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Never Trust a Troll

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“Listen, kiddo,” his Grandpappy had said on John’s seventh birthday, sitting the boy down on his knee in the corner of the warm bakery kitchen. “Now that ye a Boy Skylark and old enough to start adventuring outside, there’s things ye have to know. Thing about the outside world, yeah?”

“What things, Grandpa?” he had asked absently, fidgeting with the new hat and feather he’d been given for his Skylark day as the wizened man bounced the small boy on his leg.

“One thing’s for sure, kiddo. Never go outside at night unless ye got ye Pappy or Strider with you. There are things out there in the dark that will take the meat right off your bones and use your teeth for stews! Ye may be a Skylark now, and ye might have ye feather and ye knife, but that won’t change anything out in the real world. The war’s still raging out there and we don’t want you getting lost or eaten, yeah?”

“But the battles don’t come this far east, Grandpa. There’s nothing to worry about!”

“Sure, but what if they do, kiddo? What’re you gonna do then if you’re outside in the dark and get taken by the Dersites? Besides, there’s worse things out there – things with big nasty pointy teeth that will shank you in a second.”

“You mean the trolls, don’t you?”

“That’s right – the trolls. Listen to me kid – never trust a troll. Never talk to a troll, never acknowledge a troll – meet eyes with one and they think it’s a challenge. Most of them only come out at night and they’re twisted and feral, and some might come out during the day, but you don’t trust those ones either, alright, even if they do seem more civilised. Trolls are wicked, violent creatures, and they steal our livestock and turn on each other as soon as the tide turns. You got that?”

“Sure. Never trust a troll.”

“That’s right kiddo. You remember that well.” And he had patted the new Boy Skylark on the head and escorted him through the maze of busy cooks to the servants’ door, opening it to the sunny midday air. The wide world of Skaia existed outside – finally, now that he was of age, he was free to explore the White Queen’s land on his own, and his feather bobbed with excitement at the thought of his new found freedom.

But John didn’t forget what he had been told, and what was repeated to him like a mantra for years afterwards.

Never trust a troll.

 

 


 


 

 

 

“And this delivery is for your Breath Master, and that one is for his apprentice. The addresses are on the box. And don’t trip and ruin them all like last time! Pappy was so annoyed at everyone then, I don’t want to get yelled at again, alright John?”

“Sure Jade, it’s cool, I can look after myself. Dave tripped me that time anyway, it wasn’t my fault!”

“Oh, I don’t know!” His sister puts her hands on her hips as he takes the two packages, and pouts at him over her huge glasses. “Sometimes I wonder, you know? I know you try hard and want to learn with the Master, but going outside at night isn’t a part of your studies, John! Pappy and Grandpappy would be furious if they knew! And you shouldn’t be putting the blame on Dave anyway; he’s a good man and doesn’t deserve that.”

“Oh come on, Jade,” John says, adjusting his grip on the packages of sweatmeats as she opens the servants’ door for him, grinning at her. “There haven’t been any battles around here for years, and it’s quieter out in the woods at night. Easier to practice the Windy Thing.”

“What about the trolls? You know there’s been missing livestock over the past couple of months.”

“Listen, I’ve been training pretty hard with the Master and Dave, I’m sure it'll be fine, as long as you don't tell dad, right? Anyway, I know you’re sweet on Dave, at least if I'm out training in the woods you have time to flirt with him, haha!”

He ducks, narrowly avoiding the spoon she playfully swipes at him. “You’re impossible John. Just get to delivering those, okay? There are lots of things to do today.”

 

 

The sun is blazing as he starts down the road, hat pulled low over his eyes to protect his face from the heat. Another dull day in a dull life. He sighs half-heartedly at the packages in his hands, as though they’re directly responsible for his problems – which, he supposes, in a round-about way, they are. If his father had of chosen something exciting and respectable instead of being a baker maybe he would have had a better lot in life. Sure, he eats well and has a loft to sleep in at night, but when he sees his best friend Dave practising fencing in the yard with his brother, his heart shrivels and dies with envy. It's not so much that he minds, more that... he just wishes for more excitement.

At least he has the chance to train secretly with his friend when the other knights aren’t looking. Dave is always more than happy to exchange clumsy sword blows with John (though he has a suspicion that half the time it’s just so he can show off), and he sighs and wishes that he could have the chance to sneak into the barracks today. But Jade is right – there’s a lot of work to do today in preparation for the White Queen’s feast later tonight, celebrating the arrival of Dreamer envoys from Derse in the West. John will be too busy with his father the entire day, and Dave will be participating in his first Knight’s March at night, as he was granted his apprentice Knighthood on his fifteenth birthday last year.

Which is sad, he thinks to himself as he pushes his glasses up on his face, watching the people totter about around him down the main street, because he’s planning to adventure even deeper into the Shade Woods tonight and he would have had liked for Dave to come with him. Jade’s harping is silly – he knows she’s only looking out for him as his twin sister, and he loves her ridiculously, but his fifteenth birthday was a month ago, and a fully fledged Scampermaster with adequate training shouldn’t have to worry about monsters.

It’s what he tells himself, at least. He’s never been as deep into the woods as he plans to go, but it’s only people in fairy tales that get eaten, right?

He delivers the packages to his Master and the master’s other apprentice, and though he would have liked to stay and have a lesson with him (the Breath Master is an easy going man and John enjoys having him as a teacher) he has more things to prepare as his father’s gopher. The rest of the day sees him running through the expansive city, boots ringing on the cobblestones as he delivers supplies, breads and cakes to countless businesses, all who prepare for the envoy feast along with his father. It’s tedious. It’s backbreaking. It’s hard to keep a cheerful outlook and a smile on his face when so exhausted but somehow he manages it regardless. He plans his night-time adventure out as he jogs through the streets and the thoughts sustain him.

 


 

Night falls agonisingly slowly. Candles light up throughout city windows as the Prospitian people prepare for the festival. John watches from his small bedroom in the loft outside the bakery, where he, his sister and his father live. He finds it odd that the White Queen celebrates the arrival of Dersite princes and Princesses, since though there haven’t been as many wars in the past few years, Derse still is the enemy, and likely always will be. It feels as risky as inviting a troll into one’s house for dinner.

His short sword is laid out in his lap and he cleans and sharpens it while he watches from the window. Already he’s prepared his satchel for his adventures tonight and has hidden it under his bed – food in case he gets hungry, water, his coat, a special lantern, his journal for writing anything down (this is, after all, a chance to practice his wind powers peacefully), bandages and a medicine kit in case his clumsiness causes any accidents. His sword – Dave likes to call it Trollfucker – was a gift from the apprentice Knight for John's fiftheenth birthday (although Dave had stolen it from his brother, Sir Strider, in the first place, which put the claim of “gift” in somewhat dubious light) and while John is confident nothing will go wrong tonight he packs it away just in case.

The plan goes off without a hitch, just like it usually does. An hour before the parades are supposed to start, he tells his father and Jade that he’s off to give Dave good luck before his first official Knight March, and that he’ll meet up with them later (though Jade reminds him that they won't be needed in the kitchens, and he wonders if she's giving wary consent to his adventure).

He never does see them again that night. He feels terrible that he’s ditching his dad on the night of a big feast, but he knows that it’ll be too chaotic in the palace to realise that a certain Scampermaster has vanished, and this is way too good of an opportunity to be by himself. He's sure they won't mind. Instead, John grabs his bag and his hat and, halfway to the barracks, turns and picks his way through the crowds, heading for the city gates, beyond which lie the Wind and Shade Woods. When the gate guards aren’t looking he dives around the corner, into a thicket of bushes, and then scampers off before they can realise what’s happened. They’ll lower the gates later into the night, but John knows a secret way in under the thick city walls.

The sun is beginning to set as he shoulders his pack, buckles Trollfucker through his belt, and sets off into the dusk, humming a thin victory tune as he goes. Life at the bakery is always so rushed and busy – it seems he rarely has time to himself, not since he became old enough to deliver bread around the city anyway. It’s nice to be out in the wilderness, the grey vein of the road into the city stretching out for miles to his left, the dark smudge of the Shade Woods to his right. They beckon: “come, John, and see what exciting things you’ll find inside!” Time alone, time to wander and get lost and have thoughts all to himself that are never interrupted by hurried cooks and chirpy sisters.

The woods aren’t far away from the city gates – he reaches them in fifteen or so minutes, the scraggy trees that lurk around the borders of the forest growing thicker and larger as he goes. But the sun is beginning to crawl behind the mountains when he does get there, and shadows are lengthening across the fields – he takes a little lantern out of his pack, opens the shutter door, and breathes softly into it.

A hum, a whirl – a glowing brilliant blue light slithers into the space where a candle should be, its pulsating glow casting surreal shadows on the gnarled bark of the trees. John takes a deep breath as he raises his Heir-light Lantern, smelling the pines and the mossy undergrowth, the wonderful fresh air as it circles around him like an old friend. Grinning, with excitement already bubbling in his chest, he creeps through the roots of the first trees into the rapidly encroaching darkness of the forest, pine needles muffling his footsteps underneath.

Under the branches the woods grow thick, the bases of the tall pines surrounded by twisting trees with clawed roots, nettles and little red flowers growing between them. Little grey moths flutter around his Heir Lantern, brushing his cheeks with their dusty wings. John lets out a long pleased sigh, smiling as he picks his way through the undergrowth, not really having any direction in mind except the need to go deeper, to explore more. He knows these woods now (he even thinks of them as his woods), knows its secrets and it’s path ways, and he isn’t afraid about being unable to find his way out – the Breeze will always guide him in the right direction, and he follows it even now, trusting it to lead him to wherever it decides he should be. He has faith that it will always lead him safely through and safely out, away from the imaginary monsters his sister is so frightened of – though he doubts that anything other than the friendliest of brownies and salamanders live in here.

 

He loses track of time after some point, loses track of how far he has walked and in which direction, taking twisting detours around fallen trees and outcroppings of rock. Crickets chirp and he can sense curious salamander eyes on his back. Maybe an hour has passed – he doesn’t know, it could be less. He still hasn’t found a place to stop and practice, but the joy of adventuring and the freedom – something he’s always loved since he first became a boy, and then a man – is too enticing to sit down yet. Vaguely he thinks about the festival back in the city, and how much they’re missing out on. Only at night can the true forest be seen – rivulets of dark, oily water creeping through the rocks, bright eyes of little creatures welcoming him from the branches above, the Breeze whispering and dragging him onwards towards some unknown destination–

Abruptly, he’s snapped out of his thoughts. He can hear something, all of a sudden, something different that seems violently out of place. John cups his hand to his ear, willing the breeze to carry the sound, and faintly he can make out… voices.

He swallows nervously, pleasant thoughts seeping out to be replaced with alertness. They’re strange voices – growling laughter and hoots, three people at least, and all with bizarre accents he’s never heard of. The capital of Prospit is a centre of trade throughout the west, and John has had a lot of contact with foreigners (even Dersites, like the respected Strider family, who had fled Derse generations ago when the wars started up again) – yet, he can’t place these accents. They’re barking, sharp, with weird clicks and odd chitters thrown in.

Whatever it is, he doesn’t like it. Never before has he encountered anybody else in the woods at night, and though this is deeper than he’s ever been before that should only lessen the chance of somebody being in there. He huffs on the glowing sphere in the lantern, extinguishing it, and with adrenalin pounding excitedly in his heart, he grips Trollfucker’s leather wrapped handle firmly.

Just in case, of course.

The voices are getting closer. John crouches low to the ground at the base of a thick pine tree, letting his eyes adjust to the oppressive darkness. The two moons, which he can just make out through the branches high above, are only thin crescents – barely enough to give any proper light, the purple one only just shedding an eerie glow. As carefully and as quietly as he can, he unsheathes his short sword from its old scabbard, the metal hissing slightly against the leather as it’s drawn out. He winces – even though the voices are still too far away to hear the sound – and, possibly against his own notion of self survival and driven by intense curiosity, he follows after them. Low to the ground, soft boots muffled against the pine needles and moss, lantern packed safely back into his bag and sword at the ready.

There comes a point where he’s so close to them he can see four shadows walking, holding something big between two of them, and he thinks he can almost make out words but the thick accents make them incomprehensible anyway. They’re walking confidently and loudly on a higher level of the forest, a sheer cliff of at least ten feet separating them, with John crawling along the rocky base in darkness as quietly as he can. He has no idea what he’s doing, but the breeze keeps leading him in that direction; he figures it might be a sign that this is something he has to pursue (as long as he doesn’t have to risk his own skin that is. He swallows nervously and thinks that it might have been better to have listened to his sister after all).

They stop after a while, and John instinctively presses himself against the rocks and roots behind him, being so quiet he can hear his own heartbeat pounding roughly in his ears and through his veins. There is muffled laughter, vicious coarse words – and suddenly, a whoosh, followed by heavy solid thumps as something large is thrown down the steep incline. John shudders, chewing his lower lip viciously and wondering what the hell is going on. The voices recede back up the way they had come, footsteps smashing against twigs and rocks and making a hell of a racket – it’s all kinds of intimidating. Are they huntsmen, who know the wood back to back… or are they something else, so armed to the teeth that they don’t fear anything? Goblins or wildermen, maybe?

His sword feels small and worthless in his hand, but he clings to it tightly anyway, shivering in the darkness until he’s absolutely sure the group is completely gone. The breeze doesn’t meander after them, but even if it had of he sure as fuck wouldn’t have followed.

Instead he picks his way through the thorny bushes and brings out his lantern, lighting it again with his breath and lowering the shutters to a tiny slit that he can easily direct. Instantly the darkness is sliced with the ghostly blue colour, throwing logs and rocks and leaves into stark relief and he has to blink nervously, holding his palm over the slit just in case the group spot it. Above him, the upper level of the earth sheers off into the small cliff. He can see a path of squashed plants where something heavy was rolled down.

And at the base of the cliff is a long, suspicious bundle of dark rags that makes a tight lump form in his throat. John tries to imagine what it is – anything but what he thinks it is. It’s just trash that’s being thrown out. Just old rags that aren’t needed anymore. M-maybe the remains of a… meal… of some description….

He doesn’t want to go down that line of thought.

Sword in hand, he approaches cautiously, heart hammering against his throat, stomach coiled in anticipation and fright.

He nudges the bundle gently with the tip. It doesn’t move, but it’s solid and… his size. Long and thick. It isn’t tied together with anything. Gulping, he uses Trollfucker to nudge the corners of one of the rag wraps until it comes undone and flops to the side, exposing its contents.

And clapping a hand over his mouth he recoils. It’s a body; he can’t see properly in the wavering blue light of the lantern, but it looks like a young boy, maybe his own age and definitely human. His skin seems strangely dark and a hood is drawn over his face that’s stained with something John fears to be blood. The boy doesn’t move, but that doesn’t mean that he’s dead.

He creeps closer to get a better look, but the hood is pulled too low over the head to see his features properly. He’s dressed in what looks like a long tabard and his dark hands are coated in something wet and sticky that’s spread to his side. John summons his courage: if there is any chance that this person is alive, it’s his responsibility to help him, whoever he is, as not only did he bring a little first aid kit in case of emergency, but leaving the body here would be giving him a death sentence – if he’s still alive, that is.

So John crawls up to the body’s side and reaches out a hand nervously. He’s never seen or touched a dead person before; he hopes this won’t be his first time. Fingers on the boy’s neck, which is wet with what he presumes to be blood, and….

A pulse. It’s weak and thready and definitely not healthy, but at least it’s there, and John’s breath catches in his throat with relief as he gently turns the boy over into his lap and examines the blood around his side. It looks like his clothes and the rags have clotted together to create a makeshift bandage, but it still seems like he’s lost a fair amount of blood, especially with his heart beating so slowly. Setting the lantern on a rock beside them (after lifting up the shutters to shed more light), he pulls out the bandages from his kit and sets about carefully wrapping them tightly around the boy’s waist, trying to move him as little as possible. When finished he bites his lip uncertainly, hoping that’ll be enough to keep him alive, at least to get them back into the city where they can treat him properly. Jade knows better first aid than he does, and in the morning they could find a proper doctor to treat him, in case the wounds are too large or infected.

Lifting the kid is surprisingly easy. He’s so light and feels skinny in his arms though the soaked rags, and the Breeze helps keep the weight manageable. With the lantern perched precariously on a thin chest, John's chews the inside of his cheek, fretting as he picks his way as fast as he can through the tangled wood, letting the wind direct him back to the city.


 


The way is slow going. John doesn’t want to move the wounded boy more than he needs to, so short cuts through thick bushes and trees are avoided in favour of painfully long detours. Sometimes, when the canopy of pines thins, he can see the moons in the sky and is able to judge that it’s now late night. The festival will last until morning and likely all the doctors and herbalists will be attending, and probably Jade and his Dad as well. Man, he’s going to have hell to pay when he tells them that he was in the woods at night, let alone being far too close for comfort for an unknown enemy who had clearing viciously wounded a young boy and left him for dead. He almost thinks to himself, “I really should have listened to Jade,” but reasons that if he had he wouldn’t be saving somebody’s life now.

His heart kind of swells at that.

But whatever, what happens to him when he gets home is a moot point – all that matters is getting the kid to safely and getting his wounds cleaned. He isn’t awake but at least he seems stable, and there doesn’t seem to be any blood seeping through the bandages (or, well, at least what wasn’t already from his clothes). John ignores the nagging thought that maybe it isn’t all his own.

Finally the forest thins. The sky can be seen more clearly; the wind picks up pace and begins to whistle gloomily into the fields beyond. His arms are aching when they finally break through, the high yellow sandstone walls of Prospit below given a ghoulish red cast by the purple moon. He approaches – the gates are closed now, but around the side is a hidden entrance to the city, used for hunters and knights who patrol the road west and keep a look out for roving bands of bandits (or even worse, trolls); it’s this entrance that he uses (after spending minutes making sure everything is absolutely quite), sneaking through the narrow tunnel that cuts straight through the thick walls and into the back alleys of the city, his patient still bundled gently in his arms.

He dashes through the empty, lamp-lit streets, suddenly even more thankful that everybody is occupied around the Queen’s palace. When he does pass by people (most of whom are drunk), he holds the bundle close to his chest and pretends to be carrying goods of some description instead of a body. He’s not even sure why he does it, just that the effort it would go to explain that he’d been illegally out in the woods at night and coming back with a body would be too great of a risk to take. It’s easier to make his way through the city without having to find his way through a forest in the dark, let alone be questioned by noisy drunks or off-duty guards.

When he reaches the bakery – his home, as well as the family business – he ignores the main building itself and circles around to the back where the storage building is located, as well as his room in the attic. There’s nobody around except stray alleycats that scatter on sight. Juggling his patient in his arms, John manages to open the storage house door and squeeze through.


Safe.

Inside is musty and smells of flour and ingredients. The light from his Heir Lantern, still sitting on the wounded boy’s chest, helps him climb over sacks and boxes to the steep stairs that lead to his attic bedroom on the second floor, a small loft room that overlooks the main city street below – as good a place as any to keep an invalid until morning, and somewhere he can keep an eye on him just in case. As the kicks open the door to his room it strikes him how terribly strange the night has been – what had only meant to be an exploration had turned into a rescue mission with this strange, wounded person now in his room. So much for a quiet moment to himself.

His room is narrow and the walls are lined with crates and bags of flour, but it's home, and he has a padded mattress on the floor and a low table to sit at and a couple of books and the privy isn't far away outside. It's good enough - the boy can sleep on his bed, since at least that's moderately comfortable.

Speaking of the boy. He lays him down gently on his bed pad, the light from the lamps outside filtering softly through his open window onto the mess before him; unrolling the rags from the body, he can see that they’re dark with red blood, as is the wad of bandages and his red tabard and loose black undershirt and breaches. The hood, still drawn far over his face because he hasn't bothered to raise it yet (getting him to safety is more important than anything like that), is rimmed with blood as well.

John takes the boy’s bony hands, intent on moving out of the way so he can remove the bandages… but pauses. Confused.

The boy’s skin is grey, now that he has the light to see. His nails are hard and black. John swallows hard and quickly checks the patient’s pulse, but he’s definitely still alive and his thin chest is rising and falling raggedly and in that case why is he grey. In the darkness of the woods John had assumed that his skin was dark because it was dark brown – maybe he was a plainsman from the west. But no, here it is and… definitely a rich grey, dried blood plastered over his palms.

His heart hammers into life suddenly. This isn’t right, this is definitely not normal. His nails almost seem like claws, shiny and slightly curved, and John rolls up the sleeve of one arm revealing dark blooms of bruises on the long expanse of more hard, leathery grey skin.

Oh fuck.

He’s…

He’s starting to doubt that the boy is human.

A mantra of “what the hell what the hell” turning around in his head, John reaches out with hands that shake with a sharp mixture of fear and anticipation and pulls back the hood to finally see the boy’s face.

Angular and drawn, bright red blood caked over his forehead from a long slash into his scalp; thin black lips and a wide blunt nose; tar black hair; grey skin. Not a human. Not a human.

He holds his breath, body shaking with mounting horror, and his heart almost stops when he reaches up and feels into that mass of dark hair. And he feels something he’d never wanted to see in his life, let alone touch.

Horns. Small and blunt, but they’re rooted firmly into the boy’s scalp.

…Not boy.

Not boy.

Troll.

He’s brought a troll into Prospit.

Into his house.

He gives a cry of terror and stumbles back to the wall, tripping and falling as he does, away as far as he can from the creature. Hand clutched to his hammering heart, John stares at the comatose body for well over five minutes, not able to do anything but feel numb with abject terror. The body across from him doesn’t stir, except for its chest which rises and falls with fragile breaths.

When he stands with weak knees, he pulls his sword out of its sheath with violently shaking hands that are already covered in blood.

Suddenly the name Trollfucker seems a lot less hilarious.

There is an absence of sound. Not as though it’s quiet – more like sound was never meant to exist in such a horrible moment as this. John can’t hear his boots on the wooden boards because of the ringing silence in his ears and he can’t even hear his heartbeat or breath and for a moment he thinks he might have just stopped breathing and functioning entirely.

Never trust a troll.

Never acknowledge a troll.

Never look at a troll.

Just glancing at one in the eyes is enough to cause it to kill you.

All trolls are savage and feral. None are civilised – none are kind.

If you have the upper hand, kill any troll on sight.

He’s broken every single rule, every single line of the mantra that has been repeated to him his entire life by not only his father, but everyone he has ever known. Over a decade of ceaseless reinforcement of that one simply, unwavering fact, crushed and smashed by the brittle creature lying in front of him.

John stands at the foot of his bed, sword gripped with both hands. He’s rescued a troll boy. He’s pretty sure that wasn’t even on the list to begin with; nor would any sane, rational person ever make that mistake. How could he have been so stupid? Why didn’t he question everything from the beginning – the way the body was just dumped in the woods to die, the way its skin had been dark, its lack of weight. Why couldn’t he have just raised the hood?

The way he raises Trollfucker now? He swallows heavily, body shaking and tears standing out in his eyes. The troll’s head is slumped to one side, the gash on its face bleeding sluggishly. It doesn’t look anything that he might have imagined a troll to look like – he’s been told they’re hideous, monstrous creatures with sharp horns and rows and rows of teeth, but the boy before him is broken and half dead and it looks human, with a thin build and defined face. There is nothing ugly about it, except for the wounds and its strange alien skin colour and those little horns that are a troll’s trademark. It reminds John of children, his own age, that he sees throughout the city, and tears are pouring down his face.

But this is his responsibility, isn't it? He’s brought a troll into his household, and even if it was through good intentions, the lives of his himself and his family are at risk! If the thing wakes up, it’ll rampage savagely without a moment’s hesitation, wounds or no!

Kill any troll on sight.

 

 

Chapter Text

Standing over the frail and bloody boy – it must only be his age – he grips Trollfucker in both hands. They’re shaking so much that he can’t even steady the blade properly. H-he’s never killed anybody before! Chickens for dinner don’t count. He doesn’t even know how to, and when he thinks “do I stab or cut its throat?” he shrinks away from himself in horror. And this is in literal cold blood! After saving somebody he’s just going to… murder him? Oh fuck he feels like a heartless executioner and no boy of fifteen, or of ANY age, should ever have to face this.

He can’t even believe he’s considering this. It’s absolutely terrifying – one hundred times more than actually realising the injured boy was a troll in the first place. Tears are pouring down his face, his heart and head are about to explode from panic, and—

“If… if you’re going to kill me, just get it… fucking over with already.”

Oh my god, John screams in his head, and his blood runs ice cold.

The troll turns its head.

It’s like watching a dead man come to life, like re-reading one of the horror fairy tails his grandpa used to read when he was small. Its eyes open weakly to burn into him – he can see a hinted slit of fiery gold behind them - and its expression is one of awful deadpan acceptance.

He steps back, legs weak and trembling, clinging on to the sword like his life depends on it (which it does). It’s awake. It’s awake. Is it going to kill him now, instead? Oh god he’s never been so scared shitless in his life and he wants to run and run and never look back at the awfulness of the world and how sick this is.

“Though I… have to say… that’s fucking low… saving somebody and then killing them. Pretty brutal, for a human.” It coughs painfully, raspy voice so weak and pathetic it hurts to listen to him lie limply there, the sound of its breathing husky and tattered and John knows that the thing is going to die even if he doesn’t stab it, it’s that far gone.

“But… I didn’t mean to! I… I didn’t know you were a troll, I wouldn’t have… I… you’ll kill me if I don’t!”

He winces when the boy starts to bark a bitter laugh but splutters with pain – when it opens its mouth John can see small needle-like teeth. “You fucking… serious? I can barely breath, asswipe, I could… couldn’t even kill you if I wanted to. At least I don’t go butchering people who save me.”

“B-but…”

“If you let me bleed out like… this… I will honest to god haunt you for the rest of your life.” And then its eyes close, its breathing grows shallow, and John realises that he’s waiting patiently for him to kill him.

He… he can’t do it. He’s not a murderer. The sword drops from his hands; his knees give out and he slumps to the floor, face in his hands. He’s sobbing like a baby and oh fuck what kind of mess has he made and what kind of person is he to want to kill something so wounded and sad like this, like some kind of bird of prey that’s broken its wings and needs to be culled out of disgust and pity. He’s sickened more in himself for trying to stab the troll than he is for rescuing it in the first place.

The boy opens his eyes again when John crawls over to his side, both their faces haggard, and still trying to bite back his sobs and see through the tears John paws at the stained bandages and clothes around the troll’s waist. Gold eyes stare powerlessly into his skull and it has to try multiple times to say something because nothing comes out except frayed sighs of pain the first few attempts. “W-what are you doing?”

“Saving your life,” John answers, and he knows that it’s the right thing to do.

 

 


 

 

When John returns with fresh bread, meat and water, he’s not sure whether he’s glad or disappointed that the troll hasn’t moved at all – he’s just lying limply on his bed still, eyes closed, but he’s breathing at least, albeit shallowly. He swallows when he crouches beside him and sets the food and the basin of water down. He hadn’t had any problem touching the creature before he knew he was a troll, but now… now it’s different; it’s strange and foreign and completely taboo to be even doing this. As he reaches out to fumble with his badly tied bandages (fingers tingling with dreadful anticipation while he does, as though he’s reaching out to grasp a snake), the boy mutters as much.

“Why are you doing this?” He doesn’t open his eyes when he does, and sounds completely worn out. Tired. As though he’s sick of still being broken and alive.

John considers that while he moves closer to pull the bandages off. He doesn’t know the answer and doesn’t think he ever will. “I have no idea,” he says quietly, and secretly wonders if he’s gone a little bit insane.

Actually, that makes him feel mildly better. If he’s gone insane that must be the reason why he’s willing to keep a troll alive, because no self respecting human would ever even come as close to one as he is now, let alone patch them together again. But… it’s the right thing to do, regardless, and strangely he’s content with looking at it that way, like everything has become crystal clear and he's more calm that he has been in a long time. Not even something as wild as a troll deserves to die so sadly, and it’s his responsibility now to commit to helping him 100%. It’s a kind of reckless need to do this that builds within him and something snide in the corner of his brain says that he’s trying to make up for dark horror that almost saw him succeed in stabbing a wounded, sentient, alive and talking young boy who could, and would not, do anything to stop it.

The bandages peel off, stained with blood from the boys clothes, the red tabard soaked an even deeper crimson. John’s breath catches in his throat because that’s a lot of blood and it kind of makes him afraid to see what’s beneath, but he takes the little knife he’s brought with him and slices at the fabric to expose the wound anyway because he’s a grown man and grown men aren’t scared of blood. The sticky tabard and shirt pulls back to show an assembly of long, deep gashes in the troll’s side – at least the blood has clotted around them, thanks to the bandages, and the cuts look clean like they were done with a sword or knife, the grey skin almost lovingly split to expose red beneath. Vaguely John remembers that different trolls have different blood colours, but this is a bright vivid red and he supposes that’s better than some weird colour, like blue or rainbow or something. He feels a little faint headed but swallows and continues on, because stupid emotions like this can’t get in the way of helping someone (or at least that’s what his father says).

He cuts further up with his knife to the boy’s chest, and grimaces. There are more cuts here, as well as huge spreading blooms of bruises, dark and angry across his body, and he guesses this is why he can’t move and finds it painful to talk or breathe: broken ribs. Well, better than broken limbs, at least, but he realises that it must have really fucking hurt to be carried so far back into the city, even if John had tried to be gentle. Looking up, the boy’s face is creased tightly with pain and John says, “Sorry,” guiltily.

Time passes by. Using the water by his side, he cleans the wounds across the boy’s body carefully, focusing all his attention on that and not the fact that he’s doing this to a troll of all things. When clean, he rubs a healing salve on them and almost instantly the angry red around them fades, and that should help speed the healing process at least and clear any infection, even if he can’t sew them up (let alone know how to). Then, after a lot of fuss and swearing (from both of them), he manages to wrap clean linen bandages around the troll’s bare torso, arms and forehead until he looks like some kind of ornery mummy or a soldier returning from a war.

John rips off a chunk of bread when he's finished – feeling like some kind of weird doting troll parent as he does – and is about to give it to him when he realises the boy’s asleep. Either than, or has passed out; getting the bandages around his ribs did seem to hurt a lot.

So John sits by his side in the still night, and things start tumbling over in his head again without such an important job to focus on. What is he going to do next? He may have rescued someone but this is a troll and while he’s settled that he’s gone a little bit crazy and doesn’t entirely care any more, there is a troll in his house. In a city that will be very angry if this is found out – not to mention his dad and Jade!

He rubs his eyes of dried tears and suddenly just wants to curl up and sleep in the corner somewhere, since the boy is passed out in his bed. Climbing unsteadily to his feet John drags blankets over and covers his patient, then climbs from the loft to shove boxes in front of the storage house door, just in case. Finally, he returns and lies out against the wall of his room, head pillowed by clothes and wrapped in a thick blanket.

Too exhausted to do or think of anything more, he falls into a deep, troubled sleep, dreaming of dark woods and golden eyes and grasping clawed hands ripping at his body.

 

 


 

 

Bright light is stabbing his eyes from the open window when John wakes up, disorientated and groggy. His back is stiff from sleeping on the floor and… why is he sleeping on the floor in the first place, let alone using his clothes for a pillow? He’s not entirely sure, and spends a moment rubbing his eyes at the ceiling while he tries to remember last night. It’s a very vague blur and he feels absolutely exhausted.

There’s a noise from inside his room, like a grunt, something dragging across the floor. Surprised, he blinks and sits up fast.

Oh.

Oh.

Now he remembers. Everything comes back in a whirl, graciously accompanied by a pounding headache and panic. He scrambles to his feet. “What are you doing?!”

There’s an awake and lively troll in his room. His bare chest and stomach are wrapped in thick bandages and John’s blankets are tangled around his legs, because he’s trying to drag himself out of the room with only his arms, face pained and ridiculously pissed off. The fresh bandages have patches of vibrant red blood on them already.

The troll turns to look at him, and John’s heart seems to stop for a moment and he’s entranced by the eyes staring back, stunned in his tracks. In the morning light he can see that they’re huge and the sclera is gold with small grey irises and so unlike human eyes. They're hypnotizingly amazing. They are also very angry. The troll glowers at him, black eyebrows dangerously low and lips pulled back in a snarl that exposes more teeth than John is comfortable with.

“What does it look like I’m doing, fucknuts?” His voice is rough and heavily accented with something that John’s… heard before. And it strikes him that it’s the same kind of voice that the people in the forest had – the ones that had dumped the boy in the first place. They must have also been trolls; he’s heard that they regularly kill each other in a kind of perverse survival of the fittest. That leads to the question of what they were even doing there, so close to Prospit, and why they were after this particular one, but he’s too busy rushing over to think about it.

“No! No no no what are you doing, you’ll hurt yourself! Look, you’re bleeding again—“

The troll tries to lash out with long nails to keep John at bay, but his arm is too weak to put much effort into it and instead he just sort of weakly punches John’s knee. His forehead slumps to the ground and he swears a lot, but John doesn’t care because he reaches out to touch his shoulder and he just wants to help. The skin is rough and textured under his fingers and he can feel weird muscles move as the boy tries to pull back.

“Fuck off,” he mumbles, voice livid, and maybe, just maybe, a little bit afraid. “Just let me leave.”

That confuses him. “L-leave? You’re bleeding all over the place, you can’t go—“

“I’m not staying here to die.”

“Die…? I just saved your life, I’m not going to let you die, I’m making you better!” he says earnestly.

The troll scoffs into the floorboards. “Excuse me if I’m a little bit reluctant to believe the human who tried to stab me to death. What, are you crazy or something? Flip from murder mode to doctor mode at the drop of a fucking hat?”

John doesn’t really have anything to say about that, but he remembers that he’s already decided he’s gone a little bit mad for wanting to so sincerely help the bleeding thing in front of him so he’s probably right. He sits rather heavily to the floor beside him and glumly considers how quickly his life is going to be irreparably broken by this decision. “No, you don’t get it, I do want to help! It’s why I brought you here in the first place, and I guess it doesn’t really matter that you’re a… you’re a troll. I was scared okay? It’s not going to happen again and honestly, I think you’re going to have to trust me, because there’s not much else you can do!”

The other is silent and still, but his haunted expression says it all. It’s full of pain and humiliation and something that borders between anger and desperation – his shoulders hunch and he closes his eyes. John takes that as mute acceptance. Standing up, he helps the troll back into the bed (he’s so light!) as gently as he can, aware that there are broken ribs under all that gauze. As he sinks back into the bed, John brings over the wrapped bread, meat and water from last night.

“This is okay for you to eat, right?” he asks uncertainly when he sits down with it, realising that he doesn’t actually really know the first thing about taking care of a troll. It’s not like they have classes on this kind of thing. He’s already sort of weirded out by how human he seems – uncooperative and a little bit wild, yes, but not as monstrous or animalistic has he’s always assumed and been told. His face is angular and defined and while it’s drawn and haggard with deep dark shadows under those surreal eyes, there’s stubborn pride there. And there’s nothing hideous about him – without the grey skin, eyes, teeth, pointed ears and nubbly little horns poking out of chaotic black hair, he could have easily been a human boy John’s age and that gives him some hope that maybe this won’t be as hard as he initially thought.

“Yes, it’s fine, I eat like a normal person. What am I, your pet now?”

He breaks off a piece with beef and hands it to the boy, who stuffs it in his mouth hungrily. There’s something about the way his sharp little teeth work the meat that’s incredibly unnerving and makes him swallow nervously – there’s still a long way to go before he comes to terms with all this, changing thoughts about trolls or no. “I guess you’ll have to stay here for a while. Until you heal,” he says lightly, spurred on when the other doesn’t snap back at that idea. “I mean, the forest still has all those trolls in there, right, and they tried to kill you? Maybe Prospit is actually safer for you to stay in, though you’ll have to keep out of sight of my family or they’ll go nuts, haha.” A shy pause as he hands the water across. “I’m John, by the way.”

The troll doesn’t answer, and instead lowers the water and stares for a moment out the open window, face impassive. It must be early morning because the streets outside are beginning to sound busy. The golden spires of the palace in the distance are glaringly beautiful and vivid and his large eyes narrow in the brightness of the waking sun.

“Karkat,” he mutters finally.

 


 

 

Karkat sleeps for most of the day; John’s glad. He doesn’t think he could take any more drama. But the fact that Karkat seemingly sleeps during the day is mildly disconcerting, as he’s heard that there are trolls that aren’t nocturnal and that they’re decidedly more civilised than those that are. He doesn’t like the idea that Karkat is going to be awake when he’s asleep, probably attempting to escape.

It’s for that reason that he locks the door and windows to his room when he leaves early in the morning. No way is he going to let him out of there now, and he realises that Karkat is right – he does feel like he’s secretly taking care of a pet that his family has no idea about.

Though this pet is large and ornery and has nasty sharp teeth.

And could probably kill him with one swat as soon as he gets the strength back.

Speaking of his family. He feels terrible that he left them during the festival, and when Jade asks him off-handily where he was during the night instead of helping them he lies badly, palms sweating and feeling stinging guilt as she stares at him closely. He tells her that he ended up watching Dave and not going to the forest, and she seems to accept that in the end, assuring him that everything in the kitchens was fine and they weren’t really needed anyway.

To make up for it and clear his conscience, he does double runs throughout the city all day. As brother, sister and father they all have set roles and have for years – his Dad runs the bakery and oversees the majority of the cooking and the handful of assistants they have; Jade manages the orders and ledger; and John takes the orders to those who don’t come to pick them up. Being a small but popular bakery the workload is hard, but he doesn’t mind most of the time. It’s just the claustrophobia of doing the same thing day in day out that gets to him.

And drives him to make stupid decisions, he grumbles to himself as he accepts a handful of boondollars from a restaurant owner and passes over a huge stack of cake parcels that he’d been balancing precociously around the horses and carts in the golden city streets.

But there’s a kind of buzzing excitement in his chest when he returns home for a break at midday and tiptoes up the stairs to his loft. He can’t believe he’s actually seriously doing this – taking care of a troll. He feels rebellious and exhilarated with responsibility and scared as fuck that something will go wrong (well, besides the whole ordeal in the first place) but it’s thrilling in a twisted, adrenalin fuelled way. The entire day he’s been thinking of Karkat – hoping that the troll is okay, wondering about his personality and history, making plans for medicine and supplies, thinking of how he can hide him away from the world and the people that hurt him and it’s the first time in his life that something so drastically bizarre has happened. Looking after a troll, who had come very close to death, in his own room, was not a usual definition of exciting, but it was more than enough for him and again that anticipation bubbles up into his chest. He drinks it in like a rich juice and craves more.

Inside his room the boy still seems asleep, curled up on John’s bed and wrapped in heavy blankets, dark hair mussed and dirty with twigs and leaves from the forest. John hangs his hat on his chair and sits forward in it, arms folded on the back and chin resting on his hands as he relaxes for a moment. He stares at Karkat for a long while and thinks about all the things he’s been told about trolls throughout his life – how violent they are (well, he doesn’t doubt it now if they could do this to one of their own), how callous and feral. Never trust a troll, right?

But Karkat doesn’t seem too bad, for all that he knows. After getting him food in the morning they hadn’t talked much and John hadn’t really been sure what to say, anyway – there were a thousand burning questions and curiosities he wanted to ask but was too afraid to. And though there wasn’t so much as a muttered thank you, there were no death threats either and he even settled down and stopped gnashing his teeth and attempting to pull away when John changed the bandages and cleaned them again. After rushing down to the bakery early in the morning with apologises spilling off his tongue, it had hit him that they had stared at each other in the eye a number of times, and even though it was common knowledge that trolls took that as a direct challenge he was definitely still alive and in one piece. There had been a lot of swearing and snapped retorts, but they rolled like water off John’s back because they were, after all, only words; they weren’t teeth and sharp nails. Karkat had barely reacted when they'd looked at each other, and there had still been that kind of fightened desperation in his eyes, like he wanted to trust John so much it was painful. It cut to his heart.

Looking at Karkat it strikes him again how normal, in a sense, the troll really is – there don’t seem to be many differences between them, facially at least. And while his movements are sharp and almost insect-like he speaks smoothly and clearly through his sharp little teeth and there’s a furious intelligence in his eyes that’s burning.

It’s then that Karkat’s eyes open slowly as if on cue; he blinks owlishly in the light a couple of times before finding John sitting opposite.

“How are you feeling?” he asks, not being able to keep the silly smile off his face. “It’s noon; do you want something to eat?”

“Terrible,” the troll replies after a groggy moment, and then, “not hungry.” He reaches a tentative hand up to rub at his face, avoiding the bandaged slash across his eyebrow. “I feel sick. Fuck.”

Concerned – at this early a stage of recovery anything could be a problem! – he walks over, just a bit nervously. Karkat watches him with hooded eyes and his dark lips tighten into a thin sharp line when John holds a hand to his brow. His skin is burning hot and slick with sweat and that’s definitely not normal, even for a troll.

He bites his lip. “You might have a fever.”

“No shit.”

This isn’t good! John sits on the bed beside his patient, not really caring at the face that the other makes at him, and scratches the back of his neck. Fevers in a weak body can be killers. “I… I don’t really know how to treat a troll fever,” he admits somewhat sheepishly.

“Of course you don’t, idiot, what the hell.” Karkat groans and let’s his head drop back onto the pillow, taking a few deep rattling breaths and grimacing. “Listen, I’m going… to need a proper doctor, with broken ribs and a fever—“ He pauses and coughs weakly and John almost reaches over to put a hand on his arm in comfort before very quickly reconsidering.

“I… don’t know where to find a doctor who will treat a troll…”

“No, shut up, listen to me.” He feels tenderly at his chest, bearing his teeth in pain and John fidgets when he sees them, suddenly aware that the excitement has deflated abruptly. “There’s someone, here in Prospit, who can help—“

“You want me to get them for you?” he asks all too quickly.

“Fucks sake, why are you so fucking eager, just… fine. Fine, whatever. Get me something to write on.”

He grabs a scrap of paper from his desk by the window and a small quill, bringing them over to Karkat. He scribbles something quickly and hands it back.

“Go to that address, give her the note, and when she’s ready, bring her back here.” Then he sinks back into the pillows and closes his eyes.

John looks down at the scrap – Karkat’s writing is bold and sharp and in all caps and perfectly legible, which is kind of surprising since he was expecting it to be written in the… troll language? Something, anyway. It's pretty to the point, explaining that he's hurt, please help, and to follow the "stupid idiot" back to where he is. The "stupid idiot" doesn’t know what else to say, because the other’s face is pained and he doesn’t want to annoy him any more. Unbroken peaceful rest is important when healing from injuries and fever, the voice in his head which sounds suspiciously like Jade says.

Jade. He was planning to have Jade help him, and then finding a doctor who can even more expertise to help them. But now there's a troll in his room, and there is no way he can tell anyone, let alone his family and a normal doctor. He hadn't even meant to keep his patient here, assuming he would live somewhere close by and have family to help after the first few days.

Doing this means he's commiting to taking care of a wounded troll, quite possibly for weeks, if not months. Hiding him away in his own room, above the main fucking street of the city. He's heard that very, very rarely, educated and humanised trolls are angrily accepted into society, but he's never seen one in Prospit, and Karkat seems to be one of the nocturnal ones who lives in wilderness.

He wonders how the fuck he's going to pull this off without anybody finding out.

But the first thing to do is go to the address that Karkat has given him, and maybe, if he's somehow ridiculously lucky, he'll be able to get help from this mysterious contact. He grabs his hat and bag, checking the money inside (a… decent amount... sort of. Hopefully this doctor is either ridiculously cheap or ridiculously charitable) and slinks out, remembering to lock the door behind him.

 

 

Chapter Text

Is this the right place?

He’s pretty sure it is, which makes it all the more confusing, because he’s not standing in front of a house summoning the courage to knock on the door.

He’s standing in front of a massive caravan that, looking at it, seems to be made up of multiple caravans built into each other The whole complex is draped with dark fabric and shiny beads and objects from far, far away places that John is sure he’s never even knew existed, let alone heard of. There are empty horse harnesses at the front and a sign swings from the only door he can see. “The Veil” is scratched into the wood in spidery writing.

It’s the most bizarre “building” he’s ever seen, but then, a doctor who’s willing to treat a troll would probably hang out in a place like this – it took a lot of searching through dark alleyways and streets in the slums of the city to find. He walks up the little retractable stair case and opens the door, Karkat’s letter scrunched in his hand.

It smells of tobacco and spices inside, which isn’t surprising since the cramped room is swimming in a haze of smoke. It seems to be some kind of pub – there’s a couple of tables and chairs and a small bar counter with a handful of weird people sitting there, rows and rows of empty glasses lined up in front of them. There are Dersites here, he notices with curiosity, which is rare in the capital of Prospit but not unheard of. And consorts too, and strange looking Prospitians, their pale tattooed skin covered in oddly patterned clothes. They talk together amongst themselves as though there hasn’t been a war going on between the two countries for centuries.

John lowers his hat over his eyes, feeling ridiculously self conscious and just a little bit intimidated. He guesses this is one of the nomadic neutral zones that are fabled to travel throughout Skaia, like a roaming hub of information. People from all over the area come to drink at the caravan bars, exchange news, and barter both information and goods – this particular one might have just made it to the capital recently. He’d always thought it sounded so interesting and exciting to visit one but standing awkwardly in the cramped smoky room he feels more out of place than he ever has before – a scrawny, wide eyed teenager with large teeth and larger glasses surrounded by rough and world-knowledgeable vagabonds.

Oh man. He reminds himself vehemently, holding the note like some kind of paper sword before him, that He Has a Very Important Responsibility, and that involves speaking to somebody who can help Karkat. Clearing his throat, John attempts to muster up an air of self-confidence as he walks across the smoky room to the counter. The patrons turn to glance at him, interested for a moment or two. He gives a brief shaky smile, fidgeting with the note.

The bar tender, a tall and lean Dersite man with dark skin and darker eyes cleans a glass expertly while he raises his eyebrows at John. “What’ll it be, kid?”

“Oh! Oh, I’m not here to drink, I… I’m looking for somebody.”

The man fills the glass with ale so thick and heady John can smell it and hands it to a small and portly Dersite who has playing cards lined out in front of him in a half finished poker game. “Oh? Who would that be?”

“I have a… friend who… needs help. I’m looking for someone named G.A.? They might be a doctor?”

The bar goes quiet. Nervously he glances around to the little table and chairs where people are staring at him with hard curiosity and almost admiration. He swallows – who in the world has Karkat sent him to find?The bar tender’s eyebrows shoot up again into the shadow of his black hat and he laughs harshly. “Doctor? If she’s a doctor, I’ll eat my own fuckin’ knives. You got guts, kid.” He leans forward, taking a cigarette from behind the counter and jamming it into his thin, hard mouth. Rings, with rubies in the shape of diamonds, cover his fingers.“You can find her in another section. See the curtained hallway to your left? Go down past those rooms until to get to the end. It’s the last on the right. Somebody is already with her, you’ll probably have to wait.”

John thanks the unnerving man – who gives a nasty, shark like grin in response and returns to the card game he was playing with the stout Dersite – and hesitantly brushes past a heavy drape that leads to the hallway. Behind it are rows of tiny rooms for the people who travel with the caravan, as well as those who pay for the journey. As he walks down the narrow hall the floorboards creak beneath him and he can see the tell tale signs where the caravans have been mashed together to create the tavern.

The end door on the right has a cursive symbol scratched into it – it looks like a star sign, but John doesn’t know enough about them to say which one it is. Taking a couple of deep calming breaths, he taps nervously on the door.

There’s no response, and he’s about to go back to the bar section to wait when a voice calls out before he can. It’s a defined and clear voice, lightly accented with something he’s sure sounds familiar. “Come in,” it says. A woman's voice.

This is it. Can’t turn back now. The questions to who this doctor is about to be answered. He grabs the doorknob with tense hands and opens it quietly.

The room inside is slightly bigger than he had expected, and instead of smoke it smells of incense and perfume. Everything is varying shades of greens and rich, vibrant colours, fabrics draped across the walls and plants covering almost every surface. There’s a small bed pushed up high against one wall, a ladder leading up to it, and a round table takes up most of the rest of the space. Two people sit at it, a tea pot and cups set out with ironic little purple doilies, weird skull-like motifs knitted into them.

But John barely takes that in, because he’s too busy opening and closing his mouth like a fish and blinking rapidly.

It’s the second time in two days that he’s met a troll. Bringing home Karkat shattered one of his most fundamental world views – now it’s like somebody is stomping violently on the shards until they don’t exist any more.

Her black hair is cut short and curls elegantly around her face and her horns, which are longer than Karkat’s and curved, but she has the same skin colour and same kind of face structure – huge gold eyes, heavy with eyelashes and dark makeup, defined jaw and cheekbones, perhaps a more graceful nose and fuller lips painted jade green. She’s beautiful in an elegant and refined way that shocks him, since she’s both somehow alien and somehow familiar and from all the stories he’s heard about trolls they’ve always been describe as unappealing and monstrous.

Together, she and Karkat are anything but. He takes off his hat and gives a wobbly bow – it feels like the right thing to do, since her presence is so commanding. Real gentleman bow to lovely ladies, his Dad used to say.

So caught up in the troll girl, he almost forgets to look at her visitor until she turns around. It’s another woman, probably his own age, and she views him with eyebrows raised ever so slightly and a steady gaze. Her cool eyes are violet, shoulder length hair pale blonde, and her lips are as dark as the dress she’s wearing and the tea she drinks. She too is pretty stunningly beautiful in an almost cold and regal way. Oh maaan. He’s actually blushing, it’s kind of ridiculous, and the way they stare at him like they can see right through his skull into the inner workings of his mind is terribly unnerving.“I… I’m looking for someone named G.A.?” he repeats to the two of them.

The troll girl sets down her cup with a delicate clink. When she smiles he can see her sharp fang-like teeth. “Yes? What would you want with her?” She pronounces each word carefully with a slight accent, and he supposes that she might be one of the more urban trolls because it’s barely detectable.

It doesn't really surprise him that Karkat has sent him to see another troll - human doctors wouldn't know how to treat something... well... other than a human. But still, here he was, kind of expecting some harsh and violent witch doctor, and instead he finds a sophisticated troll lady who is the exact opposite of everything he was ever told about trolls; a recurring theme. He swallows and remembers the note. It’s wrinkled and worn from all the crunching and fidgeting he’s been doing with it, but he hands it to her anyway since he figures it’ll bear more weight than his word. She takes it and reads, a small line appearing between her brows.

“C.G.? Karkat is injured and needs medical care? What has he done this time?” She glances up at him peculiarly. “And how does a human know about this, let alone want to associate with trolls or him in particular?”

The human girl rests her chin on her hand and takes a slow drink of the tea – she’s still giving John a rather direct, searching stare. “It’s not unheard of, Kanaya,” she says, and smiles wryly.

“Karkat is a rather… Special case.”

“It’s… it’s sort of a long story and I don’t even know everything,” John admits, standing awkwardly and scratching the back of his neck. “But I guess I sort of rescued him? Out in the forest, there were other trolls and they left him for dead. I think he’s stable now, but he has some broken ribs and a fever, and said that you’d be able to help? As… as a troll?”

Both their eyebrows raise and he kind of feels like he’s facing down some kind of jury, deciding how truthful he’s being. But the troll woman – Kanaya, he supposes her proper name is, what's with all these pseudonyms anyway – nods after a moment and stands, setting her cup down.

"I trust Karkat's word, and if he is in danger like as seems to be the case, I will provide as much assistance as I can." John lets out a loud sigh of relief he wasn’t aware he was holding. The human girl continues to drink her tea and they watch together as Kanaya weaves her way between plants to open a wooden cabinet, grabbing an empty bag as she does.




It isn’t long before it’s loaded with small bottles and weird looking herbs that don’t look appetizing – she even pauses to grab a handle of small, worn books before she does, sliding them in as well.

“How long do you think you’ll be gone?” The blonde girl asks, as the troll grabs some kind of long overcoat.

“I apologise Rose, perhaps an hour or two? If he is stable, the rib breaks should not be serious, but there may be other injuries that need seeing to.”

“Oh.” She sets the teacup down on one of the doilies uncertainly, a strange flicker of disappointment on her face. “I suppose I should go back to the palace then…”

"Perhaps you would be inclined to visit tonight?"Kanaya pulls the coat on as Rose smiles (“That would be nice,” she admits, and it’s the first sincere sounding word he’s heard) and John watches, fascinated, as she takes a strip of gauzy green cloth and ties it around the lower half of her face, then flips up the heavy hood. He blinks and suddenly understands with a strange mixture of sympathy, guilt and apprehension – trolls, however adapted to city life, are never trusted. It’s a disguise – the shadow from the large hood obscures most of her face and the cloth hides her skin colour and grey neck. The way she wears it and the way she pulls on thick black gloves to hide her hands seems practiced and familiar – Rose doesn’t comment on it and her face is that careful bland expression she seems fond of as she watches Kanaya dress. It strikes him that they must be close, familiar friends, and maybe Rose traveled with the Veil to get to Prospit and they’ve known each other for a while. Perhaps she’s a young merchant staying at the palace with her goods?

And on that note… Another human having a weird relationship with a troll. A few days ago he would have thought the idea was terrifyingly absurd and insane – now it doesn’t surprise him like it should. It gives him hope. He wonders if Karkat will be staying in his room while he recovers, and if he does, whether it’s possible to make things easier by befriending him. If Rose and Kanaya can have this strange cat-and-mouse friendship he doesn’t see why he can’t with Karkat!

Uh… uhhhh. A very close relationship. When it seems like Kanaya is ready to leave, Rose stands and shoulders her small bag as well, and the troll walks over what John assumes would be a parting hand shake, or maybe a hug. If trolls were into that touchy feely kind of thing.

But his mind short circuits because it seems trolls must be really into that touchy feeling kind of thing because Kanaya leans down close and kind of brushes her lips against Rose’s cheek and oh whoa John has to avert his eyes because his face is burning like crazy. And even though he’s a touchy feely guy too there is something more to this, like it’s definitely pushing the boundaries of lady friendship, especially when he sees the Rose girl holding on to the taller troll’s forearms and saying something really quietly. He wants to cough awkwardly but desperately doesn’t want to draw attention to the fact that he’s noticed, so he just ends up standing there uneasily, fidgeting with the collar of his doublet because it suddenly feels much too hot and stuffy in the little room and he wishes they would stop saying goodbye already.

He wonders if they’re just dragging this out to make him uncomfortable, because when Kanaya pulls away and gives John a curt nod to exit, there’s a sardonic, amused look in Rose’s eye as she follows them. He swears that she quirks a challenging eyebrow and gives him a dry smile.

But then they’re walking through the rickety corridor and into the tap room, and everything goes quiet and the entire room stares at the three of them. John wonders if he’s filled up his Awkwardness Gambit for the year – it sure feels like it. He swallows hard and almost expects for somebody to jump to their feet, brandishing a weapon and calling guards down upon the unassuming Kanaya, but nothing of the sort happen. A few of the patrons return to talking, or to their drinks, and he realises that a couple even nod and smile in familiarity to her and Rose.

Kanaya turns to the bar tender, who dips his hat to her, and exchanges hushed words with him. Then she turns and shepherds both John and Rose out through the caravan door, down the flimsy retractable steps, and into the bright light of Prospit.The caravan is parked (parked? He’s not sure if it can really be called that) near the city wall in the meandering outer streets of Prospit, smack bang in the middle of a little city square he had never seen before this. Even though it’s still noon it’s much quieter than where he lives. There are only a handful of market stalls; Kanaya pulls her hood down further regardless. John waits impatiently up the road while she and Rose say another goodbye to each other again and now he’s almost certain they’re just doing it to make him embarrassed. Rose gives him a slight wave as she turns down another street - he wonders if he'll ever see her again as he waves back.

Kanaya slings her bag over her shoulder as she walks up and looks down expectantly (she’s a good deal taller than him). “Which way?”

“Oh, uhhh, it’s on the main street, the bakery and cake shop there. I’ll show you. I’m John, by the way.”

“I know the place,” she smiles, and shakes his offered hand. “I’ve lived in Prospit before.”

They start off through the winding alleyways. The tall glittering spires of the city, so flimsy they look like the strings of chocolate his father decorates sweetmeats with, are their horizon; so many of them and so tall that he fancies in a few more years of building they would block out the clouds. “I thought you traveled with the Veil though?”

“I do, but we journey the road from Derse to Prospit a few times each year, and often I stay in the cities.”

“Oh?” He’s surprised to hear that – he’s never seen a troll in person before Karkat, but then Kanaya is covered head to toe in clothing and he guesses that the handful of other traveling trolls would be too. “They let you stay then? As a doctor or something?”

“They tolerate me, yes. I am well educated, have many contacts, and knowledge in medicinal values and treatments. I am hardly a professional doctor though. I sew more than threat.”

John wonders excitedly whether the city guards and his family will “tolerate” Karkat as well, but it’s too early to tell. Karkat seems okay, and Kanaya is nice enough, but she’s not one of the nocturnal trolls and it sounds like she's been going back and forth between the two countries for years. She's tall and her expression is so carefully cool that he feels like he’s talking to someone far out of his league, and it’s sort of embarrassing to be firing more questions at her. But his mind is still in overdrive and he blurts it out before he realises, for some reason needing to know the answer.

“Are you and Rose friends?” He trips and stumbles on a loose cobblestone, shocked that his mouth had taken on a life of its own and asked such a ridiculously personal question, because he knows what it’s going to ask next.

“Yes. We’ve traveled together before; Rose is a Dersite and came on this trip. Why? Does it bother you?” Her expression doesn’t change, and he knows it wouldn’t have even if it did bother him. He can’t help but admire her a little bit more for being so down to earth; for not caring about the stigma placed on trolls and the age old warnings against even acknowledging them.

“No! No, actually, I’m kind of glad, because, I mean, I guess I’d like to be friends with Karkat if I’m looking after him?” Maybe it’s not a good time to be asking her now whether she’ll be willing to help over the next few months, and possibly keep him in the Veil with her. “It’s just that you both seemed… really, um, close.”

She almost stops then, her expression changing into something he can’t place – amusement, maybe? Challenging him to condemn? “Does it matter to you if she and I are matesprits as a human and troll?”

John isn’t sure what a matesprit is, but he assumes it means they’re together (beyond lady friendship anyway), and thinking about he’s… “Honestly, I… I don’t know. I haven’t ever thought about it! I haven’t ever thought that a troll and human could be friends in the first place. This is all so new…” He feels confused, like even more of his life mantras are falling down around his feet and each step of the way to his house, to Karkat, they’re stepping on them and crushing them into dust, and he wonders whether everything the world has told him is wrong.

Because it feels like is it. And he can see Kanaya’s dark lips smile at him through the thick gauze, and he’s smiling back. She’s a troll, and she’s nice and normal and he likes her. He isn’t scared of her – he isn’t scared of Karkat any more. And he's beginning to not care about the judgements against them either. Maybe the three of them together can make this work.

 Save a life and save him from his own misjudgements.

Chapter Text

When they begin to enter the main streets of the city – roads that lead to the citadel and palace like spokes on a star – Kanaya isn’t exactly the most inconspicuous person, dressed so heavily on a spring noon. But she passes through with few looks her way, as though people avoid looking at her, rather than staring. John realises that it isn’t so uncommon to see people doing their business to cover themselves; it’s just that he, like the others, had always made a point of not staring and a point to forget immediately after, whether out of politeness or suspicion he has no idea. He wonders distractedly how many have been trolls, how many Dersites, and how many plainsmen and lusi from the west and south, and what has really been passing under his nose for all these years.

But either way, the walk is uneventful. Nobody notices boy and covered girl sneaking around the back of the bakery to the storage house, and Kanaya takes it in stride, following his quick footsteps easily and without comment as they dash for the door. He leads her up the steep stairs to his attic room and stands aside for her to enter.

Karkat is still awake inside the room, head propped up on pillows and staring blankly at the wall, eyes squinted in the bright light that has thrown itself across the bed. But he glances up quickly when Kanaya enters, folding down her hood as she does so, and his eyes spark with such familiarity and relief that John can’t help but grin and think that he’s done a damn good job and might have possibly earned some trust points from both of them.

“What have you gotten yourself mixed up in this time?” she tuts, smiling good-naturedly as Karkat struggles to embrace her wordlessly when she leans over the bed. She kisses his cheek like a doting mother and he squeezes her back tightly, a mess of black hair clinging to her shoulder.

“Lots of bullshit, that’s what, but it doesn’t matter. Fix me.”Then she laughs, sits down beside him on the bed, pulls out her supplies, and John chokes up a bit because it’s like watching a beautiful family reunion. He knows that trolls don’t have families – that they’re born without any concept of mother or father, sibling or children. Some say that wandering lusi take them in, but he’s heard just as many stories saying that troll children are pitted against each other and the surviving ones are taken into custody of a clan. Watching Kanaya smooth back Karkat’s dirty hair and complain that he needs a proper wash, and seeing Karkat bat her hand away and grumble halfheartedly, he can’t help but think there’s more to troll friendships than he’s ever guessed. He realises then that Karkat is safe – safe with Kanaya here, and quiet possibly safe with John himself, provided that this is kept a secret from the outside world. Even with his injuries, he has somebody in the city, a contact that can be called upon. He leans against the door frame and watches them for a moment, hat in his hand, still grinning like a pleased cat – he did his job, he did it well, everything went perfectly smoothly, he met new people, and his charge is going to heal.

Fuck yes.

He reminds himself to do some celebratory fist pumping later, as Kanaya is gesturing for him to come closer as she holds an un-gloved hand to Karkat’s sweat-slicked brow, feeling his burning temperature. He kneels down beside the bed as she sets out jars of herbs on the bedside table, both dried and fresh, poultices, curious brown bandages, and… thin needle and some kind of thread. He swallows quickly when he sees those.

“These bandages need changing again,” she tells John as she explores Karkat’s wrapped chest, hands pressing lightly against his ribcage as he hisses. “And the ones around his ribs need to be removed – breathing properly is essential with broken ribs, as liquids can build up in the lungs if deep breaths are not taken. Fortunately they don’t feel like serious fractures. Get kicked too hard again, did you?” He scoffs but doesn’t answer. “I can sew up these chest wounds so the bandages aren’t needed, and after that the fever can be seen to. Would you get some water and cleaning cloths, please John?”

He helps her studiously as they change the bandages together, cleaning the wounds which, while still fresh and deep, don’t seem infected. It’s when she washes the needle and curious thread in the clean water with some kind of sanitary gel and gives Karkat a long drink from a bottle of spirits that he blanches and attempts to turn away.

“Wait. You might need to hold him down for this.”

Karkat grits his sharp little teeth in a grimace, an expression mirrored by John as he stands and holds the troll’s thin arms down. “Get on with it then.”

“Try not to yell and swear too much.”

He writhes a lot, and John has to give him a rag to bite into so he doesn’t shout loudly. It looks painful, and he pities Karkat a lot and doesn’t even want to look as Kanaya sews him back together with terrible precision and professionalism like a broken rag doll (there’s something eerie about the way the needle slides under his raw skin), but in the end they get it done and he’s left sweating and pained with long tracks of stitched skin across his bloodied chest. She pats him on the cheek and smiles. “All better now?”

“I hate you.”

“I know. Have fun with all these scars.” She bares her fangs in a smirk and he rolls his eyes.

“Fine. Thanks. I guess.”John spends the next hour disposing of the old bandages, helping Kanaya put on the new brown ones (“Woven with healing properties by the Clerics and Seers,” she mentions offhandedly), and forcing Karkat to drink down bitter tea, brewed with a concoction of the countless herbs she’s brought. He complains the entire way, sharp and snapping speech peppered with a delightful seasoning of oaths, threats and colourful swears, but finally she sits back and exhales and John is relieved the ordeal is over. She brushes Karkat’s unruly wet hair out of his eyes, looking pleased (she’d taken the time to fuss and give it a makeshift wash, sitting on the bed head with his head resting in the water bowl in her lap, humming while she cleaned the forest dirt and blood from it as he huffed and protested). “Trolls heal quickly, we’re hardier than humans, as you may have noticed. The ribs will heal by themselves with bed rest, and, later exercise; should take four weeks minimum. We can't do much else for them but wait.”

“That’s not long at all,” he says, raising his eyebrows.

“The fever isn’t severe since you used a salve to stave off infection, it’s just reactionary, and if he continues to drink these teas it should pass. Oh, I brought you something, Karkat.”

From her bag, she pulls out the two books she had put in her bag as an afterthought and hands them to him. “I know you’ve probably reread these more times than I care to imagine, but I thought it might help. Bed rest can be boring.”

He takes them with almost reverent hands and John sees that the covers are old and warn and the printed pages yellowed from age and eager hands. “Holy fucking shit, I cannot believe this. I knew I’d left them somewhere!” He flicks through one delightedly, eyes full with childish glee. “I take back what I said before about the stitching, you are amazing.”

“I would have returned them to you later, but I wasn’t welcome in the forest as you well know, and you in the city. It’s almost good that you’ve turned up on this human’s doorstep, demanding help as usual – it’s been a while, Karkat. You haven’t changed.”

John feels distanced from the two of them as they spend quiet moments exchanging news; they’re in their own world, a troll world, far outside his own comfortable existence. He tries not to eavesdrop because that’s rude, but he catches hints and glimpses of Karkat’s life in their whispered conversations, in the way his pointed ears wilt and the heavy lines of his brow knit together. He stops trying, blots out as much as he can, when he hears Karkat say, “fucking blew her in half, Kan, it… I couldn’t…”

He sits on his table under the window instead. The curtains are drawn now – “Keep the light out during the day, John, Karkat is nocturnal and will need to adjust to the light and your sleep schedule if he’s to stay here” – but he peers through the slit between them into the main street below. Prospit; unassuming. Citizens; unassuming. Going about their daily business, horses, carts and carriages trundling through the busy human traffic of people going about their lives, none the wiser of the boy and trolls above them. In the distance; the citadel and centre of the city, the palace, its tall spires a brilliant glittering gold, multicoloured flags only just visible from here, like sprinkles on one of his Dad’s cakes. His thoughts turn to his few friends when he realises that he’ll never be able to tell them this has happened, never will be able to share the story of how he saved someone’s life and risked his own for it. He has to keep it from Jade, he knows she’ll never approve and be too worried for his safely to stand by and watch. And Dave, oh god, Dave wouldn’t even stop to think before pulling his weapon. He glances to his own sword, a gift from his best friend, leaning against the wall in its sheath – Trollfucker. Fucker of trolls everywhere, so named by Dave. And it almost had been, before he’d realised what a horrific mistake that would be.

Kanaya is smiling at Karkat, and he can see her holding his battered hand loosely in her own from the corner of his eye as she sits, legs elegantly folded, beside him. He has to clear his throat roughly because the burning memory of standing over Karkat, sword grasped so tightly the lines of the leather wrapped around the hilt ate into his palms, kills him a little. They are so human. His own age, or at least around it, sitting in a sort of comfort-glow, and he allows himself to reel back for a moment again at the sheer scope of what he’s missed, the sheer size of the lies that have been spread for decades. Or maybe it’s just these two who go against the grain of their species, because even though he had found Karkat banished and left for dead, he doubts that it could have been because of anything the troll had done. There’s something in those large gold eyes of him that is so intelligent, so intense, yet so troubled and compassionate that he doubts his need to befriend him is entirely due to having to care for him. It’s the kind of curiosity that drove him to begin lessons fully realising his given title as Heir of Breath, that drove him to explore the forest in the first place. He doesn’t lie to himself and think that he has a large social circle either – Dave is his best, closest, and one of his only friends. A few more, whatever species, wouldn’t hurt.

After a while, Kanaya stands and gathers some of her things back into her bag. “I’ve mixed together a remedy here for him,” she says, ignoring Karkat’s muttered grumbles about how he would never drink any more fucking poison, “that should be given twice daily as tea, maybe with some honey. Keep the curtains closed, make sure he gets plenty of regular sleep, especially in the day before he adjusts to a new sleep schedule, change the bandages when it’s needed and make sure he doesn’t move much for the first couple of days. Food isn't an issue, though protein and meat will help replenish the blood lost. He’ll complain a lot but you’ll get used to it.”

She ruffles an angry Karkat’s wet hair, still slicked over his face and mercifully flat for once, and John grins. “I think I’m already used to it.”

“Oh go fuck yourse—“

“I’ll come and check on him when I can, if that is alright with you?”

“A-actually, I was going to ask if you would help. I’ve never taken care of someone wounded, I’ve sort of been going on what I know from first aid and just guessing the rest of the way...” He rubs his head sheepishly.

“I can already tell that it’s going to be fucking just dandy staying here—“

“Behave yourself and I’ll buy you some new books.”

His mouth closes with an audible snap of teeth. John stores that away as an incentive.

“I’ll do as much as I can. You’re lucky The Veil was in Prospit, or else something might have gone even worse. But I won’t be around for much longer, a few months at most, and I won’t be able to keep him with me. But I think you’ve already made up your mind anyway, haven’t you?” She raises her eyebrows delicately.

He pulls at his collar, wondering how to phrase the answer. “Yeah, I guess. I suppose there’s not much else to do, is there?” He glances at Karkat, who looks back challengingly. “The trolls think you’re dead, most people here aren’t going to like it… You’ll have to stay in this building until we can… figure something out.”

John is sad to see Kanaya leave. Part of him wishes she would stay, not just because she calms Karkat down but because she’s so… nice, friendly and helpful. She shoulders her bag, kisses her troll friend impetuously on forehead cheek despite his habitual grumbles, and before she dons her coat and gloves again approaches John. He smiles and reaches out a hand for her to shake, but instead she steps forward and hugs him impulsively. His skin crawls for a moment – he can feel her rough troll skin on his arms, smell her smoky, herb spiced scent that brings back incredibly vivid images of dark forests and wilderness, and she burns with a glowing internal heat. But then he hugs her back nervously, and the feeling passes.

There are quiet goodbyes between them all, and John walks her down to the storage room and makes sure nobody is outside in the cramped, cobblestone yard behind the bakery building. When he gives her the A Okay, she grins and folds her hood up.

“You’re a brave human, John.”

“I… thank you?”

“Rescuing someone like that when they were wounded, even if they were a troll… Braver than many I have met.”

“To be honest, I… I thought he was a human when I found him.” He scratches the courtyard stones with his shoe and bites his lip. “When I brought him back and found out, I… almost killed him. But I couldn’t do it, and he sent me to find you, so… I don’t know if you can really call me brave after all. Stupid, maybe.”

Kanaya laughs and he’s taken aback by that – shouldn’t she be angry that she almost killed her friend? Maybe the shock and confusion shows on his face because she cocks her head and her eyes are very bright and knowing within the deep shadow of her hood. “What becoming honesty! But you’re risking a lot even now. Being willing. Being, ah, humane to spare his life. Putting aside cultural differences to help someone. I should thank you for accepting us as who we are. Karkat is very close to me, I would have been greatly saddened if he died alone in the forest. At least here he will be safer and I can keep an eye on him, along with you.”

“But… Safer in Prospit? What if somebody finds him? I have family, and I can’t be here all the time to watch him... And once he heals what if he tries to…” He swallows, unable to finish the thought as unbidden violent images rise to his head.

She pulls the gloves over her slim grey hands with a practical flourish – everything about the way she moves seems practical, down to earth somehow, yet at the same time graceful. “To be sincere, John, Karkat was more or less executed in the forests. Left to be eaten by the animals that live deeper in. This runs deeper than I think you should know, deeper than he wants you to know, and Prospit is, no joke, the safest place for him to be at this time. As long as he stays put you should both be fine – his bark is far worse than his bite, you have nothing to worry about him attacking you. And when his ribs have healed, we can decide on what to do next.”

He isn’t sure how to answer that, but… she sighs and places a hand on his arm as he rubs his shoulder hesitantly. “Karkat may seem unpleasant, but I can assure you that doing this has gained you more trust than he gives most trolls. He’ll never admit it, but it’s there.”

“O…Okay.” He smiles, feeling a little reassured because if anyone knows Karkat it seems Kanaya would, and then she’s saying goodbye and slipping through the alleyway leading to the main street with a brief wave, the traffic devouring her hungrily.

 

 

He stands for a moment there, in the warm heat of the spring sun until a feathery cloud passes over head and tickles his face with cool shadows, then heads back into the storage building and up to his room, opening the door with a deep breath and shoulders resolute.

He could make this work. No, he would make this work. Operation Befriend begins here, begins now.

Inside Karkat is still propped up with pillows, and John has caught him off guard; before he turns to glare derisively at him, he catches a glimpse of Karkat looking tired again. Worn out, both physically but more importantly emotionally, deeply shadowed eyes hooded and face vacant in that painfully emotional way. When he quickly glances up, face wiped clean like a slate and lines drawn between his eyebrows again, John gives a bright smile, and is met with a grunt in return.

“Why does Kanaya like you?” he asks suddenly, more to himself than to John as he turns to lock the door tightly behind him.

“Huh?”

“I don’t understand.” Karkat's brows crease deeply in that way of his, like he’s struggling to figure out what the sentiment means to him on a personal level and what the most appropriate kind of sarcasm or anger is to react with. “You’re a human.”

He grins despite himself. “So you noticed!”

“Shut up. She isn’t even interested in humans. Why you? Why does she trust you? And why do you trust her; trust us. You know what, just... fuck you.”

He thinks that Karkat is probably just talking to himself now and doesn’t want his monologue to be interrupted least he face more Troll Wrath, so he busies himself by collecting the bottles of mixed herbs on the bedside table in his arm and moving them to his small bookshelf on the back wall. After long minutes of getting bored listening to the troll’s angry mutterings, he pipes up with something that’s been nagging at the back of his mind; Kanaya’s reassurance that he’s not as bad as he seems, combined with that need to make headway in Operation Befriend, gives him the courage to speak, even if the boy is angrily muttering to himself about humans. “Hey, what does ‘matesprit’ mean?” he asks when Karkat pauses in his rambling, thinking that a bit of conversation may break the awkward testiness he can feel glaring daggers into his back.

“Figures you wouldn’t have a fucking clue. It’s only one of the most important relationships a troll can have, asshole. Why?”

“Oh, well, I thought as much! You have it all wrong then.” He turns the bottles over in his hands absently, wondering what’s in them (pain relief herbs, Kanaya had said, but where did she get them from?) and what will happen when they run out. “Kanaya likes humans a lot.”

“Exfuckingcuse me, I should know—“

“She has a human matesprit; I met her, they were all smoochy and everything, kind of awkward. Hey, you like books, don’t you?” He turns around to find Karkat’s jaw agape, which closes with a nasty snap of sharp troll teeth that reminds him of a bear trap closing.

“What?”

“Well, Kan gave you back those books of yours, right? I like reading a lot too, I thought you might—“

“What did you say before? Human matesprit?” He gives a curious hiss, like sucking air in through his needle like teeth and his eyes narrow dangerously. “What the fuck, I didn't know that.”

Something occurs to John, and he slaps a hand over his mouth at how stupid and insensitive he’s been! “Oh no! I’m sorry, d-do you like Kan? You two seem pretty close, maybe I shouldn’t have told you…”

“Oh my god no, don’t even go there, you’re completely on the wrong track, I’m not interested in my best friend, idiot. But… argh, just, fuck, forget about it. She’s insane, that’s what, and don’t call her Kan okay. What’s this about your sorry ass human books designed for shitstained wrigglers?”

John takes a big sigh of relief. Crisis averted! Glad to be on a different subject, because Karkat is baring his teeth in an angry snarl (“Bark worse than his bite, he repeats to himself) he pulls out a couple of worn paperbacks from his shelf. “Hey, my books are awesome, dude. They are masterpieces, I bet you’ll love them. Just don’t punch holes in them with your nails or smear blood over the pages because I’ve had these since I was little.” He brings the stack over to the bed and dumps them next to Karkat, and, after a moment, risks it and hesitantly sits down beside him on the edge, as far as way as possible without falling off. Karkat’s eye twitches but he doesn’t lash out; instead he picks the top one off the pile, reading the blurb in silence, black irises flickering quickly through the words.

“You can read,” he points out conversationally.

“No shit.”

“I just didn’t really think tro—“

“That we’re too uncivilised to know how to? Too savage? Too busy clawing at each other?” He pauses, makes a face. “No actually, that last one is true, but whatever. I’m educated, asshole, probably more than you, and this book looks like shit.”

John is too offended to continue that line of conversation and he’s making too much progress to interrupt; instead he stores it away to find out about later (educated? It can’t be school, he’s pretty sure that there are no troll schools, but he’s heard that sometimes the more intellectual lusi teach their adopted troll children). “Oh man, no, you don’t even know, it’s so good…”

He spends the next ten minutes going through the books with Karkat, who grudgingly admits that some of them sound half decent; but then again he’s not set on the troll’s taste, since at one point he deftly takes the boy’s own books from beside him and reads the blurbs aloud, far out of reach of flailing swearing arms.

“These sound like the sappiest cheesiest romances I’ve ever come across, oh my god.”

“You have no idea what high brow culture and sophistication is in your hands, grubfucker, give it back!”

“You know if you like romance that much, my sister has some more books? Mine are more about awesome heists and adventures, there’s not really that much romance in them.” He hands it back to the grimacing troll (he wasn’t trying to be a dick, just genuinely curious and encouraged by Karkat’s wary calm) who hides it under the covers angrily, making John laugh delightedly. It already feels like something has been broken, some kind of invisible barrier of stiff reservation and stubborn disgust, and Karkat grabs a handful of John’s books and stuffs them under the covers as well, as through he’s storing acorns for the winter like a particularly surly and toothy squirrel. Maybe it’s his own generally upbeat and friendly personality interpreting it as such, but he can see more testiness in Karkat’s eyes than outright anger and loathing, and he takes that as a step forward. He realises excitedly that Karkat already feels more like a boy his own age than a troll swathed and unreachable in hate.

And he sits down on the bed fully this time, pushing his glasses up his nose with one hand while he reaches for a book Karkat hasn’t decided to magpie away yet. “You should read this one! It’s one of my favourites, and…” – his ears blush hot – “it’s a little steamy later on!”

“Read the blurb to me, my arms are getting sore.” He pats down the misshapen lump of novels beneath the covers.

He does. And he can’t stop grinning the entire time, because Karkat is scowling at him in a way that makes it painfully obvious he’s only doing that because he doesn’t know what other expression to have. John images that if he could twist his permanently irritable grimace into something else, it would be a very small and engrossed smile.

Operation Befriend, Stage A: Accomplished.

Chapter Text

It’s hard. He doesn’t think he’s ever attempted something as difficult as this, but at the same time there’s that wonderful thrill that he's been searching for years for, hidden beneath the frustration and boredom; that adrenaline rush that comes from the knowledge that this is something so new to him, to everyone he knows.

He’s glad that Karkat sleeps a lot, dozing fitfully, wrapped up in blankets and bandages in the dark, musky room while John tries so hard to continue his day to day routine so everything seems normal, both to the outside world and to himself. It gives him time to sort out everything – his own emotions, his plans, the future. On the next day he buys a padlock that he chains around the door handle and stuffs the key inside the rim of his hat, since he knows he’ll never lose or misplace that. His room is his own space and his family hardly ever comes to see him there as he’s in the bakery for most of the day, but there’s no harm in being safe, right? And to be honest he is, in the end, more concerned about Karkat trying to run off again. That’s the worst case scenario. He summoned up the energy to try and crawl off with broken ribs and open wounds once – John doesn’t doubt that he’ll try again if he can.

But after the initial first day the troll mellows out. Perhaps "mellowed out" isn’t the right word – it’s more like he just gives up. Accepts that he’s stuck in the tiny dark room with a fussing human and will be for weeks, and it will be more difficult for both of them if he just makes things harder. He keeps to himself, skittish and uncertain of every move and though John tries to strike up conversation he’s more often than not shut down by a snapped response.

He doesn’t mind. Friendship comes with time, he supposes. He isn’t going to give up, not now when he’s almost there, when he has the chance, when he’s seen that tiny sliver of openness already. He’s curious; he wants to discover, to delve deep into Karkat, to ask about the trolls and their way of life, because after the initial horror his natural intense desire to learn arises. The kind that makes him tinker with machines in his spare time, that makes him try to discover why something works and how he can find what makes it run. Admittedly he isn’t very good with machines but Karkat is a living breathing person and that thought excites him more than it should. He wants to prove that all through his life, that muttered mantra of "never trust a troll" was wrong. That it could be disproven, broken, mended back into the right words, no matter how much glue and cajoling he needs to use to get there. Even if the way is difficult and paved with nasty teeth and nastier words.

Actually looking after Karkat is harder than dealing with his tetchy attitude - the passive-aggressive comments slide off his back but the way he goes infuriatingly limp when he tries to fix the bandages or the way he outright refuses help even when he has trouble breathing makes John grind his teeth at night. At dinner time, after he eats with his family in the bakery building, he sneaks a bowl of seconds back to his room which Karkat picks at but ultimately eats. He mixes up the teas and herbs Kanaya has given them, a potent concoction of pain killers and fever medicine, and he checks the bandages regularly just in case some of the stitches have split. He makes a pad of spare bed sheets and pillows against the opposite wall for himself, something more comfortable than dirty clothes and hard wooden floor, so he can keep a watchful eye on his patient. And in return he has a terrible night’s rest, as Karkat sleeps most of the afternoon and is wide awake during the night, the flick of novel pages and strange muttered chirps waking John more than once, giving him gritty eyes in the morning. And he has to help Karkat out around the back to the privy, which is an ordeal within itself and incredibly embarrassing and humiliating for both parties, John half dragging the weak troll down all the stairs and having the door to the outhouse slammed in his face with fierce words. But it isn’t impossible, and already he begins to feel a strange kind of Mother Hen complex by the end of the first day, one that he fluffs proud feathers to.

 

 

The books keep Karkat occupied when he isn’t sleeping, so John has time to rest and catch his breath in-between errands and looking after the troll. He eats through them at an alarming speed, reading during the day when he's awake for brief periods and at night by the light of a candle or, when he finally summons the energy to snap at John, by the boy’s Heir Lamp, which he’s more than happy to light and lend. It keeps him from being restless and calms him during particularly testy moments, and they must be pretty amazing books, however ridiculous, to keep his attention for hours at a time – constant flicking of pages, through morning and night, until somehow he’s almost finished the first one in less than a day.

But when he puts down the books and stares at John, he asks questions that the boy doesn’t have answers to. Questions he struggles to even think about, to even consider.

“Why are you doing this?” Karkat asks again abruptly on the day after John met Kanaya, novel still half open on his lap and his dark eyebrows knitted together. “You could have killed me. Why not?”

“Why would I want to?”

“You wanted to when you found out. You stopped.”

John is sitting at his table, fiddling with a little machine his father had bought him back from the market stores during the festival the other day. He’s supposed to build it himself to find out what it does, but one part is giving him trouble and there are thin sticks of wood and cogs littering his desk and lap. “I didn’t want to,” he replies absently, experimentally twisting one part into another and failing miserably.

“No, asshole. Look at me. Tell me straight to my face. Why.”

The sharp and almost desperately angry tone of voice makes John glance up, surprised, and Karkat looks like he’s struggling internally to find the answer; just like John is. He blinks and pushes his glasses up. “Because I… didn’t want to? What more do you want me to say?”

“You were going to fucking stab me, you can’t just say you ‘changed your mind.’” His hands close into fists, clenching in the sheets. “Why didn’t you do it?”

“Look, I… I did, okay; I changed my mind. I saved you because I didn’t know you were a troll when I did, but whether or not you are one doesn’t change the fact that you’re a person. And you were wounded, I just… I couldn’t do that to anyone, let alone you or a troll, it’s wrong. I can’t even kill a cockroach, okay? I was scared when I realised: all my life I’ve been told that trolls are savage and will kill you if they get the chance and I didn’t want to put my family at risk." He rolls a cog against the table, flushing shyly and realising too late that he's pouring a lot of his internal frustration and confusion into such a sincere response. "That’s why I tried to, but there's no way I could ever murder someone in cold blood. And I’m sorry for that, I really, really am, and it… shouldn’t have happened. So forget it, okay? I’m not going to hurt you; I promise.”

“But what if I did? What if I could kill everyone? I could fucking tear you limb from limb, right now.”

“But you’re not, are you?” He can’t help but smile sadly, leaning over the back of the chair to watch Karkat – his little orange horns that poke through his washed hair, the scrape across his forehead that’s been cleaned and is now red and scabby. His sharp little teeth that he bears through dark lips. He looked so frightening first, but now all he sees is a boy his own age, scared and in an unfamiliar land surrounded by people he doesn’t know, putting on a brave show to hide his weakness and vulnerability. He can see it in his large golden eyes, and it shoots funny pangs to his heart. “I don’t think you could kill anyone either, human or troll or whatever. It’s just a feeling I have. Kanaya said that you won’t hurt me and that you’re angry a lot, but don’t feel it on the inside, and I guess I trust her to tell the truth and trust you to not hurt me.”

 

(Now that he's said it outloud, he supposes that the old moto doesn't mean much to him any more. It's kind of a relief to say it.)

 

It’s paraphrased from what Kanaya had said to him and he’s sort of shooting in the dark, but Karkat’s fists uncurl and his narrow shoulders slump and John knows that he’s hit the bullseye. “Besides,” he continues quietly, “you had the same chance when I had it, and you didn’t do anything. So just… just let me help you? Okay? That’s all I want to do. Because you’re a person too and it would be wrong to not do it. I don’t know, maybe trolls never help each other, maybe you’re scared that I’m lying. Is that it?”

“I…” Karkat takes a deep, shaking breath and winces, holding a hand to his bare ripped chest. “Trolls aren’t… we don’t… You saw what happened to me. That’s what they do to people who fall out of line. They kill you if you’re sick, if you’re injured, if you’re cripple, if you don’t talk the way you should and don’t follow the orders. If you speak out, if you try to change things.”

“That’s terrible!”

“No, that’s life. You survive or you die, that’s all there is.”

“I… heard you talking yesterday with Kanaya,” he admits guiltily. “I didn’t want to listen but what I did hear was… Look, Prospit is safe for you, here is safe for you, even Kanaya thinks so."

"..."

"...They’re not letting you go back to the forest, are they?”

“No. They won’t. Not like I would want to.”

There’s a long moment of silence, where Karkat looks down at his scrapped hands and black nails like they hold the answer to the universe.

“What are… what are you going to do? When you’re better, I mean. If you can’t go back?”

He thinks for a moment that he might answer and holds his breath in nervous anticipation, but instead the troll closes his mouth in a moment of uncertainty and John knows that he’s not going to get any more out of him. Not now anyway, not now when trust is only just being earned. Not when neither of them know the answer – not when his entire life has not only been turned upside down and inside out, but shattered as well, physically, emotionally and probably mentally. Instead, Karkat glances over at the table John’s working at. “Forget it. I’m not talking about that now because I don’t know. The fuck are you doing, anyway?”


He brightens, eager to show Karkat what he’s built so far and to get off such a morbid subject, gathering the mess of gears and wood into his hands like it’s an antique master artwork, holding it up to show the troll. “My dad got it for me. It’s some kind of little machine and I’m supposed to put it together to figure out what it is but I’m sort of stuck. I’m not actually very good at these things, haha.”

“That makes both of us. Bring it over here.”

He obliges, carrying it over in his palm and sitting beside Karkat who takes it gingerly. “Holy fuck you are bad at this, what the mothergrubbing hell is it supposed to even be?”

“Hey, shut up okay, it’s hard! I think it’s supposed to have wings? It came with some, anyway.” He folds up all the pieces into his shirt from the table and brings those over too. “See?”

“No no, you’ve got it wrong, this gear is supposed to go there so it turns clockwise and the wings fit in like… that?”

“Dude no that part goes there, see?”

Karkat makes a face at the mess he holds and the mess of parts John has, seemingly hundreds of little coils and knobs and cogs and no directions. “What kind of sadist gives this as a present to someone?”

“An awesome kind? I’m pretty sure all these parts slot into there but it sort of looks wrong…”

They work on it for a couple of minutes, Karkat seemingly forgetting all about his demanding questions before and John more than happy to distract him from them; they're questions about humanity and morality, questions about life, and he doesn't know if he can even focus on the implications yet, let alone answer them. “You know,” the troll says as one point, “I had a… friend. He was great at mechanics and engineering things.” He turns one mechanism into another, taking the next part from John and slotting it into the space created. His eyes are not sad, but… forlorn. Like he’s remembering some strange memory from long ago.

“Friend? You say that like you don’t know if he was.”

“There’s no word for ‘friend’ in the troll language, it just means the same as enemy. He would have had this finished in five seconds flat, fuck, he was a genius.”

“…Was? He wasn’t—“

“No, he isn’t dead, but… It’s… He may as well be, by now.”

Karkat takes one of the fragile wings, the transparent membranes like a dragonfly’s, so delicate and thin, and jams in into the slot. John winces. He doesn’t continue talking. The troll’s eyes are burning fiercely and he mutely wonders who this “friend” is and what could have, or has, happened to him. He wonders, almost anxiously, if Karkat would ever be interested in accepting friendship if he doesn't understand the concept.

They continue in silence for a while, only the thrum of voices and traffic outside for company; building the machine is almost like meditation, a job that needs to be completely focused on so they can work in synch. And soon, almost without realising it, they’ve finished. Karkat holds it out in his palm and John attaches the last wing into its space – they consider it like the delicate artwork it is. All thin spindly parts and burnished gears, dragonfly wings made of the lightest and toughest gossamer fanning out from the top like a four leaf clover, or one of the little flowers than float down when you twist them.

There are so many gears that make it seem like the wings should spin, but no winding mechanism. That is, until John realises what the open glass bulb in the centre looks almost exactly like – the bulb in his Heir Lamp.

“Oh wow,” he whispers, suddenly understanding, and he takes it from Karkat who looks somewhat cross and confused that nothing is happening. It’s tiny and as light as a feather, about the size of his hand, and the wings shimmer like the surface of a bubble. He holds it up to his face and breaths softly into it.

The bulb begins to slowly brighten until it’s a vivid glowing blue, and holding his hand up, they watch as the gears begin clacking together, spokes winding and moving as it comes to life. The wings whirl, turning around and around until they’re almost a blur, and the blue bulb combined with the sliver of light from the curtains hits the transparent crystal material and explodes with shards of colour the hit the walls and floor as it spins off from his hand into the air, shakily at first, but then steady as the Breeze winds through the cogs.

They watch as it circles the room once, twice, around and again, the refracted light dancing against their faces as it noisily clacks around. A little flying machine that reminds him of his love for the sky, freedom, and for his desire for flight too.

“It’s from Derse,” Karkat says finally.

“How do you know?”

“I’ve seen them before. They have shops set up for toys like this.”

“It’s beautiful.”

They watch it together in silence for long minutes, until it runs out of power and floats to land clumsily on Karkat’s sheets, still only just a machine pretending to be something more. Neither of them move to pick it up – Karkat because he physically can’t, and John because he just wants to stay sitting like this, surprisingly peaceful, in the quiet half-light.

“You know,” he says, “if it’s okay, I’d like to be your friend.”

Karkat whips his head around to stare at him, taken aback. “What?”

“I mean… a friend in the human sense. Not an enemy, not like it means in troll. You’re all alone in Prospit, right? There’s only Kanaya here, isn’t there? I guess you miss the other trolls you knew but… I don’t know. It’s just a thought. I’d like that; if we were, I mean.”

Karkat doesn’t answer him. He stares out the gap in the curtains instead, at the strip of bright blue they can see through the gold curtains, the citadel outside. His mouth is a thin tight line and the shadows under his eyes very deep. But he doesn’t say no, and John is smiling regardless when he picks up the flying machine and places it gently on the bedside table for Karkat.