Clarke just -- stops.
It’s so much easier than she might have expected.
Clarke wakes up the next morning before anyone else in the dormitory. It’s possible she never went to sleep to begin with, she’s not sure. Her head is swollen with memories she both feels like it’s now her duty to preserve, perhaps forever, and also wishes she could shove into a deep, dark place and forget.
They’re dead. Wells, Finn, Octavia, Bellamy, Monty, Harper, Miller, Monroe... maybe she should write the names down. In case she starts to forget. Every person abandoned by the Ark, enthralled by the freedom of the ground, depending on her to keep them alive -- dead.
(And the Ark. What now? How long can the air supply last? Will they come down in a year, a few years? Or will they implement even more brutal methods to preserve their way of life, thinking it’s the only way to stay alive?)
So her eyes are already open when the dawn light begins to filter through the windows, turning everything gray-tinged and shadowy before the full force of the sun returns color to the room. The others see she’s awake when they rise and start to dress for the day. They exchange looks and whispers at her stillness. Chanti’s the one to approach her first.
“Don’t feel well?” she asks, kneeling by Clarke’s bed and holding a hand to her forehead. “You’re not warm.” She gives Clarke’s shoulder a squeeze with an encouraging smile. “It can be hard to get out of bed, but we all have work to do.”
Everyone on the dropship is dead.
Clarke turns over, drawing her blanket up past her shoulder to cover her head.
She still doesn’t sleep. The others leave her alone, bring her water and snacks when they have a break between duties, but she stays in bed. She... drifts, in and out of awareness, her entire body aching and heavy. It’s as if her thoughts themselves are something hot and full of hurt, so she curls up as tightly as she can, breathing shallow, as if she can make herself small and still enough that they won’t touch her.
Days pass like this. The other apprentices become more insistent in trying to get her to rise, bathe, eat, but Clarke just puts her head down and thinks: There’s no point. They’re all dead.
Nyko comes in one day. He stands with his hands on his hips, frowning at her for long moments. He takes her wrist out from under her blankets to read her pulse, lifts her eyelids slightly to check her pupils.
“Is she sick?” Hern asks. He’s often the first in the morning to approach Clarke and try to get her out of bed. When Nyko shakes his head, he only looks more concerned. “Then what’s wrong?”
“Exactly what I warned her would happen,” Nyko says. “You can’t plant a desert sapling by the river, and you can’t command people to thrive where you put them.” He’s still shaking his head as he leaves.
She hears the furious eruption of whispers first, and the heavy click of boot heels on stone. Then the rustle of fabric as someone wearing a heavy coat walks up close. Clarke can almost feel the banked energy of her presence.
Her stomach is twisting before she even opens her eyes to see the Commander sitting on her heels by Clarke’s bed.
Maybe if she’d had more to eat recently, Clarke thinks, she’d be able to better make out the expression on the other girl’s face. Her features are rigid with what looks like anger, but with something with the mobility of passion just under it -- Clarke can see it in the way she holds her jaw, the sheen of her wide eyes.
“You should get up and wash,” the other girl says, wearing that strange expression. “You’re starting to smell.”
The last few days have settled in Clarke’s body like a malaise, leaving her numb. It feels similar to a leg or an arm falling asleep from restricted blood flow, except it’s all of her. Now, for the first time in days, she feels the prickling rush of sensation: hot needles of emotion piercing the fog in her brain.
“I thought you were stronger than this,” the Commander continues, oblivious. “You traveled out of the Dead Zone on your own to unfamiliar territory, only to give up now? Now, when you have food and shelter, and the protection of my clan?”
The clan that’s responsible for the deaths of Clarke’s people. Deaths this girl ordered.
Nassa has been bringing her water in heavy glass bottles, thick enough to withstand rough handling, their color muddled and dark. Clarke picks one up by the neck, she’s sliding off the bed until the Commander’s in reach --
The Commander moves so quickly it almost takes Clarke’s breath away. It probably would have, if the other girl’s arm squeezing around her torso didn’t get there first. The Commander lifts them both to their feet, hauling Clarke in too close to land a hit. Her other hand wraps around Clarke’s fingers where she’s holding the bottle, but the Commander forces the makeshift weapon close to their bodies. Low, and hidden.
Clarke angles her head to look into her eyes, a little taken aback. The Commander’s eyes flick down to their overlapping hands and she shakes her head, minutely.
She doesn’t want anyone else to see what Clarke just attempted. What Clarke might still attempt, given the chance.
A warrior culture, remember? Clarke reminds herself. They probably have a lot of stupid beliefs about honor or first blood and things like that: needlessly elaborate death in the face of betrayal, the necessary level of retaliation against unprovoked attacks. Clarke got away with shoving her last time, at the window, because Nyko had been the sole witness -- and he’d almost taken her head off anyway. The Commander had stopped him.
But if Clarke strikes out at her now -- if Clarke even tries -- an entire room of apprentices will see it. And if the Commander doesn’t put her down every single one of them might take it as weakness.
The Commander’s grip tightens around Clarke’s fingers until it’s almost too painful to bear. She doesn’t say a word. But the look in her eyes might be described as pleading.
Clarke realizes she doesn’t really want to die. She hates... everything, she hates herself and this tower and the stupid demands of her body to be fed and cared for, hates the fucking whim of fate that gave her and only her the safety she wanted for everyone else. Every breath feels like she’s drawing it from someone else’s lungs.
But she’s still taking them. She doesn’t want to die.
Damn. She’d been making such good headway.
“I don’t know your people, or how you lost them,” the Commander says, so close her mouth is almost against Clarke’s temple, “but I don’t think they would want your life to end like this.”
Oh, fuck her, fuck her. That hits right where her walls are cracking and weak. Abby is still out there. If there’s anything like an afterlife, Wells will kick Clarke’s ass if she shows up now.
She never got to say goodbye to Wells. He died while she hated him.
Clarke breaks. That’s the only word for it. Her neck bends and she feels the tears dripping down her nose before she’s taking her next breath to sob. Grief crushes every other emotion and impulse, leaves her feeling emptied out and useless. She barely notices the Commander quickly taking the bottle from her hand to drop it noiselessly onto Clarke’s bed and out of sight of the others.
The other apprentices notice Clarke is crying, though. It snaps their reticence and they surge forward almost as a group, Clarke’s bunkmates three steps ahead of the herd. Hern practically snatches Clarke out of the Commander’s hands to wrap her in a bear hug, Chanti and Nassa on either side as they stroke her hair away from her face. Nassa promises whatever is wrong, they can fix it, they can, and Hern rubs Clarke’s back. Chanti isn’t glaring at the Commander, but she’s directing a heated scowl at the floor by the Commander’s boots. Clarke kind of loves her for it.
(There’d been a brief moment, right before that first sob and before anyone else came near them, when Clarke thought she felt the lightest touch to the top of her skull. Like someone was about to place their hand there, draw her in for comfort.)
(But it doesn’t matter, because by the time she looks over her shoulder the Commander has already left.)
There are children here, too.
She sees children in the infirmary, of course. But these children are different: their clothes and hair aren’t dusty from the loose dirt kicked into the open air, they aren’t immediately shadowed by adult guardians or older siblings who run through a litany of symptoms for Hern and Clarke. These children don’t travel through the tower with wide eyes and sneaking glances. Whenever she catches a glimpse of one of them, they walk down the halls as if they are already at home.
She doesn’t connect them as being part of a group, at first -- she only notices there are children in the tower. Sometimes. Then she notices the way they appear in groups of two and three together, dressed in the protective gear Clarke has only seen on warriors. They wear no markings, or not that she can make out. Instead they seem to be recognized on sight by almost everyone they pass, hands reaching out to touch their shoulders or ruffle their hair. The children bear this with smiling grace, and an unexpected reserve that makes Clarke itch to pinpoint who or what it reminds her of.
Her suspicions are confirmed the first time she sees them all together.
It’s hard, getting back into the rhythm of life in the tower. Habit takes her through washing, dressing, eating -- but then she finds herself back in the infirmary and wondering: is this going to be her life? Is she a Grounder? The person she was -- a person with a name, a voice, an identity -- are they gone, now? If everyone who even knew her as Clarke is dead or orbiting miles above her head, where does that leave her?
Maybe she should still try to get back to the dropship, she thinks dully, watching as Hern works with patients without her. He casts worried looks every now and again to where she sits, arms hugging her knees to her chest. Maybe she can get the radio to work on her own, find a way to send a message to the Ark.
... except tech was never her area. And what would she say, even if she could beat out a code or find some way of making herself understood -- the ground is habitable but inhabited, and the natives are unfriendly? They don’t seem to have any post-Industrial weapons, but they still managed to take on a hundred delinquents with guns?
There are weapons on board the Ark. Not just guns or shock batons, but big, mass-damage weapons left over from before unification. The general pop isn’t supposed to know that, but Clarke was -- is? -- the daughter of important people. She could send up a message, and the Ark could aim those weapons right where they would do the most damage. If might take another year’s orbit before they were in position, but it would make it possible for the Arkers to come safely to the ground.
Clarke considers it. She looks around the infirmary -- imagines it on fire, all the apprentices and patients screaming as they burn to death.
She slams a hand over her mouth as she chokes back bile, and Hern rushes to her side. He fusses until she lets him take her back to the dorm and tuck her into bed early.
Clarke gets up the next day ready for the infirmary and gets a bit of a shock when Hern takes the green paint stick out of her hand with a sad smile. Chanti approaches and explains: maybe Clarke will like some of the other disciplines more than healing, they want to show her how the other apprentices spend their days. They assumed she was a healer, but maybe she would like to choose like everyone else.
It causes an ache just beneath the hollow of her throat, how careful they’re being with her, how kind. She hopes it was Nyko’s idea. She’s not sure she wants to feel this grateful to... anyone else.
It makes her days a little easier. Clarke’s not expected to do anything more than stay out of the way and observe, unlike at the infirmary. She doesn’t have to push through the fog in her head to help out. Instead she lets Chanti dress her in heavy overclothes and an old helmet with a cracked plastic partition over the eyes, scavenged from Before. They walk back out to the fields where they check tiered stacks that open up, drawer-like, to reveal hundreds and hundreds of crawling insects with yellow stripes that mimic the ones drawn on Chanti’s cheek. That day is spent watching apprentices boil honeycomb and separate wax from honey, and Clarke is allowed to touch new-made candles so she can feel how smooth they are, smell their lingering sweetness. The next morning she’s handed off to a boy she doesn’t know, one with three grey mountains on his face, and he shows her the pots filled with nut shells which they boil to produce dark ink, the rough sheets of paper to be smoothed with stones.
It makes the nights harder. Every day she sees more people, more ways in which life at the tower fits together like the pieces of a puzzle. Her sleep is light, fitful. She dreams of rubble strewn with human bones, the air filled with greasy ash.
No, Clarke decides one day, tucked into the corner of the kitchens, listening to Nassa’s chatter as the other girl peels vegetables. No, she won’t find a way to tell the Ark to use their weapons. Not yet. She can leave it as a last resort.
Besides, she doesn’t even know if there’s enough air to last the Ark another Earth revolution. Maybe they’ll be forced down before then, somewhere miles and miles from here. Even if they land she might never see any of them ever again.
She believes that for an hour, maybe even two, before practicality wins out against self-pity. If her mom reaches the ground, she’ll find Clarke.
So. What can Clarke do, until then?
Listen. Learn. Watch. She doesn’t know when -- if -- no, when -- she’ll be reunited with anyone from the Ark. That doesn’t mean her time here is wasted.
The shifts for kitchen apprentices are different, more staggered. Nassa got Clarke up this morning before dawn to show her preparations for the morning meal, but this also means they’re released from duties early. Nassa yawns hugely as they make their way back to the dorms, giggles when Clarke catches it. The giggles are echoed a little further down the corridor, and Clarke turns to see a tight cluster of those oddly un-childlike children watching them around the corner.
Nassa waves, and it’s like a signal for them to come running. The smaller ones hug her around the waist, talking a mile a minute. The older ones hang back a bit, smiling shyly first at Clarke before more widely at Nassa. She greets them all by name, their questions and talk overlapping until Clarke can’t parse it. The children are almost different creatures with Nassa -- eager, laughing -- and Clarke wonders at the difference until one of the younger ones pipes up: “Nassa, did you bring us a present?”
“Of course,” and Clarke watches as she reaches into her jacket for a cloth-wrapped bundle. Clarke’s jaw drops when Nassa unwraps it to reveal a slab of the concoction the head cook had been occupied with all morning, boiled-down honey and nuts poured out into pans and allowed to harden. There was always some special treat prepared for the dinner service on this day -- feast day. It marked the beginning of a short rest period for most of the apprentices and workers within the tower. The candy had made the kitchens smell incredible all morning, and the cook had snarled at anyone who came within three feet of the cooling portions.
Nassa catches Clarke’s shocked look and shrugs. “I didn’t take it for me,” she explains quickly, still sounding a bit guilty. “Cook won’t care if it’s for the --” Here she says a word Clarke knows. Or, two words that sound pushed together, except... nightblood? That can’t be right.
The kids press forward and one of the older boys takes charge of splitting the bounty between them.
“What lessons do you have this afternoon?” Nassa asks them. Her hands are still on the shoulders of one of the younger boys, and every now and then her hand reaches up to smooth back his hair. She seems to do it absently, and he leans back into her hold with the same unthinking ease. “History with Titus, or training with Gustus? Or strategy with Ryland?”
“No, not today,” the other boy, the one who doled out the candy, says. He’s a little distracted, squinting at the pieces remaining as if trying to see if another equal portion could be scrounged together for each of them. “Today we’re in the throne hall. With --”
“With the Commander?” Nassa gasps, and Clarke’s own heart gives a sudden lurch. The kitchen apprentice snatches back her present and wraps it up to place back in her jacket. “I thought all her lessons were in the evenings, after the petitioners leave.”
The boy frowns at her. “Usually, but she’s leaving again before dinner, so --”
“And you still waited for me?” Nassa sounds incredulous. “You should have gone on without, you don’t keep the Commander waiting.”
The younger boy, the one who is still leaning against her, looks up with an unhappy twist to his mouth. “But you always bring a present on feast day.”
“It doesn’t matter! Quick, go now, run, before she comes looking for you all --”
Unconsciously, Clarke moves behind Nassa. She’s not scared -- and she’s not hiding -- she’s just. It seems better, to have as many bodies as possible between Clarke and the last person she thought about killing.
If the Commander notices she doesn’t give any sign of it. All her attention is for the children as she stands in front of them. Her expression is carefully neutral, but she still manages to give the impression of immense disapproval.
The effect of her presence runs through the children like an electric current: they straighten, swallow down whatever sweetness is left in their mouths, swipe at their faces before tucking their hands behind their backs.
“Did I hear correctly?” the Commander asks coolly. “Are you often delayed in attending your afternoon lessons?”
The children are, all of the sudden, very interested in the pattern of broken and cracked tiles underfoot. All except the fair-haired boy who divided up Nassa’s present. He raises his chin, throat bobbing with nervousness.
“Only on feast day,” says the little boy Nassa is holding, almost in a whisper.
The Commander still hears it. She moves through the crowd of children and they part around her, only to inch closer as she passes by. She kneels before the little one until they are at eye level. Nassa removes her hands from the boy’s shoulders, clenching them with reluctance.
“Time is very valuable, especially to a Commander and all who might assist one,” she tells him. Her tone is firm, but not unkind. It has the ring of both authority and affection to it, and the little boy is nodding even before she finishes. “Those who serve as your teachers today might one day be your generals, your advisors. You should treat them with the respect they deserve, and in a manner worthy of your --” and it is, the word is “nightblood.” What the hell does that mean, Clarke wonders.
“Aden,” the Commander says as she rises to her feet, “you will lead them back to the throne hall.”
The fair-haired boy nods, quickly marshals the rest into a makeshift procession and places himself at the rear to encourage stragglers. The youngest boy, for instance, who turns to wave goodbye to Nassa before Aden gently turns him in the right direction, and they march off.
The Commander waits until they’ve rounded the corner before turning back to the kitchen apprentice, raising an eyebrow.
Nassa bows her head, hands coming together in an attitude of contrition. “I’m so sorry, Heda. I won’t keep them from their duties again.”
For a long moment the Commander simply looks at her. Clarke itches to put herself between them, glare at the Commander for making her friend so unhappy. Maybe push her again.
She’s just about worked herself up to intervene when the Commander speaks again: “Evych does very well in his lessons.”
There’s such unexpected gentleness in her voice, Clarke can only blink at her.
Nassa raises her head. “Really?” she asks, sounding relieved. “He’s so much younger than the others. I know my mother worries he won’t have the chance -- that he can’t --”
“Your brother applies himself admirably for his age,” the Commander interrupts, sparing Nassa the distress of whatever it is she’s stumbling over. “I’m sure he will catch up to the others in no time at all. And,” here there is the slightest uptick at the corner of her mouth, not a smile, but something with the same lightness, “if it is any consolation to your mother, I do not plan for the next (word) to be necessary for many years to come.”
Whatever the word means, it makes happiness break across Nassa’s face as Clarke watches. “Of course, I -- long life and health to you, Heda,” she says, with a shy smile.
The Commander accepts this with a nod, and her carriage relaxes a touch. “What did you bring them?”
“Oh, it’s nothing, just whatever extra is lying about in the kitchens that day,” Nassa says, coloring. “And as promised, I will stop.”
The Commander tilts her head to the side. “Do you bring enough for all of them, every time?”
“Of course,” Nassa says, sounding almost insulted. “I would hope their families would do the same for Evych should they be the ones living in the tower, and not me.”
Again, the small not-smile. “Then I see no reason for you to stop. From now on, however, deliver your presents after their lessons.”
“You still haven’t told me what you brought them.”
Nassa reaches back into her jacket, brings out the wrapped cloth. “A little something Cook kept back from the dinner preparations. I thought maybe he wanted a portion all to himself --”
“Or for me,” the Commander says, wry. She takes the bundle for herself, stirs a finger through the remaining pieces with a look that might be called wistful. “This is my favorite.”
“Oh, no.” Nassa’s hands fly up to her mouth. “Oh, that’s why -- the rest won’t be cool enough for hours --”
“And I’m leaving very soon.”
“Oh,” Nassa says, sounding small.
Clarke, still behind her, wants to cross her arms and scowl. Why are they still talking like this? Doesn’t everyone have somewhere to be? ... she could leave herself, actually, she knows the way back to the dorms. But she finds herself reluctant. It’s nothing. She’s just concerned for her friend, after the stormcloud the Commander was earlier.
“Another war party?” Nassa asks.
“No, just scavenge work. You heard about the invaders near Tondisi?”
Nausea grips Clarke.
“I don’t want Anya sending her people to strip their camp without backup,” the Commander continues. “It’s too near the mountain.”
The mountain? Mount Weather? Do these people know of the stockpile there -- have they already ransacked that, too, the way they’re planning with the dropship? Was Clarke’s attempt to find safety there doomed from the start?
The Commander finally finds a big enough piece among the sweet shards of broken candy, holds it out in offer. “For thinking of all of them,” she says quietly, “and not just your brother.”
Nassa’s face is a dull red when she takes it. The Commander turns to Clarke.
If Clarke felt any unease about being so thoroughly ignored up to this point, it’s gone the instant the Commander’s intensity finds and focuses on her.
Slowly, the Commander holds out another piece of confection.
“For finding your strength again,” she says, even quieter than before.
Clarke meets her eyes. She’s spent the last few days sick with the knowledge of the destruction she could bring down on the Commander’s people, the weight of their lives heavy in the palm of her hand. She’s decided against it, mostly because she sees every day how little they have to do with what happened to the dropship -- to her friends. Those deaths aren’t even on the radar. Clarke’s hand might still be forced in the future, but for now she gets to live in a world where people unconnected to tragedy aren’t forced to bear its consequences.
But the Commander isn’t unconnected.
I won’t forgive you, Clarke thinks at her. You can’t win me over.
The other girl’s hand is outstretched for what feels like a full minute, maybe even two. Nassa shifts, clearly uncomfortable at the growing tension, and finally the Commander’s arm slackens and falls.
“I understand,” she says under her breath. Her gaze flickers back to Clarke, and there’s a finality to her expression that says: this was the last time. There will be no more attempts at connection, no more last-minute saves. Clarke doesn’t want them -- message received.
It should be a relief, watching the Commander give Nassa a short nod before turning away, Clarke as good as dismissed from her attention. It should make Clarke glad, knowing she has one less pair of eyes on her, that the person responsible for gifting her so much grief will no longer intrude on what little peace she has left.
It does, she tells herself as Nassa takes her arm, and they go back down the corridor to where they belong. It does.
Several days later the apprentices set the entire array of paint sticks before Clarke, asking if she’s ready to make her choice.
She doesn’t hesitate before reaching for the green one, and Hern hugs her so hard it hurts.
Versi and her partner (Sanga, Clarke should really try to remember that) are almost as happy to see her back in the infirmary -- especially, as they explain, as the three of them had to share Clarke’s cleanup duties during her extended vacation. They’ve decided they’ll only accept Clarke’s thanks in the form of the returned favor, at least for today.
She’s surprised how much she doesn’t mind. It’s better -- she decides as she folds all their blankets, and straightens their patient beds, and sweeps the floor, and straightens supplies -- than being coddled. It means she really is one of them. Or at least, that’s the way they see it.
And they’re not mean about it. The tasks take a lot longer with just one person, but all three stick around to keep her company. They talk as she works, telling her stories of events and lessons she missed. As the sun fades from the sky and takes the light streaming through the windows with it, Sanga runs out to bring back bread and cheese and fruit from the kitchens, and they eat together when Clarke takes a short rest.
Once she finishes they continue to tease, inspecting her work and imitating Nyko’s own attitudes and criticisms, until she throws cheese rinds at them to make them stop.
Hern is still smiling when he puts both hands on her shoulders to look her full in the face. “Now do you understand?” he asks. “No more running. Not from here,” and he indicates the tower, its climbing levels, before moving to sling his arms around Versi’s and Sanga’s shoulders, bringing them in close, “and not from us.” He continues to watch Clarke’s face. “Understand?”
She lets him pull her into another embrace, her own arms going up around him. He’s right. She can’t save the people she’s already lost, no matter what she’d give for that. All she can do now is be grateful for what she still has.
The four apprentices are the only ones in the infirmary by the time they finish up. Patients with long-term or infectious illnesses are kept on another floor that only allows more experienced healers. The only light is provided from the banks of flickering candles that line the walls, and the four of them work together to douse all but a few before readying to return to the dorms.
The doors burst open just as they’re about to leave, swinging with such violence the four of them are forced to jump back.
“Up on the table,” Nyko orders, speaking over his shoulder as he walks through the doors. He doesn't even notice the apprentices as he ushers in a group of warriors, all of them intent on carrying a shared burden between them. Clarke catches glimpses of it between their tight-pressed bodies: a limp arm, a booted foot.
“You said no one else would be here,” she hears, thunderous, and turns her head to see a stranger standing between the open doors: a tall man with dark tattoos against the curve of his naked skull. He wears robes instead of a warrior’s gear, and his face is contorted with anger.
“They’re just apprentices,” Nyko says, after checking. “Back to the dorms, all of you.”
“No.” The robed man blocks the doors, then moves to shut them, barring their exit. “I don’t want them telling anyone of this.”
“They wouldn’t -- fine,” Nyko says, seeing the other man is adamant. He jerks his head at the apprentices, clearly impatient to dismiss them and move onto the patient. “In there, all of you. Now,” he says, pointing.
He means the medicine room, what Clarke thinks of as a kind of pharmacy -- where all the basic ingredients are kept, to be ground up or combined together and given out to patients who require them. She and the others are swept inside by one of the other warriors, and he maneuvers his bulk to further block their view of the body that has been placed on the main table. None of the apprentices protest, and the sound of the bolt being slammed home as soon as they are inside is loud in the silence of the deserted room.
Versi is the first one to say it, while all four of them are still frozen in shock and dismay. “Did you see?” she asks, voice low and face ashen. “Did you see who it was?”
Clarke is the only one to nod, but she’s sure all of them saw what she did: the familiar features of the person the warriors had laid out so carefully, set in a face now slack and pale.
“The others have more experience, more training --” Nyko protests.
“You asked for assistance, and I will grant you the use of one apprentice.” The man -- Titus -- tightens his grip on Clarke. “But I choose the one who cannot speak of what she sees.”