Human Nature

by Domenika Marzione


"I know that look."

Alan Scott turned around sharply, surprised to hear a voice and then not surprised at all to see whose voice it was. Of all the team, it should be Sandy to come up here to look for him... the brownstone-turned-headquarters had been Wes' home, had been Sandy's for a while, he supposed, although from what he recalled, Sandy really hadn't lived here.

"That's the 'it's funny, I still look human' expression," Sandy Hawkins continued as he approached. "It's distinguished from the 'what the hell am I doing here' look by the accompanying fascination with your hands."

Alan looked down at his upturned palms and smiled ruefully, letting them drop before returning his attention to the other man.

"Unless, of course, you've picked up one of Carter's quaint religious practices involving sun worship, in which case you're pointed in the wrong direction." Sandy added -- Sand, Alan tried to correct himself, but mentally snorted. All grown up and the more-than-capable former chairman of the Justice Society and he was still Sandy. And perhaps that was more important than ever now, when everything else was suddenly not what it was... when perception determined reality in a whole new way.

"They're not really religious practices, I suppose, because I'm not sure Carter believes they have any efficacy with the divine," Sandy went on thoughtfully. "But I could be wrong; Carter and I haven't exactly had time to sit down and discuss theology. Or anything else besides 'Kendra Mine'."

"Carter's..." Alan trailed off, unsure of what to say. It was instinct to defend one of his oldest comrades, but he was truly just as mystified.

Sandy held his hands up in a gesture of non-offense. "I know. I didn't mean for it to sound as bitter as it did," he said, shrugging as if to show how innocuous the comment actually had been meant to be. "Carter's just being exceptionally Carter, at least according to Jay and Ted, who should know. I just don't think I had a proper appreciation for what that entailed before this. I always thought he'd be less intimidating once I grew up, but he's really just differently intimidating... And none of this has anything to do with why you're standing on the roof and staring at your hands and wondering what happens now that you've got the biggest brains on the planet telling you that you're not human anymore."

It had been three weeks since the Atom and Dr. Mid-Nite had done their last experiments. Or three weeks by any calendar anyone wanted to use -- the adventures with the Ultra-Humanite having been undone, they were on their way to being forgotten by the only ones who still remembered them. But Alan hadn't forgotten; he couldn't forget being used as a battery to power a psychotic's utopia. A feat made possible only because of what he was... and what he wasn't anymore.

A truck horn cannoned up the buildings to blare loudly and he winced.

"In the depths of my wallowing in self-pity, I was convinced that it would be easier for someone like you -- someone used to dealing with awesome powers -- to get used to a... change in nature," Sandy began when he didn't speak. "It was just a little more of what you already had, like an upgrade on the ring, while I had started from nothing. No powers, nothing special about me... forgetting the whole half-century as a sandmonster thing, of course."

Sandy smiled and Alan found himself grinning despite himself.

"But that was a load of hooey," he went on, the smile turning ironic and self-mocking. "I had just wanted to feel special -- and cheated. Because I'd never get a chance to prove that I was as good as Wes was because he did everything with only brains and moxie and now any success I had would be tainted by my powers... Of course, it's not really true. Take away the ring and any Green Lantern is just a man... 'Just a man', like that's a bad thing, a lesser option."

"It's not a bad option at all," Alan said quietly. The sun, hidden behind a large cumulus cloud roughly the shape of Nevada, started to emerge. Already there was sunlight glinting off of the tallest building in midtown and soon the shade over the roof would be burned away.

"Nope," Sandy agreed. "Of course, now it'd come across all condescending if we said so to anyone else."

A couple of blocks south and east, there were a series of buildings being put up by Columbia University. The noise carried only faintly most days, but today the wind was blowing in the right direction and they could clearly hear the riveters at their task and the crash of supplies being moved about.

"I was reading some of the notes Pieter and Ray left," Sandy said during a lull in the muted racket. Alan turned; his immediate reaction was to feel as if it were some sort of violation of privacy, like releasing medical records for public perusal, but he tamped down the outrage.

"I'm sort of the resident chemist," Sandy explained, clearly sensing his discomfort. He grinned wryly. "Not to mention the team's walking-and-talking inorganic substance."

Alan nodded. Ray was an atomic physicist and Pieter had a strong interest in animal biology apart from his surgical studies, but what they had seen had been beyond both of their kens. He'd prefer Sandy's analysis over handing his file over to either TylerCo or STAR Labs; the less the DEO knew about him, the better they'd be. The better his family would be. Sandy's information had traveled further and faster than anyone would have liked -- both government agencies and villainous cells seemed to know about the physiology of the JSA's Sand. And both seemed inclined to use the information to their advantage.

So while they had had to tell Michael everything -- he was the JSA's current chairman -- the rest of the team only knew some of the story and that because of what had happened with Johnny's Thunderbolt. It was a vague knowledge, however, the sort of 'something about Sentinel and his green flame' background buzz that happens in a superhero team where powers and abilities and members are prone to alteration and not expected to be understood. Alan hoped that the specifics wouldn't travel any further. He'd especially asked Kyle to hold of on telling Jenny; this was something he'd have to discuss with her by himself. Molly... He hadn't told Molly. He'd been distant and sharp when she'd inquired after his sleepless nights and loss of appetite. He'd been cruel to her, he knew, and striking out at her for his own inability to adjust was petty, small, and wrong. All the more so because Molly, so sharp-witted and so capable, would deal with it a lot better than he was on his own.

"I suppose everyone's hoping that I'd get to tell you that you're more than a human consciousness linked to a mystical force," Sandy began, scratching the back of his head in the same embarrassed gesture he had had ever since he was a boy sidekick and someone had caught him doing something he wasn't supposed to be doing. "But that's what you are. Ray's got his theory about the lantern emulating a radioactive substance and Pieter's got his own about a systemic mutation of your cells, but it's only ever going to be a hypothesis. And without actually getting my hands on the old blood samples and whatnot you've given over the years, no one can tell you how long you've been like this. We've tossed all your medical records, by the way."

Alan laughed bitterly, a sharp back that sounded ugly to his own ears. "I can unconsciously manipulate the results of any standard test," he said, recalling Pieter and Ray's explanations. "I believe myself to be a man in excellent health for my age and activities and so that's what I am. I've probably given myself at least a couple of colds because every ailment, wound, and itch I have is entirely psychosomatic."

"It's a good thing we're not hypochondriacs," Sandy replied almost mirthfully. The embarrassment had faded into something closer to bemusement. "I still do that -- make myself sick for no other reason than I think I ought to be."

Alan furrowed his brow in confusion.

"I'm immune from almost any disease," Sandy explained with a shrug and it was Alan's turn to feel embarrassed. He should have known -- should have remembered because he had known. "Poisons and drugs have to be specially engineered to affect me. Roulette had to know exactly what I was made of for her little gambit to work; the genius was that it was designed to affect both me and Carter -- it's a rare class of chemical compound that would be both fatal and completely reversible in both of us. I've been studying it since we got back; she's got a damned good lab somewhere."

On the street below, a UPS truck continued to honk its horn anxiously. Alan was tempted to lift the double-parked Mazda out of its way just to bring quiet.

"No illness, no ageing, limited injuries... there are so many benefits to what has happened to us," Sandy said after they heard the distinctive noise of the truck shifting out of park. "It just takes a while to see them past... what we've lost. And it takes even longer to realize that what we lost is really... not that much, even though it feels like everything. Nobody ever thinks their DNA is suddenly going to up and change on them."

"But it does," Alan retorted bitterly, then sighed. "And I feel a fool for letting this bother me any more than anything else that has happened to us in the last sixty years. We've been robbed of our youth, robbed of our age, lost in time, dropped into other dimensions and fed to everything from demons to our own fears. We've sacrificed ourselves, sacrificed our friends, sacrificed innocent bystanders -- and not always unintentionally. We've had our minds toyed with, fought against our friends, lost anything there is to lose and we haven't gotten it all back again. But..."

"But being human is part of our identity and that just cuts deeper than only getting our brains heisted so that we fight for the bad guys," Sandy interrupted, his intensity dissolving as he smiled ironically. "And I should know from that."

Alan laughed humorlessly at Sandy's sarcastic tone.

"It's the novelty of it," Sandy went on, his voice gentling. "We school ourselves to expect the worst. We never think we're going to outlive our loved ones or grow old and die in our beds. We expect pain and suffering and loss and, let's be honest, we're rarely disappointed. And along comes this gift and we don't know what to do with it. We keep looking for the strings attached, for the price tag that's going to come out to more than we're willing to pay."

"I can't see this as a gift just yet," Alan said sadly. "I'm still at the stage where I wake up panicking that if I dream I'm a cow, that's what Molly will find in the bed in the morning and there won't be any way to change me back."

He saw Sandy rev up to protest and he raised his hand to silence the younger man. "Intellectually, I know that's not going to happen. My 'power' works on a subconscious as well as a conscious level and it would take active reprogramming to get me to so much as squawk like a chicken, let alone turn myself into one, if I didn't want to.

"But this isn't solely a matter for the intellect. No matter what else has happened over the years, I've known what I could and what I couldn't do and suddenly I don't. I'm eighty-eight, Sandy, I'm too damned old to find out that the sun doesn't revolve around the earth anymore... And don't you dare tell me that age shouldn't matter anymore after all of the time-shifting we've done. I'm not especially fond of the fact that I look forty years younger than my wife. It's embarrassing."

Sandy snickered, then sobered dutifully as Alan glared at him. His eyes still twinkled in merriment, however, and Alan couldn't help but remember the insouciant boy he had once been.

"So change it," Sandy said casually. "Change your appearance. Look eighty-eight until you no longer have a reason to do so. It's easier for you than for me, I'd expect."

"You can..." Alan asked, surprised. He felt vaguely guilty that he didn't know more about what Sandy could and couldn't do. Initially, everyone had been focused on helping him out while TylerCo worked overtime to try to stabilize his form. But that had been years ago already and so many new traumas had come and gone and Sandy had kept any new troubles -- as well as any new progress -- to himself. Knowing Sandy, it was out of either embarrassment with the former or modesty with the latter.

"A little and I'd be able to do more if could get over the mental blocks," he admitted, grimacing at the irony. "In theory, it should be no different to change my form when I look human than when I'm running around as a pile of sand. But about all I can do is alter my features a little. I'm waiting for a good time to talk to the Martian Manhunter about shapeshifting, but the world's been falling apart too often for an opportunity. My goal is to be able to pass as Veronica Lake."

Alan had been watching smoke plume up from a chimney that looked to be around 96th street, but he turned sharply to stare at Sandy, who shrugged artlessly. "I don't want to look like Veronica Lake," he muttered, turning back toward his chimney.

"More a Marlene Dietrich kind of guy?" A beat, then Sandy continued. "Yeah, yeah, you won't dignify that with a response. But I was serious about making yourself look an age you'd feel more comfortable appearing as. Talk to Molly, though. I think she's probably quite all right with her much younger man."

"There are times when I almost forget the cheeky boy you once were," Alan said, not looking over. "But they never last."

"I'm relieved," Sandy replied. "I'm seventy-two going on thirty. I'd hate to seem all old and crotchety."

This time he looked over.

Sandy shrugged. "Age is a state of mind, Alan. You didn't need to find out what your body is made up of to know that you'd better get used to it."

"Yeah," he sighed. "I know."

"All right then," Sandy said. "You know you're just going to need time, that you're not alone, that you talk to me or Jay or Ted or Carter -- hell, he's probably the expert on how to deal with feeling displaced, and that you can't keep volunteering for monitor duty without everyone realizing that something's up."

Alan made a sour face. He hadn't realized he'd become a source of gossip.

"I'd like to think that I have some perception skills along with the decoder ring and whatever else came in my Junior Ace Detective kit," Sandy went on dryly. "But you've so ostentatiously made use of your seniority over the years to get out of the menial tasks that none of them were actually required to deduce that you're upset."

"Jay never said anything."

"To you," Sandy corrected. "He's worried about you, but thinks you'll straighten yourself out on your own."

"And you don't think I will?"

"I don't think Jay understands that what happened to you isn't the same thing as when you stumbled upon the lantern the first time," Sandy replied. "He has a different relationship with his powers than you do with yours; all of the speedsters do. And this latest change? It broadens the gap. But that doesn't change anything. Jay's right. You'll make your peace with it. Just remember that just because you can work this out on your own doesn't mean that you should."

With that, he reached out and briefly clasped Alan's shoulder, squeezing gently before letting his arm drop and turning to walk away. Alan heard the roof door open and close in the distance. After what felt like a long time staring down at the traffic below, he looked at his watch. Molly would still be at her office, but perhaps he could convince her to take off early.

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