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You Take My Breath Away

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It started a few weeks into the hiatus. Tyler was on the elliptical machine in his home gym when the pain first struck. Sweat pounded down his face as his arms and legs pumped up and down. When he reached over to grab a nearby towel, he happened to catch sight of the empty treadmill.

I wonder what Josh is doing?

The thought came as naturally as breath. Tyler saw the treadmill, pictured Josh there, feet pounding away as he nodded along to the song on his iPod, and realized he missed the other man. Almost the instant the thought crossed Tyler’s mind, pain erupted in his chest.

Agh !”

Tyler stopped to clutch his chest. The machine didn’t stop as quickly. A handle swung back to whack him across the forehead a second before the momentum of the still-moving pedals threw him backward. He landed on his backside with a heavy thud .

“Ty?”

It took all of thirty seconds for Jenna to come running. Her blonde hair looked like it had started in a knot on top of her head but most of it hung loose around her face in an adorable mess. She had a smudge of chocolate across one cheek.

The pain in his chest eased, which only served to make the bump on his head throb more. Tyler gave his wife a chagrined look. “Hey, babe.”

Jenna shook off Tyler’s greeting and knelt at his side. She started to reach out to him then stopped, holding up her hands in explanation. They were covered in flour.

“What happened?” she asked with a frown.

Tyler pushed himself up. He’d had plenty of (often spectacular) falls in his life – most of them in front of thousands of people – but it never stopped embarrassing him. He focused on that, rather than the unexplainable ache in his chest.

“I wasn’t paying attention,” he told Jenna as he grabbed the towel. Rather than using it to mop the sweat drenching his brow, he tossed it to his wife. “ Whatcha making?”

The look on Jenna’s face told Tyler she didn’t believe his fall was down to clumsiness, but she caught the towel and let the subject drop.

“You’ll see,” she promised, rubbing the flour from her hands. “After dinner.”

“Oh, yeah?” Tyler gave her a look full of mischief. “We’ll see about that.” He dodged past Jenna and ran for the kitchen. Fall forgotten, she chased after him.

***

The ache in Tyler's chest faded to almost nothing for a few weeks. It barely bothered him physically, but its presence played on his naturally anxious mind. He could breathe okay, which was enough to convince Tyler it wasn’t anything serious. (Mostly.) The fact that it didn’t completely go away continued to worry him, though. When he finally confided in Jenna, she was both annoyed and concerned.

“Why didn’t you say something sooner?” she demanded. “We’ve got to get you in to see a doctor!”

Tyler refused, of course. He hated doctors for so many reasons – not the least of which being that their offices always made him feel like a scared kid with a dirty secret.

“No doctors.”

But Jenna didn’t give up that easily. She was almost as stubborn as Tyler. Almost.

Even after she roped his mother into helping her nag, Tyler refused to book an appointment.

“I’m fine!” he insisted for the hundredth time. “It’s nothing!”

Jenna and his mother shared a look. It was obvious neither believed him, but they let the subject drop . Until it happened again.

Tyler was at his piano in the living room when the pain returned. It probably would have been easier to work in the studio down the hall but, for reasons he didn’t like to explore, he found it uncomfortably empty without Josh there beside him. He scribbled a few lines on the notepad that lay on the top of the piano as lyrics came to him. Closing his eyes, he tried to imagine the drumbeat that would accompany his words.

A song wasn’t finished until Josh added his touch. It was Josh’s rhythm that breathed life into Tyler’s music. It was Josh that gave their band a heartbeat.

The pencil Tyler held snapped in two as his grip tightened around it. The wave of pain was so intense it stole Tyler’s breath away. He wound up on the floor beside the piano bench, curled into a ball and moaning in pain.

It was as though hundreds of tiny knives had stabbed into his lungs all at once. The pain didn’t pass as quickly as it had the first time. Tyler couldn’t move without making it worse; couldn’t breathe without the tiny knives digging deeper. He grew dizzy from lack of oxygen and fell unconscious.

*** 

Tyler woke in one of the worst places imaginable, a hospital. The smell of disinfectant and disease reached him through the darkness and he woke with a start, retching into the cardboard bowl a nurse hurriedly provided.

“Why?” he croaked, wiping his mouth with the back of a hand. “Why am I here?”

He didn’t ask where “here” was. Tyler had woken up in hospitals too often not to recognize the fluorescent glare and sterile walls. 

“Ah, Mr. Joseph, you’ve returned to us.”

A middle-aged man in a white coat appeared at Tyler’s bedside. He passed the clipboard he held to the nurse when she returned from disposing of Tyler’s breakfast. She took the clipboard and slipped from the room.

Tyler ground his teeth together. Doctors. They never got to the point.

“Why am I here?” he repeated.

The photo ID clipped to the front pocket of the doctor’s coat told Tyler the man’s name was Phillip G. Nesbit. Dr. Nesbit went through the motions of checking Tyler’s vital signs before answering the question. When he was satisfied that Tyler wasn’t going to die the next moment, he pulled up a stool and made himself comfortable.

“You’re here, Mr. Joseph,” he began, “because your wife returned home to find you unconscious on the floor.”

Jenna .

“Where is she?” Tyler demanded. He started to push himself up, but the doctor laid a hand on his arm to still him.

“Easy,” the older man said. “Mrs. Joseph is in the waiting room. I asked her to remain there. I thought you might appreciate it.”

“What?”

Why would Tyler appreciate being away from Jenna? What a ridiculous thing to say! He was ready to demand she be brought in when Dr. Nesbit spoke again.

You’re ill, Mr. Joseph,” he said. “And it’s the kind of illness one often prefers their spouse to remain unaware of.”

The kind of illness one often prefers their spouse to remain unaware of?

God, he made it sound like an STD or something.

“I’ve never had sex with anyone but my wife,” Tyler was quick to clarify.

The doctor chuckled. He looked about as convinced of that as he would have been if Tyler had insisted the moon was made of cheese.

“Of course not. But it’s nothing like that, I assure you.”

Cold crept up Tyler’s spine. God, no. There was only one other thing he could imagine wanting to keep from Jenna.

“How long do I have?”

The doctor looked taken aback. “Beg your pardon?”

Tyler sat up, fixing the man with a look of grim determination. “It’s fatal, right? How long do I have?”

Infuriatingly, Dr. Nesbit laughed.

“Mr. Joseph, please allow me to explain before you come to any more erroneous conclusions.”

Embarrassed, Tyler shut his mouth and clasped his hands together over the cheap hospital blanket.

“You’re suffering from a bronchial infection.”

His shoulders sagged in relief. Tyler almost laughed himself. “Is that all?”

“A very serious infection. It’s called Hanahaki Disease.”

Tyler frowned. “I’ve never heard of that.”

“I’m not surprised,” the doctor said. Wheeling his chair across the room, he picked up a tablet laying on the counter. “It’s extremely rare. Only one in a thousand people contract  the disease each year.”

The doctor tapped the screen he held, oblivious to the panicked expression on Tyler’s face.

“Well?” Tyler demanded.

The older man looked up. “Yes?”

Tyler tried to keep the anger growing inside from his voice. It wasn’t easy. “What is it?”

“Ah, well. The bacteria that cause Hanahaki Disease are actually quite common. Many of us will have picked up the bacteria through every day interactions like handshakes. We carry the bacteria around in our lungs our whole lives without ever knowing it’s there.”

Tyler grew impatient. If he was in the hospital, he obviously didn’t fit into that category. He thought he might just scream if the doctor didn’t get on with it already.

“In a very small number of cases,” the doctor continued, “the bacteria mutate, triggering full-blown Hanahaki Disease. When that happens, symptoms usually begin with chest pain.”

“Begin with?”

Dr. Nesbit nodded. “Yes, Stage 1 Hanahaki Disease is mild. Chest pain is the only noticeable symptom. You may also experience feelings of loneliness and sadness - though,” he added pointedly, “patients with a history of mental illness often fail to notice those symptoms.”

Had Tyler been feeling lonely or sad? Well, yeah, a little – but that was to be expected, right? He’d gone from being around people nonstop for years on end to being stuck in the house on his own quite often. He was bound to feel a little down.

“Stage 2 progresses to dizzy spells and difficulty breathing. It’s often accompanied by deep feelings of depression.”

Dizzy spells…

“I’m Stage 2?” Tyler’s hands felt clammy. He wiped them on the coarse blanket that covered his lap.

The doctor nodded. “I’m afraid so.”

Tyler asked the question he wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer to. “How many stages are there?”

“Four.”

So many questions swam through Tyler’s mind he felt dizzy... or was that the Hanahaki taking effect ?

“Easy, easy,” Dr. Nesbit said. He pressed a button and the top half of the bed lowered with a mechanical whine. Tyler lay back, pressing a hand to his eyes. It took a moment for the world to settle back into place.

“What’s the next stage?” he asked when it did.

The doctor, who’d been busy adjusting the drip attached to Tyler’s arm through an IV needle, leaned over him. “Increased pain, dizziness, wheezing, coughing. The coughing will begin to produce unusual discharge and-”

“Wait. ‘Unusual discharge’?”

Discharge was not a word anyone wanted to hear associated with a diagnosis. There wasn’t anything about the word that didn’t make Tyler want to scrunch his face up like a toddler and say, “Eww !”

“Yes,” the doctor said matter-of-factly, “very unusual. Victims of Hanahaki begin coughing up flower petals as the disease progresses to Stage 3.”

Tyler stared at the doctor for a moment before bursting into laughter.

“Okay,” he laughed. “Very funny. Who put you up to this? Was it Zack?”

Dr. Nesbit didn’t laugh. He didn’t even smile.

“This isn’t a joke, Mr. Joseph,” he said somberly.

Tyler’s laughter faded. His brows drew together as he frowned.

“Of course it is,” he argued. “People don’t cough up flowers. It’s not possible.”

Picking up the tablet, Dr. Nesbit held it out to Tyler. A video was loaded, waiting for him to press “play”.

“What’s this?”

“It will help you understand your condition,” the doctor explained. “I’ll be back when you’ve had a little time to adjust.” With that, he left Tyler alone in the examination room.

He didn’t believe the doctor - Coughing up flowers! - but it wasn’t like he was going anywhere. Tyler hit the play button.

***

A young woman in a lab coat and thick glasses appeared on the screen holding a clipboard. The smile she wore looked so false Tyler wondered if it made her face hurt.

“Hello!” she said cheerfully. “My name is Mandy and I’m here to tell you about Hanahaki Disease.”

A man, about the same age, appeared on the screen. He wore what Tyler assumed were meant to be fashionable clothes but looked like they were picked out by someone who graduated before the advent of social media. At least he wasn’t grinning like a fool…

“Hanahaki Disease?” the man asked. “What’s that?”

“I’m glad you asked, Steve!” Mandy beamed at him before turning her attention back to the camera. “Hanahaki Disease is an infection caused by bacteria that live in your lungs.”

Steve clutched his chest dramatically. “My lungs?”

Mandy laughed. “In all our lungs, silly! But don’t worry, they’re almost always completely harmless.”

“What happens when they’re not harmless, Mandy?” Steve asked with an exaggerated frown.

“I’m glad you asked!”

The video cut to a simple diagram of the human body. It zoomed in the lungs as Mandy spoke.

“Hanahaki bacteria can live happily in your lungs and never bother you,” Mandy explained. Several yellow, grinning bacteria appeared in the lungs to confirm her words. “But, sometimes, something happens to make the bacteria angry.”

The bacteria stopped dancing around. They turned a dark, putrid shade of brown and glared at the camera.

“When that happens, Hanahaki bacteria bury themselves deep in the lining of your lungs.”

The angry bacteria attacked the lungs, wiggling their way inside the tissue. Tyler rubbed his chest absently.

“The Hanahaki bacteria uses its flagellum – that’s the part that looks like a tail! – to anchor itself in place while its pilua – those hairy-looking things! – grow longer.”

Inside the lungs, the angry brown bacteria started to…

Root.

It looked like it was developing a root system.

“Why, Mandy,” Steve said in a shocked voice, “it looks like they’re growing roots!”

“That’s exactly what they’re doing, Steve! Stage 1 of Hanahaki Disease is the rooting stage. When the bacteria have finished rooting, they start growing and you’ve entered Stage 2.”

Stage 2, Tyler thought. He’d gotten to Stage 2 without even knowing it.

“What happens during Stage 2?”

“Yeah, Mandy,” Tyler mumbled, “what the hell happens during Stage 2?”

“Well, Steve,” Mandy said. Her voice was extra cheerful, as if she had to make up for the viewer not being able to see her enormous grin. “Stage 2 is the growing stage. This is when the bacteria push back up through the lining.”

The bacteria, now a deep shade of green, pressed up through the lining of the lungs. They uncurled slowly, like a time-lapse video of flower buds in the spring. When the bacteria flowers stood upright, parts of their cell walls broke away, dropping into things what looked remarkably like leaves.

“Look at that!” Steve said excitedly. “It looks like a flower!”

Mandy laughed. “That’s because it is a flower, Steve!”

The diagram disappeared to reveal Mandy and Steve who stood at a lab station. On the counter in front of them were potted plants in various stages of growth.

“The Hanhaki bacteria mutates into a very special type of flower.” Mandy waved a hand to encompass the flowers on the counter as she explained. “Unlike these flowers, which feed on sunlight, the Hanahaki flowers feed on emotion. A very particular type of emotion.”

“Really?” Steve said, eyes wide. “What kind of emotion?”

“We’ll come back to that!” Mandy promised. Tyler’s hands tightened on the tablet. She took even longer getting to the point then his doctor did.

“First, let’s have a look at Stage 3. Tell me, Steve,” Maggie voiced as the diagram reappeared, “do you think you can guess what the next stage is?”

“Hmm. If they’re flowers, they must bloom!”

“Right! Stage 3 is the blooming stage!”

While Mandy congratulated Steve on his cleverness, Tyler watched - both fascinated and disgusted - as the bacteria split open to reveal bright, smiling sunflowers. Two bacteria sunflowers high-fived each other with their petals.

“But... isn’t that dangerous?” Steve asked in an awed voice. “If your lungs are filled with flowers, how can you breathe?”

The diagram disappeared once more. Mandy frowned somberly at her companion. “Sadly, Steve,” she said, “You can’t. Your body tries to make room for air by expelling the flower petals through coughing. Unfortunately, Hanahaki flowers grow very quickly. So quickly, in fact, that your lungs fill up again before you can cough all the petals up.”

“Oh, dear,” Steve said. “I think I know what Stage 4 is.”

Mandy nodded sadly. “Right again, Steve. Stage 4 is the final stage. The Hanahaki flowers clog your airways and, unfortunately, death is certain if the disease reaches that stage.”

Death is certain.

Tyler felt like he’d been plunged into an ice-cold lake. He was just two stages away from certain death.

“Hang on a second, Mandy. Did you say ‘if’?”

“I did!” Mandy’s smile had returned. “Luckily, there is a cure for Hanahaki Disease. But, before we get into that, we should talk about what causes the bacteria to mutate.”

Steve rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “You said they feed on emotion...”

Mandy did everything but pat the guy’s head. “You were paying attention! Good! That’s right,” she turned back to the camera. “The emotion that mutates the bacteria - the one they feed on - is love.”

Love?

“Specifically, unrequited love.”

 ***

By the time the doctor returned, Tyler was convinced the man had given him the wrong diagnosis - and he was pretty miffed about it. To suggest that Tyler’s lungs were filling with flowers because his wife didn’t love him back. Absurd!

He wasted no time in correcting the doctor’s assumptions.

“I want a second opinion,” he told Dr. Nesbit when he returned several minutes after the video ended. “You’ve clearly gotten it wrong. My wife and I are happily married and, frankly, I find the suggestion that we’re not is... What is that?”

The doctor had taken a plastic sheaf from a brown envelope. Crossing to the light box on the far wall, he tucked the sheaf into place and flicked a switch to illuminate an x-ray of Tyler’s lungs.

“No.” No, he wouldn’t believe it. Couldn’t believe it. But... there was the proof.

Tyler tried to stand before a sharp tug on his arm reminded him of the IV. He had to settle for leaning forward and squinting his eyes at the x-ray. It showed dozens of itty bitty Hanahaki flowers growing out of his lungs.

The growing stage.

The full meaning of the image in front of him hit Tyler in the gut. Groaning, he pulled his knees up to his chest and lowered his head to them. Whether the tight, painful sensation was from Hanahaki or his heart breaking, Tyler didn’t know. Didn’t care. If that picture meant what the thought it meant, it didn’t matter if Stage 4 started that very moment.

She doesn’t love me.

An explosion of raised voices erupted outside the door.

“No, I will not calm down! I want to see my husband. Now!”

Jenna’s voice preceded her into the room by seconds. The doctor flicked off the lightbox as Tyler’s wife burst through the door.

“Tyler!” she cried, rushing across the room to launch herself at him. He caught sight of puffy eyes and chapped lips before Jenna threw her arms around him.

“Hey.” His arms came up automatically to return her embrace. “It’s okay. I’m okay.”

Jenna looked up at Tyler. “I was so scared,” she said. The words ended in a sob. “They wouldn’t tell me anything and-”

“Mrs. Joseph,” the doctor said. He waved away the security guards that had followed Jenna into the room. “Please. I appreciate your concern but-”

She turned a furious expression on the doctor. “You appreciate my concern?” she snapped. “You’ve left me in the waiting room for three hours, not even telling me if my husband was alive, but you appreciate my concern?” Her tone came dangerously close to a screech.

“It’s okay,” Tyler assured his wife. “Honestly.” He caught her face and looked into her eyes. “I’ll be okay,” he promised.

She sniffed hard. Her expression was uncertain.

“Please, Mrs. Joseph,” the doctor repeated. “I need to you return to the waiting room. I don’t want to have you removed from the building, but I will, if necessary.”

“Go on,” Tyler urged gently.

Jenna stared into his face a long moment before nodding. “Okay. But, if you need me...”

He squeezed her hand. “I’ll always need you,” he whispered. “But, right now, we have to listen to the doctor.”

She nodded once more, kissed Tyler’s cheek, and allowed herself to be led from the room. The door shut behind Jenna and the bevy of staff members that accompanied her.

Tyler’s voice was thick with emotion as he turned his attention back to the doctor. “You call that unrequited?”

Dr. Nesbit pulled his stool back over to Tyler’s bedside. “No, Mr. Joseph, I do not.”

Tears stung Tyler’s eyes. He blinked them away. “So, you’re wrong. It’s not Hanahaki Disease.”

Shaking his head, the doctor gestured to the x-ray. “There’s no room for doubt about that.”

“What are you trying to say?”

The doctor’s voice was kinder than it had been up to that point. “Think back for me,” he told Tyler. “Can you remember where you were and what you were doing when you experienced the first symptom?”

“I was working out,” Tyler answered. It wasn’t difficult to remember; only a few weeks had passed since then.

“What were you thinking about at the exact moment the pain struck?”

It seemed a pointless line of questioning but what could Tyler do? He thought back. “I was sweating,” he said, “so I went to grab a towel. I...”

Josh.

He’d been thinking about Josh just before both incidents.

“No,” Tyler shook his head in denial. “That’s not- I mean… I love- but not like…” He floundered.

Dr. Nesbit held up a hand. “I don’t need to know who it is - and, truthfully, considering your very public profile, I’d rather not know.”

Tyler barely heard the doctor’s words. A cyclone of doubt had begun in his mind, picking up random thoughts, scraps of conversations, charged moments, and secret desires. It spun them ‘round, and ‘round, creating something bigger than the confines of Tyler’s mind could contain.

I… No, it can’t be… Could it?

I love Josh.

The thought stole Tyler’s breath away. He curled into a ball on the bed, moaning in agony as pain tore through his chest.

“Easy,” Dr. Nesbit said. He urged Tyler onto his back and fit an oxygen mask over his face. “Just breathe.”

As if it were that easy. As if just breathing were possible after learning that he was going to die because he was in love with his bandmate.

Except, of course, Hanahaki wasn’t always fatal. Merry Mandy and Stupid Steve had explained that, hadn’t they? There was a surgery… a surgery Tyler knew he would never undergo.

There were only two definite ways to cure Hanahaki. One was love. Love caused the disease, and love cured it. If the object of one’s affection returned their feelings, the Hanahaki bacteria had nothing to feed on and quickly died. The other option was a very invasive, very painful surgery. Hanahaki flowers could be removed surgically – but, in an act of self-defense, the bacteria latched on to all thoughts, feelings, and emotions relating to that person. If you killed Hanahaki through surgery, Hanahaki made the person you loved dead to you.

Tyler couldn’t do that. He couldn’t exist in a world where he’d never known Joshua Dun. Even if he could, there was the band. The fans. They would wonder why the band just… stopped. Why Tyler and Josh became strangers overnight. They were smart, the Clique (too smart, sometimes.) It wouldn’t take long for someone to put two and two together and realize exactly what had happened. The scandal would ruin them all.

But, the only other option was…

Was this his punishment? Was this the price Tyler had to pay for all those horribly lonely teen years he’d spent praying for his own death? Were the flowers unfurling in his lungs penance for every single time he’d laid a razor to his own flesh? Did he somehow deserve the death rooting in his chest?

Maybe he did, but Jenna didn’t. Josh didn’t.

The thought of Josh made Tyler’s chest tighten but he grabbed the oxygen mask and pulled it up over his head.

“There has to be another way,” he rasped. “If I could, I dunno, stop loving h- them. Would that work?”

Dr. Nesbit shook his head gravely. “While it is theoretically possible, there’s never been a successful case.”

Tyler felt like he was sinking; like the hard, uncomfortable bed he lay on was trying to swallow him whole. He didn’t have the strength to fight it. Squeezing his eyes shut, he fell back onto the bed.

“The disease is still at Stage 2,” the doctor said softly, throwing Tyler a lifeline. “At this stage, it’s possible to slow the disease’s progression considerably. There was a case in England recently where one sufferer managed to prolong Stage 2 for over three years.”

Hope, dangerous creature that it was, grew bright behind Tyler’s eyelids. “Slow the progression? How is that possible?”

“In cases where the inflicted and the… trigger are…” Dr. Nesbit chose his words carefully “acquaintances, casual affection can be mistaken for romantic affection. In such cases, the Hanahaki flowers struggle to feed, and grow very weak. It doesn’t, however,” he added, “kill the root system. Only true love can do that.”

True love. If he’d had the energy, Tyler would have rolled his eyes. True love, curing a fatal disease. It was like he’d stepped into the pages of some ancient fairy tale. Only, this time, there would be no kiss from Tyler’s Prince Charming to save him. There would only be a long, slow, painful death.

He pictured Jenna’s face, full of worry and love as she stared down at him after battling with the nurses and guards to reach his side. The picture morphed. Jenna’s face twisted in anger. Her eyes filled with betrayal.

No . He wouldn’t do that to her. Tyler would die before he let the horrible truth of his disease touch Jenna.

 ***

It took Josh less than a day to get home after Jenna called him to say Tyler was in the hospital. He was waiting for them at the house when Tyler walked through the door.

“Oh, my God, bro!”

Josh nearly knocked Tyler to the ground as he launched himself at him. Tyler’s chest tightened but it wasn’t from any bacteria; it was recognition. His heart reacted instinctively to what Tyler’s brain had fought so hard. He returned Josh’s embrace.

I love you.

When Josh pulled back, Tyler could see strain on the other man’s face . Josh looked tired. His eyes were, like Jenna’s, red-rimmed from tears.

“Are you eating enough?” Tyler asked lamely. Josh looked too thin.

“Am I-” Josh actually shook Tyler. “ You’ve been laying in a hospital bed for three days and you’re worried about my diet?”

“Alright,” Jenna said, interrupting them. “Let’s get the patient to bed.”

She slid an arm around Tyler’s waist (though he’d told her several times he could walk just fine on his own) and Josh took the other side. Squeezed between the two, supported by the two people he loved so much it was killing him, Tyler took the first easy breath he’d had in weeks.

 ***

There was a steady stream of visitors at the Joseph household in the days after Tyler’s release from the hospital. Officially, he had succumbed to a virulent chest infection. It was close enough to the truth that Tyler could speak the words without choking on them but far enough for safety.

Josh stuck around, of course.

“Columbus is way more fun than L.A.,” he’d joked when Tyler asked if he was missing out on anything important. “Besides,” he’d added, throwing an arm around Tyler’s shoulders, “everything important is right here.”

With Josh in town, hanging around the house every day, the Hanahaki flowers shrivelled almost to nothing. When Tyler saw the doctor for a follow-up appointment two weeks after his hospital stay, Dr. Nesbit expressed his surprise at the change.

“Well, Mr. Joseph,” he said, “I’m pleased to say the disease has regressed to Stage 1. Whatever you’re doing, keep it up.”

But, could he? Josh had stuck around because he was worried for Tyler’s safety, but Tyler was doing better every day. If he didn’t think of another reason to keep his friend around, Josh would return to California soon and the disease would start to progress again.

It seemed hopeless – until shortly after Tyler’s follow-up appointment when, without looking up from the video game they played, Josh said, “I was just thinkin’…”

Tyler glanced sideways at him. “Have you been reading my dad’s tweets again?”

Laughing, Josh bumped his shoulder playfully. Tyler’s character went flying off the edge of the racetrack, but he didn’t mind. It was a small price to pay for being able to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with the man he loved.

“Yeah, thrilling stuff,” Josh laughed, “but, seriously, I was thinking that, since I’m already here, and you’re feeling better and all, maybe we should get to work on the new album.”

Tyler paused the game.

“Hey,” Josh complained. “I was winning.”

Tyler ignored the complaint. “You don’t mind sticking around?”

Josh gave him a funny sideways grin. “Do you mean would I rather be in L.A. where everyone’s got something to prove or here with you, playing video games, making music, and eating Jenna’s midnight cookies? Lemme think…”

Game forgotten, they raced to the studio to get started.

*** 

The months it took to prepare the new album were both the best and hardest months of Tyler’s life. He lived in fear of the Hanahaki returning but, with Josh around practically day and night, it was impossible to feel anything but loved. He tried not to look too deeply into the way Josh’s hand sometimes came to rest on Tyler’s knee before he pointed out something interesting. Or, the smile Josh gave him before declaring him “absolutely brilliant!”

Tyler didn’t want to look too closely at those moments for two reasons. Firstly, moments like those reminded him daily of the love he felt for the other man. Secondly, if he stopped to analyze it, he’d convince himself he was reading too much into the situation, that it was just Josh being Josh, and the dull ache would start in his chest, warning Tyler he’d given the Hanahaki room to grow.

As they wrapped up work on the album, Tyler had to face the fact that he and Josh would have to part ways again. That, too soon, the fragile glimmer of hope keeping the Hanahaki at bay would disappear and he would begin the downward spiral once more. His moods started to darken. He would often get lost in thought until Jenna or Josh dragged him out again.

“Hey,” Josh said, bumping his knee against Tyler’s, “where ya at, bro?”

Tyler tried to shake off the funk he’d gotten himself into. “Just thinking about the tour,” he lied.

Josh chewed his lip thoughtfully. “Seems like ages away, doesn’t it?” he asked.

Tyler nodded. “Too long.”

Silence stretched between them. It seemed Tyler’s gloomy mood had started to get to Josh as well.

“Do you have to go back to California?” Tyler asked when the silence started to eat at him. He felt ashamed, even asking it.

Josh sighed. “I guess I’d better,” he said. “I’m paying rent, after all, and you…”

“I?”

“Well, you and Jenna must be getting sick of me by now.”

Jenna picked that moment to bustle in with an arm full of snack foods. “Never!” she declared, plonking herself between the boys on the sofa. “You belong right here,” she insisted.

Josh glanced sideways at Tyler through his lashes, but Tyler couldn’t say anything. The Hanahaki had stolen his breath away.

 ***

Tyler didn’t immediately relapse into Stage 2 when Josh left. At first, they spoke several times a day – just texts and quick phone calls – but it was enough. At least until Josh was called on to promote the new album, something they’d agreed on long before Tyler fell ill. Josh had been so intent upon proving he was tackling his social anxiety it had seemed like a good idea at the time. Then, Tyler had ended up in the hospital and, even though he insisted he was well enough to do interviews, Jenna insisted he “take it easy” until the tour began.

Taking it easy wasn’t the least bit easy.

Tyler’s forced “relaxation” meant too many hours alone with his thoughts. Too much time to think about how he wasn’t supposed to be thinking about Josh. Too much time to wonder if Josh hadn’t called because he was busy working or because he was too busy partying with his L.A. friends. Too much time to agonize over every photo Debby posted on Instagram that had been taken at Josh’s place; to wonder if she was living there. If she and Josh were...

Gah !” Tyler doubled over, clutching his chest. The glass he’d been holding fell to the floor and shattered. He followed it down, broken glass cutting into his knees.

The pain was worse than it had been since the night he’d wound up in the hospital. Tyler struggled to reach the inhaler he’d taken to keeping in his back pocket.

“It won’t slow the progress of the Hanahaki,” Dr. Nesbit had warned him, “and it won’t do anything to ease the pain, but it should make it a little easier to breathe.”

A very little.

Tyler fell sideways onto the floor, gasping for breath that wheezed reluctantly from his burning lungs.

“I want you to come back in,” the doctor’s voice came unbidden to mind, “if any Stage 3 symptoms exhibit. If you experience another blackout, begin wheezing or coughing, come in immediately.”

Tyler laughed at the thought. As if he could go anywhere! He couldn’t even stand.

The laugh turned into a cough.

A coughing bout battered Tyler’s body as he lay there on the floor, bleeding among the shards of broken glass.

Call... someone... he thought. Need... help...

He fumbled with the phone in his pocket. It hit the tiled floor hard enough to crack the screen but lit up. Tyler jabbed at the screen until his contacts opened. Jenna’s number was there, next to Josh’s. Even seeing Josh’s name was too much to bear. Tyler’s vision swam and it took everything he possessed to swipe at Jenna’s name.

The phone rang. And rang. A woman’s voice answered but it wasn’t Jenna.

“What?” the woman snapped.

The voice was familiar but Tyler didn’t have the strength to both breathe and think, if he wanted to remain conscious.

“I need-" he gasped.

“You need to leave Josh alone!” the woman finished angrily.

Josh? He hadn’t dialled Josh, he’d called-

“Can’t you see how much damage you’re doing?” The woman’s voice ended on a sob. “Just... just leave him alone!”

Tyler couldn’t hope to make sense of her words. He stared helplessly at the screen. It took a long time to realize the call had ended. The screen was dark. He reached for it to try again but never made it that far. Darkness took him.

 ***

If hospital staff had thought Jenna unreasonable during Tyler’s first stay, it was nothing compared to the second time around. It was her raised voice that pulled Tyler out of the darkness.

“I’m his wife,” she all but shouted, “and I demand to know exactly what’s going on this instant!”

My wife, the warrior, Tyler thought. He couldn’t have loved her more than he did at that moment.

Tyler lifted a hand weakly but wasn’t able to reach the oxygen mask strapped to his face. He forced his eyes open, then closed them again almost immediately. The room was different but the fluorescent sterility was the same. The hospital. Again. He’d have groaned, if he could have drawn breath.

“I appreciate your concern, Mrs. Joseph,” Dr. Nesbit said in a soothing voice, “but-"

“Ty!”

Jenna must have noticed Tyler’s lame attempts to rise because she hurried over to his bed. “Tyler,” she cried, “thank God.”

Dr. Nesbit appeared on Tyler’s other side. He carefully lifted the mask off Tyler’s face so he could speak.

“Welcome back,” the doctor said.

Jenna gave the doctor a look that would have made a Navy SEAL squirm.

“Are you okay? How do you feel?”

Tyler opened his mouth to reply but instead of words, a horrible, wracking cough escaped. The doctor bent Tyler over a cardboard bowl, effectively blocking Jenna’s view of the yellow leaves spilling from Tyler’s lips. Eyes widening in terror, Tyler looked up at Dr. Nesbit, who shook his head grimly. The bowl disappeared before Jenna could see the flower petals that filled it.

“I’m okay,” Tyler insisted hoarsely. “It’s probably just the infection again.” He silently begged the doctor to agree.

“Yes,” Dr. Nesbit said, “exactly. We won’t know for certain until we’ve run tests - which, I’m afraid,” he added in a hurry, “I’ll have to ask you to leave for.” He turned to Jenna. “Nurse Daley will see you to the waiting room.”

Tyler nodded his encouragement to Jenna, who looked ready to fight the entire staff. “Go on,” Tyler told her. “I’ll be fine,” he lied.

Jenna looked unconvinced but allowed herself to be led from the room after kissing Tyler and whispering, “You’d better be.”

The doctor turned to Tyler the moment the door shut. “We can run tests,” he began, “take more X-rays, but...”

He didn’t have to finish. Tyler knew the rest. He’d advanced to Stage 3.

“How much time do I have?”

Dr. Nesbit lifted one shoulder. “A few weeks? Maybe a month. It’s difficult to say because it depends entirely on your own emotions.”

Tyler nodded. It was what he’d expected.

Surprising Tyler, Dr. Nesbit perched on the edge of his bed. “Can I ask you a question, Tyler?”

Stunned by the doctor’s break in protocol, Tyler could only say, “Um, sure?”

“This person, the one you've been so careful to keep a secret... would you really rather die than lose your memories of them?”

Tyler was taken aback by the blunt question. Would he rather die than lose Josh? At first, Tyler had told himself he was protecting himself, Jenna, and the band. Now?

Could he live without Josh’s radiant smile? Could he go through life without Josh’s easy laughter? Without making music together? Without dreaming big, impossible dreams together? Without Josh?

No.

“I would.”

The doctor sighed heavily as he stood. “Then, Mr. Joseph,” he said, “my medical advice is that you tell them. While you still have a chance.”

*** 

Dr. Nesbit cleared Tyler for travel, provided he keep an oxygen tank handy. Getting Jenna to agree to the trip was something else entirely.

“You’ve got to be kidding. You can’t go to California, you can’t even walk!”

It was true. Tyler had been consigned to a wheelchair to conserve what little strength he had left.

“I have to,” he insisted. “I need to see Josh before..."

“Before what?”

Fat, angry tears rolled down Jenna’s cheeks. “Before what, Ty?”

He didn’t know how to tell Jenna what was really happening. It had gone on so long Tyler didn’t know where to start anymore. He didn’t try to explain it. Instead, he took her hands and said, “I promise I’ll tell you everything. After.”

It took a lot more coercion and stubbornness on Tyler’s part, but he and Jenna were aboard a private jet on their way to California the next morning. They’d had to call in several  favors to get access to the jet, but Tyler hadn’t wanted anyone to see him in such a state. He didn’t want Jenna to have to deal with the inevitable internet fallout that was certain to come if a fan caught a picture of Tyler Joseph in a wheelchair.

They managed to get to Josh’s apartment without too much hassle. The one thing California had going for it was being far more wheelchair-accessible than Ohio. When they reached the apartment building, though, Tyler stopped Jenna.

“Can you help me up?”

She looked doubtful. “The doctor said...”

“I know. But I need to do this.”

Looking as though she were chewing the inside of her cheek raw, Jenna kicked the brake down and rounded the chair to help Tyler up. He leaned heavily on her strength as they approached the door.

At first, there was no reply to Jenna’s knock but, as it grew more insistent, the door finally opened. Debby stood inside. She looked like a woman who hadn’t slept in a week. Her hair was a tangled mess and her clothes were rumpled. 

“My God.” Jenna said. “ Debby, are you okay?”

Debby fixed Tyler with an unfriendly glare. “I told you to stay away.”

Confused, Jenna looked from Debby to Tyler. “Uh...”

“I need to see Josh,” Tyler said. His voice was weak and raspy. It got harder to speak every day.

Debby gave him a once-over. “You look like hell, Joseph,” she said. Her gaze lingered on the oxygen tank slung over his shoulder. Her eyes widened at the sight.

“Yeah,” he replied. “Kinda feels that way, too.”

Debby nodded once and stepped aside. “Bedroom,” she told him. When Jenna made to help Tyler into the apartment, Debby stopped her. “We should talk,” she said in a low voice.

“Ty?”

Tyler gave his wife’s hand a squeeze. “I’ll be fine.” He took one unsteady step into  the room, then another. Standing on his own for the first time in days, Tyler made his way through the apartment. He stopped in the living room. There, on the floor by the sofa, lay a pile of yellow rose petals.

Oh.

Oh!

Tyler followed the trail of petals down the hallway to the open door of Josh’s bedroom. He found his best friend and bandmate on the bed, beneath a blanket of yellow rose petals.

“Oh, Jish,” Tyler said. His heart swelled so huge, so fast, he was afraid it would explode and kill him before the Hanahaki had a chance to do it. Josh stirred restlessly but didn’t open his eyes. His breathing sounded painfully labored.

Fear settled heavy over Tyler, making his steps drag as he crossed to the bed. Please don’t let me be too late, he thought. I’m sorry I was so stupid I didn’t realize sooner. Please, Josh, I-

“Josh,” he said, settling himself on the bed beside the prone man.  He laid a hand on Josh’s shoulder and shook him. “Josh, please wake up.”

Tyler didn’t realize he was crying until the first tear fell on Josh’s face.

“I’m sorry,” he sobbed. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know you could love two people at the same time. I didn’t know how important you were – you are to me. Please, just open your eyes so I can-”

But he’d spoken too quickly, had become too emotional. Tyler couldn’t finish. His next breath forced a gust of yellow petals up through his throat, into his mouth, and through his lips. Petals rained down on Josh.

Tyler reached for his oxygen tank, but the coughing fit made him clumsy. He knocked the tank backward. It rolled away, out of reach. The harder he tried to breathe, the worse the coughing became. All Tyler could do was cling to Josh’s wheezing form as his own lungs filled with petals.

So, this is it, he thought. At least it’s here, with Josh. It’s right that it would be here.

With the last of his strength, Tyler leaned forward to press his lips to Josh’s. Spent, he collapsed beside Josh, one hand over the other man’s heart. The world faded away before Tyler got to see Josh’s dark lashes flutter.

 ***

The hiatus was longer than anyone expected. Only a handful of people knew exactly why – and they weren’t talking. They were all present the night of the first concert of the new tour, hiding in the rafters with a very special task to perform.

As the concert came to an end, Tyler and Josh did what they always did; they stood together at the center of the stage and, arms around each other, took a bow. Then, to the delight of far more fans than they could have expected, Tyler and Josh faced one another and, blushing furiously, shared the first of many public kisses.

In the rafters, with smiles on their faces and tears in their eyes, Jenna and Debby were the first to shower their boys with handfuls of yellow rose petals. Some fans, the ones most often prone to theorising, claimed that the petals symbolised hope. They had no idea how right they were.