Josh didn't get tattoos and piercings to hurt his über-traditional, Christian parents. (Despite what his mother sometimes accused him of.) He didn't even do it because he was addicted to the pain. (Though he'd be lying if he said he didn't like it, just a little.) No, Josh's tattoos served a much more important role: they made him look tougher than he was.
He knew the fans who called him and Josh “beans” did so affectionately. That, to the thousands of young people their music spoke to, being "smol" and in need of protecting somehow made them the smart, safe option. These kids, who had been hurt by so many others, could never be hurt by Tyler or Josh because they were, after all, just smol beans.
But, as happy as Josh was he could offer his fans a sense of security, he had always hated his own image. Anyone who had been the victim of bullying as long or as often as he had knew being small and cute too often ended in tears. Even embracing the religion his parents had chosen for him opened Josh up to different kinds of abuse. How many times had his peers delighted their abuse of him, taunting him to “turn the other cheek”?
Later, as their little band grew in popularity and started attracting the attention of record labels, he learned to fear the other kind of abuse... the kind that went beyond bullying to something so vulgar even naming it made Josh physically ill. Being a sweet-looking boy from Ohio made him a target for the kind of people who thought contracts could be bought with favors. And, sweet-natured fool that he was, Josh had always been too embarrassed to speak out about their advances.
Well, to anyone but Tyler. Josh would never forget the raw fury on his friend's face the day Tyler stormed into that office and, grabbing the man by the front of his pretentiously faded vintage band tee, slammed him into the wall so hard a framed photo was knocked off. His heart raced as he remembered the way Tyler's eyes flashed as he warned what would happen if the man ever so much as thought about laying a finger on Josh again.
That was about the time Josh had started toughening up. Or, at least trying to look tough. There was, unfortunately, a very big difference between being tough and looking tough, which created a whole new set of problems. Turned out, the tougher Josh looked, the tougher people expected him to behave, especially his circle of so-called friends in L.A.
The whole point of moving to the West Coast was to break away from the good-little-Christian-boy mentality that descended upon him when he was back in Columbus. To kill the shy, awkward geek lurking inside. To be anything but the helpless victim he still saw in the mirror, no matter how many tattoos or piercings he got.
How could Josh have known it would have the opposite effect? He hadn't expected the constant pressure he would be under to prove how tough he was by smoking this, snorting that, and drinking more than he would have thought humanly possible. There was no way Josh could have anticipated the pressure of fitting in in L.A. turning him into his own worst bully.
Josh remembered the day he'd broken the news to his best friend. He hadn't been able to meet Tyler's eye as he explained that he planned on moving as far away from their hometown as he could without leaving the continental US. Tyler hadn't even asked why Josh was running away; he understood. He knew Josh had always hated himself. Had dreamed of reinventing himself.
Tyler hadn't said anything of the sort, but Josh knew, when he could finally raise his eyes and found his best friend staring at him intensely, that Tyler knew moving to L.A. was something Josh needed to do. He hadn't lectured Josh or tried to talk him out of it. Tyler had merely reached out to take Josh's hand as he said, “Well, bro. You gotta do you, you know?”
At first, Josh couldn't believe how easily his friend had taken it – but his disbelief hadn't lasted long. Of course Ty had taken it so well. He knew Josh better than anyone else. Better, maybe, than Josh knew himself. It was only right he would understood what Josh needed. Josh felt a moment's shame for thinking the other man might have made a scene.
It had been all business after that, working out how they would manage the band from two different states and discussing the best ways to package Josh's games consoles for the journey. But, as Josh rose to leave, Tyler had grabbed his hand again.
“Promise me,” he'd said in a voice thick with emotion, “that you won't LOSE you out there, Jishwa.”
Josh was so stunned he couldn't respond. He could only stare at his friend, wondering what strange passion lit the fire in Tyler's eyes.
“Promise,” Tyler insisted again. His grip tightened. “I can just about stand knowing you're thousands of miles away. I couldn't stand it if you were gone completely.”
Josh had promised, of course, even though he hadn't really understood at the time what Tyler had meant.
He did now.
It had been different, when Debbie had been there to distract him. Even after they'd parted ways, there was the tour to keep Josh busy. He'd never really had the time to immerse himself in the L.A. scene. Until the hiatus.
Truth was, Josh hated the hiatus more than the fans who still tweeted about it daily, months on. They moaned about the band's absence, not knowing the pain their words inflicted upon Josh, who wanted nothing more than return to the stage with his best friend. If it weren't for the fact that he knew Ty and Jenna needed time alone to do the married couple thing they'd been denied during the constant touring, Josh would have been on the phone after the first week, begging Tyler to end the break.
Instead, Josh went to parties and met people who assumed he was just like them because he was tattooed, pierced, and (unbelievably) a rock star. People who, because of the way he looked, expected him to match them shot for shot and snort for snort. Looking tough had landed Josh in a whole different kind of trouble.
The kind of trouble that found him locked in a bathroom in some stranger's opulent L.A. pad, where the music from whatever party he'd been coerced into attending leaked into the room and made his head pound in tune. Josh couldn't remember whose house it was or, he was ashamed to admit, what he'd taken to end up in the state he was in. All he knew was that he was someplace he didn't want to be and didn't know how to get where he wanted to be.
Home. He wanted to go home. Not the half-empty apartment he kept here in the city, but his real home, back in Columbus. Funny, he'd wanted so badly for so long to get away...
Thoughts of home – of comfort and safety – made Josh fumble in his pocket for his cellphone. It took too many minutes of jabbing and swiping for Josh to realize the phone was off. He had to rest his cheek against the cool ceramic of the tub and wait for the world to stop spinning before he could force his fingers to turn the blasted thing back on.
The moment he did, Josh was bombarded with pings, alerting him to the dozens of messages and texts waiting for him. He squinted at the screen, but the words and pictures blurred together until he felt nauseous. Letting the phone fall from his fingers, Josh lurched to the toilet, where he hung on for dear life.
When the dry heaves eventually eased, Josh followed the cellphone to the floor. The hard tiles were blissfully cool against his face. He might have stayed that way forever if not for the annoyingly insistent noise that erupted from his phone. Josh glared at the device with bleary eyes, batting it away. It hit the side of the tub and continued its shrill, demanding screech for a minute before dying away.
The noise started again almost immediately. When covering his head with his arms failed to silence the infernal thing, Josh crawled over to it, snatched it up, and bashed at the screen with his palm. The ringing stopped. Josh sagged in relief.
“JOSHUA WILLIAM DUN!”
One annoyingly insistent noise replaced the other. Josh was trying to find a way to end that noise, too, when he saw the picture on the screen. A pain started in his chest as all the warm, fuzzy feelings of home washed over him.
“Ty,” he groaned, touching the screen lovingly.
Josh's fuzzy brain took too long to make a connection between the voice he heard and the metal contraption in his hand. Eventually, he realized the angry voice was coming from inside the rectangle and raised it to his ear.
“-IF YOU DON'T TELL ME-”
Tyler's voice, the sound of home and everything safe, was exactly what Josh needed to hear at that moment – even if it was far louder than it needed to be.
“You're loud,” Josh complained. He was rewarded with a loud sigh from the other end of the phone.
“Josh,” Tyler said in a voice that was softer but not calmer, “you haven't answered my calls in three days. Three. Days. I've called, texted, tweeted, messaged...”
Tyler's volume increased as he listed the many ways Josh had been ignoring him. He would be shouting again in no time if Josh didn't interrupt him. Shouting was bad. Very bad. It made his head pound.
“...and where the hell are you?”
Oh. He must be pissed. Tyler never swore. If he was swearing, he must be very, very angry. Wonder who he's so mad at...
“Ow!” He held the phone away from his ear. “Why’re you yelling at me?”
“WHY AM I-” Tyler gave another frustrated sigh. “Where are you?” he asked once he'd regained control.
Josh looked around. “Bathroom,” he replied.
The sound Tyler made was somewhere between a groan of despair and a howl of rage. “Where, Josh?” he ground out. “What bathroom, where?”
Where? Where was he? Someplace he didn't want to be...
“I wanna go home,” Josh mumbled miserably into the phone.
Ty's voice caught. It was a minute before he spoke again. “I know,” he said finally, “but I can't get you there if you don't tell me where you are now.”
Hell. That was where he was. Josh was in Hell. His skin felt like it was on fire and he was sure there were demons pulling on his guts.
“Josh, please. Where are you?”
A voice outside the door shouted and was followed by peals of laughter.
“Party,” Josh said. “A party.”
God, if he never went to a party again...
“A party where?”
Where? Where wasn't there a party in L.A.? There were parties on every street, every night. So many people drinking and screwing and...
“Come on, Josh. Where's the party?”
“I- I dunno...”
There were muffled voices on the other end of the phone before Tyler returned with, “It doesn't matter. I've got the address. Just- Just stay where you are, okay? I'll be there in a few minutes.”
Josh nodded and let the phone drop. He curled himself into a ball on the floor and waited. Tyler said wait, so he'd wait. Without the sound of Ty’s voice to hold on to, though, Josh lost himself to the dizzying rush of chemicals in his blood. He might have dozed, but he couldn’t be sure. An eternity later, there was a knock on the door. It wasn't the first. Josh ignored it as he had all the others.
“Josh,” came the familiar voice. “It's me, bro. Let me in.”
Now Josh knew the drugs were messing with his mind. It was crazy to think Tyler would show up at the party like some guardian angel. Tyler was across the country, with his perfect wife, in their perfect house, enjoying their perfect lives. Josh groaned and covered his ears with his hands. The hallucination was too insistent to give up so easily, though.
“I know you're in there, Josh. These guys saw you go in. Let me in.”
He wasn't taking orders from hallucinations, even if they sounded like his best friend.
“Listen, I'm coming in either way but if I have to break this door down, it's gonna cause a scene. Do you want that?”
Did Josh want a scene? Did he want people staring at him and talking about him? Judging him? No. No, he didn't want to make a scene. The fear of people staring at him was greater than his conviction that he was losing his mind. Josh managed to push himself to his knees.
“Okay,” he said. “Okay.”
Reaching up to grab the edge of the sink, Josh pulled himself to his feet. The world spun wildly and he doubled over, certain he was going to be sick. When the world settled into a slightly less crazy ride, Josh started the long journey to the door on the opposite side of the room. He didn't think he'd make it but, somehow, he managed.
When Josh reached the door, he dropped his head onto it heavily. “Ty?”
A small burst of relieved laughter came from the other side, followed by, “Yeah. Yeah, it's me.”
That, Josh couldn't believe. Josh was in Hell and Tyler would never be there. Josh deserved to be in Hell, but Tyler could. Tyler was too good, too pure.
“You shouldn't be here,” Josh insisted.
“Yeah, well, neither should you. Let me in.”
Josh's hands, which were usually so nimble, were nearly useless as he fumbled with the lock. Finally, when it clicked into place, the door swung inward and his sight was filled with the image of his best friend's tired, concerned face. The door swung shut again immediately and the lock slid back into place. Then, Tyler's arms were around Josh and they felt very, very real.
“Ty?” Josh asked, blinking in confusion. “Are you real?”
Tyler pulled back to fix Josh with a look full of concern. “Of course I'm real,” he said. His brows drew together. “What did you take, Josh?”
What did he take? What hadn't he taken? There were drugs everywhere in L.A. and because he looked the way he looked, and did what he did, everyone expected Josh to take them. To his shame, he had. Which ones had he taken that night? He couldn't even remember. Not that he would admit that to Tyler. He was ashamed to admit it to himself.
Josh shook his head, but the motion made the world tilt dangerously. He swayed and would have tumbled to the floor if Tyler's arms hadn't tightened around him.
“Okay,” Tyler said, “okay. Let's just get you out of here.” He tried to steer Josh to the door, but Josh shook his head vehemently, which turned out to be a very bad idea.
The room spun and his stomach tried to force its way up through his throat. Josh shoved Tyler away before he could vomit on the other man. Or, rather, would have shoved Tyler away if he'd been steadier. The action resulted in Josh pushing himself backward out of Tyler's hold. His arms pinwheeled uselessly as he frantically tried to catch himself. He fell, cracking his head on the bathtub. Everything went dark.
“Josh! Josh, you've gotta wake up. Please, please wake up.”
Tyler's voice reached Josh before anything else. He heard the undisguised panic in his friend's voice and struggled to comply. Josh didn't want Tyler to worry, not over him. Slowly, painfully, he forced his eyes open.
His world exploded in light, color, and sound. And pain. So much pain. It radiated down from the back of his head. When he raised shaking fingers to the spot that throbbed the worst, they came away wet with blood. He moaned and squeezed his eyes shut again.
Tyler shook him roughly. “Don't you dare,” he said. “Don't you leave me again.”
Josh opened his eyes obediently to find his vision filled with Tyler's face. He looked somehow terrified and furious at the same time. There was moisture in Tyler's brown eyes that looked ready to spill at any minute. His fingers dug painfully into Josh's arms.
The sight of Tyler staring down at him like he was the only important thing in the world filled Josh with a sensation so raw it chased away some of the fuzziness clouding his thoughts. The world was still twisted and harsh, but it was better, just for Tyler's being in it. It nearly brought a smile to Josh's lips. Almost, but not quite. The shame that ate at him when he remembered where they were and what that meant would chase away Josh's smile for some time to come.
He tried to voice his relief at seeing a Tyler but all that came out was, “You hate L.A.”
Tyler laughed but the sound was choked and humorless. “I really do,” he conceded.
“Why... why’re you here?” Josh frowned.
Dropping his eyes, Tyler helped Josh into a seated position before he replied. “You didn't answer my phone calls,” he said. Twin spots of color touched his cheeks.
Josh's heart swelled. Tyler had come all this way, just because he hadn’t been able to reach Josh – and what had Josh been doing? Tripping balls on God knew what. He suddenly wished Tyler was back in Ohio, so he couldn't see the mess Josh had made of his life without him.
But it wasn't just his life, was it? It was Tyler's life, too, and the future of the band. Not to mention poor Jenna, who didn't the kind of hassle Josh's indiscretions were bound to bring into her life. He'd ruined everything...
Tears pricked Josh's eyes. “I'm so sorry,” he told Tyler. “I really screwed up this time. I-”
“Should be home, where you belong,” Tyler interrupted. “Let's get you back to your apartment and I'll book us flights while you pack.”
Bile rose to Josh's throat at the thought of going back to his apartment. It was supposed to be a symbol of his triumph, proof he'd come so far from where he'd been, but it was nothing more than another lie he'd told himself. He had learned the hard way that pretending to be someone you’re not only causes more problems.
“Can we not? I don't wanna be there.”
If his request confused Tyler, he didn't show it. “Okay,” he said. “We'll get a hotel room.” He grinned ruefully. “It'll be like the old days,” he said.
The old days. What Josh wouldn't give to have those back. Funny how the bullies he'd once faced seemed so insignificant compared to the evil he'd invited into his life trying to beat them.
Tyler stood and offered Josh a hand to rise. As he found his feet, darkness swept up around him. He fell, unconscious. This time, his guardian angel was there. Tyler managed to catch Josh before he landed. When Josh came to, it was as Tyler swept him up into his arms, mumbling something about concussions.
Embarrassed, Josh clutched the front of Tyler's shirt. “Ty!” he exclaimed. “Put me down!”
Tyler shook his head. “Nope,” he refused. “You tried the standing thing twice already and it didn't work out so well for ya.” He reached out to open the door, but Josh threw a hand up to slam it shut again.
“Ty!” Wide-eyed, Josh tried to reason with his friend. “We can't go out there like this! People will talk. They'll say horrible things online. They'll-”
The intensity of Tyler's gaze silenced Josh. “Do I look like I give a damn about what these idiots will think?”
No, Josh thought, he most certainly did not. He looked so fierce and protective it made Josh's pulse race. Tyler was determined enough for the both of them. Josh drew strength from him, enough that he could give in to the impulse urging him to wrap his arms around Tyler's neck and allow himself to be carried. As they left the bathroom, Josh couldn't bring himself to meet the gaze of the onlookers but neither did he hide his face in Tyler's shirt. He simply rested his cheek against Tyler's chest, closed his eyes, and gloried in the feeling of being protected.
A taxi idled outside the house. Tyler set Josh on the seat and climbed in after him. Once the door shut, though, Tyler drew Josh into his lap.
“Ty!” Josh gasped in a scandalized whisper. “You can't!”
Tyler raised his eyebrows defiantly. “If you don't want me to, say no.”
The word “no” came nowhere near Josh's lips. He wrapped his arms around Tyler's waist and rested his head on the other man's shoulder with a contented sigh. As the taxi made its way through the city, Josh raised his head to meet a Tyler's gaze. “I think I'm ready to move home,” he said.
“Good,” Tyler said with a small smile, “because I'm never letting you out of my sight again.”
Josh let his head fall back to Tyler's shoulder. That didn't sound bad. No, it didn't sound bad at all...