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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3. In Which John Bakes

John felt weightless as he soared about the city streets, gliding through the sky as if it were as natural as breathing. Patrolling the city and searching for crime had already taken up half of his night, and the teen had little to show for it. Uneventful nights like this one were admittedly boring, but he would always take a boring night over having his city be in disarray. He kept his eyes fixed on the roads below him as he flew by, searching the dark alleyways and focusing more attention on the areas where he knew illegal activity was more likely to occur. Seattle was beautiful from this high up at night, but you had to keep an eye open in order to spot trouble. However, scanning the cityscape for anything that stood out was not entirely necessary, really, as most of the time the wind’s current seemed to carry him to where he was needed, which was useful; if he’d had super-hearing or supervision it would be another story entirely, but without those things, John had to rely on his connection to the currents around him to be his eyes and ears. He trusted the wind to guide him, and it had yet to ever steer him wrong.

There was plenty of give and take in his relationship with the wind, actually. While he could bend it to his will, manipulate it, and use it to benefit him in any given situation, in a way it exerted control over him. Oftentimes the wind felt like it complied to his pull rather than submitted, aiding him as if it had its own agenda, its own purpose for him. It was, simply put, alive, as it kept him flying safely high above the ground, fluttering gusts seeming to laugh as he rolled and somersaulted to pass the time. As always, though, the night would not remain uneventful. John was halfway through his rounds when he felt the wind pull him into a dive. Twisting gracefully around skyscrapers and tall buildings, John gave in to the pull and descended to the city streets.

The first thing he noticed as his eyes scanned the street below him was that there appeared to be three men against one. Three individuals were circling another on the ground in a scene that John had at this point become familiar with. Judging from the posture of the three aggressors, it was most likely a mugging that had turned bad, probably when the guy had refused to give up his wallet for his well-being. As John swooped low to the ground and landed silently in a shadowed blind spot, he mentally sighed. These were probably not professionals by any definition, just desperate people trying to scrape by through whatever means possible. On any other day, in a different situation, he would want to help them however he could. As soon as they turned to crime and looked to inflict suffering on others, though, he was obligated to show them that it was not okay. Unfortunately, it was something he was having to do more often than he would have ever wanted.

He flipped up his hood before clearing his throat loudly, stepping into view. Usually that was the cue for fear to flare in the criminals’ eyes, followed shortly by them turning tail and running like hell. These guys missed their cue. Apparently, this trio had not gotten the memo that Heir was a notorious ass-kicker of those who refused to be willingly arrested. Three bodies all turned towards him, each hardset face shaded with sudden alarm as they clearly recognized him. The civilian took advantage of the opportunity John had presented to crawl to the nearest wall, using it as support to slowly stand. John waited for him to shuffle along until he was safely tucked behind a dumpster, all the while sizing the three men in front of him up.

“I am going to give you a chance to do the right thing here,” John started, reciting the standard lines he would offer deliver when those he confronted went wide-eyed and terrified. “Turn yourselves in and nobody gets—”

The shot was fired, practiced enough to be aimed confidently in a split-second and professional enough that any fear the shooter possessed didn’t cause the gun to waver or the bullet to stray from its path. The wind howled, picking up violently around John as it halted the trajectile an inch from the centre of his forehead. With a flick of his eyes, he spun it down so he could see, frowning as he examined the small piece of lead that had been intended for him, before turning his attention on the man still holding out the pistol. John guessed he had been wrong about these guys beating the other out of desperation, because if you had enough to buy a gun, you had enough to eat. Any sympathy he may have had vanished as he took a step forward, the spent bullet dropping to the ground. “Rude.”

   

The trigger-happy one decided that he would try again, his now visibly shaking hand causing the shot to be too wide. Even though it would have missed, John made a point to bend its path, burying it harmlessly into the ground with a flick of the wrist. Staring at the group emotionlessly, he took another firm step forward. Beginning to get desperate, the largest of the group decided to rush forward in an attempt to best him physically. That was a mistake.

John ducked easily under the first few punches, swaying out of the man’s reach with minimal effort. The guy had a clear size advantage over the teenager, which was probably all the reasoning he needed for an attempt at brawling with a known hero. The punches had weight behind them, that much John could tell. If the blows connected they would undoubtedly be powerful, but John was trained far beyond the average person, and by a man who was anything but an average trainer. This guy was ballsy, yes, but he was too slow for John to consider his attempts to hit him any kind of a challenge.

Deciding not to draw things out for too long, John ducked behind an over extended swing and pushed a burst of wind to the backs of the man’s knees. His opponent went down before he even had time to notice that the hero was no longer in front of him, toppling onto all-fours. To assure he wouldn’t be getting back up anytime soon, John gave him a swift kick to the back of the head, making sure to hold back enough so that it was just enough to knock the guy out.

With two of his rounds spent and one comrade down, the man with the gun decided to just start firing wildly in an attempt to catch John with at least one of his remaining bullets. John sensed his intentions before the first bullet left the barrel, his feet instinctively lifting off the ground for better maneuverability. Spinning to face forward while weaving to the side, the first shot was effortlessly avoided. The next had less of a sure target, John’s movements too quick for the gunman to track. Dancing around the remaining shots that rang out in sudden succession, John drew nearer to his opponent, sending a call to the wind to catch the bullets as they flew past him in order to prevent any unnecessary collateral damage. When John’s feet touched the ground again, he was standing right in front of the gunman’s barrel, the only thing greeting him the desperate click of the firing pin hitting nothing as the trigger was continuously depressed, the shooter desperately trying to conjure more rounds from his exhausted magazine.

Having had enough of this guy, John formed a concentrated ball of wind in his palm and slammed it into the gunman’s chest, sending him flying back into the alley wall. He dropped to the ground, crumpling into a heap as he was knocked instantly unconscious.

 

Frowning, John kicked the now useless gun against the wall and gave the man one last, disgruntled look, the expression hidden behind his mask. People who were willing to fire a weapon at someone as easily as that gunman had didn’t deserve any of his sympathy, regardless of who the target was. With two down, John turned to face the last member of the trio. He hadn’t moved in all of the half a minute it had taken John to dismantle both of his friends, rooted to the spot in awe and terror at John’s display. That didn’t stop him from gripping a knife in his hand, however.

“Like I was saying before your friend interrupted, if you give up, you don’t have to get hurt. It would have saved them quite the headache if they had minded their manners and listened.” The hand which held his knife shook violently, his knees rattling yet still managing to hold him up. John held up his hands in a placating gesture and began walking forward.

“So, are you going to listen, or do something stupid?” The man answered as he dropped his weapon in fear, turning to make a break for it down the narrow alleyway. “Hey, running was not an option!” Balling up his fist and then releasing it in the direction of the mugger, a gale force wind was sent barreling down the alley with the force of a hurricane. It impacted against the runner’s back moments later, lifting him off his feet and throwing him a good five feet before pinning him against the ground.

John took his time strolling over to the downed mugger, sighing when he got next to him as he kneeled down to examine the already unconscious man. “All you had to do was listen. It’s not that hard.”

Satisfied that all was right and that he had accounted for all threats, John collected the three men and dragged them all to the dumpster and secured their hands with a few pairs of the plastic handcuffs that he always kept handy in one of his pouches, opening the lid and shoving them in unceremoniously. While they were probably not going to be getting up anytime soon, John figured the extra precaution was necessary for the victim’s safety.

Someone in the area had already called the police, apparently, probably because of all the gunshots. John could hear the sirens drawing nearer. Just to be sure they had the right location, John searched through the pockets of the muggers until he found a phone, and then made the call to the nearest police station, tipping them off on how many assailants they could expect to bring in and the nature of the crime.

It took a good while to convince the victim to wait for the cops to get there, since without him to disclose the events as they happened and to press charges, the guys who attacked him would have to be let go. The man was running too high on adrenaline as he hovered close beside John, yapping away at how exciting it had been to see Heir in action, that it had been just like a movie, and that he had been a fan of the hero since his debut. It made John uncomfortable to stick around someone offering so much praise, so he floated off the ground, causing the main to pause and gaze up at him with awe.

“Wait here for the police. I’ll be close by. Stay safe.” John took off without waiting for a response, heading for a nearby rooftop. Sitting there for a few minutes and listening to the sirens drawing nearer, he reviewed his last performance to search for any flaws he might have made, which movements could have been made quicker, what unnecessary time had been wasted, and how he could further minimize damages in the future.

 

When the squad car got to the alleyway, the victim waved them down. That was John’s cue to take off; the night was still young.

 

///

It was three in the morning by the time John flew into his open window, exhausted from the night of heroics. Things had picked up significantly after that initial assault, which meant whipping around the city as quickly as the wind would take him in order to stop numerous petty crimes. There hadn’t been many more instances that had required him to knock out his opponents, but the last of the night had gotten slightly bloody. While nothing very significant had happened, he was still left with a body screaming for rest.

During the summer months he had been able to stay out until dawn, not having to wake up early in order to go to school. The sudden adjustment of his schedule was a shock to his system after so many weeks of late nights and late mornings. It was a good thing that his body functioned differently than most people, only requiring a few hours of rest in order to fully recuperate. If it wasn’t as weird as it was, he would never be able to sustain the lifestyle he lived. With his dad’s insisting on him attending school despite how John would become a full time hero upon his graduation, he would have had to be a weekend hero or have a much earlier curfew.

Stripping off Heir’s costume, John reminded himself that he would have to wash it tomorrow to get the blood off. It wasn’t his own blood—it hardly ever was—but instead came from a man who had insisted on not staying down. One precise punch to the jaw had been enough to send the man toppling over, one tooth less than a full set. John sighed, continuing to pull off and examine each piece of clothing for potential tears and stains he’d have to clean. After safely tucking the clothes plus Casey back onto their shelves, replacing the panel, and re-hanging the poster, John decided that he would take a shower in the morning. Despite the sticky feeling of dry sweat over his body, he chose to rest now since he would be up in a few hours anyways.

John slipped into a pair of boxers before shuffling into his bathroom to brush his teeth and wash his face. Looking into the tired eyes of his reflection, John felt that he should still be out there, fighting crime in tandem with the city’s police force. Anyone who knew anything about Heir would soon catch on to his limited patrol time, and adjust their plans accordingly. Every year, the more intelligent criminals would plan their illegal activity for after three, in the short span before dawn. Every year, the police would focus on sending more squad cars out during that time. John wanted to be able to stop things, to prevent unnecessary casualties with the strange powers he had been born with, but he knew that he couldn’t. Sometimes that thought drove him crazy.

 

///

The morning routine was easier to fall into after the third day. The blaring of his alarm clock woke John up on time and his dad knocked on his door only a few minutes later to make sure he was awake; there wouldn’t be any repeat of yesterday’s shenanigans. John sighed as he got out of bed and pulled on some workout pants, heading out of his room and down to the basement. Before taking a well-deserved shower and treating his costume to a good scrubbing, there was a father-son tradition he had to get through.

Their basement was large, bigger than any other John had seen in his rare instances of watching T.V., though it’d always seemed pretty normal to him since he’d been going down there nearly every morning for the past decade. The floor consisted of one gigantic room, with only a small washroom breaking up the otherwise open square. A third of the room was taken up by various exercise equipment, including John’s treadmill and various weight sets, as well as several strategically placed training dummies. In one corner of the room hung his favourite punching bag, its surface patchworked from all the times he’d had to repair it after accidentally punching holes in its surface. The rest of the room was bare, the floor covered in matted panels and the walls covered in floor-to-ceiling mirrors. It was in this part of the room that John went to stand.

His dad greeted him with a nod, remaining silent as John walked to his place beside him as they stared into the mirrors across the room at their own reflections. John fell into familiar steps as he was led through a t’ai chi routine, finding himself rather glad that there was only enough time to stretch before they both had to get ready for the day. Now that the summer break had ended, John could look forward to evenings of martial arts training, swimming, and the occasional run, rather than early morning sparring sessions. He couldn’t speak for his dad, but he much preferred the gentle breathing exercises and the flowing postures of t’ai chi routines rather than getting smacked around by an ex-marine first thing in the morning. With the way that his dad manhandled him every time they trained, it was still hard to imagine that his dad was just a normal person, albeit one that was highly disciplined and trained.

John gave out a relaxed sigh as his muscles seemed to unwind, the stretching feeling nice as he shifted fluidly from one pose to the next. In the mirror opposite him, his dad made the same movements, their routine synchronized perfectly.

 

Once the exercise was over, both father and son headed upstairs to take care of the next step of their morning routines. While breakfast was cooking, John finally got to enjoy his much needed shower. A good deal of time was invested in scrubbing tiny mats from his hair as he tried not to think about the red-tinted water running down the drain. After washing the scent of blood and sweat from his body, John dried off and headed back to his room. After pulling on a shirt and some shorts, John set about removing Heir’s clothes from their hiding place to get to work on washing the stains out of the fabric. It was a process that took a fair deal of time as it all had to be done by hand, but such was the hassle about using finicky materials to construct something that would put up with his night life. The material had specific requirements to meet when trying to clean it, like using special products, never introducing it to hot water, and absolutely never just tossing it in a machine, as convenient as that would be. By the time he had finished hanging the costume inside-out to dry, his dad was calling him down for breakfast.

John sat down to a vegetable and egg-white omelet, toast, and a bowl of fruit salad, thanking his dad before getting started. As usual, it didn’t take long before his plates were clean or for his dad to match his speed and finish his own meal. Once the dishes were taken care of, John shot upstairs to grab his bag before returning back down to leave. Just like the day before last, his dad waiting for him, donning that usual white hat that matched his shirt with keys already in his hand. As usual, they headed out the door early, which meant John would have plenty of time before his first class of the day to re-review his homework.

Once they were in the car and on the road, John was prompted with an entirely expected question. “How did last night go?” It was something John was asked nearly every day, a casual inquiry with the ever present edge of worry. In the first few months of being Heir, John’s dad had come along with him to make sure his pre-teen son could handle himself alone on the dark streets of the city. After he was deemed ready to go solo, it had been a year until his dad has stopped waiting up for him at night to ask him that very question. If his dad did still wait up for the sound of his window closing, he never made it known that he did.

“The usual, really,” John stated, before he filled the other in on the night’s highlights, those highlights being a handful of petty crimes he had stopped while spending most of the time flying around the city. As was their routine, he went on to give the details of instances where the people he caught had put up resistance, going over when he had to take action and what he had done. His father listened quietly, waiting for pauses to offer suggestions in how he could have better handled each scenario. As annoying as the process was, the review helped by offering another opinion besides his own on how he could improve his performance. Minimizing unnecessary movements while still making a point to establish himself as beyond human was a goal John was still trying to work towards, after all. His dad had always told him that, while he didn’t want John to hurt people needlessly, he wanted Heir to be a reason for people to avoid criminal activities in the first place. It was something they both wanted to accomplish with John’s hero persona.

After a few minutes, John was dropped off with the customary warning to not stand out too much. Once he had rolled his eyes and promised not to reveal his secret identity on a whim, they parted ways. He sighed, heading inside the relatively empty school, yawning and shuffling his feet like the students he passed. The familiar actions of the morning, which could almost be considered normal for an average teenager, had added up into something completely mundane for John. When he spent the nights fighting crime, his contrasting daily endeavours made him feel pretty normal. Almost as much as they made him feel he was living a lie.

After stopping at his locker and shimmying around his books, John went to check if his Biology teacher had unlocked the classroom early. If not, he’d probably head to the library and read ahead in his textbook or something. To his luck, the door was open and upon entering he noticed a particular nubby horned troll resting his head against his desk. He felt his mood lift from a depth he hadn’t realized he had been in until the sudden shift. Overly serious was what he would label his previous mood, he supposed, but the prospect of getting to talk to his newfound friend before class had him forgetting his usual set of worries.

“Good morning, Karkat,” John called, grinning broadly as the troll lifted his head to glare at him. Before Karkat responded, he yawned, rolling his neck to the side until there was an audible crack. Tired eyes regarded John for a long moment as if he was sizing him up.

“You’re going to be a morning person, aren’t you? Here’s something that you should know that will help you on your future endeavours to gather more suitable friends: it is too fucking early to put up with the bag of shit that you seem to lugging around day to day with a smile on your face. Unless you’re here to present me with a very large, very hot cup of coffee — half of which I may decide to hurl in your general direction because your face is just pissing me off to whole new levels of utter rage at the moment — sit down and shut the fuck up before I end you. This is our present scenario, John. I suggest you tread carefully.”

John laughed, already beginning to grow fond of Karkat’s particularly charming language. He was too verbose in his way of speaking, rattling off elaborate description even when it seemed that he could hardly keep his eyes open. John sat down in his seat, leaning forward when Karkat put his head back down. “If you’re not much for mornings, why are you here so early?”

“Crabdad thinks that I need to be up and ready for school at the crack of dawn and insists on screeching until I am in position to be lovingly shoved out the front door in an embarrassing state of dress. I don’t know where he picked up this idea or from whom, but if I ever find out they will rue the day they interrupted my sleep.” There was more to that, but the words were lost in mumbles smothered against his arm. Karkat seemed to get that his words were becoming incoherent because he turned his head to the side. “To reiterate my previous statement, cease flapping your lips and let me rest. Talk to me when I’m not half-asleep.”

“Okay,” John laughed, finding even the brief interaction enough to satisfy him for the time being. He unzipped his backpack, withdrawing his textbook before turning his attention briefly back to Karkat. “I’ll talk to you at lunch, then.”

 

///

John’s mood was sky high as he walked back to his first period classroom after school for Biology Club. As Karkat had suggested after he had grumbled about sleep deprivation, the two did talk later. They had met up at lunch underneath what John now sort of considered to be their tree. They had talked about Karkat’s old school and the handful of friends he could tolerate, which classes they were most looking forward to and the ones that they were dreading, and touched on John’s rather packed schedule. Obviously skipping over the acts of heroism at night, John had briefly summarized that keeping up with AP classes, his athletics training, and ‘volunteering’ left him with little free time. It had been enough for Karkat to accept, commenting that up until his move he had two jobs so they both understood the challenges of keeping up with their busy lives. It meant Karkat wasn’t expecting the usual after-school visits or activities other teenagers sought out. The troll was open to being a school-friend, and that was just what John was hoping for.

When he walked through the door of the familiar classroom, John noticed that there were a few students from his Biology block sitting together. The rest of the club members were upper and lower classmen who he didn’t recognize, already settling to chat amongst their respective groupings. John scanned their faces, pausing when his eyes fell on someone familiar sitting in the back row by himself. John made a beeline straight over to the troll, beaming. It looked like he was going to get to see Karkat after school after all.

“Fancy seeing you here,” John commented as smoothly as he could, recieving a scoff for all his efforts as John shifted his backpack on his shoulder. Karkat looked up, lips twitching but stubbornly set in a bored frown. “Mind if I sit with you?” John preemptively dropped his bag beside the desk, looking down at Karkat for the eventual permission he was sure he’d get.

“Why on Earth would I permit you the luxury of such exceedingly in-demand company? It’s not as though we’ve spent nearly every free moment outside of class infringing on each other’s personal space, gabbing on like a couple of prepubescent gossips with a mile-long list of people to bitch about and nothing but fucking time. Oh, wait, that’s exactly what we’ve done. Stop standing there like a barkbeast waiting for its handler’s command and sit down before I change my mind.” When Karkat finished his rant, his frown broke momentarily into a crooked smile. It hung there for a second before it fell along with his gaze, which settled back on the textbook resting on his desk.

John chuckled, sliding into the desk beside Karkat’s and scanning over the page the troll was reading. It looked like he wasn’t the only one who read ahead, since the troll was well into the third chapter. “I take it you never just say ‘yes’ or ‘no’.” Karkat just shrugged, his eyes not leaving the page in front of him. “So, you like biology too, then?”

“Your desperation and blatant need for attention is borderline pitiful,” the troll snapped, shutting his book to focus on replying. “I guess I like biology. I’m mainly interested in learning more about genetics, like how and why certain genes are inherited, and biological systems. Not so much looking forward to the cutting things open and poking at their insides aspect. Also, engaging in after school activities regarding one of my more tolerable classes is at least better than going home to Crabdad throwing food he thinks is nutritious in my general direction for dinner.”

“Hehe, good answer.” A tilt of Karkat’s head prompted John to start mentally summarizing his own interest in the subject. As he considered the reasons for his own interest in Biology, his eyes took in the delicate arc of Karkat’s raised eyebrow as he waited for John’s response to his unasked question, and the way that his eyes betrayed the troll’s interest despite the bored look he was plastering on his face. John really felt like he was getting used to the troll’s nonverbal cues, just as he was coming to realize how much of what Karkat said had no actual heat behind the words.

“I like Bio because it really makes you appreciate everything around you and, well, in you. You get to learn about the amazing complexity of life, how things have come to function, and how living organisms interact with their environment. I think that’s pretty awesome.”

Karkat looked at him for a moment, his face a bit more relaxed as the corners of his mouth turned ever-so-slightly and he started smiling a bit more openly. He rested his chin on the knuckles of his right hand, regarding John thoughtfully. “Contrary to your appearance, you really do honestly embrace your inner nerd. I’m starting to see why Kanaya mentioned you as being labeled slightly unapproachable: you’re a regular golden child. If not for your social retardation you’d be well on your way to being pretty perfect, wouldn’t you?”

“Karkat, I would pretend to be shocked at that accusation if it weren’t so obvious. Clearly I am just fishing for friendship experience in order to complete my life checklist and ascend the echeladder of top high school kid. Except not, because I’m just a normal, studious swim team member who happens to be as busy as he is nerdy.” John didn’t mention how school had never challenged him enough to make him struggle through his work or study for exams. He’d always chalked that up to just another weird quirk of his. “So, other than guessing you’re into Biology, are there any interests you have that you’re more sure of liking?”

Karkat shrugged his shoulders before running through a few vague points. “Some books, movies, and comics, mostly. Work kept me pretty busy.”

“Oh man, comics? Like, hero stuff?” John grinned, leaning forward in his chair. He was excited at the prospect of potentially sharing a common passion with his new friend. In his eagerness, he hadn’t realized how far he had leaned forward until Karkat shifted back, mumbling a complaint about John’s supposed lack of boundaries. Laughing out an apology, John offering Karkat his best goofy grin, which seemed to be enough to warrant an answer from the troll.

“No. I’ve worn superhero-themed clothes for the last two days for shits and giggles, and I gabbed about Heir yesterday like a genuine fangirl because I was actually just bored out of my skull by your presence and he’s a regular topic of choice. Of fucking course I like comic books, John.”

John blinked and re-examined the white hoodie the troll was wearing, just then noticing a small “The End Is Nigh” underneath the black rorschach test sprawled across the hoodie’s chest. Watchmen. John could appreciate that.

The subject of superheroes, both real and fictional, was a topic John could easily get lost in, in fact. He’d never really expected to find a person who seemed just as eager to discuss imagined worlds as he was. Launching into a discussion he had been waiting to have with someone for years, the two jumped around from talking about big name publishers to debating the usefulness of the newest sidekick to a well known, East Coast hero. They ran through their favourites heroes — Karkat having a soft spot for the Caped Crusader while John stood proudly behind his choice of Captain America — before going over a few graphic novels and comics they enjoyed. For John, having someone to talk to about his largest hobby was the most fun he had had in a very long time.

Before John realized it, the teacher was interrupting them to hand out an information and sign-up sheet for Biology Club. He blushed in embarrassment, apologizing for not noticing they had started. She smiled at the two of them as other students began filing out of the room. “We started twenty minutes ago. The meeting is over now. I didn’t interrupt you two because you seemed to be getting on so well.”

John supposed that was the cue for them to leave as well, so after a quick goodbye to the teacher, they headed to their lockers, stopping to wait for each other while they shuffled their books around. With a lot of reluctance, John said goodbye to Karkat a few minutes later with the promise of seeing him tomorrow as they headed out the front entrance to the school. They parted ways, Karkat heading towards the parking lot while John set down on his usual route home.

A couple of minutes into his walk, a car slowed and pulled up next to him. It was an average-looking car, grey, the kind the city routinely loaned out to trolls with lusii that couldn’t drive. When the passenger side window was rolled down, John found himself looking right at the troll he had just parted with.

“You said you lived close to me. Get in.” It didn’t take any more prompting for John to be opening the door and slipping into the seat beside Karkat, a wide grin on his face.

 

///

“Later, Karkat!” John chirped as he slipped out of his seat a few minutes after Karkat had picked him up. Most of the car ride had consisted of the troll getting around to saying that, though mornings were off due to the uncertain time at which his custodian tended to throw him out the door, he wouldn’t mind if maybe John wanted a ride home from school every day. Granted, there were a couple hundred more words to his speech, but that had been the basics of the long-winded spiel. Of course, John had agreed immediately, a reaction that caused Karkat to mutter an insult under his breath and grin ever so slightly.

John waved as he walked backwards up the steps to his front door, Karkat offering a very slight flick of his hand in response before pulling away. As he got inside and headed straight to the kitchen for his usual after-school snack, John decided that it had really turned into one of the best school days he had had in a long time. It was rare for him to feel normal and relatable to his peers, but chatting with Karkat seemed to really do the trick.

After opening the fridge to retrieve some deli meat and veggies, John got to work making a sandwich. It vanished as quickly as he had slapped it together, appeasing his stomach for the time being. John got to work on wiping down the kitchen counters, letting his thoughts wander. A lot of people would have probably found him too desperate to welcome into their circle of friends, but Karkat had accepted him with few complaints. Well, few complaints that he actually meant, anyway. And that meant a lot to John.

Looking around the kitchen and spotting a fruit basket full of apples, John was struck with a sudden idea.

Maybe it would be a good time to welcome his friend to the neighbourhood, like his dad had taught him.

 

///

Karkat was mildly regretting his choice of classes as he furiously scribbled out a misspelled word in his notebook. He glared down at the wild strokes of black ink before sighing, debating on whether he should try to white out his mistake or just start over. After he finished his English assignment, he still had Alternian and Physics to go, because, for some asinine reason, when he had sat down to do his homework, he had decided to do it in completely random order. Why, he didn’t know. It was just adding to the stress that had been mounting ever since Crabdad had forced them to move with no prior planning, which he guessed was insignificant when compared to the stress of his...problem. The legitimate problem that, as far as he had figured, only had two options: either he disclose his issues to someone else, or he’d figure them out on his own. He’d been fighting that literally all his life, and moving to a new location wasn’t doing his worries any good.

Just as Karkat started contemplating the amount of force it would take to jam his pen through his skull and end his homework-related misery forever, he was jerked out of his thoughts by a noise he hadn’t been expecting.

The doorbell rang, prompting Crabdad to almost immediately let out a shrill screech from the other end of the house in response. Karkat waited at his desk, listening for the telltale stomping of his custodian descending the flight of stairs to get to the door. But it never came. The bell rang again a few seconds later and, of course, useless lusus that he was, Crabdad just screeched. It wasn’t even like it was the first time he had ever heard a doorbell, because they sure as hell had one in their last place and that one had been twice as annoying. Maybe the new pitch was bothering him?

“Dad, get the door! It’s kind of your job, you worthless piece of shit!” Even as Karkat complained, he was hurrying down to the first floor, taking the stairs two at a time and spewing out a colourful string of expletives about his lusus. The bell rang a third time, just as Karkat rounded the corner that led to the front door. “Hold your fucking hoofbeasts, I’m coming!”

As he flung open the door, he already had a grouping of choice curses on the tip of his tongue for whoever had decided to bother them. Regardless of who it was, they were going to receive an earful. As the door swung open wide, the words Karkat had hastily prepared caught in his throat as he tried to comprehend what exactly he was seeing.

“Hi, Karkat! Welcome to the neighbourhood!” The ever cheerful, surprisingly tolerable John Egbert was on his doorstep, characteristically waltzing into his life without notice, showing up completely unannounced. The human looked exactly the same as he had when Karkat dropped him off, stupid smile and all. The actual part that was shocking enough to render Karkat silent was the mitted hands which held up a steaming hot pie.

 

“I know I can’t bake nearly as good as my dad, and he’ll probably show up sometime this week with a cake, but I figured I’d try. Hope you like apple!”

The display in front of him was just so fucking wholesome that Karkat actually found himself a bit speechless. Was he serious? Karkat could only stare, taking in the human boy in front of him. Of all the things he had been expecting when racing down the stairs, this hadn’t even seemed a possibility. It took Karkat’s brain a few awkward moments to sort through his available options, but any snappy retort he was trying to formulate was pushed to the side because John’s hands must have been burning despite the oven mitts, so he held the door open for him to step through. “Come in. Yeah, I do, uh, thanks. I really wasn’t expecting something like this, in case you couldn’t tell by the absence of my usual stunning control over the English language. I actually should have guessed you’d be the type to pull something like this.”

John laughed as he usually did, deep and loud while somehow managing to not cross the line into obnoxious, as he stepped inside and slipped the sandals off of his feet. The troll stared at John’s feet for a moment in curiosity, not having really heard of that particular human custom before. Looking back up into John’s face, Karkat didn’t know what exactly the protocol was when someone who was just beginning to be a pretty-okay friend came over with food. Did he take the pie, or something? Did he give John a tour? Offer him a beverage refreshment? John, of course, was spectacularly fucking useless and offered him no hints as to proper social protocol, but Karkat hadn’t counted on any help from there.

Thinking over what he’d just considered, Karkat internally cursed at himself for being a dumbass, because of course he wasn’t expected to offer to take the burning hot dish from his guest’s hands. That would be stupid, and painful. Sometimes he seriously questioned his own thought processes.

“Is your lusus around? There’s plenty of this to go around,” John asked, emphasizing his point by waving the steaming pie around in the air like a fucking moron.

Karkat lead John from the entryway into the kitchen, thankful that Crabdad had yet to attempt a meal that night. “The last thing he needs is to be rewarded with baked goods for his incompetence.” Despite saying that, the troll would make sure his lusus knew that there was a slice or two for him once John left. He knew he was rapidly outgrowing the need for a custodian and soon he would have to part with the hideous crab monster of a parent, and, despite how awful he was at caring for an opinionated young adult, his lusus had done a pretty good job when he was young. Crabdad might even get to be assigned another young troll to take care of before he was retired; it would probably make him happy to coddle and fuss over someone again without resistance.

John set the pie down on the kitchen counter, taking off his oven mitts and tossing them next to the pie. “Oh. Do you want to eat this now, or should I go? You probably haven’t had dinner, right? One of the worst things my dad says you can do is ruin your dinner with unnecessary sweets. Which is kind of ironic, I guess, since he makes so many cakes and things all the time and then expects I-don’t-know-what from me, because he knows I don’t eat a lot of sweets most of the time, and he still— I’m rambling, aren’t I?” John asked, switching from flying high on cloud nine to worry in a heartbeat.

Karkat rolled his eyes, giving John a very unimpressed stare. It had only been two days since they’d become acquainted, but Karkat had decided he was going to make it very clear that, despite his words and generally prickly disposition, he could tolerate a lot of bullshit before honestly being pissed off. John didn’t need to second guess himself like he was doing.

“I invited you in, didn’t I? Also, I’ve been basking in the aroma of that thing for the last few minutes, so of course we’re going to eat it. Assuming, that is, that you don’t have another riveting anecdote to tell me about the time that your parental unit showed his affection for you by showering you with a fuckheap of baked goods? I thought so.”

With his point made, Karkat set to work grabbing plates, forks, and a large knife from one of the kitchen’s drawers. Handing the knife to John, Karkat watched in barely-hidden amusement as the teen started cutting. John’s idea of portioning the pie was giving each of them a good fifth each, apparently, though Karkat wasn’t complaining because the idea of grabbing a second slice and calling it dinner was sounding more and more appealing the longer he stood there and had to smell that. If the pie tasted half as good as it smelled, then he might be dropping hints for John to bake more often, in fact.

Waiting impatiently as John shifted the slices from the tin to the plates, Karkat scooped a forkful of pie up as soon as it was placed in front of him, John watching him with a nervous smile. John was acting like he had something to be nervous about, so Karkat absently wondered if he should’ve brace himself for the worst when his mouth closed around the first bite. Then he realized he should have prepared himself for the best.

Karkat’s mouth started to fall open in awe before he shut it with a snap, wanting to savor every second that the pie was on his tongue. His mind instantly drew parallels to the diner scene in When Harry Met Sally, and Karkat was sorely tempted to mimic that scene and start clenching the table and moaning in ecstasy. Everything about the pie was perfect, from the butteriness of the still hot crust to the way that delicate motes of cinnamon would burst and fill his mouth with sweetness whenever he pushed his tongue into the gooey center of the morsel. The apples themselves were perfectly tender, and juicy in a way that made him salivate with every bite.

Seeing John’s anxious, expectant look, Karkat lowered the fork from his face and stared at John with wide eyes. “Oh my fucking — no, okay, John, I think I may have existed to eat this goddamn amazing pie. It is life-fulfillment-good. You have my full consent to make this again, regularly.”

 

John’s cheeks darkened as he grinned sheepishly. “It’s my dad’s recipe, I just followed it. I’m glad you like it, though.” John got to work on his own piece, nodding to himself as he took his first bite. “It may not look as nice, but it’s pretty close in taste.”

Karkat took another bite. “Holy shit, John. Can I human-marry you? I will be the breadwinner, and you will stay in the kitchen all day and make pies. It will be a loveless marriage, but we will work through our issues over hot pie and make it work.”

John snorted in response, and they both set to work on the rest of their slices. The next few minutes were spent in comfortable silence, the only sounds being the clinking of fork against plate. It wasn’t long before they were both chewing their final mouthful, Karkat desperately trying to resist the urge to start licking the remnants off his plate. Reaching over to the remaining pie in the tin, Karkat scooped some of the crust into his hand, deciding that dinner was definitely going to be another slice of that. That left one piece for Crabdad and then one for lunch, if he could hide it well enough.

“Want to stay for a bit? I can lend you that comic I was talking about while we were neglecting club activities.” John enthusiastically agreed, and followed closely behind Karkat as they deposited their plates in the sink and the troll lead the way up the stairs and to his room.

As Karkat entered, he tried to act as casually as was possible as he lazily swept a hand out as an introduction to his domicile. It wasn’t like a lot of people had ever been in his room before, so as John took everything in for the first time, the troll shifted uncomfortably where he stood.

 

While John glanced around in unabashed curiosity, Karkat decided to occupy himself by heading over to the large tank on top of a rolling stand. It was enormous, considering there was only a single goldfish in all that water, though Karkat had filled up space within the aquarium with random shit he threw his money at for no explainable reason. There was a huge castle, a bubbling treasure chest, a plastic scuba guy, a veritable forest of plants, a sunken ship, and pretty much every useless aquarium accessory he could get his hands on. The tank’s single resident was a husky veiltail goldfish. Husky being a polite word for fucking gigantic.

“That...okay. That is one huge goldfish,” John observed in actual surprise, just as Karkat was lifting the lid on the tank and offering the crumbs of pie crust he had collected for his fish. Karkat paused after he dropped in a sizeable piece, observing the pretty fucking humongous goldfish do a wriggling little jig at the water’s surface.

“Yes, well, this is Sebastian. He made the life decision that he’d rather be full than have friends and devoured any companion I ever attempted to introduce to him, in the glorious name of gluttony. Isn’t that right, Sebastian?” Karkat cooed fondly, tapping softly on the tank’s glass. “Just look at this smug bastard, eating his pie crust. He is so proud of his majestic girth and being fancy as shit that he couldn’t care less about having no other fish in there with him. I just enable him because I have a problem; eating makes him happy, and I am a weak owner who only wants to give him what he wants. Even if he did have companions, he’d make short work of them, as he has demonstrated. I sometimes kid myself into believing he won’t eat the next one, but the next day, hey, were did Ursala go? Right into the gaping cavern that is his mouth.”

 

As Karkat finished with feeding the few small pieces of crust to the gluttonous monster he had nurtured and went about making sure the tank was operating at optimum efficiency, John continued to look around his room. The troll heard John’s feet stop after slowly walking around for a minute, absently making a comment more to himself than to Karkat. “Huh, I do not remember that.”

“What are you talking about?” Karkat questioned, turning to see John observing the most recently purchased addition to his rather impressive poster collection. There, hung carefully on his wall, was a to-scale image of Heir cut just above the hips, the hero rendered confidently holding his trademark warhammer over his shoulders as if it weighed nothing at all. A single street light illuminated the form that stood casually staring at the camera, and a smirk was just visible under the thin face mask. There had been some obvious artistic liberty taken on depicting the teenage hero in the broad shoulders and additional muscle tone, but it was still the best depiction of Heir that Karkat had found, and he could appreciate the added efforts that had gone into manipulating the original photo for extra appeal. He imagined that in a year or two, the real Heir would most likely look just like the one on his poster.

 

John turned, looking rather flustered. “I don’t remember seeing that at the comic book store I go to, I mean.” Karkat nodded, making a mental note to ask John about the store he was talking about the next time he ran out of reading material.

“Oh. Yeah, I don’t know how legit it is, honestly. It’s not like Heir is property of any publishing company, so it really is random what you find and what kind of quality you’ll get when looking for stuff with his face on it. I got that off some guy selling them on the streetcorner. No clue who designed or printed it, but it doesn’t really matter.”

Karkat recalled the surprising find he had made on his last day of living in the city. The print had been front and centre in a street stall between a small selection of Heir-themed posters which were all now safely tucked away inside his closet. The vendor, who avidly bragged about dealing strictly in real super hero memorabilia, had insisted that he always knew the real thing when he saw it as he rung Karkat through. Collector items, eventually, because that boy was going to be something amazing. Despite his usual aversion to engaging in small talk with strangers, Karkat had invested a good hour just listening to what the man had to say about the hero who had saved his life.

“You know, I really don’t think this is a real picture of Heir,” John commented eventually, snapping Karkat out of his memory. Hands on his hips, the teen was giving the poster such a seriously scrutinizing look that Karkat couldn’t help but laugh. The smile broke out over his lips, unable to stay down as John struggled between expressing confusion and amusement at Karkat’s sniggering.

“Inform the fucking media, John Egbert has spotted the devious touch of photoshop and will not rest until the world knows the lie that is this slanderous misrepresentation of our city’s beloved hero. No shit that isn’t really all Heir. You think he’d pose for a publicity shot like that? And do you actually believe someone our age could put on muscle like that? I mean, he’s pretty damn close, at least from what I could gather in the brief period of seeing him, but not quite there yet.”

John shrugged, glancing at the picture a final time before thoughtfully regarding Karkat. “You really like Heir, huh? I guess that makes sense since he saved you.”

“That’s a part of it, of course. I’d be lying if my obvious fanboying didn’t increase tenfold after he scooped me up as if I were a damsel in distress. I liked Heir before that, though. He is very much the self-sacrificing, courageous person that the cliché hero is, which isn’t bad, just sort of awe-inspiring in this day and age. Every night, almost without fail, he’s out there just to protect everyone -- not looking for any financial compensation, no desire for the spotlight, not just trying to get his rocks off by beating up people, and engaging in none of the shit that you hear about some heroes pulling now. While most people his age are worrying about tests and social drama and who is dating who, he’s doing what he can with the gift he’s been given. He’s just always understood what it means to be a hero and protector of the people, something he hasn’t changed since he started out as little more than a kid. Do you remember how young he was when he first showed up? How can I not admire someone around my age who is so noble that he’ll literally run into a burning building for complete strangers? Someone who only ever makes arrests, never abusing what he has, even when he has every power to make people beg for mercy? And yeah, someone who jump down in the middle of a fucking ten man gun fight to save one person? Heir is a hero, the kind of righteous one you read in comic books. I’m grateful that a person like that exists, even if I was only able to meet him briefly.”

It was only after he finished that Karkat grasped just how much he had gone on, and his cheeks darkened a bit as he felt the blood rushing to his face. That was hands-down the most he had ever spoken to the other boy in one go, and he hadn’t even remembered to add any of his characteristic sass to the speech, so caught up in his feelings for Heir. Predictably, John was staring at him, though he maintained an interested look. An apology was poised on the troll’s tongue when John spoke up.

“You know, I think Heir would be really happy to hear that, Karkat.” Words that could have been condescending were said with such utter conviction that the troll was a bit taken aback. Just as he was about to end the topic with a curt reply, John’s head snapped up to the clock on his wall. “Oh, shoot! My dad is going to be home any minute! I have to go. Sorry, Karkat.”

Karkat walked John downstairs to the door, seeing the strain in his friend’s face that told him how just how stressed for time he was. He was practically twitching, body language obviously hinting that he planned on running the few blocks that separated their houses. Regardless, the teen waited for Karkat to retrieve his oven mitts from the kitchen and to offer up a few parting words before he headed home. “Thanks for the pie, really, John. No one has ever made me anything, let alone anything that fucking delicious. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Yeah, thanks for, uh, inviting me in! I’ll see you later, Karkat.” Once he was outside, John turned heel and actually sprinted down the street, rounding the corner in a matter of seconds. Considering how fast he’d booked it, there was apparently significant need for him to be home when his father returned from work. The troll lingered at his door, wondering what that was all about, though decided his money was on the classic overprotective-parent-sheltering-their-gifted-child.

Closing the door behind him with his foot, Karkat headed back to his room, deciding that he’d wait a bit until having his second slice of homemade pie with the hope that Crabdad wouldn’t just give into temptation and stuff the rest of the thing in his mouth if he found it. Fatass lusus.

Eyes were once again drawn to the poster of the superhero hanging on the wall, and he made his way over until he stood right in front of it. Lifting a hand, he traced a finger over the curve of the cheek, following the line down the strong jaw.

 

Despite how he found his recent admissions to John in regards to Heir a bit embarrassing, Karkat really was thankful for what the hero had done for him. Up until a week ago, his life had been filled with uncertainty. Up until a week ago, he had seen the world in such a negative light, assured that there was no real room for someone like him in modern society. Up until a week ago, he had never realized he had a third option in his life: he could embrace his problem, rather than run from it.

 
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