Here’s what never happens:
John is thirteen and Dave is young, tormented in lightning and unspoken words. They sit together on a decaying apartment building, the hot air of Texas billowing against their flushed skin. Above them, the stars twinkle in snapshots of a distant past, shining millions of years too late, dying millions of years too slow. Their distant gleam watched over the history of time, to when the forbidden fruit sat in the tree.
John’s hand splays out lazily against the cement. Dave’s hand, lined with scars, curls inches away, but inches were a lifetime to snails and miles to a map.
Dave’s heart throbs in his ears, and he watches John stare up at the stars, because the storm lashed out and poured against his shaking frame. He obediently loves the dark curls around John’s ears, the blunt nails on his fingers, his childish wonderment at the sky above them. The storm thrashes his heart, but still, he cannot move, because the words under his lips tore down buildings, crumbled dreams. His fingers shake because he does dares—
(Somewhere, in his heart, a tree burns behind him into blackened ashes and dark soot, smearing with his blood from stabbed fingers and scraped shins. But the branch is already growing and he cannot go back to the burned remnants, so he climbs, vines wrapped around his heart.)
He slips his clammy fingers to clutch at John’s hand, the inches scoured away, and the storm howling in his heart. John starts, a small movement rolling from his shoulders to his spine, but Dave pretends not to see. He watches the timeless stars above them, the faint traffic noises filling his ears with song.
John says nothing, and watches the stars. When he finally speaks, he points out a constellation and traces the stars with the tips of his fingers. Dave’s hand grows sweaty and hot until the night grows too late to make excuses to stay. John says he’d like to stargaze again.
Dave rubs his sweaty palms on his jeans, but his hand curls against his will, remembering the structure and warmth of the hand beneath him.
Here’s what never happens:
John is fifteen, and Dave is fire, flames licking at his feet. He sits on John’s floor as John plays a refrain. John’s fingers arch over the black and white keys, his back straight, movements flickering. The music pounds against Dave’s heart, the soft notes running off like rivulets against his bones, the hard ones ramming through his gritted teeth. The song winds around him, a playful melody pressing against his softest parts, before drifting away into silence.
“So,” John says, voice purposefully breaking through the serene lingering of his song, “Did you like it?”
“Shit was smoother than a bald man’s head slathered in Rogaine,” he says, because the song had nestled protectively inside his heart.
“God, you wanted a bedtime song, and you got it. Go to sleep already.” John flicks off the lights, but the moonlight still illuminated his floor. Their half-finished science project, a volcano arbitrarily dedicated to Bill Murray, sits on the desk. They were partners for the shitty project, long enough to require a sleepover, long enough to build a blanket and pillow fort with his geeky ghost sheets, too short to finish their work.
John settles into the fort, splayed out in a mess of limbs, and Dave is a relentless fire, every reminder of John a kindling. He lies half-heartedly with his DS, poking mechanically at the buttons, because he memorizes the smell of the room and the bridge of John’s nose, the innocent way he looks when his eyes are half-shut. After a few minutes have passed, he shuts off his DS and slides it away, rustling underneath the blankets to try and have a dreamless sleep.
But even as his eyes almost close, sudden warmth snaps him awake. John isn’t asleep, he can tell by the soft fluttering of dark eyelashes, but he isn’t all awake. He presses himself against Dave without a word, soft breaths coming out as sharp sounds in the silence. Dave is a fire, bristling hot against every touch, scorched skin every contact with John’s body, and he feels the bones of John’s shoulder blade dig into his clavicle, and he burns inside, lava running slow through his veins and leaving charred remains of his lungs for wispy inhales.
John falls asleep like that, half-curled against Dave, in their big wide blanket fort. Dave stares up at the blankets, burning at the touch, the sleep flying out his thoughts and replaced with wordless emotions, darting back and forth in the ashes.
He thinks he loves John, and the thought crushes him.
Here’s what never happens:
John is seventeen and Dave is electricity, all metal shells and motor hums, bits soldered together and welded apart. He wears his suit with the crooked bowtie and sloppy cuffs, and John’s mouth widens into an impressive ‘o,’ clapping his hands together. Dave stuffs his hands awkwardly into his pockets, allowing John to run his fingers across the thread, to touch with innocence, fraying the red and blue wires within.
“You’re going to look great at the dance,” John says reverentially.
“Hell yes I’d look great. Just gotta grab some arm candy, an eye trophy, and we’ll be good to go.” Dave’s eyes jerk back and forth behind his shades, but John grins obliviously at him, all teeth and no understanding.
“Wow, look at the big shot here, acting like he doesn’t already got a date. Bet you have so many dates, you can’t even handle the dates.” John’s nose wrinkles in amusement over his own joke, and Dave bumps him fondly.
“I’d handle all the dates I want, loser. But I don’t have one yet. Maybe nobody’s going to fall for the Strider charm this year, go fly solo this year.”
“Um, no? Because you’re a great guy and you could get anybody you wanted. Not to actually appreciate you or nothin’, but you’re pretty great, Dave.”
John works his fingers over Dave’s tie, and Dave’s mechanical whirring heart skipped a few steps in his programming. He likes John because John didn’t cite popularity statistics, didn’t measure him by the bar charts of love letters left in his locker. John looks at him with his clear blue eyes and sees him for his entirety, sees the fissures of his faults and the snaps of his failures, and still believes in him, more than anyone he knew.
“What about you?” he asks, trying to shake away his own thoughts.
“I dunno. I was thinking about asking Vriska or something. I’m not really sure, though.” John turns towards the triple mirror standing in front of them, running his fingers through his dark hair to pat down the mussed curls.
“Don’t ask her,” he says, and he hurries on, before John can even still his hand, “You should go with me.”
In the reflection, he can see John’s face. He waits for the disgusted expression, the anger, the mocking laughter. He waits with a sinking heart, busted parts, fingers twitching, chest caving into his darker cavities. He waits, and John pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose.
“As a joke?” John asks, his voice barely a low hum against the department store music. The fluorescent lights shine down upon them, and Dave’s metal heart beats helplessly against his flurry of thoughts, nothing but binary code curling his fingers into fists, digging his nails deep against the bed of his palm until small red crescent marks angrily appear.
“No,” he says. “Not as a joke.”
John rocks back and forth on his shoes, and Dave waits for John to react in disgust, in embarrassment, in a flurry of babbling drowning out the miles of their years, rewinding their friendship to stiffer times, but John smiles.
“Okay,” John says. “Not as a joke.”
Everything in Dave sags in relief, the tenseness of his body flooding away through his fingertips. But he keeps his stiff face, because John is talking again about suits and dances and fruit punch to bring, his fingers drawn back against Dave’s tie, where he almost touches the bareness of Dave’s skin.
Here’s what never happens:
John is 21 and Dave is trying, trying, trying. It’s Christmas and they linger at the apartment, the specials playing in the muted background. Their apartment is covered with posters of terrible movies and actual cool posters, the jars of dead animals planted firmly next to extra magic trick equipment dangling from the shelves. Their faded couch barely fits one, and is now fitting two, worth their weight in alcohol. John’s breath smells like whiskey, and Dave allows him to mash against his legs. His knees ache underneath the weight, but John rests his head against Dave’s shoulder.
“It’s Christmas,” John whispers, fingers small against his oversized Christmas sweater. He wears a gaudy green knitted thing, a questionable Rudolph smiling up at them, but Dave wears suspenders with his coat jacket thrown across the room, so he curls his arm around John’s waist and presses his fingers against Rudolph’s mouth.
“Merry Christmas,” Dave mumbles, aware of his own drunken breath steaming out. The room is dark, only the television lights shining down on the mass of magazines on the coffee table, and John’s voice sounds ten thousand miles away.
“Did you get what you wanted?”
“You got me a pretty sweet gift.” John had gotten him a pretty sweet gift. After pulling the rudimentary fake gift fake-out, where Dave pretended to be unimpressed with a flaccid puppet lying at the bottom of the snowy packaging peanuts, John had presented him with the old albums he had mentioned briefly that he wanted.
“Yeah, I did, fuckass. But—” John dramatically inhaled, and his exhale blew warm against Dave’s bare neck. “I asked if you got what you wanted.”
“I got what I wanted.” He got what he wanted. A Christmas spent with John. Even the talk show hosts blabbering on the screen couldn’t depress him. He drew back his elbow to rest against the small of John’s back, rubbing at his spine through the wooly sweater. But John peers blearily at him, glasses skewed, frown teasing on his lips, before a light settles in his eyes and he leans forward.
John kisses him, briefly, on the lips. He still his hand on John’s hip, and he thinks John tastes like the cherry bourbon left on the table, his lips a little chapped, his aim off-kilter, getting mostly the side of his mouth in a chaste kiss. But the kiss is warm, and something strains in his heart when John leans back.
“Did you get what you wanted?” John asks, eyes half-closed and head tilted.
“Yeah,” he finally says, and his voice comes out raspy and hoarse. “Yeah, I got what I wanted.”
John smirks, and he leans back into Dave again for comfort. Dave thinks licking his lips would be too much, but when John has his eyes closed during the commercials of quick fix-it plans and false dreams, Dave lets his tongue snake out and swipe his bottom lip. He thinks about all the things he has under control, the shitty film class who applauds his work, washing the dishes every other day, bribing John to wash the dishes for him, coming home to John curled up on the couch with his textbook in his lap. And he thinks about the person he’d never control.
Here’s what never happens:
John is 23 and Dave is lying in bed, sheets tangled around him.
“This can’t happen again,” John mumbles into his hands. Dave breathes through his nose, because his shades are haphazardly tossed against the wall, so his expressions are vulnerable in the morning light. All around them, the room lies in chaos, scattered clothes and upturned dressers. John is breaking into the comedian business, so his fake noses and silly hats have been recklessly tossed into the kitchen. Dave is the up-and-coming film director, but his notes spread like a thin carpet across the floor.
“Yeah,” Dave finally says. “Shit. It was a mistake.”
“Did you think it was a mistake?” John suddenly turns, eyes bigger without his glasses. They hadn’t gotten out of bed yet, the curtains still drawn enough to darken the expressions in the room. Dave’s breath catches in his throat, but he answers with rugged assurance, a plastic confidence.
“What else could it be? Having sex with your best friend. It’s a one-night stand sort of thing. You’re my one-night stand.” The words slowly crack him open, spilling out something precious, ripping his stomach and digging into his lungs, but he urgently adds, “But you were good, a real Casanova, you’re a game master with your button pressing.”
“Um, thanks. You were, too?” John runs his fingers through his hair, and Dave wonders why John needs to wear clothes, when all his motions play out in his muscles, his smooth skin, the small bumps of his spine and the pronunciation of his ribs. He watches John sit up straighter, the sheets pale as they slid down his hips.
“So that’s settled,” he says. “We won’t do it again.” The night before had been spur of the moment, a long moment with no time to regret. But the morning light shining through the curtains brought down heavy feelings, and no documentary he made could fill the sudden unhappiness mingling inside him.
“I wouldn’t call it a mistake,” John says. “But I mean, yeah. One-night stand. Yeah.”
The chances of sleeping with John Egbert again effectively crushed, Dave rolls his shoulders in a shrug. He pretends not to care, because caring is a weakness. Because his entire life had been devoted to caring too much, and without the protection of his shades, he couldn’t risk the downturn of the lips, the creasing at the corner of his eyes.
“But I always figured one-night stands ended when people got out of bed. And, um, we haven’t gotten out of bed… yet…” John tents his fingers on the sheets. Dave stills, eyes flickering across the room in case he heard wrong. In case his delusions had taken over his mind, and he grew vapid in his imaginary room with his imaginary friend. But he swallows his dry throat. Tentatively, he touches John’s arm, and tentatively, John kisses him again.
Sex is messy and rushed, full of promises to never do it again. They promise each other three more times before Dave finally grows too hungry, and they bargain a one-night stand only truly ends if they both left the sheets, so they call a pizza delivery man and John answers wrapped in sheets. They eat on the bed, and promise two more times before Dave drifts off for a short nap. They skip their classes for the day, but the descent of the night leaves them with more hurried whispered talk, until they agree, a one-night stand really only ends after a day, and a day in the world is more like a year. When the year passes, they silently agree a day is the same thing as a lifetime, and they don't talk about it again.
Here’s what never happens:
John is 25 and Dave is watching a Nick Cage marathon. He provides the bucket of popcorn, salted exactly to John’s taste, as they sit in their new house. John is a comedian and Dave makes shitty movies, and their income together gets them enough for a white-picket fence and gaudy flamingos littering their front yard. John affectionately wipes his greasy hands on Dave’s arm, which had been tossed loosely around his shoulders, and they watch Nick Cage’s face for the millionth time in a row. Dave usually complains until his voice becomes part of the film experience, but tonight, he is quiet, absorbed in the television screen.
Until John bites into his popcorn, and finds a gold ring instead.
“Hopy shit, do you think someone accidentally dropped this in here? Wow, this is a lot better than a thumb.” John turns the ring over and over again in the light, searching along the band, brushing against the beacon jewel.
“I think someone purposefully put that in there.”
“Oh, yeah? How would you know that?” John defiantly stares up, but his expression slowly drops as the realization lurks behind him. “Oh. Oh, God, Dave.”
“John Egbert, would you make me the happiest man alive—”
“Oh, wow, Dave, shut up—”
“And do me the honor in taking my hand—”
“I said shut up, Dave!”
“In marriage, to have and to hold—”
John shoved his hand over Dave’s face, and they scrambled over in each other in upturned popcorn, Nick Cage’s voice rippling throughout their living room. They land on the rug, and John straddles him with the ring clutched in his hand like a life preserver. John has a strange expression on his face as he twists the ring around, over and over, in his hand. His lips pinch, and his weight is heavy.
“You don’t have to say yes,” Dave tells him, moving to touch his wrist. When John’s muscles flexed, he could feel the veins press up beneath his tongue. He runs his fingers down the slender curve of the bone, stroking the warm skin.
“It’s just that I don’t think you really understand, Dave, because you’re gonna be marrying me.” John gnaws on his bottom lip, an old habit paid in specks of blood and overturned emotion.
“Yeah, and I really bought that ring for myself. Night on the town, just me and Rose, showing off our gams, you and Jade can stay in and watch horror flicks all night.”
“No, I just mean—” John nervously runs his fingers across the gold band. “I just don’t got a lot, Dave. You know? I’m just a half-baked comedian and I watch all the stuff you hate and you keep stepping on my magic boxes and there’s glitter everywhere and I just don’t know, because you’re not going to be marrying a lot, and you could do better, and I don’t know why you even like me so much.”
Dave lays back, hair mussed on the floor, and watches John shrink away from the sun glow of the ring. He reaches up, touching the side of John’s face, and strokes his cheek with his thumb, a soft drawn movement, like the ascent of the moon.
“Because you still ask stupid questions like that, dumpass. You’re too damn good for me, but I’m not letting this pass me by. I’d regret it all my life if I didn’t get to live the rest of my life with you.” He thinks, for a split second, he can see the branch of time, the tree buried deep in his heart, the roots tangled and squeezing his breath. He thinks he can see a universe where John refuses to marry him, burdened by the shadows of his insecurities, breaking under the small voices scratching under his skin. But John touches his fingers, like they were fragile and broken.
“I think I love you,” John says, in a small childish voice.
“Yeah.” He stares up at John, waiting.
“You probably don’t remember, but a long time ago, we were out stargazing on top of your apartment and it was super hot that night and there was a lot of cars going by but it was really nice, and then you held my hand and I thought it was pretty weird but it was actually really normal, and that’s the weirdest part, because it felt really natural and right, and you know, that’s when I thought it wouldn’t be bad.”
“What wouldn’t be bad?” Dave always remembered that night. He never spoke about it, not for anniversaries or birthdays, because he was ashamed of his adoration, of the way he still watched John fall asleep in the fading evening light and still love with him with all the stormy emotions of youth.
“I thought it wouldn’t be bad,” John repeats, sliding the ring onto his finger, “if I could spend the rest of my life holding hands with you.”
They say nothing, the ache of happiness betrayed on their faces, and John hurries to kiss him and Dave tries to sit up and their heads bash together and they’re another mess of sloppy kisses and warm hands, throbs of the heart echoing in their chests.
Here’s what never happens:
John is 85 and Dave is old. For once, Dave is awake first in the morning. His back burns with dull pain, his joints quietly scream. He hobbles over to the sink, where he splashes his face with cool water. In the mirror, he traces the wrinkles on his face, the loss of color in his hair, the strange bow shape of his fingers. When he finishes his hour-long bathroom routine of necessity and vanity, he is surprised to see John still on the bed.
He’d lived for years with John to know some things. John woke up first and made breakfast for the both of them, John kept his socks in haphazard order, John sometimes fell asleep on the sofa, still touching the remote. He couldn’t remember a time when John didn’t wake first, and he considers making breakfast for the both of them as a surprise for the occasion. But the thought of work makes his knees ache even more, and he sits on the bed to cushion the ever-present pain.
John still got work for his comedian routine, all the more popular after he acted on some shitty show. But he grew tired often, and slept with his mouth open. For Dave, his movies had grown in expected popularity, the shittier movies the better. He collects movie memorabilia for John to coo over at home, and attends enough of John’s cheesy stand-ups that he has come to expect a usual order of apple martinis when sitting in a club.
But John usually wakes up early, and Dave reaches over to touch his shoulder. It takes a few light shakes for John to roll over, his eyes dim. Dave leans down to kiss him, John’s mustache tickling his nose, and notices John’s shaking hands.
“It’s late in the morning,” Dave murmurs. “Gotta wake up early, hotshot, or maybe I’ll run away with a hot young thing.”
“Yeah, right. You’ll break your back running away, dickweed.” But John’s eyes blearily close for another long moment. When he opens them again, he stares at the clock and tries to fumble for his glasses on the nightstand. His movements are slow and pained, and Dave gently presses the glasses into his hands.
“Maybe we shouldn’t visit Casey today.”
“Forgot that was today.” John’s hands drop, too shaky to place the glasses on his face. Their eyes meet, and Dave sadly smiles.
“You’re not gonna get up anymore, are you?” Dave pulls up the blankets to John’s chest, keeping his rattling lungs warm. A fragile inevitability has filled the room, pressing hard against his eyes, but he accepts the feeling without pain. He smiles for John’s sake, soft reassurance.
“I guess not.” John exhales once, and closes his eyes.
Dave carefully lies back down on the bed, settling underneath the covers. He feels John’s chest rise and fall beside him, and he stares up at the familiar ceiling with new respect.
“Guess I’m not going out anymore, either,” he says.
John falls asleep and Dave holds his hand.
John passes away a year later, and Dave returns from the hospital the following night to an empty bed. He is surprisingly serene, though the room is too large and filled with reminders of John’s toothbrush, his shrine to movie stars, an empty refrigerator from when John bought the groceries. Everything is emptier, but he sleeps without pain, because he knows he’s soon to follow him. The thought gives him serenity.
He dreams about a warm hand beside him, and doesn’t wake up the next morning.
Here’s what happens:
John is 13 and Dave is built from unspoken words and seconds too late, spaces and emptiness struggling inside of him, a lingering pain from the phantom roads, the tree burning down the bridges behind him, and suffocating with smoke and regret until his eyes watered to see the branches ahead.
They sit and watch dead stars, and John’s hand splays out on the cement. Dave curls his hand and thinks about touching the fingers, the betraying beat running through his veins, thinks about softly brushing against the side of John’s hand, but cities will burn and buildings will fall to ruin, his years of friendship buckling under the weight of his destruction, and he dares—not—do it—
(There is a tree, and every branch sprouts another branch. There is a tree with too many branches, a canopy of thick foliage, and every time he climbs a branch, the possibilities burn behind him. He is young and old, and he only has the time to choose a single branch. There are things only a knight of time would know, the scraped knuckles from the bark and bruised knees from the trunk, the smell of leaves and budding flowers floating ahead, but every branch sprouts another branch, and he cannot climb fast enough to escape the trail of broken pieces he leaves behind.)
The night wears on, and John laughs with his open mouth and clapped hands, and Dave watches him out of the corner of his eye, because he childishly likes him. He thinks he likes John’s unspoken comforts, his belief in everything Dave could be, his kindness, his compassion, his loyalty. Dave sits with his knees drawn up, and he shifts his hands to settle in his lap. They watch the night sky until it grows too late to make excuses, and move against the forceful heat. The stars watch over an ancient world, never able to warn them until far too late.
“Sorry, were you about to say something?” John holds open the door with his head tilted, hair messy and eye bleary from the stars. Dave hesitates, hands together behind him.
“No,” he finally says. “Nothing.”
The tree burns behind him, and he walks through the door.