Actions

Work Header

Under Clothes, Under Skin

Work Text:

Josh is kinda vague on how the book ended up on the bus.

He’s pretty sure someone on the crew found it at a venue, because it’s pretty old, and because his first memory of it is from before a show one afternoon. Wherever it came from, it ended up on one of the junk bunks, and from there it kind of turned into community property.

Since then, it’s turned into a thing. Someone gets bored, the book comes out. A lot of the time it turns into a game: you play until somebody “wins” by giving an answer that makes everyone else nope out for the rest of the night. Day. Afternoon. Whatever.

There are two rules: you can tap out exactly once, and you must tell the truth.

He’s paged through it a couple of times, fingers absently unfolding or re-folding dog-eared corners. It’s all questions, the kind people ask each other at parties. Most of them are just fun or weird. A lot of them are pretty personal. In the introduction -- which he read once because there’s a ton of downtime on the bus and it was more or less that or the back of a can of spray cheese -- the author claims to be a psychologist.

Josh isn’t sure how he feels about that. Kind of like he’s being experimented on every time the book comes out, maybe.

Tonight it’s just him and Tyler, crushed up side by side in Tyler’s bunk because neither of them can sleep, but neither of them really wants to go out in the lounge either. Honestly, he’d be content to mess around on his phone, but Tyler’s got the book out, just idly flipping through and dropping questions whenever one catches his attention.

“Okay, here’s one. Spending the night in a haunted house: yes or no?”

“Murder haunted or just kind of scary?”

Tyler shrugs. “Doesn’t say. It’s a surprise I guess.”

“Then no.” Josh swaps a couple of candies on the screen of his phone, then watches with satisfaction when half the board explodes and rearranges itself. “Just say no to murder houses.”

“Good call.”

Flip. Flip. Flip.

“Whoa, okay.” Tyler shifts suddenly, clearly excited. “How’s this: how much would someone have to pay you to eat a bowl of live crickets?”

He looks at Tyler, whose whole face is like, glee-city. “Um, a lot?”

“Five hundred?”

Josh laughs. “No way.”

“Five large?”

“Up, dude. Way up.”

“Fifty grand.”

“Maybe for fifty grand, yeah.”

“Gross,” Tyler says, mock-shoving him.

“I said maybe.

“You didn’t even ask how big the bowl is,” Tyler points out. “Like, what’s the dollar-to-cricket ratio here? And how do you keep them in the bowl? Wouldn’t they, like, jump out? Do you have to chase them? If I’m paying you to eat crickets, I want to make sure I’m getting a solid return on that investment.”

“You’re pretty deep into the logistics on this.”

“Oh yeah. I’m super into the whole cricket eating industry right now. Gotta diversify my portfolio just in case this whole music thing doesn’t work out.”

They hold it together for maybe five seconds before both of them break, collapsing into twin fits of muted giggles.

“I’m just, like--” Josh gasps. “--like picturing you really paying attention to someone--”

“So gross.”

“--crunch, crunch, crunch--”

Tyler hits him in the chest with the book, which sets them both off again until Tyler grabs his arm and mimes a “shhh” noise.

Josh strains to hear. Somewhere in another bunk, closer to the front of the bus, he can hear someone snoring. Maybe someone closer is moving around? It’s hard to tell. It’s hard to overstate how much privacy there isn’t on the bus. He’s good at making his own space, putting on his headphones to get real quiet, that sort of thing, but it’s impossible to know who else is doing that. It’s easy to be a jerk accidentally, or to overhear stuff that’s not his business.

“I think we’re good,” Tyler says, voice just above a whisper.

“Cool.”

They settle in again, Tyler paging through the book while Josh obliterates another screenful of candy.

“Oh man. Here’s one.”

“Lay it on me.”

“What’s the most messed up thing you’ve ever masturbated to?”

“Uh.” Josh freezes, eyes fixed on his phone screen. He knows the answer instantaneously, or at least one of them. If he dug deep, he might remember something from his teens, but as far as this tour goes--

“Actually, scratch that,” Tyler says, apparently reading his mind in the most awkward possible way. “Just this tour. I don’t want to hear about any sort of weird cartoon stuff.”

“How do you know it wouldn’t still be weird cartoon stuff, though?” He hopes he doesn’t sound as anxious as he feels. “Like, that tomato from Veggie Tales can get it. It’s like one big curve, all round and soft--”

Tyler groans, covering his eyes with the book. “Oh god.”

“--and, like, it’d be like putting ranch on a salad--”

“Joshua, if you don’t stop right now, you’re out of the band.”

“-- and then the other vegetables could eat the salad--”

Tyler drops the book and starts to roll out of the bunk, but Josh wraps an arm and a leg around him and pulls him back.

“Don’t run from my love, dude.” Josh snickers into the back of his neck while Tyler squirms. “My creepy, vegetable love.”

“You are so out of the band.”

“Cool. That’ll give me more time to fantasize about the cucumber or whatever.”

Tyler succumbs to Josh’s ridiculous full-body hug, first by going limp, then snuggling in, accepting his place as the little spoon. “Ugh. You’re such a liar.”

“I mean, yeah,” he admits. “But you’re gonna nope out either way, and at least this way you get to keep your dignity while I pretend I want to get freaky with a bunch of fake vegetables. Everybody wins.”

“No, nobody wins, because that’s not how the rules work.”

“You really want the answer, huh.”

“If I’m gonna lose, I’m gonna lose honestly.”

Josh sighs, letting go of Tyler and rolling onto his back. “Well, if I’m already out of the band--”

“And you are.”

“--then I guess I can bask in the glory of my one, single, solitary win on my way out.”

“Uh huh.”

He could push the issue and refuse to answer. Tyler’s his friend, and rules or not he’d accept that Josh doesn’t want to talk about it. But he doesn’t. The adrenaline

“Blurryface.”

Tyler goes both still and entirely silent, and Josh closes his eyes. He’s cold, suddenly, and sick to his stomach and--

“What, like the album?”

“Uh, no. The, uh. The character.” He risks a sideways glance at Tyler, whose expression can only be described as a work in progress.

“The smooshed up face version, or--”

“The other one.”

“With the makeup.”

“Yeah.”

“The me one.”

“Yeah.”

“Huh.” Tyler’s brow furrows, like he’s thinking about it. Hard.

“I should probably get out of your bunk now.” He sits up, starts to move, but Tyler presses a hand against his chest.

“Hang on. I’m thinking.”

“Um.” Josh lowers himself back down. “Okay.”

After a moment, Tyler rolls onto his side to face him. He tugs lightly at Josh’s arm, encouraging him to turn so that they’re face to face. He doesn’t let go of Josh’s hand.

“He’s the worst parts of me.”

“I know.”

“He kills you on stage every night.”

“Yeah.”

“He kills himself on stage every night.”

“Kinda, yeah.”

“And we’re actually kind of both him, except not, because we’re taking him apart with music. Like, that’s the whole point of the show right now.”

“Right.”

“And you got off to that?”

Josh shrugs. It’s weird admitting to this with Tyler right here, close enough they’re basically breathing each other’s breath, fingers laced together, but apparently that’s what’s happening. “You asked for messed up.”

“Which part of it is messed up, though? The part where it’s all of that, or the part where it’s me?”

“Honestly? Um. I’m--” Josh fidgets with his fingers, his stomach screwed up tight. It’s a good question. Is there really an angle from which this whole thing isn’t messed up? “I don’t really know how to answer that.”

Tyler doesn’t say anything, but he doesn’t move away. Josh wonders if he should. Probably, yeah. Except every time he moves like he might, Tyler holds on a little tighter as if to ask him to stay. It’s doing weird things to his heart, like everything could shatter, but maybe it won’t. Like maybe--

Finally, Tyler looks up to meet his eyes.

No, not Tyler. Not exactly. And as much as Josh hates himself for it in the moment, his breath catches.

Blurryface smiles and slides his hand into the waistband of Josh’s sweats.

“Don’t make a sound,” he whispers, mere millimeters from Josh’s lips. “If you do -- if you make any noise I don’t ask for -- I’ll stop and we’ll never do this again. Got it?”

Josh nods, wide eyed.

He bites his lip as Blurry strokes him, forcing his breaths to stay regular. He’s hyperaware, suddenly, of how much noise can carry. How well he can hear the others in their bunks. How suspicious a sudden silence from Tyler’s bunk might be to anyone who isn’t either asleep or cocooned in their own world with noise canceling headphones.

Anyone with ears could guess. And Blurry didn’t even bother to pull the curtain closed.

Josh should tell him to stop, but he doesn’t. It’s like his nerves are overloaded with want, and once he gives up he’s all in, hips moving in time with Blurry’s hand, thrusting into his grip until he comes, teeth gritted and body trembling.

Blurry who pushes him away when he tries to lean in for a kiss, then wipes his hand clean on the front of Josh’s shirt with a smirk.

“Good job. Now go to bed.”

Josh swallows. Nods. Climbs out of Tyler bunk and up into his own, the one right above it.

He stares at the ceiling for a long time.

# # #

Three radio stations in a row. Skype with the next town’s college paper. Soundcheck. It’s a long-ass day, and as much as he wants to bring last night up with Tyler, there’s no good time or place.

It’s stressing him out. Not so much he can’t handle things by being his usual mostly-but-not-entirely-silent self in interviews, or laugh because Tyler does something funny, but underneath…

Mark picks up on it, though. “Hey, you good?” he asks, catching Josh just after soundcheck.

On the other side of the stage, Tyler and Shap are deep in conversation. Shap points up at something in the rigging.

“Yeah,” Josh says, crouching down to poke at a non-existent problem with his hi-hat pedal. “Woke up a little weird is all.”

“Okay.” Mark squints, puts his finger up to the earpiece of his walkie to hear some bit of crew chatter. “Hey, it sounds like some of the guys are going out to grab food. You in?”

“Is Tyler?”

Mark glances over across the stage, then shakes his head with a smile that suggests not so much fatigue but workmanlike familiarity. “They’re gonna be a while by the look of it. Come on.”

So he does. A little reluctantly, but Mark’s not wrong. Tyler’s self-proclaimed particularness is going to keep him at the venue for a while. The least Josh can do is make sure they bring something back for him.

They go out. And it’s fine. And he’s honestly not even a little bit distracted. Really. And he definitely doesn’t engineer it so that he’s the one who brings Tyler’s tacos back so he can make a beeline to Tyler’s dressing room with them. Because, you know, he’s not in any rush to tap on the door and see what Tyler’s up to.

“Dude, are those tacos?”

“Heck yeah, they are,” Josh says, walking in and passing him the bag. “How’s the lighting thing?”

“Good.” He digs into the bag, pulling out some food. He offers some to Josh, who shakes his head. “You guys were out for a while.”

“Would have been back sooner, but we got turned around, like, three times on the way back.”

Tyler makes an amused sound through a mouthful of taco. Josh settles in while Tyler eats. Plays with his phone.

This is probably when they should talk about it.

They do not talk about it. They just...hang out. Like they always do. And then Josh has to split off to work out and warm up and get dressed for the show.

He doesn’t even hear Tyler come in. He’s leaning in toward the mirror, music blaring on his phone while he lines his eyes with red, when a single black-painted hand closes around his throat.

Oh.

Blurry moves up against his back, nips at the side of his neck as he presses against Josh’s ass. He’s hard. It’s unmistakable. Their eyes meet in the mirror: Josh’s wide and already kind of blown, Blurry’s intense. Curious.

“If I told you to, would you turn around and get on your knees?”

Josh nods. Swallows.

Blurry licks his lips. Loosens his grip on Josh’s throat.

He drops so fast he’s probably gonna get bruises, but Blurry’s got him by the hair, tilting his head back, and Josh suddenly has other things to think about. Specifically, the reality of a fly opening and a cock being brushed against his lips.

“You know what to do, Joshua.”

Truth be told, Josh does not strictly know what to do. He’s got a pretty good idea, having been the recipient of various blowjobs over the years, and porn has maybe given him a clue here and there about managing things from this angle, but he’s never actually sucked a dick before, and the learning curve is real.

Blurry doesn’t seem to mind. Blurry’s got the wheel, and Josh is quick to pay attention to every hissed instruction. This whole thing is rougher than anything he’s ever been party to directly, but just like on the bus, he finds himself unwilling to say no, or do anything but submit.

“Look at me.”

He strains his eyes up, breathing raggedly through his nose. His eyes are watering, but it’s not tears. It’s just his body’s reaction to the near-gag happening whenever Blurry thrusts a little too deep, just past Josh’s comfort zone.

“I’ll be you’ll choke if I come in your mouth,” Blurry says, matter-of-factly, wearing the same smug expression from the night before. “Do you want me to make you choke?”

Blurry laughs when Josh tries to answer. Redoubles his thrust. And, true to his word, chokes Josh with his load before releasing his hair and stepping back to watch as Josh sputters on all fours.

It takes him a minute to catch his breath and compose himself. He reaches over for a box of tissues, face flushed.

“I could get used to that look on you,” Blurry says, tilting his head as he does up his pants. “Now go get your mask. It’s time to put on a show.”

Josh checks his watch. Groans. Does the math and knows there’s no time to deal with his own hard-on except to tuck it and go.

This is probably going to kill him.

# # #

In Blurry’s defense, Josh does play one hell of a show that night.

# # #

A thing about Tyler that Josh learned early on: he compartmentalizes more effectively and efficiently and stringently than any human being on the planet.

It’s been a little over a week since the bunk. They’ve played five shows since. Every show, Blurry finds him. Drags him a little deeper. Pushes further. Every time, he leaves Josh wrecked and desperate. There isn’t a time that the ache in his chest doesn’t feel so solid he could reach inside and show it to someone.

Tyler, meanwhile, is just...normal Tyler. He goes around eating cereal and playing Donkey Kong and laughing and being Josh’s best friend and writing songs and doing interviews. He doesn’t treat Josh any differently. It’s like nothing at all has changed between them. No weird looks, no awkwardness, no new intensity, no change in how they casually touch all the time.

Everything feels tangled up, and Josh doesn’t know what's worse: the total lack of acknowledgement, or the fear of what might happen if one of them pushed the issue. He covers his face with his hands, breathes deep.

He should never have answered that fucking question.

There’s a park near the venue, and the weather’s clear and hot. He gets into gym clothes and lets the right folks know he’s ditching for an hour-ish. The venue’s people drive him -- he can’t exactly jog past the line -- and then he’s free, taking refuge in the purity of sweat, muscle, and speed. The sun feels good, and his body feels strong as he pushes up the inclines and descends the slopes.

His shirt’s practically soaked when he finishes, but he feels a little more peaceful. More resolved, maybe. What he wants is still a jumble, and how and if he can get that is equally vague, but he’s going to figure it out. That feels possible and real.

The venue’s folks bring him back, and he ambles in feeling loose and warm, and -- purely by accident -- runs straight into Tyler.

“Hey.”

“Hey.” Tyler grins, pokes at Josh’s still-damp shirt. “You go out and play a set without me?”

“I figured it’s just a matter of time before one of us is out of the band again,” Josh says, returning the grin. “Gotta keep my options open.”

“That feels like a firing offense, dude.”

“Good thing I’m playing secret shows behind your back, then.”

Tyler rolls his eyes, but grabs Josh’s hand. “Hey, come on. I want to show you something.”

Josh lets himself be led. He feels warm all over, and his heart feels full when Tyler laces their fingers together. That’s not a new thing, but he still likes it. Connecting with Tyler is never going to feel old.

“Okay. So.” Tyler sits him down on the couch next to a small rack unit where Tyler’s got his Macbook. There’s a MIDI keyboard laid out on the table next to a bottle of water, a can of Red Bull, and a notebook. He passes Josh a pair of headphones. “Check this out.”

Josh puts the headphones on, cupping his hands over them as Tyler starts the track. He closes his eyes.

The first few bars come up in a slow swirl, a resonant if tentative melody, before falling in with a half-formed drum and bass grove. He bobs his head to the beat, feeling the potential of the song. The words aren’t done -- Tyler’s demo vocals at this stage are mostly gibberish -- but that’s usually the case on those rare occasions when Tyler shows him something this early on.

“Dude,” he says, looking up as the song ends, pulling the headphones down around his neck.

“You like?”

“It kind of reminds me of Goner, but it’s wavier. Run it back to the bridge.”

Tyler does, switching to speaker output. Josh’s fingers tap along, feeling out the spaces in the rhythm line. There’s room for something deep here, and especially in the last verse. He could do something with his floor tom, maybe? Or kicks.

“This is gonna be sick. You have a name yet?”

“Oh yeah,” Tyler says, and points to the screen. “‘New-New-Thing-Six-And-A-Half-Synth99b.’ It’s a banger.”

“Crushed it,” Josh deadpans.

Josh takes off the headphones as Tyler puts the song on repeat. They settle in together, mostly quiet except when they notice something like the melody going weird in one spot, or places where the d rums could drop out. Josh’s arm finds its way around Tyler’s shoulder, and almost right away he leans in like he’s cold. They end up curled against each other, halfway holding hands.

People walk in and out, checking in or asking questions, because that’s what people do before a show. Mark comes in for a little while and sits down on the table while he listens. It’s chill. It’s nice. It’s kind of everything Josh loves about him and Tyler, and this big, weird family they’ve built around the band and on the road.

He wants to tell Tyler that he loves this part of him, too. That it’s not just the worst parts of him that he craves, but every part of him. Words are hard, though, so he plants a kiss on the top of Tyler’s head. Tyler squeezes his hand.

None of this is new, but Josh will take validation where he can get it.

When they break off to get ready for the show, Josh regrets not tilting Tyler’s jaw up and kissing him on the lips.

That night, Blurry zip ties Josh’s hands behind his back and sucks him off in a bathroom stall. Afterward, he makes Josh taste it, licking into his mouth like an animal with his fingers tangled up so tight in Josh’s mohawk that his eyes water. It leaves him stunned and breathless, and all he can do afterward is rub his wrists in a daze.

What does it mean that his best friend loves him, but only his best friend’s worst parts want him like this?

# # #

The book is out in the front lounge again. There’s five of them out here with it: Tyler playing Donkey Kong, Mike and Mark hashing out venue stuff on a yellow notepad, Josh splitting his attention between the dark terrain outside and his phone screen, and Shane -- their Front of House guy -- is on the floor, turning pages.

They’re not really playing playing -- folks are kind of coming and going tonight -- but it’s something to do.

“Okay,” Shane says, apparently settling on a question. “Who here’d go three months without showering for twenty k?”

“Am I getting paid up-front?” Mark asks, eyes still fixed on the paper in front of him.

“It doesn’t say.”

Mark shakes his head. “No deal. I need at least a solid deposit up-front.”

“Can I tell people why I’m doing it?” Tyler asks, eyes still focused on the screen.

Shane shrugs. “I mean, I guess.”

“Okay, because if I started that today and went through the rest of the tour like that--”

“As your tour manager, I am preemptively calling an intervention,” Mike says firmly. “Everybody showers.”

“--but all of you know why I’m doing it, and maybe even get a cut--”

Mark leans back and tilts his head, before rattling off, in a manic, faux rock journalist voice, “Hey, I’m here with Tyler Joseph of Twenty One Pilots! Tyler, what’s it like to be the most eye-wateringly filthy man in alternative rock today?”

“It’s great!” Tyler crows brightly in an equally fake voice. “Hey, you know what would make this whole concept, like, amazing?”
Mike and Mark exchange a nervous look.

“If you could make stuff up about it,” Josh says, knowing exactly where Tyler’s going with this. “Or, like, a story. Make it a puzzle that drives everybody nuts.”

Tyler pauses his game, positively glowing as he turns around to face the room. “Exactly. You come up with one, maybe two details. Or let something about it slip that isn’t, like, conclusive. But it's interesting. Open-ended. And then you sit back and collect your twenty grand while everyone comes up with a billion theories about what’s really going on.”

Mark nods slowly, visibly considering the possibilities. “That’s...not bad, actually.”

“Can we just go back to the part where everyone showers?” Mark says, looking back and forth between Tyler and Mark. “Like, forever?”

“Yeah, but I’m gonna need you to hit my boys with fifteen grand up front,” Mark says, rubbing his fingers together. “We need some green if the’re gonna keep clean.”

“Wait, if I’m in this now, is it fifteen each, or--” Josh asks, glancing Tyler’s way.

“Gotta be fifteen each,” Tyler says.

“Jesus,” Shane groans, tossing the book Josh’s way. “I regret this question. Please change the subject.”

Tyler picks up his controller. “Shane’s just afraid to make money.”

Josh flips pages while the others chatter. He hasn’t had his hands on the book since the night he confessed about the Blurryface thing to Tyler, and he’s tempted to find something in here equally uncomfortable just to balance the scales. He can’t, though. Not with, like, most of the bus here in attendance. He ends up just picking a few random pages and then choosing among them.

“Alright. If you could wake up in somebody else’s body, who would you pick and what would you do?”

It’s the ultimate softball question on a bus full of dudes, and he watches the debate in a detached sort of way. Tyler’s quiet, too, either too absorbed in his game or hoping to fly under the radar. The fray is still going when Josh excuses himself, handing the book off to Mike on his way to the cupboard. He grabs a pack of Pop Tarts and goes back to his bunk. It’s almost three in the morning anyway. He should get some sleep.

He’s half a Pop Tart in with his headphones on when Tyler peeks in through the curtain, then climbs up to join him. Josh pushes his headphones down around his neck and breaks his Pop Tart in half. Tyler accepts it without question, picking it apart a piece at a time as he eats.

Josh isn’t sure if he’s relieved or disappointed that Tyler’s just Tyler right now, and something about how that thought sits bad and weird with him must show, because the first thing Tyler says to him is, “Hey, we’re good, right?”

There’s no getting out of here without crawling over Tyler, which means he’s not going to try. Which he half-wishes he could do. He also wishes he could just cup Tyler’s face in his hands, look him in the eye, and--

“This is the first time you’ve asked that,” Josh says, hating himself immediately because of how he sounds saying it.

“That’s a no.”

“I don’t know, man.”

“So we’ll stop.”

Josh doesn’t know what to say to that, so he doesn’t say anything. Neither of them does. It’s probably the most uncomfortable he’s been in his entire life, crammed into this coffin who is somehow capable of doing the closest thing possible to not touching him someone can do with the two of them crushed up together side by side. The minutes drag. He’s barely breathing.

Tyler rolls away, starts to climb down.

More than anything, he wants to reach out for Tyler’s arm and pull him back in. Try to explain. But he can’t get his thoughts into any kind of order. They left this so long, and he doesn’t know how to say any of the things he’s been desperate to say, and by the time he thinks maybe he can get a word out, Tyler’s closing the curtain, and he can’t.

The back lounge door opens. Closes. After a moment, he hears the faint sound of Tyler’s workstation starting up.

Josh curls in on himself, puts his headphones back on, and cries.

# # #

Blurry doesn’t come for him in the next town. Or the next. Or the one after that. Blurryface, for the time being at least, seems entirely confined to the stage.

Josh stares at himself in his dressing room mirror, eyes rimmed with (fake) red, and wonders who he’d be on stage if it meant hauling the worst parts of himself up to the surface. And who gets to decide which parts of him are the worst, anyway? His judgement calls about what’s worthwhile haven’t always been choices the people he loves agreed with.

(See Also: a whole lot of yelling and confiscated CDs.)

He gets up, grabs his sticks, and wanders down the hall to Tyler’s dressing room.

“Hey,” Tyler says brightly from the couch.

“Hey,” Josh replies, sitting on the arm of the couch before letting himself drop back, head landing on Tyler’s lap. He props his feet up so he can tap out drum rudiments on his thighs. “My room was boring.”

“Yeah, the real party’s over here.” Tyler gestures at his otherwise empty room. After a minute his hand finds Josh’s hair. He plays with it, carding his fingers through, and Josh can’t help but make a soft sound at how nice it feels. “You’re like a kitten, dude.”

“You like it.”

“Whatever.” Tyler rolls his eyes, but he doesn’t stop. He’s gentle. It’s such a weird contrast, that Tyler is so soft with him, but Blurry was always… Not cruel, exactly. Cold? Intense?

It eats at him. He wants to ask about it, but it’s maybe not the sort of thing you drop on a guy before a show. Then again, Blurry never seemed to care about that, and--

That’s when it occurs to him: I’m Blurry, too.

Josh’s Blurriness isn’t like Tyler’s. He’s not sure it’s quite as inward-looking as Tyler’s, or at least not in the same ways, but it’s not fully externalized either. It’s like it lives in that space between him and other people. Like how other people can make him really anxious, or how he feels guilty about the way he’s done and said some awful things when he’s mad, or the way how he’s seen and who he is and what he values about himself always seems so out of whack.

Here in Tyler’s lap, he’s sharply aware of all the ways Tyler is vulnerable. He could really put the hurt on if he wanted to. And maybe he does want to, at least on some level. This person he loves more than anything is also rejecting him, after all. Doesn’t he at least deserve soe kind of explanation instead of compartmentalized silence?

Aren’t they best friends?

Josh puts his sticks aside, and takes Tyler’s hand out of his hair so he can inspect it. He peers at it, admiring the way the makeup brings out every little crease and line. How clear everything seems.

Tyler smiles down at him, but his expression falters when Josh tilts his head back and wraps Tyler’s hand around the bare expanse of his throat and holds it there.

“Josh--”

“Isn’t here right now. Call back later.” He keeps his eyes fixed on Tyler’s, keeping his hand exactly where he wants it. “And I kinda wish Tyler wasn’t either. But he is, so I guess maybe I’m gonna take advantage of that.”

Tyler swallows, visibly weirded out, and Josh -- no, not-Josh. Blurryjosh? -- feels a small thrill at that. It sparks somewhere in the cold emptiness of his chest, like metal grinding on concrete. His hand tightens around Tyler’s wrist as he bares his throat a little more.

“You know there aren’t a lot of positive ways to read the fact that you had to wear me when you fucked your best friend, right? And pretending you’re not doing it the rest of the time? Amazing work. Absolutely the murder-suicide kind of material that we’re looking for.”

“Dude, what the fuc--”

“Don’t be precious, Tyler,” Blurry snaps. Dimly, Josh is afraid of himself, too. The wheels are coming off. How far is this going to go? “You hate how much you love him. You hate that you want to fuck him. He hates that you hate that you want to fuck him. That you only kiss him when you’re me and you’ve got a load of his jizz in your mouth. It’s a match made in...well, not Heaven. Church camp, maybe.”

Tyler’s jaw tightens.

“What’s wrong, Ty? Does the truth hurt? Gonna kick him out of the band?”

A knock at the door breaks the moment, and while Josh doesn’t let go of Tyler’s wrist, he does turn his head toward the door. Mark pokes his head in. “Hey guys. Five minutes.”

“Thanks, man,” Blurry says in Josh’s voice.

When the door closes again, he looks up at Tyler. He smiles in a way that feels too wide. Like he’s a monster with too many teeth. Like his eyes are all wrong.

He leaves Tyler on the couch.

# # #

In Tyler’s defense, compartmentalization is probably the only way they play a hell of a show that night.

# # #

Tyler sleeps in the back lounge that night.

Nobody thinks much of it, or the fact that he doesn’t come out much that day. But when it happens a second day, and then a third one, there’s a low murmur of what’s up with Tyler that starts circulating. And Josh has to roll with it, because what’s he going to say? “We got up to some kinky roleplay, and when it didn’t go my way I went too far trying to make him feel bad about it, and now he’s avoiding me?”

It’s Mark that finally corners him at the venue, pulls him down a hallway nobody’s using and into a nook with a trio of noisily buzzing vending machines to ask him, point plank, “Dude, what is going on with you and Tyler?”

On the one hand, Mark is the least worst person he could tell. They’ve all known each other forever, he’s a good guy, and honestly the last thing Josh expects him to do is freak out because somebody on the bus is maybe getting down with another dude. On the other, while he’s fine with Mark getting the memo that he’s not-quite-straight, he’d have to out Tyler too. And frankly, Josh isn’t even really sure how Tyler sees himself. This whole thing has been kind of a weird surprise, and--

“Hey. Earth to Josh.” Mark waves his fingers in the air to get Josh’s attention, then frowns, concerned. Apparently Josh’s poker face isn’t holding up. “You okay man?

“I mean, I could be better,” he admits. “We, uh. The book game. He asked me a thing, I gave him an answer he didn’t expect, and I guess things got out of hand.”

“‘Out of hand’” like pick-up basketball gets out of hand, or ‘out of hand’ like ‘go call Woltman and tell him to craft a statement about creative differences’ out of hand?”

Josh flinches. “Geez, dude. It’s not--” He stops, panicked suddenly because actually, shit, what if it is? The complete and total collapse of their entire lives is not fully off the table. “Okay, listen. I’m gonna tell you everything, and you have to promise me -- pinky swear, spit shake, blood brothers, whatever, promise me -- that you will die before you breathe it to another person.”

“Two questions before I say yes. One, is anyone in immediate danger?”

“Not that I can think of, no.”

“Okay. Two, did you guys do anything super illegal.”

“No.”

“Okay, then. Yeah. Shoot.”

Josh peers out into the hall, then slides down to sit next to one of the machines. “The question was about weird stuff I jerked off to. I admitted to Blurryface, and he, uh--”

“Completely freaked out?”

Josh laughs, but it’s a sad, dry sort of laugh. Like a dead plant in someone’s kitchen or something. “No. He, um. He brought Blurry out.”

Mark’s eyebrows shoot up. “Oh.”

“Yeah. It was kind of a thing for a couple of weeks.”

“Do I even know how this got messed up?”

“I, uh. I guess I wanted to talk about it, but he didn’t.” He looks down. “So I brought out my own flavor of Blurry and called him out on it.”

“Yeah, that’d do it,” Mark says, rubbing absently at a scuff on the tile. “Like, I can’t say I entirely understand this, and I really don’t want specifics, but taking him down a peg with that voice or face or whatever? That’s--”

“Freaking cold, yeah.” The anguish breaks loose a little, and he has to swallow it down. “He was being a dick, but I think I really hurt him. And I have no idea what to do about it.”

“I mean, the obvious thing would be to talk to him.”

“Yeah, I know. But it’s Tyler. And when Tyler doesn’t want to talk about something--”

“Truth.” Mark shakes his head. “Okay. So here’s the deal. I’m not going to say anything. Not to Tyler, not to the rest of the guys. But I’m pretty sure this won’t solve itself, and the longer you leave it--”

“I know.” Josh rubs at his eyes. “But if we’re not on the bus, we’re at a venue. And if it’s a day off--”

“There’s nothing keeping him from storming off if he gets pissed?”

“Right. Not that that’s his deal most of the time, but--” He sighs. “I’m sorry. I’m just scared that I’m going to ruin everything. Like everything-everything. Or that I already have, and this is just the beginning of the end, and--”

“Probably should have thought about that before you started banging the other half of the band, dude.”

Josh groans, but he smiles, too. Gallows humor aside, it feels good not to carry this around on his own, and that Mark’s in their corner -- his and Tyler’s both -- and that maybe this thing is solvable. Josh doesn’t want to be right really, or to win. He just wants things to be okay. “Hey, Mark?”

“Hm?”

“Can you, uh...can you keep everyone away from Tyler’s dressing room after the show tonight? Like right after?”

“Um, maybe? How long?”

Josh bites his lip, ponders. “Uh. I guess we’ll find out?”

# # #

They leave the stage after trees, both buzzing from the show. Tyler drifts a little further from his side once they’re in the service areas of the venue -- he’s been doing that too since he started sleeping in the back lounge -- but Josh rolls with it.

It’s easier to roll with it when he has a plan.

It goes like this: he pretends to head toward his own dressing room, waits for Tyler to go into his, pauses for about forty-five seconds, and then goes to knock on Tyler’s door. When Tyler yells a weary ‘come in,” he does.

“Oh,” Tyler says, an expression of brief surprise vanishing under something more cautious. He sits down in the chair in front of the mirror and leans down to untie his shoes. “I thought you were Mark.”

“I’m asking for five minutes.”

“Blurry’s off-duty.”

“Well, good. I’m not here for him.”

Tyler looks up at him, eyes narrowed, but he doesn’t object. It’s as close to a yes as he’s likely to give.

Josh picks up the bottle of isopropyl alcohol on the counter, a washcloth, and some wipes. He crouches in front of Tyler, heart racing.

This isn’t a task he’s ever done, and he’s clumsy at it, but after a few false starts he starts working through the motions of cleaning away the black makeup from Tyler’s left hand. He’s meticulous -- every fingernail, every knuckle -- and it probably takes him a lot longer than it normally would. He keeps at it, though, moves on to the right, and only looks up to meet Tyler’s eyes when both hands are clean.

“Can I, um--”

Tyler nods, swallows. He looks vulnerable, nervous.

That makes two of them, Josh thinks, picking up a clean cloth before gently tilting Tyler’s chin up with his fingers. He’s relieved when Tyler accepts and even relaxes into his touch. Grateful, too. He’s missed this closeness. The trust.

He drops the dirty wipes and cloths into the trash can when he finishes. When he turns around, Tyler’s sitting with his elbows on his knees, leaning over, head bowed. Josh sits on the floor near enough to touch, but not so close as to crowd him. He waits, listening to Tyler’s breaths.

Slow. Deliberate. Like he’s trying to hold it together.

“I’m sorry I dragged you into this,” he says softly, finally glancing Josh’s way.

“I don’t know, man. I kind of like being in a band.”

Tyler snorts. “I mean in my bunk, dumbass. I messed up. I shouldn’t have let myself slip like that.”

“By slip, you mean--”

“I mean that we’re friends, and I love you, and I shouldn’t have--” Tyler’s voice breaks, and he stops. Takes another breath. “You don’t have to do that stuff with me. It’s messed up that I went there, and I owe you an apology, but I’m not sure how to even start, and--”

“You know the sex stuff wasn’t the stuff that hurt me, right?”

Tyler’s caution slams back into place.

“I don’t know if we’ve ever really talked about this,” Josh says, tentative. “But you know I’m not, like, totally straight, right? I haven’t had a lot of opportunities to go there until now, but you’re not the first dude I’ve thought about. You know. Like that.”

He can’t quite read Tyler’s expression. His eyes are dark, brows fully in concentration mode, but his body is tense. Skittish. It feels fragile. But if Josh doesn’t say this stuff now, he might not get another chance, so he keeps going.

“There isn’t anything we did I wouldn’t do with you again, except the part where we never talked about it. Because dude, mind-blowing orgasms aside, there is a lot to unpack here, and I care about you, man. Like, a lot.”

Tyler moves down out of the chair and onto the floor. He curls up on his side, facing away, head resting on Josh’s lap. He tangles his fingers in the laces of Josh’s sneakers. When Josh reaches down to stroke his hair, Tyler closes his eyes.

If they didn’t know each other half as well as they do, Josh might not notice the tears.

“And hey, if you never want to do any of it again, that’s cool too. Because you’re my best friend, Tyler. And I love you too, and I don’t want anything getting in the way of that. Ever. Okay?”

Tyler sniffs. Nods under Josh’s hand. After a while, he sits up. Wipes his eyes. “The guys are probably wondering where we are.”

“They’re probably eating dinner without us.”

“What dicks.”

“Seriously.”

Josh stands up and extends his hand, helping Tyler to his feet. When Tyler pulls him in for a hug, it’s maybe the best thing ever. He’s felt gratitude like this once, maybe twice in his whole life, and the only reason he lets go is that the two of them start giggling, because both of their stomachs start growling. In unison.

“We should get cleaned up,” Tyler says, eyes bright.

“Yeah.”

“Meet you at dinner?”

“Sounds good.”

And then, because they’re a couple of knuckleheads, they do the handshake.

It’s a good freaking handshake.

# # #

The only acknowledgement Mark makes of the whole thing when Josh and Tyler walk in together, shoulder-to-shoulder, is a quick “Well?” look that Tyler doesn’t even catch. Probably this is because Tyler spots an untouched crunchwrap on the table, and Josh is willing to make that sacrifice to give him a quick nod.

Mark looks glad. Not just relieved, but actually glad, and something in Josh’s chest feels warm, even if his cheesy gordita crunch is more of a lukewarm cheesy gordita chew.

# # #

That night, Tyler goes to bed in his bunk, right below Josh’s.

The relief is real.

# # #

Two night later, Tyler climbs up into Josh’s bunk with an old Game Boy Color in hand.

There’s no shenanigans. No making out. Just the two of them being deeply uncool and ridiculous until Snyder makes a sound that sounds like he’s planning a double murder because some people on this bus are trying to sleep.

Both he and Tyler move to elbow each other at the same time, which results in both bruises and a fit of giggles, as well as Josh finally physically pushing Tyler away until he goes back to his own bunk.

Normalcy is good.

Does he want to kiss Tyler about a hundred times a day? Yeah, but that’s been true since that first show at the Newport years ago. He’s not worried about it. They’re best friends, and they’re literally living their dream together. That’s enough.

# # #

“Josh.”

“Mnh.” He groans into his pillow, covers his face. He’s asleep, Tyler stage whispering at him or no.

“Dude, come on. Wake up.”

Reluctantly, Josh opens his eyes. It’s dark. The bus is still moving. “Timesit?”

“Like, fiveish? Come on. I want to show you something.”

There is not a part of his body or brain that is interested in being awake or even existing at five in the morning, but Josh slides out of his bunk, adjusts his sweatpants, and follows Tyler into the back lounge, where he’s mostly unsurprised to see the workstation already up and running.

Tyler sits him down in front of it, pushes a pair of headphones onto Josh’s head, and hits play.

He doesn’t know this song. It’s Tyler’s work, obviously, but it’s otherwise entirely unfamiliar. Wait, no. Not entirely. The rhythm line--

“Is that my practice pad?” Josh asks, bemused.

“Yeah, you were, like, super loud the other day,” Tyler says, mock sour. “Now shut up and keep listening.”

So he does. And then the vocals start.

Normally at this stage, Tyler doesn’t have all the words. He might have a few lines, or a verse. Maybe the chorus. Usually a melody. Which is why this one takes Josh by surprise. It’s not normal lyrics. It’s more like a poem. The audio quality is terrible -- at a guess Tyler used his phone to do a voice memo in a broom closet or something -- but it’s personal. Raw. The rhythm circles the sampled line of Josh’s practice pad. Weaves around it. Elevates it.

This is them. Just them. And it’s breathtaking.

“When did you even have time for this?” Josh asks after the song ends, pulling the headphones down around his neck.

“Last couple of nights.” He shifts back and forth on his feet, looking shy and a little expectant. “I’m deleting it when the sun comes up.”

“What?” Josh looks at the screen, then back at Tyler. “Why?”

“So nobody else gets to hear it. It’s just for us, right now. Well, except for this part--”

Tyler leans across, selects a single instrumental track, and hits play. It’s a soft thing, a tiny background melody. “I’m gonna use this on the next album. So we can hear it whenever we want.”

“Dude.” He beams at Tyler.

“Yeah, whatever,” Tyler says. He rolls his eyes, but he’s smiling. Happy. He purses his lips. Looks at his feet. The screen. Josh. “Hey, uh. Can I kiss you?”

They’ve been back to normal for almost a month now, and Josh hadn’t been lying when he’d told Tyler that just being best friends was enough. He’d had zero expectations. But here they are, and he’s actually kind of nervous. What if this doesn’t work out? What if they mess up again?

Josh nods.

Tyler leans close. Hesitates. Licks his lips. They’ve never done this. Not, like, for real. Never just to kiss. Josh rises up to meet him -- can’t help it, honestly -- and when they connect it feels like a miracle. Tyler’s lips are soft. He tastes like Red Bull and Doritos, and his stubble is rough, and Josh can’t imagine anything more perfect.

They don’t even need Blurry in the mix for Josh to pull Tyler down onto his lap. The bus hums around them as Tyler’s shirt lands on the carpet. Josh kisses his way down Tyler’s throat to his chest, exploring bare skin, pausing now and again to trace the line of a tattoo. Tyler eagerly follows suit, which is an ideal state of affairs up until the point where Josh tries to arch into his touch.

Beneath them, the chair tips. Josh scrambles for the nearest solid surface. Tyler lands on the floor with a thud. Josh follows him down, snickering. He leans in for another kiss, and gets it.

# # #

When the sun comes up, they hit delete together. Josh is pretty sure he’ll never hear that crinkly paper sound effect again without thinking of Tyler.

# # #

When Blurry comes for him after a show a few nights later, Josh gives as good as he gets. He comes out of it with a handful of extremely sexy bruises -- one of which is visibly a bite mark -- and an open invitation from Tyler to rail him against the wall of any and all future shower stalls for the rest of the tour.

“What about after the tour?” Josh asks, smirking as he bites into a Twizzler. He has no idea who brought Twizzlers onto the bus, but they left them out, so they’re free game.

“Negotiable.”

“Nice.”

“You know we can hear you,” Mark grumbles from his bunk.

“So get us a room,” Tyler shoots back with a smirk. Josh curls in closer against him. Which, considering how small the bunks on this bus are, is actually kind of an achievement.

# # #

Josh isn’t sure who takes the book off the bus. He only knows because he spots it at dinner, sitting on a corner table on the far side of the room where they’ve circled up the chairs and couches while they eat and go over notes.

“Okay, so second verse of Migraine, Tyler’s here--” Mark starts, iPad on the table where he, Tyler, and Shap can see. They’re working out another change, tweaking the choreography, which means tweaking about seven billion other things.

Josh listens contentedly as he chows down on his burrito. The Chipotle they’re eating is actually warm, he’s tired in the best way, and he’s surrounded by awesome people. He doesn’t need much more, really.

He doesn’t mention the book, or even point it out. Tyler notices it, though, as they’re gathering up their stuff, and nudges him.

“Is that--”

“Yeah, I think so.”

“Huh.” He pauses. “We gonna take it with us?”

Josh considers it, but shakes his head. “Nah. I’m good.”

“Cool.”

He laces his fingers in with Tyler’s as they head out to the bus. Whatever weird questions are left between them -- he’s pretty sure neither of them needs a book to get answers anymore.