shattered with the strain
of trying to belong to earth—
It happens like this: Clarke kneeling in a stream in her underwear, pale hands wringing out the only shirt she has, when a blade presses cool and close against her throat. She’s been near enough to death by now to know that her life won’t flash before her eyes, but when she blinks she sees fragments of home — freckles like constellations, coordinates etched on metal, her mother’s steady hands, a clutter of machine parts scattered across a work table, the burn of moonshine down her throat.
“So this is how the princess survives,” a derisive voice hisses in her ear, and the familiarity is more terrifying than anything else.
She swallows carefully, feeling the blade cut further into the thin skin of her neck. “Well, I’m usually wearing more clothes.”
The girl behinds her snorts, and just as quickly as she was caught, she is released. Her legs shake and she falls into the water, slick rocks cutting her knees. When she looks up, Octavia is scowling at her.
“How did you find me?” she asks quietly. Mud is painted in careful strokes across her shoulders, down her arms and up her neck and flecked into her hair. She crosses her arms over her chest to hide her brittle bones.
Octavia rolls her eyes and scoffs, eerily similar to the first day they met. “No offense, but you suck at going off the grid.” Clarke frowns and she grins. “Actually, you know what? Offense fully intended.”
Clarke grits her teeth. “Why are you here, Octavia?”
The younger girl frowns, planting her hands on her hips. “I’m here to bring you home, idiot.”
Clarke’s face turns blank and she stands up, cold water sliding down her legs back into the stream. “I have no home,” she says quietly. She bends down to inspect her knees, missing the way Octavia blanches.
“I’ll tell that to the people who love you,” she retorts, eyes narrowed into slits.
Clarke winces. “Octavia,” she begins gently. “You don’t understand.”
“What don’t I understand?” Octavia’s spine straightens, hand dropping down to clench the handle of her machete. “You’re not the only one who had to make hard decisions, Clarke. We all have blood on our hands.”
Clarke swallows hard. “You of all people can’t want me back there,” she says desperately.
“Make no mistake,” Octavia says slowly, voice sharper than her blade. “This has nothing to do with wanting you back.”
“Then what is it about?” she asks, voice just as jagged.
Octavia clenches her jaw. “Trade negotiations,” she says tersely. “We’re trying to reach an agreement but Lexa—“
“Lexa wants me there,” Clarke says, voice flat.
She shrugs. “She never said that specifically, but the Council agreed that she might be more…cooperative if you were there, too.” She hesitates for a second. “This winter was — difficult. I don’t think we can survive another one like it. We need this alliance to hold.”
Clarke’s thin shoulders droop in on herself; when she closes her eyes Octavia can see her eyes moving under her lids in all directions. When she blinks again, the blue has turned to steel. “When do we leave?”
Octavia shrugs. “Day’s still young. As soon as you can be ready.”
It’s not like she has a lot to take with her — rough, smelly rabbit pelts woven carefully together for a blanket, a gift from a villager she’d stumbled across who whispered her name before she could give it. The clothes she walked away in, pants torn at the knees and shirt still damp from the stream. She hurries into her clothes as fast as she can, not liking the way Octavia eyes the shapes she’s scratched into the walls of her cave.
They’re slipping through the forest by midday; there are flowers in bloom and butterflies everywhere, and Clarke idly thinks of how it would’ve distracted them when they first landed. Amazing, how quickly they’ve grown numb. By nightfall they are miles away, and when Octavia offers to take the first watch Clarke doesn’t argue, falling quickly into a fitful sleep.
She startles herself away hours later with a jerk, heart racing inside of her chest; Octavia is looking at her over the fire, shadows hiding her expression. It reminds her sharply of other times, softer eyes watching her sleep, and she swallows a lump in her throat.
“I can take over,” she rasps, voice jagged from screaming.
Octavia purses her lips thoughtfully. “Does this happen every night?”
She flushes. “Not every night.” It isn’t a convincing lie, and Octavia’s face softens for the first time. She moves around the fire with her blanket, dropping beside her; her hands reach out, pulling her head into her lap.
“Bell has them too,” she muses, fingers combing through golden hair.
Clarke freezes under her hands — it’s the first time they’ve said his name. She stares up at the stars, eyes tracing constellations they could never see in space. “Does he hate me?”
Octavia hums under her breath, thinking carefully before she speaks. “He was pretty upset,” she admits. “When you left. And when he heard about Tondc.”
Clarke sucks in a sharp breath, closing her eyes tight. Octavia can feel the way she shakes and it makes her sad in a way she didn’t expect.
“And then he got pissed at me for being pissed at you,” she continues with a quiet laugh. “He’s weird about the people he — you know.”
Clarke doesn’t say anything but she can feel her relax as she runs her fingers through her hair. “Did you ever hear the story of Persephone?” Clarke shakes her head warily as Octavia twists the strands into a braid. “It was my least favorite story growing up, but Bellamy told it all the time.”
Quietly she tells her the story as she weaves her hair, of the girl who was taken, queen of the underworld and goddess of death, whose return signaled spring. She talks long after Clarke falls back to sleep, whispering the words to the fire and trying to understand.
It happens like this: the forest giving way abruptly to a familiar clearing, walls rising into the air bigger and stronger than the tangle of wires Clarke left behind, and despite herself she thinks of it as coming home. Octavia is with her all the way, signaling to the guards from a distance. “Your people need you,” she reminds her, and her voice is cool despite the peacefulness that has marked their days together.
“I’m not going to run away,” Clarke frowns. The yet hangs unspoken between them as they reach the gate.
She’s had dreams and nightmares about this moment, but it lives up to neither — instead it is quiet when she returns, the gate swinging open without fanfare. Miller is on duty by the wall and he shoulders his gun when he sees her, swallowing hard and clapping a firm hand on her shoulder.
“Good to have you back,” he says, and Clarke smiles tightly. There is a shout behind her and she whirls around in time to see Octavia running toward Lincoln, throwing her arms around him in a tight embrace. It is this that finally draws attention to them; she can see the double takes of the people outside, the way their eyes fix on her. There is a murmur in the air.
Miller smiles at her sympathetically. “Want an escort? I know some people who’d like to see you.”
She lets him guide her through the crowd, though it doesn’t take much; they part without asking, staring at her with wide, silent eyes. They’re almost to the Ark when someone hurtles out. Monty’s arms are tight around her before she knows what’s happening, and it feels so much like Mount Weather that tears spring to her eyes.
“You’re home,” he whispers, and it almost feels true. She hugs him back and then pulls away, taking him in. He’s lost the gaunt, hollow look that has haunted her nightmares and her lips curl up in a grin.
“You look good,” she tells him.
Monty smiles, squeezing her once more before letting go. “You look…like you could use some moonshine.”
“That means you look like shit,” a voice chimes in wryly. Raven is leaning against the fallen Ark when she looks up, watching her with a critical look on her face.
Monty shrugs his shoulders as if to say better you than me, slipping behind her to talk to Miller.
Clarke huffs a sigh, stomping closer to the mechanic. “Well you look good,” she retorts. And it’s true — the color is back in her face, wounds turned to gentle scars. Her hair is up in a high ponytail, dark wisps curling around her face.
Raven sniffs, frowning. “Of course I do. You know why?” She ignores the way Clarke rolls her eyes, stepping forward menacingly until they are toe to toe. “Because I ate and showered regularly. You smell like a dead animal.” Her thin arms reach out for her, wrapping her in a painfully tight hug.
“Jesus, Raven,” Clarke breathes, gripping her jacket in her fists. “No need to get all emotional.”
Raven scoffs. “I swear to god, if you leave like that again, I will hunt you down and blow you up myself.”
Clarke smiles, pushing her away. “You need a new weapon.”
“And you need a tracker up your ass, so don’t tempt me.” They eye each other for a moment, Raven finally softening. “So is this permanent, or what? Has the prodigal daughter returned?”
Clarke hesitates and she frowns, stepping away abruptly.
“Don’t tell your mom,” Raven says heavily. She turns around, tossing one last tight smile over her shoulder. “And just…say goodbye next time.”
Clarke’s chest feels leaden, breath seizing in her chest like in a way that has grown too familiar. She startles when she feels a touch on her shoulder, turning to find Miller and Monty looking at her with surprisingly sympathetic eyes.
“Wanna keep moving?”
She ducks her head when they’re inside, eyes on the floor as they walk forward. She counts her breaths and tries not to remember the last time she was trapped inside something so man made. The two boys flank her, steps echoing in the cool hallways.
She hears the gasp before she’s ready for it, before they’ve made it all the way to the big iron doors she’s seen in her dreams. Her eyes flick up just in time to see a war of emotions crossing over her mother’s face. None are the ones she thinks she deserves.
“Clarke,” Abby says breathlessly. Her lips tremble as she looks her over, taking a step towards her. And then another, and another, until they are toe to toe. “Clarke.”
Clarke doesn’t know who moves first but they’re clutching each other suddenly, hugging tighter than they have the whole time they’ve been on earth.
“I’m so sorry,” Abby whispers in her ear; Clarke can feel the way she shakes as she holds her. “Please stay, Clarke. I’m so sorry.”
There is a commotion behind Abby, surprised voices that grow louder, and when she looks up she sees Kane leveling her with a kindly smile that she ignores. Beside him—
“Clarke?” Bellamy’s dark eyes blink at her, squinting in the dim light as if he’s not sure what he’s seeing. His hair is shorter than the last time she remembered, dark curls cropped close to his head. His eyes dart behind her and she can almost hear Miller’s shrug. Her blood feels thick and slow in her veins.
“We just heard the news,” Kane says warmly, and Clarke doesn’t miss the way he steps closer to her mother, shoulders brushing in the wide hallway. She shoots Bellamy an incredulous look that he doesn’t return, dark eyes inscrutable as he studies her. “Welcome back, Clarke.”
She frowns, looking away quickly from Bellamy and focusing on Kane. “I didn’t really have much of a choice, I guess. Octavia told me about the negotiations.”
Abby steps forward again, framing Clarke’s face in her hands. “But you’re — staying, aren’t you?” It’s hard to look at the hope in her eyes, harder still to see the way Bellamy’s face turns blank. Clarke lips her lips anxiously before forcing her mouth to twist into a smile.
“Just…catch me up on what’s going on with the Grounders,” she says.
They all know it’s not an answer but they accept it anyway, filing into a nearby room the rest of the Council has gathered in. Bellamy sits beside her the whole time while her mother and Kane speak in low, urgent voices. Their elbows touch but he doesn’t look at her again, and when the meeting ends he leaves without another word.
She tries not to stare after him but her mother stands beside her in the hallway, knocking their shoulders together.
“It’s hard,” Abby says quietly. “To be happy that you’re back, when we know you’re just going to leave again. Give him time.”
Clarke swallows so hard the she chokes, and her mother reaches out to rub her back slowly. They stand there like that for a long time, trapped inside dark shadows and looking after something that’s only moving farther away.
It happens like this: standing far away from the fire in the moonlight, eyes searching the people crowded in the courtyard as they eat their dinner. “He’s not here,” a voice says behind her. “He’s in his tent, being just as dumb as you.”
Clarke startles, face flushing as she turns around. She thinks about protesting but Raven looks far too over her bullshit so she shrugs instead.
“I don’t really know how to be here,” she admits after a pause. Raven sighs, shifting her weight onto her good leg.
“You’re an idiot,” she says, shrugging unapologetically when Clarke levels her with a scowl. “Look, whatever. Feel as guilty as you want to, but we’ve all got blood on our hands. No one here hates you.” She shrugs at Clarke’s look of disbelief. “At least, not any more than they hate themselves.”
“You’re such a comfort,” Clarke says dryly, but she smiles before she can help it.
Raven snorts. “Just go get a drink, or whatever. Don’t write us all off yet.”
Clarke sighs. “Maybe I will get a drink. Come with me?”
She pulls herself off the wall, smiling apologetically. “Nah. I would, but Wick’s doing some maintenance on the fence and I gotta go make sure he doesn’t fuck it all up.” She waggles her eyebrows as she backs away from her. “Besides, we both know I’m not the one you really want to get a drink with.”
Clarke scoffs, her cheeks heating up again. “You’re one to talk. Have fun doing maintenance.” Raven just laughs as she walks away.
She makes her way across camp, quietly nodding at the people she makes eye contact with. Although it’s been months she remembers the way to the kitchens. It’s easy to spot the little stall set up for moonshine; she recognizes Monty’s handiwork and she leans against the counter.
“Monty, you back there? I could use that drink now.” She grins when he comes around the corner, juggling jars of clear liquid in his arms.
It’s not Monty.
“Jasper,” she croaks. It surprises her that it’s hardest seeing him, but when his eyes go wide it is like a knife in her gut. She pushes herself off the counter, standing up straight.
He backs away, nodding at her with caution. “I heard you were back,” he says, voice flat as he eyes her warily. He sets down the moonshine and sticks his hands in his pockets. His shoulders are stiff and there is an awkward pause between them.
“I’m sorry.” She swallows hard and he frowns, looking down. “I tried to stay away—“
Jasper looks back up at her, eyes sharp. “You don’t get to blame that on me,” he says lowly. “You didn’t leave to make things easier for me.”
Her lip trembles and he sighs. He looks so tired and thin, faded in a way that she doesn’t remember. When he speaks again, it is softer. “I don’t — I don’t care if you stay, Clarke. Or if you leave. But, just…don’t pretend it’s for anyone other than yourself.”
She tries to protest but it dies on her lips at the hard look he gives her. Instead she nods, and his lips twist into a sardonic smile.
“You look terrible, by the way,” he says casually. He finally walks up to the counter, choosing a jar and placing it in front of her.
She laughs faintly, picking up a jar hugging it close to her chest. “So I’ve heard.” She turns around to leave and then hesitates, looking back over her shoulder. “Thanks, Jasper.”
He doesn’t say anything and she takes it as her cue to walk away, picking her way through the crowd again until she finds the tent she was looking for. A small light shines against the patchwork canvas.
She walks in to find Bellamy bent over a rough table, scribbling furiously on a map. If he hears her he doesn’t say anything; his eyes only slide over to her after she steps in further, gently placing the jar of moonshine onto the table.
Clarke shifts uneasily at his quietness. “I, uh. Thought maybe we could have that drink.”
Outside they can still hear the sounds of camp, the glow of the fire turning the walls a flickering yellow. It hasn’t been this stilted between them since that first horrible week on earth and she feels like a stranger all over again.
Bellamy finally sighs, the sound heavy between them. “Clarke—”
“I’m sorry,” she says. He finally looks up at her when he hears her voice crack, and she knows even in the darkness he must see the way her eyes have filled with tears. “I’m sorry about—god, everything. The things I’ve done, the things I made you do—”
Any hesitance he has melts away and he reaches out, dragging her until she is flush against him. His arms wrap around her tightly, the heat of him solid against her.
“Hey,” he says roughly, hands reaching up to grip her shoulders. He shakes her hard until she looks at him. “You don’t have to apologize to me, Clarke. I would—“ It’s hard looking at him when he’s so fierce, his dark eyes black in the shadows. I would do it all again, she knows he’s thinking. She can’t hold his gaze anymore, pressing her forehead into the curve of his neck.
“I’m sorry about Octavia,” she whispers.
He stiffens only for a second, moving an arm back down to drape firmly against her waist. The other hand winds into her hair, stroking the base of her neck and scalp; she knows there is no way he misses her tears against his skin. “I don’t…I can’t pretend to like it,” he says finally. His cheeks presses against her hair, voice low and close to her ear. “But I still — I could never want you gone.” It’s the closest they’ve ever come to discussing how it is between them.
They stay like that for a moment, wound together tightly. “Did it help?” he asks. “Being away?”
She shrugs. “I don’t know. The thought of being here was unbearable. But being alone…” She shudders. “I think it’s just always going to be hard. I can’t — being alone doesn’t make it go away, either.”
He sways them slowly back and forth. “Maybe it would be easier. Together.”
She lifts her head slight, enough for her lips to drag against his skin when she speaks again, and he shivers. “Maybe. I don’t know.”
Bellamy finally pulls away from her, hands moving up and down her arm. “Well, you don’t have to figure it out tonight. There’s time.”
“Thanks, Bellamy.” Her smile is small but real. “How about that drink?”
. . .
(It happens like this: waking up in the morning, mouth dry but head clear, Bellamy’s fingers resting on her hip under the hem of her shirt. She still doesn’t know if it’s easier. But she stays.)