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Head Over Boots

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It was greener than she had expected. Even though patches of dirty snow held on in hollows and depressions, sagebrush and tufts of bright green grass were beginning to emerge. Roiling gray clouds swept overhead, carried by westerly winds that had Clarke clutching at the steering wheel as her car bounced along the dirt road. She had left behind the gridlock of the city, passed through snowy mountain passes and endless forests, and now found herself in this land of rolling hills and open skies.

It felt like another world. And there she was, on her own, going to a place she had never been, to work for a woman she had never met, to do a job that she had never done.

Not for the first time that day, Clarke asked herself what the fuck she was doing.

Polis, the small town half an hour back on the dirt road, had been enough of a culture shock: there had been a horse tied up on Main Street in one of the parking spaces; literally everyone drove an enormous truck; and cowboy hats seemed to be the hottest fashion trend. She couldn’t believe that towns like this still existed.

So what was a college grad city girl doing there?

(Leaving her friends behind. Abandoning her family. Running away from her problems.)

That all too familiar worry stirred again in Clarke’s stomach, but she had thought this true. She knew this was the right choice. She tried to fight down her anxiety by turning up the radio. The country station crackled a bit, and country was far from her favorite genre, but it was the only station she could pick up out there.

I wanna sweep you off your feet tonight

I wanna love you and hold you tight

Spin you around on some old dance floor

Act like we never met before, for fun

It was a campy song, but kind of catchy too. But Clarke’s attention was back on the road, when her car hit yet another pothole in the road. She tried to avoid another, even deeper hole in the road, but she somehow managed to hit it straight on. Her car shuddered in protest. If her tires and suspension survived this trip, she would be surprised.

(Would she survive this trip?) She just turned the radio higher.

‘Cause you’re the one I want, you’re the one I need

Baby, if I was a king, you would be my queen

You’re the rock in my roll, you’re good for my soul, it’s true

I’m head over boots for you.

Despite everything, Clarke laughed to herself. She had never heard such a ridiculous song. The lyrics and the country twang contrasted starkly with Clarke’s mood, but somehow, they made her feel a little better.

She had been driving for two days, trying to let the big skies and open roads let her mind drift to nothing. Of course, that hadn’t worked. If didn’t matter that she knew Finn was an asshole and her mom was a control freak, or that she had confirmed her decision to leave town over and over again. Clarke still pored over what had happened, her shock, her grudges, and she felt them more strongly than ever. She would never forgive Finn for what he had done. He didn’t deserve it, and frankly, Clarke wasn’t above hating someone for the rest of her life. Why should she waste her time forgiving someone if he don’t even think what he did was wrong?

Clarke just gripped the steering wheel even tighter, her knuckles turning white. Between Finn disrespecting her and her mom trying to control her life, Clarke had had enough. She had needed to get away from everything and everyone. And somehow, that had meant applying for this job on a beef cattle ranch in the middle of nowhere Montana. She hadn’t really expected the phone call that had come in the next day, saying she was accepted right then on the spot. But that didn’t stop her from packing her bags and leaving town without saying a word.

That wasn’t quite true. She had told her best friend, Raven, and made her promise not to tell her mom where she had gone. Even though Raven thought she was crazy and begged her not to get trampled in a stampede, she had still supported her. Clarke was lucky to have her, which only make it more difficult to leave her behind.

But Clarke needed a fresh start. And a ranch one thousand miles away from home was about as fresh as they came.

The way you sparkle like a diamond ring

Maybe one day we can make it a thing

Test time and grow old together

Rock in our chairs and talk about the weather, yeah

As she crested another short hill, Clarke thought she could see some kind of structure ahead. It was the first thing besides dirt, grass, and fencing she had seen since leaving Polis. But even though she was grateful that her drive was almost over, Clarke struggled to stop her heart from racing.

She had signed a year-long contract to work on a cattle ranch…

What the hell was she thinking?

‘Cause you’re the one I want, you’re the one I need

Baby, if I was a king, you would be my queen

You’re the rock in my roll, you’re good for my soul, it’s true

I’m head over boots for you.

As the country song wound down and transitioned to an advertisement about cattle feed, the structures ahead were finally near enough for Clarke to analyze them more thoroughly. The one-story wooden cabin looked well-maintained, with a fresh coat of stain and a dull black roof keeping the elements at bay. A front porch with a porch swing made it look more inviting. A weathered pick-up truck sat in front, mud flaring out from the tire wells. And behind a somewhat dilapidated barn, about one hundred cattle with thick black fur were scattered inside a corral behind a somewhat dilapidated barn.

Clarke turned off of the dirt road under a battered arch that read “Woods Ranch.” Clarke thought the name wasn’t particularly fitting, considering she could only see a small line of trees near a stream, and the rest of the property appeared to be open grassland. She pulled up next to the truck and stopped the engine.

Without the radio blaring or the car rattling over the dirt road, the sudden quiet was oppressive. Clarke glanced back up to the cabin, almost reluctantly. These last few steps would lock her into this future that she had chosen for herself. She could start up the car right now, back up, and return down the long road and never look back.

But then the image of Finn trying to cover himself with the sheet, as the girl in bed with him looked in surprise at Clarke and then back at Finn, flashed before her eyes. He hadn’t told the other girl about Clarke, and he hadn’t told Clarke about her either.

Lying asshole. And she had wasted a year of her life on him.

Clarke stepped out of the car and slammed the door behind her. The rushing wind almost seemed to absorb the sound. Only the slightest squeak from the ranch sign broke the silence. Unlike her hometown, there was no rush of traffic, no honking or passing of busses or laughter or people. Here, all was still.

And it scared her more than anything had so far.

“Are you lost?”

Clarke turned back toward the cabin. A woman, slender but athletic, stood towering over her on the porch despite her average height. Her brunette hair was swept over one shoulder in a tight braid, and her full lips were held in a somber line. Her eyes rested heavily on Clarke, unwavering.

Despite the woman’s insulting tone, Clarke still had to remind herself not to stare.

Clarke held her shoulders back and kept her head high. She had expected a warmer welcome. “I’m the new hire, Clarke. And you are?”

But rather than answer, the woman lifted an eyebrow and shook out a pair of work gloves that had been stuffed behind her belt. A cloud of dust rose around her. “You’re seriously the one that Anya hired? Is this some kind of joke?”

Clarke did not travel almost one thousand miles to be ridiculed before she even had a chance to work. “The only joke here is your lack of social skills,” she said firmly, refusing to be intimidated.

The woman paused her glove cleaning and glared at Clarke under her eyebrows. It sent a shiver down Clarke’s spine. The other woman’s stare was cold and calculating, but that didn’t explain why Clarke’s mouth had suddenly gone dry.

The woman stepped down from the porch and stood just inside Clarke’s comfort zone. Clarke had to force herself to stay put.

“I'm Lexa Woods,” the woman said, quietly but with authority, as she stared at Clarke from less than an arm length away. “And I own this ranch.”

From this distance, Clarke could discern much more about her appearance: a sharp jawline; dark green eyes, cool and unaffected; and lips that Clarke would describe as pouting, if they weren’t part of Lexa’s stony glare. She wore no make-up, and was only dressed in dirty jeans and a thick flannel, and yet she held herself like royalty.

If not for her terrible attitude, Clarke might have thought she was beautiful.

“I’m Clarke Griffin.” Clarke extended her hand into the small space between them and held it there. She was going to be professional, even if Lexa wouldn’t be.

Lexa didn’t even look at Clarke’s hand, but she didn’t have to--they were standing so close together that Clarke knew she must have seen it. Lexa’s gaze just continued to burn into her, and the seconds became unbearable.

But Clarke had had enough. This woman--Lexa--couldn’t even respect her enough to shake her hand. She moved to lower her arm, storm back to her car, and get the fuck out of there, when a warm hand suddenly enveloped her own. Thick callouses rubbed against her palm, so unlike the city hands that Clarke was accustomed to. But despite the roughness of Lexa’s skin and the strength of her grip, Clarke was most astounded by the slender length of fingers and how neatly they fit into her own.

“I hope you know what you’re getting yourself into,” Lexa said, placing both of her hands behind her back. She looked Clarke up and down. “And that you brought more practical work clothes with you.”

Clarke folded her arms in front of her chest. Was it her imagination, or did Lexa's gaze flicker down for a split second? “I have everything I need.” Clarke actually had no idea what she would need over this year, but Lexa didn’t need to know that. “And listen, it’ll be great proving to you that I’m not a horrible employee. But in the meantime, it’s been a long day, and I’d like to move into my room.”

Clarke may have imagined it, but she thought that Lexa’s lips turned up ever so slightly. But as soon as Clarke had seen it, the smile was gone. Maybe her employer did have a sense of humor after all. That would be something to explore (as if there was anything else to do around here besides work).

“Follow me,” Lexa said, already turning back to the cabin.

That left Clarke scrambling back toward the car for her two bags, but even in her rush, she noticed the hissing of air out of her rear driver’s side tire. It was already flat.

“Shit,” Clarke cursed to herself. She didn’t even have a spare.  If she had wanted to turn back, there wasn’t much chance of that happening now.

Tossing the bags over her shoulders, Clarke realized that Lexa had already gone inside the cabin without her.

Of course she had.

If Lexa was going to be her boss for the next year and persisted in being such a hardass, a flat tire may be the least of Clarke’s problems.



**********



Clarke placed her other pair of pants--also skinny jeans--into the solid-wood drawers in her room. Everything was wood: the walls, the bedposts, the small desk in the corner, the chair… it was like an entire forest was felled just to build this cabin and all the furniture in it. Based on the hew marks, Clarke guessed that someone on the ranch had made everything themselves.

When she stepped out of her room and into the kitchen, Lexa was sitting at the adjoining wooden table with a few thick folders splayed out in front of her. Her brow was wrinkled as she frowned down at the papers, and Clarke wondered what she would look like if she weren’t angry or impatient, or if those were her only emotions. A steaming cup of tea sat on the table beside her, but there wasn’t one for Clarke. After the greeting she had gotten before, Clarke couldn’t say she was surprised.

“If something doesn’t change this season,” Lexa began without preamble, not even looking at her, “I’m going to lose the ranch.”

Clarke sat beside her, close enough to read the papers. There was more red ink than black. “And why is that?” She was at least happy that Lexa was talking about the ranch and not criticizing her anymore.

“My calves keep dying,” Lexa said simply, flipping to another sheet in the folder. It had a graph showing a clear downward trend. “I’ve managed this ranch for seven years, but this is the worst I’ve ever seen. Calf mortality reached 40% last year.”

“And without those sales, you won’t be able to keep the ranch running,” Clarke surmised. “But what seems to be the cause?”

“You name it, and it’s happening. Cold snaps in the spring and fall, parasites, breached births, mothers refusing their calves…”

Lexa said it all mechanically, but Clarke saw her swallow past a lump in her throat. All of this seemed to upset Lexa greatly, even if she didn’t betray it in her tone.

“We were able to keep up when we had Nyko,” Lexa continued, finally looking at Clarke. “But he needed to go back to his family’s ranch. Anya and I thought we could manage the herd ourselves, but she’s already spread thin with her accounting business. Which leads us to why you’re here.”

Lexa leaned forward slightly, her hands folding on top of the table. “Your first priority will be to raise calf survival to at least 90%. Beyond that, you’ll effectively be second in command in daily operations.”

Second in command? Clarke realized her jaw was hanging open, and she shut it up tight, her teeth grinding together. Anything she knew about running a ranch came from one livestock management course she had taken in college last year. And while she had taken three years of animal biology courses, most of those were centered on dogs and cats, not livestock.

Clarke was deciding on the best ways to exaggerate her knowledge and abilities, when someone barged through the cabin’s front door. A thin woman with blonde streaks in her hair huffed her way to the table, dropping her briefcase there with a crash.

“I’m late,” the woman announced with no hint of apology. She wore a collared shirt underneath her sweater, which were in stark contrast to Clarke’s casual driving clothes and Lexa’s flannel. “And you must be Clarke. I’m Anya, the one who hired you.”

“Pleased to meet you in person,” Clarke said, though she didn’t extend her hand for a handshake this time. She had learned her lesson with Lexa. Clarke gave Lexa a sidelong glance. “We were just discussing how the ranch is in trouble.”

“Don’t let Lexa scare you,” Anya assured her, as she opened the refrigerator and removed an apple. She took a large bite and talked while chewing. (Clarke decided right then and there that she liked Anya.) “All she needs is one solid year to turn things around. This isn’t the apocalypse.”

But Lexa looked far from satisfied. “I’d say that losing the ranch qualifies as apocalyptic.” She returned her icy stare to Clarke. “All you need to worry about is the calves. We will add other duties after calving season is finished. How are your corralling skills?”

The closest to corralling Clarke had ever been was visiting the buffet at Golden Corral. “A little rusty,” she lied.

Lexa’s expression darkened. “And how are you on horseback?”

Clarke nearly choked on nothing right there. At least it would put her out of her misery. “Not bad. But it’s been a while.”

(Her rich friend’s third grade birthday party, to be exact.)

Lexa turned sharply to Anya, all fury now. “Are you telling me that you hired someone with no ranch experience? How is that going to help us? I won’t have time to train her and take care of the ranch.”

Anya continued eating the apple, unperturbed. “People with vet skills aren’t exactly lining up to rough it in the middle of nowhere for a year, you know that? We’re lucky we found anyone at all.”

Both women looked over to Clarke, Lexa glowering and Anya not much more welcoming.

Clarke forced herself to sit tall under their scrutiny. She may not know exactly what she was getting herself into, but there was no way in hell she would let herself be underestimated by people who didn’t even know her.

“If things are as bad as you say they are,” Clarke said, her gaze sliding between the two women, “then we better get to work.”

Right on cue, a bleat from behind the cabin broke the tense silence. Lexa was on her feet in less than a second, and Clarke followed close behind her.

“One of the cows is going into labor,” Lexa announced evenly. “For all of our sakes, Clarke, I hope you’re better at this than I think you are.”

A cow was going into labor? Now ? Clarke hadn’t even been on the ranch for twenty minutes. Clarke glared at Lexa in a way that she hoped covered up the shaking in her knees. “If you want to fire me after today, then do it. But don’t judge me until you’ve seen what I can do.”

Lexa paused in front of the door, turning back to her. She stared at her for a long moment, before giving her a single nod. She pulled on her field jacket and headed outside.

Clarke had no choice but to follow.



**********



Everyone said that the miracle of life was beautiful. But Clarke thought that they had never kneeled at the business end of a birthing cow before.

The cold wind whipped around them, and Clarke shivered despite wearing the warmest jacket she owned. Thick rubber gloves covered her hands and arms up to her elbow, and she blanched at the idea of actually needing gloves that extended that far.

The pregnant cow lay on her side, black fur contrasting against the snow. She inhaled short, quick breaths, and Clarke thought her own breathing might match the cow’s before too long.

She had studied calf birthing, and even watched her instructor handle a birth at one of their hands-on farm units last year. But being here, having to do it herself, with her employer who could fire her at any moment for not knowing what she was doing? That was almost more stress than Clarke knew how to handle on her first day.

Lexa kneeled down beside her and pulled on another pair of rubber gloves. “When the calf starts to emerge, you have to make sure it’s coming out the right way. If it’s not, you’ll have to reach in and turn the calf around. If everything is going well, all you’ll need to do is watch.”

“Right,” Clarke acknowledged, half-listening to her. She knew that if the calf didn’t come out with its head and front hooves , then they could be dealing with a breached calf or backwards birth, both of which Clarke only had theoretical knowledge of.

She really hoped it didn’t come to that.

The cow’s stomach heaved in front of her, and Clarke realized how crazy this all was. She should be back home, watching Netflix with Raven. Or starting her doctorate, Or even back at her old waitressing job. Or--

Another cow in the pasture began bleating, and Lexa rose up immediately. “Another cow is giving birth. Ask Anya if you need any help.”

And just like that, Lexa was running across the pasture to a cow on the far side of it, the thin layer of snow crunching under her feet. The other expectant mothers in the field were chewing the cud as if Clarke wasn’t about to hyperventilate.

Standing behind Clarke’s shoulder with her arms crossed, Anya made a sound of disgust. “You’re as good as on your own, Clarke. I’ll corral cattle and market beef until my face turns blue, but this? No way.”

Clarke felt what little blood was left in her cheeks drain away. “Thanks. Very reassuring.”

She checked that she had all of the supplies: disinfectant, scissors for the umbilical cord, gloves, rope… But what she really needed was some goddamn experience.

Clarke could see the cow’s muscles pushing downward, and a tiny glimpse of the calf’s hooves emerged.

“No, no no… are those its back feet?” Clarke quickly glanced back to Anya.

“Could be,” Anya said nonchalantly, as she finished her apple. “I hope you know what you’re doing. Mostly because I don’t want to go through the trouble of hiring someone else again.”

Clarke was barely listening to her. She was trying desperately to think back to her textbook, to the (somewhat gruesome) video of a backwards birth that they had watched in class. If the calf wasn’t delivered in three or four minutes, it would drown inside the birthing canal.

“OK, I’m going to disinfect my gloves…” Clarke spoke out loud to herself as she splashed disinfect onto the rubber. “And I’ll need to get the calf turned around. Easy as pie.”

“Everyone always says that,” Anya drawled behind her, looking with fascination at the cow. “But have they ever made a pie? It’s not easy at all.”

“I’ll tie the rope around the calf’s feet…” Clarke said, ignoring her. She was amazed at how steady her voice was. In fact, she felt herself relaxing as she went through the steps. It was coming back to her. She remembered the checklist, and all she had to do was follow it.

(She hoped that would be enough.)

She did her best to force that nagging worry from her mind, as she worked a rope around the calve’s leg. “And now the tricky part will be to get the calf’s hips out. We’ll just need to…”

Clarke reached a hand into the mother and could feel the slimy calf under her glove. The mother shifted in protest, but Clarke did her best to soothe her. “It’s OK, you’re going to be OK.”

(She realized the words may have been more to herself.)

She repositioned the calf’s hips slightly, took hold of the rope, and tugged backward slowly but firmly. The mother continued to shift and even looked back towards Clarke, but Clarke just kept going--it’s all she could do. The calf couldn't’ breathe, and if she didn’t hurry, it would die.

With one firmer tug, the calf emerged all the way to its shoulder, and Clarke cried out in joy. She was doing it. She was actually helping a cow give birth. What awful comments would Raven make if she saw her with one hand literally inside a cow…

Clarke could feel Anya’s stare on her as she worked. “Fuck. Clarke, you’re actually doing it.”

“Don’t act so surprised,” Clarke mumbled, as the calf fell onto the ground behind the mother.

Clarke waited for the calf to start breathing, and after a few agonizing seconds, it took its first breath and sneezed. The calf opened its big eyes and looked at Clarke with the most innocent expression that she had ever seen in her life. She had never thought about calves as cute before, but this one? Clarke could feel her heart melting.

But she took a step back, as the mother cow rose to her feet and started sniffing her calf. The cow began lickings its fur, still wet from the birth, and eventually the calf rose up on four shaky feet and started suckling.

Clarke didn’t know how long she stood there, staring at the mom and her new calf--a baby girl--but she snapped out of it when Lexa returned to her side, eyes wide at the sight of the calf.

“You did it,” Lexa announced, just as surprised as Anya, but Clarke was too enamoured by the newborn to care.

“Yeah, I did it.” Clarke couldn’t help but beam at that, and she finally turned to Lexa to find her staring at her. “I gave birth to a backwards calf.”

“Backwards?” Lexa asked, looking to Anya for confirmation.

Anya nodded. “But Clarke just reached in there and yanked it out in two minutes flat. Faster than I’ve ever seen anybody do it.”

Lexa said nothing, but Clarke could see the wheels turning in her head.

Finally, Lexa seemed to reach a conclusion. “The other calf’s birth was normal, but the mother doesn’t want to accept it. Do you want to take a look?”

Clarke thought this might be the closest thing to an apology she would get from Lexa for underestimating her. “Does that mean you’re not firing me?”

Despite Clarke’s joking tone, Lexa didn’t even crack a smile. “For now.”



**********



Clarke’s footsteps were quiet on the cabin’s hardwood floor, as she shuffled groggily across the planks in thick wool socks. She knew it was April, and April back home meant spring, with warmer temperatures and a transition away from sweaters and fleece and wool socks. But here, Clarke was still wrapped in every warm article of clothing that she had brought. And she was still cold.

“Morning,” she yawned, or attempted to yawn, shambling into the kitchen.

Evidently, the entire cattle herd decided to birth their calves all at once after Clarke had arrived, which meant long days of supervising the process and longer nights watching those cows that didn’t adhere to a silly thing called daylight to give birth. Night after night, she was awoken by Lexa shaking her arm to tell her there was another problematic birth.

Over the past three days, she couldn’t have gotten more than six hours of sleep. And it was beginning to show.

Clarke barely noticed that Lexa and Anya had ignored her morning greeting. She dropped unceremoniously down into the empty chair at the kitchen table.

“No more baby cows today,” Clarke mumbled to herself as she poured herself a cup of coffee from a thermos. “Tell them to wait until tomorrow.”

Lexa glanced up at her from the pile of papers on the table, her usual annoyance simmering. “We had our last birth a few hours ago. I took care of it.”

Clarke frowned at the news. “Why didn’t you wake me? I thought you wanted me to supervise all of the births, since I’m so good at it and all.”

(No one was more surprised about that fact than Clarke.)

Lexa looked away from her back to the papers. “I was going to wake you, but you looked tired.”

“No shit. I’ve barely gotten any sleep for days. And neither have you.” When Lexa didn’t respond, Clarke sighed and softened her approach. “I want to carry my own weight around here, you know.”

Anya perked up at that. “You already are. Calf survival is at 100% so far. You guys can expect to lose a few over the season, but we’re miles ahead of where we were last year.” Anya leaned toward Lexa, smirking. “This is where I say ‘I told you so.’”

Clarke watched Lexa’s reaction carefully, but if she was ashamed at all for underestimating Clarke, she didn’t let anything show. But then Lexa rose abruptly from the table, and Clarke thought that was all the tell she needed.

“We need supplies, Clarke” Lexa said as she took a set of keys from the hook on the wall and tossed them on the table in front of Clarke. “Vaccinations, insecticide, dewormer. I’ve already placed the order in town, but you’ll need to pick them up.”

Clarke frowned into her cup of coffee and grumbled. “I woke up at 6am just to drive to town?”

Insolence was not the way to impress Lexa, judging by how she folded her arms and glared down at her. Clarke tried not to notice how the move accentuated the muscles of her forearms revealed by her rolled-up flannel sleeves. She really hadn’t gotten enough sleep if she was checking out her asshole of an employer.

“We need them as soon as possible, so we can administer them as soon as possible,” Lexa explained in that obnoxiously steady tone of hers. “Having a 100% birthing rate with 50% disease mortality because we didn’t vaccinate them quickly enough would be unacceptable.”

Lexa could be positively didactic, and it drove Clarke crazy. “Obviously. Just let me have some breakfast first and I’ll head out.”

Clarke rose to the refrigerator, feeling Lexa’s eyes burning a hole into the back of her head but not caring. She opened the door and sighed. “For real? You guys finished off the eggs and the milk? Guess I’m going grocery shopping, too.”

“Told you she would be pissed,” Anya muttered to Lexa.

Lexa just quirked an eyebrow. “If she wanted breakfast, she should have woken up earlier.”

Typical, thought Clarke. She changed into her skinny jeans and wool sweater, snatched the truck keys from the table, and shrugged on her jacket from the hook next to the door. She knew it would be freezing outside and that despite her best efforts, she would be shivering the entire way. But at least she wouldn’t have to deal with Lexa for a couple hours.

The sun had just risen over the horizon, awakening the grassland with light that held little warmth. Valleys were still wrapped in darkness, harboring the last of the season’s snow. Clarke wondered how it would ever melt. Just up the hill, the herd moved lazily in a pasture lined on one side by still-bare trees along a stream. It was a perfect place for her to keep an eye on the newborn calves for the next few days. But soon, all the grass there would be consumed, and the cattle would have to be transferred to a new pasture. And at some point, they would need to give the calves their first vaccinations. And then the calves would need to be branded…

The work truly never stopped around here. As exciting as it had been to see the new calves come into the world, Clarke just wanted to get a full night’s sleep.

Of course, having her employer start believing in her would be nice, too. There was no reason why Lexa was still treating her so coldly. Clarke had managed to save at least five calves that wouldn’t have made it otherwise. What else did Clarke have to do to prove herself? Save a calf from drowning in a stream? Eliminate every flea from the herd? Fight off a bear with nothing but a lasso and her sharp wit?

(She didn’t even know if there were bears around there.)

Still simmering, Clarke climbed into the unlocked truck--they didn’t bother locking any of the doors around here--and settled into the seat. But as she moved to start the truck, she froze.

It was a manual. She had never driven a manual in her life.

Shit.

But she could figure this out… how hard could it be? Besides, Clarke would be damned if she had to go back to the cabin and beg Lexa or Anya to teach her how to drive this thing.

After a few tries and experiments with the clutch, Clarke got the truck started and glared at the road in front of her as if it were an enemy to be defeated. She slowly hit the gas…

And the engine gave out immediately.

“You have got to be shitting me,” Clarke raged to herself, depressing the clutch and starting the truck again.

She looked in the rearview mirror, hoping against hope that Lexa wouldn’t be watching her do this. But sure enough, there she was on the front porch, wearing her thick flannel and a smirk that was a mile wide.

“You condescending, asshole, prick…” Clarke muttered to herself.

By the time she got the engine started again, Lexa was already walking toward her from the porch. But by some stroke of luck, Clarke managed to start rolling forward and out from under the Woods Ranch front gate, leaving Lexa in a cloud of dust that the woman had to wave away with a hand.

“Serves you right,” Clarke said to herself through her smile. It felt good to rub it in Lexa’s face that she wasn’t some clueless, uppity urbanite (at least not all the time).  

She was over the next hill before the engine died again, out of sight of the ranch. But after some choice words, Clarke got the truck started again and practiced her upshifting and downshifting, accelerating and braking. By the time she arrived in Polis, Clarke was at least satisfied that Lexa would have to find another reason than her manual driving skills to make fun of her.

Because for some reason, Clarke needed to not just earn a paycheck from her employer.

She needed to earn her respect.



**********



The engine sputtering in protest, Clarke pulled into Polis’ one diner. It didn’t even have a name, because it was the only act in town and didn’t need one. It was more busy than she thought any place should be at 7 o’clock in the morning, but she supposed that most people who lived there must also be living on ranch time.

Clarke took the last booth available. The diner’s walls were lined with black and white photos of ranch workers, horses galloping on rolling hills of grass, and plenty of supposedly award-winning cattle (but they all looked the same to Clarke: vaguely cute but kind of stupid).

“Haven’t seen your face around here before,” a dark-haired, middle-aged waitress said, coming by her table and pouring her a cup of coffee. She waited expectantly for Clarke’s answer.

“A new hire,” Clarke explained, curious if she could get some information from her if she spilled a few useless facts first. “At Woods Ranch. My employer likes to starve me in the mornings, so here I am.”

The waitress barked a laugh. “Sounds like Lexa. She can be a bit rough on people until she gets to know them.”

For some reason, Clarke was surprised by the waitress’ use of her boss’s first name. It seemed too personal. “You know Lexa?”

“Of course,” the waitress said, as if it were obvious. “Everyone knows Lexa. She and her daddy practically ran this town, rest his soul.”

“Oh, I didn’t realize….” Clarke hesitated. She hadn’t known that Lexa’s father had passed away, but she had been wondering how a woman only a little older than herself came to be the sole owner of a 150-cattle operation. “When did that happen?”

The waitress held her chin thoughtfully. “Oh gosh, seven or eight years ago now. She hasn’t been in town as much since it happened. But then, she must be busy running the ranch by herself. Any breakfast for you this morning, since Lexa’s starving you out there? We’ve got great pancakes.”

“That sounds great,” Clarke said, watching the waitress leave and walk around to the other tables to refill cups of coffee.

Just then, Clarke’s cell phone started vibrating in her pocket nonstop. She had almost forgotten to bring it. Without any cell coverage on ranch, carrying her phone around had already fallen out of habit. But back in cell service, she scrolled through the long list of texts and missed calls.

She deleted Finn’s messages without even reading them. He was officially cut out of her life, even if he didn’t realize it yet. Her mom’s texts were harder to ignore. She hesitated for a long time, thumbs hovering over the screen, but eventually typed out only “I’m safe.” She considered telling her at least what state she was in, but that would only lead to more questions and more guilt trips that Clarke didn’t have the energy to deal with.

But finally, she opened Raven’s texts, which Raven must have sent yesterday when Clarke was in the reception dead zone at the ranch.

Raven: if you get ax murdered at the ranch, do i get your stuff??

Raven: not your CD collection tho because LOL i can only take so much christina aguilera

Raven: who tf even owns CDs anymore you nerd

Raven: ok jokes i don’t care about your stuff but i do want to know you’re OK. call me anytime i mean it!

Still waiting for her pancakes, Clarke decided to see if Raven actually meant that. She accepted that it was going to voicemail after the fifth ring, but then a groggy voice croaked into her ear.

“You better be dying,” Raven grumbled, thick with sleep.

“Good morning, Raven!” Clarke said in her most chipper tone. “I got your texts.”

“Good? I think?” A commotion sounded on the other end. “Fuck Clarke, it’s 6:13 in the morning.”

“7:13 here. And you said I could call you at any time.” The coffee must have been kicking in, because Clarke was feeling much more energized. Or maybe that was just from hearing Raven’s voice again. Not getting to see her best friend and roommate was the hardest part of the move (besides not knowing if she would make a complete jackass of herself on the ranch).

“You can call me anytime I’m awake, obviously,” Raven groaned. “I didn’t think I would need to specify that. You don’t wake up before 10am unless there’s a morning exam worth more than 30% of your grade.”

“Not true,” Clarke insisted. “I skipped one exam that was worth 15% because I was already getting over 100% in the course. What can I say, I’m an expert at mammal physiology.”

“So the rumors about you are true,” Raven jabbed before sighing loud enough for Clarke to have to hold her phone away from her ear. “OK wait, just let me put some coffee on or something. Fuck, it’s early.”

Clarke heard some shuffling on the other end, as she supposed Raven was getting out of bed and heading to the kitchen.

“OK, I’m back,” Raven said. “Coffee’s being made. So what the fuck, Clarke. Are you out there? Did you make it? You didn’t answer my texts.”

Clarke laughed to herself. Raven always swore like a sailor, even first thing in the morning. She was glad the waitress was nowhere to be seen, because she knew her phone speaker was always a little too loud, no matter how low she turned the volume. “Yeah, I made it. There’s no cell service at the ranch, so I didn’t get your texts until just now. I’m in town right now.”

The ranch. Wow.” Raven let out a low whistle. “I still can’t believe you’re doing this.”

“Me neither,” Clarke grumbled to herself. She still felt like all of this was some kind of dream (or maybe a nightmare, in the worst moments). “But things are going surprisingly OK, I guess. The ranch is good, even if the ranch owner is a bitch.”

“What’s her deal?” Raven asked with a yawn. “Sorry, still waking up.”

But Clarke was already running through all the reasons Lexa bothered her. “You should have been there when I first showed up. She was just so… hostile when we met. For no good reason, you know? I just drove literally a thousand miles, and she insulted me off the bat. And she’s always looking down on me for something. She told me I wouldn’t last a day out here. And she does this thing, where she’ll just stare at me, like I’m a complete idiot…”

The waitress walked by during her tirade and frowned at her. Maybe Clarke should be more careful with her words here, but she didn’t want to sugarcoat things to Raven.

“Yeah, she sounds lovely,” Raven said once Clarke lost her steam. “Good thing you only have to work for her for another year!”

“Ugh, don’t remind me,” Clarke groaned. “I don’t know how I’m going to make it.”

“But you will,” Raven assured her. “One way or another. Even if I have to come all the way out there and beat her ass.”

Clarke snorted to herself. “Thanks, Raven. But I think I can handle this.”

“Yeah, you’re Clarke fucking Griffin. Of course you can.” It sounded like Raven took a sip of coffee. “So what, is everything there a big ol’ western stereotype? Flannel, big belt buckles, hot cowboys, the works?”

“Lots of flannel,” Clarke said, looking at the other patrons in the diner. “But no hot cowboys,”

Unbidden, an image of a sharp jawline and thick lips came to Clarke’s mind. She realized with a start who it was and hated herself for it. She wasn’t even attracted to Lexa, obviously. Of course Lexa was beautiful, from a purely physical standpoint, but she was one of the coldest people that Clarke had ever met. That was not an attractive feature in her book.

Still, the line was silent for too long, and Clarke knew she was in trouble.

“Any hot… cowgirls?” Raven asked slyly.

Clarke rolled her eyes. “Why? Are you gonna come over here and seduce them?”

“Not if you’re already seducing them. That’s some serious competition.”

“And don’t you forget it,” Clarke said, with more humor than she felt. Talking about this just reminded her about what Finn had done to her, and why she had come out here in the first place. “But it doesn’t matter if there’s anyone cute out here. I’m done with anything but perfectly platonic relationships for a while. Consider this my cleanse. A year-long cleanse.”

Just as the waitress approached Clarke’s table with a smile, Raven snorted into the phone. “You, celibate for an entire year? You were going crazy freshmen year if you didn’t fuck someone new every week.”

The waitress’ smile dropped as she placed a plate of pancakes in front of Clarke, and Clarke realized that despite her volume being at its quietest, the waitress must have heard what Raven had said. “I was stressed out with exams and didn’t know how to deal with it, OK? And don’t slut shame me.”

“I’m not, trust me,” Raven said. “But all I’m saying is that maybe you shouldn’t hold yourself back if a certain cowboy or cowgirl catches your eye?”

“That’s not why I came out here, Raven, and you know it,” Clarke said. She even meant it.

“I know, I know.” Raven’s voice was conciliatory. “But I don’t want you to come visit a year from now and throw yourself at me because you’re a horndog.”

“Rude,” Clarke muttered, bringing her voice low so that the other patrons couldn’t hear her. “Just because I have a high sex drive doesn’t mean I don’t have standards.”

“Oh Clarke, don’t make me go through the long list of examples that refutes that point.” Raven paused. “If you want to be a lone wolf this next year, that’s your decision, and I support it. But if anything happens, just know I will show you no mercy and will laugh at you until I pass out.”

“That’s fair,” Clarke said, smiling into the phone despite herself.

“So…” Raven drawled. “This attractive cowgirl wouldn’t happen to be, oh I don’t know, your boss, now would she?”

“What?” Clarke practically choked on her sip of coffee. “Eww. Raven. I told you, she’s a complete bitch.”

“Yes, you did,” Raven responded, unconvinced.

Clarke wished that Raven could see how offended she was by this, just so this conversation would stop. “She didn’t even leave me any food in the house for breakfast this morning. Which, if you know me at all, is a very serious offense.”

“Hungry Clarke is a grumpy Clarke, I know.”

“So nothing is going to happen, Raven,” Clarke said emphatically.

Raven hummed thoughtfully for a moment. “Is she brunette?”

Clarke just sighed. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“Athletic build? Probably has tattoos?” Raven continued.

Clarke didn’t know if Lexa had any tattoos, but she imagined swirling black lines running down Lexa’s back, partially obscured by her long braid, and disappearing beneath the waistband of her--

She forced herself to stop, shaking her head slightly. “It doesn’t matter. She’s one of the most stuck-up, emotionless people I’ve ever met.”

“And she’s also your type,” Raven said smugly. “Physically, at least. I can’t wait until you guys do it later.”

“Did I mention she’s straight?” Clarke said. “Or at least, she probably is. She does own a lot of flannel, but everyone here does.”

“Uh huh. Well, just know that if you decide to make a habit of fucking your bosses, you have my support.”

Of course the waitress dropped by to refill her coffee at that exact moment. Clarke silently cursed Raven--and her cell phone. The waitress scurried away without making eye contact.

“OK, first of all Raven, that was one time,” Clarke sighed into the phone. “And second of all, now the waitress thinks I’m a complete skank thanks to you.”

Raven laughed into her ear. “I’m just trying to set the record straight. Pardon the pun.”

“Ha ha ha,” Clarke mocked, even as the smell of pancakes in front of her made her stomach grumble. “Listen, I almost can’t hear you over the sounds my stomach is making. And I think I’ve been ridiculed enough for one day, anyway.”

“Oh come on, Clarke. You know I do it because I love you! But sure, I don’t know what the fuck I’ll do now that I’m awake this early, but I’ll figure it out. Should I try to call you later? Or is chat better?”

“Chat, for sure,” Clarke said, as she poured syrup generously over her pancakes. “There’s internet on the ranch. It’s practically dial-up, but it’s better than nothing.”

“Cool. I’ll chat at you then. But definitely not at the ass crack of dawn again.”

“I’ll shoot for seven next time,” Clarke said with a grin.

“Nine, please. Let me live.”

Clarke laughed as she said goodbye and hit end call. Raven always knew how to make her feel better. Even if she had no idea what she was talking about when it came to Lexa. Clarke couldn’t even imagine what kissing Lexa would be like, let alone anything else.

(Lips, full and soft, moving slowly against her own, deliberately, deepening, Lexa’s tongue sliding across her lower lip--)

Clarke blinked in surprise. She didn’t know where that thought had come from. It was ridiculous, obviously. She didn’t want to kiss her boss. She barely wanted to talk to her boss. She blamed Raven for even suggesting that she liked Lexa like that.

Silence settled around the booth again. Conversations buzzed around the room, but Clarke sat alone, her only company the tall stack of pancakes and her cup of coffee. But she reminded herself that no company was better than the Ice Queen at the ranch, or her asshole ex-boyfriend back home.

Being alone was just what she needed.

She repeated that to herself as she ate her pancakes, as she picked up the vaccines from the general store, as she bought groceries and drove the truck over bumpy dirt roads back to the ranch (only stalling out twice).

She needed this time to find herself, to break free, to grow and learn. And she didn’t need anyone else to do that.



**********



The next week was a blur. Clarke had hoped that after calving, things might slow down and she wouldn’t have to wake up before dawn every day, but no such luck: all of the calves needed to be vaccinated and branded; the cows and bulls needed their boosters; they all needed to be dewormed and protected against fleas and ticks. But all of that was manageable, even if she collapsed into bed every night and fell asleep in two seconds flat.

The next task was less… fun.

Castration. The newborn male calves had to be castrated. By Clarke.

When Lexa had handed her what looked like gigantic nail clippers straight from hell, Clarke turned them in her hand with a growing sense of dread. “Is this some weird kink of yours?”

Lexa paused her check of the corral fencing in the pasture yard adjacent to the barn to cast Clarke a tired look. At least it was better than the glare she was used to. “Have you used a cattle bander before?”

Clarke wanted to say yes, of course she had used a bander. All the time. She was a cattle banding expert. But as she slowly came to the realization what the bander was for, she decided that messing this up would be far too messy.

“I’ve… never had the pleasure,” Clarke admitted, cringing at her choice of words. “That was the wrong way to put it.”

Clarke thought that Lexa would glare at her, accuse her of being uselessly inexperienced and complain about Anya hiring her again. But when Lexa just nodded and continued her inspection of the corral fence, Clarke was instantly suspicious. She tucked the bander into her jacket pocket and joined Lexa at the fence, pretending to know what she was looking for besides an obvious gap in the fence.

Clarke ran her bare hands along the fence, the frigid wind making her fingers tingle. “Is that going to be a problem?” she asked. “That I’ve never done it before.”

Lexa turned to her, facing her straight on with a searching look. The sudden scrutiny made Clarke want to fold her arms or fidget, but she kept her hands firmly on the fence.

“Two weeks ago, I would have said yes,” Lexa said, her face emotionless. “But now I know that you’re a fast learner and have an eye for detail. I don’t trust you on your own yet, but I think that if I show you how to do it, you can learn.

Clarke analyzed the compliments balanced by Lexa’s lack of trust in her. “You know, if that came from anyone else, I might be offended, but from you… I’ll take it.”

Maybe she imagined it, but Clarke thought she saw just a hint of a smile from Lexa. But all too quickly, it was gone, and Lexa was frowning again and pointing towards Clarke’s hands, which were turning red in the cold.

“You should really keep your hands in your pockets when you’re not working,” she said, as if that moment hadn’t passed between them at all. “Or buy some gloves.”

Clarke tucked her fingers into her skinny jeans pockets, but they were so shallow that they only covered the first two knuckles of her fingers. That fact didn’t escape Lexa’s attention, but her only response was a raised eyebrow before she returned to work.

Clarke wondered what it would take to make Lexa smile, really smile. What she had given her before, it had been small but… nice, in the sense that Lexa wasn’t berating her or making her feel completely inadequate. She realized that she hadn’t heard Lexa laugh yet since she had arrived at the ranch. But she supposed that Lexa hadn’t heard her laugh yet either.

But Clarke couldn’t finish that thought, because Lexa was done with her work on the fence, and it was time for Clarke to figure out yet again how the hell to be a ranch hand. Holding the cattle bander in both hands, Clarke gave it an experimental open and close.

She couldn’t help but feel very bad for these male calves.



**********



At dusk the next day, Clarke stumbled back to the cabin so tired that she wasn’t even sure if she could manage to eat dinner before passing out that night. Her work with the cattle bander had taken the last two days, and if Clarke didn’t have to look at another calf’s bits up close for the rest of her life, she would be happy..

Beside the barn, her car sat there as uselessly as ever with its flat tire, but the ranch’s work truck was nowhere to be seen. From what Clarke had seen so far, it was unusual for Lexa to leave the ranch that late at night, but in the end, Clarke was too tired to care. She only had the energy to drink a glass of milk before curling up in bed and falling fast asleep.

The next day, Clarke wasn’t awoken by the usual sounds of activity in the kitchen, but when she came out of her room, there were still the tell-tale signs that Lexa had made herself her usual eggs and toast. Lexa didn’t bother to be quiet in the morning, but either she had been silent today, or Clarke had been so tired that she had slept right through it.

But all of that faded from Clarke’s mind, when she saw the bundle wrapped up on the kitchen table with a thin rope, crosswise as if it were some country version of a Christmas present.

Clarke fumbled through untying the rope, her fingers clumsy in her half-state of sleep. She opened the box to reveal…

Clothes?

A six-pack of wool socks; wool sweaters, one thick and one thin; a long-sleeve, button-up cotton shirt that would not be out of place in any country bar; two flannel shirts, one with a fleece liner; jeans and thick working pants; a pair of sturdy boots; and the thickest jacket that Clarke had ever seen, complete with hood and enormous pockets. And placed on top of it all, were two sets of working gloves.

All of this must have cost a small fortune. Or at least, far more money than Clarke had in her bank account after four years of university.

She rushed back to her room to try everything on, and she didn’t think she had ever been more excited about functional clothing in all her life. To her complete surprise, everything fit perfectly, which was never an easy task given her curves.

Clarke sat on her bed in a new pair of jeans and a wool sweater. She remembered how Lexa had told her to put her hands in her pockets, and how she had frowned at Clarke’s skinny jeans. No one else could have bought her all of these things. But how had she known her size? And more crucially, why had she bothered doing this? As her employer, Lexa was under no obligation to buy her clothes and equipment that Clarke hadn’t been smart enough to bring on her own.

But here Clarke was, finally looking like she belonged on a ranch, and finally equipped to deal with whatever the elements would be throwing at her over the next year.

A small smile crept up on her face as she fit the pieces together. Lexa must have snuck out after a long day of work to do this for her. And then Lexa had intentionally made herself breakfast one thousand times quieter than she usually did, just so she didn’t have to be in the same room when Clarke found the bundle of clothes.

Clarke slipped on her new work boots and laced them up, her smile wider than it ever had been at this ungodly hour of the morning.

It was only because the clothes fit her so well, and she would be comfortable and warm all day.

It had nothing to do with the fact that maybe Lexa didn’t dislike her as much as she had thought.