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TheyвЂ™d been walking for two days, pausing only for an hour or two at a time to rest. The backs of ClarkeвЂ™s legs burned, but Bellamy showed no signs of stopping. Clarke didnвЂ™t careвЂ”in fact, she welcomed the pain. The more she thought about her hamstrings, the less she thought about the ache in her chest, and the friend she hadnвЂ™t been able to save.
She took a deep breath. Even if sheвЂ™d been blindfolded, sheвЂ™d be able to tell that the sun had set. The air was heavy with the scent of the white blossoms that only unfurled at night, making the trees look like theyвЂ™d dressed for dinner. Clarke wished she knew what sort of evolutionary advantage the strange flowers provided. Maybe they attracted a type of nocturnal insect? Their distinct perfume bordered on overwhelming in the spots where the trees grew close together, but Clarke preferred them to the orderly rows of apple trees she and Bellamy had seen earlier. Her neck prickled as she recalled the evenly spaced trunks, like straight-backed guards standing in formation.
Bellamy was walking a few meters ahead of her. He had gone quiet, just as he did on his hunting expeditions. But this time, he wasnвЂ™t tracking a rabbit or stalking a deer. He was looking for his sister.
It had been almost a whole day since theyвЂ™d seen the last set of footprints, and the unspoken truth thickened the silence until Clarke could feel it pressing against her chest.
TheyвЂ™d lost OctaviaвЂ™s trail.
Bellamy paused at the top of the hill, and Clarke stopped next to him. They were standing on the edge of a ridge. Just a few meters ahead, the ground sloped sharply down to a glimmering body of water. The moon above was huge and bright, while a second moon trembled just below, reflected on the surface.
вЂњItвЂ™s beautiful,вЂќ Bellamy said without looking at her, but there was an edge to his voice.
Clarke placed a hand on BellamyвЂ™s arm. He flinched but didnвЂ™t pull away. вЂњI bet Octavia thought so too. Should we go down and see if thereвЂ™s any signвЂ¦вЂќ Clarke trailed off. Octavia hadnвЂ™t gone for an impromptu stroll through the woods. Neither of them would say it aloud, but OctaviaвЂ™s sudden disappearance, the way her footprints suggested she was draggedвЂ”she had been taken.
But by whom? Clarke thought of the apple trees again, and shuddered.
Bellamy took a few steps forward. вЂњIt looks a little less steep over here,вЂќ he said, reaching out to grab her hand. вЂњCome on.вЂќ
They didnвЂ™t speak as they made their way down the slope. When Clarke slipped on a patch of slick mud, Bellamy tightened his hold and helped her regain her balance. But the moment they reached level ground, he let go and jogged toward the water, examining the bank for footprints.
Clarke hung back, staring at the lake as wonder swept away the exhaustion that had settled in her limbs. The surface was as smooth as glass, and the reflection of the moon looked like one of the gems sheвЂ™d seen occasionally at the Exchange, locked up in a transparent case.
When Bellamy turned around, his expression was weary, almost defeated. вЂњWe should probably rest,вЂќ he said. вЂњThereвЂ™s no point in wandering through the dark without a trail.вЂќ
Nodding, Clarke let her pack slide to the ground, then raised her arms into the air and stretched. She was tired and sweaty, and there was a days-old layer of ash on her skin that she was desperate to wash off.
She walked slowly toward the lake, crouching down at the edge and skimming her fingertips across the surface. When theyвЂ™d first arrived on Earth, sheвЂ™d been diligent about purifying any water they used to drink or bathe, in case it was contaminated with radioactive bacteria. But she was running out of iodine drops, and after watching a fire kill her best friend while her ex-boyfriend restrained her, a little lake water seemed like the least of her problems.
Clarke exhaled deeply and closed her eyes, letting her tension dissipate with her breath into the night air.
She rose to her feet and turned to look at Bellamy. He stood perfectly still, staring across the lake with an intensity that made Clarke shiver. Her first instinct was to slip away and give him his space. But then another impulse took over, and a mischievous smile slinked across her face.
Without a word, she pulled her sweat-soaked shirt over her head, kicked off her boots, and stepped out of her dirt- and ash-streaked pants. She spun on her heel, wishing she could see the look on BellamyвЂ™s face as he watched her step into the lake wearing nothing but her bra and underwear.
The water was colder than sheвЂ™d realized, and her skin began to prickle, although she wasnвЂ™t sure if it was from the night air or the sensation of BellamyвЂ™s eyes on her.
She waded forward, yelping as the water swirled around her shoulders. Water was far too scarce on the Colony to justify baths, and this was the first time Clarke had ever felt her entire body submerged. She experimented with lifting her feet out of the mud and trying to float, feeling strangely powerful and vulnerable. For a moment, she forgot that a fire had taken her best friendвЂ™s life. She forgot that she and Bellamy had lost OctaviaвЂ™s trail. She forgot that her improvised swimming outfit was going to be see-through whenever she emerged from the water.
вЂњI think the radiation mustвЂ™ve finally scrambled your brain.вЂќ
Clarke twisted around and saw Bellamy looking at her with a combination of surprise and amusement. His familiar smirk had returned.
She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and ducked under the surface, popping up a second later with a laugh as water streamed down her face. вЂњItвЂ™s fine.вЂќ
Bellamy stepped forward. вЂњSo your keen scientific mind knew instinctively that the water was safe?вЂќ
Clarke shook her head. вЂњNo.вЂќ She lifted a hand into the air and made a show of examining it. вЂњI could be growing flippers and gills as we speak.вЂќ
Bellamy nodded with mock solemnity. вЂњWell, if you grow flippers, I promise not to shun you.вЂќ
вЂњOh, trust me. IвЂ™m not going to be the only mutant.вЂќ
Bellamy raised an eyebrow. вЂњWhat do you mean?вЂќ
Clarke cupped her hands, filled them with water, and splashed it at Bellamy with a laugh. вЂњNow youвЂ™ll grow flippers too.вЂќ
вЂњYou really shouldnвЂ™t have done that.вЂќ BellamyвЂ™s voice was low and menacing, and for a moment, Clarke thought she mightвЂ™ve actually upset him. But then he grabbed the hem of his shirt and pulled it over his head in one swift motion.
The moon was so large and bright that there was no mistaking the grin on BellamyвЂ™s face as he reached down to undo the button on his pants, tossing them aside like they werenвЂ™t the only pair he had on the planet. His long, well-muscled legs were pale in his gray shorts. Clarke blushed but didnвЂ™t look away.
Bellamy plunged into the lake and closed the distance between them with a few powerful strokes. HeвЂ™d boasted about teaching himself to swim during his treks to the stream, and for once, he hadnвЂ™t been exaggerating.
He disappeared under the water, just long enough for Clarke to feel a flicker of worry. Then his hand grasped her wrist, and she squealed as he spun her around, expecting him to splash her in retaliation. But Bellamy just stared at her for a moment before raising a hand and running his finger along her neck. вЂњNo gills yet,вЂќ he said softly.
Clarke shivered as she looked up at him. His hair was slicked back away from his face, and water droplets clung to the stubble along his jawline. His dark eyes burned with an intensity that was worlds away from his usual playful grin. It seemed hard to believe he was the same boy sheвЂ™d carelessly flung her arms around in the woods.
Something shifted in his gaze, and she closed her eyes, sure that he was about to kiss her. But then a crack sounded from the trees, and BellamyвЂ™s head whipped around. вЂњWhat was that?вЂќ he asked. Without waiting for Clarke to respond, he took off for the shore, leaving her alone in the water.
Clarke watched Bellamy grab his bow and disappear into the shadows. She sighed, then silently chastised herself for her foolishness. If itвЂ™d been her family they were seeking, she wouldnвЂ™t waste time playing in the water either. She tilted her head back, sending drops of water trickling off her face as she stared up at the sky and thought about the two bodies drifting among those very stars. What would her parents say if they could see her now, here on the planet they had always dreamed of calling home?
вЂњCan we play the atlas game?вЂќ Clarke asked, leaning over her father to peer at his tablet. It was covered with complicated-looking equations that Clarke didnвЂ™t recognize. But she would someday soon; even though she was only eight, sheвЂ™d recently started algebra. When Cora and Glass heard about it, theyвЂ™d rolled their eyes and whispered loudly about how math was pointless. Clarke had tried to explain that without math, there would be no doctors, and no engineers, which meant that theyвЂ™d all die of preventable diseasesвЂ¦ if the Colony didnвЂ™t burst into flames first. But Cora and Glass had only laughed and then spent the rest of the day giggling every time Clarke walked past.
вЂњIn a minute,вЂќ her father said. He frowned slightly as he swiped the screen, rearranging the order of the equations. вЂњI just need to finish this first.вЂќ
Clarke brought her face closer to the tablet. вЂњCan I help? If you explain it to me, I bet I can figure the hard part out.вЂќ
He laughed and ruffled her hair. вЂњIвЂ™m sure you could. But youвЂ™re helping me just by sitting here. You remind me why our research is so important.вЂќ He smiled, closed the program he was working on, and opened the atlas. A holographic globe appeared in the air just above the couch.
Clarke swiped her finger through the air and the globe rotated. вЂњWhatвЂ™s this one?вЂќ she asked, pointing to the outline of a large country.
Her father squinted. вЂњLetвЂ™s seeвЂ¦ thatвЂ™s Saudi Arabia.вЂќ
Clarke pressed her finger against the shape. It turned blue and the words New Mecca appeared.
вЂњAh, thatвЂ™s right,вЂќ her father said. вЂњThat one changed its name a number of times before the Cataclysm.вЂќ He rotated the sphere and pointed to a long, narrow country on the other side of the globe. вЂњWhat about that one?вЂќ
вЂњChile,вЂќ Clarke said confidently.
вЂњReally? I think it feels pretty warm in here.вЂќ
Clarke rolled her eyes. вЂњDaddy, are you going to make that joke every time we play?вЂќ
вЂњEvery. Single. Time.вЂќ He smiled and pulled Clarke onto his lap. вЂњAt least, until weвЂ™re actually in Chile. Then it might get old.вЂќ