On promises made and kept
For @bgonemydear, who wanted reunited childhood sweethearts in a historical au.
The train hadn’t finished slowing down when Bellamy hopped off. It had been years since he had been back to Arkadia— six, as a matter of fact— and already he could tell things were different. There was a train station, for one. No more walking to Polis and catching the train there. There was a bank now too, and soon enough there would be a law firm, too.
Bellamy left the station and turned down the main thoroughfare. His mother and Octavia wouldn’t be expecting him until tomorrow, but he had decided last night he couldn’t wait. He’d taken an earlier train and would come back for his things with the wagon tomorrow.
Murphy saw him first. He waved from the porch of the general store and went back to sweeping, a very different man from when Bellamy had left. He was married now, Octavia said, and far more settled. The town had changed and the people had too, which he supposed was the general order of things. He wasn’t the same boy who left. The Bellamy Blake who had left Arkadia had been a boy from a poor claim who only owned the shirt on his back and two tattered books and now he was a lawyer with an expensive suit and a position at Charles Pike’s firm, coins jangling in his pockets as he walked.
He had paid off the mortgage the first chance he got, and now his mother rented the land out to other farmers for pasture. That was all it was good for, anyway, and Bellamy made more than enough to keep them comfortable. He rounded the corner separating his mother’s land from the Millers’ and heard a joyful shout in the distance.
Octavia had seen him from a quarter mile off and she was running to him, her skirts flying as she pumped her arms. She threw herself into his arms with a screech and he swung her around. “You weren’t supposed to be here until tomorrow,” she scolded, and he laughed and set her down.
“I got impatient. Are you complaining?”
Octavia grinned and punched him in the shoulder. “Never.”
His mother’s reaction was more subdued but no less joyful, and she insisted on making a roast even though he protested that the chicken she was going to make for herself and Octavia was more than sufficient. But all throughout dinner she cast him careful, measured looks, and when Octavia was preoccupied with the washing she pulled him aside.
“Have you seen her?”
“No,” he said quickly, but his eyes darted to the window towards the Griffin homestead anyway.
“I thought you might have gone to see her first,” she said. “I would have understood.”
Even after all these years, it hurt. By all rights he should have been going to see Clarke first. He should be coming back to marry her; he would be, in fact, if she had agreed to wait. That was all he wanted— all he’d ever wanted. Almost as much as he’d wanted an education.
But she didn’t want him.
As the sun sank below the horizon he found himself pulling on his boots. “Want some company?” Octavia asked, but he shook his head.
“Just want to take a walk,” he said, and that was some of the truth. Mostly, he wanted to show himself he could remember Clarke without falling apart.
He went straight for the tree on the rise between their property. There had been some dispute over who found it first, him or Clarke, and for the first year they warred over it like opposing armies. But at some point their enmity had shifted to friendship, and soon they used it as a meeting spot. There was a hollow in it the perfect size for hiding treasures, and for years they left notes for each other there.
The tree had been host to other things too, hesitant kisses and fumblings that were sweet and bright in his memory, with a clarity he had spent six years hoping to shake. The sky turned orange and purple and pink and he sat down, thinking of all the times he had been in this very spot, his back leaning against the tree while Clarke sketched. Sometimes she would lay her head in his lap and let him card his fingers through her hair, lulling her into a doze until their mothers shouted for them.
The tree was where he asked her to marry him, and where she broke his heart. That’s not the life I want, she had said, her face immobile and cold. He had left angry but that anger had turned to sadness by the time he arrived in his boarding house, but by then it was too late. He started dozens of letters to her but none of them felt right, so in the end he simply told himself it was a childhood love and nothing more.
Sitting next to the tree now, six years later, he knew that was a lie. He reached into the hollow out of idle curiosity, but his hand brushed something that didn’t belong. It was hard, wrapped in waxy canvas, and when he pulled it out and unwrapped it, he recognized it.
Abby Griffin had kept it on the hutch near her doctoring kit, a plain, unremarkable wooden box except for the initials JG carved into the top.
It was Clarke’s. That much was certain. It was Clarke’s and he had no right to pry, but he told himself this tree didn’t just belong to her. And he had spent so long yearning for anything of hers that the temptation was just to great. He lifted the lid and all the air left his lungs at the sight of his name in her deliberate, careful cursive.
Dozens and dozens of letters, and as he flipped through them he saw each one was addressed to him, all with a date marked neatly in the corner. He chose one at random and looked at the date— three years ago. Another was from five years ago, and one on the top was dated that very year.
His vision swam and he felt lightheaded. Behind him the prairie grass rustled and he turned to see Clarke frozen five feet away. “You found them,” she said, breathless. “I heard you were back, and—”
He drank in the sight of her— she was just as he remembered but different too, like everything. Some of her curves were softer and some of the lines of her face were sharper, but she was still Clarke, still so beautiful it hurt to look at her. “You wrote to me,” he said dumbly.
Clarke sank to her knees and snatched the letters away. She stuffed them haphazardly into the box without looking up. “I never sent them,” she mumbled.
“You wrote to me,” he repeated. “You— I thought you— you said no. You said you didn’t love me,” he stammered out. “Right here. Six years ago. I asked you to wait for me, and you said no.”
She sniffled and kept her eyes on the box. Her hand shook as she fumbled with the latch and she shook her head. “I never said I didn’t love you,” Clarke said quietly.
“I asked you to marry me,” he said again. “You said no.”
“Because I didn’t want you to come back,” she said and looked up. Her eyes gleamed but her chin was lifted, proud and fierce. “I didn’t want this life for you. You deserved better. It wasn’t because— I never said I didn’t love you. I did.”
“And right did you have to decide that for me?”
She tore her eyes away from him. “None. But I also knew I would never forgive myself if you came back here just for me. I wanted you to be free– free to choose without feeling beholden to me.”
Bellamy picked up a letter she had missed and looked at the date. “You wrote to me last week,” he said. A hope he thought was long extinguished bloomed in his chest. “Do you?”
“Do I what?”
“Do you still love me?”
“What does that matter now?”
Bellamy lifted her chin with his finger so she was looking at him. “Do you still love me?”
“How could I ever stop?” she said with a half-laugh, half sob caught in her throat.
Bellamy had won awards in school for his speeches. He was devastating in the courtroom with them, and he could marshal them to win any argument, convince any opponent. But here, words failed him.
So he caught her face in his hands and kissed her instead.