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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14. In Which...Holy Shit, What the Fuck was That?! Part 1

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When John awoke approximately eight hours later and blearily looked at his cellphone for the time, he had one goal in mind: to forgo the world of consciousness and go back to sleep for at least a few days. Every inch of his body ached with a pain that sunk deep into his bones, a none too gentle reminder of the previous night’s activities. Letting his cellphone drop carelessly back onto his nightstand, he sighed huffily into his pillow. He wanted nothing more than to burrow himself into his cozy comforter and fall back into a dreamless slumber.

His mind seemed to have different plans, unfortunately. After routinely waking up at the crack of dawn for as long as he could remember, his stupid brain was already alert. Even if he still felt too tired to be useful to anyone, he couldn’t break years of conditioning that told him he had slept long enough and that it was well past time to get up.

Eyelids narrowly opened against the strong sunlight filtering through the cracks of his drawn curtains, the light of early afternoon bright and judgmental. Even when he was little, he couldn’t ever remember sleeping away the entire morning before, much less until noon. He couldn’t recall a single instance when his body had needed so much rest, before—desired it, maybe, but never needed it. Granted, he had never taken a grenade to the face before, either.

After five more minutes of lazing in the comfort of his bed, he gradually coaxed himself into a sitting position. Despite his grogginess, he had the sense of mind to put all of his weight on his right arm, careful to keep pressure off of his injured left. His entire body protested from the simple motion, as if he had slept for a week rather than just eight hours.

All at once, the teen’s nose wrinkled as his senses kindly decided to make him aware of the thick smell of stale sweat and rust that was wafting up from his skin. Sufficiently grossed out by his own less than satisfactory personal hygiene level, John decided a shower was long overdue.

He got out of bed slowly, no longer wanting to stew around in his grossness and further ruin a set of perfectly good sheets that had done absolutely nothing wrong to him. Once detached from the bed, he carefully stretched out his stiff joints in a rough pantomime of his normal routine for a good five minutes before going to his dresser to retrieve a clean set of clothes. After scooping up a pair of unflattering grey sweatpants and a swim team t-shirt which had been ordered two sizes too big, John made his way out of his room, down the hallway, and into the bathroom.

The reflection that greeted him in the mirror looked less terrible than it had the night before by far, though his eyes still retained traces of someone who had had a less than pleasurable evening. Peeling away the bandages on his face revealed fresh skin, still a bit raw, but more or less healed. After slipping out of his pajamas as carefully as he could and a quick inspection of the rest of his body, John found that the only visible concerns were the bruises, mottled and tender against his skin. They would likely fade away completely before school on Monday if his prior experiences with injury still held – not that he wouldn’t easily keep them covered if they hadn’t faded; no gym class and no swimming meant no questions about strange, round bruises.

Finding nothing else noticeable aside from the inflamed area high on the left side of his collarbone, he stepped into the shower and cranked the heat on full. The water beat down in a cold torrent before warming to an almost scalding temperature, though the heat suited John’s sore muscles just fine. Working to ease the tightness out of his body, he massaged at sore spots and stiff joints until, after what seemed an eternity, he finally felt himself loosening up. Thoughts of Hemogoblin and the troll’s regenerative powers came to mind along with a pang of jealousy as he kneaded a stubborn knot along his left thigh. What he wouldn’t give to be able to borrow the troll’s abilities right about now. Deciding it was best not to dwell too long on thoughts of Hemogoblin while naked in the shower, he focused his attention back on trying to get his body to relax.

By the time John stepped out of the shower, there was a haze of steam hanging lazily in the air, the mirror completely obscured. He towelled off his flushed skin with the aid of only one hand before going about the task of dressing himself. The clothes were the loosest set that he owned, making the ordeal less of a challenge than it might have been otherwise. He managed to pull on his boxers and shimmy into his pants before pulling on his shirt, doing his best to use his left hand as minimally as possible. It wasn’t as difficult as one would imagine, as even though he was predominantly left-handed, he had been trained early on to be ambidextrous.

As he retrieved his scattered pajamas from the ground, he found that his battered costume was no longer in the tub where he had unceremoniously tossed it hours earlier. That meant his dad had probably taken it upon himself to clean and repair the suit sometime during the morning, which was a relief. John hadn’t even considered how much of an ordeal an attempt to sew would have been with one arm immobilized.

As he once again stared at his reflection in the bathroom mirror, John pondered what exactly to do now. He hadn’t had any immediate plans upon getting up other than to appease his restless body, eat absurd amounts of food, and possibly get some homework out of the way. What he really wanted was to go curl back up in his bed, though he knew nothing would come of it. That, and there was no way he was crawling back in there before his sheets saw the inside of a washing machine.

John picked up a brush from next to the sink and fiddled with his hair for a few moments before giving the endeavor up as a loss, and decided he might as well get started on his plans for the day. Breakfast or...lunch, really, sounded really great right about then. There was a quick detour to his room to drop his dirty clothes into the hamper and to pocket his cellphone off of the nightstand before he was on his way out of the room. He took the stairs two at a time, feeling much more energetic at the thought of food than his sore body probably warranted at the moment.

When he got to the bottom, John paused at the last step, spotting his father sitting comfortably in his favourite chair while leafing through the morning paper. Rather than his usual weekend button-down and slacks, he was dressed in a white two-piece suit, which meant he had gone out or was planning to. He doubted the man had missed his tromping down the stairs, but he apparently didn’t feel the need to acknowledge him yet, so engrossed was he in whatever story he was reading, so John took the opportunity to try and gauge the man’s mood from his countenance and body language. While last night’s encounter with his father’s colleague had been all high tension and barely restrained hostility, now there was only relaxed ease in his father’s appearance. He seemed relaxed, his face slightly pinched at whatever it was he was reading, but with none of the stark anger that had given John so much concern just a handful of hours before.

His dad must have finished reading, because he folded the newspaper neatly before setting it down on the coffee table. “Morning, son,” he greeted with a kind smile, a smile that released some tension that John hadn’t been aware that he was feeling. He’d needed to see that fatherly grin again, badly. The smile stretched further in amusement before the man corrected himself, “Or afternoon, I should say. Have a good rest?”

John felt the stirrings of embarrassment in his cheeks, but squashed the feeling down immediately. Getting embarrassed over sleeping was dumb. He wasn’t a little boy who could be goaded for being too slow in the mornings, anymore. “I feel like I could use a couple dozen more hours, but yeah.”

“Good, good. You should take it easy today. Any problems with your head?”

John shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “Not that I’ve noticed. Besides the tiredness, I feel fine.”

“Excellent,” he grinned, the smile on his face slipping a little as he seemed to consider his next words. “I got a call this morning and the office wanted me to head in as soon as possible for a meeting. I told them they could wait until you were up and about, so they’re probably all sitting around a table right about now.”

John scowled. “Dad, you could have woken me up earlier if you had to go. I wouldn’t have minded.” Actually, he probably would have minded just a little bit, but he would have gotten over it.

“Your well-being is alway my top priority and you clearly needed the rest. Besides, some of them could learn to have a bit of patience.” The way the man’s tone shifted to contain a bitter edge gave John the distinct feeling that his dad was referring specifically to the woman with the rose-coloured eyes. Before John thought to probe for any answers about the woman, his dad continued their conversation with a reassuring smile. “Now, let’s get you into a sling and fix you something to eat.”

The sling was waiting on the coffee table next to the newspaper. His dad retrieved it before walking over to John to give him a quick lesson on how to slip it on. Once the strap had been buckled around his right shoulder, he received a customary scan up and down – just in case something was severely out of place since last night – then a pat on the shoulder.

“That looks like it’ll do. Now. You must be starving.”

His reply was quick and eager. “I think it’s a safe bet that I could eat everything in the fridge and part of the fridge itself, yeah.” His dad chuckled but wasted no more time, making a beeline for the kitchen.

John hesitated to follow, finding his attention focused on the newspaper his dad had abandoned on his chair. He tried to guess the headline and how the editor of that particular paper had decided to spin the happenings of last night. He was pretty sure his father would have mentioned something right away if Heir or Hemogoblin were currently wanted for murder, but that line of logic did little to relieve the sudden churning in his stomach as he pictured some shocking headline about how the city’s paragon hero had turned into a violent vigilante. As he awkwardly reached for the paper by bending slightly at the waist, John tried to tell himself that the only reason his hand was shaking was because his muscles were so sore.

His breath held, he did his best to unfold the paper as he clenched it tightly in his right hand, his eyes scanning the front page almost desperately.

“SEATTLE UNDER FIRE: MAYOR VAGAS TO PUSH FOR CITY-WIDE CURFEW” was set in big, bold type across the front page, along with an accompanying image of the warehouse fire John had witnessed. Just looking at it brought back the smell of ash and the feel of heat on his skin. His eyes trailed over it quickly only to land on another photo, this one of the bank from the other day, as well as Boxcars’s wrecked car. There was a caption underneath that one, explaining how Heir had caught several witnesses fleeing the scene and apprehended them, only for them to make bail later that day. Further down in the article, there was a small photograph of Seattle’s mayor, Walter Vagas, his usual cheery face grave as he spoke to a crowd of reporters and onlookers.

As he skimmed the article for the finer details, John became more and more confused. Beyond the mention of his assistance after the robbery, there was absolutely no mention of Heir or Hemogoblin, or of the fight at the docks at all. By the time he got near to the end of the article, his consternation was almost palpable. He checked the sidebars to see if the story could have been covered on another page, but besides a small blurb about a downtown high school burning down and a minor break in at the Seattle Museum of Art, there was nothing. His frown slipped a little once he’d finished scanning the front page, his gaze automatically tracking back to reread the last paragraph of the article more slowly.

It briefly mentioned that there was another explosion and shots fired in the dockyards, but that no concrete information had become available by the time the paper went to print. John stared at that sentence, running it through his head a few times before he dropped the paper back onto his father’s chair and let out a loud sigh.

Oh. Of course the papers wouldn’t have anything about last night. The fight at the docks hadn’t concluded until almost one in the morning, and there was absolutely no way that the cops could have salvaged any information from the crime scene quickly enough to alert the media before they were forced to go to print, let alone time to declare the town heroes as suspects to murder. Duh.

His musings were interrupted by a humming coming from the kitchen, accompanied by the sounds of plates clinking, and the teen felt himself relax a bit. He wasn’t wanted for murder, and he wasn’t a fugitive. Not yet, at least.

Still. It had been about twelve hours since the showdown at the docks, and that was plenty of time for the police to have put together a rough scenario of what had happened. Probably enough time for them to have released some statements to the press, too.

In a flash, John was digging through the sofa cushions in an attempt to locate the remote for the TV. When that endeavor proved fruitless, he proceeded to search all of the usual nooks and crannies that the elusive remote liked to hide in, but it was to no avail. He was just about to give up and attempt to operate the TV manually when he spotted it, tucked into the entertainment cabinet next to the DVD player, likely placed there by his dad in one of his cleaning fits.

He almost tripped over himself in his hurry to retrieve it, and before long, the TV was tuned to one of the local news stations. On the screen was a female troll, standing in front of what obviously used to be some kind of building, but which now was only burnt ruins. There were firefighters and teams of people crawling all over the remains like ants in an anthill, and John impatiently mashed on the volume button until he could actually hear what they were saying through his still fuzzy left ear.

“—still sifting through the debris. We still have no new information to share, as the police have cordoned off the area and are treating it as an active crime scene. The last we heard, search and rescue had just called in several of their K9-units in an attempt to find any possible survivors. That was almost half an hour ago, however, and we’ve yet to see any survivors pulled from the building. We’ll keep you updated on any new information that surfaces as this story develops. Thomas, back to you.”

The footage cut back to the newsroom, where two anchors, a male troll and a female human, were sitting. “Thank you, Adelyn. If you’re just now tuning in, we’re bringing you live coverage of the West Precinct, where earlier this morning an explosion occurred that has devastated the precinct and caused significant damage to surrounding buildings. It is unclear at this time how many people are unaccounted for, though we do have reports that most of the staff were out on rotation at the time of the incident. Adelyn, do we know for sure yet whether or not the cause of the explosion was accidental?”

The screen changed again to the reporter. “Not yet, Thomas. Like I said, the police are treating this as an active crime scene until it can be confirmed without doubt that there was no criminal intent. As you know, this is the third such explosion to rock our city within just as many days, and the police are being very careful to avoid alarming anyone for fear of causing a panic. We have received word from Mayor Vagas’s office that the mayor does in fact wish to treat these as related incidents, and he will be instituting a mandatory curfew tonight for all citizens. There’s no word yet on whether or not the government will be getting involved in the situation, but our analysts are expecting as much at some point in the near future.”

Holy shit. What the hell was happening to his city?

“What about civilian casualties? I’m told that there were a large number of people being held in the precinct at the time of the explosion?”

“That’s right, Thomas. Our early reports are saying that the vast majority of those involved in the Waterfront shootout earlier were being held in this very precinct. The police have so far refused to comment on speculations that they may have been the targets of the attack, saying that it is much too soon to be drawing any concrete conclusions and that their primary goal right now is to search for any survivors who may be trapped under the rubble. Our analysts…”

The rest of the reporter’s words flowed in and out of John’s ears without any actual comprehension as his mind buzzed furiously like a kicked hornet’s nest. There had a been a third bombing in his city. Not only that, but at a police station. There was no doubt in his mind who the perpetrators were, but he was absolutely flabbergasted that the Midnight Crew would have the balls to straight up attack the police like that.

A pain started to stir in John’s chest as his breathing quickened, his mind refusing to get off of this point. Just what the hell had he gotten himself into? He was in way, way over his head if these people were willing to go so far as to kill all of their own just to silence them. A soft crunch sounded throughout the room, but John paid it no heed. All of those people…

Everyone he had fought last night. They were all dead. John squeezed his eyes shut, the noises from the television becoming a buzzing that kept growing louder and louder.

“—ohn. JOHN.”

The feeling of a hand touching his shoulder caused his entire body to jerk suddenly as he leapt to the side away from the touch and into a defensive stance, his eyes wide and searching before he realized it was only his father. The man’s hand was still outstretched in the space which only a moment before his son had occupied. He was frowning deeply, looking John over as if searching for signs of injury.

Something fell to the floor at John’s feet, and it took his brain several long moments to work out what exactly he was seeing. It was half of the TV remote. The other half was still clutched firmly in his iron-like fist, the plastic broken into numerous pieces. Oops. That explained the crunch, at least.

 

 

 

“Are you okay, John? I was just coming to check on you since you didn’t answer when I called. Lunch is ready.” Charles Egbert’s face was still set in a deeply concerned frown as he gauged his son, his eyes staring intently into the teenager’s face.

John turned his head, feeling a bit awkward under his father’s intense stare, and forced his body to relax. The remains of the remote slipped from his hand and joined the rest on the floor with a clatter, but his father chose not to comment on it. That wasn’t the first time he’d accidentally broken something, not by a long shot.

“I’m...fine,” he said shakily, doing his best to calm the rapid beating of his heart. He took several long, deep breaths, seeking his center. When he was calm again, he turned to the TV. “Did you see this?”

John felt his father’s eyes on his back for several more long moments before he moved to stand beside his son, bending down to pick up the pieces of the remote. “Yes. I didn’t want you to hear about it from the news. I wanted to tell you about it while you ate.”

“Ah,” John opined, staring at the images on the screen for several more moments without really listening to it. When he’d had enough, he reached over and turned the power off manually. “I just wanted to see if Hemogoblin or I were in trouble with the cops over the shootout. They weren’t even talking about that, though.”

His dad made a noncommittal noise and stood back up, all of the little plastic pieces from the remote in his cupped hands. “The police have been busy this morning. I doubt they’ve even had time to perform a proper investigation down at the dockyard, yet. We probably won’t hear about it until later, once they’ve had time to settle things at the precinct. For now, don’t worry about it. I’m sure everything will work out fine.”

John wished he could have the man’s confidence. As he followed him into the kitchen, his appetite thoroughly diminished, his thoughts, unbidden, switched gears, and for a moment, he was almost overcome with the desire to be comforted as he had the previous night. His immediate thoughts went to Hemogoblin and the way that the troll had soothed his anxiety by holding his hand and just talking with him. If he really concentrated, he could still imagine the warmth of the troll’s hand on his own. But he wouldn’t be able to see Hemogoblin until later that night, and there would probably be little to no time to talk about their feelings with all that they were hoping to accomplish with their captured intel.

Still, there were others who absolutely excelled at bringing him comfort, and at that thought, John’s face split into a wide grin. “Say, Dad. I’m feeling kind of shitty. Maybe I can see about a da-...a thing with Karkat, this afternoon? Would you mind? I’ll be really careful with my shoulder.”

His father laughed as he lifted the lid to the trashcan and threw out the pieces of the remote, the tension draining away and a knowing smile plastering its way onto his face. “Of course not, John. Whatever you think will make you feel better. I left a couple of sandwiches on the table for you, but be sure not to fill up before your...thing,” he said with an elaborate wink.

John blatantly ignored the way his dad made air-quotes at the word ‘thing,’ and then briefly toyed with the idea of lifting the self-imposed ban on pie-fighting, because that man was seriously starting to push his luck with his teasing. He’d have to save that thought for later, however, because his dad was out the door and off to his meeting as soon as John had assured him that there was absolutely nothing more that he needed. That, and he didn’t have any pies on hand, and it would be a major douche move to pie him while he was wearing his business suit, anyway.

With a sigh, he sat down at the table, feeling the stirrings of his hunger returning. Heir’s costume was folded up all clean and looking slightly less worse for wear than it had when he’d last worn it, sitting right next to a plate holding two rather impressively large sandwiches. He didn’t want to go through the trouble of undoing the folded costume with just one arm, but he could tell just from looking that his suit was sporting several new stitches and patches. It must have taken his father hours to do all that, and he idly wondered when the man had found the time. With all that he managed to squeeze into a day, he probably slept even less than Karkat did, he mused. Still, he was incredibly grateful. That was one less thing he had to do himself, at least.

He drew the plate of sandwiches close, doing his best to hold one of the giant things with a single hand, and took a huge bite, relishing in the burst of flavour as a particularly juicy tomato slice made itself known. It was simple enough fare, really, but John found that after a life or death experience like he’d had last night, simple was more than pleasing.

Though he tried to savour each bite as best he could, both of the sandwiches were gone within minutes, hardly a single crumb left on his plate. He still wasn’t completely full, but he did feel leaps and bounds better than he had several minutes ago. That did absolutely nothing to dissuade him from his plans, however, as he fished his phone out from his pants pocket and started writing Karkat a text. That he could do one-handed with no problem, at least.

 

 

 

Sent. Leaning forward, he grabbed an apple from the fruit bowl in the center of the table, which he proceeded to make incredibly short work of. Just as he was contemplating how difficult it would be to consume an orange with only one working hand, his phone buzzed loudly against the table. Karkat’s replies occasionally took some time to come, but those that did were usually well worth the wait. This one did not disappoint.

 

 

 

John rolled his eyes, a grin stretching across his face, completely secure in the knowledge that Karkat couldn’t see him doing it. Someone had definitely woken up on the sassy side of the bed this morning. Not that that was unusual, as Karkat Vantas pretty much lived on the sassy side of the bed. He was firmly entrenched on that side of the bed, probably with a weird troll blanket cocoon, and would not be able to budge from that position for all of the bribery in the world. Karkat Vantas was forever lost to the Sassy Side.

He mulled over the troll’s response for all of two seconds before dismissing his friend’s complaints out of hand. It was a well known fact that Karkat’s idea of being busy on a Saturday without work was waking up late, eating later, and lazing around on the internet until he felt like sleeping again. Interspersed throughout his day could be a sappy movie or four, comic books, and engaging in a strange back and forth with Crabdad which John would never quite understand. In summary, there was never anything to make a fuss over missing, not that that would ever stop Karkat from doing just that.

 

 

 

The reply was almost instantaneous, an insistent vibration in his hand before John could even think over his choice of words, much let set the phone back down on the table.

 

 

 

Though it was short and to the point, Karkat’s response filled John with happiness. Knowing that the abrasive troll cared enough to drop whatever it was he was doing and rush over without delay just reminded him that, as much as Karkat liked to keep the appearance of his jimmies being in a constant state of rustled, he really was a humongous sweetheart who passionately cared for the few friends he kept. It was one of many aspects of the troll that John had fallen head over heels in love with. You had to be adept at seeing through his often profane rants and fusses, but once you could, you’d find that there was a sensitive and caring troll underneath. Karkat Vantas was very rough around the edges, but inside he was all caramel nougat. Or...something. Some kind of delightful candy center. Like whatever they make Butterfingers out of. Wow, he was still really quite hungry.

Once he stopped comparing his best friend to candy bars, John realized that there was a very revealing article of clothing sitting on the table for anyone to see. Fully aware that Karkat lived only several blocks away and was usually very prompt on his promises, John shot out of his chair, grabbing his costume and running as best as he could back upstairs. His body gave surprisingly few complaints at his pace, which pleased him enormously.

Still, time was of the essence. Despite the wish to one day tell Karkat all about how he’d literally rescued the troll’s ass from danger that one time, now did not exactly seem like a great time to break it to him. He was even less prepared to try and pretend he owned a really authentic-looking cosplay or very early Halloween costume of Heir; Karkat would never let him live that down. He’d probably also expect to see John in said costume come October, which would be no good, since he knew for a fact that Karkat could probably spot the real Heir out of an entire crowd of cosplayers with little to no trouble.

Once upstairs and in his room, the practiced motions of securing his costume were easy enough even with his limited range of motion: place clothes on shelf, secure panel against the wall, click in place, spin lock, retrieve key, lock, and re-pin the awesome poster of Captain America over it. And then his secret was once again ironically hidden behind a generic image of a fictitious super-soldier.

After grabbing a light jacket and going through the motions of undoing his sling, sliding on the jacket, and then working the sling back into place, John sat down on his bed with a sigh, estimating that he still had about a minute and a half until his front door received a barrage of knocks that would most likely shake the very foundations of the house. Needless to say, Karkat was not the gentlest of knockers.

While he waited, John absently scanned the walls of his room, taking in the various posters of posing heroes, action movie explosions, and classic 90’s flicks which Karkat affectionately referred to as ‘festering pustules that blemish the face of cinema’. A certain print caught his gaze, as it always did. It was small and humble compared to the others, just like the heroine it depicted: Phantom Maiden.

 

 

 

She wasn’t a big name, as far as heroes went, and she had never really shined brightly in the eyes of the media, but she had been John’s favourite up until he was about ten. John had liked her for her early mishaps, her dedication to duty that sometimes appeared to have bordered on obsession, and the pride she expressed whenever a camera was pointed at her.

Unlike most of the other heroes that John had admired in his youth, Phantom Maiden had been real, and had been known for her willingness to never give up in the face of adversity. There weren’t many people as selfless as she had been on the field, or as ready to protect those who couldn’t protect themselves. It was that quality which had captured John’s imagination, and a large contributing factor to why he had wanted to be a hero when he got older. Despite not possessing a single superpower, PM had gone up against bad guys the likes of which John had never seen, the kind who ran around in costumes and who had perfected the maniacal laughter and secret lair-building to an artform, all while still managing to be legitimately terrifying. She’d been active for almost twenty-five years by the time John turned ten, when she was killed in the line of duty by some no-name mugger whose panicked gunfire managed to catch the aging vigilante in her chest. John still remembered watching the funeral on TV. Despite not being very popular with the media, thousands had shown up for the procession through Atlanta’s streets. The ones whose lives she’d saved.

That had been one of the few moments in his life that he could remember crying in earnest, mourning for the loss of an idol, for an ideal. His father had held him as they watched the funeral procession, letting the small boy weep as he said nothing. John hadn’t cried like that since, not even when venting his frustrations over his romantic life. He’d felt a piece of himself die along with PM that day, and he’d never gotten it back.

His eyes trailed from the small poster to the larger one hanging next to it: a smug troll shrouded in red and black beckoning him closer. Hemogoblin was nothing like Phantom Maiden. Whereas PM had been passionate and given to uplifting speeches about the goodness in people, always staying to offer a smile at the cameras, Hemogoblin was brutally efficient and didn’t hesitate to bring the pain if it meant stopping a crime. He was also flirtatious and more than a bit of a tease, even if he didn’t really mean it. Beyond that, though, John knew that he also had a sweet side. He was sassy and all kinds of kickass, and adorably funny when he wasn’t trying to be, and he got John, even though they’d only known each other briefly.

His smile was warm as he got up and examined the troll’s cocky grin, bringing his good hand up to touch the one that was beckoning out to him. Phantom Maiden might be gone, but that didn’t mean that there weren’t other real life heroes that John could admire.

The rapid and impatient knocking on the front door violently ripped John out of his musings and caused him to jump where he stood, the wind immediately kicking up inside of his room and tossing a stack of printer paper on his desk all over the place. Once John forced his heart to stop beating a mile a minute, he scowled slightly. He should have been prepared for that; it’s not like Karkat’s knocking habits were a surprise in the least. He was frankly kind of surprised that the troll hadn’t splintered the wood or cracked the door’s paint.

He was halfway down the stairs when he realized that he wasn’t wearing his glasses. With a curse, John hastily decided that Karkat couldn’t see him right now and that keeping him waiting could be bad for both the troll’s health and the front door, so he applied a quick gust of wind to propel himself back up to his room. By the time he jumped the railing and floated downstairs, glasses affixed to his face, the knocks were starting to sound more like hammer strikes, and John was legitimately concerned that Karkat might knock his door down.

He nearly got an armful of troll when he swung the door wide open, the waiting body unsteadily toppling forward before reflexes kicked in and arms were thrown to the side to catch themselves on the frame.

As John looked him over, he had the distinct impression that his earlier assumption that Karkat had probably been lounging around in bed browsing tumblr from his laptop was most likely correct. All of the clothes he was wearing were disheveled, like they’d been hastily thrown on with little to no concern for appearance. He was wearing his Nightwing hoodie over what looked to be the same black turtleneck he had worn the day before, along with a pair of worn grey jeans. The ensemble was topped off with what looked to be a mismatched pair of socks peeking out from the hems of his jeans. His hair was also a bit more messy than usual, a few tufts sticking out at odd angles here and there. All in all, John rated it “bedhead look, 9/10, would kiss senseless.” Not that he would ever pass up the opportunity to make out with Karkat, regardless of how he looked.

 

 

 

Karkat’s eyes seemed to have locked on to the sling like a homing laser in about two nanoseconds after he opened the door, so John thought the best tactic might be to go for cheery. Not that he had to fake it, what with his best friend and crush standing before him. “Hi, Karkat!”

The troll’s eyes were wide as they stared at the sling for a few long moments before they started searching up and down John’s body, attempting to catalogue any and every injury he might have. John felt himself beginning to blush slightly under the troll’s scrutiny, but he fought it down valiantly. Karkat would probably think he had a fever and demand he get to bed, if he noticed.

It took an entire second after his observations were complete for Karkat to launch into a rant, an impressive amount of restraint, by the troll’s standards.

“Jesus fuck, John, I can’t leave you alone for a goddamn moment without you injuring yourself, can I? How in the hell did you manage to survive life this long without me? I swear to all that is holy, if I have to wrap you in bubblewrap and keep you locked in your room all day so that you don’t accidentally self-terminate, I will.”

John smiled and nodded as Karkat’s rant continued and the troll started flitting around, examining his body from both the back and the front, as if he hadn’t already looked there yet, making such a large fuss that John thought the term “mother hen” had never been more applicable than it was now. With how much time they’d spent together, John was well-versed enough in Karkat-ese to detect the genuine concern and alarm just barely hidden under his acerbic tone as he worked himself into a spitting rant about John’s lack of self preservation. John would say the display was adorable, if not for the fact that he was clearly causing his friend some actual distress. As soon as Karkat stopped for a breath, John reached out with his good hand and grasped Karkat’s shoulder softly, causing the troll to stop in his tracks.

“Karkat, it’s okay. It’s just a sprain. Or, well, a hairline fracture, actually,” he reassured him, even though the troll didn’t exactly look assured after that explanation.

Karkat’s eyes narrowed, though his body language did suggest that he was a lot more relaxed now that he had an assurance that John wasn’t about to keel over from ebola or something. John didn’t miss the way that he leaned into his hand, either. “And how, exactly, did you manage a hairline fracture?”

John reluctantly let the troll’s shoulder go as he brought his hand to scratch the back of his head, doing his best to sell the lie he had practiced in his head. It didn’t hurt that he was genuinely anxious about his friend’s reaction when he let out a nervous chuckle. “I sort of...slipped at the pool while trying to get in some early morning practice on my own. They really mean it when they tell you not to run around those!” Karkat’s wide-open mouth and disbelieving eyes almost made John start laughing, but he figured that probably wouldn’t be received well, so he bit his tongue and tried to pull off a look of extreme penitence.

“You ‘sort of slipped’ while running around a pool. You have got to be shitting me. Do you honestly expect me to believe that?” John’s eyes widened, but thankfully, Karkat wasn’t done. “Wait, don’t answer that, because it’s so mind-chaffingly idiotic to blatantly disregard a warning that every fucking person who has ever been even in the general proximity of a pool has ingrained into their minds that, of course, that’s exactly what you did, because you are genuinely mentally impaired. Were you attempting to prank your future self, or was that decision just your usual gross negligence for the blatantly obvious?”

John couldn’t hold back the grin this time as he responded, “I’d like to think it was a bit of both.”

He could literally see the flickering emotions flitting about Karkat’s face, and it was fascinating to watch. He seemed to be caught in a battle between wanting to scream at John for his supposed negligence and wanting to cradle him in his arms and protect him from the rest of the big, bad, mean world that clearly wasn’t prepared for someone of his stupidity, and it was doing some really interesting things to the troll’s facial muscles. John decided to stop him before he gave himself an aneurysm.

“It’s not important, Karkat. It happened, I’ve learned my lesson, and I’m on the road to recovery. But in order for me to get better, I require nourishment, and seeing as how my dad had to go to work, that means I am completely reliant on you, as I so often am, because you are the vastly superior intelligence in this friendship and I am but a lowly worm. So can we please go get some food now?”

He could tell by the way that the corner of Karkat’s mouth twitched that the troll was trying very hard not to smile. He really wished he wouldn’t fight it, because seeing Karkat’s smile sounded like amazingly effective medicine right about now.

“Well. I’m glad you are at least capable of recognizing your own position in this friendship. I have the brains, I have the car, and so I wear the pants in the relationship.”

John dipped at the waist and bent a knee, sweeping his right arm out as best he could in a mock bow. “It is as you say. I am a slave to your whims, oh mighty Vantas.”

This time the twitching of the troll’s mouth was significant enough to allow for a half smile to show, and just as John had suspected, it totally made him feel better. “Damn right, you are. Now get your fat ass in my car before I change my mind.”

“Right away, sir!” John saluted, turning to lock the door behind them. As he made his way to Karkat’s car, he mused, “I’m in the mood for something greasy. Something dripping with cheese. Something that would make my dad re-evaluate our friendship.”

Karkat scoffed as he opened the driver’s side door, throwing John his best ‘no shit?’ look. “So, the usual it is, then?”

 

///

Twenty minutes later saw Karkat pulling haphazardly into the parking garage in front of one of their favourite pizza joints, Naked Pizza*. John’s stomach was gurgling in anticipation as soon as they got out of the car and were assaulted by the smells of the restaurants around them, the stupid thing acting like he hadn’t even sacrificed two humongous sandwiches to appease its wrath a mere half an hour ago. Karkat chose not to comment on the noises beyond raising a delicate eyebrow in his direction, but other than that, the troll was treating him like he was made of glass. He’d placed a steadying hand on John’s shoulder when they descended the parking garage’s stairs, and had even gone so far as to hold the door open for him at the pizzeria. John hadn’t felt this pampered since his last birthday, when his father had allowed him the night off from patrols and taken him out to a lavish, thoroughly unhealthy dinner.

The lunch crowd had already diminished quite a bit by then, so they were able to place their orders at the counter immediately upon entering. John, following the philosophy “go big or go home,” ordered a 14” Bacon Bacon pizza with extra bacon, because his stomach was in the mood for grease. Karkat, to his slight distaste, ordered a Smoked Salmon pizza, and John idly wondered if fish on pizza was a troll thing. Karkat ordered that pretty much every time they came here, but John, human food vacuum that he was, never found it particularly palatable. That didn’t stop him from offering to pick up Karkat’s bill as thanks for driving him, but the troll vehemently refused on the grounds that he “didn’t feel comfortable taking food money from a cripple,” causing John to roll his eyes pretty much harder than he had ever rolled them before. He loved Karkat, but man, what a drama queen.

Their orders placed, John let Karkat lead them to the section that they normally tried to sit near, a point equidistant between the soda fountain and the large TV mounted on the wall. It was with no small amount of unease that he noted that the TV was tuned to the same news channel he had been watching earlier at home, and that they were still covering that morning’s bombing. As they neared, John did his best to ignore the broadcast, but he wasn’t very successful as he found his eyes pulled towards the screen.

After he was forced to wait for Karkat to pull out his chair for him, he was expecting the troll to complain about his lack of attention, but, looking over, he noticed that he wasn’t the only one whose attention had been grabbed by the news. Karkat had pulled another chair up to sit directly to John’s right in what was probably the first time he’d ever seen the troll not opt to sit across from him, but he had yet to take his seat. He was still standing, just as John was, except his hand was gripping the back of his selected chair tightly enough to cause his knuckles to turn white. A bit alarmed at the intensity in his friend’s stare, John pivoted his full attention to the television as it blared a “breaking news” graphic.

“That’s right, Thomas,” he heard, having to strain his one good ear to hear over the din of the restaurant. He idly noted that it was still the same anchor and reporter team from earlier. “We are in fact starting to get new details from the police in regards to the other bombing that occurred last night in the Warehouse district.”

John felt like the floor had just dropped out from him as he, too, gripped onto the back of his chair. This could be it. This could be the moment that he was declared a fugitive of the law, and his life would change forever. He was suddenly extremely glad for Karkat’s earlier assistance with his chair, as he found that he might not have had the energy to pull it out himself as he dropped into it bonelessly.

“Investigators at the scene of the warehouse explosion have uncovered what they believe to be a human-sized impact crater on a nearby building, that they are now attributing as belonging to Heir. This corroborates several eyewitness accounts that place the hero in the area at the time of the incident. We have no news yet on whether this crater is a contributing factor as to why neither Heir nor Hemogoblin were present on the scene at the Waterfront shootout, but there is speculation that Heir would have been hard-pressed to walk away from such an impact uninjured. We’ve talked with several medical experts, who—”

Wait, what the hell?

John vaguely registered the sound of Karkat’s heavy, metal chair scraping against the floor as the troll slid into it, but he paid him no mind, too busy trying to work out what he had just heard.

How in the ever-loving fuck had they come to the conclusion that he and Hemogoblin hadn’t been at the shootout last night? There was literally no way that the crime scene investigators could miss all of that evidence, like the lack of any bodies besides the Midnight Crew, or the caved in chest cavity on one of the thugs in the distinct impression of a giant hammer. There was no way. A nagging voice in the back of John’s mind reminded him that all of the key witnesses were now probably dead, consumed in the precinct blast, but that would have done nothing to erase the actual physical evidence at the scene. His mind working on overdrive, there were only two immediate conclusions he could come up with to explain this.

Either the police were withholding information from the press in order to lull him into a false sense of security and set the heroes up for an ambush, or something, or else he was witnessing a cover-up. He didn’t think the first option was very likely, but he couldn’t for the life of him understand how or why someone would go through all of the trouble to cover up his and Hemogoblin’s involvement. It’s not like it would take just one cop hiding some evidence in order to pull this off, either; it would have taken the concerted efforts of dozens of officers and investigators in a massive conspiracy. He knew he had racked up quite a lot of good will with the police department over the years through all of his hard work, and that he had some very blatant admirers fairly high up, but he was equally aware that there were a number of people who would probably jump at the chance to see him arrested for vigilantism. He hadn’t thought he’d had near the amount of support needed to pull something like this off.

John was interrupted from his musing by the sound of a waiter dropping their pizzas in front of them on the table. When he dismissed the troll after being asked if there was anything that they needed, he suddenly realized that he hadn’t been the only one not talking during the entire time he was contemplating the situation. And that was a very un-Karkat-like thing to do.

As he looked over at his companion, he observed several things. First, Karkat’s brows were scrunched up in what was obviously some very deep thought. His eyes also had a sort of far-off, glazed look to them, indicating that wherever his head was, it was miles away from here. His seat was still pushed back, too, meaning that, like John, he had just dropped into his chair and hadn’t bothered to pull it back to the table yet.

While he loved it when Karkat chose to grace him with a smile and absolutely tripped overself whenever he was treated to his friend’s laughter, he didn’t like that look on his face. It was one thing to see the normally boisterous troll concentrating hard while at school, but he’d practically never caught him zoned out like this.

“Uh, Karkat? You okay, dude?”

The troll in question blinked several times before his eyes refocused and he seemed to come back from wherever he was, and John was treated to the rather humorous sight of him looking down at his pizza with clearly no earthly idea how it had just appeared in front of him. He stifled a laugh when Karkat’s gaze settled on him.

“Ah...Ah, yeah. I’m fine. Sorry. I was just lost in thought for a moment. Do you really think Heir was hurt?”

Ohhhhh. So that’s what that was. John turned his head to hide a smirk. Karkat had been worrying about Heir. Honestly, he should have been able to come to that conclusion himself, what with how much Karkat was prone to fanboying his alternate identity. Still, he was touched. It felt really nice to hear the concern in Karkat’s voice, even if he had absolutely no idea that Heir was sitting right in front of him.

“I’m sure he’s fine. I mean, he’s Heir, right? Guy’s been doing the hero thing for years and years. I doubt getting thrown into a wall is going to be the end of him.”

Karkat nodded with gravity, the look of serious concern on his face almost enough to send John into giggles. “You’re probably right. It would take a fucking tank to take him down. Okay, I’m convinced. You want parmesan?”

John blinked at the abrupt change in conversation. “Uh...sure?”

The troll reached over and grabbed the parmesan shaker from the middle of the table and started shaking it out over John’s pizza. “Just tell me when.”

Well, that explained why Karkat wanted to sit next to him instead of across from him, he guessed. He tried not to let it show how absolutely endearing he found Karkat’s frankly unneeded concern. “When.”

He set the shaker down and picked up the pepper shaker. “Pepper?”

John shook his head, a small, warm smile spreading across his face as he fought the incredibly strong desire to reach out and hold the troll’s hand.

The rest of the meal proceeded in much the same fashion, with Karkat doing everything from offering to cut up John’s pizza, to actually offering to hand feed him at one point. John was sorely tempted to take him up on that offer for the sheer novelty of being hand fed by his crush, but he declined because, honestly, Karkat’s mother-henning was a bit ridiculous. He drew a line in the sand at one point during the meal when Karkat actually leaned over and wiped some sauce off of John’s mouth with his own napkin, just as nonchalantly as you please, and then went on prattling about how much of a wriggler John was, and about their next assignment in Biology.

“Okay, seriously, Karkat, shush,” he murmured, turning so that he could reach over and pap the back of Karkat’s right hand with his own. He steadfastly ignored the way that his heartbeat sped up just from that friendly touch. “You don’t need to baby me like this. It's not like I'm incapable of using my right hand, Karkat. I’m fine, I promise.”

To John’s ultimate surprise, Karkat didn’t react with the vitriol he had expected, but instead turned his hand over and grabbed onto John’s as his entire body turned to more squarely face the human, his other hand coming up to cup the outside of the other’s so that his hands were sandwiching John’s, his rusty eyes seeking out John’s blue.

Okay, yeah, there was absolutely no quelling the blush that now spread across John’s cheeks, but Karkat either didn’t notice or didn’t deem it worthy of comment.

“Alright, no, John. If I can’t trust you to follow basic safety principles around a pool – the thing, I remind you, that you are, according to your teammates, at least, supposed to be the ‘Teenaged God’ of – then I am not trusting you around scalding hot marinara sauce and cutlery. So you are going to sit there, shut your big, doofy mouth, and let me take care of you. And if you don’t, so help me, I will spew rage vomit right here and now so forcefully that your eardrums will rupture and you will be forced to wear hearing assistive devices for the rest of your pathetically miserable life.”

 

 

 

 

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