Disclaimer: I don't own The Walking Dead. Everything belongs to whoever owns them, my wishful thinking aside.
Authors Note #1: likegalileodroppedtheorange on tumblr asked for: "Kabby prompt: Grounder!Marcus and scars" – Set in the same universe as my Grounder!Marcus fic: "Incalescent" but it isn't necessary to have read that previously to understand the premise of this fic.
Warnings: description of injury, blood, canon appropriate language, scars and violence.
The wound was simple enough.
In truth, the hard work was mostly done.
All she had to do was clean and stitch it up.
He was lucky it hadn't gone any deeper.
It must have deflected off something before piercing the skin.
But it was the scars that criss-crossed down his back that made her pause.
She examined them as she held a bundle of sterile gauze to the wound. Noting they seemed to be separated into two categories. The plain ones she recognized immediately, a kill count. Marks that signified lives taken in combat. She blinked, fingers flexing as she resisted the urge to run her hand down the span of pebbling scars.
There were three neat rows, six per line.
But it was the grouping on the other side, raised like pustules and tattooed red that made her pause. They were set aside from the other marks in almost every respect. Notably different in some way she was not privy to as she watched them move in time with his breathing. They were small and grouped together in a circle, spiraling out from the jut of his shoulder, halfway down the curve of his spine before stopping. She lost count at a hundred and forty.
She bit down on the inside of her cheek until she tasted her own red. Wanting to comment. To know. Perhaps even to cast judgement as she wiped the wound clean and inspected the edges. Using her scissors to cut the line of thread she'd need as he remained silent and stone-steady in front of her. Breathing slow and measured like this entire situation wasn't the least bit uncomfortable, whereas she was hanging onto her tongue by a breath. Trying to find a comfortable medium of understanding between their two cultures as his words from before rang through her head.
"No disrespect meant, Chancellor Griffin, but for my people, assuming your ways are the best is not the wisest way to make friends."
Maybe it was his endless serenity and poise that grated on her, or maybe it was just a forgone conclusion that she was going to ignore her better judgement, but as she sterilized the needle she couldn't help but bring them up. Wanting answers. Wanting to know how a man who'd killed so many was the one their Commander had chosen to help bring their people into the Alliance.
To forge peace.
"I've treated warriors half your age with double the amount of these particular marks," she remarked coolly. Watching the muscles in his back flare with an exaggerated exhale, like she caught him off guard. "I was told you were a great warrior," she finished, leaving the most important part unsaid. Feeling justified in some childish way she didn't quite understand as her pulse throbbed uncomfortably fast under her skin.
He didn't turn to face her.
He didn't speak.
In fact, for a long moment there was nothing.
Still, she didn't take the words back.
They were still in the process of navigating where they stood with each other and she saw no need to reign herself in when it came to the man that a child - a young woman barely older than her own daughter - had seen fit to send. She could find a hundred and one convenient excuses for the words and she was determined to cling to them all. Ignoring the small like voice in her breast that reminded her of the fluttering in her belly the first time they'd met.
"It is true," he remarked eventually, crisp and austere as he stayed with his back to her. "I am well grown, yet have far less to boast of than others. But then, I'm more interested in saving lives than taking them, when I can. Is that something you and I will have in common, Chancellor Griffin?"
Behind his back her eyebrow rose, grudgingly impressed by the return.
The worst part was that she had a feeling she was going to hate to love him already.
"Will you need to be sedated?" she asked after a moment, ready to get started. Making sure everything was arranged around her for when she needed it as she unscrewed the cap on the small bottle of antiseptic. Readily anticipating that his answer would be negative.
He cocked his head. Craning his neck so that he could look back at her for a handful of beats. Clearly not understanding.
"Something for the pain?" she clarified, holding up her suture and thread as his expression cleared and he gestured at an earthen cup on the stool beside him.
"Ah, no," he replied, shaking his head. "There is something my people take to numb the wound. Our healer already administered the tea before you arrived. It is- unpleasant, but very effective."
She chuffed a laugh, believing it. Oral painkillers had a tendency to be very bitter. She eyed the cup speculatively. Picturing an herbal mixture – something with willow bark, boswellia and ginseng perhaps. All of which would certainly get the job done. The only real question was the dosage. And that was easy enough to test.
"Good, because otherwise this will sting," she added lightly, dousing the wound with a good portion of the bottle before waiting for a reaction. But apparently the healer's remedy was as good as her word because save for a subtle rippling of flesh, more from the impact than anything, there was no reaction from him whatsoever.
Or at least not until the man inhaled and promptly choked.
"Jesus! Chit ste bilaik!? Disha ste supposed kom heal?!" he exclaimed, ducking his head and grabbing his nose. Huffing like a disgruntled horse as the acrid tang of the chemical saturated the air between them.
"Antiseptic," she replied, getting the just of it as he eyed the bottle like it might be combustible. Unable to keep the smile from her face as he slowly settled himself back down in the furs, nose twitching. "It makes sure the wound doesn't get infected."
The rest of the moment was a learning experience that teetered on the side of curious intimacy when she smoothed her hand down the plane of his back. Steadying herself as she hooked the first suture and pulled the thread taut. Only subconsciously aware that eventually her breathing slowed down to mirror his. Working together in the most basic level there was as the air hung humid and heavy around them.
It wasn't until she was halfway through her stitching that she allowed herself to ask.
"What do these other ones signify?" she murmured, tone whisper-low as her gloved-hand ghosted across the span of the raised reds. Respectful this time as he stiffened underneath her for the first time since they'd started.
For a long moment, she wondered if he was even going to answer, but then-
"They signify the deaths I am responsible for," he replied slowly, carefully. Tone brittle in a way she didn't quite recognize coming from his lips as she stilled in mid-stitch, frowning.
"I don't understand, I thought that these-" she paused, pointing towards the eighteen scars on the other side of his back. "Signified how many you've killed in battle?"
"They do," the man allowed, chin dipping into his chest momentarily – like he was paying homage to the truth of it - before straightening again. "But these marks represent lives I have taken in a different way. As a leader, we are sometimes called on to make difficult choices. To hold the lives of the many above the few. As the leader of your people, you know this, yes?"
She nodded, hands flexing around the suture as the warm metal grew clammy and slick under her skin. Giving them a moment to breathe before she caved to the silent demand for more.
"Can I ask what happened?"
This time, when he turned to look at her, his smile was wry.
Adding a layer she hadn't expected as she waited for him to continue.
"Two years ago there was a sickness. Something our healers could not cure. It made the blood grow thick – leaking out of the body through the mouth, nose and ears – spreading bloody legions across the skin. Entire families were wiped out. It struck almost every house. And those that did not die, lingered in agony for many weeks. Begging for death," he explained, speaking slowly, like every word was being carefully chosen as she continued her stitches. Giving him the illusion of privacy as a clammy sweat broke out across his shoulders.
"When the sickness threatened to spread to Polis, I gave the order to cull the spread."
Cull the spread.
She didn't have to ask to know what he meant.
"They were sick, dying," she started, finding compassion in the debris of her scattered thoughts. Watching a singular rivulet of red seep down from the wound. Trickling down between the raised red dots like a metaphor before he shook his head – emphatic and almost angry.
"No, you don't understand," he returned flatly, the line of his back stiff and unyielding under her hands as she looked up. Staring at the back of his head like she was meeting his eyes rather than the loose waves of his hair. "In order to ensure it could not be passed on to the Capitol, everyone in the closest village was culled. I gave the order to lock them in their homes, sick and healthy alike, and set fire to their homes while they slept."
"I could have separated the healthy from the sick and waited. But I believed my way was right," he continued, tone heavy and almost dull in its bluntness as she forced herself to set the suture aside. Fingers shaking too much to continue as his words hit far too close to home for comfort.
"It was only after that I realized I'd been wrong. If I had waited, maybe-"
He shook his head.
"But that is my weight to carry, not yours."
She bit down on her lip. Remembering a remarkably similar choice that she had been about to make on the Ark before it fell out of the sky. About three hundred lives and the reality that unless they reduced their numbers, there wasn't going to be enough air for any of them.
"Believe it or not, you aren't as alone as you think," she started, deciding that one confidence deserved another as his body language shifted into something just shy of baited interest.
"Perhaps in this we are not so dissimilar after all," he remarked thoughtfully, once she'd finished. "Each of us have taught our children what they need to know to survive. Not out of madness or cruelty, but because it was what we ourselves were taught. And in turn, what the world taught us."
She opened her mouth, automatically wanting to disagree. Wanting to say that they didn't teach their children to murder in order to survive. To pick up weapons before they came of age and go into battle with their parents when the need called for it.
But she couldn't.
Because he was right.
On the Ark they'd taught their children the same lessons, only in different ways.
"Perhaps," she replied eventually, forcing a smile she knew he saw right through as the admission turned bitter in her mouth. Feeling the weight of his eyes as she forced herself to see her experiences through his eyes. Knowing that somehow, he'd already accepted hers the same way.
They each had a lot to atone for.
She exhaled shakily into the feathers of his hair as she tied the last stitch and used a sterile cotton swab to carefully clean the edges of the wound. Breathing through the fallout as the silence of the tent weighed heavy and close. Humid. So unlike the stale cold of space that something in her still missed it in spite of it all that it threatened to make her weak the very moment she needed more than anything else to be strong. Strong for herself. Strong for her people.
Once out in the open, the guilt of that what if was almost crippling. Because if it had come down to it, she would have. To save the many, she would have condemned the few. That was the burden of leadership. Making the impossible calls. That ones that stay with you for-
It was the soft of his hand on her wrist – gentle and warm – that brought her out of it. Overly conscious of the way the muscles tensed and flexed and he turned to face her. Showing her the similar state of his chest, tanned skin and scars borne – earned – during a lifetime of struggle.
"The past is an animal," he told her quietly, emphatic and open, perhaps for the first time as they shared kinship – a shared experience – in that moment. Reminding her, if nothing else, that she wasn't alone. "Sometimes it is quiet and content. Other times, it rarely stops screaming. But in my experience, there is always a reason."
"If our children's-children are to look back on this moment as the start of a new beginning for our people, can we at least both agree to try for the former?" he hummed softly, dark eyes. "For a peace that is not blind, but knows it's past and the consequences of its actions so that it might never make the same mistakes?"
She nodded, breathing in the strange, but growingly familiar scent of him.
They owed their people to try, at the very least.
"We've both taught our children how to survive, not how to live," she answered slowly, swallowing hard. Seeing that perfect possibility start to take shape in her mind's eye. Letting herself believe it as his quiet insistence radiated outwards. Threatening to swallow her whole in the best and worst of ways. "But that isn't the way it has to be anymore. Not for either of our people. And our scars- the ones that have shaped us, the ones that still haunt us, they don't have to hold us. We can do better. Be better."
This time his smile was layered. Different. Almost making her believe that between the two of them they could see it happen as one of the guards swept into the tent behind them and set a tray of fragrant tea and coal-roasted flatbread beside him. Leaving her a towel and a bowl of clean water to wash with before bending down to collect the bloody bandages and hurrying away without a word to her murmur of thanks.
"Well said, Chancellor Griffin. Now, before we start, will you join me?"
A/N: Thank you for reading, please let me know what you think. – This story is now complete.
Reference: Translations from trigedasleng, the grounder language on "The 100" – to English.
"jesus! Whit ste bilaik!? Disha ste supposed kom heal?!" = "Jesus! What is that!? This is supposed to heal?!"