DISCLAIMER - Not mine, I couldn't afford the motor and household insurance bills. I promise I'll scrub them down and give them back to DC comics, the WB and anyone else who does own a slice of them when I'm done with them. Story, such as it is, copyright Karen Colohan, May 2003.

Author's notes - Written for the Contrelamontre Sliding Doors challenge in a shade under 90 minutes. Futurefic. Spoilers for Calling.

A THIN LINE

by Karen Colohan

Clark had always known that it would come to this. It didn't matter how many times he lied and deflected, how often Lex appeared to accept the lies and back off. It was always there between them - his secret and Lex's need, bordering on obsession, to know what that secret was. Now everything had been distilled into this moment and, when it came down to it, it turned out that it really wasn't about his secret at all... As Lex had just made perfectly obvious to him.

The photograph, enlarged to several times life-size, wasn't really a surprise. The key had previously been in Lex's possession, Clark knew that. He just wasn't sure why Lex was showing the picture to him now... until he began to speak.

"Clark, you know what this is, don't you? You know what the symbols mean. It all comes back to the caves, the paintings. I know this octagon fits the depression in the wall there. I just don't understand what it does, what it represents. But you do."

Lex had stepped closer then, an unreadable expression in his eyes as he delivered the words that left Clark with possibly the hardest decision he'd ever had to make.

"Please, Clark, I'm asking this as your friend. I want to understand. Will you trust me?"

HATE

Over time, Clark's response to Lex's questions had become ingrained. It was all too easy to look up from the photograph Lex was still holding out to him and let his lips curve into a familiar, insincere smile.

"Lex, I'm not a linguist," he said, a hint of amused tolerance threading through his words. "If Dr. Walden never managed to decipher those symbols there's no way I'd be able to. And isn't this your missing paperweight?"

It was simpler than it ought to be to dissemble, to prove once and for all that, no, he didn't trust Lex with the things that really mattered. Clark thought maybe he should have felt a pang of guilt, but he didn't. Protecting his secret was paramount, he'd had that particular lesson pounded into his brain for too long.

Lex held his gaze for a moment longer, but then his mouth tightened imperceptibly and he looked away. Clark could almost hear the walls slamming into place around him as he turned and walked back to his desk.

"Of course, I don't know what I was thinking." Lex's voice was steady, but the edge of sadness was clear. "And now that Dr. Walden is dead I don't suppose we'll ever know what it says."

There was another pause and then Lex seemed to shake off his concerns, looking across at Clark with a smile that seemed genuine enough.

"How about a game of pool?" he asked.

Relieved that Lex wasn't pushing the issue, Clark nodded and headed for the pool table.

Ten years later in Metropolis

It was an all too familiar tableau. On the dark, windswept rooftop Superman found himself facing his greatest enemy. As usual, he was powerless to do anything, held at bay by the kryptonite ring glowing balefully on Lex's hand. Even from this distance he could feel a faint trace of nausea crawling through his gut. But he still had a point to make, regardless.

Superman glared at his nemesis. "You should know by now, Luthor, that I won't tolerate your schemes." He stood, legs braced and arms folded across his chest, every inch the invulnerable superhero. Not that his stance seemed to either intimidate or impress Luthor.

"You may have destroyed one lab, Superman, but you won't stop this project. My father planted the seed, but he lacked the vision to realise its full potential. I don't." Luthor smiled coolly. "Now, as pleasant as this conversation has been, I really do have more important things to do with my time."

The long, black coat swirled around him as he turned and headed for the roof access that led back inside the LexCorp Tower.

"This isn't over, Luthor!" Superman called, taking a step towards him as the effects of the kryptonite receded.

Luthor paused for the briefest moment, although he didn't look back.

"No, it will never be over," he said harshly, the wind carrying his words away into the night. "Not until one of us is dead."

When the door finally shut behind him, Superman used his X-ray vision to follow Luthor as he slowly descended the staircase. The image wavered, then blacked out when he passed into the lead-lined interior of the penthouse. As his sight snapped back to normal, Superman wondered when exactly everything had gone wrong. He couldn't shake the feeling that there must have been something he could have done differently.

It was supposed to have been the stuff of legends - Clark Kent and Lex Luthor, together. Maybe it still would be, but for all the wrong reasons. With a deep sigh Superman launched himself into the air, flying away from his greatest failure.

LOVE

Clark's eyes slid away from the photograph and he found himself staring at his feet. Could he really do this? It was more obvious than it had ever been that Lex knew. He might not have the specifics figured out, but it was clear that he'd connected together enough pieces of information to understand that Clark was more than just another meteor mutant. If Clark lied now he would be telling Lex beyond any doubt that he simply didn't trust him... and what would that say about their friendship?

Closing his eyes, Clark took a deep breath. His dad was going to kill him... but that wasn't what really mattered. Squaring his shoulders, Clark looked up to meet Lex's steady blue gaze.

"Lex, there's something you really need to know..." To his surprise, Lex suddenly held up his hand. Clark stopped.

"Just one question," Lex said, his voice soft.

"Okay."

"That day, on the bridge..."

Clark looked deep into Lex's eyes, then nodded. "Yes," he said quietly, "you really did hit me."

Wonder, understanding, relief... so many emotions flooded Lex's gaze as the words sunk in. A few seconds later he dropped down onto the corner of the desk, glancing at the photograph in his hands for a moment. When he looked up again there was a genuine smile on his face.

"That's all I needed to know, Clark," he said, finally.

Ten years later in Metropolis

Kidnappings and attempts on Lex's life were nothing new, but that didn't make the situation any easier for Clark to deal with. Fortunately, as Superman, he'd been able to track down the abductors' lair and then he'd swooped in like an avenging angel, rescuing Lex before too much damage had been done. True, Lex had been tied up when he'd found him, dirty and somewhat battered, but most definitely unbowed. Lex always had faith that he would find him.

Even though he appeared to be in good spirits, once the kidnappers had been handed over to the Metropolis PD, Superman wasted no time in scooping a protesting Lex up in his arms and flying straight back to the sanctuary of the penthouse. As soon as they were safely inside, Clark set Lex down and began to strip off his ruined clothes. Piece by piece he peeled away the crumpled and torn fabric, needing to check the pale, sleekly muscled body underneath for injuries.

It soon became apparent that there were only a few and that they were superficial. As Lex was wont to point out, he really was tougher than he looked. Nevertheless, Clark's lips and fingers skimmed over each bruise and graze that he uncovered almost reverently, soothing the hurts with his touch.

Lex stood silently and allowed Clark free rein. It was understood between them now that this was something Clark needed to do, to reassure himself that Lex was unharmed and in one piece. Truthfully, it was probably a reassurance to both of them.

"You're all right," Clark said finally. He was kneeling in front of Lex and looking up into blue eyes that watched him with open affection.

"Yes," Lex replied simply. He smiled and reached out to slide his fingers into Clark's hair.

Clark bowed his head and let Lex tease the strands out of their current severe style, into the softer curls that went a long way towards turning Superman back into Clark Kent. The transformation would be completed as soon as Clark stood up and stripped out of his skin-tight blue suit, but for now Lex's hands held him in place.

"You saved me," Lex murmured. His fingers stroked across Clark's brow, as if in benediction.

"I'll always save you," Clark said fiercely. He rested his cheek against the flat planes of Lex's stomach, breathing in his lover's scent.

"You always have," Lex agreed as their mutual relief at his rescue began to turn into something deeper, more intense.

It was a simple truth, but one they were both grateful for every day.


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