Wow, LOTS of scary things in that summary. I'm surprised you even clicked on this at all. Well, you did, so onto the premise:

JUST SO YOU KNOW: This is an AU of an AU, of sorts. Basically, this story involves the Justice Lords from A Better World, assuming they'd never opened the dimensional portal to the Justice League's universe. Don't worry, it centres around Virgil and Richie. I think we all know that if the Lords hadn't been stopped, they would have just gotten worse and worse in their domination of the world's affairs.

Apparently, you don't have to have seen the A Better World two-parter in order to understand what's going on. More stuff will be explained later, so not to worry if there's anything you don't get; just think of it as a complete AU if you haven't seen A Better World.

ONE MORE WARNING: I update VERY VERY VERY SLOWLY. I'm very sorry, and I'll do my best to update quickly, but... yeah. So if you read a bit of this and think you might like it enough to really want an update, maybe come back and read the rest, like, two weeks later.

The responses on the(underscore)gas(underscore)station at LiveJournal were so very positive that, obviously, I decided that post this on after all, with a small tweak. So, enjoy.

The Writhing of Its Victims
The needs of the world negate the hero's right to bleed.
Alternate Universe, Justice League Crossover, Work In Progress, Virgil x Richie slash

Chapter 000: Exordium
"Power takes as ingratitude the writhing of its victims." – Rabindranath Tagore

Richie doesn't know how much longer Virgil can hold up under the pressure. Since 'surrendering' himself to the Justice Lords, Static has become something of a sidekick to them; the little man they send to all the unimportant, tiny problems; peaceful protests, repeated jaywalking, that kind of thing. Small price to pay, Static claims, for the Lords not shoving him into a cryogen cell with the other Bang Babies until the late Gear's cure-for-the-cure can be... well... cured.

Richie knows that's a lie. And it's not just Virgil's lie, either; it's their lie. Their price.

But when Virgil slips into his apartment and rests his head on Richie's shoulder and just breathes, Richie feels like Virgil is the only one paying the price. Because Dakota hates him. Because the world hates him.

Because he hates himself.

Static Shock. The traitor of Dakota, the heartless backstabber. The so-called hero who overlooked his partner's "accidental" death and joined the Lords without a second thought, with a smile for the controlled news, despite the world knowing the Lords were responsible for Gear's demise.

No one but Virgil knows that Richie is still alive and living under the name Rick O'Brian, who is supposedly twenty-two. No one can know, not even Robert and Sharon Hawkins, because it would put them in danger; jail is for the little crimes, like attempted murder of another normal human being. People who threaten the Lords and their power just... disappear. So the Hawkins can't know. Robert can never know why his son betrayed the memory of the person he supposedly loved more than his own life. Sharon can never know why her brother turned his back on everything he ever claimed was right.

Virgil, out of necessity to retain the image of an uncaring metahuman in love with his own power, and to keep his family and Richie safe, doesn't talk to them anymore. And it's killing him, more than the world's hatred ever could. How many times has Richie forcibly wrestled the phone away from Virgil? How many times has Static perched silently on his once-home's roof, just listening to the sounds of his family?

How many times has Richie sat on the couch with Virgil, arms wrapped around him as his best friend cries into his shoulder?

"Just a little longer, V," Richie always says, and the weight of Virgil's trust in him grows more and more unbearable with each passing day that Richie fails. But Virgil never mentions that. He never asks how much longer. He never points out that Richie has been saying 'just a little longer' for far too long.

And today, he has to say it at least once more.

"Just a little longer, V." He sits down beside Virgil on the couch of his apartment, handing him a cup of coffee. He's sound-proofed these walls. Virgil flicks the setting on his holowatch — Richie's invention, of course — and the image of a non-descript white man in his early fifties (good ol' Rick's father, to the neighbours) flickers into a sombre black teen with dredlocks. Virgil accepts the cup quietly, taking a small sip. "You'll make it. I know you will."

"Stop saying that," Virgil says, setting his mug down on the coffee table. He draws his legs up onto the couch, cross-legged and leaning back against the armrest, facing Richie. He shakes his head slightly, frowning. "Stop saying that."

Richie flinches. "Virg, I'm so sorry. I'm working as hard as I can, but the Box's capacity for shuffling near-complete reality is completely insufficient; I'm going to have to first attempt to shift at least one remote parallel dimension completely out of sync if I want the—"

"I don't know what the hell you're saying, Rich, much less the process to do it, but that isn't what I meant anyway. And did I mention that you have absolutely no imagination? I mean, the Box. You can poke holes in reality but you can't come up with a better name than the Box? You couldn't even use a more interesting synonym? ...Is there another word for synonym?"

"No. Virgil—"

"No as in, you couldn't find a better synonym, or no as in, there's no other word for synonym?" Virgil is grinning at him, fully aware that he's being annoying, and Richie just can't help but grin back. Good moods are so rare these days, he can't help but go along, if only for a moment.

"Jesus, fine. The Cube, then. And no as in, there's no other word for synonym. I would punch you, but that involves actually getting up." He sighs suddenly, touching two fingers to his temple as if to ward off a headache. "But what did you mean, 'stop saying that'?"

Virgil's good mood is abruptly gone as well, utter seriousness on his features. "Saying 'you'. Like 'You'll make it, Virgil'. 'You'll beat them, Virgil.' 'You'll win this, Virgil.' Like... like you think you won't be there to see it."

Richie stares at his hands. They've been dancing around this issue for months now. "One of us is gonna die before this is over, V. I can't... The probability of both of us surviving such a huge double-cross against the most powerful group of people in this universe is—"

"Shut up, Richie." So very, very calm.

Richie snarls. "—is about 7.86 percent, Virgil!"

"I said shut up!" Virgil snarls back; the lamp closest to him flickers in and out of life. Repressed anger pours out of him, as if he's been holding it back for awhile. "I don't give a fuck about your calculations! This is life, Richie, this isn't a math equation, or Backpack, or... or the fucking Cube! You can't make life into a goddamn probability count and expect it to be even close to accurate! You could get hit by a bus tomorrow! Did that probability enter into your calculations?"

"Yes," Richie says simply, and Virgil glares at him so viciously that he has to turn away. But then Virgil just slumps.

"God, Rich, I'm sorry." Virgil leans against the couch tiredly, closing his eyes. "I just... I don't want to hear the odds." He laughs a little, opening his eyes and forcing a small smile. "Besides, I'll probably be the one who gets his ass kicked, right?" he says jokingly, but Richie says nothing.

Virgil's eyes narrow.

"What aren't you telling me, Richie?"

Richie takes a deep, shaking breath and clasps his hands together to keep them from trembling. He doesn't miss Virgil's slight flinch, and that bothers him, because he's not afraid of Static and his power, and he's probably the only person who could face down the rage of Static without flinching. But Virgil thinks he's afraid. And he is, just not of Static's rage. He's afraid of Virgil's rage.

"Rich..." and suddenly the gentleness vanishes as it hits Virgil that it would take one hell of fucked-up situation to make Richie fearful of his reaction.

"Remember Alan Gilmour?"

"'Course," Virgil answers, and he's one of the few people who know about Richie's true mental capabilities and still give him the 'what, are you retarded?' look. "He was the crazy guy with the gun who clipped my skull with a bullet, Richie. Trust me, I remember."

"What happened to him?"

"Richie, this has nothing to do with—"

"What happened to him, Virgil?" Richie demands, his hands clenching around handfuls of couch cushion material.

"He..." Virgil squirms slightly, obviously uncomfortable. "He... The Lords... took care of him," he finishes lamely.

"They killed him, Virgil."

"I... I know."

"Like they 'killed' me, Virgil."

"No," Virgil hisses, glaring at his best friend. "Richie, goddamnit— what did you do? Don't twist things. Don't change the subject. Just tell me what you've done, man. Please." Virgil's pleading with him now, and Richie is shocked to see that his hands are trembling slightly.

"V... V, there's hardware in your brain. My hardware."

Virgil jerks, and narrows his eyes. "They know that, Richie. The chip you apparently put in before your 'accident' to keep J'onn from reading my mind." Richie's brain immediately runs through the attributes of the chip: resistant to electrical charges, impossible to hack or change, irremovable because Virgil die if they tried... "They know that. I know that. It was a risk, but we took it, and we lucked out."

Richie knows Virgil isn't stupid. He has to know what Richie's getting at.

"There's another chip." He lets that sink in for a moment, watching Virgil's face carefully, then continues, "It's built with all the fundamental schematics of—well, it theoretically works on the principle of the power of suggestion. It's inserted behind the original chip and invisible to scanners. It doesn't actually work, and it couldn't; too many components are off or just not there at all, but unless it's physically taken apart it'll be impossible to tell that it doesn't work. In any case, the only programming in it has been devised to... well, liquefy—harmlessly—as soon as my heart stops."

"A mind-control device," Virgil says flatly. "Traceable to you. That will self-destruct the second you die."

"A fake mind-control device," Richie corrects, trying to ignore the way his hair is standing on end, and the way his skin is tingling almost painfully. Virgil flexes his hands, clenching and unclenching his fingers. There's no visible electrical charge around him, but for a second, every light in Richie's apartment flickers on at twice their usual brightness, and the bulb of the lamp nearest Virgil actually explodes.

"Why?" Virgil finally grits out, bringing himself under control with obvious effort. Richie rubs his arms reflexively, relieved that Virgil isn't freaking out half as much as Richie had been prepared for. Frankly, Richie had been worried he'd have to leave the room or risk his blood boiling.

"Because one of us has to keep living, V," Richie says quietly. He can feel himself slipping into Gear's cold, purely factual view of things and he's grateful for it. "If they find out that I'm still alive, how long will it take them to figure you out? One word from me, and that chip will send out a faint signal that the Lords' computers will pick up. They'll find the second chip. Their diagnostics will tell them what it's supposed to do. They'll keep me alive long enough for me to tell them everything — or at least, everything according to me. They'll believe that I've been controlling you. That I told you I'd survived, but refused to join the Lords, and you wouldn't leave them. And I... I couldn't bear to let you go. When I die, that chip will liquefy. No way for them to tell that it wasn't real. No real reason for them to doubt my story. No reason for them to kill you, too."

"You think... you think they'll believe that?" Virgil chokes out; Richie notes that he appears to be reeling.

"Not really. But it's better than us just saying 'Yes, we've been screwing you over and trying our damndest to take you all down. What's it to you?' But if you play the part, Virgil, if you go along with it... then you'll have a chance. We'll have a chance, even if I'll be dead. Besides, the story I've got planned to tell them is a lot more complex than the version I just told you. It's not like I'm just going to wing it, Virgil. I've figured out all the details, all the possible loopholes, all the different voice tones and inflections I'll need to employ, all the..." He stops. "Everything. I've figured out everything."


"I'm right. You know I'm right. Besides"—Richie manages to quirk a faint smile—"I died once before, remember? It's not so bad."

Virgil just... looks at him, and it's worse than any glare. Richie presses his palms against his eyes, sighing.

"You're supposed to be pissed off because I put a fucking mind-control­ device in your head without telling you, not because you think I'll die. You're supposed to want to kill me yourself for doing that."

"What, did you calculate the probability of all kinds of shit occurring and figure out that that was what would most likely happen?" Virgil snaps bitterly.

"You're also supposed to stop trusting me," Richie says lamely, trying very hard to keep looking Virgil in the eye instead of staring at the couch cushions again.

"You put a mind-control device that doesn't work in my brain without telling me, much less asking my consent, and then you told me about it when you expected me to, like, zap you and not trust you anymore and hate you. Because you don't want me to die."

Richie is watching the ceiling light out of the corner of his eye, ready to cover his face with his arms, because that looks like it might explode, too.

"I can get over the mind-control thing. I can get over the part where you thought I'd zap you, even though I want to zap you for thinking that I would have zapped you."

"Uh." Totally a super-genius.

"But the part I'm having trouble with, the part I'm having a really hard time with, is the whole 'my best friend is essentially suicidal' thing!"

"What would you do, V?" Richie snaps out, suddenly angry. "Would you just sit back and let me die when you knew there was a way you could possibly prevent it?"

"No! But there's no way for me to keep you safe if you practically dance in front of the Lords with a target painted on you! Why do you think I'm so fucking mad at you!" Virgil yells, and Richie jerks back as if slapped. They stare at each other for long moments, Virgil practically breathing fire, and then... Richie cracks up. He can't help it. Hysterical laughter bubbles up, and he just can't stop it, nearly doubling over on the couch. Virgil manages a weak laugh, not really amused, but all the lights dim and he rubs Richie's back soothingly, slowly bringing him back to normality.

"You're so stupid. I don't care what your IQ is, you're an idiot." Virgil's voice is equal parts affection and concern. Richie has no response for that, so he lets Virgil take his face in his hands.

"I can't lose you, Richie," Virgil whispers, his thumbs gently digging into Richie's face for a brief instant, as though Virgil's in pain. He is. "Not now, not ever."

Richie closes his eyes. "Virg—"

"I need you, man. I can't do this without you. I can't win without you. I can't... fuck, bro." Virgil lets out a short laugh, and Richie is glad he can't see Virgil's expression. He doesn't want to know what he's done to the person he loves more than anything in this twisted world. "I can't survive without you. I won't. I'll break, I'll give in, I'll lose. I need you. At the risk of sounding like some kind of bad thriller movie, the world needs you, 'cause I sure as hell can't do this on my own. Even if I had your brain."

Richie lets silence reign for a little while. After a minute or so, Virgil lets go of his face and Richie rocks back, opening his eyes to stare at the couch cushions.

"So," Virgil says finally, and Richie forces himself to meet the last true superhero's gaze. "What are our chances without the bus?"

Richie laughs helplessly, because if he doesn't he thinks he might cry. He knows the answer to every goddamn decimal point, but he pushes it out of his head with no small effort and reaches for Virgil with both hands, and Virgil gathers him up in something that's not a hug so much as a mutual grip on their sanity.

"I love you." They've never kissed, never fucked, never done anything that would possibly add more complication to the mess that they're in. Whatever they want can wait — must wait — until they've done what they need.

"Me too, man." Virgil's whisper is harsh and raw in his ear. "Love you too." But this, this little exchange of honesty, isn't complicated. Love you, love you too, and it gives them a little more strength. Just enough more to want to wake up in the morning and keep breathing, as opposed to needing to.

Richie thinks about the Box... the Cube. About what it will do, and what could happen if he fails. About what will happen if he never tries at all. There is so much freedom hanging in the balance; he holds it in his hands every time he picks up the Cube to work on it.

When he holds the Cube... he holds another future in his hands.

Virgil's grip tightens around him, drawing him as close as he can possibly get.

"I've gotta go."

"I know."

"Remember to eat. And sleep."

"I know."

Virgil lets him go, sliding off the couch and leaving Richie cold. "I wish... I wish you hadn't told me."

"I know."

"But I'm glad you did."

"I kno— that doesn't make any sense."

Virgil's grin is only half-forced.

"I know."

He twists the holowatch again, and to anyone watching, Rick O'Brian's balding father has just left the residence. Thankfully, no one is. Richie knows that Virgil will stash the device somewhere a good distance from here before heading back to the Watchtower. It would not do for one of the Lords to notice it.

Richie checks the time, then flicks on his own holowatch, and the image of a young man with red-touched brown hair flickers into existence, because even in the midst of all this chaos, insanity, danger, terror, and secrecy...

A man still has to work for a living.