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My Affection, Well It Comes and Goes

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Clarke had always assumed that she would, at some nebulous time in the future, figure out dating. It couldn't always be as bad as it was when she was fifteen, at her first dance and getting abandoned by the boy she liked. And it wasn't like that was why she stopped dating in high school. Or, more accurately, why she never really started. If anyone had asked her out, she would have considered it. But no one ever did, and she didn't want to put herself out there again.

High school bled into college, and at some point, she realized that not having dating experience meant that getting dating experience was a somewhat daunting prospect. She could have done it, but she had no idea where to start. She made a couple tentative attempts, but they fizzled out, and it was easy to just give up and focus on other things. School and jobs and friends. Good, important things.

So now here she is, twenty-seven with a masters’ degree, a good job at the art museum, and no excuse not to date.

Or, well, no good excuse.

“I’m not looking right now,” is what she tells Raven.

Raven Reyes is one of her best friends, and one of the least likely to let her go with a non-excuse like that. Raven's not much for letting things slide.

“Yeah, this isn't looking. I’m offering to set you up.”

“I don’t need a date.”

“I thought you might want a date. It's not a trick question,” she adds. “You can say no.”

“I’m not really good at dating,” she admits.

“So get better.”

The truth is, Clarke has always thought she could be better at this stuff. Not just dating, but everything. She’s never really understood cosmetics or style; she favors simple, practical clothes, and her makeup routine involves poorly applied lip balm and praying that no one will care she didn’t do more. But she thought she’d probably clean up nicely, if she ever tried.

It’s just that at this point, she doesn’t know how to try. And that kind of sums up all her romantic anxiety.

“Are there YouTube tutorials on dating?”

Raven frowns, and Clarke tries not to wince. It seemed like an innocent, kind of funny question, but Raven’s got a knack for seeing through defensive humor.

“Is it really that bad?” she asks.

Clarke shifts a little, awkward. “It’s not great,” she admits. “I don’t think I’ve ever been on a real, actual date.”

“They’re not that hard,” Raven says, and Clarke believes her, but she’s just as glad that Octavia chooses that moment to sink into the third seat at their table.

“Hey,sorry I’m late.”

“You’re always late,” says Raven. “We plan around it now.”

“As long as you know.” She takes a sip of coffee. “Sorry anyway.”

“No problem,” says Clarke. “What happened this time?”

“Texting Bell,” she says, easy, and Clarke doesn’t wince until she adds, “He’s going to come over.”

“Come over where?” asks Raven.

“Here.”

Neither of the others seems to notice Clarke freezing; somehow, the subject change from dating is actually worse than talking about dating. It’s not Clarke’s day.

“He got the job he applied for at the college, so he’s moving as soon as he’s done with classes. He’s in town looking at apartments this weekend.”

“Cool, good for him. Academia sucks, he’s lucky he found something so soon.”

“Yeah, I know. He did undergrad here so the department knows him. And the college is on a major diversity kick. I think they want to brag about having the first half-Filipino classics professor in the state. Not that he doesn’t deserve it,” she adds quickly. “He’s amazing, if they were smart they would have hired him anyway. But it’s probably good they had some incentive anyway.”

“When’s he coming?”

“Like five minutes. He’s on the bus.”

“Cool, so that’s five minutes where we can talk about how Clarke’s subject change didn’t work.”

Octavia’s eyes light up. “What subject change?”

“She was telling me how she never dates."

“Yeah, she didn’t in high school.”

“It wasn’t a priority,” Clarke says. “Academics came first. And then they still came first in college and grad school and—“ She fans her hands out. “Here we are.”

“So, never?” asks Octavia. “No dating?”

“It’s not a big deal,” Raven says, before Clarke can. Her voice is firm. “Right?”

“No,” Octavia agrees. “But you could totally start now. No academics, just boys. And girls, right? You still think you like girls?”

Despite her overall tension levels, the question makes her smile. Trust Octavia to remember that one time in high school, she confessed she might be bisexual.

“I think so, yeah."

“Cool.” She lights up. “What about dating apps? We should try dating apps.”

“Is this an engaged thing?” Raven asks. “Like, Lincoln proposed and now you’re meddling with everyone else?”

“You wanted to set me up,” Clarke says, and instantly regrets it. Octavia doesn’t need to know that. “So you’re meddling too.”

“Having a guy I think you’d hit it off with isn’t meddling, it’s helping. Putting you on Tinder is meddling.”

“Thanks, semantics police,” says Octavia. “Who’s the guy?”

“My ex-boyfriend, Finn. We broke up when we went to college, both ended up here. Tried to make it work and didn’t. He’s a pretty decent guy.”

“Wow, enthusiasm,” Octavia teases.

“Hey, I’m not saying I think they’re soulmates. Finn and his girlfriend broke up a few months ago, he’s ready to get back on the market, asked if I had any friends to set him up with. I’ve got Clarke.”

“Yeah, okay, that—Bell?”

Octavia sits up to wave, and Raven follows her gaze, giving Clarke a second to prepare herself.

It’s really just stupid, being nervous about seeing Bellamy. Stupid, irrational, and unnecessary. Bellamy was a perfectly serviceable First Real Crush, as they went. He was the stereotypical popular boy, a senior when she was a freshman, captain of the soccer team, top ten in his class. Half the school was in love with him, and the only difference between Clarke and the rest of them was that she was friends with Octavia, so she actually got to talk to him sometimes. And he was always nice to her. Friendly. They'd chat when she was hanging out with Octavia. He used to give them rides home from school.

And, once, she got up her nerve and asked him to dance at the spring formal, and he said he would, and then he went off with Roma Pratchett and had his friend Murphy give her and Octavia a ride home.

As horrible dating backstories go, Clarke knows it's not much of one. Bellamy wasn't trying to be a jerk, but it was hard in the way that learning someone's real opinion of you always is. After it happened, he'd been just as warm and friendly as he had been before, and it had made it all the worse. For Clarke, it was an awful, heartbreaking night, and Bellamy didn't even notice.

It's not why she doesn't date. But it still aches, somewhere deep and primal.

She'd seen him off and on, even after he went to college. He was here in the city, an hour away from their hometown, came home sometimes for the weekend or vacations. The last time she saw him, it was at her high-school graduation, when he gave her a hug and told her he was proud of her.

It had hurt a little, but that was almost ten years ago. She's had time to get over him.

He's probably not even cute anymore.

When she lets herself look, though, he's unmistakable. Ten years older, he's gotten more defined, sharper lines, more solid. His hair has grown out and gone curly, and he's got a patchy beard that should not look as good as it does.

Cute might not be the right word anymore. But fuck, he's hot.

"Glad you made it," says Octavia, standing to give him a hug. He returns it, grinning, and leaves his arm around her as they turn back to the table. "And found the place."

"I know you think I'm incompetent, but my phone has Google Maps. I didn't even have to do any work."

"I'm still amazed you finally got a smart phone. You were calling me to look up directions for you like two years into your PhD. Anyway. This is Raven, and you remember Clarke, right?"

She and Raven stand, and Bellamy offers Raven his hand and a "Nice to meet you" before turning his full attention to Clarke. She's not fourteen with her first crush, and this is not a big deal, but--wow, he looks good.

"Hug or no hug?" he asks.

"Hug," she says, because rejecting it feels weirder. "Hi, Bellamy."

The hug is quick and warm, nothing very remarkable. He's still solid and smells nice. No big deal. "Hey, good to see you."

"Good to see you too," she says, and thinks it's true. "Congratulations on the new job."

He ducks his head, grinning. "Yeah. Honestly, I can't believe it. O said you're at the art museum?"

It's not actually weird that the Blakes have discussed her, but it still makes her feel a little itchy. Clarke's been avoiding asking about Bellamy, and Octavia hasn't brought him up. Does that mean Bellamy asked about Clarke? Or was Octavia just filling him in on her life?

It doesn't matter, and she doesn't care.

"Yeah, curator."

"That's awesome. I need to stop by soon, I haven't been since undergrad."

"Let me know when you're coming in, I'll show you around if you want."

"Cool, thanks."

"When are you thinking of moving?" Raven asks, and the conversation moves on to other things. Bellamy's graduating in a couple weeks and his lease is expiring soon after, so he's just moving all his stuff, whether or not he has a place to live, and crashing with Octavia and Lincoln until he gets an apartment of his own.

She might not see him at all.

Bellamy dominates the conversation so completely that Clarke is actually grateful. Raven wants to hear about his new position, Octavia wants to hear about the apartments he's looking at, and there's no room left for anything about Clarke or dating.

Raven still grabs her on the way out. "So, can I give Finn your number?"

It's absurd that failing to dance with Bellamy in ninth grade is still Clarke's most painful dating experience; if nothing else, she should get something new to replace it. Some new romantic horror.

"Yeah," she says, with the best smile she can manage. "Go ahead."

*

Me: Hey, no idea if you're working, but I'm on my way to the museum
I know it's short notice, I'm not actually expecting a tour or anything
Just thought I'd let you know

Bellamy wasn't actually planning to get in touch with Clarke Griffin about going to the museum, but he's back in town a week later to see more apartments, and he's got two hours to kill downtown. The museum is right there, and it feels ruder to not mention that he'll be there. Especially if she happens to be around. It would be awkward if he just ran into her.

Still, looking at the actual messages he sent, he does feel like a bit of an ass. Somehow casual head's up always comes across as way less casual and friendly than he intends.

Or maybe he's just a paranoid weirdo. His sister's told him that enough times.

Me: This is Bellamy, by the way
I realized O gave me your number but I have no idea if she gave you mine

Clarke: She didn't, but I kind of guessed
Good timing, actually
I'm usually off on weekends but I had some setup to do for a new exhibit
And we just finished

Me: Don't let me keep you at work on your day off
I don't mind wandering around alone

Clarke: No, it's fine
I have stuff to do tonight so I was going to catch up on paperwork anyway
So yeah
Let me know when you get here

It's not exactly good news, as far as he's concerned. He has nothing against Clarke, but she's basically a stranger. She seems cool, from everything his sister has told him about her, and he remembers her being smart and interesting and kind of generally ill-tempered, in an endearing way, but cool for a teenager isn't really a lot to go on for spending a few hours with someone.

But whatever. He's moving here. He should be making friends.

Clarke meets him in the lobby, and the slight strain around her smile just reinforces his suspicion that this was a bad idea. She made a friendly, empty offer; it would have been much more polite to just not mention he was here.

But it's too late now.

"Hey, sorry for just springing social interaction on you," he says. "I'm seeing another apartment at five, it wasn't worth it to go back to O's."

"No problem," she says, flashing her ID to the security guard as they pass. Free admission is probably worth some awkwardness. "Like I said, I have the same problem."

"Not seeing an apartment, right?"

"No." She makes a face. "I've actually got a date."

"Wow. You sound pumped."

Her smile is wry. "Raven's setting me up with her ex-boyfriend. I figure I can do it, tell her we didn't click, and get out of being set up for the next few months."

"Or you could have a good time."

"I doubt it."

On the one hand, it's absolutely none of his business. On the other, he's here, Clarke looks generally annoyed and maybe a little stressed, and there's no one else around for her to talk to.

So he says, "I don't usually go on dates if I don't want to. That's always an option."

"Do you generally have friends trying to set you up?"

"Sometimes. But I was finishing my PhD, I had an excuse to get out of everything."

That makes her smile. "You know, I wasn't expecting you to become a classics professor."

"No?"

She shrugs. "You were cool in high school."

"What, you don't think classics are cool?" he teases.

"Not the kind of cool you were."

"I was the kind of cool where I was supposed to move back to my hometown and spend all my time reminiscing about how high school was the best days of my life," he points out. "From what I can tell."

"That's if you're captain of the football team."

"See? The soccer team is nerdier."

"That must be it."

They lapse into silence, the awkwardness of knowing all the wrong things about each other heavy between them. They weren't even friends ten years ago, they were two virtual strangers connected by Octavia. And that's still what they are, but the coincidence of having been in high school together makes the bond feel more profound.

"So," he says, since Clarke shows no signs of picking up the conversation. "Do you have a favorite painting?"

"In the museum or in the world?"

"Both, I guess. But the museum seems more relevant right now."

"Second floor," she says. "Come on."

Once they're focusing on the art, it actually is fun. As he remembered, Clarke is smart and passionate, and she knows her stuff. Bellamy wouldn't call himself an expert on art in general, but his knowledge of classics gives him a decent background with a lot of renaissance stuff. Add to that his interest in history and they have plenty to talk about.

He wouldn't mind seeing more of her, if he's going to be living here. She's cool.

His phone buzzes in his pocket at 4:30, reminding him he needs to leave, and he gives Clarke a smile. "Okay, time for me to take off."

She looks surprised. "Oh, already?"

"I want to be ten minutes early, so, yeah. I need to start heading over. When's your date?"

Her face screws up in distaste. If she's going to make this guy think she likes him, she really needs to get a hold of her facial expressions. "Five-thirty."

"You're going to be fine."

"Easy for you to say. You go on dates."

"What's that supposed to mean?" he asks, amused. "Do you not?"

"Not really. This is my first one--basically ever."

She's not looking at him, but he can still see the slight flush on her neck. There's a part of him that wants to press for more information--it can't really be never right?--but not as large at the part of him that wants her to feel better. "Well, if it sucks and you need to get out, you can text me. I'll call you with an emergency or whatever."

"Thanks." She sighs. "I know it's going to be fine, I just can't stop thinking about how I'm going to fuck it up."

"You're not. There's nothing to fuck up. You don't know the guy," he adds, at her dubious look. "There's nothing to be invested in. It's not like you want to marry him, right?"

"Definitely not."

"So if it goes badly, you can just use it figure out how to do better on the next one."

"I can?"

For a second, he's not sure if he should make the offer, but they had a good day, and he likes her, in a limited sense. "Look, text me when you're done, okay? We can get a drink and analyze the whole date, if you want."

She bites her lip, studying him, and then laughs. "Wow. Really?"

"Yeah. I'm not doing anything else."

"Don't you have grad-school stuff or something?"

"Undergrad grading I don't want to do."

"You really don't have to."

"Seriously, I don't mind. I assume you don't want to do it with Raven, since it's her friend, and O's a nightmare about dating, so--" He flushes at the implication. "Not that I think you don't have other friends or anything."

"You actually are kind of awkward, huh?" she teases.

"Sometimes, yeah. If you want someone to talk to, I'm available. That's all."

"Well--thanks. I appreciate it. Either way, I'll text you and let you know how it goes. So you aren't worrying."

"Cool. I hope it goes well. Thanks for the museum tour."

"Sure. Good luck with the apartment hunt."

It's awkward again as he debates hugging her, less because he really thinks he should and more because it seems as if he should be doing something and isn't sure what his other options are. But Clarke smiles, and he smiles back and waves, and that feels like enough.

After all, it's not like they're really friends.

*

Clarke wasn't actually planning to ask Bellamy to hang out with her after the date. It was a nice offer he made, polite and kind, but actually following through on it was something else all together. Following up felt like taking advantage, even though it was his suggestion in the first place.

And, honestly, she was hoping she wouldn't need it. But he was right: she doesn't want to talk to Raven or Octavia, and while she has other friends, she hadn't told anyone else about the date, so if she wanted to debrief with anyone else, she'd have to first tell them what happened and then get them to come out and commiserate with her, which would be a lot of work.

Bellamy already said he would; it's not her fault if he didn't actually mean it.

Me: Are you free to get wasted?

Bellamy: As long as I'm getting wasted somewhere with a food menu
I haven't had dinner yet
That bad?

Me: I don't know
But I know I want to get wasted

Bellamy: Cool
I'm at the Starbucks near the museum
Just tell me where to meet you

Clarke gives him the name of her favorite place, which is definitely closer to her than it is to him. She orders her first drink at the bar and waits, trying not to think too much. He offered, and he agreed; he could have easily told her something came up, but he didn't. He's just a nice guy who doesn't want to do his grading. Clarke can respect that.

He shows up just after Gina slides Clarke her beer, takes the stool next to her and flashes a smile that probably breaks hearts on a regular basis.

At least she had good taste in high school. She should follow her instincts.

"Hey," he says. "Sorry about the date."

"Its cool. Want to get a table? I know you need food."

"Table's good, yeah. Let me just grab a drink first."

She grabs a booth, and when she looks back at the bar, he's definitely flirting with Gina a little, smiling in that easy way people can when they're sure of themselves. And Clarke is sure of herself, of course; confidence in general has never been her problem. It's just romance that gets her.

Bellamy gets a beer of his own and slides in across from her. She's working on getting used to how he looks now, broad and firm, arms huge in his plain green t-shirt.

He'll stop being this attractive soon.

"So, what happened?" he asks.

"Basically what I expected. I had no idea what to do."

He taps his finger against his beer. "Okay, so, set the stage for me. You guys got drinks?"

"Yeah."

"Who got there first?" She squints at him, and he shrugs. "Humor me."

"I did."

"Okay. And he found you?"

"Eventually," she says, with a slight bitterness she can't help.

"Eventually?"

Clarke sighs. "I was reading because I was nervous, so I guess I didn't look like I was waiting for a date? That and--"

"And?" he prompts.

"I guess I wasn't dressed for it."

"Dressed for it is subjective," he says. "If we were at a club, I probably wouldn't assume you were looking to pick someone up, but you were meeting a guy for drinks. You look nice."

She doesn't flush. She's about ninety percent sure. "Thanks. He still asked three other girls if they were Clarke before he noticed me."

"That might not be true. I get that it sucks," he adds. "I'd be annoyed too. But if you guys didn't have a plan to meet, he didn't have a better way to find you."

"I know. And I could have told him who I was."

Bellamy grins. "I definitely would have let a guy squirm."

"A guy?"

"I'm bisexual," he says, with an ease she envies a little. He's probably been with men and women, so he doesn't feel like he's pretending. "If it was a guy looking for me, I'd wait for him to find me. But I'd feel bad for a woman trying to talk to strangers at a bar, so I'd jump in."

"Yeah, I can see that."

"Okay, so, he found you. And?"

"And we ordered drinks. He was kind of--negging? That's the thing where you insult someone to try to get them to like you, right?"

"Jesus, really?"

"Not, like, a lot. But he was teasing me about my drink order."

"Asshole."

She smiles into her current beer. "That's what gets you?"

He shrugs. "Anyone can make a mistake when they don't know who they're looking for. But I don't get why anyone would want their first impression to be making fun of what their date likes."

"Like I said, I think he thought he was being funny."

"Good for him. What else?"

She shrugs. "Then it was just kind of--happening. I don't know. We talked about jobs and how we both know Raven and where we grew up. It was all fine, I just don't know if it was good, I guess."

"If you don't know, it probably wasn't."

She glares at him. "You know what I mean, right? I liked him fine. I can imagine seeing him again, but I wouldn't care if I didn't. It takes me a while to warm up to people."

"Okay, yeah. Then I'd go out with him again. If he asks."

"Really?"

"You guys are on the same page, right? Going on dates, seeing if you like each other?"

"From what I can tell, yeah."

"So go out with him. Get a feel for it. It's not a big deal, and you'll feel better about dating."

“I’m not sure about that.”

“You probably won’t feel worse about dating,” he amends, and that makes her smile.

“That would be hard, yeah.”

“So there you go.” He takes a deliberate sip of beer. “And I’m moving here. So I’ll be available to help you out.”

Clarke blinks. “You will?”

“Yeah, why not?”

There are about a thousand legitimate reasons he might not, but that’s his call, not hers. So she just says, “You really don’t have to.”

“I know. But I’m invested now.”

“Oh good. I’m a soap opera.”

“Or a romantic comedy. But I don’t think the guy from tonight is the lead.”

“No?”

He shrugs. “He seems like a placeholder until you find the right guy. But maybe I’m wrong.”

“No, I think not. But even if he doesn’t work out, I can find more dates, right? I'll still need an adviser.”

“I think that’s how it works, yeah.” His smile is warm. “You’re going to be fine, Clarke.”

It’s easy to smile back. “Yeah. Thanks.”

*

Bellamy’s packing when he hears his phone ringing, and he almost ignores it, because who calls? He never gets calls. It's probably a robot that wants to sell him insurance.

On the other hand, if it’s either his new or old landlord, he probably needs to get it. So he wades through the sea of boxes until he finds the phone, blinks when he sees Clarke’s name on the display.

They’ve been talking off and on, this last week, developing what feels like a pretty promising friendship. She texts him about her annoyance with work and he responds with complaints about wrapping up his PhD. She told him when Finn got in touch and asked for another date, and they talked through options of what they could do and when.

She does have a date tonight, in about an hour. So he should probably pick up.

“Hey, Clarke?”

“Hi, sorry. I know you’re packing.”

“I am. What’s up?”

“Just wanted to talk through what I do at a movie.”

He grins, flops back onto the couch. “Sorry, have you never been to a movie?”

“You know what I mean. It seems like a really shitty date. We’re not interacting.”

“That’s why I said movie then dinner. The movie gives you guys something to talk about.”

“So what do I do at the movie?”

“Watch it.”

“What if he wants to make out?”

“Do you want to make out?”

“No.”

“Then don’t. Watch the movie, talk about it after.” He pauses. “If he tries anything you don’t want, pour your soda on his crotch and leave.”

Her laugh is soft, and Bellamy smiles, closing his eyes. It's a little weird, talking to Clarke so much, but the good kind of weird. The kind where he'll know at least one person other than his sister and his coworkers. The kind where he's making a friend.

"Good life hack, thanks."

"You don't have to be nervous. At least, I hope you don't have to be," he adds. "Its always kind of hard to tell. But you're going to be fine."

"Thanks. How's packing?"

He opens his eyes to look at the apartment. "It's going. I'll be happy when it's done and I'm there, so I'm just reminding myself that's coming soon."

"Are you going to want to gossip about my date in a few hours?"

"Yeah, that's about when I'm going to want a break."

"Okay, cool. Thanks for the pep talk. Good luck with packing."

"Good luck with the date. If you need an excuse to leave, text me."

"Will do. Talk to you later."

"Yeah."

He closes his eyes again, just breathing for a second, until Miller says, "Who was that?"

He jumps, knocking a box across the floor, and glares at his roommate. Miller's been migrating his things into his boyfriend's place over the last month, and Bellamy didn't even think he was here, let alone listening in on phone calls.

"What?"

"Who were you talking to?"

"One of Octavia's friends, Clarke. She lives in the city, we've been chatting."

"On the phone."

"That's one of the ways humans can communicate, yeah. Why?"

"What were you talking about?"

He narrows his eyes. "Why?"

"Why what?"

"Why do you care?"

"Because we're friends and I'm interested in your life. And I've never seen you talk to anyone other than your sister on the phone, and even that's under protest. You look happy."

"Sorry, I'll work on that."

"Seriously, what were you talking about?"

"She's trying to get into dating. I'm helping."

If anything, Miller looks even more dubious. "Helping how?"

"Just talking her through it. Giving her some advice."

"Like Hitch?"

He frowns. "Like a friend, jesus. It's not a big deal, Miller."

"Uh huh. Is she cute?"

"I knew her in high school, she's O's age."

"Your sister's twenty-seven and getting married. Not sure what you're trying to prove here."

"I'm talking her through dates with other people."

"So she's really cute," says Miller, and Bellamy rolls his eyes.

"Leave me alone, I'm packing."

"Sure," says Miller. "Whatever you want."

Of course, that's all he can think about as he starts packing again. Clarke is cute. She's not taking full advantage of her looks, admittedly; she dresses kind of conservatively, in less than flattering styles, and he thinks if she's going to wear glasses, she could probably get a better pair. But it's kind of endearing, really. He likes Clarke's style. She's got kind of an absent-minded artist vibe, and it works for her.

But that's not why he's helping her. He's being friendly. He's making a friend.

An hour later, he gets a text from her: Heading into the movie, wish me luck, and it makes him smile.

"If I was into her, why would I be helping her date some other guy?" he mutters. "Riddle me that, Miller."

There's no response, of course. Not that he needs one.

He knows exactly what he's doing.

*

It doesn't actually occur to Clarke that Octavia wouldn't know she's been talking to Bellamy, so when she gets a text over lunch and Octavia asks who it is, she replies without thinking. "Your brother."

She finishes her message and finds Octavia staring. “You’re texting Bell?”

It’s like being fourteen again, caught watching him playing pickup soccer in the backyard. Except she’s not actually doing anything wrong this time. “Yeah. I got him into the museum last time he was here,” she explains. That does feel like something wrong, and she adds, “And we’ve been talking.”

“About what?”

“I was stressed about my dates with Finn. He talked me through it.”

To her profound relief, Octavia snorts. “He would. He’s such a mother hen.” She leans closer, grinning. “So how is Finn? Third date tonight, right?”

“Yeah,” says Clarke, trying and failing to not scowl. Her facial control when it comes to dates could use some work.

Octavia laughs. “So, not going great?”

“I don’t know. He’s fine? I feel kind of bad not liking him more, I know he’s Raven’s ex.”

“Yeah, but like—her ex. So she already dumped him, she shouldn’t be offended if you dump him too.”

“I guess that’s true.” Her phone buzzes again, and she glances at the message. “Bellamy and I agreed if this date isn’t better I’m not going out with him again.”

Octavia’s grin turns mischievous. “Okay, be honest: you totally had a thing for him in high school, right?”

It’s a question she was ready for. “Everyone had a thing for him in high school. He was, like, so dreamy.”

“God, I know. In what universe am I not the cooler Blake? Come on. He’s got a PhD in Latin.”

“He was just cool in high school,” says Clarke, fond. “Now he seems to be kind of a giant dork.”

“He was always a giant dork. He just pretended he wasn’t.” She claps her hands. “Okay, so, third date. I know you already talked this through with Bell, but do me too.”

This date is the first one Finn planned, and Clarke will admit to being wary of it. He’s showing her his favorite parts of the city, which could be cool, and is in theory a good way to get to know him, but, well. They’re meeting at the park so he can rent a boat for them to start off, and based on that and everything else he’s told her, it sounds less like things he actually likes and a lot more like things he thinks will impress her. And all indications thus far are that he’s a bad judge of what will impress her.

It’s how she ends up basically live-texting the date to Bellamy when Finn isn’t paying attention, which is probably not giving the guy a fair shake.

On the other hand, if he was more interesting, she wouldn’t want to be talking to someone else.

That’s probably actually the biggest problem with Finn, when it comes right down to it. If they were just incompatible, that would be fine. But Finn is blissfully ignoring that incompatibility and plowing forward, assuming Clarke is into it despite the mile-wide chasm of awkwardness between them. It’s not giving her useful dating experience because she doesn’t actually want to date him, and he doesn’t want to date her either. He just wants to date someone, and she’s here.

He takes her hand as he’s walking her to the bus stop, and that’s strange too. It’s disconcerting to feel bad at holding hands, of all things, but she can’t help it. It’s awkward and her palms get clammy instantly, and she wants to take her hand back but that seems even more awkward.

The best reason to break up with him is probably that she always feels like she’s trying and failing to find the least awkward way to interact. That's really not a good place to be.

“I had a really nice time,” he says.

“Yeah,” she agrees, because, again, it feels less awkward. And because if she turns him down in person, he might get aggressive.

Dating kind of sucks, honestly.

“Are you sure you can’t have dinner?”

“Sorry, I have plans,” she says, with a tight smile. That’s not even a lie; she’s going to hang out at Bellamy’s after this. He’d told her she could cancel if the date went well, but Finn doesn’t have to know that.

“That sucks. Maybe something next week?”

“Maybe,” she agrees, vague. “Okay, this is my stop, so—“

He leans in and kisses her, like something out of a movie, but not in a good way. The kind of movie where the real hero swoops in and saves her from him.

Like Bellamy said, the romantic comedy where he's not the leading man.

The kiss is quick and awkward because Clarke does not respond at all, and that’s what finally gets through to Finn. He pulls back, frowning, and guilt floods through Clarke, even though she hasn’t really done anything wrong. If she liked Finn more, this would have been a nice date she enjoyed. She was giving him a chance, and now she’s done.

He still looks betrayed.

“Clarke, what did I—“

Like an answer to prayers she wasn’t actually making, the bus turns the corner.

“Look, Finn, I’m so sorry, you’re a great guy, but I don’t think we’re right for each other.”

“Then why didn’t you say that?” he asks, sounding more confused than hurt.

“Google rape culture and stories about women getting killed for turning down the wrong guy,” she advises. “It’s good general knowledge to have.” The bus stops, and she gives his hand a squeeze. Because obviously this is still about his feelings. “I had fun getting to know you. Good luck with--good luck.”

And then she’s on the bus and moving away from him. Finally.

Me: On my way to you. ETA like twenty minutes

Bellamy: Cool
I’m making tacos
Did you break up with him?

Clarke: I don't know if we were serious enough it was a breakup
But yeah, I ended things

Bellamy: Good, I'm glad
We can find you someone better

It only hurts a little, in an absent way. In a way where she knows it shouldn’t, and it’s not really hurting now. It’s an echo of pain, a memory. It’s not like she cares that Bellamy doesn’t want her now. But the first time was so hard, it still aches a little.

Me: Yeah, we’ll figure it out

*

Clarke doesn’t look particularly upset when he opens the door, but he still asks, “Do you need a hug?”

Her mouth twitches. “Why would I need a hug?”

“I don’t know, I assume it was stressful. You don’t have to get a hug. Just checking.”

“I would actually love a hug, thanks.”

He pulls her in and she settles against him, and it’s not a problem. Miller didn't break him or anything. He likes her, but it’s in a fairly absent, easy way. They’ve been spending a lot of time together and having frank conversations about romance, which means he spends a lot of time thinking about her as a romantic prospect. She’s smart and funny and passionate, and he still can’t get over the fact that she doesn’t know how much of a catch she is. It seems cosmically unfair that she doesn't know.

But it’s not a big deal.

“Sorry dating sucks.”

She laughs. “It does, right? It’s not just me.”

"Definitely not just you." He lets her go with a final squeeze and leads her into the kitchen. He hasn't quite finished unpacking yet, but having Clarke around doesn't really feel like company. Not in a bad way, anyway. Besides, she likes to arrange his stuff as a nervous habit, and inviting her over means he gets some free labor out of it.

In a friendly way.

"Honestly, the big secret of dating is that dating sucks and everyone hates it."

"I've kind of gotten that."

"Yeah, okay." He considers. "The secret is how it sucks, I guess."

She seats herself at the counter. "How does it suck? And can I help with dinner?"

"It's basically set. You want something to drink? Beer? Wine? Whatever liquor I've got mixed with whatever counts as a mixer?"

"I'm kind of curious about the last one."

He checks the freezer and the fridge. "Vodka mixed with apple juice."

"Pass. If you want wine I'll help you finish a bottle, but otherwise beer."

He grabs two bottles of beer and passes her one. "I realized I haven't unpacked my corkscrew and don't want to find it," he admits, and she laughs.

"Yeah, no wine for a while." She holds up her bottle. "Cheers?"

"Cheers. To dumping Finn."

"To you telling me all the secrets of dating."

He clinks his bottle against hers and takes a drink. "This might just be me, but I realized that I've never really met someone I clicked with by going on--" He makes a vague gesture with his beer. "Formal dates, I guess."

"Formal dates?"

"Like what you were doing with Finn. Meeting a stranger and getting to know them in one-on-one romantic situations. It's never worked for me."

"But you still think it might for me?"

He regards her, thoughtful. They don't talk a lot, about Clarke's inexperience and what that means. As far as Bellamy's concerned, it doesn't actually mean anything, but it's not the same for her. He remembers being sixteen and embarrassed he hadn't had sex yet. He'd been sure everyone would know, that his inexperience would make him a laughingstock, but once he'd actually done it, it was years before he started worrying about if he was actually any good. If he hadn't had a romantic relationship at her age, he'd be self-conscious about it too, and the last thing he wants is to make her feel like she should be embarrassed around him.

But he is curious.

"So, usually I get to know someone first, and then we'll start doing stuff just the two of us, once we're already friends. And it's good to know what kind of stuff you can do, how to interact like that. I get why you want to. That's basically all you ever see on TV and stuff. But you don't need it."

"No?"

He smiles. "Not to sound like a greeting card, but you're good. Just be yourself."

"Once I meet someone I want to date."

"No, you should always be yourself," he says, and she snorts.

"Okay, now you sound like a greeting card."

"If you want to meet people, that's a different conversation," he says, ignoring her. "Do you?"

She taps her beer bottle. "I don't know. I want--" She huffs. "At some point, I sort of stopped getting crushes. I still remember my last one, this girl in my art history seminar senior year. And I actually asked her if she wanted to see a movie with me."

"And?"

"She said yes, but we never set a date, and I just kind of--let it go."

He has to smile. "Let it go?"

"She never said anything about it again, and I told myself she didn't actually want to go out with me and was just being polite. Looking back, it was stupid, but--that was my last crush. It wasn't hard to not date."

"Is it now?"

"No. But if I want to someday--"

"Anyone you really want to date won't care that you haven't done it much before. But if you want to, we can figure it out. I used Tinder for a while. It didn't work for me, but it might work for you."

"Maybe." Her tone is a little off, and he's about to push when she says, "So, how are you settling in?" It's about as unsubtle a subject change as he's ever heard, and from the way she's not making eye contact, she knows it.

So he goes with it. They chat about Bellamy's move and what he's doing until the academic year starts, the new exhibit Clarke is working on, Octavia and Lincoln's wedding preparations.

It's a lot like what Bellamy thinks of as a good date, but it feels dangerous to mention that. The last thing he wants it for Clarke to stop feeling comfortable with him.

They move to the couch after dinner, and about halfway into her third beer, Clarke brings the conversation back to the date, as he was hoping she would.

"He kissed me," she tells him.

"Did he ask first?"

"No."

"Dick."

She looks amused. "Do you always ask?"

"No," he admits. "But I'm pretty sure I'm better at reading signals than he is. That's something you learn too."

"What is?"

"Whether or not someone wants you to kiss them. Asking is never a bad idea, but I usually end up not actually having to."

"So, how do you know?"

"A lot of the time, we've been talking about it. Or, uh, feelings generally, I guess."

"Finn and I were talking about feelings."

"I wasn't there, I'm not saying I know he fucked up. But I'm pretty sure you weren't giving off I'm so into you vibes."

"If you can't actually tell me what those vibes are like, I'm calling bullshit."

"Okay, how about this: one time I went out with a girl who wasn't into me at all, and I knew it. And she was doing a lot of the things you did. On her phone a lot, keeping her hands away from me so I wouldn't try to touch her, walking out of step with me. She was still talking to me and smiling, but she didn't want me to escalate."

"What did you do?"

"Got offended, thought about it for a second and realized that was shitty and I wasn't particularly into her either. So I asked her if she wanted to keep going with the date or if we thought it wasn't working, and we ended up going to a movie as friends. It was fun. We stayed friends for the rest of college."

She smiles a little. "Okay, yeah. I would have felt a lot better if Finn did that."

"Yeah. I'm not saying it's always that simple, because it's not. But I assume you have some idea what you'd do if you wanted someone to kiss you."

"Some guy kissed me while we were dancing at a party in college and I went with it because I figured it was good practice."

"Was it?"

"I don't know, I never got to test it out."

His skin prickles with sudden awareness; she's close and he's a little drunk and she's beautiful, and there's this wistful tone in her voice that half breaks his heart. It's not exactly unfair, but it's a shame. Clarke Griffin deserves love.

"Do you want to?" he asks.

She frowns. "Want to what?"

"Get some practice. Kissing."

For a second, he thinks he actually fucked it up. Clarke freezes in shock, looking at him like she's never seen him before. He's about to take it back when she asks, "Do you want to?"

His first instinct is to lie, to make it entirely about her, but that's unfair. He can be an impartial third party for some things, but making out with her isn't one of them. "Yeah. But it's up to you."

She bites her lip, and it's not like he wasn't aware of her mouth before. But now he's focused on it like a laser. Finn kissed her earlier, and it probably wasn't great. He can do better.

He really wants to do better.

"You don't have to teach me how to kiss. We're not in a teen movie."

"I know I don't have to. I'm offering. It's your decision."

After another second of consideration, she puts her beer bottle on the end table, takes his out of his hand and puts it aside too. Bellamy hasn't done this in a while, probably about a year, and it hadn't been bothering him until this moment. If he's going to make out with Clarke, he'd like to be sure he's good at it.

"Okay," she says. "Kiss me."

"Tell me if it sucks and we'll work on it," he says, and then he slides his hand in her hair and presses his mouth against hers.

As kisses go, it's fairly tame, and he makes himself not push it farther. This isn't about hooking up with her, even if he'd like it to be. This is about what Clarke needs, and she can take the lead.

Still, when she groans and pushes closer, hand sliding up to grip his hair, he doesn't argue, just slides his tongue against her lips, and then they are kissing, making out hot and heavy, a little clumsy, but in the good way. It's an adjustment, but one he wants to make. He wants to learn exactly what she likes and how to give it to her.

She's the one who pulls back, breathing hard, and he stares at her for a long moment. Her glasses are crooked and her chest is heaving, and it would be so easy to pull her back in.

"You're good," is what he says instead.

"What?"

He clears his throat, trying to even out his rough voice. "Kissing. You're fine. No worries."

"Oh, um--thanks."

"Yeah. That was--yeah. Awesome. Good job. Trust your instincts."

She bites the corner of her mouth, looking amused. "I don't need a pep talk, I promise."

"Cool, I won't give you any more. Do you want to watch a movie or something?"

It's neither a smooth subject change nor a neutral proposal; they're still basically on a date, and adding a movie just makes it worse. But friends can watch movies too.

Friends can make out and want to go farther. As long as they don't. And she stopped, so--they're not.

"Sure," she says. "Movie sounds fun."

It is, of course. And if he spends the whole night wanting to put his arm around her, he can ignore that. He'll get over it.

*

"What the fuck," says Raven.

When Clarke texted I'm not going to see Finn again and also I made out with Octavia's brother but he thinks it's no big deal, she was expecting Raven to have a lot of opinions, and Raven did not let her down. She demanded that they get breakfast as early as Clarke was willing to wake up, and now she's looking at her across the diner booth like she'll be able to see what happened if she squints hard enough.

"He offered," says Clarke.

"Bellamy?"

"Yeah." She puts her head down on the table. "Fuck, I'm so stupid."

"Hey, don't be so hard on yourself. If Octavia's brother offered to make out with me and I was single, I'd say yes too. He's hot."

"I had a crush on him. Back in high school."

"Shocking."

She sits back up and watches Raven. Her expression is all concern, which is a little surprising. "Do you have one of those high-school things that wasn't really a big deal, and you know it wasn't, but it still feels like a big deal?"

"Isn't that just kind of all of high school? In a nutshell?"

She smiles. "Yeah, well. Mine was about Bellamy."

"And?"

"God, it's so stupid. We went to a dance, and asked him to dance with me, and he said he would, and he forgot. Like--it's nothing. I know he doesn't remember, and if I told him, he'd apologize. Which--no one really did anything wrong, I'm not mad at him. But I can't forget it, either."

"So tell him. You'll feel better. But it doesn't really matter. Obviously, it sucks, and I would have remembered that too. I hate feeling like I'm invisible. But however you feel about him now, it's got nothing to do with that. You get that, right?"

"I know."

"So how do you feel about him now?"

"I like him. He's easy to talk to, we get along, and making out with him was basically the high point of my year. But he was just--helping out."

"Are you sure?"

He did say he wanted to kiss her, but he was the one who stopped, too. She can't be sure he did it because he wasn't interested in more, or if he just thought she wasn't, but asking was too daunting, right then.

"No, I'm not. I have no idea what I'm doing, and he was the one who was giving me advice." She pauses as the thought hits her. "You don't seem upset about the Finn thing."

She shrugs. "What's to be upset about? You went on some dates and didn't click. No big deal. Making out with Octavia's brother is way more exciting. Does she know?"

"That we've been hanging out, yeah. I didn't tell her about anything else. Except the high-school crush. But everyone was into him back then. It wasn't news."

Raven nods. "Okay, so--Bellamy."

"Bellamy," she agrees.

"What do you want to do? Hook up? Date him? What are you looking for?"

"Any of the above."

"Nope," she says, shaking her head.

"Nope?"

"Look, first step? Being honest with yourself. If you aren't going to be happy just hooking up with him, don't do it. It's okay if you just want to get laid, but if what you really want is for him to be your boyfriend--"

"Yeah, okay." She exhales. "I do."

"Okay, so--I don't actually know him, I don't have any advice. But you could try just telling him. Directly. Hey, that was fun making out, you want to get dinner sometime."

"We get dinner already."

"So it's convenient. Just make it a date."

"Just like that?"

Raven shrugs one shoulder. "Why not?" But she sobers, clears her throat. "Look, I get this probably feels like history repeating. You made a move before and it didn't work out. But it's not. This is a second chance. It might go wrong again, but it's something new."

"An all new chance for rejection."

"You guys already made out," she points out, not unreasonably. "He might just like you too. Why wouldn't he?"

She has to smile. "Yeah. Why wouldn't he?"

*

It's Octavia's idea to go out clubbing, and, honestly, if Clarke wasn't going, Bellamy probably wouldn't be either. Not that he has anything against clubbing, in theory, but it's really not his thing. He's a shitty dancer and kind of a grumpy old man about music and loud noises. He's gone to clubs to hook up before, but considering he's spent the last week periodically reliving his make-out session with Clarke, hooking up with anyone else seems unlikely.

Not that hooking up with Clarke seems particularly likely either, but at least he wants to hook up with her.

So yeah. Clubbing might not be the best idea.

It feels like an even worse idea when he gets there and Clarke is looking--hot. Not that he doesn't think she's hot all the time, but she's dressed to impress tonight, short skirt and tank top, with contacts in and makeup on. It's not really a surprise that she's hoping to find someone here, but he was hoping she wouldn't.

"Bell, what are you wearing?" Octavia asks, as soon as she spots him.

He looks down at his own worn t-shirt and jeans. "Clothes. Guys don't have to try, it's awesome."

"Lincoln tried."

"Lincoln's a better person than I am, we all knew that." He frowns at the girl with Raven. "Uh, do I know you?"

"Gina," she says, offering her hand. "Bartender."

The memory clicks, and he snaps his fingers. "Got it. Sorry for not recognizing you."

"No problem. They told me who you were, so I had an advantage."

He hesitates, but it seems polite enough to ask, "What are you doing bumming with us?"

"Date with Raven," Clarke supplies, and he can't help giving her a goofy smile. He has it so bad.

"That was my second guess."

"What was the first?"

"We were trying to make friends so she'd give us free drinks."

Clarke's shoulders drop a little as she laughs, a release of tension he hadn't noticed her holding. "That does sound like us."

"It does," he agrees, moving closer so he can look her over. "Rough week?"

"Hm?"

"You look tired. Bad week?"

Her mouth curls at one side. "I look tired?"

It takes him a second. "And gorgeous," he says. "Obviously. Sorry, I figured that went without saying. But seriously, are you okay?" he can't help adding, and she laughs, soft.

"I'm fine, Bellamy. It was a long week." She worries her lip. "I let your sister dress me."

"I thought that might be it. You look great. Not that--" He pauses. "I'm trying to figure out a way to say you always look good without sounding like I don't think you look good now. Any ideas?"

She laughs. "You look nice too. Thanks for stroking my ego."

"That's what I'm here for. I guess it's you and me tonight?" he offers, seeing the way everyone else has paired off to go inside. "You want a wingman?"

"I want a friend."

"Awesome, I'm way better at that."

It's crowded and hot inside the club, and he finds Clarke's hand without thinking about it, just so he won't lose her. When she startles, he drops it, but she just looks at him, smiles, and reclaims it.

Dragging her off somewhere to make out sounds so much better than anything else he could be doing with his night.

Instead they grab drinks and find a place to chug them. There are a couple abortive attempts at conversation, which don't really make it over the noise, and then O grabs Lincoln and Raven grabs Gina and they go to dance, and it's just him and Clarke.

He can't be sure it's deliberate, but it feels deliberate. Obvious, even.

"More booze?" he asks Clarke, leaning in close. "Or--"

"Do you want to dance?"

Her tone is a little off, and she's not looking at him, but the answer is easy. "Yeah. I suck at it."

"I don't mind."

Given half the people in the club are on the verge of dry-humping, it's odd how much it feels like a middle-school dance to Bellamy. Clarke settles her arms around his neck and he puts his on her waist and it's very--

Awkward. Honestly, it's the most awkward thing in the world.

They make it through a song and a half before Clarke says, "This sucks, right?"

"I'll do it for as long as you want."

“But it sucks.”

He inclines his head, conceding the point. “It sucks.”

“Do you want to get some air?”

“We’ve been here for less than half an hour,” he says, fond.

“And?”

“And I’d love some air, yeah.”

It’s not really that much cooler outside, the June night hot and humid, but he feels better anyway. Clubs really suck.

“Are you okay?” he asks Clarke, once they’re walking. “Really?” She’s either flirting with him or having a crisis, and it would be really great to know which.

“Yeah." She worries her lip. "Do you remember spring fling your senior year?”

It's been years since he thought about any high school dance, and he's not sure he could come up with details about any of them except for prom. “Not really.”

“It’s not actually a big deal, but I kind of need to tell you so I’m not not telling you.”

“Okay,” he says, cautious.

She rubs the back of her neck. "I spent like half an hour getting up the nerve to ask you to dance, and you told me you'd save the next one for me, and then you left to hook up with Roma Pratchett."

It's not as if he doesn't believe her. On the contrary, it sounds completely and somewhat depressingly plausible. Clarke, when he was in high school, was a kid. A kid he liked well enough, to be sure, but still just one of Octavia's friends. He can easily see himself telling her he'd save her a dance without a second though, and forgetting the promise as soon as she was out of sight.

He would have meant it, he just wouldn't have bothered to follow through if she didn't find him again.

"Shit," he says. "I'm sorry."

She freezes like she's caught in headlights, and then she starts to laugh.

He frowns. "Uh--"

She shakes her head. "No, it's just--you really don't have to apologize."

"I was a dick."

"It was twelve years ago."

"There's no statute of limitations on being a dick. I hurt you, and I'm sorry."

"Thanks." She lets out an irritated huff of breath. "It's so stupid."

"No, I would remember that if it happened to me too."

"Yeah, but it's not like--I know you just said yes to be nice. It's not like you were interested anyway."

"No," he admits, when it becomes clear she's expecting a response. "Sorry. You were cute, but I wasn't interested back then. I am now," he adds. "If that helps."

Her laugh is soft. "Since I can't travel through time, yeah. Now is a much bigger deal."

"I still wish I'd given you the dance. I could have hooked up with Roma after."

"I don't know. I wish you'd just let me down easy."

"That too. I had a lot of great options I didn't take."

"But you danced with me tonight."

"Yeah."

"And you want to go on a date sometime."

He reaches over to take her hand. "I want to keep doing what we've been doing, except it's romantic, pretty much. Us, but with--"

Clarke tugs him in, leaning up to press her mouth to his. She's smiling, and he is too, and there's something uniquely magical about kissing a girl in the moonlight, something that feels like a new start.

"Sorry, I was getting a vibe like I should kiss you," she teases, barely moving away from his mouth. "Was I misreading that?"

He slides his arms around her waist, bumping his nose against her. "Nope. That's exactly what you should have been doing."

"Cool. I think I'm getting the hang of this dating thing."

"Yeah," he agrees. "You're a natural."