The trees talk to her as she walks from the ark. They whisper and she feels calmed.
Three days from the drop ship she finds a pool. Only meters across but deep and clear, grasses and water-flowers growing thick all around but for a sandy shore on the narrowest edge. The field with its watery heart is at the base of a cliff, the rocks warm with sun. Clarke drops her pack, tent and supplies and scouts the field and surrounding trees in sweeping circles. There’s a cave only a stumble away.
The forest whispers and Clarke breathes deep in the sound.
The wounds she bears are bathed in shivering leaves and she feels that maybe someday there could be scars crisscrossing her heart instead of open lacerations.
The cave is more divot in the rock than cavern but there is space enough for Clarke to lay out a bed of salvaged canvas. She piles rocks across the entrance until there’s just enough space to squeeze through, and secures a stretch of parachute across the gap. The reflective orange she douses in mud not bothered when she is covered in muck herself. It takes hours of hard labor and she’s shaking with exhaustion and hunger before she’s done.
It feels like living. No matter how she might wish it otherwise.
The temperature is dropping and there’s insects awake in the trees. Clarke peels off her gloves, her coat, shirt, everything until she’s naked and shivering beside the pool staring into clear water. Her reflection is highlighted bloody by sunset. She opens her mouth to say something to her, the girl floating in weeds smeared with mud. She opens her mouth to scream at her but Clarke’s jaw snaps shut. The woods and insects scream enough. The children might have screamed.
She had thought the water would be peaceful. Clarke imagined being submerged as akin to floating in the vacuum of space. No air, no sound, no life. But she opens her eyes and looks up to the surface, legs folded under her and knees pressed into sand. She’s inches from the air but could stand if she needed. There’s sounds all around her, bubbling life somehow manipulating her drowned ear drums. She bathes in the sound as she scrubs mud from her body, rubbing sand into her skin till it tingles.
When she breaks the surface her lungs fill without permission and she almost laughs at the relief. But no sound reaches her lips. The tree’s song, the insect’s scream, the crackling undergrowth is symphony enough and she lets herself sink again into the water, holding her breath to feel it burn.
Clarke walks from the pool curious to feel evening air on her skin. It’s been so long since she was naked. She thinks how she may not have been quite this naked in earth’s atmosphere at all. Not with a mind to enjoy it. Any baths had been rushed and with water from a stream. A dozen other girls staring resolutely at the ground, or at the trees keeping watch. Clarke looks up at the sky, first stars appearing in the pink, and doesn’t mind feeling this bare. She feels animal, no expectation, no wants only needs. She’s never felt this before.
She thinks of green eyes set in dark kohl shadows and knows. She felt naked then too. Eyes filled with promises not demands.
Clarke shivers only half from the cool air and collects her clothes from where she dropped them, feels every item under her coat caked in grime. The coat and gloves she rinses and lays out on the rocks to dry but her other clothes she drowns, sinking them under a stone.
The cave turns out to be shelter enough. With effort and a few singed fingers the flint sparks a fire. The third time it lights Clarke keeps from smothering the flicker flame long enough to build up heat and light. Warm and dry she considers remaining naked but the night cold settles in and she knows that won’t work.
Wind in the trees sings Clarke into nightmares and she doesn’t mind.
She dreams of Dante in the mountain, blood draining from his heart as he walks through a classroom of children.
‘A, B, C,’ the class recites.
‘Very good,’ the President praises them. ‘And what does C stand for?’
The children turn to her. She’s wearing her soft sleep clothes. Familiar worn fabric she hasn’t felt since before she was locked in solitary. Long before the fall.
‘Clarke,’ the children say. ‘C is for Clarke.’
‘Very good,’ the teacher claps. ‘Now who’s ready for sleep?’
Fear floods her. ‘No,’ she yells but the cry is a whisper.
The children all lay their heads down on their desks but for one little boy who sits up straight in his chair. The boy sings without melody. ‘Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep.’ He has a sweet familiar voice. A young Wells. Younger than the teenager Clarke first met during her Clinical practice. ‘If I die before I wake.’ Wells looks at her calmly, skin blistering around his eyes. ‘Bless me Lord my soul to take.’
None of the children scream.
When she plunges into her pool after dawn the water doesn’t absolve her. The song of filtering air and life beneath the surface is soothing though and she allows herself the peace of it.
She listens. A nuclear war couldn't destroy this life. Clarke heals.
She leaves herself in the water’s embrace and care, imagines this might be how her father felt the moments before his lungs collapsed.
She hears water song, she heals.
On the third day something like a rabbit springs her trap and she resists the urge to tear into its soft belly with her teeth. She shreds the fur and skin off in chunks, gagging but getting it done. She burns half the meat to charcoal but still it’s stringy and rich and she knows her body is glad for the protein.
After, she sinks in her pool, knees in the sand and thanks the earth for Her gifts.
Is a week long enough? Is she healed? The grass whisper no.
She cries. She cries.
Her trap remains empty more days than it springs but Clarke hasn’t the skill or the knowledge to know why. Scavenged from the drop ship she’d guessed how to set it and can only hope for the best. She forages while waiting.
Root vegetables and tubers are the luckiest find, sprouting close to the creek and not far from her shelter. There’s berries as well in the surrounding woods and a few bitter leaves Clarke remembers from before. There had been more skilled hands than hers among The Hundred. A doctor’s trade was superfluous for basic survival, and she found herself lacking.
*Those who can’t do* she thinks with a wry smile digging hands through the dirt. No wonder she fell into leadership. A bird snickers his agreement and she looks up at the crow to smile in thanks. The bird takes flight, wind through the trees swallowing his sounds.
Can a month help her forget?
Clarke wonders when winter will come. It’s cooler now but there’s no real edge to it. Her fire is enough to keep warm at night, the pool chilling her deep but with no real danger to the cold.
She survives. She dreams.
She remembers Jasper asking her ‘Why?’.
‘You would have done it,’ she says but knows it’s a lie. So few, she knows could.
Clarke shies away from the name but her subconscious does not and she dreams of a sun-lit tent and a kiss. And a night filled with heartbreak.
‘Your commander made a choice,’ Clarke had said.
‘What you would have done,’ Lexa says, eyes filled with grief.
Clarke can see her now as she couldn't on that night. A stuttered breath pulled Lexa’s lips, as she turned with her army to leave.
As Clarke would have done.
Clarke still can't swim. But she strips down and she wades into her pool, deeper each day until slipping beneath the surface is easy as falling. Her toes sink into sand and she’s floating again, only breaking the surface once her lungs burn their worst. She enjoys a knifes edge, feeling the water hold her close as she ponders her choice.
The bubbles laugh at her and she knows that they're right. Of course there’s no choice. She bears others’ grief so that they don’t have to. But it’s a game that she plays, of deceiving herself. She’s never been good at it, thinking past what is real, what is fact.
She comes up for a breath and to check where she is, that the trees haven't left her.
She listens, she heals.
She slips under again and thinks about staying. Thinks how easy it would be. The human body so quick to betray itself in the face of water. An irony considering the blue planet they inhabit. As quick as 20 seconds from the moment she loses conscious control. If she just waits. The choice would be taken out of her hands. And she is so very tired of making choices.
She listens. She waits.
She doesn't know how long she's under the water. Minutes maybe. Her lung capacity greater than before, like she's been practicing. And maybe she has been.
She sinks lower with the last air leaving her mouth and she stares up to the sky. Her eys close when her back hits the sand and she thinks how soft it feels. Light plays against her eyelids and bubbles play past her ears.
Not long now, she knows and wonders when she decided to stay.
A crashing sound pulls at her dimming consciousness but she resists the urge to open her eyes. Her lungs are clawing and she finally gasps, water tearing through her lips and down her wind pipe. Burning hot as the arms now wrapped around her chest. Warm and firm and familiar.
The air strikes her face and she gasps splutters choking on the fluid already in her lungs and her gut. Strong arms drag her up the sand and onto the grass, release her to slap hard at her back as she retches water and berries and bile, her body purging.
Clarke lies face down until the last convulsion clears her throat. The burn remains but she breathes freely and knows the air is sweet to spite her. She made a choice. The wrong choice. And the puckered scars on her heart tear open again.
The hands that pulled her from the water remain warm on her back and Clarke wonders without concern who they belong to. Soft hands, small for the strength of them. Octavia, Clarke thinks but turns onto her back to find another.
Lexa’s hands retreat from Clarke's skin but her gaze remains. Clarke reads the expression, her eyes too easily. Those eyes that promised and gave and calmed, now demand and plead and question, *why*.
Clarke shakes her head and looks away. Lexa stands. The little clothing she wears is soaked to dripping and she looks small without her armour but no less strong. She turns and stalks back into the trees. The trees, Clarke realises that must have been hiding her for some time.
Clarke stumbles to her feet not caring about how bare she is. She stares into the trees without speaking. willing Lexa to return, to show Clarke she’s real and not a hallucination born of loneliness. Of grief.
Lexa does return, crushing underbrush in her annoyance and making more noise than she may have made in her entire life. Clarke doesn't smile but she thinks she could. Lexa stalks past her, hair dripping into fresh dry clothes to deposit a pack of supplies and a belt of weapons in Clarke's shelter. She turns to Clarke with a look which dares her to object. When Clarke doesn't Lexa busies herself stretching her wet clothes across sun soaked rocks.
Clarke dresses herself, suddenly feeling cold.
When they sit together in the sun soon after Clarke listens to the woods and she knows Lexa listens with her.
She listens and breathes and heals.
She listens and breathes and heals.