Clarke was five and it was coloring day. They didn't have coloring day very often, because markers were rationed just like everything else on the Ark, but it was always Clarke's favorite. She loved to see the different colors on the page, imagining them in real life. Bright pinks and yellows instead of the steel gray and mostly muted colors of their everyday life. Clarke drew pictures of flowers and green, green grass and the bright blue sky, things she'd only ever seen in pictures. Coloring day was the best day.
This coloring day, though, the girl across the table from her was not drawing on her paper.
"What are you doing?" Clarke asked, part curious and part scandalized. They didn't get to use markers very often and it would just wash off of the wrist she was making lines on. Why wouldn't she want it to stay permanent somehow?
The girl in front of her looked up at Clarke's whisper-shout, then looked around to see if anyone else had heard. It was loud in the classroom, most of the kids talking and laughing while they worked. Clarke and her tablemate seemed to be the only ones who were actually being serious about their work, although Clarke had serious doubts about the other girl. Since no one else looked over at them, the other girl looked back at her wrist and continued drawing. Now that she was paying close attention, Clarke could see letters.
"I'm writing my name so my soulmate can see," the girl said, as if the answer should have been obvious. Clarke blinked then, her mouth forming a soft "o" as she watched the other girl in fascination.
Her parents had told her about it. It wasn't like it was forbidden to know about, but they'd been sort of quiet and cautious about it. Talking about how sometimes people would see markings that their soulmates had made, how ink would bloom on skin that hadn't been touched, faded but distinct. How people used to ink tattoos that their soulmates would be sure to recognize, but that ink had been one of those things that had been too precious to spare, eventually. They even whispered softly, carefully, about how even those that did mark themselves didn't always find their soulmates, but how that didn't mean she couldn't find love.
Her parents' skin didn't show any mirror images-- they'd checked-- but they were in love and happy and had Clarke and it didn't matter.
Still, watching the girl-- Trina, Clarke could read now-- press the long lines of purple carefully against her skin, Clarke found herself holding her breath. Maybe it didn't matter if she had a soulmate, but wouldn't that be so cool? To have someone just for her, who would always be with her? Clarke looked around the room, trying to see if anyone had purple blooming against their left arm.
No one looked up, though. No one shouted in surprise, or confusion, and Clarke couldn't see anything but bare arms. When she looked back at Trina, the other girl was looking out around them as well. Until finally her shoulders fell, just the smallest bit, and she looked back down at her wrist. She looked small, suddenly, after all her bravado, and Clarke felt something in her reach out.
"Maybe they're in another class," Clarke offered, voice just barely more than a whisper. Just enough for the other girl to hear it. Trina looked up, and Clarke saw the barest hint of sadness before she could see the seed of hope grow in the other girl's gaze. She returned the small smile that the other girl gave her.
"Maybe. I'll leave it on. Maybe they just haven't seen it yet." Trina nodded to herself, confident, and Clarke nodded as well. That was totally possible.
Trina went back to her coloring, on actual paper this time, and Clarke looked at the green marker in her hand. She licked her lips, imagining the pretty color against her own skin. She carefully looked around them again, seeing that still no one was paying attention. Not even Trina. Carefully, Clarke managed an only slightly shaky C, seeing the color settle brightly against her pale skin, before the teacher was calling for the class to put away the coloring supplies and Clarke quickly hid her wrist and looked up guiltily. No one said anything, though, and Clarke shoved the markers in the bin before holding her wrist gently against her stomach.
She tried not to look at everyone else's wrists for the rest of the day. Tried not to see that no one had any green there. Not even the next day, or two days later, until finally she forgot to keep her wrist out of the water when she was washing and it faded away, just like the idea that her soulmate could be here somewhere.
It didn't matter, though. Not really. Not everyone had a soulmate, but they could still be happy. Clarke made sure to give her parents extra hugs and watched them extra carefully when they smiled at each other. Just because she didn't have a soulmate didn't mean anything at all.
In the year Clarke turned 10, things became a little strange. No one really talked about it, at least not outside of whispers, but people were getting markings that couldn’t be explained. She and Wells had talked about it, even though neither of them had gotten any markings (Clarke had almost asked once, if Wells had ever seen any green on his arm. But then even though Clarke liked Wells a lot, she wasn’t sure if she really wanted to be his soulmate. She’d never asked; he’d never said anything.).
Wells had met a boy from Agro station with markings around his eyes. They were pale, faded white, and almost invisible on the boy’s pale skin. It would almost seem like a birthmark except sometimes it was there, and sometimes it wasn’t. Apparently Wells had also seen darker marks under the collar of the boy’s shirt, but he seemed to be hiding those and Wells hadn’t asked.
For Clarke’s part, she knew a girl with a full arm of swirling, intricate designs. The budding artist in her had begged to see more of them before she could think better of it, but luckily the girl had been more than happy to show them off. They were a dark but faded grey, and Clarke could imagine that they were coal black on the arm they were originally etched into, but it was impossible to know. As far as anyone was aware, misuse of resources like this would mean death to anyone on the Ark, so it wasn’t like they could find the original owner without potentially sentencing them to death. The swirls were so pretty, though. Clarke had sketched them herself the first time she’d gotten an opportunity to.
What did it mean? No one was really sure. Wells had a theory about people starting to mutiny on some other station. Quietly, but in their own way. Clarke wasn’t so sure. Someone would have found out by now, wouldn’t they? She hadn’t heard of anyone getting floated for anything like that. Then again, she didn’t have any better ideas.
When she first felt the intense warmth, bordering on pain on her arm, Clarke really, really hoped that Wells wasn’t right. Because when she ran to the bathroom and watched in fascination as the dark gray spread where the warmth had been, intricate and detailed lines forming on her skin, Clarke couldn’t imagine having to one day hear about her soulmate being sentenced to death for this work of art.
Someone took their time with it. Outlines almost like triangles, but not quite. Swirls on the inside. Intricate work that made Clarke want to both hold on tightly to her arm because it burned, but was also too pretty for her to miss a moment of by hiding the process. She tried to imagine what it must be like on the other side of this connection. Someone was sitting as someone pressed pricks of ink under the skin (and Clarke knew it was pricks, she could feel it, like a phantom pain, a heat like she’d never known). Were they crying? Screaming out? Or were they clenching their jaw and trying not to show pain, trying to pretend like they were tough and it didn’t bother them? What kind of person was her soulmate, that they could last this long, could remain still enough to keep straight, beautiful lines?
No matter what, Clarke knew now. She had a soulmate. And her soulmate appreciated beauty as much as she did. Who could get a tattoo like this and not have a soft soul? It was soft, flowing lines, not hard and jagged edges. There was a melody to it, swirls and loops. This wasn’t the sort of thing someone with no love would accept on their body. This was someone who felt things.
Clarke sighed dreamily, pressing her fingers lightly over the lines, as if she could reach through and touch the original design, could connect directly with her other half. Whoever they were, she was sure that she would like her soulmate. They at least had a love of art in common, and what else could she ask for?
She lost track of time as the ink continued down to create six almost symmetrical triangular designs. So much so, that eventually her mother was knocking on the door to the bathroom, asking if she was okay. Was she sick? Clarke blinked, for a moment as ashamed of this new development as she had when she’d tried to draw her name on her wrist. But eventually her excitement won out and she rushed to the door, opening it.
“Look!” Clarke pulled her sleeve even farther up her arm, even if she’d already tucked it underneath her shoulder. “Isn’t it pretty?” She beamed up at her mother.
Her mother, who immediately turned pale and grabbed at her arm. Not hard enough to bruise, but hard enough to be uncomfortable. Clarke frowned, her mouth a pout as she whined softly. “Mo-om, let go! I want to see.” Abby Griffin did not let go, though. Instead, her thumb trailed over the ink, pressing hard to test to see if it would smudge, and then letting go as if she was the one whose skin was burning when the ink continued to trail down Clarke’s arm.
Clarke wanted to go back to looking at it in the mirror, but the look on Abby’s face made her insides crawl a little. Almost enough to distract her from the heat of the phantom needle on her skin. “When did this start?” Her mom demanded, eyes less controlled than Clarke had ever seen them. She was starting to make Clarke feel scared, and she didn’t even know why. “Clarke?” Abby demanded, when she didn’t immediately respond. “Are there others?”
“Wha-- I don’t know. A while ago. I was watching it.” Clarke’s gaze trailed back to the mirror, angling her shoulder so she could see it again. The outlines were all done and the bottom few triangles just needed to finish getting filled in. Almost done, she could sense it. “I have a soulmate, Mom. I have a soulmate.” She didn’t answer the other question, but it didn’t seem to matter. Abby stared at her and Clarke tried not to let that sick feeling claw at her. She just wanted to be happy and proud of her mark. Why wasn’t this a good thing?
Before Abby left, as if she couldn’t bear to get away from Clarke fast enough, she left her with the almost angry, “You can’t show anyone. You’ll wear long sleeves and no one will know,” and Clarke felt tears in her eyes and she didn’t know why. Why couldn’t she show anyone? The other girl didn’t care. She was proud. Why couldn’t Clarke be proud of her soulmate? Of the beautiful work of art that would always be with her? Why?
Later, once the burning had stopped and Clarke was left with only the mark and the memories of Abby’s panic, she felt cold. She wanted her soulmate to come back. She wanted them to draw more, to leave her not feeling so alone. Instead, she heard the loud almost-whispers from her parents. The sound of her father trying to calm her mother and her mother eventually leaving their rooms.
“Can I see it?” Clarke had immediately reached up to cover her mark when she’d heard the intrusion, her mother’s words having already left an impact even if she didn’t understand the motives. She wanted to protect it. Protect herself. Protect her soulmate. But it was just her dad in the doorway, giving her a small smile and not seeming panicked at all. Clarke bit her lip before allowing a small smile twist her own lips, her earlier excitement making an effort to shine through. She nodded carefully, then let her hand pull up her sleeve again, turning so that her dad could see it in all its beauty.
Jake Griffin took a few steps into the room, kneeling down to get to Clarke’s level where she sat on the bed. He took her arm into his hands gently, a stark contrast to Abby’s earlier behavior, and Clarke could feel the sick feeling quietly ebbing away for the happiness to return. A few moments went by while Jake studied the design carefully, his finger gently tracing a swirl, before he looked up and smiled more fully. “It’s beautiful, kiddo. It’s almost like it was made for you.”
Clarke almost beamed, bouncing gently on the bed. “Isn’t it the best? But…” Clarke’s eyes glanced to the open doorway, feeling the coolness of Abby’s reaction and quieting her own excitement. “Why… why do I have to hide it? I don’t want to hide it.” She looked back at Jake, blue eyes begging to understand why her mother hadn’t accepted what she was so proud of. To understand why she was feeling guilty about this instead of pleased.
“Clarke…” Jake tried to keep his expression supportive, but he could feel the weight that his wife had intentionally or unintentionally placed upon their daughter’s shoulders. He could see where his wife was coming from, understood that this didn’t bode well for their daughter’s future happiness if her soulmate was taking such huge risks like this. She just was worried, but that wasn’t Clarke’s fault, and their daughter shouldn’t have to bear that burden. “She just wants you to be happy, I promise.” He hesitated, not sure if he should say more, but Clarke had always been an intelligent kid. It would do more harm than good to try to shield her from the truth. “You know that using ink for this sort of thing isn’t allowed, right? We’ve all got to do our part to preserve what we have.”
It settled in her like a lead ball in her stomach, because of course Clarke knew. Everyone knew. And Wells had been talking about that, too, but this… this was supposed to be a good thing, wasn’t it? She was supposed to be able to find them. Her person. They were supposed to be together. Clarke looked down, feeling emotion settle in her chest and just behind her eyes. She nodded slowly, and Jake didn’t hesitate to pull her into his arms.
“Hey, kiddo. It’ll be okay. I think maybe your mom’s right, though. If you keep it covered, it’ll be okay. Nobody’s gotta know, right? And someday you’ll find them.” Jake pressed a soft kiss into his daughter’s hair, and Clarke just held tight. She could only nod, a tiny jerk of her head. Quietly, she despaired over having to hide this, but she’d do anything to protect this precious part of her. She hoped somewhere, on another part of the station, her soulmate was doing the same. Because what use was finding out she had one if she never got to meet them?