The music slowly faded out as we sang the last note of the song in unison. Noah and I locked eyes as I slowly leaned closer to him. His arm was already around my back, a calculated gesture he made in the third verse. As the music came to an end, he leaned down and connected our lips. I rushed the microphone to the side of my face to give us the smallest bit of privacy from the cameras and crowd.
Just earn the contract, I reminded myself.
Noah pulled away and gave a giant smile. I played coy by laughing and turning my head towards the back of the stage. Noah’s arm was still around my back as I looked up at him then slowly turned to the judges. The crowd was roaring and each judge was giving us a standing ovation.
At least it worked.
Noah and I turned our bodies to face the judges, but his hand stayed on my back. I was kind of happy to have the extra support because the heels they put me in were a ridiculous height. We listened to the judges praise us for the amazing performance. According to them, our voices were fantastic and they could just feel the love between us.
Our mentor, Samuel gave us a prideful smile. His idea went off without a hitch. As far as everyone knew, Noah and I were madly in love. We had met during auditions and were over the moon when we were put in a duo after Bootcamp. We’ve been falling in love on national TV to the sound of Billboards Top 100 sung by wannabe popstars. It would be a fairytale - if it were real.
Noah and I left the stage, with his arm still around me. We changed quickly into sweats separated by a thin curtain.
“You sounded really good tonight,” He said to me.
“Thanks. Too bad that’s not what anyone was paying attention to.” We both emerged from the curtain at the same time. Noah gave me a sad half-smile and reached to grab my bag. “I can hold it.”
“I know, but I’m your perfect, charming, super handsome boyfriend, so I’ll hold it for you.” He laughed and slung my back over his shoulder. He was quoting what Samuel said to us when he pitched us this insane idea.
“It will be perfect. You are both so talented, but this is the extra push you need to win. Ava, you are the shy girl who doesn’t realize how talented she is. Noah, you are her charming boyfriend who pushes her out of her shell.”
“I don’t think he called you perfect.” I looked at him, “or handsome.” He laughed as we crawled into the van that would take us back to the house.
As much as I hated it, Samuel had a good plan. Our love story not only helped us get to the semifinal, but we received the highest number of votes nearly every week. I hated that people only voted for us because they thought we were a perfect love story, but if I could earn a record deal out of this, it’s worth it.
Noah and I didn’t sit next to each other in the van because we were the only ones on it. There was no need to keep up appearances. We actually did try to date at first. We figured it would be easier to fool everyone if we actually had a connection.
We were sitting in the piano room of the house, appropriately named because it housed the grand piano. It was the most secluded room and our favorite one to practice in. “Favorite color?” Noah asked and pressed a random key.
“Purple,” I said from the other side of the giant instrument. “Favorite food?”
“Mac and cheese.” I laughed. “Favorite place?” He asked me.
“This small coffee shop back in my hometown. The coffee was always the worst, but it was great for people watching.” He smiled at me. “Favorite movie?”
He clicked another random piano key, “Shawshank Redemption.”
“Ohhh, a classic.” he laughed. Before he could ask me the next question, there was a knock on the door. Another contestant, Randi, walked in wearing a fluffy robe and slippers.
“Hey guys, I hate to be this person, but can you quiet down? We can all hear the piano and laughing from down the hall.”
“Oh my god, I’m so sorry,” I said, feeling genuinely bad for bothering everyone.
“What time is it?” Noah asked.
“One AM,” Randi answered.
“Oh. We’re sorry, we’ll head to bed soon.” Noah said. Randi left then Noah looked at me laughing. “One?” He asked me shocked. I couldn’t help but laugh with him. We spent the rest of the night quietly giggling and crying while we talked. We covered every topic known to man. It felt like I had known Noah for 100 years. That night before bed was the first time he kissed me.
We silently got out of the van and walked into the house. Noah followed me to my room, which I had all to myself now that my roommates had all been eliminated. “I’ll see you tomorrow, for elimination?” He asked.
“Yeah, of course,” I said to him. My bag was still over his shoulder. When I looked up at him, his eyes were focused on the ground. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Yeah. It’s just-” He finally looked from his feet to my eyes. “How do you do it?” I raised an eyebrow at him. “Like how does this not affect you?” He said while gesturing between us.
“We’re acting. It’s not real.”
“I can’t separate it like that.” He looks at me the same way he looked at me the night we were in the piano room.
“You’re the one who said we should keep this strictly professional,” I reminded him.
“I know.” An awkward silence fell over us. If my bag weren’t still on his arm, I would have ran into my room and hid from this horrible conversation.
“I block it out.” I start to answer his original question. “Like the songs are just songs, the kiss is just a performance. This is all to just get a contract.” Something flashes across his face. It’s so quick I almost miss it but for a fraction of a second, he looks hurt.
“I don’t think I can do that.” He looks at me.
“I don’t think I can do this.” Noah wouldn’t make eye contact with me when he said it.
“What?” I asked. Just last night we stayed up in the piano room asking questions, laughing and crying.
“I just-” he took a deep breath. “I can’t date somebody just because I’m supposed to.” He finally looked at me. “I think it’s best if we keep this strictly professional. We can be in love when people are around, but that’s it.”
“Oh. Okay.” I looked at him.
“Okay.” He said and walked away. I was hurt at first, then angry, then I accepted it. I had never felt closer to anyone in my life. I knew what Noah and I had was real, at least it was for me. I spent the rest of the day trying to figure out how I could still work with him after he rejected me so quickly. I had to just earn the contract.
“It’s a show, Noah. The audience wants a story. So that’s what we are.”
“No. Come on, I know you don’t believe that.”
“I have to.”
He sighed. “Do you remember the night we were in the piano room?” I nodded. “It was only six weeks ago, but it feels like a lifetime.”
“I was different back then.”
“Noah, please.” I scoffed.
“I was stupid, I shut you out too quickly because I was scared.”
He nodded. “That we would be sent home. That I would have to go back and never see you again. Scared that you would be more talented than me and leave me behind the second the show was over for us. Scared we would win and be stuck with each other. Scared that I would actually start liking you.” He took a deep breath and looked at me.
“Noah.” Tears were starting to form in his eyes.
“You know this isn’t just a contract. We aren’t just a story.”
I looked at him and felt my eyes watering too. Six weeks ago, I was ready to give this boy everything, but he didn’t want it. Four weeks ago, I hated him for rejecting me so quickly. Two weeks ago, I finally accepted that this was all a game.
And now here we are, confessing our feelings for each other. Away from the cameras and crowd. It was just us, for once the only people who had a say were us. “It’s not just a contract,” I whispered.
“It’s not just a contract,” he repeated with a smile. Then he kissed me. My bag fell from his shoulder and he pulled me in. His hand went to my face, not to hide from cameras but to get me as close as he possibly could. The moon filled the dimly lit hallway much better than a spotlight. There was no crowd, no mentor pulling any strings, there was no music fading out or a sparkly ballgown. It was just us and it was perfect.