Since the winter Clark no longer needs a clock to tell the time. It dawns on her slowly in the months after her father's death: that she can feel the earth spinning on its axis as morning becomes night, and sense the planet's revolutions around the sun as winter loosens its grip, as spring blooms into summer and autumn ripens. One night when sleep is elusive, she lies flat on her back under the covers and feels the land shifting, minutely, under tectonic pressures. She listens to her mom's quiet inhalations and steady heartbeat, the cattle lowing in the fields, the hens clucking, scratching, laying their eggs. Outside her bedroom window, the air stirs and warms as the sun begins to peep over the horizon.
Clark sighs and rolls out of bed. There's work to do.
Running the farm almost single-handedly required that she drop out of college, a sacrifice she made with only vague regret. Her mom continues to manage the farm's books and the garden, but more and more of Senator Martha Kent's time is spent honouring Jonathan's other legacy. They're both still grieving in their own ways.
With Shelby for company and two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to tide her until breakfast, Clark collects eggs, milks the cows, crates up fruits and vegetables, then drives to town to deliver her produce to grocers that buy from the Kent Farm. Smallville is beginning to rouse, the Talon's doors opening to Monday morning commuters in need of a caffeine fix before heading to Metropolis. Clark doesn't linger to say hello to anyone. She has the custom harvesters scheduled to start in two days now that the corn is ready and there's a lot to get done beforehand.
At home, Martha's awake and wrapped in a robe, her hair still wet from a shower, the farm's bills spread out in front of her. Breakfast is on the table. Clark wolfs down pancakes, sausages, and coffee while Martha alternates between the Daily Planet and the Smallville Ledger, reading a few stories out loud and commenting on others. It's their new morning ritual.
"Oh," says Martha, when she flips to the Daily Planet's Arts & Entertainment section. She stares hard at it for a moment, then lays it face down on the kitchen table.
"What?" Clark reaches for the paper when her mom doesn't answer. THE NEW LEX GIRL, the headline proclaims, with a paparazzo shot of Lex and Lana outside LuthorCorp Plaza. "Oh."
Her mom's eyes are worried. "Clark..."
"I'm fine, Mom," says Clark, tossing the paper aside. "Really. I'm going to grab a shower, okay?"
There's calcium build-up in the shower head's tiny nozzles, creating an uneven spray. Time slows until the spray becomes a hundred million individual spheres that burst like tiny water balloons against her skin. If she concentrates, she might feel the molecules themselves...
It's a thought that should scare her, but it doesn't. She breathes. The scalding heat is pleasure, not pain.
When time is relative, so too is the length of a shower. The next time Lois moves in, she'll just have to suck it up. Clark gets out eventually, and super-speeds through towelling off. She pulls on clean clothes, jeans and an old Smallville High t-shirt, French braids her hair, then straps on her dad's watch. She might not need it to tell the time, but it's become something of a talisman against the daily grind, a reminder of Jonathan Kent's ability to live each day to the fullest.
Downstairs, her mom is hanging up the phone. "I've RSVPed for Lex's benefit ball," she says, then adds carefully, "for two."
"Oh, honey," her mom sighs, rounding the island to give her a hug, again with the worried eyes. "You don't think you can handle seeing them together?"
No, is Clark's instinctive response. "What do I care?" is what she says, pulling out the Arts & Entertainment section again to study that photo, of Lex and Lana caught on camera unawares. "They want to pretend they're in love, I'm not going to stop them." The article talks about Lana as though she's arm candy to Lex's billionaire playboy, like that's all there is to them. Clark knows better... Or she used to. In a way it's easier to believe their relationship is simply a meaningless fling. Another of Lana's attempts at rebellion. Lex grasping at normalcy.
"We all have our own ways of moving on," Martha says quietly. "Whether it's about growing up or just... surviving."
Clark aches to hear the loneliness in her mom's voice. "I'll never change, Mom," she promises, squeezing her shoulders. "I'll always be here."
"I know you believe that, Clark," replies her mother, sending her out the door with a kiss.
Clark is hitching the chaser bin to the tractor later that morning when she hears it: Lex has a new sports car. The engine sounds new, at least, different than the familiar purr of the Ferrari, Porsche, or Aston Martin. She listens as the car whips down Route 40 at a reckless hundred miles an hour. When Lex makes the turn off that will take him straight to the farm, Clark barely controls the urge to put her fist through the side of the bin. Instead, she blurs across the field and into the barn before the car pulls into the front drive. Clark leaves her toolbox and work gloves in the barn and goes to confront her unwanted visitor.
But the man who steps out of the bright yellow roadster isn't Lex Luthor. He's blond, taller by a good three inches, and dressed casually in jeans, a white t-shirt, and a black leather jacket. When the man turns, Clark almost trips over her own feet like a high school freshman, unprepared for the sudden spark that leaps between them when their eyes met.
She stares at him and he stares back, lips parted. Time bends and stretches around them until a raised voice from inside the house, Lois ranting about a senator's aide, brings Clark down to earth. "Hello," she says awkwardly.
"Hello," the man echoes, looking as stunned and off-balance as Clark feels. He blinks and shakes it off, then takes out an envelope from inside his jacket. "For Senator Kent."
Clark accepts the envelope, grateful to focus on something besides her unexpected reaction to a handsome stranger. "Oh, from Queen Industries, thank you."
"You're welcome," the man replies, with a small, hesitant smile. The slight nervousness is odd, uncharacteristic given his looks and designer jeans and that yellow monster on her front drive--
The sports car.
"Wait," she says abruptly. "You're not Oliver Queen, are you?" With dawning horror she realises there's cow shit caked on her boots.
"Guilty as charged," Queen replies, his smile turning up a notch. The corners of his eyes crinkle up in a really appealing way. "And you're the senator's daughter?"
"I... Yes, Clark Kent." She shakes his hand, trying to ignore the interesting calluses that seem out of place on a billionaire playboy. His grip is firm and he's reluctant to release her hand. "Why, uh, why don't you come inside, Mr Queen," she stammers, blushing. "I'll let my mother know you're here."
Clark toes off her boots on the porch and leads her mom's guest through the back door into the kitchen just as her mom and Lois come down the stairs, arguing about tax cuts.
"Mr Queen!" Martha exclaims, welcoming him with a strong handshake. "I'm so pleased to finally meet you. Thank you for taking the time to come all the way out here."
"The pleasure's all mine, Senator Kent." Queen flashes a grin that bears little resemblance to the more intimate smile he shared with Clark outside. "I've been wanting to visit Smallville for some time now and your invitation gave me the perfect excuse to get out of Metropolis for a couple of days."
Lois sticks her hand out, bold as brass. "Lois Lane. It's great to meet you."
"Lois is my chief-of-staff," explains Martha. "And I see you've met my daughter."
"I have, yes." Queen shoots Clark a quick look under his lashes that makes her cheeks burn. "Miss Kent, the pledge?"
"Hmm?" Then Clark remembers the envelope in her hand. "Oh, right. Here, Mom."
Martha takes it, her eyebrows quirked in a question that Clark pretends not to notice. "I really appreciate your support, Mr Queen. We have a lot to discuss, so may I suggest we move to the living room where we can be comfortable? Clark, would you like to--" Thankfully the Kent family non-verbal cues never fail to translate: one good look at Clark and Martha redirects mid-sentence. "--put on more coffee for us?"
"Sure, Mom," replies Clark, her voice pitched a bit higher than usual. "You go, sit. I'll bring it over." Martha graciously leads her guest into the living room, away from her daughter.
Clark searches blindly for the coffee pot before finding it in its usual spot on the counter. "Get a grip," she whispers to herself, watching the coffee drip. "So he's hot, big deal. He's not your type." Oliver Queen is, in fact, the opposite end of the spectrum from her type.
Lois appears at her side. "You okay, Smallville? You look kind of... freaked out."
"I don't know what you're talking about," says Clark, rather unconvincingly. "I'm fine."
"Mm-hmm." Lois leans a hip against the counter, her arms crossed. "You and Mr CEO? You guys are giving off some major sex vibes." Clark gaped at her, brain flailing for a coherent response. Sex vibes? Lois shrugs with studied disinterest and adds, "Not that I'm judging, but I wouldn't have guessed you'd be attracted to... Well, him."
"I'm not," Clark snaps, her cognitive functions lurching into sudden motion. "I'm not, you're just-- There's nothing, okay?" She darts a quick glance at the living room, flinching when Oliver Queen looks up and meets her gaze. She whips her head around, shoulders hunched in humiliation.
"Okay, okay, I'm sorry." Lois backs off, startled by her vehemence. "I didn't mean anything by it."
Clark slops hot coffee into three mugs and points at them. "Can you take these over? I have chores to finish." She escapes, the kitchen door slamming behind her. She tugs on her boots, jumps the porch steps, and hits super-speed once she's beyond sight of the house.
It's the adolescent girl in her, but horses are by far her favourite farm animals. Her dad preferred cows, always argued they were smarter than horses, more valuable to the farm. Her mom used to laugh, "But cows aren't romantic, Jonathan, is what your twelve-year-old daughter is saying."
So of course Oliver Queen finds her flaking hay in the stables and murmuring sweet nothings to old dame Phaedra, former dressage champion. He walks slowly up to her, hands tucked in the front pockets of his jeans. Smiling that little smile. It's like something out of a Lifetime movie.
"Here you are. I was afraid you'd left."
His interest is clear in his voice, in his body language. Clark actually recognises it for what it is, which is almost as confusing as her own reaction to him. "No, I'm here." She crosses her fingers that she's not whisked off to the arctic or trapped in another dimension in the next ten minutes.
"I need to get going soon," Queen says, reaching over her to break apart a couple of flakes for the Paint in the next stall. "But I wanted a chance to say goodbye before I left."
"Oh." That's it? He was leaving? Disappointed, and confused by her disappointment, Clark retreats behind pleasantries. "Okay, well, it was very nice meeting you, Mr Queen."
"Please, call me Oliver. Or Ollie, if you like." He looks at her so intently that heat, dangerous and familiar, starts to build behind her eyes.
Angling away from him, Clark fights down the fire that's threatening to be unleashed. Only once she's regained her equilibrium does she dare open her eyes, thankful she's no longer a hormonal fifteen-year-old. Hay and heat vision don't go well together. When she turns around again, Oliver is across the aisle and making the acquaintance of a frisky chestnut mare, leaving plenty of breathing space between them.
"She's a beauty." He moves to pet the mare, then draws his hand back. "May I?" he asks lightly.
It's a good question, one for which Clark doesn't know the answer. "That's fine, Kismet loves the attention," she tells him instead. "Her owner's been sick and I'm too busy to spoil her very often." Oliver manages to tear himself away from Kiz long enough to help Clark break up another bale and feed the other horses, though he goes straight back to Kismet's stall once they fill all the troughs. "You're smitten with her," Clark laughs, amused.
Oliver looks sheepish as Kiz preens. "Mind if I give her a treat?" He pulls a Granny Smith out of his pocket. "Your mom gave me one for the road."
"Here, let me." Clark plucks the apple from his hand, twists it clean in half, and gives both halves back. Their fingers brush.
"Thank you, Miss Kent."
"Clark," she blurts out, red-faced. "You can call me Clark, I mean."
"I'd like that," murmurs Oliver, with a warm glance from under his lashes. A remarkable accomplishment, really, for him to look up when he has five inches on her.
Kiz lips his open palm, hoping for more. "Sorry, gorgeous, all gone." He strokes her neck when she butts his chest affectionately. "You're a sweetheart, aren't you? She reminds me of this pony I had as a kid." He glances around the stable at the nine other occupants in their stalls. "Which one's yours, Clark?"
"Horses are for people with money," she snorts, not quite a laugh. "We just board them."
He winces. "Ouch. But hey, fair."
When he slips into Kismet's stall and begins grooming her, Clark takes the opportunity to study him. She wonders what it is about this man that has her blushing every time he looks at her. There's no question that he's good-looking. Clark is secure enough in her sexuality to admit when a man is objectively good-looking, even if she doesn't feel any personal attraction. She can admit that he has beautiful eyes and a sweet, teasing smile and strong, callused hands and... Oh.
If there's one aspect of her life that Clark absolutely refuses to be in denial about, it's her sexuality. She has enough secrets and shame in her life that this cannot be one more. No hiding from the truth, even when it's strange or frightening or threatens to throw everything she knew out the window. She's gay. She's attracted to a man. Somehow these two facts need to be reconciled.
Minutes and seconds, humanity's arbitrary markers for time, slip silently by as she considers the man before her. The earth spins in the dark emptiness of space. After a while, Oliver sets down the curry brush and comes over to rest his forearms on the stall door.
"You're staring, Clark."
"Sorry," she says, but this time she doesn't blush.
"Hey, I don't ask questions when a beautiful woman decides to check me out." His lips curl up in a wicked grin, but after a moment the grin fades and his expression grows serious. "I do have a question for you, actually," he says, meeting her gaze directly. "Would you like to have dinner with me tonight?"
Clark opens her mouth, then realises she doesn't know how to respond. Certainly 'no' would be the safe answer, the smart answer. Saying 'yes' would be... something else altogether. "I can't," she eventually replies. "I'm meeting a friend." The friend in question is Chloe and the plans are pizza and girl-talk at the Daily Planet, but it's a convenient excuse that has the virtue of being true.
"Tomorrow night, then," says Oliver, not missing a beat. "Seven o'clock. The Golden Orchard, on Main Street."
"My favourite restaurant." Clark shakes her head, bemused that her mom must have tucked that minor detail in between her opinions on Medicare and the Middle East. She hesitates a while longer, waiting for what she didn't know. Inspiration, maybe. An unassailable reason to reject this man, besides the obvious.
Sensing weakness, Oliver presses his suit. "I promise it'll be a completely low pressure date. You can set the pace the whole night, what do you say?"
Clark cringed. "How about we don't call it a date."
"Not a date, then, just dinner. Two people sitting at the same table, having a meal, maybe a little conversation." He pauses, then peers cautiously down at her. "So, that was a 'yes'?"
There would be time later for second thoughts. And third, fourth, and fifth thoughts. "I don't have any other plans, so yes, I suppose that's a 'yes'."
"Good," says Oliver, and gives her that smile.
Her breath catches in her throat. Oh, yeah. This is going to go great.
With Chloe, there's no need for the polite fiction that Clark relies on conventional transportation to get around. She leaves the truck at the farm and takes the low tech route to Metropolis, slowing to human speeds in a deserted alley behind the address Chloe had texted. It's one of several apartment buildings near Met U that house off-campus students and struggling artists, and Clark can hear several loud parties already getting started.
"Please tell me you're not dragging me to a kegger," she grumbles when Chloe meets her in the lobby.
"It's not a kegger, I swear." But in the elevator Chloe keeps fidgeting with her cell phone, looking nervous and a bit guilty, until Clark loses patience and swipes it. "Clark, give it back!"
"Not until you tell me what's going on," she says, holding the phone hostage over Chloe's head. "Why the change in venue? Whose apartment are we going to?"
Chloe hops up and down, a futile attempt to reclaim her phone. "Come on, Clark, give it!" She switches tactics and pulls out the Bambi eyes. "If you can't trust your BFF, who can you trust? You wouldn't want to ruin my surprise, now would you? Pleeease."
"Fine," Clark huffs, tossing the phone back. She sulks against the wall of the elevator until it creaks to a stop on the ninth floor.
With an admonishment not to use her X-ray vision to peek, Chloe leads her down the hall to 914 and drags Clark inside, giggling, "Surprise!" The apartment is a sparsely furnished bachelor with a kitchenette in one corner, a double bed in another, and an old couch and TV taking up the third wall. Typical student housing.
Standing in the middle of the room is Pete Ross. "Clark Kent," he says, with a grin that stretches from ear to ear. "Long time, no see."
Clark's jaw drops. "Oh, my God, Pete?" She stares, flabbergasted, then launches herself at him with a shriek, hugging him tight.
"Ow, ow, Clark, ease up!" But Pete is laughing and squeezing her back almost as hard. "Girl, could you have possibly grown any taller? What are you, six feet?"
"Nah, only five ten." Clark pulls back to take a good look at Pete. He's wearing black jeans and a blue Metropolis General t-shirt. He's grown a bit since their junior year, though Clark still tops him by a couple of inches, and he's bulked up in the shoulders and chest, looking strong and solid. His voice has deepened, grown softer and mellower. In contrast his face is sharper, leaner. More worldly, somehow.
Still, he's the same Pete who used to dig up worms with her in the garden, the same Pete who gave up his life in Smallville to protect her secret. "God, I've missed you," she whispers, with another fierce hug. "How are you? How's your mom? What have you been up to? Have you been in contact with Chloe all this time? Are you guys back together again? When did this happen?"
"Good, good, working as an EMT, not this whole time, yes, and three weeks ago," Pete replies, ticking off each answer on his fingers. "And before you get pissed at Chloe for keeping secrets, that was my bad. I didn't want to start making waves in everyone's lives before we decided for sure this relationship was gonna make a comeback."
"And now?" Clark glances at Chloe, who's practically incandescent with happiness.
Because Chloe believes strongly in the judicious application of disclaimers, she says, "I'm not promising that we won't trip over a few of the same stumbling blocks as last time, but think about it, Clark. What are the chances? Of all the ambulances in Metropolis, what were the chances Pete would be driving the one that I called for?" She's talking about the meteor shower, Clark realises. "I was all alone. The world was ending and then, suddenly, there was Pete coming to rescue me. I can take a hint from destiny too, Clark." She slips her hand in Pete's, smiling softly up at him. He smiles back with that same old adoration in his eyes.
They end up ordering two large pizzas and chilling on Pete's broken down couch. "Senior year was total crap," he tells Clark when she asks what he's been up to these past two years. "I didn't make the football team, not that I really cared at that point, but my new school didn't have anything like the Torch and that sucked." He makes a face, like he can't even believe he's saying that.
Chloe, curled up next to him in one corner of the couch, slaps his arm at the implied insult. "All they had was a monthly newsletter for the parents, nothing for the students! Can you believe it?"
"I'm appalled," says Clark, mocking, then ducks when Chloe throws a pizza crust at her.
"Anyway," Pete drawls. "Mom said I needed some kind of extracurricular for my college applications, so I started volunteering as an ambulance driver. Figured I'd put my God-given talents to good use, right?" He smirks, a little self-deprecatingly. "To be honest, I kind of missed the whole 'helping people' gig we had going. Not the freaky mutant powers from, like, random Smallville citizens infected with meteor rock, or the danger to life and limb--but the chance to be someone who made a difference. Someone like you, Clark."
"And that's why you became an EMT?" she replies, waving away the other thing. "So you could save people who needed saving?"
"Pretty much." A wry smile hovers in the corners of his mouth. "I mean, being paid to drive really, really fast with sirens blaring has pretty much always been my childhood dream--" Clark laughs because Pete had been obsessed with firetrucks when they were kids. "--but mostly I do it because I can help people, save lives."
"That's great, Pete," she says, warmly. "That's really great." When Chloe leans up to kiss her boyfriend on the mouth, she smiles with approval and decides to give them a moment, getting up to carry greasy napkins and empty pop cans into the kitchenette.
As happy as she is for them, seeing Pete and Chloe together again brings up all sorts of painful memories of Lana. And of Tina, surprisingly. But perhaps it shouldn't be that much of a surprise considering Clark had dated Tina for years and had only been with Lana a few months. All the usual girlfriend things, the phone calls and dates and afternoons hanging out, the secrets and little moments of intimacy, Clark had shared with Tina first. And Pete and Chloe had been right there with them, four silly eighth-graders, as yet undaunted by high school.
She wonders what Tina would think of Oliver. She wonders what Oliver would think of Lana.