The sun has been up for hours, and so has Karkat, cutting down and sheaving wheat since he rolled out of bed, but he’s still not yet halfway through the field. Possibly he’s not even a quarter of the way done, if he’s honest. He’s grimy and sweaty in his tunic, but he has to wear the long sleeves if he doesn’t want his skin to blacken under the too-bright, too-hot sun. The mosquitoes have been feasting on his mutant blood and the itching is driving him mad, his back hurts from bending over to cut the stalks, his face hurts from squinting in the harsh sunlight, and he really, really wishes he could do this at night, but living in a human-run kingdom means that a nocturnal schedule just isn’t good for business. Last year he’d tried keeping a nocturnal sleep pattern just for the harvest, but when they’d traveled up to town during the day to barter with the merchants, restaurant owners and bakers, he’d been nearly asleep on his feet. It was only John’s intervention that had saved him from having half his wares stolen out from under his round nose.
It’s embarrassing to remember how he had been too exhausted to keep up with what was going on, staring dumbly at John’s triumphant grin while the boy nattered on about what, Karkat couldn’t even recall.
As though thinking of the prince summons him, Karkat hears a familiar goofy voice calling. “Kaaaaaaaarkaaaaaaaat!” With a grunt, the troll stands, lower back protesting any and all movements vehemently. The way John draws out his name is irritating, especially knowing whom John picked that trait up from, and Karkat is scowling when he turns to face the prince. Then again, he tries to make a point of always frowning at John.
There’s a cool breeze sliding across Karkat’s sweat-damp face, and despite his unending ire, he can’t help but relax in the wind. John is at the road, starting to make his bumbling way through the field to Karkat.
Well, it was nearly time for lunch anyway. Karkat puts his sickle aside and unceremoniously plants himself down on a nearby rolled sheaf of wheat, digging through the pack on his hip for lunch. John reaches him by the time Karkat is taking his first bite of dried jerky, and sits on the ground in front of Karkat, facing him. The troll hesitates for a moment; it doesn’t seem at all proper to be seated higher than the prince, looking down on him while sloppily tearing through a chunk of dried meat. But John is grinning up at him with those over-large buckteeth that he insists he’ll grow into, all shining blue eyes and chin propped in his hands, and Karkat ignores the brief feeling of unease.
Besides, he knows from experience that if he makes any deal about it at all, John will call him silly and remind him that they’ve been friends ever since Karkat was fresh out of his cocoon, and why should it matter if John wants to be comfortable around his good buddy?
Karkat can’t quite curb all his urges, however, and once he chews and swallows his first bite, he gives John an extra-strength frown and demands, “Where are your guards?”
John grins sheepishly, playing with the elaborately curved guard of his sword. “Probably still outside my room in the castle,” he admits, his smile changing from sheepish to prideful as he no doubt recalls whatever tricks and shenanigans he employed to make his escape. Karkat tries to think of a way to reprimand John for such foolish behaviour, but it’s hard to act like he’s displeased. There is no love lost between Karkat and the castle guard, and he definitely prefers being able to see John without also being subject to the intent glares of five or so hulking carapaces.
Then again, he would also rather not be the only one responsible for the prince’s safety. The weeks leading up to the solstice festival are always full of new faces, strangers and travelers passing through. Karkat is glad for the influx of fresh customers for his wares, but not so glad that he can afford to forget that there is unrest in other regions, that not everybody agrees with the king’s amiable attitude towards trolls, that even if there were no trolls and only humans some asshole would still find a shitty excuse to say that they’d be a better king than John’s dad, and that there have been coups directed towards John before.
“It’s okay,” John says, knowing the tracks Karkat’s mind is taking and waving a hand dismissively. “I’m with you! Nobody would mess with somebody who looks as tough as you do.”
Karkat can’t help but preen, even if he knows that John is about as intelligent as a stalk of wheat, and that nothing the human says should ever be considered seriously.
“Why would you even ditch your guards and come here in the first place?” he asks, ripping off another chewy chunk of meat.
“You said that you were starting the harvest this week! I wanted to see!”
Karkat is still chewing, but he doesn’t let that stop him from expressing his disdain. “Oh, it’s just about the most fun a wriggler could have under the sun. You could not have a more enjoyable time if you had sixty bulgemunching courtesans feeding you seedless grapes and fanning you with a large fern while you reclined on a pile of wool-stuffed fabric squares and fondly regarded gladiators engaged in brutal combat to the death.”
It is a common occurrence for John to laugh at Karkat’s surly attitude, and today is looking to be no different from any other day. When the heir has his giggles under control, he remains smiling at Karkat. The troll viciously chews his jerky in response.
“If it’s that great, maybe I could help?”
“There is no fucking way I am putting a sickle in your hands. You would somehow manage to gut yourself fatally just in time for your guards to catch up to us and watch your pathetic demise, and I would end up publicly flogged and executed for regicide. I would sooner walk down the streets of Derse blindfolded and unarmed before I trusted you with a bladed weapon. Why the hell does anybody allow you to carry a goddamned sword around, anyway?”
John’s eyebrows furrow a little, and Karkat almost feels guilty before he remembers he should be actively attempting to discourage the prince’s friendship with him, and this would be progress if he didn’t know that within five minutes John would bounce right back to his normal cheery self. Even if the sight of John running his fingers along the ornate metalwork that is his sword’s hilt and guard and biting at his lip regretfully does cause the slightest of twinges in Karkat’s chest.
“It’s symbolic,” the heir replies, voice subdued. “It’s been passed down through the family.”
Karkat rolls his eyes at the mention of human inheritance and family structures. (Though, he will admit, choosing a ruler just because of who their parent happens to be is no more idiotic than choosing a ruler based on blood colour.)
“Well,” he concedes, “at least if nobody knows you, they might think you know what you’re doing with it. You could use it to bluff, or something.” It’s a pretty shitty option in Karkat’s opinion, since John can’t actually lie effectively (though neither can Karkat, so he has little room to judge, but that’s never stopped him before). Still, better to at least look like you could hold your own.
Karkat’s jerky is all gone by now, and the sun is still moving across the sky. His eyes drift across the rest of the wheat in the field, which will take him at least another full day to harvest. He has no excuse to dally, and so he reluctantly stands, stretching out his back, face pinching at the sore muscles he feels. John bumbles to his feet as well, sword bouncing comically on his hip as he tries to sort his legs out beneath him.
“Well, I guess, if I shouldn’t touch a sickle and I can’t really help… I should let you get back to work?” John’s grin is all regrets and beaver teeth, and Karkat hides his own face by bending to pick up his sickle again.
“I guess,” Karkat starts, regretting the words before he even begins to form them, but for some stupid reason still speaking, “if you aren’t busy with, I don’t know, royal duties that are probably a whole fuckton more important than offering your help to some peasant who is on the absolute bottom of the barrel, or in fact more like the grime underneath the barrel, and I am talking about that nasty sticky layer of shit that will never come off the pub floor under the barrel… I mean if you felt like sticking around, I’m not going to tell you to go away, who the hell am I to tell you what to do?”
John has an eyebrow raised at him, and Karkat realizes he is rambling about as badly as Kanaya. His face flushes dark and he hastily turns, grabbing at stalks of wheat while he grumbles.
“Fuck, okay, I guess all I am trying to say is that maybe the work seems like it’s going faster when you have somebody to talk with, even an idiot of the highest caliber like you! All right? Stay, go, I honestly do not care what.”
When he straightens with an armful of cut wheat, and chances to look over his shoulder, the prince has the smuggest little smile Karkat has ever seen on him.
Karkat turns back to his wheat and furiously slashes. Soon enough the sound of John’s babbling joins the noises of Karkat’s hacking at the plants.
Later, at the solstice festival, John will get kidnapped. Karkat will be horrified, but not incredibly surprised. People more qualified than Karkat, knights and mercenaries, will attempt to rescue the prince, but it will be Karkat who will be left with that damn sword with the artfully curved metalwork at the hilt, Karkat who will recall the memory of John’s idiot grin. Karkat will leave his tiny farm against the advice of everybody he knows save Kanaya, who will wish him luck. Later, it will be Karkat who will find the prince again.
For now it is late evening of the first day of the harvest, the sun is setting, and John is making an embarrassing remark about the colour of Karkat’s irises and the colour of the sky. For now Karkat is yelling at the idiot prince, mindless of their respective stations, and later he will find John against all odds just to yell at the human for getting his moronic self kidnapped.
For now, John is shoving a handful of wheat down Karkat’s tunic and laughing, and Karkat wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.