John doesn’t realize that he’s been grinning absently at a six car pileup until a well-worn iPhone is suddenly thrust in front of his face. He blinks, adjusts for the proximity of the screen, and sees that the Pesterchum app is open.
TG: what are you smiling about
TG: i know bus crashes are hilarious egbert but thats generally the sort of thing you laugh about in private
John blinks again, and realizes that he’s been staring at the television screen at the other end of the study hall for the past few minutes. He looks down at his PDA, atop a pile of pencils and pens and half-finished homework: apparently Dave’s been sending him messages for just as long.
“Sorry!” John flushes pink, a little embarrassed. “I wasn’t ignoring you. I just zoned out a little.”
Dave shrugs one shoulder, face as impassive as it always is, and gestures toward his phone. John scrolls upward, past a few lines of h3y 3g83rt, h3y 3g83rt, and sees Dave’s original message.
TG: you sure about rooming together
TG: i mean i always thought girls needed their space
TG: and this means no more walking around in your bra and panties
TG: no more jazzercise in the living room in that sweet one piece you picked up on sale at target
TG: you cant do those kinds of things with a man around
TG: gives em ideas
John rolls his eyes. “Yes, I’m sure. I don’t even know why we didn’t do this earlier. It would have saved us both money on rent.”
Really, it all seems pretty silly to John. When he’d learned that they were going to be attending the same school, he’d almost assumed that they’d be sharing a room. But he’d been rather surprised to find that Dave had already found a place to stay when he’d visited the campus.
Dave had claimed that he’d been attempting to save John from a lack of sleep due to the plethora of sweet all-night jam sessions he’d be playing from his room. Rose had claimed that Dave was probably wary of living with someone who wasn’t used to the fact that he couldn’t speak. She had said that he was afraid of change.
John’s not really sure which explanation seems more plausible. If he were to go by Rose’s then, apparently, Dave’s gotten more comfortable with talking to John in person. Or maybe his rent is getting just as ridiculously fucking expensive as John’s. Whatever the case, he’s finally agreed to moving into an apartment together to consolidate costs.
“Sure you don’t need any help moving your stuff in? I’m already done with mine, and I could skip class if I need to.”
John’s gotten used to looking at his phone rather than at Dave during conversations. He only has to wait for another second before a reply appears.
TG: nah im good
TG: not too much stuff besides my tables
TG: and i know missing class is blasphemous to you
TG: even five minutes late and youve got to head to the nearest confessional
TG: forgive me father for i have sinned
TG: i left class to take a piss and missed forty-two seconds of glorious lecture material
TG: how could i ever hope to get into nerd heaven now
John throws one of his pencils at Dave, who ducks it without effort. It goes sailing over his head and hits a guy sitting several feet behind him. The man turns to glare at the two of them: Dave feigns interest in the ceiling and John whistles an offbeat tune, the picture of innocence.
They part shortly afterward, with John heading to chemistry and Dave to some complicated physics seminar that John always forgets the name of. And there’s an extra pep to John’s step: he’d skip, if Dave hadn’t already told him that skipping was pretty much the most uncool thing he’d ever seen him do.
But whatever. Dave isn’t looking.
John skips to class anyway.
Dave makes an interesting roommate.
His mess extends throughout the apartment, sometimes even creeping into John’s room. Little reminders of his existence: a cable snaking from the outlet under John’s bed to some tangled mass of extension cords underneath Dave’s desk; a rapier and a broadsword neatly dodged whenever the fridge is opened; containers of apple juice hidden in the cool recesses below the couch. Dave’s music is an ever-present entity: so much that it sort of becomes background noise. He goes home to see his bro one weekend, and John actually has trouble sleeping without a thumping bass lulling him to sleep.
Food is a joint effort: Dave is a terrible cook with a terrible diet, and John will end up buying anything and everything in the store if he heads there. (“But we need Gushers!” he exclaims, holding tightly to the industrial sized package that Dave’s trying to wrench from his grasp.) So in the end, John cooks what Dave brings home, purchased after collaborating on a grocery list (TG: jegus okay egbert but not five boxes), and it all feels so terribly fucking domestic that they run out of jokes to make about it after the first month.
The worst part about rooming with Dave is something that’s not actually Dave’s fault at all. It’s the part where John starts to realize that maybe, just maybe, he’d jumped the gun when telling Karkat he was not a homosexual.
Well. John still thinks he was right about that matter. He still has to adjust his pants whenever Liv Tyler looks particularly sexy in Armageddon. But sometimes there are things that he notices about a guy— well-toned shoulders; appealing angles in the structure of a face; the small of a back leading to form-fitting jeans. Things that John knows the average heterosexual guy wouldn’t notice at all. And that wouldn’t even be a problem, really, except that John notices everything about Dave.
It’s the way Dave comes out of the shower, shades in place and a towel wrapped low around his hips. He’d been training every day of his life before Sburb, and even after, and goddammit it shows. It’s the way Dave reaches for something in the highest of the kitchen cabinets, too lazy to get a chair or a stool, and John can barely keep from staring openly at his exposed abs. Or his wrists when he’s flicking his phone out of his pocket to say something. Or his hair when it’s getting too long, and he has to brush blond strands out of his face when he’s leaning over a textbook—
Three months in, John decides that he probably has to reevaluate the declaration he’d made to Karkat years early.
(Is there such a thing as being Davesexual?)
It doesn’t really bother John, that Dave can’t speak. It had been jarring at first, yeah: finally meeting up in Sburb and expecting to hear a monotone Texan twang, and instead hearing nothing at all. But John’s gotten used to it. Truth be told, he can’t really imagine it being any other way now. Still, it doesn’t occur to him that Dave has other ways of communicating until he actually sees it.
They’re walking back to the apartment after a late night grocery run (TG: how the fuck are we supposed to live without cheetos bro) when they run into a small group of students heading the other direction. One of them, a girl who appears to be slightly older than John, steps forward and waves enthusiastically at Dave.
Dave sighs, and raises a hand in return. The girl bounds over and begins to move her hands wildly through the air. It takes a few moments, but John starts to see patterns in her movements. She’s not just flailing her hands in the air: she’s using sign language.
What’s more, Dave actually responds to her. His hands and arms form distinct symbols in rapid form. He inclines his head toward John and appears to say something, and then she nods her understanding.
“Hi,” she says, and her voice startles John out of the trance the signing had drawn him into. “I’m Rachael. I do work-study as an interpreter here at the university.”
“Oh.” John looks over at Dave, who has his arms crossed over his chest and looks as blank as he always does. “Nice to meet you,” he says, and shakes her proffered hand.
“I have to ask you,” she says, “is he still doing that thing? Where he texts people to talk?”
“Uh…” John looks at Dave again. “…yes?”
Rachael tsks, and actually wags a finger at him. “I keep saying that’s no way to talk to people.” Her voice has an almost lecturing quality to it. Like if Rose suddenly got a little more naggy. “Nobody wants to stare at a screen when they’re trying to talk to you, Dave.”
In response to that, Dave gives her several quick, short signs in succession. They’re jerky and clipped, and Rachael actually looks a bit shocked even before he’s finished.
“Okay, jeez, fine,” she mutters. “I’ll see you later, then.” She takes a step back, and then gives the two of them a tentative wave before heading back to her friends. They’re all signing to each other, John notices as they round the corner and disappear from sight.
They walk for a few moments in silence before John finally asks: “What was that all about?”
Dave adjusts the grocery bags in his hands so he can pull his phone out of his pocket. John’s PDA vibrates:
TG: its asl
“I wasn’t aware we were on a dating site,” John jokes.
TG: clearly ive joined the alternian survival league
“Which operates above sea level.”
TG: theyve got an advance squad leader
“Who works in an atomic space lab.”
TG: and suddenly were talking about karkat
John thinks about that for a moment. “I guess we are! But, hey: I’m sure they end up talking about us all the time, too.”
TG: not too hard to believe
TG: were pretty unforgettable after all
Pretty much everything about Sburb is unforgettable. But that’s not the topic John is interested in at the moment. “But really, I know what it means. I just didn’t know you could use sign language, is what I’m saying.”
TG: had to learn it in school
TG: since apparently pesterchum is not a suitable substitution for effective communication
TG: which is bullshit
TG: and its not like anyone even really needed to talk in class
“I guess that’s true.”
TG: so anyway when i interviewed here they brought her in to interpret for me
TG: i dont know shes not completely fucking terrible or whatever but she keeps bugging me about how i talk to people
“By messaging them, right?” Dave nods, and John continues. “Why don’t you use sign language?”
TG: no point in using it if you cant understand it
TG: besides i dont really like to sign anyway
Dave’s still typing, and normally John would wait for him to complete a thought, but his last sentence is kind of intriguing. “Why don’t you like to sign?”
Dave looks up from his phone, stares at John, and then appears to delete a block of text so that he can start over.
TG: because texting is the shit why would anyone want to speak in any other way ever
TG: seriously egbert you need to get in on this
TG: who even calls people anymore
TG: talking is so pre smartphone man
TG: the future is all text all the time
Hyperbole aside, that’s kind of true, but it doesn’t really answer the question. Or, it does, but this is Dave so that’s definitely not a real answer, anyway. John would press for a real, non-bullshitty answer, too, but Dave has pocketed his phone now, which usually signals the end of a conversation.
They walk home in silence.
John goes out to the school bookstore the next day and gets himself a few books on ASL. He’s a little unsure as to which ones would be the best, so he ends up grabbing a stack of them and hauling them to the checkout counter. It’s not like he can’t return the ones that suck, after all.
The problem, John discovers after flipping to the middle of the American Sign Language Phrase Book, is that he’d sort of forgotten about the Language part of ASL. Sure, the words all translate to English, but there are just so many of them. How does he even combine them to make sentences and phrases? How do you say stuff like ‘Pesturchum’ or ‘Sburb’ or ‘alchemiter’? How does anybody learn to sign quickly at all?
He spends four hours looking from book to book before deciding that there has to be a better approach. Asking Dave himself is out of the question, so John turns to the university’s resources.
It turns out that ASL is offered as a course in the school’s linguistics department. John signs up to audit one (because he’s already got too many classes on his plate: who knew geology was so much work?), and from then on it’s Tuesdays and Thursdays with a class full of kids looking to fulfill a humanities requirement. The professor even states outright that the course is more of a primer than anything else, which is sort of disappointing. But it’s a start, and that’s better than nothing.
It takes a couple of months before John builds up the courage to say anything. He’s looking through the fridge one day when Dave passes by, drops into a chair at the kitchen table, and sends him a message.
TG: we have a serious fucking crisis egbert
TG: were out of milk
TG: i considered calling the national guard but it seemed like too big of a mission for them
TG: so it looks like youre the only man for the job now
John clears his throat (he’s not even sure why), turns, and clumsily signs back what he thinks is the equivalent of ‘get it yourself, asshole’.
There’s a moment of silence, where Dave goes completely still. John’s heart skips a beat, and then Dave’s tapping away furiously at his phone. A message pops up on John’s PDA.
TG: what the hell was that egbert
The classes plus self-study means that the alphabet is a piece of cake by now, so John has no problem forming the letters ‘A’, ‘S’, and ‘L’.
TG: because you just told me to go fuck a toaster
John gapes. “Seriously?”
Dave’s eyebrows lift skyward: he’s rolling his eyes behind his shades.
TG: no retard
TG: but why are you even learning sign language
TG: i dont know if you forgot
TG: i mean i can never tell with you
TG: but you can actually talk
TG: this is a pretty useless endeavor
TG: dont you have rocks to categorize or something
John blurts his answer before he can even really think about the words he’s saying.
“I want to understand you,” he says. “By looking at you, I mean. I’m learning it for you.”
John marks his PDA’s calendar later that day. It’s a historical moment, after all. It’s not every day—or decade, or millennium, even—that Dave Strider is speechless.
Well. In the figurative sense. Obviously.
Dave is a bit awkward about it after that, though. He shakes off John’s efforts to try to practice, and remains stubbornly attached to his phone when speaking, no matter how much John tries to persuade him otherwise. Rose starts in on her psychoanalysis the moment John mentions this to her:
TT: I wouldn’t expect any different from Strider, to be honest.
EB: why’s that?
EB: i mean, i don’t think i offended him.
EB: he doesn’t seem pissed. just kind of... nervous?
TT: He’s used to using words as a weapon. And, at times, they become something like a crutch.
TT: I suppose he’s a bit like me in that respect.
TT: He doesn’t have to show you any part of himself while he’s typing. But when he’s signing, he opens himself up.
TT: It’s too personal to him, and it leaves him vulnerable.
TT: I think that might be the reason why we never see him do it.
EB: i guess that makes sense...
EB: i mean, i don’t know if that’s actually how he feels, but i guess i can’t MAKE him do it.
EB: i just thought it would be nice to talk without pesterchum as a middleman, you know?
TT: I understand.
TT: You’ve already noted this, but I don’t think it’s something that we can, or should, push him into.
TT: Just give it some time, John.
Another week or so goes by, with John spending his free time poring over the books he’d purchased and looking up example videos online. Even If Dave is determined to stick with messaging him, John figures it can’t hurt to at least try to learn.
He’s half asleep over an oceanography textbook when a light rapping at the door wakes him from his daze. Dave stands there, leaning at the frame with his arms crossed. (The best way to look cool, John’s realized, is to lean on things.)
John waves him into the room. “What’s up?”
Dave makes no immediate move toward his phone. Instead, he looks at John, for what seems like a long time. He’s starting to fidget in his chair by the time Dave finally speaks.
He signs slowly, so that John can catch every motion, but it’s simple enough that the meaning is easily understood.
‘Do you know the alphabet?’
John nods vigorously, then flushes when Dave raises both eyebrows at him. “I mean, yeah. Sorry. Keep forgetting I’m allowed to talk. They don’t let us talk in class, sometimes.”
Dave shrugs, and then crosses the room in three steps. He drops onto John’s bed and, after the slightest hesitation, pushes his shades back to the top of his head. He produces his phone from his back pocket and sends John a message.
TG: well start with the basics
TG: try to keep up
John starts to love it when Dave talks with his hands.
In Pesterchum, he’s the epitome of snark. Sometimes he types almost as fast as John can speak. When he’s impatient, waiting for a message to go through, or when there’s no service (that had never been a problem in Sburb, had it?), he holds up his phone in front of John’s face so that he can read it.
When he signs, though. That’s when John really sees him. Successful communication through sign language, he reads in his textbook, is often equal parts movement and facial expression. Which is probably why Dave didn’t do it very often, like Rose had said. Now he keeps his eyes visible when he does, something that John considers a private victory. Who else can claim that Dave Strider takes off his shades for them?
(Sometimes John’s mind replaces ‘shades’ with something much less innocuous, like ‘pants’, and then he starts into some dark territory that’s much better left for midnight under the covers, or during a hot shower. Nothing’s more embarrassing than getting a boner while signing with your mute best friend, after all.)
Some of the biting nature of Dave’s sharp comments are a little lost in the flurry of hand and arm signals. The syntax isn’t always as distinct as text, and the intensity of many words and phrases is sometimes left to interpretation. But what’s lost in one place is gained in another: Dave speaks with his whole body when he’s signing. He grimaces, exaggerates, tilts his head and moves his shoulders and, on very rare occasions, even smiles.
John thinks the most fun comes out of trying to make Dave laugh. He’s a cool guy to the extreme, which means that it’s hard as hell to do. But when he does, it’s the most wonderful thing. It’s almost completely silent, save for a few breathy exhalations of air, but to John, it’s perfect. It’s the kind of laugh that, for any other person, would come after they’ve laughed so long that their chest hurts and their eyes water and they’re slapping their knees and trying to regain air.
It’s after one such episode (John so horribly fucks up a sentence that its meaning is apparently quite vulgar—this is actually becoming a regular occurrence) that the dam sort of just breaks. Dave recovers from laughing, goes through the motions of starting a new phrase, and then John finds himself reaching forward.
Before he knows it, he’s grasping Dave’s hands in his own. He mutters an absent apology as he drags a thumb over sword-callused fingers and palms. John never thought hands would be a turn on, but as he feels short, bitten nails and the scarred pads of Dave’s fingers, he feels a tingling warmth begin to pool at the center of in his stomach. His cheeks feel hot and his ears are on fire, and this all must look pretty uncool to Dave right now, but John can’t seem to bring himself to care.
Dave, for his part, goes completely silent. Well, obviously: his hands are tied. He’s stock still for a long moment. Then he starts to pull away, maybe to try and say something, but John pulls him closer, and their noses collide for a brief second, and—
And John wonders why they never did this earlier.
He’s the first to come up for air, which could mean a million different things, all of which race through John’s mind as his heart beats a million miles a minute. Dave still has his eyes closed. A blonde eyebrow twitches. He reaches for his phone.
TG: you could warn a guy before initiating a sloppy makeout session you know
TG: wouldve puckered up
TG: put on my truth or pear lip gloss
John heaves a sigh of relief. The vise gripping his chest slowly decompresses, allowing him to take a deep, calming breath. “You’re not mad?” he asks.
Dave looks toward the ceiling, as if to ask God/Karkat why he’s stuck with such a dense roommate.
TG: no egbert im furious
TG: my first kiss stolen
TG: you just dont know what that means to a girl
TG: ive been violated here
TG: ill never trust another man again
TG: feel free to stop me any time
“Okay, okay, I get it!” John drags a shaking hand through his messy hair. “But you’re not weirded out by this? At all?”
TG: to tell the truth i was starting to wonder how long i needed to walk around this place half naked
TG: for you to get the picture
John’s jaw drops. “Wait—you—you were doing that on purpose?”
Dave says nothing, just tilts his head to the left and gives him an ‘honestly?’ look.
“What, like I’m supposed to—augh, whatever!” John smacks a palm to his forehead. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
Dave simply points back at him… which might mean any number of things: ‘Why didn’t you say anything?’, ‘I was waiting for you to figure it out’, ‘You’ve got something on your shirt’, etcetera. And even if the first or second options seem the mostly likely, they still don’t make much sense to John. Dave’s never been the kind of person to just sit back and let things happen to him, after all. He’s proactive. He always makes the first move.
John’s inner-Rose whispers: ‘He’s also afraid of change’, but he quickly shoos her away and tries to focus on the matter at hand. A matter that suddenly seems a lot more daunting then it had several minutes ago. “Okay, so… yeah. This happened.”
TG: this is a thing that did in fact happen yes
John shifts on the couch, suddenly overwhelmingly nervous. “So what do we do now?”
Dave sets his phone down on the coffee table and pushes himself closer. His hands form simple signs, spelling out what John doesn’t know:
‘Try it again?’
Then, after a short pause:
‘Know it’s hard for you, Egbert, but less teeth this time.’
John rolls his eyes and sticks out his tongue, and leans forward again to meet Dave halfway. They're still a bit clumsy--teeth clacking together gently and their noses still pressed against each other-- but to John, it couldn't be any more perfect.
Well, it could. When they break away again, Dave drops his head on John's shoulder and breathes in deeply; John takes this opportunity to dive in and leave what will soon be a rather prominent mark on Dave's neck. With teeth and everything.
He's still learning, after all. There's plenty of room for misinterpretation.