice Nation, not Woods Clan,” she says, thinking fast. “We have different customs.”

“Hmm.” He sits back, thoughtful. When Clarke frowns at him he returns a wide, easy smile.

Her attention is drawn back by Costia’s accented English. If there was a resolution to her discussion with the Commander Clarke missed it, but Lexa is still standing to one side, watching with a pensive expression as Costia holds up her bow for Octavia to observe.

“You use your thumb, not your first fingers,” she says, demonstrating. The string fits into the curve of her ring as she draws it back.

“Now she tells us,” Raven mutters. Finn is holding her injured hand, and at this he kisses her fingertips to make her smile.

“Guess I better find one of those first, huh,” Octavia says, nodding at Costia’s ring.

This makes the older girl pause, looking down at the bright metal band with its imprint of the Commander’s symbol. “No. It can be done without this.” Clarke thinks she sees Costia take a breath before slipping it off her thumb. She holds it out and Lexa is stepping forward without needing to be asked, taking it gently.

Clarke thinks she must have been mistaken about the sense of apprehension coming from Costia a second ago, because she seems utterly at ease as hands over the ring.

She draws the bow again, this time with her naked thumb. Octavia stands to see better and doesn’t protest when Lincoln immediately rises to support her, too absorbed in questions and Costia’s instructions on technique. Costia won’t let her try for herself, saying she’s already tired her body enough for one day, but runs down a list of exercises she can start tomorrow to build up the strength in her arms. Octavia is glowing with excitement. When Lincoln picks her up to be carried she puts her head down on his shoulder.

“Thank you,” Clarke says as she watches the Arkers, and Lincoln, make their way back to their tent.

“I didn’t do it for you,” Costia says. She takes back her quiver and bow case, slinging them over her shoulder once everything is stowed away properly.

“Should I thank you, then?” Lexa asks from where she stands, a smile flirting at the corners of her mouth.

Costia sighs, heavily put-upon, as she grabs the reins of her horse. “If you start now, you may never do anything else.”  

“True enough.” She holds out her hand, a small circle in her palm, the metal shining as it picks up the light of the late afternoon sun. “Don’t forget this.”

Costia looks back over one shoulder.

Later, Clarke will think how it reminded her of those moments when you can feel disaster just before it strikes: the crystal clarity of details like the thin braids lying against Costia’s dark cape, the halo the sun casts around her silhouette. How unguarded Lexa was, with no reason to suspect what was coming.

“I haven’t forgotten,” Costia says. “I won’t keep it any longer.”

Lexa goes rigid, all nuance of emotion fleeing from her face.

Costia walks away. And Clarke watches with awful fascination as Lexa’s fingers fold, one by one, over the ring in her hand until it’s lost to sight.

________________________

 

Clarke waits.

She waits all through the evening meal, watching Costia bring a plate of food to sit with the Akers. It seems like she and Lincoln are amusing them with war stories from the way they trade off the telling, the wide eyes and fascination they attract. They even draw in other Grounders around the periphery of the little group.

She waits, and watches the Commander’s tent. But Lexa went in immediately after Costia returned the ring and doesn’t come out, and the sun sinks down into the trees.

Eventually she gets tired of waiting and goes in there herself.

The guards don’t even twitch anymore when she approaches. Lexa herself barely looks up when Clarke pushes her way inside.

She’s sitting on a low bench when Clarke enters. Her coat is gone, leaving her in a shirt Clarke doesn’t remember seeing before, loose and sleeveless.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing,” Clarke starts. She’s so angry, it feels like the words scrape against her throat.

“Until a moment ago I was enjoying a rare moment of quiet,” Lexa says, raising her head. “I must rely on you to tell me what I’m doing now.”

“You’re going to let her end it like that?” She wants to shout things like I know how much you love her, I know what losing her does to you. It’s not really an option.

“You want me to deny her choice?” Lexa stands, her entire posture one of just-contained violence. “You truly were raised with different beliefs.”

“I want you to talk to her,” Clarke hisses. “I don’t understand why you’re both being like this. She did it because of me, right?” She takes a step forward, and -- she would almost think that’s why Lexa flees to the other side of the tent to put the war table between them. Except that’s not something Lexa does. So the sudden movement has to have some other cause. “Because we’re soul-tied?”

“You should ask her yourself.”

“Right now I’m asking you. She thinks it means -- that it means more, somehow. Does it?”

“No.” Lexa leans over the table, hands braced on its surface. For the first time since Clarke entered her tent, the strain shows on her face. “It doesn’t guarantee what kind of relationship will form. They say the relationship will repeat itself in other lives, but it could be anything. Friends. Mentor and student. Even enemies have been soul-tied.”

“So why are you letting her think otherwise?” She walks up to the other side of the table, gripping the edge. “What makes her convinced this comes between the two of you?”

“As I have said already,” Lexa says, low and controlled, “you should ask her yourself.”

“It doesn’t make any sense,” Clarke says, ignoring her. “I wasn’t lying when I said we weren’t lovers or friends in my world. And there’s nothing in her memories,” with a vague gesture at her own head, “to say anything is different in this one. There’s no sense she feels anything for you beyond respect. So if there’s anything to make Costia so certain, it would have to come from --”

Clarke stops dead.

Did she think she was angry before? For what, mistakes Lexa hasn’t even made, threats against the hundred she didn’t get a chance to execute? For acting superior and pretending she knew Clarke better than she knew herself? That was nothing.

This, though. Oh, this makes Clarke want to tear her apart.

“No,” she says softly, as if she can undo it with that alone.

Lexa lets her eyes fall shut -- a move Clarke learned, what feels like so long ago, is her version of a controlled flinch.

“Don’t tell me,” the words feeling leaden on her tongue, “that you fell in love with her.”

The only sound in the tent is the click of Lexa’s throat as she swallows.

“At the coronation,” Clarke pieces it together. “And then you went back to Polis and told Costia.”

Lexa curls in the fingers of her hands, fingernails scraping the map, until they make fists. “She deserved to know.”

She feels lightheaded. “You have such a talent for this,” she says. “Someday you’ll have to tell me what it’s like, being the storm that gets to destroy everyone else.”

The look in Lexa’s eyes when she raises her head is skinned and scraped raw, like an injury that goes all the way down to bone.

Clarke, though. Clarke is oddly calm.

“Now I’m the one who doesn’t believe you,” she says. “You think love is weakness,” and here Lexa practically rears up, wild around the eyes as she stares at Clarke, “and you would never give into it -- like that.”

Not for Clarke. Not for any version of her.

“Believe what you want,” Lexa says finally. She sounds almost breathless. “Have the decency to leave me in peace while you do it.”

“Gladly,” Clarke says.

She’s never been so happy to leave Lexa behind.  

 

________________________

 

 

 

She’s not surprised to find Costia in her tent.

Clarke stops in her tracks, still breathing a little hard from her confrontation with Lexa. She feels -- she’s not sure what she feels. Costia only slants a glance at Clarke from under her hair. She’s taken a seat on Clarke’s own bed, like before, her back straight and proud with the same confidence that first caught Clarke’s attention back in Polis. But she keeps glancing down at her hands in her lap, lightly touching fingertips to the paler band of skin on her right thumb.

“How do you not hate me?” Clarke asks.

Costia laughs, light and brittle. “Don’t think I didn’t try. I tried,” and she shifts to lean back, “my very hardest. But when we met in Polis, you were acting too strangely to focus on anything else. When I finally saw the two of you together...” She trails off, eyes distant. “You were angry with her. So very, very angry with her. I think that helped.” She summons up a ghost of a smile. “You were as angry with her as I wished I could be. But I couldn’t manage that, either.”  

She can feel panic like a loop around her throat, a sharpness in the struggle to breathe that makes her want to turn and run. “This has to be a mistake,” she says. “They met once, right? How long did they spend together?”

“Ice Nation coronations last five days. Lexa arrived early and left late, in order to help greet the other clan leaders and present a united front. So, nine days. Why?” Costia tilts her head, waiting until she holds Clark’s eyes before asking: “How long were you together in your world?”

Clarke’s heart thumps hard and painful in her chest. “Twelve days.”

“And you are entirely indifferent to her, of course.”

“That’s different,” Clarke says sharply. “Costia, that’s not --” She bites down hard on that’s not fair, I was sleep-deprived and terrified and she made me think she was safe, that I couldn’t hurt her and she wouldn’t hurt me.

The latter had obviously been untrue. For the first time -- after weeks in the forest alone, curled up safe around the warmth of her own anger and self-loathing -- she wonders what that could mean about the former.

The panic tightens its hold around her throat.

“I can’t believe she told you,” she whispers.

“Honesty is very important to her.”

“I --” Clarke shuts her eyes. The ground is sand, the air is acid, she can’t think. “What did she say?”

“Can’t you guess?” When Clarke opens her eyes, one side of Costia’s mouth is drawn up deeply into her cheek in something too sharp to be a smile, too fond to be a grimace. “She said it didn’t matter. Nothing had changed in how she felt about me, it was only that... She said she knew she didn’t deserve forgiveness.

“I’d never managed to land a hit on her before,” she says, her voice sounding as if coming from miles and miles away. “Any other time, and she wouldn’t have let me.

“When I -- was calmer,” she resumes, voice hitching, “She promised to stay away from you. She would urge you not to spend too much time away from your people, to send representatives to the yearly summit. There was little reason for her to travel to the Ice Nation in the first place. Perhaps something had begun, but that didn’t mean she had to see it through. Things could go on as they always had.”

“But they didn’t.”

“No, they did,” Costia says, glancing up. “I accepted it wasn’t something she could control, I apologized for --” She curls in the fingers of her hand, swallowing. “After everything, it was the same,” she says quietly. “Part of me doubted it would be, but. She was my Lexa.

“Then, later, we held the Summit. You sent a representative. And I was...” She shudders. “I was relieved.”

“I don’t understand,” Clarke says in the silence that follows.

“She made me so many promises, she worked so hard to prove her intentions. I should have felt safe. I didn’t.” She shifts on the bed. “I asked Lexa to personally invite you to Polis for the next one. I wanted to meet you, see you for myself, to know... To just know.” She shrugs. “You’ll remember what happened next.”

Clarke remembers waking up in a bed what wasn’t hers, with a face that didn’t feel like her own, thinking she was in a dream when a strange woman told her... “They said she was called away on inspection.”

“She ran.” She makes a sound that might be a laugh, if it didn't die in her throat. “I did hate you for that. I don’t think Lexa has run from anything in her life. She’s not afraid of pain. Sometimes I don’t even think she’s afraid of dying.”

“But she’s afraid of me?” Clarke asks, mouth dry. “I mean, of Klark?” Her head is spinning.

“She was afraid of causing me pain. How I would feel when I saw the way she looks at you.” Her eyes are bright with unshed tears. “We were done before you showed your face.”

Clarke sinks to the ground, knees up by her chest. She doesn’t hug them, that would give too much away. But she feels that much better to have something to hide behind, something between her and this girl unleashing a barrage of unwanted truth.

“She put you first,” she offers. “She couldn’t even be around me.”

“You don’t understand.” Costia tips her head back, and from this angle Clarke can’t see her face. “Which would you rather be: loved, or shielded?”

The tightness in her throat spreads to her chest, and she feels tendrils of nausea unfurl beneath her ribs. “This isn’t possible,” she says to herself as she closes her eyes.

... what if it is?

What if it’s true? Costia lives. Lexa hasn’t burned her heart in offering and then eaten the charred remains to become her own god. Here, in this world, Lexa might be capable of more than self-immolation at every turn.

Here is a Lexa who might be able to love her.

Pain like she had never endured, she’d been promised for the raun-keryon. But pain is something she has a lot of experience with. This?

This is sick.   

“So, now you know everything,” Costia says. “She’s yours.”

“She’s not.”

“Well, I’m not taking her back now,” the other girl says, the attempt at levity as transparent as the effort it takes to make it. “It took me two years to come to this decision, I’m not changing my mind.”

“Costia, you’re forgetting: I’m not her.” The panic threatens to close off her air entirely, and she takes a few seconds to force it back down. “The person you see when you look at me is -- somewhere else, sleeping, I don’t know. And maybe Lexa’s in love with her. And I’m,” ashes, nothing but the taste of ashes in her mouth, “happy for them both. If it’s true.” She struggles to swallow past the band around her throat. “But even then, it has nothing to do with me. If it’s true, she’s nothing like the Lexa I know.”

Costia stares at her for what feels like whole minutes, her searching gaze so intense it almost feels like an actual touch on Clarke’s skin. “Why?’ she asks. “What did she do?”

Clarke wants to laugh. She wishes she could. It’s taking all her effort to keep breathing.

“Please don’t stay here tonight,” she manages. “Please leave me alone.”

She crawls into bed the second Costia is gone, still wearing all her clothes. She barely remembers to remove her weapons belt and kick off her boots.

Her sleep is fitful. She dreams, but she can’t hold onto them. She startles awake three, four times, head aching as she opens her eyes to the darkness inside her tent. All that remains is a distant echo, like the melody of a song she can’t quite remember, of someone whispering low and close:

“Wake up. Please wake up. Please, please. Wake up.”

 

________________________

 

 

Clarke wakes up to the sunlight hitting her face as it streams through the opening of her tent. Once she blinks away the brightness she can see Genai standing at the entrance, waiting.

“The other clan leaders have arrived,” she says when Clarke sits up. “Are you ready?”

Ready to convince ten other unfriendly Grounders -- and Lexa -- to commit to her cause. Ready to pretend she is a queen who can command thousands into battle. Ready for the second take on a war that stripped everything from her the first time around.

“No,” she says, pulling on her boots. “Does that matter?”

They walk out together into the new day.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

“I know a way into the Mountain.”

You’d think staring into the unfriendly faces of leaders and representatives from the twelve clans would get easier, the second time around.

Apparently not.

“Many of yo-- our people,” she catches herself just in time, “are being kept there. Alive.”

That causes a stir of interest, although it’s richly flavored with distrust.

“If we smuggle someone in, a Sky Person who can pass for one of the Mountain Men,” here she has to raise her voice to be heard over the rumblings of disagreement, the sneers and scoffing, “then he can rally our people and raise an army inside the Mountain. He can disable their weapons, leaving them vulnerable to attack. Our attack.”

She decided not to reinvent the wheel. It was always a good plan. It only needs a few... adjustments. Clarke hasn’t gotten around to asking whether Finn or Wells want the job -- she needs Raven on this side of things -- but she figures she’ll cross that bridge eventually.

She needs to concentrate on the one currently swaying under her feet.

“What does Ice Nation gain from this?” a woman in the back speaks up. “Your people are rarely taken by the Mountain now that you keep out of Woods Clan territory.”

“This isn’t about the Ice Nation, or the Woods Clan,” Clarke says earnestly. “Or Blue Cliff, or Broadleaf, or any one group of people. We have a chance to bring down a common enemy. It would be foolish to pass up the chance because some of us might benefit more than others.”

“More foolish than attacking the Mountain, head-on?” another woman asks. The pieces of colored glass dangling at the ends of her braids identify her as Desert Clan. “You have not been a queen for very long -- two years is not much time to appreciate the loss of life this could cause.”

Lexa’s been Commander for four, she bites back, and she managed to convinced all of you to stop tearing each other apart.

She’s very aware of Lexa, standing somewhere behind her in the shadows of the tent. Not in a show of support, oh no, not yet. As a supervisory figure. Someone to referee should things get too bloody.

Clarke is very much on her own out here.

“It’s also your first time attending the Summit.” This from the Glowing Forest representative. Clarke has the vague memory of hosting him a few times to discuss trade agreements, but they never discovered any viable opportunities. She suspects he keeps coming back for the wild salmon dishes at their welcome banquets. “Perhaps,” he continues thoughtfully, “you should consult with Ambassador Roan.”

To her left, Roan raises his hand with a deprecating smile. “I’m sure her Majesty doesn’t need my advice.”

He’s greeted with a chorus of disagreement. Clarke grinds her teeth.

Next to her, Genai leans in close to whisper: “That’s the former --”

“I know who he is,” Clarke says. She’d known the second she’d laid eyes on him. He was another one of those pulled-thread people, like Trest or Genai, where a name and a face unravel a whole barrage of new memories. He was Queen Nia’s son and heir, and she’d let him live because she knew there were too many advisors and generals from the old guard embedded in her inherited court. They were the kind of people who enjoyed Nia’s regime and were loath to give up its advantages. She couldn’t dismiss them all without dismantling her government -- which also ruled out killing them -- and she needed to give them a rallying point, someone they felt understood their concerns and cared about the things they cared about.

So. She hadn’t killed Roan.

She’d sent him off as often as she could get away with, though -- her first pick to visit this clan and that one, travelling to Polis as her representative. Now she discovers that Roan is a lot cleverer than she’d credited. He spent those long trips and rough journeys currying favor among the other clan leaders, until he knew their names and the names of their lovers and children -- until he knows how to speak to their interests while constantly furthering his own. He wrangled an invitation to the Summit via these friendships, even with Clarke’s presence supposedly making him redundant.

Now Clarke has a problem.

“As experienced as Ambassador Roan may be,” she says, “he is not the ruler of the Ice Nation. I am.”

She can tell she’s made them uneasy by stating it so plainly, but it’s like when she was back at the dropship -- she doesn’t have time. The Ark should be crashing down to earth any day, now. She needs to get the clans in line.

“The Commander has agreed to accompany me to the Mountain,” Clarke says, “where I will show her what I know. When we return she can tell you herself if she thinks the information is good, if this is best chance we have in bringing down the Mountain. We’ll put it to a vote. Until then, I urge you to please consider what a life lived outside the shadow of the Mountain might mean -- not for yourselves, but for your people.”

Explaining her plan to Lexa before the other leaders arrived definitely qualified as one of the most awkward situations of Clarke’s life. It was hard to look her in the face, after -- how can she deal with that? How is she supposed to act around a Lexa who loves her? Or at least a Grounder version of her.

Honestly, she’s a little relieved to have a war to plan.

“It’s clear to everyone that you have the confidence of the Commander, my Queen,” Roan says. That’s when Clarke knows there’s about to be trouble -- she can hear it in his sly, insinuating tone. He doesn’t like her strong-arm tactics, and he wants to bite back. She stiffens before he angles his head toward the others and adds, “It’s equally clear how you have managed to gain it.”

... damn. Costia just had to break up with Lexa in public.

Clarke doesn’t think about it. She slides into his space like they’re about to put their arms around each other and dance -- only she slings her fist around and right into his kidney. He manages to dodge at the last second, but she hears him grunt. He counters with an elbow to the side of her head, she ducks, he crowds her, she uses his momentum against him and --

It’s so easy. It really is a bit like dancing.

It ends with him on the floor with her knife (got them back, thank you) at his neck.

She could get used to this.

“Do you remember how I managed to gain the confidence of the Ice Court?” she asks him, low and meaningful. “I don’t think your mother would ever want you to forget.”

There’s a flash of pain in his eyes that surprises her. He closes them, letting his head fall back that final inch in a show of submission.

“My deepest apologies,” he rasps out. “I defer to my Queen in this matter, as in all others.”

He speaks loud enough for the other leaders -- some of them with their hands hovering over their own weapons, ready to leap into the fray -- to hear and hold back. They nod to each other, dispersing -- Clarke has made her point and backed it up, they’ll consider her arguments.

It’s not anything like the pitched battles during Council meetings her mother recounted at the dinner table some nights. But when she thinks about it... yes, yes it is.

“Stop trying to undermine me,” Clarke says, low enough to be kept between the two of them, as she steps away to let Roan stand on his own feet.

“Stop assuming you can solve every issue with brute force,” he bites back, and immediately looks like he regrets it.

It makes her pause. He’s clever -- she thinks you have to be clever to grow up Nia’s child, and survive it -- and for all his power plays, it’s never resulted in truly negative consequences for the people of their Nation.

She should figure out a way to use him. Really use him, rather than push him off to wherever he’s not in her way.

... Klark’s way. He’s part of Klark’s court. As it was Klark’s body, her training and muscle memory, that allowed her to win the fight.

“You’re right,” she says. “I’ll keep that in mind.” She raises her eyes to meet his. “But I’m right about the Mountain. Brute force is the only thing they recognize.”

He smiles, a little sardonically. “As you say, my Queen,” and sketches a bow.

Clarke gives him a smirk of her own before turning back to make sure Genai isn’t in the middle of a heart attack.

It’s the look on Lexa’s face that stops her. She isn’t smiling, but there’s a lightness to her look, a brightness. As if she’s swallowed the sun whole and now you can see it almost shining through her skin.

Unthinking, Clarke takes another step toward her.

The spell is broken, and it’s Genai that Lexa turns to and says, casually, “She’s gotten faster.”

Genai looks a bit sour. “She’s been training since the coronation.”

“Do you think I could take you this time?” Clarke asks without thinking. The memory is like the flash of a solar flare: frigid air burning her lungs, flat on her back on the frozen ground. She’s winded and disarmed, Lexa is holding her knife -- but Clarke isn’t angry or upset. Lexa’s hair is mussed by the arctic wind, her nose and cheeks are red. Her eyes are shining.

She comes back to herself and the present Lexa with a bump.

The Commander lets out something that’s not quite a sigh. “No.”

Clarke takes another step forward.

But Lexa steps back. “I’ve been informed Anya and Tris have arrived back at camp. They brought the person I sent for. He’s ready to see you.”

Oh. Oh.

To verify the raun-keryon.

“Okay,” Clarke says. “I -- in a minute. I need to ask a favor of Genai.”

Lexa nods and gives the two of them a little space.

Clarke lowers her voice as she addresses her bodyguard. “I want Roan to go back to the court and inform them of the move against the Mountain. I think he can persuade those who won’t help unless I go back myself and make them.” She hesitates. “I want you and Trest to go with him.”

She watches a stormcloud gather on Genai’s face before hurriedly continuing: “I know you hate it, but Genai -- you’re the one I trust. Not him. You’ll stop things if they start to go wrong.”

“At least let me leave Trest with you.”

“I’d be more concerned with keeping him safe than the other way around. You know that.” She reaches out to squeeze the other woman’s arm. “Please? I know it’s not easy, but -- I want you to trust me as well.”

Genai considers her. “You did well today. Better than I expected.”

... after the morning she’s had? Clarke will take it. “Thank you.”

“Watching you,” Genai continues in a low voice, “I could forget sometimes. Who you really are.” She nods once. “I’ll do your favor.”

Clarke thanks her again, and decides the sudden flutter in her stomach is gratitude.  

________________________

 

Her ensuing conversation with Roan only takes a few minutes, and she’s startled to see how much he brightens at the thought of being useful. She tucks that awareness away for later, says their goodbyes, and tells Lexa she’s ready.

Clarke’s not sure what she expected -- maybe another ritual, smoking herbs and rattling beads, stuff like that. Instead Anya and Tris escort in the same man who fed her poison and pitied her, and Lexa asks:

“Is this woman,” indicating Clarke, “in the midst of a raun-keryon?”

and the man says

“Yes.”

...that seems to be the end of it.

He hardly gives Clarke a once-over. He’s more interested in the battle plan in the center of the tent, frowning at the model of the Mountain and their hypothetical troops positioned around it.

Clarke’s not alone in her surprise.

“That’s it?” Anya demands, folding her arms. “Don’t you need to test her, or something? Ask her questions?”

“What would I ask? They don’t remember the ritual itself, they never do. But as we can sense who is in need, so we also know the signs of those who have been served as our duty demands. Besides,” he adds under his breath, “just looking at her makes me dizzy.”

Clarke catches it. “What does that mean?”

She notices that while he doesn’t look directly at her, he keeps her in his peripheral vision. As if he wants to keep himself aware of her movements -- like she poses some kind of danger, though she’s not sure to who.

“You haven’t settled yet.”

“I --” She looks between him and Lexa, who’s frowning at the man. “I did. When I woke up in Polis.”

“No. You have latched on, but you haven’t settled. I understand your confusion, it isn’t supposed to happen like that. She’s very tenacious,” he says in a pointed aside to Lexa.

Lexa’s frown deepens, and she brings a hand up to rub at her temples. “So you’ve noticed.”

“I also notice you haven’t explained this to her.”

“We’ve been busy.”

“Explain what to me?” Clarke breaks into their conversation. She tries to catch Lexa’s eyes, but the Commander won’t raise them.

The man gives a soft tch, like a scold, before turning to face not Clarke’s general direction. His eyes refuse to focus on her. “You know why you were chosen for this.”

(“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.”)

Clarke swallows. “Yes.”

“Did you wonder why it was necessary at all? Why the fate of one soul should matter enough to pierce the boundary between worlds? The risk isn’t in losing your soul in that world, but in all of them.”

“That...” She finds herself looking to Lexa for -- an explanation, guidance, something. But the Commander of the clans is looking fixedly at the ground, eyes hooded. “That doesn’t make any sense. I’m the one who killed -- it doesn’t have anything to do with. Any of the others.”

“Yes, of course. Because the death of a soul is so uncomplicated, so free of consequences.” Before she can muster a response to that he’s shucking a string of beads off one wrist, shaking them in her direction. “It’s like this,” he says, clearly impatient. He touches his fingers to independent beads, making them spin on the cord. “They are separate, they move to their own whims. But they are connected. Now,” and he hooks a fingertip on the bottom-most bead, “should one of them become weighted, as you are,” and the cord grows taut with tension, the other beads sliding its length as gravity compels, “should it drop from the cycle of death and rebirth, as yours is so close to doing --”

Clarke opens her mouth to say, wait, but it’s too late. The cord snaps. The beads slip free with frightening ease. They go bouncing across the rugs underfoot with a sound like raindrops falling. Tris twitches, and even Anya looks a little green.

Only Lexa remains stoic, as still and silent as before, as one of the beads rolls over to stop against the side of her boot.

“Not all at once,” the man says in the ensuing silence. “But eventually.”

“Okay,” Clarke manages. “So the raun-keryon helps me, um, relieve that weight. If I prevent the deaths that happened in my world, I can go back to it, and --”

“Is that what I told you?”

She’s never going to get used to this practice of people talking like the different versions of themselves are all them . “It was heavily implied.”

He smiles mirthlessly. “I suppose that was easier than educating an outsider.”

“You lied to me?” She could kill him. See how his soul likes that chain reaction bullshit.

He surprises her by shrugging. “Perhaps it will turn out like that, for you. It’s unexpected, not impossible. More commonly the ritual serves as a reminder, a way of tempering whatever trauma caused the soul to loosen from its firmament to begin with.”

Again, Clarke looks to Lexa. Something about her expression causes Lexa’s to soften. “Right now,” Lexa says gently, “in that other world, your body is in a suspended state. You’re breathing, but there’s no other movement. You don’t need food or water.”

“That’s impossible,” Clarke protests. Lexa raises an eyebrow at her, casually turns her palm up and out as if to say: you have soul-traveled to a parallel universe, but yes, the magical coma part is impossible. Clarke sighs and nods; point taken. Then she remembers: “You’ve seen it yourself.”

“Yes. I was called to witness a raun-keryon when I first ascended. A man from the southern mountains.”

(“The little leader with the big eyes, looking at everything.”)

“Most who undergo the ritual want to escape whatever burdens their soul,” the man says. “The most likely outcome is that they realize, very quickly, that all worlds contain those burdens. That whatever random occurrence rules their lives, sometimes the familiar is more bearable, in the end. These people return to their bodies naturally, and very quickly.”

“What about the others?” She’s been in the ritual for more than two weeks. That’s not quick.

The man looks over his shoulder at Lexa. She’s the one who answers. “Their souls settle. They stay.”

“Stay where?” Clarke asks, because she’s stupid, because it takes that long to actually process -- “You can’t -- no, I don’t -- what about her?” she asks, slamming her first against her sternum. “What happens to her?”

“Her?” A scowl creases the man’s face. “You mean yourself in this world? Nothing. The souls integrate and become one. Burdens shared are burdens halved, and you are no longer in danger of being extinguished.” He peers at her. “You have felt some of this already. A lessening sense of being two-in-one, a growing familiarity with memories and sensations which are not yours. You haven’t settled completely, but you can’t stop it any more than you can push back the tide with your hands.”

Nature abhors a vacuum. The entropy of an isolated system increases.

She needs to sit down.

Clarke gropes behind her, legs buckling. Lexa’s at her side in an instant to grasp her elbow and guiding her into a chair. Once Clarke is seated Lexa sits on her heels before her, drawing out Clarke’s hands to chafe some warmth back into them. Clarke’s extremities are feel frozen -- shock, she realizes. Once too many in the past few days.

Anya is hooking a hand around Tris’s forearm and not-so-subtly dragging her out of the tent. Perhaps it's this unexpected show of consideration that gives Clarke the courage to whisper to Lexa, “You’re in love with her. If we let this happen, she disappears.”

“No one will disappear,” the man says from over by the table. He doesn’t share Anya’s compunctions. “If you shine a light on two of the same object standing together, does the shadow alter?”

“I’m not her.” Clarke ignores him. She focuses on Lexa -- this Lexa, who sacrificed Costia for this world’s Clarke, and is now apparently ready to give her up as well. “I keep telling you, we have completely different lives. We’re not the same.”

“And I keep telling you,” Lexa says, voice and hands equally gentle, “that you are.”

Clarke takes her hands back. Slowly, Lexa rises to her feet. Across the tent the man huffs in impatience, muttering to himself as he exits.

Clarke curls her fingers inward, steadying herself by driving her nails into her palms. “Do you know how to send me back?”

“No.”

“The second step of the ritual was poison --”

“That loosens a body’s hold on its original soul, nothing more.”

“You can’t keep me here.”

“No one is keeping you anywhere,” Lexa says, back to being completely composed. “If your soul remains, that’s what it desires.”

She waits for an answer to that, but Clarke has none.

“Take a little time,” Lexa says as she steps away. “We need to leave for the Mountain soon.”

She has her hand on the tent’s opening flap when Clarke finds her voice.

“If,” and she sees Lexa halt as if she’d been anticipating this, “if I don’t go back...” Panic dries up her throat for a second, and she has to clear it. “Do I get, uh, reincarnated again in that world? According to what you believe?”

She can hear birdsong, the usual sounds of the camp. But the sunlight coming through the open flap slants to hide Lexa’s face. “No.”

Clarke digs her nails in deeper. “You know what that means for -- her. For you.”

“Better you be absent from one world than from all of them.”

Lexa doesn’t wait for a response, instead leaving Clarke alone with her thoughts in the cool shadows of the tent.

 

________________________

 

She needs to pull herself together.

Clarke is still shaking a little when she makes her way out of Lexa’s tent, squinting at the onslaught of sunshine. But she’s up, she’s out.

And this stuff will sort itself out. She’s sure of it. Her soul hasn’t settled because it doesn’t want to ; it hasn’t returned because she hasn’t finished what she came to do in the first place. End of.

She makes a detour to the Akers’ tent, all the same.

Clarke finds them outside of their tent, enjoying the nice weather. Costia’s there as well, roasting small and rodent-y over banked embers.

Clarke stops short on seeing her, overcome with an awkwardness similar to seeing Lexa this morning. “Hi.” She looks around at the others, extending the greeting: “Hi.”

They murmur it back to her, though Costia gives her a look that clearly communicates what do you think you’re doing?

She honestly doesn’t know. These people aren’t her friends. They can’t help remind her of who she is.

“We’re riding over to the foot of the Mountain today,” she tells Costia in Trigedasleng, switching gears. “Nothing was said, but I guessed you want to come along.”

“You guessed right,” Costia says as she climbs to her feet. She hands her skewer to Raven, who takes it, her face an absolute picture. “You, too,” she says to Lincoln. “And you,” switching to English for Octavia.

“What’s happening?” Octavia asks, already on her feet.

“Your training.”

Lincoln takes one look at the way Octavia’s face brightens and slumps in visible defeat. “You think the Commander will agree?” he asks.

“That’s why you are both coming with me, so you can smile and plead silently with your eyes.” She grins, a little wicked. “But Heda has a weakness for pretty girls, so maybe you should have yours stand in front.”

She smiles at Lincoln’s grumble and Octavia’s delighted laugh, but it drops the as she turns to face Clarke. “A trip to the Mountain?” she asks, back in Trigedasleng. “And whose wonderful idea was that?”

“Mine,” Clarke says. “It’s worth the risk.”

“Mmm.” But her gaze flickers to Lincoln and Octavia drawing close, and she moves away with a warning look.

Clarke watches the three of them walk away. She wonders if Lexa is more or less likely to give into Costia’s whims, now, or if their public relationship will be all but unchanged. They seem to have a knack for that, the trick of separating who they are together from who they are to the world.

She. Doesn’t think she ever had that trick. Even when she thought... back when she misunderstood the situation between herself and Lexa, shoving it to the side in favor of more immediate concerns had been a necessity, not a skill. It was easier given the surreality of it all. Sometimes she would stop and wonder whether the kiss had actually happened.

Then Lexa would look at her. Those looks would create a world, contained in the space between them, and --

“Hey,” Wells says.

Clarke starts, realizing she’s been staring off into the distance for the past minute. “Oh, I --”

“Come sit with us?”

And nothing, she tells herself as she takes a place next to him around the dying cookfire. So she wasn’t using you, and it wasn’t a trick. It also wasn’t... Admitting it is like swallowing down scalding water. It wasn’t what you hoped it could be.

You know what she really looks like when she’s in love with you. Now.

Wells is looking at her expectantly.

“I’m sorry, what?” she asks.

“We were wondering about the newcomer to camp,” he says, nodding past her shoulder.

Clarke turns. The man Anya and Tris brought back from the deep woods is holding court at the center of camp. He appears to be taking conferences with the warriors one by one, a pile of offerings growing next to him where he sits in the grass.

“He’s -- uh --” Inspiration strikes. “He’s a priest for the Woods Clan. Or not really. They have these ideas about souls and reincarnation, so.”

“Yeah, Lincoln was telling us about that,” Raven says from across the fire. She picks at whatever Costia was roasting, making a pleased expression at the taste. “It kind of sounds like Buddhism mixed with string theory.”

“They’re pretty serious about it,” Clarke warns as she turns back around. Finn isn’t sitting by his girlfriend. Instead he’s lying down in the grass with his back up against one of the tree trunks the rest of them are sitting on, hands behind his head and eyes at half-mast. He catches her looking and smiles.

“Fresh air, sun on my face,” he says. “I’m never gonna get tired of it.”

“But what does he do, exactly?” Wells asks.

Clarke tears her gaze away from Finn -- she wants to keep an image of him like that forever, play it back when she wakes from nightmares of his dying breath on her lips -- and it takes more of an effort than she expects. She’s shaking again.

“I, um,” she stumbles. “He performs rituals. Raun-keryon. I don’t actually know that much, it’s Woods Clan business.”

Raun-keryon ,” Wells repeats, cocking his head to the side as he sits back. “ Raun. Ker -- what is that?”

“Something about a soul?” Raven offers. Clarke’s head jerks in her direction -- she’d forgotten Lincoln was teaching them Trigedasleng. “The idea of a soul being... around?”

“Like wandering around?” Wells counters. “Maybe Lincoln could --”

“No, don’t,” Clarke interrupts. “Don’t ask Lincoln.”

The two of them turn to look at her, and Finn raises his head. He’s the one to ask: “Why not?”

“I --” She shouldn’t have come out here, not after the revelations of this morning. It’s like all her pieces are rattling out of order, she’s not sure if she’s coming or going. Or who she’ll be when she arrives. “I’m. I’m not supposed to know about it. Neither are you. Like I said, the Woods Clan is very secretive.”

“So how do you know about it?” Raven asks, chewing her meat.

“Maybe she’s one of the wandering souls,” Finn says. It’s pure flirt -- he winks at her, inviting her to laugh. She should.

Before this morning, she would have.

Instead she’s picturing beads spilling over the rugs in Lexa’s tent.

“Like from another world?” Wells says. She doesn’t think he’s noticed her discomfort, though Finn is giving her a concerned look. “A parallel universe?”

“Is there one where I don’t get thrown into the Skybox?” Raven asks. Her fingers are shiny with grease as she makes a face at the remaining bones. “Because no offense, but being down here makes me miss the creature comforts of the Ark, and I never thought that was possible.”

Wells chuckles. “Maybe there’s one where we never made it to the Ark at all, and we’re the Grounders.”

Finn is still watching Clarke. And Clarke has no idea what to say.

Belatedly, she realizes she can leave. She makes as if to rise to her feet.

The second she shifts Wells is grabbing her arm, pulling her to face him.

“You knew the names of the lost passengers,” he says. He won’t stop scanning her face. “You got Bellamy to trust you. You knew about the map, Raven, the system failure on the Ark. You speak English better than anyone else in this camp, and you don’t follow their customs.”

He blinks, and Clarke finds herself facing the expression she’s seen on his face countless times across a black and white board, right before he said checkmate.

“You were on the Ark with us,” he says quietly.

She pulls her arm out of his hold. “I have to go.” She doesn’t look at the others to see if they’ve heard him, or understood.

She flees.

 

________________________

 

Clarke never misses Genai more than when she has to wrangle her own horse. Maybe she shouldn’t have been so quick to send her off.

It’s herself, Lexa, Costia, Octavia, Lincoln, and a small entourage of warriors on this trip. Nothing too flashy or large as to draw attention. Hopefully it will look like the Commander doing a routine survey of her territory to the Mountain’s surveillance team.

Octavia is already mounted. Her saddle has been adjusted to accommodate her leg, and Clarke can see Costia and Lincoln showing her how best to use the advantage. She watches them as she adjusts her own horse’s tack.

“Hey, Clarke.”

She jerks so hard on the reins her horse blows at her, and she strokes his neck a few times in apology. “Finn.” It comes out as a croak. She clears her throat. “What are you doing here?”

“I wanted to talk with you.”

“Can it wait? We’re about to leave --”

“It’s true, isn’t it.” He comes closer, his eyes intent on her face.  “Ask me how I know it’s true.”

Her stomach drops. “Finn, don’t.”

“Because of this.” He motions at the air between them, and she notices his hands are trembling. “I felt it since the moment I met you -- some kind of connection, like recognition.”

Please don’t,” she whispers.

“Look at me. Tell me we aren’t together in your world.”

It should be easier to do this. Meeting his eyes feels like lying, even if nothing else is. “We’re not. Finn. You have a girlfriend.”

A frown pulls at his mouth as he looks away. “I know,” he says. “Raven’s amazing, but I -- I look at you, and. I start believing in things like destiny.”

“You weren’t even supposed to meet me in this world.”

“Did I fail you somehow?” he asks, not listening to her. “Is that why we aren’t together? Why won’t you trust this?”

Clarke draws a deep breath, and on her best Ice Queen imperiousness. “I’m leaving. I want you to forget this conversation, okay? I want you, for all intents and purposes, to forget me.”

The look he gives her in return is so bewildered, so hurt, it takes an effort not to flinch.

“Is there a problem?”

Clarke kind of resents Klark right now because, ninja fighting skills aside, what would be really cool is the ability to not be constantly snuck up on.

Even if it’s Lexa this time. She looks back and forth between Finn and Clarke, her face a careful blank.

Finn opens his mouth, and then closes it with an audible swallow. “You can believe in me,” he says. “I’ll find a way to prove it to you, I promise.”

He walks off, stride jerky and uncoordinated.

“Was he bothering you?” Lexa asks.

“I...” Clarke shakes her head. “No.”

Lexa narrows her eyes. She casts her gaze at Finn’s retreating back, her focus sharpening in a way that’s sickeningly familiar.

Before she can think about it Clarke is reaching out to grasp her arm, gives it a reprimanding shake. “Lexa. No.”

When Lexa turns back her mouth hangs open in soft astonishment. Clarke snatches her hand away.

But when Lexa speaks, it’s not to ask where Clarke got the habit of speaking to her like a willful puppy. “Can I call you by your name, then?”

Clarke’s a little taken aback. “Sure. You were doing that before, right?” She remembers their first conference in the woods, and how it felt to hear Lexa call her by her new name.

“I didn’t say it right.” Lexa tips her head to the side. “It sounds different when you’ve grown up in the Sky.”

“Well, I don’t really care, either way.”

“That’s not true.” Lexa watches her as she finally makes her horse ready to ride. “You say it one way when you mean yourself in this world. You say it a different way when you mean -- yourself.”

Clarke hoists herself into the saddle. “It’s just for clarification,” she says, suddenly uncomfortable with the turn this has taken. “You don’t need to go to the trouble.”

“I don’t mind.” Clarke gets the impression Lexa is actually tonguing her teeth behind her closed lips. “It’s a little softer this way. Klark.” She makes a face. “ Clarc. No. Clarke --”

It’s not quite as close as her own Lexa used to come to it, but it’s close enough. Suddenly Clarke is bombarded memories: each time Lexa held her name in her mouth and admonished or cajoled or calmed her. Each time Clarke felt seen by her.

“Stop,” she says, voice shaking. It’s weak, but it’s enough to surprise the Lexa on the ground into silence as she raises questioning eyes. “Leave it alone, okay?”

She presses her heels against her horse and ride over to the others.

 

________________________

 

The plan is simple.

She didn’t get a lot of chances to look at Lincoln’s map of the reaper tunnels, but she has an artist’s eye -- she can conjure up the basic shape from memory. All she needs to do is show Lexa the entrance from a safe distance, explain a few details about the network of tunnels and mines, and prove it’s a viable plan of attack.

It’s a good plan.

It doesn’t account for how the entrance is currently buried under a pile of rubble.

They left the horses back in the woods for the sake of stealth with Octavia and Lincoln to guard them. Now they’re standing around the blocked entrance on foot. Costia is the one to approach it, once it becomes clear there’s no danger of running into reapers in the immediate area. Clarke can only stare helplessly, and Lexa seems reluctant to leave her side.

“It looks like the mine shaft collapsed,” Costia calls back. She investigates, poking and prodding at the rocks. “No chance of clearing these away, either. It’s been at least a few years. The dirt’s settled in with each rainfall.”

“Clarke,” Lexa says softly. “Look at me.”

She can’t. It’s like she’s stuck in place. She keeps seeing not the mine in front of them, but the main door to the Mountain. She can feel freezing rain on her skin.

“Clarke.” Lexa is standing in front of her, reaching out to put her hands on Clarke’s shoulders. “Say something."

“You’re supposed to walk away at this point,” Clarke whispers. She feels dizzy.

“What?” When Clarke doesn’t answer, Lexa gives her shoulders a squeeze. “You said you knew the tunnel system. That hasn’t changed. We can find another way in.” Her grip tightens.

“How?” Clarke gasps out.

“How did you discover this one to begin with?”

Clarke stares at her, uncomprehending. “That’s -- it’s not an option here.”

Lexa’s hold is almost bruising. “Are you sure?”

She doesn’t know what she’s asking, of course. Clarke does. Clarke knows exactly what kind of pain and suffering brought about that map.

She knows exactly how to set it in motion for the second time.

“No,” Clarke says. She wrenches free. “No, I can’t do it.”

“Clarke,” Lexa calls after her.

“I won’t,” Clarke throws over her shoulder as she heads back into the woods.

 

________________________

 

They make their way to the horses in a straggling group. As she walks up Clarke sees Octavia and Lincoln sitting on the ground under a massive tree with their heads close together. Octavia straightens as a twig snaps underneath Clarke’s foot, looking flushed. Lincoln remains with his weight shifted toward her and a soft smile.

“How’d it go?” Octavia asks. She sees Clarke’s face and winces. “That bad, huh?”

“We have to regroup and reconsider,” Lexa says from a little way behind Clarke. “But not everything is lost.”

Lexa kept close to Clarke the entire way back. Clarke somehow knows that if she’d slowed her own angry, almost fevered pace, or looked up from the forest floor for one second, Lexa would have taken the opportunity to say this to her already.

Which is why she didn’t do those things.

Clarke doesn’t look back at the Commander now as she walks over to her horse and untangles the reins from the “at rest” looping. She can feel the eyes on her. She doesn’t care.

Octavia pokes her head into Clarke’s peripheral vision. “You okay?”

“Fine,” Clarke says. She wouldn’t respond, except Octavia’s hard to resist when she’s hopping around one leg and steering her Lincoln-support around by his shoulder. Clarke’s gaze catches on Lincoln, and she’s swept by a wave of sick dizziness.

“You don’t look it.”

Clarke opens her mouth to snarl --

-- and then everything happens very fast.

A crack snaps through the air, reverberating with a volume that makes Clarke think, gunshot, even before the horse Lexa has mounted rears up screaming. Clarke sees blood streaming down one of its legs and her heart gives a single pound she feels throughout her body. Before Clarke can think, or move, Costia sets two arrows flying in rapid succession. Clarke hears the thunk as they hit home a split second before the second gunshot. Someone grabs her shoulder and shoves her against the nearest tree so hard her head snaps back to the trunk.

The pain in her skull makes it hard to concentrate on anything else. She waits for the stars to fade from her vision. “Who’s hurt?” she croaks. She blinks and the light becomes a little less bright, the shadows deepen. “Octavia, who’s hurt?”

“I -- uh -- no one,” Octavia calls back, a little breathless. “I mean, the guy in the tree, but Costia -- shit, did you see how fast she moved?”

“What about the Commander?” There’d been a second shot.

Octavia doesn’t respond right away. Clarke can hear shouting, can see a few of the warriors dragging a Mountain Man (complete with camouflaged air suit) out of the bushes he fell into when Costia’s arrows found their home. She should straighten up, go see for herself, but her body disagrees.

“She’s fine,” Octavia says, and Clarke lets out a breath she wasn’t aware she was holding. “They have to put down her horse, though,” she continues, sounding subdued.

“Good. I mean.” Clarke shakes her head. “You know what I mean.” She shifts so that she can see Lincoln better where he’s standing off to the side, scanning the treetops for possible backups. “You didn’t have to shove me so hard. I mean, thanks, but ow.”

He switches his gaze to her, frowning slightly. “I didn’t.”

“No?” He shakes his head. “Octavia?” she asks, and her skepticism is answered with another head shake. “Okay, somebody grabbed me, practically pulled my arm out of its socket.” She starts to feel it now that the pain in her head is receding, becoming a throbbing headache focused in her temples. Her right shoulder twinges with every shift, and she reaches up to press it.

That makes it hurt more. And then, suddenly, her fingers are wet. Something warm and liquid has been dripping down her side, too, so much it’s soaking her clothes from the inside out. She’s only just now feeling it.

She draws back her hand to see her fingers are streaked with blood.

Clarke looks up into Octavia’s slowly widening eyes.

“Oh,” she says, fuzzy around the edges. She remembers circles, echoing the same vibrant red, stamped over her face as well as Lexa’s. “I forgot about this part.”

Her knees give out like someone cut her strings.

Clarke,” she hears Lexa shout.

Said it right that time, she thinks before darkness rolls over her.

 

________________________

________________________

 

 

She’s still not awake.

But it’s easier now: to breathe through the sense of overwhelming weight, to relax into the small corner of her mind, to know where she is.

And, surprisingly, who she’s with.

“This is creepy,” Octavia’s voice floats over her. “She looks dead.”

“She does not,” Raven corrects. “We’ve both seen enough dead people to know better.”

“Close enough,” and the direction of the sound makes Clarke picture her in a chair, settling deeper into the cushions. “She’s just lying there.”

“The Commander said she’s fine, no matter what it looks like.”

“Oh, and you trust her, now?”

“No.” There’s a world of sureness in the one word. “But I don’t think she’d bring us all this way to watch Clarke die.” She stumbles over the last word.

“Please don’t tell me you believe that garbage about her soul wandering, or whatever.”

“Better than Clarke out there in the woods choosing to not come back.”

“Yeah,” Octavia says after a moment. “Okay.”

“Besides, Indra seems to believe it. Isn’t that your cue to fall in with the party line, like a good Grounder?”

“Indra won’t look me in the face. Don’t apologize,” so quickly Clarke thinks Raven must have opened her mouth to do that. “I’m over it. It’s over.”

“Are you sure? I think she’s the one who put your name forward for... this.” Raven hesitates. “You know I wanted to come, but maybe you should have brought Bellamy as your allotted backup. Me and Clarke, we were fighting a lot right before Mount Weather.”

“They said people she’s close to. You don’t fight with people who don’t matter.” Octavia adds: “Besides, if I’d told Bellamy what was happening he would have found a new floor to lock me under. You know he thinks anything to do with Lexa is a waste of time.”

“You feeling real productive right now?”

Clarke can hear the creak of Octavia’s leathers when she shrugs. “At least we saw Polis.”

“Maybe you should have brought Lincoln, then. It’s his belief system, right?”

Octavia laughs bitterly. “I don’t think even this would make Lexa lift the kill order.”

“Speaking of. How’s your hand?”

“Perfect,” sounding smug.

“Hey, we should tell her.” The bed tilts beneath Clarke, and Raven’s voice becomes clearer as she leans in close. “Octavia managed to actually land one on Commander Resting Bitchface,” Raven murmurs. “The mark’ll fade before you wake up, if you don’t hurry.”

A beat of expectant silence, two, and then three, before Octavia sighs.

“Worth a shot,” Raven says, and her voice moves farther off. Clarke has the impression of distance growing between them and realizes it’s her, falling back wherever she came from as her awareness kaleidoscopes down into a pinprick.

 

________________________

________________________

 

“ -- wakes up,” Clarke hears as she comes awake. Costia’s voice. “Or if there’s any change, I’ll come get you.”

Her eyes aren’t open. They feel heavy, and gummy, and they hurt. Everything hurts. Whatever’s happening in her right shoulder brings new meaning to the word, but the rest of her is one roiling ache. She lifts her eyelids a bit. It takes effort.

Clarke is lying in her own bed, going from the familiar pattern of water and smoke damage staining this side of the tent. She’s been turned onto her side -- shoulder elevated -- and propped into place with cushions at her back. The voices are behind her.

“Do you know what to look for?” Lexa’s voice. She sounds about as bad as Clarke feels.

Costia gives the kind of sigh that speaks of patience hanging by the thinnest of threads. “What is it about this girl that makes you forget the last ten years?” Lexa must do something in response -- scowl, or flinch -- because Costia’s tone becomes noticeably softer. “I’ve nursed dozens of people through injuries until we reached safety. I’ve patched you up more times than I can count. Indra’s healers were very clear about what she needs and what the dangers are. She’ll be fine.

“But you need to rest,” becoming more strident. “You’ve been screaming at everyone and everything in sight for the past five hours.”

“I wasn’t screaming,” Lexa mutters.

“Authoritatively commanding, then. You look terrible. You won’t shut your eyes for more than a minute before you open them to check on her. Go back to your tent and sleep.”

There’s a pause before Lexa says: “I should speak with the other clan leaders first.” To Clarke’s ears it sounds like acquiescence.

“They can wait,” Costia says. “I’m sure they’ll be happy to, given how you were frothing at the mouth earlier.”

“I wasn’t --” Lexa sighs. “I do need to be close to her. It isn’t -- with the ritual, I need --”

“Your own tent has been close enough for days, it should work for the next few hours.” Clarke wonders what face Lexa is making, because Costia makes an exasperated noise. “We can move a second pallet in here for the rest of the night. Later. Wait until the others have retired to move it in here, at least for my sake.”

Clarke has a hard time imagining Costia would be that bothered with whatever gossip would run through -- is already pervasive in -- the warriors’ camp. She has a much easier time understanding the art of guilting Lexa out of self-defeating stubbornness.

“Thank you,” Lexa says.

“If the Mountain is this eager to see her dead, it means she really is a threat to them. I’m happy to keep her alive.”

“No, I meant... For taking care of me. Still.”

The answering silence stretches out for so long, Clarke wonders if she dipped back into sleep and missed Lexa’s exit. Or if she’s been asleep this entire time, and the voices are the dream. Until:

“Do you think I only love you when you’re mine?”

Lexa draws a sharp breath in response.

“You think I’d rather lose you completely, than to someone else?” Costia continues. She gives a small, sad, sigh. “Please don’t imagine me to be -- I don’t know, suddenly generous beyond imagining, with the patience of the Spirit.”

“You have been shockingly well-behaved,” Lexa says, voice a bit thick.

“Oh, you don’t get to criticize me, either,” Costia says. “Not on anything. Not for years.” She drops back into softness. “But this wasn’t a surprise. I’ve been coming to terms for a long time.”

“I know.”

“No. I don’t think you do.” Another, longer sigh. “It’s not just the two years since you met her. Lexa. Don’t you think I knew what it meant to fall in love with a nightblood?”

“... is that why you..?”

“Ignored you at every turn? Made sure you knew about every one of my bed partners? Yes.” She laughs, a little rueful. “Not that it did any good. You continued to throw yourself at me.”

“Sometimes I would wake up in the morning and I could barely eat at meals,” Lexa says. “Like there was room for nothing else inside me but what I felt for you.” She hesitates. “But I didn’t throw --”  

“If you can go to pieces because she takes a shoulder wound, then let it be said that yes, in the distant past, you threw yourself at me. Repeatedly.

“Costia --”

“But I knew then,” Costia resumes. “I would be lucky if you passed the conclave, and after that... I couldn’t know, not for certain, but it’s no secret that the Spirit can swallow a person whole.”

“I'm still here.”

“You are,” Costia agrees. “And you are still the Lexa I love. But you are something else, as well.” She swallows heavily. “You never knew, but I would get so frightened. I would lie awake nights, and even with you beside me I was terrified that you would drift away, or be snatched up in the teeth of some larger cause. Maybe the change would be so gradual I would miss it, or maybe it would happen when I wasn’t there, with no one else to notice. The Commander would remain, but you -- you would only be a shadow in my memory. I used to shake, thinking about it. I would beg any power that might be listening for a way to stop it. Something to match against that massive destiny of yours.

“And now,” she continues, “We’ve finally found it. Something to anchor you to yourself. Something with just as much claim on your soul as the Spirit. Even better -- that something is a someone.” She sounds like she can barely breathe through her tears. “But it isn’t me.”   

Clarke is so grateful she can’t see their faces. She shouldn’t be awake for this. It isn’t hers.

All she can do is shut her eyes tight and lie very still.

“It’s a heady thing, you know. To be loved the way you love a person, when you only see them. She won’t ever know that of you. But I -- did. And,” wistfully, “I want what I had before. I want your whole heart. You haven’t had that to give me, not for two years.”  

“If I could --”

“You can’t. We’ve lost that battle, my love. If we don’t acknowledge that, and retreat, we might lose everything that remains between us in the war that follows.”

There’s a sob, the sound of a body rising to its feet. The rustle of fabric, and Clarke can picture them wrapped up in each other, both holding on as if in the middle of a storm.

“I’m sorry,” Lexa says, wrecked. “Costia, I’m so sorry.”

“Do you regret it? Any of it?”

No,” low and fierce, like Lexa is ready to rip open anyone who would claim otherwise.

Costia gives a damp laugh. “Then I’m not.”

A soft sound: a kiss goodbye.

“Go,” Costia says. “I promise to keep her alive at least for a little while longer.”

Clarke listens to the sound of Lexa pushing back the tent flap, her steps as she walks away.

Costia draws a deep breath and releases it, loud, like she’s setting down a heavy burden. “She’s gone. You can open your eyes.”

Clarke whole body twitches, but she opens her eyes slowly. She turns over in the bed -- wincing -- to see Costia watching her, hands on her hips.

“I never thought I’d get her out of here before she noticed,” she tells Clarke. “You need lessons in stealth. Your breathing gives you away.”

Clarke sits up. It takes a lot of doing. Every movement twinges her shoulder and other things, and she’s ready to sleep again by the time she’s propped up on the pillows. Costia doesn’t help, but when Clarke is done she’s poured out a mug of water and is ready to hold it to Clarke’s lips.

“Thank you,” Clarke says after she swallows the whole thing down. Costia pours more, and this time she lets Clarke take it from her. “I thought you promised to get her when I woke up.”

“She needs to sleep. I lied.”

“She gets upset when I do that.”

“You let her catch you at it. Like I said, you need stealth lessons.” Costia hops into a low-slung chair that must have been brought in earlier -- Clarke doesn’t remember seeing anything like it in her tent before. Costia is more reserved than usual, wrapping her arms around herself as she gets comfortable. She won’t meet Clarke’s eyes.

Clarke inspects her bandage instead. When she’s happy with what she sees -- tight wrapping, some kind of salve beneath -- she asks, “What’s the damage?”

“It was a through and through. A nothing injury, whatever some people might say.”

Clarke ignores the pointed remark. “It would have been worse if you hadn’t spotted the sniper. Thank you.” She waits until Costia meets her gaze. “You saved my life.”

The other girl’s face is unusually still. “So we’re even.”

“Yeah,” Clarke says. “I guess so.”

Costia nods, casts her eyes downward. She appears to chew over that -- Clarke watches, drinking her water -- before saying: “In that case you can do something for me.”

“Like what?”

“Just now,” Costia says slowly, “you were listening?”

Clarke nods, but Costia doesn’t look up. Clarke doesn’t think it was a real question.

“So you heard me.” Costia puts her hands in her lap: idly twining the fingers together, pulling them apart. “I was brave, wasn’t I. Strong, and very... selfless. I want to ask you something, because I want to be selfish. For a moment.”

“Okay.”

Costia’s fingers brush over the band of pale skin that has yet to fade from the base of her thumb, and linger. “In your world. When she lost me. Did it hurt her?”

Clarke understands the impulse to ask. It is selfish, a little bit, but it’s also so simple: do the people I love really love me back, would they suffer as much as I’m suffering. Costia can’t ask Lexa how much pain she’s in now, here. It wouldn’t be fair to either of them.

But she can ask this.

“I don’t think there’s a word for what it did to her,” Clarke says.

Costia nods, sniffing back tears. She draws her knees up to her chest and puts her arms around them. “I thought that would make me feel a little better,” she says, the sound muffled as she speaks into her knees.

“It didn’t?”

“No,” with another sniff. “Now I’m worried about two of them. Ugh.” She wipes at her eyes. “I know she didn’t break the Coalition, but -- was it very bad?”

“I don’t really know,” Clarke evades. “Remember, I didn’t meet her until recently.”

“But you talked about losing someone you love. I thought, maybe..?”

“Oh, it wasn’t -- I mean, we didn’t discuss the grieving process.” Not unless you counted Lexa’s decision to suppress any and all subsequent emotion, but, no. No, Clarke was not going to mention that. She leans down to put her empty cup somewhere stable, wincing. “I’m sure she was... You know, she had Anya and Gustus to watch over her, then.”

She’s too preoccupied with the pain in her shoulder as she sits back to realize her mistake, until Costia says: “Then?”

Too slow, too fucking slow, Clarke looks up to see Costia staring at her in horror. “Then?” she repeats.

“Costia,” Clarke says, gripping the blankets, “you can’t tell her. You can’t tell anyone. I shouldn’t have told you, please.”

“Gustus?” Costia says, sounding strangled. “Anya?”

Clarke squeezes her eyes shut. “Yes,” she whispers.

“... how?”

Clarke thinks of protesting, but that’s never worked with Costia. And maybe -- maybe -- part of her wants to share some of this burden with someone else. “Gustus tried to sabotage the alliance between our people,” she says. “He was sentenced to death by a thousand cuts.”

“Lexa delivered the final blow, didn’t she.”

“Yes.” Clarke remembers the first time she could see Lexa beneath the mask of the Commander. Peeking out around the edges, but there she’d been. A girl, close to her own age, who had just killed someone who loved her. The look in her eyes had been the strangest mirror in the world, and a glimpse of quiet in the raging chaos, all at once.

“Anya,” and this one hurts, it actually hurts her throat to force the words out. “was killed by the Sky People. It was an accident. Or -- they meant to kill her, but they didn’t know...” The excuses she’s told herself for months now have finally gone stale, and she finds herself offering up the ugliest truth as if in penance: “They shot her in the back.”

“Does Lexa know that? Your Lexa?”

She’d never challenged it. But she’d never brought up Anya again, ever.

("... more accustomed to you lying to me.")

“I don’t know,” Clarke says. “I hope not.”

“Don’t tell her.” Clarke looks up to see Costia, pale and shaken. Her hands tremble as she raises them to her mouth. “Don’t ever tell her that’s how it happened,” she continues in a whisper.

Clarke can’t keep any of it to herself anymore, can feel this horrible knowledge pushing at her from the inside as if she might suddenly explode. It might be because of the look on Costia’s face -- the same look she left Camp Jaha to keep from seeing, day in and day out, on the face of everyone who turns her way. “It’s so awful,” she says, voice breaking. “We’ve lost so many people. And then you find yourself killing. First out of necessity, in self-defense but it just piles up and you don’t know why anymore. You don’t even know how many people have died because of you.”

“You never counted it up?”

Who could? Who would? Who’d want to do that to themselves -- sit and tally the deaths under their name, take every mangled body and give it a number? Scratch marks into the dirt and say it represented a stolen life?

Costia takes one look at her face and asks: “How many?”

Clarke shudders. “I can’t get past eight hundred.” She’d tried in the woods. Twice. She’d thrown up both times.

“I wondered how much death it would take to offer raun-keryon to someone outside the Clan,” Costia says. She swallows. “That... would be enough.”

“There’s so much death. It just keeps coming.” She scrubs at her face with her hands. Like the day she left Camp Jaha, she can feel desperation like physical presence as it spreads through her body: weighing her limbs, clogging her throat. Squeezing the life out of her. “It never stops. Sometimes I wonder how I can bring myself to go back to all that.”

“Oh, you’re going back.”

Clarke looks up. Costia has allowed her booted feet to fall back to the floor, and she sits perfectly upright, her hands white-knuckled on the arm rests. “You think -- after me, and Gustus, and Anya -- you can just stay here? I don’t care if I have to carry your unconscious body up to the top of the world, rip a hole in the sky, and shove you into the next world with my own two hands. You’re going back.”

Clarke stares at her. “I -- I’m pretty sure that’s not how it works.”

“Do I look like I care?” She’s on her feet, towering over Clark in her bed. “You come into our lives, take away the one person I care about -- no,” she corrects herself. “You didn’t take her. She loves you more. Fine,” she says, savage. “You want to make it up to me? This is how. I don’t care what went wrong between you. Fight her, hate her, but you are going back. You’re not leaving her alone.

“She left me first,” Clarke lashes out, as instinctive as returning a slap.

Costia draws back as if she felt the blow, faltering. “She’s stupid sometimes, and stubborn. That doesn’t mean you can... she needs you,” she finishes, with such fierceness Clarke can tell how much it costs her.

But she doesn't know what she’s talking about. “You’re wrong. She doesn’t even want me.”

Costia searches her face before saying: “Of course. She would end up soul-tied to someone equally stupid.” It’s hard for Clarke to take offense, though, given Costia’s look of barely-concealed panic. “I’m not talking to you about this any more, because it’s not under debate. I don’t care what she tells you, either.”

She storms out of the tent before Clarke can come up with a reply. 

 

________________________

 

Clarke jolts awake on the tail-end of residual adrenaline, a full body twitch as she opens her eyes.

She has a bad moment between the darkness of the tent and the searing pain in her shoulder, the surrounding ache that holds her entire right side sluggishly captive. She struggles with the weight of the blankets that seem to pin her down -- she can’t see, she can’t move --

Clarke hears the scratch of a sulphur head against rock, and then the flare of licking flame. She turns to the sound to see Lexa already standing over by a small bank of candles, lighting one before waving out her match.

“What are you doing here?” Clarke says. Or tries to say, her mouth is cottony and she’s not sure it comes out right. Lexa pours out a cup of water instead of answering. She brings it over and wraps Clarke’s unsteady fingers around the fired clay as she helps Clarke sit upright, with her legs over the side.

Clarke downs it in two gulps, and Lexa gets her a refill. This one Clarke tries to drink slowly, relaxing as the water eases the pounding in her head and some of the general aches in her body. Lexa sits, watching her. She rests on a second pallet they must have brought into the tent while Clarke was sleeping. The Commander herself is dressed for sleeping, soft pants and loose shirt.

“Another?” she asks as Clarke finishes.

Clarke shakes her head. “What are you doing here?”

“Do you want me to go?”

Clarke frowns at her. “Answer my question, please,” she mutters against the rim of her cup as she takes another sip.

Lexa leans back on her hands, tucks her bare feet beneath her. “I assume you don’t wish leave this world before you are ready.”

“Injury serves as a kickstarter for the ritual. So injury can reverse the process?”

“It takes more than physical harm to displace a soul. But yours is not native to this world, it can be easier to displace.” Her eyes narrow. “Or you might simply succeed in splitting your head open if you tried anything. I wouldn't recommend it as a workable plan."

It makes a strange sort of sense when Clarke thinks about medical transplants and the threat of rejection, even for cosmetic procedures. She drinks the rest of her water before holding out the cup. Lexa puts it back by the pitcher before returning to her pallet, and Clarke can’t tell if the lack of thanks bothers her.

“How does your being here help?”

“A countermeasure.”

It’s always a jolt, seeing Lexa out of her armor. Clarke’s eyes are drawn to the fine bones of her wrists and ankles. It’s hard to place her in the same context as the blood-smeared figure who dominates the battlefield, but Clarke hasn’t forgotten Thelonius Jaha’s stories of the limping slave girl who brought him to his knees. Clarke wonders what it looks like when Lexa tries to seem small.

“Clarke?”

Pay attention, Clarke. “Sorry. You said something like that before, right? About how a keryon teina can help to anchor you in one world or the next.”

“Yes.”

So here Lexa is -- sleeping close, bringing her water, watching over her. Making sure her soul doesn’t fly off in the wrong direction. While the Lexa in her world... well, she hasn’t quite locked Clarke away and forgotten about her. Maybe she's capable of feeling guilt after all.

Clarke swallows down bitterness, wishes she had more water.

Right. New subject.

“What’s a nightblood?” she asks, voice rasping on the edge of sleep. Lexa is watching her with the close focus that’s been making Clarke nervous all day.

“You don’t know,” she says.

Clarke shakes her head. “Costia make it sound like something bad.”

Lexa’s eyes widen. “You were awake for that?”

Oh. Whoops. Clarke casts her glance to the side. “Kind of,” she hedges. “I was pretty out of it.”

She watches shadows dance against the side of the tent as the the single candle flame gutters, hoping it’s not too obvious she’s avoiding Lexa’s gaze. The soft rustle of fabric tickles at her attention.

The Commander has twisted away where she sits, is drawing her soft sleep shirt up and over her head, so the rest drapes across her arms and chest. Clarke can make out the curve of ribs beneath her skin.

“What are you doing?” Clarke’s question ends on an squeaky note, almost breathless, and she’s leaning backward on her bed as if cowering from a sudden attack.

Lexa looks over one naked shoulder.

“Answering your question,” she says. She reaches to sweep her hair to the side and expose her back.  

The tattoo is so beautiful. The lines are deceptively simple, delicate and bold together -- the use of mirrored images and negative space like a story in a foreign alphabet. There’s so much being said, and she can see that right away, although she has no way of receiving the frequency.

Clarke comes back to herself perched on the very edge of her mattress, one hand suspended in the air between them. She sits back and curls her fingers in on the itch to reach out and touch.

“That’s amazing,” she says, letting honest appreciation color her voice.

“It’s the story of my Ascension.” Lexa is still watching her. “The Spirit chooses the next Commander through a trial by combat. All those born with nightblood -- black blood -- are raised in Polis, educated in leadership, until the time of the Commander’s death signals the beginning of their conclave.”

“So you have to be a nightblood to become Commander.” Black blood. Black? She tries to think what kind of physical advantages would result from that particular mutation. “What happens to the nightbloods who aren’t chosen?”

The way Lexa turns her head away by a few inches, the way her eyes drop, is all Clarke needs for her answer.

“It’s a fight to the death, isn’t it. Dammit, Lexa.” She hunches at the renewed pain in her shoulder at her outburst. “That’s -- so --” Clarke grips her knees. “Right. Let me ask you something. These conclaves -- does the pool of candidates, by any chance, get smaller and smaller with every Ascension? Fewer nightbloods with every pass?”

A frown creeps over Lexa’s face. “Yes,” she says, voice small.

“Well it is your lucky day, because I have fallen out of the sky to tell you about this crazy thing called genetics --” The switch to English, which she does sometimes when there’s no word in Trigedasleng, makes her bite her tongue to stop the flow of words. There’s no point in beating up Lexa. Not this one, anyway. Except -- my spirit will choose more wisely that that. “Is there a conclave-in-waiting? One full of kids ready for you to die off?”

Lexa won’t meet her eyes.

“I can’t believe --” Clarke puts both hands over her face. “Okay. Right. Well, before I go anywhere, we’re getting rid of that.”

“You can’t disband a sacred ritual on a whim.”

Watch me,” Clarke snaps as she takes her hands away. “I’m not kidding around, I will lecture you about recessive traits until your ears bleed. I will draw up multiple and elaborate diagrams. I will --” The fight ebbs out of her, a bit, a the look on Lexa’s face. “You can’t think they deserve to go through that.”

“Of course not,” she says immediately.

Clarke takes in the details of her expression, the miniscule tells she’s learned. “How well did you know them? The other nightbloods in your conclave.”

Her throat muscles shift as she swallows. “We were raised together.”

“Oh, Lexa. That makes it worse.”

“I --” She curls one arm around to her back, the fingers trailing against bare skin, “I asked -- each of the circles is for a fallen nightblood.” She finds the inked marks unerringly. “Seven circles for seven deaths.”

A memorial for the second family you lost. Clarke doesn’t say it.

“When you called me a storm that destroys everything else --”

“Oh, no, no, I’m -- I’m sorry. I was angry. I didn’t mean it that way.”

“But you weren’t wrong,” Lexa says.

She is breaking Clarke’s heart. “Please put your shirt back on,” she manages.

Lexa does so.

“Couldn’t you have just... refused? Or run away?” Clarke is shaking her head even as she asks the question. “No, of course not. Because it was your duty to perform in the conclave, or it would have been your duty to die if you were found unworthy -- am I close?”

Lexa isn’t as quick to pick up the thread as Clarke expects. Instead she becomes preoccupied with smoothing out a nonexistent wrinkle in the knee of her sleep pants, over, and over again. “I can’t say I didn’t consider running.”

“Really?” It catches her by surprise, this glimpse of a Lexa who isn’t entirely, unquestioningly committed to the role of a leader. “What stopped you?”

Lexa leaves off her fussing, instead turns to face Clarke. She balances her elbows on her knees and brings her hands together between. “Pacifism is not part of our way.”

“Yeah. I’ve noticed.”

Lexa shoots her a look, but refuses to be sidetracked. “The Coalition wasn’t easy to bring about. The clans hold generations of grudges against each other -- their attack was in retaliation to a similar offense to their people, and so on and forever.” She rests her forehead in her hand. “It was exhausting, listening to their reasons for refusing to lay down weapons and join forces.”

“How did you manage to convince them all?”

“A mix of tactics. Trade agreements for some. Outright bribes for a few.” She grimaces. “Sometimes the only persuasion was yet another show of force. War to bring about peace -- I know how it sounds.” She straightens with a shrug. “It’s our way.”

Clarke reaches for one of the braids lying over her shoulder, waggled the end at Lexa. “Did she give you trouble, too?”

“No,” Lexa murmurs. “You understood the appeal of such an alliance immediately.”

Clarke’s too tired to quibble about pronouns. “You two have a lot in common.” Maybe that’s why this Lexa is able to -- no, she can’t do this to herself, chase whys and wherefores. This is a different world, things are different. She has to leave it at that.

“You had already served your share of violence for violence’s sake,” Lexa says. “You knew the limits of its effect.” She’s quiet, lost in thought -- memory? -- before resuming. “I wanted the cycles of retribution to end. I wanted the promise of a more peaceful life. And yes,” as her voice drops lower, “I wanted some part of that for myself as well.”

“But?” Clarke prompts when it seems Lexa won’t go on.

“I had a choice.” Her eyes are distant now. “I could run from the conclave. Refuse to fight. And the other nightbloods, their deaths would not now weigh on my soul. Or those deaths of however many others -- hundreds -- who would die at my hand or command in resisting the Coalition and my rule.”

“But,” Clarke says, and it’s not a question this time.

Lexa brings her eyes up and their share a look -- the look of people who know what it’s like to step back, and step back, and search desperately for a perspective that will stem the tide of possible death. “I was meant to bring my people into a new era,” she says. “I felt that, even before the Spirit chose me. If I turned my back, how many would die that my reign could have spared? Hundreds? Thousands?” She swallows. “More?”

She looks away again. “I might not have owned those deaths -- not as now I do those who have since fallen to my sword. With a different choice, yes, my own hands would be cleaner.” She shakes her head. “I know those who disagree, but -- to me, inaction carries similar weight to a declaration of war. I would not trade for cleaner hands at the expense of those who don’t have my choices.”

Clarke considers this. “You sound certain you were going to be the last one standing in the conclave.”

Lexa shrugs. “Fairly certain. When it came down to the best fighter it was between -- oh, maybe three of us. There are other factors.”

“Like what?”

“Willingness,” she says. “Commitment. Some believe the Spirit will intervene in small ways -- make this contender tired, or that one stumble.” She makes one of those expressions that tear at Clarke’s heart, the corner of her mouth lifting in something which couldn’t be further from an actual smile. “What an outsider might call luck.”

“You don’t think of it that way.”

“No.”

Clarke does the math in her head. “Three out of seven. That means four of them knew they had no chance of surviving, right?” She waits for Lexa’s nod before continuing. “Couldn’t you allow them to leave?”

“No.”

“But if you could have run away -- escaped -- didn’t they also have the option?” Clarke searches the other girl’s expression, which is smooth as glass.

“Of the nightbloods that lost their lives,” and Clarke sees how carefully Lexa chooses her words, “I can say that none of them, given the choice to run, would have taken it.”

“You don’t know that.”

“I do know it. I knew them. They were all great warriors. A warrior understands the value of their life.” She takes a moment to meet Clarke’s eyes. “No leader can entirely prevent loss, or suffering.”

“But that’s exactly what I’m here to do. And it’s working, Lexa, I swear it is -- everything I went through, the ritual and. It’s meant to fix everything.”

“And yet Octavia was harmed,” Lexa returns, inexorable. “Your friends are taken by the Mountain.”

“I’m trying my best.” She forgets herself, moves the wrong way, and her shoulder screams in agony. It’s so important that it’s understood, she chokes out through the pain: “I’m doing everything I can.”

“Stop that.” Lexa is up and on her feet by the sickbed so quickly it makes Clarke dizzy. She supports Clarke’s elbow with one hand, alleviating the pressure, and coaxes her to lie back down with the other. Clarke could fight her off, but she hurts, and the hand on her shoulder is a stupidly soothing warmth. She’s almost sad when Lexa takes it away and sits back on her own bed.

“I never said otherwise,” she says, after a moment. It takes Clarke a minute to remember the thread of their conversation between the lapse and the distraction of her wound.

“But you said --”

“The world is sometimes made up of pain, Clarke.” Lexa lies down on her own bed, on her back, hands folded over her stomach. “You cannot protect everyone from it. The best you can do -- the best promise you can make to those who follow you -- is make sure that their pain is not wasted.”

No, she wants to say. She thinks of Lincoln comforting her, the first night at camp, of the way his eyes followed Octavia when she practiced walking in the clearing. I can’t. It’s too much.

She already knows that saying it aloud won’t make the decision any less necessary.

That leaves one question.

“You said the other nightbloods knew they were going into the conclave to die. Do you think that made it easier for them? Or harder?”

“I don’t know.” Lexa sounds, for the first time since Clarke woke up, tired. “I can’t know such things.”

“If you could go back somehow,” Clarke finds herself saying, voice barely raised above a whisper, “and keep the knowledge from them of what would happen -- stop them from knowing they would suffer -- would you?”

“Yes,” Lexa says into the stillness of the tent.

Clarke raises her left hand to her forehead and presses her palm, hard, between her eyes, as if that can keep back the tide of misery that wants to wash over her. “Okay,” she says, shuddering. And then: “Thank you.”

When there’s no reply following, Clarke turns her head. She finds Lexa looking at her, eyes grave. “Honesty is not the same as kindness, Clarke. You do not need to thank me for it.”

“I know that.” I made this decision with my head, and not my -- Oh, she definitely knows that. But. “I appreciate it, all the same.”

“Then,” in something as close as she ever remembers Lexa coming to hesitance , “if I ask a question, will you pay me back in kind?”

Clarke shifts. “Okay,” she says, a little peevish. “Sure. As long as you understand that you not believing me is not the same as me lying.”

Lexa doesn’t rise to the bait. She lies there for a while, breathing in the dim light, until Clarke wonders if she’s fallen asleep. And then:

“Am I the reason for your raun-keryon?”

Clarke wonders if she’s been waiting for this question from Lexa since she woke up in Polis.

Maybe that’s why the answer comes so much easier than expected.

“No.” She breathes out, closing her eyes. Breathes in, remembers. Bodies strewn about like cut flowers. The corpses of children, barely cool. Tears well up behind her closed eyelids and chase heat down her cheeks -- she hopes the light is too dim for Lexa to see. “I made a choice.” Her breathing goes ragged, no way to hide that, but fuck it. “It wasn’t a choice I thought I’d have to make. I didn’t want to make it.”

She would jump between worlds for the chance to un-make it, tear out her soul and set it adrift with no certain way of finding her way back.

She never cried about it before this -- not right after, not those awful nights alone in the woods -- and here she is with the tears clogging her throat when she’s finally escaped the reality where it happened. “But it was my choice. I can’t push that on anyone else, just because I hate --”

Myself, is the word backed up against her teeth, but she chokes. Saying it out loud touches too close to the scalding self-loathing she’s tried to bury deep inside, the overwhelming feeling of failure . Not only with the people under the Mountain. Raven, scarred and traumatized anew; Jasper, bereft; Bellamy and Monty, looking at her in shared horror; her mom, trying to patch over tragedy with empty words -- she failed all of them.

The bed dips with Lexa’s weight, her hands reaching out to pull Clarke into her arms. She does it slowly, gently, and makes it clear without speaking that Clarke is free to reject her at any time.

Clarke... she’s weak, and she’s responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people. What does it matter, anymore? She can’t undo any of it by denying herself what she wants.

And she wants this, so badly, for longer than she lets herself think about: Lexa’s arm around her waist, the warmth of her, even the soft sleep-smell of her body where Clarke buries her head against Lexa’s neck. Clarke sobs like her chest has finally cracked open after ages of unyielding pressure. It hurts , but at least it’s done with; she can feel everything pouring past the ragged edges to leave just the shell of her behind. Lexa doesn’t shush her or try and get Clarke to quiet down, holds her tighter.

She made her choice. She’s never going to be a version of herself that didn’t. If she remains here, slips into Klark like a shadow, this will stay with her forever. This is who she is. She can rage about it, she can regret it, and she can hate Lexa until she aches. None of it will change the simple fact.

She’s Clarke Griffin, and she chose to send hundreds men, women, and children to an ugly death.

Clarke isn’t sure when she runs out of tears. She doesn’t want to move, anyway. She’s too hollowed-out to be happy, or content, but resting in the curve of Lexa’s careful embrace is the absence of pain.

Lexa is the one who sits back. Clarke wants to protest, needs a second to find the energy. But Lexa brings her hand up to cup her cheek. “Stay,” she orders, so close Clarke can feel hot breath against the corner of her mouth. Clarke closes her eyes and nods.

Lexa returns with a soft cloth dampened with water and a shallow bowl to contain any drips. She presses the cloth to Clarke’s face, who flinches back at the contrast between it and her feverish skin. Then she lets herself lean into the touch as Lexa cleans her face, holds it briefly against Clarke’s swollen eyes.

When she takes it away Clarke opens her eyes. Lexa puts the bowl aside, and Clarke can see for all her care, Lexa’s ignored the tear-splotches darkening her own shirt. Between her body’s attempts to heal and her emotional outbursts Clarke feels almost drunk, and she can’t keep herself from saying: “You’re so different from her.”

Lexa pauses. “You think so?”

Clarke doesn’t so much nod as allow exhaustion to tip her head forward, and then drop further down.

Lexa stands, coaxing Clarke to lie back down with a little maneuvering to allow for her injured shoulder. She makes as if to go back to her own pallet but Clarke manages -- she’s not sure how -- to grab and hold one of her hands, to tug Lexa back down to the bed. She’s greedy , all of the sudden: for the feeling of Lexa’s rough and scarred skin, the length of Lexa’s fingers wrapped around her own. Maybe for more than that, but this is all she wants right now. Lexa seems to understand that. Or at least she doesn’t question it, sitting and holding Clarke’s hand.

“How are we different?” she asks. Her thumb sweeps across the back of Clarke’s hand.

“I wouldn’t know where to begin,” Clarke says, her voice slurring with tiredness. “For one thing, she doesn’t feel about me the way you do. For Klark.”

The movement of Lexa’s thumb stops. When Clarke forces her eyes to open she can see Lexa with the slightest of creases between her eyebrows. “You sound very certain.”

“I am,” Clarke says, feeling like she should apologize. “You did say the soul-tie was no guarantee of the kind of relationship.”

Lexa looks down at their joined hands, laces their fingers together tighter. “You mentioned something before. About love being weakness.”

“It’s what she believes.”

“It’s what I was taught,” Lexa says, almost too softly for Clarke to catch.

When she does, it takes a second to piece it together. “Wait, so,” as she raises her head, “you didn’t decide it for yourself? It was, what,” and she searches for a moment, “some kind of lesson?”

Lexa’s mouth presses into a flat line.

“Are you serious?” It pulls at her shoulder to sit back upright. She doesn’t give a shit. “Someone taught you that?”

“To be the Commander is to be alone,” Lexa says, not looking at her. She doesn’t say it with any heat or emotion: it’s rote. Something she’s said over and over, for years.

“That’s stupid. Let me guess, is this the same genius who raised you to kill your friends?”

“Clarke,” Lexa sighs.

“Don’t you Clarke me, not about this.” They’re still holding hands, and Clarke pulls at her. With a resistance so brief it’s embarrassing Lexa turns back to face Clarke. “You’re not alone. I don’t know how much comfort it is, considering, but if this raun-keryon thing has made anything clear...” She tugs at Lexa’s hand for emphasis, clears her throat. “Just because something’s been taught to you for years doesn’t make it right.” She peers closer at Lexa’s face, trying to work out her expression. “What?”

“We’ve had this conversation before,” Lexa says. “Or pieces of it.”

“Oh.” Clarke releases her hand before slumping back onto her elbows. “You mean with Klark. That’s. Good.”

She’s not -- she would never be -- she’s not sure it’s possible to be jealous of someone who is basically you.

It’s still a little weird, to think that this discussion has already been had, these emotions have already been expressed, and what Clarke gets now is. Well, leftovers, kind of.

There’s a brief, sick twist in her stomach when she considers how Lexa (her Lexa, again in the technical sense) might feel about Clarke having already seen her tattoo, been told these stories. Before Lexa herself had a chance to...

To do absolutely nothing, is what. Lexa abandoned her. Clarke owns her choices inside the Mountain, okay, but -- Lexa left. Whatever happened between them, it wasn’t... she didn’t really care.

Clarke can’t be blamed for taking solace in a version of Lexa that does.

“You need to rest,” Lexa says, pushing her back down onto the bed with a gentle but firm hand. “It won’t be an easy morning.”

She’s talking about wound recovery. Of course. Clarke lets herself be pushed, finds herself fighting back tears. “I really was going to save everyone.”

Again giving Clarke all the time to move away if she chooses, Lexa places a hand at her temple. She brushes back the tangled mass of hair from Clarke’s forehead, fingertips touching dry tear tracks.

“You can’t,” she says.

She gets up, then, takes her hands away and goes back to her own bed. Clarke doesn’t mind. She feels properly put to bed, cared for. Safe.

The candle flame is blown out and Clarke is already drifting halfway out to her dreams. Then:

“Clarke?”

“Mmm?” As she presses deeper into her pillows.

“Who left you with such a terrible choice to make?”

It’s soft enough to allow Clarke to pretend she didn’t hear it.

A few minutes later she hears an even softer sigh.

It won’t be an easy morning, echoes in Clarke’s mind as she’s finally dragged back down into sleep.

 

________________________

 

It isn’t.

But it has to be done.

Clarke asks for Lincoln. When he arrives she asks him to take on a mission: to travel to the village Clarke remembers from listening to Octavia agonize over in hindsight, wondering what she could have done to prevent --

“What do you want me to do there?”

Clarke gathers the blanket into her hands, hopes Lincoln doesn’t place any importance on how her fingers strain against the woven fabric. (She’s not allowed out of bed, visitors or not. Lexa made that very clear this morning. The way she set her jaw and growled about it was borderline endearing. Clarke laughed at her, tried to ignore the flush of what felt like guilt at the ease of the exchange.) “I want you to wait there for someone named Nyko,” she says. “He’ll be travelling through that area very soon.”

“I know Nyko.” He searches her face, but anything he finds there isn’t reflected in his own expression. “Is this a mission from -- from your world? Something I did there?”

Oh, great. The Arkers told him. “Yes.”

“What do I do after I find Nyko?”

“You...” Clarke had a lie prepared. She can’t give it to him. “Wait there.”

His eyes are still on her. “This is necessary to defeat the Mountain.”      

“Yes.”

As much as she doesn’t want it to be true.

Lincoln nods, looks thoughtful. “Promise me Octavia will have your protection while I’m gone. I know Costia will mentor her,” he says as Clarke opens her mouth to assure him of that. “But I want the Queen of the Ice Nation’s promise.”

“You have it,” she whispers.

He reaches out his hand without smiling. Clarke untangles hers from the covers before clasping his cool fingers.

“Lincoln,” she starts, because he obviously knows there’s danger, he knows, but his grip tightens.

“Don’t,” is all he says.

He leaves.

Clarke bends over where she sits in her bed, arms wrapped around her roiling stomach.

It’ll be okay. He can be recovered, like last time. He can be healed, like last time.

She can still save everyone.

You can’t.

She’s not sure whose voice she’s hearing anymore.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

_____________________________

 

 

“So. You threw over Costia for this.”

Clarke has been cat napping for the past few days as her shoulder heals, as the pain doesn’t allow her to rest too deeply. It doesn’t take much to wake her up.

“Anya,” Lexa hisses in response. “You said you’d be quiet.”

You said you weren’t coming out until she woke up. I improvised.” But Anya lowers her voice. “Didn’t waste any time in moving on, I see.”

Lexa sighs deeply. “Is this something we do now? Discuss these things?” She adds in a murmur: “You were never fond of Costia.”

“I like her better than this one.” Clarke hears a whump and the sigh of leathers as Anya throws herself into a chair. “Costia’s taller, and not crazy.”

“You heard him verify the raun-keryon --”

“I’m not talking about that. Lexa. This plan for the mountain. You know it’s madness.” She suddenly sounds very serious. “We don’t need her.”

Lexa doesn’t respond at first and Clarke has to fight the impulse to hold her breath. “What if we did?”

Anya scoffs. “The Woods Clan is stronger than that. Your Coalition is stronger than that. Why, is she threatening to leave?”

“No.”

“I know your dream is harmony between all the clans, but the Ice Nation is... If there has to be an absence, let it be theirs. Your girl might have begun a reform, but they’re savages. They’re barely people, they’re scarred and ignorant, and sometimes I think they have ice water in their veins instead of --”

“She’s not mine.” Lexa sounds cold enough to be powered by something other than warm blood at this moment. “But her people are. They have fought and died with us for the past two years, so don’t speak as if they were somehow lesser for only now having the chance.” She pulls back a little, quieter: “And the dream was, first and foremost, to defeat the Mountain.”

“You think she’s the key to that?”

“I believe she is our best chance.”

“You’re not just thinking with your --”

Anya.” She sounds scandalized, which is not a mood Clarke has ever seen on Lexa. She wishes she could open her eyes to see the Commander’s face, catch the phenomenon before it passes.

Clarke can hear the Trikru warrior grumbling as she climbs to her feet. “I still prefer Costia.”

“I’ll pass it along. I’m sure the honor will not escape her.”

Anya’s steps come to a halt. “For that, I’m not letting you win the next sparring session. I don’t care how many of your warriors are watching.”

“Oh, I see. You’ve let me win every match since I was sixteen.”

“Enough of them. But now I see how you show gratitude.” Clarke can hear Anya grumbling as she exits the tent.

“She does mean well,” Lexa says a moment later, only slightly pained.

Clarke turns over in bed as she opens her eyes. “For you, anyway.”

“Mmm.” Lexa sits on the edge of her pallet, where she’s continued to spend her nights. “Doesn’t sound like it surprises you.”

“Some things really don’t change.” Clarke struggles to contain her smile. “I fought her once.” 

“I hope she didn’t hurt you too much.”

“I won, actually.”

 “What kind of shape was she in when you started?”

Clarke chuckles. “A pretty bad one.” Her laughter stalls out when she remembers: Anya isn’t in any danger of that now. But the rest of Clarke’s friends are. “Why are you backing me?”

Nothing has been said outright. But over the last few days, Lexa promised to keep the other clan leaders from leaving, keep them placated. Give Clarke time to regroup and recuperate.

Lexa leans forward where she sits, balancing her forearms on her knees. “What about entrance into the Mountain? Are you any closer to navigating the tunnels?”

“I think so.” There hasn’t been recent news of Lincoln. Any day now. “I should know for certain soon.”

 “You said more Sky People were coming. How many in total?”

 “Several thousand. But it’s a lot of children and older people, too. You’re asking a lot of questions without answering mine.”

 “I’m aware.”

 “C’mon, Lexa.” Clarke sits up. Lexa watches her do it, eyes trained to catch any hint her assistance is needed. But Costia had been right -- the wound was a clean through-and-through, and several days of nothing but sleeping and eating had it well on the mend. Clarke is able to prop herself up against the pillows. “Get a little, give a little.”

She remembers teasing her Lexa like this. Not at the beginning -- their awful beginning, death or the threat of it at every turn -- but later. When it seemed like they might pull everything off. She’d try it out when it was just the two of them to see what made Lexa clam up, what made her loosen and relax. She’d told herself it was only smart to know what buttons to press when it came to the powerful Commander. She hadn’t liked to admit she wanted to see Lexa smile.

Lexa doesn’t smile now, but she softens a little around the eyes. “You promised me three things when I discovered you were in the middle of a raun-keryon . Do you remember?”

A cure for the Reapers. No more acid fog. The Mountain, defeated. “Yes.”

“I want them.” Her gaze is focused, intent. “I believe you will deliver on that promise. I’m more than willing to trade a little extra time for it.”

“It might take more than that.”

“Then I will trade that, too. Clarke,” she reaches out, places a hand lightly on Clarke’s wrist, “you brought down the Mountain in your world. You can do it in this one. That... isn’t all I care about.” She squeezes gently. “But it is a great deal.”

 

_____________________________

 

 

“Where is she?”

Clarke looks up from the war table. Technically she isn’t supposed to be out of her own tent -- as simple as the wound is, infection or complications are possible,and she was prescribed as much bed rest as possible.

Clarke complies with the order for as long as it takes to get back the strength to walk around on her own, and to figure out when Lexa is in and out her tent. Then Clarke is in there as often as possible, bending over the maps and figurines, trying to visualize the battles to come. It would have worked, except someone -- maybe several someones -- in this camp is a snitch. Clarke is betting on the two warriors who stand guard.

The first time Lexa catches her, she escorts Clarke back to her own tent with a scolding. The second time, she’s resigned.

“Sit in a chair, at least,” she says, two fingers rubbing at her temple. “And eat whatever I instruct them to bring you.”

Clarke really doesn’t like what the Grounders consider food for invalids -- a lot of herb-heavy soups and raw plant roots -- but she already knows how much of winning a war is learning to pick your battles.

So now she spends most of her day in Lexa’s tent, brooding over the reconstructed landscape and eating her medicine. Lexa stops by at intervals to share how a meeting with another clan leader went, report back on enforcements’ progress to TonDC, or even nap for a stolen moment or six as the light shades to deep gold and her quiet breathing fills the tent. (Sometimes, if Clarke is particularly pitiful, Lexa will take whatever half-eaten root has been abandoned as inedible off her plate and finish it with a sigh.)

This is where Octavia finds her.

The younger girl swings into the Commander’s tent on the cane she’s been using since Lincoln left camp, her face a stormcloud. Costia is right on her heels, which is probably why Octavia wasn’t stopped by the guards.

“This is where you’re hiding?” Octavia says. “Too bad Heda isn’t here to protect you right now.”

Clarke isn’t -- okay. Yes. She’s hiding. She hasn’t seen any of the Arkers since she was shot. 

Though she’s really avoiding Wells.

“What do you want, Octavia?”

“Did you know?” Octavia gives the impression of barely-leashed energy, eyes hot and dark in her pale face. “Wells says... it sounds stupid. It sounds impossible. But Lincoln,” here she swallows, as if the name sticks in her throat, “Lincoln believed it and he... Tell me you didn’t send him to that village so that this would happen.”

“What happened?” Clarke asks, looking beyond her to Costia.

“Reapers,” Costia says. “A gang of them. They took six people from the village, including Lincoln and Nyko. Indra’s heading the rescue party herself." 

“Tell me you didn’t know,” Octavia says, staring at her.

How many times has Clarke seen Octavia looking at her like that across the fire, after TonDC? Or glaring at her from the other edge of camp?

All of the sudden she’s sick of it. Maybe this Octavia has every right to give her that look, but Clarke is tired of being on the receiving end.

“I’m sorry this is happening,” she tells the younger girl. “But awful things happen in a war, and we’re both stuck in the middle of this one whether we like it or not. Everything that can be done to get Lincoln back will be done, and we won’t stop until he’s recovered.” Her heart is beating so fast it almost feels like the flutter of wings. They have to find Lincoln, but not yet. But he’ll be brought home and cured. Eventually.

“That’s not an answer.” A muscle works in Octavia’s jaw.

Clarke stands. She has to lean into the table, but she gets to her feet. “I don’t owe you one.”

Devastation washes over Octavia like a wave, and Clarke had known how it would affect her. What it would be like for Octavia to hear, once again, that her happiness and choices are only allowed when they fit into the small, cramped spaces that aren’t taken up by the bigger picture, the greater needs of the many.

Clarke knows all of that. But it’s still true.

Octavia lurches toward her, shifting her grip on her cane, but Costia catches her shoulder before she takes more than a step.

“No,” Costia says.

“You don’t have to protect her,” Octavia snarls. “You, of all people --”

“Exactly,” Costia interrupts. “If there’s a line for those who wish revenge on Klark kom Azgeda for interfering with their beloveds, it forms behind me. You have to wait your turn.” She takes her hand away when Octavia slumps. “Go practice your drills. I’ll be with you in a minute.”

She waits until Octavia leaves the tent before saying: “Indra denied her request to join the search party. I thought it best to let her yell at you and get it out of her system. I didn’t think she’d take it further.”

Clarke sinks back into her chair. She’s breathing a little hard at the strain of standing, and she hopes Lexa won’t notice when she returns. Or they’ll be no living with her. “I get it.”

Costia is watching her when she asks: “Did you know what would happen?”

“What if I did? Are you going to call her back in here?”

Costia jerks her head, an aborted head shake. “No, I...” She folds her lips together for a moment, staring off into a different corner of the tent and away from Clarke. “Octavia won’t ever understand,” she says. “Not even if it all turns out for the best.”

“Yeah. She holds a grudge.”

“It’s more than that. She’s a warrior. It’s what I saw in her from the start, and I knew she’d take the offer of training before I decided to make her a scout. Some people are simply built to fight. And your people locked her up for being born?” When Clarke nods, Costia tsks her disapproval. “Wasteful.”

Clarke doesn’t feel like wading through the murky waters of Ark family policies right now, so she shrugs. “If Octavia’s a warrior, what does that make me?”

“A leader,” Costia says without hesitation. “Warriors put themselves into danger; they sacrifice their lives or happiness for the greater good. Leaders move the pieces across the board, and make the decisions where those sacrifices will do the most good. Making further sacrifice unnecessary.”

“So you’re not going to let her roast me over an open fire.”

“Not yet, anyway,” Costia shoots back. Her gaze continues to wander about the tent, aimless, alighting on anything that isn’t Clarke. “It would be hypocritical. Lexa makes dozens of these decisions, I’ve watched her do it. I know it’s never easy.”

“Yeah.” Clarke clears her throat. “But it’s necessary.”

Costia’s half-smile looks like something that hurts. “I don’t think I could. No matter how necessary.” She shrugs one-shouldered when Clarke stares. “I’d rather risk myself, which I know -- I know -- isn’t an option for a leader.”

“You can’t blame Lexa when --” Clarke blurts out, unthinking, and Costia is shaking her head before she finishes.

“Never. She does everything for her people, I’ve never questioned that.” She still won’t meet Clarke’s gaze. “But I’ve never really understood it, either. I guess I’m too much of a warrior as well."

“It’s not a flaw, Costia,” Clarke says. “It probably makes you the better person in the end.”

“It might,” she says slowly. “But it also makes me...”

“What?”

Costia raises her eyes to Clarke’s, hovering on the edge of exiting the tent. “I keep wondering why it’s you, and not me,” she says. She doesn’t need to be specific in her meaning. “I think I understand a little better now.

 

 

_____________________________

 

 

“Costia’s new second is doing very well,” Lexa says later that day. The sun has long since set, and they’re eating together. Real food, too, a beautifully rich stew with strips of meat and chunks of cooked vegetables. A guard walked an entire pot of it in earlier, setting it up on fire-heated bricks to keep it warm. Clarke is on her third bowl.

“Mmm-hmm.” Delicious, delicious stew.

“I heard she felled two trained warriors all on her own,” Lexa continues. She’s sitting back to watch Clarke eat. She rarely has more than one serving of anything at meals. She eats well, but -- when Clarke asked -- once explained a disciplined appetite could help win a battle when resources were scarce. “Costia had to pull her off the third.”

The stew is good, but not so good that it deserves the amount of attention Clarke is now giving it.

“Is there anything I should know?”

Clarke balks at the potential in that question. She swallows her current mouthful. “Anything in general, or anything to do with Octavia?” She shakes her head before Lexa can answer. “Costia’s handling it. I think we have enough to worry about already.”

Lexa reaches to take the bowl -- Clarke’s scraping the bottom of with the spoon, now, she almost asks for another but she’s not hungry, just revelling in real food -- and stacks it onto her own, clearing the small table between them. “I don’t resent your having secrets,” she says as she rises to her feet. “I only hope you don’t think I’m not capable of helping you keep them.”

“It isn’t like that.” Clarke’s throat sticks when she swallows again. “You don’t need to know everything about what’s going on with me, Lexa.”

“I would like to.” The words are soft, almost too soft to be heard.

“There are lots of things I don’t know about you,” Clarke counters.

It’s a mistake. Lexa leans into the war table with her arms folded as if she was expecting this. “Ask me.”

“No, I don’t... I’m not saying you have to be an open book to get answers, I’m pointing out --”

“Clarke.” Lexa’s head is tilted to one side, a smile hovering around her mouth. She repeats: “Ask me.”

“You’re not wearing your -- forehead thing,” Clarke blurts out.

Clearly, this wasn’t what Lexa expected. She hesitates. “Well, no.”

“Why not?”

“It’s a formal decoration,” Lexa says slowly. “I wear it more often in Polis, among ambassadors and visitors from other clans. Here, in Woods Clan territory, it’s not expected.”

“You wear it with the face paint, though.”

“War paint is for battle: of weapons, or of minds. I’m not just any soldier in those battles.”

“It identifies you as the Commander?”

“No. As the leader of the Woods Clan.”

“Oh,” Clarke says. “So, like a crown.”

Lexa’s eyes dip to the ground as she suppresses a smile. “Something like that. Some clan leaders have them, but Woods Clan doesn’t have much use for crowns.”

“Why not?” 

“We climb trees, Clarke. We use the advantage for camouflage and attack maneuvers. Can you imagine giving away your position because your crown slipped off your head and fell all the way down to the ground?”

“Oh.” Clarke considers this. “I’ve never seen you up a tree.” A smile tugs at her lips. “Is that because you’re bad at climbing them?”

Lexa scowls and drops her arms. “You’ve been talking to Costia,” she grumbles as she takes her seat in the empty chair next to Clarke. She drops into it, the most inelegant Clarke has ever seen her, and the force of her fall pushes it that much closer to Clarke.

“I have. She says you’re terrible.”

“I’m not --” Lexa breaks off with a huff. “Costia isn’t -- you should ask someone who doesn’t --”

“She’s good at it?”

“She’s so good,” Lexa groans. “It’s not fair. I’m good at everything else,” she says, almost petulant.

Clarke stops fighting the smile. “Did Anya really have to climb up and get you?”

“No,” Lexa says immediately.

Clarke scoots over. Pokes at Lexa’s leg with the toe of her boot.

No. ” Lexa shifts her legs out of reach. She catches Clarke’s expression, her eyes alight with good humor. “If it happened,” she says, measured, “those involved would be sworn to secrecy to preserve the stature of the Commander’s position. Everyone involved.”

Clarke tips forward until her forehead rests on Lexa’s shoulder, shaking with repressed laughter.

“It’s not that funny,” Lexa says after a whole minute of this.

Clarke catches her breath and raises her head. “Do I have a crown?” she asks, pushing down the last of her giggles. “I kind of want one.”

“No, you don’t have a crown,” Lexa says softly. Their faces are very close together.

“Why not?”

“I think because Nia wore one. We didn’t talk about it,” Lexa says, intent on Clarke, “but I think that was why you made a different choice. Followed older ways.”

“Like what?”

“This.” And her fingers are touching Clarke’s face, gliding down the curve of her cheekbone. Lexa doesn’t bother to hide that it’s a caress, dragging her fingertips slow and deliberate across the first tattoo Clarke noticed when she woke up. This brings Lexa’s face even closer.

Clarke keeps her breathing shallow. “What does it mean?”

“It’s your family’s symbol.” This close, she can pick out the individual shadows of Lexa’s eyelashes. “It’s a feather. Not from a bird. You said it was from something else.”

Griffin, Clarke thinks. Her eyes drift shut. She remembers how this goes. It’s so easy to let herself be borne on the current of memory and lean in. 

“If I kissed you right now,” and Clarke’s eyes fly open at the coldness in Lexa’s voice, “it wouldn’t be for the first time, would it?” The look in her eyes is unexpectedly sad. “Please don’t lie to me again.”

Clarke jerks back. “You’re calling me a liar before I say anything?” Her mouth prickles with the absence of touch. “That’s a first even for you.”

“Do you blame me?” Lexa stands. “You said we were nothing to each other in your world." 

“That isn’t a lie,” Clarke whispers.

“Do you think I kiss every pretty girl I see?” Her hands clench into fists. “Do you think it’s a part of peace talks? You know me.”

And there it is, that’s the blade that cuts both ways: if our souls are tied, how can you do this to me?

Clarke could ask Lexa the same thing. A different Lexa.

“You knew how I felt,” Lexa continues. “And you still lied to me.”

Clarke can’t tell her the kiss meant nothing. She doesn’t believe that anymore. She’s not sure, now, if she ever truly did, but: “Lexa, I promise you. Maybe I haven’t been... exact,” and her voice wavers, “in the details. Maybe it’s been easier to... I’m telling you the truth. If you have feelings for me, it’s because of the circumstances of this world. Because Klark was born on the ground. It’s not part of the keryon teina.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Oh, Lexa, stop,” Clarke says, frustrated. “What would I get out of hiding the truth at this point? You’ve given me everything I asked for! Maybe that’s the problem,” she says, voice hardening. “You don’t like being someone who could abandon their lover of years for a girl you barely know. You especially don’t like that you ran away from her, and now you’re making excuses not to kiss the person walking around in her body. Because part of you, despite everything, despite your entire belief system, is wondering just how violated she’s going to feel when I’m gone and she wakes up.”

The abrupt stiffening of Lexa’s shoulders is the only answer she needs to that.

“You should be worried,” Clarke says. “Because if she’s anything like me she is going to be angry at you. As much as you might want it, you don’t get the excuse of -- of destiny, or fate, or whatever: you fell in love with her. That was you.” She swallows against the tightness of her throat. “Then you left her.”

“I know that,” Lexa says, heated. “Nothing in this life decides our actions but ourselves. I’m not searching for an excuse.” She raises her head. “But when every single instinct tells me one thing, I deserve to know why you’re so set persuading me otherwise.”

“I don’t know what to tell you.” Clarke shakes her head, feeling tired. “You have this idea about how things are --”

“Not things,” Lexa breaks in, almost gentle. “Me. You’re saying I’m so different, that...” She swallows. “It’s too great a difference.”

I do care, Clarke.

“No,” Clarke tells them both.

Lexa’s expression hardens. “Perhaps I should ask whether you wish to deceive me, or to deceive yourself.”

“Maybe I’m doing it for you,” Clarke explodes, surging to her feet. Lexa rises to match her, hands held slightly away from her body in unconscious preparation for an attack. “Did you ever think of that? That I might be protecting you from things you don’t really want to know?”

“I’m not asking for your protection. I deserve to know who it is you see when you look at me.”

“Don't you think it's possible to be ashamed of who you are in another life?”

Lexa pales. “And you think I should be.”

They stand like that for long, terrible moments, staring at one another. 

When Clarke manages to open her mouth, the earth beneath their feet shakes violently. Clarke has to grab at her abandoned chair to keep from falling, and even Lexa struggles to keep her balance. A second later they hear the delayed boom of impact.

“Was that --” Lexa gasps.

“It’s the Ark,” Clarke says, holding on for dear life. “It’s reached the ground.”

 

_____________________________

 

 

It’s been a long day -- one of many -- but this can’t wait. 

Either the Arkers were already awake, or the shudder that ran through the ground woke them up. When she walks up to their tent (Clarke insisted that if anyone help her it should be a guard, and for once Lexa didn’t fight her on it) the four of them are clustered at its open entrance, talking in low voices.

They fall silent when they see her coming.

“Wells, I’d like so speak with you,” she says. “Alone.”

 He appraises her before whispering something to the other three. They duck into the tent. Octavia is distrustful, Finn obviously stung at being excluded, and Raven is evaluating. Clarke turns and makes for the nearby fire pit and trusts that Wells will follow.

 As soon as they’re both comfortably seated she has Lexa’s guard stand several feet away. The silence lingers between them, the only sound being the faint crackle of fading embers and whatever noises come from the surrounding woods.

 “I take it you felt that,” she starts.

 “I thought I was sick at first when everything started shaking. That’s what an earthquake is like?”

 “No,” Clarke says. “That was the Ark crash-landing on Earth.”

 He stares at her. “It’s ahead of schedule.”

 “I know.”

 “Of course you do.” He laughs, humorless. “I bet you know a lot.” He takes a deep breath. “Is my dad alive?”

 “That I don’t know,” Clarke confesses. “A lot of it’s the same, but there are big -- big -- changes. Especially when it comes to who’s alive and who’s dead.”

 “Like me.”

 Clarke’s head snaps up. Wells looks worn out.

 “You were almost hysterical when we first met at the dropship,” he continues. “You tried to warn me away from someone. I still can’t figure out who.”

 “It doesn’t matter,” Clarke tells him. “She has no reason to hurt you, here. You’re safe.” She sighs. “Safe as can be expected.”

 “That’s something you care about?”

 She thinks holding his eyes might count as one of the bravest things she’s ever done. She’s never had to explain herself to Wells. Justify herself to Wells. He always understood who she was, even if he didn’t condone what she was doing. This is like one of those nightmares where your parents don’t recognize you, except she’s awake. “Yes.”

 “Because you knew me in a parallel world.” He shakes his head. “Wow. I think that’s the first time I said it out loud. I... wow.”

 “Yeah.”

 “You know, you understand the science, you debate the theories,” he says thoughtfully, “but it’s something else when a complete stranger looks at you like...” He narrows his eyes at her. “What were we, anyway?”

 “We were close.”

 “Yeah?” His gaze sharpens. “How close? Were we,” he lifts his eyebrows, “very close?”

 Clarke laughs weakly. “No.”

 “Really?”

 “Actually, we were engaged.” She waits a beat. “When we were seven.”

 “You sure it was kids’ stuff?” He spreads his hands to indicate himself. “Quite a few girls haven’t said no to this.”

 She laughs again, stronger. “Bellamy told me you were a loner. He said nothing about the halls being littered with your conquests,” she teases.

 The good humor fades from his face. “I didn’t say those girls wanted anyone else to know about it.” He waves a hand to dismiss her sudden concern. “My dad’s not that popular, but he’s powerful. Bad combination.” He shrugs. “I deal with it.”

 Clarke’s breath snags in the space between her top ribs, a sharp pain above her heart. “You were my best friend.”

 Wells gives the dying embers a frown.

 “We did everything together,” she continues when it’s clear he’s not going to give or show any real response. “We even got in trouble together. Usually it was my fault.” She didn’t realize how hard she was pushing away these memories until now: they come flooding back in a rush, a wave of details and lost moments she might drown in. “But you insisted on sharing the blame, going through all of the bad stuff together. When I got sent to Earth, you followed me.” There are hot tears slipping silently down her face, and she hopes the shadows hide them for the most part.

 “I get that you don’t know me very well,” she continues, as Wells continues to wear that distant look. “But I know you. You care about the fate of every single person that came down on that dropship, even if they aren’t your friends. You want to help keep them out of danger.”

 “What is it you want from me, Clarke?” he finally asks.

 “We’re going to the Ark tomorrow to speak with the Chancellor. Me and the Commander.” She licks her lips. “It would be easier to explain the situation with you there.”

 His own lips twist. “Yeah?”

 “We have to work hard to keep this situation from getting any worse,” she says, fighting to keep her tone even. “This will be the first real knowledge the people on the Ark will have of those on the ground. They think the delinquents are dead -- they might not even think to search for them in the first place, much less where. Or they might assume the worst of the clans right off. It could be a massacre the moment we arrive.”

 “Enough with the kid gloves, give me the hard sell.”

 “I --” She’s angry until she catches the sardonic glint in his eyes. Then she’s... less angry. “I saw a lot of people die in my world. I’m trying to prevent that from happening here.”

 “Why did I die?”

 “Because...” There are so many answers she could give, if she wanted. Because his father was more unpopular the more powerful he became. Because a little girl couldn’t slay her monsters. Wells always knew when she was lying, though. “Because you followed me.”

 He nods. “I’m beginning to get that picture.”

 Clarke stands. She sways a little bit, but she stays on her feet. “I have no right to ask this of you, and I wouldn’t blame you for thinking you’re better off as far away from me as possible. I wouldn’t even think you were wrong.

 “But I think you want to help us, even if there is danger,” she continues. “ Because, Wells -- you are the best person I ever knew.” She uses the palm of her hand to smear away the helpless tears on her cheeks. “You don’t know me, I get it, it sounds strange. But I didn’t get the chance to say it to you, before --” Her breath stutters. “So I have to say it now. You were -- you are -- one of the most amazing people I have ever met. And thank you. For everything.”

 Wells gives her an inscrutable look across the fire pit. “You could have told me that any time over the past few days.”

 “I know.”

 “I was waiting for you to -- maybe not say that exactly, but something.” His mouth is a thin line. “To talk to me.”

“I’m sorry.”

“So you understand if I find your timing a little suspect.”

 Clarke closes her eyes. “Yeah. Okay.” She turns away, and then turns to offer him, over her shoulder: “That doesn’t mean it’s not true.”

 She leaves him sitting by the dying fire.

 

 _____________________________

 

 

When she makes for the horses the next morning Lexa is already there.

 And Wells.

 “Why?” Clarke asks him once they’re on the road to the fallen Ark. (Lexa rides ahead with her bodyguard. Clarke can feel Lexa’s gaze on her sometimes, but whenever she looks over the Commander directs her gaze elsewhere. They haven’t spoken on anything but strategy since their fight.)

 He huffs out a breath, struggling with the reins as he fights to get comfortable on the moving animal. “So maybe I’m Jaha’s friendless loser kid,” he says, “but I’m not stupid. I don’t take risks unless they’re worth it.” He meets her gaze briefly. “Or put my faith in people who don’t deserve it.

 “You seem convinced you’re the reason he -- the other me -- died,” he continues when Clarke stares at him. “Which makes me pretty certain if he were around, he’d tell the story differently. Just the fact you’d try to take responsibility for something like that... hey, I’m not about to charge into gunfire or anything like that,” he says. “But if I thought you were worth following before...” He shrugs. “Seems as good a reason as any to help you out now.”

 “Especially when you agree with me.”

 Wells sighs. “You did make some good points.”

 She can’t help her grin as they ride on.

 

_____________________________

 

 

Her memories of Callie Cartwright aren’t distinctive. She’s simply there, threaded throughout Clarke’s recollection of life on the Ark: joining the Griffins at celebratory dinners, attending Clarke’s graduation ceremonies, smiling at her whenever they crossed paths in the main corridors. A constant.

 The only defining memory of Callie she can come up with is the night they raided Aurora Blake’s quarters, after the discovery of someone who shouldn’t even exist. Callie came to the Griffin apartment afterward. Clarke was in bed -- to this day, she’s not sure what woke her up. But she heard voices.  

 “Abby, you should have seen it.” Callie’s voice was rough with whatever Clarke could hear them sloshing into their glasses. “There was a hole in the floor once you took away the false slats. She’d have to lie on her side and curl up to fit.”

 “Whatever she did to survive, she doesn’t appear to have suffered any long-term damage.” Abby was silent for a moment, and Clarke pictured her mother taking a long swallow of her drink. “We examined her. She’s healthy, and not malnourished. Deficient in a few vitamins, but considering the circumstances...”

 “So she’s healthy enough to imprison before we execute her in a few years?”

 “Callie.”

 “She didn’t do anything, Abby. She didn’t commit any crimes.”

 “No, but she’s the product of them.” Abby sighed. “You know as well as I do: if the Council allows her to live, what’s to keep other Aurora Blakes from violating the statutes? Especially if they’re willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of their children.”

 “How did the Blake woman even manage to get pregnant again?”

 “Her implant malfunctioned.” Clarke had never heard her mother sound so hard, so cold. “She could have come to me to terminate the pregnancy. This isn’t on us.”

 “But then her arrangement with that guard might have been exposed. She had another child to think of.”

 “Callie, you have to stop. You were trusted with a job to perform, and you do it well. That’s all you can ask of yourself.”

 “Is it?” Callie sighed. “I’m sorry. You must feel like we keep having the same conversation.”

 “It’s one I’m willing to have,” Abby said, softening. “I’m here for you, whenever you need to be reminded of why we do what we do.”

 Callie laughed. It was weak and tired, but it counted. “Where would I be without you?”

 “Overseeing Basic,” Abby replied, obviously teasing. “You’d’ve never left training the new recruits, and you’d still be passing on every promotion they offered.”

 Clarke wonders what her mother would say if Abby could see Callie here, and now.

 She looks older than Clarke remembers. There are deep lines bracketing her mouth, and the set of it is grimmer than anything Clarke ever saw on Callie’s face. Her hair is drawn back severely from her face, too, and she stands at rigid attention as the rest of the party is allowed to approach the gate. Wells went ahead to relay their intent, and he stands next to the Chancellor with a subdued expression.

 Clarke dismounts, but Lexa remains on her horse. When Clarke approaches Wells looks at her, and then the ground.

 “He didn’t come down with the rest,” he says under his breath, and Clarke knows he’s talking about his father.

 “You might see him again,” she offers. He nods.

 Callie watches this entire exchange closely. “Wells tells me you are not the leader of these people, but you will speak for her in this matter.”

 “Yes.”

 “I could invite you inside our compound,” Callie says, dry.

 Clarke shoots a glance back at Lexa. The Commander hasn’t even dismounted. Her face is a careful blank, warpaint dark around her eyes as she watches the ramparts. She shows no outward sign of unease, but her usually well-behaved horse shifts and twitches every other minute from the tension of his rider.

 “No,” Clarke sighs. “I think we’d better stay out here.”

 Callie nods. “Tell me about the children we sent to the ground.”

 Clarke lays it out for her: the inhabitants under the Mountain, the clans who survived the bombs, the problem of radiation and apparent cure. She watches the set of Callie’s mouth grow even grimmer.

 “How do I know you’re telling me the truth?” she asks when Clarke finishes.

 “Have you been able to contact any of the other stations on the radio since you landed?” She nods when Callie’s eyes narrow. “That’s the Mountain. They’re blocking your signal.”

 “You could be blocking the signal.”

 “Commander,” Wells steps forward, “I don’t think that’s possible. From what we’ve seen of their technology... Well, they don’t even have electricity.”

 “In their war camps.”

 “They don’t even have guns,” Wells says, dogged. “They fight with knives and sticks. Don’t get me wrong, they’re good at it! But I believe them when they say their technology is restricted by the Mountain. And Bellamy and the others did have guns, they wouldn’t have gone without a fight if their enemy didn’t.”

 “You say enemy. I say, perhaps a rescue attempt.” Callie’s face could have been carved from stone.

 Clarke really, really wants to send a glare Lexa’s way, because this is what happens when you decide to wipe out an invading force without consulting anyone else, and now Clarke can’t lie about it with a straight face. Not to Callie, anyway. “You’re right, they -- we were planning to attack. Or it was under discussion.” Don’t look at Lexa. Don’t look at Lexa. “But if you don’t believe us about Mount Weather’s intentions, you’re welcome to send a rescue party over yourself. I hope none of your volunteers have families waiting for them to return.”

 Callie considers her. “If these people are so dangerous, how can you possibly be so certain of their plans, down to the details? How did you learn of them?”

 “I was a prisoner of the Mountain.” She can see Lexa’s head jerk in her direction at that, and Wells’s eyes widen. She keeps her focus on Callie. “I managed to break free of where they were holding me. I eventually escaped the Mountain itself, but not before I explored their facilities and saw their plans.”

 In a different world. And even if it’d been this one, she couldn’t have learned about the experiments involving the Arkers before she escaped. But it’s not a lie as stated, so she can deliver it without flinching.

 “You need the clans,” she continues. “You’re completely unprepared for life on the ground. Even the territory you’ve landed in belongs to them, and it’s a long, long walk before you’d find anywhere that isn’t already claimed and ready to be defended.”

 “We can hold our own. We aren’t limited to sharp blades and sticks.”

 “But you’re limited in numbers,” Clarke counters. “For every trained soldier you have, they have a hundred more.” Lexa is wearing an odd expression at this moment, but Clarke doesn’t have a spare one to decipher it. “Worst come to worst, they can starve you out. You need this alliance even more than they do.”

 “So what’s to keep them from turning on us once they’ve gotten what they wanted?”

 Clarke’s stomach swoops. It’s almost annoying at this point, the strength of her reactions to a possibility that belongs to another universe. “Medical tech,” she manages. “The Mountain uses a chemical agent to affect neurological patterns. In exchange for a way to reverse it, they’re willing to grant you land for crops, and help you through the winter. Hopefully by then you’ll have more common ground for negotiation.”

 Callie’s eyes are shadowed. “It’s not enough. We’ve lost too many in the past months. It’s too much of a risk to now fight in someone else’s war.”

“With all due respect, Chancellor,” Clarke says, “you lost those people because of your own laws, and because of your willingness to sacrifice lives to uphold those laws.” She has to catch herself, force herself to calm down. “The whole point of coming down to the ground was the idea that life would be different. To have the chance to prioritize all your people, instead of picking and choosing for the sake of the greater good.”

Callie turns to Wells, who’s staring at Clarke in surprise. “You obviously trust these people, if you’ve shared so much with them.”

Wells, to his credit, recovers quickly. “I do. Chancellor, these people have done everything in their power to help me, Raven, and Finn since Bellamy and the others disappeared. They fed us, taught us their language, and kept us safe.” He pauses, and his next words are quieter. “I think she’s right. I think this is our chance to start living the kind of life we didn’t have the room for on the Ark.”

Callie sighs. “It should be discussed further,” she says, slowly. “The Council representatives need time to take the temperature among the remaining population.”

 Lexa frowns, but Clarke cuts her a quick glance and a shake of her head. “Good,” she says to Callie. “I’d be happy to talk with anyone who needs more information. And at the same time I can meet with your medical team, maybe put things into motion there.”

 “In return,” Lexa finally speaks, “my warriors will escort your search parties through the immediate area, protecting them as they search for your other fallen stations.”

 “Thank you,” Callie says. She offers, with a wan smile: “Brave new world, that has such people in it.” She turns to Wells. “I take it you don’t plan on returning to the Ark anytime soon.” He shakes his head, a little sheepish, and she nods. “Just remember the three of you have been absolved of your crimes. You’re free to come and go as you please, and we’ll keep you updated if we hear about... if we hear anything.

 “It was very interesting to meet you both,” Callie says, looking between Clarke and Lexa. “Commander. Your Majesty.” She gives a wry smile before turning away and heading through the main gates.

 Clarke waits until Callie is out of earshot before saying to Lexa: “They want their kids back. We’ve got them.”

 “She’s right,” Wells adds as he climbs up onto his horse. “If she wanted to turn us away she could have. The Council won’t be able to contain the population with their usual measures, they’ll have to bow to people’s wishes.”

 Lexa doesn’t respond right away, waits until Clarke is securely in her saddle as well. “You were once held captive inside the Mountain?” she asks.

 “Briefly.”

 “How did you escape?”

 Dead, yielding flesh beneath her hands. Anya’s face, stoic and certain. Hitting cold water so hard she was sure something was broken, sure that she was dead.

 “Does it really matter, Lexa?”

 Lexa jerks as if she’s been slapped. She sets her jaw and whirls, horse snorting, setting a pace back to camp just shy of what would leave Wells and Clarke hopelessly in her dust.

 Wells sidles up to Clarke. “You know, I’m beginning to understand why the other me had the good sense not to fall in love with you.”

 “Shut up,” she mutters, and then they both have to put in the effort to follow the Commander.

 

_____________________________

 

 

Clarke makes good on her promise to visit the Ark and make herself available to people who have questions. Lexa sends a bodyguard with her, but otherwise doesn’t comment. They spend more and more time apart.

 Clarke doesn’t have a lot of spare time to think about it, especially with the hours she’s spending with the medical team relating the symptoms and behavior of the Reapers, going over every inch of her memories of Abby’s actions in the dropship. Jackson is still a medical officer in this reality, but the Chief is a stranger to Clarke: a small, round woman named Ekayanake. She’s deeply disturbed by what Clarke describes, and keeps Clarke in their infirmary as they sketch out chemical compounds, brainstorm behavioral therapies.

 Which means by the time they find Lincoln, they’re prepared.

 Octavia finds him again. Of course. Clarke sometimes wonders if she should ask her Lincoln about the possibility of his own keryon teina. If he’s willing to answer. If they’re ever in the same universe again.

 Octavia again, but this time with Costia instead of Bellamy. The two of them have been searching the area almost non-stop since Indra’s initial search returned only with Nyko. Clarke guessed it was happening more than anything else.

 If you tell Lexa --” Costia had warned.

 “I won’t. I’m a little surprised you’d let her take the risk, though.”

 The way Costia held her mouth was purely mutinous. “He’s my friend as well.”

 Clarke had nodded. “Make sure Octavia carries the shock baton with her when you go. I know she hates it, and she’s gone full Grounder, so -- make sure.”

 Costia must have succeeded, because eventually they drag a stunned unconscious Lincoln to the Ark infirmary, where Dr. Ekayanake uses the triple restraints Clarke advised in securing him to a bed.

 “Now we cross our fingers,” she says, loading up a syringe, “and hope.”

 Clarke didn’t think it was possible, but watching Lincoln come back from the brink is even worse the second time around.

 When Clarke stumbles out of the infirmary, sweat-soaked and exhausted, she finds Callie watching from the outside.

 “I don’t think I believed you,” the Chancellor says, staring through the glass. “Not completely. But any group of people who could do that,” she nods at Lincoln on the bed wrapped in Octavia’s embrace, “to another human being...”

 “Now you know you ended up on the right side of this.”

 “Now I understand how much danger the rest of our children are in.”

 Clarke walks over to stand next to her. “Is it enough to buy me a favor?”

 She’s had an idea for a while, now. A lot of her -- every part of her that’s really Klark, rebels against it.

 But the rest of her is too smart not to plan for every eventuality.

 “It depends on the favor,” Callie says.

 Clarke describes the lockers in the infirmary to her, tells Callie what she wants placed in one of them.

 In the end the Chancellor grants her favor, and gives her a key.  

 

_____________________________

 

 

When she rides into camp Lexa is sitting by herself in front of the fire by her tent.

 Clarke dismounts and hands the reins off to a warrior, unseeing. She doesn’t give her legs permission to take her over to the Commander, but that’s where they head off, anyway.

 “We brought Lincoln back,” she says when she comes to a halt by the fire. She practically blurts it out. She feels like a kid again, showing a clumsy piece of art to a teacher and hoping it will get her praised. “That’s one of the things I promised you.”

 “I remember.” Lexa doesn’t take her gaze off the low flames. Their light casts her face in edged shadows and warm light.

 “Lexa --”

 “I believe you’re more than capable of wonders all on your own, Clarke.” She doesn’t sound bitter. She sounds... “I only wish you trusted me to help you achieve them.”

 Lexa stands, turns to enter her tent. Pauses.

 “Perhaps that’s not our destiny in this life,” she offers, before continuing inside.

 Clarke goes to her own tent alone. She doesn’t dream.

 

_____________________________

 

 

Soon after they hear from Roan and Genai, sending ahead to herald their imminent return to the TonDC camp. They also send word of the numbers they were able to raise, and Clarke’s heart feels like it can beat steadily again for the first time in weeks.

 She goes back and forth a few times to the Ark with Wells, conferring. It isn’t long before they have the numbers there, too.

 Fresh markers for each cadre of a dozen willing souls are carved by Lexa’s warriors, and Clarke paints them herself. She moves them about the map for hours, staring down at potential formations and plans of attack.

 It doesn’t matter how often she re-arranges them, or how long she bends over the map with her back aching. It always comes out to the same conclusion.

 Lexa hasn’t spent as much of her time in the tent since the Ark fell. She waits until Clarke returns to her own before entering her own quarters. Clarke usually lets her, tacitly acknowledging the breach between them without indicating she wants to repair it. But today she pulls up a chair and settles in to wait long into the afternoon, patient, until some of the candles have burnt down almost to the point of guttering out.

 When Lexa finally appears in she’s clearly irritated, her stride jerky and bordering on uncoordinated. “I am trying to give you whatever you need at this time,” she says, forgoing any other greeting, “but this is my tent, Clarke.”

 “I want to know where the hell you get off calling me a liar, when you’ve been lying to me this entire time.”

 She’s only had a couple opportunities to see Lexa go completely cold, but she gets another data point now. “I have done nothing to deserve that.”

 “Except lie.” Clarke shoots to her feet to face Lexa across the table. She feels the long day in her aching shoulder, but outrage gives her strength. “All those nights discussing strategy, every I believe in you and they’re our people, and you were just trying to make sure your own interests were protected--”

 Lexa slams one hand down upon the table. The wood reverberates with a force that reaches all the way to Clarke’s elbows.

 “Every exception I make for you puts my position at risk. Every time I give you an opportunity, it’s one that could also be used to make me out as weak, unfit.” Clarke can hear her leather gloves creak as she clenches her hands into fists. “Do not accuse me of playing it safe.”  

 “You’re holding back warriors.” It shouldn’t feel like this. She knows -- has always known -- the essence of Lexa, no matter what world Clarke finds her in. She should have seen something like this coming, despite -- “You aren’t committing all of your troops. Not even close. Where are the rest of your soldiers, Lexa?”

 Lexa stares back, inscrutable.

 "Where are they?”

 “How many more am I supposed to have?” she asks, instead of answering.

 Clarke gestures at the display of the territory surrounding the Mountain. “This is only two-thirds of your available armies, if that. The showing for the Woods Clan is especially pathetic. You’re missing at least half of your warriors. The other clans are holding back at well, but I can’t believe you didn’t think I’d notice your own...” She trails off as she takes in the encroaching despair on the Commander’s face, the way it deepens the lines and hollows. “...Lexa?”

 “There are no more armies. I committed every soul I have to this plan. There is no one else."

 That’s not possible.

 That would mean a population reduction of --

 “How?” Clarke asks. “Was there a disease, or a long winter, or --”

 “The Mountain.” Lexa bows her head. Her nails scrape against the wood as she curls her hands into fists. “I couldn’t find a way to defend against their technology.”

 “Their tech?” Clarke feels like she’s nearing the source of some unease that’s haunted her since waking up here. “Reapers don’t use Mountain tech.” She swallows. “Have they sent out soldiers?”

 “Yes,” Lexa says, exhausted. “Waves of them, along with sneak attacks. They will pick a village and simply destroy it -- reaping the healthiest and killing the rest. They can’t wander too far from their base, so my clan has taken the worst of it. But I don’t envy the other leaders, either, or the fire that descends from the sky and obliterates all it touches.”

 “Missiles.” Clarke has to sit back down. “They’re actually using the missiles on you.” Her head is spinning. “How long has this been going on?”

 “Years. Almost as long as my own life. Your world hasn’t seen the same?”

 “No.” Clarke finds it within her to meet Lexa’s gaze and say what she knows the Commander needs to hear: “Our Commander never had to keep her people alive through that. There was nothing you missed, Lexa.”

 “You don’t know that.” But she straightens.

 “Can I ask...” Clarke’s hands trail over the map, touching lightly at unmarked spots. “I remember seeing the symbol for a village, here...?”

 “Gone,” Lexa says simply.

 Clarke moves to another spot, and another, only to receive the same answer. Her heart heavy, she brings her fingers to the spot where eighteen innocent people were gunned down. Eighteen people, she’d kept in the back of her mind all this while, who at least she’s managed to spare this time around. Or so she’d thought.

 Again, the answer is the same.

 “Oh.” Her hand stops hovering, comes to rest on the map as if this way she could shield those who are already gone. “How bad has it been for the other clans?”

 “Not as bad.” Lexa leans one hip against the table. “Not in terms of loss of life. All of the other clan leaders have come to me about the terrors this war has inspired among their people, however. They lose a number each year to nomadic clans beyond the known map. Villagers abandon their entire lives in the hopes of outrunning this enemy.”

 It doesn’t make sense. The Mountain is reliant on Grounder blood to cure the effects of radiation; why would they choose to drive the clans to near-extinction? What would it prove?

 “Nia was the only one who never came to me,” Lexa says, and it takes Clarke a second to remember the thread of their conversation. “Her lands were never targeted. I think,” bitterly, “because she did an adequate job of killing her own people.” She shifts her glance back to Clarke. “But at least two of their weapons have been launched toward the Ice Nation since your coronation.”

 Clarke is gripped with panic. “How many did I lose?”

 “None,” Lesa says, reassuring. “Your lands are too broad and your people too scattered. The Mountain doesn’t have the necessary intelligence to waste their precious technology without knowing where to aim.” She gives Clarke a grim half-smile. “At least not so far.”

 Clarke breathes in deep to calm herself. She tries not to get caught up in how emotional her response was: the overpowering instinct towards her --

 They’re not really her people.

 “I believe that’s why you were also targeted by their assassins,” Lexa says, drawing Clarke’s attention. “I’ve tried to keep you out of their range for some time. It’s primarily why I asked you not to travel to Polis.”

 “You did that because Costia asked you to.”

 Lexa shrugs minutely. “I rarely have the chance to do anything for one reason, Clarke.”

 That brings back... bad memories, and Clarke pushes on. “But you asked me to come down for this Summit because of her, too.”

 The anxiety only intensifies when Lexa shakes her head. “Not just for that.” She draws a breath. “I never got a chance to speak to the assembled leaders and ambassadors this year. If I had, I would have told them what I am about to tell you.”

 Clarke thinks she already knows from looking at her face.

 “If there is any possibility of striking back against the Mountain and winning,” Lexa continues, “it will be within the next six months. Longer than that and I fear we won’t have the means, or the warriors, to ever wrest free of its control. That’s also why I have committed so much to this plan. Why I have -- truly -- done everything in my power to bring it to fruition. It’s not just our best chance. It’s very possibly our last.”

 This plan didn’t even work when the Grounders were at full strength.

 No, things went wrong, things no one saw coming. She can anticipate them, now. It’ll be different.

 This will work.

 It has to.

 “I --” Clarke pushes down nausea, tries to find something else to worry about. “Will the clans recover, even if we bring down the Mountain? That’s almost two decades of all-out warfare, that’s not easy to come back from.”

“I think we can.” Lexa hesitates before continuing: “You haven’t undone all of the damage Nia caused, but you’ve made incredible progress in only a few years.” She’s thoughtful. “The Woods Clan has the reputation of being fiercest in battle, from skills developed so close to the Mountain,” she says, “and the majority of nightbloods come from our clan, so the Commander is usually one of us as well. All of this has contributed to our reputation.”

 “You don’t have to brag to impress me, Lexa,” Clarke says lightly.

But the look in Lexa’s eyes is unexpectedly somber. “The Ice Nation has long been the one clan that posed a threat to us, even before your reforms. Once we start to see the long-term results of your labor, I do believe the hierarchy will shift.”

Clarke gives her a small smile. “Good thing the Ice Queen likes you.”

Again, Lexa doesn’t appear soothed. She looks down at the table instead. “Does she?”

Clarke bites her lip. “I’m sorry,” she says finally. “I keep treating you as if... I keep talking to you as if you were her. You’re not, and I’m sorry. You’re different.”

When Lexa lifts her gaze, she’s even more unhappy. “Am I?”

“I know you have a hard time understanding it. You have to trust me on this.”

Lexa's face carries the impression of a hovering stormcloud: ominous and dark, without unleashing the brewing torrent within. “You don’t get to dismiss the parts of me that displease you."

“It’s not like that.” As if what happened at Mount Weather was a bad habit, or a social gaffe.

“Whatever has caused this... rift,” Lexa says carefully. “It could happen here as well. Perhaps now. Perhaps later. It is a possibility.”

“It really isn’t.”

Her frown only deepens. “Clarke --”

“You’re in love with Klark, right? I know you didn’t use those words. I know it’s difficult for you to say, but -- that’s what we’re talking about here. Right?”

Lexa makes a strangled sound halfway between denial and mortification.

Clarke smiles. It feels like it doesn’t fit right, but she wants to give it to Lexa, feels strangely tender toward this impossible version of her. “I believe you. And that’s how I know you’re different.”

Lexa’s eyelids drop, shielding her eyes and casting shadows on her cheeks when she asks: “And you think I’m able feel these things for you, here, because I haven’t lost Costia.”

“Why would you ever lose Costia?” Clarke asks, but only after a long, damning pause.

“I won’t ask you to tell me about it,” Lexa says, eyes still veiled. “I don’t want to know.”

“But you...”

“I was able to guess.”

“How?”

“You’re very gentle with her. It almost, but not quite, borders on pity.”

Clarke swallows. “I think she’d punch straight through my ribs and take out my heart if she thought I pitied her.”

Lexa’s smile is mirthless. “She would. So it would have to be something -- considerable -- to bring you so close to danger.” She shakes her head. “I didn’t want to believe this was the reason. But I couldn’t come up with anything else.”

“I’m...”

Lexa looks up. “What?”

“I’m surprised you don’t want to know what happened.”

The Commander closes her eyes with an almost imperceptible shudder. “I can’t -- I can’t think about it. At all.”

“Don’t you want to prevent any possibility of it happening in this world?”

Lexa opens her eyes, meets Clarke’s with a clear and steady gaze. “I trust you’ve already done that,” she says quietly.

Clarke has to look away.

“I can appreciate,” Lexa continues, “how it might change... my entire life, if Costia were missing from it. I can see how the changes might be interpreted by those who only knew me afterwards.  I want you to stay here, where you are safe. But I refuse to get what I want through misunderstanding.”

"Honesty is very important to her." Really, Costia’s right to laugh at both of them.

“You can’t accept me in one life and hate me in another," Lexa says. "I was able to recognize you and your soul, despite the differences. Please try to do the same for me.”

“I don’t hate her.” She says it on impulse, it’s true. She’s a little surprised at that. “Maybe I thought I did, but I.” She breathes out and shakes her head. “It helped me to think of it that way for a while, that’s all. I don’t hate her.”

“How do you feel, then?”

Clarke huffs a laugh. “Listen, I know this sounds weird, but I don’t think it’s any of your business.” She shakes her head again. “Well, I guess it is when I take things out on you, but I said I was sorry.”

“Clarke.”

“And I meant it,” Clarke barrels on. “But you also have to understand that I mean it when I say the two of you are different. For whatever reason.”

“You can’t know the secrets of another person’s heart.”

It’s said so quietly Clarke almost doesn’t catch it, but it still makes her angry. “I am just,” she says, tilting her head back to the tent ceiling where it arches above their heads, the weak light filtering through the fabric, “I am so sick of your -- nevermind,” as she reins herself in at the last second.

“Say your piece.”

Clarke takes in a few breaths through her nose. “I know her and you don’t. You keep insisting you’re the same person, but, Lexa -- you have no idea what she is actually like. You,” and maybe she should have waited a little longer, felt a bit calmer before speaking, because the words are tripping out of her like they’re off the leash, “don’t know what she’s done.”

The ensuing quiet of the tent feels almost anti-climactic.

“I knew it,” Lexa says, so soft. “I knew there was something.” She taps the wooden tabletop with two fingers, noiselessly. “You have to tell me.”

... she’s not ready for this. “Lexa --”

“We need to plan for all possibilities.” The set of Lexa’s jaw is all Clarke needs to know she’s not going to wriggle out of this one.

That doesn’t mean she can’t drag her heels until the last second. “It won’t be a possibility.” She looks down at the table and wishes she could sweep her hands across it, toss everything onto the ground. Maybe jump on it a few times for good measure. “We need a new plan. The old one won’t work with your numbers.”

“So whatever it was involved your old plan to defeat the Mountain.”

She’s clenching her teeth so hard it hurts. “Drop it, Lexa.”

“I won’t.” Lexa doesn’t flinch from the glare Clarke sends her across the table. If anything, her chin comes up at the sight of it. But there’s something in her expression that makes Clarke hesitate, and so Lexa continues: “If your previous plan had a flaw, how were we victorious? You said we brought down the Mountain together.”

“No,” Clarke says, and it’s true, she had been very exact. Very careful. “I said we had an alliance, and that we worked together. And that the Mountain had been defeated.” She gets even quieter: “I never said we did it together.”

“Tell me.”

“They offered her a better deal.” It’s so insultingly simple, when she comes down to it. There should be more -- more complications, more pathos. Something besides the fact that Clarke bet everything she had, and it wasn’t enough. “Her people in exchange for mine, and the promise that no one from the clans would ever be harvested again.” She breathes in, lets it out. “She took the deal. And she walked away.

“Everything that happened after that was me. I figured out a way inside the Mountain. I held their leader hostage, and when they refused to make an exchange, I killed them.” Her voice still shakes when she talks about it. She wonders if it will ever stop. “All of them. An entire people turned to dust. And that’s why I was offered the raun-keryon.”

This time, the ensuing silence feels thick with tension. Clarke can’t quite bring herself to look at Lexa, keeps her head ducked down. “Say something,” she manages.

“I...” Lexa’s voice is soft, hesitant. “The Mountain Men have hunted us for generations. To accept their terms without a fight...”

“No.” There’s a headache growing at her temples, and Clarke presses her fingers there. “No, she fought. We lost TonDC, and then the battle... We lost a lot of people. Too many, I guess.”

Again, silence.

After a while she hears Lexa start put away the markers on the table, storing them for the night. When Clarke looks up, her face is empty of all expression.

“Lexa?”

The Commander sends her a quick glance as she continues her busywork. “You were right, it’s not a possibility in this world.”

Clarke watches her, waiting. And then: “That’s all you have to say?”

The angle at which she holds her head leaves Lexa’s face in partial shadow. “What else would you like to hear?”

“I want you to admit I was right.” Clarke clenches her hand until her nails dig into her palm. “You pushed for this, you kept insisting. I want you to admit that you’re different. You could never do that to me. Or to Klark, anyway.”

Lexa pauses. “The Ice Nation is part of my Coalition,” she says. “If I sacrificed them it would throw the other clans into suspicion and distrust over who could be next, eroding our alliances from within.”

“That’s not why, though.” She keeps thinking she’ll come to the end of her anger. Instead, she finds new reserves at every turn. “If she’d never joined the Coalition, you still wouldn’t accept that deal. Admit it.”

“I was brought to Polis after our village was destroyed,” Lexa says instead, “but they knew I was a nightblood years before that. For as long as I can remember, I have understood my purpose in life is to become a Commander worthy of my blood.”

“Lexa.”

“When I accepted the Spirit, I also accepted that I could never again make choices based on my own wants or desires. My decisions carried the weight of hundreds of lives even before the Coalition. What is one life -- even my own -- matched against so many? Given into my care with the trust that I will perform my duty?”

“You gave up Costia for Klark,” Clarke says, and she can hear the strain in her own voice.

“My duty is to my people,” Lexa says, raising her eyes to Clarke. “First. Last. Always. Without that, my life has no purpose.”

“I don’t believe you,” Clarke says, wild. “I don’t care what else was at stake, you can’t tell me you’d be willing to sacrifice her. You love her.”

“I do.”

Clarke lets out a breath she didn’t realize she was holding. “You could never take that deal.”

“I could,” Lexa says, with awful gentleness. “I would.”

Clarke stares.

It’s like the Ark landing all over again. Nothing shakes, but she swears she can hear solid ground cracking beneath her feet.

She turns away.

“Clarke.”

No. No, she can’t do this.

She heads blindly for the tent opening.

Clarke.”

She picks up her pace and tells herself she isn’t running away.

 

_____________________________

 

 

The spot chosen for their encampment is cradled by a wide creek with a soft current. The banks are high -- someone told Clarke the water level rises with the spring rains and after winter snows. She takes a seat in the soft grass, far away from the sounds of camp. She’s come here a few times previously to think. It’s quiet, and the sound and clean smells of the burbling water is a soothing counterpart to whatever is happening inside her head.

She isn’t sure when she started falling in love with Lexa.

At least she didn’t let herself finish falling. She caught herself, like she did when her balance failed and she pitched face-first toward the cold steel floors of the Ark’s corridors, hands windmilling and desperate for something to grab onto. Sometimes Clarke hurt herself worse in the process. She tells herself it’s more important to control the situation than emerge unscathed. So she still ended up on the ground. So she sliced open her hand or scraped her knee bloody. It’s better than feeling -- than being -- so completely helpless.

She’s not sure when she started to fall, but she caught herself at the Mountain. She’s been trying to stand back up ever since.

Clarke didn’t blame Lexa for it. It wasn’t her fault. Clarke figured -- kiss aside, betrayal aside -- it was never anyone’s job but Clarke’s to keep watch over her own heart. It wasn’t like she was ever going to do anything about it. Maybe after... and then later... maybe there was the idea, then, buried deep beneath the overwhelming dread and panic of the present, that someday it would be something she could actually contemplate as maybe, possibly, happening. Between them.

That was still Clarke’s fault. She can blame Lexa for a lot of things, and she does. But Clarke is the one who should have caught herself sooner. Clarke is the one got distracted, even if only for a handful of seconds, by the distant possibility of unrealized potential. Clarke is the one who allowed herself to hope, and she never blamed Lexa for that.

You can’t blame someone for not starting to fall in love with you back.   

She knew that before Lexa left her alone in front of the Mountain. But she never considered that she might not be alone in the way she felt.

She never imagined that people in love could do this to each other.

Clarke sits by the creek long enough for the sun to dip down into the trees. It’s not night yet but it’s right on the edge, that strange transition that only happens in the woods, where everything is gilded in sunlight before being plunged into sudden darkness. She stares ahead, unseeing, even as she hears Lexa approach and carefully sit beside her.

“Your raun-keryon -- it is because of me,” she says.

“Don’t do that,” Clarke says. She doesn’t turn her head. “You don’t get to claim responsibility for my actions out of pity.”

“It’s not --”

“You don’t feel guilty, and you wouldn’t have chosen differently. You’d only search for a reason to be responsible if you didn’t think I was strong enough to live with the consequences.”

Lexa is silent for a long moment. “No one would fault you for bowing under the weight of so much death.”

“You said your actions have brought about the deaths of hundreds. You seem fine.”

“I was raised to do it. I was born for this.”

“You think I was, too.”

“Not... like this. Not so much, and all at once.” She draws a deep breath. “It would break anyone.”

“Not me.” She’d had to resort to magic ceremonies and pulling at the strings of destiny to keep head above water, but she’d managed it. Maybe there was something to be proud of in that. “Not yet.”

They sit together in quiet. There are birds awake, singing low songs in the branches over their heads.

“Do you think she knew I’d survive it?” Clarke asks, pushing past the tightness of her throat.

“I knew,” Lexa says, “within minutes of meeting you, that you had the most... resilient spirit I had ever seen.” Her breath hiccups in what might have been a laugh, in a past life. “If an ordeal could be survived, you would.”

“Do you think she,” and here she can’t keep her voice from breaking, “knew what it would take from me to do it?”

“Yes,” quietly.

“Fuck.” Clarke presses her knuckles into her forehead. “Talk about a fucking backhanded compliment -- so, what, she could do that to me because she believed I would make everything work out?”

Her last thread of hope snaps when Lexa sighs. “The decision would have been the same regardless.”

Clarke bites the inside of her cheek against the impulse to scream out loud.

“I’m sorry.”

“For what? You didn’t do this to me. And you admitted you wouldn’t choose any differently. So you can’t just throw “sorry” at me, Lexa, you have to tell me exactly what the apology is for.”

She finally turns to Lexa. The other girl stares ahead as she says:

“I’m sorry my love isn’t sweeter.”

You can’t blame someone for not loving you back.

But if they do? Or they want to?

And it still isn’t enough?

Love is held up as the reason. For everything, every good thing that happens or is worth working toward.

Love is supposed to heal. Love is supposed to make every hurt bearable.

Clarke leans forward, breathing harshly. When she feels a touch at her arm she turns into it, unthinking, and finds herself wrapped up in Lexa’s arms. Her hold is a little too strong, and the way her fingers dig into Clarke’s shoulders just shy painful. Clarke’s grateful for it. It grounds her, keeps her in this moment.

Clarke takes the space Lexa gives her, the quiet darkness between them as Lexa hides her from the world, and cries. For lost chances and ruined hopes. For a girl who had looked at her like Clarke could remake the world.

For the last piece of her to believe that loving someone meant nothing else mattered.  

 

_____________________________

 

 

They still have a war to plan.

“Can’t you stop thinking about it for one night?” Lexa asks her when they’re back in front of the war table, forehead creased. “We aren’t attacking tomorrow.”

“I need a minute.” She leans hard into the tabletop with her knuckles, using the pain to drive away the sharp deja vu.

“Fine,” Lexa says, and stalks off to another corner of the tent.

She’s missing something. She knows it. Something right in front of her face, and she’ll feel so stupid once she figures it out, she can tell even as she scans the layout of the area with a desperate, searching gaze.

The Grounder population is down by at least a third. There’s no way they could withstand a prolonged assault on the door, the losses would overwhelm them.

... it didn’t work in her world, either. Clarke can admit that to herself, now, alone in the small circle of light a single candle casts around her. Too many deaths and too many mistakes. Too many unexpected variables.

... wouldn’t that be Clarke herself, this time around? Because really, how can plan for an inter-dimensional traveler?

So how can she possibly use that?

A noise draws her attention, and she turns to find Lexa at her elbow. The Commander has dressed for bed in loose pants, soft shirt, and bare feet.

“Oh.” Between this awful day -- and all those tears -- Clarke’s sluggish in reacting. “Oh, you must be tired. I’m sorry, I’ll head out --" 

“You’ll stay here,” Lexa says, firm. Clarke feels her eyes widen as Lexa hands her a similar sleep outfit, clean and folded. “If I let you go to your own tent you’ll pace the entire time. You might even sneak back in here. Tell me you never tried that in your own world and woke me up for the trouble.”

“I never -- okay, once.” Clarke mutters. At Lexa’s look: “She was already awake the other times, they don’t count.”

Lexa doesn’t respond, only places the bundle of clothing on the table by Clarke’s hands.

Clarke’s so tired that the obvious question doesn’t occur to her until she’d changed. “Where do I sleep?” she asks as she out from the simple screen used for privacy.

Lexa is stretched out on her unfairly immense bed, and she indicates it lazily. Her eyes are already half shut.

“Lexa. I can’t sleep in your bed.”

“Why not?” she asks. She doesn’t even lift her head. “It’s big enough. And apparently, everyone thinks you already do.”

Clarke flushes. “That isn’t my fault.”

“No,” with a short sigh. “It’s mine.” She opens her eyes the rest of the way. “I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”

“You’re not,” Clarke says. She’s not. It’s just. It’s. Intimate.

“You can return to your tent,” Lexa says as she turns over onto her side. “Try to be a little quieter when you sneak back in. For my sake.” Her words are already losing their sharp-cut clarity as she slips closer to sleep. 

Clarke stares at Lexa’s back for a few moments, the curl of her spine and sharp jut of one shoulder blade where her sleep shirt as fallen away. She can make out the edges of the tattoo on Lexa’s spine in dark smudges.

She slips underneath the covers gingerly, wriggling down the rest of the way as she tries to get comfortable without disturbing the other occupant. It’s a nice bed. Nicer than hers. She doesn’t feel so intrusive by the time she reaches down to pull a soft fur up to her chin.

“Clarke.”

“Yeah?” There’s a single candle left, sputtering at the other end of the room. It’s enough light to make out Lexa’s features as she turns over to face Clarke.

“I promise not to sneak past your sentries.”

“I -- what?” She keeps forgetting Trigedasleng is not this brain’s first language, and it takes a second to translate the literal words into the idiomatic meaning: hands where they don’t have express permission to be, sneaking kisses when the other person is distracted. The romantic equivalent of Grounder kids playing at war via hide-and-seek.

It’s also incredibly silly, and she stares in amazement as Lexa hides her smile against her pillow.

“You --” Clarke doesn’t think about it, she yanks her own pillow from underneath her head and uses it to give Lexa a soft whack. “Go to sleep.”

Lexa’s smile grows -- she didn’t even flinch when the pillow hit her shoulder -- as she watches Clarke settle into bed.

Whatever lingering tension Clarke felt has dissipated (Lexa did that on purpose, Clarke is going to get her one day), and she falls into an easy sleep.

 

_____________________________

_____________________________

 

 

It really does get easier each time.

“... letters between Polis and the Sky People’s camp. At first I was reluctant -- even if the Mountain is dead, my people still dislike travelling too close. But as your Raven pointed out, they left without warning and have stayed much longer than we anticipated. They needed to send word.” There’s a soft sound, like the tic of a throat almost too dry to swallow. “No one thought you would be sleeping this long.”  

Clarke realizes Lexa’s voice doesn’t make her angry anymore, or scared. She doesn’t feel the need to curl up tight in the dark space of her head and hide. She might even turn toward the sound, if she weren’t drifting on sea of motionlessness, a feather floating atop dark and powerful waves.

“Raven continues to explore every corner of the tower, especially places she doesn’t belong. She’s abandoned the map room, finally. But she’s discovered old documents she wishes to take with her, something about a new approach to power use. Hide-licks? Hy-drow-lik?” Clarke wonders if Lexa would be so casual in her ignorance of the word if she knew Clarke was half-awake. “She’s willing to bargain for them, claims if she can build a system that works she will return to Polis and teach the method.”

Clarke’s never heard Lexa like this before. Never. She sounds... Clarke searches before landing on the right word for it: Lexa sounds ordinary. Not that Lexa herself is ordinary, but she’s not performing for an audience or enacting the expected role of Commander. She’s not even trying to make a point or teach a lesson. She’s... not rambling, exactly. But Clarke is reminded of her parents talking together after dinners when she’d been dismissed to her own rooms, the back and forth of conversation that was as much an excuse to hold each other’s hand across the table than anything else.

How many times would Lexa have to come and sit in this room, and talk over everyday things, to sound like that?

“Octavia,” and Lexa’s voice hardens, “is less concerned with preserving overall harmony.” She falls silent for a breath, and Clarke pictures her rubbing at a sore spot high up on one cheek. “She follows Indra everywhere. Not obviously, but she’s guaranteed to appear wherever and whenever Indra does. Indra doesn’t acknowledge the girl, but she’s becoming desperate to escape the attention. She ventures further and further into Polis each day, and Octavia perseveres. The other warriors have begun to place bets every time Indra appears on how long it will take for Octavia to catch up.” A soft rustle, and Clarke imagines Lexa shaking her head. “It doesn’t help her cause. Indra says she doesn’t know how to conduct herself with the dignity and detachment of a good soldier.” Then she sighs, and says so softly Clarke almost doesn’t catch it: “She accuses me of the same.”

It’s quiet after that, so quiet Clarke wonders if Lexa’s gone, slipped out on cat-feet. Then the bed shifts under a new weight, settles as Lexa lies down next to her. Clarke can feel the heat, the banked energy Lexa carries like lava running under rock, along the length of her own body.

There’s tickle by her left ear, the sensation of drift. Like someone lightly putting their fingers through her hair.

“You need to wake up,” Lexa says. She’s right... there. Not touching, but close. Clarke can feel breath on her cheek. “You’ve slept long enough. Clarke.”

When Clarke doesn’t rouse (of course she doesn’t, but trust Lexa to try and boss her out of a soul displacement) there’s another sigh. A soft pressure at Clarke’s temple -- the press of Lexa’s head against hers -- and the butterfly brush of eyelashes as Lexa’s eyes fall shut.

“Please,” she breathes, and this isn’t English anymore, Clarke wouldn’t be able to understand if she didn’t have half a head full of another world, “wake up.” She presses closer, nosetip brushing against cheekbone. Clarke can feel the movement of her mouth against skin. “Please wake up. Please, please. Wake up.”

The words spill over each other in a smooth succession that speaks of familiarity: a litany threadbare with repetition.

“Please,” and she sounds so small. Clarke can suddenly imagine what Lexa must have been as a child, her bitten mouth and wild hair. “Please come back to me.”

She places the lightest of kisses at the corner of Clarke’s jaw, more supplication than seduction, but --

Clarke can’t laugh, but laughter kindles a warmth in her stomach anyway and it heats her frozen muscles and the coldness of silence as she exhales: “That’s sneaking past my sentries.” In the same language.

Lexa goes rigid. The she’s up, leaning her weight over Clarke and causing the mattress to dip. “Clarke,” she says, urgent. “Open your eyes. You can end this now, open your --”

 

_____________________________

_____________________________

 

 

Clarke opens her eyes.

It’s morning. Sunlight presses against the fabric of the tent and filters through the seams. Clarke’s alone in the bed.

Clarke stands. No dizziness. Nothing hurt. Internal damage could do it, but she hadn’t taken any kind of blow in days.

She dresses carefully, trying to think of what else it could be. Infection? No, her wound is healing nicely. A virus? Maybe. She doesn’t feel sick, though. Clarke is sitting on the corner of the bed, boots in her hands, when Lexa walks into the tent.

“I didn’t think you’d wake up for another hour,” she says, “but I did bring breakfast.” She places the plate on the war table. “I was afraid you wouldn’t stop your planning for a proper meal."

Clarke looks up, distracted. “What? Oh. Thank you.” She goes back to frowning at her boots. She has to figure this out.

“Clarke.”

She startles to find Lexa sitting on her heels in front of her. She’s wearing the same soft smile Clarke remembers from last night. “Didn’t you sleep well?”

“I...” Clarke swallows. “I think I might need a healer. I can’t find anything wrong,” she rushes to explain, “but you said there was a danger of slipping back to my world when I’m hurt. It happened just now.”

Lexa hesitates. “But you said nothing was wrong,” she says finally. It’s edging toward a question.

“No, I don’t think so.”

Lexa nods. “Has it happened before?” She reaches to take one of the boots out of Clarke’s hands.

“Twice. Three times in total.” Clarke watches as Lexa loosens the laces, complies when Lexa motions for her to slip her foot inside.

“When?” She anchors Clarke’s booted foot against her thigh, knee on the ground to stabilize herself, and begins to work up the laces from the ankle.

“Well, when I hurt my shoulder. But,” with dawning realization, “the first time was at the dropship, and there wasn’t anything seriously wrong. I was exhausted, but that was it. And then again last night.” Lexa keeps tightening and moving up, and Clarke says: “It’s her. She was there, those other times. She was with me in the other place.”

Lexa nods, tying off Clarke’s laces at the top of the boot.

“Lexa.”

“Clarke.”

Lexa.”

Lexa reaches for the other boot, and looks up at Clarke in a way which comes this close to rolling her eyes. “Of course I’m with you.”

“I don’t get it.”

Lexa bends down to start the whole process over again with the second boot. “I told you physical closeness to your keryon teina was a countermeasure. The same force can be applied in the opposite direction.”

Opposite direction. “She’s trying to draw me back?”

Lexa nods again.

The thought hollows out Clarke’s chest. “Why?”

And again, Lexa glances up at her in a way which borders on exasperation. She finishes with the laces and ties them off, grasping Clarke’s ankle to place her foot carefully on the ground. “See if that’s too tight.”

“It’s fine. Listen for a second, I get -- you know, hiding me away from Nia inside of Polis --”

Nia? Why does Nia want you, when you aren’t part of the Ice Nation?”

“-- even bringing my friends to the tower, maybe to try and wake me up, maybe because she needs the Mountain-slayer after losing face, I don’t know. But if she’s deliberately...” Clarke’s breath snags somewhere in her ribcage. “Does that mean she knows? About...”

Lexa is watching her with a wry expression. “Why do I feel like, even after everything, you’ve only told me half of this story?”

“There’s a lot to tell.”

“So I gather.” Lexa rises to her feet. “You’re asking whether or not I know about the soul-tie in your world. Guessing from how it’s been pulled on almost from the moment I met you in this one, I would think yes.”

Nausea grips Clarke. She’s caught between wanting it, and wanting to be sick.

She registers the second part of of Lexa’s statement a bit later.

“You can feel her trying to...”

“Yes.”

Clarke takes a second to absorb that. “Is that why you ordered my tent moved next to yours?”

“You seemed determined to remain here, at least for the time being. I didn’t think it could do any harm to balance out the forces working upon you.”

Clarke lets out a shaky laugh. “Lexa must be so pissed.”

“Yes.”

That snaps Clarke’s head up. “You know what she’s feeling, too?”

“Not --” Lexa frowns in concentration. “It’s hard to explain to you, because you talk as if we were separate people. We’re the same person, Clarke.” She sighs out, short and sharp. “Have you traveled much outside of Polis?”

“No.”

“There are several places to the north of us where quarries produce very particular rocks. They resonate when struck, like a bell. People break off pieces to carry home, and they claim that when the original rocks are singing, their own fragments will hum with it, even miles and miles away.” She shrugs. “We’re pieces of the same whole, but never separate. It helps,” she adds, as Clarke starts to protest she never felt any of her other selves, “that you are physically close. You’re a conduit. Like how opening the right doors will allow a wind to sweep through a corridor.” 

“Oh.” Her laces are tied perfectly. “So. She’s angry.”

“I did say that.”

“At me?” Clarke pushes past the sudden rage clogging her throat, because how dare she, how dare Lexa --

“No.”

Clarke focuses on the Lexa in front of her. For the first time she’s looking off to the side, as if avoiding Clarke’s gaze.

“This is making you uncomfortable,” Clarke realizes.

“No, not --” Lexa brings her head forward with a jerk. “Not you.”

“But talking about it.”  Clarke takes the slight dip of Lexa’s chin as confirmation. “Because you don’t want me to go back?”

“I want what’s best for you,” with soft surety. “Whatever you decide that is.”

She still isn’t meeting Clarke’s eyes.

“Lexa.” She can switch pronouns this once if it means getting an answer. “If you’re not angry with me, then who?”

“Myself.”

The quietness of the answer, the way her eyelids remain at half-mast, are what help to leave Clarke clear on her meaning. The Lexa of Clarke’s world isn’t angry with the Lexa of this one, not for anchoring Clarke against the tide of her efforts. All of Lexa’s rage -- and Clarke remembers it so well, white-hot and snarling, a core of steel and teeth that looked to snap right into your spine -- is directed inward.

Clarke’s own anger and frustration bleeds away in a second, leaving her helpless against a sudden wash of grief. She’s not ready to admit what all this might mean. Not yet. She just knows -- she suddenly aches with it -- that somewhere along the way a wire was crossed, a beat was skipped, a mistake was made and now everyone is on the opposite side of where they wanted to be. Where they were meant to be.

Polis will change the way you think about us.

You already have.

It wasn’t supposed to end up like this. That’s all she knows anymore.

“Clarke.” Lexa leans forward, bends down so that her forehead almost touches Clarke’s. She stretches one arm until her hand is resting on the bed next to Clarke’s.

“You are your own person,” she says, low and intent. “You are an important person.” Her voice wavers before she catches herself. “You shouldn’t risk yourself to heal someone else’s hurt.”

Her breath tickles the soft hairs at Clarke’s temple. Clarke wonders what her Lexa is doing -- has she left Clarke’s room, is she sleeping. Or is she still there. Is she whispering, hoping Clarke will wake up.

“Clarke.”

“I know.” Clarke leans into Lexa, lets her head fall into the curve of shoulder meeting neck. “I won’t, I promise. I didn’t come here because of her. She won’t be the only reason I return, either.”   

“You could,” soft, tentative, like the hand that comes up to cup the back of Clarke’s head, “promise you won’t return at all.”

Clarke sighs. She straightens, and Lexa’s hand falls away as she does the same.

“I need to speak with Lincoln about going back into the Mountain,” she tells Lexa. “Do you think he’s ready for it?”

“As ready as he ever will be.”

Clarke winces. “Octavia’s going to take another swing at me.”

“Do you need my protection?”

She says it lightly, more a joke than not, but Clarke hesitates.

“Not for that,” she says. “But I do think you should come with me. I have a new plan I want to share.”

When she glances up, Lexa’s eyes are narrowed.

“Yeah,” Clarke confirms. “You’re going to hate it.”

 

_____________________________

 

 

“Thank you for coming,” she says. She nods to Lincoln. “And thank you for letting me be here.”

Octavia won’t meet her eyes. (She won’t meet Lincoln’s, either, she almost looked betrayed when he agreed to have the gathering by his bedside in the Ark infirmary.) Lincoln is strong enough to sit up, now, a scruff of beard showing he doesn’t trust the Arkers to come at him with a razor in his depleted state. Finn stands in the corner. His arm is around Raven, but his stare remains, fixed and fervent, on Clarke. Raven weighs Clarke as well, considering. She doesn’t show any sign of noticing her boyfriend’s intensity, but her hand grips his where it dangles over her shoulder. Wells stands by the head of Lincoln’s bed, mirroring Octavia on the other side. Costia sits by the foot of Lincoln’s bed with one hand on his leg. Clarke wonders if this is the first time she’s seen him since we was turned into a Reaper.

Lexa is somewhere behind her. Clarke can’t see her, but the knowledge of her presence is like a reassuring hand at the small of her back.

“I’ve asked you all to meet me,” she speaks into the cold, sterile space of the fallen Ark, “because you are the six people who know the truth about me, and -- and where I truly come from.” She clenches her hands. She’s almost become used to the calluses there, the feeling of scars across her palms.

“We fought the Mountain there, too.” It’s so strange to look down at the tiling in the infirmary and think: the her of this world has never stood in this spot before. She never curled up in the corner with her Advanced Biology homework and waited for her mother to finish conferencing with Jackson. “We almost lost. We...” She has to fight to hold her head up. “When we finally took Mount Weather, it was at an incredible cost.”

“To us or them?” Octavia demands.

“Both. But the Mountain Men were obliterated.”

It’s clear the implications are lost on the Akers. But the Grounders know what she’s saying. Lincoln’s eyes get very, very wide. A flash of triumph passes over Costia’s face, but she slowly lowers her gaze to the floor, worrying her lower lip.

“So?” Octavia is, again, the one to speak, looking back and forth between her lover and her mentor. “Isn’t that good?”

“There are children under the mountain,” Costia says, subdued.

“Well, obviously she wasn’t including the kids.” Octavia addresses Clarke: “Right?”

Clarke simply looks at her.

Octavia’s face goes ashen. Clarke has always wondered what it must have been like for her, being thrown in the Skybox for the crime of existing, kept there until she was deemed old enough to kill.

“And there are others,” Clarke says. Raven’s mouth is a hard line, Well’s expression is stormy, and Finn is a breath away from being sick all over the infirmary floor. “People who have spoken up against the harvesting of Grounders.”

“Not loudly enough,” Costia says.

“I know that,” Clarke answers. “But doesn’t it count for something? That they tried? Doesn’t it mean that, maybe, they deserve more than a senseless death?”

“Then who does deserve it?” Costia demands. She jerks her chin at Lexa. “Our mercy can only extend so far.”

“The Wallaces.” Even though her hatred is residual, it locks up her muscles and clamps down her teeth. “Cage and Dante. Plus their goons. Those are the ones you really want. Besides,” and is this ever going to stop hurting? “The original plan was... flawed in other ways.

“You have a new one,” Wells guesses.

“Sort of.” She draws a shaky breath. “It’s the old plan, but with a twist.” She lays it all out for them: going back in through the tunnels, a man inside to sabotage the radio and the acid fog. She keeps her eyes on Wells for that part, but she can see Finn off to the side -- see the way eagerness kindles in his expression, the fevered light of devotion.

She’ll deal with it later.

Next Clarke moves onto the three-pronged attack: the dam, the mines, the door. “You’ll only be able to blow out four of the five turbines,” she tells Raven.

The other girl frowns. “So I’ll plan for failure.”

“No.” Clarke licks her dry lips. “You’ll be discovered by the guards instead. And you’ll let them take you.”

Raven’s eyes narrow, and Octavia makes a soft sound of protest. It’s her Clarke turns to.

“Then you and I will lead a small team in through the mines,” Clarke tells her. “The Mountain will be distracted, they’ll think our main efforts are the dam and the door.”

“Why shouldn’t they be?” Octavia demands.

“Because we don’t have the numbers. Even the attacks at the door will be mostly for show -- we’ll keep everyone well out of the range of weapons, we’ll outfit the elderly and Arkers who’ve never even held a stunstick to make it seem like that’s where the threat is. Once they take Raven, they’ll feel even more secure. She can report the plan to Bellamy and the others. Octavia, once we’re in, you’ll make sure they and the captive Grounders can defend themselves as they fight their way to the outside.”

“Where will you be?”

Clarke expected Octavia to ask the question. Or even Costia.

Before Clarke gives Lexa her answer she pulls out the key hanging on a string around her neck, the one she’s been keeping hidden beneath her shirt. She walks over to the locker with the number Callie told her, and opens it.

Picking up the gun stored inside and loading the clip feels like taking the hand of an old friend. But she can tell the sight of it unnerves the Commander deeply. Clarke waits until she’s had a moment to collect herself before saying:

“Bringing you the bodies of the men who should bleed for this.”



 

 

Chapter Text

_____________________________

 

 

Things happen very quickly after that.

Raven figures they need to disable the Mountain’s radio practically before Clarke remembers to nudge her in that direction, Clarke’s vague suggestions almost an afterthought. Jasper's message plays like it was waiting for them.

“But this is a good thing, right?” Raven asks when Clarke explains it’s the same message, the same circumstances as before. “Fewer unknown variables to deal with.”

Maybe. It should be. Maybe it’s enough that Bellamy’s in the Mountain with them, and it counters how Clarke never was. She tries to shake off her unease.

Finn insists on being the inside man. He and Raven fight about it. Clarke hears them shouting in their tent for hours before he comes and finds her to tell her he’s going in the Mountain, and Wells will stay here.

She should be happier about that, too.

“There’s too much risk,” she says to him. “Think of the people you might leave behind. Raven needs you.”

You need me.”

She can’t look him in the eye. She can’t bring herself to face his longing mixed with bone-deep stubbornness. She can’t even give a fraction of what he wants from her.

She can’t tell him he’s wrong, either.

Clarke finds Lincoln still recuperating in what was the Ark’s medical bay. She thinks he’s sleeping when she walks up, but her approaching footsteps make him open his eyes with a smile.

“I know you’re not one of us, really,” he says as she walks up, his voice gravelly. “But it’s good to see someone of the clans in this place. Everything about these people is so different.”

“These are Octavia’s people,” she reminds him as she takes a seat.

“No,” he says softly. “She was born to them. But she’s always belonged on the ground.”

“Finn has volunteered to go into the Mountain with you.”

Lincoln nods, his eyes never leaving her face.

“The last time we did this, in my world, it went wrong. You couldn’t resist the Reaper drug. You betrayed the person you were supposed to protect.”

He sits up and hunches over, face in his hands. “Send someone else.”

“I can’t.” She looks at the miserable curve of his spine and sighs. “Lincoln, there isn’t anyone else.”

“Any number of Woods Clan warriors can imitate a Reaper. We’ve seen them everywhere, every time... Pick someone, have Finn pretend to be their captive.”

“Do you think that will work?” She has her suspicions about this, but she treads lightly, chooses her words carefully; trying to find the wound without making it worse. “If Reapers have any kind of self-awareness, even under the drug, they may remember who was or wasn’t made one of them.”

Lincoln’s hands squeeze into fists pressed against his forehead. His knuckles turn white.

“I’m so sorry this happened to you.” That she let it happen, here. “But it’s not your fault.”

“Why are you telling me this?” he whispers. “Why would you tell me I’ll fail --”

“Because I don’t think you will. It doesn’t have to be like that. Maybe knowing what happened, somewhere else, you can find the strength you need now. Lincoln, look at me.” She waits until he does. “Think of who I really am. I’m telling you: this is your chance to make things right.”

The days after he leaves with Finn for the Mountain are some of the longest of her life. She spends most of them with Octavia by the lookout point, watching the forest in silence.

And then, two sunsets later, Lincoln emerges from the trees. Octavia makes a noise of pure joy and races for him, quicker than Clarke can keep up even with her leg. When Clarke approaches they’re locked in an embrace, and she can see Lincoln’s eyes over Octavia’s shoulder are clear of the fog of Red.

“It’s done,” he says. He reaches out a hand without letting go of Octavia. Clarke brushes her fingers against his to receive a squeeze. “Thank you.”

_____________________________

 

 

Finn dies anyway.

He finds the others in their dormitory and passes along the plan to Bellamy. He finds a disguise, disables the fog. But it draws attention. He reacts too slow. He isn’t able to escape.

They listen to it happen, her and Raven.

“I’m sorry,” he sobs over the radio. The guards are breaking down the door. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be better, for you.”

They hear the gunshots, the sound of his body hitting the floor.

Clarke is the one to reach over to click the radio off. Raven leaves, moving like she’s aged a hundred years in the last ten minutes.

An hour later, sitting by herself with the dead radio, Clarke is still wondering which of them he was talking to.

_____________________________

 

 

“I wouldn’t,” Wells says when Clarke emerges from Lexa’s tent. They’ve spent the past few hours strategizing how Finn’s death changes their future plans and what backups need to be put into place. Wells is waiting for her by the fire, his figure backlit by smoldering coals.

Clarke stops. “What?” she tries to ask guilelessly.

He points his finger in the opposite direction. “Your tent is over there.”

“Wells --”

“She wants to be left alone.”

Clarke clamps her teeth together so hard she can feel a muscle twitch in her jaw. “She shouldn’t be.”

He sighs and drops his hand. As he turns back to face the dying fire the light shifts to his face, and she can see the way loss and exhaustion makes him look so much older. “You couldn’t have stopped this?”

Clarke opens her mouth only to find she has nothing to say. She realizes: “He was your friend.”

Wells shrugs. “Not really, but he was a decent guy. I thought he deserved better.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Yeah.” He shakes his head once. “She was keeping some moonshine in her bag. I’d hurry before she makes real progress on the bottle.”

But when Clarke finds Raven -- at another fire on the edge of camp before the clearing becomes the wall of darkness that is the woods -- the other girl isn’t drinking. She has the bottle, but it dangles from her hand where she sits, staring into the crackling flames. Her eyes are red-rimmed and puffy, and there are dried tear tracks streaking both cheeks.

Clarke settles on another one of the felled logs. She’s to the right of the other girl -- not confronting her, but Clarke knows she’s in Raven’s line of sight. She sits, and waits, in silence.

“I don’t know you,” Raven says. She doesn’t turn her head.

“Yeah.” Clarke clears her throat, leans forward. “I didn’t want you to be by yourself. But I can go get --”

“Why are you here?”

“I, I said,” Clarke stumbles. “I didn’t think you should be alone.”

“No. Why are you here?” Raven looks over, and Clarke flinches at the raw pain in her eyes. “You’re supposed to be in a whole different world, right? Some other universe?” Her mouth twists in derision. Her words aren’t as crisp as they could be, but Clarke doesn’t think she’s had more than a few swallows. “Somewhere this didn’t happen?”

There’s a sick, awful hope in her eyes, too.

“No,” Clarke is forced to quench it. “It didn’t happen like this. But he isn’t alive.”

Raven’s face crumples, her free hand coming up to her mouth.

“Raven, I’m so--”

“So why are you here?” Raven asks again, choking on a sob as she pushes away her tears with the heel of her hand. “You keep saying you’re our friend, that you know us, but if the me of that world feels like this...” She squeezes her eyes shut. “Why aren’t you making sure she’s not alone? What made you leave her, and the rest of them, and come here? I don’t know you,” she repeats.

“I...” Clarke swallows thickly. “I know you don’t, but I -- and you can’t understand, I get it, but Raven. The second I knew this place, this universe existed, I knew I had to come. I had to try and stop all the bad things from happening. I’m so sorry I couldn't save Finn,” she says, and she’s fighting her own tears, “but I wanted to, so badly, I swear I wanted to.”

Raven gives a little sigh and slides to the ground, knees bent with her back against the log. “I don’t want to bond. You let me cry on your shoulder and tell you all my troubles, and then you’re gone. And I feel worse. I’m tired of people leaving me,” she says, her voice small.

Clarke aches to comfort her. She hesitates, licks her lips. “I don’t have to -- I don’t have to go back. Maybe I won’t.”

The thought’s been like a bruise she can’t stop testing, ever since that night in Lexa’s tent. She could stay. She could, it’s -- a possibility. It’s something to consider.

Raven turns her head to give Clarke the most incredulous look. “You’re joking.”

“I...” Consider: this world’s Lexa. Who wants her here. Who wants her.

“You’d do all this,” Raven says, disbelieving, “and you won’t go back to the people you supposedly did it for?”

“Maybe they don’t want me back.” Clarke doesn’t think before speaking, it just comes out. “Even you. The other you.”

Silence, as it turns out, this close to the woods is never truly silent: there are dozens of chirping insects, the soft trills of owls, the rustle of predators. But the lack of words is almost palpable as Raven stares.

Consider: everyone she left behind, and who they see when they look at her. Not a queen. Not the strong leader of a people who saved them starvation and tyranny. To them she’s Wanheda. Even if that’s not the word they’d use, they look at her and see death.

Of course, those are only her general sins. Consider the specific ways in which she’s failed her friends: consider Raven. Who watched Clarke kill the man she loved. Who was cut open, bleeding and screaming, because Clarke failed to hold the alliance together.

Raven might sit by her bedside and talk out of obligation. But she also might not want to deal with the reality of Clarke, awake and aware. Maybe none of them do.

“What if I’m the reason she’s in pain?” Clarke asks.

“Well. It’s hard to kick the shit out of someone who’s astrally projected into a parallel universe.” She takes a swig of moonshine. “And it’s harder to forgive them if they’re not even around.” Raven looks tired. Her shoulders slump, head dipping a little. “Is my mom the same over there?” At Clarke’s confusion, she raises the bottle of moonshine to meaningfully slosh around the liquid inside.

“I think so. You don’t talk about her much.”

Raven’s laughter comes out in a harsh bark. “Then she’s the same.” She shifts until she’s sitting cross-legged, the bottle of moonshine in her lap. She plays with the bottlecap with her fingertips, screwing and unscrewing. “She wasn’t always drinking. Sometimes she’d have these spells where she’d snap out of it and sober up for a week or two. Once, a month and a half. She’d spend most of the time crying about the things she’d done. Begging me to forgive her. Saying things would change -- she’d do better at work, get a promotion, there’d be more rations. She’d promise to be the best mom ever, that she’d never get angry or sad again.”

Clarke has a lot of residual pain about her mom and dad, and the legacy of their actions that she has to live with. It doesn’t keep her from wishing she could pare off pieces of her childhood and give them to people like Raven and Bellamy, find some way to split the happiness she did have between them. “I’m sorry.”

“But that was never what I wanted,” Raven goes on, ignoring her. “She didn’t have to be perfect. We were fine with the rations we had as long as she didn’t trade them.” She unscrews the cap entirely and folds her fingers over it as she stares into the fire. “I just wanted her to be with me. Really there for me. Not hiding in a bottle or busy making plans that were never going to happen.”

“Raven --”

“You think I’m that different in your world? If we’re really friends,” and here she pauses. “I don’t have many friends. But they’re supposed to stick with you when things get bad. Even if you hate them a little bit.”

Clarke... never really thought of it like that. She only assumed if she made someone angry -- if she made Raven angry -- that it was because she was failing somehow. Not that she was reassuring Raven with her presence, as a promise: I’m staying with you, even when easier to go.

She misses her friends.

Raven lifts the bottle to her mouth and takes one small swallow. She hasn’t drunk that much at all, Clarke can see now. Raven probably treats alcohol with the same wariness everyone else gives her rockets and explosives.

“Not that I don’t appreciate you coming here and helping out,” she says when she finishes, screwing the cap back on. “And with Finn, I -- I know you tried.” She makes a sad little noise, somewhere between a sob and a hiccup. “But I don’t want to be friends with you. Either you’re on your way back and I don’t want to get attached, or... I know it sounds weird, but I don’t think I could forgive you leaving me alone in that other place.”

“It doesn’t sound weird.” Clarke wraps her arms around her knees. “It sounds like you.”

Raven huffs a laugh. A little bit of the light comes back to her face -- smothered under incredible pain and grief, but there. “Nice try. I still don’t want to be friends.”

“Okay,” Clarke agrees. But she stays with the other girl in front of the fire, in silence, until dawn creeps up to send a pale wash of color into the sky where it meets the treetops.

_____________________________

 

 

When Clarke finally staggers back to camp, she doesn’t go to her tent.

She goes to Costia’s.

She roots around in the other girl’s belongings, following a hunch about -- ah, there is it. When she turns back around to face the bed Costia is awake. Well, it’s not like Clarke tried to be quiet.

Clarke settles down cross-legged on the ground, working open the bottle of gyon klin wine as Costia watches, propped up on her elbows. Clarke takes a few swallows and it helps clear her head of the cobwebs of regret and second guesses, helps her focus on the now, and what’s possible now.

“The Mountain is about to fire a missile that will wipe out TonDC,” she says.

Costia sits all the way up, her eyes wide.

“I need to sleep,” Clarke says. She steals another swallow. “But when I get up, how about we go out and kill the guy who’s giving them the visual coordinates?”

Costia’s grin is a gleam in the darkness of the tent.

_____________________________

 

 

In the end neither of them kill the sniper.

They let Octavia have the honor.

“Just like in practice,” Clarke can hear Costia telling Octavia in the branches above her head while she stays on the ground to keep watch. Clarke worried Octavia’s leg would keep her from maintaining the spirit of her adopted clan, but that was before she saw the younger girl’s new muscles. She usually keeps them covered with long sleeves -- probably another scout trick, another way to be underestimated -- but she pushed them up to follow her mentor into the branches. Octavia has spent every possible minute of each day at target practice or some other exercise, especially when Lincoln isn’t there to pace her.

“Breathe in, and draw,” Costia coaches. “Breathe out, and --”

The thonk of the arrow hitting its target, the anguished cry following. It’s not a relief, but it’s a release, and Clarke breathes better for it.

“I know it might not make you feel better,” she says as Octavia descends, fresh from her first kill. “But you saved a lot of people.”

“Of course it makes me feel better,” the other girl retorts. “Are you kidding? This is the best I’ve felt since we crashed down.”

_____________________________

 

 

Roan and Genai arrive with reinforcements the very next day and not a moment too soon. Clarke watches Lexa place the markers for the influx of troops on the map laid out on her big wooden table, and can almost see the lines un-worrying themselves from the Commander’s face. When she’s finished she grips the edges of the table and takes a long breath, lets it out as she surveys the new vision of the battlefield.

“It’s not enough warriors to challenge them,” she says. “But now, at least, we might be able to trick the Mountain into thinking differently.”

Clarke leaves soon after that, gives the reason that she should speak with her own generals. She doesn’t, Genai has that taken care of -- both of them are a bit nervous about introducing people who knew Klark, worked with her in close quarters, to, well... Clarke.

But she wants the excuse to leave Lexa’s tent. She hasn’t been comfortable lingering there, recently, and there hasn’t been much talk between the two of them that isn’t about the upcoming battle.

Which is how it should be, she tells herself, and walks into her tent to find Costia there.

She stops in surprise, shakes her head. They’re probably past the niceties at this point. “Something wrong?” she asks as she takes a seat.

She has a few cushioned chairs now, not just her simple bedroll. Genai wrangled her a bigger tent upon returning and insisted on sharing it with her. “The rumors have spread to your own army,” she told Clarke bluntly, “and no, it’s not Roan’s fault. This time. You shouldn’t have slept in her tent. It was all the camp could talk about when we rode up, days later.”

“We didn’t --”

“I know,” Genai interrupted. “But you should be more careful.”

Careful. That means staying out of Lexa’s presence unless necessary. It apparently also means a bit more furniture and some thicker, richly-colored rugs Genai brought back with her. “You’re a Queen,” she said when Clarke questioned all this.

“TonDC burned in your world, didn’t it,” Costia says. She’s curled up in one of Clarke’s new chairs. “And that first village. The one we saved in the first days we met.”

“I --” She could lie. It’d be easy. “Yes.”

“How did you escape?”

“We heard in advance from our inside man, but not in time to save the others.”

“We?”

“Me and Lexa.” Costia makes a soft noise, and Clarke frowns at her. “What?”

“Nothing,” Costia says. She barely pauses before contradicting herself: “You’re truly entwined in your world, aren’t you?”

“Depends on how you think about it.” Clarke’s not sure if she likes the idea of being mated with another soul through the blood that’s been shed because of them, around them, or by them both. Didn’t keep Lexa from cutting ties, anyway.

“I can understand that. Being bound by tragedy, and necessity.”

Clarke frowns deeper, opens her mouth before she picks up on the nuances of Costia’s phrasing -- “Wait, is this about Klark? You get why Lexa and I would be drawn to each other in that world, but not this one?”

Costia picks at at thread in her clothing as she avoids Clarke’s eyes.

“Costia.” Clarke waits until the other girl looks up. “I thought... You ended things with her, you know. You didn’t have to. I don’t think Klark would have, um. Interfered.”

Costia raises her chin. “I’m not second-guessing my choices. I’m not --” She makes gesture with one hand as if to toss something away. “I wish I understood.”

“Beyond keryon teina, you mean?”

“Yes,” Costia says. “You’re bound together, but she didn’t have to...”

“Yeah.” Clarke leans back in her chair. “I wish I understood it better, too, if it helps.”

“It doesn’t,” Costia retorts. She sighs. When she next looks at Clarke, she frowns. “You don’t trust in that version of her, or what she feels. Do you.”

Now Clarke is the one avoiding Costia’s eyes as she directs her gaze downward and shrugs. “Doesn’t matter. I’m going back to that world, and that’s what you wanted. Right?”

She hasn’t actually said it out loud before this. She’s admitted it to herself, maybe, but not in those words: she’s going back. She wants to go back. She hasn’t worked out why, exactly, but she’s sure of it. She’s going to figure out how.

Maybe that’s why she’s felt so uncomfortable around Lexa recently. At some point, Lexa will be able to read the truth of things on Clarke’s face.

She’s not looking forward to it.

“... where you plan to continue being stupid?” Costia asks.

“I’m not --” When Clarke raises her head, Costia raises her eyebrows. Clarke rolls her eyes at her. “This is weird. You get that, right? You encouraging me to... with Lexa... is weird.”

“Well, if I’m dead, I can’t scout better prospects for her,” Costia says. “Consider yourself lucky.”

“Oh, I do.”

Costia doesn’t smile, exactly. “I don’t hate you. In fact it’s been easier, having you here. Instead of,” her eyes drift to the tattoo on Clarke’s face and scalp, “her.”

Clarke reaches up to touch the side of her face. “Are you going to hate her?”

“Not in my plans.” But Costia looks away and off into the middle distance.

“If Lexa’s right, then we’re basically the same person.” Not that Clarke can make herself believe it, not really, but she wants to banish the look on Costia’s face. And if they’re being honest, she feels protective of Klark. “If you don’t hate me --”

“It’s easier with you. It’s hard to be envious of someone who’s in so much pain.”

Clarke swallows and looks away.

“And,” Costia continues softly, “as much as she cares, you are not the one who...” Clarke hears her sigh. “It will be so much harder, to smile and be fair, once I know I’m looking at the person who... the person she fell in love with. Despite loving me. It’s much easier to focus on -- on you, and your delusions. Besides,” and here she shrugs, “I’ve never been good at not letting Lexa have what she wants. I’m in her corner, not yours.”

“Even on this?”

“On everything. Always.”

Curiosity pricks at Clarke. It feels like cheating, to ask this person in this place, but... “Were you close before you came to Polis together?”

“Not especially. But it was a small village. I knew of Lexa before she was old enough to walk -- everyone did. It made us all very distinguished, having a nightblood.” She smiles, but it has an edge. “I think they tried to hide from the younger ones what the conclave really meant. But the oldest children were told, and they told the next-oldest, and so on. We knew she was meant to leave, and then very possibly die. From the very first days.” Her smiles fades. “Sometimes I feel like I’ve been ready to say goodbye to her for my whole life.”

“You help her remember who she was.” Clarke can’t really explain the impulse to ask: “Do you remember her name, before it was Lexa? Lincoln told me you’re all renamed when you become fosterlings, so I wondered --”

“No.”

“Oh.” Clarke frowns. “I’m so sorry, I guess it was the result of the trauma or -- or are you supposed to forget? Is it part of the process?”

“I don’t mean no, I don’t remember. I remember her name.” Costia is calm. “I meant no, I’m not telling you.”

Clarke’s caught off guard. “Oh. Okay.”

“You don’t get to have that.” There’s no rancor in her tone, no venom or anger. “You may have everything else, and I’m sure you will. And I...” She laughs. “I forgive you both.” Her expression falls back into stillness. “But this -- this one piece -- belongs to me. I’m keeping it.”

“Okay,” Clarke says again, quieter. There’s an instant where Costia throws her a grateful look, and then the other girl is rising to her feet.

Costia stands in front of Clarke, holding out her hand. Clarke raises her own, gingerly, unsure of whatever protocol they’re enacting, and Costia grips Clarke’s forearm. Clarke quickly does the same to Costia.

“I will miss you, Clarke of the Sky People,” Costia says. “Your presence made this less awful than it could have been.”

That startles a laugh out of Clarke, and she tightens her grip. “Same.”

At this, finally, Costia smiles. “Good luck under the Mountain. And after.”

They release their hold at the same time, and Clarke looks down at her lap. “Right. Not allowed to leave her there alone. I remember.”

“Yes,” Costia says, very serious. When Clarke looks up at her, she shrugs. “But if you manage to be happy as well, I won’t hold it against you. Much.”

Clarke smiles despite herself. “Bye, Costia.”

Costia turns and exits without speaking. But she raises one hand over her head as she goes, fingers curved in a sketch of a farewell.

_____________________________

 

 

She thinks Costia says something to Lexa. Not directly, Costia’s not the type to tattle. But the Commander keeps watching Clarke out of the corner of her eye, trying to find a minute to be alone with her.

Clarke really should talk to her.

She starts sleeping at Camp Jaha instead.

It’s not deliberate. Raven’s workspace is there, and the mechanic started sleeping in it more and more after Finn died. Clarke Wells followed to keep an eye on her. And maybe to keep an eye on this universe’s version of Wick, who didn’t waste any time lurking and looking like he hopes Raven needs a shoulder to cry on.

Clarke starts spending whatever free time she has with them. She goes over the plan constantly with Raven, who listens and nods while Wells sits by, tight-lipped. He wanted to accompany either Clarke or Raven during the attack, but Chancellor Cartwright vetoed his request. A fail-safe, she explained to them. If Clarke fails, if Raven dies, the Arkers will need at least one person they trust with an established rapport with the Grounders.

“Octavia --” Wells protested, but the Chancellor shook her head.

“She’s not really one of us anymore,” she said. “If she ever really was.”

So Clarke and Wells and Raven spend their evenings together in Raven’s workshop. Clarke tries to prepare Raven for what might happen under the Mountain, the worst of it. Raven listens, mostly without commentary, tinkering with half-finished projects and asking questions about what Clarke remembers of the Mountain's tech capabilities, its power sources and usage. Whenever things get too grim it’s Wells who speaks up with some helpful insight or even a joke to bring things into perspective. At first they were falling asleep on whatever flat surface was free of gadgets or gear grease. Wells found them each an unoccupied room, somehow, nothing special but near enough so that they’re the last people they see before they say goodnight.

Clarke can already feel how much she’ll miss all of that.

Doesn’t stop the wave of guilt that crashes over her when Genai catches her packing a bag.

“I...” She trails off before looking down at the damning evidence: a change of clothing, a pillow she’s grown really attached to, like kind of wonders if she can take it between worlds with her attached. “I, um.”

“Did you think I’d be upset?”

Clarke blinks at her. “Well, you did score this nice tent for me, and I’m kind of wasting it.”

Genai scoffs before sitting in one of those perks-of-being-Ice-Nation-royalty chairs. “I wanted you to be safe and to stop being careless with my queen’s reputation. Spending nights at the Sky People’s camp accomplishes these things, too.” She softens. “And if what they say is true about your souls, I didn’t think you could resist being among your people for very long.”

Clarke’s grip on her bag tightens, and she forces her hands to relax. “Did I really -- I mean, if I did any damage there, about what they’re saying about her and Lexa, is there any way to..?”

Genai waves her hand. “Nothing we can’t deal with when you are gone. I think it will work out, in the end. There’s been too much unresolved between them for too long.”

“I thought you liked it that way.”

“I like to see my queen happy. I doubted the Commander could make her so, before, but now...” She shrugs. “A lot has changed.”

“Does... Klark... think about Lexa? At all?” She really hasn’t poked around in that area. First she didn’t want to look, and a cursory brush up against memories didn’t reveal immediate evidence of strong emotion in Lexa’s direction. Almost an absence, really, like the concentrated effort of not thinking about someone. Now it seems almost rude to rummage, especially since she has no intention to stay and deal with the consequences.

... and she’s jealous, maybe. The tiniest bit. That things could really be that easy for them, in this world: meet each other, fall in love, things work out in time.

Genai snorts out a laugh, manages to cover her mouth for it. Her eyes are dancing when she raises them to Clarke’s. “You really don’t remember the coronation.” She shakes her head before Clarke can ask, rises to her feet. Walks over and places her hands on Clarke’s shoulders. “Whoever has my job in your world, they have my deepest sympathies.”

She smacks a kiss on the center of Clarke’s forehead before sending her on her way.

_____________________________

 

 

Finally, they’re ready to put the plan into place.

She spends much of that night back in Lexa’s tent, going over preparations for the very last time. Lexa’s unusually quiet. Not unresponsive, but almost monosyllabic, and Clarke only ever has the impression she has, at most, the greater half of her attention. It’s not dismissive, but... distant.

“What’s wrong?” she asks.

Lexa shifts where she sits, not meeting Clarke’s gaze. “You want our presence and actions to force them to -- you called it Level Five? There should be a team designated to make a show of force closer to the main door. I’ll lead it.”

“Okay.” Clarke moves the requisite pieces on the table to show the change. “Now you can tell me what’s wrong.”

Slowly, slowly, Lexa brings her eyes up to Clarke’s. “You’ve decided to go back.”

“I...” Clarke is robbed of excuses, explanations. “Yeah.”

Lexa looks away.

“How does it happen? Do you know?” Clarke asks her.

“Not the details. If the soul doesn’t return to its original world out of dissatisfaction, perhaps a later return is caused by completion, a sense of tasks that were left undone, now finished. I’ve only seen the opposite.”

Clarke takes a second to untangle the meaning. “You saw someone decide to stay in a different world.”

Lexa nods.

(“The little leader with the big eyes.”) “When you were a nightblood, right?”

“Yes.” She gives a small sigh. “There was a man -- do you know Titus in your world?”

“No. Costia mentioned him, though.”

“He served as Flamekeeper when I was a child. He died a few years before my Ascension, but he was very kind to me.”

Uh-huh. Clarke has a hard time reconciling “kind” with any adult who was actively involved in what Lexa calls a childhood, but it doesn’t seem like the argument to have right now.

“He favored me,” Lexa admits. “Sometimes he would take me out of my regular duties to go on trips, see things and people that would help me serve as a better Commander.”

See, point proven. “He showed you someone who had killed so many people they tried to displace their soul into another world?”

Lexa frowns. “It doesn’t sound right when you say it.”

Clarke shakes her head. “And this person ending up staying where they... wandered. What happened then?”

“He died,” Lexa says. “The body is preserved in this world by the ritual while the soul is displaced, but if the soul settles somewhere else...” She shrugs.

“Wait, you saw this?”

“Yes.”

“How old were you?”

“Nine, I think? It wasn’t the first time I watched someone die.”

Clarke has seen Lexa kill people in cold blood -- people she loved. Clarke has done the same. Clarke watched her own father be executed. Neither of them live sheltered lives.

She’s not sure why this little anecdote suddenly makes it all feel so unfair.

Clarke clears her throat. “But you remember this one.”

The look in Lexa’s eyes becomes distant. “Yes. I think because his lover was there.”

Clarke feels herself become very still.

“I don’t know how she found him,” Lexa continues unawares. “When a person undergoing raun-keryon... relinquishes, their body is guarded by the arbitrator. They’re not supposed to be moved. If someone untrained or unknowing handles the body, it can cause disruptions.”

Have Nyko prepare the litter. No one else touches her. She can still hear the whipcrack of authority in Lexa’s voice. And now, maybe, the strain of worry beneath it.

“The body is kept away from loved ones for the same reason,” Lexa says. “If someone shakes them, or even hurts them -- I’ve heard stories of using needles on their sleeping bodies -- in an attempt to wake them up, it interferes with the ritual. The pain used to displace the soul is of a very specific type, particularly calibrated. Diluting its effect with anything else is. Unwise.”

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.

Clarke swallows. “So this guy’s lover, did she..?”

“No, she heeded the warnings.” Lexa hesitates before adding: “But she talked to him.”

Her throat aches. “About what?”

“Nothing. Everything. She would just sit there, hour after hour, as if to remind him there was someone waiting for his return.” She pauses. “Sometimes she would beg him to come back.”

“But it didn’t work,” Clarke manages to get out.

“No.” Lexa sighs. “No, his soul found what it wanted elsewhere and his body died. Perhaps it helped ease the pain to know she had made the effort. But I doubt it.” She blinks. “Clarke? Is something wrong?”

“No,” like she’s choking on the word, can’t she do this one thing, can’t she hide this, “nothing’s wrong.”

Lexa’s soft frown is enough of a reprimand to make Clarke dip her head down and try to regain control.

“I can tell whenever you’re thinking about that other world,” the Commander says in the ensuing quiet. It’s a while before she finishes with: “You look so sad.”

“Don’t you think I have enough to be sad about? I killed hundreds of people. My friends were hurt. They’re suffering.”

“And is that all of it? All of the reasons you feel this way?” Lexa presses. Her tone curdles, sharp with disappointment. “And you want to go back. To that.”

“I don’t...” Clarke forces herself to stop, take a moment to catch her breath. Lexa is good -- too good -- at riling her up. But she needs to be calm, now, and clear-headed. “I told you if I went back it wouldn’t be for her.”

“Aren’t your friends safe, there? But here they still need you.”

“They’ll be safe when we bring down the Mountain.”

“You can’t know that, not for sure.” Lexa leans in close, her voice gentle and wheedling all at once. “You can’t anticipate everything that happens here. We’ve both seen that. What if there’s some consequence on the horizon you could only prevent by staying?”

Clarke gives her a hard look. “Don’t. Don’t play that game. It’s not fair.”

Lexa sits back and turns her face away.

“Why are you even --” Clarke stops herself. “Don’t you miss Klark? I mean -- don’t you miss the girl you fell in love with? Not your soul-tie, but her. Everything you shared together. I know you say we’d, um, meld together if I “settled,” and I’d have those memories and she’d have mine, but... don’t you miss the girl you met two years ago? When she was just her?”

“Yes,” Lexa says eventually; small but oh, Clarke can tell how much she means it.

“Don’t you want her back?”

Lexa doesn’t answer, but turns her head slightly so that Clarke can see the answer in her eyes.

“I know,” Clarke says, conscious of the need to be gentle, “that you’re afraid you’ll lose her, too, if I... but I’m okay. Really. I survived the ritual, I -- I think I won it. Is that possible? Is that what happens?”

“No.”

“Well, I’ve decided it is. I’m doing a new thing, and it’s called winning my raun-keryon.” She waits until she coaxes the barest smile from Lexa. “I promise once I return my soul won’t go anywhere else, or drag anybody else’s down wherever dead souls go. Klark will be safe.”

The smile fades, and Lexa looks tired -- the shadows under her eyes seemed to have etched themselves there permanently in the last few days. “You’re sure of that?”

“I told you, I’ve decided.”

“Clarke, listen to me.” Lexa sits up and forward, reaching out to take one of Clarke’s hands into her own. She rubs the palm, loosening the tight muscles, smoothing out Clarke’s cramped fingers. “The keryon teina is an anchor. Or maybe I should describe it as an island in the middle of a sea.” She pushes her thumbs deep into the meat of Clarke’s palm, like she could impress her meaning with the same force. “They are a fixed point in an uncertain world. Even if the destiny is to be adversaries, it should provide... orientation, a way of understanding where the rest of the world is or what your life should be like, depending on where your keryon teina stands. But if that fixed point shifts...”

“Lexa.” Clarke brings up her other hand to wrap around Lexa’s. They’re holding hands, now, no pretense, and she can see the pulse fluttering at the base of Lexa’s neck as she looks down at the floor. “What does this have to do with --”

“She will never ask for your forgiveness.” The way Lexa says it, it’s like she can barely get the words out. “She won’t ever apologize. She can’t. It isn’t -- she doesn’t truly regret it, not even if it’s the reason you... It would be a lie.” She takes a deep breath. “She won’t lie to you. Not even to make you happy.”

She. Not I. She. And Clarke hurts for her, a little bit. “You said you would do the same.”

“I would.” Lexa raises her eyes. She looks desperate. “But I won’t have to. It won’t happen here. If you stay, you won’t have to live with the person who hurt you.” Clarke can see she’s bracing herself before she says: “You won’t have to try to care for her in spite of it.”

“I...” Clarke isn’t sure how to continue that, but she felt like something should be said, that last sentence couldn’t be allowed to hang in the air between them. “What makes you think I’d try?”

Lexa squeezes her hands. “What’s between us is. Compelling. I know what it’s like to try and resist it, and I -- I would spare you, if I could.”

Clarke laces their fingers together. “Do you regret what you feel for Klark?”

“No,” immediate and sure.

“But you fought it.”

“I had no right to feel like that,” Lexa says softly.

“Because of Costia.”

“Yes. And because...”

“What?”

“Because you deserve more than someone who resents their own heart for choosing you,” Lexa says. She raises her eyes to Clarke. “So do I. No matter what I’ve done.”

Clarke sits with that, turning it over and over in her mind. “Can I ask you something? You were happy before? With Costia?”

“Very.”

“So how did you even...” Clarke draws a shaky breath. “I’m not even sure how to ask this. If you were happy, then why did you --” She presses her lips together for a moment, thinking. “How did you know?”

But Lexa seems to understand what she wants, even though Clarke can barely express it to herself. “When I met you, it was like finding a piece of myself I never noticed was missing.” She sweeps her thumb across the back of Clarke’s hand. “I was happy before I knew you. I think I could have been happy afterward, without you.” She gives a small, crooked smile. “But I felt the lack.”

Clarke leans forward until their foreheads touch, breathing in each other’s air. It feels like a moment outside of time, something she could stay safe in forever.

She knows better.

She leans back with a sigh, releasing Lexa’s hands. Lexa is a touch slower to let go, lingering for a heartbeat before she pulls free.

“I can’t un-know what happened in my world,” Clarke says. “Or un-feel it. You keep saying you’re the same person. I believe you. And I can’t hide from how much I hate what you did by staying where you’ll never have the opportunity.

“But --” She has to smile, here, as strange as it feels, she could almost laugh -- “It’s very sweet of you to offer.”

She looking off the the side as she says it, and the soft touch to her cheek makes her startle. When she looks back it’s straight into Lexa’s eyes, soft and sad. “And the rest?” she asks. Pointedly: “And me?”

“I don’t know.” She shrugs. “I don’t know what I want from her and that’s... something I should figure out.” It would help if she had any idea what Lexa wanted from Clarke. The Lexa in front of her would probably have an answer for that, but... “Even if I did accept we’re all the same people, in the essentials,” she says quietly, “That Lexa and I have a very different history than you and Klark. Our relationship isn’t built on the same things.” She didn’t admit it to herself, way back then, but those stories Genai told her about Klark’s coronation have rankled from the start, in the deep and secret places of her soul. “I heard how you joined her in an attack on some raiders. I can’t imagine Lexa letting me take the lead like that, especially just after we met.”

She watches as, slowly, Lexa’s face falls into a truly bizarre expression. She can’t begin to place the emotions forming it. “Joined you?” Lexa asks. “Against raiders? Is that the story you told everyone?”

Not like Clarke can take personal responsibility for this, but. “I guess? That’s the story Genai told me.”

Rage. Rage tempered with -- yes, that’s intensely reluctant admiration, that’s what plays across Lexa’s features as she grits through her teeth: “You didn’t lead me anywhere. I was chasing you.”

“I --” Wait, what? “What?”

Lexa works her jaw for a moment before answering. “Nia used to consolidate her power by kidnapping the young children of select warriors and warlords whenever she needed extra leverage to use against them. It wasn’t called that, of course -- she “fostered” the children, claimed it was an opportunity for them to learn about the trappings of power at her knee. But in was babies taken from their homes and raised away from their parents, who knew that if Nia should ever be unhappy with them, it would be their children who suffered the consequences.”

Clarke’s stomach twists. “Please tell me that’s the first thing I reversed.”

“I think that was your plan. But you needed the authority of the crown to do it, and the children were being watched over at court, waiting for your coronation to be sent home.” Lexa sighs. “The night before, someone -- someone who stood to lose everything once you were Queen -- rounded up the smallest ones and made out into the night with them. It was an insane scheme, a last bid for power and influence in the new regime. I was with you when they brought the news of what had happened.”

“Okay,” Clarke says. “So it wasn’t raiders. But we went after them together.”

The other girl folds her lips into a line, chin jutting out.

“Lexa. Tell me we went after them.”

“I ordered you to remain at court,” Lexa says. “You were too vulnerable without the protection the warriors there, and too much a target overall. We had no idea who was behind it, or what would be waiting for us when we caught up with them. You couldn’t even appoint a successor without first being crowned. It was too much of a risk for you to take.”

Well, she can’t deny the logic, even if she hates the implications. “So you went after them by yourself. But then why would I --” She catches Lexa’s stubborn look and freezes. “Wait. You didn’t go after them, either?”

“Until the coronation, your safety was my highest priority. For all we knew it was a ruse to draw myself and my warriors away from you. All we knew was the children were missing, not who had taken them or why --”

“But they were taken,” Clarke bursts in. “Little kids, Lexa! They had nothing to do with the politics, they didn’t volunteer for that -- and if I was their Queen, even their Queen-to-be, then I owed them my protection and the promise of safety. That’s the whole point, and if I didn’t act like that, I don’t see how I could be any better than Nia.” She takes a breath. “And maybe with the way you were brought up you have a hard time understanding this, but little kids are worth saving.”

Lexa is watching her with a slight, wry smile. “We’ve already had this conversation.”

“... we have?”

“More or less. When I ordered you to remain at court and said I would be staying with you.” She shrugs. “I don’t think you were familiar with nightblood tradition, so that didn’t come up, and you threw in more insults.”

“Oh. Sorry?”

“Don’t bother. They were in the Ice Nation’s language, so very few of my entourage understood them.” Lexa leans back, crossing one leg over the other as she settles a bit further into her chair. Clarke has had the opportunity to observe her quite a bit in the past few weeks, but she doesn’t think she’s ever seen the Commander look like this. Maybe something close to it, when she’s been around Costia. She looks... Clarke has to think about it before deciding: Lexa looks happy. Like she has some small, secret joy she’s keeping safe.

“What happened then?” Clarke asks.

Lexa’s tenderness shifts into exasperation. “You wouldn’t listen to reason. I couldn’t have you confined, it could be interpreted as an act of war by your advisors. I put your horse under guard, though, and those of your supporters. We both knew there was no way you could catch up on foot. I would be alerted if you even tried to leave with one of them.”

“But it didn’t work.”

“No.” Lexa scowls.

“Lexa.” She begins to smile, and she’s helpless to quash it. “Which horse did I steal? Whose horse did you forget to lock up?”

Lexa scowls harder.

“You never considered I might try to take your horse, did you?”

“I didn’t think you would dare,” Lexa hisses.

“Now you know better.” Clarke doesn’t remember it -- not quite. It’s what she would have done, though, and she can feel the edges of certainty pushing up against her awareness. She can almost feel the exhilarating mix of triumph and terror of her decision to do it. “So when you found out, you chased after me. You probably wanted to catch me before I tracked whoever took the children.”

“Yes,” Lexa says, graceless.

“But you didn’t.”

Lexa cuts her eyes at Clarke and then away.

The laughter bubbles up inside Clarke as easy as breathing, something that loosens the tension in her shoulders and makes contentment uncurl in her stomach.

Lexa’s expression sours.

“I’m sorry,” Clarke says, giggling. “Sorry, I --” She catches herself, swallowing down the last chuckle. “I like her a lot better, now.”

“You are...” Lexa stops herself, frozen in consideration for so long that Clarke wonders if she’ll finish her thought. But then: “Klark is an exemplary queen. She feels deeply for each and every one of her people. I’m still not sure... I was raised to this,” and her voice picks up a thread of wonderment, “it’s all I’ve ever known, but also all I ever wanted. I grew up seeing the faces of those whose fate would someday be in my hands, I knew their everyday joys and sorrows. I made a point to learn them, it helped when,” she swallows, “when the road to success felt much longer than I imagined. But Klark grew up alone in the barrens. Her people, and her duty toward them, were an abstract for much of her life.”

“She surprised you,” Clarke deciphers. “She was nothing like you expected when you met, two years ago.”

“Yes.” Her eyelids dip down, almost veiling her eyes. “In many ways. Yes.”

“You’ll have to ask her about it.”

Lexa’s eyes dart to her face. “What?”

“When she -- I mean, when I...” Clarke gestures to herself, twirls her hand vaguely upwards. “Go. You’ll have to ask Klark what keeps her going so strong.”

“Do you think she’ll tell me?” Lexa asks, and Clarke can hear what she isn’t asking: do you think she’ll talk to me at all, once she knows what happened here? With us?

“I can’t answer that. Just like you can’t tell me what my Lexa is really thinking about me, or all this. I get it, you know what she’s feeling,” when she sees Lexa open her mouth, “but we both know that’s only half her motivation for her decisions.” She swallows down residual bitterness. “Less than half. She’s looking at a very different political landscape. There’s no alliance of any kind left with the Sky People. The Mountain is gone.” She wonders if she should share the tidbits that have slipped through -- the bounty placed on her head by someone unknown. But it would make this Lexa worry. “You can’t tell me what plans she’s putting into place.”

Lexa doesn’t even try to protest her alternate self might be working an entirely separate, unknown agenda. She only sighs. “And you wonder why I ask you to stay.”

“No,” Clarke surprises herself by saying. “Not that. I’m a little surprised you think I could say yes, though.”

Lexa’s answering smile is slow, but no less sweet for it. “Still devoted to your people.”

“Yeah, well. You’re still giving out really ill-timed invitations. You should work on that.”

Lexa’s head tips to one side as she dons a puzzled look.

“Oh,” Clarke says. “It was in the other place. We were literally on the brink of battle and you invited me to see Polis, after. Great timing. As always.”

Thinking about it, that’s probably when Clarke realized how serious things had gotten -- how much she wanted what Lexa appeared to be offering. It’d been too easy before that moment to push it aside for more pressing concerns, but standing there, looking up at the Mountain, wondering who would make it out alive... She’d let herself take a breath and feel everything, all the nascent hope and expectation she felt whenever she looked at the person sitting opposite of her now.

“Was this before or after I kissed you?” Lexa asks.

“After.” Clarke clears her throat. “How’d you guess that, anyway?”

“You looked... expectant.”

“Oh.” Clarke’s cheeks heat. “Yeah, I -- sorry. Your timing wasn’t great there either, you know,” she bites back, trying to regain her emotional footing.

“How so?”

“Oh, I.” Clarke presses a hand to her forehead, feeling flushed -- she can’t even begin to untangle the messiness of that situation for this Lexa, in this world, to understand. Explaining what happened at TonDC is absolutely out. “I had killed someone -- someone I cared about very much -- days before.” She leaves out it was a choice between a quick death at my hands or a long and painful one at yours. “You knew that, and I guess you couldn’t wait, huh?”

She means to make it into a joke, but when she looks, Lexa is serious. Even a little sad. “No, I suppose not,” she says.

“Lexa.”

“It’s nothing.”

“Tell me. Please.”

The Commander is quiet for a moment. “It can be difficult, watching you with the Sky People. Realizing how much you belong with them, and not to any of the clans.”

Clarke wants to ask what does that matter, what does that mean about anything -- until she takes a second and realizes: Clarke would be one of the few people Lexa has met, in her whole life, that is not somehow under the umbrella of authority. Who is, in no sense of the word, hers.

“I’ve always known my time in this life is limited,” Lexa continues. “To be the Commander means taking opportunities as they arise. I don’t have the luxury of second chances.”

And perhaps a Lexa who had lost Costia would be doubly aware of that, of the need to make yourself known to people while they were standing and breathing in front of you. Especially when it came to the people you --

“I can only imagine how much more I might feel it, knowing your loyalties and responsibilities lay elsewhere.” Lexa adds: “How important it would be to act when I could. To not miss my chance. Or squander it.”

Lexa’s face painted in blood and dirt, gaze unflinching. I made this decision with --

Clarke closes her eyes to banish the image. She has to stop reliving that moment. No matter how many times she does, it won’t change what happened.

Now they both have to live with it.

“Clarke?”

“I should get some sleep.”

Lexa stands without the need to be prompted again. “Goodnight,” she says before turning for the door.

“Lexa.”

The name halts the Commander in her tracks.

“Thank you,” Clarke says. “I know it hasn’t been easy, but thank you for believing in me, trusting me. Working with me. I couldn’t say yes, but. Thank you for asking me to stay.”

Lexa’s head dips in a shallow nod. “You’re welcome.”

“Can I --” She’s reaching out before she’s conscious of the impulse, arms outstretched and hands eager. Lexa completes the embrace almost in the same breath, stepping forward to wrap her own arms around Clarke’s shoulders.

They’ve only done this before in the grip of overwhelming emotion. It’s nice, now, to have the presence of mind to catalogue how well they fit together, arms and angles slotting into place like puzzle pieces.

“I can’t know what Klark will do or feel,” Clarke whispers into Lexa’s shoulder, “but you have to be honest with her when she wakes up, okay? Tell her everything. No more secrets. Not expectations either. Let her know where you stand and what you want. Give her the room to make her own choices.”

Lexa nods, and Clarke can feel the movement of her head against her own. “I’ll remember.”

Reluctantly Clarke releases her end of the hug. “Any advice for me?” Clarke asks. She smiles, and she can feel it wobbling. “Just in case.”

Lexa looks at her for a second before drawing Clarke back in. Not in a hug, this time, but she places both hands on Clarke’s head to hold her still as she places a soft kiss in the middle of her forehead. She bends her head down after, lips almost touching Clarke’s ear as she whispers: “Don’t let her break your heart.”

_____________________________

 

 

Clarke settles in for the night after that, checking in on Raven and Wells before heading off to her room. There’s not much more to be done. She checks the magazine in the gun Callie gave her twice before conceding the best thing now is to get a good sleep.

She tosses and turns for half an hour before sitting up. She knows what she’s forgotten. She searches her room on the downed Ark for paper and something to write with.

It’s not a long missive. It takes her maybe an hour to write, to get the words right.

Clarke settles down after and falls immediately asleep.

_____________________________

 

 

She finds Wells before she leaves with the others for the Mountain.

“I have one more favor.” Clarke hands him the letter, sealed inside a blank piece of paper for a makeshift envelope. “I’m asking you to deliver this for me.”

Wells takes it. “Who’s it for?”

“Me.” Clarke indicates, clumsily, her borrowed body. “This me. When she’s back.”

Wells is obviously startled. He also looks like he’s sorry he took the envelope in the first place. “Do you really have to --”

“There are things she need to know,” Clarke says. “Please. I know it’s a lot to ask.”

Wells gives a small sigh of acquiescence under his breath. “Okay. I’ll keep it safe.”

She reaches out to hug him. He’s awkward wrapped up in her arms, but he lets her hold him way past what’s called for by their relationship when measured by the time they’ve known each other in this world.

“Will you promise me something?” Clarke is determined not to cry.

She can almost feel him roll his eyes. “You said one favor. First the letter, and now what?”

Clarke has to concentrate on not letting her voice waver. “Will you make friends with her?”

Wells doesn’t respond right away. Then he shifts, and Clarke thinks he’s pulling free, but he’s adjusting his hold around her shoulders so she’s that much closer. “I can’t force a friendship out of thin air, you know.”

“I know.”

“And I’m not like the Trikru, I’m not sure I believe this whole -- you know, the idea of the same soul repeating itself across universes. She’s a Grounder. We have nothing in common.”

“I know,” Clarke says, and she really does. “But I can’t stand thinking there’s a world out there where I could be friends with you, and I could have you in my life, but I don’t.” Her voice breaks when she admits: “It’s so unfair.”

Wells sighs again. “I guess it won’t hurt to try.”

Clarke hugs him even tighter. She knows she shouldn’t, she knows it’s -- intense, and weird, and a bunch of different inappropriate things for this situation. But she can’t help going up on her toes and saying into his ear, very softly: “I love you.”

She almost hears it echo for a moment. Like it’s said down a corridor that stretches across worlds, and it reaches the version of him she never got to say it to.

This version of Wells is clearly embarrassed when she pulls away. He won’t quite meet Clarke’s eyes, and the letter crumples a little when he shoves both hands into his pockets.

“Well, bye,” he mumbles.

Clarke figures she’s pushed things far enough and turns to go.

“Clarke. Wait. I wanted to say thanks,” he says when she turns back. “I know I’m not really the person who --”

“You are.”

“I just meant.” He shrugs. “I didn’t have friends on the Ark. Not real ones. I would have liked one.” He holds her gaze. “I think I would have liked it to be you.”

“You have that chance.”

He frowns, and she wonders if he hears what she’s trying not to emphasize: he does. She doesn’t.

“Okay,” he says, and this time she knows he means it. “Okay. It won’t hurt me to try.”

_____________________________

 

 

Octavia’s limp is so slight as to be almost unnoticeable. “There’s a brace,” she tells Clarke as they wait at the entrance to the mines. Octavia knocks her hand against her lower leg, and Clarke hears the hollow sound of wood. “It’s not a long-term solution, it places too much strain on the back muscles. But it works for a day or two in an emergency. Or a battle.”

“Was it hard to convince Lincoln to stay behind?” Clarke can’t imagine him being happy with this arrangement, even with the brace.

“Grounder pairings are never allowed to fight on the same front in battle. It divides the focus.” She grins a little. “Plus Costia tore him a new one. Said if he insisted on coming the others would never see me as an equal, or a scout on my own terms, and stuff.”

“Sounds like you enjoyed it.”

“I learned so many ways to insult someone in Trigedasleng. Did you know if you say someone's nomon doesn’t know which trees to tap for sugar, you’re basically calling them illegitimate?”

They don’t have to wait too long for the runner with the news of Raven’s capture. Octavia leads the team underground, and Clarke is happy to have a few minutes where she doesn’t have to fill that role herself.

The sight of Bellamy, Monty, and Jasper on the other side of the intake door is the best thing she’s seen since... well, the last time they did this. It’s the same flurry of hugs and greetings, although they’re more reticent toward Clarke. She doesn’t even care. They’re alive.

Clarke has to remember she’s not supposed to know Maya, smiles when they’re introduced, shakes her hand. She feeling of Maya’s bare skin against hers, warm and alive, lingers. She fights the urge to shake it off and tells herself to focus.

Things will be different this time, if she can focus.

“What next?” Bellamy asks her, a death grip around Octavia’s shoulders while she pounds a loose fist against his chest and demands that he let her go, already. She’s not very convincing.

“Time to split up,” she tells them. “Octavia’s taking the team to the Harvest Room to try and liberate the Grounders there. I want you guys to meet me in the Command Center. You need to break in and find out where they’re keeping the rest of the kids from the dropship. And Raven.”

“They have Raven?”

“No time,” she tells Bellamy. She drops her voice as she tells him: “You guys know about the fear of radiation, down here?”

Bellamy nods. “Yeah, but it’s curable. They only need one transfusion of Arker blood --”

“It doesn’t last.” She tightens her grip on his arms. “Bellamy. Have Monty arrange for the vents to open on Level Five on our command.”

He stares.

“We need a bargaining chip.” Please, please let that be all it is. “I need to go do something, but I will meet you up there as soon as I can.”

“You better,” he breathes, looking shell-shocked. “Don’t make me regret this, Cassandra.”

She leaves the group before he can think to have her promise anything.

_____________________________

 

 

Not for the first time, Clarke decides the rooms at Mount Weather Quarantine are a way too easy to get in and out of, considering.

Dante startles when she kicks the door in. He jumps to his feet only to freeze at the gun in her hands, pointed squarely at his chest.

“You know,” she says, breath coming a little fast, “I thought this would be harder.”

Dante stares back at her gimlet-eyed. She can see his gaze shifting minutely, going from her gun to the open door to her face and back again, assessing, weighing.

“Killing you was a lot harder the first time,” she continues. Adrenaline is a lingering bitterness in her mouth, a buzzing in her lips and tongue and extremities. “Getting to you was more complicated. And then I had to work myself up to it.”

Dante’s gaze sharpens. His nostrils flare. “You’re the new leader in the north. You killed their last queen. Nia.” He wets his lips in a darting motion that reminds her of a snake. “Your territory is inhospitable for us. We don’t want your land or your people -- which means we can offer you an alliance.”

“Wow, talk about playing to the wrong crowd.”

“Help us kill the Commander. It will bring you even more power --”

Clarke pulls the trigger. She angles the gun slightly before firing, and the bullet goes into a stuffed armchair behind Dante. The gunshot is incredibly loud in the contained room.

“No more deals,” she says as the ringing begins to fade from her ears.

“Alright,” Dante says. He’s shaky. She wonders how long it’s been since he was up close and personal to the kind of carnage he orders from safe inside his mountain. “Alright. You tell me what it is you want.”

What a question.

“I used to think I knew.” She adjusts her grip on the gun. It makes Dante startle like a mutant deer, but she’s just getting comfortable. “I thought I wanted...” The thrill of authority. Victory in the heat of battle. A soft mouth on hers, soft eyes watching her. “I wanted to be a good person. I thought that was important.”

After several long moments Dante appears to realize she won’t elaborate. He opens his mouth, raising his hands in a show of surrender before offering: “All of us seek out purpose in life. Our deeds are what often make us great.”

She laughs. “No, you don’t understand. I wanted to be a good person.” Longing sweeps over her. “Someone who knows what the right thing and does it. Maybe it isn’t easy for them, but it’s that simple. Once they know what’s right, they know what they have to do.” She draws a long, shaky breath. “I did the right thing, once. It didn’t bring anyone back. I spent a year in solitary. And I feel like ever since I came to the ground, I’ve known there were other options.”

Clarke knows Dante is trying desperately to figure her out -- find a way to reason or bargain with her. Find a weakness. “Perhaps,” he says slowly, “you need to reconcile the parameters of goodness. You are -- still -- very young. It is possible no one really lives up to those standards.”

Clarke laughs again. Partially because she likes how much it spooks Dante, having a gun trained on him while the would-be shooter has a chuckle. Partially because: “My mom told me something like that, you know. After I killed you and massacred your people.” She loves the way his eyes widen so she can see the whites all around. “She was trying to make me feel better about it.”

Apparently Dante doesn’t have a response to that one. He waits, and the look he gives her holds nothing but terror.

“But I knew she was wrong,” Clarke continues. “Even then. Of course there are good guys. My dad. Wells. Lincoln. Costia, I think. But not me.”

“You could be,” Dante urges. “You have the power to make other choices. You can change course.”

“That was the point in coming here. A chance to do things differently. But I didn’t. Sure, I changed some things. But I didn’t try to prevent... this.” She gestures with one hand before bringing it back to support the one gripping the gun. “I think part of me wanted this to happen,” she says in wonderment. “I didn’t even try to save you or your son. I volunteered to kill you both.”

“My --” Dante clamps his lips shut, points of color rising on his cheeks.

“Yeah, Cage is next. As soon as we’re done here, I’m putting a bullet in his head.”

She can see the muscles in Dante’s jaw strain.

“See what I mean? This was so much harder the first time. Because I wanted to be a good person. You probably think you are, don’t you, even after decades of draining Grounder after Grounder dry.”

“We had no other choice!”

“There’s always a choice.” With my head and not my -- “It might take everything else from us. But it’s always ours to make.”

“They’re savages,” he hisses.

“And you’re a bunch of vampires.” She continues before he can react: “Raven’s rockets saved us, but they burnt a village to the ground. We collapsed the bridge to defend ourselves and it killed a little girl. Was it our fault? Or was it the fault of the people who trained her to be a soldier? Or yours, for creating a world where it was the only way for her to survive?” It’s pouring out of her, everything that kept her awake nights since they came to the ground, everything she hasn’t been able to reconcile about everything she knows. “Lexa let TonDC burn, but those people died from your weapons, and because they were helping my people.

“I wanted to be one of the good guys.” Why is it so difficult to say out loud? “I wanted to do the right thing and know it was the right thing. But I can’t see where it ends or begins anymore. I come here, and one change has created a whole new world. And then some things don’t ever change, no matter how hard you fight them.”

“As you have reminded me,” Dante says, “we always have a choice.”

“Yeah. And I chose,” raising her gun slightly, “this. I chose my people over yours. My friends, and my family, and I...” And here it is: the secret she’s shoved down, the source of all this pain. “ I couldn’t forgive them for that.

“I couldn’t be one of the good guys, and save them,” she chokes out. “I made the choice, and I made it for them. But they’ll never know what that meant. What it cost me.

“That’s why I left. I hated who I’d become, and I know it was to save them, but -- here I am, and I made all the same choices. Given the opportunity -- a different world -- and I did almost everything the same.

“So I’m not like my father. I’m not like my best friend. I look for the other options. I’m not a good person. But I get it, now. I’m okay with that. It’s how I protect the people I love.”

Dante’s eyes narrow. “I’m not sure why --”

Clarke shoots him twice in the chest. Dante staggers. He falls to his knees, wheezing, looking up like she’s surprised him.

“Do you think... you’re the one person... with something to protect?” he croaks out with obvious effort.

“No.” She can finally lower her gun, to the relief of her arm muscles. “I told you Cage was next.”

He laughs. The sound gurgles in his chest where the blood begins to drain from the holes Clarke put there. “People like you... are only versed in death.” He coughs, and more blood dribbles from his mouth as he sinks to the floor. “You have no idea... what it means... to build a legacy.”

He’s old, and not strong. It takes less than a minute more for him to die.

Clarke takes in his limp and lifeless form, the glaze over his unblinking eyes.

“I really did think that would be harder,” she says, alone in the room, before turning to walk out.

_____________________________

 

 

She hears the thud of the door to the Command Center unlocking as she approaches. Good -- Monty’s at the controls, then.

They’re waiting for her: Bellamy, Monty, Jasper, and Maya.

“Where are they?” is the first thing out of her mouth because they way they turn to her as one -- the looks on their faces -- make her heart pound. “What’s happening?”

“We can’t find them,” Monty says. She can see the sweat beginning to form at his hairline.

“What?” She pushes in close to the monitors, scanning. There’s the dining room, the hallways, the living quarters. All the places that featured in her nightmares for months.

Empty.

Not just of the kids from the dropship -- of anyone.

“What else can you pull up?” Clarke asks.

“That’s it!” Monty holds his hands up helplessly. “Those are all the cameras that are working.”

Behind him, Bellamy puts a hand on his shoulder. “We tried everything before you got here, that’s it,” he tells Clarke. “Where the hell did you go, anyway?”

“Quarantine. Monty, what do you mean, the ones that are working? Are there other cameras?”

“Sure,” Monta says with a shrug. “I can see the input for a dozen more, but nothing comes up on the screens.”

“Quarantine?” Bellamy is almost vibrating. “What did you do down there?”

“I shot Dante Wallace.” Bellamy’s eyes widen, Monty’s head comes up with a start, Jasper gapes at her. Maya falters, catching herself on the edge of the control bank.

“Is... is he okay?” Jasper asks.

“No. He’s dead.” Again, Maya shudders, and Clarke wonders -- no, she doesn’t have time. She has to think. “They must be wherever the camera don’t work. Cage must have hidden them. Monty, can you trace back where the signal would originate, if it was working?”

“I’ll try,” Monty says, faint. The others are still staring at her. Except Maya. Her face is tucked downward, hidden.

“Think,” Clarke demands. “Where would Cage hide them? Does he have any favorite places, anywhere that’s easiest to fortify on Level Five?”

Bellamy half-shrugs, bewildered. He looks to the others, then back at her. “I don’t know who you’re talking about.”

“Cage Wallace. Dante Wallace’s son.” She can see they’re not making the connection. “Whoever ousted him as President.”

Jasper’s agog, but this makes Bellamy frown. “We haven’t seen him lately,” he says, “but we didn’t hear anything about a new president.”

“Well, he was locked up in the same place, so someone put him there. That’s Cage, and wherever he is, so are the others. How are we coming with the signal, Monty?”

“Working on it,” he says, head bent.

Bellamy’s frown etches deeper, and he steps over to Clarke. “Listen,” he says under his breath, “I know you’re working on... insider info.”

“Right. So you have to trust me: this is the guy we want.”

“I don’t want to fight you on this, Cassandra, believe me.” He leans in even closer. “But listen -- Wallace doesn’t have a son.”

Out of the corner of her eye she sees Jasper approach Maya, give a hesitant touch to her arm. “Don’t,” Maya tells him quietly.

“Not possible,” Clarke tells Bellamy. “He told me --”

“What did he tell you? What exactly did he say?”

You have no idea how to build a legacy.

Nothing about a son.

So then who? Say Bellamy’s right, say there is no Cage Wallace in this world -- at least not living -- then who was Dante’s legacy? Who had him locked up? Who had hidden the rest of the hundred?

... who had known they were coming? Their plans? Their every move?

Almost every move.

Jasper tries again to calm Maya, and this time she jerks free.

No.

No, that doesn’t make any --

She wasn’t in the Command Center last time, she died, and she died because --

Clarke’s memories are a jumble.

Maya smiling, the warmth of her hand as she clasped Clarke’s.

Bare skin. No oxygen suit.

Which means she received --

Clarke’s arm swings up before she even finishes the thought as she levels her gun between the dark-haired girl’s eyes.

“What are you doing?” Jasper bleats.

“Tell me where they are,” Clarke orders, and it’s a wrench in her stomach to be pointing this gun in this room at someone who’s not even armed, again, again, but she keeps it steady. “No one else has to die. Let us take them and go.”

Maya laughs, and the sound -- bitter, rough -- makes Monty stare and Jasper draw back in shock. “Listen to you. You still think you can bargain? I told my father, there’s no reasoning with savages.”

“You’re the reason.” The heightened aggression from the Mountain. All those villages wiped out, and the grief on Lexa’s face for it. The missiles venturing out further and further. “You’re the one spearheading the attacks on the clans.”

“It’s not an attack to counter an infestation.”

She’s different. Not that Clarke has much basis for comparison, but what she does have simply can’t compare to this: Maya standing straight-backed and cold-eyed while the others look on in horror, her hands clenched so tightly at her sides the tendons stand out all the way to her elbows.

“Dante isn’t your real father.” Clarke’s head is whirling, but she knows that much. Causality may fuck with them every way coming, but genetics hold true.

“No,” Maya says, and if anything she stands straighter. “No, my birth family died in a collapse -- one caused by your people. They tried to invade and ended up causing a landslide that buried dozens of people alive.” Her lip curls. “All you people know is killing.”

Maya had been strong. Clarke remembers that. Not in body, but strong-willed, uncompromising, unafraid.

She still is, apparently. And here, she has a grudge.

“You let Monty sabotage the radio. Why?”

But Clarke can guess even as Maya confirms: “I wanted to know what you were planning. The radio was a small sacrifice for the knowledge gained. It can be restored.” She pauses. “Unlike the life of your friend.”

Finn. Clarke’s free hand curls into a fist, but behind Maya, Jasper is the the one who staggers, shoulders bowing inward as it hits him, what Maya did. “No,” he whispers, low and bereft. Clarke can see a muscle in Maya’s cheek twitch.

“And allowing me in here?” Clarke can’t allow herself to be distracted, or the gun to waver. “What was the point of that?”

“Can’t you guess?” Maya looks grimly contended, like someone who’s taken a beating but won the fight. “I’ve searched for a long time for the chink in your Commander’s armor. I was never certain her private life would hold the key -- she was always so disciplined. But then you came along. She’s left her lover for you, commanded armies into position for you. And now you’re trapped under my Mountain.” She smiles, baring her teeth. “I wonder how many of her own people’s lives she’d give for your sake.”

Certainty is like cold water running through her veins, clearing away the panic and dulling the edges of despair. Whatever happens now, the thousands outside -- including Genai, and Trest, and even Roan -- are safe from Maya’s plans. Lexa will keep them safe. If Clarke knows anything, she knows Lexa will make that choice.

Clarke never thought it’d be a relief to be able to look someone in that face and say: she doesn’t love me like that. Never like that.

She never thought she’d be so thankful for it.

“You forget, you’re the one with a gun pointed at you,” she tells Maya.

“So shoot me,” the other girls says defiantly. “Make me a martyr. If I die it will inspire my people to greater efforts to reclaim this world from mutants and invaders. There’s no way you can win.”

“Yeah, they really must love you, to let you depose and imprison Dante like that.” Clarke readjusts her grip, mind racing to fit the pieces together, trying to find a way out between what she knows and what she’s discovering. “What did he do, Maya? What could possibly make you so angry?” Clarke puts that together with her earlier venom and the things Dante had said in his cell to come up with: “He wanted to bargain with the Commander for the kids from the Ark, didn’t he?”

“He didn’t understand,” Maya says, looking haunted. “There’s no way we could make a deal with those -- animals. Not after everything they’ve done. We can’t set them free.”

Someday Clarke might be able to laugh about this.

Maybe in her next life.

“And me?” Jasper asks. He looks like it’s taking everything he has left to keep standing. Monty hovers to his left, not touching him, but one hand placed next to his as if to remind Jasper of his presence and support. His eyes never leave Jasper’s haggard face. “Was I just your way into the group? Did it mean anything?”

Maya doesn’t look back at him. Only Clarke can see her set her mouth.

“Answer me!” When she doesn’t turn, Jasper’s face crumples. “Maya. Maya please, just -- look at me.”

Maya’s chin dips downwards. There’s a gathering tension around her shoulders, as if she might turn around to face him.

The door chimes a request for entry.

“Monty, who is it?” Clarke asks.

His eyes flicker to the monitors. “One of the guards. I haven’t seen him around much, but I think he’s supposed to be important. Emerson, that’s his name.”

And all at once things fall into place, with a snap that Clarke feels should be audible to everyone around her.

“Bellamy, can you disarm him when he walks in?” she asks, and he nods before moving into position by the doorway. “Monty. Open the door.”

She doesn’t tell Maya to keep her mouth shut; Clarke doesn’t want her to. Her scream of warning when the door opens, and Emerson’s shock at the scenario in front of him, are what distracts him badly enough that Bellamy drags him inside and takes away his weapon with minimal fuss. Emerson focuses on Clarke’s face -- she wonders if it’s the tattoo and its meaning that inspires the rabid dog-like rage as he lunges for her, or if their connection also echoes down cosmic corridors. Bellamy kicks Emerson’s legs out from under him, slams him back up against the wall and puts the muzzle of the gun right beneath his jaw.

“More soldiers are coming,” Emerson spits out. His eyes roll as he takes in the rest of them, their positions in the Command Center, and he grins like a wolf. “You’ll be no match. Surrender now, and we might show mercy.”

“I have something else in mind.” Her arm hurts from holding up the gun this long, but it’s a dull ache beneath her roiling, seething rage. She can almost see the shape of it, now. She knows Emerson holds the key to bringing it into focus. “This is what we’ll do. I ask you questions. Every time you lie to me, Bellamy breaks something of yours.”

Emerson sneers. “As if I’d tell you anything, you filthy --”

Bellamy brings the butt of the rifle down on his kneecap and Emerson howls, going down into a crouch. Clarke risks taking her eyes off Maya for a split second to meet Bellamy’s and he gives her a brief nod. He’s okay with this plan.

This is too easy for us, she thinks: her particular approach to problem-solving, his willingness to follow through. Neither holding the other back when it counts.

She’ll think about their tendency to mutually-enabled violence later.

“So,” she says, back to watching Maya, “now you understand how to play. First question: what really caused the collapse that killed Maya’s parents?”

Maya jerks, as if every muscle in her body has jumped in surprise. “What are you --”

“There’s no way the Trikru attacked the Mountain. Even if they did, there’s no way they managed to score that kind of victory against it,” Clarke says flatly. “They had no kind of unifying force until a couple years ago. They don’t even have guns. And you think they collapsed part of a structure built and defended by the same technology that put spaceships in orbit?”

“It was them.” Maya has gone even paler, her eyes like burnt-out holes in her face. “They killed my parents.”

“I think Emerson has a different story for us.”

“I won’t tell you anything,” Emerson pants from where he’s curled up on the floor.

“Try the fingers,” Clarke tells Bellamy. “Hurts less, but it gives him more time to reconsider.”

Emerson lasts through Bellamy breaking four of his fingers. His eventual “stop” is weak, almost too quiet to be heard, and pushed through a throat clogged with snot and tears. His breathing is heavy and labored in the silence of the Command Center. Clarke knows if she looked at Monty or Jasper she’d see twin looks of horror, maybe even repulsion. She doesn’t care. She’s come to terms with this already.

“Are you ready to share?” Clarke asks Emerson. She thinks of you have no idea how to build a legacy and asks: “It had something to do with Cage Wallace. Didn’t it.”

“You talk like you already know,” Emerson says sullenly.

“I want the details.” She tips the muzzle of her gun at Maya. “I want her to hear it.”

“It was those damn activists,” Emerson says. The fight is nearly out of him. “They refused the blood beyond what was necessary. And then they... refused. They called for the Wallaces to step down. A new government, and an attempt to treaty with Grounders.” His breath hitches with pain before he continues. “President Wallace was grooming his son to succeed him. He told him to deal with the rebels.”

Clarke has no way of knowing, can never know, what tipped the scales in this universe -- what led to the uprising in this world but not hers, and the events that followed. It scares her to think of how little it might have taken to change so much.

“And then?” she asks.

“They said it was an accident,” Emerson says. “It might have been. I wasn’t there. And Cage Wallace was... young.” He groans, and it takes a moment before he can manage: “It didn’t matter to the president how his son died. He wanted to punish those responsible.”

“No,” Maya says. She says it to Clarke. Her mouth is trembling.

“This whole mountain is rigged with explosives,” Emerson continues. “It’s a failsafe against invasion from the outside, and each section can be individually activated. President Wallace rounded up the remaining rebels and sealed them in before... He took pity on their kids, he took Maya as his own --”

“Bellamy,” Clarke says, and waits for the crunch of bone, and then Emerson’s scream to die down before continuing. “No one would believe the collapse would conveniently spare that many orphans. I bet Maya is the only one.”

“She was the leader’s kid,” Emerson spits. “That Vie bitch, she started the whole thing. The President made a show of it before he sealed her in, told her he’d raise her child since she’d killed his own, that she’d grow up to be his successor, continue his legacy. And,” quieter, “she was a reminder to the rest of us.”

Clarke hasn’t yet looked away from Maya, has witnesses her progression from disbelieving anger, to shock, to anguish, and now this: the way she’s shaking all over. “You tortured him,” she tells Clarke. “People say anything under torture.”

“I bet we can find others with the same story,” Clarke says. “Anyone old enough to remember the rebellion, and your parents. I bet they’ll say the same thing once you promise they won’t be punished for the truth.”

Maya’s breathing has gone shallow and quick, like a cornered animal’s. “So what?” she says, which Clarke would find more convincing if she couldn’t see the girl’s pulse fluttering at the base of her throat. “He is -- he was my father, he raised me, and they’re savages --”

“What are you talking about?” Jasper demands from behind her. “Don’t you get it? You’re wrong. You did all of this for the wrong reasons! You lied --” He chokes a little on his words, has to take a second before finishing, hoarse: “You lied to me, and you didn’t have to.”

Maya turns, very slowly, away from Clarke. She keeps her hands away from her body as she does it, making it clear she’s not about to attack anyone. Clarke can’t see Maya’s clearly like this, only the side of her profile as she finally looks Jasper in the eyes.

“Incoming,” Monty says sharply, his attention back on the monitors. “Clarke, can you come look at this?”

She switches her gun to her right hand -- she’s a little slower on the trigger this way, but she can shoot -- and shakes the ache out of her left arm as she walks over slowly. She keeps the gun trained on Maya as she settles by Monty. The dark-haired girl doesn’t look like she’ll pose a threat any time soon, but it doesn’t hurt to stay on top of her. “What’s going on?” Clarke asks Monty.

He jabs a finger at the screens. “Reinforcements, coming in quick. And,” he adds under his breath, “while you got Emerson talking, I worked on that other thing.” He nods his head toward a lever Clarke recognizes on sight. “Ready to go.”

Ready to do it all over again.

“Maya.” Clarke looks up from the monitors. “I’m giving you one more chance to let us walk away. Because I’m not just talking about your prisoners from the Ark. Or even the Grounders in here. Or the combined armies outside.” She straightens. “If you don’t let us go, I’ll irradiate Level Five.”

Maybe some things are inevitable.

“What?” That’s Jasper, in a gasp, stricken. Monty’s face doesn’t twitch. Or Bellamy’s. They accept what’s at stake. But Jasper is turning from one to the other -- and then to Clarke, and back to Maya -- like he can’t believe what he’s hearing. “You can’t --” One look at Clarke and he sees that she can. “Do something,” he pleads -- to Maya, surprisingly.

She looks back at him, stone-faced.

Clarke hears Bellamy take the punch a second before he staggers into her peripheral vision. She turns, lifting her gun, but Emerson is ready for her: he blocks, bringing his forearm against hers with a force that causes the gun to drop from her nerveless fingers. He catches it practically in midair -- should’ve had Bellamy start with his right hand, Clarke has time to think -- and brings the butt of it up across her cheekbone, sending her to the floor.

When she lifts her head Emerson has her own gun trained on her.

“Anyone moves,” he growls, “and she dies.”

No one moves. Emerson disarms Bellamy. He motions for Monty to step away from the bank of controls, and --

We’re losing, Clarke thinks numbly. We lost.

“Good work, Lieutenant,” Maya says. She’s locked in a face-off with Jasper, in an eerie parallel to how Emerson never takes his eyes off Clarke.

“You can stop this,” Jasper says. He’s calm.

“It’s already finished.” Maya is almost gentle as she says it.

“So then why don’t you ask him?” Jasper’s voice begins to break a little, around the edges, and even from where she’s sprawled on the floor Clarke can see the tension is his frame. “No one’s torturing him now. Ask him how much of it is true.”

“None of it is.”

“So ask him,” Jasper says, dogged.

Maya’s breathing is a little hard, the color rising in her cheeks. “I don’t believe any of it.”

“Ask. Him.” His eyes are shining. “Please. You owe me this.”

Clarke can actually see it, she can see the creeping doubt in Maya where she faces Jasper. Her lips part.

Clarke holds her breath.

“Emerson?” Maya asks.

Several things happen very quickly.

The door chimes, and Clarke knows the reinforcements are outside the door to the Command Center. She’s not the only one -- Emerson goes rigid, gaze flickering between Clarke and Maya. Maya appears uncaring about the arrival of the rest of her soldiers and she’s watching Emerson, expectant.

Emerson swings the gun around to point at her.

Clarke has another one of those moments where she understands what feels like everything, and all at once: Emerson knows the game is up, there’s no way to hide the truth about Maya’s parents any longer -- she has doubts, and eventually she’ll find someone who can confirm them. Which means the impetus behind her savage genocide is doomed. Which means, since Dante is dead, Emerson might be the closest thing she has to a scapegoat. Which means he’s about to be out of a job at the very least.

On the other hand, with Wallace and his protege both gone, there will be a power vacuum.

And Clarke remembers make me a martyr, if I die it will inspire my people to greater efforts. Emerson has her gun -- anyone who dies by it will appear to have been murdered by the enemy.

From the way Maya’s eyes go wide Clarke knows she understands it all, too.

It takes too long, though. The shot rings out before either of them can move.

Bellamy tackles Emerson in the next second, and Clarke watches the gun clatter to the ground and spin across the floor. She scrambles to her feet. Bellamy draws back to punch Emerson square in the face, and the man’s head actually bounces on the floor before he goes limp. Clarke looks back at Maya.

Jasper has her in his arms. She staggers, her features slack with shock. There’s a smear of blood across the front of her dress.

Maybe some things are inevitable.

But then Jasper chokes, and Monty gasps, and Clarke watches as a pinpoint of darkness spreads into a bloody stain down Jasper’s back. Maya stumbles again -- under Jasper’s weight, trying to bear him up as he falls to the floor.

Jasper didn’t stop to think why Emerson would point a gun at Maya. He didn’t stop to think at all before putting himself in between her and the bullet.

Clarke watches, numb, as Monty goes to try and help Maya. Together they lower Jasper to the floor. He ends up on his back, his head in Maya’s lap as she kneels down with him. Monty is left standing and he looks to Clarke: “Do something, get someone, he needs help --”

“S’fine,” Jasper chokes out. He raises a clumsy hand, manages to grab Monty’s after a few tries. “It’s okay.”

“You’re not okay, you’re shot --”

“Dude, I know.” Jasper wheezes out an attempt at a laugh. “It’s okay, though.” The muscles in his fingers lose their grip and his hand falls. Monty chases after it, sits down next to him.

Jasper coughs and it sounds... wet. “Fuck, this hurts.” He takes a breath and Clarke can hear it rattling from across the room. He lets his head fall back. Maya is bent over him, expressionless.

Jasper looks up at her, and Clarke can see him struggle to keep his eyes open. “It wasn’t all a lie, was it?” he asks, so quietly Clarke doesn’t think she’d hear it if the rest of the room wasn’t frozen in silent horror.

He coughs again, the spasms wracking his body. And then he dies.

Monty turns away, bending so that his forehead almost touches his knees as he begins to sob. Clarke looks back at Bellamy to be met with an utterly lost look that’s probably mirrored on her face.

That’s when the door to the Command Center opens to reveal the Mount Weather Guard.

They must have been working to override the controls all this time, Clarke realizes It’s another shock to her overloaded system, and she barely has the presence of mind to move in front of the lever before they storm into the room.

“Nobody move!” their leader shouts.

“Don’t shoot!” Bellamy yells. When Clarke moved into her position he was recapturing her gun, and now he has it pointed at Maya. “Anyone shoots, and I’ll kill the President.”

The soldiers freeze. Bellamy and Clarke are locked into place. Add in Jasper, dead, and Monty, paralyzed with grief, and the statue-like Maya, and the Command Center is like a grotesque tableau of lost chances.

No, Clarke can’t accept that. There has to be one more left.

“Maya,” she says, “tell them to stand down.”

“Go to hell.” The other girl is pale, haggard.

Maya.” Clarke wishes she would look up, look at her. She has no idea where the other girl’s head is at right now, no idea how to use it to their advantage -- so she chucks subtlety out the window. “Do you want Jasper to die for nothing?”

Monty’s shoulders jerk, and he makes a noise like something broke inside his chest. Maya brings her head up by inches. Her eyes are red.

“He saved you,” Clarke tells her. “He loved you.”

“He didn’t even know me.” A spasm crosses her face. “Even if I hadn’t been -- we knew each other for less than a month.”

“It can be enough.” She wishes it wasn’t. She wishes it wasn’t possible for someone to be thrown in your path who had the power to derail all your plans in a matter of days. She wishes more love stories talked about the incredible chaos you could invite into your life with a single kiss.

“But I lied to him. I betrayed him.”

Clarke has to swallow twice before she can admit: “That doesn’t make it stop.”

She wishes.

“It’s too late,” Maya says dully. “It’s ruined. All of it. You don’t understand this -- this has been going on for so long. I can’t just end it now.”

“Think of all the tiny things that led to us standing here, in these circumstances,” Clarke begs her. “All those snap decisions, and coincidences, and moments no one even noticed while there were happening, they created this. I know it seems huge and insurmountable now, but please, we’re on this course because of a million little things, and trust me.”

Clarke twists one arm up behind her back. It’s uncomfortable and awkward but she can pull the lever like this. The grip of it between her fingers is something she hasn’t stopped feeling for months.

“Please trust me,” she continues. “If you want things to be different, it can all start with another one. One choice.”

Maya looks down at Jasper’s body.

“Maya, please.”

Maya raises her head. Her face is a mask.

“Lower your weapons.”

She’s facing Clarke when she says it, and it even takes Clarke a second to process the words and their meaning -- she doesn’t blame the guards for hesitating.

“I said,” and Maya turns to face them, a hint of steel emerging in her tone, “lower your weapons.

Stunned, the guards obey.

Clarke uncurls her hand from the lever slowly, carefully, as if the slightest pressure could move it. She steps away from it for good measure. Her hands are shaking. No, she’s shaking, her whole body shivering in disbelief. Her knees can’t hold her and she slumps down to the floor, spots in her vision.

Distantly, she wonders if she’ll get the chance to apologize to Lexa. Turns out the Mountain will not fall. Not today, anyway. Not because of her.

She comes back to herself in the next second only to be eclipsed with fear. It could be a trick, no guarantee --

But when she looks up the tableau is unchanged. The guards haven’t moved. Neither has Maya. Bellamy has lowered the gun, but he and Monty are still at their places.

And they’re all looking at Clarke.

“Now what?” Maya asks.

_____________________________

 

 

It turns out Maya hid the delinquents in pairs and trios, each sequestered into the home of a family and kept prisoner there by its inhabitants. The ones still alive are unharmed. She refuses to release them before speaking with Cartwright, but she does swear the donation process will be put on hold. It took her a long, long moment before she would say the same about the Grounders in the Harvest Room. But considering Octavia’s team had gotten most of them free and ready to fight, they were able to show the wisdom of a prisoner exchange there, as well.

“It won’t work,” Maya says.

They’re in the elevator up to main door -- Clarke, Maya, Monty, Bellamy, Octavia, and Emerson’s second-in-command, who insisted on accompanying Maya. She doesn’t require an oxygen suit either.

Clarke looks over at the new President. “You agreed --”

“To an exchange of prisoners in return for a donation program, and continued talks on further agreements of mutual benefit,” Maya interrupts. “With the people from the fallen Ark. But there’s nothing we can with treaty the Grounders.” Her lip curls. “And nothing we want from them.”

“You plan on staying inside your Mountain the rest of your lives?” Octavia snarls from the other side of the elevator. “You ever want to use your new abilities of walking outside and breathing air, you better come up with something.”

“There’s nothing those savages can offer us besides a lack of aggression. And they’ll never agree to that -- I’ve studied their ways, I know their philosophy of retaliation.” Maya glares at Clarke as if daring the other girl to contradict her. “At best it will be a temporary truce, if you convince them not to harm us as part of an alliance with the Arkers. But they do not forgive, they will not forget, and eventually we’ll be back in the middle of a war.”

Clarke’s stomach sinks. She can see it happening. She catches Octavia’s worried look and knows she can, as well.

“You can reverse the effects of the Cerberus Project, that’s not nothing,” Clarke says slowly.

“It’s not enough to avoid the inevitable.”

Clarke forces down her growing irritation and panic. “So why did you agree to a cease-fire in the first place?”

“I saw where your hand was,” Maya says. “Have my people die now, or perhaps give them a fighting chance in the future -- it wasn’t much of choice.”

“I thought you wanted a better future than that.”

“I do,” Maya bites out, and finally Clarke can see the anger and helplessness that’s driving her, as well. “But this is doomed to fail.” She wraps her arms around herself. “Too much blood has been taken for them to demand nothing in return.”

“So give it to them.”

This from Bellamy, who until this point stood quietly in the corner. It’d been hard to persuade him to leave the other delinquents behind -- especially after they delivered the news about Jasper. Clarke had seen more than one of them reach out for Bellamy specifically, as if their long interment under the Mountain together had taught them he was someone who would give support and comfort when it was needed.

He didn’t say much since leaving the Command Center. He answered Maya’s question about Jasper’s family: that he had none waiting for him back at the Ark. She paused for a long moment, wringing her hands, before asking: “Could he... would you allow me to bury him in our way? With our dead?”

A shadow passed across Bellamy’s face, but he turned to Monty. The younger man struggled with his answer, forehead knitting up, before admitting: “It’s probably what he would have wanted.”

Bellamy nodded at Maya then, and Clarke didn’t miss the way he stood between her and Monty, like a shield.

He doesn’t look at Maya now, instead keeps his gaze on Emerson’s newly-promoted second. Clarke notices her nametag reads D. Kore.

“You’ve got young kids in the school, right?” he asks in the surprised silence. “Let them be adopted among Grounder clans. They can be first to receive marrow donations, and then they’ll go out and learn to live with the Grounders while the rest of you wait your turn.”

Maya sucks in a breath. “You don’t know what it’s like to grow up without your parents.”

“So split the difference.” He looks her in the eye. “Half the year on the outside, half the year back in the Mountain. And I do know what it’s liked to be raised in a system where only certain people matter.”

Octavia reaches for his free hand. He wraps his fingers around hers, but he holds Maya’s gaze. “Call it the Persephone Project,” he tells her.

“President Wallace --” Kore jumps in.

“Vie,” Maya corrects.

“... President Vie. You can’t let them do this. Whatever revenge the Grounders want, it should be against us. The children are innocent.”

“None of you are innocent,” Monty says.

Maya turns to look at him. His clothes are spotted with the same blood that streaks her own.

The tension in the elevator is too thick to Clarke to bear. “If it helps, the clans won’t take out their anger on your children. They don’t work that way. They give their fosterlings new names, new lives... It’s as close as they come to a blank slate.”

“You support this plan?” Maya asks.

“I think it’s a pretty good trade. For almost a hundred years, you tried to take away their future. So give them yours.”

They ride a few more minutes in a silence broken only by the workings of the elevator’s gears and mechanisms. When it rumbles to a stop, Maya nods.

“I’ll consider it.” She strides ahead and the rest of them scramble to keep up.

“Do we trust her?” Bellamy asks in a whisper, coming up to walk at Clarke’s side.

“Do we have another choice?”

“I mean, could you? Where you came from?”

“Yeah, that’s... not applicable here.” She gnaws on her lower lip. “I don’t know, Bellamy. Everything from this point is new to me. But there’s a chance we could make it out of this without killing hundreds of people. Do you think it’s worth the risk?”

He pales. “You actually did it in your world, didn’t you. You pulled the lever.”

“We both did.”

Bellamy looks like he’s about to be sick. “Wait,” he says, stopping. He holds up one finger to the others waiting for them up ahead: in a minute. “Where do we go from here? What do we plan for next?”

“I’m telling you: I don’t know.”

“Not anything?” He searches her face. “This whole time I’ve been following your lead, waiting for you to show up and --”

“Why?”

Why?” He stares at her. “Because when we met you said you were from a parallel universe and had all the answers! That’s why.

“You don’t need me, though. That Persephone thing is all you. Those kids are dead where I came from. We killed them.” She waits until he looks back at her, stricken. “But here, you might have saved them. Why do you keep looking to someone else for answers you already have?”

“I can’t do this on my own,” he says after a long moment.

“I think you can. You need stop thinking about what you want, or what you think should happen, or what makes you look good, and just... keep them safe. You’re really good at that. You did it for Octavia for sixteen years.”

“I got Octavia thrown in the Skybox.”

It’s the lack of emotion in his voice which lets her know she’s hit a nerve. Clarke wonders if this is the root of what used to make her hate him -- the crippling guilt followed by a toxic amount of overcompensation, all the swaggering and sneering a desperate attempt at hiding how much he now doubts his own decisions.

“What would have happened if she wasn’t in the dropship?” Clarke asks abruptly.

He frowns at her before shrugging. “She’d’ve spent another year under the floor. Before the...”

“Before the Ark crashed down,” Clarke picks up where he trails off. “And she might have died then, still hidden. Or maybe, since you wouldn’t be on the dropship in this scenario, the Ark would cull more and more of the population, because the first hundred would have disappeared under the Mountain and the Council would decide Earth wasn’t habitable. Maybe they would have chosen your section to cut off the air supply, and she would have died without ever leaving your quarters. Even if you make all the right decisions,” she says, a little more gently, “even if you think you have all the answers, there are always factors you can’t plan for.”

“So who the hell are we to be making those decisions, anyway?” he demands.

“The ones willing to live with the consequences when it all goes wrong.” Clarke waits until he meets her eyes. “That’s the deal, Bellamy. You have to live with what you bring about.” She looks over to see Maya watching them. With her pallor and blood-spattered hands she could be mistaken for a ghost. “It’s harder than it sounds.”

When she turns back Bellamy’s thoughtful. “The Council’s never going to listen to someone like me.”

“President Vie did. Wells does. Stop acting like you’re a janitor on the Ark.” She shoves his shoulder hard enough to make him stumble. He scowls at her, and she does it again.

“Is everything okay?” Octavia shouts.

“Fine,” Bellamy calls back. He jerks his head toward the main door and they jog up to where the others are waiting.

In front of the main door. It’s safe to open, now; the vents have been closed off where needed to keep any radiation from spreading to the main populace.

It’s never opened for her, she realizes. She’s tried twice before, but she was elsewhere when they finally cracked open the Mountain in her world. The mechanisms are loud, and as the door slides back it locks into place with a reverberation Clarke can feel throughout her body.

... wait. No, that’s something else.

She clutches at her chest. Her heart feels as if it’s throwing itself against her ribcage, beating the bones like a drum. There’s a sense of constriction squeezing all the air from her lungs with the inevitability of an iron band.

“Clarke?”

She doesn’t know who says it. The ringing in her ears is too loud to parse voices.

She stumbles and her knees give out. She barely manages to twist as she falls to keep from faceplanting into the dirt. When she lands on her shoulder, pain lances through the fog and turmoil as several stitches rip.

Hands are on her, rolling her onto her back. “Get back, give her air,” she hears.

Clarke manages several breaths, pulling the fresh outside air into her lungs -- and a little bit of loose dirt. She can feel it clinging to her skin and hair. She’s probably lying in the same place where she stood, in her own world, staring at a door that would never open for her. Her cough ends on something like a laugh.

“Hey, you okay? Talk to us.” A hand on her forehead smoothes the hair out of her eyes. She opens them to see Monty’s worried ones looking down at her. “Tell us what’s wrong.”

She takes in a couple more pulls of air. It quiets whatever storm is brewing inside her, but she can sense the beginning of another assault. Or, well, whatever metaphor is appropriate for a soul achieving escape velocity. She hears shouting in Trigedasleng, the thud of hooves. “Hey, don’t look now, but the Commander of the Grounders coming to introduce herself.”

Monty looks up and blanches.

Clarke’s giggle is manic. She feels fuzzy around the edges. “Her name is Lexa. She’s as scary as she looks, but I think you’ll like her.”

The sun above her is a shining circle in a field of cloudless blue.

“Will you do me a favor?” she asks. Her lips are numb. She feels the tension of imminent release building up in her spine, like the swing of her slingshot achieving necessary torque right before the stone flies.

Oh, hey, a Klark thought. About time she showed up.

“O-okay?”

“Tell her I’m sorry I didn’t say goodbye.”

And bam.

The sensation of vaulting into that perfect sky, aiming for the stars and the darkness beyond she knows are waiting.

 

 

Chapter Text

_____________________________

_____________________________

_____________________________

 

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

It’s a dream, she knows that now, but even the memory of how it felt to be poisoned to death is excruciating. “Why?” she remembers choking out, forcing the question past numb facial muscles and the abdominal cramps ripping her in half.

"Most who undertake this journey abandon the mistakes they cannot undo. To reach this point, they have turned their lives into so much scorched earth. But you say none of it was the result of your intentions?"

She shakes her head. It hurts, it hurts so much

"Then you are leaving behind a life that can be salvaged. I am sorry to hear it, but I think you will be sorrier to lose it."  

And then she dies.

_____________________________

_____________________________

_____________________________

 

 

Clarke wakes up.

For a second she thinks it went wrong, I’m dead -- she can’t move, can’t breathe, she’s stuffed inside a pinprick of darkness and she’s trapped.

The next beat of her heart feels like a punch to her chest. Now she can feel everything: the rush of blood through every vein, muscles tightening, even the tenderness at the center of her bones. She gasps, choking on air.

“Clarke..?” There’s someone lying next to her on the bed, she feels it dip and move as they untuck themselves from her shoulder, place a hand on her cheek. Their voice is slurred, as if they’re waking from their own sleep.

Clarke opens her eyes to find wide green ones staring at her from only inches away.

The next moment Lexa is rolling away and onto her feet, shouting, “I want a healer in here, now!”

Then the commotion comes from all directions. She can hear guards running through the hallways. Other footsteps running toward this room, higher-pitched voices arguing with the guards outside.

“Let them through,” Lexa says.

Clark sits up just as Raven and Octavia burst into the room and pounce on her. They wrap her up in hard, tight hugs that send her back to struggling for breath and she doesn’t even care . She tries to hug them back, although her limbs don’t have quite the same strength. They continue to hang onto her even when the healer pushes them to the side so she can check Clarke’s pulse, her reflexes, her pupils.

The next time Clarke thinks to look for her, Lexa is gone.

_____________________________

 

 

“How do you feel?”

Clarke turns from her reflection. She woke up in -- ironies of ironies -- the same room they gave Klark in Polis, down the the mirror in its corner. She was grateful to get up the morning a little early, to have the time to stand in front of it and remember who she is. Unbraided hair. Her old clothing from the Ark. Less bulk in her shoulders, and a little too thin from her time alone in the woods. It’s comforting, but...

I think I miss my tattoos, she doesn’t say. “Good. Everything checks out.”

Lexa stands outside the door to the room. She hasn’t crossed the threshold since Clarke woke up. At first Clarke thought it was because of Raven and Octavia, glued to her side for all of yesterday as they alternately fussed over and scolded her.

Octavia was the worst. She spent ten minutes detailing what she saw as Clarke’s cowardice, her failures, her lack of responsibility at the top of her lungs. “Whatever, it’s done, you’re coming home with us,” she finished, and then folded herself up so tight against Clarke’s back she nearly pushed her off the bed.

Raven was easier and harder all at once. She didn’t seem angry, she didn’t yell like Octavia, but there was an ever-present edge to her words and every time Clarke met her eyes Raven would look away. It was a lot to deal with -- a lot of work to be done, Clarke knew -- and she didn’t blame Lexa for staying ten feet away whenever she stopped to check in.

But neither of them are here now, and Lexa is still treating the doorway like it’s a solid barrier, which means...

“You can come in,” Clarke says, and Lexa’s stepping inside before the words are fully out of her mouth.

She moves past Clarke hurriedly, going over to the open window. She puts her hand on the low ledge and gazes out onto the city. Clarke takes advantage of the silence to look her over.

Lexa looks. Different.

“We have much to discuss,” Lexa says.

“Okay,” Clarke says, once it becomes apparent Lexa is waiting on a response.

The slight crease in her forehead is Lexa’s version of a pointed frown. “You should take this seriously. This concerns more than -- I know you’re upset about Mount Weather --”

“Not really.” Clarke sits on the bed. Lexa turns, tucking her hands behind her back. “Well. Not as much, I guess.”

Lexa searches her face, and Clarke returns the favor. She is different. It’s not just how open the other Lexa was -- eventually became -- or the ease of her affection. Clarke’s Lexa was always more tightly controlled, she didn’t expect to find anything different on returning. No, it’s something else. There’s a heaviness, now, that rests in the slight shadows beneath her eyes and the new thinness of her cheeks. Lexa was never particularly soft. But she’s been stripped down to the bone until she gives the impression of a naked blade.

“Good,” she says. Relief enters her eyes. “I hope whatever you endured, then, was worth it.”

She looks like she’s in mourning, Clarke realizes. But that doesn’t make any sense. Unless someone -- or something -- that Clarke doesn’t know about has been lost.

“Clarke?”

Clarke shakes off her thoughts. “Yeah. What did you want to talk about?”

“I want Skaikru to join the Coalition and become the thirteenth clan.”

Like it’s nothing.

Clarke doesn’t want to sort through the storm of emotions brewing inside her, not this second, so she takes a deep breath and asks, “Why?”

“Skaikru has much to offer in terms of equipment, knowledge, and training.” Lexa is as dispassionate as if she were discussing what she had for breakfast that morning. “Unless your people wish to relocate away from Trikru land, I believe entering the Coalition is in their best interests as well. If they decide against it, however, they should know it is a long journey to the edge of unclaimed territory -- resettling might require them to abandon much of what they have already gained.”

“You know, it wouldn’t kill you to press the advantages of a proposal before leaping straight into the threats.”

Lexa opens her mouth and then closes it, a muscle in her jaw flexing. “The Coalition itself was formed very quickly, and out of pressing need,” she says finally. “I’m not used to persuading.”

No, she wouldn’t be.

“What’s the catch?” Clarke asks.

Lexa frowns. “... catch?”

“What is it about this proposal you don’t think I’d like?”

She’s fishing, but the speed at which Lexa’s expression smoothes out confirms all her suspicions. “I didn’t think you’d be this receptive to... I planned to wait a few days before discussing --”

“Just say it, Lexa.”

There’s a sharp inhalation of breath at the use of her name, but Clarke keeps her eyes steady on Lexa’s face.

“When joining the Coalition, a clan’s leader takes my personal brand, and bows in recognition of my authority,” Lexa says. “I want you to bow to me as well.”

Okay, that brand thing is different, she would have noticed something like that on Klark’s body. Though that’s not what she should be focusing on right now, or what Lexa thinks is going to make her chicken out. But Clarke refuses to look away. “Because I undermined you when I took down the Mountain. You want Wanheda to show that she now submits to the Commander, and to claim that power for yourself.”

“Yes.”

It’s about as far from regretful, or apologetic, as you could possibly get. It’s not something you ask when you feel you made a mistake, or want to make amends for any hurt you might have caused.

Well. It’s not like Clarke can say no one warned her.

Clarke’s eyes fall shut. She’s so tired. “I need to go to Camp Jaha, I mean, Arkadia,” Octavia and Raven had told her about the change, “and deliver your terms to the Council.”

“No.”

Clarke’s eyes fly open. For the first time Lexa looks something like guilty -- she won’t look at Clarke directly, and the set of her mouth is pure stubbornness.

“What do you mean, no? Are you holding me prisoner?”

“No,” softer this time. “But there’s still a bounty on your head. I can’t keep you safe outside Polis.”

Clarke has the sudden, really awful urge to say something like you couldn’t keep Costia safe inside Polis, but it burns like acid even unspoken. It hurts all at once to remember that’s a face she’ll never see and a voice she’ll never hear again. It’s the first time she feels what she’s lost by coming back home.

“Give me a bodyguard, then,” she says.

“One warrior is no safeguard against --”

“So give me a lot of bodyguards. A whole entourage, I don’t care. I have to go back,” and she tries to put as much of the genuine need she feels as possible into her voice. “I haven’t seen my friends or family for weeks, and I need to talk to them. I need to show them I’m here with them, even if I have to turn right back around afterward.”

Lexa’s mouth twitches. “Fine,” she says after a long moment. “I’ll put together a protective detail.”

“Octavia wants to leave tomorrow morning.”

“I’ll start at once.”

Lexa’s movements are stiff as she makes her way for the door, and her anger makes Clarke hesitate before calling out: “Wait.”

Lexa turns.

“I have a question about intermarriage.”

She’s finally managed to throw Lexa for a loop. “About --”

“Nightbloods are gathered from all the clans, right? So if Skaikru marries or propagates with other clans, there will be Skaikru nightbloods.”

“...where did you learn --”

“And nightblood children are taken from their parents and raised to kill each other in combat.”

Lexa turns pale. “She told you.”

Now Clarke is the one to look away. “It won’t fly with the Council or anyone else from the Ark. Even if I don’t tell them, they’ll find out eventually, and you’ll have a revolt on your hands. No matter who’s wearing your brand.”

“If they want to join our Coalition they must accept our way of life,” Lexa says. But Clarke can see her hands tremble.

“People on the Ark were limited to one child for generations, and they’ve told themselves that life on the ground is different. Their children are their line in the sand.”

“Aren’t you someone’s child? Didn’t they throw you into danger for their own benefit?”

“I...” Clarke blinks at the banked anger in Lexa’s voice. “I told you, it’s different now that we’re on the ground.”

Lexa shakes her head. “You’re so sure. Tell me you’re not trying to change generations of tradition because you want to, Clarke.”

“Tell me you don’t want to, Lexa.” She waits until the other girl meets her eyes before continuing. “Don’t you get it? This is how we change things. Change everything. Working together, using each other -- if we’re going be one people, you and I will be on the same side. Finding common goals, figuring out how to achieve them. We can make things better.” She has to take a breath. Her hands are knotted in the bedclothes, straining with the effort to make Lexa understand. “We can be that for each other, at least.”

Even if that’s all we ever are hangs between them.

“I understand.” Lexa doesn’t... that can’t be... regret, what Clarke is hearing, veined through her tone like the glimmer of metal in rock. “Do you have other questions?”

Clarke feels like she shouldn’t let Lexa go but she has no idea how to keep her here. She looks around the room... the room. “Why did you put me in here?”

Lexa’s brow furrows. “If you’re displeased with it, there are other rooms.”

“No, I just.” It seems like too much of a coincidence to wake up in the same room as she did when she woke up as Klark. “Is there a reason you chose this one?”

“It’s the best one,” Lexa says. “It faces south, so there isn’t too much sunlight or too little. It’s high enough to see the river, but close enough to the ground to see the people in the market. There’s only one entrance, so it’s defensible. It’s set off from the main corridor, so it’s quiet.”

Clarke listens to the litany of reasons, thinks of how much time, and in how many rooms, you would have to spend in this tower to be able to catalogue the charms of one in particular. “It’s your favorite,” she realizes.

Lexa merely gazes back at her. “The Commander’s quarters need to be closer to the audience chamber, and deeper within the tower in case of infiltration. But these are kept for favored guests.”

Like Clarke. And Klark.

Clarke opens her mouth to ask --

“Is there anything else?” The heaviness has settled further into Lexa’s features. She looks like she’s already a million miles away. She looks untouchable.

“Don’t let her break your heart.”

Clarke’s mouth dries up, and it comes out a little rough when she says: “No. That was it.”

Lexa’s out the door before she finishes.

_____________________________

 

 

“Don’t let her break your heart.”

Clarke hears it over and over in her head. After finalizing plans with Raven and Octavia and heading to bed. When she gets up the next morning and dresses. Greeting the warriors -- twelve, really? She needs twelve bodyguards? One from each clan, apparently -- and explaining their presence to her friends. Loading their packs on their horses and making their way through Polis. As she looks over her shoulder, wonders if she really sees a figure watching them from one of the higher windows. Or if that’s just wishful thinking.

“Don’t let her break your heart.”

_____________________________

 

 

Her mom grabs her and holds her for close to a whole minute when Clarke gets off her horse. It’s embarrassing. Clarke shared an easy physical affection with her father, but her and Abby? They were never these people.

She clears her throat after a while, patting Abby’s shoulder as the older woman pulls away. Abby looks off to the side for a second -- there might actually be tears , what is Clarke supposed to do -- before turning back with a smile.

“I’m so glad to have you home,” she says, squeezing Clarke’s hands so hard she can almost feel the bones creak.

She’s not sure it is home, though. Her mom is living in their old quarters on the Ark, and oh, that’s a bad moment, when she startles awake in the dark that first night to the familiar smells and shadowy sights of her old bed. For a second isn’t sure where she is, what world she’s woken up in now. Or who she is in it.

Clarke goes out into the kitchen area to find her mother already out there.

“I don’t know why I can’t sleep,” Abby says as Clarke walks up to her. She’s standing at the counter stirring a cup of herbal tea. She’s using a bag from the old rations, not one of the recipes gleaned from Grounder neighbors. “You’re here and you’re safe. You’d think I’d finally get a good night’s rest.”

Clarke stands behind her, close enough to let her head fall down onto her mother’s shoulder. She hears a sigh, and Abby turns her head until her cheek is just resting against Clarke’s hair. This is much easier than their earlier hug, and Clarke is able to relax into it, feeling the tightness from her rude awakening ease from her muscles.

“Coming back was the hard part,” she whispers into her mother’s shoulder. “But it’s not even half the actual work, is it?”

“Probably not.” Abby sighs again. “I’m going to open up elections. Kane should be the Chancellor.”

“What?” Clarke raises her head. “Why?”

Abby makes an abortive gesture with her hands. “If we’re really going to accept this invitation to join their Coalition, it should be Kane. He’s learning about their customs and language, he cares about their way of life.”

Clarke told them both about Lexa’s proposal at dinner. To Kane, who spoke rapidly about dwindling supplies, it was obviously been a last-minute save and one he couldn’t be more grateful to hear. Abby was less thrilled.

“I don’t,” Abby continues. “I don’t even like them.” She draws in a deep breath. “I don’t think I could accept their Commander as having authority over me, even if it’s mostly symbolic.”

“Do you hate Lexa that much?”

“I hate what she did to you.”

Clarke makes a disgruntled sound, moves to the side so she can hop up to sit on the counter like she used to, talking to Jake about her day at school. “No one has to be angry at her for my sake. I can be angry at her on my own.”

“Are you?” Abby asks, sharp.

“Mom.” Clarke’s shoulders slump. “You can’t give up the Chancellorship right now.”

“Really.” Abby sips her tea, one eyebrow raised.

“I know you think it’s for the best, and that Kane might do a better job with the Coalition, but... Well,” Clarke says, rethinking, “maybe he would.”

“So you see my point.”

“No, I... I have something to think about, that’s all. But come on, Mom, you were just telling me how many people were asking for their contraceptive implants to be removed. What about that says they’re looking for a huge change in the system we already have in place? Just give it another year,” she insists as she sees her mother is about to object, “or six months! You can do six more months.”

Her mother puts the tea down, turns to face her. “Why is this so important to you, Clarke?” She hesitates before asking: “Is this about Lexa?”

In the war against Mount Weather Clarke never had a minute to actually consider what it would be like for her and Lexa to be something more than... well, something more. The kind of something that would require her friends and the people in her daily life to know about. So of course she never took the step beyond that and considered dealing with her mother knowing.

But there isn’t anything to know. Lexa might have... no, she did, she sat by Clarke’s bedside day after day and begged her to come back. But when Clarke woke up?

Lexa didn’t want her. She wanted Wanheda.

“What if it was?” Clarke asks anyway, because she can’t help poking at it.

Abby grips the edge of the countertop, hard, but her eyes are wide and pleading. “I would ask you to be very, very careful,” she says evenly. “I trust your judgement. I want you to be happy. I would never stand in the way of -- but she’s hurt you so much already, honey. Do you really want to sign yourself up for more of that?”

Clarke was so hurt by Abby in the aftermath of TonDC and the way she leveled her anger at Clarke like a weapon. It’s easier to look her in the face this time, because Clarke has no trouble seeing the terror hiding behind her concern, or how it’s all for Clarke.

“Do you think Dad would forgive you if he were still alive?” she asks.

Abby staggers back, one hand rising to her throat. “Clarke.

“No, Mom, I’m sorry, I just --” Clarke holds her hands up. “I’m sorry, it just came out.”

Abby takes a minute, breathing unsteadily. “It’s not the same, Clarke.”

Clarke presses her lips together hard. She’d let it pass if it was just a discussion of -- of her personal life, but it’s more. “She thinks she did the right thing. You think you did the right thing. How is it different?”

“I...” Abby sighs and leans her weight back into the counter. “You want the awful truth? I’m not sure I’d forgive him. He was going to put everyone in danger. He was putting you in danger,” and her voice shakes as she finishes, pressing a hand to her mouth. “I loved him so much. You have a hard time believing that. But he was my husband -- he was your father, he was the man I chose to make a family and a life with. Together.” She struggles for a moment before continuing. “And he wouldn’t listen to me. He wouldn’t even consider what I was saying. I know,” her voice heavy with unshed tears, “that I have to live with the consequences of turning Jake into the Council. But sometimes, Clarke, I lie awake at night and I am -- still -- so angry with him.”

“That’s why,” Clarke says, as soon as she knows her voice won’t fail her when she tries to speak. “It’s not about Lexa, not completely. That’s why I want you to remain Chancellor.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Do you ever wonder if all those generations on the Ark somehow warped our way of thinking? All those people fighting over air and food and water, trapped in a small space with nowhere else to go -- it’s almost as if, despite the Unity ceremonies and the last tree, we ended up seeing each other as the enemy. Because there was literally no one else.” She rushes on before her mom can interject. “Maybe I’m wrong, and it’s just human nature. It’s not like the Grounders have done much better, pushing each other into the path of the Mountain in order to get a head start on escape. Or they did until Lexa arrived.”

Focus, she tells herself. “I think you should be Chancellor because you’re good at it. I think Kane should work with the Grounders because he’d good at that. I think you should start listening to me, and Raven, and all the others when we come to you because we know who and what’s out there.” Her breath’s coming fast as if she’s in a race. “I think we should start working together, instead of everyone forming their own teams and working toward their own goals. I think we should stop expecting that one person should do it all -- that one person can do it all, without burning out or digging themselves into a hole.”

Abby takes a swallow of her tea. “It sounds like you thought about this a lot out in the woods.”

She didn’t, actually. But she’s been thinking a lot about it since she... came back. Especially about that second time at the Mountain. She should have been the governing force: she knew (or thought she did) everything, she put the plans into place, she killed Dante Wallace . But it wouldn’t have been enough without Jasper’s sacrifice. Or Bellamy’s plans for the possible future. Or even Octavia’s determination to prove herself and Raven’s willingness to be bait. And if it had all gone wrong, if all their efforts had crumbled, Wells would have managed to build something from the ashes. She knows that.

(Clarke doesn’t miss Wells. At least, not any more than she probably will for the rest of her life. She’s surprised to find it, but all the venom has been sucked out of that wound, allowing it to heal cleanly. Now there’s just a scar she treasures because it means she’ll never forget.)

Clarke could even see the difference it made between the two Lexas: one with Anya and Gustus and Costia to help her shoulder the burden of leadership, and her Lexa, alone, looking more worn down every time they met.

She tried to bear the burden of leadership on her own, the way Wallace talked about. It drove her into the woods, away from her friends in the fear they couldn’t accept what it made her. It only hurt them more. Lexa, the other Lexa, was right: in this world and all worlds, people suffered. Maybe even the best leader in the history of time couldn’t change that. But even mere mortals like herself could look to the people she loved and say: I know you’re in pain, do you want to join me in trying to change that.

“We needed a single voice of leadership on the Ark because we had limited resources,” she continues to argue. “There was no room for error, and never time for much discussion. Now we have to find a different way of working together, and I don’t think the solution is passing the Chancellorship from person to person until it lands on someone arrogant enough to think they can do it all themselves.”

“What exactly do you propose?”

“A new kind of power structure. No major changes right away,” she rushes to add. “But a new position or two, maybe add more representatives to the Council since, eventually, we’ll have a lot more people. Things like that.”

She knows she wouldn’t have told her mother all this, before -- wouldn’t have come to her at all or tried to talk this out before putting together a plan on her own and forcing it into action. She knows she was part of the problem.

“I’ll think it over,” her mom says.

“Remaining Chancellor?”

“No,” Abby says after only the slightest hesitation. “Everything else you mentioned. Opening up the Council.” She reaches out one hand and places it, warmed by her tea mug, over Clarke’s. “You’re right. I can do six months. I owe that much to everyone during this time of transition. After that, we’ll see.”

Clarke turns her hand over to give her mother’s a squeeze.

And then they’ll see.

_____________________________

 

 

The entourage of Lexa’s warriors get a lot of sidelong looks from the Arkers. They stay within the settlement’s gates, but they insist on camping outside the ruins of the Ark proper. Kane’s able to reassure them of Clarke’s safety at night. It doesn’t hurt that he spends most of his nights joining their campfire, trading language and stories.

Octavia’s not as thrilled with their presence or how it requires Lincoln to remain in the Ark and out of their sight. (No one wants to risk any of the warriors spotting him and getting zealous about the kill order.) She’s even less thrilled with Clarke’s intent to return to Polis.

Clarke told them on the journey back. Maybe she should have waited until they were safely in Arkadia, but there was enough tension in the air already. She knew neither of them had really forgiven her for leaving the way she did.

“You don’t know what it was like, right after,” Raven told her over the fire one evening on their way back to the place Clarke remembers as Camp Jaha. Octavia was asleep in her bedroll a bit further off, so they kept their voices down. “Bellamy had to be the one to tell people you’d left, even though he was obviously wrecked about it. They kept grilling him: asking him why, exactly what you said, exactly what he said. Some people wanted to make it his fault.” She shrugged. “No one’s allowed to treat big bro like shit except his little sis, you know?”

You knew it wasn’t anything he said or did.”

“Oh, I knew.” She rustled the embers with a long stick, using unnecessary force. “Clarke Griffin doesn’t need anyone else’s input when she’s decided on a change of plans. I mean, if you cared at all about what your friends wanted, your Commander wouldn’t even be breathing.”

Clarke sighed.

“What,” Raven said after a moment, “no protests of good intention? Don’t you want to remind me how much we ended up needing Lexa?”

“Why do you want to have this fight, Raven?”

“Because we never did, not really.” The other girl’s mouth twisted into a grimace. “I think we kind of need to if we want to get past it. Come on,” she taunted, narrowing her gaze. “I might even let you win.”

Clarke wondered how many fights Raven got into because she didn’t know how else to ask someone to talk her through her grief.

“Did Lexa tell you what was happening to me?” she asked.

Raven blinked at the change in subject. “She told us... something. I never thought I’d hear the multiverse paired with karmic debt as a belief system.”

“It’s all true.” Clarke stretched her hands out, trying to warm them. “There was also some time travel involved. I got thrown back to when the dropship landed, only I was born a Grounder and had to experience it from that side.”

“Wild,” Raven said, clearly skeptical.

“You were there. Finn, too.”

Raven became very still and very quiet, her eyes never leaving Clarke’s face. “Don’t make that a joke, Clarke.”

“I’m not. He really was there.”

Raven looked off to side. The light from the fire throws her profile into relief, and Clarke could see something surging up inside her, straining to be let out. “So is that Finn still alive, at least?” she gritted out.

Clarke really needed to think this shit through. “He...” But there was any going back then. “No.”

Raven’s skin was drawn so tightly over her face it looked like a mask.

“Raven, I’m so --”

“Fucking asshole,” the other girl burst out, like she couldn’t help it. Clarke jerked back, stung, but then she continued: “Fucking -- let me guess, another noble fucking sacrifice on his part, right?”

Clarke stared at her, dazed. “Yeah. Pretty much.”

“Of course. And he didn’t even have the excuse of looking for you, I bet, or thinking he was in love with you.” Clarke bit down hard on her cheek as the older girl shook her head. “Of all the stupid... I hate him,” she choked out. “I love him and I miss him so much, but he left me all alone and I just --” Raven pressed her hand over her mouth with so much force her fingernails dented into her cheek. She sat like that for a bit, eyes shut as she wept, shoulders hitching with the sobs she refused to let out.

“You can be angry at someone and still love them,” Clarke offered. She knew it wasn’t exactly a comfort.

“Is that your excuse?” Raven asked once she was back in control.

“What?”

“That thing you had going with Lexa.” Raven looked at her, accusing, across the fire. “She killed Finn. And that’s your reasoning, for..?”

“Nothing happened. I mean -- I don’t think it’s what you’re thinking.”

“Okay.” Raven’s eyes were full of disappointment. “But it wasn’t nothing.”

It was hard to take in the breath she needed to look Raven in the face and say, without any caveats or explanations: “No.”

Raven nodded. “Is that why she found you in the woods? Why she came and got me and Octavia?”

“I don’t know.” No, if she wanted to heal this thing between her and Raven, she needed to... “I think so.”

Raven laughed, once. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. You’re good at making people fall for you when they know better.”

That hurt. A lot. She wasn’t sure she deserved it. But she wanted to show Raven she could take it. That she wasn’t afraid of the other girl’s anger, or even some ugliness. It wouldn’t send her running.

“It must have been awful for you when she took the deal,” is what Raven said next. She sounded subdued, maybe ashamed of herself.

Clarke had to blink back her own tears. She really thought she’d run out of them, for this thing at least. She could feel the other girl watching as she did it.

“I’m never going to like her,” Raven said after a long interlude.

“But you’re going to redesign her capital city with hydraulic systems?” Clarke asked.

“Not because I give a damn,” Raven said, wiping away tears they both pretended not to see. “It was the only way she’d let me borrow the plans. Not that anyone else understands them. Stingy bitch.”

Clarke bit back a smile. “At least you got to see Octavia plant her right hook.”

“It was epic.” Raven’s face was briefly transcendent. “Lexa let it happen, though. I know squat about fighting technique and I could see that. I think it’s the reason Octavia backed off. No fun beating up someone who wants to be hurt, you know?”

Clarke sucked in a breath, found she had nothing to say to that.

“And that’s what you want to go back to.”

Okay, now Clarke knew what to say. “Going back to Polis isn’t about Lexa. We have to find a way to coexist, you know that. And hey, I’m not eager to be slaughtered by the Ice Queen.”

Raven shifted uncomfortably. “We could protect you at Arkadia.”

“Do you really think so? Be honest.”

Raven’s mouth screwed up into a scowl as she poked the fire with a force that sends showers of sparks into the night air. “No,” she conceded. “We’re spread thin and disoriented. All kinds of unexpected shit come from living on the ground, it seems.”

“Yeah.” Clarke sighed again. “It really is just about politics now, Raven. Lexa made that clear before I left.”

“Why, what did she say?”

Clarke hesitated before shaking her head. “It doesn’t matter.” She wished she could keep that stupid wistful note out of her voice when she said it.

Raven watched her closely. “So this other universe. It had another Lexa, right?”

“Yes.” Clarke pressed her lips tight against anything else she might want to add.

“Weird. What was that like?”

Clarke hesitated with her mouth open, searching for the words. “She wanted me to stay away from this Lexa.”

“I like her better than the one we’ve got already.” Raven raised an eyebrow. “How come?”

“It’s kind of tangled up in this whole... soul thing.” The sound of beads hitting the ground like heavy rain. “She was afraid of permanent damage.”

Raven’s forehead creased. “Like what?”

Clarke was silent for a long moment, staring into the depths of the dying fire until her eyes burned. “She didn’t want Lexa to break my heart.”

“I repeat,” Raven continued after a pause, “I like that one much better.” She leaned back on her hands. “Sounds like a good plan. I can see a problem, though.”

“What?” Clarke asked, looking to her best friend, the youngest zero-g mechanic in decades, the fixer of problems.

“You look like she’s already done that.”

As long as Clarke started back at her, she couldn’t find anything to say in response. Eventually Raven got up from the fire. Clarke assumed she was going to sleep by Octavia, but two seconds later Raven returned with both their bedrolls and laid them out by the fire. She only said “Wake me up if you need me,” before climbing into her own and falling fast asleep.

Clarke didn’t. She spent the greater part of that night staring into the fire, watching her protection detail swap shifts.

She’s been buffeted about on the winds of other people’s decisions for every moment of the past two years. Jake’s decision to go public. Abby’s, to turn him in. The Council’s in locking Clarke away. Then to send her to the ground, and then -- and then and then and then, an unending chain of crises to react to or risk the earth spinning off its axis. Or that’s what it felt like.

Ironically, shuttling her soul to a different universe was the first thing she’d wanted herself, for herself, in ages.

But she’d come back.

If she left for a reason, there had to be a reason for her return. That’s what they’d told her: her soul never settled. She always wanted to come back.

So, why? For her friends and family, yes, to be with them when they needed her, but why else?

What was worth returning for? Fighting for?

Forget reacting to what other people said or did, just for the moment. What did she want?

She curled up in her bedroll with the question still ringing in her head.

The warmth between her and Raven, the sense of connection, was gone in the morning. Clarke looked up from her bedroll to see Raven’s face closed-off and distant, and there wasn’t any more chit-chat before they reached Arkadia.

Clarke wasn’t too upset then, and she’s still not upset now, even though it’s been more of the same every time she runs into Raven in the infirmary. She knows the other girl needs time, and space, and that whatever coldness she’s projecting now is out of self-protection than any real reflection of what she feels about Clarke or their friendship.

It’s the same coldness she sees on Bellamy’s face, when he finally deigns to appear before her.

It takes a while. Most of the others make a point of finding and acknowledging her somehow: a nod, a smile. Monty goes in for a hug and then just... stays there, until Clarke realizes he’s crying and doesn’t want anyone else to see his face. She slings one arm around his shoulders and pretends it’s the two of them, that they’re not surrounded by dozens of curious eyes as people pass by on their business about the relic of the Ark. Monty only needs a few minutes before he sighs and straightens.

“Missed you,” he says.

“Missed you, too.” They share a look that doesn’t include a smile, but still feels like a comfort. He leans against the wall next to her with his hands shoved in his pockets.

“Jasper’s a mess,” he says, conversational.

“I think we all are.”

“Yeah,” quietly. “But we’re trying to get through it. I don’t think he is.”

“Maybe...” She thinks of the way he threw himself in front of the bullet meant for Maya. How he didn’t hesitate. “Maybe he’s better with acting than thinking. Maybe he needs to finish destroying himself before he feels like rebuilding.”

“Have you seen him?”

She felt eyes on the back of her neck in the cafeteria one day, turned to see Jasper looking... for a moment she thought she was seeing ghosts again, only this one followed her between worlds. He got up from his table, would have marched over to hers if a couple of the people hadn’t gotten in his way, muscled him into the hallway. He kept his eyes on Clarke the whole time. “Yeah.”

“It’s bad.”

“Yeah.” She turns her head to get a better look at Monty. “You don’t have to carry him.”

“He’s my best friend.”

“He’s his own person.” She can see he doesn’t like it, the subconscious twitch of his head in a negative. “When he needs help, you have to trust that he’ll ask for it. But you need to look after yourself right now, or you won’t be any good to anyone else.”

“Is that what you did in the woods?” From anyone else it would be an accusation; from Monty it’s genuine.

“Yeah. I did.” She nudges him with her shoulder. “Why don’t you ask Kane if you can join one of the teams searching for Farm Station?” Because if Jasper needs to work himself up to thinking, Monty needs to be pushed to do something.

“Yeah, I guess I might --” Monty’s eyes open a fraction too big. “Incoming,” he sing-songs.

Clarke can just catch a figure looming to her left with its arms crossed. “Hey, Bellamy,” she says before turning her head.

“Hey,” he says flatly. He might be just as angry with her as Jasper, but his way of showing it is the polar opposite: she hasn’t been able to find him since she arrived, and she’s been trying. Even now he won’t look her straight in the face, cuts his glance just slightly to the side as he addresses her. “Listen. I don’t want to talk. I just want to tell you Kane approached me about some insane plan for the Ark to join the Coalition. I think he’s been drinking too much moonshine with your protection detail. Get him to shut up about it, okay? Or people might start a revolt.”

“I think it’s a good idea.”

His mouth twitches, but he doesn’t focus on her. “You can’t be serious.”

“He didn’t get the idea from my bodyguards, he got it from me. Well, from Lexa. It’s her latest offer to the Council.”

This, finally, makes him look at her.

It’s not a friendly look.

“I, um,” she hears Monty say off to her right. She doesn’t break eye contact with Bellamy, but she can sense Monty easing himself out of their circle of antagonism. “I’m going to... do something else,” he mutters, and he’s gone.

“Come with me.” Bellamy grabs her arm just above her elbow and yanks. She goes -- she knows this has to happen -- but she makes a mental note to take some self-defense once she’s safely ensconced in Polis.

Bellamy pulls her through the halls until they reach a deserted area, the usual sounds of the Ark faded into the distance. Bellamy lets go of her but keeps his back to her, shoulders rising and falling as he breathes. Clarke assumes he’s trying to get himself under control.

“Have you lost your mind?” he roars as he turns around, color high in his face.

Okay, maybe not. “Bellamy, try to be objective for a minute --”

“Objective? She took a deal with the enemy and served us up on a silver platter! Did you hit your head on something, is that what Octavia meant when she said you were sick? Have you forgotten how she betrayed us, that she still wants to execute Lincoln for going back to help us?”

“I haven’t forgotten --”

“So you know we can’t trust her! You know this is some kind of setup, that she’s just using you to get whatever she wants from us, and then she will do the exact. Same. Thing.”

Clarke steels herself, looks him straight in the eye. “I don’t think she will. Not when we’re part of the people she’s sworn to protect.”

“She swore she’d fight with us! How is this supposed to be any different?”

Clarke turns it over and over in her mind, wondering how she can frame things in a way he’ll understand. “When you were Ark, did you ever think about how the fact that Octavia was alive meant there were resources -- like oxygen -- being drained at a quicker rate? Or that if everyone did what your mom did, the Ark wouldn’t have lasted more than a generation in orbit?”

“If this is some kind of guilt trip to prove I don’t have what it takes to understand Council decisions --”

“No. No, that’s not it.”

“So what are you saying?”

“That you, of all people, should understand putting the people you are responsible for first. Even if it means ignoring what’s fair, or right.”

He stares at her for a second before throwing his hands in the air. “So, what. That’s it? That’s what she did, and you’re okay with it?”

No.” Things would be so much easier if she was. If she could be. If there was a way to be, in the someday future. But: “No.”

“Then what’s your point?”

She waits until he meets her eyes. “Tell me you wouldn’t have done the same. Tell me,” she raises her voice as he opens his mouth, “that if they’d asked you to trade for Monty, or Raven -- if they’d had Octavia -- tell me you wouldn’t have handed over every Grounder in the Harvest Room.”

It takes the wind out of him. He slumps against the wall, shoulders bowed, and then eventually slides to sit on the floor. “I don’t know,” he rasps, finally. “I don’t -- I don’t like thinking about it.”

“Lexa had to. I hate the choice she made. Part of me still hates her for making it, but... We got played. The Wallaces pit us against each other because they could. When more people find out what happen at the Mountain, they’ll try the same thing. Not everyone wants the Coalition to thrive, and if they see somewhere they can drive a wedge, they will.” She lets him take this in. “Twelve stations on the Ark, twelve clans in the Coalition -- and now maybe thirteen. So maybe things aren’t as different as we thought on the ground.”

He laughs, and she hear dropship-era Bellamy in the sound. “Spoken like someone whose family did pretty well for themselves on the Ark.”

“So what’s the alternative?” she asks, throwing her arms open. “Do you want to keep fighting them? Do you want to keep losing people? Aren’t you tired?” Her voice cracks on the last word.

He looks at her, eyes shadowed. “You don’t think it’s like giving up?” he asks in a whisper.

Clarke sighs. “I don’t know. Maybe? A little bit.” She sighs again. “It isn’t about us anymore, is it? We did what we had to do to survive, to get by, when it was just the kids. That worked, but... it’s all so much bigger, now.” She conjures up a small smile. “My mom is taking out birth control implants like there’s no tomorrow, you know.”

“Really,” he says, lifting his eyebrows. Then he blanches. “She hasn’t seen Gina, has she?”

“Oh -- gross, Bellamy, you think I’d ask?”

“Sorry,” he mutters, his cheeks going red.

“My point is,” she makes herself comfortable on the floor next to him, “there’s going to be a population boom. Our demand for resources will skyrocket. We’re struggling to plant enough crops for everyone right now, what do you think it will be like in five years? We probably won’t be able to house everyone in the Ark much longer. We need land, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but most of it’s been claimed.”

“Clarke. She left us to die.”

“I know.” She wakes up every morning knowing it, goes to bed at night wishing it wasn’t true. “But who do you think is going to remember that in ten years? Who will care? After diseases we have no remedies for decimate the population, and children have starved to death in their parents’ arms -- when people come to you, are you going to look them in the face and say it’s because we couldn’t move past Mount Weather?”

“Why would they come to me?”

“Because.” She can’t believe this isn’t obvious. “You, me, and Monty, we brought down the Mountain. Octavia’s the first one of us to be accepted by the Grounders. Raven’s a damn genius who can wage a war with leftover rocket fuel and a few broken transmitters. Jasper’s a mess right now but people talk about how he fought to keep everyone safe. Same for Harper and Miller. And Monroe was with us on the outside. In ten or fifteen years, that’s it. That’s the Council.”

He gapes at her. “The Cou-- I’m a criminal. We’re all criminals.”

“We were,” she corrects. “Now we’re the ones who were first on the ground and first to make alliances, no matter how long they lasted. Whatever peace they have down here, now, we’re responsible for it. You don’t think people know? You don’t see how they look at us? It’s not just about the Council,” while he continues to stare. “One of us will be Chancellor, and I think it’s going to be you.”

“... you’re the one whose mom --”

“You stayed with them after the Mountain,” she interrupts. “I didn’t. They know that, too.”

He covers his face with both hands. “Fuck,” he says, with feeling.

“Yeah,” she agrees. She might feel sorry for him, if she felt like they had the time. She wonders if she would have ever noticed, without a second chance to see him at the dropship, how much he hates any kind of ultimate responsibility. Even when he acted as a leader it was only to prompt others to anarchy. Maybe it was his mom telling him Octavia’s life was on him, but Bellamy is not the guy to lead a revolution. He wants to be the guy in that guy’s corner, urging others to place the same trust, taking guidance and throwing himself to the cause. Bellamy wants to be led.

Well, tough. She wanted her father to be at her wedding. Life makes choices for you.

“It’s never going to end,” she tells him. “Almost a third of the Ark’s under-eighteen population was on that dropship. They’re never going to stop looking to us and thinking of us as the leaders. And we can’t wait until we’re of age to be elected to start acting like we are. Everything depends on what happens now.”

He keeps one hand across his eyes but lets the other one drop between his bent knees, clenching and unclenching it from a fist. “What do you want from me, Clarke?”

Looking at the slump of his shoulders makes her feel, oh, so tired. And sad. “To help me convince the others. If I’ve convinced you, I mean. That joining the Coalition is a good chance for Arkadia.”

“You’ve made it clear it’s our only chance. What else?”

She swallows. “Be with me in this? If I’m right, we’re going to be forced together for a long, long time. I’d like to think of us as partners. I’d like to not... feel alone.”

He finally takes his hand away to reveal the grim line of his mouth. “Hey. Crazy thought, but maybe I wanted the same thing when you left Camp Jaha.”

Clarke nods. “I know. I... Bellamy, I can’t apologize for leaving. I needed to. I needed to.” The hurt on his expression only etches deeper, and she sighs. “But I’m sorry I couldn’t come back sooner.”

He watches her for a long moment, and she gets the sense he’s searching for something in her face that he can’t find. “That’s all I’m going to get, huh.”

“Yes.” She meets his eyes, holds them.

He sighs out, long and tired. “It’s better than nothing.” He stands. “So just -- keep yourself alive, okay? Go to Polis, work everything out there, then you can come back and hear whether or not I accept your apology.”

His strides toward the door are heavy, residual anger carrying him quickly through the space. Clarke feels her heart sink.

But then he pauses in the doorway, just barely looking back over his shoulder. “Okay?” he asks.

She manages a smile. “Yeah. Okay.”

He gives a short nod, and she knows it means. They’re not okay, but they will be. Someday.

_____________________________

 

 

They’re attacked four times on the road to Polis. Clarke has the foresight to pack a kit full of medical supplies from the Ark, but by the time the city comes into view on the horizon she’s down to her last roll of gauze and a few ounces of hydrogen peroxide. The rest of it went to patching up Lexa’s warriors.

Clarke feels sick every time. She’s too stressed and worried to notice at first, but sometime after the second attack she takes note of the way her stomach clenches when she stitches the wounds her bodyguards took after pushing her out of of harm’s way. It’s guilt: for being the reason they were in danger, for not being able to defend herself.

Maybe some of that shows in her face -- Costia was right, she has no sense of stealth -- because her last patient of the day watches Clarke as she wraps up the wrist the woman sprained when she tackled Clarke to the ground, saving her from the arrow that sped down from the treetops seconds later.

“You are... angry?” the woman guesses. Koma, that’s her name. Her English isn’t as practiced as the others, and judging from the patterns of tattooing on the backs of her hands, Clarke guesses it’s because she’s Broadleaf. The need for English drops precipitously the farther a clan lives from the Mountain.

(She has pockets of knowledge like this in her brain, like bits of awareness that clung and stuck from Klark. It can be unnerving to stumble on them, but at the same time... it makes her feel less alone to have something of her other self.)

“Not at you,” Clarke rushes to assure her.

“At Ice Nation. For being skrish cowards,” Koma says, cheerful.

Clarke ties up the end of the bandage. “I don’t think it’s fair you have to get hurt when I’m the one they want. You didn’t ask for this.”

Koma frowns. “For this?” pointing at her wrist. “Why ask for ledon?”

“No, I mean -- for this.” Clarke gestures at their camp, the fire banked low as to not give away their position while three other warriors stood sentry. “To protect me.”

Koma’s frown only grows. “We ask.” She makes a face, sticking her tongue out to flex the muscle. “We asked,” hitting the ending with precision. “We all asked Heda.”

Why?

“Honor.” Koma shrugs.

Clarke can practically taste the bitterness of it all -- go and die for me -- and that must show on her face, too, because Koma shakes her head.

“No, no,” she holds up her hands. “Not... You are Wanheda.”

The Commander of Death. Sending hundreds to fight in battle, unleashing pain and suffering onto hundreds more.

Koma gestures to her bandaged wrist again. “You say to death, no, not her. So, now I have your favor.” She smiles, almost smug. “Now it won’t touch me. For a while.”

“It looks like you’re fully incorporated into, well, I’m not sure I can call it a mythology,” Kane says to Clarke when she describes the encounter to him, back on their horses and their way. “Because they build these legends up around real and living people, such as Lexa in her role as Commander. But it’s the same principle.”

“But being Wanheda is about destruction,” she says. “It’s about what happened at Mount Weather.”

“Partially. But they knew you as a healer before that, correct? You helped keep people alive through the hemorrhagic fever, and I heard about that first Grounder general who had you kidnapped in order to care for one of her warriors -- Anya, was it? Plus you were part of the effort in bringing Lincoln back to life, and you defied the Commander’s own edicts without punishment,” he says, briefly gentling his pedantic tone, “with Finn. If I had to guess, and from what they’ve told me,” he nods to their entourage of warriors, “the Mountain only solidified your legend and their belief of your dominion over death. The idea was seeded long before that.”

Clarke sits with that for a moment, letting the dip and sway of her horse’s gait lull her busy mind. She’s only ever thought of it as bringing Death with her, like a constant shadow or unwanted companion. She’s never considered that being able to command Death also meant keeping it away.

“Are people going to charge into fights thinking they’re immortal because of me? Because I put a bandage on them or stitched a wound closed?” she asks harshly.

Kane raises his eyebrows at her to let her know she’s dipping too deeply into self-pity. “They’re warriors, Clarke,” he says. “They understand the risks better than those of us who have lived relatively peaceful lives.”

“But Koma said --”

“Tokens of favor are nothing new. Almost every warrior culture had beliefs about what will give them an advantage in battle. You’ve grown up around doctors, I don’t have to tell you about the placebo effect.”

Clarke falls silent and he doesn’t press her further, leaving her to consider a mythos where her touch might give life instead of constantly taking it.

It’s a relief to finally reach the shelter of the city. It’s even better to see the way Kane’s face brightens when Indra strides through the marketplace to greet them, helping them hand off their horses to attendants. Clarke watches, bemused, as Kane and Indra clasp hands with matching smiles. It makes her wonder if they’ll ever share that in the world she left behind.

“The Commander has given her permission for you to be shown the city,” Indra says, eyes flickering briefly to Clarke, before settling with real warmth on Kane. “If you’re not too tired from your journey.”

“We would be delighted.” Kane is just shy of gushing at the idea of getting to see what common life looks like in Polis, and he’s craning his neck to catch the sights and sounds of the marketplace surrounding them. “Perhaps lunch, first?”

“I’m not hungry.” They both turn, looking a little surprised to hear Clarke speak, although Indra hides it better. “I appreciate the offer,” and she does -- it goes beyond welcome, it’s a show of strategic vulnerability to allow those unpledged to the Coalition to observe the capital, “but I’d rather go straight to L-- to the Commander. I know the way,” she adds as Kane’s smile droops. “You should both stay down here. I can go on my own.”

There’s only a token resistance from the two of them, and minutes later Clarke is in the ancient elevator as it creaks and stutters its way up the tower. Her heart is thudding in her chest the whole way.

It doesn’t make any sense to be anxious now , to be nervous about seeing Lexa now. It’s not like when she first woke up from the raun-keryon. They know who they are to each other, and they’ve agreed -- maybe not so much in words, but they both understood -- where the lines will be drawn as they move forward.

None of this stops her hands from shaking as she walks up to the guards by the entrance to the throne room. They see her coming and spring into action, opening the double doors and announcing her arrival.

There aren’t many people inside. Lexa holds court with a small group who seem to be there on a shared matter -- one or two continue talking with her, but the rest make no secret of their interest in Clarke as they turn to look at her with mostly friendly interest. Clarke waits, as Lexa wraps up her dealings before dismissing them with a slight smile. There’s a robed man standing behind her throne, his shaved head tattooed with stark symbols. Lexa has a brief exchange with him before he exits as well, throwing a glance Clarke’s way before the doors are shut behind him.

“You didn’t wish to tour the city?” Lexa asks from her throne. She doesn’t stand.

“No. I’m kind of tired.”

“I heard it was a difficult journey.”

That’s not why I’m tired. She wonders how fast her entourage had to move through the city to reach and debrief Lexa before Clarke herself could get there, what other matters must have been pushed aside to deal with them. She wonders why she cares. “Marcus Kane came with me. He’s agreed to take your brand when Skaikru officially becomes the thirteenth clan.”

Lexa frowns a little. “Is your mother no longer Chancellor?”

“She is, but it’s not a permanent post. I told you there would be certain adjustments needed,” she says quickly as Lexa opens her mouth. “Chancellors serve for set periods, you might have to brand a new one every time. Kane has agreed to give up his place on the Council to serve as an ambassador between Arkers and the rest of the Coalition. It’s a new position, one requiring a longer commitment in order to better understand the cultural differences. But he’ll have veto power on the Council’s decisions regarding anything outside of Arkadia.”

Lexa leans back in her throne, looking thoughtful. “I hoped you might serve as an ambassador for the new clan,” she says finally.

Clarke ignores the flutter this inspires in her stomach. “We don’t allow anyone under twenty-five to serve in elected office. If I were ambassador I wouldn’t have any sway over the Council itself.”

Lexa raises an eyebrow. “An interesting custom. It might not last long on the ground.”

“Like I said. We need time.”

“I see. What are your plans for after the ceremony, then?”

“That depends. Do you think I’ll be safe after,” she swallows past after I bow before you, submit the power of Wanheda to the Commander. “... After?”

“No,” Lexa says quietly. “You won’t be safe until Nia has been dealt with.”

“So I’ll stay here.” She’s managed to surprise Lexa, who’s searching her face. “I can be Kane’s emissary back to Arkadia when necessary, but I can spend most of the time in Polis until...” She shrugs. “Until we come up with a better solution.”

Lexa relaxes, so minutely Clarke is sure the Commander has no idea she’s giving herself away. She nods, a new softness in her eyes as they hold Clarke’s. “Good.”

They remain like that for a moment, staring at each other. Clarke thinks this is when Lexa will say something, ask something -- this is when she will seize whatever quarter she perceives in Clarke’s compliance and... and...

Instead Lexa looks away and asks, “Was there anything else, or would you like to be escorted to your room to rest?”

... and she’s not going to do anything, is she? She’ll leave everything in Clarke’s hands.

Typical.

“One more question.” She waits until Lexa faces her. “When did you realize you were in love with me?”

Lexa’s mouth drops open.

“Or maybe I should ask when you knew I was your keryon teina,” Clarke says.

That spurs Lexa to action. She leaps out of the throne and to her feet, advancing so quickly Clarke considers stepping back. She doesn’t, the thought of Lexa doing her physical harm is too absurd to entertain and her feet remain rooted to the floor. Lexa adjusts her course at the last second to walk past Clarke instead of walking into her. She reaches out to grab Clarke’s wrist -- meets her eyes as she’s doing it, makes a loose circle with her fingers before tightening them as Clarke doesn’t move away or resist -- and firmly pulls her along.

She leads Clarke out of the throne room and down unfamiliar corridors, past guards who step out of their way with a salute. Clarke opens her mouth to say something, and Lexa’s two steps ahead and shouldn’t be able to see it, but maybe she feels it because she throws back a “Not yet,” and they continue in silence.

They reach a room full of light and arching windows, a bed in the corner. The head and baseboard are of carved wood, both delicate and imposing at once. Appropriate, Clarke thinks.

Lexa releases her to close the doors behind them. She doesn’t turn back immediately, facing away from Clarke almost as if she’s hiding.

“Are you ashamed of it?” Clarke asks. The other Lexa had been so... but Clarke’s already seen how little it takes to make everything different, already know how very much has changed with --

One of Lexa’s hands lies flat on the door. At this, she clenches it into a fist. “The last time I spoke freely about who was important to me, and how much, they removed her head from her body and left it for me to find in the bed we once shared.”

Clarke bites back a wave of nausea. It’s different, now that she knows Costia. “You don’t think Nia still has spies in the tower.”

“I don’t want to gamble with your life.” Lexa pushes off the doorway, only to turn and lean back against it. She looks tired, the hollows under her eyes even deeper. “Whatever you think those words mean,” she says quietly, “please don’t underestimate the danger they put you in.”

“Someday you have to tell me why she hates you so much.”

Lexa swallows. “Someday,” she agrees.

Clarke isn’t sure how she feels as she returns Lexa’s level gaze. “Is that why you didn’t tell me? About the keryon teina thing.”

“Would you have understood what it meant?”

“Not really. We have a similar concept, I guess. But it’s more... romantic.”

She thinks Lexa’s lips twitch. “And if I had explained it to you,” she says, closing her eyes, “would you have believed me?”

Clarke opens her mouth to say she had no reason not to, but the image of Lexa’s face smeared with blood and paint, the roll of her eyes as she looked over her shoulder in the rain, stops the words in her throat.

When she comes back to the present Lexa is watching her again. “I had already compromised our relationship past what was wise. And there was no guarantee you would see it as anything but an appeal to your emotions.” Something flickers behind her eyes. “Or another opportunity to manipulate mine.”

Clarke wonders if there’s any possible universe where the two of them wholly trust each other.

“So you knew for a while,” Clarke says. “That we were. Entwined.” They’re still concentrating on the second question, as if the first doesn’t pulse with promise in the air between them.

Lexa’s gaze turns inward. She doesn’t answer, and for once Clarke doesn’t feel the need to press her. Eventually she walks past Clarke, expression thoughtful as she makes her way over to one of the windows. The sun has almost completely set. The horizon is still full of light, though, with only the lightest touches of blue dusk creeping in at the edges. Lexa sits on a wide ledge and her coat drapes over her legs as she draws them up, one tucked under her and the other knee drawn up almost to her chest.

“I think I knew from the moment we met,” she says. “Perhaps I suspected even before then.”

“Before?” Clarke casts back. “When you infected our camp? Or when you tried to wipe us off the face of the earth?”

“When I heard that the leader of the invaders, ” Lexa says, refusing to be riled, “their real leader -- the one who pulled them through the blood fever, defended their position against three hundred warriors -- was a girl close to my age.” Her jaw works. “When I heard that, our meeting had an air of... inevitability.”

“Were you angry?” Clarke thinks she would be. If she’d lost her childhood love and sworn to never be vulnerable to that kind of pain again. If she’d been taught that isolation was her destiny, had killed those she’d been raised with because of it, only to find it was some kind of cosmic joke. Clarke thinks she’d be furious. Maybe enough to kiss someone and then abandon them just when she was needed most.

But when Lexa looks up, her eyes are soft and wide. “No,” she says, as if the question surprised her. “No, I was...” She tucks her gaze downward. “I wasn’t angry.”

Oh, hell. If she’s going to look like that, then Clarke --

“And you?” Lexa interrupts her thoughts. “When did you discover it?”

Clarke walks over to the window to sit on the other end of the ledge. There isn’t much space left between them. She thinks Lexa draws back, which stings, but Clarke can’t find it in herself to be mad. Not about that, anyway. “I didn’t think about it in those terms. I mean, not until they were explained to me for the raun-keryon.”

“But once you understood?” Lexa’s eyes remain fixed on some point on the ground. “How did you know to name me?”

“You’re not going to like the answer.”

The way Lexa raises her chin slightly, the firm set of her mouth, says tell me anyway.

Clarke sighs as she leans back against cold stone. “When you left me.” She doesn’t have to specify which time. Lexa flinches, which speaks volumes considering she must have braced for it. “I was blindsided. It took a while, but I started to ask myself -- later, much later -- why it took me so off guard. Why I was so certain I could...” Emotion clogs her throat, and she clears it. “I trusted you.”

“We were allies.”

“It was more than that.” Clarke turns her head, but Lexa still refuses to look up. “You know it was. When I finally had a chance to think about it, I realized I... didn’t think of you as someone who. Was only temporarily in my life.”

These are the memories she buried at the foot of Mount Weather and hasn’t let herself unearth since, not even when she admitted how she felt, not even when she safely returned. Idle talks when Clarke couldn’t get her mind to stop racing, and Lexa sacrificed her own rest to keep her company. The ability to look across a room and know she would be met with a returning look -- or the times she knew when she raised her head she would find Lexa, trying to seek her out.

They never had much of sweetness together, not even the kind she knew with that other Lexa. But they did have something. And in the end it turned out to be so vital, so necessary, that Clarke didn’t even understand how much she depended on it until it was gone: the ability to turn to Lexa and see someone who understood, even if they didn’t always agree. Someone who listened to her and let her change them. And Clarke later realized that, despite Lexa’s strangeness and fierceness and scorn, Clarke wasn’t afraid of being changed by her.

It wasn’t sweetness. It was strength.

“It must have been difficult,” Lexa says.

“Honestly? I decided I was deeply psychologically damaged after the past couple of months, with the most screwed-up crush in the world to reflect that.” Clarke swallows and looks away. “But then some guy in a weird mask told me we all have souls, and some of us are cosmically bound to other souls, forever and without end through multiple eternities. And I thought: yeah, that sounds like my kind of luck.”

When she looks back Lexa is watching her, her expression dangerously close to fond. “You were very brave to accept his offer of raun-keryon.”

“I was desperate. A little too close to insane.” She doesn’t enjoy thinking back to what it was like, those first weeks in the woods.

Lexa is quiet at that, switching her gaze back out the window. “You should be careful in letting others know what you saw in that world.”

“Why?”

“Sometimes the ritual is misused. People will seek it out thinking it’s the path to a life full of the opportunities they’ve missed.”

“No one from the Ark is going to put themselves into a coma in the hopes of -- of transplanting their souls, so I’m probably safe there. But I’ll be careful with anyone else.” She takes in Lexa’s profile. “What about you? Do I have to be careful with you?”

“A Commander would never put her own needs above those of her people,” Lexa says without hesitation, and Clarke thinks she should be tired of this: of testing this boundary to findit holds fast, no matter the consequences, no matter which world. Even with everything she’s been through, it’s hard to believe, really believe, down to the root of her, in the things the raun-keryon is based in. Things like enduring souls, or destiny. But maybe... maybe... this is a large part of what keeps her in Lexa’s orbit, constantly dragged back into this shifting dance of emotion and allegiance. It’s not an easy reconciliation. But then, neither is it easy to find someone so rooted in their values.

Especially when those values are shared.

Lexa surprises her when she adds, in a much gentler tone: “You can speak to me of whatever you like, Clarke.” Her gaze is hooded as she looks up, briefly, to meet Clarke’s eyes. “If we are to be leaders together, I can offer you that.”

Clarke settles back, getting more comfortable. “You’re sure?”

“Yes.”

“Okay.” It’s amazing how petty she feels, even after everything. She still has that old urge to find where Lexa is wounded beneath her facade, and dig in her fingers. “The two of us aren’t just leaders together in the other world. That Lexa is in love with me. Her version of me.”

Strain makes the tendons of Lexa’s neck draw tight and noticeable, and Clarke knows it’s the effort to keep from responding beyond her initial intake of breath.

“She wanted me to stay with her. She had no idea what you’d done at first, but she was afraid you’d continue to make my soul... unstable.” Clarke lets her head fall back against the stone. “She was persuasive.”

Now Lexa might as well be made of the same stone for all she’s letting herself react.

“I ended up telling her what happened. To prove how different the two of you are.”

Lexa lets out a long breath, as if she’d been holding it. “I see. It’s commendable that you returned, even after -- it’s a credit to your responsibility, your commitment to your people --”

“She said she would have done the same.”

Lexa halts, frozen with her mouth still half-open. Clarke can see the furious beat of her pulse just below her jawline.

“I didn’t think it was possible to care about someone, and do that to them,” Clarke continues. “But she said it was. Her exact words were: I’m sorry my love isn’t sweeter.”

Lexa closes her eyes.

If Clarke wants revenge for the Mountain, this is how she can get it. A simple question: Do you love me like she does?

Lexa will answer. Lexa will be honest. All Clarke has to do is let her, and then refuse to answer with the same. All she has to do is not say it back, and the lack -- like a hand held out but never clasped, a searching look never returned -- will kill Lexa. Not right away, and probably not so anyone would notice the difference. But it will be a wound that refuses to fully heal, and instead seeps and oozes and bleeds away the life of whoever bears it.

Much like the wound on Clarke carried on her soul, when the pain of it drove her into the woods and another world.

All Clarke has to do is ask.

She turns back to the landscape outside the window. The shadows are stretching longer and longer, already leaving swathes of Polis in darkness. “I don’t think I can forgive you for what happened at Mount Weather. That doesn’t mean I can’t move past it, I just... can’t forgive you. Not completely.”

Clarke understands it. Well. She understands better. That doesn’t mean she can reconcile her intellectual appreciation of what happened, and why, with the roil of emotion the memory provokes. Lexa would do anything for her people. Clarke is the same. So she could have accepted Lexa’s actions -- if only her people hadn’t been the ones sacrificed.

Clarke knows Lexa understands that. It’s why she isn’t asking for forgiveness. Part of it’s because Lexa isn’t sorry; she did what she had to. But another part, perhaps even a larger part, of Lexa understands just how great of a betrayal it was -- beyond the alliance, beyond even their unspoken connection. Maybe Lexa’s the only person who really could.

And so, Clarke can see, Lexa has no hope. Even now. She’s just waiting, chin dipped slightly down in preparation for whatever will doom her.

Clarke ignores the feeling she’s about to throw herself over a cliff. “I guess my love isn’t very sweet, either.”

Lexa’s head comes up slowly. From her expression, she would have been less surprised if Clarke had knifed her.

And maybe looked less like she was coming unraveled at the seams.

“I’m not promising anything,” Clarke continues, her tone hardening. “You have no right to expect anything from me. Not right now.”

There’s an unsteadiness to Lexa’s mouth as she asks: “Are you saying... someday... perhaps..?”

“Not someday.” Clarke turns her head to look out onto Polis, but not quickly enough that she misses the breath-stealing regret that flashes across Lexa’s face. “More like eventually, or soon,” she tells the setting sun, thinking of Wells, the way he laughed with Raven. “I learned a hard lesson about holding grudges. I don’t feel like risking it again.”

She expects to feel a touch on her shoulder or feel breath tickling her ear whenever Lexa is prompted to come close, to make her move. When nothing comes Clarke sneaks a look to find the Commander staring at her, open-mouthed and dazed.

Right. Clarke really does have to do everything herself.

So she pushes herself along the ledge to cross the distance between them. Lexa drops her legs to either side, allowing access, unquestioningly vulnerable. Clarke stops inches from pressing their bodies together. Lexa’s eyes never leave her face.

“There, um, there used to be this game played, a long time ago,” Clarke says. Her voice is a little high and tight, this close to Lexa. “I mean, there were a lot of games, but this was probably the slowest and weirdest, we only watched it when we just couldn’t watch another basketball finals for the sixteenth time. Not even Knicks versus Lakers in 1970.” She’s babbling. She’d be embarrassed, but Lexa looks like she just might, she’s considering, giving into a smile. “And the weirdest rule was that you had one chance to do something over. If the first time just -- if it really didn’t work out the way you wanted. All you did was say “mulligan” and you could try it a second time. And I know it’s been a while, and maybe this isn’t the perfect time for it, but I really think we should... That’s what I’m doing. I’m calling a mulligan. Do you get what I’m saying?”

Lexa frowns, but gives a small nod. “Yes,” she says, in that tone of voice that means she has questions but knows not to ask them right now.

Clarke is already leaning forward. “Okay,” she breathes into Lexa’s mouth, and kisses her.

It’s different from the first time. She remembers the flavor of the first kiss, beneath the tenderness, being hesitance -- hers and Lexa’s. She isn’t hesitating now, bringing both hands up to cup Lexa’s face and hold her the way Clarke wants her. Lexa isn’t hesitating either -- instead, she’s obviously holding back. Her hands remain clenched around the meat of her thighs. Still, kissing her is like coming too close to a live current, with a hum of barely-contained energy beneath her skin that makes Clarke wonder what lives just beneath that restraint, makes her stomach swoop when she thinks about breaking it. Lexa is soft, and eager, but Clarke feels whole landscapes open up inside her with this new hunger, angling her mouth against the Lexa’s to press inside. Lexa makes a noise, barely anything, just enough to make Clarke’s toes curl up in her boots as she luxuriates in the helplessness of the sound, the way Lexa’s breath catches when Clarke’s tongue finds her bottom lip. Their faces are so close Lexa’s lashes brush Clarke’s cheek. They’re wet, and this is what finally makes Clarke pull herself away.

It takes a moment for Lexa to open her eyes fully, and Clarke uses it to just... look at her, and appreciate what she’s seeing. Think about how much she wants to kiss her again.

“Clarke,” and she has to clear her throat, she flushes when she sees Clarke’s expression. It is, Clarke realizes with growing wonderment, adorable. “I...” Her eyelids drop down, veiling her eyes. “I do want this. Of you. For us.” Clarke watches her throat move when she swallows. “But not if... not if it’s because of something you had, with -- in that other world, and want to recapture.”

Lexa is almost disgustingly pretty, Clarke thinks. That’s not a word she’d ever associate with the Commander, but this creature in front of her is flushed and stammering, and her mouth’s red from kissing, and she never got a chance to breathe and think how pretty Lexa is like this. It’s unfair. No one this overwhelming as a person should get to be pretty, too, that’s cheating.

“I haven’t kissed anyone since you, that time in your tent,” Clarke tells her. She’s not angry at the question. After all, she came close -- really close -- and she knows Lexa was weirdly resonant with both her selves and what they were feeling. Clarke can imagine why things would be a little suspect.

“I don’t only mean...” Lexa hesitates before shutting her mouth, her gaze still fixed downward. Ugh, eyelashes, Clarke thinks, and then: get your head in the game, Griffin. “The two of you,” she says quietly, and suddenly Clarke has no problem paying attention, “talked, it’s clear. About things that I...” She drags her eyes up to Clarke’s face. “I am what this life has made me. I can’t promise it will change. It might not be what you really want, or -- what made you want this for us.”

And maybe this is partially why Clarke has been so very angry and for so long -- she needed to cling to that, lean into the overcorrection in order to resist the borderline-magnetic pull, the impulse (that she gives into now) to slip her hand into the curve of Lexa’s jaw, fingers tucked under her ear, dipping her head in close. Touching Lexa should excite her -- and it does, watching the flutter of Lexa’s eyelids or the quick rise of her chest -- but mostly it makes Clarke feel... good. Soothed, in a way that ripples outward from her gut and spreads through her like slow warmth after too long in the cold. Clarke pets Lexa’s cheek and strokes the hair away from Lexa’s face and feels like she’s no longer slipping off the edges and scrambling for balance. Like she’s found a new center of gravity.

“I came because of you, not her, and not anything she said to me,” she says, close to the sensitive skin of Lexa’s ear. The other girl sucks in air and, oh, very interesting, definitely going to come back to that as soon as she -- “I’m not saying any of this will be easy. It doesn’t change what happened. It doesn’t mean I’m not angry, every day, and I might be for a long time. But I wanted you before I left. And I didn’t come back for a hope that you might become someone else. I came back for you.”

Lexa ducks her head. She gives Clarke more than enough time to draw her hands away, and when that doesn’t happen Lexa brushes the softest of kisses across Clarke’s fingers. She stays like that, lips pressed to the delicate skin over Clarke’s knuckles, until the softness of her mouth has Clarke shivering and pulling away.

Lexa watches her, eyes dark.

“I said I was still angry,” Clarke says, folding her hands into her lap.

Instantly the look on Lexa’s face lightens, wiped clean of anything but concern. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to --”

“You didn’t.” Clarke flexes her hand discretely as she tries to work out the lingering sensations. It isn’t working. She clenches it into a fist instead. She suddenly wishes she could push away, squirm back into the far corner for safety. Which is silly, she just... she feels like she’s the one exposed, all of a sudden, this close to Lexa and her lean legs and her mouth and she just. Wishes there was more space between them. Except she isn’t ready to commit to the message that might send, either. “I told you this wouldn’t be easy. Sorry.”

“I don’t care whether or not it’s easy.” Lexa speaks quietly, but with an undercurrent of ferocity that brings Clarke’s eyes up to her face.

“What do you care about?” She has to start asking things like that if this is going to work. She has to start believing Lexa when she tells Clarke the answer. “What do you want?” She hopes Lexa will answer the question itself -- not what she needs as the Commander, as someone in power. What she wants for herself.

“Your safety.” It should have sounded glib, or maybe romantic. Not like Lexa was confessing her darkest secrets, or having something dragged out of her with a force that left her voice gravelly and rough. “Trusting me when I tell you what that requires.”

“Okay,” Clarke says. Lexa’s eyes widen as Clarke nods her certainty. “I can do that. For now.”

Lexa swallows. “Thank you,” she says, voice small.

“Still not making you any promises.”

“I know.” Her eyes are almost luminous in the low light. “It’s enough that you’re here.”

That’s what cinches it for Clarke. “Can I,” she starts, moving forward. She tucks her head just beneath Lexa’s jaw and loops her arms around the other girl’s waist. She manages to twist her legs underneath her in order to press close, fill up the space between them.

Lexa is still as a rock beneath her cheek, barely breathing.

“Is this okay?” Clarke asks.

Lexa softens and relaxes immediately. She shifts, just so that she goes from holding herself apart to cradling Clarke’s body with her own. Her arms settle around Clarke’s shoulders. “Yes,” low and fervent.

Clarke lets herself fall a little deeper into the embrace, feels Lexa’s hand come up to card her fingers lightly through her hair. Her eyes fell shut. She’s still tired, but it doesn’t feel heavy anymore -- more like the certain promise of a pleasant rest ahead of her. “You used to do that when I was sleeping,” she says. “Play with my hair.”

The fingers still. “I’m sorry, I -- I didn’t know you --”

“No, I liked it. I still do.” She waits, but when Lexa isn’t quick enough Clarke reaches up to nudge her back into action. It’s soothing. “Did you think I’d be upset?”

“I didn’t have your permission to touch you.”

It’s going to be a long road, Clarke knows. A lot of work from both of them, on the way to being soft with each other. To trusting each other not to take advantage of exposed underbellies.

A bit every day, right? She tries to begin with: “You can always ask. If you want to.”

She can hear Lexa swallow when they’re like this. “Not an ideal solution.”

“Why not?” It really is soothing, the lightness of Lexa’s fingers, the way she brushes her thumb against the bone behind Clarke’s ear, the careful intent of it all. It’s making Clarke fall asleep. She feels safe enough to do that.

“I almost always want to.”

Clarke’s too exhausted to open her eyes at that. She manages, with huge effort, to mumble something like “You’re touching me now.” It comes out in mush, which is maybe why Lexa doesn’t reply to it. But her arms tighten around Clarke.

The air grows colder, the stars come out above the rooftops of Polis, and Lexa is warm. Every now and then Lexa bends her head so that the tip of her nose touches Clarke’s temple, and she breathes Clarke in like she’s fresh, clean air. She probably thinks Clarke is asleep already. Every time Lexa does it Clarke is pushed a little closer to sleep, her grip on wakefulness loosening, until she lets go.

It’s been a long day. Tomorrow is waiting. She’s happy to think what it might look like when she wakes up.



 

(THE END)