The isolation was almost perfect, a fact that made Sun Boy all that more homesick. He scanned the valley, wishing his eyes were more light sensitive than they were. Finally, he saw what he was looking for: A small lantern, the only sign of life on the dead world. He started towards it, mumbling, "If I have to carry him back to the ship again..." After he dodged around several new obelisks, he stopped to look at them. With an artist's eye, he appraised them, noticing the delicate detailing etched into each one. "He's getting better. A shame he's getting so much practice." Finally, Dirk found the lantern and the boy trying to read a holomap in the fading light.
Not a boy, the Terran corrected himself. Nobody who's going through what he's going through can be called a boy. "How are you doing, Jan?"
The other jerked up his blond head. Tears trickled down his cheeks, dropping into the holomap with no effect. "There are eleven infants buried here. They had no identification. I don't know what family symbols to give them."
"Isn't there a generic symbol, like "John Doe" or something?" Dirk asked, and then kicked himself for callousness of the question.
"No. Everybody on Trom was related in some way. These aren't my siblings, but they could have been my cousins or uncles...." The sentence ended in a sob.
Dirk walked over to the younger Legionnaire and hugged him. "Sleep on it tonight, Jan. You'll find the right way to honor them by morning. You've exhausted yourself again."
"I have to finish this."
"Not in one night!" Dirk exploded. "You are as bad as Brainy... or me! You don't need to finish the tsarins in one visit!"
"Yes, I do. I have been neglecting my duties to my people for too long."
"You'll hardly serve them if you work yourself into joining them! Come on, let's get something to eat. The chili's done."
"No meat, I hope."
Dirk took the interest in food as a good sign. "Nope. Not even any synthetic textured protein."
They walked back to the cruiser, Dirk lighting the way so that they would not trip over any debris left over from the genocide that took place and left Jan an orphan, with no one in the universe who spoke his language, knew his music or believed in his gods. Dirk couldn't imagine being the only human in the universe. The only physical clues he had to the loneliness of Element Lad were the planet and the long hours Jan struggled to create the tsarins, the multicolored pylons telling the deceased's name and history to any who could read the pictograms.
Light flared over a small hill and Dirk looked up, wondering if another storm of radioactive rain was going to hit that night. The light flared again, outlining a U.P. grounds keeping robot, fulfilling its function by keeping the weeds (which Jan kept calling "grass" despite the fact it bore no resemblance to any grass on any other world) from destroying the city. Originally, the robots were sent to bury the dead on this radioactive world: A task that no sentient could have handled emotionally or physically.
Jan looked at the robots with an unconscious disdain. Although useful, the robots desecrated these lands that were now dedicated to the dead. Even worse, they were another symbol of his failure to his people. "They should not have been buried," he muttered to himself.
Another surprise, Sun Boy thought. I'm probably going to need that psych exam that's awaiting both of us. A month in a giant graveyard with a kid who's torn up about nearly killing someone who really deserved it. Of course, I didn't exactly help. His thoughts flew back to the desperate chase across the stars to catch Element Lad before he found Roxxas and did something stupid. Of course, they arrived just in time to watch Jan do something stupid--pull the trigger of the gun he had pointed at the mass murderer. Chemical King interfered with Superboy's leap to stop the momentarily deranged Tromian, and the gun fired. And so did my temper. I'll be lucky if he ever forgives me for saying he was on the same level as that scum. I should have known Chemi was up to something. I should've kept my mouth shut.
"What do you mean, Jan? Do--did your people cremate their dead?"
"No. We cleansed our dead. Sang the appropriate songs and released their atoms so that they may go back to the Dances of the Small Ones and the Beginnings of Life."
"Small ones are the atoms themselves, right? And the Beginnings are... the point were carbon compounds begin to emerge as cellular life?"
"Yes. As the grasses and grains fed us, so do we in turn feed them."
As Sun Boy stepped through the portal, a dread oozed over him. "You're...not thinking of exhuming everybody and turning them into fertilizer are you? If you are, I'm moving this ship back to Earth as fast as it can go!"
"That's sick, Dirk."
"So's spending a month's leave in a graveyard!"
"So what are you doing here, Morgna?"
Dirk smiled his super-confident smile. "I'm sick; what else?" That and I wanted to make sure you'd still be alive when we came back for you.
Jan laughed, a weary, broken laugh as he began to set the table. Dirk wondered why he bothered, but the ritual was obviously important to the younger man. He settled down and poured the beer that would quench the four-alarm chili. As Dirk brought the pot over, Jan asked, "Are you going to arrest me when we get back to Earth?"
Dirk dropped the chili.
"Son of a bitch! Where in hell did that come from?"
Dirk sighed. "I quit studying law when I found I hated torts. But I know that in the strictest definition, a "crime of passion" fits what you did. No court in the universe would convict you if you'd succeeded. Except ours. There's no point in arresting you, especially since Chem stopped the murder."
"But I pulled the trigger."
"Jan, nobody's going to press charges! But it would be a crime if you resigned! Of all of us, your powers are the best suited for saving lives. You want to pay for what your tried to do to Roxxas, pay for it in work. Save the lives that need saving in the years to come. Honor your people that way--acting on how highly they prized life. Don't look so stunned; I've been studying everything I can here. I don't understand the language, but I know a toy when I see it; and I've seen lots of them. Don't let Roxxas destroy the Legionnaire, Jan. That sad madman isn't worth your career, or the way you'd disgrace everyone here if you left the responsibilities you assumed to avenge them."
"I didn't do it to avenge them. I became Mystery Lad to find some protection, and to stop Roxxas from hurting anyone else."
"Roxxas isn't the only murderer out there, and the former Element Lad would be a hell of a target for anyone who's hungry for power or revenge." He paused for a moment, and looked at the chili laden towel. "Speaking of hungry, is there a fast food restaurant in this solar system?"
Jan laughed at the unexpected comment. "Sorry. You're stuck with the synthesizer. But I'll finish cleaning the floor." He pointed at what was left of the slop and it disappeared; Dirk suspected he was breathing it. "I just wish I hadn't tried to kill him. I was like a different person."
Dirk shivered. "I just hope Regulus never pushes me to that point. I'm not sure I'd repent if I ever killed him in anger."
"I hope you'll never find out, neelon."
Neelon. A brother-by-love. No ceremony ever cemented the bonding of friends so close that they would do almost anything for the other and accepted each other as a confidant and member of their families. For a moment, the maverick in Dirk wailed in protest to the title and what it implied. However, the man reveled in the trust and love in those two syllables. In many ways, the Legion was more his family than the Morgnas.
Jan programmed the food synthesizer for salads, and added plenty of synthetic ham and turkey on Dirk's and suddenly realized how exhausted he was. "I'm beat; I hope you weren't expecting much after dinner conversation."
"Nope. Maybe you're tired enough not to go to sleep with these." Dirk suggested, waving a bottle of pills. "Dream suppressants are not good."
"They are if they let you sleep."
"Do you see what... happened?"
Jan stared at the floor for a long while. "Yeah. But I don't always remember the details when I wake up."
Repression, thought Dirk. A good thing in his case. "Skip the supps tonight. If anything happens, I'll be here."
Surprisingly, the mere offer of assistance was enough to assure Jan. Dirk fell asleep reading a child's book about a child helping a lost alien back to its people even after it attacked in fear, and dreamed about the child trying to teach him the language. He awoke as daylight flooded through the dome and Jan spoke his name.
Jan was already dressed in a generic worksuit. "There's something I want to show you."
Sleep-fogged, Dirk got up and dressed. Curiosity burned away the haze enough so he finally asked, "What's up, Jan?"
"Not without my coffee, I don't."
Jan handed him a steaming cup of the brown liquid. Dirk gulped it down and followed his native guide to a short round building in the middle of the city. The moment he walked inside, he knew what it was: A church. There were no human images, no Mary or Christ, no Buddha; just a splendid display of abstract beauty to marvel at. Speechless, Dirk stared, trying to take in every detail of the mosaics and sculptures. A tear slipped past his red-gold lashes, followed by another. Through their artwork, Dirk learned what was hidden from humanity for so long, and lost for eternity.
"Will you pray with me, Dirk? For the peace of my people--and yours?"
And for your peace, too, Jan. Dumbly, he nodded, too choked for words. Beside Jan, he walked to the broken alter, genuflected and crossed himself. No words would form in his mind. If they did, they would have never passed through his locked throat. Miserably, he stayed beside his friend, head hung, until Jan finished his songs and the altar was restored. "I'll be outside, Jan," his voice rasped.
A hot breeze slapped him as he slumped against the church. Damn you, G-d, how could you allow this to happen? he thought, no longer trying to stop the tears. If Roxxas were here, I'd blast him myself. A footstep made him raise his head. Jan hunched down beside him.
Dirk opened his mouth, but Jan shook his head. "Don't. I understand. I've seen you try to be anywhere but a church during your major holidays. He held out his hand. "I want you to have this. It's my prayer thanking the Gods for your friendship--it's only right you keep this."
Dirk took the sphere and held it up to the light to study. The crystalline globe held flecks of pink and white, red and gold, green and blue in a pattern that changed as the sphere was rotated. He glanced at Jan, and for once did not see those haunted, old eyes or the determination of a Legionnaire. The Tromian had the eyes of a little brother trying to please his sibling. "I don't know what to say, Jan. It's beautiful. Thank you."
"It's my thanks to you, for staying and yelling at me."
"Well, you deserved it. Let me get cleaned up. I'll meet you for lunch."
"Great. I'll be at the Northwest site three."
In the following hours, Dirk realized that his reaction to being called neelon wasn't just the glow of being flattered. It meant something to him, as much as being a Legionnaire. It took you so long to realize it, schmuck? he chastised himself. So, what are you going to do about it? What do you want?
"I want to see Jan happy here... if only for a little while," he whispered to himself. So, what are you going to do about it?
The question plagued him while he fixed the meal and flew to the site. As he approached, his stomach locked. He was heading back to the wall. A garden of eleven tiny graves. A garden where nothing would ever grow. "I have got to see how he solved his problem from last night," he told himself as he prodded his flight ring to move him closer. "I'm also talking to myself. I wonder if I can use this as an excuse to get out of being co-deputy leader? Probably not. Being crazy seems to be a prerequisite for this group."
As he landed, Jan turned and looked at him, a look of pride filling his pale face. In front of him, partially hiding the rust-colored stains on the wall, was a garden of eleven tiny, rose-colored tsarins, with a black inlay of some mineral that had a wheat shape to the design. The redhead looked at his friend. "I am impressed. Any meaning to the symbol?"
"The interrelation of all things. A sign that they mattered and were important, despite their few months."
Dirk spread a blanket from the ship's infirmary on the clearest patch of ground he could find and plopped the picnic basket down. "Rabbit food sandwiches for you, roast beef for me. Brought it back with me. After that lousy business meeting and Benn Pares, I figured I deserved it."
"That fact that you had enough courage to walk into that warp window is enough to convince me you deserve some real food. That thing scares me."
"Don't worry, it's too damn expensive to use regularly."
"Then why use it now?"
"Because they wanted me at that fu-frickking business meeting. And then I wanted to get back here as soon as possible."
Dirk released a scream of frustration. "How can someone as damn perceptive as you get so thick-headed? I was worried about you, dummy! We all are!"
Jan began to study his sandwich.
Good one, Dirk, the Terran admonished himself. "Jan, tell me about life here? What was it like? Did you go to school? What games were played here? How did you feel the first time you saw someone from another world? Or were aliens something you just grew up with, like I did?"
"I don't remember meeting any outworlders here. When I saw my first alien, I was the alien. As for school..." Jan spoke about the life that was once on this world; a people who never knew want or hatred for those who were different. Dirk listened to what was not said: No mention of who was in Jan's family, no specific friends or local celebrities the boy worshipped. He listened to the happiness in the memories and the longing for love in the chanting lilt the story gained as Jan concentrated on the tale he was weaving.
Somehow, the spell the Tromian was creating broke and he fell silent. Dirk reached over to him, placed an arm over his neck and, tentatively, kissed him. The blond responded, then pulled away. "I appreciate the gesture," he almost whispered, "but you don't..."
Closing his eyes, the Terran prayed, give me strength, Lord. "Jan, I'm the last person who's going to be motivated out of pity, which you have more than enough for yourself right now. I do things because they feel right to me."
"Dirk, I'm not exactly your type."
"And this isn't exactly a night club. No, shut up for a minute. It's true that I prefer women..." He paused for another moment, trying to find words where he had none. "Damn it, Jan! I want to... isn't that enough?"
Jan shook his head slowly. It was an ancient's gesture, but it came from one so young. "I had thought you'd be the last person to confuse love and sex. I have your love, Dirk. As much as I'd enjoy it, I don't need your sex."
"Don't worry about me on that account. I want to do this because of what you mean to me. I'm a rotten man when it comes to commitments. About the only one I've made and kept was to the Legion. But for once, I want to be the kind of man I should, and make love instead of getting fucked. I care a lot about you, neelon, and I don't want you to be alone with these ghosts tonight. Sometimes, I get the impression you're becoming one of them..."
Jan inched closer to him. "We're going home soon, Dirk."
"Yes. This... place... isn't home any longer." His voice caught in his throat, but there was no need for words. Dirk stripped off his shirt. Jan gently stroked the red-gold hair on the other man's chest and marveled at how the sunlight splashed through it, while Dirk began to undo the catches on Jan's worksuit and to caress the pale smoothness with the tip of his tongue. Before his consciousness was totally devoted to pursuing the pleasure of two lovers, Dirk wondered at how easily he responded to Jan in this place where isolation allowed the suspension of all "civilization's" expectations. Unbidden, his dream of the young boy teaching him the language came back to him, and he wondered what it meant.
The sun began setting, melting the crisp aquamarine sky into shades of orange and gray. The pair stuffed all the clothes into the picnic basket and flew back to the ship, where a message from Mon-El was waiting. Jan stared out across the valley of his people and surveyed the first of several years worth of hard work, wondering if he would ever find the right way to say goodbye to this place that sacrificed so much for him.
Dirk walked to him and wrapped his arms around him, pressing against his back. "Time for me to become an asshole again. Superboy's flying out to meet us for a mission," he announced sadly, kissing his friend's/lover's shoulder.
"So why do you have to act like an anus again?"
"Five years on Earth and you still don't have the slang right," Dirk admonished, resting his head on his friend's shoulder. He hadn't noticed it before, but Jan had gotten taller than him. "For the same reason you became Mystery Lad. Besides, I can't disappoint my adoring public, can I? We better get our clothes on soon. We wouldn't want to shock Superboy's provincial morals."
"I can't believe he would be shocked. With all the various races he's seen in the universe, why should the closest to his own shock him?"
"Because we're closest to his own. He expects us to behave somewhat like they did in twentieth-century Kansas." Jan was quiet. "Jan, don't take this wrong, but there are times I wish you were a woman."
Dirk felt a hand caress his arm. "Sometimes, so do I."