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Fake it 'til you make it

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Lucio picked up a habit of saying the opposite of what he thought about himself.
It had started off shortly after he and Nadia got engaged, that drunken night. He found himself ready to bang his head on the wall as some sort of punishment for repeated stupidity. He hated himself. He hated himself for killing his father, his father while he was sick and weak, and simultaneously hated that he couldn’t kill his mother, that he was so weak himself at the time. He hated himself for the foolish deals he made. He hated that he had been stupid enough to get so badly injured in battle that he had to have his arm amputated, just to save the rest of him.
He didn’t think the rest of him was worth saving.
Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.
He was weak, foolish, ugly with scars as reminders of his failures. He wasn’t sure anyone ever loved him. His parents certainly didn’t. He had had lovers, sure, but they never stayed in the morning, or he’d leave before they had a chance to.
Staring up at the ceiling in the middle of the night, having agreed to a marriage with a woman he was certain would never love him, he realized he’d never be able to go on like this, a loveless existence. Maybe, just maybe, if he acted like he loved himself, the rest would follow. Maybe he could put on enough of a show that he could convince people to love him. And if that failed, well, he could still use fear. He had an abundance of experience using that.

It had started off as a joke, really. He said self-aggrandizing things ironically, talked himself up with a humorous tone. Well, apparently he failed at jokes, too, and people took him seriously. Took him a couple months to really figure it out, and by then, well, he was already in too deep. They thought he was an insufferable narcissist. Of course he only made it worse.
But oh how he wanted to believe the things he said about himself, believe he was grand and sparkling and resplendent. He kept up the act, if only to convince himself.
Almost everything from that point on was in futile attempts to feel something. He was great at acting like he felt something. He was great at smug grins and disgusted sneers, but the reality was that everything in life felt muted.
He didn’t care when people got hurt. He could watch the gladiator fights and feel nothing. Not disdain, not anger, not blood-lust. Just emptiness.
He felt no joy from celebration. The more extravagant the party, it seemed, the hollower he felt inside. It didn’t stop him from trying, though. Bread and circuses, and the people would love him, or rather, what he did for them. That had to be enough, right?
Shameless trysts gave him neither satisfaction nor embarrassment. He expressed as much to Valerius one night, that he couldn’t seem to find joy in anything. Thank gods he had been too drunk to remember it the next day. Lucio wasn’t sure he could handle it if he had.

He found fleeting comfort in a few things, his dogs mostly, and hunting. Riding and pursuing with one single goal in mind, he could almost forget the weight of everything else on his mind.
Almost.

Then came the plague. He was dying, and he was scared. He was terrified. Coward, he thought, can’t even die properly, can’t die with a little bit of dignity. What dignity did he have, really? He’d fight this, he’d do anything. He was desperate. He couldn’t die.
He couldn’t die still such a waste of a life.
He couldn’t die alone.
Yet, when he burned, he couldn’t help but think At least it’s all over now. He hoped death would bring oblivion, instead of an afterlife torture he surely deserved.

Lucio thought he couldn’t feel anything before.
This was worse.
He couldn’t feel the warmth of a fire, he couldn’t pet his dogs, he couldn’t do much but wander, a literal ghost now instead of a figurative one.
Oh, he thought he was ugly before, now he was absolutely hideous.
He was so lonely, so starved for contact.
No one came looking for him. No one noticed him, or if they did, they avoided him.
Of course they did.

Then came the magician. They were persistent, and beautiful, and brave. They were everything he wished he could be.
He wanted so much for them to like him.
Why else would he beg to look like himself again? At least looking human he stood a chance. They made him feel something again. He could feel their hand, soft and warm. He longed to lean into them, fall into an embrace to soak up more of that feeling he had been craving for years.
And they didn’t know him. They didn’t know how he was before. He could start fresh, maybe not be such a screw-up this time, not be such an obviously horrible person.
Old habits die hard, but it was easier to let go around them, to joke and damn, he actually made them laugh, a real genuine laugh. He could get drunk on that sound. He could cuddle his dogs again, he could feel the summer breeze, and it made him so happy.
Happy. Not spitefully happy, not bitter satisfaction from being right, just happy. It was new, and it was beautiful.

“Maybe I should just kiss you properly. I’ve wanted to do that since we met.”
Please say yes, please say yes. I would die if you would just let me kiss you. I want this, I want you, please, please, please say you want me too.
“I’m sorry, you probably don’t want to hear about my childhood.” Who cares, really? “I’m much cooler now.” Close one, they almost saw him vulnerable, they almost saw how weak he really was.
But please tell me you care. Please tell me someone could care.
When the skeletal wyrm came, Lucio didn’t think twice about protecting them, this magician that worked an entirely different kind of magic into his life in such a short time. Maybe he could be better. Maybe his life could be better. He had a chance at life again, a chance at love, at peace, at happiness, all thanks to this beautiful person.
He would protect that with all he had.
And what a wonderful thing it was to have something like that to protect.