The kid was hurting.
He was trying to hide it – he was trying damn hard – but it still shone through the surface, like light through the grime on a street lamp.
It showed in the way he'd squeeze Iron Liz back a little too hard if she hugged him – in how he'd turned the house upside looking for the Ninja when he absconded for just two days – in how he couldn't help looking after 90's Kid with a troubled expression on his face, his brows furrowed and his eyes glazed, staring but not seeing.
Harvey saw, though. And he'd had enough.
It was four or five days after Linkara's defeat of the Entity that Harvey went to take the problem in hand in his usual subtle and diplomatic style.
"Hey kid," he said, ambling up the couch where Linkara sat staring into space with a book in his lap. "You okay?"
The kid looks up from his trade copy of All-Star Superman. He hadn't turned the pages once in at least twenty minutes, maybe more. He'd just been sitting there on the couch with the open book, staring through the pages into space, his eyes unfocussed and his face impassive. Just staring.
"You seem down. You alright?"
"Yeah. Yeah. I'm fine."
There was a short pause in which Harvey raised a single skeptical eyebrow and Linkara looked away and frowned.
"Why wouldn't I be?"
"... seriously, kid? You saved the damn world and talked a god to death, and you're wondering why you wouldn't be fine?"
Harvey's fingers started groping reflexively in his pocket for a snipe and had it between his lips with a lighter on the way before his brain caught up with them and he remembered that there was no smoking indoors at the kid's. He returned the lighter and tried not to chew the cigarette to pieces in the throes of his irritation and craving. Linkara closed the book he hadn't really been reading and let it drop to the floor, where it landed on the carpet with a soft thud.
The kid abusing a good comic book. That was just not right.
Linkara stared down at the book as though he had no idea where it had even come from.
"We did it all wrong," he said quietly. "Just... everything. If we'd listened to Vyce, or paid closer attention, or if I'd just thought harder, this would never have happened."
"Come on, kid, there was no way –"
"There was," Linkara snapped. "I could've – I should've – I..."
His voice trailed away and he sighed heavily, his frown softening into melancholy.
"I asked It to die, Harvey. And It just... did. It could have crushed me without a thought but it just... did what I told It to. How do I deal with that?"
Linkara blinked dopily, nodded, then frowned again.
"We're going out to karaoke tonight. Me, the Ninja and the idiot. Come with us."
"I... that is... do I have to sing?"
And that was how Linkara ended up going out to a karaoke bar with Harvey Finevoice, 90's Kid and the Ninja-Style Dancer less than a week after saving the world.
The club was small and dark and full of cigarette smoke, which shouldn't have surprised Linkara as much as it did considering that this was a joint that Harvey "Never Had Much Concern For Legalities" Finevoice frequented, and the man smoked like a chimney when outside Linkara's flat. But he'd definitely expected something bigger than a single room basement under somebody's house. The stage was small, too, barely bigger than a dining table, almost swamped by the microphone stand, and the music system – basically a CD player and some speakers – was standing next to it, operated by a very large, very blond man in a tank top and jeans. The twenty or so patrons sat around small tables that filled the rest of the room, drinking, smoking and talking quietly amongst themselves.
Linkara's table was at the back near the door, the spot with the freshest air he could find and furthest from the stage. He was sat with Harvey, 90's Kid and the Ninja in what could be called an awkward silence. Harvey was rolling himself a cigarette, 90's Kid was almost vibrating out of his chair with excitement, the Ninja was meditating, the picture of serenity, and Linkara?
The smoke was making his throat sore. The singing wasn't that good and it grated on his ears. He hadn't been sleeping well and he was tired, his eyes aching and his brain soft around the edges like a fraying sweater. In short, he ached to go home and lie down and sleep, proper sleep, no nightmares, just oblivion.
He could all but feel the soft coolness of the pillow against his cheek when 90's Kid nudged him hard in the ribs with a very pointy elbow.
"Lighten up, dude! You looking so down is like, totally bogus, man!"
Linkara winced and rubbed his side. It was true that he wasn't smiling. He hadn't smiled in days, come to think of it. But he was too tired, his head hurt too much, he didn't want to – he had an explanation for everything. It wasn't a problem.
Harvey rolled his eyes as he stuck the finished cigarette between his lips.
"Get moving, idiot," he mumbled, groping in his pocket for the lighter. "You're up next."
90's Kid bounced up out of his seat like an excitable dog, nearly upturning the table, and bounded across the room between the tables to the stage as the previous singer climbed down and rejoined her friends, all of whom – including her – were droopy-looking with long black hair and too much leather, regardless of gender. Linkara hadn't even paid attention to what she'd been singing. Some weepy break-up ballad, maybe?
How many singers had he ignored now? It must have been a lot. It seemed like they'd been there forever and no time at all, but his watch said it was approaching midnight and they'd arrived at ten, hadn't they?
The air whined with feedback as 90's Kid tapped the microphone.
"Hello? This thing on? Radical!"
People in the crowd were perking up and nudging each other, grins spreading across their faces. Linkara could make them out through the dim smoky air. His fingers curled into his palms under the table and his teeth clenched. Whatever was about to happen, people were going to laugh. To make fun. And 90's Kid didn't deserve that. Not after what he'd been through. What Linkara had let – had made – happen to him.
Then Harvey clapped a reassuring hand on Linkara's shoulder and all the little muscles across his upper back started loosening in harmony.
"Relax, kid. It's the idiot's thing. He knows what he's doing."
Down on the stage, 90's Kid grinned and pointed a finger-gun that the large blond CD operator.
"Jake, dude! Give me track nine!"
Jake pressed a button and music began to fill the room, an introduction that Linkara knew. He just just enough time to groan, "Oh no" before 90's Kid started on the lyrics.
"America, FUCK YEAH! Comin' again to save the motherfuckin' day, yeah! America, FUCK YEAH! – gyack!"
The singing abruptly transitioned into a strangled noise somewhere between the squawk of a chicken and Link's attack noise from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time when the proprietress, a formidable woman encased in a straining corset the colour of raspberry jelly, marched onto the stage and dragged 90's Kid off by the collar.
He re-emerged some minutes later, sunglasses askew, hat on sideways and shirt collar stretched out beyond salvation.
"A-apparently track nine is bad," he said, voice trembling with barely suppressed mirth – consummate actor, he was not. "Jake, track forty-two".
The music that burst forth from the speakers was almost visible in the air, could almost be tasted on the tongue, aggressively bubble-gum pink and sugar sweet.
It was the Spice Girls.
The Spice Girls.
Something was going on here.
Harvey glanced from the stage to Linkara's face. The kid's eyes were wide, brows raised, and the corners of his mouth were twitching with the threat of a smile. Good.
90's Kid ended his piece and took a bow, the world's biggest grin plastered across his goofy face.
"Thank you my most bodacious dudes and dudettes! You were a totally radical audience!"
The applause all but brought down the roof as the idiot bounced back to their table and threw himself onto the empty chair next to the kid, throwing a garrotting arm around his neck.
"Dude, I was awesome!"
Was that an actual smile? Was Linkara smiling? He might have been.
Harvey looked back to the stage to see that the Ninja, being... well, a ninja, had made his way to the stage without anybody noticing. He bowed to the audience, then held up a card to Jake the CD man that read "Track 17". In response, the whole room got to their feet, Linkara lagging a few seconds behind, forehead furrowed in confusion.
"What are we –" he started to say, but the track began and he stopped.
It was almost karaoke in reverse: instead of one (probably drunk) person standing up on stage singing dubiously to the audience, it was the audience singing en masse to the man dancing on the stage. To Kung Fu Fighting, no less. And even Linkara was singing along now, clapping his hands, smiling.
Harvey Finevoice, you are a genius.
The Ninja's set ended with him throwing a smoke bomb to the ground, vanishing, and reappearing back in his seat on the other side of Linkara to wild cries of appreciation. Harvey stubbed his cigarette out into the glass ashtray on the table and readjusted his hat. His set was always the last, the little professional touch to send 'em home happy and teach them how to damn well appreciate semi-obscure jazz numbers. Not tonight, though. He had something a little different in mind tonight.
It was familiar up on the stage, comfortable even, despite the fact that there was a bright spotlight burning directly into his retinas and every eye on the place was staring him down. It was his home. He lived up here. And he only had eyes for one person: the kid. This was his final move.
He adjusted the microphone stand to his height and grinned at his audience. His people.
"Evening guys and dames. I've got something a bit different for tonight. Something a little bit better known that my usual material."
A spattering of laughter. They were eating out of the palm of his hand like always.
"Jake, my man: track thirty-two."
Jake pressed the button. Piano music started up, an echo of keys long since lost, an instrument long since chopped into firewood. Harvey glanced up to the kid again and took a breath, right from the diaphragm.
"Smile, though your heart is aching…"
"You'll see that life is still worthwhile if you just smile."
The music faded with Harvey's voice to be replaced with the sounds of a standing ovation. Linkara lost sight of him, the stage obscured by the bodies of screaming, clapping people, but he couldn't see well all of a sudden anyway. His eyes were misting with the threat of tears, but he didn't care because he was smiling wide enough to break his own heart.
But everything had come back together again. The pieces fitted. And Linkara felt at peace once more.