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Strange Traditions

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It began, innocently enough, when the Commander gifted her a dress.

Clarke was wandering around the Tower, as per usual, when it happened, the two warriors assigned to guard her exchanging amused looks whenever she stumbled into something so beautiful or unexpected it made her gasp out loud. 

She had been in Polis to represent her people for well over a month now, and yet grounder ingenuity still managed to surprise her. These weren’t the savages the council back in Arkadia had presumed them to be, and she was relieved that her people were coming around to this new point of view, however slowly. She and the rest of the Delinquents had done their best to make them understand, an uphill battle at the best of times. 

The updates she sent back at regular intervals helped, as did the tentative trade agreements that were being established. If all continued to be well, Heda had said during a meeting, Skaikru would be offered a place among the clans in about a year.

A whole year in Polis before she was allowed to return home. Clarke thought she would have minded — she had asked the Council to send another, after all, when they told her they’d chosen her to go — but soon discovered she did not. 

Today, her explorations had brought her to what could only be called a library. She’d read of them in the Ark’s databanks of course, but to see the books she’d grown up with printed on actual paper instead of being digitized had an emotional impact she did not expect. 

As far as she could tell, the enormous space had been obtained by knocking down several inner walls so that rows of orderly shelves could be used to partition the room instead. Light spilled inside from ample, southward-facing windows, a burnished glow that reminded Clarke of the sunlamps they’d used aboard the Ark. Except this was the real deal, actual sunlight, warm on the back of her hands and on her cheeks, despite the fact that snow had just started to melt. A dreamlike radiance. Drifty and bright. 

Strategically situated mirrors served to amplify it, directing it to a series of tables where men and women worked in near absolute silence. Some made handwritten copies of books that looked like they were one touch away from falling apart, while others drew maps of Polis and the surrounding areas. One table in particular was covered by the most detailed map Clarke had ever seen. This one wasn’t drawn on paper or vellum, but painted on a square of polished wood. Eyes wide with wonder, Clarke followed the course of the river that led from Polis back to the lands she was most familiar with — where she and the Delinquents had crash landed and weathered the harshness of their first nuclear winter on Earth. Now a stylized group of houses had been painted among the woods and rolling fields, with the name Arkadia inked next to it.

She had drifted back to the book-packed shelves and was leafing through a battered copy of Moby Dick , eyes glued to the yellowed pages, when the Commander found her. 

Clarke was so absorbed by the book she didn’t notice her entrance until one of the guards politely cleared his throat. The sound was enough to pull Clarke back from the faded script. She reverently put the book back on the shelf and turned around to see to what the guard was drawing her attention to. 

“Commander.” Ears burning, Clarke nodded in Lexa’s direction the way she’d seen her warriors do. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize—” 

Without letting her finish, Lexa thrust a bundle into her arms. She moved stiffly and her jaws were clenched as though she would rather be anywhere else. 

Clarke accepted the mysterious bundle with no little trepidation, and mainly because it didn’t seem like she had any other choice. As Lexa watched, green eyes unreadable, she undid the leather strips that held it shut. Inside, she discovered a sky blue dress, the material so sleek under her fingers it felt like handling water. And the bundle itself was a cloak woven of wool heavy enough to keep her warm and lined in soft silvery fur. 

“It’s— beautiful…” She trailed off, mouth suddenly dry. “Heda, I don’t know— I can’t—” 

“Oestara is only a few days away.” Lexa’s face was a blank canvas, but something flickered in her eyes. Satisfaction, Clarke thought, but whatever it was, it disappeared as soon as it had come. 

“Oestara?” she asked, clutching the dress to her chest. It was rare to receive gifts on the Ark — she’d been luckier than most, at least while her father had been alive — but everything was recycled or a hand-me-down. What Heda had just given her was the first thing Clarke could say had never belonged to somebody else before her. 

“The equinox,” Lexa explained patiently, “the day in which light and dark are balanced. The start of spring.” The shadow of a smile tugged at the corner of her lips. “There will be food and dancing around bonfires in the courtyard. I thought you would like to attend, but may lack appropriate clothing.” The stiffness had returned, and Heda wasn’t quite meeting her gaze anymore. 

“I would love to.” Clarke racked her brain for something else to say. A few things came to mind, but she couldn’t ask Heda if she’d dance with her. It would not be proper. 

She didn’t get a chance to say more, anyhow. The Commander nodded to her again and left the way she’d come, so quickly she was gone before Clarke could blink twice.

As though she was retreating .  

On the way back to the rooms that had been assigned to her, down the hall from Heda’s own apartments, Clarke grilled her guards about Oestara. 

“The tradition is as old as time,” Ella told her, more than happy to indulge in her curiosity. She was always willing to teach Clarke about her culture, and asked just as many questions about the stars as she had about the ground. “Not only Trikru’s. Every clan celebrates it, even though the name of it may change. It will be fun for you, I think.” Vargas, her other guard, signed his agreement enthusiastically. 

[ And...uh…does the... ] Her fingers moved slowly through the air and she felt all kinds of clumsy, but Vargas nodded encouragingly, waiting for her to go on. [ Does the Commander dance? She mentioned dancing.

At first she thought she’d signed the wrong word, because what the warriors exchanged was definitely a look , but eventually Vargas signed back. He was still smiling, but his grey eyes had clouded over. He looked... sad almost, and Clarke worried she’d said the wrong thing.  

[ She used to, but not since... ] Ella elbowed him and glowered, causing him to stop. 

“You will be late for the afternoon meeting with the Ambassadors, Clarke.” They had come to the door that led to her rooms and stopped. “We can talk about Oestara later.” 

More like never again, judging from the way Ella’s jaw was clenched, but Clarke nodded and hurried inside to leave Heda’s present and freshen up a little. 

While they were walking her back to the meeting, she wondered what Vargas had been about to say. Something he wasn’t allowed to share about the Commander, or more probably something an outsider like Clarke wasn’t meant to know. 

It hurt a little to be still viewed as a stranger despite her efforts, but she didn’t blame the grounders. She was doing her best to learn their ways, and they were more than willing to teach her, but earning their trust was quite another thing. 

Once the meeting began, she had no more room for speculation. They were finalizing one of several pending trade deals between Skaikru and the twelve Clans, this one concerning the making of glass. Grounders had a huge appetite for it, but what they could produce — all hand blown — fell far short of keeping up with the demand. This was why only about half of the homes in Polis had glass windows, and nearly none did in smaller villages. Most of it went toward building greenhouses, and with how unpredictable the weather was, the panels often needed replacing. 

The Council in Arkadia had offered a way to speed up production, but lacked the raw materials, which Sankru possessed in abundance. In theory, striking a deal should have been easy, but the sand people were proving to be… difficult about it. 

By the time an end to the discussion was called by the Commander, the sun had already set. While she wasn’t thrilled by the prospect of having to do it all over again on the morrow, Clarke was also grateful they’d adjourned for food and much needed rest. Grounders, it seemed, didn’t believe in chairs much, and Heda was the only one who got to sit during their meetings. Her feet had gone numb midway through an argument between Sankru and Delphi, and as she walked out with the others, eager for some hot stew and her bed, her legs ached in protest. 

Skaiprisa ?” When Alyra, the Sankru Ambassador called for her, Clarke nearly groaned. The woman was the source of the afternoon’s major headaches, and she’d rather ask Anya to beat her with a training sword around the yard (which she did on the regular, regardless) than spend another minute in her company. She scraped up the most polite smile she could manage and waited for Alyra to catch up to her. 

“Ambassador,” she began before the woman could say anything, “if this is about supplying us with materials for the glass, shouldn’t it wait until the meeting resumes in the morning? I’m sure the others will be keen to hear any proposal you have that can get us out of our... impasse.”

“Boggled mess, isn’t it?” Alyra’s smile could have meant anything. “But, no. I was just wondering if you would walk with me for a while?” 

“I…” Of course she couldn’t tell the woman she’d choose dinner over her company. “Certainly. You honor me.” 

“Nonsense. I believe you’d rather be back in your rooms right about now. You look exhausted.” Even so, she threaded their arms together and pulled Clarke almost bodily along. “I wanted to ask if you know about the holiday coming up? Oestara? Although we call it Sham-Al.”

“I was told there will be a celebration. Food, dancing, that kind of thing.” 

“Quite so.” They had come to a set of wide windows that overlooked the city. Night was falling quickly, the sky darkening from purple to jet-black. “Do you know I have a daughter about your age? She will come to Polis for the festival.” 

Clarke blinked, wrongfooted by the change of topic. She knew little of Alyra, except what she had observed of her during meetings and life inside the Tower. With other Ambassadors, allegiances were clear; but she, and by extension Sankru, sided against the Commander as often as they supported her. An opportunist, some would call her — she’d heard Edric, the Broadleaf representative use coarser descriptors — but Clarke just thought her smart. She was a fearsome warrior, too, her face scoured by war as well as the desert winds. 

“I didn’t know.” 

“Her name is Talia, and one day she will sit here in my place.” Alyra’s face softened momentarily, and her voice was full of pride. “She’s a good dancer. Perhaps, you’ll dance with her around the fires?” 

Was the woman hinting at something? There had been a weird emphasis on the way she had said dance… but surely it was just the intricacies of a language she was still in the midst of learning. 

“I don’t dance very well.” Heat crawled across her cheeks.

“Oh, everyone can be taught.” Alyra beamed, which was weird and also a little terrifying. “But I have taken up enough of your time, Skaiprisa .” Before Clarke could understand what was happening, she’d pressed something in her hand, and bowed deeply. “From my daughter, to you.”

It was a brooch, Clarke discovered once the Ambassador had left and her guards rejoined her. Beaten copper, and a smattering of precious-looking stones the same color of her eyes. 

Pocketing it, she asked herself whether she was supposed to give something in return, but pressing Ella for advice earned her a disgusted look.

Clarke didn’t understand that either.   

*************

The next day dawned cold and grey, as if spring wasn’t just around the corner. She’d learned how easily weather could change on the ground — something to do with the radiation fallout — and was extremely grateful for Lexa’s foresight. None of the clothes she’d brought from Arkadia were as warm as the cloak the Commander had given her, and she put it around her shoulders with relief, marveling at how soft it was. She used the brooch Alyra had left with her the night before to pin it in place. 

To compensate for such an early summons, Heda had breakfast ready for her and the other Ambassadors in the throne room. Trestle tables had been arranged along a wall, laden with food and drink. 

There was porridge, and bread still warm from the oven to be had with butter and different types of jams, everything far richer than the protein paste Clarke had been accustomed to back on the Ark. She was more interested in a cup of tea — despite the cloak and the two shirts she wore beneath, she was still a little chilled. 

Breaking fast together was a sign that the clans were at peace with one another, but also a way for each Ambassador to inquire where the others stood on the matters that were to be discussed before the actual meeting started. Temporary alliances were forged here, and just as easily broken. 

She was helping herself to some porridge when Lexa joined her at the table. 

“Commander,” Clarke nodded politely, “may I get you anything?” 

“I’ve already eaten, but thank you.” Lexa’s eyes lingered on the cloak, and she came as close to a real smile as Clarke had ever seen her. “I’m glad you like my gift.”

“Oh, yes. It’s very warm.” 

“Good. The weather is quite unpredictable, as I’m sure you have noticed.” Clarke shot a look outside, not at all surprised that it had started snowing. Just a little, with the flakes melting as soon as they touched a surface, but still.

“That brooch, it suits you well. I didn’t know your people also fashioned jewelry.” 

“Oh, we don’t.” Unless the Guard’s dog tags counted as such. “Ambassador Alyra gave it to me. She said it was from her daughter.” 

“Did she now.” The Commander’s expression hadn’t changed, but Clarke felt as though the room around them had grown colder. Darker. Lexa’s eyes were fixed on a point above her shoulder, and when she turned to follow her gaze, she discovered Alyra deep in conversation with Azgeda a few paces away. 

It was common knowledge that Heda and the Ambassador from the northernmost clan detested one another, but displaying her animosity so openly was unprecedented. Lexa must not be aware, but her eyes had precipitously narrowed and her teeth flashed on the edge of a visible sneer. 

Trying to be discreet, Clarke cleared her throat. The noise seemed to snap the Commander out of whatever murderous thoughts she’d fallen prey to.

“Let us begin!” She clapped her hands once, and strode to her seat without sparing Clarke another glance. It made sense — she’d witnessed her slip — but her heart gave a sickening lurch inside her chest nevertheless. A broody sort of atmosphere descended on the gathering as they picked up from where they’d left off the night before, everyone influenced by Lexa’s mood. The scant, greyish light seeping in from the balcony behind the throne didn’t help either. Half-glimpsed shades seemed to writhe in the Commander’s shadow whenever the wind howled harder, blowing the heavy curtains inward, and as the storm’s force increased, little piles of snow gathered on the dais. Sat in the middle of it all, flanked by sizzling torches and entrenched behind her warpaint, Lexa looked like a god about to pass judgement on them all.

The morning went by with them making snail-paced progress. Tempers progressively frayed, and when Azgeda and Broadleaf nearly came to blows — over how much finished glass panes each should receive from Skaikru — Heda called a pause for lunch. 

Clarke scuttled out of the throne room at a pace just barely more dignified than a full run. She wanted to get back to her rooms and have a meal in peace, possibly in front of a roaring fire, and make it there before anyone else could stop her to talk. Or to give her another gift. She had a strange feeling in her gut that they were just going to keep on coming. 

At this rate she’d have to write back to her mother and beg her to send things with which to reciprocate. She could draw and she could heal, but neither seemed like adequate repayments for the kindness of her hosts.

The door to her rooms came into view when she spotted Prince Roan and his younger sister, Ontari, arguing in a corner. They had arrived a few days prior, along with delegations from the other clans, and Clarke had wondered why. Now that she knew about Oestara, the reason appeared obvious.

“I told you, it’s stupid,” Ontari hissed to her brother, eyes blazing. The ritual scars on her face stood out when she was angry. Pretty, Clarke thought, the way a wolf can be, and thus best observed from afar.  

“And I’m telling you it’s not. You have to act for what you want, or someone—” Roan spotted her then, and tapped Ontari on the shoulder.

Skaiprisa !” He stepped toward her, effectively blocking her way. “I see they have released you from another endless meeting. Boring, I presume?”

Clarke could feel herself frowning even before she spoke.

“It was alright,” she replied, choosing her words with care. For all she knew the Azgeda Ambassador may have sent the Prince to sway her in their favor. Or intimidate her. Skaikru didn’t have the right to vote yet, but the matter of the glass directly concerned them. “And I have to return to it shortly…” she trailed off, hoping Roan would get the hint.

“This will take but one minute.” He didn’t care. Clearly. “You know my sister? Ontari?” 

“We’ve met.” 

Clarke had been helping Nyko in the infirmary as she liked to do when free of other duties, when Ontari had walked in, bloody from the training yard. They had exchanged three words in total, maybe, the older girl too flustered to do much in the way of talking. Later, Clarke was told she had been bested by somebody much younger, and had attributed her behavior to shame. 

Now, watching Roan nudge his sister forward, she thought that perhaps shyness was a fixture of Ontari’s character. 

“Hi...uhm…Clarke.” Ontari squared her shoulders, and took one of her hands, placing a strip of braided leather on her upturned palm. “For you.”

Oh, no

“What—?” 

“For your hair. You braid it in and— It is best if I show you.” 

Before she could react, Ontari had taken the leather strip back from her and moved behind her, fingers threading through her hair. 

“Like so.” 

She worked quickly, hands strong and nimble. A blush pinkened the tips of Clarke’s ears, spreading to the rest of her face in no time. Ontari’s knuckles had brushed against the back of her neck, and she was warm. Gentler than expected. 

Roan watched them both, looking amused. 

“There.” Taking a step back, Ontari eyed her handiwork. “It suits you.” 

“Ah. Uhm. Thank you.” Clarke was dying to see herself in a mirror, and her hands itched with the need to touch her hair. She didn’t. “But there’s nothing I can think of that I could give you in return.”    

“There is no need, unless you want to.” 

For some weird reason, Ontari was blushing, too.

“We’ve wasted enough of the Skaiprisa ’s time for now, sister.” Roan tugged Ontari’s sleeve, and she reluctantly inched back. “Maybe you can show her how to dance around the fires in three days’ time.” 

“Maybe.” The frown that had gathered on Ontari’s brow evaporated. “I’ll see you then, Clarke.” 

They were gone, and Clarke was moving toward her rooms when she caught a flicker of motion in the corner of her eye. A glimpse of red, she thought, but when she turned to investigate, the hall behind her was empty, except for her guards.

Vargas was staring at her as though he couldn’t quite believe what he’d just seen, and Ella refused to meet her eyes entirely, going as far as to turn the other way when Clarke tried to get her attention.

She was still attempting to get the guard to face her when she remembered the ever-growing pile of unreciprocated gifts. There was no other way but to write back to her mother and the Council in Arkadia. With the routes clearing of snow, anything they’d send would make it to Polis in less than a week’s time. 

Her mother. Clarke would write to her while she had a quick lunch. 

Her mother would know what to do.

Chapter Text

The weather teetered between winter and spring, seemingly unable to make up its mind. 

The sun would shine warm and bright when Clarke woke in the morning, only to be obscured by sullen, snow-burdened clouds by mid-afternoon. Nights still retained a bitter edge, and in the days that separated them from the festival, it snowed more than once. Not for long, and it never lingered, but it was enough to remind Clarke of her first winter on the ground. A hundred of them had been sent down, and many died during those first few months, starved and frostbitten. 

To her relief, a halt was called to meetings, so that everyone could lend a hand in preparing for the festival. Clarke spent the majority of her time between her rooms and the infirmary, moving from one to the other only at odd hours. It felt as though somebody was waiting to ambush her with another present the moment she poked her nose out in the halls. 

Mostly they managed.

Idris, one of the warriors from Lexa’s personal guard had offered her the pelt of a wolf and told her with a smile that she may have need for it even though spring was on their doorstep. He pressed it on her much the same way Heda had with the cloak and dress, stone faced and formal. 

She had wanted to refuse it, as she signed to Vargas after in a bit of a panic while Ella glared bloody murder at the warrior’s retreating back. 

[ But he didn’t give me the chance! ]

[ It’s fine. Just store it at the bottom of a chest and don’t think about it anymore.

She was positive he’d meant well with the advice, but she grew only more confused. 

It was a nice, soft pelt, too, and that night a terrible storm lashed out against the Tower, the temperature dropping so fast that a thin layer of ice formed in her water basin. 

Clarke ended up placing the pelt on her bed for extra warmth, and when her guards came in to get her the next morning, Ella was glaring daggers at her .

The closer they got to Oestara, the less her world made sense.

She’d entrusted the letter to her mother to the first Trikru merchant train headed for Arkadia, but she did not expect to receive an answer of any sort before the festival. The weather was being so wildly unpredictable, her estimate of a week’s time was probably inaccurate, and there was nobody else in Polis she could go to for advice. 

Well, that was not entirely true. 

There was Anya, who had taken it upon herself to train Clarke in the art of war, but she could not imagine going up to the surly woman for this sort of thing. 

It would more than likely earn her a lecture. 

She resigned herself to sneak around even more carefully and live as little as she dared outside of the hours she spent in Nyko’s company. To her absurd relief, he didn’t look like he was going to give her a gift anytime soon.

Two days were left before the festival, and she was busy tending to a woman with a fever that didn’t want to relinquish its grip when she and Ontari crossed paths again. Working with the sick had helped put the strangeness of their previous encounter out of Clarke’s mind — or at least relegate it to that part of her brain where she kept all intrusive thoughts, like a bunch of unwelcome houseguests that were allowed to stay, but were kindly asked not to be too much of a nuisance. 

People thought that winter was the busiest season for a healer, and they were not entirely wrong, but the handful of weeks that marked the passage into the warmer season were perhaps more treacherous. People who appeared to be on the path to a full recovery would fall prey to the vagaries of the weather, catch a sudden chill and worsen. It was the case with this woman, one of Heda’s handmaids. Clarke and Nyko had taken turns at her bedside since the previous night, doing all they could to keep the raging fever under control. The healer rested on a nearby cot, but before falling asleep he’d told Clarke to prepare herself. The woman would not survive another night unless the fever broke. 

Clarke was replacing the wet cloth on the woman’s brow when the fine hairs at the back of her neck stirred. A prickling feeling started up between her shoulder blades and she twisted around, startling when she spotted Ontari at the infirmary’s door. 

“Are you hurt?” She swallowed the again before it had a chance to tumble from her lips. It would be rude to remind Ontari why she’d ended up needing her brow stitched. 

“No.” Ontari took her cue from Clarke, and kept her voice to a barely audible whisper. She tiptoed toward Clarke, shooting slumbering Nyko a diffident look as she snuck by. When her shadow fell across the cot he occupied his snores grew louder, but he didn’t stir. 

“No, I was looking for you.” In the infirmary’s dim light, Ontari’s eyes were darker than Clarke knew them to be, and her stare blank. “I wanted to see whether you liked my gift.” Clarke had woven it in her hair that morning, a little color to combat the day’s gloom, and Ontari reached out to adjust it as she spoke. “I see that you do.” She smiled, and it made Clarke realize how unlike Nia she was. 

The scars lining her cheeks were meant to be intimidating, but when her lips curved up they just drew attention to her smile. Her eyes warmed too, making her look younger than she was. 

Her fingers were less than an inch away from tangling in Clarke’s hair when she jerked her head back, and saw Ontari’s expression fall.

“I—” 

“No, I’m sorry.” Clarke hastened to say. “It’s just…” 

Space on the Ark came at a premium, and while she envied the closeness that grounders enjoyed with one another, it was difficult for her to let anyone touch her. It had taken her weeks to make Vargas understand why she jumped whenever he put a hand on her shoulder, or touched her forearm to draw her attention to things she may find interesting, and he occasionally still did it. When Ontari had braided the leather in her hair the first time, she’d just been too shocked to react the usual way.  

She was interrupted before she could explain any of it.

“What is this?” Nyko spoke softly and still managed a growl. “This is a sickroom, not your private room.” He glared at Ontari, but Clarke was clearly included in the statement. “Well? What do you want?” 

“Nothing. I was leaving.” There was a distinctly hurt note in Ontari’s voice, but Nyko was unmoved. 

Once she’d left, Clarke felt compelled to defend her. 

“She was doing nothing wrong, Nyko. I think she just wanted to talk.”

“And I thought you had more sense. Now go fetch me some valerian from storage.” 

When Clarke returned and could bring herself to find out what expression he was wearing, she discovered that his gaze brimmed with disgust. 

*************

Clarke was certain she wasn’t sleeping anymore — she merely shut her eyes in poor pretence, tossing and turning until the pale light of the morning pressed against her eyelids. 

The day before the Festival she woke up earlier than usual. She’d never been an early riser, even in space. Back then, it was the station’s automated systems dictating her biorhythms. Aboard the Ark it was never truly dark. When the lights switched off for the night and the single porthole they had in her parents’ quarters dimmed to keep the glow of the stars out, there were control panels, LED lights flickering on and off with the fluctuations of oxygen in the stale recycled air. 

Clarke had mastered the art of sleeping with light glaring in her eyes, and adjusting to the absence of it — starless nights on the ground were black as tar — had been a challenge. 

The morning dawned bright, clear, and bloody early, and it was the touch of the warm sun gracing her cheek which woke Clarke from her dream. In it an army of Ontaris had chased her, each holding blue leather for her hair. 

The sky outside her window was nearly the same color. No trace remained of the bloated, violent storm clouds save for a dark smudge on the horizon, leagues away. Even that faded as she watched, pushed by a wind which, for the first time, really smelled of new things growing. 

It was warmer too, enough for Clarke to push both of her windows open and let the spring breeze in. Her eyes were drawn to Polis down below. Like her, the city was mostly still asleep, but in the market square nearest the Tower, colorful awnings were going up. Many peddlers had come to Polis in order to trade during the Festival, and the joyous sight gave her an idea. 

She would have to wait on what the Council could send to reciprocate most of the gifts she had received, but in Heda’s case, her own skills would suffice. Nyko had been more than happy to trade a square of vellum for more hours in the infirmary, and it was the perfect day to explore the streets around the Commander’s Tower and jot them down on paper. 

When she’d expressed her fascination with the maps in the library, Vargas had explained Lexa had her own private collection, and Clarke was determined to give her one she could add to it. 

The Commander must have cartography of the city already, but none penned by the hand of someone new to its winding streets and cobbled squares. 

Besides, Lexa had been the first one to give her a gift. It was only fair she’d be the first to receive one in return. The small flock of wrens that were flapping inside her stomach at the thought, she stubbornly ignored. 

It would also be good to head out of the Tower for a while. The dream was still fresh in her mind and she dreaded coming face to face with Ontari again. Or with someone else intent on heaping yet more unexplained gifts upon her. 

Her guards slouched outside her door as usual, but straightened the moment she emerged, swathed from head to toe in a dark, unadorned cloak she’d borrowed from Nyko. Clarke had pulled the hood up, hiding her blonde hair, so uncommon among Trikru, and a scarf was loosely wrapped around her neck. She could tug it up to further hide her face if need be.

The unusual attire earned her a snort from Vargas. 

[ Skaiprisa, if you’re cold I can fetch you another cloak. ] The corners of his mouth were twitching with amusement.

[ I’m sure your wit will keep me warm. ] Clarke deadpanned, close to sticking her tongue out. She refrained when she spotted Titus at the other end of the hall. The Fleimkepa had openly spoken against Skaikru eventually joining the Coalition, and he never missed an opportunity to let Clarke know just how much, by association, he disliked her. 

If that one decided to give her a present, it’d surely be poisoned.

[ Come on. ] She signed quick and low, choosing the minute gestures warriors employed when they didn’t want to draw attention. [ I have business in the city, and you two are going to help me. ]

They must have caught drift of her mood because, for once, they followed without arguing. 

It was still quite early, and while the halls were beginning to fill with people, Clarke left the Tower grounds mostly unnoticed. 

More importantly, unmolested.

Only the men guarding the winch controlled elevator recognized her, and it was mainly because of her own warriors. Vargas and Ella hadn't bothered with a disguise, but it may be for the best. Upon seeing her so bundled up, the guards' eyes had narrowed in suspicion, hands falling to the weapons at their waist. 

"So what are we doing exactly?" Ella asked as they weaved their way through market stalls, some time later. It was a haphazard collection. Some vendors sold salvaged items and junk. Others offered dried herbs for medicine, and seasonal products from the fields outside of town. An entire section was dedicated to craftsmen. Braided leather, saddles, homespun clothes found a place next to pottery and jewels. Market goers were still scarce, but as early morning ripened into the burnished gold of the midday sun, the crowds flowed in. 

"If there is something in particular you are looking for maybe we can point you in the right direction.” It was the largest amount of words Ella had spoken to her in days, but the fact didn’t immediately register. 

Clarke’s nose had filled with a spicy-sweet aroma, and it made her mouth water. Only partly aware of what she was doing, she drifted toward a nearby food seller. Breakfast seemed a long way away already. 

“Oh, I’m not looking to buy anything, really.” She shot the piping hot pastries on display a covetous look. “More for like a… vantage point.” Her stomach rumbled. 

“A… vantage point?” Ella eyed her in confusion. “What for?” 

Before Clarke could reply, Vargas had stepped up to the seller, pointing at different wares. Soon enough a number of the small shards of copper and iron that grounders used as currency switched hands, and when Vargas rejoined them, he was holding a number of different pastries. 

He offered one to Clarke, smiling broadly, and stuffed another into his mouth.

Ella, still eyeing Clarke in confusion, accepted one as well. 

The pastry was crumbly, and filled with bits of nuts and tart fruit Clarke didn’t have a name for. She’d grown somewhat more used to how flavorful grounder dishes were, but this took her entirely by surprise. The spices she’d smelled spread warmth on her tongue, leaving behind what could only be described as a prickly aftertaste. There was heat, and sweetness making her teeth ache. It was the most amazing thing Clarke had ever eaten. She finished the small treat in three bites, and licked her fingers clean. 

“So, this vantage point you were speaking of.” The sweetness of the pastry seemed to have robbed Ella of her sourness. “What do you want to achieve exactly?” 

“Uhm.” Clarke cast a hesitant look her way. She should just tell them what she had in mind. After all, she’d dragged them all of the way here thinking they could help. And it wasn’t like they needed to know everything. For example, Clarke didn’t have to tell them she ached to put her hands in Lexa’s hair, and her mouth right under the curve of her square jaw… She near sighed, and had to frown the unruly thoughts away.

Still, she was reluctant. What had been happening in the last few days had been confusing, and she dreaded making things worse with her ignorance. 

“Well,” she began, keeping her eyes firmly planted on the ground. “The Commander’s gift was generous and I’ve been trying to find a way to reciprocate. I don’t think anything that Skaikru could send would be of interest to her, but then I saw the maps and you, Vargas, told me she’s quite taken with them, so I thought I’d draw her a map of Polis. Or at least part of it.” Remembering he wouldn’t be able to read her lips with her staring at his feet, Clarke hastened to raise her head. Embarrassment colored her cheeks an almost violent shade of red. 

[ A present? ] He gulped down the last sweet treat in record time so he could sign quicker. [ For Heda? You want to give her a gift back? ]

[ Yes? ] His level of enthusiasm was welcome, if a bit surprising. [ I mean, unless you think I shouldn’t? ]

“It’s a wonderful idea!” Ella interjected. “There’s a hill not far from here where you’ll be able to see the area surrounding the Tower. Would that be enough?” 

“That would be perfect.” 

Vargas and Ella shot her astute looks all the way there. 

*************

The landscape spilled out under their feet. The hill was tall enough that Clarke’s gaze could reach well beyond the city wooden walls, to the forest where the majority of the Trikru lived. To the mountains beyond, hazed blue-grey with the distance. 

The city itself was a maze. A labyrinth of crumbling, shell-shocked ruins and dead-end streets. It folded in on itself until the layout the original planners had designed was indiscernible.  

It would be impossible to do what she had in mind in so short a time. She could sketch the lay of the land around her though, and hopefully Heda would like it all the same. 

Clarke chose a sunlit spot and sat herself down, pulling out the parchment Nyko had provided and her charcoals. Vargas and Ella sprawled on the grass nearby, dividing their attention between her and their surroundings, eyes never lingering in one place for too long. They likely never stopped being so alert, not even in their sleep.

She wondered whether the Commander of the Blood did sleep at all. Very little probably, and only if nobody was looking. 

As she worked, her hands transferring what her eyes saw to the vellum in quick, assured lines, Clarke could feel the season change around her. The air still conserved some of its chill, but in the sun it was warm enough she soon shrugged off her cloak. A breeze ruffled her unbound hair, and it smelled faintly of flowers. 

A little past noon, Vargas produced yet more food. A sharp yellow cheese and bread to go with it, and water from a flask. 

They had eaten, and Clarke was brushing breadcrumbs from the front of her tunic, when laughter shattered the quiet. 

[ The Nightbloods ] Vargas signed, even though she had already recognized Aden’s voice. [ Sometimes Heda takes them here to train. ]

Careful not to smudge what she had drawn, Clarke rolled up the parchment and put it back inside her leather satchel, along with the finer chalks she used for shading. She was mostly done, anyway, and could touch details up back at the Tower. 

She didn’t bother with the cloak. Much like the warriors watching over the elevator, Lexa would know who hid underneath it the moment she saw the warriors with her. 

The Commander finally appeared, preceded by a group of giggling children. They were never this loud inside of Polis’ walls, following Heda around like miniature avatars, imitating her posture the best they could. Even small Lydia, who was only four. 

But here, away from disapproving eyes, they were allowed to run free and be just children, at least for a little while.

Upon spotting her they stopped, and whispered excitedly to one another. Lexa saw her too, and her eyes turned curious. 

“I asked Ella and Vargas if there was a place where I could find a bit of quiet.” She replied to the unspoken question, hoping it would be enough. She didn’t like the idea of lying to Lexa. This wasn’t the complete truth, but it was not far from it either. More people had arrived in Polis for Oestara, and many were housed in the Tower. It felt crowded , if in a different way the Ark had been, and sometimes seeing that many people all together had Clarke’s hearth race in unpleasant ways. 

“Yes,” Lexa nodded her understanding. “The days that lead up to the festival can be overwhelming.” She paused, deciding whether to add more. “If there is...ah… anything you require before tomorrow night, feel free to ask one of my handmaidens, Clarke.” Her voice caught weirdly around the words. Almost as if she’d meant to say ‘ask me’ and corrected herself before it was too late.   

[ With respect, Heda, we should head back. ] Vargas saved her from having to find something to say. [ The sky people walk very slow. ]

Lexa laughed, a stifled hah that ricocheted around the clearing, then clapped a hand over her mouth, green eyes challenging Clarke to say anything. The tips of her ears burned red. 

(Maybe Commanders weren’t supposed to laugh.) 

[ Hey.

Clarke jabbed her fingers at Vargas, doing her best to imitate the glower Heda wore so often. Despite her efforts, he didn’t look remotely cowed, and she reluctantly conceded he was right. 

Her legs hadn’t been bothering her while she was sitting on the grass, but now her thighs were dying . She’d been on the ground for about a year, but her body had not yet adjusted. Heading back downhill would be so much fun. 

“I will see you tomorrow night, Clarke.” Lexa said, having regained her composure. 

“I look forward to it Heda. You could teach me how to dance.” The words flew from her mouth, unbidden. There was a harsh intake of breath — from Ella, maybe — but Clarke couldn’t be sure. She wasn’t looking, because as soon as she’d realized what she had said, she’d whirled away shamefaced. 

She started down the hill, fleeing the scene in everything but name, and entirely missed Heda’s stunned, hopeful expression.

Chapter Text

Clarke walked with Vargas and Ella to the festivities. It was no surprise, really. In the time she’d spent as liaison between the grounders and her people, they’d become like extra shadows. Friends too, she hoped. 

The two wore the greens and muted browns of Trikru, as did Nyko and the apprentices who joined them on the way, but all had adorned themselves with trinkets and facepaint. Clarke had been subjected to it too. Ella had painted delicate lines to frame her eyes, the gold flecked kohl cool on her skin. Upon seeing the end result in the small mirror the warrior held up for her afterward, Clarke had gasped, surprised. Her eyes appeared a darker, almost purplish blue — without bottom — and the sweeps of kohl across her eyelids glinted the same color of her hair. Like sunlight filtering through trees. 

The facepaint the others wore was also more colorful than the warpaint she was used to seeing on warriors. It glinted gold like hers in the firelight, or green, or blue. Instead of hardening the faces all around her, the carefully drawn lines gentled features, softened hard angles and square jaws. Something reserved for ceremonies then, rather than war.

As for the brooch holding her cloak closed at her throat, it came from Vargas. She’d been about to use the one Alyra gifted her, when he intervened and pinned the fabric in place with a clasp made of wood and bone.

[ This isn’t a present, is it? ] Clarke eyed him with suspicion.

Emotion flitted through his features so fast it was like a lightning strike, but eventually he replied.

[ Just a way to make you a little more Trikru for a night. ]

Even so, she still stood out. Others dressed in blue, the delegation from the Boat clan for example, but none of them wore the sky over their skin. 

Clarke stood out, and people took note. They whispered, and elbowed one another as she passed.

The weight of all those gazes accompanied her until they reached the bonfires, and she was glad when the apprentices she’d grown most friendly with insisted she should accompany them to get food. 

[ Do you have it? ] She signed to Vargas in a rush, before they tugged her away from the rest of the group. She had entrusted Lexa’s gift to him before they’d left the Tower.

[ Don’t worry. ] He waved her off with a smile. [ All will be well ]

Her stomach twisted into knots. 

The apprentices pulled her along as they chatted among themselves excitedly, and Clarke was content to simply listen to Nara prattle on about a pretty boy with soft brown eyes from the Red Rock clan. 

“He’s a craftsman,” she confided to Clarke as though she was sharing a big secret. “Like his father and his father’s father before him.” 

“Red Rock are stonemasons.” Ilda, the other apprentice, explained. Of course. 

“He’s so handsome.” Nara sighed, her face a little dreamy. “Do you think I should ask him to dance? Clarke?” She liked spending time with Nyko’s apprentices because they never treated her like someone other than a healer. Both older than Clarke was, they would soon leave Polis to take residence as healers in a village. Nara might end up in Red Rock territory, if hers was more than just a crush. 

“I don’t know,” she answered with a slight shrug. “I guess if you really like him, dancing is one way to get to know him better.” 

Nara giggled and blushed a vivid crimson.

They’d come to the cook fires, and at the sight of food, Clarke remembered she hadn’t had anything since breakfast. She’d been too nervous to. But the sight of so many foodstuffs made her ravenous. There were more kinds of meats than she could name, roasted vegetables and sweets. Many other things — each clan had put up stalls showcasing their delicacies. 

She’d relaxed just enough to consider carved slices of what looked like venison when someone cleared their throat behind her. 

It was Ontari.

“Hey.” 

“Hi.” 

Clarke threw a glance over her shoulder, hoping to be rescued, but Nara and Ilda had wandered off, attracted by a vendor who sold leather bracelets and other pieces of jewelry. 

There was something about Ontari putting her on edge. Clarke didn’t share the natural dislike for Azgeda many in Polis openly showed, but the girl was so strangely intense around her. She always stared at Clarke with dark, inscrutable eyes that never seemed to miss a thing. Even back in the infirmary, with blood running down her face from the ragged gash on her temple, she’d tracked her every movement without voicing her discomfort. Without a wince, although Clarke knew from first hand experience how bad the bite of suture needles stung. 

It set Clarke’s teeth to grinding.

“Here. I brought you something to try.” Clarke blinked, noting for the first time that Ontari was holding a skewer for her to grab. “It’s a treat from my clan,” the girl went on explaining. “Our fields don’t grow many things — our summers are too short — but we’ve figured out a way to conserve the little fruit we have. Try it,” Clarke took the treat from her uncertainly, and brought it up to her nose for a quick sniff. It smelled vaguely of honey and herbs she could not identify. “I promise it’s good.”

It was, and messy to eat too. By the time Clarke was done, her chin was sticky with the honey coated bits of fruit.

Ontari grinned at her, eyes alive in sheer delight, and Clarke couldn’t help but smile back, some of the tension that had burdened her in the past few days finally lifting.

“Will you dance with me later?” Ontari asked, and stepped a little closer. An area had been cleared for dancing near the bonfires, and a small group of people had gathered there. They carried flutes and drums, and a number of other instruments Clarke failed to recognize. 

“I… uh… I think you’d be disappointed.” They had music on the Ark, recordings from the old times, but little room or cause for dancing. “I’d probably trip over my own feet trying to keep up.” Especially in her dress.

“I’ll be happy to teach you, Clarke.” There was a strange timbre to her words, as though she was thinking of something else entirely. Despite the daily practice, Clarke still had trouble with the woods clan language, and the dialect Ontari spoke was different enough that, while she could still grasp the general gist of what Ontari said, the pitch inflection of some words was completely lost to her.

“I… uhm…” Clarke wet her lips, buying time so that she could find something smart to say. 

Her eyes roamed beyond Ontari's shoulder and came to rest on Lexa.

Every thought Clarke had ever had packed up and left her head. 

Contrary to everybody else, Heda was in armor. The set was different than the one Clarke had seen her wear when on campaign, a shirt of overlapping scales laquered onyx black. The sash affixed to her shoulder guard looked a sharper red by contrast and the polished pommel of a sword poked from behind her shoulder. She wore her usual warpaint and medallion, and the effect in the shifting shadows cast by the nearby fires was ethereal. 

Clarke was reminded of the first time she’d seen her emerge at the head of a column of warriors to surround the dropship. The sentries they’d posted around their camp — if they could be called that — swore there had been nobody among the trees. One blink was all it took for the warriors to emerge from among the trees, impalpable like smoke.  

As it had done so many moons prior, her heart accelerated. 

Lexa’s eyes met hers across the clearing, and even at a distance, Clarke could see appreciation flit across the Commander’s gaze. It was only a moment, then the vibrant green of Heda’s eyes turned to Ontari and darkened. 

Shadows stretched across Lexa’s face, and her expression was cold enough to send a chill rippling through the air. 

Clarke was suddenly compelled to melt back into the crowd, but she was rooted to the spot. So was Ontari next to her, but instead of avoiding the Commander’s frosty glare, she was frowning back at her, shoulders tense in quiet challenge. 

Whatever was going on between the two of them, Clarke wanted no part of it.

Taking advantage of the fact she seemed to have been forgotten, she slowly began to edge away, her progress abruptly ended after a few paces. 

She bumped into something, someone soft, and would have fallen to the ground if not for a strong hand shooting out to catch her.

“Anya!” 

The stone-faced warrior was the last person Clarke would have expected to enjoy a festival, but Anya was actually smiling at her. Just the barest curve to her lips, but it was enough to soften the sharp angle of her jaw. 

It made her look younger too.

When Clarke noticed Anya wasn’t wearing her customary leathers, she did a double take. The woman was dressed in a woolen tunic the color of winter clouds, and breeches a shade darker. Leather boots reached almost to her knees, highlighting well-toned calves and the lines of paint across her cheeks were not those typical of a warrior either. The kohl had a greenish cast to it, and Clarke’s mind went to the legends she’d read of on the Ark. Dryads and forest spirits, who appeared out of the greenery to aid lost travelers. 

“Uhm,” she swallowed hard, and her throat hurt as though she’d stuffed her mouth with sand. “Hi there.”

“I was looking for you,” Anya stated without much preamble, “I wanted to give you something.”

Oh not you too . Clarke managed to bite the words back at the last moment. She didn’t get a chance to say anything at all, because Anya guided her hands around a sizable bundle.

“Open it,” the warrior urged, uncharacteristic smile still in place. “I do hope you will like it.”

Clarke watched herself undo the strings that kept the bundle shut as though her hands belonged to someone else entirely. She was aware of Ontari staring, and worse still that Lexa was watching as well. She’d made no move to get closer, but there was a weight to her gaze which Clarke was unable to ignore.

Then, the cloth hiding Anya’s gift fell away and she forgot everything else. She held pages and pages of creamy paper, loosely collected within a leather binder. There was a set of charcoals too, and sticks of chalk in different shades. 

“I…” If sky and ground had one thing in common, it was how many resources came at a premium. She’d been shown by the people who maintained the library in Polis how old scraps of paper were reduced to mulch to be reused. On the Ark it had been the same. Once, when she was about seven, Clarke had gotten her hands on an unused notebook someone had forgotten buried in storage, and when her mother had discovered she’d used it up for drawing, she’d kept Clarke from seeing her friends for a week. Without thinking, she threw her arms around Anya’s neck, hugging her tight.

“Thank you.” The words were hoarse, scratching her throat on the way up. Pressed against Anya’s lean shoulder, just like her cheek. Clarke hoped the warrior wouldn’t detect the strain that unshed tears were putting on her voice.

Anya’s arms rose to hold her a bit awkwardly, like she was unused to such displays. It wouldn’t surprise Clarke in the slightest; she never would have though the general liked her well enough to gift her something. Heart flip-flopping in her chest, she did her best not to think of the ever growing list of people she owed a present to. 

She’d barely had the time to pull back that Lexa appeared at her elbow as though out of thin air. 

“I’d like to have a word with you, Clarke.” The Commander took the paper and colors from her, handing them back to Anya. “Now, please.”

The lilt in her tone made it clear it was an order. 

Lexa started through the crowds without waiting for Clarke to reply, and her only choice was to follow in her wake. Not that it was hard; sensing what mood Heda was in, people parted before her, creating a bubble of space that moved with her.

“Lexa—!” Clarke clamped her teeth around the name a split second after it had tumbled from her lips. She’d never called her that . It had felt way too personal. Improper. The name felt lovely on Clarke’s tongue, but she fought down the urge to say it again, and called. “Commander, what’s happening? Did I—?” 

She couldn’t finish. Had she done something wrong? Infringed on some tradition without knowing? She worried that she had, and that Heda was taking her away from the gathering as a small courtesy, before a proper dressing down. 

They were just past the last of the fires, when Lexa stopped, turning on her heel to face her. 

“I am sorry to have dragged you off like that, Clarke, but I need to know who you will choose.” 

She sounded so distressed it took Clarke a moment to really understand her words. 

When she did, she could not make any sense of them. 

“Choose?” The moon was little more than a sliver, but gave off just enough light to see by. Lexa appeared drawn, almost gaunt, and much like she’d done when she’d given her the dress, she wasn’t quite meeting Clarke’s eyes.

“Yes.” Lexa cleared her throat. “Which of us will be allowed to court you.” 

The more Heda spoke, the less she made sense. Clarke wondered whether she’d had too much to drink. Ontari had interrupted her before she could try any of the food and drinks the stalls had for sale, but she’d had their ale before, and it was strong enough to make warriors twice her size fall on their face after one too many tankards. 

“Court...me?” 

“Yes!” A touch of exasperation entered Lexa’s voice. “You’ve accepted gifts from several people, and everyone is desperate to know who you will choose!” Clarke had a feeling the desperate part was a tad self-referential. 

“I… Oh, my God .” Clarke was grateful there was a tree nearby that she could lean against. “Oh. My. God.” Putting her face in her hands, she groaned. Her cheeks felt so hot against the pads of her fingers, she must be glowing with her shame. “Oh, God, everyone’s going to think I’m a slut .” She was wearing the dress Lexa picked for her. Had worn the brooch from Alyra’s daughter. And the leather from Ontari. Hugged Anya for her gift and actually slept with the wolf pelt Idris had given her. 

“A...what?” Lexa inclined her head confused, and Clarke realized she’d switched to english. She didn’t know if Trigedasleng had an equivalent. She explained herself more fully, hoping that the hastily-cobbled sentences would get the point across.

“No!” Lexa shook her head, looking absolutely baffled. “Why would we…? No, Clarke. If anything people think you’re being wise to choose your...uh,” she used a word Clarke had never heard before, but that she supposed could translate as ‘ prospect ’. “But you are still confused. Are your traditions so different?” 

“They’re— Yes.” Clarke said weakly. “A present isn’t an indication for that kind of— uh— interest among my people.”

“Oh.” Lexa’s shoulders slumped. “Well, I guess that answers my question. Forget I said anything, Clarke and feel free to go back to the bonfires.”

She was offering an opening. Clarke could slip away, back to the light and the warmth of the fires. She was suddenly reluctant. 

Clarke had long since resigned herself to the fact that Lexa would never like her back the way she liked her, but what the older girl had just said to her more than hinted at the contrary.

“Uhm. Well, I— I had a present for you.” Lexa’s eyes rounded so quickly it almost made her laugh. “And I wasn’t trying to imply anything by it, because I never thought you would— but I—”

“You what?” The wind picked up, near scattering her question. Clarke barely heard her. She had drifted closer, eyes glittering a green so dark it could pass for black amid the shadows. 

“I never thought you’d be interested in me the way I’m interested in you.” Telling her the truth was easier than she’d thought. Her own brazen admission left Clarke a little breathless. A bit lightheaded.

Not as much as Lexa’s lips crushing to her own did a moment later. 

Clarke was backed into the tree more fully, Lexa’s lean body pressed into hers, pinning her to the rough bark. She was so shocked by the turn of events she could do nothing more than let herself be kissed, and only when she felt the warm tip of Lexa’s tongue swipe insistent at her lower lip, did Clarke remember she was supposed to kiss Lexa back. To let her into her mouth.

Brain finally kickstarted into thinking she reached up, waving her fingers in Lexa’s tangle of braids and pulling her even closer. She allowed herself to feel the wiry strength of Lexa’s body and breathed her in, gasping when a thigh pushed firmly between hers.

“Here?” She asked, drunk on Lexa’s light scent of sweat and wood smoke. Intoxicated by the way her calloused hands were sliding down her sides, to the slit that opened up one side of her dress. When Lexa’s pulled the sheer fabric aside, Clarke gasped a little. The fur-lined cloak had kept her warm, but now her bare thigh was partly exposed to the cold air, and her skin pebbled with goosebumps. 

“Here,” Lexa asserted, rubbing some warmth into her flesh. Her fingers edged closer to the join of Clarke’s thighs with each pass, making her moan a little. 

“What if someone finds us?”

“Good,” Lexa practically growled the word against her neck. “So they’ll know who you belong to.”

Clarke had no idea where the shy, tongue-tied girl had gone, but it was not the one whose hands were steadily making progress underneath her dress. Lexa’s words should have incensed her — she didn’t belong to anybody! — but Heda’s ferocity caused arousal to overflow her underthings instead. When her questing fingers brushed Clarke’s sex through panties rendered all but nonexistent by the amount of slick, Clarke’s entire body jolted. Her hips rolled forward and they both sighed.  

“I’ve wanted to do this for a long time.” Lexa confessed against her throat, suckling at her pulse until the skin there was raised and quickly bruising. 

“Then why didn’t you? Why didn’t you tell me?” Clarke’s remark ended in a whimper. Lexa’s fingers had found her clit, and she stroked it through her panties until it stood stiff and throbbing against her thumb. “I can take those off.” Clarke muttered, frustration edging her tone. What Lexa was doing would feel so much better once the barrier between them was gone. 

“No need.” Her panties were pushed to the side, Lexa’s fingers deftly sliding underneath. “There.” 

“Fuck.” Without Lexa’s weight holding her upright, Clarke would have tumbled to the ground. She could feel her touch everywhere and where the Commander’s fingers actually brushed, it was like a trail of fire. 

The night around them came alive with messy, increasingly loud noises, but Clarke couldn’t find it in herself to be concerned about people overhearing. Not anymore.

“It’s just not done among the clans.” Lexa answered in the end. Her thumb was pressing on Clarke’s clit, now hard, now feather-like. It drove her mad. “We show our intentions with gifts, and the recipient’s reactions tell us whether we have a chance or not. These things aren’t… discussed.” 

Clarke could tell she was having difficulty doing so now, and it had nothing to do with the hand working sweet and steady between her trembling thighs. Everything to do with the heat coming off of Lexa’s face, nestled into her neck. 

There was a pressure building in her abdomen different than anything she’d felt before. During her first winter on the ground, Clarke had bunked with Finn. What had been a necessity to fend off the cold, soon turned to something different. She’d enjoyed it while it lasted, and he’d been gentle, but somehow always more concerned about his own pleasure than hers.

With Lexa it was different. 

She was completely focused on Clarke, and how she bucked against her when her fingers pressed just a little harder, or teased around her opening.

“Lexa?” Clarke gently scraped short nails along her cheek to capture her attention.

“Yes Clarke?” 

“Take me to bed, please.” 

Lexa’s smile cut through the darkness, blinding white.

*************

The air in Lexa’s bedroom was thick with heat from a lit brazier. Almost stifling. Her bed was too big for one person, let alone two, but there was no risk of Clarke losing herself among the furs. 

Lexa didn’t allow it.

She stood naked at the foot of the bed, skin shimmering with sweat. Her eyes roved Clarke’s body without reserve, and her cheeks were flushed by lust as well as heat. The Tower’s halls had been empty, everyone gone to the Oestara’s bonfires, and Lexa had seized upon the opportunity, starting to undress her long before they reached her rooms. 

Some of the clothes they’d worn may still be scattered outside. 

Clarke used the small moment of respite to admire her in turn. Lexa was all lean muscle and smooth skin, except where she bore the traces of her calling. Some of her scars were jagged and raised, others as thin as a hair and nigh invisible. Clarke ached to map them all with hands and tongue, but she wasn’t given the chance to.

When she tried, Lexa simply crawled on top of her, kissing her back into the mattress and grinding down until a mess of slick had pooled between their bodies. 

Clarke had scarcely come down from the near climax at the bonfires, and it only took a few expert strokes of Lexa’s hand to feed her inner fires. 

Eventually, just when she was about ready to beg, Lexa settled down between her thighs, and softly nuzzled into her belly.

“Are you…? Can I…?” 

“Please.” Clarke nodded so hard her head could have fallen off. “Please Lexa I need—” 

“I want to taste you.” 

The assertion was enough to make her clench.

Shifting forward, Lexa dove between her legs, one shoulder gently pressed against the inside of her thigh till Clarke got the message and moved her legs further apart. 

Her tongue swept Clarke’s folds deliberately slow. She explored her outside labia first, then held her open with two fingers so that she could reach a little deeper, stroke along her thudding clit. Flesh that was already over sensitive responded, and Clarke felt herself gush again — this time directly into Lexa’s waiting mouth. 

Her lips sealed around the nub of tenting flesh, and Clarke’s hips bucked, so violently Lexa was almost thrown off of the bed. She had to pause and sling an arm over her hip bones, fingers digging into the tender flesh of her side to hold her down. Clarke did her best to will her body still, but the moment Lexa’s mouth was on her sex again, working faster at her clit, her hips jumped again — out of control. It became some sort of test. Lexa pinned her down with every ounce of strength she had, and Clarke’s body tried to wriggle free, the stimulation not enough and way too much to bear at the same time.   

The pressure she had felt inside her belly was back with a vengeance, but now it forked along her spine with each pass of Lexa’s tongue. Liquid lightning. 

Clarke was electric with it. 

At the same time her cunt started to clench, one of her hands fell to Lexa’s hair for purchase, gripping hard. 

Release smacked into her so hard to leave her winded, to make her fly over the edge without any clue whether she would stick the landing.

Lexa was there to see to that, cradling her to her chest while Clarke shook and cried out. And cried herself dry. It had been years since someone had touched her with the reverence Lexa was displaying now, hand soothing through her sweat-matted hair while she whispered sweet nothings in her ear. Part of Clarke was dying to know what Lexa said, the growly sounds she made close enough to english to be painfully familiar, but that would come later on. After all their needs had been seen to — perhaps Lexa would teach her the words she was too self-conscious to ask Vargas about.

Hours went by (and several more climaxes), the new day dawning while they were still awake and lazing in one another’s arms.

At her request, Lexa rested on her stomach, Clarke straddling her ass as she examined the ink spanning her toned back.

She couldn’t help but grind down a little now and then.

"You're insatiable." 

With a low growl, Lexa flipped her over, hand cupping at her sex. "I like it."

Spreading Clarke open, she entered her with ease. She fucked Clarke with three fingers, long, deep thrusts that hooked and dragged against her walls. 

There were many blooming marks on Clarke’s chest, and Lexa lowered her head, intent on adding more. 

"I love it," she repeated, sucking a puckered nipple in her mouth. She let it go with a wet pop, eyes flicking up to meet Clarke's. "I love the way you dance."

Clarke thought back at how many people had talked to her of dancing that past week and groaned.

*************

Anya was, of course, to be found in the training yard. 

Clarke paused only long enough to grab a training stave from one of the weapon racks before storming up to Lexa’s general with fire in her eyes.

“You knew!” She thrust, aiming at Anya’s stomach, but her move was easily deflected, the warrior’s quarterstaff swinging back around to rap her knuckles.

“You did it on purpose!” 

Determined to strike her at least once, Clarke closed in again. This time Anya tripped her, and she ended up sprawled on the ground, mouth full of mud. 

“You should thank me,” Anya leaned onto her staff, smirking down at her. “Lexa would have never made her move otherwise.”

Clarke picked herself up slowly. She could see Anya’s point after a fashion and the fire that had pushed her out of bed so early started to die down. 

Lexa could be surprisingly shy. Clarke already understood as much. She hadn’t been the night before, when she’d claimed Clarke mere meters away from the light of the bonfires, despite the danger of discovery. But she was in the grey non-light of early morning, when Clarke extricated herself from the tangle of naked limbs and blankets as gently as she could, trying not to wake her. She failed, and Lexa watched her get dressed with the closest thing to a vulnerable expression Clarke had ever seen on her. 

“I will be back.” Clarke cleared her throat. “I’d like to come back tonight. If you’re okay with it, that is.”

Lexa’d rubbed the faint crease her pillow had left across her cheek and nodded without speaking. She didn’t have to. Her eyes told Clarke all there was to know.

“Can I ask you something?” She said now as Anya clasped her outstretched hand to help her up. “If Lexa hadn’t reacted, what then?”

“Then I would have led you beyond the fires.” 

Fuck, but the woman loved to watch her squirm. 

Clarke threw the stave at her, and as it thwapped Anya squarely in the chest she grinned.

“Just so we’re clear, I’m keeping your present.”

Anya made a show of rolling her eyes, but she was clearly amused.

“Of course you will.”