Fatal Harmonic/A Great Day
From Unofficial Handbook of the Virtue Universe
Every song tells you something. Every note tells you what's coming after it, and what came before it. Sometimes it's hard to see, other times it's easy, but the information is always there.
A Great Day
The door swung open in a geometric arc, resting gently against its footstop. Harlem never slammed doors open or closed. Never had to. He stepped inside quietly, shuffling forward, his knees hitting the delapidated arm of the sofa, and he used that as a fulcrum to simply sweep down, face-first into the pillows. From the kitchen, he heard a stein being set down. From above and behind came the voice.
"The rent's twenty dollars a night." Backbeat said, dropping a teatowel on the back of his head. There's something weird about walking in on a bachelor doing his washing up, even weirder when the he is a she.
Harlem mumbled into the pillow. "You're right."
Backbeat paused, folding her arms and looking down at Harlem's trencher-clad form. This was rare. "Generally, I am. What this time?"
"I'm only a virgin because I want to be."
Backbeat rolled her eyes. "Dude, Calyssa totally counted. I mean, just because the guys at school teased you about it doesn't mean it-"
"I'm serious." Harlem rolled over and looked up at the roof. "I mean... I only say that doesn't count because I don't want it to count. And I don't want it to count because-"
"It counts," Backbeat affirmed. "Handjobs count."
Harlem put his hands over his face. "Yes, yes, yes, okay. Just... I'm trying to have some pathos here."
"You mean you're trying to be pathetic."
Harlem pulled himself up into sitting. He could feel the clink of the CD in his pocket. "You mind if I just... crash here tonight? Like, on the couch?"
Backbeat looked down at him. "It's ten AM."
"I sleep during the day when I can."
Backbeat looked down at her friend. Reaching out, she put her hand on his head, tousling his hair and giving a longsuffering sigh. "Sure," she muttered. "I'm going out, though, so don't think you're going to solve that virginity problem today." She laughed.
"My not-sleeping-with-lesbians policy is still enforced."
"I thought it was a not-sleeping-with-anyone policy - and last I heard, you weren't the one enforcing it." Backbeat said with a grin, as she picked up a duffel bag that clinked ominously. Harlem settled into the couch, wordlessly closing his eyes, figuring the conversation over.
Her hand on the door, Backbeat turned. "Hey, Harlem?"
"Yeah?" he murmured, not opening his eyes, letting tension run out of him and into the sofa like melting ice.
"It sucks to lose. It sucks worse to never play; so get in the fucking game."
The closing of the door; the silence; and that intense quiet that comes from being alone in a room and trying to sleep. It enveloped him slowly; his eyes closed, both inside and out, just letting himself drift away. Worry and tension and anger and stress had been binding him tight, and he just wanted somewhere to sleep...
He'd screamed at her. He'd screamed and he'd cried and he'd ran away. And it wasn't even her fault. It was just that she was too noble, too idealistic to see the problem. Too proud, perhaps, too pure, but whatever it was... once more, she spoke of purity, of heading 'down there', and 'getting this solved', and making this... girl, whoever it was, fix Kacey, restore the memories.
And he'd snapped. He couldn't quite remember what he'd said-
"Shut up! Just shut up! She's happy, okay? She's happy, and he's happy, and there's nothing we can do about it, and if we really care at all, then fuck it, we should shut the hell up and lump it! Alright? Shut up!" Harlem was quaking. There's a certain terror to be had when, as the boy you're talking to shakes his fist, the buildings around give the same yielding tremor.
There it was - the chink in his armour. The knight of the Row was crying. It had been so, so many years since Harlem had wept. He'd delivered crack-addicted babies next to dumpsters, and given a blissful smile as another life was welcomed into the world, knowing that as bad as it was now, it could always be made better. He had thrown the pharisees from his home, scourging and mocking as he went, deposing the gangs of King's Row and making one safe haven at least. And he had held his father's hand at the dinner table as he said grace to some ephemeral spirit that had, for some reason known only to itself, not seen fit to protect that same man from bone cancer.
Harlem was standing, fists balled, glaring at Flare Girl. "You mattered to her, and now you don't, and that sucks, but fuck it, it's not your job to make her happy. He's doing that. And he's doing it better than we can."
Where did that come from?
Harlem drew his breath, reaching up to wipe the tears from his eyes, holding his hands over them, blind for a moment. "I have..." he murmured. "I have nothing. I have absolutely nothing of my own. I'm going to grow up to be the crazy old man who lives out on the outskirts of town who people approach and ask him to solve their problems for, then leave alone the rest of the time without so much as thanks. I have nothing, okay? And do you know how many people there are in this city who are worse off than me? Do you know how much people suffer? And every day, we wake up, we get dressed, we go out, and we try again. So please! Please, go on, talk to me about how depressing it is that some mind-bumping little twat screwed up Kacey. Go on. Because as much as your reasons are noble, you need to swallow your dip, swallow your pride, and fucking let it go. It's over. It's done. This is not the best solution, but it's the solution. Wear the scar and move on. Because I can't fix it, you can't fix it, and if you want to try to fix it, you're going to have to do so by getting into her head - which is how the mess wound up happening."
He was sagging. He had enough rage in him for those little moments, that whirling scream of anger. Worse, he knew he was really being selfish to poor Caitlin, yelling at her about what was upsetting her, rather than screaming at the sky itself for what was upsetting him. And underneath that, there was the truth, that he was simultaneously forcing himself to be selfless about something he actually wanted for himself. Possibly the first thing in his life he'd ever wanted for himself.
Harlem turned around, sighing as he mumbled. "Look. Just do what you want. You know what I think... 'mnot gunna be able to help you anyway." he finished, lamely, hands slipping into trenchcoat pockets, gripping a simple, silly, teenage token tightly between his fingers as he walked away.
It started to rain in King's Row, and in Talos Island, Harlem Foreman got wet, as he made his way home. Home to the row.
-but it couldn't have been so dire, had it?
Harlem pushed his hair out of his eyes as he awoke. Moonlight and streetlamps were flooding in the little windows, the darkness made more stark by the poverty of his surroundings. Songs were filling his head, squirming like eels over one another, and he closed his eyes to try and still them. The same lines had rippled through him again, and it wasn't until he'd screamed at Caitlin that he'd heard himself. Heard that voice - and the truth in them.
Harlem looked at the CD again. Music was a key and it made the world make sense. It gave beauty to those ugly moments and let you deal with the problems in little, manageable chunks. It carried wisdom and pathos and even sheltered our own ugly little scars. Wayfare had the scar, now; and now he - and Caitlin - just had to deal with it. He mused for a moment.
Really, Rapace had the worst of the deal. He knew both sides of this; he knew that he and Kacey were being selfish, but smart. That they were doing something that, in the short term, made the mind recoil and the thought process buckle. Art and beauty and sophistry would rail against such a thing ever happening. In would swoop the white knight, granting Kacey solace and restoration; purity and hope and all those things. Whether that Knight was a poor boy in second-hand shoes, a top-heavy brat in a short skirt or a smooth-talking Creole was all irrelevant. That's how the story should go, Harlem mused. It's how someone would write it.
But this wasn't being written. This was life. And in life, you took the little victories you got, you wore the scars, and you moved on.
The CD winked at him as he tilted it, a flash of light like the kind you see in an eye. Somewhere, there was a girl who fit this CD. It wasn't Wayfare. Wayfare had just given it to him. It had been beautiful and it had been terrible and it had almost made Harlem do some terrible things. It had made him cry and it had made him scream, and it had almost made him do something for which he would never forgive himself.
Somewhere, there was a girl like this. A girl who cared about freedom, who knew how to laugh, and who knew how to sing. Even if she'd been battered by life, hurt by someone and left by someone else, she still knew how to smile. Someone who called out for... well, a guy like Harlem.
He straightened up, putting his hands back in his pockets, the Cd falling into place alongside, drawing a long breath, closing his eyes. He would find her. One day. Maybe never. But he'd always look. Backbeat's word's flitted through to him once more:
"It sucks to lose, it sucks worse to never play; so get in the fucking game."
Harlem had only one thing to offer this girl when he finally found her. Maybe he would. He figured he would.
Kacey and Darius had their story. It wasn't pretty and it wasn't ideal, but it was beautiful and it was pure. Harlem had to find his own story - be his own hero for a change.
Harlem stepped out into the rain, hands gripped into fists, an oddly perverse smile on his face as he felt the rain run down the small of his back, down into his shorts. It'd make him itch and be uncomfortable all day, now.
It was a great day to be alive.
Author's Notes: One of the most frustrating parts of writing fiction - even short, vignette-style pieces like this - for City of Heroes is how hard it is to capture the voice of others. I'm not sure I got Backbeat right, let alone Flare Girl (who I wrote as just being stunned into silence by Harlem's incandescent tantrum), Rapace, and Wayfare, which is why none of them get dialogue.
I need to work on this; I don't think that a story should be written that's not worth reading, and if this story is mainly about my character, it feels too masturbatory. I do not want to be the kind of author who sits back and, open palmed, murmurs "Let me tell you about my Paladin," and expects you to listen.
Part of the point of this is that I also wanted to tie up the 'Harlem Has A Crush On Wayfare' angle that came up in the RP. I didn't want to go anywhere with it initially: The idea of adding to those RP complications bothered me deeply. But I couldn't just ignore how Harlem would handle what happened - and what he would think of an actual musician, a talented one at that, who actually gave him a gift.
The resolution was reasonably simple: Harlem got over it. He had a little crush, which he enjoyed, and which gave him the strength to say some things he felt needed to be said, and now he's getting over it.
I love the idea of characters opting for the 'less easy' options. As a writer, it's way too simply to tie things up as a neat little package; with Everyone Getting What They Want in the end. That's not how reality goes; every story keeps going, and it's only when we stop reading that they look like they're done. Harlem might never find this girl, and he might even waste his life looking for her. But he's over Wayfare and moving into a new chapter of his life.
Also, @Themiscyra, I do apologise for using your character as a verbal beatbag so routinely. It's just so easy for Harlem to yell at Caitlin. That's his problem with her, not my problem with you.
- Talen Lee