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Miles Away

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If you’d asked any of them a month ago, they would have called it impossible. When Chris had left, and when Nick had made his exit shortly after, the gash that had been torn into the fabric of the band had seemed irreparable. This was the end, they had all been sure, of the project they had worked so hard on. Twenty one pilots couldn’t survive much longer if band members kept fleeing the scene.

Josh had registered the wound as much as the others, albeit with a degree of distance; although he was in this with an unparalleled loyalty, although his addition to the band felt both to him and to Tyler like a consummation of over a year of friendship and tentative longing, Josh was acutely aware of the strangeness of his position: both inside and outside of this tight-knit circle, part of the band both as a member, and as a longtime, dedicated observer. It was this perspective, and this unique proximity to Tyler, that allowed him to see clearly the toll that Chris and Nick’s exits had taken on his best friend.

And yet, despite everything, here they were.

Not even two months later, and even the existence of other band members seemed like a distant memory. It went unspoken - felt indelicate to acknowledge - but with twilight expanses of rolling Kentucky highway spreading out in front of them, Mark and Michael tucked drowsily into their seats, Josh was certain that they all felt it: this is how it was always supposed to have been. The four of them, together in this rickety metal home, leaving the city at daybreak to chase another exhausted adventure.

Curled in the back, knees pulled up onto the bench seat, Josh was supposed to be sleeping. Tyler was at the wheel, the daze of highway driving broken up by his periodic yawns. Soon, they would stop - for gas or for coffee or to stretch their legs - and Tyler would pass him on the driver’s side; brush his arm, maybe; avoid his eyes. It’s not that they were uncomfortable with each other, not at all; since officially becoming the drummer, he and Tyler had only grown closer, their conversation as easy and effortless as ever. Here they were for each other, day by day, with unfaltering and unquestioned fidelity - but with one glaring shortcoming:

There had been no mention, not even the smallest acknowledgment, of the kiss. Nor had there been any more kissing since then.

For the past month, Josh had been of two minds. Half the time, he convinced himself that it was a fluke, a friendly kiss, born out of the moment’s breathless intimacy. It was a one-time slip, a no-big-deal. But when he thought about it - when he relinquished the guilt and the nagging confusion and really let himself think about it - he couldn’t help but bristle at the reckless ease with which Tyler was willing to do such a thing; that he, as no more than a close friend, found it acceptable and even natural to kiss Josh - to kiss him like that - and then not to talk about it again.

And so, beneath the tightly woven surface of their light-hearted interactions, a layer of uncertain tension lay dormant. And even though he truly wasn’t expecting it to come, Josh was constantly on guard for another kiss.

“You look zoned out,” came Mark’s muffled voice from in front of him, and he watched Tyler snap to attention, blinking a little and readjusting his fingers on the wheel.

Mark seemed to take this as an indication that his assumption was correct.

“We need gas anyway,” he assessed, gesturing to the gauge. “Might as well stop.”

Tyler nodded, his words - if there were even going to be any - stifled by another huge yawn.

Mark directed him toward an exit sign advertising various gas stations, alongside the familiar red and yellow McDonalds logo.

“Coffee first,” Josh directed them, speaking up from the back for the first time. Tyler flicked his eyes to the rearview mirror, as if surprised to find him awake. He must have been better at feigning sleep than he thought. Deep down, yeah, he was tired, exhaustion sitting heavy in his chest; but the urge to sleep felt miles away. He was vibrating with the quiet excitement of this trip, mixed with the almost shameful amazement he felt at being included, of being here. He was wide awake.

Tyler rolled the SUV to a lazy stop in the near-empty McDonalds parking lot. Already, Michael was stretching next to him, extending limbs in every direction and springing out of the car before Josh could even reach to undo his seatbelt. Mark followed easily, pausing for a moment to raise an eyebrow back at Tyler, who was still stationed in the front seat.

“I’ll be just a second,” Tyler said - or something like it, anyway. Josh was too distracted by the low hum of his thoughts, growing louder, holding him hostage where he sat.

For a moment, he thought Tyler was going to stay in the car with him - turn around maybe, lean a bare tanned elbow on the console, and say something like you alright? Or you coming? Or even did you get some sleep?

But he didn’t. Tyler paused, his right hand on the keys in the ignition, his left busy and two-fingered, rolling down first the front windows, and then the back. Josh watched the glass recede, taking his reflection along with it, until he was staring uninhibited into the empty gray heat of this unfamiliar parking lot.

Something was bubbling up inside him, thrumming and coursing through his veins, and catching in his throat. It was something he’d let simmer calmly in his stomach for over a month, unobtrusive; but now, unannounced, it was arriving in the forefront of his consciousness, too loud and frantic to be ignored.

It scared Josh - the knowledge that he would do, without question or consideration, whatever Tyler asked of him.

That was the bottom line of it, really. He didn’t regret a single choice he had made - he’d make them all again in the blink of an eye. He would let Tyler lead him into the fiery pits of hell, or into the humid concrete arteries of another state, and he’d do it with a smile. Because he wanted to. Because it was all he wanted. Because he had spent too long on edge, waiting for a second kiss that might never come, and he was finally realizing how it had slowly torn him apart and spread him thin, and he couldn’t budge until he knew, couldn’t get up from his seat until he understood. Josh gripped at the seat, nails scratching on pliant fabric, and he had to know.

Like a fateful apparition, Tyler appeared at the open window. Josh hadn’t even heard the driver’s door open and close.

Wide-eyed and cautious, he could tell that Tyler was still learning the anatomy of Josh’s anxiety. He’d only seen him like this a few times, breath shallow, white-knuckled and head spinning, gripping the seat below him like a vice.

Tyler reached a hand through the open window, straight for Josh’s face. He tensed, unsure of what to expect - but relaxed when Tyler’s hands closed around his sunglasses, pulling them slowly off his face, and retracting his arm.

“There you are,” Tyler said, peering at Josh and placing his sunglasses in his own shirt pocket with a surprising amount of tenderness, considering how much Josh knew he hated those glasses. Those are the ugliest things I’ve ever seen in my short life, Tyler had mocked him at an early outdoor show, and Josh had replied that he’d be sure to always wear them around Tyler from now on.

There he was, indeed. Without the sunglasses to shade his eyes from Tyler, Josh was exposed to his gaze. He knew by now that it was impossible to get anything past Tyler. Hot sun poured in from the opposite window, forcing Tyler to squint, scrunching up his nose and closing one eye tighter than the other as he leaned on the window ledge.

He tilted his head, and Josh held his breath, waiting for him to speak; belatedly, when his voice never came, he realized that Tyler was doing the same.

Josh steeled himself.

“You kissed me,” he said quietly, avoiding Tyler’s gaze. “That one time.”

Whatever Tyler had been expecting him to say, it clearly wasn’t that. Even with the sun marring and blurring his features, Josh could register his quiet, tongue-tied surprise. He ran a thumb along a tear in the thigh of his jeans, only daring to look at Tyler out of the corner of his eye.

Josh watched him shake his head slowly, lips parted and brow furrowed.

“I was waiting,” Tyler said, low, “like, I was waiting -”

And only then did it hit Josh, only then did it cross his mind. He hadn’t dared let himself think it, but was becoming clear - from Tyler’s bitten lip, his creased forehead and worried eyes - that they were both being careful. They’d both been guarding themselves, and each other. They were each kind enough, and shy enough, and stupid enough, to think that they were the only one waiting for more.

Josh felt like he might laugh, but he didn’t want to cheapen the moment. Tyler’s face was a blank page. He couldn’t tell what to expect.

In slow-motion, Tyler reached his hand back in through the window, getting fingers in Josh’s curls. And with the other hand, awkward, he took the sunglasses out of his pocket and placed them on his own face, smirking.

The tension evaporated like dew, and from somewhere in the air between them, Josh drew the strength to be bold. He leaned out the window, ignoring the strange angle, and pulled Tyler down by the back of his neck, bringing their lips together in a clumsy kiss. Josh felt his nose bump against the sunglasses, pushing them up Tyler’s face.

It was everything their first kiss had not been.

It was imperfect, and yet, it was a hundred times more breathtaking than their quick fumbling in the rental house backyard. It wasn’t a fluke. With the layer of shock and confusion gone, Josh granted himself the time to press the tip of his tongue between Tyler’s lips, moving his mouth again and again, trying to find every angle he could; trying to get to know the soft and subtle intricacies of Tyler’s lips, to hold him over until next time, whenever that might be. These lips could keep him alive for weeks, he thought. On the coldest darkest nights, even just the memory of Tyler’s mouth would be enough to keep him warm.

Abruptly, Tyler pulled away, retreating through the window. He scratched at his head awkwardly, eyes on the pavement, fiddling with the sunglasses in his hand. Stock still in the car, Josh found himself paralyzed with fear that Tyler had changed his mind - but in a subtle instant, lit by the glare of the sun, Tyler flicked his eyes back to Josh, meeting his gaze with a quiet, indulgent half-smile that sends Josh’s doubt running. In that single half-smile, Josh found certainty of Tyler’s intentions. In that single half-smile, Josh could see the future.

He opened his mouth to speak - feeling that something, anything, had to be said - but before he could wrap his mind around a suitable response to this development, he saw Tyler glance to the doors of McDonalds, towards Mark and Michael, now walking in their direction. Tyler’s posture was a silent apology, and Josh shook his head, dismissing any guilt. He understood.

Unclicking his seatbelt, Josh hoisted himself down from the backseat, letting Tyler take his place. As they passed each other, he felt Tyler’s fingers catch his own, and Josh didn’t bother to wonder whether it had been an accident. He didn’t have to.

As he settled himself in the driver’s seat, Michael reached over the console from the back seat to hand him a coffee, hot, despite the already sweltering weather. Just the way Josh liked. It was a tiny gesture - especially in the light of what had happened while he and Mark were inside - but it didn’t escape Josh that his preferences, his needs, were already starting to be woven into the fabric of this tight-knit family. He was one of them.

In the rear mirror, he could see Tyler settling onto his side against the bench seat, Josh’s sunglasses still perched on his head. He turned the key in the ignition, and cautiously, reached behind him to pull the glasses out of Tyler’s hair, replacing them on his face; letting his gaze linger, he saw Tyler register the gesture with a small smile that Josh knew was only for him.

Silent, reeling, Josh pulled the SUV out of the parking lot, heading for the highway, and for a new day. This, he thought, catching sight of Tyler’s eyelids fluttering in the rear-view mirror, was the miracle he had been waiting for all along. This was what he’d been dreaming of.