Real Men Wear Tights

High school can be tough for everyone. This is especially true when you're hiding a secret that can never be told.

http://archiveofourown.org/works/469179/chapters/811056

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11. In Which Innocence is Lost Part 1

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Standing in the dim glow of scattered flashlights while clasping onto Hemogoblin’s wrist, John could almost forget that the ground around him was littered with unconscious members of the Midnight Crew. The other hero’s hand was warm and alive despite the chill of the night, and the vibrant pulse he could feel beating beneath his fingertips was incredibly strong and pronounced, especially considering that he was wearing gloves. He was dimly aware that they’d been standing there clasping arms for a good ten seconds already, just grinning at each other, but the silence between them wasn’t awkward in the least. He was finding that focusing on the troll in front of him was nearly enough to make him ignore the pain that throbbed through his body with each intake of breath, in fact. In a moment of clarity brought on by the loud, pained groan of a downed human a good eight feet away, John wondered briefly for the umpteenth time if he was concussed, because neither of them really had the time to just be standing there staring at each other at the moment. Still, he might as well take advantage of the relative calm and address something that had been nagging at him ever since Hemogoblin had arrived and joined the fight.

“So, about your powers...” John started, trailing off with a slight incline of his right eyebrow.

Hemogoblin’s brow quirked slightly before he quickly shook his head in the negative. The troll slowly threw his head over his right shoulder towards the direction of the flashing red and blue lights. The wailing sirens of multiple response vehicles were little more than a block away, now, their piercing screams echoing too loudly in the wharf for the heroes to disregard, warning them that staying any longer would entail lots of uncomfortable questions from the police.

John let his fingers part from the spot where they had wound, leaving the space where dark fabric had been cut away to expose a hint of skin free of his touch. Hemogoblin let his hand fall away at the same time, his eyes once again instantly finding John’s own once he had turned back from observing the proximity of the city’s enforcers.

“No time to explain right now. We should go. I don’t think we want to be here when they arrive.”

John nodded, knowing that the police wouldn’t be expecting them to stay after such a serious confrontation. There was an unspoken arrangement between those who enforced the law and the heroes who acted as best they could on its behalf: if just actions had been taken, they could cause heads to turn the other way. This would be the first instance of John stretching the boundaries of that agreement, however. There was no debating that he had broken laws tonight. It would be harder for the police to turn a blind eye if the young heroes were caught in the middle of a crime scene with such grievously wounded combatants. Force had been used during the life-threatening situation and, despite John’s almost naive hopefulness, some of the bodies scattered around the dockyard were not going to be getting back up again.

He swallowed hard with that thought, clenching his fists at his sides. He had to push it back for now; he had more pressing issues and there would be time to reflect on his actions later.

With a final glance at Boxcars’s unmoving form, John kicked off into the air, doing his best to put thoughts of the mobster’s inevitable release from custody on bail out of his mind. The Midnight Crew was powerful, and John wouldn’t have been surprised to find out that they had half the city’s judges in their deep pockets. No, Boxcars probably wouldn’t get the blame for this in the end. The swelling of anger at that thought brought along with it an acute headache and a surprising stirring of the wind, so John did his best to clamp down and bury those feelings somewhere deep. Again, now wasn’t the time.

With his form hovering about a foot off the ground, John turned in mid-air to extend a hand to Hemogoblin, but he was surprised to find that the troll was no longer near. He was crouching over one of the many unconscious men strewn across Dockyard C—the one whose pained moan had snapped John back into the reality of the situation, in fact—holding a palm directly above the man’s mouth and nose. The troll nodded to himself, seemingly satisfied that the thug was still alive and breathing. As he hooked an arm underneath the man and began to lift him off the ground, he looked over his shoulder to answer the unasked question poised on John’s tongue.

“We need information and this one isn’t critically injured. And we both know Boxcars would never talk.”

The simple explanation made John’s blood run cold as the implications of what Hemogoblin was saying set in. It was true that they needed actionable intelligence and that they needed it as soon as possible if they were going to cut the head off of this threat, but there were only so many ways of gaining information from a person, and John didn’t think a member of a group as notorious as the Midnight Crew would divulge vital intelligence by being asked “please.” With unease churning in his stomach, John once again clamped down ruthlessly on his feelings and buried them somewhere out of focus. This was a serious situation that called for a quick and professional approach. He’d have time to ponder the moral ambiguities of his actions once there weren’t cops bearing down on them.

Turning towards the chaos that remained of the pier, John’s eyes scanned the ground quickly, searching for a particular set of distinctive horns which framed the owner’s face. “Wait,” John whispered, his voice coming out much more softly than he’d intended as he swallowed the lump forming in his throat.

Hemogoblin immediately stopped where he was, the mobster leaning bonelessly against his shoulder, and shot Heir an inquisitive look. John was too busy still searching the ground to give him any heed, however. He was looking for a specific troll, the troll who had handed Boxcars the grenade early on in their fight. If John were running a crew, he wouldn’t trust just anyone to hold onto what had appeared to be the group’s only heavy ordnance. With any luck, that meant the troll might be higher on the totem pole than the rest of the thugs that had been a part of the ambush, maybe even Boxcars’s right hand. The higher you were on the totem pole, the more likely you were to be in possession of more sensitive information. John found the troll a few yards away from Hemogoblin’s position, curled onto his side in a fetal position, his horns standing out sharply against the concentrated light of an upturned flashlight. He didn’t look like he was moving at all.

Was he dead? Something in John’s stomach dropped at the thought of having caused yet another life to have been extinguished. Not wasting time, he flew over to the prone form and touched down on the ground, kneeling carefully over the body. Upon closer inspection, John was relieved to see that light puffs of air were leaving the troll’s open mouth. He was alive. “This one.”

 

 

 

John hoisted the troll up and over his good shoulder, biting down the protest of pain that throbbed through him with the added strain to his collarbone. The wind rushed to his aid without his request, wrapping around the troll to lift much of the other’s weight for him. It was reassuring that nothing seemed to have changed in his relationship with the wind since he’d finally allowed himself to tap into the vast reservoir of power constantly offered to him. He’d had some vague, ill-defined notion in the back of his head that things might be different after that, but the wind was acting as it always had, neither taking any more liberties with him than it usually did nor acting resentful over his reigning it in again.

John lifted at least a foot off the ground before pausing and pivoting to face Hemogoblin. With a slight twisting of his right index finger, a concentrated stream of air was pushing the bewildered troll off the ground, raising him to John’s eye level. Hemogoblin unceremoniously dropped the now unneeded human thug from off his shoulder as he slowly floated towards his partner, a look of surprise etched on his face. John savored that look for a moment, his lips twisting into a grin as the troll neared.

“Let’s get out of here,” he intoned, holding his free arm out for Hemogoblin to take. The troll did so without hesitation, his grip light and an excited twinkle in his eyes at the prospect of flying again. It was a sign of trust, that grip, signaling his belief that John would take care of him and wouldn’t let him down. He wouldn’t let him fall. For the duration of their flight, John decided he would try to focus on that sentiment, on the warm skin against his side and the look of barely contained excitement on his partner’s face, and not on the impending fate of the troll lightly weighing down his uninjured shoulder.

 

///

For the first few minutes of their flight, John felt like he could almost forget about the weighty presence of the thug he was carrying and why he was being brought along. His thoughts were focused solely on the deep sense of fulfillment he was experiencing at having officially gained a partner. After years of believing that the burden of being a hero for Seattle was his to shoulder alone, he now had someone by his side. It was true that they hadn’t really had the chance to hammer out what exactly being partners entailed, but if Hemogoblin felt similarly to how John was feeling, it was sure to be a rewarding partnership. John already felt like he could trust the troll implicitly, after all, especially after the the troll’s gallant rescue at the docks. The whole thing sounded like it came straight from the pages of one of his comic books, to be honest, and that had his head swimming with all of the possibilities of becoming a known crimefighting duo. Or maybe that was the concussion. Either way, these happy thoughts were enough to keep his darker thoughts at bay near the edge of his consciousness, just present enough not to let him forget, but out of mind enough not to bother him.

When after several more minutes of noiseless flight Hemogoblin pointed out a seemingly abandoned warehouse—void of vehicles, visible lights, or any other clues to tip off that it was occupied—John’s happiness abated and an uneasy feeling steadily started to grow in the pit of his stomach. It was at this warehouse that they would...extract information from their captive, using what methods John really didn’t want to contemplate. The weight of the troll on his shoulder seemed to grow heavier and heavier with every foot closer he came to the building, so that by the time he landed them by the large metal doorway, he felt as though he was going to be sick.

The door to the warehouse looked heavy and solid, like someone had decided to drop a thick slab of iron at the entrance and slap a handle and a few locks on it. It looked like the door swung outwards, too, which would complicate trying to open it using force. It wouldn’t be enough to stop John, obviously, but it wouldn’t exactly be a functioning door once he got through with it. Examining it for a moment, he briefly debated going around to the side and finding a loading dock, as it would probably be easier gaining entrance that way, but decided against it. They were already here, so might as well.

Handing the thug off to his new partner, John reared back and delivered a kick directly above the door’s main latch. The iron buckled and dented heavily with a screech that echoed through the night, but the frame remained firm. It took one more solid kick to the same area before the latch gave way and pieces of the lock fell to the ground with a clatter. John grasped one of the edges and gave the mangled door a sharp tug, and then it was clear and they were both stepping across the threshold into a pitch black room.

John immediately suppressed a shiver. Inside, it was a good handful of degrees colder than the winter night at their backs, the heat having been long since turned off in the building and the concrete floors doing their absolute best to suck out all the remaining ambient heat in the air. With a mental cue, a warm draft wafted in from the still-open entrance and wrapped both him and Hemogoblin in its warm embrace. If the troll noticed, he didn’t say anything, though he did shift slightly to stare at John’s back. Wasting no further time, John fished out a small flashlight from one of his pouches and turned it on with a soft click. The beam of light cut through the darkness like a knife, illuminating their surroundings. Just as Hemogoblin had suspected, the warehouse seemed to be completely abandoned. The entire expanse of the room was empty save for row after of row of empty steel shelves and several bulky pieces of antiquated-looking equipment in one of the building’s corners, a thick layer of dust obvious wherever he looked. Several rooms were lined up against one wall, their windows dark and dirty. There were security cameras mounted high up in each corner, but they all appeared to be offline. There wasn’t much point in keeping surveillance running in a building holding nothing but dusty shelves, after all, but John decided to err on the side of caution. Quick shots of wind had the cameras spinning in their holders, swiveling to face the walls.

When he turned back to Hemogoblin, he saw that his partner had carried the other troll into one of the office rooms, having procured his own small flashlight from somewhere on his person. Upon following him, the first thing that he noted was that the thug was slumped in the middle of the room in a sturdy-looking chair, and that Hemogoblin was in the process of securing the criminal’s wrists to the arms of the chair with the same type of ziptie he himself used, the flashlight clenched firmly between his teeth.

“What exactly are you planning to do to him?” The words came out a lot softer than he’d intended for them to but the troll stilled nonetheless, hands halfway finished tightening a ziptie around the troll’s left ankle.

“I’m going to interrogate him until we get something we can use against the Midnight Crew,” Hemogoblin answered around the flashlight, his voice firm and his conviction clear as he shot John a look over his shoulder, eyes every bit as intense as they had been during the fight not a half hour ago. The sclera of those eyes were burning brightly in the darkness, striking and intimidating. “By any means necessary.”

 

 

 

“No!” John shouted, the immediate and loud response startling not only himself but Hemogoblin as well, the flashlight falling from the troll’s mouth and hitting the floor with a clatter. “You can’t just do that to someone! Heroes don’t do that! If you stoop to that level, you’ll be no better than these assholes! We have to take him back. We can’t do this!” Even as the words hurriedly left his mouth, John tried to reign in his emotions. He knew it didn’t fit Heir’s image to lose his cool like this and he’d thought he’d be able to work his way through this when the time inevitably came, but now that he was staring at the troll’s unconscious form tied to the chair, his hold on his feelings was slipping fast. The sickness from earlier was rearing its head in full force, and John felt like his head was spinning. It felt like all of the emotions he’d shoved down earlier were starting to bubble back all at once.

Hemogoblin released his hold on the other troll and stood quickly, drawing closer to John in a few brisk, long strides. John flinched violently when Hemogoblin’s hands reached up and firmly grabbed hold of his face, holding him steady. The look in the troll’s eyes was serious and John detected what he thought was a touch of worry.

“Heir, you need to calm down, right now. Breathe, Heir. Breathe.”

With a sharp intake of air, John realized he’d been holding his breath, for how long he didn’t know. His head stopped spinning shortly thereafter and he became dimly aware of his pulse racing underneath the troll’s fingertips. Realizing that he was slipping somewhere dangerous, John closed his eyes for a moment, doing his best to center himself and refocus. After several long, tense moments with Hemogoblin’s steadying hands on his face, he opened his eyes again. He’d come dangerously close to losing the tenuous grasp he had on his emotions, just then, and that meant something was wrong. He’d have to figure out what it was later, though, because this didn’t change how he felt about their prisoner.

John let his right hand slowly move up to grasp weakly at Hemogoblin’s left wrist, squeezing it gently to show that he was okay now.

“I understand how you’re feeling and if we had another option right now, I would rather take it. But this is where we are. Without doing something radical here, we’re back to where we started. Tomorrow would just be another day for the Midnight Crew to strike at you, at us, at this city, and at everyone we aim to protect. You and I, with what we do, with what’s at stake, we can’t fail now. This is our one chance to get a leg up on the Crew, and it’s not going to last long. We have at best a day or two to act before they realize this guy didn’t just scamper off into the night and they start changing their operations to prevent us from using any intel we might gain. With me so far?”

John nodded, the troll’s hands still firmly on his cheeks. He’d have found the gesture rather intimate if he weren’t currently trying to battle down the emotions still clawing against his skull like a caged animal trying to escape its confinement. Still, his partner’s words were making sense.

“Now whatever you’re thinking right now, you need to stop it. I’m not going to torture the guy, for fuck’s sake. I’m talking about interrogation. There’s a difference. If everything goes as planned, I shouldn’t need to do much more than rough him up a little bit, and hopefully even that won’t have to go very far. I swear to you, I’m not going to do anything worse than what the police would do to this guy. Whatever you’ve seen in the movies, forget it; once I make this guy realize how screwed he already is, it shouldn’t be too much trouble to get him talking, no matter how loyal these guys are supposed to be to each other.”

John frowned, mulling the words over in his head, the sickness in his stomach fading slightly at the troll’s reassurances. This still wasn’t sitting right, but at least John didn’t feel like he was betraying his hero roots by allowing this to happen. “What do you mean how screwed he is?”

Hemogoblin grinned, the whites of his teeth shining in the pale light granted by John’s loosely-held flashlight. “Think about it. We nabbed him from a crime scene that was about to be swarming with police. Once the Crew realizes that this guy isn’t dead or in custody, they’re going to assume he escaped and is in hiding. When tomorrow comes and he hasn’t reported in, they’re going to suspect something else is up, mainly that he either ran away, or he was captured by us. Either of which options has him screwed, as there’s no way they’d let a deserter live. And if we were to, say, deliver him to the police later with a note thanking him for all of his cooperation, he’d be taken out within hours for betraying their secrets. Same as if we let him go and he reported back that we tried to interrogate him. So literally his only chance for survival right now depends on us letting him go. It’s pretty much the ultimate leverage. And I’ll bet you anything that if I spin it the right way with the proper...persuasion liberally applied here and there, he’ll see my logic.”

John’s brows were fully furrowed now as he thought the argument over. It wasn’t perfect by any means, and in fact it relied on the sole premise that this thug actually valued his own life enough to betray his organization...but it was far better than nothing, and far, far better than resorting to torture, like he’d initially assumed. Still...

“I understand your plan, but I don’t think I can be a part of this,” John whispered, voice still ringing out loudly in the otherwise quiet room.

Hemogoblin smiled, the look genuine and not at all patronizing as he lowered his hands from John’s face and then bent to pick up his flashlight. “Understood. Why don’t you wait outside?” The troll’s voice was full of so much gentleness that it actually gave John pause, so different from the cocky tone he normally displayed. It was a little jarring, and it made John realize that even though they were now partners, he’d really only been around the other hero for a handful of hours, now. Even if the teen already had his trust after ostensibly saving his life, there was still so much that they didn’t know about each other. He was rather looking forward to figuring him out.

As John turned around and headed for the door, the wind brought him Hemogoblin’s whispered words, words that he was pretty sure he was never supposed to hear. “I’ll try to make this quick, both for him and for you.”

A smile came to John’s face as he let the door to the office close behind him, which was quickly replaced by a grimace as he heard the sharp smack of flesh against flesh, as presumably Hemogoblin had just slapped the thug awake. John quickly wandered until he was sure no noises from the room could reach him, and then leaned against one of the steel shelves for support. Despite the omnipresent chill of the night seeping into his clothes, the freezing metal was a blessing, the cold instantly cutting through his jacket and numbing the skin below it.

John took off Casey and set her to the side before he slid down to the ground and sat in the darkness, alone except for the whispers of wind surrounding him, and silently contemplated Hemogoblin’s parting words.

 

///

It was almost an hour later before Hemogoblin stepped outside to join John, but it had felt like an eternity to the conflicted teen. He had occupied a few short minutes of his time alone by trying to patch himself up as best as he could, cleaning his face with the supplies he had tucked in his thigh pouch, making liberal use of an alcohol wipe and affixing gauze to the cut above his eye and across his cheek. He had given up the effort of doing more than that when attempting to clean the one remaining mirror in the bathroom he’d found proved futile. After that brief attempt to occupy himself, much of his time had been spent cold and alone, remembering and replaying and reassessing every choice from the night’s earlier events and trying not to let his mind slip back into the dark place it’d been in what seemed like only moments prior.

Observing his partner, John noted that the troll looked tense, his eyes narrowed slightly as they stared at something only he could see, obviously lost in deep thought. As he looked the troll over, John couldn’t help the churning doubt that once again made itself known as knots in his stomach. Had Hemogoblin kept to his word? John wasn’t sure how he’d feel if he hadn’t. Fighting crime was never an issue of clear-cut black and white morals, he’d always known that, but there were still some lines not meant to be crossed. So it was with a bit of unease that John found his eyes traveling up and down Hemogoblin’s costume, looking for signs of troll blood. They stayed like that for a few moments before John deliberately shuffled his leg against the ground. The resulting sound was soft, but it was enough to shake Hemogoblin from his thoughts.

The troll’s eye focused instantly on John’s leg before he seemed to deflate in front of John’s eyes, his entire posture losing its tenseness and reverting to something much more relaxed. “It’s over,” the troll informed, walking over and leaning against the same shelf John was currently standing against. Apart from the few specks of red lightly splattered over his gloves that John was pretty sure was from Boxcars, there was no drying blood anywhere else on the hero’s body that he could see. That was good. It couldn’t have been that hard to coax the information free when there were so few signs of the act, could it? Hemogoblin glanced over and must have sensed John’s worry, because he added a quick, “He’s a bit banged up, but he’ll live.”

John let out a relieved sigh. “What did you find out? Did he talk?”

“He did. Found out some interesting things, actually. The Midnight Crew operates in several segmented hierarchies, so low-levels like him aren’t privy to much sensitive information, but he wasn’t completely uninformed. I don’t know how you knew to nab him, but he was Boxcars’s dedicated right hand. As for the Crew, orders come from unaddressed letters, disposable cell phones, and anonymous couriers speaking on behalf of the upper ranks, who are themselves speaking on behalf of the boss. The boss is someone named Spades, by the way, though our guy has no idea where he’s located. Likes to travel around the country seeing to business himself, apparently.” John mentally filed that tidbit away for future reference. “Most of the men tonight weren’t aware that Boxcars would be heading the attack against you until he showed up, actually, but this one did. Looks like he had specific orders to bring heavy ordnance, lucky you. He gave me the lower ranking’s usual meeting spot—a bar on the west side of the city—and the location of a safe house on Seventh Avenue. The safe-house is where he received the grenade, so I would say it’s the first place we should hit up next.”

A sense of relief swept over John at that proclamation, his earlier fears put to rest. He’d been afraid that his hunch about this troll might’ve been wrong, and that meant he’d have had to suffer through Hemogoblin’s interrogation for nothing. If his words could be trusted, the heroes had two potential locations that connected back to the organization, and there was a strong chance that they might be able to pick up a clue or two as to how to find the higher-ups and end this once and for all. The Midnight Crew was still establishing itself in Seattle so they most likely didn’t have too many properties set up yet, hopefully. If they were able to take these down, that could potentially represent a large blow to the foothold the Crew had already established in their city.

John’s stomach knotted once again as his thoughts drifted towards their captive, still tied up in a dark room not twenty feet away. “What are we going to do with…” at this, John made a vague waving gesture with hands towards the office, “...him?”

Hemogoblin’s eyes followed John’s hands to stare at the room he’d just exited as the troll shifted his weight to his right leg so that his hips were jutting a bit. “We have two options, as far as I can tell. We either drop him off at the nearest police station and take a gamble that he won’t immediately blab that we’ve been holding him against his will for an hour or so, as I don’t think the cops could ignore that, or we do the thing I actually promised him.”

John frowned. “Alright, first things first. What’s to stop him from telling the police where he’s been?”

Hemogoblin sighed and brought a hand up to scratch the back of his head, his face morphing into an exasperated grimace that looked so familiar that for a split-second, John was actually seeing Karkat standing in Hemogoblin’s place. John blinked his eyes roughly and the specter of his crush disappeared. Not for the first time in the past hour, John was concerned that his head injury was more serious than he had originally thought.

“Honestly? The hope that he’s not suicidally moronic. It’s like I said earlier: if he lets people know we’ve interrogated him, his life is most likely forfeit to the Midnight Crew, even if he hadn’t told us anything. That’s not something they can just let slide. So if he wants to keep his head connected to his shoulders, he’ll keep silent. I don’t like it because it’s taking a lot of things on assumption, but it’s better than nothing.”

John nodded, mulling his partner’s words. He’d come to pretty much the same conclusion while he’d been waiting. “Okay. Then what’s the thing you actually promised him?”

“I told him you’d fly him out of the city limits and drop him off, and he’d be on his own after that.”

“You told him what?!” John recoiled, eyeing the other hero in shock. “We can’t do that! He’s part of the Midnight Crew. You saw what they were capable of tonight! They’re absolutely ruthless, they have zero compunction about causing massive collateral damage to the city, and they tried to kill me! We can’t just let one of them go just like that!”

By the end of his tirade, John was dimly aware that his voice had risen to a shout and that he was breathing heavy. Hemogoblin’s luminescent eyes were wide in surprise, obviously not having expected the other teen to react in this way.

They stood like that for several tense moments, John trying to get his heavy breathing under control, his heart beating wildly. It felt like all of the anxiety and turbulent emotions that he’d bottled up over the course of the night were breaking through the dam he’d shoved them behind, this time much more effectively than they had earlier, and they were flooding through his system with all of the subtlety of a typhoon. All at once, the energy seemed to leave his body and he was left in a state of exhaustion, totally contradictory to the ferocity of his heartbeat, a sharp staccato being played out against his chest. John slumped to the ground tiredly, feeling drained and like he wanted to cry.

“What do we do now, Hemogoblin?” John’s voice threatened to crack and he cleared his throat. “Move on like you didn’t just interrogate someone and that I didn’t just throw Cas-” He could still hear the crunch of bone from when his hammer had connected with the thug’s chest. He hadn’t needed to see his handiwork to know what that had meant. Shattered ribs sent blasting through the man’s torso like shrapnel, eviscerating organs and causing massive internal hemorrhaging. The thug would’ve been lucky if he died quickly. For the first time in his life, he’d been directly responsible for the death of another. Someone who probably had loved ones. “Now that I’ve killed someone.”

Hemogoblin was silent for almost a full minute, his brows furrowed in thought, before he gracefully lowered himself next to his partner and took a seat. When he spoke, his words were soft and carefully spoken, completely lacking in the usual cocky tone.

“In the kind of situation we were in, there was a high chance of someone losing their life. On both sides. Every single one of those assholes knew that they were being pitted against someone with superpowers tonight, and they had to have known what that meant. They wouldn’t have been trying to take your life if they weren’t willing to put their own lives on the line to do it.”

“But that doesn’t make it right!” John cried, his left hand coming up to clench at his right arm almost painfully tight. “What gave me the right to take a life?”

Hemogoblin was silent again for a few long moments, contemplating his response. “You’re right; regardless of how prepared they were to lose a few of their own, what happened tonight wasn’t right. But then you didn’t really have a choice in the matter, did you? You saw one of those pricks about to gun me down and you acted. You saved my life, and I think that’s all the justification you need.”

John shook his head, doing his best to fight back the tears he knew wanted to form. Heroes didn’t cry on duty. “That wasn’t the only one. There were others. What about the troll I used as a body shield? I could’ve done something differently, could have tried to throw up a barrier and protect us both.”

“If you’re going to beat yourself up over every decision you made in the heat of a battle, Heir, then you’re never going to stop hating yourself. It’ll kill you.”

John blinked slowly, trying to make sense of his words. “But just because I-”

“Let me finish,” Hemogoblin interrupted, knocking his knee against John’s lightly. “When you’re in the thick of it like that, you don’t have time to think, don’t have time to plan. I’m not saying that you can do anything and your actions are automatically excused, but I was there too. There was too much going on, too much at stake to take your time and ensure everyone you took down was getting up afterwards. You did exactly what you had to do in the moment, and you can’t be blamed for not doing differently. If anything, I’d say the way you’re reacting now is telling enough of what kind of blame you should be feeling.”

John laughed, the noise erupting from his throat unbidden. It wasn’t a pleasant laugh. “Pitiful, isn’t it? Big, strong hero of over half a decade, reduced to a wreck because he can’t keep his emotions in check.” John let his eyes stray over to the troll for the first time since he’d sat down next to him, still not able to let his eyes go high enough to seek out the glowing pair two feet away. “Have you...have you ever killed anyone before?” The words felt like lead, the weight of them pressing down on his tongue and making them drop heavily from his lips.

“No. I haven’t.” It wasn’t as reassuring as John would have hoped.

“Then how come you’re so calm about this?!” When the teen realized he’d unintentionally yelled again, he looked away, ashamed. After a few moments of silence, John absently lifted up his gloved hands and observed them carefully for the fourth time since Hemogoblin had taken their captive into the room. There were specks of multi-coloured blood staining his shaking fingers, only some of it his own, turning the cloth a mottled brown.

Out of the corner of his eye, John saw a gloved hand reach over to enfold his, masking the dark stains and tentatively drawing the hand away from his disgusted gaze. Perplexed, John followed the path the hands took with his eyes and continued to stare as they settled against the concrete, resting between their thighs. A shocking warmth radiated through the thin, black material which covered Hemogoblin’s hand, spreading through John’s chilled skin and warming him instantly. He hadn’t realized how numb he’d let his skin become. Shivering tingles traveled all the way up his arm before running down his back, and then their fingers were interlocked.

John observed the two hands like they were alien appendages, admiring as if from a distance how strange it was that they wound together like they were made to do so, absolutely zero discomfort making itself known in the way their hands fit together. If he’d wanted to be cliche, he’d have described them as not unlike two puzzle pieces fitting together perfectly to make a more complicated whole. It was altogether more intimate and real than any experience he could remember at the moment, like when he and Karkat would lie next to each other reading comics and their bodies would press together like they belonged. It was a similar feeling to that, except it was all concentrated on a single focal point. And just like that, the nausea and unease started to recede, slowly crawling back to wherever it had come from. John clung to the feeling of that hand intertwined with his like it was a lifeline.

 

 

 

As John watched, Hemogoblin’s thumb slowly started to trace small circles against the back of his hand in a gesture that seemed almost rehearsed in its intimacy. Almost instantly, John could feel himself being eased into a calmer state from the connection, finding the simple gesture enough to ground him in reality and keep him out of his own head. The only thing John could think to compare the feeling to was that sensation he got after waking up fully alert from deep slumber, when he was fully conscious but utterly powerless to move his body as it had yet to fully wake itself. Every part of him was numb except for his hand, and it felt wonderful.

Whereas moments before he was trying desperately to slow his heartbeat, now he could feel the organ beating sluggishly in his chest, the sound ringing in his ears. Or maybe that was Hemogoblin’s pulse he was feeling? Regardless, it felt right to let this troll hold onto his hand like this and to hold him back. Something about gripping onto the long fingers felt familiar, so he held on tightly, letting it banish away his darker feelings until his thoughts were fixed solely on keeping his hand around Hemogoblin’s.

After perhaps an entire minute of sitting in silence, John let his eyes trail upwards, past the long gloves and exposed grey skin of his partner’s upper arm, up his long neck and the curve of a sharp jawline, and came to a pause at the troll’s lips. He’d never noticed just how nice those lips looked before. The ashy skin was a darker tone of slate grey, warmer notes only just hinting at his unique blood colour. They were so full, the lower relaxed until it almost pouted and the upper arching into an appealing bowed curve. When Hemogoblin’s tongue flickered out to wet the lower half of skin, John gulped softly.

As he continued to take in those inviting lips, paying no mind to whether the owner of them was aware of his gaze, he wondered absently if they would be as warm as the troll’s hand. Up close enough to see each curve, each dip of skin, John found that they were strikingly similar to Karkat’s, which probably went a long way in explaining why he was finding those features so appealing. Unlike his well-contemplated feelings for Karkat, John didn’t know exactly what it was that he felt about the troll sitting next to him or how Hemogoblin fit into the scheme of things in a romantic way. He wasn’t sure how any of this meshed with what he felt for Karkat, if he was just drawing similarities because he couldn’t have the one person he wanted so badly, or if this was something entirely new altogether.

But what John did know was that right then he wanted nothing more than to lean in and kiss him. That desire only grew stronger as his eyes darted up and he saw that the troll’s own eyes were distant and cloudy, his expression troubled even as he continued to absently stroke the back of John’s hand. He looked sad, almost, in a way that made John want to console him. There was an urge growing in him to pull down his mask and move closer, press into the warm body next to him until there was no space left, and kiss him; it was a desire to be reckless and spontaneous, to scratch the itch that kept his gaze locked on those lips. He dully recognized it as the same urge he’d had the other day when he and Karkat were laying side by side and the other boy’s head had been mere inches from his own. The distance was a bit larger in this case, but the desire was no less great. He could throw caution to the wind and kiss that sad look away, give in to something he hadn’t realized he had wanted this badly, and it would be easy. It would just be a matter of crossing the distance between them.

Before he could stop himself, his body had begun to lean forward, his free hand inching towards the edge of his mask…

 

 

 

“For the longest time, I had no idea that I was any different from other trolls,” Hemogoblin began, startling John out of his haze with the seemingly random change of topic. He pulled himself away just before Hemogoblin turned to look at him fully. The troll made no hint that he had caught the strange movement towards him, filling John with a sense of relief mixed with a bitter pang of regret. He tried not to think about how close he had just been to kissing his partner, or how a large part of him still wanted to try as Hemogoblin continued.

“In the café, I mentioned that I was born with a mutation. That wasn’t obvious to me at first, though. I thought it was normal to be able to feel the blood rushing through your veins, to always hear your heartbeat in your ears, to always have the rhythm of your pulse playing in the background and to be able to control it by will. I thought everyone was just as in tune with their bodies as I was. How was I supposed to know any different? It’s not like I could tell how other people felt and compare myself to them, and there sure as fuck wasn’t a manual on this shit.” Hemogoblin paused, the sudden angry glare on his face fading as he dropped his gaze lower to stare at their entwined fingers contemplatively. He never once paused in rubbing slow circles on the back of John’s hand, however, a gesture for which John was immensely grateful.

“I first found out I wasn’t the same as other trolls in kindergarten, when we were having our very first biology lesson and our teacher told us about trolls having different coloured blood. There was a chart with all the colours of the rainbow tacked up on the wall, except I couldn’t find my own. When I asked if trolls could have bright red blood, like a human, I was told no. That day I found out there was something wrong with me.” Hemogoblin again looked away at this, his eyes finding something to stare at on the opposite side of the warehouse. “It wasn’t a week later that I fell on the playground and scraped my knee. I didn’t want anyone to see my wrong-coloured blood, so I started to cry and I wished with all my might that I wasn’t bleeding. Then I wasn’t. There was no more blood, no more cut. It was like I’d never hurt myself.”

John idly wondered if Hemogoblin had ever shared this story with anyone else before. He didn’t seem to be having too much trouble relating the story to him, but his eyes were constantly looking off into the distance, remembering things that seemed to still be emotionally raw. That meant he was reliving painful memories just to bring John down from his emotional outburst. With that thought, the urge to kiss him returned stronger than ever, but John fought it down.

His next thought went to the heroes from his comic books, many possessing regenerative powers so strong that they could reattach severed limbs or survive through wounds that would otherwise be fatal. There were some whose bodies could keep away the effects of aging and live for centuries. Those had all been fictional creations, thought up by creative minds seeking out an angle for their next main character that was bigger and better than the real heroes around them. John had never heard of an actual hero who could manipulate their blood in the way Hemogoblin was describing. The troll didn’t seem about to talk again on his own without prompting, so John asked the first thing that popped into his head.

“You healed a scratch on your cheek a little while ago, too. So does that mean you’re kinda immortal?”

Hemogoblin let out a short bark of laughter and shook his head, a small, genuine smile once again reappearing on his face. John really, really preferred that smile to the troll’s normal cocky grin. Like, a whole lot. “No. At least I’m pretty sure not. I'd be fucked if I lost a limb, I think. I’d probably be able to stop the bleeding fairly easily, but the shock would probably get me, and even if not then I’d have lost that limb forever, probably. I’ve never really relished the idea of cutting off a finger or toe just to test the theory out, in any case. But for things like cuts and infections, I can accelerate the healing process. Small scrapes I can heal right away. My body almost does it instinctively.”

“What about when you form blades and stuff? That was seriously awesome, by the way, but doesn’t that weaken you having that much blood outside of your body?”

Hemogoblin shrugged, bringing his free hand up and examining the flawless skin of his wrist. “Not really. My body seems capable of either instantly replenishing blood loss or sustaining itself on greatly diminished amounts. I haven’t really figured out which, yet.”

“Whoa. If it can replenish itself, does that mean you could, like, fill a swimming pool with your blood?” As soon as the words left his mouth, John wished he could somehow reel them back in. He tried desperately not to bring his free hand up to smack himself in the face.

Hemogoblin turned fully and stared at John’s face with an amused grin, and he instantly felt his cheeks heating up by what felt like a million degrees.

“Haven’t exactly been keen to try bleeding out just for the hell of it, yet, but I’ll let you know if I ever decide to try.”

John really did bring his hand up and attempt to facepalm at this, only to find his hand blocked by his goggles. Smooth. Hemogoblin chose not to comment, though his smile grew a little more.

Thinking quickly, John sought for something to try and salvage the situation. “You mentioned your blood helps with infections. Is that why you don’t hesitate to take your blood back into your body after cutting someone? Even if you don’t use it on a person, it’s still getting exposed to a massive amount of airborne bacteria. I’d think it’d be rendered useless as soon as it left your body.”

Hemogoblin’s grin faded back to something more benign, though he was still smiling as he again lifted his free hand and examined his wrist. “I don’t really understand the biological process behind it, but it doesn’t really seem to matter what happens to the blood itself. Whether it gets contaminated or dries out, my body seems to be able to convert it to something usable and handles it with no ill side effects. I haven’t been sick since I was eleven years old, right before puberty hit.”

The troll’s eyes took on that distant look again, his expression morphing into one of sadness. John felt a dull ache in the pit of his stomach at seeing that smile fade from the troll’s lips. “Puberty...Puberty was rough. I went to bed feeling relatively normal, pretty confident that I could keep others from knowing about my strange red blood if I just never got hurt, and then the next morning I woke up like this.” Hemogoblin pointed at his red irises and glowing sclera with the thumb of his free hand, a scowl etching itself on his face. “You try to go to school with eyes like these and not get called a freak,” he spat.

“I think your eyes are beautiful,” John blurted out before he could stop himself. Despite it being the truth, it felt like he had said it too soon and at the wrong time. There really wasn’t another way that statement could be taken, but John’s mouth decided to smooth-talk itself out of it with zero help from his brain. “Err, uh, I mean.” Hemogoblin turned his head, again giving John a flash of that genuine smile that made his heart pound. Maybe it hadn’t been the wrong thing to say.

After the troll gave John’s hand a slow, deliberate squeeze, he continued. “I had to move, once, when I was twelve, because I wasn’t used to my contacts and lost one in the middle of class. My lusus and I packed up and left the very next day. It was mainly my own cowardice that made it so bad, though. I was terrified of my secret being discovered and being labeled an aberration, to the point that I withdrew from everyone around me and cut ties with a lot of my friends. Kind of ironic that I cut myself off to prevent myself from being ostracized. Or maybe pathetic is a better term.”

“You’re not pathetic. You were making the best of a bad situation.” Even as he said it, John could feel himself relating almost eerily well with Hemogoblin’s circumstances. Having to close himself off to others was the story of his existence. That had been his entire life, right up until Karkat had frowned and scowled and cursed his way into his heart. Still, their situations were a bit different; while he hadn’t made ties in order to protect those around him, Hemogoblin had tried to avoid others in order to protect himself. Those were both sad stories, yes, but John didn’t think they were pathetic.

“Thanks,” Hemogoblin murmured, leaning gently into John’s arm and bumping their shoulders together lightly. He was smiling again, this time to himself. “It's only recently that I've been able to shake off my anxiety and make friends. I'm glad I did, because I even have a moirail now, or someone who I think of as a moirail, at least.” The troll’s eyes darted to John’s own, capturing them in their glow. “And I have you to thank for that, Heir.”

John frowned, trying to think of anything he could have done to affect Hemogoblin. They’d only known each other for a few weeks and had met less than half a dozen times, so he was understandably confused. “Me? What did I do?”

“Call it leading by example. Seeing you in action kind of let me know that it was okay to be different as long as you were using your differences in a way that could help people. You made it easier for me to come out of the shadows and be someone stronger than I thought I could be.”

During their brief conversation at the café, Hemogoblin had mentioned Heir being his inspiration in becoming a hero, but John hadn’t realized that the troll had made such a significant change in his life because of something that he had done. It was kind of a stunning revelation, to be honest. He’d heard Karkat mention a great many times how awesome Heir was and how he’d saved him, but it was different hearing that your actions had an impact on someone to such a large degree. It was a validation that all of his efforts hadn’t been in vain.

“I'm glad that you did.” John wasn’t sure what specific event triggered the change, but he was glad that he had done it. Whatever it was, it had pushed Hemogoblin to become who he was. Maybe one day he would find out just what he had done to cause the troll to pursue a life of heroism.

“Me too.”

They sat in a comfortable silence for several minutes, each content to sit and bask in the other’s company. The fact that they were still holding hands was not lost on John. Oddly enough, he could still feel his own heartbeat even though he was much more relaxed now. It was tapping a slow, serene melody in his chest, and it was with something of a start that he realized that its tempo was matching up perfectly with the pulse he was feeling through the thin glove on Hemogoblin’s hand. Whether this was a result of the troll’s powers or if it was his own biology naturally syncing up through coincidence he didn’t know, but it was kind of fascinating knowing that their hearts were beating in tune together. That was the sort of sappy thing Karkat would’ve cooed over in one of his ridiculous romance novels.

Several moments after John made this discovery, Hemogoblin let out a soft sigh, lifting his free arm and catching John’s attention. He pressed the very tip of his ring finger against his open palm until a bead of red pooled under his nail. John was almost alarmed, but as Hemogoblin lifted his finger away, the liquid followed upwards, forming a long, thin thread. It detached from the nail and spun into a winding coil that continued to corkscrew upwards on its own, completely defying gravity, to John’s enraptured shock. As the blood twisted and formed into various shapes, Hemogoblin explained.

 

 

 

 

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