Ari really, truly, and sincerely should have been working on his next song. The next challenge was only a day away and, while he'd nailed down what song he was going to use, he still needed to polish it up a bit.

The thing was, he was tired. Not physically. He was tired of competing. He was tired of practicing. Mostly he was just tired of being stuck in the constant focus of being on The Star Project.

"Really like what you're working on. It's very subtle," Felix said from behind him, startling Ari so badly he nearly toppled out of his chair.

"Jesus Christ!" Ari yelped, unable to keep from glowering when Felix only snickered at his reaction. "What are you doing in here?" he asked suspiciously. He was in one of the shared rooms used for preparing for the challenges, and there were at least five other contestants wandering around in there. Felix couldn't possibly be there to give him vague warnings about Miles without someone overhearing.

Felix shrugged. "Producers suggested that now that there's only seven of you, the band start swinging by to see how you guys are doing, when we have time."

"Huh. Well I'm busy procrastinating over here, maybe you should go help someone actually being productive," Ari said, wrinkling his nose as he set his guitar aside. Forcing himself to practice when he was in this sort of mood was usually a terrible idea- he'd sound crappy and only stress himself out and then sound even worse as a result. But it wasn't like he had much choice with the deadline looming.

"You've got a song picked out, right?" Felix asked, looking a bit concerned.

Ari rolled his eyes. "No, Felix, I'm going to wander on stage tomorrow and just try and bang out What I Like About You without practicing and forget how the chords go part way through the song. Because that's a good idea."

"In my defense," Felix said haughtily, "I remembered how to do the chorus, which was all that mattered."

"If you'd forgotten how to sing that's what I like about you four times in a row, I'd have been really concerned," Ari said and dodged the lazy swipe leveled at him.

"The girl I was trying to impress thought it was kind of cute," Felix said with an easy grin.

"She probably though it was cute in a sort of adorable, pathetic way. How else are you supposed to respond to someone switching the chords for What I Like About You with a completely different song thirty seconds in," Ari said, grinning at the memory.

"Speaking of- what song are you doing?" Felix asked and sat down next to him, curling his legs up under himself.

"Stupid For You," Ari said and sighed deeply. "At the time, I thought it was a good pick, and I can perform it okay, it just doesn't sound quite right when I sing it. I think I'm screwing up the tempo, but I can't tell if I'm going too slow or too fast or what and it's driving me a little crazy."

Felix hummed in acknowledgement and said, "Okay, let's hear it then. Maybe I'll be able to hear what's happening."

Playing Stupid For You again was probably the absolute last thing he wanted to do, but Ari sighed and dutifully started to play. "Hey, tell me what you want me to say, you know I'm stupid for you," he sang, trying not to make a face- he didn't know what was wrong, but the song just felt clumsy and off even as he got into the chorus.

"Good choice," Felix said with an appreciative grin when Ari ground to a faltering halt. Felix looked around for something, then got to his feet and said over his shoulder, "Be right back!"

Felix returned a few minutes later, a guitar of his own in his hands. He sat back down again and beamed at Ari. "I think I can hear what's off, but I'm not sure if I can really put it into words" he explained, settling the guitar in his lap. "So, I'll just play it, you join in when you think you see where I'm going."

Ari nodded and felt a smile tug on his lips as Felix started to sing under his breath, "You're a symphony, I'm just a sour note. I'll take what I can get."

It was a little nostalgic. Felix didn't have much of a singing voice, and preferred playing bass over guitar, which had been handy as teenagers with Ari and Miles both already playing guitar in high school. But he also had a very good ear for music and Ari knew he'd been trained as a classical pianist as a kid. Felix had ditched the lessons once he'd started high school, but he still had the training behind him. It meant that he was far better than Ari at finding the rough edges in songs and figuring out how to fix them.

Ari and Miles had both been mostly self-taught, but Felix joining their sort-of-band in high school had really upped their game. It had been with the addition of Felix when Ari had, very hesitantly and only late at night by himself, thought that Miles' ambitions for stardom weren't entirely wishful thinking.

"Hey, can you come-a, come out and play? You know I'm stupid for you," Ari sang along, a little louder. His eyes went wide when he could feel the difference. He had no clear idea what Felix was doing differently, but it made everything work.

They played through the rest of the song, the rough edges Ari'd been fighting with smoothing out without problem.

"That fix things?" Felix asked, carefully setting aside the guitar he'd brought over.

Ari nodded enthusiastically. "Yeah. Hopefully I can replicate it on my own later, because I have no idea what you changed, just that it worked."

"You were always a quick study, I'm sure you'll be fine," Felix said.

From the corner of Ari's eye, he could see Grayson shooting him a quick, intense glower before going back to his own work. Ari sighed and said, "You should probably go help someone else before you get accused of favoritism." He tipped his head towards Grayson demonstratively.

Felix turned to look, not even attempting at subtlety. Ari gave in to the urge to slap a hand across his face.

"He kind of reminds me of you as a teenager," Felix said, tapping a finger to his lips thoughtfully.

Ari stared at him, mouth open with shock. "I don't think I've ever been so insulted in my life, you take that back right now."

Felix rolled his eyes and flung a companionable arm across Ari's shoulders. "No seriously, think about it."

"I am, that's why I'm so offended. I was never that obsessively competitive or so much of a jackass, I hope. Literally the first thing he said to me when I met him was did they run out of actually talented musicians? It was like being insulted by an aggrieved Yorkshire terrier. Or a toddler."

"That wasn't what I was getting at," Felix protested, even as he snickered quietly. "I meant more of the intensely focused on music and socially awkward part," he said, casting a lazy eye towards Grayson on the other side of the room. He was bent over a notepad and scribbling furiously, a fierce glower on his face.

"Socially awkward?" Ari asked skeptically. Grayson really didn't strike him as shy in the slightest- the kid had no hesitation when it came to giving people a piece of his mind, and loudly at that.

"Comes in all shapes and sizes," Felix said shrugging languidly. "You just didn't talk much unless Miles was with you. I figure that with Grayson, he doesn't know how to interact with people and just settled on 'perpetually angry' as a default since he didn't know what else to do."

"Huh," Ari said, mentally going over every interaction he'd ever had with Grayson. There was no real way to know if Felix was right or not, but Ari was inclined to believe him. For all that he acted like an air-headed flirt most of the time, he was unusually perceptive. "I'll have to keep that in mind," he said, for lack of something better to say.

"Doesn't excuse him from acting like an asshole," Felix said easily. "But it does make a sort of sense."

Ari shot Grayson one last considering look, and then got back to work.

"Okay, fuck, marry or kill- Jamie, Kat and Felix," Alice said with a devilish grin.

"What?" Ari asked with a startled laugh. The remaining six contestants were hanging out in the kitchen, mostly killing time until they needed to go to bed for their early morning in the studio.

"Profanity," the cameraman reminded them, sounding amused.

"Yeah, Alice, geeze, you can't say 'fuck' on TV. Are you nuts?" Robin teased, making everyone laugh, since he was the one who had to be reminded the most often to watch his language.

"What? You can't say FUCK on TV?" Alice asked loudly, causing Ari to nearly slide out of his chair from silent laughter. "Why the fuck not? That's fucking crazy."

"Come on, guys," the cameraman said, starting to laugh himself.

"Alright, alright- bed, wed or behead- Jamie, Kat and Felix," Alice amended, rolling her eyes dramatically.

"Bed all of them," Robin said with a wink at Alice.

"That's not how the game works," Alice complained and smacked him lightly on the arm.

"They're all so attractive, I can't choose!" Robin complained and then said, "Okay, you go first then."

Alice tapped her chin, her face screwed up in a look of exaggerated concentration. "Bed Felix, he's probably really good in bed," she said, grinning at Grayson's scandalized expression. "And wed Kat because she'd probably kill anyone before they could kill her, and I always thought she'd be a supportive spouse. Which means I'm beheading Jamie, I guess."

Reflexively, Ari made a face. "That's like killing a baby hobbit or something," he said when Alice made a questioning noise. "He's like four feet tall, it would be cruel."

"What about you then?" Alice asked, looking intrigued.

Ari pursed his lips, thinking. "I'd marry Kat- I could be her trophy husband," he joked when Robin raised his eyebrows at him, and then paused. "Bed Jamie, I suppose. Kill Felix."

"Blasphemy!" Robin cried and then started to laugh.

Snickering, Alice asked, "You know Felix from before the show, right?"

Ari eyed the nearby cameraman and Grayson, who'd initially looked disgusted with the conversation but now was sporting a look of intense focus, and said carefully, "Sort of. We grew up in the same town, anyways. I haven't been in contact with him since high school."

"Huh," Alice said and then turned to Grayson. "Well, what about you, young one? Not too sure if you're old enough for the marry or bedding part, though."

"I'm eighteen, not six," Grayson snapped irritably. "And I'd kill all of you."

Somehow, Ari was in the final four. He honestly had no idea what was happening. After this challenge was over, all the competitors would be allowed to go home and rest for a few months while the episodes aired, and then everyone would be brought back together for the finals performed live on TV over the course of three weeks. Even if he lost, he would still get to see Miles again, since all of the contestants were going to be part of the live shows.

But he didn't just want to be around Miles, he wanted to win.

With fewer competitors around, the band had started showing up during practice to offer advice. Ari had remembered why he'd liked hanging around Felix as kids, and Jamie and Kat were nice enough once he'd gotten to know them outside of being judged on stage. He wanted to make music with them.

He bit his lip trying to stifle the nerves that threatened to overtake him. He was waiting outside the stage door alone, the final taped competition taking place in the same way the first one had, with each competitor entering the stage one at a time. Somewhere, Alice and Grayson were waiting to hear the results and Robin was in another room waiting for his turn, probably just as nervous as Ari felt.

One more song. Then he'd be in the top three. Then just a few live shows and he'd be in Miles' band. Easy peasy.

Ari snorted, unable to sound convincing even in his own head.

He wasn't going to make it. How could he? He hadn't made it that far on his own merits.

His hands started to shake and he clenched them, trying to steady them. He had seconds before he'd be on stage, he had to calm down. It wasn't like this was the end of the world. Except for the part where it kind of was.

He couldn't do this, march out, sing a shitty song and then be politely told to go back to what he was good at, out of sight, to be heard, not seen. Before the show, he'd liked being a faceless studio musician, what had happened to him?

Ahead of him the stage door rattled and then opened. Ari stepped forward to go on stage, stomach tied in knots, but jumped back when he heard a familiar voice yelled, "Don't worry, I'll find it myself. I'll be right back."

Miles appeared through the door and slammed it shut behind him.

"I am having such a problem with these batteries," he said, tossing what had to be a perfectly functional battery aside. "And I might have been going a little stir-crazy in there."

"Miles!" Ari said and pretty much flung himself at him for a hug. Miles' arms wrapped around him automatically, rocking back with the impact.

"What's wrong?" he asked, sounding concerned. One of his hands smoothed over Ari's back soothingly. "You sounded great in rehearsal, you'll be fine."

"It's just- I don't want to lose," Ari said, shaking a little. He needed to get it together. They had seconds before someone came to get Ari or an assistant got Miles another battery. He was being stupid. Of course he didn't want to lose- this was hardly news to either of them. He needed to get his shit together.

"Hey," Miles said. He gently pushed Ari back, hands firm on his shoulders. "You're going to be great. You made it this far"

Ari made a face, and voice growing more bitter with each word, "Right, I was picked for this show because of my talent- oh wait, it was because I knew you. I won the second challenge- no that was because the producers thought it would be dramatic. I beat Casey in the mini-challenge because I'm so awesome, and also because he lost on purpose. And I won the fourth challenge with Grayson and Alice because I'm so talented out of the three of us." He stepped back, Mile's hands falling from his shoulder. Ari snorted sarcastically. "Right. I've made it this far, what do I have to worry about?"

Miles was frowning at him, but his voice was soft. "Ari. Do you think you're only here because of other people?" Before Ari could reply, Miles shook his head and said, "Never mind, I know the answer to that. You're wrong. You would have been cut if you were terrible, no matter what the producers wanted. You couldn't make it to the top four competitors on their will alone, okay? If you hadn't been so shaky on the first half, you would have won with The Light Behind Your Eyes. You made Jamie cry. Jamie. He's like a Spartan warrior in the form of a four-foot-tall Korean man. He didn't even tear up when Felix made him watch Titanic and The Notebook back to back."

Unwilling, Ari snickered. Warmth bloomed in him when he saw the way it made Miles smile- crooked and dopey and unphotogenic and so warm. It made something in Ari's chest unclench, some of the panic subsiding a little.

"You might not be a born genius like some of these people, but you have outstanding dedication. Every song you've performed has shown incredible emotion, which isn't something a lot of pop music is known for. You're amazing and you don't give yourself enough credit. Now quit with the self-deprecation, you aren't actually seventeen anymore," Miles said and then pressed a soft kiss on Ari's mouth. Ari had only a heartbeat to lean into it, a soft feeling washing through him, before Miles pulled away, looking towards the door with a grimace.

"You should go before someone hunts you down," Ari said with a smile he only half felt.

Miles nodded and punched him lightly on the shoulder. "You're going to rock it," he said over his shoulder as he re-entered the stage.

Alone, Ari could feel the same feeling of hopelessness threatening to overtake him. He closed his eyes and focused on what Miles had told him.

He could do it. Or at least give the best damn try he had in him. He wasn't going to give up that close to the end.

Minutes later, the stage door opened and he was ushered on stage.

He exhaled as the music began and he let the lyrics pour out of him, "Well now I look at you and you're still more than I can take. You're like a slow song starting to accelerate. All my life I looked for you, for arms that I could fall into."

He'd heard the song months before, probably Baby Simon's doing, since Ari wasn't Yellowcard's biggest fan. At the time, he'd liked the song well enough, but in that moment, singing in front of two of his oldest friends, at a crossroads in his life, the song took on an entirely different meaning.

"We were singing 'til our voices were gone, and I was falling hard. You were barely hanging on, and now I wanna chase forever down, with you around."

When the song was over, everyone at the table was smiling. Even Ari was smiling: he'd done the best he could. Even if he lost, there was nothing he'd change about his performance. He had no regrets. That was all that mattered, in the end.

"Thank you, Arial," Kat said and Ari left the stage to wait with Grayson and Alice. Alice jumped up and gave him a bone cracking hug.

"I'm so nervous! And exhausted!" She said and then sat back down heavily, like a marionette whose strings had been cut.

Ari nodded in agreement; it had been a very long few weeks. He was looking forward to not getting up at six every morning, and to be able to give his throat a rest.

"Aw, shit," the cameraman muttered. When the three of them looked at him questioningly he said, "Something's wrong with the audio recorder, everything's all garbled. I have to go see if it can be fixed before you guys are sent back on stage."

With the cameraman gone, the three of them all sighed in relief. Fewer competitors meant more time being filmed, which was unilaterally exhausting. Especially when one was sneaking around with the front man for the band. He and Miles hadn't risked getting caught leaving the premises again, so they'd been limited to a few moments off camera, usually when Ari was on his way to post-challenge interviews.

"Can I tell you guys a secret?" Alice asked, her voice uncharacteristically soft. Ari immediately sat up and paid attention. Alice was a force of nature, sweet, but not a pushover, necessary when the top five competitors had all been male apart from her. She was biting her lip, body curled into itself, every inch of her screaming discomfort.

"Of course," Ari said when Grayson just stared at her in confusion.

"I don't actually want to win," she confessed, eyes nervously darting to the open lounge door and back again.

"What." Grayson's voice was flat and disbelieving. Ari felt much the same, especially since Alice had been so passionate about winning the whole time, though less obnoxious about it than Grayson.

"I love Stress In Idleness, but their music isn't the sort of thing I like to perform. I'm more of a soul, jazz-y kind of girl. I mean I'm good at it, I can do it, and I like listening to it. It's just not what I want to spend my career doing," Alice admitted, her pose relaxed slightly, though her expression said she was still on edge. "I signed up hoping to make some better contacts, maybe producers looking for new talent. I figured I would just worry about what I'd do if I made it to the top three if it happened, cross that bridge when I got there sort of thing. I never expected for it to actually be a thing I'd have to deal with." She sighed and smiled weakly. "So, of course I made it this far, just so I could eat those words."

Grayson looked completely outraged and almost lost for words, but Alice's anxious expression compelled Ari to say, "I'll tell you a secret- I joined assuming I wouldn't make it through the first challenge." He was tempted to mention that he hadn't been originally intended to be on the show, but he knew that could come back to bite him in the ass if anyone important found out he violated that part of his contract.

"Are the two of you high?" Grayson demanded. His face was flushed and he looked seriously pissed off, which was the only reason Ari didn't laugh at how he sounded almost comically offended. "I gave up everything just for a chance at winning, and you guys are here just on a whim? You're just wasting everyone's time bothering to compete when you don't want to win. You both disgust me!"

His young face was marked with fatigue, but there was Grayson's usual fire behind his eyes, and he looked like he was seconds from leaping to his feet in outrage. Ari was torn between concern and amusement- it was just like Grayson to get this worked up, but at the same time… The desperate anger in his expression worried Ari.

"Gave up everything?" Alice asked, looking skeptical.

Grayson bit his lip, almost looking his age for once, before he sighed, the fight going out of him. "I had to leave my band to join the show," he admitted, eyes flicking to the door worriedly. "The other guys were pissed, since we were starting to get noticed on YouTube. So, if I lose I won't even have that to fall back on. We've been friends since middle school, but this was more important." As he said the last part his eyes flicked downward, like he wasn't quite sure he believed his own words.

Ari would have replied, something in his chest aching in sympathy, but Robin appeared in the doorway and Grayson's expression shuttered immediately upon spotting him.

"Well that was fun," Robin said, apparently not sensing the strange atmosphere between them all, and threw himself onto a couch with a groan. "I never want to see a camera ever again. Or be on a stage. Except not really."

"Honestly, even if I lose, I'll be excited just to be able to go home and see my cat," Alice said, shooting a discreet worried look at Grayson. Grayson was glowering at nothing in particular, a common expression for him, but Ari swore he could see a hint of a fading embarrassed blush on the tips of his ears.

"I am so excited to see my bed, I might cry," Robin said, stretching and sighing deeply when his back popped. "Not that living in a dorm isn't so much fun, but I miss sleeping in a queen-sized bed."

"It has been a bit like being in college again," Ari admitted, not fully paying attention to the conversation. The fact that Grayson had opened up to them at all was shocking, though his explanation certainly explained his nearly desperate desire to win. And to think, Ari had thought he was just obnoxiously competitive and wanted to prove himself, even if it took badmouthing everyone left right and center to do it.

"No offence, but I'll be happy to not see all your faces for a few solid weeks," Alice said with a wink.

Grayson didn't say anything as Alice and Robin bantered for a few more minutes longer with minimal input from Ari. It wasn't uncharacteristic of Grayson, but eventually Robin seemed to notice that something wasn't quite right and asked, "Hey, are you okay?"

Grayson visibly hesitated, opened his mouth and- the cameraman reentered the room. Grayson snapped his mouth shut.

Robin looked from Grayson to Ari and Alice and then finally to the oblivious cameraman, eyes narrowing almost imperceptibly.

"So, Arial, you lived in a dorm before?" He asked, much to everyone's obvious relief.

The three of them made bland small talk while Grayson dispassionately stared off into space for a little while longer before they were taken back to just outside the stage doors, where the cameraman left them behind while another issue was fixed with the sound system.

Ahead of him, Grayson was practically vibrating with nerves, belaying the carefully bored look he had on his face.

Ari hesitated for a heartbeat and then grabbed Grayson's arm and said quietly, "Hey, about your band." Grayson turned to face him, scowling. He looked like he was about to tell Ari it wasn't any of his fucking business, so Ari got to the point without hesitating and said, "No matter what happens, you should try and patch things up with them. Win or lose, okay?"

This caught Grayson off guard, the scowl starting to slip from his face before he quickly slapped it back on. "Why do you care?" He asked sharply.

Ari shrugged, letting the hand fall off Grayson's arm and stepping back out of his space. "Just take it as advice from someone who's gone down that road- if you don't talk to them, you'll regret not trying. Trust me."

Grayson continued to scowl at him, but Ari thought he saw a sliver of thoughtfulness behind his expression.

The air felt different on stage. It had always been tense whenever waiting to hear who hadn't made the cut each week, but this time there was a sense of finality. There would be the final challenge, but that was a series of live shows, and wouldn't take place on the familiar stage used for filming. Win or lose, none of them would be on this stage ever again.

"Your performances were all exemplary," Kat said. "It made for a very tough decision. But only three of you can enter the finals."

There was a tense pause, and then Miles said, eyes flicking over to Ari briefly, "I'm sorry Robin, you scored the lowest. You may leave the stage."

Next to Ari, Robin let out a sigh- half relief, half despair, and silently left the stage. Ari would have felt sorry for the guy, but he was too busy being amazed- had he seriously made it to the top three? Was that something that had just happened?

Miles smiled at him- at all of the contestants, but Ari swore it softened a little when it landed on him. Ari's heart swelled. He'd done it- he was still in the game. He had a chance.

"Congratulations on making it to the top three," Felix said with an exuberant grin. Ari could tell how hard it was for him to stay seated and not bounce over to clap them on the back or something. He was not a person meant to stay still for so long. "As you know, the final competition will be divided into three live shows. Each of you will compose an original song with Miles and you will perform it at one of the shows, the order of which will be chosen at random."

That said, Miles came around the table and offered a bag to each of them. They each drew a small envelope from the bag, and carefully removed a card from them. Ari's had the number three written on it.

"Looks like you'll be going last," Alice said, eyeing his card over his shoulder. She was holding a card with a number one on it. Leaving Grayson to go second. Grayson's face looked impassive about his placement, but for his part, Ari was relieved to not be going first.

Ari wanted to say something to Miles or even just get to catch his gaze, but he and Alice and Grayson were immediately hustled off of the stage, the band taken through the exit at the other side. As they left, Ari twisted around, trying to casually catch sight of Miles over his shoulder, but only saw his back before he left the stage.

The three of them were escorted to a conference room where an executive was waiting to provide more information on how the live shows would work. It was all stuff that they had been told before joining the show, but Ari had been operating under the assumption that he'd lose, so he hadn't paid much attention at the time.

Basically, there would be three live shows three weeks in a row, performed by all of the contestants singing the best of the songs they'd performed on the show, with the one of final songs of the night being performed by one of the top three, written by them and Miles. At the end of the third show, the winner would be announced live on television. In the meantime, all the contestants had two weeks off before practice for the live shows started.

Ari, Grayson and Alice would have staggered rehearsals with Miles, so that they would each have an equal amount of time working on a song for the final. But they could start working on a song on their own whenever, giving Ari a bit of an advantage, something that didn't seem to faze Alice, but Ari knew had to irritate Grayson.

"If there is any evidence of any of you three attempting to contact any of the band members outside your designated rehearsals, or in any way seek an advantage, you will be disqualified," the executive said very sternly, her eyes sharply focused. "Last season one of the top three competitors was found to be emailing the band and we were forced to remove her from the competition. We are not joking about this."

At this, her eyes seemed to linger on Ari. He was sure it was just his imagination, but the words shot through him, making his heart race. He couldn't see Miles for an entire month if he didn't want to risk being disqualified.

He had no idea why this startled him- of course he couldn't go on seeing Miles before the finals. It still came as a total shock. He'd just assumed he'd have the entire break to reconnect with Miles without having to worry about being caught on camera.

He couldn't even text or call or email. No contact.

He shivered, the time seeming insurmountably long. A month was nothing after seven years of radio silence.

It seemed impossibly long.

"You'll be escorted back to the dorms to get your belongings, after which you're free to go home. You'll be contacted with information on the rehearsal schedule within the next few days," the executive said and stood, smiling pleasantly, a complete reversal of her previously stern look. "Excellent work, all of you. Enjoy your time off, you've all earned it."

Ari followed Alice and Grayson from the room, heart racing. He should have been overjoyed to finally have some free time and his own space, but he just couldn't shake the feeling that if he didn't say something to Miles in that moment he'd regret it, like everything would fall apart.

Grayson and Alice were all relieved smiles as they left the conference room, chattering about what they were doing first when they got home.

"I mean I'm happy and all to have been on the show and to have made it to the top three, but I am so stoked to go home. I'm going to take a two-hour bath and pet my cat," Alice joked, sighing deeply. "Or maybe a nap first. Or get take out."

"I have to call my mom," Grayson said, looking a bit concerned. "She was kind of pissed when I told her I'd be out of contact for a solid month. If I don't show up for finals, it'll because she murdered me."

"What about you, Arial?" Alice asked, turning to face him in her seat. "Got any plans?"

"N-not really," Ari said, mind racing. He had no way of contacting Miles, and the second he left for the dorm he'd have no chance of catching Miles. He couldn't text or call- even if he had Miles' cell number. He could probably find Miles' rental apartment again, maybe. He didn't have the address but he knew its general location- but what would he do when he got there? Politely ask the doorman to let him in, say he totally was friends with the famous guy that lived there? Right, that would be sure to work. Not to mention the consequences of getting caught there, it was a miracle no one had seen him the one time he'd spent the night.

He had to see Miles, at least once before radio silence for a month.

They all headed to the rehearsal rooms to pick up the belongings they'd been leaving there during the competition- mostly instruments, but also a few other odds and ends that came with spending the better part of a month all but living in the space.

Ari carefully packed up both of his guitars, a bit slower than necessary. His mind was racing and coming up blank. He was just going to have to deal with not getting to say goodbye.

Grayson and Alice were waiting for him with varying degrees of impatience at the door, so he gave up and followed them out, guitar case in each hand and a messenger bag slung across his back. Alice shot him a concerned look, probably because he was looking a lot less happy than he ought to have been about winning and finally getting to go home, but thankfully she didn't say anything.

They were nearly out of the building in the main reception area when he spotted Miles getting into an elevator.

"I forgot something upstairs, can you take my stuff outside for me? I'll be right behind you," Ari said and carefully dropped both guitar cases on the floor and doubled back before Alice or Grayson could reply.

The building only had three floors, so there were only so many places Miles could be going. Once out of sight, Ari started running down the hall and raced up the stairs. He burst out of the landing and circled back to where the elevators were. The doors were closing on one of them, but he could hear someone walking down the hallway out of sight. He dashed after the sound, half expecting to just end up startling some stranger.

Two more corners and he spotted a familiar head of dark curls, no one else in sight.

"Miles!" Ari called, wheezing for breath. He was seriously out of shape. He stumbled forward and grinned when Miles turned, looking startled.

"Ari," he said, sounding relieved and came back towards him down the hallway. The second he was in reach, he pulled Ari into a tight hug, tension rolling off his shoulders. "Congratulations! I told you that you could do it, you pessimistic little rain cloud! I can't believe I didn't realize I wouldn't get to see you after today."

"Me too," Ari said into his shoulder, the t-shirt comfortingly soft under his cheek. Miles still wore the same aftershave he'd used in high school. The smell was nostalgic and made him relax, that little knot of worry in his gut unravelling. "Seems like we're both still a little stupid."

"The rules are stupid," Miles said, sounding annoyed and like a little kid. He laughed and then let go of Ari, but not stepping back. "But I also don't want to get you disqualified."

"That would suck," Ari agreed with a sigh. "It is only a month."

"A month is nothing compared to eight years," Miles agreed, though his tone said he wasn't so sure about that.

Without hesitating, they both leaned in for a kiss. Miles' hand stroked across his cheek gently, and he pouted a little when they parted.

"Just wait for me a little longer, okay?" Ari said, stepping back. He really needed to get back to Grayson and Alice, the van to take them to the dorm was waiting for them.

"See you soon," Miles said, eyes a little sad.

They looked at each other silently for a long moment and then headed in opposite directions down the hall.

Ari was lost in thought, and maybe sulking a little, as he turned the first corner and all but jumped out of his skin when he nearly collided with a person.

Not just any person. Grayson.

He was without his trademark scowl. He didn't look even a little angry. His face was frighteningly blank. He said nothing as he stared up at Ari and slowly raised one eyebrow.

"It's not what it looks like," Ari said quickly and then wanted to smack himself. "I mean, I'm not cheating or anything, okay? I swear. Please don't tell anyone."

Grayson stared at him for a long moment and then turned on his heel and started down the hallway.

"Carry your own damn guitars," he said over his shoulder, voice devoid of any emotion.


Ari scrubbed a hand through his hair roughly. That could have gone better.

Maybe hunting Miles down in front of a suspicious teenager wasn't his best idea.

Ari was seriously an idiot.

They were taken back to the dorm and packed up their belongings and then that was it, they were free to go home.

Ari had stood outside the building with his two guitar cases and duffle bag, feeling lost and a little bit of an idiot until he pulled out his recently returned cell phone and called Baby Simon.

That was a mistake. He seriously should have just called a cab. Even if being alone had seemed uncomfortably strange after being crammed in a dorm with a dozen people for nearly a month and going back to his probably dusty apartment had seemed like a terrible idea. Calling Baby Simon was an even more terrible idea. Involving Baby Simon in anything in general was a terrible idea.

Twenty minutes later, Baby Simon's shitty Honda Civic rounded the corner and his friend and coworker stuck his head of out of the driver's window.

"Hey, did a ghost call a cab?" He shouted, grinning widely.

"Screw you," Ari said and shoved all his belongings into the backseat and flung himself into the passenger seat.

"So," Baby Simon said about thirty seconds into the drive, which Ari supposed was the longest he could stay silent. "Are you going to tell me what this whole disappearing act was about? TJ wouldn't tell us anything, even when Vince and I hid the good coffee in the break room."

"I can't, I signed a contract," Ari said, and then regretted it. Saying no to Baby Simon was only ever seen as a challenge.

Baby Simon started out easy- just asking the same question every five seconds. Then he moved on to finding the most obnoxious songs on the radio and singing along loudly and out of key. When that didn't work, he rolled the windows down and started loudly wondering what Ari had been doing, coming up with progressively more terrible and illegal things.

Ari snapped around the time he suggested something positively horrific involving farm animals. "Fine! I'll tell you!" He shouted and then was immediately drowned out by Baby Simon's triumphant cry. Baby Simon was technically three years older than Ari, and had gotten his name as the youngest of four people named Simon at the office. But even if he'd been the oldest Simon, he'd deserve the name, Ari reflected irritably as Baby Simon continued to cackle.

"You can't tell anyone about this, okay? I'm not joking, I'll get the pants sued off of me if you do," Ari said and Baby Simon nodded enthusiastically. Ari explained how and why he'd been chosen for The Star Project,and his past with Miles in much less detail.

"Wait, so you're telling me that you've known Felix Fitzroy the entire time you've known me and you've never told me?" Baby Simon demanded once Ari was finished.

"That was what you got out of that?" Ari demanded and then couldn't help but burst out laughing.

"That's the only part that matters, he's like a god among bass players," Baby Simon said earnestly. Ari could almost see the hearts in his eyes.

"He's supposedly about to become engaged," Ari said dryly. "So even if I'd been speaking to him before all this and introduced you, you wouldn't have had a chance."

Baby Simon rolled his eyes. "Pft. Like that matters, I don't want him for his body, I only want to marry his brain. Or just his right hand."

"Gross," Ari said, wrinkling his nose and then dodged the hand that Baby Simon flailed at him blindly, eyes still on the road.

"That's not what I meant, and you know it," Baby Simon complained and then pulled the car to stop in front of Ari's apartment building. "You need help carrying your stuff upstairs?"

"No, I'll be fine," Ari said and then paused. "But there is something you could help me with, if you aren't busy."

The notes were where he'd left them, tucked away in a binder, virtually untouched since junior year. He hadn't been able to throw the binder away when he'd moved out of his parent's place, so he'd shoved it into the back of a cupboard and hadn't touched it since then.

He flipped the binder open, months of work spilling out. The lined pages were perfectly crisp, though the notes written in ball point pen were a bit faded with age. It was all of the music he and Miles had been working on together in middle and high school, bits and pieces of unfinished songs they'd never completed.

He wanted to have something to show Miles when they met up in a month, but a lot of it was… well not very good. He'd been sixteen and it showed. But there were a few chords here, a line in a chorus there that would be usable. Which was what he needed Baby Simon for. He might have been an obnoxious, pushy jerk, but he was a genius with filling in the gaps on songs.

This was going to work.

"So, I had an interesting phone call from Samantha," his mom said over the phone.

Ari hummed distractedly, busy trying to keep his spaghetti sauce from burning. He'd been on the phone with his mom for the better part of an hour, and was mostly zoned out at that point. There was only so much maternal guilt that he could pay attention to.

"She said you were dating her son? Again?" his mom said archly. Ari jumped, bumping his hand on the hot side of the pan and yelped. "Really, Arial, is that a good idea?"

"Who's Samantha?" He asked and stuck his hand under the sink. He could already see a pink mark forming on his hand where he'd burnt it.

"Miles' mother," his mom said, like she'd told him a dozen times.

"You still talk to her?" Ari asked, startled. "Wait, his mom called you to… gossip about us?"

"She doesn't call very often," his mom said. "But we do live in the same town, we've bumped into each other a few times. More importantly, is it true?"

Ari bit his lip. "Sort of?" he said, accidentally making it sound more like a question. Dating was a strong word. And not anything they'd really talked about. Or something Ari was really prepared to talk about yet.

"Arial," his mom said sternly, making him feel about twelve again.

"It just kind of happened?" Ari squeaked, feeling his face go red and fumbled to grab an ice pack from the freezer without taking his hand out from the cold water.

"Is it just a sex thing, then?" his mom asked, like that was a totally normal thing to ask her adult son.

"Oh my god, mom," Ari squawked and yelped when he smacked his burnt hand on the faucet and dropped a packet of frozen peas on the floor.

"That's not a no," his mom said, sounding disapproving. "I'm not certain this is a healthy relationship, Arial. You were so devastated in high school after that argument."

"I'm not a child, mom," Ari said, a little irritably and grabbed the peas off the floor. "And it isn't a sex thing, oh my god, never say anything like that again."

"Arial," his mom said again. "Are you or are you not in a relationship with that boy?"

"It's complicated. I need to talk to him about it, okay?" Ari snapped, rubbing his free hand over his face, knowing it was no good. His mother was like a dog with a bone about these things. She'd shake an answer out of him even if he didn't think he had one to give.

"What's there to talk about? Either you both want a relationship, or you don't."

"I mean… I do. I just- we haven't had a chance to talk about it," Ari said, biting his lip. He was seriously starting to be annoyed at this whole 'not getting disqualified' thing.

"So, it is a sex thing," his mom concluded. "Don't forget to use protection, Arial," she added over Ari's squawk of rage.

"I'm never speaking to you again!" Ari shouted into the phone and hung up. This relationship, or whatever it was, was actually turning him into a teenager again.

He seriously needed to talk to Miles.

Wait, what had his mom meant by him dating Miles again?

The two week break crawled by and Ari was probably the only competitor who felt resentful of the respite.

He cleaned his apartment within an inch of its life, called his mom every other day and spent an inadvisable amount of time in Baby Simon's presence. He dug through the binder from high school, toying with his old half-written songs, but ended up dismissing nearly all of it as useless. They weren't very good and blatantly written by someone between the age of fourteen and seventeen.

Though, he did realize Miles was right about the song he'd been singing the morning after Ari had slept over- he found bits of it written down in the margins of what looked like English homework, the chords all but unfamiliar to him.

It was stupidly comforting to try and fumble his way through the song, like Miles was curled up next to him on the futon, coaching him through the long-forgotten verses.

He missed him.

It was stupid, he'd gone without seeing him for years, had thought of him less and less as time had gone on, but after a handful of conversations all Ari wanted to do was sing with him, make the old stupid jokes, stroke his fingers through his hair.

It was honestly a relief when rehearsals for the live shows started after the break, if only to give him something to keep his mind off Miles.

"Ari!" Alice called once she caught sight of him, beaming. Grayson was seated next to her, looking like he wasn't quite sure why he'd sat there. "How was your break?" she asked, pushing out another chair for him.

As he sat, Grayson stared at him with a blank faced look, abruptly reminding Ari of what had happened in the hallway. He had no idea how he'd managed to forget that delightful scene.

Shaking himself, he said, "It was alright. I got kind of bored."

"Me too," Alice admitted, and then went silent when the guy organizing the live shows arrived and the rehearsal began in earnest.

The set list was a little different for each week, and composed of songs they'd performed on the show, mostly the ones that had won challenges. Ari thought it was pretty telling when it was mentioned in an overly casual afterthought that Grayson would sing Death of a Bachelor, and that no one even brought up the idea of Ari singing Thnks Fr Th Mmrs. Subtle.

Rehearsals were long and dragged out affairs, and often involved a lot of standing on the spot while tech people figured out lighting and sound things. Starting the second week, Alice started her sessions with Miles for writing her final song, and was occasionally absent from the group rehearsals that ran from noon until nightfall six days a week.

Which left Grayson and Ari working on Some Nights together without her. The first week had been awkward enough with Alice to fill in the gaps, but with her gone it was enough to make Ari want to pull his hair out.

"This is it boys, this is war, what are- okay, that's it," Ari snapped, slapping a hand down on the table, unable to take Grayson's accusatory blank stares for a single second longer. "If you have something to say to me, just say it already or drop it, for god's sake."

"Are you a complete idiot?" Grayson asked, making it sound like an actual question while still sounding like he wanted to murder Ari. "Or does it take effort to think of stupid, reckless things to do?"

"Look," Ari ground out, eyes flicking around the open room, making sure no one would overhear them, "You don't know what you saw, okay?"

"You mean I imagined you sticking your tongue down Miles Eliot's throat?" Grayson asked, not flinching when Ari hushed him violently.

"Are you crazy? Be quiet, I'm not getting my ass kicked off of this show because of a single kiss," Ari hissed, looking around to see if anyone had overheard. Luckily rehearsals weren't filmed and no one was within earshot, so no one noticed a thing.

"I don't care if you aren't taking this competition seriously," Grayson said, crossing his arms and glowering at him darkly. "But I'm not screwing around, so I don't care if you had to blow your way into third place or not- I'm going to win, whatever it takes. I didn't come this far to leave with nothing to show for it."

"Look, Miles and me, we have a history, okay?" Ari snapped, unable to keep from looking around the room again, probably only drawing more attention to himself than anything. "We're working through it, but I'm not cheating, so calm your ass down, okay?"

"And it couldn't have waited until a time not directly afteryou were just told not to contact the band?" Grayson asked, voice bone dry, expression clearly stating that he wasn't buying Ari's bullshit.

"I never said I made sensible life choices," Ari grumbled irritably under his breath.

Grayson's expression didn't change an inch, but they managed to get through the rest of the song without issue.

"So, what's going on with you and Grayson?" Alice asked, swinging her feet casually. They were sitting on the edge of the stage that the live show would use in a few weeks, killing time until the lighting people needed them.

"What do you mean?" Ari asked, aiming for casual, but missing the mark and sounding just about as guilty as he felt.

Alice didn't even say anything, just gave him a look.

Ari sighed and bit his lip, feeling chastened like a child. "You know that kid, he's moody and weird about me," he said, still not feeling like he wanted to regurgitate the entire debacle. He liked Alice, but revealing his ongoing thing with Miles surrounded by people who worked for The Star Project would be monumentally stupid.

"Obviously, but when we left after the last challenge he'd still talk to you, even when he was giving you the death glare. This Grayson feels like he was replaced with a singing-competition robot. He won't even talk to me about anything other than the competition," she said, looking faintly worried. "I'm not going to lie, Grayson can be hard person to like sometimes, but that doesn't mean I enjoy seeing him so wound up."

Yikes, there was the guilt Ari had been trying to ignore. With that admission, Ari could hardly keep his silence.

"You know how Miles and I have a past, right?" he asked cautiously.

Alice nodded eagerly. "Yeah, you were always pretty closed mouthed about the whole thing, which I get."

"Grayson is under the impression that I'm cheating since I used to know Miles- which isn't the case. Until I sang Gives You Hell, I hadn't seen him in nearly a decade, and we had hardly left on good terms."

Alice made an agreeing noise and swung her feet again, a contemplative look on her face.

"You know he considers you his biggest competition now, right?" she said eventually, a funny little smile on her face. It wasn't what Ari would call a happy smile.

"What?" Ari asked, eyebrows shooting upwards. "But you're so much better than I am!"

Alice giggled, her smile softening into something more relaxed. "Don't knock your own talents- I might be better at song writing and have a bigger vocal range than you, but you are a very emotive singer, and starting to get more comfortable with putting on a performance rather than standing on the spot like a mannequin," she teased.

"It's pretty weird to not just be the guy in the sound booth still," Ari admitted. "I mean, it's what I've been doing for a solid five years now. Performing is not something that's, like, ingrained in me, especially since I was pretty shy as a kid when I did perform. But, really, why would Grayson think I'm the one to beat when you're still in the competition?"

"I was the one who admitted out loud that I didn't want the prize," Alice said and sighed deeply. "That's as good as admitting defeat to that kid. You might have said you hadn't expected to get through the first challenge, but being unsure of yourself is pretty different than not wanting to win."

"What are you going to do if you do win now?" Ari asked curiously. It wasn't like Alice could win The Star Project and then say thanks but no thanks. Not only was it part of the contracts they'd signed before joining the show, it would also look bad from a PR perspective. No one would want to touch an artist who'd turned down a spot with Stress In Idleness.

"I don't know," Alice said with a laugh. There was a hint of hysteria in the edges of it, so Ari wrapped a comforting arm around her shoulders, giving her a little comforting squeeze. "Part of me was still thinking I'd get eliminated before the finals, and I wasn't about to not try and then suddenly I'm in the top three. And now I definitely don't want to not do my best in front of a live audience."

"Don't worry, I'll beat the pants off you so you don't have to worry about that," Ari joked, giving her a small squeeze.

Alice smiled, like she didn't hear how Ari was joking. Or more like, she knew he was joking but thought he could actually do it. "So, you really want to win now, right?" she asked, nudging his knee with hers jokingly. "No more half-assing and going with the flow, right? You really stepped your game up after you sang The Light Behind Your Eyes."

"Yeah. I forgot how much I actually like being the center of attention," he joked. Alice rolled her eyes and elbowed him, so he said, more truthfully, "Giving up on being a performing artist was kind of a way to hide. Teenage Miles left a bit of a mark on me. I was so angry, I kind of forgot how fun singing and playing guitar in front of people can actually be. And it is way better without the acne and crippling self-consciousness that came with being a teenager."

"You can say that again," Alice said with a snicker. There was still a hint of something unhappy and apprehensive behind her expression, but before Ari could think of what to do to try and help, they were summoned back on stage to start rehearsal proper.

The week after that Grayson was gone to work with Miles, and the rehearsals started to take on a semi-hysterical edge. The shows were each going to be over two hours long, with Stress In Idleness playing a few songs throughout, and wrangling a dozen people and an entire band was proving to be even more challenging than Ari had anticipated.

It was a relief when it was finally his turn to meet with Miles, if only to escape the madness of the group rehearsals.

"Ari!" Miles greeted with a wide grin.

Ari desperately wanted to go in for a hug, but, while there were no cameras, there were still plenty of people around. He settled for a smile and a wave before sitting down across from Miles.

"So, did you have anything ready you wanted to start with, or are we starting from scratch?" Miles asked.

Ari bent down and pulled a file full of the bits of song he'd worked on with Baby Simon. "I have a few odd and ends," he explained. "Which all started their life out when we were in high school. It's all a little twee, but I figured with a bit of adjusting it could be kind of cute and authentic rather than annoying."

Miles nodded a little absently as he flipped through the papers, a faint smile on his face. "You know," he said once he'd gone through them all. "You could use Millennia."

Ari bit his lip. As tempting as that was… "The challenge is to co-write a song with you, not just use one of your unproduced songs, so I wouldn't want to have an unfair advantage," he said hesitantly.

Miles shook his head. "The part you heard me singing was the only really finished part, I only remembered a little bit of the song when we split- you were almost always the one who made the notes. So we'd need to a second verse and we'd have to rework the chorus since it's still a bit of a mess. And, you know, make music for all that that isn't just a single acoustic guitar. That's no small task."

"Would that be fair to Alice and Grayson, though?" Ari asked, hesitating. He really liked the idea of using Millennia, but he also didn't want to cheat- Alice and Grayson hadn't gone to high school with Miles, after all. And he was fairly certain that if Grayson found out he was using a song from his past with Miles, he'd flat out murder Ari.

"It's fine, Grayson is basically just retooling a song he and his band wrote together earlier this year, and Alice brought one of her songs that was all but finished. Using Millennia would be about the same. Technically, you'd be doing more work than them, to be honest," Miles explained easily.

Ari bit his lip and thought about it carefully and then nodded. If Alice and Grayson were using old songs and not starting from scratch, then he wouldn't feel bad about doing the same. Especially since what he was starting with had been written by a seventeen-year-old. It was going to require a great deal of polish to dodge the melodramatic teenage whine bullet.

"Let's do it," he said, and couldn't help the ridiculous grin that was stretching across his face. He was so excited.

Rehearsals progressed, and eventually, the first live show was only a week away. Alice seemed cautiously optimistic about her progress, though in a quiet moment, she admitted to Ari that she still didn't know what to do if she won with it, but that she was determined to do her best. Ari's work with Miles was going well enough, though Miles proved to be just as obnoxious as he'd been as a teenager when it came to music.

"That's completely off key." Miles crossed his arms and frowned at Ari.

"Your ears are off key," Ari grumbled back. They'd been working together for a solid four hours. One more comment from Miles and he'd be tempted to smash his guitar over Miles' big, dumb head.

"That doesn't even make sense!"

Comparatively, Ari got the impression that Grayson's song was not coming along as neatly. During group rehearsals, he was all but mute when his voice wasn't needed, and, while his perpetual glower wasn't anything new, the exhausted glaze to his eyes concerned both Ari and Alice. But whenever they tried to approach him, he responded in words that were even more barbed than usual. Eventually, they settled for leaving Grayson well enough alone, and made sure the others did as well.

"You know what's going on with that kid?" Casey asked Ari during a break, one week away from the first live show. "I mean, he's being more of a brat than usual. Something's up with him."

"I don't know, he bites my head off whenever I tried to ask," Ari said with a sigh. "I mean, he's under a lot of stress right now. Hopefully, he calms down a little after the first show."

"He'd better, Robin is about to murder him after what he said to him yesterday," Casey pointed out wryly. "Either way, things are nearly over."

For all that the break between filming the show and the live shows had seemed endless, the arrival of the first live show almost took Ari by surprise.

The backstage area was tiny and made all the more cramped by the sheer number of people crammed into it. Ari dutifully allowed someone to fuss with his hair and sigh over his somewhat worn sneakers, and then hid in a corner while the chaos continued to rage around him. Alice found him shortly after he found his corner, so nervous she was nearly chewing off the bright mauve lipstick she'd just applied.

"I'd say don't be nervous, but I know that would be useless," Ari said, directly in her ear since it was not only chaotic but also loud back there. "But I know you're going to do great tonight."

She shot him a small, nervous smile. "Well, my song's going to be surprising, at the very least."

Before Ari could find out what she meant by that, the show began.

All of the contestants were brought out on stage, along with Stress In Idleness, and a host, who's name Ari had already forgotten, but who he was pretty sure was famous simply for being famous.

The lights were blinding, leaving him blinking away spots, but he knew from rehearsal that the place was enormous, and he could tell from the cheering that nearly the stage under his feet apart that every single seat was filled. His stomach thrummed with equal parts dread and excitement.

"Welcome!" The host said, his voice booming through the enormous speakers that lined the front of the stage. "Welcome to the finale of the third season of The Star Project! We have a great show for you tonight. Are you all excited?!" The audience screamed back, an almost physical wave of noise. It tipped Ari's scale away from dread towards excitement. There was a part of that audience, however small, who was excited to hear him sing. If his ears hadn't been ringing, Ari would have wondered if it all was an elaborate dream.

"Tonight, we will hear one of our top three contestants, Alice James, sing a song co-written with Miles Eliot, with the hopes of sweeping the competition. What do you think, guys?" The host turned to the band, even as someone in the audience shouted above all the cheering, "I love you, Alice!"

"I've heard Alice sing, so I think the other boys are going to have some tough competition to beat," Miles said with a camera-perfect smile. He really was handsome, even if he'd been frowning he'd be handsome, but Ari preferred the goofy, unphotogenic smile he'd given Ari back at his apartment.

The host and the band delivered a bit more semi-scripted banter, and then the show began in earnest.

Later, Ari would only the show in snippets of clarity.

Stress In Idleness playing the first song of the night, the audience cheering so loud Ari could scarcely hear Miles' voice over it.

Robin's unplanned and amazing falsetto during his first song on stage.

One of the techies in a TSP STAFF shirt silently mocking the drama queen antics of the host so accurately Ari laughed so hard he shot water out his nose.

Casey pulling Ari aside to show him a picture of his new niece the second Ari came off stage from singing Some Nights with Alice and Grayson.

Grayson singing Suicide Sunday, and the fact that there was nothing funnier and yet more unholily fitting than actual teenager Grayson Esposito singing the words a new-millennial nightmare.

Alice shooting Ari nervous smiles every time he caught his eye. Similarly, Miles shooting him knowing, excited looks in the same way.

Ari seriously wanted to ask the pair of them what that was about, but never got the chance, because all of the sudden Alice was striding on stage, holding an acoustic guitar. Followed by Miles, also carrying a guitar.

Ari's eyebrows shot up. He hadn't thought Miles would be allowed to perform with the top three for their final song- Ari wasn't doing Millennia with him, Miles hadn't even suggested it.

"I struggled a lot with writing a song," Alice admitted from the stage. "Not because Miles was hard to work with- he's really great- but because I didn't want to make something that sounded like I was just trying to write a Stress In Idleness song, I wanted this song to sound like me. I'm really proud of it, so I hope you guys like it!"

The audience cheered as Alice half-turned to give Miles, seated off to the side on a stool, a small nod.

The music started up, and Alice bent her head forward, taking a deep breath, before she looked up, an enormous smile on her face.

"I get tired and upset, and I'm trying to care a little less," Alice sang, her voice pure and sweet."When I google I only get depressed, I was taught to dodge those issues. I was told don't worry, cause no doubt, there's always something to cry about."

The music was completely from left field, but the audience clapped along easy enough. Ari found himself smiling, because the song was perfect, it sounded just like a song Alice would make.

"Pack Up your troubles, get your old grin back. Don't worry 'bout the cavalry. I don't care what the whisperers say, cause they whisper too loud for me."

When Alice came off stage, she was still grinning, her dark hair spilling wildly over her bare shoulders.

"That was amazing!" Ari said and hauled her in for a bone crushing hug, nearly picking her right off her feet.

"I'm so happy!" she said, clinging to his shoulders. "I just sang the best song I've ever written in front of a million people and probably just ruined any chance of winning or being taken seriously by any major music label ever, and I don't care!"

Ari let her go, mostly because they were blocking a path to the stage and people were glaring at them for it. He pulled her a little out of the way and said seriously, "Alice, you don't have anything to worry about, you were perfect!"

She grinned. "Well, I did have a little help from your boyfriend," she said, eyes dancing mischievously.

"Alice!" Ari yelped, reflexively checking to make sure no one heard. Luckily, it was far too busy back there, the music from the stage easily covering up their conversation.

Alice rolled her eyes. "Really, Ari, pretty much anyone with eyes noticed. Well anyone with eyes who all but lived in your pocket for the better part of a month," she corrected. "Anyways, Miles was great. I kind of blurted out that I wasn't so sure about this whole thing- thank god no one else was in the room right then- and he looked right at me and said he'd help me out no matter what kind of song I wrote, as long as it was a good one. I mean, he might forget, or not really be able to help me, but he told me not to waste time doing something that wasn't going to make me happy."

Ari found the stupidest, soppiest grin he'd ever made on his face as he said, "That sounds like him. And if he doesn't help you, I'll kick his ass until he does. You're amazing, Alice."

"Oh shut up, you will not. You're still in that disgusting honeymoon faze, there's no way you'd hurt him," Alice said, but she grinned back, something like relief in her eyes.

And then it was suddenly the last song of the night, the one with all of the contestants all crowded on stage together to close the thing down.

It had always been one of Ari's favourite songs. Standing on the stage with Grayson to his left and Alice a few feet to his right, the twelve of them all singing together I got troubled thoughts and the self-esteem to match, what a catch, what a catch, Ari could feel something catch in his chest, a sadly sweet feeling, nostalgia for something that didn't exist. It was a feeling that said that no matter what he'd done in his life, he was exactly where he was meant to be.

A week later, the morning of the second live show dawned warm and grey, the threat of rain never quite coming to fruition. It lent a particularly heavy, humid feeling of apprehension in the air, and left Ari irritably sticky by the time he made it to the stage, his jeans and t-shirt clinging to his skin uncomfortably.

"Who ordered this weather?" Alice joked as Ari stripped his gross shirt off. Luckily, he had a different outfit for on stage, but his skin still was left feeling sweaty.

"Not me," Ari replied, shoving his hair out of his face. "What about you, Grayson?"

Grayson was hovering nearby, sporting an expression Ari had never seen him wear, one he couldn't quite place. He didn't look nervous… Ari had seen him nervous on set for the show. This was different.

"Are you okay?" Ari asked, stepping closer.

Grayson stumbled back out of reach, almost looking afraid.

"I'm fine," he muttered and then disappeared deeper backstage.

Ari and Alice exchanged a wordless look.

"I'll go talk to him, before sound check starts," she said, brow furrowed with concern.

She reappeared five minutes later, but silently shook her head when Ari shot her a questioning look.

The sound check went smoothly, along with the first two thirds of the show. Grayson's nerves or whatever his strange mood had been seemed to have faded, given he all but brought the ceiling down when he sang Death Of A Bachelor.

"Think he's going to be alright?" Alice asked between pants, having just come off stage from singing Ocean Avenue to an ecstatic audience.

"He's a hell of a lot more resilient than I am," Ari said, not really sure how to answer. "He won't let himself do anything less than his best."

"That's what worries me about him sometimes," Alice said, glancing over at Grayson, who was preparing to sing his original song once Robin, Casey, and Mia left the stage. "He's not the sort to forgive himself if he screws up."

Ari bit his lip, hesitating. The last thing he wanted to do was break Grayson's concentration. But something in him was telling him he needed to say something to Grayson, wish him luck, at the very least.

He stole a quick glance over at Grayson again. For a split second, Grayson's face was nothing but terror, before he quickly smoothed it back into his usual glower.

That did it.

"Hey," Ari said. Grayson jumped, nearly dislodging the battery back for his mike. "Sorry," Ari added with an apologetic smile. Grayson didn't return it, just continued staring blankly at him. Ari forged ahead anyways, raising his voice to be heard over Casey's rising voice coming from the stage. "Didn't mean to scare you. Just wanted to say, you're going to do great. You're one of the most talented people I know, alright?"

Grayson swallowed several times, that strange expression creeping back onto his face. Finally, he said, "I didn't want- they made me- I'm sorry."

Before Ari could even begin to wonder at what Grayson was trying to say, Robin, Casey, and Mia all barreled off stage, cheers from the audience trailing after them. The second Ari looked away, Grayson ran on stage.

As he did so, the host shouted into his microphone, "And here's what you've been waiting for, Grayson Esposito with his song, co-written with Miles Eliot, Millennia."

It was like having a bucket of ice dumped over his head.

This couldn't be happening.

Grayson was singing Millennia.

There was a ringing in his ears, nearly drowning out Grayson singing I know young love is just a dream. A distant part of Ari's brain noted that Grayson had changed the song a little, made it more pop. Ari hated it.

How had this happened?

Someone had to have given Grayson the lyrics and chords to the song, and only one person would have easy access to it. Miles.

He wasn't sure if he was pissed or just disappointed in himself for not expecting something like this. Maybe both.

He had no idea how long he stood there, frozen with shock. The ringing in his ears abated slightly, and Ari realized that Grayson was nearing the end of the song. And that Miles was standing a few feet away.

Ari turned on his heel and stalked off to a different part of the backstage area. He had one more song left before the end of the show, and then he was getting the hell out of there. He was tempted to just abandon things altogether, but some part of him rebelled against leaving everyone in the lurch for the final group song. He wasn't like Grayson. Or Miles.

He had no idea how he got through the final song he was a part of, the entire thing passed in a blur of colour and noise that only receded when Ari abruptly found himself in a corner backstage, his palms sweaty and his heart racing.

There were only two songs left in the show, and the last song of the night was going to be performed by Stress In Idleness. And yet there was Miles, stalking towards him, eyes wide and face pale. Like he hadn't known what giving their song to Grayson would do to Ari.

"Ari-" Miles started to say, hand going to touch Ari's arm.

"I don't know why I'm fucking surprised!" Ari snarled ripping his arm out of reach. "Really, well done you! Did you have fun watching me get all weepy over that song right before you handed it off?"

"Ari-" Miles' eyes were wide, his pupils tiny pinpricks in a sea of dark green.

"I bet you had a good old laugh at stupid, clueless Ari, so easily led around by the nose. Just like old times, right? Say the right things, and he'll do whatever you want!" Ari didn't even know what the words pouring out of his mouth were, caustic even to his own ears. It was like he'd opened up an old wound he hadn't even known he'd had, the vitriol spewing out of him like pus.

Miles seemed to reach his breaking point and snarled back, "I didn't do any of that! You're the one who damn well followed me here! We aren't teenagers anymore, Arial, get over it."

"How about you just go blow your new buddy, Grayson instead?!" Ari snapped, definitely too loud for a space right next to a stage full of microphones. He couldn't bring himself to care.

"At least I know he won't run away, like you do whenever you have to deal with having feelings, or anything!" Miles shouted back. They'd attracted a trio of TSP minions, all fluttering anxiously in the background, too cowed to actually intervene.

"Maybe you should have just stopped making me need to!" Ari snapped, anger twisting more in the directions of tears and heart-crushing misery- and that was it he wasn't crying in front of a dozen odd people, much less Miles.

Ari stormed off to get his shit and get the hell out of there, Miles tellingly quiet behind him. He didn't even try and stop Ari from leaving.

From the stage, Ari could hear Robin singing Lying is The Most Fun and the irony of the line then think of what you did, and how I hope to God he was worth it was so poignant it was almost enough to make Ari want to be sick. It was like the entire universe was trolling him.

"Oh, now I do recall, we were just getting to the part, where the shock sets in, and the stomach acid finds a new way to make you get sick."

A laugh got lodged in his throat and came out as a hitching sob he barely managed to stifle, slapping a hand over his mouth as his eyes began to sting.

Clearly, that was exactly what he needed most in that moment. Because his entire life was a joke at that point.

The backstage area wasn't as crowded as it had been earlier. It was easy enough to find a side door and slip out into the back alley, Robin's voice chasing after him: "I hope you didn't expect to get all of the attention. Now let's not get selfish, did you really think I'd let you kill this chorus?"

The next day, Ari allowed himself exactly three hours to sulk in his misery over his situation before he seriously sat down to decide what to do.

He'd signed a contract, he couldn't not sing a song at the final live show- he'd not only look like an idiot and a coward in front of millions of people, but he'd also be sued within an inch of his life.

He knew the producers had to be involved somehow, they couldn't have not known Grayson was going to sing Ari's song. But what were they expecting Ari to do? They couldn't want Ari to not do anything, it would only make themand their stupid show look bad.

The answer came in the form of a sharply dressed woman with a thin file appearing at his front door.

As he let her into his slightly messy apartment, Ari was too exhausted to feel anything other than faintly embarrassed at being unshowered and in his pajamas at three in the afternoon.

In a surprise that didn't shock Ari in the slightest, there had been executive meddling in Grayson's song choice the previous night. Ari was starting to develop a serious phobia to crisp suits and stiletto heels, given the bullshit that seemed to inevitably precede them.

"I'm terribly sorry about the position you've been put in," the woman, who'd introduced herself as Ms. Fujiwara, said. "There has been a great deal of dissent behind the scenes, and you've suffered for it. This is the song you're expected to sing on Friday. You were meant to have been given it weeks ago, but differing opinions prevented us from doing so until now."

Ari flipped the file open and scanned over the lyrics and chords he found in it.

It was total garbage. Even seventeen-year-old Ari at his very most artistically bankrupt could have done better.

"You have got to be joking," Ari said blankly, staring at Ms. Fujiwara.

She looked a bit embarrassed, but gamely said, "I'm afraid not, Mr. Brown."

"What if I tell everyone you stole my song and gave it to Grayson?" Ari demanded, his blood starting to boil. He wasn't just angry about the theft, and he was plenty angry about that, he was pissed that they'd taken that song, the one Miles had sung that precious morning. The song that Miles and Ari had written as children, and then had written again so many years later, after nearly a decade apart. They'd taken one look at it and decided that none of that mattered and had handed it over without hesitation.

Ms. Fujiwara still looked a little embarrassed even as she said, "I really wouldn't advise that, Mr. Brown. It's a fight you'd never win. And really, who'd believe you?"

With that, she made for the door, her sensible heels clacking smartly against the hardwood floor. In the doorway, she paused, looking back at him and said, eyes softer, "But on a personal note, I sincerely apologize that this has happened to you."

Before he could say a thing, she was gone.

Leaving Ari with a churning gut full of frustration and rage and a useless song.

He glanced down at the file. The childishly inane lyrics mocked him silently from the page.

Fuck that.

Even if the producers had decided that Grayson was going to win (using Ari's fucking song), Ari wasn't going to sing that shit on stage and let the world think it was something he'd made.

He'd just have to write an entirely new song. In six days. Right, that was feasible.

He was at least showered, if not completely lacking inspiration, when there was another knock on his door two hours later.

Outside, Grayson stood in his hallway, shoulders hunched up high and his eyes rimmed red.

"Fuck off," Ari said and made to slam the door shut. Legally speaking, an actual adult punching a not-quite-adult would look bad, and the last thing Ari was going to put up with was being sued over something only tangentially related to all this song bullshit.

"Please! Wait!" Grayson said and then took advantage of Ari's split-second hesitation to shove his heavily booted foot between the door and the door jam. "Just let me explain."

Ari relinquished the door and crossed his arms. "I think understand the situation pretty fucking clearly already, thanks."

"It wasn't Miles idea!" Grayson shouted, making Ari reconsider having this conversation partly in the hallway. He sighed and let the kid come into his apartment and sat down on the good chair, making Grayson take the more questionable, wobbly one. He wasn't that altruistic.

"Fine. You get one minute before I toss your ass out," Ari said, voice curt. "Thanks to you, I'm busy trying to find a way to turn that trash into something that isn't complete garbage," he added, gesturing to the discarded folder Ms. Fujiwara had brought him.

Grayson's eyes flicked towards it, his expression only growing guiltier. If Ari was a better person, he might have started to feel a little bad at that point. Since he wasn't, he only felt a sliver of vindictive pleasure.

"This whole thing had nothing to do with Miles," Grayson repeated. "He didn't know about it. I didn't want to, but my song was turning out to be awful, no matter how hard I tried," he said, gesturing to the folder. "One of the producers told me that they had already decided that I was going to win, but they couldn't justify that if I didn't have a good song. They said I could use your song or sing nothing at all."

"So, they gave you mine," Ari said sharply.

"Yeah. The private rehearsals aren't unmonitored, it was easy for them to get their hands on it," Grayson said. "The executives didn't all agree on doing this, so they couldn't get a ghost writer to make me a song without the wrong people finding out. That's why they thought your song would be easiest."

"And you were okay with that?" Ari snapped, his temper flaring. "That song was mine and Miles'. I'll never be able to sing it ever again without someone thinking you made it. You heard those lyrics, that wasn't something I just pulled out of my ass! This isn't something you can undo, Grayson."

"I'm sorry!" Grayson said, and started to tear up. "I didn't want to! But if I don't win, leaving my band and my best friends behind will have been pointless! I have to win!"

Ari couldn't deal with feeling even a little bit sorry for Grayson. He stood up, not looking at the kid. "Get out, Grayson."

He heard the sound of Grayson getting up and crossing the room, and then he heard Grayson say, voice soft, "I'm going to fix this, Arial." And then the door shut.

Ari wanted to laugh. What was left to fix?

Ari was deep in stage 'lay on the floor in despair' of song writing when someone knocked on his door again.

Ari sincerely planned on not answering and pretending he'd just died or something, when he heard Felix shout, "Ari, quit being a drama queen and open the door before someone gets a photo of me and emails it to the paps."

Curiosity over why Felix was outside his apartment was enough to lever Ari off the floor and let Felix in.

"So, I was trying to figure out why that song Grayson sang yesterday sounded familiar, when he showed up at my house and explained everything while sniffling pathetically," Felix explained breezily. "That ballsless motherfucker. Or maybe it's ballsy, coming to me after all this. I can't decide which."

Ari was torn between laughing and crying and settled on doing both and let Felix haul him in for a hug.

"Felix, everything is terrible," he whined into Felix's shoulder and unashamedly clung harder.

"Yeah, but I'm here to make things a little less shitty," Felix said. "I stole a bunch of Miles' notes from when the three of us were in high school, and I saw one song that wasn't completely useless that we might be able to polish up in a week. But we'll probably need to find someone who knows how percussion works, since Kat's told me my technique of 'hit the thing in the middle real hard a whole bunch' isn't any good."

Reluctantly, Ari let go and said, "Well, I might know a guy."

Predictably, Baby Simon all but shit a brick when he found out that Felix Fitzroy wanted his help with writing a song.

Five minutes after he'd stopped acting like a twelve-year-old fan, they were getting along like a house on fire and were acting like lifelong friends and Ari was regretting every decision he'd ever made to bring him to this point in his life because they were teaming up on him. While Ari was having a crisis because he'd shouted at Miles over something that wasn't his fault and now Ari didn't know what to do other than keep going forward. If he'd just thought about it for more than a few seconds it would have been obvious that Miles had known nothing about it.

So really, Felix and Baby Simon picking on him while he was thinking about all that was really kicking a man while he was already down.

"Look, I'm just saying if you cut your hair more often than once a year-" Felix was saying while Baby Simon nodded emphatically behind him.

"Don't we have a song to write?" Ari asked despairingly.

"Fine," Baby Simon said, rolling his eyes. "But I'd like it noted for the record that you are no fun."

"Noted," Ari grumbled, and pulled the papers Felix had brought closer to him.

They had a lot of work to do.

Ari arrived at the final live show feeling exhausted yet accomplished. Then he spotted both Grayson and Miles.

He was nowhere near prepared to deal with either of them and sing a song by himself in front a hell of a lot of people, so he dodged both of them and hunted down Alice.

"You disappeared last week!" She scolded him even as she dragged him in for a bone-crushing. "What happened? I was worried1"

"Sorry," Ari apologized sheepishly. He had kind of been a bit of a drama queen the previous week- entirely justifiably so, he figured, but he could have at least waved good bye to Alice.

"Don't do it again," Alice said, and then seemed to notice the intense looks Miles and Grayson were both shooting Ari and raised an eyebrow at him and added, "You look terrible, have you not been sleeping since the last show?

"I really don't want to talk about it," Ari said, hoping she'd let him get away with only saying that much.

Alice shrugged and said, "Alright. Manly emotional repression it is. Just don't let it affect your performance tonight."

"Thanks, Alice. And I won't," he promised.

And it didn't. The show went even better than the previous weeks, everyone mostly used to things by then, rushing on and off stage with enormous grins. Ari sang his heart out whenever he was on stage, and dodged Miles and Grayson whenever he was off it, with a little help from Alice running interference.

And then it was time.

Ari squared his shoulders and marched on stage.

The lights blinded him, but he kept his chin up, feeling a funny little smile spread across his face. Even with all the shit surrounding its creation, he was pretty happy with the song he'd manage to come up with in the span of a week, thanks to help from Felix and Baby Simon. He was excited to sing it.

"Hey everyone, this song is about growing up," he said, inwardly jumping at how loud his voice sounded coming out of those speakers. "Hope you all like it as much as I do."

"In the night, the beat city light. We steal ourselves away and hold on tight," he sang, confidence building with each word."You were there, yeah, we were all there. Too young, too smart, too much for this one town."

He couldn't hear the crowd, had no idea if they liked the song or if he was making a total fool of himself- all he could hear was his voice, the music Felix had helped him make backing him up. He launched himself into the final verse with a joy that almost made his chest hurt, "Take me back, down a dirty road. Where it went, we didn't care to know. A glory night is a story saved. Mark the chapter, but turn the page," he sang, lungs starting to burn along with his eyes. "Always keep, to kids in the street, when we were kids in the street, just kids in the street."

The song ended, and he nearly stumbled back when he suddenly could hear properly, sort of. There was a roaring sound- which Ari belatedly realized was a crowd cheering for him.

Alice came on stage, grinning at him, followed by the host, who was subtly motioning for Ari to get off the stage, as scripted.

Before Ari could get off stage so Alice could sing Ocean Avenue, Grayson darted on stage, shooting Ari a nervous smile over his shoulder.

"I have something to say," Grayson said, his voice shaking a little. Ari froze on the spot, staring. What the hell was the kid doing? "About Millennia, the song I performed at the end of the last show." His face was sweaty but set, twisted up like he was marching to his death.

He was about to announce live on TV that he'd cheated, Ari realized with a shock. This kid was about to ruin his chance of ever having a career in the music industry, just because he felt bad about being forced to cheat. And because Ari had yelled at him, told him it was only his fault.

The thing was, life wasn't fair. And it felt just as wrong to make a kid ruin his life over one song Ari had helped write as a clueless kid.

"The truth is—"

"It was a team effort," Ari said loudly and snatched the microphone out of Alice's hands, stalking across the stage. He flung an arm across Grayson's thin shoulders and slapped a smile he didn't feel on his face. "I helped Grayson a little with writing his song."

Grayson stared at him like he was completely insane- something Ari was seriously wondering himself.

"I think we're both really proud of it," Ari concluded, grinning wildly and squeezing Grayson's shoulder hard, until the kid jumped, getting a clue.

"I- I wouldn't feel right singing it again, it's really Ari's and Miles' song," Grayson added, widening his eyes and purposefully making his face look younger than its eighteen years.

"You did a pretty good job with it, kiddo," Ari said, shaking him gently and winking at the audience, gaining a confused mix of laughter from them.

"-that's really incredible," The host said, seeming to scramble to find words, like he had no idea what to do with things so far off script. "You are both amazing artists. Sadly, though, we can only have one winner of this season's The Star Project. While the band discusses things, here's our favourite girl from wonderland, Alice, singing Ocean Avenue!"

The host grabbed Grayson and Ari and hauled them off the stage, somehow making it look casual and not like he had a death grip on both of them, his fingernails digging in harshly to Ari's skin.

"What the hell was that?" Grayson snapped at Ari the second they were out of sight from the audience. "I was trying to fix things, you colossal asshole!" His face was turning red, and Ari could tell he was more upset than he was angry.

"I'm not going to let you ruin your entire career over a single song you didn't even want to sing, Grayson," Ari said gently, lips twitching into a soft smile. It was strange to feel this way- he'd been so angry, but mostly so resigned and anguished when he'd thought Miles had sold him out. But it was impossible to keep that up. Grayson was a kid. He'd been in a shitty situation with only one shot at getting out of it. Ari couldn't stay angry at him for that.

"If either of you go off script like that again, neither of you will live to regret it," the host snapped, looking set to murder both of them. "Got it?"

They both nodded contritely, neither feeling particularly sorry and allowed one of the minions in a TSP STAFF t-shirt to hustle them out of the way, the host shooting them aggravated glares every few seconds.

"Why did you do that? It was your and Miles' song," Grayson said quietly, eyebrows crunched up in confusion, looking like such a teenager that Ari's heart clenched. He'd been a real asshole to this kid. He was only eighteen, a bare year older than Ari had been when he'd written the damn song. Of course he was going to make profoundly stupid decisions. "My name's always going to be stuck to it, forever. It's going to be a real hit, and it'll never really be just yours."

"I shouldn't have yelled at you like that. I might not be happy about how things happened, but… It's just a song, Grayson," Ari said. "I have Miles, I don't care about the song." He paused, considered that, and then corrected himself, "Okay, I care a little. But I couldn't let you throw your entire career in the garbage over it. It's not worth that much. Especially since you'd get disqualified, when it wasn't your choice in the first place."

"I don't really want to win, anyways," Grayson said, mostly to the ground, barely loud enough to be heard.

"What?" Ari demanded, not believing his ears. Grayson, the most competitive little shit Ari had ever encountered, no longer wanted to win? He couldn't have heard that right.

"I talked to my friends, like you told me to, after I went to your apartment," Grayson explained, a faint blush appearing on his cheeks, still not looking up from the floor. "They were all still pissed at me, but they missed me too." He finally looked up, a small, unexpectedly sweet smile on his face. "And I realized, I don't want to be making music without them. Stress In Idlenessis great, but they aren't my band. So, I don't want to win, even if it means I'll never play a gig bigger than a show in a bookstore or bowling alley or something," Grayson concluded calmly, like this didn't counteract nearly every single thing he'd ever said in front of Ari since the day they'd met on set.

"You're insane," Ari said blankly. "You aren't Grayson, you replaced him with a pod person. What did you do with him?"

"Shut up!" Grayson grumbled, looking embarrassed, his face brilliant red by that point. "It's not that big of a deal."

They aren't my band. Ari replayed the words in his head, something resonating with him deeply.

"Guess I'm the only one out of the three of us that wants in the band," Ari said with a humour he didn't feel. "Too bad it's too late to tell Miles I didn't mean what I said."

"Who exactly told me it was never too late to talk to my friends?" Grayson asked sharply, crossing his arms and looking wholly unamused.

"What?" Ari said, something blooming in his chest- maybe hope?

"If you don't talk to him, you'll regret it. Trust me," Grayson said, parroting Ari's words from over a month previous, eyes deadly serious.

"I have to go," Ari said, eyes widening, his breath catching in his throat. He had to act in that very second, before he lost his nerve. It was like that afternoon where he'd stood outside Miles' door and decided to knock. If he didn't do something right then, he'd never end up doing it and spend the rest of his life running away.

"I didn't mean right now!" Grayson said, eyes going wide. "We go on in, like, thirty seconds!"

Ari waved this off, looking around wildly. He needed to find Miles, needed to talk to him right that second. He was done running.

"Cover for me, I don't care, I'll be right back," Ari said and then spotted Felix by one of the side doors and dashed after him.

"Felix!" Ari said, a little too loudly, a dozen minions in headsets shooting him irritated looks and shushing him. "I need to see him, right now. Where is he?"

Felix jumped, nearly dropping his bottle of water. "Ari! Jesus! You scared the crap out of me! What's wrong?" he added, taking in Ari's wild expression.

"Miles- I need, I have to tell him something, I said something really awful to him, and I didn't mean it but he doesn't know that and-" Ari said, the words all coming out in a confused, jumbled mess. "I don't care if they're pretending to vote or whatever- I need to talk to him right away."

Felix's kohl-lined eyes widened and he held up his hands placatingly, "Woah, okay, cool it. I'll help you, just calm down, alright? You look like you're about to pop a blood vessel."

Felix grabbed him by the arm and pulled him down a hallway. One of the doors to the rooms leading off of the hallway was open a crack, Miles' voice floating out of it, voice raised. Hovering just outside were Kat and Jamie, wearing twin expressions of grim resignation.

"Corporate jackasses are in there," Kat said, gesturing at the door. "Miles told us to get out and not suffer their idiocy around the time they started in with some seriously sexist shit."

"And racist," Jamie added with a dark look aimed at the door.

"I'll go in and grab him, make up some excuse-" Felix started to say but was interrupted by the sound of Miles voice rising even louder.

"I don't give a damn about the contract!" he shouted. "We went along with this damn farce of a show, let you decide who won and who lost every step of the way, but this is my fucking band and I won't let you decide who's going to be in it!"

Ari came to a halt, just outside the door, exchanging a wide-eyed look with Felix.

"Miles, be reasonable-" another voice said, much more quietly, sounding equal parts placating and patronizing.

"I'm not being unreasonable!" Miles yelled back. "Arial Brown is the best damn musician that was on this show and he's the only one I want in my band!"

Ari stumbled sideways, legs going weak and accidentally smacked the door with his elbow. It swung open with more force than it should have, slamming into the wall behind it. Miles and several men in suits turned and stared at Felix and Ari in the doorway, almost comical in how startled they looked. No one moved an inch.

"Ari," Miles breathed, stumbling forward a step, hands reaching out to him.

Ari tumbled into his arms, clinging harder than he had, even on that first night in Miles' car.

"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, I didn't mean any of it," Ari babbled into his shoulder. "I want to be in your band, I know you didn't give the song to Grayson. I'm so sorry."

"I know. I'm so sorry too, I didn't mean what I said," Miles said and pulled away, but left his arms loosely draped around Ari's shoulders. "This isn't up for discussion," he said over his shoulder and left the room, pulling Ari with him. "Ari is the winner."

"What he said," Felix said from the doorway, following in their footsteps.

"Ditto," Jamie said, echoed by Kat, who sneered at them as they left.

They headed back to the stage area, holding hands, where Grayson was wringing his hands, looking like he was seconds away from losing his shit.

"Ari!" he snapped, obviously worried and trying to hide it with anger. "We have to go on, now."

Ari nodded agreeably, feeling a sudden, deep sense of calm flood over him. Everything was going to be alright.

He turned to face Miles and leant up and kissed him on the cheek. "I love you," he whispered and stepped away, feeling a little bit delighted at the floored look on Miles' face.

"Gotta go, see you on stage," he added, while Miles was still fumbling for words and booked it on stage following Grayson and Alice as the opening notes to Some Nights stated to play.

He grinned, his heart feeling light as a feather as he sang out the words, "Man, you wouldn't believe the most amazing things that can come from... Some terrible nights."

The three of them raced through the song, all smiles, Alice delicately singing the verses, Grayson all but bringing the roof down with his soaring voice. When the final note faded, the audience was deafening with applause. Alice hauled them in for a group hug, "I don't give a shit who wins, we've done good," she whispered in Ari's ear and Grayson clung to both of them a little harder.

"You're both amazing," Ari said, his heart feeling so full of so many emotions, high on adrenaline and music.

"We all are," Grayson said with a smirk that couldn't quite stop from slipping into a heartfelt smile, his eyes crinkling up.

All of the other contestants filed onstage, the audience shouting out the names of their favourites, as they lined up behind Ari, Grayson and Alice. The host came out, smiling widely, though Ari could tell how done with their unscripted shit he was as he subtly herded the three of them to their appointed place on stage. Stubbornly, Alice refused to let go of either of them, all beaming smiles when the host shot her a split-second glare.

"Those were some incredible performances, am I right?" the host said, smiling when the audience roared back. "It's all been so great! But we can only have one winner tonight! So, without further ado, here's Stress In Idleness!"

The band strolled out from the wings, the applause deafening.

"I just want to say how impressed I was with all of your songs," Miles said seriously. "Alice, you have an incredible stage presence and working with you was a real delight. You are just so talented, and it was an honor to write a song with you. No matter what happens, I know you have an incredible future with music in your future." Alice's hand squeezed Ari's, her eyes going misty, and she whispered, almost too soft for the microphone to catch, "Thank you."

"Grayson, you have a really outstanding voice, and more importantly, you know how to use it properly," Miles continued. "That's not something that can be taught, it's really impressive. I am always just so blown away by what you're capable of despite your age, since I know you're only going to grow in talent as you get older." Grayson nodded, looking almost star struck.

Miles paused, eyes landing on Ari, making his heart fill with how full of love that look was. "Ari… I don't have words for how much I've enjoyed working with you again." He seemed to lose his words for a moment, before rallying and collecting himself, his smile turning into something more meant for the public rather than Ari alone. He turned to face the crowd. "But there can only be one winner tonight, am I right?" He smiled and paused, letting the audience shout back. "I won't drag this out any longer. The three of you are all so talented, but to be honest there was no question which of you all of us wanted to join the band- congratulations to the newest star, Arial Brown!"

Even though he'd already known, the words made Ari's legs go weak and his eyes teared up a little.

"Oh my god," he heard his own voice say over the speakers. "Thank you. Thank you so much."

"Congratulations!" Alice shouted, eyes glistening and a grin splitting across her face. She tackled him into a hug and hauled Grayson along with her, who didn't even try to get away.

"I think we have time for one last song," Miles said, ignoring the look the host shot him. Something else that hadn't been scripted. "Everyone sing along if you know the words!" He turned and accepted a guitar from a TSP minion.

All of the other contestants crowded closer, Casey slapping a congratulatory hand on his back as Miles started to play a few familiar notes, and they all sang together.

It was the perfect feeling, Ari was just so happy and he wanted to freeze the moment in time, never leave it.

The song was a mess, with far too many people singing and the audience shouting the words along with them and only Miles' guitar playing the tune, but it was perfect and Ari could barely get the words out for how widely he was smiling.

It was chaos getting off stage, with contestants, the band, and tech people everywhere in the tiny space. Somehow, though, Miles managed to squeeze in next to Ari.

"I love you too," he said, barely audible above the noise. He brushed a hand over Ari's cheek, looking hesitant, but Ari just hauled him down for a kiss without hesitation.

"Get it, buddy!" Casey whooped loudly, followed by catcalls from Robin and Alice, Grayson making a disgusted noise right in Ari's ear due to the crowded space.

Ari laughed, even as he and Miles parted, pressing their foreheads together.

Everything was going to be just fine.

Six months later

"How are you the worst?" Ari whined, setting his guitar down carefully and flopping backwards with a much less care. "I think my hands are going to fall off if you make me play this song one more time."

"The chorus isn't fast enough," Miles insisted, for what had to be the hundredth time.

"Oh, give it a rest, Miles," Jamie said and tossed a water bottle at his head. "Ari's doing great, it doesn't sound like it did with Monroe, but that's the point."

Ari shot Jamie a weary smile and got a nod in return. The band had been slower to adjust to him being their new member than Miles had, but they'd been vocal that they'd been part of the decision to pick Ari over Grayson from the first practice Ari'd had with them. Joining the band had been a lot more complicated than Ari had expected, having to work things out with his old job at POP records and having to sign a contract with the band and their people, but it was worth it.

"I suppose you'll do," Miles said with exaggerated weariness, leaning over to brush a kiss on Ari's forehead. They'd been open about their relationship with the band from the start- they'd needed to, given the kiss they'd shared the second they'd gotten off stage, but by some miracle their relationship hadn't been leaked to the press by any of the other competitors or the staff. Ari had been all for full disclosure, but Miles had pointed out that the last thing they wanted was anyone accusing Ari of screwing his way into first place, on top of those who'd thought Grayson should have won. They'd announce it later, once things had settled down- after Felix stirred up a storm with his engagement announcement,

"Less canoodling, more practice," Kat said, rolling her eyes, but a smile twitched at the corners of her mouth belayed her words. "Alice and the rest will be here in an hour, we need to get through the rest of this."

Less than a week after Ari had won The Star Project, Miles had strong-armed the necessary people into signing Grayson's fledgling band as their opening act for Stress In Idleness's next tour. When he'd gotten the news, Ari swore the kid had cried, though Grayson was adamant that his contact lens had just been making him tear up. Ari was fairly certain the kid didn't even wear contacts.

Alice, on the other hand, Miles had introduced to every single person in the music industry who owed him a favor, doing everything he could to help her launch her career into the big leagues. Within weeks, the albums she'd released prior to The Star Project were generating all sorts of buzz, and everyone was asking her what she'd be doing next. She'd been so busy Ari had scarcely seen her, with so many people trying to monopolize her time. But she'd still taken a few evenings off to hang out with Ari, and had written a few songs with him, which they were going to polish up that day once she arrived.

Miles pressed another kiss to Ari's temple, grinning goofily.

"I retract my previous statement, you are not the absolute worst," Ari said, a stupid smile on his face. He couldn't get over how happy the simplest thing Miles did could make him. It was getting pretty embarrassing that a single look could make him smile for a solid hour. It had nearly been six months since the end of The Star Project and they were still so disgustingly sweet that Baby Simon had taken to throwing things at Ari any time he even mentioned Miles.

With a groan, he sat up and picked his guitar back up. "Remind me never to try and master a band's entire discography ever again, it's killing my wrists," he said, flexing his fingers.

"You'll never need to, if I have any say in it," Miles said and sat next to him, close enough to be more of a hindrance to Ari playing than anything.

"Oh, go pose for a tabloid or something, some of us have to get ready for a tour about to start," Ari said with an exaggerated roll of his eyes.

"Nah, we have a song to practice," Miles said with a crooked smile. "One of your favourites, the one I sang for you."

"Take it away" Ari said, unable to stop another stupid smile from sneaking up on him. Even if Grayson's name was still attached to the song, listed as a cowriter along with Miles and Ari, he'd always have a special place in his heart for Millennia.

Miles scooted backwards out of Ari's space and took a deep breath. "Beverly hills, that's where I- urk-" he cut off by Ari slapping an aggrieved hand over his mouth.

In that moment, Alice stuck her head in through the door, positively glowing.

"Not interrupting anything am I, boys?" she asked with a cheery grin. "I know I'm early, I can come back if you're actually busy."

"Hardly," Kat said, rolling her eyes. "It's amazing we've managed to get anything done at all with these two being so disgustingly cute all over the place."

"Great!" Alice said and all but bounced in, taking a seat across from Ari and Miles. She looked like she was about to vibrate out of her chair in excitement.

"So, I could be wrong, but I'm guessing you have some good news?" Ari asked with a good-natured smile.

"Guess who's signed a major record deal?" Alice asked.

"Would I be completely wrong to think it might be you?" Ari asked, grinning and leapt to his feet to give her a hug.

Alice nodded and bounced back to her feet, saying, "I'm just so excited, it's absolutely insane! I keep thinking I'm going to wake up and realize this was all a really elaborate, strange dream."

"No way, you totally deserve this, I'm so excited for you!" Ari said, shaking her gently by the shoulders. "Besides, I doubt you could make up Grayson."

Alice snickered. "You might be right there."

"Congrats, Alice," Miles said, getting up to pat her on the shoulder.

Ari smiled and hummed Millennia under his breath as everyone got set up to work on their song with Alice.

I only ever wanted to come home,
Please won't you let me go?
When I have nowhere left I can run away,
Will you lie to me, tell me I'll be okay?

His smile widened, even as he picked his guitar back up. He didn't need anyone to lie to him. He was more than okay; he was home.

Songs used this chapter:

What I Like About You- The Romantics

Stupid For You- Waterparks

With You Around- Yellowcard

Pack Up (acoustic)- Eliza Doolittle

What a Catch, Donnie – Fall Out Boy

Suicide Sunday- Friday Night Boys

Lying Is the Most Fun a Girl Can Have Without Taking Her Clothes Off- Panic! At The Disco

Kids In The Street- All American Rejects

Note: Believe it or not, this story was meant to be a challenge to myself to write something simple and only 20K long. Obviously, that… didn't really happen. I had so much fun writing this and listening to my favourite music, so I'd seriously appreciate any reviews, even if it's just a 'hey I liked the thing', this story really is close to my heart. As always, you can find all the music in an 8tracks playlist with the same name as this fic, though it is missing one track due to 8tracks copyright stuff. Thank you all so much for reading!