"I can't believe Uncle Dave bought you a bike." Pete grabbed a handful of popcorn from the bowl he and Bella were sharing. He plopped onto the sofa beside her and sunk onto its cushions. "What is this world coming to?"
"Well, I can't believe you forgot we were coming today. Clark and I spent most of the night looking for you!"
"Pipe down," he said in a loud stage whisper. "Mom's asleep and the last thing I want is her coming down here and giving me the third degree, too."
"Fine." She tossed a popcorn kernel into her mouth. "So where were you?"
"Just out, riding around. What did Clark have to say about my disappearing act?"
She shrugged. "Not much. We were catching up more or less. I think I surprised him a little."
Pete gave his cousin the once over. Five years had made a difference. Gone were her chubby cheeks and thick pigtails. Bella Ross had matured into an attractive young woman. If he were staying in Smallville, he'd have to beat the guys off with a stick to protect his favorite cousin. "You're not the girl he remembers."
"Losing Mama changed me," she said softly, "and what I'm wondering now is what changed you? Is it the divorce? Your mom and dad were so close. When Dad told me they were splitting up, I didn't know what to think."
"None of us do. I was right there with them but I didn't see how bad things were. It's weird how we can be blind to the obvious."
"Yeah, it's so easy to see what you want to see, but it isn't always smart." She rested her head on his shoulder. "I wish you weren't moving away. Any chance I can get you to stay?"
Deciding to leave hadn't been easy. He and Clark had waited for their senior year forever. Now, the greatest time of his life was upon him. In Smallville, he had friends since childhood. People who knew him. In Wichita, he'd walk through the high school halls alone. He swallowed hard. Alone, huh? Lately, he'd been more alone than he ever had been in his life.
"I guess it was a long shot," she murmured. "Senior year and we're both going in as strangers."
"Not you," he said. "You know Clark. I'll talk to him. He'll look out for you."
"I don't want him to feel obligated."
"What?" Pete moved so that he could look into her eyes. He saw answers to questions he never dreamed to ask. What a revelation. His cousin had a thing for Clark Kent! Was there any female under the age of eighteen who didn't?
"You know how it is. You two are best friends. I'm not riding on the coattails of that." She looked away. "I can tackle Smallville High on my own. So tell me, how many hearts are you breaking by leaving town? I bet half the school will be heart broken. Are you sure you want to be the cause of so much sadness?"
He laughed. "You're too much. Flattery and guilt-tripping, cuz, you won't stop at anything, will you? Look, there's no one. I'll leave and no one will remember me--"
"I don't believe that."
"What about you? Who are you leaving behind in the Windy City?"
She shook her head. "No one."
"Listen, Bella, about Clark...he has a way of breaking hearts without trying--"
"Who said anything about Clark?" She set the bowl of popcorn on the coffee table and rose from the sofa. Her rigid back and quiet voice spoke volumes. "He and I may renew our friendship or we may not."
"Cuz, don't kid yourself. I see that look in your eyes and know what it means because I've seen in before. There are things about Clark--" He stopped abruptly. How could he protect his cousin without betraying his friend? "Clark is a cool guy and makes a great friend. Just don't get caught up. I don't want to see you get hurt."
"Neither do I." She came to perch on the arm of the couch closest to him. "So, who’s the knucklehead who chose Clark instead of you? Whoever she is, you know she's an idiot, right? You're a great catch."
"I am not that transparent," he denied.
"We're like this." She held up two crossed fingers. "You read me; I read you. What's her name?"
Unwilling to suffer through a lengthy interrogation, he said, "Chloe Sullivan."
"The editor of the school paper? The one you complained about riding you on your articles?" She slapped her forehead. "You always bitched and moaned about her. I don't know how I missed it."
"Well, you're not the only one."
"Did you at least try?"
He shook his head. "There's no point in trying. She was always all tied up into Clark. I don't mind being the guy who makes everyone laugh, but I don't want to be anyone's second choice."
"You are the master keeper of secrets," Chloe announced as she stepped into the Kent barn.
Clark stood at the telescope. His hands gripped the round bar as he looked into the dark night. At the sound of her voice, he jumped at least a foot and turned to glare at her.
"You shouldn't sneak up on people like that," he accused. "What are you talking about? What secrets?"
"The ones about Pete. Why didn't you tell me he was moving away and better still why didn't you tell me how he felt about me?!" She slung her bag onto his desk with enough force to make the wood rattle. "I had a right to know!"
"What?" A dark scowl glowered on his face. "Unlike a lot of other things, this is not my fault. Pete didn't tell you about it because he obviously didn't want you to know! Don't blame me for that. You might want to look in the mirror instead."
Chloe stopped short. His reprimand cut her to the quick. Her first defense, a snappy comeback, failed to come to the rescue. Head down, she shuffled to his side and leaned against the wall. "I thought he was just kidding around."
"I missed it, too." Clark's shoulders relaxed. The fight seemed to pass from him. "I hate that he's leaving. He's always been there. I guess I took it for granted that he always would be."
Her feelings for Clark clouded a lot of things. Her jealousy of Lana almost ruined their friendship. Rejection ignited her fighting spirit and made vengeance a credible option. Acting on that impulse forever changed her relationship with Clark, too. Now, Pete...good, ole reliable Pete didn't want to have anything to do with her either. Spunk and tenacity were great skills for a reporter but if overused were hell on personal relationships.
Realization slowly wove its way inside her. "I can't believe I never talked to him about what happened."
Clark remained silent. Yet, she knew he was helping if only by listening.
"He kissed me and I just stood there. He told me he loved me and I just blew it off. I saw him tonight and he barely looked at me. His parents are divorcing and I've been there, but was I there for him? No. Not once! God, I'm heartless. No wonder you didn't want me and for the life of me, I don't see why he did." Tears stung the back of her eyes. "I'm don't deserve Pete Ross. I don't deserve anyone."
"Chloe don't," Clark said as she broke into sobs. He closed her within his comforting, protective embrace. "You're not being fair to yourself."
"For the first time in my life, I'm being honest about myself." Closing her eyes, she leaned against the solid wall of his chest. She felt safe within his arms, but the dizzy thrill of the close proximity failed to surface. Somehow along the way, her romantic feelings for Clark had truly diminished. "This was so long overdue. You tried to tell me so many times, but I didn't want to listen. I am selfish and I only ever see the big picture. He's leaving because of me."
"It's not just you," he said in voice hoarse with emotion. "Pete is going through a lot right now."
"But it's Senior Year and he won't be here. That's not right, Clark. I don't want him to leave. I want him here with us."
"So do I, but what if what we want isn't in his best interest? What if the best thing we can do for him is to honor his wishes and let him go?"
She pulled free of his comforting hold to meet his gaze. His bluish green eyes appeared murky, as if tortured by the conflict of his emotions. He didn't want Pete to leave any more than she did, but he was willing to honor his friend's wishes. A lifetime of friendship was on the brink of moving to Wichita, and once again, he chose the selfless act. How?
"I don't think I'll ever know anyone else quite like you," she said.
Heat infused his cheeks. His mouth quirked into a half smile. "I guess I'll take that as compliment."
"It is. So many times, our friendship came close to being lost forever. But here we are."
"Some things were meant to be."
She nodded. "And some things we screw up. I hurt Pete. I know what it's like to be on the wrong end of the love stick. Without the magic truth serum running through me, maybe I would never have known that he loves me. I behaved irresponsibly then but I have no excuse now."
"Chloe, maybe it'd be better if you left it alone."
A humorless chuckle rolled from her parted lips. "When have I ever been able to do that."
"What are going to offer him?" Clark asked. Anxious concern burst from him in waves. "Don't hurt him anymore than he has been. He can recover from this. We all know what this feels like. Everyone has been on the wrong end of that stick, but it wouldn't be fair to beat him with it. You don't return his feelings. He understands that. Let it be."
"I can't," she said in a choked whisper, "because I don't know that I don't return them. I never gave myself the chance to consider it. Maybe that's why I never talked to him. It was easier to pretend everything is one-sided. Pete's a great guy. He's cute, caring and smart. When he kissed me..."
"I felt it." She grabbed her bag and headed to the wooden staircase. "Thanks for listening."
As she bounded down the stairs, Clark called out, "Chloe! What are you going to do?"
"I don't know, but I think I'm gonna play it by heart."