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.
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.
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?”
“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.”
“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?”
“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 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.