The smell of pine soon turned to the bitter one of smoke, laced with the familiar tang of metal and electricity. It seemed to thrum dimly through the ground, a vena cava vein pumping power back to its heart. The compound hadn't changed much. Metal still penetrated from the ground like claws, forming twisted arches in an almost elegant yet morbid way. The fence still lined the perimeter, greedily lapping up the electrical current.
Clarke took a deep breath, watching figures clothed in dark gear roam beyond the gates, milling about their day, the same as they'd done so during the one she'd left them on.
That day. That choice.
How could one decision hold so much blood? Hers was overflowing with it, spilling over the brim and Clarke still couldn't bring herself to view the outcome as others did; as a victory. As a win.
In saving some lives, she'd cost others theirs. In protecting her people, she'd killed someone else's. Accountability was inevitable. Whether Clarke had pulled that lever or not, someone would have bled for it. She knew that finally, after spending night after night trying to devise some other possibility out of the multitudes. Something she missed, one choice that could have spared them.
But that offered her nothing but torment. The Mountain Men were dead and Clarke had been their escort to that fate. She could accept the death of Dante. Could accept the death of his son. She could heal from those involved she'd killed. What she couldn't bear, were the innocents taken down with them. Women, children...people who'd done nothing but live in a shelter of stone. Children that knew nothing of the danger of Outside, who were still young and pure enough to dream.
She hadn't had a choice, but Clarke would not find a way to try and justify it. And she would not let that guilt go. Those children deserved more than to be so easily forgotten.
It took a couple dozen meters for her to be noticed. One voice cried above the others, signaling to the stranger approaching over the hill. Clarke kept going, dismissing the concern of being possibly shot on sight. Very little of her cared. Everything was a cry of pain, every movement issued some burst of agony but Clarke pushed through it.
When she reached the gate, something in her chest tightened. It was the same place.
But it also wasn't, because it wasn't the camp that had changed. It was Clarke.
"State your name!" One of the patrols shouted. So they'd gotten crow nests. A minor change, then.
Clarke tilted her chin up. "Griffin," she called to him. "Clarke Griffin."
The man's eyebrows furrowed and he stepped away. But before he could do much, someone was barreling to the gate, shouting at the patrols to open it.
As soon as they'd abided, Clarke was enveloped in an embrace, one tight enough to crack ribs. Her mother gripped her firmly and only pulled back to stare at her. "Clarke..." she cupped her daughter's cheek. Clarke laid hers over Abby's, tears clouding her vision. "Hi, Mom."
"Where...when..." Abby cleared her throat and composed herself, but Clarke already saw the questions burning in her eyes. Before she could say anything, Abby hugged her again. "Six months, Clarke. Most of us thought you'd been..."
Killed. Slaughtered. Picked off by a wild beast. And she almost had been, more than once and in various forms. But Clarke just offered what she hoped was a reassuring smile, one that felt empty.
Abby took a stiff step backwards, clearing her throat and swiping at the tears that had escaped down her cheek. "I'll need a report of your whereabouts," she said, ever the dutiful authoritative figure. "But you should recoup. Get some rest. Later, when you're -"
A gruff voice sounded behind her and she turned around, facing a tall man with curly hair longer than she remembered it being. Clarke's smile felt a bit more genuine as she stared at Bellemy, a mound of wood collected in his hands. The sight of him bombarded her with flashbacks, the most prominent one being of goodbyes.
May we meet again.
The sight of him warmed her, and she wanted to hug him. But six months had passed and Clarke wasn't sure what borders had been laid within that amount of time. She licked her lips uncertainly. "Hey, Bella-"
Before she could finish, Bellamy dropped the wood. It cracked against the ground but he was already walking to her, sweeping her into a tight embrace. Clarke responded instinctively wrapping her arms around his neck and smiling into the crook of it. Now this was familiar.
He pulled back, still smiling slightly as he scrutinized her attire. Dirt caked boots. Torn shirt. Grimy pants with one knee wrapped in a piece of cloth. "What happened there?" He gestured at it with a nod.
An image lit up like gunfire. One of footprints meandering through snow, stained red. Clarke shook the picture away. "Animal attack," she lied. "Caught me off guard." And luckily for her, the jagged edge of the blade she'd been cut with would appear animal enough.
Bellamy looked at her. Really looked at her. The kind of look that made her uncomfortable, because it told her he found something out of place in her eyes. Something that whispered wrong.
But to her relief, she was suddenly being noticed. Clusters of the once 100 flocked to her, but each kept their distance, wary of the ad months that distanced them. All except those she called friends. Monty hugged her, as did Octavia. Raven wasn't a hugger and instead gave a nod of acknowledgement which Clarke returned. Jasper hadn't surfaced and she wasn't surprised by that.
In taking the lives of the Mountain Men, Clarke hadn't spared her people of everything. Jasper still grieved for Maya, a different kind of Inside girl that had played a vital role in saving them all. Clarke had wished to do the same for her, but instead, she had taken away her very chance at it. And she wasn't about to blame Jasper for the resentment.
"So where'd you go?" Monty asked, looking at her expectantly. Others nodded in mutual eagerness for her to share. "Did you find anything?" someone else added.
Clarke blinked and the world seemed to fall away, replaced by a different one, of the sounds of crunching footsteps and erratic heartbeats, encased in a ruthless cold. The memory faded just as quickly as it'd come and Clarke met the waiting eyes of her people, feeling the weight of each question bearing down on her shoulders.
"We haven't seen it all," she settled on. "Not even close."
Clarke was lying on the small cot inside her assigned tent when the flap if it rustled and broad shoulders emerged. Bellamy cast a look over his shoulder before meeting her eyes. "I need to talk to you," he said simply.
Clarke didn't want to talk, but she owed him this. Maybe when she'd left, Bellamy had wanted to go off on his own as well, but was too bound here to do so. What binds she'd had, Clarke had easily severed, one being with him. She wouldn't pretend she hadn't left him, because she had. She'd left them all.
Clarke pushed up with her elbows and sat at the edge of her makeshift bed. She nodded stiffly. "Yeah?"
His jaw flexed, the muscle there going taut. "What did you cross paths with out there?"
Clarke sighed. "Bellamy-"
"I need to know of the possible threats posed, Clarke," he answered stoically. "I've been placed as the head of the guard. And as a person in that position, I need to ask you."
"Head of the guard?" She let surprise leak into her tone. "When?"
But Bellamy saw through the tactic. "Don't change the subject. Look, in case you didn't already know, Octavia isn't exactly apt to follow curfew hours and spends a lot of time out there with Lincoln. And I," he enunciated the next words. "Need to know what might be a threat to her. As a guard And as a brother."
Clarke wet her lips, clutching her hands together uncomfortably. It wasn't fair to keep anyone in the dark. But Bellamy was far from anyone. He was a person she was tied to more than just by friendship alone, but by blood and sacrifice and the strain of choice. He was burdened with the same grief as her and with that came some sort of connection, tethering them together in that one defining moment in that room. Because unlike anyone else, Bellemy understood the cost it took to pull that lever.
Clarke took a shaky breath, trying to find some way to rid herself of the memories that ran rampant in the day and haunted her at night. She gazed up at him. "I'd gone to seek refuge with the Boat People," she began, and Bellemy took a seat beside her, watching her intently. "They were kind. They took me in and gave me a place to stay."
A warmer image came to her mind, colored blue and steepled with archaic vessels lining a moor.
"A few months passed until they felt they could really trust me. At first, they just assumed I was a Sky Representative," she scoffed at that. "But then we shared stories, or I did, and they started seeing me as an asset. So I was permitted to speak with their leader, Konuu, but he wouldn't go for an alliance that quickly. Loyalty has to be proven and I was offered a way to prove it to them."
Bellamy said nothing, remaining stony and silent next to her as she continued.
Clarke's eyes fell to her hands. "Konuu feared an attack from the Ice Nation, and since I spoke English, he thought I could pass as a rogue tribe member."
At that, Bellamy interrupted. "What do you mean rogue?" He asked, voice hard.
"Rogue as in having no distinctive tribal markings. The Boat People get a branding above their left shoulder. So anyone arriving at the Ice Nation with markings would instantly be killed."
"And the Ice Nation speaks some English?"
Clarke nodded and he dipped his chin as a gesture to keep going. Her hands started shaking but she clenched them tighter to keep it from showing. "The agreement was that Konuu would return an alliance if I infiltrated the Ice Nation and learned of any premeditated attack."
Bellamy's voice turned cold. "They sent you in alone?"
"I sent you into Mount Weather alone," Clarke pointed out. "They wouldn't send anyone else at the risk of more than just one person being exposed. Which would just lead to the Ice Nation finding out it was a network of spies that they'd either trace back to the Boat tribe or just wind up torturing innocent people in the process. And I wouldn't do that. So yes, I went alone. The Nation is deep in the mountains and took a good three weeks to reach."A beat of silence passed as the chill seemed to ghost over her skin.
Bellamy covered his hand over hers and stared at her encouragingly. "And when you got there?"
Clarke met his gaze. "When I got there, they questioned me. I repeated what I'd practiced to tell them and after a few days,they seemed satisfied. I stayed there under supervision for..." Clarke tried to recount the time. "Around a month, I think, until I was allowed to go places without a guard. That's when I started digging, trying to find a way to break in to the Ice Queen's chambers."
At his look, Clarke smirked. "Yeah, she's really called that. Anyway, it took a couple weeks to come up with the right plan and time. Along with an escape. I put it into action on a festival night they have annually. Something about a winter solace. But I managed to get inside and find some papers."
Another memory. A dark room illuminated by candlelight, tossing leering shadows against the walls.
"I wouldn't take them with me because that would only implicate the Boat People. And I'm grateful I didn't, because when I was sneaking my way back out, I was spotted by a villager."
Bellamy's hand tightened over hers and she tried to smile, but it felt acerbic."It helps when you're only one person escaping, and I was lucky, because I got away...alive."
His eyes dropped to her bandaged leg and Clarke gave an imperceptible nod. "I couldn't return to the Boat People, because I wouldn't run the risk of them being found out. Not after...Not after Mount Weather." She turned fully to Bellamy now, staring into his molten brown eyes and squeezing his hand back. "These people are strong, Bellemy, not restricted by air, or radiation. And you can't beat them this time."
Bellamy stood up, absorbing her words in an instant, already morphing into strategist soldier. "No," he argued, shaking his head. "We can. If it comes to a fight, we'll make allies."
But Clarke was already denying it. "No," she hoped her voice sounded stern. "You can't."
He hasn't seen what I've seen.
But Bellamy wasn't listening. "Clarke, if you can get in and out like that, and they're only advantage is number, we can overrun them."
Clarke had no other option. She stood up and turned away from him, just enough for her to discard her jacket and lift the hem of her shirt. She angled it fully at Bellamy, exposing her back to him.
Or what once was her back. Now the skin over it rose in hideous, grotesque scars, both new and old, some healed, others bleeding, all crisscrossing over her flesh like some morbid version of tic tac toe.
Then she returned her gaze to him, his jaw now slack, eyes wide. "No, Bellamy," she said. "You can't."