The first few days in Polis were barely more than a streak of color in Clarke’s memory. The blur of new sounds, tastes, faces, flickered behind her eyelids as she lay down in her bed each night. The culture that surrounded her, their passion and intensity, was overwhelming for a girl who was raised in the dark vacuum of space. She had agreed to stay there – I have to make sure she keeps her word. But beyond that impulse, she hadn’t spared a thought to what she might actually spend her time doing in Polis. As it turned out – Lexa had.
The heda had informed her on the morning after the ceremony that if she truly wished to be a part of the coalition, she would need to learn the ways of the sister clans. And apparently “learning the ways of the coalition” translated roughly into spending most of her waking hours with Lexa. A week ago, Clarke would have found the idea repulsive. The thought of spending even one second in the presence of the woman who had so ruthlessly betrayed her would have been impossible.
But that was before.
Before the ceremony –and not the one that was in front of the watchful eyes of the twelve clans, of Kane, of her mother, but the ceremony that was held between only her and Lexa. The one that happened in a swift rush of movement; a bowed head, a bent knee. After that moment, something had shifted inside of Clarke. She had felt it, deep within, as Lexa had looked up at her with a fierceness in her eyes that spoke volumes. The anger that licked inside her chest and roiled inside her belly lost its fire in that moment. She hated what Lexa did. But she couldn’t hate her for who she was. She was ready to let go, or at least, ready to start trying.
Lexa definitely gave her plenty of opportunities to do so. The majority of their time was spent in meetings with the other clan leaders, training the young Nightbloods, or settling disputes among neighbouring villages. Clarke found that her feelings towards Lexa softened further when she realized that she truly spent all of her time and energy on her people. When they had first met, Clarke had thought her callous, cruel, heartless.
Love is weakness.
But knowing her better, despite her stubborn insistence that she had forsaken love in favour of strength, it was clear that Lexa felt deeply for her people. Their pain, their joy, she shared in it all. Clarke saw it in her eyes when Lexa walked among them, spoke with them, held their hands. She wondered if this “training” of Lexa’s was not mostly done for this purpose. To allow Clarke to see the why of it all. Why she had sacrificed her, why she had turned on her with a glint of defiance in her eyes, and left Clarke standing with a fortress at her back, and limited options.
As they walked in the market together during her second week in Polis, Clarke could see that Lexa’s people loved her back. Their eyes shone as she passed by them, offering what little they had to her. She took nothing from them, but she spent time with as many as she could. She doted especially on the children, something that Clarke found completely contradictory to Lexa’s fairly serious demeanor. But then, the more she got to know her, the more Clarke realized that Lexa was full of contradictions. She was two people: Lexa, and heda. And it seemed the two were often at odds.
Clarke watched Lexa play fight with a merchant’s son out of the corner of her eye as she browsed through his wares. The merchant sold exclusively things that he had scavenged, from what they referred to as before. Clarke ran her fingers over the items, fascinated. Most of the things that had survived were made of plastic, or metal. There were very few things left from before that were made of fabric, or paper, at least outside of Mt. Weather. Old-fashioned books made of paper were probably the rarest thing of all to find, and this particular merchant had three. Clarke picked one up, ran her fingers over the worn pages. It was fragile, the cover torn off completely. She flipped through the first few pages and realized it was Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. They had studied it in school on the Ark. Clarke smiled to herself as she gently flipped through.
Lexa walked over, nodding warmly to the merchant as she approached. “What is it about?”
Clarke glanced up at her, a smile on her face. “Nothing you’d be interested in,” she teased. Seeing the confusion in Lexa’s eyes she let out a soft laugh and handed her the book. “It’s a love story. A really old one.” Lexa turned the book over in her hands, running her eyes over the words on the title page.
“What’s it called?”
Clarke faltered, confused. “It’s right here,” she pointed at the title.
Lexa shook her head, handed the book back. “I don’t know these symbols.” She quickly looked away from Clarke’s gaze, feigning interest in the other objects on display.
Clarke frowned, her clear blue eyes following the other girl as she picked up a plastic comb that had several teeth missing, turning it over in her hands. “You can’t read?” she questioned softly.
Lexa tilted her chin up as she met Clarke’s eyes again, her tone frosty. “That skill was lost to us.” She set the comb down and moved further along the stall, toying with a round, silver disc. “But we have no need for written language,” she added casually over her shoulder. The disc had a hole in it, and Lexa threaded her finger through, light flashing off the shiny side like a mirror.
Clarke smirked as she trailed after her. “No need? Or no knowledge?”
Lexa pressed her lips together, a subtle but noticeable glare in her eyes. “Both.”
Clarke looked down at the book in her hands, an idea blossoming in her mind as she ran her fingers over the crumbling bindings. “It’s a good skill to have, you know,” she flicked her eyes up to Lexa who was now watching her intently. “I could teach you.”
Lexa continued to study her face, then replied loftily, “A heda has no use for reading.”
Clarke rolled her eyes. “Okay, first of all, that’s not even remotely true. It’s really useful for communication, especially during a war.” Lexa cocked an eyebrow, but said nothing. Clarke took that as encouragement to continue. “If none of the other grounders have written language, then you and your allied clan leaders could send messages to one another easily, without fear of interception. Even if your messenger was caught, no one would be able to read the letter he was carrying, not even him.”
“I see,” Lexa continued to survey Clarke, “and how is it that my clan leaders would be able to read the messages I sent?”
“Well, you could teach them. The ones you trusted, anyway,” Clarke added.
Lexa glanced at her skeptically. “And what makes you think that they would agree to learn?”
Clarke shrugged. “Don’t they have to do what you tell them to?”
Lexa eyed her with amusement. “What was your ‘second of all’”?
Clarke shifted in place, feeling the weight of Lexa’s gaze. “And second of all…I thought you agreed that maybe life should be about more than just survival. Reading stories is one of the oldest ways to enjoy life. Don’t you think?”
Lexa stepped forward slowly, pulled the book back out of her hands, and opened to a page at random. This time, she scrutinized the words, as if staring at them she could somehow unlock their meaning. “Alright,” she said softly, not lifting her eyes from the book. “If you think this is an important skill for me to learn, Clarke, then you will teach me.” Clarke grinned in triumph. “But,” Lexa began, and Clarke’s smile vanished from her face, “you must also learn a valued skill of my people, in return.”
Clarke’s eyes flew from the book in Lexa’s hands up to her face. “What skill would that be?”
Lexa pulled a dagger with a hand carved handle out from her thigh holster and set it on the counter, an offer for trade, before turning back to Clarke.
“You must learn to fight.”
After much negotiating and several small arguments, the deal was struck. Starting the following morning, Lexa would spend half an hour after breakfast learning to read with Clarke. And each afternoon, they would begin Clarke’s training in battle. Clarke had gathered some rudimentary writing supplies from what she could find in the village market, spending an entire afternoon sifting through the various scavenger stalls to find the closest things she could to proper paper and writing tools. It felt important to her that she find just the right things to teach Lexa with. For some reason, this project had instilled a strong sense of purpose in her, entirely different from what she felt in her role as pseudo-leader of her people. She was fixated with a determination to prove to Lexa that there was more to life than death and pain.
Maybe if Lexa could believe it, she could too.
Clarke woke up early the first morning, finding herself oddly energized after a night of fitful sleep. The idea of focusing her time and energy on something that didn’t involve war was such a welcome relief that she sighed audibly as she walked to her balcony. Pushing open the doors, Clarke felt the weak morning sun warming her cheeks, the wind licking through her hair, and experienced for a fleeting second a moment of complete peace. It was only that moment of stillness and calm inside of her that made her realize how much of a constant turmoil she had been in since she set foot on Earth.
Taking another second to gather herself, she quickly dressed and got to work. She had fallen asleep the night before planning out a few simple lessons, and had resolved to start by making flashcards for Lexa to practice with. She couldn’t help but smile softly to herself as she wrote out each letter in clear, thick lines, imagining Lexa studying them in her throne room. Clarke had opted to teach her capital letters only, not even wanting to imagine what Lexa’s face might look like if she expected her to learn about upper and lower case letters.
Clarke felt a sharp twinge of affection clutch at her, thinking of Lexa’s furrowed brow as she had scanned the words in the novel with unease the day before. She guessed that allowing Clarke to witness her attempt something she had not yet mastered was an idea Lexa was not entirely happy with, and the fact that she was allowing Clarke to see this vulnerability in her said many things that Clarke was not yet ready to think about.
Lexa knocked on her door as she was finishing the last letter, and entered almost shyly. Clarke had to bite back a smile at the nervousness on her face. “Come in,” she called, leaning her elbows on the table. Lexa shut the door behind her, eyeing the flashcards wearily as she approached.
“Good morning, Clarke,” she said almost coldly, sliding into the chair across from her. She studiously ignored the stack of paper on the table, obviously needing to prove that she was here out of obligation, rather than interest.
“Good morning,” Clarke replied, trying to encourage her with a gentle smile. Lexa’s stern features didn’t soften in the slightest and Clarke felt her confidence falter a little. She’d never actually taught anyone to read before, and suddenly the idea of trying to teach the leader of the thirteen clans to become literate seemed like a fairly daunting task. “So,” Clarke took in a calming breath, gesturing to the flashcards. “Are you ready?”
“Of course,” Lexa replied, a little too quickly for her confidence to be entirely believable.
Clarke pressed her lips together to suppress another smile, knowing she was taking her life (or at least one of her appendages) into her own hands if she dared to laugh right now. Instead, she straightened the stack of cards and pushed them towards her new student. “I made these for you to take with you,” she began. Lexa pulled the stack closer to herself and began to flip through them curiously. The wind from the open balcony door pulled a rope of hair into her eyes and Clarke shifted her hands into her lap, clasping her palms together to stop herself from reaching out.
“There are many different symbols,” Lexa remarked.
“Letters,” Clarke corrected.
“Letters,” Lexa echoed, almost to herself.
“That’s right,” Clarke nodded. “Uh, there are 26. Altogether, they’re called ‘the alphabet.’” Realizing that if Lexa was going to take her seriously she’d need to sound a little less nervous and a little more like she knew what she was talking about, Clarke cleared her throat and put on her best teacher voice. “If you’re going to learn to read, you’ve got to memorize them. What each letter is called, and what sound it makes.” She pulled one out of the stack. “This is an H,” she began. “It makes this sound,” she breathed out sharply, her exhalation catching a strand of her own hair, twisting it. The image of Lexa lunging at her across the table for treating her like a child briefly flashed across Clarke’s mind, and she stopped making the sound abruptly.
Lexa, however, was calmly watching Clarke from across the table, her eyes following Clarke’s blonde hair as it fell back onto her shoulder. “Like in heda,” she observed, her eyes intrigued.
“Yeah,” Clarke smiled, pleased both at Lexa’s progress and lack of reaction. “Yes, exactly. Like in heda.”
Lexa’s eyes flashed briefly with triumph, and she leaned forward, braids spilling over her shoulders as she pulled another out of the stack. “What about this one?”
“That’s an M,” Clarke replied, “It makes the mm sound.” Lexa’s eyes remained fixated on her lips for several long seconds, and Clarke felt a wave of self-consciousness cause her cheeks to warm. “Here,” she said quickly, reaching to pull the stack of cards out of Lexa’s hands. “Why don’t we learn them in order, it’ll be easier.”
“In order?” Lexa asked, her eyes following Clarke’s movements.
“Yes,” Clarke affirmed, setting out the letters in order on the table. “There is a specific order that the letters are memorized in. Alphabetical order, it’s called.”
“Why would that be necessary?” Lexa asked, her inquisitive nature getting the better of her clear attempts to be aloof. “Why should this one,” she picked the “L” up off the table, “come after this one?” She swiped up the “B”, and switched their order.
Clarke flashed her an exasperated look and Lexa levelled her with a challenging stare. “I don’t know, honestly. That’s just the way it is, so…that’s the way you’re gonna learn it,” she replied sternly, switching the letters back into their proper order. Lexa crossed her arms skeptically, but said nothing. “I’ll go over the letters a few times, and then I want you to try and practice them later tonight, okay?” Lexa let out a huff of disapproval, clearly unimpressed with the idea of homework. Clarke flashed her a smile, starting to feel like she was getting the hang of this teaching thing.
“Alright, repeat after me.”
Despite her lofty attitude towards the benefits of becoming literate, by the end of their first lesson, Lexa seemed almost disappointed when Indra came to inform her that she was needed for a council meeting. Clarke’s thoughts for the rest of the day had been so consumed by lesson plans for the upcoming week, that she had completely forgotten her own end of the bargain. She found her heart pumping a little faster as she saw that it was already early afternoon, and came to the realization that her own lessons would probably be quite a bit more dangerous, not to mention painful, compared to Lexa’s.
As the sun sank lower in the sky, one of Lexa’s attendants came to escort her to the outdoor training arena. The fading daylight cast a golden radiance upon everything it touched as Clarke walked through the gate, Lexa standing in the center of the arena with her back to them. She was barking orders at various young warriors, the sun making her skin glow brilliantly, her hair turned to fire in the light. Clarke sucked in a breath at the image of her slight, powerful body standing regally in the midst of the crowd. Lexa turned as if sensing her presence, and with a few short words in Trigedasleng, ordered everyone to leave. As the last of them filed out, Lexa beckoned for Clarke to join her in the center of the muddy arena.
“I thought you’d prefer to do this without an audience,” Lexa said with a hint of a smirk.
“You thought right,” Clarke nodded. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome, Clarke.” Lexa smiled gently, the barest tug at the edges of her mouth. Clarke could see how relieved she was to be back in her own element, to feel like she was in control again. Lexa’s eyes, caught in the sunlight, glowed a brilliant shade of green as she quickly surveyed Clarke’s body. “Come, you need armor.”
Lexa walked to a wooden crate full to the brim with various items of gear and deftly pulled out some protective pads made of thick leather. She held them up to Clarke’s body, eyes calculating, before reaching back into the pile and grabbing a handful of other pads with long straps. “Put these on,” she instructed, handing first what appeared to be a leather vest to Clarke. It had sturdy chest and back plates to protect the spine and soft vital organs. Clarke pulled it over her head, struggling to untangle her hair from under the armor, and began to fumble awkwardly with the complicated side straps.
Lexa watched her wrestle with the vest for several moments before she stepped in impatiently, brushing Clarke’s hands away without a word, and efficiently tightened the straps to fit Clarke snugly. She reached back, breath rushing across Clarke’s neck as she carefully swept her long hair out from under the vest, letting it trail down the length of her back. Clarke tried her best to ignore both the proximity of Lexa, and the feeling of her nimble fingers skimming over her skin as she double checked the various buckles. Once finished with the vest, Lexa then swept down into a kneeling position and fit some leather pads to Clarke’s legs that covered her knees and shins. Clarke fixed her eyes studiously on the brilliant blue sky above them, not sure that she could handle the sight of Lexa kneeling between her legs. With a few sharp tugs to the laces on her knee brace, Lexa stood and surveyed her one final time. “There, you should be well protected,” she began, her lips pressed together with a barely concealed smile. “Are you ready?”
“What’s so funny?” Clarke demanded, trying and failing to cross her arms over the bulk of her vest. Her brows furrowed in irritation as she let her arms fall to her sides.
“Nothing Clarke,” Lexa replied, her smile widening. “Try moving around, get to know the feeling of your armour.”
Clarke tried to walk a few steps, bent her legs and arms. “It’s so bulky,” she huffed, shifting her shoulders uncomfortably. “Is all this seriously necessary?”
Lexa took one step towards her, so quickly she was nothing more than a dark blur, and before Clarke could even figure out what was happening, she was flat on her back, looking up into the endless blue sky. Lexa leaned over her where she lay in the mud and replied calmly, “Yes.”
Stunned, it took Clarke several moments to even process what had happened, and to gain her breath back after having it knocked from her lungs. She sat up, palms sliding through the mud, anger boiling inside of her. “What the hell was that for?”
Lexa was leaning against the fence, her arms crossed leisurely as she watched Clarke struggle to her feet in her heavy gear, making no move to help her up. “It was your first lesson.” Her smile hadn’t left her face.
“You’re seriously enjoying this aren’t you?” Clarke growled, attempting to swipe some mud from her face and instead streaking it across her cheek with the back of her hand.
“Come on, we’re losing light,” Lexa ordered, pushing herself off from the fence. “First, you will learn to use your fists.” She reached forward and pulled Clarke’s hands up to eye level, adjusting the position of Clarke’s arms so they were bent at the elbows.
“Fists?” Clarke asked quizzically, suppressing a shiver at Lexa’s touch. “I’m not going to learn to use a weapon?”
Lexa covered her hands over Clarke’s balled fists, still held up in a boxing stance. “These are your weapons.”
Clarke scoffed, a soft rush of air through her teeth. “And what exactly am I supposed to do if someone comes at me with a sword and I have nothing but my fists to protect myself?”
Lexa eyed her calmly for a moment before turning wordlessly and unsheathing a broadsword from a rack of weapons behind her. Clarke had to stop herself from backing up nervously as Lexa walked towards her with it, reaching out and placing it in Clarke’s hands. “Come at me with a sword.”
Clarke lowered the weapon, letting the blunted tip sink gently into the mud. “That wouldn’t be a fair fight…”
Lexa waived off her argument with an impatient flick of her wrist. “We’ll see. Come.”
Blowing out a breath, Clarke heaved the sword into the air and ran at Lexa, the blade pointed directly at her chest. She didn’t get within a foot of Lexa’s body before the sword was flipped out of her hands with a blur of fluid movement, and she felt a strong blow to her chest that had her, yet again, lying flat on her back in the mud. Panting with shock and pain, Clarke heard the sword splatter heavily in the soft earth beside her as Lexa cast it down, kneeling next to her. Lexa reached down and pulled one of Clarke’s hands out of the mud, held it up in front of her startled blue eyes.
“These are your weapons.”
Clarke’s voice echoed sharply in the stillness of her room, as the heda in question looked back at her with defiance flashing in her green eyes. “You didn’t practice your flashcards at all, did you?” So far, out of the stack of flashcards Clarke had tested her on, Lexa had only gotten about a quarter of them right.
Lexa crossed her arms. “I did not have the time, Clarke,” she protested, a challenging look in her eyes. “And how could I know you were going to test me?”
“Well look, if you’re not going to take this seriously then we can just forget it,” Clarke fumed, slapping the “S” Lexa had just gotten wrong down on the table. Lexa stiffened at that, a look of concern flashing across her face before she carefully schooled her features back into neutrality. Clarke had gotten skilled at reading her true emotions in that one fleeting moment before she hid them. “I’m not really interested in getting my ass kicked by you every night if you’re not going to keep up your end of the bargain.”
“I did try, Clarke,” Lexa said, a growing hint of frustration in her tone. “But without you there, how can I practice the sounds?”
Clarke blew out a breath, “I wrote them out on the back of the cards for you! See?” She flipped the “B” card over where she had scrawled out the phonetic sound “bee” for Lexa to practice with.
Lexa grabbed the card and held it up, a look of exasperation on her face. “Clarke, how do you expect me to read these letters when I cannot read yet?” Clarke stared at her, stunned for a second. Shit. Of course she couldn’t read the phonetic spelling, she didn’t even know which letters were which. Clarke took in the look of pure frustration on Lexa’s face and burst out laughing. Lexa’s brows furrowed, her look of annoyance dissolving into pure confusion.
“I’m an idiot,” Clarke sputtered, trying in vain to stop the rush of laughter bubbling out of her chest. Lexa’s tentative smile of relief that she was not to blame for the situation only caused her to laugh harder. Lexa’s smile grew as tears leaked from the corners of Clarke’s eyes, shaking her head at the cackling blonde. Taking a deep breath, Clarke managed to calm herself. “Lexa, I’m sorry.” She reached forward, clasped her fingers around the commander’s. “I’m so sorry. I wasn’t even thinking. I’ll figure out another way for you to practice, okay? In the meantime, we’ll just have to work at it together.”
Lexa nodded, squeezing Clarke’s fingers, the wide smile radiating with a warmth that Clarke had never seen from the aloof girl before. “Yes, Clarke. Together.”
That night as Clarke lay, aching and sore from another sparring session with Lexa, she had an idea. Knowing there would be a small convoy heading past the Ark on a scouting mission the next day, she set out first thing in the morning to put in a request with the leader. By the end of the week, she had what she needed. She waited impatiently for Lexa to knock on her door as she did every morning, having to stop herself from sprinting to the door when she finally arrived. Lexa’s eyebrows raised at the look of excitement on Clarke’s face as she pulled the door open. “Clarke, is everything alright?”
“Yes,” Clarke smiled, “I have a surprise for you, come in.” She grasped Lexa’s wrist, feeling her pulse thrumming warm and fast against her own fingers, and towed Lexa to the table where she pointed at the device Raven had sent her in the convoy, along with the note: “What the hell are you two doing over there?”
Lexa looked at the device quizzically before glancing back to Clarke. “What is it?”
“It’s a recorder,” Clarke smiled. Lexa continued to look at her in confusion. “Here, sit down, I’ll show you.” Lexa slid into the chair next to her, watching her intently, clearly not used to seeing Clarke so enthusiastic. “Whatever I say into this, you will be able to take with you, and play back, as many times as you want.”
Lexa’s eyes fell to the device on the table, staring at it with awe. “How is that possible?”
“I don’t know exactly,” Clarke shrugged, hooking her blonde tresses behind her ear, “but that’s not the point.”
Lexa smirked. “How is it that you Sky people are so happy to wield technology you don’t even understand?”
Clarke surveyed Lexa’s face for a moment before reaching forward and gripping Lexa’s wrist, running her fingers over the soft flesh there. Lexa’s eyes widened a fraction, and she swallowed heavily. “Do you know what this muscle is called?” Clarke asked. She turned Lexa’s hand over, pointed to one of the blue veins running along her wrist. “Or this vessel? Do you know what makes your muscles move? How your brain calculates distance when you strike a punch?”
Lexa swallowed again and shook her head.
“Then let’s move on,” Clarke said with a smirk, releasing her grip on the commander’s wrist. “So, I was thinking of a way to help you remember the alphabet,” she began. Lexa had already had to miss two lessons due to urgent issues, so she’d made little progress on her memorization. Clarke took in a breath, knowing she would be met with resistance. “There’s this children’s song—“
“No,” Lexa interrupted.
Clarke sighed. “Would you let me finish?”
“I am not a child,” Lexa replied, her chin tilted in the air.
“No one is saying you are,” Clarke pressed on, “but you are a beginner. And there’s this ancient Earth song,” she held up a hand as she saw Lexa’s mouth open to protest, “that beginners use to memorize the letters, and the order. You don’t have to sing it yourself,” she added, seeing Lexa’s crossed arms. “Just listen to it and read along with the flashcards. I recorded it earlier today for you. To listen, you just press this button, okay?”
She held out the device, Lexa grasping it tentatively. “Your voice is in this?”
“A recording of it, yes.”
Lexa looked down at the device in her hands, cradling it gently, before looking back up into Clarke’s eyes. “Thank you.”
She didn’t show up the next morning.
It was at least thirty minutes past the time Lexa normally arrived and Clarke was now pacing the floor of her room, trying in vain to stretch out her sore muscles. As the sun moved farther across the sky, she felt a surge of irritation wash over her and impatiently pulled open her bedroom door, heading down the hallway in the direction she knew Lexa slept. As she rounded the corner, she saw a large, intricately carved door that she knew must lead to Lexa’s bedroom. It was completely unguarded, the hallway empty. Clarke blinked in surprise as she approached, her footsteps seeming to echo as loud as a gunshot with every step she took. Expecting to be tackled by a massive guard at any moment, Clarke approached the ornate door and lifted her hand, rapping her knuckles softly on the wood.
She waited, shifting her weight from side to side, for someone to answer. After over a minute, Clarke glanced over her shoulder guiltily and pressed her palm flat against the wood. Realizing that Lexa may remove an appendage for what she was about to do, Clarke pushed open the door and stepped inside. Squinting in the dim light, Clarke shut the door behind her, body braced for a volley of Trigedasleng curses. Instead, she was met with only a heavy silence, punctuated by soft, rhythmic breathing. A few rays of sunshine sliced in through gaps in the shutters, and it took Clarke a moment for her eyes to adjust as she took several tentative steps forward. A soft sigh rushed across the stillness of the room, and Clarke’s eyes at last focused, a wide smile blooming across her face.
The mighty commander was lying, dead asleep in her bed, surrounded by a scattering of flashcards. Clarke could see an “F” clutched tightly in one hand, the rest of the deck having slid down Lexa’s chest and across the blankets. The recorder with Clarke’s voice was clutched tightly in her other hand, resting against her stomach. Lexa’s expression was relaxed, soft, her hair spilling wildly across the pillows she rested on. Clarke fought the urge to step forward, to touch. Instead, she took one final look and turned to leave. Her hand was on the door when she heard a gravelly voice call, “Clarke.”
She froze in place, her cheeks warming. “I’m so sorry, Lexa, I didn’t mean to wake you. I just got worried when you didn’t show up.”
Lexa sat up in bed, her eyelids heavy with sleep, and Clarke felt a tightening in her chest at the sight. “I was up late….practicing.”
Clarke nodded, a smile in her voice. “I see that. Go back to sleep, Lexa.”
Lexa shook her head, pushing back the covers. She was dressed in soft looking linen shorts and a flowing shirt, her arms bare. “Wait,” she stood, walking quickly to the balcony and pushing open the shutters. She gestured for Clarke to sit at her table while she gathered up her cards from the bed and handed them to her. “Test me, Clarke.”
Clarke smiled at the look of anticipation and pride in Lexa’s eyes as she flipped through the deck.
She knew every last one.
Clarke wiped a droplet of sweat from her forehead as her breath came in heavy gasps. Lexa stood before her, as she had every afternoon for the past two weeks, holding up a leather pad. Each lesson, Clarke had practiced the various punching and weaving techniques Lexa had taught her. “Being light, being fluid, being fast. These are your alphabet,” she had said with a smirk. ”And you must always focus on the weakest points of the human body.”
Blowing a damp strand of hair out of her eyes, Clarke struck quickly at the pad, darting in as Lexa had taught her, keeping her limbs tight to her body, knees bent. She had learned very quickly to focus intensely not only on her opponent, but her opponent’s various limbs, the importance of which Lexa had demonstrated by knocking Clarke flat on her back several times per session when she could tell Clarke wasn’t paying full attention. The last two lessons, however, Clarke had been able to jump back and away from the deadly sweep of Lexa’s foot, earning her a smile of pride from her instructor.
As Clarke sent another volley of fast, sharp punches to the pad, her knuckle tore a hole in the center of the worn leather, and Lexa held up her free hand to indicate she should stop. Clarke dropped her arms to her sides, taking a step back as she panted heavily. “Sorry, I ripped your pad.” Lexa looked down at it with a look of mild surprise on her face, then tossed it down on the ground next to her. Clarke raised her eyebrows. “We’re not done already are we?”
Lexa shook her head. “Come here, Clarke.” She indicated for Clarke to stand directly in front of her.
“Look, I’m sorry, I’ll get you a new one okay?” Clarke huffed.
“I’m not worried about the pad, Clarke,” Lexa replied with a smirk. “Just come over here.”
“Why?” she asked cautiously, her eyes darting to Lexa’s lethal feet.
“I’m not going to knock you over, I promise,” Lexa assured her with a soft smile. Clarke approached her suspiciously. “Hold out your arms,” she ordered. Clarke was about to ask why for the second time when Lexa flashed her a very clear “would you just do it?” look. She fought the urge to roll her eyes as she held her arms out straight in front of her. Lexa reached forward and pushed her sleeves up, inspecting both of Clarke’s arms closely.
“What are you doing?” she asked, her eyes scrutinizing Lexa’s expression.
“Look, Clarke.” She ran her fingers over Clarke’s biceps, her forearms, Lexa’s fingertips tracing the noticeably larger swell of muscle there. “See how strong you’ve become?” Lightheaded at the feeling of Lexa’s fingers gently exploring the dips and valleys of her arms, Clarke surveyed her own body in surprise. She had been so sore at the end of each day, her mind so filled with Lexa’s reading lessons, she hadn’t seen the strength and power her body was developing.
“Oh,” she said softly, smoothing her fingers over her own arms.
“I think you are ready,” Lexa said half to herself, with a decisive nod.
“To use a weapon?” Clarke asked, her eyes jumping up to Lexa’s face.
She blinked and in a rush of air, was lying flat on her back, the glare of the setting sun blocked out by Lexa’s smirking face leaning over her. She kicked at Clarke’s legs with a heavy boot.
“These are your weapons.”
As the cool night air rushed in through her open windows, Clarke sank onto her bed with a heavy sigh. Every muscle in her body ached, and not even the long, hot bath she had taken seemed to help ease the pain. Hair tangled in damp ropes across her pillow, she contemplated just falling asleep on top of the covers in sheer exhaustion when a soft knock on her door had her groaning back into a sitting position.
“Come in,” she called, raking her wet hair off her forehead.
Clarke’s mouth fell open a fraction as she saw Lexa enter the room wearing a long, floor length nightgown, a nightgown that was by far the most feminine – not to mention revealing –thing she’d ever seen her wear. And as much as it didn’t suit the image in her mind of Lexa the Commander –so hard, so intimidating – it did seem to fit quite well with her image of Lexa, the girl. Yes, it fit that image very, very well.
Realizing she was staring, Clarke shook her head quickly, “Lexa… is everything alright?”
“Yes,” Lexa answered, hooking her hair behind her ear in an uncharacteristically self-conscious gesture. “I just came to give you this. I thought you might need it, after your session today.” She held out a small ceramic jar. Clarke reached for it, opening the lid and seeing a thick, translucent cream inside. “It’s a salve,” Lexa offered, seeing the look of confusion on Clarke’s face. “For your muscles. It will soothe the ache. I have used it many times. It’s powerful, but effective.”
“Oh my god,” Clarke half-laughed with relief. “How did you know?” Setting down the lid, she held the jar to her nose and breathed in, a powerful odor of camphor making her eyes water. “Whoa,” she coughed, quickly putting the lid back on.
“Like I said,” Lexa smirked, “it’s powerful.”
“Right,” Clarke laughed, shaking her head.
“And I’ve knocked you down many times in the past few weeks, Clarke,” Lexa added, “I would be surprised if you were not sore.”
Clarke laughed again, “Yeah, good point. Well, thank you, Lexa. This was really sweet of you.” She looked up at Lexa who was watching her with an intensity in her eyes that she seemed to reserve only for Clarke. As though she were looking right through her, right into the deepest and most quiet parts of her.
“You’re welcome, Clarke,” she said at last with a small smile, turning to leave. “Goodnight.”
“Goodnight,” Clarke answered. Wasting no time in scooping out some of the cream, Clarke reached back to massage it into her sore shoulder. She let out a hiss of pain just as Lexa had her hand on the door, and saw Lexa freeze out of the corner of her eye.
Lexa turned, watching her for a long moment. “Clarke,” she said quietly, that self-consciousness seeping into her voice now. “May I help you?”
Clarke froze, taking in the sight of Lexa in her nightgown, eyes wide at the thought of the commander soothing her aching muscles with her strong, calloused hands. Her heart began to hammer in her chest as she sat frozen on her bed, staring up at Lexa who was walking closer, waiting for a response. “Yes, please.” She heard herself say it before she even formulated a response in her mind, and her voice was steady and clear, as though she knew exactly what she was doing. What in the hell am I doing?
Lexa sank next to her on the bed and deftly swept Clarke’s hair to the side, blunt fingernails raking ever so slightly across Clarke’s neck. She then slowly reached out, grasping Clarke’s wrist and gently pulling it into her warm lap. Clarke’s breath was coming faster as she watched Lexa take a small amount of salve and start working it into the aching muscles of her wrist. She bit back a moan at the sweet, painful sting of release as the camphor warmed and soothed her battered muscles. Lexa said nothing as she quietly and intently worked at her task, running her strong thumbs in circles from Clarke’s wrist to her forearm and back again.
Her long lashes cast downwards, she didn’t look up at Clarke as she worked, though Clarke saw her swallow heavily, and realized she may not be the only one affected by this. Desperate to take away some of the intensity of the situation (because she honestly didn’t know what would happen if she didn’t bring herself back to Earth, like now) she cleared her throat and tried to make small talk. “You’re good at this,” she said awkwardly, sucking in a breath as Lexa moved higher up her arm.
Lexa’s gaze flickered to her face, briefly. “Yes,” she replied simply.
Right. The commander was never one for small talk. Clark swallowed, trying with all her strength to tear her eyes away from Lexa’s bare collarbone, from the pulse she could see thrumming gently in her neck. “I used to do this for Anya, when I was her second.” Clarke blinked, briefly forgetting what it was that Lexa was talking about, before bringing herself back to the moment.
“You did?” she asked, imagining a young Lexa attempting to patch up the sore muscles of the fearsome Anya. She smiled gently at the thought.
“Yes,” Lexa repeated. “It’s one of the duties of a second. Tending to battle injuries so that your leader may continue to fight well another day.” Clarke nodded. She couldn’t help but let out a small moan of pleasure as Lexa moved up to her shoulder, dug her strong thumbs into the aching muscle there. She couldn’t even find the strength to be embarrassed at how loud she was being, so she decided to just embrace it, letting her head fall to the side, her eyes slide shut.
“My mother used to use something a lot like this on me, when I was sick,” Clarke sighed, barely even aware she was talking. It felt important that she share something of herself with Lexa now. She had a feeling it wasn’t like Lexa to share anything of her past with anyone, and to let it go unacknowledged seemed wrong. She felt Lexa’s fingers falter for just a moment before she continued, shifting on the bed to reach Clarke’s other shoulder.
“Your mother is a healer,” Lexa replied. Clarke nearly startled at how close Lexa’s mouth was to her ear, and the feeling of her breath rushing across her skin.
“A doctor,” Clarke confirmed. “She used to put something a lot like this on my chest when I had a cold, to help me breathe.” She smiled. “I hated it.”
She heard Lexa let out a soft chuckle, the sound of it skipping across Clarke’s skin, nestling in her chest. There was a moment of comfortable silence that stretched between them, the only sound Clarke’s soft sighs and the gentle rush of Lexa’s fingers on her skin, before Lexa quietly spoke. “What was it like, Clarke?”
Clarke opened her eyes, turned to glance at Lexa who was watching her as she began to work her fingers into the other arm. “You mean on the Ark?” Lexa nodded. Clarke blew out a breath as she thought. How to explain life in space to someone who had never left the ground? It was like her teachers in school trying to explain the warmth of sunshine to her, before she had ever been to Earth. “It was cold,” she replied simply. “It was cold and dark. There’s no sunlight in space, you know.” Lexa’s mouth frowned softly in sympathy. “No fresh air, no wind. There’s only darkness, and the stars.” She sighed, Lexa’s fingers hitting a sweet, aching spot. “And rules. Lots of rules,” she added finally, letting her eyes slide shut again. The initial thrill of Lexa touching her had given way to something deeper, something warmer and more intimate. Lexa was now halfway down her other arm and Clarke realized with a quiet twinge of regret she would be finished soon.
“What kind of rules?” Lexa asked, pressing the salve into Clarke’s wrist.
“For everything. What to eat. What to spend your time doing. Where you went. You weren’t free to do anything you wanted, on the Ark. There was too much at risk for that.” Clarke frowned, her eyes still closed, at the memory. It was another lifetime ago. It was hard to believe, now that she had choices, now that she could walk as far and as long as she wanted, with the warmth of the sun on her back, and the wind twisting through her hair, and the soft earth beneath her feet, that she had ever lived in such a prison.
“And what happened if you broke the rules?” Lexa said softly, her fingers now digging into the meaty flesh of Clarke’s palm.
Clarke opened her eyes. Memories of pain and horror and dad dad dad rushing into her mind. “You get floated,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper.
Lexa stopped moving, her eyebrows furrowed as she kept her hands wrapped around Clarke’s wrist. “Floated?”
Clarke swallowed. “In space…there’s no air to breathe. Nothing to keep your feet on the ground. And it’s cold,” she said, her voice trembling ever so slightly. “It’s so cold. And when you do something wrong, they would push you off the Ark, and send you out into space.” She looked at Lexa. “Floating.”
Lexa sucked in a breath, a look of disgust and horror and pity on her face. “And you think our ways are harsh.” Clarke nodded and looked at her lap, willing her unshed tears not to spill over. But her body betrayed her, and a hot, salty tear leaped from her cheek and splattered onto their joined hands. Lexa’s fingers wrapped around Clarke’s hand again.
“Clarke,” was all she said.
Not “I’m sorry” or “Who was it that you lost?” or some empty words. Just her name. Just a reminder that she was there with her. It was such a Lexa response that Clarke had to swallow a laugh. It was all she needed in that moment. She put her other hand over Lexa’s, sandwiched between her own, and met her eyes. “I’m okay. Thanks.” Lexa nodded.
“Do you feel better now?” she asked, her eyes searching Clarke’s face. It wasn’t clear whether she was talking about the aching muscles in Clarke’s arms, or the aching one in her chest, but Clarke thought it might be both.
She looked back at Lexa, who was showing more and more of herself to Clarke with every passing day, who had come to her to soothe her aches just as she had with one of the only other people she cared about, who was looking at her now with concern and a shining edge of something else in her eyes, and replied, “Yes.”
She’d slept late.
Her muscles loose and soothed with Lexa’s salve, Clarke had slept heavily, and woke with barely enough time to get dressed before Lexa was knocking on her door. She had a fleeting thought that there might be some awkwardness between them after the moment they shared last night, but then she remembered that Lexa didn’t really do awkward. If anything, her eyes seemed brighter this morning, her smile a little wider. “Good morning Clarke,” she greeted, sinking into her chair readily. She had dropped the whole “I’m too important to need literacy” front about a week into their lessons, and now showed open interest in everything Clarke had to teach her.
“Good morning,” Clarke replied with a smile. Sitting down at the table, she scanned her eyes over the scraps of paper where Lexa had practiced writing out the letters of the alphabet over and over. After surveying the sheet of paper from yesterday, seeing how Lexa’s writing had become more confident and clear, she nodded and set the paper down. “I think you’re ready.” Lexa’s eyes searched Clarke’s, but as usual she said nothing. “Today you’re going to learn to write your name.”
Lexa blinked. “My name?”
Clarke nodded. “You have all the tools you need to start writing words. So let’s start with something you’ll probably write a lot of. Let’s start with your name.” She handed the pen to Lexa who took it with something like unease in her eyes. “Just sound it out,” Clarke encouraged. “Don’t worry if you don’t get it right on the first try.”
Lexa huffed out a breath through her nose, as if the idea of her getting something wrong was absurd. Clarke fought back an eyeroll as Lexa pulled the paper towards herself, an intense look of focus in her eyes. She had learned everything remarkably quickly, and Clarke had no doubt she would get this too. Clarke bit her lip to keep from laughing as she heard Lexa muttering softly to herself, sounding out the letters of her name as she slowly scrawled them out. After a minute, she set her pen down and pushed the paper towards Clarke, her lips pressed together in what looked like barely concealed trepidation.
Clarke glanced down, seeing the word LEKSA spelled out in her spindly print. A swell of pride bubbled up in her chest. “Lexa, this is perfect!” She watched Lexa’s body relax minutely, as though all her muscles had been tensed. Clarke reached forward and squeezed her shoulder. “You just spelled your first word.”
“Yes, Clarke,” she replied with a small smile, as though that was the most obvious thing in the world, though her eyes were glittering with pride.
“The way you spelled it is completely right,” Clarke continued. “Though for some reason in my head, I imagined it spelled this way,” she wrote out the name LEXA next to the commander’s spelling, “but both work.”
Lexa pulled the paper back towards herself, looking from her version of the name to Clarke’s. “Which should I use?”
Clarke shrugged. “Whichever one you like better.”
Lexa’s eyes flicked from one spelling to the other before pointing a finger decisively to Clarke’s version. Clarke felt warmth spreading through her chest as she nodded. “Good choice.”
“How is your name spelled?” Lexa asked after a moment of surveying her name on the paper.
“Why don’t you try it out?” Clarke suggested, handing her back the pen. Lexa took the pen more confidently this time, hesitating only once before printing out KLARK and sliding the paper back across the table. Clarke nodded, “You’re right, that is one way of spelling it,” she confirmed. “Though I spell it this way.” She wrote out her name next to Lexa’s version. CLARKE.
“Why is this “E” here?” Lexa asked, accusation in her tone. “This letter does not belong.”
Clarke smirked. “Well, English is kind of a frustrating language. Sometimes words have silent letters in them, or letters that don’t necessarily make sense.”
Lexa frowned. “Silent letters?” Her tone implied that she had not agreed to anything involving “silent letters.”
“Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, okay? Let’s keep it simple for now. Why don’t you write out your name a few more times, I have something for you.” She got up and walked to her bed, where she’d left something she’d been working on for Lexa’s lessons. Feeling slightly nervous, she pulled it out from under her pillow and walked back over to the table, setting it down next to Lexa. Even after searching several times in the markets of Polis, she hadn’t been able to find any books with a simple enough reading level for Lexa. So she had decided to write her own, complete with small pictures she’d sketched out roughly. Lexa paused in her writing to eye the small bundle of papers, setting her pen down and picking up the booklet.
“What is this?” she looked from the papers to Clarke.
Clarke sat back down. “Why don’t you read it and find out?” Lexa’s eyes fell back to the booklet, her expression full of curiosity as she opened to the first page. Her face quickly fell as she took in the handful of words written in Clarke’s neat print. “Just do one word at a time,” Clarke encouraged. Lexa’s eyes narrowed as she looked at the first word, her nostrils flaring. Sensing Lexa’s anxiety, Clarke cleared her throat. “Why don’t you sound out the first word out loud? We can do it together.”
Lexa huffed out a breath of frustration. The first word was “once”. Lexa made a quiet “O” sound under her breath and Clarke nodded in encouragement. “That’s right. Sometimes, “O” can make a ww sound.”
Lexa glared at her, “You never told me that, Clarke.”
Clarke sighed. “Well, I’m telling you now. Keep going.” The bright, clear light of morning had creeped its way across the table, illuminating Lexa’s features, accentuating the tension in her expression. Clarke faltered, sensing that perhaps Lexa wasn’t quite ready for this, and watched her with unease. She could feel Lexa starting to coil tighter and tighter across the table, a spring ready to explode. Though Clarke knew that if she suggested they try another day, Lexa would take that as a deep offense, so she had no choice but to try and salvage the lesson. Surrounded by a flurry of lazy dust motes lit up by the sun, Lexa bowed her head closer to the pages, as though proximity alone might help her.
Lexa refocused on the word. “On-ke…” Clarke stifled a smile a second too late, Lexa’s eyes flying to her face, wide with accusation. “You’re laughing at me.”
“No!” Clarke protested, “Lexa, I’m not laughing at you.” Despite her best efforts, she could practically hear the sound of that tense spring snapping.
“You think I’m stupid,” Lexa growled, eyes glittering with wounded pride.
“That’s not true!” Clarke denied, her frustration rising. Briefly she wondered if she ever acted as stubborn as this during her own lessons, before dismissing the thought. Of course she didn’t.
Lexa stood, eyes burning. “Our lessons are over,” she pushed the book across the table towards Clarke, who stopped it from flying over the edge with fast hands.
Clarke’s anger flared up inside of her as she stood, her chair scraping loudly across the stone floor. “Lexa!” She planted her hands on her hips, beyond annoyed. “I’m only trying to help! I worked for a long time on this, you know. So quit being such a child and sit down!”
Lexa’s eyes narrowed dangerously, her voice becoming soft and predatory. “What did you call me?”
Clarke tilted her chin up defiantly. “You heard me.” She pointed an accusing finger at her, Lexa’s eyes dropping to her outstretched hand in shock. “You’re frustrated that you can’t get this right away, and I get that. But yelling at me isn’t going to fix the problem. You have to work at it!” She pushed the book into Lexa’s hands, who clutched it roughly in her fingers.
“I will not work at something that is as pointless as this,” she snarled, “I have more important things to do with my time.” She turned on her heel and stormed out, Clarke plunking down in her chair heavily as Lexa slammed the door behind her. Sitting, stunned, in the ringing silence, her eyes fell on the piece of paper Lexa had been practicing on, and she saw that Lexa had been practicing not only her own name, but Clarke’s as well. They were written over and over, side by side, down the edge of the paper.
She picked it up and sighed in exasperation.
Later that afternoon, Indra came to tell her their combat lessons had been cancelled.
A soft knocking on her door woke Clarke in the middle of the night.
Propping herself up on her elbow, she squinted in the soft moonlight that fell in through her open window as the door opened gently. Lexa stepped inside holding a candle, dressed in the same nightgown that Clarke had seen her in before, her hair streaming behind her as she shut the door quietly.
“Lexa?” Clarke called, her voice deep with sleep. “Is everything alright?”
Lexa walked towards her, setting the candle down in the candle holder at Clarke’s bedside, the flickering light causing shadows to dance across her face. “Yes, Clarke.” Confused, Clarke sat up, shifting over in the bed so Lexa could sit next to her, which she did cautiously.
“So…everything is fine,” Clarke clarified skeptically. It had to be at least 2:00am.
Lexa was silent for a few long moments, staring resolutely at her hands. Clarke swallowed at the sight of her silhouetted against the candlelight, stretched out on the bed beside her. “It was wrong of me to get so angry with you earlier,” she said softly, observing Clarke out the side of her eye. “You were only trying to help and I took out my frustrations on you.” She turned to face Clarke fully now, eyes determined. “I’m sorry, Clarke.”
Clarke shifted in bed, turning herself towards Lexa as her mind ground to a halt. She knew that it wasn’t often that Lexa apologized to anyone (the word never echoed quietly in the back of her mind) and here she was, admitting fault to Clarke yet again. She reached forward, squeezed Lexa’s fingers. “It’s alright, Lexa.”
Lexa’s shoulders relaxed minutely and she nodded in thanks. “Controlling my anger has always been a challenge for me. When I was her second, Anya used to tell me that my temper was both my greatest ally, and my worst foe, depending on whether I could control it.” She blew out a breath, hooking her hair behind her ear, and it made her look very young. Clarke blinked, realizing, it made her look her age. “I thought I had mastered my anger many years ago,” Lexa continued, looking at Clarke with a wry smile. “Until I met you.”
Clarke laughed, nudging Lexa with her elbow. “Ha-ha,” she replied dryly. “You’re not always so easy to get along with either,” she added stubbornly.
Lexa nodded with a lopsided smile. “I know this, Clarke. Thank you, for understanding.”
“Well, thank you for not having my tongue cut out for calling you childish,” Clarke joked.
“You’re welcome,” Lexa answered seriously. Clarke’s mouth dropped open in shock, however Lexa had already moved on. “Would you be willing to continue on with our lessons?” she asked cautiously.
“Yes, Lexa. I would like that.”
Lexa nodded, and reached towards the bedside table. Clarke thought at first she was getting her candle so she could leave, but when she turned back Clarke saw that she was holding the booklet she’d made. She opened the book and began to read. “Once upon a time, there was a young girl named Lexa, who lived upon the ground.” She turned the page, unaware of the expression of utter shock on Clarke’s face. “Lexa liked to climb trees, and run in the forest.” She read slowly, carefully, her mouth forming around the words tentatively.
“She liked to look up at the stars at night.” Clarke felt her heart swelling with pride, her chest full of deep affection for the mighty commander that lay next to her, reading a children’s story that Clarke had written for her. “One day, she found out that she was special.” She stumbled over the word, but corrected herself and pressed on. “She found out she had the Nightblood. She left her family, for the capital, Polis. She was sad to leave her village,” Clarke thought she detected some wistfulness in Lexa’s voice, “but she knew that it was her duty to follow her calling.” She took a breath, turned the page, “And she reminded herself that wherever she went, she would always have new trees to climb, and new forests to run through, and new stars to look at. Because she was Lexa. And she lived upon the ground.” She closed the book and looked up at Clarke nervously, swallowing heavily at the stunned expression on Clarke’s face.
Clarke could no longer contain herself, or her growing feelings for Lexa. She leaned forward and pulled Lexa against her, wrapping her arms tightly around the other girl’s back, fingers tangling in her long hair. She heard Lexa’s gasp of surprise, followed by a soft thud as Lexa dropped her book onto the blankets. She could feel Lexa’s heart bounding against her own as the commander slowly put her arms around Clarke’s waist, tightening her grip until she was holding Clarke so firmly her fingernails were digging into Clarke's skin. Letting her head rest against the side of Lexa’s, she wondered how long it had been since Lexa had been hugged. Judging by the way the girl was gripping Clarke, she guessed it was a long time. After a while, Clarke’s curiosity got the better of her, and she pulled back to search Lexa’s eyes.
“How did you do that?” she asked, shaking her head in disbelief.
Lexa smiled. “Octavia was here, briefly, to lead the trading of supplies,” she explained. “She says hello.”
Clarke laughed, “So she helped you?”
Lexa nodded, “With the more difficult words, and the silent letters," she added with distaste. "The spelling of ‘night’ and 'climb' confuse me greatly. Octavia told me to ‘go with it.’”
Clarke smiled, “Yeah, that sounds about right.” She picked up the booklet, leafing through it. “That was really amazing, Lexa.”
Lexa looked down, a small, pleased smile on her face. “I very much enjoyed the story, Clarke. But…” she looked up, her eyes serious.
Clarke frowned. “But what?”
“…What happens next?”
“Lexa, I can’t.”
“Of course you can, Clarke,” Lexa’s voice cut through the mild afternoon, the setting sun hurling itself across the sky as the two of them panted in the muddy arena.
Clarke shook her head, bent over as she rested her hands on her thighs. “I told you, I can’t. I’m too tired.”
“Is that what you’ll say to the warrior you meet in battle?” Lexa scoffed. “That you’re too tired? That you need a break?”
“I’m not in a battle, Lexa,” Clarke snarled through gritted teeth. Her face was streaked with mud, blue eyes bright with anger. “I can’t get it right,” she breathed, standing up and putting her hands on her hips. She sighed as a soft breeze blew across her damp skin, cooling her deliciously. She could hear the trees surrounding them rustle softly in the wind, and knew she would never get sick of that sound. She looked up at the irritated commander standing across from her and realized she’d never get sick of the way Lexa looked at her, either. Even when it was with deep annoyance. Actually, she kind of liked the way her eyes glittered when she was exasperated.
“Not unless you practice more,” Lexa corrected, bring Clarke back to the moment. “Come on, a few more times.” Clarke rolled her eyes, trying to shake the giddy feeling that Lexa's fierce gaze was stirring within her. “You may make that face at me if it helps you to carry on,” Lexa said evenly, though her lips were thin with irritation. “Now come. And remember, fast, swift, like a striking snake. Keep your back leg locked, bend deeply—“
“—At the hip, I know,” Clarke waved her off, trudging forward. She took a few deep breaths before planting her legs shoulder width apart and leaning back, striking out a hard kick to Lexa who stood ready with a leather pad. She hit the pad, barely, before her aching leg nearly gave out underneath her and she stumbled back.
Lexa shook her head, “You’re not bending at the hip, Clarke. Your leg is too low, it leaves you vulnerable. Again.” Clarke sighed and attempted to kick at the pad another time, her aching muscles screaming in agony. Exhausted, she kicked too low again and Lexa grasped her ankle and yanked, Clarke falling flat on her back in the mud. Clarke let out a howl of fury as Lexa watched her calmly, arms crossed. “You see? That’s what happens when you kick too—“
Lexa’s words were cut off as a handful of mud splattered squarely across her face. She staggered back a step in shock, swiping her fingers across her face and staring down at her hand as though she couldn’t believe what had just happened. “See heda?” Clarke laughed. “That’s what happens when you don’t pay attention to your opponent at all times.”
Lexa’s hands were balled into fists, her eyes strikingly green contrasted with the mud that covered her face. “And you call me childish?” she fumed.
“I told you I was tired,” Clarke breathed, a challenging look in her eyes. “And you insisted on forcing me to keep going.”
“Better tired than dead,” Lexa retaliated, green eyes flashing.
Clarke snorted, struggling to her feet. “Why is it you’re constantly thinking about death?”
“Why do you think, Clarke?” Lexa replied coldly, her voice tense.
The abrupt silence hung heavily between them in the afternoon sun. Clarke swallowed. Lexa had lost a lot of people in her life that she had cared about. Even in the short time that Clarke had known her, she’d lost Anya, and Gustus, not to mention countless warriors. “Is that what this is about?” Clarke asked, realization blooming in her mind, so clear, so blinding. She took a step towards Lexa, the soft mud sucking at her boots.
Lexa’s eyes widened for a fraction of a second, and Clarke watched her take a half-step back, gaze flickering to the side self-consciously. It was clear Lexa knew she had given herself away. “What?”
“Is that why you agreed to learn to read?” Clarke asked. “So you could force me to learn to protect myself?” Clarke took another step closer, close enough that she saw Lexa swallow, even as she tilted her muddy chin up in defiance.
“I have no desire to lose anyone else that I…care for.” Clarke’s stomach flipped, a tightness taking hold of her throat. “That should not come as a surprise to you, Clarke. If I can help you to stay safe then why shouldn’t I?”
Clarke took in a breath, struck by the rush of emotions flickering through her mind. Safe. Lexa, who knew that death was the only certainty in this world, who knew that no amount of preparedness could ever truly keep either of them safe, had ignored everything she knew to be true. She’d pushed aside all rational thought on the hope, the chance, that teaching Clarke to fight might help to keep her safe. She’d pored over the alphabet, worked tirelessly to memorize it all, spent hours forming the letters over and over, her pen stuttering across the paper, just on the chance that it would help to keep them together.
Clarke blinked back tears of emotion, standing nearly toe to toe with her now, her eyes searching Lexa’s face, who stood there and bore her scrutiny boldly. After several long moments, when she was sure she could speak without a crack of emotion in her voice, she opened her mouth and said, “Thank you.”
Lexa blinked, her face unreadable now, even to Clarke. Her eyes were scanning Clarke’s expression, perhaps stunned at the openness she found there, at the lack of walls and boundaries and tension. She nodded, warmth and understanding growing in her eyes. “You’re welcome.”
Clarke reached out, using her thumb to swipe some of the mud from Lexa’s cheek where it had already started to dry. Lexa’s eyes closed for the briefest of seconds, leaning her face into Clarke’s touch. Around them, the air had become thick, warm, full of electricity. “Lexa,” she half whispered, her fingers sliding down to rest gently on the side of the commander’s neck. Clarke could feel her pulse slamming solidly against her hand.
“Yes, Clarke?” Lexa replied, her voice soft, defenseless.
“I care about you, too.”