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Head Over Boots

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Clarke shifted in her seat for what she knew was the thousandth time. She wasn’t physically uncomfortable, especially not in their new truck that she and Lexa had finally purchased (not to replace Lexa’s old truck, of course). But Clarke couldn’t stay still as the miles disappeared under the truck tires and they grew closer and closer to the person who might change the rest of their lives forever.

Unprompted, Lexa’s hand came to rest on her fidgeting thigh. Clarke heaved out a sigh as she looked over to her. Lexa spared her a glance and a small smile before she turned back to the country highway that wove between grass-covered hills.

“I’m sorry,” Clarke said, maybe also for the thousandth time. But she couldn’t help being nervous, couldn’t help wondering if they were doing the right thing, couldn’t help running through all of the scenarios in her head, couldn’t help wondering if this was the day they would become parents…

“You don’t have to be sorry, Clarke.” Lexa ran a thumb softly along her leg, which never failed to bring a small amount of comfort to her. “This could be one of the most important days of our life together.”

Clarke knew Lexa meant the best, but she ran her hands over her face and groaned. “I don’t know if that helps.”

“I’m nervous too.” Lexa looked back over to her, looking anything but. Her face was serene and perfectly framed by her hair pulled behind her head in a loose braid.  

Clarke looked down at Lexa’s hand and intertwined their fingers together. It was such a small thing, to hold hands with her wife, to feel that little bit of touch and comfort, and yet Clarke relied on it maybe more than she should have. Lexa was a stabilizing force in her life, less prone to over-analyzing and indulging her anxieties. For Lexa, when something was settled in her mind, she could move on and focus on the next issue. Clarke envied her for it, even as she was grateful that Lexa provided that balance for her.

Because that balance had proven even more important since they had gotten married. They juggled the ranch and Clarke’s new mobile veterinary practice as best they could, and even managed to take a week off in December for a whirlwind honeymoon to Hawaii. (Clarke would never get over the look and feel of Lexa in a bikini.) They truly were developing into partners for life, sharing ideas, sharing workloads, sharing dreams. And now especially, on their way to what Clarke cringed to think was called an “adoption party,” Clarke was able to share her fears and reservations.

It had been an intense last year. She and Lexa had decided that it was finally time for them to start a family together, besides Daenerys and the rest of the cattle, but the process was time-consuming and arduous. They conducted their own research, connected with Child and Family Services, attended orientation and weekly classes on the adoption process, arranged for their home to be inspected… it was overwhelming.

But Clarke was reassured they were making the right choice, time and time again. Every time they invited a new family to stay with them during the summer, she and Lexa shared a look as the children gazed up at the cattle in wonder. Every time Lexa taught another child the basics of riding a horse, Clarke could only smile. And every time Clarke found herself daydreaming about the simple things, like having dinner with Lexa and their child, helping them with their homework, raising a child who didn’t have to worry about the roof over their head over whether or not their parents loved them, she knew: raising a family with Lexa was what she wanted.

“Do you think it’ll be weird?” Clarke heard herself asking again. Her filter with Lexa had dissipated long ago. She knew she didn’t have to fear Lexa thinking less of her, or looking down on her. “I can’t help but feel like we’re going to a market for children.”

“It might be strange,” Lexa conceded. Clarke saw a shadow of her own anxiety in Lexa’s eyes. “I imagine it’s awkward for the children too. But this is the way it works, Clarke. Either this, or we read descriptions of children online. At least this way, we get to meet them in person.”

“I know. You’re right.” Clarke rubbed her eyes, wishing that they could skip ahead to the part where they were a family. “I just… what do we talk about? What do we say to them? ‘Hey, kid. Do you want to live with us for the rest of your childhood and accept our love and support forever?’”

“Maybe you shouldn’t say it like that,” Lexa said, squeezing Clarke’s hand slightly. “Just pretend they’re kids on the ranch that you’re meeting for the first time. Encourage them to talk about themselves. Let them know that you’re interested. Make them feel safe.”

“Ugh, you make it sound so easy.” Clarke took a deep breath and let it out slowly.  “I’m glad I’m doing this with you. Starting a family. Maybe starting a family.”

“It may not be today, but we will.” Lexa spoke so confidently. “When the time’s right.”

Clarke began to feel a little more of that confidence too. She leaned over and placed a kiss on Lexa’s cheek before turning up the radio a little louder, letting the crackling country tunes bring them the rest of the way.

**********

It was a little weird, there was no getting around it. She and Lexa walked around the community center hand-in-hand and watched the children getting their faces painted, making crafts, playing with train sets and dolls. They approached social workers and chatted with a few children, Lexa taking the lead, as she asked them about whatever they were playing or drawing.

But when Clarke saw a boy with brown hair, maybe eight years old, playing with Lego’s by himself at a table, she wrapped her arm around Lexa’s waist. She couldn’t take her eyes off of him. “Can we go talk to him?” she whispered.

Lexa watched him for a long moment before leading them over to his table. He looked up at them with a mixture of curiosity and resignation. “Do you mind if we play Lego’s with you?” Lexa asked, as soft and encouraging as could be. The boy just nodded, his hair bobbing down into his eyes. “What’s your name?” Lexa asked.

“Aden,” the boy answered, continuing to place the pieces together on the table.

Clarke tried her best to make small-talk and commented on Aden’s building, all the while making her own creation: a ridiculously tall structure that was at risk of falling over at any moment.

Finally, Aden looked over to it, clearly curious. “What are you making?”

“This?” Clarke motioned at her tower, a little pleased with herself. “Just the tallest skyscraper in the world. Unfortunately, there’s about to be an earthquake.”

“Really?” Aden’s eyes lit up a little. “Can I help?”

Together, they placed a few more bricks onto the structure, but it was so unsteady that it crashed off the table and burst into pieces on the floor. Everyone in the room looked over to them (many of the social workers with disapproving eyes), but Clarke could only focus on Aden’s smile--the first she had seen from him since they had walked in.

It only took the three of them a few minutes to clean up the pieces and return them to the bucket, but the ice--just like Clarke’s skyscraper--had broken. Lexa asked him about what he was making (a secret Resistance base with Rey and Finn, he said), what he liked to do (run and draw), whether he enjoyed school (recess and science class).

But after a while, Lexa motioned to her that they should leave. Clarke almost argued, but she remembered what they had been told: not to spend too much time with any one child, to prevent anyone from getting too attached and have too high of expectations.

Lexa handed Aden what she had been working on. “It was really nice to meet you, Aden. Could you take care of my spaceship for me?”

Aden just nodded, and Clarke swore that Aden watched them all the way to the door.

After they stepped outside, Clarke leaned against the side of the building, the autumn breeze ripping through the thin layer of her jacket. “I don’t think I can talk to any more children today,” she said, thinking again and again about Aden’s smile when they had knocked over her Lego’s.

“Because we found our son.”

Clarke’s eyes shot up to find Lexa’s, which were already filling with tears. Without delay, Clarke took Lexa into her arms and held her like she was the only thing keeping her on earth. “Oh my God, I thought so too. We only talked with him for a few minutes…”

“I know.”

“And we barely talked about anything important…”

“That’s true.”

“But…”

Lexa backed away from her just enough to set her green eyes on her, so clear despite the tears gathering in them. She nodded, confirming what Clarke felt in her gut.

“That’s our son,” Clarke said before letting herself cry at the relief of it.

**********

They had been staring at Lexa’s cell phone on the table for a solid minute.

“He should be in his office now,” Clarke reminded her gently.

Lexa nodded slowly, still not taking her eyes from the phone. “Are we ready, Clarke?”

The question took Clarke by surprise. “Yes, definitely. We’ve been saving for years. We’ve figured out how to adjust our work around school schedules and have a plan for the summer. We’ve talked about what kind of parents we want to be, how we’re going to avoid the mistakes that happened in our own childhoods…” Clarke trailed off at Lexa’s growing frown.

“I know,” Lexa said, before finally looking up into Clarke’s eyes. “But we’re ready, right?”

The change in emphasis made Clarke understand what she was getting at. “I love you, Lexa. I plan on spending the rest of my life with you. I think we’re as ready as any new parents can be. I know it’s not going to be easy, especially at first, but I think we know how to communicate with each other. We know how each other works, how each other thinks….” Clarke gave her a small smile. “At least for the most part. I still don’t get why you like Toby Keith so much.”

Finally, Lexa smiled too, just a little. “He’s a legend, Clarke.” But she looked a little calmer.

“I think you’re going to be a great momma.” Clarke held her hands face-up on the table until Lexa took them. And I’m going to… well, I’m going to do my best.”

“You’re going to do great,” Lexa said immediately. “And I’m not just saying that because I love you.”

“Well then.” Clarke freed one of her hands and pushed the cell phone towards Lexa. “I’m ready if you are.”

Once Lexa finally dialed the number, they talked with the social worker for over an hour.

Mostly, they learned all about Aden’s background: how his father had never even met Aden; how his mother drifted in and out of his life; how he had been with relatives or in the foster system ever since he was three years old; how he had moved from house to house, family to family, leaving friends and having to make new ones, becoming quieter as the years wore on. The social worker reminded them that they would need to foster Aden first, and then, maybe, eventually, adopt him.

It only solidified in Clarke’s mind--and Lexa’s too--that Aden needed a home. A forever home.

Their home.

Luckily, the following day, they received a call that said the feeling was mutual: Aden had requested to see them again as well. They made the trip to Billings again to spend the day with him and his foster family.

The next month, they were able to pick Aden up and have him spend the weekend with them. Even though he had grown up in Billings, he had never been on a ranch before. He had never seen horses or cows or, Clarke suspected, felt like such a part of the neverending grassland and open skies. Even though it was approaching winter during his visit, he wanted to spend all of their time outdoors. They bundled him up in a coat that was much too big for him, but he didn’t seem to mind. It was a time of discovery, with Lexa picking Aden up and placing him on Daenerys’ back. It was safer for him to ride her than to try to fit into an adult-sized saddle on a horse. But he asked about riding a horse, more than once, and Lexa promised him that they would see about getting him a child-sized saddle. Clarke had never seen someone look so hopeful and yet so cautious at the same time.

(But as exciting as experiencing the ranch was, Clarke suspected it was much more than the animals that had Aden beginning to open up to them. She thought he felt the connection between them just as much as she did, even though something in his smile still held back.)

The wheels of bureaucracy turned slowly. They filed paperwork to foster Aden until the adoption paperwork was complete, but even that took months to process. They continued spending weekends with Aden in Billings and brought him up to the ranch when they could. Aden asked them, time and time again, if they were going to be another foster family. When she and Lexa, separately and together, told him they wanted him to become part of their permanent family, if that’s what he wanted too, he just frowned. Clarke wanted to know what was going through his head, but she knew he would tell them when he was ready.

Finally, with the frigid winter wind howling and the snow drifting, Aden was able to move into their home. He brought his one suitcase of possessions and took what had been Clarke’s room, forever ago. They took him shopping for the bedspread he wanted, posters of things he was interested in (Star Wars and dinosaurs), bought him some new clothes for school, and tried to give him space to settle in while still letting him know that they were there for him and always would be.

For Clarke, she found that no amount of research or classes or training could prepare her for what it was actually like to have Aden in their lives. It was hard: it was a flurry of purchases and helping Aden adjust to (yet another) elementary school; it was changing routines to incorporate dropping off and picking up Aden from school; it was putting Aden first, even when Clarke was tired or didn’t feel like it; it was wanting to see Aden succeed but sometimes wondering if he even wanted to be there with them.

But there was also hope: the small smile Aden would give her when she started playing one of his favorite shows on TV, as if he were surprised that she remembered; how he gazed up in awe at the horses; how he giggled when Lexa lifted him up into the saddle (a proper children’s saddle with a large pommel and adjustable stirrups); how Aden began hugging them, unprompted, before he went to school every morning.

Clarke couldn’t imagine it was easy for him. He had already experienced so much hardship with his biological family and been cycled through so many foster families. Did he expect Clarke and Lexa to stick around? Or did he just see them as another couple who said they loved him then vanished like all the others did?

That’s probably why, when they broke the news about the adoption paperwork being completed, he reacted the way he did.

The first hint of spring was in the air. Clarke had just finished her visit to another ranch and ensured the cows there were healthy and ready to give birth. She tried to act natural in the car with Aden, asking him about his day and checking up on one of his classmates, Ontari, who he had mentioned had teased him the week before. Clarke had to grip the steering wheel tighter to avoid telling him, to have the news spill out of her and keep Aden’s reaction, selfishly, all to herself. But she and Lexa had agreed that it would be better back at the ranch with Lexa present. Still, Clarke drove a little faster than she should have back home, the truck flying over the dips and curves of the snowy dirt road.

Lexa was waiting for them when they arrived, obviously just returned from the pastures, with her cowboy hat still atop her head and her flannel shirt poking out from beneath her Carhartt jacket. Aden was unbuckled before they were even to a full stop. He ran out of the truck and wrapped his arms around Lexa’s waist tightly. Clarke had to remind herself that she needed to get out of the truck too and couldn’t just stare at the loves of her life like that forever. But when Lexa took off her cowboy hat and placed it on Aden’s head, the hat covering half of his face, and he tipped it backward to be able to look back to the truck and beam at her like Lexa had given him the best gift of all, Clarke thought she might cry.

(But she didn’t. Not yet. She would allow herself later.)

Once they had settled inside, taken off layers, settled hats next to the door, and put down book bags, Clarke shared a long look with Lexa. It was finally time.

Lexa cleared her throat and sat down at the table. “Could you come here, Aden?”

Aden picked up on the gravity in her voice immediately. He settled across from her at the table, looking between her and Clarke with something Clarke didn’t like in his eyes. (Was it apprehension? Fear?) “What is it?” he asked, very calmly, or even bravely.

Clarke sat down as well, took Lexa’s hand beneath the table. Lexa squeezed it, giving her the go-ahead, and Clarke felt her mouth go dry. She tried to smile, but she was afraid that she was so nervous that it wouldn’t look convincing. “We got a letter from Child and Family Services. They said that your adoption paperwork has been finalized.”

Aden just stared at her, and Clarke couldn’t handle the uncertainty in his eyes. He seemed to have heard her, understood her, but he remained silent.

But Clarke felt this too strongly for it not to be right. She glanced to Lexa and gathered strength from her slight, almost imperceptible nod. “We can adopt you, Aden,” Clarke said. “Officially. If that’s what you want.”

Lexa leaned forward and rested her elbows on the table, her eyes softening as she searched Aden’s face. “Would you like to be our son?”

Aden’s mouth gaped, his gaze flicked between the two of them, and his brow furrowed. Clarke watched him anxiously, waited impatiently, ran every scenario through her mind and what she would say and do.

But what she could never have anticipated was that Aden would jump to his feet and run out the front door without a word.

She and Lexa stared at each other in the sudden silence that filled the cabin after the door slammed behind him. “Why… what… Is that a no?” Clarke trailed off, her mind seeming to short-circuit.

“Let me talk to him.” Lexa got up with a determined set to her jaw and and kissed the top of Clarke’s head. Clarke made to follow her, but Lexa placed a hand on her shoulder. “Trust me,” Lexa said. She took her jacket from the wall, and Aden’s too, and left out the door.

Clarke sat alone in the kitchen, not knowing what else to do. She couldn’t focus on anything. What if he really did say no? What if he chose to leave their lives forever and move on to another family? Whatever his choice, Clarke knew she had to respect it, but how could she recover if he didn’t want to be their son…

Some time later, Clarke didn’t know how much later, Lexa led Aden in by the hand. Both of their cheeks were streaked with tears, and when Aden looked at her, he sniffled and wiped his cheek with the back of his hand. He came forward and wrapped his arms around her waist as she sat in the chair, but Clarke knelt down on the ground in front of him and hugged him back just as fiercely.

“Thank you, Mommy,” he whispered to her in between sniffles.

Clarke could only run her hand through his short brown hair and share a look with Lexa over his shoulder. Her bright eyes told Clarke everything she needed to know. She clutched Aden all the closer, tucked her chin against his back, calmed him with her hand against his back.

“You’re home, Aden,” she told him, looking back up to Lexa. “And we’re not ever going to let you go.”

**********

Aden went to bed early that night--Clarke thought he was more emotionally than physically exhausted. And how could she blame him? He had just found out, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that she and Lexa were his new family.

To be honest, Clarke was exhausted too. It was a lot to take in, and knowing how difficult this situation was for Aden only drained her more. When Lexa took her by the hand and led her back to their bedroom later that night, Clarke went willingly. She didn’t know what she needed, didn’t even know what to ask for, but Lexa laid down beside her and encircled Clarke in her arms. As it turned out, that was exactly what she needed.

“Is he going to be OK?” Clarke asked into the deep silence of night. She clung onto Lexa’s hands around her chest. They helped to ground her, to keep her thoughts from swirling into a dense, convoluted mess.

“I think this is the best he’s ever been.” Lexa kissed the back of her neck softly before resting her cheek against Clarke’s shoulder. “He’s never felt secure before, not with his mother, his uncle, or any of his foster families. This is the first time he thinks, maybe, someone won’t leave him or force him away.”

Clarke turned onto her back and looked up at Lexa in the dim light of their bedroom, illuminated only by the moonlight streaming in through the window. Lexa watched her patiently, peacefully, her hand sliding down to Clarke’s waist. “I can’t even imagine,” Clarke said. “Even after my dad died, and my mom started working like crazy and was never around, I always knew that she was there . That she would take care of me.” Clarke shook her head. “How does a little boy survive without knowing that? Without knowing that someone loves him and will take care of him?”

Lexa leaned down and kissed her temple. “He may only be eight, but he’s strong, Clarke. Strong, but vulnerable. He was overwhelmed earlier, but once he calmed down, he told me everything. He’s not afraid to share what he’s feeling when he feels safe.”

Smiling up at her, Clarke pulled Lexa down by her neck for a lingering kiss. “I love that our son can share like that with you.”

“He’ll want to talk about it with you too.” She began tracing patterns across Clarke’s bare stomach, along her sides. “He called you Mommy, earlier.”

“I know,” Clarke said, beaming over at her. “It’s the first time he’s called me that.”

Lexa rested her head against Clarke’s chest and hummed deep in her throat. “He called me Momma out on the porch. I think that was the only thing holding him back. He didn’t know for sure if we were going to stay.”

“But he does now?” Clarke asked gently. She felt Lexa smiling against her skin.

“Ask him yourself,” Lexa said, before they let the warmth and the silence carry them away into sleep.

**********

She did, the next morning when she drove him to school. He stared groggily out the window, and Clarke wondered how much sleep he had gotten the night before.

“Excited for your first day as an official member of the Woods clan?” Clarke asked him with a playful smile. They had decided that Aden should take Lexa’s last name, since it held so much clout in the community.

To her surprise, Aden looked down sheepishly into his own lap. “Is it OK if I tell people?”

“Of course!” Clarke turned the corner off of the dirt road and onto the paved one that would take them to his elementary school. “You can brag about it to everybody. Your momma’s pretty well known around here. They’ll all be jealous that you get to be her son.”

“They know about you too,” Aden said, looking over at her seriously. “They say you fix up their animals when they’re sick. Brandon said you made his dog walk again.”

Clarke remembered that case well. It hadn’t been an easy fix for the cyst on the dog’s leg. “Who’s Brandon? Is he a friend of yours?”

Aden frowned a little. “I think so.”

“I bet you he is, if he’s telling you about his dog.” Clarke pulled into the elementary school into a line of trucks with other parents and students getting dropped off. “Would you like to invite him over one day? Show him the cattle and horses?”

Aden, in the process of picking up his book bag, stared over at her in shock. “What? Really?”

“Sure!” Clarke wondered why Aden seemed so surprised by the offer, but then, maybe he hadn’t been allowed to have friends over in the past. Or maybe he hadn’t even allowed himself to make friends, since all of his previous families had been so temporary. The thought sent a pang of hurt through her, and a wave of gratitude that, at long last, Aden had the chance to be a normal kid who could hang out with his friends at home.

“I’ll tell you what,” Clarke said, as she pointed at his book bag. “You got any paper in there?”

Aden nodded, unzipping the bag and handing her a notebook.

Clarke wrote down her phone number and handed it back to him. “Just give that number to Brandon to give to his mom, and we’ll see about Brandon coming after school one day. Does that sound good?”

Aden’s grip on the notebook tightened, as if he were afraid that it might fly away. “Can I ask other people too? Like Lucas and Stephanie and Kyle?”

“Ask away, kiddo.” Clarke leaned across and ruffled his hair. “It’s your home too, you know. And this is your school, and these kids are your friends. Momma and I want you to be happy, and we know that means hanging out with your friends. Just not too many at once. Our house isn’t big enough to have your entire class over.”

Clarke glanced over to the clock. “Oh my God, you have one minute to get to class.” She leaned over and zipped up his jacket before kissing his temple. “Have a good day, Aden. I love you.”

Aden looked at her with maybe the largest smile she had ever seen on him before bounding away across the sidewalk. She could see now how he had held back from settling in, how reserved he had been in making friends and allowing himself to think, for more than a moment, that this could really be his home.

But now that he understood, or at least was beginning to understand, Clarke thought that she might be seeing more of his big smiles.

**********

One spring day, Clarke was exhausted. She had been helping another ranch’s cows give birth to calves all day and ran into complications with more than a few. When she finally pulled into the ranch, it was already getting dark and she was starving and in need of some quality time in front of the television.

Which was to say that she was completely unprepared for the dog lying on the porch.

The dog--a pitbull mix of some kind, with short brown fur and a patch of white around one eyes--only lifted its head to look at her as she approached, then rested its head back onto the wooden planks of the porch.

Before Clarke could investigate further, Aden came running out of the cabin and wrapped his arms around her waist. “You’re home!” he said with so much excitement that Clarke could still hardly believe the difference between him now and when they had first met him in Billings.

She patted his back before crouching down beside him and glancing over to the dog. It had gotten to its feet and padded over to Aden, puttings its head into his hand looking for a scratch.

“Um, there’s a dog on our porch” Clarke said, just as Lexa came out of the cabin with a guilty expression. She redirected her attention to Lexa, raising an eyebrow. “Why is there a dog on our porch?”

But Aden answered instead as he began petting the dog with enthusiasm. The dog practically grinned up at him. “I found her at school! She was all alone, and I didn’t know who her owner was, and she looked sad, so we brought her home.”

Clarke continued staring hard at Lexa, until Lexa’s cheeks began to heat.

Lexa knelt down beside the dog too and began scratching her ear. Clarke denied how cute it was. “She’s not wearing a collar, otherwise I would have called her owner,” Lexa said calmly. ”But we couldn’t leave her at the school. It’s supposed to get cold tonight, and she doesn’t have shelter there.”

“She can stay in my room!” Aden said excitedly, as the dog lay down again and exposed her belly for petting.

But Clarke only saw the dog’s line of pink, swollen nipples. “You know she’s pregnant, right?”

Lexa’s eyes went wide as she analyzed the dog’s underbelly. “I was wondering.”

“And she’s far along, too.” Clarke ran a hand over the dog’s swollen abdomen. “I wouldn’t say it’ll be more than a week.”

“A week until what?” Aden asked with curiosity as he looked up at her. Clarke could see the moment realization hit him. “Until puppies?!” If he had been excited before, it was nothing to the amazement she saw in his eyes now. He looked back and forth between them. “Can we keep them?”

Clarke just gave Lexa a meaningful look-- look what you’ve done .

Lexa cleared her throat. “We’ll need to keep looking for the dog’s owner. We don’t want to take a family’s dog, now do we? Think about how sad those kids are right now, not knowing where their dog is.”

Aden ran it through his mind for a long moment before finally shaking his head. “No, I don’t want to make other kids sad.”

“So we’re going to put up fliers around town,” Lexa continued, glancing over to Clarke. “Just like we talked about. And go door-to-door this weekend to ask if anyone has lost their dog.”

“OK,” Aden grumbled before looking up at Lexa with hope. “What if we don’t find her owners?”

Lexa’s gaze lingered on Clarke’s, and it was like they had an entire conversation without having to say anything at all. On a ranch with over one hundred cattle and three horses, what would be the problem with one more animal?

(One more animal that was about to give birth to puppies…)

But in the end, the loving look that Aden was already giving the dog--this dog that he had only known for a few hours--was enough to sway Clarke. She ran a hand along the dog’s belly. “If we can’t find her owners, we can think about adopting her.”

“Like you adopted me?” Aden asked with so much innocence that Clarke ached.

Clarke knew in that moment that they had just taken in another member of their family. “Just like that,” she said. She realized that she would do just about anything to make Aden smile like he was then.

To no one’s surprise, the dog stayed. Aden named her Rey, after his favorite lightsaber-wielding hero.

And then there came the puppies, five in total. Clarke had a lot of exposure to dogs of all ages and sizes through her veterinary school, but seeing Lexa with puppies was priceless. She had never heard Lexa use baby talk, but that seemed to be the only tone of voice Lexa could use with them, even after they soiled the floor. Somehow, rebuking puppies in a high-pitched voice was just not threatening at all.

Aden loved all of them, but both she and Lexa knew that while they could take in one stray, taking in six was a different matter. Luckily, their connections in Polis made it easy to find homes for all of the pups once they were weaned, vaccinated, and fixed.

To Clarke’s surprise, Indra and Marcus (long since moved in together) took two of them. Indra’s normally sullen expression turned into one of outright giddiness as she sat on the ground and let the puppies swarm over her. Marcus took a series of photos of her before joining her on the ground and getting licked on the face by three puppies at once.

But just as puppies could reduce anyone to a blubbering mess of giggles and smiles, Rey was able to inspire Aden to be more responsible. He was responsible for feeding her, brushing her, taking her for romps around the ranch (as if he needed to be told to go on adventures with his new best friend). Even Lexa wasn’t immune to Rey’s charm: she began taking Rey with her around the ranch during the day, although she taught Rey to maintain her distance from the cattle to keep from spooking them. Sometimes Clarke took her to other homes and ranches too, when she knew they had dogs that Rey could play with.

And every night, when she or Lexa tucked Aden into bed, Rey circled at the bottom of his bed and curled up into a tight ball on the sheets to sleep. Clarke knew then that they had made the right choice.

**********

That summer had been a whirlwind. Understandably, everyone wanted to visit the ranch to meet Aden. Clarke’s mother had to come for a solid two weeks and spoil him rotten, while Raven and Octavia (still unmarried, still as happy together as ever) dropped by for a few days to “meet the only man Clarke needs in her life,” as Raven put it. Beyond that, Anya and Indra regularly brought their puppies over to the ranch for family reunions with Aden and Rey, which meant a very busy (and happy) summer.

But now that the guests were gone, and fall was in the air, it meant a return to routines. Aden returned to school, Lexa prepared the ranch for the upcoming winter, and Clarke resumed her more regular visits to homes and ranches around the area.

After a long day of treating another operation’s cattle herd for a respiratory illness, Clarke ached to be home. The hint of sage in the air and pinkening sky and bumps and dips in the dirt road were ushering her back toward her family.

Would Lexa still be covered in a thin layer of dirt from her day in the fields, and would she pull Clarke into a heated kiss when Aden left the room? And Aden, would he be completing his homework, or maybe tossing a ball for Rey out in the yard?

Clarke stepped down on the accelerator to find out, sending up a plume of dust behind her truck’s wheels.

Passing under the gate--long since changed to “Woods-Griffin Ranch”--Clarke parked beside the old truck, which was still running mostly by luck, spit, and chewing gum. In a flurry, Rey ran up to the truck, barking and wagging her tail and generally being far too excited considering it had only been a few hours since she had last seen Clarke.

Clarke scratched behind her ears as she quickly scanned around the ranch. She figured they would be outside on an evening like this…

Their silhouettes were dark against the bright pink clouds along the horizon. Lexa sat confidently atop her horse, reins in one hand, cowboy hat firmly in place, shirt billowing around her in the evening breeze. Aden was beside her, his child’s body seeming miniscule atop the full-sized horse. A cowboy hat, still a little big for him, perched on his head as he lead his horse in a slow circle around Lexa’s.

Clarke almost cheered aloud. He had learned so much over the last summer, but she knew he had been having trouble with direction control. Now, it looked like he was really getting it. It had everything to do with Lexa’s patient instruction and Aden’s persistent attitude. He may have been quiet, and some might assume he was a pushover, but Clarke knew that couldn’t be further from the truth. When Aden set his mind on something, there was nothing that could stop him. And right now, his passion was learning how to ride a horse.

(And, Clarke suspected, following in Lexa’s footsteps as much as possible.)

Clarke walked over to them, Rey bumping up against her side, and rested her arms atop the fence. She watched the two of them with a growing smile, loving the pride that emanated from Lexa as Aden walked his horse around her in circles. “You guys having fun?” Clarke called out to them.

Aden’s face lit up when he saw her. “Look what I can do, Mommy!” He pulled back the reins, bringing his horse to a halt before directing the horse to turn around in a circle, a look of concentration on his face.

“He’s really beginning to get it,” Lexa said proudly as she walked her horse over to Clarke.

(Clarke let her eyes fall down Lexa’s ramrod-straight body and her thighs gripping around the saddle. Seeing Lexa on horseback was one of life’s little pleasures for Clarke.)

“Probably because he has such a good teacher.” It wasn’t a particularly flirtatious phrase, Clarke knew, but her suggestive tone seemed to get the job done. Lexa’s lips fell open as she gazed down at her.

Aden walked his horse over, a look of concentration on his face. “Come ride with us!” he said to her. “Momma’s already got a horse saddled for you.”

“Do you now?” Clarke said, raising her eyebrow at Lexa.

Lexa gave her a small smile. “I thought we could go for a ride. Maybe watch the sunset from the hill.”

On a ranch full of hills, Clarke still knew the one she was talking about. “We better go quick if we’re going to make it.”

“Just waiting on you,” Lexa said with just enough flirt and challenge that Clarke wanted to kiss her.

But instead, Clarke ran to the barn and got herself settled in the saddle. She came out of the barn at a full gallop, Rey trying her best to run along after her, and slowed to a jog once she came alongside Lexa and Aden. “How’s your jog going, Aden?”

“Watch this!” he said, bringing his horse to jog next to hers, and Lexa coming up on her other side.

Clarke kept a close eye on him, but Aden really was getting more confident in the saddle. They kept a steady pace all the way to the top of the hill, where the grasslands spread out all around them and burned golden in the sun’s last rays. Below them, the cattle herd was scattered across the dips and rises of the ranch as they grazed lazily on the last grass of the season. Still, one cow made her deliberate way towards them, an older calf in tow.

Clarke dismounted and greeted Daenerys with a hand running through her thick black fur. “How is my favorite cow doing today? Is Mushu behaving himself?” She had long run out of Game of Thrones-inspired dragon names. Mushu had been Aden’s idea after their last Disney marathon.

Aden jumped from his saddle--he could get down on his own, but couldn’t mount by himself--and ran over to pet Daenerys as well. He had started out riding Daenerys, and Clarke thought he loved the cow almost as much as she did. He tried to pet Mushu as well, but the calf ran away from him and hid behind his mother, still a little skittish.

Clarke felt Lexa come up behind her and slide her arms around her waist. Lexa kissed the side of her cheek. “How was your day, Clarke?”

“It’s a lot better now that I’m here,” she said, settling back into Lexa’s arms. “I’ve decided that cattle aren’t allowed to get sick ever again.”

The sun was just beginning to dip below the horizon, and the chorus of insects was awakening around them. Lexa held her close and rested her chin on Clarke’s shoulder, their bodies melding together as they always had. They watched Aden crouch down and hold his hand out toward Mushu. Eventually, the calf’s curiosity got the better of him, and he inched towards Aden and even let him scratch his ear.

“If they’re not allowed to get sick, doesn’t that mean you’re out of a job?” Lexa asked impishly as she pulled Clarke closer.

“Might be worth it if it means I get to hang out here all day again,” Clarke said, sighing. “I’d be in your hair all the time. You’d never be able to get rid of me.”

“Sounds awful.”

Clarke glanced back to her then, and Lexa’s eyes danced in the soft glow of the setting sun beneath her cowboy hat. Clarke ran her fingers down Lexa’s cheek, unable to help herself anymore. She turned and captured Lexa’s lips with her own, the perfect welcome back home that Clarke needed.

Clarke was brought back to earth by Aden’s excited voice. “He licked my hand!” Aden said with excitement.

Clarke smiled over to him and how he was holding his hand up toward her as evidence that Mushu had in fact licked him. “See? I told you he would start being friendly if you were patient,” Clarke told him with a little laugh.

As the sun slowly disappeared behind the horizon, Clarke knew that this, enjoying the little things with the people and animals she loved, was what life was about. She watched as Aden patted the calf’s head gently and Daenerys watched on. She listened to Rey panting softly in the grass beside them. She felt Lexa’s strong arms around her, grounding her and steadying her and cherishing her.

Clarke knew that home was about the people just as much as about the place. And somehow, she was lucky enough to have found them both.