Present Day

"You with the hair, come with me," his boss's supervisor, TJ said, his head poking through the lounge door.

Baby Simon, Vince, Arial and even hulking, Russian, mountain in the form of a man, Jhono leapt to their feet guiltily, trying to hide what they'd been doing from TJ, but he was already out the door. Apparently, whatever he wanted had nothing to do with the dart board Jhono had snuck in, or the picture of their Justin Beiber Baby Simon had taped to it. Or the devil horns barely visible on the torn-up picture that Vince had drawn on it.

"But we all have hair," Baby Simon stage whispered to Vince.

"I think he means Arial," Vince snorted, tugging on one errant lock of Arial's blonde hair. Arial smacked his hand away out of habit. He'd kept meaning to have it cut, but kept forgetting, and it had gotten out of control, nearly past his shoulders when he didn't keep it tied up.

"I swear to god if you sent anyone prank emails using my email address again, I will murder you," Arial grumbled at Baby Simon and grabbed his bag. They'd been having an extended lunch since the musician they'd been supposed to work with hadn't shown up. There had been other things they'd been supposed to work on in spare time, but the dartboard featuring a picture of preteen Justin Beiber's face had seemed a lot more interesting. The picture only looked like Beiber if you'd been at the company since the early 2000s, but that didn't stop it being a source for cheap entertainment.

In the hallway, TJ was nearly at the end by the elevator and was glowering back towards Arial impatiently.

"Sorry," Arial said, once he'd caught up. He hesitated and then asked in the politest tone he could manage, "Sorry, but what's this about?" He definitely felt more than a little intimidated, he'd only spoken to TJ once before when he'd been hired, and clearly the man didn't remember him, if he didn't know what Arial's name was.

"Not too sure," TJ said and shrugged casually. "Upstairs sent me down to get you since you don't have a cellphone on file. They figured I'd know where to find you."

Despair sunk through Arial's gut like a stone. What in God's name would anyone above his boss's supervisor want with him? He was just a small-time session musician, and not one in high demand for that matter.

POP Records was one of the biggest music conglomerates in the country, and had one of the largest stables of musicians. There were a fair number of hit makers, a few more indie bands, and then a significant number of session artists and technical guys who worked behind the scenes. Guys like Arial who played instruments for non-charting songs were a dime a dozen in company the size of POP Records. He'd never even touched a song that had approached anything like a hit. A true nobody, a cog in the wheel.

And yet there he was, being summoned by the big guys upstairs.

What in god's name had Baby Simon done and then blamed him for?

The elevator ride was terrifyingly long- Arial nearly fainted from fear when he noticed that TJ had selected the 41st floor, near the top of the building.

"Don't worry, you aren't in trouble," TJ told Arial once they exited the elevator.

"Right, sure," Arial croaked, only getting even more worried.

TJ led him down the warren of hallways into a literal corner office which did nothing to soothe his frazzled nerves. Nor did the sharply dressed woman sitting behind the desk.

"Found him," TJ said and flopped casually onto one of the uncomfortable chairs in front of the desk.

Arial much more cautiously crossed the room and perched on the second chair, feeling like he needed to be able to book it out of the room at a moment's notice, just in case someone realized they had the wrong person.

"Excellent," the woman said. Her eyes flicked down to a file, presumably Arial's. "I'm Danielle Singh, it's a pleasure to meet you A- Arial." She stumbled slightly, a minute crease appearing on her forehead.

"Mom's an English Lit professor, she was way into The Tempest right before I was born," Arial explained.

Ms. Singh smiled politely, and said, "Fascinating. Thank you for meeting with me on such short notice."

"Uh," Arial said, floundering, then gave up and just laid his cards on the table. "What exactly is this meeting about, Ms. Singh? TJ said I wasn't in trouble, but..."

"You certainly aren't in trouble, you have an excellent track record with POP Records, if you'll pardon the pun," Ms. Singh said. "It's more something I was hoping you could help us with." She slid another file across her desk. It was an intimidatingly thick file.

Hesitantly, Arial picked it up. The front of the folder read The Star Project! Season 3.

"We had a contestant drop out at the last minute. Filming is set to start in four days, and your name came up as a substitute," Ms. Singh explained.

Arial flipped the file open, frowning. He was a nobody, why would he be asked... His eyes landed on the name of the band participating and he knew in an instant.

The Star Project was a reality TV show whose purpose was to find a replacement member for semi-popular bands. Shockingly enough, the two bands featured in the first two seasons had actually gone on to have mild success. It was a wildly popular show, possibly due to the fact that all contestants were preselected from pools of people already involved in the industry, session musicians, small fry indie band members, or hometown heroes never heard of outside of that single location. All people of some small measure of repute and extreme talent, who had the experience and talent to launch them into the big leagues without much threat of burnout.

Arial hadn't been picked for any of those reasons.

It was because he knew the front man of the band that was going to be featured that season.

"I don't understand," Arial said a little numbly. "I didn't know Stress in Idlenesswas missing a member."

The band was significantly bigger than the indie pop band from the first season, or the girl group from the second season. Like a lot bigger. They had to be nuts to agree to star on a reality TV show, even a popular one.

The band had been formed during the wave of pop punk bands in the early 2000s, and like its compatriots had faded somewhat from the popular consciousness, but still put out popular albums and was beloved by teenagers and fans from their earlier days alike. They might not have been the chart-smashing band they'd once been, but they were hardly the small-time success like the other bands on The Star Project.

"It hasn't been announced yet," Ms. Singh explained. "But the lead guitarist and backup vocalist, Monroe Reynolds has decided to leave the band as his wife is expecting a baby."

"I... see," Arial said slowly. He'd never met Monroe, having been long gone by that point. But he'd known Miles for years, Felix for a few months. The other two band members were also strangers to him. "And does the band know about me participating?"

Ms. Singh didn't answer right away, then said, "I don't believe so. But they aren't informed of any of the names of the contestants, to make sure they're impartial judges."

Arial gave her a flat look and bit back saying yeah that's why you haven't told them, totally not a dick move. Instead he said, "Right. Well I assume there's forms for me to sign, right?"

Never let it be said that Arial Brown ever backed down from a chance to punch Miles Eliot in the face, even if he'd be the most fired person in existence.

"So how fired are you?" Baby Simon asked when Arial appeared in their preferred studio hours later, hand cramping from so much paperwork and a stack of papers detailing his contract an inch thick stuffed in his bag.

"I'm incredibly not fired?" Arial said, feeling a little dazed. "Like the opposite of fired. I kinda got a promotion. But not really. I'm not allowed to tell anyone about it right now, though," Arial added when Vince and Baby Simon frowned at him in confusion.

"Okay man," Baby Simon said easily, rolling with it. "Let's get to work now that you're not fired."

Arial picked up his guitar and somehow felt like he was sixteen again. It wasn't the most pleasant feeling.


Sophomore Year

Summer

"Play that again," Miles demanded, shifting to a more comfortable spot on Ari's bed. It was a futile effort, Ari swore his bed was 90% springs.

"Which part?" Ari asked, shifting his guitar into a better position in his lap. His thigh was going a little numb with Miles' legs flung across his own for the last hour. Ari didn't move an inch, feeling like a creep for enjoying the contact and the warmth that radiated from him.

"The part that goes dah dah dah," Miles said.

Ari rolled his eyes at his best friend. "Right. That part. Obviously." He ducked the pillow Miles tossed at him, curling around his baby protectively. His mom had relented and finally bought it for him two years previous and if anyone ever scratched the red paint on it, much less broke it, Ari would probably kill them with his bare hands.

"Come on jerk, hurry up, we're getting some good shit done, but your mom will be home," Miles said, gesturing at the clock on Ari's bedside table. "I am not getting tossed out on my ass for being too noisy. Once was enough for me."

"Okay, okay," Ari laughed and shifted his fingers against the frets, absently wondering what it would feel like if it was Mile's arm, or cheek or maybe his- Ari quickly shut that thought off and cursed being a teenage and started to play.

Miles started to hum along, then singing the lyrics, knocking his shoulders into Ari's playfully and nudging him until Ari sang along, the words punching him in the gut like they had every other time, "Whoa oh, why do I put myself in these situations?"


Present Day

"All contestants are to prepare a song to perform during the first episode," one of the show's producers explained to the gathered contestants sitting in a conference room. "You'll be filmed performing a cover of any song of your choosing in front of the band. You'll have three days to prepare in our practice areas here, but the goal is to have it appear like preparation takes place over the course of a single day. There are a few individual soundproofed rooms to practice in, and time spent in those will be strictly restricted so everyone has an equal amount of time in them."

Arial didn't even feel like rolling his eyes. They hadn't even started filming and the plasticity of the whole show had already started to seem matter-of-fact just from dealing with filming the promotional material used for commercials and the opening credits. The dozen odd other people seated around him looked like they were in the same boat.

"You may not perform any of Stress in Idleness's songs, or any songs of your own creation, but you may pick a song from any genre of music," the producer continued, flipping through a sheaf of papers. Arial nearly snorted, like anyone would pick something that didn't match the band's genre.

"As filming is over three days, all of you must wear and style your hair the same way during all three days of filming. Failing to do so will result in disqualification. Contacting anyone outside without permission, or providing any information on the events of the show will also result in disqualification in addition to legal action." The producer paused and eyed them all up, like she was expecting one of them to complain, then continued, "Are there any questions?"

Arial considered the jeans and t-shirt he was wearing and the starting to get gross split ends his hair was splintering into and wished he'd taken a bit more care with how he looked. His shirt was already on its fourth day and wasn't the freshest smelling.

Ultimately though, it didn't really matter. Even if he got eliminated right out of the gate, all that mattered was that he got to see Miles' dumbstruck face when he saw Arial onstage.

He was going to make him suffer like Miles had made him suffer as teenagers. He definitely wasn't petty or bitter or holding onto a grudge far longer than a rational adult would.

"Hey, any idea what you'll pick?" Alice, one of the other contestants, asked him as they all filed out of the conference room to head to the studio area to start being filmed. Arial had heard of her even before filming promo material: she was a small-time singer/songwriter without any hits, but with an album that was pretty popular on college radio stations. She was exceptionally talented and pretty and was yet another musician that should have made it big and yet hadn't due to bad luck.

She was also basically the norm among the contestants- Miles was probably the biggest unknown with the least amount of buzz to his name. When he'd mentioned that he was a studio musician and hadn't ever released any of his own music and hadn't been really looking to make it big, he'd garnered more than a few side-eyed looks.

Arial shrugged. "Not sure. I have a few favourites, but not sure what I'll pick. You?"

"I've been prepping songs for this show ever since I heard I was going to be on here," Alice said, like it was strange that Arial hadn't. Which, it probably was, given everyone was there to win and Arial was just there to give a middle finger to Miles Eliot.

"I didn't have all that much time for that," Arial said when Alice wouldn't stop giving him funny looks. "I was sort of a last-minute addition, someone had to drop out a few days before filming for promos started."

"That explains a lot," Grayson muttered under his breath, though clearly meant for Arial and Alice to hear him given how he shouldered past Arial roughly.

"Ugh, what's his problem?" Alice grumbled.

Arial shrugged, not too bothered. Grayson was basically ten years old, he'd made a couple exceptionally popular YouTube videos of covers of popular songs. If someone was going to be an ass to him, at least it was an actual child. If it were an adult, it would be just plain embarrassing for everyone involved.

In the studio, cameras were already rolling, capturing all of the contestants spreading out across the room and picking up various instruments, some provided by the show as part of the product placement, but most brought by the contestants themselves.

Arial had brought two of his own guitars, the first guitar he'd bought with his own money and his faithful companion, the one his mom had gotten him as a teenager. Its red paint had chipped off and it probably didn't sound quite as good as his other more expensive guitar, or the even fancier ones provided by the show, but it felt comforting and familiar under his fingers.

His fingers automatically started move, nothing in particular, just noodling, something that happened whenever he touched an instrument.

From the corner of the room, Arial heard a few familiar notes.


Sophomore Year

Fall

"Like, we're really going to make it," Miles declared with the authority of the very, very drunk. He punctuated this by poking Ari in the cheek. Ari, being equally drunk, started to giggle uncontrollably and pretended to try to bite his finger, then accidentally succeeded.

"Ouch, you dick!" Miles said and then playfully hit Arial with his balled-up hoodie. This prompted Ari to hit him back and the wrestled playfully across the bed, until one of Miles' uncoordinated feet knocked their ill-gotten beer onto the floor. It spilled half-flat beer across the floor, prompting both boys to leap from the bed and frantically try and clean it up before it touched anything important- textbooks, Ari's laptop, Miles's brand new amp.

Crisis averted, the both flopped back onto the bed. It was bigger and more comfortable than Ari's, but they ended up slumped side to side anyways. Ari tried to not revel in the warmth he felt from Miles being pressed against him shoulder to ankle, but failed. The beer he'd consumed over the course of the evening prevented him from feeling too guilty, which was a nice change.

"I'm serious," Miles said, like there hadn't been any interruptions. "We're gonna make it. We'll be stars."

Ari rolled his eyes. "Right, we'll be the next Fall Out Boy, you just watch."

"We'll be bigger," Miles insisted and then gave Ari a heart attack by sitting up and rolling his body to straddle Ari's waist.

Not now, boner, Ari thought frantically. His hands were sweaty in an instant, and he knew his face was already blotchy with a blush he didn't think he could blame on the beer or the unseasonably warm Indian summer night.

"Miles! What-"

"I'm serious!" Miles repeated adamantly. "I'm not letting you up until you agree with me!"

"Ugh, get off!" Ari said, smacking at Mile's legs ineffectual, trying to play off his extreme attraction as irritation.

"Nope!" Miles said with an obnoxiously exaggerated grin, and the pinned Ari's arms to the bed above his head.

Ari was so flushed and startled it was basically like an out of body experience, like he was watching someone else with a marked similarity to him being pinned to the bed by Miles. Ari had never hated being sixteen more than he had in that moment. He'd never hated having a dick more than he had in that moment. He wanted to die. Well, he wanted Miles to go away so he could jerk off and come harder than he ever had in his short life and then die of shame and guilt and embarrassment. And then maybe go again a few more times for good measure.

"It's like positive reinforcement or whatever your mom calls it," Miles said, apparently oblivious to the extreme discomfort he was causing Ari. "If you don't believe it, it won't come true. Now say it: we're going to make it big."

"Miles, get off me, you're crushing my lungs!" Ari hissed, helplessly, hopelessly hard in his jeans and praying to every deity on the planet that Miles didn't notice. They were both teenage boys, awkward boners happened, but never when Miles was literally sitting on him or pinning him to a bed. Arial wondered what he'd done to deserve this torture.

"Say it!" Miles insisted.

"Everyone and their dog has a band and wants to be on the radio, it's unrealistic," Ari grumbled and shifted, trying to inch Miles subtly farther away from his crotch.

"But we aren't them," Miles insisted, and then gave Ari a second heart attack by leaning right into his face and singing, "Beverly hills, that's where I want be. Livin' in Beverly hills."

Ari squirmed, turning his face away, but Miles persisted, getting right up close and personal, his breath hot on Ari's ear. Ari had never felt attraction this strong before, it felt like his very bones were on fire with it. He would have sold his soul for Miles to lean just an inch closer, maybe suck a mark onto Ari's neck or lick- Ari clenched his eyes shut and had to bite back a tiny moan.

"I wanna live a life like that, I wanna be just like a king," Miles sang, voice rough and husky and perfect. It was the possibly one of the least sexy songs in existence, and yet there Ari was, trying not to pant or squirm, ears flushed stoplight red, literally shaking with need.

"Okay! Okay!" Ari yelped, voice strangled. "I give up! We're going to be rock stars, we'll out rock rocks, now get off of me!"

Miles sat back slightly, and Ari took the opportunity to roll out from under him and land right on the floor, yanking his shirt down to hide his boner.

"Don't forget, you agreed with me," Miles said from the bed with a stupid, dopey, lovable grin that Ari wanted to wipe off his face with his lips.

"Right, won't forget," Ari said, feeling doomed.


Present Day

Arial blinked and shook his head. Even if someone else hadn't been using Beverly Hills, he was hardly going to use a song that made him remember a moment he'd jerked off to endlessly as a teenager. Not to mention it was hardly the right tone he wanted.

He thought of and dismissed a half dozen songs, the hours steadily ticking by. Around him, the contestants appeared and disappeared to use the five soundproofed rooms they shared to practice in privacy. Everyone seemed to have settled on a song. Arial didn't let it bother him and kept at it, getting up to walk around when his back started to cramp or his butt started to go numb from sitting too long.

He didn't let his lack of progress bother him- he wasn't there to win, and he had two more full days to prepare.

The other contestants gave him a few funny looks for his pacing and lack of any solid song, Grayson sneered at him and Arial barely resisted the urge to give him the biggest shit-eating grin he could pull off.

Arial froze.

He had an idea. But was it too on the nose? Probably. But it would be fucking hilarious to see Miles watch him sing it on stage, unable to do anything while cameras were rolling.

He spent the rest of the day remembering the chords to the song, humming under his breath, unable to keep a vicious smile from his face. He wasn't a good person. Then again, he'd never pretended to be otherwise.

The contestants were housed in what was essentially a dorm and not allowed outside contact to prevent them from revealing information about the show before it aired. The quarters were cramped, made all the more so by the dozen odd cranky musicians who hadn't been allowed to take breaks for meals and who'd been stuck working for several hours. It was a tactic used to try and encourage more behind the scenes drama, but frankly Arial felt so drained and exhausted that it felt like it was doing the opposite. He'd never felt less like caring about what other people were doing or saying. Even Grayson being a little shit and pointedly gossiping loudly about Arial being a 'talentless hack' didn't give him a flicker of irritation or even amusement.

Rather than be allowed to spend their evenings however they wanted to, they were all herded into the kitchen area for dinner, though it was very obviously for the purpose of filming, not out of the goodness of the producer's hearts.

"So why do you guys want to be part of Stress in Idleness?" One of the contestants asked, a soft-spoken Latino man named Robin.

Arial stayed out of the conversation, listening idly as people gave obviously prepared answers- a love for the band, wanting to perform with their idols, wanting to be famous, finding the bassist Felix Fitzroy irresistible. Laughter from the last response died down, and Alice looked at Arial as she asked, "Hey, what about you, Arial?"

Arial jerked his head up, having zoned out completely, mostly letting the words wash over him without paying much attention.

"Oh," he said, biting his lip. He might have agreed to join the show just to spite Miles, but that was different than spilling his whole story on camera. Also, he was fairly certain Grayson would shank him with a butter knife if he (wrongly) assumed Arial had an advantage over him. "The band-their songs, I mean, are pretty personal to me, you know?" He finally settled on. It wasn't exactly a lie, though the band hadn't exactly formed until Arial was long gone.

Alice nodded like this made perfect sense. Grayson rolled his eyes. Everyone else looked as tired as Arial felt.

Finally, the cameras were put away for the evening and they were allowed to do whatever they wanted until six the next morning. Arial went straight to his room, which he'd known he'd be sharing with two other men, but discovered one of which was Grayson.

He was too tired to be annoyed and climbed into bed and put his headphones on. He scrolled through his music until he found the song he'd picked to perform and let his eyes fall closed as the music started to play

He drifted off to the familiar song ending, and another even more familiar one began.


Sophomore Year

Winter

"What do you think?" Miles asked, staring intently at Ari as the video on screen ended.

"I liked it," Ari said. "Especially and there's nothing I can do, I just gravitate towards you, you're pulling on me like the moon."

"I just wanna get you sideways, I say anything I can to get me more than just a dance," Miles sang back, waggling his eyebrows comically and leaning down from his perch on the desk to get right into Ari's face. "Tell me where to put my hands, you know that you could be my favorite one-night stand." He trailed fingers from Ari's elbow to wrist with a sultry smirk that almost looked like he wasn't joking around.

Ari jerked back, flushing red and grumbled, "knock it off, Miles." He hated when Miles went all gay chicken on him, it was just completely unfair of him. Miles pouted, but obligingly sat back.

"We have to do this song as a cover for the talent show," Miles insisted, nearly bouncing in his seat.

Ari pulled the headphones from his ears and frowned at his friend. Miles stared back, expression completely serious.

"It's a good song, but we only have, like, a week until the talent show. We've been practicing Flavour of the Week for practically a month," Ari said. They'd worked their asses off figuring out how to get the song to work when they were two guys with a guitar and a bass and no drums.

"Like the school would let us perform a song that mentions weed," Miles said dismissively. He had a look in his eye that Ari knew meant Miles wasn't asking, just informing Ari on what he'd already decided.

But Ari wasn't having any of it. He'd worked hard on the song they'd picked out. They'd both agreed it would be a perfect song to perform at the winter talent show, and would hopefully help them snag more band members. Miles was just being a selfish asshole.

"I don't want to change the song," Ari said firmly. Miles looked momentarily startled- Ari rarely disagreed with him.

"Why," Miles demanded, an ugly look coming into his eyes. Ari recognized it as a warning sign, but ignored it. He was sick of Miles always calling the shots. "Don't you like the song? It's better."

Well. He was sick of agreeing to everything because some stupid part of him thought that if he was good enough to Miles, he'd like him back the way Ari wanted him to.

"We don't have time for this," Ari snapped. "You're going to make us look like idiots who didn't practice if we change songs now."

"We're doing this song," Miles snapped back, leaping to his feet and slamming a hand down on the desk.

Sitting down and being skinnier than Miles, Ari shrank back, heart pounding.

"O-okay. We'll do your song," Ari agreed, fingers clutching at the sleeves of his torn-up hoodie. "It'll work out somehow."

Miles stared down at him for a long moment before the tension left his body and his shoulders slumped.

"It'll be perfect, you'll see, Ari," he said with an easy grin.


Present Day

Arial stood backstage wondering how much of an ass he was about to make of himself.

Maybe he shouldn't have picked the song he had. Maybe he shouldn't have agreed to be on the show. He could have left the past where it belonged. In the past few years he'd rarely thought of Miles, until he'd been handed The Star Project file.

Faintly, he heard someone knock on the door he was standing outside of and stepped back. The doors swung outward, and Grayson stepped out, sweat beading on his forehead and darkening the collar of his t-shirt.

"Go well?" Arial asked politely when Grayson stopped in the doorway and blinked dumbly at Arial.

In response, the kid snarled something under his breath and stormed off.

Arial rolled his eyes, but couldn't blame the kid for being grouchy. Arial was the last to perform, making Grayson the second to last. They'd had to be up at six with everyone else and then had cooled their heels waiting for their turn. It had turned out that filming each of the contestants wasn't as simple as just running out onstage and singing a song- they had to be filmed performing a good three times to get all the angles the producers wanted, plus seeing them walk on and off stage. Which had only tacked on more time, making Arial antsier and less certain of himself as the hours ticked by.

A techie with a headset poked his head through the door. "You're up, man," he said and turned Arial's mic on for him.

He stepped onto the stage, head held high, his heart pounding, fingers slippery against the frets of his guitar. The stage was blinding with light, he could only barely make out four shadowy figures seated at a table at the foot of the stage. He had no idea which one was Miles, so he stared right ahead and said with his best asshole smile, "I'm Arial Brown, a studio musician from POP Records. This is Gives You Hell by The All-American Rejects."

All of his worries melted away as his fingers remembered the familiar notes and his mouth the even more familiar words. He had this.

He couldn't keep the smile off his face as he sang out, "And truth be told I miss you, and truth be told I'm lying."

The sound was incredible, all he could hear was the music, his own voice soaring over the beat of the drums. His heart leapt with joy in his chest and he blew through the song like a hurricane, happiness and bitterness twisting together into something new.

"You can sing along," Arial sang the final line, stepping back to his original spot at center stage. "I hope that it brought you hell."

There was a pause as the last note faded out, then the lights dimmed slightly.

"Great job," one of the producers or other important show people said. "We'll just need to shoot a few extra angles, but other than that we're good."

Arial nodded absently, unable to take his eyes off of the judges' table.

Miles was sitting at the center of the table, looking like someone had just hit him over the head with two by four.

Arial couldn't keep the smirk off his face as he turned to listen to his instructions on what the camera guy needed him to do.

Faintly, he heard bassist Felix Fitzroy hiss, "what the fuck was that?"

After filming him walking on and off stage a few times and him pretending to sing and play parts of the song a from a few different angles, Arial was escorted off stage to where the other contestants were waiting impatiently to hear who was eliminated.

"How'd it go?" Alice asked when Arial sat down next to her, still buzzing with adrenaline and an impenetrably good mood.

"Well, I definitely gave them something to think about," Arial said, grinning.

They were stuck waiting for three hours, giving the cameras soundbites for the post-performance section of the episode. Arial was certain he'd be the one eliminated, he was talented but he had little experience being the guy on stage, and he wasn't a born music genius like a lot of the contestants. They'd been picked for a reason, he was there because he'd known the band's front man in high school. There was no contest. He'd get the boot and then get to hang around in an apartment cut off from the outside world until the show was finished filming. It would be nice, relaxing. He'd spend his time luxuriating in the look on Miles' face at least three times a day.

Eventually they were all directed back on stage and made to stand in a line. The lights were still blinding, but not as much as before, allowing them to see the band seated at their table.

Miles seemed have recovered, or at least had managed to slap a calm expression on his face. Felix hadn't managed anything of the sort and was blatantly staring at Arial like he was trying to read his mind or something.

Miles rambled out an obviously pre-scripted speech about talent and fitting the band's style, repeating himself without hesitation when he fumbled a word. He listed off the top three contestants, Alice among them, and they left the stage.

Arial knew that the bottom three would be named next with his name among them and the rest of the contestants would leave while he and two other two poor souls were left behind.

"Casey, Jeremy, Mia," Miles said, "You are the bottom three."

Arial's heart stopped.

"Everyone else can leave the stage," Felix added cheerfully, still staring at Arial.

He left the stage, numb.

They were put in a room and made to provide a bit more chatter, which Arial was completely oblivious to for the buzzing in his brain, then they were all shuffled off to provide interviews of their individual reactions.

"You seem surprised to have made it through the first challenge," the interviewer prompted, once it was Arial's turn.

"Yeah," Arial said, a little stupidly, looking right at the interviewer.

"Look at the camera, act like I'm not here," she reminded him, for what had to be the third time. So far she hadn't gotten any usable responses, Arial still struck dumb and incapable of anything more complicated than a one word answer.

"Sorry," Arial said, trying to shake some sense back into his brain. But seriously, what the hell had happened?

"So, you were surprised to make it through the challenge?" The interviewer prompted when Arial failed to continue.

"Yeah, I mean I'm up against some really talented folks who have more performance experience than I have," Arial said honestly. "I wasn't expecting to beat any of them, even in a single challenge."

"Then why did you try out for the competition if you didn't expect to make it?" she asked, looking relieved to have finally managed to get Arial's ass in gear.

Arial didn't bother telling her he hadn't exactly chosen to join the show- that was probably something he'd agreed to keep a secret as part of his contract. "Well, I'm a fan of the band and the sort of music they make. You can't win if you don't try, so I thought, why not? But I wasn't going to get my hopes up, and here I am."

"The song you performed seemed to have a lot of emotion behind it, what can you tell me about that?" she asked.

He barely bit back a laugh: having a lot of emotions behind singing Gives You Hell in Miles' face was putting it lightly. "It's a song I feel a strong connection to," he settled on after struggling for a moment. "I think a lot of people feel that, wanting to say fuck-"

"No profanity, please," the interviewer interrupted with a frown. "We want to avoid bleeping out words, it makes things messy and the sound techs get annoyed."

"Right, sorry," Arial said, trying not to make a face. He'd never been the best at censoring himself.

"Just repeat what you were saying there, please."

"Right. I think a lot of people feel that, wanting to say- to say screw you to someone," Arial fumbled, feeling like a total idiot. "I figured I should use a song that I could channel a lot of emotion into since Stress in Idlenessvalues that in their music. And it's an awesome song, one of The All-American Reject's best."

The interviewer asked him a few more questions, all a lot easier to bullshit his way through with only half his mind paying attention. He stumbled from the small room towards one of the lounge rooms, intent on laying down and figuring out what the fuck had just happened.

He didn't make it.

"Ari!" Felix cried, intercepting him with a cheery grin. "I didn't know you were going to be here! It's been years, man. You startled the pants off of all of us!"

Arial looked around and was surprised to note the lack of cameras, which was good since he didn't want to be dragged back into an interview to talk about his history with the band which he knew would happen eventually. That was half the reason Arial had been counting on getting kicked out of the contest after one song.

"Good to see you," Arial said to Felix with a smile he wasn't feeling.

"How do you know each other?" Jamie asked curiously, appearing in the hallway beside Felix.

"We knew each other years ago, when we were young and innocent kids," Felix explained to Jamie, slinging an arm across Arial's shoulders and dragging him into a lazy half hug. Somehow, Arial had forgotten about the constant platonic and sometimes not so platonic touching that happened when you were anywhere in the vicinity of Felix.

"I don't know if you've ever been innocent, Felix," Arial said dryly.

Felix snorted in good humour and said, "Wait, let me introduce you guys properly. Ari, meet Jamie, the most adorable hobbit who is also a killer keyboard player. Jamie, this is Arial Princess Brown, professional mermaid and darling cupcake."

Nostalgia swept through Arial as he said, "For the last time, my middle name is Bedivere not princess, Felix."

"That's because your parents didn't love you enough and had no taste," Felix sniffed, easily falling back into the familiar banter. They'd had this conversation at least dozen times when they'd been kids.

"They're both English professors, what can you expect?" Arial joked, a pang of sorrow shooting through him. He'd only known Felix a few months, but he'd missed this. For a brief second it made him long for a different time, an era that had barely existed. When Arial and Miles had felt on top of the world, like things were falling to place under their fingertips and their entire future lay before them, ready for the taking.

Then the moment was shattered when Jamie said, "Felix, we better go back. Miles will be pissed we left him to deal with the cameras alone."

Felix's arm fell from Arial's shoulder, something in his smile saying that Arial wasn't the only one with his head in the past.

"You're right," he said, voice just a hair off of what it should have sounded like. "I'll see you later, baby," he added with a wink at Arial and disappeared with Jamie.

Arial needed a drink.


Sophomore Year

Spring

"Bye mom!" Ari yelled, already half out the door, guitar case slung across his back. It was spring break and he and Miles were spending every spare minute they had getting ready for open mike night right after the break. It had taken Miles weeks of bugging the guy who ran it to convince him to let a pair of teenagers sign up, since he was a dick who thought all teenagers were talentless hacks, but Miles had finally worn the guy down. If they did well he'd let them sign up again, but they only had one shot so they had to be perfect.

"Where are you going?" his mom shouted back, right as Ari was about to leave. Ari rolled his eyes. It was the fifth day in a row of him heading over to Miles' house first thing, where else was he going to be going?

"To Miles' place," he yelled, hand on the doorknob, hoping that would be the end of it.

It wasn't, he heard his mom sigh and then heard the creaking of the stairs as she came down to him.

"I feel like I've hardly seen you all week," she said and pushed Ari's overgrown bangs off his face. Ari resisted the urge to complain about that, but knew better since he did actually want to be allowed to leave the house.

"We're busy," Ari replied, bouncing on his toes, just wanting to get out of there. He didn't know what his mom was on about, she was so busy getting ready for some conference that even if Ari had been home she wouldn't have noticed.

"Maybe you should see what your other friends are up to today instead," his mom suggested and this time Ari really did roll his eyes. Miles was his only real friend, all his other friends were people he was friendly with and saw at school, and only at school.

"Mom, can I just go?" he asked, trying not to whine. Miles had told him to come over as soon as he woke up but Ari had felt lazy about getting out of bed, Miles he had to be getting antsy by then- it was nearly eleven.

His mom sighed again, her expression going a little strange as she said, "I know you boys are good friends, Arial, but I worry about how much time you spend together." She paused, patting Ari's hair back again, pointlessly since it had a mind of its own especially when it was as long as it was. "Miles is a good friend, but he has a real temper on him and is very assertive. I don't want you doing things you don't want to do, just because he asks you to, okay?"

Ari took a few seconds to process this and then realized what she was getting at and was torn between feelings of extreme horror and extreme embarrassment.

"Mom!" he squawked, face turning a brilliant shade of red. "We aren't having sex! Christ!"

"Good," she said and then looked concerned and quickly added, "Not that we'd think any less of you were interested in it with another boy. Your father and I will always love and support you."

"Miles and I aren't dating, mom!" Ari said and then added, so she didn't get the wrong idea, "Or having sex!"

His mom didn't look entirely convinced as she said kindly, "Okay, Arial. Just promise me that if you ever do you're careful and you and your partner know that you can stop at any time for any reason. Promise me, alright?"

Ari was so mortified he almost couldn't form words and said, "Mom, believe me. Miles and I aren't dating. Or having sex. And we never will."

That was when Miles ambled around the house and with an enormous smirk that said he'd heard every word.

Ari wanted to die.

His mom didn't help matters, angled towards Ari she didn't see Miles, and said, clear enough for Miles to hear, "Of course Ari. Just always use protection with whoever you're not dating- I mean not having sex with- I mean having sex with. It's very important. You don't want to ever have to worry about STDs. Or pregnancies." She added the last part like she didn't think it would ever be an issue for Ari. Considering he was so far only interested in men, and basically only Miles to boot, it likely wouldn't- but he'd never come out or done anything to indicate this to his parents and he just wanted the ground to open up and eat him. Things could not get any worse.

"You're right Mrs. B," Miles said, strolling closer with a pleasant smile that said he was going to be teasing Ari mercilessly over this conversation for the next year. Ari wondered hopelessly why he couldn't have nice things. "Protection is very important. Ari knows all about it."

Ari's mom looked halfway between horrified and relieved, it wasn't an expression Ari'd thought possible and it was the worst.

Even though Ari strongly wanted to make out with Miles, he frequently also wanted to punch him in the face almost as often. Why was he friends with such a jerk?

"Miles," Ari ground out. "I thought we were meeting at your place."

"You were taking forever and didn't answer my texts, so I came to make sure your lazy butt wasn't still in bed," Miles said.

Ari's mom then made everything even worse by asking, "Do you boys want lunch before you go?"

"No-" Ari started to say, desperate to get away from his mom, who now thought he was having sex with his best friend because Miles was an asshole, but Miles interrupted him with an enthusiastic, "Yes please!"

Ari shot Miles a deadly glare and received a sunny smile in return.

If he didn't love this asshole so much, he'd hate him.


Present Day

6 AM came sooner than Arial would have liked. He had barely slept. He had no idea what he was doing there. His contract said that he couldn't just leave if he wanted to. He had to stick it out unless he wanted to be out a job and have the pants sued off of him.

He shared a room with Grayson and Robin. By the time Arial managed to drag his exhausted ass out of bed Robin was already gone, but Grayson was just starting to shuffle around and drag clothing on.

"You know Felix Fitzroy," Grayson accused.

Arial looked up from trying to find a matching sock. It was too early for this.

"What?" He asked blearily.

"I saw you in the hall, you were talking to him," Grayson said, like this was some sort of grand declaration. He'd never looked younger and more naive, but Arial was tired and cranky making it annoying rather than hilarious.

"So what?" He asked, voice unintentionally sharp.

"You're cheating," Grayson said, sounding all of twelve years old.

"What."

"Or you're a plant. Why would they bother with the show if they already picked someone- why would they pick you, you're a shitty guitar player," Grayson said, practically snarling by the end.

"Woah there," Arial said, holding both hands up against the onslaught of words. "Chill the fuck out. No one said anything about them already having picked a winner. I literally just spoke to Felix once. So take that stick out of your ass and calm down."

Arial turned around, ready to head down to the room where the contestants would be given breakfast and then shuttled to the day's filming location. To his horror, a cameraman had arrived while he wasn't paying attention. The entire conversation had been filmed.

Arial sighed and tried to roll with it, leaving the room without causing a bigger scene. He couldn't help but wonder if Grayson had picked a fight because of the camera, or if it had just been a coincidence- the latter seemed entirely in character for him.

The morning was an organized shuffle as contestants ate and were prompted into talking about how they felt about the previous night's elimination and the day's upcoming challenge. Arial tried to mostly sit it out, ignoring Grayson's ongoing glare. Alice, however, was not on the same page as Arial.

"Okay, seriously, what's your problem?" She demanded, glaring right back.

"He-" Grayson started to say.

"It's nothing to worry about," Arial interrupted, looking to Alice and then to Grayson. "We have no problem here."

Grayson looked mutinous, but said nothing even when Arial ended up having to sit next to him in the van on the way to the stage.

The entire band was waiting for them at the foot of the stage. Miles looked completely composed, his eyes not lingering on Arial any longer than they did on any of the contestants. Felix grinned widely at him, which made Arial mentally sigh. The second they were off stage, Grayson was probably going to pick a fight again. How annoying.

Miles was the first to speak after eyeing them all up in silently. "Yesterday was a tough day. Today will not be any easier. We expect the best from anyone who wants to be part of our band. There were some great performances. And some terrible ones."

He paused, and Jamie picked up the slack, giving individual feedback to each competitor, eyes flicking down to a clipboard in his hand.

Due to his place near the end of the line, Arial was the second to last to be addressed.

"Arial, your performance was technically good and demonstrated the emotions of the song, but the performance aspect was seriously lacking," Jamie said, without much inflection.

Arial bit back a flare of irritation and nodded without comment. Of course he lacked in performance, he was a studio musician, a job where skill mattered and what you looked like had no value. He was just a faceless voice and a guitar.

He was taking this too personally. He hardly wanted to win, being in Miles' band was probably the worst idea anyone could ever have.

There were a few more unimportant things said about the challenge and then Kat, the drummer, dropped a bomb that made Arial mentally sit up and pay attention:

"The winner of this challenge will receive individual mentoring from Miles Eliot for the following challenge."

Arial could practically feel everyone's attention sharpen, weighing their competition up. It was a good thing Arial wasn't looking for any one-on-one time with his ex-best friend because the incentive only added fuel to an already competitive fire, going by the sudden explosion of hushed whispers.

Back at the studio, Arial struggled to figure out what to do. The song was the least of his worry- the challenge had open-endedly been to pick a song that used the critique they'd been given on stage. What he was uncertain about was how much effort he should put into the whole thing.

He couldn't leave the show, but if he did poorly he'd be kicked off. It was the easiest way to get out of there before Grayson did much more digging or Arial was forced to actually speak directly with Miles.

Somehow, though, not putting his best effort forward just didn't sit right with him. He didn't want anyone watching the show seeing a shitty performance and thinking that was all he was capable of.

Whatever, that just meant he'd do his best and likely get eliminated anyways. The first challenge probably didn't count, the people who'd placed below him had likely been nervous and not at their best. The second challenge would be different.

All he had to do now was find a song


Junior Year

Summer

"Come on, it'll be fun!" Miles said, poking Ari in the cheek playfully.

"I'll look dumb," Ari countered, crossing his arms. There was no way he was doing this song at open mic night. Or if Miles made him, like he always somehow ended up doing, Ari was going to stand on the spot and refuse to jump around and act like an idiot like Miles was trying to get him to do.

They were in Miles' mom's garage where she let them keep their equipment and had even donated old furniture for them to use. Miles' mom was pretty fantastic, she always acted like Miles saying he was going to be famous was entirely possible rather than an unlikely dream. It was more than the indulgent smiles they got from Ari's parents and much more than the exasperated eye rolls and sharp comments about wasted time and money from Miles' dad. Not that they saw him too much, Miles had refused to go to his house after the second time his dad tried to make him join some young entrepreneurs club thing.

"At least move your hips or something," Miles wheedled. "You'll look dumber if you just stand still like a statue the whole time."

"No," Ari said stubbornly.

"Come on, at least just move your hips a little," Miles wheedled. "No one will get into the song if it looks like you aren't into the song."

He sort of had a point.

Ari hated when he was right.

"You're the star here, do you really want me distracting from you on stage?" Ari asked, desperately trying to play off of his best friend's massive ego. As much as Ari loved performing, he hated the part where it happened in front of people. Who could see him. He'd rather just be heard than seen, some days. Being painfully self-conscious was definitely a problem when you were in a band-duo-thing with someone who loved the limelight as much as Miles Eliot.

"Nice try," Miles said, completely seeing through the ruse. He sat down next to Ari on the couch, their knees and shoulders bumping together as the couch sagged enormously under the weight of two bodies. "Come on, what's going in that big brain of yours?" Miles asked, laying aside his usual self-centered focus and sounding concerned. "You always get into things by the second song," Miles pointed out when Ari only bit his lip and said nothing. "We only get one song for this thing, so that's not going to work this time."

Miles had a point. There was a certain gravity about Miles, which was only amplified when he was performing, and Ari was always inevitably sucked into it. He would jump around and play conquering rock god for the crowd along with him, and then feel amazingly foolish afterwards, doubly so if anyone made the mistake of filming it and letting him see.

"I just... Feel like people are going to make fun of me," Ari sighed, eyes downcast, rubbing his fingers over the fraying patches on the knees of his jeans. "This whole thing just doesn't suit me. This isn't me."

Miles sighed deeply and poked Ari in the cheek, making him look up. "Why do you always put yourself into such small boxes?" He asked. "You're capable of so much, Ari. You can do anything, if you'd stop telling yourself that you can't."

Ari rolled his eyes and said, "I think you're thinking of yourself."

"Ugh, stop with the self-pity. Come on, get up, get up!" He said, leaping to his feet. "No one's here, we're practicing and you're going to give it everything or I'll kick your ass!"

He hauled Ari up in a surprising show of strength- Ari might have been a skinny beanpole, but Miles was a good five inches shorter than him- and forced Ari's guitar into his hand.

"I'm gonna make you bend and break," Miles sang, throwing his head back and basically acting three times as melodramatic as he normally would on stage, winking at Ari and trying to make him laugh. "Say a prayer but let the good times roll, in case God doesn't show."

Hesitantly, Ari started to play, fingers moving through familiar patterns without much thought. Miles poked him in the side until he dutifully sang along, "let the good times roll, let the good times roll."

"And I want these words to make things right, but it's the wrongs that make the words come to life," Miles sang, bouncing on the spot. He was grinning widely as he did it, radiating so much energy that Ari couldn't help but get into it too.

"But it's the wrongs that make the words come to life," He sang, forgetting about the theoretical audience that would be watching.


Present Day

"Thanks for the memories, see he tastes like you only sweeter!" Arial sang triumphantly, the song coming to a close.

There was something to be said about picking a song that he knew would knock Miles on his ass, he thought, seeing Miles' gob smacked expression at his song choice. If by some miracle he wasn't cut after the second challenge, he might enjoy being there if only to keep fucking with him.

From the audience below, Alice let out a loud whoop of approval.

"Well you certainly took the challenge to heart," Jamie said after an awkward beat where everyone was waiting for Miles to say something first, as he had with all of the other performances.

"Thanks," Arial said, eyes not leaving Miles, even as his face smoothed over into something more appropriate for the camera.

"You were pitchy for the whole song after the second verse," Miles said. He sounded disinterested and disconnected, like he and Arial both didn't remember that song. It made Arial wanted to punch him in the face. He hated how the bastard could get under his skin with just a few words and a single careless look.

Arial grit his teeth, accepted his critique and went to sit with the other competitors in the audience to watch the last two performances.

"That was awesome," Alice whispered to him, a huge grin on her face. "I don't know what Miles is on about, you sounded fine."

"Thanks," Arial whispered back, as Grayson took the stage. He glowered down at them, then his face abruptly smoothed out and he immediately launched into Death of a Bachelor.

"Holy shit," Alice said, not even trying to be quiet. "Good goddamn, son."

Arial was in agreement, the kid might have been like the most annoying yappy dog he'd ever encountered crossed with a self-important teenager, but he had the most astounding voice Arial had heard and was more than capable of handling Brendon Urie's frankly ridiculous vocal range.

"Well that's it, let's all go home, he wins," Arial said when the song came to a close, feeling like he'd just been punched in the face, but in a good way. There was no question, this brat of a kid had won hands down.

"How can someone so punchable have such a good voice?" Alice asked with a disbelieving laugh, sounding as off kilter as Arial felt.

Mia was next, and Arial had to feel sorry for her, from the look on her face she knew she was following an impossible act to one up, but gave it her all and did a pretty good job with LOLO's Hit And Run.

They were sent from the room while the band filmed the deliberation over the winner of the challenge, even though everyone had to know Grayson had blown the whole thing out of the park.

It should have only taken a half hour or so to get all the footage of them talking about Grayson's performance, and everyone else's to a lesser degree.

Instead, the minutes stretched into hours, and they were left to languish in the lounge for nearly four hours.

At last they were summoned back and filed onto the stage once again. Arial frowned as he spotted two of the show's big wigs leaving the stage from the other side, off camera. That explained it, there must have been some executive meddling in the judging. Somehow, he didn't like the sound of that.

"We saw some incredible performances for this challenge," Kat said once they were arranged to the cameramen's satisfaction. "Some of you took our critiques to heart, while others did not rise to the challenge."

Jamie read a list of five of the competitor's names followed by saying, "You are all safe in this challenge, you may leave the stage."

That left the bottom three and top three on stage. Arial wasn't surprised to find himself, Alice and Grayson among those six.

"Caroline, your performance was lackluster, and you didn't seem to take any of the advice we gave you to heart. You are not the next star. You may leave the stage," Felix said.

"JJ, Casey, you both need to step things up, but you are both safe for this round," Kat said.

Arial frowned as that left himself, Alice and Grayson on the stage as the top three. He remembered the men in suits he'd seen leaving the stage and got a sinking feeling in a stomach. They couldn't seriously...

Miles looked straight ahead and said, voice flat, "The winner for this week's challenge is... Arial."

Arial stared at Miles in disbelief.

Then Grayson exploded, saying the words that all three competitors had to be thinking: "What the fuck! Are you serious?"

Before anyone could say anything, Grayson stormed off the stage, going out of his way to shoulder past Arial roughly, glaring daggers at him.

"Well," Jamie said, sounding cheery, but unable to fully keep his discomfort off his face. "This was a great challenge. Congratulations, Arial."

"Thanks," Arial said numbly.

The numb feeling persisted as he was escorted from the stage. What the hell had happened. He was heading for his post-challenge interview when Felix caught him and dragged him into a small room just off stage.

"You can't keep doing this," Arial protested. There were no cameras in the room Felix had pulled him into, but he'd almost certainly been filmed in the hallway.

"What does it matter?" Felix asked, hopping up on a table. The room was some sort of storage space, full of dusty abandoned furniture and smelled stale. "I wanted to talk to you about Miles before you have to spend quality time with him."

"It matters because people already think I'm cheating," Arial groused. Hell, he thought he was cheating or something- there was no way he should have beat Alice, much less Grayson.

"You are cheating," Felix replied easily. "Or at least the producers are," he corrected himself. "They know about your past with Miles, Ari."

"It's Arial," Arial corrected waspishly. "And, yeah, I know that I was picked to be on the show because I knew Miles, that much was obvious."

"Right, I forgot, you're an adult now," Felix replied, rolling his eyes. "Did you really think they'd go to all that effort of getting you on here just to have you leave after the first episode?" he asked, raising both his eyebrows. "You're not that dumb, babe."

"Except when I am," Arial replied, sinking down on a dusty chair like the stone sinking through his stomach. "I'm never going to fail a challenge, am I?"

Felix tilted his head consideringly. "Not until they get something out of you and Miles they can use," he concluded. "The producers want a lot of drama, last season was pretty low key, apparently. We were going have Grayson win, that's why they were on stage and why he deliberation too so long- Miles yelled at them a bunch and they wouldn't budge, they wanted you to win, but Miles doesn't want to be around you. And Grayson should have won too, I guess."

"Yeah, well the feeling's mutual," Arial muttered lowly. He couldn't believe he'd been dumb enough to think he'd get through the show without all his skeletons being dragged out of the closet again. He was seriously dense sometimes. Of course the producers were going to make a big fuss over his history with Miles. Of course it wasn't going to stay below the radar. How stupid was he, really?

"I got the feeling, when you sang Gives You Hell," Felix said dryly "And when you sang Thnks Fr Th Mmrs. It was like you sucker punched him in the gut- what was with that?"

"It's a long story," Arial said and rubbed a hand over his face. "Right, so you just wanted to warn me that Miles is going to be a total dick to me the next few days? Because I could have figured that much out."

"Figured I owed you that much at least," Felix said, cheerful demeanor dimming slightly. "After everything I did-"

"None of it was ever your fault, Felix," Arial interrupted, feeling exhausted. "The whole thing was a long time coming, you were just in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Felix nodded, but didn't look too convinced. "You should probably go; the producers'll be getting pissy if we disappear for too long."

Arial nodded and stared to leave the room, before he jerked back inside. "Shit- Grayson's there. He was already being a little shit about me cheating before I beat him."

"I have an idea, let me help you out," Felix said with a smile Arial knew spelled trouble.

Before Arial could do anything, Felix pulled him out into the hallway and, with a smirk, kissed him full on the lips and then left, loudly smacking him on the ass as he went.

"See you next time, honey!" He shouted over his shoulder.

Arial turned, and noted distantly that in addition to Grayson, Miles was also in the hallway.

Arial was going to kill Felix if it was the last thing he ever did.

Grayson looked about ready to commit murder. Miles' face was frighteningly blank.

Arial booked it to the interview room, feeling the weight of their eyes heavy on his back.

The post-challenge interview took forever, mostly because Arial was too frazzled and irritated by turns to give them the responses they were looking for, which led them to asking the same question in as many different ways as they could.

Eventually they either ran out of patience or time and Arial was free to go. He wasn't certain he was relieved or not, Miles was lying in wait for him just around the corner from the interview room, arms crossed and a foul look on his face. There was nowhere for Arial to run without looking like a total ass. Unless he literally turned on his heel and left, he was stuck dealing with Miles. Arial mentally sighed, put his big boy pants on, and kept going, stopping a few feet from Miles.

"What?" He snapped. He was tired. He just wanted to go lay down and get some sleep, rather than deal with Miles' histrionics.

"Why the fuck are you on my show?" Miles demanded. "To come fuck shit up? Do you think that's funny, ruining everything I've worked for?"

"Everything you've worked for- your stupid reality TV show?" Arial asked, not even trying to hold back the bitter laugh that bubbled out of him.

"No my band!" Miles snarled back. "I might not be able to avoid this farce of a show and pick whoever I want to replace Monroe, but I'll be damned if I'll let you ruin my choice between everyone here." Miles punctuated this by poking Arial in the chest with one finger, sneering at him.

"I didn't even do anything!" Arial snapped back, rapidly losing any modicum of patience he'd had left. "I literally just showed up and sang two songs! What the hell do you want from me."

For some reason, this seemed to startle Miles, the dark look fading from his face somewhat and he rocked back a step. "You didn't talk to the producers?" He asked sharply.

"Just leave me the hell alone," Arial snapped, stepping around him, intent on getting the fuck out of there. Miracle of miracles, Miles let him go.

The quick trip to the building where the competitors were staying did nothing to calm his temper. How dare Miles talk to him like that, like Arial wanted to be there and have to see his face every day, like Arial was the sort of jackass who'd go out of his way to ruin someone else's life. He might have wanted to fuck with Miles by showing up on his show but ruining his career or his band was stupid. Miles had won, Arial wasn't going to sabotage that, he wasn't that much of a bitter, jaded asshole.

Because Arial was in such a foul mood, Grayson was waiting for him in their room, Robin being sensible enough to have cleared out ahead of time.

"So, I was right, you did screw your way onto the show," Grayson snapped.

"Oh my god, are you actually twelve?" Arial asked, feeling about an inch away from losing it completely after the entire disaster of a day. "Look, you're right to be angry. You should have won. The fact that I cracked the top five is complete bullshit."

"I- what?" Grayson said, looking almost comically caught off guard, the wind taken out of his sails unexpectedly. It made him seem more human and less like the anger and self-centered nature of six teenagers shaped into a person. It also reminded Arial how he would have felt in that situation at age eighteen or however old Grayson was. His temper cooled somewhat.

"I'm saying you should have won," Arial said bluntly, "my winning was executive meddling. You're more talented than I am, so don't take this as you not being good enough, okay?"

"Alright," Grayson said, still sounding caught off guard and like he expected Arial to follow this up by saying something nasty. Arial seriously did not miss being an actual teenager.

Neither of them spoke for the rest of the night.


Junior Year

Fall

Ari was drunk. No, not drunk, he'd been drunk before, off his dad's beer and Miles' mom's expensive cider. This was not that. Ari was completely smashed. It was fantastic, everything was hilarious and amazing and he never wanted to be sober again.

"You're the best," he told Miles, around whom he was wrapped like a boa constrictor.

"What?" Miles shouted back. The party was teaming with people and music was blasting from an enormous sound system someone had stolen from their older brother, making the whole room shake with the thumping beat. This was also fantastic, even if it meant Ari was having a hard time telling Miles how great he was.

"You're the best!" Ari shouted again and curled a little closer. He was basically sitting in Miles lap, one arm curled around his back, his knees bent and probably digging in uncomfortably to Miles' ribs. He didn't seem to mind since he'd been the one to drag Ari so close. Ari loved the tiny couch crammed with too many people they were sitting on, not in the least because it made this arrangement sort of reasonable.

"Okay," Miles replied and stroked a hand over Ari's neck. Ari hadn't seen him drink much, but he was probably just as smashed as he was- he'd always been more of a drinker than Ari was. Ari all but purred at the touch and tucked himself in closer, resting his head on Miles' shoulder, content to just let the party rage around him without his input.

He didn't fall asleep, just sort of zoned out, and the next thing he knew the music had been turned down and half the people in the room were gone. Miles and the other occupants of the couch were talking about kissing. Specifically, their first kisses.

"It was just, like, so gross," one girl concluded, snickering and shaking her head hard enough to make her beer spill out of her solo cup.

"And that is why I'm never kissing anyone ever," another girl concluded sagely.

"You're never kissing anyone because you're asexual and told me you think kissing is weird, Mara," another girl yelled from across the room.

"Everyone's first kiss is awful, Janey," one of the guys said to the first girl. "At least you didn't get puked on, like I did."

"What are you on about, my first kiss was amazing," Miles proclaimed.

"Really," the guy- he was from their grade, Ari thought his name was probably Dave- said in a tone that said he didn't believe Miles.

"It was magical," Miles confirmed. Somehow this was completely hysterical to Ari and he started giggling uncontrollably.

"Okay now you have to tell us about it," Janey said. "I want to hear about a magic kiss."

"Oh, I'd never kiss and tell- oh, well if you insist, I suppose I have to!" Miles said, gesturing as dramatically as he could without dislodging Ari. "Okay, so set the stage: Summer camp."

"Obviously," Janey said, nodding. They somehow acquired a larger crowd, more people settling down around the couch looking up at Miles as recounted the tale in a ridiculous faux-British accent, looking down his nose at them like some sort of demented college professor.

"I am an inexperienced lad of seven," Miles continued.

"Oh lord," someone said quietly, and then was immediately hushed.

"I was busy making a paper maché frog when I was approached by the most beautiful girl in camp, Miss Eugenia Wong, Genie to her acquaintances. She had long brown hair that was always tangled, was taller than all the boys our age and wasn't afraid of wasps. A veritable goddess among seven-year-olds.

"She said, 'I like your frog' and I said, 'I'll give it to you if you'll be my girlfriend' and she said 'okay. I guess that means I have to kiss you. My sister said that's what you do when you're someone's girlfriend' so I agreed, though my heart was full of awe and fear of this girl, so she kissed me and then I got scared and ran away and wouldn't talk to her for the rest of camp. And she stole my frog. The end."

"Wow, what a beautiful story," Janey said. "I suddenly feel much more appreciative of my first kiss now."

"I live to serve," Miles said, dropping the accent.

"What about you, Ari?" Dave asked. "You have to have an even better first kiss story."

"I don't," Ari mumbled, clinging a little harder to Miles, feeling horrifically embarrassed. Miles rubbed a comforting hand across his back. "Kissing's always seemed so hard."

"Don't let our stories get you down, Ari," Dave said and then was distracted by someone on the other side of the room producing a bottle of... something, Ari didn't know what it was but it was ominously green, and everyone was excited about the shots being poured.

"Do I have to get up?" Ari asked as everyone around them went to see what was happening with the shots, not liking the idea of moving. He was comfortable, that was all.

"Nah," Miles said lazily. "I've had enough tonight."

"Kay," Ari said and tried to squish closer, but didn't really succeed since he was already literally in Miles' lap. Being drunk was the best, he didn't even feel embarrassed or self-conscious about what he was doing at all, though he was certain he probably should have been.

"You know, you don't need to worry about your first kiss," Miles said eventually, both of them watching people take shots of the mysterious green alcohol. Apparently, it involved literal fire. Ari was very grateful not to be involved.

"Why not? I'll probably be the one puking in the scenario, I'll be so nervous," Ari grumbled, tipping his head backwards. Because he was already leaning his head on Miles' shoulder this meant that his nose almost grazed Miles' cheek. "Guess it's better to be the puker not the puke-ee..." Ari mused slowly and then nearly swallowed his own tongue.

Because Miles' hand was on his cheek and was tipping his head back farther and his lips were touching his own. Ari made a startled noise but leant into it anyways. Miles was achingly gently with him, his hands cradling the back of his head finger tips tracing across his neck delicately. Ari's lips parted without thought and suddenly he wanted, needed to get closer. Without a thought, he shifted so he was sitting in Miles' lap proper, one knee on the either side of his hips. This put him up higher than Miles, forcing Miles to tip his head back to avoid breaking contact. He groaned and tugged at Ari's hair, the kiss going from soft and gentle to sloppy and heated. Ari clutched at Miles' t-shirt as he rode it out, the intensity increasing. He felt Miles' tongue against his own and couldn't stop the moan that tore out of him. Miles gasped against his lips and Ari ground his hips down, making Miles hiss in pleasure. Miles' hands tugged on his hair gently, making Ari gasp in return, the kiss getting dirtier and wetter and just so good.

Why had he been scared of this? Why did anyone do anything but this all day? It was incredible. He wanted more, wanted Miles to take his shirt off, to roll Ari onto the couch and lay over him like he had that one afternoon, maybe even pin him down- the thought made Ari moan and his mouth fell open a little more, made him bite Miles' lip.

Miles gasped against his lips and one of his hands dropped from Ari's hair to sliding up the back of his shirt. His hand stroked over his skin, making Ari shiver lightly, and then abruptly slipped down, his fingertips tracing over the top of his jeans. They dipped under the elastic of his boxers. Ari moaned, shockingly loud and wanton sounding even to his own ears. Miles' hands clutched at him at the sound.

"Wow, guess Ari wins best first kiss!" Janey laughed, not too far away.

Abruptly, Ari realized what he was doing. He sat pulled back and stared at Miles. His eyes were all pupil, his lips wet, his hands still under Ari's shirt. Neither of them said anything, both breathing deeply.

Without saying a word, Ari slipped off of his lap and back down onto the couch, no longer tangled up, only their thighs brushing lightly.


Songs used this chapter:

Woah Oh! (Me Vs. Everyone)- Forever the Sickest Kids

Beverly Hills- Weezer

Flavour of the Week- American Hi Fi

La La- The Cab

Gives you Hell- The All-American Rejects

Thnks fr th mmrs- Fall Out Boy

Death of a Bachelor- Panic! At the Disco

Hit and run- LOLO

I also have an 8tracks playlist for this fic, which will have songs added with each new chapter, since I can't link here, it's under the same name as the fic.