This is Lex before Somewhere I Have Never Traveled, before Clark and shared homes and a presidency, before winning and losing, and before hope.
Codes: Lex, Cassius
Summary: Prequel to Somewhere I Have Never Traveled. This is when he flips the light back on.
Author Notes: Thanks to amireal, thecaelum, and justabi for the final read-through.
His hand aches.
Pain spreads like the fine lines of a spiderweb over every inch of flesh, invisible to the naked eye. Sometimes at night, Lex traces his skin with a fingernail, outlining the web in the red of abraded skin. It's been creeping up his arm more every day, a slowly tightening lattice, and today, the strong pulse came to rest at his elbow.
He thinks he knows what that means.
"Have you decided?"
Few people have unrestricted access to Lex--even fewer could manage the nearly impossible and approach him undetected--but Benjamin Cassius is among the privileged few, even if Lex's instincts send an adrenaline rush through every nerve. Closing his eyes, he feels the big body drop beside him, far too close for comfort.
"No." His right hand's filtering sand idly, watching the sunlight sparkle off each grain. "Quartz. Miles of it, far as the eye can see. In ancient times, if you wanted to look into the future, you went looking for quartz rock." Another long line of sparkling sand is caught by the ocean breeze, and Lex shuts his eyes. There's a metaphor for his future in this, and he wonders if Dad would be proud that nothing in his life escapes becoming symbolic.
He doesn't look to see the man's face. Cassius rarely answers.
"My mother owned this," Lex hears himself say, waving his good hand to indicate the beach. "One of the few things Lionel couldn't get around to selling. I'm not even sure he knew about it. She brought me here before she died and--"
"Told you Greek myths for kicks?"
This is why Lex thinks he really should have just killed Cassius on sight. Tightening his mouth, Lex watches the water, cool, salty air washing over him like breath. If he closes his eyes, he can feel her, fragile and too-thin, watching him with wide, worried eyes.
Napoleon's mother hadn't minded when her son conquered the world, but Lillian Luthor hadn't been quite as imperialist. He almost wishes she had been. It would have been something to know he hadn't failed both his parents so spectacularly.
"Why am I here?" Cassius asks softly. The sharp edges on his English indicate too much time spent speaking any language but, and Lex wonders again how long Cassius was in Madrid.
"I'm bored and I need company. There's not another living human for miles." The staff comes and goes on command. He's got his people well trained. Even Mercy and Hope keep their distance under extreme and frequent protest. He thinks they know more about why he's here than he does himself.
Not a comfortable thought. He's marking time, and even knowing that (coward), he can't quite make the push.
"It's beautiful here." Lex hears the soft relief hidden beneath the layers of exhaustion, turns his head to look. Cassius has gained weight--the rail-thin proto-junkie replaced with someone who could have, in fact, once been a respected part of the medical community. The blond hair's neatly trimmed, blue eyes hidden behind prescription sunglasses and a fall of blonde bangs. More college student than researcher and surgeon. Nothing will erase the tight lines around his mouth, though, the way the thin lips press together. He's close enough to Lex to feel everything.
"It's yours if you want it." The words escape without Lex thinking them through, and he bites down on his tongue. One long fingered hand slides up, removing the glasses, and Lex is caught in the sharp gaze of blue eyes the color of the sky above.
"You've decided after all."
There's nothing to say to that. His hand aches, and he thoughtfully tightens it into a fist to feel the web expand, pushing above his elbow with fine, fire-hot fibers. It's happening fast. Almost too fast.
"I'd have to amputate," Cassius says, apropos of nothing. Reaching over, warm skin closes over his wrist, jerking it up. Lex almost pulls away, but he's fascinated by the vision of his own hand, fingers strangely thin and pale compared to Cassius big, tanned palm. "Here, probably. I may be able to save the wrist, but it's not likely." Thumb and finger circle the skin like a vise. "There. Biopsy the tissue. X-ray to see if it's spread to the rest of your body. Some surgery, maybe, to remove some smaller pockets. Radiation after, chemotherapy." Cassius lets go, drawing his fingers down the sensitive skin of Lex's inner arm in what from anyone else would be a deliberate caress. Everywhere he touches burns. "What I'd want to do is dose you as high as I could go for as long as possible. Meteor-rock cancer's the most dangerous of all. It's in everyone who was touched that day." Cassius' eyes gleam darkly. "And it doesn't give up easily.
Lex breathes out.
"In a few weeks, here." The slim fingers are on his elbow, a tight bracelet of flesh. "Maybe only a few days, if my estimates are right. You'll lose your arm to the elbow. By then, it will have spread to other parts of your body. Kidneys, probably. Maybe your stomach or your pancreas. I'll open you up like a melon and scoop out all the corrupt tissue and sew you back up. Radiate and then chemo, but not at the levels I'd prefer. More complex work. You might never be able to eat normally again. Have a normal life. And it won't be enough. I'll be opening you up again in a year or two and trying again, and in five years, you'll be dead while I cut you apart by inches."
Lex jerks away, eyes closing.
"Or we can just wait here and I can watch it kill you in front of me."
Lex watches strobes of orange-red from the sun behind his eyelids. "How long?"
"Six months at current estimates, probably less. Your altered immune system's been very helpful in speeding all this along. If you want me to have this beach, I suggest you start making your will now."
Cassius doesn't sound terribly interested, and it's comforting. Lex gets the gazes from Mercy and Hope far too often--something between disbelief and the kind of horror that reminds him of being a kid and watching his mother die before his eyes. Mercy would trade places with him without even a question if she could. He wouldn't put it past her to try.
Squeezing his hand into a loose fist, Lex opens his eyes to watch the water.
"You don't understand, do you?"
"You don't understand," Cassius answers calmly, and Lex notices for the first time that the man's discarded shoes and socks. Neatly rolled tan pants above the line of slim calves. "Your wife called. Mercy told me to tell you."
Lex grimaces. "Probably wondering how long before she can take permanent control of LexCorp."
"LydiaCorp," Cassius says, and damned if the man doesn't sound amused. "She's working to have you declared incompetent. Your board of directors is trying to decide who scares them more." Cassius picks up a handful of warm sand, letting it trickle through his fingers. "She's closer, but you're more likely to kill them outright, not just threaten. It's a kind of balance."
Lydia's a problem. Wives always are. He'd given up the concept of domestic harmony years ago in exchange for armed neutrality. Home has always been his office, so it's not so strange that his bedroom's become a venue for corporate politics.
Some part of him knows it shouldn't be that way, that somewhere along the line, something in him had changed too much, but that part doesn't get a lot of airtime in his head. Right now, the wedding ring on his left hand seems more tainted than the cancer eating him from the inside out.
"You know too much for someone who's been stoned in Madrid for two years."
"I know too much for anyone living," Cassius answers softly, and Lex looks away.
"Does it hurt you to be this close to me?"
The hand trickling sand fists abruptly, dropping to the ground.
"You hurt everyone close to you. I suppose I can't be an exception to that, can I?"
Fuck you, Lex almost says, but he's too tired to bother. The sand is warm and the day is dying, so Lex stretches out, cushioning his head on his right arm, left curled protectively against his chest. Sweat trickles down his forehead, tickling his ear, and he almost reaches up to brush it away before he remembers his control over his left hand is getting trickier every day.
The circles Cassius made in his arm seem to burn in a different way.
"What will you leave behind when you die?" Lex hears himself say, and he's really off his game, but somehow, it doesn't matter. Six months. Maybe less, with his immune system. Somehow less culpable (cowardly) if he just lets it go until it can't be stopped. "I wanted to rule the world before I was thirty."
"I wanted to cure all disease," Cassius answers. His voice is wistful. "I had--had this vision that knowing would make it possible to fix it. But I can't fix anyone, really. Just tell them what's wrong and how long they have until they die. Five years, five months, five minutes. In Madrid there was a car accident right in front of me. They all had twelve minutes and I almost told the paramedics working on them not to bother." Cassius laughs softly. "I didn't know enough Spanish to get it out right. I think I kept asking for the bathroom. Or a shot of Demerol."
Lex nods slowly. "You're still alive."
"Not for lack of trying to change that, but yes. I like it here." The soft cadence of his voice lulls Lex's eyes closed. "We could die together, you and I. Tonight, if you want. There's a full lab only a few miles from here. Or Mercy's gun. Either would do."
Lex stiffens. "I don't want to die."
Cassius laughs. Disturbingly friendly, as if they've known each other forever and this is an old argument. Maybe it is. "Waiting for something to kill you isn't any different than putting the gun to your head yourself. Would you like that, Lex? No one should die alone."
Cassius looks at him with a grin that doesn't go any deeper than the surface of his skin. "You're not my type."
"I should have had you killed."
"It would have been a relief for both of us." Cassius draws his knees up, then presses both hands into the sand, getting gracefully to his feet for such a tall man. Lex has never met anyone like him, is almost sure he never wants to again. "Are you having some kind of crisis of conscience?"
It may say more about Lex than anything else that he has to think about it, an answer in itself. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Cassius whistles softly, the smile deepening past the skin, blue eyes lighting up. "Lex Luthor. Alexander. No wonder you're not afraid to die. You're more scared to live with what you're thinking, aren't you?"
Lex is on his feet before he's aware he's moving--weeks of non-training take off some of the grace but none of the reflexes, and Cassius is under him, stretched out on warm sand, that vulnerable throat under his hand. The jugular pulses erratically against his thumb, and his hand trembles when he stops himself from tightening his grip.
Cassius stares up at him as if they've never met.
"Five years," Lex whispers, feeling the strain through his entire body. He's lost a lot of strength to this, no idea, and when had that happened? "Five years is generous. I only have two. And so do you."
The blue eyes sharpen instantly. "What?"
"What I always said. They're coming for us."
Cassius stares up at him, calculation plain, and Lex loosens his hand by degrees. His fingers will leave bruises on the man's throat that will last for days. Lex wonders if he'll want to see them. "What do you know?"
"Superman's not the only one."
Lex slips off of him onto the sand. Exhaustion and anger and this confused tangle of emotion that he's never been quite able to examine, not for longer than his name's been his symbol. Lex. He's not Alexander or a Luthor. He's not building an empire that will last forever. He's building one that will last for only himself.
"Spend all the time you like psychoanalyzing me," Lex says softly, and even to himself, he sounds tired. "It won't matter. You'll all be on your knees for them before grass has grown over my grave."
"Superman didn't try to conquer us," Cassius says softly, and Lex looks away. If he's masochistic, he could agree. "What makes you think they will?"
"What makes you think they won't?"
Cassius sits up, shaking sand from his hair, hand rubbing idly at his back. Lex wonders if he hurt him. "You don't have any proof--"
"I have the recording from the ship Superman came in," Lex answers, and he's got Cassius' undivided attention. "Took a while to learn Kryptonian, but I've had a lot of time on my hands."
"He was sent to conquer us."
"But he hasn't."
Lex stares at Cassius for a moment, wondering why he's even bothering. "He won't. He was raised human. They weren't."
Cassius is silent--Lex can see the beginnings on Cassius face. Disbelief giving way to shock. It'll sink in, slowly and surely, like it had with Lex. A thousand possibilities flashing through his mind, a thousand different plans made and discarded, because they know what Superman is.
Lex stares into the sand. "I don't know. I don't want to be around to find out."
Cassius draws in a slow, shaky breath. He's less denial-prone than Lex, but then again, he didn't have Lionel Luthor to teach him how to do it, either. "Superman will fight them."
"And he'll die."
Lex hasn't said the words before, even in the privacy of his mind, when he spent sleepless nights staring at the numbers, at the inevitability. Their planet hadn't been ready for Superman, and it sure as hell can't be ready for more of him.
There's a vague feeling of vertigo--the sand swirling slowly beneath him as if it wants to swallow him whole, and Lex thinks of his father. I won't get that empire, Dad. I ran out of time and it's not my fault. No one, even you, could fight this.
"The Justice League," Cassius whispers, and Lex can hear his own fear in Cassius' voice.
"Superman's the most powerful of them." Bruce, maybe, could have something ready, but Lex doesn't think even Bruce could handle this. "Multiple Supermen against them?"
Lex looks up in time to meet shocky blue eyes and a mouth open on words that aren't there. Cassius feels it, then.
"Who else knows?"
Lex runs his fingers through the sand slowly. "My scientists. Me. Now you. A guy you may know, Rhinestadt. I brought him on staff when I first--noticed something coming toward us. We--" Believed it. Scientists are skeptical by nature, but math doesn't lie, no matter how creatively you play with the numbers, and they'd played for days. Weeks. "Two years. They'll be here. Tell me you're going to be around to watch them land."
Cassius licks his lips. "The government--"
"We don't have the technology. We're half a generation from the technology." Somewhere, Lex can see the look on Rhinestadt's face. It's on Cassius', on his own, as inevitable as the ocean.
Cassius pulls his knees in close, uselessly defensive, and Lex breathes out.
"You haven't told."
"No one," Lex agrees softly. "I don't want to know how many people would go down on their knees before it happens." Including himself. The temptation's there, below everything else, and it wakes him up at night. He can tell them things that will make this so much easier. The only man that can fight you? I know where he is and how to bring him to you without a fight. Their names are Martha and Jonathan Kent, Lois Lane, Chloe Sullivan, Lana and Pete Ross. You can have this planet in twenty four hours, just give me my empire and I'll do whatever you want.
His father would have done it without a second thought. Lex stares at the sand.
"There will be war." Cassius voice is shaking.
"And we'll lose."
Lex takes a deep breath, images of burning buildings and running superimposed over the beach. He sees cities on fire in every dream. "Yes."
Cassius looks up at him through a too-long fall of blond bangs. The dying light's painting him in orange and red, and Lex thinks of green eyes for no reason at all that looked at him like that once upon a time.
"You're giving up."
Superman won't give up.
The click is something Lex can feel down to the soles of his feet, spreading outward. Superman doesn't know, and Lex thinks of that only in the early morning. He flies here and there and stops disasters while hurtling through them at something above the speed of light is the end to everything. Like bandaging a cut finger when the jugular's already sliced. They're all going to die, Clark, and it's kinder you let them do it now.
His hand flares in sudden, shocking pain.
"Maybe the gun's a good idea," Lex whispers, and he finds his feet clumsily. "It would be over fast, Cassius. You won't have to watch our civilization die." He pauses, hands falling to his side. "You won't have to feel their pain."
Superman won't give up. Not when the ship lands and they ask him to take a side. Maybe they won't ask. Lex wouldn't. Lex never has, not since the first time, when the lines were drawn between them. Shoot first, they'd know how to kill their own kind.
Lex stumbles a little.
Clark--Superman will die for absolutely nothing, like the idiot he's always been, and for no better reason than to stop the unstoppable. You can't fight this war, Lex wants to tell him. Get the fuck out of here and play savior to some other people. And do it fast. You of all of us could survive.
And he won't.
Cassius stands up, staggering a little, and Lex automatically reaches out to catch him, but the man pulls away as if he burns. "Don't--"
"Touch you. I get that." It shouldn't hurt. Backing away, Lex watches Cassius try to gather himself together.
Turning away, Lex walks back to the house, rubbing his hand into the silk of his shirt. Air conditioning, a shower, and some brandy. Everclear, perhaps. Taking a breath, he pushes the screen door open, going inside the simple beachhouse his mother had built. It's never been touched by any Luthor hands but his own, and Lillian's here in a way Lionel couldn't possibly have erased. Clumsily, Lex unfastens his shirt one-handed, slightly surprised when the sounds of the television intrude. Crossing the kitchen, he emerges into the sunny living room, blinking as Superman is filmed rescuing a kid from an explosion in some country Lex doesn't care enough to remember.
The pictures flash to the devastated town--mud brick houses, technology is long in coming to the third world. But when it does, it does this. Lex doesn't need to see the LexCorp logo on the ruined building in the background. His plant may not have done it, but he doesn't fool himself into believing they weren't involved. The commentator's voice drones about inadequate safety measures and accidents, and Lex wonders which one of his employees planned this and who the target was and how it managed to go so very wrong.
That's not his fault. LexCorp competes on a level playing field when it can. He's never ordered something like this.
But then again, he doesn't have to.
Leaning into the back of the couch, Lex watches the camera pan. Bodies in the background--apparently, the station's getting more proactive in getting viewers and nothing does it like gruesome imagery. Contaminated land, someone is saying. Death rates. Chemical explosions. Poisoning. Lex recites the formulas of what was produced in that plant and thinks of Cassius, who knows how long a person has to live by presence.
Lex can do it from five thousand miles away. All it takes is knowing the math.
"He's a fool," Lex says to himself.
Cassius, apparently recovered enough to wonder why Lex is talking to himself. Fair enough. Lex waves at the screen, the loose silk of his cuffs flapping against his inner arm. "Superman. He's saving them, but they're already dead. The chemicals they were exposed to will kill them in under three years, if that." They only have two, though. Superman should take a vacation. On another planet. "It's--"
"Stupid?" Lex can feel Cassius behind him, strangely large and warm. It's the height, Lex thinks, that makes Cassius seem so big.
"They'll die anyway. If not from that--" Lex lets his voice trail off. He should drop a line to Superman, tell him what his family's up to. You can stop now. Nothing you do will change anything now. "He's--"
The big body circles around him, dropping onto the couch, leaving splatters of sand behind him. "When I practiced, I operated on patients I knew I couldn't save."
Lex blinks, looking down, but Cassius' eyes are focused on the television.
Cassius shrugs. "I could buy them time, sometimes. Or comfort. Give them what they wanted. Make it easier."
"What was the point?" Lex doesn't think he'll ever understand trying to fight a losing battle. Memories of those years with Lionel, before he'd learned to conserve his energy, fight only when he knew there was no way he could lose. The difference between Lex and half of humanity. Sometimes, you just have to give up. Waste of resources and time to continue when there's no possibility of victory.
Cassius hesitates, then turns around. The shock's still there, fear and a thousand other emotions, but they've been--catalogued. Lex frowns to see it. "Why not?"
"Waste of time, resources, money, just to start. If you can't win--"
Cassius laughs, sudden and sharp, and Lex finds himself backing away from the couch. He shouldn't have told. Should have fucking kept his mouth shut and gone with the bullet. Fast and easy and not a waste of time.
"It's--" Cassius stops, but the smile lingers, disturbing edges of hysteria in it. He's not as calm as he wants to be. "You're the least human person I've ever met."
Lex breathes out. "Tell me something I don't know."
"That's it, isn't it? That's what--all of this is." Cassius waves a hand that encompasses the room. "Jesus. I thought you were just suicidal."
Lex takes another step back. He should never have let this man come near him. "Of all people, you should understand. Or is the new way to fight getting yourself so fucking high you can't remember who you are?"
"At least I acknowledged there was something there worth fighting for. I'm just not strong enough to cope." Cassius' grin is wild. "All this time, I thought--but it's so much simpler. You're scared."
"No fucking shit." Another step. He can turn and walk away. Not listen to this. Climb in the shower and wash this entire day off his body and alcohol will wash it from his mind.
"What if they come and no one fights? What if--" Cassius presses a hand to the back of the couch, going up on his knees. "What if they all just give up?"
"What if everyone does just what they should, in the Lexian world view? They look at the invaders and just give in? Or maybe only half of them do. Tell them what to destroy, who to kill, how to break us down so conquest's faster." Cassius looks almost incandescent, staring at Lex. "Would they?" His voice drops as he leans over the back of the couch, almost grinning. "Would you, Lex?"
Leaning into the doorframe, Lex meets the blue eyes without hesitation. "I have the coin of the realm, to borrow a term. I can give them their only threat."
Cassius stares back. "Then why don't you?"
He knew it was a bad idea to leave Madrid.
Rolling over in the bed, Cassius shivers at the sound of Lex waking up on a gasp. The painkillers aren't working. Cassius only has one more in the morphine family before they move into the kinds of narcotics that even Lex's body will have problems metabolizing too quickly. Drugged and groggy half-life to follow, until even those fail, and he'll be trapped with someone going insane from pain that Cassius can't ever ease again.
Jesus, he's so stupid. He shouldn't have come.
It's never been like this before. Years in medical school and the hospital, training to be a surgeon, working research, but his exposure was always brief. Living with someone ill has a completely different feeling. He's re-tuned in some way he's never touched before--God, never wanted. He wouldn't have made it through college if he'd been living at this level of intensity.
Cassius can hear Lex getting up--clumsy, careless movements that Cassius will never see, shivering as Lex's body continues it's slow descent, cells twisting from within into unrecognizable shapes.
Trying to explain how this feels has never been possible, so Cassius doesn't try to, even to himself. Being tuned to the subtlety of the human body got him through medical school in three years--his diagnoses were never wrong, understanding instantly the intricacies of disease and illness like no one living. Not an easy thing, but years of practice had perfected his control up until the day he left. After that, it didn't matter.
Right up until Lex, who is walking agony without any buffer at all, and Lex may not be the only one to go crazy from the pain.
Kicking the blankets off, Cassius wonders if it's really against his oath to just force treatment. If he'd even survive recovery before Lex was ordering his death. He knows an absolute decision when it's been made, even if Lex never couches it in words. They're marking time on Lex's mother's beach, until Lex has no decisions left.
That's--typical, Cassius thinks. Lex is reactive, not proactive. He's waiting for his hand to be forced.
It's stupid, to be here. He'd accepted the invitation and come along to play doctor to a dying billionaire at an exorbitant price, prescribing the drugs that give Lex sleep, denied the only utilization of his training he really wants to use.
I want to fix you, Cassius tells the man fifteen feet and one thin wall away. And I have no idea how.
Narrow feet are pacing the room again--like the night before, and the night before that. Lex, outrunning himself and waiting for light, and Cassius wonders what on earth Lex is trying to do.
He won't sleep any more tonight, not with Lex's illness projected into every spare corner of his mind.
Getting up, he grabs his robe from the floor, pushing open the wide glass doors that face the ocean in his room, emerging onto the tiny patio, ducking by small palm trees and beach growth. Watching the ocean at night is a little melodramatic even for him, but there's nothing in the house he can take and still remain alert enough to act if Lex's condition worsens suddenly.
He hasn't gone three feet before the unmistakable click of a safety invades his consciousness, and Cassius freezes, eyes closing. A second later, an impersonal touch on his shoulder brings them open, and Cassius looks into Mercy's eyes.
"Patrol," she says, clicking the safety back on and tucking the gun somewhere within a truly minimal amount of clothing. Stepping back, she regards him briefly, before turning, walking by.
"Where's Hope?" They hunt and patrol together--point of fact, he's never actually seen them more than a few feet from each other. She pauses, somehow managing not to slide on the sand, before she turns around.
"Briefing security and an errand for Lex." The long, elegant fingers twitch slightly with repressed energy. From conversations he's overheard, Lex is stressing both his bodyguards by living here. Something about the openness, insufficient security, uncleared staff, and maybe Cassius' presence as well. Lex runs them off with terse orders, but until now, Cassius hadn't realized that while what Lex tells them to do is treated as Holy Writ, interpreting it is up to them. Security's restricted to a mile perimeter, but apparently, Mercy doesn't consider herself merely security. "You shouldn't be out."
"I wasn't forbidden access to the beach," he says, feeling defensive. What on earth does she think he can do with sand and water at night? Stupid question. Her existence is suspicion without evidence, and it's kept Lex alive and well for more years that Cassius can count. "Don't let me interrupt."
Mercy pauses, the slightest trace of a frown creasing the skin between her eyebrows on an otherwise expressionless face.
"You shouldn't be alone."
Cassius stiffens. "I don't wish him harm."
One dark eyebrow raises slowly, and with anyone else, that would be irony. "You wouldn't be alive if you did."
He's not up to Lex or his favorite toys tonight--turning away, Cassius continues his tramp down the sand, sliding a little on too-dry hills before skidding down, and it's only in an afterthought that he's aware of Mercy, inhumanly graceful beside him, matching his speed effortlessly.
There's a very good chance that she could actually carry him without so much as breaking a sweat.
"Why are you following me?" he asks when they're on the beach proper, high tide withdrawing even as they speak. Glancing down, Cassius blinks at the slim boots, chunky heels. Intellectually, he knows she can fight in stilettos. He's *seen* how fast she runs--footwear is irrelevant if a threat's involved--but the sheer heat would suggest she try for something more porous. Jesus. They aren't human, any of them.
She shrugs, and Cassius wonders why he's even bothering trying to make conversation. Pacing the edge of the ocean, Cassius tries to ignore the woman matching his step.
"He is choosing to die, isn't he?"
Cassius comes to a stop, all unmeaning, half turning to face her, but Mercy's eyes are shaded in the night, fixed on something just beyond his face. He knows he gives it away when his answer hesitates, and her hand comes up in a short gesture that precludes further conversation. Helplessly, Cassius begins to walk again.
"I'm sorry," he hears himself say. Her presence seems to be shutting him out, unimportant to whatever goes on in her head, and Cassius wonders for the first time what exactly that *is*.
Loyal to the point of blind fanaticism, resourceful, strong, ruthless, and utterly deadly, two perfect weapons sculpted from human flesh, but they're also--background. Lex outshines everything around him, and until this second they've been reflections only, something he knows is present but never there. Extensions of Lex, maybe.
The woman beside him doesn't mesh with impressions, and he wonders how deliberate that is.
"Why do you stay with him?"
It's a stupid question. He doesn't expect an answer.
"Before him, I was nothing," Mercy answers, and Cassius stops again, looking into her--beautiful?--face. Polished expressionlessness, but there's more there, like watching the still surface of a pond that will drown you if you step inside.
Something twists--all beneath the skin, nothing anyone would notice, except Cassius is so close he can smell her perfume, the shampoo in her hair, feel the warmth of her body. Eyes like the ocean at night, all violent movement and no rest, never rest.
"There's no after."
There's nothing to say to that. Cassius sucks in a breath, but his mind's offering nothing useful. His mouth tries, anyway.
"I can't help him if he doesn't want help." It sounds like an excuse. What's he going to ask them? Hold down your boss and help me drug him into submission for the next few months? I can't fix this, don't look at me like I can. Cassius wonders if his life hangs on the thin string of Lex Luthor's, and then realizes he doesn't care. "I can't--do you understand? I can't do anything. I can watch, just like you. He doesn't want my help. He doesn't want--" Jesus knows what he wants. Cassius eyes flicker to the sky and then back down. Two years, Lex said.
Two years. By then, Cassius thinks he'll be dead.
"He ordered reports on the disaster in Peru," Mercy says, and Cassius blinks. "An investigation."
Cassius nods without anything like understanding.
"He rarely bothers." Mercy shifts her stance slightly, as if the sand's uncomfortable, an aberration if there ever was one. Cassius watches in fascination as Mercy turns her head to look at the house, a strand of dark hair coming loose from the knot, slipping across the pale planes of her cheek.
"He's never bothered if it wasn't going to cause a publicity problem. It's time to go inside." Her hand closes over his bare arm, strangely cold, and Cassius doesn't even try to resist. Fascination, like being caught by a big cat who turns out isn't so much hungry as curious. They're walking up the beach like two completely normal people.
"I--" At his patio, they stop, and her hand withdraws, leaving the impression of cool elegant fingers behind like a brand. "I can't help him, Mercy. I--don't even know how to start."
Turning, he's startled to find himself standing alone, like she was never there at all. Blinking, Cassius stares around him, but the dark can swallow Mercy just as easily as it swallows the trees around them. It's only a glance down that reveals a stapled set of papers, nestled in the sand, and how the *fuck*--
Picking it up, Cassius pages through it as he walks inside.
Hope delivers the reports on the disaster personally, and Lex flips through them before the sun rises. Sleep's elusive and he doesn't chase it any longer. There's no point.
It's what he expected, even if he doesn't remember ordering this plant to open. Insufficient safety protocols and some overactive plant manager trying to cut down competition. Lex pushes past the black and white pictures of the interior of the plant, employees sprawled in various stages of acid burn, some half-dissolved on the plant floor, but his eyes stop at the numbers.
Seventy five employees dead, eight hundred injured. Five hundred eighteen people in that village dead, more injuries. Collateral damage, his dad would have said. Spoils of war. And the plant had shown a strong profit for five quarters.
Shoddy management, lost in the concept of profit without understanding the need for investment in the same. Stupid mistakes. He'd need to send his Smallville inspectors down to get a true report. Blaming it on the climate doesn't cut it.
Lex looks up from his mother's desk. Elegantly feminine, fit to write letters to friends on, perhaps engage in making a journal entry on a day's activity. Nothing like what CEO's need to run a business.
"Can't you find something to do?" Lex answers, flipping the folder shut. His hand's shaking, no surprise. The painkillers he took are already wearing off. Flattening his palm on the surface of the folder, Lex looks up.
Cassius leans into the doorway, unnervingly still. Something med school taught him, perhaps--no energy wasted. When Cassius is at rest, he's at total rest. Lean, elegant body encased in a faded red t-shirt and casual jeans, and right now, Lex can't see the scientist at all. College-kid chic.
Unsettling in a way Lex can't quite put his finger on. Cassius is perhaps four years his junior, but Lex feels immeasurably older.
"You look better." The weeks since Spain have changed him, and Lex wonders why he hasn't been paying more attention. He must be accustomed to what he senses in Lex.
A slim hand goes to his head, and Cassius almost smiles. "I feel better." Crossing the room, Cassius fingers close cool and strong around Lex's arm, thumb pressed against the thin skin of his wrist to check his pulse. A shiver, almost invisible, seems to ripple Cassius skin as Lex watches, and Lex jerks away with a step back.
"Don't want to make you sick again," Lex murmurs at Cassius' raised eyebrows. "I need to work on something for the rest of the morning. You'll have to entertain yourself."
"Like you've been a big barrel of laughs," Cassius observes, stepping back. "Have you eaten?"
Lex almost snaps at him, but catches the words on his tongue, trying to work out what Cassius is thinking. "Not yet."
"I'll make breakfast." Turning on his heel, Cassius disappears back out the door, and Lex finds himself following him, watching with narrowed eyes as Cassius removes eggs and butter from the refrigerator, placing them on the counter. Orange-pink sunlight filters into the room from dawn, bathing the room in surreal color.
"Eggs okay?" Cassius asks as he finds a pan, putting it on the stove before dropping a spatula of butter inside. The hissing breaks Lex's immobility, and he crosses to sit on the stool across from the stovetop. "I made a grocery and supply list, so whoever does that sort of thing for you, give it to them." Without looking, Cassius slides the paper over, and Lex reaches for it automatically, glancing down the list. His eyes skim the list of food and household items, freezing on items listed below.
"Why do you need--" He stops, eyes narrowing. "These are from--"
"A hospital. I've seen your lab, and the surgery and radiation treatments can be completed there with your medical staff, but you seem to want something more--private--for the chemotherapy." Cassius turns away, going through the pale-wood cabinets before emerging with the salt. Blue eyes flicker up, fixing on him without anything in them Lex can read.
"I'm not giving you a choice. You have twenty four hours, then we're going in for the amputation. If it's not too late. That will give me enough time to get post op treatment organized. This will be your last meal. Surgery's at dawn."
Sitting back, Lex blinks. "You can't without my permission."
Cassius grins at him, sudden and malicious. "Lydia's petition goes in front of a judge tomorrow. I called some friends this morning."
The paper crumples in Lex's hand. "You son of a bitch."
"Surprisingly, the judge isn't as amenable to bribing as you might think, but if he got a note from your doctor--. I'm still licensed, Lex. Your choice. Lose your company *and* your hand or just your hand."
"I can make sure you can't deliver anything out of this house." Jesus. Fuck.
Cassius shrugs. "If you cooperate, there will be a signed statement in his office tomorrow morning, declaring you of sound mind and body, simply on a well-deserved and quite innocent vacation. You know my reputation well enough to know how much that will mean." Cassius pauses to break three eggs into the pan, then looks up. "This afternoon, we'll go and do a final set of x-rays and I'll run a few more tests. I suggest you get your pet staff in there this morning to get everything ready." Sprinkling salt, Cassius leans back, spatula still in hand.
It's disturbingly incongruous. Lex slid off the stool, surprised to feel his legs are shaking.
"What do you think this will accomplish?" Lex says slowly, trying to head off the blind rage, the panic of being trapped.
Cassius regards him like an insect under a microscope--interesting and repulsive both. "I'm testing a theory."
Lex's hand itches for Cassius skin. Homicide's never been so attractive. "What fucking theory is that?"
Cassius stirs the pan slowly before looking up with only the briefest flicker--something Lex can't read, isn't sure he wants to. Another man in another lifetime had looked at him like that, and it's like ice water dropped on all the anger, cooled to nothing but embers. Change blue eyes for green and Lex is in Smallville for the last time.
"I want to see if you're worth fighting for."
Lex's medical staff are the equivalent of overeducated sycophants--Cassius finds himself gritting his teeth at their incessant need to check with Lex for permission. Mercy's silent presence helps in that, at least; if he has Mercy, he must be authorized to act, and they settle down when Cassius starts hinting that there will be consequences to acting out.
His hands don't shake when he starts pre-op preparations, his mind already running through everything he's learned, everything he's ever heard. A specialist or five, a quiet, expensive clinic with nothing but the most skilled surgeons, the most specialized staff, and he's got a questionable lab and a group of people he wouldn't trust with a hangnail.
For some reason, it makes him smile.
Lex is on the phone to Peru half the morning and gets nothing but stonewalled, which is an entirely new experience. He adds the man's name to a growing list of people who need to be disposed of, settling back in his chair to stare at his mother's empty desk, phone call disconnected on a muffled curse.
Metropolis can't be much better, probably worse. He's losing more control by the minute.
His fingers itch for the first time in months to start pulling things in--the suffect CEO is making a mess, he can feel it. He's always kept power too condensed, keeping too close control, and it's been sufficient, because he loves his work and can give it the attention that level of scrutiny required. But the center's weakening and everyone can feel it. Lydia's actions are just the final straw, the confirmation that he's losing his grip and LexCorp will be a memory if he doesn't--do something.
He hasn't felt like doing something in far, far too long.
Standing up, he runs his hand absently over his scalp, shocked by the burning pain and realizing he used the wrong hand. Turning it over, he can see angry reddened marks from his pens. He's trained himself to use his right hand, but somehow, this morning, he--forgot.
Rubbing sore fingers together, Lex stares at the wall, trying to figure out when everything started going so wrong. That plant manager never would have allowed that kind of gross incompetence when Lex was paying attention, so it's out there already, whispers that he's no longer watching. Lydia, cold blooded bitch that she is, never would have dared to challenge him before this. Cassius, no matter who the hell he thinks he is, would never have tried to blackmail him.
"And why do I care?"
Talking to himself might be a sign of impending mental breakdown. Is. Something.
"Fuck this." Pushing out of the chair, Lex catches his breath and stumbles, hand coming down on the desk with a shock of pain. Fuck fuck *fuck*, this isn't what he--
Cassius is nowhere to be found--arranging transportation or suborning staff, who the fuck knows--and Lex stares at the television, where the news channel's still hung up on the disaster in Peru. He doesn't need to see more, reaches for the remote when the blur of red and blue flicks across the sky..
"Superman has been recovering bodies from the contaminated zone," the newscaster drones, like it's some huge thing for a man who's perfectly invulnerable and can't be hurt by the chemical spills. The scene flashes to the Justice League wandering through the remains, wrapped in biohazard suits when necessary, Superman disturbingly bare and young among them. A close-up shows him kneeling, digging through blackened metal and dirt from the explosions, removing a body with painstaking care, like it could be alive enough to feel pain. "The death toll has reached one thousand and sixteen with one third of the village searched. Officials estimate--"
There's no *point*. They're dead, Clark. Superman. *Superman*. Fuck, he used to be better at this.
Instead of turning off the television, he finds himself sitting down to watch, left hand lying limply on his thigh. It's been years and years and years since he found out the truth, wondering why he hadn't known before, and he's seen Superman ever since, reflected on every television channel, during every press conference when a man in glasses asks him difficult questions he doesn't want to answer. Green eyes that look into his with that endless disappointment and unhealed anger that he tunes away. Easier by far to meet Superman's hate, and preferable, too. Clark's only the mask over the man who stalks him with merciless thoroughness.
But it's not Superman who's kneeling in a Peruvian wilderness, brushing dirt off a once-bright green skirt and lifting a girl's body in his arms. That's Clark, teen hero extraordinaire, who rarely met a situation that he couldn't save, and Lex bites down on his lip for an endless moment, and this, he thinks, may just prove the truth of Lydia's petition.
All those lines are blurring, and he can't even figure out *why*.
Superman saves people, can walk through fire to pull them out with a reassuring word and a cocky grin, a modern, very photogenic hero for the world to worship, but it's Clark that's kneeling on black ground with that look of endless incomprehension. People learn to count their victories in what they *can* do. Clark counts defeats in what he can't.
He can't *save* everyone, and Lex wonders if he ever will understand that he can't. That no one can. That no one should have to.
He can hear Cassius come in, Hope's voice a low murmur behind him. Accompanied there and back, of course. Lex doesn't move, even when he hears Cassius come in the living room.
"You ready?" he asks, and Lex turns his head just enough to bring the man in view. An order to Hope hovers on the tip of his tongue.
It freezes, like the man on the screen, the camera locked on Clark's pain like it's the newest in television drama.
Lex imagines Clark in that silly Arctic fortress, surrounded by snow and ice, dying alone, because Clark never met a hopeless cause he didn't try to give his all. He had Lex once for that, and Clark still has the scars, all written into his face and body, every time he finds someone else he can't save. Lex put them there personally, with word and thought and deed, and maybe it's no fucking *wonder* that Clark's never let himself get that close to another person again.
Staring at Clark cradle a burned, dead girl, Lex feels his lips move. "Now?" Clark will fight because that's what he is. He'll watch the world burn and destroy himself to try and save it, even if it can't be saved.
"Now." Cassius voice is low; Lex wonders what's showing on his face. "Lex?"
Lex flips the television off, but Clark's face stays, locked in his head, a running projector of maybe and possibly and never-was. What-will is a hazy second of a broken world that flickers off like the television, and it turns into something else, so perfectly insane that only he could do it. Just like that.
"Tell me the chances of survival again."
"With you?" And even Lex can hear the amusement, buried under the fear. "If anyone could fix the odds, you could. You have to be there to do it, though."" The amusement burns away, and Lex shuts his eyes. "Lex. Let's go."
Cassius sits by the closed bathroom door. The smells of vomit and other less interesting bodily functions permeates the house, even over the sharp bite of ocean and the incense that Lex lighted a few hours ago.
He's so *tired*, but on the other hand, so is Lex.
"Open the fucking door. Your dignity will survive."
From inside, muffled cursing. Cassius almost laughs. Reaching above his head, he tests the lock on the door. It's, surprisingly, open.
Raising himself on both knees, he turns the knob, glancing into the large bathroom. Lex looks small, on his back on the floor, rug long gone, cheek pressed to cool tile. He looks like shit, but that's an improvement. A glance at the bandaged stump of his arm reveals no new blood stains. So far so good. He's come into pools of blood before.
"My enemies would pay good money for footage of this." Lex's voice is casual, but he's always casual. He makes a boneless sprawl look elegant and sophisticated, which is very par for the course, all things considered.
"I'll keep that in mind if you fire me." Crawling to sit beside him, Cassius checks his pulse, his forehead, but all he really needs is skin to skin. Lex is metal-sharp under any circumstances, electric, but the sickly-sweet, rotten feeling has passed almost beyond even his senses. It's still almost painful, but like Lex *is*. Cassius grins, stroking his fingers over the thin skin, just because it'll annoy Lex. "A week. Then we'll put you back on solids."
Lex makes a low sound, turning on his side, leaning into Cassius' hand, eyes closing. After this, any patient is going to look effortless, he thinks, continuing the slow caress. Even dying, Lex had been the most alive person Cassius had ever met. "Do you want a shower?" He needs one. Or a bath.
"I don't want to move." Lex doesn't even try. "Tomorrow. I have to be up tomorrow."
"Five days. At most." Curious, Cassius watches Lex's face. Right now, free of the nausea and the pain, Lex looks almost painfully young, honed down to thin skin and too big eyes, circled in black, but that, Cassius thinks, will fix itself in a few weeks once he's eating again. A glance can count his ribs, the sharp protrusion of his hips just above the low waist of the track pants. Cassius hadn't even known Lex *owned* anything besides suits. The carefully bandaged stump isn't still held carefully, but the skin's no longer insanely tender. Lex's healing is catching up with a vengeance. "You want to go lie down?"
"I *am* lying down." But his good hand braces itself on the floor, pushing into cool tile, forcing himself up. For a second, Cassius sees a flash of anger as the stump comes into view, then Lex's good hand is on his shoulder as he pushes himself into an uneasy stand, shivering like a newborn colt. "Now I'm not. I have--things to do." Grabbing for the wall, Lex takes a tentative step forward, then another. A third step finds his balance, but he leans into the door for a long second. "Fuck, I have to--"
Lex throws him an eloquent look over one bony shoulder. "There won't be anything left if I do."
Lex looks like him like he's a fucking idiot.
"The world, dumbass. We're going to stop an alien invasion." Lex draws a deep breath, pulling strength from will. God knows, Lex has it and to spare. Cassius stares at him as he staggers into the wall, grasping it with his good hand while blue eyes drill into Cassius, incandescent with something new and breathtaking that's a lot like hope. "I have an idea. I have a plan. And I have to *go now*." Letting out a breath, Lex raises an eyebrow. "We have a lot to do. Now get the fucking *door*."