Lexa spares Clarke a look before striding ahead into the trees. Clarke feels that look go through her -- the way Lexa turns aside, even the way she holds herself, is all too clearly an end to whatever they shared over the last few days. Part of her wants to push Wells away -- Wells -- and plead with Lexa to wait. To give her time, to give her a chance to...
But Lexa has vanished before she has time to finish the thought.
“Come on.” Wells tugs at her arm so that she faces him instead. “I’ll show you around the camp.”
You knew who you were in love with, Clarke tells herself. You always knew what came first.
She lets Wells pull her under his arm and lead her forward, Storm following behind.
She expected it to be like the first Grounder camp she witnessed, way back when she first met Lexa on the edges of Tondisi territory. She can still feel the sting of sap in her nose from the fresh-cut trees, taste the smoke from the cookfires in the air.
This camp is different. For one, it’s bigger, sprawling over the soft slope of the hillside to look down upon Polis. She can’t see where it ends -- even past the scattered trees that mark the border of the woods, she spots tents and corralled horses.
She’s about to say something to Wells about that, but he beats her to it, pointing with authority toward one of the tents. “None of us ride -- anymore, I mean, I’m definitely finished with it -- but Anya had them put in a hitching post for when you finally caught up.”
It’s a simple set-up, just a low bar secured into the ground by two stakes, but there’s a trough and feedbag waiting. Clarke has to be imagining Storm’s sigh of relief when Clarke hitches her reins and slings the bag across her neck. “Where do we get water?”
Wells pats Storm’s flank -- Storm flicks her tail, but doesn’t pause her munching -- and motions for Clarke to follow.
Another difference, Clarke thinks to herself as she falls in step behind him: there are so many more people. And they’re not all Woods Clan. She recognizes the colorful sashes, painted faces, and even shaved heads that were used to signify different clan alliances from her time in the tower. Although back then she wasn’t able to ask which eye-catching choices she saw in the hallways meant which clan. The diplomats and merchants that attended Lexa’s meetings often adopted Woods Clan affect, like a conciliatory gesture intended to curry favor.
Again, Wells anticipates her here, nodding toward certain warriors and saying, “Shadow Valley,” as they pass a woman with the two halves of her face blacked out with paint, and a naked strip of skin running straight down the nose from temple to chin. The whites of her eyes are eerie in contrast as she watches them walk by. “Glowing Forest over there,” Wells indicates a group with his shoulder. Their metal piercings glimmer in the sunlight, running over their bare heads and over the shells of their ears. Clarke thinks they must be too far away to hear her and Wells, but they also turn to look as she and Wells walk through the camp. “I’ve heard there are warriors from Broadleaf, too, but I think they’ve mostly settled on the south side.”
“Anyone from Rock Line or Blue Cliff?” Clarke asks.
Wells nods. “Plenty, but they were among the earliest to arrive, so they’re settled closer to the city. The first contingent from Delphi is due to arrive any day, now, but the Plains Riders might not send anyone at all -- they won’t risk their horses traveling that far in the winter. The Lake People have their excuses, but everyone knows it’s because they’re all but allied with Ice Nation. Desert Clan is happy if everyone kills each other off, and apparently no one’s even seen anyone from Boat Clan in years.”
They arrive at an interesting set-up, a kind of camp within the camp set off next to the fast-running creek. The scope of the operation is easy enough to take in at a glance. Teams work in batches: some of them hauling up buckets of water, the next team carrying it in deep metal tubs to be boiled over large fires. Clarke cranes her neck -- there’s a lot of steam over in that corner, but she can just make out how the water is split between two more teams atfter being heated. Some of it is slowly strained through snow-white pieces of cloth, while the rest is left to cool.
“One drink,” Wells says in the Woods Clan language, making Clarke jump. She turns her head to see him addressing a warrior and holding up one finger. He holds up a second finger. “One horse.” His accent is rough, but the warrior nods and hands over two buckets. They have scraps of colored fabric tied to the handle, one yellow and one green.
“Where’d you get all this information, anyway?” she asks as they each take a bucket. “About the clans.”
“Anya. Don’t let those little markers fall off, it gets them super pissed when we return the stuff.”
He leads her over to another station where they wait in separate lines, behind people with similar-colored markers on their buckets. Clarke’s marker is yellow, and her line is longer, but it moves faster. Once she reaches the end she sees why -- there’s a longer wait for boiled-and-strained water, while the stuff for the horses is ready as soon as it cools. It’s poured into huge metal barrels with turn-spigots. The knob that opens and closes the mechanism is covered with a thin, plastic-y rubber Clarke doesn’t think has been produced since Earth Before, but there isn’t a speck of rust on the barrels.
She has to wait for Wells to finish waiting in line, and takes the opportunity to scan more of the camp. There are different kinds of tents as well. The camp outside Tondisi had what she’s become used to -- very used to -- over the past few days, grey-green-brown fabric hoisted up with branches or trunks for a little height. She can see richer, more colorful fabrics now, or tents the color of the pale yellow deserts she’s seen in pictures. Different shapes, too. She wonders what the construction is like when you don’t live in a forest full of handy twigs.
“I was afraid you’d be at each other’s throats,” she says when Wells joins her, resuming their conversation.
“I was too scared about what might happen to you to care about much else.” He slings an arm across her shoulders as they head back to their tent. “And she’s never going to admit it, but I think she was worried about the Commander, too. Keeping me alive seemed a welcome distraction.”
Clarke shifts her bucket so she can reach up and grab his hand. “Lectures on Grounder politics seem a little out of the realm of keeping you alive.”
“Well, you know me. If someone’s going to keep me around, eventually I’m going to start asking them questions. Even if they terrify me.”
Clarke grins and squeezes his hand.
“What about you?” he asks, squeezing back. “You don’t seem to be missing any fingers or toes. Did you guys just agree not to talk to each other for days?”
“Ha ha,” Clarke shoots back.
“I’m not even joking. How the hell did you guys manage?”
“We managed,” Clarke says, knowing her tone will make it clear she doesn’t want Wells to press. “But not quickly enough, I guess.” Maybe if she hadn’t fallen into the river, or if Lexa had gone ahead on her own --
“Ice Nation took the city long before any of us could have made it, even without taking the slow route from the Ark. Anya says she must have burned out half her army getting here so fast, which is why they’re holed up behind the city walls -- they probably can’t make an attack until they recover. Which gives us time to gather forces, so... we’ll see how it goes from there.”
“Maybe we can use that to our advantage.” When they reach the tent Clarke tips her bucket into the trough. Wells sets his just inside their tent -- it’s empty, but Clarke counts four pallets inside, so she’s guessing Octavia and Lincoln are off training. “Can’t we attack first? Use the element of surprise?”
Wells stills, and his expression hardens. “You need to see something.”
There’s a ring of reapers around the city.
Clarke has such a clear memory of the first time she saw Polis: Lexa’s arms barricading her in the saddle, the stares of passers-by on the trail, and then suddenly the city before them. She will never forget how it took her breath away.
It’s doing so again. For different reasons.
“When did,” she manages, before her throat closes up with rage and regret, watching the figures with tattered clothing and bloody mouths claw at the walls of Polis.
“It’s how the Ice Queen captured the city so quickly, without a real fight,” Wells says, because he understands what she wants to ask. “The soldiers inside were already outnumbered, and then she threatened to bring the reapers inside the walls if she wasn't allowed entrance. From what we hear, there was some resistance to her army once they cleared the gates, but...”
But not enough. Not nearly enough warriors, as opposed to merchants or craftspeople, especially considering how many of them were already on the march in anticipation of a war on a different front. Lead by --
Oh, no. Lexa had to know about this. Lexa had seen --
“Why aren’t they attacking our people?” Clarke asks, to distract herself from the full-body ache of imagining how Lexa had felt to see this, how Clarke couldn’t be with her when... “What’s keeping them so close to the city?”
“Nia’s people feed them by throwing meat over the walls. Animal carcasses,” he amends as Clarke feels the blood drain from her face. “They think that’s how the Ice Nation herded them this far into Woods Clan territory. The Queen probably didn’t even pack her own supplies besides a few basics, and that’s also how she was able to travel so fast. She bet everything on taking the city and getting access to its stores of food.”
Clarke didn’t think it was possible for her to feel worse at this point, but that -- that made her stomach drop to her feet. Every day this siege lasted was another day the inhabitants of the tower and citypeople might not be able to feed themselves in the coming winter -- not if Nia’s people were taking it for themselves. Taking liberally, she could guess.
And why not? Lack of resources would only put more and more pressure on Lexa to end the war. One way or another.
“But I think we can trust that once her army is ready, chow time is over. Which means they’ll attack the Grounders,” raising his eyebrows at her to show he didn’t miss her earlier phrasing, “sooner or later.”
Clarke looks out over the city. She wonders if she’ll ever be able to picture it again in her mind’s eye without this: seeing dark smears of blood and filth decorating the sun-faded stone walls, hearing the shrieks and inhuman chatter in the distance as reapers tear into each other over scraps.
“This is bad,” she whispers. To herself, but that doesn’t stop Wells from replying:
“It gets worse.”
It doesn’t escape Clarke’s notice that Wells knows exactly how to pick his way through the chaos of camp to find the Commander’s tent. She assumes that’s because it’s been Anya’s base of operations since they arrived.
She has to take a moment to appreciate the tent itself. It’s not that much bigger or more impressively furnished than the one Lexa used, and used to first imprison Clarke, in the woods outside of Tondisi. But her perspective on what it symbolizes has changed. Even fresh from sleeping rough in the woods, all those months ago, she was still operating on an Arker mindset. Power, and even comfort, looked a certain way: impenetrable barriers between herself and the forces of nature outside them, the comforting uniformity of dress and presentation. That was what was safe, what was known, and now Clarke wonders when she stopped listening for the reassuring hum of tech in the walls and beneath her feet.
Now she looks around the Commander’s tent and thinks: all these people are different and strange, even to each other, but their coming together is a sign of power. The sunlight filtering through the treated cloth above their heads, the breeze coming in through the open tent flaps and the glimpses of the trees -- this isn’t exposure, or lack of safety. It’s constant awareness and evaluation of the world beyond. It’s mobility, and ingenuity. It’s harmony with their environment instead of suppression of it.
Well, Clarke decides, the throne remains more or less the same.
So is the impact of Lexa reclining on it, one leg crossed over the other as Anya and another female warrior stand to either side and a little behind, the message of guarding the Commander’s back clear as day. The second warrior has deeply dark skin, and the hair cut closely to her skull has a slight edging of gray to it.
“Her name’s Indra,” Wells says quietly in her ear as he pulls her along. “Anya and Lincoln act like she walks on water, probably because she can put them both in the dirt.”
“She sparred with Lincoln?” Clarke whispers back. They have to maneuver a bit -- Lexa is holding audience, the crowd inside her tent gathered in a rough semi-circle as individual petitioners are allowed to step into the empty space before the throne. She’s not sure how they keep track of who goes first. Maybe they got tickets at the door, little woodbark chits. “He’s been acknowleded by other generals?”
“No, she’s ignoring him. But she sparred with Anya, who beat Lincoln, and Indra nearly broke bones.”
“Yeah. Happiest Anya’s looked in days.” He clears the mingled warriors and makes it to the other end of the makeshift throne room, pushing back a curtain. “In here.”
Clarke casts an apprehensive glance over her shoulder, but Anya, who they’re closest to, doesn’t seem bothered by their exploration. She barely looks in their direction.
Lexa does, though. Just for a second, the briefest flicker of her gaze.
Meeting her eyes goes through Clarke like an electric shock, all the same, and her whole body hitches like it wants to stay in that space, wants to fight Wells’s pull and remain where it might happen again. She stumbles, but Wells catches her and pushes her through into the next area.
“Look at this,” he orders, and Clarke almost wants to laugh.
The space is filled with maps.
There’s a huge, solid table set up roughly in the center where rolled-up maps are arranged in neat little pyramids, or loose and lying with edges overlapping. There are even a few dioramas set up in the corners, showing the immediate areas around Polis in three dimensions. Including a miniature of the city by the river that Clarke specifically remembers crunching beneath her boots.
Lexa wasn’t kidding when she said she’d managed to reverse most of the damage.
“Over here,” Wells says, and Clarke steps next to him to see over his shoulder. He picks out one of the maps from the array on the table and holds it up. “Do you see this?”
She squints at it, unsure what she’s supposed to be seeing. It doesn’t look fundamentally different from any of the maps she watched Sharla work on: the same legend of symbols used for forests, villages, dividing boundaries. “Yeah?”
“This is their southwest flank. This,” he puts that map down and pulls another over, positioning them as he pleases, “is the eastern flank. And this,” with a third map, “is the city, to the north and east. The Commander’s army’s main stations are here, here, and here,” stabbing his finger in quick succession. “But if you look over here,” sliding a different map close, “the river pens them in on the east. They can’t circle around because there’s no forest cover, see? It’s been converted into orchards, the Ice Nation would see them coming. They can only attack from the south and the west.”
“So what’s the problem?”
He spends another few minutes stabbing at the maps, talking mobility, resources, even deployment of different weapons. She thinks he must see her eyes glaze over, because he stops mid-sentence. “How did we make it through the same Earth Skills classes?”
“You know how. And it was a fair trade, I’m the one who got you through the last two years of Bio.” She didn’t even feel guilty about having Wells more or less do her homework. Not just because it was so far down the list of things worth feeling guilty over, given a whole new world of expanded context -- Wells had lived for that stuff, looked forward to those outlier classes when Pike would discuss old Earth Before battles and recommend ancient histories filled with accounts of warfare. It probably would have taken him half the time Clarke needed to figure out the reapers had been shepherded into a deliberate attack on Blue Cliff. “Just tell me what we’re dealing with.”
He leans into the table with both hands, head hanging between his shoulders. He takes a deep breath. “We have to go back to the Ark.”
Clarke frowns. “What? Why? Is there something we need to bring back to the camp? I can’t, my mom is not going to let me leave again --”
“Clarke.” Wells straightens. “This barely counts as a war. It’s going to be a slaughter.”
She hates the look in his eyes. She’d be able to dismiss him so easily if he was angry, or even scared. But he just looks at her somberly, with enough desperate sadness to make her heart beat a little faster. “You can’t know that. You’ve never seen these people fight -- not really. And neither of us know how warfare has evolved since --”
“The Ice Nation has almost every advantage possible,” he interrupts. “And that’s just going by the terrain and positioning. From what I’m hearing around camp, though, those reapers make it almost a done deal. They’re killing machines -- and they’re people the soldiers might have known, before the Mountain got their hands on them. The psychological effect is incalculable.”
Panic claws at her throat, and she doesn’t even sound like herself. “Are you saying there’s no possible way for Lexa to win this?”
Wells grimaces. “If she could... it would be an incredibly hard-won victory.”
“But it’s possible.”
“I mean, almost anything is possible. But it’s not worth betting our lives on.”
Clarke is shaking her head before he even finishes his sentence. “You can go if you want. I’m not leaving.”
His eyes narrow. “Because you won’t? Or is someone making it so you can’t?” She gives him a look, and he nods, if reluctantly. “Okay, okay. I had to ask.” He sighs. “Clarke, you were the one that asked if I thought we should go back. You said --”
“I know. I meant it, then, but I won’t leave.” She stares down at the maps. She can’t see in them whatever Wells can, but after his explanation it’s as if they hold an ominous aura. “I just won’t. I’m sorry.”
His hands clench into fists. “Seriously. What the hell did she say to you out in the forest?”
She slumps against the table. “That’s not why...” But it is, kind of. Clarke wanted to be here anyway, but she can’t claim she isn’t that much more committed now that she understands Lexa’s choices. And is that much more focused on saving her from them. “Someday I’ll explain everything, I promise. Right now I need you to understand this is where I need to be. I would never ask you to stay, especially if you’re right about, well, everything. But I’m not leaving.”
“This is insane,” he bursts out. “You’re risking your life for someone who cut you up.”
“I’m really not. I know it’s hard for you to get this, but these people are important to me. All of them. If they’re in as much danger as you say, then I can’t leave.”
“That’s even worse!” Wells looks a bit wild-eyed. “You’re going to end up dead for a bunch of savages?”
“Hey,” she says, sharp.
“I’m sorry, I...” He brings one hand up to grip his temple. “No. No, okay, bad choice of words, but this is the height of idiocy. War nearly wiped us all off the face of the Earth, and they’re still at it! Being under attack from the Mountain is one thing, I get having to defend themselves against experimentation. But they’re fighting each other. If Lincoln is right, they’ve barely stopped fighting each other since the fires went out.” He’s ashen at the thought: “And you want to be a part of that?”
She can’t be angry at him for having the same reservations she experienced, once upon a time. Almost the exact same thoughts -- she remembers walking behind Lexa on horseback and feeling despair at the idea humanity had found itself back here again. He’s not... completely... wrong.
At the same time --
(“I can’t imagine denying the air in their lungs.”)
“It’s not so different from the Ark. The different stations fought constantly -- for resources, or influence. There were riots.”
“Yeah, but we didn’t actually try to kill each other on the regular.”
“Because we couldn’t afford to. Genetic material was the scarcest resource of all.” She’s so tired of having to explain each side to the other, bounced back and forth like a ball. But she knew this, too -- that this would be the role only she could play. Just like it’s useless to resent Lexa for her priorities, it’s useless to fight the work for simply needing to be done. “I’m not excusing the bloodshed, Wells. The way we lived on the Ark wasn’t sustainable, and neither was how the clans lived before the Coalition. That’s why this is a war I’m willing to fight -- Lexa wants an end to all that, too. She did end it. Nia’s been trying to undo her work ever since, and I can’t walk away, because we have no other way to stop her from winning.”
“Wage war to bring peace, huh?”
“Sarcasm isn’t going to change my mind.”
“I’m just trying to point out your argument boils down to killing is okay if I like the people doing it. When we landed in the dropship --”
“This isn’t the dropship.” She doesn’t mean to be dismissive, but they’re going to end up talking in circles at this rate. She loves Wells, but that doesn’t mean they always agree. “We were kids, and we had no idea about the greater context. And even then, Raven’s rockets ended up setting an entire village on fire, remember? There’s no real choice that takes us out of this. We only get to decide how we go into it.”
“We don’t have to be on the front lines.”
“It’s where I want to be. If I’m going to do this at all, I want to be where it’s really happening -- where people are making the decisions that make it happen.” Optimally so that she could tell them when they were making the wrong ones. “But I meant it when I said you don’t have to stay. I would never -- Wells, I would never -- try and make this decision for you.”
“It’s not much of a decision when it concerns the life of my best friend, is it?” he asks bitterly, and doesn’t give her time to respond before storming out the way they came.
Clarke means to chase after him, but barely a moment later Lexa lifts the curtain aside to let herself in.
She looks so different. Clarke doesn’t think they’ve been apart that long since arriving at camp -- an hour, maybe? hour and a half? -- but it was long enough. Lexa’s had time to change into full Commander gear: pauldron, trailing cloak, even her sword is restored to her hip. (Clarke kind of wishes she’d been present for whatever Anya had to say when she handed it over. She doesn’t doubt for a minute that words were said -- not after Anya had so many days to choose them.) She’s sketched a dark line of kohl around her eyes as well, and she’s wearing that metal piece Clarke associates with really heinous meetings where no one meets anyone else’s eyes across the table. Clarke wonders what she did with the borrowed cloak, if it’s lying lost and forgotten somewhere in a corner of this massive tent.
It’s not just the trappings, though. Lexa radiates something different in this setting, among these people and concerns. She’s not a different person, but she refracts her self through different prisms of perception, throwing an illusion of more that, in the end, somehow isn’t an illusion at all.
Lexa isn’t two different people. She’s one person whose depths sink down into the unfathomable.
Maybe we all are, Clarke thinks.
Lexa doesn’t say anything, just lingers in the doorway, focused and drinking in the sight of Clarke. It’s an unusually unguarded look for Lexa, especially in the context of her current getup, and it makes Clarke... nervous. She shifts her weight and looks down at the spread maps on the table.
“Wells doesn’t know my reputation around these things,” she finds herself saying. “So, uh. Don’t be too mad at him for bringing me here.”
Lexa’s mouth moves a little oddly, but she doesn’t really smile. “Did he tell you how bad our chances are?”
“You know he thinks you’re...” She doesn’t want to say doomed. She can’t think of another word, though.
Lexa folds her arms. “He dragged Anya in here to explain his perspective at length yesterday. Anya says he’s only alive because he managed to wrap up by the dinnertime bell. She’s still annoyed, though, so your friend might want to keep his head down.”
Clarke can only imagine. “Guess she didn’t appreciate him disparaging your prowess as a leader.”
Lexa hesitates. “No,” slowly. “She didn’t appreciate the idea she wasn’t already aware -- well aware -- of the situation.”
Ice drips into Clarke’s veins in little prickling bursts. “You agree with him?”
“Not completely. But your friend has a mind for military strategy.”
“He’s a super-nerd. He used to study -- Lexa, are you serious? Why,” she has to struggle past the rising lump of panic in her throat, “why didn’t we run back to Polis, if taking the city gives Nia this much of an advantage?”
“She’s feeding her reapers with meat from the city’s stores,” Lexa says quietly. “What do you think she would have used, if we’d arrived in time to lock her out?”
All those villages they visted on the way here -- all of whom might not have been warned in time. Or, if they had, might not have had much recourse against an army of nightmares.
Lexa had contained the reapers as best as she could: a wall between them and the citizens of Polis, her own army between them and Woods Clan territory. It was a temporary solution at best, but it fitted perfectly to Lexa’s priorities. Her people first. Always.
Never mind if she was now fucked.
Clarke leans against the table, careful not to disturb any of the maps. Her head is spinning. “You knew it would turn out like this. All this time, since I told you about the reapers and the alliance with the Mountain -- as soon as you could prove I was right, you knew. You never said anything.”
“I did.” When Clarke raises her head Lexa looks somber. “I said everything I could think of to make you run back home where you would be safe.”
Clarke straightens. She walks up to Lexa but stops right before piercing her bubble of personal space. The other girl braces herself as if for an attack.
Clarke wants to draw her in, and knit them together as close as possible while remaining in separate bodies. To just be, together, creating their own well of quiet comfort in the middle of this catastrophic storm.
(“I can’t,” she remembers as it was whispered against her mouth, and keeps her hands by her sides.)
“I am home,” she says.
Lexa, after seeing that’s as close as Clarke will come, relaxes. She even manages something closer to a real smile. “I appreciate how much you brought the people of the city into your heart. You are... incredibly generous. But technically we’re not at Polis until we’re inside the walls.”
Clarke moves past her, lifts the separating curtain. “I wasn’t talking about the city,” she directs over her shoulder, and doesn’t wait for Lexa’s reaction before walking out.
“I’m not leaving,” is the first thing she says when she finds Wells. He wasn’t upset enough to abandon her in the middle of camp, but he chose to rest against the side of a tree not immediately visible from the tent’s entrance to sulk while he waited for her. “It doesn’t matter how bad things are -- I won’t go. I’m sorry.”
He stalks off to their own tent without a word, and she struggles to keep up.
Wells continues to give her the silent treatment through the midday meal.
“He has a lot of feelings, your friend,” Lincoln tells her in Woods Clan language as they eat. He and Octavia were waiting at the tent when they got back, still a little sweaty from sparring but happy to see Clarke alive. Or Lincoln was -- Octavia is maybe physically incapable of getting any happier than she already is. Her eyes wander the entire meal, alighting on one Grounder and then another, watching with awe. Lincoln has to gently bring her attention back to her food a couple of times to remind her to eat.
Clarke’s a little jealous. Landing on the ground, sure, she was like that -- sort of. After the initial freedom set in she began to worry about food and survival, so maybe she’s just not the type to revel. She’s more focused on the practical.
But Clarke was really overwhelmed when she first encountered Grounders, and overwhelmed with each new reveal, like Polis life. She’s envious of Octavia’s adaptability, her sheer excitement in departing from the status quo.
... she keeps forgetting what Octavia’s status quo really was -- locked in a small, dark space for hours on end. Having to keep silent and still, and no way to entertain herself except to replay the stories her brother told her in her head.
Stories of epic battles, legendary warriors, and wondrous or even magical events.
“He could barely be contained when Anya announced you and the Commander would go off alone,” Lincoln continues. “She put a guard on him. He nearly escaped them twice.”
Clarke winced. “I bet Anya was thrilled.”
Lincoln looks thoughtful. “She started training him.”
Clarke almost drops her food into the dirt. “What?”
He nods and takes a deep drink of water. “Anya was... she knew the Commander could handle the situation, but she wasn’t happy about it. I think she needed to throw herself into something, as much as your friend needed to be taken out of himself.”
“Lincoln. She tortured him. Why would she train him how to fight?”
“That’s when we were on opposite sides. We’re allies, now.”
Clarke reels for a second. She’s used to factionism, obviously. But the Ark constantly preached unity, even if the day-to-day reality came with a lot more open discrimination. She’s never actually considered what it must have been like before the Coalition, where a clan whose villages you burnt to cinders one week fought by your side in the next.
She was just lecturing Wells about how the Grounders’ cavalier attitude toward violence didn’t make them savages, but apparently she’s a bit of a hypocrite. Because this is a lot to swallow.
You’re in love with the person who ordered you tortured, a small voice points out inside her head. And you object to Wells making friends with his? She squashes it.
Maybe more than a bit of a hypocrite.
“Your friend took a bit more convincing,” Lincoln says. They’re careful when they talk in Woods Clan language -- Wells and Octavia are really coming along in their lessons, but they’re not able to follow conversations. Names, of course, kind of give the game away. “I think he was afraid she just wanted to break both his legs, make sure he stayed where she put him.”
“With Anya? I would be, too.”
Lincoln, having finished his food, leans back in contentment. “All your people have a lot of feelings. You need to learn how to control yourselves if you want to be accepted by warriors. The battlefield has no room for a wavering heart.”
Clarke raises her eyebrows. “Didn’t you betray your clan for a girl you knew only a couple days?”
So then she has two people ignoring her for the rest of the meal. Which is fine.
It’s a good thing she managed to get something out of Lincoln before that, though, or she might have thought she was hallucinating when she saw Anya walk up to their campfire. The older woman doesn’t spare her a glance, stops right outside their circle and folds her arms as if she has, no reason really, to be standing like this in the middle of camp.
Except Wells crams the rest of his food in his mouth and climbs to his feet when he sees her. Octavia does the same and she and Lincoln disappear for more practice. Clarke jumps up and snags Wells’s elbow before he can leave. He stops, but doesn’t turn around.
“Hey,” she says, low enough she doesn’t think Anya can hear them. “I meant it. You don’t have to stay here for me.”
He’s still for a second, and Clarke actually begins to be afraid that... but then he sighs, and his shoulders droop. “Could you leave me, if our positions were switched?”
“I... maybe.” Never. Not that she’d stay ; she’d just conk Wells over the head and physically drag his unconscious body wherever she was planning to go next. But she doesn’t want to give him any ideas. “This isn’t sticking by each other in detention, though. This is serious.”
He does turn then, looking affronted. “I went into the Skybox for you.”
Her hand tightens on his arm. She wants to hug him, but she’s afraid he might not let her in front of his new, super-controlled warrior pal. She blinks back her tears and says, “So I owe you one. This can be how I pay you back.”
Wells shakes his head. “Not how it works.” He grabs her into a hug. It’s hard and quick and over before she can collect herself, Wells holding her at arm’s length. “I’m still mad at you,” he says, and Clarke fights the urge to duck her head like she’s five, “but I’m not leaving you.”
Clarke sneaks a look over at Anya, growing visibly impatient. “You guys are really friends, now?”
Wells takes her hands off his shoulders. “Not really. But she hasn’t decided to kill me, yet.”
That... might actually be how Anya defines friendship, Clarke decides, watching as they walk off together.
She thinks about it: Lincoln’s nonchalance to changing loyalties, Wells and Anya. Herself and Lexa, the way they were, alone in the forest.
She knew this next part was coming. She’s tempted to change out of her Arker clothes, it might -- might -- make things easier. But she’s put this off long enough.
“Excuse me,” she says to a warrior passing by, “which direction is the healers’ tent?”
The moment she enters the apprentices nearest to her stop dead, staring. The silence spreads outward in a long, slow ripple, until there’s no sound and barely any movement inside the tent.
Clarke’s mouth is too dry to swallow. “Nyko?” she asks, vaguely in the direction of the people standing closest to her. She recognizes a few faces, but not enough to put names to them. They know her, of course. Everyone in the tower knew Lexa’s wood witch.
The wide eyes around her grow even bigger, but someone points. Clarke heads off in that direction at a brisk pace that hopefully will deter anyone from stopping her with questions.
She makes it all the way to the section of the tent where Nyko is working. It’s a re-creation of the pharmacy inside the tower infirmary, full of bottled tinctures, powders, and other medicinal ingredients. Nyko is checking the contents as he moves along, making notations in chalk against the containers. When Clarke moves into the separate space, letting a section of fabric fall into place behind her, his head comes up.
Clarke had something planned -- sort of -- for this moment, but her mind goes blank. All she can do is stand there, silent, waiting to see where the axe will fall.
Nyko turns back to his work. “You received my summons.”
“I... what? No,” Clarke forces herself to calm down, slow her breathing, stop babbling in surprise. “I just arrived at camp. I came over as soon as I had something to eat. I wanted to --”
“It doesn’t matter to me what you wanted,” Nyko says, still with his back to her. “I need you to talk to Prince Roan.”
Clarke can only stare at him, too turned around to follow.
“I was tempted to leave him in the dungeons, of course. I don’t think being returned to his mother, after years as a captive and nothing to show for it, would have been any less a punishment. But we had a few days’ worth of warning before Nia descended on the city, and after all of the essentials were put into a caravan,” indicating the supplies, “it occurred to me the prince might be useful. Somehow.”
“You snuck out a prisoner of war, but not the nightbloods?” Clarke asks. She’s barely paying attention to what she says, she’s still trying to understand why Nyko isn’t... She expected anger, recrimination, part of her even expected to be threatened. She’s not sure what to do with this.
“The nightbloods are the purview of the handmaidens, who spent the time turning their section of the tower into a barricaded fortress. They are as safe as they can be. Do not,” and there’s still no real emotion in his voice, but the quietness of his words gives Clarke a chill, “presume you know what is best for them.”
Clarke eyes him. “Why do you want me to talk to the prince?”
“Because: in the years he spent as our prisoner, you were far and away his favorite for actual conversation. Except for Lexa, I don’t think he deigned to say more than a few words to anyone. And that was before you had a voice to answer.” He turns, folding his arms as he looks at her. “I wondered why for some time, but now I think like recognizes like. And traitor recognizes traitor.”
It stops her cold, stomach swooping like she’s stumbled and missed the last step of the stair -- the feeling of certainty in her footing ripped away at the last moment. She can only return his gaze numbly.
She’s saved the next moment when a crowd bursts through the dividing barrier, almost tangling themselves in the fabric in eagerness. She doesn’t even have time to turn and look, a whoop of joy is her only warning before Sanga, of all people, is picking her up and spinning her around in a hug, Hern tugging her back to earth for his turn and Versi clapping her hands like a small child.
“You’re back,” Hern says, finally releasing her from his hug but not letting her go far, hands gripping her shoulders almost hard enough to hurt. “We kept looking for you when the Commander went back on campaign, but then Nyko said she’d taken you with her and wouldn’t tell us why -- why, by the way?” he asks, attention switching back to Nyko. “Everyone says the invaders in the south have been dealt with. Can’t you say, now?”
Nyko’s impassive expression doesn’t change, doesn’t twitch, but Clarke’s stomach plummets. Somehow, she knows exactly what he’s about to throw her into, even before he opens his mouth and says: “Let the witch tell you herself.”
It takes a moment for his meaning to register, and she can almost catch when it does. Their excitement dims, tainted with shock -- like a drop of ink dropped into clear water. Versi lowers her hands, forehead creasing. Hern keeps his eyes on Nyko like he expects to hear the rest of the joke. It’s Sanga who asks her: “You can speak?”
Clarke swallows. “Yes.”
Hern jumps, his hands leaving her shoulders. His mouth falls open and he takes a step back. She doesn’t even think he’s conscious of it -- but it hurts. Even more than she anticipated.
“I could, before I came to Polis,” she continues, when it’s clear they’re only going to give her those wide, unblinking stares. “But I ate something... something I shouldn’t have, on the riverbank. Lexa found someone to work up a cure.”
“Well... that’s wonderful,” Hern says, but it’s subdued. He can -- they all can, she’s sure -- sense the coldness radiating from Nyko, the anxiety from Clarke. They’re waiting for the rest.
Clarke knows she owes it to them. But she opens her mouth, and she can’t find the words.
“Why are you wearing those clothes?” Versi asks suddenly. Her eyes are narrowed slightly. “I’ve never seen a clan wearing clothes like that. Only those from the Mountain.”
“I’m not from the Mountain,” Clarke says quickly. “But I’m not... my people are from something we call the Ark. You called them invaders.” She swallows, her throat thick. “They’re your allies, now. That’s why the Commander abandoned the southern front -- they’re the ones dealing with the Mountain, while we deal with Nia.”
“Well, that’s...” Hern looks winded. “That’s good, right? Surprising, but...” He looks to Nyko, who gives him nothing. He addresses his question to Sanga instead. “Isn’t that good?”
“It might be,” Sanga says quietly. His eyes are on Versi.
Who steps up to Clarke -- very, very close, eyes searching her face. She asks, deliberately pitching her voice so that it doesn’t travel beyond the two of them: “Did Lexa know?”
Clarke’s hands clench into fists at her sides. She isn’t sure why. “She brought me here, Versi. I helped broker a treaty, and I’m here to be her witch.”
It’s enough -- it should be enough -- for anyone who isn’t her or Lexa. The knots and tangles of their relationship are their own.
But: “Did she know?” Versi repeats, with a fierceness that reminds Clarke of a cold morning in the greenhouse.
“No,” Clarke says quietly.
Versi should have been a warrior. She moves quick -- so quick Clarke feels the punch before she processes what’s happened. She’s looking into the other apprentices’ eyes, and then: boom, her cheek is exploding with impact.
She has a second to think about how she’s surprised at how little it hurts. Then the nerves tell her brain what’s up.
She ducks -- she doesn’t think of hitting back, even then, which is unlike her, but... she lets the pain sag her down to her knees, arms raised in a half-hearted block.
Turns out Sanga was also quick. When she manages a glance, he’s pinned Versi’s arms to her sides and is attempting to pull her somewhere -- anywhere -- else, out of range. Versi is shouting, Clarke realizes as the ringing in her one ear subsides. Clarke only dimly recognizes the language as Plains Riders’. She’d forgotten that Versi came from so far away.
She lowers her arms, chest heaving as if she’s just been in a fight. Sanga manages to drag Versi out of the pharmacy as she kicks all the way. He doesn’t look at Clarke.
Hern does, briefly. He throws one look over his shoulder at her before following the others -- a look she can’t read, but which leaves her feeling scooped-out hollow, and shaking with something besides the adrenaline.
“Can you stand?” Nyko asks.
Clarke tries deep, slow breaths to calm the stuttering beat of her heart. “Give me a second.”
“Every second we waste is another second I’m closer to poisoning his next meal. I’m not sure he’s worth the trouble of feeding another mouth, at this point.”
Clarke closes her eyes. Her face hurts. Her heart hurts. She builds a barrier around each -- pushes down Hern’s last look, the tears she might have seen in Versi’s eyes, Sanga’s tight mouth, down and down -- and rises to her feet.
“Take me to the prince.”
They’ve cleared an area between several of the main tents. It effectively surrounds him on all sides, with no escape except through the tents and the crowds of apprentices and healers inside them. There are still guards posted in each corner -- four in total. They stand with impassive faces and their hands behind their backs, eyes tracking Clarke as she walks out into the small, open-air area.
Prince Roan is sitting down. At a table no less -- something incredibly bulky, as if it were carved in one piece from a massive tree. The chairs are the same, and Clarke wonders why they’d go through the trouble of bringing such furniture into this small space before realizing this way, the prince would be unable to use them as weapons, or even break off table legs or chair arms to use as clubs.
“Hello, little witch,” Roan says, not bothering to stand. He’s midway through a meal. It’s the same basic supplies that were handed out to every campsite around noon: several cuts of meat, grains, a cluster of fresh-picked green onions. Lincoln had used his skills to put them all together into a fragrant and satisfying meal for Clarke and the others, but she doesn’t think whoever cooked for Roan used the same care. He also wasn’t given utensils, and insteads scoops the food into his mouth using slices of bread. He takes a bite now, chewing with his elbows planted on the table. “I always wondered if I’d see your unfortunately pretty face again.”
Clarke shrugs. “I’ve barely thought about you at all. Sorry.”
Shock wipes his expression completely clean, habitual smirk falling from his face as he stares. Clarke feels a sick little twist in her stomach -- damn, Nyko hadn’t told him, she could have used that, maybe -- that mellows into exasperation as Roan burst out into laughter so raucous and unrestrained he has to cover his open mouth.
“No,” he breathes as soon as he recovers. “How long since that happened?” The smirk is already back. “What I would have given to see Lexa’s face.”
She really... she thought she was past this. Not over it, but that she’d moved to a different place, emotionally, than stewing in how much Lexa had hurt her on learning the truth. It had happened. It shouldn’t have happened. There wasn’t much Clarke could do with that information, now that it was properly acknowledged by the relevant parties, besides accept its existence and get on with her life.
But with everyone’s reactions and questions kicking up old emotional dust, she’s not looking forward to her dreams tonight.
“If you’d been there, she probably would have had you killed.” Clarke sits -- why not? “Be grateful you were safe in your dungeon.”
“Oh, I’m always grateful for Heda’s excellent hospitality,” he says. Clarke gives him a sharp look -- but he doesn’t seem insincere. Or, no more than he usually is. Roan continues: “So, whose presence exactly do I have the honor of entertaining in my,” he shifts to indicate their surroundings, and she hears chains clink -- a quick glance under the table reveals he’s hobbled by several lengths of them -- “humble new surroundings?”
Clarke considers him, but... Nyko’s wrong. There’s really no manipulating Roan. The only real impression she got from him was detachment, with a slightly sadistic pleasure in observing any chaos around or created by him. She’s not sure if he was always like that, or if it’s an attitude he developed after his mother’s agenda prioritized punishing Lexa over keeping him safe. Maybe he started out like this, but accepting that Lexa’s sense of honor did more to keep him alive than familial love just made it worse over the years.
Either way, she doesn’t think there’s any hope of getting one over on the prince of Azgeda. She gets the impression he was weaned on emotional warfare, and even her best attempts would be spotted from a mile off.
Honesty and transparency it is, then.
“My name is Clarke Griffin.”
Roan pauses mid-chew. “You’re named like one of the Mountain Men.”
“I’m not from the Mountain. But my people are... well, were, I guess... a lot more like them than any of the clans. They hid from the,” she has no idea how to say nuclear fallout in this language, “fires in the Mountain, and my people also hid -- but by launching themselves into the sky. And then we fell back to Earth.”
Roan laughs again, shaking his head helplessly.
When it’s clear he’s not going to add to the conversation, Clarke continues: “The Mountain captured dozens of my people, although they insist on lying about it. We’re not at war with the Coalition -- unlike your mother.” He doesn’t react to that, but she didn’t really expect him to. “There was suspicion at first, on both sides. But that’s all behind us. We work against a common enemy.”
The prince takes another big bite of his meal, enjoying himself. “So a new peace was brokered between the two peoples. Who by?”
Arguably by a lot of people. Kane had helped, and even Bellamy. But only one person had put on gold paint and taken the risk of visiting Lexa’s tent, and that was: “Me.”
“And who are you,” Roan asks, wiping his fingers on his shirt, “to force the leaders of these people into reconciliation? What authority do you have with them?”
“None,” she throws back at him. “Sometimes people do what they know they should. What’s best for everyone.” Eventually, anyway, she thinks to herself.
He narrows his eyes at her. “No authority,” he says, soft, and she gets the distinct impression of a fox scenting out its prey. “No authority, she says, and even believes it... rank, then?”
“I’m too young to have a --”
“Who is your leader? How are they connected to you?” he asks, eyes sharp.
Clarke swallows. “While I’m here, Lexa is really my --”
He pins her in place with a look. “Your other leader.”
Clarke opens her mouth, closes it. She could continue to dodge, try to explain the shift in the Council since... But he’s already won and he knows it. The longer she fights, the more smug he’ll be in victory. “My mother."
He roars with laughter, slumping back into his chair as his shoulders shake. Clarke has to sit there and watch, knowing any reaction from her will probably just add to it.
He sighs expansively when he finishes. His head is flung back, eyes closed, one hand resting on the center of his chest. “Thank you,” he says. “That was almost worth rotting away for so long.” He cracks an eye open. “Should I address you as your Highness?”
“We don’t have royal titles,” Clarke says, casting away the specter of princess. “And we don’t inherit power from our parents.”
“Neither does Ice Nation,” Roan says, and that -- that does a lot to explain how he ended up like this. “Neither does Woods Clan. Doesn’t change who we are, though, does it?” The smirk now has a truly vicious edge. “And powerful people often give the illusion of power to those close to them, when there’s a benefit. But you already know all about that. Don’t you.”
She refuses to look away.
“I never enjoyed a similar level of... honor,” with the slightest leer. “But we’re useful pieces in the game, we sons and daughters of powerful people -- for forging alliances,” with a nod at her, “or for bargaining,” indicating himself.
“No one used me,” Clarke snaps. “I’m not like you.”
“No,” Roan says. “You’re not. Even more reason to pity Lexa.”
Maybe if she starts walking around in something backless, people will stop thinking Lexa is the one who deserves to be defended.
It’s too cold for that, of course. But she files away the thought for the future.
Roan is watching her closely. When she refuses to answer that, staring him down, he laughs again.
“You don’t even understand why I feel sorry for her, do you?” he asks.
“No, I get it. She gave the illusion of power to the wrong person.”
“Oh, if only it were so simple,” he says, helping himself to the last of his meal. “You have real power, now. But Lexa can only suffer for the fact.” He smirks. “You haven’t figured it out yet, have you.”
It makes more and more sense that Nyko would have her talk to Roan, now -- it really is more of a punishment than an honor. “I’m sure you’ll enjoy explaining it.”
“Of course.” He licks his fingers clean -- no napkin, and she wonders why, but then: rip the fabric into a longer strip and you can strangle someone. She’s always forgetting how brutal these people are trained to be. “Bad enough that Lexa pants after the daughter of a rival clan leader --”
“Now,” he sneers. “But how long will that last? As I was saying: bad enough, but who would notice? Not many, Lexa’s too practiced at this point. Maybe a handful of those closest to her, and another handful of those watching for any possible weakness. Bad enough,” he repeats, leaning one elbow on the table to lean in closer, “but it would be a secret. Except...”
“Except what,” Clarke says through gritted teeth, knowing she’s playing right into his hands and not being able to help it.
“Except it’s hardly a secret now, is it,” he says quietly. “Here you are.”
Clarke shakes her head. “I’m not anyone here, besides Lexa’s witch. She won’t let it be more than that.”
She’s very proud of herself for keeping any bitterness out of her tone.
The look Roan gives her is close to pitying. “She already has.”
“No one’s going to know --”
“Of course they are,” dark eyes snapping in frustration. “Surely you’ve heard by now what it means, once the Commander’s wood witch talks?”
Clarke freezes with her mouth half-open.
Oh. Oh shit, she’d forgotten that part.
“It doesn’t matter,” she says, but her mouth is dry. “I came back. When people know the story, that’s all they care about. I came back for Lexa.”
Roan sits back in his chair. “That only makes it worse.”
Clarke narrows her eyes. “If you’re talking about Nia --”
“-- then she’s already been trying to kill me. For months. This isn’t new.”
“Before this, you were just another game piece. Your death would hurt Lexa. Now,” he says quietly, and she wonders if even the guards can hear him, “you are a player in the game. If you die, it won’t just be Lexa who feels it. It will be everyone who placed their hope in your presence, and the legend you are creating. What’s more -- it will affect Lexa’s legend.” His eyes are dark. “My mother will no longer be satisfied with your death, Clarke Griffin of the sky. If she wants to turn the stories you’ve been spinning to her own advantage, then she needs you to suffer -- and by her own hand.”
So that the whole world will know for certain: to be linked with the Commander means you’re marked for absolute misery.
Clarke holds his eyes. “I’m so sick of other people trying to make me afraid,” she says. Hopefully she speaks softly enough, no one will be able to tell how close her voice is to shaking.
Roan barks a laugh. “You wouldn’t have survived childhood in the Ice Court.” He leans back, old bitterness lurking around the edges of his expression. “I’m not trying to do anything. It’s a courtesy warning.”
She believes him.
“Thanks, I guess,” she says as she rises to her feet. Abby really is looking better and better, the more Clarke hears about how people grow up on the ground. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but unless you’ve got anything helpful to add, I’m not going to be the one who persuades Nyko not to poison you.”
“His Highness knows I would never let that happen.”
Clarke whirls around at the sound of Lexa’s voice, grabbing the back of the heavy chair to keep from unbalancing. Lexa’s standing at the entrance of one of the tents that hem in her prisoner -- not the one that leads to the healers. She’s taken off her armor and cloak, but still carries the aura of power that means she goes nowhere unrecognized. She knows she’s being silly, but the sheer presence of her makes Clarke wonder how she managed to sneak up on them.
Roan doesn’t even startle. “My life is at the Commander’s disposal. Quite literally.”
“Quite,” Lexa repeats, eyes only on him.
She looks so tired, Clarke thinks.
Lexa turns to her as if she can hear it. She doesn’t really look at Clarke, but she angles her face vaguely in her direction. “The sun won’t set for another few hours, but this part of camp is deep enough in the trees that it will get dark much sooner. I suggest you head back to your tent.”
“If you’re worried about her getting lost,” Roan rumbles, “you could send her back with an escort.” He flashes a grin. “I’m free.”
Clarke's s a little surprised when Lexa looks back at him and says: “I’m sorry to put you in this position, for what it’s worth.”
Roan raises his eyebrows. “I’m not sorry to be out of your dungeon.”
“The dungeon was what you deserved,” Lexa says calmly. “If I can find a way to use you against your mother, I’m not sure you’ll deserve what comes next.”
Roan looks almost fond. “You’ll do it anyway.”
“Of course.” She turns, holding the tent opening to the side with the clear expectation that Clarke enter first.
Clarke releases her grip on the chairback with one last glance toward Azgeda’s crown prince. He crooks his fingers at her, looking oddly wistful as the heavy fabric falls back into place and they both disappear from his sight.
Clarke’s not sure what this tent is for -- maybe nothing, maybe it’s just a way to provide another barrier to Roan, or maybe it’s just not in constant use. It seems empty, and there’s no one else inside besides herself, and Lexa.
Lexa makes no move to leave the stillness of the empty tent, or usher Clarke elsewhere. She lets her arm fall to her side but then just stands there, head slightly bowed. At this angle she must be able to see Clarke out of the corner of her eye, but she doesn’t turn.
Clarke wants to touch her so badly. It’s a longing with its own heavy weight in her stomach, her arms -- the urge to reach out and put her hand between Lexa’s shoulder blades and step in close, drawing it down the length of her spine as she rests her head against Lexa’s back. She’s scared. Lexa’s tired. And Clarke knows, she knows that if Lexa would just let it happen, they could help each other. The two of them would be better, together.
Lexa speaks without looking around at her: “I hoped hearing how much danger you’re in from a different authority would help you accept the facts.”
... of course Lexa knew how much dearer a prize Clarke was to Nia, now. That’s why she’d been so angry, that first time Clarke played a wood witch in full possession of a voice.
“It doesn’t change anything.”
Lexa sighs, and her shoulders drop another inch. “My life would be easier if you were less brave.”
Clarke laughs, and it comes out a little harsh. “Who says I’m brave? It doesn’t matter where I am, now, Nia’s going to come looking. What’s to keep her from grabbing me if I run back to the Ark?”
Lexa frowns at the floor of the tent. “That might be true, but... There should be a better reason for staying in a warzone.”
“Lexa. You know the reason.”
Her eyes fall shut. “I’m... it’s such a small way of saying it, but I am honored you’d want to call this your home --”
“You. You are my home.”
The other girl’s throat works before she can find the words. “I can’t be.” She holds herself rigid, and suddenly Clarke knows that she’s not the only one fighting the desire to touch.
“Why --” Lexa makes as if to turn her head but jerks it back at the last second, closing her eyes again. “You know why. We spent the last few days talking about it.”
Clarke sighs. Saving Lexa from herself is taking a lot more out of her than she anticipated. Do other people fight it like this? Or was she just lucky, stumbling onto the kind of girl who insists no, this deep dark hole is where she belongs. That it’s what she deserves.
Clarke is lucky. She knows that, despite everything. “You don’t have to like it. You don’t even have to understand it. But you can’t command me to make my home anywhere else.” She dredges up a smile. “Anyone else. I don’t belong at the Ark -- I’m not the person those people remember. I’m not the person I pretended to be in Polis, either. But whoever I am with you... that’s who I want to be, from now on. So you’re it.”
Lexa finally drags her head up so that her eyes meet Clarke’s. “I --”
She stops dead.
Clarke blinks, and then suddenly Lexa is there, hands reaching up to cup her face. She does it slowly, giving Clarke more than enough time to move away. Clarke leans into the touch instead -- breathing in the scent of Lexa’s leathers, the slight sting of woodsmoke -- and winces as the soreness of her left cheek throbs.
She jerks back, remembering, but by now Lexa has a careful grip, fingers stretched out against her jaw and thumb just under her chin. She isn’t letting go.
“Who struck you?” she says, oh, so softly, eyes dark and intent, and... and Clarke is a bad, bad person, because it makes her shiver.
No, she tells herself, firmly, and wraps her fingers around Lexa’s wrist. She doesn’t force her away, just gives her a squeeze. “I’m handling it.” Lexa’s eyes darken further, and Clarke continues before she can open her mouth: “You can’t have it both ways, you know.”
Regret slices through Lexa’s expression, but her features eventually relax into acceptance. She takes away her hands, sword calluses a rough drag against Clarke’s skin in contrast to the overall gentleness of her touch. “If you say so.”
Clarke does. Versi is needed -- although it does soothe the tiniest little wound Versi left on Clarke’s soul.
“If you insist on staying,” Lexa is saying, slowly and softly, as if that somehow will make it less awful, “I’ll have to find other ways to handle the... situation your presence creates.”
Clarke supresses a chill. “You won’t try to trick me into --”
“No.” Lexa shakes her head. “You’re right, your decisions are your own. But you can’t ask me to sit back and do nothing.”
“What, then?” What will she do about Clarke, about the legend of the wood witch and how they’ve both changed it.
Lexa sets her mouth, and Clarke is immediately reminded of her apology to Roan. “Whatever it takes.”
Lincoln and Octavia are having a language lesson by the campfire when Clarke approaches. “Hand,” he says for her, holding one up and circling the whole thing with a finger.
“Palm,” pressing his finger into the meat of his.
“Fingers,” wiggling them.
“Handshake,” and he takes one of hers in his own, resting his free hand on top of their joined ones.
Octavia starts to smile, but before Lincoln can prompt her she pulls at their clasp of hands and Lincoln into a soft kiss.
“That’s a different lesson,” Lincoln says in English, after a moment, and Clarke clears her throat.
Lincoln clearly didn’t hear her approach -- probably too much ambient noise in the camp to pick out one person’s footsteps -- and Octavia clearly doesn’t care. Clarke thinks she sees the younger girl’s grip tighten on her boyfriend, throwing a look at Clarke which is borderline defiant.
Clarke wishes she could explain just how little she’s going to judge Octavia for falling in love with a Grounder. She just wishes she could station them both somewhere she knows Lexa would see. Maybe they could lead by example.
“Wells?” Clarke asks.
“Inside. He wanted to rest after sparring practice with Anya.” Lincoln says the last four words like he’s still not sure they’re reality. “She stuck with hand-to-hand, but he did well for himself, if you’re wondering.”
Clarke’s not surprised. Wells always had a few more tricks up his sleeve than people expected. “Dinner?”
“In a few hours, if you’re hungry.”
Clarke shakes her head. “I think I’d rather lay down, too.” She hesitates before walking into the tent. “Did Wells tell you guys about the odds being against us?”
Octavia rolled her eyes. “Yeah, in detail.”
“You can still leave if you want.”
Octavia shakes her head.
“Octavia, this is serious. This isn’t weapons practice, or an epic poem --”
“When you were locked in the Skybox, were you glad you were in solitary? Instead of genpop?”
Clarke has to take a second to parse the interruption. “I -- no. It was awful.”
“It was safer. No telling what kids from the other stations would have done to you when the guards weren’t looking, especially given your parents, your friendship with the Jahas.”
Clarke spares a glance for Lincoln, but his face is impassive. She wonders how much of life aboard the Ark Octavia has explained to him. “Solitary was like being buried alive. The danger would have been worth it.”
“Exactly,” Octavia says. “There’s more than one way to end up hiding under the floor. I’m not going back.”
Clarke looks to Lincoln again, but she doesn’t even bother to ask. This time it’s his grip that tightens where he and Octavia are still holding hands.
Clarke sighs, but she realizes she doesn’t have much room to talk. She heads into the tent with one last nod in their direction.
The tents here are much more spacious than the ones they used on the road, made of heavier material as well. The effect could almost be a room inside the tower, with the thick fabric blanketing the outide noise and helping to keep in some of the warmth. There’s even a small brazier in the corner, identical to the one Clarke kicked over in Lexa’s tent so long ago. It throws just enough light for Clarke to make out the four bedrolls arranged neatly in each corner, and Wells lounging, fully-dressed, on top of his.
“Hey,” she says, unsure of how he might receive it, considering how they left things. But when Wells sits up to get a better look at her he doesn’t seem angry, just tired.
“Hey.” And then, squinting: “Did someone hit you?”
“It’s a long story.” She shrugs off her Arker jacket. She noticed earlier someone relieved Storm of the packs she was carrying, but she isn’t worried about her belongings. Clarke suspects she’ll get her Grounder clothing back sooner rather than later, cleaned and folded. This entire camp is a well-run machine. “And you spent the afternoon getting pushed around, too, so don’t give me that look.”
Wells gives a small sigh and holds his hands up in surrender.
“Don’t throw anything at me,” Clarke says, sitting on the only bedroll that doesn’t already have packs placed near it, “but I still don’t get how you’re okay with that.”
“At least Anya didn’t leave a mark.”
Clarke stills in the middle of making herself comfortable. “Wells, I love you. But you don’t want to fight with me about this.”
“I kind of do.” But he only mutters it, running his hand over his face. “You deserve better.”
“I know.” It’s Clarke’s turn to sigh. “I don’t... I’m not here because I think it was okay. It wasn’t. I’m still here in spite of that.” She lays down and looks over at him. “Do you think what Anya did was okay?”
“Of course not,” he says quietly. “I’m never going to. Sometimes I still dream about Raven screaming.”
“But here you are. And the two of you are,” she can still barely wrap her brain around it, “sparring together. But I get Anya -- kind of -- because this is her normal. It’s not yours.”
Wells is quiet for what feels like a long time, staring down at his linked hands. “She did what she thought was best,” he says finally. “She was wrong, but -- she really was trying to do right. I have to factor that,” as he looks up, “especially if I want other people to use the same context for me. I dream about that village we set on fire, too.”
“... yeah.” Clarke turns her head to look up at the ceiling of the tent. If she closes her eyes she can see five small faces peering back at her in the bushes. So she holds them open, letting the dryness burn. “It’s not like the Ark. Everything was so contained up there -- maybe you couldn’t always control cause and effect, but you could see it. There weren’t hidden consequences.”
“Or maybe there were, and we just weren’t paying enough attention.” He sighs. “Your turn. This isn’t your normal, either. So why the hell are you...”
“You can say it,” Clarke says when he trails off. “I won’t throw anything.”
“Clarke. Are you still in love with her?”
Her eyes finally begin to water of their own accord, wetness slipping from the corners into her hair. If she keeps her eyes open she can tell herself it’s just because they’re so dry. “I don’t know where you get still from. I never said --”
“Come on. I saw you when you came back to the Ark. You looked...” He sighs again. “I’ve never seen you like that. Except once, when you were screaming at me on the dropship. You only get that look when you think someone you love has failed you in the worst way.”
Clarke gives up, shuts her eyes.
“The thing with Anya, though,” Wells continues, “is... okay, she still thinks she was in the right, but she’s trying to course-correct. She took care of me when I was terrified I’d lost you again. She’s even taking care of me now, kind of -- I’ll probably never go toe to toe with one of their warriors, but maybe I can hold one off and run away if it comes to it. She’s not my enemy anymore, and she’s showing it in every way she can.”
“Lexa knows she screwed up.”
“Well, okay, so there’s that. But how is she taking care of you, or making amends? What’s really changed?”
Nothing. Well. There was no threat of being tortured again -- Clarke had made the consequences of that clear. But as much as Lexa realized her deeper mistakes, she still clung to the belief that she could somehow do more, still win the rigged game to keep Clarke safe. She still believes Clarke is owed protection, instead of partnership.
Clarke turns over on her bedroll away from Wells, facing the tent wall. “It’s a lot more complicated than your thing with Anya. There’s just... more to it.”
“Enough to stay where you’re not wanted?”
Her cheek throbs where Versi hit her. “I told you. I’m not leaving.”
“Yeah, I know.” She can hear him get to his feet and walk over to her bedroll. She tenses, but he just puts a careful hand on her shoulder. “Just promise me you won’t end up looking like that again. Promise you’ll make some kind of change before it gets that bad.”
(Lexa looking at her with an unspoken apology in her eyes: “Whatever it takes.”)
Clarke reaches up to intertwine their fingers. “I’ll try.”
“I’m part of the Commander’s personal guard, you know. I was there when we found you in the woods outside Tondisi. I understood Lexa’s reasons for elevating you, but I never actually believed the story.”
“I don’t remember seeing you in the tower.” Not that she doubts Bryn. And Versi did say, all those months ago, that Bryn used to cause trouble with the apprentices.
Bryn relaxes into the cot, her back against the thin pillows propped up at the head. “I wasn’t trying to get your attention. Then.”