"You're not the Salvation Army."
Clark shrugged and released a low chuckle. As he reached out to take the loaded box from Bella's grip, he silently marveled at the changes of his childhood friend. Denim and cotton hugged her in all the right places. She transformed into a swan and Pete had never said a word. Chloe wasn't one hundred per cent accurate. Clark shared the title of master keeper of secrets with Pete Ross.
"No, I'm not." He peeked inside the box. It served as a container of forgotten memories. A worn baseball glove, a barely used baton, and a pair of ice skates rested on top. Using his x-ray abilities, he could have surveyed the entire box, but he didn't want further proof that his best friend was moving away. "So they're donating everything to charity."
"Aunt Abigail cleaned out the attic," Bella said. She took the box from Clark and set it on the porch beside the other nine boxes. "She called the Salvation Army. Someone's supposed to come by and pick up this stuff."
"When? If she wants, I can take it over there. I don't mind."
"She's in the kitchen." She opened the front door. "You know the way."
"Are you coming inside?"
She shook her head. "But you can bring me a glass of lemonade when you come back."
"Anything you wish."
"Be careful. I may hold you to that."
He moved through the Ross home with the ease of familiarity. Growing up, he spent as much time there as he did at the Kent farm. He and Pete were as close as brothers. During the summer, they were inseparable. Pete's mom jokingly called them misfit twins. Her warm smile and gentle voice were every bit as welcoming as Martha Kent's. Smallville wouldn't seem the same without Judge Ross and her youngest son, Pete. The guilt of taking his best friend for granted returned and threatened to burn a hole in his gut.
"Hi, Judge Ross."
"Clark, I was just talking to your mother." She returned the cordless phone to its base. "I don't know what I'll do without her organic produce. It's a long drive to Wichita from here."
"Yes, ma'am, it is."
She gestured to a chair at the kitchen table, and he sat. "Can I get you anything?"
"Bella wants lemonade." He watched as she retrieved a glass from the cabinet and pulled the pitcher from the refrigerator. While his mom could bake anything and make it taste gourmet, Judge Abigail Ross made the best lemonade he'd ever tasted. Pete often joked that his mom made up for her limited cooking skills by making lemonade as sweet as pie.
"Pete left a little while ago," the Judge said. "I thought he was headed your way."
"We probably just missed each other."
"You don't have to cover for him." She handed the full glass to him. "The last few months haven't been great. I hope moving to Wichita with me will help him sort things out. If nothing else, we can rebuild what's been chipped away. I'm sorry that you and he won't share your Senior year together, but you have an open invitation to visit any time you want."
"Thank you. I'm gonna miss him," he said, "and you, too. I wish...I wish things were different."
"Yes, so do I. I know that things have been strained between you and Pete. Your friendship has meant the world to him."
"It has to me, too, Judge Ross," he said. "I don't want him to leave without him knowing that..." He rose from the table. "If I don't run into him in town, I'll come back later."
"That will be fine."
He took the glass and moved to exit the kitchen. Her words stopped him as he reached the door.
"Bella could use a friend, too, Clark, if that's not too much to ask."
"It isn't. Besides, she already has one."
He shook his head. "You don't have to. Good luck in Wichita."
"Thanks. You too."
"You're an easy woman to track down." Pete closed the door behind him as he entered the Torch office. Tension had crept into his shoulders on the drive over. He willed himself to relax. He could do this. He had to.
Chloe left her desk to meet him halfway. "Actually, I was on my way out. I was coming to look for you. You can't leave with all this stuff hanging between us."
She looked funky and adorable in her wild color and varied pattern creation. Only Chloe Sullivan could pull off a polka dot top and a striped pants ensemble. While he personally preferred a more conservative look, he fully enjoyed the eye-catching visual.
"I'm sorry about last night," he said.
"Stop it!" She took the last step to reach him. She took both his hands and squeezed. "I'm the one who should apologize. I'm always so caught up in my world that I wasn't a good friend to you."
"A friend," he mumbled. He lowered his gaze to their locked hands. Her small fingers felt so good and so right against his. It didn't make any sense that they weren't truly meant to be. But he supposed he always knew it all along which was why he never pursued her. Facing the inevitable would have been hell.
"I-I know you want more than that," she said. "I wish you had told me and given me a chance."
"You don't have to say that. I know how you feel about Clark--"
"Correction. How I felt about Clark. I care about him. That will never change. But I care about you, too."
He pulled away from her grasp. His footsteps took him to the Wall of Weird. An impressive open scrapbook lay before him. He was there for a lot of the stories; yet, the power of the meteor rocks never ceased to amaze him. The meteor shower did a lot of damage, but it did some good, too. The destruction of Krypton gave him his best friend.
"I didn't come here for your sympathy, Chloe," he said quietly. "I did a lot of thinking last night. Yeah, I'm hurt that you don't feel the same way, but I'll get over it." He turned to face her. "I don't want to leave with a rift between us. Your friendship means everything to me. If it's possible, I don't want to lose that."
"You won't." She moved to him again. Her arms flung around him. "You couldn't."
He accepted her embrace. Squeezing his eyes shut, he enjoyed the sensations enveloping him. The warmth and softness of her body. The lilac scent of her flesh. The wispy tips of her hair as they brushed his cheeks. All were permanently etched in his memories. As their hug ended, he kept his hands at her waist for a fraction of a second longer than necessary. When she didn't pull away, he allowed one small dash of hope to linger.
"I was us to keep in touch."
He laughed softly. "I'm getting pen pal offers coming and going."
"What?" Her brows drew together in a small frown.
"Nothing. Inside joke." He smiled. "I'd like to stay in touch, too. You know my email address. Wichita isn't that far away. Maybe you can visit when you're not too busy. My cousin Bella has moved here. You two are polar opposites, but I hope that doesn't stop you from becoming friends."
"I can offer her your old job here at the Torch. How is she at writing?"
"She's more into creative fiction. Hunting down stories...I can't see her doing that."
"Well, I'll talk to her and see what we can work out." She took his hand and they walked to the door. "I'm going to miss you, Pete Ross. I didn't realize how much until right now."
"Leaving is something I have to do. Who knows? Maybe I won't stay, but right now, I gotta go."
"I understand. What are you doing today?"
"I think I'm free. I wanted to show Bella around." He opened the door and they moved into the hallway. "Wanna join us?"
Footsteps echoed in the hallway. Pete instantly recognized the silhouettes of Clark and Bella. They moved together with ease. If his friend didn't have such a bad rep in the romance department, he could support the idea of them hooking up.
As they moved closer, he noticed that his best friend and his favorite cousin actually looked pretty good together. He glanced at Chloe for her reaction. The usual flare of intense longing failed to light her eyes. She tilted her head and graced Pete with a mega-watt smile.
"That must be Bella."
Chloe tugged on his hand. "Well, don't just stand there. Introduce us!"
The two couples met in the middle. Pete looked from Clark to Bella and back to Clark again. His friend's eyes widened. A faint lift of his shoulders and a half smile answered Pete's silent warning to Clark. Of course, Pete was no physical match against Clark, but that didn't mean the other boy didn't have limits. Hurt his cousin and Pete wouldn't sit back quietly.
"You must be Bella." Chloe rushed in with her hand extended. "I'm Chloe. Pete said you're transferring here. If you want any help learning the ropes, let me know."
"You're Chloe." Bella took her time shaking the other girl's hand. "I've heard a lot about you."
"Maybe only half of it's true," Chloe remarked.
"What's going on with you two?" Pete couldn't help but ask.
"The Salvation Army driver had car trouble so we brought the stuff in," Clark said. "Bella said she hadn't seen the school so here we are."
"Clark showed me your old locker. Maybe I'll get it."
"Yeah," Clark said. "It's not too far from mine. My mom knows the school secretary. I'll see what she can do."
"Wow, another wish granted." Bella's face lit up with a smile. "I can get used to this."
"Hey, I'm doing my best."
Chloe nudged Pete. "So, we're all here. What are we gonna do?"
"We're not all here," he said. "Let's see what Lana's doing. She's leaving before I am. We can have one big going away party for both of us."
"I like that idea," Chloe said.
"Actually..." Bella touched Clark's hand. "Should we tell him?"
"I don't see why not."
"It was supposed to be a surprise, but Aunt Abigail and Mrs. Kent are planning something for this afternoon," Bella said. "We were supposed to get you and the other person. Her name is Lana, right?"
"Yeah, that's right."
Pete locked eyes with Clark. His friend's held a touch of sadness and maybe some regret. Then, he shrugged it away and smiled.
"This won't be a sad goodbye party," Clark announced. "It's a celebration of new beginnings."
"Yeah." Chloe squeezed Pete's hand and swung it between them. "And a welcome to Smallville party for Bella. No, we're having a good time today. No sad faces. We're celebrating new and stronger, better friendships."
"Agreed," Pete said. "Here's to truth, justice and the American way!"
The other three broke into laughter.
His cousin wiped tears from her eyes. "Where did that come from?"
"I don't know." Pete laughed. "But it sounds good."
"Yeah." Clark's expression sobered. "I like it, too."
In a flash, Pete caught a glimpse of the man his friend was becoming. He didn't know what the future held for any of them, but the revelation that their friendships weathered many storms and still remained firm gave him hope for whatever road their destinies led them.