AUTHOR'S NOTE: This takes place after the New 52 Legion #1. Given events subsequent to that issue, this little piece almost has to be considered AU, but I hope I stayed true to the characters otherwise. I don't own any of the Legionnaires, much as I might wish to.
Of all the duties he'd ever had to perform as a Legionnaire, Lar Gand, called Mon-El, hated monitor duty the worst.
Sitting in the monitor room and watching the world outside, waiting for some crisis that demanded the Legion's attention, reminded Lar too much of the centuries he'd spent in the Phantom Zone with nothing to do but watch the worlds, the people he'd loved grow old and die, entire civilizations rise and fall and rise again, with no power to do anything about it. He hadn't even been able to say, "Goodbye," or "I loved you," or anything else that other people took for granted. He could only watch, much like he did on monitor duty. But with monitor duty, Lar thought, at least he could do something about an alarm.
Which didn't make the watching any easier. It left him with little to do but think - or, possibly more accurately, brood - and as the current Legion leader, Lar had far too much to think about.
Oddly, what occupied his thoughts now had nothing to do with the aftermath of the recent crisis, or the fact that he had, in Brainiac 5's words, already set a new record for casualties on your watch, though those certainly troubled him. Instead, it was a conversation with that same Brainiac 5 - and not the suggestion that he step down so Brainy, who was vastly more suited to it, could take over. The thought of Brainy in charge still made Lar shake his head.
No, it was another part of that conversation with Brainy that replayed in Lar's mind like one of Ma Kent's old-fashioned records that had gotten scratched.
It still surprised him that he'd defended Kirt Niedrigh to Brainy when the other man had suggested Niedrigh's memorial statue be less prominently displayed.
He was a true Legionnaire at the end, Lar had said, and thought he'd meant it at the time. Now, though -
Brainy was right again, as much as Lar hated to admit it. The totality of Niedrigh's life needed to be taken into account, and once that was tallied, there was no question that Niedrigh belonged on the villainous side of history.
Lar routed the monitor board communications directly to his flight ring and made his way to the Hall of Heroes.
Too many. It was always his first thought when he came to this room. Too many Legionnaires had died over the years. From the first - one of Luornu's selves - through Ferro Lad, Invisible Kid, and Chemical King, then others he hadn't known as well, and more recently members of the Legions of three different worlds honored here because they'd died saving this world, Academy members who'd earned their membership as they died, and finally Kirt Niedrigh.
Too many, certainly. And yet without those sacrifices, the world Lar knew would not exist. So, as he always did, Lar offered a silent thanks to all of them.
Then it was time for business. Taking flight took a moment's will, and he studied the arrangement of the statues. It would be easy to put Niedrigh's memorial in a far corner, but that felt as wrong as having it at the forefront. No, something more subtle was called for.
So Lar rearranged all of the statues. When he was finished, they were less in formal rows and more in a grouping that suggested friends standing together in conversation. Niedrigh was among the group - not at the edges, but not in the forefront, either. Lar floated above them, debating whether Ferro Lad needed to be turned more toward the main grouping, when a voice interrupted his thoughts.
"Are you ashamed of him?"
Lar glanced down to see Tasmia Mallor standing at the base of Niedrigh's statue. Anyone without enhanced vision wouldn't have seen her at all, thanks to her command of shadows and darkness. "That's a difficult question to answer."
"It shouldn't be. It should be a yes or a no."
Lar drifted down to land facing her, not as close as he would have six months ago, before she'd ended their relationship. Before she'd taken up with Niedrigh. "It probably should be," he agreed. "But that doesn't mean it's so."
"Why isn't it?"
"Because it's not just one moment that we honor here. It's a lifetime."
"He was a champion. I keep telling you." Now her voice shook almost as it had when Niedrigh died. The difference was that then the shaking came from grief. Now, if Lar knew her at all, it came from anger.
"In one moment he was," Lar said quietly. "But what about the rest of his life? We wouldn't admit him to the Legion when he was Absorbancy Boy - not solely because his powers were too limited, but because of his personality. Then he grew up and became Earth-Man."
"Earth-Man, who saved the world when he sacrificed himself," Tasmia said.
"Earth-Man, who sowed distrust and anger and xenophobia amongst Earthlings. Earth-Man, who lied about Superman's origins and twisted his legacy, causing Earth to secede from the United Planets. Earth-Man, who captured most of the Legionnaires, usurped their powers as his own, and used them against people the Legion is sworn to protect." Tasmia was shaking her head, but Lar didn't pause in his recitation. "Earth-Man, who power-raped Dirk, using Dirk's power to turn Earth's sun, and others in the galaxy, red. Earth-Man, who nearly caused the United Planets to annihilate all of Earth thanks to his xenophobic rage. Earth-Man, who joined the Legion of Super-Villains to try to defeat us, all out of spite and twisted anger." Lar let out a breath, and then the final indictment. "Who imprisoned me in the Phantom Zone again."
"That's not so bad."
Her words hit him like a rabbit punch to the throat, and it was almost ten full seconds before he trusted himself to speak. "What did you say?"
"I was there, when I came with Tinya to get you out." Tasmia shrugged. "It's not that bad."
"You weren't there a thousand seconds." Lar bit the words out one by one. "Don't think you know what a thousand years was like."
She blinked at his vehemence, and chose not to pursue it. Instead, she said, "So you are ashamed of him. You want to hide him away, despite his sacrifice."
"If I wanted that, he wouldn't have a statue at all." Lar forced his tone to patience. It should be easy, after so many years alone. But he'd shared himself with Tasmia, and for a time he'd thought she understood him. Knowing he'd been wrong still rankled.
"He died a Legionnaire." Unknowing, Tasmia echoed Lar's own words to Brainy.
"Did he? I want to think so."
"But -" Lar exhaled slowly. "But even a gangster would've killed Hitler if he'd had the chance."
"Twentieth-century Terran figure, responsible for the deaths of millions of people during his tenure. For more than half a century after his death, many Earthlings used his name as synonymous with the worst evil they could imagine. My point," he continued, "is that as bad as Kirt was, even he could see that the Bringer of Chaos was far worse. It was right to stop the Bringer - but did it negate his own actions?"
"He may have been on the wrong side before, but he joined us, worked with us. He was ready to make up for what he'd done."
"I want to believe that, Tasmia. I don't know that I can."
"You don't want to," Tasmia snapped. "You're jealous that he won me after you -" she stopped. Lar heard her last words as clearly as if she'd shouted them. After you lost me.
He would've laughed in her face, if it weren't such a crude response. He could be crude to Kirt Niedrigh, but he'd never be crude to Tasmia. So Lar took a breath and let it out slowly to give him time to formulate a better response. "I wasn't jealous. You chose to leave me, and then you chose to be with him. Did I like it? Of course not, neither of those. But not jealous in the sense you meant."
"Of course you were. Why else would you pick a fight with him?"
Lar shook his head. "He picked a fight with me."
"No, you told him to stay away from me and you threw him into space."
Now Lar couldn't help the laugh that escaped, though he did contain it before it became derisive. "He came to me, demanded to know what happened between you and me. I told him it was none of his business. He said you were his, and it was his business, and that I shouldn't pull the all-powerful routine on him because he had all my powers. That's when I threw him into space - it wasn't worth the argument. He wasn't worth it."
Tasmia was staring at him. "That's not what he -" she broke off, then spoke more firmly. "He'd changed. I know it."
Lar forced himself to ask the question. "Because he was sleeping with you?"
"That's one reason, yes." She answered as evenly as he'd asked.
"I hope not the strongest one, because it's pretty flimsy." He winced internally as soon as the words were out, hurried to explain. "Not that I think you aren't desirable - you should know better than that - but because it doesn't prove anything."
"Doesn't it?" Her chin lifted. "If he truly hated anyone not Earth-born, why would he have sex with me?"
"Bluntly?" Lar didn't wait for an answer. "Because you were there. From an outsider's perspective, it's no different than a prince dallying with a servant, or a slave-owner with a slave."
The shadows around her had deepened as they spoke - a sign of her anger, Lar supposed. "It's not the only reason," she snapped. "And not even the most important one."
Lar waited, but she didn't elaborate. So like her, he mused, to get angry or upset and talk just enough that she could think she'd explained herself, but leave him wishing for an iota of Dawnstar's tracking ability to help him find her point. Of course, that also meant Tasmia could always find a justification for anything by claiming he hadn't understood her.
So he let out a silent breath, choosing as he usually did to try to keep the peace. "I shouldn't have been so blunt. I know you're grieving."
"I seem to be the only one."
"Niedrigh didn't make many friends in the Legion."
"Nobody reached out to him."
"He didn't reach out to us - which is another reason I don't believe he changed as much as you want to think he did." So much for trying to keep the peace. Why did they elect me, again?
"You don't want to look for anything good in him - whether because of me, or your own prejudice."
"Do you really think I'm that shallow?" They were probably on their way to an argument, whatever he did, Lar decided. Then again, he hadn't argued when she'd left him. He'd questioned why, asked her to reconsider, and then gone back to Daxam for a while to allow that wound to heal, but he hadn't argued. Maybe it was time they did.
"Honestly? I don't know what to think about you anymore." Tasmia allowed the shadows she'd gathered to dissipate. His enhanced vision meant he could see her clearly no matter how dark she made it, but he appreciated the gesture of openness. Maybe they'd avoid an argument after all. "The Lar I knew gave everyone a chance, even a second or third chance. He didn't want to lose any connection he'd made. This new Lar - I don't know."
"Don't judge me just by him." Lar nodded in the direction of Niedrigh's statue. "It's hard for anyone to give a second chance to someone who did what he did." He hesitated, then chose to tell her the truth. "And I have more reason to wonder about him than most."
Her expression hardened. "Because of me."
"Because of the Ring of Oa."
"What?" Now she just looked confused.
Lar searched for words to explain. "The ring is … aware. Not sentient, necessarily, but aware. And it can communicate, after a fashion. As part of its programming, it gives a new wearer a brief history of Oa, the Guardians, the Green Lantern Corps. Included in that history is a focus on the last actions of its prior wearer."
"You saw what Kirt did when he wore the ring?"
"More or less." Lar didn't know words from any language that could describe the immersion experience he'd had when the ring first graced his finger. If the Phantom Zone had been a thousand years of nothing, putting on the Ring of OA had been an instant of everything.
"Then you know," Tasmia said, and Lar didn't want to think that was an edge of desperation in her voice. "You know he'd changed."
"What I know," Lar said quietly, "is that he used the Ring of Oa to short-circuit what Brainy did to his flight ring."
"So he really had changed," Tasmia said.
"Maybe. From the outside, it's impossible to tell. Even you don't really know what he was thinking." He risked a moment's humor. "Unless you somehow borrowed Imra's telepathy."
"That's the one power I never wanted." Her lips twitched. It wasn't much of a smile, but it was something.
Lar smiled back, and decided to risk another burst of honesty. "It's because I'm not certain how much he'd changed that I put the statue where I did."
"If I thought he hadn't changed at all, I'd've put it in the corner."
Tasmia's expression showed her caught somewhere between laughter and fury, and Lar braced himself for whichever storm might come. She surprised him when she just shook her head. "At least you're honest about it. Nobody else has been."
"Anything I need to know? As Legion leader, I mean."
She shrugged. "They're all trying to be so nice, but they don't really mean it, because they didn't like him. I'd rather have the honesty, even if I don't always like it."
"I never meant to hurt you, whether about Niedrigh or when I got out of the Zone. I don't understand why you left or why you chose to be with him, but I don't have to." Lar stretched out a hand, let it fall before it made contact with her. "I still care for you and respect you, even if you don't feel the same way."
And it had taken those months on Daxam, where he could just be Lar Gand and not Mon-El, for him to find his peace with all of that. Between physical labor that actually made him achy and exhausted, hikes through some of Daxam's most pristine environments, even sitting for meditation - he'd done it all and at the end, he knew something within him had changed. Maybe he'd fixed whatever Tasmia thought was broken, or maybe not. In either case, he'd rejoined the Legion that had become his family, and could look at Tasmia without regret.
Lar blinked out of his momentary reverie to meet Tasmia's level gaze. "What?"
"I don't know. But there's something -" she broke off and shook her head. "It's not important. Just … thank you. For listening. For explaining."
Lar smiled. "And for not making it an argument?"
Tasmia laughed. "That, too." She sobered. "I didn't vote for you for leader."
He hadn't thought she had, and hearing her admit it only hurt a little. "It's always the voter's choice."
"But now I think I should have."
That admission startled him. "Why?"
"Because -" she turned and looked up at the statue of Niedrigh for a moment before turning back to him. "I don't think anyone else could have had this conversation without it becoming an argument. Can you imagine Brainy trying to explain it to me? All logical and passionless, and that would just make me angrier. You - I can see your passion, but you held it in check enough that I couldn't get angry with you. I don't agree with you, but, as you say, I don't have to." She straightened. "But I didn't find you to have this discussion."
"Why did you find me?"
"To ask you to put me back on active duty."
"There are still four days left on your bereavement leave."
"I don't want them."
"You're sure?" It was as close as he'd come to questioning her.
"I'm sure." Tasmia glanced up at the stern visage of Niedrigh's statue once more. "There's still a lot of work to be done."
Lar considered that. "All right - pending confirmation from a counselor."
Tasmia grimaced. "I'm a warrior. I'm ready."
"I don't doubt it. But I'm not willing to risk anyone else's life without confirmation. I'd say the same for anyone," he added when Tasmia looked ready to argue. Then he felt a smile struggling to form. "Or I could call Brainy and ask him to quote you the regulation that requires the evaluation."
Her grimace became a scowl before she gave a reluctant nod. "All right." She turned and strode away - never any long goodbyes with Tasmia, Lar thought - but her "Thank you" lingered after her.
Other words filled his thoughts, though - what she'd said about him as a leader. They contrasted with Brainy's not at all subtle suggestion that he step down in favor of someone more qualified, and Lar studied those contrasts, evaluating each statement for its germ of truth. If he'd learned anything during his millennium in the Phantom Zone, it was that there was always truth to be found, however indirectly, in every statement.
Brainy wouldn't like the truth he'd found in this one. But it had to be spoken, and better sooner than later.
He found Brainy exactly where he expected to find him. The door to Brainy's lab slid open at his approach, and he stepped inside. "Brainy?"
The second syllable was drowned by a whoomp of a small explosion near the back of the lab. Lar took to the air and crossed the lab in a quarter second. Brainy stood frowning at a pile of crystalline debris, the soft glow from his force shield almost lost in the fading brightness of the blast.
"Any way I can help?" Lar asked by way of greeting.
"The 'bots will clean up the mess." Brainy touched a control on his belt and the force shield shimmered away. He watched Lar touch down gently. "What do you want?"
Lar matched his directness. "To tell you I considered your suggestion."
The good thing about talking with Brainy, Lar thought, was that he rarely required reminding of a topic, no matter how long ago the discussion. Brainy simply raised an eyebrow. "And?"
"And the answer is no. I'm not going to step down."
"I expected as much. For all that you are one of the more rational Legionnaires, you are still too often ruled by your emotions."
"Probably," Lar admitted. "But not this time."
"No - because you're not ready to lead." Lar held up a hand to forestall the other man's protest. Brainy nodded stiffly, his expression set in a firm frown. "There's no question you're smarter than I am, and a better strategist. Tactically - I think it's a tie between you, me, and Rokk."
"You haven't refuted my statement that I'm more suited than you are. You are, in fact, supporting it."
"That would be true if leadership were only about combat and missions, but it's not. It's about the people who are led, and how they perceive their leader."
Brainy's eyes narrowed, and his head tilted just a little, subtle signs that he was interested.
"They want - maybe they need - to trust their leader."
"I would think that's a given, since Niedrigh's death, at least."
"On one level, it is a given. We all trust each other with our lives. But that's the simplest level of trust there is. They need to know they can trust you with, for lack of a better word, their hearts."
"You mean emotions."
"I do." Lar blew out a breath, careful not to blow too hard, lest the debris from the explosion scatter across the lab. "As an example, Shady and I talked a little while ago. She came into the Hall while I was rearranging the statues. As you said, Niedrigh didn't need to be displayed so prominently."
"At least you can admit I was right about something."
"You're right about most things. … I told her why I was moving the statue, and we talked. At the end, she mentioned you specifically as someone she couldn't imagine having a similar talk with."
If the statement hurt, Brainy didn't show it. "What you mean is that after all these years, they don't believe I -" he paused, and Lar thought he was struggling for words "- I care for them."
"It's difficult to believe that when most of the things you say about us are -" it was Lar's turn to search for a word. "Unflattering, and sometimes unfriendly."
Those, he thought, were the kindest words he could've chosen. Rude and insulting would've been closer to the truth.
"The best leaders," Lar continued, "and I have no illusions that I'm among them, inspire their followers. Rokk has that gift - any one of us would follow him straight to hell if he asked, without questioning."
"You think you don't have the gift?" There was no rancor in Brainy's question, just honest curiosity.
"I know I don't."
"Yet they elected you."
"And don't think that doesn't puzzle me as much as it does you." Lar chuckled softly.
"Why vote for you, if it's such an important quality and you lack it?"
"Good question." And one he'd have to think about before he could provide a coherent answer. After a few minutes of mostly companionable silence, he said, "I think I inspire something different. Confidence, maybe? They trust that I'll be here, that I'll be who and what I am, whatever happens otherwise. After everything that's happened recently, maybe they wanted that stability."
"Hmm." Brainy's expression shifted to one Lar knew well - I'm thinking, don't bother me unless my hair is on fire. "You don't believe I'm ready because I don't inspire those feelings - whether you call it trust, confidence, or something else."
"In a nutshell. Which doesn't mean I don't respect you, just that in this you have room for improvement. And when you do improve, I'll be the first to vote for you. But for now -" Lar felt his shoulders straightening fractionally "- for now, they elected me, and I'll do my best to make sure they don't regret it."
Brainy studied him for a long moment before, "Thank you."
Lar didn't try to hide his surprise. "Sorry?"
A hint of a smile ghosted across Brainy's mouth. "For explaining your reaction to me, rather than simply ignoring what I'd said."
What was he supposed to say in response to that? Even after several moments of thought, Lar had no idea. When in doubt, change the subject.
"I've heard there's a new place on the south side that does great Rimborian barbecue. Want to try it?"
"I'm in the middle of -" Brainy broke off. "This is one of those social rituals that I don't fully understand, isn't it?"
"It is. It's also a first step toward building the kind of trust I was talking about."
Brainy considered that. "I would enjoy trying it." He paused. "Is it safe to inquire exactly what Rimborians barbecue?"
Lar chuckled. "Let's go find out."