Chapter 4 – Girl with Broken Wings

I take a seat, mostly flop, onto the trusty, old couch backstage at the Troubadour. I’m a little tired, a lot disappointed, and still a little sweaty. It’s gross, but the best that I could do was a whore bath: a few paper towels and the grungy sink of any public restroom. A few swipes of deodorant, some body spray, and a fresh tank-top followed, so it’s under control, but I still feel kind of sticky.

I get that sweating is necessary, but does it have to be so disgusting?

I glance around to be sure that no one’s watching when I lift my arm to check. As far as I’m concerned, I, Ashley Davies, do not sweat. And as if to prove this point, there are no stains or foul odors that I can find, so I’m mollified, though a shower is in order once we get home. That won’t be for several hours yet, and I’ll probably be a mess again before we leave, but I will fight it until the bitter end.

We just finished opening for Manchester Orchestra. Well, we opened for the opener band who is currently kicking off to open for the real opener band who will be opening for Manchester. There’s a lot of opening going on, but this is a first in a long line of shows that Cyn has signed us up for, and I have to say, it’s a hell of a way to start. I love Manchester and I plan to be in that mosh-pit when they take the stage in about three hours.

Thrashing around will be good therapy to bleed off some of my upset. Our show sucked. The band’s chemistry has been thrown off by Jac and Jon’s never-ending battle of wills. They still haven’t made peace and neither will talk about it. Everyone’s tried to draw them out, but it’s no use. Jon still says nothing’s wrong and Jac is still tight as a clam.

Whatever it is, they’re ignoring it, which makes it difficult to rehearse or find the energy while playing. No one missed a note or a beat during the show, and the crowd was pretty thin so little damage was done, but everything about it was markedly lack luster.

Music is all about emotions, and when those are off, everyone can feel it. It’s the equivalent of Celine Dione head banging during one of her performances. So take that in reverse, and you have my problem. They were like automatons, standing stiffly in place instead of thrashing around.

People are only now starting to trickle in, and I suppose I’m not so worried about what people think anyway. I’m not looking for fame or fortune; fame sounds intrusive and I already have a fortune, but this is the one thing that’s kept me alive, kept me going through everything that’s happened: the feeling that I get when I play and sing.

And I’m not ready to give that up, to let it slip through my fingers. I want to feel the energy of a crowd, and the bigger the crowd the more intense that feeling is. It’s one of the few things in my life that I got to keep when I lit that proverbial match, and I refuse to lose it now, especially when we’ve worked so hard to score these gigs at one of the most famous venues in Los Angeles. The fact is that they have to figure their shit out before Cyn puts us in a prime slot, if we can even get one now.

Ethan was so angry that he followed me right into the ladies room after the show. He couldn’t wait to rip my ass open and then tell me to fix it. So I nodded and tuned him out while I took care of the sweat until he was forcibly removed from the premises by a very happy, bald, and beefy bouncer whom I’ve come to understand is called Tiny.

I almost envied him to manhandle Ethan that way, but I know that I shouldn’t. Ultimately, Ethan’s just doing what I pay him to do, and he does a good job, but it’s annoying. It’s not my job to fix Jac and Jon, and even if it were, I’m not really sure how. Although, I do have a few ideas on how to stick it to them for the trip, ruining this show, and sending Ethan breathing down my neck.

Spencer sits, well flops, down on the couch next to me and starts to put her camera away. God, she got the concert on film…

“I saw that,” she says, zipping up the bag.

I glance over at her confused. “Saw what?”

I’m going to have to destroy that memory card…

“Your underarm troubles.”

Of course she saw and of course she knows my aversion to sweat. She also knows that I do, in fact, sweat. This will not do. I glare at her before deciding that retribution is in order, and lift my arm in preparation to shove it in her face. She shrieks and fights me off but I know that she got a good whiff before I back off of her victoriously.

She’s curled up as far away from me as she can get on the beat-up three-seater, making her displeasure at my actions known with a sour expression. But she’s only cross because she didn’t want an armpit in her face. Which, I mean, no one likes that. But unlike me, she has no such aversion to sweat. In fact, she once told me that she found it kind of hot when I got sweaty, especially while playing guitar.

I still don’t know how I feel about that…

“That’s repugnant,” she says.

I pick at my fingernails. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You just stuck your sweaty armpit in my face…”

I glance over at her. “I stuck my armpit in your face, but I don’t sweat.”

I barely have time to brace before she thwacks me with one of the throw pillows, and it’s so hard that it dazes me for a moment.

“Hey,” I say, tugging the pillow from her hands.

She resettles herself happily.

“That was uncalled for.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she mocks. I glare at her. She’s not allowed to do that to me, but damn if she didn’t anyway. “But you do smell good.”

I nod, deciding to let it go. “Damn right.”

Take that, sweat, you fucking bastard…

“So,” she says. “You about ready to go?”

I’m not sure I heard her right. “Why would we leave without seeing Manchester?”

“I’ve never heard them. Are they good?”

The world tunnels in around her like one of those creepy horror movie scenes, and I gasp. She might as well have just told me that she sees dead people.

“Seriously?”

She just shrugs and a part of my very soul dies. God, do the lesser beings have to be so ignorant? This is… a travesty.

Getting to my feet, I hold my hands out to her expectantly, and while hesitant, she takes them and I pull her up. I grab her seriously heavy camera bag as well as my backpack, and start to pull her to the backdoor. Lecturing her on the amazingly talented song-writing that is Manchester just wouldn’t be enough. So, instead, I opt for the incredible sound system in my Humvee with a fully loaded iPod and gale force air conditioner.

Today is a record breaking ninety-six degrees for February, and it’s the hottest point of the day: sunset. So it’s an immense relief when I’m done stowing our items and that initial cold blast of air hits me squarely in the face. Normally I like the heat, but not when I have to jump around for an hour on a sticky stage in a semi-full room of equally sweaty people.

Even Spencer lets out a groan and slouches in the leather seat. And it only gets better when Manchester starts to strangle out of the speakers, so I turn it up and let the cool air and gain wash over us.

Perhaps strangle isn’t a word that would inspire people to listen, but it’s on point. The lead singer sounds like he’s choked-up or maybe just drunk. He slurs, but it’s just… amazing, awesome… amasome? It just works with their sound. I couldn’t imagine it being any other way. It’s kind of like Bob Dylan. The man sounds like he’s talking out of his nose, but he’s still the Godfather of spoken word and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

She listens and I watch her listen, feeling slightly smug as she clearly enjoys it, though I can tell that she’s not in love. Music doesn’t affect her the way that it does me, and in the same way, movies don’t affect me as much. Still, she’s enjoying it as much as she is prone to do, at least until it switches to the next song, which happens to be one of the saddest songs ever written.

By the name, I Can Feel a Hot One, it’s an easy song to dismiss or believe that it’s yet another sex song. I mean, every band has one. Even I wrote one recently. We’ve only practiced it a couple of times, but it’s one of those upbeat songs that makes everyone want to bounce around and, of course, get laid.

What can I say? I’ve been feeling… amorous lately. And I know that it’s all due to Spencer. No, I don’t mean that seeing her in short skirts and skin-tight tank tops has had a sexual influence on me, though it has, but that’s not the point.

At first, having her back in my life made things so much worse because of how jilted and awkward everything felt. And of course, there was Carmen. But for the last couple of weeks, since the trip where I finally laid my love for her to rest, things have been looking up.

I’m not stupid. I know that there are no take-backs or mulligans when it comes to matters of the heart. I know that I’ll always love Spencer, that a part of me will always solidly belong to her. But I’ve been trying to push past that, or maybe through it. I’m no longer seeking anything more than what’s right in front of me, and what’s in front of me is my best friend, the person who knows me best in this world.

I think she feels it too, this shift in our dynamic, and I think that it’s helped her get through some of her own pain. She can actually go days without crying or disappearing into that headspace that makes her dark and moody.

It still happens, but not nearly as often, and when it does, we sort of have and unspoken agreement to stop what we’re doing and move away from those pitfalls. As a result, she and I are getting back to that basic space, the almost plutonic plane of just being happy and comfortable around each other.

When we got home, we somehow settled into a routine, as if it had always been that way. I had been nervous and apprehensive about how it would play out, but it wasn’t what I expected at all. It was so much better, though almost mundane really. We spend our time talking about everything and nothing, but nothing too heavy because we’re avoiding pitfalls. Sometimes we watch movies or play with the dogs or even plan upcoming trips, like Mardi Gras, which is next on the list.

Of course we still do things without each other. I still play music and she’s really sunk into her own passions, her camera once again firmly attached to her hand. Only this camera is far more advanced than the one of yester years. It sits on her shoulder now and it’s worth a down payment on a house; it also weighs about fifty pounds. But no matter what we’re doing, she’s cataloging it, even grocery shopping, which I do now to both mine and Kyla’s great amazement.

As it turns out, I find anything fun if I’m doing it with Spencer.

By all accounts, it’s good at home, really good. The house feels full; my life feels full. I even have a fur baby, something I never really thought I’d like to have. He may not be mine on paper, but Jetsam likes me best. Spencer is fairly upset with me about that. I didn’t even have to ply him with yummy things either. He simply chose me as his human.

She says that I spoil him, but that’s not true. I’m not sure why really, but he follows me everywhere. He is, in fact, one of the few people that I allow into my music room, and when I leave him, I feel like an asshole because he gets so pathetic: all big, droopy eyes and short but heartfelt whines. But I always come back and he always lets me know that he forgives me.

I’m trying to teach him how to high-five, and he’s getting there slowly but surely. It feels like a necessity at this point. He really likes Sheezus, but she doesn’t like him so much. So when he romps with her and sends her terrified up Kyla’s leg, I want to give him a high-five because, well, I like irritating Kyla. He and I are alone in this merriment, but that’s okay. Two against the world is just fine by me.

The situation seems to be working for all of us. I can tell that Spencer’s feeling better, and I know that I am, despite the fact that Kyla and I still aren’t speaking to each other. And yes, it bothers me, but I’m not going to rock the boat. I’m starting to feel things, good things, like a desire to move forward and of course, amorous comes to mind yet again.

But things have been going well and I don’t want that to change. I intrinsically know that talking to her is only going to start a fight. We’re on different sides of this equation, and I’ve resigned myself to the fact that there is no middle ground. There are certain things that she’s going to push, and no matter what it is, I’m going to push back. But until there’s a reason for us to clash, there’s no point in talking or dwelling on it, and there hasn’t been a reason to clash.

And that’s why I’m a little frustrated that this song has to play now. It’s killing the vibe. I mean, the whole album is upbeat and fun for the most part, except for this one fucking song. And sure, they have other slow songs, incredible songs, but this album was supposed to be safe. I guess I just forgot, though I don’t know how I did. This one song has the power to leave a hole in my chest every time.

I move to change it, but Spencer stops me, and with a sigh, I settle in for my fate. And it’s just in time for the most damaging lyrics too: “So I prayed for what I thought were angels, ended up being ambulances. And the Lord showed me dreams of my daughter, she was crying inside your stomach. And I felt love again.”

For such a specific scenario, most anyone can relate in some way because tragedy is tragedy. Being alive means dealing with loss. And while I don’t know what it’s like to lose a child, I do know what it’s like to lose the one person who matters most.

It’s songs like this that make me doubt that anything’s really any better or even just different. Because part of me innately knows that if it were, the loss wouldn’t be so easily drudged up or pang so deeply. But I can’t go there. I want to be happy. I want to be okay. I want all of those things and more for Spencer, and there’s no reason to do this, especially not now. So, I turn the car and player off, and this time Spencer lets me.

The utter quiet that follows isn’t the kind that’s stifling so much as heavy, but I’m not going to sit under it, and I’m not going to leave her alone under it either. It’s our agreement. I get out and go around to her side to open her door.

“Come on,” I say. “Now that you’ve been properly educated, it’s time to fuck around until you are fully inducted. Then you take your exam.”

“My exam,” she asks, knowing full well that I’m fighting the downward spiral, and she’s just as grateful for it.

I nod as seriously as I can. “Yes, you will finish out the lesson with an internship in the mosh-pit – with yours truly – and then, on the way home, you will be quizzed.”

She smiles slyly and shuts the door. “And what type of exam are talking here, oral, clinical, what?”

I lock the car with the keyfob and look at her aghast. “Why, Spencer Carlin, did you just proposition your teacher?”

“Well, I want to get the best grade possible.”

“I cannot be bought,” I raise my chin.

She chuckles, and the sound is one of knowing a secret. “Whatever. We both know that a good stroke is a sure-fire way to win you over.”

The way she said that – playful but laced with venom – makes me wonder what this secret is, or what she thinks it is.

“I’ll have you know that I take music very seriously.”

And I do. It’s pretty much my life.

“Okay, so throw the book at me, Professor. Or is it the album cover in this scenario?”

I grin, not only because I love her wit, but because I adore how spirited she can be, especially when she’s more confident. If nothing else is really certain, I’m looking at proof that she’s becoming more and more like the person that I knew, only maybe better with age and experience. I like her bold.

“Album cover will suffice.” I glance down at her mini-skirt and heels. “Although, I don’t know if you’ll survive the internship with your modesty intact. Not that there’s much to begin with.”

Mosh-pits are not for the faint of heart, and when she’s wearing next to nothing, all curves and exposed skin, I’m certain that someone will take advantage. It’s the mob mentality. Besides, when you leave pretty things out in the open, someone’s going to want to touch them. That’s just human nature.

She stops and looks down before giving me a coy smile. “Why? I’m practically dual-wielding daggers on the end of my feet. I’m sure I can hold them off.”

She’s not kidding. Those heels are easily six inches.

She looks at my skin-tight tank, skinny hip-huggers, and artfully unlaced combat boots. “You’re definitely more prepared for war, though.”

“I don’t know. You might just bring a stop to the war altogether by driving everyone to distraction.”

And it’s true. Despite her inability to withstand a mosh-pit, everything about what she’s wearing screams, “DANGER,” of the best kind. It’s a little out of character for her. She always used to dress right on that fine line between girl-next-door and slutty, but this is several feet over that line into whore country.

She grins, but keeps her eyes ahead as she reaches for the door handle. “I don’t know. You do a pretty good job of that yourself.”

If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that we’re flirting. But surely it’s harmless, right? I mean, we always flirted, didn’t we? I think about that and I’m not so sure. We spent most of our relationship hiding our feelings. I glance at her again and determine that it doesn’t much matter. Things are changing; we’re changing. And it’s been so long since I’ve flirted that it just feels good.

Why not go with it?

Because I’m not sure how to feel about it, not with her anyway. I only know that it’s not super safe territory, and nothing less than that is part of the arrangement. So, a change of direction is in order. And I think I’m ready to make good on my silent threats to Jac and Jon. Besides, it will make Ethan proud. But then fuck him.

“So,” I say. “Ready to fuck around?”

Okay, so that wasn’t my smoothest transition into safe waters, and she grins at me. Is that predatory? I think that it is.

“Uh, um, I mean, are you ready to give tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum a good rousing?”

Okay, so that was no better. I sort of suck at this right now. I sort of suck at this with her. I’ve never failed at speech so much in my life.

But she’s gracious, giving me a curious look without rubbing my nose in my verbal transgressions.

“Jac and Jon,” I clarify.

“Ah,” she says, and while her grin doesn’t fade, I’m happy to accept the bone that she’s throwing me by staying quiet. “You upset about the trip or for messing up the gig?”

“Both,” I say before her words really register. “Wait, you noticed?”

She raises a shoulder in a half-shrug. “There was definitely something… off.”

And I groan. If Spencer noticed then that means that other people noticed. She doesn’t know music like I do or like another musically inclined person would. Not to be harsh, but she’s pretty ignorant in the ways of rock and roll. Either way, it doesn’t matter. Ethan noticed, and I’m certain that Cyn did as well. I was just hoping that it wasn’t so obvious.

So I’m most definitely ready to stick it to Jac and Jon when Spencer opens the door and we step back inside. The backstage area is much more crowded and the whole venue seems to have exploded with noise. The second band has taken to the stage and even they seem louder.

“So what were you thinking,” Spencer shouts at me.

I try to reply but it’s just too loud in here and people keep busily shuffling around us, so I find a dark corner and pull her close to whisper. “Okay, so, first, we’ll snag Jon’s guitar out of her car, clip all the strings, and put it in Jac’s trunk. And then we’ll put something super sticky on Jac’s keys, maybe some-”

Spencer leans back in the cramped space and I rethink this whole dark corner thing. I was trying to get out of the personal realm, but she’s so close now that we’re sharing the same air. She doesn’t seem to notice and I can’t find the will to mind, even as she cuts me off.

“Wait, what? Why would you want to do that?”

“Oh, uh…”

What the fuck were we talking about?

“I mean, pranks are… okay, I guess, if you’re twelve. But it seems a little pointless to just further upset them with each other.”

What is she talking about? They’re being asshats. I want to be one back. Yes, it’s immature, but what part of this doesn’t make sense?

“You know what’s going on, right,” she asks.

I frown. I thought they were being weird as like, a lifestyle choice. But somehow, I don’t think that’s what she’s alluding to.

“What do you mean?”

Spencer rolls her eyes. “You seriously haven’t noticed that those two have it bad for each other?”

“What? That’s crazy…”

She adopts a bored tone. “You didn’t notice at New Year that they found carbon copies of each other? Seriously?”

My frown almost hurts at this point, but if I think about it, yeah, I’d noticed that. But that doesn’t mean that they’re in love. I snort. That’s just absurd.

Spencer’s chuckle is a little condescending as she dips her head forward. And I have to gulp, though I’m not sure why.

“Kyla said that she heard them arguing from her room the night before Jon was found sleeping on the couch. She doesn’t know everything that happened because it was a quick fight and she’d been asleep, but Jon said something about a kiss and how it freaked her out. She told Jac that she doesn’t feel that way about her, and even if she did, she doesn’t want a girlfriend. Jac was crushed. She spent the rest of the night crying.”

Spencer’s cheek lightly brushes mine as she pulls back and I find that this corner is unreasonably warm. I may be sweating again. I fight the urge to check.

“I thought you knew, but then you would have if you’d finally talk to your sister,” she admonishes.

Well, holy shit. There are several things that I choose to ignore about what she just said, including but not limited to how tight the skin of my cheek feels, the uncomfortable warmth, and the comment about talking to Kyla. Now, to find the wherewithal to address the items that I’m willing consider: what are we, Fleetwood Mac? Bandmates hooking up is the kiss of death. And, you know, poor Jac…

“So why would you want to add fuel to the fire,” she asks.

“Well, I just thought they were being stubborn. I didn’t realize that they were… you know. I just wanted to make them miserable for it because they’re messing up the band.”

She chuckles. “You can be so clueless sometimes.”

“Thanks,” I say dryly.

“It’s okay,” she reassures sweetly. “I find it endearing.”

I just shake my head, which was a bad idea because our forehead’s touch. I quickly right myself and look for casual ground in what appears to be a sinking island.

“Well, what else can I do? If they keep this up, Cyn’s not going to give us a prime slot and Ethan’s going to have an aneurism.”

Which might just make it worth it, in all honesty…

Spencer’s eyes gleam. “You’ve come to the right place. If there’s one thing I know, it’s terminal bachelorettes with a fear of commitment.”

“Hey,” I say offended. “I was fully committed to you.”

“Who says I was talking about you?”

“Well, who else?”

“Me,” she says, and that doesn’t make any sense to me either.

I know that she was committed to me and then the Sea- I mean, Carmen. I’m trying to get better about that. But still, even she knows that she’s the commitment type.

“Spencer, you’re not a player…”

“No, I’m not, but I refused to allow myself to love someone even when I already did. It’s the same thing, just a different way of doing it.”

I still don’t get it and she rolls her eyes yet again before explaining.

“Remember when I said that I was cruel to Carmen?”

I nod, hating myself for making her go into Carmen territory. It is most definitely not safe.

“Well, after everything she’d done to get me to stop keeping her at a distance, I tried to break it off, over and over again, only one time she didn’t fight me. It was a week later that I saw her with another girl and, well, I’d never felt more jealous in my life.”

She smiles and it seems almost wistful. “That prompted us to get back together. I finally realized that I did love her, despite all of my effort not to, and I couldn’t stand the idea of her being with anyone else. Of course,” she laughs. “That just scared the hell out of me and I tried to break it off yet again when I took the job with Universal. So yes, I’m a commitment type person, and I committed myself to her, but getting to that point where I was willing was next to impossible. I was bound and determined to never love anyone ever again.”

She gets sad, and of course, so do I, but with a deep breath she manages to stay on topic, and this time I’m thankful. “And that’s what Jon needs, to see Jac with someone else, to feel jealous, to have a wake-up call.”

I stare at her dumbly for a moment, trying to determine how she could possibly arrange that because there’s no way that Jac would go for some random chick if she’s as hurt as bad as Spencer says she is. And even if she were willing, said random chick doesn’t deserve to be used.

But then Spencer keeps grinning at me like the Cheshire cat, and I see this for what it is. I see Spencer for what she is. She’s the random chick who’s totally okay with being used. But there’s another problem.

“Spencer, there’s no way. They all think that we’re like… fated. They’ll never buy it.”

She shrugs. “That doesn’t mean that I can’t flirt with Jac and draw Jon out. Jac won’t think anything serious of it for that very reason.”

“But Jon will think the same thing for that very reason,” I counter.

She shakes her head. “No, trust me. The green-eyed monster is stronger than reason.”

I’m still not sold.

“Look,” she says. “It would be different if we were trying to use some poor, unsuspecting girl, but I’m none of those things. This way, no one gets hurt any more than they already are, and things will be settled once and for all. I’m certain that Jon loves Jac too. I was just like her, only less…”

She bobs her head as if considering her next words and I’m reminded of her father. It’s kind of cute.

“Of a slut,” I finish for her.

We both chuckle. “I was going to say promiscuous, but slut works too.”

“Spence, what if Jon just gets angry at you and this whole thing blows up in our faces?”

“It’s going to blow one way or the other. This just gets it over with. Besides, they kind of deserve a little meddling after what they pulled on the trip. They were messing with me too.”

I can’t help but grin at that. They do have it coming…

“Okay,” I say. “If there’s anything you know how to do, it’s be a tease.”

Her mouth drops open and she pokes me in the ribs.

“Thanks a lot,” she says, as I grip her hands to hold them at bay.

“Don’t worry,” I repeat her words from earlier just as sweetly. “I find it endearing.”

She just smiles at that, and we find ourselves quietly absorbing a good moment together. It’s been happening more often lately because of our unspoken agreement to keep each other out of deep water. And it feels amazing, but if we linger too long, things will get weird, and that’s another violation. It doesn’t always work, but we’re on a streak today, and I don’t want to lose it.

I pull her from the corner to look for our group. It takes a few minutes but we finally find Jac, Kyla, and Kate standing near the side-stage watching the band. Jon is chatting up a girl at the stage entrance right next to them.

“Now’s as good a time as any,” I say, giving her a little shove when the space presents itself, and she glares at me over her shoulder before facing forward, smoothing her hands down over her skirt, flipping her hair, and putting a decidedly sexy sway in her hips.

My mouth goes a little dry but I like seeing Spencer this way, and I definitely like the fact that my friends aren’t going to know what’s hit them. I know I sure as fuck don’t. I find a piece of wall to latch onto as I watch, wishing that I had something very, very cold to drink.

I half expected Spencer to lay it on thick, to touch Jac suggestively and lean in close to really make things clear, but she’s better than that, more subtle, and definitely more deadly. She has to lean into Jac because of the noise, but she mostly just starts talking to Jac, and whatever she’s saying is making Jac smile and laugh. It’s an especially loud one of these laughs that gets Jon’s attention.

But Rome wasn’t built in a day, and instead of sticking around to see what it’s all about or reading more into it, Jon snakes her arm over the flavor-of-the-day’s shoulders and together they stalk off to the bathroom. I know all too well what’s going to happen in there, and after a few minutes deliberation, I grab Kate and tug her after me.

She stumbles, but rights herself before faceplanting.

“What the hell, Ash?”

“Just follow my lead, okay,” I say to her over my shoulder unwilling to slow down, at least until I notice Spencer giving us a curious look. I just smile at her in silent communion, and she must get it because she winks her approval.

Kate frowns, but she’s my best friend for a reason.

“Okay…,” she drawls.

I pull us both through the bathroom door and try to locate our targets, which isn’t hard. They weren’t being very quiet until they heard the door open, grunts and moans turning into giggles and sushing sounds.

I pull Kate up to the sinks and take a deep breath, trying to find some hurt to layer into my voice, which also isn’t hard. I have a deep well from which to draw.

“Did you see that,” I ask Kate. “Spencer and Jac?”

Kate’s confused as fuck as she says, “I guess?”

I nod at her slowly and she corrects herself. “I mean, yeah…”

“You don’t think that they’re like, interested in each other, do you?”

The noise from the stall gets even softer and I hear a breathless, “Why are you stopping?”

That seems to drive Jon onward by the heavy breathing that follows. Kate makes a disgusted face but she soldiers on.

“Well, I uh…”

I sigh loudly. “I guess, I mean, Spencer and I are over,” at which Kate snorts but I give her a scathing look that shuts her up. “But it’d just be weird if they hooked up, wouldn’t it?”

And with this Kate finally starts to catch on, though I can see that she’s still confused as to why we’re doing this.

“If they like each other, would that upset you,” she asks me.

“I’m not sure. I mean, I want them both to be happy. I guess if they find that with each other, I can’t really be mad.”

I turn on the faucet and splash at the water, just to make it sound like we have an actual purpose in here, but then a random girl comes out of the back stall and pauses as she watches me, so I turn it off.

“Well,” Kate says. “I’m not supposed to say anything, but Jac told me that she really likes Spencer. She says that she feels like they could have fun, like she understands what Spencer’s going through. But she feels bad because of your history, and the stuff that happened on the trip. If you say anything, she’ll kill me, but I don’t want you to get hurt.”

“When did she tell you this,” I ask, grabbing some towels, way too many in all actuality.

Random girl looks at me again so I step away from the sink so that she cautiously step forward to wash her hands.

“Like, a week ago.”

“Spencer’s been talking about dating again,” I respond solemnly. “We really are over, you know?”

Kate shakes her head and I really want to slug her in the arm, but then, as if by some miracle, Spencer pokes her head in the bathroom and asks, “Have you guys seen Jac?”

“No,” we chorus.

“Oh, I thought she came in here. Okay, well tell her I’m looking for her?”

“Sure,” I say.

“Yeah,” Kate says at the same time.

“Oh, nevermind,” Spencer says brightly. “I found her.” Before the door can even shut, we hear Spencer say, “Hey, you!”

After a moment of nothing but silence, the footsteps of a retreating random girl who probably thinks I’m mentally handicapped, and the rustle of fumbled fabric from a stall, a few other noisy girls come traipsing in.

“I guess that clears that up,” I say to Kate as the girls start to take over the sinks and mirrors.

“You gonna be okay, Ash,” she asks as we make our way to the door.

“Yeah, so long as they’re happy,” I say, tossing my wad of towels in the trash as we leave.

We find a spot that gives us a mostly unobstructed view of the bathroom and the side-stage. Jac is still in the same place that she was standing before we left when Spencer sidles up next to her, and I get the sneaking suspicion that Spencer knew where she was the whole time.

The woman’s a minx, I tell you.

It’s not long before the bimbo comes striding out of the bathroom, a frustrated expression on her face, but when Jon appears a split second later, she heads straight for me and Kate. We nearly tumble into each other as we try to act casual, but really, we just give ourselves away, not that Jon notices. She’s too busy trying to get a good view of Jac and Spencer behind us, her head cocked as if trying to puzzle things out.

For a moment, I want to laugh. She looks like Jetsam when I hit a sour note, but that levity dies when Jon up and leaves through the backdoor. Kate and I watch from the doorway as she jogs across the parking lot, gets into her car, and tears away in a screech of tires and angry music.

“What did we just do,” Kate shouts to me over the cacophony.

I look over at her. “We started a fire!”

“Why? Spencer and Jac aren’t interested in each other like that!”

I shut the door and lean in so that we can talk at a more normal volume. “I know, but Jon has her head up her ass and Spencer thinks that this will get her to realize it.”

Kate laughs almost hysterically and I stare at her nonplussed.

She chucks me on the shoulder. “That’s just too funny!”

“It is?”

She puts her arm around my shoulders and gives me a gentle squeeze, leaning in close to say, “Yeah.”

“Why?”

“Because Jon’s not the only one.”

And with that, she saunters back over to the remainder our group and I sigh. Fate has never been on mine and Spencer’s side. Why are we the only ones who can see that what’s in the past has to stay there?

As if she knows that I’m thinking about her, Spencer turns and asks a question with her eyes. I just give her a shrug, and hope that she’s right about all of this. I really want my band and my friends back, even if they have to get all Fleetwood Mac to get there.

I find my view of Spencer obstructed by some very nice cleavage and track my eyes up to see a girl smiling at me. I feel like I’ve seen her before, but I can’t place where, and I know that we’ve never met, but then maybe that would explain why she seems a little shy.

“Hi,” she says loudly. “I’ve seen you guys play before, but I never got the chance to tell you how good you are!”

I can’t help but smile at that. We are pretty awesome, even when we’re not, because, well, I’m me.

“Thanks,” I say just as loudly, and she extends her hand.

“I’m Erin.”

I take her hand. “Ashley.”

She smiles and there’s a moment where neither of us really know what to say, but I can tell that she’s not quite ready to walk away. In fact, all of the signs are there, from the way that her smile is a little too bright to the attractive blush coloring her collarbones to the way that she slowly releases my hand. She’s most definitely interested, with just the right amount of confidence and bashfulness, and I find it to be oddly cute.

Am I interested?

I’ve already decided that she’s cute, but then she’s also kind of beautiful. She epitomizes the quintessential punk rocker, but it feels natural on her and not so forced. Her hair is long and straight but cut into choppy layers, and I like the way that it falls around her face where it’s been clipped up.

I decide that I also like that it’s black. It doesn’t look dyed like so many of the girls in the scene. In fact, I can tell that it’s natural. It compliments her olive-toned skin and almond-shaped eyes far too well to be a farce.

I’ve always been a sucker for blue eyes, but hers are so dark that they’re nearly black and I can see the intelligence sparking to life behind them. She’s petite, slightly smaller than me, but not by much. We’re just about eye-to-eye, and I like the way that she’s ripped up her La Dispute shirt to show off the smooth skin of her slender shoulders and figure. Her large, dangly earrings and deeply hanging necklace help to soften her appearance and make her style all her own, though decidedly feminine.

“So, do you guys have an album or ep?”

I only barely hear what she’s saying as the last opener takes to the stage and the now full crowd cheers. I gesture to the backdoor with my head and she happily agrees to follow. It’s much calmer out here when the door shuts, despite the roadies grunting as they move hundreds of pounds of gear. Also, it’s much cooler now that the sun’s gone down.

I pull one of the cards from my back pocket and give it to her. “That’s our website. You can download our ep there.”

“Thanks,” she says, tucking the card in her pocket. “Why don’t you guys have a merch table inside?”

I shrug. I’d considered it and Ethan had pushed for it, but the demand just wasn’t there.

“We’re just a local band still. We need more exposure.”

She smiles at that. “You do know that the Troubadour has launched thousands of incredible music careers?” I’m a little affronted; of course I know that. “And,” she continues. “Even if you’re opening, there’s a reason Cyn put you on the roster.”

“You know Cyn,” I ask.

“Cyn’s my boss,” she says.

Ah, so that’s why I recognize her. “Let me guess, you work merch?”

There’s a twinkle in those eyes now and I involuntarily find it sexy.

“How’d you guess?”

“I’m just good like that.”

“I bet you are.”

Or at least that’s what I thought I heard, but it was too low to be sure and she’s already moved on.

“How about you let me help get you set up? I know all of the best places to get shirts, buttons, stickers, posters, and CDs printed at wholesale cost. I also know a graphic designer that works for iTunes. She can help set you up on their store and design something for you. That is, if you think your band’s ready for what’s going to happen here soon.”

“What’s going to happen here soon?”

“People are noticing, Ashley. I’ve had several ask for merch since the last time you played. It’s only a matter of time before your headlining, that is if you guys can find your energy again.”

I groan and she chuckles. Did everyone notice? At least now I know that Spencer’s plan wasn’t just out of spite.

“It’s okay,” she says. “You guys were still really good, really solid, but I’ve seen you before, and I know it could be better.”

I want to be angry with her. I mean, who is she to tell me how it’s done? But then she’s a professional. This is her life too, and by the way that she spoke about helping set us up, I can tell that she’s just as passionate. It’s kind of nice to meet someone who shares this interest on the same level, even when she knows that tonight wasn’t our best performance.

I guess I can’t really fault her. It’s true, and I’m just as critical of other bands, because I know what it means to perform.

“Okay,” I say, deciding that it can’t hurt. Even if we sell nothing, I can splurge. “How do we do this?”

She grins and I can tell that she’s excited, and if I’m honest, I am too.

She retrieves a sharpie from her pocket, but she actually takes my hand and writes her personal number on my palm before closing my fingers around it. Normally, I wouldn’t let this happen, especially not with permanent marker, but with her, I don’t know…

I just don’t stop it.

Either way, I can’t help but be a little skeptical as to her motivations for helping, especially with the way that she’s touching me.

“Text me at that number and we’ll set up a time to meet and talk.”

“Why are you helping me,” I ask.

“Because you’re talented and it’s my job.” Some of her shyness is back, but damn if she doesn’t push right through it. “You’re also sexy as hell and I’d like to get to know you. Don’t worry though, whether you’re interested in the fun stuff or not, the offer still stands. I’m not so desperate that I’ll use my connections to keep someone’s interest.”

And just like that she goes to the door, turning to say, “Call me,” before disappearing inside.

This night is just full of surprises. I look down at my palm. I’ve been propositioned a hundred times or more at shows, but I’ve never been so… caught off guard. Of course, those other offers were never more than a quick lay. This girl wants to actually talk. I’m not sure what to make of it but I can’t help but smile as I walk back inside.

I’m not going to read anything into it. She was pretty straight forward, which I liked, so I’m just going to take it at face value. I like face value, so far at least. I find Spencer alone on the couch, plucking imaginary lint from her skirt.

I sit and bump her on the shoulder. “Hey.”

She gives me a sad smile. “Hey.”

I lean in close to her. “Where is everyone?”

“Oh, um, Kate took Jac somewhere.”

“Did something happen?”

“Huh?” She looks up at me and frowns before shaking her head. “Oh, I’m not sure. She got a text and it upset her.”

I grin. “It’s probably Jon,” but then Spencer should be happy about this. Why isn’t she happy about this? “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. I think I’m just tired.”

I feel a frown of my own coming on. “Do you want to leave?”

“No,” she says. “I don’t want you to miss Manchester.”

I really don’t want to miss them either, but… “Hey, it’s okay. If you need to go home and just relax, I can catch them next time.”

That draws a sigh from her. “That’s sweet of you, but it’ll be okay.”

And she gives me that look that says that she doesn’t want to talk about it, but I still feel the need to ask, “You’re sure?”

“Yeah, I’m sure.”

I don’t believe that, but what can I do, throw her over my shoulder, drag her home, and ply her with liquor? A large portion of the noise dies away and I look up to see the roadies start to flood the stage. Erin walks by and waves at me and I return the gesture. I can’t help but smile, feeling a little flustered and a little excited, though I’m not sure why.

It must be the merch…

And it’s then that I see Carmen and my smile fades. She’s got an arm propped on the speaker tower by the stage as she leans into a girl. They’re talking, but it’s clear that they’re together by the way that they touch one another. And it all clicks into place, from the reason for Spencer’s upset to the way that Carmen’s attempting to use jealously. Why else would she put herself right in Spencer’s line-of-site?

“You seem to be having a good night, though,” Spencer says, taking my hand and running a thumb over my wrist.

“Oh… yeah,” I say. “I made a good contact tonight, I think.”

I kind of want to kill Carm- I mean, that fucking Seawitch, just now, but Spencer releases my hand and all of my attention is on her, studying her, trying to determine how bad the damage is. It’s pretty bad I think, and I know that this particular bought of sadness isn’t going to be as easily shaken as the others. That’s okay though; we had a good run today, and I’d be just as upset. I can’t blame her.

The last band has finished clearing the stage and I know that Manchester’s up next, so it seems pointless to leave now. However, we have an agreement, and I’ll keep trying until it becomes futile or I get slapped, whichever comes first. Besides, maybe we can shake the Seawitch up a little, give her a taste of her own medicine. So, I take Spencer’s hand, pull us both to our feet, and make a beeline for the bar.

“Ash, I don’t want to drink,” she says as we squeeze into a tiny opening on the bar.

“Shush,” I say. “It’s one shot. I never get loaded when I play a show, especially when I’m driving.” I turn to the bar and get the tender’s attention. It takes some time because the place is packed at this point,

“Two red-headed sluts,” I call out.

Spencer snorts at the name and I grin over at her. We both watch the bartender shake up the shots and pour them into the small tumblers that she’s already placed on the bar. I pull a twenty from my pocket and place it next to the shots before passing one to Spencer.

She sniffs it apprehensively. “What is this? It smells… spicy.”

“This is my favorite shot here, and it does have a little bite, but it’s sweet.” I raise my glass to her. “To friendship,” I say good-naturedly.

She hoists hers as well, though she says nothing and knocks the shot back before setting the glass on the counter.

“I’ll take the rest of that,” she shouts at the bartender, pointing to the shaker.

The bartender had moved on to the next customer, but Spencer’s demand was so loud and attention drawing that she doesn’t really have any other choice but to oblige.

I decide that I don’t like this. “Easy, Spence. They taste good but they’re strong.”

“Shush,” she says. “It’s only two shots and I’m not driving.”

I can’t really argue with that, especially given the circumstances, and she decides to actually toast this time, but the way that she says it is not nearly as good-natured.

“To black-headed sluts…”

For a second I think that she’s referring to the girl with Carmen, but she was blonde. Maybe she’s referring to Carmen herself? But Carmen’s hair, while really dark, is brown.

“It’s a red-headed slut, Spence,” I chuckle out, hoping to lighten the mood.

“Is that so,” she says in a bored tone.

She mumbles something else but I can’t quite make it out over the noise. I sigh and gulp down my own shot. It’s delicious. This is why I love them. We set the empty tumblers on the counter where my change is and I push it back towards the tender before taking spencer’s hand and pulling her to the outskirts of the mosh-pit. My only hope at this point is to distract her with too much fun.

Normally, I’d find my way to the front, right by the stage, but I don’t want to scare her or get her close to Carmen. The way that she’s acting, she might strangle the unsuspecting blonde. No, she’s squirrely enough and she’s a virgin. We’ll take this nice and easy. Well, as nice and easy as a mosh-pit can be.

We stay towards the back where the bodies aren’t nearly as packed in while some random punk music plays over the speakers. One of the roadies is doing the sound check on the drums, and that’s how I know that they’re almost done.

I’m right, of course, because not a few minutes later, the roady gives a thumbs up to the sound guy in the sky and flees the stage. The lights dim and the already electrified energy bouncing around the room becomes elastic when the band enters, immediately starting with their national hit song. I smile over at Spencer with anticipation.

I love this feeling, like something is sparking over my skin. I feel light-headed, a little high, a little warm, but supremely excited. She’s still off, a little sad, and maybe a little tipsy, but that’s okay. We’ll get through it. I’ll pull her through it. This song has a slow start but it’s going to explode and, despite her other misgivings, I know that she feels it building too.

I lean in close to her ear as the band gets ready to break into the fun part. “You ready?”

She manages to say, “Yes.”

I beam from the inside out because she’s trying. And just like that the music detonates through the crowd and I start to bounce and jump around, taking Spencer hands so that she has to do it with me. After her initial surprise, and then reluctance, she seems to really get into it.

After a while it seems like the more that we move, the less that all of the outside influences can stick to us. It feels like we’re shedding the world so that we can find possibility in it again. I always wondered what it would be like to just go to a concert with her or come home to her, maybe have a dog with her or even go grocery shopping with her.

And maybe not literally every one of those things crossed my mind with that level of specificity, but they all encompass the bigger picture – the hope that I would have a future with her. And while I’ve only just recently gotten a taste, it’s everything that I thought that it would be, especially in this moment, even if it’s not exactly the way that I had wanted it.

These silly things that had been stolen had meant the world to me; they do mean the world to me. And no matter how common occurrence they may be to most, I don’t ever want to take them for granted. I want to be aware of every second, feel every second.

And I do.

Oh, how I do.

I feel full to bursting, so I burst, and she’s there with me, my kite string keeping me tethered to a beautiful but simple life. I’m not sure how long we’ve been dancing at this point, but it’s several songs later when the band starts to play an old song called Girl With Broken Wings.

We’re both breathless and flushed and a little sore from bumping into the other pit-hoppers, but we’re having a good time. I know that the show is coming to end because this is a slow song, something to calm the crowd, and it’s working. But I’m just not ready. I want it to feel like this always, like we were never broken, but always free and always whole.

I almost want to be angry with Manchester for doing a sad song because Spencer’s coming down, but I can’t. I can’t find anything that’s not good at this very moment even as she wears all of those reasons so blatantly. And I realize that for all that was stolen, some things weren’t. I had the first kiss. I had Christmases and birthdays and summers. I had prom.

And this, right now, is what it felt like at prom – the last time that everything felt right and good. I got to dance with her, fast and fun, and slow and close. It may be stupid, but I feel greedy. I want more than she’s already given me. But then when I see Carmen dancing far too close to us to be coincidence, I decide that there are some not-so-selfish reasons. So right here in the mosh-pit, I take Spencer’s waist and pull her closer.

She’s a little surprised, a little unsure as she glances over my shoulder, but she links her arms around my neck loosely and we start to move in slow circles as the crowd shifts around us. She tightens the embrace and I rest my cheek to her ear, my eyes closing as her breaths skitter along the skin of my neck.

Despite what I know is happening around me, I feel eighteen again. It’s hard to believe that it was only four years ago. It seems like lifetimes and eras have come and gone. And maybe they have. The earth has rotated one-thousand and sixty-one times since everything fell apart. Four stars have been born and four others have died, but we still see their light from the tiny spec that is our planet.

And that’s how I feel right now, like death can’t dim anything. Like there’s a legacy, a lasting purpose to all of this, like I can see the light even after the source has already expired. I know that I’ve died in so many ways, even as I’ve been reborn in all of the same ways. And I can’t help but determine that this, right here, right now, is just one of the reasons why. I have a reason to keep beaming, to keep breathing.

The song starts to get more desperate and her hold gets tighter, almost painfully so. And when she starts to shake, I know that she’s crying, so I pull her impossibly closer and keep us swaying, holding her together the best way that I know how even as I feel like someone crouched over a shattered crystal with nothing but a stick of super glue.

I’m not sure what else to do, except maybe hit the Seawitch again, but I can’t seem to feel it. I’d want Spencer back too, and I’d play dirty to get her. I sigh into her hair. It’s been an extraordinary day in the most ordinary of ways. This was bound to happen eventually, but I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere. That borders on being a miracle in and of itself. It feels good to be the one to hold her through it for once. It feels good to be the strong one, the dependable one.

“I’m sorry,” she chokes out.

“You have no reason to be sorry,” I whisper.

We circle for a few more minutes before I get the nerve to ask, “Do you want to talk about it,” in a nearby ear.

She leans back and seems to consider saying something. In fact, I’m fairly certain that I see it poised on the tip of her very tongue, but then she shakes her head. And while I wish that she could get it out, it’s okay. I know enough.

A few long moments pass before the band bids the crowd goodnight; the overhead lights come on, and we pull apart, the world collapsing in and reminding us that it never really went away. It was a dream, but a sweet one while it lasted, and I just can’t find it within myself to be bitter.

With a deep breath, I take her hand and lead her to the bathroom to help clean her up by running some cold water on a paper towel and gently swiping at her cheeks.

“I must look like a wreck,” she says pathetically.

I just smile at her. “Nah, you’re kinda beautiful.”

She shakes her head and takes my hand to still it, holding it close to her face and just looking into my eyes. And I feel like she’s trying to tell me something without actually saying the words, and I don’t know what it is, but I know for sure that there’s love somewhere in there.

And I love her too, all of her – broken but beautiful, bold but tragic. It’s intense, that weird place that we avoid, but I stay still in it. She’s been through a lot in the last hour. But then the number on my arm catches her attention and the spell is broken. She takes the towel from my hand and releases me before turning to fix herself in the mirror, almost as if she needs to hide from me.

And maybe she does. Maybe there are some things that we don’t know and can’t know about each other, especially when it comes to her feelings for Carmen. That’s okay. I’m satisfied with what I know because she’s let me see more than anyone else.

So I lean against the stall behind me to watch her. I love watching her. I’ve done this a million times before for a million different reasons, but it feels the same, just a little sadder, a little older, a little more lost even as we’re both a little more found.

And it especially feels nostalgic when her eyes meet mine in the mirror. There it is again, that something that she’s not saying, that something that she needs to say. But then instead of words, it comes out as tears. I pull a few more towels from the dispenser and put my hand on her back to let her know that she’s not alone.

She turns and hugs me and I just hold on tight. And then, like a sadistic stalker, Carmen bursts into the bathroom, having way too much fun as she loudly laughs with her date. And it’s gross. Not because she wants Spencer back. If I understand nothing else about her, I get that. But she’s using that poor girl, and it’s just, well, wrong.

But she catches me holding Spencer, and her face falls a little.

Spencer tenses because she knows, but when I see the pain lance through Carmen, I feel slightly better. This is hurting her too. She says nothing, choosing instead to put on a plastic smile and brush past us with her date. Once they disappear into a stall, I lead Spencer out to the car. All I know to do is get her home, and away from this nightmare.

Once she’s settled in the passenger seat, I pull my cell from my pocket and text Kate that we’re leaving. It’s not long before the windows are down and we find ourselves in congested traffic. I don’t put any music on. Somehow, everything feels too fragile for noise. And the quiet is kind of nice when mixed with the breeze coming through the windows. It helps to clear some of the thickness in the air as we creep towards the interstate.

A few miles of open road pass before Spencer finally says, “I felt good to dance with you like that.”

I glance over to find her looking out of the window before training my eyes back on the road. That was an unexpected observation given everything else that just happened. And if she really feels that way, I can’t help but feel bad for using it to make Carmen jealous. I mean, it wasn’t for me, but Spencer didn’t ask me to do that.

Mostly, I just wanted to dance with her. Maybe… “I shouldn’t have done that.”

“No,” she says forcefully, and this time I can tell that she’s looking at me though I don’t take my eyes off of the road. “I’m really glad you did. It was just… it meant a lot to me, Ash.”

Either way, “It meant a lot to me too.”

Another minute passes before I feel her hand snake over to mine and twine our fingers on my leg, and neither of us let go for the rest of the ride home, even as no more words are forthcoming.


Don’t forget to rate and review before moving on!


Continued in Chapter 5 – Fat Fucking Tuesday 

Chapter 4 – Nothing is Free

There was an early fall chill in the air by the time that the envoy took to the South over six hours ago. They had loaded Clarke into a cart, having determined that riding a horse would only further exasperate her injured leg. She had fallen asleep immediately, or perhaps passed out, but while concerned for Clarke’s health, Lexa had been thankful.

She had many things to consider, and she knew that if Clarke were awake, she’d see right through Lexa’s carefully built walls, exposing and challenging as was her way. Normally Lexa would crave that dialogue, but she could not afford to lose any more face in front of her people, especially those of the warriors surrounding her just now.

The Trikru have been growing steadily unsettled. The fact that Clarke and Lexa had been in the forest during the missile strike had not gone overlooked, especially by the Ice Nation. Her people are not prone to rumors, but there had been speculation, and while no one would dare to make accusations without proof, the air of unease is palpable.

The Ice Nation is still seeking answers, but mostly, they’re seeking blood.

Lexa has gone over the scenario a thousand times or more in her head just on this excursion alone, and she always comes to the same conclusion. But she cannot convince herself that her people would see her motivations for what they were: to put an end to the threat of the Mountain Men once and for all. And even if they could, the Ice Nation would not care. Theirs is an uneasy alliance at best. Lexa believes that all would see it as Clarke does: a betrayal.

Lincoln’s disappearance only further compounded matters. She knows that it was Indra who had given him the means of escape, but she chose to believe that he’d escaped on his own, at least publicly. She does not wish to kill one of her strongest warriors, a leader in her own right. But Lincoln is seen as a threat. If he is caught, he will be tried and executed without a word of protestation. And if Indra’s assistance is found out, she will meet the same fate.

The fact is that trust is an immense factor for the Trikru, and once it’s gone there’s no getting it back.

Lexa knows that she’s putting a tremendous amount of trust in Clarke. She looks over at the girl, this keeper of secrets, noting how peaceful she seems in rest. Truly, she finds Clarke to be inspiring, an immense challenge wrapped in breathtaking beauty. But she is also terrifying. Her soft mouth concealing a blade-like tongue, and she knows that with one carefully placed word, Clarke could send her to her death, send Indra and Lincoln to their deaths, and plunge her people into war.

Either way, Lexa would make the same decision again. The lives of two-hundred and ninety-eight people do not compare to countless lifetimes of capture and torture. And even if her people did find out, label her a traitor and put her to death, she would die knowing that she did everything in her power to protect them.

So why can’t she quit thinking about it? She knows that what she did was what she was supposed to do, but she can’t seem to stop analyzing it. The blood of her people is on her hands, but that is the burden of a commander, a burden that she was born to bear.

And if she allows herself, she can feel that burden; she can feel just how immense it is. And she does. She has to, even if only for a moment, because to do otherwise would be to dishonor those sacrificed. She remembers that day, the horrific wailing and blazing agony. Like a wound that won’t heal, it bleeds, and brings other horrors from her past to light.

She remembers Costia left to be tortured and murdered for secrets that Lexa had never trusted her with. She remembers the Sky People standing at the opening to a mountain where she turned them over like lambs to slaughter. She remembers Clarke’s face, her tears, her broken-heart…

In this moment, she gazes down on the girl from her horse unabashedly. Clarke is unlike any person that she’s ever met, both physically and emotionally. And like a salve to stop the bleeding, she allows herself to feel that too.

The color of Clarke’s eyes is not something that is common among her people. It’s a rarity, just like her own. But Clarke’s seem to be a fragment broken from the very sky, encompassing it in both color and endlessness.  And the amber of Clarke’s hair reminds her of the wheat grass in the summer. She has often walked through the fields to the West to center herself, her arms extended to let the thin stalks whisper over her palms as she marvels at how something so soft, so delicate, can defy the strength of the forest to overtake the terrain.

Clarke is all of these things for her: unfathomable beauty and gentle strength. Lexa remembers what it feels like to be so utterly, so irrevocably affected. She remembers a challenge, a push, a fall through a moment just like this one. She remembers a warm embrace and soft kiss, because unlike any other she’s ever encountered, not even Costia, she trusts Clarke with her heart. And though she conceals it, it is not without fracture of its own.

She gives herself over to this moment, but it is just a moment, fleeting and perfect in its imperfection. These are the moments that keep her going, keep her alive, because these are the moments that remind her that it’s true. Even if it is weakness, it doesn’t matter; no one gets to know, not even the girl, not really.

But it is only a moment, and then it’s gone, all such things silenced in the face of what is yet to be done.

“Rider,” Indra calls from the front of the caravan.

Without a word the envoy stops and their warriors assume a defensive formation. The woods are far less treacherous now that the Mountain Men are gone, but they are vigilant nonetheless. The sound of hooves beating hard against the soft earth reaches her ears as the rider comes into view.

It’s Kenya, one of Lexa’s scouts. Lexa sent her ahead to inform the Skaikru of their impending arrival, Clarke’s condition, as well as to watch and report. Her appearance means that they are close. The rider pulls to a hard stop alongside Lexa and nods her head in greeting before debriefing in their native Trigedasleng.

“I’ve informed the Skaikru of your arrival, Heda. They have agreed to meet you in peace.”

Lexa nods. “And after you left?”

“I did as you instructed and observed undetected from the trees. Their council does not trust you, but the one they call Kane convinced them to listen.”

Kane always had noble intentions from the very start. And while she trusts what she saw in the holding cell, she also knows that there is little that he can do to sway them.

“You know what to do if anything happens once we’re inside?”

Kenya nods.

“Go then. Take three others with you and prepare yourselves.”

“Yes, Heda.”

Kenya sharply turns her horse and speeds away just as fast as she rode in, and the caravan continues. If the report had been anything less, they would have turned around, but she has Clarke. She knows that they would see her to collect the girl if for no other reason.

Indra holds back until she’s beside the commander. “You trust the Skaikru.”

“I trust what I know,” Lexa replies.

“And what is it that you know?”

Lexa keeps her eyes ahead. She may have saved Indra’s life out of respect, but she is tired of the constant second guessing.

“If you do not see, why should I entertain your ignorance?”

“I only wish to protect our people, to protect you.”

Lexa finally looks over at her. “You wish to question my authority and make your disapproval known.”

“There was a time when you respected my council.”

“There was a time when you did not wish to start a war and condemn more of our people to die. But now is not that time.”

“No,” Indra faces forward. “Now is not that time.”

They ride quietly for several minutes before Indra speaks again.

“If you’re wrong, we’ll all die.”

Lexa looks at Clarke again, but this time as nothing more than a bargaining chip. The Skaikru will not attack them until they’re certain that she’s safe. They do not believe in sacrificing one for the whole. And in another brief, fleeting moment, Lexa envies them their emotions.

“They will not attack us as long as we have the girl, Indra. But if you’re frightened, you can stay in the trees with Kenya.”

“You dishonor me,” Indra fumes. “It is you that should not be risked. If you die-”

“Then you will have your war.”

That silences Indra for the remainder of the ride, though it’s a tense silence. Lexa knows that Indra thoughts are caught in a war of their own. She does not believe that Indra is entirely wrong, but she has always had to temper Indra’s council. The warrior is more distrustful of outsiders than most, and for good reason. But Lexa isn’t quick to hasty decisions, even if she knows that some of what Indra says is true. Ultimately, the safest course is to eradicate the threat without a word.

But the best chance of saving what’s left of her people would die with the Skaikru. It is not her duty to take the easiest way out and just protect herself. It is her duty to choose the path that saves the most lives, even at the cost of her own. She will not condemn anyone without cause and she will not hide from confrontation if that cause can be avoided.

Before she knows it, another two hours have passed and the mangled edges of the Ark’s ring peak out from the tops of the trees.

Indra she speaks once more. “I’m with you, Leksa, to whatever end.”

She glances at Indra and nods once before the warrior cantors back to the front of the caravan. Lexa sits up straighter in her saddle, her sharp eyes alert as they scan the forest and the Ark’s perimeter for anything to cause alarm. She can only find her scouts, each making calls to indicate that nothing is abnormal. And while there are armed guards in great number at the gate, the sight of Abby and Kane waiting just inside affirms that, if nothing else, she is right about the leverage that Clarke represents.

They approach the now opening gate slowly, and Lexa climbs from her horse with practiced ease to reach into the cart and wake Clarke. She places a hand to the girl’s shoulder and shakes gently.

“Clarke,” she says.

Clarke is unmoved, her breathing labored and her cheeks flushed. Lexa places her hand to a warm forehead and feels a pang of panic sweep through her, but then the girl’s eyes open reluctantly and it dissipates.

“We’re here,” she tells the girl.

Clarke feels a wave of panic all her own. She’s not ready to face her friends, her mother, any of them, not yet. But then she doesn’t have a choice. Lexa made that patently clear.

“Clarke,” Abby calls out as she strides up to the cart.

“Hey,” Clarke’s voice cracks out.

Mother and daughter just look at one another, seemingly sharing a private, unspoken discussion. The worry on Abby’s face gives testament to the words that she’s not saying, and the same goes for Clarke.

Lexa finds this amusing. They may as well just say what they’re thinking, maybe share a few desperate hugs, noisy tears, and kisses. There is no need to hold back on her account. The weakness lies in feeling the emotions, not just in showing them. But unlike Lexa, they do a poor job of hiding it.

“Right then,” Abby says after a moment, and then her doctor’s instincts kick in as she starts to examine Clarke with quick, clinical precision.

The head wound is dismissed given Clarke’s ability to wake after sleeping, and the various superficial scratches and cuts will heal, though a couple of them may need sutured. But the leg, well, the leg earns Lexa a look that kills her minute bout of levity. Abby’s eyes are accusing at the very least, perhaps scornful or loathing.

“What happened,” she asks Clarke, though her eyes don’t leave the commander.

Clarke frowns, searching her mind for answers where only murky snippets can be found. She looks to Lexa who speaks for her.

“She’d fallen in the forest and tumbled into a ravine of brambles. We retrieved her.”

“And you couldn’t reset the leg,” Abby asks in annoyance.

“I’m not sure what you mean,” Lexa replies looking over to Nyko who raises a shoulder to indicate that he’s not sure either. He’d done what he could, what he’d have done for any of his own: he stopped the bleeding and fought the infection.

“Nevermind,” Abby says with a sigh. “Thank you… for pulling her out and bringing her home.”

Abby doesn’t look at Lexa when she says this though; and Lexa believes that Abby’s gratitude is disingenuous. But she is not here for kind words.

“One of you needs to get a gurny and be quick. The rest of you, help get her up,” Abby calls to the armed Skaikru standing stiffly within the gate.

They look to one another before warily moving to do as bid. One runs back towards the Ark and the others struggle not to hurt the girl. Lexa is astounded by how oafish they are, how graceless. Clarke cries out in pain and they stop, so Lexa steps forward. They move aside without a word and Lexa lifts the girl gently. Clarke doesn’t protest and Abby’s a little nonplussed by the show of sheer strength and tenderness.

“Uh, the gurny should be here shortly,” Abby stutters.

But then several awkward minutes pass with no sign of the guard, and with a sigh, Abby starts walking ahead.

“This way,” she says.”

Lexa follows with Indra, Kane, Nyko, and the armed Skaikru pulling in behind. When they start to move, Clarke reaches up and fastens her hands around Lexa’s neck. It’s a weak grip, but it helps to keep her from being jostled.

“You’re stronger than you look,” she says wearily to the commander.

“You’re heavier than you look,” Lexa replies.

Clarke frowns. “Did you just tease me?”

Lexa’s face remains implacable. “Tease?”

“Nevermind,” Clarke sighs out.

Clarke’s head rolls to Lexa’s shoulder and rests against her collarbone. The girl isn’t looking at her anymore and she allows herself a small smirk. For all of Clarke’s ability to see through the pomp and bravado, it’s the little things that she misses entirely.

Of course Lexa was teasing, and of course she knows what the word means, but Clarke really can’t seem to believe that Lexa’s not cold when she doesn’t have to be. And Lexa takes no small pleasure in allowing her that disillusionment, even as she finds it frustrating.

The guard with the gurny meets them at the opening to the Ark, a grimace on his face. Without a word, they shuffle past him, following Abby into the immense, rounded structure that appears to Lexa to be made of melted swords. It seems sturdy, much sturdier than the wood and skin of Trikru architecture. It’s also a labyrinth, she notes. It would be easy to get lost, to be trapped. Everything looks the same and the pasty grey color is oppressive. She much prefers the riot of color that is her forest.

Lexa rests her chin lightly against the hair of Clarke’s head, cataloging every step she takes while allowing herself this moment of… she’s not sure what it is. But something about holding Clarke when she’s vulnerable and having Clarke relax into that embrace is heartening. And that’s the very reason that she pulls her head away and straightens her shoulders. She cannot afford to be heartened just now.

“Right here,” Abby says, gesturing to a table in a large room filled with various strange vials and chrome objects that Lexa has never seen before.

She lays Clarke down gently. The girl is half-in and half-out of sleep, and Lexa hovers over her for just a moment before pulling away.

The chancellor addresses the commander but starts to pull at the material of Clarke’s pants to further expose the wound. “I need to look after Clarke,” she says, removing Nyko’s bindings. “Kane and the guards will see to your needs.”

Lexa easily reads the dismissal in Abby’s demeanor, and while she does not wish to leave Clarke, she also feels the urgency of seeing to Clarke’s health. The most immediate needs of the Reapers will have to wait. She also does not wish to upset the Skaikru any further. She understands that the first gesture of trust falls on her shoulders given the circumstances. But if she leaves the girl without having settled something concrete, she loses the leverage that Clarke provides.

Abby scrutinizes the wound. It’s not a clean break. Part of the bone has pierced the side of Clarke’s leg and is sticking out through the skin, but she should be able to pair it back up with some work. The wound itself is clean though, surprisingly, and she realizes that her ability to save her daughter’s leg is because of the care that the commander provided. She does not voice this though, merely sets to relieve her daughter.

Seeing this, knowing that Clarke is the immediate concern to these people, Lexa makes a decision. It is one of trust that she doesn’t feel, but she will give this once, hoping that it will be enough.

“That’s not necessary,” she replies. “We’ll set up camp along the tree-line. Once you’ve finished, send one of my warriors to find me.”

Abby nods, bracing her hand against Clarke’s knee as she grabs her ankle to twist it slowly. Clarke groans and with a last look at the girl, Lexa turns to leave. Indra steps forward, purposely speaking in their tongue so that Abby cannot understand.

“You let them take Clarke without having secured the treaty?”

Lexa looks to Indra, ready to slam her down for again getting in the way, but Clarke lets out a scream so blood curdling that the guards outside come rushing in guns raised. Kane raises a hand to quiet them but Lexa finds herself rushing forward, pushing the hair from Clarke’s forehead and looking into her pain-glazed eyes.

“She has to hold still,” Abby says to Kane. “I was hoping she’d stay asleep while I reset it. I can’t do anything for the pain.”

Abby comes up on the other side of Clarke, giving Lexa a strange expression that backs her away before looking into her daughter’s face. But Lexa is forced to stop her backward momentum when she finds that Clarke has retrieved her hand and that weak grip is nowhere to be found.

“Clarke, you have to hold still. I’ll make it as quick as I can, okay?”

Clarke swallows thickly and nods once before turning her eyes on Lexa. The commander feels a flush of something unidentifiable but steps closer to the table. In the corner of her eye she can see Abby preparing to move the leg again, so she speaks to the girl, saying the first thing that comes to mind in an attempt to distract her.

“Tell me, Clarke, what is it like in the sky?”

The girl starts to jerk as Abby pulls on her leg, and Clarke starts to pant, her grip tightening on Lexa’s hand.

“Do you- do you like the stars,” Clarke asks breathlessly.

Lexa nods and Clarke gives a faint smile that quickly becomes a grimace. Sweat starts to bead on her lip and forehead as her lungs struggle to find the air, but she’s thankful for Lexa’s attempt at distraction.

“From space, the stars are… bigger,” she grinds out through her teeth. “And brighter than they are from the ground, and they’re every- where.” She stops to breathe, the jerking intensifying. “And sunrise- it happens sixteen times a d-“ Clarke squeezes Lexa’s hand and Lexa squeezes back. “A day…”

Clarke heaves and looks like she might vomit as the sucking sounds of bone scraping through flesh fills the room.

“You’d hate the sky, though,” Clarke continues. “It’s so… confining. I can’t picture you confined. You have to be free-”

Clarke cries out, and thrashes. She can’t help it, but Kane reaches over to pin her thigh down as Lexa places a strong hand to her shoulder. Clarke can’t talk anymore; she can’t even think clearly, so Lexa gets right in her field of vision, her deep eyes commanding Clarke’s attention as she picks up the slack.

“When there’s snow on the ground, there is a place not far from here to the North where lights overwhelm the sky. It starts out as a green haze with a single line. But as you watch, the line seems to grow and take shapes, as if becoming riders, great warriors so fierce and untouchable that they are made of mist. And then finally it explodes in a great battle. Bright beams of red and pink and purple shoot out as the war in the green rages around them.”

Clarke lifts her head to gaze down at her mother as the pain becomes unbearable, as her leg is twisted and jerked back into shape, but Lexa’s grip is unmoved. Clarke’s head snaps back hard back against the table as tears roll from her yes and Lexa moves her hand under Clarke’s head, holding her down but also cradling her. Clarke jerks as one last scrape of bone on bones echoes hollowly in the cavernous, metal room. Her eyes roll but she hasn’t passed out yet. Lexa tries again to get her attention, turning Clarke’s face to her and gazing into cloudy eyes.

“It lasts for hours, Clarke, until finally, the battle is over, the mist turning yellow as the sun rises and sends the warriors back to their graves.”

“To the- North,” Clarke asks breathlessly, her face contorted.

“Yes,” Lexa says. “Someday, if our people can find peace, I will take you there.”

Lexa smiles when Clarke’s eyes focus and the tears subside. She glances down at Abby to see her cleaning and preparing to sew up the wound. The leg looks almost normal now, and Kane releases his hold as relief seems to fill the very air. The worst is over.

“The Aurora Borealis,” Clarke mumbles, and Lexa looks back to her. Clarke is obviously dazed and tired but less pained. “That’s what it’s called. I’ve seen it before from Space, but I’d like to see it from the ground.” Her eyelids flutter shut. “Everything’s more beautiful from the ground. More free… like you.”

Clarke finally succumbs to agony and exhaustion, her hand going slack against Lexa’s. But the commander lingers, just simply holding the girl’s hand, holding her, even as Lexa’s thoughts are buffeted by so many emotions that she can’t discern one of them from another. So all of them get held back. It’s Abby’s voice that reminds her of who and where she is, effectively backing her away from Clarke.

“Her leg will be fine once I get it stitched and fitted into a splint.” She turns to one of the guards still standing in the door. “Talk to Raven and Wick. Tell them I need a brace for Clarke’s leg.” She nods and leaves, and Abby turns back to her work. “I need to sew up a few of these cuts too.” She looks pointedly at Lexa. “It’ll take about an hour. I’ll send someone to find you when I’m finished.”

Lexa can tell that her presence is making Abby uncomfortable, so with one last look to Clarke, she leaves, the remaining armed guards escorting her and her group to the gate where it clanks shut behind them.

Indra wisely chooses not to say anything. Instead she gives Lexa a look that could melt steel before venturing to the tree-line to help set up camp. Lexa’s tent is already up, so she seeks solitude inside.


Indra announces herself before throwing back the tent flaps and entering the small, but functional space.

“The Skaikru council is ready, Heda.”

Lexa tosses back the last of her water and sets the cup on one the table that she’s been leaning over for the last hour and a half. She rolls up the parchment spread out on the surface, the same one she’s been pouring over since her return to her tent.

The terms of this treaty are fairly straight forward: the Sky People will help cure the Reapers. In return, they will be given territory and citizenship that will be respected by the twelve clans. The other clans can hardly protest. Each will have some of their own returned to them. They may still see the Sky People as interlopers, but that is something that Lexa plans to address in roughly two weeks’ time when they travel to Polis.

Every year, the heads of the different tribes meet before winter to discuss different issues. It is necessary to keep trading lines open as well as to gather supplies to prepare for the upcoming winter. It also allows Lexa to be well informed of any power struggles that might be occurring within the different clans. By that time, she hopes that the treaty will be secure with the Sky People, and the Reapers rehabilitated.

It’s an odd system, but it works for the most part. For all intents and purposes, all of the clans are the same people and the same bloodlines, but a difference of opinion many years ago saw them split. People chose their loyalties and each went their separate ways. Since then, people are born into their clan. If they choose to defect to another, it is permitted. However, it is not an easy transition and most choose to stay with their respective families. Each clan is self-sustaining, with its own head, but the main differences lay in political and moral standings.

The woods clans are more noble. They respect the forest and are fiercely loyal to their own. The same could be said of the coastal and desert clans. The Ice Nation is probably the harshest of the twelve, and also the most problematic. Their people are brutal and cruel. Perhaps that is why they choose to live in some of the most unforgiving terrain. Their loyalties are not an affectionate bond so much as a means to survive, and their distrust is not only for outsiders. That is their way, their culture.

Indra is the head of Tondc, and Anya was the leader of Lexa’s clan, the Trigeda. Tris would have stepped in after Anya’s demise, but she was killed by the explosion on the bridge. A new leader has yet to be chosen, and while the yearly summit in Polis will rectify the situation, the greatest of Lexa’s worries is the Queen of the Ice Nation, the Azgeda.

She did not show at the summit where the missile hit. She sent someone else in her place. He was found dead in the wreckage, and Lexa cannot help but wonder if Andrea somehow knew that this would be the case. Either way, she disrespected Lexa by not appearing as she was bidden.

Was she afraid to face Lexa for her crimes against Costia? Lexa hopes that this is the case. It would give her the upper-hand, but somehow, she doesn’t believe it. Andrea is a proud and ruthless woman, sly, manipulative, and unyielding. She does nothing without knowing that she can win and she will maintain that she has nothing but goodwill towards Lexa until an opportunity presents itself.

Lexa believes that she’s just waiting, biding her time for such a moment, but outside of personal grievances, she has no way of removing Andrea from power. All Lexa has is speculation, based off of years of personal experience and knowledge gleaned from less than public sources.

What she does know for sure is that a treaty with the Sky People will not be welcome. And if Andrea does show, as is again expected of her, she will most certainly incite the remaining tribes against them. Unfortunately for anyone else, Lexa is the commander of all the clans. The clans will fall in line, or protestors will be executed.

Lexa tucks the map with the new territories as well as the treaty itself under her arm and picks up her sword, taking a moment to stare at the battle-worn blade. It would be a lie to say that she does not wish for Andrea to step out of line. She wants it; she craves it, her very weapon sings with the hunger of Andrea’s blood. It would be justice, regardless of the fact that it would never account for the eternal feelings of loss.

“Are Kenya and the others in position,” she asks, sliding her sword into the sheathe that’s slung across her back.

“Yes, Heda.”

“Very well.”

She turns and hands Indra the parchments, and the pair quietly makes their way back towards the gates to the Ark, several warriors following them. They are met by Marcus Kane who greets them politely once the gate has been opened.

“Commander, welcome,” he says genially.

“Kane,” she says simply.

He smiles and it seems genuine, but then he gestures to a large bin.

“If you will please leave your weapons, I will escort you to where Abby and the other council members wait.”

No one makes a move to disarm themselves, and Indra vocalizes her disapproval.

“You would have us unarmed and surrounded,” she asks warily.

Kane tucks his hands behind his back, a stance that Lexa knows means he is unmovable in this demand.

“Given the circumstances, we must insist that no foreign weapons enter the camp. Of course, they will be returned to you upon you departure.”

“You did not ask this earlier,” Lexa points out.

“There were only three of you then,” Kane says. “And you had your arms full.”

He smiles as he says this, and while Lexa is unaffected by his charm, she removes her sword and places it in the bin. She gives Indra a pointed look, shutting off any further avenue for discussion. Each of her warriors follows suit, and as the clang of metal begins to rattle in the bin, Kane’s expression as he meets Lexa’s eyes shows his gratitude.

Again they start to move, Lexa and Kane at the front.

“You do know that our people are masters in hand-to-hand combat,” Lexa says.

Kane chuckles, his arms still clasped behind his back as if enjoying a leisurely stroll.

“I have no doubt,” he replies.

Little does he know that a sword is not the only weapon on any one of Lexa’s warriors, just the most easily seen. Kane leads them through the curious and baleful glares of those in the courtyard, into the Ark, and through a series of maze-like hallways, and this time Lexa is prepared. She’s mapping each turn, however slight, and adding it to what she already knows. She will not be made helpless in a potential ambush.

They arrive in another room that looks almost exactly like the one that Clarke had been laid in, only this one is oval in shape and so is the large, metal table in the middle. There are chairs tucked in around it, a few of them filled with various individuals that Lexa has never met. However, Abby is at the far end, and that is whom Lexa focuses her attention on.

She had hoped that Clarke would be present, but given her health, it appears that she will have to convince them without that additional support. Each individual stands, but it is only Abby who speaks.

“Commander, please have a seat,” Abby intones.

Kane makes his way to Abby’s side and Lexa hears more than sees that armed Skaikru are filling the gap at the door. She glances to Indra before taking the chair nearest her. Indra nods once, and the rest of her entourage remain standing, quietly spreading throughout in the room.

This unsettles Abby, but there is little that she can do other than start a war right here, so she swallows her nervousness and reclaims her seat.

“We understand that you have a proposition,” Abby starts.

“It is a solution,” Lexa corrects her. “To all of our problems.”

“We don’t have any problems outside of your people,” a man across from Lexa chimes in, anger lacing his words.

“And this would solve that problem,” Lexa says again, completely unmoved by his outburst.

“What is this solution,” Kane tries.

Lexa stands and every Skaikru in the room flinches. This is a good sign for her. If these people cannot trust her, then at least they fear her. She moves towards Abby, taking the map from Indra, and laying it out on the table in front of the Chancellor.

“This is the territory that you currently reside in. It belongs to the clans of TonDC, the Trigeda, and the KruWoda.”

Kane leans into Abby and they both study the map as the others can only get a glimpse of it. Lexa puts her finger where they currently are.

“This is the Ark, and these lines,” she traces the dotted lines that indicate the various territories. “Are the boundaries for each clan’s claim. As you can see, the clan territories intersect where you are. What I am offering you is this territory.” She runs her finger in a circle around the Ark, giving them roughly a two square mile radius.

“In exchange for what,” Abby asks ominously.

“Your assistance in saving the Reapers,” Lexa replies, looking Abby right in the eye.

“And if we refuse?”

“You will have two days to vacate.” She points back at the map. “But you will have a long journey ahead of you.”

And it’s true. Based on the territories for all twelve clans, nearly half of what used to be America is already owned. To further punctuate this point, Lexa continues.

“The areas outside of our territories are the deadzone. They are wastelands and they are lawless. That is where criminals and fugitives often go. I cannot speak on what circumstances you will find yourselves in should you go there, but it is the only area not claimed by one of the twelve clans.”

“I refuse to listen to this,” the same man as before spits out. “These savages have no right to come in here and make demands after what they did. They cannot be trusted.”

“Councilor,” Kane interjects. “You will hear what she has to say or you will excuse yourself.”

“No,” Abby says. “He’s right.” She looks up at Lexa and decides to stand. This time the Grounders flinch. “How can we possibly trust you after you abandoned us to Cage?”

This is where Lexa feels Clarke’s loss the most. Clarke would help her people see that resistance is folly. But she is not here. And while Lexa felt the need to explain her actions to Clarke, she does not feel that need with those assembled.

“I’m not asking you to trust me, Abby. I am telling you what your options are.”

The very vocal man from earlier huffs to his feet and braces himself on the tabletop.

“Chancellor,” he says smoothly, completely ignoring Lexa. “Let’s end this now.”

Lexa knows a veiled threat when she hears it. So she studies this man for a moment. He’s trim, and probably capable with one of the weapons that the Sky People brandish, but he would not have time to draw said weapon. One of her warriors is only a few feet behind him and she is not an easy target.

“If you wish to have war,” Lexa addresses him, waiting for him to look at her, and when he does, she continues. “Then I will give it to you.”

He pushes up off of the table, rocking it with his weight and anger.

“And what makes you think that you’ll live long enough to incite your people? Without you, we have the advantage.”

A woman to the right of the table pitches in. “He’s right, Abby.”

Another councilor stands, opposing the other two, and an argument breaks out. Kane gets to his feet and joins the fray, only he’s trying to stop the arguing. Everyone is talking over each other, some for and some against executing Lexa where she stands, all of them up in arms except for Abby.

She is just as cool, just as calm, as she looks Lexa in the eye. Those eyes, so much like Clarke’s in their beauty and defiance, say a million things. They speak of anger, and hurt, and confusion, but they also wish to be gentle again. They long for peace.

“Heda,” Indra whispers their native tongue in her ear. “We should leave… now.”

Lexa considers everything happening around her, even as she doesn’t blink or look away from Abby. She does not wish to further injure the Sky People, but that is becoming a less and less likely option as the shouting continues. She wonders why Abby doesn’t put a stop to it, but then maybe Abby doesn’t know if she should. Maybe she’s trying to reconcile the monster standing before her with the gentle caregiver from earlier. Maybe she’s searching for the way out as well.

She cannot decide though, and Lexa is not one for indecision. She makes one, and quick as lightening pulls the blade from the belt concealed beneath her duster and slams it hard, burying it deeply into the map, right through the Ark, and into the metal table beneath with a bang that echoes off of the industrial walls like a gunshot.

It is this sound, this action, this realization that the Trikru are not unarmed, that brings a screeching halt to the shouting. Even the guards at the entrance, with their weapons raised and barrels aimed at Lexa’s heart, don’t quite feel confident that they have this situation entirely under control.

Lexa looks back at Abby. “If you cannot trust that I will honor the terms of our agreement, then trust that as commander, I have no choice but to do what is in the best interest of my people. This…” she taps the map. “Is in the best interest of my people. It just so happens to be in the best interest of yours as well.”

“I do trust that you will do what is in your best interests,” Abby replies pointedly. “And that includes dishonoring this treaty, as you’ve done before.”

“I did not dishonor our previous agreement, Abby. We had no treaty outside of uniting to take down our common enemy. We fulfilled that arrangement.”

Abby’s insulted; it’s written all over her face. “You consider leaving our people to be slaughtered honoring our agreement to unite?”

Lexa shakes her head. “I did not leave your people to be slaughtered. I sacrificed forty-eight people to save countless others, both yours and mine.” She does not admit that the missile was known, though she knows that Abby is aware. Instead, she looks to Kane. “Did you not do the same while in the sky?”

Kane spoke of it in the holding cell. She was there. She heard the words and saw the shame in his eyes. She saw how desperate he was to sacrifice himself to atone. The room is utterly quiet now. So quiet that breathing isn’t even discernible.

“That was different,” Abby says.

“Was it,” Kane asks in an uncertain voice.

Abby wants to say it again, wants to believe that she believes it, but she can’t because it’s true. They sacrificed some for the whole. The commander did no different. But the circumstances were incredibly different.

“It’s different because you didn’t have to do it.” She looks to Kane. “We had no choices up there. It was some or all.”

“On the Mountain it was some or more,” Lexa says, bringing Abby’s attention back to her. “I had a choice. It wasn’t a simple one, but it saved the most lives, your people’s included, and I would do that again. If you can’t see that, then I accept your anger and distrust. But you do need to realize that this treaty will include the safety of your people under the guidelines of your territory. As commander of the twelve clans, I am bound by that treaty, as are my people. To break it is treason. My people would put me to death.”

“Wait a minute,” Kane says. “You’re saying that if any of your people break this treaty, they’ll be executed?”

Lexa merely nods to him and lets that information settle, but she can tell that they’re not sold. And it’s because they aren’t understanding the full ramifications of their refusal.

“You have two options,” she says. “You’re either under our protection – becoming one of our people, or you are our enemy.”

“This is ridiculous,” the more outspoken of those assembled tries again. “There’s no reason to see us as an enemy. You’ve been the attackers from the start.”

Lexa does not wish to placate him, but at least this addition to the conversation is rational. So she faces him and answers him with the respect that he’s been lacking.

“You cannot fall from the sky and expect those already here to operate as you see fit. Whether you find it ridiculous or not, those are your options. It will not change because you will it to.”

“And if we accept,” Abby asks. “Does that mean that you’re our commander?”

“Our clans are independent. You, as Chancellor, would be the head of your clan, but yes, you would be accountable to me, and you would have to familiarize yourself with our principles. As to how you run your clan, that’s at your discretion so long as you maintain those principles.”

“And what are those principles?”

Indra steps forward to provide Lexa with the treaty, and it joins its counterpart on the table.

“All of the actual terms are there. In times of war, you will fight with us to survive. In times of peace, you will trade with us to survive. You do not kill without just cause because survival is dependent upon numbers. You will respect the forest and yourselves, because our survival depends on that as well. You will always protect your people, be loyal to your people, and find strength in your people. But mostly, you will survive. That is what it means to be one of us.”

Abby considers these words for only a moment. “And when you give an order, it’s to be followed without question.”

“Yes.”

“Forgive me, Commander, but I don’t trust you enough to submit to your rule.”

“I serve my people, Chancellor. I do my best to protect them no matter the cost. I would do the same for you.”

“You’re just a child,” Abby almost shouts.

Lexa could smile at this. The children in her clans are far more experienced and capable than those standing before her. Her people have very different ideas about what it means to be young and naïve.

“And so is Clarke,” Lexa replies. “Yet she seems to be the only one among you capable of seeing past her personal desires to do what needs to be done. She is your leader, regardless of title, because it is in her to be such. She bled for you, destroyed what she holds dear for you. The same is true of me and my people. How many of you can say the same?”

There are so many angry fumes seeping into the room that the seemingly impenetrable walls almost bow and groan with the effort to contain it all. But Lexa has never concerned herself with placating tantrums. There is neither time nor resource to waste. And she sees now that this was indeed a waste of time.

She pulls the knife from the map and the table, re-sheathing it about her waist. “You have until morning to accept. If you fail to do so, you have two days to vacate. You know how to contact me should you find yourselves reasonable.”

And with that, she leaves the room, her warriors following and leaving the Sky People in a tense, stunned silence. From this moment on, she will prepare for war. There are too many egos in that room to accept the humility of following someone else’s lead, even if it means their death. And if that is what they choose, she will give it to them. She has no other choice. She only hopes that Clarke can survive it, because she is quite possibly the only one who has earned the right to survive.


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Continued in Chapter 5 – Kings or Pawns, Emperors or Fools

Chapter 3 – Different or Indifference

Clarke wasn’t feeling well at all. Her head was throbbing, her stomach sour, and she would swing from feeling unreasonably warm to being chilled to the bone within minutes. But none of these things had stopped her from immediately trying to escape the moment that she’d awoken and realized where she was.

TonDC.

She never thought that she’d see it again but from afar. It was a place of loss for her, and in so many ways. This was the place that her downward spiral began. This was the mass grave that she’d created the day that she allowed Lexa to lead her away from the missile screaming towards them, abandoning innocents to a gory fate.

And because she allowed it, this place was haunted. If she closed her eyes she could still see innocent lives flailing and writhing in the flames; she could still hear their anguished cries, still smell the stench of their death as they were utterly consumed.

But even all of that was not her greatest discomfort. It wasn’t just where she was that unsettled her, but whom she was with.

Lexa…

She’s a woman who defies explanation, someone fierce and powerful, yet somehow comforting and safe. It was all of these things that drew Clarke in only to leave her shattered against a wall of indifference.

And she could not bear to see her, to live it all over again, to feel so much in the face of so little.

So she’d bolted from the table, surprising Nyko and two other guards, her head swimming and stomach revolting. And she would have been unstoppable, so animalistic was her intent to leave, were it not for her leg. Instead she’d crumbled to the floor, the limb a traitor leaving her to what she knew would be a hideous end.

That had seemed to be a recurring theme in her life since the fall to the ground.

Weakened and crippled, she’d been lifted, placed back on the table, and warned that if she didn’t stay off of her leg, she’d lose it. But she couldn’t help but wonder why that mattered. She couldn’t understand what use a leg could be to her when she was condemned.

And that’s where she finds herself now, hands bound, body broken, waiting for the bringer of her death from the table of a healer’s tent no less. She finds this ironic, mostly senseless, but then she knows that these people don’t do senseless things.

She watches Nyko quietly work in the corner. He is a stoic man, his face stern as he grinds herbs and moss in a makeshift mortar and pestle. She can’t help but wonder why her captors, as a people, are so severe, so unmoved by the loss of life.

Of course survival is critical; there is nothing about this world that makes surviving easy. Threats loom around every corner, whether from rival factions or nature itself. Something is always looking to destroy something else so that it can live. She understands the need to be stronger than any threat.

But in her time with these people, she’s never heard a laugh, not even from a child. Rarely has she seen a smile or an open display of affection. It’s seen as weakness. Lexa had said as much, but then nothing that Lexa said was ever as it seemed.

She knows that the affection is there. She’s seen it in the way that they fight and bleed and die for one another, in the way that they work together for their common goals without complaint, envy, or malice.

She’s seen it in piercing, war-painted eyes, and heard it in profound declarations masked as simple truths. She’s felt it in a calloused but gentle touch to her face and lips that were tainted with perfidy. But she does not understand why they hide it, why they lie about it, why for all that they’re capable of, they cannot show some compassion and mercy.

“What does she plan to do with me,” she asks him, hoping that her theory is true, that a savior lurks somewhere beneath the battle-worn exterior.

The brutish man pauses in his work, but he does not give her his attention. He does not wish to engage her. But if he were to answer honestly, he would tell her that he does not know what the Heda has planned. He only knows that he trusts her implicitly. But then explaining this to the girl would be a waste of his words. The Sky People do not understand the ways of the Trikru. They’ve proven that they cannot understand what it means to sacrifice.

So he continues his work, ignoring her question, and the insult of his denial is not lost on Clarke.

The flaps over the door are thrown back and Indra enters the small space, her very presence nearly filling it with an uncomfortable level of hostility. And Clarke knows that she’s about to get the answers to her questions anyway, because she knows that the next person through that entryway is going to be the last person that she ever wanted to see again. But she will not cower, because, just as these people lack compassion, she does not lack strength.

She slides herself gently but quickly from the table, landing on her good leg and leaning against the sturdy wood for support. Her muscles and nerves protest but she squares her shoulders and holds her head high. It would be easier to train her eyes on the dirt or to just close them and let the world swim, but no, if Lexa plans to kill her, she will have to look Clarke in the eye while she does it.

And then she’s there, tall, strong, beautiful, and deadly. The war-paint and blood of their last encounter has been scrubbed from her face, and Clarke had forgotten just how much it softens her countenance, just how young she looks for someone so immense in charisma.

“Leave us,” the commander demands, her eyes never leaving Clarke.

Nyko and the other guards obey without question, but Indra believes this to be unwise.

“Heda,” she interrupts in their native tongue. “She has killed and escaped befo-”

“I said leave.”

Lexa’s voice is a strangely compelling mix of honey and steel. It brooks no further room for negotiation. And while Indra’s face becomes a mask of outrage and worry, she does what she is told as is expected of her.

They’re alone now, the room somehow smaller as a tense quiet settles over them. Lexa can tell that Clarke is in a great deal of pain, but feels a certain sense of pride in her courage, even as it borders on defiance. And while she does not wish to feel it, there is also a sense of relief coloring her thoughts.

She pulls the dagger from her hip and steps closer to Clarke, pausing just a moment when she sees the girl flinch. She wishes that Clarke would think better of her, though she understands why this is not the case. Mostly, she just wishes that it didn’t sting.

She gets close to Clarke, so close that she can see the flecks of silver that fissure her blue eyes like spiderwebs, and feel the rise and fall of her chest as her breathing becomes labored. But Clarke holds very still, meeting the commander head-on as she reaches behind Clarke to settle the blade between her wrists.

Lexa wishes that she could tell Clarke that she means her no harm, but for all that she is willing to do to save her people, she will not lie to Clarke. The leather snaps and Clarke’s hands ache with a rush of blood and she sways. Lexa lingers for just a moment, concerned that the girl will fall, before reluctantly stepping away.

Clarke wants to collapse against the table and rub at her raw wrists, but she wants to hold onto her dignity more. To show any weakness would be to lose ground in whatever game it is that Lexa wishes to play. She is determined not flinch again. She also will not give Lexa the opportunity to speak first.

“Why have you brought me here,” she asks with strength she doesn’t really feel.

Lexa’s brows furrow for a moment. She had not expected Clarke to speak, let alone ask a question that she must surely know the answer to. But then Clarke never does as she expects.

“You were injured,” she answers simply.

Clarke’s eyes rage, the blue so deep that it’s almost black.

“Please don’t insult me, Commander.”

Lexa knows that she should not be affronted by her title. Normally it is something that she wears with pride, but when Clarke says it, it somehow sounds perverse.

“Why have you brought me here,” Clarke tries again, her voice even more defiant, her skin paler as her pride takes its toll on her health.

“You should sit, Clarke.”

“It’s a little late to pretend that you care about my health, so if you don’t mind, I’d like to get this over with. Now, just kill me or let me go.”

Lexa studies Clarke. She knows what she saw in the forest, and what she saw was a warrior struggling to reconcile what she had to do with what she felt was right. She saw a girl who was seeking to atone, and from her own experience she knows that there are only two ways to do that: honor the dead by protecting their people or death.

The way Clarke is behaving now would suggest the former, but Lexa knows the latter lurks somewhere deep within the girl’s bravado. She just doesn’t know where Clarke actually stands.

“Do you wish to die, Clarke?”

Clarke is a little taken aback by that question. She’s not sure if it’s meant as a threat or genuine worry, and Lexa’s implacable demeanor makes it impossible to read between the lines. The truth would be that she doesn’t know what she needs. She’s unsure of how to live with herself but unable to take her life. Even as a child, she abhorred the thought of giving up, especially if it was a lost cause.

She is only certain that she does not wish to give Lexa any satisfaction, especially not that of knowing her heart or taking her life.

“I wish that you’d just get to the point.”

Lexa has always prided herself on being able to read people. She has an innate ability to discern others motivations simply by studying them. Perhaps it is her unassuming appearance. In the right clothes she can become invisible, unknown, considered nothing more than just a girl. But her awareness always lies in her ability to listen without speaking and be calm in the chaos.

Clarke is like a puzzle, each piece more intricate and challenging the further along that Lexa progresses. She fights when she should reconcile and she breaks when she should bend. But the rules are always changing. She reacts one way in a situation, but then another way in a similar situation. It’s as if Lexa cannot step back far enough to see the whole picture so that she can put it together.

Clarke is too large, too contradictory, and it leaves Lexa feeling blind, almost helpless.

Lexa’s options still linger: she will either kill Clarke or enlist her help. But if Clarke wants to die, then she cannot save her. Clarke has to choose for herself. Without the ability to read Clarke, she has no idea which way to broach the subject, to soften Clarke to the overall need of both of their people.

“I’m going to ask you again, why have you brought me here?”

Regardless of what she does or does not know, Lexa is sure of one thing when it comes to Clarke: her heart always wins. If what lies in her heart is a death wish, then she will have it. She hopes that this is not the case, but the least she can do is be direct.

“I need your help, Clarke.”

Clarke is certain that she must have hit her head during the fall. She must be delirious, hearing things due to fever. Maybe Nyko gave her Jobi nuts for pain. Or maybe she’s just finally lost it, because she cannot believe that what she just heard is real.

Unable to hold it in, she laughs hysterically.

If asking for Clarke’s help wasn’t reason enough to cause her to laugh, the reaction on Lexa’s face would have been. It makes Clarke laugh all the harder. Lexa’s just staring at the girl, her normally stoic expression now oddly comical. Clarke wonders idly if Lexa has ever seen someone laugh, or experienced the feeling herself.

And this idle thought saps Clarke’s levity. She finds herself feeling profoundly sad for the commander, because she truly doubts that Lexa’s ever let herself be joyful. The most that she’s ever seen is a small smile, and even those only lasted for a fleeting moment.

“You’re serious,” Clarke says, realizing that these people are always serious.

Lexa has no idea what just happened. She had been tempted to go get Nyko to check on the girl. But whatever the problem was appears to have passed, and she’s left with a question or a statement of fact, she’s not sure.

“Yes. I need your help.”

“How can you even consider asking for my help?”

“Because I do not wish the alternative.”

“And what’s that?”

“If you refuse to help, I will have no choice but to-“

Lexa stops. She does not wish to finish that sentence. She does not wish to live her past all over again. She had not meant to care for Clarke, let alone to love her. She was supposed to live out her days alone, devoid of the types of attachments that would put her in these situations.

But she could not stop it. It was out of her hands. The attachment was there from the moment that Clarke perplexed her. It deeply imbedded itself the moment that Clarke showed how beautiful the conundrum of strength and weakness can be. It became real despite the fact that it never had a chance. But it was undoubtedly love. And love would kill them both.

“You’ll kill me,” Clarke finishes for her.

Lexa simply nods. She recognizes the pain in the girl’s voice, the disbelief, the failure of her heart to grasp what her mind is telling her. Lexa knows that what she has done and will still do is not acceptable to Clarke. It’s not even acceptable to her, but she has no other options. The Sky People are an enemy, and as the commander, she cannot stand an enemy to live, even when that enemy is one of their own making.

The spark, the fire, in Clarke seems to dim. “Was leaving us to the Mountain Men not enough?”

“But I didn’t leave you to the Mountain Men, Clarke.”

And there it is again, this affection that Lexa claims to have for her and has yet to be seen in any real way. And Clarke hates that she wants to see it so desperately. And she hates Lexa because she never will.

“How much a part of you are your people, Commander?”

To Lexa, her people are everything. A Heda has no choice in the matter. She sees that it is no different for Clarke, but there is something that Clarke is failing to understand.

“If the Skaikru inside had been Trikru, I’d have still made the same choice, Clarke.”

“But they weren’t Trikru. They were my friends.”

“And because of that, their lives are more important than hundreds?”

Clarke has no answer for that because she’s ashamed of the truth in that statement. She did value the lives in that Mountain more than those who had and would die getting to them.

“We could have won with you, and we still won without you.”

“As a leader you have a responsibility to weigh the outcome and choose the best possible course for all involved, Clarke.”

“You’re going to lecture me about leadership, again, after everything that you’ve done?”

“How else can I explain it to you? What would you have me do?”

Clarke’s voices raises. “I don’t know; maybe show some remorse; maybe care?”

“I told you, Clarke. I do care.”

Clarke shakes her head. “You care so much that you’re going to kill me if I don’t help you.”

Lexa’s heart feels heavy, but it is a burden that she cannot allow to get in the way of what is expected of her. She must do what is right by her people, even when it’s wrong by her heart.

“I will not pretend that the choice I made didn’t feel personal to you, Clarke. But I need for you to see that it was the only choice that I could make. More lives were saved by accepting the Mountain Man’s terms than would have been lost had I not. And I need for you to see that by taking it personally, that is the very reason that my people see yours as enemies.”

“And if we agree to leave you alone, promise not to seek blood for blood?”

“You are still an invader on our lands.”

Clarke wants to pull her hair out. She feels like there’s no way to win, no way to have peace. To her, the Grounders don’t want peace. Otherwise, they wouldn’t fight it at every turn. And part of her decides to just accept this inevitability, even as the more tenacious part of her still holds out for that elusive hope.

“So war is the only option then?”

“No, there is another option: you help us, and in return, we give you the territories that you currently reside in, as well as some surrounding.”

“You’ll leave us alone?”

“Yes, Clarke.”

“And why should I trust a word you say? What’s to stop you for selling us out the next time your people are in trouble?”

“Do you remember our talk on the mountain, when I asked you what you would like to have happen once the siege was done?”

Clarke chuckles humorlessly. “There’s little about that day that I don’t remember.”

If Lexa feels that barb, she doesn’t show it.

“Perhaps we should have that talk now that neither of us are at war.”

“I still don’t see how we can be expected to trust you.”

Lexa is losing this discussion, and she doesn’t like it. Clarke is leaving her with few options. She feels that she’s trying to do this in a way that Clarke would respect, but it’s not working. She only knows one other way to approach this subject.

“Clarke, if we wanted to have war with your people, we’d have already laid siege to the Ark.”

“So we’re back to killing if you don’t get what you want.”

“What we need, Clarke. I have no desire to ask this of you, but as commander, I have a duty to my people.”

“Just… spare me.”

“I am trying to, Clarke.”

“No, that’s not- just… nevermind. What is it you want me to do?”

A premature wave of relief rolls over Lexa. Clarke is starting to ask the right questions, but she won’t allow herself to believe it until the treaty is forged in blood. To bleed off her anxiousness, Lexa begins to pace as she explains.

“The Reapers have taken to the mountain. They’re using what’s left of the Red. We have managed to capture two of them, but our attempts at reversing the effects have been fruitless.”

Clarke nods. “You want me to save your people.”

“Yes, Clarke.”

“And in return, you’ll spare my life and offer a real peace treaty that secures us against future attack from your people as well as gives us territory?”

“Yes, Clarke.”

“And what happens if you break this treaty like you did the last time?”

Lexa stops and turns to the girl, her timbre emotionless, cavalier. “I will be labeled a traitor to my people, and put to death by my own sword.”

Clarke seems a bit stunned by this information, but then she remembers what happened with Lincoln, with Quint. Lincoln was exiled, and Quint was tortured until Lexa put an end to it. She is forced to wonder if Lexa would risk her life for such a thing if she weren’t serious.

But then Lexa is always serious.

“You know the Council may not go for this after what you’ve done.”

Lexa nods. “I understand. But I would like to try.”

“Fine,” Clarke says, trying to lift from the table and balance her weight on her working leg. “I should probably head back then.”

She braces herself and attempts to take a step, but nearly collapses. Lexa is there instantly, lifting her up and setting her on the table. She looks to Clarke, an inscrutable expression on her face as she swipes the sweat-matted hair from Clarke’s forehead.

Her voice is oddly gentle. “You need to stay still and rest. You’re no good to either of our people dead.”

For a moment Clarke forgets where she is and who she’s with. For a moment she sees that vulnerability that’s underneath, the same that she saw only once before when she confronted Lexa for her heartless rhetoric, the only time she ever successfully cracked the armor to see the heart beating there. But once reality encroaches, she evenly removes the hands from her hips, making it clear that such contact is not only unwelcome, but not permitted.

Lexa takes a step back, having forgotten herself.

“I will assemble an entourage. Unfortunately, we need to leave as soon as possible. The Reapers do not have much time. Nyko will care for you as we travel. If we leave within the hour, we should arrive at the Ark before dark.”

Clarke doesn’t say anything, merely nods her ascension.

“Are you hungry,” Lexa asks.

“No,” Clarke replies.

The air feels thick, and Lexa finds her armor uncomfortably heavy as she looks for any opportunity to shed even an ounce of its weight so that this girl who’s enthralled her can believe in her goodwill. But Clarke is no longer looking, no longer receptive. It is too late for such things.

“I’ll leave you in peace, then.”

Lexa turns for the door.

“Lexa…”

Lexa stops. The cool indifference that using her title affords Clarke is gone. And now she knows that whatever Clarke is about to say is personal.

“If you go back on your word, I swear to you, this time, I’ll kill you myself.”

Lexa closes her eyes and takes a deep breath to still the flurry of apprehension Clarke’s voice inspires. It is cold where it used to be so warm. But she can expect no less given the circumstances, and she can offer no more for the same reasons.

It only takes a moment, years of practice coming to the forefront and shutting her heart away. She looks at Clarke over her shoulder and nods once before stepping out of the hut.


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Continued in Chapter 4 – Nothing is Free

Chapter 3 – Is Canada a real country anyway?

The flight to Whistler, British Columbia only took about three hours. And it was a quiet three hours, unless you count Kyla, Jac, and Jon’s constant shenanigans. And then there was that kid behind me incessantly kicking my seat and squealing, but somehow, to me, it was still unreasonably hollow.

If I really think about it, it’s been this way for about twenty-four hours now, and it really has nothing to do with what’s actually happening around me; it’s all because Spencer is suffering. And it’s left me feeling like I stepped on a landmine or percussion grenade, the disorienting aftershock killing all frequencies except for this one shrill ringing that seems to be coming from my chest. And knowing why only makes it more oppressive.

She’s hurting over the loss of Carmen, which is fully expected. She’s also hurting over the fact that she hurt Carmen. Again, that’s easy enough to understand. But ultimately, all of these hurts are tied up in one thing that seems surprising even as I already knew it: she loves Carmen.

This is something that she’s told me over and over again, and I heard her – at least the words went in one ear and I registered their meaning. But for some reason it never really penetrated my brain and became real. I somehow just compartmentalized it away, saw it as lesser. I let it go out the other ear, and I’m fairly certain that I did it on purpose.

I didn’t want to know it.

I didn’t want to believe it.

I explained it away with a belief that Spencer was unhappy with Carmen and trapped in that unhappiness. There may have been some truth in it, but then it wouldn’t be this hard for her if I had been completely right. And because of that, Spencer had to become completely broken before I could really hear her.

I disregarded Carmen and by extension I disregarded Spencer. I had to see it to finally believe it. And I did; oh, how I did.

The Seawitch was home when we went to get the dogs. I was still in my newfound fight mode, and while I didn’t believe that Carmen was necessarily a bad person, she’d hurt Spencer physically before. So, I was rolling my head on my proverbial shoulders and cracking my figurative knuckles for a big showdown.

But despite all of those noble excuses, there was a deeper truth to the situation: I just wanted to fight her. I wanted to swat her down like a fly that just wouldn’t go away. I was jealous, and I was petty.

Of course, Spencer knew that, even when I didn’t yet, and strictly forbade me from getting out of the car. And even though I wanted to, I didn’t argue. For all of my selfishness, I recognized that she’d already been through enough because of me.

So, I resigned myself to a relatively long wait and kicked my feet up onto the dash as she unlocked the door and disappeared behind it. Why long? Well, I mean, they’re lesbians. They’d been stewing and methodically scrutinizing their problems for a couple of days, and now they were going to have that long anguished talk that fixes nothing.

Right?

Wrong.

It didn’t take more than a few minutes for Spencer to reappear with her canine companions. As a result, I was unprepared and fumbled like an idiot getting out of the Humvee to open the back door. My dexterity wasn’t helped at all as the two lumbering beasts nearly bowled me over wagging their tails, licking any part of me that they could reach, and just generally trying to get fresh.

It was the most action that I’d had in a while.

With some serious cajoling, I got them loaded, but I hadn’t realized that Carmen had followed Spencer out of the house until I’d heard her soft words.

“Are you… with her now?”

Her words irritated me. She irritated me, even when I knew that it was for all of the wrong reasons; I still just felt that way. More importantly, I knew that she felt the same way about me.

I looked at her, or maybe scowled, and she looked right back at me. And that’s when the truth of the situation struck me like a brick to the face. I had been prepared for hateful glares and harsh words, but I had not been prepared for the fact that Carmen wasn’t belligerent. She wasn’t even angry. She just seemed… defeated. She’d obviously been crying and, honestly, I just felt bad for her.

I wasn’t supposed to feel bad for her.

“No, Carm,” Spencer said, taking one of her hands. “I just need to be single right now.”

And those words hit just as hard, because I finally saw it and believed it.

Spencer and Carmen love each other.

Carmen played with Spencer’s fingers and nodded her head, and for the first time, instead of being insanely jealous, I just felt out of place, as if I was intruding on something intensely private.

For once I felt like the third wheel, and I realized that maybe I should have been feeling that way all along. Maybe things wouldn’t have become so hurtful for anyone if I’d just never showed up on Spencer’s doorstep, if I’d just let her go like I was supposed to.

If…

But I didn’t; I couldn’t, even when I should have.

Instead, I’d hurt them both.

But I’d been hurting in this situation too.

For years.

Didn’t I deserve closure?

Didn’t Spencer?

I wasn’t sure as the thoughts developed and I’m still not positive now. If anything, things are less sure, especially as we arrive in a new place. I’m ready to get off of this shuttle, and as it pulls to a stop in front of a monolith of resort wonder that’s glowing warmly like a snow-covered beacon, I’m already at the door.

It opens but I let the others pass because I was foolish enough to glance back at Spencer who’s still looking out of the window, melancholy so unbecoming in her normally bright and open demeanor. Yes, I’d hurt her. But I’d hurt us both. I’d given her up because I thought that the future was completely doomed.

I guess that my reasons don’t really change anything. I still chose. It’s still my fault. I didn’t have to do it. And I know now that I shouldn’t have done it. The honest truth is that maybe I’m the only one in this situation who actually deserves to hurt.

So that hollow place inside is quickly becoming an oubliette because I finally see that Spencer really does love Carmen, and worst of all, I saw what the destruction of that love had done to both of them. And I can’t help but think that all of this was for nothing.

All of us have lost everything in this tug-o-war, and not a single one of us feels better with closure.

Twenty-four hours of silence, of sadness, because I finally realized what I didn’t want to realize. But I didn’t have a choice but to finally let it in, because as the two of them parted in such an aching way, I found it within myself to feel bad for the one person I resented for having what I wanted – what I needed.

And in that moment of clarity, this new knowledge ate at me. I felt like I needed to do something. I didn’t know what, but I had to at least be sure that Spencer knew what she was doing.

So, when the two of them said their tearful goodbyes, when Spencer got back into the car, her eyes firmly fixed on this girl broken on a stoop, I asked her something that I didn’t want to think about; yet it was all that I could think about.

“Spence, are you sure you want to do this? I don’t think it’s too late.”

It killed me to even think it. And I wanted to believe that I was being altruistic, that I was looking out for Spencer and what she wanted, but I knew that it was a lie. At the end of the day, I needed to know that Spencer wasn’t doing this because I wanted her to.

I needed to know that Spencer wanted this for herself.

I needed to know that she wasn’t regretting her decision.

I, me, for selfish reasons, wanted these reassurances because anytime that there’s a love triangle, there’s insecurity. And this particular triangle that I had thrust myself into wasn’t just three people on a magic carpet ride of fun; it was Bermudian.

Carmen pulled herself together and shuffled back into the house, and Spencer released a sigh when the door closed behind her. Then she gave me my answer.

“I have to do this,” she said quietly.

If her answer had been any different, there would be no year of searching; there would be no seeking and creating amazing moments before they became extinct all together. This wiped the slate clean, and anything less would fail in even the smallest of ways without it.

She’d said the right thing, and I wanted to pump my fist in the air. But feeling that way, languishing in the destruction of something that meant so much to her just left me feeling guilty.

Everything was working out in my favor, and I was still unhappy. Maybe that was what Spencer was trying to tell me when she met me at the coffee shop. Maybe she knew that this was going to hurt but it had to happen because it was time to grow. Either way, that oubliette got a little colder and a little more desolate. And I felt even more helpless.

There was just nothing that I could do. Even if I did want to talk her into going back to Carmen, I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t send her away. I couldn’t lose what little was left of her, even as it was my fault that she was so small.

So, I started the car and took us home, and once Spencer had everything that she needed in the guest room, I didn’t see her again until this morning. Even then, outside of an obligatory greeting, we haven’t really said anything to each other.

She stands and I hasten to look away from her, stepping off of the shuttle to breathe deeply. These last twenty-four hours have felt stifling, and I start to feel it again when she joins me on the ground. This isn’t the Spencer that I know and love. She hasn’t been that Spencer since I found her.

I mean, she’s still as strikingly beautiful as always. But there is this somber aura hanging onto her, like an albatross clinging to her neck. She still smiles and nods when it’s expected, but it’s a farce. She’s hiding it well, but I can see it.

Her always expressive eyes are dull as Kyla obliviously talks her ear off. And for Spencer, that’s a dead giveaway. They always had this way of sucking me in and making me feel insignificant, even as I felt all the more special for it. They were like a stormy, fall ocean, immense and scary and giving life as much as they take it away.

But that’s gone, missing, replaced with a vacant stare into some unknown horizon, some well-known anguish. And yet again, I feel this guilt start to manifest itself. And yet again, instead of wanting to run, I need to fix it. It scares me because it’s so unlike me. I don’t fix things; I shatter them and leave them burning, and I don’t look back no matter how dark or cold it gets.

But right now, it doesn’t even matter what’s actually broken anymore. I just need to take something in my hands and make it whole.

I need to assuage my guilt.

I need to see her smile and really mean it.

I need to see her wear joy and find fulfillment.

But she’s longing for something that I can’t give her. And she wants it so badly that I feel like she’d rather be somewhere else, anywhere else, maybe even that horizon that only she can see. I know that she said that she needed to do this, but what if what she wants and what she needs don’t match?

I suppose that all that I can do is try to get her out of her head, try and have some fun and hope that it banishes some of that pain. Because once she’s free of it, I’ll be free of it. It’s always selfish. I’m always selfish. But maybe then this journey can count for something, even if I wind up tumbling down a hill into a grave when it’s over.

If nothing else, Kyla, Kate, Jac, Jon, Shirley, and Sam are here. I know that I’ll at least have help in the form of distractions. And I couldn’t imagine any place more beautiful. It’s open and bright, the snow fresh and mostly untouched against the cresting slopes of tree-dotted mountains and crisp, pine-laced air.

It forces me to breathe in and open my eyes. I feel more alert, aware of my senses, and that’s what I need – what Spencer needs.

“Holy frijoles,” Jon says as she zips her hoodie a little higher.

Kate, Shirley, and Sam nod their agreement as they take to shuddering like a leaves in a tornado, and Jac tucks her arms over her painfully erect nipples. I told her to wear more than a thin sweater…

“You Californians are pussies,” Kyla says and Spencer chuckles.

And I smile because she’s right. Ohioans are thick-blooded. Californians have no idea just how good they have it all year.

And it’s about this time that a dark-haired jock comes striding up to us with his Ken doll good looks, strong, grizzled jaw, and blinding smile.

“Davies Party?”

“Yeah,” I say.

“Excellent,” he exclaims in an almost creepy fashion. “Welcome to the Whistler Blackcomb ski resort. I’m Booker.” He holds out a hand. “I’m your all-around guide and snowboarding instructor.”

I reach out to shake his hand, and he immediately turns it and bends forward. For a moment I panic, not just because he’s about to mark me like an over-eager dog, but because I can’t get my hand back to avoid it.

His lips keep getting closer and closer and I keep pulling and pulling, but it’s no use. You know those moments in life where you see something disturbing about to happen and you know that you can’t stop it, so you just stand there like a limp noodle and gawp until it’s over?

Yup, that’s me.

Here it comes…

Here it comes…

I give it one last valiant attempt, but it’s no use. Did the lower temperatures freeze my hand to his? My palms aren’t that sweaty.

I mean, they never sweat…

I’m Ashley Davies…

I finally close my eyes and try to imagine a happy place. And then it happens and I want to hurl in disgust. His lips are too wet and his chin hair feels like a cat’s tongue rasping over the surface. And that’s it, I’ve had enough, only I have to yank so hard to get it away from him that I actually wind up elbowing Jac in her tit.

God, that had to hurt, especially with a bad case of titty hard-on.

She squawks but I can’t even bring myself to look at her to apologize. All I can do is kind of stare at my hand like it’s some foreign thing that’s covered in alien goo. I feel like I need a shower now. In fact, I’m fairly certain that I’m going to have to burn it, which sucks because, I mean, I need this hand.

“If there’s anything at all you need, I’m your man,” he says.

Ugh, that’s subtle.

“Um, thanks,” I smile tightly.

I see Spencer turn her head away from me to swallow her hilarity in my periphery, and I give her a sideways glance, hoping that laser beams will magically shoot out from my eyes and singe her. Booker then has the audacity to turn his dazzling charm on her.

“And that goes for all of you.”

Okay, so that’s unacceptable. She may not be mine, but she sure as fuck isn’t going to be his.

Spencer can’t even look up at him if she plans not to completely shame me by laughing, so she just nods.

“That’s really nice of you,” Kyla steps in confidently.

He pans that rakish grin to my baby sister and winks, and Kyla looks like she just might melt onto the snow.

Okay, that’s too fucking far…

I’m about to deck him when Shirley touches my shoulder and steps forward.

“That’s indeed very nice of you,” she says, stepping to the front and extending a hand of her own.

His grin falters only slightly as this quintessential dyke nearly tears his arm from his shoulder with her exuberant grip.

“You can start by getting our luggage,” she points to the mound of bags that the airport shuttle driver is unloading, sweat pouring from his brow as he develops a hernia. “We’ll be warming ourselves in the lobby.”

And with that, she slings an arm around her shivering wife and leads the way into the resort proper.

I love Shirley…

Jon chucks Booker on the shoulder as she passes him, followed by Jac who gives me a scathing look that screams that I’ve just unwittingly started a war, and then Kate who’s pushing Jac away from me. And just as the last of us are about to follow, Booker clears his throat.

“The driver will move your bags into your personal shuttle to take you to Blueberry Hill after you check in. I’m just here to welcome you and introduce myself.”

He’s still smiling like a cat peering up at a nest in the trees, and I can’t help but wonder why he still thinks that he has a chance. Was forcible appendage removal not enough?

Maybe I removed the wrong appendage?

“They booked me just for you for the next five days.”

Was that innuendo?

“I don’t normally do this,” he continues almost bashfully as he pulls three cards from the wallet in his neoprene pants. “But this is my personal cell. Call me anytime, day or night…”

Oh, I bet this is his very first time giving out his number. I mean, he only printed those cards today, lucky for us. Kyla takes the card happily but Spencer and I… well, she’s cordial and I’m afraid to put my hand in that bear trap again.

But he just stands there waiting, and I realize that he’s not going to get the hint. I just want him to go away, so I brave life and limb to snatch it from his hand.

He’s almost gloating now that the seeds of his man garden are successfully spread, and I wonder at him. Why do guys always just assume that women are in heat? Is it nature ensuring the survival of the species?

I mean, I get him hitting on us the first time, and I get him continuing to hit on Kyla; she’s just as desperate as he is. But you’d think that injuring my friend to get away from him would have maybe wilted his flower even just a little.

Hello, body language. It’s ancient but it’s still relevant.

Yet, Spencer and I are both holding his card, my hand is permanently disfigured, one of my best friends has a collapsed mammary gland, and he’s walking away with a bounce in his step and happy tune whistling from his lips.

I just don’t get it…

“Alright, well, we should probably go check in,” I say. “We still have to take a shuttle to the house.”

“You rented a house,” Kyla’s eyes get huge with enthusiasm.

I shrug. “It looked really nice online and I thought it would be better to have a house instead of rooms.”

Kyla hugs my neck so tight that I have to tap her shoulder to get her to relent. She then takes off for the resort leaving me alone with Spencer.

I hold my card up to her.

“Did you want yours?”

“About as much as I want a hole in my head,” she answers wryly.

I chuckle and take the card from her and put them both in my pocket.

“Come on,” I say. “We’ll burn them later,” I hold up my hand. “Along with this.”

She chokes out a full laugh and I relish the sound of it even though it’s at my expense. It doesn’t last long though. That somberness snuffs it out all too quickly, like a flame trying to ignite that just can’t find the oxygen. I want to sigh and maybe stomp my foot, but instead, I tuck my hands into my jacket pockets and hold an elbow out in offering.

She seems hesitant to take it at first, but then she does anyway. And while it’s an infinitesimal, completely meaningless gesture, I feel a little better.

“So we really have to spend five days with that sleaze,” she asks as we make our way to the doors.

I lean my head back and groan, making her laugh all the more.

“I don’t know… should I ask for someone else?”

She shrugs. “We might end up with someone worse.”

That’s true.

“Let’s just give him a chance and if he gets worse, we’ll ask.”

I love how reasonable she is. And I love how she wants to give even the most slippery of bastards a chance.

I just love her.

God, help me.

I nod my agreement.

“Welcome to the Whistler Blackcomb,” the doorman greets as he holds the door open for us.

“Thanks,” Spencer and I chorus as we move into the blessed warmth to see our group waiting on the furniture in the reception area.

The line to the front counter is a little long and I look over at Spencer.

“You wanna wait in line with me or hang out with the peanut gallery?”

We both glance over just in time to see Jon wolf-whistle at a scantily clad blonde as she passes. Kate, the always reliable referee, yanks Jon’s back pocket to plop her onto the couch where Jac promptly slaps her. All the while Shirley tries to sink into the cushions, and Sam apologizes to the blonde.

Spencer squeezes my arm before she releases it, and somehow the temperature drops a little.

“I’ll wait with you.”

So, she dropped my arm to put distance between us, but she wants to stay with me?

Talk about body language…

No wonder guys are so resilient: they’re confused. Maybe they just go with what they want to believe because it’s the happier of the convoluted options.

We situate ourselves quietly in line and I let my thoughts wander again, trying to determine how to at least make things normal with Spencer, but after a few moments she starts to chuckle. I turn to see what’s so funny and find Jac and Jon both standing next to each other, their shirts lifted while they appear to examine their belly buttons.

“God,” I snort. “They’re so embarrassing. I can’t take them anywhere.”

She shakes her head, still smiling. “They’re an interesting bunch, that’s for sure.”

I’m not sure if she meant that as a good or bad thing.

“Do you wish I hadn’t invited them?”

I hadn’t considered that she wouldn’t like my friends.

We hear a loud, high-pitched squawk and every person in the lobby focuses their attention back at my adolescent bandmates. Jon’s rubbing her stomach and making idle threats while Jac rolls on the sofa in hilarity.

I’m not sure how the possibility that Spencer may not like them escaped me.

“Nah,” Spencer says when everyone starts to slowly go back to what they were doing. “They keep things interesting.”

I shake my head. “They’re like Larry and Curly.”

Spencer grins at me.

“So that makes you Moe?”

“Ha ha.”

“Hey, at least you’re the ring-leader. That’s good, right?”

“Not when life’s a zoo and someone opened the barn door.”

We both laugh and then a breathy voice shrills and interrupts us.

“Hello and welcome to the Whistler Blackcomb ski resort!”

I focus my attention on the perma-pressed blonde behind the counter and feel the need to take a step back, as if at any moment bright beams of light are going to shoot from her eyes and fingertips, and then she may start to levitate. Her smile is so stretched that I have the strangest need to check behind her ears for safety pins, and her eyes are so wide that I can see the whole of her irises.

It’s a little terrifying.

“Do you have a reservation?!”

Why does everything coming out of her mouth sound so fucking exciting?

“Um, yeah, Davies,” I say, grabbing my wallet from my pocket and pulling out all of the necessary cards.

“Oh, yes, miss Davies! We’re so glad you’re here! Did Booker greet you at the shuttle?!”

“Um, yeah…”

Was he her fault?

“Excellent!”

I’m liking her less by the minute.

She starts typing into the computer in front of her so rapid-fire that the click of the keyboard sounds like a machine gun. With the length of her nails, typing is a whole body experience, and she seems to almost vibrate. She’s still so excited that I’m worried that she might piddle where she stands.

She places a stack of papers on the counter that appear to have materialized from her very fingertips, and then she gets worse, because not only does she go back to typing and smiling and spazzing out like a maniac, but she starts talking so fast that I can barely keep up with her.

“You and each of your party will need to sign a release of liability…that is why I have placed eight copies on the counter…these forms release Whistler Blackcomb resort from any legal responsibility should any of you become injured during your time in class or on the slopes.”

And then, she’s somehow holding a pen and has pointed out several boxes on one of the forms. “Initial here, here, print here, and sign here!”

I take the pen and sign off before passing it all to Spencer to do the same, and when I look back, there’s a ring of keys so close to my face that I’m forced to crane my neck away.

“Your deposit for the Blueberry Hill Home has been released from your credit card…however, I will be holding this account on retainer for the duration of your stay!”

I take the keys, and Spencer collects the forms, touching my arm awkwardly to indicate that she’s going to get the others to sign. I sigh and watch her walk away, still confused on why this is so weird. When I look back to the receptionist, this time she’s disappeared completely and I find myself hesitantly looking over the desk to see if she’s collapsed.

She’s not there, so I look around and finally spot her in the small waiting area with our group, all them staring at her vacantly as her mouth moves nighty miles a minute. From the expressions on their faces, I don’t think that they actually know why they’re putting pen to paper.

In fact, I wouldn’t put it past this chick to have a disclaimer in there asking for their first born. I turn back to my own document to look it over only to find that she’s already signed it as the witness.

When did she…?

“Okay. I think that covers everything…do you have any questions?!”

I glance up to see her standing there as if she never left, all of the papers stacked together on the counter in front of her and fully signed – even the one that I was just reading. Her hands are folded primly on top of them, and I can’t help but wonder if she perhaps has the ability to turn into a bat, or a rodent, or just mist.

“Yes, um, where do we meet the shuttle driver to the house?”

She cocks her head, that insanely happy expression faltering only a fraction, but it’s enough to make me feel like I’m mentally challenged. After a moment she seems to realize that I’m genuinely confused.

“Why, right there… of course,” she says as she gestures to the tall, thin man who’s just magically materialized at my side.

I glance up at him and he tips his black hat, saying nothing before making a lumbering turn and gliding away as if he expects us to follow. I can’t help but wonder how long he was standing there. He’s creepy, and he reminds me of Lurch from the Adam’s family, but my only other option is to stay here with the baby-eating blonde.

I look at her, and back to Lurch.

At least he seems harmless.

One more look at the blonde and I determine to take my chances with him.

I glance over at Spencer who’s already rounded everyone up and we all head out to the shuttle where the driver’s waiting. I swear, he sways and groans in the wind as we all pile in, and when he shuts the door, he does it so hard that the hull rocks and the shocks squeak.

Surprisingly, he’s actually a decent driver, even on the icy roads. I don’t feel the need to grab the oh-shit handle even once, and we’re at the house within about ten minutes.

The driver says nothing as he pliantly unloads our things to the front porch, and then he simply collects a tip and leaves.

I turn to my excited group and look up at the house. It’s three stories of modern glass and crisp angles that appear to crawl up the mountain, but it still retains that rustic cabin appeal. I smile as I start pulling keys off of the ring to pass them out. The creepy blonde was thorough at least. There are eight keys and they work on the lock to the door.

We each pick up our luggage, Kate helping me because, well, I have… needs, and we all file inside. Immediately we find ourselves in a large but cozy space with vaulted ceilings that let in some of the natural sunlight. Large beams crisscross throughout the ceiling, modern décor and technology blend seamlessly with the antiquity and semi-rustic accoutrements, and overall, it’s exactly what I had been expecting.

A fire is already lit and a feeling of warmth pervades the space, even as the floor to ceiling windows along the back deck are the only thing holding the cold at bay.  They also do an amazing job of showcasing the majesty of the snowy mountains outside.

We set our luggage down, Jac, Jon, Kate, and Kyla oohing and awing with excitement, and we all start to disperse to check the place out. The four of them dart up the stairs while the adults take the opening to the right where a state-of-the-art kitchen waits.

“Wow,” Sam says as she runs a hand over a smooth, granite countertop. “Now this is a kitchen.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Shirley teases and Sam smiles back.

“No, you’ve never used one,” she replies cheekily.

I can’t help but look over at Spencer and give her my most hopeful expression.

“Delicious, chocolatey goodness,” I ask.

She shakes her head slowly, but she can’t help but smile.

“Please, Spence,” I try again.

“Do I have a choice?”

“Nope…”

I feel smug, and not just because I get some magic cocoa, but because she’s forgotten her sadness for just a moment.

“Wow,” Shirley brushes past me and the dining table, and we all turn to see two sets of large French doors leading to an expansive deck where a sauna shack and hot tub wait against that spectacular view.

“Now that,” Shirley smiles at us over her shoulder. “I know how to use.”

Sam snuggles up against her side and sighs.

“Remember that trip to Idlewyld in the eighties,” she asks wistfully.

Shirley leans down to whisper something in Sam’s ear which makes her giggle, and I look to Spencer with a grimace.

She shrugs and smiles a half-watt smile. “I think it’s cute.”

“Ugh, don’t encourage them,” I say when they start to kiss.

It was only a joke, but Spencer isn’t laughing. That sadness is back, darkening her face and pulling her mind from the moment, and I know that it’s because being around Shirley and Sam can make any single person lovesick.

Or just plain sick.

Shirley seems to understand this as well.

“Let’s go check the rest out.”

And I watch despondently as they leave and Spencer hugs herself. I want to be the one to hug her, but she’s being so weird about touching. I have no way to help her, even as I know what she’s going through, but I don’t want to stand here under this dark cloud. We need to keep moving, keep busy.

“Come on, Spence.”

She swipes at her eyes and we move through the living room to investigate the master bedroom and en suite at the back of this floor. Shirley and Sam have already claimed it.

“How many rooms are there,” Spencer asks as we leave them to unpack.

“Four,” I say. “We’ll have to double up.”

She stops at the stairs and glances over at me, and I feel my eyes widen when I realize what she’s thinking.

“Oh, no. I figured I’d bunk with Kate, and Kyla could bunk with you, since you know her best. Also, one of these rooms has two single beds.”

She lets out a breath. “I’m sorry. It shouldn’t even matter. We used to sleep together all the time when we were just friends.”

Yeah, and it killed me then. I really don’t want to go back to that place of unrequited longing. But who am I kidding? It’s a way of life at this point…

“I’m just…,” she continues. “Worried, I guess?” She frowns. “I don’t know. I’m just being stupid.”

We stoop pick up our luggage, well, I pick up as much as I can, and I try to figure out why she’d be worried. I mean, I’m in love with her, not a sexual deviant.

“Why,” I ask.

“Why am I being stupid? Beats the hell out of me.”

I glance over at her. She knows exactly what I mean, and I’m not going to let her avoid it. As a result, she gets frustrated.

“I’m sorry; I just want to be sure that we don’t put ourselves in a bad situation. I don’t want there to be any mixed signals or confusion.”

I chuckle a little ruefully. “Spence, mixed signals are all over the place.”

She knows it too, if that sad expression is any indication.

“But that’s okay,” I reassure her. “We’ve got time to figure it out.”

The words were out of my mouth before I could really think them through, and the impact is felt by both of us. The truth is, there isn’t much time, at least not for me, and I think she only just finally realized it because tears are welling in her eyes.

I set my bags down and place my hands on her shoulders to make sure that she’s facing me. I want to reassure her, but how can I do that when this territory is just as, if not more, terrifying for me? What could possibly put her at ease, me at ease?

“Spence, just do what comes natural, okay? I don’t want to be afraid to hug you or hold your hand, and you shouldn’t be afraid of that either. We’ve always been affectionate, even when you were with Carmen. It doesn’t have to mean that we’re dating, and I won’t assume that it means anything either.”

Wait… what?

I have no idea what I’m saying as I take one of her hands and twine our fingers. “It’s just comforting.”

Fuck, I’m just digging myself a grave, and it’s too late to take it back now, but it is comforting to hold her hand.

Maybe I can do this?

I mean, I’m always going to want more, but just because I can’t have what I want doesn’t mean that I want nothing at all. I’ll meet her as far into the rabbit hole as she wants to go. And who knows, maybe if I hold her hand she’ll keep me from tumbling completely.

Or maybe she’ll tumble with me.

She squeezes my fingers and smiles through those tears. “Thank you.”

And this time, it’s her who leans in and hugs me. And I feel a small part of myself heal just a little as I close my eyes and breathe her in. Maybe there is hope, not just for her, but for both of us.

“You’re welcome,” I say and hold her a little tighter.

I’ve missed this.

I’ve missed it a little too much…

Thank God for Jon’s obnoxious cat-calls. It gives me a reason to pull back and consider what I’ve just done. I’m going to willingly torture myself because I can’t stand the awkwardness of something that comes as natural to me as breathing.

And I know that it’s going to hurt, not just physically, but in all of the ways that always hurt anyway. I guess it really doesn’t matter. Besides, it’s just a year. If this is really all that I have, I want to be able to hug her at the very least.

We turn to Jon who’s leering, and I roll my eyes, choosing to ignore her teasing.

“What’s on this floor,” I ask.

“Two bedrooms, a bathroom, and an office-den-thingy,” she answers with a smile.

“And upstairs?”

“A bedroom with a tiny bathroom.”

“Cool. Which one is Kate in?”

“Her and Kyla are in there.” She points to the room just past the second set of stairs.

“Jac and I are in here.” She points to the door right next to her.

I shake my head. “Kate is supposed to sleep with me…”

She nods. “That’s what she said-”

Jon’s eyes get big as her immature brain catches up with her mouth. She didn’t even mean to say it, but that doesn’t stop Jac from running out of the room and giving her a high-five before they both burst into peals of laughter.

I swipe a hand down my face while I wait for them both to calm down.

“Jon…,” I say, losing my patience.

“Sorry, okay, Kate said the same thing…” She looks at Jac and they both snort. “But Kyla had a better idea, and we agreed.”

And now she’s smug, which isn’t unusual for Jon; she’s almost always a cocky asshole. But Jac, she doesn’t normally grin at me like that. I frown. What the frilly fuck is going on? It doesn’t take long for me to conclude that my sister is setting me and Spencer up.

“Kyla,” I call out pleasantly.

Spencer touches my arm. “Ash, it’s okay…”

“No, it’s not… KYLA!”

The pleasantness has faded a touch…

“What,” she shouts just before appearing in the doorway straight ahead.

I stride up to her.

“Why isn’t Kate bunking with me,” I ask with saccharine dripping from my lips.

She glances at Spencer over my shoulder before grabbing my arm and tugging me into the room.

“You really don’t get it,” she asks me nonplussed.

I feel anger flush through me and use my lungs to attempt control.

“I don’t know, what’s going on?”

Benefit of the doubt and all that…

“Well, we decided that you two might-“

“Yeah, I think I understand what’s going on.” I interrupt. “I also understand that it ends now. Get your stuff…”

“You need to spend time with her, Ash.”

I shake my head, further jumbling the frustrated thoughts that are already banging around up there.

“You have no respect for me at all, do you? Or for her…”

She steps back, a frown forming on her face.

“You pushed me and Spencer together before, and it got three people hurt, not to mention that Spencer is now homeless. You begged me to come back home for Christmas and then treated me like a pariah. And now,” I throw my hands up. “Now you go behind my back with my friends and organize a- a… mutiny?”

Somehow, I was able to force all of that out in an almost whisper, but I’m not quite done.

“Don’t you care about me at all?”

Her eyes are glassy as she just stares at me in stunned silence.

After a few moments she says, “Of course. I love you, Ash. We all do…”

I just don’t understand her at all sometimes.

She steps forward to touch my arm. “That’s why I keep pushing you. You’re so stubborn…”

“You can’t push me into the corner you want me in, Kyla.”

“I’m not trying to push you into a corner; I’m trying to push you out of a rut!”

“Keep your voice down,” I hiss at her before peeking through the door, but it was no good. Spencer’s heard us and by the look on her face this is the last thing that she needs.

“You just accused me of not caring about you,” Kyla shouts.

I pull her further away from the door.

“Well, think about it Kyla. Just Christmas says a lot about how you feel.”

She groans. “I did that because I know that mom’s just as stubborn as you are,” she says a little defeatedly.

I silence her again and she reluctantly lowers her voice. “You had to make the first move, and I knew that if I made you angry enough, you’d eventually blow your top. She’s not like that. She doesn’t lose it. It had to be you.”

A humorless laugh escapes her. “And it worked, but you don’t see that!”

I try to silence her again, but it’s ineffectual. In fact, she’s picking up steam, all pacing and sharp-handed gestures.

“You also refuse to see that if it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t have mom or Spencer!” She chucks a finger at the door. “She deserved to know the truth, and you both deserve to be happy!”

“So yeah,” she continues. “I pushed and I prodded and it hurt, but I’d do it again because now, at least you have a chance at being happy! So don’t tell me that I don’t love you, because that’s bullshit and you know it!”

She storms from the room and I watch her run past Spencer, stomp down the stairs, and then wince as the front door rattles the very walls.

How did things get so messed up? Why can’t they just be normal again?

I have to close my eyes to take a deep breath. I seem to be doing that a lot lately, though it doesn’t help. A headache is blooming to life behind my eyes and I just want to lie down and nap at this point.

I look over to Kate who’s been reading a magazine and minding her own business from one of the twin beds.

“Come on, Kate,” I sigh. “Let’s go upstairs.”

She closes the magazine and sets it next to her, training her eyes on me and giving me a look that I can’t read. But something about it stops me in place.

Just… now what?

After a few moments, she says, “No.”

“What?”

She sits up a little bit, as if she’s getting less comfortable or standing some sort of ground.

“I said no.”

I look up at the ceiling and pray for lightening, anything, to just put me out of my misery.

“Why,” I ask pathetically.

“Because your sister’s right.”

“Not you, too,” I groan.

“Ash,” she says gently. “I’ve watched you hurt for years over Spencer.”

I give her a warning glance. Spencer isn’t standing ten feet outside of the fucking door or anything.

“You really think that she hasn’t heard everything already,” she reasons. “Besides, it’s the truth, and if she doesn’t already know it, and I think she does, then she needs to.”

“How is forcing us to sleep in the same room going to help? She needs space, Kate.”

She smiles a little sadly. “She may want space, but she needs you.”

“Kate, you don’t even know her,” I whine in frustration.

And then I hate myself a little bit because I hate whining. But sometimes… one simply cannot help it.

This is one of those situations.

She just shrugs and I can literally feel my hair starting to turn gray. “I’ve seen and heard enough from both of you over the last two months to know that you love each other.”

“Love isn’t always enough, Kate…”

She seems to consider what I’m saying and nods. “Okay, but maybe being trapped together in a room might help with some of that other stuff.”

“Kate, I’m asking you, as my best friend, not to fight me on this.”

She smiles a little sadly at me.

“And I’m telling you, as your best friend, that I care too much not to fight you on this.”

Oh, she is so on my shit list.

And she so knows it.

“You’re out of the band,” I snap at her.

She just fucking laughs…

Then she picks up her magazine and shakes her head while casually flipping through the pages.

She does not, however, give a single fuck.

I leave the room and make my way to Jac and Jon who’ve been listening in their doorway, not that everyone in a mile radius hasn’t heard. And I don’t even get the words out of my mouth before they shake their heads.

“You’re out of the band, too, both of you.”

Jon leans against the doorframe.

“Well, from where I’m standing, it looks like you’re the one out of the band. You might want to think about that.”

And with a chuck to my shoulder, they both go back into their room, shutting the door and turning on some music.

With a sigh, I look to Spencer. She’s staring off into the unknown again, only this time it’s somewhere in the hardwood floor.

“Spence, I’m so sorry. I’ll get a room at the resort and stay there. You can have the room upstairs.” She looks up at me and frowns. “I don’t think I want to be in the same house with this bunch anyway.”

I reach for my luggage and Spencer puts a hand on my arm to stop me. “They may be pushy, but they’re right about-”

Whatever she was trying to say, she regrets going there, because she removes her hand from my arm and starts to fidget with her fingers, as if she just said something wrong. And there’s that fucking quiet again, and I just want to stick my fucking head in a fucking wind turbine because I’m so fucking sick of it.

But then she speaks, and it’s so low that I have to strain to hear it, but when I do, it’s heard so deeply that my very insides ache.

“I do need you.”

Those words thrust me into this strange place of wanting what I don’t want to want anymore. And it’s not because I don’t love her, but because it would be easier for everyone if I didn’t, especially her. It’s just so exhausting.

“Spence, you said that you needed space. I’m trying to give that to you.”

She shakes her head. “I said that I needed boundaries so that we could both focus on ourselves. I never said that I don’t need you.” She looks down again and seems a little more defeated. “Though sometimes I wish I didn’t.”

Those words hurt, but I get it. I understand her. I just felt the same way not two minutes ago. It would be so much easier for her if she didn’t love me. Then she wouldn’t hurt, but ultimately, then she wouldn’t be feeling like shit for hurting the person that she loves.

I let go of the bag handle and hold my arms out in a gesture of surrender.

“I’ll do whatever you want, Spence.”

She thinks for a moment before nodding at her decision.

“I want you to stay.”

She doesn’t say anything else but starts to collect her baggage, and I do the same. We proceed up the last set of stairs and find ourselves in the minimalistic beauty that is the highest room of the house. The wall facing the mountains is almost completely open, a large mezzanine lining a cozy sitting area outside.

The room actually isn’t that large, but with the window it feels huge. I set my stuff at the foot of the bed and Spencer does the same. This queen-sized, four-poster is the stuff that harlequin romance novels are made of, all billowing canopy and fringe and softer-than-soft fabrics.

Spencer and I look at each other and after a moment we share a laugh. And it’s nice to break the tension.

“I’m so sorry, Spence. I really didn’t know that they’d do this.”

“I know. Honestly, I wasn’t looking forward to bunking with Kyla. I mean, I love her, but it’s all loud music and nonstop talking, about boys no less.”

I chuckle again. She’s not wrong. My sister is a handful. I still don’t know what I’m going to do with her. But at least some of that stuff is out in the open to be dealt with, though at the worst possible time.

“Are you really comfortable with this,” I ask.

She gives me a reassuring smile. “I think we’ll be fine. Like you said, there’s no reason not to be natural with each other. The awkwardness was killing me.”

“No kidding,” I commiserate.

My head throbs a little harder, and I close my eyes to pinch the bridge of my nose. “Listen, would you mind if I lie down for a while? I’m starting to get a headache.”

This seems to worry her. “Are you feeling okay?”

“I’m fine. Just tired.”

And then she’s there, fingers running through my hair and making me purr as her worry overtakes her melancholy and tinglies overtake my scalp.

“Are you sure?”

I groan and sway.

She chuckles. “Some things never change.”

“Huh uh,” I say.

She continues for a moment longer before coming to a stop and exhaling heavily.

“I’m a little tired too,” she says. “Would you mind?”

I don’t hesitate to crawl up on the bed and collapse facedown into the downy goodness with a long moan. Spencer climbs up next to me and mirrors my pose, although her hair makes a mess. I brush it back and I can see that something is bothering her, but it’s not the normal something.

There are too many things upsetting her for me to be able to tell what it is, and even if I did know, there’s still nothing that I could do to help.

But I try anyway.

“It’s going to be okay, Spence.”

She nods and hides within herself, and I can’t find the will to draw her out. The left lobe of my brain is having a hip-hop dance-off with my right lobe, and I know that if I don’t get some rest, it will become an unmanageable migraine.

So I close my eyes, and some time passes, and I’m actually thankful for the quiet at this moment. I feel the bed move and see Spencer kicking off her shoes so I do the same. She resettles and it’s not long after that my eyes start to droop.

“Ash,” she says.

“Hmm.”

“You’d tell me if you were sick again, right?”

I blink my eyes open and feel myself frown as I scrutinize that question. Why is she thinking about that? And then it clicks. Is this how it’s going to be every time that I stub a toe or get a runny nose?

“Spence, it’s just a stress headache. I get them sometimes.”

“You’re sure?”

No, I’m not sure. I’m never sure until I’m so sick that I find myself in the hospital. That’s how these things work. And while I don’t want to have to say that to her, I can’t lie to her either.

All I can say is, “I don’t know how long I have, but I’m not leaving again if I have a choice.”

She closes her eyes and I watch a tear roll from her lashes, over her nose, and then soak into her pillow. And her pain just got a little deeper, a little more terrifying, and so did mine. Because, for the first time since the day that I lied to her and sent her running away from me, I don’t want to die.

I watch as a weary sleep claims her, and my own anguish starts to seep out. But it’s quiet, and again I’m thankful for that, because I get to be near her as my control slips and she’ll never even know that it happened.

In this moment, I’m not alone as I grieve myself into an exhausted sleep.


“Come on, girls! Wake up!”

There’s a pounding on the door and I reach to pull the covers up over my head to shut it out, but they won’t budge. I pull harder and someone groans.

“Come on, sleepyheads!”

“Go away!”

I grab the nearest pillow, earning me another groan, and chuck it at the door.

Bright light burns against my eyelids and I tug on the covers again. They only give a little and I start to get frustrated.

“Damn it,” I grumble.

And that’s when the chipper, off-key singing and obnoxious clapping starts.

“Good morning; good morning! Rise and shine, get out of bed! Good morning; good morning to you!”

“Shirley, shut up,” I demand, pulling as hard as I can on the covers, and this time, the weight shifts and they’re liberated, but the resulting shriek and hard thud ruins my triumph.

I crack my eyes open and see Shirley helping Spencer from the floor.

“God- Spence…?” I scramble to the edge of the bed to help her. “I’m so sorry…”

She gets to her feet and slumps against the bed as she rubs her elbow. I look at the appendage. It’s red and it’ll probably bruise. But mostly, I’m an asshole.

“Spence, I’m so sorry.”

What more can I say? Shirley retrieves the pillow that I threw, and after closer inspection, I realize that it was Spencer’s. Fuck, I’m such an asshole.

“I didn’t realize what I was doing,” I try pathetically.

“S’okay,” Spencer says sleepily and I can’t help but smile at how cute she is with her hair all mussed and eyes half-closed.

“You two have half-an-hour to get your butts down stairs,” Shirley warns with a sharp look, but then she finally leaves and Spencer looks over at me, and after a moment of unspoken discussion, we both curl back up under the covers.

“It’s still dark out,” she observes once we’re settled.

A quick look at the clock over her shoulder reveals that it’s not yet six in the morning.

“She’s trying to kill us,” I mumble.

You tried to kill me this morning.”

She laughs as she says it but I still feel like a tool.

“I’m just not used to sleeping with someone.”

“You’ll get used to it again,” she reassures, and I find myself puzzling over that line of thinking.

It’s awkward, like, more awkward than the already awkward of the last few days, and it’s been pretty awkward. Fortunately, Spencer is adept at switching the topic and I’m adept at letting her.

“What time will the driver be here,” Spencer adds around a yawn.

Of course it’s contagious and she laughs as I open my mouth so wide that my jaw pops.

I shove her shoulder.

“Seven,” I reply.

She hums and I watch as her eyes slowly shut. I smile again as I observe her. This is the Spencer that I remember, relaxed and naturally beautiful. I bet she even smells good. Sleepy Spencer always smelled amazing, like warm linens, all snuggley and-

“What,” she asks, having caught me.

“Nothing,” I grin.

She squints at me and I grin a little wider.

“You’re such a creeper.”

I just shrug at her, grin still firmly in place. She knows. It’s an old dance, and it’s not forgotten. But then she sighs and in the span of a heartbeat, reality starts to encroach.

“We should probably get up.”

No, no, no, no, no…

But then she’s already out the bed before I can protest.

“You want to shower first,” she asks, rifling through her bag and pulling out her toiletries.

“You go ahead,” I say. “I don’t want to move yet.”

She nods and disappears into the bathroom, and by the time that I hear the water start, the tightening in my chest propels me from the bed. All of this sucks, but at least my headache’s gone.

I mope down the stairs, still half asleep, my nose following the delicious smell of coffee so acutely that I wind up stubbing my toe on my bag that was left here the night before.

“Fuck,” I shout, and that’s when all of the fun sounds coming from the kitchen come to a screeching halt.

After checking my toe and determining that it’s going to fall off and there’s nothing that I can do about it, I head straight for the coffee pot without a word to the assembled rabble-rousers.

“Good morning,” Sam valiantly tries, and I just grunt.

Full cup steaming in hand, I lean against the counter and take a long sip. It only takes a few more gulps for me to start to feel human again. When the alertness kicks in, I look back up to see why everyone’s still so quiet.

And now I’m wondering why they won’t look at me.

“What?”

Kate shakes her head and Jac says nothing, but neither will make eye contact. It’s Jon with more balls than brains.

“Do we still have a band,” she asks.

Oh, I get it. They’re in trouble and they know it, and I get to set the tone of their penance. They’re in that place of limbo where unsettled arguments often lead.

“Yes, we still have a band,” Kate says before finally looking at me. “Right?”

I just shrug at her.

And it’s about this time that I notice Kyla, who’s been sitting there the whole time, pretending that I’m furniture. Hell, I may not even exist by the casual way she happily munches on her vegetarian bacon and ignores me.

“Did you want some breakfast,” Sam tries again, God love her.

I glance at Kyla and decide that two can play at this game.

“Yeah, actually. That’d be great; for Spencer too?”

She pats me on the shoulder and starts to scramble some eggs, and I ignore the rest of them. Let them stew. They’re lucky this isn’t the 1600s. I’d have had them walk the plank for their mutiny. I fill another mug, top off my own, stop at the foot of the stairs to sling my remaining bag over my shoulder, scold it for attacking my foot, and then make my way back up to Spencer.

Getting the door open proves to be a feat of juggling prowess that I wasn’t aware that I possess, but that’s what hips are for.

Among other things…

Just as I shut the door behind me, the bathroom door opens in a puff of steam and out walks Spencer in all her fresh, pink-skinned glory. Her hair is clean and dry, hanging almost to the middle of her back in straight strands. She’s wearing nothing but a towel that barely reaches the middle of her thighs and makes her legs go on forever.

Did I mention how gorgeous her natural tan is?

How smooth and flawless her skin is?

I have no idea how I manage to keep the coffee from spilling, but I do, and thank God. I already feel like enough of a bumbling mess when she catches me gawking and I immediately start to turn back and forth in half-circles looking for something else to look at.

There’s just nothing else to fucking look at.

“I-um, sorry,” she says. “I thought I was alone.”

“No, it’s my bad,” I say, scraping what’s left of my dignity off of the floor and finally gaining the wherewithal to walk over to the nightstand.

I set the coffees down and pull the bag from my shoulder.

“I’ll give you some privacy,” I tell the coffee cups, because there’s no way that I’m going to look at her again. “I brought you coffee, and breakfast will be ready in a few.”

I barely hear her say, “Thank you,” because I bolt from the room so fast that I’m fairly certain that she now has whiplash.

Once the door is firmly shut, I lean against it to collect myself. That’s when I realize that I left my own coffee in there. Resisting the urge to bang my head against the wall, but only barely, I find my way down to the second floor landing where Jon is waiting with a grin.

I stop, and for some reason, I feel the need to fold my arms over my chest defensively.

“Sooo,” she says after a moment, making the word several syllables.

“So,” I repeat.

“Come on, Ash! How’d it go,” she asks in this way that sets my teeth on edge. “Did you,” and here she waggles her eyebrows to complete that sentence.

Just. Fuck. This. Morning.

“Watch it, Jonica.”

She hates that name, and it gives me satisfaction to do something that she hates just now.

“Don’t be like that, Ash! I always want details…”

It’s true. She always wants them but I can never give them because I don’t have them. I always just let her come up with her own conclusions and then conveniently fail to correct her. It’s wrong of me, but how do you explain to someone that you can’t bring yourself to have sex, especially someone as active as Jon is?

It’s like trying to explain what an orgasm feels like to a quadriplegic.

But I can’t let her think that of Spencer…

“Lower your fucking voice,” I say.

“Aw, come on. You always seal the deal! You’re Ashley Davies, master of cuniling-”

About this time Spencer’s voice interrupts behind me.

“Excuse me,” she says, and I close my eyes against the world. “The bathroom’s yours.”

Her tone was short, way too short. I turn to let her pass and I can almost see my dreams go up in smoke as she disappears down the steps. I glare at Jon who’s scrubbing the back of her neck with her hand.

If only I had the ability to set fire to things with my mind…

I turn to make my way back up to my room without another fucking word. I’m determined to take a shower, deciding that the only safe option is to just stay away from everyone today because I just can’t win.

The shower takes a good twenty minutes. One word: ladyscaping. I dry my hair and make my way downstairs, my stomach rumbling. Spencer and I passed out without dinner last night, so I’m famished. I can smell fresh bacon, and thank God, more coffee.

Kyla is gone and Spencer’s taken her place, and I’m not sure whether to be happy or disheartened by the fact that she’s no longer sad, just pissed. I’m not even really sure why she’s pissed. I didn’t get a chance to explain to Jon that we didn’t do anything and it’s not my fault that she jumped to conclusions. Well, unless you count the fact that I allow her to do it often. But Spencer doesn’t know that.

So what’s the problem?

The two of us eat in silence while everyone else seems to step around us as if the floor is littered with eggshells. Part of me just wants to start a fight and get it over with, but the other part of me would like to delude herself into believing that it can just be avoided altogether.

But I should know better than to think that, especially when my precious baby-sister enters the room. It doesn’t take long for her to recognize the tension and start flapping her mouth.

“It’s good to see everyone getting along.”

My fork pauses midway to my mouth and I consider my options very carefully: I can get mad and start that fight, which I’m fine with except for we’re on a schedule and there’s no time; I can act completely indifferent and enjoy whatever I’m doing way too much just to spite her, which again is fine, but I’ve never been the roll-over-and-do-nothing type. I have an ego, after all; I can pack my bags and take the next flight home, but one look at Spencer – the living, breathing reminder of my promise to stop running, and that’s out of the window, or I can stoop to Kyla’s level and go for passive aggressive button pushing, which I can see nothing wrong with.

I guess I have my answer.

“Everyone was fine before you walked in.”

It’s a lie, but Kyla doesn’t know that. I finish my bite, smirking as the coffee pot pauses over her cup. Is it just my imagination or did she turn a little red?

“Hey, guys,” Jac comes into the room. “The van’s outside.”

“Why didn’t he come to the door,” Shirley asks.

“He’s a troll,” I reply. “They wait to ambush.”

Everyone chuckles except for Kyla and Spencer, but I can tell that they want to, and I kind of like their discomfort. I gulp down the last of my coffee and get to my feet.

“I need a minute,” I say.

“Ash, hurry,” Sam calls as I run up to the room.

I’m not going to wear much makeup, just a little moisturizer, eyeliner, and gloss. Au natural isn’t really my style. I pull my giant makeup bag to the mirror in the bathroom and start to go through my routine.

“ASH, COME ON!”

I’ve barely had time to moisturize.

“GIVE ME A MINUTE!”

I reach for the eyeliner and start to put it on, taking it slow and easy, the remnants of my childhood trauma always there.

“ASH, WE’RE LEAVING WITHOUT YOU!”

I snort. Like hell they are. I’m the bank.

I grab the gloss and dab it on before deciding to just take it with me, and I nearly forget my wallet in my haste to get back downstairs. The house is empty and I jerk the door open with a touch of panic to find the shuttle just pulling away.

“HEY,” I shout and they come to a stop.

They were actually going to leave me…

Once the house is locked, I run for the van only to slip on a particularly well-hidden patch of ice and fall flat on my ass. I can’t believe this shit.

The door slides open and I can hear the laughter from inside as Shirley reaches a hand out to help me up and in.

“You guys are assholes.”

I’m pulled into a seat and I wince, my ass a little sore and wet.

“What were you doing,” Sam asks as Shirley shuts the door.

“I just… wasn’t ready.”

Shirley scrutinizes my face before she sits back down.

“You were putting makeup on, to go snowboarding…”

“It only took a minute,” I counter.

“Try ten,” Sam butts in.

“Even still, how would you have paid without me?”

“Kyla has a card,” Jac pipes in, and I just stare at her for a moment until she recoils.

“Can we just go,” I ask, facing forward. “I think my ass has more than paid for the delay.”

There’s a round of quiet chuckles and the car starts to move, and I hadn’t realized it in all of the concussion, but I’m sitting between Spencer and Kyla.

I kind of want to tuck and roll just now.

After a few more uncomfortable minutes, I notice that both of them are squirming.

“Spence, are you okay?”

“Fine,” she says, her gaze never leaving the window.

But then she can’t really turn to look at me; she’s pressed herself so flat against the glass that’s she’s nearly suction-cupped to it. It’s like she’s afraid of touching me. I glance over at Kyla and see that she’s doing the same, only against the door.

Just, what the hell? I’m not a leper…

So what am I going to do? I’m going to slouch down in my seat, spread my legs as far as needed to touch them both, and, stretch my arms out along the back of the seat with a long exhale of, “Ahhh.”

“Comfortable,” Kyla asks with not too much sarcasm.

I just smile over at her. “I am, but thanks for concerning yourself.”

Okay, so in my defense, I hadn’t meant for the double entendre, but it’s out there, and it’s not a lie.

“Well, hey,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to be accused of not caring.”

And damn, but if she’s not my sister. I want to be a little proud of her, but ultimately, I just feel bad. I hadn’t considered her motivations with Christine to be noble, but it’s difficult while free-falling down a shaft to see where the shaft might lead.

“Enough, you two. We’re here to have fun,” Shirley chimes in behind us.

“Yes, mom,” I say, which earns me a thump to the back of the head.

Jon and Kyla snort and Shirley thumps them as well, but I’m smart enough not to laugh, outwardly at least.

The uncomfortableness continues for about ten minutes, but it feels like an age before we finally arrive in Whistler Village. Of course, Booker is waiting for us and I’m just so overjoyed at the prospect of adding another enemy to my growing retinue.

“Ladies,” he says, all charm and smiles. “I was beginning to think you’d stood me up.”

And there’s that innuendo that I just want to gag on.

Kyla’s quick to point at me and back her ass up to the fence like a dog in heat.

“Ashley was running late this morning, but I’d never stand you up.”

I train my eyes to the sky. Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…

He holds his elbow out to her like some caricature from a Jane Austin novel, and like a debutant, she accepts.

“I thought we’d start by getting clothing and protective gear. I wouldn’t want you to get hurt,” he says to her.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done…

“That’s very sweet of you,” she bats her eyelashes up at him.

On earth as it is in heaven. Fuck, it’s not working. But then, I’m not catholic…

He glances over his shoulder at us. “Follow me, ladies.”

“After you,” I bow to Spencer and gesture for her to walk ahead. She rolls her eyes, but I figure if she’s determined to be pissed at me, I’ll make it as hard for her as possible.

Just for posterity, I make the cross on my forehead, chest, and shoulders before following.

Booker leads us to what he calls the Snow Shop, but in all actuality, it’s little less than a strip mall devoted to that favored Whistler Village pass-time: anything on the mountain. It had been wise not to buy anything before the trip. This place has it all: there are multiple shops just for boards, others with thousands of different safety baubles and souvenirs, and yet others for clothes.

As much as I hate Booker, he seems to know what he’s talking about as he guides us through our purchases. I’m surprised that they have to weigh us, but the strangest thing I’m asked is if I’m regular or goofy. After some rather snarky comments between Booker and the peanut gallery, I learn that left-handed people are considered goofy and right-handed people are considered regular. Normally, I’d have been a little affronted for left-handed people everywhere, but since Jon’s a lefty, I just couldn’t muster a protest.

Spencer winds up getting skis instead of a snowboard, and she looks kind of hilarious holding those sticks. Of course, it isn’t as funny when she takes a playful swipe at me with one of them.

At least, I hope it’s playful. I’m not so sure. I still don’t know what has her panties in a twist, but I hope to survive her long enough to figure it out.

Once we’ve dented my bank account, we take a twenty-minute ride up into the mountains, Lurch having secured our gear to the top of the van. Booker directs us to the women’s changing room, and we each start to get outfitted for our first lesson.

I would be lying if I said that I’m not excited as I start to pile on the layers. I’ve always wanted to do this but I never once believed that I’d be given the chance. Yet, here I am, surrounded by some of the most important people in my life, people that make me insane as much as they make me feel whole. But then maybe insanity is just part of the perfect package.

It’s surreal when I look over at Spencer who’s tying up her boots. She is a particular piece of the puzzle that I never even considered a possibility. And as much as I love everyone here, she’s the most cause for elation. Having her here means more than words can even express.

She glances over at me and sighs heavily, and I still just can’t figure it out but it’s irritating. Jon’s obnoxious, but she’s harmless.

Everyone’s ready so we start to walk out onto the mountain, but Spencer quietly stops me with a hand on my arm. She watches to be sure that the others have left before pulling a crumpled piece of paper from her pocket and holding it out to me.

I already know what it is, and I lean my snowboard against my hip to take it from her with a heavy heart.

“I found it in your rental car,” she says.

“Thanks for taking care of that,” I say, and she just nods. “Spence, I’m sorry about what Jon said earlier. She’s an idiot and an asshole sometimes, but she didn’t mean to upset you. She’s just… careless.”

She doesn’t look at me, but I can tell that she’s frustrated, only it’s not with me, not really, and it’s not with Jon. It’s something more.

About this time there’s a knock on the door. We look over to see Shirley’s head peeking inside.

“You guys coming?”

“We need a minute,” I say.

She nods, and oddly enough, gives no protest as she shuts the door.

“Look, it doesn’t matter,” Spencer continues. “It just took me off guard.”

“Well, I’m sorry.”

She gives me a tight smile. “No need to apologize.”

“Are we… okay,” I ask, because I don’t feel like we are.

It takes a minute but she starts to nod slowly. “Yeah, we’ll be fine.”

Somehow, I don’t believe her. “Spence-“

“It’s fine, Ash. I promise. It’s not your fault, and I’m sorry that I’m all over the place. Let’s just get some fresh air and enjoy the day, okay?”

The look in her eyes is pleading, and I relent, though I know that nothing’s resolved. She leaves, and after a moment of absolutely no recourse, I follow her out onto the snow. It’s bright now, the sun reflecting off of the solid white beneath our feet like a shimmering mirror.

“There you two are,” Booker calls out, thinking his smile is just so cute. In reality, his teeth are blinding and I feel the need to shade my eyes.

He claps his hands together, already on his board. “So, we ready to get this party started?”

Thanks for that, Linda Perry.

Everyone responds positively, and while I won’t admit it to him, I feel pretty pumped.

“Alright,” he says. “The first thing you need to remember is that you’re going to embarrass yourself.”

And as he talks, he’s sliding from left to right on his board like it’s no big deal, essentially showing off.

“You’re going to fall, and not know what to do, and you’re just going to have to get back up. Laugh it off, dust yourself off, and keep trying.”

Well that was inspirational. I can’t tell if his words are making me sick or if I’m just getting vertigo from watching him sway left and right, left and right.

“The second thing we’re going to learn is how to just stand on the board. Let’s go ahead and strap one foot in. Only one, and use your secondary foot to keep your balance. So regulars will use the left foot and goofys will use the right,” he explains. “Spencer, you only put one ski on as well.”

We each take a knee and start to strap our boots in as instructed. The bindings are Velcro, but the shop owner explained how to be sure that they’re secure. I look down at my board and smile at the crazy zombie face on the tip. He has bulging eyes, thick nerd glasses, and his tongue is hanging out in an insane smile.

The white and purple checkerboard behind him just generally made me happy, but something about him made me laugh, so he became mine. I think I may need to name him…

Booker slides around to be sure that we’re doing it right, and when he vomits out his optimistic approval, we all stand.

“Alright, so now, you’re going to just practice standing on the board and keeping your balance. We’re on a mostly flat surface right now, but if you start to slide at all, just take your free foot off and stop. Same goes for you, Spence.”

What did he just call her?

“Whatever you do, don’t panic. Just take your foot off and stop yourself. Once you’re comfortable standing on the board, we’ll practice falling.”

“Practice falling,” Jon asks. “Why would we want to fall?”

I have to agree, it sounds kind of counterintuitive.

“Trust me. If you know you’re going to wipe out, you’ll want to know how to fall so that you can decide how bad it hurts.”

Well that’s comforting. Somehow, I get the impression that he just wants to watch us make fools of ourselves.

I focus my attention back on the happy zombie and for some reason, I feel like he’s a Fleishman.

Fleishman…

I like it. I lift my right foot and set it on the back of the board, making sure to keep my gravity centered in my hips, my knees bent, and my feet lined up with my shoulders just like fuck-face up there is shouting.

“Hey, this is pretty easy,” I look over at Spencer.

She smiles at me and a random wave of gratitude rolls over me. The words are out of my mouth before I even realize that I’ve thought them.

“Thanks for being here, Spence.”

She takes her foot off of her ski and just stares at me for a moment, and I mimic her pose, waiting for her to say whatever it is she’s going to say, hoping that she’ll just stop being angry with me. But she doesn’t say anything at all, and it’s almost better because she hobbles over to me, tears shining in her eyes as she takes me in a hug.

“Thank you for bringing me,” she whispers.

I only get to hold her for a moment before Booker loudly clears his throat and we’re forced apart, and I hate him just a little more for ruining this moment. He’s giving us a curious look, and I just grin at him. Maybe he’s starting to get a fucking clue.

I see an arm flail in my periphery and turn to see Spencer standing on one of her skis but it looks a lot harder because it’s so much skinnier than a snowboard. She keeps her footing though, and everyone else seems to be doing okay. But apparently Kyla needed some special attention. I have to keep myself from making a beeline at Booker as he shamelessly flirts with her.

She’s eighteen. She can do what she wants. I keep saying that to myself, but I just don’t feel it. So, I try to find a middle ground and wind up boring a hole into the back of his head with my eyes.

We continue balancing on our boards for about half-an-hour before he finally continues with the lesson.

“Alright, you guys are doing great!”

Someone really needs to high-five him in the face.

“So, we’ll talk about how to fall and then we can go for lunch. Now, you have kneepads, elbow pads, and wrist guards. And the gear we bought earlier has quite a bit of padding in it, so don’t be afraid to fall. If you do it the right way, it won’t hurt.”

He sleds himself up to the front of us and starts us off by showing us how to bend our knees and fall forward onto them.

We each take a turn doing this, which is easy, but when I get back up, I see him standing in front of Kyla, hands tucked behind his back while he smiles down on her in her kneeling position. And from this angle, the way that it looks, well, I think that I’m going to lose my shit.

But then he helps her back up and I close my eyes to take deep breathes.

In and out…

“Ash, you okay?”

I nod. No words will ever express what I just experienced.

Booker shows us how to roll into a ball, cover our heads, and fall on our asses. I find this particularly amusing because, well, he’s falling on his ass. We all try it once and I get a brilliant idea.

“Hey, Booker, can you show me again, please?”

“Sure,” he says, flashing that patented smile.

And he does. And I get a cheap thrill out of it.

“Yeah, I think I need to see it again.”

His smile fades just a little, but he obliges, rolling into a ball and falling on his ass. I don’t think I’ll ever get enough of this. In fact, I’m tempted to take out my phone and make a gif, but it’s back in the changing room.

As soon as he’s back up, I go to ask again, but Spencer stops me with a hand over my mouth. Booker cocks his head at us like a confused puppy, though not nearly as cute, and I have to admit, I’m confused as to why she feels the need to ruin my fun as well.

“You‘ve… got it,” he asks.

“Yeah, she’s got it,” Spencer says, giving me a look that makes it clear that I had better not disagree when she takes her hand away.

I nod, her hand leaves, and I say, “Yeah,” grudgingly.

“Cool,” he replies. “Now you give it a try.”

Spencer can barely contain her snort of laughter as I shoot daggers at her. It’s truly humiliating, just like he said that it would be, but I roll myself in a ball and fall on my ass.

“Good job,” he praises, and the minute his back is turned to ‘help’ Kyla, I swat at Spencer from my prone position.

She grabs one of her sticks but I’m ready this time and snag it, using a hardy tug to dump her into the snow.

“That’s not fair,” I say.

“Fair? You just knocked me down,” she says incredulously.

“You’ve got to fight dirty sometimes,” I counter resolutely.

“And why was this one of those times?”

“Look at them,” I point at Booker…

Spencer laughs me off as ridiculous and I feel the need to explain myself.

“Remember that year your dad took us camping?”

“That was the best camping trip ever,” she says.

“For you, maybe, but I thought I was going to drown when Glen flipped our canoe.”

“He thought he was going to die when you put those fire ants in his sleeping bag.”

“That was a brilliant move on my part, am I right?”

She just shakes her head. “I’m just glad he wasn’t allergic.”

“Yeah, me too. That would have been really bad. I mean, I was grounded for a week. I can’t imagine what Christi-”

She slaps me on the arm and I smile at her.

“But he never messed me with while camping again. As I said, sometimes you have to fight dirty.”

“I guess I see your point,” she says. “But I’m still going to mess with you.”

She gives me an over-exaggerated smile and I can’t help but chuckle. She’s too fucking cute. I awkwardly stumble to my feet and help her up, and a comfortable silence descends and we laugh at the others as they fall over.

They’re like weeble-wobbles…

“You know who else fought dirty,” I ask, and she glances over at me. “The mosquitos…” I scrunch up my nose and she lets out a quiet laugh. “It’s not funny, Spence. They were like… small Chihuahuas.” That just makes her laugh harder. “I am so not cut out for the great outdoors.”

“It wasn’t all bad,” she says after she calms down. “Later that night, those girls the next tent over taught us that song.”

We both smile at the memory. “Yeah, they were in high school… and hot.” This earns me another swat. “We thought we were so cool when we learned that song.”

“Peanut Butter Reeses cup…,” she sings and looks over at me.

“Spencer, no.”

And that did it. She starts to clap and shout. “Mess with me I’ll mess you up! Bang, bang, choo-choo train, come on Ashley do your thing!”

She’s waiting but I don’t respond so she threatens me with her stick again.

“Fine, I can’t,” I say in a bored tone.

“Why not,” she asks again, all hyper and blonde and just too damn cute.

Again, I don’t say anything, and this time she grabs my arms and starts to shake me as she dances, causing me to lose my balance and fall right back to my ass.

I glare up at her. “I just can’t-“

“Why not,” Spencer chortles out as stares down at me.

I take a look around me. We’re not the only ones on the mountain and we are starting to draw attention. But when I’m looking at her, her eyes shining, her grin vibrant and youthful, I can’t remember why anything else matters.

Isn’t that why I’m here, what this is all about; I want to be reckless, throw caution to the wind, live…?

I decide to go for broke. If I’m going to look like a jackass, I’ll make a spectacular one of myself. I lift my ass into a lobster walk and start to lewdly shake it.

“My back hurts, my bra’s too tight, my boot’ay goes left and right. Left, right, left, right. Huh? Oh what? I gotta big butt.”

Spencer starts clapping again, her own hips joining the fray as we sing out together.

“Peanut butter reeses cup, mess with me I’ll mess you up. Bang, bang, choo-choo train, come on Spencer do your thing.”

“I can’t,” she says.

“Why not,” I ask.

“I just can’t,” she replies.

“Why not?”

We both start moving in the most ghetto white-girl dance the world has ever seen.

“My back hurts, my bra’s too tight, my boot’ay…” I reach up and slap her on the ass and she falls over, but that doesn’t stop her. “…goes left and right. Left, right, left, right. Huh? Oh what? I gotta big butt.”

I feel absolutely ridiculous, but being here in this moment with her makes me feel like I’m fourteen again. I may be older, but it’s all there: the innate connection, the awkwardness of being insecure in my feelings, the sheer joy of laughing with her and acting silly.

We get a round of applause from most of the onlookers, some lewd calls from the guys, ignored by those with something stiff shoved firmly up their derrieres, and of course, some are just plain disapproving. But it feels good not to care as we lie back in the snow and laugh until our sides ache.

“Um, alright then,” I hear Booker’s voice. “Now that you know how to fall, let’s take an hour and get some lunch. Meet back here at one o’clock?”

Everyone agrees and this time, Spencer helps me up.

“When you guys get back, we’ll spend a few hours just pushing around on the board like a skateboard. Good job, everyone!”

He claps and we all disperse, except for Kyla who is walking away on his arm again. I look to Spencer,  a huge grin on my face, and despite all of the emotional turmoil going on around me, I can’t help but think that this trip may not be going as planned, but maybe that’s a good thing.


The last three days have found us all tired, sore, and grumpy. The skateboard routine proved to be much more challenging. Everyone was falling left and right, and while the snow was a decent cushion, there’s only so many times you can take a fall on the same body part and not feel it.

My ass… it just hurts.

Actually, everything hurts. I hadn’t expected snowboarding to require so much strength, but even the slightest of motions takes a lot of effort from the legs, hips, stomach, and even a little from the arms. It’s almost a good sore though, if that makes any sense. But despite the falls and bruises, which Spencer is sporting a nasty one on her upper left thigh, we’re here, we’re queer, and we’re still plugging away. And we’re no longer using just one foot or in the flat training area.

After the skateboarding, we moved to both feet and Booker taught us the correct way to slice down a slope, stop, and control our speed. I’m enjoying it a lot more now, and I’m falling a lot less. Everyone’s pretty spread out, and this time alone with an open expanse of mountain to conquer, both figuratively and physically, helps me to minimize my goals and focus on what’s right in front of me. It gives me time and space to clear my thoughts, which is something that I’m not used to.

I’ve been confronting a lot lately, and I can’t help but think that it’s because I’m not allowing myself to run. I have to learn to live with myself and all of the inherent baggage that entails. I can’t help but think that it’s easier on the slopes though. I don’t know what happens when we go home and things settle down, but I’m taking it a day at a time, and while today is our last day here, it’s not the end.

Spencer seems to have gotten over whatever the problem was, at least as far as the issue with Jon is concerned. She’s still sad about Carmen, but she’s crying less, and we’ve been having a really good time together for the most part. It’s strange, but every day feels more and more like I’ve gotten my best friend back without all of the drama associated with romance.

I still love her, am in love with her, but it doesn’t feel like it has to be an all-encompassing relationship anymore. I think we’ve both come to just feel comfortable around each other. It’s just… nice.

I’ve straightened Jon out about what did and didn’t happen with Spencer, though I couldn’t bring myself to correct all of the past information. It’s personal to me. I don’t feel like the truth of my sex life, or lack thereof, is anyone’s business, let alone Jon’s, and she’s proven why today.

She and Jac had a falling out last night. I don’t know what happened and I didn’t hear any of it. But I know that Jon was on the couch this morning. They’re being very strange with one another. The shenanigans have stopped, and it’s odd, but I kind of miss it. They’re completely immature, but they’re completely entertaining. And mostly, it’s like the best parts of them are missing when they’re not acting like children.

Jac seems to be coping by turning inward, while Jon is hitting on everything with a vagina. Jac seems very sad, her normal bubbliness missing, while Jon seems to be overly happy. Jac isn’t speaking when asked, while Jon protests that absolutely nothing is wrong. I don’t know what to make of it. I just hope that they figure it out soon. They won’t be coming on all of my expeditions, but when they do, I want them to be… them.

Shirley and Sam are the same as always: disgusting. I wouldn’t have it any other way though. The truth of the matter is that they have what I want. The problem is, I’ll never want that with anyone but Spencer, or so I thought. But lately, getting closer to her, feeling less disconnected from the life that I want, has helped to bring some closure, at least I think.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s real, especially up here on the slopes, but I like that about this place, well, that and I’ve learned that I love speed. It’s gotten me into trouble a couple of times, but it’s nice to feel fearless, gutsy, some of the things that I used to be and wish to be again.

I angle myself forward and pick up a little more, and I can’t help but grin as fluffed bits of snow and fresh mountain air whip up in front of me, even as it further chaps my face. It’s exhilarating. I have no complaints at this moment, unless I count Kyla. And I suppose that I have to.

She and I are not getting along, at all. The snide remarks have gotten a little more biting, but that’s only when she’s around. She spends a lot of time with Booker, or on the phone with Booker, which only makes me more upset with her. I want her to find someone to love, but this guy isn’t the one. He’s a playboy, a passing fling, and I’m not so sure if she knows it.

I’ve heard some of their conversations on the phone, talks about him coming to visit, her coming to visit. A guy doesn’t print cards with his personal number on it unless he gives them out frequently. Ultimately though, given the mess that I’ve made of my own life, both personal and otherwise, I have no right to think anything about it let alone say it.

I have no idea how to repair our relationship. I know that I need to apologize for saying that she doesn’t care, but we’ve had this talk already and she’d agreed to stop pushing. She couldn’t seem to hold true to that agreement. Talking to her about it is just going to end the same way: she’ll agree and then push anyway. And I truly believe that she won’t stop until she gets what she wants: me and Spencer and a happily ever after.

I don’t know if that’s in the cards for us, but I do know that I’m happy with my hand as it is. I just want to enjoy her, life, everything, before I can’t anymore.

“ASH!”

I jump because that was way too loud and wind up on my ass… again. God, it just hurts. I glare in the direction that the sound came from to see Spencer skiing forward.

“Sorry,” she says as she comes to a stop. “I didn’t mean to startle you. I’d been calling…”

I roll and push my very tender seat into the air and come to a precarious balance on my feet.

“Sorry, I was thinking,” I say, rubbing it tenderly.

“The slopes have that effect,” she says knowingly. “So listen, I was going to take the rest of the day off and maybe go into town and look around. I know it’s our last day, but I think I’ve had my fill. How about you, you wanna come?”

I think about it for a moment, but then my tush makes the decision for me.

“Yeah, I think I’d like that.”

She smiles at me and we start to push down to the bottom of the mountain, staying side by side and making this last ride count. It’s fun to be with her like this, where it feels carefree and comfortable, that is until I go a little faster and it somehow becomes a race.

I can’t seem to help myself…

“Aw, Carlin thinks she can keep up!”

She gives me a look that sends a chill down my spine, and I remember it all too well, though I haven’t seen it in ages. It’s that incredibly sexy way that she has of using her eyes, her body, just everything about her, to simply say, “Challenge Accepted.”

She bends her knees and points herself forward, tucking her poles under her arms and gaining speed. And I’d swear that I can hear her laugh, a wild and sexy whoop through the wind as she passes me.

I only just break out of my haze long enough to know that I’m about to hit a snow dune. It’s small, but at roughly thirty-five miles per hour, it’s going to mean something: pain. I do the exact thing that I shouldn’t do, which is close my eyes and brace, and then I feel a lurch followed by the indescribable feeling of zero gravity.

In this split second my adrenaline kicks in and I manage to open my eyes. There’s this moment where everything is amazing, where I feel unencumbered and maybe even reborn. And in this moment I fall in love with snowboarding; I fall in love with life.

But then the moment is over and I can see the ground getting closer and I try to think about what I’m supposed to do but all I can do is panic.

What did Booker say to do?

“ASH, DON’T LEAN FORWARD,” Spencer screams.

Oh, right, land on the back foot and keep the tip of the board up. I correct the board just in time to land it, though it’s wobbly. The shock of that force is a little jarring, but I’m on my feet and I can’t help but put my arms in the air and shout with excitement. And that is when I make a mistake, because I’m not focused on the right thing: staying on my feet and slowing to a stop.

By the time that I realize this, I’m at the bottom of the hill, those in line for the lifts scattering to get out of the way as I attempt glide through without hitting any of them. This doesn’t work; I lose my balance, and fall straight on my ass.

And my ass… the poor, tender thing, is what skids along the hard-packed snow to bring me to a stop.

I just lie there on my back for a moment, a ringing sound in my ears as I stare up at the sky. One of the clouds floating by looks just like an ass. In fact, everything begins to funnel into my posterior.

God, it hurts.

Faces start to appear in a circle above me, and I hear them asking if I’m alright, but it’s as if they’re under water. Someone shouts and then there’s Spencer, on her knees next to me, her gloveless hands warm against my cheeks as she peers down on me with concern.

“Ashley…? God, are you okay? Ash…?”

“Get back,” someone says and I watch as the faces start to leave my field of vision, so I grab one of Spencer’s hands to keep her there.

“Don’t move her,” that stranger’s voice commands.

Two other faces come into focus and I start to sit up, but they stop me.

“You shouldn’t move,” they say, but I don’t listen.

I can’t listen. My body propels itself up of its own accord, and I take a deep breath that makes me cough. I hadn’t even realized that I wasn’t breathing until relief starts to shoot through me.

“Does anything hurt,” one of the men asks as he shines a light in my eyes.

I swat it away and breathe a few more times. It helps me to feel normal enough to do a mental inventory. Thankfully everything seems to be fine. It’s all moving and there’s no pain except, of course, my ass.

I turn to Spencer who’s crying, and try to say something that will console her, reassure her.

But “That was awesome,” is all that tumbles out.

She looks like she’s just been slapped in the face, but her shock quickly fades and she starts to laugh, grabbing me and pulling me in for a hug that makes me wince.

“Easy, Spence.”

“God, sorry! Are you okay,” she asks again, leaning back and holding my face in her hands.

I grin at her. “My ass is killing me, but yeah, I’m fine.”

“Ma’am, we need to look you over.”

I turn to the EMT and sit placidly as he does his poking, prodding, light shining, and all around irritating things. And I answer his even more irritating questions. Once I’m cleared and the snowboard removed, I’m allowed to get to my feet, which is a huge relief.

I don’t think I ever want to sit again.

He hands me a box, and with a big smile says, “You’ll want to put ice on it.”

And then he just leaves.

“Dude, that was righteous,” some guy comes up to us. “I got all of that on video!”

He holds his cell phone out to us and we watch as I fly and fall and crash. I’m not sure how I feel about it, but with a little trim at the end, it has possibilities.

“Will you send that to me,” Spencer, the movie mogul, asks before proceeding to give him her email address.

A few other people come up and jostle me around with their smiles and pats on the back, but I can’t complain because we get an express pass to the head of the line.

Sitting on the lift is torture, especially when it lurches forward for take-off, but I manage to endure it with a wince.

“Are you okay,” Spencer asks again.

“I’m tired and sore,” I say, and she just nods.

After a moment, she takes my hand and starts to play with my fingers.

“That scared the hell out of me.”

“Scared the hell out of me, too.” I squeeze her hand. “But it was pretty cool.”

She chuckles and takes the box from my lap. The picture on the label shows a blue, round, blow-up cushion, and we share a laugh that makes me feel a little tired.

Spencer seems to recognize this.

“So, maybe we’ll just go back to the house and relax. We can check out the village another time.”

“Thanks,” I say.

She lays her head on my shoulder, and I rest my cheek against her hair, and we finish the ride to the top of the mountain for the last time.


I open my eyes to a dark house. The television is off and by the glowing numbers on the clock beneath, the movie is long over and unfinished. The lap that my head had been resting on has been replaced with a pillow, and a blanket has been draped over me.

I smile to myself. Spencer and I had spent the afternoon drinking magic cocoa and watching movies, just like old times. I let her fill the screen with all of the sickeningly sweet romance that she wanted and she played with my hair until I fell asleep. And I’ve been asleep for hours.

Sitting up gives me pinpoint accuracy of every single muscle in my body, but I manage to avoid my tender behind, so it’s a win, at least until I kick something soft but solid and nearly wind up in my tush yet again.

“Ow…”

“Sorry, Jon.”

“You feeling okay?”

“Yeah.”

“You goin’ to bed?”

“Yeah.”

“Finally…”

And with that she proceeds to crawl up where I just was and promptly start snoring. I cover her with the blanket, stop in the bathroom – which is a whole new level of discomfort – wash my hands, check the door locks, and I’m on my way up to my room.

I’m careful not to wake Spencer as I enter, and I tip-toe to my side of the bed. But just as I pull the covers back, movement catches in the corner of my eye and I turn to see a silhouette standing on the mezzanine.

Spencer’s gazing out at the sheer openness, her arms wrapped tight around her chest to hold out the biting cold, or maybe she’s just trying to keep something in. The moonlight is streaking down from a clear sky as wisps of her hair move about her shoulders. And something about the scene clenches in my chest.

I don’t know that I can help her at all, but I grab a blanket to wrap myself before stepping out to check on her. She looks at me over her shoulder but doesn’t say anything as I get closer, so I take this as a sign of acceptance. Once next to her, we both stare out into utter beauty: her at the mountains, and me at her.

And I get this irrational urge to brush this haphazard lock of honey-blonde hair that’s fallen forward behind her ear and whisper secrets to her, or maybe hopeful lies, or just say something, anything that might loosen the hold that this soul deep cold has on her. But all of the words that come to mind are hollow.

So, I stand next to her, hoping that I can just be here for her, and praying that it’s a comfort to her, however small.

“It’s really beautiful,” she says.

And I have to agree. But if the truth were known, the panorama of snow steeped mountains piercing the twilight sky will never come close to just one fleeting look from her.

I nod and breathe deeply of the crisp air to release it as vapors.

“How do you live with hurting someone that you love,” she asks after several minutes. And I feel a little taken aback by that question. I mean, it makes sense that this is the crux of her struggle, but it’s painful to know that I’m the expert in this line of pain management.

“I, uh- I don’t think that you do, Spence. I mean, our circumstances are different, but I haven’t really been alive for four years. I’ve just been kind of… waiting.”

She exhales heavily and I find a maybe explanation.

“I guess… I just knew that what I was doing was the right thing, even though it hurt.”

“But the right thing for who,” she asks, leaning on the bar.

“I think that the right thing for one is the right thing for both, even if it only feels like the right thing for the one.”

I watch her brows furrow. “Ash, that makes no sense.”

I chuckle and mirror her pose, opening my blanket to share it with her. She snuggles in willingly.

“Spence, what I’m trying to say is that you can’t trap yourself in a situation that isn’t what you want to make someone else happy. If one choice is better for you, then you have to do what works for you.”

“Even at the expense of someone else’s feelings?” She shakes her head. “That doesn’t seem right.”

“I don’t think that it’s always at someone else’s expense. I think that’s how you know whether the relationship is right or wrong.”

She chuckles. “You really suck at advice, you know?”

“Thanks,” I say. “I’m doing my best here.”

“I know.”

“What I’m saying is that the choice wouldn’t have hurt Carmen if you two would have been on the same page. When the relationship fits, the choice won’t be at their expense.”

I feel a sweeping rush of sadness overtake me as well.

“I think that’s why it hurt so much for both of us when I left. It wasn’t right for either of us,” I murmur.

She’s quiet for a moment before looking over at me.

“Because we fit,” she says, and I just nod.

And there’s this moment, the one that I should have waited for, but I didn’t. I’ve already kissed her and now I can’t. I gave my word, and I won’t go there again until she asks me to. And I know that part of her wants to ask. I can see it on the tip of her tongue as it appears just long enough to wet her lips, but then she’s looking away and I know that she won’t.

And I know that I can’t.

“Tell me what you’re thinking, Spence.”

“I’m thinking… that I want it to fit with Carmen, that I love her, and I don’t know how to fix myself so that it can work. And it’s really, really unfair of me.”

If that’s what she wants, how can I begrudge her?

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with you, Spencer. I think you just never had a chance to get over what I did to you. There’s nothing unfair about needing some time. And who knows?” I swallow hard. “Maybe once you get through this…”

I can’t say it, so I just finish with a shrug.

I can feel her eyes on me but I can’t look at her. I try to find some comfort in the moon as the chill starts to seep past the barrier of the blanket and remind me that as close as we are right now, there’s a chasm between us.

At least this time I’m thankful for the reminder. I need to let her go, and I need to move on.

I feel her shift, and then cold lips press to my cheek and a head rests on my shoulder as even colder hands hug my arm.

“Thank you, Ash,” she says.

And I watch the air escape both of our mouths for a moment longer, taking in this moment of intense clarity and letting it sink in. This is that moment that I’ve been waiting for, the moment where I finally let her go. Not because I should or because I want to, but because it’s the best thing for her.

“You’re welcome, Spence.”


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Continued in Chapter 4 – Girl With Broken Wings

Chapter 2 – Innocence Lost

The forest has been Lexa’s home for the whole of her life. For her people, it is the very source of life. It provides shelter, food, water, medicine, and clothing. She learned this at a very young age. Knowledge of the forest is as much a part of her people as their braids, their tattoos, their fierceness in battle, and their loyalty to one another.

For her people, there is no such thing as youth or childhood; there is only survival or death. The Trikru are born into responsibility. It can be daunting, overwhelming, but it is necessary. But for Lexa, as she grew, as she learned, as she thrived, she began to find solace amongst the trees. They became more than just her home and her livelihood, they became her sanctuary.

And as such, when she finds herself in need of quiet, in need of calm, in need of clear-headedness, it is not uncommon for her to take to the forest, to seek out a friend that is just as implacable and honest as she is. And this day, as she puzzles over the current situation of her people, is no exception.

The Mountain Men are gone, completely obliterated, and it’s all because of Clarke.

This in and of itself is not what concerns her. In fact, she respects that Clarke was able to accomplish something that her people never could. She is also thankful that the threat of the Mountain Men is no longer hanging over her people like a sword ready to drop at any moment.

However, she is having a difficult time determining if she had misread her alliances and the inherent dangers associated with choosing the Mountain Men over the Sky People.

It had seemed the only logical choice.

She had known that the Sky People were dangerous from the moment that they had fallen to the ground. They were loud, disrespectful of the forest, disrespectful of one another, and disrespectful of the Trikru. Anya’s scouts had reported many occasions where they killed one another without cause and killed her own people for rightly trying to remove the threat from their home.

They were like children, lacking discipline, diplomacy, and skill. They lacked a leader, and as such, they seemed to lack purpose. Without purpose, Lexa had known that their days were numbered. It was only a matter of time before the Reapers, the Mountain Men, her warriors, or exposure claimed them.

But the Mountain Men did not lack purpose or skill. They were powerful and they knew how to survive. She knew what they were capable of. Unlike the Sky People, they were not weak. They were cunning, organized, and ruthless. How many of her people had been lost to the monstrous capabilities of the Red? How many more viciously bled for immunization or doused in a burning blanket of acid fog?

The Mountain Men were the real threat, the more important threat. If nothing else, with the help of the Sky People, she might finally lead her people to an end of their oppression. So she united with the Sky People, the lesser enemy, to conquer the most powerful among them, the Mountain Men.

And it would have worked. She is sure of that. She can find no error in joining with Clarke and her people. That isn’t her predicament. Her predicament now lay in her betrayal, her decision to take the offer presented to her by the Mountain Men.

It had been a cogent offer. They would release her people and stop making Reapers. In return, she would stand down and call her people to retreat, leaving the Sky People to their fate. It was a harsh move, a calculated move, but it had given her the ability to not only save her people inside, but also save them from a war that had been raging for years and further decimating their numbers.

Yes, it meant the destruction of some of the Sky People, of Clarke’s emotions, but they were not her concern. They couldn’t be. Her loyalties would always be with her people. It had to be that way. She was their Heda, chosen to protect them at all costs, especially personal ones.

That did not mean that she desired to hurt Clarke. It was quite the opposite. She relished her time with the girl. But the truth of the matter is that she and Clarke are different, separated by the chasm of birth and survival.

And survival is everything. So Lexa accepted; she took the offer given her by the Mountain Men, knowing that it would eliminate all threats. But she had underestimated the Sky People, Clarke specifically.

Lexa had resigned herself to the fact that the Sky People would not survive. That had been determined the very moment that they had landed. With them gone, and the Mountain Men no longer hunting her people, she would secure safety for the future of the twelve clans.

But the Sky People had not died, and it was all because of Clarke. It seemed to Lexa that everything always came back to Clarke, and she understood why.

Clarke had an enigmatic quality to her. Lexa had experienced it herself on numerous occasions. She was… surprising. Lexa would often catch herself taken off guard by the things that Clarke would say and do. Clarke challenged her and that challenge made her feel… just feel. The Sky People had been drawn to Clarke’s leadership, and Lexa had been drawn as well.

She did not like the choices that had been presented her, but unlike Clarke, she was able to make decisions for the good of her people regardless of the cost. That is how she should be, how she has to be, because life depends on it.

But she had been wrong about Clarke. She had known that the ability to be a great leader was there, but when she had taken the Mountain Man’s offer, she had believed that Clarke wasn’t ready to do what must be done. She had not counted on the fact that whether Clarke was ready or not, she would do it anyway. She had not counted on the fact that Clarke would succeed.

And now, she has created an enemy who’s proven capable of destroying the strongest of them all, doing the very thing that the Trikru had never been able to do. Clarke has proven that she is not only stronger than the Mountain Men, but in turn, stronger than the Trikru.

With thoughts such as these, the trees do not hold much comfort or solitude for her today. She has been biding her time in the forest while the tracker’s circles narrow in on her. She knows that her time is limited and that she must find the strength to do what must be done.

She jumps and pulls herself up onto a large, overhanging branch and quietly waits. She is not sure if this person is friend or foe, but then friends sometimes make the worst of foes anyway. That is what it means to be strong, at least to her people. It is strange to think that it’s that very strength that destroyed Clarke. Lexa’s scouts had been tracking her for days, watching and waiting for any sign that the Sky People would seek retribution. But from what they’d described, she was not a threat to anyone but herself.

So Lexa had gone to see for herself, and what she saw she knew all too well. She felt Clarke’s loss because she knew it. Innocence does not die quietly. It does not die peacefully. But in this world, it always dies. It is inevitable. And Clarke was bleeding hers onto the forest floor, looking for that solitude that Lexa finds among her woodland friends and foes.

Lexa went through this herself, though anyone looking in had never been any the wiser. That was the cost of leadership. It still hurt, it still destroyed, but the luxury of allowing herself to feel it wasn’t afforded. She envied Clarke as she looked in on her, despite the fact that she’d fallen into a ravine of brambles.

At least Clarke was allowed to feel.

She’d collected the girl, and brought her back to TonDC amidst a flurry of worried murmurs and unsolicited council. Lexa already knew what was expected of her, what is still expected of her: she is to kill the girl. For her people, there is no other choice. Surely, the Skaikru want blood for blood. And while they have not yet moved to make war since the unlikely outcome on the mountain, her decision that day intended to deliver them to death.

If the situation were reversed, Lexa would not hesitate to strike at her enemies, and the Sky People would most definitely be labeled enemies for such a betrayal.

But it has been three days since, and they have made no such move. Perhaps, the reason they hold off is lying on the table in the healer’s hut. Perhaps they await their leader to give the order that will thrust them into war because they are too weak to make such a decision for themselves.

Lexa cannot be sure. She only knows that this is a very precarious situation, balanced on the edge of a blade, and any wrong move could be catastrophic for her people. She will not underestimate the Skaikru again.

There is also another situation that Lexa must consider: the Reapers. They have become more feral from the the Red. They have taken to the mountain, using the last of what is left, but it will not be much longer before they run out.

Nyko was confident that he could replicate what he had seen with Lincoln, the very reason they aligned with the Sky People to begin with, but so far, he has failed. They are losing more of their people to withdrawal, and that was the very outcome that Lexa had been trying to avoid.

She needs Clarke’s help, but she has made an enemy of her. Killing Clarke not only means that the Reapers will die, but that they will have yet another war on their hands.

Somehow, she must convince Clarke to help her, but she cannot find the words that will inspire trust.

Trust…

Lexa believes this to be a farce, or at least she did, until she met Clarke.

The tracker is upon her now and she draws her dagger, waiting for that first move to break what should be a quiet, peaceful moment in the chaos. But no such attack is forthcoming.

Instead, there is merely a strong voice, one that she knows well, and in a tongue specific to her people

“Heda.”

Lexa does not give her attention to Indra, choosing instead to keep her eyes on the misleading calm of the forest for just a moment longer. She needs the lie just now.

“She’s awake,” Indra continues, and Lexa feels a surge of something indiscernible smolder through her.

Is it relief?

Is it nervousness?

She does not know. She only knows that it doesn’t matter. It will never leave the confines of her chest, because her head will not allow it.

She nods, steeling herself for this confrontation that will determine the future of her clan. She is ready because she has to be, despite the fact that she does not know what the best course of action is. There is no more time to waste with thought. She will either convince the girl or kill her. She has no other option.

Winter is coming. She needs to prepare her people for survival.

She stands and sheathes her dagger, and without another word, the two of them make their way back to TonDC.


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Continued in Chapter 3 – Different or Indifference

Chapter 1 – Modern Myths

Sometimes the things that we do, the choices that we have to make, supersede our own understanding of the world. And we want to be able to say that we didn’t have any other option, that we were just trying to do the right thing, that we were just trying to protect, to survive.

We want that clarity of conscience so that we can close our eyes without being haunted.

We want to be able to sleep at night.

We just want to believe that the terrible things that happen have a reason.

For all that has changed in human history, these things still hold true, whether you’re a Grounder – a savage like those who survived the irradiated earth’s surface; a Mountain Man – an aristocrat like those stealing life within the fortress of their bunker; or a Sky Person – placed somewhere in between the two like those who fell from the stars.

These needs, these wants, unite all of these factions in a common imperative, even as they are the very reasons that they cannot seem to survive at all, at least not together. The harsh reality is that for some to survive, others must die. And it’s not because it actually has to be that way.

It’s a choice.

But when you can’t control others’ actions, you are left one inevitable conclusion: at the end of the day, no matter what, Death will have his quota.

So you try to find a way around it. You unite some in peace, make a choice to try and stop the bloodshed, and still people die. You kill some to stop them from killing others, and still people die. And what makes it worse is that when you make these terrible decisions, not only are you responsible for any resulting deaths, but you have to find a way to compartmentalize the fact that you placed more value on one life over another.

Sure, there were reasons or excuses, but when the bodies fall, the truth of the matter is that you were just relieved that they weren’t familiar faces. For all that you wish that you stood for, you just don’t want to lose your own.

You are selfish.

You are biased.

You are a killer.

Because you are human.

At least Death is indiscriminate in whom he claims.

But you are merely a murderer, picking and choosing in cold blood for one reason or another. And oddly enough, that is the very reason that you’re the Commander, or the President, or the Chancellor. Your people look to you, Killer, so that they don’t have to live with the weight of the very world on their shoulders.

You make these choices so that they don’t have to.

They get to sleep at night because you never will again.

How do you live with that?

If you’re the Commander of the Grounders, a proud Trikru, you wrap your heart in steel. You worship logic over feeling and fear over love. You satisfy your brain before your heart and value a bloody blade over a kind word. You hold to one singular belief: the survival of your people comes first. And in the process, you lose your heart altogether.

If you’re the President of the Mountain Men, you place your heart in a fanciful box and set it as the crowning jewel in your limitless collection of beautiful baubles. And you focus on those things of beauty so that you don’t have to see the monstrosity that you’ve become. You tell yourself that it’s there and  you’ll take it out again when you’ve reached the ground where you can then wear it on your lapel like a wilted corsage. Until then, you hold to one singular belief: you will see the sky and smell the flowers again, and you will survive it at any cost.

If you’re the Chancellor of the Sky People, the Skaikru, you are torn, your heart constantly bleeding as you try and fail. You hate what you’re becoming and feel powerless to stop it. You can only hold the battered organ in your hand and stare at it, try to remember that it’s real, try desperately to find a safe place to keep it in a world completely devoid of safety. You hold to one singular belief: there has to be a better way to survive, but you will survive.

What else can you do as a leader?

What else can you do when the one thing that is needed most in the world is a modern myth?

Where is peace?

Where is safety?


For Clarke Griffin, the unlikely Chancellor of the Sky People, there was nothing more to be done. Despite incredible odds and a betrayal of both heart and mind, she got her people home safely, but it was at the cost of her very own soul.

Somehow, she still brought the Mountain Men to their knees, and with nothing more than the flick of her wrist. One enemy was lost but another was gained, and it was inside of her. She murdered some, she saved others, but the moral of her actions was not lost on her.

She realized that she is no better than those that she’d destroyed so easily. She also knew that for some reason, she got to survive. She just didn’t understand why. If she was no better than her enemy, and of this she had no doubt, why did her life matter more?

Maybe there are no good-guys,” her mother’s words resounded in her head.

Abby, the good doctor, the should-be Chancellor, had shown faith in her daughter. She had stepped aside to give Clarke the power that she needed to make peace so that she could then make war. After all, it was considered a righteous war. She may have even believed those words when she’d said them. Clarke certainly thought so. But Clarke also knew that her mother now saw a monster where her daughter once stood.

If her own mother couldn’t look her in the eye, couldn’t forgive her, how much less should she be able to see herself, to forgive herself?

Forgive…

Clarke realized that it is a hollow word, a dream, a farce. She had sat in judgment of others despite what she was capable of because there was no such thing as forgiveness, not really.

First, she hated Wells for the senseless death of her father, and she couldn’t let that go, not until she learned that it was her own mother’s betrayal that had opened that airlock and floated the man. And even after Wells had tried to make it right, he had to die for the crimes of his own father.

Then she focused her hatred on her mother, whom she still can’t fully forgive, the same mother who currently sits in judgment of her daughter. But who is she to say that what Clarke did was wrong when she knowingly murdered her own husband?

And Finn…

At the start, when they’d been unforgivingly thrown to the ground, he had given Clarke hope. She had seen him hold onto his humanity and his compassion, fighting for a common good. But because of her, he became so lost that he’d slaughtered an entire village of Trikru. Like her mother, Clarke couldn’t look at him the same. But that wasn’t the worst of it: she drove a knife into Finn’s stomach, and then had the audacity to call it kindness, because the Trikru want blood for blood, because there is no forgiveness.

Clarke became just like Finn, only worse; she became like Lexa, commander of the Grounders. She became hard and calloused, cold and calculating. She became a traitor, not just of her alliances but her very own soul. She lost her humanity to the will to survive, and then realized that if her humanity was the cost, she just didn’t see the point in surviving anymore.

So she left her people. For days she ate next to nothing. She walked until exhaustion claimed her. She had nowhere in mind; she only knew that anywhere was better than here, and here was everywhere.

She had no fight left in her, no pride either. If she fell, she’d crawl until unconsciousness relieved her. When injured, she’d let it bleed. She was helpless in the face of her own thoughts, her own inability to forgive, not just others, but herself. Her heart had been left at a vault door of a mountainous tomb, this same place where betrayal masked as survival stole the last of her innocence.

Clarke.”

She would know that voice anywhere, even from within the murky depths of her torment. It is toneless, void, and uncaring, just like the eyes of its wearer, eyes that she could never forget.

I do care, Clarke. But I made this choice with my head, not my heart.”

Lexa had lied. She’d left Clarke to die. She’d left Clarke’s people to die. She’d betrayed Clarke with a kiss…

The mountain has cast a shadow over these woods for too long! They’ve hunted us, controlled us, turned us into monsters…

Clarke understands that not everything out of Lexa’s mouth had been a lie, but then the world becomes a scalding landscape of raw nerves. She cries out and chokes on it, maybe because of the pain or maybe because of the shame.

Clarke knows that Lexa is a monster, but she has become one too. She knows that she deserves this pain, they both do.

But Lexa is not in pain. Lexa feels nothing. Clarke’s breathing is shallow as her eyes search the commander’s face for something she can’t find, something that she wishes she didn’t feel. And she believes that maybe she sees the commander because like the pain shooting through her body, she deserves to be haunted.

“We’re not so different, you and I,” Clarke mutters before her head rolls to the side and she is lost to unconsciousness.

“Commander, she’s still feverish, but she’s starting to come to. I believe she’ll be able to keep the leg.”

“Good,” Lexa gazes down on her quarry, her expression inscrutable. “Keep her under watch. We can’t afford to underestimate her again.”

“Yes, Commander.”

Lexa strides to the skins hanging over the doorway and looks back. There is no emotion or worry, but her eyes linger on the girl.

“And, Nyko…”

The large, brutish man turns to his commander, a wiry wisp of a girl that he obeys without question. He gives her his full attention though she does not deign to do the same. No, her vacant eyes don’t leave the girl on the table, even as she gives a final command.

“She is not to be harmed.”

He nods, and of course he will obey, even when he knows that the Skaikru – specifically this girl, this Clarke – will bring death upon them all. But he turns back to his charge without a word, and Lexa’s eyes linger for a moment longer before she leaves the hut.


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Continued in Chapter 2 – Innocence Lost