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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2. In Which John is Almost Late for School

When John opened his eyes, he was struck with the feeling of being uncharacteristically groggy. The night before, he had had the opportunity to go to bed at an hour that wasn’t considered ungodly by most, and he was suffering because of his choice. With a body unused to turning in anywhere close to midnight, John should have realized that he would be greeted by a fuzzy headache in the morning. Overslept and tired, John blinked away the sleep for a single moment before giving up, deciding his efforts were best spent wrapping his arms around a pillow. He drew it in, cuddling close until it seemed to be molded to his body. There were no openings to escape; that pillow was his to hug until he showed it mercy.

It couldn’t be long before his Dad made his appearance at the bedroom door, bright-eyed and way too chipper to get started on their morning exercise regimen. John groaned, rolling over, sure he would be fine with just five more minutes of rest to clear his head. There was no denying the inevitable, though, so he opened his eyes to greet the day. Light filtered in through thin curtains, which was a pretty peculiar phenomenon for five in the morning. There was a single moment of confused peace in his mind before all hell broke loose.

The sudden jolt of panic made him jump awake. John scrambled over to his other side, flailing before kicking his former cuddle partner off the bed in his urgency. In a tangled mess of blankets and limbs, John managed to roll over to confirm his suspicion: the glaring red numbers of his alarm clock read 7:48. He had slept straight through the irritating beeping, a very rare occurrence that had only ever ended with his dad waking him ten or so minutes later. But his dad hadn’t done his usual knocking tune on John’s door, for whatever reason. What John was left with was twelve minutes to get ready and physically be at school.

With a push against the mattress, John tried to jump out of bed but ended up just thrashing a bit as he struggled against his covers. He unwrapped himself as quickly as he could, scrambling to throw on the first things he pulled out of his dresser drawers. Hopping into a pair of shorts and pulling on a pair of socks, he had gone from night clothes to fully dressed in what his clock said was under two minutes. 7:50.

Glad for having taken a shower after last night’s jog, John’s bathroom routine was cut down to the basics of scrubbing his face with water, swiping on deodorant, and rapidly brushing his teeth. There was zero point in even attempting to sort out his hair and absolutely no time in which to humour it with trying. Without a second glance at the mirror, John shot out of the bathroom and back to his bedroom. Within seconds he had snatched up his glasses and grabbed his bag, catching sight of the 7:51 as he rushed out into the hallway again.

“Dad, why didn’t you wake me up?” John called as he bounded down the stairs, loud enough that he expected a response. Only there wasn’t one. When he got to the kitchen he assumed his dad would be sipping coffee at the table while reading the daily paper, ready to deliver a speech about the fact that John was a young adult which had something to do with not stopping him from sleeping in. Instead he found a typed note on the counter, next to a container and brown paper bag:

SON.
SOMETHING HAS COME UP AT WORK AND I HAD TO LEAVE EARLY TODAY. I HOPE YOU HAD A GOOD REST LAST NIGHT; YOU DESERVED IT. I AM SURE YOU HAVE GOTTEN UP WITH PLENTY OF TIME TO GET READY. YOU SHOULD TAKE PRIDE IN BEING SO SELF-SUFFICIENT.

John groaned at his luck, all but stuffing two slices of bread in the toaster before bagging up his lunch in a reusable bag. There was no way he had time to reorganize all of his textbooks to fit the tupperware container. He glanced at the nearby clock on the coffee machine and let out a string of curses his dad definitely would not be proud of. 7:54. There were six minutes left, not enough time to do much of anything if he waited a couple of them for his toast. Running would take over ten minutes, a few less if sprinting, but he still couldn’t comfortably make it in the short timeframe he had. It really left him with only two options, one of which was being late for the second day of school.

When his toast popped, he stacked the pieces together and shoved them in his mouth. He headed for the front entrance, slipping his shoes on and tying the laces tightly. The goggles were where he had left them, hanging from the coat rack beside several classy white hats. He exchanged them with his glasses, placing the black frames at the top of his bag, before hurrying to the back door. Before stepping outside he knotted the top of his makeshift lunch bag, making sure nothing would fall out. He slipped it on his arm and tightened the straps of his backpack.

A full minute was used up just by looking around him, making sure he was alone. He scanned the windows where curtains were not drawn, listened for the sounds of movement coming from any surrounding house, and weighed his decision once more. It was kind of a terrible idea, something his dad explicitly told him not to do during the daylight. No one was around, though, so John chanced it. Smiling, he noted that this was an adventure he’d need to keep secret.

Bending his knees low, John kicked off the ground hard. It was a practiced maneuver, one that sent him rocketing into the air so quickly that anyone would be hard-pressed to even see what he was doing, much less recognize his face. If he was seen, he suspected it wouldn’t be until he was so high up that people wouldn’t know what they were looking at. Someone flying wasn’t exactly an everyday occurrence, even if it wasn’t entirely unheard of, so he’d probably be misidentified as something else. Looking down and forming a grin, John found it entirely too fitting that the t-shirt he had pulled on sported the iconic Superman crest on the chest. Was he a bird, was he a plane? No, but good guesses. He was just your regular, everyday teen superhero trying to get to school on time.

 

 

 

Speed was his goal as he aimed for a low patch of clouds, thoroughly defying that age old saying of what goes up must come down. He laughed as the wind wrapped around him, causing him to almost lose a piece of toast. He caught it just in time, somersaulting as he twisted down. After that brief distraction, John shot through the line of clouds with a loop, spinning out of it until he stilled. At his current altitude, the rivers of air surrounding him should have been literally freezing, but for him they were only pleasantly cool. They greeted him as though they had missed his presence in his one day vacation, warming and circling around him in an almost motherly gesture. Floating among the clouds, John never had to come down so long as the wind agreed to his will.

He took a bite of his toast as he oriented himself in the direction he needed to go, grimacing as his teeth sunk into the bread. His decision to use the clouds as cover had gotten the two pieces soggy. He nibbled on corners but found the rest to be unsalvageable so he let the slices fall from his mouth. John looked down into the clouds, wondering where the bread would land. Probably on a roof somewhere or in a tree. Even if it fell where someone saw it, they would most likely chalk it up to crows. He was pretty sure no one was going to guess that it had once been the breakfast of a flying boy who was potentially late for school. Just to be safe, he also noted that this was a secret too before he flew away from above the scene of the crime.

It would take him at the very most a minute to get to school at his current height and speed, he figured. The wind rushed in his ears, whispering to him as it engulfed his body. Yesterday had been hard, being grounded to essentially act out the life of an average kid when the sky was his real world. John savoured just how nice it felt to fly during the day, with the sun on his face as he dipped fingers through white clouds. He couldn’t even remember the last time he was able to fly during the daytime. A stray gust blew teasingly at his face and he laughed into it, bending it behind him so it joined the current pushing him forward. It twisted around him, a fluttering touch that snaked around his leg. Any of his melancholy worries from yesterday melted away and became insignificant as he felt the wind caress him so intimately.

 

 

 

Enjoying himself for one final moment, John rolled through the air before making a dive down out from above the clouds. He pumped his fists, seeing that the wind had guided him directly above the school, right where he needed to be. Quickly moving downwards, as much for saving time as it was to dry his clothes, he aimed for a spot on the far corner behind the school. The scattered trees there would make for good cover, in case anyone did catch sight of him. He landed with a bounce, quickly taking off his backpack to switch out his goggles for his glasses before checking his watch. There was hardly a minute to spare.

John made a mad sprint to the door and quickly tugged at the handle, expecting it to open, only to be met with resistance. After pushing and pulling in rapid succession, he confirmed with dismay that the door was indeed locked. He didn’t have time to circle around to the front of the school, so, glancing around quickly for any potential witnesses, John decided his reckless streak of the day was going to have to continue. He sighed before he tightened his grip on the handle, pressed his other hand onto the opposite door, squared his feet, and jerked back. The bolt keeping the door locked wrenched away with a quick snap, shearing off in a clean cut.

 

 

 

A single glance was spared to the thoroughly destroyed lock and he thought about how exactly someone was going to explain what had happened. Attempted burglary, perhaps? Would the school look into it or would they simply shrug it off and make the repairs? John decided any more consideration of what he had done could wait until he was sitting in Biology class.

 

///

Without the extra stop at his locker—with his bag carrying every book he could need for the day, there was no point in wasting any time—John made it to his class just before the tardy bell rang. He slumped in his chair, letting his backpack fall on the ground with a loud thump. A couple of students around him jumped, glancing over at him for disturbing whatever it was they were doing, and a few bleary-eyed students looked up at him with glares from where they had been trying to catch a few more moments of sleep. Feeling self-conscious of the stares he was getting, John ran a hand through his hair, wondering just how windswept it had gotten during his flight. A few gazes lingered on his head, prompting John to try and explain himself.

“Crazy morning,” John laughed, shrugging to them. His explanation was enough, apparently, as people resumed ignoring him, their attentions turning back to their closer companions. He sighed in relief before sitting up, glancing around the room. He was interested to note that there were a handful of new faces occupying seats that had been empty the day before. He wasn’t very surprised; it was normal for the first week for kids to still be transferring in, shifting around their class schedules, or returning from long vacations. There would probably be kids in and out of the class the entire week. In the seat in front of him was one such new person. Judging by the the small horns he sported, it was a troll, actually.

Struck with the sensation that there was something strangely familiar about those nubby horns, John tapped lightly on the shoulder in front of him. The troll stiffened before he turned to face him, wearing a rather prominent scowl. Like the rest of his species, he had the pallid grey skin, glossy black hair, and colourful, candy corn horns. It was the angular face that sported a sharp jaw and the eyes behind black-framed glasses that made him sure they had met. Those narrowed eyes reflected his blood colour, a rusty red that placed him at the bottom of the Troll’s hemospectrum, an observation which gave him thought. Though it wasn’t nearly as prominent in their society as it had once been, John was pretty sure some elitist Highbloods still targeted others simply for being what they called Lowbloods.

“What do you want?” was the annoyed response to his prod. Catching himself staring, John realized that, despite those angular features set in a face without a hint of baby fat, the troll was really kind of cute. It had to be those little nubby horns, and maybe partially because he was sporting a Batman hoodie. John let out a nervous laugh.

“Hi, Bruce,” John quipped, pointing at the troll’s hoodie. He could only hope that the troll would catch on to his reference; plenty of people these days owned hero paraphernalia without knowing anything about the origins of the symbols they wore. Red eyes flicked down, glancing at the ‘S’ shield on John’s chest. He wouldn’t have guessed how full those lips would be when they fell out of the tight scowl.

“Are you wanting me to call you Clark?” The look was curious, despite the low eyebrows and slight frown. It hit him then, so suddenly that he caught himself gaping. He remembered where he’d seen this guy before. A week ago, the troll had been caught in the middle of a shootout in the city. It had been a classic case of being in the wrong place at the the wrong time. The troll had been ducking behind a shot-up car between a group of would-be bank robbers and the police attempting, and failing, to stop them. They hadn’t been able to return fire without risking the safety of an innocent bystander, and the criminals were taking full advantage of that. John had swooped in, scooped him up, and saved the troll before anyone even knew he was there. He remembered looking down into those surprised eyes as the sounds of guns firing echoed in his ears. There had been an awed thanks muttered as he left the troll a few blocks away, a light blush gracing those grey cheeks which he had tried to cover with one hand. The parting image had been of the troll clutching onto a grocery bag full of what looked like lusus food, watching dumbstruck as John flew away.

“John,” he managed, before his silence stretched to a point of being awkward. He had never gotten the opportunity to actually talk to someone he had saved before. It had always been just fly in, save the day, and fly off once everyone was safe. But here was a chance to find out how someone was doing after being rescued, perhaps even get to know them a little. That was an idea that the teen rarely entertained; having friends meant putting them in danger. Still, John let himself wonder what it would be like to be close to the nubby-horned troll. They already seemed to have one thing in common: they both wore superhero clothes, so maybe they both liked superheroes. John just had a better than normal understanding of what those superheroes went through on a day-to-day, or, actually, night-to-night, basis. “What’s your name?”

The troll frowned, eyeing John with distaste. “It’s none of your goddamn business.” His response was a dark mumble as he spun back to face the front. Well. He had picked the appropriate hoodie to match his attitude, at least. John was so preoccupied with eying up those horns that he nearly missed his name being called. Apparently the teacher had ceased preparing for the day’s lesson and had begun work on taking attendance. All he had to do was wait for the name that the troll responded to and he’d have his answer. What exactly he was going to do with it, John wasn’t sure. Nearly the entire class roll had had been called when the boy in front of him raised his hand: Karkat Vantas.

“It’s nice to meet you, Karkat,” John said, leaning forward in his chair. The troll gave him a quick glance over his shoulder, which was basically the most unimpressed look John had ever seen.

 

 

 

John’s response was immediate, the laughter barely contained, with him forcing the rest of it down after a choked-off snort. Karkat tilted his head, staring at him like he was the biggest idiot he had ever met and—wow, this guy had an expressive face! John really did start snickering, covering his mouth in a vain attempt to stifle the sound.

“Mr. Egbert, you are free to talk after class, but not during. I trust I won’t have to tell you again,” the teacher promptly called. John let out a laugh, putting up his hands in surrender as he apologized. Maybe after class was over, he’d have the chance to find out a bit more about Karkat Vantas.

 

///

Biology began with further introductions into what the science was all about, proceeded with the start of the first unit, and finished with the class being assigned homework that John had already finished. As the class was winding to a close, John absently reviewed the questions the rest of his classmates were seeing for the first time. He mentally reviewed his answers, and, when done with that, flipped through the next unit to get a glance at what it was he’d be doing during the weekend. It didn’t take long for the motivation to be proactive to leave him. Eyes unfocused as he zoned out, John idly thought about how he was going to have to get back into his usual after-school routine and how much he really wasn’t looking forward to resuming the cramped scheduling of someone with his abilities. It took him nearly a minute into his ponderings to realize that he had settled on staring at the back of Karkat’s head.

He had never had a troll sit in front of him during class before, despite the school being almost an even split between the two species. Honestly, he had never even been that driven to take in the various differences between humans and trolls before, either, preferring to just see people as people regardless of species. His life was dedicated to protecting each equally, a purpose that left surface qualities and racial judgments out of the picture. But now that he was staring ahead, examining Karkat’s features, those things he hadn’t really paid attention to before were standing out: the curve and the point of the ears, how coarse that black hair appeared, and the horns. The horns, he’d noticed, came in all shapes and sizes, something he could observe by just looking around the classroom. Karkat’s, in contrast to most he had seen, were small and rather rounded. What was really interesting was the faint texture to them, since they normally appeared smooth from any greater distance. The bold stripes of colour ran into each other with rough blending between shades, standing out amidst the general monochromatic appearance that trolls had. John found them pretty beautiful, actually.

Just before the bell was set to ring, the teacher called out over the voices of the students who had decided to forgo their work in favour of socializing. John snapped to attention, tearing his eyes away from the horns of his classmate and listening as the teacher delivered a piece of good news. “Before you leave, I’d just like to let you all know that Biology Club will have its first meeting after school tomorrow. If you’re interested, we meet here at three.” John grinned, a reminder swiftly jotted down in his planner. While he might have a full schedule, he could always make room for a few extracurricular activities.

The class ended on that final note, the students quick to spring up and leave once the bell rang and they were dismissed. Staying in his seat and making a show of slowly shoving his stuff into his backpack, John watched Karkat pack up his things and head for the front of the room, purposefully weaving around slower moving students. He still couldn’t shake the desire to talk to the troll, despite the abrasive attitude he got from the first impression—second, if he counted the dumbstruck gaze of a shocked citizen as a real meeting. His dad had never disallowed interacting with others, just stressed that he should know what could happen; if someone on the wrong side found out who he was and found who he cared about, it would make John’s connections into targets. It was much easier to take out a normal person than it was to take him down, after all. There was potential for a ransom scenario, being used as bait, or even someone being placed as a mark to discover his weaknesses. Just putting his own father in harm’s way was bad enough. He had often weighed the repercussions of wanting friendship, but he had never once found that it was worth the danger to the other person’s life.

But damn if he wasn’t considering throwing caution to the wind, for a change. Loneliness had been weighing heavily on him lately, and coming back to school to see everyone chatting and having a good time with their friends had done little to help. The more he thought about it, the better the idea sounded. He had saved Karkat once already, after all, so who was to say that he couldn’t just do it again if the troll found himself in danger? It was a bit selfish to think like that, he knew, but as he watched Karkat leaving the classroom with a sense of longing churning at his guts, John found that he didn’t hate the thought of being selfish, just this once. Besides, as of yet, no one had ever discovered his civilian identity as John Egbert, and he was only becoming more careful and sure of his abilities to mask himself in public as he grew. How likely was it that someone would find him out and use an acquaintance against him, really? John wagered not very. The guilt of potentially endangering someone without their knowledge was pushed back for a hope to just pretend to be a regular teenager, with a regular teenage friend. He didn’t want to use the excuse of checking up on someone he had saved just to get to know someone.

Making up his mind just as Karkat left his field of sight, John sprang up and rushed out the door after him, doing his best to dodge and weave the remaining students in the classroom. He spotted the troll amongst the flood of students in the hall and called out to him. “Hey, Karkat, wait up!” If he had heard him, the troll made no sign of stopping. Granted, all of the people around them made it pretty hard to just cease moving. Also, John knew from experience that it was always really annoying when others obstructed the hallways, so Karkat was most likely being respectful and not just ignoring him blatantly. At least that’s what he optimistically chose to believe, anyway. John followed, hoping that Karkat would make a detour to his locker at some point rather than going straight to the next class. To his luck, Karkat drifted to the side and halted at one of the lockers lining the hallway, and was still fiddling with a combination lock when John caught up with him.

The troll looked up from his lock briefly to fix John with an annoyed glance before looking back down. “I am going to deliver this concept to you at a first grade level, so hopefully you’ll be able to keep up,” Karkat started, frowning as he spun the wrong sequence of numbers. He tugged the lock a couple of times, just in case he had been close. As his efforts were unrewarded, he spun the dial back to zero and made another attempt. “Newsflash, Clark—observe the big, bold, proverbial headline of the point I am trying to make in the simplest way possible—I don’t want to talk to, at, or with you. As a matter of fact, I would be quite pleased with this awkward social interaction if you left me to struggle with this shitty lock alone and kindly fucked right off.”

“Well, that’s okay,” John laughed, prompting another look that was somewhere between disgusted and confused. It seemed that the troll’s face either automatically set to a negative expression, or he just really didn’t like John. John hoped it was the former because he seriously didn’t want to mess up while trying to make his first real friend. In any case, there was no doubt Karkat was really, hilariously, emotive. “You know, since my name is John, not Clark.”

The first response was a groan, shortly followed by Karkat hitting his head against his still closed locker. “Oh god damn it.” John was a little concerned, but it wasn’t completely evident if the troll was actually that irritated or if it this was just his normal personality. He hoped he wasn’t misinterpreting what could actually be annoyance.

“So, are you new?” John asked, leaning against the locker next to him and pointedly ignoring the way Karkat lifted and hit his head against the locker a second time. Looking around, John noticed that, as his good luck would have it, his own locker was just a single row down from this one. He hoped that this was a sign, if a weak one, that he was on the right path. Without the wind blowing, directing him where he needed to be, he was not so sure of himself or his actions.

With a resounding cry, Karkat finally managed to get the right set of numbers, swiftly swinging open the locker door and narrowly missing John’s face. “You’re not going to go away, are you?” Even as he let loose with a frustrated exhale, some of the tension in Karkat’s face eased. Eyebrows not quite so drawn and lips nearly lifting, there was a look of amused curiosity behind his glasses as he shifted his gaze to the teen beside him without turning his head.

 

 

 

“Not answering my question, but nope, I’m not! Unless you’re that adamant that you don’t want to play nice with other children. Totally your loss, though.” There was a hint of a smile struggling against the taut line of the troll’s lips, just enough of a positive reaction for John to figure he hadn’t misjudged the other. He grinned boldly as Karkat ducked back behind the door, busying himself with organizing his books. “So, where are you headed?”

The troll emerged a moment later only to stuff a textbook into his backpack and slam the door to his locker. He had settled back into his frown as though it had never faltered, giving John a scrutinizing once-over. There was no reply in regards to the previous question, just an unimpressed look as he continued to stare John down. The silence was starting to hang between them for an unsettling length of time, only to be broken with a completely unexpected question. “Are you trying to hit on me?”

John spluttered, gesturing with his hands and shaking his head while trying to insist that no, he wasn’t flirting. It was challenging enough for him to consider pursuing just a friendship. Striving for a romantic relationship was not something John could even conceive of doing, much less do to someone he had just met. He didn’t even know how he would go about doing something like that.

Whatever he did manage to get out of his mouth apparently put Karkat’s suspicions at ease. Some of the tension the troll held in his body relaxed, that hint of a smile returning. “The class you’re currently preventing me from going to with your inane gesture of friendship is Film. If you’re going to insist on speaking, you’ll have to do it on the move, as I am not about to let some overly friendly, bucktoothed asshole make me late for the one class I get to fucking enjoy.”

John tried not to let his disappointment show. He had hoped against all odds that they would have shared the next class, as well. They could have walked the halls together, sat beside each other, and gotten closer towards becoming friends. Instead, there were only a few minutes left in what could be their only time to get to know each other during the day. He couldn’t even walk Karkat over to his class without being late for his own, since all the language classrooms were pretty much as far away as they could possibly be from the Film room.

While John was lamenting, Karkat offered him another frown. “Look, I wasn’t kidding when I said you were not going to make me late. You have about thirty seconds left of my time before I walk away, with or without you finishing whatever it is you’re trying to do here. So how about you wipe that look of minor devastation off your face, because seriously, you look like a barkbeast who just received a swift kick to the gut for all your incessant yapping. It’s one of the most pathetic displays I’ve seen someone our age have the shame to perform, and I’ve been known to associate with some pretty pathetic fuckers in my time. I’m going to make you a suggestion: just ask me for my stupid schedule already.” John perked up. The whole lead up to that final offer had his attempt at earning a friend looking pretty bleak, but John was starting to see that Karkat was just wordy. The troll was right; just because they had different subjects in the second block didn’t mean the rest of the day was accounted for. There was still the potential for a handful of times they could get to see one another.

“Heh, okay. Can I see your schedule, Karkat?” It only took a moment for the troll to produce the list from his bag. The troll looked away as he handed the paper over, perhaps embarrassed in his readiness to offer it. Quickly scanning over it, John’s eyes widened along with his smile as he took in the class list. While they might not share the second or fourth blocks of the day, the rest of Karkat’s classes were the same as John’s. Sometimes it paid unexpected benefits taking AP classes, apparently, because what were the odds of them having such similar schedules otherwise?

“Well?” Karkat prompted, reaching his hand out with that angry, curious expression he wore too well. John returned the paper with a laugh.

“Alright, then, I won’t take up anymore of your time. Well, you know, right now. Because I’ll see you in Physics, Karkat.” John decided to keep the other shared classes as a surprise, wondering how Karkat would take them seeing each other the vast majority of the day.

“Of course you will. Wonderful. So looking forward to you taking up the majority of my mornings with your apparent obsession with finding out my life’s story, with or without my consent. So excited for this to be a thing.” The troll huffed, flipping John a rude hand gesture before quickly heading down the hall without so much as a goodbye. John watched him for a moment before heading to his locker to drop off his lunch bag and a few extra textbooks. With the potential of making a friend looking slightly more hopeful, for the first time in a long time John was looking forward to pretending to be a regular, ordinary teenager.

 

///

For how much John had been looking forward to Physics with Karkat, there was little headway to be made in the friendship department during the actual class. There had been a few attempts to strike up quiet conversation before John realized that Karkat was the type of person who took his schooling very seriously. The troll’s attention had been fixed on the teacher, pointedly ignoring John’s best efforts to grab his attention in favour of taking notes; when Karkat’s eyes were not drawn to the front of the room, they were on his textbook as he diligently worked away. All John had to show for his efforts were a few instances where Karkat glared at him before returning to being a shining example of productivity.

When the bell rang for lunch, Karkat turned to John, practically seething. Apparently he didn’t appreciate John’s efforts to talk to him during class time. “What exactly did I do to be punished with your attention? Is being obnoxiously fucking cheerful and persistently overly-friendly just all in a day’s work for you, or is there a bet going on amongst our peers to see how long I will put up with this bullshit? I am calling you out, you insipid douchebag. If this is some kind of game then you can shove it so far up your waste chute that you taste your deceitful assclownery for a fortnight. It would taste like shame and excrement, just so you’re clear.”

“Woah, no.” John really didn’t think a couple of prompting remarks and one passed note justified that kind of a verbal lashing. He wondered if this was Karkat’s idea of kidding around, just his charming way of talking, or if he actually had that short of a fuse. Apparently trolls had worse temperaments than humans, or so John had heard, but he had never actually noticed a huge difference between the two species before. “Karkat, gross, for one. And no, I’m not trying to trick you or anything. The thing is I’m not so great when it comes to making friends, but, well, I guess that’s kind of obvious? I was just really looking forward to talking to you more.” John frowned, a look of uncertainty pasting itself on his face. “ If, um, if you don’t want me talking to you, I can stop.”

“Did I ever say you had to stop, dumbass? If you’re actually just unimaginably awful at getting to know someone—and you really are, for future reference—then I guess I can give you the benefit of the doubt,” Karkat grumbled, getting his things together. John followed suit, a slow smile spreading on his lips over the fact that the troll was still willing to give him a chance. Insults seemed like a thing Karkat just did, and John guessed he could get used to that if the other didn’t actually mean them. It might take a bit of time for him to figure out which parts of Karkat’s rants were genuine and which were just padding, but that was fine by him. On reflection, the previous little outburst had been kind of funny. “Do you have lunch now?”

“Yeah.” John’s stomach took its cue to grumble, reminding him that his attempts at breakfast had been thwarted by the clouds. He laughed, patting it in a reassuring way. “Good thing, too. I’m pretty hungry. Want to eat together?”

“Let me think,” Karkat stood and John mirrored his action, ready to get started on eating. Instead of heading out, Karkat leaned against his desk, looking thoughtfully irritated. A variety of all kinds of pissed-off definitely seemed like expressions the troll had some practice with. “Watching you fumble all over yourself in your pathetic attempts to win my platonic affections, or eating lunch with one of my more tolerable acquaintances and the ragtag group of misfits she tends to associate her classy self with? Tough one, give me a second.”

“Oh shoot, sorry, I just thought—” John started, only to be promptly cut off for lack of volume. Karkat easily overtook the soft apology, barreling on with too many words. It would be funny, if John wasn’t so sure he was messing up.

“You just thought that because I’m new I wouldn’t know anyone in this school and you could wriggle your way into my life like a parasitic worm, infecting me with the friendship disease until my mind rotted away enough that I couldn’t help but want to spend all my time with you. Yes, a truly noble gesture you should be proud of.”

Boy, John’s ears felt pretty red. He was about to offer up another apology before Karkat surprised him again. “So let’s get out of this classroom already and get some food. I imagine you know wherever we’ll be eating? Who am I kidding, you’ve probably planned this shit out already.”

“Wait, so you’re eating with me?” John really wasn’t following the troll, who had genuinely seemed angry just now right up until offering to go to lunch with him. Karkat quirked an eyebrow, that hint of a smile back and with a lot more amusement than there had just been.

“It’s either you trying to engage me in awkward conversation or a crowd doing the same thing. Except while you seem to be doing this honestly, they’d be doing it simply as a favour to our mutual friend. Frankly, I think you’re a lot more amusing, in a borderline migraine-inducing, suspected mental disorder kind of way. So yes, I’m eating lunch with you. Congratu-fucking-lations. Want a gold star?” That had been a lot of words for a ‘yes’.

“Man, you are chatty. Are you buying lunch or did you pack one?” Karkat shoved John’s shoulder lightly for the small jab before he headed for the door. The teacher looked up from her desk on their way out, but offered nothing more than a funny look. She had probably heard their entire conversation, maybe even wondered about stepping in as Karkat’s volume escalated and his colourful words rang clear. John laughed at that thought, enjoying the sound of the chuckle from the troll at his side.

“Fuck off. I’m buying.” They stopped as they exited the classroom, a delay in which John debated getting something from the lunchroom in favour of leaving to go to his locker. Deciding it was silly to let a good, homemade meal go to waste—and that Karkat probably wasn’t going to ditch him at this point, even though that was a pretty legitimate possibility—John made plans to meet up with his newfound potential-buddy by the exit doors in the cafeteria. Karkat waved over his shoulder as they parted ways. Just the feeling that small gesture gave John made him decide that all the confusion and uncertainty was worth it.

 

///

When he entered the lunchroom, John was almost surprised to see Karkat waiting for him exactly where they'd agreed to meet. The troll was tearing into an apple while a fashionably-dressed female troll chatted to him casually—Kanaya, if he remembered correctly, a frequent member of the groups he sometimes ate with. John’s eyes met Karkat’s as he headed over, causing Karkat to nod slightly to the other troll, a gesture which made her glance up, smile his way, and then head for a nearby table. Instead of following her, Karkat stood his ground.

That alone was a little boost to John’s confidence, reassuring him that he hadn’t made a mistake when attempting to get to know this particular troll. When he had set out on this friend-getting mission, John really hadn’t been sure how it would go. He didn’t really know how someone would react to him engaging them with his full attention, if his enthusiasm came off too strong, or if he would say the wrong things. Thinking about it, John supposed that either he was doing alright, or Karkat was just weird enough to give him a chance.

“I was thinking we could eat by my tree, since it’s nice out,” John suggested, holding the door open after stepping outside. Instead of going through it Karkat shouldered open the adjacent one, apple held firmly in his mouth as he held onto his tray with both hands. The small act of defiance and the challenging little glance John was given just seemed entirely too silly. Laughing lightly, he led the way to his favourite eating spot.

 

 

 

They walked together until they stood just beyond the reach of the tree’s shade. As usual, no one had claimed the area or anywhere relatively nearby as a suitable place to spend their lunch break. It always made John curious how no one else ever seemed to seek out the cover of leaves or the relaxing sway of branches in the wind. He didn’t get why others were so content to avoid the spot, but at least it meant it was nearly always free when he wanted it.

“So, you were actually being serious about deciding to claim ownership of a tree.” There was a hint of disbelief in Karkat’s voice before he sighed, though it was mixed heavily into a defeated tone that seemed to suggest that he should have expected nothing less.

“It’s not like I actually own it. That would be dumb. But it may as well be mine for how much I eat out here and how little anyone else seems to.” Maybe it was the wind keeping others away, guarding the location for John by picking up in a way that might be considered irritating. Not everyone enjoyed having their hair looking as though it had been styled by a tornado. Instead of its usual warm greeting, the breeze seemed to keep its distance from the pair now, hesitant to welcome John back when he wasn’t alone. It pulsed through the air, a steady presence that did little more than assure John that it was there.

“So, for whatever reason, despite your looks and personality, you’re a social pariah who spends most of his free time socializing with a tree. I’m glad we covered that.” After the jab, Karkat took a seat, placing his tray on the grass in front of him. John paused for a moment, trying to figure out what the troll had meant, before realizing he was just standing there. Taking the look Karkat shot him as his cue, John settled in the spot beside him, leaning his back against the tree.

“Whatever.” He untied the bag he had stuffed his lunch in that morning, extracting the tupperware container and small brown bag. There were the usual capital letters spelling out just how proud his dad was with him written across the paper, and John quickly turned it away so Karkat wouldn’t be inclined to read something kind of embarrassing. “So, are you new to the area?”

“Yeah,” Karkat said around the last bite of his apple. He chewed for a moment before continuing. “My lusus thought it would be a swell idea for us to pick up our city apartment and throw it in a house in the middle of suburbia on the day school started. We just managed to cram a shit-ton of precariously stacked boxes into the garage last night, and narrowly avoided a well-deserved noise complaint. He’s probably made an attempt at unpacking already, despite how many times I told him to wait until I got home. That means confetti sized pieces of cardboard scattered around everywhere and everything in the wrong place to look forward to this afternoon.”

The entire scene which Karkat was describing sounded awfully familiar, despite how ambiguous the facts were at this point. “Your lusus doesn’t happen to be a large, bipedal crab, does he?”

Karkat stopped mid-bite, jaw tightening and looking as though he was seriously trying to bore a hole through John’s head. He swallowed carefully, his piercing gaze never wavering from John’s face. “I am going to ask you something seriously, and I deserve an honest answer from having to even consider putting up with you for any length of time: are you stalking me? Because you know that you shouldn’t, and I am getting some serious love-confession-followed-by-a-stabbing vibes from you.”

“While that sounds pretty tempting, except not at all, I saw him moving in last night when I was out for a jog and took a guess that he was your lusus. We live pretty close to each other, actually,” John explained, hoping it would be enough to ease Karkat’s wariness. The troll nodded, his eyes still watching John, before he picked up his sandwich from his tray and bit into it. Seeing him get started on his food prompted John to get started on his own sandwich. After a few rushed mouthfuls to appease his stomach, John decided to probe. “You lived in the city? Why’d you leave?”

“Crabdad lost it and wouldn’t stop insisting that we settle somewhere more quiet after some shit that sort of happened last week. For how utterly useless he is as a lusus most of the time, he decided that he was at least going to be needlessly overprotective of me. If his screeching hadn’t worked to force me, I’m sure we would have been kicked out. Fucking persistent asshole.”

“What happened?” John could already guess the reason. It was a bit of a challenge adding just the right amount of concern and feigned ignorance to his voice when he already had an idea of what happened, but he was really interested to hear an explanation in Karkat’s own words. Karkat hesitated only to give John a calculating once-over, but answered his question readily enough.

“I got caught up in the middle of something downtown and nearly died. Despite knowing full well that going out past midnight in any part of the city is basically painting a target on your back for some sort of petty criminal, my fatass lusus ran out of food and I had to go out to get him more. There was one of those 24 hour stores just a couple blocks from my old place and, despite the likelihood of getting mugged by some strung out lowlife or desperate wannabe gang-banger or something, I went anyways to avoid Crabdad’s complaining. I was lucky that no one tried to rob me and I successfully got the food, but on my way back some assholes decided that they were going to rob a bank just as I was walking by. I was walking by just as the cops pulled up and these guys busted out the front doors, opening fire like they thought the best plan for a successful robbery was to impersonate every bankrobber they had ever seen in the movies and just shoot anything that moved. So I dove behind a car and started crying, because what the fuck, I was going to die for lusus food?” The troll shot John a somewhat hesitant glance, most likely embarrassed to be sharing such intimate details of his near-death experience with someone he’d just met. Seeing that he had John’s rapt attention, he continued.

“And then while I was cowering behind that car, sobbing to myself like a stupid wriggler and counting down the seconds until one of the bullets flying around my head ended my pathetic existence, Heir flew in. Before I’d even realized what was happening, he had lifted me in his arms like I weighed fucking nothing and carried me off to safety.” Karkat smiled softly to himself, his expression wistful. John felt himself grinning too, caught up in enjoying the sudden gentleness of the troll’s words. He felt warm inside as Karkat recalled the events, buzzing with the knowledge that he was able to save someone and hear just how grateful they were firsthand.

 

 

 

“I guess it’s not all that surprising that he’d show up with all those guns going off and everything. You hear about him swooping in to stop crimes and take down people overpowering the police all the time, but for him to actually be there right in front of my eyes, in the flesh? Being face to face with a real superhero is just...awe-inspiring.” Karkat paused, shooting John a curious, almost sheepish, look. “You do know about Heir, right? You haven’t actually been living under a rock the past few years?”

John nodded, feeling his face begin to heat up, his cheeks flaring over the admiration laced in Karkat’s words. “Of course I’ve heard of Heir. Superheroes are great, especially the real ones.”

“Yeah. Well, Heir’s just as amazing as he looks on the news or in the comics, only he’s even better in person. And at such a young age, too. I’m sure a lot of people forget how much younger he is than the media depicts him, but he can’t be much older than we are.” Karkat chanced a look up at the sun filtering itself through the leafy canopy of the tree as he played the events of that night over in his mind. “I think it’s fucking amazing what Heir does for this city and its people. And not just because he saved my life, either. Dropping out of the sky, grabbing some helpless citizen, and flying them to safety before heading back to save the day, that’s something he does all the time.” Karkat looked down in embarrassment, poking at his half eaten sandwich. “I never even got a chance to say anything to him. As soon as he set me down a few blocks away and made sure I wasn’t injured, he was already flying back to the robbery. I’d just really like to thank him properly, you know? And I know it’s stupid to assume he’d even remember one troll out of all the hundreds of people he’s rescued, but if given the chance, I’d want to tell him how much I appreciate what he did for me. Even if it’s what he does every day.”

“You never know,” John started, a grin stretching wide across his face at the earnest sincerity in Karkat’s voice. He was interrupted for a moment by the bell signaling the end of the lunch period, and picked himself off the ground and then offered Karkat a hand up. “It’s not the biggest city there is. You might get the chance to tell him, someday.”

 

///

When John got home at the end of the school day, he immediately set to work going about his customary task of making something to eat. Deciding on pasta for the ease and readiness, John got started as quickly as he could. His stomach had complained throughout the rest of the day for skipping out on eating the bulk of his lunch in favour of listening to Karkat, and by the time P.E. had finished, John was ravenous. The usual walk home had been replaced with a quick jog, his priorities set more in favour of getting food into his stomach than enjoying the summer day. So as he waited for the water to boil, John finished the other half of his lunch that he hadn’t gotten to during school, deciding he would have to do better at multitasking between talking to his new friend and eating if he didn’t want to experience this every day.

Once his pasta was cooked and eagerly consumed, John had plenty of time to wonder what his dad would say to his interesting news. With confidence, John could now say that he was making headway with Karkat, at least after how much the troll had seemed to tolerate John’s attempts to get his attention throughout the rest of the day. It was enough to be sure that he was, or would soon be, a friend, which already made the troll a potential target if he was ever found out. Looking forward to what he’d say when Dad came home, he wasn’t sure whether to feel excited or worried over the conversation they’d be having. He had prepared a list of reasonings just in case his dad disagreed with his decision.

With his homework already finished for the rest of the week and no other pressing concerns for the day, John figured he might as well get started on his workout routine, and so after tossing his used dish into the sink, he set out to the exercise room. To be fair, it was actually less of a room and more the entire basement. The lower level conversion had been necessary after John outgrew the usefulness of commercial martial arts classes, which, while they had supplied him with a strong foundation for his dad to work with, John had had plenty to learn outside of what a dojo would or could teach a child. There weren’t exactly places that taught young boys the extreme situations they would deal with when stopping crime at night in a big city, after all. Things like taking on an armed combatant or how winding the impact of a bullet was were not things his dad had been willing for him to learn out on the ‘job’. He had taught John well, trained him, and showed him the painful realities of fighting so that he could work out ways to avoid them if they happened for real.

John dedicated an hour to running through t’ai chi forms before switching to a more stylized, mixed martial arts routine. After he felt content with exercising the movements, he moved over to the rack of weights on the other side of the room, which he used less for strength training and more for endurance and warming up his muscles. The last thing he needed was more muscle tone to add to his already abnormal strength, after all. He kept that up until he heard the front door open upstairs and stopped after finishing the set he was on. The work-out left his body feeling loose and ready for the night ahead of him, leaving him with only a few things to do before he set out.

After a quick shower upstairs, John headed down into the kitchen where his dad was dishing up dinner. He received a glance when he entered, a towel still draped over his shoulders. His dad’s gaze fixed on John’s still-dripping hair, but John ignored it, because really there was no point in drying it when the wind would take care of it soon. “Hi, son, I trust you made it to school alright?” John laughed shortly and nodded, hoping the light chuckle didn’t sound too guilty. Picking up his plate and offering his thanks, John sat down at the table and decided on how he was going to bring up Karkat. “How was school, son?”

“It was good...kind of great, actually.” He tried to keep his enthusiasm to a minimum to hide some of the excitement bubbling in his chest when recalling the recently-made memories of his first real attempt to make a genuine friend. “There’s a new troll in my class who is new to the neighbourhood: Karkat Vantas. I saw his lusus moving in when I was on my jog last night and thought you might be going to say hi, since you tend to do that. Anyways, Karkat and I got to talking a bit, since we share all of our AP classes, and we hit it off.” John paused, taking a tentative breath. It was the moment of truth and the last moment he had to back out. He was expected to finish his thought and to speak his honest convictions, despite any consequences, however. Truths were hard to keep from his dad. “I’d like to be his friend.”

The response came first as a raised brow as his father watched as John fidgeted and bit his lip in a nervous gesture. Next came a slow nod, and John wasn’t quite sure if it was out of understanding or actual approval. “Of course, John. If you want to be this boy’s friend, I am not going to stop you. I’m sure you’ve thought about this and I trust you to make your own decisions.”

With a sigh, John relaxed muscles he hadn’t even realized he’d been tensing, and any tension left hanging in the air dissolved. The remainder of the meal was filled with idle chit-chat as they relayed their respective days. Of course, John kept his morning flight and destruction of school property out of his retelling, admitting that he had slept in yet not expressing that it had been past the point where he could make it by running. Whatever meeting his dad had had to rush to so early for had gone by well enough, though he expected a sudden follow up in the near future. When they were both finished eating, John helped his dad clear the table, though he was stopped before he got to work on cleaning the dishes.

“It’s getting dark, John. Go ahead and get ready, I’ll finish up here.” John sighed but complied to his dad’s wishes, leaving his dishes in the sink before heading upstairs to his room. Rolling his shoulders, he made his way over to the large poster of Captain America next to his desk, taking a moment to admire the pose of one of his long-standing favorites of fictional heroism. He was careful in unpinning the top corners, letting the paper fold downwards to reveal a small, round cam lock set into the wall. The key for the latch was pulled from his school bag, dangling from a chain he had once worn around his neck when he was younger and didn’t find it noticeable. John twisted it in the lock until he heard a click, then pushed lightly against the wall. A panel came loose and John removed it, quickly propping it at his feet. Inside the wall was a simple shelf made out of reinforced wood, holding a set of clothing, a rather large warhammer strapped to the wall beside it.

 

 

 

The dark blue and grey of the two-pieced suit were relatively simple compared to most hero ensembles depicted in the comics John liked to read, the sweeping parallel lines of Heir’s symbol only passing over each arm, rather than front and center on the chest. The lightweight kevlar cloth lining and the thicker body-molded kevlar on weak points were additions made more so his dad wouldn’t worry, and less for necessity. A criminal had yet to match Heir let alone harm him, but John wore the bulletproof clothing anyway to reassure his father. The hood was admittedly pretty cool, though, not that it stayed up with all the flying and wind that blew around him. Removing them from their resting place on the shelf, he folded the clothes over his arm before pulling out the rest of his ensemble: leather boots and gloves, high-hard steel bracers, a simple nylon face mask, and a belt with his crest etched into the metal. He left his hammer, Casey, resting beside the shelf, as she would be the last thing he needed to strap on to complete his ensemble.

Setting to work on swapping regular, civilian clothes for the costume of a superhero, John began donning the uniform that marked his nightly transition from nerdy high schooler into the superhero known as Heir. He was looking forward to this.

 
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