“Can you help me trick my brother into something?”
Clarke frowns at Octavia. She likes Bellamy’s sister, mostly—it’s hard to like Bellamy and not like her, given how important she is to him—but she doesn’t totally trust her. The first time she asked for Clarke’s help with a Bellamy project, she claimed it was a surprise birthday party, when really she’d actually just wanted Clarke to get him out of the house so she could make out with her boyfriend in peace. It’s been a few years and Octavia has definitely matured, but Clarke’s still wary.
“Trick him into what?”
“There’s this new Roman-themed reality show Lincoln is working on? It sounds really fun and I know Bell would have a blast on it, but he’d never sign up on his own.” She pauses, clearly weighing her options, and then adds, “He actually can’t sign up on his own. He needs a girlfriend. But I bet you could talk him into it, if you said you wanted to do it.”
“So you want me to pretend to be your brother’s girlfriend on your boyfriend’s reality show?” Clarke asks. On the one hand, it’s ridiculous, but on the other, she can’t imagine Octavia is making it up. If she wanted to tell a lie, she would have told a better one. "Isn't that an ethics violation or something? For Lincoln?"
“The producers don't care, as long as you're good TV. Seriously, I think you guys would have fun! He needs to relax. Just get Bell to take a look at the application form, okay? That’s all I ask.”
It really isn’t much of a request. There’s a process for getting cast on a reality show; unless the whole thing is an elaborate hoax, Octavia can’t be rigging it. Clarke isn’t sure why she’s invested in this, but at the same time, it’s hard to believe she needs more of a reason than just thinking it would be funny. And Bellamy and Clarke on a Roman reality show pretending to date does sound like the kind of thing Octavia would find hilarious.
There’s no harm in just looking at the application. They don’t have to agree to anything. They might not even get an interview.
“Do we apply online?” she asks, and Octavia’s grin does not fill her with confidence that she made the right choice.
“Don't worry, I’ll get you everything you need.”
“Your sister wants you to do Lincoln’s new reality show.”
“Pass,” says Bellamy, without looking up. He and Clarke met in college and didn’t get along for a good few months, first out of genuine animosity and then from stubbornness, but by the time he graduated, he was pretty much her best friend. He'd still been taking care of Octavia on the side back then, and it worked out that she was moving out right as Clarke was leaving and looking for a place to live. Clarke moved in with Bellamy, and three years later, she has trouble imagining living with anyone else. They just get each other.
“I think we should do it.”
As she expected, the pronoun gives him pause. “I thought she wanted me to do it, not you.”
“You’re the focus.”
Either his curiosity gets the best of him or he knows she’s not going to let this go—he closes his book with a huff and pushes his glasses up to look at her. “Okay, fine. What exactly is this show?"
“Roman gladiator competition.”
“What.” His voice is so flat it’s not even a question.
“It’s going to be goofy, but fun!” she says. “They’re doing a bunch of semi-accurate recreations of ancient buildings, you get to wear a toga and show off how secretly athletic you are.”
“And you’re involved how?”
“It’s for couples only. All gladiators need a girlfriend to support them.”
“Jesus, if there’s one competition that shouldn’t be heteronormative—“
Clarke has to smile. “Yeah, I know. But still, it sounds fun!”
“What exactly are you basing that on?”
“The premise and the website. We get to do weird shit on TV in costume. Don’t try to pretend you’re not into it.”
"It's going to be really historically inaccurate." He glances at her. "Why are you into it?"
"What's not to be into?"
"Reality TV show, weird challenges, fake dating? Take your pick."
"People already think we're dating all the time," she says, with a shrug. "It wouldn't be hard."
He looks back down at his lap, jaw working. "What do we have to do, exactly?"
"Just fill out an application. If they like us, we have an interview, and then we're on the show for--a few weeks, I think? It's not that long."
"You know they edit the shit out of this stuff, right? They'll probably make us come across as assholes."
She's thought about that, of course. Being on reality TV isn't exactly a badge of honor, and even if this is a theoretically skill-based competition, it's not like Project Runway or something. It's definitely the television equivalent of junk food.
"That's why we do it together," she says. "I have your back, you have mine, right? We can make sure we don't say anything we're going to regret."
"We can't. But if you want to, I'm in."
He sighs, long and deep, but there's a smile playing at the corner of his mouth, this reluctant amusement that means he's secretly glad she's giving him the excuse to do this. Bellamy can be a little vain, a little too conscious of how he comes across, trying to maintain an image that doesn't really fit him. Sometimes he needs help letting himself goof off.
"It can't be that bad, right?"
"You jinxed it," she teases. "It's going to suck now."
"We probably won't even get cast. But there's no harm in trying, I guess."
"Yeah. It'll be fun."
"So, this is--stupid, right?"
She and Bellamy made it through to the in-person interview with the producers, and she thinks it went well. Their fake dating history wasn't hard to come up with--college friends turned roommates turned lovers is easy to sell--and they have a natural, easy chemistry that she knows would be appealing to audiences. Bellamy got to talk about how he learned about ancient Rome at his mother's knee, how he named his sister Octavia. On a regular reality show, the backstory would be a slam dunk, but the producers actually looked a little uncomfortable when he brought it up, like that level of earnestness would not be welcome on Untitled Gladiator Project.
"You weren't really expecting it to be serious, were you?"
"No, but--I think it's going to be a mess."
"A fun mess. It's definitely going to be stupid and ridiculous, but we knew that. Okay," she grants, "it's going to be even more stupid and ridiculous than I thought, but that's cool, right?"
"Sure," he says, not sounding remotely convinced, and when they get the actual paperwork they're supposed to sign to agree to be on the show, Clarke has to admit she's a little worried too.
Lincoln, on the other hand, is unconcerned.
"This is all fairly standard," he says. They're at dinner with him and Octavia so he can give them some dirt, except that it's Lincoln, and Lincoln isn't really the gossiping type. "Reality TV shows are unpredictable, so they like to cover their bases."
"Nudity?" asks Bellamy.
"You're filmed at all times. They want to be able to use footage that might happen at--inopportune moments."
"Creepy," he mutters, and Lincoln shrugs.
"It's a deal breaker for some people. I wouldn't blame you if it was one for you too."
"What are you doing on the show exactly?" Clarke asks. She's actually closer to Lincoln than she is to Octavia, as strange as that is. He does set design in addition to acting, and he and Clarke always have art things to talk about. When she and Bellamy hang out with Octavia, the Blakes tend to find something to argue about while Clarke and Lincoln chat on their own. It's not hard to tell he's not telling them everything, but he's also an actor under contract. He's probably not actually allowed to tell them.
"I'm the trainer," he says. "I'll be supervising the physical challenges."
"As opposed to the mental challenges?" Bellamy asks, glaring. "What other kinds of challenges are there?"
"The women's challenges. I assume they're also somewhat physical, but not my responsibility."
Clarke taps her jaw, studying him. "Okay, be honest: do you think we should do this?"
If Lincoln has a fatal flaw, it's his honestly. He can lie, Clarke knows, but he doesn't like to, and he doesn't like hurting people either. Unlike Octavia, he's an actual trustworthy source of information.
"I think it's up to you. I don't think you'll regret it if you do, but I also don't think you'll regret it if you don't. I'm looking forward to it, and I think it's going to be fun. You'd probably have fun too."
"They don't know how to have fun," says Octavia.
"This was your idea," Bellamy shoots back.
"Yeah, I'm hoping you're going to learn. You need to loosen up."
"And reality TV is the way to do it?" he asks.
Octavia shrugs. "Worth a try. Come on, you've been waiting your whole life for this, Bell. Someone's going to let you pretend you're in the Roman empire. I know how many times you've seen Gladiator. Remember that colosseum you built out of sofa cushions?"
"Yeah, that was because you wanted to pretend to be a lion and try to eat me."
"And you didn't let me! You could totally win this."
Lincoln leans in, murmuring to Clarke. "I do think it's going to be fun."
"Fun for you or fun for us?"
"More fun for me," he admits. "I don't have to do any of the hard work. But still fun for you."
"How big a thing is the dating? Is that going to be an issue?"
"For you and Bellamy? I doubt it. I'm not worried you'll slip up."
Clarke turns her attention back to Bellamy, studying him as he listens to his sister scold him with an expression of fond amusement. He catches her eye and smiles, and she smiles back, reflexive.
"Okay. We're probably in."
Lincoln smiles too. "I was hoping you would be."
They spend the plane ride to the show ironing out their dating backstory, which still isn’t hard. They had the broad outline of it for the interview, and they spend plenty of time together, so most of what they're saying is even true. The timeline is based in reality—they’ve both been single for over a year, and it’s easy to just pretend that their friendship turned to romance in that time. If she’s honest, Clarke has had moments of wondering if it really would go that way. But after six years, she knows better than to get her hopes up. The reality-show fake-dating thing is just a fluke. Normal, friend stuff.
Anyone would do it.
It's not until the flight attendant announces they've begun their descent that Bellamy clears his throat and says, "One other thing."
"We're on TV," she teases. "How physical can we be?"
"Yeah, that's what I thought, but--there's actually a lot. We're going to be in competitions," he clarifies. "It would be weird if we didn't--hug and kiss and stuff. To celebrate. And we're probably going to be, uh--we're going to be together all the fucking time. We're not having sex, but--"
"I don't mind hugging and kissing," she says. "It's not like we'd really make out on TV or anything, that's weird. But just--" She leans in, and when he turns his head for her, she presses her mouth against his.
Clarke's kissed enough guys that it's not particularly novel. There's the usual roughness of lips and slight rasp of stubble, the warmth of another person that she hasn't felt for a while. But it's still obviously Bellamy; she can smell him, even taste him a little, and when his hand cradles her jaw, it's definitely his hand, warm and familiar.
For a chaste, quick kiss, it's kind of a lot to deal with. Her heart is still racing when she pulls back.
"We can do that, right?" she asks.
He clears his throat, a slight flush on his neck. "Yeah, no problem."
"We can't if you're like that," she teases. "Come on, try again. More natural."
"I was natural."
He doesn't give her a chance to argue; he kisses her again, firmer, more confident, and Clarke does her best to respond in kind. It's a better kiss, and she doesn't know if it looks more natural, but it certainly feels that way.
"It'll be easier when we don't have an armrest between us," Bellamy murmurs, and she laughs.
"Yeah. I don't think it's going to be that hard."
"We know how dating works. It's just dating each other. Just--remember to kiss me sometimes."
"I think I can handle that." As if to prove the point, he leans in and does it again, and by the time they're off the plane, Clarke's lips are tingling a little, and her pulse is fluttering.
She really could get used to that.
They're filming in Georgia because of some kind of tax break, and the show is sending a driver to pick them up and take them to wherever they're staying for however long they're here. Clarke takes Bellamy's hand as they walk, just to get a feel for that, and all he does is squeeze her fingers in approval.
It's really not that hard.
"Boyfriend mode," she murmurs. "From now on, we're dating."
"Got it." He squeezes her hand again. "Thanks for doing this with me."
"It was my idea. I had to talk you into it."
"Yeah, but--come on, you know I'm excited."
"You can't wait to be the named best gladiator."
"And you can't wait to be best gladiator's girlfriend. That's still shitty, by the way. Women can be gladiators too. It doesn't have to be this--"
"Heteronormative? Maybe if you win you get an audience with the emperor and you can make an impassioned plea for queer fighters."
"That's probably what would happen, yeah. I'm going to use all my talking heads to talk about how non-straight every classical civilization was."
She presses her lips to his shoulder, trying to make it feel natural. "That's what they get for casting you."
"That's what they get, yeah."
The driver's already there when they make it to the baggage claim. They weren't told to bring much--according to the documentation they received, "period-appropriate" clothing will be provided, and Bellamy's already planning to nitpick their entire wardrobe--so they don't have anything except carry-on, and they can just go straight to the car. It's a bit of a drive, but they fill up the time wondering what's waiting for them and how it might be.
"Fake," he says. "Honestly, I'm most interested to see how the TV cut looks. I want to see how many takes we do of stuff and which ones they use. And how they edit us, honestly."
Clarke has to smile. "You're such a nerd. And you're definitely more interested in how historically accurate everything is."
She smiles. "Fine, equally interested. What do you think they're going to have us do first?"
Of course, Bellamy has a lot of ideas about what kind of authentic Roman activities they might partake in, and Clarke is happy to tease him about keeping his expectations low, and she thinks this would probably be good TV, just as it is. They play off each other well.
So, of course, when they get to the lot, the first thing that happens is that they're separated.
"We'll be filming the gladiators and the girlfriends in different groups for the entrances," one of the producers explains. "You'll see each other again soon, but we will have you in separate areas until you're on camera."
Bellamy looks a little spooked, and Clarke pecks him on the cheek. "You'll be fine. You get to make friends will all the other gladiators."
"Great." He offers her a crooked smile. "See you on the other side?"
"I'm more worried about you there. You don't bond well."
The producers hustle them apart, and Clarke gets one final glance over her shoulder before he's gone, and she's alone on the set of the a still untitled gladiator project.
It'll be fun.
"There are seven other couples," her producer explains. Her name is Anya, and she gives off more competence vibes than anyone else Clarke has ever met. If she wasn't supposed to be Bellamy's girlfriend, she'd definitely be trying to get her number. "You'll only be meeting the women right now. We'll take you over to the site, get some reaction shots for the space, but we don't care about documenting you meeting the other girlfriends. Once you're there, you'll be provided with clothing and taken to meet your boyfriend and the rest of the gladiators. We'll have the first task for you there."
"If you ever feel faint or ill, just tell someone. If you need food or water, let us know. This isn't Survivor, we aren't expecting you to fend for yourselves. If someone asks you to say something again, just do it. Try to ignore the cameras unless you're in an interview. We don't want you looking at the lenses. You haven't acted before?"
"But you know Lincoln."
They've confirmed that at every single step of the interview process, but maybe this will be the last time. "He's dating Bellamy's sister, yeah. She's the one who told us about the show."
"He'll introduce himself once you're on site. On camera, you will not call him Lincoln, and you will not acknowledge your personal relationship. He's here to play a role, and knowing you is not a part of that role."
"Any other questions?"
"Not right now, but probably later."
Anya nods, stops at the door of a trailer. "You'll have makeup done here, and microphones. The cameras won't be on you until we get you to the site. The van will be here in an hour, and it's a twenty-minute drive to the site. Feel free to socialize and use your phone for now, but you won't be allowed to have it again until you leave the show."
"Got it. Thanks for the help."
Anya shrugs and moves on, and Clarke is left to make her way into the makeup trailer alone. There's another woman already in one of the chairs, a pretty brunette with her eyes closed as her mascara is applied. There are three other women who have apparently already finished with their makeup and are sitting off on couches to the side, playing on their phones. Clarke gives an awkward wave when they look up, but she's ushered into the makeup chair before she can try for introductions.
"Clarke, right?" asks the makeup girl.
"Great, I'm Harper, and this is Luna, we'll be taking care of your hair and makeup while you're on the show. That's Roma," she adds, nodding to the woman in the chair. "And Raven, Mel, and Bree. Where are you from?"
Harper is easy to talk to, and they chat as Clarke gets camera ready. She's not used to doing this much makeup, but Harper is good at her job, and when they're done, Clarke feels like she looks like herself, just with the details highlighted for the camera. She's hustled over to the waiting area, sits down between Raven and Bree and pulls out her own phone.
Me: Done with makeup
What are you doing?
This guy Roan is already talking about how great it is that they didn't wear clothes in ancient Rome
Me: Are you correcting him?
Bellamy: He's actually pretty informed about the whole thing
At least the naked parts
Me: So he's your favorite?
Bellamy: So far, anyway
How are the women?
We're mostly just on our phones
I assume I'll get to know them later
Any idea what we're going to do?
Bellamy: Other than pretend we don't know Lincoln?
Just that you'd come back for your first challenge after we'd gotten settled
Me: We knew it was going to be weird
Bellamy: We did
Last guy just got here
The last woman follows soon after, a cute black girl named Gaia, and a few minutes later Anya is back for another pep talk. It's all the information Clarke already got from her, but she's getting the impression that this is going to be one of those places where there's a lot of repetition to make sure everyone gets it. If Anya could just give them regular quizzes, it feels like she would.
Once that's over with, though, she hustles them onto the van, and they're on their way. Clarke will admit that she's just a little excited. She's never done anything like this before. It feels irresponsible and a little reckless, but in a fun way.
Teenage rebellion, about a decade late.
"Clarke, right?" her seatmate asks.
"Yup." She offers her hand, and Clarke shakes. "So, who's into this?" Clarke cocks her head, and Raven clarifies, "You or your boyfriend?"
"Kind of both of us, I guess? I mean, he loves ancient Roman stuff, but he really wasn't into the reality TV thing. I had to talk him into it. What about you?"
"Roan just likes being naked and fighting people," she says. "I'm going along with it because it sounds like a fucking mess. And he's going to be shirtless most of the time."
That's a potential plus. "You think?"
"Definitely. This is going to be some female-gaze shit."
They trade basic demographic information as they go, and Clarke discovers that Raven is twenty-six and works in tech, doing stuff with machines Clarke can't even comprehend. She seems to have the same basic attitude to the entire enterprise Clarke does, which is that it's ridiculous, but she still wants to win, because she's never met a competition she doesn't like. So they're probably going to be friends, except when there are challenges happening, at which point friendship, as a concept, will cease to exist.
So that's going to be fun.
"Wow," Raven says, as they come to a stop, and Clarke follows her gaze out the window, to the walled set that they're apparently going to call home. It's not the size of an actual city, of course, but it might be the size of an ancient city. They have a real budget for this, and Clarke can't figure out why they think it's going to make money, but she's not complaining. It's working out for her so far.
"This might be a cool train wreck," she admits.
Raven snorts. "Here's hoping." The doors open and she stands and stretches. "Showtime?"
"Yeah," says Clarke. "Let's do it."