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Something Suspiciously Close to Hope

Chapter Text

When the social worker’s car pulls to a stop outside of a small blue house, Eleven’s heart picks up a little bit. 

She runs her hand over her hair, still short and bristly from the buzz cut her last foster father gave her when he wrongly thought she caught lice from someone at school. The hand-me-down dress she’s wearing is dingy and stiff, and no matter how much she tugs on it the tag scratches the back of her neck.

The social worker opens the car door and Eleven climbs out, hauling the backpack filled with her meager belongings along with her. They’re halfway up the front walkway when the front door opens and a blonde woman steps onto the front porch. She’s pretty and has a bright, nervous smile, but Eleven knows better than to get her hopes up. 

The walkie-talkie that she’s clutched in her hands since she left the group home is getting clammy in her grip, so she fiddles with it, expecting to be ignored while her new foster parent and the social worker go over paperwork and finances -- that’s what they usually care about, how much they’ll get to clothe and feed her, how much they’ll ultimately get to keep for themselves. 

She wonders if Mike -- her best friend back at the group home -- is still holding the walkie-talkie’s twin, waiting for her to call, knowing full well the reception doesn’t reach this far.

But she’s pulled from her thoughts when the blonde woman ignores the social worker completely. Instead she sits back on her haunches until she’s eye-level with Eleven, and stretches out her hand. 

“It’s nice to meet you, Eleven,” she says. “I’m Clarke.”

***

After all her years in foster care Eleven has learned not to get her hopes up, but Clarke is making that task very difficult.

She speaks to her like an adult -- not a little kid -- and as soon as the social worker leaves she opens the freezer to show Eleven the boxes of Eggos she picked up at the grocery store, which means she must have actually read her file about her likes and dislikes. That’s a first. 

“So, kiddo, you hungry?”

Eleven presses her lips together, fighting back a smile. “Yes,” she says. 

***

Clarke talks while Eleven eats, and she doesn’t seem to mind that her mouth is too full of waffles to answer. She tells her that her wife, Lexa, is at work but she’s very excited to meet her. 

Eleven’s ears perk up when Clarke mentions that Lexa grew up in foster care too, and when Clarke winks before she steals a piece of waffle from her plate, Eleven doesn’t even mind. (Another first.)

“I like your hair,” Clarke says, topping up her glass of milk. 

Eleven swallows the last bite of Eggos and trains her eyes on the table. “I don’t.”

“Oh, okay. How would you like it to look?”

“Long,” Eleven says, eyeing Clarke’s flowing hair enviously. “Pretty.”

“When I was in college I got my hair cut, like, really short on a dare,” Clarke says, rolling her eyes. “It was horrible, I literally cried for a week -- even though Lexa swore up and down I still looked pretty.” Clarke pauses for a moment, gazing out the window with a small smile on her lips. “Luckily my mom told me about this shampoo that helps your hair grow faster -- I’ll pick you up a bottle tomorrow, how does that sound?”

Eleven nods, her chest beginning to fill with something suspiciously close to hope. “Good,” she says. “That sounds good.” 

***

Lexa, Eleven finds out, is everything Clarke isn’t. She’s tall and lean and angular. She’s quiet and reserved and, in some ways, reminds Eleven of herself. 

Mike would like her, she thinks. She clutches the walkie-talkie even tighter. 

“What’s that?” Lexa asks after Clarke has introduced them. “In your hand.” On instinct, Eleven puts her hands behind her, shrinking back a little. Lexa smiles and sits in a chair, putting some more space between them. “It’s okay,” she says. “I’m just curious. You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”

“My friend has the other one.” Eleven exhales and relaxes a little. “Mike.”

Just saying his name makes her miss him and Eleven bites her lip, willing the tears out of her eyes. 

“Do you want to talk to him?” Clarke asks. “We can give you some privacy if you want. Anytime -- just let us know whenever you want to be alone.”

Eleven nods, and then shakes her head. A hot tear escapes and slides down her cheek. “He won’t hear me. It’s too far.”

She still tries to reach him that night, before she falls asleep in a room that’s all pinks and blues -- her favorite colors -- with the walkie-talkie in her hand.

***

Eleven doesn’t think she knew what love was until she met Clarke and Lexa. 

Before she thought love was what she’d seen in the movies -- all bold declarations and sappy vows. She knows that, in real life, love is anything but -- love can be violent and harsh, hard hands and even harder words.

But for Clarke and Lexa, it’s so soft. 

In this tiny blue house, with chipping paint and peeling wallpaper, love comes in the form of lingering touches and bright laughter and coffee in bed. There’s love in Lexa’s eyes when Clarke calls out the right answer during ‘Jeopardy!’ and there’s love in each line of Clarke’s drawings, which always seem to feature Lexa’s hands or ears or eyes. 

(She’s doing a study in the human form, she says, but Eleven thinks it’s more like a study in Lexa.)

And, if Eleven were the type to get her hopes up, she’d find love in the flowery bottles of shampoo Clarke buys for her and the new, cotton dresses Lexa lets her choose from the store and the never-ending supply of Eggos in the freezer. 

But she’s not the type. Definitely not.

***

“Hey El,” Lexa says one day when she comes home from work. Her hands are behind her back, which isn’t all that unusual, but something about her smirk makes Eleven wary. 

Eleven had been living with Clarke and Lexa for six days when Lexa asked if she could shorten her name to “El” and, though only Mike had ever called her that, Eleven found herself smiling and nodding yes. 

“Hi Lexa,” she replies. 

Eleven twists the colored pencil in her hands and watches Lexa with wide eyes as she sits across from her at the table and places a gift-wrapped box in the center. 

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt,” Lexa says, looking at her drawing. “You’re doing really well.”

“She has a good teacher.” Clarke walks into the room and squeezes Eleven’s shoulder. Based on the way Lexa blushes, Clarke’s giving her her most dazzling smile. “Well, that and she’s really talented.”

Eleven feels her ears heat up and she and Lexa share an embarrassed look, because they both grew up rough and yet Clarke can disarm them both in three seconds flat. 

“What’s in the box?” Eleven asks.

“It’s for you, kiddo.”

“Guess you’ll have to open it to find out.”

Eleven’s pulse is racing as she places the box in her lap and carefully begins unwrapping it. She takes care not to tear the shiny, pink paper -- it’s beautiful, and she’d like to save it. She glances up to see if Clarke or Lexa want her to go faster, but they’re just watching her -- Clarke now settled in Lexa’s lap -- with excited smiles.

Once Eleven neatly tears the tape away, she folds the paper into quarters and places it on the table before she finally allows herself to look at the box in her lap.

It’s a walkie-talkie. Like hers, but much bigger and heavier.

“We bought another one, too,” Clarke says. “Mike has it.”

Lexa nods. “And the signal will reach.”

Tears are spilling down Eleven’s face before she can stop them, and the next thing she knows she’s launching herself into Clarke and Lexa’s arms. 

They pull her into their laps and hold her, crying with her, and for the first time in her life Eleven decides that here, with them, she can hope all she wants. 

Chapter Text

You’re not good at trusting people. You know that.

Well, that’s what the therapist told you, anyway, back during your mandated weekly sessions in the group home. He said it’s not uncommon for foster children, like yourself, to have difficulty with trust, and went on to wax poetic about needing to ‘open your heart’ and ‘learn to rely on other people.’

You sort of shrugged and nodded -- you never really talked during those sessions -- itching for your half-hour to be up so you could go find Mike in the common room. What your therapist didn’t know is that you actually trusted Mike. 

Back when you met him -- years ago now -- he gave you his hoodie so you could change out of the emergency DCF t-shirt you were wearing when you first stepped foot in the group home, and you’ll never forget that rare act of kindness. Over the years you’d both get placed in foster homes, but when you’d inevitably wind up back in group home -- you for being too quiet, him for sounding off at the mouth -- neither of you minded, much. 

You made your own kind of family, and you lived by one rule: friends don’t lie. 

***

You’ve been living at Clarke and Lexa’s house for a few weeks, now, and they’re great. Like, really really unbelievably great. And they’ve given you so much more than a spare sweatshirt -- you practically have a whole new wardrobe, and you can barely remember what hunger pangs feel like -- but it’s still hard to completely let your guard down. 

They seem to get it. Lexa, especially -- she gives you your space, but you know you can always go to her, if you need to. 

The only trouble is, you don’t want to need to.

It hasn’t been an issue until now, on your third consecutive day of seeing an ant walk across the hardwood floor of your bedroom and disappear under your bed. You don’t have to look to know where it’s going -- you know it’s heading for the shoe box (Clarke brought you to the store during your first week here and you chose a pair of yellow Keds, with sequins on the sides, and they’re your most prized possession, next to your walkie-talkie) where you keep bits of food. 

You’re kind of mad at yourself about it because, like you mentioned, you never go hungry anymore, but this must be one of those habits that die hard. Mike is the one who taught you to squirrel food away, and it really came in handy at your third foster home, where there was a heavy padlock on the pantry door. 

But Clarke and Lexa aren’t like that -- they’re the opposite of that -- and so you can’t help but feel guilty for hiding a shoe box of crackers and a half-eaten cereal bar in your room. So the fourth time you see an ant scurrying across your bedroom floor, you just ignore it. 

***

A few days later Clarke and Lexa are waiting for you in the kitchen when you come home from school, and you’re instantly nervous -- because Lexa usually doesn’t get home until it’s nearly dinner time -- and then you see the shoe box on the table. 

You feel like either bursting into tears or running out the door, but Lexa catches your eye and smiles at you, and you relax a little bit. 

“Hey Eleven,” Clarke says, and you’re relived that her voice sounds cheerful. “Take a load off and join us.”

She stands and goes to the refrigerator to pour you a glass of strawberry lemonade -- something that’s become a bit of an after school routine for the two of you. Lexa pulls out the chair next to her at the kitchen table and you sit on the edge of the seat, in case you decide to bolt after all. 

Clarke puts the glass of lemonade in front of you but you don’t take it, because you don’t think you can swallow around the lump in your throat. You glance at the shoe box again and Clarke must notice, because she decides to put you out of your misery. 

“So, I was vacuuming the upstairs hallway when I saw a little train of ants marching one-by-one right under your bedroom door,” she says, smiling at you, and just the thought of ants marching makes you almost smile back. “And, like we told you when you first came to live with us, we respect your privacy and won’t go into your room without your permission unless it’s an emergency, but, well we had a pretty bad ant infestation last year, so I went in see where the ants were heading.”

She stops there, and that’s one of the things you really like about Clarke -- she knows you’re smart, knows you don’t need her to finish the story because you figured it out on your own. 

“There were a lot of ants in the shoe box,” Lexa says, placing her hand on the table halfway between you. “We had to throw your food away. I’m sorry.”

You blink slowly a few times. Hot tears are gathering in your eyes because you’re embarrassed and mad at yourself, because, somehow, they’re apologizing to you, the sneak who brought insects into their house.

Clarke must notice that you're feeling pretty miserable because an instant later she’s on her feet and clasping her hands together. 

“But, we have a solution!” She walks to the counter and picks something up, which she then sets down before you. It’s a tupperware box -- the kind with snaps on the lid -- and it’s filled with single-serving bags of cookies and crackers and gummies -- all your favorite snacks. “It’s big enough so that the shoe box can fit inside it, if you like keeping your snacks in there. Up to you.”

You reach out to touch the plastic, open and close one of the snaps a couple times, because it doesn’t seem real that people could possibly be this kind.

“Oh, and...” Lexa stands and opens one of the cabinets next to the fridge, gesturing to the bottom shelf, which is completely empty. “This is all yours -- if there’s any food you don’t want to keep in your room but you don’t want anyone else to eat, just put it here. We promise we won’t touch it. Okay?”

You nod and smile, though your bottom lip is trembling a little. And it doesn’t happen a lot but, sometimes, you wish words came more easily to you. The therapist called your silence a ‘defense mechanism’ and you’re not really sure what that means, but you think it comes from the same bit of you that likes to hold on to food. 

And Clarke and Lexa just made a promise to you and you want to repay it in kind, but the words are stuck under the lump in your throat. So you stand from your chair, grab the tupperware container, and walk to slide it inside your new shelf. 

You shut the cabinet door quietly and take a minute before you turn back around. When you do you see Lexa standing behind Clarke’s chair with her hand on her shoulder, and they’re both looking at you like... like you’re special

It feels like a lot, so you glance down at your shoes and, without fail, the yellow sequins make you smile. Then Clarke shrieks, and you look up to see Lexa tickling her neck with two fingers. 

“Lex!” Clarke tries to swat her away as she bursts into a peal of giggles. “Get off!”

Lexa sighs, but she stops right away. “Sorry, I thought there was an ant on you,” she says, winking at you. “Actually wait -- El, I think I see one on you too.”

She starts toward you, her hand outstretched with wiggling fingers, and though she gives you plenty of time to get away you stay put as long as you can. Lexa’s about to pounce when you yelp, an unfamiliar laugh escaping from your throat, and you dart around her to hide behind Clarke’s chair.

“Wait a minute...” Clarke says, and you widen your eyes as big as you can, smiling with teeth. “I think I see one too!” 

Clarke’s fingers tickle your ribs and you practically squeal as you twist away. Then the three of you are just standing there -- beaming at each other -- and it’s what Mike would call a ‘pinch me moment.’ 

All you can do is take a step forward and wrap your arms around Clarke’s shoulders, burying your face into her neck. You feel her arms wrap around you a second later and then Lexa’s hand is on your shoulder, and it's not the same kind of family that you and Mike built, but you feel your guard start to come down just the same. 

 

Chapter Text

In your new town, where Clarke and Lexa live, school is actually... okay. 

Which is a glowing recommendation, coming from you. You’ve been to a number of schools in your time -- almost too many to remember -- and since you went into ‘the system’ you never really stayed in any town long enough to fit in. 

It doesn’t help that other kids are loud and expressive and don’t know what to make of your quiet watchfulness. Sure, you’ve made friends here and there -- Annie in Glendale and Margot in Wakefield -- but when you started bouncing from foster home to foster home so rapidly you just kind of... gave up on the whole thing.

(Besides, you know you’ll always come back to Mike, and he’s the only one who really gets you, anyway.)

But, for whatever reason, this town is different. You wonder if it’s because you’re different. Because Clarke and Lexa are different, so, so different from any foster parents you’ve had before (in that they actually care).

Here, your classmates smile at you and trade snacks with you at lunch and they’ve seem to come under the belief that your really short haircut is a fashion statement and, as a result, they think you’re kinda cool and rebellious. 

So, yeah, school is pretty okay. 

That’s why it feels like a major betrayal when, sometime in the beginning of your second month at Polis Middle School, Lily Myers tells your teacher that she saw you puking in the bushes during recess.

That mouth-breather.

***

You’d been feeling pretty horrible since last night, when your throat became scratchy and you got really, really hot. It was hard to sleep because your head was pounding, and you were shivering even under three blankets. 

When morning came there was nothing you wanted to do more than stay in bed and sleep the day away, but you’ve learned from experience that foster parents don’t like that. School is like free daycare, to them, and they get bent out of shape when a kid that’s not even theirs comes down with a bug and disrupts their free time. So you got dressed, splashed water on your face, and went downstairs for breakfast.

Clarke definitely knew something was up. She felt your forehead and pressed the backs of her fingers to your cheeks, and you couldn’t help but lean into her touch, a little, because her fingers were really cool and Clarke’s touches make your heart swell up a bit. 

You know her mom’s a doctor so you were pretty sure she’d see past your bluff when you swore up and down that you were fine, but she just cocked her head to the side before smiling and running her fingers through your hair. (It’s finally getting longer, thanks to your new shampoo, and she likes the way the bristly strands feel against her fingers.)

Lexa, however, seemed unconvinced. She usually heads off to work right around the time you leave for school, and this morning was no different. She was leaning against the kitchen counter, sipping coffee and halfheartedly scrolling through her phone, while you knew her attention was really on you and Clarke. 

(You could tell because she gets this tiny half-smile when she’s thinking about Clarke, which is practically all of the time. It’s adorable and also gross.)

“Are you sure?” Lexa asked.

She glanced between you and Clarke and you weren’t sure who she was addressing, so you stayed quiet. 

Clarke shrugged and made an unsure face. “She says she’s fine.”

Actually, no, her voice lifted up at the end, so it was more like, “She says she’s fine?” That’s when you realized Clarke knew you were sick -- that Lexa probably knew, too -- but they’re trusting and good and they take you at your word.

So they let you go to school and, in addition to your fever and headache, you also felt guilty for lying. You just have to make it through the school day, you told yourself. Just six hours until you can crawl back into bed without having to inconvenience Clarke. 

But then there was recess and the puking and the betrayal, and now you’re in the nurses office waiting for Clarke to come pick you up.

You can’t recall ever feeling worse. You sit on the plastic chair and wring your hands, fighting back nausea while wondering if Clarke was meeting with her new client when she got the call. She does graphic design work while you’re at school and just last night at dinner she was telling you and Lexa about a new project she’s hoping to take on -- one that she’d get to lead, creatively -- and her eyes lit up the way they do when she’s really excited. 

The nurse gives you a sympathetic look as you sniffle and blink back tears, and when Clarke walks into the office a few minutes later you can’t stop a few tears from leaking out.

The nurse stands from her desk, but Clarke makes a bee-line to you, kneeling in front of you and placing her hands on your knees. You’ve never seen her look so concerned -- almost like she’s the one who’s hurting -- and it makes you feel absolutely wretched.

Clarke,” is all you can manage. More tears slip down your face, and you can’t stop your bottom lip from trembling.

“Hey, it’s okay, kiddo. I’m here.” She cups your face and brushes the pads of her thumbs over your cheeks to wipe the tears away. “Let’s get you home.”

***

Once you’re back at Clarke and Lexa’s -- back home -- Clarke has you change into fresh pajamas and gets you settled in her and Lexa’s bed. You’re not quite sure why until she goes into the bathroom to change into her pajamas, and then she’s climbing in beside you. 

She must have been busy while you were getting changed, because there’s everything you could need on her bedside table -- medicine, ginger ale, your walkie-talkie, orange slices, a thermometer, cough drops, and the TV remote. 

She takes your temperature, frowning at the reading on the screen, and has you swallow a cap-full of syrupy red medicine. Once that’s done she puts her arm around the pillows behind you, not touching you until you lean into her side, letting her know it’s okay. 

You’re still feeling pretty awful for a slew of reasons and you can’t quite believe that she’s not mad, so when you start welling up again you press your face into the side of Clarke’s sleep shirt. 

“Did you know you were sick this morning?” she asks, and it’s such a nice way to ask if you lied to her that it just makes you cry more. You nod against her and you can feel the shirt is already wet from your tears. 

Clarke rests her cheek on the top of your head and rubs your back, telling you to breathe to help you clam down. It works -- faster than you thought it would -- and she wraps her other arm around you to pull you into a hug. 

You’ve never been an affectionate person -- the group home therapist had a lot of thoughts about that -- but it’s different when you’re with Clarke. Her embraces don’t ask anything of you. They make your pulse beat slower and your eyes feel all droopy, along with the whole heart-swelling thing. 

So you hug her back as tight as you can.

“You can tell us anything, you know,” she whispers. “If you have a problem, we promise to always listen and try our best to understand so that we can do whatever we can to help, okay?”

“Okay,” you try to say, but your voice is still kind of choked up, so you try again. “Okay.”

***

A little while later Clarke put on a movie -- Wall-E, your favorite -- and you must have dozed off, because one minute those two love-sick robots were holding hands and the next you’re waking up to Lexa climbing into the bed on your other side. 

The sun is still out but she’s in her PJs, too, and you must be feeling better because the sight of her makes you smile. She cups your cheek and you kind of nuzzle against her palm. Then she tickles under your chin -- just a light touch -- and you laugh before settling your head back on Clarke’s lap. 

She made toast with butter and jam for the three of you, but you don’t feel like eating just yet. She and Clarke go ahead and munch on their slices while they talk quietly about their days and tease each other for getting crumbs on the bedsheets. 

You hear Clarke say that her meeting with the new client went really well, and the remaining guilt in your chest dissipates at that.

When the movie ends you realize your right side is getting kind of numb, so you turn over and lean against Lexa. She almost looks surprised -- she’s not as touchy-feely as Clarke, and she’s incredibly respectful of your space -- but she instantly curls her body around you. 

You love the shirt she’s wearing -- it’s maroon and soft and has “Grounders” embroidered over her heart. It was the name of the kickball team that they played on in college, and you think that’s how they met. 

One time you asked why Clarke didn’t have the same shirt if they were both on that team, and she just laughed and said something about Lexa being a thief. The shirt is kinda big on her, so you guess it was originally Clarke’s. (See above re: adorable and gross.)

“You feeling any better, El?” Lexa asks, tugging gently on your earlobe.

You smile. “Yes.”

It’s more than that, though, and you hope she knows it. You don’t just feel better -- you feel safe

***

You must fall asleep again, because when you come to it’s dark and all the lights are out. Your brain is still a bit groggy but you can hear Clarke and Lexa whispering to each other from either side of you, so you keep still to let them have a few quiet moments. 

“She was practically shaking,” Clarke’s saying. “She’s always so stoic, so to see her crying I just... I don’t know how I didn’t burst into tears on the spot.”

You feel Lexa’s arm move over your shoulder, and you can just imagine her stroking Clarke’s face. 

“I guess that’s parenthood for you,” Lexa says. “You summon strength that you didn’t know you were capable of.” 

Clarke sniffles, and you wonder if she’s crying.

“I just wish she knew she’s not an inconvenience, to us, you know? I wish she could stop worrying about being a bother and just focus on being a kid.”

“She’ll get there. She’s had to be strong for so long -- that takes a while to un-learn.”

Clarke shifts closer to you -- to Lexa -- and you feel her arm fall across your waist. It takes your sleep-clouded brain a moment to realize that they’re hugging each other around you, and the love of the moment hits you so hard that you can’t stop yourself from taking in a harsh, shaky breath.

“El?”

“You okay, kiddo?”

You don’t even attempt to speak, because you know you won’t be able to get anything out past the sob building in your throat. You’d stopped looking to make friends so long ago that you didn’t even realize that, in Clarke and Lexa, you’d found so much more.

To let them know, as best you can, you open your eyes and put your fingertips to your lips before pressing your fingers lightly on each of their cheeks. They look at each other and then at you -- kind of amazed -- before Clarke kisses your cheek while Lexa’s lips brush against your temple. 

“Goodnight, Eleven,” Clarke says as they snuggle around you.

“You’ll feel better in the morning,” Lexa says. “We’ll make tea with honey.”

Your head still hurts a little and your throat’s as raw as sandpaper, but this is the happiest you’ve been in a long, long time. 

Chapter Text

It didn’t take you long to figure out that you and Clarke are a good pair.

She’s a gifted storyteller, and you’re a great listener. She’s lighthearted and playful and stops you from receding too far inside your mind, from getting too serious. She’s messy and you’re neat (just like Lexa, she says).

So, when Clarke realizes she finally can’t put off packing anymore -- on the afternoon before her big trip -- she just smiles at you as you sit on the carpet and re-fold the clothes she haphazardly tosses into her suitcase.

“Are you excited?” you ask.

Clarke pauses, a wrinkled shirt in her hands. Her eyebrows lift, a little, like they do every time you initiate conversation. Like she’s pleasantly surprised.

“I am,” she says, after a moment. “Excited and anxious, I guess. Anx-cited, if you will.”

She sticks her tongue out at you when you laugh. You ease the shirt from her hands and smooth out the creases before folding it.

“It’s far,” you offer, because that’s what you’d be anxious about, if you had to go somewhere on an airplane.

“It is. And I’m going to miss you and Lex.” Clarke pouts dramatically, but you know she really means it. “I just hope they like the work I’ve done.”

She’s going to California to give a big presentation to her new graphic design client, and you know she’s been working really hard. She’s been staying up late -- even later than Lexa -- and this whole week her after school drink of choice has been coffee, instead of her usual lemonade.

“They will,” you say, because you’re sure of it.

Clarke gets this sappy smile on her face and she shakes her head, looks at you like she’s lucky. You scrunch your nose up at her -- because she’s being a dork, because you’re the lucky one -- and she bends down to plant a kiss on your forehead.

“I wish I could take you with me,” she says. “For moral support and your suitcase-packing skills.”

***

That night, after Clarke and Lexa are asleep, you sneak down into the front hall and slip your old, small walkie-talkie into Clarke’s luggage, tucking it between her clothes. The signal won’t reach and it doesn’t really make sense -- Mike has the other one, not you -- but you know she’ll get the idea.

Once you’re back in bed you close your eyes and imagine Clarke in LA, alone in her hotel room. In your mind she’s nervous, biting the side of her thumb as she starts to hang her clothes up in the closet. But then she’ll see it -- nestled underneath her blue dress -- and that same sappy smile will spread across her face.

You realize, then, that you’re smiling to yourself in the dark. You cover your face with your hands, feel the happiness in your cheeks.

It takes you a very long time to fall asleep, after that.

***

Clarke wakes you up before she leaves.

You made her promise that she would, and she’s true to her word. Not that you ever doubted her.

“Shh,” she says. “Just wanted to say bye, kiddo. It’s really early -- you should go back to sleep if you can.”

You blink, trying to see her in the dim light. It’s still dark out, and through the window you can see the streetlights are still on outside. Clarke kisses your cheek and starts to pull away, and that’s when your sleepy brain kicks into gear. You pull back the covers and and get out of bed, yawning quietly as you take her hand and follow her downstairs.

The front door is open and Lexa’s standing beside it with Clarke’s suitcase by her side. She’s in her Grounders t-shirt and flannel shorts, and she’s good at hiding it -- much better than you -- but you can tell she’s trying very hard to be brave.

A horn sounds outside and you jump.

“It’s just the taxi,” Clarke says. She crouches in front of you and runs a hand through your hair, tickling the short strands. “But he can wait a minute longer.”

You hurl yourself at her, throwing your arms around her neck and almost making her lose her balance. Clarke laughs for a moment and then she’s hugging you back so tight you can hardly breathe.

You’re starting to feel sort of panicky, though you can’t quite identify why. You don’t doubt that Clarke will come back, or that you’ll be okay with just Lexa. Maybe, you think, you’re not scared of losing someone, but of having someone you don’t want to lose.

Tears are building in your eyes but you don’t want to cry -- you want to be strong, like Lexa -- so you squeeze them shut. When you open them again you see Clarke’s suitcase and you remember what’s hidden inside, and that makes you feel a little better.

***

You watch from the window as Lexa walks Clarke to the cab.

They hold hands on the short journey down the front walkway, Lexa pulling the suitcase behind her. Once the driver deposits it safely in the trunk Lexa opens the door for Clarke. Then she stills, for a moment, before quietly shutting it again.

She winds her arms around Clarke’s waist, pulling her into her and resting her cheek against her temple. Clarke loops her arms around Lexa’s middle, and it’s hard to tell from this distance, but you think her eyes are closed.

Clarke's lips are moving -- like she’s whispering -- and Lexa’s face goes kind of soft. It’s almost too much to watch, so your gaze drifts down, focusing on the way their entwined shadows sway beneath the streetlight.

You look up again when you hear the car door close before the engine revs on and the taxi drives away.

It takes Lexa a minute to come back inside.

***

You stand on a foot stool next to Lexa at the stove, where she’s making pancakes. (You’re taking a break from Eggos, and you know Lexa likes to cook when she’s stressed.)

“The trick is to keep an eye on the bubbles in the batter,” she says. “When the bubbles start to form they’re almost ready to flip, but you have to wait until they become holes.”

You nod, eyes intent on the pan. Lexa’s on to something, you think -- this is a good distraction.

“Now?” you ask.

“Let’s see.” Lexa flips one of the pancakes and the other side is perfectly golden brown. “Good job, El. I’ll make a chef of you yet.”

Once the pancakes are done -- two for Lexa, three for you, with loads of butter and syrup -- you take your plates and eat at the table on the back patio and watch the sun come up.

It’s peaceful. Lexa’s quieter than Clarke, but there’s nothing empty in her silences. Her presence is comforting -- like she’s just happy to be here, with you -- and you’re grateful.

Lexa smiles at you and reaches over the table to squeeze your wrist. You must look sad, but you don’t want her to think you’re sad because you’re alone with her -- because that’s not it, not at all -- so you do something you’ve never done before.

You turn your hand over so that your palm is facing up, and look at Lexa with what you hope is a smile. You’ve never felt so vulnerable as you do in the two seconds before she takes your hand, and when she links your fingers together you exhale.

“What do you think, El?” she asks. “Will we survive a week without Clarke?”

You grin, tongue peeking out between your teeth.

“Yes,” you say.

***

Clarke calls as soon as she lands, but she doesn’t have much time to talk so you don’t get to speak to her.

She told Lexa she’ll call back later, after dinner with her client, but, with the time difference, that will be way past your bedtime. You put on your pajamas and brush your teeth as slowly as you can, and you’re kind of loitering at the top of the stairs when Lexa calls for you to come back down.

“Gymnastics is on TV,” she says, patting the couch next to where she’s sitting. “I loved watching this when I was younger. Well, I still do.”

You sit next to her, on the same cushion, and when she spreads a blanket over both of your laps you lean into her side.

You think you and Lexa are a good pair, too.

***

You’re really fighting sleep by the time Clarke finally calls. Thankfully, after Lexa and Clarke exchange a few words, she hands you the phone.

“Come in Eleven, this is Clarke, over.”

You grin so wide it actually hurts your face. Then you remember you have to talk, because she can’t see you.

“Hi, Clarke.”

“Hey, you didn’t say over! Don’t you own two of these things? You should know that, kiddo.”

You burst out laughing for a good long while, and when you’re done you say, “over.” Now Clarke’s laughing on the other end of the line -- practically wheezing -- and then you hear laughter coming from beside you, too.

Lexa’s shaking her head and rolling her eyes, like she just doesn’t know what she’s going to do with the two of you.

“Are you and Lex having fun without me? And before you answer, know that I get jealous easily.”

“Yes.” You smile. “We had pancakes outside, and then we rode our bikes around the lake. I fell and scraped my knee, but it didn’t hurt too much. Lexa showed me that she has a scar in almost the same place, but on her left knee.”

Clarke’s quiet for a minute, and you can imagine the way her eyebrows must be raised up near her hairline. You’ve never said so much in a row before, not to her, and probably not to anyone -- even MIke.

It’s just that Clarke hasn’t been around all day, and for the past couple of months you’ve been sharing every day with her. This one is hers, too, even if she’s not here.

“Wow,” she says, after a while. “That sounds like a great day. I’m officially jealous, Eleven. Thanks a lot.”

You laugh and blush and, even though Clarke can’t see you, you bet she probably knows.

***

Once the school week starts, time passes pretty quickly. Lexa has taken half-days all week, working from home while you’re at school and then spending the rest of the day with you.

You’re still not totally sure what she does for work. You know she has an important job with a children’s charity in the city, and that they have a big grant coming up. She says Clarke’s trip was good timing because she gets more writing done at home than in the office, and you know she’s not just saying that to make you feel better.

When you get home from school, Lexa pours you both a glass of half lemonade/half iced tea (straight lemonade is too sweet for her, she says, and even though you don’t mind the sweetness drinking it her way makes you feel grown up) and then you start perfecting your plans for Clarke’s birthday.

The worst part about this trip, you think, is that Clarke is missing her own birthday. But she gets home the day after, and you and Lexa are determined to make it her best birthday yet.

“Clarke doesn’t like her birthday much,” Lexa says, as you’re working on your card. “Her dad died around this time when she was younger -- before she and I met -- and him not being around to celebrate makes her sad. So we always keep her birthdays light and fun and silly. Nothing serious -- that’s key, El.”

You stop drawing and look at Lexa. You had no idea that Clarke’s dad was dead. That she was missing someone, all this time. It’s hard to wrap your head around, especially since you were so glad to leave your Papa.

Your heart hurts for Clarke, and a little for yourself. Lexa must be able to tell, because she pulls her chair closer to yours and wraps her arm around your shoulders.

“I know she’s incredibly excited to celebrate her first birthday with you,” she says. She opens her mouth like she’s going to speak, but then she closes it again. It takes her a moment to work up the courage. “Her first birthday as a family.”

When Lexa smiles at you her eyes are a little wet, and you think yours might be too.

A family. Her words echo in your head for the rest of the night, and they make your heart hurt, but in a good way.

***

A dress rehearsal for a birthday party sounds kind of silly to you, but Lexa seems really into the idea, so you go with it.

Besides, today is Clarke’s actual birthday, so it’s kind of fitting.

It’s a Saturday, so you spend the morning finishing your card and helping Lexa with the cake. It’s funfetti with cream cheese frosting and, at your suggestion, you cover it in rainbow sprinkles.

Then you dress in the clothes you picked out last night -- your favorite pink and white polkadot dress with your yellow keds, and a headband with a flower that Clarke let you buy from Target last week. You must have taken a while, because by the time you flounce downstairs Lexa seems a little antsy to get going, which confuses you since the real party is tomorrow.

You pause because she looks really, really pretty. She’s wearing tailored black shorts with a sleeveless gray blouse, with her hair in loose curls and her favorite gold necklace around her neck. Its charm almost looks like the wheel of a ship -- or a little gear -- and you know Clarke loves it, because you’ve caught her tracing it with her fingertips and making Lexa blush.

“Hey El,” she says, shifting from one foot to another. “Ready to go?”

The park is only a few blocks away, so you just walk. Lexa’s carrying the cake (inside a tupperware cake holder thing) and the bag of supplies, while you have your card and Lexa’s gift for Clarke.

It doesn’t take long to set up once you reach the picnic tables along the edge of the park, near the lake. Lexa spreads a mint green tablecloth over the splintering wood and then you work together setting up the plates, napkins, and forks.

When Lexa looks at her watch and starts putting candles in the cake, you get a little suspicious. You’re not one to complain about eating cake two days in a row, but this seems kind of wasteful, and Lexa’s a practical person.

You’re trying to piece it all together when Lexa’s phone rings. And, stranger yet, she just hands it to you.

“Come in Eleven, this is Clarke, over.”

“Clarke?”

“Psst, you have to say ‘over.’”

“Oh, sorry. Clarke? Over.”

“Look behind you. Over.”

“Huh?”

“Behind you! On the path!”

You’re super confused but staticky excitement starts to build in your stomach as you slowly turn around. At some point Lexa must have stepped beside you, and it’s a good thing, because you practically drop her phone.

Clarke is there, on the path, walking toward you with her suitcase trailing behind her.

It’s not really a conscious choice that you break out into a run. Your legs just start pumping, on their own, as if propelled by some outside force. You can feel your dress flapping in the wind behind you and you lose your headband somewhere along the way, but when you finally reach Clarke none of that matters.

You’re going too fast and you can’t slow down and for a split second you think you’re going to plow right into her. But she scoops you up -- lifts you right into the air -- and for a few seconds it feels like you’re flying.

Then you’re in her arms, clinging to her with your legs wrapped around her waist, and neither of you let go for a very long time.

***

The cake tastes as good as it looks.

But even if it had tasted like sawdust, you can’t imagine being anything but thrilled in this moment. Lexa’s here and Clarke’s here and it’s her birthday and she’s reading your card like you just handed her an original copy of the Declaration of Independence.

You’re not always great at speaking but, like Lexa, you’re not bad at writing. So that’s what you did.

The front of your card is a family of raccoons -- one of the first things Clarke taught you how to draw. They’re smiling and eating rubbish on the lawn of a little blue house with chipping paint.

Inside is a letter to Clarke. You wrote several drafts, because you really wanted to get the words right. In it, you told her how you felt when you got out of the social worker’s car and saw her waiting on the porch. You tried to tell her what it’s like to know she’ll always be waiting for you after school, and how you felt when you saw the taxi taking her away.

“Anyway, I hope you have the best birthday ever,” you wrote at the end, “because you make every day feel like my birthday, except ten times better. I’m so glad I found you.”

By the time Clarke finishes, she’s crying. And you’re crying. And Lexa, who was reading over her shoulder, is also crying.

Great.

You wipe your nose on the back of your hand and walk around the picnic table, to the side where Clarke and Lexa are sitting. They haul you into their laps, and it’s a tight fit, but you hug each other until you start laughing at the absurdity of yourselves.

Then the three of you dry your tears with “Happy Birthday!” napkins and eat more cake before Clarke opens her present from Lexa.

Once she tears the wrapping paper open she gasps like it’s the Hope Diamond.

It’s a selfie stick.

“Oh my god, Lexa!!!” Clarke beams and flings her arms around Lexa’s shoulders. “After all that mocking I never thought you’d actually get me one! I love you so much right now. Like, even more than usual.”

Lexa huffs and rolls her eyes, but you can tell she’s pretty pleased with herself. She smooths Clarke’s hair while Clarke busies herself with connecting her phone’s bluetooth to the device and then inserting it into the holder at the end.

“Eleven, come here! It’s selfie time!”

The photo, like this whole day, is ridiculous. In the background you can see Clarke’s suitcase, the discarded wrapping paper, and some napkins blowing away in the wind. Clarke’s eyeshadow is smudged and Lexa’s mascara is smeared below her eyes, from when they were crying. There are some rainbow sprinkles on your jaw and your flower headband is slipping off the side of your head.

But the three of you look so darn happy.

***

On Monday, you come home from school to find that Clarke has printed out the photo as an 8x10”, framed it, and hung it in the living room, right above the couch.

“It’s our racoon family,” you say.

Clarke laughs so hard she falls onto the floor -- always so dramatic -- and pulls you down with her. When Lexa comes home from work she finds the two of you camped out in the living room, drinking lemonade and drawing raccoon picnics.

She sighs as she scoots in between you, wrapping her arm around Clarke’s waist and resting her cheek atop your head.

Chapter Text

You’re sitting at the kitchen table fully dressed when Clarke and Lexa finally come downstairs for breakfast. 

It’s a Saturday morning and you usually like to sleep in -- and you know they do, too -- but you were too excited to laze around in bed. Lexa rubs her eyes and Clarke bumps her hip with her own, giving her a little wink, and Lexa just presses her lips together. 

Lexa starts making coffee and Clarke sits across from you, smiling and resting her elbows on the table.

“You excited about your day with Lexa, then, El?”

You blush and look at your hands. Clarke always sees right through you. 

***

Clarke rubs your head before she skips out the door, car keys jangling in her hand. She’s meeting up with two of their friends from college, Raven and Octavia, who she apparently knew even before she met Lexa. 

It’s weird to think that Clarke was once Lexa-less, and vice versa -- that there was a time when they made their way through the world without one another. They must have felt that something was missing, you think, because together, they fit so perfectly. They’re complete. 

You wonder if, one day, someone will look at you and be unable to imagine that there once was a time when Clarke and Lexa weren’t looking after you. That you felt something was missing. (You hope that person will think the three of you fit, too.)

But today, Clarke is heading off on her own and you get Lexa all to yourself for the first time since Clarke’s trip. 

***

By the time you finish lunch, you’re exhausted, and by the looks of Lexa, she is too.

It’s barely 1 o’clock and you’ve already gone bike-riding, drawn with sidewalk chalk, watered the garden (Lexa), and played in the sprinkler (you). So when Lexa brings your plates to the sink and asks if you want to watch TV, you happily agree.

One of the many things that you and Lexa have in common is that you both love history. You’re fascinated by the thought of ancient people stepping right where you stepped, before there were buildings and pavement. You feel connected to them, somehow -- Clarke says it’s because you’re an ‘old soul’ and you’re not sure what that means, but you figure she must be right.

There’s a show where people bring antiques they want to sell to a store in Las Vegas and they often bring experts in to talk about the item’s history and tell the owners what it’s worth. Clarke thinks it’s boring, so Lexa records it on the DVR, and that’s what you decide to watch today. 

Lexa rests her head on the arm of the couch and falls asleep before the first episode ends, but you don’t mind. She did seem extra tried this morning, and you know her job has been busy because of that big grant. 

After you start the second episode she shivers in her sleep and curls her knees up to her chest, so you tug the blanket off the back of the couch and lay it over her. 

She smiles in her sleep and you turn back to the TV, but then Lexa whimpers and it makes you so nervous you hit pause. She’s still asleep, but she looks worried -- her brow is furrowed, and every so often she flinches, like she’s dodging an attack. 

At first you just watch her with wide eyes. You’re familiar with nightmares. Most of them are from before -- from your time with Papa -- and since you moved in here they’ve been happening less and less. 

You know Lexa was in foster care once, too, but only because Clarke told you. Lexa is pretty quiet about her past. You know she’s close with a woman named Indra, who you think she lived with for a while. And there’s her friend Lincoln, who she and Clarke went to college with, but you think Lexa knew him from before. Back when she was Clarke-less. 

That’s when you know what to do -- you have to bring Lexa back to the real world, where there’s you and Clarke and ice cream in the freezer. 

The blanket has slipped down to her waist, so you reach out and gently grip her forearm. She stills but you can tell she’s still there -- in the bad place -- so you scoot closer to her on the couch and tighten your grip, anchoring her.

“Lexa,” you whisper. “Lexa. Wake up.”

She jerks her head to the side -- wrestling against consciousness -- before her eyelids start to flutter, and then she’s blinking into the light. You exhale a breath you didn’t even know you were holding and squeeze her arm even tighter. 

“Hey,” she says, squinting at you. She looks at your hand then at the blanket, which is now sliding off the couch. It takes a moment for the furrow to leave her brow, but then she smiles. “Thanks for waking me.”

***

“What were you dreaming about?”

Lexa pauses, spoon of ice cream halfway to her mouth. She finishes the bite and swallows before responding.

“It was an old one,” she says, watching you carefully. “One I had since I was little.”

You frown, because you knew it, and because it makes you sad. 

“Were you alone?” you ask.

“Yes.”

You think she might leave it at that and you focus on your ice cream, though you’re not feeling very hungry, anymore.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Lexa says after a moment. “You know how dreams are.” You nod, and she continues. “In it, I’m on a street with only one house -- and it’s all black with broken windows, like a haunted house. And I’m too afraid to go in, but there’s nowhere else to go.”

You haven’t had that dream before, but it’s familiar just the same. 

“What happens?”

Lexa smiles her sappy half-smile. “Clarke usually wakes me up.”

You grin at that, because you’re proud to have stepped in for Clarke. But then you remember.

“What about before Clarke?”

Lexa takes a deep breath, like she’s shouldering something heavy and doesn’t want to pass it off to you. 

“Who woke you up from yours before you came here?”

“Mike,” you say, then you shrug. “No one.” 

The stitch is back between Lexa’s brows, and her bottom lip juts out a bit. “Me too,” she says. “Except Lincoln was my Mike.” 

She smiles at you, and you try your best to smile back. You’re glad she had Lincoln, and that she trusts you enough to share these glimpses of her past. 

Lexa stretches her arm across the table and rests her hand there, palm facing up. Your smile widens as you reach out to take it, squeezing her fingers.

“What are your nightmares about?”

You shake your head and look away. You don’t want to think about them, and besides, “It doesn’t matter,” you say. 

Lexa nods. “Well if you ever want to talk about them, I’m here.”

“No, I mean...” You grip her hand and squeeze your eyes shut, moving the words in your mind to figure out how best to say it. “It doesn’t matter because, since I came here, it’s like waking up.”

Lexa rises so quickly her chair nearly topples over. She walks to you and you stand, wrapping your arms around her waist and pressing your face into her sternum. Lexa sighs and hugs you close, and you know she understands. 

All the things that used to torment you -- the loneliness, the nightmares -- they can’t get you, here. Ever since you met Clarke and Lexa it’s like you’ve been wrestling with a bad dream, blinking into the morning light, and slowly coming into consciousness. 

There’s nothing to be afraid of. Not anymore.

Chapter Text

Saturday nights have always been your night.

In college it was a time to dress up and get rowdy, and even after you graduated you and Lexa would meet up with your friends for drinks at a local bar.

But ever since you bought your little blue house near the lake, Saturday night became date night, which, if you’re being honest, is even better than the wildest parties of days past. It’s nice to get away from your laptop and the bills and the unfolded laundry and just completely focus on Lexa, while drinking wine and eating a good cut of steak.

Once Eleven came to live with you, date nights went on hiatus. You know now that Eleven is strong -- so strong -- and brave, but at first she just seemed so small and skittish. Every day when she came home from school you swear she seemed a little surprised to find you there, waiting for her with two glasses of lemonade, and so all you cared about during those first few weeks was providing some stability for her.

And, boy, were those first weeks hard. You don’t think you’ve ever felt quite so out of your depth. You babysat a lot in college, but being a parent, you quickly found out, doesn’t even compare.

There’s such a big difference between watching a child and raising one. And you still don’t know too much about Eleven’s past, but you think her other foster parents didn’t care quite as much, and that just makes you want to be even better for her.

It’s just, you’re not sure how. Maybe you’ll never figure it out. But when she first came to live with you you hadn’t learned how to read her, yet, and she was so quiet and withdrawn at times that you were terrified you wouldn’t be enough.

Being a parent is still scary, but you’re feeling more confident now, nearly three months on. Day by day, you and Lexa are earning Eleven’s trust and she’s opening up more, in her own way.

After about a month, you decided to reinstitute date nights. You talked to Eleven about it, first. It was Lexa’s idea, and it’s one of the many things you love about her -- her intuitiveness, especially when it comes to El.

You told her that Maya -- the teenager who lives next door -- would hang out with her on those nights, and at first she seemed hesitant, but when Maya came over to meet her they soon became so consumed in a game of Bananagrams that Eleven pouted when the older girl had to go home for dinner.

And so date nights were back on for several weeks without a hitch, until tonight, when Maya’s mom calls to tell you her daughter is sick.

When you tell Eleven, she looks distraught.

You know she really likes Maya, who’s very kind to her, but you’re still surprised by her reaction. She’s usually pretty flexible -- probably a product of her inconsistent childhood -- so her mood catches you off guard.

The sun is starting to set -- earlier, these days, signalling the end of summer -- but Eleven asks to play in the backyard after dinner so you tell her she can stay out until it gets dark. Maybe she just needs some time alone.

You watch her through the window, chewing on the side of your thumb. She walks to the garden and just stands there, surveying the plants and flowers.

“Hey,” Lexa says. You turn to find her standing there in pajama shorts and a tank top and her hair in a messy bun on the top of her head, and you smile automatically. She’s holding two glasses of wine -- one of which she hands to you before clinking hers against it. “It’s still date night, right?”

“Right,” you say.

She takes a sip, smiling around the lip of the glass, and you tug on the hem of her top until she steps forward, moving into your space. You kiss her and she sighs as she opens her mouth to you, meeting your tongue with her own.

You pull back after a minute, because it’s early yet, and Lexa rests her forehead against yours before moving away. You lick your lips, tasting the wine before finally bringing the glass to your mouth.

“Now it’s date night,” you say, smirking because, even after all this time, Lexa’s still blushes.

***

“Lost in Translation” is on TV when you settle into the living room couch and Lexa smiles when she realizes it just started. You put your arm around her and resist the urge to roll your eyes -- you own the movie on DVD and could watch it without commercials, but you know she’ll tell you it’s better, this way -- that you happened upon it.

“It’s getting dark,” she says after a while, and you know what she’s thinking because you were thinking it, too.

“Give her a few more minutes,” you say.

Eleven’s a good kid and, she’s made some missteps, but she’s never openly defied you. You trust that she’ll come in when you asked her to.

You still exhale a little five minutes later when you hear the screen door open and close, and then you can tell Eleven’s in the kitchen, looking through the cabinets. You smirk, because somehow even that is adorable.

“El?” Lexa calls.

“Yes,” Eleven says, just barely raising her voice. “It’s me.”

You turn your face into Lexa’s shoulder to muffle your giggle. There’s just something about this kid that makes you smile.

“What do you think she’s doing in there?” you ask.

Lexa huffs out a quiet laugh and just shakes her head. “Probably hunting for Eggos.”

***

You’re about to go check in on Eleven when you hear her soft steps coming down the hall. A minute later she enters the living room carrying a few items in her arms, and when you realize what they are your heart jolts.

She gives you each a small smile as she walks up to the coffee table. First she sets down the mason jar filled with flowers, which you recognize from the garden. Then she places two candles -- one from the bathroom, and the other from the windowsill above the sink -- on either side. Finally, she reaches into her pocket and withdraws a packet of matches, which she sets down, too.

“Have a nice date,” she says, softly. “I’ll be in my room.”

She smiles again before she turns and walks away, quiet footsteps soon sounding on the stairs.

You bury your face in Lexa’s neck, mouth open in a silent scream, because, oh my god, this child, she’s too precious, you can’t. When you finally pull back Lexa’s lips are pressed together, eyebrows high, and you know she’s dying from the cuteness, too.

“That must be why she was upset,” Lexa says. “Because we’re missing our date night.”

You pout and put your hand over your heart, because the thought of El picking flowers at dusk for the two of you literally makes you ache. And the thought of her sequestering herself to her room because she thinks you want to be alone -- away from her -- hurts even more.

Lexa looks equally moved, and it’s one of those moments where it hits you -- how alike she and Eleven are. You love El for who she is, but a small part of you can’t help but liken her to a young Lexa, who you wish you could’ve been there for all those years ago. It feels like you’re getting a chance to do that, now, by caring for Eleven the way you wished someone cared for the woman you love.

Lexa kisses your cheek before she turns off the TV and then you head upstairs, hand in hand.

***

You can hear Mike’s voice crackling over the radio of Eleven’s walkie-talkie as you approach her door. Lexa knocks, and you hear El sign off to Mike before she answers.

She’s in her favorite pajamas -- a pink nightgown -- and she has a sparkly clip in her hair that wasn’t there earlier. One day last week after school she told you she can almost tuck her hair behind her ear now, and she looked so excited at the premise that you bought her some barrettes the next day.

“Was I being too loud?” she asks.

Neither of you have ever scolded her for being loud -- for anything, really -- and you know this is something left over from foster parents past. The thought of anyone thinking this girl of all kids could be too loud -- too anything other than sweet -- makes your blood boil, but she’s blinking up at you with wide eyes so you swallow the anger down.

“No,” Lexa says. “Of course not. We couldn’t even hear you.”

“We were wondering if you wanted to watch a movie with us,” you say. “I think there’s still whipped cream in the fridge -- we can make ice cream sundaes.”

Eleven works her jaw, considering, and shifts from foot to foot.

“But it’s your date night.”

“We can have date night and still hang out with you.” Lexa smiles and puts her hand on El’s shoulder, a gentle touch that makes her stop fidgeting. “We like spending time with you.”

A smile flashes across Eleven’s face, but it disappears too quick. She needs more convincing, you think.

“Our date night isn’t about being away from you, kiddo,” you try, and you think her shoulders relax, a bit. “It’s nice to have some time to ourselves every once in a while, but our favorite thing is when we’re all together.” You pause and take a breath, because this word still makes your heart speed up. “As a family.”

El smiles wider, biting her bottom lip, and her cheeks turn pink. You rub her head, careful not to mess up her clip, and Lexa tickles her neck, teasing out a giggle.

“It’s up to you,” Lexa says, stepping away and pulling you with her. “If you’d rather talk to Mike that’s fine. But you’re welcome to join us -- we’ll save you some ice cream.”

***

Eleven creeps downstairs about five minutes later, and she beams when she sees there’s already an ice cream sundae waiting for her, covered in whipped cream and rainbow sprinkles.

You make room for her to squeeze on the couch between you and Lexa lights the candles with a match. El dives into her sundae and glances at the TV, humming happily when she sees you’re watching “Toy Story 3.”

It’s one of those moments that makes all the hard, terrifying times worth it. El’s holding her spoon daintily, scooping ice cream into her mouth as she laughs at the screen. Candlelight is flickering across her face, which is just inches from the flowers she picked for you, and life hasn’t been fair to her, but in this instant she is just a regular, happy kid.

That’s all you want for her, and you feel like you could burst.

You blindly reach over the back of the couch until you find Lexa’s arm and she catches on, holding your hand and giving it a squeeze when Eleven squeals at something Buzz Lightyear says.

In the end, Eleven falls asleep with her head in Lexa’s lap and her legs sprawled over yours. Her toenails are still purple from when Lexa painted them last weekend, and you laugh as Lexa picks a sprinkle out of her hair.

“We have the best kid,” you say, voice cracking at the end.

“Yeah.” Lexa nods, blinking back tears as she smooths her hand along El’s hair. “We really do.”

***

(What you don’t see is that Eleven smiles.)

Chapter Text

You never really knew what love was until you met Clarke and Lexa.

You’re learning about natural resources in school, and you think their love is one of them -- like it’s stitched into the very fabric of the universe.

Their love is tender and gentle, but it has teeth, too. It’s not hard to tell that they would fight and die for one another. (And some days you allow yourself to think that they’d do the same for you.)

You want to know everything about them -- how they met, their first date, what it felt like when they first held hands. You want to gobble it up like ice cream, but you think it’s too decadent for that.

You want to steep in it, the story of their love.

***

Your teacher said that if you want to know what’s important to someone you should look at what they take photos of, but for Clarke that’s not entirely true. Everything she holds dear is tucked away in a drawer in her study, filled with sketchbooks upon sketchbooks of Lexa.

She let you flip through them, once. The two of you lied down on your bellies on the floor of her study and started at the very beginning.

At first it was drawings of nature -- trees and sunsets and the quad of their college campus -- but soon there was a kickball field and, sure enough, a thin girl with a scowl and a long, dark braid.

You couldn’t help but trace the sketch with your fingers, eyes stinging with the promise of it; Lexa on the brink of becoming your Lexa, and the Clarke who drew it on the brink of becoming your Clarke.

“Spring semester of sophomore year,” Clarke said with a sigh. “She was kind of scary, back then -- pegged me right in the head during our first practice. Hardly even apologized! Can you imagine, El?”

You laughed and hid your face in the crook of your elbow, because, no, you couldn’t imagine it. The Lexa you know would probably cry if she hit Clarke in the head with any kind of projectile.

“I was so pissed, I ranted and raved about her for a week, at least. Couldn’t shut up about her. Of course, Raven and Octavia eventually had to point out that what I was feeling wasn’t anger.”

You cocked your head to the side. “It wasn’t?”

“No,” Clarke smiled and ran a hand over your hair. “Sometimes emotions masquerade as other emotions. I wasn’t angry -- complaining just gave me an excuse to talk about her.”

You didn’t quite relate, but you thought you got it, anyway. “So what did you do?”

Clarke grinned at you, teeth sinking into her bottom lip, and in that instant you knew exactly what she did.

“Guess,” she said.

You raised your eyebrows high, already scandalized.

“You hit her with the ball.”

Clarke clapped her hands together, beaming at you like you just aced a spelling test.

“Square in the back,” she said. “But at least I had the decency to apologize over dinner.”

You imagined them eating pizza on the couch in Clarke’s college apartment, one with a bump on her head and the other with a bruise near her spine, and a giggle built in your throat.

You couldn’t help but let it out -- a high pitched peal of laughter -- and Clarke looked at you like you were crazy, but after a minute she joined in, too. You don’t understand grown ups sometimes, and this was one of them. You’ve heard of love striking like a bolt of lightening and about Cupid’s arrows, but flirting with flying kickballs was just plain ridiculous.

You and Clarke laughed until you cried, until one of your tears fell onto the sketch of Lexa. You gasped and moved to wipe the drop away, but Clarke stopped you, letting it soak into the paper and rippling it a bit.

Then she kissed your temple. (You don’t get that, either.)

***

You’ve learned that, if you look for it, you can find love in every corner of the house.

It’s there in the entryway, where Lexa lines up the shoes that Clarke hastily kicks off when she comes stomping in. It’s in the steamed vegetables Clarke makes each night for dinner, though she can hardly stomach them, and it’s in the morning pot of coffee Lexa makes even when she doesn’t have time to wait for it to brew.

You’ve also discovered that love lingers. This little house is filled up with lingering touches and whispers and glances. It’s like every minute they spend apart they’re just biding their time until they can next touch one another, next talk to each other; an ellipsis until their fingers meet and they can breathe again.

You’re pretty sure Mike would find it gross, but you think it’s beautiful. It’s like magic, or gravity, and you can’t help but root for it.

Well, as much as you can root for something that is inevitable. Their love is like the tide, and it is always, always rolling home.

***

Lexa was the one who asked Clarke to marry her.

You widened your eyes when Lexa told you, because you’d never really given it much thought, but if you had, you would’ve guessed it had been Clarke.

“We were going to wait,” Lexa said, holding her hand up to shield her eyes from the sun. “We’d talked about it. But then I found a ring…”

You squinted up at her. The sun was setting as you walked home from the park, but even in this light you could see she looked far away. You squeezed her hand, bringing her back to you.

“Where was it?”

“An antique store,” she said. “It reminded me of how I feel when I’m with her.”

You thought of the small, yellow diamond on Clarke’s left ring finger, the ring she fiddles with when she’s nervous or excited or anything, really. You knew it was a symbol of their commitment to one another, but now you realized it stood for so much more.

“How did you ask her?” you said.

Lexa smiled at you and started swinging your linked hands, back and forth, back and forth.

“We were just in bed one morning.” She shrugged. “I woke up early and my heart was racing, a little, and I just knew. I kissed her awake…” Lexa pressed her lips together, cheeks turning pink. “And when her eyes fluttered opened I had the ring there, just held in my fingers. The sun hit it just right.”

You squeezed Lexa’s hand again, because you could see it so clearly. You could almost feel it, too -- the nervous beat of her heart, the pit in her stomach.

“Did you cry?”

“Yes,” she said. “We both did. But then I dropped the ring trying to slip it on Clarke’s finger and we sort of lost it in the covers for a minute, so we were kind of laughing and crying at the same time.”

Lexa rolled her eyes, like it was all very silly, but you couldn’t stop smiling.

When you got home you ran to Clarke and gave her a tight hug. She hugged you back, and when you pulled away she leaned down and nuzzled her nose against yours, and you giggled.

“And to what do I owe this sudden burst of affection?” she asked.

“I told her our engagement story,” Lexa said. Clarke raised her eyebrow, giving Lexa a pointed stare, and Lexa huffed. “The abridged version. Obviously.”

You were about to ask what that means -- because you want to hear the whole story -- but then Clarke slid her ring off her finger and held it up to you.

“Want to try it on?”

You smiled and nodded before holding out your left hand. Then Clarke got down on one knee before you and you smiled so wide your cheeks hurt. You glance up at Lexa, and she’s watching the two of you with a grin that must be making her face ache, too.

“Eleven,” Clarke said seriously. “Will you do me the honor of… setting the table for dinner.”

You smile even wider. “Yes.”

Then she slipped the ring on your finger, and it’s far, far too big, but you made a fist so it wouldn’t fall off and set the table one-handedly. You looked at the yellow stone all through dinner, and you knew exactly why Lexa bought it.

It reminds you of the way you feel when the three of you are all together.

***

You know that Lexa was in foster care and that the two of you are a lot alike and sometimes, you think, when Clarke hugs you it’s like she’s hugging Lexa, too.

You don’t mind. You know Lexa is nothing short of holy, to Clarke, and you’re happy to bring her heart some semblance of peace.

It’s funny to think that love can be retroactive -- that Clarke can love a Lexa she never knew; that she can mourn for her, feel guilty over something she couldn’t have helped.

You wonder if they would’ve loved the old, meek you, tucked away in Papa’s lab in nothing but a ratty hospital gown and needle pricks in your arms. If they’d have loved you when you were strung out on unapproved medications, an illegal human test subject who barely spoke two words until DCF discovered you when you were seven.

You think they might. You think, one day, you might ask.

But not today. Because today you’re setting up a picnic blanket on the shore of the lake, in the perfect spot to watch tonight’s fireworks. You’re in a red, white, and blue romper that Clarke bought for you, and a matching sparkly headband that makes you feel really pretty.

You’re on your way to buy your second snowcone from the ice cream truck when you stop to say hello to Mrs. Mitchell, the old lady who lives across the street. You pat her fluffy white dog and you’re about to move along when she calls you back.

“Hang on, Eleven,” she says. “Let me get a look at you.”

She takes you in with a kind smile on her face. You preen, a bit, as her eyes rest on your headband, and then her gaze lands on your hands. You hold them out so she can see the red and blue nail polish that Clarke and Lexa had painted on last night (Clarke did red, Lexa blue).

Mrs. Mitchell smiles and cups your cheek. “Your moms must love you very much,” she says.

You pause, brow furrowing. You turn back to look at Clarke and Lexa, still sitting on the blanket in the grass. Lexa’s leaning back against Clarke, resting her head on her chest as Clarke sifts her fingers through her hair.

The breeze picks up and it opens the cover of your sketchpad -- which you brought to keep you busy during the wait -- and Lexa reaches out for it, to keep your drawings safe. You watch as Clarke takes it from her hands and they flip through it, together.

They pause every so often, Clarke’s fingers moving over the page to point something out. They’re both smiling down at it -- the book filled with your drawings -- and it’s a warm day, but your arms get goosebumps.

It feels like you’re on the brink.

The first picture in your sketchbook is a poorly drawn racoon -- the first thing Clarke taught you. You’re much better, now -- even better than when you drew the family of raccoons on Clarke’s birthday card.

You’ve forgotten all about your snowcone, at this point, and without realizing it you’re walking, then running back to the blanket. Because all this time you’ve been thinking about love and drawing families and yet you never even noticed.

You can’t believe you missed it -- the biggest evidence of Clarke and Lexa’s love.

It’s you.

Chapter Text

You’d never really stayed in a place with a proper backyard before.

Most of your foster homes have been in apartment buildings, and the group home just had a rickety playground next to the parking lot, so the first time Lexa suggested you play outside while she and Clarke cooked dinner you didn’t really know what to do.

At first you walked a lap around the perimeter -- cutting through the brick patio and skipping along the garden -- kicking up dirt as you went. Then you heard the fluttering of wings coming from one of the highest branches of the yard’s lone tree -- practically smack-dab in the middle -- and you jogged to the base of the trunk to look up.

It was a red-breasted robin, hopping about a tidy nest of twigs, and you felt your mouth stretch into a wide smile. You hardly even registered it when you stepped onto the lowest branch and hoisted yourself up into the tree. A few branches up the trunk split, proving to be a perfect seat, so you settled in and watched the robin work.

It was breezy out, and the neighbor was mowing the lawn, but when you closed your eyes and concentrated you could hear the faintest squawks from the bird’s young.

When Clarke came outside to call you in for dinner it took her a moment to see you, and you must’ve been quite the sight -- up a tree in your slipper-pink dress -- because Clarke grinned and shook her head.

“That dress will be the perfect camouflage come spring,” she said once you climbed down. “The tree’s cherry blossoms are just about that color.”

After that, spending time in the tree became a daily routine. Once you finished your homework after school, you’d climb up to your perch to watch the robins and take in the neighborhood.

Clarke and Lexa’s house was on the slope of a hill, so from your vantage point you could look down into the other yards. You’d watch your elderly neighbor water his lawn and hear Maya and her friends laughing from the shallow end of her swimming pool, and you felt connected to it all.

Sometimes Harry would wave to you after he turned off the hose, and every so often Maya would call out, “Eleven, watch this!” before flipping off the diving board, and for the first time you understood what it meant to be part of a community.

***

You sit at the top of the stairs and fiddle with the hem of your dress, straining to listen.

Clarke and Lexa’s friends are over -- Raven, Octavia, and Lincoln -- and you’ve heard great stories about each of them, but meeting grown-ups still makes you nervous. You’d been helping Clarke make a pitcher of iced tea when their car pulled up, and you instantly retreated to your bedroom to calm the butterflies in your stomach.

Clarke and Lexa let you be -- which you appreciate -- and you’ve slowly been making your way downstairs, first standing in the hallway, and now sliding down the steps on your bum, one by one.

Raven and Octavia are loud, which seems to make Clarke louder than usual, but you smile, because they all sound very happy to see each other. Lincoln’s voice is soft, which is a relief, because loud men make you anxious.

You’ve made it halfway down the stairs when Lexa appears at the bottom.

“Mind if I join you?” she asks.

You shrug, feeling a bit embarrassed. “Okay.”

She sits next to you and stays quiet for a moment, and you think maybe she needed a break from all the noise.

“I don’t like meeting new people, either,” she says. “And three is a lot of new people to meet at once.”

“Really?” You look over at her with a furrowed brow, because you know she meets new people for work all the time, what with her grant presentations and employee interviews.

Lexa nods. “I learned a trick, though -- I try to learn three things about each person I meet. That way it’s more like a mission, you know?”

She nudges your arm with her elbow and you smile, pressing your lips together. Clarke always tells you Lexa is the smartest person she knows, and you think she’s right.

“I like that,” you say.

“I think we’re heading out to the patio soon,” Lexa says, rising. “Join us when you’re ready. Or, if you don’t feel like it, that’s okay. I’ll check on you in a little bit.”

You agree and exhale, chest feeling a little lighter, because even after all these months it’s still a relief to know that Clarke and Lexa put your happiness and comfort before everything else.

***

Ultimately, it’s the sound of sawing and hammering the lures you downstairs. You’re standing next to the backdoor, building up the courage to open it just to satisfy your curiosity, when Clarke comes barging in, nearly knocking you over.

“Oh, hey kiddo,” she says brightly, like you haven’t just been hiding for the last hour. “I’m gonna put a plate of cookies together -- help me out?”

You follow her into the kitchen and help her arrange the cookies the two of you bought at the bakery yesterday. She’d let you pick three kinds, and you chose chocolate chip, peanut butter swirl, and a sugar cookie with yellow and pink sprinkles on top. You’d kind of forgotten about them, and you hum to yourself as you place them in alternating order around the plate before stacking the rest in the center.

When you’re done, Clarke puts the box in the recycling and hands you the plate. She walks to the backyard door and holds it open, looking back at you to make sure you’re following, and to your surprise you are.

It’s not until you step outside that you realize your nerves are gone, as if Clarke plucked them out of you like magic. You glance back at her and she winks, closing the door behind her.

“Just put them on the table,” she says.

You don’t look around until the cookies are safely deposited on the patio table, next to Lexa.

“Hi, El,” she says, reaching out to drag a chair right next to hers. “Have a seat.”

Raven and Octavia are also at the table, and they smile eagerly when Lexa introduces them.

“Ooh, cookies!” Octavia says, swiping four of them and placing them on the table in front of her.

“Jeez, use a napkin at least,” Raven scoffs. She takes one from the center of the table and hands it to Octavia, who just uses it to wipe the crumbs from her mouth. Raven rolls her eyes. “Are you sure you weren’t raised in the wild?”

You giggle and Octavia laughs, too, even more crumbs spilling out of her mouth.

“Lincoln!” Raven shouts. “You better take this one to etiquette class before your wedding.”

You crane your neck to see Clarke and Lincoln walking to the patio from the center of the yard. He’s tall and muscular, and even though you heard his voice earlier, you’re surprised that such a large man can sound so gentle.

“There’s no use,” he says, smiling fondly. “She can’t be tamed. Not that I’d want her to.”

Raven wrinkles her nose. “Gross.”

After he introduces himself, you look past him to see a pile of lumber and a toolbox at the bottom of the tree. Clarke must see the confused look on your face, because she walks up behind you and Lexa and crouches down between you, slinging an arm around both of your shoulders.

“We thought you might like a treehouse,” she says quietly, like the words are only for you. “How does that sound?”

You glance over at the lumber again, all of it cut and ready to go, and you realize that they were waiting for your permission -- that if you said no they would stop, no questions asked.

All you can do is nod as you blink back tears. You’re worried you’ll cry, and you really don’t want to do that in front of strangers, so you turn your face into Clarke’s neck and squeeze your eyes shut. Soon you feel Lexa’s arm around you, too.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Clarke says.

From across the table you hear Octavia sigh, and then Raven whispers, “Just when you think Clarke and Lexa couldn’t get any grosser.”

You snicker and pull away to grin at Raven, because you’ve long thought Clarke and Lexa were saps, too, but you never considered yourself to be a part of it.

***

Everyone helps build the treehouse, but Lexa and Lincoln do most of the heavy lifting. Clarke instructs them to put the platform just below the spot where the trunk splits, and you know it’s so you can still sit on your perch if you’d like.

The treehouse isn’t very high -- you can almost reach the platform if you stand on your tippytoes -- but it still requires a rope ladder for you to climb up through the trapdoor that Lincoln put in the center.

The sun is starting to set by the time it’s all done, and when you climb up the ladder and stand on the platform for the first time, everyone cheers.

You lean over the railing and look down at them, five faces smiling up at you, like you’re the reward for their afternoon of hard labor.

“Would you like to come up?” you ask.

It’s the longest sentence you’ve said all day, and somehow their smiles get even bigger.

One by one they climb up the rope ladder, and it’s a little cramped with all six of you on the platform, but you don’t mind because they seem so giddy, like little kids. It doesn’t take long for Lexa and Lincoln to climb into the branches -- higher than you’ve ever gone, but not too close to the robin's nest -- and Clarke shakes her head at Lexa the way she did when she first found you in the tree.

***

After the sun sets Clarke goes inside and comes out with a dusty battery-operated lantern, which she hangs from one of the branches, because no one wants to get down just yet.

Octavia and Raven are full of ideas for how you can decorate the treehouse, and they make plans to come back next weekend to help you paint it however you’d like. Raven asks you a lot of questions about your walkie-talkie and suggests making a waterproof box for it, in case you want to store it up here, and Octavia says she’s found two branches that would be perfect for a slingshot, in case you need to ward off attackers.

You smirk because the branches she motions to face Harry’s yard, and you hardly think he’s a threat. Clarke catches your eye, smiling in the lantern light, and you crawl over to sit between her and Lexa, who’d climbed down once it got dark.

The gang keeps talking about the treehouse as if it’s a fort, with Lincoln mentioning that its position on a hill will make it easy to defend, and you realize that these adults who you were scared of are just grown-up nerds, like you and Mike and your friends at school.

Soon the stars come out and your eyes feel heavy, but you don’t want to leave, so you lean your head against Lexa’s shoulder, link your arm through Clarke’s, and close your eyes.

It’s faint, but even with all the talking you can hear the young robins chirping from high up above you. You yawn and smile and hope they don’t mind sharing the tree now that you have a little nest of your own.

Chapter Text

It was your idea to become a foster parent.

You’d made the decision a while ago -- long before parenthood was even within the realm of possibility. You can remember the moment you told Clarke so clearly.

Rain had just started slanting against the window next to the bed in the cramped studio apartment you and Clarke lived in right after college. You shifted on the mattress and she made a whining kind of yawn, like she was anticipating you’d tell her it was finally time to drag yourselves out of bed and get a start on the weekend.

Instead you laughed and snuggled in closer, draping your arm across her bare waist and nuzzling against the side of her neck.

“I’ve decided something,” you said. “I’ve been thinking about it for a while.”

Clarke whines again and you can just imagine her pout as she wraps her arms around you, holding you close. “But it’s rainy and chilly outside, Lex. Our bed, meanwhile, is all cozy and warm. Plus, I’m here.”

You scoff and roll your eyes, even though she can’t see you, and you can feel her laugh as it rumbles through her ribcage.

“That wasn’t the thing I decided,” you say, smiling in spite of yourself.

“I know.” Clarke cups your face and leans back just enough to meet your eyes. Her lips are still swollen from last night and there are creases from the pillow on her cheek and you almost forget what you were about to tell her. “What’d you decide?” she asks.

“I want to become a foster mother one day. It will be hard -- because I didn’t have many great mother figures to look up to, growing up -- but I think I owe it to give back. To be there for a child the way Indra was there for me.”

No one knows more about your past than Clarke -- not even Lincoln -- so there’s no one else in this world you could’ve explained your choice to this succinctly. She knows that you grew up in care, moving from shitty home to shitty home until you wound up with Indra, who turned out to be warm and kind once you cracked through her tough shell.

Clarke knows that you think you found Indra too late -- that you’d already irrevocably hardened something deep inside of you by the time the social worker’s car pulled up to Indra’s apartment building just before your fifteenth birthday. She knows you think Lincoln was lucky to have been placed with Indra when he was still growing; that you’re a bit jealous of his softness.

(You know Clarke doesn’t believe that you’re hard or cold or any of the other words other people have called you over the years, and, sometimes -- just sometimes -- you believe her. But what she doesn’t know is that she’s the one who thawed the ice block in your chest, that your insides would still be frozen stiff if not for the persistent warmth of her love.)

“That’s great, Lexa.” She smiles at you before pulling you in for a bear hug, tight and stifling, but in a good way. You can almost feel her smile against your cheek. “We’ll be the best moms.”

Her response makes you stiffen -- you weren’t expecting it -- and then Clarke’s pulling away, looking at you like she’s trying to keep a furrow from her brow. Of course, when you thought about being a foster parent Clarke was there beside you. But you made this decision logically and you made it for yourself alone.

It’s a big thing, and you weren’t asking anything of her.

“Or, I mean…” she stammers and your heart clenches, because Clarke is so rarely unsure of herself. But the blip in her confidence is gone in a flash and she smiles again. “You’ll be a great mom, Lex. In fact, I’m willing to wager you’ll be the absolute best.”

You curl your hand around her neck, pulling her in until your noses touch.

“I liked ‘we’ better.”

***

There was little you could control, growing up, and you think that’s why you like tattoos so much. They’re neat, orderly, and permanent -- three things your life was often lacking.

There’s a few jagged lines traveling down your spine surrounded by a cluster of circles, one for each foster sibling you loved and lost along the way, to the system or to something worse.

Three delicate spruce trees line your right shoulder blade, for Lincoln, Indra, and Anya -- one of the few foster siblings who wasn’t lost. And above them is a smattering of stars beneath a sickle moon, which was the first tattoo you got for Clarke.

To the casual observer the tattoo depicts a forest scene, but to you it’s found family -- the trees are solid, keeping you rooted and grounded, and the night sky is what holds your world together. Because Clarke is threaded through the very core of you, a part of you like stardust.

You’ve amassed many more for her, over the years -- behind your left ear is a tiny paper crane, like the one she made out of her napkin on your third date, and there are sprigs of wildflowers winding up your side, just as Clarke had drawn them that senior year afternoon, not knowing you’d have your tattoo artist make it permanent that night.

But your first tattoo was a diamond, sitting in the center of your forearm. It’s three dimensional and simple, with surprisingly clean lines, considering Anya did it herself when you were sixteen.

The symbolism, you now realize, is rather trite, but your teenage self thought it was so clever. You’d just learned in school that diamonds are one of the hardest stones -- one of the few things that can scratch granite -- and somehow it resonated with you.

That something so beautiful could be strong, that it could dazzle you before it bites.

And so it’s extra ironic that it’s the tattoo Eleven’s coloring in right now.

You know now that hardness doesn’t equate to strength, and perhaps no one has taught you this better than El. The TV’s on but you watch her, squished in next to you on the couch and holding your arm steady on her lap.

She’s working very carefully -- shading in each section of the diamond in a different colored marker, tongue caught between her teeth as she focuses on staying in the lines. It’s not the first time she’s done this, but you’re riveted all the same.

There’s just something special about being her canvas, and the nostalgic part of you can’t help but wonder what your teenage self would think if she could see her strong, hard tattoo filled in with blues and yellows and purples.

“Leaving in ten minutes, okay?” Clarke calls from the kitchen, and you can tell from her voice she’s nervous. She’s bustling about, rifling through Eleven’s insurance papers, even though the two of you went over them last night.

“Okay,” you reply. El acts like she hasn’t heard, head down and focused on her coloring.

“How are you feeling?” you ask.

The social worker told you about her past -- that she was a test subject for a black market pharma lab, run by a man who claimed to be her father -- but Eleven’s never mentioned it. You and Clarke decided you’d wait until she brought it up on her own, but that hasn’t happened, and now the deadline for back-to-school immunizations is forcing your hand.

The two of you told her about the appointment a week ago -- long enough to give her fair warning, but not too much notice to let her build it up in her mind -- and, to your surprise, her demeanor hasn’t changed.

The social worker told you El used to see a psychiatrist at the group home, but they ultimately stopped sending her because she wouldn’t talk or interact with him at all. You wonder if something similar is happening to her now, if she’s become so good at compartmentalizing she doesn’t even realize it herself.

She finishes coloring in the diamond, but instead of stopping she goes over the colors again, making them darker, and you know she’s stalling.

“I’m missing pottery class,” she says, quietly. “They’re making bowls.”

It’s as close to a complaint as she’s ever come. El’s been going to summer school these past few months, to make up for all the time she missed moving from home to home, and she’s really liked it.

The program is integrated with an enrichment camp that some of her classmates go to, which you appreciate because you were worried summer school would make Eleven feel like she was inferior or behind. Luckily it had no such effect since El loves to learn, and you think she finds comfort in the school-day structure -- you know how uncertain summer vacation can be for foster kids.

“I’m sorry you had to miss school today,” you tell her. “Maybe we can make bowls on our own sometime. They sell clay at the craft store.”

El shrugs her shoulder, eyes trained on your tattoo, where the colors are starting to run together. You cringe inwardly, wishing you’d thought of something better to say.

You know her words had nothing to do with bowls.

***

Eleven hasn’t let go of your hand since you left the house.

You sat with her in the backseat of the car, and if she thought that was unusual she didn’t mention it. She’s stayed quiet for the most part, aside from laughing half-heartedly at a few of Clarke’s stories that she basically monologued for the entirety of the 20-minute drive (another nervous habit).

Once you all get out of the car at the doctor’s office you take Clarke’s hand, too, and she squeezes yours gratefully, holding eye contact as she takes a deep breath.

When you walk through the front doors you feel like your heart is outside of your body, split in two on the right and the left of you. Clarke once taught you that love isn’t weakness, but it sure makes you vulnerable.

The pediatrician is a friend of Abby’s and she knows about El’s situation, so the nurse brings the three of you to a room right away. There’s a floral-print hospital gown on the table and El shrinks back the tiniest bit when she sees it.

“You can put that away,” Clarke tells the nurse, squaring her shoulders. “I spoke to Dr. Tsu about this -- she said Eleven doesn’t need to change out of her clothes.”

The nurse apologizes and tucks the gown into a drawer. She asks El if she can weigh and measure her, and that goes smoothly enough. You wonder if perhaps this isn’t a big deal at all, to her -- that maybe she’s just reacting to your and Clarke’s anticipatory nervousness.

But then the nurse leaves, and when El hops onto the exam table to wait for the doctor she starts scratching at the inside of her elbow.

The needle marks are fading, but they’re still there. You pray to every deity out there that the man who did this to her never gets out of prison, because if he weren’t locked away you’re sure you’d kill him.

Clarke pulls up a game on her phone and hands it to El, but she doesn’t take it. You’re about to tell Clarke it’s time to go -- that maybe DCF will let you homeschool her -- when the doctor finally walks in.

“Well if it isn’t my favorite ex-patient,” she says, smiling at Clarke, who crosses the room to hug her.

Eleven watches them, face impassive, but she tilts her head to the side.

“El, remember I told you Dr. Tsu was my pediatrician when I was growing up? She’s my second-favorite doctor in the world.”

Dr. Tsu chuckles. “And how is your mom these days? Still in Nairobi?”

“A few hours south of there, yeah,” Clarke says. “But she’s due back in a few weeks.”

You’ve never been one for small talk, and you’re worried the conversation is about to dive into the great work Abby’s doing for Doctors Without Borders, so you interrupt.

“Yes, she hasn’t met Eleven yet.”

Your voice sounds terse and Clarke gives you a look, but Dr. Tsu smiles, taking it in stride.

“And neither have I.” She turns toward El, but doesn’t move into her space. “Hi Eleven. I’m Dr. Tsu and I’m going to examine you today for your back-to-school check-up. Is that alright?”

El looks from the doctor to Clarke to you. She drops your hand to fiddle with the hem of her dress and shrugs.

“Okay,” she whispers.

The doctor explains what she’s going to do before she does it -- “I’m going to look in your ears now, okay?” -- and waits for El’s permission each time before touching her. Eleven’s responses come quicker and quicker, like she’s catching on that she has control here.

Clarke reaches for your hand, and you know she’s as relieved as you are.

It’s all going well until it’s time for shots.

This moment was the big unknown, and you and Clarke had talked over all the possibilities. El’s an even-tempered kid, but you never know how someone will react when faced with past trauma.

You were worried that she might get upset, maybe cry or try to leave, but you didn’t expect her to just kind of… turn off.

As soon as Dr. Tsu mentions the shots you can tell El’s checked out. Her eyes go out of focus, looking off somewhere in the middle distance, and she still nods when the doctor asks her if she’s ready, but it’s like she’s not really there.

She stays on autopilot the whole drive back to town. You sit in the backseat again and she holds your hand, but her grip is loose.

It’s not until you’re sitting at a picnic table outside of the ice cream parlor down the street from your house that she snaps out of it. She dives right into the cup of ice cream Clarke placed in front of her -- strawberry with rainbow sprinkles -- and you would laugh if your heart wasn’t lodged in your throat.

After a few bites she glances at the bandaids on her arm, like she’s just noticing them.

“You were very brave today, kiddo.” Clarke reaches across the table to cup El’s cheek, and she smiles, leaning into the touch.

Once again you don’t know the right thing to say, so just lean over and brush your lips across her temple. You get a grin in return, along with a heaping spoonful of strawberry ice cream.

You open your mouth, waiting expectantly until El giggles and feeds you.

A drop of melted ice cream lands on your arm, just below the diamond El colored in this morning. The colors have bled together, almost like a watercolor painting.

When you wipe the ice cream away you’re careful not to smudge it.

***

El’s totally back to her normal self when you get home from work the next night, and you’re floored by her resiliency.

You and Clarke have talked about finding her another therapist -- a better one, one she’ll speak to -- but for now you’re just glad the doctor’s visit doesn’t seem to have done any further damage.

For the past few weeks she’s been welcoming you home with a hug, and today is no different. You’ve barely finished kissing Clarke’s cheek when El jogs into the kitchen and wraps her arms around your waist.

“And I’ve missed you, too,” you say, squeezing her back.

Once she pulls away she takes your hand, likely to steer you into the study to see her latest drawing, but she pauses when she sees your tattoo, still filled in with the colors she drew the day before.

She laughs. “You went to work like that?”

You’ve gone to work with marker on you before, after rushed mornings when you didn’t have time to scrub El’s artwork off, but this is different. Clarke stops chopping vegetables and leans against the counter, watching you with a soft smile.

“I did,” you say. “Will you help me wash it off?”

Eleven nods and trots into the bathroom, then comes back out with a wad of dampened tissues. Clarke rolls her eyes at you, but she joins the two of you at the kitchen table and watches as El dabs at your skin.

“It’s not working,” she says. You wince as she scrubs a bit harder. “I put soap on and everything.”

You place a hand over hers, stilling her. “I have a confession.”

El gets a mischievous look on her face, like she knows you’re up to something. “What is it?”

Out of the corner of your eye you see Clarke lean forward.

“I went to my tattoo artist last night, after you went to bed,” you say. “I had him go over all the colors that you did to make them permanent. It’ll never wash off.”

You watch her face to see if she grasps the significance of it.

When you told Clarke about your decision last night you worried she might think you were acting rash -- to mark Eleven on your body after just five months -- but, of course, Clarke understood.

“Nothing about her feels temporary, does it?” she’d said.

Eleven’s been speaking more, lately, but you’ve long since learned to read the emotion on her face. Her mouth falls open as she traces the new outline of your tattoo with her finger, bright colors leaking out over crisp black lines.

She glances at Clarke, then at you, before leaning down and giving the tender skin of your arm the gentlest kiss.

***

Three nights later you bolt awake to the sound of El calling out in her sleep. You’re about to climb out of bed when you feel Clarke’s hand on your shoulder.

“I’ve got it,” she says, already standing.

You lie on your back, listening to the muffled sounds of her waking Eleven up. A minute later Clarke comes back, carrying a sleepy El in her arms.

El’s small from her age but she’s still almost too big too be carried, not that Clarke would let it stop her. It’s 3:07 a.m. and every inch of your body is exhausted but you smile, because you can’t believe how much you love this woman.

She slides Eleven into the middle of the bed before scooting in after her and pulling the duvet over all three of you. El rolls onto her side, facing you, lost somewhere between sleep and consciousness.

“Hey El,” you whisper, and her eyes flutter. “Bad dream?”

She meets your gaze and suddenly she’s there, totally cognisant. She nods, and then she smiles.

“Not anymore.”

She tucks herself into your side and quickly falls back to sleep with the most peaceful look on her face. Clarke reaches for you under the covers and drapes her arm across your hip, right over the wildflowers she drew all those years ago.

She yawns. “Love you, Lex.”

You let out a shaky breath. “Love you, Clarke.”

As you drift off to sleep you wish someone could’ve told the younger you how beautiful your life would be one day.

Chapter Text

School has started up again -- proper school, as opposed to the catch-up classes you took over the summer -- and you’re still the smallest kid at Polis Middle School, but you’ve never felt so grown up.

You’re in the sixth grade now and some of the other kids sprouted up over the summer -- Gemma Wilkins grew at least three inches, and all of her friends are sporting training-bras. The other girls seem to be envious of their new curves, but you don’t mind. Change, you’ve found, is a double-edged sword, and you’re happy that it’s passed you by.

Lily Myers -- your best friend, next to Mike -- hasn’t hit her growth spurt either. Like you, she doesn’t care, so when the other girls sit in a circle at recess and talk about boys, the two of you skip out to the field to practice cartwheels and round-offs, pretending you’re Olympic gymnasts.

You like Lily a lot, even though you’re pretty different. She wears basketball shorts nearly every day -- even in the winter -- and she’s better at football than most of the boys in your grade.

At first, you didn’t get along. Lily’s loud and blunt and she was briefly your sworn enemy after she told on you for puking in the bushes that day last year. You vowed to never speak to her again, but when you returned to school a few days later she ran up to you, clamped two hands on your shoulders, and demanded to know if you were feeling better.

Kindness, you’re realizing, takes many forms.

***

You and Lily have been fast friends ever since. It didn’t take long for you to find out that Lily lives around the corner from Clarke and Lexa -- three houses down from Maya. You played in each other’s back yards a few times over the summer, and she’s the only kid from school who’s been in your treehouse.

Toward the end of summer her parents invited you, Clarke, and Lexa over for dinner, and that’s when they hatched the plan to have you and Lily walk to school on your own.

School isn’t far from your house -- just a few quiet blocks -- but Clarke always walked with you last year. At first it made sense, since you were new to the area, and even after you learned the way she continued to stroll beside you.

It was nice -- you love spending time with Clarke -- but when Lily’s mom suggested that the two of you are old enough to get to school on your own, you sat a little taller at the dinner table.

Lily clasped her hands together and begged, batting her lashes at her mom, but you just looked at Clarke and Lexa with wide, hopefully eyes. Lexa smiled at you and Clarke tried to hide a grin against Lexa’s shoulder.

“That’s fine with us,” Lexa said, never looking away from you. “If it’s okay with El.”

You nodded emphatically, biting your bottom lip as you smiled, and Lily squealed.

“Our little girl is growing up,” Clarke said, hand pressed over her heart. Lily’s parents chuckled, like it was a joke, but Clarke reached behind Lexa’s chair to cup the back of your neck, and you knew it wasn’t.

***

On the first Friday of sixth grade, someone else joins you and Lily on your walk home.

You notice him first -- the tiny black and white kitten at your heels. When you point him out to Lily she stops in her tracks, gasping in delight as she bends to pet him. He doesn’t have a collar or tags and, no matter how many times Lily tells him to stop wandering so far from home, he trails behind you.

You don’t look back when you and Lily part ways at the corner of your block, but when you hear her disappointed sigh you know he’s following you.

Your smile hurts your cheeks.

The kitten follows you up the walkway to the house, and when you open the kitchen door he weaves between your legs, nearly making you trip, and a giggle ripples through you as you stumble inside.

“Sounds like someone’s excited for the weekend,” Clarke calls out from the study. She’s in the kitchen by the time you take off your backpack, and you beam as you watch her smile transform into a look of surprise. “Um… Who’s this?”

She has a funny expression on her face, stuck somewhere between panic and bemusement, and for some reason it makes you smile even wider.

“He followed me home,” you say. “He doesn’t have a collar. Can we keep him?”

You didn’t mean to ask -- you don’t usually ask for things, especially not something this big -- and Clarke must see the worry on your face, because she strides over to you and kisses the top of your head. Then she kneels and pats the kitten, who stands on his hind legs to lean into her touch.

“Hey there, little guy.” She scratches the side of his neck, and the kitten purrs. “You’re right -- no collar. But we’ll have to put up flyers with his photo saying that we found him. He seems very young -- probably escaped from his house and couldn’t find his way back. If he belongs to someone else, we can’t keep him.”

Clarke squeezes your hand and you know she’s right, but it doesn’t stop the disappointment from washing through you. You train your eyes on the tiled floor. “Okay.”

Clarke kisses your cheek before she stands. “But we’ll take very good care of him in the meantime,” she says. “And I’ll need your help with the flyers -- you’re the best photographer in the family, after all.”

She tucks a strand of hair behind your ear (it’s finally long enough) and you’re still disappointed, but you feel better.

***

You must take about 100 photos of the kitten before you’re satisfied, and then Clarke helps you design the flyers in Photoshop. Lexa comes home with a shopping bag-full of cat food (a couple kinds of dry food, and several cans of wet) and you decide to put out a few bowls to see which he prefers.

The three of you sit on the kitchen floor and watch as the kitten takes a bite from the food in one bowl before moving on to the next and doing the same thing, rotating over and over.

Lexa laughs. “He’s waffling.”

You scrunch up your nose, because the word sounds silly (and makes you think of Eggos). “What?”

“It means he can’t make up his mind.”

You nod and train your eyes back on the cat, still going from bowl to bowl.

“Waffles,” you say, resolutely.

Out of the corner of your eye you see Clarke and Lexa exchange a glance, and Clarke grips Lexa’s thigh so hard you think it must hurt.

“I wouldn’t name him, kiddo,” Clarke says. “Might make it harder to say goodbye when we find his home, you know?”

You nod -- and again, you know she’s right -- but that night when Clarke checks on you before she goes to sleep (like she does every night, even though she and Lexa tucked you in hours ago) you’re awake enough to hear her.

“Goodnight, Eleven,” she whispers, door creaking as she closes it behind her. “Night, Waffles.”

You feel Waffles stir by your feet, and you smile into the pillow.

***

You, Clarke, and Lexa spend the weekend hanging flyers and falling in love with Waffles. Lexa reports the found cat to the local police and Clarke makes a post on the internet.

But no one calls.

Clarke and Lexa continually caution you not to get your hopes up, but it’s too late for that, and they’re not following their own advice -- Clarke coos when Waffles sits on her laptop keyboard and on Monday Lexa comes home from work with five different kind of cat toys, which results in the three of you eating 9 p.m. pancakes for dinner and the kitten falling asleep with his head in his food bowl.

You let a week pass before you ask again. Lexa calls the police one more time and you wring your hands as you wait for the verdict.

“No one has contacted them -- they think he must be a stray,” she says when she hangs up the phone. “They said we can adopt him or bring him to the local animal shelter.”

You reach for Lexa’s hand, squeezing it as hot tears well in your eyes.

“We can’t bring him to the shelter,” you plead, voice wobbling. “He won’t know anyone there and they won’t know his favorite kind of cat food or have room for any of this toys or--”

Lexa pulls you into a crushing hug and you stop rambling in favor of quietly crying into her shirt. You feel Clarke rub your back and press a soft kiss to the side of your neck.

“Don’t worry kiddo,” she murmurs. “We’re not bringing him to the shelter.”

You take a wet, shaky breath and shift to look at her, rubbing your nose with the back of your hand.

“We’re not?”

“Nope,” she says. You think her bottom lip is trembling.

Lexa kneels down and clears her throat before she speaks. “He’s part of the family now, don’t you think?”

“Yeah,” you whisper.

Lexa reaches out to brush a tear off your cheek, and then kisses a drop away from the corner of Clarke’s eye. You wrap an arm around both of them and focus on getting your breathing back under control.

Then you hear a meow from below you.

Waffles doesn’t make much noise, so you all look down at him in shock. He’s standing with his hind legs on Clarke’s sneakers and his front paws stretching upward, resting on your shins. You laugh, and Lexa bends to scoop him up.

“That sound good to you, Waffles?” she asks. “Want to live with us?”

The kitten purrs and rubs his face against Lexa’s chin.

Clarke pinches your cheek and winks at you. “I’ll take that as a yes. What do you think, El?”

Your eyes start to sting again, though you’re not quite sure why.

“Yes,” you say. “It’s a yes.”

***

In school you watched a documentary about geese that migrate hundreds of miles during the winter, but when the season ends they always know how to find their way back to the place they were born.

Your teacher called it a ‘homing beacon.’

But you think, for some -- strays, like you and Waffles -- the beacon doesn’t lead you to your birthplace; it guides you to where you need to be.

You wonder if there’s something special about this place -- your little blue house with chipping paint -- but you realize that’s not it.

Your beacon didn’t lead you to a location, but to two people who’ve become your home.

Chapter Text

When the social worker’s car pulls to a stop outside of a small blue house, your heart picks up a little bit.

You unbuckle your seatbelt and shove the door open before the social worker has even turned the engine off, and you hear her calling after you as you jog up the front walkway. A pretty blonde woman opens the door and stands on the front porch. She smiles at you and looks past you to the street, where the car is parked, raising her hand in greeting.

But all of that is background noise to you, because you’ve caught a flash of a pink dress behind the woman, and an instant later Eleven pushes past her and you nearly topple over when the two of you collide.

“Mike,” she whispers, arms wrapping around your neck. “Mike.”

***

The blonde (Clarke, El tells you) confirms the time the social worker will pick you up tonight, and as soon as the car pulls away from the curb you feel like a weight has been lifted. El grabs your hand and guides you into the kitchen, where her other foster mom (Lexa) is setting out three different kinds of chocolate pudding.

“We weren’t sure which was your favorite,” she says.

She glances at your and Eleven’s joined hands and then at Clarke, who’s making bug-eyes at Lexa, looking like she’s about to burst.

“Oh, wow,” you say, and you hate it -- because you wish you were tougher -- but you feel kinda touched. “I’m not picky. Let’s start with the Swiss Miss.”

“Alright, then,” Clarke says, grinning at you as she places two pudding cups and a pair of spoons on the table.

You drop El’s hand and sit across from her, facing the window. In the reflection of the glass, you see Clarke walk up to Lexa and press her face into the crook of her neck, like she’s stifling a laugh or scream or something.

She seems kinda wacky. You like her already.

“Your hair is a lot longer, El,” you say.

She smiles at you, and when she finishes delicately peeling the foil off the top of the pudding cup she runs a hand through her hair. She finger-brushes a few locks down beside her temple, and then pushes them behind her ear, where they stay put. She raises her eyebrows and, because you speak Eleven, you know she’s saying “see?”

“That’s awesome,” you say. “You’ll have it back in a ponytail in no time.”

El presses her lips together, lashes fluttering, and then she dips her spoon into her pudding. You follow suit, gobbling up your pudding in three bites, and then Lexa hands you another cup before you even ask.

She and Clarke are sort of puttering about the kitchen, talking quietly with each other to give you and El privacy, but you can tell part of their attention is on the two of you.

When Clarke opens the freezer to get ice for the pitcher of lemonade she’s making you see three boxes of Eggos piled on one side. Lexa squeezes Eleven’s shoulder when she pours you each a glass and El leans her head to the side, resting her cheek on her fingers for a few short seconds.

Something about those two moments, stacked one on top of the other, hits you like a freight train. You feel breathless with second-hand gratitude.

Clarke meets your gaze and gives you a shallow nod, and you think there’s thankfulness in her eyes, too.

***

After you eat, El shows you her treehouse. You’ve heard a lot about it over the walkie-talkie -- how Clarke and Lexa’s friends built it one weekend and came back a couple weeks later to paint -- but somehow it’s even cooler than you imagined.

Most of the structure is robin’s egg blue and the top of the platform is sunshine yellow. They’re happy colors and, even though it’s cloudy out today, from up there everything seems bright.

El points out all the sights -- her neighbor’s in-ground pool, the bird’s nest up above, and the waterproof box where she stores her walkie-talkie -- and then you both climb into the branches and settle on two makeshift seats.

“What’s it like to have two moms?”

El opens her mouth to speak right away, like she’s answered this question before, but then she pauses. You smile to yourself, because you already know her answer is just for you.

“Nice,” she says after a moment. “Soft.” And then, in a quiet voice, “safe.”

“Good. Great. That’s great, El.” You mean it, but it doesn’t stop the pang of envy from echoing in your chest. “I haven’t met my uncle’s girlfriend yet, but I’d kill for her to be like Clarke or Lexa.”

You regret the words the instant they leave your mouth, because it hurts to remind yourself of why you’re here -- one last visit before you move to your uncle’s, leaving the system and the state.

El glances down at her walkie-talkie box, and you know what she’s thinking.

“He said he’ll buy me a cell phone,” you tell her. “I’ll call you, or you can call me. It’ll be okay.”

She nods and tries to smile at you. “Promise?”

You wrap one arm around a sturdy branch and then reach out with the other, extending your pinky finger. Eleven grins -- for real, this time -- and hooks her pinky around yours.

“Promise,” you say.

***

There are clues everywhere.

The walls of El’s room are painted pink and blue, her favorite colors, and you can hardly see her bedspread for all the stuffed animals. You don’t even notice her black-and-white kitten (Waffles, she tells you, with no hint of irony) snoozing amongst the pillows until she points him out.

The house is smattered with picture frames featuring Eleven’s smiling face, and her drawings are practically wallpapering Clarke’s study.

El has her own dedicated snack shelf in the kitchen, and a closet filled with dresses, and an openness about her that wasn’t there before.

She has a family.

This will be her last foster home. You’re sure of it.

You wonder if she knows.

***

After dinner (pizza, your favorite), the four of you nestle in the living room sofa and watch a movie on Netflix. You and El sit in the center, with Clarke and Lexa on the outsides, and you feel like you’re in the middle of a sandwich, but in a good way.

The movie is halfway through when Clarke and Eleven decide they want ice cream, so Lexa pauses it while they go to the kitchen to make four bowls. You glance at Lexa, who’s quietly regarding you, and you shift to face her.

“How old were you?” you ask. “When you were adopted, I mean.”

Lexa’s eyes widen a bit, like she’s surprised you knew, and then she smiles. “Sixteen and a half.”

“Wow. Lucky,” you say. It goes unsaid that each passing year it becomes a little less likely -- there isn’t a high demand for teenage foster kids. “That’s good, though. That El will be younger.”

Damn it. One of these days you’ll learn to think before you speak. Lexa cocks her head to the side, surprise written all over her face, and you rush to recover.

“She didn’t say anything -- I swear,” you blurt. “And I didn’t say anything to her. I can just tell, you know? She fits here. With you and Clarke. I’ve never seen her so happy. And she talks, like, fifteen-thousand times more than she did back in the group home. People thought she was mute. There was a rumor going around that she was born without vocal chords at one point.”

Lexa’s quiet, and you’re thinking you really put your foot in it this time when she reaches out and gives your forearm a quick squeeze.

“Thank you for being such a good friend to her.”

You’re about to tell her it was no big deal -- that El’s the strong one, who was always there for you -- but then she and Clarke walk back in the room holding two heaping bowls each.

The movie is almost over when El reaches for Lexa’s arm and pulls it into her lap. She points at the color-splashed diamond tattoo on the inside of her forearm.

“I colored it in,” she says. “Watch.”

Eleven runs her finger down the side of her water glass, gathering condensation. Then she drags her finger over the tattoo, and you wait, but the colors don’t run.

(They’re going to keep her. You know it.)

***

It’s dark out by the time the social worker comes to pick you up.

El’s wringing her hands and shifting from foot to foot as you gather up the few things you brought with you. When you have everything in your backpack she gasps, like she’s just remembered something.

“Wait! Don’t go.” She waits for you to nod before she turns and runs upstairs.

Lexa goes out to meet the social worker, and you start to feel a little panicky yourself. Foster kids like you and El are used to change, but these changes are something different. Permanent.

“We’re so glad you could finally come visit, bud,” Clarke says. “Let us know when you’re settled at your uncle’s, okay?”

You nod. “Yeah.”

“I mean it.” She fixes you with a stern look.

“I will.” You hold out your hand to Clarke. “Friends don’t lie.”

Clarke looks down at your hand and raises an eyebrow before opening her arms. You’re not great at being close to people -- especially strangers -- but it’s a no-brainer for you to take a step forward and lean into her hug.

“Not a lot of people understand her, but I do,” you find yourself saying. “And I think you do, too. You and Lexa.”

When Clarke pulls away she takes a deep breath and cups the side of your face with her hand. “I hope so,” she says.

You hear Eleven’s usually quiet footsteps thundering down the stairs, and her cheeks are red from rushing when she gets to the bottom.

She hands you your old hoodie, the one you gave to her on her very first day at the group home.

“It might be cold at your uncle’s.”

“No, Eleven, it’s yours,” you say, thrusting it toward her. “You keep it.”

She sets her jaw, and you know there’s no point in arguing. “Give it back to me next time.”

You roll your eyes at her, but your heart swells inside your chest. “Fine.”

She, Clarke, and Lexa walk you out to the car. You hug Lexa and Clarke (again), ignoring how the social worker’s eyebrows shoot up.

Eleven looks solemn when she steps up to you and winds her arms around your shoulders. You hug her around the middle, holding her close and trying to be strong.

You’re not sure what it is between you. The kids back at the group home have teased you for having a crush on her, but that’s not it, or if it is, that’s not all. There’s history and understanding and a certain solidness in your friendship. Something you haven’t found in anyone else in your young life.

“Goodbye, Mike,” she whispers.

You imagine her -- eyes closed, cheek pressed against the side of your neck and skinny body wrapped around yours -- and a lump forms in your throat.

When you finally pull away you hug the sweatshirt to your chest.

“See you later, El.”

You get into the car and watch the three of them move together, as if by gravity. Lexa wraps her arm around Clarke, who rests her hand on Eleven’s shoulder as El leans into her side. They look like an isosceles triangle.

You watch them, standing together under the streetlight, until the car takes a corner and they’re out of sight.

***

When you put your old hoodie on a few weeks later (it is kinda chilly at your uncle’s) you find a folded piece of paper in the pouch.

You open it slowly, carefully -- the way she would -- and smile when you see that it’s a drawing. After a few seconds you realize it’s more than that -- it’s a map. Her neighborhood as seen from above.

The lines are all very straight, like she used a ruler, and your eyes follow the dotted lines denoting the path she takes to school and the bike lanes leading to the lake. Everything is neatly labeled, including Maya’s and Lily’s houses, as well as the ice cream shop down the road.

Under the little blue house -- smack-dab in the middle of the paper -- it says “home.”

It’s the first thing you hang on your new bedroom wall.

Chapter Text

You’re an even-tempered person, most of the time.

You had to be when you were younger, back in the lab. You learned that it was best to cooperate, to hide your emotions as much as you could. And you were successful. Mostly.

But sometimes, it would gnaw at you. You’re not sure how to put ‘it’ into words -- the marble of resentment and rage that formed in your gut and grew and grew until you couldn’t contain it anymore.

After you lashed out, leaving bruises and scratch marks on the guards who had to sedate you, Papa would ask why you were so angry. Why couldn’t you be good? Why would you act out, knowing that you’d be placed in that tiny cell of a room they threw you in when you misbehaved.

Weren’t you smarter than that? Didn’t you understand cause and effect?

Even if you had an answer, you wouldn’t have told him. Back then words were especially hard to pluck out of the fog in your brain. But now, thinking back on it all, you know why you lashed out.

It was a way to prove to yourself that, even while wearing a ratty hospital gown in an underground lab, you still had free will.

***

Breaking Jimmy Kenswood’s nose had nothing to do with asserting your free will.

But something about him brought back all those feelings from before, and the familiar stone of fury had been sitting heavy and hot in your belly for months.

He was a bully, plain and simple. He made fun of everyone for anything and everything, mocking Lily for dressing like a boy and you for looking like you belonged in kindergarten. Once he even stomped on your beloved yellow keds.

You’d met bullies before -- plenty of them -- and, with Mike’s help, you learned not to let them get to you. In the group home, at least, you felt bad for the bullies. They came from messed up backgrounds, some even worse than yours, and on some level you could relate.

But something about Jimmy was different. Jimmy’s dad picks him up from school every day, and he doesn’t shut up about his mom’s corner-office job in some high rise in the city. You can tell his family loves him.

Or maybe it’s you who’s different. Maybe Jimmy was the one fly in the milk of your new lovely life. Maybe ugly souls like his stood out even more now that your life was so soft and bright.

But the reason doesn’t matter now.

All that matters is when Jimmy called your moms a name -- some word you hadn’t heard before, but it sounded sharp and hateful and it made Lily flinch -- you decked him so hard that blood splattered on your hand and dribbled down his chin and onto his white polo shirt.

***

Clarke doesn’t say anything as she drives you home from school.

She must have been out running errands when the principal called her to say you have to stay home for three days because there are a bunch of grocery bags in the backseat. They look like they were thrown in haphazardly. A few oranges have fallen out and are rolling around the floor.

You breathe slowly and try to find that place in your mind where nothing hurts, but you can’t quite get there. Instead you focus on Clarke’s hands, gripping the steering wheel so tightly her knuckles turn white.

When she pulls into the driveway she doesn’t take the groceries out of the car.

At first you sit in the kitchen, hanging your head as she calls Lexa and then your social worker. You’ve never heard her voice sound like this before and it makes your chest feel tight. You pick at the dried blood on your knuckles and open your mouth to try to catch your breath.

You could have been happy here. You were happy here. And now you’ve ruined it.

Clarke hangs up the phone and she turns away from you, running both hands through her hair. She can’t be more than three feet away, but she’s never felt so far.

There’s a bouquet of flowers that you and Lexa picked the other day -- the last from the summer garden -- in a vase on the table. You study them and wonder how something so beautiful can exist in the middle of the worst day of your life.

Then you feel Clarke’s hands on your knees, and you’ve never been so grateful to be pulled from your thoughts. She’s kneeling in front of you, clutching your knees and looking up at you with wide, red-rimmed eyes.

“Hey,” she says. She reaches up to cup your face, and you lean into her touch, even though you don’t deserve it. “It’s gonna be alright, okay?”

You shake your head, because it’s never been so clear to you that you don’t belong here, with these good-hearted people. You hurt someone, and Clarke’s worried about you.

“Yes it will be,” she says. “We’ll figure it out. We have to. We’ll figure it out.”

You wonder if she’s saying it for her or for you.

***

You’re not sure how much time has passed when you hear a car door slam out front and then Lexa’s rushing in the house.

Clarke’s shoulders deflate when she sees her, and Lexa nearly trips over Waffles when she steps forward to take Clarke in her arms. From where you’re sitting you can tell that both of their eyes are closed, and something like relief is written across their features.

They’re stronger together. You close your eyes and try to save the moment in your mind.

When you open them again Lexa’s standing in front of you. She takes your hands and gives the blood a once-over before gently tugging you to your feet.

“Let’s get you cleaned up.”

You follow her to the big bathroom upstairs, down the hall from your room. Lexa puts down the toilet lid and sits while you wash your hands with soap three times over.

When you’re done you glance at her and she just tilts her head and raises her eyebrows. You’ll miss that about her -- the way she can ask a question without saying anything at all.

“Jimmy -- the boy I hit -- he called you and Clarke a bad word.”

You almost tell her you didn’t mean it, that this was all an accident, but on top of everything you don’t want to lie.

Lexa nods and asks you what he said. You don’t want to repeat it -- don’t ever want to say it -- so you spell it as best you can. You wait for her to react, somehow, but her face doesn’t change as she nods again.

The next thing you know Lexa’s pulling you into her lap. It’s a bit awkward, balancing on her knees on the toilet seat cover, but her touch makes your muscles relax. You lean against her chest, wondering if this is how Clarke feels wrapped up in Lexa’s embrace.

“People fear what they don’t understand,” Lexa says. “And sometimes that fear manifests itself as hatred. Anger.”

“And Jimmy sounds like an idiot.”

You both look up to see Clarke leaning against the bathroom doorframe with her arms crossed.

“And based on what I’ve heard, he’s had something like this coming for a long time,” she continues.

“Not that it’s ever okay to hit someone,” Lexa says.

“Right, right. Of course.”

You look between them, these two amazing women, and a part of you wants to laugh. You can feel it in your chest -- a little burst of happiness -- but the overwhelming sadness and panic beat it back. You swallow.

“Will they take me away?”

Clarke steps into the bathroom and brushes her fingers through your hair. She regards you for a moment, like she’s not sure exactly what to tell you.

“I don’t know,” she says quietly. “But if they try, we’ll do everything we can to stop them. I promise you that.”

Lexa kisses the side of your neck, and for the first time since your fist made contact with Jimmy’s nose you feel a glimmer of hope.

***

The social worker is not happy. It’s a man -- someone you haven’t seen before -- and his suit is full of wrinkles.

You answer his questions as concisely as you can, only expanding your answers when Clarke prompts you or when Lexa looks at you with pleading eyes. Then, when it’s clear the conversation has shifted to the adults, you slink away to your room.

You close the door behind you and lean back against it, pressing the heels of your hands to your eyes. A few minutes ago, back in the kitchen, you bent down to pet Waffles and caught a glimpse of Clarke and Lexa’s entwined hands hanging between their chairs.

Their knuckles were white.

It made you realize that no matter how hard they fight to keep you, the state can still take you away. They’re powerless, ultimately. You all are. That’s why Clarke hesitated when she answered you -- she didn’t want to make any promises she can’t keep.

You hear soft scratches on the other side of your bedroom door and you open it to let Waffles in. He purrs and rubs his head against your shin before jumping onto your bed and curling up on the duvet.

For all the time you spend in this room, you’ve never truly looked at it. It’s blue and pink with two windows -- one looking down at Harry’s house and the other overlooking your backyard, with the patio and your treehouse. Some of your artwork is taped on the walls, and on your dresser is a framed photo of you, Clarke, and Lexa from the Fourth of July, decked out in your red, white, and blue.

You pack that romper first. Then you pack your pink-and-white polkadot dress, the one you wore to Clarke’s birthday picnic, followed by the dress that Clarke said will match the tree’s cherry blossoms in the spring. (The ones you’ll never see, now.)

After a few more dresses and headbands your backpack is nearly bursting and tears are finally threatening your eyes.

They’ve given you so much. There’s still a whole closet full of clothes you’ll leave behind, not to mention the new therapist you actually like, and Waffles, and Lexa’s Sunday breakfasts, and Clarke’s goodnight kisses, and the almost-painful happiness you feel when you crawl into their bed on Saturday mornings and cuddle in between them.

You’re standing in the middle of your room with your backpack at your feet quietly sobbing when Clarke and Lexa appear in the doorway. Clarke guides you to your bed with gentle hands, and Lexa nudges Waffles over so the three of you can sit.

“Shhhh.” Clarke wipes your tears away with the pads of her thumbs. “Everything’s okay. You’re staying with us, right where you belong.”

You take in a hiccuping breath and look at her through bleary eyes. “What?”

You turn to Lexa, on the other side of you, and she grips your hand. “The social worker just left,” she says. “We have to have more meetings with him, your principal, and Jimmy’s parents, but you’re not going anywhere.”

Relief floods through you and you start to cry harder. But as you feel Clarke and Lexa hug you from either side unexpected frustration builds inside you. You don’t deserve this. Why can’t they see that? You wonder if it’s like what Lexa was talking about earlier -- one feeling masquerading as another.

You pull away from them and stand, turning to face them. They seem surprised, and Clarke looks a little hurt, which only makes your scowl deepen.

“Why are you being so nice to me?” you ask, and you can hardly recognize your voice. “I almost ruined everything. Why aren’t you mad? Why are you letting me stay?”

Clarke blinks and she looks at you with a confused sort of smile.

“Because, Eleven.” She takes your hand and pulls you in until your knees bump. “We love you.”

Your jaw drops, and you must be taking after Clarke, because you gasp softly.

“You-- you do?”

“Yeah, kiddo.” Clarke nods and a tear slides down her cheek. “I love you.”

You glance at Lexa to see if this is all part of some big joke, but she looks just as choked-up as Clarke.

“Me too, El,” she says, curling her fingers around the side of your neck. “I love you, too.”

You breathe out a sighing sort of cry as you let them pull you into a tight hug. Part of you wonders if you nodded off and this is all a dream, or maybe you’ve tapped into someone else’s consciousness, and this is happening to someone much more deserving than you.

But another part of you -- the sliver that thinks you’re worthy of their love -- starts to laugh.

There are tears spilling out of your eyes and laughter tumbling from your mouth, and it must be contagious, because soon Clarke and Lexa and laugh-crying too.

(They love you.)

(They love you.)

***

Later that night, you all get ready for bed together and it goes without saying that you’re sleeping in Clarke and Lexa’s room.

Lexa lets you wear her Grounders t-shirt, and Clarke rolls her eyes and mutters, “like mother like daughter.”

Clarke tells you and Lexa a bedtime story -- one that her dad used to tell her, about him growing up poor and happy -- and then she turns out the lights.

You can’t sleep for a million reasons. First, they love you. Second, you don’t have to leave home. And third, you need to tell them.

You wait for Clarke’s arm to go slack around your waist and for Lexa’s breathing to even out. Maybe tomorrow you’ll be braver, but for now this is the best you can do.

“I love you,” you whisper as quietly as you can. “Both of you.”

“We know,” Clarke whispers back, hugging you closer.

Lexa presses a kiss to your cheek. “We love you too, El.”

Clarke shifts and inches closer to you, and by now you know it’s so she can hug Lexa, too.

“God, Waffles, can you purr any louder?” she whines.

You giggle as Lexa reaches up to pet him where he’s stretched out on her pillow.

“I kinda like it,” she says. “He’s like a living, breathing white-noise machine.”

Clarke sighs. “The things I put up with for the ladies I love.

You nuzzle your nose against Lexa’s and then turn to kiss Clarke’s shoulder. Then you close your eyes and focus on this feeling so that you can hold onto it forever.

Clarke and Lexa soon drift off -- for real this time -- but you fight off sleep for as long as you can. Because you don’t want to miss a minute of it -- knowing what it feels like to be loved.

Chapter Text

You hadn’t been at Clarke and Lexa’s for very long when Clarke declared that Friday evenings were to be what she called “vintage movie nights.”

At the time you didn’t really get what she meant but -- like anything Clarke suggested -- you were excited about it. One day the three of you drove up to Clarke’s mom’s house (even though she wasn’t home, since she was still working at a hospital in Africa) and collected a box full of rectangular, plastic “videotapes” and a dusty machine called a “VCR.”

While Clarke and Lexa selected the tapes they wanted, you took a moment to wander around the first floor of the house. It was large and airy, with creaky wooden floors and white crown moulding, and you could imagine how grand it must have been back when it was brand new.

Not that it wasn’t grand now, in a modern sort of way -- the stone counters were cold and smooth under your fingertips, and you could practically see your reflection in the stainless steel appliances. Still, it was difficult to envision your Clarke growing up here.

Then you saw it -- a framed photo above the mantle, positioned just where a photo of you, Clarke, and Lexa sits back at home. In this one, a younger Clarke is in the center, all smiles and sunburnt cheeks. She’s resting her head on the shoulder of a man, who’s looking down at her like he’s never been happier than in this moment. On Clarke’s other side is Abby -- you recognize her from photos at home -- who’s standing with her arms wrapped around the two of them, head thrown back like someone just told the most hilarious joke.

It made you feel sad and happy all at once.

“That was back at our old house,” Clarke said from behind you. “My mom moved here after he died. We took that photo not long before his car accident, actually.”

Her voice sounded hollow, and it scared you. You wondered if Clarke has a special empty place in her mind, too, one she can retreat to when it all becomes too much.

“He seems kind,” you said. “You look like him.”

You felt Clarke squeeze your shoulder.

“Thanks, kiddo,” she said, and she sounded a bit more like herself. “The two of you would’ve gotten along really well, you know. He’d have loved you.”

The thought of Clarke’s dad liking you -- loving you -- filled your chest with pride. You wrapped your arm around Clarke’s waist and rested your head on her shoulder. “Yeah?”

“Oh yeah. My mom always said my dad and I were like two peas in a pod -- we both have great taste. And I love you, so he definitely would’ve, too.”

Ever since you’d learned that Clarke had lost her dad you’d felt sorry for her, but these past few moments changed your perspective. You wish Clarke didn’t have to lose her dad, but now you knew how lucky she was to have had a father who loved her so very much.

You look up at her, and she’s smiling down at you like she’s never been happier than in this moment. (Like the way she always looks at you.) (And Lexa.)

In the book you’re reading -- a large hardcover you borrowed from Clarke’s office -- there’s a line about how the people you love never truly leave you. Here, in her mother’s empty house, you finally understand what that means.

***

It took some frustration and a trip to Best Buy to get the VCR hooked up to the flat screen in the living room, but once Lexa finally got it working Clarke picked her up and twirled her around in the middle of the carpet.

You knew Lexa hadn’t seen most of the video tapes in the box, nor did she have the same positive association with them as Clarke -- with her happy childhood -- but when Clarke set her down Lexa was flushed and beaming. Not for the first time you wondered if Clarke’s enthusiasm has transitive properties, because you were welling with anticipation, too.

The film Clarke chose for the first vintage movie night was “Beauty and the Beast,” and you liked it a lot. It’s funny, because Clarke was so excited to watch it, but it seemed like she spent most of the film with her eyes on Lexa, and every so often you caught her glancing over at you.

In the weeks that followed, the three of you watched what Clarke dubbed “the classics” -- “Aladdin,” “The Little Mermaid,” “The Lion King,” “Casper,” and “The Land Before Time.” (The latter of which made the three of you cry.)

You enjoyed them all, but one movie stood out to you above the rest -- “Peter Pan.”

It was so magical, and not just because of the actual magic. You loved the idea of kids who were abandoned by their parents banding together and making a big family of their own. They lived in trees and flew like birds and fought pirates and never, ever grew up.

And then there was Tinkerbell. She was the smallest of them all, but in some ways she was the mightiest. She kept the others in line and could make children fly with her pixie dust.

She was delicate and fierce, and didn’t apologize for being both of those things at once.

***

So, when Clarke asked you what you wanted to be for Halloween, you knew right away.

What you didn’t anticipate was the argument your decision would incite between Clarke and Lexa over who should get to dress up as Peter Pan.

“But Wendy’s brunette, Lex,” Clarke whines, gesturing toward Lexa’s hair.

Lexa rolls her eyes and props her hand on her hip. “Oh, and Peter Pan’s blonde, is he?”

“His hair color doesn’t matter as much -- he has that awesome green cap covering most of it.”

“That’s another thing -- you never wear green, Clarke.” Lexa narrows her eyes. “I, meanwhile, own a pair of green leggings. That’s half the costume right there.”

“Lex, the whole point of Halloween is to dress up as something you’re not. If you already wear half the costume in your day-to-day life, is it really even a costume at all?”

You sit at the kitchen table, pressing your lips together to hide your smile as you watch them argue back and forth, like a ping-pong match. Then Lexa sighs, and you know exactly what’s coming next.

“Fine,” she says, throwing up her hands. “I’ll be Wendy. You have to curl my hair, though.”

Clarke beams, reveling in her brief victory, before her smile fades.

“What?” Lexa asks.

Clarke pushes off the kitchen counter and walks toward Lexa. “I was just thinking about how cute you’d look in Peter Pan’s shirt…”

Now it’s your turn to roll your eyes as you watch Lexa’s cheeks turn pink. “Yeah?” she says.

“Mhm.” Clarke nods and hooks her index fingers through Lexa’s belt loops, pulling her closer. “And his belt, with that dagger -- that’d be pretty hot. You’d wear the cap with the feather in it too, right?”

Lexa huffs, but as Clarke nuzzles her nose against her cheek you can tell Lexa’s defenses are completely down.

She winds her arms around Clarke’s waist. “Are you saying I get to be Peter Pan?”

Clarke nods against Lexa’s cheek. “Only because I just realized I already have a blue dress that could pass for Wendy’s. And I believe that one is a favorite of yours.”

You clear your throat because Clarke’s voice has gotten all raspy, and you’re worried they’ve forgotten you’re there.

At first they don’t take their eyes off each other, though you can tell they heard you. Lexa laughs and presses her lips against Clarke’s for a chaste kiss before stepping back to put some distance between them.

“I’m getting what I wanted, but why does it feel like you won?” she asks.

Clarke smirks, and turns to you. “What do you think, El?”

You shake your head and get up from your seat at the table. “I think you’re both super weird.”

You try your best to give them each a pointed stare without smiling, and then you walk out of the kitchen. You can still hear the two of them howling with laughter when you get upstairs.

***

The next time you walk up the front steps to Clarke’s mom’s house you’re markedly more nervous than you were before. That’s because, this time, Abby’s home.

At first you thought Clarke was nervous, too, because she was talking non-stop the whole drive over, but as soon Lexa parks the car in the driveway the porch door swings open, and then Clarke’s bolting out of the car and running across lawn.

Abby jogs toward her daughter and they slow down as they get closer, pausing to take each other in before nearly collapsing in each other’s arms. It makes you think of how hard it was to be away from Clarke when she went to California for a week. All this time you never realized she was probably feeling the same sadness from being separated from her mother for all these months.

You hear the backseat door open and you turn to see Lexa, offering you her hand. You take it and walk across the lawn toward Clarke and Abby, who pull apart and are wiping their cheeks with the backs of their hands by the time you reach them.

Abby smiles when she catches sight of you but you tense up a little because this suddenly feels like a big moment, and you’re not prepared. She seems to notice, but doesn’t seem to mind, and instead reaches out to cup Lexa’s face before kissing her cheek and pulling her in for a big hug. Clarke comes to stand beside you and rests her arm around your shoulders.

“Mom,” she says when Abby and Lexa part. “This is Eleven.”

Abby smiles at you again, but doesn’t move to touch you, which you appreciate. She gives you a little wave.

“It’s so nice to meet you, Eleven,” she says. “I’ve heard so much about you, and Clarke has sent me photos of some of your drawings. It’s great to have another talented artist in the family.”

Your cheeks suddenly feel like they’re on fire. You whisper “thank you” and hide your face against Clarke’s shirt.

“She’s even sweeter than you said,” Abby tells Clarke, and your face gets even hotter. You knew Clarke would have phone calls with her mom every once in awhile, but you had no idea they talked about you. “Come on,” Abby continues. “Let’s get inside -- it’s chilly out here.”

***

You sit quietly, sipping tea and munching on cookies that Abby set out, while she, Clarke, and Lexa catch up. It sounds like the project she was working on in Kenya was a success, and now she’s going to resume her local practice for a while.

She’s curious about you. You can tell by the way she keeps glancing over at you when she’s talking to make you feel included in the conversation, even though you have no idea what “infection control measures” are.

Not long after your cookies are gone and the tea is cold, Abby announces she has an idea and leaves the room. Clarke groans, like she knows what’s coming, and you think if you had ears like Waffles they would have literally perked up.

When Abby strides back into the room a few minutes later she’s dusting off a large leather album of some sort, which she places on the table in front of you. Clarke sighs and Lexa scoots her chair closer to yours, a wide grin spreading across her face.

“Go ahead, Eleven,” Abby says. “Look inside.”

Using just your thumb and forefinger, you carefully turn to the first page. There you find rows of glossy paper photos tucked inside clear plastic sheets. The photos are all of a chubby, bald, toothless baby.

You look at Clarke and then at Lexa, because they’re very focused on you, but you’re not sure how you’re supposed to react to this. Lexa squeezes your shoulder and then points at one of the photos, where the baby is giving whoever’s holding the camera a drooling, gummy grin.

“Look at that smile,” Lexa says. “See anything you recognize?”

It does look kinda familiar, now that she mentions it, but you still feel like you’re missing something fairly obvious. Then you notice the little freckle above the baby’s lip…

You look at Clarke again and she’s beaming at you, just like the baby, though thankfully without drool and with teeth.

“It’s you?” you ask, and you must sound incredulous, because the three of them burst out laughing.

“Yep!” Clarke says. “It’s baby me.”

Clarke, Lexa, and Abby crowd around you to look over your shoulders as you continue to flip through the album, but you don’t mind -- you’re too engrossed in watching Clarke grow up with each turn of the page.

You watch her learn to crawl, and then walk. You watch her hair get longer and change from a near-white color to a more yellowish blonde. You see her bouncing on her mom’s knee and swinging from her dad’s arms. You see her playing soccer and t-ball and flying down the street on rollerblades. Eventually you see Octavia and Raven, standing next to Clarke in a dorm room full of cardboard boxes.

Then you turn the page and find Lexa.

She’s sitting stiffly on a sofa next to Clarke, who’s leaning into Lexa, with an arm looped around her neck. Both of their cheeks are fuller, and flushed pink, like they just finished playing kickball. And they probably have, since they’re wearing Grounders t-shirts, like the one you sleep in almost every night.

You look at Clarke’s shirt -- the Clarke in the photo -- and see that it has a tear at the neckline, just like yours, though it’s a bit smaller. It’s crazy to think that when this photo was taken you were just a baby, but at the same time your future foster parents were out there, playing kickball and falling in love and starting the family you’d join one day.

You bite your bottom lip to stop it from wobbling and trace younger Clarke and Lexa’s faces with your fingertip. Clarke runs her hand over your hair and you lean into her side.

“I wish I knew you then,” you say.

It sounds silly, since you were just a baby and they weren’t even grown ups yet, but all you can think about is how if you’d gotten to Clarke and Lexa sooner you’d have an album filled with pictures just like this one.

“Us too, kiddo.” Clarke rubs your back and kisses your temple. “But we’re doing a pretty good job of making up for lost time, don’t you think?”

You look up at her and blink away your tears, smiling and nodding because, yes, you really are.

***

Before you leave you are feeling comfortable enough with Abby to let her take your measurements, even though she said Clarke could do it instead if you wanted.

You follow her up to her big, bright bedroom, where she sets a step stool in front of a full-length mirror and has you stand on it. Then she takes a fabric tape measure out of a sewing kit and wraps it around your hips, waist, and chest, and writing each number down.

It only takes a few minutes, but Abby asks you a slew of questions while she works. She’s curious about your favorite subjects in school and how you met Waffles and if Mike is still happy at his uncle’s. Once again, you’re shocked by how much she knows about you, and by how much she genuinely seems to care.

“You know, Eleven,” she says as she puts the sewing kit away, “Clarke says she thinks you take after Lexa, but I see some of her in you, too.”

You can’t help but stick out your chest a little bit at that. “Really?”

“Oh yeah,” she says. “Believe it or not, Clarke was pretty quiet when she was younger. But even then you could tell that her mind was always working -- I could see it in her eyes. And I see that in you, too.”

You smile at her before glancing down at your Keds.

“It’s a sign of great intelligence, you know.” Abby makes her way toward the door and motions for you to follow. “To listen more than you talk.”

You follow Abby down the stairs, immensely flattered, and then you think of the way Clarke’s always talking, now, and you can’t help but giggle.

“Clarke talked the whole drive to your house today.”

Abby’s eyebrows shoot up and then she nearly doubles over with laughter. The two of you are still snickering when you walk back into the kitchen, and neither of you tell a very indignant Clarke what, exactly, is so funny.

***

The next time you see Abby is two days before Halloween -- the night of the neighborhood’s trick-or-treating date -- when she drops by the house to give you the Tinkerbell costume she made for you.

It fits beautifully, and when you spin the green petals on the skirt float into the air. Abby beams at you when you show her, and Clarke kisses her mother’s cheek.

Abby waits downstairs while you, Clarke, and Lexa head up to their bedroom to finish getting ready. You’re practically bouncing with excitement -- this is your first real night of trick-or-treating, group home Halloween parties notwithstanding.

Clarke helps you brush your hair up into a teeny tiny ponytail -- it’s just long enough -- and Lexa helps you into the wings the two of you bought at the costume store last week. Then you go to your room to put on tights and a flower barrette, which Tinkerbell didn’t wear in the movie, but you think it looks perfectly fairy-like.

When you return to Clarke and Lexa’s room they’re almost ready. You stand in the doorway and watch them for a bit before they notice you’re there.

You’re glad Clarke decided to let Lexa be Peter Pan, because she truly looks the part in her green leggings and top, which Abby made for her, too, along with the cap, complete with a feather. A plastic dagger dangles from the belt on her waist, and you roll your eyes just remembering their argument in the kitchen earlier this month.

Clarke is leaning over the dresser to get a good look in the mirror as she applies her lipstick. Even though she’s decided not to wear a wig to make her a brunette, you think she’s the spitting image of Wendy. The blue dress she’s wearing is nearly a perfect match, even if she has to keep tugging the neckline up every few minutes.

Lexa’s standing behind her, securing a blue ribbon around Clarke’s ponytail, and you see them catch each other’s eyes in the mirror and exchange a smile. It hits you then that they never considered dressing up as anything else -- that they based their costume decisions solely on yours -- and your heart feels like it just might burst.

You walk over and wrap your arms around the two of them, and it’s an awkward sort of side-hug, but you feel their arms around you just seconds later.

“I love you,” you say, and you’ve said it a hundred times at this point, but your heart still races at the vulnerability of it.

“Love you too, Tink,” Lexa says, and you exhale.

“Ditto.” Clarke bends to kiss you. “Just promise not to tease Wendy like you do in the movie, alright?”

You laugh and step back, reaching out to loop your pinky around Clarke’s. “Promise.”

Now that Clarke and Lexa can get a good look at you in your complete costume, their eyes light up.

“Eleven, you look so cool right now,” Clarke says, giving you a twirl. “Just like the real Tinkerbell.”

Lexa nods in agreement. “It’s almost uncanny,” she says, before smacking the palm of her hand to her forehead. “Oh, I almost forgot!”

She runs to the closet, where she fiddles around before walking back to you with a small brown satchel. She slips the thin strap over your shoulder so that the pouch falls just below your hip, like the cross-body bags Lexa wears, and even though you’re in a fairy costume you feel very grown up.

“I know Tink doesn’t wear this in the movie, but I figured you needed somewhere to store your pixie dust.”

You look at her, confused, and then Clarke bumps you with her hip.

“Look inside,” she says.

You open the top of the satchel and find that it’s filled to the brim with sparkling gold glitter. You gasp and reach down to sift your fingers in it, careful not to spill any on the floor -- you know from art projects how easily glitter can get everywhere.

“Alright,” Clarke says, clasping her hands together. “Only one thing left to do.”

Before you realize what’s happening, Clarke lifts you up so you’re standing on their bed. Then she and Lexa stand at the foot, looking up at you.

“Do you have your happy thought ready, Lex?”

“I do. You?”

“Yep! Now all we need is a little bit of pixie dust.”

They look at you expectantly, and this is unbelievably silly -- you’re a kid and you know that -- but Clarke and Lexa are grinning up at you like they’re no older than the day they met, and you wonder if maybe Neverland isn’t just pretend -- maybe a part of you never really grows up, after all.

And so you reach into the satchel, grab a handful of gold glitter, and fling it into the air. Clarke squeals and Lexa laughs as they throw their hands out and spin beneath it, and soon glitter is stuck to their eyelashes and sprinkled through their hair.

“Okay,” Clarke says, sticking her hand in your bag. “Now you.”

You jump off the mattress and think of your happy thought as Clarke tosses glitter into the air above you while you’re mid-flight. A part of you is surprised when your feet hit the floor, because for a minute there you were certain you were flying.

***

There’s a commotion coming from downstairs when it’s finally time to leave. You hold Clarke and Lexa’s hands as you round the corner into the kitchen, only to find Octavia, Raven, Lincoln, and Abby.

Or, more accurately, three Lost Boys and Captain Hook.

“Hey, Tinkerbell, what did you do with Eleven?” Raven asks as you run over to hug her.

“You sure that’s not Eleven?” Octavia says. She raises her hand above your head and arches an eyebrow. “Eleven wouldn’t be able to slap my hand this high, so if she can do it, it’s definitely Tinkerbell.”

You leap into the air and easily give Octavia a high five, and they all gasp.

“Woahhhh,” Lincoln says. “After Halloween we should see about teaching Tinkerbell how to play basketball.”

Everyone laughs, and you haven’t even gone trick-or-treating yet and your cheeks already ache with happiness.

You walk out to the front yard before sprinkling the three Lost Boys with pixie dust, and you even toss some on Captain Hook, even though she’s Tinkerbell’s enemy. You notice that Abby’s costume is pretty big on her, and Clarke must see you looking because she bends down to whisper in your ear.

“That was my dad’s costume,” she says. “I was Tinkerbell once, when I was little.”

You smile and follow the group as they walk to Mrs. Mitchell’s house. “He didn’t want to be Peter Pan?”

“Nah,” she says. “He loved pirates. He kept saying ‘arrrr, matey’ all night.”

Abby turns around and sneers, “Arrrrrr, matey!” in a deep voice, and the three of you crack up. You’re glad Clarke thinks her dad would’ve loved you, because you know you’d love him.

When you reach Mrs. Mitchell’s house all of the grown ups hang back as you walk up to the front door. You knock quietly and call out a soft “trick-or-treat.”

Then from behind you you hear a chorus shout “TRICK-OR-TREAT!” so loudly that Mrs. Mitchell looks a bit shocked when she opens the door.

“Oh, Eleven,” she says, looking a bit relieved. “I thought there was a gang of hooligans out here.”

You glance over your shoulder. “There kind of is.”

She drops a piece of candy into your pillow case -- a full-sized Kit Kat bar -- and compliments your costume. You thank her and jog back to the group, who all ooh and ahh over your first candy conquest.

It goes on like this for nearly two hours. You go to Maya’s house, and Harry’s, and several of the other neighbors you know. Each time Peter Pan, Wendy, the Lost Boys, and Captain Hook shout “trick-or-treat!” with you, and each time your voice gets a little louder.

At one point you run into Lily, who’s dressed as her favorite soccer player, and you instruct her to twirl as you sprinkle her in pixie dust. The glitter that lands on the pavement looks so beautiful, sparkling under the streetlights, that you decide leave a trail of it behind you as you wind your way back to the house.

The bag is almost empty by the time you walk in the door, so you sprinkle the last few specks onto Waffles’ fur as he rubs against your shins to welcome you home.

You’re kind of exhausted by the time everyone’s gathered in the living room, sorting through your candy to make sure it’s safe, but you fight off yawns because you’re not ready for the night to end just yet.

Once Clarke and Lexa have discarded any iffy pieces, you organize the candy by type on the living room floor. When you’re done you snap a photo with Clarke’s phone and then tell everyone to take whatever they want.

They try to protest, saying that you earned it, but if you learned anything from growing up in foster care it’s that sharing the spoils is better than enjoying them yourself, so you demand everyone takes at least three. They relent, and soon you’re all munching away -- a group of glittery misfits sitting in a circle on the floor.

(It makes you think of “Hook,” another of Clarke’s vintage movies, when the Lost Boys and grown-up Peter Pan eat make-believe food in Neverland.)

When it’s time for everyone to leave you give each of them a hug -- even Abby, for the first time -- because you’re so glad you got to share tonight with them.

“You won’t be too old for Halloween next year, will you Eleven?” Octavia asks before she gets in the car. “Because I definitely want to do this again.”

“I won’t,” you say, and you’re certain. Because if Clarke, Lexa, and their friends didn’t have to grow up, neither do you.

***

Later that night, in the middle of a neighborhood laced with trails of gold, there’s a little blue house with chipping paint and peeling wallpaper, where two women and a growing girl sleep tangled up in the same bed.

There’s glitter all around them -- in their hair, under their fingernails, in the folds of the sheets -- and all three of them are dreaming that they’re flying.

None of them know they each had the same happy thought.

(That they’re so in love with their little family.)

Chapter Text

You’ve never been in a shop this fancy before.

It’s a little boutique right on Main Street, not too far from the lake, and the walls are lined with a rainbow of dresses. You walk along one row of hangers and gently run your fingers over the fabric, velvety satin and spiky tulle and delicate lace.

You feel a little guilty about being here because you have a closet full of dresses -- more than you could have ever dreamed of owning -- but you’ve sprouted up over the last few months and the hems aren’t falling where they used to. And Clarke and Lexa both agreed an everyday dress won’t do.

Clarke’s talking to the shopkeeper, probably explaining the occasion, but you’re not listening anymore because you’ve stopped dead in your tracks.

Your eyes have landed on a display at the back of the store where a mannequin is wearing a simple silk dress that’s the same color as the eggshells you found in the robins’ nest after they flew south for the winter. As you walk closer you see that it has lacy capped sleeves and a light pink ribbon tied around the waist.

Clarke chuckles from behind you, and you can imagine her smile.

“Tell me you have this in her size.”

***

You can’t stop fidgeting in your spot in the back seat for all of your excitement.

A few weeks back when Clarke and Lexa told you DCF signed off on letting them take you out of the state for a weekend you literally couldn’t believe it. For most of your life things have never quite gone right, but lately the good things keep on coming and you’re always sure that each will be the last.

Everyone’s luck runs out eventually.

You don’t really wrap your mind around the fact that you’re going on your first roadtrip until you’re all packing up your clothes into two big suitcases, your pajamas piled neatly on top of Clarke and Lexa’s, your socks nestled in right beside theirs.

And now here you all are, in the family car heading north. There’s a chill in the air but you each roll your windows down, like it’s too much to keep all this happiness stuffed into such a small space.

Clarke, who’s driving, cranks up the radio when one of her favorite songs comes on and starts singing along. Lexa laughs and leans over the center console to kiss Clarke’s shoulder, and to your surprise she joins in, too. You’re not surprised that their voices sound wonderful together.

You know the song, but you’ve never been much for singing. Even in music class you just mouth the lyrics instead of letting any actual noise come out. Something about it just seems so vulnerable.

But today your heart feels so light, and the foliage lining the highway is getting brighter with every mile -- a blur of yellows and oranges and burgundies. They remind you of the phoenix in your books, the bird that’s reborn from flames.

The chorus is coming up again and your heart starts beating really fast. Then, without missing a lyric, Clarke points to the right and you see a sign welcoming you to a new state for the first time in your whole entire life.

Before you realize it, you’re singing. Lexa turns to look at you and Clarke grins at you in the rearview mirror. They’re beaming like you invented the world’s first melody, and both of their voices get louder.

Goosebumps rise on your arms, and it’s not because of the cold. The three of you singing this cheery song is the best sound you’ve ever heard.

***

By the time you reach the inn your voice is hoarse and the sun has set, but even in the darkness you’ve never seen this much open space. The building looks like a really large, old house in the middle of a tree-speckled field.

Your room is on the top floor -- three stories up -- and from the windows you can see into the branches of a nearby tree. There are two huge beds against the wall -- one of which you’ll get all to yourself -- and after some coaxing from Clarke you jump on the mattress and collapse onto its pile of pillows.

Suddenly, you feel exhausted. You’d stopped at a diner off the highway not long ago, so you’re happily full and the hotel room is warm and it makes your eyelids feel heavy.

The next thing you know Lexa is rubbing your shoulder and softly calling your name. You sit up to find her and Clarke already in their pajamas. Clarke’s sitting under the covers in the other bed with her sketchbook in her lap, the stick of charcoal making that familiar scratchy sound as she drags it across the page.

“You’ll be more comfortable in your PJs,” Lexa says, handing them to you. “Your toothbrush is on the counter in the bathroom.”

After you get changed you return to find Lexa sitting on the side of your bed with your book open in her lap. You crawl under the covers next to her and once you’re settled she begins to read.

It’s not long before Lexa’s voice and the whispering scratches of Clarke drawing lulls you to sleep.

***

It’s funny how anticipation is one of the few feelings that permeates sleep.

You wake up before the sunrise, and to your surprise Clarke and Lexa are getting up, too. Clarke runs out to get breakfast while you and Lexa get ready, and once she’s back it feels like time speeds up. The morning goes by in a rush of bagels and coffee (juice, for you) and braids and curling irons and clothes irons and missing (and then found) heels.

You’re all bustling out the door when Clarke grabs your and Lexa’s wrists and pulls you both back to stand next to her in front of the full-length mirror. Clarke’s stunning in her flowy, mint-green gown, Lexa’s regal in her charcoal, tailored suit, and you feel lovely in your lacy, blue dress.

“Damn,” Clarke says, positioning you to stand in front of them, “we look good.”

She takes a mirror selfie of the three of you, and then it’s off to the races again. Butterflies swoop in your stomach as Lexa drives down winding, tree-lined streets.

Twenty minutes later she turns right onto a gravel-paved road, and then the barn comes into sight.

It’s not like the red barns you’ve seen in children’s books. This one has weathered, gray shingles and chipping white trim and sunflowers along one side. Not far from the flowers, several rows of wooden folding chairs are lined up facing a platform in front of the open barn doors.

Lexa drives past the barn until you reach a little farmhouse that sits behind it. Clarke bolts toward the house once Lexa puts the car in park, and you hear the shrieking before you and Lexa even walk in the door.

“Oh my god, O, you look stupid beautiful, I’m gonna cry,” Clarke’s saying as you step over the threshold.

She takes Octavia’s hands in hers and steps back to get a good look at her, and you have to agree -- she look gorgeous in her wedding dress.

Soon Octavia and Clarke are whisked away to another room for makeup, and the farmhouse comes alive with activity. You meet a bunch of new people, but you’re too excited to be scared.

That is, until you meet Lexa’s mom.

If Lexa looks like royalty, Indra looks like a warrior. She appraises you with her chin high and her face blank. You watch as Lexa embraces her and speaks to her in a hushed tone. When Lexa pushes up the sleeve of her jacket to show Indra her diamond tattoo, Indra’s face softens.

She asks you a few questions about yourself and calls you “youngin,” but she pronounces it more like yongon. With each answer you give your nerves slip away, and by the time she’s learned all she needs to know you can tell there’s kindness hidden just below her stoic surface.

Indra glances around, as if to make sure no one else is looking, and winks at you.

“Welcome to the family, Eleven,” she says, and you blink when she huffs out a laugh. “I’m getting two new family members today.”

Lexa smiles and wraps her arm around Indra’s shoulders. “Where is Lincoln, anyway?”

“Upstairs with the groomsmen. Not allowed to come down until the bride is out of the house.” Indra rolls her eyes. “Who knew your soon-to-be new sister was so traditional?”

“Please, that’s one of the reasons you love her,” Lexa says. “She’s practically taken more to our traditions than her own.”

Indra lifts her chin a centimeter, as if she won’t admit to loving Octavia, and Lexa shoots you a smirk.

“I better head upstairs.” Lexa bends to straighten the sparkly headband that’s keeping your hair behind your ears. “You okay here?”

At that moment there’s a commotion by the door as Raven stumbles through, wearing the same dress as Clarke and holding several bundles of flowers in her arms.

“Oh good, El, you’re here,” she says when she spots you. “I need some help.”

“Yes,” you say to Lexa. “I’ll be fine.”

***

The next few hours are a blur, like you’re watching moments fly by from the window of a car. Clarke comes back into the front room once her makeup is done and you think she’s prettier than any movie star. One of the flowers in Raven’s bundles is for you -- a dusty pink rose that ties onto your wrist with a ribbon and makes you special. You hear the crunch of gravel as cars park in the lot beside the barn and a growing murmur of voices, one of which sounds like Abby.

Before you know it Lexa comes downstairs to say the groom and groomsmen are ready.

Then it starts to rain.

Octavia decides to wait a few more minutes to see if the shower lets up, but it only gets heavier. Your heart sinks as you press your face against the windowpane and watch the wedding guests dash into the barn as the folding chairs on the lawn get pelted with fat drops of water.

After all that, everything’s ruined.

Lexa kneels beside you. “They say it’s good luck to have rain on your wedding day.”

You look over at her, trying your best to keep your bottom lip from jutting out. “Is that true?”

“Probably not.” She shrugs. “But sometimes there’s magic hidden in misfortune. It just depends on how you look at it.”

You lean in to kiss Lexa’s cheek and she wraps her arms around you.

“Alright people, we’re doing this!” Octavia calls. “What’s a little rain, anyway?”

Everyone in the room cheers and the wind howls through the eaves in agreement.

***

You’ve never been to a wedding before, but you can’t imagine there’s ever been one as enchanting as Octavia’s and Lincoln’s.

You, Clarke, and Lexa are the first of the wedding party to walk down the aisle, and one of the groomsmen holds an umbrella over the three of you as you shuffle the short distance from the farmhouse to the barn. Gentle classical music is coming from inside, but otherwise it’s quiet.

You blink as your eyes adjust to the dim light inside, but once you can see your breath catches in your throat. All of the dinner tables have been pushed to the corners of the barn, and the wedding guests -- in rain-smattered suits and dresses -- line the walls three rows deep.

The small gap between them serves as the aisle, leading down to the minister, and as soon as you and your foster moms step onto it people start to clap and cheer. Some who know Clarke and Lexa wave hello and they say hi back. You hear a burly man with tattoos tell Lexa she has a beautiful family and she reaches out to squeeze his hand.

All of the stuffy, formal weddings you’ve seen in movies pale in comparison to the joyfulness of this one.

Once you reach the other end of the barn you stand in the front next to Abby, and Clarke and Lexa move to opposite sides of the minister. The guests get louder and louder as the rest of the wedding party enters, and by the time Indra and Lincoln come down the aisle you can hardly hear the music.

It’s almost startling when a hush falls over the crowd as Octavia steps in from the rain on the arm of her brother Bellamy, who you met briefly back in the farmhouse.

As Octavia gets closer you can see that the hem of her white dress is tinged with mud and raindrops are sliding down her arms, but she’s smiling at Lincoln like everything about this day is better than anything she could have imagined in her wildest dreams.

You think Clarke and Lexa must have had the same smiles on their wedding day.

You glance over at them, expecting them to be gazing at each other, only to find them looking at you. Clarke puts her hand over her heart and Lexa mouths “see?” You feel breathless as you press your palm to your chest and nod.

There is magic in this misfortune, and it’s not hidden at all.

***

After the ceremony everyone dries their tears and pushes the tables back into place in no time. You’re too high on love to eat much dinner, but you gobble down a thick piece of wedding cake and drink two glasses of sparkling cider.

The energy in the barn grows boisterous again and the other people at your table are having an animated discussion, but you’re content to sip from your champagne flute and watch your foster moms.

They’re drinking champagne, too -- the real kind -- and leaning into each other. It seems like touching shoulders isn’t enough, though, because they’re constantly seeking out more contact. Lexa wipes frosting from the corner of Clarke’s mouth, and Clarke skates her fingertips up and down the inside of Lexa’s forearm, and you make a mental note to ask them more about their wedding on the drive home.

Once the dessert dishes are cleared away the music gets louder and more upbeat, and a lot of the grown ups move to the dance floor. A small group of kids run by your table and your eyes follow them as they clamber up a narrow set of stairs that leads to a landing overlooking the rest of the barn.

“I bet that was the hayloft, back in the day,” Clarke says, following your gaze. “Want to check it out?”

You nod gratefully and take her hand. The kids up on the hayloft smile at the new arrivals and Clarke high-fives a couple of the ones she knows. She introduces both of you to the rest of them, and then you help her take some cool shots of the space below on her phone.

A boy a little younger than you taps your shoulder and asks if you want to play Truth or Dare. The other kids are giving you hopeful looks, and they seem nice enough, so you agree.

Your sides ache from laughing when you finally get a dare you’re hesitant to do. It must be pretty late because the crowd down below has thinned and there are only a handful of couples on the dance floor. One of them is Lexa and Clarke.

You look down past the fairy lights strung around the rafters to watch them sway to the slow beat of the song. Clarke’s head is resting on Lexa’s shoulder, and Lexa’s cheek is pressed to Clarke’ temple. Their arms are looped around each other like they’re certain the other isn’t going anywhere, but they want to hold on anyway.

You don’t have to listen to the lyrics to know it’s a love ballad, but you think that even if the music stopped they wouldn’t break apart.

“Are you chickening out?” a girl named Riley asks.

“No way,” the boy (Eli) says. “She’s the bravest one here.”

You turn back to them and raise your chin, channeling Indra, before marching down the stairs.

You’re still feeling torn when you reach the dance floor. The love song ends, giving way to music with a faster beat, but as you suspected your foster moms continue their lazy sway. Lexa sifts her fingers through Clarke’s soft curls and Clarke presses their foreheads together.

They don’t notice you until you’re right next to them.

“Hey kiddo!” Clarke tucks your hair behind your ear, and you remind yourself to get your headband back from Riley before you go. “Having fun up there?”

“Yeah,” you say, shifting your weight.

Lexa glances at your hands, which you didn’t realize you were wringing. “Everything okay?”

The two of them break apart (except for their hands) to give you their full attention.

“We’re playing Truth or Dare, and I’m the only one who hasn’t chickened out once,” you say, standing up a little straighter.

“That’s awesome!” Clarke squeezes your shoulder.

Lexa squints up past the rafters and you turn to see the other kids leaning over the railing, staring down at you with rapt attention.

“What dare are you supposed to do now?” she asks.

Your eyes automatically look past the dance floor through the open barn door, where the rain is still pelting steadily down.

“Go outside,” you say. “But I don’t want to ruin my dress.”

You shoulders slump when you realize you just admitted that you contemplated tarnishing the dress they bought you -- the most expensive dress you’ve ever had -- just for a game among children you don’t even know. You keep your eyes on your shoes until Clarke squeaks, and you look up in confusion.

“Oh my god, Lex, remind me to add ‘The Sound of Music’ to our vintage movie night list,” she says, bouncing on her toes. “This reminds me of the scene after ‘Sixteen Going on Seventeen.’”

You have no idea what they’re talking about but Lexa promises to remind her. You’re about to tell them you’re sorry, that you love your dress and it’s only a stupid game, when another song starts playing.

It’s the song from yesterday -- the one the three of you sang in the car.

Clarke and Lexa exchange a shocked grin and then they both hold out a hand to you.

“We’ll get your dress dry cleaned,” Clarke says, stepping out of her heels.

“Ready?” Lexa kicks off her shoes and you slip off your flats. “Go!”

You grasp both of their hands and the three of you run off the dance floor, past the dinner tables, and out onto the lawn. You all squeal a little at the shock of the water, but it’s warmer than you expected, and the soggy grass feels nice beneath your feet.

The music is loud out here, like the barn is amplifying the sound, and Clarke starts to dance.

At first you and Lexa just watch, laughing as Clarke jumps around, the rain quickly soaking her hair and the top of her dress.

To your surprise you join in next. You spread out your arms, tilt up your face to the starry sky, and twirl. Clarke cheers and soon you hear a third pair of splashing footsteps and you know that Lexa has joined in.

A peal of laughter escapes your lips at the sight of the three of you, grinning and flushed and absolutely soaked. Right before the song ends you grab their hands and they reach for each other’s, closing the circle, and you dance like that -- linked -- until the next song starts to play.

It’s another slow one and Clarke reels the two of you in until you’re all hugging -- one big, soggy mess -- and you wish there was a vow that you could make to them in this moment.

The best you can do is whisper that you love them, and they say it back like they always do, and it feels like the most precious thing in the universe (which it always does).

You, Clarke, and Lexa dance in the rain until your fingers prune and your teeth start chattering.

You’re between them, still holding hands, when you walk back into the barn. You look behind you to see three trails of wet footprints over the exact spot where the newlyweds got married just hours before, and for the first time you allow yourself to imagine what it would feel like to promise your forever.

(You hope that Clarke and Lexa can’t discern the raindrops from your tears.)

Chapter Text

You run upstairs, storm into your room, and throw yourself onto the bed, face-down. You had been watching your favorite show after school when a news alert came on, and the footage on the screen made you feel sick. 

Helpless

You’re still wiping your tears on your pillowcase when you hear Lexa softly knock on your open door and walk into the room. (You’ve long since learned the sound of her footsteps.)

She presses her hand to the center of your spine and you let out a shaky breath. 

“Why did that have to happen?”

She rubs slow, soothing circles over your back and shoulders, around and around, and you'd almost forgotten you asked a question when she speaks. 

“People get lost. They do the wrong thing. They’re selfish. They hurt other people. They always have and they always will.”

You blanch and turn to face her, appreciative and scared of her honesty all at once. But before you can say anything she cups your cheeks with her hands. 

“But here’s the thing, Eleven -- good acts are stronger than bad. Remember our trip to the ocean, how the tide would creep into the sea right before the waves came crashing back?”

You nod and sit up to wrap your arms around her waist and nuzzle into the soft fabric of her shirt. 

“Goodness is like the waves,” she says. “It is strong, it is fierce, and it will not be stopped.”

Chapter Text

Back when you were in foster care, you only got presents twice a year -- a random holiday gift from a non-profit that worked with the group home, and a handmade birthday craft from Mike.

(You know you’re still in foster care, but it doesn’t feel like it anymore. You try not to think about that too much -- one last ditch attempt not to get your hopes up.)

But ever since that day Clarke and Lexa bought you a new walkie-talkie -- one that would reach Mike -- they’ve been giving you an almost absurd amount of small treasures. Sometimes they’re for special occasions, like the leather-bound sketchbook they gave you when you aced your history project. Sometimes they’re for milestones, like the set of sparkly barrettes Clarke bought you when you showed her you could almost tuck your hair behind your ears.

But, more often than not, Clarke and Lexa will give you presents for absolutely no reason at all.

(Once you hear Abby half-heartedly chide them for spoiling you, but Clarke tells her they’re just making up for lost time. You’re not entirely sure what she means, but it makes Lexa smile.)

You cherish every single gift they give you, but it’s the surprise ones that really get you. Honestly, they could wrap up a pinecone in newspaper and you’d feel touched. Just the fact that they chose something specifically for you -- for no reason other than making you smile -- fills your chest with a cloying sort of joy. Like laughing with a mouth-full of ice cream -- a delectable ache.

Those presents are also your favorite because Clarke and Lexa always hide them somewhere for you to find. One time you discovered a plush cat that looked just like Waffles nestled amongst your other stuffed animals with a yellow bow stuck to its head. Another time you slipped your foot into one of your Keds only to find seven bundles of colored string for making friendship bracelets. (Clarke and Lexa found matching rainbow bracelets under their pillows a few days later.)

So when you and Clarke come home from running errands one Saturday afternoon, you’re surprised when you walk in the front door and nearly trip over two little bundles wrapped in silver paper that’s so sparkly it looks like it was made from ground-up disco balls.

You haven’t gotten any tests back lately or passed any milestones that you can think of. What’s more, Clarke looks just as confused as you.

“Lex?” she calls, bending to pick up the one labled with her name. “Babe? What’s going on?”

No one replies except for Waffles, who meows hello as he trots into the entryway. You see Lexa’s keys on the hook by the door, so she must be home.

Clarke raises one eyebrow and you laugh as you pick up the gift with your name on it. It feels squishy, like a folded towel, and your bundle is slightly smaller than the other. A floorboard creaks somewhere above you and Clarke smirks.

“Alright, Miss Mysterious,” she yells up the stairs. “Are we just supposed to open these or what?”

Lexa doesn’t answer and you bounce on your toes with excitement. Usually Clarke is the silly one, but when Lexa goofs around she goes all out.

Clarke shrugs and the two of you head into the living room, where you can sit on the couch and keep the bottom of the stairs in sight. Clarke holds the package up beside her ear and shakes it, as if she’ll hear something rattling around inside. She’s doing it just so you’ll laugh, which makes it even funnier, and you collapse against the back of the couch in a fit of giggles.

Waffles jumps up onto the sofa next to Clarke and starts pawing at the shiny paper right around the same time her fingers begin toying with the tape, and you laugh again because you never realized it, but they’re both equally impatient.

“Lexaaa, we’re opening them!” you call, blushing a little because you’re still not used to being loud. “Last chance to come down and see our reactions!”

You think that might lure her out from her hiding spot. Lexa, like you, is a keen observer, and you know she likes giving presents a million times more than receiving them. You’ll never forget how she looked on Clarke’s birthday -- the way her eyes lit up.

The floorboards creak a few more times and you hear a muffled snicker from the top of the stairs, but she still doesn’t answer. They say that curiosity killed the cat, but in this moment you think it’s going to kill you because the anticipation is overwhelming.

You’re relieved when Clarke nudges you and counts down -- three, two, one -- and your heart is hammering as you both tear into the wrapping paper. The sudden movement frightens Waffles and he leaps off the couch in an arc so high it’s like his paws have little springs attached.

You can hear Clarke ripping the paper to shreds beside you, but you go slower because you’ve never seen gift wrap like it before and you want to save it. Clarke starts to chuckle at whatever she’s found inside and it takes all your willpower not to turn and look.

Normally you’d fold the paper neatly into quarters, but today once you peel it off you toss it aside so you can examine its contents.

At first you think it’s a sweatshirt.

It’s made of soft gray cloth with a white patch in the middle, and there’s a zipper going up the center. Then you realize it’s folded, so you hold it up and find that there are pants attached at the waist, like the pajamas Wendy’s youngest brother wears in “Peter Pan.”

You stand from the couch to hold the piece of clothing in front of you and you see more fabric hanging from the collar like a hood. Somewhere in the back of your mind you’re slowly piecing it together, but all of a sudden Clarke makes a shrieking sort of laugh and your eyes follow hers to the bottom of the stairs.

Where Lexa’s standing wearing a massive grin and a raccoon onesie.

“Oh my god, you big nerd!” Clarke says, though she's smiling even wider than Lexa. She unzips the matching onesie in her hands and stands to step into it. “That was so dramatic, I can’t.”

They both look at you and you realize you’re grinning from just watching them. Their attention spurs you into action, and you unzip your onesie -- thrilled that it’s the exact same as theirs -- and put it on over your dress.

Lexa walks over and pulls the hood onto your head before she leans in to kiss your nose.

You start getting a weird feeling, almost like deja vu, as you watch Lexa tug Clarke’s hood over her hair. This time, Lexa keeps her grip on the fabric and uses her leverage to pull Clarke in. Clarke’s cheeks turn pink and you wonder if she’s hot from the extra layers or if she’s actually blushing. Lexa nuzzles against her cheek, resting there a moment before pressing a soft kiss to Clarke’s lips.

When Lexa pulls back a few short inches you cover your mouth with your hand because Clarke -- the one who practically makes a sport out of making Lexa turn red -- is definitely blushing.

A memory is pushing its way to the front of your mind, and it breaks the surface at the exact same moment Lexa speaks.

“I saw these online and couldn’t resist.” She steps back from Clarke and puts one hand on her waist, the other on your shoulder. She smiles at you and you know just what she’s going to say. “Our little raccoon family.”

(It’s fall, but for an instant it smells like sunshine and grass and summer.)

“Aww,” Clarke says, pulling the two of you in for a hug. “You precious sap.”

As you wrap your arms around them you glance over at the mantle, where the birthday card you made for Clarke all those months ago is still proudly on display. On the front is your drawing of three raccoons on the lawn; on the inside is the letter you wrote her back when your voice was still struggling to find your words.

In your mind you travel back to that day -- the one with the picnic on the lake, when the best present of Clarke’s birthday was her coming home early and surprising you.

Back then you didn’t think you could ever be happier, but you realize now that there’s no limit on the joy these two women can bring you. It hits you that since the moment you walked into this little blue house they revolved their lives around you, a purposeful, steady orbit held together by love and kindness and inherent goodness.

And all this time you were in the center, being shaped by the force of it; healing and evolving into someone who raises her hand in class and hums as she draws and goes to bed with a smile on her face every single night.

This hug is lasting longer than usual but you don’t want to let go just yet, and neither Clarke or Lexa seem to mind.

You tighten your grip around them as you shift to look at the photo hanging over the couch. In it, the you who thought she could never be happier smiles out into the living room, wedged between Clarke and Lexa and oblivious to the napkins behind her blowing away in the wind.

It was the first photo of the three of you as a family.

It was the first time you allowed yourself to believe that you could be part of one.

Growing up, you always thought that families were a fixed thing. Predetermined. But they’re not, or not always. Families can be a choice. They can be fluid and expanding, moments building on moments until the whole is larger and stronger than the sum of its parts.

Months ago, when you thought DCF might take you away, your world felt so incredibly fragile. But now, standing in the middle of a raccoon family sandwich, you realize you’re a part of something no man-made entity can dismantle.

The government is no more likely to make the Earth stop spinning than it is to break the bonds of who you choose to love.

Lexa’s fingertips smooth over your cheek and you realize that you’re crying. Clarke cups your chin and kisses the top of your head, and you smile up at them through your tears. They don’t ask what’s wrong, they just hold you closer, and your love grows and grows.

When you find your voice you whisper, “I have an idea.”

***

“I just press the little button on the touchscreen thingamajig?” Harry asks from where he’s standing on the sidewalk. He’s gripping Clarke’s iPhone with his thumb and forefingers, holding it away from him like it might explode.

“That’s right,” Clarke calls. “The one I showed you.”

You turn to smother a giggle against Clarke’s arm, leaves crunching underfoot. Clarke gives you a gentle prod with her elbow, but she winks and you know she gets that you’re not making fun -- you just can’t keep your happiness in.

“Ready?” Harry hollers.

Clarke takes a moment to straighten Lexa’s hood, even though it looks perfectly fine to you. Then she and Lexa step closer to you and wrap their arms around your shoulders.

“Sure this is the right spot, El?” Lexa asks.

“Yep! It’s perfect.”

“Okay, Harry,” Clarke says. “Ready!”

”Alright. On the count of three say ‘raccoons!’ One… two… three!”

”Raccoons!"

Once Harry’s done the three of you drive to the store, still in your onesies, and print out the non-blurry shots right away. When you get home Lexa puts the best one on the mantle beside Clarke’s birthday card, and seeing the two raccoon families next to each other makes you lightheaded.

It almost feels like you willed something magical into being.

***

All while brushing your teeth and getting ready for bed you’re anxious, and you’re not sure why.

It’s Lexa’s night to tuck you in. She squeezes into your twin bed with you and Waffles and you read a chapter from your book aloud to her, which makes you feel a little bit better. You love getting lost in another world, and every time you stop reading Lexa blinks, coming back to herself, like she’s just as enraptured by it as you are.

“Love you, El.” Lexa leans in to kiss your temple. “Have a good sleep.”

She starts to stand but you grab her wrist, pulse roaring in your ears. You know why you were so nervous, now. But you don’t ask for much, and you certainly don’t know how to ask for this.

Lexa sits on the edge of your bed and looks at you with a furrowed brow. She holds your hand, thumb brushing over your wrist, and just waits. You remember what she said that time about being able to tell her and Clarke anything, and you take a deep breath.

“We’re learning about family traditions in school and I was just wondering if we could do the same thing next fall,” you blurt, the sentence coming out like one long word.

Lexa tilts her head, trying to get a read on you. Your cheeks feel like they’re burning.

“Take a photo together on the front lawn?”

It’s not what you were asking, not really, but you nod.

“Of course,” she says, then she leans in to kiss your cheek. “That sounds like a great tradition.”

You squeeze your eyes closed and your grip on her wrist is so tight you worry you might be hurting her. When you open your eyes again she’s still there, waiting, knowing you have more to say.

You know you’ll never get the words out -- the ones that are in your heart -- so you try to write it out on our face.

Really?” you whisper.

The few short seconds it takes for Lexa to go from confused to comprehending are the most terrifying of your life. You know she gets what you’re asking when her lips part and her chin dips down.

She blinks rapidly a few times and looks up to the ceiling. Then she cradles your face in her hands and leans in so close her features start to blur.

Really,” she says.

You smile so wide you worry your face might split in two.

***

You can’t fall asleep for the life of you.

It must be close to midnight when Clarke pokes her head in to whisper her final goodnight. The few times you’ve been awake to witness what you think is her nightly ritual you’ve stayed quiet -- you know she stays up doing design work because she spends all afternoon with you, and she must be tired. But tonight you can’t help but whisper “night, Clarke” back.

Even in the dim light you can see her smile. Waffles’ ears perk up at the creaking sound the door makes as she eases it open. She sits on the side of your bed.

“Can’t sleep, kiddo?” she whispers, and you shake your head. “Need something good to dream about?”

You don’t -- your dreams are almost always good, these days -- but you nod anyway.

“Why don’t you dream about next year’s onesies. You’ll probably be too tall for the raccoon one soon, at the rate you’re growing.”

You bite your lip to try to hold back your smile. Lexa told her.

“I love the idea of having an excuse to dress up post-Halloween,” she continues. “Great tradition idea, El.”

Clarke bends to give you a hug and kiss. She whispers that she loves you, and you hope she can’t detect the wobble in your voice when you say it back.

That night you dream of the living room mantle lined with photos of the three of you in the front yard. You’re dressed as raccoons, then unicorns, then zebras, then owls, then tigers, and you’re taller and taller in each one.

***

It really doesn’t feel like you’re in foster care anymore. And for the first time you allow yourself to hope that, one day soon, you won’t be.

Chapter Text

You’re sitting next to Lily on the bus ride home from a field trip to the Museum of Natural History the first time it happens.

It’s the coldest day of the year so far and you blow a hot puff of air onto the window beside you and trace a heart into the condensation. Lily’s prattling on about all the games she played with her cousins at her aunt’s house on Thanksgiving, and you listen happily because you love the animated way she tells stories.

“And then my cousin Cory -- he’s the one with the sick baseball card collection -- finally found me hiding in the tiny space behind my uncle’s tools in the garage, twisted up like a pretzel.” She slaps her knee, doubling over with laughter. “Cory had to help me untangle my legs, which took forever because he was laughing so hard. Oh man, you should’ve seen it, Eleven.”

“I wish I had,” you say, smiling as you imagine the scene. “Sounds like a lot of fun.”

“So, what did you do on Thanksgiving?”

“We went to Abby’s house,” you say. “I’ve never been so full in my whole entire life.”

You think back to the perfectly set table covered with platters heaped with turkey, stuffing, potatoes, squash, carrots, turnip, peas, and cranberry sauce. Clarke, Lexa, and Abby, passed your plate around the table, loading it with a bit of everything before they served themselves.

Eating the food was almost as much fun as making it. At dinner, Lexa still had a smear of flour on her neck from when Clarke kissed her while kneading crust for the apple pie, and Clarke hummed with exaggerated pleasure every other bite she took.

Eventually, the conversation turned to Thanksgivings past. Clarke and Abby talked about how much they loved spending the holiday with Clarke’s dad, who fancied himself a semi-professional baker and always woke Clarke up early to help him make dessert from scratch. Then you and Lexa compared foster care Thanksgivings, from families who just heated up TV dinners to the gloopy boxed mashed potatoes they served at the group home.

All of the reminiscing should have been laced in sadness, but it didn’t feel that way. Clarke lit up when she reminisced about her dad, and you and Lexa dissolved into hysterics when you realized the “Bless us, oh Lord, and don’t let me get food poisoning” foster kid prayer has been a Thanksgiving tradition for generations.

(When it came time to go around and say what everyone was thankful for, Abby said being home with her family, Clarke and Lexa said they were thankful for you, and you said you were thankful for Waffles, because it was the closest thing to what you really meant that you could say without crying.)

“Hello, Earth to Eleven,” Lily says, waving her hand in front of your face.

You blink. “Sorry. What’d you say?”

“I asked if Raven or Octavia or any of those guys were at Abby’s for Thanksgiving.”

“No,” you say. “Just me and my moms.”

It’s the coldest day of the year so far, but it suddenly feels like you’re submerged in lava. You look out the window and take a deep breath to steady yourself. When you exhale a cloud of condensation forms on the window again, revealing the heart you traced earlier.

“That’s cool,” Lily says, like you didn’t just have the most vulnerable verbal slip-up in the history of the universe. “You’ll have to tell me the next time Abby comes to your house. I want to ask her all about Kenya.”

You nod and turn back to the window, pretending to watch the city flying by while doing the breathing exercise Dr. Kapoor taught you -- four seconds in, hold for four, four seconds out, hold for four, repeat.

You calm down a lot sooner than you expected. Lily, who had been sitting quietly beside you, squeezes your shoulder and turns to talk to the kid across the aisle. (You add her to your running mental list of things you’re thankful for.)

For the rest of the ride you think about how good those two words felt as they slipped from your slips.

My moms.

***

People have been referring to Clarke and Lexa as your moms for a while now, and you hadn’t really thought much of it.

It happened in your past foster homes, too, either because it was quicker than saying “foster mother” or “foster father” every time, or because people assumed you were your foster parents’ biological child.

The difference, this time, is that somewhere along the way you began thinking of Clarke and Lexa as your moms, too.

You’re not sure when it happened. When you rack your brain, one moment floats to the surface.

It was in Target at the start of summer, when you, Clarke, and Lexa were looking for nail polish that would best match your Fourth of July romper. Lexa was painting strokes from sample bottles onto your nails while Clarke sang “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and handed Lexa new colors to try.

You were laughing so hard it was difficult to keep your hand still, and eventually the brush slipped and Lexa painted a glittery blue streak down the side of your thumb.

“Clarke!” Lexa said, fixing a now-giggling Clarke with a look that was all exasperation, except for her eyes. “Better add nail polish remover to the shopping list.”

“Nah, I think we’re onto something here,” Clarke said. She opened a bottle of red polish and painted another streak on your thumb, alongside the blue. “Maybe we’re starting a new trend -- maybe nail polish is sick and tired of people placing limitations on its potential.”

You were mid-laugh when you heard someone say “excuse me” from behind you.

The three of you moved aside to let a teenage girl grab a bottle of black nail polish that you were blocking. Lexa apologized and the girl just shrugged.

“Your daughter’s adorable,” she told Lexa. Then she winked at you. “Your moms seem like a riot.”

After the girl walked away Clarke rolled her eyes at you and Lexa, presumably for blushing, though you thought Clarke’s cheeks were kinda pink, too.

“What that girl said in the store, does it bother you?” Clarke asked as the three of you made your way back to the car with a shopping cart full summer dresses and enough nail polish to last through your teen years. “You know, when people assume we’re your moms? I know we haven’t been correcting them, but we can, if you want.”

You laughed to yourself, because you’d been wondering the opposite -- that maybe it bothered them when people assumed you were their daughter.

“No. Not at all,” you said. “Does it bother you?”

Clarke and Lexa exchanged a glance. “We should be so lucky,” Clarke said.

You weren’t sure what she meant, but she squeezed your hand and smiled at you, and you figured it was a good thing.

***

After the incident with Lily, you started referring to Clarke and Lexa as your moms whenever you could.

It’s just easier that way, you tell yourself. “Clarke and Lexa” and “my foster moms” take up four precious syllables, while “my moms” is only two. Besides, everyone you talk to knows they’re your foster parents -- you don’t have to keep reminding them of that fact.

(And it definitely has nothing to do with the way calling them your moms makes you feel all warm behind your ribs.)

The best part about this semantic transition is that no one seems to notice. If Lily realized why you got panicky on the bus she doesn’t let on, and neither Maya nor Mrs. Mitchell bat an eyelash when you drop ‘foster’ from the phrase.

In fact, you kinda forget about the whole thing until one of your phone calls with Mike.

You’re lying on the couch in the living room watching Waffles sniff the boxes of Christmas ornaments Lexa brought up from the basement this morning. She and Clarke are in the kitchen washing up from dinner and debating whether they should actually cut down a tree or buy one from the local high school.

Clarke’s in the middle of making an impassioned argument in favor of buying a pre-cut tree and it takes a lot of effort to keep your attention focused on Mike. He’s telling you about all of his new friends -- Dustin, Lucas, and Will -- and you’re happy things are going so well for him at his uncle’s.

In the kitchen, Clarke groans dramatically. “You know Lexa, sometimes I think you like trees more than people.”

A laugh bursts out of you before you can stop it. You smother the rest of it with your hand, wondering what Lexa could have said to make Clarke draw that conclusion. You feel bad for interrupting Mike, but he doesn’t seem to mind.

“What’s going on over there?”

“Oh my moms are just having some ridiculous pretend fight,” you say. “They do that a lot.”

Your moms, huh?” Mike says.

You know what he’s getting at, but you decide to play dumb. “Mhmm.”

He’s quiet for a moment, and you can just imagine him fixing you with a knowing smile. It makes you think of that time he visited, when the two of you sat wedged in the branches above your treehouse and you told him how soft it was to have two moms.

You tense up, wondering if he might push the issue.

“Say it again,” he says.

You almost play dumb for the second time, but Mike’s your oldest and best friend and he doesn’t deserve that. You take a deep breath.

“My moms,” you whisper.

He sort of hums into the receiver and you can imagine his smile growing. There’s another beat of silence.

“I like the way your voice sounds when you say it.”

***

There’s flour on nearly every surface in the kitchen. It’s also on Lexa’s nose, under your fingernails, and on the tip of Waffles tail. Oh, and all over Clarke.

Ever since Thanksgiving Clarke has been talking about making waffles (the food, not the cat) from scratch on Christmas morning, and today is the trial run.

It’s almost noon but you’re all still in your pajamas at Clarke’s request -- it feels more Christmassy that way, she says -- and you and Lexa are losing steam as Clarke starts on batch number three.

Clarke must notice, because she tells you both to sit at the table and makes two mugs of hot chocolate. You hug her when she places yours in front of you -- brimming with whipped cream -- because you want her to know that even if you need a break from helping, you don’t want to be anywhere else.

Normally you hate the winter months. They’re dark and cold and filled with long breaks from school, which are uncertain times for any foster kid.

This year, however, you think you understand all this hubbub about “the Christmas spirit.” You’ve never practiced any religion, and you don’t think Clarke or Lexa do either, but the cheery build-up to the holiday -- all the focus on giving and generosity -- is contagious.

Clarke squeezes you back and turns to give Lexa her mug, stooping to press a soft kiss to her lips. When she pulls back there’s even more flour on Lexa’s face and Clarke cups her chin, gazing down at her, and by now you know she’s committing the scene to memory so she can draw it later.

(When Clarke finally moves back to the counter Lexa’s cheeks are pink under the smudge of flour, and you decide to try to draw her later, too.)

The whir of the mixer fills the kitchen and you know Clarke’s started in earnest on batch three. You sip your hot chocolate and watch as she adds milk and butter to the flour.

It’s lucky Lexa thought ahead and bought an extra carton of eggs this week, because there are only three eggs of the original dozen left. Clarke places them on the counter, drops the carton in the recycling, and opens the refrigerator to get more.

But the mixer is still on, and it’s making the eggs on the counter vibrate.

“Clarke,” you say.

Her head is practically in the fridge as she fishes around in there and she doesn’t hear you. The eggs are teetering now.

Clarke,” you try again, louder, just as the phone starts to ring.

“Lex, can you get that?” she calls, still moving things around in the fridge.

Lexa stands to answer the phone -- the old fashioned kind that plugs into the wall -- and the eggs start to roll to the edge of the counter.

It’s one of those moments in slow-motion and double-time all at once.

“Mom!”

Clarke bumps her head on the freezer door handle as she straightens to gape at you.

Lexa takes in a sharp breath and halts in her tracks in the middle of the room.

The phone keeps ringing.

Three eggs fall to the floor.

***

Time seems to stand still until the person calling the house finally gives up, and all that remains is the groaning of the mixer and your shallow breathing. The relative silence snaps Clarke out of her haze and she turns to unplug the mixer, egg shells crunching underfoot.

“The eggs,” you say, helplessly. “They were falling.”

Clarke and Lexa wordlessly sit in their usual chairs at the table and you pick at the hem of your Grounders t-shirt. You can feel their eyes on you and it’s like you’re beyond embarrassment. Or like you’re observing this scene from a distance -- another you out in the treehouse, looking in at this one.

“You okay, kiddo?” Clarke ventures.

You shrug one shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Lexa says.

She reaches toward you and rests her hand on the table, palm up, the way she does every time she wants to comfort you but isn’t sure if you want to be touched. There’s flour wedged in the crease of her lifeline. You take in a shaky breath, blinking back tears, before linking your fingers together.

“We’re not upset,” Clarke says. “Just surprised. Sorry if we scared you.”

You want to tell them that you aren’t scared -- you feel stupid. You never knew your mom. You didn’t know a thing about her. But it didn’t stop you from imagining her, especially during bad times. In your mind, she was beautiful and kind -- the opposite of Papa. She would cradle you in her arms and sing to you and tell you you were the most important thing in the world.

You haven’t thought about her in a long time, and hot tears stream down your cheeks. Before you came to this little blue house, you spent a lot of time roiling with fury.

All of the other kids in the group home had moms. They were flawed -- negligent or worse -- but they existed. They weren’t a big gaping hole in the other kids’ lives. Even among other foster children, you were the unluckiest. And it wasn’t fair.

It wasn’t fair.

Clarke rounds the table to kneel in front of you. She cups your face in her hands, smoothing your tears away with the pads of her thumbs. You squeeze your eyes shut and the far-away you can see the smudges of damp flour on the skin just under your lashes.

You take a deep breath, and when you exhale you feel years of anger escape with it.

“I know you’re not my mom,” you say quietly. “Neither of you.”

Lexa’s grip on your hand tightens. “We know.”

“We’d never want to replace her,” Clarke says.

You open your eyes. “I never knew her.”

It seems like no one knows what to say to that. Clarke drops her hands to your knees and Lexa rests her free hand on Clarke’s shoulder. Clarke tilts her head to briefly press her cheek to Lexa’s knuckles -- acknowledging her touch -- and it makes your eyes sting again.

They’re trying so hard for you. You take another deep breath.

“I used to imagine her,” you say. “Or a version of her. What she’d be like if it were up to me.” You smile bitterly. Grimace. “She was perfect.”

You look at Clarke, who’s nodding encouragingly at you, eyelashes wet with unshed tears. Then you look at Lexa, brow knit with pain that feels both old and new. She slips off her chair to kneel beside Clarke and covers both hands on your knees with her own.

A kind of strength courses through you from their touch. The last image you see from the far-away you is at a wide angle; you in the chair, Clarke and Lexa kneeling at your feet, bolstering you. The three of you speckled in flecks of white.

“She was perfect,” you say again. You glance between them as the warm truth of what you’re going to say next mends something inside you -- something you once thought was irreparably damaged. “But you’re better.”

Clarke toys with a strand of your hair (it’s nearly down to your chin, now). Her bottom lip is quivering and Lexa doesn’t seem to be faring much better.

Clarke’s smile is wobbly. “Better than perfect?” she asks.

You nod and press the palms of your hands to each of their floury cheeks. “Better than I could have ever imagined.”

***

After the three of you dry your tears, clean the mess in the kitchen, take showers, and change into fresh PJs, you cuddle on the sofa and hash it all out.

“You can call us whatever you want,” Lexa says. “Whatever you’re comfortable with.”

“Well I don’t know about whatever you want,” Clarke says, poking your side playfully. “Like, I don’t want you to come home from school tomorrow and shout, ‘Hello Bozo!’”

Lexa rolls her eyes. “Why would she call you Bozo?”

“Uh, I dunno, maybe because I’m hi-lar-ious like a clown?”

Lexa pats Clarke on the head. “Sure, keep telling yourself that.”

“Come on, there has to be something you want to veto.”

“Nope.”

“Oh, really?” Clarke smirks. “So you’d be okay if El calls you Heda?”

“Clarke!” Lexa hisses, her cheeks flushing pink.

You snicker and open your mouth to ask about that word, but Clarke rushes on. “I’m also veto-ing Dad and all other male parental figure names. Oh! And Cheryl.”

“Cheryl?” you ask (because Lexa is still recovering).

“Yeah.” Clarke wrinkles her nose. “Knew a Cheryl once. Didn’t like her much.”

“I doubt that was high-up on El’s list,” Lexa says. “And that other one is a word you made up, so it wouldn’t have even crossed her mind, you walnut.”

“Ohh, I like the ring of ‘walnut.’” Clarke flashes Lexa her widest smile. “Add that to my ‘maybe’ list, El.”

Lexa sighs her what-in-the-world-am-I-going-to-do-with-you sigh (your favorite Lexa sigh) and turns to you.

“I actually have a name I’ve been thinking about,” she says. “If you’re open to suggestions, of course.”

You nod vigorously. It’s so lovely and typical of them to let you choose, but it’s a daunting task, and you already feel worn out after this morning. You shift so that you’re lying down -- head in Clarke’s lap and legs thrown over Lexa’s -- and try to ignore the way your heart had sped up when Lexa said she’s been thinking about this.

“I was a few years older than you when I moved in with Indra, so that’s all I’ve ever called her. But her family is from New England, and there they pronounce mom like ‘mum.’”

You study Lexa’s face for a moment. She looks almost hesitant -- like she’s about to tell you to forget it.

“Mum,” you try.

Lexa smiles at you in the way she does sometimes -- like you’re someone she’s been waiting on for years and she can’t believe you’re finally here.

(Mum.)

You’re not sure how it’s possible, but your eyes are stinging again. “I like that.”

Lexa breathes out an incredulous breath and squeezes your shin. She presses her lips together and nods as a tear escapes from the corner of her eye. You get jostled when Clarke leans over to kiss Lexa’s temple and whisper something you can’t quite make out in her ear.

Once Clarke’s settled back against the cushions she clears her throat. You wait for her to speak as she smooths your hair with her fingers.

“Now that you know my veto list, I guess I can tell you something I thought of,” she says after a while. “Aside from ‘walnut.’”

You giggle and tip your head back so that you can see her face. In your mind’s eye raw eggs roll toward the edge of the counter, and your pulse picks up.

“You called me ‘mom’ earlier, and I know that was just, like, a gut reaction,” she says, talking fast. “And that’s what I call my mom. Hah. As you know…”

She shuts her eyes and shakes her head, like she’s chastising herself. Lexa reaches out to cup her cheek, and Clarke opens her eyes to smile at her. She gives Lexa a shallow nod before looking back down at you.

“So obviously if you want to call me ‘mom’ I would love that. Like, so much. But…”

She trails off again and your heart clenches. And all this time you thought you were the vulnerable one.

You reach up to cup Clarke’s other cheek -- mirroring Lexa -- and she makes that pouty face she does when she thinks you and/or Lexa are being “stupid cute.”

“Tell me,” you say.

“Feel free to say no -- and I mean that,” Clarke says, and you nod. “But I was thinking I could be ‘Mama’ and, if that’s too long, ‘Ma’ for short.”

You grin so wide your cheeks hurt.

“When I told Lily about how you reacted when I punched Jimmy -- that you said he sounded like an idiot -- she called you ‘Mama Bear Clarke.’”

Clarke beams at you. “Get out!”

“Really. I promise.” You trace the lines of her smile with your fingertips. “Mama,” you whisper.

(Mama.)

Clarke’s smile stays put, but you can tell she’s holding her breath. “Ma,” you say.

She raises an eyebrow in question -- a habit she must have learned from Lexa. Rather than answer you scoot back until you’re sitting in her lap -- something you’re really getting too big for -- and loop an arm around both of their necks. Lexa shimmies over until she’s right next to Clarke, and she pulls your legs onto her lap again.

You feel giddy and young and bright with heady gratitude.

“I think that’s perfect.” You kiss them both on the cheek and they pull you into a tight hug. “Better than perfect.”

***

(Maybe you’re not the unluckiest, after all.)

Chapter Text

Snow has always been a nuisance to you. At your previous foster homes, snow made it more difficult to walk to school and feel your toes, no matter how many socks you wore.

Not to mention that every so often it snowed so much that school would get canceled, and you’d have to stay home in a drafty house with a crabby foster parent who had to take time off work to watch you.

But here everything has a tinge of magic to it, and snow is suddenly wonderful.

December has been particularly chilly, but you don’t mind. The lake froze over earlier than ever, Lexa told you on the night before you went skating for the first time in your life. You learned so much that day, like that Lexa played hockey in high school, and that Clarke can’t stay on her feet on the ice even in sneakers.

Clarke let you borrow her white figure skates, which looked barely worn. They were a bit big on you but Lexa laced them up real tight so your ankles wouldn’t wobble. Clarke broke out into applause when you took your first tentative step onto the ice and you felt exceptionally proud.

(There was just something about wearing something of your Ma’s while learning something from your Mum that made the world shift, but in a good way. Like it was all slowly clicking into place.)

It was early still and some teenagers were shoveling last night’s snowfall to clear off more fresh ice, but Lexa led you to a smaller area -- already cleared -- where a few younger kids were skating. Some of them were pushing around milk crates to help them keep their balance. Lexa glanced at the spare crates on the edge of the lake and lifted her eyebrows in question. You shook your head and she smiled.

You took another step on the ice and you felt like that baby deer in one of Clarke’s movies, teetering as it stood for the first time. You remembered what Lexa told you and dug the edges of the blades into the ice and leaned forward. Once you were steady Lexa grabbed your mittened hands in hers.

At first she skated backwards and just pulled you along, letting you get a feel for the ice gliding underfoot. She took wide laps around the shoveled-off section, steering clear of the little kids, and Clarke cheered every time you passed by her on the bank.

(Later Clarke would show you the photos she took and point out how you and Lexa looked so alike, with your knit hats and rosy cheeks and gleeful smiles.)

The first time you tried to skate without holding Lexa’s hands you fell. And you fell a bunch more after that. But each time you took a few more steps before you went down, and then Lexa taught you how to turn those steps into glides, and at some point, without even realizing it, you went from trying to skate to just skating.

When you completed a lap all on your own Clarke tossed two celebratory fistfuls of snow into the air and Lexa spun in a circle, just like the figure skaters on TV, even though she was in hockey skates. You laughed, and then you fell, and then you laughed some more.

You didn’t even realize your knees were bruised until you sunk into a steaming hot bath that night.

***

Two days before Christmas it snows so much that the city decides to cancel school until after the holiday break. And you’re thrilled.

It’s not that you don’t like school. You love it, actually. It’s just that it’s so hard to concentrate on your worksheets when there’s a Christmas tree at home with a pile of presents beneath it that seems to grow larger each day.

(Clarke won the tree argument, in the end, and you bought one from the band kids’ fundraiser in the high school parking lot. Lexa made her pinky promise you’d cut down a real one next year and Clarke kissed her pouty bottom lip.)

Your presents for Clarke and Lexa are all ready to go, though they’re not beneath the tree. As soon as you wrapped them you slid them under your bed, right where you hid your shoebox of food all those months ago.

Sometimes you sit on the carpet, lift the dust ruffle, and contemplate the neatly wrapped gifts. It’s weird to think about what you were like when you first came here. When you talked about it with your therapist last week you said it was like you were a half-inflated balloon that didn’t know you were half-inflated. All your life you were hardly getting off the ground while the other kids soared on by.

You’re still not quite like the others, and maybe you never will be. But your life feels fuller and lighter than it ever has. Than you ever knew it could.

Back when you hid scraps of food under your bed you thought going hungry was the worst thing. If only you’d known the worst part of your life had already ended.

If only you’d known that the worst thing in this world is a scarcity of love.

(Your therapist says ignorance is bliss, but you think it’s self preservation.)

(Your therapist also says it’s normal to worry your balloon will pop.)

(He suggests you talk to your moms about it.)

(You don’t.)

***

The day before Christmas Eve you’re on the front lawn trying and failing to build a snowman. You and Lily made an awesome one in her yard last week, but she’s in Florida visiting her grandparents and you can’t lift the ball meant to be the snowman’s head on your own.

You get it about halfway there when it slips from your grasp and splits into pieces once it hits the ground. It’s just snow, but your frustration boils over and you stomp on the base of the snowman until it’s powder.

Today is just not your day.

Back in the group home, Mike called them your “dark days.” You’re pretty even-keeled, but sometimes all of your anger and frustration reached a tipping point and your whole body would get taut with fury.

The other kids knew to steer clear of you on the days you stomped around with your hands balled up into fists. Once your anger even induced a nosebleed.

But today isn’t really a dark day. You don’t have that kind of anger any more. It’s just that after a string of so many fantastic days this one is just mediocre, and on some level that’s upsetting, too.

It all started this morning when you were playing with Waffles and he got his claw stuck in your new tights. The hole quickly frayed into something Lexa called a “run” and now you don’t have any tights to wear with your Christmas dress.

Making matters worse is the fact that Clarke has been super noisy all day. The phone keeps ringing with early holiday well-wishers and her phone voice is extra loud, especially when she’s talking to her college friends, which she did for over an hour.

And that’s not the only noise getting on your nerves. Clarke and Lexa have been baking since this morning, getting a jump-start on Christmas treats, and the clattering of pots and pans has been constant.

You know your moms aren’t annoying you on purpose. You know that. But it all made your brain feel kinda overloaded -- like you want to jump out of your skin -- so you went outside to play in the snow to get a break from it.

So of course your snowman didn’t work out. Nothing is going right today.

You try to pull yourself together when you hear the door creak open before Lexa comes out all bundled up.

“Hey,” she says, tentatively. She waves a mittened-hand, not straying from the walkway. “I’m going to the store. Want to come?”

“No thanks.”

She bites her lip and looks at the pile of snow next to you -- the one covered in bootprints -- but doesn’t mention it.

“Are you warm enough?”

“Yep.”

You feel bad for being short with her, but it’s like you can’t help yourself. You look down at your boots because you’re afraid to see the hurt expression that very well may be on her face.

“Okay,” she says after a beat. “I’ll be back soon.”

Not long after the car pulls out of the driveway you hear footsteps crunching along the sidewalk and almost groan. You perk up a little when you see it’s Maya, who has a bulky red shovel slung over one shoulder.

“Hey Eleven! Looks like you’ve got the potential for a pretty sweet igloo,” she says, nodding at the pile of snow. “Need some help?”

An igloo. You can’t help but snicker to yourself -- it’s like winter’s version of making lemons out of lemonade.

“Sure!” You wave her over. “What’s with the shovel?”

“I was clearing a path for Harry to get to his car tomorrow. He visits his son every Christmas Eve.”

In no time Maya helps you turn your snowman failure pile into a giant, heaping mound. It’s a little taller than you when she deems it ready to be dug out. The two of you kneel at the base and begin scooping out snow with your hands. Maya hums to herself but otherwise you work quietly beside one another, and the repetitive motion starts to soothe your nerves.

Lexa comes home with a shopping bag a little while later, but you just keep scooping away snow while she exchanges pleasantries with Maya. You feel a lot calmer now, but the sun is quickly setting and you want to finish before it’s time for dinner. You’ve never been in an igloo before, but you bet it’s nice and quiet in there, and that thought spurs you on.

The sun is just barely peeking out above the trees by the time the hollowed-out space is big enough for you and Maya to squeeze inside.

You were right -- it is quiet in here. Warmer too, somehow. You slouch against the wall right next to Maya, and even though you’re in a snow fort you feel so grown up.

The shadows grow longer as the two of you chat. Maya tells you about a book she’s reading for AP English. Like you, she has an affinity for the written word. She’s telling you about her dream of majoring in creative writing in college when you hear a door open.

“El?” Clarke calls.

Maya pauses mid-sentence, waiting for you to reply, but you keep quiet. She quirks an eyebrow at you and you just shrug, focusing on dusting snow off your boots.

“Eleven?” Clarke says, louder this time. “Dinner’s almost ready.”

It sounds like she’s standing at the side door by the kitchen. You wonder if she can see the igloo from there.

“I should be getting home for dinner, too,” Maya says, motioning toward the exit. “You first -- it’ll probably be easier for me to crawl out after.”

The scowl that grows on your face feels foreign after all this time. You don’t want to leave the igloo. You don’t want to say goodbye to Maya. And, most of all, you don’t want to go back into that noisy house.

You know you’re being immature and irrational and a slew of other things, but you can’t help it. You don’t budge.

Maya asks you if you’re okay at the same time you hear Clarke’s familiar footsteps coming down the walkway.

“El? You out here?” she calls, an edge of worry in her voice. And just like that, your annoyance turns to guilt.

By the time Clarke’s legs come into view there’s a lump in your throat. The laces on her boots are undone, and something about that makes your eyes sting.

“We’re in here, Clarke,” Maya says, squeezing past you. You take in a shaky breath and follow her out, keeping your eyes cast down. “Well, I better get going,” Maya continues. “Have a great Christmas! Bye, Eleven.”

You glance at her as you whisper goodbye and you wish you hadn’t because you see that Clarke doesn’t have a coat on. She’s shivering, arms wrapped around herself, and it’s all your fault.

“Let’s go inside,” she says before turning on her heel and striding back toward the house.

You follow, instinctive dread building in your gut. Nothing good comes of disobedience. It’s a lesson you’ve learned over and over again -- one you thought you’d learned for the last time. You’ve never gone against Clarke or Lexa before. You’ve never been tempted -- not even when they made you go to the doctor. With them it’s like even if they’re asking you to do something you’d rather not, you know they have your best interest at heart.

And you had to go and ruin it with your stubbornness.

The smoke detector goes off right as you walk in. Clarke swears -- something she never does (at least not in front of you) -- and rushes to the stove.

“Lex, will you take out the batteries?” she calls over her shoulder.

Lexa’s rushing footsteps sound on the stairs as Clarke tosses a pan into the sink, and your brain starts to feel scrambled again. You cover your ears with your hands and stomp over to your seat at the kitchen table, not caring that you’re tracking snow across the tiles.

When the alarm finally stops you slouch against the chair, pressing the heels of your palms to your eyes.

You hear Lexa walk into the kitchen. She doesn’t say a word but you can imagine her taking in the scene -- you sulking at the table, Clarke frazzled by the stove. Her eyes would find Clarke’s, like they always do, and Clarke would just shrug, maybe shake her head.

Clarke sighs, as if on cue. Curiosity gets the best of you and you open your eyes.

Lexa’s standing by the fridge, looking between the two of you. Clarke glances up at the ceiling and takes a steadying breath before turning her gaze on you.

“Are you okay?” she asks.

It’s the last thing you were expecting. In a way it stings more than any cruel words that have ever been lobbed at you. Because of you there are goosebumps on Clarke’s arms, dinner is a burnt mess in the sink, and there are dingy boot prints tracked across the floor.

All of that, and she’s worried about you.

You bite your wobbly bottom lip and nod. Clarke looks you over as if to make sure, then turns away, running a hand through her hair.

“Did you hear me calling you?”

“Yes,” you whisper.

“Why didn’t you answer?” Her voice sounds strained -- like it’s taking all her effort to keep it even.

All of the reasons feel so far away now. You shrug. “I’m having a bad day.”

Clarke looks over to Lexa with a stitch between her brows. “The chicken’s burnt.”

When Lexa crosses the distance between them and places a comforting hand on Clarke’s back, it’s like you can actually see how much stronger they are together. They’re a unit, through and through. And for the first time you feel like you’re on the outside of it.

“Why don’t we take a breather,” Lexa says. “Eleven, please change into your pajamas and come back downstairs. I’ll whip up something else for dinner and we’ll discuss this when it’s done.”

You slip off your boots and place them where they’re supposed to go, on the rug by the kitchen door. That’s when you notice a new pair of sparkly gold tights -- identical to the ones Waffles ripped -- sitting in a shopping bag on the counter. Lexa must have bought them for you at the store.

You walk upstairs with your head hanging. You change into your PJs and try not to think about how Lexa’s voice sounded when she called you by your full name.

When you’re done you sit at the top of the stairs and listen to them moving about in the kitchen. Every so often they exchange a few hushed words, but mostly you hear the sounds of cooking. You cringe when someone drops a lid onto a pot and you’re reminded of why your bad mood escalated.

Now you understand what Mike meant when he said you needed to learn how to get out of your own way.

So you pad downstairs and decide that’s exactly what you’ll do.

“I got upset when Waffles ripped my tights,” you blurt before you even cross the threshold to the kitchen. “Then it was really noisy in the house, and sometimes noise bothers me a lot. I went outside to calm down and couldn’t make a snowman on my own, so I stomped on it. Building the igloo with Maya helped me calm down, so when Ma said it was time for dinner I ignored her because I was happy outside.”

You take a deep breath and venture a glance at your moms. Any other time you would laugh -- they’re standing there frozen, Lexa mid-stir at the stove and Clarke partway through setting the table. Lexa nods at you, and you find the strength to continue.

“I should have just told you how I was feeling,” you say. “And I should have listened when you called. I’m sorry. I understand if you have to punish me.”

Clarke flinches at that last part. She crosses to where you’re standing and pulls you into a tight hug.

“Apology accepted,” she says. “And no one’s punishing anyone. This is a learning opportunity, okay?” She steps back and takes your face in her hands, and you nod as best you can. “Good. Let’s talk it out over mac and cheese.”

Your nerves settle as you help Clarke finish setting the table. Lexa squeezes your shoulder when you pass her to get the napkins, and you don’t feel outside of them anymore.

“So, El, let’s discuss what we could have done differently today,” Lexa says, scooping macaroni into your bowl. She sounds kinda awkward, like she’s reading from a script, but she’s calling you El again so you don’t mind.

“I’ll start,” she says. “We should’ve been more mindful of how loud we were. We know that bothers you sometimes, and should have been more aware.”

“Especially me,” Clarke says, smiling at you. “Octavia always said I should come with a mute button.”

You surprise yourself when you laugh, and Clarke and Lexa chuckle, too. Lexa takes her seat, having filled everyone’s bowls, and they both dig in. You push your noodles around with your fork, appreciating the time they’re giving you to gather your thoughts.

“I should have told you that I needed to be somewhere quiet,” you say after a moment. “Maybe I could have gone to visit Mrs. Mitchell.”

“Going outside was a good idea,” Lexa offers. “It’s just too bad you had trouble with the snowman. I would’ve helped.”

“I know.” Your chin drifts toward your chest as you remember Lexa looking at you and your failed snowman from the walkway. You should’ve spoken up then.

“Hey,” Clarke says, and you snap out of it. “Learning opportunity, remember? You’re not in trouble.”

Your eyes well up with hot, fat tears. “I should be,” you whisper. “I wasn’t good.”

Clarke puts her fork down and reaches across the table to cover your hand with hers.

“No one can be good all the time, kiddo. But you always try your best, and that’s why we love you.”

You glance between her and Lexa, fighting the quiver in your bottom lip. You think of over-inflated balloons and Dr. Kapoor’s advice.

“What would make you stop?” you ask.

Clarke’s brow furrows. “Stop what?”

Instead of answering you turn to Lexa, and you can see that she understands. She swallows thickly before she speaks. “What would make us stop loving her.”

Clarke’s jaw falls open as you nod in confirmation. She closes her eyes for three long seconds. When she opens them she crosses her arms and leans back in her chair, arching an eyebrow at you.

“Try us,” she says.

Lexa smiles at her in that way she does sometimes, like she could just melt, and you giggle around the lump in your throat.

“What if I punch Jimmy again?”

“Been there, still love you,” Clarke says.

“If I get kicked out of school?”

Lexa grins. “Wouldn’t even make a dent in how much we love you.”

“What if I run away?”

“We’d track you down.” Clarke squeezes your hand. “We’d go to the ends of the Earth.”

“And we’d love you even then,” Lexa says.

You push your chair away from the table so abruptly they startle, but they’re both standing by the time you make it around to them. You take their hands and look into their faces for a moment. They’re closer to you than they used to be -- you’ve grown over an inch in the time you’ve been here. It’s as if their love is nourishing your body as well as your soul.

“I don’t deserve you,” you say quietly. It’s a thought that’s been running through your mind since your first day here, and it’s a relief to finally say it.

Clarke bends and presses her forehead to yours.

“You’re wrong.”

You shake your head against hers, the tears you’ve been holding back all day finally streaming down your cheeks.

“I’m not,” you choke out. “My mom didn’t want me. My dad hated me. And to all my other foster parents I was just a bother.”

“They were wrong, too,” Lexa says, voice thick with emotion. “All of them. God, If I ever see any of th-”

Clarke shushes her and presses a kiss to her temple. You smooth your thumb over Lexa’s knuckles and watch as Clarke’s touch eases the tension in her jaw.

“I think we should give Eleven one of her presents early,” Clarke says softly.

Lexa’s eyes widen. She looks down at you, then back at Clarke, and nods, like she’s found the answer in your faces. She reaches up to swipe her thumb over Clarke’s cheek and, you can’t be sure, but you think she’s wiping away a tear.

***

You leave the three bowls of barely touched mac and cheese on the kitchen table and relocate to the living room. Lexa turns on the lamp next to the couch but leaves the overhead light off, so the only other source of illumination is the multi-colored lights strung around the Christmas tree.

Clarke grabs a neatly wrapped, rectangular present from beneath the tree and the three of you snuggle in on the sofa with you in the middle. Waffles trots in and bats at a few of the low-hanging ornaments until you tell him off. Instead of running away to sulk like he normally does when scolded he curls up on the armchair, purring and looking at the three of you.

You hope he knows nothing he does would make you stop loving him.

Beside you, Clarke takes a deep breath and you feel Lexa’s arm reach behind you to cup the back of her neck.

Suddenly you feel nervous.

Abby told you that their family tradition was to open presents to each other on Christmas Eve so that Christmas Day would be all about gifts from Santa. You and Lexa had liked the sound of that, and the three of you decided to carry on the Griffin family tradition.

And Christmas Eve is tomorrow night. What could be so important that it can’t wait?

Clarke places the gift in your lap and for a fleeting moment you wonder if it’s a pet -- maybe another kitten -- that would be hungry if it stayed wrapped for that long. You feel silly for even thinking it when you realize the gift is too small, not to mention that Clarke and Lexa wouldn’t do that to an animal.

“So, we were…” Clarke starts, but her voice cracks and she stops.

Lexa reaches across you and takes Clarke’s hand, squeezing so hard their knuckles turn white. It reminds you of the time the social worker came to your house after the incident with Jimmy -- when you saw them holding hands under the kitchen table -- and your stomach lurches.

What if the gift’s something bad, and they’re using Christmas to soften the blow? You trace the edges of the present with your fingers. It’s about the size of a book, shallow with sharp corners.

It could be a picture frame. Something to remember them by.

You’re trembling when you take their joint hands and place them on your knees. Everything inside of you wants to stay silent, but if you learned anything today it’s that nothing good comes of keeping things bottled up.

“I’m scared,” you say.

“Oh shoot, sorry,” Clarke says, voice still wobbly. She kisses the top of your head and you relax a bit.

“We’re just excited,” Lexa says. “We were going to save this for tomorrow night, but after today we didn’t want to wait.”

You frown, keeping your eyes on the elves dancing across the wrapping paper. After today? The first day you ever did anything to upset them? As far as you’re concerned your moms promising they’ll always love you -- no matter what -- is the biggest gift you’ll ever receive in your whole life.

All that, and they want to give you even more?

“Whenever you’re ready,” Clarke says.

You don’t think you’ll ever be ready, but you don’t want to keep them waiting, so you flip the present over to get at the tape. You unwrap it carefully, like you do with wrapping paper you want to save. In this case it’s not necessary -- there are loads of other gifts wrapped in the same paper under the tree -- but the movements are calming, and it feels like a ritual.

(You work a little faster when Clarke starts to bounce her leg.)

Once you slip the paper off, your first feeling is relief that it’s not a picture frame.

It’s a sketchbook. Similar to the ones you and Clarke use, but fancier. This one is white, hardbound, and covered in a clear plastic sleeve, like a library book.

“Psst, it’s backwards,” Lexa says, and you realize the binding is on the right.

You flip it around.

You’re such a weird mix of anxious and excited that when you finally lay eyes on the front cover it’s hard to take in. It’s a drawing by Clarke -- that much you’re sure. But you can’t discern what the subject is.

Everything is in fragments.

Your walkie-talkie is near the center. The frilly hem of a pink dress is off to the right. The tips of your yellow keds are peeking out from the bottom left corner, with a few glittery barrettes scattered above them. And a furry black tail hangs down from the top.

You cover your mouth when it hits you -- it looks like the floor of your bedroom before you’ve tidied up.

Now that you’ve worked that out you notice the writing, done in Lexa’s neat script.

The Story of Us,” it reads in large block letters. Then, in smaller writing below it, “by your Mum and Mama.”

Clarke and Lexa are practically sitting on the edge of the cushion, so you lean back to look at both of them, grinning so wide you can hardly stand it.

“You… you made me a book?”

“That we did,” Clarke says.

“Want to read it now?” Lexa asks with so much hope in her eyes you can’t imagine saying no.

Not that you’d want to. You can’t believe they made you something. No one has ever done that for you. Well, aside from Mike, but that was only because he couldn’t afford to buy anything. You run your fingers over the plastic protecting the drawing and imagine them working on this after you were in bed. If it’s possible, you smile even harder.

“Of course,” you say, flipping to the first page. There’s a drawing on this one, too, but you focus on the text.

Once upon a time two girls named Clarke and Lexa met on a kickball field. They immediately became sworn enemies… until they fell in love.

You try to smother a giggle as you take in the illustration. It’s in panels -- like a comic book -- showing Lexa hitting Clarke with a kickball, Clarke hitting her back, and the two of them sitting side-by-side in a dorm room with little cartoon hearts floating above their heads.

Your moms scoot in closer as you turn the page.

After they graduated from college, they moved into the smallest apartment in existence. But they had each other and were very happy. Then, one day Lexa told Clarke the one thing that would make her even happier.

You lean into Lexa’s side as you take in the drawing on this page. It shows a little room that has a bed, sofa, and kitchen inside of it, which seems very silly. Your moms are lounging in the bed, smiling at each other and covered to their chins with a fluffy white duvet.

A little word bubble above Lexa says, “I want to be a foster mom…”

For some reason goosebumps sprout on your arms. You turn your head to kiss Lexa’s shoulder before flipping to the next page.

They knew they couldn’t raise a child in their tiny apartment, so they started saving as much money as they could. It took them several years, but one day they were able to buy a little blue house, right down the street from a lake.

They were finally ready.

This illustration, of course, is of the house you’re in now. Clarke’s mowing the lawn and Lexa’s planting rose bushes by the front door. (You’d just assumed they’ve always been there.)

Your heart beats a little faster as you turn to the next page, because you know what’s coming.

Not long later, a little girl in a pink dress stepped out of a social worker’s car. She had short hair and a sweet smile. Her name was Eleven.

Here Clarke has drawn a portrait of you. Well, a version of you -- the you who was trying so very hard not to get her hopes up. You’d felt sorta miserable, back then, but you wouldn’t know it from Clarke’s depiction. Your hair is short and you’re wearing that itchy pink dress, but Clarke has somehow made you look beautiful.

You want to thank her, but you’re worried if you look at her you’ll start crying, so you settle for resting your head on her shoulder. Slowly, you turn the page.

It didn’t take long to see that Eleven fit right in with Clarke and Lexa. She was smart and kind and had a talent for art. She loved to eat waffles and wear pretty dresses.

She was even a hit with animals -- one day a kitten followed her home and decided to stay. And Clarke and Lexa’s little family grew a bit bigger.

This drawing looks just like a photo you took on Clarke’s phone a couple days after Waffles followed you home. He’s sitting on the tiled floor in the kitchen, licking his left paw. The bottoms of Clarke and Lexa’s legs are out of focus in the background. You can’t tell in the photo, or the drawing, but you remember that their arms were around each other.

The next few pages show the three of you growing together. It’s so fun to see Clarke’s depictions of some of your favorite times as a family -- trick-or-treating and dancing at Lincoln and Octavia’s wedding and spending lazy mornings cuddling in bed.

Every couple of pages you have to stop and pretend you’re taking in the illustration as you try to wrangle your emotions. You’re just so utterly touched. You’ve known your life with your moms has been all kinds of wonderful, but now that they’ve turned it into something tangible it feels unbearably precious. It’s like their present isn’t a book -- it’s your time with them.

You flip to one of the last pages when Clarke stiffens beside you and Lexa takes in a sharp breath.

You see, Eleven made Clarke and Lexa’s lives brighter than they could have ever imagined. They wished it hadn’t taken them so long to find her, but they’re so glad that they did.

And now it’s time for them to live happily ever after…

The next page has no words -- just a family portrait. And you can tell Clarke spent a lot of time on it. The three of you are standing together with you in the middle. Your arms are looped around each other and Waffles sits at your feet.

But this picture is different from the others. Your hair is long -- down past your shoulders -- and you’re as tall as Clarke. When you look closely, you see that there are wrinkles beside Clarke’s eyes and streaks of gray in Lexa’s hair. Even Waffles looks older.

You hold your breath as you turn to the last page.

This one is the opposite of the last. It has no drawing -- only words.

At first you feel nothing. Or maybe you’re in shock.

You read them again and your skin flashes hot, then cold. Comforting arms wrap around you and you’re grateful, because you’re starting to feel dizzy.

You’re breathing really heavily, like you’ve been running laps, but you make yourself read the page one more time because it doesn’t seem real.

It can’t be. It’s too much to hope for.

El, we love you more than you will ever know. And we want you in our family forever.

Can we adopt you?

Your world narrows to a pinpoint, and then it’s blown wide. You cover your face with your hands, but the book in your lap teeters and you rush to catch it.

“Shh, it’s okay, kiddo, just breathe,” Clarke says, rubbing your back.

You look up at her through bleary eyes, confused until you take in a shallow, shuddering breath and your whole body trembles with it. It takes a few tries for you to get the words out, but you have to ask.

“Really?”

Lexa kisses your cheek, then your temple. It sounds like she’s crying, too.

“Really,” she says.

Clarke sniffles and clears her throat. “Only if you want,” she says. “If you’re ready.”

You burst into tears again, not that you ever really stopped.

They want you.

They want you forever.

All you can do is nod, and for the first time it’s not because words escape you. There’s so much you want to say -- so much you want to tell them -- that your brain can’t decide what gets priority.

Your moms hug you from both sides and the three of you collapse against the back of the couch in a soggy, happy heap. The first words that find their way out of your mouth are soft and sure.

“It’s all I’ve ever wanted.”

Chapter Text

By the time the three of you sit around the tree to open the rest of your presents on Christmas Eve it feels like you’re floating on air. You’ve shed more happy tears in the last 24 hours than you ever have in your life, and when you feel how puffy your eyes are it makes you smile.

Clarke and Lexa’s eyes are swollen too. You first noticed this morning, when you woke up with Clarke’s arm slung over your waist and your face smushed against Lexa’s collarbone. You were hot and a little sweaty, but you didn’t want to move because that would mean jostling the little nest your moms had formed around you.

So you stayed still, replaying everything that happened last night in your mind until you started to doze off again. It felt like a fairytale. A dream.

Your eyes flew open. What if it was a dream?

Breathing shallow, you rolled onto your back and shoved the covers down as far as you could. To your right Clarke shifted, and to your left Lexa made a sleepy sound, burrowing into her pillow.

You focused your gaze on Lexa, mentally imploring her to wake up, to tell you that it really happened. That’s when you notice the dried streaks of mascara under her eyes.

You turned to Clarke to look for similar evidence of last night and sucked in a breath when you saw her eyes were red-rimmed and open. She rubbed your back and watched you with a sleepy smile until your breathing evened out.

“Having second thoughts?” she asked, arching an eyebrow.

“No.” You grinned. Clarke always says the thing you least expect.

“Good, because we have a very strict no-refund policy. Afraid you’re stuck with us, kiddo.”

You laughed, eyes starting to feel heavy. Swallowing down a yawn, you wrestled your hand free from the blankets and extended your pinky finger out toward Clarke. She smiled and after she freed her own hand from under the covers she linked her pinky with yours.

You don’t remember falling back asleep, but your fingers were still joined when you woke up.

Now, looking at all the sparkling presents under the tree, you can’t imagine that any of them will hold a candle to your gift last night or pinky promises at dawn. In fact, you feel a little bad accepting them. It’s too much. Gluttonous.

Then you remember the bundles under your bed and your smile grows.

“Wait, wait, I forgot yours,” you call over your shoulder as you run upstairs.

Once you jog back down and place their presents under the tree Lexa fixes you with a bemused smile. “Ready?”

You take turns opening gifts from friends and relatives first. Abby gave Clarke and Lexa a gift certificate to a fancy-sound restaurant, and you a load of books and some new dresses. Octavia and Raven gave you a jelly ball -- a kickball -- and when your moms ask you why you’re smirking you just shrug. Octavia and Lincoln gave your moms a framed photo of the three of you from their wedding, and Raven gave them a gift certificate to something called “paint nite” so “Clarke can show off and Lexa can fawn over her in public. Bonus points if Clarke helps Lexa paint, Ghost-style.”

The first gift you open from your moms is actually several gifts grouped together. After you open a pair of clip-on waffle earrings and a cartoon waffle and syrup BFF t-shirt, you catch on to the theme. You let out a joyful yelp when you unwrap the big box to find a shiny waffle maker, with a voucher to a family baking class taped on top.

“We’ll never need to buy Eggos again,” you tell your moms after you hug them.

Lexa raises her eyebrows. “You sure about that?”

“Well… maybe for special occasions,” you say, and they burst out laughing.

Clarke opens her present from Lexa next and you cover your mouth with your hands as Lexa heaves it over from where she had propped the tall, thin gift against the wall.

“Hmm, why do I get a sneaking suspicion that El had something to do with this?” Clarke says as she tears off the paper.

She yelps when she realizes what it is and launches herself into Lexa’s arms, nearly making her topple over. It’s an easel that Lexa made, with a little help from Lincoln and a bit from you, who helped her stain it. “Lex,” Clarke says, eyes shining, “the whole point of us making gifts for each other was not to spend any money.”

“Don’t worry.” Lexa kisses her temple. “Most of it was stuff Lincoln had lying around in his garage. I barely broke the rules.”

“Ah-ha, so you admit it! Typical, the one time I don’t spend a cent…”

“Oh hush. Give me my gift now please.”

Clarke puts on one of her fake pouts. “Fine.”

Clarke’s gift for Lexa is small and light and you have no idea what it is. When Lexa opens the little box under the wrapping paper her mouth falls open. She stares down at it for a long moment. Then she leans forward, curls her hand around Clarke’s neck, and pulls her in for a lingering kiss.

The box has slipped off of Lexa’s lap so you crane your neck to look (and give them privacy). All it contains is a slip of paper on which Clarke has drawn three tiny racoons sitting in a row. The one in the middle is smaller than the others, and it has a pink bow sitting askew on its head.

“You like it?” Clarke whispers once they separate. “I was thinking your right shoulder -- right under the starry forest.”

When it clicks in your mind you gasp -- a habit you’ve surely learned from Clarke -- and they both turn to look at you.

“It makes sense,” you say. “Raccoons are nocturnal.”

Clarke smothers a laugh against Lexa’s shoulder. “She so takes after you.”

Your face heats up and you move to hand your moms the presents you got them as a means of distraction, but it only makes things worse. After you instruct them to open them at the same time, starting with the cards, you wring your hands and try to ignore the thumping of your heart.

You made the cards yourself, with a little help from Abby. On the front of each you sketched a photo from their college days.

For Clarke, you chose one she had taken of Lexa. It was a photo of the back of Lexa’s head, showing her hair in a long French braid. She’s wearing a maroon t-shirt with the sleeves rolled up. Inside, you decided to keep your message short, for once. You wrote, “To Mama -- I hope you can braid my hair like this when it’s long enough. Love, your Kiddo.”

For Lexa, you chose to draw a photo of her and Clarke lying on the grass of the kickball field. Clarke is beaming up at the camera she’s holding, which you know because you can see the shadow of her extended arm off to their left. But Lexa isn’t looking at the lens -- her head is turned because she’s smiling at Clarke. Inside you wrote, “To Mum -- I think this is the first selfie you and Ma ever took. You’re both so pretty. Love, El.”

You can tell they’ve finished reading their cards and are looking at you, but it takes a moment for you to meet their eyes. Clarke has one hand pressed over her heart, Lexa’s throat is bobbing, and they both look like they’re about to cry.

“Those aren’t even your actual presents,” you say, blinking against the sting in your eyes. “Open those at the same time too, okay?”

At first you’re relieved when they start to tear into the identical packages. You’re really proud of the thought you put into these gifts. You got the idea months ago, and you’ve been saving the change from your lunch money ever since. It wasn’t going to be enough, but then Clarke gave you $20 to buy a gift for Lexa, and a few days later Lexa gave you $20 to buy a gift for Clarke. (Both made you promise not to tell.)

After that, all you needed to do was to place the order. That’s where Raven and Octavia came in.

Clarke tears the wrapping paper off hers first and you realize your pulse is racing again. She gasps -- per usual -- but leaves it folded in her lap until Lexa is ready. Lexa whispers, “Oh my god,” and they both hold theirs up in front of them.

The moment that follows can only be described as stunned silence. They’re just t-shirts. Maroon t-shirts. With “Grounders” embroidered over the heart.

They’re just like yours, which was once Lexa’s, which was originally Clarke’s.

Well, with one slight alteration.

Your voice sounds reedy when you tell your moms to turn them around.

In bold, white letters across the back it says “Mama” (on Clarke’s) and “Mum” (on Lexa’s).

“Eleven,” Clarke says, clutching the shirt to her chest. “How? What? How?”

You hear a muffled laugh from Lexa, who’s already pulling the shirt on over her sweater. “She totally takes after you, Clarke,” she says once she gets it on. “Tenacious.”

(You’re not sure what that means, but based on how Clarke blushes and shakes her head you figure it must be good.)

“Kiddo, you are the sweetest thing.” Clarke scoots closer to you and wraps an arm around your shoulder.

“We love them,” Lexa says, reaching over to squeeze your hand. “What gave you the idea?”

You’re surprised at how easily the words come.

“I don’t think I knew what love was until I met you. Not really. I don’t know.” You hold tight to Lexa’s hand and lean into Clarke’s side. “I didn’t know love was something you could see, sometimes. Something you can hold. But it’s everywhere, here. And I feel it the most when I wear your old shirt.”

You take in a shaky breath, Lexa clears her throat, and Clarke hiccups beside you. You almost want to laugh, because it feels ridiculous that you’re all crying again.

Instead, you pick up the cards you made for them and swap, so Clarke’s is in Lexa’s lap and Lexa’s is in Clarke’s. Your sketches were done in charcoal, but you colored in one thing in each -- their kickball tees.

You don’t think you’ll ever understand the ways of the universe. Maybe you’re not supposed to. You’ve been learning about government in school -- checks and balances -- and you think the cosmos might have a system like that, too. Because the same world that treated you like dirt for years, polluting your mind with anger, paved the way for your moms to meet and fall in love and, eventually, take care of you.

“That’s what gave me the idea.” You trace your finger over the embossed letters on Lexa’s shirt. “It’s not just a shirt -- it’s how our family started.”

***

You spend Christmas Day visiting family (family) and telling them the good news.

Abby cries and hugs you so tight Clarke has to tell her to stop before she bruises you. Indra lets a smile light up her face for a whopping 10 seconds before she lifts her chin, clamps her hand on your shoulder, and mentions something about an initiation ceremony.

The sun is setting when you finally arrive home, and you’re pleasantly exhausted. You’ve barely taken your jacket off when the doorbell rings and Raven, Octavia, and Lincoln burst inside holding a store-bought cake.

You giggle when Raven gently covers your eyes with her hands while Octavia and Lincoln take the plastic cover off.

“This was the only cake left in the only store that’s open, so we had to improvise,” she says before lifting her hands. “Okay, Eleven, you can look now.”

The cake is the shape of a spaceship, covered in blue frosting with red trim. In the center, in shaky pink icing, it says “Congratz on Your Family!!”

“I wrote it,” Octavia says.

Raven huffs. “Yeah, she’s to blame for that ‘Z.’”

“That’s how cool kids spell things these days, right El?”

“Whatever. If she spells ‘congratulations’ wrong on a spelling test you’ll have to explain to the teacher. See how cool you feel then.”

They continue bickering, and soon Lincoln and your moms join in. They’re loud. And you’re tired.

You watch them and think about what you could do if the noise was bothering you. You could go to your room and read. You could ask to visit Mrs. Mitchell. Or you could just ask them to speak a bit softer. You’d feel safe with all of those options.

But today you don’t need to do any of them. Instead you take a photo of the cake with Clarke’s phone and get up to set the table for dessert. The group keeps bantering, but they spring into action. Clarke gets the plates, Lexa finds a knife, Lincoln folds napkins, Raven selects six glasses from the cabinet, and Octavia fills them with water and milk (for you).

Lexa moves to cut the cake but then she pauses, turns the handle around, and holds it out to you. The arguing fizzles out as you cut the cake, all on your own, and you feel very grown up.

You give Raven a slice that says “gratz” and Octavia high-fives you across the table. Once everyone but you has a piece all that’s left is one of the rocket launchers and “uor Family!!” and it’s not by accident. You carve out the last word and it’s a long, awkward piece, but aside from the soft smile Lexa gives you no one acknowledges it.

“So,” Raven says. “Can we come to court on the big day?”

“Oooh yeah can we dress up?” Octavia asks. “I saw a Buzzfeed article about a little girl who got adopted and everyone in court dressed up as Disney princesses.”

Lexa snorts. “That’s what we’d wear if Clarke was getting adopted.”

“Hey!” Clarke says, reaching over to steal a fork-full of Lexa’s cake. “Actually that would be pretty rad. But we’re nowhere near thinking about that yet. Lots of fun paperwork and bureaucracy to wade through, first.” She glances at Lexa, then you. “We actually haven’t talked to Eleven about all that yet.”

“Oh,” Raven says. “Whoops.”

Everyone else focuses on their cake, but Clarke and Lexa are watching you. It takes you a minute to realize they’re looking to see if you’re upset that there’s a long road ahead before you’ll legally be theirs.

You want to tell them it’s okay -- you’re experienced the government’s snail-like pace before, and you knew a couple kids who were adopted from the group home. They don’t need to manage your expectations. You know things like this don’t happen overnight.

But you figure that conversation might further kill the mood, so you smile at them and stand from the table. “We’re already a family,” you say. “Anyone else want ice cream?”

You bring all three flavors over to the kitchen table and the group springs to life again.

“By the way, El, I love your dress,” Raven says, scooping mint chocolate chip onto her plate.

“Same.” Octavia says. “And those tights are awesome! Sooo sparkly.” She points at the hole above the knee. “Too bad they ripped. Did you get in another fist fight today?”

You laugh and glance down at the run. It’s gotten bigger over the course of the day, but you can’t bring yourself to care. Upstairs the new, unopened package of tights sits on your bed. You smile to yourself -- Waffles is probably using them as a pillow.

You don’t think you’ll ever understand the universe. Something that once put you in a bad mood is now a happy reminder of the best day of your life.

“No. I just like them this way.”

You grin at your moms, who look like they could cry again, and you all roll your eyes at each other.

“Ripped tights as fashion.” Octavia nods to herself. “Badass.”

***

The house is finally quiet. You can’t stop yawning as you change into pajamas. Tonight you choose your Grounders tee, polka-dot flannel pants, and raccoon slippers, which was one of your gifts from Santa, even though you’d told your moms a boy in the group home ruined that secret years ago.

You sit on your bed and pet Waffles as you look out the window at the light snowfall. Your moms said they’d tuck you in soon, but it’s been a while. You’re about to go look for them when there’s a soft rapping on the door.

You smile to yourself -- you’d left the door open for them, but of course they knock anyway. You turn to tell them to come in, and the sight of them in the doorway makes you grin even wider.

They’re standing with their backs to you and their hair pulled up, so you can read the writing on the back of their new t-shirts. You laugh into your hands.

“How do we look?” Clarke asks.

You sigh. “Wonderful.”

When they turn around there’s another surprize. Lexa’s holding a tiny, square box wrapped in silver paper and tied red ribbon.

You get that feeling again -- like this is all too good to be true. Clarke holds your gaze and you wonder if it’s written on your face, like it was yesterday morning.

“I know -- these past few days have been a lot.” Clarke sits on the edge of your bed and Lexa settles in beside her, careful not to disturb Waffles. “But it’s still technically Christmas, and we saved the best gift for last. Then we can all sleep for a thousand years.”

“El has a playdate with Lily at 11 a.m.” Lexa says.

Clarke rolls her eyes. “Then we can all sleep until juuust before 11 a.m.”

You snicker at their silliness. You’d forgotten that Lily will be back from Florida tomorrow. Excitement runs through you at the thought of telling her your news. She’s going to freak.

You eye the box in Lexa’s hands. “You already got me so much…”

“It’s our first Christmas together -- we get to spoil you a little bit,” she says.

“And it’s not strictly a Christmas gift.” Clarke takes the box from Lexa and holds it out to you. “We would’ve given it to you regardless. It just happens to be Christmas.”

“Right,” Lexa says.

You have no idea what they’re talking about, but curiosity is getting the better of you, so you take the gift. It’s light -- like under the wrapping paper is a box and nothing more.

After you slide off the bow and remove the paper you indeed find a plain white box. You glance up at your moms to find them watching you intently. Whatever this is must be important, but you have no idea what it could be.

So you open the box.

Inside, atop a silky white cushion, is a necklace with a thin gold chain and a small yellow stone.

“Wow,” you breathe, rolling the stone between your fingers. It shimmers in the light. Something about it is familiar, but you can’t quite place it. “It’s beautiful.”

You glance up at Lexa when you hear her take in a shaky breath.

“It reminds us of how we feel when we’re with you.”

Without thinking, your eyes travel to the ring on Clarke’s left hand and, sure enough, it has a yellow stone to match. You stare at it hard, blinking back tears. They didn’t spend money on each other’s gifts, but they got you a diamond?

“We’re calling it a promise necklace,” Clarke says. You follow her left hand as she brings it up to swipe at the corner of her eyes. “Since the adoption process might take a while we wanted to give you something that seals the deal. You know, before we actually seal the deal. Or sign the deal, I guess…”

Lexa kisses Clarke beside the ear and she stops rambling.

All you can do is shake your head and look between them, completely bewildered. You’ll never get over it -- the way they look at you like they’re the lucky ones.

You’re not sure what to say. You’re not sure there’s anything left to say, really. So you carefully take the necklace out of the box, unclasp the ends, and hand it to Lexa. Clarke leans forward and gently lifts your hair from the back of your neck so Lexa can secure the chain at your nape. The whole moment is silent and delicate and it gives you chills.

You stay quiet as you scoot forward and slip your legs over your moms laps. The three of you hold each other for who knows how long.

(You see it, now. You’re a unit, through and through.)

***

“Eleven?” Mike’s voice sounds raspy on the other end of the phone. “It’s late.”

“I’m sorry,” you whisper. “I just have to tell you.”

Mike grumbles, like he’s still not totally awake, and you smile to yourself. The kitchen floor is cold beneath your bare feet and when you close your eyes you can feel all the tiny points of the yellow stone between your fingers. (Your moms had you take the necklace off before you went to sleep, but you put it on again, just for this.)

“What is it?” Mike asks after a moment.

Not five minutes ago you were finally drifting off into what you’re sure would’ve been a heavy, contented sleep when you realized what you needed to do. Out of all of your friends, Mike has to be the first to know.

“They want me,” you say in a rush of breath. “They’re going to adopt me.”

On the other end of the line you hear the squeak of mattress springs. You can just imagine Mike rolling onto his back and throwing an arm over his eyes to keep out the early morning light. In your imagination the corners of his lips creep into a smile.

“Of course they are,” he says. “You’re a keeper, El.”

Chapter Text

“Plaid pajama set or pink nightgown?” Clarke asks from her spot on your bedroom floor. She holds up both options as if you wouldn’t be able to make the decision without visual aids.

You smile, glad it goes without saying that you want to keep your Grounders tee safe at home. “Plaid.” She tosses them to you and you take your time folding the top and bottoms before placing them in your backpack.

The last time you and Clarke packed a bag together she was “anx-cited” about going to California to meet with one of her graphic design clients. This time you’re the one who’s anx-cited -- and the one who’s leaving.

“So,” Clarke says, “you gonna miss us?”

You shrug one shoulder and focus on smoothing out a crease in the plaid fabric in your lap. “It’s not far.”

“Mmmmhm.” Clarke arches an eyebrow and presses her lips together. “Well we’re gonna miss you, I’ll tell ya that.”

You roll your eyes and the two of you laugh and you try to sink into the comforting familiarity of the moment. But the truth is you will miss them, more than you’d like to admit.

***

Lexa walks you to Lily’s house. It’s kinda silly, because it’s just around the corner and you’ve walked there on your own plenty of times, but when Lexa offered you quickly agreed.

The plan has been in the works ever since you told Lily that your moms want to adopt you. You were standing in the schoolyard during recess, bouncing on your toes to keep warm. After Lily freed you from an extra-suffocating hug she told you, eyes shining with tears, that you have to tell her absolutely everything, but away from the busybodies at school. The only solution, of course, was a sleepover.

So Lily set to work concocting a detailed strategy to get her parents on-board and a few days later, when she gave you the all-clear, you simply asked your moms, who said ‘yes’ practically before you got the question out.

Lexa squeezes your hand as Lily’s house comes into view and you wonder if she can feel the quickening thrum of your pulse. You squeeze back and try to snap yourself out of it.

You’re a child of the system who’s slept in countless lumpy beds in homes run by some unsavory people. But Lily’s queen-sized bed is made of this magical material called “memory foam” and her parents are warm and cheerful, like their daughter, so you can’t fathom why the thought of sleeping over makes you feel a bit queasy inside. It bugs you.

When you reach the doorstep Lexa turns to you before ringing the bell. She cups your chin and waits for you to meet her eyes.

“You’re going to have a great time,” she says, like it’s a fact. “But if you ever want to come home just call. Even if it’s the middle of the night, okay? We won’t mind.”

You want to tell her you’re not a wuss, that you’ve stayed in far worse places without having anyone to call in the middle of the night -- you’ll survive one sleep in Lily’s fancy house. Lexa runs a finger over the crease that’s formed between your brows, and you remember that if anyone understands the kind of nights you once endured, it’s her.

“Okay.” The smile that seemed so far away just seconds ago spreads easily across your face. “I love you, Mum.”

“I love you too, El.” You sink into the warmth of Lexa’s hug, wrapping your arms around her middle. Then it hits you. “Oh no… I forgot! I got distracted by Waffles, and then the phone rang, and then it was time to go...”

You pull away and glance down the street, wondering how long it’ll take you to run back.

“You forgot something?” Lexa places a steadying hand on your shoulder. “What is it? I can go get it.”

You shake your head, that queasy feeling setting back in. “I forgot to tell Ma I love her.”

Just then the front door swings open and Lily’s mom appears behind it.

“I thought I heard voices out here,” she says, smiling at both of you. “Come on in, Eleven. Lily’s anxiously awaiting your arrival in her room.” She cups one hand beside her mouth and switches to a stage whisper. “I believe I heard rumblings about a blanket fort.”

Lexa must read the panic on your face because she pulls you in for another hug.

“Don’t worry,” she murmurs in your ear. “I’ll tell her.”

***

There are, indeed, the beginnings of a blanket fort in Lily’s spacious bedroom. Your friend sets you to work right away, and with each sheet you secure to a bedpost or light fixture you forget a bit more about your earlier misgivings.

The whole bedroom is practically covered in an intricate network of blankets and pillows by the time Lily’s dad calls you down for dinner. As you sit around the table with the family you can’t help but compare it to meals with your moms.

Lily’s dad made steak, which you don’t often have at home, but it’s tender and delicious. Lily dips her meat in ketchup, which her dad dubs “an outrage,” but he’s smiling when he says it.

Lily’s mom is more proper than either of yours. Throughout dinner she reminds Lily of her manners, instructing her to chew with her mouth closed and keep her elbows off the table. At first it makes you self conscious about your own eating habits, but eventually you catch on that Lily is mostly misbehaving on purpose, and that her mom winks at you each time she scolds her daughter.

All families have their weird little games, you think.

After dinner you head straight back to the blanket fort. Lily is one of the few kids in your class who has a TV in their room, and you purposefully built the fort around it so you can still see the screen from the bed. You lie on your stomachs on top of the covers, heads propped up on elbows, and watch cartoons on a cable channel you don’t get at home.

When Lily’s mom calls up that it’s time to get ready for bed a strange feeling settles in your gut. It makes you think of your first night in the group home -- an unshakeable notion that you don’t belong here.

But that makes no sense. You’ve been over Lily’s a million times. Your brain must be mixed up.

You and Lily change into PJs and take turns brushing your teeth, and something about going through the motions of the routine makes you feel better. Once you’re settled under the covers Lily’s dad comes in to tuck you in. He and Lily do an elaborate handshake that ends with kisses on both cheeks, and you hide a smile behind your hand.

It’s strange to see your bold and brassy friend in such a tender moment. When they’re done you think she might make you swear not to tell anyone what you’ve seen, but all she does is give you a toothy smile before sticking out her tongue. You grin back, happy that you have a friend who has never once doubted that she’s loved.

Lily’s dad leans over his daughter and holds up his hand, palm facing you. “Up top, kiddo.” You giggle as you give him a high-five, trying not to think about how the pet name makes reminds you of your Mama. (You definitely don’t wonder what your moms are doing at this very moment, or worry about where Waffles will sleep tonight. Absolutely not.)

After Lily’s dad leaves and turns off the bedroom light, you hear Lily throw off her covers and start rummaging for something under the bed.

“Ah ha!” she says, and then you’re blinking into a blinding light. “Oh, sorry.” She points the flashlight away from you as she climbs back into bed. “It’s just, I want to hear about your adoption proposal and I obviously need to see your face.”

***

In your and Lexa’s favorite show -- the one about a pawn shop that buys antiques -- the book expert often wears white gloves when handling priceless texts, to make sure she doesn’t damage them. You really wish you had a pair of those gloves right now as you balance “The Story of Us” on your lap.

Lily clamps a hand over her mouth as she squeals at the sight of it. Once she gets ahold of her excitement she balances the flashlight on a pillow and aims the light at the sketchbook. For a moment you worry she might try to turn the pages herself, but she wraps her arms around herself, like she’s trying to keep from bursting.

“Okay,” she says after taking a deep breath. “I’m ready.”

You take her through the story, letting her read each page before explaining what you were thinking the first time you saw it. At this point you practically have the words memorized, but reading it again through someone else’s eyes is thrilling. It doesn’t hurt that Lily squeaks and sighs at every little thing.

When you get to one of your favorite pages -- the one with “And now it’s time for them to live happily ever after…” -- Lily makes a hiccuping sort of sound. But you keep going, too caught up in your narration to stop.

“By this point my moms were a mess,” you whisper. “They were sitting on either side of me -- I think I mentioned that -- and I couldn’t look at them, but I could tell they were almost crying. My heart was beating so fast, Lil. I didn’t know what was coming next, but deep down I think maybe I did, you know?”

You turn to the page with the family portrait, explaining how you held your breath when it dawned on you that Clarke had drawn a glimpse of the future.

The muffled voices of Lily’s parents coming up the stairs make you realize you’re no longer whispering, and you pause in case they’re coming to tell you to go to sleep. A door somewhere down the hall clicks closed and their voices fade, but you keep quiet. That weird feeling has snuck up on you again and you can’t shake the thought that you’re not supposed to be here.

Lily cuddles in closer, resting her head on your shoulder, and pokes your hand that’s poised to turn the page. You scold yourself for getting too soft before continuing on.

You’ve read this story more times than you can count, but the last page still makes your eyes sting. It’s “the proposal,” as Lily puts it. When they ask if they can keep you forever.

“Well?” Lily’s voice sounds hoarse. “What did you say? What did you do??”

You let out a quiet laugh. “I burst into tears.”

You wait to feel embarrassed by the admission, but it never comes.

***

Lily’s out like a light the second her head hits the pillow, but you can’t sleep.

This house is too quiet -- it doesn’t have radiators that hiss or a cat whose purr rattles through the night. Your mind, on the other hand, is too loud -- you can’t stop imagining Waffles curled up alone at the foot of your bed, or mute the voice in your head that thinks maybe, just maybe, your moms are happy to have a night without you for once.

You know it’s not true. The evidence is there in the sketchbook tucked safely back in your backpack and in next week’s appointment with an adoption lawyer, written in block letters on the post-it stuck to the fridge. But you know two things can be true at once; your moms can love you and still want time to themselves. That’s what date night is, after all. But what if a whole night child-free -- Eleven-free -- makes your moms realize how much they missed being a family of two?

You squeeze your eyes shut, but all you see is a post-it note falling to the floor.

Dr. Kapoor once told you that when your mind starts going to a bad place you should try focusing on the present, so that’s what you do. You listen to the rhythm of Lily’s breathing, watch the clock on the bedside table turn from 12:27 to 12:28, note the scent of Clarke’s favorite fabric softener on your pajamas.

That last one makes you smile. Your moms got in one of their fake arguments over fabric softener once, before you knew them very well. It was one of the first times the three of you went to the grocery store together and you quickly picked up a pattern. Lexa was in charge of finding the items on her neatly written list, and Clarke was in charge of pushing the shopping cart and Lexa’s buttons.

Every so often, when Lexa was looking through the coupon catalog or scrutinizing a nutrition label, Clarke would wink at you and toss something unnecessary into the cart. When Lexa inevitably noticed the bag of Swedish fish or box of trick birthday candles, she’d roll her eyes and lecture Clarke about the importance of sticking to their budget and not straying from the list. Clarke would sigh and put a hand on her hip, but she gave up pretty easily, having already succeeded in her primary goal of annoying her wife.

It was in the detergent aisle that Clarke stood her ground.

She didn’t even wait for Lexa to become distracted before placing three boxes of Bounce “Outdoor Fresh” fabric softener in the cart. Lexa made a strong case -- they’d never used dryer sheets before and their clothes were soft enough, so there’s no need for the added expense. Clarke listened patiently before explaining her reasoning, which resulted in fabric softener being included on the grocery list from that day forward.

“My dad always used the same fabric softener and to this day when I catch that scent, it reminds me of home,” she said. “I want Eleven to have that, too.”

The clock on the bedside table turns to 12:29 and you yawn. You roll onto your side, hoping you might finally fall asleep, and something kinda sharp presses against the outside of your thigh. You wedge your hand between your body and the mattress and find what seems to be a folded up piece of paper in the pocket of your pajama bottoms.

You unfold it and hold it in front of your face. You can tell there’s something written on it, but it’s too dark to make out. It only takes you a moment to find Lily’s flashlight.

Sleep tight, kiddo,” the note reads, in Clarke’s handwriting. “Can’t wait to hear all about your sleepover. I love you.” At the bottom she’s drawn a tiny walkie-talkie that looks just like the one you hid in her suitcase all those months ago.

You read the note a few times over, a smile stretching your cheeks, before you turn the flashlight off. At some point you must drift off to sleep, and hours later when you wake up the sun is seeping through the blinds and the note is still in your hand.

***

It’s one of those early spring days where you can almost feel the sun on your skin. Lily’s mom hugs you goodbye and you and Lily do the handshake her dad helped you create after he made you heaping stacks of pancakes.

Once the door clicks closed behind you, you look down the street toward home, and it’s like no time has passed since the last time you were standing here with Lexa, wondering how long it would take you to run back to Clarke.

And that’s just what you do.

Holding tight to the straps of you backpack, you take off down the street. The fears you had last night are still present at the back of your mind, but in the light of day they’re just phantoms of their former selves. You’re not going to let them slow you down.

When you round the corner and your house comes into view you go into an all-out sprint. Your heart skips when you see that moms are sitting in kitchen chairs on the front porch with a blanket over their laps and steaming mugs in their hands.

“There she is!” Clarke calls when she spots you.

You’re panting and feeling a little silly when you bound up the steps, but your moms are beaming at you, so you don’t care. Clarke puts her coffee down and holds her arms out to you.

She’s warm and smells like sleep and you whisper an hours-late “I love you,” into the fabric of her sweatshirt.

Clarke pulls you into her lap and Lexa angles her chair so that you can rest your legs across her thighs. Then they cover you with the blanket and everything feels right once again.

“Did you have a good time?” Lexa asks.

“Yeah. I did.” You smile, remembering pancakes and blanket forts. “But... sometimes I got this weird feeling.”

“Weird feeling, huh?” Clarke kisses your cheek. “What was it like?”

Now that you’re cuddled up with your moms -- who were waiting for you -- it’s hard to remember, but you try your best.

“I don’t know. It just felt like everything was a little off. I got it when I had to take off my shoes to go inside and when I helped fold linen tablecloths for dinner and when Lily gargled with this bright green mouthwash.”

Lexa squeezes your ankle. “Sounds pretty different from home.”

“Yeah, exactly,” you say. “It was like I liked being there, but I wanted to be home, too.” You shrug and focus on your nails. “But that doesn’t make much sense.”

Clarke loops her arms around your waist and pulls you back until you’re reclining against her, with your head tucked into the crook of her neck.

“It makes sense to me,” she says. “I got that feeling when I was in California, away from you and Lex.”

“You did?”

“Yep.”

Since you can’t see Clarke’s face you look to Lexa, who nods. “Sounds like you were homesick, El.”

“Homesick,” you whisper, feeling color fill your cheeks. “Wait... I didn’t get that when we went away for Octavia and Lincoln’s wedding.”

“That’s because we were all together,” Clarke says. “It’s a bit of a misnomer -- a word that doesn’t always mean how it sounds. Sometimes you’re not homesick for a place -- you’re homesick for the people who are your home.”

You think of all the times you got that feeling in the past -- in the group home and old foster homes -- and wonder if it’s possible you were homesick for people you hadn’t even met yet. “Well, we’re happy you had fun with Lily,” Lexa says. “But we’re also glad you missed us, because we really missed you.”

“Really?”

“You have nooo idea,” Clarke says. “We didn’t know what to do with ourselves. And you should’ve seen Waffles -- we had to give him a bunch of extra treats because he was downright depressed.”

You giggle and pull the blanket up to your chin. “We should probably have a family day to make up for lost time.”

Lexa beams. “I like the way you think.”

“Pajamas all day?” Clarke says. “Movie marathon? Ice cream for lunch?”

Lexa sighs and rolls her eyes, but you know this is one of those arguments that Clarke will win.

***

After a day of pajamas and movies and ice cream and cuddles you’re beyond excited to go to sleep in your own bed. But after your moms tuck you in, you sneak back out.

There are a few blank pages at the end of “The Story of Us” and you tape Clarke’s note to the first one.

Chapter Text

You wake up feeling like shit.

Every time you swallow a million tiny daggers dig into your throat, and your head is absolutely pounding. You snooze through your first alarm, skipping your morning run, and by the time your second alarm goes off Clarke is out of bed.

As you slowly make your way to the bathroom you can hear her and Eleven chatting away in the kitchen. Normally you’d be down there with them. Spending the mornings as a family is one of the best parts of your day, and you’ve been running earlier and earlier to maximize your time together.

It pains you to miss out today, but if you don’t get in the shower within the next five minutes you’ll be late to a meeting with a deep-pocketed donor who just might fund ab initiative your non-profit is launching.

You’re rinsing shampoo from your hair when Clarke knocks on the door and pokes her head in.

“Eleven just left for school so I’m going to run some errands before starting on work. You need anything?”

“No, I’m good,” you say, surprised at how scratchy your voice sounds.

“You sure about that? I can pick you up some cough medicine. Or the antidote to the bubonic plague.”

You laugh and it hurts. “I’m okay.”

“Uh-huh. Sure.” Clarke sighs. “Love you, you stoic nerd.”

There’s a pause before the door clicks closed. After you get out of the shower you see that Clarke wrote “go back to bed” on the fogged-up mirror.

***

Your wife is ridiculous.

You love the fact that she’s so passionate about her job, which is more of a calling, since she runs a truly awesome charity that changes the lives of at-risk kids. The place probably couldn’t function without her, but it wouldn’t kill her to take a day off every now and then. Especially when she looks like she’s on death’s doorstep, like she did this morning.

You’re in line at CVS with a basket full of candy and cold medicine when she texts you to say that, despite the plea you wrote on the bathroom mirror, she has to go into the office to meet with some philanthropist.

You write back, pointing out that the donor might not be in a charitable mood if Lexa gives them smallpox, but she replies with a laughing emoji and a promise to call you when the meeting gets out.

Once you get home your inner caretaker kicks in and you start preparing for your patient. You grab the pillows from your bed and some clean blankets from the linen closet and make a little nest on the living room couch. Then you take the cold syrup, ginger ale, and hard candy (butterscotch, her favorite) that you bought at the store and arrange them on the coffee table.

After that you try to work on a graphic design project for a new client, but your mind keeps wandering back to your stubborn, suffering wife, and eventually you give up.

When Lexa calls you to check in you’re already in the car, just a few blocks away from her building.

***

Waffles is the only one there to greet you at the door when you get home from school.

This happens every once in awhile, usually when your Ma gets hyper-focused on a work project, so you’re not worried. You pat Waffles, slip off your backpack, and pour yourself a glass of water.

There’s a reusable shopping bag hanging from the back of a chair and some ripped plastic packaging on the kitchen table. Upon further inspection you see the packaging is for a medicine of some kind, and you frown. What if Clarke got sick?

You set off to look for her, with Waffles at your heels. Clarke’s laptop is open on the desk in the study, but she’s not there. Your heart starts to speed up a little bit.

Waffles has wandered down the hallway, so you decide to follow him. You’re halfway to the living room when you hear the faint sounds of voices coming from the TV. You relax, letting out a breath you didn’t realize you were holding.

“Ma,” you call, breaking out into a jog, “I’m home.”

She doesn’t respond, and when you step into the living room you see why. (Though you’re not any less confused.)

The coffee table is a mess, littered with mugs, a half-empty soda bottle, a bottle of sticky-looking orange cough syrup, a thermometer, and yellow butterscotch wrappers. That boring movie about sad Americans staying at a hotel in Japan -- which your Mum loves for some reason -- is playing on TV. But no one is watching it because beneath a pile of blankets on the couch are your moms, who are both fast asleep.

Once you get over the surprise of it all you smile to yourself. You remember that Lexa didn’t come down for breakfast this morning, and Clarke mentioned that she’d been coughing all night.

You guess both of your moms took a rare sick day.

Lexa mumbles something in her sleep and shifts, causing the blankets to fall to the floor. Now you can see Clarke’s lying on her back, head resting on pillows from their bedroom, and Lexa’s almost entirely on top of her. Her face is smooshed against the crook of Clarke’s neck and one of Lexa’s arms is wedged between Clarke and the couch cushion.

The position doesn’t look too comfortable, but they both have little smiles on their faces, so keep quiet as you gently drape the blankets over their entwined bodies.

You can’t help but touch the backs of your knuckles to Lexa’s forehead, the way Clarke does when you get sick. Her skin feels pretty hot, and you’re debating taking the blankets off of them again when Clarke’s eyes flutter open.

“Hey kiddo,” she whispers in a groggy voice. She tries to sit up but doesn’t make much progress, what with Lexa on top of her. “Shoot, is school already out? I didn’t mean to fall asleep…”

Something about the mental image of Clarke fighting sleep as she snuggled with a sick Lexa under a mountain of blankets makes you feel all warm inside. Like there’s love lodged in your chest.

“It’s okay,” you whisper back. “Can I get you anything?”

Clarke presses her lips together and looks at you in that way she does sometimes, like she finds the perfectly normal thing you just said “stupid cute.”

“We’re all set,” she says. “Thank you though.”

Lexa murmurs something again, and Clarke runs her fingers through her hair to sooth her. She smiles to herself and kisses Lexa’s temple.

“Is Mum going to be alright?”

“Oh yeah. She’ll be fine.” Clarke grins. “We’ll just have to baby her for a few days. Nurse her back to health against her will.”

You clamp your hands over your mouth to suppress a giggle. A few months ago, after you fell off the jungle gym at the park, Clarke told you about the time Lexa sprained her ankle in college. She could barely get around campus, even with a crutch, but she was still very grumpy about Clarke taking care of her. (Lexa rolled her eyes at Clarke as she told the story, but you couldn’t stop laughing. By the time the story was through you’d forgotten all about your skinned knees.)

“I heard that,” Lexa grumbles, making you and Clarke jump. “And I’m going to work tomorrow.”

“You can’t see me, but I’m rolling my eyes right now,” Clarke says, winking at you. “Aren’t I, kiddo?”

“Yep.” You grin. “Major eye roll, Mum. I wouldn’t mess with Ma right now.”

Lexa yawns. “I’ll take your word for it.” She opens her eye that isn’t pressed against Clarke and peers at you with a mischievous smile. “Actually... you look a little under the weather yourself, El.”

You frown. “I feel fine.”

Clarke’s smile widens and she kisses Lexa’s forehead. “You know, I thought the same thing,” she says. “Maybe we’re all coming down with something.”

“Huh?” You glance between them, completely lost.

Lexa’s eyes fall closed and she nuzzles into Clarke. “Guess we’ll all have to stay home sick tomorrow,” she says sleepily.

Clarke raises her eyebrow. “Call it a family sick day.”

You beam at her when you finally catch on. Lexa must really feel poorly if she’s suggesting this level of rule-breaking, but you’re not about to question it.

It’s weird to think about how your past foster parents didn’t want you around even if you really were sick. And now you have a Mum who wants to be with you when she’s not feeling well. Like you being there might actually make her feel better.

The next thing you know you’re lunging forward to hug your moms over the blankets. They both kinda freak out, warning you to move away so you don’t really catch Lexa’s bug, and for some reason even that makes your eyes sting.

You squeeze them tight and kiss both of their cheeks before finally stepping back. You used to dread getting sick, but now -- here -- it doesn’t seem so bad.

***

The next morning Lexa wakes up feeling much better.

Clarke just has the sniffles.

You all stay home anyway.

Chapter Text

You press your forehead to the window even though everything around you is rattling.

The whirring sound gets louder and louder and you have to grip the armrests to keep from sitting back in your seat. The last time you talked to Mike he explained the science of it to you -- something about force and velocity -- but you never imaged it would feel so clunky. Like riding a bike with a few loose screws.

Just when you’re about to turn around to ask your moms if this is normal, the rattling abates and your stomach swoops in a weird, pleasant kind of way. But you hardly notice, because the ground is rapidly retreating below you.

Soon cars and buildings look more like wind-up toys and building blocks, and the city streets become a checkerboard grid.

The last thing you see before climbing above the clouds is a slate gray lake. It’s not yours, you don’t think, but you imagine that it is. There’s a tiny fleck in the center and it takes you a moment to realize it’s a boat. It’s weird to think that there’s a person on there -- someone with plans and dreams and worries -- who you’ll never meet, who doesn’t even know you exist.

You hope they’re having a good day.

Dense fog obscures the view and you finally sit back in your seat. You wait to feel afraid, but if there’s any fear in you it can’t get past your brazen, astonishing joy.

You’re flying.

***

You wouldn’t have thought a foster kid could even get a passport, but it didn’t turn out to be too much trouble.

At least, that’s what your moms said. You didn’t find out about the trip until the passport came in the mail. Suddenly you understood why, a few weeks earlier, Clarke took you to CVS, where a teenage employee told you not to smile before taking your photo in front of a white screen.

When you opened the little blue booklet and saw your confused, unsmiling face looking back at you, you let out this high-pitched squeak and threw your arms around your moms waists.

Lexa laughed. “You don’t even know where we’re going yet,” she said, tousling your hair.

“I don’t care,” you replied, and you meant it. You could be going nowhere and you’d be happy just to have something that meant you could travel anywhere, if you wanted.

Clarke grinned. “Good. Because we’re not telling you.”

And they wouldn’t, no matter how much you pleaded.

Your moms were acting strangely, though. They spoke in these fancy accents while making dinner, but eventually had to stop because Lexa couldn’t stop giggling at how bad Clarke’s was. After dinner, instead of dessert you had milky tea and cookies, which your moms inexplicably called “biscuits.”

On your way upstairs to get ready for bed Clarke kept telling you to “mind the gap,” and when you came out of the bathroom after brushing your teeth Lexa placed a plastic tiara on your head.

You put a hand on your hip and sighed, trying to hide your smile. “Will you just tell me?”

“One more clue,” Clarke said, nodding toward your room. “Go and see.”

Waffles had discovered the clue first. The three of you burst out laughing as you watched him roll around on bed, scattering a bunch of multicolored slips of paper across your duvet. Lexa shooed him up near your pillows and gathered the final clues into a neat stack before handing them to you.

Not only were they different colors -- green and orange and blue -- they were different sizes. They had numbers on them -- 5, 10, and 20 -- and a symbol that kinda looked like a cursive “L.”

“It’s money…” you said. Your moms nodded, but didn’t offer any help. Clarke was bouncing on her toes in anticipation.

You laid the bills down on the bed and slowly turned them over. There were several old fashioned-looking people on them, but you noticed that they all had the same woman on one side. She was wearing a tiara, too.

No, not a tiara -- a crown.

Then you could’ve smacked yourself, because you saw they all said “Bank of England” in loopy writing at the top.

“Oh my gosh,” you whispered. “England??”

“Yes, well done!” Lexa said in that weird accent from earlier. “The capital of England.”

She was waiting for you to answer, but Clarke -- who was practically dancing in place -- couldn’t contain herself.

“London!” she cried, taking your hand and giving you a twirl. “A client referred me to a friend who wants to meet in person. They’re paying for my flight and hotel room, and the trip falls on a long weekend, so the stars aligned for a family holiday.”

London. Half of the stuff that you read about in history class happened in London. Mary Poppins lived in London. Peter Pan took place in London!

You put your hand over your heart, blinking back tears. You got that familiar feeling that this was happening to someone else. Since you started living here so many impossible things have become possible. It makes you ache, sometimes.

Lexa tucked a strand of hair behind your ear and began singing "Chim Chim Cher-ee" in a soft voice. Clarke joined in, then you, and the ache in your chest expanded until it popped.

By the time you reached “on the rooftops of London” your moms’ arms were around you and, for an instant, nothing seemed impossible anymore.

***

Clarke’s client paid for a black cab to take you from the airport to your hotel. You slept for most of the flight (only waking up once you landed, which was a little disappointing) so you were wide awake for the ride through the suburbs and into central London.

You and Lexa had read up on the neighborhood you’re staying in, which happens to be where Clarke studied abroad during college. You learned that it’s near a big park with a “small” palace (an oxymoron, you think), has rows upon rows of historic, white buildings, and is home to many “posh” people.

You don’t quite get what “posh” means, so Clarke has been pointing out posh things to help you get the idea. When the cab arrives at the hotel and a doorman loads your luggage onto a “trolley” Clarke whispers, “Doormen? Posh.”

The hotel isn’t like the big chains you’ve seen in the US. In fact, you wouldn’t know this was a hotel at all if you didn’t look closely -- it blends with the other white buildings on either side of it, aside from a flag and a small sign by the door.

Clarke beams at you and follows the doorman inside, but Lexa hesitates. You take her hand and squeeze it, hoping to convey that all of this “poshness” makes you a little nervous, too.

She squeezes your hand back. “If they could see us now.”

(You love when she uses the plural “they” like that, and you love that she knows you know exactly who she means.)

You’re both standing a little taller when you follow Clarke inside.

Once you’re checked in the receptionist directs you to your “flat,” which Clarke explains is a “suite,” which makes you shrug because neither word means anything to you. Aside from the inn you spent the night in for Lincoln and Octavia’s wedding, you never stayed in a hotel before. And this one is nothing like the inn or any of the hotels you’ve seen in movies.

It has two bedrooms, a sparkling bathroom with a deep tub, a sitting area with a sofa and TV, and a small kitchen, stocked with food that is both familiar and very different.

It says “crisps” on bags of potato chips and “Walkers” where it should say “Lays.” There’s a carton of eggs on the counter, which also strikes you as odd. You open the narrow refrigerator to put them where they belong but are quickly distracted by what’s inside.

“Look at this milk carton!” you say, holding up the oddly-shaped container. “What’s ‘semi-skimmed’ mean? Will it taste the same as 2%?”

Clarke grins and pulls out her phone to snap a photo of you and the milk. Lexa takes three glasses out of the cupboard.

“Only one way to find out,” she says.

***

Your moms didn’t sleep much on the plane and are feeling pretty “jetlagged” (your mind is spinning with all these new words!) so you stick close to the flat today. Clarke leads you on a walking tour of her old stomping grounds, and, while she hasn’t been back since college, she has no trouble finding her way.

“Something like that really makes an impression on you,” she says when you mention it. “Everything was so different it was like my brain freed up this extra space to store it all. Besides, I must’ve walked every street in this neighborhood ten times over talking on the phone to your Mum that semester.”

Lexa smiles and loops her arm through Clarke’s. She looks sleepy. You can’t imagine her and Clarke willingly spending that much time apart.

“Why didn’t you both go?”

“I couldn’t afford it,” Lexa says.

“Weren’t you lonely?”

“Yes,” they say in unison. Clarke kisses Lexa’s temple.

“We hadn’t met when I signed up,” she says. “I wanted to back out as soon as we got together, but--”

“I wouldn’t let her,” Lexa says, coming to a stop at a quiet intersection. “Didn’t want her to pass up that experience for me.” Her lashes flutter and she traces one of the buttons on Clarke’s denim jacket. “And we pinky swore that we’d come back one day, together.”

Clarke’s face lights up with a soft smile. She takes a step closer and gently moves Lexa’s hand away from her jacket so she can link their pinkies together.

“Took a little longer than I’d hoped, but here we are.”

She kisses the end of their joined hands like she’s sealing a promise rather than fulfilling one. You smirk and wait for Lexa to roll her eyes, but her gaze never leaves Clarke’s face. She kisses her hand, too, and then steps in to meet Clarke’s lips.

A man and a woman walk past you and smile at each other when they see your moms. The man kisses the woman’s cheek as they hurry by.

Maybe the jetlag is hitting you because you get a strange sensation, like this moment is dislodged from time. Your moms are still wrapped up in each other like they’ve just reunited after a semester apart, and you wonder, in a sense, who’s to say they haven’t?

Once they break away they each take one of your hands before continuing on down the street.

“Gross,” you mutter, because you can’t say the other stuff.

“Oh, please.” Lexa bumps you with her hip. “You don’t think we’re gross.”

(You don’t.)

As you approach the curb Clarke murmurs, “look right,” just like she’s done at every street you’ve crossed so far, just like she’ll do at every intersection for the rest of the trip.

***

On the first day -- the jetlag day -- Clarke brought you to her old “uni” flat, her favorite cafe, and the “newsagent” where she bought overpriced American magazines when she felt homesick.

You stopped at Sainsbury’s -- a grocery store -- last. You helped your moms fill a shopping “trolley” with more familiar-yet-different foods.

(Clarke said you’ll cook most meals at the flat because English food is bland, and you don’t mention that the restaurants you’ve passed have smelled delicious.)

(You try to pay for the groceries with your pounds, but your moms won’t let you.)

Clarke has meetings for all of the next day, but she leaves you and Lexa with a detailed handwritten itinerary, complete with cute little maps and sketches of landmarks. You and Lexa follow them to the T and take a million photos to show Clarke, which turns into a sort of mission, adding an extra level of adventure to the day.

You feel really brave when you follow other children climbing the monument in Trafalgar Square so Lexa can snap a pic of you atop one of the giant bronze lions. And your sides ache from laughing after you try to get a photo of Lexa holding up Big Ben as if it’s the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

The third day in London is your first real day of sightseeing as a family. You’re still in awe of Clarke, who seems to remember several of the bus routes and “Tube” lines. The buses are your favorite -- especially the red double deckers when you get to sit in the front seat up top.

You check out a market in Notting Hill and watch the street performers on Southbank and hide behind your hands as Clarke makes funny faces at the Buckingham Palace guards, who she swears she got to smile once.

You don’t go inside anywhere that has an admission fee and your feet are sore at the end of the day, but you wouldn’t change a minute of it. Every so often you catch Clarke eyeing a tour bus when it drives by and you want to tell her you like your tour a million times better.

“I feel sorry for them,” you say instead.

Clarke raises an eyebrow. “Oh yeah? How come?”

You bite your lip, not having thought that far. “They’re seeing the tourist’s London,” you try. “We’re seeing the real London. You’re showing us the city as it really is.”

She smiles and pinches your cheek. “Quite right,” she says in her silly accent. Lexa laughs right on cue.

***

The fourth day is your last full day and you luxuriate in it.

You start off at a hole-in-the-wall tea shop for “Devon cream tea,” which sounded kinda yucky, but turns out to be delicious. You hum to yourself as you slather a warm scone with cream and jam, taking large bites between sips of sweet, milky tea. You don’t even notice your moms are recording you (or that you have jam on your cheek) (or that you’re holding the teacup with your pinky pointing out) until they show you the video afterwards.

After that you go inside the palace in the park near your flat. Even the admission ticket looks fancy. You got in for the child’s price and your moms said they were students, but it must’ve cost a lot, so you resolve to take in as much as you possibly can.

The part of the palace that you’re in is more of a museum -- not the home of any royalty -- but that doesn’t make it any less spectacular. You linger in every room, memorizing details about the palace’s history, following the brush strokes on the paintings, and imagining former monarchs living in the reconstructed rooms.

The last exhibit is full of gowns that belonged to a princess who died. In the photographs that line the walls she’s elegant and beautiful and young -- not much older than your moms.

They’re not far away, but you need to be closer. They make a space for you between them and drape their arms across your shoulders.

It’s weird to think that these dresses were made for a real person -- with hopes and dreams and worries -- who you’ll never meet, who no longer exists.

Just like your birth mother.

Clarke presses a soft kiss to the top of your head and Lexa smooths her thumb over the nape of your neck.

You wait for the tears to come. They don’t.

***

After the palace you finally venture into the park, or -- as they call it -- gardens. It’s bigger than any park you’ve ever seen. There are miles of tree-lined paths, a pond teaming with swans, and hidden treasures at nearly every turn.

Best of all, Clarke lets you lead the way.

“Whenever I called your mom that semester, I always wound up here,” she says. “Never with a destination in mind -- just wandered.”

Lexa reaches out and takes her hand. “I loved hearing where you wound up.”

As soon as you turn down one of the smaller pathways you understand why Clarke was drawn to this place. This is a major park in a city that’s home to millions, yet you three are the only ones on this quiet, shady path. For a few precious moments it seems like it’s all here just for you.

You try to channel younger-Clarke and walk aimlessly. You stumble upon a number of statues, a carousel, and a tiny art gallery. In one corner you come across a playground dedicated to the princess who died. It’s full of shrieking children, and you’re not sure why, but you think she’d like it.

Eventually you find another lake, lined with reeds and lily pads. You follow the path that runs along the shore and discover a statue where there’s no reason for one to be. And you think that’s the point.

The base is a swirling scene of animals and children and pirates and fairies chasing each other ‘round and ‘round. And at the top, looking out toward the water, is Peter Pan himself.

He looks a little different from the Peter in the Disney movie. You know that was based on a play that was based on a book, and you know it’s just a statue, but your heart is racing like it’s something more.

You glance over at your moms and think they might feel it, too. Lexa gets this dreamy look on her face as she leans into Clarke, arm slung low around her waist. Lexa’s eyes are on the statue, but Clarke’s are on you. She just smiles at you and nods and you get the impression that, somehow, this spot was the destination all along.

You nod back as you step closer to the statue. There’s so much to see at eye-level, but first you stand at the bottom and look up at Peter’s face.

He’s holding a horn to his lips, and you know it’s silly, but you close your eyes to see if you can hear it. There’s only the wind in the trees, the melody of songbirds, and the gentle murmurs of your moms, but you think there’s still magic in that.

The day seems brighter when you open your eyes. Your thoughts wander back to time and distance and how they overlap.

You think of Lost Boys and movie nights, of Neverland and trick-or-treating, of gold glitter that Clarke swears will never come out of the carpet.

The trees must’ve been a bit thinner, a bit shorter when Clarke wandered these same paths, talking on a heavy flip phone -- one she now uses as a paperweight -- to a girl an ocean away. You can just picture Lexa sitting on the floor of her dorm room, head tilted back and eyes closed, trying to imagine this city while Clarke described it to her.

You tear your eyes away from Peter Pan to look back at them. They’re standing to the side of the path, hip to hip, with their arms around each other. Clarke’s lips brush Lexa’s earlobe as she whispers something to her. You can’t hear, but you imagine they’re talking about time lost and found.

When you turn back to the statue it hits you that Peter is propped up by everything going on below him -- the whirring torrent of Neverland elevating him higher and higher.

Maybe that’s how time works. Seconds and minutes and hours and months and years build up, one on top of the other, until you get to where you need to be.

Before you met your moms your life seemed aimless, but maybe, somehow, this family was your destination all along.

***

You sit in the middle seat on the flight home. You hold your moms’ hands as you take off, but not because you’re scared.

Traveling together makes you feel closer to them, which makes you want to be closer to them. They lean in toward you, and when the plane levels off they each rest a cheek on your temples.

Once the flight attendants clear away the dinner trays (another flying perk you can’t wait to tell Mike) your moms have you choose a movie and Clarke counts down -- “3, 2, 1, play!” -- so that it starts on all three of your seat-back screens at the same time.

Your moms put their earbuds in and snuggle in close, watching your middle screen even though you jumped the gun and pressed play too soon. You guess they don’t care that their sound is slightly off.

***

You last until the interactive map says you’re two hours away from landing. A part of you thought you’d wait until you got home, but who are you kidding? You’re not good at keeping secrets anymore.

Your backpack is wedged under the seat in front of you and Lexa has to help you free it. When it’s finally in your lap your moms are looking at you with amused, questioning smiles.

“This trip is the best thing I’ve ever done... that’s ever happened to me,” you tell them as you unzip your backpack, eyes trained on your fingers. “I wanted to give you something to say thank you.”

When you get the courage to look up at them they look genuinely surprised and you’re so pleased. You didn’t think they noticed the times you slipped away, but you couldn’t be sure.

“This trip was our gift to you, El,” Lexa says. “You didn’t have to get us anything.”

“I know.” You shrug. “But I wanted to.”

The gifts are “wrapped” in plastic bags from the palace shop, but your moms’ eyes light up as if they’re decked out in glitter and ribbons. Clarke’s eyes get even wider as she pulls out the cream and turquoise letter set and traces her fingers over the embossed design on the top card.

“Aw, kiddo!” She pouts and pulls you in for a hug so tight your seatbelt digs into your side. “These are gorgeous. Posh, even. The only problem is I’m not going to want to send them to anyone -- they’re too nice.”

“Well, I was kinda thinking they could just be for us,” you say, feeling your cheeks heat up. “If you go on another business trip and we can’t come, you can write us.”

She presses her hand to her chest and makes sad eyes at Lexa, which isn’t all that unusual. What is strange, though, is Lexa giving her the same pouty look back.

Your mind goes to Clarke’s clunky old flip phone and the stack of yellowing letters beneath it. Glancing between your moms you realize you’ve stumbled onto something, here. Maybe that’s why those envelopes are smattered with so many stamps.

Clarke gently cups your chin ducks to kiss your forehead. When she pulls away you smile up at her and wait for her trademark over-the-top reaction. Instead, she slowly shakes her head.

“How did we get so lucky?”

Her voice is soft and it makes you nervous. Or excited. Or something in between. You’re not sure how to answer, or if the question is even directed at you, so you reach into your backpack for Lexa’s gift.

Or, more accurately, gifts.

You watch as she pulls them out one by one. The first is a little tin sign that says “Look Right” -- a Portobello Market find that draws a laugh from Clarke. You relax at the sound, the weight of her question slipping off your shoulders.

Next Lexa takes out a brass keychain shaped just like the unicorn on the palace gates. Anyone else might think it’s a boring gift, but there’s a significance to keys for foster kids, and judging by how she’s smiling at you you know she gets it.

The last gift in the bag is wrapped in tissues and fits in the palm of Lexa’s hand.

“It’s for both of you,” you blurt. “Well, all of us.”

You feel Clarke lean forward as Lexa pulls back the layers until three small, gray stones are revealed. They don’t make any sense without an explanation, but it takes you a second to find the words.

“They’re from the gardens. By Peter Pan,” you say. “One for each of us. To remember that we were all there, at the same time.”

It’s not exactly what you mean, but it’s close.

Lexa chooses the darkest stone, Clarke takes the lightest, and you’re left with the one that’s marbled and swirley.

“You’re so thoughtful,” Lexa says. She tucks a strand of hair behind your ear. “Your Ma’s right about us lucking out with you.”

You grin and turn to Clarke to find her holding her stone up to the overhead light.

“These could’ve been there since I did study abroad,” she says. She looks at you with a kind of awe as you nod.

It’s funny that they think they’re the lucky ones. For your whole life people have found you strange, but somehow you managed to find two people who accept and love and get you without even trying. If that's not luck, what is?

***

When the plane touches down you still feel like you're flying.

Chapter Text

You’re getting to the age when kids are starting to complain about getting up early. Even Lily, who is perpetually in motion, groans about school’s early start time.

You get it. Back in the group home Mike would have to pull the pillow out from under your head to get you up, and then help you down the rungs of the bunk bed so you wouldn’t stumble in your early-hour stupor.

It’s not like that anymore. Now, you’re what Clarke calls a “morning person.”

She groans when she says it, but it’s a good groan. Like she thinks you’re cute and not annoying, because Lexa’s a morning person too, and Clarke loves every part of Lexa, even the annoying bits.

Clarke doesn’t know that you only became a so-called morning person when you moved to this little blue house. Here -- with them -- breakfast is one of the best parts of your day. You don’t want to miss a second, even on school days. There’s something of a rhythm to it -- the way Lexa and Clarke cross paths as they bustle about the kitchen, making coffee and toasting waffles and yawning without covering their mouths.

You’re still sluggish, because some things will never change, so you usually just nestle into your chair at the kitchen table and slowly pull on your socks and tie your shoes. When you’re done you sit back and watch, tapping your foot to the beat of the morning. You simultaneously revel in the routine of it and look for improvisations; Lexa stopping mid-sip to brush an eyelash from Clarke’s cheek, Clarke reeling Lexa in by her belt loop so she can straighten out the collar of her shirt.

This morning, however, isn’t like that. Not at all.

It’s quiet, in a weird way. Like you’re tiptoeing around each other. And you all know why.

Clarke pokes at her cereal, staring into the bowl like there’s tea leaves at the bottom, and clearing her throat every few minutes, like she’s gonna say something, but she never actually does. Lexa sips her coffee, which isn’t all that unusual, except she’s sitting at the kitchen table instead of leaning against the counter, like she does most workdays.

And you? You cut determinedly into your waffles and take a big bite like nothing is wrong.

The thing is, nothing is wrong, in the grand scheme of things. You bounce your leg -- matching this morning’s frenetic rhythm -- and take stock of your emotions (one of Dr. Kapoor’s tips).

You feel weird and embarrassed and uncomfortable and curious and a little bit guilty, you guess, for not knocking. But there’s something else simmering beneath all of it that you can’t put your finger on.

You swallow your waffles and cut into them again a little too forcefully. Your knife scrapes against the plate. Lexa cringes at the sound. Clarke clears her throat.

“Okay, this is getting ridiculous,” she says, ending with a forced laugh. “Should we just talk about it? I feel like we should talk about it.”

She glances at Lexa in a desperate sort of way, which tells you they’ve already discussed how this morning should go and are both too chicken to start. Lexa brings her seemingly never-ending mug of coffee to her lips and shrugs one shoulder. Your eyes follow the movement and you notice that she’s blushing all the way down to her collarbone.

You clench your jaw as that unnamed emotion you’re feeling (anger? no...) grows stronger.

“Some help you are….” Clarke mutters.

Then she turns to you and the look on her face is so helpless you almost laugh. Part of you wants to put her out of her misery, but the other part -- the frustrated (frustrated!) part -- wants to make her -- the two of them -- sweat it out for being such babies about this.

“Eleven,” she starts, half smiling/half wincing. “Kiddo. So, about last night…”

You put down your utensils and put on your most innocent, wide-eyed face. “What about it?”

Clarke gulps and clears her throat again and you start to feel bad about the way you’re handling this. Your reaction probably falls under a new category of behavior that Clarke has dubbed “your teenage side” which has been “showing” more and more lately. Even though she rolls her eyes when she says it you know she doesn’t mean it -- like this, too, is more cute than annoying -- and it usually makes you feel grown up -- the thought of being like a teenager -- though it’s still years away.

Today, giving into your teenage side makes you feel kinda mean.

“Well, um…” Clarke stammers. “Did you have a bad dream or something?”

“I came to check on you… later,” Lexa says. “I think you’d fallen back asleep.”

Any remaining frustration inside you dissipates. Now you feel really mean. Of course, beneath all the weirdness and awkwardness, your moms just want to make sure you’re okay. And you hadn’t fallen back asleep -- you just pretended that you had, because you didn’t want to face exactly what you’re facing right now.

Your chin falls to your chest. If you hadn’t been immature last night maybe this morning would’ve been fine.

“We’re not mad!” Clarke blurts, misreading your reaction. “I mean, we’re the ones who left the door unlocked. And I’m not sure what you, um, saw…”

She trails off, and it takes you a second to realize it’s probably because you squeezed your eyes shut at the mere mention of it. The truth is you didn’t see much because you were sleepy and it was dark. But what you heard...

“Okay, uh, sorry, never mind that.”

No one speaks for a moment and you can just imagine them looking at each other all deer-in-headlights. You have to fight back a smile at that visual.

“El.” Lexa says your name so firmly your eyes fly open. She’s still kinda pink, but she looks resolved. “This doesn’t have to be painful.” She squares her shoulders and lifts her chin, changing her body language like she’s donning armor. “Sometimes when…”

She pauses, searching for the words, and you hold your breath. Not because you’re worried about what’s coming next -- because you just remembered something and it’s taking everything inside you not to laugh.

Years ago, in the group home, you and Mike would try to sneak into the older kids’ movie nights -- there was just something so thrilling about watching a film you were supposed to be 13 to see. In one movie -- you forget which -- a boy asked his parents where babies came from. The mother and father exchanged nervous looks, and then the dad said, “Well, son, sometimes, when a mommy and daddy love each other very much…”

Before you can help it, you imagine Lexa saying that to you -- except with “mommy and mommy” -- and you have to clamp both hands over your mouth. Your moms gape at you, looking super confused and alarmed, like they did that time the vacuum cleaner malfunctioned and started blowing dust out instead of sucking it in.

You drop your hands from your mouth so you can clutch your ribs as you let out a long laugh.

“I… know…” you pant between giggles, “what… sex is.”

Your moms’ close their mouths at the same time and you double over again.

“Oh.”

“Huh.”

You take a few deep breaths to compose yourself and to think of how to phrase what you’re going to say.

“Sorry for laughing. Hang on.”

It didn’t take you long to realize that foster kids know more grown-up things than kids with regular families do. The teenagers in the group home called the other children “sheltered” like it was a bad thing, but now you’re not so sure. Your moms don’t let you watch violent movies and they change the radio station when a song with lots of bleeped-out words comes on. It may be a little too late for you, but being sheltered -- the actual act of it, someone sheltering you -- feels pretty nice.

“My last foster family watched a lot of HBO,” you say instead.

Maybe it was the wrong choice, because no one responds. You’re starting to get worried when Lexa makes a sort of choking sound before spitting out a mouthful of coffee, spraying both you and Clarke.

Now it’s your turn to gape as Lexa doubles over in hysterics. You’re about to ask her what’s going on when Clarke slaps the table so hard the dishes rattle. She puts her head down next to her cereal bowl and your eyes widen as her shoulders heave with silent laughter.

“Oh my god,” Lexa croaks. She reaches across the table and squeezes Clarke’s hand, eliciting a giggle muffled against the tablecloth.

When Clarke finally sits up her cheeks are wet with tears and she’s beaming.

“Eleven - 1,” she rasps. “Moms - 0.”

This -- whatever it means -- makes Lexa laugh harder. She raises her hand and Clarke high fives her across the table.

You literally have no clue what the heck is going on, but this morning started off so weird and now your moms are laughing, and they have your favorite laughs in the world -- the most wonderful, contagious laughs -- so you start laughing too. They grin at you, giddy and young, and you feel so light. You can tell you’re on the other side of something

“Whew. Okay. Okay.” Clarke swipes at the tears on her cheeks. “Sorry kiddo. We just… were really not expecting that.”

Lexa dabs at the corner of her eyes, which does nothing because her mascara is smeared halfway down her face. “Definitely not,” she says.

You still don’t get what’s so funny, but you’re not gonna dwell on it.

“I should have said something sooner. I just didn’t know how, I guess.” You shrug. Funny that, just minutes ago, this all seemed so complicated. Now you feel like you can say anything. So you go for it. “Also Lily’s parents already had ‘the talk’ with her about, like, how babies are made, so we don’t have to do that either, because she told it to me word for word.”

You snicker, remembering that afternoon in the playground, and your moms laugh too.

“Good to know,” Clarke says. “Although sometimes we’ll have to have our own talks, even if you’ve already gone over the matter with Lily.”

“Does that make sense?” Lexa asks.

You nod. “Some things you have to talk about as a family.”

“Exactly,” they say in unison.

Your moms exchange one of those looks, like they’re communicating without words. When they look away Clarke laughs and Lexa sighs happily.

“So.” Clarke clasps her hands together. “Before we close the book on this entirely -- and before I clean the makeup off your Mum’s face -- do you have any, like, questions? Comments?” She winks at you. “Grossed out facial expressions to get out of your system?”

You roll your eyes. “Maaa.”

“Ooh, that was a good one. Very teenage-El.” Clarke laughs as you put on a fake pout. “Seriously though. May as well get it all out now. Believe it or not, this exact situation happened to me once and my parents just acted like it never happened. It got weird.”

Your eyes widen at the thought of Abby doing… that.

“It’s easier to not talk, sometimes,” you say. “But I’m glad that we did. Earlier we were all sitting so close but it felt wrong. Like there was something in the way.” You smile at them. “It’s gone now.”

“Good.” Lexa taps the toe of her high heel against your sneaker under the table. “This was good. Next time we know to just dive into talking right away.”

“Next time we’ll lock the door.”

“Next time I’ll knock.”

Your moms burst out laughing and, this time, you get why. Clarke cups her cheeks, just like you do when your face happy-hurts, and it makes you feel warm and soft.

There’s still something you want to say, but you aren’t quite sure how. You want to tell them you don’t think they’re gross, not really, even though kids your age are supposed to. And you want to tell them that you know the difference between what happens on HBO and what happens here, between them, in private.

It’s like, everything that happens in this house -- even the things you’re not supposed to see, the things that aren’t meant for you -- are rooted in something good. And that makes you feel safe.

Maybe one day you’ll find the words. But today you get up and stand between your moms. They’re still laughing when they each put an arm around you, like it’s second nature, and you loop your arms around the back of their necks.

“I never knew how many kinds there were....” you start.

Lexa kisses your temple. “Kinds of what?”

“Of love. I didn’t realize. Until I came here.”

You pause, because you feel kinda stupid, but Clarke squeezes your side. “Go on.”

“Well, there’s love when you make me waffles for breakfast, and when you help me with my history homework, and when you tuck me in at night. And there’s love when you two hold hands and make each other snacks and text random emojis throughout the day for no reason.” Clarke tickles your ribs at that and you squirm. “I know those are different kinds of love. And I know there are even more that are just between the two of you. But it’s still love -- I know that.”

“You’re right,” Lexa says, nuzzling her nose against your cheek. “Everything we do comes from a place of love.”

“Sure does,” Clarke says. “But you come first, kiddo. No matter what.”

“I know.” You kiss her forehead, then Lexa’s. “I guess I just mean, I’m glad you love each other so much.”

“Funny,” Lexa says. “We always say it’s like we didn’t know what love was until we found you.”

You’re not sure how that can possibly be true, but they look at you like one of their favorite emojis -- the one with a sappy smile and pink cheeks -- and your pulse picks up a little bit. Your moms pull you in for a tight group hug and you close your eyes and focus on the happy-hurt in your heart.

Chapter Text

Your kid is pouting, and it makes you want to laugh and cry at the same time.

Parenting is weird.

Eleven is slouched in her chair at the kitchen table with her legs kicked out in front of her, crossed at the ankle. There’s a grass-stain on her knee and rhinestones on her socks, but you can see a hint of looming teenagedom in her posture. It’s there, too, in the set of her jaw, and you smile to yourself because Lexa had the same look when you first met.

You always mean it when you say El takes after her Mum.

Waffles brushes up against your legs, bringing your thoughts back to the here and now. You push off the kitchen counter and start making a fresh batch of strawberry lemonade -- an after-school ritual that began when Eleven first arrived and is still going strong. Every once in awhile she sighs and, though you can’t help but glance over at her, you stay quiet. You’ve found it’s best to give her time to process things on her own.

If only you had any idea what she’s processing.

The chair creaks as El shifts, holding the letter so that it obscures her face from view. She must have read it ten times over by now -- you recognized Mike’s handwriting on the envelope, and you know he’s no wordsmith. He usually chews El’s ear off during their weekly calls (which you used to refer to as “phone dates” until El blushed and asked that you didn’t), saving drawings and magazine clippings for the mail. (Don’t even get you started on how stupid precious that is.)

But this letter contains actual handwritten words -- paragraphs of them --and you can’t help but run through worst-case scenarios. (Another joy of parenting.) You hope that things are still going well at his uncle’s house and that he’s getting along with his new group of friends at school.

Last month Mike sent a Polaroid of him and three other boys, all wild hair and goofy smiles. You wondered if El would feel conflicted about seeing her best friend so happy with kids she’d never met, but that night, after you tucked her into bed, you caught a glimpse of the photo wedged into the frame of her bedroom mirror.

Nudging your worries to the back of your mind, you open the freezer to get ice and see there’s just one half-empty box of Eggos left. You go to write it on the refrigerator whiteboard only to find it’s already there, spelled out in Lexa’s neat script. Above it, she’s written one of the Halo Top flavors you’ve been dying to try.

When you were younger you thought the epitome of love was bold declarations expressed at the height of torrential rainstorms. Now you know the best love is hidden in the mundane, and it’s here, bright and shiny, between the smudged lines of a grocery list.

You take your time finishing with the lemonade and arranging a few Fudge Stripes cookies on one of the plates El made in pottery class last summer. Somewhere along the way you must’ve started humming to yourself -- a fact you only realize when Eleven joins in.

It takes you a moment to place the tune, but when you do you smile. Raven had given you her HBO login a few weeks back and you and Lex quickly became obsessed with a show about everything your lives lack -- wealth and murder and the California coast.

The opening song is haunting and soulful and it only took you two episodes to notice that your wife sighed every time it ended. Later that night, when she was brushing her teeth, you downloaded the track to her phone, and when she came back to the bedroom it was playing, softly, so you wouldn’t wake El. Lexa gave you one of those pained looks -- like she couldn’t believe you thought of her -- and you were about to remind her of your well documented undying love and devotion when she reached for you.

You swayed together, in bare feet in the middle of the room, until Lexa’s head grew heavy on your shoulder and you had to coax her into bed.

The song wound up in heavy rotation in the house, after that. And -- surprise, surprise -- El loved it. (See? Just like her Mum.)

If Lexa was here right now, this is where she’d tell you that Eleven’s like you, too. And, while you maintain that the similarities between your wife and daughter are uncanny, there is some truth to her claim.

Even though you’re just humming the two of you sound good together -- and not just because you both have decent pitch and range. Your voices complement each other, filling in deficiencies and creating a richer sound than either of you could make on your own.

The funny thing is, you’re not even sure El knows she’s humming.

You keep up the tune as you bring the cookies, lemonade, and a couple of mason jar glasses (a recent flea market find) to the table and take a seat. Soon you’re approaching the song’s crescendo and you can’t stop yourself from singing the lyrics.

After a few words El looks over at you, like she’s just registering your presence, and after a few more she joins in. She takes on this almost-apologetic look when she sings, like she doesn’t think she’s deserving of her talent. You get it -- for most of her life she’s seen the universe bestow gifts upon other kids while always passing her by.

Maybe she thinks her voice is a mistake, or a happy accident, like when a vending machine pops out two candy bars instead of one. Except Eleven’s used to being the person who came before, the one whose snack got stuck against the glass.

Moving in with actual caring parents must have turned El’s worldview on its head, and no matter how many times you tell her she deserves every good thing in this life, you know it will take a while for her to accept those words as truth.

It’s something you’ve talked about a lot with Lexa over the years, and you never quite understood how difficult being loved was for her until a conversation the two of you had just after El moved in.

“People talk about love like it’s this passive thing -- something you can fall into -- but for me it was a hard-fought battle,” Lexa said that night. She dipped her chin and leaned in close, fixing you with the unwavering stare that never failed to command your full attention. “It took me years to accept it from Indra, and even then I thought it was an anomaly.”

“Ah, so that’s why you played hard to get for so long,” you said, squeezing her arm just above the wrist. “Good thing all Griffins are born with a knack for dogged perseverance.”

Lexa rolled her eyes. “I wasn’t playing hard to get.”

“I know.” You smoothed your thumb over her skin to let her know you were done teasing. “You thought you were unlovable so you tried to act as though you were.”

“No, I did act as though I was. I was horrible.”

“Nah.” You shrugged. “I saw right through it. All Griffins are also born with a knack for armchair psychology.”

You wish you could snap your fingers and make Eleven understand she’s worthy of every kind of love. But for now she’s smiling at you as she sings, all evidence of a pout gone from her face.

You keep your voice soft to match hers. There’s a sacredness to the moment that gives you goosebumps, and you draw out the last few bars to make it last a bit longer. By the time the song comes to its tapering end Eleven’s grip on the letter has loosened.

She grins as she carefully folds the paper along Mike’s uneven creases and slides it back into the envelope. You wink at her and fill her glass with lemonade before pouring your own.

El places the envelope on the table, next to the rest of today’s mail, and as she reaches for her drink you see her gaze land on a letter from Ms. Jennings, your adoption attorney.

“It’s just a confirmation of the hearing date,” you tell her. “But you don’t have to go to that one. We were thinking Maya could hang out with you. How does that sound?”

You know she knows what the hearing is about. Since you formally began the adoption process, you and Lexa have been as transparent as possible to help give Eleven a sense of control and to minimize uncertainty. All of the social worker’s home-study visits have been on the kitchen calendar since the dates got confirmed, and El’s visited Ms. Jennings’ office a few times to hear the particulars first hand.

When you and Lexa first told her about the purpose of this particular hearing you weren’t sure how she’d react. The social worker had warned you that “parental rights” is a difficult concept for a child to grasp, and advised against using scary-sounding legal jargon like “terminate.”

But after you and Lex sat El down and gave her your thoroughly rehearsed explanation about this difficult-but-important step, complete with heartfelt promises to answer any of her questions and give her time to process what it means, she scowled and squared her shoulders.

“I do not want to see him.”

On instinct you reached out for Eleven, but Lexa gently intercepted your hand and placed it on her knee. “You don’t have to,” she said. “He might not even be there. But either way, Ms. Jennings said only Ma and I should go.”

El nodded and let out a long breath. “Good.”

You had a family therapy meeting with Dr. Kapoor a few days later, and when Lexa brought up the hearing Eleven stiffened in her chair. But you know El and her therapist have talked about it a few times since, during their one-on-one sessions, and it must be helping, because today El just nods.

“Maybe Maya can help me with my English project,” she says.

“I’m sure she’d love that, kiddo.” You grab a cookie, then push the plate closer to El. “She hasn’t been over since we got Catchphrase, has she? I bet she’d give you a run for your money.”

Your family has been on a bit of a Catchphrase bender ever since Lexa brought it home from Lincoln’s a few weeks ago. He got the game for his birthday but decided to give it up after winning a few rounds against Octavia, who doesn’t take kindly to losing. (There’s a dent in the plastic to prove it.)

For once your friend’s crazy competitiveness worked in your favor, because Eleven took to the game right away. No one would believe that just a year ago you’d be hard-pressed to hear El string more than three words together; watching her school you and Lexa in Catchphrase, you almost wouldn’t believe it yourself, and you were there.

A few crumbs fall from El’s lips when she giggles, and for the millionth time you’re in awe of this kid’s resiliency -- that she can contemplate severing ties with her father one minute and be all smiles the next.

“I bet Mike could beat me, though.”

“He does have the gift of gab,” you say. “But I think you could take him.”

Eleven laughs halfheartedly and starts fiddling with the corner of the envelope. A stitch forms between her eyebrows, and you’re about to cave and ask her what’s wrong when she speaks.

“Do you remember your first dance?”

The beginnings of a laugh escape from your mouth before you can help it. You’re not sure what you thought she was going to say, but that question certainly ranks pretty high on your “last things I expected to hear in this specific moment” list.

“Sorry, sorry.” You cover your smile with your hand. “You just caught me off guard. Yeah, I remember my first dance.”

El lifts her brows, one of her many nonverbal cues you know my heart, and you continue.

“I was around your age, actually. Maybe a little older. In my town the fifth graders had an end-of-year dance to celebrate finishing elementary school, and we made such a big deal of it. Everyone acted like they still found dating icky, but I think we all secretly had crushes. I wanted to dance with Zach Ling and Tara McNulty, which was fun and confusing, but that’s a story for another time…”

You pause to take a breath. You’re rambling and you know it, it’s just. This is one of those parenting moments you’ve been dreaming about ever since Lexa first brought up the idea of fostering. The two of you would lie in bed in your studio apartment, burrowed under blankets to keep the heating bill low, and talk about the kind of moms you would be.

Lexa wanted to be understanding, reliable, and kind -- traits her birth (and most foster) parents lacked.

While your upbringing was happier, you still wanted to be there for a child in ways your parents weren’t. Your mom could be stubborn and distant, often more focused on her career than you. Lying beside Lexa, you vowed to never be like that.

You wanted to be the kind of mother a kid would trust equally with their triumphs and their failures. You wanted to be their friend and confidant -- someone they could bring anything to and know they’d never feel judged.

Your dad was that person for you. Maybe motherhood was a way to make him live on -- not by genetics -- but by passing along the love he gave to you.

But every half-decent parent since the dawn of time must’ve had aspirations like yours and, more often than it should -- and for too many reasons to count -- they don’t come to pass. So your pre-teen daughter trusting you enough to ask about something romance-adjacent hints that, somewhere along this wild and wonderful parenting journey, you’ve been doing something right.

You need to get ahold of yourself, though, because El’s biting her lip and looking at you with wide eyes. You’ve gotta tamp down your excitement, or else she might not come to you with something like this again.

“Anyway, I bet my mom still has pictures from that dance. We can look the next time we visit.” You take a sip of lemonade, willing yourself to act casual. “Why do you ask?”

Eleven lets go of the envelope and places her hands in her lap. “The group home has a dance at the end of June every year. The Summer Sock Hop. We were never old enough to go.”

Referring to herself and Mike as “we” on first reference is one of many, many precious “El-isms,” as you’ve taken to calling them. You clear your throat and cross your arms in what you hope passes for a relaxed manner.

“And you’re old enough now?”

She nods, glancing away. “It’s not like the parties for the little kids, where they just hang streamers in the lunchroom. The Sock Hop is held at the YMCA down the street. It’s supposed to be really fancy.”

There’s an internal scream building in your chest and you grip your elbows to keep it in check. Of course your dress-loving, bedazzled, flower-child kid wants to go to the glitzy affair at the Y. She’s probably been planning her outfit since she learned of its existence.

So why does she look like someone just told her they’re discontinuing Cinnamon Toast Eggos?

“Are kids who don’t live in the group home anymore allowed to go?” you try.

“Yes.”

So much for that. You change tactics. “Did Mike mention the Sock Hop in his letter?”

She nods. “We always talked about going. His uncle said they’d drive down for it and stay for the weekend.”

There are a half-dozen parenting books on the shelf in your office and each one probably contains some solid advice on delicately extracting information from a 10-year-old foster child, but you give in and ask the question that’s been on your mind since she opened that letter.

“So what’s the problem?”

Eleven fixes you with a very serious stare.

“I don’t know how to dance.”

***

“I can’t believe I missed this.”

“Me neither, Lex -- you would’ve died.” You pull back the covers and climb into bed. “I was hoping it’d come up at dinner, but since she didn’t mention it I figured I’d wait to tell you. Our baby is so adorable and dramatic, it’s unreal.”

Your wife gives you a pointed look. “Hmm. Wonder where she gets that.”

“Please, even I’m not that over the top.”

“Bet you were at her age.”

You shrug one shoulder in concession. “Good point.”

Lexa’s smile is on the smug side, but she’s cute so you’ll allow it. You lie back against the pillows and watch her finish undressing. She makes quick work of everything until it comes to unbuttoning her blouse, which she does oh so slowly. It’s a nightly tease that began nearly a decade ago when, one night, you shut up mid-argument because you got distracted by her long fingers doing such delicate work, revealing her skin inch by inch.

Although at this point, perhaps it’s not so much a tease as it is a habit. Lexa could be telling you about her non-profit’s latest initiative or listening to you prattle on about your day -- sex far from both of your minds -- and she’ll still take her time with her shirt. You have a hunch that she undresses like this even when you’re not there to watch, and that makes you feel happier that your younger self could’ve imagined.

Your love has shaped her in this tiny and lingering way; one that she might not even be aware of. You wonder how many invisible traces she’s left on you.

Lexa turns away from you as she unhooks her bra and lazily slips on her sleep shirt. When she glances at you over her shoulder you take back everything you thought about her not being a tease.

“So what did you say after El told you she doesn’t know how to dance?”

She walks to her side of the bed, face the picture of innocence, but you know better. You sigh as you pull back the duvet for her.

“I reminded her that we danced together at Lincoln and Octavia’s wedding, and she said that was fun but not ‘real’ dancing.”

Lexa laughs softly. She turns onto her side and props her head up on her hand, looking down at you.

“And what’s real dancing?”

“My guess?” You waggle your eyebrows. “Slow dancing.”

Lexa scoffs, rolling her eyes. “You really think so?”

“I don’t know, actually. Hard to say with them.” You reach up to tuck a stray curl behind Lexa’s ear. “But I told her we could all practice so-called ‘real dancing’ as a family, and she seemed into it. We bookmarked a few YouTube tutorials to watch this weekend.”

“Seriously? You looked up how-to-dance videos?”

“Yes, seriously. You should’ve seen her, Lex -- she was super stressed… and I might’ve added to that stress when I went on a tangent about my first dance and how I had simultaneous crushes on people of different genders. I may have overcorrected with YouTube.”

Lexa narrows her eyes. “You told El about Tara McNulty?"

“It just came out! And I’ve told you -- had we gone to elementary school together you’d have been my first female crush. No question.”

You find her hip under the covers and tug until she relents and scoots in closer. Your wife isn’t a jealous person -- she’s never cared about your past boyfriends or girlfriends -- but for some reason she’s always been hung up on the first girl you ever liked, even though you barely remember Tara because she moved away that summer.

Over the years, you and Lexa have had many collective daydreams about what would’ve happened had you met at that age. It’s a topic the two of you like to come back to, a little alternate universe you keep building upon.

(It goes like this: You meet at summer camp and like each other right away. The nights are cold and the sheets are thin, so you sleep curled up together in Lexa’s top bunk. Conserving body heat. You tell each other everything in the softest whispers. Lexa kisses your cheek at the end-of-camp bonfire. You both cry the whole bus ride home. It doesn’t take you long to convince your parents to take Lexa in. Realizing how you feel about each other takes a bit longer.)

Lexa jokes that in fifty years, when your minds start to go, you’ll both think you really met when you were twelve.

Maybe that’s why she doesn’t like to think about Tara -- it’s a reminder that your imagined version of events isn’t true.

Lexa slides an ankle between your legs and rests her head on your pillow. She’s so close her face goes out of focus, but you can still make out the blush staining her cheeks. “I know.”

There’s hardly any space between your bodies, but the vulnerability in her voice propels you closer. You slip your hand under the hem of her t-shirt, tracing a finger along the edge of her underwear before flattening your palm on the small of her back. She sighs as you press your forehead to hers, noses bumping.

“It would be nice,” you whisper. “We could live vicariously.”

“Huh? Babe, for the millionth time, we’re not telepathic.”

Now it’s your turn to blush. After all this time you can still get so caught up in the feel of her that your thoughts don’t always make it to your mouth.

“If it’s like that for Eleven and Mike, I mean. If they’re each other’s first crushes and true loves and all that Disney fairytale stuff. Even though didn’t happen that way for us, we’ll have front row seats if it happens for them.”

Lexa tightens her arms around you. “That’s a lot of pressure to put on two 10 year olds.”

“I’m just saying if.”

“I know. I’m kinda rooting for it, too... though I wouldn’t be mad if she wound up with Lily.”

You burst out laughing. “Lexa!”

“Oh, come on.” She leans back just enough to squint at you. “Like you haven’t thought it.”

You school your features into what you hope passes for a straight face. “I haven’t.”

Lexa grins. “Liar.”

You tickle her ribs, making her squirm as you ease her onto her back. She smiles up at you, tangles of curls splayed out on the faded pillowcase, and it’s one of those timeless moments. It could be ten years ago, or ten years from now, and it’d feel just like this.

“Remember when we slept under, like, seven blankets to keep the heating cost down?”

Lexa cocks her head to the side, giving you one of her adorable, quizzical looks. “Yes.”

“We talked about the moms we wanted to be, but it felt so far off then.”

“We were so idealistic. We had no idea what we were in for.” She scrunches her nose. “We’re doing it, though.”

You want to tell her that any parenting goal you’ve accomplished is all because of her. You want to tell her that you’re astounded by her braveness, that you can’t fathom the courage it must’ve taken for her to break the shitty parenting cycle she was born into. You want to tell her one of the great joys of your life has been watching her pour everything good in her into this kid, and that you’re so excited to be by her side for the rest of this crazy journey -- for the rest of your lives.

You want to tell her she’s every bit the mom she dreamed of being all those years ago. You want to tell her that you’re painfully and endlessly proud of her.

Instead, you just kiss her.

And maybe you are kinda telepathic, because when you pull back to catch your breath a few minutes later her eyes are wet, too.

Chapter Text

The nights are finally getting warmer.

It’s your favorite time of year -- the muggy transition from spring to summer. Clarke thinks you’re crazy. She loves the start of spring, when brave daffodils push up through the last remnants of snow. But for you, the end of spring -- when the days start getting noticeably longer and May gives way to June -- wins out.

Maybe it’s a trust thing. At this time of year it’s finally safe to go out all day without bringing a jacket or a flannel just in case the temperature dips.

Besides, warm nights mean dinners on the back patio.

Clarke fell in love with this little blue house the moment the realtor opened the door, but you weren’t sold right away. It was hard to see past the scuffed floors and laminate countertops, and you were about to write it off when you looked out the kitchen windows to the back yard.

Back then, calling it a patio would’ve been generous. You could barely see the paving stones through the bunches of weeds growing between them, and the trellis overhead looked on the dangerous side of rickety, but you immediately got a sense of its potential.

It took weeks of blood, sweat, and tears to make the patio halfway decent, but you loved every moment of it. Even before you’d saved enough to buy outdoor furniture, you and Clarke took to spending the summer nights sitting cross-legged on the sun-warmed bricks and drinking cheap wine from dixie cups.

You couldn’t imagine being happier.

***

Tonight, as you help your wife and daughter carry dessert outside, you know that there’s no ceiling on happiness.

Eleven places the bowl of whipped cream on the table with a theatrical sigh (a new habit she definitely learned from her Mama).

“We should get one of those mixers that they have in baking class.”

“That would be easier,” Clarke says, laughing. “But my dad always said whisking by hand makes everything taste better. Not to mention that all that hard work will make your arms extra strong.”

El flexes her right arm and giggles when Clarke lets out a low whistle.

“And that’s how they made whipped cream before electricity,” you say, making your history-buff kid’s eyes light up. “So it’s the most authentic method, really.”

Clarke grins at you and winks. You both know the real reason you can’t entertain the thought of buying a standing mixer is that a decent one would cost more than the baking class itself. And you’re still paying off the flights to London, which you split among three credit cards. But Eleven doesn’t need to know that.

“I saw an old ice cream churner on the History Channel yesterday,” El says. “Maybe we should make authentic rocky road next week.”

You and Clarke gape at her as she scoops a pile of strawberries onto her plate, topping it off with a healthy dollop of whipped cream. You’re not totally sure if she’s serious until a giddy smirk creeps across her face. Clarke tosses a strawberry slice at her and El shrieks.

Maybe you’ll think otherwise during her teenage years, but right now you can’t imagine Eleven being sarcastic with you will ever get old. You know from experience how much trust it takes for a foster kid to let their guard down this much.

“I miss baking class. And not just because of the mixers.” El smiles at both of you, biting her strawberry-stained bottom lip. “I think that was my best Christmas gift.”

She says that about every Christmas gift you gave her, from the family baking class to the waffle-themed tee, but it never fails to make your heart seize up. Last fall, when you and Clarke were buying her presents, you assumed asking El if you could adopt her would overshadow all the rest, but she doesn’t seem to group the “adoption proposal” (a term of Lily’s that’s stuck) in the same category as the other gifts.

You reach to dip a particularly juicy-looking strawberry in the whipped cream and, even though it’s a small movement, your shoulder stings. You try not to wince as you pop the berry into your mouth. Normally you prefer your fruit plain, but this combination really is delicious.

“They’re offering a level two course this summer,” you say when you’re done savoring the mouthful. “Would you want to do that?”

El starts nodding vigorously, but then she pauses -- catching herself -- and shrugs. “Maybe.”

You and Clarke exchange a knowing look. Lately Eleven’s become increasingly non-committal with anything that might take place after her adoption. It’s like she thinks any snag in the process will result in her being placed with new foster parents, and nothing you, Clarke, the attorney, or her therapist say seems to reassure her.

***

In reality, the adoption is progressing smoothly. You feel confident that it’ll go off without a hitch, now that the worst of it is over.

The worst of it, of course, being the court hearing to formally terminate parental rights.

A knot had formed in your stomach in the days leading up to the hearing, and by the time you and Clarke walked into the courthouse it had worked its way up into your throat. You gripped Clarke’s hand and tried to swallow.

“He probably won’t be here,” she whispered.

You nodded silently, not wanting to tarnish her optimism. But you knew this man’s brand of cruelty, and people like El’s father never missed an opportunity to give one last twist of the knife.

Oddly enough, you felt better once you were seated inside. You’ve seen your fair share of government buildings but, as luck would have it, this particular courthouse was where Indra adopted you. It was a quiet, almost humdrum affair -- since Indra was always stoic, and you used to keep your emotions to yourself -- but it was one of the happiest days of your life.

Clarke, on the other hand, became jittery. She kept bouncing her knee even after you placed your hand on her thigh, and when Eleven’s father was led in through a side door her breath caught in her throat.

You tried to keep your face neutral as you watched him shuffle into the room. The lump in your throat turned red-hot and jagged, and you didn’t notice how tightly you were squeezing Clarke’s leg until she touched your wrist.

“Sorry,” you whispered, letting her go. You pressed a kiss to her shoulder and took a deep breath before turning your attention back to him.

You tried to focus on the details. He was in a gray jumpsuit, hands and ankles cuffed. You searched his face for a trace of Eleven -- seeking something familiar in his cheekbones or the line of his nose -- but you saw no resemblance at all.

That was the only good thing you could say about his face. It would’ve been one thing if he showed signs of anger or even regret, but he just stared straight ahead with a look in his eyes too neutral to be described as apathy.

In the end, he didn’t even put up a fight.

Legally, that was a good thing. The rational part of your brain understood that. But the rational part of you felt far away when you listened to his counsel tell the judge he had no arguments to enter. You wanted to slap the blank look off his face, scream at him until he understood how precious his child was despite coming from someone so evil, who tried as he might to break her.

You might’ve done it, too, if Clarke hadn’t slipped her arm around your waist.

“Hey.” She squeezed your hip and you realized you were on the edge of your seat. “It’s okay. Come here.”

You slid back, practically collapsing against her. “He has no idea what he’s giving up,” you gritted out.

Clarke leaned in until you could feel her lips against your ear. “Because he’s a fucking asshole.”

The whole courthouse looked at you when you burst out laughing. You quickly turned your laugh into a cough, wincing and placing a hand on your chest in an attempt to sell it. Clarke rubbed your back, brows knit with concern, and if you weren’t already married you would’ve proposed to her right then and there.

By the time the judge’s gavel dropped you were feeling pretty good about things. Emotional rollercoaster aside, you’d got what you wanted.

Once Eleven’s father shuffled out of the room, looking like a pathetic old man, you could finally appreciate the support system represented on your side of the court. Ms. Jennings, the adoption attorney, had handled the proceedings like a pro, and Jim, El’s grumpy social worker, had even shaved his perma-stubble.

You were almost giddy as you and Clarke thanked them, and by the time you reached the top of the courthouse steps you felt 10-times lighter. About halfway down Clarke came to a stop and you automatically paused beside her. She squeezed her eyes shut and took a few long, deep breaths. Without thinking your cupped the back of her elbow -- a gentle touch to let her know you were there.

“That sucked,” she said once she opened her eyes. A thin tear ran down her cheek. “You okay?”

You let out a shaky breath. “Better now.”

She scanned your face for a moment before nodding. “Okay,” she said, stepping closer and winding her arms around you. “Okay.”

Your tears caught you off guard. Clarke held you tight as you hid your face in the crook of her neck, dampening the collar of her dress.

On the drive home you made a pit stop at Eleven’s favorite ice cream shop. When you got to the house El greeted you at the door. You barely finished telling her that everything went well before she launched into a fast and rambling narrative about everything she did with Maya. She kept it up as you took the lids off the four sundaes and settled around the kitchen table.

You and Clarke didn’t have to exchange a look to know you were on the same page, but your eyes found each other anyway.

“Sounds like you had a great day, kiddo,” Clarke said.

El nodded and blushed, like she just registered that she was talking so much. Maya picked up the story where she left off, and Eleven took the opportunity to dive into her ice cream. You tried to give her space and listen to Maya, but you couldn’t help but notice that after a few bites she stopped eating. Instead, she concentrated on mixing the sundae with her spoon until it turned into ice cream soup.

Every so often you felt Eleven’s gaze on you, but when you smiled at her she looked away. You swept your fingers beneath your eyelids, hoping your mascara hadn’t run.

She didn’t say much for the rest of the night.

***

The one future event that El doesn’t mind planning for is the group home’s Summer Sock Hop. It makes sense that the dance is a safe mental space for her, especially since she’s going with Mike, her longest constant.

Ever since Clarke talked Eleven off the edge by promising to help her learn to dance, family lessons had begun in earnest. While they started off as an instructional practice focused on modern dance moves and a bit of swing, the lessons have, unsurprisingly, veered off course.

Today you’re perched on an ottoman, which has been pushed against the wall, along with the rest of the living room furniture. In the cleared space in the middle of the room your wife and daughter are waltzing. Or attempting to waltz, anyway.

Any other kid would be in hysterics by now, but El is taking it very seriously, back straight and shoulders squared. Clarke is playing the YouTube tutorial on the TV with the music turned up loud, but you can still Eleven murmuring the step count -- “one - two - three, one - two - three” -- under her breath.

You could watch them for hours, you think, leaning back on your forearms. You smile to yourself when you realize that’s not hyperbole.

“Hey pretty girl,” Clarke calls over, nearly stepping on El’s foot. “You’re next on my dance card.”

You roll your eyes. “My shoulder’s still sore.”

Eleven looks at you with a furrowed brow. She’s still counting the steps, but you hear her unspoken question clear as day.

“I pulled it reaching for a book on a high shelf at work,” you tell her. “No big deal.”

“Leeex.” Clarke sighs. “You just missed the perfect opportunity for a joke.”

“Oh yeah? Like what?”

“Well, I’d have to workshop it, but there’s a pun in there, somewhere. Like, with shoulders and ‘the weight of the world.’ Or maybe something to do with Atlas…” She bites her lip, apparently workshopping the joke on the spot. An impressive feat, mid-waltz. “Oh -- I know,” she says. “A pick-up line!”

El yelps when Clarke suddenly dips her -- a move you all mastered during tango week -- but she goes with it. Clarke winks at her before hitting you with her best smolder.

“Hey baby, are your shoulders sore? Because you could hold up my world all night.”

“Oh my god.” You throw your head back as you laugh. “That’s so bad. It doesn’t even make sense.”

“Whatever.” She pulls a giggling El back up to standing and they return to waltzing. “It’ll come to me.”

Neither of you notice that the video tutorial has ended until Eleven comes to a stop and lets out a long breath. She nods to herself, and you can tell by her face that she’s pleased she made it through the whole song without missing a step (spontaneous dips aside).

You sit up straight so you can applaud. “Well done, you,” you say in an English accent -- a souvenir from your London trip. “I love watching you succeed when you put your mind to something.”

You cringe inwardly at how awkward you just sounded, but Clarke gives you a subtle thumbs up. The two of you have been trying to adjust the way you praise Eleven so that you acknowledge her hard work and determination rather than her innate abilities. The technique, according to a study shared by your favorite foster parenting Facebook group, is supposed to build self esteem and perseverance.

Kids think that intelligence is fixed, researchers found, so telling them they get good grades because they worked hard is better than saying it’s because they’re smart. This approach makes sense to you, but you’re driven by more than that.

It makes you feel good to emphasize Eleven’s role in forging her own destiny. You don’t ever want her to think that her cleverness came from anyone but herself.

The new brand of praise doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but it seems any awkwardness was lost on El, who practically puffs out her chest with pride.

“Thank you,” she says, blushing a bit. She bites her lip and looks between you and Clarke. “Just do it backwards.”

You blink. “What?”

“The waltz. Lead with your arm that doesn’t hurt.”

Clarke makes a sound between a snort and a snicker, peering at El with a hand on her hip. “What makes you think your Mum’s gonna lead?”

It’s bait and you know it, but you take it anyway. You’re standing by the time Clarke turns her gaze on you. She’s trying to look nonchalant but you see right through it -- the script is different, but you’ve run this scene many times before.

“Oh, I’m gonna lead,” you say. You take her hand and walk her to the center of the room.

Eleven gasps with delight and hurries over to the remote. “Ready?”

You take Clarke’s hand on your good side and grip her waist with your other hand. There’s still some space between you so you step in close.

I’m ready,” you say, eyes steady on your wife.

She smirks at you as she gently takes your waist and crowds in even closer, until you can feel her breath hot on your cheek. Her lashes flutter, gaze briefly dropping to your lips, and suddenly you don’t feel ready at all.

You try not to let on, but she knows. She lets out a soft hum, like you’ve just confirmed her suspicions, and this time her breath grazes your mouth. It takes all your willpower not to sway against her.

“Me too,” she drawls.

Somewhere off to the left El groans. “You’re not supposed to stand that close.”

“Oops.”

Clarke tilts her head, nose brushing over yours, and you can almost taste her lips when she takes a step back. You try to glare as she appraises you, but you doubt it does anything to hide your hooded eyes or the flush spreading across your cheeks.

“Now we’re ready,” she says.

“Finally,” Eleven mutters.

The music starts and it takes a second for you to remember that you’re supposed to lead. You lift your chin and wait a few beats -- as if the delay was intentional -- before taking the first step.

You’ve never waltzed before, but it turns out watching Eleven and Clarke learn the steps was enough. These things come easily to you.

Athleticism was probably your earliest source of confidence. You relied on sports as an outlet throughout your youth, playing on organized teams when your foster parents’ sprung for the entry fee and finding pick-up games when they didn’t.

Often, it was the only consistent thing in your young life. Even when the rest of your world was spiraling out of control, you could always maneuver the ball wherever you wanted it to go.

Waltzing, it seems, is no different. You get that old feeling, confident and surefooted, as you guide Clarke around the living room. There can’t be any doubt who’s leading who now.

This part is familiar, too -- Clarke ceding control. You raise your chin and watch her eyes fall to your lips for the second time in as many minutes. It’s nothing like before, though. This time you’re the force she’s reacting to. You smirk and tighten your grip on her waist.

“Yeah yeah, you’re good at stuff, we know this,” she huffs. “Thought leading backwards would at least give you some trouble, though.”

You hear El giggle from her perch on the arm of the sofa. “I didn’t.”

You give Clarke a twirl -- purely to show off -- and turn to beam at Eleven. She smiles back without taking her eyes off Clarke’s phone, which, you realize after a beat, she’s using to film you. (Honestly, this kid.)

Clarke cheeks are flushed when you pull her back into your arms, but, to her credit, she still levels you with a pretty decent glare. “Of course your mini-me takes your side.”

You shrug. “She just has an accurate understanding of my natural abilities.”

“Maybe so…” Clarke hits you with a smarmy grin, and you know this part of the play is almost up. She moves her hand from your waist and trails her fingers up and across your spine until she reaches the edge of the bandage beneath your shirt. “But I know where your weak spots are,” she whispers.

She’s not smirking, anymore. Maybe because your weak spots are now her weak spots, too. Maybe because you both know she’s not talking about what’s beneath the cotton gauze.

You’re going off script, but you don’t care as you dip your chin to kiss her. The soft breath that catches in the back of her throat tells you that you’ve caught her off guard, and you smile against her lips. The waltz is still playing in the background but you must’ve stopped dancing at some point -- a fact you only realize when Clarke runs her tongue across your bottom lip and you don’t stumble.

After one last lingering kiss you step back, putting some space between you, except for her hands, which you catch in yours. For once she looks just as bewildered as you do by this sudden wallop of emotions, which seem to be coming fast and furious these days.

As if on cue, you both turn to Eleven. You’re not sure what you’re expecting -- maybe a sarcastic comment about how gross you’re being, or a grumble about not taking the dance seriously. What you’re definitely not expecting is to find her curled up in the middle of the sofa and not even paying attention.

Not to you, anyway. Her eyes are trained on Clarke’s phone, which is resting on her knees, and she has a dreamy smile on her face. The waltz tutorial on the TV comes to an end, but you still hear the music coming from the device in your kid’s lap.

You and Clarke nestle in on either side of her and watch the video -- the one she just took of the two of you -- over her shoulder.

“You’re not really doing it right,” El whispers without taking her eyes off the screen, “but it’s beautiful.”

(If that’s not the best description of parenting, you don’t know what is.)

***

The floor of Eleven’s room is littered in dresses.

You’re a pretty neat and orderly person, but you can’t help but smile at this bright, tulle-filled chaos. Your kid is in the eye of it, literally swirling to see how this dress -- sunshine yellow and the last one from her closet -- floats above her knees.

By the way she chews on her lip, and you know this one isn’t right, either.

“Let me try the red again,” she says, plucking it from floor.

The extent that El is fretting over the dress choice for this dance makes your heart swell. You’re tempted to FaceTime Clarke so she can witness this adorableness, but she’s out to dinner with a client and you don’t want to bother her.

El zips up the red dress and gives it another twirl.

Your “annoyingly sensible” daughter (Clarke’s words) wouldn’t let either of you buy her a new dress for the Summer Sock Hop on account of the dozens already in her closet. One of them would be perfect, she’d said. But now, as she steps in front of the mirror in the latest contender, you can tell that’s not the case.

After appraising her reflection in the mirror Eleven nods resolutely. “This one,” she says.

“You sure?”

She shifts on her feet. “Yes.”

“Because I might have another for you to try.” You shrug as nonchalantly as you can. “If you want.”

“You… you do?” she asks, eyes widening.

“Mhmm. Be right back.”

You let the smile you’d been repressing spread across your face as you jog to your bedroom. You were hoping this would happen. Even though El said no new dresses, you couldn’t resist buying one that caught your eye at the children’s boutique near work. It was a little pricey, but she’s been kinda stressed lately and you wanted to surprise her with something nice.

When you get back to El’s room, dress behind your back, she’s waiting for you with eager hands clasped under her chin. You wink at her, drawing out the suspense, and she rises onto her tiptoes in anticipation.

“Before I show you, I just want to say if you don’t want to wear it for the dance that is completely fine. I won’t be upset, okay?”

“Okay!”

You’re tempted to keep teasing her but she’s bouncing on the balls of her feet and you can’t stand to torment her any longer. Slowly, you bring the dress out from behind your back and hold it up by the hanger.

It’s not like any of the other dresses in her closet. This one is a denim-blue cotton with red polkadots, cinched at the waist with a red belt. The skirt flares out to a hem of delicate wavy ruffles, and even in the store you could imagine them fanning out as your daughter did one of her trademark twirls.

Sure enough, the hemline is where Eleven’s eyes keep returning to as she takes the dress in. She steps forward and traces the neckline with her fingertips.

“It’s pretty,” she breathes.

(You love that for any other kid ‘pretty’ is a middle-of-the-road adjective at best, but to yours it’s the highest praise.)

“Try it on,” you say, holding it out to her. “Take it on a test spin.”

She grins at you. “Literally.”

You groan as she sticks her tongue out at you, already shucking the red dress. Once she’s slipped on the new one she turns so you can help with the clasp. You have to brush her hair aside to do so, and you can’t help but run your fingers through the silky brown strands. In some ways it feels like just yesterday she arrived with a frown and a buzzcut. You’re so glad both of those things are sealed safely away in the past.

“You’ll need a trim soon,” you say, kissing the top of her head. And even though you’re standing behind her, you still notice the way her chest fills with pride. “Alright, let’s see.”

She steps in front of the mirror and takes in her reflection for a moment before looking down at her body, as if to confirm what the mirror’s showing is true. She glances at you over her shoulder.

“It’s perfect.”

Now you’re really regretting not FaceTiming Clarke, because the way El is beaming at you is the payoff. These past few weeks have been a lot -- what with the meetings and hearings and legal fees -- but seeing your kid happy makes it all worth it.

“Not so fast,” you say. You hold out your hand and it only takes a second for Eleven to realize what you mean. She places her hand in yours and lets you pull her in close, just like the dancers in some of her favorite movie night musicals.

You squeeze her fingers right before you spin her away from you. Without letting go, you raise your hands higher, above her head, to anchor her as she continues twirling. The dress flares out beautifully, just as you’d imagined it would, but that’s nothing compared to the smile on your kid’s face.

She doesn’t glance at the mirror as she turns, or even down at the dress. Instead she tilts her head back and trains her eyes on your joined hands.

“It’s like I’m in a music box,” she breathes.

Then she falls over.

You gasp louder than you’d care to admit and then you’re kneeling beside her, cradling her head. At least three layers of discarded dresses cushioned her fall and, logically, you know she’s okay, but that doesn’t stop your heart from pounding inside your chest.

It’s still hammering away when El bursts out into hysterical giggles. “Woah. Is the whole room spinning, or that just me?”

You let out a shaky laugh. “Your Ma asked me that same question in college, once,” you say. “More than once, actually.”

Eleven’s eyes widen. “Really? Was she twirling, too?”

“Something like that.” You stand and take both of her hands to help pull her up. “Easy there, ballerina.”

Once you’ve guided a giggly, stumbling El to her bed (and getting hit with more drunken college flashbacks), you nudge a snoozing Waffles out of the way so you can sit beside your daughter.

“You really like it?” you ask, smoothing out the now-disheveled ruffles.

El grins. “I love it. But…” She pauses and looks down at her lap, like she used to when she couldn’t find the words.

You didn’t always know what to do, back then. It was especially hard in the early days, before you’d really gotten to know each other. More than anything you wanted her to understand that it was safe to say or express whatever she felt. That you and Clarke would listen to her, would believe and value her, no matter what.

Of course, your brave, warm, earnest wife would just come right out and say it. And though Eleven didn’t always respond, you could tell the words affected her. She would get this look in her eyes that fell somewhere between disbelief and astonishment. (Clarke thought it meant El didn’t trust her kindness, but you had a feeling the thing she didn’t trust was someone was being that kind to her.)

You’d tried Clarke’s approach once or twice during those first few weeks, but it didn’t come as easily to you. You felt stiff and awkward and a little sad, because it reminded you that Clarke grew up in a home like the one you were trying to create, and that you very much did not. You didn’t have to ask her if her dad professed those same reassurances when she was little, because you just knew he did. You’d bet money on it. He’d been dead for years, but when Clarke would tell Eleven that she’d always listen to her, no matter what, it was almost like he was in the room with you.

And, don’t get you wrong, those moments were beautiful. You’re so incredibly grateful your wife had a childhood like that. But whenever you tried to mimic her parenting style, it always felt like she knew all the lines while you never even got the script.

So you learned to show Eleven you were listening in your own way. Sometimes with no words at all. And she responded to that, too. Not in the same way that she did to Clarke’s words, but even then -- when you were still practically strangers -- you could tell she sensed the emotional space you were giving her.

It’s so much different, now. Somewhere along the way you stopped actively worrying about her feeling safe and listened to and loved, because you knew she did. But lately, with all that’s going on, she sometimes still needs space to gather her words, and you’re always happy to give it to her.

Waffles purrs in his sleep and you and El both reach out to pet him. You pass a few quiet moments like that, listening to the cat’s happy sounds and trying not to focus on the way your daughter worries her bottom lip.

“I really do love the it,” she says after a while. “But why did you buy it when I already have so many dresses?”

You tuck a strand of hair behind her ear and try to think of the best way to explain it.

“Remember that big snow storm last winter when school was canceled the night before, so your Mama made hot chocolate and we all cuddled in our bed watching Christmas movies? And then the next morning we woke up to a foot of snow, but it was so cozy in bed that we didn’t get out for hours and hours?”

El looks a little confused about where you’re going with this, but she nods.

“Well that’s how I feel every time I make you happy. Your Ma does, too. We love taking care of you, Eleven.”

El bites her lip and looks down at her toes. She’s blushing from your words but you can tell she’s conflicted about something, so you squeeze her shoulder and give her time to collect her thoughts.

“Do you…” she starts, wringing her hands and still not meeting your eyes. “Do you think you always will?”

You duck your head and lean in close, like you’re going to whisper a secret. “Yes,” you tell her. “Always.” She smiles at you halfheartedly and you pinch her cheek to try to lift her spirits. “And the adoption next month will seal the deal.”

The mere mention of the A-word makes her smile fall. You can practically see the doubt swirling in her mind and you would give anything to make it stop. This is a different kind of silence, and you don’t like to let it go on for very long.

“El,” you say, taking her hand. “What are you thinking about right now? Can you tell me?”

This approach didn’t work the 10 other times she shut down, but you’ve never been a quitter. You’re about to tell her that it’s okay -- that she can talk to you whenever she’s ready -- when she clears her throat.

“Sometimes foster parents say they’ll adopt you, but they don’t mean it. Or sometimes the judge doesn’t let it happen.”

She looks at you with wide, wounded eyes and for the millionth time you curse the universe for not giving this kid a loving home from the start.

“And you’re worried that will happen to you?”

She shrugs and looks away again, almost like she’s in trouble.

“It’s okay to feel that way,” you tell her. “I get it. I felt the same when Indra said she was going to adopt me.” El meets your gaze again and you continue on. “At first I was so excited, but then I convinced myself it was too good to be true. That a kid like me could never be so lucky.”

“So what happened?”

“Well I was older than you and didn’t talk about my feelings much, so I felt like that right up until the moment the the court made it official.” You reach out to squeeze her hand. “But I don’t want it to be like that for you. Anytime you feel sad or worried or unsure let’s talk about it, okay?”

Eleven nods, smiling again. “Okay.”

“I promise your Mama and I aren’t changing our mind about this. And the lawyer says the judge should have no problem approving the adoption. Besides, we’re a family no matter what.”

There’s a beat before El scoots closer and winds her arms around your shoulders. You close your eyes as you hug her back, trying to will every ounce of love you have into her. She hums contentedly and shifts sideways, probably on a path to kiss your cheek, but she never gets there because her fingers brush over the edge of the bandage on your shoulder.

Eleven leans back to look at you, concern written all over her face. “Is that for your pulled muscle?”

You press your hand to your forehead, because it figures that your kid would catch you in a white lie right after you asked her to be open with you.

“Not exactly,” you say. “Let’s clean up in here and then I’ll show you.”

***

Clarke gets home while El is putting on her PJs. You’re so relieved, because you knew she wouldn’t want to miss this and you didn’t know if you could stall much longer.

You start filling her in on everything she’s missed in a rushed whisper, only pausing to smile at her reactions to the particularly cute/funny/heart-wrenching parts. Then you tiptoe upstairs and into your bedroom so Clarke can remove the bandage for you.

“It’s healed nicely,” she says, brushing your hair over your other shoulder.

“Good.”

She’s quiet as she gently traces a finger beneath your shoulder blade and you try not to think about how her face must look right now. Then she sniffs and you move away to rummage through your dresser drawers, because you’re already barely holding it together as it is.

It’s not quite tank top weather but you slip on a racerback and layer it with a zip-up hoodie. From the hall you hear the bathroom door opening followed by El singing to herself as she walks back to her room. You risk a glance at Clarke and her eyes are still shiny but it’s worth it, because she looks like she’s about to combust from the cuteness of that little moment.

“That’s a happy kid,” you tell her.

“Yeah, it is.” Clarke clears her throat and reaches for your hand. “Let’s go make her even happier.”

***

Not long later, Clarke and Eleven are nestled in on either side of you on the living room sofa. Everyone’s in their pajamas and El’s favorite blanket is spread across your laps. As with the other unveilings you’ve had in this room, Clarke is jiggling her knee with excitement and Eleven is quiet and acutely focused on whatever is to come.

You decide to start at the beginning.

“So, El,” you say, pushing up the sleeve of your hoodie, “do you remember this day?”

She looks down at your wrist -- at your diamond tattoo -- without any further prompting and a soft smile grows on her face.

“When I colored it in?”

“Mhmm. Feels so long ago now, doesn’t it?”

“It does. That was right after we built my treehouse.”

“Wow, that’s right,” Clarke says. “You have a great memory, kiddo.”

El shrugs. “A lot has happened that I could never forget.”

You immediately glance at Clarke, who’s already pouting so hard it must hurt. She clutches her hand to her chest and you reflexively roll your eyes before returning your attention to Eleven.

“You’d only been living with us for a few months before I had my tattoo artist make your colors permanent.”

“Five,” she says. “Five months.”

“That’s right.” You smile at her. “Just five months. Which isn’t a lot of time, is it?”

“Not even half a year.”

“Exactly. We hadn’t even known each other for half a year. But I just knew that I wanted your little afternoon coloring project on my skin forever.”

She runs her finger over your color-splashed diamond before looking up at you. “Why?”

You swallow thickly and fight the urge to look at Clarke, because you’ve almost made it through. “Because I knew I wanted you forever,” you tell Eleven, voice cracking only a little. “We both did.”

The two of you look at Clarke, then, who’s trying to hide a trembling bottom lip behind her fingers.

“You did?” El asks.

Clarke nods. “We pretty much knew right away.”

Eleven’s eyes go wide and start to look a bit glassy, and you have no idea how you’re supposed to keep it together when you’re wedged between these two saps. All you can do is blink back your tears and carry on.

“I know thinking about the big day we have coming up makes you nervous. And we get that. But like I was saying to you earlier, we’re a family no matter what. And I think we’ve been one for longer than any of us realized. So, I did something to make it official even before any legal documents are signed.”

Without any further ado, you scoot forward on the couch and unzip your hoodie, letting the fabric slide off your shoulders. You wait a few beats in silence, and just as you’re getting worried about the lack of reaction you feel Eleven’s gentle fingers brushing your hair to the side so she can get a better view.

You look over your shoulder to give her an appreciative smile, but she doesn’t notice. Her eyes are trained on your back, where three tiny raccoons sit beneath a starry forest. She smooths a finger along your skin until she reaches a spot just to the left of your shoulder blade. A soft smile touches her lips and you’d bet anything she’s focused on the raccoon in the center -- the smallest one, with a pink bow sitting askew on its head.

“This is from Christmas,” El whispers, brow furrowing as she puts it together. “The drawing Mama gave you.”

“That’s right,” you say, in an equally hushed tone. “But it was never just a drawing -- it was always going to become this.”

Eleven lets her hand fall to her lap. She tilts her head to the side, eyes still glued to your shoulder, but doesn’t speak.

“I have to admit -- I plagiarized a little,” Clarke says. “I traced one of your first raccoon drawings. Do you know which one?”

“Your birthday card,” El replies, still looking straight ahead. “When you surprised me and Mum in the park.”

You glance at Clarke and see she’s just as touched as you are that Eleven recalled that day so quickly. It was the end of the first length of time you spent alone with her. You can still remember how scared you were the morning Clarke left for the airport. You’d felt a little ashamed, too -- that it was your idea to become foster parents and, now that the time had come, you didn’t know if you could do it alone. But you and El figured it out together.

“It was the first drawing of our raccoon family,” you remind her.

Your neck is starting to cramp from looking over your shoulder for so long, but Eleven’s still staring at your tattoo like it holds the answer to some unspoken question, so you don’t move. You’re not sure how you thought this unveiling was going to go, but you certainly didn’t anticipate long stretches of bewildered silence. Clarke’s starting to look a little worried too, and you’re about to suggest picking the conversation up again in the morning when El speaks.

“Raccoons were one of the first things you taught me to draw,” she tells Clarke, taking her eyes off your back for the first time since you shrugged off your hoodie. Before Clarke can respond, El turns back to you. “And you bought us those raccoon onesies.”

You nod, but she’s already looking at the mantle, where the birthday card she made for Clarke sits next to a framed photo of the three of you in the aforementioned onesies. El bites her lip and blinks three times in quick succession, and you can tell she’s on the brink of something.

Then she takes a shuddering breath and you instinctively turn to put an arm around her.

“Me too,” she says, voice cracking. She looks between you and Clarke like she’s just told you the answer you’ve been waiting on.

You rub her back in slow, soothing circles. “You too what, El?”

A few fat tears slip down her cheeks, and she lets Clarke wipe them away before responding.

“I knew right away, too,” she whispers. “That I wanted to stay with you forever.”

You bend down to kiss her temple, and when you feel her lean into your touch the tears you’d been holding at bay all night finally break free. You’re still a little astonished that what you thought would be a fun surprised turned into such a heavy moment, but you’re glad you gave Eleven the opportunity to express some of what she’s been feeling, however unintentional.

Then, like the best thoughts do, something strikes your funny bone out of nowhere.

“Well, that’s a relief,” you say. “Because it’d be unfortunate if I got a tattoo of us as a family and you didn’t want to stay with us forever.”

You’re met with silence again and you worry the joke wasn’t as funny as it sounded in your head, but then Eleven clamps both hands over her mouth, barely muffling a giggle that grows into a peal of laughter. Clarke’s shaking her head at you like you’re crazy, but she’s laughing too, and then El doubles over, clutching her stomach at the hilarity of it all.

There are happy tears in Eleven’s eyes when she leans back against the cushions, like she’s exhausted from the hilarity. She smiles at you in a way that only El can -- sweet and bashful and unyielding to all of the defenses you’ve built up over the years. Her love cuts to the core of you, leaving you raw and exposed and utterly complete.

“I feel better,” she says.

And that’s all you ever wanted.

Chapter Text

You can barely stop yourself from bouncing with excitement.

This hasn’t happened in a long time -- two or three foster homes ago, at least. And even then it was done at a neighbor’s kitchen table. It wasn’t anything special. Not like this.

You grip the metal arms of the chair and cross your legs at the ankle in an attempt to stay still. (Staying still is important, you remember.)

In the mirror, you see your moms standing off to the side talking to Meg, who you’d just met. She has a round, friendly face and grayish purple hair -- the same color as Lily’s favorite toy pony. Clarke said she’s been “going to her” for years, which made you feel special and grown up. You like sharing things with your Ma.

Lexa catches your eye in the reflection. She raises her brows, checking in, and you give her a thumbs up. It was her idea to take a “before” photo outside on the sidewalk, and you’re glad she thought of it.

Clarke and Meg finish their discussion and everyone turns to you.

“You ready, kiddo?” Clarke asks. You nod vigorously, gripping the chair even tighter.

Meg stands right behind you and steps on something -- a pedal, maybe -- that makes your chair rise up, inch by inch. “Okay, Eleven,” she says, running her fingers down to the ends of your hair. “Let’s get started.”

***

Getting your hair trimmed was just the kickoff to a very big week. Maybe your biggest ever. Tomorrow you and your moms will go to court for… something you try not to think about too much… and then the day after that is the Summer Sock Hop.

Your therapist said that one of the best ways to calm your nerves is to break a big event into a bunch of teeny tiny pieces that you can take one at a time, so that’s what you try to do.

Earlier, you got your hair trimmed. Then you took your after photo (and a selfie with your moms). Next, you went to the ice cream parlor for lunch, where Clarke “missed” Lexa’s mouth when feeding her a spoonful of black raspberry just so she could kiss it off. And now you’re in your room, deciding what to wear tomorrow.

Tomorrow’s event -- the one you’re trying not to think about -- is making you feel all funny. It’s like every possible emotion is swirling around inside you and you never know which one you’re going to get in any given moment. Sometimes when you’re scared you act angry, and when you’re happy you act sad. It’s like your brain’s got all its wires crossed.

Here, looking into your closet, you feel that happy-sadness creeping in.

None of your other foster parents had a lot of money, and you can tell your moms don’t either. But you wouldn’t know that by the state of your closet, which is practically bursting at the seams with all of the pretty things they’ve bought for you.

You thought it might be hard to choose an outfit for tomorrow, but before you even realize it you’re reaching for a hanger in the far right corner. On it is one of the first dresses your moms bought you -- soft and slipper-pink, like the cherry blossoms on the backyard tree.

As you take the dress off the rack, something else catches your eye. Behind it, wedged in the farthest corner of the closet, is the hand-me-down dress you wore on your very first day here.

You touch the back of your neck. The tag was so itchy.

Scratchy clothing was the least of your problems that day. You had a million emotions cycloning inside you then, too. You were grumpy about your new buzzcut, upset from having to leave Mike, and wary of what these new foster parents would be like.

But then, despite everything the world had taught you about life, things got better, and better, and better. You blink hard and try to ignore the thought that’s always there in the back of your mind, telling you that no one can be this lucky.

You step back and slam the closet door shut.

(Teeny tiny pieces, you remind yourself. You’re just picking out an outfit. That’s all.)

After taking a long, deep breath, you lay the pink dress on the bed and busy yourself looking through your box of hair accessories. You’re debating between a pink headband and a sparkly silver bow when you hear Clarke coming up the stairs.

(She has a heavy, bouncy step that you always hear coming. Lexa is lighter on her feet, with a sure and even stride. You’d recognize the cadence of their steps anywhere. You try not to think about that, either.)

“Everything okay in here?” Clarke asks, standing just outside your door. "Thought I heard a door slam.”

You shrug halfheartedly. “It was the wind.”

Clarke glances at the closest window, which is barely open, but she nods like she believes you.

“It was a bit blustery out there,” she offers, and you love her for it. “I just ran out to get something for you from the treehouse. Hope you don’t mind.”

Stepping into your room, she hands you your walkie-talkie -- the long-range one that could reach Mike, before he moved away.

“Thought you might want to bring it tomorrow,” she continues. “I know I loved having your old walkie-talkie with me when I went to California. Remember that?”

You smile, blushing a bit at the memory. “Thank you,” you whisper.

You glance at your old walkie-talkie -- now just a plastic brick propping up some paperbacks in your bookcase -- and definitely don’t think about how you tried to reach Mike on your very first night in this room.

You wish he could be there tomorrow. You wish you weren’t so nervous to see him at the Sock Hop. (You wish emotions hadn’t become so complicated.)

As if sensing your inner turmoil, Clarke pulls you in for a tight hug. You close your eyes and lean into her, clearing your mind of everything outside of her warm embrace. When you step back a moment later, you feel a little lighter.

***

Nighttime in this house seems sacred. It’s quiet -- quieter than the foster homes you lived in and much quieter than the group home, where kids in the other bunks would whisper or snore or call out in their sleep.

It was weird, at first. You know quiet is supposed to make it easier to sleep, but your first few nights here you tossed and turned. It’s like your ears were on alert, listening for sounds that never came.

You got used to it, eventually. You’re not sure when. Sometimes even the strangest things become normal before you stop to realize it.

But it isn’t the quiet that’s keeping you up tonight. Rather than dwell on the fears and worries that have been running through your mind, you decide to get out of bed. If you set yourself in motion, you think, maybe the bad thoughts will get lost in the dust.

You start by organizing your bows and barrettes by size and color, then you straighten the books on your bookcase. When you set your sights on the tupperware container filled with bottles of sparkly nail polish, you get an idea.

The hardwood floor is cool beneath your bare feet when you reach the first floor. Most of the lights are off downstairs, but you follow the low murmur of the TV to the living room and find both of your moms curled up together on the couch.

Lexa notices you first. “Hey,” she says, moving her arms from around Clarke’s waist and sitting up. “You okay?”

You nod, walking into the room and taking a seat on the coffee table, facing them.

“Trouble sleeping, El?” Clarke tucks a strand of hair behind your ear before her gaze falls to your hand. “What’ve you got there?”

You open your palm to show them the bottle of gold-flecked nail polish that they bought for you at Target a few weeks back. It was sparkly yet subtle, and you couldn’t take your eyes off it when you saw it in the makeup aisle. You didn’t ask to get it, though -- it cost nearly twice as much as the cheaper brands -- but it appeared on the conveyor belt at the checkout register, along with a wink from Clarke.

You’d decided to save it for a special occasion. And what is more special than the thing that’s happening tomorrow?

There’s a lot you want to say to your moms, but it’s hard enough to think those things, let alone verbalize them. So instead you twist off the top of the nail polish, run the brush along the inside of the bottle, removing the excess paint, and reach for Clarke’s hand.

The noise from the TV fades into the background as you delicately paint each of Clarke’s fingers before moving on to Lexa’s. You keep quiet and your moms do too, settling back against each other while they watch you work.

With each stroke of the brush, the restlessness inside you burns off like fumes. Somehow this feels productive. In some ways you feel like you’re going into battle tomorrow, and it makes you feel better to adorn your comrades with sparkly war paint.

Once you’re done, Lexa wordlessly takes the nail polish from you and paints each of your nails, and even though hers are still wet, you know she won’t mess them up. Soon the three of you have matching manicures, glittering in the dim light.

You take in your work and nod to yourself, feeling satisfied, like when you master a new drawing technique that Clarke has taught you. You take the nail polish back from Lexa, kiss each of your moms on the cheek, and head back up to your room.

You’re yawning by the time you crawl back into bed and, this time, it doesn’t take you long to fall asleep, with your hands carefully resting on top of the covers.

***

Waffles wakes you up.

You feel his two front paws on your back, gently kneading, but you don’t want to get up just yet so you roll onto your side and nestle into your warm, clean sheets. There’s a prickle at the corner of your consciousness -- an unpleasant reminder that there’s something you’re supposed to worry about. You try to ward it off, try to sink back into sleep, but it’s persistent, moving ever closer.

That’s when you lear Lexa’s laugh coming from downstairs. The bad thought vanishes as you smile into your pillow.

You’re not sure why you tiptoe down the steps. Maybe it’s because if you’re quiet, the day -- this big, momentous day -- won’t know you’re up yet. Or maybe, you think as you lean against the hallway wall and peek into the kitchen, it’s because you like catching glimpses of your moms like this.

Everything in this house is soft. The carpet and the lighting and the care with which you’re treated. But mornings, you’ve decided, are the softest time. And here in the kitchen, as the early sunlight eases through the windows, it feels like a pocket of time wrapped in cotton wool.

Your moms are sitting at the kitchen table, talking quietly. Lexa’s left arm is on the tabletop, palm facing up, and Clarke is leaning toward her, mindlessly playing with Lexa’s fingers. They’re both smiling. Every so often Lexa presses her lips together, like she’s trying to school her expression, but time and again a smile creeps back onto her face.

It hits you that you actually knows what that feels like -- to have so much joy inside you that you physically can’t keep it at bay. Before you came here, you never knew happiness could feel like that. Happiness was elusive and fleeting and ripped away too soon. Here, it’s all around you. Like the house was built from it.

Clarke lifts Lexa’s hand to her mouth and gently kisses her knuckles and, out of nowhere, you feel like you might cry. You look around the room to distract yourself. There’s a vase of fresh flowers on the table, which isn’t all that unusual, but the fact that there’s a tablecloth beneath it is. The table is set with the fancy dishes that your moms got as a wedding present, and there’s a steaming pile of waffles on a platter, which no one has touched.

You take a couple steps closer to get a better view and that’s when you see the balloons. There’s a whole bunch of them -- yellows and pinks and purples -- tied to the back of your chair.

You glance down at the wooden legs to check if they’re starting to float off the ground.

“She’s up!” Clarke stands so quickly her own chair wobbles. She and Lexa are beaming at you, so you walk the rest of the way into the kitchen, even though you haven’t made sense of it all.

“Morning,” you say, shifting on your feet. Lexa beckons you closer, and you lean down so she can kiss your cheek. Then Clarke’s there, squeezing you around the waist.

“Happy adoption day, kiddo,” she whispers. You’re not sure what to reply, but it doesn’t seem to matter because after one last squeeze Clarke steps back and gestures toward your chair. “Your throne awaits. Will you be having Eggos with us this morning?”

You giggle and carefully take a seat, making sure you don’t disturb the halo of balloons floating above it. “Yes, please.”

Working together, she and Lexa make you a plate with an assortment of your favorite waffles, topped with syrup and a mountain of whipped cream. You watch as they serve themselves, still smiling like they just opened the best present ever.

“Well?” Clarke raises her eyebrows at you. “Dig in!”

You smile at her (it’s contagious) and pick up your knife and fork.

“Wait!” Lexa says with an urgency that makes you and Clarke freeze in your tracks.

She swallows, as if she even startled herself, and then picks up her glass of orange juice, holding it out in front of her. Clarke, apparently catching on to something, raises her glass as well. Your eyebrows knit together because you have no idea what’s happening, but they’re both looking at you so you lift up your glass of OJ too.

“To Eleven,” Lexa says softly, gesturing toward you with her glass. “For making us a family.”

“To Eleven,” Clarke echos. She’s blinking rapidly and biting her bottom lip, and you’re not sure which of you is going to cry first. Thankfully, after another heavy moment, she and Lexa drink from their glasses, and you follow suit.

Once Clarke puts her glass back down she leans across the table to give Lexa a quick kiss, but Lexa holds here there for a bit longer, cupping Clarke’s face and brushing her thumbs beneath her eyes. Then Lexa leans in and kisses Clarke again.

You know you’re supposed to be grossed out, on some level. Your classmates would be if these were their parents. But you just can’t find that in yourself right now. You don’t know a lot about love, but you know that theirs is really something. It created this sweet little slice of the world that you were somehow lucky enough to get invited into, and that isn’t anything but beautiful.

So you dig into your Eggos and take a big bite, purposefully leaving the whipped cream mustache on your lip so your moms will laugh when they look over, which they do a few seconds later. Then Lexa takes a bite of waffles that’s so big she gets syrup on her cheek, and soon Clarke is squirting whipped cream from the can directly into her mouth, and you’re laughing so hard you can almost ignore the lump in the back of your throat.

You’re getting adopted today.

***

The sun is shining as brightly as you feel as you and your moms walk to the car. It rained overnight and the air smells fresh and sweet. You tilt your head up to the sky and take a deep breath, willing yourself to remember this moment. No matter what happens, you will always be able to look back at this time when anything seemed possible.

You trail behind your moms and watch as Lexa takes Clarke’s hand. The nailpolish on their fingers looks even better outside, and you’re pleased to see it goes with their outfits. Lexa is in her nicest suit -- one she only sports for big, important meetings -- and Clarke is wearing a lavender dress covered in a print of little white flowers.

Their hands stay tightly locked until the three of you reach the driveway and they have to part to get into the car.

It’s warm in the backseat. You smooth your the skirt of your dress, straightenen the bow in your hair (you chose the sparkly silver one, in the end), and fiddle with the knobs on the walkie-talkie. You twist the on switch and it hums alive, filling the air with static. You turn the volume down and hug it to your chest. You’re glad Clarke suggested you bring it today.

“Remember when you first came to live with us?” she asks, smiling at you in the rearview mirror. “You wouldn’t put your walkie-talkie down that first day.”

You nod. “It was all I had.”

You try to keep the memory at an arm’s length; to remember without feeling. You see yourself trailing behind the social worker on the front walkway, a half-filled backpack over your shoulder, a walkie-talkie in your hand, and an emptiness in your chest. You didn’t know that’s what it was then, but you see it now -- the aching chasm inside you that needed to be filled.

“I tried to reach Mike that first night.”

Lexa twists in the passenger seat and reaches back, placing a comforting hand on your knee. She looks at you with her soft, kind eyes and the realization hits you: You fell asleep, that first night, with the walkie-talkie in your hands, and when you woke up you groped blindly for it on the floor, because you always dropped it in your sleep. But it wasn’t there.

When you finally opened your eyes you saw it, sitting perfectly neat and upright on the bedside table. You didn’t give it much thought at the time (there was so much else going on) but now...

“You knew,” you whisper.

Lexa smiles gently, letting you know you’re right.

All your life, the world had taught you not to get your hopes up. By the time you showed up at Clarke and Lexa’s house, you knew not to expect anything different than what had happened in the past. But before you’d even begun contemplating letting down your walls, your moms were already busy loving you. Even that first night. Even when you were asleep.

You’re trying to find the words to let the know just what this means to you when the car comes to a stop in the courthouse parking lot. Clarke turns off the engine and your eyes find hers again in the rearview. She’s making one of her trademark scared-excited faces, and you can’t help but make one right back at her.

“Alright, kiddo,” she says, taking a deep breath. “Here we go.”

***

It’s like you’re leaving behind the calmness you felt earlier with every step you take. You try to focus on the little things -- the teeny, tiny pieces that make up this great, big, scary day. You’re just walking up the courthouse steps and through the echoing lobby. You’re just holding Clarke’s hand as Lexa talks to the lady at the desk. You’re just hearing your heartbeat in your ears and feeling it in you fingertips.

The courtroom is small and much less intimidating than the versions you’ve seen on Lily’s mom’s favorite lawyer show. There are rows of benches, like pews in church, and a desk where the judge will sit. Your moms and Ms. Jennings, the adoption attorney, have walked you through the details about how today was supposed to go, but you still had a hard time shaking the TV-drama images from your mind.

Clarke squeezes your hand. “See, no witness stand.”

You smile, feeling more relieved than you’d like to admit, and squeeze her hand back.

Ms. Jennings shows you and your moms where to sit in the front of the room. You get settled in and try not to fidget too much. There are things going on around you that you don’t understand, but you try not to worry about it. Somehow your nerves have settled; you’ve already gotten on the ride and all you can do now is wait and see where it takes you.

So you observe. Your moms are talking in hushed tones to Ms. Jennings. Ms. Jennings takes out a folder and flips through a stack of papers. A few more grown ups wearing suits stroll in, holding cups of coffee. They sit on the other side of the room. Your social worker, Jim Hopper, shows up next. His suit has fewer wrinkles than usual and he’s wearing a shiny blue tie. He winks at you as he walks past.

When the noise in the room starts to quiet down your moms take their seats, one on each side of you. There’s plenty of space in your row but they squeeze in tight. You balance the walkie-talkie on your knees so you can hold both of their hands. Lexa kisses your temple. You feel warm and safe.

There’s a flurry of motion, and before you realize the judge had entered the room -- and that you’re supposed to stand -- she has already taken her seat at the big desk. When you sit back down you notice you’re gripping your moms’ hands really tightly now, but you can’t help it, and they don’t seem to mind.

The judge starts talking and, again, you’re not totally sure what’s going on. Everyone’s eyes are on her, so you pay attention as if you’re following along. She has pretty dark skin and long, delicate braids and every time she looks over in your direction, she smiles.

You relax your hold on your moms’ hands.

She asks Ms. Jennings a few questions. She looks over some of the papers from Ms. Jennings’ folder. She talks to Jim about your file and his home visits. You let out a breath when he finishes speaking without mentioning the Jimmy Kenswood punching incident (and you think Clarke does too).

Finally, the judge turns to you and your moms. Lexa takes your walkie-talkie from your lap and places it on the bench beside her. Then she stands, and you and Clarke follow her lead. You pray you don’t have to talk because you’re pretty sure your heart has worked its way up into your throat.

“Before I make my decision, I have a few questions for the mothers,” the judge says. “First, why do you want to adopt?”

You know she is addressing your moms, but your pulse is racing as if she’s asked you. You focus on taking deep breaths, barely registering Lexa’s answer. You think she mentions her own childhood in foster care and how she and Clarke always dreamed of having a family of their own. Whatever she said, the judge seems satisfied.

“How do you plan to take care of Eleven once you’ve adopted her?” she asks next.

Clarke takes this one. She talks about her and Lexa’s jobs, how you’ve settled in at school, and your support system of friends and family.

“We’ve already gone through a lot together,” Clarke finishes, “but even when it’s hard, it feels right. We belong together -- all three of us.”

It almost hurts to swallow around the lump in your throat. You lean your head against Clarke’s shoulder to let her know you feel the same way.

“Now, Eleven,” the judge says. She’s smiling at you but you stiffen, caught off-guard. It feels silly that you thought you could get away with just being an observer at the hearing. You’re a participant in all this -- it’s all for you. “I just have one last question,” she continues. “Do you want to be adopted today?”

You know this answer by heart, but you look up at your moms first. They’re smiling down at you, hands still tethered to yours. Their eyes are shining with happy tears. You close your eyes, just for an instant, and look inward, feeling around for that empty spot that once sat inside your chest. But you don’t find it. You knew you wouldn’t it. It’s full now -- so full it’s nearly bursting.

Opening your eyes, you lift your chin (strong like Lexa), smile through your tears (strong like Clarke), and answer loud and clear.

“Yes.”

***

The next few minutes are a blur. You get that old feeling again -- like you’re watching the scene from a distance, outside of your own body.

Looking back, you only remember some of it: how quiet the room went when the judge signed the papers; the sound of Clarke’s cheer moments later; the feeling of Lexa’s hands on your shoulders, letting you know that’s it, it’s over, you did it; the warmth of your moms bodies as they sandwiched you in a hug -- your very first hug as an official family.

***

It’s amazing the difference an hour makes. When you walked into the courthouse, your Keds felt like they were weighted down with cement. Now that it’s over, you’re practically skipping through the echoey hallways.

“You happy, kiddo?” Clarke asks. She taps out a quick message on her phone -- probably telling Abby the good news -- and stowes it back in her purse.

“No.” You try your very best to keep a straight face during your dramatic pause. Clarke raises her eyebrows like she’s shocked and scandalized, and you can no longer hold back your smile. “Ecstatic.”

Clarke tips her head back as she laughs and the sound bounces off the ceiling.

Lexa bumps her hip against yours. “You’re gonna ace that vocab quiz, El,” she says.

And just like that, this terrifying day that you built up in your mind goes from being a massive boulder that you couldn’t see around to a plain-old regular afternoon.

You’re about to ask your moms if you can stop for ice cream on the way home when you hear a staticky sound coming from somewhere. Puzzled, you look up at your moms (Clarke’s making her wide-eyed trying-but-failing-to-contain-my-excitement face at Lexa) and then down at the walkie-talkie in your hand.

You twist the knob to turn up the volume and raise it to your ear.

“Eleven,” you hear between bursts of static. “Come in, Eleven.”

You stop dead in your tracks. Everything around you goes quiet. Your skin is tingling and you have to open your mouth to breathe properly. (He can never know that last part.)

You bring the walkie-talkie to your mouth and press the talk button.

“Mike?”

His laughter comes through the little speaker, crackly and beautiful. “Is that how--” he starts, but the static cuts him off again.

“Mike?” you say into your receiver, panic rising. “Mike??”

After a few more bursts of static, his voice comes through. “Keep walking.”

You feel a hand on your shoulder and look up to find Clarke biting her lip as she grins at you. She nods toward the main entrance of the courthouse, about 20 feet in front of you.

You glance at Lexa to confirm that this is real, out of old habit, you guess, and she fixes you with a teasing, pointed stare. “You heard him.”

Keep walking, he’d said, but you were never one for following orders. You take off in a run, dodging lawyers and briefcases. Your footsteps sound through the lobby and you feel your hair swaying with each stride.

You throw yourself against one of the many doors and step out, blinking into the June sunlight. And he’s there, right in front of you, at the top of the courthouse steps. He’s taller than you remember. He’s wearing gray trousers and a blue and red checkered shirt, buttoned up to the very top. He’s brushed his hair.

You open your mouth to speak but no words come out. But you know it doesn’t matter, because it’s him. One of you, or maybe it’s both of you, steps forward and then your arms are around him, hugging him as tightly as he’s hugging you.

Mike.”

“I knew they’d keep you,” he whispers.

You lift up on your toes and smile against his shoulder, giving into the overwhelming ache of happiness.

***

You’re not sure why you’re surprised when Mike tells you his uncle is parked around the corner. Maybe it’s because him being here, on this day, feels like magic -- like you summoned him with your mind.

It’s decided that Mike will drive back with you and that his uncle will pick him up from your house later. They’re staying at an AirBNB in the next town over, his uncle tells you. They were going to stay in a motel on the highway, but Mike wanted to be closer, he says.

(He doesn’t say closer to what, but Clarke winks at Lexa, like she knows.)

Mike mailed you a photo of his uncle once, but he seems taller in person. He’s awkward and gruff, but you know Mike loves him, even if he’s never said it in so many words, and that’s all that matters. Before his uncle gets back in his pick-up he sidles up next to Mike and puts an arm around him, in a kind of half-hug. The old Mike you met in the group home would’ve frowned on this sort of affection being directed at him -- especially from an adult -- but the Mike in front of you leans into it, and you add this moment to the list of beautiful things you’ve seen today.

You don’t talk much on the car ride home. Your moms ask Mike about school and his new friends and you listen attentively to his answers, soaking it all in. Every so often Clarke and Lexa glance back at you, making sure that you’re okay, and each time you smile reassuringly.

When you were first placed with your moms you didn’t talk much. Starting from your days in the lab, life had taught you that using your voice wouldn’t get you very far, so at some point you just decided to give up. To get by with the bare minimum.

You hope your moms know your silence now isn’t anything like that. You’re just… content. At peace, even.

Peace.

That’s something you haven’t thought of before, and you’re pretty sure you haven’t felt it. Peace, to you, was a sign you made with your hands or a word that some people said to each other in church. But now that things are finally, finally permanent -- that no one can take you away, not your social worker or the state or your Papa -- you think you get it.

You’re riding in a car with the three people you love most in this world -- who also happen to be the three people who love you the most -- and it’s a perfect moment; there’s nothing you need to add to it. So you sit and listen and bask in the warm glow of your luck.

***

The neighborhood seems extra quiet when you pull into the driveway. It’s like a hush has fallen over everything. You look at your moms and Mike to see if they’ve noticed too, but they’re chatting about what to order for lunch as they get out of the car, so it must just be you.

There’s still a spring in your step as you follow Mike and your moms up the walkway through the front yard. You catch sight of Waffles sitting in an upstairs window and you think about how you get to live here forever.

Then you stop dead in your tracks. You’ve never allowed yourself to think that before. You’d spent so much energy keeping any thoughts of permanence at bay that finally letting one through bowls you over.

It doesn’t take long for your moms to notice you’re lagging behind. Without speaking, they come to stand on either side of you, each taking one of your hands. The three of you look up at your little blue house and it’s chipping paint, and it’s memories, and it’s black-and-white cat in one of the upstairs windows, and somehow you know you’re all thinking the same thing.

Clarke squeezes your hand, and you’re sure she’s about to verbalize what’s on your minds. You grin to yourself; you know your Mama so well.

“Let’s go sit out on the patio,” she says instead.

***

The hush is back in full force as you walk around the side of the house to get to the backyard. Your moms lead the way and Mike falls back to take your hand. He’s quiet, which is suspicious, and you’re about to ask him what’s on his mind when you walk through the arched trellis that leads out back.

There, beneath the flowering branches of the cherry tree, is everyone who’s been a part of your new, beautiful life, cheering for all they’re worth.

You see Lily, jumping up and down between her parents as she hoots and hollers. Next to them is practically everyone else from the neighborhood, from Harry and Mrs. Mitchell to Maya and her family. Then there’s Abby and Indra, both smiling brighter than you’ve ever seen. And you can’t miss Octavia and Lincoln and Raven, who are making the most noise of all. Even Ms. Jennings and Jim Hopper are here.

You freeze, eyes going wide and mouth falling open at the scene. You might’ve stayed that way forever, still like a statue, if Mike and your moms weren’t there to propel you forward.

The cheering doesn’t stop as you walk to greet your friends and family (family) and once you get close everyone reaches into their pockets and tosses fistfuls of something into the air.

It’s glitter.

Pixie dust.

You think of movie nights and Tinkerbell and Halloween and how you’re not a Lost Boy, not anymore, and you never will be again. You have a lifetime’s worth of happy thoughts, now, and you’re feeling them all at once.

Your feet are firmly planted on the grass, and yet in this moment you are flying; absolutely soaring.

The joy swirling in your heart bursts out of you in a string of laughter. Mike joins the group as they circle around you and your moms, still showering you with glitter. You look at your moms in astonishment at, well, everything. It finally dawns on you that they carefully orchestrated this whole day just for you, from balloons at breakfast to Mike at the courthouse to this party in the backyard.

Your eyes well up as you press your hand to your chest, praying that they understand the feeling that you’re experiencing right now, one that you don’t think you could ever put into words.

You think they get it because the next thing you know they’re bending down and surrounding you in a massive bear hug.

“You did all this for me?” you whisper.

“Everything is for you, kiddo,” Clarke says, sniffling. “Always.”

Lexa kisses your cheek. “Always.”

You don’t have time to contemplate what they mean before Clarke steps back and Lexa hoists you up onto her left shoulder. The crowd cheers even louder and Clarke yelps, grabbing your hand to help keep you steady.

You tilt your head back and look up at the sky, watching as the sun lights up the glitter that is still falling around you, catching on your eyelashes and freckling your cheeks.

You’re not sure how you didn’t notice it before, but from up here there’s no missing it: strung across the width of your treehouse is a homemade banner with words written in Clarke’s strong block letters and Lexa’s neat print.

WELCOME HOME, ELEVEN!

(For good.)

***

You sit on the end of your moms’ bed as Lexa brushes your hair, still damp from the shower. You’re in your PJs -- soft gray shorts and your Grounders shirt, fresh from the wash -- and you feel clean and pleasantly tired.

The surprise party in your backyard felt like it lasted for ages, but in a good way. At some point Lincoln fired up the grill and Maya’s mom produced cartons of ice cream, and you ate and played until a summer storm rolled in, sending everyone running for cover.

The celebrations continued inside, everyone crowding around the kitchen table, kids drinking tangy-sweet lemonade while the adults poured glasses of wine. At some point the conversation turned to a topic you’re still getting comfortable with -- you. Everyone took turns sharing their favorite memories of you since you moved in with your moms.

Initially you blushed and looked down at your cup, thinking it would be over soon. But to your surprise there was no shortage of stories to share, and soon you traded your embarrassment for laughter as Octavia recalled swinging from the branches above your brand-new tree house, and Mike told the group about the time he made you laugh so hard milk came out your nose. But most stories were about you and your moms, and how everyone could tell right away that you just fit together.

Those were your favorites, you think. Later, after you hugged everyone goodbye, you ran upstairs and jotted them down in a notebook, to be sure you’d never forget.

Lexa places her hands on your shoulders, letting you know she’s done brushing your hair, and walks toward the closet to get changed. You crawl up the bed and get under the cool white sheets. There’s still glitter under your fingernails and you smile to yourself, knowing you’ll find the sparkling reminders of today for weeks, in the places you’d least expect.

“What are you smiling about?

You look up to see Clarke toweling off her hair, fresh from a shower of her own. Your smile only grows when you notice she’s wearing a Grounders shirt too -- the one you got her for Christmas, with “Mama” written on the back. Movement from across the room catches your eye as Lexa closes the closet door. She goes to stand next to Clarke, wearing the same tee, except you know the back of hers reads “Mum.”

Lexa throws an arm around Clarke’s shoulders and Clarke puts her hand on her hip, striking a pose and smirking. The growing “teenage side” of you (as Clarke calls it) makes you roll your eyes, but inside you’re glowing.

“How’d you know I was gonna wear mine too?” you ask. Your moms exchange coy looks as they start going through the final steps of their nighttime routine, one that you now know by heart.

“We didn’t,” Lexa says, turning off the overhead light.

“But we kinda figured.” Clarke smoothes her fingers under her eyes, rubbing in her nightly ‘syrup.’ (That’s what you thought it was called the first time you heard the word, and now that’s how you all refer to it, to the point that you don’t even remember the actual name.)

“You’re a sap, kiddo,” she continues. “Just like us.”

You want to roll your eyes at this, too, but you just can’t. “I guess I am,” you say instead.

You shimmy down further under the covers as your moms climb into bed on either side of you. Lexa reaches to switch on the little fan on the windowsill and Clarke turns off the bedside lamp. It’s all so familiar -- so peaceful -- that it makes your eyelids feel heavy.

“Are you still nervous about the big day tomorrow?” Clarke asks, snuggling in close.

You yawn. “Big day?”

“The dance,” Lexa prompts. She turns onto her side and scoots in, laying her arm across you and Clarke. “The Summer Sock Hop. Remember?”

“Oh. Right.”

You pause, checking in with yourself. You had been so nervous about it before the mere thought of the dance freaked you out. But, to be honest, it hadn’t crossed your mind all day. And now you’re just excited that it means seeing Mike again.

“No,” you answer. “I’m not nervous anymore.”

There’s a beat of silence and you have a feeling your moms are giving each other a look over your head, but you’re too tired to open your eyes to check.

“Good,” Lexa says, kissing your temple.

Clarke hums in agreement and kisses your cheek. “Tomorrow will be a good day.”

It will, you think, as you drift off to sleep.

They all will.

You are Eleven Griffin-Woods and you’re home.